Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!


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)

Operation Wolf Box Cover

#20 – Operation Wolf

Gun down the enemy forces in this Zapper-compatible version of the arcade classic.

Calm yourself before heading into terrorist territory!

To Beat: Beat all six missions to reach the ending
To Complete: Beat four loops
My Goal: Beat the game with the best ending
What I Did: Beat the game with the best ending and reached Loop 3 Mission 6
Played: 3/18/16 – 3/25/16
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10

It’s a landmark day for Take On The NES Library as I have come to the first Zapper game on my list. Operation Wolf is not one of the first Zapper games that comes to mind, but it’s a pretty good one and it looks to be a mostly faithful port of the arcade title.

Most people with knowledge of the NES from its heyday will certainly remember the Zapper peripheral. It was first released on the Famicom in 1984 as a pack-in with Wild Gunman. The Zapper later launched along with the NES in 1985 for use in launch titles Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley, and Wild Gunman. Perhaps it is most remembered for being part of the NES Action Set which included the Zapper and the ubiquitous Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt combo cart. The light gun has a gray color scheme that was changed to orange in 1989. This was done in compliance with changes in US gun regulations requiring toy guns to look like toy guns. The two Zappers are identical aside from the color differences.

The Zapper works by detecting the presence of light through a photodiode within the device. When the gun is fired, the NES draws a black screen on one frame followed by other frames of a black screen with white boxes indicating the location of the hittable objects. The zapper can detect the white light from the box drawn on-screen to determine if a target is hit. In the case of multiple targets, the game will show more frames like this with only a portion of the objects highlighted. This process is repeated until it can narrow down which target was hit.

Honest to goodness this is what the NES screen looks like when you pull the trigger

Honest to goodness this is what the NES screen looks like when you pull the trigger.

That explanation might be a little hard to follow but a possible example may help. Say there are four enemies on the screen and the trigger is pressed. The first frame will be an all black screen and the second frame is a black screen with white boxes placed on top of only two of the four targets. If the Zapper detects light this time, then it knows you shot one of the first two targets but it doesn’t know which one. The third frame draws the black screen and only one white box for one of those two targets. If the Zapper sees light on this frame then you shot the first target, otherwise if it doesn’t pick up light then you shot the second target. Going back to the second frame, if the Zapper doesn’t detect a hit, then it will draw white boxes on the next frame for the other two targets to see if you hit one of them. If so, then it will draw a fourth frame to determine which of those two was shot. If it does not detect a hit here, then it means none of the targets were hit because by this point all four were checked. If that is all still a bit murky, don’t worry! The basic idea is that the game will test half of the targets at a time for a hit and it keeps whittling it down until it can find the one you actually shot.

It’s worth mentioning that the first all black screen is really important. The Zapper can detect light from the television as well as light from other sources such as a light bulb. If the Zapper game doesn’t check for a non-hit at first, then there is nothing to stop you from aiming the gun at a light bulb tricking the game into thinking you are always making contact with a live target. TVs in the US run at 60 frames per second so it would be more or less impossible to shoot at a light bulb while rapidly turning it on and off to fake out an NES Zapper game.

The Zapper technology only works on older tube TVs called CRT TVs; the games are not playable on modern TVs such as LCD, Plasma, or LED televisions. The reasoning is that the Zapper is very dependent on the timing of the individual frames of video displayed on the screen as illustrated above. Newer TVs have additional processing time that results in lag where the actual picture on the TV appears one or more frames later than the NES recognizes. For most other games this slight delay is not noticeable, but since the Zapper is tuned to the timing of older TVs it causes the game to not register any hits at all when played on a modern television. Therefore, I had to use my CRT to play this game.

Now to get down to brass tacks.

Now that the Zapper talk is out of the way it’s time to talk Operation Wolf. Developed and published by Taito, Operation Wolf is an arcade game released in 1987. The arcade cabinet is fashioned with a mock submachine gun used to aim at the enemies and it contains a motor inside of the gun housing to simulate recoil. It was ported to many home consoles and computers, including the NES in 1989. This is the first Taito game covered for the blog. Taito published 26 NES games in total so they are one of the largest publishers for the console.

Operation Wolf is also a game series spanning four games. The second game, Operation Thunderbolt, was released in 1988 in arcades. It would see an SNES release several years later. There were also arcade titles Operation Wolf 3 in 1994 and Operation Tiger in 1998. Operation Wolf was also released in 2005 as part of Taito Legends as well as an NES Virtual Console release in 2008. Sadly, the Virtual Console version does not support the Wii remote as a Zapper.

