Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

toaplan

NOV
22
2017
0

#58 – Snow Brothers

This game is SNOW much fun!

These brothers slim down a bit during gameplay.

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat the game without continuing
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 9/11/17 – 9/19/17
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
Video: Snow Brothers 1CC Longplay

There are several genres of games that I have had a fondness for from an early age. I cut my teeth on Super Mario Bros. and have always enjoyed platformers of that kind. The SNES affirmed my interest in RPGs, and although for the most part that didn’t carry over beyond that, those RPGs are still among my favorite games. The Adventures of Lolo games, as well as Tetris, paved the way for getting interested in many different types of puzzlers. As an adult, my tastes haven’t changed much, but they did get more refined. I discovered that I really enjoy games like Bubble Bobble, a single-screen arcade style platformer with a focus on clearing out all enemies to proceed to the next room. It’s a specific type of experience, but there are several titles that fit the bill. One of my favorite games in this style is Snow Brothers.

Snow Brothers was originally released in arcades in 1990, developed by Toaplan. It was later ported to the Game Boy, NES, Famicom, and the Mega Drive in Japan only. Each version has slight differences and enhancements. The NES and Famicom versions add story cutscenes at the start of the game. The Game Boy port is single player only, but ten levels were added. The Mega Drive version includes an expanded story and twenty additional levels from the original arcade game. The NES version of Snow Brothers was released in November 1991. It was published by Capcom and appears to be developed by Sol. I could not find much information on the web on Sol, but they are also credited with developing both NES Flintstones titles. Toaplan’s final game was Otenki Paradise in 1994, which was localized in the US as Snow Bros. 2: With New Elves. A third game under this name was created by a company called Syrtex Games in 2002 called Snow Brothers 3: Magical Adventure. It was never officially released and could potentially be a hack of the original arcade game.

Always saving the princesses in these games, sheesh.

The story of Snow Brothers is a basic one. King Scorch cursed brothers Nick and Tom by turning them into snowmen, and he also captured the princesses Teri and Tina because of course he does. It’s up to the brothers do to their thing and defeat the king to save their land. You can play Snow Brothers in single player with the blue-clad Nick, or play simultaneous two-player with the other player using Tom dressed in red. To beat the game and save the day, you must clear all 50 floors.

Snow Brothers is a single-screen arcade platformer. Just like Bubble Bobble, the object of the game is to defeat all enemies on screen so you can proceed up to the next floor. Use the D-pad to move Nick and Tom both left and right. The A button jumps, and the B button throws a handful of snow forward. The idea here is to throw enough snow on an enemy to encase it in a giant snowball. Then, you push the snowball and it rolls to the bottom of the screen and defeats the enemy inside. If the pushed snowball collides with other enemies on the ledges below, they also get defeated and will leave an item behind for you to collect.

The gameplay is both simple and straightforward, but there is some nuance to the mechanics that gives you some surprising versatility. You can jump up through floors allowing you to climb higher more easily. A pushed snowball disappears once it hits a wall on the ground level, and it rebounds off any other wall above. Sometimes you can get a snowball trapped within a ledge off the ground level and it will bounce back and forth a bit before vanishing on its own. You can have the snowball hit you and carry you along with it. While riding, you can either jump out early on your own or let the snowball run its course. Once you finish your ride, you will gain some brief invincibility. You can throw a bit of snow on an enemy to start the process of forming a snowball, briefly stunning the enemy in the process. As partially covered enemies sit there untouched, they slowly melt the snow until they can break out and freely move around again. You can defeat an enemy by running it over with a snowball even if it is partially covered, which is an effective strategy. If two full snowballs collide, they rebound off each other and both start descending which can knock out enemies on both sides of the stage if done right. Some levels have slopes and snowballs can roll up these hills with no problems. You can use a stationary snowball as a platform to reach higher ledges, and you can even lift a snowball by jumping into it from below. All these techniques give you plenty of ways to approach any challenge.

This early level has a great setup for teaching the player how to clear many baddies at once.

Bowling over enemies with a snowball will reveal some kind of item once the defeated enemy is removed from play. These stay on screen temporarily, but usually long enough for you to reach them across the stage if you go at them right away. Most of the time you get some sort of money or food item that gives you points, like candy or a slice of cake. What you really want are powerups. The manual for Snow Brothers calls them hot sauce, but they are clearly potions in jars as far as I’m concerned. The red potion gives you speed skates allowing you to move much faster. The blue potion lets you throw larger handfuls of snow so you can cover enemies with fewer shots. The yellow potion increases your throw distance, letting you heave snow over halfway across the screen. All three powerups stack together too, but you lose all of them if you die. Losing a fully powered character is quite a setback, but that’s just the nature of the game.

There are a couple of rare item drops that you should make sure to grab right away if you see one. The first of these is a green potion. Grab it to inflate Nick or Tom like a balloon. You can then fly freely across the level and simply run into enemies to defeat them. You should have plenty of time with this power to clear all enemies on screen. The second rare powerup is a white smiley face. This item changes the color of the background and temporarily replaces the normal enemies with these blue face enemies. Turning the blue enemy into a snowball displays a letter in the word “SNOW” and pushing it lets you acquire the letter. You will see a space at the top of the screen above your score showing which letters you have. Spell out SNOW for an extra life! You can also destroy the special enemies with a snowball for a large 30,000-point bonus.

There are several different enemies in the game. Most of them have some way of climbing around the level. Some enemies will attack you if you come near, a couple breath fire at you, some fly around, and so on. All normal enemies can be covered in snow and must be defeated. One neat thing you can try to do is clear all the enemies by pushing only one snowball. You can do this with a single snowball, or with more than one as long as you set up a chain reaction first. Defeating all the enemies at once causes some paper money to rain down to the bottom of the level. These disappear very quickly, but are worth either 10,000 or 20,000 points each. If you are playing for high score, you want as many of these as possible.

