Metroid (NES)

Space bikini is best bikini!

Sometimes I think I was made to chronicle the arcane oddities time forgot. When my task is to focus on one of the the all-time capital G Greats, I always seem to come down with a vicious amalgamation of stage fright and writer’s block. This is never more true than when tackling one of the Holy Trinity of world-shaking Nintendo titles that came out in that golden year between the Fall seasons of 1985 and 1986: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. There’s just no way I’m going to say something no one ever has before about a game that immediately became its very own genre upon release and is still spawning acclaimed imitators like Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge more than three decades later. Still, my continuing mission is to review each and every game I complete and I recently wrapped up a couple playthroughs of Metroid, so damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

In the interest of accuracy, I should first qualify that statement about Metroid founding its own genre. I’m very much aware that space hunter Samus Aran didn’t emerge fully-formed from the Nintendo R&D1 design team’s collective brow like Athena (the goddess, not the terrible SNK game). Pitfall! had introduced the world to exploratory platforming in 1982 and games with shooting combat and persistent character upgrades are older still. Metroid’s genius was taking almost everything that was hot in gaming circa 1986 (running, jumping, shooting, exploration, character progression) and synthesizing it all into one exceptionally palatable dish served with a garnish of slick graphics and house composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s brooding score. It felt so fresh to so many that any retroactive quibbling over whether it really was or not is ultimately petty.

Metroid opens in the vague future year 20X5. A ruthless band of space pirates led by an entity known as Mother Brain have attacked a Galactic Federation research ship and stolen samples of a newly-discovered life form with powerful energy absorption abilities, the Metroids. Left to their own devices, it’s only a matter of time before the pirates succeed at weaponizing the Metroids and bring all of galactic civilization to its knees. In desperation, the Federation sends ace bounty hunter Samus on a last-ditch solo mission to infiltrate the subterranean fortress planet Zebes and neutralize the Metroid threat. It won’t be easy. Zebes is a sprawling maze teeming with hostile creatures and Samus starts out with very little in the way of equipment. Its deadly corridors must be scoured with care in order to acquire the many power suit upgrades necessary to eliminate the two space pirate lieutenants, Ridley and Kraid, which will, in turn, reveal the way to Mother Brain’s inner sanctum.

Of course, no discussion of Metroid’s story would be complete if it didn’t address the big twist. Reach the end in under five hours and the mysterious masked hero Samus is revealed to be…a woman! This is hardly big spoiler material 33 years on, but the most interesting thing about it for me personally is that I have no specific recollection of discovering it. I certainly owned the game back around the time of its North American release. I sank so much time into it, in fact, that I was still able to track down every item within a couple of hours during my most recent play session despite not having touched it in decades. Combing through all those detailed memories, however, there’s nothing remotely approximating the standard anecdote about being shocked or blown away by Samus’ gender reveal. Was I just some uncommonly open-minded ten year-old that didn’t see a lady video game hero as all that unlikely? Beats me.

As with the first Legend of Zelda, certain elements of Metroid have proven contentious for fans of its many sequels and imitators. To put it bluntly, this game doesn’t hold your hand. At all. From the instant you hit Start on the title screen, you’re plopped down into the Brinstar, the game’s main hub area, with nothing but a paltry amount of health, a weak gun that can’t hit anything more than a couple inches distant, and your wits. You get no built-in map feature, no helpful NPCs to point you in the right direction, no hints whatsoever really. The manual does an admirable job of detailing the controls as well as all the items you can find and enemies you’ll encounter, but that’s all. Your choices are to either march off and get yourself lost in a perilous environment or to get hold of somebody else’s pre-made map (i.e. cheat).

Compounding the potential bewilderment, level structure here is open to a downright anarchic degree. Most Metroid-likes, while proudly billing themselves as open and non-linear, actually prefer to subtly nudge the player around by gating large chunks of their worlds off behind conspicuous barriers that require specific upgrades to pass. Metroid doesn’t care. Once you acquire the bombs and at least a few missiles early on in Brinstar, you can technically go anywhere and do anything, with the lone exception of taking on Mother Brain herself. If you want to wander into an area filled with ultra-tough critters that can take you out in a few seconds flat, you won’t be stopped. You won’t even be warned.

It’s not hard to imagine how players accustomed to more in the way of so-called signposting could be frustrated to no end by these design choices. Resisting the urge to fly into full-on “kids these days” mode like the crotchety old man I am, I will say that Metroid is a product of its time, made by and for old-school adventure game players. From that vantage point, getting lost and confused, dying a lot, methodically probing each and every dead for secret passages, and creating your own maps by hand aren’t bugs, they’re features. If, like me, you’re the type that gets a major rush from finally finding the correct hidden route to a boss or power-up after what feels like an eternity of fruitless searching, Metroid’s a game for you. If you’d prefer a handy flashing arrow directing you to your next objective, you’re gonna have a bad time.

This isn’t to say that all of Metroid’s flaws are subjective. Replenishing Samus’ lost health is a major pain. She starts her adventure with a maximum health of 99 and can eventually increase that to almost 700 by collecting energy tanks. For whatever reason, though, every time you continue your game, be it after a death or via password save, you’re only given a measly 30 units of health, barely enough to a withstand a couple of hits. The only way to regain health, aside from locating another of the rare and finite energy tanks, is to farm weak enemies for healing pickups. These drop inconsistently and most only restore five points at a time. It requires the forbearance of an 8-bit saint to sit there and grind all the way back to full energy in the late game.

There are also some instances of cheap damage to contend with. Many areas of the game are linked by doors and Samus is unable to move during the panning screen transition that occurs whenever a doorway is entered. Her enemies have no such restrictions and will continue to move around and deal their damage during these brief interludes. Getting followed through a doorway by a strong baddie while your energy reserves are low is a virtual death sentence. It would have been a small thing to render Samus temporarily invulnerable while she’s immobilized in this way. As it is, it stands out as sloppy.

