Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

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OCT
02
2017
0

#53 – American Gladiators

You can sort of get the experience with this lovely home version!

A contestant runs around the copyright page before the title.

To Beat: Reach the Ending
Played: 6/26/17 – 7/2/17
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 6/10
Video: American Gladiators Playthrough

It wasn’t too long ago that I wrote about Rollergames, and today we have another game based on a 90’s TV show that is right out of the same mold. They were both live-action shows that ran on TV at the same time. Both shows received an NES game to piggyback off the hype. Also, although American Gladiators on NES does a little better in this regard, both NES games deviate somewhat from the source material.

American Gladiators is a US TV show that aired in syndication from 1989 to 1996. It pits two men and also two women against each other in several events culminating in a final obstacle course called the Eliminator. All the events involved the Gladiators, who are recurring athletes that have their own roles in the events to prevent the contestants from scoring. The show eventually featured many different events that came and went through the run of the show, and each episode consisted of different combinations of events. Later, there was a remake of American Gladiators that ran for two seasons, both in 2008.

I’m genuinely disturbed by the concept of lives here.

American Gladiators on NES was released in October 1991 only in the US. It was published by Gametek and developed by Incredible Technologies. This game resembles the show but does not follow its format. There is a different American Gladiators game that is much more faithful to the show. That version was developed by Imagitec Design Inc and also published by Gametek on the Sega Genesis, DOS, and Amiga in 1992. The SNES port was released in 1993.

Similar to the TV show, in the NES game you have to compete in five different events which are modified versions of specific games that appeared on the show. You have to clear all five events within so many “lives.” The events are Joust, The Wall, Human Cannonball, Powerball, and Assault. Once you clear all five events, the game advances to the next level where you get a more challenging set of these same five events. In all, you must clear four different difficulty levels of five events each before moving on to the final event, the Eliminator. If you can clear the Eliminator, then you win the game.

Let’s look at each event. First I will explain how the event is played on the show, and then I will describe how it was converted to the NES game.

Stick and move.

In Joust, a contestant and a gladiator attempt to knock each other off a raised platform with pugel sticks. In the NES version of Joust, you square off against four gladiators one at a time instead of just the single battle featured in the show. During a face-off, you can move around a bit on the platform by tapping Left or Right on the D-Pad. Press A to thrust your pugel stick at the gladiator. You can press B to thrust too but this will also inch you a step toward the gladiator. Just pressing A or B does a middle thrust, and you can also do a high thrust by holding Up or a low thrust by holding Down when you strike. You can also block by holding Left and pressing either A or B. You exchange blows with the gladiator until you knock him off the platform. Then the event briefly switches to a platformer as you must move forward jumping from platform to platform to engage the next gladiator. After you win the third fight, a super pugel stick will fly into play. If you grab it your stick will light up, then if you can land a first strike on the gladiator you will knock him off instantly. If you get hit first then you lose the super pugel stick, so make it count! If you get knocked off or fall off at any time, you lose a life.

Tap it out while making quick decisions.

In The Wall, two contestants race up a climbing wall. After a few seconds, the Gladiators will pursue the contestants attempting to pull them off the wall, preventing them from reaching the top and scoring points. In the NES event, your goal is also to climb to the top of the wall, but this time there are several gladiators that appear at various locations along the wall that you must avoid. The controls for this event are tricky and unlike anything else I’ve ever played. The idea is that the B button moves your left hand and the A button moves your right hand. You combine this button press with a direction to move that hand in all eight directions. There are handholds covering most of the wall and as long as you have at least one hand on one you will stay on the wall. The consequence of this control scheme is that you need to tap buttons quickly to move fast. For instance, to move straight up, you must rapidly alternate between pressing A and B while holding Up. It takes practice to get the hang of it. You can find a glove on the wall that lets you move very fast with just the D-Pad instead of having to tap out A and B, but it only lasts for a few seconds. Each of the four levels is a completely different layout on the wall, and you need to have mastered the control scheme to clear the last wall. If you lose the grip on both hands, or you come in contact with one of the gladiators, then you fall down and lose a life. Plus, you have to start at the very bottom of The Wall.

He doesn’t stand a chance.

