Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



Big Delays (9/4/2020 Update)

It is all too soon, but here’s another one of these “where have I been” update posts. In short, I have fallen way behind on my writing again. I used to have several drafts written ahead of time and then polished them up with screenshots and everything just before posting so that I more easily stay on a regular schedule. Now I’m not even doing that like I used to. I have just barely started the next review. I think I am learning that I am not as excited about the writing as I used to be, at least in terms of getting motivated to get started. At the same time, I’ve come so far that I don’t want to give it up either. So I won’t quit! But things may still be slow for awhile as I struggle to get caught back up.

There are a few things I have been doing instead of writing blogs. The biggest thing is that I have been practicing for the Big 20 speedrun race. The fine folks at Best of NES have been putting on regular events for several years now. One is a speedrun marathon of all NES games, and the other is the Big 20. This is a speedrun race where contestants all run the same series of 20 NES games in a row. I have been very interested in these ever since I learned of them, and this was the best possible time for me to hop in and give it a try. The theme was Viewer’s Choice where NES games were voted on and the Top 20 made up the overall list. This means that virtually all the classic NES titles everyone loves is on this list. I had already beaten 17 of the 20 games so learning this list was going to be much easier for me than any other race they could have. I have kind of become obsessed with learning and practicing these games for the race, so that has been where the bulk of my time has gone. You can see the game list for the Big 20, and you can watch me speedrun these games on my Twitch channel on Saturday, 9/12 at noon CT. I am hoping for a four hour time in total, which will not be among the top racers but ought to be somewhat competent at the very least!

As far as NES completions go, I was splitting time between Big 20 practice and soldiering through Days of Thunder. Now until the race ends, I am suspending any more playtime on Days of Thunder. That game has been a struggle, to say the least. Racing games were never my strong suit anyway, and in some ways this one might be the hardest one so far. I am confident that I will beat the game, but I am not sure how much more effort or how many more attempts it will take. I say this will give me time to help get caught back up with writing, but we all know how that has turned out in the past. Maybe it will stick this time!

This year has been far from normal. I just hope I can get back to normal pace on my project here real soon, preferably long before the year is out. Once the Big 20 is over I expect that I will have more time to dedicate to the blog again. Thanks for reading and putting up with some of my new antics!

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#142 – Metal Gear

Get your cardboard box ready.

One of the most briefly shown title screens ever.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 12/14/19 – 12/27/19
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 7/10
My Video: Metal Gear Longplay

Metal Gear is one of those long beloved series in all of video games.  It didn’t really start out that way though.  It didn’t catch on until Metal Gear Solid came out on PlayStation, which in my opinion was the turning point for the series and elevated creator Hideo Kojima to auteur status.  While not normally my kind of game, I have played some of the Metal Gear Solid series.  Therefore, I came into Metal Gear on NES knowing the sensibilities of the Metal Gear series but not so much how to approach or play this particular entry.  How much of Metal Gear Solid and its ideas originated from earlier titles like this one?  I doubt I’ll be able to answer that question, but I can provide some background information and my thoughts on how this game played.

The first Metal Gear released on the MSX2 in Japan in July 1987.  It was developed and published by Konami and designed and directed by Hideo Kojima.  Metal Gear was quickly ported to Famicom for release in December 1987, and it reached the NES in North America in June 1988 and Europe in 1989.  The North American version was the first NES game Konami published under the Ultra Games label.

The overarching story of Metal Gear is already fairly well known, and the NES version does not differ much from it.  You play the role of Solid Snake, a fresh recruit of the special forces unit called FOXHOUND, who is sent on a special mission codenamed Intrude N313 by his commanding officer Big Boss.  FOXHOUND’s best agent, Gray Fox, was previously sent to a fortress near South Africa called Outer Heaven run by an evil dictator.  Gray Fox was to investigate Outer Heaven and neutralize any imminent threats found within, however, FOXHOUND lost contact of Gray Fox.  Solid Snake has been sent to find out what happened to Gray Fox.  I’m jumping ahead a bit, but a little while into the game you find out Outer Heaven is housing a weapon of mass destruction called Metal Gear, a walking tank capable of firing nuclear weapons from anywhere in the world.  Your mission then is to destroy Metal Gear.

