Thursday, May 2, 2013

NES Games That Died with Honor

We elitist, obnoxious Turbo fans have often chuckled to ourselves while listening to our SNES-adoring chums boast of how there are no other questing experiences more rewarding than a trudge through a Chrono Trigger junkyard, of how there's no more-bounteous wellspring of spine-tingling drama than a Zelda 3 block-pot puzzle, and of how a slowdown-ridden tour of The Alien Wars is the sole means by which one can arrive at the pinnacle of blast-'em-up action. But let's give our spinning-room-addled buddies a break and focus instead on their forerunners, the NES hangers-on who may not be as entertainingly discombobulated as their Snerd progeny but who are certainly just as fiery and zealous.

These are the good fellows who will to this day tell you that 16-bit machines offer nothing that features the caliber of gameplay and the level of challenge that can be found in the NES' classics (never mind that the only "challenge" usually presented by such "classics" revolved around overcoming the god-awful "gameplay"). Yes, thanks to these in-denial "old schoolers," we live in a world where Super Mario Bros. 3 is often proclaimed the "best game of all time," where detritus like Astyanax is not only considered acceptable but also occasionally called "excellent," and where Blaster Master is hilariously labeled an "underrated gem" despite the fact that it has appeared on all seven million "underrated gems" lists that have been composed since 1989. All we can do is shake our heads pityingly as these well-meaning but overly wistful veterans of the Power Pad hail their over-the-hill favorites and pine deep down for the days of clunky controls and chunky protagonists.

I feel I must note here that I, unlike the aforedescribed NES loyalists, am completely immune to the effects of nostalgia. Blissful memories of times gone by have absolutely nothing to do with my love for undeniably great Turbo games like Ys Book I & II, The Legendary Axe, and Deep Blue.

And no pangs of yearning or periods of reflection ever result in us sagacious, good-taste-possessing Turbo fans waxing nostalgic for the era of NES dominance. Those are days we'd just as well forget, as it's rather difficult for us to come up with fond recollections of material we considered crap to begin with. Certainly, there were sporadic otherworldly feats to appreciate. How Sunsoft managed to coax its Journey to Silius cartridges into producing music reminiscent of the legendary Ys Book I & II soundtrack is a mystery even the wisest pundits have yet to unravel. And while Mad Dog and Scorpion hardly could have stood toe to toe with Guy Kazama, there's no doubt that the original Contra laid some potential-heavy groundwork for brilliant then-yet-to-come run-and-guns like Hard Corps and Shattered Soldier.

But while we Turbo players were able to appreciate the all-too-rare instances that NES carts flukily or accidentally presented something of merit, we sought more than the occasional mystifying miracle and the odd workable concept. Sure, a few of the games were tolerable (if only barely) when nothing better was available, but even the majority of those were abruptly gutted and rendered obsolete by the subsequent generation's superior products. Indeed, when the slaughter finally commenced, most NES "legends" offered feeble resistance and died quick, bloody deaths.

It was a fitting fate for those pseudo heroes. But a handful of noble stalwarts put up ferocious fights until the tides of Turbo might could no longer be repelled. And those are the carts we will pay homage to today.

Note now that I offer no apologies for the, erm, underrepresentation of these games visually in this article. I have neither the time nor the desire to revisit NES junk these days... even the junk that actually could have been considered good.

In the unlikelihood that I suffer a lapse of sanity so severe that I choose to revive an NES game, chances are quite slim that my selection would be of the hack-and-batter sort. Powering up an NES action-platformer was always akin to begging for trouble, as the general shittiness of 8-bit-era leap-and-swipe controls couldn't possibly be overstated. Yet the system hosted what was truly the original king of the sub-genre, a title that actually thrived on its jump-and-lash gameplay.

