Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#178 – Sesame Street 1-2-3

Easy as 1-2-3

Each game has a more detailed looking title screen than this one.

To Beat: Complete All Modes
Played: 5/27/21 – 5/28/21
Difficulty: 1/10
My Difficulty: 1/10
My Video: Sesame Street 1-2-3 Full Playthrough

As much as I enjoy a good challenge, I’m also keen on short, quick entries.  Not only do they get quickly marked off the list, but they also get added to my ever-growing backlog of reviews!  Today we are taking steps in the right direction!  There are several Sesame Street titles on the NES, which I imagine were in-demand both as a way to help kids learn the basics in a fun way and as a way for parents to justify having video games in the house if they can also be made educational.  These weren’t just cash grabs either, as they are very well made in order to be as engaging as possible.  Sesame Street 1-2-3 is the first of these games that has more in store than just teaching counting.

I touched on Sesame Street briefly in my review for Muppet Adventure, so now we will take a closer look.  Sesame Street is an educational TV series created by TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Corporation vice president Lloyd Morriset, as a way to use television for good by tapping into its addictive qualities to help prepare young children for school.  After a period of research and preparation, the show premiered on PBS in 1969.  As of this writing, there have been over 4500 episodes throughout its 54 seasons, and it has won over 200 Emmy awards.  The show has evolved over the years to keep up with research in early childhood development, as well as following the trends in how toddlers consume media.

There have been many, many Sesame Street video games over the years, way too many to count.  The earliest known Sesame Street game that I could find is Ernie’s Quiz, released for the Apple II in 1981.  The NES received five Sesame Street carts, the first of which is Sesame Street 1-2-3.  It was released in January 1989, developed by Zippo Games and published by Hi-Tech Expressions.  Zippo Games, the company founded by Ste and John Pickford, was contracted by Rare to develop NES games, starting with Sesame Street 1-2-3.

Shapes come out of the hat, find ones that match

This game is a port of two existing games, Astro Grover and Ernie’s Magic Shapes, which were released for several home computers in 1984.  Astro Grover is a counting and basic arithmetic game, while Ernie’s Magic Shapes is all about shape matching and color matching.  Each game has multiple sub-modes that get more advanced as you go.  This game has no ending.  The best we can do is to play each mode long enough until it brings you back to the menu screen.

The first game listed is Ernie’s Magic Shapes, so we’ll go to this one first.  This game has six modes, plus an introductory mode showing you how to play, how convenient!  The basic idea is that there will be a shape displayed over Ernie’s head, and he can conjure new shapes out of his magic hat.  Press any key on the D-pad to switch to a different shape out of the hat.  When both shapes match, press either A or B to test that shape out.  If you’re correct, you’ll get a cute animation and a melody to celebrate, along with a rabbit out of the hat, of course.  Press Select or Start to exit the mode and go back to the Ernie’s Magic Shapes menu.

Each of the six modes when selected from the menu displays a description of what you’ll be doing.  The first two modes, Presto Shape-O and Abracadabra…Colors!, are the most basic shape matching and color matching, respectively.  Zip Zap the Shapes begins with a picture made up of multiple shapes.  You have to identify if the shape presented is part of the target image, and you’ll match enough times to complete the full picture.  Poof Pop the Colors is this same idea but with matching colors.  Shazam! More Shapes is harder shape matching, which is the same as Zip Zap the Shapes with a little bit more complicated pictures to match.  The final mode is Ta Dah! What a Figure, listed as “Hardest of all.”  It’s just matching pictures of multiple shapes with different colors, combining what we’ve already done into one game mode.

Martian counting never looked so good.

Now let’s talk about Astro Grover.  This is a math game with five different sub-modes.  You interface with the game using the number line at the bottom of the screen.  Use Left and Right on the D-pad to move a cursor that circles one of the numbers from 1 to 9.  Press A or B to choose that number.  You can also press Select or Start to exit the mode and go back to the Astro Grover main menu.

The first mode is How Many Zips, which are little green Martians that emerge from a spaceship.  When they have finished leaving the ship, you count them up and choose the correct number from the bottom.  Done correctly, they will enter the ship and then part of the cityscape in the background will be colored in.  When the entire city is colored in, you’ll get the ending tune and well as an animation of Grover flying about.  Some of the other modes share this basic structure.

The next mode, Beam That Number, plays a bit differently.  This time Zips are scattered on the screen, along with three satellite dishes at the bottom and a rocket ship on the right.  The ship has a number written on it.  The satellites will cast a beam around the Zips causing a group of them to flash.  You want that flashing group to equal the number on the spaceship.  If they match, they beam into the satellite for some reason, and the ship flies a little bit upward.  Once the ship gets high enough you get the ending fanfare.

The other modes are based on one of the two prior modes.  Adding Countdown plays out on the cityscape.  A group of zips will fly in, you choose the correct count.  A second group flies in and you count those too.  Then you add both groups together and select that count as well.  Repeat this process to color the entire city.  Take It Away, Zips! is the same game as above with subtraction instead of addition.  Sum Up, Sum Down is the final mode and takes place with the satellite dishes.  This time numbers appear beneath each of the three dishes. You have to choose the right combination of numbers that add up to the target number on the spaceship.

Here you find groups that match the number on the ship.

To be honest, this was not my first time playing Sesame Street 1-2-3.  My kids are now 9 and 4 years old and I definitely played this with my 9-year-old when she was younger.  My 4-year-old is the right age for it, and we might well try it out some time, but I know he’d rather play TMNT 3 or Jackal (or Roblox) instead of Sesame Street 1-2-3.  This is a common game that is still pretty cheap.

There really isn’t much to say about my playthrough of this game.  I finished it up in about 20-30 minutes and I even streamed it on Twitch to impress my friends.  I made one or two small menuing mistakes, so this wasn’t even a perfect run, much to my own personal dismay.  I do want to point out a few miscellaneous aspects of this game.  The first is that in Ernie’s Magic Shapes, a few of the games exit to the menu after a few puzzles, while others keep going on until you exit manually.  Looks like an oversight to me as Astro Grover always kicks back to the menu when you complete a mode.  Another thing is that you can’t switch between Ernie’s Magic Shapes and Astro Grover once you’ve started one of them.  You have to physically reset the console to switch games.  Lastly, this game is also part of a compilation cart with Sesame Street A-B-C.  That game also has two games built-in, so Sesame Street A-B-C/1-2-3 contains four educational games for kids, which is an awesome value!  Personally, I don’t go back to replay all the games on compilation carts, so I’ll get to mark off two carts whenever I do Sesame Street A-B-C in the future.

I think Sesame Street 1-2-3 is an educational game done well.  It has simple objectives with gentle difficulty levels, wrapped up with familiar characters.  It looks nice, with some impressive graphical effects like the circling stars of Ernie’s Magic Shapes and the satellite beams in Astro Grover.  The music is great in it, very pleasant to listen to.  I think it’s neat to know that the Pickford Brothers got their start here on console development.  They did a great job on this and would go on to do greater things later on.  Considering that I also got to play this game with my kids, I’m glad I have this one on the shelf.

#178 – Sesame Street 1-2-3
(Ernie’s Magic Shapes)

#178 – Sesame Street 1-2-3
(Astro Grover)

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#177 – Bases Loaded 3

The Bases are in fact still Loaded.

Admiring the home run ball

To Beat: Get a perfect 100 rating against a Level 5 team
Played: 5/27/21
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 2/10
My Video: Bases Loaded 3 Longplay

The NES has several game series with an excellent third installment. Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the best games of all time. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is a fan favorite with an all-time soundtrack made even better when utilizing the expanded chips on the Famicom. Dragon Warrior III is often considered one of the best RPGs on the NES and one I personally enjoyed very much. Ninja Gaiden III is awesome, as is TMNT III: The Manhattan Project. Mega Man 3 might well be the best of the 6 NES installments, at least to some. Bases Loaded 3 is not considered, well, at all, when talking about great 3rd games of a series. But I can confidently say that Bases Loaded 3 is my favorite game in the series for one very specific reason that I’ll get into.

For more information on the Bases Loaded series, check out my reviews for Bases Loaded and Bases Loaded II: Second Season. As before, this review will focus primarily on the changes between the previous installments. Let’s get started.

Bases Loaded 3 was first released in Japan, originally named Moero!! Pro Yakyuu ’90: Kandouhen. That translates roughly to Burn!! Pro Baseball ’90: Exciting Edition, or perhaps Impressive Edition. It was released in Japan in July 1990, about six months after Bases Loaded II reached North America. The US release came in September 1991. Here it was called just Bases Loaded 3 but it features MLB Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg on the box cover. Like the other installments, the game was developed by Tose and published by Jaleco in both regions.

They really want you to understand what’s going on here.

Let’s get the biggest change out of the way first. Bases Loaded 3 does not require playing a full season to beat the game. In fact, there is no season mode at all! This game features five difficulty levels for the opposing team, but you’ll always start off playing the weakest, Level 1 team. At the end of each game, you are given a special screen and a rating value. I’ll spare the full details until later, but you can score up to a 100 rating with very good, efficient play. The rating determines which difficulty level you’ll face in the next game. If you lose a game, or have a low rating, you’ll go back to the base Level 1 team. To beat this game, you need to earn a match against a Level 5 team and then beat that team with a perfect 100 rating.

Here are other changes between versions that take place prior to starting up a match. From the title screen you can select Watch mode to watch the CPU square off against itself. Choose the teams and settings, then sit back and enjoy. There is also an Edit mode for creating your own team. Behind the scenes, there is a special team designated for the Edit mode, so you can only build and update that specific team. You can change any of the players’ names and stats with no restrictions or limits. Build the super team of your dreams, go crazy! In this game there are 12 standard teams to choose from, plus the Edit team. After choosing teams, pick one of three stadiums to play in. Each stadium has different outfield dimensions, so you can opt for the pitcher’s park with long distances or a more hitter friendly park with closer walls down the lines. You can also adjust your starting lineup and pitcher as you can in the other games.

The pitching is tweaked a little for Bases Loaded 3. You begin a pitch the same way as before, hold any direction and press A to target a specific location. From here on, it is handled differently. To increase the direction of the pitch, tap A between the windup and delivery. The more you tap A, the more the pitch travels in that direction. For example, for a right-handed batter, you can throw a pitch up and away by holding Up and Left before winding up with A. This pitch will target the upper left of the strike zone. By adding A button taps before the pitch is thrown, you can aim the pitch further up and away beyond the strike zone. This gives you a more granular adjustment on where to aim pitches. During the windup, to throw the ball faster, you’ll hold Up on the D-pad. Because the D-pad only increases speed during the windup, you really can’t curve the ball like you can in the other games. Finally, you can press B to initiate a pickoff move.

You can choose the field that favors your abilities.

The developers managed to set this game around yet another defensive perspective, this time putting the camera out in center field. Logically this makes sense, as now batting, pitching, and defense are all oriented the same way toward home plate, but this is uncommon compared to other baseball games of the time. The controls for choosing a base to throw or run to also reflects this perspective. Press Up to target home, Left for first base, Down for second base, and Right for third base. Another tweak the manual calls out is that the speed of the throw is determined by how quickly you get rid of the ball. As soon as you grab the ball on defense, throw it right away. This gives you the crispest throw, otherwise if you delay even a little bit the throw will be much slower. It’s an interesting timing mechanic. The other controls are the same: Press A and a direction to throw to a particular base, press B and a direction to run to a base.

Batting is made simpler here. The A button swings like usual. This time you can do a level swing, a high swing with Up and A, and a low swing with Down and A. In earlier games you could adjust your swing to reach inside and outside pitches. To do that now, you must position yourself in the batter’s box prior to the pitch. This might seem like a downgrade but this is how it is done in most other NES baseball games. To bunt, press Select. You can cancel a bunt by pressing Select again or pressing A.

Baserunning is much improved this time. They finally standardized the baserunning controls in Bases Loaded 3 to align with other contemporary NES baseball games. To advance a base, press B and the D-pad direction for the base you are heading toward. To go back, press A and the base you want to return to. The directional mapping for the bases is the same as when fielding, from the centerfield perspective. These controls are so much more intuitive to me. To move multiple runners, you have to control them separately. You can even halt the baserunners by holding both A and B together during a play.

With only the shadow in view until the end, it’s tough to place your fielder.

With the controls and other differences out of the way, it’s time to explain the new winning condition. To win the game you’ll need to understand how to score 100 points in the new rating system. To get a rating at all you need to win a game first. Interestingly enough, the rating screen is more a list of your flaws rather than how well you played. You start with the base score of 100, and most of the categories are negative factors that reduce the rating by 3 points for each infraction. You’ll see a count of the number of faults made in each category with the total score at the bottom.

Here are the 13 categories, mostly taken straight from the manual:

  1. Making an error
  2. Delaying a throw, i.e. making a slow throw
  3. Allowing an inside-the-park home run
  4. Throwing to an unmanned base
  5. Forcing in a run with a walk
  6. Leaving a tired pitcher in the game
  7. Allowing more than 3 runs in an inning
  8. Throwing a wild pitch that allows a runner to advance a base
  9. Striking out
  10. Getting caught stealing
  11. Getting picked off or doubled off a base
  12. Making a great play
  13. Bonus

A few things stand out to me about this list. The manual claims a few times about playing the perfect game, but by baseball definition, you don’t actually have to play or pitch a perfect game, not even close. You can allow hits and walks, and even runs, and not necessarily be penalized for them. Most of the categories center around playing clean defense. Miscues on defense that are not necessarily errors in an MLB game tend to count against you here. Many of these are pretty straightforward to avoid. By far the hardest to avoid is striking out, this is what burned me the most starting out. For any point-reducing penalty during game play, you’ll hear a set of beeps to indicate that you messed up.

The biggest moment of the game in the 3rd inning.

