Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES)

Dang. I will never, ever be that perky first thing in the morning.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master, also known as Pajama Hīrō Nīmō (“Pajama Hero Nemo”) in Japan, is a 1990 NES platformer by Capcom with a most unusual origin. It’s based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by American cartoonist Windsor McCay. While largely forgotten by the public today, McCay’s comic was groundbreaking when it first hit newspapers all the way back in 1905. The strip chronicled the nocturnal adventures of a young boy named Nemo (modeled on McCay’s own son Robert) who traversed a bewildering array of surreal and colorful dreamscapes each night, all from the comfort of his bed. Each story invariably ended with Nemo waking up and often he would tumble out of bed and make a ruckus in the process, much to the frustration of his parents. The original Nemo comics ended in 1926, but McCay’s wildly imaginative artistic stylings would prove to be a major source of inspiration for future generations of cartoonists.

Why was a newspaper comic strip that had then been defunct for over sixty years chosen as the subject of an NES game? And by such a major player as Capcom, no less? As it turns out, Japan had just seen the long-delayed release of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an animated film adaptation of the comic strip. The movie was a U.S.-Japan co-production with an extremely long and troubled history. Work on the film started all the way back in the early 1980s and numerous scripts were commissioned and thrown out as the years passed. At some point or another, George Lucas, Chris Columbus, Jean “Mœbius” Giraud, Ray Bradbury, and Hayao Miyazaki were all attached to the project. Miyazaki later described the ordeal as the worst experience of his career. Ouch.

The film finally did come out and met with highly mixed reviews. The animation was considered quite lovely, but critics savaged the plot and characters. Audiences simply stayed away and the Nemo movie was considered to be a box office bomb, both on its initial 1989 release in Japan and its eventual U.S. release in 1992.

What did all this mean for the average kid playing this game back in 1990? In my case, not much! I’d never heard of the comic or the film (which wouldn’t even be out here for two years yet) and had no idea that this was a licensed game at all. I doubt I was alone.

It’s really a pity that this game’s subject matter is so obscure, because I consider Little Nemo: The Dream Master to be not only a great game, but also the very best of Capcom’s licensed platformers. Yes, that includes the Disney ones. Sorry, DuckTales.

The story of Little Nemo the game roughly follows that of the movie. One night in New York, circa 1905, Nemo is approached in his bedroom by emissaries of the kingdom of Slumberland and invited to come be the new playmate (insert your own filthy innuendo here) of its princess, Camille. At first reluctant to play with an icky girl, Nemo finally agrees after being bribed with candy and takes off on an enchanted airship bound for Slumberland, where he eventually discovers that not everything is as peaceful and idyllic as he’d been led to believe and only he can save the land from the fearsome Nightmare King.

Once you start playing, Little Nemo seems like a typical post-Mario platformer. Nemo can run, jump, crouch, and throw candy at enemies. The one thing he can’t do, though, is kill anything. Trying to jump on foes will result in damage and hitting them with candy will only stun them for a brief time. Quickly, though, you’ll discover the game’s central hook: Some enemies, when fed candy, can be tamed. This will allow Nemo to utilize that enemy’s special abilities, either by riding on their backs or by transforming himself into a new form resembling the enemy in question. Each tamable enemy has its own special movement abilities and attacks. For example, Nemo can climb up walls while riding on the lizard, climb trees and punch enemies while riding the gorilla, and fly and shoot stingers in hornet form. Many of the animals are also tougher than Nemo and can withstand more than the three hits that he can before dying. Finding the right enemy to commandeer at the right time is vital to acquiring all the hidden keys scattered throughout each level. These are needed to open the locked door at the end and progress in the game. This “hijacking enemy abilities” mechanic marks Little Nemo as a clear precursor to Kirby’s Adventure and also seems like it might have influenced the ghost possession ability that Jaleco’s Avenging Spirit would feature in 1991.

A few of the game’s eight stages give you something to do other than collect keys. The House of Toys is a hectic auto-scrolling stage where Nemo must dodge bombs, spikes, and dive-bombing miniature planes while riding on the top of a giant toy train. The final stage, Nightmare Land, changes up the core gameplay drastically by getting rid of the keys altogether and giving a Nemo a weapon and three tough bosses to fight with it.

I really can’t say enough good things about Little Nemo’s platforming action and level design. Controls are precise and responsive, the wide variety of different abilities and attacks are fun to use, and the stages themselves are all unique and inventive. The only potential annoyance is the constant enemy respawning. Like in many 8-bit platformers, leaving a screen and then returning will result in all defeated enemies reappearing in their original positions. If you’re already used to how this works in Ninja Gaiden and many other scrolling action games of the period, though, you might not find it all that objectionable. The game’s difficulty curve is quite smooth overall, but don’t let the cute characters fool you: None of these levels are easy enough to be flat-out dull and each is just a little bit trickier than the last, all building up to the very satisfying boss gauntlet in Nightmare Land.

All of this amazing gameplay is accompanied by some of the most striking and colorful visuals the NES has to offer. Nemo, his enemies, and Slumberland itself are all packed with no end of charm. I absolutely adore the character animation, particularly how Nemo and his animal friends seem to prance and bop along in time with the music as they make their way across the landscapes. And what landscapes they are! Mushroom forests, fields of giant flowers, an upside-down house, a ruined city in the clouds, and more. The soundtrack by Junko Tamiya is perfectly in synch with the game’s tone throughout. Most of the tracks are serene and, well, dreamy, befitting the whimsical scenarios unfolding on screen. They call to mind lullabies, circus tunes, and even chamber music. Once you get to Nightmare Land, though, the gloves come off and the score starts to rock, sounding a lot like Tamiya’s other work on the high octane Street Fighter 2010. Within the technical limitations of the console, the combined presentation just about perfectly conveys the sense of childlike wonder that characterized the old Nemo comics. Capcom really did know how to do the very best with what they had.

Revisiting Little Nemo after so long has only left me more impressed than ever. This really is a top tier platformer that can hold its own alongside Capcom’s best. It brings together sublime atmosphere, an abundance of gameplay variety, innovative mechanics, perfect controls, and masterful level design. A couple of the design elements, like the endlessly respawning enemies and the auto-scrolling train level, might not suit every player’s tastes, but there’s no aspect of Little Nemo that stands out as lazy or downright bad. Even the cut scenes and ending are above average for the time.

So remember, kids: Always accept gifts of candy from odd strangers in exchange for becoming their “playmates.” An unforgettable time is guaranteed!

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