Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

micronics

JAN
04
2018
0

#62 – Tiger-Heli

Another day, another overthrown terrorist regime.

The long gray screen before the title just screams quality.

To Beat: Finish Level 4
To Complete: Beat three loops
What I Did: Beat two loops
Played: 10/19/17 – 10/20/17
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
Video: Tiger-Heli Longplay

I have seen so many copies of Tiger-Heli in my life. It seems like every time I have seen someone’s NES collection, there is Tiger-Heli. Okay, maybe in a more curated collection you won’t see it, but as far as random NES games go it might as well be ubiquitous. I really wonder why there are so many copies of this game around. It’s not a flashy title, and not one that everyone has fond memories of. Maybe I am seeing the same set of copies passed around all the time. I will get to the bottom of it and see how Tiger-Heli plays on the NES. Then maybe these answers and more will be revealed!

Tiger-Heli was first released in arcades in 1985. The game was developed by Toaplan and published by Taito. In December 1986, the game was ported to Famicom. This port was developed by Micronics and published by Pony Canyon. The NES version came in September 1987 and was published in North America by Acclaim Entertainment. The NES box and manual also point to Taito, though they were not involved with the NES version. The European version of Tiger-Heli was delayed until early 1990. A spiritual sequel, Twin Cobra, was released in the arcades in 1987 and on the NES in 1990, and Twin Cobra II is its direct sequel that came out in arcades in 1996. That same year, both Tiger-Heli and Twin Cobra were released on a single disk for Playstation in Japan only named Toaplan Shooting Battle 1.

Tiger-Heli is a vertical scrolling shooter where you take control of an advanced “jetcopter” of the same name. This game has a typical shooter plot of one man attempting to defeat a terrorist regime. This time it is the fictitious country of Cantun with designs of taking over the world. The Tiger-Heli was specifically constructed as the ultimate stealth helicopter and is the only attack vessel that can sneak in to Cantun and destroy everything. The game takes place over four levels and if you can survive that long you have beaten Tiger-Heli.

Everyone remembers blowing up the houses just for fun.

The controls are simple. Use the D-pad to move Tiger-Heli in all eight directions. The B button fires missiles which are your standard unlimited weapon. Each shot is four tiny missiles wide and they only travel about half the height of the screen, but you can fire several shots at one time. The A button drops bombs which deal splash damage to a large area below Tiger-Heli. You can only hold two bombs at once and you can see them flanked on either side of your helicopter. If an enemy bullet hits a bomb, it will deploy automatically. This acts as a shield and it is typically worth the cost of a lost bomb. On screen, you see your score at the top, your remaining lives on the lower-left, and the number of bonus blocks you have destroyed on the lower-right. You begin the game with two extra lives and both bombs.

There are crosses on the ground that give you powerups when destroyed. They cycle between three different colors and the color determines what you get. Destroying either a red or gray cross generates a support helicopter at the top of the screen that drifts down slowly. Pick this up and now you have a small helicopter on your left that gives you extra firepower. The red support copter shoots to the side and the gray one fires straight ahead. You can collect a second one that flies to your right for triple firepower, and you can have both a red and a gray one at the same time. Support copters can be destroyed by enemy bullets, so you have to manage having a much larger hitbox to maintain full power. The green crosses generate a B powerup that restores a bomb when it’s collected. Acquiring another support helicopter or bomb when you are maxed out gives you bonus points.

A one-man wrecking crew!

There are also red bonus blocks in the stages. These are red diamonds that fade in and out and you can shoot them when they are visible. They give you points and add to the counter at the bottom. After you destroy ten bonus blocks you get an extra life. You also earn extra lives by reaching score milestones. You get your first extra life by reaching 20,000 points, and then you earn another life for every additional 80,000 points after that.

Enemies in the game are turrets, tanks, and boats. Turrets don’t move, tanks may or may not move, and boats always move. What they all have in common is their firing capability. Each enemy shoots at a steady pace and can only fire in eight directions. There is also a large tank that takes many bullets to destroy, and you get points for each shot landed so you can really rack up the score. There are many types of non-violent structures that you can blow up for points just because, such as cars, buildings, train cars, etc.