The final two categories add points to your score. Funny that these are here to help cover up a mistake or two that let you maintain your “perfect” run, but I digress. A great play will add 2 points to your score. These are for very good defensive plays, such as diving for a ball just barely in reach and throwing out the runner at first base. You can’t fake these points by diving after everything unnecessarily, trust me, I tried that. The mysterious Bonus category gives you 1 point, and I have no idea how this works at all. I was just happy to see points there. Note that with these last two categories it is possible to exceed 100 points, but your rating will round down to 100 if that occurs.

The game rating determines which difficulty level of team you’ll play in the next match. Score 90 points or higher, and you’ll face the most difficult Level 5 team. Every 10 point range down from there reduces the difficulty level by 1. Scoring fewer than 60 points, or losing the match outright, will reset you back to playing the Level 1 team. To beat the game, it’s not just enough to get the perfect 100 rating. You need to earn the right to play the Level 5 team by scoring 90 points or more, and then you have to secure a 100 rating against that team to win for good.

This was my first time playing Bases Loaded 3. Just like the others, this is an affordable cart that is not difficult to find, though it is not nearly as ubiquitous as the first two installments. When you do find a cart, it isn’t expensive, about $5-$10. I have had maybe one or two extras of this game during my heavy collecting days.

The math isn’t exactly right but I’ll take it.

I knew going into Bases Loaded 3 that it would be a much quicker play than the other two games I’ve completed, but I was not prepared for just how quickly I would actually finish. These games usually have a bit of a ramp up to get a feel for the batting timing, to learn the tendencies of the opposing defense, to adapt to pitch types, etc. That ramp up also means that I’ll lose a few of the first few games before I catch my stride. This time was special because none of that really happened. The first game I won with a rating in the 80s, good enough to face the Level 4 team. In the second game, I won and got the perfect 100 rating. That earned me an audience with the Level 5 team, which I beat and got another 100 rating. Victory after only three matches!

The only bad part of it was that I didn’t capture video of the entire playthrough. I realized part way through the first game that I didn’t start the recording. At the time, I assumed it wouldn’t be a big deal because certainly I would lose a match and have to start all over anyway. To try and fix the issue, initially I intended on recording a brand new full playthrough, hoping to replicate my success from the first time. On the first game of the replay, I got a similar enough rating to get from Level 1 to Level 4, just like I did on the winning run. I decided then to call it, and so for my final video I stitched the replay of the first game together with the final two games of the winning run. There are probably some continuity errors at that split point as far as the video goes, but I’m not bothered by it. Getting the full final game with the 100 rating against the Level 5 team to finish it is really all that is needed for proof anyway. I just want to be obsessively open with my process in all this!

The developers did some good work with the tweaks they made from the prior games. I appreciate the upgrade to the baserunning controls and simplifying the batting and pitching. The outfield defensive perspective is not the greatest, but it works fine. I wish the viewpoint was zoomed out more than it is. It makes it more challenging to get your fielder in the right spot, particularly in the outfield, when you can’t see the fielder you’re controlling until the ball gets close enough. But also, I had no real trouble finishing this game, so perhaps it is fine the way it is. Bases Loaded 3 is a solid NES baseball game. I’m not saying this is an essential game that you need to play, but if you appreciate a different style of challenge in sports games, then I think this is worth trying out.

#177 – Bases Loaded 3

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#176 – The Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy

Have a Yabba-Dabba-Do time!

Including the iconic theme song!

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 5/18/21 – 5/24/21
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
My Video: The Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy Longplay

When you mention The Flintstones to someone who knows a lot about the NES, specifically the collecting side, they don’t think much about the cartoon, or Fred and Wilma, or Hanna Barbera, nothing like that.  Minds go straight to The Flintstones: The Surprise at Dinosaur Peak.  If you don’t know, it’s the hardest to find licensed NES game aside from Stadium Events.  The collector will either be smug about owning a copy (I try not to be this way!) or go on some long monologue about how collecting old games shouldn’t be so expensive and all that.  But Surprise at Dinosaur Peak is not what we’re here to talk about today, for there was an earlier Flintstones NES game that is much more affordable, and also a pretty decent game in its own right.

The Flintstones is an animated sitcom that premiered on ABC in September 1960.  The cartoon ran through April 1966, spanning 6 seasons and 166 episodes.  It was the longest running and most successful animated series until it was dethroned by The Simpsons all the way back in 1997, which is still going strong today.  Despite its apparent success, The Flintstones was not well received by critics at the time, only catching on as a classic through repeated reruns over several decades.  The series and characters have been featured in numerous spin-offs, films, TV specials, and all kinds of other media, on a consistent basis since release.

The Flintstones have appeared in several video games, even pre-dating the NES entries.  The first Flintstones game was called Yabba Dabba Doo! and it was a European only release on a few different computers in 1986.  There were a couple more Flintstones games that appeared on personal computers before they started to come to consoles.  The first console Flintstones game is the one we are covering today.  The Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy was developed and published by Taito, releasing first on the NES in North America in December 1991.  It was subsequently released in Europe, Japan, and Australia in 1992.  Mattel was the publisher for the Australian release.  Sol Corporation is also credited as a developer on this game, but not much information is known about their development credits so we cannot say for sure.

There sure are some interesting gadgets in these times.

The plot of the game is simple and almost completely evident from the game’s title.  The Flintstone family was hanging out with their neighbors, the Rubbles, and their alien friend Gazoo.  Suddenly, a time machine appeared that was piloted by Dr. Butler.  He is from the 30th century and preparing a zoo full of prehistoric creatures, and so he kidnaps the families’ pets Dino and Hoppy.  Not only that, but on the way out he destroys Gazoo’s time machine so they cannot follow him, scattering the parts all over.  It is up to Fred Flintstone to collect the pieces over several platforming stages in order to rebuild the time machine and travel to the future to rescue Dino and Hoppy.

As soon as you finish the opening cutscene, you’re jumping right into the platforming.  Move Fred around with the D-pad.  Press the A button to jump.  Fred can grab onto ledges and pull himself up to get to higher ground.  Press and hold the A button while at the edge of a ledge to grab on.  If you release A, Fred lets go quickly, but if you press and hold Up while continuing to hold A, Fred slowly pulls himself up the ledge.  The B button swings Fred’s club.  This is a short range attack to bop enemies.  Also, you can hold the B button down to charge up a swing, then let go to bash even harder.  There are secondary weapons you can find along the way, and you use them by holding Up and pressing B.  The Select button cycles through the secondary weapons, while Start both pauses the game and summons Gazoo to help out with some other special abilities.

The display at the bottom of the screen tells you all you need to know.  Fred’s lives and current health are on the left side of the display.  On the right side you have the power meter, which grows while Fred is charging a club attack.  Below that on the bottom right are the number of coins.  These are spent as Fred uses his special weapons, so you’ll want to have enough of these for tougher encounters.  In the middle of the display is a square that shows which secondary weapon Fred has selected.

Fred also collects various weapons and items throughout the stages.  Defeating enemies cause coins to drop so you can stock up on cash.  The other items are found in barrels or crates.  The heart item restores all of Fred’s health points.  The cactus cooler, which looks like a log with spikes out the top, extends Fred’s maximum health by one heart.  The bronto burger extends the maximum length of the power meter for stronger hits on the bad guys.  The 1up item in this game has Fred’s head on it.  In the barrels you also uncover the secondary weapons.  The stone axe costs 3 coins per use, and it travels in an arc much like the axe from Castlevania.  The slingshot is a simple projectile attack that also costs 3 coins.  You need 10 coins to wield the boomasaurus egg.  It is akin to a time bomb that damages enemies in a wide range.

Sweet hang-time in prehistoric basketball!

Another fun thing you can do is play the basketball mini-game.  After clearing the first stage you are brought to the world map. Some of the areas on the map are the basketball stages. Your opponent, Hard-Head Harry, has some useful tools for you as long as you can best him in a match first.  Each match lasts only one minute, and you earn two points for every basket made.  When Fred has the ball, you can jump with A, then press B at the top of the jump to throw the ball.  The baskets are the mouths of giant birds that can open and close at will, a fun visual gag the likes of which you’d see in an episode of the show.  On defense, you can press B to do a body bash and try to knock the ball away from Harry.  You have to outscore Harry outright to win, no ties allowed.

Defeating Harry on the court unlocks one of three special powers that you can utilize in the platforming stages.  Press Start to summon Gazoo, then select the power.  The Jump power summons a giant Hoppasaurus that can take one mighty leap before leaving the scene.  The Fly power gives Fred bird wings allowing him to fly until landing.  The Swim power dons a snorkel and flippers to swim more effectively in water.  These abilities cost coins to use but can be very helpful in some situations.

This was my first time playing through The Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy.  This game is a bit uncommon, but not super hard to find.  I’ve only had one copy that I picked up in a lot.  For a couple of months back in 2008 or 2009, I started buying a few specific NES games and bidding on bulk lots on eBay.  After a few auction wins, I already started to get overwhelmed with the extra games and duplicates, so I stopped doing that.  I do remember that I got this game and Metal Storm in the same lot, and those games were cheap back then, so I made out very well in the long term.  Anyway, I’m not even sure if I tried the game back then or not, I just shuffled it into my collection.

Getting dinner together the old fashioned way.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the dates, I’ll point out that I have criminally fallen behind on posting these reviews.  Here almost two and a half years late I’m finally getting around to it!  Writing is going to be a bit of a struggle to try and recap something from so long ago, but where I can I’ll attempt a replay to catch back up.  Maybe it will help the thoughts crystallize somewhat, or it will make the game feel brand new again.  Who knows?

Back in 2021, I was able to beat this without too much trouble.  I had to continue once or twice, but it has unlimited continues so no issue there.  The final stage and final boss are the trickiest parts, but a few attempts was all it took.  In my recent replay, I felt like I had a harder time beating this than I did before.  I needed several continues in the mid and late game, especially that final stage.  Beating the final boss went better than I thought, but also felt a bit like I got lucky with dealing a bunch of damage while not caring about Fred’s own health, and surviving just long enough to finish.  The little bit I remembered from playing this back in 2021 helped a lot in that respect. Anyway, I do not think a fourth playthrough is in order, that’s enough Flintstones, it’s time to move on!

The Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy is your typical average NES platformer.  Graphically, the game is quite appealing.  The characters are all drawn well and are recognizable even as tiny sprites.  The environments are varied, with different levels themes and gameplay tweaks sprinkled throughout.  The transformations, while seldom used, add an extra element to help get through certain sections.  The music overall is pretty good as well, with the familiar Flintstones theme done well, along with others.  There was nothing here that was particularly catchy or an earworm, but solid anyway.  The gameplay is a tad bit weaker.  The controls and movement feel just a bit sluggish, while some enemies are much more mobile and difficult to handle.  Fred’s club range is shorter than you would expect, and when charging up the club there’s really no clue how much damage you’re actually dealing.  On the other hand, grabbing a ledge to climb feels more generous and is used often in the level design to good effect.  The Flintstones is somewhat of a mixed bag but is generally a good game.  I’m excited to see what the expensive sequel has in store.

#176 – The Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy


#175 – Skate Or Die

If I have to choose, I’m choosing to skate.

Fine, fine, let’s skate!

To Beat: Get the high score in all events
Played: 5/17/21 – 5/18/21
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
My Video: Skate or Die Longplay

Skateboarding and video games seem like a perfect match with each other.  I did some looking into early skateboarding history and I noticed some similarities.  Skateboarding began as a niche hobby, really blew up in its early days, then had a very quick downturn for several years, dismissed as a fad.  Video games had a similar trajectory early on.  Computers were inaccessible to all but engineers, researchers, and educators because they were so huge and costly, but that didn’t stop them from designing games on early hardware.  As video games got bigger and bigger, they too had a very quick rise and quick fall from the infamous video game crash in the US.  But both activities recovered quite nicely and are still very popular.  A match made in heaven, indeed.  Today’s game is one of the earlier attempts to capture the essence of skateboarding into video game form.

For as popular as video games and skateboarding were in their early days, the first skateboarding video games didn’t appear until around 1986.  Atari Games’ 720 is considered the first skateboarding video game, which had an NES port that I will cover in the future.  Skate or Die followed not too long after, first released on the Commodore 64 in 1987 by Electronic Arts, their very first game developed in-house.  The game was ported to various computers in 1988 and 1989, such as DOS and the ZX Spectrum.  Skate or Die came to the NES via Konami in December 1988, published under their Ultra Games label.  It was also released in PAL territories in 1989.

Skate or Die is a collection of five skateboarding themed mini-games.  They are the Freestyle Ramp, High Jump, Downhill Race, Downhill Jam, and Joust.  You can play them solo or all of them back-to-back in the Compete All mode.  Up to 8 players can play the events in alternating play, except for one competitive event.  This game does not have a traditional ending screen, so the next best thing is to get the high score in all events, as well as defeat your opponent in Joust.

Not intimidating at all!

The first thing you’ll need to do is visit Rodney Recloose in his skateboarding shop.  This is the launching area for the game.  Move your “Skate or Die” themed cursor with the D-pad.  You can hover over various things in the shop to get some commentary from Rodney.  At the bottom of the screen, there are options for Go Practice and Go Compete.  You can select Go Practice at any time to jump straight into game selection, but if you want to Go Compete solo or with friends, you’ll need to register on the Sign In sheet.  There you can name up to 8 players, one at a time.  In single player, if you want to Compete All, you need to enter just your name as Player 1.

Outside of the shop, you can control your skater on the street to choose an event.  The events are broken up by where they take place.   The right side leads to the Ramp where you can choose the Freestyle Ramp or the High Jump.  The downhill events, Downhill Race and Downhill Jam, are off the bottom of the screen.  To the left is the Pool where you can Joust, or you may choose the Compete All option.  Just move your skater down the road toward the event you want to try to get started.  I’ll get more into controls in a bit, but your skater on the map screen uses Goofy Foot controls, which are from the perspective of the skater, not the TV screen.

