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#167 – StarTropics

Long neglected, but never forgotten.

Those chill nighttime vibes

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 10/8/2020 – 10/11/2020
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
My Video: StarTropics Longplay

In my quest to beat all the NES games, there are times of great productivity and times of, well, little productivity.  I have started writing this blog post in late May, as the weather is starting to get hot.  As you can see above, I played through this game in early fall.  It feels kind of poetic to have pretty much skipped all the cold weather in between, seeing as StarTropics is very much a tropical game.  Or, on the flip side, it can be seen as a missed opportunity to celebrate some warmth when I could have used it the most.  Either way, there is no bad time of year to play through StarTropics, as it is a delightful game to play whenever you can.

StarTropics is an odd duck in terms of its history.  It was an NES-exclusive game, released in December 1990 in North America and August 1992 in Europe.  Despite being developed completely in Japan, it was never intended for Japanese release and indeed never made it officially to the Famicom.  The game was developed and published by Nintendo, specifically Nintendo’s R&D3 division.  That part of the company primarily developed hardware and peripherals from Nintendo 64 through the Wii U, and was renamed to Nintendo Integrated Research & Development Division, or IRD for short.  IRD has since merged with Nintendo System Development to become Nintendo Platform Technology Department, named PTD, who have been responsible for Nintendo Switch hardware and peripherals.  Anyway, back in the R&D3 days, they did develop a few games, namely both StarTropics games and the Punch-Out!! series, both arcade and home versions of the first two titles.  Locomotive Corporation also has development credits on this game as well its sequel.

StarTropics follows the journey of 15-year-old Mike Jones.  His Uncle Steve is a world famous archaeologist and he sends Mike a letter inviting him to come visit him at his laboratory on C-Island.  Mike arrives and meets the villagers of Coralcola, only to talk with the village elder and discover that Dr. Jones has been abducted.  Naturally, young Mike is best prepared to tackle the dangers of the islands in search of his uncle.  This adventure takes place over eight chapters spanning across multiple locations.  Clear all the chapters to beat this game.

Of course you are!

At the beginning of the game you need to set up your save file.  This file selection screen is quite reminiscent of the loading screen of The Legend of Zelda.  First, Select Register Your Name and press Start.  You then enter your name up to 8 characters, then press Select to move to End and press Start to create your file.  The Elimination Mode allows you to delete save files.  The Review Mode is an interesting feature that I completely forgot about and probably never used.  Select your file and press Up or Down to select from any available chapter, then you can press Start to play the game from the beginning of that chapter.   You can choose from any chapter reached so far.  This does not affect your save file in any way.  Just for the sake of science, I loaded up my completed save game and replayed a full chapter in the Review Mode.  When the chapter is finished you are simply sent back to the title screen.

There are two main modes of play in this game, which the manual calls Travel Mode and Battle Mode.  You start off in Travel Mode.  This is a top-down view where you move similar to an RPG.  You can explore areas, enter towns, and talk to people.  Use the D-pad to move around and press A to speak to people.  You can press Select to bring up a limited status view, displaying your current chapter, health meter, and score.  At the start of the game you are on C-Island.  You can explore the island in a limited fashion, and then proceed into the town where you will need to talk to the townspeople.  The chief in each village is who you need to speak with, but either they or something else is often blocked off until you gather more information in town.  Once you gain an audience with the chief, he explains the abduction and gives you the legendary island yo-yo, which is your default weapon for the journey.  After meeting with the island shaman, you proceed underground for your first challenge.

The other mode in this game where all the action takes place is called the Battle Mode.  This also takes place in a top-down mode but with a much larger character sprite.  Here you battle enemies while proceeding through caves or other areas room by room.  The main gimmick here, if you can call it that, is that your movement in combat is gridlocked.  It helps to think of each room overlaid with an invisible grid.  When you walk in one of the four directions, you keep moving until you lock to the next tile of that grid.  This concept does take shape in the actual game, too.  There are green squares that are raised up and you must jump on top of them.  Then, you can jump from tile to tile with A. You may also leap across water safely to another tile two spaces away.  For battling enemies, you wield your trusty yo-yo with B.  Enemies, by and large, play by the same rules you do as far as movement.  This all may seem restricting, but the game was built around the concept and it works better than you might think.

Yo-yo-ing slugs was not the vacation I had in mind.

In The Legend of Zelda, your heart-shaped life meter could be expanded by collecting Heart Containers.  StarTropics functions a lot in the same way.  Clearing each dungeon area gives you a free health refill.  At some locations, you also earn max health upgrades.  Every once in a while, you will find this game’s version of Heart Containers to extend your life.  Your health is not only important for staying alive, but it also helps you with your weapons.  There are two upgrades to your yo-yo: the Shooting Star and the Super Nova.  These not only increase the power of your attack, but also increase your range for distance attacking.  The catch is that you need a certain heart requirement to use them.  The Shooting Star activates with six hearts, while the Super Nova requires eleven hearts to wield.  At any time, if you don’t have enough health for the weapon, it drops back down to the prior level weapon.  Likewise, as you regain health, your better weapons kick back in.  Having low health once you acquire these weapons is a real double whammy.

There are lots of items along the way.  Basic items that defeated enemies drop are hearts and stars.  Hearts add one to the health meter, while stars function as sort of partial hearts.  Every five stars give you one heart.  Other types of items are available either out in the open or revealed by switches.  Those raised green tiles I mentioned earlier can reveal door switches or items when you step on them.  Better items are revealed in this way.  Clocks either freeze or slow down enemies on the current screen.  The anklet lets you jump over two spaces instead of one.  The vitamin X is an interesting item in that it fills up your health and overflows it to the max the game allows.  Over time, that excess health is eaten away bit by bit until you are back to your current max health.  The try-your-luck sign is another weird one.  In each stage you get three lives.  The try-your-luck sign can give you an extra life, sometimes two lives, but also it can remove a life from your stock.  Running out of lives forces you to restart caves from the very beginning, especially painful in some of the longer stages.

