When I first heard a Jaleco collection was coming to Evercade, my first thought was one of joy, and then I wondered where on earth you’d begin putting that together, especially when it’s a collection of only eight games! Even when you narrow down their output to arcade games only, there were hundreds of them after they first emerged from the original Japan Leisure Company in the early eighties! Actually, if I were the one doing the choosing, I’d know exactly where to start – P-47 and Rod Land, and as we’ll discover in a second, it looks like that’s a pretty good shout! You know what though? After that, assuming it is arcade only (and not Ninja JaJaMaru-kun on NES specifically), and also assuming I’m not allowed the P-47 sequel, I’m really not sure where I’d go next! Discovery is always fine with me though, so let’s see where this thing’s going to take us…

The brand new Jaleco Arcade 1 cartridge was released at the end of July 2022 alongside Gaelco Arcade 2 (which we also just reviewed here), and spans the company’s eighties and nineties heyday, including our cute platformer Rod Land and horizontal shoot ‘em up P-47: The Phantom Fighter, then more of the same with Saint Dragon and E.D.F. Earth Defense Force, and a vertical shooter in Cybattler, beat ‘em up 64th Street: A Detective Story, and a couple more action platformers, Avenging Spirit and The Astyanax. Of the rest, I’ve played a bit of the SNES take on E.D.F. and known about Saint Dragon since it first came out but just never fancied it. The rest are all new to me! Before we get going, as I always disclose when I’ve been given a review copy of a game, I’m also going to disclose that I bought both of these new cartridges with my own money, just so you know.

Like we did for the Gaelco collection, we’re going to take a quick look at each game in turn, with a bit of background followed by a bit of how it plays. I’m also going to be really lazy and pretty much copy and paste the rest of this preamble from that review too, because it’s all the same so why not! I’m playing on Evercade VS attached to my TV rather than handheld, and as such I’ll apologise in advance for any dodgy photos of the telly taken with one hand while I’m playing with the other! The games are presented on-screen in typical Evercade fashion, and as always, a click of a game’s menu artwork is going to take you to a single page of larger artwork, partial screenshot, description, history, game tips, explanation of controls, and load last save or play new game buttons. Everything you need, and that’s as consistent with Evercade’s compilations as it is my reviews of them! There’s the usual mass of display settings for everything too, covering aspect ratio, scan lines, shaders and bezels, as well as quick saves and regular load and save. And it’s all excellent as always, as is the much appreciated actual manual in the box and some more bonus art cards!

Break time over, and time to look at the games, which we’ll do in default alphabetical order, starting with 64th Street: A Detective Story. This is a 1991 side-scrolling beat ‘em up with private detective Rick Anderson and his young assistant Allen Tombs tasked with rescuing a rich client’s daughter and uncovering the mystery of the Legacy Corporation along the way. The simple one button for attack and one for jump controls mask more than enough depth, especially when you’ve got two distinct fighting styles on offer, as well as a cool double-team move in two-player games! It also likes you to throw your enemies into stuff, revealing hidden booty as well as some very forward-thinking environmental damage.

I’ve referenced it elsewhere a few times now, but I never did get to reviewing the incredible Bitmap Books’ Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat ‘Em Ups. It’s even bigger than Jaleco’s game lineup though, so that’s probably why! Anyway, I wanted to reference it again here because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t totally wrong about this game, and amazingly they concurred exactly… First impressions are low-rent Final Fight but it’s also really hard to not immediately love it too! The enemies are as bonkers from the outset as the backgrounds are generic (except when you start chucking people at them); they all have something of the Eddie Munster about them, and then the next one appears and you wonder where the hell they decided on that character from! It’s all big and bold and brash and a bit janky, but it’s so much fun and really plays great. Not the most sophisticated in the genre, but fully deserves its place here.

Action-heavy platforning from 1991 next with Avenging Spirit, which, maybe by coincidence, also received a standalone release on regular consoles the very day I’m writing this (which isn’t when you’re reading it, I know). Anyway, you play the spirit of a young man who’s been murdered by a crime syndicate, who have also kidnapped your girlfriend to get their hands on her father’s expertise in ghost energy. Which is also how you’re not only able come back from beyond the grave to rescue her, but also be able to possess the bad guys and use their unique fighting abilities as you run and jump and shoot and punch your way through the forces of evil.

