Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!


Castlevania Box Cover

#8 – Castlevania

Whipping your way through a horror movie is certainly no picnic!

The film strip is such a nice touch!

To Beat: Reach the end credits
To Complete: Beat both loops
My Goal: Beat the game without continuing and see how far I can get in the second quest
What I Did: Beat the game with continues and made it halfway through the second quest
Played: 1/2/16 – 1/3/16
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 6/10

Castlevania is yet another classic game series that got its start on NES, though technically I should say it really made its debut on Famicom under the title Akumajou Dracula. It was released in Japan in 1986 on the Famicom Disk System and the game made it on a NES cartridge for US release in 1987. It is the 4th NES release from Konami following Gradius, Rush ‘N Attack, and Track & Field.

I couldn’t really track down much history on the development of the game or the series, although some information can be gleaned based on a sort of companion release to Castlevania just a month after its Famicom debut. Bearing the same title Akumajou Dracula, a different take on this game was released on the MSX2 computer in Japan and it was also released in Europe renamed as Vampire Killer. Castlevania is a very linear game and Vampire Killer took a more open-ended approach. In Vampire Killer, the player must find keys to progress to the later levels which I believe are hidden in alternate paths in the levels. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest refined upon the open-ended concept that Vampire Killer started. The series as a whole after that had more or less two separate phases. Beginning with Castlevania III, the games were mostly linear stage-based affairs, and then Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in 1997 for Playstation firmly pointed the series into the open-ended platformer style again. It’s really interesting that the series started off not really knowing which way to go before ultimately going both ways over a long period of time.

The one thing nearly all the games have in common is candle desecration.

Castlevania on NES is a stage-based platformer game. You play Simon Belmont traveling through the different areas of Dracula’s Castle as he fights his way toward a battle with Count Dracula himself. He is armed with his trusty whip that can be upgraded twice along the way. He also acquires subweapons through item-bearing candles or as an occasional enemy drop. The subweapons available to Simon are the dagger, axe, cross, holy water, and stopwatch. Subweapons have limited ammo and this is represented by hearts that can be picked up along the way. Simon can only equip one subweapon at a time –- grabbing a second one causes him to lose the one held previously — and having the right subweapon in his inventory at the right time can really sway the difficulty of the game. The game has 18 levels in total and they are broken up nicely into six areas of three levels each. Each level serves as a checkpoint and each area ends with a boss encounter. Dying puts Simon at the start of the level, but if all lives are lost Simon can use a continue though he has to start back at the beginning of the area. Fortunately there are unlimited continues and it’s a good thing because this game is quite difficult. The game is not all that long so the difficulty is ramped up to make up for it. So typical of NES!

Holy water is great, but triple holy water is best!

Similar to the Mega Man series, the Castlevania games have been a fixture of my NES collection for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate to have acquired most of the major NES game series very early on before NES collecting got crazy popular and expensive. Even though I have owned all three NES Castlevania titles for a long time, the first one is the one that I have played the most over the years. It’s been awhile since I have played it but I more or less remember the game well enough that I figured I could make it through without too much trouble.

Now having said that, Castlevania beat me up way more than I expected going in. I’m not sure if I have ever done this before, but I thought after a try or two I should be able to 1CC the game. In two different attempts I knew I had virtually no chance without a lot of extra practice. The first night I played I had to continue in Level 6, and I stalled out in Level 15 and decided to drop it and come back fresh later. I got as far as the Grim Reaper fight but I wasn’t able to get past it. It may be a little unfair, but a good strategy is to spam holy water right on top of where Grim Reaper first spawns so that he never has a chance to attack if you have enough holy water. Otherwise, the fight to me is the hardest in the game. For the life of me, I couldn’t get there with holy water. I would either lose it to another weapon drop or die before I could get to the boss. My best chance came with about 3/4 health and double crosses. In a straight fight, the crosses are very useful for taking out the sickles that float around the screen, but even then it is so hard to move consistently in a way to avoid everything while still damaging the boss. I believe I took out half his health bar on that shot and I never got particularly close in this session otherwise.

This fight is just flying pain everywhere.

The next night of playing was when I was able to beat the game. I ran out of lives and had to continue in Level 9, but this time I got holy water all the way to the Grim Reaper and beat him with the stun lock strategy. It’s shameful, yes, but it’s not against the rules! It took me a few attempts to get to Dracula, and then I completely forgot the strategy for beating him once I got that far. I did end up figuring it out again and beat the game. Even that wasn’t without some fault as I failed to capture a proper picture of the ending screen. After the credits roll and you see the message “Thank You For Playing,” the game drops you off right back at the beginning pretty quickly with no way of stopping or delaying it. I figured this had to happen at some point, but in this case I snapped a picture of the victory stance at the end of the Dracula fight so that is proof enough to me that I did indeed beat the game. I messed that up too because I forgot my name tag in the picture. It’s been rough going for me lately! 🙂

Mmmm wall meat, my favorite!

