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.

Paperboy – Arcade, NES, Sega Master System, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, DOS, etc.

Yea, though I bike through the suburbs of death...

Yea, though I bike through the suburbs of death…

By a show of hands…or comments, I guess…how many of you had a paper route as a kid? Any of you slip through the cracks of child labor laws that somehow determined that riding a bike around town during the pre-dawn hours didn’t constitute any form of endangerment or deprivation of education? Because if I wanted to strut through the fifth grade flashing huge bankrolls (usually dimes or quarters) the only options I had as a pre-teen involved walking the streets delivering our small town gazette riddled with spelling errors, inaccuracies, and menial events passing off as news, or I could lug bags full of steel clubs through a field dodging little white balls careening towards my head at 290 kilometers an hour (180 mph for my American readers). But alas, I never had a paper route. So ironically, instead of having a job to enable my horrible video game addiction, I played a video game to simulate the experience of having a job.

Include this under "signs you don't have a large enough news market to sustain a newspaper."

Include this under “signs you don’t have a large enough news market to sustain a newspaper.”

Released for the arcade in 1985, Paperboy faithfully re-creates all the obstacles and challenges of delivering newspapers, including urban terrain, rabid dogs, careless motorists, swarms of bees, runaway lawnmowers, zombies, and the specter of death. As the paperboy, the game tasks you with never stopping your bike–the newspaper doesn’t pay you to lallygag, after all–and chucking your papers at everything that does or does not move. For every bundle of papers you pick up, you may toss one or two at someone’s doorstep–or extra points for their mailbox–but the rest you need to take down zombies, stop lawnmowers in their tracks, and threatening and vandalizing anyone with the audacity to not subscribe to the Daily Sun. That last note raises a point of interest, since all the Sun headlines revolve around the paperboy himself–thus rendering it only slightly more interesting than my hometown’s Mining Gazette–usually commenting on either his failure to deliver papers or his attempts at vandalism. I’d think, given the scenario, non-subscribers probably wouldn’t feel all that compelled to spend money to learn about the destruction of their own property, and any subscriber who failed to receive a paper wouldn’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to figure out the content of anything they missed.

Accurately simulating all the targets, ramps, moving jumps, and mechanical spikes you'll encounter in your chosen profession as a delivery boy.

Accurately simulating all the targets, ramps, moving jumps, and mechanical spikes you’ll encounter in your chosen profession as a delivery boy.

At the end of each day’s route, you navigate through a training course, a testament to the 30-year vintage of the game, since no employer in 2015 would dare pay to ensure quality and competence in their employees. On the other hand, wasting money on newspapers for the purpose of cluttering up people’s yards and smashing windows to extort subscription money sounds exactly like current business practices. Still, the thought of putting money into researching a throwable paper with the power to stop a Model-A dead in its tracks sounds both wonderfully progressive and about as useless as a Jehova’s Witness knocking on St. Peter’s Basilica. But I guess all these little inconsistencies just help to make Paperboy a timeless classic.

All right! Just a few more customers to piss off and I won't have to lift a finger anymore!

All right! Just a few more customers to piss off and I won’t have to lift a finger anymore!

The game doesn’t pull any punches. Essentially an eclectic obstacle course, you have to correctly identify customers’ homes and place the papers precisely on their doorsteps or mailboxes. Just a bit off, though, and you’ll ensure the tunnel-visioned morons will never find the papers, and you’ll lose them as customers. Also, they’ll cancel their subscription if you break one of their windows, or just miss their house entirely. You can earn new customers by making perfect deliveries for one day. Allegedly. Developed for the arcade, Paperboy aimed to take your money from you as fast as you could throw papers to earn it, so you have about as much chance at making a perfect delivery as you have of finding a girl on an Internet dating site who doesn’t want to you to sign up for her webcam subscription.

Just a guy with his jack hammer out pounding the side walk. Completely innocent.

