Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

ljn

DEC
14
2016
0
Alien 3 Box Cover

#32 – Alien 3

Is it a run-and-gun game or a maze game? Well, how about both!

The title fades in a piece at a time which I thought was neat!

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat the game on Hard difficulty
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 9/25/16 – 10/2/16
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
Video: Alien 3 Longplay

Hot on the heels of Bram Stoker’s Dracula comes another licensed NES game based on a movie. Both games are late, obscure NES releases that even share the same developer. I thought that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was pretty fun, so let’s see if the same holds true with Alien 3.

The film Alien is a 1979 science fiction movie about a crew who comes across an old alien spacecraft. One of the crew members becomes the host to one of the aliens who then attempts to kill every living thing on their spaceship, and the crew is forced to come up with a way to get rid of the alien to ensure their own survival. (Hopefully this is a sufficient explanation since yet again I have not seen the movie.) The film was both a box office and critical success and is widely regarded today among the best movies ever made. Later there would be three movie sequels, a prequel movie, and a spin-off series Alien vs. Predator. Currently there is another prequel movie in the works and possibly more in the future.

This popular series made its way into several video games based on most of the movies. Alien 3 was the base of three distinct games. The SNES game was released in 1993 and it is run-and-gun platformer with a mission-based style. The Game Boy game is a top-down survival adventure style game. The Master System version is a run-and-gun platformer with maze-like levels. This version was also released on the Genesis, Game Gear, Commodore 64, and Amiga. The NES version of Alien 3 has the same format as the Master System version but it has a unique set of levels. Because of the different stages it can be considered a fourth unique adaptation of Alien 3. The NES version was developed by Probe Software and published by LJN. Acclaim manufactured the carts and may also have had a role in its publishing. It was released in March 1993 almost a year after the film and also has a PAL version that was released in Europe and Australia.

Let’s get down to business.

In Alien 3 your goal is to guide Ripley through the prison on Fiorina 161. The aliens have taken the prisoners captive and along the way you must seek out and free each of these prisoners as well as escape safely to the next area. There are many aliens that will stand in your way including the guardian alien boss battles. There are eight levels total in the game as well as four boss levels. Clear all the levels and you win the game!

Before starting the game there are some options available on the title screen. You can turn both the music and sound effects either on or off. There is also a Configure menu with more options. Here you can set the difficulty level to either Easy, Normal, or Hard. You can also play any of the songs and sound effects, as well as set the number of lives from one to nine. The defaults are Normal difficulty and three lives.

The game has pretty nice graphics. The backgrounds and sprites are clear for the most part and there is a fair amount of color considering the mostly drab setting of a prison. However, what stands out the most in this game is the music. The soundtrack to Alien 3 was written by Jeroen Tel and the sound to me is both atmospheric and tense. It’s worth listening to outside of the game for sure.

The controls are straightforward. Use the D-Pad to walk around. You can use Up and Down to climb ladders, and Up is also used to open and close doors. The A button jumps and the B button fires your weapon. Weapons can be aimed diagonally upward as well as straight up for a total of five different firing directions. Press Select to change weapons and press Start to pause.

You begin the game with a full assortment of four weapons. The base weapon is the pulse rifle that is weak but has a high rate of fire. It is an effective weapon but burns through ammo very quickly. The flamethrower is an excellent close range weapon with a large swath of flame to engulf nearby aliens. The grenade launcher is a powerful weapon at long range with a lower rate of fire as a trade off. The hand grenades can be tossed and bounced on the ground and they pack a pretty good punch if you can get the timing right. All of the weapons prove useful especially when utilized in the correct situation.

Applying a flamethrower to the face is often useful.

There are a number of pickups as well that will help you out. There are ammo refills for each of the four weapons. First aid kits will restore your health just as you would expect. There is also a radar item that will active the tiny radar in the corner of the status bar. The radar generates a little blip in the direction of a nearby prisoner.