Slain by The Legendary Axe

Castlevania caught the eye of many a player with its cast of horror-story-based bosses. Screenshots conveyed the inherent coolness of these creatures but gave little indication of their true ferocity. Scythe-tossing Death routinely massacred even those who were skilled enough to reach him with a triple-shot boomerang in hand, and the incarnation of Count Dracula featured here, a two-form fireball-hurling nightmare, stood as one of the period's stoutest final bosses. Legendary stage stretches preceded the end-level showdowns. You needed cunning and skill to survive the axemen-patrolled corridor of torture and the famous fleamen-infested clock tower. Players were treated to heavenly musical tracks while trekking through monster-laden hallways stocked with concealed treasures. But it was the surprisingly solid gameplay that enabled this pioneering champion to stand proudly alongside the greatest games of its kind.

The Turbo's own hack-and-slash mega-masterpiece, The Legendary Axe, helped itself to basic aspects of the Castlevania play system and added tighter controls and larger, far more impressive creatures to battle--creatures that weren't all painted with the NES' trademark purplish-pink hue. But one of Castlevania's early-days peers experienced better luck than it did in the area of adversary artwork and traveled a more comprehensive route with its elements of adventuring.

Slain by Shape Shifter

Perusal of the game's awesome enemy-illustration-loaded instruction manual sufficed to get plenty of players amped up for the Metroid experience. Indeed, foes like the spiny, hulking Kraid and the relentless, life-sucking Metroids themselves did not disappoint upon being encountered. Protagonist Samus Aran could acquire a variety of cool weapons with which to dispatch the formidable creatures she confronted. The helmeted heroine had to do plenty of poking around in order to find said weapons, however, as the world of Zebes was absolutely enormous; it wasn't uncommon for players to expend hours at a time simply roaming the grounds in search of new items. Some corridors couldn't even be accessed unless Samus made clever use of her weapons and abilities. Exploration runs and experimentation sessions took place amidst a tense climate largely brought about by the game's audio. Most memorable of the aural elements were the spine-chillingly eerie track that permeated Kraid's lair and the creepy, burbly sounds made by the prowling, vicious Metroids.

Despite a shocking post-last-fight twist, Metroid failed to feature the sort of drama prevalent in action-adventure descendent Shape Shifter, and as cool as its creatures were for their day, they were eventually dwarfed by next-era giants. Nonetheless, the game delivered on its promise of atmospheric adventuring, and it wasn't the only successful sci-fi-themed title the NES would see.

Slain by Spriggan

An action-RPG/shooter hybrid for a system that struggled simply to achieve success in any given genre, The Guardian Legend seemed destined to flop from the get-go. Somehow, Compile managed to load it up with enough memorable melodies, interesting weapons, and impressive boss creatures that it wound up being a high-quality product. Its vertically scrolling blast-'em-up segments were surprisingly fast and extremely challenging at times--which is not to say that the strips came close to delivering the sort of chaos found in PCE Compile gems Gunhed and Spriggan, but hey, the "super-powerful" SNES was never able to pull off that level of action either. Labyrinthine subsections asked players to do little more than bust up blocks while hunting for new items and entryways, but they made for simplistic fun and contributed a degree of depth to the affair.

Not all journeys to be taken on the NES were quite as basic in nature. One adventure game in particular was stunningly ambitious.

Slain by Anearth Fantasy Stories

Avatar kicked off with perhaps the most magnificent title-screen tune I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. The track commenced with surprisingly powerful NES-style fanfare and cycled through a number of melodious hooks before returning to its opening bursts (those wanting to hear more were delighted to discover that a gorgeous extended version ran during the end credits). The soundtrack scored another winner with the rich, hope-inspiring Bard's Song. But it was the unusual nature of the adventure itself that made the game so remarkable. Your character class was determined not by a routine series of clicks but by your responses to a soothsayer's ethics-involving queries. Whether you were adjudged a mighty fighter or a humble shepherd, you had to embark on an open-ended quest to become the paradigm of virtue. You were granted the freedom to proceed as you wished, but with that freedom came the constant temptation to cheat, steal, and kill. Avatarhood was within your reach as long as you did right by your fellow men, turned the other cheek when confronted by miscreants, and performed as many charitable deeds as you possibly could. And of course, you had to remember to rid the land of monsters while going about your do-gooder business.

