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.

Mickey Mousecapade – NES

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Each Mickey Mousecapade cartridge contains a hidden Mickey soldered onto the circuit board, so kids, remember that after you spend the money to obtain this increasingly rare artifact from game history, you should immediately crack it open with your dad’s hammer (not without adult supervision) so you can behold the awesome glory of a circle intersecting two slightly smaller circles. Interesting bit of trivia, yes, but I don’t know if it amazes me more that Disney, Capcom, and/or Hudsonsoft thought they should put it there, or that someone actually found it. For the record, if you couldn’t detect the sarcasm in my first sentence and actually took that suggestion to heart…then go on eBay right now, buy a copy of “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” and send it to me via USPS Priority Mail. After that, I can send you my wish list…I’ve wanted a powerful telescope for a while…But if you didn’t fling the cartridge to the ground and stomp on it like a tarantula you suddenly discovered climbing up your arm, try putting it in your NES and playing it.

RetroArch-0611-011547After playing through the Kingdom Hearts games and thinking, “What a bizarre, but novel idea,” it occurred to me that Disney had released video games containing nonsensical assortments of intellectual property since at least the 1980s. Unlike the Square-Enix designed plot of Kingdom Hearts in which Maleficent abducts Alice, then later uses a host of Disney villains, including Pete as a recurring mini boss, to foil the plans of the team of Disney heroes, Mickey Mousecapade features a team of Disney heroes, fighting their way through a gauntlet of Disney villains, including the recurring mini boss Pete, to defeat Maleficent in order to rescue the captive Alice. (What a novel idea!) I gather they intended for the games characters to surprise English-speaking players as the instruction manual only says Mickey needs to rescue “a friend,” and the English release replaces many Alice in Wonderland themed bosses and enemies with an appetizer sampler of characters.

Porcine Kamikaze belong to the same genus as the lemming.

Porcine Kamikaze belong to the same genus as the lemming.

The game has little consistency between its five stages, which may actually work in its favor, varying the game play just enough so that players don’t realize the absurdity of the premise, the cliched platforming, and that they can finish the game entirely within the length of time it takes to watch one episode of Family Guy. The first and the last stage involve an almost Resident Evil style exploration, where Mickey and Minnie search through buildings looking for weapons and keys, then backtrack through the labyrinth to unlock doors to help them progress to the boss. The fourth level takes this screen-by-screen exploration and reduces it to a single path through four screens. The second stage involves side-scrolling platform jumping without the option to travel left to previously visited screens. The third stage does this as well, but de-emphasizes platforming in favor of searching for hidden exits that will either move you forward to the next area or back to a previous one.

"Stop slacking off and come follow me into this dangerous wilderness!"

“Stop slacking off and come follow me into this dangerous wilderness!”

Each stage begins with a pointless but not unpleasant animation involving Mickey approaching a sign that designates the direction–always “right”–to and name of the next stage. He’ll read the sign, then call for Minnie, who I suppose drifted off in sleep, began building a nest or sought out cover from passing hawks. She’ll then come running, the two will pass off right and the stage will begin. The player controls Mickey, mostly. Minnie tags along, like a girl following around the Little Rascals, acting like one of the guys but not quite responding to player controls correctly. Unlike Mickey, she can complete the game without ever obtaining her weapon (a shooting star), thus rendering her only purpose to weigh down Mickey, forcing him to overshoot ledges so she doesn’t fall to her death behind him and wait for her to catch up before going into the next room. While mostly irrelevant to game play, she can, in fact, get a weapon, and even though it fires only once for every two stars that Mickey shoots, she doesn’t take damage from enemies, which makes her useful as Mickey can manipulate her into standing on the front lines in certain areas like the women at the Cliven Bundy ranch. (My apologies to anyone who reads this after October 2014 and has no idea what that means)

The Pirates who don't do anything; they just stay at home and direct all passers-by and law enforcement agencies to their exact location

The Pirates who don’t do anything; they just stay at home and direct all passers-by and law enforcement agencies to their exact location

From there, each stage has its own quirks and annoyances that make you wonder things like, “If the goal of the Fun House requires unlocking the door to get out, why did Mickey enter in the first place,” or “Why do seasons in the woods change depending on which tree you walk into rather than the passage of time,” or even “What type of pirate would keep their ship in one place, then put up signs telling people how to find them? Each level has hidden treasures revealed by a steady bombardment of radiation from your stars, but only in the Fun House and Castle levels do you risk releasing some sort of psychotic owl who kidnaps Minnie and imprisons her in a statue. The woods, as mentioned requires you to memorize a path to find your way from season to season, otherwise you can get lost pretty easily.

