But Thou Must

25 Years of NES Part 6:  Dragon Warrior

As successful, as the NES undoubtedly was there were also a few failures for Nintendo.  Dragon Warrior is probably one of the bigger ones of the era for them.  Not that Dragon Warrior is a bad game or that is was overall an unsuccessful one.  Known as Dragon Quest in Japan, and everywhere else now, the game started a phenomenon there.  Well maybe the sequels were the start of the phenomenon, but the point is that the Dragon Quest series is and has been the most popular game series in Japan for a long time.  However, all the Japanese success of was reaped by Enix, its creators.  Enix did not have an American arm at the time, so Nintendo handled the American release.  And the American release was a failure.

There are some very good reasons why the game failed in America.  First, it was three years old by the time Nintendo brought it over.  Three years is difference between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2.  While many people rightly prefer SMB to its sequel, graphically there is no comparison.  Also, Dragon Warrior was an RPG, a genre not familiar to the NES audience.  Sure Nintendo had success with the more exploration driven Legend of Zelda, but most of the NES’s library was action heavy.  Introducing new gaming concepts in an ugly and outdated game does not sound like a recipe for success to me.  Nintendo, with all their past success blinding them, put a lot of effort into publishing a game that had passed its sell be date.  They made some graphical and mechanical tweaks to make the game more playable and look less old.  They clearly put a lot of effort into the top-notch translation, probably due to the high amount of text in the game.  It also got a full on Nintendo Power, that much celebrated monthly NES commercial, promotion.  But it landed with a thud anyway.  Before long free copies of the game came with a Nintendo Power subscription.  That is how I got my copy.

I do not know that I can actually recommend that anyone go back and play Dragon Warrior today.  It is archaic and simple.  There is little there other than a history lesson.  However, there is enough charm in the translation and the game is short enough that I do not recommend you avoid it either.  The game’s hero, Erdrick, must rescue the Princess Gwaelin from the DragonLord.  Like the much-loved Legend of Zelda, Dragon Warrior gives a quest and leaves you to your own devices as to how to accomplish them.  You can see the DragonLord’s castle from the starting point, but it is quite the ordeal to make it there.  The game is as simple as RPGs come.  Each fight is the hero one on one with whatever monster you are fighting.  While you have some spells, you only useful option most the time it to attack.  You can buy new armor and weapons, but it is actually easier to just use the stuff you find in the dungeons.

While the story is that generic save the Princess, defeat the bad guy shtick, there are some things that make it interesting.  Like the fact that you rescue the Princess about halfw

ay through.  You can talk to her at Tantegel Castle.  She just needily demands your affection, but constantly rebuffing her is kind of fun. (Dost thou love me Erdrick?  No.  But thou must)  When you finally reach the DragonLord, he gives you the option to join him.  Accepting his offer does not end well for the hero, but it is a nice option.  Dragon Warrior is simple and not exactly fun, but it is definitely interesting.


25 Years of NES Part 5: Super Mario Bros. 2

Now that Mega Man is taken care of its time to move on to another great sequel Super Mario Brothers 2, the secret best Mario game (If you do not get the reference you should listen to Retronauts).  Super Mario Bro. 2 is a game with a complex history and some of the best platforming on the system.

I know some readers are now crying out that the SMB 2 that I’m writing about is not the “real” SMB 2 and all I have to say is “bullshit.”  Yes, Japan did get an entirely different game named Super Mario Bros. 2 than we did here in the United States, but the one we got is the better version of Super Mario Bros. 2.  Japan’s SMB 2, known locally as the Lost Levels, is warmed over SMB with added spite.  The innovations in that game are terrible things like poison mushrooms and invisible wind bursts.  Our SMB 2, on the other hand, was greatly influential to the future of the Mario series.  Shy Guys and Birdo are enemies that continually show up in the various Mario Parties and Sports games.  Any time the secondary cast of Mario games – Luigi, Peach and Toad – are playable nowadays there is a great chance their controls will be based on their SMB 2 counterparts.  Most importantly the American Super Mario Bros. 2 is a great game with colorful, detailed graphics and solid, if a bit easy, gameplay.  So if any player feels ‘cheated’ by getting this game get over it; this is the real Super Mario Bros. 2.

