Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!


Journey to Silius Box Cover

#14 – Journey to Silius

This is one journey that is well worth going on!

Another sweet title screen tune!

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 1/25/16 – 1/29/16
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 8/10

Okay, now we’re talking! Probably the biggest thrill of Take On The NES Library is whenever a random game shows up that I’m really excited to play and Journey to Silius fits the bill completely. Appearing on many “hidden gems” NES lists over the years, I think the cat is let out of the bag on this one. It’s a little pricey as a result but not too expensive and it’s a game that fits well in just about any NES collection.

Journey to Silius was released in the US in September 1990, just after the Japan release in August 1990 named Raf World. It was developed by Tokai Engineering and published by Sunsoft. Tokai Engineering developed three games for the NES: Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, and Super Spy Hunter. Their first game was a Famicom only game called Ripple Island and their fifth and final game is Albert Odyssey on the Super Famicom.

Journey to Silius is a run-and-gun action game. You play the role of Jay McCray as he fights a terrorist group responsible for the death of his father. You can jump and shoot a basic hand gun and you can also duck and shoot low. There are six weapons total but you only start with two and have to acquire the other four along the way. The initial special weapon is the shot gun that is a three-way shot useful for reaching high enemies. The machine gun is like the hand gun with rapid autofire. Homing missiles target the enemy for you. The laser gun shoots a beam that blasts through enemies. The grenade launcher is a single but powerful straight shot.

Quite a few enemies pose a challenge even early on.

Jay has both a health bar and a gun energy bar indicated on the upper left of the screen. The hand gun has infinite shots but the other weapons drain your gun energy gauge. This is shared between all the weapons and when it runs out you can only use the hand gun. Enemies will occasionally drop a blue power up that refills a portion of your gun energy, and enemies can also drop a red powerup that restores some health.

This is kind of an aside, but one criticism I have about the game is the low drop rate on the powerups. The blue ones show up often enough but the red ones drop far less often. In most playthroughs I see maybe two or three health drops total, and I bet someone could play the whole game without seeing a single one. They pop up so infrequently it’s hard to believe that they exist at all. I once encountered two in a row and I didn’t know how to handle it! It would have been nice if I actually needed the health at that time.

There are five levels in total: Outside a deserted space colony, an underground tunnel, the enemy headquarters, the enemy spaceship, and the enemy factory. These are all horizontal scrolling levels with the occasional brief vertical section mixed in. Each level except the last has a mini-boss at the end that drops a new special weapon when defeated and there is also a main boss at the end of each one. The mini-bosses are unique enemies a bit larger than the normal ones but the end level bosses are huge and fill up the screen. You only have three lives with no way to gain any extra lives which contributes to the overall difficulty. The levels have checkpoints scattered about so there isn’t a ton of ground to gain back if you die, but if you lose all your lives you have to continue back at the beginning of the stage. You are only allowed three continues before having to start all over from Stage 1 so it’s important to take your time and preserve as much health as you can as you progress deeper into the game.

Some serious firepower here!

I remember renting and playing Journey to Silius when I was a kid. I overlooked it quite a few times in favor of something else and once I did rent it I don’t think I got very far in the game. I was really into games that had score at the time and Journey to Silius doesn’t have any points, so looking back I’m surprised I gave it a chance at all.

Journey to Silius was one of the first games I tracked down individually when I hunkered down to pursue the rest of the NES licensed set. I learned an interesting thing today. When doing some research on the game I Googled it and it pulled up my eBay order for the game in the search. I guess Google searched my gmail and noticed I had ordered it, so you can use Google to look up past orders. It’s a little unsettling that they can do that. Anyway, I won it in an auction on eBay in 2013 with no picture for $5 plus shipping. A few weeks after that my local store got a copy of the game in and I bought it for $3 which was a great deal so why not! I ended up with a third copy that I bought in an eBay lot in practically mint condition and that’s the one in my collection.

I have played the game in the past couple of years but I never committed to beating the game before. That recent experience did give me a bit of an edge for the first half of the game. Overall it took me four attempts to beat the game. My first two runs ended at the Level 4 boss and Level 5 boss respectively, and on my third try I regressed a bit and died earlier in Level 5. My fourth and winning run was quite the rollercoaster of emotion … at least it was for me. I will be spoiling the endgame so if you’re looking to avoid spoilers just skip the next two paragraphs. It’s okay, I don’t mind!

