Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!
JAN
04
2018
0

#62 – Tiger-Heli

Another day, another overthrown terrorist regime.

The long gray screen before the title just screams quality.

To Beat: Finish Level 4
To Complete: Beat three loops
What I Did: Beat two loops
Played: 10/19/17 – 10/20/17
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
Video: Tiger-Heli Longplay

I have seen so many copies of Tiger-Heli in my life. It seems like every time I have seen someone’s NES collection, there is Tiger-Heli. Okay, maybe in a more curated collection you won’t see it, but as far as random NES games go it might as well be ubiquitous. I really wonder why there are so many copies of this game around. It’s not a flashy title, and not one that everyone has fond memories of. Maybe I am seeing the same set of copies passed around all the time. I will get to the bottom of it and see how Tiger-Heli plays on the NES. Then maybe these answers and more will be revealed!

Tiger-Heli was first released in arcades in 1985. The game was developed by Toaplan and published by Taito. In December 1986, the game was ported to Famicom. This port was developed by Micronics and published by Pony Canyon. The NES version came in September 1987 and was published in North America by Acclaim Entertainment. The NES box and manual also point to Taito, though they were not involved with the NES version. The European version of Tiger-Heli was delayed until early 1990. A spiritual sequel, Twin Cobra, was released in the arcades in 1987 and on the NES in 1990, and Twin Cobra II is its direct sequel that came out in arcades in 1996. That same year, both Tiger-Heli and Twin Cobra were released on a single disk for Playstation in Japan only named Toaplan Shooting Battle 1.

Tiger-Heli is a vertical scrolling shooter where you take control of an advanced “jetcopter” of the same name. This game has a typical shooter plot of one man attempting to defeat a terrorist regime. This time it is the fictitious country of Cantun with designs of taking over the world. The Tiger-Heli was specifically constructed as the ultimate stealth helicopter and is the only attack vessel that can sneak in to Cantun and destroy everything. The game takes place over four levels and if you can survive that long you have beaten Tiger-Heli.

Everyone remembers blowing up the houses just for fun.

The controls are simple. Use the D-pad to move Tiger-Heli in all eight directions. The B button fires missiles which are your standard unlimited weapon. Each shot is four tiny missiles wide and they only travel about half the height of the screen, but you can fire several shots at one time. The A button drops bombs which deal splash damage to a large area below Tiger-Heli. You can only hold two bombs at once and you can see them flanked on either side of your helicopter. If an enemy bullet hits a bomb, it will deploy automatically. This acts as a shield and it is typically worth the cost of a lost bomb. On screen, you see your score at the top, your remaining lives on the lower-left, and the number of bonus blocks you have destroyed on the lower-right. You begin the game with two extra lives and both bombs.

There are crosses on the ground that give you powerups when destroyed. They cycle between three different colors and the color determines what you get. Destroying either a red or gray cross generates a support helicopter at the top of the screen that drifts down slowly. Pick this up and now you have a small helicopter on your left that gives you extra firepower. The red support copter shoots to the side and the gray one fires straight ahead. You can collect a second one that flies to your right for triple firepower, and you can have both a red and a gray one at the same time. Support copters can be destroyed by enemy bullets, so you have to manage having a much larger hitbox to maintain full power. The green crosses generate a B powerup that restores a bomb when it’s collected. Acquiring another support helicopter or bomb when you are maxed out gives you bonus points.

A one-man wrecking crew!

There are also red bonus blocks in the stages. These are red diamonds that fade in and out and you can shoot them when they are visible. They give you points and add to the counter at the bottom. After you destroy ten bonus blocks you get an extra life. You also earn extra lives by reaching score milestones. You get your first extra life by reaching 20,000 points, and then you earn another life for every additional 80,000 points after that.

Enemies in the game are turrets, tanks, and boats. Turrets don’t move, tanks may or may not move, and boats always move. What they all have in common is their firing capability. Each enemy shoots at a steady pace and can only fire in eight directions. There is also a large tank that takes many bullets to destroy, and you get points for each shot landed so you can really rack up the score. There are many types of non-violent structures that you can blow up for points just because, such as cars, buildings, train cars, etc.

There are four levels in Tiger-Heli, and each one ends by landing automatically on a helipad. Here you are awarded 5000 bonus points for each support helicopter and bomb you have. At the start of the next stage, you get your bombs replenished. You also get your bombs back after you take a death. Sadly, there is no ending to the game and you may keep looping over the game until you lose all your lives. Just like with Sky Shark, loops begin at Stage 2.

Shoot the red blocks to help gain extra lives.