There are four levels in Tiger-Heli, and each one ends by landing automatically on a helipad. Here you are awarded 5000 bonus points for each support helicopter and bomb you have. At the start of the next stage, you get your bombs replenished. You also get your bombs back after you take a death. Sadly, there is no ending to the game and you may keep looping over the game until you lose all your lives. Just like with Sky Shark, loops begin at Stage 2.

Shoot the red blocks to help gain extra lives.

This was my first time trying to beat Tiger-Heli. I was one of those weird kids that did not own a copy of the game until adulthood. I had friends who owned the game and I did get to play it some, but it wasn’t a game that we played very much. I was familiar with the first stage or so, but that’s all.

I had some free time after lunch one day and decided to try out Tiger-Heli just to see what I was up against. Turns out that wasn’t much, for I beat all four levels on my first try. I don’t think Tiger-Heli is exactly an easy game, but I picked up on it quickly. The next day I played a practice run, and then right after that I recorded my video. On the practice run I reached the beginning of the third loop, but I didn’t quite make it that far on video. The first loop is not that bad, but the difficulty picks up fast the second time around. The enemy’s rate of fire is much faster and therefore it is harder to avoid bullets and line up a shot. The little bit I played of the third loop was even faster. I suspect the third loop is the difficulty cap and if you can complete that you have mastered Tiger-Heli. I could have pushed myself to beat that third loop, but I’m satisfied with completing two loops and moving on to the next game on my enormous list.

The basic strategy for Tiger-Heli takes advantage of the enemies’ poor aiming capabilities. Enemies fire toward you but only in eight directions, so the idea is to sit inside the areas where they are unable to hurt you. Once they fire and miss, you then have a brief window to line up and destroy them. I found the red support helicopters quite useful because they fire sideways and then you can approach the bad guys from either the sides or below. The quicker you can take out enemies, the easier time you have dodging other attacks.

The game is very flickery and it’s virtually impossible to get decent screenshots when there is a lot going on. Case in point!

Here’s a fun little side note. As I mentioned earlier, Toaplan created the “Tiger” trilogy of Tiger-Heli, Twin Cobra, and Twin Cobra II, and the first two games received NES ports. I discovered this while I was writing up my review on Sky Shark a little while ago. One of my quirks of this project is that I switched games around on the master list so that sequels always come after I have played the previous installments. In this case, I had no idea Tiger-Heli and Twin Cobra were related at all. I normally avoid looking at the full list as much as possible, but here I had to see where both games landed on the list and swap them if necessary. Of course, Twin Cobra originally slotted here at Game #62 instead, so I had to switch them. I ended up with a free peek just a few slots ahead by coincidence. I also know now where Twin Cobra will appear on my list. I won’t spoil when that will be, but let’s just say it will be a very long time before I get around to it.

Micronics has a reputation for creating poor ports of NES games, but I think Tiger-Heli is one of their better ones. Now it’s not a great game, but it plays just fine. The gameplay seems to resemble the arcade version close enough. The graphics are a step down from the arcade version, but are passable on the NES. The music is neither notable nor annoying. Gameplay is on the slower side, but there are no performance issues like slowdown. There is a massive amount of flickering whenever there’s a lot going on, but they seemed to work around it about as well as they could without some of the more advanced techniques programmed into later NES games. I may sound a little down on Tiger-Heli, but the fact is that it is a simple game that is competent on the one hand and unexciting on the other. According to Steve Kent’s book The Ultimate History of Video Games, Tiger-Heli on NES sold over a million copies. That’s astounding to me. It also answers why I’ve seen the game so frequently. Today, it’s nothing more than a filler NES title, but you could do much worse than playing Tiger-Heli. Besides, you probably already own it!

#62 – Tiger-Heli

 
AUG
22
2016
1
Ikari Warriors Box Cover

#24 – Ikari Warriors

This challenging top-down shooter is an early contender for most difficult NES game ever.

Not shown is the neat animation with the heroes wasting a lot of ammo on nothing.

