For those just tuning in, I’ve been playing through early console role-playing games, action role-playing hybrids, and Metroidvanias, but since I keep adding more games to my list the timeline has gotten a bit muddled. The farthest I’ve reached is September 1988 with Spellcaster, but since then I’ve gone back to fill in some games I missed. Most recently that was The Battle of Olympus. If I’d done things in order, The Battle of Olympus would have been followed by Ys II and Lord of the Sword, before bringing us to this post about Cosmo Police Galivan, by Nihon Bussan.
Inspired by Japanese tokusatsu television series Space Sheriff Gavan and Space Sheriff Sharivan, Cosmo Police Galivan was originally a 1985 arcade action platformer game. On June 3, 1988, a Famicom port appeared with drastically different gameplay. While still focused on platforming action, it added role-playing mechanics and nonlinear environments reminiscent of Metroid, that require protagonist Galivan to seek out new weapons and abilities in order to open up new paths. It was never released outside of Japan, but fortunately there’s a fan-made translation patch allowing English speakers to play it via emulation (I used the Retroarch frontend and Mesen emulation core, as usual for Famicom/NES games). It sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a go.
I’m glad I did. It’s been fascinating trying out early examples of Metroidvanias for this series, since they were still experimenting with brand new ideas before the genre’s conventions had been established. Cosmo Police Galivan, however, feels the most like what those conventions would become. Its influences are clear: its explorable areas are constructed from horizontally scrolling corridors or vertically scrolling shafts, like Metroid. Most shafts have elevators like those in Zelda II. There are special doors that must be blasted open with a special weapon, similar to Metroid’s red doors that require missiles to open. Galivan will encounter other, incapacitated agents of the Cosmo Police who offer hints (he must kneel before them to talk to them), but each is in their own room, like the house interiors in Zelda II (or, indeed, in The Battle of Olympus). Galivan fights with sci-fi energy swords (called “blades” here), ostensibly similar to Zelda II but feeling more like the combat in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.
In fact, it feels more like Castlevania games that were yet to come, like Symphony of the Night. Galivan is a bit more nimble than the typical Castlevania protagonist, as is Alucard in the seminal 1997 game, and both fight with relatively short-range swords rather than the classic whips of the Belmont clan. When Galivan strikes an enemy with his blade, the enemy is stunned for a split second, such that repeated hits are possible and can even disrupt enemy attacks or movements. This feels totally different to the sword-and-shield dance from Zelda II, but is immediately recognizable behavior from the Castlevania series, including Simon’s Quest. By taking that rhythm and adapting it for shorter-range sword strikes, Cosmo Police Galivan achieves something very close to the combat style that would appear in Symphony of the Night, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that it was a direct inspiration for that game.
Cosmo Police Galivan also imbues much more personality into its environments than its forbears managed. The story is paper-thin: the evil Mado syndicate has conquered the universe and defeated the cyborg warriors of the Cosmo Police… all except one, that is. Galivan must travel to the enemy planet in a last ditch attempt to stop them. So far, so similar to Metroid, but where Metroid’s planet Zebes was one huge, interconnected world that must be carefully mapped, Galivan’s adventure takes him through distinct stages, one by one. Each stage is like Metroid in miniature, which ends up working really well because the layout is simple enough that players can remember it. Further, each stage has its own theme. The metal decor of a high-tech base might give way to caverns filled with pools of water, or even a full-blown ocean. Since each stage is fairly small, they are dense with things to do and find. I rarely encountered a pointless corridor or looping path with nothing of note inside, as I often did in Metroid. In Cosmo Police Galivan, every location might hide a secret passage or lead to an important, permanent upgrade.
Here I really appreciated the fan translation, because most of the cleverly-hidden secrets must be uncovered in order to progress in the game, and I never would have discovered them without hints from Galivan’s fellow cyborg agents. Perhaps I needed to use a specific special weapon to blow apart a certain wall, or maybe I needed to activate a special crystal item in a certain place to reveal a hidden path. Every stage in the game has at least one warp point leading to “the alien dimension” as well, offering alternate explorable places with their own hazards and rewards. There are hints for most of this stuff scattered around, and often the reward for braving a difficult gauntlet of corridors is simply an ailing cyborg offering a key piece of information. I was sometimes happier with that hint than I would have been with a new weapon or item.