Now not many people realize this, but Castlevania has a sort of a second quest or hard mode that amps up the difficulty even further. The only way to get to it is to beat the game and keep on playing afterwards. The level layouts are unchanged, but enemies do more damage and there are generally more enemies thrown at you. I noticed in the first area that the zombies appear more often, and there are sections of the game that spawn infinite medusa heads that do not appear in the same locations the first time through. Furthermore I don’t think anything special happens when the game is beaten the second time. I still think a complete run of the game would include beating both quests. I am sure I could have beaten it if I had enough time to play, but since I have never done it before I decided instead to see just how far I could make it. I played until midnight which on that night gave me about 40 minutes or so to play the hard mode. I got to Level 29, or about halfway through the 4th area before I stopped. I only got through Level 28 one time though. The enemy spawns were tweaked and I kept getting knocked into the water by a specific enemy and I only made it through that part once somehow.

So you may have already picked up on this, and I kind of alluded to it above, but this is the first game for my project where I failed to meet the goal I set for myself. I guess this is a good of a time as any to clarify my intentions on my project. Ultimately, my goal is to beat as many NES games as I can, so the “to beat” criteria at the top of each post is the absolute minimum to consider the game done. However, I want to get the most out of these games and so I will try to meet the “to complete” criteria where it makes sense. This is very much on a game-by-game basis, but this will generally include getting the proper ending or best ending, winning on the highest difficulty level, and playing every level and mode in the game as is reasonable. The real end though is to beat the game – the rest of it is icing on the cake.

Castlevania whipped me more than I expected *groan*.

For Castlevania, I decided that beating the game once is good enough. Hard mode has no apparent different ending and there is no way to reach it other than beating the game first, so I would have to start from scratch every time just to maybe make some progress if I am struggling. This is where I decided to draw the line for this game. If there was a hard mode code or a unique ending, I would have worked through it. I don’t intend to be lazy here, but I am working with a limited time budget and I have hundreds of games left to play, so I think this is a good way to go about things. Trimming just a little bit for the sake of overall forward progress is something I will value here and in the life of this blog.

Update 5/27/16: I had a discussion with NES master Tom Votava and he told me that Castlevania actually has three distinct difficulty loops instead of just two. He said most Konami games that let you restart upon completion loop three times before the difficulty stop increasing, and Castlevania is one of those games. It’s hard enough just beating it once, but three times through is something I could accomplish with enough practice.

Castlevania is a great game and worthy of its status as an NES classic. It has that “Nintendo hard” difficulty, great atmosphere, a nice assortment of weapons and enemies, great boss battles, and just the right amount of length. It’s a quality game particularly for an early title in the NES catalog. It’s not a perfect game, but it has a lot going for it and I’m glad I played through it again and at least started to play the game a little bit differently than I have ever done before.

Castlevania Ending Screen

#8 – Castlevania

The Legend of Zelda Box Cover

#7 – The Legend of Zelda

Pick up your sword, young man, it’s time for adventure!

Doooooooo do do do d-d-doooooooo!

To Beat: Reach the end credits
To Complete: Beat both quests
My Goal: Complete the game with all items
What I Did: Completed the game with all items (11 deaths)
Played: 12/21/15 – 12/31/15
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 3/10

The back of the NES box has the written line “Experience the Challenge of Endless Adventure.” While this game certainly has an ending, the Legend of Zelda series as a whole has no end in sight. Dozens of adventures and spinoffs have been created as a result of the success from this classic NES title. The original title is one of the first great examples of an “open world” style of gameplay and it also launched a formula of game design that is still revered and refined upon today.

The Legend of Zelda is the brainchild of Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka and was developed alongside Super Mario Bros. Their aim was to make a game that was different from the linear Super Mario Bros, and so The Legend of Zelda took the opposite approach as an exploratory, open world game. The game was inspired by Miyamoto and his memories of exploring the fields, woods, and caves near his home, and all of these elements are present in the world of Hyrule. The game was released in 1986 as a launch title for the Famicom Disk System in Japan, which had higher game data storage compared to Famicom carts of the time and the capability to save progress directly to the disk instead of utilizing complex passwords, thus making for a large complex game compared to other console games. The Legend of Zelda was released on the NES in 1987 in a unique gold colored cartridge and was the first NES game to feature battery backed saving. The game’s popularity in the US was just as big as its reception in Japan, paving the way for the series to continue to the present day.

