Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!
OCT
16
2017
0

#55 – Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode

Demonstrating that assassins for hire must be versatile to be effective.

The intro screens are even better than this title screen.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 7/24/17 – 7/27/17
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
Video: Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode Longplay

When I was a kid, I would read whatever gaming magazine or tip guide I could get my hands on. Golgo 13 was a game that would show up often and it always looked like a fascinating game, but maybe too advanced for my age. Later, when I got a copy to try, I didn’t really give it much of a chance. I wrote it off as not my style of game, and I don’t think I was ready for it anyway. Now I’m old enough to give it a fair shake. Golgo 13 is rough around the edges, but it turned out to be a fun game with significant variety.

Golgo 13 is a Japanese manga series written by Takao Saito. It centers around the assassin for hire Golgo 13, who is also known by his pseudonym Duke Togo. The manga began in October 1968 and it is still an ongoing series nearly 50 years later. The series has expanded into various other forms of media, such as a live-action movie, two animated movies, an animated TV series, and several video games.

Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode is an NES game released in North America in September 1988. It was published and developed by Vic Tokai. It is both the first NES game published by Vic Tokai as well as the first Vic Tokai game I have played for this project. The Famicom version of the game is the original version, released in March 1988. In Japan, it was named Golgo 13: Dai 1 Shou: Kamigami no Tasogare. There is also a sequel on the NES named The Mafat Conspiracy, which I will cover in the future.

You might as well just fire away.

Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode is an espionage action game. You play the role of Golgo 13 who is framed for the explosion of a helicopter containing a biological weapon named Cassandra-G. A vaccine and plans for Cassandra-G were taken from the wreckage and Golgo 13 is blamed for the whole thing. An international organization named FIXER believes that the DREK empire is ultimately responsible for the event. The FIXER group recruits Golgo 13 to investigate a lead on recovering the vaccine, eventually leading him to assassinate the leader of DREK.

This game takes on several play styles that appear as needed through the course of the game. The first of these is the horizontal side-scrolling mode where you directly control Golgo 13. Here you use the D-Pad to walk left and right. You may encounter people on the streets. Some pass by, some will talk to you, and others are enemy agents that will shoot at you. Contrary to most action platformers, you use the B button to jump and the A button to attack. At first you don’t have any weaponry, so A deploys a jump kick instead. After defeating an enemy, you will acquire bullets and you shoot them with A instead of kicking. You can kick by pressing A while jumping, or you can shoot with A by standing on the ground. You can also press Up to either enter doorways or progress to other areas you see in the background.

In all play modes, on the top left of the screen you will see two displays. The first is labelled L and this is your health meter. You begin with the maximum 200 health that dwindles away like a slow timer. You also lose health when you take damage from enemies. The second display is noted with the letter B and this indicates how many bullets you have. For every enemy you defeat, you automatically gain both health and bullets. How much you recover differs by enemy. You can hold as many as 400 bullets so you are encouraged to shoot everything.

This first-person mode shows up all the time in Golgo 13.

As you move around in most modes, sometimes a gun will rise from the bottom of the screen or an explosion will appear in front of you. This engages the play mode called pan and zoom. In this mode, the action switches to a first-person perspective and you control a crosshair. Use the D-Pad to move the crosshair in all eight directions and press A to shoot. The screen scrolling loops all the way around to the left and right, and also scrolls partway upward. At the bottom of the screen, you see an indicator showing one or more enemy types and how many of each enemy type there are. You must defeat them all to continue play in the prior mode. There is also a meter that shows which compass direction you are aiming. When there is only one enemy remaining, arrows are shown indicating the direction of the final enemy threat. Some enemies will appear for a brief time and fly off in the distance, and others stay on and keep attacking. Some enemies fire missiles at you that you can shoot before they hit you. They do a lot of damage so it is best to shoot them first if you can.

Another recurring feature in Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode are the cutscenes. You find these when you enter certain locations. They always begin with a close-up of Golgo 13 facing the screen. Press A and he will turn toward the background. If no one is there, play goes back to the previous screen. Otherwise a person will walk up and start talking to you. At the end of each text block you are prompted to press either A or B. The prompt for A means press A to advance to the next block of text. The prompt for B indicates the end of the cutscene, so pressing B will return you to the action.

