This challenging top-down shooter is an early contender for most difficult NES game ever.
To Beat: Reach the ending after Level 4
My Goal: Beat the game without using the continue code
What I Did: Beat the game without continues
Played: 4/26/16 – 8/18/16
My Difficulty: 10/10
I think that I have accomplished many impressive feats in a number of NES games over the years. Name a popular NES game that has any pedigree of difficulty and I have most likely beaten the game with ease many times over. There are many other NES games out there that are less talked about that also pose a stiff challenge. This is where Ikari Warriors fits in. I have come to find out that the NES version is known primarily for two reasons. One reason is that it is part of a series of three NES games, and the other is that it is generally mentioned in a short list of the most difficult NES games to clear among players with a broad understanding of the library. Now that I have experienced this game in full on my own, I can attest that it deserves its rank among the most challenging games on the console.
Ikari Warriors started out in the arcades in Japan in February 1986 titled simply as Ikari, meaning Fury. It was released worldwide a month later in March 1986. Ikari Warriors was developed by SNK and published by Tradewest in the United States and Europe. It is regarded as the first major arcade hit for SNK in the US. The NES game was developed by Micronics and published by SNK. It was released on the Famicom in Japan in November 1986 and it made its way to North America in June 1987. In addition to the NES version, it was also ported to the Atari 2600 and Atari 7800 as well as several home computers.
The arcade cabinet utilizes rotary joysticks, and though the game was not the first to use that type of joystick it is the first major hit to use one for the controls. A rotary joystick is a standard eight-way joystick that can also be twisted like a dial or knob providing additional input into the game. In Ikari Warriors, the player character can walk around by tilting the entire joystick and aim weapons in another direction by rotating the joystick handle in the desired direction.
Ikari Warriors is a vertically scrolling top-down shoot-em-up game. Paul and Vince are two soldiers who are tasked to invade an enemy nation as their plane crashes into enemy territory. The game begins with the crashed plane at the bottom and play constantly continues upward as they make their way deeper into enemy territory. In single player only Paul is used. Paul is equipped with a machine gun capable of firing three on-screen bullets at once. He is also armed with grenades that can be thrown in an arc and they deal more damage than the standard bullets. Press A to throw a grenade and press B to shoot the machine gun. Ammunition is limited to a max of 99 bullets and 99 grenades, and while that sounds sufficient it is easy enough to run out of weaponry in a critical spot unless more ammo is found.
There are a bunch of enemies to contend with along the way. Most of the enemies encountered are blue foot soldiers but they have several different attack patterns that they can use and you can only tell how they will behave by observing them. Some soldiers simply run forward and retreat, some shoot bullets and change walking direction every few steps, some chase you around, some toss grenades, some hide underwater and pop up occasionally to shoot, some snipe you from afar, some fire missiles, and some trigger a suicide explosion when you get too close.
There are also several types of larger enemies that require more than the standard bullet to dispatch. There are tanks that drive around a defined path and shoot missiles, including a big tank that can be difficult to take out. There is a large stationary tank that fires a spread shot as well as a large fortress with a gunner inside. There are other enemy types that are local to specific areas in the game and as a result they appear less frequently than the standard enemies described here.
In addition to the enemies there are three other recurring hazards that must be dealt with. The ground in Ikari Warriors is scattered with landmines that only reveal themselves when in close proximity. There is ample time to recognize and avoid them, but in the heat of battle a little bit of lost focus is all it takes to collide with a mine and lose a life. The next recurring annoyance are sensors that also show up when standing nearby just like the landmines. Get too close to a sensor and a guided missile shows up from offscreen and explodes right on top of the sensor. In some cases, it is possible to run right through a sensor and miss the eminent explosion entirely, although that is a risky strategy that does not always work. The third danger is what I like to call the “hurry up” missile. The game requires constant progress and so to enforce that if the screen does not scroll for awhile or even advances ahead too slowly, a series of missiles will fire down randomly from above until you make enough forward progress. It’s really important to take your time in this game while also being mindful of moving forward enough to avoid triggering these missiles.
Fortunately Paul and Vince have a number of upgrades and pickups that are essential to completion. The most important of these is the rideable tank. A flashing stationary tank indicates that it is ready for personal use. Press A while standing on the tank to get in. While in the tank you can only attack by pressing B to fire missiles that deal grenade damage at the cost of one grenade. When on foot grenades only deal damage when they hit the ground, but missiles fired while in the tank hurt enemies at any time along the flight path. The tank does not take damage from bullets, but being hit by a grenade, missile, or even a grenade explosion causes the tank to stop working and self destruct after a few seconds. In that case, you must exit the tank by holding the A button and pressing B and get out of the way quickly. The other benefit to the tank is that you can aim in one direction while moving in another direction. The NES does not have any sort of rotary joystick, and with the lack of buttons on the controller that means on foot you can only fire weapons in the direction you are walking. The tank gets around this by taking advantage of the unused A button while riding. Hold the A button and press the direction pad while not moving to rotate the turret in one of eight directions.
