Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

brain

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

 
MAY
13
2016
0
Ghoul School Box Cover

#23 – Ghoul School

I’m willing to bet the name of the game was thought of first.

A nicely detailed title screen!

A nicely detailed title screen!

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 4/16/16 – 4/22/16
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10

With a game library as big as the NES has there are sure to be several interesting games hidden away. Well, interesting is a word that can certainly be used to describe Ghoul School but I’m not sure it’s the best one. There is absolutely an intriguing game here that is pretty creative but ultimately it falls flat in a number of ways. However, just like several other games I’ve covered, it has grown on me and I’m glad to get to share it with you.

Ghoul School was released on the NES in March 1992 and it is exclusive to North America. It was developed by Imagineering and published by Electro Brain. I was surprised to learn that Imagineering developed several games for the NES but having looked at various lists online most if not all of their games are not regarded very well. Their best known games are the three Bart Simpson games on the NES. Electro Brain published six games on the NES and all of them are ones that could be consider obscure.

Ghoul School is a side-scrolling platformer. You play as a high school student Spike who finds a mysterious skull and brings it to school which ends up causing all sorts of nefarious creatures to take over the place. It’s up to you to both rid the school of evil and save the head cheerleader. You start off in the main hallway of the school armed with only a baseball bat, but you can explore the school freely searching for more weapons and items that will help you explore the school. It is very reminiscent of Metroid in this way. Each room is individually numbered and displayed at the top of the screen to help keep track of where you are in the school.

The ghouls look much more terrifying than they actually are.

The ghouls look much more terrifying than they actually are.

There are several weapons to find in the school and you can switch to any collected weapon you want. Everything has unlimited use so fire away. One of the first weapons you will find is the towel which has better range and is also somehow more powerful than the bat. There are also a number of guns that let you attack from a distance though they generally deal less damage. Some weapons fire downward to help you attack enemies on the ground. There is usually one weapon best suited for a particular situation so there will be lots of switching weapons around.

There are also a couple of different pairs of shoes you can equip. You start off with basic sneakers but you will also need to find the spring shoes and suction cup shoes. The spring shoes cause you to jump higher and they also make you taller. These are needed to pass by tall obstacles in order to explore further in the school. The suction cup shoes let you walk along the ceiling provided the ceiling is low enough to reach with a jump.

You will also find apples that restore your health. Green apples restore a quarter of your health and red apples fully restore your health. The best of all is the golden apple. There’s only one of these in the game but it is a permanent upgrade that cuts your damage received by half. Enemies don’t drop any health pickups so you will have to seek out these items as you explore the school. If you play the game for a little while you’ll figure out where you can generally find the healing items.

The school map contains a lot of areas that you would expect to find in a school. There’s a gymnasium, cafeteria, office, library, and so on. These one-off locations are the areas you want to search out because they contain the weapons and shoes you need to progress onward. These areas also feature unique ghouls that are tougher than the standard enemies and they often require specific weapons to take them out. Think of them like bosses. There are several of these unique enemies which is a nice touch.

Other than the deep void of darkness in the background, this does resemble a weight room.

Other than the deep void of darkness in the background, this does resemble a weight room.

Now all of this so far may sound pretty good, but there are a number of things that really hurt the game and make it hard to play. The biggest sticking point is the physics of the character. Spike feels very heavy to control. He takes some time to build momentum and takes even more time to slide to a stop. The jumping is very stiff and doesn’t seem to respect gravity. He falls down just as fast as he jumps, and this makes it very hard to make long-distance jumps. These movement problems are really evident early in the game when you have barely any attack range with the bat. You have to get really close to deal damage and more often than not you will run right into the enemy until you get used to the controls. Some of the early enemies attack really quickly as well leaving you with a small window to get in and hurt them.

The other physics related complication is that colliding with the enemy gives you really severe knockback. Trying to fight enemies with short range attacks is so frustrating in Ghoul School. Either you don’t get close enough to deal any damage or you get too close and get thrown backwards. Now for some reason the developers decided to place enemies right at the entrance to some of the hallways. What happens is that you try to get close enough to attack and if you accidentally touch the enemy then you get thrown back into the previous hallway. Now you have to start all over and try fighting the enemy again. This happens in several locations and it only provides unnecessary frustration. The only solace here is that once an enemy is killed it remains dead. It will only respawn after you travel many rooms away.

I'm pretty sure most of the classrooms are for teaching history.

I’m pretty sure most of the classrooms are for teaching history.