This was my first time trying to beat Tiger-Heli. I was one of those weird kids that did not own a copy of the game until adulthood. I had friends who owned the game and I did get to play it some, but it wasn’t a game that we played very much. I was familiar with the first stage or so, but that’s all.

I had some free time after lunch one day and decided to try out Tiger-Heli just to see what I was up against. Turns out that wasn’t much, for I beat all four levels on my first try. I don’t think Tiger-Heli is exactly an easy game, but I picked up on it quickly. The next day I played a practice run, and then right after that I recorded my video. On the practice run I reached the beginning of the third loop, but I didn’t quite make it that far on video. The first loop is not that bad, but the difficulty picks up fast the second time around. The enemy’s rate of fire is much faster and therefore it is harder to avoid bullets and line up a shot. The little bit I played of the third loop was even faster. I suspect the third loop is the difficulty cap and if you can complete that you have mastered Tiger-Heli. I could have pushed myself to beat that third loop, but I’m satisfied with completing two loops and moving on to the next game on my enormous list.

The basic strategy for Tiger-Heli takes advantage of the enemies’ poor aiming capabilities. Enemies fire toward you but only in eight directions, so the idea is to sit inside the areas where they are unable to hurt you. Once they fire and miss, you then have a brief window to line up and destroy them. I found the red support helicopters quite useful because they fire sideways and then you can approach the bad guys from either the sides or below. The quicker you can take out enemies, the easier time you have dodging other attacks.

The game is very flickery and it’s virtually impossible to get decent screenshots when there is a lot going on. Case in point!

Here’s a fun little side note. As I mentioned earlier, Toaplan created the “Tiger” trilogy of Tiger-Heli, Twin Cobra, and Twin Cobra II, and the first two games received NES ports. I discovered this while I was writing up my review on Sky Shark a little while ago. One of my quirks of this project is that I switched games around on the master list so that sequels always come after I have played the previous installments. In this case, I had no idea Tiger-Heli and Twin Cobra were related at all. I normally avoid looking at the full list as much as possible, but here I had to see where both games landed on the list and swap them if necessary. Of course, Twin Cobra originally slotted here at Game #62 instead, so I had to switch them. I ended up with a free peek just a few slots ahead by coincidence. I also know now where Twin Cobra will appear on my list. I won’t spoil when that will be, but let’s just say it will be a very long time before I get around to it.

Micronics has a reputation for creating poor ports of NES games, but I think Tiger-Heli is one of their better ones. Now it’s not a great game, but it plays just fine. The gameplay seems to resemble the arcade version close enough. The graphics are a step down from the arcade version, but are passable on the NES. The music is neither notable nor annoying. Gameplay is on the slower side, but there are no performance issues like slowdown. There is a massive amount of flickering whenever there’s a lot going on, but they seemed to work around it about as well as they could without some of the more advanced techniques programmed into later NES games. I may sound a little down on Tiger-Heli, but the fact is that it is a simple game that is competent on the one hand and unexciting on the other. According to Steve Kent’s book The Ultimate History of Video Games, Tiger-Heli on NES sold over a million copies. That’s astounding to me. It also answers why I’ve seen the game so frequently. Today, it’s nothing more than a filler NES title, but you could do much worse than playing Tiger-Heli. Besides, you probably already own it!

#62 – Tiger-Heli

 
DEC
27
2017
0

#61 – Section Z

Even if I never found the real Section Z, this early NES title is an intriguing blend of genres.

Plain screen with good music!

To Beat: Reach the Ending
Played: 10/10/17 – 10/16/17
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
Video: Section Z Longplay

I never realized just how many NES games are arcade conversions until I started this deep dive into the library. Here we have another one with Section Z. This conversion differentiates itself from many other ports by significantly altering the style of the game from the arcade to the NES. The changes in the NES game make Section Z more suitable for home play as opposed to a quarter-munching arcade experience. Reading impressions from other players around the web gives me the consensus that the NES version is the better game. Let’s take a closer look to see if these changes make Section Z on NES fun to play.

Section Z began as an arcade title released in December 1985. It was both developed and published by Capcom. The game was first ported to the Famicom Disk System in Japan in May 1987. This version of Section Z is also developed and published by Capcom. The NES port was released shortly thereafter in July 1987 in North America. Europe had to wait until September 1989 before Section Z on NES was released there. Many years later, the arcade version was re-released in a few different Capcom arcade game compilations, so you can play it on PS2, PS3, PSP, Xbox, or Xbox 360.

