Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#43 – Spelunker

This cave exploration game has depth in more ways than one.

There is very foreboding music here that is completely opposite in tone from the main theme in game.

To Beat: Reach the Ending Screen
To Complete: Complete 6 Loops
What I Did: Completed the Game
Played: 12/16/16 – 12/26/16
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
Video: Spelunker Longplay

Derek Yu’s Spelunky is one of the most popular indie games of the last several years. In Spelunky, you descend through a series of randomly generated caves trying to seek out the grand treasure at the end of the adventure. The game is a favorite of mine that I have not given near enough time to playing and learning. Naturally Spelunky was inspired by the classic game Spelunker, and when you dive into the game you can clearly see how the indie title leans on the classic game as its base.

Spelunker is a computer game developed by MicroGraphicImage. Designed by Tim Martin, it was released on Atari 8-bit computers in 1983. Broderbund primarily published later ports of the game. The Commodore 64 version was released in 1984, and the arcade and Famicom ports were released in 1985. The MSX got a port in 1986 and Spelunker came to the NES in 1987. There was a Famicom-exclusive sequel named Spelunker II: Yūsha e no Chōsen also released in 1987. Spelunker has also appeared on Virtual Console. There are a few modern versions too. Spelunker HD was a PS3 downloadable game from 2009 that features 100 brand new levels. Spelunker World is a 2015 PS4 and Vita game, and a brand new game based on Spelunker World is set for release on the Nintendo Switch in 2017.

Spelunker is a side-scrolling cave exploration platformer. Your task is to find the great treasure hidden in the deepest reaches of this cavern. You begin the game on an elevator you control with several paths you can take. The idea is to look around and figure out a way to the bottom. The game consists of one giant level that is broken down into four sublevels separated by checkpoints. You win the game when you reach the final sublevel and locate the stash of treasure.

The initial elevator is as safe as it gets.

Like most platformers, you use the D-Pad to move around. You can use Left and Right to walk as well as climb ropes and ladders with Up and Down. These controls also move the elevator vertically at the start of the game. The A button is used to jump and the B button uses your items. If you just press the B button you fire an air cannon that takes out the ghost enemies. Hold Up and press B to fire a flare upward. These take out the bats, but you only have a limited amount of them. Hold Down and press B to drop a bomb. These are limited just like the flares. Use them to blow up tall rocks that stand in your way, but make sure to stand away far enough from the blast because it can kill you.

The first thing you notice while playing Spelunker is that your tiny adventurer is awfully fragile. You will die if you fall even a tiny distance, and there are many opportunities for this to occur. On the very first screen of the game, you can miss the jump off the elevator and fall to your doom. Past the main elevator is an auto-scrolling elevator. The side closer to you moves downward, so if you try and hop on too low it will kill you. If you can get on the other side, be careful not to ride the ascending side too high while passing through or that fall will also kill you. Spelunker is quick to teach you that death is swift and careful play is necessary.

There are a few enemies and traps in the caves that should be avoided. Ghosts will randomly appear on occasion and they can move freely through the walls of the cavern to hone in on you. Even if you don’t see the ghost you will know it is coming because the music changes as it approaches. You can defeat it by waiting until it is nearby and firing your air cannon. The other recurring enemy is the bat which guards an area with its deadly droppings. Firing a flare will temporarily remove the bat so that you can pass by. There are also stationary traps such as holes in the ground and geysers that spray periodically.

Ghosts emerge from the sides of the screen.

The cavern is littered with ropes for climbing, and these are notorious among Spelunker players for being problematic to deal with. Mastery of rope navigation is a crucial skill to beating Spelunker. When you jump toward a rope, you will automatically grab on to it. You can climb up and down, but you can also move left and right a small amount when on a rope. There is a narrow range of horizontal movement that lets you stay on the rope, so it doesn’t take much lateral movement to fall off the rope leading to instant death. To properly jump off a rope, you need to press Left or Right and the jump button at the same time. If your timing is off, you will either miss the jump or slide off the rope and fall to your doom. Moreover, if you are jumping from one rope to another, you want to take your fingers off the buttons mid-jump so that you auto-grab the center of the next rope. There are several places in the game with multiple rope transitions where you also need to adjust your position vertically in between hops to properly make the jump. There is a feel to good rope movement that is easy to lose the hang of in the middle of a game. Practice makes perfect!

