Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#47 – Gargoyle’s Quest II

Every Gargoyle deserves an adventure.

The dark, foreboding music fits perfectly!

To Beat: Reach the Ending
Played: 3/9/17 – 3/17/17
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
Video: Gargoyle’s Quest II Longplay

The concept of a spin-off in media makes a lot of sense. A spin-off can take a supporting character from an existing TV show or movie and give them their own story while giving the storytellers an already established base to work from. Spin-offs have naturally made their way into video games too. One notable example is the Wario Land series which started as a spin-off of the Game Boy game Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins. Wario was the villain of that game but became the protagonist in his own adventure. On the NES, there aren’t very many examples of spin-offs, but today I am going to cover one. The annoying “red devil” enemy from Ghosts ‘N Goblins gets not only an actual name, but also his own adventure in Gargoyle’s Quest II.

The Gargoyle’s Quest series originated on the Game Boy. All games in the series were developed and published by Capcom. Gargoyle’s Quest was initially released in Japan in May 1990. The US would get the game shortly thereafter in July 1990, and it also saw release in the UK in 1991. The game was popular enough to warrant a sequel that jumped platforms to the NES and Famicom. Gargoyle’s Quest II was named Red Arremer II in Japan, seeing release in July 1992. The US received Gargoyle’s Quest II in October 1992, and the European release was in June 1993. The NES game was also ported to the Game Boy in 1993 under the name Makaimura Gaiden: The Demon Darkness, though only in Japan. The third and final game in the series was named Demon’s Crest in both the US and Europe and Demon Blazer in Japan. This Super Famicom and SNES game was nearly released simultaneously in Japan and the US, coming in late October 1994 in Japan and early November 1994 in the US. The European release was also released last, launching in March 1995.

Gargoyle’s Quest II is a hybrid between a platformer and a top-down RPG. You play as the red devil Firebrand, who upon returning from training, finds his home has been wiped out by the mysterious Black Light. Firebrand sets off on a journey to solve this mystery and save the Ghoul Realm. The game initially looks and feels like an RPG. In this top-down view, you can explore towns, enter buildings, collect items, and talk to other ghouls to gain valuable information for your adventure. These towns and other areas in the game are all connected via a large overworld. However, all the action scenes take place in a side-scrolling view. Here you control Firebrand as you jump and fight your way through various stages of action gameplay.

The overworld ties the action sequences together.

During exploration, you can use the D-pad to travel in four directions. You’ll notice right away that Firebrand moves around very quickly in this view. He goes much quicker than the slow, plodding movement in other NES RPGs around this period. Use the A button to talk to other ghouls and interact with some objects. You will also use A to advance the text when talking. The Start button brings up the menu where you can choose from a few options. The Level menu item lets you view your current status. The Tool option lets you look at and choose certain quest items you will find. The Magic option lets you view and choose which attack you can use during the action sequences.

In the side-scrolling sections, use the Left and Right on the D-pad to walk around. Contrary to the other view, Firebrand moves slowly and deliberately. Press the A button to jump. If you press A again while in the air, Firebrand will flap his wings and hover for a short while. While hovering you can move left and right, allowing you to fly and cover much greater distances than just jumping alone. Press B to attack by spewing a small projectile. The Start button both pauses the action and brings up a sub-menu at the bottom of the screen where you can switch between attacks.

There are two mechanics in the side-scrolling areas that complement each other and form the basis for Firebrand’s movement. First is the hover ability briefly mentioned above. In the game, it is referred to as Wing Level. There is a large bar on screen that indicates how long Firebrand can hover in place, and it depletes quickly. When it runs out, Firebrand will fall, or you can choose to fall before it runs out by pressing A again. This wing stamina will restore to full strength as soon as Firebrand lands on solid ground or clings to the wall. This brings me to the second mechanic which is wall climbing. The Wing Level gives Firebrand extended horizontal movement while wall climbing gives him vertical movement. Thus, the levels extend in all directions to accommodate all his movement capabilities, as well as involving spikes and other such hazards in many places to keep Firebrand on course.

Climbing around spike-laden walls is required often.

