You know a game is metal when it takes its name from a seminal heavy metal album and features characters such as the Black Slayer, Randy, Zakk, and Ozzy. Holy Diver is going for the jugular with its references, and its gameplay matches this ruthlessness.
It’s a shame that the game was never released in the West during the NES days, because its gameplay gives the nail-biting difficulty of the Castlevania series a run for its money.
Developed by Irem–best known for their R-Type series of spaceship shooters–and released on the Famicom in 1989, Holy Diver remained unknown in the West for quite a while. Recently, it’s been gaining a following, so much so, that a Western release happened in 2017. A company by the name of Retro Bit finally released the game in English on an actual Nintendo cartridge. Unfortunately, it was a very limited run, and those copies are already sold out.
In Holy Diver, you take control of Randy, who is on a quest to defeat the Black Slayer and restore the rule of King Crimson by using his Holy Magic King’s Justice. If that’s not the most rock and roll story you’ve ever heard, then I don’t know what is.
The game’s intro also speaks of characters Ozzy and Zakk, if you were still at all in doubt of the blatant references. All of this works to give the game a personality all its own. That personality is tempered in terms of presentation and gameplay with its other huge inspiration: the Castlevania series.
While at first glance, Holy Diver may seem like a blatant Castlevania rip off, it does enough things differently to set itself apart from that venerable series. For one, Randy uses magic and can switch between several different spells that he collects throughout the six stages of the game.
However, like Castlevania, Holy Diver takes its difficulty very seriously. In fact, if you can believe it, Holy Diver tends to be even more difficult than the former series. That’s certainly saying a lot, as the Castlevania games are among the hardest of the 8-bit era.
Holy Diver‘s first stage is fairly straight forward. It introduces some difficult enemies right off the bat, but all in all, it’s tough but manageable. By the second stage, though, you’re in for a painful time. Little devil enemies that fly out of reach follow you throughout the stage, throwing spears down on your location. You also have to contend with environmental hazards, and switching between your magical abilities to navigate the different environments effectively.
Luckily, there are infinite continues, so you can retry as much as you want. Even though it does have a reputation as being difficult, if you take your time and go through a lot of trial and error, you can make it through. It’s not impossible.
Sound-wise, while the music is pretty good, it doesn’t quite live up to its heavy metal inspirations. It has more of a gothic vibe to it that still gets the job done considering the various locations you visit. Castles, haunted forests, and caverns are just some of the locales Holy Diver sets you in.
Even though it’s a difficult and sometimes frustrating experience, it’s still more than worth playing. Holy Diver is a well-designed game with solid themes and presentation. If you’re looking for a copy, the Western release from Retro Bit that was previously mentioned is out of print, but loose Famicom cartridges can be found for around $70 USD. Boxed copies are also available rarely for around $250 USD.
If you manage to play it, throw on some Ronnie James Dio and get your retro pants on. You’ve been down too long in the midnight sea!