Joust – Arcade, Atari, NES

Joust Box Scan (Front)

Fun fact: Geoffrey of Monmouth, the early 12th century author who practically invented the King Arthur we know and love, also invented jousting. Geoffrey wrote about games where knights would put on their team colors, and the cheerleaders would refuse to put out for any knight who didn’t knock at least three guys off their horses. “In this way,” wrote Geoffrey, “the skanky hos stopped fucking everyone in sight and the men finally had an incentive for not getting themselves killed in battle.” (I may have paraphrased somewhat.) Based on images stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry sixty years before Geoffrey wrote, in order to actually develop games in which soldiers tried to pull off a “Christopher Reeve” on their friends, knocking them brutally off a charging horse, they first had to develop the proper technology to actually keep them on said horses–without proper bracings, shoving your lance into another dude (to win the chance to shove your lance into one of the cheerleaders) would end up knocking you off your horse as well.

Here you see me jousting...

Here you see me jousting…

But hey, don’t worry about all that! Because the 1982 Arcade classic Joust eliminates all that by placing its knight on the back of a less-popularly used tournament mount. An ostrich. And you fight other knights riding buzzards. This avian interpretation of a medieval game seems rather eclectic, but gameplay almost necessitates this. Remember in the early 80s, only vector graphics games dared attempt a 1st person perspective (remember the 1983 Star Wars game?), and a 2-dimensional game on a horse really limited a players options for stabbing an opponent. The use of the discount chocobo allowed programmers to make the best use of the playing field. As for their choice of using a flightless bird…don’t ask. I can’t even guess, let alone make it sound smart.

Jousters, riding aforementioned ostriches attempt to fly around a small screen knocking other knights off their buzzards. It took me a while to figure out how to do this. At first I thought I needed to build up a reasonable speed, but that didn’t work. I thought hitting the “flap” button at just the right time might do something special, but I still ended up un-ostriched. In the end, it turns out you had to have a slightly higher altitude than your opponent. At any speed. So you just jump on them. Like in every video game ever. Afterwards, the enemies drop eggs that you have to collect within a certain time frame or else, of course, other knights will hatch, with a buzzard standing by for it to jump on and continue jousting. The game definitely has its quirks.

And here you see me jousting, but with lava pits. Congratulations. You've seen the whole game.

And here you see me jousting, but with lava pits. Congratulations. You’ve seen the whole game.

So this all seems rather easy. The environment doesn’t change much–occasionally opening up small lava pits on the ground–and beyond the occasional stray pterodactyl, you don’t have a huge variety of knights to un-buzzard. The true challenge that Joust offers stems from the need to constantly spam the “flap” button to keep aloft, combined with your ostrich careening forward with the momentum of a cargo train and the elasticity of a golf ball hit into a concrete tunnel. Slow to upper-moderate mashing of the flap button will slow your decent by varying amount. Fast mashing of the button maintains your altitude, usually to keep you steady on your track to deflect like a super ball off one of the platforms. If you want to gain altitude, you’ll have to spam the flap button with the up-and-down speed and stamina one can only develop after decades of chronic masturbation. Since getting married, I may have lost that skill. Fortunately, I have use of a turbo controller.

And really…that describes the entire game. The quirkiness held me rapt for a grand total of five minute, and I think the first time I played it I forced myself to keep going at least to the 10 minute mark, but by then I realized the gameplay didn’t intend to change much. It didn’t get harder. It didn’t offer new challenges, scenery, enemies, or even palate swaps. It just sat there, asking me to keep giving it quarters to keep riding the ostrich. Fortunately, I decided that if I use “riding the ostrich” as a euphemism, I can have a lot more fun for free. Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest looks a little more promising for long-term play, though.

Special thanks to JD for the suggestion. Sorry it took me eight months to get to it, but it took me almost that long to track down the game.

Advertisements

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game – Arcade, NES

I have to run! I could never hope to defeat a lone ninja turtle severely weakened by a fight with Rocksteady! I'll have to wait until later!

I have to run! I could never hope to defeat a lone ninja turtle severely weakened by a fight with Rocksteady! I’ll have to wait until later!