While tanks are incredibly useful, they do have some drawbacks. Typically a tank will start off with 100 units of fuel that tick down via an onscreen counter. When it reaches 10 it will set off an annoying low fuel chime, and when it hits 0 it stops working and starts the self destruct sequence. Just like when the tank is destroyed you can escape when out of fuel, but you must be quick! Tanks also cannot be driven in water. The game is very intentional about placing bodies of water where you are forced to ditch the tank to proceed forward.
It’s worth mentioning that in a few spots you get the chance to pilot a helicopter for a very short time. You can fly over the water and most solid obstacles as well as fire both a triple shot and missiles if you so choose. The only problem is that it only starts with 28 units of fuel, but it is fun and helpful while it lasts.
Aside from the heavy equipment there are several other powerups. The basic ones are usually dropped when pink soldiers are defeated. The F powerup allows bullets to penetrate walls and other solid obstacles. The L powerup extends the range of shots and the S powerup makes shots travel faster. The B powerup strengthens the grenade by greatly extending the damage radius of the blast. All four of these powerups will also apply to the missiles fired while riding in the tank. Occasionally a green soldier will appear that leaves a K powerup behind that destroys all enemy soldiers on screen when grabbed. There are also ammo pickups typically found when destroying the larger stationary enemy types. Grenade ammo restores 50 grenades up to the 99 maximum and the bullet ammo fully restores the bullet count back to 99. The fuel pickups are the best. Not only do they restore fuel back to the maximum of 100 if you are riding in the tank, but they also act as both grenade ammo and bullet ammo even when not in the tank. Sometimes when destroying a small enemy tank a regular rideable tank is left behind that you can get in. These tanks can be a really useful surprise but they only give you 32 fuel to start with so their use is limited.
There is also a set of special powerups that do not appear from enemy drops except in some very rare cases. These powerups are hidden throughout the levels and are made visible by shooting their hiding places. Memorizing the location of these special powerups is essential to success in Ikari Warriors. The SS powerup doubles the walking speed from lethargic to at least an acceptable pace. The knife powerup allows Paul and Vince to defeat most enemy soldiers by simply bumping into them instead of taking a death when that occurs. It also makes them immune to a few types of enemy attacks making the knife more of a defensive upgrade than an offensive upgrade. There is a super fuel powerup that looks like a fuel can with the letter H written on it. It restores all ammo as well as setting the fuel to 200 when in a tank, though I found that only came into play one time in the entire game. There is a triple shot powerup which sounds great but ultimately it should be avoided at all costs. Upon collecting the triple shot all bullet powerups are stripped away. If you have the triple shot and grab a bullet powerup, then you lose the triple shot. Now only does it downgrade your machine gun but it also affects tank missiles so it is not worth it at all. Finally, the heart powerup is the most critical powerup in the entire game. Collecting a heart allows you to keep all of your weapon powerups including super speed and the knife if you die. It only works once so you will need to find another heart if you die while having one.
There is also one more set of items that simply add to your score. An ammo box is worth 1000 points, the clock is worth 2000 points, and gold bars add 5000 points. There is also the bikini-clad Athena from another popular SNK arcade game that bestows a random number of points. You can earn 1500, 2500, 5000, or 10,000 points when you touch her. That is not nearly as creepy as it sounds!
You may have noticed I did not mention any extra life pickups. That would be because there are none in the game. The scoring items are useful because you can gain extra lives via point milestones. You get an extra life at 50,000 points, another at 100,000 points, and an additional life at every 100,000 points beyond that. You start the game with two lives and adding more through score is the allotment for the entire game. While there is a score counter, grenade counter, and an ammo/fuel counter, there is no way to see how many lives you have other than tracking it mentally yourself.
There are no continues in the game, so when the lives are through it is Game Over and back to the start. Now there is a continue code that is just about as well known as the game itself. There is a lengthy delay between losing the last life and Game Over, and if you input the buttons ABBA within that period you will respawn with two additional lives. It is a simple code, but unfortunately it is not published in the manual that came with Ikari Warriors. Therefore to me the usage of the continue code is strictly off limits. As it turns out there is a specific part of the game where the continue code is rendered useless anyway.
I think the picture is starting to paint itself for why Ikari Warriors is so challenging, but it gets far worse from here. While the arcade version and all the other Ikari Warriors ports to my knowledge contain only one long level, for some reason the developer Micronics decided to lengthen the NES game considerably by adding three more levels of equal length. I watched a full playthrough of the arcade version and the entire game consists of the first three-quarters of NES Ikari Warriors Level 1 with the other quarter of the game loosely resembling part the end of Level 3. This is the root of why Ikari Warriors is such an incredible gaming feat to finish. The four long levels add up to about an hour of play all the way through with a strictly limited allotment of lives. Even with the continue code there is still a portion of the game that needs to be memorized where the code fails, not to mention the effort it takes just to reach that point in the first place.
Truly the way to beat Ikari Warriors on NES is to flat out master the game all the way through by playing it over and over again. Many of the enemies and powerups are predetermined so the game is largely an exercise in anticipating the enemy threats and developing the muscle memory to fight through these threats in an appropriate manner. However some of the enemies and hazards have randomness to them that can easily throw a wrench into the best laid plans. One unexpected fatal attack with no heart to revive powerups can utterly cripple a playthrough at just about any time. The game also pulls a dirty trick by removing all powerups at the start of a new stage unless you happen to hold a heart all the way to the end of the previous level.
