The fantastic studio Treasure really lived up to its name by making multiple gems for the Genesis/Mega Drive. After releasing Gunstar Heroes, the company divided itself into four teams in order to make one project each, which resulted in the creations of Alien Soldier, Light Crusader, Yū Yū Hakusho Makyō Tōitsusen, and the topic of today: Dynamite Headdy. Mascot platformers were pretty much everywhere in the 16-bit generation, with Sega’s console getting plenty that deserved recognition, such as Ristar, Pulseman, and Rocket Knight. Could Headdy even compete against them?
Use your head!
While there is a more elaborated story in the original Japanese version, dialogues were outright removed for the game’s western localisation. Because of this, it is hard to decipher a detailed plot from the pantomimed scenes it presents, though the converted simplicity is something I appreciate personally. The premise is that the evil puppet Dark Demon has attacked North Town and captured all of its villagers, deciding who will be a part of his new empire and who will be sent to the incinerator. One of those about to be burned is Headdy, but he manages to escape and sets out to put an end to this reign of terror. Even with some minor events sprinkled throughout, this setup is only here for getting the adventure started, and I am all for this.
Dynamite Headdy is a linear platformer where the protagonist can jump, duck, and throw his head in eight directions. With such a minimalistic control layout, the focus is put on the hero’s noggin and how to use it creatively. By being able to toss it around, he can pull himself forward by biting certain objects, use it as a projectile weapon, and affect the environment such as making giant lamps swing. The journey starts out beautifully with different tutorials that let you get the grips of the core concept it presents, as well as the power-ups and -downs that change out your skull for varied purposes.
Speaking of, these items are gathered from headbutting a smiley face that changes between multiple icons for an easy choice. There are supportive ones like the vacuum to suck up fiends and trinkets nearby with, some are only for progression such as the mini turning you small for taking optional pathways, and then there are those that just slow you down with the nightcap that makes you drowsy being my favourite example. It is not hard to avoid the power-downs due to the highlight of what you can get, which makes them a cute, yet odd addition. What is a neat take though, is that the power-ups are rather designed for the stages alone, including the mentioned hoover that makes you unable to throw your noggin.
It might sound strange to have certain upgrades limit your moveset, but it is helped by two implemented ideas. Headdy can change out to a normal head by pressing A as long as he is not affected by a depower and most of the enhancement tools are made in correlation with the levels’ designs. One requires the use of the spike ability to cling onto walls, while the flying courses feature their own imaginative set of three guns to exchange your skull for; a laser, a spread shot that can also shoot backwards, and one tossing bombs.
This touches upon the biggest strength of this game: its variety within a concept. One area will feature a tower to climb upwards, another will focus on anti-gravity, and there will even be an attempt on 3D layouts where accurate traversal is demanded. All works within the setup of using your noggin, as you must use it for progression or taking care of obstacles, alongside the general jumping. Even the mentioned aviation parts are fantastic at this, as these focus on the different heads the little hero can wear.
Although, this praise comes with one unfortunate weakness too. Since pretty much every level goes with one new clever structure, none of the ideas stays longer than the world they are introduced in or correlate with later ones, thus stopping them from evolving any further. This also limits the possibility for a good difficulty curve through this, as what was learned in a previous stage will not carry over to the next one. Luckily, every location is unique and entertaining due to how creatively they change up the adventure.
Similarly goes for the diverse boss battles. Be it shooting at a giant plane up in the air, taking on an agile magical cat or running away from a terrifying mask with legs while attacking it, all provide solid challenges, engaging patterns to learn, and subtle cues on how to defeat them. I also love that you are always shown where their weak spots are, making it so you never have to guess what to do. They even feature a life bar equal to yours, which is a nice touch.
In fact, Dynamite Headdy has a lot of neat design choices that I absolutely adore! To mention some, should he fall into a bottomless pit, he will merely lose a bit of health and be flung back up to continue on. Another adequate inclusion is how anything you can interact with is clearly emphasised, but through visual highlights that fit the environment. Despite not all nine acts being equally exciting, all are extremely creative. Only two were too short with an underdeveloped setup each, though did not hinder the overall experience.
There is one tragic aspect of the western releases. While I do not mind the minimised story, the difficulty was spiced fiercely up. Instead of starting with two continues, you get none and the sole way to expand them is to gather enough remains after a boss, which is again made harder to do than in the original version. If that was not enough, these big foes can either deal more damage, require more hits to be killed or have more moves to be aware of. This makes the playthrough an unforgiving one and the challenge can feel arbitrarily due to not being based on the stages’ structures.