Mike also can acquire a plethora of special weapons.  There are three boxes in the status area to hold any special weapons you pick up, along with their ammo counts.  Switch weapons by pressing Select, or you can make selections while the game is paused.  Weapons are only available for the current area and cannot be transferred to other stages.  Many of these weapons, like the bolas or the flame, are simple projectile weapons.  The baseball bat is swung all around you to clear out enemies in close proximity.  The shurikens are neat.  They are double shurikens that are thrown in a straight line, and you can press B at any time to split them up, launching them sideways in opposite directions.  The spike shoes automatically toss Mike all around the screen, stepping on each enemy on screen for you.  There’s even a mirror to reflect some enemy projectiles.

You even get a submarine to traverse the islands.

There’s another category of items too, called Magic Items.  These are stored when you collect them but are activated only through the pause menu.  Press Up or Down when paused to toggle between the weapons and magic items.  Some examples of magic items are the medicine, snowman, magic rod, and the lantern.  The medicine restores five hearts of health, and there’s even a special counter for the medicine on the main status bar.  The snowman temporarily freezes all enemies.  The magic rod is used to reveal hidden enemies that exist on some screens.  This is important as some screen exits are only activated when all enemies are beaten.  The lantern lights up darkened rooms so you can see!

StarTropics also has a scoring system that isn’t often discussed.  It does not appear on the status bar or on the pause screen in the Battle Mode, but you can see it when you stop in the Travel Mode.  Points are awarded after you finish Battle Mode sections.  This isn’t mentioned in the manual, but I have learned how the scoring system works.  Each level in the game is worth a set amount of points, and behind the scenes, every enemy you kill reduces from that total.  If you are high score chasing this game, you will need to learn how to play pacifist, as much as the game allows.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the letter that comes with this game.  Retail copies of StarTropics came with a rather thick, standard size NES manual that has a folded up letter attached to it.  The letter is from Uncle Steve, inviting Mike to come to his island, beginning the adventure.  However at the bottom of the letter is a rather stern warning from Nintendo that pretty much says “don’t eat this letter, save it until the end of the game.”  That’s weird, but reasonable.  The letter is mentioned in-game as well, and when you reach a certain part of the game you are instructed to dip the letter in water, the actual letter.  If you take your unsoaked letter and do this, a secret message appears.  (I guess the invisible ink is what Nintendo is trying to protect you from.)  There is a frequency given that you must enter or you will not be allowed to complete the game.  That frequency is 747.  I might as well say it without spoiler warnings because I can’t imagine anyone playing this game for the first time with the original letter intact, and there’s no reason to make anyone brute force the answer.

Bosses can put you in hot water, so to speak.

StarTropics was a game that I owned brand new back in the day.  At some point we ordered games directly from Nintendo.  Maybe it was something from Nintendo Power, I can’t be too sure.  We bought StarTropics and Punch-Out!!, the version without Mike Tyson.  Nothing too rare, but certainly good games.  Here’s a little story about my original playthrough.  I got to wet the letter to reveal the code just as intended.  But at the time, I didn’t know the best way to do it.  I ended up running the faucet over the letter, but I did it full blast and it ended up almost destroying the letter.  I don’t think I was able to read the entire message, but I did at least see the code so that I could progress.  Funny thing is, if I had to do it over today, I bet I would end up doing the same thing.  For certain things or situations, I don’t know why, but my brain picks the least effective way to do it and I just run with it.  That drives my wife crazy, but at least it gets done I guess.
StarTropics is a game I’ve played many times before.  I never forgot the 747 code, I know the route through the game, and where all the major items are.  Still, I expected this game to take several hours to clear since it always takes me multiple sittings to beat the game.  This time, I finished up the game over two sessions in three hours total, about half the time I expected.  It was nothing special either, just a normal playthrough with plenty of deaths and mostly decent playing.  This is now the kind of game that if I had a block of time with nothing to do, I know I could power through it in one shot and have a pretty good time doing so.

I very much recommend StarTropics as one of the essential NES games that belongs in every collection.  The graphics are simple in spots, but everything is bright and colorful.  There are very detailed character portraits in some of the cutscenes.  The music is catchy and easy to listen to, and the boss theme is good for getting your heart pumping during some difficult fights.  The game controls very well within the constraints of the grid system.  The scenes only have a little bit of graphical variation, but the level design has some good variety with some navigation puzzles and all sorts of traps, enemies, and bosses.  There are plenty of special weapons and items that mix up the formula even more.  The game is not too easy, but not too hard, with a smooth difficulty curve over the entire game.  Best of all, this game is still affordable at around $10.  If you haven’t tried it, go check it out, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I still do.

#167 – StarTropics


#160 – Donkey Kong

DK –- Donkey Kong is here!

A well constructed title!

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat Loop 6
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 6/16/20 – 6/17/20
Difficulty: 2/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Donkey Kong Longplay

Donkey Kong is a special NES game for several reasons.  It was Nintendo’s first huge arcade hit.  It was the debut game for Shigeru Miyamoto, who went on to create countless new series and characters, including some of the best games of all time.  This is part of the “Black Box” series of games which were the first set of games released on the NES in 1985.  Large chunks of gaming history can be traced back to Donkey Kong.  I may not be able to do full justice to this pivotal and essential video game, but I am happy to cover it today.

The history of Donkey Kong begins with Radar Scope.  Space Invaders was a gigantic hit in the arcades and companies raced to create their own clones of Space Invaders to cash in on the hype.  Radar Scope was Nintendo’s answer to Space Invaders.  It did well in Japan and they wanted to release the game in North America.  The problem was that the arcade machines took 4 months by boat to reach the US and by then interest had waned.  Nintendo sent 3000 machines to the US but only 1000 sold, with the other 2000 units languishing in a warehouse.  Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi had the idea to convert the unused Radar Scope cabinets into a different game, so he tabbed Shigeru Miyamoto to come up with a replacement game, and thus Donkey Kong was born.  

Donkey Kong was first released in arcades in July 1981 in both Japan and North America, with a European version appearing later in 1981.  It was published and developed by Nintendo.  This is one of the few Nintendo games to be ported to other consoles and computers.  It appeared on all sorts of home computers, as well as home console ports for the Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision.  Coleco developed a mini arcade version of Donkey Kong, and Nintendo made a Donkey Kong Game & Watch handheld.  Donkey Kong was one of three launch titles for the Famicom, alongside Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye.  Those three games and the Famicom console was released in July 1983 in Japan.  Surprisingly, Donkey Kong was not a launch title for the NES in 1985, instead releasing in June 1986 in North America and October 1986 in Europe.  This version of Donkey Kong was re-released several times in various forms.  The NES has a compilation cart, Donkey Kong Classics, that contains both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.  It was released in 1988.  The game appeared within Animal Crossing on Gamecube in 2002.  It was a downloadable title on Virtual Console for Wii, Wii U, and the Nintendo 3DS.  It has a GBA port as part of the Classic NES series, and it even had an e-Reader version on scannable cards.