The Human Cannonball event begins with a gladiator standing on a small elevated platform holding a foam pad for protection. The contestants swing on a rope from their own platform and try to knock the gladiator down to score points. The NES event requires you to jump from your platform, grab the swinging rope, and then let go at the right time to knock the gladiator down. Like Joust, there is a series of four gladiators that you knock down to finish the event. Both the starting platform and the gladiator’s platform move up and down, making the timing more difficult. At the start, you can walk left or right a bit on the platform, and then press A to jump toward the rope. If you grab onto it, then you automatically swing back and forth and you must press A again to let go and launch yourself. In some levels, during the third gladiator a glove will fly into play, and if you grab it you can move up and down the rope. Normally where you first grab the rope is where you stay until you jump off. The glove comes in handy on the fourth gladiator because there can be a trophy at the top of the rope that gives you an extra life. In this event, it is very easy to lose lives. You can fall off the platform, miss the jump to the rope, miss the gladiator on the launch, or hit the gladiator when he is blocking.

Always score in the center when it is clear.

In Powerball, there are bins filled with balls on both ends of the playfield, and there are five empty pods guarded by three gladiators. Both contestants play simultaneously by taking a ball and putting it into the pods, if they can get by the gladiators to do so. The players must cross to the opposite end before grabbing a new ball, and the object is to score as many points as possible within a time limit. The NES version of Powerball is mostly faithful to the original event. You grab a ball at either end of the playfield with either A or B. Then you have to run around the gladiators and place the ball into the pod by standing next to it and pressing the button. Just like on the show you must cross to the opposite side to grab a new ball. The difference in the NES game is that you are only allowed to put one ball in each pod. If you score on all five pods, you are awarded an extra life as well as free up all the pods so you can continue scoring anew. If a gladiator touches you, he always knocks the ball out of your hand and you have to go get a new one. This is the only event where you don’t lose a life. Just score as much as you can before the timer runs out!

Weird gladiator scrolling, but a fun game mode at least.

The Assault features a gladiator manning a tennis ball cannon, and there is a target on the wall behind him. The contestants run through the playfield dodging the fired tennis balls and reaching the safe spots. Each safe spot has a weapon used to hit the target. The contestant wins if they hit the target or reach the end of the course before time runs out, and they lose if the gladiator hits them with a tennis ball. The NES version of the game plays a bit differently. The gladiator moves back and forth at the top of the screen with the cannon no matter where you are in the course. You scroll the playfield upward and seek out weapons near a safe spot. Neither you nor the gladiator can shoot through barriers on the field. Grab a weapon by standing on the weapon icon and pressing B, then press A to launch a shot upward. Each icon gives you three shots. The gladiator will fall if you shoot him enough times, and you lose a life if he hits you three times. Alternatively, you clear the event if you reach the top of the course before time runs out. This is the only event that you can lose if the timer expires.

Platforming with random projectiles!

Once you clear all 20 events, then you begin the Eliminator. This is a long, slowly scrolling platforming level essentially. You start out by hopping between balance beams with the A button and advancing to the right. During the event, medicine balls will spray out from the bottom of the screen randomly. If they hit you then you fall, but you can save yourself by pressing Down to duck in time and shield yourself from the hit. Be careful when jumping as you can’t block hits. Eventually you come to the hand bike. Press Left or Right to move along the rail and dodge the balls. Past the hand bike are conveyor belts, and then after that is another hand bike section. Finally, the balls go away and you take a series of zip lines to the end of the course. You must time your jump off each zip line to grab the next one. If you get all the way to the end, congratulations!

Finally, here is some miscellany about American Gladiators. Across all events, there is a scoring system in place. You typically earn points by either getting past a gladiator or redeeming each second left on the timer at the end of the event. Once you clear a level of five events, you get 100 points as well as an extra life for the next level. You can also earn a continue by clearing either Level 1 or 2. When you lose all your lives, you get a password, provided you have already cleared Level 1. The password is eight characters long and the only characters are A and B. You enter the password by pressing the corresponding button, which is super convenient. There are only three passwords, one for each level from two to four. Lastly, the game features a two-player mode, but it is alternating play so it isn’t that useful.

This was my first time playing American Gladiators. I have owned the game since childhood and probably got it from a yard sale. It only took one try playing it to discover I wasn’t all that interested in the gameplay. I’m not sure why that was because I enjoyed watching the TV show on cable whenever I saw it was on, and I played NES often as a kid. I’m glad I’m doing this completion project because it gives me the motivation to play through games such as American Gladiators that I’ve owned for over half my life.

