Sunday, October 31, 2010

NES Month: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Platforms/Release:
    • NES: December 1988
    • Wii: June 2007
  • Genre: 2D Action-adventure
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • NES: Moderate (US$5-20)
    • Wii: DLC (US $5)
Well, I only have time for one more review for NES month, and since I believe in making a lasting... last impression, it has to be something climactic. And here I was, trying to choose between Paperboy and Jack Nicklaus Golf, two games that I've known for along time but no one really cares about. So I took a different route, and tried to think of something controversial. Something that I've played, that I have a lot of opinions about... which are pretty much the only requirements for something to show here on on the SDP. Hmmm... ZELDA II!

The apparent trend in NES games in 1988 was sequels that differed radically from their predecessors. I am of course thinking about the American Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. These games have split the fanbase due to how radical of departures they were, and series fans either have to love them or hate them. (Less so for Mario 2; that one seems to have gone over pretty well.) The main, if not only, reason for all this decisiveness is because the original games were such masterpieces, even to this very day. True, I never played anything in the Legend of Zelda franchise until Ocarina of Time, but I got to the first game eventually, and I still love it despite its quirks. I don't care that it doesn't follow all the rules set by the original and by everything that came after it; I love it for what it is.

This is one of the few direct sequels in the Zelda franchise. After the events of the first game (I think it's safe to go without spoilers), Ganon is dead and Princess Zelda is safe and ruling Hyrule again. ...Until she is stricken with a sleeping spell. The only way to wake her up involves traveling to six temples to place a gemstone in each, then going to one final temple to find the wizard who can reverse the curse. All the while, the enemy forces are trying to revive Ganon by using the blood of Link. Obviously, Ganon's not the villain of this game, but he does show up on the Game Over screen, something you'll be very familiar with by the time you're done.
Not everything from the first game is gone. [1]
The action takes place in a side-scrolling perspective this time around, taking breaks in an overhead-view map to get from place to place. It's true that there are some things carried over from the first Zelda, such as items you collect to access future areas, and containers to increase your maximum health and magic. This was the first Zelda game to feature magic, which you use to cast a number of useful spells. When most of your time with this is spent in something non-gamers would confuse with Super Mario, you know this isn't an ordinary Zelda title. On the contrary, there are more similarities to role-playing games, like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, both of which were released in Japan beforehand. By defeating enemies in the side-scrolling areas, you get experience points. When you reach certain point targets, you can spend them on stat upgrades. Attack strengthens the damage you deal out, Magic reduces the magic you need to cast spells, and Life increases your defense. Upgrading your Magic or Life stats will also refill their respective meters, so use your upgrades strategically.

As in the first Zelda, there is a battery-backed save function, and it's a good thing; this game is massive, whether for its time or otherwise. There are a total of seven dungeon levels you'll have to explore, and each one is bigger even than any given dungeon from the first Zelda. In order to get through one of them, you'll have to do plenty of level grinding on your own time. Given the low experience returns from random battles, it's easier to do so in caves or temples instead. Wherever you choose to spend your time leveling up, you'll need it; this game is not only big in length, but in challenge. Your sword has a short range, even though you can, once again, fire sword beams only when your health is full. You get three lives, but when they're gone, you have to continue from the starting point, Zelda's palace, even if you were in a dungeon. There are 1-ups to be found here and there, but in one more classic screw-you, they never reappear if you save your game after picking up one of them. Save them for the final level, or just buy one for 9,000 experience points once you've upgraded one of your stats fully. Plus, there are some enemies whose attacks can't be blocked by your shield, and don't get me started with the Darknut knights you'll have to duel with. Spare yourself the trouble of trying to get past their defenses, and jump and attack to hit their heads above their shields.
Sparring with armoured enemies can be frustrating... or trivially easy. [1]
Don't be daunted by all the trivial things that make this rougher to newer gamers; it all plays and looks as good as the best of everything that's out there on the NES. The music, although not composed by Koji Kondo, evokes the same spirit of the original music while being more fully featured. What this means is the dungeon music is no longer so repetitive and minimal. The graphics are well-done, if nothing special, and it's nice to see how your favorite (or not) monsters from the top-down Legend of Zelda are re-imagined for a side-scrolling view. And that's this game in a nutshell: a new way to experience a new adventure just as epic as the last one. Just like the nearly everything else in the Legend of Zelda series, this is nothing short of engaging. There's been nothing like it in the franchise ever since, and it makes you wonder what it would be like if they had done another entry in this style. Forget the controversy it has garnered over the years -- the results would be EPIC. So for now, I encourage you to enjoy what we've got.

Control: 4 Triforce pieces out of 5
Design: 4 Triforce pieces out of 5
Graphics: 4 Triforce pieces out of 5
Audio: 5 Triforce pieces out of 5
Value: 5 Triforce pieces out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Thank you all for joining me in this month-long journey through some of the best and worst the NES has to offer. This is by no means the last time I'll cover games for this great system, since given its library of almost 800 titles (for North America and the PAL region), there's so, so much I haven't played. All the same, since I've done only NES games this whole month, it would be nice to stretch my non-literal legs. I thought I'd be a little daring, and go from Nintendo to... Sega? Look forward to that, vague as it may be, and happy Halloween!

[1] "Zelda II: The Adventure of Link NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NES Month: Freedom Force

Freedom Force
  • Publisher: Sunsoft
  • Developer: Sunsoft
  • Release: NES, April 1988
  • Genre: Rail-shooter
  • Players: 1-2, Alternating
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
In my quest for the perfect Zapper-compatible game, I have come up with the following conclusion: they're all really short. There are the games that repeat short levels endlessly, or those that have a finite story that is over before you get into it. Today's subject, Freedom Force by Sunsoft, oddly has some of both of these qualities. Although you only get five levels before looping back and doing them again, the prospect of earning the best ending by clearing it four times in a row should keep you coming back for more -- if you can handle it.

The game itself is a glorified shooting gallery, specifically something like Hogan's Alley on steroids. As you slowly pan through a location, you must shoot terrorists as they pop out from behind cover, while not shooting hostages and civilians as they do likewise. These aren't cardboard cutouts, either; everyone's been given quite a few frames of animation, and there's even a tame amount of blood. If you let an enemy go for too long, they'll start shooting at you and drain your health meter. Empty either your health or ammo meter, and of course, your game ends. Shooting an innocent, on the other hand, adds a point to your Error meter. If you fill up your Error meter with six strikes, you go back to the first level with your score intact.
Keep your health and ammo high, but not your error meter! [1]
The only way to get power-ups in this game is to shoot the window in the lower-right corner of the screen as something pops up inside. The Health and Ammo icons refill their respective meters, but nearly every time the Health pickup shows up, it disappears faster than you can even react to it. Now that's just criminal. It's easier to just score points to automatically refill your health, but you can only do this twice (at 20,000 and 60,000 points). If an icon of a weapon shows up, you can shoot it to switch to that weapon. There's no difference between the .38 caliber handgun and the .44 magnum other than what sound they make (but man, is it a satisfying report). The grenade launcher, on the other hand, takes out multiple people when you pull the trigger -- and unfortunately, this includes civilians, so avoid this. The final icon type makes the game harder by having more people appear at a faster rate. If you pile on the Harder items, you'll be shooting almost constantly, which was enough of a challenge for a Time Crisis veteran such as myself.

