Here's a quick question: What's the worst pack-in video game of all-time? I imagine Sega consoles have their detractors in this category. After all, they did open up their brand-new Genesis to a spanking new port of….. Altered Beast! And who can forget Sewer Shark? (Most of us, actually.) However, the TurboGrafx-16 owners have no sympathy for those who received Altered Beast or Sewer Shark. At least those games were included to show off the capabilities of their new consoles, and besides, Sega had the good sense to include better games with the consoles when those better games were released. Turbo owners had to open up their new consoles to Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, which may very well be the worst pack-in game ever. I admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Keith Courage. It was the pack-in game for my first real video game console and therefore, the first video game I ever owned. I whiled away long hours playing it over and over again well past its shelf life, never quite realizing just how bad it really was.
Keith Courage in Alpha Zones is about an alien invasion. A big meteor has lodged itself in a volcano, and some BAD guys are pouring out of it. Here you are, as Keith Courage, a NICE guy, taking out the aliens who slaughtered your dad who tried to put the aliens in their place but was killed along the way. Now, you ask, why the caps? Because in this game, BAD and NICE are both acronyms! BAD is short for Beastly Alien Dudes while NICE means Nations of International Citizens for Earth. And you now know where ninety percent of the creativity involved in designing this game went. I am not making this up. There's no way I could possibly make this up. I've certainly tried to think of a worse or more campy-sounding acronym for good guys or bad guys, but the best I could do was MAD, for Mean Alien Dudes. There's simply no topping BAD or NICE in terms of sheer camp value.
To paraphrase Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, the designers haven't lost any of their imaginations. They never had any. As I said, all the creativity involved in making this game went into the cute little acronyms. Just how unimaginative is the rest of this sucker? Well, let me put it this way: The design team didn't even have enough imagination left to throw in an obligatory water level. While this could be a flash of common sense – or perhaps mercy – on their part, the inclusions of fire and ice levels really don't warrant giving them the benefit of the doubt. Also, one of Keith's few allies in his journey into the alien lair is a wizard. Wise Wizard, however, isn't there to teach Keith the Awesome-o spell. Nope. Wise Wizard is inside the alien stronghold to sell bombs! The only magic spell this guy can perform is making your money disappear.
The Alpha Zones referred to in the title are seven zones: Rock Zone, Reverse Zone, Fire Zone, Toxic Zone, Glacier Zone, Magic Zone, and Robo Zone. Each zone is divided into an overworld and an underworld. In the overworld, Keith looks a lot like that character from South Park who always asks "M'kay?" He walks around with a dinky little sword which is a perfect weapon against the dinky little foes he uses them on. He collects money to buy swords from the Weapon Master and maybe bombs from Wise Wizard as he fights his way to the other side of the level. When he reaches the other side, the King of All Cosmos uses his Royal Rainbow to transport Keith to the underworld, where he dons the awesome Nova Suit to fight bigger, faster, tougher enemies and bosses. (Okay, the King of All Cosmos and his Royal Rainbow have nothing to do with this game. But Keith does use a Rainbow Transport to get to the underworld.)
In this layout, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones presents an interesting design contrast. The overworlds are boring walkthroughs, but they're where the emphasis in the levels lay. For example, the lava and volcanoes in the Fire Zone are both overworld obstacles, as are the toxic gas clouds in the Toxic Zone. (Though there's no visible magic in the Magic Zone.) The underworlds contain the fast action and real challenge, but they're pretty much all the same, so they feel almost like an afterthought. The Robo Zone underworld contains conveyor belt-like spinners, and the Glacier Zone underworld has icy ledges, but that's it. And it's a stretch to count the Glacier Zone's ledges because they don't cause any kind of sliding effect with Keith in the Nova Suit. We get all kinds of action clichés within the design: Moving ledges, disappearing ledges, instant-death spikes, and assorted overworld crap which is relatively easy to avoid. The Fire Zone provides an example of just how poorly designed this game can be. The Fire Zone overworld has large lava pits which you can't jump over in less than two or three jumps. These pits hurt you and there's no alternate way around them. Yet, if you just stand in the pits, you don't get hurt. That's quite a trick.
The overworld/underworld design serves its purpose of fleshing out the experience. For all its other flaws, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones is a fulfilling game. But that's really the best thing that can be said about it. The relative simplicity of Keith Courage is stunning. The obstacles are all staples which you've seen in every other action game ever made, and the enemies require no strategic approach, and all but two can be beaten with a single shot. The two exceptions, Dr. Sting and Titan Guard, are also the only enemies who can toss projectiles at you, and Dr. Sting's projectiles are dropped from overhead. Even the bosses show a lack of effort: The nameless first boss and the last boss, Titan Warrior, can both be easily beaten by exploiting careless and silly design glitches. Second boss Stitch, third boss Baron Chairman, and sixth boss Dongoro can all be beaten by filling up your health, walking up to them, and hacking away. (Although Baron is a bit more troublesome because he can teleport around the room.) They're battles of attrition. Only fourth boss Mr. Roboto poses a real threat, and that's only because he's the only enemy in the game who knocks off your health every time he hits you. (More on that coming up.) To top it off, no one bothered to throw in a boss for the Glacier Zone. Instead, they just recycled Stitch and Baron Chairman for you to take on at the same time. Eventually the designers just said "screw it" and made the first boss, Stitch, and Baron common enemies in later underworlds.
