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.

Advertisements

ActRaiser 2 (Super Nintendo)

He’d damn well better live forever after everything he’s been through!

ActRaiser was a hit for Quintet and Enix, with surprisingly strong sales in all markets. This includes North America, where it was feared that we coarse gaijin were all about the action and would be reluctant to embrace the game’s slower-paced simulation segments. This was emblematic of the shocking amount of cultural chauvinism present among Japanese game companies at the time. The ironic fact that the Japanese mania for RPG and sim games was sparked by classic Western developed titles like Ultima, Wizardry, and SimCity in the first place was apparently lost on the leadership at Enix and many other major publishers. That the Super Nintendo saw as many great international RPG releases as it did is a bit of a miracle in light of this pervasive prejudice.

All this is to say that 1993’s ActRaiser 2 is a very different beast than its predecessor and it’s precisely because it was developed with this philosophy in mind. Gone completely are the menu-driven simulation maps from the first game in favor of a deeper, more challenging action platforming experience. This change was not well-received by most, to say the least. It’s not uncommon online to see fans of the first ActRaiser hurling outright abuse at ActRaiser 2. They’re not simply cold on the game, they’re still mad about it. There’s a real sense of personal betrayal that still comes through almost a quarter century later.

Robert Jerauld, a former producer at Enix USA, had this to say in a 2014 interview: “ActRaiser 2 – This was one of my first – and most important – mistakes in my career. At the time, I was convinced that players wanted action…I pushed Enix away from retaining the sim part of ActRaiser and toward a more challenging action title. I made that decision because I believed I knew what the consumer wanted…I removed the soul from ActRaiser and that was a really tough lesson to learn, but it’s one that has really helped me along the way.”

So that’s it, right? Game’s a disgrace. It sucks. Case closed.

Not quite.

The way I see it, “black sheep sequels” come in a couple distinct flavors. The first either alters or discards much of what made the earlier installments in the series so beloved and is just a godawful excuse for a video game in general. For a good example of a legendary turd like this, look no further than the truly dire Rastan Saga II, the follow-up to Taito’s Conan the Barbarian inspired arcade classic. It not only lacks the fast action, tight controls, and grand audio and visuals of its predecessor, it’s generally one of the worst action games ever made and would remain so under any other name.

The second type also gleefully slaughters series sacred cows, but still manages to be an all-around quality title on its own merits in spite of that. Zelda II, anyone? It’s in this latter category that I would place ActRaiser 2. It’s simultaneously a failure as a sequel to ActRaiser and one of the best action platforming titles for the Super Nintendo.

The plot is once again as simple as can be: Satan/Tanzra is a back with an army of hellish minions and it’s up to God/the Master to take up his sword and vanquish the Prince of Darkness yet again. The twist this time is that Tanzra’s seven main demon lieutenants are each based on one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) and this is reflected in their forms and in the various nasty ways they plague the Master’s helpless subjects. The gluttony demon, for example, sends a hoard of monster ants to steal all the food, leaving the people to starve. There are also some nice touches taken from classic literature. The final encounter with Tanzra depicts him partially encased in the ice of a frozen lake, mirroring Satan’s predicament in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

The level structure of ActRaiser 2 is fairly open. You can guide your sky palace over the map and complete the game’s stages in any order you want, but your angelic assistant will suggest a particular order that will make for the smoothest difficulty curve. While the choice is yours, I would recommend that first time players take the angel’s advice and complete the stages in the “correct” order to minimize frustration.

Once you’re actually in control of the Master, the first thing you’re likely to notice is that he’s very, very slow. Dude makes Simon Belmont look like Carl Lewis. There is a way to get around faster and it involves the second thing you’ll probably notice: Your brand new set of shiny angel wings. Tapping the jump button a second time while in the air will launch the Master into a forward glide. Don’t overdo it, though, because there’s no end of deviously-placed enemies and hazards designed to prevent you from abusing your wings to rush through the stages. In order to avoid this, you can halt a glide in progress in several different ways. Tapping the jump button a third time will simply drop the Master straight down, pressing down and attack will launch him into a sharp dive with his sword held out that will deal triple the normal attack damage to foes in the way, and holding up will cause him to slowly drift to the ground and is great for nailing precise landings. You’ll need to master glide cancelling if you hope to get past the game’s many pinpoint platforming challenges, since continuing a standard glide all the way to the ground will cause you to momentarily lose control of the Master and probably skid right into a waiting enemy or death trap.