...no guards. No wall. No chains. Why the hell did I have to save you?

…no guards. No wall. No chains. Why the hell did I have to save you?

Still, it’s a small game world after all, so the variation keeps it interesting. The game puts up enough of a fight to keep you from whipping through it like a teacup ride, and…okay. No more stupid Disney jokes. The only real complaint I have left doesn’t even affect game play; when you finally beat Maleficent into a surprisingly short and squat bloody pulp, you finally come face to face with Alice…as she dozes gently…propped up against a tree. Outside. With absolutely no chains, guards, or other objects to suggest imprisonment. She could have walked away at any time, but instead felt like calling Mickey, the big boss mascot, away from his busy schedule of theme park appearances and cartoon cameos in order to come get her.

But really, I can’t find much more to say on the subject. A lot of these simple NES games don’t have much substance to them, so they either have something worth playing for fifteen minutes to an hour or they don’t. This one, I’d say, does. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll get back to Kingdom Hearts II.

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.

 

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen – NES, NDS

Stunning artwork by Akira Toriyama, which you will never see with the first-person battle system.

Stunning artwork by Akira Toriyama, which you will never see with the first-person battle system.

Sometimes I wonder if game designers ever play games themselves. When they go home from a hard day at Square-Enix or EA or wherever they work, do they sit down, pop in Goldeneye 64 and vent their aggressions on unsuspecting polygonal clones? Because half the time, the games I play suggest that the designers slapped together a few inebriated, late-night ideas together, hired some monkeys to make the code functional, then add required backtracking, level-grinding, or needlessly long menu dialogue to pad the game out to the optimal length for predicted financial success.

And so we arrive, weary and saddle-sore, at the beloved Dragon Quest series. In particular, Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen stands out as the paradigm of wrong answers to good questions. “What part of the traditional JRPG do players consistently enjoy as the most stunning part of the experience? What makes them ignore the phone, neglect their schoolwork, household chores and personal hygiene, and refuse to develop a social life more than any other point in the game?”

DS Battle“Compelling characters and a complex, driving storyline?” shouts an up-and-coming young mind in the Enix meeting room.

“Fuck you!” responds the boss, who follows up by firing the up-and-coming mind.

“Hours and hours of monotonous grinding?” someone suggests.

“Technically, true. Put it in the game. But what do they love? Why do they love RPGs with the intensity of a rabbit overdosing on Viagra?”

“The first hour and a half where you have no money, no access to anything cool, and  no abilities other than attack and item?”

“I like it,” says the boss. “We’ll do it five times, and throw in some of that grinding to make it more like three hours.

And thus, the incipient Dragon Quest took form. Chapters of the Chosen focuses on…the idea of not focusing on anything. The story opens with the generic blank-hero, a character so bland compared to everyone else in the game that the lord of hell himself couldn’t drag my projection of myself into the game. “You want me to imagine myself as that guy?” I ask the game. “No thanks. You go on and play without me. I’ll just watch this one.” Feigning a fast-paced, exciting game, monsters invade the hero’s village, looking for you. After killing your neighbors, your adopted parents, and your love interest, the monsters decide they just don’t feel like putting the effort into eviscerating one more human and leave your cowering in a mixture of fear and bodily fluids.

And then the game, bored of the hero’s personality already, leaves you as well, and goes on to someone much more interesting. I’ve just described the prologue. Bear in mind, you don’t even get to battle the monsters. No fighting. Not with the protagonist. Not yet. C3PO and R2D2 make it to their hero at light-speed compared to this game. So the game shifts to Ragnar McRyan, whose king has sent him to find the hero–but before he does, we have to help Tsarevna Alena pull a Princess Jasmine. Alena eventually Alena joins a tournament that almost introduces the villain–

Thought I should include a screen shot of the NES version. Apparently they added the borderline-offensive gibberish for the DS version

Thought I should include a screen shot of the NES version. Apparently they added the borderline-offensive gibberish for the DS version

–but first cuts to the story of Torneko Taloon, Akira Toriyama’s answer to Nicholas Cage, and his aspirations to profit from mass slaughter more than anyone has ever profited off anyone else’s misfortune ever before. Torkneko deserves special attention, for taking role-playing to the extreme. Flash back to the execs meeting:

Just to mess with you, they included "night," which translates to "for half the game, you'll wait for the useful NPCs to wake up."