Just a guy with his jack hammer out pounding the side walk. Completely innocent.

Parents worried about violent games never even stopped to consider the vicious cycle in Paperboy–you play a paper-throwing simulator, thus compelling you to chuck newspapers like you brought a wheelbarrow full of rocks to an Old Testament stoning, only to earn more money to throw away at the arcade. Don’t you miss the 1980s? (Keep an eye on the skies…Doc Brown should show up with his DeLorean soon, if you want the chance to steal it) But as much as I enjoy Paperboy (with the arcade version slightly beating out the NES version), I don’t really like bikes much at all. My hometown–as well as my current town–both grew out of hillsides. So half the time I tried riding a bike, I’d either careen downhill in a sonic boom of panic, or slowly trudge uphill in a slow painful, slog, like a slave rowing a viking longboat. That might also explain why my local paper eventually replaced the traditional paper boy with a middle-aged woman with three teeth and an SUV, who would drive right up onto people’s lawns so she didn’t have to get out of the car to stick the papers in the mailboxes. So to celebrate my hatred of a transportation method that requires me to balance all my weight on a hard rubber knob under my testicles, next week I’d like to turn to a historically more traditional and far less painful mount: the ostrich.

Star Tropics – NES

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Six months into 2015, I still haven’t finished my New Year’s Resolution of finishing the shelf of books, movies and games that I bought last year without having the time to read, watch and play, respectively. Combined with my slackerism, skipping a collective month and a half of updates, and I haven’t played a Ye Olde Fashioned Game since March (Technically longer, but I only keep track of when I publish articles, not play the games). Lucky for you, the part I ordered to connect my PS2 to my TV in my new house came from China and decided it wanted to see the world before settling down into its new life in America, so it shipped through Malaysia (and probably Venus, judging by the time it took to get here), leaving me with nothing to play but the classics.

This doesn't actually foretell your doom. The prophet just played a Simon and Garfunkle album before you walked in.

This doesn’t actually foretell your doom. The prophet just played a Simon and Garfunkle album before you walked in.

Enter Star Tropics, a game I had heard about, but never turned to until one night of Dorito-fueled boredom caused me to binge on five minute attempts at NES games until I found one that held my attention for a sixth minute. This interesting little anomaly of a game has apparently never seen the light of day in Japan, an idea about as likely as an altar boy who has never seen the private recesses of his priest’s rectory. The anomalous nature stops there though, as the gameplay seems to rip off, er…”blend”…the better parts of both NES Legend of Zelda games and the early Final Fantasy. To top it off, the entire game adopts a theme different from the standard-issue Medieval-slash-fairy-tale setting, except for an alien-themed final dungeon tacked on to the end like the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull trailing after the Indiana Jones movies.

Underground labyrinth? Check. Mummies? Check. Stopwatch that freezes monsters? Check. Heart meter? Check. Yup. We've got the Legend of Zelda...with a yo-yo.

Underground labyrinth? Check. Mummies? Check. Stopwatch that freezes monsters? Check. Heart meter? Check. Yup. We’ve got the Legend of Zelda…with a yo-yo.

The story centers on Mike, a stout-hearted, wholesome American boy who somehow lives in a nation of small undeveloped tropical islands. Much like Earthbound’s Ness, Mike slaughters aliens with a yo-yo, aided by some good old-fashioned baseball paraphernalia (although I hear neither one wants to take credit for inspiring M. Night Shyamalan to make Signs). Mike’s uncle, Dr. Steven Jones, has disappeared, and the quest falls upon his nephew to find him–while simultaneously rescuing a civilization of freeloaders who send a lone boy to fight hoards of menacing invaders. You know. Standard video game routine.  Dr. J has left you a submarine that will take you from island to island to wipe out the biodiversity of Star Tropics’ extensive cave system as you search for clues for your uncle’s whereabouts. And find him abducted by aliens.

...somehow I think they felt a little too comfortable with their source material.