Iconic platforming action!

The plot and outline of the game are very simple.  You play as Mario who is ascending a construction site to save Pauline from the clutches of Donkey Kong.  Our antagonist has several traps to thwart Mario, including rolling barrels, fireballs, and bouncing jacks.  The game takes place over three rounds, all single-screen levels.  The original arcade version has four distinct stages, but famously the cement factory stage was omitted from this version of the game entirely.  Clear all three stages to beat this game.

The title screen is a simple one.  It does include a tune that was created new for this port of the game.  You can select from either single player or two-player alternating play, and you can also choose from Game A or Game B.  Mode A is the standard mode, and Game B starts off more difficult.  Press Select to choose which option you want, then press Start to begin the game.

This is a simple game to play.  You use the D-pad to move Mario around.  He can move Left and Right with the respective buttons.  He can climb ladders by pressing either Up or Down, but he must be positioned pretty close to the center of the ladder to move successfully.  You can move partway up or down on the ladder and Mario will hold on.  He can jump by pressing A.  Mario can jump across gaps that are two girder tiles wide — about the width of Mario himself.  He is only permitted to jump down that same distance.  Any falls further down and Mario dies.  He also cannot jump off ladders, only climb up and down.

Some information is displayed at the top of the screen.  The top row contains your score.  The left side, labeled with an I, is score for the first player.  In a two-player game, the second player’s score is shown on the right side, labeled with II, otherwise it is omitted.  The high score for this session is in the center.  On the right side there are three boxes with more information.  The M shows how many extra Marios you have in reserve.  The game begins with two extra lives and you can earn an additional life if you reach 20,000 points.  The bonus is the number of points you get added to your score when you finish the stage.  This acts as a timer as well, counting down from 5000 slowly as you play.  If the bonus reaches 0, the timer runs out and you lose a Mario.  The L is the loop counter.  The game starts off on Loop 1 and this counter increments every time you clear the game.

The final approach in this stage is the hardest.

The first stage is the iconic climb to the top.  Donkey Kong hangs out at the top next to a stack of barrels, dropping them down.  Mostly he rolls them down the slanted girders as they zig-zag down the screen.  Sometimes he throws one directly down, skipping the girders.  He can also throw a barrel that bounces down diagonally.  There is an oil drum at the bottom next to where Mario starts.  When a barrel strikes the oil drum, it catches fire and a flame pops out that patrols the bottom two girders.  There can be two flames going at once, forcing you to climb up quickly to avoid them.  Mario can avoid the rolling barrels by jumping over them, which nets you 100 points.  Sometimes the barrels can roll down ladders instead of continuing on their natural path.  Also, there are broken ladders that Mario can climb up or down partway, but the barrels can fall through no problem.  You always should be prepared for an unexpected barrel drop either down a ladder or thrown down by Donkey Kong.  Mario has a form of attack with the two hammers located in this stage.  Simply jump into it to collect it.  Now Mario will temporarily swing the hammer around, destroying barrels at a 500 point bonus.  The downside is you cannot climb ladders when wielding the hammer, so you have to wait until the effect wears off.  This is a simple screen by appearances but has a lot of complexity to it.

The second stage throws some new tricks at you.  To start, you have an elevator to the right that moves upward.  Mario must jump onto the moving platform as it is rising to cross over.  At the top is Pauline’s parasol that you can collect for an 800 point bonus.  There is another elevator that moves down farther right, and in the island in between are two platforms connected by ladders and a flame that patrols the area.  Mario dies if he touches either the top or the bottom of the elevator.  Once you time your way through this section, now there is another climb up to the top of the screen.  Here you will have to deal with the bouncing jacks that you have watched up above.  They enter the screen from the top left, bounce along the top girder and fall all the way down when they reach the end.  The jack’s path crosses the platforms Mario uses to get to the top.  There is also another patrolling flame along a side path to the purse, another point-netting item.  Once you get to the topmost girder, now you have to time your approach and ladder climb to the top without getting hit by the constantly spawning jacks.

Avoid the fireballs and bring DK down.

The third and final stage takes a different approach.  Donkey Kong is at the top-center, next to Pauline, on a simple screen of straight girders and ladders.  Fireballs appear off the sides of the screen, which wander around the playfield.  There are 8 orange bolts on this screen, and your task is to remove all of them.  Simply walk over them to pick them up, leaving a gap behind.  The gaps also block the fireballs as well, which can sometimes trap them on the edges of the screen.  There are a couple of hammers you can use for some extra protection.  Once all 8 bolts are removed, there is a cutscene where Donkey Kong falls to the bottom and Mario and Pauline are reunited again!

Since this is a short game, the experience is extended through looping the game.  There are six distinct difficulty settings in this game.  Once you get to Loop 7 and beyond, the difficulty caps and you can keep playing for a long time if you are good enough.  In general, the enemies and traps move faster.  On the first screen, Donkey Kong throws barrels more quickly.  You will see them stack up in groups of two or three sometimes, and if there are too many some of them quietly roll off the edge of the screen before they reach the bottom.  In stage two, the fireballs move faster and the jacks appear slightly more often.  That becomes a major issue when trying to reach the top ladder.  In the final level, there are up to four fireballs and they move more quickly.  While the first loop isn’t too difficult, it gets trickier in the higher levels.

Donkey Kong on NES is a game I played a lot.  I got the Donkey Kong Classics cart early on when I was a kid.  As I remember it, we went to visit my aunt and uncle for Thanksgiving, and my cousin had a bunch of NES carts he didn’t play.  I got to take three of them home with me.  I chose Mega Man 2, Ironsword, and Donkey Kong Classics.  I had decent taste!  So, I played a fair amount of both DK games on that cart, never really getting much further than Loop 3 or 4.  This was the first time I tried to grind out the full six loop experience.

Things become a lot more hectic in later loops.