Just to mess with you, they included “night,” which translates to “for half the game, you’ll wait for the useful NPCs to wake up.”

“We need a role that will open up their eyes to the possibilities!”

“Why not a Samurai?”

“That’ll never work. Next idea!”

“What about a Cowboy?”

“What do I pay you losers for?”

“How about we put players in the role of a mindless clerk standing at a cash register all day long?”

“Fuckin’ genius!”

I should mention at this point that I haven’t exaggerated anything yet. During Torneko’s chapter, you literally spend huge chunks of time standing on the merchant’s side of the counter, waiting for people to come in and buy weapons. Torneko hopes to save up enough money to buy his own gear to set out on a money-making adventure, but he doesn’t even get to keep the cash the store rakes in–his boss pays chicken feed, amounting to less than a 10% commission on each item sold. But still, it gives you the option of refusing sales to each customer, and sometimes they won’t pony up enough cash and will walk out empty handed.

I spent a great deal of time wandering as the game felt I'd enjoy it more if I had no fucking clue about what I needed to do next.

I spent a great deal of time wandering as the game felt I’d enjoy it more if I had no fucking clue about what I needed to do next.

And then just for good measure, we get another chapter. And each new chapter opens up with flat-broke, level-1 characters who fight monsters with all the effectiveness of a paraplegic cub scout wielding a foam pool noodle. Grind away, ladies and gentlemen. Seriously, I haven’t exaggerated anything yet. By the time chapter five dragged itself in to let me play as the hero, my game timer read 12:56. Out of the total 30 hours I played the game, I spent 43% effectively at the beginning, grinding until the “attack” option did reasonable damage. And for the zinger: the story keeps going after the final boss! I beat the game and it offered me another chapter. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

One positive thing I’ll say for the game: it gave Torneko an ability to initiate a monster battle at any time, cutting out the need for useless walking between battles. I take this as clear evidence that Dragon Quest IV knows it only has value as a time-killing grinder, but even with this trick to speed things up, it still felt like I’d hit my mid-life crisis before the end of the game. Unfortunately, any time gained by not walking while grinding balances out with time wasted managing menus. For each option, you have to flip through three or four dialogue boxes that want to confirm in triplicate that yes, you indeed want to use that herb. Or save. Or anything. Yes. Given the choice I will always answer yes. Yes, I’ll sell the damned sword! Yes, I want to equip the armor! Yes, I’ll continue the game after I save! (who thought of this one? Do you need to go to a special screen to shut the power off? Did the original NES erase your data otherwise?)

The game features a casino; If you want to waste more than time, why not waste money, too?

The game features a casino; If you want to waste more than time, why not waste money, too?

I think I can stick to the same assessment I gave the original; I’ll play the game as long as something else in the room can take my priority attention. Otherwise, I still don’t see the appeal in Dragon Quest, other than Akira Toriyama’s artwork, which I could download in much less than 30 hours. A game that centers on level-grinding and only includes a half-assed plot and characters doesn’t really offer much value, especially compared to most of the Final Fantasy installments. I don’t understand how these games rate so highly.  And yes, I’ve lived in Asia and I’ve seen Gaijin Goomba; I understand that different cultures think differently and have different needs. But I don’t think I need to spend thirty hours hitting the “confirm” button when I could have just as much fun pushing the buttons on my shirts.

Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior – NES, GBC

Yep...she makes you carry her halfway around the world.

Yep…she makes you carry her halfway around the world.

In tenth grade, my school required me to buy a graphing calculator. My trusty TI-85 and I became inseparable when I realized it came with its own programming language. I spent days in my bedroom, hunched over my calculator with thumbs blitzing like epileptic clog dancers until I managed to program a simple, shoddy dungeon crawler with about 20 rooms and 4 or 5 monsters that could beat you into negative hit points. It filled the calculator’s entire memory, had more bugs than a gas station bathroom, and I only played it once, but I still loved it. The next year I upgraded to a TI-89 and shinier, newer games found their way to me, including Phoenix, a 4-level version of Mario, a version of Tetris where blocks fell all the way down when their supporting blocks vanished, and a four-screen-map sequel to Final Fantasy VII with two characters, one boss fight, not enough monsters to level-up, and an inconclusive ending.