This guy is super tough for some reason.

It took me three or four days over a week to solve American Gladiators. Initially I found Powerball to be the easiest event because I always filled up the pods, only to find out later that it truly is the easiest one since you cannot lose regardless. Assault was the next easiest game for me because I am good at dodging, although that was tested during the final level. The Wall tends to be difficult for people due to the weird, exhausting controls, but I took to it quite well. Joust was the event that gave me so much trouble until I figured out how it worked. Human Cannonball to my surprise ended up being the most difficult event as the later levels had me almost pulling my hair out.

Once I got all those games figured out, it was time for the Eliminator. This event was challenging, but it was even harder to learn because I could only use what lives I had remaining after clearing all the Level 4 events. The best shot I had at the Eliminator came from playing the game from the start and accumulating as many lives as possible along the way. I had a few runs that I almost completed before recording anything, and once I sat down to record I ended up completing the game for the first time. I even beat it without continues. I had close to ten lives starting the Eliminator but I used nearly all of them up to beat it.

You really need to master the controls to solve this one.

Here are some pointers for a few of the events that tripped me up in the game. Spoilers apply here, so if you want to try the game yourself and keep your experience pure, now is the time to look away! As I mentioned earlier, Joust was my first major hang up. That was because I was playing it wrong. The opponents also strike with low, medium, and high thrusts, and you can counter each one. You counter a low strike with a medium one, a medium strike with a high one, and a high strike with a low one. The gladiators also strike in a pattern that loops, so once you see it you can predict and counter every hit. If you are fast and don’t know the pattern, you can also counter by observing his strike and attacking quickly. Moving on to the Human Cannonball event, there are a few gladiators that seem impossible to knock down because they always block you. The only way I figured out how to get past them is to swing on the rope back and forth a few times before launching yourself. In other words, if they block on your first swing, try knocking them down on your second swing. You can stay on the rope for as long as you like once you grab on. I won’t tell you which gladiators or how many swings you need to wait. If you need to know, you can see my strategy in the longplay video. Finally, a couple of basic tips for The Wall. Make sure to spend some time in a clear space learning how to move in all directions. Take it slow. This becomes very important in later levels where each incremental movement is critical. Also, it is best to set the controller in your lap and use your pointer and middle fingers to tap out the A and B buttons. The game manual recommends this since you can move around on The Wall much quicker and with less fatigue in your hand.

I’ll say that American Gladiators is an interesting NES game, but I don’t know that I would recommend playing it. It’s a novelty to see how they adapted the show into an NES game, but it’s not quite reminiscent of the show enough to invoke the nostalgia factor. The music is fine, but nothing special, and notably the iconic theme song is not in this game at all. If it is, then it wasn’t recognizable enough for me to notice it. The graphics are decent and every important element is clearly defined. It’s a mish-mash of a game. I had fun with it, but of course I always say that.

#53 – American Gladiators

 
AUG
24
2017
0

#50 – Dragon Warrior

Baby’s first RPG!

Title screen fanfare is nice!

To Beat: Reach the Ending
Played: 4/18/17 – 4/27/17
Difficulty: 2/10
My Difficulty: 1/10
Video: Dragon Warrior Endgame

It took me longer than I expected to get this far, but I have finally reached this milestone of the review of my 50th completed game. I thought I might do special games at milestones like this one, but my current plan is to take games as they come. In this case, it ended up working out to a game that is good enough for the 50th post. Dragon Warrior is an extremely basic role-playing game, or RPG, but it is an important game that eased me to the genre and was a gateway to more complicated and challenging games in this style.

Dragon Quest is the first game is a long running series of RPG games under the same name. Yuji Horii created Dragon Quest in response to other RPGs of the time like Wizardry and Ultima. The driving force behind Dragon Quest was that it would appeal to a much wider audience, even those who are not interested in or familiar with video games at all. The result was a much more simplistic game with a larger focus on story to draw more players in. Dragon Quest was very successful in Japan and it still one of the most popular game series there today. Dragon Quest XI was just recently released in 2017, and there are various spinoff titles and remakes as well as forays into novels, manga, and anime.