…somehow I think they felt a little too comfortable with their source material.

Immediately on booting up, you’ll find the familiar Legend of Zelda save slots and name registration. Star Tropics clearly takes a lot of inspiration, especially its combat system, from the original Zelda game, although it adds the ability to jump, something Link seems to have forgotten how to do after the Adventure of Link. While exploring underground ruins, Link–er, Mike–fights a series of bats, mummies, skeletons and…octoroks? Really? They don’t even want to try to hide it? Okay, then. Although the core gameplay does come off as derivative of Zelda underworlds, it almost feels like Nintendo had 16-bit hopes for Star Tropics, as they’ve increased sprite size and made weapons and items a little more useful, if not somewhat less versatile. When in the overworld, the sprites shrink, Mike walks around safely without enemy battles or random encounters, and you may notice more of a Final Fantasy aesthetic, including a vehicle for easy travel between islands. Although some might criticize such blatant rip-offs, I might point out that they took things that work from games people enjoy and made something genuinely fun to play. Remember: even Tolkien ripped off all his ideas from somewhere else.

What happened then? Well in Whoville they say, Mike's short life meter grew one bigger that day.

What happened then? Well in Whoville they say, Mike’s short life meter grew one bigger that day.

One of the less-fortunate features carried over from the Legend of Zelda gave me no end of problems and eventually broke me down to the point of using save states to cut back on endless hours of repetition. Although Mike’s life meter grows every time he discovers a big heart, his cardiomegaly apparently takes its toll on his health as he starts each new life afresh with three whopping hearts. I didn’t like this in Zelda, but at least enemies in that game had the common decency to offer you their still-beating hearts as you ripped them from their chests. Monsters in Star Tropics rarely pony up as organ donors, leaving the player to fend for himself at all costs in a perilous world of fast-moving enemies chasing after a protagonist with sluggish controls and pockets full of honey and snausages. Late in the game, as an effect of what I will generously call a glitch (well, more of a son-of-a-glitch), I picked up an item to increase my life gauge to full, after which it proceeded into a cut scene, saved the game, trimmed my life down to three hearts, then deposited me immediately in front of one of the major final bosses.

Legend of the Hidden Temple 2: Olmec's Revenge. I don't remember the temple guards trying to disembowel the Blue Barracudas.

Legend of the Hidden Temple 2: Olmec’s Revenge. I don’t remember the temple guards trying to disembowel the Blue Barracudas.

The soundtrack sports a definite Harry Belafonte vibe, and more than one enemy gave the game a “Legends of the Hidden Temple” feel (alas, though, the parrot sports red, not purple, feathers) As for difficulty, Star Tropics ranks somewhere between “wake up early and exercise” and “only one more Dorito,” but if the NES has built up a reputation for anything, their games carved themselves a niche as the most popular girl in school: more attractive and desirable than the rest of the competition, but subtly more aggressive than a playground bully and no compunctions about treating you as brutally as they want (not to mention a certain affinity for using the phrase “blow me” before a stubborn refusal to cooperate after nothing you do turns them on). If many games, though, just hate you outright (…Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Star Tropics may just friend-zone you. Just as frustrating, but at least you still enjoy it. Jeez, I have got to stop extending my metaphors. Or at least, stop telling Anne stories of the girls I knew in high school.

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So...I went through all of this because I wanted to play Q-Bert?

So…I went through all of this because I wanted to play Q-Bert?

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.

Mega Man 3 – NES / PS2, XBox and Game Cube (as Mega Man Anniversary Collection)

The series employs many rooms shaped like this because you damn well better start from the far left side of the screen!

The series employs many rooms shaped like this because you damn well better start from the far left side of the screen!