The changes to the controls don’t stop there. The Master can now swing his sword above and below him and he carries a shield that can block projectile attacks originating from both straight ahead and above. Magic has also received a major overhaul. Instead of selecting a single spell to use at the start of each level, you charge up your magic by holding down the attack button and releasing it when the Master starts to flash red. This will produce one of seven different situational effects depending on whether the Master is standing, crouching, gliding, and so on.

It’s honestly all a lot to take in. For a character in a 16-bit action game, ActRaiser 2’s Master is about as complex as they come. This is in stark contrast to the last game, where his moveset was incredibly basic: Just run, jump, sword, and a single magic option. Here you have upwards of sixteen different actions available to you at any given moment and each one is useful at one point or another. This essentially means that the game has one hell of a learning curve to it, which I believe is a major factor contributing to its reputation as one of the most difficult action titles for the system. It is a tough one, no doubt. The enemies are numerous and can take many hits to dispatch, while the stage layouts demand that your gliding and jumping be on-point at all times. Even so, a lot of ActRaiser 2’s challenge is front-loaded into the first couple of hours, when the player is still coming to grips with the elaborate control scheme. Once you start getting the hang of how to advance with caution, attack, defend, and (most importantly) use your wings, the game really does open up and become a lot more approachable. You still have some rather fiendish stages to reckon with, but a little confidence in the Master’s abilities goes a long way. There’s also an easy difficulty mode for new players. Just be aware that you won’t be able to access the final stage or see the ending if you’re playing the game on easy.

One thing that even the most embittered fan of the first game can’t deny is that ActRaiser 2 looks magnificent. The level of detail and animation in the character sprites represents a high water mark for any Quintet game, rivalled only by Terranigma. The stage backgrounds are true works of art, very nearly as far above the original ActRaiser as that game’s were above its NES contemporaries. If I had been shown this game and told that it was a 1995 or 1996 release for the system, I’d probably have believed it. It looks that good. The audio doesn’t fare quite as well. Many sound effects seem to have been directly recycled from the first game and returning composer Yuzo Koshiro’s score is very technically proficient in that it features high quality samples and intricate arrangements, but it lacks the stirring melodies that made tracks like “Fillmore” and “Birth of the People” so unforgettable the first time around. Still, the soundscape isn’t terrible here and easily exceeds the average game. It’s just not up to the sky high standards set by the visuals.

By the time I’d made my way through all fourteen stages of ActRaiser 2, I was convinced that I was dealing with a true misunderstood gem of an action game. It’s true that the loss of the simulation mode from the original results in much less in the way of immersion and quality narrative. These segments may have been simplistic and easy, but observing your followers from a bird’s eye perspective as they prospered under your protection and working miracles to reshape the very land itself really did help the player get into the role of a benevolent deity. These story elements are still present in the sequel, but with no reinforcement from the actual gameplay, they’re window dressing and nothing more. Although the action here is challenging, thrilling, and nuanced, the Master could just as easily be any old musclebound fantasy warrior and it wouldn’t affect the experience all that much. The lack of sim interludes also affects the pacing, since it doesn’t allow for the first game’s hypnotic sense of rhythmic yin-yang flow between contrasting play styles.

All that being said, I still feel compelled to judge ActRaiser 2 on the basis of what it actually is instead of what it was never really intended to be at all. What we have here is an extremely high quality action platformer with a wholly unique feel to it. It’s deliberate, exacting, very technical, and a total blast to play once you’ve mastered its fundamentals. Seeing it all the way through confers that feeling of exhilarating accomplishment that only a truly demanding game can, which is one edge it has over its older sibling. As a nice little bonus, it’s also one of the prettiest Super Nintendo games you’ll ever lay eyes on.