While these rough patches are very much real and worth noting, I don’t feel they detract in any meaningful way from what Metroid achieved back in the mid ’80s or what it still has to offer the most patient of modern day enthusiasts. Its stark environments, eerie soundtrack, and general lack of clemency foster a profound sense of player immersion. You really do feel like a lone warrior stranded deep behind enemy lines on an uncharted alien world. Every element of the design and presentation supports this singular vision of claustrophobic dread and isolation. This quality is what made Metroid one of the very first truly atmospheric console releases and the effect remains as potent as ever when the game is approached as intended today. It’s also what sets this debut entry in the franchise apart from its successors, all of which relied on more linear progression schemes, auto-maps, and NPC hints to soften that hardcore edge some. I can’t say there’s anything strictly wrong with such measures, though I do liken them to adding a net to a perfectly good trapeze act. Crotchety old man, remember?

If you take away one thing from all this, let it be that Metroid is an instant classic, an enduring design landmark, and a must-play video game, provided you have the correct temperament for it. Gamer, know thyself.

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Nazo no Murasame Jō (Famicom)

It’s a new year! What better time than now to start exploring the Famicom Disk System?

Nintendo introduced the FDS add-on to Japanese gamers in 1986, billing it as the future of the then three year-old console. True to the name, Disk System games came on bright yellow proprietary floppy disks. The 112 KB storage capacity of these was a major step up from the ROM chips included in most cartridge games of the time. The original Super Mario Bros., for example, had to be crammed into a measly 40 KB. FDS disks were also considerably less expensive than cartridges and their rewritable nature gave players an easy way save their gameplay data. Nintendo even operated special store kiosks where used FDS disks could be overwritten with entirely different games for a fraction of the cost of a full retail release. Oh, and the disk drive itself also added some additional sound hardware. Can’t forget about that.

With all these cutting edge features, the Disk System was initially a significant success. Over four million units were sold and it would serve as the birthplace of some of the industry’s longest-running franchises, including Metroid and Castlevania. All good things must come to an end, however, and it’s no accident that the rest of the world never saw an NES disk unit. It became clear to Nintendo early on that the very same lower costs and rewritability that made floppy disks so appealing to consumers also made them downright irresistible to software pirates and bootleggers. Worse still, evolving ROM chip technology quickly turned the FDS disk’s much-vaunted 112 KB storage capacity into a liability. Consider a popular late period game like 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure, which would have required no fewer than seven disks to hold all 768 KB of its data. Major developers were soon eager to move their important projects back to cartridge and the FDS’s library after 1988 is predominantly low-effort shovelware and unlicensed softcore porn games.

Enough about the Disk System’s drawn-out demise, though. Let’s concentrate on the good times with a title from its heyday of 1986. It would make the most sense for me to start out with the first original title developed for the disk format, but it turns out that game happens to be some little-known oddity called The Legend of Zelda. Who wants to hear about a forgotten turd like that when I could be focusing on the FDS’s second original release, Nazo no Murasame Jō (“The Mysterious Murasame Castle”)? I’ll be playing it on an EverDrive N8 flash cartridge, which has the ability to boot up FDS games (loading screens and all) on a standard console with no need for the actual peripheral.

Nazo no Murasame Jō is an overhead view action game set in Edo period Japan and starring a young apprentice samurai named Takamaru, who’s been dispatched by the shogun to investigate reports of disturbing goings on in the region surrounding the eponymous castle. The trouble all stems from a malevolent alien creature that fell from the sky in the vicinity of Murasame Castle and has been gradually extending its influence over the neighboring lands, bringing the lords of four other nearby castles (Aosame, Akasame, Ryokusame, and Momosame) under its corrupting power in the process. Armed only with his sword and throwing knives, Takamaru must storm each of the five castles in turn before he can finally challenge the alien invader itself to a duel to the death in the heart of Murasame.

Kidding aside, the game that Nazo no Murasame Jō will remind most players of is indeed the first Legend of Zelda. The combination of the non-scrolling overhead perspective with Takamaru’s distinctly Link-ish movement and sword combat makes it quite obvious that Nintendo developed the two games concurrently. Whereas Zelda was an exploration-based adventure game with action elements, however, Nazo no Murasame Jō serves up a much more traditional pure action experience. There’s no open overworld here. Each of the five castles consists of two distinct stages: An outdoor one that has Takamaru fighting his way to the castle gate and an interior one where he must defeat that castle’s boss. There is the occasional branching path along the way, but these are mostly limited to small cul-de-sacs off the main route that can be braved in hopes of finding some handy power-ups or an extra life. While you won’t be wracking your brain over where to go next, you’ll hardly be bored. Takamaru is subject to near-constant attack from all sides and his assailants are far more numerous and aggressive than the ones in Zelda. He can only withstand three hits before losing a life and running out of lives means restarting the current stage from scratch.

These differences collectively make Nazo no Murasame Jō a much more challenging game than I anticipated. Certainly more so than the majority of first-party Nintendo games. It’s less Super Mario Bros. in spirit and more Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels). The assorted enemy samurai, demons, wizards, and tengu all show no mercy. And the ninja! So many ninja spawn in non-stop to harass Takamaru on nearly every screen. There are shuriken-throwing ones, fireball-throwing ones, invisible ones, exploding ones, invisible exploding ones, the works. The game isn’t impossible by any means due to its unlimited continues and save feature, but your thumbs are in for a quite the workout.

Thankfully, I can also report that the combat mechanics themselves keep all this chaos as enjoyable as it is unrelenting. Takamaru’s sword and knife attacks are both rather elegantly mapped to the A button. Pressing it while an enemy or a deflectable projectile is within melee range results in a sword swipe. Otherwise, he’ll toss a knife. This spares the player from having to second guess themselves over which attack to use in a given circumstance and frees up the B button for special techniques. These techniques consist of an invisibility cloak that renders Takamaru immune to damage for a brief period and a lighting attack that instantly destroys all non-boss enemies on the screen. Powerful as they are, special techniques have a limited number of uses and refills are scarce, so be sure to use them wisely.

Beyond this, the only real extra complexity comes in the form of the various power-ups scattered throughout the stages. These are usually not just laying around in plain sight, but instead only appear when their hiding spots are walked over. Some boost movement speed, confer temporary invincibility, or heal damage, but most improve Takamaru’s throwing knife attack in some way, either by upgrading the standard knives to more damaging pinwheels or fireballs or by allowing him to shoot in multiple directions at once. Just try not to grow too attached to a given power-up, as losing a life will reset Takamaru to his default capabilities.