I expected this to be a more challenging goal than it ended up.  I actually completed my goal on the very first try, having not played the game in quite some time.  I reached the second stage in Loop 8. However, some technical issues prevented me from accepting that run.  First of all, I didn’t capture a picture of the Game Over screen in time to show the loop counter.  Second, I had messed around with OBS and accidentally had my voice commentary included in the recorded video.  The following night I played two more times to replicate the feat.  I ended up with a higher score, losing the game at the exact same spot as the first time.  I got my picture this time too.

Both the NES and arcade versions of Donkey Kong have a kill screen, where the game glitches out to the point when you can no longer clear it.  While the arcade version ends in Loop 22, the NES version goes all the way out to Loop 133!  The kill screen in both games happens due to an overflow bug in the bonus point calculation.  You start the game with 5000 bonus points possible, and it increases by 1000 each loop until it gets to 8000 in Loop 4 and after.  The calculation for the increase continues to take place, but after Loop 4 it is intentionally rounded down to 8000.  At Loop 133, the calculated value becomes greater than 255, the maximum value of an 8-bit number, at which point it loops back around 0.  Since this value would set the bonus lower than 8000, it is not rounded down.  In this particular case, Loop 133 begins with the bonus at 400 points.  Since this acts as a timer too, it is impossible for Mario to reach the top before the time runs out, causing Mario to lose all his lives.  There is a video by Tom Votava where he covers the kill screen and gameplay strategies for playing Donkey Kong at the highest level.

The arcade version of Donkey Kong is a timeless classic.  While not the first platformer, it was the first one to reach mainstream and inspired many other classic platformers.  The NES version plays very well, but it does feel incomplete missing the pie factory stage.  When you consider the time this game was made, the NES port was done very well.  The graphics closely resemble the arcade version.  The music is basic, and mostly just sound effects, but it is still iconic in its own right.  The controls work well, though climbing ladders requires a little bit more precision than you might expect.  The game is short and repetitive, but I think it holds up well enough.  There is enough randomness in the game to keep it appealing when the levels stay the same.  All that said, I don’t really recommend the NES version of the game when better, more complete versions of the game are available.

#160 – Donkey Kong

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#148 – Gyromite

As they used to say in Good Times, Gy-ro-mite!

People didn’t care about box and title screen discrepancies.

To Beat: Beat Game A and Game B
To Complete: Beat Game A and 3 Loops of Game B
My Goal: Beat the game using R.O.B.
What I Did: Beat the game with R.O.B. and completed the game without R.O.B.
Played: 2/3/20 – 2/16/20
Difficulty: 2/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Gyromite Longplay

Good old R.O.B., our Robotic Operating Buddy.  This robot toy was something of an icon for Nintendo in its early days in the American market.  Since then, he has mostly faded away, sometimes appearing as a period piece in media or as a reference in some of Nintendo’s own games.  It’s good that he gets to join the battle in Smash Bros. though, that was a nice minor renaissance for him.  Today, R.O.B. will get a little bit of the spotlight back as I review one of his games, Gyromite.

R.O.B. played a key role in both Nintendo’s entrance to the North American market as a return-to-form of video games in the home.   The video game crash of 1983 was still looming large as Nintendo wanted to get a foothold in the gaming market.  Their idea was to brand the NES as an “Entertainment System,” placing more focus on the toys, i.e. the Zapper and R.O.B. than on the games themselves.  R.O.B. was intended to be the centerpiece of the marketing for the NES.  The move worked out for Nintendo as the NES became a massive success throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.  R.O.B. though did not fare as well, only receiving two compatible games at launch, Gyromite and Stack-Up, and nothing more.  These games released alongside R.O.B. and NES in October 1985 in North America.  Gyromite also released in Japan as Robot Gyro in August 1985 and in Europe in 1986.

There were a couple of ways to acquire R.O.B. back in the day.  The most common way was through the NES Deluxe Set.  This was a very large box set that contained the NES, TV hookups, two controllers, a Zapper, R.O.B, all the parts required for Gyromite, and boxed copies of both Gyromite and Duck Hunt.  The Deluxe Set retailed for $179.99, which in today’s money closes in on $500.  R.O.B. could also be purchased standalone for $49.99, but he did not come with any parts and couldn’t be used as-is to play a game.  Gyromite has a standalone big-box set containing all the pieces and the game.  This set is really tough to find and very expensive nowadays.

Here’s my good buddy hard at work!

Here is how R.O.B. works in practice.  R.O.B. sits in place with his two arms outstretched.  He has the capability to raise and lower his arms, turn his arms left and right, close his arms, and open them.  R.O.B. is powered by 4 AA batteries, and when you turn him on, he goes through a calibration routine.  He raises his arms and opens them all the way while turning to the right.  Then he rotates back to the left to position himself facing forward.  Now you don’t trigger any movements from R.O.B. directly, rather you send him signals through the TV screen.  The NES generates a series of screen flashes that R.O.B. can read and translate that to his basic movements.  There are some considerations when getting him to work.  R.O.B.’s head must be pointed at the TV screen for this to work.  There is a Test mode within Gyromite to ensure he can read the signals.  If he’s positioned properly, a red LED light on top of his head will be lit.  Furthermore, A CRT TV is required for R.O.B. to work.  Similar to the Zapper, he cannot read the signals from a modern TV.  Certainly, there is a lot of setup required to get R.O.B. up and running in the year 2020.

Getting R.O.B. set up to play Gyromite takes even more work.  There are several required parts that need to be set up.  First up are the gyros.  There are two of them in the set and they are spinning tops.  You can hold the top piece and the rest of the gyro below will spin freely.  Along the robot’s base there are evenly spaced notches numbered 1 through 5 where you attach the parts to R.O.B.  In slot 1 you place the gyro spinner.  This takes 2 D batteries and has a power switch to turn it on.  There’s a motor inside that you’ll hear rev up.  If you place the gyro through the hole on the top it will get it spinning fast.  The next piece goes into slots 2 and 3 together.  It is a rail with blue and red concave buttons and a shallow rectangular slot on the far end.  You take the second controller (don’t forget to plug it in) and stand it up in the rectangular slot.  The arms with the red and blue buttons, when pushed down, also press the A and B buttons on the second controller.  The idea is that once a gyro is spinning up, you can rest it on top of the red and blue button keeping the controller button pressed down.  Another rail goes into the remaining slots 4 and 5.  This is just a holder for the two gyros to get it in R.O.B.’s reach.

