Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#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


#45 – Rollergames

Maybe this game should have been called Skate or Die instead.

They aren’t even shy about this being a Konami game.

To Beat: Reach the Ending
Played: 12/30/16 – 1/2/17
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 6/10
Video: Rollergames Longplay

I used to go roller skating often growing up. The local roller rink was the place to be for young kids on a Friday night, and even though I was not particularly good at skating I still enjoyed being there with my friends. It wasn’t until years later that I learned about the contact sport roller derby, and it just so happens there is also an NES game based on the sport. With a library this vast, I guess I should not be so surprised!

The sport of roller derby originated in the 1930s. The game is played with two teams of skaters who skate laps around a banked track. The object of the game is to score points by having a designated member of the team lap opposing players. The sport grew in popularity during the 1940s and 1950s. As interest started to decline, and as television became more prominent, the sport shifted more toward storylines and theatrics and away from pure competition. Since then the sport has shifted back toward its competitive roots. Roller derby has seen a resurgence beginning in the early 2000s, predominately in all-female leagues.

In the middle of all this is Rollergames, a 1989 TV show that went all in on the theatrical approach to roller derby. There were changes made for Rollergames, such as introducing a figure eight shaped track instead of the traditional banked oval track. Rollergames is like the WWE with a heavy focus on rivalries and storylines. The show was quite popular, but despite that it only ran for one season because some of the show’s producers when bankrupt.

Complete with broadcasters!

There are two video games based on Rollergames. The first is an arcade title of the same name developed by Konami in 1990. The gameplay is modeled closely after the TV show. The second name is the NES version of Rollergames, also developed by Konami and published under the Ultra Games label. This version is also influenced by the show, but it plays more as a classic beat-em-up game. It was released in the US in September 1990 and in Europe in October 1991. It was not released in Japan or ported to any other systems.

Rollergames is a side-scrolling beat-em-up game with some platforming elements included. Members of a criminal organization have corrupted three of the Rollergames teams leading to the capture of the league commissioner, and the only people that can save him are the members of the other three good teams. The introductory cutscenes frame the game as a storyline fitting of the TV show. You must complete all six levels to save the commissioner and win the game.

At the start of each level, one of the sideline reporters asks you which team you would like to choose. You can pick either Ice Box of the Thunderbirds, Rolling Thunder of the Hot Flash, and California Kid of the Rockers. Each character plays differently so that you want to choose the team best suited to clear the current level. Ice Box is the slow but powerful character, while Rolling Thunder is the weak, but speedy character. California Kid is naturally the balanced choice.

You can knock down the bad guys quickly.

The controls are very natural. Use the D-Pad to skate in all eight directions. The A button is for jumping and the B button is used to attack. The standard attack is a basic punch, but you can do a jump kick by pressing B during a jump. You also have a special attack that you trigger by pressing both A and B at the same time. Each character has a slightly different special move. Ice Box does a body slam, Rolling Thunder does a spinning jump kick, and California Kid has a double jump kick. The moves are powerful but you are limited to only three per level, so use them wisely.

The levels all play from a side-scrolling perspective, but there are two different types of levels. The normal levels can scroll in all directions and you progress linearly through the level. There are many slopes to navigate and pits to jump across, as well as other enemies and traps that stand in your way. These can be quite tricky to clear while on roller skates! As you go, you will run into groups of enemy skaters and you must beat them all up before moving forward. Three normal levels revolve around each of the bad teams, which are the Bad Attitude, Maniacs, and Violators, and these levels have two sections each. The final level is in this normal style but it has four parts.

The other type of level is an auto-scrolling level. The skater of your choice is always moving forward here and the goal is to survive to the end. These levels follow along a broken highway so there are many gaps to cross. Of course, there are also various obstacles, traps, and enemies to contend with. These levels also feature boss-like encounters, but all you need to focus on is dodging the attacks until they go away, ending the stage.

Roads are always under construction!