The graphics share the same clean, colorful aesthetic that characterizes much of Nintendo’s early 8-bit work. Simple as it is, there’s obviously a real timelessness to it. If there’s a weakness here, I feel it has to be on a conceptual level as opposed to a technical one. The game simply doesn’t lean hard enough into its weird backstory. You’re supposed to be playing as a samurai hunting down a freaking space alien, yet every location you visit and enemy you encounter prior to the very last level reflects a fairly standard take on traditional Japanese history and mythology. Talk about an underdeveloped premise!

The soundtrack by Koji Kondo is above average by the standards of the time, but doesn’t really stand toe-to-toe with his more famous works from the Mario and Zelda series. The tunes have the expected ancient Japanese feel to them and suit the material just fine. I just don’t see myself humming any of these melodies in the shower. The track that plays over the ending feels pretty lazy, too. It’s just the “Ode to Joy” bit from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Maybe Kondo was crunched for time and decided to just say “screw it” and go public domain?

At its heart, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a simple pick-up-and-play hack-and-slasher with plenty of challenge and that distinctive Nintendo 8-bit house style. While surely the odd man out when sandwiched between two other Nintendo FDS releases (Zelda and Metroid) so ambitious that their influence is still being felt today, it proves that a well-designed game doesn’t need to kick off a revolution to be a lot of fun. It’s a pity that disappointing sales numbers prevented it from receiving any kind of follow-up and its medieval Japanese setting insured that it would remain unreleased outside its country of origin until 2014, when it was finally offered up as a downloadable title for the 3DS. Whether you play it there, on a flash cartridge or emulator, or even on a proper working FDS, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a thrilling way to spend a few hours.

Just watch out for those invisible exploding ninja. Well, not watch out. You know what I mean.

Mega Man 3 (NES)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A Mega Man double feature? Why not! After trouncing Dr. Wily yet again in Mega Man 2, I guess I was just hankering for more of that sweet, sweet elder abuse. And, hey, doing two reviews of such similar titles back-to-back means a lot less need to cover gameplay and story basics. Talk about a win-win!

That’s not to sell Mega Man 3 (or Rockman 3: Dr. Wily no Saigo!?, “Rockman 3: The End of Dr. Wily!?”) short. Sure, the basics are familiar: Destroy eight robot masters in any order you choose and steal their signature weapons in preparation for the final showdown with Wily. Along the way, however, it does more for the ongoing storyline of the series than any other sequel by introducing us to two new supporting characters that would become beloved staples.

The first is Mega Man’s robo-dog sidekick Rush, who replaces the relatively generic platforming assist items like the Magnet Beam from previous games with his ability to transform into a jet, submarine, and more. He still serves the same basic functions these earlier bits of gear did, making the tougher jumping sections more manageable and hard-to-reach items less so, except now with 100% more cute pupper. Advantage: Rush.

The other new character is Mega Man’s older brother and frequent rival, the red-clad Proto Man. Also known as Blues in Japan (where Mega Man is Rock), he wears shades and a kicky scarf, so you just know he’s too cool for school. He’s also the epitome of the lone wolf anti-hero archetype and that means that the writers get to play around with the whole “Is he friend or foe?” angle when it suits them. I never was quite clear on what exactly makes him Mega Man’s brother, though. Is it because they were both built by Dr. Light? It seems like that would make most of the robot masters in these games Mega Man’s siblings. The subtleties of robo-familial relations clearly elude me.

The biggest innovation on the gameplay front is Mega Man’s new slide maneuver, which propels him along the ground at high speed and simultaneously lowers his hit box so that he can pass through small gaps and better evade some attacks. Personally, I can take it or leave it. The move has potential, but the level design doesn’t always do the best job of encouraging it. Aside from a couple of noteworthy instances like the spike traps in Needle Man’s stage, it was all too easy for me to forget the slide was there at all. Although I’m sure it’s vital for speed and no-hit runners, the later Mega Man X spin-off series did a much better job overall of making dash type moves like this into an indispensable part of every player’s arsenal.

Speaking of arsenals, Mega Man 3’s assortment of robot master weapons is decent. The Shadow Blade and Magnet Missiles are a lot of fun and the Search Snake and Hard Knuckle both have their uses. The rest either have few advantages over the standard buster weapon (Needle Cannon), are far too awkward for their own good (Top Spin, Gemini Laser), or verge on being literally unusable (Spark Shock, which doesn’t deal any damage at all except to select bosses). With around 50% quality options, I’d say that your loadout is about average by franchise standards

I’d played Mega Man 3 before, back around the time it was first released in 1990. I never did complete it then, but I remember being quite impressed by some of the robot master stages and I find that this still holds true today. Its best levels manage to impress on every front with intriguing themes supported by excellent art design and a variety of distinct gameplay challenges throughout. Gemini Man’s stage, for example, opens on the surface of a crystalline alien planet. The player must brave a series of daring leaps over bottomless pits while simultaneously fending off air and ground enemies. The action then moves underground into a set of rainbow colored caverns filled with destructible eggs containing odd flying tadpole creatures. Next up is a penguin mini-boss before things culminate with a long stretch of water-filled terrain that’s best negotiated with the aid of Rush. It’s a lot to take in for an 8-bit Mega Man stage and others, like Snake Man’s, are similarly ambitious. They’re not all this exceptional, sadly. The ludicrously named Hard Man was stuck with yet another forgettable cave/mine stage in the Guts Man mold. On balance, though, the standouts more than make up for the duds.

