Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#137 – Shadowgate

Enter the castle and solve its mysteries, if you dare.

Such an inviting looking entrance.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 10/17/19 – 10/27/19
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
My Video: Shadowgate Longplay

This is another first for Take On The NES Library.  Yes, these are still happening more than four years and over a hundred games in.  This time I have played my first NES point and click adventure game.  The only other point and click games I’ve ever really played are some of the Professor Layton games, though I like them more for the outright logic puzzles.  This kind of game is not really my style, but I was intrigued at the idea of trying one for myself.  I think Shadowgate may be the most popular NES game of this style, and it was an interesting playthrough that I enjoyed.

Shadowgate is the third game in the MacVenture series of point-and-click adventure games that were originally created for Apple Macintosh.  The MacVenture games all have a common interface design but are separate games story-wise except for the two Déjà Vu games.  While Shadowgate was the third MacVenture game released, it was the first of the three games eventually ported to the NES.  Shadowgate was first released in 1987, developed by ICOM Simulations and published by Mindscape.  It was ported to many different PCs before reaching the NES in December of 1989.  The PAL version was released in Europe in 1991.  The NES port was published by Kemco*Seika and I believe Kemco also ported the game to the NES.

Shadowgate has a basic storyline.  The evil Warlock Lord is set to bring destruction to the world by raising and releasing the Behemoth.  You play as the last of the line of kings, and per your lineage you are the only one who can stop the Warlock Lord from his evil scheme.  You start the game at the front door of Castle Shadowgate.  You will need to use your reasoning skills, as well as equipment found along the way, to infiltrate the castle and make your way through to the Warlock Lord to put a stop to his plan.  Do so, and you win the game.  But beware, there are plenty of traps and enemies along the way that are out to get you.

The first puzzle is just getting into the castle.

The MacVenture point-and-click interface seems to be well ported to the NES.  You control a hand-shaped cursor that you move around the screen with the D-pad.  The left side of the screen is the viewing window where you see the scene set ahead of you.  The cursor freely moves across this window and you can set it on top of anything you see.  The right side and the bottom of the screen contain different options for you.  These are little squares labeled with text.  The cursor snaps to these squares as you move the cursor toward them.  The programming here is good as you can move the cursor to whatever you want both efficiently and intuitively.  The A button is used to select either commands, items, or objects in the viewing screen.  The B button cancels one of the commands you have previously selected.  Both the Start button and the Select button display a hint during gameplay.

Interactions in this game utilize a verb-noun structure.  You need to select an action, your verb, and then apply it to an object, your noun.  The actions are all listed out at the bottom of the screen.  The objects are things either visible in the viewing window or in your inventory.  Select your action, then select the object you want, and see what happens.  Sometimes you need to select two objects, most commonly when you want to Use one thing on some other thing.  Actions stay selected until you choose a different one, so you can use the same command over and over quickly.

These are the commands you can perform:

Move: Lets you move from one screen to another.  This command has a small mini-map below it that is freely scrollable with the cursor.  It contains squares for each of the exits relative to their positioning in the viewing window.  Often you can Move somewhere using either the square on the mini-map or the location itself in the viewing window.

The mini-map shows entrances that aren’t immediately obvious.

Look: Lets you examine objects in the viewing window or objects you are carrying.  This gives a text description of the item in question that might give you some information on how to use that item.

Take: Lets you add an item in front of you to your inventory, which is represented by a card system in the window on the right.  Each item is on its own line and you can page through multiple cards worth of items using the Up and Down arrows in the Card section of the menu.  You also learn a few magical spells in the game which are kept on their own separate card at the end of the inventory.

Open and Close: These commands are mostly used to open and close doors, but they do have some non-obvious uses from time to time.

Use: This is primarily how you apply an item from your inventory to something in front of you.  As far as I remember it’s the only command where you have to choose what to use and what to use it on.

Hit: Smacks something!  You may want to tread carefully using this against the creatures in the castle, but there are other uses too.

Leave: You can leave an item behind.  In the right situation you can use this command to thin out your inventory.  Fortunately, you can hold as much stuff as needed.

Speak: Talk to someone!  Not everyone talks back though.

The final two options in the lower right are Self and Save.  You can use Self to perform a command on yourself, such as if you want to eat something or use an item on yourself.  You can even hit yourself if you want, the game will let you try whatever!  Save records your progress to the battery backup.  It doesn’t hurt to save often in this game.

Torches … torches everywhere.

This game also has a system involving torches.  To get anywhere in the castle you need to keep a lit torch on you at all times.  You can see two torches at the top of your inventory and how the flames are doing.  You can also point the cursor to the flame and use it just like an inventory item.  When the torches start to run low, the music switches over a very queasy tune reminding you to light up another one to keep going.  If both torches are out, it goes dark and you end up tripping to your death, every single time.  There are a finite number of torches in Castle Shadowgate, but if your torch goes dark the game gives you back a partial torch for free, so you are never locked out from completing the game.