The plot, paper-thin as it is, suits this game's genre well enough. First, you rescue an airplane that has been hijacked on the ground, and then you proceed through the airport for the next three scenes. The fifth and final scene jumps straight to the mastermind's hideout. Like I said, this game ends before you start to get into it. Clear this level, and you get what can barely be called a cinematic before going back to the first airplane scene. You're supposed to get a different ending if you clear the game four times in a row. I haven't made it that far, but it's a neat thing to work for and it give this game some much-needed replay value.
The Code Breakers mini-game. [1]
After clearing each second and fourth level, you get to play a mini-game called Code Breakers. This is a Hangman-type game wherein you are given a category and must shoot letters to select them. The catch is that you can only shoot letters that are lit up; this group of four letters cycles to the next each second. Since the hit box for these letters is smaller than the people you shoot in the main game, if your light gun's accuracy is fading, it'll be hard to pick out the letter you want. You're done when you make five mistakes (not including repeated or non-lit letters), run out of time, or finish the puzzle. A time bonus is awarded if you complete the puzzle, but you don't lose anything if you can't make it. There aren't that many puzzles, either, compared to thousands in each of the Wheel of Fortune games. Execution aside, it's a nice little diversion that doesn't detract from the core of the game.

1992's Lethal Enforcers may have modernised the light gun genre, but many of its facets can be seen here, in a game four to five years older. Even more shocking is the fact that, for the most part, it all works. Concepts such as power-ups and hostages to avoid are things that have been ingrained into the minds of gamers who have ever frequented arcades in the 90s. While I can't guarantee whether or not they first appeared here in Freedom Force, this is still well ahead of its time, and offers just enough replay value to interest a purchase from light gun fans.

Control: 3 Zappers out of 5
Design: 4 Zappers out of 5
Graphics: 3 Zappers out of 5
Audio: 3 Zappers out of 5
Value: 2 Zappers out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

[1] "Freedom Force NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NES Month: Silent Service

Silent Service
  • Publisher: Ultra
  • Developer: Microprose/Rare
  • Platform/Release: NES, December 1989
  • Genre: Simulation
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
Another brand that I have to mention when discussing the history of the NES is Ultra Games, which was merely a shadow brand created by Konami. See, back in the day, Nintendo of America limited each publisher to releasing only five different games per year for the NES, in an attempt to stave off an over-saturated market of junk games that plagued the Atari age. It worked, but these and other practices left publishers with a bad taste in their mouths. Konami was hit hard by this limitation, since they were already releasing twice that limit for the Famicom in Japan. So to get around this restriction, they created the Ultra label, effectively doubling their quota. Franchises handled by the Ultra brand include Metal Gear and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles... and then there's this.

Silent Service was the one of the earlier games designed by Sid Meier of Civilization fame, and started out as a computer game for the PC in 1985. It was ported to many platforms, including the Amiga, Apple II, and Commodore 64 before, almost inevitably, in 1989 it was picked up for an NES version, ported by (here we go again) Rare. The game is set in the Pacific Front of World War II, where you control various US submarines and attack Japanese convoys and destroyers.

You get to choose from one of three modes when you start up the game. Torpedo/Gun Practice lets you fool around as you sink four unarmed ships. Combat Tactics puts you in one of six scenarios against a number of enemy ships. Once you sink them all or they sink you, the game ends and your score, measured in tons of ships sunk, is tallied. Finally, there is the War Patrols mode, which alternates between a free-roaming patrol of the western Pacific and random battles like those from Combat Tactics. Here, the only way to end the game manually (barring a watery grave) is to go back to one of the Allied ports in-between combat.
The scope view is where the action is. [1]
Most of your time will be spent in a scope view, where you'll use your weapons, the torpedoes and deck gun, to attack enemy ships. When you center your view over an enemy ship, you'll see its stats like speed and trajectory automatically. You can also look up the ship type and tonnage, but the only way to do that is to click in the target ID box over to the right. Forgive me for not understanding matters from the development side, but why you have to do this manually is just beyond me. There is also a limitation here not present in the computer versions: you're limited to four torpedoes on the field at any one time. Sure, you can only hold six torpedoes in the bow (front) and four in the aft (back) before reloading, but if you forget about this limitation, you might find yourself frustrated.

Be warned: since this is a port of a computer game, it is very complex to play. Instead of pressing buttons to do individual actions, most of what you'll be doing involves moving a cursor and "clicking" with the A button. Since the pointer only moves in eight directions, it's nowhere near as fluid or precise as using a mouse, an option that is sadly unavailable for the NES. Start does nothing, whereas Select brings you back to the pause menu, from where you can move to the other screens (maps, gauges, and damage reports). Have they even played Super Mario Bros.? Even worse, you can't access some of the advanced functions (changing deck gun deflection, releasing depth charges, etc.) without having a controller plugged into Port 2; there's no workaround without one. I hate when games do that. On the other hand, there is complexity in a good way, since you are able to dive and surface at will, opening the possibility of all manner of tactics. All the advanced AI in the world would probably go over the heads of casual players, however, who might prefer to stay surfaced in order to use the deck gun.
There's a lot to pay attention to in this game. [1]
There's nothing in the visual department that pops out memorably, but the graphics get the job done. I do admire how the ships zoom in as they get closer to you, blocky as they may be, if only because the NES wasn't known for 3D graphics. And yet it's weird how your captain is decked out in jeans and a white sweater; is he piloting an armed US Navy submarine or a yacht? There's no music to speak of, except on the title screen, so get used to the sounds of your engine, munitions explosions, and sonar pings.

I would never go so far as to say this game is totally boring, or that it is a realistic and engaging re-creation of historic battles. To say one would be unfair to the other camp. What this game does, it does reasonably well, I'll give it that. But let me just say this: know your interests before giving this title a try. If you have little to no interest in World War II, then this game will bore you before you can say Iwo Jima. History buffs will find a lot to love here, but I really can't recommend this to anyone else.

Control: 2 torpedoes out of 5
Design: 4 torpedoes out of 5
Graphics: 2 torpedoes out of 5
Audio: 2 torpedoes out of 5
Value: 3 torpedoes out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

1"Silent Service Box Shots and Screenshots for NES". GameFAQs.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

NES Month: StarTropics

  • Publisher: Nintendo 
  • Developer: Hudson Soft 
  • Platforms/Release: 
    • NES: December 1990 
    • Wii: January 2008
  • Genre: 2D Action-adventure 
  • Rarity/Cost: 
    • NES: Common (US$1-10) 
    • Wii: DLC (US $5) 
StarTropics can best be described as The Legend of Zelda themed after TV's Lost, 14 years before Lost was a thing. You get to travel between numerous small islands, each presenting you with a side-story that's stranger than the last. There are dungeons you must struggle through armed with a weaponized yo-yo (you read that correctly). The plot is out there, though, eschewing traditional save-the-princess tropes for something more contemporary and original.