Another important game mechanic is the air meter. As you play your air meter slowly dwindles away, acting as a timer. Firing your air gun to ward off a ghost will also deplete some of the air meter. If you run out of air, you lose a life, but you also start again with a full air meter. There are also items you can find that restore your air.

Speaking of items, Spelunker has several. The most important items for progression are keys. There are blue keys and red keys, and there are corresponding red and blue doors that you can open with them. There are additional flare and bomb pickups. The air meter refill item looks like a stack of rings and fills you up to the max. There are money bags and coins that just give you points. The most interesting pickup is the miracle item. It resembles a snowflake and when you collect it you get a random award. Sometimes you only get points, but other times you may get a flare, a bomb, or an air meter refill. They can also give you an extra life which is most appreciated!

I find it worth going out of my way for the Miracle just in case.

There are also some special hidden items. You reveal them by jumping at certain spots in the cave. These places are often tucked out of the way and more challenging to reach than the normal path. When you trigger one of these spots, you hear a chime and the item will appear somewhere else visible on the screen. These item drops are random and are unique from any other item in the game. You can find the x2 item to double your score for a brief time. Another item either looks like a potion or a shoe, and it doubles your movement speed for a little while. The next one looks like a bracelet and it makes you temporarily invincible from enemies. Finally, the Spelunker head gives you a valuable extra life. There are also hidden diamonds that boost your score, but you find them from bombing specific walls inside the cave instead of jumping. I never knew about these while I was playing so I didn’t collect any.

I found it challenging to pin a difficulty on Spelunker for several reasons. The game has a reputation for being difficult and I can certainly agree with that. The main issue is that the game has touchy and particular physics, so it takes some time to get the feel of the controls and understand your limits with the jumping. Spelunker also introduces a few unique setpieces and obstacles throughout the adventure that I had to fail a few times before getting it down. On the other hand, the game length is quite short. It only takes 10-15 minutes to get to the end. I waffled between giving Spelunker a 7 or an 8 in difficulty before settling on 7 due to the short game length.

This is one of the few times I don’t have much interesting to say about my history with Spelunker. This was my first time attempting a run through the game, and I have no idea where or how I ended up with the cart. The game is common and not very expensive, but the copy I have in my collection is the only one I’ve owned. I suppose I have spent so little time looking at the game that it hasn’t made an impression on me until now!

So near, yet so far!

Spelunker proved to be an interesting game to run through. At the start, it took me a few days of practice before I could reliably get deep in the game. I don’t know how many attempts it took to beat the game but it was probably a 20-30 times. Beating the game one time was a pretty standard experience, but the real fun begins when you start playing subsequent loops of the game. You quickly catch on that something is different the second time through because the cave walls change to a completely different color. As it turns out, Spelunker has six distinct difficulty loops if you want to be considered a master. I was able to beat all six loops in one attempt which I believe very few people have done.

Here is the breakdown of what is different in each loop of the game. If you want to try the game and figure it out on your own, consider the next paragraph a spoiler. The first loop of course is the standard game with golden colored cave walls. The second loop changes the cave color to a dark forest green and also introduces invisible keys. In all the loops, the keys are in the same locations, so once you realize what’s happening this time through is not too bad. The third loop has gray walls and invisible keys along with a new key collection method. This time you must jump where the keys sits to collect it. It’s important to memorize the exact positions of the keys here because you won’t grab them unless you are standing directly on top of them. The fourth loop has yellow walls and this time to collect the invisible keys you must fire a flare while standing on top of the key. This loop is very tricky because if you run out of available flares and miss just one key you must reset and start all over. Also, the gameplay shifts significantly where you should learn how to get past the bats without using a valuable flare. The fifth loop is the same as loop four except the ghosts move much faster. The sixth and final loop is the most devious of them all. To collect the invisible keys, you must jump and fire a flare at the same time. The timing for this maneuver is precise and it is easy to accidently waste a flare by firing it without jumping. The geysers spray faster too. From here the game continuously repeats the final loop’s difficulty and you can keep playing if you want to keep boosting your score.