There are only a few enemies that show up in the game. The most prominent enemy is the adult alien though they do have a variety of patterns and moves to mix things up. Some move fast and some move slow. Sometimes they spit acid at you. Other times they latch on to the ceiling and drop down right in front of you if you get too close. The other enemy type is the face-hugger. These are small aliens that burst out of pods and latch onto your face if they touch you. If this happens you need to shake Left and Right on the D-pad to get them off. I never let them latch on to me in all the times I played but that is how the manual describes it. You can also destroy their pods before they come out and defeat them that way which is much easier.

The game is an action game on the surface but it really plays like a maze game. Each level is an arrangement of corridors, shafts, and dead ends. You need to search out all of the paths in order to locate the prisoners and find out which sections are best left ignored. Each stage has a set number of prisoners that you must untie and free, and then once all the prisoners are saved you will need to locate the exit in order to escape.

Don’t worry … I’ll save you!

The aliens in the game are not nearly as scary as the time limit. On the one hand you need to take the time to explore everything in order to find both the prisoners and the proper route through the facility. On the other hand, you need to rush through everything to make it to the end in time. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing the last stretch of the stage just as you run out of time knowing you will need to repeat the level all over again. The one nice thing the game does for you here is that if you missed any prisoners the game pans through the level revealing the location of each missing inmate. However you also get to see that prisoner get murdered right before your eyes as a little mental punishment.

After every two stages there is a Guardian level where you square off against one of the boss creatures. The levels themselves are small battle arenas so the focus is purely on combat. There is still a relatively strict time limit in place so you need to work quickly. You might think the Guardians would actively hunt you down, but instead they have a set pattern that they patrol constantly. The key here is to find where the save spots are and fire away until you defeat the boss. I found these fights to be much easier than the normal levels.

I mentioned earlier that there were three difficulty levels. I only played the game on Hard difficulty and tinkered a bit with the lower settings. As far as I could see, the only difference is that the time limit is lower on the harder settings. I think everything else is the same though I haven’t played enough to see if there are other changes.

It can get a little hairy when time winds down.

This was my first time playing through Alien 3. I remember acquiring this game in an eBay game lot in the summer of 2013. I think it was in the first batch of games I bought whenever I decided that I would pursue NES collecting for good. I would say it’s an uncommon game so that was a good pickup for me at the time. I know I had a double of the game that I sold off at some point as well.

Alien 3 is the type of game where you need to play it over and over again just to make a little bit of progress each time. I finished the game in a week over close to a dozen attempts. I insist on beating the game on the hardest difficulty right off the bat, but in this case I could have benefited from learning the levels on Easy and then putting it all together for a run on Hard. I think there is at least some benefit to learning the levels under a tighter timeframe that probably helped me out a little bit. A week is a good amount of time to spend on a game anyway!

I was able to capture my winning run on video. It was a really solid run with only a few minor mistakes and stumbles, but that is only because I had to hone in my strategy through repetition. It was very close to being a deathless run as well. It was close enough that I decided to leave that death in there as a reminder of how mean this game can be sometimes. Other than that one big mistake it was a nice run for my first time clearing the game.

This was not the best location for a boss battle.

I decided to rate Alien 3 with a 7 on difficulty just because it is a game you have to learn over time. There are no continues so you can’t really grind through the game apart from starting from scratch each time, though you can set up to nine lives for the most opportunities to practice the later stages per attempt. Actually, I was all set to give it an 8 in difficulty but I realize that I only made it harder on myself so that I could clear it on Hard.

Alien 3 is a competent and playable game, but it has a few issues that make the game not as much fun as it could be. The most notable issue is that the screen scrolling only kicks in when you get really close to the edge of the screen. You can hardly see what is in front of you and it is very annoying. I actually wonder if that was done intentionally to introduce the element of surprise when an alien shows up in your face. Either way it is not a fun gameplay element to have so little visibility. The other somewhat related thing is that I don’t find the aliens to be that much of a threat in the first place. I found that unless you play very carelessly you are more likely to run out of time than to run out of health, at least on Hard difficulty. I was more concerned with running recklessly through the stage to outrun the clock and just take damage in places to get through quicker. There are other more minor issues as well. The jumping is kind of loopy and slow, and the screen scrolling stutters sometimes. The boss battles are pretty lame. There are also a lot of dead ends and loops in the stages that are frustrating to pass through.

