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 that 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 cut scene dialog hadn’t told me first. 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 that’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 that 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 that 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 that 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 the 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 that 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!

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Fester’s Quest (NES)

Hey, you were expecting maybe Jason Frudnick?

Richard Robbins had a dream. Literally. One night, circa 1989, he dreamed that he was playing a video game called “Uncle Fester’s Playhouse” based on the Addams Family characters. Instead of laughing this off come morning like a normal person, Robbins reacted as if he’d been the recipient of some divine inspiration and promptly dedicated himself to making this Uncle Fester game a reality. His day job as a producer for the U.S. arm of game publisher Sunsoft helped just a bit, I imagine.

Created by cartoonist Charles Addams for the New Yorker magazine all the way back in 1938, the Addams Family was conceived as a clan of macabre eccentrics satirizing popular notions of the wholesome, all-American nuclear family. A 1964 tv sitcom adaptation brought the Family to mainstream prominence, but their cultural relevance may well have been at an all-time low around 1989. This was still two years before the first big screen movie would come along to reinvigorate the franchise.

Regardless, Robbins pushed ahead and managed to convince the late Charles Addams’ widow to give her blessing to his little passion project through a protracted series of long distance phone calls to France. His higher-ups at Sunsoft Japan were even harder sells. He later recounted in an interview that they “were extremely skeptical and gave me a real hard time. They really questioned who would care about this really old weird TV show.” It’s a fair enough question. The proposed game wouldn’t even star either of the main characters from the show, Gomez and Morticia, and the bald, rotund creepy uncle character Fester was hardly traditional action hero material.

Finally, and against all odds, funding and an extremely short development window were approved. Another Sunsoft U.S. employee, Michael Mendheim, would serve as lead designer in addition to providing the game’s cover art in the form of an excellent likeness of actor Jackie Coogan, who portrayed Fester in the tv series. The finished release, titled Fester’s Quest, would go on to sell just over one million copies. This was quite a remarkable showing for a third party NES game, especially one that was never released in Japan.

It all sounds like a picture perfect lovable underdog success story, except for one little detail: Fester’s Quest is widely reviled by gamers. This is one of those rare titles like Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game that’s treated as a pariah online despite being popular in its day. To find out why, let’s delve into the actual game.

Fester’s Quest is an overhead view run-and-gun action game that takes numerous design cues from the similar segments in Sunsoft’s earlier NES title Blaster Master. This is no accident, as the same development team worked on both games. Robbins himself was even the one responsible for Blaster Master’s famously absurd mutant frog storyline.

The plot here is almost as strange as that. As seen in a rather cute opening cut scene, it involves an alien spaceship that descends on New York City one night and promptly begins abducting most of its inhabitants, including Addams Family patriarch Gomez. Now it’s up to Fester to take up his musket and spearhead a rescue mission while the rest of his kin provide material support along the way in the form of various weapons and power-ups. Uncle Fester versus space aliens. That’s really what they went with.

Most of the action takes place in what appears to be a suburban neighborhood that’s been overrun with aliens. There are two types of buildings to be found here: Smaller brown houses that each contain an Addams Family member with a helpful item to dispense and larger gray structures that each hold one of the game’s boss monsters. You can’t just visit these locations in any order you want, however. Hedges, fences, and other obstructions effectively partition this “overworld” into discreet sections, imposing a strict linear progression on the player. In order to travel between different sections of the map, Fester has to descend into the sewers at various points and negotiate a series of narrow underground tunnels before reemerging in the next part of town. Eventually, you’ll reach the final stage inside the alien mothership itself.