I’ll cover the events in the same order as Compete All, beginning with the Freestyle Ramp.  The goal of this mode is to score as many points as you can by completing as many tricks as you can.  You get 10 tries, 5 from each side of the half-pipe, to pull off these tricks.  To get started, press the A button to enter the ramp.  You can press Up and Down to move in and out of the pipe.  The trick you perform is determined by how many times you press the A button while down in the ramp, plus an optional direction when you reach the lip of the ramp.  There’s a table in the manual that describes each trick you can do.  If you want to simple soar high, press A multiple times in the ramp plus no direction at the top of the ramp.  You’ll fly up into the air and you can turn your skater with Left and Right to spin, just be careful to line up properly when you land back on the ramp.  If you press a direction, either into the ramp or away from the ramp (i.e, press Right when moving right, or Left when moving right), you’ll do a different trick, depending on if you pressed A once, twice or more, or not at all.  Each successful trick nets you points, but if you mess up, then you’ll slide down in shame with no points that try.  After 10 trick attempts, you’ll finish up with bonus points that scale up very quickly the more different types of tricks you do successfully in the run.

Show off your moves, as many as you can.

The next event is the High Jump, also taking place at the ramp.  Press A to start your descent down the ramp.  For this one, you need to mash the D-pad and the B button as fast as you can to gain speed through the ramp.  You can go back and forth up to 10 times to try and record the best jump you can.  The manual says that once you’re ready, you want to press A at the edge of the ramp to soar high, then press A again at the very apex of your jump to “kiss the sky” for a little extra height.  Once you do that, you’ll go back to the left side and automatically dismount.

Next up is the Downhill Race.  This is an obstacle course where your goal is to skate to the finish line at the bottom of the course.  Here, and in the Downhill Jam, you can choose your control method of either Regular Foot or Goofy Foot.  Regular Foot essentially amounts to reverse controls, but those controls line up from the perspective of the TV screen.  For example, pressing Left turns your skater to the right, but since you are moving down, your skater will turn toward the left side of the screen.  In Regular Foot, the Up and Down controls are reversed too; press Down to go faster and Up to slow down.  Goofy Foot is the same controls as the map screen, which are from the perspective of the skater character instead of the TV screen.  It’s confusing to describe, but maybe that made sense.

Anyway, on to the Downhill Race.  First choose your control method, and off you go!  Navigate the obstacles the best you can and try not to crash.  You can earn points by doing tricks as you go.  You can jump by holding Up and pressing A, and you can duck by holding Down and pressing A.  The jumping and ducking controls are the same for both Regular Foot and Goofy Foot.  You can jump off ramps or duck through tunnels for extra points.  Crashing only gives you a slight time penalty as you get yourself back on the board.  The bulk of your score is awarded at the end of the course depending on how quickly you finish.

Love to leave Lester in the dust!

The fourth event is the Downhill Jam.  This one is a different kind of obstacle course, only this time you compete against another skater.  In single player, you’ll go up against the computer-controlled Lester, but in a multiplayer game you compete against each other!  Movement controls for this mode are the same as the Downhill Race, including choosing either Regular Foot or Goofy Foot.  The Downhill Jam is a glorified race to the end of the course.  You can earn points along the way by knocking over small objects like cans, and you’ll crash if you stumble into anything sturdier than that.  Running through a chain link fence and crumbling to pieces is pretty funny!  The other thing you can do for points is to beat up your opponent.  There are surprisingly sophisticated controls for the attacks.  When your opponent comes alongside you, press the D-pad toward him and A to punch.  If you press away and the A button instead, you’ll do a kick.  Furthermore, you can do a high kick with a diagonal Up and away with A, and a low kick with diagonal Down and away with A.

The fifth and final event is the Joust.  It takes place inside of an emptied out pool.  At the start of this mode, you can choose your computer-controlled opponent.  Poseur Pete is the easiest opponent, Aggro Eddie is medium difficulty, and Lester is the toughest, coming right out saying the title reference: “Skate or Die!”  In this mode, players take turns between offense and defense.  The offensive player needs to use the jousting stick to knock the opponent down, while the defensive player must move to avoid getting knocked out.  The defensive player gets five passes across the pool, and should he survive that, then he becomes the aggressor and the players switch roles.  At the edge, press A and toward the pool to enter, then you can use Up or Down to position yourself inside the pool.  You can slide along the top edge of the pool as well.  As the attacker, press A to swing your joust and knock the opponent down within range.  Each knockdown is a point and the first to three points wins!  This mode also has competitive multiplayer where you can square off against your friend.  If you play with more than two people, the mode becomes a single bracket tournament, for up to 8 players, which is a pretty cool addition!

This was my first time beating Skate or Die, at least I think so.  I didn’t play this one until adulthood, but it was one of the old NintendoAge weekly contest games and so I played it for that.  I only remember giving it an hour max, probably not even that long, just enough to post a respectable score on the board.  This is an affordable game, around $5 for a loose cart, not hard to find at all.  It’s weird that I didn’t come across this one as a kid, but I know I picked up multiple copies from buying lots as an adult collector.  It’s the type of game you’ll find bundled with other games you were going after.

Jousting is tough, try to get close and strike.

I stated above that to beat this game you need to get the high score in all events and win Joust, which is only partially true.  You can do all events in a row using the Compete All option, taking them in the order I reviewed them above.  The thing is that there aren’t really high scores for this.  The game keeps track of the top three scores in each event but the lists start off empty, so any score is good enough for the top score.  In the Compete All mode, you are awarded a separate, overall score of 5 points for clearing each event in single player.  I assume when playing with multiple people you earn fewer points the lower you place among your friends.  Now you do not earn the 5 points if you lose Joust, so winning that one is required, but the other ones don’t matter at all.  There’s no ending screen for this game, but the ending blue screen for Joust showing the full 25 points is good enough in this case.

I did want to try to perform reasonably well in each event, so here’s how I did that.  In the Freestyle Ramp, if you play it properly, most of your points are earned from the bonus points at the end.  You need to perform as many unique tricks as you can to boost the bonus points.  My run wasn’t perfect by any means, but I scored a little over 6000 during the round and earned another 6000 points in bonus.  For the High Jump, I just tried to mash as much as I could.  When the jump felt right, then I performed the “kiss” move for a little extra height to end the event.  I don’t think pushing A at the top of the ramp really did anything to improve my height, in fact I think it slowed me down as it threw off my mashing rhythm.  The Downhill Race doesn’t have too much strategy other than trying to avoid crashing.  There are some stunts you can do on certain obstacles to get to the end faster and earn a few style points, but it’s not necessary.  I only crashed once in my attempt which is fine.  For the Downhill Jam, I didn’t bother attacking Lester at all.  I focused on clearing the event as smoothly as possible.  You can gain time on Lester by leaving him behind, as the game will pull him forward automatically and give him a small time penalty.  In my run I crashed once through a fence, but so did Lester so no big deal.  The Joust was the hardest event for me.  My offensive strategy was to wait until he went, then enter and hit him right away on my side, which worked often enough.  Defensively though, I think I just got lucky.  What I wanted to do was stay right behind him so that we only cross paths at the top where he isn’t likely to land an attack.

The speedrun World Record of Skate or Die is currently at 2:16.9 by OldSchoolMcFly.  The run itself looks quite straightforward.  Do the bare minimum to clear the two half-pipe events, and get to the end of the course as quickly as possible in the two Downhill events.  There was a pretty neat route to the Downhill Jam that I wouldn’t have known about before the speedrun.  The Joust is where the run is made.  The runner chose the middle character, Aggro Eddie, perhaps because he is actually more aggressive and enters the pipe more quickly than the others.  Two of the offensive points were scored the same way as my strategy above.  For the third point however, the runner waited out the clock in the pipe until he could go on offense and then timed it to where he was already overlapping the opponent so he could score the point immediately.  That’s definitely not easy to do and I bet it requires a lot of luck to set it up.

For me, Skate or Die is a basic skateboarding game that doesn’t have a lot to offer.  It does have a variety of events that are pretty fun to play, but they are so short and it starts to lose appeal for me quickly.  The graphics are basic, with simple backgrounds and tiny sprites, but the animation is quite smooth and nice to look at.  The music is pretty catchy, in line with other Konami developed games.  The controls are responsive, but they don’t feel very responsive at times due to the momentum based movement and turning in the Downhill events.  These are nitpicky complaints.  This is a good game; I just got my fill of it pretty fast.

#175 – Skate or Die


#175 – Skate or Die


#174 – The Uncanny X-Men

The ‘X’ in X-Men is for crossing this game out.

Probably the best part of the game honestly.

To Beat: Clear all stages, including the final secret stage
Played: 4/27/21 – 5/14/21
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
My Video: The Uncanny X-Men Longplay

I’ve been looking forward to writing this review.  Long time readers may know that I believe that most NES games are good.  Not just the popular ones or the hidden gems, but any ordinary NES game has something to offer me that I end up appreciating.  To put it another way, if I didn’t enjoy playing most of the games on the NES, I wouldn’t be doing this project.  But that’s not to say that there aren’t any bad NES games, oh no.  With over 70% of the library left to play, I feel comfortable saying that The Uncanny X-Men is a contender for worst NES game ever.  Let’s find out exactly what went wrong.

For me to try and describe the X-Men series and its far reach into all things media would do it a great disservice, but we’re gonna briefly try anyway.  The X-Men comics were created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  The series initially didn’t catch on well and was cancelled in 1970, though it was later revived in 1975 under writer Chris Claremont.  New characters were introduced, and Claremont steered some of the biggest story arcs in the comics for over 25 years.  The X-Men really took off in popularity, spawning more comic series, TV shows, books, films, and of course video games, way too many to mention.  The first X-Men video games were released in 1989, including our game here, The Uncanny X-Men.  The NES game released only in North America in December 1989.  It was published by LJN but the developer is unknown, possibly either Bothtec or Pixel.  Of those two, through cross referencing development credits of other NES and Famicom games from what I could find online, I personally suspect that Bothtec is the more likely developer.  I can also see why no one would want to take credit for developing this game.

The Uncanny X-Men has a basic story.  Magneto and his henchmen and planning to take over the world.  It is up to you and the X-Men to go after them!  The group of X-Men accepting this mission are Wolverine, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Iceman, Colossus, and Storm.  You must clear each of the five stages to stop Magneto’s plans for world domination and win the game, but it won’t be easy.

Fighting for justice in the ruined city or something

At the start of the game, you’ll first choose from either a 1 player or 2 player game, which is simultaneous cooperative play.  Then you’ll choose your starting level.  There is a practice stage where you can get your bearings, or you can select from one of four regular stages.  Next, you’ll be presented with the character screens.  There is a screen for each character and you can toggle between them with Select.  Each screen shows the character’s relative stats in one of four categories: Power, Endurance, Speed, and Willpower.  The manual doesn’t explain what these mean at all, but you can sort of figure it out as you play.  Each screen also displays a character portrait and a short bio.  In both 1 player and 2 player modes, you must select two characters.  In the single player game, you control the first character while the second is AI controlled.

The Uncanny X-Men is a top-down action game.  Use the D-pad to walk around in four directions.  The A button attacks, and each character only has one kind of attack.  The B button can either jump or fly.  The Select button toggles between the two characters in a single player game letting you swap control at any time.  The Start button brings up a status screen.  For each character you can see their name, score, and remaining health.  You also see how many keys have been collected as well as any key items.  This is a vertically scrolling game, most often from bottom to top, though there are some single screen areas and some that go downward instead of up.

While all the X-Men play similarly, there are several distinguishing factors between them.  The most obvious difference is the way they attack.  Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Colossus have short range punch attacks, just a quick thrust forward.  Cyclops, Iceman, and Storm have beam attacks that can hurt enemies from across the screen.  Iceman and Storm can fly around the levels by holding down B.  You can coast through the levels much faster and can fly over damaging floor tiles, however, your health gets drained while you take flight, all the way to your death if you fly too long.   There are a couple of other special abilities.  Nightcrawler has the ability to walk through solid walls, though this also drains his health.  I don’t know if this counts as a special ability or not, but I found that Colossus was quite the tank, and he can get bopped around by the enemies pretty good and barely take any damage.  I used him a lot when I was learning the stages in spite of his short-range attack.

The object of the game is to stop Magneto’s plans by recovering a floppy disk from each stage.  You’ll explore the stages to find them.  Every room has some sort of floor tile that acts as a door to a different screen, and often there are branching paths or a maze to sort out.  There are also physical door barriers that you need to open with a key that you find somewhere in the stage.  Other gates or barriers open and close at random but you need to be very careful here as getting stuck inside the closing door can both trap you and zap you of your health in a flash.  At the end of each stage is a boss encounter.  Defeat the boss to obtain the disk.  This causes a time bomb to start counting down, and you’ll need to backtrack all the way to the beginning of the stage to escape before time runs out.  Often enough there will be a door past the boss that brings you a good chunk of the way toward the exit.

Imagine what manages to live below

Defeated enemies will drop powerups at random and they are vital to your success.  The energy restore powerup has the letter E in it and collecting that powerup restores your health.  A similar looking powerup with the letter S in it is the statis bomb.  This freezes all enemies for a short time.  A powerup with a large lightning bolt on it is a smart bomb, which destroys all on-screen enemies.  The force shield has a weird look, sort of like a worm with a red circle at the bottom.  This makes you temporarily invincible.  The keys and disks I already mentioned, which show up in certain locations and are not random drops.  The final item is actually a power-down and is very dangerous.  The magnet item stuns you for quite a long time.  Enemies will continue to swarm you and knock you around, so many times this item ends up being fatal if you collect it accidentally.