The character you control in this game is a young teenage boy named Mike Jones (Who? No, not that one.) whose archaeologist uncle Steve has gone missing. Your journey starts from his house on C-Island, where you get to take his submarine, the Sub-C, off to your first destination, the island of Coralcola. The overworld segments play in a zoomed-out top-down perspective like in Dragon Warrior, but without any random battles to worry about. Note that all the island names in this game end in "cola" for some reason. This gets funny when one of the NPCs asks if you're from "Americola". The ending half of the story takes a turn or two for the weird, but I won't spoil anything.
All the island names end in "cola". [1]
Gameplay will alternate between this format and the dungeon levels, which is where you'll be spending the bulk of your time. The comparisons to The Legend of Zelda are inevitable, so let's get them over with. You go through a series of rooms, most of them one screen big, and must try to survive your way through them without draining all the hearts from your life meter. However, it's not like this game was built off of the Zelda engine. Mike's movement is entirely grid-based, so if, for example, you were to press Up and then Left immediately after, you'd finish walking up to the next space while facing left. Unlike Link, Mike can jump up (to avoid some enemies) or across small gaps, when you press A. In order to survive and thrive in this game, you have to get used to this movement system, as well as using the yo-yo weapons, which shoot forward in a limited range. If you can familiarize yourself with this range, and mash the B button quickly enough, you can take down most threats before they touch and hurt you.

Learning how to move effectively is only a small part of the challenge; much of it comes from the game itself. You get multiple lives in StarTropics, but all the enemies and traps you'll have to deal with can drain them quicker than you can say "smoke monster". As high as the level of difficulty is here, it's not exactly prohibitive; with each failure, you'll have an idea of how to get through the trouble spots, and you'll be prepared the next time you have to go through them. In one more comparison to Zelda, there is a battery-backed save system in StarTropics. The game saves automatically when you enter or finish a dungeon, or on special occasions. You can also continue as many times as you need, but since you only get three hearts filled on your meter when you do so, it's better to just reset and reload one of your save files.
You'll have to deal with a lot of jumping puzzles. [1]
Speaking of trouble spots, there's one rather unique sticking point I just have to mention. Included in the box of the NES version, along with Game Pak and manual, was a letter written by Mike's missing uncle Steve. At a certain point mid-way through the story, you are asked to refer to the letter and input a radio frequency to continue. You do this by rubbing the letter with a wet cloth or sponge, and the answer will reveal itself. People who rented the game, or bought it used without the letter, were out of luck, since there was no workaround that did not require the letter. This moment was so infamous that the answer was eventually printed in Nintendo Power magazine, and now that the Internet has taken off, it's easier now more than ever to beat the system and look it up yourself. If you want me to tell you the answer, I'll give you a hint: it's the model number of a famous airplane. ...Oh, fine... It's 747 MHz. Oh, and if you're playing the Virtual Console version on Wii, the letter is included as part of the digital operations manual, so you have nothing to worry about.

StarTropics is another one of those cult classics that doesn't have much else to its franchise. It received only one sequel, StarTropics II: Zoda's Revenge, for the NES in 1994. Both games are available for download on the Wii Virtual Console if you want to check out either one or both. If you enjoyed The Legend Of Zelda but have memorised its secrets to death, then by all means, give this a try. You'll be blown away by both the later half of the story and by the difficulty, which is inordinate by either NES standards or overall. But like so many other classic games known for beating you around, it's worth slogging through this to witness everything it has to offer.

The Call: 85% (B+)

1"StarTropics - NES Screenshots".  MobyGames

Friday, October 22, 2010

NES Month: Kid Icarus

Kid Icarus
  • Publisher: Nintendo 
  • Developer: Nintendo/TOSE 
  • Platforms/Release: 
    • NES: February 1987 
    • Wii: February 2007 
  • Genre: Action 
  • Rarity/Cost: 
    • NES: Moderate (US$10-20) 
    • Wii: DLC (US $5) 
Kid Icarus is a cult classic. Why do I say this? A good indicator of this sort of thing is the length of time between sequels. Kid Icarus got one for the Game Boy in 1991, and then nothing for twenty years, with a new game scheduled to launch with the Nintendo 3DS. Let me reiterate that: twenty years. So quit complaining about Half-Life 3, mmmkay? (And start complaining about Mega Man Legends 3.)  But the question is, does Kid Icarus deserve this much fan attention? Well, that's the purpose of the Strawberry Dragon Project: to ignore the hype and get the true story.

Speaking of story, you play as Pit -- note that he's not named "Kid Icarus" -- an angel-like lad who must break out of the underworld and rescue the goddess Palutena and bring peace to Angel Land by defeating her enemy Medusa. Yes, princesses are so 1985; in this game, you get to rescue a frickin' goddess. Armed with a bow and infinite arrows, Pit must gather three treasures from three dungeons before making the final assault on Medusa. Your quest is indeed an arduous one, and although you have unlimited continues, you re-start with the stats and equipment you had when you entered the level, losing what you earned during your last attempt. If you have to end your session, your progress must be retrieved through a 24-character password, just like in the cartridge versions of Metroid. In Japan, this game, along with Metroid and Zelda, was released in 1986 for the Famicom Disk System, which allowed data to be saved on the game disk. But the FDS wasn't sold outside of Japan, and Zelda was the only title out of the three to have a built-in save feature for the cartridge version. It's a little better on the Virtual Console version, since you get temporary saves in addition to the password system.
Pay attention to your movement limitations. [1]
This game borrows elements from such classics as Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and role-playing games. It plays like a standard platformer, and you defend yourself by shooting arrows that disappear after flying a fraction of the way across the screen. You'll have to get used to the range of your arrows, as well as the jumping mechanics, in order to survive. Enemies leave behind hearts when shot, but they don't restore health -- as much as you wish they would -- instead, they serve as currency, like in the Castlevania series. You'll have to spend some serious time grinding for hearts in order to save up for power-ups, and build up experience points to earn strength and max health upgrades. Unfortunately, you never get to see how many experience points -- the kind you need to have in order to get strength upgrades -- but keep grinding, don't take damage, and don't miss shots, and you'll be fine.

Your quest will take you through three worlds, each with three overworld levels and a dungeon. The levels in the first and third worlds scroll up instead of to the right, something which has become a trademark of Kid Icarus, whereas the second world scrolls to the right as normally. Like in Super Mario Bros., you can't go backwards, which presents a problem in the vertical-scrolling levels in that you'll always have bottomless pits to deal with. Tricky, to be sure, but the dungeons are a whole other kind of mother. These are giant mazes where you must find and defeat the boss, and you'll have to take the long way around to get there. You'll also have to deal with new kinds of enemies in these levels - including the Eggplant Wizards. These beasts lob eggplants at you, and if Pit gets hit by one, he turns into a walking eggplant and cannot attack until you take him to a nurse somewhere in the maze and to get the curse removed. (Non-profane) words cannot describe how much I hate them. There's even a spot in the third and final dungeon -- in the first room after the entrance, no less! -- where the wizards might hit you before you even get a chance to drop down to fight or evade them. And if you go to the nurse, you're forced to go through that section again! This tripped me up so much, I had considered quitting the game for a while, but luckily I was able to push through. But still... quality control, please?
Eggplant Wizards. Just... don't get me started. [1]
Your payoff for slogging through it all is a fun shoot-em-up level, at the end of which you get to fight Medusa (or the game's visualization of such), and then there's the ending. There are multiple endings, which differ depending on your hearts, stats, and equipment. Don't bother trying to get the best ending on your first run through, since your stats will carry over when you loop back to the first level, in a sort of "new game plus" feature. Besides, the endings are way similar, and there's nothing necessarily profound in any of them. This game is more about the journey, and finally beating each level is its own reward. If you absolutely have to have some other sort of motivation, then this game is not for you. Fortunately for everyone else who can handle it, the gameplay is solid enough to warrant a try. Don't blame me if you get hooked on the challenge.