Spelunker was not very well received in the US, but it gained much more popularity in Japan. There it gained a reputation as a “kusoge,” which is a Japanese compound word that literally means “shit game.” It received that classification due to the slippery controls and the high level of difficulty. Still, there is a subset of people that really get interested in a game like this, and I too thought Spelunker was a fun game. Certainly, it is a product of its time with the controls, physics, and primitive graphics. It’s the kind of game that can grow on you if you are willing to put some time in and see it for what it is. I like that the level design is structured around the movement and limitations of the player, so with that in place I can better appreciate Spelunker for what it offers.

#43 – Spelunker


#37 – The Guardian Legend

Two styles of gameplay collide in this legendary adventure!

A static title screen with some nice music!

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat both the main game and the special mode
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 11/7/16 – 11/19/16
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
Video: The Guardian Legend Special Mode Longplay

In 2012, Mike Matei of Cinemassacre published a now well-known YouTube video listing his top 10 obscure NES gems. The Guardian Legend is the first game I have covered that made his list. Now I won’t tell you exactly where this slotted in on the top 10, but most of the games on that list became instantly more popular overnight, including The Guardian Legend. So the game has a lot of hype surrounding it now, but does it live up to it?

The Guardian Legend was developed by Compile. They are pretty well known for developing shoot-em-up games. The game was first released on the Famicom in February 1988. There it was named Guardic Gaiden and it was published by Irem. The Guardian Legend was released on the NES in April 1989 and published by Broderbund. The game was later released in Europe in 1990 published by Nintendo. The box and label art are unique among all three versions of the game.

Much to my surprise, my research revealed that The Guardian Legend is actually a sequel. There was a trio of games released by Compile on the MSX computer in Japan. The first game was Final Justice which released in 1985 and plays similarly to Galaga. The second is Guardic released in 1986. In this game, each level is a static screen with enemies to shoot. You go to the next stage by flying upward into a scrolling section where you can decide which path and level you want to take next. The third game is Blaster Burn from 1990 which is a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up. The Guardian Legend is the sequel of the middle game Guardic.

There’s a lot going on even in the very beginning.

The Guardian Legend is a shoot-em-up game comprised of vertically scrolling shoot-em-up sections and top-down adventure sections. You play as the Guardian who can transform between a humanoid form and a spaceship form. The goal of the game is to destroy the planet Naju which is filled with monsters and set on a collision course toward Earth. Your mission is to explore the surface of the planet to locate corridors that are buried deep inside the planet. These corridors contain switches that can activate the self-destruct sequence when all of them are set.

The game begins inside the first corridor. Here the Guardian assumes her spaceship form and you play a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up stage. After clearing the stage, the Guardian switches back to her humanoid form and then you explore the surface of the planet from a top-down perspective searching for the next corridor. The game format resembles The Legend of Zelda in that you explore an overworld while looking for dungeons you need to clear.

The controls are pretty much the same in both perspectives. Use the D-Pad to move the Guardian in eight directions. The B button fires the standard weapon. In the shoot-em-up sections you can only fire upward but in the top-down portions you can shoot in any direction. Hold down the B button for a quite generous auto-fire. The A button is used to fire secondary weapons. You can pause the game by pressing Start and you press Select to open up the subscreen.

Information overload!