So I’ve gone roughly twenty months on this project, but I’ve only written about one of my favorite franchises–Mega Man–once. But do you honestly need any more than that? Capcom released six main titles, each with a Game Boy spin-off, then moved on to the Mega Man X series, changing at most a handful of tools and the line-up of characters. If any series epitomized the “If it ain’t broke” philosophy more than any other…well, Madden, FIFA and all those sports games pretty much nailed it. But Capcom did it first. And as an added bonus, Mega Man has the advantage over Madden in that you can’t easily turn the game off and go fight a legion of evil robots, taking their weapons as trophies like an Assimovian serial killer. But as the first rule of robotics doesn’t preclude the murder of other robots, our favorite blue Dexterbot has free reign–even permission and justification–to slaughter all the bad people-bots in order to save humanity. And he does, but much like his human counterpart, Mega Man faces the challenge of killing over and over again without going stale. To that end, we get Dr. Albert Wily, mad scientist extraordinaire, modeled after Albert Einstein and inspiration for Albert Wesker. As a human, Mega Man can’t harm him, which gives him license to keep throwing robotic Batman-villain rejects our way until contentment dawns on our 8-bit faces or Capcom gets bored and suddenly stops producing the games in favor of Resident Evil.

Yep. You totally beat the final boss by dropping snakes into the cockpit with Dr. Wily.

Yep. You totally beat the final boss by dropping snakes into the cockpit with Dr. Wily.

The story behind Mega Man 3 tries to preemptively answer the question of why Dr. Light keeps pumping out deadly robots if Dr. Wily will only steal them and reprogram them for evil. Well, fortunately Dr. Wily has “found his sanity,” to quote the instruction book, and has teamed up with Dr. Light to work for world peace the only way they know how: by constructing the largest, deadliest, most powerful robot the world has ever seen. That’ll keep everyone safe. However, a new batch of robots has appeared on mining worlds, holding the 8 macguffins required to get the new peace keeper up and running.  Light believes some anonymous “lunatic guy” has ordered these robots to steal the energy crystals required to activate the peace keeping robot, Gamma. Jeez, Dr. Wily, didn’t you just find your sanity? Maybe you could lend to this situation your expert advice which we obviously know contains no trace of mental instability whatsoever.

As if the kooky concept of themed villains didn't scream "Batman" enough, Dr. Wily built a giant penguin.

As if the kooky concept of themed villains didn’t scream “Batman” enough, Dr. Wily built a giant penguin.

Fans have long considered Mega Man 2 the pinnacle of the series, and I really have to agree. The game introduced a number of features that fans had never seen before, but apparently would never reach the same quality again. Except Mega Man 3 improved upon everything. How does that work? Good question! Let’s start with the original Mega Man. For those of you who haven’t had the luxury of living in Asia, I should explain that Rock-Scissors-Paper games constitute an iron clad and legally binding contract between anyone under the age of 20. Drawing on this, the first Mega Man introduced this principle in the form of a guy who chucks scissors at you from his forehead, who goes down pretty easily if you’ve already beaten the guy who gives you the power to hurl rocks back at him. But since “Paper Man” sounded lame even on his own medium of attack, and a three-level game didn’t quite justify the $50 price tag, they had to beef it up a bit. So you might imagine Capcom designed themes for their robots, carefully crafted around well-balanced and clever real-world principles…just kidding! They went for the cliched trifecta of video game alchemy; lighting, fire and ice.

So in Mega Man 2, they went all-out with the alchemy, what with water dousing fire, fire burning wood (actually the combination of Earth and Water, but hey, who actually follows alchemy these days?), wood…I don’t know…filtering air? And then the other four robots. Except that metal guy looks like he’d do a number on wood man. And bubble lead somehow damages the time-stopping robot. So that game turned out a mess in the rock-scissors-paper department. Mega Man 3 tried to restore the feeling of one weakness per enemy. Except to keep it interesting, they made two separate circuits of weaknesses, ensuring you’d have to fight at least two bosses with just your mega buster.

Capcom won an award for the design of Snake Man's stage. Then blew it by making the boss look like a green sperm with legs.

