8 Eyes (NES)

Believe me, if I knew why this game’s ending revolves around a purple cave gargoyle with a cross on its forehead dispensing passwords, I’d tell you.

For some gamers, there’s no more damning epithet than “clone.” If, for example, you hear a fantasy action-adventure game described as a “Zelda clone,” the commenter more often than not means to dismiss it altogether as something so derivative as to be beneath notice, let alone analysis. This isn’t a very useful approach in my opinion. I’m not referring here to any abstract concerns like fairness to a work’s creators, the true value of innovation versus iteration, or the virtues of open-mindedness. Those are all discussions worth having. First and foremost, however, simply disregarding a clone game sidesteps the most fundamental question of them all: Is it fun enough to spend time with?

Why the preamble? Well, I’ll be looking at several games this month that are, shall we say, heavily indebted to one or more of the classics. Let’s start with 8 Eyes, the 1988 action-platformer from developer Thinking Rabbit that’s a lot like Castlevania except instead of a whip you have…a bird.

According to the backstory we’re given in the instruction manual, it’s the post-apocalyptic future and civilization is just starting to rebuild itself under the guidance of the Great King, who relies on the titular Eyes to do his work. The Eyes themselves are gemstones with mysterious powers that miraculously formed at the centers of eight great nuclear explosions that devastated the planet. Unfortunately, they also have the potential to cause “untold destruction” if misused and the King’s eight traitorous dukes have each made off with one of them, leaving humanity’s future in doubt. It falls on the King’s most accomplished guardsman, Orin the Falconer, to venture to each of the dukes’ heavily-defended castles, retrieve the Eyes, and return them to their rightful places on Altar of Peace.

Of course, they don’t just call him “the Falconer” because he roots for Atlanta. Orin is accompanied by his trained falcon Cutrus, who can be used both as a weapon and a tool to access out-of-reach items and switches. Cutrus even has his own separate health meter and can be controlled independently by a second player, making 8 Eyes a very rare example from this period of a two-player cooperative action game where the playable characters each have radically different capabilities and control schemes.

If you think this whole setup sounds a little nutty, you’re not alone. Why would exploding nuclear bombs create magical gemstones? How are you fighting ghosts and walking skeletons? Radiation explains away a lot of crazy stuff in fiction, but this is really pushing it. I did a little digging online and it turns out that up the original Famicom version is set in the 19th century and centers on a cult of Satanists that want to use the power of the Eyes to resurrect the devil. Orin himself is a baronet and secret agent named Lord Julian James Bond (yes, really) dispatched by a predecessor to the British intelligence agency MI5 to stop the ritual and save the world. This definitely explains the action unfolding onscreen a lot better, particularly all the religious imagery, but it’s not hard to see why publisher Taxan wanted to go with something more suitable for the family-friendly NES market.

Starting up 8 Eyes, the first thing you’re confronted with is a level selection screen à la Mega Man. This allows you to tackle the first seven stages in any order you like. Just like Mega Man, however, there’s an ideal order that will make progress through the game much easier. Starting out, Orin’s sword will deal double the damage to one particular stage’s boss. But which one? In Mega Man games, a boss’ weakness is often made apparent by its theming. Fire guys are weak to ice or water, and so on. Here, the stages are based on different countries, so that sort of logic just doesn’t apply. Is Italy weak to Egypt? Is Egypt vulnerable to Germany? The correct order to play through the stages is essentially a riddle that can be solved through careful study of the instruction manual. Unfortunately, I overlooked the clues completely, which made most of the game’s boss fights much more frustrating than they needed to be. More on this later.

Upon selecting a stage, the resemblance to Castlevania is immediately obvious. The blocky level architecture is here (ditto the helpful items hidden inside some of said blocks) and the infamous Castlevania stairs are in full effect. Orin combats similar skeletons, ghosts, bats, and armored knights with the help of collectable sub-weapons, many of which are virtually identical to ones from Castlevania. He even moves and attacks in a very slow, stiff manner reminiscent of a Belmont clan member. There are some differences, of course. Orin can carry more than one sub-weapon at a time and cycle through them with the select button. He also uses a sword as his primary weapon. It has a very short reach, shorter than even the most basic leather whip from Castlevania. Many of the enemies also have weapons, and these invariably have more reach than Orin’s sword. This fosters a reliance on hit-and-run tactics, as most fights involve baiting the enemy into a swing, quickly backing away, then landing a counter blow after the enemy whiffs. Since most weapon-wielding foes can withstand multiple hits, this demands a lot of precise execution and slows the overall pace of the action quite a bit. The level design in 8 Eyes also places much less emphasis on platforming than Castlevania does. Stages feature no bottomless pits or other instant death hazards, so you’ll rarely find yourself sweating over a tricky series of jumps. The challenge here comes exclusively from the grueling combat, the puzzle elements, and the maze-like nature of two stages in particular, Africa and Germany.

Puzzle elements? That’s right. I already mentioned that you’re intended to deduce the ideal stage progression from clues in the instruction manual, but there’s also the matter of the final challenge at the Altar of Peace. After you defeat the last boss at the “House of Ruth” (no relation, I assume, to the domestic violence charity of the same name) and recover the last of the Eyes, you’ll need to arrange them on the Alter from left to right in the correct order to trigger the ending scene. Determining this order requires you to locate the seven hidden scrolls hidden in walls over the course of the game. Each one holds a tip like “Purple is next to Red.” With all the clues, it’s a very basic logic puzzle, easily worked out on a piece of scratch paper. If you’re missing clues, you’ll have to do some guessing. Thankfully, you’re provided with a password for this segment, so it’s not like you’ll be set back if you guess wrong.