Not shown is the neat animation with the heroes wasting a lot of ammo on nothing.

To Beat: Reach the ending after Level 4
My Goal: Beat the game without using the continue code
What I Did: Beat the game without continues
Played: 4/26/16 – 8/18/16
Difficulty: 10/10
My Difficulty: 10/10

I think that I have accomplished many impressive feats in a number of NES games over the years. Name a popular NES game that has any pedigree of difficulty and I have most likely beaten the game with ease many times over. There are many other NES games out there that are less talked about that also pose a stiff challenge. This is where Ikari Warriors fits in. I have come to find out that the NES version is known primarily for two reasons. One reason is that it is part of a series of three NES games, and the other is that it is generally mentioned in a short list of the most difficult NES games to clear among players with a broad understanding of the library. Now that I have experienced this game in full on my own, I can attest that it deserves its rank among the most challenging games on the console.

Ikari Warriors started out in the arcades in Japan in February 1986 titled simply as Ikari, meaning Fury. It was released worldwide a month later in March 1986. Ikari Warriors was developed by SNK and published by Tradewest in the United States and Europe. It is regarded as the first major arcade hit for SNK in the US. The NES game was developed by Micronics and published by SNK. It was released on the Famicom in Japan in November 1986 and it made its way to North America in June 1987. In addition to the NES version, it was also ported to the Atari 2600 and Atari 7800 as well as several home computers.

The arcade cabinet utilizes rotary joysticks, and though the game was not the first to use that type of joystick it is the first major hit to use one for the controls. A rotary joystick is a standard eight-way joystick that can also be twisted like a dial or knob providing additional input into the game. In Ikari Warriors, the player character can walk around by tilting the entire joystick and aim weapons in another direction by rotating the joystick handle in the desired direction.

The plane crash cutscene is surprisingly well done!

The plane crash cutscene is surprisingly well done!

Ikari Warriors is a vertically scrolling top-down shoot-em-up game. Paul and Vince are two soldiers who are tasked to invade an enemy nation as their plane crashes into enemy territory. The game begins with the crashed plane at the bottom and play constantly continues upward as they make their way deeper into enemy territory. In single player only Paul is used. Paul is equipped with a machine gun capable of firing three on-screen bullets at once. He is also armed with grenades that can be thrown in an arc and they deal more damage than the standard bullets. Press A to throw a grenade and press B to shoot the machine gun. Ammunition is limited to a max of 99 bullets and 99 grenades, and while that sounds sufficient it is easy enough to run out of weaponry in a critical spot unless more ammo is found.

There are a bunch of enemies to contend with along the way. Most of the enemies encountered are blue foot soldiers but they have several different attack patterns that they can use and you can only tell how they will behave by observing them. Some soldiers simply run forward and retreat, some shoot bullets and change walking direction every few steps, some chase you around, some toss grenades, some hide underwater and pop up occasionally to shoot, some snipe you from afar, some fire missiles, and some trigger a suicide explosion when you get too close.

There are also several types of larger enemies that require more than the standard bullet to dispatch. There are tanks that drive around a defined path and shoot missiles, including a big tank that can be difficult to take out. There is a large stationary tank that fires a spread shot as well as a large fortress with a gunner inside. There are other enemy types that are local to specific areas in the game and as a result they appear less frequently than the standard enemies described here.

If only the plane had crashed further ahead...

If only the plane had crashed further ahead…

In addition to the enemies there are three other recurring hazards that must be dealt with. The ground in Ikari Warriors is scattered with landmines that only reveal themselves when in close proximity. There is ample time to recognize and avoid them, but in the heat of battle a little bit of lost focus is all it takes to collide with a mine and lose a life. The next recurring annoyance are sensors that also show up when standing nearby just like the landmines. Get too close to a sensor and a guided missile shows up from offscreen and explodes right on top of the sensor. In some cases, it is possible to run right through a sensor and miss the eminent explosion entirely, although that is a risky strategy that does not always work. The third danger is what I like to call the “hurry up” missile. The game requires constant progress and so to enforce that if the screen does not scroll for awhile or even advances ahead too slowly, a series of missiles will fire down randomly from above until you make enough forward progress. It’s really important to take your time in this game while also being mindful of moving forward enough to avoid triggering these missiles.