Section Z is a side scrolling shoot-em-up. You play the role of Captain Commando and you are tasked with entering the enemy base of Balangool. The mission is to destroy L-Brain, who is located in Section Z of the enemy base. Defeat L-Brain and escape Balangool to beat the game. It’s a shell of a story and premise, but it’s all you really need.

Fly in there and fight!

In the arcade game, you automatically enter the base and begin at Section A. Your character looks like an astronaut with a gun. He can move in all directions but can only fire directly left or right. You use the joystick to move around and you have two action buttons, one to fire your gun and the other to turn around and face the other way. Therefore, you can face one way while moving in another direction. You also drop bombs anytime you fire your gun. Play progresses linearly from Section A alphabetically to Section Z. You find upgrades to increase both your speed and the strength of your gun up to three times each. Every five sections or so you fight a boss, and after that the game scrolls in a different direction for the next set of sections.

The NES version changes things up by having a completely different level structure. For starters, the sections are numbered, meaning there is no Section Z at all in the game! The sections themselves are arranged in a giant maze that you explore via branching paths. The game begins with the approach to the base in what the game calls Section 00. Play scrolls to the right in this and every other section in the game. After this short action sequence, you descend directly into Section 01 for more shoot-em-up action. At the end of this section, you are presented with a pair of teleporters and you decide which way to go. Most sections in the game have these branches at the end, and you don’t know where you’ll end up until you pick one for yourself. Each section is numbered to help you map your way through the maze. Furthermore, the whole base is logically broken down into three areas, each its own self-contained maze.

The controls are almost like the arcade game. You can move your character in all eight directions with the D-pad. Instead of having dedicated fire and turn buttons, pressing B fires to the left and pressing A fires to the right. This is much more intuitive control. You do not drop bombs when you shoot like you do in the arcade version. If you press both A and B together, you will generate special weapons. Start pauses the game, and Select uses a powerup.

It only looks like a standard shooter at first.

The top of the screen displays your score, the current section number, your current energy, maximum energy, and the powerup selection. Section Z utilizes energy in a few different ways, but mostly it acts as your health. You begin the game with 20 energy. Each time you get hit by an enemy bullet, you lose one point of energy. The game is very forgiving when it comes to bullet damage. Also, you may freely touch walls with no issue, and even your character stands on the ground if you land. You die if you get crushed by the screen scrolling, run out of energy, or make direct contact with an enemy. You lose a life and five energy points, but you get to resume at the start of the current section. You get three lives in Section Z, but they are immaterial. At Game Over, you are given the option to continue your game or restart from the very beginning. The only loss from continuing is your score goes back to zero, and Section Z has infinite continues anyway. Dying with no energy remaining is the steepest punishment, sending you all the way back to the start of the current area with 20 energy.

Enemies will occasionally drop powerups when defeated. Regular enemies can drop one of two powerups. One restores three energy points, and the other labeled with the letter S increases your speed. There’s no indication to confirm, but I believe you can increase your speed twice. The weapon powerups come from a specific enemy called a Metal Eater. This looks a metal blob attached to the wall. When defeated, it drops one of three powerups: The Flash Buster, the Megasmasher, and the Barrier Shield.

On the top-right of the screen, you may see up to four letters that indicate which powerups are available. L is for the default laser, and F, M, and B represent the three weapon powerups. Collecting the weapon displays the letter on the status bar and you can arm yourself with whichever one you want at any time. You move the special weapon selector arrow during play by pressing Right on the D-pad, and then press Select to use it. The controls are really bad for equipping weapons on the fly, and you can’t pause the game and select a weapon which seems like an oversight to me. As it is, your best bet is to equip weapons at the end of a section prior to hopping in the teleporter.

Thank you Metal Eater for the gift you will soon give me!

Here’s what the powerup weapons do. The Flash Buster gives you a three-way spread shot, but the bullets themselves are short range. Also, firing another round of shots removes any bullets still on screen. The Megasmasher replaces your normal shot with a large V-shaped bullet. The barrier shield sits in front of you and can absorb 32 bullets before being depleted. You can also get a combination of both the Flash Buster and the Megasmasher, but it’s a bit complicated to acquire. It just seems to happen when you keep grabbing powerups as you play. This is how I believe it works. You must have one of the two base weapons in use, as well as have both weapons in reserve, and then grab a powerup of the other weapon. The combo weapon has the spread and range of the Flash Buster with the bullet type of the Megasmasher. It doesn’t have an official name, but I’ve seen it called the Megabuster in two separate FAQs, so that name seems appropriate to me!

