RollerGames (NES)

Donald? Is that you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Super Adventure Island (Super Nintendo)

Oh, Higgins. You smug bastard.

The Adventure Island series is a very odd duck. It all began back in 1986 with the arcade platformer Wonder Boy. Developed by Escape (later known as Westone) and published by Sega, Wonder Boy starred a Tarzanesque lad named Tom-Tom who did battle with assorted jungle baddies on a quest to rescue his girlfriend Tina. Hudson Soft contracted with Escape to create a Wonder Boy port for the Nintendo Famicom that same year. Sega still retained the rights to the character names and likenesses, however, so it was decided to replace Tom-Tom with a new hero for Hudson’s Adventure Island.

Enter Takahashi Meijin (“Master Takahashi”), a rather portly gent rocking the unlikely ensemble of a grass skirt and baseball cap. Stranger still, Takahashi Meijin was modeled on a real person: Former Hudson Soft employee Toshiyuki Takahashi, famous in Japanese gaming circles for his ability to hammer controller buttons up to sixteen times per second. The cherry on top of this oddball sundae has to be the character’s name in the NES version: Master Higgins. Yup. A chubby, stone axe chucking caveman in a baseball cap named Master Higgins. I can’t help but love the guy, even if he looks like a redneck uncle’s idea of a funny racist Halloween costume.

The original Wonder Boy and its altered port Adventure Island were each the start of their own independent long-running series, with future Wonder Boy titles mostly being confined to Sega systems and the Adventure Island sequels being primarily Nintendo exclusives. This finally brings me to 1992’s Takahashi Meijin no Daibōken Jima (“Master Takahashi’s Great Adventure Island”), better known outside Japan as Super Adventure Island. This was the third game in its series and its first 16-bit entry.

This time, Master Higgins is stargazing in the treetops with his sweetie Tina one night when the evil magician Dark Cloak rides by on a broomstick and turns Tina to stone before flying off. Incensed, Higgins sets off to find the bad guy’s castle and set things right. This opening cut scene and the equally wordless ending screen are all the story we get here. Not that I mind in this instance. Brevity is a virtue if all you’re going to bring to the table is the standard kidnapped girl plot.

The action in Super Adventure Island will be second nature for series veterans, as it’s closely patterned on the first game’s. Master Higgins has to make his way through five worlds, each consisting of three platforming stages and a boss battle. Most stages involve running from right to left to reach the goal at the end, though a few mix this up by incorporating vertical sections to climb, water to swim through, ice to slide around on, and other gimmicks. In addition to his standard jump, Higgins also has a new super jump move activated by crouching before tapping the jump button. This allows him to reach greater heights and is useful at many points.

Attacking the enemy is accomplished using the two different weapons found in each stage. The stone axe is an Adventure Island staple and flies forward in a descending arc. New in this installment is the boomerang, which has a slower rate of fire than the axe, but can also be tossed above and below Higgins. Collecting multiple copies of the same weapon will increase the number of projectiles you can have on screen at once and will eventually upgrade your shots to a more powerful fireball version.

You’ll need to be cautious, since Higgin dies in one hit and losing a life removes all accumulated weapons and upgrades. The only extra defense available comes in the form of the classic skateboard power-up seen throughout the series. This allows Higgins to survive an extra hit, with the tradeoff being that he loses the ability to halt his forward movement as long as he remains on the board. Thankfully, the skateboards in this game don’t tend to appear in stages that have bottomless pits, so they’re much less of a double-edged sword than they are in other installments.

Of course, since this is an Adventure Island game, enemies and pits aren’t the full extent of your worries. You also have to feed Higgins’ face by constantly collecting fruit scattered about the stages. The hunger meter at the top of the screen acts as a timer and depletes very rapidly, so failure to secure a steady stream of pineapples and kiwis spells your ravenous hero’s doom, presumably due to some sort of catastrophic blood sugar crash. This is one of those archetypal love-it-or-hate-it game mechanics, but I think it works here. Since enemies don’t respawn when killed, the player needs some incentive to rush. Otherwise a slow, methodical approach would negate the challenge completely.