Fortunately Paul and Vince have a number of upgrades and pickups that are essential to completion. The most important of these is the rideable tank. A flashing stationary tank indicates that it is ready for personal use. Press A while standing on the tank to get in. While in the tank you can only attack by pressing B to fire missiles that deal grenade damage at the cost of one grenade. When on foot grenades only deal damage when they hit the ground, but missiles fired while in the tank hurt enemies at any time along the flight path. The tank does not take damage from bullets, but being hit by a grenade, missile, or even a grenade explosion causes the tank to stop working and self destruct after a few seconds. In that case, you must exit the tank by holding the A button and pressing B and get out of the way quickly. The other benefit to the tank is that you can aim in one direction while moving in another direction. The NES does not have any sort of rotary joystick, and with the lack of buttons on the controller that means on foot you can only fire weapons in the direction you are walking. The tank gets around this by taking advantage of the unused A button while riding. Hold the A button and press the direction pad while not moving to rotate the turret in one of eight directions.

While tanks are incredibly useful, they do have some drawbacks. Typically a tank will start off with 100 units of fuel that tick down via an onscreen counter. When it reaches 10 it will set off an annoying low fuel chime, and when it hits 0 it stops working and starts the self destruct sequence. Just like when the tank is destroyed you can escape when out of fuel, but you must be quick! Tanks also cannot be driven in water. The game is very intentional about placing bodies of water where you are forced to ditch the tank to proceed forward.

That sweet, sweet tank!

That sweet, sweet tank!

It’s worth mentioning that in a few spots you get the chance to pilot a helicopter for a very short time. You can fly over the water and most solid obstacles as well as fire both a triple shot and missiles if you so choose. The only problem is that it only starts with 28 units of fuel, but it is fun and helpful while it lasts.

Aside from the heavy equipment there are several other powerups. The basic ones are usually dropped when pink soldiers are defeated. The F powerup allows bullets to penetrate walls and other solid obstacles. The L powerup extends the range of shots and the S powerup makes shots travel faster. The B powerup strengthens the grenade by greatly extending the damage radius of the blast. All four of these powerups will also apply to the missiles fired while riding in the tank. Occasionally a green soldier will appear that leaves a K powerup behind that destroys all enemy soldiers on screen when grabbed. There are also ammo pickups typically found when destroying the larger stationary enemy types. Grenade ammo restores 50 grenades up to the 99 maximum and the bullet ammo fully restores the bullet count back to 99. The fuel pickups are the best. Not only do they restore fuel back to the maximum of 100 if you are riding in the tank, but they also act as both grenade ammo and bullet ammo even when not in the tank. Sometimes when destroying a small enemy tank a regular rideable tank is left behind that you can get in. These tanks can be a really useful surprise but they only give you 32 fuel to start with so their use is limited.

There is also a set of special powerups that do not appear from enemy drops except in some very rare cases. These powerups are hidden throughout the levels and are made visible by shooting their hiding places. Memorizing the location of these special powerups is essential to success in Ikari Warriors. The SS powerup doubles the walking speed from lethargic to at least an acceptable pace. The knife powerup allows Paul and Vince to defeat most enemy soldiers by simply bumping into them instead of taking a death when that occurs. It also makes them immune to a few types of enemy attacks making the knife more of a defensive upgrade than an offensive upgrade. There is a super fuel powerup that looks like a fuel can with the letter H written on it. It restores all ammo as well as setting the fuel to 200 when in a tank, though I found that only came into play one time in the entire game. There is a triple shot powerup which sounds great but ultimately it should be avoided at all costs. Upon collecting the triple shot all bullet powerups are stripped away. If you have the triple shot and grab a bullet powerup, then you lose the triple shot. Now only does it downgrade your machine gun but it also affects tank missiles so it is not worth it at all. Finally, the heart powerup is the most critical powerup in the entire game. Collecting a heart allows you to keep all of your weapon powerups including super speed and the knife if you die. It only works once so you will need to find another heart if you die while having one.

