Silver Surfer (NES)

The bad news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon. The good news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon and finished first.

This is, of course, the infamous Silver Surfer, designed by Software Creations and published by Arcadia Systems in 1990. If you believe the Internet hype surrounding this title, it’s one of the most maddening, scrote shreddingly impossible games ever made and was probably birthed directly from the unwashed bunghole of Satan himself. If you’re a more reasonable sort and actually familiar with the genre, you’re more likely to see it as a pretty average 8-bit shooter bolstered somewhat by incredible music and a singularly strange sense of style.

It’s also only the third non-Japanese game I’ve reviewed, a natural consequence of my primary focus on the 1980s and 1990s, during which Nintendo and Sega lorded over the North American gaming market the majority of the time. This one comes to us out of the U.K., just like the two games from Rare I reviewed over the summer. I’m looking to cap off the month of October with my first review of a U.S.-developed title, though, so stay tuned for that.

Like several others I’ve played recently (Life Force, Axelay, Abadox), Silver Surfer is a hybrid horizontal and vertical scrolling shooter. In the opening cut scene, the Surfer is summoned by his boss, the arch-villain Galactus, and told that unspecified parties from “beyond” are going to destroy the entire universe and that only the “Cosmic Device” can stop them. Somehow. The Surfer’s mission is to recover the six pieces of the Device, each of which is currently in the hands of a different villain. Honestly, it’s all very vague. I’ve never been a comic book guy and I came away from this game knowing exactly as much about the Silver Surfer and his supporting cast as I did going in: Zero. Good thing I don’t play shooters for their stories!

Starting the game proper, you’re faced with a level selection screen, and can thus choose to play the initial set of five levels in any order you prefer before advancing to the sixth and final one, the Magik Domain. Each level is further subdivided into three distinct sections (two horizontal scrollers and one vertical), giving you a grand total of eighteen stages to complete. Be aware that once you pick one, you’re committed. There’s no going back to the level selection screen until you beat the boss, even if you die or use a continue.

Silver Surfer’s gameplay is based very closely on the well-known Gradius/R-Type model: Shoot down everything you can and try your best to avoid touching anything that isn’t a power-up, since the slightest contact with an enemy or a piece of the level architecture will cost you a life and send you back to the last checkpoint stripped of all your precious upgrades. Some degree of level memorization is required, since lives and continues are limited and you’ll have to restart from the beginning if you mess up too much. It’s a demanding, no-nonsense design philosophy to be sure, and while it’s not to everyone taste, it isn’t inherently unfair or unfun. It took me about eight hours of intense practice before I was able to clear Silver Surfer for the first time and I enjoyed myself quite a bit for most of it. There’s something very satisfying about the learning process that’s built into a game like this. Each stage starts out utterly bewildering and seemingly unwinnable, but as I study the patterns and apply what I’ve learned from each death, everything slowly falls into place and the next thing I know, I can routinely finish it with more lives in stock than I started with. Then I get to move on to the next stage and start the process all over. Again, I’m not saying that this type of game is for everyone. If you’re the type that doesn’t like having to pay close attention to every aspect of the game as they play or that gets angry or resentful when they lose, you shouldn’t feel bad about skipping any game like Silver Surfer.

The main point I’m driving at with all this is that despite its scary reputation, Silver Surfer really isn’t any tougher to complete than the games that inspired it. If you can manage a Gradius or an R-Type, you’re more than capable of handling anything that Silver Surfer can throw at you.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect. One thing that holds Silver Surfer back a bit is the meager selection of power-ups at your disposal. The Surfer’s standard shot is a silver ball that travels forward in a straight line. You can rapid-fire these by tapping the A button. Picking up “F” icons will make the shots more powerful, which is vital for success, but the attack itself never changes in function or appearance. Forget about all the crazy lasers, homing missiles, and plasma waves that you can acquire in other games. It’s just you and your balls. Um. Moving on….