The one thing I didn’t play far enough to pick up on when I was younger is how quickly Mega Man 3 starts to lose its mojo after these eight opening stages. This was the first title in the series to experiment with extending the play time by throwing in some extra levels and bosses between the initial set of eight and the ones inside Dr. Wily’s fortress. Unfortunately, they went about doing it in the least interesting way possible by leaning heavily on recycled content. After defeating the new robot masters, you’re tasked with defeating copies of the eight from Mega Man 2. These are situated two apiece in slightly modified versions of four of the same stages you just completed. The game effectively comes to a grinding halt while you slog through four familiar levels containing no original content whatsoever. Unless you haven’t played Mega Man 2, I guess. It’s a drag. Just as regrettable are the Dr. Wily levels themselves once you finally do reach them. They may well be the shortest and easiest in the whole series and make for one hell of an anticlimax. The good news is that later games would learn from this whole debacle and settle on much more interesting ways to length the Blue Bomber’s adventures, such as the Dr. Cossack and Proto Man sections in Mega Man IV and V, respectively.

This abrupt dropoff in quality seems tough to account for at first, but knowing a bit about Mega Man 3’s troubled history goes a long way toward explaining it. Akira Kitamura, director of the first two games and original creator of Mega Man, left the company shortly before development began in order to join several other Capcom veterans at Takeru, a short-lived game studio best known for creating NES ultra rarity Little Samson. Conflict sprang up between his replacement and other members of the team over the proper direction to take the series, which finally resulted in lead artist and character designer Keiji Inafune taking over as head of the project mid-stream. All considered, it’s a testament to the tremendous ability of Capcom’s staff at the time that the final product still turned out as great as it did.

And make no mistake, Mega Man 3 is great. The core jump and shoot gameplay is as compelling as ever, the majority of the stage and enemy design is inspired, the new characters remain fan favorites to this day, and the score by Yasuaki Fujita and Harumi Fujita comes out swinging with one of the most glorious title screen themes in all of gaming and rarely lets up from there. A disappointing final act knocks it out of consideration for best in the series, at least for me, but it’s still easily superior to most other action-platformers past or present.

If you still haven’t played it…well, rush.

Plok (Super Nintendo)

Thanks, you odd little whatever-you-are.

Everyone and his brother was making video games in the U.K. back during the 1980s. I’m not just speaking metaphorically of the “bedroom coder” boom touched off by affordable domestic microcomputers like the Spectrum and the BBC Micro. I’m talking literally. You had the Stamper brothers (Tim and Chris) founding Rare, the Darlings (David and Richard) over at Codemasters, the Follins (Tim, Geoff, and Mike) composing some of the best chiptune music of the era, and the Bitmap Brothers churning out massive hits like Speedball and The Chaos Engine. Okay, so the Bitmaps weren’t actual brothers. I’m still counting it because this is my review and you’re not the boss of me.

Ahem. Anyway, Ste and John Pickford are yet another set of British brothers with a passion for gaming. Fresh out of secondary school in the early ’80s, they took jobs in the industry as an artist and programmer (respectively) and soon added game design to their portfolios. They’re probably best-known on this side of the pond for their work with Rare, particularly Solar Jetman and the two Wizards & Warriors sequels on the NES. Around 1990, the Pickfords were hard at work on an arcade game called Fleapit that was intended to run on Rare’s upcoming Razz hardware. Unfortunately, plans for the Razz board ended up being scrapped and the mostly finished Fleapit followed suit. Not being ones to let a good idea go to waste, Ste and John moved on to Mancunian studio Software Creations and reimagined Fleapit as the 1993 Super Nintendo platformer Plok.

Who is Plok the Exploding Man? The instruction manual informs us that he is, among many, many other things: “The king of the beautiful island called Akrillic, part of the archipelago Poly-Esta…a true hero, with a heart of gold and joints of the highest quality Velcro…a grade-A, first class prime cut.” What is Plok? That’s tougher to say. Whatever he’s supposed to be, he’s got a set of cute cartoon eyes peering out from what looks to be a red executioner’s hood and he’s able to fire off all four of his detachable limbs as deadly missiles. Yes, Plok is a European mascot platformer starring a hero that attacks with his floating projectile limbs two years before Ubisoft’s Rayman. I reckon someone across the Channel has some explaining to do.

Being the (wholly self-proclaimed) king of Akrillic, our boy Plok has quite the healthy ego. You can just imagine the outrage that ensues when he steps out his front door one morning only to discover that the giant flag with his face on it that he flies from his rooftop has been snatched away in the night by parties unknown. All fired-up by this affront, Plok sets off by boat to nearby Cotton Island to retrieve his flag. There’s no world to save, no princess to rescue, no fallen comrades to avenge, just this absurd, pompous weirdo rambling around the countryside seeking to assuage his wounded pride by any means necessary. Did I mention that this game’s humor is very, very British?

The early stages on Cotton Island are no-frills affairs that have you making your way from left to right on the way to a goal, Super Mario style. They function as an elegant tutorial on Plok’s unusual movement and attack capabilities. He has two different jumps, for example, a short hop that allows for shooting in mid-aid if needed and a spinning leap similar to Sonic the Hedgehog’s that offers greater height and distance at the cost of offensive flexibility. The limb shooting mechanic also has its quirks. Successfully striking an enemy will return the limb to Plok’s body instantly, but miss and you’ll have to wait for it to boomerang back on its own. It’s possible to have all four limbs detached at once if you’re too quick on the trigger, leaving poor Plok a sitting duck. Some of the later stages are filled with shifting walls and other obstacles that require you to temporarily relinquish one or more limbs to bypass them. One stage even forces you to play through the majority of it sans legs, which severely compromises Plok’s platforming ability, as you might expect. This adds a bit of a light puzzle element to some portions of the game, as you need to make sure you don’t run out of “keys” (limbs) before you reach the goal.

Beyond these basics, you also have an abundance of power-up items to find. There are seashells that provide extra lives when collected in bunches (think the coins from Mario), gems that grant temporary invincibility, hornet nests that give Plok a supply of enemy-seeking “buddy hornets” that he can release on command, and a magic amulet that turns his spinning jump into a buzz saw move that can damage enemies. The really exciting power-ups, however, are the various special costumes. Each one temporarily transforms Plok into an alternate form with its own unique attack. Some of my favorites include Squire Plok’s Contra-like spread shot blunderbuss, Vigilante Plok’s flamethrower, and Plocky’s superpowered boxing gloves.