That final element of monster massacring is what ultimately caused Avatar to drag at times. Experience points and gold were rendered superfluities rather early in the quest, meaning most fights were nothing more than time-consuming annoyances--annoyances that could not be fled from lest your character's valor come into question. The PCE's Anearth Fantasy Stories is similar to Avatar in that it begins with an intriguing class-determination exercise and possesses a greater number of distinctive play features than the typical adventure game, but it incorporates aspects of strategy into its battles to keep them interesting for the long haul.

While Avatar succeeded in spite of its scrum-related issues, one NES dungeon crawler actually flourished thanks to its respective combat elements.

Slain by Dragon Knight II

When a buddy and I sat down with S&S for the first time, we were confronted almost at once by a green, odd-looking, ghoulish fellow. This wasn't some meager couple-of-pixels sprite we're talking about here. It was a large, well-rendered, animated creature. And it busted out a switchblade.

"HEY! THOSE ARE ILLEGAL!" my law-abiding chum cried.

I cared not for the legal implications of the action; I was just blown away by the fact that it had happened at all. S&S's creatures were very cool in design and would've impressed even as static entities, but the beasts were constantly in motion, and the animation frames were not put to use merely for mundane events like the wrinkling of a brow or the waving of a sword: one sinister mage's staff actually morphed into a serpent. And it certainly didn't hurt that the music that accompanied the lively fight scenes was quite intense.

S&S fared well even outside of its skirmishes, as its mazes were loaded with neat treasures to happen upon, and up to four players could partake in the looting at once. But there's no doubt that its combat scenes were what truly made it worth checking out. Of course, as cool as its dynamic demons were, they were hardly able to hold a candle to the gorgeous girl-fiends of Dragon Knight II. And when boiled down to their essences, the battles were actually little more than button-mashing festivals. There were other NES games that took more-refined approaches to combat, among which was gaming's finest representation of pugilism.

Slain by Asuka 120%

Memorable design-wise, talkative between rounds, and granted charmingly ridiculous names, Punch-out's caricatural pugs will forever be viewed as the most likable champions of video-game boxing. It was easy to get caught up in the delightful cartoonishness of the whole affair, to root for the small-in-stature-but-large-in-heart hero, to chuckle as his manager bestowed upon him advice riddled with not-so-subtle Nintendo endorsements, and to smile as the two of them hit the streets during Rocky-esque training sequences. But what really made Punch-out special was that it was a truly magnificent test of hand-eye coordination. You could go ahead and grin as King Hippo belched his way to defeat, as Great Tiger performed his ring-around-the-boxing-ring magic act, and as Soda Popinski drank himself into a stupor. But you couldn't expect to get by the likes of Mr. Sandman, Super Macho Man, and Iron Mike himself unless you were willing to work on your timing and develop your skills.

And if you expected much in the way of visual variety, you were setting yourself up for disappointment. As marvelously diverse as the pugilists were, character-model redundancy plagued the proceedings. For super-fast fighting action and lovably quirky combatants sans the "switch a head, swap a palette" shenanigans, PCE fans can turn to the system's own Asuka 120%. But there was one more arcade-style sports game for the NES that actually achieved excellence.

Slain by Final Lap Twin

The original Tecmo Bowl was highly entertaining but is largely looked upon now as a mere preamble for its tremendously successful sequel. TSB retained the fast, amusingly unrealistic action of its predecessor and lopped atop the foundation of fun the entire lineup of at-that-time NFL teams along with their respective rosters and the 1991 league slate. As players delightedly romped through seasons full of utterly ridiculous and insanely enjoyable 70-56 shootouts, the game kept track of an assortment of stats and provided league leader boards for perusal. With the foreknowledge that some would desire a touch of fanciness amid the stat-gazing and touchdown-trading, Tecmo put together lots of brief cinematic sequences to depict important plays and significant events. They didn't skimp when it came to minor graphical elements either: defenders would huff and puff in efforts to catch their breath after an opposing player would dash through their ranks for a score.

Of course, the TG-16 has its own quality sports games that deliver unexpected extras. Final Lap Twin, for instance, offers a full-fledged RPG mode in addition to standard driving competitions. To give some scant credit where some scant credit is due, though, I must note that the NES hosted a great action-adventure game that itself blended a number of styles.