There are a few items Firebrand can find during the side-scrolling levels. Hearts restore some of Firebrand’s health. There is a life meter on the status bar indicated by small hearts that show how many hits Firebrand can take. There are also red jars called vials that act as the game’s currency. Every now and then you can find a light-colored jar that will expand the maximum number of hearts.

Firebrand can expand his capabilities by items he acquires on the overworld. These are generally given to Firebrand after completion of certain stages or by talking to creatures. They are pretty weird items that slot into a few different categories. There are nail items that increase his Jump Level so that he can jump higher. There are wing items that increase his Wing Level which lets Firebrand hover for a longer time. There are armor items that increase Firebrand’s Life Level which gives him more hearts on his life meter. There are magic items that provide him new attacks. Finally, there are tools which are passive items that are needed to interact with certain characters to advance the story.

The magic items are the most interesting as they both give Firebrand new attacks as well as expand his capabilities in interesting ways. Firebrand starts with the Fire attack that launches a small projectile for attacking enemies. Next is the Buster attack that is a bit stronger than Fire but also can break blocks. The Tornado attack generates a small temporary platform that Firebrand can land on and restore his wing stamina. The Claw attack can form a protective surface against a wall of spikes, giving Firebrand a way to cling to them temporarily. There is also a final magic ability that is useful at the end of the game.

Creating your own platforms sure comes in handy!

I mentioned the vials earlier as the currency in the game. It turns out they are only used for one thing. There are certain creatures throughout the game that will allow you to exchange your vials for the Power of Maelstrom. It is the game’s fancy way of saying an extra life! They do come in handy for tricky areas. However, they get more expensive later in the game.

One more optional item you can find in the game is the Essence of Soulstream. To get it, you have to find two different items in the world and bring them to a person who can combine them into the Soulstream. This item can be used in the platforming levels from the menu. It can only be used once but it lets you restore your health all the way to the maximum. The best place it comes in handy is during one the boss fights that occurs at the end of some stages.

There are some ghouls on the overworld that will provide you with a password if you talk to them. Not only do you get the password, but you also set a checkpoint here that you will return to if you lose all your lives. The passwords are 16-digits, all 0-9, with a mandatory dash in the middle for readability. The passwords have just the right amount of complexity to save all your items and vials, yet they are not unwieldy to use.

Gargoyle’s Quest II has fun boss fights, including this difficult one.

I have played all the way through Gargoyle’s Quest II a few times before this run. Like many late NES Capcom games, it is pretty expensive at around $75 or so. This was one game I bought long before the prices skyrocketed. I had learned of this game in college and I decided to search it out on eBay. It may well be the game that got me to create my eBay account in the first place, I’m not sure. I found a copy for $6, and I even remember the seller was only 30 minutes away from me. I played through the game when I got it and I went back to it periodically over the years.

I’m not incredibly familiar with the game but I was able to work through it without a lot of trouble. The game takes several hours to play through the first time, and I can get through it in around two hours. I played it over three separate nights just due to time constraints. There was only one spot in the game where I lost all my lives and had to restart, but otherwise I think I played well. This is the kind of game where I normally would not record an entire longplay, but I was good enough at the game that I captured one this time. So, if you would like to see the game in its entirety, you may!

Gargoyle’s Quest II is a quality platformer that is fun to play. When you see the Capcom logo on an NES game, chances are it’s a good one and this game is no exception. It has detailed graphics, sprawling stages with good platforming, a haunting soundtrack, and a large overworld that ties it all together. There are only a few things I don’t like about the game. The overworld can be dull to traverse, and there is a bit of a difficulty spike early in the game where you need to cross over a fiery river. There is also some slowdown when many enemies are on the screen. Frankly those are minor complaints. The game is solid and I find it fun to play through every now and again. I’m glad I had the good sense to seek out this game many years ago!

#47 – Gargoyle’s Quest II


#35 – Hogan’s Alley

Do you have what it takes to shoot cardboard targets?

Take a shot at any mode!