Powering up in Keith Courage is strangely inconsistent. In the overworld, you power up by gathering gold coins which are worth fifty in Courage currency. If you kill a rare Golden Cat, you get a red coin worth 200. You then walk into one of your so-called allies' huts and let them highway rob you. Prices go up in the higher levels of the game; fortunately, it's only the Weapon Master who provides a consistently useful service. The money you'll save by not healing or buying bombs will be especially welcome once you gander at the outrageous prices of the Jewel Sword and the Alpha Sword, Keith's two final armaments. The other two highway robbers in the Zones provide nearly useless services: Nurse Nancy heals you, but this is unnecessary in the overworld because Keith can take punishment like a professional wrestler before losing even one of his three-to-eight hearts. In the underworld, where you pick up recharge hearts from fallen foes, you'll find hearts which give you a single lost heart and others which completely replenish you. This is a textbook video game device, but in Keith Courage, you can't tell the difference between the two! Every heart looks the same, and so single and complete replenishments are randomized. What's more, you can't buy extra hearts from Nurse Nancy either. You take care of those in the underworld too, and the number of hearts you have to collect before you get an extra heart tacked onto your overall life is also a mystery. Meanwhile, Wise Wizard sells bolt bombs, which are quite possibly the most unnecessary sub-weapon in video game history. They give Keith a longer reach, but most of the enemies are so weak that reach isn't an issue. While you can pick up little icons in the underworld which affect how many bombs you can throw at once, the game actually randomizes whether you can hurl all those suckers forward at the same time or spread out the bombs in different directions.
The only ally Keith has who provides a free service is the Prophet. He's supposed to warn you of the dangers ahead. But you get what you pay for with the Prophet, and so his service comes off like a tip in Gamepro magazine: It's a very vague or broad statement which became obvious three levels ago. A Biblical prophet he is most certainly not. And when you make your way to the later levels of the game, the Weapon Master and Wise Wizard both step into his shoes when they decide they need a break from sucking your funds dry.
Like most games in the whole two-dimensional mold, once you beat a level, it's over and done with, never to be seen again. At least that's what I thought. One day while I was just playing around with the game, I discovered that you can actually activate the Rainbow Transport at the beginning of each overworld and it will take you to the last overworld. This feels like a glitch; luckily, it actually adds replay value because backtracking through the overworlds you've already beaten is a little different then going forward through them. Plus, it allows you to get deals on bolt bombs if you're patient enough to go all the way back to Rock Zone.
The graphics in Keith Courage really suck. Referring to the sprites as "sprites" would be elevating them. The onscreen characters are so small and poorly detailed, they don't even aspire to become sprites. Animation is stiffer than my leg when it gets numb. This is because of the deadly combination of the worst character designs ever and the lack of animation given to any of them. I've already mentioned Keith's unpleasant resemblance to a certain character from South Park. Keith has an enormous head which is probably heavy enough to snap his stick-like body in half, and he's the most detailed character in the game. Overworld sprites do very little. A few of them move little arms or legs, but there's a flying cat which does nothing except spin in circles before literally falling onto your head and another enemy which bounces at you along the ground but is too fuzzy for you to clearly tell what it is. (My friends and I nicknamed it "the butterfly.") Underworld enemies and bosses are a bit more detailed but no less stiff. There might be about fifty frames of animation in this game, total.
Prepare for the worst video game track you've ever heard. It bombs you in the even-numbered zones. It's a loopy, dorky track which may be the music Screech from Saved by the Bell has on permanent rotation in his head. There are four main music tracks in Keith Courage, and while the Screech theme is by far the worst, the other three weren't exactly inspired by Mozart either. The underworld music in the even-numbered levels is very generic, very bad heavy metal, and the other two – in the odd-numbered levels – are mercifully forgettable. The tracks alternate levels, and one of the few good things about the music is the worse music is only heard in even-numbered levels, which are fewer. The sound is mostly little pops and computer noise, highlighted by a jumping sound which resembles the yip of a stoned Chihuahua.
Gameplay is a tale of two worlds. Keith moves slow in the overworld, where quick reactions aren't really necessary. He speeds up considerably when he puts on the Nova Suit during his trips to the underworld. There's not much to complain about, because Keith's speeds are appropriate for their level halves.
Keith Courage in Alpha Zones may seem tough at first, but once you figure out the underworlds and bosses, it's a snap. This is a game which would rather overwhelm you than challenge you. If you see Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, there's no shame in being Keith Coward and running away from it.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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