One noteworthy feature of the earlier games that wasn’t carried forward is Higgins’ ridable dinosaur pals. First introduced in Adventure Island II for the NES, these guys are the series’ take on Yoshi from Super Mario World. The many playable dinosaurs and their unique special abilities were a brilliant addition and would continue to appear in future sequels, so they’re sorely missed here. Strangely, there’s actually an illustration of Higgins riding one in the instruction manual, so perhaps it was part of the plan at some point? Oh, well.

With a grand total of fifteen stages, Super Adventure Island is a very short game. If the levels here were longer or more difficult than the series standard, there still might be a decent amount of gameplay on offer. Unfortunately, they aren’t. Each can be completed in around two minutes or so, and they’re all basic enough that they won’t put up too much of a fight for players with any amount of prior platforming experience. This is ultimately the game’s fundamental flaw. Even with a fragile hero and limited continues, most gamers will be able to cruise through Super Adventure Island in an afternoon. If I’d payed $50 in 1992 money to get this one new, I’d have been pretty disappointed.

Aside from being short, easy, and lacking the adorable dinosaur mounts, I have no real complaints about Super Adventure Island. While a slight step back for the series as a whole, it remains a quality platformer with loads of charm. The control is good, level design is solid, and the visuals and audio are delightful. Presumably reacting to the common criticism that the earlier games leaned too much on recycled scenery, every stage here has its own unique background graphics, and these are generally well drawn and colorful. The character animation is also excellent. Higgins himself might just have the best crouching animation ever. He looks like he’s either relieving himself or performing some sort of weird booty dance. Either way, I approve.

Super Adventure Island’s best feature by far is its musical score by the masterful Yuzo Koshiro. It’s mainly super mellow, chilled out 90s hop hop, reggae, and dub beats rendered as only the Super Nintendo sound chip can. The fanfare that plays when you defeat a boss even has record scratches included. Every track is pure bliss, and “Blue Blue Moon” rivals “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country for the best water level music of all time as far as I’m concerned.

If a breezy, low pressure platformer with simple mechanics and a great sense of style sounds good to you, you can’t go wrong with Super Adventure Island. If it’s challenge, depth, and replay value you’re looking for, look elsewhere. In any case, make sure you eat at least one pineapple every twenty seconds or so. Anything less would just be unhealthy.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures (Super Famicom)

You can ring my beeeeeeell. Ring my bell.

In 1985, Konami released the first TwinBee game to arcades. As far back as the first entry in the genre, 1962’s Space War, shooter video games almost invariably featured science fiction or military themes and tended to be presented in as realistic a fashion as the hardware would allow. TwinBee broke with convention by opting for a cartoon aesthetic, embracing bright pastel colors, adorable little spaceships with white-gloved Mickey Mouse arms, and a whimsical power-up system that involved juggling and collecting colored bells. The game was a huge hit, mainly in Japan, and would inspire numerous direct sequels as well as its own sub-genre of lighthearted shooters (“cute-’em-ups”) that includes Sega’s Fantasy Zone and Success’ Cotton.

By 1994, though, the arcade style shooter’s mainstream popularity was on the decline. What was hot? Mascot platformers! Mario and Sonic were raking in cash at an astonishing rate and it seems like everyone wanted in on that action. Since the robot bee ships from TwinBee already had tons of personality, a colorful world to inhabit, and even the requisite limbs needed for platforming, it must have seemed like a natural fit to someone at Konami because they released Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures that same year in Japan and Europe.

I played the Japanese version, since I don’t have the necessary equipment to run European PAL video format games properly. I understand that the publisher opted to remove all the game’s dialog rather than translating it from Japanese for the international release, however, so at least I’m not missing out on anything in that department.

