At the risk of repeating an oft-stated opinion, what was it about Konami in the 80s? Unlike the outsourcing, risk-averse publisher we know today, on the NES they were a new franchise creating machine, and despite a few duds here are there, their output was so consistent it was remarkable.
When you take a good look, their games were rarely immediately the best looking, often featuring simple, smaller sprites and a slightly odd, blocky look to their tile work. Think of Contra's slightly off isometric floors, and the literal "block" construction of much of Castlevania. But with a strong, consistent in-house style (including the near ubiquitous "faceless" characters), the best music in the biz, tight controls and outstanding level design, as well as some undefined element that held it all together, a Konami NES game was almost always greater then the sum of its parts. Even their weaker games seemed to benefit from an above average combination of the above. Their games came together in a way almost no other publisher could match in the era. Even their packaging and presentation was consistent and high quality, all games had great logos and title screens, and excellent 70s style "fantasy/action movie" cover art that really captured the spirit of each title. In the West they even consolidated their line with the simple and classy silver boxes for their entire line-up (excluding Ultra/Palcom alternative label titles).
While many Western gamers were enjoying Konami's output on the NES, there were many games that didn't make it out of Japan for one reason or another. Nintendo limited the number of games that could be released by third party companies, and even though they granted Konami some leeway with the Ultra label, it still left a lot of titles in Japan. In some cases they were among the best of Konami's output. Hitting up these lost classics can be quite an enjoyable experience, the only caveat being you needed a Famicom Disk System to play most of them.
Ai Senshi Nicol, or "Love Warrior Nicol," tells the story of Nicol, whose sweetheart Stella is taken by a Metroid-like alien while they are on a romantic walk, told in an intro cutscene with hilarious Engrish punctuation. As a result, Nicol decides to take on the entire invading alien race to save Stella, which means he must navigate a bunch of maze-like levels, collecting powerups and hitting switches to progress. Your goal in each stage is to collect three different diamonds to power your hovercraft to the next area, and many are, naturally, guarded by bosses.
Overall it plays a lot like the on-foot parts of Blaster Master, except with tighter design and controls. Each level is structured like a Zelda dungeon, flip screen scrolling and all, where you must explore every available path methodically to uncover secrets and open the next path. It's all action, though, with nary any block puzzles in sight. Much like Metroid, many power-ups have the double feature of giving you extra power or defence while also acting as a "key" to unlocking a new path, such as a gun that destroys a certain type of block, or shoes that let you jump further.
Throughout each level are pits that drop you into an underground section mostly filled with lava/poison lakes etc that you must navigate. While they serve as "traps" for mistimed jumps, they are also part of the level and can contain items. A good percentage of optional power-ups are hidden in random blocks, so you"ll find yourself shooting everything you can in search of a gun upgrade.
Controls are simple and tight, with eight-way directional movement responding well to your inputs, and jumping in particular is handled quite competently and forgivingly for an overhead perspective game. Enemies are usually pretty easy to handle, you just have to be patient and take your shots at the right time, and as you"d expect from Konami, bosses are tricky and will get you first time, but if you learn the pattern you can get by unscathed.
While it's hard to get lost in the first couple of levels, as the game goes on, the levels get larger and more involved, you will get stuck wondering where to go next, and it can get frustrating as your life bar gets chipped away at by re-spawning enemies as you search an area for the fifth time. But once you learn a level you'll be able to race through next time.
As you can see from the screenshots, Ai Senshi Nicol is a fantastic looking Famicom game. The colourful cartoony look is pulled off with panache and technically it's well ahead of its time - despite being released in 1987, it really looks like a late era 8-bit game. Each level has a consistent theme, representing standard 80s representations of futuristic industrial architecture. The sprite work is great, there's little sprite flicker, and bosses are satisfyingly large.
As you'd expect of a Konami game the music is also fantastic. Utilising the FDS extra sound channels to great effect, the boppy, catchy soundtrack is right up there with the best on the console. It doesn't have that relentlessness that characterises the soundtracks of many of Konami's action games, instead it matches the cartoony looks with more light-hearted pieces. What sets it apart are the great synth horn sounds from the FDS, giving it a strident action-adventure vibe.
It's very unfortunate Ai Senshi Nicol wasn't released in America. It's a very tightly designed game with great graphics, and would have had great appeal to American kids. From 2006 to 2008, Konami released the game on several mobile phone platforms - once again exclusive to Japan. There is no language barrier at all, as everything is in English, so feel free to grab it for your FDS or FDS compatible emulator (make sure it's one that handles the extra sound channels) and give this lost classic a bash.