Even the healing items in the form of bananas recover less health from what I can tell. For a platformer that can take almost two hours to finish, it is quite demanding. At this point, a password feature would definitely have helped, as even getting points will not add to an extra life. Thankfully, such retries can be found by searching around and the general exploration is engaging because of the diverse levels, making this harshness not completely sour.
Despite the difficulty, it does not change what a great time Dynamite Headdy offers through its imaginative and entertaining setups. I just wish the challenge was not unnecessarily punishing and uneven, but rather got progressively harder via the implemented ideas. While you might not get to see the end credit on multiple tries due to this and by being quite the long title to beat in one sitting, the journey is still enthralling.
Gameplay Score: 8/10
Putting on a show!
The entire game is made to look like a theatre with puppets and it is amazing how clever it gets with its concept. Plenty of tools are utilised for delivering this immersion, such as curtains unveiling each new area and your visual health being a spotlight that goes from green to red as you take damage. Admirably, this extends to the practical effects a show like this would have utilised as well, with lava being represented by red fabric, backgrounds having different layers of wooden art for parallax scrolling, and you can even see machinery through torn wall pieces. Everything is brimming with outstanding attention to detail to make this a believable play.
It does not stop there, as this correlates to how the locations themselves transform. To name some examples, new sceneries are provided by having them dragged in, one boss fight has an entire violin symphony appearing, and technicians actively work on the set. Even the enemies and bosses enhance this style too, as they are just as imaginative! Be it toy soldiers, marionettes or a bizarre balloon dog, the creativity in their designs are wonderful with even some giving the illusion of 3D! It is easy to become speechless through all of the effort having been put into this project.
Onwards, the colourful world you are exploring through this setup is also remarkable, with you going high up in the sky, through a city in chaos, inside a surreal castle, and under the earth. My favourite parts are probably those taking place behind the stage itself, since you get to see all that goes on literally behind the show. I likewise wish to praise this journey for not being afraid of becoming surreal, to the point that silhouettes of muscular men in the windows enjoying their own reflections turn into merely one of the more everyday sights to behold.
Headdy himself is appealing in his design by being unique, yet simple to draw. Combine this with his expressions and vivid idle animations of him having fun with his skull, and he gets a good amount of personality as well. There are changes between the Japanese and international releases, but nothing that significantly makes one better than the other. It is here where I do want to stop myself from spoiling too much, as there is considerably more to witness, all being magnificent. Even the puns are to die for, such as the one level called Stair Wars.
This is both a creative and technical marvel, with even the colours creating great illusions of lighting. As for the music, it is just as exhilarating. Every piece contributes to the energetic adventure, with tons of focus on strong rhythms. The melodies can be jolly with light notes or contain tense ones to make the fights feel severe. One thing all songs have in common is how diverse they are in their structures, making each a memorable treat.
What might be my favourite detail of the entire package, is how the tracks subtly change in tone from hopeful and sweet to fierce with stronger drums that signify the danger you are in. It is truly wonderful how the Genesis’s twang is utilised to give such smooth transitions and adds to make the highlighted instruments forceful, with the representation of orchestral ones fitting perfectly this theatre. Even The March of the Nutcracker is here and sounds excellent!
Presentation Score: 10/10
Shoot the hoops to crack the code
One of the entertaining parts about revisiting Dynamite Headdy is to find the secret points within the stages. While getting a high score might not be appealing in such a long game, especially without gaining extra lives or continues for it, searching for the hidden ones is always intriguing as they will require specific playstyles or doing something silly. It is simply exciting to try to locate these easter eggs for the amusement alone.
Bonus rooms can also be discovered through the little smilies that give power-ups. Should one have a B on it when you attack it, you will be taken to a park where you must throw basketballs into hoops that are moving in two lanes in order to get one of the four digits for a code. These can be quite nice challenges, as you must avoid bombs and the wrong goals. Although, it will demand dedication due to the few attempts you have at this and the fact that it all has to be done within one single run since the password is always randomised upon each new game. This is a lot to ask for, but the reward for your accomplishment is a neat one.
Extra Score: 7/10
Dynamite Headdy provides a creative journey through its presentation, replay value, and level designs. It really goes forth to use its main concepts in as many diverse ways possible, be it its theatre setup or using your literal noggin for progression. This makes it unfortunate how off the difficulty can be and certain side content being too taxing to do. Luckily, these are just minor issues that do not hurt what a lovely time this title will offer, since it is still one of the best platformers of its era and definitely the most imaginative one.