Golgo 13 also gets to assume control of a helicopter, and this play mode is like a horizontal scrolling shooter. In these sections, you automatically scroll to the right with the goal of surviving until the end of the scene. You can move the helicopter in all eight directions with the D-pad. The helicopter moves faster going left or down and slower going right or up. Press A to shoot the gun. Like Golgo 13’s pistol, it only shoots a single shot straight ahead, but here you can rapid fire many shots quickly.

Golgo 13 is also a professional scuba diver, evidently.

Another play style appears in the underwater sections. Golgo 13 takes to the water with scuba gear and is armed only with a spear gun. Use the D-pad to swim in all eight directions and press A to fire spears. Golgo 13’s sprite changes significantly between swimming horizontally and swimming vertically. This is important when guiding him through narrow passages. It is also important in that Golgo 13 can only fire spears when swimming horizontally. You can fire either to the left or right. Here there are other enemies with scuba gear as well as aquatic creatures to fend off. Mines are a recurring nuisance that bob up and down underwater. They cannot be destroyed and they do heavy damage if you touch one. There are also plants that look harmless but actually damage you on contact.

Finally, perhaps the most involved play style of any in the entire game is the action maze. This play mode takes place from a first-person perspective and you explore a series of corridors. Most areas like this have multiple branching paths like an actual maze but some are more linear. You navigate the maze step by step. Every time you either take a step forward or switch direction, the screen goes blank very briefly before displaying the new location. This is a bit jarring when moving quickly through the maze, but under the restrictions of the NES it’s about the only way to do it quickly. Since every step is deliberate it helps you plot your course more accurately.

You will use the D-pad to move through the maze. Press Up to advance one step forward. Pressing either Left or Right will turn you in place. Pressing Down will let you face directly behind you also keeping you in place. Up is the only button that moves you to a different square in the maze. There is a compass along the bottom of the screen indicating which direction you are facing. This is invaluable to let you map your way accurately through the maze.

Enemies appear suddenly, but they are easy to dispatch.

The mazes have enemies. As you perform movements, sometimes an enemy soldier will be standing in front of you. Press A to bring up a crosshair. There are only three positions you can aim, either in the middle, to the left, or to the right. Use the D-pad to choose one of these locations and press A to shoot. You have to be quick to take out a soldier when you see one or you will take some damage. Many enemies will leave behind a grenade that you will pick up automatically. You can hold up to three of them and they are displayed at the bottom of the screen. They are not used for attacking like you might think. I will explain what the grenades do shortly.

Mazes can be complicated to navigate for several reasons. There are multiple doors that appear in the maze. Just walk into them to move to the room behind them. I had a hard time keeping my bearings after moving through doors while trying to go without a map. There are also ladders. Yes, the mazes can have multiple floors. Each level of the maze is in a different color to help distinguish them and you use the ladders to switch between floors. Sometimes when taking a step, a wall will appear right in front of you. If you have a grenade, you can throw it near the wall to break a hole through it allowing you to pass. The worst aspect is the trap door. Some squares of the maze will reveal a trap door and you fall to the floor below. Typically, the top floor holds what you are looking for within the maze, so falling always represents a step backward.

Contrary to the other modes, there are some pickups in the maze. You can find a life potion that fills your health and an ammo box that replenishes your ammo. You can find a key that lets you unlock a locked door. All doors look the same and a blinking key icon is displayed at the bottom of the screen if you are trying to go through a locked door without the key. There is a set of infrared goggles needed to go past the laser walls. This is yet another obstacle you will encounter within the maze. If you are equipped with the goggles, you can see the lasers beaming down. You can try to walk through the laser wall without the goggles if you wish, but you will suffer heavy damage by doing so. With the goggles and proper timing, you can pass through unscathed. I found the timing tricky to master and there is little room for error.

The lasers deploy randomly, so you need good reflexes and timing.