The levels themselves have some differences, but at the end of the day they are all pretty much the same.  Some levels have shorter rooms with lots of doors, others have long stretches with few exits or long branching paths.  It’s up to you to navigate them to find the quickest way through.  All levels have some sort of floor tile that hurts you, as well the gates and barriers I mentioned earlier.  The walls and such are fairly obvious, but the damage tiles are not the clearest to make out, so you may die to them without realizing exactly what happened.  There’s no physical difference to the character upon taking damage, just a low droning sound effect, with some slight knockback if it’s a direct enemy attack.  There are plenty of other quality issues, and some major ones as well, that we’ll cover in the spoiler section shortly.

This was my first time playing The Uncanny X-Men.  I was not a comic book fan and never cared much about the X-Men so I ignored this game, definitely for my benefit.  I only learned of its reputation after I started seriously collecting.  I managed to pick up a loose copy locally for a few bucks.  Right now, it sells for around $10-$15 loose.

Where to begin with all the problems this game has? I guess we’ll start with the most obvious one from playing the game for any length of time: the AI controlled second player.  This game is almost completely unplayable in single player mode in part because the AI just doesn’t work well at all.  The AI has two modes.  When you switch control between characters, the AI goes into a defensive mode, wiggling back and forth and attacking in a tight space for 5 seconds.  Then it switches over to follow mode where it tries to find a path to keep up with you.  In either mode, the AI character is vulnerable to attack.  The hitboxes for collisions and attacks are imperfect, to say the least.  It is very easy to get juggled between two enemies and not be able to counterattack, for both yourself and the AI.  It isn’t very fun to try and swap control around constantly to attempt to defend both characters on your own and make progress, in fact it is harder to play that way.  I could only get as far as maybe two screens of any level with both characters still intact, so inevitably the AI character will die and that’s the end of that character.  Once a character is defeated, they are gone for good.  There are no continues in X-Men.  Since there are 5 stages, you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose a life in each stage, leaving you with only one of the X-Men for the rest of the game.  Of course, you’ll start completely over from the beginning if you fail.

Rare image of a surviving AI companion

Another problem is dealing with the gates.  These things are on most screens of the game and are just awful to deal with.  The AI characters will walk right into them with complete disregard, which is the source of many of their deaths (provided they live long enough to get that far in the first place).  If there’s a pattern to their opening and closing, I couldn’t figure it out.  They don’t seem to stay open long enough to pass through very often at all.  So how do you deal with them?  Thankfully the invincibility powerups keep you safe.  There are enough enemies out there that are easy to respawn that drop powerups most of the time.  But sometimes it takes minutes to get the invincibility drop, and sometimes you’ll end up grabbing a magnet power down by mistake putting yourself in severe danger of dying defenseless.  You will certainly want to play through the game as a character with a ranged attack to mitigate those risks.  It’s telling too how difficult the game is to beat in spite of the fact that there are basically unlimited invincibility and health upgrades as long as you’re willing to grind for them.

So, you’ve put up with all the headaches and the glitches and the AI killing off all your lives for you, and you manage to finish all four stages!  First of all, great job!  But now what?  The game unceremoniously drops you off back at the mission select screen.  Though you can still put your cursor on them, you can’t go back and play already completed stages.  The only thing you can do is to go back to the Practice stage.  There’s no ending to be found.  You might think this is a quirk of the game or perhaps it really is as unfinished as it plays.  It turns out there is indeed a final stage with a very unintuitive way of reaching it.  I went ahead and googled the answer, and well, I was left with as much confusion as when I started.  Here’s the deal.  There is a code printed on the label of the cart.  It’s in very tiny text, on the top row of the copyright text at the bottom of the label.  It reads “+ B + UP together with START.”  On the mission select screen I tried inputting this code, but it does nothing.  That is because the code is incomplete!  So, not only is there no indication about this code hidden in plain sight on the cart label, but also the code is wrong to begin with.  But it’s close, you also have to press Select along with B and Up, then press Start.

With all of this now in place, I was able to beat the game.  It took me a long while to get it done.  I ended up beating all the stages separately and I identified routes through each level that I had committed to memory.  It’s still pretty tricky to clear everything in one shot as it is pretty easy to die from all of the things already mentioned.  The final stage is no cakewalk either.  More than once, I died pretty quickly in the stage, and since you lose all of your lives through the bad AI, it was frustrating setback after frustrating setback.  That’s 20 to 30 minutes wasted on every failure.  The final stage is more cramped, has fewer good spots to grind enemies, and is confusing to navigate, but it’s not all that much harder than the rest of the game.  It took me close to 30 tries from start to beat this game, including a few quick resets, in about 12 hours total to finish the game.

Avoid the blobs and get out

That’s not all there is to this story, however.  I have inadvertently spread some misinformation about this game, including here in this very review to some degree.  Time to set the record straight.  The secret code on the label for the final stage is not incorrect, but intentionally incomplete.  Here’s the scoop.  The game maintains a hidden counter that increases when you defeat some special enemies.  I played the first stage on emulator watching this counter in RAM (located at $0513) to confirm this.  Some of the spawning enemies appear using a different color palette, and defeating these enemies advances the counter.  If you can defeat 30 of these enemies in the stage, the victory text after completing the stage will have some of the words highlighted in red.  What you need to do is complete all four stages with enough special kills, copy down the red text that appears, and piece all four stages together for the secret message.  Now one of the screens takes some liberty here, deliberately misspelling a word and combining it with part of another word elsewhere in the text.  When you combine everything properly, you get the following: “The last mission can be reached from the mission screen by pushing select and seek the advice of the label to make it to the final mission.”  So, there you have it.  I completely missed this in my own playthrough; I don’t recall seeing any red text during any of my attempts.  But indeed everything you need for the code is included on the cart.  Thanks to this article at The Cutting Room Floor for clearing this up for me.  This is extremely clever, but the problem is that it is too clever and gets in the way of an already troubled game.  The crazy thing is that this isn’t the only time something meta like this was done in an X-Men game.  The X-Men game on the Sega Genesis has a section that asks the player to “reset the computer,” which is done by physically pressing the reset button on the console to continue, without any indication that this is the necessary solution.  

The speedrun of this game is pretty quick.  The record is currently 5:54 by TooOrange.  The runner takes full advantage of Nightcrawler’s walking through walls ability to run straight through everything in each stage.  In retrospect, this makes a ton of sense, but I assumed it was impossible to play through the game this way.  Being inside of walls still drains health, and Nightcrawler has the lowest max health of any character.  I don’t remember seeing any intentional grinding of enemies for health drops, so it sounds like it’s the appropriate strategy.  I imagine you need to avoid any damage whatsoever along the way to actually pull it off.  There are only 3 runs on the board and one is from 14 years ago, so this is not a popular game.

Even though I did have something nice to say about this game at the very end, The Uncanny X-Men is truly a horrendous game.  The gameplay graphics are murky and dull, the music is uncomplicated and boring, the controls are both too touchy and also unresponsive at times, and the gameplay is frustrating and repetitive.  The character portraits are drawn well enough, and the hidden secret final stage is a clever, though poorly implemented, idea.  That’s about all the good I can find here.  Bad games are often made more challenging due to their poor design and bugs, which is absolutely the case here.  It’s not a pleasant experience at all, but hey, I took care of this one so you don’t have to!

You’ll notice some changes in the ending screenshot below.  In between games, I bought the Analogue NT Mini Noir and added it to my setup.  I had been thinking about getting one secondhand about the time the final batch of them arrived for sale, really just perfect timing on my part.  I wanted to get away from using the flat screen TV for playing games, both in not having to deal with input lag and having the ability to play Zapper games without compromised recording quality, so the Analogue system with its dual output capability just made the most sense for me.  The streaming and recording setup has moved back into my office room full time, just the way I want it.  The only thing remaining is getting around to playing better games on it!

#174 – The Uncanny X-Men


#173 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game

Turtle Power! This time at home!

The cursor stares into your soul.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 4/20/21
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 2/10
My Video: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game Longplay

A lot can change in just a few years.  It was four years ago when I beat the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the site.  I wouldn’t have guessed that I would end up learning the speedrun for this game and getting a pretty decent time for my efforts, as well as making good friends in the speedrunning community at large.  I don’t speedrun too many games and not any more of the TMNT games, but I do like them quite a bit.  Last April, I played TMNT II: The Arcade Game, a familiar game that got a lot of play over the years.  Now this April, I am finally working the backlog and starting to write up this review.  (Yes, I realize it is now June, I’m not exactly sprinting through things to get fully caught up.)  Purely by coincidence, it is very fitting that April has become the de facto Turtle month for me!

For more information about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, check out my review of the first NES game.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a smash hit in the arcades after its 1989 release.  Tens of thousands of arcade cabinets were sold and shipped worldwide, and Konami had trouble keeping up with the demand.  Naturally that demand was high enough that home versions were created and released on various home computers, as well as a port to the Famicom and NES.  The Famicom version was released first as just Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then a week later Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (TMNT II for short) arrived on the NES.  Both releases were in December 1990.  The game was developed and published by Konami worldwide, except for North America where it was published under the Ultra Games label.  The PAL release, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles II: The Arcade Game came out in November 1991.  The arcade version was released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2007, and both the NES version and arcade version of the game are a part of the newly announced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection coming later in 2022.

How did they get the wrecking balls upstairs?

The NES port of the TMNT arcade game is notable for adding two brand new stages to the mix.  While the story of the game is rather basic, there was some detail added in the NES manual to cover for the new stages.  This game plot-wise is a follow up from the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film.  At the end of the movie, Shredder is thrown off the roof of a building into a garbage truck and crushed.  But as it turns out, Shredder was saved from death by his titanium-laced helmet, so he is able to escape unseen and rebuilds in secret.  During this, he recruits two bounty hunters, Tora and Shogun, who star in their own brand new levels.  With everything lined up, Shredder captures April O’Neil again, putting our heroes on the rescue path once again.
Let’s get started with playing the game.  TMNT II has two-player simultaneous play, so you can choose from 1 Player or 2 Player mode to get started.  Next, each player will choose their turtle of choice.  Each turtle is shown in their own square in grayscale and selecting the turtle you want will brighten him up in full color.  After all players have chosen their turtle, another cutscene plays before launching into the game proper.

TMNT II is a side scrolling beat-em-up.  Use the D-pad to move your turtle around the screen.  Stages typically move from left to right, and you can use Up or Down to move in and out.  Press A to jump.  Some stages have elevated floors and you can jump up ledges to higher ground.  The B button attacks.  While standing or moving, this does a simple attack with your weapon.  While airborne in a jump, press B to do a jump kick.  This move is great for quick attacks or as a defensive maneuver if you need a short burst of speed.  Perhaps the most helpful move in the game is the jump attack.  To do this, press A and B at the same time.  If performed correctly, you’ll do a short hop immediately into an attack.  I usually perform this move by rolling my thumb across A then B, pressing B just a little bit after pressing A.  This prevents me from accidentally attacking before jumping which doesn’t do the proper move.  The jump attack does extra damage and defeats many basic enemies in a single strike, and there’s no penalty of any kind to use it, so I do this pretty much the entire game.

The top of your screen contains a few stats for each turtle.  You see the name of your turtle, your score, your remaining health, and the number of lives in reserve.  Scoring in this game is very basic; each enemy defeated is worth one point, including bosses.  Your health bar starts off all the way across your status box and ticks down as you suffer enemy attacks.  Some stages have pizza on the ground that you can collect to restore your health fully.  You begin the game with two extra lives, and you earn another life every 200 points, a fairly tall order given the slow rate of scoring.  There are no other powerups or anything else.  There is a limited continue system.  You get three continues to beat the game, and each one brings you back to the beginning of the current stage.

The orange glow means you’re about to win.

This is a very straightforward game.  There are 10 total scenes in the game across 7 stages.  In each scene, you defeat all the enemies that appear on the screen before continuing to move to the right.  Most stages end in a boss fight against one of Shredder’s big baddies.  Most of the enemies in the game are the standard foot soldiers, with standard attacks.  As the game progresses, they come in different colors with some different abilities.  For instance, yellow foot soldiers throw boomerangs.  Even the default purple color enemies can vary sometimes, like the enemies that throw sticks of dynamite.  There are other types of recurring enemies like the tiny mousers.  The turtles themselves are pretty much interchangeable as there aren’t any turtle-specific special moves and there doesn’t appear to be any benefit to one turtle over the next.  I do have fun with this game, but there’s no denying that it sticks to the same formula throughout.

TMNT II: The Arcade Game was one of the NES games I had growing up.  I was big into TMNT for a few years as I was just the right age for that.  I know I played the arcade release a few times but the NES version is what I remember the most.  This was a multiple time rental before I got my own copy of the game.  I’ve since beaten the game many times over the years.  My collection copy now is not the same one I had as a kid.  I loaned my cart out to a friend at school, he stuck it in his backpack, then later slipped and fell down hard.  The cart inside his bag got cracked and a corner of the plastic broke off entirely.  Thankfully I am not super nostalgic about having the exact same copies I grew up with, even though for the most part I took good care of my things.  This is a pretty common game, but it is desirable, so it goes for about $20 for a loose cart.

This was an easy clear for me.  The game came up once, maybe twice in the NintendoAge contests. (They are still going on now at videogamesage.com, though I haven’t participated in a year or two at this point.)  The ruleset was to get as far as you can on one credit, with lowest score as the tiebreaker.  Some stages have interactable elements that you can hit into enemies to kill them, without earning points.  Grinding out attempts for a week, even years ago, got me trained up to play through the game well.  For this playthrough, I did two attempts and won both times without continues.  I wanted to see if I could go deathless, but that will take some effort to accomplish.  In my video longplay, I actually died to Rocksteady, the Stage 1 boss, then got all the way to Krang at the end of the game before dying again.  I died quite a few times to Shredder too.  I would have to clean that fight up significantly.  This was a clean enough run and I’m happy with it.  Maybe someday I’ll go back and work on a deathless run.

