Curse: Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis

Curse: Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis
Curse: Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis

Insert Disk collects Curse for the Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis.

Today’s retro game review is Curse for the Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis. This retro gaming classic is a rather overlooked shooter from Micronet. Curse has become one of those game that has become popular with game collectors but sadly has had little attention outside of collecting circles. However, its back to basics graphics and sound make it a particularly enjoyable game to play. Add in to this some fantastic cover artwork and Curse may just be the game that you are looking for.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. It’s time for some Japanese shoot ’em up fun today in yet another one of those early games for the Sega Mega Drive that has managed to slip under the radar for some time.

You may have heard of it but have you ever played it? Join me today as I uncover the joy of Curse for the Sega Mega Drive. Now, the late 80’s and early 90’s were a boom time for shooters on Sega’s 16-bit box of fun. Any fan of the genre will no doubt have played horizontal shooters such as Arrow Flash, Zero Wing, Wings of War or Hellfire. Yes, the Sega Mega Drive really did have some fantastic horizontal shooters for us all to get stuck in to.

All of the above did make their way out of Japan on to the North American Genesis and European PAL systems resulting in them being reasonably well known, at least to collectors. Sadly Curse by Micronet never officially left the shores of the land of the rising sun. As such, it’s a game that I’d like to bring your attention to because, well, you just need to know about it in my opinion. Out of the box it’s very much a run of the mill horizontal shooter. There’s all the regular elements you would expect to find such as power ups, smart bombs and weapon options. Add to this a rather convoluted back story of two warring planets of Parceria and Seneca. It’s up to you to pilot an ancient star fighter called the Baldanaders which was abandoned by the Parcerians. As you’ve probably gathered, you are the last hope of the planet Seneca. So make sure your trigger finger is ready because my goodness things are going to heat up as your last ditch effort to save the world ensues.

The general format of the game is rather paired back and straight forward. Five stages usually consist with a mid-level sub boss and a guardian boss.
There’s plenty to see, collect and shoot here so expect a solid experience right from the word go. The mechanics of the pickups give the game it’s primary game play feel. You start off with the pea shooter but quickly ramp up your arsenal to absolutely devastating levels. There’s a blue laser spread shot, ideal for levels requiring widespread damage. A concentrated yellow laser for more focussed damage. A cluster weapon which is a bit of an acquired taste. It will fire one single package but deliver an explosion of shrapnel. This can be powerful in certain circumstances but perhaps not best for use in general game play.

There’s then what are usually referred to as the options in many shoot ’em up circles. These include up to two drones that follow and protect you as well as the ability to add homing missiles in addition to more fire power for the drones. As an added bonus you can rotate the drone positions via the C button. Generally speaking you are best off keeping these positioned above and below in my opinion as this setup will typically provide a wider shot pattern and protect you from stray vertical bullets. However, if you are going up against a one on one boss that spams horizontal fire they can become an invaluable extra shield upfront. You are fortunately granted a shield which is depleted if your ship is hit by a projectile. This can thankfully be restored via the E energy pickup.

One quirk of the game is that there is no smart bomb pick up. To add these you must successively pick up three power ups of the same kind. It’s an interesting mechanic and certainly adds to the strategy. Sadly the truth is that there’s so much going on most of the time you’ll be concentrating on the action most of the time rather than remembering which powerup to pick up next. Counterintuitively this also means that the strategy of swapping from one type of powerup is slightly undermined as it encourages you to stick with the weapon you are currently using if you go down the smart bomb strategy route of play. In a nutshell that’s it, blast your way through the levels like it’s 1989. It’s all very colourful and the levels are packed with a decent challenge. So, you’re probably wondering. Why am I even bothering to tell you about this game if it’s all rather standard?
Well, it’s mainly due to its collecting status and backstory. Here in the UK at least the game rarely seems to get a mention due to historical reasons.