Dragon Quest was released on the Famicom in Japan on May 27th, 1986. It was developed by Chunsoft and published by Enix, now known as Square Enix. North America would not receive this game on the NES until all the way in August 1989, just a few months before Dragon Quest IV released in Japan. Here the name was changed to Dragon Warrior due to a naming conflict with the pen and paper RPG DragonQuest. Its success in Japan did not translate over to the US and sales were poor. In 1990, Nintendo Power gave away copies of the game as a subscription bonus for the magazine, and that greatly helped the series gain traction. The NES would eventually receive all four Famicom Dragon Quest titles under the Dragon Warrior name.

Some olde time English here.

The plot of Dragon Warrior is a simple one. In the land of Alefgard, the evil Dragonlord had stolen the Balls of Light from Tantegel Castle under the rule of King Lorik. The hero Erdrick managed to reach the Dragonlord’s castle on an island but was never heard from again. Years later, the Dragonlord attacked Tantegel Castle again, kidnapping Princess Gwaelin in the process. You play as an unnamed hero who seeks to follow in the footsteps of Erdrick by defeating the Dragonlord, retrieving the Ball of Light, and saving the princess.

A lot of what I have to say about Dragon Warrior is not only basic knowledge of this game, but of RPGs in general. If you have played any games of this style, most of the game description will be quite familiar. Dragon Warrior was aimed at newcomers, and so this review is also going to be focused on that same audience. I do think there is still value in Dragon Warrior as a beginner’s RPG, so I’m happy to go into detail that might be more rudimentary for some.

When you begin the game, you choose from one of three save slots. When starting a new game, you will give your hero an eight-character name and set the text speed. The game begins in a top-down view in the king’s throne room in Tantegel Castle. The king will give you an explanation of the task at hand, and from there you are on your own. You will want to visit the king often over the course of your adventure because this is the only place you can save your game. For now, this area serves as a pretty decent tutorial for how you navigate the menu and see all the things you can do.

The game would be over sooner if you could swim.

You use the D-pad to move the hero in the four cardinal directions as well as move the cursor to choose options on the menu. Press A to bring up the Command menu. As a rule, the A button proceeds and the B buttons cancels or goes back. You can also press Start to pause while walking around, but there is never a reason to do so.

There are many options on the Command menu. The first option is Talk which lets you talk or interact with the person you are facing. Status lets you see your statistics such as health, attack power, or which weapons and armor you are using. The Stairs command lets you walk up and down stairs that you are standing on. Most games will assume you want to take the stairs when you stand on them, but here you must use the specific command. Search lets you examine the ground at your feet for anything interesting. Spell brings up a list of spells that you can cast, but at the start of the game you don’t have any available. The Item screen lets you view and use items you are holding. You can only carry eight items, but certain items group together so you can hold several of them while only utilizing a single item slot. Door lets you open a closed door you are facing, but only if you have a key. The Take command lets you open a treasure chest you are standing on.

When you bring up the Command menu or just stand still for a while, you bring up a panel on screen that displays some basic stats. The LV counter is for your experience level. This indicates how powerful you are and it begins at one. HP stands for Hit Points and this is your health. MP stands for Magic Points. You spend magic points to cast spells. G stands for Gold which is the game’s currency. E stands for Experience Points and you earn these by defeating enemies.

I’ll take one of everything, please.

One of the chests in the throne room contains some gold to get you started. One of the first things you will want to do is spend that gold on some equipment. Unfortunately, there are not any shops inside the castle, but you still want to explore and talk to people here. Exiting the castle takes you to the world map. There is a nearby town to the east called Brecconary that should be your next stop. There are more people in town to talk to as well as places to shop.

The shop in the northwest corner of town is the weapon shop. You can only hold one weapon, one armor, and one shield at a time. There are several options and the more expensive options are more effective. An equipped weapon increases your attack power and either an equipped armor or shield increases your defense. When you buy something from this shop that replaces something already equipped, the shop will buy back the old item at half its value.

The shop in the southeast part of town is the item shop. Here you can buy or sell items from your item stock. It might be useful early on to buy an herb that lets you restore some health from anywhere. The inn is located in the southwest corner of the town. You can spend some gold to stay the night which replenishes all your HP and MP. The shops and the inn are the basic features of each town you encounter in the game.

Get used to seeing this screen a lot.

Most of your time in Dragon Warrior will be spent battling enemies. As you explore the world map or caves, an enemy may appear on screen that you must engage one on one. This bring up a smaller Command menu. Both Spell and Item appear on this menu and they act the same as in the standard menu. Fight lets you attack the enemy. Run gives you the chance to run from the fight and keep exploring, although the enemy may not let you escape. You and the enemy alternate turns until one either wins the fight or runs away. There is a text box at the bottom of the screen that describes what is going on, such as whose turn it is and how much damage is inflicted.

