Welcome to our weekly feature, Virtually Overlooked, wherein we talk about games that aren't on the Virtual Console yet, but should be. Call it a retro-speculative.
For every system currently represented on the Virtual Console, the launch pack-in title is available for download. Super Mario Bros. on the NES, Altered Beast (and later pack-in Sonic the Hedgehog) on Genesis, Super Mario World on SNES, and even Magician Lord on the Neo Geo, though the Neo Geo Gold system pack-in, NAM-1975, has yet to appear. The Nintendo 64, of course, lacked a pack-in title at launch, probably due to the fact that a pack-in of Super Mario 64 would literally have meant a one-game retail presence, which is ridiculous compared to the two-game choice available in stores upon the system's release. The only system whose pack-in isn't available is the Turbografx-16.
Could it be because Keith Courage in Alpha Zones isn't actually that good? We don't think so. Lots of really bad games are available. Keith Courage is Virtually Overlooked in the purest sense, an obvious addition that has, for some bizarre reason, not been made available yet.
For whatever reason, NEC and Hudson decided that the game based on some anime (Mashin Eiyuuden Wataru) would be the perfect choice as the flagship title for their Turbografx-16 system. This is despite the existence of brilliant launch games like Blazing Lazers and Alien Crush. So as was the custom at the time, they rewrote the story, or, rather, removed the story, and redrew the promotional art. The game itself remained unaltered other than English text and changed names. The new Americanized art is pretty amusing; it takes what is clearly a somewhat cutesy game and tries to make it look totally serious, with predictable results. The cover art features the same character (basically) in the same pose, but in a different style (a fact I just learned during research for this post). NEC even created a comic book to help explain the ad hoc storyline of Keith Courage -- the struggle between the Nations of International Citizens for Earth and the Beastly Alien Dudes.
The game itself is, for the most part, a middling platformer, or more accurately two middling platformers. Every level is split into two parts: an overworld and an underworld. In the sunny overworld, Keith defeats little puffballs to earn gold, with which he can buy weapons and bolt bombs from a friendly merchant, and recover health with visits to Nurse Nancy. When he reaches the end of a stage, a rainbow lifts him up, accompanied by a sweet little jingle.
Then he puts on the Nova Suit and descends into the underworld. The music changes, the grassy landscape gives way to a rocky, lava-flooded cave, and the enemies change from bouncy spherical creatures to flying skulls and people who are also pistols. Robotic enemies abound, including all of the bosses. Keith's movements are much faster, and he even has different movement sound effects in the Nova Suit. It really does feel like two games grafted together.
Keith Courage isn't as terrible as people make it out to be. We're pretty confident that most people would have some kind of fun playing it, especially in the quick-moving underworld stages. It suffers from being compared as a pack-in to Super Mario World, though it holds up fairly well to Altered Beast. It also suffers from its own marketing -- much like we're quite certain Johnny Turbo actually prevented more Turbografx purchases than he promoted.