The object of Operation Wolf is to survive six missions of infiltrating terrorist strongholds in order to save prisoners and take them back home to safety. Each mission has a number of enemy soldiers, tanks, helicopters, and boats that you must defeat before advancing to the next area. Enemies will run across the screen and you shoot them before they shoot you. If you hold B on the controller while shooting with the Zapper then you will fire a grenade that does a lot of damage within a wide range. The game also features controller support by way of a targeting crosshair on screen. Before the start of play you can choose either controller or Zapper, and if you choose controller you can also set the speed of the crosshair from one of five options. Use the D-Pad to aim the cursor, press A to fire your standard weapon, and press B to launch a grenade.

You’ll be under attack from all over.

On screen you will see a bunch of statistics. It shows the score, number of magazines as well as the number of rounds left in the current magazine, number of grenades, number of prisoners saved in later missions, and the number of enemy soldiers, helicopters or boats, and tanks remaining in the level. There is also a damage meter that nearly spans the entire bottom of the screen. The enemy counters represent your progress through the level. The stages keep going until either you destroy the number of enemies remaining or you take too much damage. They also end if you are completely out of ammo.

There are several powerups to help you out. Ammo is limited but you pick up extra magazines and grenades by shooting the icons for them on screen. A power drink with a letter P on it will reduce your damage meter. A bullet with the word “FREE” written on it will give you unlimited rapid fire for 10 seconds. Barrels explode just like grenades when they are shot. There are also crows, pigs, and chickens that travel across the screen in some of the levels. You can’t kill them but you can shoot them and they will occasionally drop extra ammo to help you out. There are also civilians and prisoners that run across the screen trying to head for safety. Don’t shoot them because if you do it will increase your damage meter.

There are six missions: Communication Center, Jungle, Village, Ammo Dump, Prison Camp, and Airport. In the arcade version you can play the first four levels in any order you like. Clearing all four will unlock the Prison Camp followed by the Airport. The NES version is linear so you must beat all six missions in order. There is also a sort of a seventh mission that appears randomly in between stages. If you see the message “Warning! The enemy has located you!” then that means you have to survive another round of enemy forces before reaching the next stage.

The levels are clearly laid out so you know what to expect.

Each level has something slightly unique about it. The Communication Center is the exception as it acts a little bit like a tutorial level. The Jungle has a boss fight at the end. An enemy is holding a civilian hostage and uses her as a body shield so you must be careful to aim for just the enemy. Completing the Village level heals you up quite a bit, and completing the Ammo Dump rewards you with a full complement of 9 magazines and 9 grenades. The Prison Camp features prisoners that run across the screen calling for help. Your task is to lead them across the screen to safety. There are five prisoners in total and each one will be chased by a knife soldier. He should be your primary target since he kills the prisoner if he reaches him. You can kill the prisoner with your weapons as well so be mindful of that. The game keeps track of each one you save. In the Airport mission, you must lead each prisoner to safety again that you helped in the prior mission. The ending you get depends on how many prisoners you save and you will lose the game if you survive all the missions without saving a single prisoner. The Airport ends with a final boss battle where you must destroy the enemy Hind helicopter. These things would all be spoilers if they weren’t spelled out clearly in the manual.

The game ends if you suffer too much damage, but you are allowed to continue once if you are defeated in any of the first four missions. There are no continues given for the last two stages. It’s frustrating to die at the end of the game but it is pretty short so it doesn’t set you back as much as it first seems. The manual indicates that Operation Wolf has four levels of six missions each. It means that the game loops right after you beat it and there are four total playthroughs of increasing difficulty. There is no difference in the ending when the game is beaten for the fourth time and it restarts the game at Loop 4 difficulty when finished, so it’s not really essential to beat the game four times in a row. One thing I noticed is that if you get Game Over and have to restart the game, then it will start you at the same difficulty loop you were on before. That acts like a continue in its own way.

This was my first time playing through Operation Wolf. I set up my CRT from out of storage whenever I started the blog so I haven’t played any Zapper games in a very long time. I have several Zappers but the one I was using has a loose trigger which didn’t feel great while playing. I recently purchased a R.O.B. set on eBay with all the parts for Gyromite for an excellent price, and that set included a Zapper that felt like it had never been used. I switched to that while playing and it will be my go-to Zapper from now on.

