A Nightmare on Elm Street (NES)

Hey! You forgot the Power Glove!

I had such a memorable time (for better and worse) taking down the NES incarnation of Jason Voorhees last month that I see no reason to let my killer killing streak end there. Next up in my crosshairs is everyone’s favorite extra crispy child murderer, Freddy Krueger!

This is typically the part of the review where I’d question the wisdom of adapting an R-rated horror franchise to a gaming platform pitched squarely at minors. The Springwood Slasher was well into the high camp Max Headroom phase of his career by 1990, however, and not even us kids were taking him all that seriously anymore. It’s tough to inspire real life nightmares after you’ve guest hosted MTV and covered “Wooly Bully” on your novelty record, you know? That said, this relatively tame action-platformer still had the potential to be much more controversial than it was. Early builds of the game saw the player controlling Freddy himself as he bumped off hapless teenagers. It’s easy to understand why developer Rare and publisher LJN ultimately changed course and reversed these roles.

Similar to LJN’s Jaws and Friday the 13th, Nightmare presents as a more-or-less genericized version of the basic scenario that defines the movie series. Ghostly psycho Freddy is butchering the children of Elm Street in their dreams as revenge against their parents for burning him to death years back. There are no specific supporting characters depicted who would tie this game to any of the five films released prior, although several key locations and concepts appear to have been lifted from the fan favorite third installment, Dream Warriors. The player assumes control of an unnamed teen who’s looking to end this reign of terror by gathering up Freddy’s bones, which are scattered all over the neighborhood for some unknown reason, and burning them in the furnace situated in the basement of the local high school. While I tackled it alone, Nightmare actually allows up to four players simultaneously via the Four Score and Satellite multitap accessories. If there’s any other platforming game from the period that attempted such a thing, I can’t name it. Four people trying to do pinpoint platforming all at once on the same low resolution screen? Sounds like a recipe for sheer chaos to me. I’d love to try it out someday.

If you’re one of the many who despised Friday the 13th for its arcane and often poorly-documented strategy gameplay, I have good news for you: A Nightmare on Elm Street is much closer to the conventional idea of what an NES game should be. It doesn’t get much simpler than seven linear stages of increasingly difficult pit jumping and enemy bashing. The only potentially confusing element is Elm Street itself, which acts as a hub area. Fortunately, there isn’t much to it. Finish one stage and you’ll need to trek down the road to the next one and press up to enter its front door. Since only one door is ever active at a time, there’s a minor trial and error element as you try out different buildings.

Levels are broken up into multiple side-scrolling segments, each of which tasks you with collecting a requisite number of bones in order to unseal the exit. You’ll eventually reach the boss room and face off with Freddy, who assumes a variety of strange and occasionally goofy guises to combat you. Beating him earns you access to the next level. It also grants you an extra life. Make the most of these, as this is the only way you can add to your initial stock of twenty. Run out and it’s back to the title screen.

In a nod to the cinematic Krueger’s oneiric onslaughts, Nightmare includes a sleep mechanic. The red “Zzz” meter at the top of the screen represents your hero’s wakefulness. It slowly decreases with time and allowing it to deplete fully shifts the action to the dream world. The artwork takes on a darker tone here and enemy health is doubled. Level layouts and monster spawn points don’t change, it just becomes harder to kill things.

You can avoid transitioning to the dream world by picking up the coffee cups present in most stages. You may want to pass on the caffeine, though. Counterintuitive as it seems, the benefits of being trapped in Freddy’s domain arguably outweigh the dangers. Only when sleeping is your rather pathetic default character able to utilize the three powered-up dream warrior forms. There’s an athlete, a ninja, and a wizard. They all offer superior jumping ability and projectiles to replace the puny punch that normally serves as your sole means of attack. Dream world baddies take more hits to kill, sure, but you no longer need to be within arm’s reach of them to deal your damage. The advantage is yours.

The designers must have realized this, so they threw in one final hazard unique to the dream world: Periodic mini-boss engagements with Freddy. These are always preceded by a chiptune interpretation of the spooky “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” song from the movies. They should function as potent incentives to stay awake. In practice, the fights are far too easy and hardly fit for their intended purpose. No, it’s still smarter and more interesting to remain asleep, if you ask me.

If this all sounds pretty decent, that’s because it is. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, especially considering that it’s long been dogged by the usual “crappy licensed LJN game” reputation. It’s nothing mind-blowing and it absolutely has its shortcomings. The collision detection leaves a lot to be desired at times, with some of your shots passing straight through enemies harmlessly. It punks big-time out at the end by falling back on a boss rush in place of a unique final boss. Above all, it isn’t remotely scary. If you look past the fact that it includes a few Freddy sprites, the experience isn’t any more unsettling than the average Castlevania outing. Friday the 13th, for all its clunkiness, baked some real tension into your high stakes cat-and-mouse game with Jason.