Sometimes the sections have hidden rooms. You have to fire at specific locations to reveal a white warp portal, then fly into it to be taken to the hidden room. There are several kinds of special rooms. You may find a warp room which presents you with two more exits to different sections. An energy refill room looks like the warp room except the teleporters restore some energy. The metal eater room is for finding weapon drops. Finally, you may find permanent upgrades for two additional special weapons in the game. Each of these special weapons is called a Special Transmissions Shell, or STS.

The STS is the special weapon you activate by pressing A and B simultaneously. Pressing the buttons together will display the STS temporarily in the middle of the screen and you must collect it if you want to use it. Collect it first, then press one of the fire buttons to deploy it. Grabbing the STS costs four energy points, so keep that in mind. There are three types of STS. The default one you start with is a Megamissile, which fires a heavy, straight shot. Next is the Flash Bomb which damages all enemies on screen. The last is the Crash Ball that orbits your character for a few seconds and damages everything it touches. You can cycle through available STS by revealing and ignoring the ones you don’t want. I found myself not bothering with STS because of the energy cost and the cumbersome method of equipping them.

Make sure the path you want is unlocked first.

Sometimes at the end of a section, one of the teleporters is a red beam of light instead of the normal white beam. Touching the red beam instantly kills you, so obviously avoid them! There is a generator somewhere in the maze that you destroy to replace the red beam with a normal one so that you can pass. You have to seek out the section that contains the generator and then blow it up. Generators act like a mini-boss battle and halt the screen scrolling when you approach one. They are stationary but fire both aimed shots and tracker bullets that follow you around the screen. With enough firepower, you will destroy the generator, leaving behind an energy capsule that increases your maximum energy when acquired. Backtrack to the previous section with the red teleporter, and if you destroyed the correct generator you will see it transition from red to white and you may now take this new path forward.

The end of each of the three main areas ends in a boss battle. You are awarded with another energy upgrade when you defeat a boss. Exiting this section brings you to a major checkpoint. Here you get a small cutscene which awards you bonus points as well as displays your maximum energy and all STS you have acquired. Unless you turn the game off or reset, you won’t have to go back and replay major areas completed.

Section Z was a game that I rented once as a kid. We had two rental places in my town right across the street from each other, Gentry’s TV and Video and Main Street Video. Gentry’s had moved to the next town over and not long after that Circus Video opened a few blocks further away. I mostly remembered Circus Video for their SNES and N64 games later, but early on they had NES games and I only remember renting just a few of them, including Section Z. I have vague memories of the game, but I know I didn’t understand the game at all and was left unimpressed. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I discovered Section Z was both a shooter and a maze exploration game. This is really suited to my tastes in gaming, and now I can give the game its proper understanding and appreciation. I was very excited about giving Section Z a try with this fresh perspective.

The boss fights are pretty neat, but they do have issues.

My approach before even starting the game was to map out all the paths. Rather than draw an actual map, I drew up a table that connects each exit in a section to its corresponding section. I made sure to revisit each section and take each exit to make sure I didn’t miss any connections. The idea was that I would completely map out the game and take my time exploring, and then go back and figure out the most straightforward way through the game to complete it efficiently on my final attempt. The sections themselves are short and most are not too challenging. The main problem I had was that I ended up going the right way accidentally and couldn’t go back to trace alternate paths. My only options were either to continue on or to run out of energy intentionally to get sent back. I beat the game twice before I felt I had the game sufficiently mapped out, having all primary branches accounted for and only missing a few optional secret areas.

With my completed chart in hand, I traced my complete route and set up to record my final run. I’m really pleased with how my longplay video turned out. I don’t think it’s obvious from watching the video that I was moving through the maze based on just my notes. I beat Section Z without taking any wrong turns and I even beat it without dying. It’s one of the cleanest runs I’ve captured thus far.

My biggest complaint about the game is that the hitboxes for the bosses are incredibly small. You have to be lined up just right to do damage. This is made more difficult in several ways. It is much more difficult to get the necessary pixel precision with both speed upgrades. Missed shots bounce off bosses to neat effect, but it’s detrimental because you must wait for those repelled shots to vanish before you can fire more. The three-way shot makes this even harder. Also, the hitbox is off-center from what you would expect, so you often miss when it appears you are making direct hits. Switching up weapons while dodging enemies or bosses is very cumbersome, and I often chose the wrong weapon by mistake in those situations.

Sometimes the action can get a little hectic.