You can continue playing if you die in this game, and Golgo 13 has an interesting way of representing the continue system. Each life for Golgo 13 is represented as an episode of a TV series. On the title screen, there is a #1 written on the left at the start of the game. If you die, you get a screen saying “To Be Continued…” instead of the traditional Game Over screen. You go back to the title screen and now you see #2 meaning Episode 2. You can keep continuing all the way to #52, but if you die there you must start the entire game over.

Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode is a long game. Naturally, there are 13 acts in the adventure. Some of them go by quickly, and others, like the ones with mazes, last a long time. There are no passwords and no saving in the game, and you are left at the mercy of the continue system. Completing Golgo 13 is more than just an endurance test; it has some challenging moments that take learning and practice.

This was my first time playing Golgo 13. It’s a common cart and one I picked up early on during one of my waves of collecting. With cart in hand, I remembered my impressions of the games from those old magazines. When I finally got to try it out, I was less than impressed with the first few minutes of the game. I would not have sat down and tried to get into it had I not started this project.

What doesn’t Golgo 13 do?

Golgo 13 started to impress me the more I played it. The first scene has you walking on the streets of Berlin. I thought the first-person shooting segments were a neat diversion. Soon you play a helicopter portion, and I had no idea that Golgo 13 had shooter sections. Each mode is a little bit clunky in its own way, but the game does a noble job of including several variants of game play. It’s a surprisingly deep game for the NES in 1988.

The manual is invaluable for this game because it contains maps of the mazes. Only the basic layouts are included, but all you need is a few missing details you can fill in yourself and you have a complete map. I got stuck in a maze on my first time playing, and I come to find out that it’s meant to be a fake base that is not necessary at all. If I had read the manual first more clearly, I would have known that.

One night I ended up with a lot of free time and I was able to complete the entire game with some continues to spare. It took me around three and a half hours to beat Golgo 13 on that playthrough. I didn’t think I’d be able to beat the game that night so I didn’t have any of my recording equipment set up. I had to play through the entire game again the next night to get it captured. It took me half the time to beat the game a second time with many fewer deaths. I’m satisfied with that result from only playing the game for a few days total.

Suggestive content was toned down for the US release.

Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode had some content censored for the US version. The most significant change is that the Japanese version features brief nudity. In an early scene of the game, Golgo 13 meets with a female agent in a hotel room and at the end she sheds her clothes. In the US version, the scene cuts away to an outside view of the hotel where you can see the two characters get close and the lights go down. Golgo 13 then has his life refilled to the max, which clearly suggests what they were up to.

There are a few other things included in the NES game that the censors missed. Some of the enemies in the mazes briefly show bleeding when they are shot. In one act, Golgo 13 can find a pack of cigarettes on the ground and he helps himself to a life-refilling smoke. There is also a stray swastika that should have been removed. My guess is that since these events are deeper in the game, the censors didn’t play long enough to notice them.

There are many things happening in Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode that are worthwhile, but sadly the game suffers from a lack of polish. The hit detection is off in several places, such as when landing jump kicks or shooting targets in the first-person mode. The jumping is a little too slow and his jump arc doesn’t feel right. Enemies attack faster and with more complex patterns than you, causing frustration. You can shoot bullets right through enemies in the helicopter, which makes it appear you are not doing damage when you actually are. Now the graphics, music, and presentation are overall good, especially considering the age of this game, and there is a deep story with many different characters. Kudos to Vic Tokai for making a huge game with so many different play modes that all play well enough. For that, I can look past these issues and say that I enjoyed Golgo 13.

#55 – Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode

 
OCT
09
2017
0

#54 – Championship Bowling

The lone NES bowling title gave me more than I bargained for.

A cute penguin also runs across this screen!

To Beat: Score 250 or higher
To Complete: Bowl a Perfect Game of 300
What I Did: Completed the Game
Played: 7/12/17 – 7/17/17
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
Video: Championship Bowling Perfect Game

Have you ever played a game expecting one thing and then got something significantly different? I have experienced that a little bit in this project so far. Take The Immortal as an example. I expected an adventure game with puzzles, but I wasn’t anticipating combat resembling Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! at all. Championship Bowling is clearly a simple bowling game, but as I sought the highest score it morphed into a puzzle game, requiring me to look for patterns and techniques to crack its code.