Gates aren't really checkpoints but they do provide a brief change to the main music loop.

Gates aren’t really checkpoints but they do provide a brief change to the main music loop.

There is also one more set of items that simply add to your score. An ammo box is worth 1000 points, the clock is worth 2000 points, and gold bars add 5000 points. There is also the bikini-clad Athena from another popular SNK arcade game that bestows a random number of points. You can earn 1500, 2500, 5000, or 10,000 points when you touch her. That is not nearly as creepy as it sounds!

You may have noticed I did not mention any extra life pickups. That would be because there are none in the game. The scoring items are useful because you can gain extra lives via point milestones. You get an extra life at 50,000 points, another at 100,000 points, and an additional life at every 100,000 points beyond that. You start the game with two lives and adding more through score is the allotment for the entire game. While there is a score counter, grenade counter, and an ammo/fuel counter, there is no way to see how many lives you have other than tracking it mentally yourself.

There are no continues in the game, so when the lives are through it is Game Over and back to the start. Now there is a continue code that is just about as well known as the game itself. There is a lengthy delay between losing the last life and Game Over, and if you input the buttons ABBA within that period you will respawn with two additional lives. It is a simple code, but unfortunately it is not published in the manual that came with Ikari Warriors. Therefore to me the usage of the continue code is strictly off limits. As it turns out there is a specific part of the game where the continue code is rendered useless anyway.

These club wielding hulks only show up in Stage 2.

These club wielding hulks only show up in Stage 2.

I think the picture is starting to paint itself for why Ikari Warriors is so challenging, but it gets far worse from here. While the arcade version and all the other Ikari Warriors ports to my knowledge contain only one long level, for some reason the developer Micronics decided to lengthen the NES game considerably by adding three more levels of equal length. I watched a full playthrough of the arcade version and the entire game consists of the first three-quarters of NES Ikari Warriors Level 1 with the other quarter of the game loosely resembling part the end of Level 3. This is the root of why Ikari Warriors is such an incredible gaming feat to finish. The four long levels add up to about an hour of play all the way through with a strictly limited allotment of lives. Even with the continue code there is still a portion of the game that needs to be memorized where the code fails, not to mention the effort it takes just to reach that point in the first place.

Truly the way to beat Ikari Warriors on NES is to flat out master the game all the way through by playing it over and over again. Many of the enemies and powerups are predetermined so the game is largely an exercise in anticipating the enemy threats and developing the muscle memory to fight through these threats in an appropriate manner. However some of the enemies and hazards have randomness to them that can easily throw a wrench into the best laid plans. One unexpected fatal attack with no heart to revive powerups can utterly cripple a playthrough at just about any time. The game also pulls a dirty trick by removing all powerups at the start of a new stage unless you happen to hold a heart all the way to the end of the previous level.

Naturally with the amount of time I spent trying to beat Ikari Warriors I think it is clear that this was my first time beating the game. There is no special story to how I got the game because it is pretty common to find and cheap to boot. I think it’s easy to find because it is both an early NES game and one that not many people want.

This is both the hardest screen in the game as well as the strangest one.

This is both the hardest screen in the game as well as the strangest one.

Here are some statistics of my time spent with Ikari Warriors that should indicate just how deep this rabbit hole went. I started playing the game on April 26th and my winning run was on August 18th which is a span of 115 days. There were 14 days where I was not able to make an attempt so I played the game for 101 days. It took me a whopping 328 attempts from the start to beat Ikari Warriors and my total game time was 103 hours and 50 minutes. (My timekeeping was rough at best but it’s reasonably close.) Including off days I played slightly fewer than three attempts per day with an average play time of 19 minutes per run. The most impressive stat of all is that I did not break a single controller while playing this game. Talk about willpower!

I also documented some milestones because why not?