ActRaiser 2 may indeed be a child of a lesser god, but it’s more than worthy of salvation.

Silver Surfer (NES)

The bad news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon. The good news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon and finished first.

This is, of course, the infamous Silver Surfer, designed by Software Creations and published by Arcadia Systems in 1990. If you believe the Internet hype surrounding this title, it’s one of the most maddening, scrote shreddingly impossible games ever made and was probably birthed directly from the unwashed bunghole of Satan himself. If you’re a more reasonable sort and actually familiar with the genre, you’re more likely to see it as a pretty average 8-bit shooter bolstered somewhat by incredible music and a singularly strange sense of style.

It’s also only the third non-Japanese game I’ve reviewed, a natural consequence of my primary focus on the 1980s and 1990s, during which Nintendo and Sega lorded over the North American gaming market the majority of the time. This one comes to us out of the U.K., just like the two games from Rare I reviewed over the summer. I’m looking to cap off the month of October with my first review of a U.S. developed title, though, so stay tuned for that.

Like several others I’ve played recently (Life Force, Axelay, Abadox), Silver Surfer is a hybrid horizontal and vertical scrolling shooter. In the opening cut scene, the Surfer is summoned by his boss, the arch-villain Galactus, and told that unspecified parties from “beyond” are going to destroy the entire universe and that only the “Cosmic Device” can stop them. Somehow. The Surfer’s mission is to recover the six pieces of the Device, each of which is currently in the hands of a different villain. Honestly, it’s all very vague. I’ve never been a comic book guy and I came away from this game knowing exactly as much about the Silver Surfer and his supporting cast as I did going in: Zero. Good thing I don’t play shooters for their stories!

Starting the game proper, you’re faced with a level selection screen, and can thus choose to play the initial set of five levels in any order you prefer before advancing to the sixth and final one, the Magik Domain. Each level is further subdivided into three distinct sections (two horizontal scrollers and one vertical), giving you a grand total of eighteen stages to complete. Be aware that once you pick one, you’re committed. There’s no going back to the level selection screen until you beat the boss, even if you die or use a continue.

Silver Surfer’s gameplay is based very closely on the well-known Gradius/R-Type model: Shoot down everything you can and try your best to avoid touching anything that isn’t a power-up, since the slightest contact with an enemy or a piece of the level architecture will cost you a life and send you back to the last checkpoint stripped of all your precious upgrades. Some degree of level memorization is required, since lives and continues are limited and you’ll have to restart from the beginning if you mess up too much. It’s a demanding, no-nonsense design philosophy to be sure, and while it’s not to everyone taste, it isn’t inherently unfair or unfun. It took me about eight hours of intense practice before I was able to clear Silver Surfer for the first time and I enjoyed myself quite a bit for most of it. There’s something very satisfying about the learning process that’s built into a game like this. Each stage starts out utterly bewildering and seemingly unwinnable, but as I study the patterns and apply what I’ve learned from each death, everything slowly falls into place and the next thing I know, I can routinely finish it with more lives in stock than I started with. Then I get to move on to the next stage and start the process all over. Again, I’m not saying that this type of game is for everyone. If you’re the type that doesn’t like having to pay close attention to every aspect of the game as they play or that gets angry or resentful when they lose, you shouldn’t feel bad about skipping any game like Silver Surfer.

The main point I’m driving at with all this is that despite its scary reputation, Silver Surfer really isn’t any tougher to complete than the games that inspired it. If you can manage a Gradius or an R-Type, you’re more than capable of handling anything that Silver Surfer can throw at you.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect. One thing that holds Silver Surfer back a bit is the meager selection of power-ups at your disposal. The Surfer’s standard shot is a silver ball that travels forward in a straight line. You can rapid-fire these by tapping the A button. Picking up “F” icons will make the shots more powerful, which is vital for success, but the attack itself never changes in function or appearance. Forget about all the crazy lasers, homing missiles, and plasma waves that you can acquire in other games. It’s just you and your balls. Um. Moving on….