Any of these math-class knock-offs released on a dedicated gaming console would have undoubtedly given the impression that the video game industry had replaced all their experienced developers with a team of lemurs who had a penchant for writing fanfiction. They glitched. They wasted memory. They ran poorly on systems not designed for games. I had a Playstation and an N-64 by this point.  I didn’t need these crummy games; yet I still played them. I mention this because my recent play-through of the 1986 RPG legend, Dragon Warrior, left me in a quandary, puzzled over how games with as much substance as a half-finished knock-knock joke written on a pizza box can gather a large enough fan following to inspire one of the most long-lived series in video game history.

GwaelinDragon Warrior (known in Japan as “Dragon Quest”) hails from an age where RPG developers wanted to re-create the Dungeons and Dragons experience without the dice, paper, or need for that pesky socialization, but hadn’t yet figured out that interactive storytelling doesn’t exactly work the same way with pre-programmed computer characters.  As such, you play as _______, and up-and-coming warrior with the charm, charisma and personality of Edward Cullen after eating his weight in magic brownies. The King of Tantagel, in a display of straightforwardness that most video game mystics would find offensive, gives you a simple task: 1) Find the princess and 2) Kill the Dragonlord. After which, young ________ ambles through the world, slaughtering the indigenous fauna until he feels confident enough to carry out the assassination the king entrusted to him.

As much as the simplicity sounds like a breath of fresh air, however, we play games exactly for the roundabout nature of questing. In fact, if you’ve spent any length of time with literature professors, they’ll remind you that the world’s alleged greatest, most classic piece of literature focused entirely on Odysseus gallivanting around the Mediterranean for years, cavorting with nymphs while “guilt” over his marital fidelity “tortured” him, when it may have only taken him two or three weeks simply to walk home. I get that NES cartridges didn’t have the capacity to store complex stories, but like most RPGs from the 1980s, Dragon Warrior has a problem with math. Leveling up to the point where the Dragonlord won’t vaporize you like a bottle of  Zippo fluid requires over 20,000 experience. The most reasonable enemy to fight while level grinding gives you 54. With nothing to do in-game, I hope you have a second TV in your living room because you may want to put on a movie while you grind.

I humbly accept this quest my liege, and...did you just take my wallet?

I humbly accept this quest my liege, and…did you just take my wallet?

Furthermore, your gold supply creeps up with an impressive lack of urgency, while weapons and armor can run as high as 14800. To add to the tedium, every time ________ dies, he wakes up in front of the King of Tantagel, who admonishes you for having the gall to allow the overpowered monsters of the countryside maul you to death. The first time this happened, I didn’t realize that I kept all the experience earned since I last saved because my gold stock had dropped substantially from the moment of my death. But Eventually I realized that in addition to chewing you out for your audacious apathy toward life, the King takes half your gold every time he revives you.

Is it to late to reconsider your offer?

Is it to late to reconsider your offer?

After my initial outburst of anger at having to replenish larger and larger sums of money at each death, this got me thinking. One of the inconsistencies in the design, only certain buildings have roofs and entrances, while the rest simply appear as walled-off areas with a gap to pass through. The fact that some areas have inside maps suggests that the houses without them actually remain open to the elements. With a king who rifles through dead men’s pockets for loose change, I began to wonder if the Dragonlord might actually want to enact social change in the land of Alfgard. Perhaps instead of the black-and-white good-versus-evil trope of the fantasy genre, the villain’s crime doesn’t extend beyond threatening the provincial villagers with scary, scary change.  Unfortunately, while the game does offer the chance to team up with him, taking that option will end in a game-over after days and days of piling up monster corpses for the scraps of stat bonuses necessary to get that far.

First the old man asks me to find his balls, and now this guy?

First the old man asks me to find his balls, and now this guy?

Another factor that compounds the tedium stems from the cryptic hints and clues as to how to finish your quest, gleaned from random townsfolk throughout the game. The King shoves you out the door with absolutely zero direction, and every step you have to take you have to guess based on riddles thrown at you. They’ll point you in vague directions, or suggest items that you must infer you need to progress, or even tell you to visit certain people in certain towns, most of the time leaving you to guess the names of each town because the game won’t label them in any way. Rather than send myself into an angry rant, let me describe it this way; Any game that forces me to look up a walkthrough to progress automatically earns one strike against it. If upon figuring out what I need to know, I still feel like I couldn’t have figured it out on my own no matter how much time I gave it, the game earns another strike. Dragon Warrior forced me to create a third category; games where I look up the walkthrough and still can’t figure out the puzzles.

