Journey to Silius
Version Reviewed: NES
Year Published: 1990
Developer: Tokai Engineering
Most people who are familiar with Journey to Silius are also familiar with the backstory of how it began life as a game based on the movie, The Terminator, but went through changes after SunSoft lost the license. The part of the story you may not be as familiar with is why SunSoft lost the license, and indeed, I wondered for years if they ever even had it to begin with, thinking maybe it's possible they began work on a Terminator game in hopes of getting it, but never did. It turns out they did have the rights, but the movie company put ludicrous restrictions on the game's content, requiring the Terminator to be the only enemy and only defeated at the end (source). If you think it would be impossible to make a decent video game under such limitations, well so did SunSoft. Instead, they made a game that is basically Mega Man with Blaster Master's aesthetics. This is not a bad thing, but the movie company didn't agree. Rather than lose everything they had, SunSoft made some adjustments and released the game as an original property - a decision for which many people who have played it, or just heard its infamously stellar soundtrack, are grateful.
Even if you had never known about its Terminator origins, there are some details (or lack of) in Journey to Silius that would probably make you suspicious that it had gone through changes. The opening story mentions that main character Jay's father was killed in a terrorist plot that was ruled an accident by the news. For reasons unknown, the terrorists were against dad's plans to launch a space colony satellite, and Jay learns of this from a floppy disk he left behind.
This "accident" involves a mushroom cloud explosion that wipes out an entire city, the ruins of which form the backdrop of the entire first stage. Unless a nuclear reactor meltdown was involved, I doubt you'd need a secret file to tell you this was no accident. I would also presume many more people than just Jay's pop would've perished in this incident. Also curious is that there are no organic enemies in the game, so you never meet any actual terrorists. It's clear you're fighting against machines, and this plot detail was tacked on to distance the product from its Terminator roots. The story also seems to be missing its ending dialogue.
But a good game doesn't necessarily need a coherent story (just ask Blaster Master fans about Fred the radioactive frog), but if Journey to Silius had been a Terminator game, it not only would've made more sense, but it also would've been one of the better licensed product games for the NES. SunSoft had already proven they could do it with Batman, so it wasn't an unfounded idea. The run-and-gun style amidst apocalyptic scenery may remind players of Contra, but the style is closer to Capcom's Mega Man series, right down to the health meter, limited jumping control, and Jay earning a new weapon in every stage that requires energy to use.
Journey to Silius only has five levels, but they are exceptionally long, especially by NES standards, and the game has limited continues (although a code to give you up to nine continues exists). Surviving them is something of an endurance test - if you try to "Rambo" through with "twitch skills", that likely won't work because Jay's controls are not suited to it and dodging one enemy may only cause you to stumble into the next one. Memorization of enemy placement is essential so that you'll learn best how to deal with them. An example is knowing where to position Jay so the rockets from a mortar don't hit him, or when to slowly advance the screen forward so you don't get caught offguard by a well-placed flying foe. Because most enemies take multiple hits to destroy, there are times when it's better to use one of Jay's special weapons. Enemies can drop life and weapon refills, but the former is extremely rare and the latter are sometimes abundant and sometimes not (may the RNG be with you). Enemies cannot respawn, making it impossible to farm these items.
As unintuitive as Jay's jumping controls feel, they are not of much consequence until the final stage, which has no enemies but focuses instead on precarious jumps from moving conveyor belts over bottomless pits while the screen autoscrolls at a breakneck speed. (Judging from the pistons and molten metal spouts, this was no doubt the Terminator factory.) Even if you make it here with a good stock of lives and continues, you're likely going to use them up pretty quickly. I imagine many players (me included) have resorted to the continue code just to practice this stage before having to start the game all over again.
Every level in Journey to Silius ends with a fight against a massive screen-filling boss. The penultimate boss, a giant rocket-powered spaceship, is so enormous its entirety cannot be on the screen all at once. They all have patterns that can be exploited, but will fall much faster if you saved special weapon energy for them. Three of these bosses seem to be altered designs from the Terminator universe. The first one, a helicopter, resembles the HK-Aerial with added rotors. The second boss is a modified HK-Tank, now with an anime mecha-style head. The final boss is the Terminator T-800 itself with...very little if any changes, though it is over twice Jay's height.