Since I plan to write about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II – The Arcade Game, I’d like to start in the most logical place: porn. See, I enjoy porn as much as the next guy, but sometimes it feels just a little superficial. And really, who among you can’t say you’ve ever longed for moving, well-written art with an insightful message…and naked people? Well, about a year ago I sat flipping through cosplay pictures when I encountered the blog of an attractive girl ready to burst out of her yellow jumpsuit at the slightest hint of a deep breath. She had some interesting posts, and clearly spent a lot of time at comic conventions seeking out others with well-built costumes. No pun intended. And after about two or three pages of this, she posted a picture of herself, sans costume. See, April O’Neil loves the Ninja Turtles so much that she adopted the cartoon reporter’s name for her own porn stage name. (Go ahead, before your eyes combust: NSFW Just come back and finish my article!) Oddly enough, I found I enjoy thinking, “Wow, some of these people I watch might actually share similar interests with me!” And now her videos somehow seem better.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, explains my stance on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II – The Arcade Game. As I’ve written before, games in the beat-em-up genre really don’t have enough differences to really merit separate reviews for any of them. You choose a character, the game starts, enemies attack, you beat-em-up, then move to the next area of the stage, of which the game usually has five or six. Since developers design arcade games to gobble quarters like a bukkake actress, you usually face difficulty somewhere between “theoretical quantum physics” (on the low end) and “pulling the store sticker off the book/movie/game you just bought without leaving any residue” (on the high). Sure, some of them give you the option of a special attack button, or the novelty of mocking Michael Jackson’s pedophilia hobby, but basically–like porn–these games only offer you different appearances for the same thing. But also like porn, Ninja Turtles makes everything better.

What practical application could this vehicle have? Even assuming NYC didn't purchase this with tax dollars, someone had to have built it and then marketed it to super villains.

What practical application could this vehicle have? Even assuming NYC didn’t purchase this with tax dollars, someone had to have built it and then marketed it to super villains.

In 1989, Konami published two Turtles games–one for the arcade and one for the NES. You might remember the NES game either from the box art that featured Raphael posing with three of his clones, or from the crushing disappointment everyone experienced when they brought the game home and found out they still had to save up their quarters to play the game they actually wanted. While this may have caused two or three…million…people to overlook an excellent–yet difficult–game, I’ve written about that elsewhere. Konami had the more noteworthy reaction to this, realizing people might actually want to play certain games under conditions other than standing up in crowded hovels of jet-engine level noise with a queue of angry kids behind you waiting to play and three beside you trying to mooch the remainders of your dwindling pile of quarters away from you. Roughly a year later, Konami presented Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II – The Arcade Game on store shelves as if they had planned on doing that all along.

Pizza Hut bought advertising space in video games long before Barack Obama made it cool.

Pizza Hut bought advertising space in video games long before Barack Obama made it cool.

While I have to hand it to Konami for faithfully adapting the Ninja Turtles cartoon, I also have to applaud them for scaling down an arcade game to an 8-bit system without Michael Bay-ing the quality (yes, you heard me. A coin-eating, side-scrolling beat-em-up game with virtually no plot has more class than any Michael Bay movie I’ve ever seen). I played through both the MAME and the NES editions before writing. Generally, playing an arcade game for free has all the thrill and excitement of shooting craps for sock lint and twigs, so I didn’t exactly expect to need an industrial solvent to unglue myself from MAME. However, I want to say that the NES game stands on its own as the finest gem that ever crawled from the sewers of New York City. Despite scaled-down graphics, most stages remain unchanged except for a few areas (including one complete additional stage), two or three boss battles, and shameless product placement on the part of Pizza Hut. Play control remains smooth, giving the player two whole attacks!–the characters’ weapon, plus a flying ninja kick harder to aim than a bucket of pachinko balls.

Raph needs to double-check his sights before his next jump.

Raph needs to double-check his sights before his next jump.

Character design, unfortunately, doesn’t distinguish between individual turtles, though. Although I understand this design for an arcade game. In the original NES game, I tended to use Leonardo and Donatello. Why wouldn’t I go for the turtle with the pair of sharpened blades, or the guy with a two-meter reach? I imagine late-comers to the arcade cabinet wouldn’t have appreciated the others saddling them with Raphael, the ninja trained in the art of hitting people with a blunt metal rod from a distance just far enough away that the enemy can uncross his eyes. So they shrunk down Don’s staff, blunted Leo’s blades, and added a good deal of oomph to Michaelangelo and Raphael. But if the turtles seem oddly underpowered, fear not. To a limited extent, the player can interact with the environment, hitting conspicuous objects into enemies. Granted, we may have preferred a Special Attack option, but with only two buttons, I guess we’ll take what they offer us–apparently a world where chucking a traffic cone at a trained warrior hurts twice as much as stabbing him with a sword.

...can you repay me like the porn star would?

…can you repay me like the porn star would?

What traces of a story I found roughly reprise the plot of the original NES game–perhaps because Konami developed the games along side each other. The turtles begin atop a building–where you may expect to find sewer-dwelling creatures–with Splinter. Splinter points at a burning building and astutely observes “Fire!” Our half-shelled heroes miraculously divine the correct interpretation from this–that Shredder has kidnapped April (the character, not the porn star) and that they need to chase Bebop and Rocksteady and some other villains from the cartoon to get her back. Halfway through the game you rescue her, but keep going (because…why not?) until you rescue Splinter.

Wow, you know what would really help right now? If someone with jonin ninja skills--or at least sharp teeth like a rat--could break free of that string holding him and give me a fucking hand!

Wow, you know what would really help right now? If someone with jonin ninja skills–or at least sharp teeth like a rat–could break free of that string holding him and give me a fucking hand!