Section Z has a reputation for being a difficult game, but I would give it an average difficulty rating. Infinite continues, the energy system, and mild setbacks from death ease the difficulty considerably. Keep a map or a table like I did to streamline exploration. Most of the sections are brief and progress from section to section is consistent. Don’t worry too much about avoiding bullets and focus on avoiding enemy collisions. The boss battles are the most difficult part of the game, and much of the difficulty can be mitigated by stockpiling energy and winning through attrition.

Section Z is a neat mixture of shooter and maze exploration that kept my enjoyment throughout my playthrough. I was right that this would be a fun game for me. However, as an early NES game, it suffers from several issues. The boss fights are problematic as I already mentioned. There are graphical glitches that appear visibly in between screens. Sprite flicker is not handled properly, and in some spots the enemies at the end of a long row are completely invisible. These are not exactly minor issues, but Section Z is better in other aspects. The graphics are good for its time, and the music is catchy in almost all instances. There is just a tiny bit of slowdown, but the game performs well even with many enemies and bullets on screen. The boss battles have clever concepts and would be a highlight of the game with a little tweaking.

It’s hard to say if I would recommend playing Section Z today. The NES got a better shoot-em-up and exploration hybrid in The Guardian Legend just under a year later. I can’t decide which aspect I like more: The gameplay or the act of mapping out everything. I do like that Capcom tried something different with the game instead of a more direct arcade port, and the glimpses of quality here paved the way for Capcom’s later NES efforts. What you will get out of the game depends on both your personal taste and acceptance of common quality issues found within early NES games. If any of this sounds appealing to you, I think you should at least try Section Z.

#61 – Section Z

 
DEC
18
2017
0

#60 – Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance

It’s known as one of the worst NES games, and that mostly holds up.

Love that over half of the title screen is text.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 9/29/17 – 10/2/17
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
Video: AD&D Heroes of the Lance Longplay

Clearly, I am a huge gaming nerd, especially when it comes to Nintendo and the NES. Mostly I go it alone and play single-player games, but occasionally I will play multiplayer games. Tabletop gaming has become quite popular, and I do like to get together with friends to play sometimes. I don’t take it much farther than that, and so I have never been interested in Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it’s the idea of a long campaign with a group of people that doesn’t appeal to me and my single-player ways. The NES has four games bearing the Dungeons and Dragons name and I had no interest in them. I had originally planned to skip them in this project altogether. However, plans change, so here we are with the first game in the set. AD&D: Heroes of the Lance is generally regarded as a bad game, and having played it for myself I can see why.

Dungeons and Dragons, abbreviated D&D, is a tabletop RPG that takes place in a fantasy setting. Players choose characters and team up to battle monsters and solve puzzles in scenarios devised and managed by a Dungeon Master. The game was originally published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., or TSR, but is now published by Wizards of the Coast as of 1997. D&D split early on with the lighter game keeping the name, while a more rules-heavy experience was called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or AD&D. The NES games fall under the AD&D banner. These two games merged back together when the 3rd Edition of D&D released in the year 2000, and this structure remains today.

Naturally, there were many video games created or spun off from D&D. It’s mindboggling how many different series and games there are under so many different names that I can’t even begin to make sense of it myself let alone try to explain it. There are different series of games that might have familiar names to you, such as the Gold Box series, Baldur’s Gate, and Neverwinter Nights. Some follow the strict D&D ruleset, while others only utilize the setting. Several games are not RPGs at all. The NES received four different AD&D games, and in order of release they are Heroes of the Lance, DragonStrike, Pool of Radiance, and Hillsfar.

This intro screen has more color than anything else in the game.

AD&D: Heroes of the Lance was released on many home computers beginning in January 1988. The NES port of the game was released in January 1991, and the Famicom version came next in March 1991. It was developed by U.S. Gold Ltd. and Strategic Systems, Inc. Natsume is also credited as a developer, but as far as I can tell they are only linked to the game’s soundtrack. The NES game was published by FCI, while Pony Canyon published the Famicom game. The sequel, Dragons of Flame, was released on the Famicom in February 1992 but did not make it to the NES.

The story is based on the Dragonlance novels written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. In the land of Krynn, people have abandoned their traditions and faith, causing the Queen of Darkness, Takhisis, to awaken evil and take power in the land. The ruins of Xak Tsaroth hold the keys to restoring the traditions and regaining balance of power, and these keys are the Disks of Mishakal. Of course, Takhisis knows of the Disks and has sent the dragon Khisanth to protect them. You play the role of the party known as the Companions of the Lance, who must venture into Xak Tsaroth to fight the dragon, recover the disks, and restore the land of Krynn. After entering the ruins of Xak Tsaroth, the warrior Goldmoon of the Companions entrusted her blue crystal staff to a statue of the goddess Mishakal, who then blessed the staff and offered her power to aid in recovering the disks. You got all that, right?