Speaking of death, there is a lot of dying that goes on in the game.  There are plenty of creatures and traps to deal with and you can suffer a grizzly death if you do the wrong thing or aren’t careful enough.  When you die you get a visit from Death himself as you get to read the description of how you met your untimely demise.  It is fun to see all the different ways you can perish and to read all the text written about it.  Dying puts you back one screen and you will keep respawning on that screen if you die there again without leaving.  A little tip here: I put the respawning system to good use whenever I got into a room with a puzzle where I died a lot.  I would go into that room, leave the room, and kill myself somehow so that I would always respawn in the room I was trying to solve.  It saved me a little bit of time at least.

This was my first time playing through Shadowgate.  I know this was a popular game back in the day, but I didn’t own a copy until my adulthood collecting days and I didn’t bother playing past the first screen when I tested my cart.  I have owned a few extra copies of this game and I think I’ve sold them all.  It is an inexpensive game to buy, floating around in the $5-$10 range.

Tons of items, a ton of danger.

I’m sure you are wondering if I was able to complete this game without any outside help, and the answer to that is no.  I really like to give puzzles an honest effort, but I’ve also decided now that I’m getting older that I value my time more and I don’t feel bad about looking up something if I’m truly stuck and have tried everything I can think of.  Rather than looking up answers directly on an FAQ or something, I decided to try a more official approach.  There is an official Shadowgate Hint Book created by Kemco*Seika that you could mail order from a form on the back page of the manual.  It cost $5.95 plus taxes and shipping, but thankfully we have the internet so I just did a search online and downloaded a PDF scan of the hint book for free.  The structure of the hint book is quite good.  It is laid out in the form of questions roughly ordered to how you would solve those events in the game, or around where you would find an item and wonder what you could use it for later.  The book comes with three levels of hints, A, B, and C.  A hints are gentle, B hints are a little more direct, and the C ones pretty much tell you what to do.  The hints are numbered and are all mixed up as well so that you are less likely to see relevant clues for where you are stuck.  This was the only help I needed to beat this game.  I used several A hints, some B hints, and a few C ones.

It’s hard to talk more about this game without mentioning specific puzzles, so that’s what I’m going to do here.  If you still want to try this game for yourself, now is the time to look away and just skip to the end.

If I had to guess, I would say I solved 80-90% of the games puzzles completely on my own.  Some of those solutions I’m pretty proud of figuring out with only my intuition.  I solved the game’s final puzzle on my own, after re-reading the poem I found early on and piecing the parts together.  The puzzle with the sphere was pretty clever.  That’s one of the few uses for the Leave command and that’s because you need to Take the sphere back after releasing it from the ice it made with your torch.  For whatever reason the entire usage of the sphere was intuitive to me from the start.  Sometimes I solved a puzzle accidentally.  There’s a puzzle where you have to collect a flute from the top of a fountain that I think ends up killing you if you try to grab it unprotected.  You need to find and equip a gauntlet that protects you from the dangerous fountain water.  I figured out the gauntlet on my own before even getting there so the problem was already solved.  There’s also one place where you find a key under a rug that you burn away with the torch.  There are a few rugs you can burn up earlier in the castle to no effect, so it was nice to have that experimentation pay off later.

This was the first of several places where I got stuck.

Here are some of the puzzles I remembered needing significant hints on.  The first major place I got stuck was getting past the room with the high ledge that breaks when you try and climb up.  There are two torches in this room that you cannot take with you.  The secret here is you are supposed to Use the left torch on the wall, which causes you to pull on it like a lever, opening up a passage to another room.  Nowhere does the game indicate you can Use things you don’t possess, so I thought that was a little misleading.  I didn’t figure out the Epor spell because you have to Look at the writing of Epor on the wall twice.  (That spell isn’t mandatory, it turns out.)  I completely missed where you can pick up rocks to equip on your sling to take out the cyclops.  The most significant puzzle I didn’t figure out was near the end when you need to pull a set of levers in a certain order.  Several rooms back with the sphinx, there are etchings on a staircase that show the state of the levers at each move.  I know I saw something in the hint guide eluding to those etchings, but even then I didn’t bother noticing them and as a result I was completely lost on that puzzle.

Now that I’ve beaten Shadowgate, I have three observations about its structure that I hope I will be able to apply to Déjà Vu and Uninvited later in this project.  First, Shadowgate has a lot of room exits that you either cannot reach or die trying.  They are essentially fake exits.  I know I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to climb the broken ledge, or pass the dragon in the hot room, or break down the landslide in the waterfall room, among others.  The hint book helped me understand that these are simply red herrings.  Second, almost all items in the game are used exactly once, if they are used at all.  Some of the extra items were potential solutions to the sphinx’s riddle, but there were plenty of things that had no use whatsoever.  All of these things remain in your inventory.  It would have been helpful to know to stop trying to use items after they were already used.  There is one place in the game I found, the lake room, where you can toss unnecessary items.  Once you freeze the water over, there’s no other way I found to shed excess items.  That happens pretty early in the game too, limiting its usefulness.  Searching through your vast inventory for a puzzle solution becomes tedious at the end.  Third, the torch mechanic is completely useless and a waste of time.  When torches go out, you die, only to be restored with a partial torch good for a bunch of moves thereafter, and then you go back only one room.  The only good reason to light torches when low is to save you some time and avoid the annoying low-light tune.  I think the torch mechanic is unique to this game, which I certainly hope is true.