The Sega Mega Drive was launched in Japan in October 1988 with Curse arriving on the system the following year in late 1989. However, the North American Genesis would not be released until late August 1989 and the European PAL editions of the Sega Mega Drive as late as 1990. In effect Curse was a game that was completely unknown to most European gamers and many North American gamers of the day as the game didn’t see a retrospective region port. I’m not saying point blank that the game was unknown outside of Japan in 1989 to everyone but it would have been highly unlikely that it was on any gamers radar during those early launch years.
Besides, we were all rocking Altered Beast at the time. So, why no release outside of Japan? Well, it’s likely down to the developer Micronet which, believe it or not, is still in business as a software house at the time of making this video. Not exactly one of the top developers of the day but you may know a few of their titles. Perhaps Gotha for the Sega Saturn or even Deadalus/Robotica. I personally know them more for Black Hole Assault and Heavy Nova for the Sega CD.

In 1989 and 1990 the Sega Mega Drive was fresh on the scene and in no shortage of killer applications. Sega alone dominated the home arcade conversion scene with games such as Altered Beast, Hang-On, Golden Axe, Out Run, Space Harrier, After Burner and any other number of hits. Third party support was also strong right from the start. As such, a relatively small game such as Curse just missed out on the cut for global domination. It was simply never going to set the world alight in terms of innovation. As I mentioned, Micronet is still in business. So, let’s check out their website. Yeah, not exactly what you were expecting for a software company.
Hey gang, who remembers HTML 3.0? So, I had to double check that this was the same Micronet. For confirmation it is.

To be fair, their main Japanese site is marginally better looking but still. It doesn’t exactly look cutting edge considering their main products and services being pushed are their 3DX graphics viewer. It’s at this point I thought I was going down a rabbit hole. The site looks rather bare boned and selling software to create 3D text seems almost bizarre in this day and age. Still, nice flashy gif here. Good grief, what happened to this company? I feel like I’ve stepped back in time 20 years looking at their rendering product. The more I look at their site the more I feel that I’m in some sort of bizarre ARG game. But their company profile confirms it, they are indeed the developer that made Curse. None of this is relevant really but a weird and wonderful look at what became of the studio. I was ideally hoping to bring you a bit more information and back story on the game’s development. Sadly, there isn’t too much information out there.
On one final point about their site though I did check out the page code for easter eggs because, well, I’m a bit like that. I see in their vast array of metatags on the homepage they include keywords such as “Sexy”, “bomb” and perhaps my favourite “rice cooker”. Seriously, I have no idea what’s going on with the Micronet website these days but good luck to them.

Anyway, back to Curse itself. Is it any good? And that’s a question that I still haven’t quite resolved in my own mind having completed it. Here’s where I see things. The graphics are a real mixed bag. Considering this game was made by a third party and an early title in the system’s life-cycle I’m happy to cut this one some slack. In general I’d describe the graphics style as functional. It’s neither all out spectacular in terms of execution such as games in the Thunderforce series. Nor is it as well polished as a game such as Hellfire. At the same time it’s not bad looking either. There is a decent amount of parallax scrolling and some nice detail in the enemy design. It certainly gets the job done. On a technical point of view the game also achieves some really nice touches. There’s a good use of incremental background fade to transition the time of day as well as decent sized sprite work. The dragon boss at the end of level 2 is particularly nice.

You’ll definitely get my meaning here though on level 4 when I tell you that the game is really solid in terms of its construction. Just look at the overall feel of speed and complexity the game has. The level features multiple layers of parallax, large sprites and dozens of them, all without slow down. If blast processing is a thing then this is a great example of it. Simply stunning. Of course a game is only as good as the experience and here’s the real reason I have mixed feelings towards Curse. Level 1 is very much a warm up. Even without practice you’re likely to breeze through this one on a first attempt and have powered up your ship to a decent level of damage at the same time.

As with level 2 the difficulty is likely to be well within the reach of most casual shoot ’em up fans. By level 4 though. Well, the difficulty curve ramps up to God-like skill levels. Just look at the nonsense going on here. It can be done though if you put in the practice time. However, the difficulty is likely to put some players off. The finale of the game brings the experience back to a much better balance of difficulty and fun in my opinion. It’s full of tight corners, devastating enemies and overall a really decent way to round off the game. My other slight reservation of Curse is the soundtrack. Games like Hellfire pumped out absolutely rocking soundtracks on the Sega hardware. Again, Curse just seems to lack that oomph in places. There are some decent chip style tunes here and split stereo. However, they’re unlikely to inspire you to record these on to your cassette tape and play in your walkman whilst you’re heading out to the arcade.