Slain by Blood Gear

Zelda II took on elements typical to traditional-style RPGs (overhead-view overworld exploration, an experience-point-based strengthening system) and merged them with sidescrolling hack-and-slash scenes to produce an interesting and ultimately successful mixture of genre-specific components. Those who had an easy time traipsing to victory in The Legend of Zelda were in for quite a surprise here. The Adventure of Link was a true ball-buster; its enemies, especially the armor-clad Ironknuckles and blade-tossing Bird Knights, were sturdy and relentless. They also often employed chicanery to get the best of you: statues would suddenly come to life and gigantic blobs would drop down from ceilings unexpectedly. Fortunately, Link had developed his sword-wielding skills while on sabbatical, and he was capable here of performing such useful maneuvers as a downward blade thrust. There was room for players to utilize wit and resourcefulness in circumventing challenges (were you at a locked door and out of keys, you could simply transform into a fairy and fly through the keyhole). The labyrinthine palaces were memorable for their haunting music; their devious layouts; and the cool bosses they housed, the coolest of which was Link's shadow come to life (though even that one would hardly stand a chance if pitted against the mechanical heavyweights featured in the PCE's similar-in-play-style Blood Gear).

The Legend of Zelda was quite good in its own right and stood unchallenged for eons as the system's premier adventure game. Then SNK came out of nowhere and unleashed an action-RPG masterpiece of their own that seemed poised to give the old champion a good walloping.

Slain by Ys Book I & II

Crystalis reminded many of the original Zelda with its overhead-view action and focus on maze traversing, but it was superior to its antecedent mechanically, as its hero was speedy and adroit and able to pull off techniques beyond the capabilities of slow-footed Link. The game boasted its own memorable overworld theme and presented players with tasks and puzzles far more interesting than Zelda's "push a block/bomb a wall/burn a tree"-based conundrums. Hitching a ride on a dolphin was a great deal more enjoyable than taking a brief straight-line rafting trip, and the list of diverse incantations the protagonist was capable of casting easily trumped Zelda's one-trick spell book. Also noteworthy was the plot SNK came up with, which went well beyond the usual save-the-princess fare.

Of course, Crystalis had little time to pat itself on the back for boldly butting heads with a classic. It was abruptly mauled by 16-bit adventure games that were able to match it mechanically and provide plot points far more stirring and memorable than its own. Its eventual competition aside, it was ultimately rather irritating, as it forced players to hike through redundant maze stretches, deal with annoying aerial enemies, and switch weapons every few seconds. Still, it's worth remembering and commending for the ways it made adventurers use their noggins to proceed. And it wasn't the only NES game that presented interesting puzzles.

Slain by Mami Inoue

Shadowgate certainly wasn't short on good brainteasers to tax players' minds with, but what really made it so very memorable was its uncanny ability to establish certain effective climates and then successfully diverge from them based on the particular demands of given scenes. It owed its atmospheric flexibility to its incredible soundtrack, which shifted effortlessly from remarkably eerie numbers to exciting themes of adventure. The fact that Castle Shadowgate housed a number of interesting (and often highly dangerous) creatures, including a riddle-posing sphinx and a fang-bearing hellhound, contributed to the journey's general airs of unease and suspense. And as you might expect in a game loaded with tricky puzzles and fearsome beasts, there were numerous ways for your character's quest to come to a rather gruesome end.

The game itself hardly suffered an ignoble fate. It convincingly battered its own Turbo CD successor and, in truth, made mincemeat of all the PCE's point-and-click-based adventures. In fact, some say it still lives on today...

I suppose all of these games live on in a fashion. Honor them as you would a cracked Super CD or a busted TurboChip. That's not to say you should actually play them, of course; let's not get crazy here. In fact, if you really want to be blown away by something from the NES era, you'll have to haul the Sega Master System out of its dusty tomb and play the incredible Phantasy Star. Heck, do that right now and leave this NES stuff where it belongs: in the past.

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