Championship Bowling was released on the NES in December 1989. It was published by Romstar and developed by Another Ltd. The Black Bass is the only other NES release developed by Another, though they did release a couple of adventure games on the Famicom in their brief history. This was the second game published by Romstar on the NES, just a couple of months after Twin Eagle. Championship Bowling was also released on Famicom in 1991, published there by Athena. It is the only bowling game on the NES.

Championship Bowling emulates a standard, regulation round of bowling. There are ten frames each consisting of ten pins arranged in a triangle, and the object of the game is to roll the bowling ball down the lane trying to knock down as many pins as possible. You get two throws per frame unless you get a strike by knocking them all down on the first throw. Strikes are the way to get the best scores, but you can do well by picking up the spare on the second throw. After the 10th frame is completed, the game is over. You can see your score, high scores, and choose to play another round if you wish.

At the title screen, you can choose the number of players and which bowling lane you want. Championship Bowling supports up to four players! You can also choose from five different lanes. Each one has a different color scheme in game as well as unique effects on the ball path such as speed and curve of the ball. You press Left or Right to change the number of players, and press Up or Down to choose the lane. Then press Start to advance to the character selection screen.

There’s a good selection of options.

On the next screen, each player makes further selections. You can choose from one of four bowlers and each one has some slight differences in gameplay. Use the D-Pad to highlight the desired bowler and press A. Then enter in your initials. Press Up or Down to cycle through letters and press A to choose each initial. Finally, choose which bowling ball you want. You can pick a 7 pound, 9 pound, 11 pound, 13 pound, or 15 pound ball. Again, each ball handles a bit differently and each one is a different color. One weird thing here is if you play multiplayer, Championship Bowling requires two controllers. Odd numbered players use controller 1 and even numbered players use controller 2. One controller is all you really need since play is alternating, so this is a strange choice. Once all players make their selections then it’s time to bowl!

At the start of each frame, your player stands at the bottom of the screen. Use Left or Right to set where you want your bowler to stand, then press A. Next, the Control meter on the left will show a ball automatically moving in a half-circle arc. This determines the kind of spin placed on the ball. You must press the A button with good timing to get the spin you want. After spin is chosen, then the power meter bar quickly moves up and down. This determines how hard you throw the ball, and like the Control meter this also requires good timing with the A button. After all that, the bowler will go ahead with those selections and throw the ball. If you bowl a strike, you get a little celebration and play moves on to the next player or next frame in single player. Otherwise, you get a second throw to try and clean up the remaining pins.

There is some other useful information on this screen. You can see the high score in the upper-left which defaults to 200. The lower left shows which player is bowling, the current frame, and the scoring for this frame. On the right side, you see a top down view of the lane which is useful for lining up shots. Above the pins is a display that lights up the number of each remaining pin after the first throw, just like something you would see on the display at a real bowling alley. Additionally, before you start your timing selections, you can press B to see the scorecard for your entire round thus far.

After everyone has finished bowling, you are taken to the high score screen. Initials and score are added for every player that scores well enough to place on the board. There are trophies displayed here with scores underneath them that suggest you should be aiming for those scores. When you are finished, you go back to the title screen. Championship Bowling is a simple, straightforward experience.

Here you line up your shot and time the meters.

I think this is my first time playing through Championship Bowling. I have cleaned and tested every cart in my collection, and it’s possible that I played a whole round when I tested this game. This was definitely my first time playing this game seriously. It’s a common cart and I don’t recall when I bought the game. I know I have picked up some in game lots over the years so that’s likely where my copy came from.

The manual has a topic about getting the perfect strike, and the idea proposed there is the same as actual bowling. You want to aim the ball between the front pin and either one of the pins in the second row. Not only that, but you also want to hook the ball between those two pins to get the best possible pin action and best chance to get a strike. In the game, you want to do the same thing. Position your bowler to the right of the pins and curve the ball to the left. (Do the opposite if the bowler is left handed.) With the right positioning, angle, and power, you can hit the sweet spot and get a strike most of the time. I say most of the time because the same shot doesn’t always work.