Fester’s primary means of combatting the aliens is his gun, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the one from Blaster Master. It can be upgraded multiple times by collecting blue power-up icons from enemies and fires in a variety of patterns determined by its current power level. Because most of these shot patterns involve bullets that move in awkward wave-like or circular fashions that make it difficult to actually hit foes, it’s advisable to upgrade to the maximum power level at the very start of the game and to stay that way indefinitely. This is easier said than done, unfortunately, since enemies will also drop red power-down icons that will lower gun power one level if touched. Avoiding these red icons certainly doesn’t add any fun to the game, though it is a whole lot less punishing than Blaster Master’s habit of downgrading your weapon automatically each and every time you took damage. Later on, Fester can acquire a secondary weapon in the form of a whip provided by Morticia (uh, kinky?) and this also has its own upgrades and downgrades to fuss over. The whip is much more powerful than the gun on a per-hit basis, balanced by a limited range and slower attack speed.

Aside from his two main weapons, there are numerous other items to collect. Keys open doors, light bulbs illuminate the dark sewers, money buys health restoring franks from hot dog stands, and vise grips cure the annoying slowing effect of certain enemy attacks. The really important items are the potions, homing missiles, and nooses. Potions come in healing and invincibility varieties (the utility of each being obvious), homing missiles automatically seek out and deal heavy damage to enemies, and nooses summon the family butler Lurch to instantly obliterate all non-boss enemies on the screen. The intelligent use of these four key items will make Fester’s adventure much more manageable. Each is only available in a limited quantity, but defeating a boss will replenish Fester’s stock completely. In a pinch, revisiting the house where you received your initial batch of a given item will also top off your supply.

Nothing here sounds all that bad so far, apart from maybe the weapon downgrades. So where do the real problems start?

Let’s start with the health bar. At the very beginning of the game, Fester can only withstand two hits before dying. He’s also a very slow-moving character and has a tough time escaping from any enemies that manage to get too close to him. To make matters worse still, many aliens require a ton of shots to kill unless Fester’s gun is fully powered and they tend to respawn almost immediately when destroyed. You can locate a pair of hidden health bar extension later in the game, thankfully. The instruction manual will even tip you off as to where to look for one of them. Until you get your mitts on at least one of these bonus hit points and some healing potions, though, it’s going to be tough going for your pasty protagonist.

The second major issue involves what happens when you eventually do run out of health. Fester’s Quest has a continue feature and the game keeps tabs on inventory items, weapon upgrades, and bosses defeated. As long as you don’t power off the console, that is. The bad news is that continuing places Fester back at the first screen of the game. Since everything is arranged along one winding path, this can mean having to spend a considerable amount of time slowly marching through the exact same series of streets and sewers again just to take another shot at clearing the bit that actually killed you. After being defeated by the fourth boss, I was not exactly thrilled to spend upward of twenty minutes just trekking back to his door for a rematch.

Speaking of the bosses, Fester’s Quest forces you to trudge through an out-of-place and completely pointless first-person maze before you battle each of them. These mazes feature no hidden loot to find (with one key exception), no enemies to fight or traps to avoid, and not even a time limit. At least they’re easy to solve using the classic “all left turns” or “all right turns” methods. These mazes have to be one of the most baffling vestigial elements I’ve ever encountered in a game. I can only assume that the designer intended to do something with them, but ultimately ran out of time.

One final thing that holds Fester’s Quest back from greatness is its lackluster and repetitive environments. I hope you like endless interchangeable suburbs and sewers, because that’s a good 90% of what you’re in for here. By the time you reach the final level inside the alien ship, it’ll hit you that this is the first new set of background tiles you’ve seen since you first started out.

So, yes, this is one flawed game. Largely owing, I suspect, to its rushed development cycle. Even so, there remains much good be found in Fester’s Quest. It was brought to us by many of the same people behind Batman, Blaster Master, and Journey to Silius, after all.

For one thing, the boss battles are quite cool. Just like in Blaster Master, each boss looks intimidating and has a ton of health, but also follows a fairly simple pattern that lets you take it down with ease once you’ve mastered it. The initial sense of panic experienced when facing each new boss sets the stage for some exhilarating victories and increased confidence as the game progresses.