It’s always important to have good communication.

Metal Gear, the game, is a top-down action-adventure game.  Solid Snake is controlled with the D-pad and he can move in four directions.  Press the B button to punch.  The A button fires weapons though you do not start out with any.  The Start button simply pauses the game, while the Select button brings up a selection menu.

The game begins with you being airdropped into the jungle.  Upon arriving you are immediately called via your transmitter as the word “CALL” is flashed at the bottom of the screen.  Press Select to bring up the menu, then choose “TRANS” to use your transmitter.  There you will automatically receive a message from Big Boss.  He gives you the frequency on the transmitter where you can reach him again if needed.  After the message is over you’ll hear this super-annoying horn sound.  At this time, you can tune the transmitter to help you send or receive messages.  Use Left and Right on the D-pad to scan through frequencies 120.00 through 120.99.  If someone is already trying to reach you, simply landing on the proper frequency will deliver the message automatically.  If you want to reach out yourself, tune the frequency and then press Up to switch to Send mode.  Solid Snake will call for help and in the right situation with the right frequency you will make contact and get a message back.  As you can imagine, using the transmitter is good for advancing the story and getting tips on forward progress.  When you are all done, press Select to go back to the action.

Your first task is to proceed through the jungle, moving downward through several screens.  Here you get a taste of using stealth to make your way forward without being noticed.  If you walk in front of a soldier, he sees you and puts the game into an alert state.  Firing a noisy weapon also draws attention to you.  Defeating all the enemies on screen or simply moving to the next screen is enough to escape the alert state and go back to quiet.  Until then, all enemies start moving in on you.  Soldiers have guns and aren’t afraid to use them.  If some enemies are left alone long enough, other enemies may start appearing and make things more difficult.  Of course, you can avoid alert state by staying out of line of sight.  You can punch enemies three times without them seeing you to take them out and stay quiet.  You can also wait for soldiers to leave or fall asleep, giving you an edge.  The third screen of the game introduces you to guard dogs that go alert when you get near, which always happens.  I found it is best to be as quiet as possible and avoid confrontation, but it is helpful to know how to navigate the alert state as it is hard to avoid sometimes.

Sneaking isn’t easy in close quarters.

Getting out of the jungle is not an easy task.  Not only is this first part of the game pretty challenging, it was also a little unclear how to get out of the jungle at all.  Go down far enough and you reach a fence locked off by a gate that you can’t open.  It turns out you need to enter a covered truck simply by approaching it from the back.  If you’re like me and didn’t know about that until the end of the section, it’s a good idea to go back and investigate the other ones you passed as some of them contain items or weapons.  When you have something usable, you can go into the menu and equip it.  There are two screens for this, one for weapon selection and the other for item selection.  The weapon selection screen shows all weapons you’ve collected as well as ammo for each.  Simply point the cursor to the weapon you want, then press Select to leave the menu and equip your new weapon.  Choosing an item from the item selection screen functions in much the same way.  Sometimes items, such as rations, must be used from this screen with the A button.  A few items are equipped permanently without you selecting it, but most items need to be selected to be used outside of the menu.  Anyway, one of the trucks in the jungle transports you in front of the first building.