Alien 3 is a competent and playable game, but it is these issues that really hold the game back from being a better game. I can see that there is a good game there that just can’t shine through like I would want. Mediocre games such as Alien 3 are really not that bad for me in terms of my project, but I would not give them a strong recommendation either. Alien 3 is fine but there are better games out there that are more worth your time. If anything it is worth checking out just for the music!

#32 – Alien 3

 
FEB
05
2016
0
Pictionary Box Cover

#13 – Pictionary

Who needs pen and paper when you can play Pictionary on your NES?

That title screen music! So good!

To Beat: Finish the Regular Game
What I Did: Beat the Regular Game and Alternate Game just for fun!
Played: 1/24/16
Difficulty: 1/10
My Difficulty: 1/10

The NES has several games of game show and board game adaptations so it’s no surprise that one would show up on the blog fairly early. Pictionary plays like the classic board game but it has some surprises in the single player that make the game a little bit more interesting.

Pictionary was released in July 1990 on NES. It was developed by Software Creations and published by LJN. Software Creations developed a dozen NES games and LJN published a whopping 25 NES games by my records. There are only three developers attributed to creating Pictionary. Tony Pomfret was the programmer, Craig Houston created the graphics, and Tim Follin wrote the music. It probably should be four people as Stephen Ruddy’s sound engine was used in the development of the sounds and music. LJN has a reputation on NES for publishing many bad games but in the case of Pictionary I would say the game is pretty decent.

Pictionary on NES is a pretty straightforward board game. Up to four teams compete by drawing pictures and having their fellow team members guess what is being drawn. Correct answers allow the team to roll a die to advance their marker along the board and the first team to reach the end and guess a final drawing wins the game. Simple enough!

It’s the board … yawn.

There are three game modes. Regular Game is the base game with some twists to it that I will explain shortly. Alternate Game is a way to play Pictionary using the NES as the game board, timer, and drawing area but you must supply your own Pictionary word cards (or your own words) to determine what to draw. The players are responsible for inputting into the game which team guessed the drawing correctly so it can handle everything properly for you. Drawing Practice gives you a free area for doodling so that you can get a handle for how the drawing in the game works. The drawing interface simulates a little bit like drawing lines with a pencil and paper. You can aim your cursor in I believe 16 different directions by pushing Left or Right. Press and hold A to draw in the direction of the cursor or press and hold B to move the cursor without drawing. Pressing Up or Down draws either a small or large circle. Select removes the last thing drawn, Start finishes the drawing early, and Select and Start pressed together erases the board. It’s a robust enough system without relying on complete freehand control.

The Regular Game mode plays more like a complete game of Pictionary with the computer providing words to draw for the teams, but most of the game is played out through mini-games instead of drawing out pictures. If there is one player per team then there will be all mini-games, otherwise there will be standard drawing mixed in. You can play single player with just one player on one team which is what I did. There are four mini-games that all play a little bit differently but they all help play out Pictionary the same way. Completing tasks within each mini-game reveal pieces of a pre-drawn puzzle and the object is to reveal as much of the picture as you can within the time limit to give yourself the best chance of identifying the drawing. Let’s get in to each mini-game!

The first one is Attack of the Paint Zombies. This is exactly like Space Invaders except the enemies are on the bottom instead of the top and you control a paint bucket dropping red paint down upon the purple paint zombies. Yeah, paint zombies, I don’t get it either. Each one you knock out reveals a square on the picture and if you get shot with paint you lose a few seconds off the timer. This one is my favorite of them all and I didn’t have much trouble revealing the whole board before time nearly every round.

It's gotta be a mess down there.

It’s gotta be a mess down there.

The second game is The Warehouse Shuffle. I did not understand what to do in this game at all until I checked the manual. There’s just a man you control along the bottom and there are these balls with eyes that bounce around and nothing else was happening. What you are supposed to do is push up against the left side and press Up to grab boxes that are offscreen, then carry them across to the right and drop them off with Down. Each box you deliver knocks off a square and if the balls (called gremlins in the manual) come in contact with a box you lose time. You can carry a huge stack of boxes at once if you wan but you move slower the more you carry so there’s a basic risk/reward system at play. Once I knew what I was doing, I still didn’t do very well at this one.

