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It was inevitable. Last time, I broke from my timeline to play Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family (AKA Legacy of the Wizard), a game I’d originally skipped over because I’d deemed the Dragon Slayer series to be too early, and too focused on home computer systems instead of consoles. When this blog series expanded in scope, I decided I should probably go back and play a few of the Dragon Slayer games. But with Dragon Slayer IV I didn’t just find a great melding of role-playing and platforming action, I found one of the games that helped define the Metroidvania genre, and a very impressive one at that. From there, I started reading about some other early games that built the foundations for Metroidvanias, and since I’d already covered Metroid and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, I figured I might as well go back and play these other early games too. I promise I’ll get back to my timeline eventually.

First up is The Goonies II, by Konami, which was actually quite early. Released in March 1987 (coming to the US that November), it slots after Esper Dream (also by Konami) in my timeline, and the only platformers I’ve covered that predate it are Metroid and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. That means it got in on defining nonlinear, exploratory platforming before Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest would add the “vania” to the Metroidvania genre. But that was also by Konami, so I guess they were just building on their own work. Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Goonies II, however, is that it combines platforming with first-person adventure sequences, much like Sega’s Spellcaster would do a year and a half later.

As the title suggests, The Goonies II is a tie-in to the film The Goonies, which I have seen exactly once in my life. I remember almost nothing about it. But it seems to have become a cultural touchstone for many of my generation. I heard about the game as a kid, but was never that interested, mostly because games based on movies tended to be pretty bad. It didn’t help that almost no one in the US had seen the first Goonies game, since it was only available on Nintendo VS. System arcade units. The sequel, however, appeared on the Famicom/NES and bucks the trend of movie games by actually being pretty good.

It doesn’t really matter that I can’t remember the movie, because the game has almost nothing to do with it. Taking place afterwards, it puts players in control of Mikey, who I’ve read is one of the titular Goonies, as he goes up against the villainous Fratelli family once again. The Fratellis have kidnapped the other Goonies — as well as a mermaid named Annie, who was invented for this game for some unknown reason — and imprisoned them in their hideout, which also features a bunch of caves and even an ice cavern for variety. Mikey has to rescue everyone, by exploring the interconnected platforming world, fighting off critters and the Fratellis, and entering doorways that lead to small adventure game segments. There, Mikey can find new equipment and items that open up new paths in the game.

One thing I didn’t expect was an in-game map screen. Dragon Slayer IV would require players to draw their own maps of its huge, intricate dungeon, but The Goonies II lets players check their location on the in-game map from any platforming area, something I don’t remember seeing again until Super Metroid in 1994. Another cool feature in The Goonies II is that there’s a “front” and “back” section of the map, which can be accessed by moving through the adventure areas. This immediately had me imagining convoluted paths that criss-crossed between front and back sections in order to access areas that originally seemed inaccessible.

The reality, however, is not that involved. In fact, each individual platforming area in The Goonies II is rather small. They’re built from side-scrolling areas, with ladders up and down that lead to other floors. I quickly learned that ladders are the only way to switch between floors; pits are always deadly, instead of leading to the area below like they would in Dragon Slayer IV. But these areas are only a few floors and a few screens wide each, and do not connect to each other except through the doorways and adventure game segments. This makes the Fratelli hideout feel less like a single, cohesive space and more like a bunch of interconnected locations. Also, while the early crossings between the front and back maps correspond to roughly the same places on the map, later in the game these can lead to completely different parts of the map, making it harder to navigate the hideout in a logical manner.

I was still able to get by without drawing a map, however, simply because there aren’t that many possible paths. And the in-game map makes it easy to check if I was backtracking in places I’d already explored. I’d read that The Goonies II was a game that was impossible to complete without some kind of guide, but honestly it’s not nearly as tricky as Dragon Slayer IV. I did glance at a guide on a few occasions, but most of it I was able to solve myself. Learning the internal logic of the game helps a lot for that. For example, the adventure segments are far more formulaic than those that would come in Spellcaster. Here, doorways always lead to a few interconnected rooms that might have passages in one of four directions (and, sometimes, passages up or down as well). These reminded me of the dungeons in The Legend of Zelda, actually, since most of the time I was tapping on walls (via the “hit” command) to look for hidden items, or bashing them with a hammer in the hopes of opening up a secret door. I also had a limited stock of keys, which could open up wall safes to reveal hints or new items. Some of those items granted me new ways to find secret doors or otherwise access new areas. Even the music in the adventure sections sounds a bit like Zelda.

