Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Game Review: Paperboy

Paperboy
  • Publisher: Mindscape
  • Developer: Tengen
  • Release: NES, December 1988
  • Players: 1-2 alternating
  • Rarity/Cost: Common / US$5-10
It may be a lost art these days, but one of the hallmarks of any worthwhile spoof movie is the ability of its writer(s) to see the potential for humour in mundane, everyday activities.  I'll get into that more when I actually review something from the genre, but for now I'd like for you to imagine applying that concept to a job like, I don't know, a bicycle paper route.  This is the basic idea behind the video game Paperboy.  This game originated as an arcade machine made by Atari Games (as discussed previously, they were separate from Atari's home console division) in 1984, notable for employing an exercise bike-like controller, letting you pedal and turn the handlebars to control your character.  As was the usual routine in the 80s, a slew of home ports of Paperboy were released for home consoles and computers.  I will be focusing on the 1988 release for the Nintendo Entertainment System (which, unlike other Atari Games/Tengen titles, got a licenced release by Mindscape), as it has nostalgic value for pretty much my whole family.

Getting your angle right
is part of the challenge.
Your mission in this game is to ride your bike down the street and throw newspapers to subscribing households.  When starting up a new game, you are randomly assigned 10 out of the 20 houses on the block as subscribers (colour-coded in light blue/yellow/white); the other 10 are non-subscribers (colour-coded in dark red).  To successfully deliver a paper to a subscriber's house, you have to throw it onto the front doormat, or into the mailbox for more points.  You can adjust your aim angle by pedaling faster (Hold Up) or slower (Hold Down), and while the ideal angle is frequently difficulty to get down pat, I'll accept that as part of the challenge.  When your supply of papers runs low, find and pick up a bundle to restock.  Any subscribers you miss will become non-subscribers in the next round, and if you run out of subscribers, the game is over.  You can get one back by delivering to all existing subscribers.

Each round ends with an obstacle course, serving as a bonus section.  This dirt-road maze of jumps and walls is controlled by a time limit, which determines your point bonus should you finish succesfully.  The time limit in this section always used to spook me as a kid, however there is no penalty for running out of time, and even crashing doesn't cost you a life as it does in the main section.  There are also blue and pink target objects lining the paths here which, along with many, many objects in the main areas, can be knocked over or broken for points.  (For the longest time I had no idea you could knock over these targets, since they resemble oversized tires and car batteries.)  Some of the traps, such as moving ramps and gates, highlight the game's worse-than-optimal hit detection, but again, it's a good thing that the training courses are penalty-free.
The Training Course is less stressful than the time limit suggests.
Paperboy is weird, at least for an American game.  The traps littering the roads and sidewalks include breakdancers who seem to be stuck on their backs, tires and lawnmowers that move on their own, miniature tornado funnels, and even the grim reaper.  It's a shame that the less-than-exemplary quality of the graphics make some these things hard to make out.  For example, I always used to think the aforementioned grim reapers were just old ladies, what with them shaded entirely in gray apart from black dots for eyes.  And the baby blue/yellow colour scheme they chose for your character is just lame.  Now, I know the NES's colour palette is limited, but the likes of the Mega Man series - which got its start before this - had far better graphics and art direction than this, which would be passable on Atari's old systems.  The music is rather minimal and bares only a passing resemblance to the arcade version's tunes, and some of the sound effects come across as weird, especially the one that plays when you pick up extra papers.

Going back to take a formal, in-depth look at Paperboy, I was surprised to discover as many flaws as I did.  While the controls, far from perfect as they may be, are easy enough to handle with practice, the only way to describe the graphics is that they were beaten by the ugly stick.  That said, it's still a fun and chalenging title if you're looking to kill a little time, and if you think about it, it presents a novel take on the shoot-em-up genre.  It is, long story short, flawed yet engaging.

P.S. I am sorry to report that Paperboy does not work on most after-market "Famiclone" consoles.  When tested on the Retro Duo and FC Twin (both reviewed in my description of Famiclones), the game would boot up, but would not read any controller input no matter what.  Coincidentally, most of the other Tengen-published games, including the unlicenced "black cartidge" titles, suffer similar compatibility issues, so I wonder if there's a connection.  For futher discussion on the topic, read my review on their version of Pac-Man.  So, if my review has enticed you to try out Paperboy, be sure to have your old "toaster" control deck in working order.

Graphics: 2 newspapers out of 5
Audio: 2 newspapers out of 5
Control: 3 newspapers out of 5
Design: 4 newspapers out of 5
The Call: 65% (C)

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