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


#43 – Spelunker

This cave exploration game has depth in more ways than one.

There is very foreboding music here that is completely opposite in tone from the main theme in game.

To Beat: Reach the Ending Screen
To Complete: Complete 6 Loops
What I Did: Completed the Game
Played: 12/16/16 – 12/26/16
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
Video: Spelunker Longplay

Derek Yu’s Spelunky is one of the most popular indie games of the last several years. In Spelunky, you descend through a series of randomly generated caves trying to seek out the grand treasure at the end of the adventure. The game is a favorite of mine that I have not given near enough time to playing and learning. Naturally Spelunky was inspired by the classic game Spelunker, and when you dive into the game you can clearly see how the indie title leans on the classic game as its base.

Spelunker is a computer game developed by MicroGraphicImage. Designed by Tim Martin, it was released on Atari 8-bit computers in 1983. Broderbund primarily published later ports of the game. The Commodore 64 version was released in 1984, and the arcade and Famicom ports were released in 1985. The MSX got a port in 1986 and Spelunker came to the NES in 1987. There was a Famicom-exclusive sequel named Spelunker II: Yūsha e no Chōsen also released in 1987. Spelunker has also appeared on Virtual Console. There are a few modern versions too. Spelunker HD was a PS3 downloadable game from 2009 that features 100 brand new levels. Spelunker World is a 2015 PS4 and Vita game, and a brand new game based on Spelunker World is set for release on the Nintendo Switch in 2017.

Spelunker is a side-scrolling cave exploration platformer. Your task is to find the great treasure hidden in the deepest reaches of this cavern. You begin the game on an elevator you control with several paths you can take. The idea is to look around and figure out a way to the bottom. The game consists of one giant level that is broken down into four sublevels separated by checkpoints. You win the game when you reach the final sublevel and locate the stash of treasure.

The initial elevator is as safe as it gets.

Like most platformers, you use the D-Pad to move around. You can use Left and Right to walk as well as climb ropes and ladders with Up and Down. These controls also move the elevator vertically at the start of the game. The A button is used to jump and the B button uses your items. If you just press the B button you fire an air cannon that takes out the ghost enemies. Hold Up and press B to fire a flare upward. These take out the bats, but you only have a limited amount of them. Hold Down and press B to drop a bomb. These are limited just like the flares. Use them to blow up tall rocks that stand in your way, but make sure to stand away far enough from the blast because it can kill you.

The first thing you notice while playing Spelunker is that your tiny adventurer is awfully fragile. You will die if you fall even a tiny distance, and there are many opportunities for this to occur. On the very first screen of the game, you can miss the jump off the elevator and fall to your doom. Past the main elevator is an auto-scrolling elevator. The side closer to you moves downward, so if you try and hop on too low it will kill you. If you can get on the other side, be careful not to ride the ascending side too high while passing through or that fall will also kill you. Spelunker is quick to teach you that death is swift and careful play is necessary.

There are a few enemies and traps in the caves that should be avoided. Ghosts will randomly appear on occasion and they can move freely through the walls of the cavern to hone in on you. Even if you don’t see the ghost you will know it is coming because the music changes as it approaches. You can defeat it by waiting until it is nearby and firing your air cannon. The other recurring enemy is the bat which guards an area with its deadly droppings. Firing a flare will temporarily remove the bat so that you can pass by. There are also stationary traps such as holes in the ground and geysers that spray periodically.

Ghosts emerge from the sides of the screen.

The cavern is littered with ropes for climbing, and these are notorious among Spelunker players for being problematic to deal with. Mastery of rope navigation is a crucial skill to beating Spelunker. When you jump toward a rope, you will automatically grab on to it. You can climb up and down, but you can also move left and right a small amount when on a rope. There is a narrow range of horizontal movement that lets you stay on the rope, so it doesn’t take much lateral movement to fall off the rope leading to instant death. To properly jump off a rope, you need to press Left or Right and the jump button at the same time. If your timing is off, you will either miss the jump or slide off the rope and fall to your doom. Moreover, if you are jumping from one rope to another, you want to take your fingers off the buttons mid-jump so that you auto-grab the center of the next rope. There are several places in the game with multiple rope transitions where you also need to adjust your position vertically in between hops to properly make the jump. There is a feel to good rope movement that is easy to lose the hang of in the middle of a game. Practice makes perfect!