You can also acquire option orbs that will fly alongside the Surfer and mirror each of his shots. These are by far the most important items in the game, as they multiply your damage output and can be manually repositioned with the B button to fire ahead of you, behind you, below you, and more. Once you get hold of one, do your damnedest not to die and lose it. Oddly, the Surfer can utilize two orbs at once in the overhead view stages but is limited to just a single orb in the side view ones.

Next, there are bombs (represented by a “B” icon) and these will allow you to instantly destroy all non-boss enemies on the screen with a press of the select button. These can and will save your bacon, so try not to forget about them or get so obsessed with conserving them that you lose a life when you could have hit the panic button instead.

Lastly, there’s a red “S” power-up that will boost the Surfer’s movement speed and a silver “S” that grants an extra life.

These power-ups definitely get the job done, but they’re not very flashy or fun in and of themselves. I really would have preferred more attack and defense options.

Another issue is the Surfer himself. He’s a very large character by shooter standards, easily twice the size of a typical on-screen avatar if not more, and he moves abnormally slow as well. This makes level memorization all the more important, as you’ll usually need to know exactly where an enemy or other hazard will appear if you want to have any chance of being able to avoid it or get into position to shoot it down. The aforementioned speed boost item also appears all too rarely. Treasure it while it lasts.

These gripes are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, but one common complaint about the game absolutely rings true: You’re going to be jamming on that fire button. A lot. Silver Surfer commits the cardinal shooter sin of expecting you to be blazing away with your weapon constantly while not giving you any kind of automatic fire option. One tap equals one bullet. I must have some kind of superhuman thumb power to have survived eight hours of this game over two days unscathed. If you’re prone to hand cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, or similar, do yourself a favor and try a turbo controller. It may be cheating, but it’s better than the alternative if pain would be an issue for you.

The other thing that the Internet absolutely gets right about Silver Surfer is the copious praise heaped on its magnificent soundtrack. We have the legendary Follin brothers, Tim and Geoff, to thank for fifteen of the most mindblowing minutes of music to ever be crammed into a tiny 8-bit cartridge. It’s pure prog rock sorcery and reminds a bit of the band Dream Theater’s output, which is a very good thing. The arrangements are incredibly intricate and far, far ahead of what almost anyone else was attempting on the hardware. The sound is so rich and full that it’s difficult at times to believe that these tunes are actually coming out of an unmodified NES. The songs are not just great by ancient video game console standards, they’re simply great and worth seeking out even if you never play the game.

One element of the game that’s not often commented on is the borderline psychedelic visual style of many of the stages. Possessor’s level has you flying through outer space past what appear to be lime green busts of H.P. Lovecraft perched on Doric pedestals while cannons fire an endless stream of deadly exploding heads up at you. The Magik Domain sees you battling flying top hats, a giant lobster, and the single strangest enemy I’ve ever seen in a video game: An undead elephant head suspended by hooks driven through strips of its flayed flesh. The elephant head drips deadly snot onto a mirror. In space. That’s just…mental, man. I am in awe. Whatever dismembered Hellraiser elephant’s backstory is, I bet it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the Surfer’s. Maybe I should start reading comics after all.

Can I recommend Silver Surfer? For general audiences, probably not. It just doesn’t provide enough instant gratification to make it seem worthwhile to anyone lukewarm on the genre. For old school shooter enthusiasts? Absolutely. While it’s not full-featured or refined enough to rank as an all-time classic, it’s still an exhilarating, satisfying challenge bundled with some of the oddest visuals around and music that’s guaranteed to rock your face off. You can do better on the system, but you can also do a whole lot worse. As usual, the lesson here is to think for yourself. Don’t base your opinions on hearsay or YouTube videos or even reviews like this one. If a game looks interesting, pop it in and take it for a spin! You never know what “bad” games you might end up having a great time with.

Unless you’re that poor space elephant. He wasn’t having a great time at all.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

April O’Neil’s mullet game is fierce indeed!

