GameSpite Journal 11 | Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode

Vic Tokai | NES | 1988

Declaring that you hate Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode almost seems disingenuous. Rather, bewilderment seems to be the correct response to this strange game. Every mechanic feels downright amateur, making the game painful to play. And it didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be, switching gameplay styles enough times to make your head spin. Yet none of these things arouse feelings of pure hatred simply because of how willfully disjointed they are, though as kids, we never really could put our finger on why the game was like that. We had no idea that what we were playing was a literal interpretation of an entirely different medium in game form.

In truth, Top Secret Episode could stem from any number of different storytelling channels, but we were hard-pressed to figure out exactly which one the game was trying to mimic. What we didn’t know was that Golgo 13 was an established character in a long-running manga series chronicling a cold, calculating perfect machine of snipe who also had a way with the ladies. Manga wasn’t nearly as popular in America back in the NES era, so Golgo 13’s legacy completely flew over our heads. Most of us would never read his continued serialized adventures.

Note the word "read," because anyone who played Top Secret Episode has experienced a taste of Duke Togo's world. Top Secret Episode amounts to what would essentially be an entire story arc in the books. Duke is hired by a group called FIXER to investigate the destruction of a CIA helicopter carrying a powerful virus. To make matters worse, the sniper that took down the copter planted evidence to make it look like the culprit was Golgo 13. As the story unfolds, Duke learns of a conspiracy by the long dead DREK empire to take over the world using the virus and advanced cloning technology culminating with the resurrection of feared DREK leader Smirk. This saga would span the globe across locales like Berlin, Athens, and even Antarctica as Duke shot bad guys, sniped an assassin, swam with sharks, piloted a military helicopter against fleets of strange enemy ships, and ultimately destroyed a mess of Smirk clones to save the world.

If this sounds like five different games, then blame it on gaming’s tendency to reduce all stories relating to one kind of gameplay. Sure, it works when you’re transplanting an action movie to video game for by making Contra, but what about when exploring stories more complex than “shoot the aliens”? To put this practice further into relief, you need only look at other games that transplant stories from different mediums. The introspective, imaginative Dante’s Inferno reduced to a God of War? clone; the cerebral heroes of Watchmen downgraded to mere brawlers. In comparison to how many of these transplants ended up, Top Secret Episode is downright inspired.

But then, Vic Tokai was known for blending together unlike gameplay styles and seeing what happens. Its most famous work, Clash at Demonhead, took a traditional action platformer and added a unique exploration aspect built from a pre-Super Mario Bros. 3 world map. But that was an exercise in conservative restraint compared to Top Secret Mission, which included traditional side-scrolling shooting stages where you searched for clues across the level, horizontal shmup stages, scuba diving stages, Cabal-style shooting galleries spread across each in the form of “random” encounters, first-person maze exploration, and two sniper sequences. That’s a lot of different gameplay styles to pull off at once, and unfortunately, Top Secret Episode doesn’t really come close. Stiff animation and a limited number of action Duke can do -- walk, jump, shoot, and awkwardly do a jump kick -- sabotages the side-scrolling investigation bits, while enemies have an unreasonable amount of health in the shooter sections. Even the stationary shooting gallery segments faltered by refusing to give players feedback that they even hit an enemy until it inexplicably explodes. At best, Top Secret Episode is a complete and utter mess.

And yet few games have ever gotten its source material so right. The globe-trotting adventures of a stoic assassin does exactly what he should be doing: Travel the world, hunt down his client’s targets, and put a bullet into each of their brains, all while bedding lovely female agents left and right. Far from a one-trick pony, the game’s variety reflects the myriad skills that Golgo 13 uses in each and every one of his adventures. And even if the localization was notoriously spotty and the censorship scrubbed away the more controversial elements of Duke’s seedy life (naked women remained clothed, Hitler was renamed Smirk, etc.), the intrigue of the story still came through, as did the characterization of Duke with one simple catchphrase: "...."

As much as Top Secret Episode does wrong, it’s very hard to hate it outright thanks to its pure ambition. It told an impressive tale that laid bare the thrilling world of the Golgo 13 manga that most of us would have otherwise never experienced, and it did so while staying bullheadedly true to the spirit of its source material. Top Secret Episode’s mix of ambition and ineptitude created many conflicting emotions in those who played it. But inept or not, the fact that a game as early as Top Secret Episode attempted to fully encapsulate such a multi-layered franchise can only evoke one consistent emotion: Respect.

By Jeremy Signor? | July 1, 2012 | Previous: Final Fantasy VIII | Next: Grandia III