After the first boss battle, the victorious Plok returns to Akrillic with flag in tow, only to discover that the entire island has been overrun by a pack of giant fleas. Plok hates fleas. At this point, the gameplay shifts gears dramatically. These much larger, more open levels see Plok going into “search and destroy” mode to eliminate every flea in each area before he can move on to the next. This switch-up made me a little apprehensive at first, as it had the potential to slow the game down to a crawl with needless backtracking to find fleas secreted away in cryptic locations. Thankfully, the designers went out of their way to make Plok’s pest control rampage as hassle-free as possible. All of the fleas are in plain sight along the main stage paths, there’s a counter at the bottom of the screen displaying the number remaining, and you even get helpful on-screen arrows pointing you toward your next target. Nice!

Once you beat back the insect invasion, the game takes another sharp turn as Plok descends into the Fleapit to take the fight to the Flea Queen herself. Each of the final eight stages within the Fleapit has Plok piloting a different vehicle. There’s a unicycle, a monster truck, a helicopter, a tank, a flying saucer, and more. Every vehicle has its own control scheme to master and most are too something. Too fast, too slow, too slippery, you name it. It’s going to take you a lot of practice to make it through this final stretch.

In case you hadn’t picked up on it by now, I took a liking to this game straightaway. It’s packed to the gills with clever ideas and throws you a steady stream of curveballs throughout. The novelty of managing Plok’s wayward limbs to strike a balance between mobility and offense would have been more than sufficient on its own to support a typical title, but the Pickfords really went above and beyond the call of duty here. Their commitment to keeping their audience guessing even extends to the aesthetic. At one point, Plok flashes back to the olden days in the form of a playable dream sequence where the player controls the mustachioed Grandpappy Plok. The game adopts a silent movie style for this portion, complete with sepia tone visuals, “old-timey” music, and flickering title cards at the opening of each stage. Flourishes like this really drive home that you’re being treated to an extraordinary effort and not just another cookie cutter platformer.

In fact, Plok’s art and music are fantastic generally. The setting of Poly-Esta is defined by its bright colors, thick black outlines, and psychedelic landscapes, which all give the impression that they may have served (at least in part) as inspiration for Nintendo’s own Yoshi’s Island a few years later. I also appreciate the care put into the animation, particularly for Plok himself over all of his many permutations.

Then there’s the music. Oh, the music. I scarcely know where to begin. From the instant Plok greets you on the title screen, whips out a harmonica, and launches into a bluesy opening theme, you know you’re in for something phenomenal. Given that the score was created by two of those fabled Follin brothers I mentioned above (Tim and Geoff), I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Many of the instruments used here sound so realistic that Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto reportedly had trouble believing that the songs were being generated by an unmodified Super Nintendo console. Plok certainly doesn’t sound at all like I expected it to. Instead of the thin, bouncy tunes of a typical lighthearted platformer, we get a lot of rich, heavy prog rock-inspired numbers that sound like they could be from the Genesis or Rush catalogs. If 7/8 time signatures, spacey arpeggios, and Neil Peart drum fills are your jam, then Plok is the game for you, friend. This is all on top of the other eclectic influences I already mentioned (blues, silent film orchestration). Hell, the boss theme even breaks out the theremin to evoke a 1950s monster movie and every one of Plok’s special costumes has its own musical theme. There were times playing through Plok where the music would segue into some new riff or movement and I just had to set the controller down and go “What!?” It’s that good. It may sound crazy, but Plok’s soundtrack is one of the very finest for the system and belongs on any top ten list right alongside heavyweights like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Such a surprise from a relatively unknown title.

Ah. Now, it’s time for me to come back down to earth long enough to actually criticize for a bit. As much as I loved my time with Plok, it can be tricky to actually make progress in. This isn’t due to the individual stages being overly difficult in the traditional sense, though most are certainly challenging. Plok can usually withstand a good five hits or so before losing a life and there are no instant death hazards that bypass his health bar, so the levels themselves are generally of the tough, but fair variety. No, the true difficulty comes courtesy of the continue system. The game has what it calls “permanent continue points” after the first, second, and fifth boss battles. In other words, at roughly the 20%, 50%, and 80% marks. Plok’s quest is a fairly long one, so the amount of play time between these checkpoints can be considerable. The stretch between the second and fifth bosses, for example, can take up the better part of an hour. Dying right on the cusp of a new permanent continue point and having to repeat a half dozen or more very tricky and involved stages can be disheartening. You do have a limited ability to earn special continues (or “Plokontinues,” as the game calls them) by collecting four special red tokens to spell out “P-L-O-K.” Doing this will allow you to continue one additional time between the normal checkpoints, but only from the stage where you actually earned the Plokontinue. For example, if you collect your fourth red token in stage seven and then run out of lives in stage ten, you’ll be allowed to continue once…back at stage seven. Even the game’s hidden warp zones come with strings attached. Just finding them isn’t enough and you’re forced to complete some sort of difficult challenge like a timed vehicle race before you’ll actually be allowed to skip ahead. I tried a few of these without success and eventually gave up on the idea and just played through all the stages in order. Most daunting of all, there are no saves or passwords, meaning that Plok must be completed in a single play session. Trust me, once you finally do reach a new permanent continue point after hours of playing and re-playing the same long run of stages, the last thing you’ll want to do is switch off your console and retire for the evening. My secret to beating Plok? I left my system switched on for a week between play sessions! The designers had supposedly intended to include a save battery in the cartridge, but publisher Tradewest balked at the extra manufacturing cost. Alas.

Although these progression woes do mar the experience somewhat, by no means should they deter you from giving Plok a try. It’s an inspired, criminally under-recognized platformer. Leading up to its release, Miyamoto is said to have told the Pickfords that only Mario and Sonic were in its same league. In spite of this high praise from Nintendo’s shining star, Plok sold poorly and would never receive a sequel. Some blame this on the glut of Sonic cash-in mascot platformers that were flooding the marketplace around the time of its debut, something the Pickfords could never have anticipated back when they initially conceived of the project as Fleapit. I suspect the fact that the first generation of kids to grow up with video game consoles were teenagers by 1993 and gravitating toward more “mature” titles like Doom and Mortal Kombat was also a contributing factor. Fortunately, Ste and John have managed to retain the IP rights for Plok and friends. They revived their Exploding Man in 2013 for a series of Web and print comics that’s still running today. I visited their site intending to check it out briefly before starting on this review and wound up binging all 127 pages they’ve put out to date. The Plok comics are thoroughly entertaining and serve as both a satisfying continuation of the game’s loopy story and a running satiric commentary on the state of modern gaming. It sure is nice being able to end one of these “forgotten game character” retrospectives on a high note for once. Good on ya, lads.