To Beat: Finish Game A Round 30, Game B Round 4, and Game C Round 10
What I Did: Reached Game A Round 41, Game B Round 6, and Game C Round 11
Played: 10/17/16
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 3/10

Today we have another Zapper game! It’s not just a Zapper game, but one of the revered “Black Box” NES games as well. The game box features a menacing looking gangster that you just want to blast away! Hogan’s Alley is an early game with some surprising history behind it for a game based on target shooting.

Hogan’s Alley was created in 1984 as a standalone arcade cabinet. The game featured a light gun peripheral attached to the machine that players use to shoot at targets. Hogan’s Alley was ported to the Famicom later in June 1984 and was the third light gun game on the system behind Wild Gunman and Duck Hunt. All three of those games were launch titles when the NES was first released in October 1985. Hogan’s Alley was eventually re-released on Wii U Virtual Console in Europe in October 2015 and in North America a few months later in January 2016.

The name Hogan’s Alley originated from an American comic strip of the same name way back in 1895. Hogan’s Alley is portrayed in the comic as a run-down neighborhood full of odd people. In the 1920s, the FBI opened a rifle training ground at the Special Police School and named it Hogan’s Alley. The school was shut down during World War II. In 1987, a couple of years after the release of the video game, Hogan’s Alley was established in Quantico, Virginia and it is used for tactical training by the FBI and other government organizations. This facility was designed to look and feel like a real small town with a huge fake crime problem. The FBI themselves claim that they chose the name Hogan’s Alley because the rough neighborhood in the original comic strip resembles the style of their training area. I’m just speculating, but possibly the old facility was named after the comic strip and they just carried the name over to the current facility. It is also pretty likely that this was the same reason why Nintendo chose Hogan’s Alley as the name for the video game.

Visual recognition is just as important as trigger speed.

Hogan’s Alley is a light-gun target game that requires the NES Zapper. There are three game modes selectable from the title screen. Game A is called Hogan’s Alley and looks like it takes place inside of a shooting gallery. In each round, three panels will scroll into view sideways so that you cannot see the face of the panels. Once all three come into view they will turn and face you. The object is to shoot each of the gangsters and avoid shooting the innocent bystanders. There are six different people that can appear. Three of them are gun-wielding gangsters that you should shoot, and the others are a lady, a professor, and a police officer that you must leave alone. You only get a short amount of time to fire before the panels flip back to the side. Afterward, the next round begins with three new panels. Each successive round changes the amount of time that the panels face you and this timer gets shorter the longer you play. If you fail to shoot a gangster or fire at an innocent bystander, this you get a miss. The game is over when you accumulate ten misses.

Game B is also called Hogan’s Alley but this time it takes place in what I can only assume is the location Hogan’s Alley. Here you face buildings in the alleyway and the panels emerge from the scenery one or two at a time. The objective is the same. Shoot the bad guys and leave the good people alone. After five panels are revealed, the view will scroll forward to reveal new scenery as well as five more panels. Each round has five different sections of five panels each before looping back to the beginning. Just like in Game A, each successive round has a shorter timeframe for active panels, you accumulate misses when you make a mistake, and the game ends after ten misses.

Keep out! You mean keep the bad guys out!

Game C is called Trick Shot and this game is different from the other two. Cans will emerge from the right side of the screen moving to the left while falling. Shoot the cans to bounce them upward in the air a bit. The goal is to prevent the cans from falling down off the bottom of the screen. On the left side of the screen are three ledges. You want to navigate the cans onto one of those ledges to earn points. The top ledge gives you 300 points, the middle ledge gives you 800 points, and the bottom ledge gives you 5000 points. The lower you go, you get more points at a higher risk of losing the can off the bottom of the screen. The cans will also ricochet off the sides of the ledges keeping them in play longer. There is a tiny safety platform toward the middle of the screen that the cans can land on as well but you only get 100 points for that. Each round has five cans. You get a miss if a can falls off the bottom of the screen and ten misses means the end of the game.

Hogan’s Alley does not have an ending in any of the game modes, so this one has an unclear winning condition. There are a range of potential choices. The easiest condition would be to break the high score of 12,000 in one or all of the modes, but that is a rather low bar to achieve in any mode. The most difficult one would be to loop the round counter. The game can go up to Round 99 before looping back to Round 0. I don’t think this is good either since the difficulty flattens out long before getting that high.