Most of the game is spent inside of buildings.  These can have pretty large layouts with multiple floors, so creating a map might be helpful, or maybe you can do what I did and memorize the basic structure.  To get inside of the initial building to begin with, you need to locate and equip a keycard.  Many of the rooms inside the buildings are behind locked doors that require some keycard.  These secured rooms hold a majority of the weapons and items in the game.  More commonly you will find ammunition for your weapons or rations for restoring your health.  You can also find captured soldiers, who you can free simply by walking up to them.  They will sometimes give you advice or at the very least a thank you.  For every five captured soldiers you free, you go up in rank.  Increasing your rank increases the size of your health bar as well as letting you hold more ammo.  You can go up to four stars in rank, and you need that rank to finish the game.  If you shoot and kill a hostage, then you go down in rank, so don’t do that.

Be someone’s hero today.

There are several weapons in the game.  You can fire standard bullets with either a handgun or machine gun.  The handgun shoots straight while the machine gun fires bullets one at a time in a spread pattern.  A grenade launcher and a rocket launcher fire their respective shots.  Plastic explosives blow up on a timer, while mines explode on contact with an enemy.  There is a remote-controlled missile.  When firing this weapon, you sit still while you set the rocket’s direction with the D-pad.  You can also pick up a silencer for your handgun and machine gun so that you can use them without causing alerts.

You will acquire roughly a screen full of items of all sorts.  Many of these are the card keys, and some of them are items that open up progress in a part of the game, which makes them just like keys.  I won’t go through all of the items but a few of them have different uses.  The binoculars let you peek into an adjacent room briefly to see its layout.  A mine detector lets you see hidden enemy mines in a few screens.  Infrared goggles allow you to see invisible lasers that alert the enemy when touched.  A gas mask lets you breathe in a gas-filled room so that you don’t suffer any damage.  The antidote is good for curing poison if you get bitten by a spider.  Not everything is required to beat the game, but it’s a good idea to pick up whatever you find.

When you die, you can choose to Continue or End.  Continuing puts you at a checkpoint with all of your stuff intact.  Evidently checkpoints are determined by your rank, not by your equipment or by distance reached.  This means a one-star rank puts you back all the way at the start, which is definitely frustrating when you’ve reached deep into the building.  Choose End to see your password.  Passwords are 25 characters long consisting of all capital letters and numbers 1-6.  This is a game where the passwords store all of your information, such as weapons, items, hostages saved, and even your ammo counts.  Part of the password is a checksum just to ensure you have entered a valid password and aren’t just typing in random stuff on the password screen to try and skip ahead.  This game takes several hours to play through for the first time and so passwords are appreciated.

There are plenty of traps, some often unseen.

This was my first time playing through Metal Gear.  I knew about this game and read about it a lot in old gaming magazines.  I never ran into a copy back then, but then later when I got one I didn’t play it past the first few screens.  I was more intrigued by it conceptually than I was interested in actually playing it.  That was how I felt about the Metal Gear Solid games too.  However, years ago I decided to finally buy Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection on PS2 and played through all three games at that time.  I struggled through them but wanted to see them all to the finish.  I suppose that satiated me as I haven’t touched Metal Gear again until now.

Playing through Metal Gear on NES for the first time was an interesting experience.  The first stretch of the game is tough on a new player and the game doesn’t open up until you get through the jungle.  I really got into it once I reached the first building.  At that point, Metal Gear starts to feel like a dungeon crawler.  I explore the building, getting a little bit further each time and picking up new items that make future runs easier.  I caught my groove in the middle part of the game before getting hung up some toward the end.  I have the map that was included with the NES game, and I looked at it once or twice just to make sure I understood the layout of the game.  This wasn’t a spoiler free playthrough because I needed to look up the solutions to the maze zones.  It was frustrating that the game didn’t tell you anywhere what to do there, and I gave up trying to figure it out on my own.  I would say my time with the game was fun with a few annoying parts.

I was able to record a full playthrough of Metal Gear.  My first time through the game took about 8 hours or so.  The second time for my longplay was much faster at around 1 hour and 45 minutes.  The game really isn’t all that big once you know where everything is and how to navigate the buildings.  I wanted to beat the game without dying but I didn’t quite get there.  I died once to the tank by mistake in the middle of the game.  I also died a few times trying to get through the dark rooms with all the holes.  I only cleared that part once in my first playthrough and I don’t think I ever found the right strategy for it.  That section is completely skippable, so after a few deaths, I went the long way around just to get it done.  I’m not completely happy with this run but it is good enough.

