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….

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 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 which 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. 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’m 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 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 who 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 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 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” 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 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 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 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 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.

Battletoads (NES)

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There is it: The sweetest 10,000 points I ever scored. So ends my first full playthrough of Battletoads: No cheats, no warps, no mercy. And I only needed one continue!

This was…a really difficult game, not just to complete, but to review. After all the hours logged practicing its twelve levels, I’m honestly torn over whether or not Battletoads is ultimately a “good” game. Overall, I really think it is, but I also think that it may not be a good experience for most people.

What can’t really be debated is that this is one of the most wildly ambitious and best presented games for the system. Battletoads came out in 1991, when the core Famicom/NES hardware was already eight years old and had been thoroughly mastered by skilled programmers. It was created by the legendary British development house Rare, who would shortly go on to debut Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and numerous other instant classics later in the decade. The graphics and music (by celebrated Rare composer David Wise) are some of the best on the system, rivaled only by a select few similarly late releases like Kirby’s Adventure. The game also has a fantastic sense of humor, with Tex Avery-inspired cartoony animations and a ludicrous plot and characters. You do play as two toad men from outer space named Rash and Zitz fighting to save a third toad man named Pimple from what appears to be a dominatrix clad in leather fetish gear after all, so embracing the stupidity fully just makes sense. I especially love how your sultry antagonist the Dark Queen will show up between every level to taunt you with horrendous puns and goofy threats that would make Skeletor proud and that she seems to have multiple bits of dialogue for her chosen at random each playthrough to keep this feature from getting too stale. There are so many nice flourishes like this.

The sheer scope of the game is also impressive. Twelve levels is quite a lot for an action-platforming game of the time and you’re literally never doing the same thing twice in any of them. You’ll fight a giant robot from the robot’s point of view, rappel down a cavernous shaft, speed through deadly obstacle courses on land, sea, and in the air, climb giant snakes, have snowball fights with living snowmen, race rats to defuse bombs, and more. The action seems to take every imaginable form and scroll in every possible direction. There’s such dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas at play here that it actually verges on overwhelming at times.

It sounds like a perfect game, but as almost everyone knows by now, it’s also a very difficult one to complete. There are a couple reasons for this. First and foremost, you don’t have unlimited continues here like you do in other difficult games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You’re guaranteed sixteen lives (four to start and four more for each of your three continues) and you can just about double this if you’re good at scoring points and grabbing the 1-Ups scattered throughout the levels. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. At least not until you put in the time to get really, really good. Even though your toad has a six point health bar, most of your deaths in this game will come in the form of instant kills, whether from enemies (bosses and even many common foes can kill in one hit) or stage hazards like spikes, poison gas, or falls. Even the enemies that you can potentially survive hits from normally take 2-3 of your six health points per attack. Lose all your lives and it’s back to the title screen for you, and this hurts a lot more than it does in a game like Contra. A failed Contra run may cost you twenty minutes or so at most, while bombing out of a lengthy Battletoads session can easily consume the better part of an hour.

Unlike games with less variety in their action, the skills you’ll use to pass one stage in Battletoads often won’t carry over directly to the next. The core gameplay is actually so different for each stage that it often feels like a dozen games in one, each of which requires extensive memorization and perfect execution. All these factors combined impose a sort of psychological pressure on the player that most other game developers shied away from. You can laugh off a death in Ninja Gaiden and just try something different next time, but every death in Battletoads feels like a real catastrophe and it takes a lot of focus to not get rattled, lose your cool, and compound it with more sloppy deaths, ending the run. This pressure just keeps on mounting as you progress further and further, too, making Battletoads a very stressful, nerve-wracking game and setting it apart from other tricky titles like the ones mentioned above. Simply put, it’s very tough for me to relax and enjoy myself with Battletoads like I can with other difficult NES games. I certainly don’t think I’ll be playing it much again anytime soon.

But is this a flaw in the game or a flaw in me? That’s really what makes this review so hard to formulate. Few other games put players under the same kind of pressure that Battletoads does and that’s really what gives it its unique identity and why we still remember, play, and discuss it today. Would a less hardcore Battletoads be a better game? I don’t think so. Better for me? Maybe, although the sheer almighty satisfaction of finally conquering it makes even that verdict uncertain. The grim struggle/cathartic triumph cycle is arguably the engine that drives retro gaming as a hobby, after all. Battletoads may push this dynamic to its practical extreme, but hell, if somebody’s got to do it, it may as well be ’90s era Rare, right?

Until next time, stay mad, bad, and crazy! Ribbit.