Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

ball

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

 
OCT
02
2017
0

#53 – American Gladiators

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

A contestant runs around the copyright page before the title.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stick and move.

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

Tap it out while making quick decisions.

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

He doesn’t stand a chance.

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

Always score in the center when it is clear.

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

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

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

Platforming with random projectiles!

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

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

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

This guy is super tough for some reason.

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

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

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

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

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

#53 – American Gladiators

 
AUG
10
2017
0

#49 – Kings of the Beach

No crowns required to be kings in this four-player volleyball game.

Very chill setting!

To Beat: Win a tournament
To Complete: Beat the game on the Difficult setting
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 4/7/17 – 4/13/17
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
Video: Kings of the Beach – Tournament Mode Final Matches

I am not good at sports. I still like to play them when I get the chance even though I wasn’t blessed with any ability. If there’s one game I am at least decent at, it would be sand volleyball. I organized a weekly sand volleyball night with a bunch of friends for several years, and that afforded me the opportunity to practice often. Now don’t let me fool you, I’m still not all that good at volleyball. However, I am pretty good at playing video games. Therefore, it shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for me to complete one of the few NES volleyball games.

Kings of the Beach is a volleyball game developed and published by Electronic Arts in 1988 on DOS. It was ported to the Commodore 64 in 1989 and the NES in January 1990. Ultra Games published the NES port. However, it is unclear if either Konami or Electronic Arts developed this version of Kings of the Beach. The game was only released in the US.

Kings of the Beach is a two-on-two beach volleyball game. You play as professional beach volleyball players Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos. In single-player mode, you only control one character and your partner is computer controlled. The main draw for single player is the Tournament mode. Here you will play against other pairs of players in five different locations all around the world. To win the tournament mode and beat the game, you must win three consecutive matches at each of the five beaches for fifteen total matches.

Interesting cursor choice!

At the start of the game, you move a green cursor around in an overhead map of the beach. This is your menu. The first place you will want to go is the registration tent, which is the game’s options menu. To start, you can assign either a controller or computer control to Smith, Stoklos, and two other competitors. Kings of the Beach supports up to four players simultaneously using the NES Four Score accessory. Next, you can choose between cooperative play or competitive play. This is only needed for a two-player game to decide if you want to play on the same team or not. You can set the difficulty of computer opponents to either Easy, Medium, or Difficult. You can choose if you want to play either a single set or a three-set match, and you can toggle the sound on and off. Choose Exit to Beach to go back to the main menu.

The other menu options are for practice or setting up a game. At the top of the screen there are three beaches labeled Bump, Set, or Spike. If you choose one, you are put in a practice beach where you get easy setups to practice the basic moves. Press Select at any time to exit the training and go back to the menu. At the lower left of the menu is the Match option where you jump directly into an exhibition match with the defined settings. This is the mode you want for a three or four player game. The bottom right part of the menu starts up the Tournament mode. You can select either a new game, or continue a previous game with a password. After that you jump right into the action.

Kings of the Beach plays by standard volleyball rules. Each side has two players and each point starts with a serve from the back of the court. Each side can hit the ball up to three times before hitting it over to the opponent’s court, and teammates must alternate hits. If the ball lands in your opponent’s court, the opponent hits the ball more than three times, or the opponent hits the ball out of bounds, then you win the point. The serving team is the only team that can score, otherwise the non-serving team gains control of the serve if they win the point. In a single set match, the first team to fifteen points wins. In a three-set match, teams play to twelve points per set. In either case, teams must also win by two points. This means play will continue beyond the required winning score until a team leads by two.

Bump, set, spike!

The basic strategy of beach volleyball is to use your three hits to bump the ball, then set the ball, and finally spike the ball. You will use the D-pad to move your player around the court. Quite often you will move on your own to the spot where the ball will land as it’s heading toward you, but sometimes you need to position yourself properly. The ball casts a shadow on the sand that will guide you toward where you want to stand. Press A to bump the ball in the air toward your teammate. To set the ball, press B. To spike the ball, press both A and B. The spike is a powerful jumping hit toward the opponent. You will need to focus on timing for all hits, but spiking the ball requires the best timing. The idea is to run up to the net and jump, meeting the ball with your hands at the top of your jump. For all hits, you can guide it in a direction using the D-pad in conjunction with the hit.

The above moves are mostly offensive moves, but you do have a couple of defensive moves at your disposal. If you know the opponent will spike the ball, you can move up against the net and press A and B together to jump up and attempt a block. Sometimes you can repel the ball right back into the opponent’s court for a quick point. Stoklos has his own signature block called the Kong block, which is very powerful. The other defensive move is called the dig. This happens automatically whenever the ball is just far enough out of reach normally. You will make a dive toward the ball to bump it back up into the air. I didn’t seem to put myself in good positions to do this very often, so in my experience it was left to chance.