If you have any interest in 16-bit platformers, you need Plok in your life. It plays like a dream, surprises and delights from start to finish, and its presentation is singularly unforgettable. Perhaps best of all, it somehow remains affordable. In an era of hyperinflated SNES prices, this is one cartridge that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Plok himself should be so lucky.

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Forsooth, thou art most rad!

Now this takes me back. What can I even say about 1986’s Dragon Quest, better known here as Dragon Warrior? It was the first turn-based RPG for the Famicom/NES and consequently the first that many gamers of my generation, myself included, were ever exposed to. It’s ground zero for an entire genre in the minds of millions. The wilds of Alefgard are where I scored my first experience point, achieved my first level-up, and cast my first healing spell. This is primal stuff, man. Archetypal.

I can start by dispelling a few common misconceptions about the game. For starters, it was neither the first console RPG (1982’s Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600 is the best candidate for that honor) nor the first Japanese RPG (domestic creations like The Black Onyx and Dragon Slayer were staples on Japanese home computers as early as 1984). It also wasn’t designer Yuji Horii’s first major success. 1985 had seen the Famicom release of Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Incident”), Horii’s port of his own “visual novel” style detective adventure game originally released for home computers in 1983. In converting Portopia for Nintendo’s machine, Horii wisely avoided limiting the game’s appeal by forgoing use of the Famicom keyboard accessory and instead replacing the text parser of the computer versions with a menu of fourteen standardized commands that could be easily managed with the default controller. As the first adventure game released for the Famicom, Portopia moved over 700,000 units and ignited a passion for visual novels that persists in Japanese gaming circles to this day.

As a follow-up effort, Dragon Quest can be seen as a return to form for Horii: Start with a complex and potentially intimidating game type that’s popular on niche computers and then streamline and simplify it for introduction to the much wider and more lucrative console market. He took a cup of Ultima, added a dash of Wizardry, and then garnished with a user friendly interface straight out of Portopia. Two millions copies later, it was clear that lightning had indeed struck twice.

Well, two million copies in Japan, that is. Enix had equally high hopes for the North American release in 1989, for which Nintendo themselves would take over publishing duty. They went all-out by springing for enhanced graphics, a top notch localization of the game’s script, a battery save option to replace the original’s cumbersome passwords, and a detailed 64-page strategy guide bundled with every copy. It was a resounding flop.

What went wrong? Well, it turns out that much of the game’s initial success in Japan was due to its artwork by superstar illustrator Akira Toriyama and its heavy promotion in the pages of the popular action manga magazine Shōnen Jump. Over here, however, it was a totally unknown quantity to consumers and the result was warehouses full of unsellable Dragon Warrior cartridges. The solution? Another, more desperate stab at a magazine cross-promotion: Readers of Nintendo Power were actually sent a free copy of Dragon Warrior with every $20 subscription! An estimated 500,000 copies were distributed in this way. The hope was that, once they were exposed to the game one way or another, players in North America would be just as hooked as their counterparts across the Pacific and turn out in droves for the sequels.

Again, things didn’t quite work out as intended. Sales of Dragon Warrior II, III, and IV on the NES were all lukewarm at best. By the time Dragon Quest made the jump to 16-bit, Enix had given up entirely and the West wouldn’t see another entry in the series until Dragon Warrior VII made it to the PlayStation in 2001. In the meantime, Pokemon and Final Fantasy VII would step in and become the long-awaited smash hit “gateway” RPGs for the North American market, finally succeeding were Dragon Warrior had failed.

Don’t feel too bad for Yuji Horii and friends, though. Dragon Quest may still only hold cult appeal in my neck of the woods, but the mania it kicked off in its homeland has never truly abated. Even now, new releases are virtually national holidays in Japan and the franchise’s grinning blue slime mascot is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

Geez, that’s a lot of background. What about the actual game? Well, it goes like this: You start out in a throne room talking to a king. The king tells you that an evil dude called the Dragonlord has stolen the magic artifact that safeguards the land of Alefgard and kidnapped its beautiful princess to boot. Since you’re the descendant of a legendary hero, it’s now your job to gather the tools needed to breach the Dragonlord’s stronghold, introduce him to the pointy end of your sword, and recover the missing magical thingy. Also, that princess, if it’s not too much bother.

In order to do this, you need to explore the game’s medieval fantasy world from an Ultima style top-down viewpoint searching for important items and interrogating friendly villagers for hints on where to head next. Random encounters with monsters will shift the perspective to a first person combat display similar to Wizardry’s where you can choose your commands from a basic menu that includes options to fight, flee, cast magic spells, and use helpful items like medicinal herbs. These battles are very frequent and you’ll need to win hundreds of them in order to garner the thousands of experience points and gold pieces necessary to power your initially wimpy character up enough to stand a chance against the Dragonlord.

What’s that, you say? This sounds like every console RPG ever made? Bingo!  When I called it archetypal, I wasn’t exaggerating. Dragon Warrior is the very mold, the template, the plain cheese pizza of JRPGs. This is what makes it so tricky to pin down three decades later. Even so, I’ll do my best to cover the highs and lows.

One thing that still stands out today are Toriyama’s stellar monster designs. Though I’ve never been able to find any enjoyment in his most famous creation, the Dragonball series, I’ve always been drawn to his “40% menacing, 60% adorable” take on traditional fantasy critters. Even when I was finally face-to-face with the fearsome Dragonlord himself, part of me wished I could rub his cute scaly belly instead of dueling to the death. The detail and charm packed into every foe’s portrait single-handedly justifies the choice of a first person view for the combat.