Now that R.O.B. and the NES are all set up, it’s time to launch the game and see what we can do with it.  An interesting thing here is that this version of the game is exactly the same in all regions, which is why the title screen reads Robot Gyro, the Famicom’s release name, instead of Gyromite.  After the title screen you get to the main menu.  Press either Up, Down, or Select to choose a menu item, then press Start to select it.  The A and B buttons update the phase number at the top, cycling from 1 through 40.  These are the levels in Game A, so you can choose any stage you want.  The Test mode puts the game on a flashing screen which is used to ensure that R.O.B. is facing the TV correctly and is ready to go.  The Direct mode allows you to test all of R.O.B.’s movements.  You press a directional key to issue Up, Down, Left, or Right commands, A to open his arms, and B to close them.  If the robot responds appropriately to all actions, you are ready to play Gyromite!  Press Select to go back to the menu.

This is probably the most viewed screen in the game.

Game A is the meat of this game.  It be played solo or with a friend in alternating play.  Here you control Professor Hector (or Professor Vector as Player 2) directly to help him remove all the dynamite in the room to prevent a big explosion.  Use the D-pad to move Hector around.  He can climb ropes with Up or Down.  Right off the bat in Phase 1 you are stuck behind a blue column.  To get anywhere in this game you will need to move the red and blue columns littered around the room with R.O.B.’s help.  Press Start to get ready to issue a command to the robot.  This turns the screen a tint of blue and Professor Hector will face the screen awaiting your command.  Press a button after that to do the screen flash and move R.O.B.  You will need to control R.O.B. one movement at a time to grab a gyro and place it on top of the blue button.  While held down, this lowers all the blue columns in the level, giving you a path forward.

There are some other things you’ll need to know to play this game.  The object of the game is to collect all the dynamite to advance to the next stage, simple as that.  This game has one enemy type, named Smick.  He can walk around and climb ropes and is generally in the way.  You lose a life if you touch him.  Smick’s one weakness is turnips, which you can find in the stages.  Use either A or B to grab a turnip off the ground and carry it, then press the button again to set it down.  If Smick finds a turnip he will sit down and eat it for a long time, allowing you to pass by him safely.  You can also fight Smick with the columns themselves.  If timed just right, you can smush him against a wall with a moving column removing him altogether.  You might need some time to strategize how to approach a level.  Press Select to pause the game, then use Left or Right to pan across the entire level.  Be careful when unpausing.  Use Select to resume play or press Start while paused to go back to the main menu.  Each level is timed at a generous 999 that ticks down fairly slowly.  Usually this is more than enough time even with the slow process of using R.O.B.  You get five lives to complete this game.  Lives are kind of useless here because you can select any level you want at any time and the only penalty of losing them all is that your score resets back to 0.

Game B plays differently.  This is another level-based game where Professor Hector is sleepwalking and you have to move the columns to guide him through the level.  Here you control R.O.B.’s movements with the controller exactly like in the Direct mode.  Many of the stages have branching paths, some of which lead the professor directly into a Smick.  Arrow signs along the course help point you in the right direction.  The professor only moves to the right or climbs up a rope any time he finds one.  You can predict where he is going to go and can plan ahead to set up the correct path in front of him.  Some levels even have two exits, a high and low path, that influence where the professor enters the next stage.  This mode has 25 levels, but there are only three lives and you can’t select your starting stage like you can in Game A.  

Sometimes you have to lower both colored pillars together.

I didn’t spend much time with Gyromite prior to playing it here.  I remember playing the game at a babysitter’s house long ago, but there was no robot and I didn’t understand that you needed the second controller to play the game without him.  This is a very common game that is inexpensive, however finding every little thing needed to play this game does not come easy or cheap.  Browsing eBay one day, after I had finished my licensed cart collection, I found a listing for a R.O.B. with all of the Gyromite parts in a lot for $80.  Most sets you’ll see online are incomplete, and the ones that have everything can run you $150 to $200, so this was a very good deal for me.  The Gyromite cart itself also has some more expensive variants.  As an early NES game, some copies have the 60-pin Famicom board inside with a converter to the 72-pin format the NES uses.  You can harvest these converters to play Famicom games on the NES.  These used to be more valuable as these were pretty much the only Famicom-to-NES converters you could find for a long time, but loose Gyromite carts with them still go for around $15-$20.  There is also a 3-screw variant where the Canadian version is relatively common while the US version is quite rare and valuable.

When trying to play this game with R.O.B. for the first time, I soon found out that my robot was not ready for prime time.  During setup he went through all his motions just fine.  During playtime, however, I noticed at times he would struggle to lift a gyro.  I could hear the motors working (My R.O.B.’s motors were particularly loud) so I wasn’t sure what the issue was.  I figured out that if I applied very slight pressure with a finger from underneath his torso when he was going up that I could give him enough of a boost to lift all the way.  I played through several levels this way and was making progress.  I just wasn’t happy with the state of affairs and so I decided to take to the internet and figure out how to go about repairing R.O.B.

The next thing that I learned is that there’s not a plethora of documentation out there on how to do repairs.  I went down just about every rabbit hole I could to figure out the complete picture.  A few links I found led to dead pages.  There were some forum threads and blog posts, some with pictures which was helpful.  Probably the best source is YouTube as I found maybe 8-10 videos of varying quality.  Putting it all together, through many attempts, I was eventually able to get R.O.B. back in order.

Definitely save this stick of dynamite for last.

To the best of my understanding, here is how R.O.B. works internally and how I was able to fix my problem.  There are three motors inside R.O.B.  One is inside R.O.B.’s base.  You can set him upside-down, remove the battery cover, and unscrew the bottom plate.  There’s a covered section inside that you can open up with your screwdriver further that exposes gears and the motor.  This assembly is responsible for twisting his torso left and right.  His control board and wiring are also around here as well.  The remaining two motors and gears are inside of R.O.B.’s body.  For this you still want the robot standing on his head with his arms facing you, but you will also need to support his arms or they will fall out when you open him up, probably scattering several gears on the floor too.  Four NES carts stacked are just the right height to rest the arms while you look inside.  When unscrewed, the bottom cover of the torso has to be held up so you can work inside.  I used a couple of big rubber bands to hold the cover against R.O.B’s base.  Inside here are the remaining two gear sections both connected to an axle in the front.  The left motor opens and closes the arms, while the right motor is responsible for up and down movement.  At first, it’s a little confusing because both motors connect to the common axle.  On the left side, the gear assembly is supposed to be attached to the axle so that it turns the axle which connects to the arm assemblies to open and close the arms.  On the right side, this motor connects to the vertical track that moves the torso vertically, so that gear assembly must spin freely around the axle.  I realize that these text descriptions may not be all that helpful in an actual repair, so please go to YouTube and watch some videos in that case.