The winning condition I chose has to do with the periodic victory messages that Hogan’s Alley displays on screen. After winning so many rounds, the game will play a little melody and display the phrase “SHARPSHOOTER!” on screen. Play even further and you’ll eventually get the message “SUPER SHARPSHOOTER!” to appear. This is the best possible message you can get and you can see it over and over as long as you keep playing. Obtaining the “SUPER SHARPSHOOTER!” message is what I consider to be mastery of the game for that particular mode. To get this message, you have to complete Round 30 in Game A, Round 4 in Game B, or Round 10 in Game C. I wanted to achieve that in all modes.

Shooting an actual can has to be much more difficult.

My family never owned Hogan’s Alley growing up but I do remember playing it at some point during my childhood. My grandfather likes to hunt and he got into playing several Zapper games at one point, so that is probably where I remember playing it casually. I remember enjoying Trick Shot but that’s the only mode I remember playing.

It didn’t take me very long to beat Hogan’s Alley. I had a much easier time here than when I beat Operation Wolf so that experience probably helped. It did take me two attempts to clear Games A and B and I beat Game C on the first try. I ended up playing until I ended naturally. I reached Round 41 in Game A and Round 6 in Game B before failing out. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture the picture properly when I ended Game C and all I got was the high score. I didn’t take notes either and I’ve already forgotten exactly what I did from several months ago. I did capture an image of the end of Round 10, so I can say I made it to Round 11 for sure.

Hogan’s Alley is a fun Zapper game that doesn’t really offer much once you’ve mastered each mode. It was definitely neat for a launch game and having the novelty of shooting the bad guys (or cans) on the TV. Today, it’s a pretty good game as an introduction to using the Zapper, and that’s about it. I guess it could be fun if you want to chase high scores or compete against someone else. At best it is an average game, but there’s nothing wrong with that in my book.

#35 – Hogan’s Alley (Game A)

#35 – Hogan’s Alley (Game B)

#35 – Hogan’s Alley (Game C)

Balloon Fight Box Cover

#21 – Balloon Fight

Float up, up, and away in this exciting balloon busting Black Box game!

Ready for a fight?

To Beat: Pass Phase 12 in the main game and get Rank 1 in Balloon Trip
To Complete: Roll the score (1,000,000 points) in the main game and get Rank 1 in Balloon Trip
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Completed the game with scores of 1,194,750 and 28,260
Played: 3/29/16 – 3/30/16
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 2/10

Arcade style games such as Balloon Fight pose some interesting questions around what it means to beat the game. On a game that has no ending, how do you determine when you’ve played enough of the game to consider it done? Similar to my dilemma with Tetris, the answer is not always clean cut but I believe a line can be drawn. In this blog I will outline my thoughts as well as cover a very fun black box NES title.

Balloon Fight was originally developed as the arcade title Vs. Balloon Fight released in 1984. It was developed by Nintendo’s SRD division. Later in January 1985 it was released on the Famicom and that port was developed by HAL Laboratories. Balloon Fight came out in the US in August 1986 and in Europe in 1987. All versions of the game were published by Nintendo.

There was a sequel called Balloon Kid that was released on Game Boy in the US in October 1990 and Europe in January 1991. It is a side scrolling platformer game instead of a single screen arcade style game. It was later released on Famicom in March 1992 rebranded as Hello Kitty World. The game is more or less identical to the Game Boy game but with Hello Kitty and other Sanrio characters in place of the original characters. Japan would later receive Balloon Kid in the form of Balloon Fight GB for the Game Boy Color in 2000.

Every level gives you many enemies to deal with.

Balloon Fight is a single-screen platform action game. You control a balloon fighter who takes flight by flapping his arms and using balloons above his head to take flight. The object of the game is to eliminate all the other balloon fighters on the screen by popping their balloons and subsequently knocking them out. The game plays very similar to the arcade classic Joust by Williams Electronics released in 1982. By ramming into the other enemies’ balloons they will float down and you can bop their parachute to remove them from play. If the enemy lands on solid ground you can still ram into them to take them out, but wait too long and they will reinflate their balloons and attack you more aggressively. The enemies can knock out your balloons as well but you are able to take an extra hit. You start with two balloons and the enemy can knock out one of them leaving you with just one. Flying with only one balloon is more difficult because you need to flap longer to gain momentum. One more hit and you will lose the other balloon and go falling to your death.