Huge boss, huge claw, huge pain!

My final run started out as just about the perfect run. Mind you, I’m not saying that I’m so good that I can get far without taking damage, but on this run I limited it enough to keep alive. I made it all the way to the Stage 4 mini-boss before I took my first death and I finished the level on my next life, so I reached the final level with the two lives remaining and all three of my continues. Of course, this is where the wheels fell off. The first four levels I found myself taking things slow and focusing on killing the enemies quickly and with this strategy the game is pretty straightforward after enough attempts. The last level completely changes things. It’s an auto-scrolling level with a heavy emphasis on platforming with no enemies to shoot at all. You are fighting against the level and the level is just brutal. There are crates that fall, lava that flows down from the ceiling, conveyor belts, moving crushers, you name it. I find the jumping to be a little bit inconsistent and that becomes a problem when every jump matters. The game expects you to jump off of moving crates as well. There’s one part in particular where the best way to get through is to jump on a moving crate as soon as it scrolls on screen. Missing that, which you absolutely would the first time through, leaves you only one more narrow opportunity to get through or you have no choice but to die. It takes a lot of practice to get through this level and being the last level you have to work hard to get that far in the first place.

Pretty soon I burned through my lives and had to continue. Pretty soon I used up all of my continues too with nothing to show for it. The worst is when you are interacting with a moving platform and you somehow get pinched and immediately die. It feels like such a cheap death and this happened to me two or three times. In times like this my emotions can really vary. I can get pretty frustrated at time but here I wasn’t even angry. I first laughed it all off and accepting all these weird deaths and that shifted to getting despondent. I was already thinking about having to start the game all over again. My last continue started off better. I got a good start to the level before dying and on my second life I was finally clearing some difficult obstacles but draining health quickly in the process. At my last sliver of health I got hit by a falling crate for my second death, but somehow during the death animation I teleported into the boss room and finished dying there. I wish I knew how that happened, but I’ll take it. My last life began at the boss and I had a game plan after dying there once before in a prior attempt. It didn’t go the best but it was okay. However after the boss there is a second, final boss which is a tall humanoid robot. There is no refilling of your health and weapons before the fight so I was left with no gun power and about a third of a health bar left. I got backed into the corner and ducked, which turns out to be a safe spot since the boss stops advancing that far against the side and is unable to punch you when you duck. I got him stuck in a loop! After observing the timing for awhile I could jump up to shoot him in the face and resume ducking while missing his punches. It took a bit of time and I got down to my very last sliver of health but I beat the boss and beat the game. Whew! That was one of my best wins in quite awhile!

Falling crates on conveyor belts while scrolling. It’s tough!

After the ending and credits, you go back to Level 1 exactly as you ended the final boss fight. So I started over with no weapons and that sliver of health. I kept going and it didn’t take long before I ended up dead and back at the title screen. From what little I played it didn’t seem to be any more difficult, and I couldn’t find any information on it so it looks like there is no hard mode here.

I think this has sort of become well known regarding this game, but originally Journey to Silius was supposed to be a licensed game based on the movie The Terminator. Somewhere during development Sunsoft lost the Terminator license so they took the work that was already done and retooled it into the game we got today. There is a licensed Terminator game on NES that I haven’t played much, but I think Journey to Silius is the better game of the two. Also, the game has a really good soundtrack. Naoki Kodaka is the composer for the game and his style tends to revolve around using the NES DPCM sound channel to play bass samples. The Stage 2 music is a deep, moody track and is a favorite among NES music enthusiasts.

Journey to Silius is a lot of fun to play and I’m glad that the game is getting more recognition in NES collecting circles. It feels good to beat this one having tinkered with playing it off and on!

Journey to Silius Ending Screen

#14 – Journey to Silius

Pictionary Box Cover

#13 – Pictionary

Who needs pen and paper when you can play Pictionary on your NES?

That title screen music! So good!

To Beat: Finish the Regular Game
What I Did: Beat the Regular Game and Alternate Game just for fun!
Played: 1/24/16
Difficulty: 1/10
My Difficulty: 1/10

The NES has several games of game show and board game adaptations so it’s no surprise that one would show up on the blog fairly early. Pictionary plays like the classic board game but it has some surprises in the single player that make the game a little bit more interesting.