Naturally with the amount of time I spent trying to beat Ikari Warriors I think it is clear that this was my first time beating the game. There is no special story to how I got the game because it is pretty common to find and cheap to boot. I think it’s easy to find because it is both an early NES game and one that not many people want.
Here are some statistics of my time spent with Ikari Warriors that should indicate just how deep this rabbit hole went. I started playing the game on April 26th and my winning run was on August 18th which is a span of 115 days. There were 14 days where I was not able to make an attempt so I played the game for 101 days. It took me a whopping 328 attempts from the start to beat Ikari Warriors and my total game time was 103 hours and 50 minutes. (My timekeeping was rough at best but it’s reasonably close.) Including off days I played slightly fewer than three attempts per day with an average play time of 19 minutes per run. The most impressive stat of all is that I did not break a single controller while playing this game. Talk about willpower!
I also documented some milestones because why not?
- 05/08/16 – Attempt #91 – Finished Level 1
- 05/13/16 – Attempt #106 – Cleared Level 1 deathless
- 06/15/16 – Attempt #210 – Finished Level 2
- 06/28/16 – Attempt #237 – Cleared Levels 1 and 2 deathless
- 07/13/16 – Attempt #269 – Finished Level 3
- 08/04/16 – Attempt #303 – Reached the Final Boss
My last day of playing Ikari Warriors was somewhat interesting due to some external circumstances. I have had times where I really struggle to get gaming time in my personal life and I had to go to some lengths to try and get attempts once each good run started reaching 45 minutes and beyond. I typically stay up really late to play but sometimes I sleep for a couple of hours and then wake up to do some chores and sneak in some video games while everyone else is asleep. My winning run happened during the early morning but this time it was way later than normal. I got up at 3:00 a.m. to do dishes and then against my better judgment I decided to start a run after 4:00 a.m. My penultimate run was a pure throwaway run when I lost all my lives at the very beginning of the game, and then I started a new game and made it to the end. I finished at 5:20 a.m. and my hands were shaking as I took as many pictures as I could while trying to cherish the moment. I was beyond pumped but I had to keep it down not to wake up anyone. I tried to go back to bed for a little while but I think I got barely a few minutes of sleep after all of that!
My winning run was really solid from a game play perspective. I cleared the first two levels without dying which had been a problem on many late attempts. I died once at the end of the helicopter section in Level 3 and I took an intentional death at the end of the stage to clear it. I never could figure out how to finish that section without dying so sacrificing a life there to ensure forward progress is the next best thing. Level 4 was the best I have done on that stage. I can’t remember if I died once randomly there but if I did it was only once and in a good spot. The final segment of the last stage is very difficult but manageable with all powerups intact and I got there with maybe five lives remaining. I died a few times to the last couple sets of enemies and I lost all of my powerups right before the final boss. I died once or twice to the final boss but I managed to get into what I think was a safe spot and I beat the game from there. I think I may have had one life remaining but I could very well have been on my last life. The ending screen is just horrible but oh so sweet to lay eyes on!
I think most people would agree that the legitimate way of beating Ikari Warriors is to avoid using the continue code, even though the premise of trying to beat the game on a single credit is ridiculous enough to begin with. The question I have is if the developers intended for players to use the continue code to work through the game normally. The ABBA code is both short and easy to remember and there is a long enough window before the Game Over screen to input the code successfully. On the other hand, there is a stage select code that is a whopping 32 key presses long, so why would the continue code be so much shorter if it were really meant to be hidden? The thing is that I can’t find any evidence of how the continue code was first revealed. It’s not included in the manual, so perhaps it was spread by word of mouth, published in a gaming magazine, or revealed publicly by the creators somewhere. The truth may never be known. That said, there’s a documentary video of SNK on YouTube that contains a segment about the decision to add the continue code to the NES version of Ikari Warriors. I will leave it up to you to decide what that true intention was.
I really can’t recommend anyone to try and play through Ikari Warriors like I did. I was dedicated to beating this game as much as anyone and it took every ounce of effort and time I could pour into it. The game itself is competent for 1987 but not particularly notable outside of its crushing difficulty. The player character is way too slow for this kind of game and the NES port is hurt by not allowing walking in one direction and aiming in another. The graphics are okay and the music is okay as well even though there are only two songs in the entire game that loop constantly. The game is average at best and the difficulty for sure drags it down to below average overall. If you are dead set on trying it out, please consider using the continue code. If you want to try beating it the same way I did, then you have my deepest sympathy.
I don’t know if Ikari Warriors is the hardest NES game, but of all the games I’ve played on the console I know this is easily the most difficult game I’ve finished and I consider my victory one of my top achievements in all of gaming. In spite of all the flaws and difficulty, I had fun with it. If I ever have the opportunity to show off my NES gaming skills this will be the game I pick now that I know I can handle it, and now I won’t be embarrassed to use the continue code!