Capcom won an award for the design of Snake Man’s stage. Then blew it by making the boss look like a green sperm with legs.

Furthermore, this game marks Capcom’s foray away from the usual fire- and ice-themed levels. Instead, we get the dark, starry world of Gemini Man or the ninja-bot, Shadow Man.  One might question why anyone built robots around these ideas. The original six robot masters all had some constructive purpose to society. I can even think of some useful, productive ways to employ Mega Man 2 robot masters. But Gemini and Shadow Man don’t seem very helpful, and then…well…Top Man. Yes, this game introduces the Slippy Toad of Dr. Wily’s minions, Top Man. Who spins. And throws tops. After defeating him, you get the top spin, a weapon so difficult to use that I often deal more damage to myself than the enemy I hope to target. Seriously…I hate this guy so much I just want to punch him in the face! Wait, what? You defeat him by punching him in the face? Excellent! Who do I get that weapon from? …Hard Man? Did anyone at Capcom think these names through all the way? Seeing as how he appears in the same game as Snake Man, I’d say someone on the development team had just a little too much inspiration from bad porn.

Doc Robot gets wood. Really, did no one think this through?

Doc Robot gets wood. Really, did no one think this through?

The game also rectifies the too-awesome-to-use trope among games where you collect items. None of the weapons has a limited number of uses–you can always replenish them by camping out in front of a giant penguin or something. However, these weapons usually take too much effort, and simply blasting through levels with your arm cannon provides the quickest and easiest way to the end. In Mega Man 3, rather than going straight to Dr. Wily’s castle after fighting the robot masters, an enemy called Doc Robot appears. With as much bearing on the plot as Arwen in the Lord of the Rings films, Doc Robot merely gives you a chance to use your weapons more. He inhabits four previously conquered stages, although he alters them drastically. Facing you twice in each stage, he adopts the attack patterns of all the Mega Man 2 bosses. Because Mega Man hasn’t, apparently, proved that he can mop the floor with all of them. Meh.

Proto Man: Dick to friend and foe alike.

Proto Man: Dick to friend and foe alike.

Having a little more relevance to the story, Mega Man also faces off against the supposedly mysterious Proto Man. Of course, if you’ve ever heard the term “Proto” before, the figuring out his identity has all the challenge of pouring a glass of water. He appears in several stages, usually to fight a few rounds with Mega Man. Ostensibly, he does this as a test, but while certain things–such as practicing for the SAT–might help you out just before going in for the real thing, you may not want a practice bout against Mohammad Ali ten minutes before the fight. Unless, of course, you can move faster without all that cumbersome blood. And really, doesn’t having perfect vision only dull your other senses? Proto Man couldn’t come off as more of a dick if he had actually sided with Dr. Wily.

Man's best friend when lava pours into bottomless pits.

Man’s best friend when lava pours into bottomless pits.

Also noteworthy, Mega Man 3 introduces a new series staple, Rush. Taking the place of the items from the previous game, Dr. Light built Mega Man a dog that can morph into vehicles to increase your mobility. Rush makes a good companion; he does whatever you ask him to, never gets in the way, and he doesn’t poop so you never have to worry about where you step. Each of his three functions–two of which you obtain after beating certain bosses and the other you have from the get-go–increases your mobility, allowing you to spring to new heights, soar over dangerous ground, or swim through that one patch of water in Gemini Man’s level. So maybe the implementation could have used some more thought, but did I mention he doesn’t poop? That puts him ahead of a real dog in my book.

Otherwise, if you’ve played any game in the series, you should know what to expect. Run, jump. Enemy robots. Pew pew pew. Pretty standard stuff.

Metroid – NES, GBA

Riding an elevator down through the maw of a giant, two-headed demon. What could possibly go wrong?

Riding an elevator down through the maw of a giant, two-headed demon. What could possibly go wrong?