I’ve really been looking forward to this one. Not since Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Battletoads have I taken on such a divisive “love it or hate it” title.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, it’s background time. TMNT is a single player action platforming game with exploration elements that was released in 1989 by Konami. Outside Japan, the game was published by a pair of Konami front companies: Ultra and Palcom. This was done in order to get around Nintendo’s strict restrictions on the number of games a third party developer could release for the NES in a single year. Strangely enough, the relationship between the two companies was so good during this time that this arrangement had Nintendo’s tacit approval, which I’m sure must have sown some serious resentment among other, less favored NES developers.

The Turtles themselves were created in 1984 by independent comic book artist/writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of the new wave of grim and gritty urban superhero comics by the likes of Frank Miller. Eastman and Laird’s wry comics relied on the contrast between the forboding Gothic cityscapes, hardboiled dialog, and intense violence of those works and the most absurd set of protagonists the writers could imagine: Teenage mutant ninja turtles! The result was pretty great, but its appeal was largely limited to well-read comics fans savvy enough to appreciate the joke. In 1987, one of the defining (and least likely) moments in the history of children’s entertainment occured when this obscure niche property had its violent and satirical edges filed off and became a smash hit cartoon series, spawning the terrapin merchandising empire we’ve all come to know.

I never was much of a Turtles fan as a kid. I think it hit just a little too late for me, since my interest in toys and action figures peaked around ages 5-8 in the era of He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Thundercats. By the late 80s, I was all about the video games.

This original TMNT title by Konami was not only their first ever appearance in a video game, but also the first piece of Turtles-related media to ever hit Japan. They must have been very confused because this is one strange game and most of the characters you encounter don’t seem to have been taken from the comics or the cartoon. In fact, the lack of recognizable enemies is a common point of criticism from dedicated Turtles fans. While I can sympathize to a degree, this “weird random enemies” factor is easy enough to justify as a product of the times; an NES thing. Certainly it didn’t prevent me from enjoying Sunsoft’s Batman or Capcom’s Willow, and I’m more of a fan of those films than I am the TMNT cartoon.

The plot of TMNT is actually pretty dynamic for an action game of the time. In the first stage, you start out looking to rescue your extraordinarily kidnap-prone reporter friend April from mutant baddies Bebop and Rocksteady. After that, she tells you that the Foot Clan is going to blow up a dam and flood the city. Save the dam and you return home to discover that your ninja mentor Splinter has been kidnapped, and so on. It’s not exactly profound stuff, but it’s more than the single simple goal you’re given to last you through most 8-bit games.

Each of TMNT’s six stages except the final one consists of two gameplay modes: A overhead view of the city where you travel around on foot or by Turtle Van looking for buildings and sewers to explore and a side view action mode for indoor areas. You can switch between the four turtles at any time in both modes and each has his own supply of health. The golden rule here is that it’s always better to switch to a different turtle rather than allowing your current one to run out of health. “Dead” turtles aren’t gone forever, since the game states that they’ve actually been captured by the enemy. Most stages have spots where you can rescue a captured turtle, but it’s usually in a difficult part of the stage that’s off the main path, so you really want to avoid having to do this if at all possible.

The overhead segments aren’t particularly exciting, despite the presence of some simplified combat with a few basic enemy types. They mostly exist to link together the various buildings, sewers, and tunnels where the real action takes place.

Once indoors, your turtles can jump, crouch, and swing their signature ninja weapons straight ahead, up, or down. You can also find various sub-weapons in the form of ninja stars, boomerangs, and the almighty magic scrolls. These will extend your attack range greatly, but have limited shots. As a nice touch, however, your boomerang shots won’t decrease if you catch each one on the rebound. Since balance within your party is an issue (one I’ll address in more detail below), these sub-weapons are very important for the turtles with weaker primary weapon attacks. One final important pickup is the health restoring pizza. When you find a pizza, make sure to use it well by switching to a turtle with low health before grabbing it. Remember its location, too, since pizzas and other items will replenish when you exit and re-enter an area and “farming” these items as needed makes your quest much easier.