Dragon Warrior boasts its artwork, done by Akira Toriyama (Dragonball, Chrono Trigger), which could have saved this game…if I had seen any of his influence in it. Maybe the designers based the sprites off the interesting, colorful designs that probably looked something like Goku, but the 16×16 pixel designs couldn’t even hint that Toriyama had any hand in the game development. Someone else clearly did the box art, and I even downloaded the original instruction manual, hoping for more than the second-rate fan art that often graced the pages of NES games intended for 8-year-olds. But no. Even Toriyama couldn’t save this game.

RetroArch-0907-094525
But still, as the first NES-era RPG released in Japan, the series succeeded. People there love it. They perform Dragon Quest music at major symphonic performances. Video games hold an advantage over movies in that their sequels don’t have to recycle the rotting corpses of the original, so I do trust that the later games in the series surpass the first by far. I can only explain its success via my calculator story; the portability and disguise of an education tool allowed me to take games into places previously forbidden, places I couldn’t exactly lug my Playstation.  Having it with me gave me an option. I enjoyed it more for the novelty of its existence rather than the value of its games, and Dragon Warrior can certainly claim the same novelty for its era and console. Still, the painfully slow pace of the grinding, also seen in Final Fantasy (released the following year in both Japan and North America, while Dragon Quest waited three years to cross the pacific…I wonder if that has anything to do with the popularity of each series in each region.), along with the dangerously unstable battery-backed saves of the NES cartridges, tell me I should put my time into the SNES-era games instead.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – NES

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Covering The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in class this week, my students couldn’t have shocked me more if they had all ambushed me with cattle prods; they actually liked the book. But why not? It actually makes a good story, reads easily, and only lasts about eighty pages. However, the reason they gave was the suspense of not knowing what would happen next and the twist ending. Yes, my students hadn’t even heard of the story before, and jaws dropped faster than a cartoon wolf in an Asian strip club when they figured out that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were, in fact, the same person!

Hopefully I didn’t ruin the story for any of you, but I insist that spoilers have a statute of limitations, and I have no obligation to keep secret a plot devised in 1886.  Unfortunately, while I couldn’t believe how many of my students hadn’t heard of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I have no shred of doubt that the developers at Toho and Bandai hadn’t heard of the book either.  While the book comments quite adeptly about the duality of human nature, clandestine desires, and the forced separation of public and private lives, the NES game has the literary value of a bird shitting on pedestrians. I didn’t intend to employ sarcastic wit in that last sentence; the game literally forces the player to dodge steaming piles of bird crap, lest it kindle the rage within Dr. Jekyll, transforming him into the incredible, hulking figure of Mr. Hyde. Covered in feces.

I wonder why it comes out pre-piled...

I wonder why it comes out pre-piled…

NES games didn’t sell themselves on strong stories; most games had a premise, at best a scenario to follow, but they didn’t consider gameplay as the venue for developing plot.  However, with a timeless tale of horror already fabricated, making the game interesting should pose no problem at all. Right?  Unfortunately, while the book focuses on Jekyll’s close friend investigating the bad crowd the doctor has fallen in with, while giving us glimpses of Jekyll losing control of his personality, the game has the good doctor on his way to the church to get married.  Apparently harboring a criminal rage that indulged in dark pleasures didn’t excite Toho quite as much as the conflict of not being somewhere else. Along the way, the common rabble of London work their magic to piss Dr. J. off as much as possible.

Robert Louis Stevenson when they pitched the bird shit idea to him.

Robert Louis Stevenson when they pitched the bird shit idea to him.

While I’ve played games with pretty far-fetched elements (including the murder of frogs by force-feeding turnips), I find the scenario downright implausible.  Everything becomes an obstacle. Vicious dogs make sense, as do ruffian orphans.  Yeah, we’ve all watched the skies with guarded eyes for the rogue seagull with dysentery, and I can even stretch to say some people may freeze in their tracks if a spider dropped out of a tree.  However, I can’t quite see why every full-grown adult in the London streets feels the need to body check Dr. Jekyll like they only have one shot at the Stanley Cup, and the dozens of mild-mannered citizens dropping bombs at his feet give me reason to wonder why the police feel the need to make Mr. Hyde a priority arrest. By the final level, the game starts chucking barrels like it always wanted a career in Donkey Konging and its father forced him into a career murdering classical literature, and in addition to the suspension of suspension of disbelief, it becomes virtually unplayable, even with save states.