Along the same lines, there are some enemies that are too low for you to properly attack. One little recurring nuisance of an enemy is called Blinky. They scurry around at ankle level and they run super fast. You can’t duck in this game and the majority of the weapons attack too high for you to deal with these critters. The weapons that do reach down don’t shoot downward quickly enough to be effective. For example, the first weapon you will come across that can reach tiny ground enemies is called the Digestaray. It shoots a straight shot that curves toward the ground. To use it against Blinky, you need to have it already equipped and start firing off shots the moment you see it running on screen. If you wait too long you will shoot right over its head and now you have no chance of killing it. Blinky will never leave the screen instead opting to run around you just outside of attack range and it will bounce you all over the place with the knockback. They don’t do much damage at all, but they make it really tough to make any kind of forward progress in the room.

The whole game really boils down to exploring one giant maze. A large portion of the game map consists of similar looking hallways and similar looking classrooms that for the most part don’t hold anything of interest in advancing your quest. The hallways often have doors that lead to isolated classrooms, and the hallways link together via walkways and stairways at the end of the hall. Each end of the hallway can have up to three exits: Forwards, upstairs, or downstairs. Many of the hallways are just empty dead ends. It is very confusing to make sense of the layout. Having every single room in the game numbered is about the only thing that makes rooms distinguishable.

You will see your health bar on the top of the screen as well as the health bar of the enemy you are fighting. There’s also a scoring system that doesn’t really mean anything since there’s no high score keeping. It doesn’t show up during game play, but Spike has five lives in all and you see how many lives are remaining in between lives. There are no extra lives in this game. It’s not obvious but you do continue when you start over. You start back at the school entrance with all of your collected items intact. There’s no saving in this game and no passwords so you will have to beat it all in one shot.

As expected, the science experiment went wrong!

As expected, the science experiment went wrong!

The graphics in this game are more than adequate. It very clearly looks like a school. There are several interesting setpieces that are unique to the areas they are found in. For instance, the weight room has a huge, detailed exercise machine right in the middle. You can walk behind the bookshelves in the library and see yourself peeking behind the gaps in the books. The graphics may not be super great but they are interesting to look at. The character designs are really strange and creepy. Many of the enemy types look like people and they are generally drawn very tall and lanky. Spike changes visibly when switching weapons and shoes for a nice touch. The music isn’t too bad. Perhaps it might be grating to some but I didn’t really mind it.

I bought my copy of Ghoul School on eBay for $10 a couple of years ago. It was selling for around $15 at the time so it was a nice deal, but I missed that the fold on the label was completely torn off so that the end label and front label are split in two. It’s not awful but I’ll want to upgrade it at some point if I ever run into another copy. My local store had one for $10 for a long time but the end label was faded really badly so I kept passing on it. It eventually got bumped up to $18 and since then someone bought it. It’s not a game I’ve seen around much so I’m not surprised someone else snagged it.

Certainly this is punishment for severe misconduct!

Certainly this is punishment for severe misconduct!

This was my first time beating Ghoul School. I had only tried it when I got the cart and I pretty much dismissed the game as weird right away. When I started out this time, I wandered around and almost instantly got lost. I have a good sense of direction overall but this game made me at least question it a little bit! I realized the only way I was going to make sense of this school was to go old school and draw a map. The art of video game map making goes back a very long way but I believe this is the first time I have ever drawn a map for a game. It turned out to be a very good decision since I only had to hit the unnecessary portions of the map once. Each time I played I got a little bit further and it didn’t take that many attempts to complete the game.

Without spoiling a lot of the game, there’s not much more for me to say about Ghoul School. What I will say is that I found the game got more interesting the farther I went. The last quarter of the game in particular did a few things that I thought were really kind of neat. I believe I have almost all of the game mapped out in my notes. After I finished the game I combed over my map and tried to find all the rooms by number and there were some I did not account for. I’m not sure if these are rooms that I missed or rooms that were not used in the game at all. I think I developed a pretty good route through the school and now I can finish the game relatively quickly. I’m toying with the idea of writing up a more thorough walkthrough. If I ever do that, I’ll host it on the blog and link it here. I’ve peeked at a few walkthroughs online and I’m sure I could do a better job.

UPDATE 7/18/16: Indeed, I did create a Ghoul School Walkthrough. Check it out!

It’s hard for me to recommend playing Ghoul School, but after wading through the control difficulties and getting a handle on the map I really enjoyed this game. Metroid-styled platformers are one of my favorite types of games and so now I have a soft spot for this weird little NES adventure. One final thought: It’s too bad that this game didn’t emerge on my list around Halloween as that would have been most fitting.

#23 - Ghoul School

#23 – Ghoul School