Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

romstar

OCT
09
2017
0

#54 – Championship Bowling

The lone NES bowling title gave me more than I bargained for.

A cute penguin also runs across this screen!

To Beat: Score 250 or higher
To Complete: Bowl a Perfect Game of 300
What I Did: Completed the Game
Played: 7/12/17 – 7/17/17
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
Video: Championship Bowling Perfect Game

Have you ever played a game expecting one thing and then got something significantly different? I have experienced that a little bit in this project so far. Take The Immortal as an example. I expected an adventure game with puzzles, but I wasn’t anticipating combat resembling Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! at all. Championship Bowling is clearly a simple bowling game, but as I sought the highest score it morphed into a puzzle game, requiring me to look for patterns and techniques to crack its code.

Championship Bowling was released on the NES in December 1989. It was published by Romstar and developed by Another Ltd. The Black Bass is the only other NES release developed by Another, though they did release a couple of adventure games on the Famicom in their brief history. This was the second game published by Romstar on the NES, just a couple of months after Twin Eagle. Championship Bowling was also released on Famicom in 1991, published there by Athena. It is the only bowling game on the NES.

Championship Bowling emulates a standard, regulation round of bowling. There are ten frames each consisting of ten pins arranged in a triangle, and the object of the game is to roll the bowling ball down the lane trying to knock down as many pins as possible. You get two throws per frame unless you get a strike by knocking them all down on the first throw. Strikes are the way to get the best scores, but you can do well by picking up the spare on the second throw. After the 10th frame is completed, the game is over. You can see your score, high scores, and choose to play another round if you wish.

At the title screen, you can choose the number of players and which bowling lane you want. Championship Bowling supports up to four players! You can also choose from five different lanes. Each one has a different color scheme in game as well as unique effects on the ball path such as speed and curve of the ball. You press Left or Right to change the number of players, and press Up or Down to choose the lane. Then press Start to advance to the character selection screen.

There’s a good selection of options.

On the next screen, each player makes further selections. You can choose from one of four bowlers and each one has some slight differences in gameplay. Use the D-Pad to highlight the desired bowler and press A. Then enter in your initials. Press Up or Down to cycle through letters and press A to choose each initial. Finally, choose which bowling ball you want. You can pick a 7 pound, 9 pound, 11 pound, 13 pound, or 15 pound ball. Again, each ball handles a bit differently and each one is a different color. One weird thing here is if you play multiplayer, Championship Bowling requires two controllers. Odd numbered players use controller 1 and even numbered players use controller 2. One controller is all you really need since play is alternating, so this is a strange choice. Once all players make their selections then it’s time to bowl!

At the start of each frame, your player stands at the bottom of the screen. Use Left or Right to set where you want your bowler to stand, then press A. Next, the Control meter on the left will show a ball automatically moving in a half-circle arc. This determines the kind of spin placed on the ball. You must press the A button with good timing to get the spin you want. After spin is chosen, then the power meter bar quickly moves up and down. This determines how hard you throw the ball, and like the Control meter this also requires good timing with the A button. After all that, the bowler will go ahead with those selections and throw the ball. If you bowl a strike, you get a little celebration and play moves on to the next player or next frame in single player. Otherwise, you get a second throw to try and clean up the remaining pins.

There is some other useful information on this screen. You can see the high score in the upper-left which defaults to 200. The lower left shows which player is bowling, the current frame, and the scoring for this frame. On the right side, you see a top down view of the lane which is useful for lining up shots. Above the pins is a display that lights up the number of each remaining pin after the first throw, just like something you would see on the display at a real bowling alley. Additionally, before you start your timing selections, you can press B to see the scorecard for your entire round thus far.

After everyone has finished bowling, you are taken to the high score screen. Initials and score are added for every player that scores well enough to place on the board. There are trophies displayed here with scores underneath them that suggest you should be aiming for those scores. When you are finished, you go back to the title screen. Championship Bowling is a simple, straightforward experience.

Here you line up your shot and time the meters.

I think this is my first time playing through Championship Bowling. I have cleaned and tested every cart in my collection, and it’s possible that I played a whole round when I tested this game. This was definitely my first time playing this game seriously. It’s a common cart and I don’t recall when I bought the game. I know I have picked up some in game lots over the years so that’s likely where my copy came from.

The manual has a topic about getting the perfect strike, and the idea proposed there is the same as actual bowling. You want to aim the ball between the front pin and either one of the pins in the second row. Not only that, but you also want to hook the ball between those two pins to get the best possible pin action and best chance to get a strike. In the game, you want to do the same thing. Position your bowler to the right of the pins and curve the ball to the left. (Do the opposite if the bowler is left handed.) With the right positioning, angle, and power, you can hit the sweet spot and get a strike most of the time. I say most of the time because the same shot doesn’t always work.