As Mr. Hyde, beating up on brains makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

As Mr. Hyde, beating up on brains makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

The game did experiment with a few novel concepts for its time.  The player has not only a life meter, but a mood bar as well.  When the life bar enemies, the player dies–no surprise there. However, when the mood gauge empties, the player transforms into Mr. Hyde, day becomes night, side-scrolling moves right-to-left, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria.  Apparently Mr. Hyde needs some down time to vent his frustration, and wailing on monsters and demons rampaging through London (which again gives pause over the danger Hyde poses) makes him feel better. Successfully not dying as Hyde returns Dr. Jekyll to his quest of…going to church…and refills some of his life bar.  Also as Hyde, enemies drop coins, which Jekyll can use to pay off singers who spout out music notes like shrapnel, and to much of the same effect.  Dropping the pretense of music causing physical harm, this amounts to a man putting off his own marriage because he feels the need to stop and comment on how much he doesn’t like street performers. And again, Hyde is the jerk?

Normally when a game frustrates me, I remind myself that developers plan gameplay and test their games to make sure players can, theoretically, get through them.  However, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ruined challenging games for me by shattering that axiom.  I could barely finish the game using save states.  Some scenes threw so many enemies at me that I had no choice but to replay them and hope for a fortunate random behavior to give me an opening to get through, a task made infinitely more difficult by the fact that Jekyll handles like a Winnebago with four flat tires and no engine trying to pull itself free from a swamp using a broken winch and fifty centimeters of dental floss. The B button controls a walking stick, which the player can wave around to feel more like a Victorian gentleman, but it doesn’t actually effect the game in any way.  I chalk that up to a glitch, considering the number of bombs that followed me as I jumped over them, and how the game inverted its colors during the final level.

This is what happens when you finish. Literally. You see this screen.

This is what happens when you finish. Literally. You see this screen.

Honestly, I wonder how people thought games like this would sell.  I’ve finished some difficult games in my time, but I’ve always felt someone could finish them without save states if they had enough free time on their hands, but I don’t think Dr. J. and Mr. H. falls into that category. The end of the game offers less satisfaction than even the SNES Jurassic Park adaptation, but at the very least I won the right to complain about how terrible this bird crap of an idea turned out.

Working my way through Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Slow going, but I’ll try to update when I can. Thanks for reading!

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out – NES

11 Seconds and not dead. A personal best.

11 Seconds and not dead. A personal best.

This week, my Intro to College students turned in a paper on racial assumptions, proving that after drawing specific attention to a problem, a small minority of people will run to the nearest construction site and jam their head into the wet cement just for the extra layer of thickness it provides them. The pride they take in sticking to even the most backwards, offensive beliefs inspired me to write about my own favorite piece of unintentional racism: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.

A rose in his teeth. Because he's from Spain, see?

A rose in his teeth. Because he’s from Spain, see?

Now, when I say “unintentional racism,” understand that I may exaggerate that somewhat.  Sure, we can attribute the Spanish guy’s flamenco dance to a cultural flavor. And when the Indian fighter warps in and out of the ring like a fakir, I can even chalk that up to an accidental stereotype put in the game by people who probably don’t believe that all Indians charms snakes and breathe fire.  However, the French boxer goes down without a fight.  The French guy. Someone had to have thought that one through.  But hey, props for having the foresight to change the name “Vodka Drunkenski” to “Soda Popinski.”

Pseudo-Japanese Gibberish at its finest.

Pseudo-Japanese Gibberish at its finest.

But I can more effectively fight racism by ridiculing it than raging against it, so I can’t help but laugh at Punch-Out’s lack of political correctness.  So while I can enjoy its horribly offensive racial overtones, I can also admit that I actually really enjoy the game.  This NES remake of the 1984 arcade game tells the story of Little Mac (a pun on McDonald’s “Big Mac” and the fact that the character appears much smaller than his opponents due to the system’s graphical limitations) as he battles his way through the world of championship boxing.  Standing in his way, a host of caricatures riddled with tics, tells, and glaring debilitations gather from around the globe to brutally abuse a guy less than half their size.  Real-life boxer Mike Tyson appears as the final bout and major publicity stunt of the game.