We’ll come back to Rod-Land when we get to R for Rod Land, but having never played this before it immediately reminded me of that game’s vibe, if not so much its more violent and more exploratory gameplay. The music is fantastic, and perfectly matches the colourful and very detailed cartoon style, unique in itself with all kinds of deliberately squished but always weird and wonderful enemies. Of course, that weird and wonderful cast is there to support the game’s special possession mechanic – at the start of the game, your little ghost chooses one of four starting characters to possess, then when you lose one of your three lives you decide which visible enemy you fancy having a go as next. It’s a unique twist to what’s already a very slick experience, and works brilliantly! Each level is relatively short, but there’s generally huge verticality and loads of routes to get to where you need to be, which is also helpfully hinted at by an occasional arrow; you could say it’s a busier take on The New Zealand Story in that regard. And like that game, this one’s a real keeper!

More unique mechanics now with Cybattler, a 1993 one or simultaneous two player vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up that in reality is a bit more than that, which probably reflects its release right in the middle of the dominance of the fighting game in the arcades. The plot, albeit non-existent, is less than unique, with you simply taking control of your “Blanche” mech and blasting your way through enemy forces. Each mission gives you a new loadout, but effectively you’ve got a regular energy cannon for ranged fire and a laser sword for up close and personal. On top of that, you can fire those in any direction, which you lock in by holding down fire. However, not holding fire is going to supercharge your weapons, so you really need to stay on your toes while enemies are appearing from everywhere and keep it all mixed up.

I’d never even heard of this one, but I’m over the moon that they decided to take a chance on including it! I play a lot of vertical shoot ‘em ups but there’s very few like this, to the point that unless you are just holding down fire with it pointing upwards, it often doesn’t really feel like one at all. I guess the nearest maybe better known reference point I’ve got is Cave’s Guwange, which, although it’s maybe better known to genre aficionados at least, actually didn’t come until 1999 so maybe we’re looking at the real pioneer here! Regardless, once you’re past having a sword where your smart bomb would usually be, this is intuitive, surprisingly accessible and very well paced with some great level design. Really nice backgrounds too, mostly down to use of colour over originality, although I’m not so taken by the thick outlining on the some of the moving environmental objects, such as asteroids, for example. Your ships and everything else look fine though, even if you have seen them dozens of times elsewhere, and exactly same sentiment for the soundtrack. All about the originality in those combat mechanics then, and they are wonderful, and that makes three excellent surprises out of three so far!

While E.D.F. Earth Defense Force isn’t such a surprise, I wasn’t massively excited about it because I never really got on with what I’d played on the SNES – a bit bland and the controls are too twitchy in my opinion. We’ll come back to that, but this game that’s based on first appeared in 1991, and this time is a horizontally scrolling shooter for one or two players at once, who will be representing the Earth Defence Force in the destruction of the invading “spacebound monarchy” the Azyma Empire. I think Cybattler might have got it right when it came to plot! Anyway, you’ve got a choice of four weapon types, you level them up by shooting stuff with either an on-the-fly spread or more focussed fire choice of some description, so let’s just get on with it!

I still think it’s a bit bland, but I know many enthusiasts would level the same accusation at a similar game I’m likely to gush over shortly! It plays way better than that stinky old SNES Super version though, and is actually really, really good. Who’d have believed it! I really enjoyed getting to grips with the four weapon types, which, while not being massively different, do affect the way you approach the game. There’s really not much to get excited about graphically – lots of nondescript seas and cityscapes below nondescript skies and clouds until you’re a good way in, although it’s cool when it starts to rain! Eventually you’re in forests and futuristic structures, but you’ve seen them all before, just like the swarms of enemies and even the bosses, although they’re consistently fun to learn and take on, which is what it’s all about. Absolutely fantastic soundtrack too! Not a surprise then, but a surprise all the same, and as big as my schmup backlog is, I really should give this one a proper workout!

P is for P-47: The Phantom Fighter, another horizontal shoot ‘em up for one or two players together from all the way back in 1988, which I think makes it the oldest game on here. And I love it! Top five horizontal shooter and a fraction outside my all-time top fifty games, not to mention providing one of my favourite sights in all of gaming! It’s a World War II affair, but was designed to be a celebration of freedom rather than a gritty, unsettling depiction of war, which explains it’s upbeat soundtrack (although nothing will explain the bizarre music you encounter in the otherwise excellent Amiga conversion)! None of that really makes much difference to the gameplay though – you’re flying your Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane through eight stages in the skies over eight countries, shooting and bombing and missiling (depending on your current power-up) everything that moves to bring down the Nazis.