Control: 4 eggplants out of 5
Design: 3 eggplants out of 5
Graphics: 4 eggplants out of 5
Sound: 4 eggplants out of 5
Value: 4 eggplants out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

[1] "Kid Icarus- NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

NES Month: Rollerblade Racer

Rollerblade Racer
  • Publisher: Hi-Tech Expressions
  • Developer: Radiance
  • Platforms/Release: NES:February 1993
  • Genre: Sports, Action
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: NES: Common (US$3-15)
I'm going to be upfront with you: this is one of the worst video games I have ever played in my life. I mean, I know about some of the other worst games on the NES: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Friday the 13th, Back to the Future, etc., but I haven't played them myself. Out of all the famously bad games, the only one I know of that I've played was Superman on the Nintendo 64, and even I enjoyed it at the time -- yes, I know about the whole ring course thing. And if I were to play it again today, I would certainly have to acknowledge that game's horrendous controls. But at least you get to use lots of Superman's powers in the action stages in between. With Rollerblade Racer on the NES, there are no such redeeming qualities. It's so bad, I couldn't even find a high-quality image of the box art. Hint hint.

In Rollerblade Racer, which is in fact a port of a PC game of the same name, you play as Kirk, a boy who just purchased new skating gear and wants to compete in a championship. You have to help him get there, by scoring at least 5,000 points across four levels. However, this is one of the most pointless requirements in all of gaming, since you score points every time you jump - and you'll be doing a lot of it to survive the levels. The four worlds are a neighbourhood, city, beach, and park, plus a bonus level in between. Get this: you can breeze through the second and third levels by finding the right line and going straight forward, not maneuvering at all except for jumping, and lots of it to build up points. And that championship you've been psyched up for? It's just the three bonus courses smashed into one.
If you ever thought you enjoyed this game, you were thinking of Paperboy instead. [1]
This game is displayed in an isometric viewpoint, which combined with other things, gives you a very short range of visibility. For the two stages that actually test your skills, you are ill-prepared to survive everything being thrown at you, be it trash cans, open manholes, or even cracks in the pavement. Cracks are the worst; not only are they *everywhere* on all but the city and bonus levels, but you think you'd be able to roll over them. No dice. Even the hit detection is tipped a little against your favor. There are no continues in this game, either: you can only take four hits times three lives before the game kicks you back to the neighborhood level without so much as a title screen. Oddly, the injuries counter goes up while the lives counter goes down. Umm, consistency please?

As if it wasn't enough for the levels to gang-bang you, you have to wrestle with the controls at the same time. You hold Up to accelerate forward, but it takes so long to get up to speed that there had better be nothing in your way. Even worse, if your thumb accidentally slips to the Left or Right, you'll stop going forward as you unintentionally move to the side. Pressing A makes you jump, which as we discussed gives you points, and holding B makes you crouch down, which maintains your forward momentum. However, if you jump while crouching, you'll perform a spinning jump trick. In theory, this should net you even more points, but if you can believe it, this is impossible to pull off before landing, and you'll just take an injury for your efforts.

The graphics are poorly drawn, and the isometric camera angle is awkward compared to other games that use the technique. Even the music, which would sound natural on a pre-Atari 2600 game console, is well below the call of duty. Don't expect the story to give you any memorable moments either -- in a good way, at least. After finishing a level, the game gives you a safety tip for rollerskating in the real world. I suppose I shouldn't be so hard on a video game that encourages physical exercise outside of playing it, but I have been so far, and I'm not done yet. It turns out you have to score 20,000 points to get the best ending, so if you finish with anything less than that, the game just kicked you one more time after having beaten you half to death. And get this -- the best ending even has a typo in it! I'll spoil it so you have no reason whatsoever to play this game:
And I can't wait wait to stop playing this piece. [2]
Since Rollerblade Racer was released in 1993, when the Super NES and Sega Genesis were battling it out for people's money attention, not many people were exposed to its hazards. It was a low-profile disaster made by six people (two producers, two programmers, and two artists) who got way more credit than they deserve for the product of their figurative loins. I mean, this is so bad, I can't even bear to profane this day, the 25-year anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System's debut in North America, by posting this review today, but I did anyway because I'm a sucker like that. When we look back on all the games that proved to be a waste of cartridge or disk space, I urge you to mention Rollerblade Racer in the same breath of all those infamous duds we know and loathe. And it is with that request that I give this game the lowest rating I have ever given, and will give for the immediate future, on this blog.

Control: 1 set of skates out of 5
Design: 1 set of skates out of 5
Graphics: 1 set of skates out of 5
Audio: 1 set of skates out of 5
Value: 1 set of skates out of 5
The Call: 15% (F)

[1] "Rollerblade Racer - NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

[2] "Rollerblade Racer". GameFAQs.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

NES Month: Gotcha! The Sport!

Gotcha! The Sport
  • Publisher: LJN
  • Developer: LJN
  • Release: NES, November 1987
  • Genre: Shooter
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
I would be remiss in my coverage of NES Month without mentioning LJN Toys, Inc., one of the most infamous publishers of the NES era. The titles released under the so-called "rainbow of death" label were all based on movie/TV/etc.-licenses, and almost all of them sucked: The Karate Kid, Back To The Future, Jaws, and Friday the 13th. But what's important to remember is that LJN only published the games -- the development "talent" was all over the place: Beam Software, Atlus, and even Rare. Yeah, I just broke you. There were only a few games LJN actually developed (or just didn't even credit the real developer). One is Jaws, done in collaboration with West One, and it sucked. Another one is this: Gotcha! The Sport!, and -- holy crow, it's actually pretty good!

Gotcha! was one of LJN's first titles, released in November 1987 alongside Jaws and The Karate Kid. As with almost all of LJN's games, it's based on a movie, although this one is more obscure. The movie, simply titled Gotcha!, was released in 1985 and involves a paintball player trying to escape from East Berlin. The game, on the other hand, puts you in a capture-the-flag paintball competition. You have three lives and a limited supply of ammo, but for some reason your ammo count goes down only if you miss. Shooting small boxes of ammo will give you more shots, and a life will be traded for ten shots if you run out. If you're hit or run out of ammo with no lives left, the game is over. Your goal is to make it to the opponent's flag and bring it back to your base so you can move on to the next round.
This game can be either really boring or really challenging.
This game has a rather interesting control setup: it's played using the Zapper and a controller at the same time. The Zapper is used to shoot opponents with your paintball gun, obviously, and collect the flag at the other end of the map. That's where you have to use your controller: holding Left or Right moves you along the map. You'll probably do this by holding the Zapper one-handed and the controller in your other hand. If you want to try some other method, be my guest*, but don't expect the same level of control. As basic as it is, this mechanic works well, and it's a shame I haven't really seen it in other places except the Wii, especially since today's light gun controllers (the GunCon 2 for PS2 comes to mind) have a D-pad built in.

