Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#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

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

Archon Box Cover

#31 – Archon

Let’s kick the board game format up a notch with Archon.

Dueling dragons!

Dueling dragons!

To Beat: Win a match
To Complete: Win as both the Light team and Dark team
What I Did: Completed the game
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
Video: Archon Longplay

Today is a big day for Take On The NES Library! I am finally incorporating game play videos for some games going forward, and we are kicking off this momentous occasion by talking about the first strategy game covered on this site.

Archon: The Light and the Dark was originally released in 1983 for Atari 8-bit computers. It was developed by Free Fall Associates and published by Electronic Arts. The game is notable both for being among the first titles published by EA and a huge hit for Free Fall Associates. The game was so popular that EA wanted a sequel quickly, so the developers released Archon II: Adept the following year in 1984. The original Archon was ported to many home computer systems and was a success on pretty much every one. The NES would receive a port of this game all the way in December 1989 published by Activision and Bullet-Proof Software.

Archon can be adequately summarized as an action chess game. There are two sides, light and dark, composed of fantasy creatures that duke it out for control of a 9×9 grid. Each side takes turns moving a creature from one space to another. If a character is placed on a square occupied by a member of the opposite team, the gameplay switches to the combat arena. Here you take direct control of your creature as you attempt to defeat the opponent by thumping or shooting them enough to deplete their life bar. Defeated creatures are removed from the board and the winner occupies the square. There are also five power spots on the board: One in the middle of each of the four edges of the board and one in the center. You can win by either destroying all of the enemy creatures on the other team or by occupying all five power spots at the same time.

One strategy is to try and hold the power points.

One strategy is to try and hold the power points.

The game board consists of light squares, dark squares, and shifting squares called Lumina squares. Light squares and dark squares always stay the same, but the Lumina squares change color throughout the game after every other turn. There are five different shades of Lumina square: light, light blue, blue, dark blue, and dark. All the Lumina squares start off blue and shift toward dark, then reverse and shift toward light. This cycle repeats through the course of the game. The color of these squares is important because light characters are stronger on lighter squares and dark characters are stronger on darker squares. It is to your advantage to engage in combat on those squares when they match your color.

There are several types of creatures in the game and they can be separated into two groups. There are ground creatures and flying creatures. Ground creatures cannot move through squares occupied by other characters and must have a direct walking path to the desired square. Flying creatures can go over units and land on any square within flying range. Each character has a range of squares they are allowed to travel during a move ranging from three squares to five. If a ground character can walk four squares, then it gets a combination of four horizontal or vertical steps and that’s all for that turn. If a flying character can move four squares, then it gets up to four squares of horizontal movement and up to four squares of vertical movement. As a result, flying creatures can cover significantly more ground per turn than ground creatures.

Ground characters on each side match up against each other on the board for the most part. The leaders are the light Wizard and dark Sorceress. They are the only characters capable of spell casting which I will get to in a little bit, and they also move via teleporting which evidently is exactly the same as flying but with a different animation. The light Knights and dark Goblins are the pawns of this game with short range attacks and weak stamina. The light Unicorns and dark Basilisks are quick and reasonably strong. The light Archers and dark Manticores are a tad on the weaker side but have long range attacks. The light Golems and dark Trolls are very slow but very strong.

The starting lineup!

The starting lineup!

The remaining matchups demonstrate the differences between the two teams. The light Valkyrie is a bit stronger than the similar Archer. On the other side, the dark Banshee has a scream attack that drains the enemy health when in close range, and it is the only attack in the game that allows the character to move while the attack is in action. The light Djinni is the best light attacker though only a little better than the Valkyrie. Opposite it, the dark Shapeshifter turns into whichever enemy opposes it in combat, matching its stats exactly. The light Phoenix can explode dealing massive damage when touching an opponent while doubling as a defensive move that nulls any attack during the move’s duration. The dark Dragon has both the strongest long-range attack in the game as well as the most health.

Combat is pretty straightforward. The arena contains the two combatants and a seemingly random arrangement of objects. You can move in eight directions and attack with the A button. When you or an opponent fires off an attack, there is a delay before the next attack is allowed. This recharge time varies per character. A noise will sound whenever the next attack is ready to go. The tone is a higher pitch for the light character and a lower pitch for the dark character so you can easily distinguish the two. The objects in the arena are stationary but shift state frequently enough that there’s no real way to determine how those spaces will behave. Sometimes attacks will go right through them and sometimes they get blocked. Character movement through these obstacles may or may not be permitted or it might be allowed at a slow, plodding pace. It adds enough randomness to the battles so that combat is tense and exciting.

Both the Wizard and Sorceress have access to the same complement of spells. Each spell may only be used once per game, and the spell may not target a character stationed on one of the power spots. If the Wizard or Sorceress is defeated then no spells may be cast by that side. Another interesting wrinkle is that using a spell drains a bit of health from the spellcaster. To use a spell, press A when selecting the caster and a spell dialog will appear at the bottom of the screen. You may cycle through the spells with Up and Down and cast the spell by pressing A. You can also select the Cancel option if you don’t want to use a spell.

Attack from afar with an elemental if you want!

Attack from afar with an elemental if you want!

There are seven spells in Archon. The Teleport spell moves any character on your team to any square not already occupied by another team member. You can move a character onto an opponent to engage them in battle directly. The Heal spell restores the health of any one of your characters. The Shift Time spell reverses the flow of the Lumina squares. The Exchange spell swaps any two creatures on the board no matter which team they belong. The Summon Elemental spell calls a temporary elemental to attack any opponent on the board. It could be an earth, air, water, or fire elemental that is chosen at random and each has different characteristics in combat. Either win or lose, the elemental is removed from play after the battle is over. The Revive spell brings a defeated creature back into play. The revived character must be placed on a square adjacent to the spellcaster. The Imprison spell can be cast on any creature locking them to the board. The affected creature is not able to move on the board until the Lumina squares match the team color, though opponents may engage an imprisoned creature in battle at any time.

One more interesting thing to mention is that there is the possibility of a tie game. If there are few characters remaining on each side and no combat or spellcasting occurs in a set number of turns, the game will be called a draw. This was implemented to encourage combat. The other more straightforward stalemate happens when the last two characters on the board kill each other at the same time.

Combat is a balance of staying out of danger while finding an open line of fire when you can.

Combat is a balance of staying out of danger while finding an open line of fire when you can.

This was my first time playing Archon but I had great success for a beginner. I started playing as the Light team and I got beat down pretty quickly. I was losing characters left and right as I got used to the combat and characters. About halfway through the match the game clicked with me and I started mounting a comeback, but despite that it started to look like it was too little to late. The best character I had remaining was my Wizard and I decide to go for broke and try to take out the Sorceress. She had not moved the entire game and her square is always dark, but despite the disadvantage I managed to win that fight. After that I picked off all the remaining enemies for a win by brute force.

Since it didn’t take me very long to win the game and the dark team plays differently from the light team, I wanted to get a win from the other side. This was the run I recorded for YouTube. It did not start out particularly well but I ended up winning in half the moves required for my first victory. I also won the match by occupying all five of the power spots instead of defeating all the enemies.

Archon is a fun, short game that might be worth a look if you are interested in chess or light strategy games. The graphics and music are adequate and don’t get in the way of the action at all, but the gameplay is solid and that’s what’s important in a game like this. I didn’t even mention yet that the game has a 2-player mode that is sure to be a lot of fun once both players get a few matches under their belt. For myself, I enjoyed playing the game but unless I get another player involved I don’t see myself playing very much more Archon in the future.

Archon Ending Screen

#31 – Archon