I feel like I have to explain how SMB 2 came to be.  In Japan the game we know as SMB2 is known as Doki Doki Panic.  I have never played DDP, but I assume it plays about the same as Super Mario Bros. 2.  It was created by Nintendo’s golden boy Shigeru Miyamoto, his involvement is a big reason it feels like later Mario games.  The reason Doki Doki Panic became Mario 2 is that by the time for Nintendo to release a Mario 2 in America, the original Mario 2 would have seemed dated on top of not being any good.  So Nintendo basically did a sprite swap in Doki Doki Panic to make it the real Super Mario Bros 2 and everybody won.

One of the biggest changes from Mario Bros to Mario Bros 2 is that instead of Mario and Luigi being playable and playing identically there are four different unique playable characters.  In addition to Mario and Luigi this game has Peach and Toad.  They all have different abilities.  Well, the same basic moves, they just work in different ways.  Mario is the base character.  His momentum and jumping ability are the normal setting.  Luigi jumps higher than Mario, but he is also much harder to control.  He slides back and forth and is generally infuriating.  Luigi is the expert character; once you learn to control him he makes large parts of the game much easier.  If Luigi is the expert character then Princess Peach is the beginner character; she does not jump quite as high as Luigi but she can float for a limited amount of time before she comes back down.  It makes the jumps all much easier.  Toad’s jumping abilities are not that different from Mario but he can dig really fast and I rarely use him.  Still, having 4 different playable characters adds tons of replay value, which is good because SMB 2 is short.  As in beaten in about an hour short.

Another deviation from the Mario formula is that jumping on enemies head’s does not kill them.  You can ride them or pick them up and throw them, making for interesting but very different gameplay.  And instead of Goombas and Koopa Troopers the game has shy guys and Birdo.

While very different, SMB2 is also very good.  It is more of a puzzle game than other Mario games.  Getting to the end is not the challenge, at least not as much as figuring out how to get there is.  You must find keys guarded by frightening masks.  Passages must be cleared using a limited number of bombs.  Potions that take the player to a shadow area must be thrown in specific areas to get power ups.  All in all it is very different from other Mario games, but Super Mario Bros 2’s uniqueness is a large part of its charm.  There are other strange things in SMB2, though their uniqueness is debatable.  At the risk of spoiling a more than 20 year old game, SMB2 ends with an it was all a dream reveal.  The whole game is Mario’s nightmare.  Another strange thing is Birdo.  Of the manual it to be believed, and being an NES manual it is probably not, then Birdo is some sort of trans character that wishes it was a girl so it could lay eggs.  This is why it shoots eggs out of its nose.  Truly a bewildering creature.  And the 2nd best thing in all of ever (number one of course being Frankenstein’s Monster riding a motorcycle, swinging a sword and quoting Milton) is in this game you pull a turnip out of the ground and it turns into a rocket ship.  Yes, a turnip rocket!

There is no other game like SMB2.  No game has its convoluted history, its puzzley platforming, or the sheer amount of unique weirdness.  Some games may match it in places, but none has them all.  Despite being an entry in a long running franchise, Super Mario Bros 2 is unique.  Even if you do not think it is a good game, in which case you are demonstrably wrong, it’s worth playing just for the novelty of it.  This, the real Super Mario Bros 2 is one of the most fun and individual games on the NES.

pictures from the VG Museum.

25 Years of NES Part 3: Mega Man 2

So Yeah I’ve been gone a while.  I guess a month of not posting is not the ideal way to start a blog.  But between my new job and increased time being spent on my side job I have had little time for writing lately.  So instead of posting maybe once a week I’ve been saving them to get a few post ready so I can provide a continuous stream of content.

Next up in 25 Years of NES is that classic of classics Mega Man 2.