In the past few days, I’ve finished three games and written about four of these entries. While I enjoy the prospect of getting ahead a few weeks on my posts, the ol’ well of humor might risk drying up. Or burning out. I don’t know. I do know, though, that while I enjoyed Metroid Prime 3, it left me with an aching feeling in my heart (which beats Custer’s Revenge, which left me with a burning sensation in my pee) that nothing quite compares to the old school 2-dimensional Metroid games. To my surprise, when I tallied them up to see which one drew the short straw and had to cleanse me of my first-person nausea, I realized that Nintendo has only made five: Metroid, Return of Samus, Super Metroid, and Zero Mission, which only really should count for half credit as it partially remakes the original. Why do we get so few of these classically styled games, but jumping plumbers have such a fan following that they’ve metastasized into multiple series? Someone contact the New Super Mario Bros. team and tell them what we really need. Still, I needed something to fill the void, and since I’ve already written about Zero Mission, Super Metroid and Return of Samus, I opted to go with the classic 8-bit original.

The story, as typical for games on the NES, has all the complexity Nintendo could detail on six whole pages of an 11.5×9 cm instruction manual. In the year 20X5–because apparently the fact that half the decade has passed matters more than which decade–all intelligent life in the Milky Way has come together into a peaceful federation rather than Earth setting up colonies and raping foreign planets for their resources like would probably happen in real life. However, to fill the void of assholes, a group of space pirates have hunted the wise Chozo bird race to extinction,  taken control of their planet, and used it as a base of operations to rob and loot and pillage from everyone else in the galaxy. You know…like the United States in real life.  Too inept to land a force of Federation Police on the planet, guns a-blazing, the government decides to outsource the job to a single bounty hunter who promises to do a better job for less money while simultaneously dealing with severe PTSD caused by the very space pirates she’ll have to face with no back-up or emotional support. A sort of space Mowgli (fitting with today’s neo-colonialism theme), Samus lived with the Chozo after space pirates killed her human family.

Prepare to spend some time killing bugs for energy.

Prepare to spend some time killing bugs for energy.

To add to the list of reasons why not to send her in, you begin the game at 30% health.  The power suit she wears, which the instruction manual says makes her a cyborg…and also apparently a man…apparently serves more of a Darth Vader suit function. Anyone else starting a game at 30% health would fade into view during the opening fanfare in a full-body cast along with their IV drip. This feels like more of a scathing criticism of the Federation. Why even keep a standing law enforcement agency when a hyperglycemic cancer patient covered in third-degree burns offers a better chance at bringing criminals to justice? But yeah. Samus begins the game with 30 health out of a total of 99, and no matter how many energy tanks you collect, each time you die or continue a game via password, you’ll still begin on the brink of death with only 30 health. Farming energy proves difficult, as you get to choose between doing it safely and doing it quickly, and even the “quickly” option takes time, as the drop rate decreases the more you shoot monsters that continuously spawn out of pipes. So prepare yourself to spend long hours going back and forth, shooting monsters in hopes of seeing those flashing purple baubles worth more than gold. And don’t go in to fight bosses until you know you can take them.

...a lot of time killing bugs.

…a lot of time killing bugs.

Beyond that, I think I should apologize for some unfair criticism of the game earlier. Previously, the lack of an in-game map challenged me to keep my blood pressure from rising in uncontrollable rage as I wandered through endless, identical passages trying to find something useful to do. This time, I decided to try it au naturale. I referred to a map briefly before I started, and realized that the later portions of the game had smaller segments of absolutely identical passageways, and while no less confusing, I could manage them far more easily than I had previously assumed.  So I memorized the initial path, from the morph ball to the missles, through the bombs, and eventually the ice beam. From there I only had to check the map once while looking for a well-hidden path through Norfair.

I'd like to go into McDonald's and have a giant stone human hand me my fries.

I’d like to go into McDonald’s and have a giant stone human hand me my fries.