I’m also impressed by the sheer scope and quality of Dragon Warrior’s English translation and localization, which are credited to Toshiko Watson and Scott Pelland, respectively. Their work is years ahead of its time when you consider that the 1980s were the Wild West of game localization and many publishers couldn’t manage to produce so much as a single screen of translated text that didn’t read like drunken Mad Libs. Here, all the dialogue makes sense and the faux Elizabethan dialect the characters speak with is profoundly corny, but endearingly so. I’ll even admit to finding it pretty epic as a kid. There’s also a sweet extended in-joke included in the form of some character cameos that will be very familiar to former Nintendo Power readers.

If there’s one undeniable downside to playing through Dragon Warrior, it’s the extraordinary amount of mindless grinding required. While almost all RPGs expect the player to engage in endless random battles for money and experience, the best of them also give you plenty of places to go and things to do along the way. That way, you never have a chance to dwell on how repetitive these frequent combats can be on their own. Unfortunately, there are no side quests or diversions to be found here. Dragon Warrior has exactly two goals for the player: Kill the Dragonlord and rescue the princess. The game world is also quite small, which makes gathering the three key items needed to enter the Dragonlord’s castle is a simple task if you know where to look. The end result? About two hours of worthwhile exploration and excitement aggressively padded out into an excruciating 10+ hour slog. The late game in particular is a mess. By level 15, I had tracked down every key item, acquired all the best equipment, and even rescued the princess. There was literally nothing left in the entire game for me to do except kill the Dragonlord…which requires you to be around level 20. Reaching level 20 requires a total of 26,000 experience points, well over twice what I’d accumulated up to that point. So, stubborn fool that I am, I spent hours pacing back and forth over the same stretch of map, robotically striking down hundreds of generic enemies and pausing only to trek back to the inn when I ran low on healing spells. Then I killed the Dragonlord. Such fun.

Don’t get me wrong: As an introductory RPG circa 1986, Dragon Warrior’s approach is nothing short of genius. Horii managed to pare away every non-essential element from the popular computer RPGs of the time while still retaining the core appeal of a grand fantasy adventure where the player’s avatar continually grows in power and sharp wits and sound decisions matter more than quick reflexes. There’s no character customization to be found here, no class system, no multiple character party to manage, and the story is the most basic “princess and dragon” setup imaginable. This not only insured that the game had the broadest possible appeal, it perfectly set up Dragon Quest as an ongoing series, since follow-up releases could be predicated on gradually reintroducing these very same advanced mechanics in modular fashion. Thus, the second game included multiple player characters, the third added character creation and a robust class system, and so on. In this way, the series both birthed and raised a generation of Japanese RPG fans.

Dragon Warrior captivated me back in 1989. I played it day and night and even wandered its perilous fields and dungeons in my dreams. Next came Final Fantasy, tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and so many more. Revisiting it now, though, I’m reminded why I mainly play action games these days. While the presentation still has its charms, it’s clear that my elementary schooler self didn’t value his time very highly. Simple and repetitive as it is, Dragon Warrior is best approached today as either a nostalgia trip or an interactive history lesson. In either case, patience is a must. RPG fans in general are much better off seeking out the later re-releases for the Game Boy Color and Super Famicom, which both cut down on the grinding significantly. That, or skipping straight to the brilliant Dragon Warrior III.

Thou hast been warned!

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (NES)

It about time.

Inspired by the fact that next month marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, I finally decided to put this one to bed. Iron Mike was going down. By TKO at 1:51 in the third round, as it turned out. Not perfect, but I’ll take it.

The history of this game has been told and re-told so many times by this point that yet another rehashing has the potential to just be tedious, so I promise keep it short. Short for me, anyway. The Punch-Out!! series started life in the arcades in 1983. Lead designer Genyo Takeda and character designer Shigeru Miyamoto created a new type of boxing video game, wholly different from what had come before. Punch Out!! eschewed any sort of realistic simulation elements and instead played more like an early puzzle or rhythm game. From a fixed point in the ring, the player had to learn each opponent’s unique pattern of attacks and deliver precisely-timed counter punches in order to succeed. The player’s green haired character was rendered using a transparent wire-frame style that was very impressive looking for the time and allowed for an unobstructed view of opponents and all the visual cues necessary to react to their attacks. The enemy fighters themselves were presented as larger-than-life cartoon characters (literally, in the case of some particularly hulking specimens) and tended to be based on exaggerated national stereotypes, like the Italian boxer Pizza Pasta and the Canadian lumberjack Bear Hugger. Punch-Out!!’s innovative mechanics and stellar visuals made it a hit and it was followed by an arcade sequel, Super Punch-Out!!, the following year.

The decision to create a version of Punch-Out!! for Nintendo’s home console that incorporated characters and gameplay elements from both arcade titles was made well before Mike Tyson was involved. In fact, an edition of the game with Super Macho Man serving as the final boss instead actually received a limited release in Japan in September of 1987. The course of gaming history changed when Nintendo of America’s president, Minoru Arakawa, watched a Tyson match and became so enamored of the young heavyweight’s “power and skill” that he made the unorthodox but retrospectively brilliant decision to add him into the finished game at the very last minute in order to increase sales. The resulting contract was a steal for Nintendo, as Tyson was not yet the heavyweight champion at that time: A measly $50,000 for three full years of selling the game with the boxer’s likeness. One month after the rare Tyson-less “gold cartridge” edition hit Japan, North America received the version we all know and love.

Fundamentally, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is not all that different from the arcade games that came before. There is one major difference, though. Since a transparent player character was beyond the technical capabilities of the NES, the new hero Little Mac was introduced instead. This puny-yet-plucky teenager from New York is ridiculously tiny compared to his opponents. This not only allowed for the enemy to be clearly visible from the waist up at all times, but it also made the player feel like a real underdog that had to embody Mac’s can-do spirit on every trip to the ring in order to succeed. It’s a great example of a game made better by clever reckoning with hardware limitations.

Mac is tasked with winning fourteen increasingly difficult matches in order to overthrow Mike Tyson and claim the WVBA (World Video Boxing Association) title for himself. These fights are divided into three “circuits” (Minor, Major, and World) and completing each circuit will reward you with a password that can be used to continue your game from that point in the future.