Heroes of the Lance is one of the D&D games that is not a strict RPG. Instead, it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawler. You control the entire party of eight Companions of the Lance through the maze of Xak Tsaroth. All the action takes place in the side scrolling view. You enter other rooms to different parts of the maze, and the goal is to find the entrance to the next level of the dungeon. There are only three levels in the game, culminating in the final battle with Khisanth. Along the way you will fight enemies, jump over pits, cast spells, and collect items. You can rearrange your party of eight characters in any order you choose, and each member has their own stats, abilities, and weapons that aid in completing the adventure.

Perhaps this first screen is what many players have seen the most.

The eight characters in the party are Goldmoon, Sturm, Raistlin, Caramon, Tanis, Tasslehoff, Riverwind, and Flint. Goldmoon has the blue crystal staff which is used to cast clerical spells. Sturm is a powerful knight who wields a magical Long Sword. Raistlin is a physically weak mage with powerful magical abilities using the Staff of Magius. Caramon is another powerful warrior armed with both a sword and throwing spear. Tanis is a half-elf armed with a sword and a bow. Tasslehoff is of a race called kender, and he is armed with a hoopak which can be used as a sling for long range attacks and as a staff for close range combat. Riverwind is another strong fighter armed with a sword and a bow. Finally, Flint is a dwarf who wields both a battle axe and throwing axes.

The controls are complex and they change somewhat depending on the situation. You walk left and right using the D-pad. If you walk in the same direction for a while you will start running, or you can run by holding Up combined with either Left or Right. While running you can jump with A. You can also duck while standing still by holding A and pressing Down. That isn’t intuitive, but it occasionally helps. There is a compass on the bottom left of the screen, and one of the directions lights up if you are standing by a door. You can proceed through the door by holding either Up or Down depending on which side the door is on. You must hold the button for a full second to go through the door. You can use the B button combined with a direction for the lead character to use ranged weapons. If enemies are too close then you can’t use ranged weapons, and you also have to equip them before you can use them in the first place. The Select button both brings up and exits the main menu.

Combat introduces some different controls. If an enemy is near enough, the word Combat will display on the bottom. You can’t use ranged weapons anymore when this indicator in on. You can still move, duck, jump, run, and enter the menu the same as above. To attack the enemy with the lead character, hold down the B button to swing your weapon. You need to be right next to the enemy to land any hits. You can keep the B button held to do continuous attacks. You can also attack high by holding the D-pad diagonally Up and toward the enemy, and attack low diagonally with Down. Some enemies can only be hit high or low. You will see a little circle whenever you land an attack, but you will miss about as often as you hit.

Well actually this is the screen you will see the most often.

You will spend a lot of time in the game menu. While in the menu, press A to choose an option, press B to cancel and go back, and press Select to leave the menu. The Hero Select option lets you view each character’s stats, health, and items. You also use Hero Select to move party members around. Press A to choose a party member, and press A again when a different party member is highlighted to swap the two characters. Magic User Spells lets you use Raistlin’s spells, and Clerical Staff Spells lets you use Goldmoon’s spells. More on spells in a bit. The Use command lets you use some items like potions and equip some items like bows. For example, to equip Caramon’s throwing spear, go to the Use command, select Caramon, and then select the spear. It will then appear next to the Using field on both the Use or Hero Select screen when successfully equipped. The Score option shows you how many of each enemy you have killed as well as your experience points and score. Yes, Heroes of the Lance has a scoring system. The Give, Drop, and Take commands all move items around. Use the Give command to trade items between party members just like how you switch characters around. Drop puts an item on the ground, and Take is used to pick items up. You can find items on the ground or even in the background during play. Stand near one and use the Take command to give it to whichever party member you want. You can save the game at almost any time using the Save command, or load a save file anytime with the Load command. There are three save slots that either display as Old if it has save data or New if it is empty.

To cast spells with Raistlin or Goldmoon, you have to do two things. First, you must equip each character with their staff with the Use command. Second, you have to put the spellcaster in the front row. On the screen, the top four characters are in the front row and the others are in the back row. Party alignment is also important because any of the front row characters can take damage during combat, although the lead character is most likely to take the hit. Use either of the spell commands in the menu to display the spells and select one to cast it. While exploring, if the spellcaster is the lead character, you can simply cast the last spell used with the B button as a long range attack. In combat range, you must use the menu to cast spells.