Serving the ball effectively is a vital skill. When it’s your turn to serve, you can move up and down the line to put yourself in the position of your choice. There are three different ways to serve the ball. The easiest method is the underhand serve. Simple press A and B together to lob a slow serve at the opposite court. You want to pay attention to the flags that indicate wind direction because an underhand serve may come up short if the wind is blowing in hard. The overhand serve is more powerful. Press A to toss the ball straight up, wait for the ball to come down, and then press B to do a standing, overhand hit. You can use the D-pad to aim the ball while serving. The most powerful serve is the jump serve. Like the spike, it’s the most difficult serve to perform. Press A to toss the ball just before, but this time press A to jump and hit the ball. The more powerful the hit, the more likely the opponent will be unable to return the ball.

With the right timing, the jump serve is the best one.

One neat thing you can do is argue a call with the referee. Every now and then the line judge will make a mistake on a ball that lands near the lines. If you think a bad call went against you, then you can run up next to the judge’s stand and press Start to dispute the call. You will see your player make a scene as persuasively as possible. If you are successful, the referee reverses his call and you get the ball! If the judge disagrees, then he will shake his hand no and hold out a penalty card. This can be either a yellow card or a red card. The yellow card is just a warning, but if you lose a second disputed call in a set the referee will give you a red card instead and you lose a point off your score. Your opponents and even your partner can dispute a call on their own. One key thing is that if you want to dispute a call, you need to decide quickly and get over to the referee right away to plead your case. You lose your opportunity to argue a call if play advances to the next serve.

As stated earlier, to complete Tournament mode you must win fifteen total matches broken up into groups of three. After you win three consecutive matches on the same beach, you get a password for the next beach. The passwords are up to eight characters long and are normal words that are easy to write down or remember. I noticed that the passwords are the same for each beach no matter what difficulty or length of match. For instance, you can win the first round of matches on the Difficult setting with three-set matches, and the next time you play with the password you can select Easy difficulty and single set matches. You can play however you want!

This was my first time playing Kings of the Beach. The game was a later addition to my collection, but it is pretty common and inexpensive so I have had a few copies pass through my hands. I am not a huge fan of sports games even though I enjoy playing a little volleyball. Chances are I would not have given Kings of the Beach much of a chance if not for this project. Chances are I will also say this same thing about many other future games!

Digs are done automatically. This one was successful!

For my playthrough, I decided on playing single set matches on Medium difficulty. I played as the default Smith and let the computer play Stoklos for me. My intent was to learn the game on Medium difficulty and then go back and play the game again on the Difficult setting. At first, Medium difficulty was enough of a challenge. I understood the fundamentals early on, and other than some mistakes with spiking I was already playing well enough to make some progress. My struggles came in the third match of any beach. I could play well enough to win the first two matches, and then I would lose the third and have to start over at the top. That is awfully frustrating. Kings of the Beach became a fight of attrition and required some good old fashioned grinding to seal the win.

It seems like many sports games have some kind of exploit or tactic that makes life much easier. I found one such tactic that helped me win points much more often. The first thing is I needed is the setup to spike the ball myself. Usually this required getting the first hit on the return so that I could get the third hit and spike, but sometimes I would take the spike myself on the second hit instead. It’s a little riskier but it can catch the opponent off guard. My spike position was up against the net either slightly above or below the center. I would spike toward the corner of the net and the closer side line. For example, if I set up below center, I would aim for the lower line near the net, and do the opposite when closer to the top. The opponent tended to favor guarding the larger area so I could sneak it in on the other side close to the line without either player getting to it. That trick does not always work, but it works often enough to be useful.

My partner is disputing a call unsuccessfully.

I beat the entire game on Medium over the course of a few days. Once I accomplished that, I bumped up to the Difficult setting and repeated the final three matches with the last password. If I can beat the last beach on Difficult, then I should be able to beat any other configuration, so I didn’t bother repeating anything else on Difficult. I did not notice any significant changes between Medium and Difficult settings. Perhaps the opponents make fewer mistakes or make powerful serves more often on the higher settings, but I could not tell the difference. With my spiking tactic, I could score more often than not regardless of difficulty. I recorded my video of the final set of matches on Medium difficulty, and then played the final matches again on Difficult unrecorded. The ending is the same on either difficulty.

I would have considered the game more difficult overall if not for the fact that the computer controlled Stoklos handled nearly all the defense for me. Actually, my computer partner played very well in general and handled many situations better than I could have. Most of the time he plays close to the net so he can utilize his powerful Kong block. My job was to back him up and try to get to anything hit past him if I could. We worked together well on the offensive side too. He is a good spiker and serves very well. He’s not a perfect partner and makes mistakes that are unavoidable, but in my opinion he is a more consistent player than I am. It’s a pleasant surprise to have a competent computer player for once!

There are not many volleyball games on the NES to compare, but I think they did well with Kings of the Beach. The game sets itself apart somewhat for having a simultaneous four-player mode. It also performs well as a single player game. The computer controlled players are competent both as opponents and partners. The graphics and music are well done, just as you would expect in a Konami game. The game is a tad lengthy and repetitive, but it’s just the nature of the game so it hard to fault Kings of the Beach for that. If you are looking for an NES volleyball game, you won’t do wrong with Kings of the Beach.

#49 – Kings of the Beach

 
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