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

Operation Wolf Box Cover

#20 – Operation Wolf

Gun down the enemy forces in this Zapper-compatible version of the arcade classic.

Calm yourself before heading into terrorist territory!

To Beat: Beat all six missions to reach the ending
To Complete: Beat four loops
My Goal: Beat the game with the best ending
What I Did: Beat the game with the best ending and reached Loop 3 Mission 6
Played: 3/18/16 – 3/25/16
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10

It’s a landmark day for Take On The NES Library as I have come to the first Zapper game on my list. Operation Wolf is not one of the first Zapper games that comes to mind, but it’s a pretty good one and it looks to be a mostly faithful port of the arcade title.

Most people with knowledge of the NES from its heyday will certainly remember the Zapper peripheral. It was first released on the Famicom in 1984 as a pack-in with Wild Gunman. The Zapper later launched along with the NES in 1985 for use in launch titles Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley, and Wild Gunman. Perhaps it is most remembered for being part of the NES Action Set which included the Zapper and the ubiquitous Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt combo cart. The light gun has a gray color scheme that was changed to orange in 1989. This was done in compliance with changes in US gun regulations requiring toy guns to look like toy guns. The two Zappers are identical aside from the color differences.

The Zapper works by detecting the presence of light through a photodiode within the device. When the gun is fired, the NES draws a black screen on one frame followed by other frames of a black screen with white boxes indicating the location of the hittable objects. The zapper can detect the white light from the box drawn on-screen to determine if a target is hit. In the case of multiple targets, the game will show more frames like this with only a portion of the objects highlighted. This process is repeated until it can narrow down which target was hit.

Honest to goodness this is what the NES screen looks like when you pull the trigger

Honest to goodness this is what the NES screen looks like when you pull the trigger.

That explanation might be a little hard to follow but a possible example may help. Say there are four enemies on the screen and the trigger is pressed. The first frame will be an all black screen and the second frame is a black screen with white boxes placed on top of only two of the four targets. If the Zapper detects light this time, then it knows you shot one of the first two targets but it doesn’t know which one. The third frame draws the black screen and only one white box for one of those two targets. If the Zapper sees light on this frame then you shot the first target, otherwise if it doesn’t pick up light then you shot the second target. Going back to the second frame, if the Zapper doesn’t detect a hit, then it will draw white boxes on the next frame for the other two targets to see if you hit one of them. If so, then it will draw a fourth frame to determine which of those two was shot. If it does not detect a hit here, then it means none of the targets were hit because by this point all four were checked. If that is all still a bit murky, don’t worry! The basic idea is that the game will test half of the targets at a time for a hit and it keeps whittling it down until it can find the one you actually shot.

It’s worth mentioning that the first all black screen is really important. The Zapper can detect light from the television as well as light from other sources such as a light bulb. If the Zapper game doesn’t check for a non-hit at first, then there is nothing to stop you from aiming the gun at a light bulb tricking the game into thinking you are always making contact with a live target. TVs in the US run at 60 frames per second so it would be more or less impossible to shoot at a light bulb while rapidly turning it on and off to fake out an NES Zapper game.

The Zapper technology only works on older tube TVs called CRT TVs; the games are not playable on modern TVs such as LCD, Plasma, or LED televisions. The reasoning is that the Zapper is very dependent on the timing of the individual frames of video displayed on the screen as illustrated above. Newer TVs have additional processing time that results in lag where the actual picture on the TV appears one or more frames later than the NES recognizes. For most other games this slight delay is not noticeable, but since the Zapper is tuned to the timing of older TVs it causes the game to not register any hits at all when played on a modern television. Therefore, I had to use my CRT to play this game.

Now to get down to brass tacks.

Now that the Zapper talk is out of the way it’s time to talk Operation Wolf. Developed and published by Taito, Operation Wolf is an arcade game released in 1987. The arcade cabinet is fashioned with a mock submachine gun used to aim at the enemies and it contains a motor inside of the gun housing to simulate recoil. It was ported to many home consoles and computers, including the NES in 1989. This is the first Taito game covered for the blog. Taito published 26 NES games in total so they are one of the largest publishers for the console.

Operation Wolf is also a game series spanning four games. The second game, Operation Thunderbolt, was released in 1988 in arcades. It would see an SNES release several years later. There were also arcade titles Operation Wolf 3 in 1994 and Operation Tiger in 1998. Operation Wolf was also released in 2005 as part of Taito Legends as well as an NES Virtual Console release in 2008. Sadly, the Virtual Console version does not support the Wii remote as a Zapper.

The object of Operation Wolf is to survive six missions of infiltrating terrorist strongholds in order to save prisoners and take them back home to safety. Each mission has a number of enemy soldiers, tanks, helicopters, and boats that you must defeat before advancing to the next area. Enemies will run across the screen and you shoot them before they shoot you. If you hold B on the controller while shooting with the Zapper then you will fire a grenade that does a lot of damage within a wide range. The game also features controller support by way of a targeting crosshair on screen. Before the start of play you can choose either controller or Zapper, and if you choose controller you can also set the speed of the crosshair from one of five options. Use the D-Pad to aim the cursor, press A to fire your standard weapon, and press B to launch a grenade.

You’ll be under attack from all over.

On screen you will see a bunch of statistics. It shows the score, number of magazines as well as the number of rounds left in the current magazine, number of grenades, number of prisoners saved in later missions, and the number of enemy soldiers, helicopters or boats, and tanks remaining in the level. There is also a damage meter that nearly spans the entire bottom of the screen. The enemy counters represent your progress through the level. The stages keep going until either you destroy the number of enemies remaining or you take too much damage. They also end if you are completely out of ammo.