Don’t get run over like I did.

It’s hard to play this game without noticing how glitchy and unpolished it is, so I want to list some things I took note of during my time playing.  The most obvious characteristic of the game is its poor English translation.  Some examples are the well-known “I feel asleep!” and “The truck have started to move.”  This lack of grammar and spelling is all over this game, some things more obvious than others.  The card system has a major flaw in that doors require a certain card and only that card can be equipped to open the door.  There’s no indication what card is needed, and there are eight cards total, so you have to go in and out of the menu over and over swapping cards until you find the right one.  It is possible to reach late game sections early in the game and that causes some weird things to happen.  I had my transmitter go off only to pull up the transceiver to nothing.  Something happened to one of the characters and I presumed them dead though you can backtrack and communicate with them as if nothing happened.  There are also hints you can only get once when you rescue prisoners.  If you speed through the text or skip it, then it’s gone, and it might have been a vital clue for what to do next.  All of these things detracted from my enjoyment of the game a little bit.

There’s one more oddball thing about Metal Gear that has nothing to do with the game itself.  I’ve mentioned screw variants before on this blog.  To quickly recap, early NES games had five screws holding both sides of the cartridge together, and sometime in late 1987 the molds changed to a three-screw design for all future licensed NES carts.  Metal Gear was released long after three-screw carts were the standard, but somehow a few copies out there are in the five-screw form factor and I happen to own two of them.  These late five-screw variants are exclusively Konami or Ultra published titles, and all of them are missing the Caution label on the back of the cart.  These carts technically should not exist, but there are a couple of theories.  One is that these are refurbished games that were sent back for repair and they were fixed using leftover five-screw shells.  Another theory is that these were sample carts used for demos or in kiosks.  Whatever the case may be, these are very hard to find, and I am not sure if every Konami game has one of these variants as some have not yet been discovered.  Variant collectors will pay a lot of money for these.  I have a few others in my collection that I’ll mention when I play those games in the future.

Metal Gear is a game that both has a lot going for it and has a lot holding it back.  The graphics are very nice with lots of detail.  Even though the color scheme is a lot of green, brown, and gray, it still looks good to me.  I am not a fan of the font with the empty lines across almost every character.  I think the music is good.  The controls function appropriately with clean design.  The gameplay is fun and engaging, and I enjoyed exploring the buildings and sneaking past the guards.  I can see why this was a popular game for its time.  All the glitches and weird inconsistencies I mentioned before break the immersion a little bit.  Snake only moves and attacks in four directions which feels limiting, though at least the enemies behave the same way.  This is a game that will grab you by its story and its exploration, and it’s safe to say it delivered for me in both those departments.

#142 – Metal Gear


#41 – Town and Country Surf Designs: Wood and Water Rage

A game with surfboarding animals can’t be all that bad, right?

Hear the calming waves and feel the ocean breeze.

To Beat: Finish Round 5 in Street Skate Encounter and Round 1 in Big Wave Encounter
To Complete: Finish Round 12 in both modes
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Reached Round 13 in both modes
Played: 11/29/16 – 11/30/16
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
Video: T&C Surf Designs Longplay

Town and Country Surf Designs: Wood and Water Rage is an NES game notorious for not being very good. Certainly that was my impression of the game ever since childhood. Now that I have beaten the game, I realize that the game is misunderstood. I wouldn’t go as far to say that it is a good game, but once you break through the shell of bad impressions, there is a playable game here that has a few neat ideas.