Once free of initial map frustrations and the exciting and indefinite bouts of energy farming, the game plays a lot like the Legend of Zelda. Samus begins with a piddly array of attacks and range of motion. She hunts down items that increase her abilities. Items like the maru mari (morph ball) let her curl into a ball, allowing her to access corners of Zebes previously available only to the most intrepid of hedgehogs. The high jump boots, well…I shouldn’t have to explain what they do, but they let Samus leap to new heights, as well as making older heights less of a chore to reach. Weapon augments like the long beam allow her to one-up the actual side-scrolling Link, letting her shoot all the way across the screen! And bombs…well, enough with the Zelda comparisons. You get the point.

Most heros just kill their enemies. Samus humiliates them first.

Most heros just kill their enemies. Samus humiliates them first.

These items show the major advantage that the 2-D Metroid games hold over their Prime counterparts; you can use them everywhere, and they might help you anywhere. Lately, Samus’ arsenal consists of items that interact with specific items in the environment, allowing her to open up new areas. Same basic idea, yes, but when an item doesn’t benefit her all around, it amounts to amassing a giant ring of the most eclectic keys the Nintendo designers could think up. Getting the plasma cannon early on in Metroid Prime 3 excited me, until I realized it didn’t actually power up my shots and could only either open red doors or melt patches of ice and scrap metal that obstructed my path. You know, like a door. In this game, the beams actually have a function; the ice beam lets you turn your enemies into stepping stones, and the wave beam broadens your shot, reducing the pesky need to aim at stuff.

Ret-conning Samus' hair color already! Mostly a brunette, it changes to blonde and sometimes green within the game.

Ret-conning Samus’ hair color already! Mostly a brunette, it changes to blonde and sometimes green within the game.

Born in 1983, I owned an NES before I even heard of any other video game system. I have a certain fondness for the system and appreciate the games for personal reasons as well as for their famously superb design. So when I say Metroid surpasses most Nintendo classics, understand that I don’t say that to demean other games at all–it actually plays like a game far ahead of its time. You may have to deal with some obnoxious ret-conning from the storyline. The instruction manual introduces Samus both as a cyborg and a man–both ideas they don’t stick with even through the end of the game. Ridley, apparently, has a claim as the first life form on planet Zebes, which sounds kind of interesting, but the later games’ stories (as well as the Metroid Manga) come off as more compelling.

Completion bonus: After making your way through Mother Brain’s jar and successfully clearing the planet before it blows, the game places you back at the beginning, sans power suit (or with suit if you cleared the game without) and lets you play through again, this time beginning with the items of power–spin attack, high jump boots, varia suit, maru mari, bombs, and whichever beams you had before–allowing for a speed run attempt. While I usually only play through games once before writing about them, I ran through Metroid twice. Energy farming doesn’t take nearly as much time or effort with the spin attack, and a nice quick dash through the game felt like a nice reward–rather than a too-easy cheat mode–for the effort put into the first round.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse – NES

RetroArch-0611-134745In my Aria of Sorrow review, I confessed that I had previously had all the contact with Castlevania that one might want with a $50-or-less prostitute, rather than with a long-running, beloved horror game series. After finally beating the first game (admittedly, through the liberal use of save states), I thought I’d enjoy running through the other NES installments, playing them as I may have back in the late 80s. Unfortunately, the very special brand of whale shit we get from Simon’s Quest will require more practice in meditation and emotional control, until I reach a state of tranquility that enables me to transgress some of the most awful gameplay this side of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So instead I worked my way through Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

RetroArch-0611-160656A few hundred years before Simon Belmont whipped it good through Transylvania, a similar problem came along for his great-grandfather, Trevor. At that point, the Church had excommunicated the Belmont family because the scared people, a problem that today would have earned the Belmonts a position as Cardinal, or at the very least GOP Congressional candidate. However, when Dracula moves his family to town, guess who comes crawling back to the scary, superhuman vampire killers. Trevor has to fight his way through the Transylvania countryside to rescue powerful figures imprisoned by the vampire, and he can take one of them with him on his journey. Afterwards, he whips his way through a castle in exactly the same condition that we see two hundred years later with Simon (at least Dracula likes to keep his home in a consistent state of disrepair) until he comes face to face with the D-Man himself.