Do the right thing and help that man out!

It took me awhile to warm up to playing Operation Wolf with the Zapper. I simply was not all that good with it to start and it was wearing me out physically after a couple of attempts in a row. Firing grenades in particular was difficult to get comfortable with. I would aim and shoot with both hands which caused me to stumble around with my free hand looking for the controller’s B button whenever I needed to let off a grenade. I could get away with it because I played while sitting, but it would have taken me a lot longer to beat the game if I had to stand up and shoot the gun with just one hand. With two hands I could shoot both faster and more accurately.

Overall it took me around ten tries before considering Operation Wolf finished. I think I advanced farther and farther with each attempt. The game is pretty short and the health bar is generous enough to absorb some mistakes made with shooting, so I figured average difficulty is appropriate for completing one loop of the game to get the ending. The first time I beat it I managed to save three prisoners which rewarded me with the second best ending. My accuracy wasn’t quite up to snuff with just the zapper and I would shoot too many prisoners. I decided to play through again using the controller and the slowest cursor setting in hopes that I would be more accurate overall. I beat the first loop and saved four prisoners which was good enough for the best ending, and during my second loop I saved all five. That was the picture proof I kept. During the third loop I made it most of the way through the airport stage before running out of grenades. That left me too vulnerable to attack when I focused on the helicopters with just the standard weapon. I really had no chance and that leads me to believe that doing all four loops is best accomplished with the Zapper. And really, a Zapper compatible game should be played with it if possible.

Ugh did you really mean to shoot him!?

My intention from the beginning was to beat one loop of the game with the best ending since I knew there was no other reward for playing four times. It can be argued pretty easily that it should take all four runs to beat Operation Wolf considering it is called out that way in the manual, and I’m fine with that criticism if you happen to take that stance. In my opinion the game is long enough to justify a single loop.

Operation Wolf on NES looks to me like a well done port of the arcade game. Using the Zapper makes this one of the better ports by default and this game is quite playable and fun using it. The controller is okay in a pinch but not the best way to play the game. The graphics are alright. The brief story images between levels are well detailed and everything is clear during gameplay when it matters. There is not much sound to speak of which may be a turn off. There are only sound effects during game play, and the brief songs on the title screen and between levels are not that notable. For me, gameplay rules the day, and Operation Wolf is a fun game where that is concerned.

Operation Wolf Ending Screen

#20 – Operation Wolf

Top Gun Box Cover

#19 – Top Gun

I feel the need … the need for speeding this game back to my shelf!

It's nice to have a white title screen for once!

It’s nice to have a white title screen for once!

To Beat: Finish all 4 missions to get the ending
To Complete: Beat the 2nd loop
My Goal: Beat the game
What I Did: Beat the game and a small part of the 2nd loop
Played: 3/5/16 – 3/16/16
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 9/10

Please forgive me if I screwed up this blog post already with that initial reference. I haven’t actually seen the movie. Now before you leave in disgust, at least stick around to hear about the NES game. But first, and bear with me, let’s discuss the movie.

Top Gun was released in theaters in May 1986. The movie tells the story of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a US Naval Aviator attending the Top Gun school in order to follow in the footsteps of his father who was killed. Maverick is a reckless and aggressive pilot and his techniques eventually lead to the death of his wingman during a training exercise. Despite his struggles with the incident he eventually graduates only to be thrust into an emergency situation right away. Maverick and the team are able to overcome the conflict and make a triumphant return in the end. I hope I summarized that well enough. The movie had mixed reviews by critics, but it was a box office smash. It was the highest grossing film of 1986 with over $350 million earned worldwide. It would spawn several video games including two on the NES. There is also a movie sequel in the works as of this writing.

Top Gun on NES was developed and published by Konami. It was released in the US in November 1987, in Japan in December 1987, and in Europe in November of 1988. It is the first of several flight simulation games on the NES. In Top Gun, you play as Maverick on a top secret assignment spread out over four in-game missions. The game plays from the cockpit view of an F-14. There is a lot of information available here such as your altitude, speed, missile count, missile type, radar, damage indicator, fuel gauge, and plane orientation as shown from behind. Then in the windshield there is a targeting reticule that shows where your cannons shoot as well as the targeting area for launching a guided missile. Enemies will fly in from behind or come right at you and you can use the unlimited shots of your cannon by pressing A to take them out, or you can use homing missiles with the B button. When an enemy is within your targeting area, hit B once to lock on and hit it again to launch a missile.