The story of Rainbow Bell Adventures may leave you with a bit of deja vu. The maniacal Dr. Warumon is attacking with his army of EvilBee robots. His good guy counterpart Dr. Cinnamon must fight off the invasion with his own TwinBee ships, piloted by his youthful assistants Light, Pastel, and Mint. So yeah, it’s pretty much Mega Man. Dr. Warumon even looks just like Dr. Wily in a Halloween vampire cape. But it’s just an excuse to zip around collecting bells, so I’ll give it a pass.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up the game is that it represents the colorful TwinBee style well. The graphics are crisp and bright, the music is bouncy, and everything is just as cute as can be. There are even high-pitched anime style voice clips for your ship. Everything has that impeccable polish you would expect from 1990s Konami. Rainbow Bell Adventures is not a perfect game overall by any means, but I can find no real flaws at all in the art and music.

You start out by picking between three characters. You have TwinBee (the blue one), WinBee (the pink one), and GwinBee (the green one). They’re differentiated by two factors: Rocket charge time and punch charge time. Your rocket will launch you forward when fully charged, a mechanic which seems to have been lifted directly from Konami’s own Rocket Knight Adventures, and your charged punch takes the form of a projectile attack that will deal huge damage to enemies and is mostly useful against bosses, since common enemies just don’t require that much damage to take out. WinBee has a fast rocket charge and a slow punch charge, GwinBee has the inverse, and WinBee is the default character with equal charge times for both. In practice, I found that WinBee’s quick rocket boosts made her the best character for traversing standard stages and GwinBee’s fast punches made him a natural boss wrecker. I didn’t end up using poor TwinBee much, since he fell into the common “jack of all trades, master of none” category. You’re able to change characters each time you die and lives are unlimited, so there’s no need to worry about being stuck with a setup that doesn’t suit you.

The platforming itself is fairly standard, aside from the rocket dynamic. You can kill most enemies by jumping on them or by punching them. Being a TwinBee game, you still power up by collecting colored bells from defeated foes. These will grant abilities like melee weapons to extend your punch range, a gun for attacking distant targets, temporary invincibility, and more. Your collected bells fly up into the air and scatter whenever you take a hit but you’re able to re-collect a few of them if you’re quick about it, similar to how you can recover some of your dropped rings in Sonic the Hedgehog. Bosses are large and impressive looking but not too tough to deal with. Just dodging their simple attack patterns and landing four or five charge punches will send even the final boss packing in short order. They’re a bit tougher than your standard Mario or Sonic opponents, but not by much at all.

One interesting option is two-player simultaneous play. The bad news here is that it’s kind of a mess. The game’s camera will only track player one, so player two has to stick close by or do their best to fumble around until they finally find their way back onto the screen or die trying. More fun is the battle mode, which is certainly no replacement for Street Fighter II or Mario Kart in terms of competitive play on the Super Nintendo but is amusing enough in short bursts.

The goal in each of the main game’s 35 stages is either to reach the exit or to defeat a boss. Taking a cue from Super Mario World, many of the levels have multiple exits, each leading to a different stage. Unlike in Mario World, all exits are shown on the map screen that you can access by pausing the game, so these branching paths don’t constitute secrets in the traditional sense.

Unfortunately, the design of these levels is really Rainbow Bell Adventures’ fatal flaw. They’re sprawling, frequently labyrinthine, and wrap around themselves in Pac-Man fashion, so reaching any side of the level boundary will bring you back around to the opposite side. Rather than conveying any true sense of place, they come off as bland abstract mazes composed of the same few background tiles repeated over and over in arbitrary fashion. They’re also lacking the big “set piece” moments that levels in other Konami platformers of the period were known for, like the swinging chandeliers and rotating rooms of Super Castlevania IV or Contra III’s insane missile riding sequence. There are a few different stage themes (ice, cave, water, and so on) but only a few and each repeats often. To make matters worse, enemy variety is pretty lacking and most enemy types appear in most levels. The end result of all this is that the stages in Rainbow Bell Adventures just sort of blur together into a single inchoate mass with all the flavor of a bowl of cold oatmeal. It looks great and controls acceptably, but it’s really tough to recommend a platformer with such weak level design. That’s the linchpin of the whole genre, after all!