I mentioned the trophies on the high score screen. The lowest one reads 250 points, then 275, and lastly the perfect 300. Championship Bowling has three different ending screens for meeting each one of those thresholds. The way the scoring system works, you must score several strikes in a row to best increase your score. I was able to find the sweet spot that gives me a strike most of the time, and then I was able to pick up the spare on the frames where pins were remaining. It took many games to find this spot as well as home in on the timing to hit it every time. After playing for some time, I could play a round that let me have enough consecutive strikes to score well within the 250s. That was good enough to get one of the endings and consider the game beaten, but that wasn’t good enough for me.

This was the point where the game turned into this larger puzzle of how to narrow down my options and sequence the events to bowl a perfect 300, and I’m proud to report that I achieved it. I have bowled at least five perfect games with my strategy and it does seem to be consistent. So now I will reveal the ultimate strategy for the perfect game in Championship Bowling. This is the official spoiler alert. You can jump down to the closing paragraph now if you want this game to remain shrouded in mystery.

Strikes are very exciting!

There really are many variables at play here that can change everything, and I narrowed some of them down pretty quickly. I tried just about every position, angle, and speed. Before bowling even begins, I tried all the different lanes, all the different characters, and all the different balls. Right away I put a focus on powerful shots, and in turn I could eliminate three of the five lanes that slow the ball down considerably. Lane 1 is the right lane for this strategy. I also knew a strong hook was important, so I read the manual and it says the upper-right character has the best hook. It’s tough to tell, but I believe the characters do have minute differences and so I stuck with that character. This is the base that I started with.

My next discovery was the semi-consistent strike shot. There are lane markings shaped like triangles arranged in an upside-down ‘V’ pattern. You want to position your bowler to the left of the second lane marker from the right so that the right side of his head is just barely to the left of that lane marker. For the spin control, you want to stop the cursor on the far bottom-left. For the power, you want the bar all the way to the top, or one notch below full power also works. The best ball for this is the 13 pound ball. This exact shot with this ball is 100% effective for the first three frames, while any other sized ball has a small chance of failure.

The fourth frame is where this strategy falls apart. Using my shot technique here causes the ball to hook more sharply, leading to missed pins. To make matters worse, sometimes the game waits until the fifth, sixth, or seventh frame to start missing. Now somewhere around here I did figure out another shot variation that gives occasional strikes, and that’s good and important, but I still have the problem of not knowing when I can deploy this other weapon. This leads to my next discovery. The longer you play, the more randomized the game becomes. I got into the habit of hitting the reset button when I missed a strike to start over and eventually I realized that puts the game into a slightly different state than starting from power on. Once I resorted to shutting my NES off and turning it back on for each new game, I began to get consistent results! Now I could put everything together and get the perfect game I’ve been working toward!

Oooh, I wonder what my prize is!

Here is the complete strategy. Choose Lane 1 and the upper-right bowler. Choose whatever initials you want and select the 13 pound ball. There are only two shots you need to learn. The first shot is the same one I covered above. Position your bowler so that the right side of his head lines up with the left side of the second lane marking from the right. Angle the ball as far left as possible, and go for either full power or one notch below full. Let’s call this Shot A. The other shot I will call Shot B, and it is nearly identical to Shot A. You want the same lane positioning and the same power for both shots, however the angle for Shot B is at a 45-degree angle on the left. Use Shot A on frames 1, 2, 3, and 5, and use Shot B for all remaining frames. If you mess up Shot A a little bit, there’s a chance you can still get a strike. However, you need to be precise on each Shot B or you won’t get a strike. It took me a long time to figure this out because Shot A magically becomes effective again once you make a mistake, so I was led down the wrong path of using it way more often than I should.

I recorded video of bowling the 300 game, but Championship Bowling had one final, bizarre trick up its sleeve. I had been playing the game on my CRT with my AV-modded top-loading NES that I use for quick games or testing carts, but I record gameplay using my flat screen TV and the AVS system. There was a bit of a timing difference that I eventually got used to, but it turns out that my shot sequence above fails on the fifth frame while using the AVS. I suspect that the starting states of the top-loading NES and AVS are not exactly the same. Like I said, it’s completely strange and unexpected. While playing from a fresh boot of the AVS, I needed to use Shot A on frames 1, 2, 3, and 6 while using Shot B on the others. It’s just swapping shots on frames 5 and 6. That sequence is what I recorded in the video. Perhaps different consoles or emulators have a different shot sequence.