Still, this is a perfectly adequate second string contract work with a smooth difficulty curve, a fun gimmick in the dream warrior abilities, and a sublime soundtrack by David Wise of Donkey Kong Country and Battletoads fame that’s almost certainly too good for the material it supports. A Nightmare on Elm Street likely won’t set your world on fire, or even your boiler room, but it won’t put you to sleep, either. I hope….

Friday the 13th (NES)

The time has come to realize my destiny as a true innovator. Brace yourselves for this one, folks: I’m going to review the Friday the 13th NES game on Friday the 13th! Now I know how Neil Armstrong felt.

Okay, so it’s not exactly original. I guess the Halloween lover in me just wanted an excuse to get a head start on next month’s annual spooky game roundup. This’ll do.

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this infamous Atlus-developed take on the classic slasher saga. LJN published it exclusively here in North America in February of 1989, between the seventh and eighth movies, and it’s been a magnet for negative buzz ever since. Ask anyone with a knowledge of the NES library beyond Mario and Zelda to rattle off some crappy licensed games and Friday the 13th will usually be at or near the top of the list. For three decades now, it’s been universally panned as confusing, frustrating, and a host of more profane things to boot.

Or has is? Over the past few years, a sustained effort by admirers of the game to re-frame it as a misunderstood survival horror pioneer has gained considerable traction. This led to officially licensed toys modeled on arch-psycho Jason Voorhees’ garish NES color scheme and a hilarious callback to the same in IllFonic’s much better received 2017 Friday game. Could these fans have been right all along? Did critics and the general public alike dismiss Friday the 13th merely for being ahead of its time and refusing to conform to conventional action game stereotypes?

The debate surrounding this one may be complicated, but at least its plot isn’t. Hockey mask-clad murder machine Jason is running amok at Camp Crystal Lake. A team of six teenage camp counselors must band together to defend themselves and their fifteen young charges from Jason’s onslaught. If Jason does manage to slaughter either all six counselors or all fifteen kids, the game is over. In true slasher movie fashion, “killing” Jason once won’t be enough. He needs to be put down a total of three times over three consecutive days to end his rampage for good.

Friday the 13th isn’t based on any specific entry in the film franchise. That said, savvy horror buffs will spot some obvious nods here and there. The opening animation with the knife penetrating the mask is clearly based on the poster for The Final Chapter and the gameplay itself incorporates several ideas from Part 2. One thing that stands out as odd is the choice of protecting children from Jason as a primary goal. Jason never killed kids on the big screen. The MPAA and other movie rating boards hated the series enough as it was. There’s no way the studios would have antagonized them that blatantly. Although all child death in the game takes place off-screen, it’s still arguably the bleakest concept ever broached on the NES. Kudos to Atlus and LJN for pushing that envelope, I guess.

In terms of mechanics, Friday the 13th is a sort of strategy/action hybrid. Controlling one counselor at at time and switching between them as needed, the player is tasked with scouring the camp for hidden items required to defeat Jason while also responding in a timely manner to the maniac’s unpredictable attacks on the other characters. Jason’s murder attempts on the kids and non-active counselors in their cabins are frequent, perhaps too frequent, and he can show up on the trails to interrupt your exploration in a more direct way, too. This makes time management the most crucial component of the game. You need to figure out how to the get the stuff you need and then make it happen fast. Unless you’re able to get your hands on more powerful weapons early, the best you can hope for is to drive Jason off temporarily, knowing full well he’ll always return and eventually whittle your beleaguered team down to nothing.

Gearing up for battle is no mean feat. As if Jason’s constant harassment wasn’t enough, the only real help the game provides is a hint to try lighting all the fireplaces in the larger cabins. If you can accomplish this with a single counselor, you will indeed be rewarded with a flashlight that reveals secret doors in the cave area. Beyond that one helpful tip, you’re on your own. Learning the ins and out of staying alive long enough to fight back is a protracted trial-and-error process. For example, you’ll soon catch on that not all camp counselors are created equal. Mark and Crissy are vastly better at running and jumping than the rest of the crew, so it’s best to not bother using anyone else for exploration and item gathering. The optimal plan is usually to focus on obtaining the best equipment for Mark and Crissy while stationing the other, more disposable teens as close to the kids as possible so they can act as cannon fodder to repel Jason attacks.