Wait, Splinter? Didn’t we just see him on the rooftop? Did Shredder kidnap April and start that fire just to lure the turtles away from the rat sensei? And if the turtles didn’t need so much as a ransom note, they must have just assumed Shredder intended to…oh, just take my quarters already! I can forgive the lame plot. I can even forgive April for playing into the damsel-in-distress cliche. After all, a reporter doesn’t need ninja powers to do her job. She just has to act charming, know where to find interesting scenes, and look good on camera. Much like a porn star. But how in the hell does Splinter keep getting kidnapped? Every time the Foot Clan comes knocking, the legendary ninja master somehow doesn’t have so much as the skill to squeeze the last of the toothpaste from the tube, much less an ounce of stealth or offensive technique. Maybe, Splinter, you could put up slightly more resistance than Princess Peach? Just once in a while? Show us your moves? Meh. Whatever. National Geographic just told me that elephants can experience symptoms similar to PTSD. Maybe rats can get Stockholm Syndrome.

...help me?

…help me?

I fear I may have hit the bottom of the septic tank for things to say about this game. Pretty shallow for a beat-em-up game, but of course if you dig deeper and get to know your characters, maybe you’ll start seeing it as a master piece of Ninja Turtle Theatre. Unlike porn, people don’t really flock to these games because of their inherent value, so it pretty much demands that you and your game have common interests. So check it out if you like the Ninja Turtles.

Donkey Kong / Burger Time – Arcade, Atari 2600, etc

Do you really need a caption for Donkey Kong?

Do you really need a caption for Donkey Kong?

So things haven’t changed for me since last week’s entry. I admit, I wrote it about two hours ago. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve still had very little time to devote to games. But in order to swing that around to my advantage, I decided to look at some games I had wanted to write about since I began this blog, but never have for whatever reasons. I’ve mostly neglected arcade games due to their rarity, difficulty in completing them, and with the earlier games especially because I didn’t think I’d have much to say on the matter. But what the hell. Why not play a few rounds of some classic games and see what I could come up with?

First up, we all know people who have accused video games of some pretty horrendous things, warping our perspective on the world in such a way that we can no longer think in terms of reality and filter everything through video game terminology. Somehow, everyone born between 1980 and 2000 wound up with a craving for violence and the survival instinct of a lemming, as we clearly haven’t figured out that once you die, you don’t come back to life. Notice how Buddhists and Hindus kindly abstain from such criticisms. Besides, plenty of us have spent at least a little time looking out for lemmings, making sure they get safely to the exit. However, if one game has irreparably warped our minds so that we can’t change, the classic Donkey Kong wins that black mark for eternally damning us to play as characters who jump.

The premise of the game somewhat follows the end of King Kong, except instead of Adrian Brody climbing the Empire State Building to rescue a victim of Stockholm syndrome with absolutely no interest in him, we have a fat carpenter with the inexplicable ability to leap over Winnebagos. Unless, of course, he has a hammer with him. Then he plants himself firmly on the ground. In the background material, we learn that Mario kept Donkey Kong as a pet, but treated him cruelly. Nintendo never specified the nature of this mistreatment, but I can only assume he regularly punched Donkey Kong’s head to force-feed the ape live turtles. So you play as Jumpman–Mario–the psychotic dick of the story, trying to rescue your girlfriend from an Ape who probably only wanted to protect her from domestic violence.

Mario: So badass, he beats fire to death.

Mario: So badass, he beats fire to death.

In addition to the easily recognized first level, Mario jumps his way through three distinct obstacle courses as he chases down his questionably legal pet: one filled with conveyor belts moving pies, one with elevators and bouncing springs, and another, the top of the building, with precarious rivets that Mario must remove to collapse the building, thus knocking out the ape. Interesting fact, after Donkey Kong, Mario’s profession changes from carpenter to plumber. I can only assume that unleashing a giant, abused ape at the Acme Factory construction site and then demolishing all the progress made by the builders somehow motivated this career change.

As you can see, Atari managed a seamless port with absolutely no graphical reduction whatsoever.

As you can see, Atari managed a seamless port with absolutely no graphical reduction whatsoever.

While Mario probably won’t make it to the top without enough quarters to fund a minor war, the game actually shares a number of qualities with modern iPhone games that makes it fun to play–albeit much in the way that hardcore drugs provide a fun and exciting pass time until you realize you’ve pawned your car, house, grandmother, and both testicles in order to fund a habit that does nothing more than waste time. But it provides enough satisfying noises and flashing lights to get the endorphins flowing so hard that you’ll never realize how unimportant and inconsequential a goal your brain has set for you to accomplish. But you always have the option of aiming for a high score; if you do well enough, you get to enter your initials into the machine’s memory, providing just enough recognition to proclaim your skill while providing you with enough anonymity to avoid admitting that you’ve invested more money into the game than it would have cost to buy your own Donkey Kong cabinet.