The common method for repairing R.O.B. is to super glue some of the gear assemblies together.  The final gear opposite the motor is supposed to be connected to some round metal plates.  Over time the glue can dry out and become brittle, and when it breaks free, it causes R.O.B. to either function poorly or not at all.  The other thing specific to the arm movements is that that gear assembly must also be glued down to the axle for it to work.  That was not my issue, but it is a common one.  This glue fix for the gear assembly connected to the vertical track was what worked for me.  I just applied a few tiny drops of glue to hold together what was supposed to be held together and let it dry for a few hours before trying it out.  I have read however that you really aren’t supposed to do that. There is a thin, curvy metal plate in between some of the parts that is there to apply pressure to help with R.O.B.’s function.  Evidently the proper fix is to get that plate loose and pinch it down a little so that it applies the proper pressure when put back together.  I think those curvy plates are there to help the gears slip if the motors are forced, like if a little kid grabs it and starts pulling or pushing his body or arms the wrong way.  I am probably not explaining that or understanding that correctly.  I’m just mentioning it as a caution that I read about that made sense at the time.  In my opinion, since R.O.B. is so sparingly used as intended these days, the glue fix is fine.  I won’t have any trouble applying more glue if he breaks again down the line, plus I only use him when my kids aren’t around so I’m not worried about forcing the gears.

Do the juggling column act.

My repair experience was not the best, to say the least.  Getting R.O.B. opened up and messing around inside was no trouble at all.  I looked inside before I realized I didn’t have any super glue.  I guess the tube we had dried out.  I made a special trip to the store just for super glue.  (This was before all of the social distancing measures were in effect.)  My wife does not seem to get the importance of repairing a R.O.B. to play NES Gyromite, so explaining this to her was half the battle.  Anyway, I got me a tube of Gorilla Glue.  Unfortunately, I misinterpreted the glue fix and glued the wrong gear assembly to the axle, the one that was not supposed to be stuck to the axle at all.  When put back together R.O.B. didn’t move much at all.  I thought I messed it up for good and was convinced I burned out the motors, which I would not be able to fix or replace.  I took it apart again and managed to break the glue so that gear spun freely again.  At this point I decided to leave things alone as R.O.B. went back to his normal state of good movement but not lifting the gyro.  I got pretty far into the game with giving him lifting assistance like I had been doing.  Then one time out of nowhere, his torso fell all the down and didn’t lift at all.  Great, now he’s broken for real, I thought.  I opened him up one more time, and now I finally saw what came loose.  This time I got the glue in the right spots, put him all back together, and now he works just fine.  I finally have a fully working R.O.B.  I am not a repair kind of guy, so looking back I should have known these tribulations would have happened.

Actually playing all of Gyromite with a functional R.O.B. as originally intended was an interesting experience.  Not necessarily good, just interesting.  You have to train your brain a little to do this.  Getting past the initial blue pillar in Phase 1, for example, takes 10-20 individual movements to pull it off.  Each one requires pressing Start, then a direction or button, then waiting a few seconds for R.O.B. to finish moving so you can trigger the next action.  If you want to spin the gyro for this, that adds another 10 steps or so.  This for me was an obvious strategy, but most of the time you don’t need to spin up a gyro at all.  R.O.B. can hold a gyro and lower it enough in his hands to press the button.  Only in situations where you need both buttons held down together do you need to spin up one gyro, leave it on a button, then go grab the other gyro and hold it down on the other button.  The latter scenario happens far less often than I would have expected. Because of the deliberate nature of the game, I was incentivized to plan ahead and figure out the least amount of movements to grab all of the dynamite. It is also beneficial to play consecutive levels because you may already be set up from the last level to grab some dynamite in the next.  Occasionally there were missteps, such as a gyro falling down or me knocking it over with R.O.B. by accident.  In those cases, I reset the setup by hand and just restarted the stage.

I got the hang of Gyromite pretty quickly and I didn’t think it was a very difficult game.  The first level in Game A is a little bit unfair, especially to kick things off.  Being trapped behind the initial blue pillar is a safe playground to get acquainted with using R.O.B. in a gameplay setting.  Once you get past that though, you are face-to-face with a Smick.  Depending on the timing when you lower the pillar, he might be already on a crash course with you.  At least then the pillar should already be lowered for the next life.  Many levels require only one button pressed to clear the whole thing.  Some later levels have a stick of dynamite placed in a spot where you’ll have to grab it last, otherwise you’ll be stuck and have to reset the level.  A few times you’ll have to set the professor on top a pillar, instruct R.O.B. to raise it, then walk off while it’s moving to grab dynamite in the air before you get squished.  Those parts are a little tricky.  The final level in Game A gave me the most trouble for sure.  It starts with two Smicks nearby and a set of red and blue pipes that require you to juggle two gyros to position them properly to pass.  The way the level is structured you will have to loop through that pipe section twice to get all the dynamite.  This takes a lot of time and I almost didn’t have enough left on the timer to complete everything.  I ended up employing a pause buffering technique to clear it.  Once you issue a command to the robot, you can pause the game to halt the timer while he finishes his seconds-long movement.  I did this for several consecutive moves toward the end of the stage to help keep the timer from running out.  I don’t prefer pause abuse as a strategy in general, but I did it anyway, and I hope this ends up the lone exception across this project.

Game B requires some intuition and some trial-and-error.