Overall, I really like the action in these side-view portions. They control a lot like those in an earlier Konami title I played recently: The 1987 Japan exclusive Getsu Fūma Den for Famicom. The Turtles walk slower and jump higher than Fūma does in that game, but the overall feel is very similar. This also extends to the large gallery of grotesque enemies that re-spawn readily and often take multiple hits to kill. In fact, you can think of TMNT as a whole as a bit of a spiritual sequel to Getsu Fūma Den, except without the clunky 3D mazes. It also has some striking visual similarities with yet another past Konami game: The Goonies II. Some of the building interiors resemble those in Goonies II, the map on the pause screen is similar, and the boomerang weapon handles almost identically.

One thing that takes some getting used to is the jumping controls. A light tap will make your turtle do a short hop and holding the button down will make him go into a somersault and gain much more height at the expense of precision. Once you’ve mastered doing the right jump in the right situation, the platforming becomes quite manageable, but if you somersault when you should be doing the hop (or vice versa), you’re going to have a bad time.

I also really liked the graphics and sound in TMNT. Instead of trying to make it look like the cartoon show, the artists opted for a grittier style that more closely resembles the comics. Nothing in this game is cute, that’s for sure. It’s quite a difference from the more colorful style adopted for later Turtles games like the well-known arcade beat-’em-ups. They even packed in a lot of nice little details, such as each turtle being a different shade of green. The music is all original, with the exception of a couple second riff on the cartoon’s main theme that plays when you defeat a boss. It’s excellent stuff and even has a bit of a funky side, much like the tracks in The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

So why is this game so controversial? I already mentioned the lack of callbacks to the cartoon, but the main gameplay-related reason lies in its similarity to yet another earlier title: Blaster Master by Sunsoft. Yes, TMNT has a big world with branching paths and lots of exploration coupled with plenty of deadly enemies and limited lives and continues. Lose all your turtles and you can continue exactly twice from the start of the current stage before you have to start the game over. Thankfully, the same sort of approach that works well in Blaster Master also works in TMNT: Take it slow and methodical while keeping your strength up by farming health and weapons whenever you get low. It definitely works. I got kicked back to the title screen twice during my six hours with the game and I was only able to finally make it through the hell that is the final stretch of the Technodrome and defeat Shredder after spending a good chunk of time loading my whole party to the brim with magic scroll sub-weapons. Still, it’s a tough game and this sort of patient and cautious playstyle probably didn’t appeal to many young TMNT fans who picked up this game around the time of its release hoping for some lighthearted instant gratification.

I don’t believe in holding a game’s difficulty against it, however. Some games are harder than others and that’s okay. I do have a couple more serious issues with TMNT, though: The party balancing and the boss encounters.

To put it bluntly, Michaelangelo and Raphael are dreadful without a decent sub-weapon. They have almost no reach with their main attacks. Leonardo has more reach at least, though his power is mediocre. Leo’s okay. At the other end of the spectrum, Donatello is a veritable reptilian WMD with his bo staff. He has the best power and reach by far. His strikes are the slowest, but even this doesn’t matter all that much, since he still kills tough enemies faster overall due to his sheer power. I suppose in MMORPG terms, you’d say he has the best DPS (damage per second) combined with the best range. The only real question I have is why? What was the thinking behind designing Don this way and making Mike’s nunchaku both short range and weak? I just don’t understand how this could have been seen as good design, even in the abstract. Oh well. Bottom line: Always make sure Mike and Raph have plenty of sub-weapons on hand or you’ll regret it.

And the bosses? Well, they’re just not very intimidating or fun to fight, with the sole exception of the Technodrome in level five. Shredder himself is one of the easiest final bosses ever and even some of the common enemies in the later levels are significantly more dangerous than he is. It’s a missed opportunity to be sure, though at least the stages themselves are long and difficult enough that you still get a nice sense of accomplishment from finishing them.

For me, this just makes TMNT a flawed game, not a generally poor one. In fact, I think it’s quite good, with solid action and satisfying challenge coupled with very nice overall presentation. Sales figures and critical reception at the time of release support me on this. TMNT won Nintendo Power magazine’s “game of the year” award in 1989 and even became a pack-in game with the NES in Europe, effectively replacing Nintendo’s own Mario!