There are three different versions of the enemy balloon fighter that you can distinguish by the color of the balloons they carry. The pink balloon fighter is the weakest, the green balloon fighter is stronger, and the white balloon fighter is the most difficult one. More points are awarded for defeating the stronger enemies. There are other obstacles to contend with too. Each stage has water at the bottom that contains a big fish. Swim too closely to the water and the fish will pop up and eat you up. This can also play to your advantage with the enemies can be eaten too. When you knock out an enemy a bubble will emerge and float up from the water that you can pop for bonus points. Some of the later levels contain stationary spinning bumpers that will launch one of the fighters away upon contact. There are also clouds in the background that will periodically generate a lightning bolt that launches a spark. These sparks are tiny but deadly to the touch for the player and they bounce off the platforms and the sides of the screen until they hit either the player or the water at the bottom. The sparks act as a “hurry up” mechanic that appear continuously when playing the same level for a little while, and they appear quite early in later stages.

Look out! Spark approaching!

There are 12 unique level layouts in Balloon Fight. Once Level 12 has been completed the game continues on to Level 13 but it loops back to the Level 4 layout. You can keep playing for as long as you can handle and the game will keep looping through Levels 4-12. You start the game with three lives and that is all you get for the entire game. There are no continues and no way to earn extra lives. Getting a high score in this game is a test of endurance and careful control.

After every three stages there is a bonus round. Here there are no enemies and balloons float up out of four background pipes. You pop the balloons for points and if you can pop all 20 balloons in the stage you are rewarded with a large point bonus. The bonus stage layout is the same but there are three different difficulties each with a different color balloon that floats at increasing speeds. If you play for a long time you will see the fastest balloons every round. The order in which the balloons emerge from the pipes is completely random so you will be on your toes trying to pop them all. Another benefit to the bonus stage is that it will set you back to having both balloons if one was lost earlier.

The controls for Balloon Fight are simple but they take time to master. You press A to flap your arms and you can repeatedly press A to fly higher and higher. Alternately, hold B to auto flap. Balloon Fight is very momentum based and each flap will slightly adjust your velocity. Turning around is challenging because each flap also lifts you up as well as nudging you horizontally. Especially when the sparks are bouncing around with multiple enemies on screen it is really important to be in control of your fighter or you won’t last long.

Too many bonus points getting away!

Balloon Fight can be played in two-player simultaneous mode. Work together with a partner to clear the screen of enemies, or you can attack each other if you want. I believe in the bonus room it is safe to attack each other without losing a life. I’m sure it’s a blast to play this way but I’ve never had the chance to play two-player mode.

Finally there is another game mode called Balloon Trip. This is an endless scrolling level scattered with sparks that send you to your doom. You only get one life in this mode. The game scrolls to the left starting with a short pre-defined level layout. Past that the level consists of random sparks that slowly move around. This is purely about surviving the obstacles and lasting as long as you can. You slowly but continuously rack up points just by staying alive, but there are also random balloons to collect for points. Occasionally a bubble will rise out of the water below and popping it freezes the screen for a short time so you can get yourself in good position to survive. The big fish is hiding in the water as well so it’s important to stay high. If you can collect a bunch of balloons in a row without losing any off the screen scroll, then you get a nice point bonus as well as advancing all balloons to the next level of balloon that awards more points. There are three different balloon colors just the same as the bonus round in the main game. There is also a ranking system that compares your score against the top 50 scores so you can see how you stack up. There’s no way to see the top scores and they reset when the game does, but it is there to kind of track your progress when you play.

Balloon Fight is a game that I have always found interest in but took me a long time to find a way to play. My first experience with the game may have been on an emulator back in the 90’s. I know I unlocked it as one of the NES games you can play within Animal Crossing on GameCube and that was one of my most played games there. Later I would buy it on Wii Virtual Console. However I didn’t own an actual cartridge of it even though I had collected many NES games early on. My local store got a copy for $10 and I bought it the first time I saw it. The only other copy I’ve seen was a really beat up, filthy copy for about the same price and I passed on it.