The biggest character to come out of the NES is undeniably Mario.  25 years later, he is still going strong with the recently released masterpiece Super Mario Galaxy 2.  But on the NES, the greatest star was Capcom’s Mega Man.  Mario had 3 great NES games, all of which will be covered in my NES celebration, Mega Man had 2 great games and 4 that were not quite as great but were still very good.  After the NES Mario continued to shine and has never stopped shining.  Mega Man, however, faltered.  There was the Mega Man X series that started great but quickly faded.  There was the GBA Zero series that had its heart in the right place but was more frustrating than fun.  Also on the GBA was the Mega Man Battle Network series, originally a fun Pokemon flavored action RPG but soon degenerated into soulless cash cowing.  On the PS1, there was the truly delightful Legends series.  It had three great games that, while extremely good especially for their system, but were more Zelda than Mega Man.  But despite his troubles after the fall of the NES, on it the pudgy little robot was king.

While the first Mega Man game was good, Mega Man 2 took all that was good about 1 perfected it and expanded upon it and became one of the best games on the system.  The controls are perfect.  Perfect.  There is no possible improvement for them.  The way Mega Man handles is the best ever on the NES.  All other games must be compared to it and all are found wanting.  Much of this has to do with the simple move list: jump and shoot.  Later games added stuff like the charge shot or the slide that marred Mega Man 2’s perfection.  Graphically MM2 is why people remember 8-bit graphics fondly; the graphics here are simple and colorful but clear.  The music is unparalleled.  Some of the best chip tunes.  Mega Man 2 is the NES.

Wood Man's Leafy Stage

So starting with that great base MM2 only gets better.  The best thing about MM1 was the ability to choose the order in which the 6 levels are played.  MM2 kept the choice but gave 8 initial levels instead of 6.  From each of the Master Robots, as the bosses are called, defeated the player receives a new power.  Each of the powers is useful against another one of the bosses.  Half of the fun of the game is trying to find the “correct” order in which to beat the levels and get the power-ups.  Unlike most of the later games, in MM2 the weapons are actually useful in the levels and not just against the bosses.  In the case of the Metal Blades, they are overpowered.  But you gain one for each level; the player gets more and more powerful.  Parts of the game at the beginning that were unbeatably hard become trivial.  Not the any Mega Man game is actually that hard.  They are unforgiving and force the player to play its rules, but once the player submits and lets the game shape the way they play then the games become easy.  The weapons are what makes Mega Man great.  Though Mega Man can only jump and shoot, the differing shooting abilities makes Mega Man a formidable force by the time the player hits Wily’s Castle, the 4 level gauntlet that ends the game.  The feeling you get at the end of the game of having become so much more powerful is one of the greatest feelings in any game and it is particularly great in Mega Man.

Mega Man getting equipped

One of the last great things about this game is the eight master robots:  Quick Man, Flash Man, Wood Man, Air Man, Crash Man, Heat Man, Metal Man, and Bubble Man.  Each one has a good design and the levels fit what each boss is supposed to be.  You can tell which one is weak to which without resorting to trial and error.  Flash Man’s time stopping power is obviously the weapon to use against the speedy Quick Man.  Heat Man decimates Wood Man, etc.  Each Master Robot has a themed level that is wildly different from the others.  Bubble Man’s underwater level makes the player adjust to the different physics of jumping underwater.  Flash Man’s ice level forces the player to carefully control their movements.  Quick Man’s stage’s killer bars keep the player on their toes. (I for one have never beaten it with out the Time Stopper) The levels have a perfect amount of variety and challenge.  And then there is the true test of the game:  Wily’s Castle.  First of all Music.  These stages force the player to use all of the techniques they have learned throughout the game in increasingly difficult challenges.  The game ends with the one bad thing about Mega Man 2, the final boss.  To beat it the player must use the most useless weapon, the Bubble Lead (Pronounced leed not led) to take one bar of life away from the boss until it dies.  It is not actually that hard, just tedious.  And if you die, then you have to spend ten minutes or so farming the weak enemies outside the boss room to get enough weapon energy to defeat him.

The Source of all hate

Despite that one complaint, Mega Man 2 is one of the best games on the system, which is not true of all the games I will be reviewing.  The ability to choose your starting level means that not matter how hard you find the game you can still see the majority of the levels.  But it also keeps the game from being to hard, because any level could be the first level none are that difficult.  Mind you that is not that difficult for an NES game, those weaned on the mollycoddling of newer video games will probably still have some trouble.  But even for them there is an easy mode.  The great graphics, music ,and stellar game-play makes Mega Man 2 one of the greatest games ever, let alone just on the NES. The Blue Bomber shines as brightly here as he ever did.