I am by no means an expert in these kinds of games, but in the end, Shadowgate was a fun experience for me and I enjoyed it, when I wasn’t stuck that is.  The presentation is really nice in this game.  The graphics are very detailed and there are a variety of rooms and settings you will come across in the castle.  The music in this game is top notch and a quality addition to the game.  The controls are excellent, giving you complete control of your cursor or locking it to the menu items when you need it.  I noticed the cursor speed slowed down intentionally in some rooms when you require more granular control.  This attention to detail is impressive for an NES game.  The puzzles in this game are mostly good.  Some were obvious, some were clever, and some were a little unfair.  It’s hard to pin a difficulty on this game, but I went down the middle with 5 because the whole game is a mental exercise with a well defined set of options.  The game becomes trivial to play when you know all the solutions to everything.  I can see why this game is more popular than I realized.

#137 – Shadowgate


#102 – Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular

I like good alliteration, and I like this game too.

Where’s the rest of the title?

To Beat: Score 10,000 points in the Total Game Mode
To Complete: Score 15,000 points in the Total Game Mode
What I Did: Scored 16,460 points
Played: 10/9/18
Difficulty: 2/10
My Difficulty: 2/10
My Video: Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular Longplay

Today we have a sports game that doesn’t feel like one. I remember one time when I was browsing through game lots on eBay. I was looking into one where the seller highlighted that there were all good games in the lot and no sports titles. Just about the first game I saw in there was this Snoopy game. I just rolled my eyes and said, “oh come on, the word sports is right there in the title!” Sports games have this negative stigma with them, particularly in collector mindsets for older systems. Games like this will blur the lines and somehow avoid all that negativity. I can see why Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular would fit that mold with its cartoon events that don’t always make sense but are pretty fun to play.

Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular was released on the NES in April 1990 in North America only. Kemco both developed and published the game. This is another game with an interesting background. It is a loose port of the game Alternative World Games created by Gremlin Graphics in 1987 for Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC. Kemco adapted the game for the Famicom in September 1988. In Japan, they had the licensing rights for Disney, so they made Donald Duck the main character and named the game Donald Duck. Capcom held the rights for making Disney games in the US, so when Kemco brought the game over, they licensed the Peanuts characters and changed the game into Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular.

Try to keep up, Spike.

The game is an Olympic-style contest. These are Snoopy’s International Games consisting of six different events: Sack Race, Boot Throwing, Pogo, Overboard, Pile of Pizza, and River Jump. You can play the game with either one or two players. Should you choose two-player mode, two events are simultaneous play and the rest are alternating play. The games are set in Italy and Greece so you have nice architectural backdrops to go along with the silly games. You can play events individually for fun or practice, but the main mode is the Total Game mode where you play all six events in a row. In this mode, you want to break the world record of 10,000 points to win 1st place and beat the game.

The Sack Race takes place on a city street. You control Snoopy and either the second player or computer controls his brother, Spike. You begin waiting behind the starting line waiting for a balloon to pop to signal the start of the race. Press and release the A button to jump forward. Just tapping A will only perform a tiny hop. You’ll have to learn the rhythm to go as fast as possible. Use the D-pad to adjust your position on the street. There are manholes littered around the course that open at random, and if you get caught up in one you will trip and fall behind. You can’t interfere with your opponent at all, so you only need to worry about the manholes. If one player falls too far behind, Woodstock will push that player up to close the gap so that both characters remain on screen. You have 50 seconds to reach the end of the course. In the Total Game mode, you earn 40 points for every second remaining on the timer, minus some points if you need a Woodstock push.


In the Boot Throwing competition, you want to throw your boot as far as possible. Begin by pressing Down, then rotate your thumb around the D-pad in a counter-clockwise motion. It turns out you only need to alternate between pressing Down and Right, but doing the rotation helps greatly. This will wind up your throw, and then you press A to let it loose. With good timing you will throw it far ahead, but you can also throw it straight up, straight into the ground, or even backwards for no distance. On a forward throw, Woodstock will go out and tell you how far you threw. You get two separate throws. The best throw I could do was 30 feet which was worth 500 points. The scoring is prorated for shorter distances, and both throws are scored separately and added together for the event.