RetroArch-0611-155840Returning to the form of the original, the game opens with a powerful image: Trevor Belmont kneels in prayer at the remains of an altar in a ruined church, then stands up. It’s simple, uncontrolled by the player, and makes an extremely powerful statement. I can’t exactly describe that statement, but believe me. Statement. It makes one. Anyway, from there, the action begins. Much like the first game, Castlevania III has elements of platforming, elements of run-and-gun games like Mega Man, and elements of moving a refrigerator from a truck into your 3rd-floor apartment. Yes, dysarthria must run in the family, as Trevor, like Simon, moves, turns, jumps, and dodges with the urgency of a rascal with low batteries. At least in this game, this feels deliberate. While Simon came off as obnoxiously suicidal, hurling himself backwards and off any nearby ledges at the slightest stub of a toe, Trevor’s movement issues play off the random attack patterns of the enemies, a move that ramps up difficulty rather than simply frustrates players.

RetroArch-0611-173952Don’t get me wrong, though; it frustrates players as well. However, Simon’s Quest deserves recognition for its contributions to Dracula’s Curse, namely unlimited continues and a password system. Konami still made this game harder than Chinese calculus on viagra, but at least now you don’t have to slog through the first few levels only to never see the later ones. Theoretically. Furthermore, this game lets Trevor partner up with other skilled characters who have a beef with the head honcho. Grant, the acrobat, moves faster than Trevor and can cling to walls and walk on ceilings. The infamous Alucard has a mid-ranged attack in up to three directions at the same time, can turn into a bat, and single-handedly begins the phenomenon of the Japanese spelling Dracula’s name backwards as if they’ve discovered the most clever, insightful and symbolic literary device and not at all a stupid trick to come up with a funny name. Sypha, another vampire hunter, also allegedly has some reason you’d want to use her instead of Trevor. Apparently she can use magic, although I got stuck with her for the majority of the game and never quite figured out how. Trevor has the strongest attack, and generally works better than the others, but occasionally their skills (especially the acrobatics) come in handy. Furthermore, to get these characters, the map offers multiple paths, allowing a different play experience each time through the game.

Interesting side note, something I wish I had known going into the game; you can only take one character with you at a time. If you pick up Grant (the first one available), and then run into either Alucard or Sypha, they’ll give you the option to take them with you. If you accept, Grant ditches you without warning.

RetroArch-0611-135219Beyond that, the game does justice to the original. The music and scene design creates a worthwhile atmosphere, sub-weapons (all exactly the same as before) add variety to strategy. Death still puts up a bitch of a fight, and you fight Dracula in the same room at the top of the stairs with the same crescent moon in the background. If you liked the first game, you’ll like this one too. Probably the only drawback, bosses don’t stand out as famous monsters. Sure, a few of them return, but I like to think that the others asked for too much money to appear in this game, so Konami had to find other actors willing to play the parts.

RetroArch-0611-174633

Dracula’s Curse also employs a primitive sort of New Game + concept. Not uncommon for games from the 80s, finishing the game gives you the ending credits–which differ depending on which character you got stuck with–and then plopping you right back at the beginning of the game, still with the character you picked up (and apparently, you can’t get the other characters…at least, I couldn’t get Grant again, after he ditched me with Sypha on the previous round). However, on the second play through, it ramps up the difficulty from “brutally punishing” to “setting your couch on fire with rage.” The levels have extra enemies, and some end-game enemies replace simpler, easier to dodge monsters from earlier on. I’ll confess I only lasted two levels on this setting.