Rainbow Bell Adventures isn’t a truly awful title. Rather, it’s a lot like another Super Famicom platformer I played recently that never came out here in North America: Super Back to the Future Part II. Plenty of surface charm masking a thoroughly average game. Konami made a good call by not bringing this one over, since Rainbow Bell Adventures simply isn’t up to the nearly superhuman standards of their other 16-bit releases on the Super Nintendo around this time. Or the Sega Genesis, for that matter. If you can get it cheap or you’re an obsessive TwinBee superfan, you might as well give Rainbow Bell Adventures a try. General audiences can do much better.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES/Super Nintendo)

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Despite being on vacation, I still got a little road trip gaming in this last weekend. It’s been a long time since I really gave this one a go but it’s amazing how fresh in my memory it remains and how quickly I’m still able to zip through it.

I’m not really going to do a whole review on Super Mario 2, since it is one of the best selling and most ubiquitous games ever made. I also won’t go into its full history: How it started out as an unrelated game called Doki Doki Panic and was modified to include Mario and friends because Nintendo was concerned that the original Super Mario 2 released in Japan was too hard for non-Japanese gamers, and so forth. All this has been covered in so much detail so many times before.

What I will say is that I love this game. It was the subject of a lavish writeup in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine. I received that first issue in the mail for free back in 1988 on account of previously subscribing to the Nintendo Fun Club newsletter, which NP was intended to replace. I poured over every page of this issue for months before I actually played the game, so I guess I was just programmed to love it. Yay, corporate propaganda!

Brainwashing aside, SMB2 is just a fabulous game. The vibrant colors, surreal landscapes, bouncy music, and well-rendered character sprites all put the original to shame, and while it clearly played differently, with an emphasis on picking up and throwing objects and enemies instead of stomping and shooting fireballs, I was used to different. I first controlled Mario back in Donkey Kong, which was nothing like the next game he was playable in, 1983’s Mario Bros., which was in turn nothing like 1985’s Super Mario Bros., and so on. The way you defeated enemies was completely different each time in those games, so why not again here? Shades of my Zelda 2 review here but I really miss the Nintendo that wasn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board for each new game in a series. And no, controller gimmicks don’t count.

Perhaps most ingenious of all, SMB2 gave you four playable characters to experiment with, each with their own unique style of jumping, running, and lifting objects. Not that I ever wanted to be anyone other than Luigi. Once I got a handle on the sort of insane mobility his superpowered jumps allowed for, the other three just felt hobbled. Princess Toadstool (yes, Toadstool not Peach; I’m a rebel) gets talked up a lot, but she doesn’t come close to matching the green machine’s jump distances horizontally or vertically and she’s slower to pick stuff up, too. Make mine Weegee.

At the end of the day, the SMB2 we got over here is a superior game to the Japanese original in virtually every way. It’s got more polish, more charm, and way more variety. The only thing that the Japanese sequel (known as The Lost Levels) can offer is a high degree of difficulty. Other than that, it barely qualifies as a sequel at all and is more like a lazily-made expansion pack of new levels for the first SMB.

So it seems that cynically targeting ads at children works and sometimes a little bit of condescending cultural chauvinism can be a good thing.

Wow. Those are actually pretty terrible lessons for me to end on. Let me try that again…

…Uh, yay, Luigi!

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (Super Nintendo)

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Ooh. Pretty colors.

This ends my first playthrough of Donkey Kong Country 2. I really enjoyed the game, but I’ll probably ruffle some feathers when I say that I still prefer the original overall.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The original Donkey Kong Country was a breakout smash hit for publisher Nintendo and developer Rare in 1994. The combination of masterful platforming action, the return of a fondly remembered character to gaming after a decade-long absence, and striking CGI graphics that seemed impossibly futuristic at the time managed to sell over nine million copies of DKC, making it the third best-selling game for the system. A sequel was inevitable, but an interesting one was not. To their credit, Rare opted not to rest on their laurels and 1995’s DKC2 is a wildly ambitious game that changes things up considerably.

First and foremost, Donkey Kong himself is missing from the action here. He’s been kidnapped and his sidekick Diddy Kong and new character Dixie Kong must launch a rescue mission. Believe it or not, this is actually what put me off from getting into the game back around the time it came out. I was a child of the 80s arcade golden age and I’ve had a huge amount of affection for Donkey Kong ever since I can remember. These days, it doesn’t bother me so much, although if I could hop in a time machine and make this game star Donkey and Dixie instead, I still probably would.