The Pogo event is a simple obstacle course. Press Right to move Snoopy forward and press and hold A to bounce high. Snoopy will do small bounces automatically. He also cannot move backward. There are four tall walls of equal height that Snoopy must jump over to get all the points. If you crash into the wall, the event ends right there. This event takes a lot of practice to get the timing and button presses right. For the Total Game mode, each wall cleared is worth 250 points.

Looks like I will just barely clear the wall.

Overboard is a two-player pushing game. You are on a boat in a canal, and as Snoopy you try and push Spike off the boat. Use the D-pad to walk around and tap the A button quickly to push. This is kind of a button masher, at least in my experience. The boat also rocks side to side, which from your view is in and out of the screen. You can use Up and Down on the D-pad to favor either side of the boat, and you want to be on the high side of the boat as much as possible. You can get knocked off the back of the boat or fall off the sides in the middle of the boat if you don’t adjust your position. You are trying to push Spike off the right side of the boat. The scoring in this game is a little different. If you fall then you get no points. The base score is 1000 points, and you lose 20 points for every second of the match, rounded up. For example, if you win in five seconds, take 100 points off the base score for a total of 900 points for the event.

Spike is having a rough day.

The Pile of Pizza event asks you to carefully carry a large stack of pizzas across the finish line. Similar to the Sack Race, you press and release Right on the D-pad to move forward. You can hold right to keep walking, but you are going to drop a bunch of pizzas. If you walk too fast or too erratically, the stack will shake enough to drop pizzas. This is a tortoise and the hare situation where slow and steady wins the race. Tap out Right a little at a time to inch forward and keep your pizza stack nice and tall. Your stack is displayed as ten pizzas high, however the game counts each one as two pizzas for a total of twenty pizzas. This game has another interesting scoring setup. You get 80 seconds to complete the event, but you can get a perfect score of 1000 by carrying all pizzas past the finish line with at least 20 seconds remaining. You lose points for every second taken beyond 20 seconds remaining, and you also lose points proportionally to every pizza dropped.

The River Jump is straightforward. This is kind of like a pole vaulting event, only you are using the pole to jump over a river instead of clearing the high bar. Press A rapidly to run. When you get to the river, press B to stick your pole in the water. This is an all or nothing event. You get 1000 points if you make it across and nothing if you don’t. This event seems to give people a lot of trouble, and the reason is the manual doesn’t make it clear exactly how this event works. What you are supposed to do is press A quickly to run, then press and hold B at the river’s edge for a while before letting go of the button to dismount. When you learn the timing, it becomes the easiest event.

No leaning for this tower.

In the Total Game mode, when all events are completed, the scores are added together to give you a sub total. The scoring screen has a field called Clear Point which starts at 2000 points. If your total is more than that, you get to compete in the same six events again. If your cumulative score after two rounds is more than 5000, you get to do all the events again the third time around. Your final score is the sum of the score in all six events played three times.

I spent a week in 2017 playing Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular for the NintendoAge contest. I managed a score of 16,930 and placed 4th that week. I could have sworn I’ve played this game for points before that, but it didn’t show up in the contests before then and I’m pretty sure I didn’t play it on my own. In a different contest year, I won a copy of this game and that’s the copy I kept for my collection. It’s slightly less than common but one I’ve owned a couple copies off. It sells for around $8 or so.

It’s not as tough as it seems.

I think this is a game that many players could do well enough to beat after a couple hours of practice. The events are all small and you can practice them quickly to get the hang of them. If you are pretty good at about half of the events, that can earn you enough points to clear the game. When you beat the game, you get a medal depending on your score. Just beating the game gets you the bronze medal. You need at least, I believe, 12,500 points to get the silver medal and 15,000 points to get the gold medal. While optional, I knew I wanted to get 15,000 again. It took me about half a dozen tries to get a run I was happy with. I struggled with the timing on the Pogo event and Boot Throwing was inconsistent. I’ve never been great at Overboard either. Most of my attempts would have ended in the 13K-16K range. I didn’t want to just barely get 15K, rather I wanted a run with few mistakes. I’m happy with my longplay video with a score of 16,460. The only thing keeping me from 17K were some bad boot throws. It’s possible to get over 18K by playing near perfectly on all events.

Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular delivers all that the title describes. The graphics are nice and Snoopy is a good fit for the game, even though that wasn’t how it was imagined originally. The music is decent as well. The controls all work like they are supposed to. A mini-game compilation may not appeal to everyone, but as these kinds of games go I think this is a good one. There is a good variety of events and they all perform well with no obvious glitches or exploits. The only downside is that it’s a short game and there’s not much lasting appeal beyond beating the game. It’s a fun game to try out, but maybe not one you need to own unless you are a collector.

#102 – Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular

#102 – Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular (16,460 points)


#69 – Desert Commander

A nice introduction to turn-based strategy on the NES.

Not pictured is the tank that blew up.