Matches take place from an over-the-shoulder perspective and consist of up to three rounds of three minutes length each (although the in-game timer runs fast, so each round actually takes up closer to two minutes of real time). Mac can win by TKO if he knocks an opponent out three times in a single round, by KO if a downed opponent fails to stand back up before the referee (Mario!) counts to ten, or by decision if he’s reached a certain score by the end of the final round.

Mac’s standard arsenal is fairly robust, considering the simplicity of the NES controller. The A and B buttons control his right and left hands, respectively, and he can deal both high and low punches when these are combined with the directional pad. His right deals slightly more damage, but his left comes out just a little faster, which can make all the difference when split-second timing is needed. He can also avoid attacks in three different ways using the directional pad: Blocking, ducking, and dodging to either side.

Each opponent, starting out with the feeble Frenchman Glass Joe and ending with Tyson himself, has their own unique set of attacks and particular patterns in which they’re used. They also have various visual tells that can clue the player in on when to attack and when to dodge. Piston Honda wiggles his eyebrows, the jewel in Great Tiger’s turban flashes, Mike Tyson blinks one eye before throwing a hook from that side, and so on. Keying in on these tells can give you the time you need to get out of harm’s way before launching your own counterattack. Each opponent also has specific short windows of time in which you can interrupt their patterns with a quick hit if you’re fast enough. Doing so will earn you a star and these can be spent to perform a devastating uppercut attack with the Select button.

These mechanics, coupled with the brilliantly absurd character designs, elevate Punch-Out!! above and beyond what a realistic simulation of the sport of boxing could have achieved with the technology of the time and the result is a timeless series of tense, dynamic, and downright unforgettable encounters. Each fight is a puzzle to be studied, analyzed, and, eventually, solved to tremendous satisfaction. From exposing King Hippo’s weak point, to defending against Great Tiger’s magic punches, to stopping Bald Bull’s charge, Punch-Out!! is one iconic gaming moment after another from start to finish.

The overall experience is aided greatly by the graphics, which feature gigantic character sprites for an NES game. This was made possible through the addition of a custom MMC2 (“memory management controller”) chip to the cartridge. This co-processor allowed for larger animated characters than the basic console hardware could display on its own. Beyond the visceral wow factor of huge combatants that took up half the screen, there was also a ton of personality packed into each fighter. Granted, a lot of it is very corny, like the flamboyant Spanish fighter Don Flamenco who dances his way into the ring clenching a rose in his teeth and the drunk Russian (Vodka Drunkenski, who had his name changed to Soda Popinski for the NES release), but this level of detail was not at all common at the time. Opponents would even trash talk you from their corners between rounds; Piston Honda promising to give you “a TKO from Tokyo,” for example.

For all its refined gameplay and lovable characters, though, Punch-Out!! does have one flaw that stands out in my mind: It can sometimes be a bit too mysterious for its own good. I outlined above the different ways in which you can win fights: TKO, KO, and decision. However, some opponents are immune to one or more of these win conditions and the game never gets around to telling you so. For a fighter like Mr. Sandman that can’t be beaten by decision, the player may not pick up on this at all, simply assuming that their failure to do so is based on having not scored enough points by the end of the fight. Even when a win by decision is possible, the game doesn’t actually tell you the number of points required. Want to beat Great Tiger with a KO? You could try all day, but it’s completely impossible. Again, there’s no clue in the game itself or even the manual that this is so. Even such things as how much health an opponent regains after getting up from a knockout or whether they get up at all are based on hidden variables that vary from fight to fight, such as Little Mac’s remaining health. Because of all these hidden mechanics, the outcomes of knockdowns and split decisions can seem completely random to a player who hasn’t completed years of careful firsthand observation of the game or studied an online guide written by those who have. Can you still beat the game without knowing every “under the hood” detail of how your victories are accomplished? Sure. It still seems needlessly cryptic to me.

On the whole, though, Punch-Out!! deserves every bit of the adulation it receives. It’s an essential title for the NES, the quintessential “sports game for people who hate sports games,” and its crowning achievement is the Mike Tyson fight itself.

When I think of challenging NES games, I don’t often think about fighting boss characters. Instead, it’s the brutal meat grinder stages that you have to survive on your way to the boss that cause me the most stress. Especially early in the system’s life, when jumping over Bowser and touching the little glowing axe thingy on the other side of the bridge in Super Mario Bros. was about as complex as things got. You’d hear people bragging about rescuing Princess Toadstool, sure, but not about beating Bowser. You didn’t beat Punch-Out!!, though, you beat Mike Tyson. His was the most complex and intimidating enemy encounter in any console game up to that time and an important landmark in the ongoing development of the “boss fight” across video gaming as a whole. To stand a chance, you needed consistent split-second reaction time coupled with the ability to suss out punching patterns that were completely different from round to round. Capping it all off was the fact that the real life Tyson was an international phenomenon around the time of the game’s release, a seemingly unstoppable engine of destruction in the ring and likely the most recognizable figure to emerge from the world of boxing since the heyday of Muhammad Ali. He may be have fully transitioned from puncher to punchline these days, but to anyone who remembers the tail end of the 1980s, stepping into the ring with Kid Dynamite is somehow still scarier than facing down Dracula or Dr. Wily, as silly as that sounds.

Of course, that three year contract eventually would expire. By the time it did, the once-invincible Tyson had already lost his title to James “Buster” Douglas and Nintendo didn’t pursue a renewal. Even if they had, Tyson’s revolting 1992 conviction for rape would have certainly put an end to his relationship with the Big N for good. One way or another, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was never meant to last. This is why every re-release of Punch-Out!! since 1990 has featured Tyson’s infinitely blander Caucasian doppelganger Mr. Dream instead. KOing Mr. Dream is still a worthy gaming accomplishment, no doubt, but it will never be the real deal.

With or without Mike Tyson, Punch-Out!! is still as great right now as it ever was. Join the Nintendo Fun Club today, Mac!

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 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 weird strangers in exchange for becoming their “playmates.” An unforgettable time is guaranteed!