Some fine players can go without the sword! I’m not quite there yet.

The Legend of Zelda is a top-down action-adventure game featuring Link in his quest to recover the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom and banish the evil Ganon from the land of Hyrule in order to save the princess Zelda. The game features a large overworld map that players must explore to find treasures and items to aid in the quest, as well as discovering the nine underground dungeons that Link must clear along the way. Link begins the quest with a simple wooden sword (if you remember to pick it up on the first screen!) for short ranged attacking and Link augments this with other weapons and items to add to his arsenal. Several of the weapons double as tools that help Link explore more effectively. For example, Link finds bombs that can be used to hurt bunches of enemies, but these bombs can also reveal hidden alcoves in the overworld and destroy walls in the dungeons. Each underworld dungeon contains one or more of these items and often these are required to either find or navigate later dungeons, which provides a sense of progression but also makes Link much more versatile for the challenges ahead. Once the first eight dungeons are cleared, the ninth dungeon is opened up for Link to take Ganon head-on. After the game is completed and Zelda is saved, a second quest is revealed that is quite a bit more difficult. The locations of the dungeons and other rooms are rearranged and the dungeons are completely different. The game also introduces a few new mechanics that are unique to the second quest. I won’t spoil them here except for one in the next paragraph. 🙂

The Legend of Zelda was a game that I owned new when I was a kid. I think I got it for either my 7th or 8th birthday. I don’t remember much about playing it way back then but I do remember poring over guides to learn where all the pverworld secrets were located, and those memories have carried over to my current playthrough. Back then, those tips helped me out a lot but took away my opportunity to try and figure things out fully for myself. Even with Link at full strength the game isn’t all that easy, however. I do remember figuring out one particular secret in the second quest all by myself that I didn’t see in a guide. One of the new mechanics in the second quest is the ability for Link to walk through certain solid walls in the dungeons. The first time it is needed in the game, I deduced that there must be one path to get into a specific room but bombing the wall did nothing, so out of frustration I just charged in and lo and behold I passed right through to the next room. Well, that blew my young mind that’s for sure!

This one is no brain teaser!

To truly finish The Legend of Zelda, both quests should be completed and so that was my intention from the very beginning. It took me some time playing in small chunks over a couple of weeks but I was able to complete everything from memory without a whole lot of trouble. Between both quests, I died a total of 11 times which is reflected in the ending screen. I’m not sure what my lowest death count is but it is probably in the single digits. In this case, it should have been that low because I had some really pointless deaths. For fun, I took note of each death and I’ll summarize them here:

  • Three deaths during early game overworld grinding. These were the most pointless deaths of all. The overworld can be dangerous at times but I have enough experience and capability early on to handle all that with relative ease. Really I died because I was playing late at night and was so tired that I kept nodding off during the game! This is not a reflection on the quality of the game in any way, shape, or form. It just shows that I can fall asleep during just about anything. Not many people can say they fall asleep in the middle of playing a video game so I guess I have that going for me!
  • Also comes in three-headed and four-headed varieties.

  • Two deaths in Level 6. This is the first dungeon to introduce Wizrobes which are the most difficult enemy for me to handle, specifically the blue ones. They fire magic across the screen if they have line of sight to Link, they can faze through solid blocks, and they change direction randomly at will. I believe the only way to damage them is with either the sword or bombs which both require close range, making them risky to attack, and there are always multiple of them when they show up in rooms. These deaths could have been prevented though because I could easily have utilized the healing potion but I didn’t bother to buy it until my third attempt through the dungeon.
  • I’m telling you, these blue guys are just awful.

  • Two deaths during Level 1 Second Quest. These deaths were legit as it is tough to clear this dungeon just starting out. The blue ring (cuts damage in half) would help here immensely but it is equally difficult to farm enough money up front to afford it.
  • Two deaths in overworld grinding in the second quest. After dying twice in Level 1 I decided to buy the blue ring before taking on Level 2, but with low starting health and the time it takes to farm money death will happen.
  • Hmmm what a suspicious bush!

  • One death in Level 6 Second Quest. Another Wizrobe death here plus I ran out of potion before making it back out to get more. I could have done better but I could have done much worse.
  • One death in Level 9 Second Quest. Same as the death above. I don’t know the second quest dungeons nearly as well as I do the first quest dungeons so I was doing a little bit too much wandering and risking death in the process. The fun thing about this dungeon was that I completed it during a New Year’s Eve party at my house. I didn’t want to get too wrapped up in some board gaming while hosting the party so when several people started a game I decided to play in the background and see if I could beat the game before the end of the year, which I did. My friends were getting into it so it was worth it!