It doesn’t matter how cold it is, we’re making it rain!

There are two enemies that you cannot cover in snow. There is a sumo enemy appearing in the middle levels that doesn’t need to be killed. He sits at the top of the screen and is tough to reach. If you can pelt him with a little snow, he will go away and leave some paper money behind for big points. The enemy that can show up in any level is Pumpkin Head. This is a “hurry up” enemy that appears when you are spending too much time in a stage. He floats around slowly, but freely, and you can’t hurt him at all. After a little while, he will begin spawning invincible ghosts that home in on you. These spell certain death for Nick and Tom. The idea is to clear levels quickly enough so that you don’t have to deal with Pumpkin Head. The only two ways to get rid of him are to defeat all remaining enemies or let him or one of his ghosts kill you.

Every tenth level is a boss stage, so in this 50-stage game there are five bosses. These are your typical large enemies that take many hits to defeat. All of them generate smaller enemies which you turn into snowballs and send flying into the boss to do damage. You can also throw snow at them directly. I don’t know if that does damage or not, but you can earn a small amount of points for each direct hit. After each boss fight is a slot machine mini-game. There are three reels that each give you a bonus depending on where they stop. The reels contain a big X which gives you nothing, each of the four letters in the word “SNOW,” and a figure of Nick that gives you an extra life. Each letter you collect also nets you 10,000 points, and each extra life adds 50,000 points. It is possible to time the slots for specific outcomes, but it’s tricky to do so and I couldn’t quite get the hang of it. Each reel needs time to slow down to a stop so you need to anticipate your mark early. It is also difficult to make out specific letters while the slots are going, but extra lives stand out more and that’s really what you want anyway.

You begin the game with only two extra lives. These can go by quickly when you are just starting out. The good news is that you get many continues. The manual states you get four continues, but you actually get nine. Upon losing your last life, the life counter at the top will blink and instead display the number of continues remaining. You resume play with three new lives exactly where you left off. In a two-player game the continues are shared, so lives are more precious here than in single-player.

I’ll take the red speedup potion any day!

I have a little history with Snow Brothers, and actually I give the game some credit for getting me back into game collecting. I first played the NES game as a rental at a babysitter’s house, so I probably played it soon after release. I enjoyed playing it, but that was the extent of my experience for many years. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but in 2013 we bought a house and I could display all my NES games properly for the first time. As I was getting everything set up at home, I got the urge to expand my collection. I owned around 250 NES games then, so there were plenty of fun individual games left to start looking for. My memories started to stir and the first game that came to mind was Snow Brothers. Unfortunately, this was also the exact moment I realized this collecting journey was not going to be cheap. You see, Snow Brothers is among the most expensive NES carts.

The cost of some individual games like Snow Brothers caused me to divert my attention toward buying games in bulk. I focused heavily on games that fell in the $15-$30 price range. I could make consistent progress through the deep middle ground in the NES set and often found these titles bundled with cheaper games to fill that part of the collection at the same time. That strategy paid off immensely because many of the $20 carts I bought soon became $50 titles or higher. I would eventually need a plan to buy all these high-end titles at the end.

I had nearly doubled my NES loose cart collection in what seemed like such a short time. I was doing a good job at tracking my total and noticed I was sitting on 499 total games. Lacking many of the most expensive carts, this was the perfect time to take a bulk-buying break and acquire something special for Game #500. The choice was easy; this was the time I would finally purchase Snow Brothers. My wife gave her blessing, and so I started searching. I am very price conscious and all I found were high-priced copies and sellers that wouldn’t budge. It seemed like a long time, but it only took a couple of weeks to find my mark. A new eBay listing for Snow Brothers showed up at $130 with best offer, and I worked the price down to $117.50 shipped. That was essentially market price at the time and I was glad to pay it. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but this was also the time I first purchased a screwdriver bit to open and clean cartridges. Better late than never! Snow Brothers was either the first or second cartridge I opened to clean those pins nice and shiny. I played through the game three or four times in my first week of ownership and then mostly left it on the shelf until now.

Snow Brothers features some pretty fun boss battles.

I have owned Snow Brothers for three years now, and I had no trouble beating the game again. The entire game takes around 30 minutes to beat. I needed only two continues and so I punched in an easy victory. Because I enjoy this game so much, I set out to beat the game using no continues simply as a fun challenge. This took a bit more effort but I didn’t find it all that difficult. I needed around five attempts and the failed ones all ended within the last 15 levels or so. The only reason it took me so long to finish the game between my first and last attempts was because it took me a week to make time for my next NES session.

To my surprise, Snow Brothers has an extended ending sequence if you clear the game on a single credit. I haven’t seen this distinction called out anywhere specifically, and I only found out about it once I beat the game this way on my own. I always shoot for the best ending on games like this, but I didn’t even know it applied to Snow Brothers until I saw it for myself. I’m sure I will find more secrets like this as I continue my deep dive into the library.

Snow Brothers is one of my favorite NES games, and it’s a shame is so expensive. Games of this nature can get repetitive, but Snow Brothers lasts just long enough to avoid mid-game burnout. The boss fights are fun and a nice change of pace, and the difficulty curve is even and fair. The graphics are clean and the music is good, although some of the tracks are repeated within the different groups of ten floors. The two-player mode is a blast to go through with a friend. It’s a great game for high score challenges too. I don’t like that it’s so expensive to buy, but it does make sense. The game is a true uncommon title that probably had a low print run, it was a later run NES game, and the game is fun. It fits the profile of an expensive game, as I like to say. Definitely check this one out even if you have to emulate it.

#58 – Snow Brothers

 
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