RollerGames (NES)

Donald? Is that you?

Konami really were miracle workers back in the day. Case in point: 1990’s RollerGames, in which they managed to take a short-lived cross between roller derby and pro wrestling that also included dance numbers and a pit of live alligators and somehow turn it into an even stupider NES game. That takes vision.

I have no recollection at all of the RollerGames television show that debuted back in 1989. Looking up clips in preparation for this review, it’s clear that I was missing out. It’s a prime slice of vintage cheese that certainly couldn’t exist as it did in our present jaded age. If you’re looking for an old school “sports entertainment” companion piece to G.L.O.W. and the golden age WWF, look no further. It also drew big ratings. Despite this, several of the producers still managed to go bankrupt and the show abruptly vanished from the airwaves after only one season.

RollerGames’ brief moment in the sun was somehow still enough to inspire not just one, but three game adaptations, all of which were doomed to reach the general public after the tv show itself had already been consigned to the pop culture memory hole. Williams put out a pinball table and Konami released two completely distinct video games. The arcade RollerGames was a straightforward attempt to replicate the roller derby action of the show. Since it relied heavily on powerful arcade hardware to dynamically shift the player’s view of the track around during play, however, it was clearly unsuitable for conversion to the humble NES. Instead, Konami (in the paper-thin guise of their front company Ultra Games) took things in an entirely different, much less sane direction and gave us this off-kilter platformer/beat-’em-up hybrid where your favorite prime time derby heroes strap on their skates to do battle with terrorists.

Yes, it seems that the sinister criminal organization V.I.P.E.R. (Vicious International Punks and Eternal Renegades) has joined forces with three “evil” derby teams and abducted RollerGames league commissioner Emerson “Skeeter” Bankhead. Oh no! Not Skeeter! Only members of the three remaining “good” teams have what it takes to rescue their boss. Why? According to the manual, “the CIA and FBI lack the speed, cunning, and sheer brute force for this job.” Huh. Well, I suppose I never have seen them do much in the way of skating, so…fair enough.

Naturally, I love this premise. It’s stupid in the best possible way and one of the high points of the whole package. RollerGames isn’t a top tier NES title by any means, but everything it does well stems directly from this decision to not even attempt to be a proper roller derby game. While I’m on the subject, just imagine how much more fun all those terrible WWF games for the NES could have been if they’d abandoned all pretense of delivering a realistic ringside experience and just had Andre the Giant fight an attack helicopter. Alas.

You’ll start out in RollerGames by choosing one of three teams, which functions as a character select. The three available characters are based on the Holy Trinity of beat-’em-ups: Ice Box of the T-Birds is the strong and slow one, Rolling Thunder of Hot Flash is the weak and fast one, and California Kid of the Rockers is the balanced one. In theory, the game’s mixture of platforming and hand-to-hand combat should mean that all the characters are viable, but do yourself a favor and avoid Ice Box. The jumps in this game are far deadlier than the brawling and he really struggles to clear some of the tricker obstacles. Thankfully, you’re able to change characters any time you lose all your lives and use a continue, so you’ll never be stuck using a character you don’t like all the way through the game.

RollerGames has a total of twelve stages, with the action unfolding in the sort of 3/4 view typical of post-Renegade brawlers. Most of the time, however, you’re not engaging in fisticuffs, but instead skating over, around, and through a bevy of environmental hazards that function as sadistic obstacle courses. The threats placed in your path can be divided up into two broad categories: Stuff that kills you outright (pits, bodies of water, spikes) and stuff that will just knock you down and deplete a small chunk of your health on contact (barrels, oil slicks, flamethrowers). Your character’s health bar is quite large, so you’re able to make quite a few missteps around lesser dangers before the cumulative damage does you in. It’s the instant kill stuff that you really need to worry about, since none of the stages in RollerGames have checkpoints. Fall in a hole and you start the whole stage over from the beginning. At least the stages themselves are fairly short and the continues unlimited.

Every now and then, usually around twice per stage, you’ll reach a point where the scrolling halts for a time and you transition into a “fight scene.” Here, the movement controls that you use in the rest of the stage are temporarily replaced by new ones that handle more like a standard beat-’em-up and you’ll have to fight off several waves of enemy skaters before you’ll be allowed to move on. Combat is fairly basic, with typical punches and kicks, a jumping kick, and a “hair pull into throw” attack straight out of Double Dragon. You also have a lunging super attack activated by pressing A and B simultaneously that deals extra damage, but can only be used three times in a given stage. Most of the game’s boss fights also take place in this mode.

Just to add a little more variety, the game also includes two highway stages, which are auto-scrolling affairs where your character has to navigate a hazard-strewn roadway on the way to the next main stage. Other than not being able to set the place yourself, these don’t really play that differently from the normal platforming segments. They do end with some rather odd boss fights, though: A huge vehicle shows up and hurls projectiles at your character until it just sort of gets bored and leaves. You can’t actually attack these guys. You just dodge the crap they chuck your way for an arbitrary amount of time and then you win. That’s a new one on me!

Like I mentioned above, RollerGames is far from a perfect action game. The biggest issue by far is that the gameplay is wildly unbalanced. The designers clearly went out of their way to throw many different types of challenge at the player, but only one type (the insta-kill pits and spikes) ultimately matters and ends up defining the experience. The non-lethal obstacles in the platforming sections are nuisances at worst and the beat-’em-up combat is extremely simple and easy, with brain dead enemies all too happy to repeatedly march face first into your hero’s waiting fists.

Another aspect of the gameplay that seems to annoy many (at least based on other reviews I’ve seen) is the control. Specifically, the loose, slippery movement. Your character can’t really stop or turn on a dime, nor can they accelerate to full speed instantly. Many jumps also require just the right amount of momentum, otherwise you’ll over or under-shoot your landing and pay for it with a life. Basically, every stage here feels like the ice level from most other platformers. While I understand the frustration stemming from this, I also recognize that it’s what sets RollerGames apart from the crowd and hesitate to call it an outright flaw. Your characters are supposed to be zipping around on skates, after all, so it’s only fitting that the movement reflects that. Even if it is defensible as a design choice, the resulting learning curve is steep and you can expect to die a lot at first.

As unbalanced and awkward as it can be, RollerGames still packs a lot of charm into one dirt cheap cartridge. Beyond just the glorious absurdity of roller skating through a jungle dodging giant piranhas, the visuals and audio both demostrate a level of quality befitting a world class developer. There’s some very good use of color and the character sprites are large and detailed, with the exception of the distinctive blank faces seen in many other 8-bit Konami titles like Castlevania and Contra. The music is also above average thanks to some catchy melodies and punchy drum samples. If you don’t mind putting in the time needed to master its finicky controls, this one is more than worth its current Starbucks latte asking price.

Besides, why just skate or die when you can do both?

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