The Legend of Zelda has a lot of little interesting tidbits that are known to various degrees, but there is one that I find quite interesting. The dungeons maps have a variety of shapes but they were all designed in a way that they could all fit together like a puzzle. Internally to the game code, they are laid out in a large square similarly to how the overworld is laid out but they are chopped up to make the dungeons themselves have a more interesting shape. The designer, Tezuka, was so good at piecing the dungeons together he only utilized half the space he was given, so the team decided to utilize the other half of the dungeon space to make the Second Quest. The story of this was covered in a session of Iwata Asks, and also this article has some neat images showing how the dungeon maps are stored.

The Legend of Zelda may have left the framework for future Zelda titles to follow, but the first NES entry has an identity all of its own. Future Zelda titles would evolve the formula by making the complex dungeons the real centerpiece of the experience, but by doing so the dungeon order is mostly locked down to guide the player along the desired upgrade path. Aside from a few dependencies, the player can work out the game on his own and take on the challenges out of order, so to speak. It is an approach to game design that is largely abandoned in modern gaming, but it gives the first NES game a distinct flavor and it is very much worth playing today.

The Legend of Zelda Ending

#7 – The Legend of Zelda


#6 – Tetris

Pack ’em tight and clear ’em out in the most famous puzzle game of all time.

Tetris Title Screen

From Russia With Fun!

To Beat: Set the high score in A-Type and finish Level 9 Height 5 in B-Type
To Complete: Score at least 120,000 in A-Type for the best ending and finish all combinations in B-Type
My Goal: Complete the game while scoring at least 250,000 in A-Type
What I Did: Completed the game and scored 288,320 in A-Type
Played: 12/9/15 – 12/14/15
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 2/10

I am reasonably confident in saying that most people that have ever played at least one video game have played Tetris. When people think of a puzzle video game Tetris is nearly always the first one that comes to mind. It’s the perfect example of a game that is simple to pick up and understand but that is tough to truly master, and it’s that accessibility that makes Tetris one of the best games ever conceived.

Tetris has a very long and complicated history and I can’t properly do it justice, so I’ll view it here from a very high level. Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov while he was working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He made it just as a fun little game to test out the capabilities of new computer hardware and it became popular with his colleagues at work. A couple of co-workers ported the game to PC and it exploded in popularity almost from the start. The game was picked up and ported all over the place unoffically. The rights to the game were eventually given to the Soviet government for 10 years and during this time Nintendo was able to license Tetris and make versions for both the Game Boy and NES.

The other interesting bit of history of Tetris on NES is the legal dispute between Nintendo and Tengen. Atari Games had the license to make the arcade game while Nintendo held the licenses for their home consoles and handhelds. Tengen comes into play because they are the division of Atari Games responsible for home console games. Already holding the arcade license, they also decided to apply for a console license and went ahead and developed and released their version of Tetris on NES. Nintendo caught wind of this and argued that they held the rights instead. Atari Games sued, they went to court, and Nintendo was awarded rights by the courts. This forced Tengen Tetris off of store shelves after only four weeks. As I have read, in the early days of NES collecting Tengen Tetris was considered to be one of the rarest if not the rarest NES release. This has proven false as there are quite a number of copies out there for sale even though Tengen Tetris is uncommon and a bit on the pricey side these days.

I bet you can hear the music in your head already

So for those of you living under a rock, I will explain how Tetris is played. Tetris is a puzzle game where blocks made up of four tiles each fall from the top of the playfield. The player has control of the falling block and can rotate and shift the block and set it into place at the bottom of the playfield where it is locked down permanently. Whenever complete rows are put together on the board they are removed and the rest of hte stack is shifted down to make room for more blocks. The blocks are called tetrominoes because they consist of four small tiles, and there are seven types of blocks tetrominoes that cover all possible arrangements of those four individual tiles. The game ends when the playfield fills up and the new block is obstructed from entering play. The speed of the falling blocks increase as more lines are cleared and eventually the speed becomes too much to handle for all but the most advanced players. The falling speed is also tied to how many points are awarded from clearing lines and also you get more points for clearing multiple lines at once, so Tetris is just as much a scoring challenge as it is a survival challenge.