Aside from the lead character switch, the level design saw some major diversification. DKC was primarily a horizontally scrolling left-to-right affair, barring the underwater levels. DKC2 has some levels like this, but introduces tons of verticality to the mix. The variety is appreciated, but it sometimes becomes apparent that the game’s camera really isn’t optimized for vertical panning and you can sometimes be taken by surprise by hazards you should have been able to see coming.

Another big change is the increased emphasis on the “animal buddy” characters that assist Diddy and Dixie on their quest. You’ll alternate between controlling a rhino, parrot, snake, spider, and swordfish and some levels can only be played as a specific animal. Each animal has their own unique controls and special abilities. This aspect of the game can be very enjoyable, but I feel that the designers leaned on it a little too hard and the end result sometimes feels gimmicky and obnoxious as a result. As fun as these guys are to control occasionally, I find that their gameplay is still not as fleshed-out and enjoyable as the Kongs’ is overall and the back half of the game in particular feels packed to the gills with mandatory animal buddy levels. By the end, I almost felt like I was playing a Squawks the Parrot Country game where Diddy and Dixie were the sidekicks! And don’t even get me started on the spider, who moves so incredibly slowly compared to every other character in the game that his segments are just torture to sit through. It’s a pity they tried to make the spice into the main course with the animal buddies this time. It’s just too much of a good thing.

Finally, DKC2 is the start of a divisive trend in Rare games that would continue through the N64 era and beyond: “Gating” game content behind collectables. The game’s final five levels and true last boss and ending require you to unlock them by spending “Kremcoins” that you find inside the hidden bonus barrels scattered throughout the rest of the game. This means either replaying already finished levels over and over to find every barrel yourself or grabbing a walkthrough and going through it checklist style. Yes, it’s Rare’s first so-called “collect-a-thon.” Let me say up front that I’m well aware that some people really adore this sort of thing. I’m happy for these people. Really. That being said, I don’t get it. At all. Never have, never will. When I play a platformer, I just want to finish all the levels, kill all the bosses, watch the ending, and move on with my life. Having to collect all 974 of the super-rare hidden brass monkey butt coins to see the true ending or whatever is pretty much a surefire way to prejudice me against your game. It always seemed like a transparent attempt to sell more strategy guides. It definitely alienated me from Rare’s N64 era platformers in a big way, that’s for sure.

Wow! I sure do hate DKC2, huh? Except I totally don’t! Not at all. In fact, this game rules! When it’s focusing on what it does right, platforming with the Kongs, it’s one of the most stimulating and addictive gaming experiences going. I literally could not put this game down last night as I worked my way through the final levels. Controls are absolutely perfect and the two main Kongs both have interesting abilities: Diddy can run and climb faster, while Dixie can spin her ponytail to hover in the air. Levels are long, varied, and extremely challenging. This game is not just “Nintendo hard,” it’s “Rare hard” and I love it. In fact, it’s easy to see the Battletoads influence on some of these levels. DKC2’s “Screech’s Sprint” reminds me of a mashup of Battletoads’ “Rat Race” and “Clinger Winger” in the best possible way. In addition, boss battles have been radically improved over DKC’s super basic and easy encounters. Every boss fight has multiple distinct phases with new movement and attack patterns to deal with. If DKC2 had added these improved boss mechanics and nothing else, they’d be enough on their own to make a case for it over the original.

In terms of graphics and sound, this game improves on the original DKC in every way, and that’s saying quite a lot, since a lot of people were amazed that the original game was even possible on a 16-bit console. The characters and backgrounds appear more detailed and the colors used are more striking and varied. The soundscape incorporates tons of crystal clear ambient sound samples, like the creaking ropes on the pirate ship levels and the bubbling lava in the caves, and these really set the mood and demonstrate the things that the Super Nintendo sound chip could do that just weren’t possible on older consoles. These are in addition to David Wise’s legendary score, which incorporates jaunty sea shanties for the pirate ship, soothing New Age synths in the otherwise tense bramble mazes, clanking mechanical percussion for the mine levels, and more. You really, really don’t want to play this one with the volume down.