*DISCLAIMER: I, the writer, cannot be held responsible for any injury to person or object resulting from trying some other method of playing Gotcha! The Sport! in a manner other than described.

If you've got lots of experience with light gun games, then this one can get boring quickly. When starting up, you get to choose from three difficulty levels. The easiest setting will bore professional shooters rather quickly, but it's easy to get shot on the hardest setting unless you're eagle-eyed. There are only three settings (forest, city, and snow field), and the game loops through them endlessly (in theory) until you lose, so it won't be long until you see everything the game has to offer. But that never stopped Donkey Kong, and we all know how well that turned out. ...Very well, actually.
No one dies after getting hit with paintballs.
The graphics in this game are decent. Since you're using paintballs, enemies you shoot will put their hands up, drop their gear, and run off-screen. What a cute way to tone down the violence. The sound design, however, is pretty terrible. The music for each of the three settings is a minimal five-second loop. Whenever an enemy is aiming at you or has captured your flag, the music changes to an even more annoying loop, and when it goes away, the old music starts over from the beginning.

Given the repetitive nature of Gotcha! The Sport!, I'm not sure how much I can recommend it, even if you're bored to death of Duck Hunt. Regardless of the results, I just have to applaud its technical innovation of letting you move and shoot with a light gun at the same time. And, as with a number of less-popular NES titles, if you need a game to kill a little time with, you could do far worse than Gotcha! The Sport!.

Control: 4 paintballs out of 5
Design: 4 paintballs out of 5
Graphics: 3 paintballs out of 5
Audio: 2 paintballs out of 5
Value: 1 paintball out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

[1] "Gotcha! The Sport! - NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

NES Month: Famiclones

In the intro to NES Month, I explained my love/hate relationship with the original NES hardware. After 20, 15, even 10 years, the connector pins get bent out of shape in such a way they can't read the Game Paks as well, if at all. So, inevitably, you'll have to buy a new system. But many different manufacturers have made their own hardware to run NES/Famicom games, so which one is right for you? Well, I can't very well list all of them - just take a look at this list. So I'll focus on the most notable ones, as well as what was sold in the so-called "third world" markets.

I. NES/Famicom clones

Nintendo's own redesigned NES.
First of all, I'd like to lump Nintendo's own redesigned NES model into this category. It was released in 1993, and at US$50, it was cheaper than the pre-existing NES model. The durability of this thing was vastly improved over the front-loading model, since it had no moving parts and even the 10NES lockout chip was omitted (as a cost-saving measure). This also meant you could play European NES games on it -- but not Japanese Famicom games, the reason being that the cartridge shape is different, and there are different amounts of pins which connect it to the console's motherboard. Adapters to play one on the other are out there, but are way hard to find nowadays.
The Neo FC, by Yobo.
I had plugged the Generation NEX by Messiah before, on my old blog at The system was notable in that it mimicked the NES's front-loading design in a slimmer form with no moving parts. Unfortunately, the thing is very hard to find nowadays, starting at $65, and even then it was out of stock. Nowadays, the big name is the Neo Fami, or Neo FC, sold in the US by Yobo Gameware. This one's also a top-loader, as is everything else I'll be talking about. What's important to know about this one is that it comes in two varieties: one plays Japanese Famicom carts, and one plays American/European NES carts. Since these two types of carts have different sizes and pin counts, you can't just play one on the other; you have to really do the research. sells the US version with light gun for US$30.

II. Multi-system clones

If you want to explore other systems, there's a way to do that and still replace your aging NES Control Deck. The FC Twin (by Yobo) and Retro Duo (by RetroBit) both have ports for NES and Super NES carts. The controller ports on both systems use the Super NES port shape, so you won't be able to use NES accessories like the Zapper or Power Pad. While Yobo does manufacture their own light guns for use with the FC Twin, they are not compatible with the Retro Duo, due to motherboard differences. RetroBit has mentioned intent to sell SNES-NES controller adapters for the Retro Duo, but it has been two years since and they still don't exist yet.
The FC Twin, also by Yobo.
I currently own both a Retro Duo and an FC Twin, and out of the two, I'm giving the FC Twin the edge. Apart from the fact that they make a light gun for it, on the FC Twin, the colors are more vivid and the sound is much better on some games. The controllers are also of a much higher quality, and feel closer to the real Super NES controllers, whereas the Retro Duo's control pad was sunken-in, and easy to slide to a diagonal direction accidentally (which ruined me on Contra more than once). Another advantage of the FC Twin is that the X and A buttons, which are unused for NES games, serve as turbo B and A buttons, a feature somewhy lacking on the Retro Duo. Unfortunately, it's not fast enough for me to breeze through the likes of, say, Track & Field II (review here), but at least you have two buttons to mash instead of one. Still, I can't fault either for having the same reliability advantages of all top-loading NES consoles, so I'll grade them thusly:

FC Twin: 90% (A-)
Retro Duo: 60% (C-)

They also make models compatible with NES and Sega Genesis games. Mario and Sonic on one console... In other news, pigs have been spotted flying outside.  Film at eleven.  The same companies I've been talking about also make the GN Twin and Retro Duo, which fall into this category. Refer to my above comments about the quality of each. And for the big one, there are also consoles that play all three: NES, Super NES, and Genesis. The FC3 Plus is, yet again, made by Yobo. New copies come with two controllers and a light gun, but sadly it does not accept any other kind of controllers. That's a real shame, since the face buttons on the included controllers are a little too small. Instead, consider the Retron 3. It comes with two wireless controllers, but also includes two ports each for NES, SNES, and Genesis controllers. ...WOW. :) I may not own one, but unless you want to keep your existing consoles, I'd definitely recommend this one. Expect to pay $30-50 for the two-system varieties, and $50-70 for the three-system varieties.

NES, Super NES, Genesis...  This is the big one.
III. International clones

So we've had a look at what's for sale in America, now let's explore what was available in places where Nintendo didn't officially have a presence. One of the big ones was the Dendy, sold in Russia and the CIS starting in 1992, just after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Just like the genuine Famicom and NES in their respective regions, the Dendy proved to be mad popular in the newly opened ex-Soviet markets. Like, they made a TV show based on it, and the word "Dendy" became shorthand for video games in general, just as "Nintendo" used to be here in America.

The Dendy Junior, sold in Russia and the CIS.
There were numerous knockoff Famicom and NES machines sold in other places like Poland, Brazil, South Africa, India, and China. China had it especially rough, because that pirate market we know and loathe extends to video games as well. Many of the Famiclone hardware sold in China was unabashedly knocked off from other consoles. I'm talking the exact console gutted and replaced with Famicom innards. The "PolyStation" line, which used re-purposed PlayStation and PSone consoles, is one of the more well-known ones. I supposed it's not too bad for a cheap way to play the many great Famicom games, but could you imagine if you were looking for, say, a genuine PSone and bought a PolyStation III instead!? And worse, they have a tendency towards blatant lies on the packaging. Here's a tip: the real Famicom and NES don't support 3D graphics and stereo sound. Just familiarize yourself with the genuine hardware and you'll be fine.