There is a lot of information available on the subscreen. The top portion of the subscreen contains the same information shown when you are playing and it is comprised of three rows. The top row shows your current score, the number of power chips you currently have, the number of shots for your secondary weapon, and which secondary weapon you have equipped. The middle row contains your health bar. The bottom row shows which area you are located and the X and Y coordinates of where you are located in the overworld. All of that is just the top part of the subscreen!

The left side of the subscreen shows the map. You can see your current location highlighted as well as the location of any reachable corridor. The right side of the subscreen shows which keys you have, the maximum number of chips you can have, your attack and defense power, the power level of the currently selected subweapon, and how many chips it takes to fire the current subweapon. The bottom of the subscreen shows all of the subweapons you have. Use the cursor to select which subweapon you want to equip.

The power chips are very important to your survival. They are the ammunition for your subweapons. Each subweapon uses up a certain number of chips for each time you fire it and you cannot use your subweapons if you run out of chips. The other important mechanic is that the chips also influence the firepower of your normal weapon. When you reach certain chip amounts your weapon will power up, but spending chips and falling below that amount will cause your weapon to downgrade. There is a balancing act between using your other weapons while also maintaining enough chips in reserve to have a more useful normal weapon.

It’s a tiny swarm of overworld enemies.

There are a ton of upgrades and items that you will encounter in the game. The most important items for making progress are the keys. As you explore you will find black circles on the ground next to walls that have some kind of symbol written on them. If you hold the key that matches the symbol, then you can stand on the circle and teleport to the adjacent room. The keys are found in the corridors and they allow access to new areas of the map. Each new area hides more corridors.

You will also gather subweapons. There are twelve unique subweapons and once you have one you can switch to it anytime you want via the subscreen. If you collect the same subweapon again you can upgrade it to a more powerful form. Each subweapon has three distinct power levels. These get really strong later in the game but they cost more chips to deploy. The subweapons have all kinds of different effects and patterns and they are a lot of fun to use. You can get grenades, a laser sword, circular shots, homing shots, and so on. If one of the enemies or bosses is giving you a lot of trouble, it is probably because you are not using the best subweapon for the job. Experiment to see which one is most useful for your situation.

Some items give you other types of permanent upgrades. The Blue Lander is a little creature that will increase your maximum health, and the Red Lander increases the maximum amount of power chips. The gun item increases your attack power, and the shield item increases your defense power. The item that looks like four upward arrows increases the rate of fire for your normal weapon. You can also find an energy tank that fills up your health to your current maximum. It’s worth pointing out here that you can also upgrade your maximum health by reaching certain score thresholds.

Look, a weapon lying on the ground!

Other items are found by defeating enemies. Sometimes when you kill an enemy a little explosion cloud will appear on the ground for a little while leaving behind a power-up block. Shoot the block to reveal the item. You can find a heart that will restore some of your health. The blue orb gives you 20 power chips and a tiny bit of health, and a red orb restores 500 power chips and a little more health than the blue orb. You can also find full energy tanks but they are more uncommon.

There are quite a few ways to find the upgrades and items. On the surface you can find shops where you can exchange power chips for a weapon or upgrade. Some screens contain mini bosses that hold an upgrades. When you walk into one of these screens an alarm will sound and all the screen exits will be blocked off forming an arena for the fight. These can be challenging but the reward is worth it. Some screens contain a powerup freely for the taking although it takes some maneuvering around the map to find them.

There are ten different areas spread out across the map that branch off of the hub area. Each one has its own theme such as a water area and forest area. Each area contains two corridors and they are numbered based on the current area number. Area 1 contains both Corridor 1 and Corridor 11, for example. Corridors 1-10 are required for clearing the game and each one of them is blocked off from entry. There is some kind of puzzle you need to solve to open up the gate. Exploring the area and talking with some Blue Landers will yield the answer for how to open the gate and access the corridor. The remaining Corridors 11-20 are optional but you get upgrades from clearing them that you probably will want.

One of many huge boss sprites!