Home sweet home

I bet a lot of retro gamers my age will remember the cross promotion between the NES game and Pizza Hut.  Most notably, there was a coupon on the back page of the NES manual for a free, personal pan pizza.  There was advertising for this plastered on the front of the game box, and Pizza Hut is referenced a few times within the game itself.  I lived in a small town growing up, and the only pizza place we had in town was Pizza Hut.  Those personal pan pizzas were one of the greatest things ever.  My local place also carried a few arcade cabinets, and while I don’t know for sure, it’s certainly possible that there I got to play the arcade version while waiting for the cheesy goodness.  While my original copy is long gone, and I’ll never know if I redeemed that coupon or not, I now own a CIB copy of TMNT II with the coupon still intact.  It’s only 30 years expired at this point!

TMNT II: The Arcade Game sits in an almost overlooked place these days.  I believe TMNT III is the better game of this style.  The original NES TMNT game is so weird and wonky, but also unique and challenging, and I really like what it offers.  The arcade version is a beautiful game and still looks amazing today, and it plays so well with different moves and 4-player simultaneous action.  I think the NES port is really well done considering the limitations of the console, and after looking into it, I say it fared better than its computer ports.  This game has a clean graphical style with recognizable characters and detailed sprite work.  The music is great, as you would expect from Konami, and faithful to the Turtles theme.  Controls are rock solid, and the gameplay is equally solid action.  There are plenty of tense boss fights and scenes to keep things engaging.  The only criticism I see is that the game is pretty long for just fighting enemies and moving to the right.  You literally need to defeat hundreds of enemies in one sitting to beat this game.  That can be tedious for some, certainly.  Some people are really disappointed in this game, and others would claim its average, maybe above average at best.  I say this is quite a good game, one of the better NES games out there.

#173 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game


#172 – Muppet Adventure: Chaos at the Carnival

Oh it’s an adventure alright.

Featuring some serious music

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 4/11/11 – 4/17/11
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
My Video: Muppet Adventure: Chaos at the Carnival Longplay

Well, after the long, complicated playthrough that was Ultima: Exodus, we are definitely taking a step back with this one.  This is the premier NES Muppets game, though if you wanna be technical about it, this is not the only NES game to feature muppets, as I learned researching this that the Sesame Street characters are indeed muppets.  If you are wanting a game featuring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, et al, then you’ve come to the right place.  This game even provided a stiffer challenge than I expected from this game, sort of.

The Muppets are puppet characters created by Jim Henson.  They were originally created for entertaining adults, not children, first appearing on the show Sam and Friends in 1955.  Kermit the Frog was one of the first characters created and is still one of the most recognizable.  Henson created brand new characters to launch Sesame Street in 1969, which is widely known as classic children’s programming that is still going strong today.  The next major project was The Muppet Show, the 1976 sketch comedy show that would win four Emmy awards and paved the way for the Muppets’ foray into film with The Muppet Movie in 1979.  The Muppets would remain popular through many TV shows and movies over the years.  Disney would eventually acquire the Muppets in 2004, almost fifteen years after an attempted purchase where negotiations were derailed after Jim Henson’s death.

Aside from Sesame Street, given their popularity, there haven’t been many Muppets video games.  Six years after the first Muppets game, Pigs in Space on the Atari 2600, we have this one, Muppet Adventure: Chaos at the Carnival.  The game was originally released in 1989 for the Apple II, Commodore 64, and DOS.  The NES version followed later in North America in 1990 with some significant changes to the 1989 versions (which among themselves had some variations in gameplay).  The NES version was published by Hi Tech Expressions and developed by Mind’s Eye Technology.  Very little information is out there online about the developer, so chances are this is their only released game.


The story goes, unsurprisingly, that the evil Dr. Grump has kidnapped (pignapped?) Ms. Piggy and is holding her hostage.  Dr. Grump’s hideout is a carnival, and that’s where the action takes place.  You control a band of Muppets one at a time over four different attractions.  Each ride contains a key that is used to unlock the final area.  To beat this game, you need to beat all four areas plus the final stage.

In this single-player adventure, you can play each of the first four stages in any order you like.  In each one, you play as a different character and each one is a completely different experience.  In each level, at either the bottom or top of the screen, you’ll see your cumulative score, your power meter in hearts, and the number of “rides” remaining, which is this game’s way of saying how many lives you have.  I played through the stages in the order presented as there wasn’t any compelling reason for me to play them differently.

First up is the River Ride.  You control Kermit in a life raft floating down the river.  This is a vertical scrolling game where all you need to do is reach the key at the bottom of the river.  This is a D-pad only game.  Press Left or Right to steer in that direction, hold Down to move faster, and hold Up to slow down.  This one is pretty straightforward, simply avoid obstacles and make your way down.  You can take a few bops off of rocks and the shore with your health meter.  Red periscopes restore your health and collecting a red buoy gives you an extra life.  Logs will sway side to side and get in your way, whirlpools can swerve you around the river, and at one part this critter on a raft follows you around for a bit.  The whirlpool can be tricky because sometimes it can trap you against objects and you have no choice but to lose a life.  One interesting tidbit: the level design guides you directly to the key at the end, but you can avoid it and keep going downstream which restarts the level entirely.

Fit the slidey car through small gaps.

The next stage is the Car Course.  In this one you take control of Animal in a bumper car.  Your task is to clear the obstacle course, moving from left to right.  Use Left and Right on the D-pad to rotate the car toward one of eight directions.  Then press and hold A to go forward.  This is a very momentum based game but you’ll automatically brake a little bit when you let go of A.  The course itself is decently long and consists of various traps and obstacles in basic, repeatable patterns.  There are oil slicks, bombs, bouncy walls, that sort of thing.  Flags can be collected here as well, red ones for points and green ones for power restoral.  To restore health, you need to grab a series of green flags.  A new green flag appears once you collect one, and after nabbing so many of them you’ll get your health back.  The later sections in this course you have to take pretty slowly to clear some of the traps through small gaps.

The third game is the Space Race.  This one is pretty similar to the driving in Car Course.  You play as Gonzo inside of a spaceship in this auto-scrolling side-view space shooter.  Use Left and Right on the D-pad to turn the ship in eight directions.  Press A to forward thrust in the direction you are facing.  To attack, press B.  Obstacles in this one include drifting rocks and satellites, as well as turrets and Space Dogs riding pods similar to your own.  There are electric barriers blocking pathways that you can shoot repeatedly to destroy.  Fuel canisters can be picked up to restore health, and saving Camilla grants you an extra life.  Be careful as you can shoot and destroy the powerups, losing out on those lives and health.  The scrolling in this one is very, very slow and it takes some time to clear.  This ride even ends in a boss fight.

The fourth level in this game is the Amazing Maze.  Fozzie will have to work his way through the maze, picking up prizes along the way culminating in the key.  Each screen is its own self-contained maze.  Prizes will appear one at a time at a random spot in the maze.  When you collect one, another item will appear somewhere else.  After collecting three prizes, you clear the screen and proceed to the next.  The order of these items is always a bow tie, a gift box, and … another bow tie.  Along the way you have to avoid various enemies that are wandering the maze.  Some levels have collectible weapons to distract the enemies such as bones, hearts, and banana bunches.  Once grabbed, press B to toss them forward.  You can only hold one weapon at a time, and they are thrown in a weird arc that makes them more difficult to use then they are worth.  This game goes on for such a long time but doesn’t get much more difficult.  The background color changes every few screens to help indicate some progress.  A little tip:  There are these larger enemies that blend in with the background that only walk periodically.  You can walk through them freely when they stop.

Seems fun but the scrolling is super slow.

When all four keys are collected, now you can choose the Dr. Grump stage from the menu.  In this final level, you control Kermit armed with a, uh, feather.  This is a platformer level.  Press Left or Right to walk, press B to jump, and A to wave your feather.  You can hold your feather high or low with Up or Down as well.  This stage might take a little getting used with the atypical B-button jumping.  Make your way to the right while avoiding fireballs, fire pits, flying bats, and other enemies.  You can grab these papers with a P on them, Miss Piggy’s lipstick, or her necklace to gain additional lives.  At some point in the level the ground runs out and you have to make jumps across gaps from brick to brick.  The feather does nothing to affect the enemies, so you have no line of defense and will need to dodge attacks as best you can.  The end of this stage is something special, which I’ll discuss at length shortly!

I never owned this game or even rented it or anything like that, but I have played it before.  A friend of mine had this game when we were kids and I remember playing it a few times.  I specifically remember the rafting level with Kermit, and when I played the game for this review the Amazing Maze jogged my memory too.  For some reason, I felt pretty confident that I had beaten this game back then, but knowing what I know now, I don’t think there was any chance I could have beaten it.  For collectors, this cart isn’t common but also pretty inexpensive, totaling around $10 for a loose copy.

We need to talk about the end of the final stage, as it took this game from a 2/10 difficulty to a 5/10 pretty swiftly.  Avert your gaze for a couple of paragraphs if you don’t want to be spoiled.  You only need a couple of tries at the other stages to get the feel for them, but the final stage, one part in particular, took many, many tries to figure out.  The sad thing is that it’s not even the final boss, but the boss right before that.  Enter the Grumpasaurus, your worst nightmare.  This fight begins on a row of tiny ledges, so right there we are off to a hot start.  The idea here is you need to tickle him with the feather to push him back all the way so he falls off and you can continue.  The problem is how exactly you need to hit him.  Even though the feather is tiny, there really seems to be no way to do anything at all at first.  The Grumpasaurus periodically punches, knocking you backward when he connects, and then creeps forward toward the left side of the screen.  A punch is pretty likely to knock you down, and either way he gets to move forward making your task that much more difficult.  This is where I lost all my lives on several attempts.  There are no continues in this game, so back to start I went, again and again.

The enemies are kind of dumb, just keep your distance.

Of course, I did figure out the trick, and once I did I was able to send him on his merry way.  Not easily, mind you, but it was manageable at least.  The trick to the fight is that the Grumpasaurus has a weak point – his armpit.  You need to tickle him there when his arm is outstretched, leaving that weak spot open.  It seems counterintuitive as he already has to be in his attacking position before you can push back.  What I did was jumped up and dragged the feather across his body on the way down, timing the feather to his punch.  When you connect you should move forward since his next move after the knockback is to push forward himself.  With the gaps between the blocks, sometimes you have to push him twice before you can safely hop to the next stone.  After several properly timed tickles, you’ll take down the Grumpasaurus and move on to the real final boss, Dr. Grump.  This fight is much easier.  You now toss these hearts up into the air, and the idea is to drop them on Dr. Grump’s head.  He blocks the heart if it is moving upward, and if you throw it too high it despawns.  He tosses bombs out at you and walks back and forth on his ledges.  The fight is easier than it sounds, and then at last this game is over.

I wrote about the speedrun for Ulitma: Exodus in my last review and I’d like to carry that idea into this review and all others going forward.  The leaderboard for this game is only 6 runs long and most of those were completed years ago.  The current World Record for the game is 26:45 by Apollo22237.  There’s nothing too fancy about the run for this; it is a straight run through the game.  The runner chose Car Course first, then Space Race, then Amazing Maze, and finally the River Ride.  I see why Car Course was chosen first as that has the most that could go wrong in it with all the bouncing around.  Watching the run reminded me of how slow and long the Space Race is, taking up almost 10 minutes by itself.  The Amazing Maze feels longer but it isn’t, at least when done fast.  One thing I really like about the run is that there’s a quick kill on Grumpasaurus where you can both get knocked off with one tickle.  Thankfully it counts.  A fair tradeoff if you ask me!

Muppet Adventure: Chaos at the Carnival is not a great game overall.  The graphics are plain and kind of murky in some spots, but at least you can tell who the primary characters are.  The music is unremarkable.  One or two of the songs are catchy enough, the rest are kinda drab and feel too dark for a game that takes place at a carnival.  The controls are quite good, everything operates like it should for each game.  I would have done away with the B button jumping in the final stage, and turning corners in the Amazing Maze can be a tad slippery.  The gameplay is where this game really suffers.  While you have variety in the stages, and they control well, the level design is nothing special and some of the levels drag on too long.  There are lots of repeated patterns in the Car Course, unbearably slow autoscrolling in the Space Race, and screen after screen after screen in the Amazing Maze.  This game is pretty easy and you get a bunch of lives, and then the Grumpasaurus boss is so unfair that it ends up undoing all of the time you put to get there.  I really didn’t like playing 30 minutes at a time of tedious gameplay just to fail at the boss and have to restart.  I would much rather have had an easy game and not have much to say about it instead of writing up this long review just to complain about how boring it is. But I suppose that’s what I signed up for when I decided to Take On The NES Library.  Muppet Adventure is a below average game, fully playable, but mostly boring.  The Muppets deserved better.

#172 – Muppet Adventure: Chaos at the Carnival


#171 – Ultima: Exodus

The Ultima journey on NES begins here!

The long journey awaits!

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 11/27/20 – 4/7/21
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 9/10
My Video: Ultima: Exodus Longplay Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

So needless to say, this is a big one for me.  If you were following my journey through this game on my Twitch channel, you certainly saw all of the blood, sweat, and tears I went through to beat this game.  The Ultima series has been a total blind spot in my gaming knowledge.  Dragon Warrior was the gateway game for me to get interested in RPGs, but Ultima is an older series with more vintage sensibilities, particularly the earlier entries on home computers.  I’ve never been a Dungeons and Dragons guy either, so these kinds of games, while historically important, don’t sit with my interests.  But I knew all along of the three NES Ultima games and, perhaps surprisingly, I was looking forward to getting to know this series better.  It ended up being way more than I bargained for.

The Ultima series of games is the brainchild of Richard Garriott, who first got into computers through a programming class in his high school.  He and a friend convinced the school to let them do a 3-year self-study program, giving him access to the school’s Teletype machine where he eventually wrote 28 fantasy computer games while a student.  After high school he worked at a computer store and got to see an Apple II, and he immediately latched onto it and made a new graphical computer game he called Alakabeth.  The store owner convinced him to sell copies of his game inside the store.  At first, he only sold 5 copies of the game, but one of them made its way to a company called California Pacific who quickly sent Garriott plane tickets, and he signed a contract with the company to sell his game through them.  Alakabeth sold 30,000 copies and Garriott received $5 per copy, making him rather wealthy very quickly.  From there he started to develop the Ultima series.