But hey, you could always get a job, right? McDonald’s always needs fresh faces to assemble their disgusting food virtually void of any nutritional value beyond whatever it picks up on the floor, right? You might as well start training early. For that, I recommend Burger Time, developed by Data East and published by Midway. Not having branched off into a franchise, this once-popular game has faded into obscurity, but still represents the pinnacle of the ever-popular food-preparation genre. At least, I think more people like this than Sneak King.

My mother used to point at the exposed air ducts in McDonald's and tell 5-year-old me that they used the tubes to transport hamburgers. Now I know better; real kitchens actually look like *this.*

My mother used to point at the exposed air ducts in McDonald’s and tell 5-year-old me that they used the tubes to transport hamburgers. Now I know better; real kitchens actually look like *this.*

Players take control of Peter Pepper, as he prepares burgers four times the size of himself by running across the ingredients, which someone has kindly stacked on multiple levels of some sort of building complex. The ingredients drop down to the next level, knocking any subsequent ingredients down one further level, and you continue burger-stomping until all ingredients have fallen onto the plates below the building. While making burgers with a technique often saved for making wine, Pepper must also avoid anthropomorphic food items, hunting him down to slap him with their sausage, rub him with their pickle, or otherwise leave egg on his face. No. I did not make this premise up, and honestly the fact that someone obviously did does worry me slightly, as much as I enjoy the game. In a culture where we often need to ask what goes into our food, I’d hope to avoid answers like, “The chef’s shoe and whatever crud he stepped in on the way to the diner.”

But while short-order cooks tap dancing across your lunch may not pass a health inspection, it definitely passes muster as a game. The food monsters take skill to avoid, and multiple play-throughs help in observing their behavior. Of course, you do have five blasts of pepper which, while they may add flavor, texture, and probably extraneous grit to the burgers, will stun the enemies briefly and allow you to pass by safely. But technique doesn’t stop there; burger ingredients function as much more than a dance floor or jogging track; you can also crush enemies by dropping ingredients on top of them, or with enough skill, you can trap them on top of a falling ingredient, which will cause that part of the burger to fall three levels instead of one. And be honest; you know you’d forgive any dirt on your bun as long as the cook surprised you with an egg in your meal, right?

As you can see...I can't beat the default score even with unlimited credits.

As you can see…I can’t beat the default score even with unlimited credits.

Honestly, they don’t think up games like this anymore. Well, they didn’t for a while. Again, Burger Time reminds me of an iPhone game or a flash game. Simple, yet difficult, and abstractly rewarding. Having spent the better part of the last five hours writing, I feel completely void of witticisms to close this entry with. Should you play these games because of 8-bit noises and high scores? (I think even among games like Angry Birds, we’ve lost the value in playing for a high score. Of course, that doesn’t mean I give a damn about your boring-as-hell quest for that high score. ) Yes. Do I expect that to make any sense? No. But games don’t have to make sense. They have that going for them. Finnegan’s Wake doesn’t have that luxury. Neither does most modern art. Show me a red square in a yellow rectangle and I’ll look at it briefly. As I move my head across the room. To see if I can find any interesting displays. While I look for the clock to figure out if I can leave yet. But give me a game with a sadistic animal abuser re-creating 1930s horror films, or an epic-yet-unsanitary battle against starvation in the kitchen of my local Perkins, I’d play that for hours.

Yeah, it looks bland and unappetizing, but I hope the decreased resolution also dulls the flavor of ABC gum and spilled beer.

Yeah, it looks bland and unappetizing, but I hope the decreased resolution also dulls the flavor of ABC gum and spilled beer.

Please note, before I leave, that both of these games have their own slew of ports, remakes, remasters, and upgrades, but each one comes with their own nuances, sacrifices, additions, or shitty Atari graphics, so I’ve only categorized a few of them here. I’d like to add a disclaimer that if you pick up anything but the original arcade versions and experience an utter disappointment, I warned you that not all ports live up to the original.

Starting next week I should have more free time. I hope. I promise to think of something funnier to say by then.

Gauntlet – Arcade, NES, GBA, Sega Genesis

As none of my screenshots from the Sega version seemed to take, you get this title screen.

As none of my screenshots from the Sega version seemed to take, you get this title screen.

The more astute readers may have noticed already that the title of this week’s game doesn’t precisely match up with the list of consoles. Technically, I suppose, each of the installments merits their own entry, but even my power has limits; how much can I really write about a dungeon crawler with virtually no story involving extremely simple quests and objectives–namely, “get to the exit!” Because there you have it: my summary of the story. You choose your character at the beginning of the game; Thor the Barbarian, Merlin the Wizard, uh…er…Brunhilda (?) the Valkyrie or…let me look this up…really?…”Questor” the elf. Yep. They named the elf after his primary function in the game. Whatever…once the game begins, you make a mad dash for the exit of a small but labyrinthine map, after which the game whisks you away to the next bit o’ labyrinth. Oh, and on your way, monsters beat down on you from all sides as you gently push your way through them like rush hour in the Tokyo subway. Or you can shoot them, which I guess makes it more like the New York subway. And you keep this up for…good god, 108 levels?