The corridor stages can pose a challenge. Often they are teeming with enemies and there can be a lot going on at one time. The scrolling speed varies from crawling to crazy fast which can add to the excitement. Each stage ends in a fight with a huge, detailed boss that takes a lot of firepower to defeat. As mentioned before, choosing the right subweapon is critical to taking out the boss successfully.

All throughout the map you will find rooms with Blue Landers that will give you a password to save your progress. The passwords are really complex, consisting of 32 characters of capital and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. The passwords do track all of the items you have acquired as well as your score, but the length and complexity is just too much. Thankfully in the smartphone era a simple picture works wonders for capturing it just right.

This was my first time playing through The Guardian Legend but I have quite a few random memories surrounding this game. Growing up it was one of those games I would often browse at the local video store but never rented. I ended up buying my first copy of the game for $5 during my honeymoon. A couple of years later I got big into NES collecting again and The Guardian Legend kept popping up for me. My local game store chain was slow to update their NES pricing and they sold it for $3 when it was at least a $10 game. I bought several copies of the game just to flip. (Yep, I’m one of those “evil” reseller types.) I even picked up a cheap copy on eBay a couple of years ago when I saw it. Then right before I started playing through the game for my blog, my grandmother came across a lot of NES stuff with yet another copy of The Guardian Legend. This one however was a nice condition complete in box copy that I am keeping!

Such colorful death bubbles!

It took me a little under two weeks to finish playing The Guardian Legend with my normal rate of playing. The game definitely has some meat to it with all the areas and corridors, but I managed to make progress at a good rate every time I played. I didn’t get stuck anywhere for too long and even the most difficult corridors only took a few attempts at most.

The Guardian Legend is extremely generous with powerups. The item drop rate isn’t terribly high, but there are so many enemies around to defeat that you will get powerups on constant rotation. The top-down segments, corridors, and even most boss fights provide you enough to keeping going as long as you are reasonably careful and employ smart subweapon usage. For this reason, I don’t think the game is that difficult overall, but there were a few tricky sections that caused me to give it a 4/10 difficulty rating. One of the recurring minibosses became a war of attrition every time I encountered it, and the final boss was pretty mean and took a few tries to beat. This is the kind of game where you consistently make progress, and you can keep attempting the tough parts until you get it right.

I already spoiled this a little bit, but in case you didn’t pick up on it or don’t want to know, now is the time to skip ahead to the next paragraph! Upon beating the game and sitting through the end credits, you are given a very short password “TGL.” You can use the password to play through a special mode of the game that consists only of the Corridor sections. The levels are identical to the regular game but the big change here is how you are awarded the powerups. After completing each corridor, you are taken to a special screen where you earn powerups for meeting specific score requirements. You can get as many as five powerups after each stage even if you score high enough to be awarded more. This mode shifts the focus on scoring as many points as you can. It is also more difficult than the regular game because the rollout of powerups is slower than in the normal mode. It’s a fun way to play through the game again and a fitting reward for beating the game.

The Guardian Legend handles many enemies pretty well.

There is a very good hack of the game called The Guardian Legend Secret Edition. This is a complete overhaul of the game containing a new overworld, new Corridor stages, new Corridor puzzles, and even some new bosses. The difficulty has also been cranked up quite a lot, but that is to be expected with a hack like this. I started playing through Secret Edition once I completed the game and I got about halfway through before I stopped playing. If you like The Guardian Legend then you will really like Secret Edition. I really need to get back to it and finish it for myself!

The Guardian Legend indeed lives up to the hype. This is a really good NES game that I enjoyed playing a lot. The game controls well, the graphics and music are really nice, the myriad of subweapons gives you a lot of variety and power, the boss fights are well made, and most importantly the game is simply fun to play. I certainly got hooked! The only negative in my mind is the long password system, but if that’s the only thing I can find wrong with the game then Compile did a whole lot more right. I recommended that you give this gem a try!

#37 – The Guardian Legend