  • 05/08/16 – Attempt #91 – Finished Level 1
  • 05/13/16 – Attempt #106 – Cleared Level 1 deathless
  • 06/15/16 – Attempt #210 – Finished Level 2
  • 06/28/16 – Attempt #237 – Cleared Levels 1 and 2 deathless
  • 07/13/16 – Attempt #269 – Finished Level 3
  • 08/04/16 – Attempt #303 – Reached the Final Boss
  •  

My last day of playing Ikari Warriors was somewhat interesting due to some external circumstances. I have had times where I really struggle to get gaming time in my personal life and I had to go to some lengths to try and get attempts once each good run started reaching 45 minutes and beyond. I typically stay up really late to play but sometimes I sleep for a couple of hours and then wake up to do some chores and sneak in some video games while everyone else is asleep. My winning run happened during the early morning but this time it was way later than normal. I got up at 3:00 a.m. to do dishes and then against my better judgment I decided to start a run after 4:00 a.m. My penultimate run was a pure throwaway run when I lost all my lives at the very beginning of the game, and then I started a new game and made it to the end. I finished at 5:20 a.m. and my hands were shaking as I took as many pictures as I could while trying to cherish the moment. I was beyond pumped but I had to keep it down not to wake up anyone. I tried to go back to bed for a little while but I think I got barely a few minutes of sleep after all of that!

Behold this rare screenshot of the final level!

Behold this rare screenshot of the final level!

My winning run was really solid from a game play perspective. I cleared the first two levels without dying which had been a problem on many late attempts. I died once at the end of the helicopter section in Level 3 and I took an intentional death at the end of the stage to clear it. I never could figure out how to finish that section without dying so sacrificing a life there to ensure forward progress is the next best thing. Level 4 was the best I have done on that stage. I can’t remember if I died once randomly there but if I did it was only once and in a good spot. The final segment of the last stage is very difficult but manageable with all powerups intact and I got there with maybe five lives remaining. I died a few times to the last couple sets of enemies and I lost all of my powerups right before the final boss. I died once or twice to the final boss but I managed to get into what I think was a safe spot and I beat the game from there. I think I may have had one life remaining but I could very well have been on my last life. The ending screen is just horrible but oh so sweet to lay eyes on!

I think most people would agree that the legitimate way of beating Ikari Warriors is to avoid using the continue code, even though the premise of trying to beat the game on a single credit is ridiculous enough to begin with. The question I have is if the developers intended for players to use the continue code to work through the game normally. The ABBA code is both short and easy to remember and there is a long enough window before the Game Over screen to input the code successfully. On the other hand, there is a stage select code that is a whopping 32 key presses long, so why would the continue code be so much shorter if it were really meant to be hidden? The thing is that I can’t find any evidence of how the continue code was first revealed. It’s not included in the manual, so perhaps it was spread by word of mouth, published in a gaming magazine, or revealed publicly by the creators somewhere. The truth may never be known. That said, there’s a documentary video of SNK on YouTube that contains a segment about the decision to add the continue code to the NES version of Ikari Warriors. I will leave it up to you to decide what that true intention was.

I really can’t recommend anyone to try and play through Ikari Warriors like I did. I was dedicated to beating this game as much as anyone and it took every ounce of effort and time I could pour into it. The game itself is competent for 1987 but not particularly notable outside of its crushing difficulty. The player character is way too slow for this kind of game and the NES port is hurt by not allowing walking in one direction and aiming in another. The graphics are okay and the music is okay as well even though there are only two songs in the entire game that loop constantly. The game is average at best and the difficulty for sure drags it down to below average overall. If you are dead set on trying it out, please consider using the continue code. If you want to try beating it the same way I did, then you have my deepest sympathy.

I don’t know if Ikari Warriors is the hardest NES game, but of all the games I’ve played on the console I know this is easily the most difficult game I’ve finished and I consider my victory one of my top achievements in all of gaming. In spite of all the flaws and difficulty, I had fun with it. If I ever have the opportunity to show off my NES gaming skills this will be the game I pick now that I know I can handle it, and now I won’t be embarrassed to use the continue code!

#24 - Ikari Warriors

#24 – Ikari Warriors

Final Score - 577,600

Final Score – 577,600