Line up your shot and take them down!

Line up your shot and take them down!

At the start of each mission you get to choose from one of three different missile types: 40 T-11 Hound missiles, 20 T-22 Wolf missiles, and 10 T-33 Tiger missiles. It’s the typical quantity for damage tradeoff as the T-11’s are weak, T-22’s are average, and T-33’s are strong. You can choose the missiles you deem suitable for the mission at hand.

Now there is more to it than just taking down enemy fighters. At the end of each mission, you must land your plane on the aircraft carrier. The game switches to landing mode and you can control your speed as well as the angle of your aircraft. The radar screen shows the current orientation of your plane as well as giving you recommendations such as “Speed Up!” or “Left! Left!” The idea is to get your plane as close to 200 altitude and 288 speed as you can when you reach the carrier. The game provides a moderate range of acceptable values that will allow you to land successfully so you don’t need to be exact. Too far off from those measurements will cause a crash that is shown in the landing cutscene and it will cost you a life, but if you are successful you get to watch yourself make a graceful landing.

The second, third, and final missions are long enough that you won’t be able to make it all the way through on a full tank of fuel, so in the middle of the mission you’ll hear an alarm indicating low fuel. When that happens, you press Start to call in a refueling tanker. When everything is clear, your jet automatically flies upward, the radar zooms in, and you see the tanker come into view dropping its refueling boom in front of you. There is an ‘X’ on the hood of your jet as shown on the radar screen and you must align your fighter properly to latch on and refuel your plane. This reloads all of your missiles too. This plays out very similar to the landing sequence although this time there’s no numerical range to aim for. It’s more visual and it requires more of a feel for it, but it is similar to getting a feel for landing. If you are unable to refuel the game will resume, however with not enough fuel to survive you will soon crash and lose a life. In a way it’s worse to miss refueling because you have to wait out the inevitable death.

Everybody, get down!

Everybody, get down!

The missions all play out typically the same way. You are approached by a number of enemy formations from the air, sea, or land. You can take them out with your weapons or you can dodge their attacks and keep moving forward. Many enemies are passive and are just there for points. Other fighters will attack with cannons that deal damage to your aircraft and some other fighters launch guided missiles of their own. They seek out your plane and they are fatal. One hit and you are a goner no matter how much damage your jet has suffered. You can maneuver your way around them or if you are really bold you can shoot them down with your cannon. It is practically essential to learn how to destroy enemy missiles to survive this game all the way to the end.

The first mission is a training mission that takes place above the clouds. No refueling is necessary and there are no ground targets so it is a good introduction. The second mission takes place over the ocean so there are boats and battleships to deal with below. The third mission is similar except it is over the desert and there are enemy jeeps and tanks to fight on the ground. The air attack gets more difficult here as well. The fourth mission is a nighttime mission and the difficulty is cranked up to the max. Expect a lot of evasive maneuvers and guided missiles.

Occasionally during the mission an enemy fighter will lock on to you from behind. When this occurs an alarm sounds and you see the enemy’s location in your radar screen. You must shake them off of you by moving from side to side. It takes a more rhythmic rocking back and forth to get them off. At the same time you can still be attacked from ahead so it can get a little frantic sometimes. If you can’t get them off they will shoot you down so getting rid of the rear enemy is always the priority.

Shake it off, shake it off!

Shake it off, shake it off!

Aside from the first mission, there is a target that you are required to take out as part of the mission. It’s a fancy way of saying there is a boss battle at the end. The target is stationary but it has a health meter that appears on screen and it take a lot of damage before being blown to bits. During the fight you are being attacked constantly by enemy fighters while enemies at the target are firing at you as well. Take out the target and your mission is successful after you land the plane of course.

This was my first time playing Top Gun. I don’t care much for flight simulators so it’s not a game that I would normally play. In fact I know I moved several games like this all the way to the bottom of my list for the blog. I only kept it on the normal part of my list since it is developed by Konami and they typically make great games.

Top Gun is a cheap, common game but it took me a really long time to acquire a copy for my collection. If memory serves I had over 500 unique NES carts before I owned Top Gun. I have owned the sequel Top Gun: The Second Mission since childhood and I had multiple copies of that game before I owned the original. It’s just one of those strange, loopy coincidences. Of course, as soon as I finally got one then they started pouring in from all the eBay lots I was purchasing at that time. I was up to six copies before I sold them all off.