Tyson graced the 8-bit ring for three years before his contract expired and Nintendo replaced him with the fictional “Mr. Dream.”  Unfortunately, while his name successfully sold this game to the public, his likeness takes the championship belt in the boring-personality division.  The rest of the game feels like playing through a cartoon (one of those old, 1930s cartoons that embarrass their creators so much that no one shows them on TV anymore).  Introducing a real-life figure just toned back the game for its final fight.

If you've ever played the game, this should offer some catharsis.

If you’ve ever played the game, this should offer some catharsis.

Now stop and think about what that means. Mike fricken’ Tyson made the game less absurd.  If you don’t understand how ridiculous that sounds, flip over to Wikipedia and read just the introduction for Tyson’s page.  Remember when he bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear?  The guy lost a boxing match for being too violent.  And if that doesn’t do it for you, go to youtube and look for a clip of him speaking.  The man practically sweats colored ink.  Still, in 1987 he hadn’t yet done any of the things that made him infamous (well…except speaking like a drawstring doll), so I guess I can forgive his lack of personality compared to the Convention of Racial Misunderstandings.

Nevertheless, I still rank him very high on the list of most challenging boss fights in any video game.   And yes, the NES-era difficulty surfaces in yet another one of my reviews. More on that later.

You might ask by this point, “Jake, why would someone like yourself, with an athletic aptitude to rival Stephen Hawking, want to play a game about boxing?” Easy; for the same reason I want to operate on tumor-ridden patients in Trauma Center.

To everyone of Pacific Island heritage...I'm sorry.

To everyone of Pacific Island heritage…I’m sorry.

It wouldn’t exactly take a call to your psychic friend’s network to realize that this year’s Madden, Fifa, MLB, and NBA games will wind up sitting in Gamestop next year at this time, not selling at an understandably exorbitant price of $0.99.  Sports games sell well, but don’t last.  They’ll never last as long as people can go outside and actually play the sport.  The games feed off the excitement of real-life changes to rosters reflected electronically, but the people who play them rarely feel possessed to archive their old games for scholarly research.

Not nearly as bad as his role in "Captain N: The Gamemaster"

Not nearly as bad as his role in “Captain N: The Gamemaster”

Punch-Out, on the other hand, only displays the skin of a sport game.  When you examine the gameplay mechanics, it actually forces the player to solve puzzles.  Each opponent has a handful of attacks, each with one or two weaknesses to exploit.  Discovering the trick to counterattacking takes repetition and thought, while actual sports rely on speed and perseverance.  You can’t beat a single one of these boxers with luck or button-mashing.  Repeatedly tackling fight after fight forces the player to try new combos, but with the simple moves available–left and right punches either low or high, dodge, and a special attack only available after pulling off a special combo move that the developers arbitrarily chose as worth awarding a star–it doesn’t take too long to figure these out.

The NES-era difficulty does detract from the game slightly. Most opponents have some sort of barrage attack they’ll eventually whip out like a flasher’s penis, and much like the case of the flasher it begins frantic attempt to get away and the shocking realization that I can’t dodge fast enough to save my ass.  Little Mac doesn’t have the freshly-loaded-vending-machine play control that made NES hero Simon Belmont so famous, but I feel that somewhere along the line, someone should have sat down with him, pointed out his diminished reaction time and tendency to move immediately back into the area currently swarming with giant fists, and suggest to him that a career in professional boxing might not actually suit him as well as he thinks it does.

One too many blows to the head, though.

Seriously...for years I thought this is what Turks looked like.

Seriously…for years I thought this is what Turks looked like.

Even using save states, the game took me days to finish, but I hold by my choice to cheat as I honestly wanted to experience full extent of the work people put into it.  I’d never even heard of “Sandman” or “Super Macho Man” as Punch-Out characters before (yet somehow everyone knew the code to warp straight to Tyson), but they added an oddly non-exploitative color and interesting puzzles to the game.  Granted, if I had played it the way they intended, I could fight for years and never get good enough to face off against them.  The game allows two free beat-downs from an opponent before it decides it made a mistake and sends you back to the previous fighter.  Well, good for Little Mac, but he already proved he could beat that guy. He needs to practice pounding the other racial stereotype for a while, but Punch-Out doesn’t give you such an option.

I rather enjoy it, though.  Yes, it makes me a terrible person to find humor in racism, but I do.  Punch-Out came out at a time when intercultural sensitivities hadn’t found their way into mainstream education yet, or maybe they did but no one thought to check something as fringe as a video game for political correctness.   Fortunately, no one would ever think to remake this for a modern system like the Wii.

Oh wait….