To Beat: Win any scenario
To Complete: Win all scenarios
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 12/30/17 – 1/4/18
Difficulty: 2/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
Video: Desert Commander Final Scenario

Hot off the heels of the Power Pad running game Super Team Games, I completely switched gears and played a relaxing, low-key NES strategy game. Desert Commander and other similar strategy titles were once relegated to the end of my game list. Here I thought it was fitting to go from a physical game straight into a more cerebral experience, and Desert Commander slots in perfectly. I wrote off Desert Commander as not for me almost instantly. I do like puzzle games and the occasional RPG, but strategy games are just different enough from those to dissuade me from playing. Once I gave it a chance, I actually had fun. Without anything else to compare it to, I believe Desert Commander was the right choice for my first NES strategy title.

Desert Commander was first released in Japan under the name Sensha Senryaku: Sabaku no Kitsune. There it was released in late April 1988, both published and developed by Kemco. The setting for the game is World War II and is based on the North African Campaign. In the Famicom version, you can choose either the Axis or Allied side, but that was removed in the US release in favor of a more generic setting. The NES release of Desert Commander was in June 1989, also by Kemco.

Desert Commander is a turn-based strategy game for one or two players. Each side gets a specific amount of units and an initial setup on one of several maps. On your turn, you may assign up to one command for each available unit. For instance, you may move units to a different space on the map or engage a nearby enemy unit in combat. When you command each unit or decide to end your turn, your opponent may do the same. Each player has a special unit called Headquarters, and if you can defeat the enemy headquarters you win the battle. There are five scenarios to choose from and winning any one of them is good enough to get the ending.

It’s a hot day at the battlefield.

The controls are straightforward. Use the D-pad to move a cursor around the screen when it is your turn in the battle. Move the cursor toward any edge of the screen to scroll in the desired direction. Press A when the cursor is above one of your units to bring up a unit status display and menu. Use the D-pad to choose an item from the menu, press A to make your selection, or press B to go back. You cannot view the enemy units, only yours. Press the B button to automatically move the cursor on top of the next available unit. This is especially handy if you have many units spread out on the map. The Select button brings up a screen showing how many units of each kind both you and the enemy still have available on the battlefield. The Start button brings up a map of the entire battlefield.

Before starting the game, each side may determine which units they want to deploy for the battle. The screen shows all possible units and how many of them are allocated to each player. Next to the number of units are plus and minus buttons. Move the cursor to a button and press A to add or subtract to the number of units. Each battle has a maximum number of units already preconfigured, so if you want to add units of one type, you must first remove units of another type. For example, if you want more fighter jets, you might decide to reduce the number of tanks. You can make as many of these swaps as you want. The counter at the bottom labeled Units Left shows how many units are unassigned. The second controller modifies the units for the second player, and you can also use this in single player to redistribute the opponent’s side if you want.

There are several different types of units, and they can most easily be grouped together as air units or ground units. The two types of air units are fighters and bombers. The remaining units are ground units: tanks, armored cars, troop transports, infantry, field cannons, anti-aircraft guns, supply trucks, and the headquarters. For the most part, ground units are more effective in combat against ground units, and the same goes for air units. The exceptions are bombers and anti-aircraft guns which are more effective against the opposite types. The different unit types vary by how many spaces they can move per turn and how much ammo they can hold. There is a handy chart in the manual for these figures and you can also pull up this information directly in a game.

You can customize both your army and your opponent’s army.

When you choose a unit, you get both a status display and a small command menu. The status display shows ammo, fuel, the unit number, and the type of terrain it is currently occupying. Ammo dictates how many times you may attack the enemy. Each combat reduces this amount by one and if you run out you can’t deal any damage. Each space you move on the map reduces your fuel by one and every unit begins with one hundred fuel points. The unit number represents both the health of the unit and its attack power. For example, if your unit number is ten, you get to attack ten times on your turn in combat. You lose units when you get attacked, and the unit is destroyed when the unit number goes down to zero. I’ll explain more about terrain shortly.

The command menu has four options: Movement, Attack, Power, and Change. Movement, naturally, lets you move the unit to a new space. For ground units, the terrain determines how far you can move in one turn. It makes sense that you can move better on easier terrain. You can move the furthest on roads, less so in the desert, and the least in the wilds such as mountains or the oasis. You can press B to cancel movement anytime until you move the maximum amount of spaces. If you move a unit adjacent to an enemy unit, your movement stops immediately and the game asks if you want to attack the enemy. Say yes to fight, or say no to end movement. Attack lets you engage in combat with an adjacent enemy. Most units may only attack ones directly next to them, but field cannons and anti-aircraft cannons have a wider radius to attack more distant targets. Choose Power to bring up a box that shows how many spaces you can move on each terrain, the maximum ammo and fuel, and its attack range. The Change option lets you end your turn manually. You will end your turn automatically if you move or attack with all your units.