I mentioned the trophies on the high score screen. The lowest one reads 250 points, then 275, and lastly the perfect 300. Championship Bowling has three different ending screens for meeting each one of those thresholds. The way the scoring system works, you must score several strikes in a row to best increase your score. I was able to find the sweet spot that gives me a strike most of the time, and then I was able to pick up the spare on the frames where pins were remaining. It took many games to find this spot as well as home in on the timing to hit it every time. After playing for some time, I could play a round that let me have enough consecutive strikes to score well within the 250s. That was good enough to get one of the endings and consider the game beaten, but that wasn’t good enough for me.

This was the point where the game turned into this larger puzzle of how to narrow down my options and sequence the events to bowl a perfect 300, and I’m proud to report that I achieved it. I have bowled at least five perfect games with my strategy and it does seem to be consistent. So now I will reveal the ultimate strategy for the perfect game in Championship Bowling. This is the official spoiler alert. You can jump down to the closing paragraph now if you want this game to remain shrouded in mystery.

Strikes are very exciting!

There really are many variables at play here that can change everything, and I narrowed some of them down pretty quickly. I tried just about every position, angle, and speed. Before bowling even begins, I tried all the different lanes, all the different characters, and all the different balls. Right away I put a focus on powerful shots, and in turn I could eliminate three of the five lanes that slow the ball down considerably. Lane 1 is the right lane for this strategy. I also knew a strong hook was important, so I read the manual and it says the upper-right character has the best hook. It’s tough to tell, but I believe the characters do have minute differences and so I stuck with that character. This is the base that I started with.

My next discovery was the semi-consistent strike shot. There are lane markings shaped like triangles arranged in an upside-down ‘V’ pattern. You want to position your bowler to the left of the second lane marker from the right so that the right side of his head is just barely to the left of that lane marker. For the spin control, you want to stop the cursor on the far bottom-left. For the power, you want the bar all the way to the top, or one notch below full power also works. The best ball for this is the 13 pound ball. This exact shot with this ball is 100% effective for the first three frames, while any other sized ball has a small chance of failure.

The fourth frame is where this strategy falls apart. Using my shot technique here causes the ball to hook more sharply, leading to missed pins. To make matters worse, sometimes the game waits until the fifth, sixth, or seventh frame to start missing. Now somewhere around here I did figure out another shot variation that gives occasional strikes, and that’s good and important, but I still have the problem of not knowing when I can deploy this other weapon. This leads to my next discovery. The longer you play, the more randomized the game becomes. I got into the habit of hitting the reset button when I missed a strike to start over and eventually I realized that puts the game into a slightly different state than starting from power on. Once I resorted to shutting my NES off and turning it back on for each new game, I began to get consistent results! Now I could put everything together and get the perfect game I’ve been working toward!

Oooh, I wonder what my prize is!

Here is the complete strategy. Choose Lane 1 and the upper-right bowler. Choose whatever initials you want and select the 13 pound ball. There are only two shots you need to learn. The first shot is the same one I covered above. Position your bowler so that the right side of his head lines up with the left side of the second lane marking from the right. Angle the ball as far left as possible, and go for either full power or one notch below full. Let’s call this Shot A. The other shot I will call Shot B, and it is nearly identical to Shot A. You want the same lane positioning and the same power for both shots, however the angle for Shot B is at a 45-degree angle on the left. Use Shot A on frames 1, 2, 3, and 5, and use Shot B for all remaining frames. If you mess up Shot A a little bit, there’s a chance you can still get a strike. However, you need to be precise on each Shot B or you won’t get a strike. It took me a long time to figure this out because Shot A magically becomes effective again once you make a mistake, so I was led down the wrong path of using it way more often than I should.

I recorded video of bowling the 300 game, but Championship Bowling had one final, bizarre trick up its sleeve. I had been playing the game on my CRT with my AV-modded top-loading NES that I use for quick games or testing carts, but I record gameplay using my flat screen TV and the AVS system. There was a bit of a timing difference that I eventually got used to, but it turns out that my shot sequence above fails on the fifth frame while using the AVS. I suspect that the starting states of the top-loading NES and AVS are not exactly the same. Like I said, it’s completely strange and unexpected. While playing from a fresh boot of the AVS, I needed to use Shot A on frames 1, 2, 3, and 6 while using Shot B on the others. It’s just swapping shots on frames 5 and 6. That sequence is what I recorded in the video. Perhaps different consoles or emulators have a different shot sequence.