Game B is a nice twist that is simpler to play but was more challenging to clear.  Focusing only on moving R.O.B. makes the game more straightforward.  Having only three lives and no level select makes this the harder mode to clear.  In a few stages, I was naturally drawn to the incorrect path leading to a Smick, so I had to memorize those.  Sometimes the professor sleepwalks into a pillar, locking him into place and giving you enough time to open the path for him.  In other cases, you must set up the pillars before he gets there lest you lose him to a Smick.  You’ll have to track out where he is going to end up walking to properly do the necessary setup.  This mode took me a few tries before I cleared it with R.O.B.  The second loop of the game has the professor walking faster.  I only got a few levels in before losing and not trying again.

For my recorded playthrough, I decided to replay the game using both NES controllers by hand and going without R.O.B.  I did borrow his rail and set the second controller into it so I could hit the red and blue buttons.  It just seemed appropriate and a little easier than trying to remember which button does which color.  The game is a lot easier and quicker this way.  I managed to clear all 40 phases in Game A on my initial set of five lives, though I did have to play the last dozen levels on my final life.  I ended up clearing three loops on Game B, though that was on my second R.O.B.-less try.  The professor clearly moves faster between Loops 1 and 2, and on inspection at runtime I thought he also sped up at Loop 3.  I used my recording to time it and found that Loop 3 was 2-3 minutes faster than Loop 2, enough to say that he did walk faster.  Loop 4 did not appear noticeably different and so I let my run end there, but it is certainly possible that he keeps walking faster there too and I just didn’t catch it.  Three loops of Game B are more than enough for me to feel good about completing it.

Gyromite is a pretty good introduction for using R.O.B. despite the fact there are only two games for him.  Gameplay is unique for sure, and I could see how it turned heads at its time.  In reality, the novelty wears off quickly.  Gyromite with R.O.B. becomes tedious.  Without R.O.B., there is really no substance to the game.  As an early NES game, it is a simple game in all aspects that is at least competent in all of them.  The graphics are clear, the music is catchy but repetitive, and the controls work.  That’s really all it has to offer.  For me, it was cool to play this game in its purest form.  It was a neat change of pace from my normal playing and I did enjoy my time with it.  It’s just that there’s no reason to go back to it and no reason for me to recommend playing it.

#148 – Gyromite (Game A)

#148 – Gyromite (Game A)

#148 – Gyromite (Game B)


#143 – Snake Rattle N Roll

Sneaky snakes slither surrounding slippery slopes.

Look at those good snake-y boys!

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 12/29/19 – 1/5/20
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
My Video: Snake Rattle N Roll Longplay

I love 3D platformers.  It’s one of my favorite genres of games that I know I don’t play near enough of given my interest level.  I have completed all of the mainline 3D Mario games 100% multiple times over, and I was also big into the N64 collect-a-thon games like Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo Kazooie.  Some NES developers went out of their way to implement pseudo 3D effects in games, some more explicit like in Marble Madness and some more subtle like the areas in Contra.  Snake Rattle N Roll is the closest thing the NES has to a true 3D platformer, so it may not be a big surprise to you that I really enjoyed this game.

Snake Rattle N Roll was released on the NES in July 1990.  It was developed by Rare and published by Nintendo.  The PAL version was released in March 1991, while a Mega Drive port was released in 1993 in Europe only.  Rare released a Game Boy game Sneaky Snakes in 1991 which has similar gameplay to Snake Rattle N Roll but as a 2D side-scrolling platformer.  Snake Rattle N Roll also appeared on the compilation Rare Replay that was released in 2015.  Another random tidbit is that this appears to be the first NES game released with the text “Nintendo Entertainment System” written on a red stripe across the top of the box.  That was the standard for NES releases published by Nintendo for the rest of the lifespan of the NES.

Snake Rattle N Roll has a story section in the manual without having any sort of real story.  Two snakes named Rattle and Roll are on a journey and you get to help them.  Rattle is the orange snake and Roll is the purple one.  In single player you play as Rattle, while in the simultaneous two-player mode you play as either Rattle or Roll.  To beat the game, you have to finish all 11 stages.

Tiny body, long tongue.

This game is an isometric platformer that has pretty simple controls.  You move Rattle in all eight directions with the D-pad.  The translation of the D-pad directions is just like the default 45-degree movement in games like Marble Madness and Q*bert.  Down moves you both down and left, and all other directions follow suit.  The A button jumps.  With the default speed of Rattle and the floaty nature of the jumps, you can cover a lot of ground laterally.  Press B to lash out your tongue.  You can use your tongue to eat things or attack enemies.

To clear each level in the game you need to leave through the exit door, but that’s not always as easy as it sounds.  First off, you need to grow Rattle and Roll.  There are these colorful balls that appear in the levels called Nibbley Pibbleys.  You eat them with your tongue and there’s a brief chewing animation where you can’t open your mouth again right away.  The Nibbley Pibbleys come in orange, purple, and yellow varieties.  The Nibbley Pibbley that matches your color is worth two units, while the alternate color is only worth one.  Yellow ones are worth three units for either snake.  For every four units you consume, your snake grows by one segment.  You must eat enough to grow your snake to the maximum size. When this happens, your tail segment starts flashing.  There is a weighted platform somewhere in the level with a bell on it.  When you are at full size, sitting on the platform rings the bell which opens up the level exit.  Now you proceed through the open door to clear the stage.

Fortunately, Nibbley Pibbleys appear all over the place in different ways.  The most common way to find them is to find a Nibbley Pibbley generator.  It is like a giant box with a couple of horns on it like an old-time phonograph.  It spits out Nibbley Pibbleys one or two at a time in a random direction.  You have to wait for them to land before they come alive so that you can eat them.  The Nibbley Pibbleys take on a different form depending on what stage you are on.  They start off just as simple balls that bounce around short distances, but they can grow legs and run away or sprout wings and fly around.  Later variants are harder to catch than earlier ones.  The generators sometimes spew out bombs that look like Nibbley Pibbleys at first, so you have to be a little careful.  

They don’t like staying still, that’s for sure.

This game features plenty of powerups for our heroes.  All items are worth 1000 points and have some kind of effect.  Diamonds give you temporary invincibility.  Clocks add 25 seconds of time shown at the bottom of the screen.  A rectangle with a fork on it is a tongue extension.  You can grab a few of these to gradually increase the length of your tongue.  The speed up item looks like the knob of an old wind-up toy.  A tiny arrow item reverses your controls for a little while, making it more of a power-down item.  A flashing snake head is a 1up, while a flashing snake head with its mouth open is good for a continue.  There is also a fish tail item that shows up in one level that lets you swim up a waterfall.