Combat is really simple and plays out automatically. During the attack phase, a new screen appears showing your unit on the left and the enemy unit on the right. You will see individual attackers on each side corresponding with the unit number. The side initiating combat strikes first, and then the other side counterattacks with the number they have remaining. You need one ammo to either attack or counterattack. Certain units are more effective against other types of units, even within air and ground units. I think it’s difficult to tell exactly which units are best suited for a situation. Combat is like a hidden dice roll and the amount of damage you either deal or receive is luck-based after strengths and weaknesses are considered.

Lots of combat in this game.

There are some spaces on the map that have effects on the battle. Towns replenish ammo and fuel when ground units occupy the space. You see a special screen and animation when someone moves onto the space. In fact, all of these special spaces have their own screen like this. It gets annoying after the first time but you can get out of them quickly. Aircraft can refill fuel and ammo by landing on an air strip. A palm tree is an oasis and it gives occupying ground unit a boost in defense. There is also a wall that provides greater defensive help.

Two units provide additional capabilities. The supply truck replenishes both fuel and ammo for other units when it is placed next to them. You can arrange your units in a way where two or three of them can be filled up at the same time. Curiously, the supply truck cannot refill its own ammo or fuel. The troop transport can load up infantry to greatly increase their range. First, place an infantry unit next to the troop transport to bring up a dialog box asking if you want to load them into the troop transport. Then both units combine into one unit with a different color to indicate they are combined. Later when you move the troop transport, you get the option to unload your infantry and then they can have a turn.

There are five scenarios in single player mode to choose from. Later scenarios increase in difficulty but maybe not in the way you would expect. The AI almost always performs the same way, but they get more units than you do in later scenarios. All things are even in the First Battle scenario, but by the last one the computer has more than double the number of units you get. Speaking of the map, it turns out it is one gigantic map and each scenario focuses on some subset of this global map. You will see some map overlap between scenarios. I know at least once I saw a town on the edge of the map that I couldn’t get to because the game prevents you from utilizing the fringes of the scenario map.

Nice looking scenes, but they show up all the time.

This was my first time playing Desert Commander. I have some vague memories of seeing someone play the game back when it was released. I do think it was somewhat popular back then. I had a couple of people tell me that they used to play a lot of Desert Commander. I did not buy the game myself until I started actively collecting. I got another copy in a lot not that long ago and it came with the manual, so that was nice to have for this playthrough.

I decided that I would complete all scenarios with the default unit deployment. I wasn’t sure if there was some kind of special ending for beating harder scenarios, plus I like playing all the levels a game has to offer anyway. It turns out you get the same ending no matter which scenario you win. You even get a similar ending if you lose. The first scenario was very easy and I won with little difficulty while I barely knew what I was doing. You will get a scoring screen at the end that shows how many turns you took, along with damage and results numbers. I don’t understand what they mean or how they are calculated. I was happy with beating the game no matter how I scored.

I would say for a first time player that the game has a smooth difficulty curve. I coped well with the increase in enemy forces by using better tactics I came up with through the mistakes and experimentation of past attempts. Both the third and fourth missions took two attempts to beat and I just barely lost the initial attempts on those scenarios. The final scenario is quite the challenge and you are severely outnumbered. I got lucky enough to pick off the enemy headquarters before things got really bad for me. I’m glad for that because the scenarios take a long time when each side issues commands to every unit on the battlefield on every turn.

The default armies leave you vastly outnumbered.

I’m no expert at these kinds of games and there may be a better strategy, but these are the techniques I came up with. The computer tends to send a chunk of their force directly at you, leaving some units behind with the headquarters. Some of the ones left behind will join the offensive as others get defeated. Eventually this leaves an opening to engage the headquarters. I put infantry in troop transports and broke that group off separately, moving them near the enemy headquarters so that they could strike as soon as they got a good opening. In the last scenario, I sent a couple extra units with the transports for protection since the enemy may spread out their advance and start attacking this group. I put my headquarters on a wall to give them the greatest defense and surrounded it with my remaining units. I put my cannons in the back because they can attack anything trying to breach my tightly packed wall of defense. I just tried to survive as long as I could to give my small attack group the opportunity to knock out the enemy headquarters.

Desert Commander has a few quirks that I find annoying. I would like there to be a way to cancel your movement once you hit your max, just in case you come up a little short. You can cancel your movement at any time up to that, so why does your max automatically lock you in? Another similar gripe is that you cannot move past another unit without being forced to stop and ask if you want to battle. This one at least makes logical sense since you would not be able to skip past your enemy like that, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying. Enemy turns are also ridiculously slow. You have to wait for their cursor to slowly scroll across the map to each and every unit, and the order the computer chooses units seems awfully inefficient. You also have to sit through each and every combat screen, and there are also the little cutscenes every time a unit gets placed on a special space. The last scenario takes a long time with the high number of computer units.