So, yes, I loved DKC2! As much as the original? Maybe not quite, but while I missed playing as Donkey, might have preferred fewer animal buddy levels, and despised the coin collecting, I still recognize that a lot of these gripes are personal in nature and that this is in truth a masterpiece and very close indeed to being a perfect platforming video game on every level.

I’ll be back, for sure, trying my best to focus on that soothing, serene “Stickerbrush Symphony” track as I fly headlong into pointy spikes again and again. Good times.

(Originally written 7/2/2017)

Super Back to the Future Part II (Super Famicom)

Biff receives his just desserts, 16-bit style.

I’m home sick in bed today, so I figured I’d do something I haven’t done in a while: Play through a Japan exclusive game. In this case, it’s Super Back to the Future Part II for the Super Famicom, published by Toshiba EMI in 1993. I picked this one up at a gaming expo last year and haven’t gotten around to it until now.

This is a really weird one, which I’m guessing accounts for a lot of why it was never released outside of Japan. The character designs and humor are quintessentially Japanese and games with these sorts of aesthetics rarely saw localization back then, despite some awesome exceptions like Konami’s Legend of the Mystical Ninja.

Super BttF is a side-scrolling platform game based entirely on the famous hoverboard sequence from the film, which is genius if you ask me. I certainly never would have gotten off that thing. You play as Marty McFly and travel through time to stop the now uncomfortably presidential Biff Tannen from changing the future.

I found the game to be a pleasant romp for the most part. It took me four hours to get through the first time, which is about what I expect from a typical platformer. There are six levels, each of which consists of between one and three platforming segments followed by a boss battle. Each individual stage and boss encounter has its own password in the form of a four-letter word like BACK or KING, so it’s easy to resume a play session at a later time where you left off, if you so choose. Marty begins with three lives, but continues are unlimited, so the only consequence of losing them all is that you lose all your collected coins and will have a harder time purchasing health and power-ups from the vending machines scattered throughout the levels.

Gameplay is average, but has some strange quirks. The controls are one of them. Only two of the controller’s six main action buttons are used here, in the form of a jump button and an acceleration button. You’ll be holding down the acceleration button most of the time, since Marty crawls along at a snail’s pace without it. In fact, Marty won’t even be able to build up enough momentum to jump any direction but straight up without using the accelerator. You may need to hold it down to jump between platforms but you’ll also need to get used to releasing the acceleration button each time as you land on the smaller ones, or else Marty’s momentum will carry him right off it. It’s odd and takes some getting used to but it can be adapted to. Imagine Super Mario Bros. if Mario had to rely on running much more than he does just to get by.

Marty can kill enemies by jumping at them while spinning on his hoverboard and he’ll gain a little height on his jump with each enemy he kills. This makes for some totally gonzo sections where Marty has to ascend vertical sections of the level with no platforms by continuously shredding on his board up a cascade of falling boulders or other dangerous debris. It’s very fun.

The game does have some flaws, though. Marty is very, very fast on his board, but the game’s view is very zoomed-in. Much like in the early Sonic the Hedgehog games, you want to have the exhilarating feeling of flying forward through the level, but the lack of warning you get of incoming hazards makes a very patient, methodical approach more advisable much of the time.

There’s also a lot of slowdown when many sprites are on the screen. This is pretty common on the system, but it’s especially severe in this game, which can throw your jump timing off considerably.

One final thing worth mentioning is that the levels in this game can be quite huge and none of them have any checkpoints. Patience is definitely a necessity. From level four onward, making it all the way through a stage on Marty’s three hit points will require some focus.

Super BttF is short, simple, and a little rough around the edges, but it’s not the worst way you can spend an afternoon. The graphics are cute and colorful, the music will get you pumped, and the weird factor is a constant source of amusement and befuddlement. It’s a good option for non-Japanese gamers who don’t know the language but still want to check out some quality Japan exclusives.

Now why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?

(Originally written 6/5/2017)