I appreciate the eagerness but that's too many boxes.

I appreciate the eagerness but that’s too many boxes.

The third game is Four Alarm Rescue. There are eight windows arranged in two rows of four columns and people randomly appear to jump out from one of the windows in the burning building. You control firefighters at the bottom with a net to catch the people as they fall. Catching each person reveals a square and having a person fall to the hard ground below removes that precious time. This game is so unfair. Often two people will jump out at the same time from opposite ends of the screen and it is impossible to catch both. Sometimes multiple people will jump one after the other from the same window but there’s no way to tell until the first person jumps out of the way. You can lose multiple people quickly if you are trying to catch a different person elsewhere. This game is very flawed and I don’t think it’s possible to reveal the whole board with this game unless the randomness is entirely in your favor.

Probably just as messy as the paint game to be honest.

Probably just as messy as the paint game to be honest.

The fourth and final game is Leapin’ Energy Capsules! This is a simple single screen platformer where you control an astronaut who is collecting these capsules or orbs that appear in a few pre-defined spots. Once you collect one or take too much time the next one appears. There are a couple of cannons that shoot a rising and falling bullet and they operate on a slow rhythm. Collect a capsule, reveal a square. Take damage, lose time. The only really annoyance is when a capsule appears in the upper left because you can only climb up to the upper level from the far right. Otherwise, this one is pretty simple and kind of boring.

That upper left one gets the most screen time for certain.

That upper left one gets the most screen time for certain.

Playing through the game is really simple in single player. Play the mini game and try to guess what the picture is. You get 45 seconds to scroll through the alphabet picking out letters to spell out your guess. The game shows the number of words in the answer plus the number of letters in each word just like Hangman, so that helps in solving these drawings. If you are correct, you get to roll a die and move up that many spaces on the board. There is no penalty if you miss so you just keep trying until you guess correctly. Eventually you will run into a solution and move up the board so there is really no way to lose. It took me around 30-45 minutes to reach the end of the board with I’m guessing a 30-40% success rate. And that’s the end!

In my run I tested out Alternate Game just to see what it is all about. I played with one team and it was all drawing. After the drawing phase you get to indicate which team answered correctly and that team rolls the die. I would just end the drawing early every time and say I answered it correctly so that I could always roll and move my marker on the board. It took hardly any time at all to reach the end. You get the same ending either way so you can technically beat the game without identifying a single drawing and no one would know the difference. It was an utter waste of time, but eh, I did it for completeness!

Yay!  You did it!

Yay! You did it!

There was an unexpected casualty that happened while playing Pictionary. It was the weirdest thing. I turned the NES on and I was walking over to the couch when my hands got static shocked through the controller. Getting shocked in my basement is pretty normal in the winter but never through the game controller. Nothing worked when I tried to start the game even after powering off and resetting a few times. I swapped in another controller and that one worked fine, so I guess my controller is dead. It’s too bad because it is a nice condition dogbone controller and they aren’t exactly cheap to replace. I have a few other dogbone controllers in various states so I can probably hack together a nice working controller.

The one really remarkable thing about Pictionary is that it has a really good soundtrack. If you have heard some of the top NES music then you have almost certainly heard Tim Follin’s music and he did some fine work on the music in Pictionary. Tim has two brothers, Geoff and Mike, and all three brothers have worked in video games at some point. Geoff was also a game composer and he would work with Tim on music for several other NES games. The Follin brothers have a very distinct style to their music with very complex sounding pieces that really take advantage of the NES sound chip in ways that not many other musicians did. In Pictionary the title screen music is just awesome, and the Pictionary page on the Video Game Music Preservation Foundation website has links to all six music tracks for your listening pleasure!

Pictionary is a faithful adaptation of the board game and is a perfectly serviceable game on NES, even though it is very easy and barely worth playing even once. It’s fine but there’s so many better games on the NES. You would probably have more fun playing Pictionary with a group of friends on the actual board game but it could be fun at parties or whatever. At least the music is good! Plus, I don’t mind having a short, easy game to check off the list!

Pictionary Ending Screen

#13 – Pictionary