Another important game mechanic is the air meter. As you play your air meter slowly dwindles away, acting as a timer. Firing your air gun to ward off a ghost will also deplete some of the air meter. If you run out of air, you lose a life, but you also start again with a full air meter. There are also items you can find that restore your air.

Speaking of items, Spelunker has several. The most important items for progression are keys. There are blue keys and red keys, and there are corresponding red and blue doors that you can open with them. There are additional flare and bomb pickups. The air meter refill item looks like a stack of rings and fills you up to the max. There are money bags and coins that just give you points. The most interesting pickup is the miracle item. It resembles a snowflake and when you collect it you get a random award. Sometimes you only get points, but other times you may get a flare, a bomb, or an air meter refill. They can also give you an extra life which is most appreciated!

I find it worth going out of my way for the Miracle just in case.

There are also some special hidden items. You reveal them by jumping at certain spots in the cave. These places are often tucked out of the way and more challenging to reach than the normal path. When you trigger one of these spots, you hear a chime and the item will appear somewhere else visible on the screen. These item drops are random and are unique from any other item in the game. You can find the x2 item to double your score for a brief time. Another item either looks like a potion or a shoe, and it doubles your movement speed for a little while. The next one looks like a bracelet and it makes you temporarily invincible from enemies. Finally, the Spelunker head gives you a valuable extra life. There are also hidden diamonds that boost your score, but you find them from bombing specific walls inside the cave instead of jumping. I never knew about these while I was playing so I didn’t collect any.

I found it challenging to pin a difficulty on Spelunker for several reasons. The game has a reputation for being difficult and I can certainly agree with that. The main issue is that the game has touchy and particular physics, so it takes some time to get the feel of the controls and understand your limits with the jumping. Spelunker also introduces a few unique setpieces and obstacles throughout the adventure that I had to fail a few times before getting it down. On the other hand, the game length is quite short. It only takes 10-15 minutes to get to the end. I waffled between giving Spelunker a 7 or an 8 in difficulty before settling on 7 due to the short game length.

This is one of the few times I don’t have much interesting to say about my history with Spelunker. This was my first time attempting a run through the game, and I have no idea where or how I ended up with the cart. The game is common and not very expensive, but the copy I have in my collection is the only one I’ve owned. I suppose I have spent so little time looking at the game that it hasn’t made an impression on me until now!

So near, yet so far!

Spelunker proved to be an interesting game to run through. At the start, it took me a few days of practice before I could reliably get deep in the game. I don’t know how many attempts it took to beat the game but it was probably a 20-30 times. Beating the game one time was a pretty standard experience, but the real fun begins when you start playing subsequent loops of the game. You quickly catch on that something is different the second time through because the cave walls change to a completely different color. As it turns out, Spelunker has six distinct difficulty loops if you want to be considered a master. I was able to beat all six loops in one attempt which I believe very few people have done.

Here is the breakdown of what is different in each loop of the game. If you want to try the game and figure it out on your own, consider the next paragraph a spoiler. The first loop of course is the standard game with golden colored cave walls. The second loop changes the cave color to a dark forest green and also introduces invisible keys. In all the loops, the keys are in the same locations, so once you realize what’s happening this time through is not too bad. The third loop has gray walls and invisible keys along with a new key collection method. This time you must jump where the keys sits to collect it. It’s important to memorize the exact positions of the keys here because you won’t grab them unless you are standing directly on top of them. The fourth loop has yellow walls and this time to collect the invisible keys you must fire a flare while standing on top of the key. This loop is very tricky because if you run out of available flares and miss just one key you must reset and start all over. Also, the gameplay shifts significantly where you should learn how to get past the bats without using a valuable flare. The fifth loop is the same as loop four except the ghosts move much faster. The sixth and final loop is the most devious of them all. To collect the invisible keys, you must jump and fire a flare at the same time. The timing for this maneuver is precise and it is easy to accidently waste a flare by firing it without jumping. The geysers spray faster too. From here the game continuously repeats the final loop’s difficulty and you can keep playing if you want to keep boosting your score.

