Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. From blue hedgehogs to Italian plumbers and everything in between, game development brainstorming sessions have been filled with those attempting to create the next gaming icon. These rarely worked out. For every Dizzy there was a Bubsy. For every Pac Man there was a Frantic Flea. Software catalogues of the 80’s and 90’s are filled with the ghosts of those who promised much but delivered so little, one time heroes who developers immediately ditched when things didn’t pan out.
So it didn’t come as much of a surprise when a grass skirt clad, shirtless middle aged man with a comical moustache turned up in Hudson Soft’s Adventure Island in the 80’s. Given the description it would easy to assume that one of those brainstorming sessions went on a little too long, leaving the participants to knock together something out of desperation before the building got locked up. The fact was, he was actually based on a real person. Master Takahashi (renamed Higgins in the West) was one of Hudsons own staff. Who knows, maybe in that session he threw his hands up and said “Fine, I’ll do it! Some of us have families to go home to!” out of impatience. However things panned out, he was immortalised in a game that would go down in infamy.
Adventure Island was released in ’86 on the Famicom/NES as a conversion of Sega’s arcade platformer Wonderboy. On the surface the game was a by the numbers title, where the player must collect randomly appearing items to keep the HP/time bar filled. You had 5 lives to make it through 32 levels which sounds simple enough until half way through the game where things changed dramatically.
You see, Adventure Island had an urban legend surrounding it in its heyday – a legend that it was impossible to complete.
Half way through the game, it raises the biggest of middle fingers to the player. Enemy placement becomes impossibly complex to navigate. Multiple pixel perfect jumps are required on falling platforms. Seemingly helpful items cause calamity by using them at that point, normally sending you flying off a cliff or into enemies and should you be fortunate to obtain an item that lets you fire projectiles, losing one life removes it, brandishing some levels nigh on unpassable. It could only have been more venomous if the cartridge leapt from the console with sentience and spat acid in your face.
It earned its reputation in a day when games were a lot less forgiving. Back then it was considered impossible to beat. Nowadays, it’s still considered to be right up there, if not straddling its throne of skulls and defeat and laughing at those who cry in dismay at Dark Souls. Make no mistake, Adventure Island took Ghosts and Goblins out into the car park and gave it a good going over, swiping its wallet and the title of “hardest game ever” while it was at it.
In Hudsons wisdom they implemented a secret continue feature that involves searching an area on one level to pick up an invisible item, something only hinted at in the manual. Obtaining this is the only way to complete the game unless you’re a robot with accompanying perfect reflexes to boot.
Adventure Island is available for download on the Nintendo Virtual Console, or on Steam as Wonderboy if you fancy seeing just how ludicrously impossible it is. It goes without saying that if you suffer from any blood pressure or stress related health issues you may want to give it a miss.