I swear I went through this level about twenty times, each with a slightly different variation on the maze.

I swear I went through this level about twenty times, each with a slightly different variation on the maze.

Gauntlet, I’ll say, truly deserves its title. The game never relents in its struggle to violently dismantle both character and player; I could appropriately use the terms “rent” and “asunder”. And, full disclosure, I didn’t finish. Even after two and a half hours and an endless supply of credits, I got to level 52 and promptly celebrated by going to sleep. But even though I didn’t plow through another two hours straight of the crawliest dungeon of all, I came away from the experience with a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me. No really. You can learn some pretty profound truths playing Gauntlet. For example, gold really doesn’t have any value, even though you know you want as much of it as you can gather. Furthermore, your health ticks downward like a clock. Just like life. Also, as a single coin won’t get you to your second birthday party, Gauntlet reminds us that life favors the rich. Even without taking damage from a single enemy, you’ll gasp your last poorly-synthesized breath long before seeing the later levels of the dungeon, unless you keep feeding quarters into the machine like it’s that plant from Little Shop of Horrors; poverty-stricken valkyries can’t buy anything except the farm.

Also–true story–people with friends live longer. Gauntlet becomes exponentially easier with each player joining in, while reminding us why we hated group projects in school. Many of the corridors can only fit one at a time, so one player ends up doing all the work while the others kick up their heels and coast by without damage. Plus, each character has different stats, so while Speedy Gonzales the elf might lock on to the exit like a baby xenomorph going for a guy’s face, he’ll have to stand there and wait–his own health ticking downward, while his cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez the Barbarian, catches up. Death appears as an enemy in the game, as much a bitch as in real life. Other enemies will vanish forever if you touch them (also like real life). Not death, though. You can shield yourself from him-hide behind a wall or something-but you can’t win and he won’t leave until he takes what he wants from you.

Note that a lot of these screenshots look alike. Gauntlet doesn't exactly offer much in the way of scenery.

Note that a lot of these screenshots look alike. Gauntlet doesn’t exactly offer much in the way of scenery.

But other than those random observations, the game offers as much variety as grocery store muzak, thus limiting anything really worth saying about it. Even magical, fantasy-themed maze solving starts to feel as exciting as fishing in an empty pond after the first few hours. Fortunately, the arcade version spawned a series not just of sequels, but different versions of the original–with each one even more original than the last!

After my last attempt to cycle through the same levels, plow through the same enemies, unlocking the same doors, and glancing over to check the same clock, a thought struck me; didn’t I buy a Game Boy Advance port of this game years ago? Might that have refined this system into something I could pause and come back to later without sacrificing all those hours of my life? After about twenty minutes of rifling through my Nintendo DS cases wishing I had periodically alphabetized the GBA cartridges stored there, I found it, plugged it in, and immediately shut it off. Here’s some advice to any developer/publisher interested in porting an arcade game–remember to let the players insert coins! This port didn’t change much from the original, but they bundled it with “Rampart” and stripped away any function that arcade cabinets could do that the GBA couldn’t. So don’t bother looking for coins. They give you one credit. Granted, they don’t skimp on the health, but I wouldn’t call them “generous.” Your health insurance can’t pay 100,000 for a pediatric checkup at birth and then call it good for life. Also, on this lifetime limit of health, you have to get through all 108 levels alone. The GBA doesn’t have a second-player controller, so the port doesn’t offer more than one player. I want to issue a challenge: anyone who can beat the Game Boy Advance port of Gauntlet, take a picture or video of the end–with the GBA or NDS visible in the frame–and I will immortalize your name alongside Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf and Arthur by writing–and posting–an epic poem about your victory.

However, while immortal fame remains inaccessible to me in handheld dungeons, the Sega Genesis port (released as Gauntlet IV) solves the issues from the GBA port. Amazing foresight, I’d say, considering it predated the Game Boy Advance version by over a decade. Gauntlet IV introduced different modes to the game. Arcade mode simulates the original hardware, allowing players who apparently never have more than $2.25 to their name, to “insert coins” for more health. You don’t get much health per credit, so this doesn’t immediately make the game playable, but you can fiddle with difficulty settings and maximum credits (as previously mentioned, up to a total of 9). Record mode helps a little; players can’t die and can use passwords to continue, but they have extra loading screens to breakdown their progress and weigh out their score based on health, enemies killed, and gold collected. I do take some issue with the game, as they felt the need to completely redesign most of the levels. It still feels like the arcade game, but all the cash you dropped into the machine as a kid won’t prepare you for the Sega release.