I believe this strategic bent, sketchily-documented as it is, constitutes much of what Friday the 13th’s defenders are responding to when they feel compelled to stick up for it. I say that because it can’t possibly be what passes for action here, which is frankly terrible. Traversing Crystal Lake from a side-view perspective fending off an endless supply of birds, wolves, and out-of-place zombies is wholly unsatisfying in itself. I get why the designers wanted to include some non-Jason baddies. The big guy would rapidly lose his mystique if he had to serve as sole obstacle to your progress. This is a far cry from Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden caliber combat, though. It’s shallow, stiff, and more of a rote chore than anything else.

Fighting on the trail may be dull, but it’s a picnic compared to taking on Jason inside the cabins. These encounters utilize an over-the-shoulder third-person view reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! sans any degree of polish or charm. You dodge Jason’s swings and fire back as best you can until he flees or one of you dies. This is doable with a little practice on the first day, when Jason is relatively slow. All bets are off after that, as the masked marauder grows exponentially quicker over subsequent days, eventually becoming nearly impossible to evade. Suddenly, the game’s insistence that you go inside to protect the defenseless kids from Jason makes sense. If they weren’t a factor, venturing indoors at all after day one wouldn’t be worth the risk.

So, apart from those few cool strategy bits, Friday the 13th is cryptic, punishing, and hamstrung by some truly wretched combat. It would tough to recommend to anyone if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s damn effective survival horror! Yeah, I was surprised, too. Turns out the scramble to prepare for the final showdown with Jason while simultaneously enduring his relentless assaults is laden with genuine tension and an atmosphere of impending doom so thick you could cut it with a machete. As with any proper entry in the genre, you need to play cautiously and exercise good judgement when it comes to managing healing items and other limited resources.

Most important of all for a game based on one of cinema’s premier monsters, Friday the 13th does its villain justice. Jason’s sprites are large and imposing by 1989 standards. He can show up just about anywhere at any time to ruin your day, accompanied by an appropriately startling musical sting. He can kill off one of your hapless counselors in just a few hits and is effectively invulnerable to anything less than the strongest weapons. In short, he lives up to the hype. This makes it immensely satisfying to finally turn the tables on him. As a devotee of the film series, I can’t deny that Friday the 13th is fundamentally faithful to the spirit of its source material. That’s more than I can say for most old licensed games.

By no means is Friday the 13th a world-class NES release. I’d wager few outside its hardcore following would even rank it among their top hundred games for the system. I maintain it’s miles above true LJN-published travesties like Uncanny X-Men and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, however, and worth a fresh look next time you’re in the mood for some 8-bit terror. You may end up hating it, but things could always be worse. You could be watching Jason Goes to Hell.

Kick Master (NES)

It boggles my mind that I still haven’t played every action-platformer on the NES. Even after all the Castlevanias, Ninja Gaidens, Contras, Mega Mans (Mega Men?), and second and third string outliers like Power Blade, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and Whomp ‘Em, the system’s side-scrolling well is apparently bottomless. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it. Nothing feels more right to me than running, jumping, and fighting my way through screen after enemy-filled screen rendered in the unmistakable audiovisual palette of Nintendo’s 8-bit icon. This is, and always will be, my home. Welcome.

My subject today is Kick Master, developed by KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) and published exclusively in North America by Taito in 1992. Kick Master was created by the same team responsible for the first NES G.I. Joe title the previous year and it shows on multiple fronts. Both are highly ambitious games packed to the gills with innovative features. They also share a near-identical art style characterized by the bold, arguably garish use of unorthodox background colors like pink, purple, and red in many stages.

Our story is set in the stock medieval fantasy kingdom of Lowrel. An evil wizard named Belzed has sacked the monarch’s castle with an army of monsters, killing the king and queen and kidnapping their sole heir, Princess Silphee for…wizard reasons. The writers didn’t actually give Belzed any explicit plan or motivation for all this mayhem, so we’re left with another case of “save the girl because it’s a video game.” Answering the call are Macren, a knight, and his brother Thonolan, a talented martial artist and the youngest man to ever be awarded the title of Kick Master. Macren turns out to be quite useless, as he’s immediately dispatched in the opening cutscene by the very first enemy the pair encounter. I never played Kick Master much back in the day, but I vividly recall Macren’s touching last words to Thonolan: “My steel is no match for these creatures. Only with your great kicking skills can we hope for victory.” Oh, man, what a line. How my friend and I used to crack up over that one. They really don’t write ’em like they used to.