For not having any other NES releases to compare it to, Championship Bowling stands on its own anyway as a solid bowling game. The game has good controls and even though it only has as a few songs and melodies, they are catchy and well done. The graphics are nice and clear, although some lanes had poor color choices for the power meter making it hard to see. Each bowler has several frames of throwing animation and the pin action is pretty good considering what the NES is capable of. I’m also thankful the game is not completely random or otherwise I would have given up by now. It’s far from flashy, and the experience wears off quickly, but Championship Bowling is a capable NES game disguised as a surprise puzzler.

#54 – Championship Bowling

 
OCT
02
2017
0

#53 – American Gladiators

You can sort of get the experience with this lovely home version!

A contestant runs around the copyright page before the title.

To Beat: Reach the Ending
Played: 6/26/17 – 7/2/17
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 6/10
Video: American Gladiators Playthrough

It wasn’t too long ago that I wrote about Rollergames, and today we have another game based on a 90’s TV show that is right out of the same mold. They were both live-action shows that ran on TV at the same time. Both shows received an NES game to piggyback off the hype. Also, although American Gladiators on NES does a little better in this regard, both NES games deviate somewhat from the source material.

American Gladiators is a US TV show that aired in syndication from 1989 to 1996. It pits two men and also two women against each other in several events culminating in a final obstacle course called the Eliminator. All the events involved the Gladiators, who are recurring athletes that have their own roles in the events to prevent the contestants from scoring. The show eventually featured many different events that came and went through the run of the show, and each episode consisted of different combinations of events. Later, there was a remake of American Gladiators that ran for two seasons, both in 2008.

I’m genuinely disturbed by the concept of lives here.

American Gladiators on NES was released in October 1991 only in the US. It was published by Gametek and developed by Incredible Technologies. This game resembles the show but does not follow its format. There is a different American Gladiators game that is much more faithful to the show. That version was developed by Imagitec Design Inc and also published by Gametek on the Sega Genesis, DOS, and Amiga in 1992. The SNES port was released in 1993.

Similar to the TV show, in the NES game you have to compete in five different events which are modified versions of specific games that appeared on the show. You have to clear all five events within so many “lives.” The events are Joust, The Wall, Human Cannonball, Powerball, and Assault. Once you clear all five events, the game advances to the next level where you get a more challenging set of these same five events. In all, you must clear four different difficulty levels of five events each before moving on to the final event, the Eliminator. If you can clear the Eliminator, then you win the game.

Let’s look at each event. First I will explain how the event is played on the show, and then I will describe how it was converted to the NES game.

Stick and move.

In Joust, a contestant and a gladiator attempt to knock each other off a raised platform with pugel sticks. In the NES version of Joust, you square off against four gladiators one at a time instead of just the single battle featured in the show. During a face-off, you can move around a bit on the platform by tapping Left or Right on the D-Pad. Press A to thrust your pugel stick at the gladiator. You can press B to thrust too but this will also inch you a step toward the gladiator. Just pressing A or B does a middle thrust, and you can also do a high thrust by holding Up or a low thrust by holding Down when you strike. You can also block by holding Left and pressing either A or B. You exchange blows with the gladiator until you knock him off the platform. Then the event briefly switches to a platformer as you must move forward jumping from platform to platform to engage the next gladiator. After you win the third fight, a super pugel stick will fly into play. If you grab it your stick will light up, then if you can land a first strike on the gladiator you will knock him off instantly. If you get hit first then you lose the super pugel stick, so make it count! If you get knocked off or fall off at any time, you lose a life.

Tap it out while making quick decisions.