While pillaging and murdering your way through the dungeon, don't forget to stop and loot once in a while.

While pillaging and murdering your way through the dungeon, don’t forget to stop and loot once in a while.

Fortunately, quest mode rocks. Gauntlet IV introduced the concept of 4 towers to complete to gain access to a castle. Each tower consists of the same small-ish labyrinths, but they differ from all previous installments by giving the players the ability to freely move up and down levels, adding a vertical component to labyrinth-solving. The player has to locate specialized “trap” tiles that remove walls from key pathways, enabling them to get to the top. (Or the bottom. Apparently they felt that some towers needed inverting.) At the final floor of each tower, you fight a dragon. You can fight towers in any order, but difficulty increases (along with gold and exp received) each time you kill a dragon. Each tower has a specialized tile that impairs the player while standing on it. Unlike other installments, you can level up and purchase equipment, but enemies level up along with you, making the game as effective as using an exercise bike as your main mode of transportation; even if you get better at it, it doesn’t move any faster. Even so, I beat this version. Let me shout that from the mountain tops: I actually finished one installment of Gauntlet!

But I still have to navigate your stupid dungeons? Fuck you!

But I still have to navigate your stupid dungeons? Fuck you!

Even so, I don’t think I enjoy Gauntlet IV quite as much as the NES “port.” I say “port” lightly, since it features different graphics (downgraded for 8-bit), completely new levels, and six world maps with labyrinthine routes dependent on which exits you take in each level. Gold has a purpose; collect enough and your maximum health increases. Periodic treasure rooms (a staple of the series, previously as useful as Mega Man’s score system) now refill health if you find the exit in time. Best of all, you can pick up your progress using a password system (provided your hardware doesn’t fail when you try to start the game after you die….). The game does have one obnoxious drawback, though, in that along the way you have to collect parts of a password to get you into the final level. You can only find these in select rooms along the way, and you usually can’t access these rooms unless you find the secret exit in a previous level that takes you there. And if you miss the password, the game keeps going, but you can’t finish. Yay.

This exciting screen. Every. Bleeping. Level. It adds about an hour on to your play time.

This exciting screen. Every. Bleeping. Level. It adds about an hour on to your play time.

But for all the obnoxious tedium of these early Gauntlet games, I should clarify that, while I enjoy finishing games, I can enjoy a game without finishing it. While the term “dungeon crawler” usually sends me screaming for higher ground, I actually rather enjoy this, and I can probably recommend any of these games–well, maybe not the GBA port–as long as you don’t expect to see the end. And if you do see the end…let me know.

 

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker – Arcade

Image

Around my twelfth or thirteenth birthday, the local ice rink where my father taught at a summer hockey camp had a few arcade cabinets in rotation.  Considering how athletic, extroverted and interested in following in my dad’s footsteps I was, I had absolutely no interest in sports, but I did have about two bucks in quarters.  I resolved that one evening, I was going to take my hard-scrounged change on a quest to beat one of the games.  As soon as I got to the rink, I laid out seven quarters on the dashboard and dropped the last one in the slot.

Time passed and some of the other kids noticed.  I had progressed fairly strongly, and after a stage or two, some of them joined in.  Pretty soon they were coming in and out of the game, depending on availability of their own change, my trusty-yet-expendable wingmen, the Biggses and Wedges to my Luke Skywalker.

A dollar-twenty-five into the game, I’m almost at the end, and another kid asks if he can “borrow” a quarter from me.  In a mix of cockiness and generosity, I tell him to go ahead.  He whips a quarter from the dash and drops it in, only to die off immediately.  Shortly thereafter, I reach the boss of the game and begin to struggle.  I deal a fair amount of damage, but just before delivering the coup-de-grace, I run out of health.  Hyped up on near-victory, I reach for another quarter, only to discover that I’ve run out. While I still encourage generosity and try to practice it when I can, I still blame it for the reason I didn’t finish Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker that day.

Moonwalker falls into the realm of arcade Beat-Em-Up, a classification that puts the “generic” in “genre.” Ninja Turtles, X-Men, Sailor Moon, the Simpsons–these games and others like them came to life with only a little more effort than slapping new artwork on each cabinet as it rolled off the assembly.  Each one consisted of characters progressing through a stage, the game periodically forcing them to a stop and assailing them with dozens of goons who may have seen what you did to the hundreds before them, but still feel they have a shot of taking you down. When you dash their hopes–and organs–the stage begins to move again. Murder, rinse, repeat.  One button performs a standard attack.  The other offers a limited special attack. One the surface, Moonwalker doesn’t bring anything to the table except an angled top-down perspective instead of the usual limited-3D side-scrolling.  However, some interesting quirks and some unintentionally hilarious details make the game stand out from the rest.