At the top of the screen, there is a timer in the middle. This countdown only applies to the normal stages where you have to move ahead on your own pace. At the lower left is a vertical health bar. Your skater can suffer several hits before losing a life, though falling down a pit or landing on spikes results in immediate, swift death. The lower right area shows markers that indicate how many special attacks are remaining for the stage. There is a separate screen at the start of each stage that displays your score, high score, current level, and number of lives remaining. There are no powerups in the game for replenishing any of these elements. However, you can earn an extra life when reaching either 20,000, 50,000, or 80,000 points.

The obvious gimmick to Rollergames is that you play the entire game while on roller skates. As a result, your character controls in a fitting manner. It’s akin to playing a game with nothing but ice levels and ice physics. The skaters are generally slow to accelerate and slow to come to a stop. Often, I found myself making quick turns in a different direction than where I was moving to keep myself from falling. The game has various sections of platforming where you need clear gaps of different sizes. Not only that, but there are falling platforms, moving platforms, and crumbling floors to deal with. It’s a tough combination to work with and there is much trial and error involved to learn the right moves.

Slopes and tiny jumps on roller skates don’t mix.

The game balances this difficulty out in several ways. The levels tend to be reasonably short with checkpoints after every sublevel. The hand-to-hand combat is simple and the enemies themselves don’t pose much of a threat. Lastly, there are infinite continues in the game, so you can keep banging away at each level until you clear it. You always start at the beginning of each sublevel if you die, so once you reach the checkpoint you don’t have to play past sections again.

Seeing as it’s a Konami game in the middle of the NES lifespan, Rollergames is a quality title. Not only do the controls make sense, but the game has good graphics and some excellent music. It’s the soundtrack that really stands out overall. In my mind, it has a similar sound to TMNT II and III. Maybe that is because both games are beat-em-ups, but regardless it sounds good and it suits the game well.

I first played Rollergames last year for the NintendoAge weekly contest. Unfortunately, I did not have much time to play that week and I only reached Stage 2. That was barely any experience so this was the first time I seriously played Rollergames. This was one of those filler titles that I acquired in a random NES game lot that I purchased back in my collecting heyday. When it showed up on the list, I knew that Rollergames was a pretty good game that is easily overlooked, so I was happy to play through it.

This part is particularly devilish.

I beat Rollergames over two days and those two days just happened to fall on either side of New Years, making this the first game I have played for the project over two separate years. On the first attempt, I reached Stage 5-1 and this is where I got stuck. The first part of level isn’t all that bad, but the section right before the checkpoint is pretty nasty. You have to cross along the edge of a cliff where the ground periodically crumbles away in front of you. It forces you to move slowly to reveal the hidden gaps, and then you must back up enough to get the momentum to leap to the other side. But you must be careful not to go too far past the hole or you will fall into the next one. It wouldn’t be so bad if the controls weren’t slippery, but here it’s a pretty evil little section under the game’s ground rules. After several attempts at Stage 5-1 I turned the game off for the night.

The next time I sat down to play, I performed decently up to 5-1. After many new attempts, I reached 5-2 and from there I pushed my way through to the very end. I recorded my playthrough on video, but it was the ugliest playthrough I have recorded so far. There are several sections that must be practiced, and without any of that experience I died a bunch of times until I made it through. There are enough problem spots that I would have to beat the game a few times just to record a decent run. However, a game finish doesn’t have to be pretty to count, so I’ll accept this one and move on!

Rollergames is a fun game that I enjoyed playing. It’s got that Konami standard level of polish to it with solid controls, good gameplay, nice graphics, and catchy music. The one problem with the game is that there’s a significant amount of platforming that doesn’t properly fit the game’s slippery physics. It makes this game less accessible than other NES games of similar style right off the bat. If you can get by the initial hurdles, I think you would enjoy playing the game. It’s also an inexpensive cart for the collector or player insisting on the original cart. It’s too bad that it is overlooked because I think it deserves more recognition than it receives.

#45 – Rollergames