The main Ultima series consists of 9 numbered games, neatly broken up story-wise into 3 trilogies.  Ultima I came out in 1981 and Ultima IX was released in 1999.  The series originally started on the Apple II but quickly found ports to other home computers, and naturally to more modern platforms for the later releases.  There were 3 NES Ultima games: Ultima III: Exodus, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, and Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny, only with the numerals removed.  Ultima: Exodus was first released on Apple II in 1983, and then was ported to various other computers throughout the 1980s.  The NES version was first a Famicom release in October 1987, published by Pony Canyon.  The US release waited until February 1989, published by FCI.  The original game was developed by Richard Garriott under his new publisher group Origin Systems, while the Famicom/NES port was done by Newtopia Planning.  During research I also saw the group Softhans listed as a developer, but the relationship between the two developers is unclear.  Perhaps both groups are the same group, I don’t know.

Build many characters to find the ones right for you!

This was my first time playing through Ultima: Exodus and my first Ultima game ever.  This game must have sold well back at release because I had a copy of this one in my childhood collection probably from a yard sale.  I remember popping the game in once or twice and completely rolling off of it right away.  No way I was getting anywhere in this game as a kid without the manual.  I have had quite a few copies of this one while collecting, pretty much all of them in good shape, and all have been resold already.  I even have the box and manual.  This has typically been a $5-$10 cart, and now that NES game prices have been on the rise again, currently it is sitting at a crisp $12 price.

I’m deviating a little bit from my normal review format for this one.  I feel the best way to write up my review of this game is to hit the main points and features in the same order that I experienced them on my own.  Ultima: Exodus was significantly more challenging than I expected and my route to the ending was very, very long, clocking in at over 50 hours.  You’ll come to see a lot of that length was my own doing; I could beat this game much faster in another playthrough if I desired, now that I know what to do and how this game works.  But a lot of the long duration had to do with the complicated systems at play and how that works with the world itself.  Another thing: this review is going to contain spoilers of all kinds.  I’m leaving few stones unturned here, if any.  If you have not played this game before and have any interest in trying it out for yourself, then this review is not for you.  Otherwise, we are about to take another very long journey together, and there’s a spot in the party just for you.

Ultima: Exodus takes place in the land of Sosaria.  Under the rule of Lord British, there have been major attacks in this land before.  In the first Ultima game, a great warrior defeated the magician named Mondain.  In Ultima II, the villain Minax was thwarted by yet another hero.  After some more years of peace, there is a small island that is experiencing volcanic activity.  There is evil on that island that is known as Exodus, and indeed both Mondain and Minax have cast a spell on that island.  This time Lord British summons four heroes to band together to take on the threat and restore peace once again.

Before you start the game proper, you’ll need to build a party of four.  After you create your save file, go to the Create menu, then select Create again.  You can choose to use either pre-built characters or ones you can create from scratch.  I went the scratch route to get the builds I wanted, and before I booted up the game for the first time, I researched exactly what character builds I thought would help me the most.  For each character, you’ll have to pick both a race and a job.  There are five races in the game: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Bobit, and Fuzzy, and eleven professions: Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Thief, Paladin, Barbarian, Lark, Illusionist, Druid, Alchemist, and Ranger.  You can mix and match as you like.  For each character, you can choose their race and profession, a four character name, and distribution of stat points to either Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Wisdom.  You can assign 50 points total and up to 25 per stat to start.  You can create up to 20 characters per save file but you can only use four on the field during play.  If you don’t want to go through the hassle of creating characters, you can select from ready-made ones.  Just name them and add them to your party.

Behold! This rare cutscene

The manual describes which races and professions have which benefits.  Races determine how many ability points you can assign at max to Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Wisdom.  Professions determine what kind of weapons and armor you can use, as well as what kind of spells you can cast, how much MP you have to cast them, and general dexterity ratings.  My thinking in building a party was to have one character be able to max out one of each of the four stats, so everything was covered.  We’ll get into this more a bit later, but there are two magic systems in this game.  Intelligence is related to Magic Power, and Wisdom is connected to Will Power.  Creating a Fuzzy Wizard and a Bobit Cleric let me have max MP for each magic system plus access to every spell in the game.  The Dwarf Fighter gives me max strength and access to any weapon or sword, so that seemed like a good fit.  I thought the best Dexterity class was Wizard, but I already had a Wizard, so I decided to create an Elf Druid so I could have access to some of both Magic Power and Will Power spells.  (I learned recently the manual has a typo and that the Thief class holds the best Dexterity, which logically makes sense.)  With that, this was my party: JP the Elf Druid, Smash the Dwarf Fighter, Willa the Bobit Cleric, and Wiz the Fuzzy Wizard.

The game begins with a small scene of Lord British sending you forth, and from there you immediately go to the overworld map.  You start off next to both a castle and a town.  There may be enemies visible on the map as well.  If you don’t press anything for a bit, a pop up box will display some stats.  The pop up looks pretty cluttered at first.  There are three lines of stats for each of the four characters.  The first line is the character’s name followed by four letters.  Each letter represents, in order, health status, sex, race, and profession.  For instance, my lead character JP is GMED, which means good health, male, Elf, and Druid.  The next line is hit points and magic points, denoted by ‘H’ and ‘M’ respectively.  The third line is food denoted by ‘F’, and an ‘L’ for experience level.

I decided to check out the town first, known as Royal Town.  Of course, in any RPG there are plenty of people to speak with.  Many towns have similar amenities.  Royal Town features a pub, armory, weapon shop, and a grocery store.  The pub just has people to talk to and you can buy a drink for a few gold pieces.  After purchasing a few drinks, the bartender will give you a more helpful hint.  At the armory and weapon shop, you can buy armor and weapons for your characters.  You’ll need to equip them through the Status command, not incredibly intuitive.  You’ll be visiting the grocery store a lot.  As you explore you will slowly consume food, and when you run out you start losing HP instead.  Each character holds their own gold and food, but with the Food command in the menu you’ll split all the food evenly across the entire party.

Next, I explored the Castle, which has some more special locations.  Lord British sits in the throne room.  He can raise your level when you have enough experience.  There is an Inn here, which is where you save your game.  There is also a hospital in the castle.  Here you can cure both poison and colds for a small fee, as well as resurrect your character for a higher fee.  You also have the option to give blood which is interesting.  You exchange 100 HP for 30 gold.  Since gold can be tough to come by, this might be useful, if you have spare HP to give.  You only have 150 maximum HP to start, and it’s important to say here in advance that your healing options are very limited.  There’s no place you can go to sleep to restore all your party’s HP like in other game; the inn is for saving only.

Townspeople speak wisdom; you need food to survive.

Before we go much deeper, let’s talk about the menu.  Press A while on the field or in a town to bring up the menu.  Use the D-pad to navigate the menu, press A to confirm, and press B to go back.  There’s a second page to the menu that you can see by pressing Select.  Let’s go over the options.  You can talk to people with the Talk command.  Cast spells with the Magic command.  Many commands like Magic will prompt you for a character first.  If they can cast both kinds of spells you’ll select which set next, then choose the spell.  Fight lets you pick a fight with any monster or person you want, though you really want to restrict that to just monsters.  Status brings up the screen with your stats, experience, and money, and you can also choose a character here to equip both weapons and armor.  Tools gives you access to certain items you buy in shops.  Give and Get let you give an item to someone or take an item respectively.  Climb is reserved for the dungeons.  The Food command splits all the food evenly across your party.  Gold lets you swap gold between characters, either 10, 100, or 1000 gold pieces at a time.  Horse lets you get on and off your horses, which you do not start the game with.  Finally, Order lets you change the turn order of your four-person team.  There are also special commands that can be earned as you play.

With all this in mind, it’s time to start fighting.  Find an enemy on the overworld and either choose the Fight command or let them fight you on their own as they approach, it doesn’t matter.  The view switches over to the top-down battle screen.  Combat is grid-based as you’ll see both you and the enemy take initial alignments.  One at a time your characters will blink signifying their turn.  You can either move the character one square with the D-pad or perform one of the commands.  You can Fight an adjacent enemy, use Magic, or one of your Tools.  To fight, after you choose the command you use the D-pad to determine which way to attack.  You’ll do a melee attack if you are right next to the enemy, or fire a ranged attack if you have the proper weapon for that.  Some weapons like the dagger can be thrown just once, but then you are without a weapon and can only fight bare-handed.  If you press B at any time, you’ll forfeit that character’s turn and just stand still.  There’s no way to undo any menuing in battle, even part way.  Sometimes taking no action is the proper strategy, but it’s a shame you can’t change your mind and move the character once you’ve committed to attacking or a spell.  There’s also no option to run from battle, and enemies always start pretty far away so that it takes a few turns to approach the enemy if you have no ranged weapons.  Once you command all characters then each enemy will have a turn in the same fashion.

For the start of the game, I approached it much like I would any RPG.  I got some fights under my belt and gained some experience.  There are some spells that help immensely.  All spells from either the magic or will power systems are available from the start, provided you have enough MP to cast them.  With my two casters at 25 max MP, I get access to six spells each.  Two of those spells target certain sets of early game enemies, and best of all they cost 0 MP to use.  Undead and Repel both have a high frequency of failure, but when it hits it wipes out most or all of the enemies.  Enemies drop a chest on the overworld that you can open for gold.  Much of the time those chests are also booby trapped either dealing damage to you or giving you a cold or poison, in addition to the money inside.  My cleric had an Open spell that can disarm the chest for you.  It took me a bit before figuring that out.  In the meantime, after a particularly rough battle, I opened the chest only for it to be a trap chest that ended up wiping out my entire party.  Only the lead character gets revived.

Needless to say, this is where things went completely downhill for me.  To revive a character, you either need powerful magic or a chunk of gold.  The hospital can resurrect a character for 500 gold, which works roughly half the time.  If it doesn’t work, then your character turns to ash.  To fix that, you have to find a temple where you can be revived for an additional 900 gold.  Not only that, but any equipment you had also gets nuked if you turn to ash.  I tried to go that route and realized it was too steep of a cost to bother.  What I ended up doing was deleting those characters and starting over.  Each new character gets 100 gold in their pocket for free.  You can exploit this by creating new characters, giving their gold to a permanent character, resetting the game, deleting the broke characters, and repeating this over and over again for as much money as you want.  I thought about it but ultimately decided to go about it more honestly.

This is an incredibly tough encounter for the early game.

Along the way here, I inadvertently made the most critical error of the entire game.  My lead character JP got enough experience to level up, so I visited the king and got him to Level 5.  The only thing leveling up does for you is increase your max HP by 100 per level.  It doesn’t affect your stats in any way like I had hoped.  You also cannot level up beyond Level 5 initially.  But there’s another more sinister side effect here: the enemies level up with you.  Once someone reaches Level 3, more difficult enemy groups appear, and even harder groups appear at Level 5.  These enemies are immune to the Undead and Repel spells and have significantly more HP.  I did not realize what I did for a very long time and once I understood what had happened, I didn’t feel like starting the game over.  One enemy group in particular, Demons, gave me serious trouble because they can attack any character at long range, and my party makeup only allowed for one character wielding a long range weapon.  I could maybe survive with everyone alive at Level 5 with max HP, but it was hardly worth it.  Stronger enemies give more experience but the same amount of gold, and at this point, experience wasn’t doing me any good.

I eventually got everyone to Level 5 but stalled out from there.  I hit up a few more towns that I found around the map.  Some of them have guild shops where you can buy items.  You can buy a set of 5 torches for lighting up the dungeons.  Magic Keys open doors you find out and about.  The gem lets you view the map for a one-time use, can be pretty handy.  The Sands freeze enemies in battle for several turns, letting you get the upper hand.  The tent restores 100 HP per party member when used.  Aside from the keys, you can perform all these same actions with spells.  You can find stables and purchase horses for your team.  On horseback you can take steps faster than your enemies helping you avoid conflict, though I did not find them until much later in my playthrough.  Also, some of the hospitals let you pay 200 gold to completely restore the health of a party member, something that I also didn’t realize until almost the end of the game.  I mostly performed healing through the simple Heal spell over and over.  One good thing is that on the overworld you restore 1 MP per character per step, which helps immensely over the course of the game.

The information in the towns didn’t really yield anything directly helpful to me, so I was in a rut for a while.  I got out of it by acquiring a ship!  At some point in the adventure, enemies in ships hug the coastline.  If you approach the boat, then you’ll have to fight Pirates, but if you win the ship becomes yours to travel as you please.  You can move the boat in any open water including rivers.  The wind can slow you down or boost you considerably, depending on the direction it is blowing.  When not paying attention to the wind, it feels like erratic movement.  Taking to the water, I realized that the map was a lot smaller than I first thought.  I entered a few new towns and tinkered a little with some of the dungeons I found.  The dungeons felt too difficult and you don’t regen MP as quickly when walking inside, so I was discouraged from that.  Eventually, I stumbled willingly into this whirlpool I occasionally saw, and from there things finally started to improve for me.

The whirlpool transported me to the land of Ambrosia, a completely different world map than where I started.  To the south I could see the same whirlpool I rode in on, but I had no ship to get back there.  I explored around the best I could.  I didn’t mention this yet but the overworld maps and towns have line of sight functionality where you cannot see the other side of solid or dense tiles.  Trees in particular block your view to where you are practically walking in the dark even though you can pass through.  So there were lots of hidden paths that took some exploring to figure out.  The southwest corner of the map also had enemy encounters that you couldn’t see until you are right next to them, which caused me issues when demons showed up.  I eventually found my way along the western edge of the map where I found the Shrine of Strength.  I spoke to the man there who asked for 100 gold as an offering.  Figuring that this was my chance I just threw a bunch of gold at him not really knowing what I was doing.  Once I opened the menu I figured it out.  Every 100 gold I spent there increased my Strength stat by 1 point for the character that spent the money.  Now each character has a maximum stat value and the game will let you overspend gold without any increase, but fortunately I didn’t suffer from that at all.