The game does thankfully have a very pleasing conclusion in the way of the boss fight. As the cover artwork alludes to, you’ll face off against a nightmarish biomechanical head. There’s something about this fusion of flesh and machine that really appeals to the science fiction lover in me.
It’s both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. I can’t help feeling that I would want a bit more of this imagery throughout the rest of the game.

It was this type of imagery that first drew me to the game. The box artwork is simple yet very effective. Again, that blend of the woman’s face, exposed brain tissue and mechanics feeding into it. I must say it’s first class clover design. I could easily imagine this being on the front cover of one of those 1970’s pulp sci-fi novels. When I first saw this cover it dawned on me that I’d seen this imagery or at least something very similar to it before.

This is just a personal opinion but I believe that the artwork took at least some inspiration from the American artist and sculptor Gene Szafran.
Szafran is mostly known for his work on sci-fi book covers and related art.
It’s his work on a 1975 album cover for Pictures at an Exhibition though that I believe was an inspiration for the Curse cover, at least in theme.
There is just no getting away from it. The sculpture of the human head, exposed at the rear and being fed by mechanical elements and blank facial expression bears at least a passing thematic resemblance to that of Curse’s cover.

Of course this is just an observation and not any kind of proof. It’s also not that uncommon in science fiction work to blend mechanical and biological elements. Artists such as H.R. Geiger practically made a whole career out of it. There is a curious Japanese connection here though. Although it was Russian composer Mussorgsky that composed Pictures at an Exhibition. This particular album release was covered by none other than Isao Tomita.

Why is this relevant? Well, for one Tomita is Japanese and a pioneering figure in electronic and synthesised music. Bare in mind this edition of the album was released in 1975, it’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that his work was an influence on a like-minded generation 14 years later of those interested in all things electronic, such as gaming. Again, it’s not proof, just an observation on Japanese culture of the time. Either way it’s a cover to be enjoyed. Conveniently the artwork appears on the box, manual and cartridge and feels like a really decent offering for collectors. With Japanese cartridges being slightly wider than the PAL editions you will of course need the original Japanese hardware to run this one unless you modify your console. The actual cartridge pin connector though will happily fit the non-Japanese Mega Drive hardware so is considered 100% compatible.

So, how to sum up Curse. Well, I think that I need to caveat heavily that the game appears to be a hand crafted labour of love with modest ambitions rather than any great killer application. There are no cut scenes, no great orchestral soundtrack, no graphics to push the system save for the technicality of programming so many sprites without slow down. The start screen even lacks an options menu unless you hold the A and Start buttons.
And even when you access that menu, it’s still quite a basic affair.
The game was completed with just 4 programmers, One of which doubled up as the musician and had only 2 additional designers. Curse is a game that you have to look at in context to appreciate. End to end I completed the game in just 19 minutes in my perfect run and that includes booting up, watching the end credits and entering a high score. In that respect Curse can be quite a short experience once you master it.

Incidentally I will upload my perfect run as a bonus video on the channel for those that would just like to kick back and watch the action. These days you are going to pay a bit of a premium for this title if you buy on the online auctions. It falls into that niche area of lesser known Japanese collectables but will surely appeal to lovers of the genre. It’s a game that unless you go looking for it you would probably never hear of it. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to showcase it on the channel today. Is it the best horizontal shooter on the system? No. There’s so much choice though, it was never going to be.

What it is though is good honest fun and a good honest challenge. Personally the graphics work well for what the game is trying to achieve, the soundtrack does enough to not outstay its welcome and the enemy design is more than enough to to give me those nostalgic feelings of an era gone by. Throw in to the mix the creepy artwork and sinister vibes the game does still have a lot to offer.

For those curious about Japanese exclusives of the 16-bit era Curse is well worth the entry fee. I hope that many more of you get the chance to try this one out in the future. Until next time, happy gaming.

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