But there are plenty of new weapons and items. Galivan starts without much in the way of defense, but if he collects enough “GP” powerups, dropped from certain enemies, he dons his cyborg armor suit which significantly increases his survivability. If he takes enough hits he’ll lose the armor again, but he can keep it topped up by collecting more GP to fill the meter. He also collects special ranged weapons like the Cosmo Boomerang or Spark Ball, as well as items that offer buffs or have other specific uses, but each requires “CP” to use. CP canisters are sometimes dropped from specific enemies, and can be picked up by striking them with Galivan’s blade. This is reminiscent of the special weapons from the Castlevania series, which usually consume hearts when used, except that Galivan’s CP capacity increases as he levels up.
Ah yes, leveling. Earn enough experience from defeating enemies and Galivan will level up, increasing his maximum health and CP capacity. At low levels I needed to conserve CP carefully in order to use special weapons to uncover secrets, but later I had vast reserves of CP and routinely activated special items to automatically restore Galivan’s armor suit or even heal him in the middle of a fight. It’s a bit awkward to switch between using Galivan’s blades, special weapons, or items, as they are toggled with the select button, but fortunately this can be done from a menu while the game is paused. Even so, I often tried to stab an enemy only to realize I still had an item equipped instead, wasting some CP and probably taking damage in the process. Cosmo Police Galivan is a game that would benefit from more face buttons than the Famicom’s two. A dedicated button for attacking with Galivan’s equipped blade would be especially welcome.
Speaking of blades, not only does Galivan find several of them (of increasing power) during his adventure, he can level each one up individually too. Defeating enemies grants experience points to the equipped blade, and it will slowly grow from its starting rank of C up to B, and eventually A. The power jump for each of these is significant, and sometimes a newly acquired blade at rank C will be weaker than the previous blade at rank A. It’s worth getting them all up to rank A though, as powerful blade attacks are the most reliable way to efficiently dispatch enemies, and also make collecting CP or health restoring powerups faster. This is especially useful because if Galivan dies, he restarts from the beginning of the stage without his armor or any CP (although he does keep any permanent upgrades he found before he died, like new weapons or blades).
At first, I found this very harsh, especially since Galivan’s experience total is reset to his current level too, so any progress towards the next level is lost upon death. And since I often perished to one of the game’s difficult bosses, having to trek back while also refilling Galivan’s CP by repeatedly killing enemies was annoying. I quickly resorted to using save states instead during the first stage of the game. Later, I realized that the punishment for death is not as harsh as I thought. Galivan keeps any experience earned for his blades, so repeated attempts can help rank those up which makes everything a lot easier. And as his maximum CP rises (which, I admit, requires staying alive long enough to level him up), each CP pickup offers more CP too, letting him get his important special weapons and items online faster. For most of the game, I continued after death as intended without using save states, but I did resort to them for a few particularly tough bosses. It was simply too annoying to trek back to these battles so many times.
The bosses are definitely the hardest part of Cosmo Police Galivan — one, in particular, had me stumped for quite some time — but there are other tricky moments too. In one stage the hints got a bit too cryptic and I couldn’t figure out where to go, and I ended up resorting to an online guide. Most of the time, however, I was able to make headway on my own, and was really enjoying myself. Picking through the various stages was a lot of fun, while acquiring new blades and abilities and leveling up leads to a nice power curve where Galivan is able to fend off stiff opposition in the later stages. The design makes me wonder why more Metroidvanias don’t experiment with a linear progression through stages; the only example I can think of that does this is the lesser-known indie freeware game Iji (which is excellent). The nonlinear design of most Metroidvania worlds works surprisingly well in these smaller doses, and it significantly cuts down on time spent backtracking through earlier areas, which is often a sore spot in Metroidvania games. I also liked the clear delineations between stages that acted as natural stopping points. Cosmo Police Galivan thankfully saves progress automatically (I guess using a battery backup system?) so players can pick up where they left off easily.
It’s hard to say how influential Cosmo Police Galivan was, since it was never released outside of Japan. Perhaps it did directly inspire future classics like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, or perhaps it’s just an example of a game with great ideas that wouldn’t be independently adopted until years later. Either way, it’s well worth a play for fans of Metroidvania games. Its later boss fights especially are very tough, but can be bested by carefully learning patterns (or even cheesed through by using the healing item a lot, which is what I did), and even if you’re not motivated enough to reach the end you’ll still enjoy the adventure. Thanks to Jair for the translation on this one, otherwise I never would have known about it.
I’ve almost finished playing catch-up on my timeline. Next we have one last game that predated Spellcaster, after which point I’ll be all caught up and can proceed chronologically once more. Stay tuned!
Next on Console History: Blaster Master