When you win a fight, you are awarded both gold and experience points. If your HP is running low, the text boxes all change color from white to red to show that you are getting close to death. If you succumb to the enemy, then you are returned to the castle in front of the king. Not only does he lecture you on dying, but you lose half of your gold. The good news is you do not lose any experience points or equipment when you die, so even if you lose many fights you will continue to get stronger as long as you keep playing.

When you meet certain thresholds of experience points, you will gain a level. This is noted after a battle with some fanfare. Going up a level gives you stat boosts. You can gain strength, agility, maximum HP, maximum MP, and sometimes even learn a new spell. The strength stat translates into additional points in the attack power stat, and agility translates into additional defense points.

A warrior and a wizard!

At certain levels, you will also learn a new magic spell. Each spell requires a certain amount of MP to cast. You will learn ten spells in all and they have various uses either in combat, while adventuring, or both. The Heal spell restores some of your HP. Hurt is a combat spell that deals damage to the enemy. Sleep is a combat spell that sometimes lulls your enemy to sleep, preventing them from taking their attack turns until they wake up. Radiant is used in dark caves to see as many as three tiles ahead of you in all directions. Stopspell is a combat spell that may prevent the enemy from casting their own spells. Outside lets you leave a cave automatically, and the Return spell sends you back to the castle from anywhere in the overworld. Repel is used on the world map to keep weak enemies from engaging you in battle. There is also a stronger healing spell called Healmore and a final attack spell called Hurtmore.

As you venture further out into the world, you will come across stronger enemies. Not only do later enemies have more health, attack, and defense, but some can cast spells of their own or do alternate attacks. You will need to spend a lot of time fighting weaker enemies and testing yourself to see if you can take on stronger enemies that bestow more gold and experience. You will encounter other towns throughout Alefgard that have new shops with better equipment, as well as different tips about the world to point you in the right direction for story progress. But most of Dragon Warrior is spent fighting enemies to strengthen yourself for tougher enemies.

I have beaten Dragon Warrior several times over the years and I am very familiar with the game even now. I remember finding the game while going out to yard sales with my grandparents as a kid. It was out of place for sure, laying on a table complete in box amidst random knick-knacks. It cost only $5 and they were happy to buy it for me. I didn’t know anything about the game from Nintendo Power because I wasn’t subscribing then, and it may well have been one of the subscription incentive copies. Happy to find a new NES game that day, I gave it a play that night and I got sucked in. The simplicity of the game combined with an abundance of childhood free time was the perfect recipe for a new RPG addiction.

You are the Dragon Warrior after all.

Aside from tracking down a few items, Dragon Warrior is a very easy game. For me, the challenge lies in making the time to play through it. I estimate it took me 15-20 hours to complete the game, though I insisted on leveling up to the highest possible level. I already knew the areas that were best for gaining experience points more rapidly. That helped keep the game shorter, as well as reaching towns as early as possible to buy better equipment. The more time I could spend fighting tough enemies, the faster I could max out experience points. Another time saving tip is that Dragon Warrior is just about a perfect game to grind while doing something else, such as watching TV. I’m not ashamed to admit I grinded out a few levels while listening and participating on conference calls while working from home.

The speedrunning community has managed to achieve seemingly impossible times in completing Dragon Warrior. What took me over 15 hours to accomplish has been done in a world record speedrun that runs a little over 25 minutes. There are certain timings to inputting commands that lets the hero do things like make higher damage attacks, dodge enemy attacks, and avoid random encounters. By using these timings combined with a heavy dose of luck, Dragon Warrior can be beaten at a very low experience level. It’s all very impressive!

Dragon Warrior was a formative game for me. It was my entry point into the Japanese RPG genre at a time when I could give a lot of energy into the experience. From there I sought out the NES sequels, and I eventually moved that interest over to the SNES and some of its top-class RPGs. Therefore, I have much appreciation for Dragon Warrior. Outside of that context, it’s not a game I see myself playing again unless I get bit hard by the nostalgia bug. It’s too simple, too plain, and too grindy. But if you are looking to get into the genre while not getting too deep into the weeds, Dragon Warrior is a fine place to start.

#50 – Dragon Warrior