This version of the game contains two different modes called A-Type and B-Type. A-Type is exactly as described above. You choose a starting speed and plays until the stack fills up. There are a number of fun ending sequences with a rocket liftoff that play out depending on the final score. B-Type is a race to complete 25 lines. You not only set the starting speed but you can set the height of a set of junk blocks that are initialized on the board. The height can be set to 0 however removing all the junk blocks from the start. Removing 25 lines results in another set of fun ending sequence where different things fly or run across the screen depending on the speed level, and the higher the starting height the more of them show up. They don’t really add much to the game but they are neat to look at.

Wow Russia looks like a scary place!

Wow Russia looks like a scary place!

I’m pretty sure I still have the copy of Tetris that my parents bought for their NES. We had maybe a dozen games by that point but of course Tetris fever hit and it got a lot of play in our house. I remember having a high score sheet taped up somewhere in the house tracking our personal high scores and seeing who had the best score in the family. I seem to remember having the highest score but both my Mom and Dad got pretty good at it too.

For my run, I first played all of B-Type and decided to win all 60 combinations of speed level and height in order. With 25 lines each that’s 1500 lines so that took me awhile. I chipped away at it over the course of several days. I didn’t really have any trouble. Some of the levels at the end took a couple of tries each before I had a good enough layout to win and I even beat Level 9 Height 5 on my first try. After that I was ready to take on A-Type with a pretty lofty goal of scoring 250,000 points while starting from Level 0. This is over twice the number of points required to get the best ending sequence, and I would have been okay if after a few tries I made it reasonably close to my goal. As it turns out, I beat my goal score on my very first try. I got all the way to Level 19 where I think the game drops pieces one space every two frames or something crazy quick like that. At that speed I can’t recover from any mistakes and that’s where it all ended. I am really happy with how things unfolded and I’m satisfied to put Tetris to rest for awhile.

Looks like a lollipop

Looks like a lollipop

Last year I read an article called Applying Artificial Intelligence to Nintendo Tetris which is a highly technical but fascinating look at not only the design of an AI bot that plays perfect Tetris but also the inner workings of how the NES version of the game operates. One very interesting tidbit I gleaned from this article is that this version of the game contains a hidden, working 2-player mode that was left in the game code but is incomplete. Multiplayer is the one significant feature missing in Nintendo’s version of Tetris compared to Tengen’s game, so it is both neat to see that Nintendo was working on 2-player and also disappointing that it wasn’t finished.

This is not related to the NES version, but high level Tetris play is mind-boggling to watch. There are a series of arcade games released in Japan called Tetris: The Grand Master that feature rating systems and a complex set of requirements to reach the highest rank of Grand Master. There are three installments with a fourth on the way, and each successive game has stricter requirements to reach Grand Master rank. To get an idea of how ridiculous this is, the 3rd game was released in 2005 and as of this writing in 2015 there are only 6 people in the world to achieve Grand Master status in that game. One of the craziest gimmicks in this series is during the credits roll where the player must survive a new game while the playfield is invisible while visible blocks continue to fall at high speed. I saw a successful demonstration during Awesome Games Done Quick and there are hardly any words to describe how insane it is to see it done. Here is an article on the latest player to achieve Grand Master rating in Tetris: The Grand Master 3.

Update 5/27/16: It was brought to my attention that I completely omitted any reference to the documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. Released in 2011, it covers the search for the world’s greatest Tetris players to compete against each other in the 2010 Tetris World Championship. Now, I can’t do the film any justice since I haven’t seen it for myself, but I know I definitely need to make the time to watch players that are way better than I will ever be.

Update 5/27/16: I wanted to draw attention to my relatively low difficulty ranking I gave to Tetris. That score is based solely on the parameters I chose for beating the game, which is relatively simple to do. It requires some practice on B-Type 9-5 but there is the opportunity to play so many games in a row since each run can be very short. Some people have argued for much more strict parameters to consider the game beaten, such as maxing out the score or reaching Level 29 where the speed can’t go any higher. If that’s the condition for beating Tetris, then that is an easy choice for 10/10 difficulty as there are only a small handful of people in the world that have dedicated themselves to accomplishing that feat. Another thing I overlooked is that the Tetris manual outlines the method for choosing Levels 10-19 from the menu, and it’s not much of a stretch from there to suggest that it is necessary to beat B-Type 19-5 as well. I am perfectly fine with taking the easy way out in this case!

Tetris is probably most well known as the game to launch as a pack-in with the Game Boy, and the two paired together so perfectly. The NES version of the game is still a great game on the NES and a solid port of the ubiquitous classic puzzler.

Tetris Ending Screen (A-Type)

#6 – Tetris (A-Type)

Tetris Ending Screen (B-Type)

#6 – Tetris (B-Type)