The presentation has its high points, too. While the environments are indeed bland, the design and animation of the aliens was handled much better. I also thought the portraits of the various Addams Family members looked quite nice. The soundtrack was provided by by Naoki Kodaka, the genius responsible for the driving, bass sample-heavy “Sunsoft sound” that characterized most of the company’s output at the time. There aren’t a lot of tracks here, but what we do get is superb. I particularly love the cheesy digitized orchestra hit included in the game’s rendition of the the classic tv theme song.

Best of all, Fester’s Quest as a whole presents a very satisfying challenge to the player. The difficulty is rather front-loaded due to the lack of health and items at the start, but persevere past that speed bump and the mid-to-late game turns out to be much more enjoyable. With a bit of extra health and some smart application of your inventory, Fester’s Quest is very much beatable with a minimum of frustration.

Is Fester’s Quest some kind of misunderstood masterpiece or NES hidden gem? Absolutely not. Often, when the term “underrated” is thrown around, it’s in the context of wanting to champion something. That isn’t my intention at all. Much like Silver Surfer, this is a merely an okay-ish NES game that I managed to enjoy. It has the baseline level of Sunsoft production quality that would have almost certainly been lacking in an LJN or THQ joint. It’s also unrepentantly weird as hell in every aspect of its concept and execution, which might just make it the most authentic Addams Family game adaptation ever in light of all the thoroughly pedestrian platformers that followed in the wake of the films. If you enjoyed the overhead stages from Blaster Master, it’s worth checking out. Only in the context of the ludicrous amount of vitriol spewed at it online does it make sense to call it underrated.

Me, I’ll only go so far as to say that it’s not altogether ooky.

Jackal (NES)

Smoke ’em if you got ’em, kiddos!

After pouring almost thirty hours into a sprawling epic like Seiken Densetsu 3, I needed to unwind with something a little more…straightforward. So I figured why not go back to the Konami NES well for another short-but-sweet action romp? This time, it’s the 1988 port of Jackal.

Jackal started out as a 1986 arcade release called Tokushu Butai Jakkaru (“Special Forces Jackal”) in Japan and Top Gunner in North America. In this overhead run-and-gun action title, players control an elite group of Green Berets (including the hilariously named Lieutenant Bob) driving heavily-armed jeeps on a POW rescue mission deep behind enemy lines. Who’s the enemy exactly? Beats me. Now move out, soldier!

Just like in Contra, Life Force, Castlevania, and almost every other Konami action game of the period, you’ll fight your way through exactly six levels of tenacious enemies, each culminating in a unique and challenging boss battle.

Fortunately, your vehicle is up to the task. One hit from the enemy will do you in but your ride is remarkably quick and responsive, so any deaths feel like your fault and not the programmer’s. You have two weapons at your disposal, both with unlimited ammunition. Pressing B will fire your machine gun straight up toward the top of the screen and the A button launches slower but more powerful hand grenades in whichever direction your jeep is currently pointing. At first, the limitation of only being able to shoot your machine gun upward in a game with eight-directional movement may seem strange or annoying but it’s actually quite helpful, since it allows for a limited form of strafing and lets you fire at foes while moving away from them. You also have have one final offensive option: You can run over foot soldiers with your jeep, smooshing them like bugs. It’s pretty awesome, but make sure not to ram into enemy vehicles or you’ll lose a life.

But what about those POWs? Each level contains numerous small buildings and targeting them with grenades will allow the prisoners inside to rush out through the hole created. Stop your jeep next to the building long enough for them to climb on board before continuing on your way. You’ll eventually reach a helipad area where a chopper is waiting to evacuate your extra passengers. Each POW you successfully extract will earn you major bonus points and you’ll want all the points you can get, since they’re how you earn those all-important extra lives. You can also rescue special “officer” prisoners that will upgrade your grenade attack to a faster rocket. The rockets can then be upgraded twice by rescuing more officers, increasing their blast radius drastically. At least until you die and go back to the standard grenades. Try not to do that.