I’ve knocked Desert Commander a bit, but it’s a pretty good game. I like the music quite a bit. You can change the background music in one of the menus and all four tracks are pretty good. I liked the first one well enough to keep it playing over all scenarios. The graphics are well defined and I really like the Kemco font. A few of the units look similar enough that it does take some time to distinguish them, but that’s a minor issue. I bet this game is really fun against another human player where you can’t exploit the AI and need to form different strategies. Single player is fun enough, but the way they decided to increase the difficulty is cheap. There aren’t too many NES strategy games, but Desert Commander is a good example of how to do one on the console. I think that’s high praise for a genre I don’t care about much.

#69 – Desert Commander

Spy Vs. Spy Box Cover

#16 – Spy Vs. Spy

Don’t forget your spy gear because you will need it to make your escape!

It’s nice that they are saving the fight for the actual game

To Beat: Win against the computer on any difficulty
To Complete: Beat all 8 difficulty levels
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Complete the game
Played: 2/1/16 – 2/3/16
Difficulty: 1/10
My Difficulty: 2/10

When playing two-player NES games, I think it’s better to have simultaneous play compared to alternating between two separate one-player games. Most of the time if the game is fun two-player it is probably just as much fun playing single player, however some games are tailor made for two players and Spy Vs. Spy falls in that category. I only player single player for the blog and Spy Vs. Spy left a lot to be desired, although I bet it really shines in two-player mode and I’m looking forward to trying it out sometime.

Spy Vs. Spy is a comic strip that debuted in January 1961 in issue #60 of MAD Magazine. The creator and cartoonist Antonio Prohias fled his native Cuba and pitched the idea of the Spy Vs. Spy cartoon to MAD Magazine in New York. They hired him and he would go on to write Spy Vs. Spy for over 27 years. The comic strip has been passed on to a few other writers over the years and it is still being created today.

The Spy Vs. Spy video game was released in 1984 for a large variety of computer platforms. It eventually made its way to the Famicom in 1986 but it wouldn’t debut on the NES until two years later in October 1988. All versions of the game were developed by First Star Software and Spy Vs. Spy is the only game they would develop for the NES. It was published by Kemco and it was their first NES release.

That briefcase might be up for grabs soon.

Spy Vs. Spy is an action game where you must race both your opponent and the clock to retrieve a set of items and escape the embassy. The embassy is a maze of single screen rooms and you can move to and from the interconnected rooms freely as you choose. This is a split screen game where both the white spy and the black spy are exploring the embassy and racing to meet the same goal. Everything is done in real time so you can see your opponent’s every move while they can also see yours. To escape the embassy and win you must first collect a briefcase, a passport, a bag of money, a key, and secret papers. Each room has a number of objects you can interact with such as furniture, pictures on the wall, doors, and so on. These hide the items you need so you will need to look in and around everything to find what you are looking for. Normally you can only hold one item at a time, however once you have the briefcase you can store all the required items inside of that. When a spy has an item you can see him visibly holding it on screen. You can also hide an item you are holding inside the furniture as well. Once you have recovered all of the items in hand, you must locate the exit door to escape and win the game.

While all this is going on, your opponent is also looking to complete the same objective so he will be actively trying to run your plan. If both spies end up on the same screen then they square off in hand to hand combat. A club and a knife are hidden in the embassy and these weapons can be held alongside one of the required items. The weapons are stronger than the default punch and will certainly swing the tide of combat. The spies don’t have to fight if they are in the same room and sometimes escaping into the next room is a smart strategy. Each spy has a power gauge which indicates health remaining. When a spy runs out of power in combat he is killed and floats up off the screen as an angel. That spy is out of the game for 10 seconds giving the other spy the advantage of free time as well as the ability to recover any items the defeated spy held. There is also a 30 second deduction to the clock when a spy is killed. Each spy has his own clock and whenever time runs out that spy is killed permanently for the rest of the game. Both spies will not necessarily run out of time at the same time which may be all the edge needed in a close game.

There’s nothing like a little slapstick!

The other major feature of the game in which to hurt the opponent is with booby traps. The spies have a seemingly unlimited number of them to use. Holding a trap will cause you to automatically hide any other item you are carrying so that’s something to be mindful of. The traps must be hidden inside the furniture and you can see the spy laughing to himself any time a trap is successfully placed. There are four booby traps at your disposal. Both the bomb and the spring can be hidden inside any of the pieces of furniture except for the room doors. A water bucket must be hidden on the top of a closed door. The time bomb can be hidden in any room regardless of furniture. If a spy peeks into a piece of furniture armed with a trap, that spy is killed with the same penalty as if he died in combat, along with a humorous death animation. The time bomb is a bit special as it kills a spy if he is in the room for too long. You know you are in a room with a time bomb if your face turns blue, so escape right away. There are also remedies hidden in the embassy that disarm traps. A water bucket (not the trap water bucket) is found in a red fire box and disarms a bomb, the wire cutters are found in a white wall-mounted tool box and they disarm the spring, and an umbrella can be found on the coat rack and prevents damage from the water bucket trap. The time bomb is effectively disarmed if you are able to leave the room before it goes off. A remedy for a trap can only be held only if the spy’s hands are empty, so you can’t hold another item and a remedy at the same time.