In The Wall, two contestants race up a climbing wall. After a few seconds, the Gladiators will pursue the contestants attempting to pull them off the wall, preventing them from reaching the top and scoring points. In the NES event, your goal is also to climb to the top of the wall, but this time there are several gladiators that appear at various locations along the wall that you must avoid. The controls for this event are tricky and unlike anything else I’ve ever played. The idea is that the B button moves your left hand and the A button moves your right hand. You combine this button press with a direction to move that hand in all eight directions. There are handholds covering most of the wall and as long as you have at least one hand on one you will stay on the wall. The consequence of this control scheme is that you need to tap buttons quickly to move fast. For instance, to move straight up, you must rapidly alternate between pressing A and B while holding Up. It takes practice to get the hang of it. You can find a glove on the wall that lets you move very fast with just the D-Pad instead of having to tap out A and B, but it only lasts for a few seconds. Each of the four levels is a completely different layout on the wall, and you need to have mastered the control scheme to clear the last wall. If you lose the grip on both hands, or you come in contact with one of the gladiators, then you fall down and lose a life. Plus, you have to start at the very bottom of The Wall.

He doesn’t stand a chance.

The Human Cannonball event begins with a gladiator standing on a small elevated platform holding a foam pad for protection. The contestants swing on a rope from their own platform and try to knock the gladiator down to score points. The NES event requires you to jump from your platform, grab the swinging rope, and then let go at the right time to knock the gladiator down. Like Joust, there is a series of four gladiators that you knock down to finish the event. Both the starting platform and the gladiator’s platform move up and down, making the timing more difficult. At the start, you can walk left or right a bit on the platform, and then press A to jump toward the rope. If you grab onto it, then you automatically swing back and forth and you must press A again to let go and launch yourself. In some levels, during the third gladiator a glove will fly into play, and if you grab it you can move up and down the rope. Normally where you first grab the rope is where you stay until you jump off. The glove comes in handy on the fourth gladiator because there can be a trophy at the top of the rope that gives you an extra life. In this event, it is very easy to lose lives. You can fall off the platform, miss the jump to the rope, miss the gladiator on the launch, or hit the gladiator when he is blocking.

Always score in the center when it is clear.

In Powerball, there are bins filled with balls on both ends of the playfield, and there are five empty pods guarded by three gladiators. Both contestants play simultaneously by taking a ball and putting it into the pods, if they can get by the gladiators to do so. The players must cross to the opposite end before grabbing a new ball, and the object is to score as many points as possible within a time limit. The NES version of Powerball is mostly faithful to the original event. You grab a ball at either end of the playfield with either A or B. Then you have to run around the gladiators and place the ball into the pod by standing next to it and pressing the button. Just like on the show you must cross to the opposite side to grab a new ball. The difference in the NES game is that you are only allowed to put one ball in each pod. If you score on all five pods, you are awarded an extra life as well as free up all the pods so you can continue scoring anew. If a gladiator touches you, he always knocks the ball out of your hand and you have to go get a new one. This is the only event where you don’t lose a life. Just score as much as you can before the timer runs out!

Weird gladiator scrolling, but a fun game mode at least.

The Assault features a gladiator manning a tennis ball cannon, and there is a target on the wall behind him. The contestants run through the playfield dodging the fired tennis balls and reaching the safe spots. Each safe spot has a weapon used to hit the target. The contestant wins if they hit the target or reach the end of the course before time runs out, and they lose if the gladiator hits them with a tennis ball. The NES version of the game plays a bit differently. The gladiator moves back and forth at the top of the screen with the cannon no matter where you are in the course. You scroll the playfield upward and seek out weapons near a safe spot. Neither you nor the gladiator can shoot through barriers on the field. Grab a weapon by standing on the weapon icon and pressing B, then press A to launch a shot upward. Each icon gives you three shots. The gladiator will fall if you shoot him enough times, and you lose a life if he hits you three times. Alternatively, you clear the event if you reach the top of the course before time runs out. This is the only event that you can lose if the timer expires.

Platforming with random projectiles!

Once you clear all 20 events, then you begin the Eliminator. This is a long, slowly scrolling platforming level essentially. You start out by hopping between balance beams with the A button and advancing to the right. During the event, medicine balls will spray out from the bottom of the screen randomly. If they hit you then you fall, but you can save yourself by pressing Down to duck in time and shield yourself from the hit. Be careful when jumping as you can’t block hits. Eventually you come to the hand bike. Press Left or Right to move along the rail and dodge the balls. Past the hand bike are conveyor belts, and then after that is another hand bike section. Finally, the balls go away and you take a series of zip lines to the end of the course. You must time your jump off each zip line to grab the next one. If you get all the way to the end, congratulations!