Terminator and Mega Man weren't the only muses for Journey to Silius - like many NES games, it also borrows from the Alien franchise. The design of the fourth boss was undoubtedly inspired by the fossilized space jockey of the derelict craft in the first Alien film. In case one might think it's coincidence, the same stage also features enemies that resemble the Xenomorph from the same film, minus its tail.
Of curious note, is that amongst all the graphical reappropriation, a distinct design for Jay (who was likely supposed to be John Connor) has been omitted. He appears only as his in-game sprite on the box art, and in the two cutscenes in the game he is only seen in shadow with his face obscured. In the Japanese version, known as Rough World, he is in a full space suit with helmet. Jay is remarkably well-animated, but his head looks oversized and cartoony, which clashes a bit with the game's otherwise gritty tone.
One can't end a Journey to Silius review without mentioning its soundtrack. It is arguably the most impressive asset of the game and those who don't have the patience to get far can be thankful that the continue code also includes a sound test. I don't mean to detract from other amazing works on the NES, but you might find it difficult to believe that what you're listening to even is NES music. Like everything else, the soundtrack does seem inspired by Terminator (the last scene of the opening story pretty much uses the Terminator theme). Most of it is hard-driving rock, but there are several melodious, more moodier tunes, and they are all quite lengthy, as though to match the stage length so they wouldn't repeat too much. According to Wikipedia, the composers used some sound channel trickery to achieve it. Journey to Silius may have been intended to cash in on a popular movie, and that's probably why it feels unpolished in parts, but the sound department certainly went out of their way to outdo themselves. That, perhaps, is why the music is the game's most prevailing aspect.
One of the best soundtracks ever made for the NES, or any game system.
Decent graphics, particularly the large stage end bosses and Jay's animations.
Low number of stages is made up for by their length and difficulty.
Continue code and sound test for those who need extra help or just want to listen to the amazing music.
Jay's jumping control could've been fine-tuned a little.
Some of the enemy designs are nonsensical - I'm hard-pressed to tell you what the first thing Jay fights even is.
Story seems hastily edited/tacked on, could've used some work to fully flesh it out, a la, Ninja Gaiden. It's painfully obvious you are battling a machine revolt and not "terrorists".
It bugs me that the title is probably supposed to be Journey to Sirius, as in the brightest star in the night sky, and no one caught it, but eh, pedantics.
Bonus Unused Content
A long time ago, I discovered a multitude of unused graphics in Blaster Master and MetaFight. Because Journey to Silius was made by the same developer, I presumed it might have unseen content as well. So, I poked around in a tile viewer and confirmed my suspicions.
The old Terminator copyright info is already known and well-documented, but right near it are unused graphics for what looks like a lens and some line art that doesn't match up to anything in the final game. Whatever it was, it's been partially overwritten.
This missile-like enemy with a frame for its "mouth" open is not used anywhere. There is a similar enemy on Stage 3, but it's larger and not the same as this.
This strange object is not used anywhere. It looks as though it would drop from the ceiling and spin. It's in with the graphics for the Level 2 mini-boss, so it may have been replaced with the hulking white robot or maybe it was meant to be used in tandem with it, considering the robot has no actual attacks besides walking into you.
This unused eyeball is especially strange when considering there are no organic enemies in the game at all, so it seems really out of place. It's in with the graphics for the Level 3 boss, but I'm unsure if that's where it was meant to appear (perhaps in place of the crystal ball object that is the boss's weak point?)
Here's something really bizarre! The Level 4 mini-boss, which is the flying torso of a robotic knight, was originally supposed to have legs! They even have frames for walking. It would've absolutely towered over Jay, which is probably why they were removed and his height was halved - he would've been simply too high off the ground for Jay to hit his weak point (his head) if he had no special weapon energy.
I don't recognize the round object that's in with the final boss's graphics and I don't have any guesses as to what it's supposed to be.