Spelunker was not very well received in the US, but it gained much more popularity in Japan. There it gained a reputation as a “kusoge,” which is a Japanese compound word that literally means “shit game.” It received that classification due to the slippery controls and the high level of difficulty. Still, there is a subset of people that really get interested in a game like this, and I too thought Spelunker was a fun game. Certainly, it is a product of its time with the controls, physics, and primitive graphics. It’s the kind of game that can grow on you if you are willing to put some time in and see it for what it is. I like that the level design is structured around the movement and limitations of the player, so with that in place I can better appreciate Spelunker for what it offers.

#43 – Spelunker

Pictionary Box Cover

#13 – Pictionary

Who needs pen and paper when you can play Pictionary on your NES?

That title screen music! So good!

To Beat: Finish the Regular Game
What I Did: Beat the Regular Game and Alternate Game just for fun!
Played: 1/24/16
Difficulty: 1/10
My Difficulty: 1/10

The NES has several games of game show and board game adaptations so it’s no surprise that one would show up on the blog fairly early. Pictionary plays like the classic board game but it has some surprises in the single player that make the game a little bit more interesting.

Pictionary was released in July 1990 on NES. It was developed by Software Creations and published by LJN. Software Creations developed a dozen NES games and LJN published a whopping 25 NES games by my records. There are only three developers attributed to creating Pictionary. Tony Pomfret was the programmer, Craig Houston created the graphics, and Tim Follin wrote the music. It probably should be four people as Stephen Ruddy’s sound engine was used in the development of the sounds and music. LJN has a reputation on NES for publishing many bad games but in the case of Pictionary I would say the game is pretty decent.

Pictionary on NES is a pretty straightforward board game. Up to four teams compete by drawing pictures and having their fellow team members guess what is being drawn. Correct answers allow the team to roll a die to advance their marker along the board and the first team to reach the end and guess a final drawing wins the game. Simple enough!

It’s the board … yawn.

There are three game modes. Regular Game is the base game with some twists to it that I will explain shortly. Alternate Game is a way to play Pictionary using the NES as the game board, timer, and drawing area but you must supply your own Pictionary word cards (or your own words) to determine what to draw. The players are responsible for inputting into the game which team guessed the drawing correctly so it can handle everything properly for you. Drawing Practice gives you a free area for doodling so that you can get a handle for how the drawing in the game works. The drawing interface simulates a little bit like drawing lines with a pencil and paper. You can aim your cursor in I believe 16 different directions by pushing Left or Right. Press and hold A to draw in the direction of the cursor or press and hold B to move the cursor without drawing. Pressing Up or Down draws either a small or large circle. Select removes the last thing drawn, Start finishes the drawing early, and Select and Start pressed together erases the board. It’s a robust enough system without relying on complete freehand control.

The Regular Game mode plays more like a complete game of Pictionary with the computer providing words to draw for the teams, but most of the game is played out through mini-games instead of drawing out pictures. If there is one player per team then there will be all mini-games, otherwise there will be standard drawing mixed in. You can play single player with just one player on one team which is what I did. There are four mini-games that all play a little bit differently but they all help play out Pictionary the same way. Completing tasks within each mini-game reveal pieces of a pre-drawn puzzle and the object is to reveal as much of the picture as you can within the time limit to give yourself the best chance of identifying the drawing. Let’s get in to each mini-game!

The first one is Attack of the Paint Zombies. This is exactly like Space Invaders except the enemies are on the bottom instead of the top and you control a paint bucket dropping red paint down upon the purple paint zombies. Yeah, paint zombies, I don’t get it either. Each one you knock out reveals a square on the picture and if you get shot with paint you lose a few seconds off the timer. This one is my favorite of them all and I didn’t have much trouble revealing the whole board before time nearly every round.

It's gotta be a mess down there.

It’s gotta be a mess down there.

The second game is The Warehouse Shuffle. I did not understand what to do in this game at all until I checked the manual. There’s just a man you control along the bottom and there are these balls with eyes that bounce around and nothing else was happening. What you are supposed to do is push up against the left side and press Up to grab boxes that are offscreen, then carry them across to the right and drop them off with Down. Each box you deliver knocks off a square and if the balls (called gremlins in the manual) come in contact with a box you lose time. You can carry a huge stack of boxes at once if you wan but you move slower the more you carry so there’s a basic risk/reward system at play. Once I knew what I was doing, I still didn’t do very well at this one.