T&C Surf Designs is a company that specializes in surfboards, clothing, and accessories. They first opened a store in Hawaii in 1971 and expanded to clothing in 1976. Sometime in the 1980s the company adopted cartoon characters named Da Boys for a line of shirts that became very popular. These characters created by Steve Nazar would form the basis of the NES game. Da Boys would disappear for many years before being revived in 2016 under the name Thrilla Krew. T&C Surf Designs is still in business today.

T&C Surf Designs: Wood and Water Rage was released on the NES in February 1988. The game was developed by Atlus and published by LJN. It was only released in North America. There was a sequel to the game named Town and Country II: Thrilla’s Surfari, released in 1992. These two games are the only games bearing the company name or characters.

Just look at that character lineup!

Wood and Water Rage has two distinct modes named Street Skate Encounter and Big Wave Encounter. As you can probably tell by the names, the first is a skateboarding game and the second is a surfing game. There is also a third mode named Wood and Water Rage that combines the two by cycling between levels in both games. To beat the game, you must meet the conditions for both modes either separately or together in the combined mode.

When you begin the game you choose one of the modes with the option of either 1-player or 2-player. Multiplayer is alternating play and otherwise identical to the single player mode. After you choose the game mode you choose which characters you want. There is Tiki Man for skateboarding and he pairs with the surfer Kool Kat. You can also choose Joe Cool for your skateboarder and he teams with Thrilla Gorilla on the surfing side. The characters are purely cosmetic. My favorite is Kool Kat just because he surfs while wearing a tuxedo, which is beyond cool.

In Street Skate Encounter, your goal is to reach the end of the course. Play takes a side-scrolling perspective starting on the left and moving right. You must dodge hazards and obstacles in order to reach the finish line before time runs out. You only get one minute to clear the course but it is a short stage. If you either run out of time or run out of health, it’s Game Over and back to the title screen.

To control your skateboarder, use the D-Pad to move in all eight directions. The game autoscrolls but you can speed it up by moving right or slow down by moving left. You can also tap the B button to push yourself forward. I don’t know if it’s necessary, but I always tap the button repeatedly to maintain speed. You can jump with the A button, but when you do this you jump in the air and your skateboard stays on the ground rolling beneath you. If you want to jump and bring the skateboard with you, hold Left while jumping.

There’s not enough tax money to fix these roads.

This mode has a few interesting mechanics to it. There is a life meter in the bottom right corner of the screen consisting of some round symbols. You earn life points periodically as long as you skate quickly, and you lose some if you crash. Depending on how you crash you either lose two or three life points. If you max out at eight life points the timer freezes, so skating perfectly means you cannot run out of time.

There are ways to earn extra points while skating. There are four different colors of coins that appear at regular intervals in the stage, and collecting them will give you points. Red coins give you the most points and blue give you the least, with pink and green ones in between. If you only collect coins of the same color, then each successive coin gives you double points up to eight times the base value. There are some moving objects in the way such as a toy car or a ball and you get points if you jump on top of them with your skateboard. There are also barriers that give you points if you jump over them and let your skateboard roll underneath. You can also grind on the guardrail at the very top of the playfield and you get points for doing that.

After you clear a round, the next time through is the same level except you begin farther to the left. This means that you gradually expand the beginning of the level and the course gets longer the more times you play it. The fifth time through the course is the first instance of playing the entire level. Hopefully by now you have learned the course well enough to keep going without crashing so that the timer will freeze.

The time both halts and blinks green when you are doing well.

In the other mode, Big Wave Encounter, your goal is to surf long enough to reach the pier on the beach. Just like in skateboarding, play is side-scrolling and moving to the right. You want to surf both to the right far enough to avoid crashing within the big wave tailing you and high enough to avoid crashing on the bottom of the screen. There is no timer in this mode; it is all about surviving to the end. You also have health points in this mode and if you run out it is Game Over.