Discover the shrines where you power up your characters.

So finally, I had my plan.  I would search out the other shrines.  I would max out Wisdom first for my Cleric to get the best healing spells.  Next, I would max out Intelligence for my Wizard to get the best battle magic.  Then I would max out Strength for everyone and finally Dexterity for my Druid.  This would take a very long time grinding, particularly when trying to battle only the weak enemies since gold chests hold the same amount of money no matter which enemies you defeat.  All that is fine and good, but now I need to figure out how to get out of here.  That southwestern path with the enemies leads to a ship that you must take over and sail over to the whirlpool.  You’ll have to battle the Pirates to win the ship, which was straightforward enough.  You also must avoid the man-o-war enemy that patrols the water.  Getting into a battle with them on the ship is almost certain death, but if you can get out you go back to Sosaria and can continue on from there.

The next step after a very long period of grinding gold and boosting stats was to start tackling the dungeons full on.  The dungeons in this game all have similar characteristics.  First of all, they are in first-person perspective.  They are pitch black, requiring either a torch or some magic spell to light the way.  Torches and spells will fade, and sometimes torches get snuffed out through wind, so plan accordingly.  Enemy encounters are random and here you cannot see what enemies you are fighting before the battle.  Each dungeon in the game is eight levels deep and you traverse the floors with ladders using the Climb command.  You can find treasure boxes on the ground in the dungeons.  There are also fountains in the dungeons.  All look alike but can have different functions.  Some cure poison while others cause poison.  Some fountains deal damage to you, and others restore your health to the max.  You can also step on traps that damage you or encounter gremlins that steal food from you.  Dungeons also have doors.  Some of them are visible and others just look like normal walls, but you can walk freely through both.  This makes dungeon exploration very tedious and it’s easy to miss things.  One good thing is that with either the gem item or the appropriate magic, you can view a map of the current dungeon floor.  I did not know this until I started writing this review, and wow that would have been incredibly handy to know.

One of the main purposes of searching the dungeons is to locate the four marks.  They are the Mark of Kings, Mark of Fire, Mark of Force, and Mark of Snake.  Each one unlocks something in the game.  The Mark of Kings lets you level up beyond Level 5 up to Level 25.  The Mark of Fire lets you walk safely on fire tiles.  The Mark of Force lets you pass through these blue barrier tiles safely.  The Mark of Snake is for moving a giant snake out of the way.  I forgot to mention that there’s an island on the map guarded by a giant snake that you might see relatively early in the adventure.

There is a bit of a trick I figured out to finding these marks in the dungeons.  Through repeated attempts of making dungeon dives I realized most of the dungeon floors themselves are irrelevant.  Sure, you might find money chests in there, but for the most part nothing else.  The good stuff is always in the bottom floor of the dungeon.  Once I got all the spells enabled, this became a lot easier.  The Cleric has the Rise and Sink spells, and the Wizard has the Descend and Ascend spells that allow you to warp up and down floors without needing a ladder.  At the bottom floor, you can also use the Cleric’s Move spell or the Wizard’s Trans spell to teleport to a random location on the same floor, which is handy when parts of the floor are only accessible by certain ladders.  Of course, having full magic is helpful for the bottom floors where the strongest monsters live, regardless of your current experience level.  Anyway, there are six dungeons in the game and it’s a race to the bottom in each one to see what you can find down there.  It’s a good idea to get the map so that you have some idea of where to look for things when you make it to the bottom. Some of the marks can also be found on higher floors, but this is much more uncommon and mostly down to luck if you don’t already know where to find them.  I originally found the Mark of Kings in the 2nd floor of a dungeon, sparing me a deeper trip for that mark.

First person dungeons are tough without proper maps.

Another mystery I solved on my own has to do with the phases of the moon.  There are these gates that appear off and on around the map.  You can step in them freely and they teleport you around the map.  There are some places only reachable through these gates.  Now I had seen the gates and stepped through them when I saw them, but it took me until deep into the game before I figured out how they work.  Near the wind indicator, there are two moons that change phase after so many steps.  Each phase of the moon represents a location on the map.  The first moon means which gate is open, and the second moon indicates where the gate leads.  By taking gates and waiting for them to open up, I matched up all the entrances and exits.  The second moon changes at twice the speed of the first, meaning that every gate can take you to one of two locations depending on when you enter.

Something else I figured out on my own very late was the mystery city of Dawn.  I had received a hint somewhere saying “Dawn appears when two new moons.”  You would think during a few months of playing that I would have seen it somewhere.  Well, it turns out Dawn is hidden in the woods where you can’t see, and it indeed only appears when both moons are new moons.   I had a hunch to check out the forest south of the castle and I nearly stumbled into it right as it appeared.  This town has all the amenities you would want.  In particular, the weapon shop contains unique weapons that can only be purchased here.  Dawn is accessible from the very beginning if you know where to look, and it’s close to the starting location.

As you may know, I am a father of two kids with a full time job and I have all the responsibilities that come with that.  I also have a very strong desire of figuring things out on my own in these games, and naturally those two things clash.  I am really proud of what I was able to figure out on my own, even if I did many, many things the hard way.  After over four months and 50 hours of playing the game, it was time to move on, and so I took every direct hint imaginable to get me to the end of this game.  It was not a completely spoiler free playthrough, but at least I have my sanity and my time back.  I have no qualms and no regrets about that.

The first thing I knew I was missing was the Mark of Snake.  I was pretty sure I had explored the bottom of all the dungeons but I missed this mark altogether.  Friends in Twitch chat helped lead me right to the mark I had missed, so that was covered.  Now I could use the Silver Horn I found to move the snake and head right into Exodus, the end of the game.  But once I got inside and got into my first battle there, I could do no damage at all to the enemies.  There was something else I was missing, actually two things, the Mystic Sword and Mystic Armor.  There are two items, the Silver Pick and the Gold Pick, that you use to dig up the Sword and Armor on the overworld.  I had found the Silver Pick in one of the dungeons but was missing the Gold Pick.  To get that, you have to steal it from the Guild in Dawn.  Just reach over the counter with the Get command to grab it.  Now guards will appear in town and you really want to get out of town right away without engaging them in battle.  There are two tiles on very small overworld islands where you use the picks to dig up the Mystic equipment.  I am not sure how you are supposed to figure all that out with just the in-game hints.  You can keep digging up swords and armor so that everyone can get one, and they are equippable by every character.  The final things I needed were the four cards.  I can’t remember if I figured this out on my own or not, most likely I needed a gentle hint in the right direction.  You have to visit each of the shrines in Ambrosia and use the Pray command (that you have to discover separately in-game) to get a card.  There is a Time Lord in the bottom of one of the dungeons who tells you the order of the four cards which is needed later.

Giant enemies like this startled me the first time!

Finally, we have reached the end of the game.  It’s time to take on Exodus!  The final castle is a winding maze of corridors with strong dragon enemies all over the place.  It is possible to pass around some of them, but you’ll need to fight through many of them.  Thankfully with the Mystic equipment you can damage them now.  Upon reaching the final corridor, I ran into an unexpected encounter with the floor, yes, the floor.  These are invisible enemies which pose a different kind of challenge.  The idea is you try and walk around and if you can’t move then you know its right in front of you and you can bash away.  You’ll need to fight a minimum of two encounters against these floor tiles.  At the very top, it looks like nothing’s there.  You must use the Pray command here to awaken Exodus.  You will now place the four cards in the proper order to disable Exodus, but we aren’t quite done yet.  The castle begins to collapse and you need to escape.  This scene was legit frightening as rocks and debris begin appearing on the path and the whole screen is shaking.  It is very possible to get blocked off completely in which case everyone dies and you have to start over.  I ended up going out a completely different way than how I entered, which I was told was VERY ill-advised.  I even took a dead end or two by mistake, but somehow I got out of the castle intact and I beat the game.  Whew, what a ride!  The finale there took me completely by surprise and it was very intense.  It is now one of my very favorite NES memories and such a neat way to end this long adventure.

I have just a few loose ends to tie up before I wrap this very long review.  I mentioned earlier that this game is considered a remake of the original version as many things were tweaked, changed, or added.  Some of the more notable additions include the following: the game can only be saved at the inn, the cold status effect was added, the give blood option was added to some hospitals, simple gambling casinos are available in some towns, the ship is allowed to slowly move against the wind, the gold and silver pick quests for the Mystic equipment were added, and the ending escape sequence was added.  Much of the dialog and hints were changed from the original version as well.  There’s one more thing that I completely missed that is new in this version.  In Ambrosia you can pluck these flowers and exchange them with Sherry in the Royal City for Compass Hearts.  You can use a Compass Heart to return directly to the castle from anywhere, including Ambrosia, the dungeons, or even in battle.  You can do this sequence for as many Compass Hearts as you want, but each character can only hold one at a time.  I suppose I either missed this flower entirely or just didn’t know you could grab it.

I also want to call attention to the speedrun of this game.  It takes advantage of manipulating the randomness in the game to skip over the majority of the content.  Here’s how it works.  The game has to be played a specific way with specific movements to set up the random number generator to give favorable results.  There is a particular moon gate that can drop you off on the inside of the island where Exodus is located.  Normally you need the ship and the quest items to move the snake and reach the castle, but with the proper manipulations, the enemy ship will spawn within the waters between Exodus and the snake.  You can then fight for the ship and sail on into the castle without removing the snake.  Even better, once you reach all the way inside to Exodus in this way, the game assumes that you have already collected the cards so you don’t have to bother rounding them up either.  Pretty nifty way to beat the game in under 30 minutes.  The World Record is currently 24:27 by Yogidamonk and I recommend watching it for the meticulous setup required to win so quickly.

Ultima: Exodus was one of the most unexpectedly evil games in the NES library.  I have a pretty good handle on what games are going to pose a significant challenge.  While I don’t think Ultima: Exodus is going to show up on hardest game lists anywhere, its difficulty in hidden mechanics and plot elements made for a rough time.  The graphics are simple but effective.  The music is surprisingly catchy.  Considering I had to hear it for so long and didn’t get bored of it, aside from the battle theme’s short loop, that is a testament to its strength.  The controls I had some issues with, particularly not having a back button for some combat decisions.  Sailing is cumbersome too as the wind really staggers your navigation, which is annoying in grid-based movement.  The gameplay is perfectly fine, but some design decisions really allowed me to dig a massive hole for myself.  Not having some RPG amenities that I’m used to, like easy healing options, compounded the problem.  This is a solid game for sure.  If you can work around the issues I mentioned or just know how to play the game better, there’s plenty of fun here.  I’ll be happy to avoid any more 50+ hour games for quite some time now.

#171 – Ultima: Exodus


Happy 6th Anniversary!

Today is the six-year anniversary for Take On The NES Library!

The obvious theme for this year is that things have slowed way down – and I mean way down – but I’m still at it and I haven’t given up.  Nor do I plan to!  Just like last year, this should have been a year of great progress when in fact it was by far my slowest year to date, for a number of reasons that should be made very clear and very quickly.  Let’s look at the numbers year over year.

Year Beaten Total Beaten Yearly Average Days/Game End Date Average Difficulty
1 38 38 38 9.6 7/14/2033 5.5000
2 24 62 31 11.8 6/27/2037 5.4355
3 43 105 35 10.4 1/5/2035 5.3238
4 35 140 35 10.4 1/3/2035 5.3286
5 30 170 34 10.7 7/30/2035 5.2118 *
6 11 181 30.17 12.1 1/27/2038 5.2155

* This changed from last year because I must have amended some difficulty ratings.

That’s definitely a steep decline, isn’t it?

The same problems that plagued me last year are still present, and I suspect they will for the next few years at least.  While streaming on Twitch has been great fun, it has cut into the time I would normally have spent playing, and also changes how I play games, to some extent.  Requiring recordings of full games is the way to go moving forward, but the computer setup and video editing and all that stuff takes up more time.  My writing has also suffered as I’m now a full year behind on blogs, but that’s more of a motivation thing.  (Don’t worry I am still going to write up every game, however long it takes.)  All that said, the real reason for the slow output is all in the specific games I played.

Year 6 has been bookended by two very long games.  Ultima: Exodus overtook Ikari Warriors as my longest game in terms of days from start to finish, spanning close to 4 ½ months from Thanksgiving to early April.  I spent over 50 hours in gameplay time to beat it, mostly grinding enemies and trying my best to understand exactly how the game works.  It definitely surprised me in how long it took to clear it, and I still needed direct tips from Twitch chat to finish it off.  On the other, current end, I am nearing the end of a long season in Bases Loaded 4.  There’s nothing I can do there but grind it out until it’s over.  Even playing a lot of it offline, it still progresses slowly, mostly because I only bother setting everything up if I’m going to have at least an hour to play.  Now I did get involved in some other stuff that took up more free time, so it has been about four months since I started Bases Loaded 4.  Right there that is 2/3 of a year on just two NES games for this project.

The good news is that the middle four months of Year 6 is much more encouraging over the long term.  From mid-April through mid-July I finished 10 games.  That included some longer-than-average stints with The Uncanny X-Men and Lunar Pool.  10 games in a 3-month period are in line with some of my more prolific stretches in beating NES games.  That gives me hope for making better progress next year and beyond.  It really comes down to the random selections of the games.  There are plenty of long games left on the list that could come up at any time, or I might get a long stretch of shorter games and make a ton of visible progress.  I think I am going to stop setting short-term goals for myself on this project, aside from the overarching goal of just sticking with it.  This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I don’t care if I come in last place as long as I finish.