Trapping enemies and running past them is an effective strategy.

Raistlin is the only character that can use the Magic User Spells option. This option displays the spell list and the charge meter showing how much power is left in the staff. Each spell uses up a different amount of charge, and when this meter is empty you can no longer cast spells. The same goes for Goldmoon and her Clerical Staff Spells. Raistlin’s magic spells are primarily combat oriented. Charm, Sleep, and Web are all used to temporarily stop enemies. Magic Missile and Burning Hands are attack spells. Detect Magic highlights magical items in the field with sparkles, and Detect Invisible reveals invisible objects. The Final Strike spell uses up all the energy in the staff to defeat all monsters on screen, though Raistlin loses his life in the process. To use this spell, you have to put Raistlin in the lead and also be outside of close combat range.

Goldmoon can use all Clerical spells with her Blue Crystal Staff. She has two healing spells, Cure Light Wounds and Cure Critical Wounds. Protection from Evil weakens enemies near the party, while Prayer builds the party up temporarily. Find Traps shows any traps on screen, such as falling rocks. She has two combat spells. Hold Person can disable an enemy like the Charm or Sleep spells, and Spiritual Hammer is an attack spell. Goldmoon can revive defeated party members with the Raise Dead spell. If a character is killed in combat, their body remains on the ground. You can stand near it and use Raise Dead to revive the character with a few hit points. However, if you change screens before reviving the character or cause the lead party member to fall in a pit, they are gone for good. In this case, their character portrait shows a tombstone instead of being grayed out. The last spell is Deflect Dragon Breath, which causes the lead character to glow and avoid all damage from the acid spewed by dragon hatchlings. If Goldmoon is defeated, a few other characters can pick up her staff and perform a subset of Clerical spells.

There are quite a few items found in the dungeon. There are five colors of potions that do different effects, such as healing, party member protection, or holding enemies. A ring or a gem ring can be equipped with the Use command which makes the wearer harder to hit in combat. Raistlin can use a Scroll or a Wand to perform a long range attack without using power from his staff. The remaining items have no effect except for adding points to your score while you carry them. Such items are gems, coins, gold bars, chalices, and shields.

This waterfall is awfully pretty.

This was my first time playing through AD&D: Heroes of the Lance. At the beginning of my project, I put this game and many others near the end of the list which I call my snub list. Now I am bringing those games back into the fold occasionally as I see fit, and it had been awhile since I pulled one of my snubbed games into the forefront. I’m reasonably sure I bought this game at my local game store at the time when they were slow to keep up with price increases. I could bundle games and get every fourth game free, so I took advantage of that frequently. The price of this game hasn’t really moved though. I think it was an $8 game at that store and that’s in line with its current value. I have the manual for it that I got separately, although with a missing cover.

I gave the game a test drive just to check the battery, and in those few minutes I couldn’t get off the first screen. At a glance, it is an intimidating game to say the least. There are so many menu options and character statistics. Who are all these characters and what do they bring to the table? Spell casting doesn’t work right away. The first screen features a pit that I bet most players fall in right away trying to figure out what to do. I sure did. I see I can go through a door to the north and another to the south, but my character won’t go that way because I’m just pressing Up or Down instead of holding the direction button. The game has a bad reputation for all these reasons. The manual is an absolute must, and I’m guessing most people that have tried the game played without reading the manual, further souring their first impressions. I read through the manual several times, and I needed it by my side as I played before the game started to unfold.

One of my biggest gripes with Heroes of the Lance is the level layout. The compass is there to help orient you, but from room to room it can twist in various directions. Say you are in a room that runs north and south. The next room may also run north and south, so you know you are in a different room that runs parallel. Other times, the next room runs west to east, so you then start spreading out more. To make it more confusing, if this north to south hallway has an east door and a west door opposite each other, sometimes both doors lead to the same room and other times they lead to separate rooms. Both doors leading to the same room can make sense if you picture it as two perpendicular hallways that intersect, and you are simply reorienting your view by turning 90 degrees. It’s just that this is not evident at first. Most of the hallways looks the same anyway with the same drab gray colors. All this combined is the perfect recipe for getting lost. I am good at mental mapmaking, but it only took a few screens into the game before I needed to begin drawing. Even then, I ran into problems. The layout seems nonsensical at times. Sometimes the map has loops in it, and other times it appears that you are going in a direction that overlaps with something else in the level. It’s hard enough to map the dungeon without having to consider verticality. It’s ugly, unthoughtful design.

Basic platforming is also frustrating.