For not having any other NES releases to compare it to, Championship Bowling stands on its own anyway as a solid bowling game. The game has good controls and even though it only has as a few songs and melodies, they are catchy and well done. The graphics are nice and clear, although some lanes had poor color choices for the power meter making it hard to see. Each bowler has several frames of throwing animation and the pin action is pretty good considering what the NES is capable of. I’m also thankful the game is not completely random or otherwise I would have given up by now. It’s far from flashy, and the experience wears off quickly, but Championship Bowling is a capable NES game disguised as a surprise puzzler.

#54 – Championship Bowling

 
SEP
25
2017
0

#52 – Sky Shark

If only it were literally a sky shark!

Good music and developer info works for me!

To Beat: Finish Level 5
Played: 6/6/17 – 6/12/17
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 7/10
Video: Sky Shark Playthrough

Today’s game is a port of an arcade shooter. I have covered a few arcade ports of shooters already. One of them is MagMax, which although it was true to the arcade game, it was ported far too late and wasn’t that much fun to begin with. On the other extreme, I played Gyruss and found the expanded NES port to be a better experience than the arcade version. BreakThru sits somewhere in between the two. It was like the arcade game, but was a decent port and reasonably fun to play. Of those three games, Sky Shark sits pretty close to BreakThru.

Flying Shark is an arcade shoot-em-up released in 1987. It was developed by Toaplan and was published in North America by Romstar. The game was ported to many different home computer systems in Japan, North America, and Europe. Flying Shark was renamed to Sky Shark in North America. Toaplan also developed the 1989 sequel to this game called Fire Shark. The NES version of Sky Shark was released in September 1989. This port was developed by Software Creations, and Sky Shark was their first NES game. Despite being based in England, Sky Shark on NES was only released in North America. You may also remember them as the developer of Pictionary that I played last year. The NES version was published by Taito, who also published the arcade version of Flying Shark in Japan.

Sky Shark is a top-down vertical scrolling shoot-em-up. You play the role of the best fighter in the best squadron of the US forces in World War II. He is given the nickname of the Sky Shark, and according to the comic in the game’s manual, even his plane is painted to look like a flying shark. I guess the name makes sense now! Your task is to fly through enemy forces and rescue your POWs. The mission is broken up into five stages separated by landing your aircraft. Don’t worry, the game does this for you. Survive through all five levels and you have beaten Sky Shark.

Plenty of planes and tanks early on in the game.

This is a simple game with equally simple controls. Use the D-pad to fly in all directions. Press A to fire your machine guns. Ammo is unlimited, but there is no autofire so you have to mash away at the fire button. The B button drops bombs. The Start button begins the game and pauses the action during play. Select is used to choose between one or two player mode on the title screen. Two-player mode is alternating play. That’s all there is to it!

Each aircraft comes equipped with three bombs, and dropping one inflicts heavy damage over a large portion of the screen. Bomb blasts absorb bullets too, so they can get you out of a tight spot if used defensively. Some enemies leave behind a B icon when defeated. Fly over this icon to collect an additional bomb. You can hold up to eight bombs, so you might as well use one before trying to grab a ninth. If you are interested in getting a high score, save up some spare bombs because at the end of each level you earn 3,000 points for each bomb in your inventory.

During play, the status bar is located at the bottom of the screen. You can see the current score for both players in addition to the high score. Underneath the score, you see icons that indicate how many additional fighters and how many bombs you have. Like bombs, you can have up to eight lives. There are no extra lives found on the battlefield, but you earn one every 50,000 points. It’s pretty unlikely you would reach the maximum number of lives, but it could happen!

Red planes are about the only welcome sight in Sky Shark.

One recurring feature in the stages is a wave of eight planes. They all fly in together in one of several formations and leave the screen quickly. Destroying all eight planes of the wave gives you a bonus. If the planes are yellow, you earn 1,000 points, but if the planes are red they leave behind an S powerup. The S flies around in loops on the screen so it can be tricky to grab, but you want to grab it because it powers up your machine gun. You can upgrade your weapon six times total. The first upgrade increases your gun from two shots to four, and you eventually work your way up to the fully powered gun giving you seven shots at once with a slight spread. Any time you die by taking a hit, your weapon reverts to the basic double shot. The S powerups tend to be spread out, so it takes a long time to power up all the way if you can survive that long. The sad thing is that the best weapon is not nearly as powerful as you would like.