Balloon Trip gets pretty serious right from the start!

I have played the main game before most recently in 2014 as part of the NA weekly contest. I scored 1,239,250 which was good for 4th place that week. I’ve sunk a bit of time into Balloon Trip but I can’t remember if I have ever gotten Rank #1 in that mode. The score to achieve isn’t all that high so it’s very possible that I’ve met that before as well.

Even though there are only 12 unique levels in the game, I much prefer to keep going until I reach the point of highest difficulty. Unfortunately for Balloon Fight there isn’t any information I could find on how the game ramps up in difficulty. From my experience, it seems that the enemies themselves do not get more aggressive or faster, and the level layouts seem to maintain the same mix of enemies every time. What I did notice is that in later loops, the enemies initially inflate their balloons quicker so that they are airborne sooner. It did seem that I reached a point where that timeframe didn’t go any faster but I can’t be 100% sure. So, in lieu of playing to the unknown point of max difficulty, I decided to aim for maxing out the score. The counter is only six digits and after 999,950 it rolls over back to zero and starts over. I felt a little bit bad about not finishing all the difficulties of Operation Wolf last time so I decided to go a little deeper with Balloon Fight than I would normally.

I was able to max out the score in my 7th attempt over two nights of play. The first night I played three attempts maxing out around 700K. I then tried Balloon Trip and I beat the high score with Rank #1 on my very first attempt. However, I missed my shot at taking the picture so I had to try again. I don’t remember how many more tries I needed but it wasn’t very many. The next night on the main game I nearly rolled the score on my fourth overall attempt but I ended just short at 970K. I had missed a perfect on a couple of the bonus levels and one of those would have bumped my score over the million mark. The next two attempts were not nearly as good but on the seventh and final attempt I surpassed a million points on my last life. I finished with a score of 1,194,750 on Phase 54 and I didn’t miss a single balloon in any of the bonus rounds. Here was when I went back to check my personal best score and I saw that I was just short of surpassing that mark. However, for the purposes of this blog, Balloon Fight is now checked off the list!

Oh no! Fish food!

I base my difficulty rankings on what it takes to simply beat the game, and in this case it makes sense to say it’s beaten whenever the levels start looping again. Since Balloon Trip is never ending, beating the top score is the most logical landmark. Considering all that, this is a pretty easy game once you get used to the controls. Balloon Trip seems harder than the regular game but since each run can be so short it’s just a matter of time before an attempt is good enough to take top honors. I beat both modes on my first try and I only kept playing to max out the score on the main mode.

I mentioned before that the NES version of Balloon Fight was developed by HAL Laboratories, but it was specifically programmed by the late Satoru Iwata. He was developing Balloon Fight alongside the team creating the arcade version, and when they compared versions they noticed that the NES game controlled better than the arcade game. Mr. Iwata explained to the other team he accomplished this by saving the tenth’s place of the character position instead of rounding it off to the nearest integer. To actually locate the character on screen requires ignoring the decimal places, but by keeping that data in the movement calculations it leads to much smoother looking movement of the characters on screen.

Balloon Fight is a simple but well executed and fun early NES title. I think it is one of the better black box titles as it is fun to pick up and play while providing long play for more experienced players. The control is very well done and the graphics are simple but clear. The only negative graphically I find is that it is tough to distinguish between the pink balloon enemies and the white balloon enemies. The sound is very basic as well since it is limited mostly to the sound effects driven by events in the game play. There is a nice tune in the Balloon Trip mode which I find pretty catchy. This game is enjoyable to play and that’s what really matters.

Balloon Fight Ending Screen

#21 – Balloon Fight (Before Score Roll)

Balloon Fight Ending Screen

#21 – Balloon Fight (After Score Roll)

Balloon Fight Ending Screen

#21 – Balloon Fight (Ending Score)

Balloon Fight Ending Screen

#21 – Balloon Fight (Balloon Trip)