Fortunately, poor bereaved Thonolan has more than enough tricks up his, uh, pants leg, I guess, to finish the fight against Belzed solo. His can perform three different kick attacks at the start of his journey and his skill set can eventually be expanded to an astounding ten kicks and twelve magical spells. This deluge of options is what really distinguishes Kick Master from its genre contemporaries. A traditional action-platformer of the period might give the player a single primary attack and maybe a sub-weapon or two as backup. Kick Master puts even the average Mega Man entry to shame with the sheer amount of moves Thonolan can pull off. Combining button presses with different directional inputs makes such a wide moveset possible on a standard NES controller. There’s also the very thoughtful inclusion of in-game “demo of kicks” accessible from the options menu that displays the commands required for each one.

The magic spells run the gamut from healing and elemental attacks to an energy shield that guards against enemy projectiles, wings for temporary flight, and more. The most useful spells by far are the life restoring ones and the almighty earthquake spell that freezes all enemies on screen (including bosses!) in their tracks for a brief period, allowing Thonolan to kick their teeth in unopposed. It should always be remembered that the magic points these spells cost to use are a precious commodity that isn’t automatically restored between levels. Try to conserve as much MP as you can for the finale.

But how does Thonolan gain all these abilities in the first place if he only starts the game knowing three basic kicks? Magic spells are easy. You either find them laying around the stages or obtain them from defeated bosses. To learn new kicks, however, Thonolan will need to gather experience points and level up. That’s right: Kick Master is an action RPG. Kind of. Maybe. I think. With no exploration, NPC interaction, or other hallmarks of the RPG genre, it’s honestly tough to say whether Kick Master counts as one or not. Good thing that sort of fine distinction is really only important to the major league pedants among us. In any case, every 1000 experience points earned will raise Thonolan’s level, up to a maximum of seven. Each level increase unlocks a new kick in addition to raising Thonolan’s maximum health and MP ceilings.

If this was any other game, simply killing enemies would be sufficient to level Thonolan up on its own, but Kick Master opts to let its freak flag fly yet again by reprising one of G.I. Joe’s stranger design quirks: Power-ups that burst out of enemies and fly around the screen. Every baddie you destroy explodes into a geyser of multiple pickups that arc through the air in various directions and then quickly plummet back down, where they’ll be lost for good if they reach the bottom of the screen before Thonolan can grab them. Some of these grant experience. Others restore lost health or MP. There’s even a skull and crossbones icon that actually takes away health if you’re not paying close enough attention and grab it by mistake. This makes combat a two-step process, with Thonolan constantly alternating between kicking enemies and then leaping up into the air in hopes of catching as many helpful bonuses as possible before they disappear. This gets exceptionally chaotic when multiple enemies are attacking simultaneously, since you’ll find yourself killing one and then rushing to collect whatever good stuff you can while still dodging the others. If you focus exclusively on killing everything on screen as efficiently as possible, you’ll miss out on too much experience and magic power and be stuck with an underpowered hero in the late game. This mechanic thoroughly dominates Kick Master’s gameplay from start to finish. Whether you appreciate the risk/reward dynamic it represents or consider it a pace-killing annoyance will depend on your individual temperament. I was gradually won over by it despite finding it awkward at first.

One thing I never came to appreciate was the eighth and final stage, Belzed’s Haunted Tower. Being a tower, it contains the game’s only vertical sections and Thonolan is subject to instant death if he touches the bottom edge of the screen at any point in his ascent. Pretty normal for this type of stage, right? There wouldn’t be any problem to speak of if it wasn’t for two specific moves in Thonolan’s repertoire. His Sliding Kick and Flying Kick both propel him forward some distance and they’re very easy to execute by mistake, leaving you to watch helplessly as he glides to his doom off the closest ledge. You’ll need to train yourself not to touch the left or right sides of the directional pad at all when performing jumping and crouching attacks unless you’re absolutely sure you’re nowhere near a drop. Since no other area in the game requires this type of precision, you’re far more likely to die from a botched kick in this stage than from the enemy attacks or platforming challenges proper. Until you eventually adapt to it, it turns what should be a thrilling climax into a tedious, frustrating farce. Unlimited continues and passwords to the rescue, I suppose.

Apart from a final stage that’s difficult for all the wrong reasons, I consider Kick Master to be another winner from KID. Though it certainly has no shortage of elements that won’t tickle every player’s fancy, including the unusual color choices for the backgrounds and the focus on constantly grabbing falling power-ups in mid-combat, it’s indisputably a clever take on a crowded genre. The stages are detailed, varied, and showcase some fantastic boss battles, the soundtrack hits every rousing high fantasy note it should, and Thonolan’s exhaustive arsenal of moves and magic push the NES controller to its practical limit while giving players maximum flexibility in deciding how they want tackle each and every challenge. Those that master the main quest can even attempt two bonus hard modes available via password. It really is a total action-platforming package.