You can also acquire option orbs that will fly alongside the Surfer and mirror each of his shots. These are by far the most important items in the game, as they multiply your damage output and can be manually repositioned with the B button to fire ahead of you, behind you, below you, and more. Once you get hold of one, do your damnedest not to die and lose it. Oddly, the Surfer can utilize two orbs at once in the overhead view stages but is limited to just a single orb in the side view ones.

Next, there are bombs (represented by a “B” icon) and these will allow you to instantly destroy all non-boss enemies on the screen with a press of the select button. These can and will save your bacon, so try not to forget about them or get so obsessed with conserving them that you lose a life when you could have hit the panic button instead.

Lastly, there’s a red “S” power-up that will boost the Surfer’s movement speed and a silver “S” that grants an extra life.

These power-ups definitely get the job done, but they’re not very flashy or fun in and of themselves. I really would have preferred more attack and defense options.

Another issue is the Surfer himself. He’s a very large character by shooter standards, easily twice the size of a typical on-screen avatar, and he moves abnormally slow as well. This makes level memorization all the more important, as you’ll usually need to know exactly where an enemy or other hazard will appear if you want to have any chance of being able to avoid it or get into position to shoot it down. The aforementioned speed boost item also appears all too rarely. Treasure it while it lasts.

These gripes are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, but one common complaint about the game absolutely rings true: You’re going to be jamming on that fire button. A lot. Silver Surfer commits the cardinal shooter sin of expecting you to be blazing away with your weapon constantly while not giving you any kind of automatic fire option. One tap equals one bullet. I must have some kind of superhuman thumb power to have survived eight hours of this game over two days unscathed. If you’re prone to hand cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, or similar, do yourself a favor and try a turbo controller. It may be cheating, but it’s better than the alternative if pain would be an issue for you.

The other thing that the Internet absolutely gets right about Silver Surfer is the copious praise heaped on its magnificent soundtrack. We have the legendary Follin brothers, Tim and Geoff, to thank for fifteen of the most mindblowing minutes of music to ever be crammed into a tiny 8-bit cartridge. It’s pure prog rock sorcery and reminds a bit of the band Dream Theater’s output, which is a very good thing. The arrangements are incredibly intricate and far, far ahead of what almost anyone else was attempting on the hardware. The sound is so rich and full that it’s difficult at times to believe that these tunes are actually coming out of an unmodified NES. The songs are not just great by ancient video game console standards, they’re simply great and worth seeking out even if you never play the game.

One element of the game that’s not often commented on is the borderline psychedelic visual style of many of the stages. Possessor’s level has you flying through outer space past what appear to be lime green busts of H.P. Lovecraft perched on Doric pedestals while cannons fire an endless stream of deadly exploding heads up at you. The Magik Domain sees you battling flying top hats, a giant lobster, and the single strangest enemy I’ve ever seen in a video game: An undead elephant head suspended by hooks driven through strips of its flayed flesh. The elephant head drips deadly snot onto a mirror. In space. That’s just…mental, man. I am in awe. Whatever dismembered Hellraiser elephant’s backstory is, I bet it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the Surfer’s. Maybe I should start reading comics after all.

Can I recommend Silver Surfer? For general audiences, probably not. It just doesn’t provide enough instant gratification to make it seem worthwhile to anyone lukewarm on the genre. For old school shooter enthusiasts? Absolutely. While it’s not full-featured or refined enough to rank as an all-time classic, it’s still an exhilarating, satisfying challenge bundled with some of the oddest visuals around and music that’s guaranteed to rock your face off. You can do better on the system, but you can also do a whole lot worse. As usual, the lesson here is to think for yourself. Don’t base your opinions on hearsay or YouTube videos or even reviews like this one. If a game looks interesting, pop it in and take it for a spin! You never know what “bad” games you might end up having a great time with.

Unless you’re that poor space elephant. He wasn’t having a great time at all.

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