Kid Icarus (NES)

Hell, yes, Kid Icarus! I remember loving this one a lot as a kid, but I haven’t touched it since then. Considering that so much time has passed, it’s surprising just how quickly I was able to get comfortable with it again during my play session last night. I was able to complete the game in just a few hours and that’s allowing for being a bit of a perfectionist about getting all the extra items and upgrades. The game’s thirteen levels really aren’t that long.

To start off, I can confirm that Kid Icarus is still super lovable. From the unforgettable enemies like like the histrionic grim reapers and the infamous eggplant wizards, to the excellent sountrack by “Hip” Tanaka, to the adorably incoherent take on Greco-Roman mythology. It’s hard not to like all this.

The mix of vertical and horizontal scrolling platforming levels really holds up. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the three dungeon levels where you seek out and defeat the game’s bosses. The only difficult enemies here are the eggplant wizards and they’re really more annoying than they are tough, since they can force you to backtrack to find a cure if they manage to successfully transform you. This was also the era before Nintendo really nailed satisfying boss fights (Bowser in SMB1 being another example), so the ones here just kind of derp around slowly in super basic patterns until you put them out of their misery. Another downside is that the cool optional weapons that you can collect like the fire arrows don’t work in the dungeons, which seems arbitrary and not particularly fun.

I’ve seen this game described online as difficult (even “brutal”), but frankly, I don’t see it. You can take a good number of hits from enemies, even before health upgrades. The jumping controls are very precise and enemies don’t knock you around when they hit you, so the platforming bits are very managable. Puzzling out the correct path in the dungeons can take some time, but you’re never saddled with a time limit. All this combines to make the game challenging but in no way extreme.

Ultimately, I recommend Kid Icarus very highly. Although the dungeon levels and the final overly easy flying stage may not hold up that well, the platforming portions are awesome and the quirky factor is through the roof.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some eggplant parmesan to fry up….

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StarTropics (NES)

StarTropics: Because sometimes you just need to shove bananas in your ears.

So, what do I think after beating it? Despite what some have said, I don’t think it’s any kind of unsung classic or one of the best games on the system or anything like that. Not by a long shot. It is, however, extremely charming in a goofy way, packs some decent challenge, and is a worthwhile experience overall.

To elaborate:

As far as pros go, this game is beautifully presented, with colorful graphics, catchy music, and a relentlessly goofy story. The ending is also much more elaborate than most other games from the era. It provides a healthy challenge and a real sense of accomplishment when you finally topple the final boss.

But then the problems set in. First of all, the elephant in the room has to be the controls. Jumping and attacking feels fine for the most part, but the one thing you do more than either of those, simply walking around, feels absolutely horrid. Merely turning while in motion involves your character stopping completely, then turning in place, then pausing again for a moment before finally starting off in the new direction. It’s absolutely inane and makes the movement feel sticky, choppy, and delayed. Your character always seems to be playing catch up, several steps behind your inputs at any given time. This is especially odd because Nintendo themselves had previously nailed responsive overhead action controls in The Legend of Zelda years before! Another strange design choice is that you’re limited to jumping straight up unless you’re leaping onto a block or switch, despite the fact that there seems to be no good reason not to allow for a forward jump on open ground. I’ve heard this control defended by saying that it’s intended to allow you to change your character’s facing to attack in different directions without moving much if needed, but a very quick tap on the directional pad is sufficient to do this most of the time in Zelda, so I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s all the games like Contra and Ninja Gaiden that I’ve played recently where just moving around the screen feels really good, but the movement here was such a drag for me.

Additionally, this game is very linear, much moreso than the Dragon Quest and Legend of Zelda games that clearly influenced it. The dungeons are where all the real gameplay lives and the overworld segments linking them provide no real challenge (other than one very clever musical puzzle, perhaps) and little in the way of secrets to uncover. They could almost be replaced by static cutscenes with little real change to the core gameplay experience. At least some branching paths or sidequests could have helped make the overworld sections more interesting and meaningful.