Like most third party NES games that came out during the Super Nintendo’s reign, Kick Master sold poorly, making it both obscure and expensive today. Worst of all, we never got the crossover sequel where Thonolan teams up with the NES’s premier Punch Master, Steve “Shatterhand” Hermann, to pulverize untold amounts of bad guy ass Crippled Masters style. I wanna live in that timeline, dammit.

Legendary Wings (NES)

What’s human race ever done for me, huh? Buncha freeloaders!

Over the course of this past summer, I somehow managed to acquire not just one, but two new games about scantily-clad muscle dudes with angel wings who fly around blasting robots and aliens. I wasn’t trying for this or anything. It just happened. Really.

First up is Legendary Wings, Capcom’s 1988 NES port of their own 1986 arcade shooter/platformer hybrid. Strangely, this was a North American exclusive and Legendary Wings (aka Aresu no Tsubasa, “The Wings of Ares”) wouldn’t see a proper home release in its country of origin until 2006, when the arcade original was included in the first Capcom Classics Collection.

The game centers on two warriors who are bestowed “wings of love” by the god Ares so they can defend the earth from Dark, an alien supercomputer that’s recently turned against humans after years of helping them. Exactly where this computer came from, why it was helping us, and what made it change its mind and start rampaging is never explored. Still, what more can you really expect from a thirty year-old shooter? At the very least, this setup works to prepare players for the blending of mystical and science fiction elements which defines the game’s visuals. Battling ornate stone colossi and mythic creatures like dragons alongside spaceships and laser cannons is a bit less jarring with some lead-in.

The warriors themselves originally consisted of two named characters, Michelle Heart and Kevin Walker. Here on the NES, it’s two anonymous male figures in thigh-high boots and matching briefs. Seems Capcom either judged Michelle’s teeny red bikini to be too spicy for Western eyes or they just didn’t want to squander limited cartridge memory on two distinct player sprites. Or maybe it’s supposed to be Kevin and his twin brother, Kevin 2: The Quickening. I’m going with that last one.

This version of Legendary Wings draws a lot of comparisons to Konami’s beloved spaceship shooter Life Force and it’s not hard to see why. Both are arcade ports from major publishers which hit the console around the same time and feature two-player simultaneous play through a mixture of vertically and horizontally scrolling stages. The horizontal levels in the arcade Legendary Wings were basic platforming exercises in which your heroes gave their flappers a rest in favor of slowly trundling along the ground, climbing ladders, and jumping gaps Donkey Kong style. Here, they’re re-imagined as much faster airborne auto-scrolling segments in the Gradius tradition. While I do find this to be a huge improvement in terms of keeping the action brisk and engaging, it also makes those Life Force comparisons all the more difficult to avoid. This is unfortunate, because while Legendary Wings is a well-made, appealing game in its own right, it’s also no match for Konami’s classic.

Legendary Wings’ shortcomings are primary the result of spreading a small amount of high quality content paper-thin over a rather lengthy game. The adventure is divided up into five areas, with each consisting of an outdoor overhead stage followed by a side-view stage set inside a palace. Unusually for the genre, each area also contains two optional side-view stages. The first of these is an enemy-filled “danger” level players are forced to fight their through if they don’t manage to avoid being sucked in by the giant robot heads which appear on the ground at the mid-point of each overhead stage. The other is a purely beneficial “lucky” level containing no enemies at all, only a large cache of bonus points, power-ups, and extra continues. Lucky stages are revealed by destroying specific ground-based enemies with bombs and then deliberately getting sucked into the holes which appear in their places. That’s a grand total of fifteen action stages and five hidden bonus rooms, around twice as many as you would find in most other shooters.

There’s a good reason why games of this kind typically aren’t this long, however. A successful scrolling shooter is very much reliant upon sustained novelty. Constantly subjecting players to new hazards and enemy patterns keeps them on the edge of their seats as they struggle to comprehend and adapt in order to make progress. By the time you’ve passed the first of Legendary Wings’ five areas, though, you’ve pretty much seen everything it has to offer in the way of enemy variety. At the end of every overhead level, you fight a fairly easy dragon boss. In every palace, an equally easy (if more imposing) giant cyborg battleship. Later incarnations of these two may have more health or fire more projectiles at you, but if you’ve beat them once, you know all you need to know in order to do it again and again. The dynamic learning process that makes these sorts of games so addictive is well and truly finished before the halfway point is reached and the experience as a whole suffers for it. I appreciate that the developers wanted to get experimental with this one, but a tighter, more varied six to eight stage layout would have been preferable to the sprawling mass of sameness we got.