The good news is that there are clear, one-way transitions between the three levels of the dungeon. Go the correct way and you may see a short cutscene of your character falling to the level below. This is not a pit that kills you and you are going the right way when this happens. If you successfully map your way to that spot, then you effectively have that level solved. It’s not always easy getting there. There is one section in Level 2 that I am convinced is impossible to map out. It’s a door maze with several hallways, all with multiple doors. I started finding new items after going through many hallways, so I know I was hitting unique screens still. Fortunately, this section is not on the critical path and can (and should) be skipped completely.

Once I reached Level 3, I was running low on magic so I elected to start over. It was quick getting back there and I was in a much better state than my first try. The final level was the easiest area to map and I did so completely. It was straightforward to beat the game at that point. It took me about four hours to beat the game the first time. I knew I could beat the game much quicker than that, so I recorded a longplay. I admit, I really enjoyed blowing through the game again once I figured it all out. The second play lasted 20 minutes. The ending of the game teases you with the sequel, AD&D Dragons of Flame, which was never released on NES. Dragons of Flame did make it to Famicom, though I won’t be playing it.

Another aspect of this game’s reputation is that it is a difficult game, but I found that really wasn’t the case. The game seems so difficult at first for all the reasons mentioned here, and that’s true, it is difficult to start. You have a lot of learn and you will probably play poorly trying to get your bearings. This makes saving anywhere such a godsend. Take advantage of it by saving frequently and reloading if things don’t go well. Don’t go too long without saving so that if you need to reload you have a better chance of remembering where you are. Mapping the game on paper goes a long way as well, even if the map itself is crude like mine. Once you find the entrance to the next level and can get there from the start, you can do what I did and restart the game if things go south. The game is short with only the three levels and it isn’t a huge setback to start over with the knowledge gained. Sadly, Heroes of the Lance will permit you into situations where the game is unwinnable and you have to start over, but this is not much of a burden as it would appear. I would say the game begins like it has well above average difficulty and then becomes a low difficulty game at the end, depending on your aptitude for mapping. Suddenly a 5/10 rating seems about right!

Make sure to protect yourself when fighting the dragon hatchlings.

I know this review has gone on long enough, but I’m going to share my tips and strategy for beating Heroes of the Lance. I’m spoiling quite a lot here. I’ll begin with perhaps my biggest revelation about this game. Most of the content in this game means nothing. Other than health, the statistics do not tell you anything. The game can be beaten with only three characters and fewer than half the spells. You need to know how to kill enemies and jump a little. That’s all. Here’s how you do it. Set Caramon as your lead character and put Raistlin and Goldmoon in the third and fourth spots in the front row. Go to the Use command to equip both Raistlin’s staff and Goldmoon’s staff so you can cast spells. Most of the enemies in this game are affected by the Web spell. When these enemies are stuck in a web, you can kill them if you want or run right past them. Web didn’t work on short enemies or the dragon hatchlings, so you have to fight them. Use only downward attacks on the short enemies. You might be able to jump past them if you want to try that. The hatchlings are the biggest nuisance here. For them, use the Deflect Dragon Breath spell so you don’t get hurt by their acid and keep reapplying it when the spell wears off for as long as you battle them. They constantly back away from you in close range, so you have to step forward and take a stab or two. Just repeat that until you either kill them or move them far enough out of the way to get where you are going. In general, monitor your health and heal with the Cure Light Wounds spell as often as needed to keep your HP topped off. Save often, as much as you feel comfortable. The Prayer spell might come in handy for a few tricky screens, but it isn’t essential. At the final battle with the dragon Khisanth, first get close enough to engage him in battle. Set Goldmoon as the lead character and press both the B button and Right to throw the staff into the dragon killing him instantly. It is that simple, and it is not even a spoiler since the manual tells you to do this. Grab the disks, wait a few seconds, and enjoy the ending.

In conclusion, yes, AD&D: Heroes of the Lance is a bad game. Poor controls, sluggish movement, drab graphics, a confusing dungeon, and frivolous, unnecessary elements make for an unpleasant experience. I haven’t mentioned the music at all, which is easily the best part of this game. The composer Seiji Toda and arranger and programmer Iku Mizutani did an excellent job with the music and they both deserve far more credit than they have received. The music aside, I would not recommend this game. If you like map making, you might get a little enjoyment here, and it’s not the worst game to play solely by walkthrough if you want to go that route. As for me, I’m really pleased I conquered the game on my own. It feels like a big accomplishment, and that is such a good feeling that makes it all worth it.

#60 – Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes of the Lance