The PolyStation III.  Buyer beware.
One thing I waited to mention is that most of these consoles, with some exceptions in Brazil and South America, are compatible with standard 60-pin Famicom carts. There was really nothing in terms of original games made in these other regions except for multicarts, which sadly, we'll have to delve back into the seedy underworld to discuss. I hate them in principle, if not in practice. Some advertise bloated game counts in the hundreds, thousands, or in some cases even millions, but unless you count repeats of the same game with different options or starting levels (yeah), the true totals are nowhere near those counts. Some are nice enough to load genuine NES games you've actually heard of, legality be darned, but they may be mis-titled, and "original" games are likely just repeats of existing copyrighted games with different graphics.

So, sorry your blood had to boil along with me. We'll go back to legit games next time.

NES Month: Track & Field II

Track & Field II
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Developer: Konami
  • Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
  • Genre: Sports
  • Players: 1-2
  • Save: Password
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
The 1980s were a tumultuous decade for the Summer Olympic Games. In 1980, the XXII Olympiad in Moscow, Soviet Union, suffered a boycott of nations led by the United States, due to the USSR invading Afghanistan the year before. Among the American allies who joined in the boycott were Canada, West Germany, Japan, and South Korea (and China too, but for other reasons). Other NATO allies including Great Britain, France, and Italy, competed under a generic Olympic flag, but the medal count was dominated by Eastern Bloc athletes. As a result of the first boycott, the following Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles, USA, were in turn boycotted by the Soviet Union and its allies. It wasn't until 1992 that a Summer Olympics was held without any countries boycotting it.

The reason I'm bringing up the Olympics is because the Japanese version of this game, Konamic Sports in Seoul, was an unofficial tie in to the XXIV Olympiad in Seoul, South Korea, hence the title. Konami released it in Japan in September 1988, the day before the Olympics started, but didn't release it in America until 1989. As such, the game was renamed Track & Field II, tying it instead to the popular arcade and home game they released before.

There are 12 events in this game, plus three extra exhibition events. Three of them (Triple jump, clay pigeon shooting, and hurdles) are recycled from the NES version of Track & Field, but overall there is plenty of variety. Each event has a different control scheme, and only six of those involve mashing buttons. But for those that do, this game can be HARD. The speed/power meter that you build up by mashing A drains pretty quickly; if you're just casually tapping it with a thumb or finger alone, you'd have to be skilled at that just to keep it half-filled. This type of gameplay has led people to develop their own methods of hitting the button as rapidly as possible. For example, I like to put a sock over my hand and use the layer of cloth to rub across the button.
Championship IS harder than Training.1
The three modes available in this game are Training, Championship, and Versus. In Training mode, you can start on any of the 12 main events and keep going until you fail to meet the qualifying score or time. Championship Mode is a joke -- and I ain't laughing. It lets you pick a country to represent (the 10 choices include the United States, Soviet Union, and South Korea), and do all of the events in order. The problem is that the qualifying targets are higher here than in Training Mode. Just the second event, Triple Jump, used to be a real wall of difficulty for me. The funny thing about Championship mode is if you fail an event, you don't get a game over immediately. See, the events are presented in four groups of three at a time. If you fail an event, you keep going until the end of that day, and then you get a game over. That's really stupid and artificial; If I wanted to try the later events after failing, I'd just go into Training Mode, thank you very much. Oh, and guess what -- after you clear all the events once, you have to do them again, and the qualifying targets are even higher. Uhh, I DON'T THINK SO.

The payoff for slogging it through a day of events and winning is a password to save with, and two exclusive sports you can't play anywhere else in the game. Hang Gliding can get boring when you're flying for 15-second stretches of doing nothing, and Gun Firing is a dull shooting game, but at least you can use the Zapper for the latter. If nothing else, they're nice cool-down minigames, and you can play them as much as you want before moving on or skip them entirely. There's also the multiplayer-exclusive Arm Wrestling, which is a button-mashing contest in its purest form.
Just look at those graphics!1
I will admit, these are some of the best graphics on the NES. Both the athletes and the backgrounds are well-detailed, although I do wish their uniforms were color-coded by nation. The music is pretty good, too, but the crowd cheering noise can get annoying, given how long it is. Demanding button-mashing aside, most of the events control well, but High Dive, Taekwondo, and Horizontal Bar might disagree with that statement unless you really know what you're doing.

Track & Field II is pretty much the Ghosts & Goblins of sports games. It's unfairly tough -- and that's just on the first run-through! Don't even think of buying this game if you don't have some sort of turbo controller, although beware that some won't even be fast enough to handle the more demanding events. If you are equipped to take this game on, then don't worry about breaking out the turbo. It's not so much cheating as it is justice. This game does not deserve to be played fairly. But if you really want to do so, it would be a great excuse not to throw away your holey socks.

Control: 2 medals out of 5
Design: 2 medals out of 5
Graphics: 5 medals out of 5
Audio: 5 medals out of 5
Value: 3 medals out of 5
The Call: 60% (C-)
[1] "Track & Field II - NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NES Month: R.C. Pro-Am

R.C. Pro-Am
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Rare
  • Platform/Release: NES: February 1988
  • Genre: Racing
  • Save: None
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
Note: This article was updated on 9 February 2016.

Something has become apparent to me while I've been writing the reviews for NES Month so far: I was pretty bad at video games as a younger child. Of course I still had fun with them, otherwise I wouldn't even be writing this now. The fact that older video games were more challenging to begin with was only part of it. Case in point: R.C. Pro-Am, a game that I used to never even be able to finish the first level of. While some games had roadblocks that I would have never figured out alone in a million years (linking to the game in question without mentioning its name is the snarkiest way to do so), others had genuine challenge even for the gamer I am today. I am happy to say that R.C. Pro-Am falls into the second camp.

In R.C. Pro-Am, you control a red remote-control car through a series of races against three colour-coded rivals. A race ends as soon as the first-place car crosses the finish line, oddly enough, as opposed to waiting for everyone to finish. You get to progress to the next race as long as you're not in the fourth and final position when the race is over. The only difference between placing first and running up but still qualifying is a point bonus, so you don't have to feel bad about it. But if you do fail a race, you only get two more continues until the game forces you back to the first track. I do hate when games don't give me a real, infinite continue option. It’s not like there's an engaging story that it's withholding from me, but I still resent it for withholding the opportunity to make progress, eh? You know, R.C. Pro-Am is one of the games my grandparents got with their NES, so I used to play it a bunch as a kid. As I recall, it was so hard that for the longest time I couldn't even clear the first stage! And it's not like Milon's Secret Castle or anything, where there's some secret you have to look up online or in a magazine. No, what I used to have problems adjusting to were the controls.
You can move on as long as you don't finish a race in last place. [1]
In this game, you hold B to go forward and not hold B to not go forward. As for steering, Left and Right and right on the Control Pad turn your car based on the direction it's currently facing. In other words, Right turns you clockwise and Left is anti-clockwise. In retrospect, I can't think of a better way to handle this. The concept of pressing a direction to steer that way doesn't work for a car like it would if you were controlling a person on foot, and the three-quarter-angled isometric perspective used by the game would complicate matters. And like I said, I got used to the game's control setup over time. Plus, there's a little drifting action going on when you turn sharply, so anyone who's lamented Sega's refusal to release their Initial D game in North America (and never cared enough to import it) can get their jollies here.