You need this fuel and they will leave you behind if you mess up.

You need this fuel and they will leave you behind if you mess up.

Top Gun is a really hard game. My biggest struggle with the game was dealing with enemy guided missiles. At first, I was always getting hit by them while banking away as far as I could away from it. I eventually learned that I could dodge them by flying away from them either left or right while rocking up and down. It’s harder to hit a more randomly moving target. That strategy failed whenever an enemy straight ahead decided to fire a missile at me. Then I realized I could shoot them down but it took some serious practice to get the hang of it. If you miss then that pretty much spells the end of your fighter and your life. It gets worse. Starting in Mission 2 some enemies fire three guided missiles at once. This frustrated me so much! I did develop a strategy. The set of three missiles always come in the same formation: one high, one low, and one middle-right. I would destroy the top missile, then fly high and left to completely skip the bottom missile and do the up and down wiggle to dodge the right one. If the enemy is just a little bit to the left to start with, then I would have to destroy the top two missiles and dodge the bottom one. The bottom missile was almost never a factor, although one time I managed to destroy all three in a crazy moment of panic.

The real reason this game is so difficult is that you only have three lives to work with for the entire game. There are no extra lives and there are no continues. Not only do you have to contend with so many homing missiles and all the enemy fire, but you also need to learn how to refuel your plane as well as land your jet consistently. Every mistake is magnified. The only saving grace is that the game is relatively short. The missions tend to drone on for quite awhile because the pacing is slow, but the entire game can be beaten in under 30 minutes.

I saw this so many times!

I saw this so many times!

After much frustration and a bunch of attempts I finally managed to beat Top Gun. I wasn’t keeping track of how many tries it took before I won but I am estimating 15-20 attempts. The second mission is a large bump up in difficulty and that is where I cut my teeth on everything the game has to offer. I found the third mission easier than the one before, but the final mission was quite the challenge. The third time I made it to Mission 4 I was completely in the zone and I made it through to the boss with two lives remaining. I lost them both. I was really upset at that loss. By that point I was getting good enough to get to the final mission nearly every run. My real vice in all of this was the second mission. No matter what I did I always lost at least one life there. I said to myself that once I cleared Mission 2 without failure, then that would be my winning run. Wouldn’t you know it, I was right! I no-deathed the game up to Mission 4 only to lose two lives in the first half of the mission. I kept my cool, beat the final boss, and landed the plane without any problems. I’m sure I would have lost my mind if I failed to land the plane at the very end of Top Gun!

Since beating Top Gun I have learned a few additional things about it. The game loops once you beat the game and in my brief experience with it after winning it is indeed harder than the first run. I encountered more guided missiles than the first loop. However, according to the NES Game Endings FAQ there is no different ending upon beating the game again so I am not going to bother with it.

Blowing up enemy fighters feels pretty nice, I have to admit!

Blowing up enemy fighters feels pretty nice, I have to admit!

Another tip is that you can cheese your way through the game by flying up and right the entire time. Doing this will avoid all enemies and missiles so you will only have to deal with the refueling sequences, landing sequences, and the targets at the end of the mission. I didn’t try it so I don’t know for certain. Even if I knew about it before hand, I wouldn’t bother beating the game that way. I suffered through it the right way!

There is another ending of sorts to Top Gun that is quite a bit better and easier to achieve than the actual ending after Mission 4. If you are able to best the high score of 50,000 points, you are awarded the designation of Top Gun indicated by a screen that acts like a certificate of achievement. It’s pretty neat. I’ll include a capture of the screen from my best score during my winning run so you can see what it looks like!

From a technical standpoint, Top Gun is a well made game. It looks nice graphically and it controls and plays well, especially considering that it is one of the earlier NES game made. There is a variety of activities in the game to mix things up a bit. Overall, I don’t really care for it. The difficulty is a big turn off here, and the game eventually get monotonous after playing it over and over again. The first mission amounts to a forced five minute tutorial which is great for just starting out but it doesn’t take long for it to be so dull. This is not really my type of game anyway. Still, I consider beating Top Gun to be quite the achievement. I feel it’s the hardest game I’ve conquered so far. I hope it has prepared me well for playing the sequel whenever it comes up!

#19 - Top Gun

#19 – Top Gun

#19 - Top Gun (High Score Screen)

#19 – Top Gun (High Score Screen)