Video game music hadn’t garnered much respect at that point, but I supposed it really hadn’t earned any yet. Moonwalker, on the other hand, boasted a soundtrack entirely composed by Michael Jackson himself, including hits such as “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” and of course the most obviously fitting song to underscore a graveyard stage, “Another Part of Me.”   Now watch me turn my praise into a big ball of wibbly-wobbly uncertainty as I point out that if you decide to play a game because you want to hear synth-instrumental midi versions of Michael Jackson, you probably need to reevaluate your priorities.  However, it stands that when facing down an army of clone games, any unusual feature might sway you to play that one against all the rest, putting aside that playing Jackson’s CDs might be the way to go.

Image
The game follows the plot of part of the Moonwalker film, where Michael sets off to rescue a bunch of children from a drug dealer. Comic-book-style panels flash before each stage, each time showing the villain struggling to restrain a kid, shaking his fist in unintentional mockery of every cartoon bad guy ever created.  Michael responds with his characteristic scream, “Ow!” Then after a brief moment of WTF and a snort of laughter, you begin!

ImageAttacks come in a form of dance moves and sparkles that could flay the hide off Edward Cullen.  The special move puts the spotlight on Michael–literally–and alternates through three or four different moves, which involve the enemies dancing to death, bursting apart in pyrotechnics, or getting hit by meteors.
As you go through the stage, the goal is to collect–er, rescue the children, who will periodically refill your health or amount of special attacks.  Near the end, Bubbles the Chimp will dash out and turn you into Robo-Michael, allowing you to finish off the boss in a spray of lasers.

Image

Sadly, I’m not sure whether Jackson thought these ideas would portray him as a Superman figure or if he just took all this from his day-to-day life.  While allegations of child molesting might make the developers at Sega look back and cringe about the giant red flag they put into the world, I have no doubt that this is how Jackson viewed himself, or at the very least how he wanted people to see him.  Anecdotally, a friend of mine (who now works as a game developer. You should check out his game here; to support him. told me in high school that Jackson enjoyed Ready-To-Rumble Boxing so much, he called the developers and asked to be put in the sequel, requesting that they “Make [his] character really cool so the children will want to play with [him].”

Pause to let that sink in.

While I can’t confirm most of that story, I do know that shortly thereafter they released Ready-to-Rumble boxing with a special character.

The game takes its super-hero message seriously, which I, for one, find amusing.  However, while collecting children and grabbing the monkey provide a good laugh, the main drawback of the game centers on the genre.  Combat in Beat-Em-Ups is nothing if not repetitive, and it makes me vaguely conscious that Sega programmed the game at an optimal length to pry as many quarters as possibly from pre-adolescent fingers.

I did, however, finally finish it.
Image

Bubble Bobble Sequels – Initial Reactions

Yesterday’s review on Bubble Bobble piqued my curiosity to look into the series, so I read up on the sequel games and played a bit of Bubble Bobble 2. Image

Image I’ll include a formal review later, but I felt inclined to share my thoughts. See, I usually laud the video game industry as the one area of storytelling that understands how to improve on the original instalment of a series.  If Hollywood had produced the first Mega Man game, one look at the promotional art would have sent him to rust on the scrap heap. Don’t believe me? Just look at what they did to the Star Wars prequels, the Jaws movies, and thank the higher deity of your choice they never made any sequels to The Matrix (No they didn’t! Shut up!) Meanwhile, Final Fantasy, the Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Resident Evil, and a plethora of other games all succeeded right from the beginning, but it’s hard to argue that their sequels didn’t show them up at every chance.

Image

Bubble Bobble, however, missed the boat entirely, and only survived onto sequels because the shark from the Jaws sequels was too stupid to eat it. The games all have very nice graphics, some even updating to 16-big home systems such as the Sega Genesis, and have much smoother mechanics and presentation, but as the whole philosophy of my blog states, better technology does not automatically ensure a better game!

Bubble Bobble 2–officially titled “The Story of Bubble Bobble 2” features a similar gameplay to the first. As sequels go, it’s not as bad as the rest. You’re still playing as Bub and Bob, the Bubble Dragons from the first game. Rather than 100 stages played through in order, the game grants you some degree of control over which path you take. The game even introduces boss fights, where you drink a potion that allows you to spit rainbow bubbles, and pop them to cause damage. Image

I’m glad to see Bub and Bob came out of the closet on that one. To add further innuendo, one of the bosses appears to be a female tanuki (sorry…you’ll have to find your own image there). Don’t even ask me how that one works.

Unfortunately, the two player mode, one of the better aspects of the first game, goes so far as to damage the mechanics of the sequel. Play is parallel, like the original Mario Bros, and it doesn’t run cooperatively, like Mario 3, where players clear levels to help the other advance. In fact, while on single player mode, you can resume play mid-stage when you get hit, but two-player mode ends the turn to alternate to the next player.

My initial reaction is that the game is worth playing, but not for more than one player.  And since the multiplayer option gives most of the value to the first game, that adds up to a big strike against Bubble Bobble 2. The following sequels don’t even sound interesting, as they’ve turned the loveable cartoonish bubble dragons into … wait for it … regular people. I’m sorry, Taito. You’ve lost me.

