Treasure, makers of Gunstar Heroes, Mischief Makers, Ikaruga, and several other games of note in gaming history, created a platform game called Dynamite Headdy in the heart of the mascot era of the mid-nineties. While lost in the crowd back in the day, several re-releases in recent times, such as the Wii Virtual console, Steam, and the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection, have opened this game up to a new audience, but is this an explosive adventure, or has it lost its head?
Headdy is the hero and star of Treasure Theatre, coming to the rescue of North Town, which is under attack by the forces of Dark Demon, who is intend on conquest. After escaping an unwanted trip to the incinerator, the marionette decides to head into Dark Demon’s domain. This requires him to get the keys of the Keymasters, the elite guard of the Demon. Headdy has another problem, in the form of co-star Trouble Bruin, who, jealous of the puppet’s success, intends to bump off his rival and become the star himself.
In the Japanese version, the story was more fleshed out, with written dialogue before major encounters that gave context to in-game events; such as Trouble Bruin being an assassin wishing to collect the bounty out on Headdy’s head. These were edited out for the game’s western release, which is a shame. Alongside the changes to the story, there were also a few edits to some of the enemies, such as an early encounter with a china doll being replaced by a more generic toy robot and many of the character color palettes changing (like Trouble, who went from a crazy-eyes pink to brown-furred and scowling). The game was also made harder for its international release.
Headdy himself is not the most agile of videogame characters. While his walking speed is fairly decent, you’ll find that he really can’t jump high at all. This is were his one real ability and the game’s main gimmick comes in. Headdy’s head is not physically attached to his body and thus he can use it as a short-range projectile to attack his enemies as well as grapple onto a friendly sphere-like ally called Hangman.
Headdy can also swap his head out for another with the help of Head-case, a living box thing that appears throughout the game, offering a selection of powered-up noggins for Headdy to use. These heads vary in usefulness, ranging from the boring but practical Slammer Head, which grants double attack power, while a head that shrinks Headdy lets him get to otherwise inaccessible areas. A powerful Bomb Head makes short work of foes and a Vacuum Head lets our hero to suck up anything not nailed down.
Then there’s Head Trip, which leaves Headdy with a swollen head that will leave him helplessly crawling along the floor, handily offered during boss encounters. There’s also Beau, who points out the obvious weak-spots of the main bosses.
Headdy, a small marionette, would seem delicate, but this puppet is actually made of quite stern stuff. In accordance to the theatre theme, his health is represented by a spotlight in the upper left corner of the screen, going from green through to red, before flashing increasingly rapidly until its filament blows. With sixteen hit-points, Headdy can take a beating and even falling through the floor isn’t necessarily fatal to the puppet, as he with leap back onscreen, taking a bit of damage.
This resilience is somewhat negated, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, many enemies are pretty hardy themselves; also, health doesn’t regenerate between acts, baring the occasional jellybean or Sleepy Head ability. The most significant thing however is that, Dynamite Headdy, like many of Treasure’s titles, is more of a series of tricky set-pieces than an actual platform game – though you will still do a fair bit of platforming – and these set-pieces are in no short supply. While things are easy enough at the start, the difficulty ramps up significantly later, especially at the point where the game suddenly shifts genres, becoming a horizontal shooter.
However, saying that, the game can be a little too generous with the one-ups and continues can be obtained by collecting tokens that fly out of defeated bosses. These bosses, both the subs and the Keymasters, are delightful weird in their designs. While it starts innocently enough, fighting colourful if generic killer robots. You’ll soon face up against things like a gigantic dog that fills the screen and bounds across the stage, as a orchestra plays The Nutcracker in the background.
They only get more surreal from then-on, like say, an giant mannequin that dresses up like a dragon, or a puppet with its own marionette, or indeed, a disembodied Baby’s head that shoots glowing death-bubbles at you. Yet it’s the battles with your would-be rival that are the standouts. From taking slices out of the tower you’re trying to climb up, to dragging you backstage for a private beating, the guy just won’t quit, harassing you throughout the game.
Outside of the set-pieces, the game hosts several hidden bonus points for you to find as you make your way on Headdy’s adventure. These have varying criteria; the ones involving hitting a certain recurring background character are fairly straightforward, but a couple are a little more elusive, like taking out enemies in a certain way. There’s also a basketball-esque bonus game that Headcase offers up at points, the completion of which grants you one of four digits that unlocks an additional level at the end of the credits roll.
The visuals continuously reinforce the puppet theatre aesthetic. Curtains are drawn between acts, and tongue-in-cheek adverts dot the landscape. At the end of the first level, Trouble Bruin pushes the background over on top of Headdy, a team of workers dragging in new scenery for the battle, and a latter boss has Headdy arrive before the stage has even been set up.
The background and foreground elements are made up as stage scenery, with many consisting of flat painted panels that are pulled across the screen in a novel use of parallax scrolling. You also might notice that the theater’s suffering from copious ware and tear; with bits of exposed substructure and even whole sections of panels missing. It all adds up to a cohesive whole.
The animation follows suite and is solid throughout, with strong personality coming across on the characters, particularly Headdy himself, who struts his stuff on stage and even has a couple of cute idle animations. Headdy’s sound design is full of tracks that compliment the onscreen action, with upbeat tunes giving way to fast action rifts when the action heats up. Explosions and clear voice samples round out the audio package.
If you can tolerate the difficulty spikes you’ll find yourself welcomed by one of the system’s more unique titles, as well as some of the best set pieces of the 16-BIT era. And while the game may not be as deep as Super Mario World, nor as accessible as Sonic the Hedgehog, Dynamite Headdy has plenty of charms all its own, as well as good head on his shoulders.
Year: 1994, 2007 (Wii*), 2009 (360†, PS3†)
Formats: Mega Drive(tested), Wii*, 360†, PS3†, Master System, PC (Steam), Game Gear
Dynamite Headdy ® & © Treasure
†As part of Ultimate Sega Mega Drive Collection, known as Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection stateside.