Mikey can even find a boomerang, which he uses in the platforming sections and functions much like Link’s boomerang in The Legend of Zelda, flying forward and then arcing back gracefully. Bombs also recall Link’s bombs, dropped with a short fuse before exploding. At first I thought that bombs were just another way to battle enemies, but later discovered that there are a few doors that can be revealed with well-placed bombs, which again recalled Zelda (fortunately, finding these doors is not required to finish the game). Other aspects of the platforming, however, are closer to Konami’s own Castlevania. Mikey’s starting weapon is a yo-yo, which functions similarly to the whip in Castlevania, and he can find molotovs which function like the holy water special weapon in Castlevania, tossed in front of Mikey in a short arc before igniting and damaging enemies. There are ladders instead of Castlevania’s stairs, but Mikey is similarly vulnerable while climbing and must be careful to avoid attacks. His movement is paced in a similar way, too, emphasizing slower, deliberate movements rather than frantic dashing around. Some items affect the platforming in pleasing ways, like shoes that increase Mikey’s movement speed or jump height. Others are needed to explore certain places, like the raincoat which protects against waterfalls and geysers, or the diving gear which lets Mikey enter underwater areas.

There’s a lot of stuff to find within the relatively small hideout, making The Goonies II feel packed with stuff. I was surprised when I rescued the first trapped Goonie after only a short time playing, and nearly always felt I was making clear progress. The game is quite forgiving in a lot of ways, too. There are magic locator devices which show the locations of other Goonies on the map, which helped keep me pointed in the right direction. Enemies in the platforming areas can be tough, moving in tricky patterns and/or taking quite a few hits to go down, but if Mikey loses all his lives (a holdover from the first game’s arcade design) players are able to continue from the same screen where they died, as many times as they wish. The only penalty is losing all special weapons and keys. This is more of an annoyance than anything else, since enemies will eventually drop more when defeated, but I found running out of keys to be the biggest annoyance in the game. I’m pretty sure that the one time I headed off in the wrong direction was because I didn’t have a key to open a wall safe in one of the adventure areas, and then forgot to return once I had nabbed a key. Before long I could tell I’d taken a wrong turn and was somewhere I wasn’t meant to be yet, but I also had a Goonie highlighted on my map nearby, so I tried to find them anyway. Turned out they couldn’t be found without that item I missed, so I had to backtrack a ways to get it.

Most of the time, however, I was able to make good progress. I was being meticulous about checking every wall, floor and ceiling in every adventure room, however, and probably would have had more trouble as a kid if I’d missed one. Also, some adventure areas are confusing because they can be entered from the front map or the back map, which can swap the forward and back directions when navigating the rooms. Still, The Goonies II is a reasonably kid-friendly game, its more esoteric secrets limited to optional items and its combat cartoony. Snakes and bats disappear in a puff of smoke when defeated, and members of the Fratelli family are knocked on their back, legs failing, before getting up again a short while later. I bet I actually would have liked this game a lot as a kid, and I would have had a decent chance of finishing it, especially with the occasional hint from a magazine like Nintendo Power. It’s not too long either. I completed it in just a few sessions, and while I was lazy and just used save states to pick up where I left off, there’s also a password system that lets players continue their adventure at another time.

It feels rather different to the standard Metroidvania design that would become popular, however, due to the disjointed nature of the hideout. But the key aspects are there: opening up new paths with new items and abilities, backtracking through earlier locations to access new places, and slowly unraveling the whole hideout and rescuing everyone. Each rescued Goonie adds to Mikey’s maximum health, which is a nice touch. It also means Mikey is better equipped to face tough areas later on. Some of the enemies get pretty difficult in the late game, but with the forgiving continues I was able to press on regardless and finish the game.

I’m glad I went back to try this, as it was better than expected. It’s a far more imaginative design than a movie tie-in game needed, and an interesting early example of an open world platformer. As with other NES games in this series, I played via emulation, using the Retroarch frontend and the Mesen core. As far as I can tell, this is the only way to play the game today, barring finding an original cartridge and hardware.

Up next, I’ve lined up a few more early Metroidvania-esque games, and the next one actually slots neatly right after The Goonies II in the timeline. Stay tuned!