There were some special events and other activities that have taken up my free time.  In February I learned the speedrun to Rush ‘n Attack as part of an event in the Salsa Shack Discord and I spent a couple of weeks doing runs of that game.  The biggest thing for me was I got involved in a Dragon Warrior Randomizer tournament in late summer.  I streamed weekly races for about a couple of months.  I did really well too, finishing 3-2 in the first five rounds and losing in the subsequent brackets in the first round to the eventual tournament winner.  I think that is something I will remain involved with in the future.  In fact, I have been playing Dragon Warrior Randomizer regularly since the tournament because it’s fun to play.  I have also messed around with Earthbound randomizers which are extremely fun as well.  I’ve gotten hooked on some Switch games too.  I dedicated time to both Bowser’s Fury and Metroid Dread when they came out and I have sunk over 50 hours into Dicey Dungeons.  There is always time for modern gaming.

In a programming note, I have decided to discontinue the Year in Review articles I previously wrote.  They took a lot of time to put together that could be better spent elsewhere.  This year would have been a weird one to write up with so few games finished, plus I have just now gotten to the point where I would have written the article covering last year’s games.  Instead, I think it makes sense to use this space to cover some remarkable feats or surprises that happened over the last year of playing.  It will be brief, but I’ll do that now:

  • The ending sequence of Ultima: Exodus was one of the most unexpected things I’ve seen in an NES game to date.  It was incredible.
  • Bases Loaded 3 surprised me when I finished the game in one sitting.  The Bases Loaded series traditionally requires a full season of play, but the third game has a unique rating system and you have to get a perfect score against the highest level team to secure the victory.  I was able to beat it in only three games.
  • I think my playthrough of Lunar Pool was the most impressive feat I accomplished.  You need to learn how to clear some specific stages well while also mastering the feel of the game to win all 60 levels in a row.
  • The Uncanny X-Men might be the worst NES I’ve played through so far.  Truly miserable.

That about wraps it up for this year’s reflections post.  While I’m not surprised that I’m still plugging away at this, six years of this is starting to feel weighty and significant.  Such a long way to go, but I’ve come so far too.  I look at my shelf of games daily seeing plenty of exciting games left to play and probably some more gems and surprises buried in there too.  It keeps me going, definitely.  Thanks for reading!

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#170 – Flight of the Intruder

A very long flight.

I have no idea what this is supposed to look like.

To Beat: Reach the ending
What I Did: Cleared every mission with 2nd highest rank overall
Played: 11/8/20 – 11/17/20
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
My Video: Flight of the Intruder Longplay

It seems at first that the NES is littered with flight-based games, the ones that take place either from inside the cockpit or just behind the plane, and you can fly around in 3D space with enemies approaching from all angles.  They must have been somewhat popular as none of them are rare games.  Despite that, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, these games are just not for me.  I attempted to count up how many games fit this description just to see where I stand at 170 games in.  I have counted about a dozen or so, and Flight of the Intruder is the 4th completion of the bunch.  We are spreading these out nicely!  The first two games of these I’ve played, Top Gun and Laser Invasion, are both high quality, twitch action Konami affairs, while F-117A Stealth Fighter took a more tactical approach.  It’s not all bad, but Flight of the Intruder is clearly the least enjoyable of these titles.  Let’s break it down and see what it has to offer.

Flight of the Intruder is a novel written by Stephen Coonts.  He had previously served as a naval aviator during the Vietnam War, and he used those experiences to begin writing a novel.  The book Flight of the Intruder was released in 1986, and the main character, Jake Grafton, would be the protagonist in many future books in the series.  Coonts has written dozens of books since then, up to the present day at the time of this writing.  Flight of the Intruder was adapted into a film in 1991, releasing to poor reviews and not making enough money at the box office to cover its $30 million budget.  A video game was also created in 1990, developed by Rowan Software for PCs.  Flight of the Intruder was released on the NES in May 1991, ported by Imagineering and published by Mindscape.  The game also came out in Europe under the name Phantom Air Mission, where it appears to be limited to only a release in Spain.  It is an extremely expensive game due to its rarity.

The plot of Flight of the Intruder, the novel and film, follows Jake Grafton throughout the Vietnam War.  The plot of the game as listed in the manual doesn’t include any of that story, opting for a more general take.  The only common bond is that both take place during Operation Linebacker in 1972 in Vietnam.  In the game, you play the role of an unnamed pilot who takes to the skies in both an F-4 Phantom and an A-6 Intruder across 12 missions throughout Vietnam around the timeline of Operation Linebacker.  Each mission in broken up into a series of waypoints that you will need to clear to complete your mission.

Just like Metroid, we start out going left.

Upon starting a game, the first thing you will come to is the Map Screen.  After receiving your mission briefing, you see the map zoomed in and the next waypoint blinking.  This will indicate what kind of encounter you will have.  Sometimes you can press Select to skip to different waypoints, whatever the mission necessitates.  Press either Start or A to take on this waypoint.

The next screen is the Takeoff and Landing screen.  This takes place from a side view of the aircraft on the carrier, with the aircraft facing left.  After a short animation of the crew on the ground, it’s on you get the plane off the ground.  Doing so is very easy, simply press and hold Left to increase thrust to 100% and you will automatically begin flying.  There are other points of data on the screen that are show during takeoff that only come into play when you are landing later on.

The starting waypoint in the game is one of the two main modes of action, the cockpit view.  From this first person perspective, you will dogfight with MiG 21 jets using your F-4 interceptor.  This game uses flight controls, meaning you press Up to fly downward and press Down to fly higher.  Left and Right bank your fighter in that direction.  The A button fires your weapons.  Your standard weapon is a machine gun.  You have unlimited ammo, but if you fire too much at once you will overheat and need to cool down a bit before you can fire more.  The Select button can switch between your machine gun and missiles.  The missiles have very limited ammo but are radar guided and will home in on the enemy.  You will need to get an enemy in your sights and lock on before you can get them with the missile.  The B button is used to adjust the thrust of the aircraft.  Hold B, then press Up to increase thrust or Down to decrease thrust.

There are all sort of instruments and things on screen.  The top half is your outside view through the window, where can see air, land, and approaching enemies and missiles.  In the center of that view are your crosshairs for aiming the machine gun.  Two numbers display on either side of that.  The left side value is your airspeed and the right display is your altitude gauge.  The lower half of the screen is the inside of the cockpit.  On the left you will see your thrust as a percentage.  Below that is the artificial horizon.  A circle is broken up into segments that are filled in to show the ground relative to your aircraft in the center of the circle.  For example, if you are flying straight and level, the bottom half will be filled in since the ground is below you, whereas if you are flying straight down the entire circle will be lit up to indicate you are flying directly toward the ground.  The center of the cockpit view is your radar that shows enemies as dots as they approach you.  The top half of the radar shows enemies in front of you that you could see above, and the bottom of the radar displays enemies behind you.  The right side is the message display that shows various information as you play.  When you switch weapons to missiles, the text display changes over to a missile indicator.  A triangle is drawn representing your ship along with small vertical lines to indicate each missile available.

Line em up, blast away, you know the drill.

The other gameplay view you have is in the bombing and strafing missions.  Here you see your A-6 Intruder from behind the aircraft.  Enemies will approach from the horizon as you fly overhead, and you are to blow up as many as possible.  The controls here are similar to the first person flying segments.  Use the D-pad with flying controls to steer, press A to fire air-to-ground missiles, and press B to shoot radar guided missiles.  The angle of your ship toward the ground determines where your bombs will land.  You have to compensate a bit for the time it takes for the bomb to strike.  There are no crosshairs for this mode, though the nearest target will highlight a bit on the approach and the hitboxes of the enemies are reasonably generous.  Much of the time these missions are just to fly through and survive, but some of them require you to defeat a primary target.  The mission itself will let you know.  If there’s   a primary target, the music will change a bit to indicate the upcoming targets are mandatory.  Fail to destroy them all and you will need to repeat a portion of the mission and approach again.

There’s other information on this screen you’ll need to understand.  The large number at the top is your score.  This carries over throughout the game, and it is also shown between missions.  There are three other numbers displayed in the row under the score.  The far left number is your strength value, essentially your hit points.  Enemy strikes deal multiple strength damage so avoidance is critical.  The center number is the DEFCON number.  Every target you let pass by subtracts one from the DEFCON number.  When it reaches 0, then any target that gets by will fire a guided surface-to-air (SAM) missile at you.  These are avoidable but are very dangerous and they deal a bunch of damage.  They often lead to more missed enemies and even more SAMs.  The far right number is how many missiles you have.  As you can imagine accuracy is important in these missions, and to that point there are certain targets in these missions that will restore a strength point when destroyed.  You want these if you hope to keep alive.  If strength is maxed out at 9, then it will restore a DEFCON point, and if that reaches 9 then an extra missile is added instead.  Furthermore, if you destroy all targets within a wave, each of those three will increase by one.  Nice!

Once the mission is over, it is important to land your fighter safely.  Landing takes place in the same side view as takeoff, only this time you need the measurements on display to help you land properly.  Left increases thrust and Right to lowers it.  A thrust value of 50% helps you maintain height, whereas higher numbers fly you upward and smaller numbers lower you.  The altitude shows how high you are, and the range shows how much farther to fly to reach the aircraft carrier.  The vertical velocity is important as you need to keep that value from going beyond -10 when landing to touch down safely.  To land, you will use the measurements and adjust thrust to lower your fighter and fly slowly down onto the aircraft carrier.  Press B to release your landing gear, you won’t get far without that.  You want to touch down as soon as you are overhead, then as you cross a series of four cables on the deck, press A to lower your hook to grab a cable and come to a complete stop.  If you don’t hook a cable, you will have to fly through and approach again.  I believe too many misses will cost you a life so make sure you don’t mess up too much.  The game also encourages you to grab the third cable with the hook as evidently that’s what the best pilots do and you are awarded more points that way.

Bombing runs require some calculated aiming.

This was my first time playing Flight of the Intruder, which is no surprise.  I barely remember putting this game into my console to test it prior to this.  I’m not entirely sure but I think someone gave me this game, like a “here I found this in my house you can have it” kind of find.  I might have the box and manual for this somewhere too.  This game isn’t very common but it’s affordable, coming it at around $12 or so for a loose cart.

I did not have an easy time with this game at the start.  The first mission is one of the first person missions and the combat feels a little bit slow and is hard to come to grasps with quickly.  Notably, the gun lags behind a bit, meaning you have to shoot in front of the enemy to hit it.  It’s probably realistic but is a bit frustrating to play.  The enemies also take quite a few hits to go down, and you’ll run out of missiles in the later missions which one-shot the enemies after you lock on.  There’s also fuel to worry about and if you take too long in a mission you’ll crash, which happened a lot later on in the game when there were more enemies.  I had to fly around a lot to try and get behind the enemy, while also avoiding their missiles, and it’s just a lot to handle under a time limit.

The good thing is I did come up with a strategy.  It almost feels like an exploit.  The trick is to fly sideways.  I turn 90 degrees to the right, lining up the horizon vertically in the center of the screen.  Then I just fly up the entire time.  This accomplishes a few things.  First, it keeps the enemies from getting behind me.  Second, when they end up in front, they tend to fly in the same direction attempting to get away and so they sit in front of you long enough to blast away and you can deal a ton of damage.  Third, if they fire a homing missile, it won’t hit me from behind because I’m constantly spinning, and for the ones in front, I’m either in good position to shoot them down or just keep flying up to dodge them.  It’s really the perfect strategy.  

Land softly, then hook the wire to stop.

The other gameplay modes I didn’t have much of a problem with.  Bombing runs are pretty straightforward even though they appear awkward initially.  You can tell by the animation frame of the fighter how low you will land your bombs, so it’s just a matter of learning the timing of aiming.  You will also need to swerve out of the way of enemy fire at the same time, but that sounds harder than it actually is.  At least after lots of practice.  Takeoff is super simple, and I eventually got the hang of landing pretty much every time.  Practice makes perfect, as they say.

The worst thing about this game is how long it is.  There are 12 missions in total, each one longer than the last.  And I mean longer in terms of both number of waypoints and number of targets in each waypoint.  The skirmishes themselves don’t get much more challenging, just more missiles and such to deal with.  It’s mostly more and more enemies to kill within the same time limits, fake difficulty at its finest.  My full playthrough covering every possible waypoint took nearly two and a half hours.  I didn’t realize you could skip sub-missions until after I had finished, and I wouldn’t have regardless, but two-plus hours of the same repeated gameplay is tedious, to say the least.  You only get a few lives and continues to get you through the game, but as long as the losses are occasional, you’ll be fine.  There is also a scoring system here complete with ranks for how many points you have scored across the missions.  I ended up with the Admiral rank, the second highest rank, despite completing every mission and sub-mission along the way.  I had 1,868,600 total points but needed 2,000,000 to get Fleet Admiral.  The scoring system is more nuanced than I would have expected and that is why I didn’t get the best rank.  It does not affect the ending in any way.

I would say this is a competent game that’s just not very fun.  Graphically, it looks okay.  There is good detail to the fighters in the landing and takeoff sequences.  The enemies you fight are distinct but kinda muddled looking.  The music is also just okay, filling up space.  There are no tunes during the first person areas, only the constant beeping of approaching homing missiles.  The other songs aren’t awful but not super catchy or fun either, probably because I got sick of them through the long play time.  The controls are responsive and easy to use, maybe a little bit cumbersome in first person but nothing too bad.  The gameplay is good enough, what you would expect out of a game like this, and there’s just a touch of variety along the way.  There’s nothing really bad here I would say, it’s just that this game is so boring.  It goes on way too long if you intend to see it through.  I play pretty late at night and I’m surprised I managed to stay awake during the entire game.  An hour of this would have been more manageable, and honestly still too long, but two and a half hours of this is just exhausting.  Hopefully this one ends up the worst of all the flight games.

#170 – Flight of the Intruder

#170 – Flight of the Intruder