This all seems really complex, and it is in the beginning, but it all eventually makes sense. One thing that helps is that each spy can also look at the map of the embassy. The map screen appears after cycling through all the possible traps. It shows the location of both spies, which rooms have items, and which rooms have traps. It is quite helpful but it does have a few shortcomings. It doesn’t show which rooms are connected, it doesn’t indicate if a room has both an item and a booby trap, and it doesn’t show the presence of an armed time bomb. Despite all that, the map is very much appreciated as it makes the levels much more manageable.

The map preview shows what you are up against.

When starting a game there are three modes to choose from. Training mode simplifies the game by requiring only the briefcase and one additional item instead of needing all of them to escape. Vs Com is the main game against a computer opponent, and Vs Player is the main game against a human opponent. You can also choose from one of eight levels. Each level is a different embassy map and they are progressively larger and more complex. The lowest level embassy only has 6 rooms in total while the later levels have 30 or more rooms as well as a second floor in some instances.

I have played Spy Vs Spy before when I was a kid. One of my babysitters had an NES with some games and this is one she had. I sort of remember playing it but that’s all. I acquired the game in a three game lot on eBay around 2009. It came with Stinger and Bump ‘N Jump. It’s an ordinary game lot for sure, but the real reason I remember that lot is because those carts arrived in mint condition. I don’t like how often the word mint is used in describing condition as I feel it is mostly exaggerated whenever it’s used. In this case it’s true. They are beautiful carts and they will be on my shelf for a very long time!

I admit I was not looking forward to playing this game. I felt that it was too complicated after reading the manual and that I was going to struggle completing all eight levels. As it turned out, I more or less breezed through this game. There is a bit of a learning curve to be sure but a quick run in training mode alleviated those issues for me. I started on the levels after that and didn’t lose once. I found the AI to be pretty dumb overall. He moves between rooms slowly and focuses more on setting traps and less on acquiring the items needed to win. In the early levels, it’s possible I guess to lose if you don’t get the hang of combat and run out of time quickly. I can see it happening too if I were to get all the items and get killed right in front of the exit door. Other than that, I’m not so sure if the AI is good enough to win legitimately on its own. The later levels are big but as a result you don’t interact as much so it is more about figuring out the layout of the level and beating the time limit.

Somebody set up us the bomb (sorry)

I developed a successful strategy early on that carried me through, so if you want to try this on your own skip this paragraph. You’ve been warned! I use the map to locate the rooms with items and seek them out as quickly as you can. I would usually acquire the knife during my search giving me the upper hand in combat. The priority is the briefcase so if I come across it, great! If the other spy has the briefcase, then I would go after him right away and take it for myself. I would also make a mental note of where the exit is if I passed by since it doesn’t appear on the map. I barely bothered with traps at all. One time I trapped the other spy in a dead end with the water bucket, and the time bomb is useful at the bottom of a ladder for a guaranteed kill if entering the room from above. I don’t know if this is the optimal strategy but it certainly worked for me!

There were two other Spy Vs. Spy games but neither one made it to the NES. The second game is Spy Vs. Spy II: The Island Caper which takes place on a tropical island. Features include larger rooms that scroll instead of the fixed sized room in the original game. Players must also build their own traps from parts found on the island. The game did receive a release on Famicom. The third and final game is Spy Vs. Spy III: Arctic Antics and it was only released on various PCs. This one obviously takes place in the arctic! A fourth game was planned and would have likely been called Spy Vs. Spy IV: Spies in Space if it had been released.

The black spy may be in the lead but it’s far from over.

You may be wondering what is up with my difficulty assessment on this one. There are two things I want to address. The first is the 1/10 difficulty. I went on and on about the initial complexity and I’m not backing down from that. The game is so easy simply because it is very short. Considering strictly the bare minimum to get the ending, I say the game can be beaten in 15 minutes or less on the first time playing. It takes a little bit of time on training to get used to the controls, how the traps work, and how combat plays out. The first level has a time limit of only 5 minutes and it doesn’t take that much time to finish since that first area is so small. I’m sure it’s possible to luck into a win even if things don’t go too well. The other spy has a bad habit of running into his own traps. The ending sequence is the same after each level and the only difference is the text showing which level was completed.

The other thing you may have noticed is that this is the first time I gave a game a higher personal difficulty than the overall difficulty. I based my difficulty on my goal instead of just the minimum to beat the game. I didn’t find the game to be very difficult, but it does take some trial and error to navigate some of the larger levels. I don’t think Spy Vs. Spy is quite among the easiest NES games when going for completing all the levels.

Spy Vs. Spy is a clever concept that plays well, but it ultimately falls short as a single player experience. I am definitely keeping this game in mind to play with friends sometime. As it stands for me right now, this is just another easy title for me to mark as finished.

Spy Vs. Spy Ending Screen

#16 – Spy Vs. Spy