Did I mention I love this game? Which actually means I really didn’t need it again on this compilation, but no harm having somewhere else to play it I suppose! It’s one of those games I just clicked with the very first time I played it – I’ve been an avid amateur World War II historian since I was a kid so the setting was right, the challenge was right, there’s plenty of variety… And I’d play it forever just to experience that glorious sunset on that gorgeous, gorgeous second level over and over! (You can also check out my gaming sunset fetish from when we looked at Chopper Command on Atari 2600)! As well as learning enemy patterns, knowing which power-up you’re going to need next and when to pick it up has a huge impact on success, especially when it comes to the huge bosses – that second stage is a good example of where it’s easy to get stuck with a cool missile that splits into three in the air but is completely useless against this giant bomber, and it takes a lifetime to bring it down with it, where a bomb will finish it in seconds! That’s about the point where the challenge really picks up too, and you’ll be doing very well to loop all eight stages, although as is the case with all of these games, you can always keep inserting a virtual coin for a continue, or, indeed, quick save, but there’s really no joy to be had there! Apart from the best sunset ever, it’s very much of its time graphically, meaning detailed and attractive but more functional than spectacular. Similar sound-wise too. Wow, that was way too objective… Gorgeous game in all respects!

Okay, I’m still a bit biased when it comes to our next game, but surely no one would argue that Rod Land is anything but gorgeous too? It’s a cute one or two player single-screen platformer from 1990, very much cut from the same cloth as Bubble Bobble, but this time it’s fairies with magic wands… Rods… Whatever! If you want to go into a bit more depth, we did that when we discovered the NES version here a while back, but the gist of it is that “Rit and Tom’s mother has been kidnapped by a monster and taken atop the Maboots tower! Using the Rods of Sheesanomo left to them by their father and the Rainbow Shoes gifted by the village elder, a super-cute adventure is about to begin.” That means you need defeat all the enemies on each stage to progress to the next by grabbing them with your rod them swinging them from side to side and smashing them into the floor until they’re dead. Super-cute indeed! You’ve also got your magical ladder at your disposal if you need to get to somewhere the standard ones won’t take you, or you just need one in a hurry, but you can only use one at a time so it will disappear when you place the next one. There’s bosses every few screens and a nice variety of enemies, and while that’s enough to get us going, I’ve got to mention the tips included on the game description screen for this one, because this is great and I’d have had no idea otherwise… Insert a credit with Select then push Down three times before pressing Start, and you’re straight into the more challenging, Ancient Egyptian-themed second question. Amazing!

For a game I consider such a favourite now, you might be surprised to hear that I’d never even heard of it until early 2021 – I think when it got an Arcade Archives release on Switch. It’s grows on you quickly though, and while it doesn’t quite have the insane hidden depth of Bubble Bobble, there’s still a load tucked away if you want to properly chase high scores, especially if you’re willing to risk grabbing all those flowers you’ll see scattered around every level before you finish off the increasingly dangerous meanies – a bit like the seeds in Chuckie Egg! it’s also up there with Rainbow Islands when it comes to some of the happiest visuals ever created, topped off with a literal fairytale of a soundtrack! It plays like a fairytale too, with those magic rods and ladders instantly becoming second nature, and the movement is forgiving enough to to easily lock you onto ladders and be able to get off them quick-smart when you need to without even thinking about it. If you’re just out to reach the next level, the difficulty is pretty forgiving too, at least until the first boss, a multi-platform, multi-crocodile attack, but even so, when you die it’s generally down to your lack of patience or planning over any lack of fairness. This game is truly incredible, and if you’re a fan of any of the games we’ve just mentioned here, then it’s probably going to be the highlight of this collection too!

Two games to go, and we’re back in unfamiliar territory (you might be thankful to hear)! No messing about with fairy rods in Saint Dragon though – if humanity is being attacked by a seemingly invincible cyborg army, it needs to build a big cyborg dragon to fight back with! It’s another horizontally scrolling shoot ‘em up, this time from 1989, and gameplay is almost as straightforward as the plot – shoot stuff and collect tokens to upgrade your weapons through five levels and their big bosses. There is a literal sting in the tail though because you can control then placement of your own tail through the movement of your ship, and with a bit of practice you’ll not only be using it as a shield, but also to dish out a bit of damage too.