The end of the fight for everlasting peace?

25 Years of NES Part 2: Life Force

Life Force

The second game in my 25-part retrospective on the Nintendo Entertainment System is about Life Force. I expect everyone recognized the game covered in the first part, but Life Force is much more obscure. Despite is lack of notoriety this is one of the great games on the NES. Life Force is a scrolling shooter, a spin-off of the much more well-know Gradius series that features both horizontal and vertical stages. Among the many things Life Force takes from Gradius is the use of the Vic Viper, the ship that is always used in Gradius and the same upgrade system. Also like Gradius Life Force is awesome.

Life Force began as a Japanese Arcade game called Salamander that when it came time to bring it over to the US they changed it considerable, making it about flying through a giant monster. They also changed the name to Life Force. Then when is cam time to release it for the Famicom, the Japanese equivalent of the NES, they based it on a mix of Life Force and Salamander calling it Salamander. Then it came back over as NES game the name was again Life Force. Outside of its convoluted origins, Life Force has some notable elements. One of the most important parts of a shmup, as these scrolling shooters are called, is the power up system. Life Force uses the Gradius power-up system, where the player collects power-ups and uses them on the ability needed. First is speed up, which makes the ship move faster and is essential to avoiding some of the obstacles. The next slot is missile. That causes missiles to fire from the top and bottom of the ship that hit hard to get too enemies. The next is pulse, which changes the normal shot to a wavy beam. After that is laser, which makes the shot a powerful beam. The last is option. Option gives the player a little drone that fires along with the player. Also, you can have a pair of them and catch them when you die. This power-up system is pretty great because turn the once vulnerable ship into an unstoppable little God. The only problem is that if you die you lose all of those powers and have to collect all of the power-ups again.  Which after the early parts of a level is almost impossible to do.

And die you will, at least at first.  This game is difficult.  Difficult in ways that are not in vogue in the current video game market.  It is not the players twitch skills that need to be honed to beat this game, but the player needs to memorize enemy patterns and level layouts.  In places, if the player does not already know what is coming then there is no way to avoid death.  And once one death hits, due to the building nature of power-ups, more will follow.  There is a reason that that sort of false challenge has been weeded out of gaming; it’s just not fun.  But it is not intolerable in Life Force.  Twitch skills can take you fairly far in this game and just paying attention is all the memorization necessary.  With a few hours of practice, the average player should be able to clear at least the first two levels fairly easily.  The difficulty of also offset by the use of the famous Konami code to give the player thirty lives.  This is also a great tool for learning the stages so you can beat the game legitimately.  One important thing does not contribute to the difficulty: the controls.  The ship feels sluggish at first, but with a few speed-ups, you’ll be zipping around the screen like a pro, then a couple more and you‘ll zip into a wall.

The levels display what is the best part of Life Force:  the crazy stage subjects.  In what only makes since in the context of NES games, and in fact is one the best things about the NES, the player will fly all over the place with no real sense of connection between the stages.  One level looks like the insides of some giant monster, the next you are shooting giant jumping Moai heads.  It’s the brilliant surrealism that made the NES great.  The first stage in this game looks very much like a living creature.  The stage walls and the enemies all seem very organic.  The enemies look like blood cells and the boss is a giant brain.  After that, you go to a simple canyon, now scrolling vertically instead of horizontally, into a military installation of sorts with s robot/flying machine boss.  The third stage is a sun or some such thing, with fire and flaming birds and dragons all over the place.  Then its through a body again, but this time vertically. Then horizontally through some canyons and pyramids with Pharaoh head boss.  The last boss appears to be a planet with  a giant snake curling around it.  All of this rendered in beautiful 8-bits.  The sheer insane variety of stages and enemies is one of the best parts of the game.

Most important to the greatness of Life Force is that it is just plain fun.  You die not being angry that you were killed, but wanting to make another attempt.  Before you know it, you’ve wasted five hours and the game is still a joy to play.  It is pure gaming that can only be found on the NES.

pictures from vgmuseum