The surfing controls seem straightforward but they are the cause of all the confusion and misunderstanding of the game. You use the D-Pad to move in all eight directions. If you hold the A button it shifts your balance forward, and holding the B button shifts the balance toward the back of the surfboard. That’s all there is to it, but in practice it seems that no matter what you do you always end up losing ground and getting knocked off your board into the water.

Aside from just trying to stay on top of the water, there are obstacles that can also knock you down. There are people on inner tubes, jumping fish, and birds that you should avoid. You will also come across bananas that you can collect for points. I never bother with them since I am so focused on keeping afloat.

This jerk bird goes out of its way to mess with you.

Your surfing style can also net you some additional points. You earn a tiny amount of points just for staying alive, but if you surf inside the pipeline you get a larger amount of points periodically for as long as you stay on your board. If you surf up off the very top of the wave, you will catch some air and land toward the bottom of the screen and earn even more points. The best way to earn score is to do a turn at the top of the wave. The easiest way to do this is to surf straight up and then turn downward as you touch the top of the wave. If you can pull this off at the very top of the wave you get points as well as an additional life point. You can do this many times in a row to boost your health to the maximum very quickly, so this is the best strategy for survival.

Wood and Water Rage has no ending in any of the modes, and so I get to figure out what it means for me to beat the game. The Street Skate Encounter mode lets you play the full level on Round 5, so clearing that round qualifies as beating that mode. The only difference in the later rounds is that your starting health is reduced. I believe on Round 12 you only get one point of health to start so that is the most challenging round. The Big Wave Encounter has a more unclear ending condition. The level seems to get longer in later rounds but there is no definitive way to tell. It may cap out at five rounds like the other mode, but if you clear at least one level that should be good enough. Just like in skateboarding, the starting health is the lowest at Round 12. To master the game, you should probably complete twelve rounds in both modes.

Wood and Water Rage was a game I had in my childhood collection. I am sure it was a garage sale pickup for cheap since I wouldn’t have been interested in this game on my own. With that in mind, this game did not get much play time. The skateboarding was fine but not all that gripping, and I did not understand the surfing at all. I would occasionally mess with it and then go on to something different.

This is the sweet spot!

Now that I am going through all the NES games, I have finally given it a fair shake and I see that it’s not all bad. The Street Skate Encounter took a few practice runs to learn the controls and layout. Timing jumps off ramps is still something I flub up occasionally, and I will get nailed by one of the moving obstacles sometimes. Otherwise, I didn’t have too much trouble with this mode. The Big Wave Encounter still was as confusing as ever until I had the aha moment of earning life points by turning downward at the top of the wave. Once I did it a couple of times, I saw how easy it was to pull off and I could keep doing it as much as I needed. This little trick makes the surfing easier than the skateboarding, which is something I could have never envisioned. This also led to reducing the difficulty assessment for the game to below average.

I met my goal in both Street Skate Encounter and Big Wave Encounter separately, but I also decided to play the combined Wood and Water Rage mode for my video longplay. Since Round 12 in each mode is where the difficulty is the highest, then clearing Round 24 was my goal here. I only make one attempt at it and I came up short. In Round 21, I crashed right in the beginning of the level and that was that. Mistakes sure are costly in this game. Nevertheless, I am still pleased with how I played.

My big takeaway from playing this game is that it is far too easy to overcomplicate something in my mind. I figured that the surfing would be very difficult to figure out when all along the solution turned out to be both simple and repeatable. The skateboarding by contrast was almost the opposite, requiring a more traditional approach. The game overall is not too complicated with some understanding of the mechanics, and it turned out to be more enjoyable than I expected. However, don’t be fooled. The game is very lean in terms of content, and what’s here is nothing to be excited about. I prefer to lean on the positives, and it’s always nice when a game can surpass my expectations at least a little bit.

#41 – Town and Country Surf Designs: Wood and Water Rage
(Street Skate Encounter)

#41 – Town and Country Surf Designs: Wood and Water Rage
(Big Wave Encounter)