I have spent more than thirty years doing this game a huge disservice! If love and hate are two sides of the same coin, then their opposite is indifference, and from the very first time I saw screenshots in Computer & Video Games magazine, which evolved into adverts and then reviews for the Spectrum and Commodore 64, than Atari ST and Amiga, then PC-Engine, I’ve been totally indifferent to Saint Dragon! Just didn’t look like it was for me so I totally ignored it. But let me tell you something, brother… It’s absolutely fantastic! And I’m not talking worth sinking a bit of time into like E.D.F. but potential future all-time favourite; this game has hit me hard (even more so than a game called Rod Land once did!), and just writing about it now makes me wish I was playing it instead, or, indeed, delving into all those conversions I’ve already got lined up to try as soon as I’m done here… In fact, I’ve already decided we’ll be doing a deep dive on this game in its many forms here soon because I owe it that at least! It’s a beautiful game with great variety in settings and enemies from the outset, including a lovely new sunset for me to swoon over and a vivid cosmic forest. All of that is full of subtle animated life and fantastic parallax scrolling, and it’s backed by the best soundtrack we’ve come across here so far, vaguely gothic and vaguely industrial eighties synth rock that’s not quite up there with Thunder Force IV but it’s doing its best! And even without that unique tail mechanic, it’s a hell of a shooter, but once you master that on top (which I can’t profess to anywhere near have done yet) then it’s out of this world. I’m almost as blown away by playing it now as I am by having passed it by for more than three decades!

The Astyanax had better be the best game ever after all of that! Obviously it’s not, but we can play two players at once again in this 1989 fantasy hack and slash platform adventure! That trademark Evercade description page comes into its own again here, as it informs us that The Astyanax is a rare example of the arcade and home console versions being totally different from each other. Where this arcade version is totally inspired by Greek and Arabian mythology, the console one set you up as a school kid transported to another dimension! I think we’ll definitely stick with the arcade version here then, which has you cast as the warrior Roche with his legendary “Fire Axe” and thunder magic, and he’s on a divine mission to travel to the Castle of Algerine and defeat the demon overload Argos (rather than Argos the shop, though you never know…). Your legendary axe charges when you’re not using it, which is easier said than done given the enemy density, and your thunder magic is limited in use but is mighty potent, so keep an eye out for all of those collectibles!

If you’ve ever played Rastan, you know the score. It’s pretty much that. The generally impressive backdrops to the six stages offer the only real variety to the game, and a couple of them are real pixel art lookers, almost Castlevania-like and full of vibrant colours and more of that cool parallax scrolling that Jaleco seemed to have really mastered in 1989! Your character is suitably masculine and a load of thought seems to have gone into the enemy and boss designs in the main, although the action gets so frantic so quickly it’s not easy to admire the detail or the creativity on display, from the blinking eyes of the sinister frog-people as they lurk mostly submerged beneath you as you cross a shimming lake, to the colourful explosions of the big-fanged, spear-throwing vampire bats as they meet your axe. Another fantastic soundtrack too, doing a great approximation of what electronica might have sounded like in the Middle Ages! Honestly it doesn’t have the sophistication or, in all probability, the staying power of a Rastan, but that doesn’t stop it being a worthy addition here and a great way to end our journey. It’s even more of a lot of fun!

I genuinely couldn’t have asked more of this compilation! While I was most certainly sucked in by the irresistible lure of P-47 and Rod Land, discovering new old games is, as always, my prime source of enjoyment in this retro gaming hobby of ours, and what discovery this has offered already, even while I’m still just scratching the surface! I really didn’t see Saint Dragon coming, and the mere mention of it here again has raised my heart rate as I realise I’m now just minutes away from being able to play it again. A rare, huge impact like that from out of nowhere is exactly what that discovery thing I just mentioned (for the thousandth time, I know!) is what it’s all about! That’s more than £17.99’s worth of value right there, but then there’s also E.D.F. that revealed itself to be way more than I’d previously experienced, and we’ve got more totally new experiences in the rest, with 64th Street and Cybattler waiting in the wings behind Saint Dragon for serious play, and I’ve definitely got a load of unfinished business with Avenging Spirit and The Astyanax too. And I really couldn’t ask more of a compilation than all of that.