There are several powerups to help you out. Ammo is limited but you pick up extra magazines and grenades by shooting the icons for them on screen. A power drink with a letter P on it will reduce your damage meter. A bullet with the word “FREE” written on it will give you unlimited rapid fire for 10 seconds. Barrels explode just like grenades when they are shot. There are also crows, pigs, and chickens that travel across the screen in some of the levels. You can’t kill them but you can shoot them and they will occasionally drop extra ammo to help you out. There are also civilians and prisoners that run across the screen trying to head for safety. Don’t shoot them because if you do it will increase your damage meter.

There are six missions: Communication Center, Jungle, Village, Ammo Dump, Prison Camp, and Airport. In the arcade version you can play the first four levels in any order you like. Clearing all four will unlock the Prison Camp followed by the Airport. The NES version is linear so you must beat all six missions in order. There is also a sort of a seventh mission that appears randomly in between stages. If you see the message “Warning! The enemy has located you!” then that means you have to survive another round of enemy forces before reaching the next stage.

The levels are clearly laid out so you know what to expect.

Each level has something slightly unique about it. The Communication Center is the exception as it acts a little bit like a tutorial level. The Jungle has a boss fight at the end. An enemy is holding a civilian hostage and uses her as a body shield so you must be careful to aim for just the enemy. Completing the Village level heals you up quite a bit, and completing the Ammo Dump rewards you with a full complement of 9 magazines and 9 grenades. The Prison Camp features prisoners that run across the screen calling for help. Your task is to lead them across the screen to safety. There are five prisoners in total and each one will be chased by a knife soldier. He should be your primary target since he kills the prisoner if he reaches him. You can kill the prisoner with your weapons as well so be mindful of that. The game keeps track of each one you save. In the Airport mission, you must lead each prisoner to safety again that you helped in the prior mission. The ending you get depends on how many prisoners you save and you will lose the game if you survive all the missions without saving a single prisoner. The Airport ends with a final boss battle where you must destroy the enemy Hind helicopter. These things would all be spoilers if they weren’t spelled out clearly in the manual.

The game ends if you suffer too much damage, but you are allowed to continue once if you are defeated in any of the first four missions. There are no continues given for the last two stages. It’s frustrating to die at the end of the game but it is pretty short so it doesn’t set you back as much as it first seems. The manual indicates that Operation Wolf has four levels of six missions each. It means that the game loops right after you beat it and there are four total playthroughs of increasing difficulty. There is no difference in the ending when the game is beaten for the fourth time and it restarts the game at Loop 4 difficulty when finished, so it’s not really essential to beat the game four times in a row. One thing I noticed is that if you get Game Over and have to restart the game, then it will start you at the same difficulty loop you were on before. That acts like a continue in its own way.

This was my first time playing through Operation Wolf. I set up my CRT from out of storage whenever I started the blog so I haven’t played any Zapper games in a very long time. I have several Zappers but the one I was using has a loose trigger which didn’t feel great while playing. I recently purchased a R.O.B. set on eBay with all the parts for Gyromite for an excellent price, and that set included a Zapper that felt like it had never been used. I switched to that while playing and it will be my go-to Zapper from now on.

Do the right thing and help that man out!

It took me awhile to warm up to playing Operation Wolf with the Zapper. I simply was not all that good with it to start and it was wearing me out physically after a couple of attempts in a row. Firing grenades in particular was difficult to get comfortable with. I would aim and shoot with both hands which caused me to stumble around with my free hand looking for the controller’s B button whenever I needed to let off a grenade. I could get away with it because I played while sitting, but it would have taken me a lot longer to beat the game if I had to stand up and shoot the gun with just one hand. With two hands I could shoot both faster and more accurately.

Overall it took me around ten tries before considering Operation Wolf finished. I think I advanced farther and farther with each attempt. The game is pretty short and the health bar is generous enough to absorb some mistakes made with shooting, so I figured average difficulty is appropriate for completing one loop of the game to get the ending. The first time I beat it I managed to save three prisoners which rewarded me with the second best ending. My accuracy wasn’t quite up to snuff with just the zapper and I would shoot too many prisoners. I decided to play through again using the controller and the slowest cursor setting in hopes that I would be more accurate overall. I beat the first loop and saved four prisoners which was good enough for the best ending, and during my second loop I saved all five. That was the picture proof I kept. During the third loop I made it most of the way through the airport stage before running out of grenades. That left me too vulnerable to attack when I focused on the helicopters with just the standard weapon. I really had no chance and that leads me to believe that doing all four loops is best accomplished with the Zapper. And really, a Zapper compatible game should be played with it if possible.

Ugh did you really mean to shoot him!?

My intention from the beginning was to beat one loop of the game with the best ending since I knew there was no other reward for playing four times. It can be argued pretty easily that it should take all four runs to beat Operation Wolf considering it is called out that way in the manual, and I’m fine with that criticism if you happen to take that stance. In my opinion the game is long enough to justify a single loop.

Operation Wolf on NES looks to me like a well done port of the arcade game. Using the Zapper makes this one of the better ports by default and this game is quite playable and fun using it. The controller is okay in a pinch but not the best way to play the game. The graphics are alright. The brief story images between levels are well detailed and everything is clear during gameplay when it matters. There is not much sound to speak of which may be a turn off. There are only sound effects during game play, and the brief songs on the title screen and between levels are not that notable. For me, gameplay rules the day, and Operation Wolf is a fun game where that is concerned.

Operation Wolf Ending Screen

#20 – Operation Wolf