I appreciate the eagerness but that's too many boxes.

I appreciate the eagerness but that’s too many boxes.

The third game is Four Alarm Rescue. There are eight windows arranged in two rows of four columns and people randomly appear to jump out from one of the windows in the burning building. You control firefighters at the bottom with a net to catch the people as they fall. Catching each person reveals a square and having a person fall to the hard ground below removes that precious time. This game is so unfair. Often two people will jump out at the same time from opposite ends of the screen and it is impossible to catch both. Sometimes multiple people will jump one after the other from the same window but there’s no way to tell until the first person jumps out of the way. You can lose multiple people quickly if you are trying to catch a different person elsewhere. This game is very flawed and I don’t think it’s possible to reveal the whole board with this game unless the randomness is entirely in your favor.

Probably just as messy as the paint game to be honest.

Probably just as messy as the paint game to be honest.

The fourth and final game is Leapin’ Energy Capsules! This is a simple single screen platformer where you control an astronaut who is collecting these capsules or orbs that appear in a few pre-defined spots. Once you collect one or take too much time the next one appears. There are a couple of cannons that shoot a rising and falling bullet and they operate on a slow rhythm. Collect a capsule, reveal a square. Take damage, lose time. The only really annoyance is when a capsule appears in the upper left because you can only climb up to the upper level from the far right. Otherwise, this one is pretty simple and kind of boring.

That upper left one gets the most screen time for certain.

That upper left one gets the most screen time for certain.

Playing through the game is really simple in single player. Play the mini game and try to guess what the picture is. You get 45 seconds to scroll through the alphabet picking out letters to spell out your guess. The game shows the number of words in the answer plus the number of letters in each word just like Hangman, so that helps in solving these drawings. If you are correct, you get to roll a die and move up that many spaces on the board. There is no penalty if you miss so you just keep trying until you guess correctly. Eventually you will run into a solution and move up the board so there is really no way to lose. It took me around 30-45 minutes to reach the end of the board with I’m guessing a 30-40% success rate. And that’s the end!

In my run I tested out Alternate Game just to see what it is all about. I played with one team and it was all drawing. After the drawing phase you get to indicate which team answered correctly and that team rolls the die. I would just end the drawing early every time and say I answered it correctly so that I could always roll and move my marker on the board. It took hardly any time at all to reach the end. You get the same ending either way so you can technically beat the game without identifying a single drawing and no one would know the difference. It was an utter waste of time, but eh, I did it for completeness!

Yay!  You did it!

Yay! You did it!

There was an unexpected casualty that happened while playing Pictionary. It was the weirdest thing. I turned the NES on and I was walking over to the couch when my hands got static shocked through the controller. Getting shocked in my basement is pretty normal in the winter but never through the game controller. Nothing worked when I tried to start the game even after powering off and resetting a few times. I swapped in another controller and that one worked fine, so I guess my controller is dead. It’s too bad because it is a nice condition dogbone controller and they aren’t exactly cheap to replace. I have a few other dogbone controllers in various states so I can probably hack together a nice working controller.

The one really remarkable thing about Pictionary is that it has a really good soundtrack. If you have heard some of the top NES music then you have almost certainly heard Tim Follin’s music and he did some fine work on the music in Pictionary. Tim has two brothers, Geoff and Mike, and all three brothers have worked in video games at some point. Geoff was also a game composer and he would work with Tim on music for several other NES games. The Follin brothers have a very distinct style to their music with very complex sounding pieces that really take advantage of the NES sound chip in ways that not many other musicians did. In Pictionary the title screen music is just awesome, and the Pictionary page on the Video Game Music Preservation Foundation website has links to all six music tracks for your listening pleasure!

Pictionary is a faithful adaptation of the board game and is a perfectly serviceable game on NES, even though it is very easy and barely worth playing even once. It’s fine but there’s so many better games on the NES. You would probably have more fun playing Pictionary with a group of friends on the actual board game but it could be fun at parties or whatever. At least the music is good! Plus, I don’t mind having a short, easy game to check off the list!

Pictionary Ending Screen

#13 – Pictionary