Jackal is a challenging game, but not overwhelmingly so, at least not until its real meatgrinder of a final stage. Lives and continues are limited but I had an easier time with this one than I did with most of the other big Konami NES titles like Contra and Castlevania. You probably won’t beat it on your first go, but it should yield with a few hours of dedicated practice. It’s a short game and can be finished in thirty minutes or so once mastered. The game will loop after the last level, though, so you can play on to try for a high score if desired.

The music in Jackal supports the bombastic 1980s military action movie theme perfectly with rousing heroic melodies over punchy martial percussion. It reminds me of The A-Team and that’s a very good thing. Graphics are clean and functional, but definitely not as detailed as they are in other games of the period. This is mainly due to the game’s zoomed-out overhead perspective combined with the fact that your on-screen avatar represents a vehicle and not a person. In fact, the POWs and enemy infantry fighters you see on the battlefield are only a few pixels tall. Background also don’t stand out much and tend to consist of monotonous repeated ground tiles much of the time. On the plus side, everything runs well and slowdown is very limited, even during two-player simultaneous play.

I had a ton of fun with this one. I’d never actually played Jackal before this week, but I already love it. It’s not my favorite overhead run-and-gun game, that honor goes to SNK’s amazing Shock Troopers for the Neo-Geo, but it’s likely the best on the NES. Certainly it’s miles above the hot garbage that was the NES Ikari Warriors releases. It’s too bad we never saw a sequel for any platform. Maybe the standard military theme didn’t pack the same wow factor that Contra’s military versus aliens one did. Maybe it’s because Chuck Norris style “rescue the POWs” movies were starting to become passe right around the time Jackal hit homes.

In any case, I salute you, Jackal. Especially Lieutenant Bob.

Contra (NES)

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My first time beating Contra legit solo. For an all-time classic, the ending is pretty weak.

It’s still right up there with Castlevania for me in the “short but satisfying Konami masterpiece” category, though. It took me only about a half hour but I wasn’t bored for a single second of it! A good reminder that not every game needs to cram in enough play time to qualify as a second job.

It also makes me reflect on cheat codes as inspired game design. Contra features the most well-known code in all of gaming. Contrary to popular belief, though, it didn’t debut it. The code first appeared in the NES port of Gradius the previous year. The ability to multiply your starting lives by ten turned Contra into a game that anyone could play and beat and its inclusion alone makes the NES version a superior achievement over the arcade original, despite the graphical downgrade. In addition, making this difficulty modifier a “secret” cheat code only added to the schoolyard cool factor at the time. Other great action platformers left their mark but Contra is the one that every kid who played games in the 80s is virtually guaranteed to remember and it’s due in large part to that legendary code.

(Originally written 3/8/2017)

Super C (NES)

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Hahaha! Yes! Beat Super C for the first time ever and pulled it off without continuing! This feels amazing!

Unlike the original Contra, I’d never played Super C until last week. Unless you count the first level a couple times in the arcade growing up. Essentially, it’s a whole new game to me.

Overall, it was awesome! Do I like it better than the original? Hard to say. Correcting for nostalgia is hard, but Super C does have many advantages. The graphics are greatly improved, the guns have all been slightly redesigned to be better balanced and more fun, the bosses are generally more dynamic and varied, and levels are lengthier.

Other changes are more subject to personal taste. Some might appreciate that the slower-paced pseudo-3D base levels are replaced with zippier overhead ones that feel ripped from a game like Commando. The game is also harder: Contra allowed players to continue three times, Super C only allows it twice. Essentially, you get three fewer lives. The action in general also seems more intense to me, with tougher enemies and longer levels.

Cons? Level design is a bit simplifed here, I feel. Stages like the first and fifth in Contra had multiple platform levels to jump up to, drop down from, and battle on. Super C’s equivalent levels like one and three lack this verticality and are more straight sprints to the finish. Additionally, level seven has you descending a shaft and clearing away aliens rather slowly and methodically when compared to most other levels and I found it a bit of a bore.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter, since it’s more NES Contra and that rules! Remember, no matter what anyone tells you, you don’t need a shirt to save the world.

(Originally written 3/13/2017)