Pictionary was released in July 1990 on NES. It was developed by Software Creations and published by LJN. Software Creations developed a dozen NES games and LJN published a whopping 25 NES games by my records. There are only three developers attributed to creating Pictionary. Tony Pomfret was the programmer, Craig Houston created the graphics, and Tim Follin wrote the music. It probably should be four people as Stephen Ruddy’s sound engine was used in the development of the sounds and music. LJN has a reputation on NES for publishing many bad games but in the case of Pictionary I would say the game is pretty decent.

Pictionary on NES is a pretty straightforward board game. Up to four teams compete by drawing pictures and having their fellow team members guess what is being drawn. Correct answers allow the team to roll a die to advance their marker along the board and the first team to reach the end and guess a final drawing wins the game. Simple enough!

It’s the board … yawn.

There are three game modes. Regular Game is the base game with some twists to it that I will explain shortly. Alternate Game is a way to play Pictionary using the NES as the game board, timer, and drawing area but you must supply your own Pictionary word cards (or your own words) to determine what to draw. The players are responsible for inputting into the game which team guessed the drawing correctly so it can handle everything properly for you. Drawing Practice gives you a free area for doodling so that you can get a handle for how the drawing in the game works. The drawing interface simulates a little bit like drawing lines with a pencil and paper. You can aim your cursor in I believe 16 different directions by pushing Left or Right. Press and hold A to draw in the direction of the cursor or press and hold B to move the cursor without drawing. Pressing Up or Down draws either a small or large circle. Select removes the last thing drawn, Start finishes the drawing early, and Select and Start pressed together erases the board. It’s a robust enough system without relying on complete freehand control.

The Regular Game mode plays more like a complete game of Pictionary with the computer providing words to draw for the teams, but most of the game is played out through mini-games instead of drawing out pictures. If there is one player per team then there will be all mini-games, otherwise there will be standard drawing mixed in. You can play single player with just one player on one team which is what I did. There are four mini-games that all play a little bit differently but they all help play out Pictionary the same way. Completing tasks within each mini-game reveal pieces of a pre-drawn puzzle and the object is to reveal as much of the picture as you can within the time limit to give yourself the best chance of identifying the drawing. Let’s get in to each mini-game!

The first one is Attack of the Paint Zombies. This is exactly like Space Invaders except the enemies are on the bottom instead of the top and you control a paint bucket dropping red paint down upon the purple paint zombies. Yeah, paint zombies, I don’t get it either. Each one you knock out reveals a square on the picture and if you get shot with paint you lose a few seconds off the timer. This one is my favorite of them all and I didn’t have much trouble revealing the whole board before time nearly every round.

It's gotta be a mess down there.

It’s gotta be a mess down there.

The second game is The Warehouse Shuffle. I did not understand what to do in this game at all until I checked the manual. There’s just a man you control along the bottom and there are these balls with eyes that bounce around and nothing else was happening. What you are supposed to do is push up against the left side and press Up to grab boxes that are offscreen, then carry them across to the right and drop them off with Down. Each box you deliver knocks off a square and if the balls (called gremlins in the manual) come in contact with a box you lose time. You can carry a huge stack of boxes at once if you wan but you move slower the more you carry so there’s a basic risk/reward system at play. Once I knew what I was doing, I still didn’t do very well at this one.

I appreciate the eagerness but that's too many boxes.

I appreciate the eagerness but that’s too many boxes.

The third game is Four Alarm Rescue. There are eight windows arranged in two rows of four columns and people randomly appear to jump out from one of the windows in the burning building. You control firefighters at the bottom with a net to catch the people as they fall. Catching each person reveals a square and having a person fall to the hard ground below removes that precious time. This game is so unfair. Often two people will jump out at the same time from opposite ends of the screen and it is impossible to catch both. Sometimes multiple people will jump one after the other from the same window but there’s no way to tell until the first person jumps out of the way. You can lose multiple people quickly if you are trying to catch a different person elsewhere. This game is very flawed and I don’t think it’s possible to reveal the whole board with this game unless the randomness is entirely in your favor.

Probably just as messy as the paint game to be honest.

Probably just as messy as the paint game to be honest.

The fourth and final game is Leapin’ Energy Capsules! This is a simple single screen platformer where you control an astronaut who is collecting these capsules or orbs that appear in a few pre-defined spots. Once you collect one or take too much time the next one appears. There are a couple of cannons that shoot a rising and falling bullet and they operate on a slow rhythm. Collect a capsule, reveal a square. Take damage, lose time. The only really annoyance is when a capsule appears in the upper left because you can only climb up to the upper level from the far right. Otherwise, this one is pretty simple and kind of boring.