Of course, this is still Capcom we’re talking about, so the game does have its charms. You can even tell some of the same personnel who worked on Legendary Wings were also busy making Mega Man 2 in their off hours, as the tiny drill enemies that emerge from the walls are exactly the same in both releases! The graphics here are colorful and well-drawn and the music is high quality, although I do wish all five of the palace stages didn’t share the same background track.

There’s one side effect of the limited enemy variety mentioned above that some players may actually see as a positive: Legendary Wings is a rare example of an extremely easy shooter. The arcade game featured the standard one-hit deaths, but the NES version allows you to potentially survive multiple blows at the cost of one level of weapon power each. Even better, if you can collect enough power-up icons to upgrade your weapon to its maximum level of five, you’ll enter firebird mode. Once this is achieved, your shots will deal massive damage and you can withstand three extra hits before being downgraded. These three extra hits are also replenished every time you collect an additional power-up while in firebird form. If you’re careful, it’s not that difficult to stay at maximum power indefinitely and tear through the entire game with minimal fuss. You also look way cooler as a firebird, which is always a plus. Using this ability to its fullest, I was able to complete a no death run of Legendary Wings during my very first play session, which is just crazy. I’ve never been able to do that in any other shooter I’ve played, not even ones I’ve devoted much, much more time to.

Still, unless you’re on the lookout for easier-than-average shooters specifically, Legendary Wings is far from an essential title. It has the baseline level of technical competence you’d expect from Capcom and essentially nothing else. Beyond its eternal rival Life Force, the NES also plays host to Gradius, Gun.Smoke, Zanac, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend, among other generally superior options. Factor in the Famicom library or other hardware platforms entirely and Legendary Wings dips even further below par. Looking at it this way, its lack of a Japanese release might not be so mysterious after all.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my winged weirdos double feature, where things are about to get phallic!

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (NES)

Um, what’s with the centerfold poses, guys?

At first glance, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero might not seem like it has much in common with the last NES title I played through, Fester’s Quest. Consider this, though: Both are run-and-gun action games based on licensed properties, both were the product of an American lead designer heading up a Japanese team, and both never received a Famicom release.

Thankfully, that’s where the similarities end. Whereas Fester’s Quest was an obvious rush job and deeply flawed as a result, G.I. Joe benefits from all the polish one could hope for. Designed by Ken Lobb of Killer Instinct fame and the same Japanese team which would later be known as KID, G.I. Joe was published by Taxan in 1991.

The G.I. Joe toy line itself dates back to 1964. Joes were the original “action figures,” the term coined by their makers at Hasbro in an effort to avoid scaring off particularly insecure little boys with the dreaded “doll” label. The earlier generations of figures leaned heavily on realism as a selling point and featured weapons and uniforms modeled closely the ones used by actual U.S. military forces. This approach seemed quaint at best post-Vietnam, so the toys were relaunched in 1982 as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” with a large helping of comic book and science fiction elements added to the mix. Instead of regular servicemen, G.I. Joe became “America’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.” The cartoons produced by Sunbow between 1983 through 1986 stood tall alongside Master of the Universe and Transformers as one of the defining Saturday morning action staples of my generation.

Fans of those original cartoons will no doubt notice right away that this NES adaptation is actually based on the much less iconic follow-up series from DiC Entertainment that ran from 1989 through 1992. As a result, some character designs are radically different than the ones you may remember. Most of the Joes remain recognizable, but I wouldn’t have known who poor Cobra Commander was even supposed to be here if the cutscene dialogue hadn’t told me. Lacking his trademark blue hood or mirrored helmet, he looks more like a Power Rangers villain than anything resembling his more familiar self.

The game proper is a side-scrolling action platformer with a simple premise: General Hawk has ordered the G.I. Joe team to take the fight to the enemy by launching a series of seek and destroy missions against six hidden Cobra bases around the world. At the start of the game, there are a total of five playable heroes to choose from: Duke, Snake Eyes, Rock ‘n Roll, Captain Grid-Iron, and Blizzard. Upon reaching the sixth and final mission, Hawk himself also becomes playable. Each mission has a designated team leader who’s automatically along for the ride, but players are otherwise free to choose any two of the remaining Joes from the roster to fill out their three man squad.