So where did all the hate come from? While I don’t doubt that not everyone loved TMNT back in the day, I largely credit one James Rolfe for its current pariah status. Rolfe is a filmmaker and YouTube personality best know for his series The Angry Video Game Nerd, in which he plays the title character. TMNT was the subject of the one of the earliest AVGN episodes back in 2006, in which the Nerd character railed against the game (particularly the second level, the dam, which is actually the shortest and perhaps easiest of them all) and coined the salty catchphrase “Cowabunga? Cowa-fucking piece of dog shit!”

Of course, the Angry Video Game Nerd is a fictional character and Rolfe clearly intends his work to be slapstick entertainment and not formal criticism but, with AVGN being one of the first big YouTube breakout series focusing on retro gaming content, it turns out that even a fictional angry nerd’s opinion can be highly influential. The end result of all this is a former game of the year condemned to infamous stinker status. Curse you, Internet Gaming Hive Mind! If only I had a proper flesh and blood archenemy I could shoot ninja scrolls at instead of you.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)

18699571_10158769344385416_1581717989127112880_o

“Your head is, like, freaking gigantic, though. You should probably see a doctor. Still, good job with the whole hero thing.”

What a wonderful time it’s been re-playing Zelda II: The Adventure of Link! I’ve been playing a ton of NES in the past six months or so but I’ve mostly focusing on titles that are new to me, and while I haven’t played all the way through Zelda II in a few decades, it’s amazing how familiar it still feels. I wish I could be half this good at remembering other things like names, faces, people in general….

Anyway, Zelda II has developed a reputation for being a highly polarizing game that people either love or hate. This is weird to me because back when it came out, I recall encountering exactly zero players who claimed it was a “bad game” or not a “real Zelda game.” The game was just awesome and that was that. I suppose it might be because safe, iterative franchise culture was much less of a hunched gargoyle squatting on the games industry at that point. In fact, I’d wager that even trying to toss out the word franchise in conjunction with video games in 1987 would have drawn uncomprehending stares. Fewer games, even successful ones, got sequels at all and there were fewer preconceptions about what a sequel had to do. It was a new frontier and we were more open to novelty. Certainly, there were no “fandoms” yet. Ick. The original Zelda game has awesome overhead view action? Cool! Zelda II has side view action? Cool!

So yes, Zelda II ruled in 1987 and it still rules thirty years later.

In Zelda II, Link must track down the Triforce of Courage to awaken Zelda from a sleeping spell. He also has to avoid the literally bloodthirsty minions of the deceased Ganon who want to use him as a sacrifice to resurrect their vanquished leader. Link’s quest involves traversing the land and completing seven dungeons, each with its own boss. Along the way, Link visits several towns where he learns magic spells and new sword techniques to help out in the dungeons, usually by completing a short fetch quest for the townsfolk. The structure of the game as a whole is definitely a lot more linear than the first Legend of Zelda, which might be a sticking point for some. Exploration isn’t much of a priority here but combing the overworld won’t go completely unrewarded, either, since there are still health and magic upgrades scattered around to find.

I already mentioned that the action is presented in a side view format this time, with Link gaining the ability to crouch and jump. What I didn’t mention is that this feels amazing! Link’s movement and attack controls are buttery smooth here and are just so awesome to master. I genuinely feel that the combat in this game is one of the greatest pure play control experiences available in the NES library and the addictive feel of the swordplay is this game’s greatest strength by far. It’s definitely what keeps me coming back.

Another plus is the score, which is phenomenal from title screen to end credits. I dare say it’s even better than than the original’s! It’s a bit of a pity for me that these themes have been so neglected over the years while other games in the series have seen more musical callbacks in later installments. These are badass sword and sorcery adventure tunes at their finest.

There are light RPG elements in Zelda II, but they don’t ultimately do much to help or hinder the game for me. They’re just sort of there. Kill enough enemies and the game will prompt you to increase your attack strength, magic power, or health. It happens at a natural enough pace that you shouldn’t need to invest a lot of time just grinding levels, unless you want to try to offset the difficulty a little.