That upper left one gets the most screen time for certain.

That upper left one gets the most screen time for certain.

Playing through the game is really simple in single player. Play the mini game and try to guess what the picture is. You get 45 seconds to scroll through the alphabet picking out letters to spell out your guess. The game shows the number of words in the answer plus the number of letters in each word just like Hangman, so that helps in solving these drawings. If you are correct, you get to roll a die and move up that many spaces on the board. There is no penalty if you miss so you just keep trying until you guess correctly. Eventually you will run into a solution and move up the board so there is really no way to lose. It took me around 30-45 minutes to reach the end of the board with I’m guessing a 30-40% success rate. And that’s the end!

In my run I tested out Alternate Game just to see what it is all about. I played with one team and it was all drawing. After the drawing phase you get to indicate which team answered correctly and that team rolls the die. I would just end the drawing early every time and say I answered it correctly so that I could always roll and move my marker on the board. It took hardly any time at all to reach the end. You get the same ending either way so you can technically beat the game without identifying a single drawing and no one would know the difference. It was an utter waste of time, but eh, I did it for completeness!

Yay!  You did it!

Yay! You did it!

There was an unexpected casualty that happened while playing Pictionary. It was the weirdest thing. I turned the NES on and I was walking over to the couch when my hands got static shocked through the controller. Getting shocked in my basement is pretty normal in the winter but never through the game controller. Nothing worked when I tried to start the game even after powering off and resetting a few times. I swapped in another controller and that one worked fine, so I guess my controller is dead. It’s too bad because it is a nice condition dogbone controller and they aren’t exactly cheap to replace. I have a few other dogbone controllers in various states so I can probably hack together a nice working controller.

The one really remarkable thing about Pictionary is that it has a really good soundtrack. If you have heard some of the top NES music then you have almost certainly heard Tim Follin’s music and he did some fine work on the music in Pictionary. Tim has two brothers, Geoff and Mike, and all three brothers have worked in video games at some point. Geoff was also a game composer and he would work with Tim on music for several other NES games. The Follin brothers have a very distinct style to their music with very complex sounding pieces that really take advantage of the NES sound chip in ways that not many other musicians did. In Pictionary the title screen music is just awesome, and the Pictionary page on the Video Game Music Preservation Foundation website has links to all six music tracks for your listening pleasure!

Pictionary is a faithful adaptation of the board game and is a perfectly serviceable game on NES, even though it is very easy and barely worth playing even once. It’s fine but there’s so many better games on the NES. You would probably have more fun playing Pictionary with a group of friends on the actual board game but it could be fun at parties or whatever. At least the music is good! Plus, I don’t mind having a short, easy game to check off the list!

Pictionary Ending Screen

#13 – Pictionary

TaleSpin Box Cover

#12 – TaleSpin

A cleverly named Disney cartoon becomes an intriguing NES shooter.

Let's go flying!

Let’s go flying!

To Beat: Reach the end credits
Played: 1/22/16 – 1/23/16
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 3/10

Well that didn’t take long to reach another Disney-to-NES conversion courtesy of Capcom! Based on the animated Disney television series of the same name as part of The Disney Afternoon, TaleSpin is unique among its NES counterparts in that it’s not a platformer but an aerial adventure true to the cartoon series.

TaleSpin, the Disney animated series, had a 65-episode run all within a span of a year running from September 7, 1990 to August 8th, 1991. It tells the story of Baloo, a pilot for his freight service, and his navigator Kit as they aim to deliver goods while avoiding and fighting air pirates lead by Don Karnage and other foes that attempt to steal their cargo. I’m simplifying this as it’s a show I didn’t watch and I’m not familiar with it. The NES game was likely developed during the show’s initial run on TV since it was released in December 1991 after the final episode had already aired.

Make those shots count because you only start with one!

Make those shots count because you only start with one!

TaleSpin on NES is a horizontal scrolling shooter with a few interesting mechanics. You can fly Baloo in eight directions and fire bullets with the B button to attack enemies. If you press the A button, Baloo flips around and flies both backwards and upside-down causing the screen to scroll left instead of right. Not many autoscrolling shooters allow you to scroll both left and right at will – this is the only one that I’m aware of. Your only attack is the default shot but you can aim your shots diagonally if you shoot while moving up and down, so altogether you can fire in six directions. It’s an interesting mechanic and it makes sense since the plane banks up and down pretty severely as you fly. However it takes some getting used to and it will cause misfires. This mostly occurs because to fire straight you must not be moving vertically, so to properly aim at something straight ahead you must line yourself up and stop completely before shooting. The game will occasionally scroll vertically and in these parts the scrolling is forced with no backtracking like in the horizontal scrolling areas.