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, I write this after a ten-minute session of playing the game and a late-night boredom-induced scouring of the internet for images of bubble dragons. When I get a chance, I’ll focus on writing a more formal review.

Coming up soon: Radiant Historia for the NDS. I’m working my way through Twilight Princess since I felt the beating I gave it in my Oracle of Ages/Seasons review may have been done with a outdated stick, so don’t pick up the crap raining from the fairy pinata just yet. Anne wants to watch that one, though, so it may be a few weeks before I get that one posted.

Bubble Bobble – Nes, Arcade

Image

Having crawled out of the womb and into the era of Donkey Kong, I’ve spent my entire conscious life watching the evolution of modern gaming.  Unfortunately, as Forrest Gumpy as it feels to have witnessed something historical that I take a deep interest in, I’ve had to face the onslaught of humorless dicks who have never played a game in their life calling me an anti-social, violence-crazed, killer-in-the-works.  But while I’m tallying up the number of football injuries versus the collective maimings incurred in the last twelve months of high school football, I have to concede with these people on one point; the sheer mass of games like Halo, Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, and all the other testosterone-dripping, military propaganda scenarios being released now do kind of point to a preoccupation with violence. But hey, when the amazon reviews for Game of Thrones complain about too much sex without a word on all the appendages lost in the series, I think our societies obsession with bludgeoning one another goes a little beyond the monkey-see-monkey-do argument against video games.

What these people fail to see is the plentiful cornucopia of games that don’t wallow in their own wrath.  Yes, it’s very nice of Jenova Chen to develop a game that gets away from the shoot-kill-win mentality, but it would be nice if people could remember that games like this already do exist.  Let’s go back to, say, 1986 and examine a little gem called Bubble Bobble.
Image
As a reviewer, there’s really not much to describe. You play as Bub and Bob, two Bubble Dragons that resemble Godzilla chibis. Instead of shooting a gun, you breath bubbles.  Instead of killing enemies, you trap them in said bubbles, then pop the bubbles to turn them into food.  Yes, I suppose you could go all Mufasa on me and imply that that’s a metaphor for the Circle of Life, but I say, “Screw you! It’s fun!”  As always, the ultimate test of a game’s value is how much you enjoy it, and while it’s less violent than your standard cartoon, Bubble Bobble manages to radiate enough bright colors and simple-yet-addicting gameplay to have kept my interest over the last several decades.

The game has a simple learning curve.  Hit start.  Three monsters?  Try blowing a bubble.  Easy enough. Pop them and sit back for 99 more levels of this!  But Bubble Bobble manages to avoid a repetitive feel for the most part.  The shape of the levels forces the player to change tactics to solve puzzles in gameplay.  How do you pop the bubble when you can’t reach it?  How do you get to a monster trapped inside a shape?  Certain levels change game physics and make bubble float or sink differently (and in one case, much more quickly) than usual.
Image
I don’t mean to give the impression the game is perfect, though.  As much variety as it introduces, a hundred levels can become a little repetitive from time to time.  Furthermore, the level designs sometimes get too fun and wind up with pits or nooks that your bubble dragon can get stuck in.  When that happens, you’d better hope the monsters can still kill you (which causes you to respawn in your starting position) or that you recruited another player who’s savvy enough not to get stuck.  

Another minor point, while the large variety of fruit, veggies, snack food, and other bonus items does add to the ability to get excited over cartoonish details, it does sometimes work against the player.  With dozens of items that do no more than grant point, sometimes it’s hard to realize that some times increase your speed, let you stream bubbles faster, or even warp ahead several stages. Perhaps, though, part of the challenge is to recognize which items to prioritize before they time out and vanish.

Difficulty, as to be expected from NES-era games, resembles breaking a pine log with your fist; you know it’s impossible, but it looks like fun so you’ll gladly pulp your hand into a maraca trying to do it.  The game does offer continue options.  On the NES, restarting after a game over gives the option to begin at any stage you previously cleared since turning the machine on, while the arcade system, with a spirit of capitalism that would make games that require DLC bow down in reverence, only asks for another coin to keep Charon from ferrying you back out of the building.

Differences between the arcade and home versions don’t amount to much beyond that.  The cabinet systems allow for better detail on enemies, fruits, and the tiles that make up the levels, but the NES version includes background music.  Granted, after 99 levels of the same song, it’ll start to echo through your living room long after you’ve shut the game off, but I still say it was kind enough for the game developers to include one.  

Fun, simple, and non-time-consuming, Bubble Bobble doesn’t have much to offend anyone.  I’m sure a handful of gamers view themselves as “serious” and wouldn’t be caught dead playing anything doesn’t involve trying to imagine how fun it would be to get shot in battle, but chances are most people will find something about this game to like, no matter what their taste in games.