The choice of team members to bring along on a given mission isn’t just cosmetic, as every Joe has their own strengths and weaknesses. Duke is the typical all-rounder with average stats across the board. Snake Eyes can jump the highest and his ninja ki projectiles don’t consume any ammo. Rock ‘n Roll is packing the best gun. Captain Grid-Iron has the strongest melee attack. Blizzard can shoot through walls. General Hawk is a bona fide superhero who excels at everything and can even fly thanks to his jet pack.

Each character’s abilities can also be enhanced via the persistent power-up system in place throughout the game. Picking up gun and chevron icons scattered around the stages will upgrade the active Joe’s weapon power and stamina, respectively. These upgrades remain in effect indefinitely, provided the character doesn’t die. As in Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you can switch between your three Joes at any time via the pause menu and each one has their own independent health bar, so swapping out a heavily injured teammate before they kick the bucket and lose all their power-ups to is an important technique to master if you hope to keep your party strong.

Every mission, with the exception of the final one, is divided into three distinct stages. The first is a standard run-and-gun affair that sees you infiltrating a Cobra base. The second is set inside the base itself and takes the form of a more free-roaming maze type area where your task is to plant a number of bombs at specific points (designated by large check marks on the walls) and then reach the exit before time runs out. Finally, there’s another run-and-gun stage in which your Joes must escape the base before the bombs detonate. This makes for grand total of sixteen stages in the entire game and each of them has a boss fight at the end. This is quite a lot of content for game of this sort, especially when you consider that none of the boss enemies are recycled. There are even passwords given out between missions in case the player needs to take a break and finish up later.

With six playable characters, the team management element, the strategic power-up system, and the large variety of levels and bosses, it’s clear G.I. Joe has ambition to spare. It’s execution that puts it over the top, though. The music and graphics are both above average, the control is rock solid, and the cut scenes are even a little funny at times. I loved the boss who greets you with “O.K., so my men were not so hot, but I will blow you away, Joe!” What an optimist!

There are many great touches in the level design, too. Enemies lurking in the foreground of the jungle stage will leap into the screen to engage you, missiles firing from the distant base in the background of the Antarctic stage will eventually reach your character, and the bases themselves house three different types of Cobra vehicle you can commandeer and wreak havoc in, each with their own unique on-board weapons and ways of maneuvering.

Many of the boss encounters also go above and beyond in terms of creativity. Take the battle against Cobra Commander’s right hand man Destro, for example. After you destroy his flying vehicle, he attempts to turn tail and run. The formerly single screen fight then transitions seamlessly into an auto-scrolling section where you must continuously attack the fleeing Destro while leaping over bottomless pits and dodging his return fire. It’s a real tour de force of an 8-bit showdown.

G.I. Joe even manages to include more in the way of replay value than you might expect. Beating it presents you with a password for a “second quest” where your three Joe team is reduced to two and the locations in the Cobra bases where you need to place your bombs have all been shuffled around. Beating that enables yet another playthrough where not only are you still limited to two Joes, but the enemies are all able to dish out and absorb twice as much punishment as before.

As far as downsides go, there are a few. I already mentioned the fact that the game is based on G.I. Joe circa 1991 and not the more beloved 1980s version. Consequently, a lot of most popular heroes and villains from the original cartoon are missing in action. Don’t expect to see the likes of Scarlet, Roadblock, Major Bludd, the Baroness, Sgt. Slaughter, Zartan, Serpentor, or Storm Shadow here.

On the gameplay side, a constant annoyance is the way item drops are handled. If a defeated enemy leaves behind a health or ammo refill, it immediately begins bouncing all over the screen in an erratic fashion. If the item happens to bounce away from your character, it can easily disappear off the edge of the screen or down a pit before you have a chance to grab it. Why such an obnoxious behavior was programmed into an otherwise excellent game is beyond me.

Then there’s Blizzard. Blizzard is terrible. His ability to fire his gun through walls doesn’t come in handy nearly as much as you might hope. There’s really no reason to add him to your team unless it’s the Antarctic mission and you have no choice due to his leader status.

Make no mistake, however: Any complaints I can muster against this game hardly begin to detract from all it accomplishes. With its slick presentation layered over a near-perfect union of quality, quantity, and variety, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is everything NES enthusiasts could ask for in an action platformer.

A lot of gamers missed the boat on this one back on 1991, but now you know, and knowing is half the battle!

Strider (NES)

Keep on stridin’.

I’m on vacation in the magical land of poutine and polite people at the moment. Being me, I just had to pack along at least one game. Since I just finished up Strider for the Genesis, I thought I’d go with the NES Strider game I mentioned in passing in that review.