But there is one thing about the controls that still gets me. If you spin out of control and hit a wall, you’ll crash and stay stuck there for a second before your car rebuilds itself and gets back in the race. The thing about this is you respawn facing a random direction, so you have to spend another moment reorienting yourself! It's bad enough that crashing eats up so much time on its own; this extra calculation forced upon the player means that so much as one crash could cost you the race! What's wrong with just pointing us in the direction we hit the wall? Answer me, game!

Almost as if this game was intentionally trying to distract you, there are many varieties of goodies to collect and traps to avoid. You can upgrade your machine by picking up tire, engine, and turbo upgrades, which improve your turning, top speed, and acceleration stats in that order. Also, each track has one bonus letter for you to pick up. When you get eight of them, spelling out the word "NINTENDO" [2], your car gets upgraded to a new model. But something about this also bugs me: you see, your rivals always get the class upgrades when you do, so I ask you, what’s the point of having it at all? I mean, sure you get to go faster, but if your opponents do too, the tactical advantage is negated, and all you’re left with is less time to react to stuff!
Upgrade your machine through random parts on the track. [1]
The stuff you have to react to includes traps like puddles, which slow you down, oil slicks, which spin you out for a second or two, and pop-up barriers, which crash you instantly if they're up. On the other hand, there are things you should collect, too. Missiles and bombs, triggered by pressing A, are weapons you can use for an extra edge against your opponents. Roll cages protect you from crashing when you spin out into a wall or hit a pop-up barrier, and zippers catapult you forward ultra-fast-like. With all those, you could say R.C. Pro-Am even paved the way for the likes of Super Mario Kart. There is one thing I noticed, however. If you keep using weapons against the opponents, they’ll grow faster and faster until they boost so fast and so far you’ll never be able to catch them. And there’s no indication this is happening, other than the computer appearing to cheat for no reason! Boy, I’m glad Mario Kart didn’t borrow that feature for itself!

So yes, R.C. Pro-Am is flawed. The isometric perspective being what it is, it's way hard to see in front of you without having practised the track. There's no music during gameplay, although the multiple engine sounds we do get are technically impressive for the NES, and what music clips we do get are also awesome. But more than anything, R.C. Pro-Am is hard, for all its speed, limited continues, and the way it cheats you for using weapons. Despite all this, is it still fun? Eh, off and on. Even if you can't handle it, it is worth playing this just to check out the influence it had on all manner of racing games released since.

Control: 3 NINTENDO letters out of 5
Design: 4 NINTENDO letters out of 5
Graphics: 3 NINTENDO letters out of 5
Audio: 3 NINTENDO letters out of 5
Value: 4 NINTENDO letters out of 5
The Call: 65% (C)

[1] "R.C. Pro-Am - NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

[2] Non-Nintendo sequels and ports use letters of the word "CHAMPION" instead.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

NES Month: Rad Racer

Rad Racer
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Squaresoft
  • Platforms/Release: NES: October 1987
  • Genre: Driving
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
Has anyone seen the movie/feature-length Nintendo advertisement The Wizard? Well, one of the most memorable (?) scenes is when Lucas played a game with the Power Glove. And this was what he played it with: Rad Racer. Nintendo's answer to Sega's Out Run, Rad Racer was released in October 1987 by Nintendo and developed by Squaresoft. Yes, the house that built Final Fantasy. This wasn't the only time they went out of their RPG comfort zone (I am, of course, thinking of Driving Emotion Type-S for PlayStation 2), but at least they got it right the first time.

You get to choose one of two identically-performing cars, a not-Ferrari and a not-Formula-1 racer, and take it on a drive across eight levels. In their own way, the graphics are some of the best on the NES. Parallax scrolling on the background and a rising and falling horizon all contribute to a wonderful visual experience, even if Out Run did pioneer tricks like those the year before. But innovation or not, Rad Racer plays (almost) as well as it looks.

The basic controls are standard fare for pretty much every driving game ever: A for gas, B for brake, and Left and Right to steer. Pressing Down switches between three available music tracks, and Select toggles the anaglyph 3-D function on and off (more on that later). Holding Up activates a boost that gets you going even faster. It has unlimited usage, but is only available if you're going above 90 kilometers per hour. Having an unlimited boost function may seem artificial, but it's not like you can just hold it and win; you really have to slow down for the sharper turns. In most cases, you have to be going, at most, somewhere between 150 and 180 km/h to handle the curves without drifting out.
Speed control is essental on turns. [1]
Speed control is important in this game, because you'll have to dodge traffic at all times, even in the middle of turns. The other cars come in two varieties; one of them changes lanes more often than the other. Traffic can be a big source of frustration in the later levels, although you won't usually cause a full crash unless you hit one at high speeds. Flipping over, either by hitting a car or roadside object, can eat up a lot of time, since you have to wait until your car stops and then moves into the center of the road. If you want to make it to the end of a stage before the timer runs out, you'll have to crash as little as possible; even one accident is pushing it. If you do lose, here is a continue function: hold A and press Start, just like in Super Mario Bros..

Of course, the music was composed by Nobuo Uematsu. I'm going to say it, I'm not a big fan of his, but I'll still say he's great at what he does. Each of the three songs you can select from each has their own mood, and you'll probably craft your own mental image of a level depending on which song you choose. That's what nostalgia is, ladies and gentlemen. It's a shame it's so easy to accidentally press Down and skip the track.
The 3-D effect isn't all that great. [1]
Like I mentioned while discussing the controls, there is a visual 3-D effect in this game, toggled on and off by pressing Select at any time. It's the old red-and-blue kind, so you can use any of those kind of glasses that you may have collected over the years. Unfortunately, tt jacks up the colors (think black skies and yellow roads), and the effect isn't that great besides. In this game, it's handled by rapidly flickering the red and blue images instead of steadily overlaying them. Depending on the quality of your television and eyesight, you'll notice the flickering, lessening the effect. Oh, and make sure the blue side of your glasses is over your left eye; you may need to wear your glasses backwards for best results.

But when the game looks so good without the 3-D effect, you can live without switching it on. Rad Racer does loads of things that were unheard of for the NES at the time, and does them well. It has a thrilling sense of speed, some unexpected talent, 3-D visuals, and it holds up just as well today. If you've ever wanted a home port of Out-Run, or if you like racing games in general, then Rad Racer is not to be missed.

Control: 4 3D glasses out of 5
Design: 4 3D glasses out of 5
Graphics: 5 3D glasses out of 5
Sound: 4 3D glasses out of 5
Value: 3 3D glasses out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

[1] "Rad Racer - NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

Monday, October 11, 2010

NES Month: To The Earth

To The Earth
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Release: NES: November 1989
  • Genre: Shooter
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
Chances are, if you own an NES, you own a Zapper, the gray or orange light gun sold with three different hardware bundles (the Deluxe, Action, and Power Sets). And a good chunk of you probably only play it with Duck Hunt, which was packed into those bundles. But what if you want something else to shoot at with the Zapper, if only to justify your purchase? Turns out there are about a dozen games compatible, in part or in whole, with the Zapper. One of them is To The Earth, published and developed by Nintendo and released in November 1989.

In this game, you "control" a spaceship which must travel all the way from the planet Neptune back to Earth, hence the title. There are four stages in this game, where you travel to Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, and finally Earth. Yes, they skipped Mars for some reason. Maybe it was on the opposite end of its orbit or something, but more than likely they could only make four levels and didn't care where they started.