Both the levels and enemies are generic, World War II styled elements. The stages do not distinguish themselves very well. Each level is composed of several of the same kinds of locations stitched together. There are jungle, ocean, and desert segments dispersed throughout the stages. The best level type is the trainyard area. Each level ends in an airstrip where you land the plane and get your bomb bonus. The enemies are all planes, tanks, and boats. In the ocean sections, you will pass by huge ships with cannons that you can destroy. Tanks emerge from the sides of the screen and behind buildings, and plane formations fly in often. There is not much variety overall.

There are a few bosses in the game. The Super Tank shows up at the end of the first stage. You don’t have to blow it up though because it will eventually run out of driving room and you can leave it behind. There is an upgraded version of the Super Tank that appears in a few places in the middle of stages, and just like the first boss they don’t follow you very long. There are also some large planes that act the same way, but it’s not exactly correct to call them bosses. There is also a giant final boss near the end of the fifth level.

Giant planes and battleships together at last!

When you are shot down, you resume play from the nearest checkpoint. Each stage has several hidden checkpoints, and I’d say the length between them is just about right. Some areas are harder than others so a checkpoint is a nice relief. When you run out of lives, you can continue up to three times. On the Game Over screen, you see the number of credits remaining and a countdown timer with some ominous music for an accompaniment. Press Start to continue your game from the nearest checkpoint, just as if you lost a life. You do lose your score when you continue. If you run out of credits or choose not to continue, you are taken to the high score screen where you can enter your initials.

This was my first time playing Sky Shark. I don’t remember how I acquired the cart, but it is a common game that I probably got in a bulk lot somewhere. It’s worth about $3 today, so hopefully I didn’t pay much for it. At least I knew it was a shoot-em-up, so that alone got me interested to see what it was all about.

Sky Shark is a tough game. I spent about a week playing the game over maybe a dozen attempts before I reached the end. I wanted to beat the game without continuing, but by the time I beat it I was ready to move on. The game overwhelms you early on with several tanks and aircraft at once, many of which fire aimed shots at you. Tanks appear and start firing right away, so you are forced to be on your toes and keep moving. You really need to know where enemies appear to stand a chance. Enemies have a bad habit of firing off one last shot just before they despawn off the sides of the screen. Even though the enemy bullets are large and change colors, they are often hard to see in the thick of the fight. Your only gun fires mostly straight, limiting its effectiveness, and bombs tend to be used to extend a life just to reach the next checkpoint. Thankfully the game has a continue system, otherwise I would have rated the game either an 8 or a 9.

Busy backgrounds mean it is hard to identify everything going on.

Sky Shark does not have an ending. Once you fight the final boss and reach the end of level five, the game loops seamlessly. In a small twist, the game restarts from level two, so if you keep looping the game you will just repeat levels two through five without every playing level one again. Luckily, there is a way to tell if you have finished the game. I left this little tidbit out intentionally until now. When you enter your initials on the high score screen, there is also a two-digit value displayed on the right-hand column. I can’t confirm this for certain, but that value appears to be a percentage of how much of the game was completed.

There are two quirks about this value that make me doubt my theory a bit. The first thing is that this value is more heavily weighted toward the end of the game. For example, you could Game Over deep in level two and only get a value in the teens when you would expect that you’ve completed nearly 40% of the game by then. It seems to increase more quickly at the end of the game. The other thing about it is that it never reaches 100 but stops at 99. I haven’t seen any evidence that you can achieve 100 here, so the assumption is that a value of 99 is the max value and indicates that you have seen all there is to see in Sky Shark. Capturing a picture of the final landing doesn’t seem to be conclusive, so I also took a photo of the high score screen.

Perhaps the best element of Sky Shark is the music. Tim Follin is the game’s composer and he is one of the best on the NES. I gushed over his music in my Pictionary review. While he does not hit the highs of that sweet Pictionary title theme, the music is still very enjoyable. I think the title screen music is my favorite. It is also played during some of the levels, so you get to hear it often enough.

Aside from the music, Sky Shark is a mediocre game. It does nothing in gameplay to set itself apart from other NES shooters. There’s not much variety here. The levels are generic, and so are the enemies and bosses. There aren’t many enemy types, and they all shoot the same type of bullet. I’ve already outlined the problems in gameplay in light of its difficulty. Now, Sky Shark is not a bad game per say. It controls well, the hitboxes are fair, and there aren’t any glitches to speak of. The graphics are a downgrade from the arcade version, but are still fine for the NES. It’s a game that doesn’t quite match up in quality when compared to other releases of its time. I expect a little more technical prowess from an NES game from 1989, especially when Taito is attached to it.

#52 – Sky Shark

#52 – Sky Shark