Which brings me to the other major gripe people have with the game other than the perspective shift: It’s more difficult to complete than other Zelda titles. This is true to a degree. The game never approaches a truly extreme level of challenge, but it does require a lot of practice and focus. Tougher enemies like the shield-toting Iron Knuckles and the axe-wielding Daira are tough, aggressive, and can deal a lot of damage unless you memorize and exploit their patterns. Link can also fall or be knocked into pits, which will instantly deplete one of his lives. That’s right: Lives. You start with three. Lose them all and you’ll continue back at the first screen of the game. Items collected, levels gained, and other progress is retained, but you lose all experience points accumulated toward your next level. If you die in a dungeon, you’ll need to trek back to the entrance to try again and non-boss enemies will have respawned. It’s not the most punishing system in the world, though it can be annoying to progress far into a dungeon only to perish and have to retrace your steps and re-kill everyone. If you’re patient and willing to work on learning your enemies’ weaknesses, however, the game is very much beatable in a reasonable amount of time.

So again I implore you: Don’t believe the negative buzz you’ll find online about this game. If you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the most stimulating and well-polished action-adventure experiences the NES has to offer, and that would be…an Error.

Get it? Like the guy in the game who’s named Error? Eh?

I’ll show myself out.

(Originally written 5/28/2017)

Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (NES)

Tonight’s game was Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight, Capcom’s weird-as-hell 1990 sci-fi action platformer for the NES. I picked this one up just three days ago on vacation at an antique store in Medford, Oregon. Price: $12.00.

First of all: Holy shit, I beat this game the first time playing it tonight! Now granted, I’ve been on an almost non-stop action-platforming rampage lately, starting back with Holy Diver in December and continuing through the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy, four Castlevanias, and two Contras, so I might just be really steeped in the genre right now, but I’m still surprised. I first heard about the game in an Angry Video Game Nerd episode years back (one of the few where the Nerd character ends up liking the game he’s playing) and much was made about the challenge. I found, though, that the levels were very short (some as few as one screen) and continues were unlimited, so while each level was tough, I had endless tries to scrape past each the one and only time I needed in order to move on. I did spend about an hour just on the final level (a four boss fight rush on a single timer) but nowhere near that long on any previous level. Is it just me, or did anyone else not find this game as impossible as they thought it would be?

Since it’s the first question most people have: No, this isn’t a true Street Fighter or Final Fight game. Capcom took a Japanese game about a cyborg space cop named Kevin fighting aliens and changed the story in the overseas versions so that it stated that this character was supposed to be Ken from Street Fighter. It was silly.

This was a really odd duck and I can kind of see how it never found a wide audience. The story, characters, and artwork are really weird, even for an old NES game, and it has a highly unconventional structure in that it mostly consists of boss fight encounters rather than conventional platforming stages, of which there are only a handful.

Ken/Kevin also controls pretty weird. He can shoot rapid fire shots forward and straight up, but he can only shoot one time in the air per jump and can only shoot down (again, just one time) after executing a backflip maneuver. He can also fire upward at a 45-degree angle by holding down. This takes some getting used to, but once mastered the action actually feels really great. Ken/Kevin is quite acrobatic. In addition to standard jumps and the backflip, he can also wall climb, wall jump, and grab onto some platforms. It’s like NES Hagane, you have so many options.

Unfortunately, the story is real bad. Ken become a scientist and invents something called “cyboplasm” along with his best friend Troy. Then some mysterious party attacks his lab, kills Troy, and steals the cyboplasm to create a mutant army. Naturally, Ken becomes a cyborg to kill them all and get it back. Riiiiiiiight.

Awful story aside, if you like oddball sci-fi, super rocking tunes (by ‎Junko Tamiya, who also worked on Little Nemo: The Dream Master and Bionic Commando!), and crazy boss rushes and you can deal with learning some unusual controls, you really should play this game. It’s cheap and worth every penny, as long as you don’t go in expecting to do any hadoukens or shoryukens.

(Originally written 4/2/2017)