NES Strider came out the same year as the arcade game, but it’s not a port like the Genesis version. This is a completely different game developed simultaneously by a separate team at Capcom. A smart choice when you consider just how badly compromised a straight attempt at a port for the 8-bit console would have been.

Instead of the arcade’s non-stop linear action, NES owners got a more restrained side-scrolling action platformer with some very light exploration and RPG elements. Strider plus Metroid sounds like a dream come true. If only it were so.

We begin the adventure with everyone’s favorite ninja of the future, Hiryu, being contacted by Matic, vice-director of the Striders. Hilariously, the game’s intro describes the Striders as “the toughest group of people who execute acts such as infiltration, abduction, explosion, instigation, etc.” Matic informs Hiryu that their comrade Kain has been captured by the enemy and Hiryu must assassinate him, as he’s now become a liability. Hiryu can’t bring himself to kill his old friend and vows to find and rescue him instead.

Right away, this highlights one major difference between the arcade and NES Striders: There’s a story beyond “go kill this evil wizard guy.” Sure, it may be a terrible story filled with unclear motivation, nonexistent characterization, and dialogue courtesy of a tornado striking a fortune cookie factory, but it sure does exist! Supposedly, it’s based pretty closely on the original Strider manga series from 1988, though I can’t help but assume it must have been handled a lot better there. Still, other games of the time with similar structures like Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II kept their plots confined to instruction manuals, so I do give Strider credit for trying at least.

The gameplay involves Hiryu visiting various parts of the globe searching for clues to the true nature of the threat to the Striders: A mysterious secret project called “ZAIN.” Along the way, he’ll also acquire keys and other special items which will allow him to backtrack and explore previously inaccessable parts of earlier levels. Different levels are accessed via the Blue Dragon, a rather cool looking spaceship that serves as a central hub of sorts.

Gameplay is sound in theory. One button jumps, one attacks. Hiryu also gains additional abilities by leveling up as he reaches inportant points in the story. These include a ground slide and a “plasma arrow” projectile attack that’s slow to charge up but vital for defeating certain bosses. Leveling up will also increase maximum health and the energy points needed to use what the game calls “tricks.” These work a lot like the magic spells in Zelda II and can be used to heal damage, boost jump height, warp back to the Blue Dragon instantly, and unleash different supplementary attacks. The extra attacks are kind of neat sometimes, but I mostly found myself saving my energy for healing and warping.

While Strider does have a solid structure on paper, it stumbles badly in its execution. Jumping controls and hit detection are quite shockingly bad, especially considering this was the developer who gave us Mega Man. Hiryu’s jumps are jerky and prone to being halted abruptly by the mere proximity of a wall or platform. There are no bottomless instant death pits to stumble into, thankfully, but expect to have your patience seriously tested by the need to retrace your steps through the same section of a level over and over just to take repeated shots at what would be an incredibly basic jump in any other game.

It doesn’t help that the enemies and stages don’t stand out much, either. You’ll rarely face more than one or two baddies at a time and they’re generally unimpressive and easy to dispatch, although they can still get in their share of shots due to the odd hit detection. If you’re even in the same postal code as an enemy bullet, kiss your health points goodbye.

A couple stages are decent. I liked Egypt, which features a nice (if all too short) segment on a moving train as well as action both atop and underneath a desert pyramid. Most levels, though, are generic and in no way resemble the real world locations they’re named for. Show anyone the Australia or Los Angeles stages from this game and see if they can guess what they’re supposed to be. I don’t fancy their chances.

Strider is also no winner in the graphics department. Most backgrounds are either a solid color or fairly plain. Sprite art is not too bad, but not very good either. Flicker is rife, despite the low enemy count. On the plus side, the introductory cut scene is marvelous and the character portraits are well drawn.

At least there’s the score by Harumi Fujita, the one element of Strider that’s unequivocally strong. The second you power on the system your ears are graced by one of the best title screen themes ever, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the session.

I found Strider for Genesis to be a good game that lacked only in comparison to later top tier action-platformers for the system, but NES Strider really is a whole other story. It’s honestly tough to recommend this one at all. The way the action is programmed feels sloppy, bordering on glitchy at times, the story is a mess, and the presentation is average at best, despite a really solid soundtrack.

It is a very inexpensive game, however, and makes for a quick playthrough due to being less mazelike and convoluted than some of the titles which inspired it. If you’re a fan of Strider Hiryu himself or of Metroid type games in general, you might find this one to be worth spending a few dollars and hours on.

I just wish the designers at Capcom had focused less on the act of explosion and more on the act of quality control.