Gameplay is simple enough. You just shoot down as many enemy spacecraft as possible with your Zapper. One thing you'll notice is that every time you shoot and miss, your health will go down a bit. The other way to lose health is if an enemy drops a bomb on you; shoot them before they hit your hull to avoid taking damage. You regain a chunk of health for each enemy you hit, however, so good players won't have to worry about their health for much of the game.
Shoot down enemy bombs to stay alive. [1]
There are three kinds of items to help you along the way. Once you start causing some chaos, a red icon will appear on the lower-right corner of the screen; shoot this to trigger a bomb of your own and clear all enemies off the screen. An "E" icon, when it appears at the lower-left of the screen, instantly restores some energy, and a comet will give you a barrier, letting you take several hits without taking damage. You'll need all the help you can get, since the onslaught of enemies grows faster and faster as you move on. It's enough to wear out your trigger finger, especially if you're using the original Zapper, which had a lot of resistance on the trigger.

As tough as this game is, it's rather short. Like I said, there are only four levels, and the whole game takes around twenty minutes to complete. That said, it's short but sweet. Between this and Duck Hunt, it's a shame that Zapper-compatible games aren't all that meaty, but you'll appreciate the extra immersion - and in this case, the extra challenge.

Control: 3 planets out of 5
Design: 4 planets out of 5
Graphics: 4 planets out of 5
Audio: 3 planets out of 5
Value: 1 planet out of 5
The Call: 80% (B+)

[1] "To The Earth - NES Screenshots".  MobyGames

Saturday, October 9, 2010

NES Month: Double Dare

Double Dare
  • Publisher: GameTek
  • Developer: Rare
  • Platforms/Release: NES: April 1990
  • Genre: Quiz, 2D Action
  • Players: 1-2
  • Save: None
  • Rarity/Cost: NES: Moderate (US$5-15)
Note: This article was updated on 9 February 2016.

I'll be honest. I was expecting to give this a really bad review -- I did warn you it would be a doozy -- but now that I've gone back to it yet again, it is a little better than I remember it. It's one of those games that is infinitely more satisfying in multiplayer than it is against the computer, so, you can imagine I've been missing out on a lot of opportunity. I am of course talking about the third and final title of my game show video game mini-series, Double Dare. The game show Double Dare got its start in 1986m and was one of the first original programs produced by the then-fledgling network Nickelodeon. It was a game show that challenged two teams of kids, or families, to multiple-choice questions and messy physical games. The show ran in various incarnations for seven years, and in the year 2000, got a revival called Double Dare 2000, naturally. And there's even word of another revival series coming to NBC later this year (2016)! So due to its more varied nature, you'd think Double Dare would be a great fit for a video game, even more than other game shows. But did it pan out? That’s what I’m here to find out.

The Double Dare home game first came out for DOS-based computers in 1988, and two years later, Rare ported the game to the NES. In both versions, you set up your game by HOLY CROW WHAT IS THAT!? Is that supposed to be Marc Summers? Maybe if he got possessed by the Mask!
Not-Marc Summers stares into your soul.
Anyway, creepy Marc Summers aside, you set up your game by selecting the number of human players, the computer difficulty (if applicable), team names, and player avatars. Once all that's done, the game begins with a toss-up challenge. You play all of the toss-up games, and some of the later Physical Challenges, by manipulating a meter that controls the speed and angle of your thrown, rolled, or putted objects. First you press Left to start it, then Right to stop the Speed meter and start the Angle meter, and A to stop the Angle meter. Trial and error can help you get the right values, but the meters move so quickly it's hard to be precise with them. Gorilla is one of the hardest games -- not only do you have to throw a banana into the gorilla's hand, it keeps switching from one player's side to another. I remember playing this game with someone way back when, and we both got stuck on Gorilla! Oh, and solo players beware: on the highest difficulty level, the computer rarely makes mistakes, so you're bound to lose the toss-ups if that's the case. But it's not the end of the world; the winner just gets $10, or $20 in the second round, and control of the questions.

The quiz portions are the main bulk of Double Dare. For each question, your options consist of three answers and a Dare. If you choose the Dare, the other team can either answer the question for double the money or do a Double Dare, in which control goes back to the first team, who must either answer it or take a Physical Challenge, both worth four times the original dollar value. It's best to Dare if you don't know the answer, or think your opponent doesn't know and will Double Dare you back, but everything's left to chance if you're playing against the computer, so it's tough to Dare effectively. And yet some of the questions were just designed to make you pass them over to the competition. For example -- and I'm not making this up -- there's one about the offspring of a sheep and a goat. And it's a real thing, too! The answer is "geep".
Gorilla is too luck-based for my liking.
Eventually you might get completely stumped by a question, or you just want a little variety in the proceedings. That's where the Physical Challenges come in. Some of the Physical Challenges play like the toss-up games, with the Speed and Angle meters, but some play differently for some much-needed variety. Unlike the toss-up games, you're on a time limit, so just because you're not racing against another player doesn't mean you'll have much of a margin of error here, either. Oh, and if you get a question wrong after a Dare, or fail a Physical Challenge, the money goes to the other team. The two rounds last about five minutes each, but in a one-player game, this can feel really long if you're waiting for the computer to mess up or Dare you.

The winner moves onto the Obstacle Course, where you have to run through eight randomly-ordered obstacles in sixty seconds, and collect a flag after each. This scene is presented in a familiar side-scrolling view, but you can't just hold Right to move forward like in any other platformer game... that would be too easy. No, you have to mash Left and Right rapidly to move. This goes against all our instincts as players of platformer games. I suppose it made more sense on the computer, but console gamers reared on Mario and Mega Man run the risk of getting stuck on this part.

Most of the obstacles are just variations on "keep pressing Right to continue". Some are short and some are long; the Human Hamster-Wheel in particular is a major time-sink. And then there are two obstacles, the ramp and the mountain, which require you to climb up by mashing Up instead. If you stop for even an instant, you'll start to fall down and waste time. It gets even trickier when you clear the obstacle and have to pick up a flag, because control reverts to a standard platformer setup, where you hold Left or Right to move and press A to jump. The transition can be jarring; if you don't expect it, you'll find yourself walking back and forth wildly, and you have to jump from just the right spot to get the flag or you'll miss it and waste even more time. And you don't have any time to waste -- this round is very, very tough, even if you know how to control it. Like, usually I'm only able to get past the 5th or 6th obstacle. It's true to the show for all the wrong reasons.

I can't fault Rare too much for doing what they did. I can't think of any other solutions to controlling the non-quiz aspects without changing them drastically, most of them for the worst. Truth be told, Double Dare still doesn't quite stand up to Jeopardy! or even Wheel of Fortune, so maybe that's why I've been viewing it in such a negative light. But if you own it already, you could do much worse than playing it with a friend -- as long as you both know how to play it.

Control: 1 slime dunk out of 5
Design: 4 slime dunks out of 5
Graphics: 2 slime dunks out of 5
Sound: 3 slime dunks out of 5
Value: 3 slime dunks out of 5
The Call: 50% (D)

[1] "Double Dare - NES Screenshots". MobyGames.