So far, you might have the impression that 8 Eyes is an interesting (if rather odd) blend of ideas from the Castlevania and Mega Man series. That it is! The bad news is that there are a lot of nagging issues that prevent it from reaching the heights its inspirations did. The rigid boss order is definitely one. Orin receives a new sword every time he defeats a boss, and this sword is intended to be used to inflict double damage against the next boss in the sequence. Unlike Mega Man, however, Orin doesn’t carry all these swords around with him to switch between at any time in an inventory menu. Instead, each new sword replaces the last. So if you defeat a boss out of sequence, you’ll permanently lose out on being able to use your current weapon to its best effect. Given that the bosses can take 40+ hits to kill without this advantage, failure to stick to the correct sequence is more heavily penalized here that it is in any Mega Man game. You can still defeat a boss with the wrong sword if you’re willing to memorize his attack pattern, but this sometimes requires multiple failed attempts and you only have one life to work with at a time. If you die at any point, you’re sent back to the level select screen and have to repeat the entire stage. As the manual puts it: “No free men are awarded. This is reality!” Indeed. It’s a great idea implemented so clumsily that it makes the stage select feature into more of a classic “beginner’s trap” than a potential source of fun.

Cutrus the falcon will be another sticking point for some. He can be very annoying to manage without a second player to direct his movements and attacks. In a single player game, you’re limited to one command to activate and recall Cutrus and another to trigger his diving attack. His movement is limited to leisurely flapping his way back and forth across the screen, turning around whenever he hits the edges. If you’re relying on him to attack an enemy (there are some only he can damage) or retrieve an item for you, it’s no fun to have to stand there and wait as he slowly circles back around for a pass.

If you’re holding out hope for your arsenal of sub-weapons to take up the slack for your puny sword and easily-distracted avian ally, forget about it. Unlike in Castlevania where ammunition is relatively plentiful, the sub-weapons in 8 Eyes drain Orin’s weapon power at an alarming rate and the tiny glowing crosses dropped by defeated enemies don’t restore enough of it to make any of them viable for long. In addition, the most dangerous enemies of all, the bosses, seem to be immune to most of them. The one big exception is the all-important ice balls, which will freeze bosses in place temporary and allow you to pile on some free hits unopposed. In fact, the utility of the ice ball against bosses is so great that all other sub-weapons and their potential uses fade into irrelevance. Just grab the ice ball, ignore everything else, and save all your weapon energy for the boss. Any other approach is pointless.

Now, by no means is 8 Eyes all bad. I love the music, which aims to envoke a classical feel very different from the standard 8-bit rock that most NES action games are known for. There are a lot of songs here, with three unique themes per stage. While they’re not all winners, the soundtrack as a whole has really grown on me. The graphics have their high points, too. Orin, Cutrus, and many of the enemies are well-animated for the time and the backgrounds are packed with detail, almost as if the artist was going for a sort of arabesque style at points. Some may find it a tad busy, but I think it suits the Old World palaces that Orin spends the majority of his time traversing.

The game also has a strangeness about it that I find very endearing. After you defeat each of the dukes in combat, for example, you’re treated to a little scene where the two of you sit down together and have a nice cup of tea, as served by a grinning skeleton waiter! These post-fight tea parties are so surreal that they’ve become one of my favorite little touches from any game. Can you imagine Simon Belmont whipping the undead crap out of Dracula, immediately followed by the two of them downing beers together at the bar? Amazing.

Hell, I even enjoyed the designer’s attempt to inject some mystery into the game by making you figure out the correct stage progression and order to arrange the Eyes in yourself. I may have failed completely at the former task, but it was fun to hunt down all the clue scrolls and get the Altar of Peace puzzle right on my first try. It was satisfying enough to make me glad I did it the intended way instead of just checking the Internet.

All of this leaves me in an awkward position where I like everything about this game except for its “gamey” bits. Can I recommend it? Not as a general thing, no. Most players won’t have the stomach for its cryptic airs, half-baked mechanics, and plodding combat. If you happen to be a very patient and determined wierdo like myself, though, you may be able to eke some enjoyment out of it. For better or worse, there’s no other game that feels like 8 Eyes. Quite the feat for a shameless copycat.

Fancy a cuppa?

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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 cutscene dialogue hadn’t told me. Lacking his trademark blue hood or mirrored helmet, he looks more like a Power Rangers villain than anything resembling his more familiar self.

The game proper is a side-scrolling action platformer with a simple premise: General Hawk has ordered the G.I. Joe team to take the fight to the enemy by launching a series of seek and destroy missions against six hidden Cobra bases around the world. At the start of the game, there are a total of five playable heroes to choose from: Duke, Snake Eyes, Rock ‘n Roll, Captain Grid-Iron, and Blizzard. Upon reaching the sixth and final mission, Hawk himself also becomes playable. Each mission has a designated team leader 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 as much punishment as before.

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

On the gameplay side, a constant annoyance is the way 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!