Finally, here is some miscellany about American Gladiators. Across all events, there is a scoring system in place. You typically earn points by either getting past a gladiator or redeeming each second left on the timer at the end of the event. Once you clear a level of five events, you get 100 points as well as an extra life for the next level. You can also earn a continue by clearing either Level 1 or 2. When you lose all your lives, you get a password, provided you have already cleared Level 1. The password is eight characters long and the only characters are A and B. You enter the password by pressing the corresponding button, which is super convenient. There are only three passwords, one for each level from two to four. Lastly, the game features a two-player mode, but it is alternating play so it isn’t that useful.

This was my first time playing American Gladiators. I have owned the game since childhood and probably got it from a yard sale. It only took one try playing it to discover I wasn’t all that interested in the gameplay. I’m not sure why that was because I enjoyed watching the TV show on cable whenever I saw it was on, and I played NES often as a kid. I’m glad I’m doing this completion project because it gives me the motivation to play through games such as American Gladiators that I’ve owned for over half my life.

This guy is super tough for some reason.

It took me three or four days over a week to solve American Gladiators. Initially I found Powerball to be the easiest event because I always filled up the pods, only to find out later that it truly is the easiest one since you cannot lose regardless. Assault was the next easiest game for me because I am good at dodging, although that was tested during the final level. The Wall tends to be difficult for people due to the weird, exhausting controls, but I took to it quite well. Joust was the event that gave me so much trouble until I figured out how it worked. Human Cannonball to my surprise ended up being the most difficult event as the later levels had me almost pulling my hair out.

Once I got all those games figured out, it was time for the Eliminator. This event was challenging, but it was even harder to learn because I could only use what lives I had remaining after clearing all the Level 4 events. The best shot I had at the Eliminator came from playing the game from the start and accumulating as many lives as possible along the way. I had a few runs that I almost completed before recording anything, and once I sat down to record I ended up completing the game for the first time. I even beat it without continues. I had close to ten lives starting the Eliminator but I used nearly all of them up to beat it.

You really need to master the controls to solve this one.

Here are some pointers for a few of the events that tripped me up in the game. Spoilers apply here, so if you want to try the game yourself and keep your experience pure, now is the time to look away! As I mentioned earlier, Joust was my first major hang up. That was because I was playing it wrong. The opponents also strike with low, medium, and high thrusts, and you can counter each one. You counter a low strike with a medium one, a medium strike with a high one, and a high strike with a low one. The gladiators also strike in a pattern that loops, so once you see it you can predict and counter every hit. If you are fast and don’t know the pattern, you can also counter by observing his strike and attacking quickly. Moving on to the Human Cannonball event, there are a few gladiators that seem impossible to knock down because they always block you. The only way I figured out how to get past them is to swing on the rope back and forth a few times before launching yourself. In other words, if they block on your first swing, try knocking them down on your second swing. You can stay on the rope for as long as you like once you grab on. I won’t tell you which gladiators or how many swings you need to wait. If you need to know, you can see my strategy in the longplay video. Finally, a couple of basic tips for The Wall. Make sure to spend some time in a clear space learning how to move in all directions. Take it slow. This becomes very important in later levels where each incremental movement is critical. Also, it is best to set the controller in your lap and use your pointer and middle fingers to tap out the A and B buttons. The game manual recommends this since you can move around on The Wall much quicker and with less fatigue in your hand.

I’ll say that American Gladiators is an interesting NES game, but I don’t know that I would recommend playing it. It’s a novelty to see how they adapted the show into an NES game, but it’s not quite reminiscent of the show enough to invoke the nostalgia factor. The music is fine, but nothing special, and notably the iconic theme song is not in this game at all. If it is, then it wasn’t recognizable enough for me to notice it. The graphics are decent and every important element is clearly defined. It’s a mish-mash of a game. I had fun with it, but of course I always say that.

#53 – American Gladiators