Before games like Cuphead and Furi popularized the concept of “boss rush” styled action/platformers, there were the likes of Joe and Mac, Gunstar Heroes, Alien Soldier and for the subject of today’s article- Dynamite Headdy. Perhaps the most imaginative of these early boss-rush games, it was released in 1994 to little fanfare and did not receive much in the way of recognition before its re-releases on the Wii Shop Channel and Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection.
The World Is Your Stage
Perhaps the most stand-out element of Dynamite Headdy (besides the protagonist’s ability to fire his noggin’ in the cardinal directions and obtain different heads as progress is made) is its theme. The entire game is set up to be a puppet show and Treasure pulled all the stops to remind the player of this. Curtains rise and fall for every scene, “workers” can be seen in the background and foreground, a crowd cheers every time Headdy takes down a boss and even health is represented by a set of stage lights (for the player and boss where applicable). While it may not be nearly as impressive as what Studio MD was able to pull off with Cuphead, this level of commitment to an underplayed theme truly helps Dynamite Headdy stand out for both the Genesis library and genre as a whole.
Headdy isn’t a straight-up boss rush like Treasure’s other hidden gem, Alien Soldier, however. As mentioned earlier, this bow-tie wearing hero is able to launch his head around in eight directions, which is an important skill to master for not only combat but for the brief platforming sections sandwiched in between bouts. He’s able to use his head (pun intended) to latch onto small orbs and then fling himself over bottomless pits and beds of spikes when vanilla. With the aid of several power-ups, however, he’s able to scale walls with a “spiky” head, take to the skies with the help of a “plane” head and clear the screen with a “bomb” head among others. These are also used to solve the occasional puzzle, such as using a hammer-head to knock a foot-soldier off of a tower or shrinking down to navigate a maze of toy soldiers. While short and perhaps a bit too simple at times, these smaller platforming sections don’t wear out their welcome thanks to each one introducing a distinct host of set-pieces to interact with.
As to be expected, the boss battles are what truly take the spotlight in Dynamite Headdy and they’re among some of the most memorable I’ve ever taken on in a game. There’s a giant wooden doll that dons several outfits ranging from a ballerina to a dragon, a giant mech named Spinderella that will (as her name implies) spin the arena around to take the action into the background, a giant mech that swaps between an “angry” and “happy” form and of course the infamous Baby-Face. Each boss has a distinct pattern that puts the typical “wait around for an opening and then attack” formula found in platform games of the time to shame. Strategy also plays a part in these fights alongside pattern recognition. For instance, lobbing the bomb head at the Nasty Gatekeeper while his face is revealed and getting it to go off at just the right time will deal a MASSIVE amount of damage. Using the dragon head (which extends the distance that Headdy can fire) puts you at a decent advantage against the wooden-doll when trying to knock away its various costume pieces. Like Mega-Man, having the “right” tool for the job is hardly a necessity, but it does make life easier.
And believe me when I say you are going to want to make life easier on yourself, ESPECIALLY in the case of the North American version of the game. This is one of those games that got slapped in the face with a massive difficulty spike when brought overseas (a tactic that many speculate was used to prevent players from being able to rent and finish games in a weekend). You’ll be starting the game with no continues (whereas the Japanese game throws a few freebies) and the only way to gain more is to collect a considerable amount of blocks that pop out of the boss characters before they vanish (this amount is lower in the Japanese release). Extra lives are scarce too- you’ll be hard pressed to carry more than you can count on your hand. Dynamite Headdy is still fairly designed despite its challenge level, as none of the platforming sections employ cheap tricks and you’ll rarely be contending with RNG in the boss battles. The only time I ever *truly* became frustrated was when the game decided to throw a curveball and became a shm’up for a level (even after 1CC’ing the game recently, the hitbox in these sections is still a little shaky for me).
There are two factors that help boost Headdy’s replay value long after you see the credits roll. First are “Secret Bonus Points”, which feel like a precursor to the achievement/trophy system that’s been a staple of gaming since the PS3 and Xbox 360 made their debut. Performing certain feats in the game will net you an additional point bonus, ranging from taking out certain parts of a boss to taking out a recurring character at various points before he vanishes. The only downfall of this system is that the game doesn’t tell you what it is you need to do in order to get these points. Unless you take a look at a guide, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting them all. Since lives/continues are never awarded at certain point increments like the Sonic The Hedgehog, there’s also little incentive to try and earn them all.
There is, however, some incentive for taking on the game’s four bonus rounds. At several points in the adventure, you’ll see a “B” pickup cycling through the power-up cases. Smacking it will transport Headdy to a bonus round, where he’ll need to land a set number of shots inside a series of scrolling basketball hoops. All the while, bombs will launch up in the air (and getting hit by just three or four will boot you out) and there are also “bad” hoops that will destroy one of the ball-launching machines on either side of the playing field (losing both of them will also boot you out). Make enough shots and you’ll be awarded with a secret digit- getting all four will grant you access to a hidden boss after the credits roll (which I’m not going to spoil). It’s also worth noting that the digits are randomly generated on each playthrough, so looking at a guide to figure out the code is out of the question. If I’m honest, these are an absolute pain in the ass and gave me flashbacks to Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s half-pipe stage. At least in the case of the former, you’re given plenty of chances to conquer the optional content. In Dynamite Headdy, you get a grand total of six attempts, meaning you can only screw up two of them if you hope to see the hidden boss and its accompanying ending sequence. While the boss itself is pretty humorous, I wouldn’t say it’s worth the hassle of dealing with the bonus rounds until you’ve mastered the main game and want a little something extra to do on repeat runs.
In conclusion, while it’s not a game for everyone, Dynamite Headdy has a lot going for it even in a generation where the boss-rush style of gameplay is becoming a bit more common. The unique theme, zany cast of characters and not having to worry about whether or not a boss is going to do something I couldn’t have seen coming through observation helps make the game incredibly replay-able even IF it can be completed in an hour or less on repeat runs. For those interested, it’s fortunately not as difficult to get a hold of as some of Treasure’s other games whether you own the original hardware or not. A loose cartridge runs for about $15 and it’s also available on both Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (PS3, 360) as well as the newer Sega Genesis Classics (PS4, Xbone, Switch).