Along the way you will pick up money bags and cargo containers that look like little briefcases. Collecting these will give you money at the end of the stage that can be spent on upgrades for your plane, the Sea Duck. You can buy extra shots for your plane as well as a permanent speed increase and some armor to increase your total health. You can also buy extra lives and even extra continues if you need some additional tries. You start the game with three hearts for health but only one bullet on the screen at a time causing the game to be fairly challenging at the start as every shot counts. Buying an extra shot right away is crucial to help ease the later levels.

Extra shot purchased.  Good player!

Extra shot purchased. Good player!

Enemies when destroyed will occasionally drop fruit on a parachute and this is the only way to earn points during the levels. Some parts of the levels hide pickups and they are revealed if you shoot their hiding spots. These often appears in nooks in the stages or in corners and thankfully you don’t take damage from touching the walls so feel free to look to your heart’s content. Just make sure not to get pinched by the scrolling screen as that will cost you a life. The entrances to the bonus stage are also hidden and revealed when shot. In these areas you switch to Kit who rides on this air surfboard called an airfoil. You can pop balloons that reveal fruit and extra lives and you can really stock up on lives by hitting every bonus area.

There are eight levels in total and each level ends in a boss encounter. There are a variety of locales to journey through and some of them are interesting for a shooter such as a haunted house and a baseball stadium. The bosses tend to be fairly challenging particularly since the Sea Duck is a pretty big sprite with equally large hitbox, the bosses spray a fair amount of bullets and other moving parts around, and also because each boss has an invincibility period after taking a hit.

How many times do I have to tell you?  No flying inside the house!

How many times do I have to tell you? No flying inside the house!

Like I mentioned before I had not watched the cartoon basically at all, and in the same way I did not play TaleSpin on NES until adulthood. I think I bought my copy for $8 as part of a buy two get one free sale at my local game store. The game came up awhile back as part of the NA weekly contest as a high score challenge and I’m pretty sure I beat the game on either my first or second try at that time. I also got acquainted with the locations of the bonus areas back then because they are very point-heavy with all the fruit you can collect, so that experience helped me here too.

My playthrough of the game was fairly ordinary and unremarkable. I was very rusty at the start and I lost all my lives on the first level, but once I started it up again I was cruising through the levels with little trouble until I ran out of time that night and had to turn the game off. Starting over the next evening I beat the game with at least a dozen lives to spare and I didn’t need any continues to get the job done. There was one boss at the end of the fifth stage that gave me some trouble. It’s a crane with a wrecking ball that drops down on you and the boss shoots these bouncing shots so you are being attacked from above and below. It’s just about impossible to not take damage here. The only way I could beat it was to get there with full health and just sit in the middle constantly shooting it while avoiding attacks as best I could and taking advantage of my invincibility period to move to safety. I was able to beat it that way by attrition. With that in mind, here’s a hot tip for this boss! When doing some research for this post I found out that you can destroy the wrecking ball which completely takes out the attack from above. Look at me, I did it the hard way!

This boss is so hard with that wrecking ball intact.

This boss is so hard with that wrecking ball intact.

I had some trouble coming up with a difficulty for TaleSpin. The game isn’t exactly a cakewalk and it takes a few levels for the difficulty to ease up once you get some powerups under your belt. That was the way it went for me but once I got over that hurdle I thought the game was pretty easy. There are so many extra lives available not to mention continues I never had to touch. I decided to place the game just below average difficulty although I could be persuaded to slide the game up or down a notch.

TaleSpin is a solid experience from a good developer based on a quality Disney property, so it’s hard not to recommend the game. The mechanics are neat but they do require some practice and thoughtfulness that takes some time to get used to. Boss fights aside, TaleSpin isn’t all that memorable to me, but that’s not really a negative thing. With Capcom on NES you are pretty much assured of getting a good game no matter what and that is definitely the case here. My advice is if you decide to play TaleSpin, stick it out past the first level and buy that extra shot. I think you’ll have fun with it!

TaleSpin Ending Screen

#12 – TaleSpin