Finally, character progression feels very limited because your inventory of found items is cleared both every time you die and every time you clear a dungeon. With only the ability to permanently gain extra heart containers and primary weapon upgrades, there’s not the same sense of variety and growth that a game like Zelda offers with its bow, boomerang, magic wand, etc.

But overall, StarTropics is good enough for what it is: A charming, simple, but deceptively challenging puzzle platformer. It’s definitely worth your time, once you set your expectations accordingly and adapt to some flawed play control.

Radicola!

Super C (NES)

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Hahaha! Yes! Beat Super C for the first time ever and pulled it off without continuing! This feels amazing!

Unlike the original Contra, I’d never played Super C until last week. Unless you count the first level a couple times in the arcade growing up. Essentially, it’s a whole new game to me.

Overall, it was awesome! Do I like it better than the original? Hard to say. Correcting for nostalgia is hard, but Super C does have many advantages. The graphics are greatly improved, the guns have all been slightly redesigned to be better balanced and more fun, the bosses are generally more dynamic and varied, and levels are lengthier.

Other changes are more subject to personal taste. Some might appreciate that the slower-paced pseudo-3D base levels are replaced with zippier overhead ones that feel ripped from a game like Commando. The game is also harder: Contra allowed players to continue three times, Super C only allows it twice. Essentially, you get three fewer lives. The action in general also seems more intense to me, with tougher enemies and longer levels.

Cons? Level design is a bit simplifed here, I feel. Stages like the first and fifth in Contra had multiple platform levels to jump up to, drop down from, and battle on. Super C’s equivalent levels like one and three lack this verticality and are more straight sprints to the finish. Additionally, level seven has you descending a shaft and clearing away aliens rather slowly and methodically when compared to most other levels and I found it a bit of a bore.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter, since it’s more NES Contra and that rules! Remember, no matter what anyone tells you, you don’t need a shirt to save the world.

Contra (NES)

My first time beating Contra legit solo. For an all-time classic, the ending is pretty weak.

It’s still right up there with Castlevania for me in the “short but satisfying Konami masterpiece” category, though. It took me only about a half hour but I wasn’t bored for a single second of it! A good reminder that not every game needs to cram in enough play time to qualify as a second job.

It also makes me reflect on cheat codes as inspired game design. Contra features the most well-known code in all of gaming. Contrary to popular belief, though, it didn’t debut it. The code first appeared in the NES port of Gradius the previous year. Although I don’t need to use it myself anymore, the ability to multiply your starting lives by ten turned Contra into a game that anyone could play and beat and its inclusion alone makes the NES version a superior achievement over the arcade original, despite the graphical downgrade. In addition, making this difficulty modifier a “secret” cheat code only added to the schoolyard cool factor at the time. Other great action-platformers left their mark, but Contra is the one that every kid who played games in the ’80s is virtually guaranteed to remember and it’s due in large part to that legendary code.

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

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Shocking gamer confession: I’ve never actually played the more difficult “second quest” in the original Legend of Zelda until this week!

No more! I’m now happy to say that I’ve finally truly experienced all that this pioneering title has to offer and I did it without reference to any outside material: No maps, hints, walkthroughs, or anything else. Just pure exploration. Sure, finding dungeons six through eight was a challenge, but it was more than worth it for the awesome satisfaction of finally bombing just the right cliffside or burning just the right bush, and I wouldn’t trade that time I spent lost in Hyrule for anything. Looking at horribly misguided reviews online for this amazing masterpiece make me so glad that my old guy gaming experience has equipped me with the ability to actively enjoy not having a big glowing map marker telling me where my next objective is at all times.

I’ve also noticed people often write off the combat mechanics in the original Zelda game as overly simplistic and point to various sequels as the point where it got good, but I can tell you one thing: Being sealed inside a room full of darknuts or wizzrobes (especially the dreaded blue ones!) when you’re low on health is one pulse-pounding affair. The action here may be basic on a surface level, but it’s as tricky and compelling as it is simple.

Sometimes it really is about the journey and not the destination.