In addition to the powerups found out in the open, there are also many items hidden under lids.  To open a lid, stand on top and press B.  The item will fly upward a distance before falling down so you can grab it.  Be careful that sometimes the lids hide enemies or traps as well.  If you see a snake head that is not flashing, it is actually a bomb decoy and you will want to get out of the way.  Sometimes you will find the entrance to a bonus room underneath a lid.  Here you have to try and collect all five Nibbley Pibbleys before they leave the room for a nice 5000-point bonus if you nab them all.  Plus, you get to keep the added length to your snake.  There are also hidden lids out there that conceal warps.  I didn’t find any of these when I played, but they are out there.

It wouldn’t be a platformer game without enemies and traps.  Some enemies can be defeated by either jumping on them or by hitting them with your tongue a few times.  You get more points for bopping than you do for tongue lashing.  Some sharper enemies are vulnerable to the tongue but are immune to jumping on.  Sharks pursue you in the water in the first couple of stages.  There are also blades that pop out of the ground, pushers that try and shove you off the edge, and falling anvils that try and smash you.  One enemy you want to pay attention to is a Big Foot.  Literally.  It tracks around the stage and you have to hit it many times consecutively with your tongue to beat it.  If you let up your attack for just a little while, it gets all its health back.  You don’t get to see how much health it has remaining.  If you keep up the attack and defeat it, you are often rewarded with an extra life or less often rewarded with a bomb posing as a fake life.  I tried to beat the feet up wherever reasonable.

Uhh, this picture speaks for itself.

Death is a frequent occurrence in this game.  Getting damaged by an enemy or trap causes you to lose a segment of your snake, setting back your progress.  You die if you get hurt with no segments remaining.  You die if you fall too far off a ledge.  You die if you jump on top of spikes, including spiked enemies, or if you get crushed by something.  You also lose a life if the timer runs out.  The good news is that death doesn’t set you back any distance; you simply respawn near where you died.  You also respawn if you use up a continue.  You’ll see the Game Over message followed by a message to Play On if you have continues left.  When all is said and done, you are brought to the final score screen.

I wasn’t completely new to Snake Rattle N Roll before beating the game.  There was a small game store that was very close to where I lived at the time that I only visited once or twice before it closed down.  I wasn’t a full-blown collector at that time and now I really regret not visiting that store more often.  But one of the times I shopped there I picked up a loose copy of Snake Rattle N Roll.  I played it casually for a day or two and then put it away.  I know I have played the game some more since then but I’m not sure how much.  I don’t think I got anywhere past the third stage.  I no longer have the copy I bought from the store since it had some damage to it.  It took until my third copy before I acquired a cart in a condition I am happy with.

This is a hard game to beat, but I feel like it was right in my wheelhouse and so it didn’t take me as much effort to win than it could have.  The game starts out slow.  There’s not much jumping needed and the Nibbley Pibbleys are easy to snack on.  Reading the manual first helped me understand the systems at play.  The difficulty gradually ramps up from there.  The end of the second stage introduces what I call corner jumping, where you need to go in two different directions in a single, floaty jump.  These kinds of jumps become the standard for reaching new ledges.  I picked up on all of this rather quickly, reaching the halfway point of the game within the first couple of tries.  Things escalate majorly in the last few stages, and this was where I struggled the most.  Overall, it took me 13 tries to clear this game, but it could have easily been 20, 30, 40 attempts or more.  I’m happy I knocked this one out relatively quickly.

In this stage, you need a water spout boost.

Looking at the game as a whole, I really appreciate how they tied all the levels together.  This paragraph will spoil some late game elements, just a warning.  The entire game map is a mountain and across all the stages you are climbing to the top.  You begin at the bottom of this mountain that is surrounded by water, giving you a temporary safe place to land in case you fall.  As you work your way up, things start to get steeper and more treacherous.  In some areas of the game you can see pieces of levels you have already cleared, giving you a sense of progress.  Waterfalls become a more common feature as the inclines get steeper and the climbing and jumps get more difficult.  This comes to a head at Level 9 when the difficulty spikes near the top of the mountain.  Icy conditions make your path slippery, and to make matters worse there are now slopes to deal with as the ledges get narrower toward the summit.  Even enemies get a defensive boost from the cold as they form icy armor.  The final climb is very tough, but thematically this all make sense.  The final boss encounter takes place on the summit and it demands both precise control and aggressive attacking.  You’ve been groomed for it, you’re ready, but it doesn’t make it easy.

I enjoyed Snake Rattle N Roll quite a lot.  I like the graphics in this game.  There’s a nice use of colors and the characters are well animated.  The viewpoint is about as clear as you can get for an NES isometric game, though I admit it’s one of those things that you either grasp cleanly or you don’t get it at all.  This game has good music as well, opting to use music either from old 1950’s songs or tunes inspired by some of the classics.  The game controls well and I am able to pull off corner jumps without much trouble.  I did consider the speed up powerup more of a power-down since that was much harder for me to control, though that can be considered personal taste.  Gameplay is strong.  I appreciate the different ways the Nibbley Pibbleys move around and how some stages have unique elements in them.  Though the main gist is the same, there’s plenty of variety.  This is not a game for everyone, but I think it’s worth a try just to see if you might like it.

#143 – Snake Rattle N Roll

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#139 – Wild Gunman

A Wild Gunman appears!

Title text is a little funky but it works.

To Beat: Win 0.4 Round in Game A, Win 0.6 Round in Game B, Win 20 rounds in Game C
What I Did: Beat Game A, Maxed out score in Game B, Beat Game C
Played: 11/2/19 – 11/6/19
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Wild Gunman All Modes Longplay

It’s time for another Black Box game!  This iconic set of early NES titles is 30 games long, and I have now completed five of them.  Considering I’m just over 20% of the library completed, that’s pretty close to average pace.  Four of the Black Box games are Zapper games, and this is the second one of those I’ve played, the first being Hogan’s Alley.  The Black Box Zapper games are distinct from one another in playstyle, though I find it interesting that both Hogan’s Alley and Wild Gunman carry one major similarity between them.  To know what I’m talking about, you will have to read on!

Wild Gunman originally was an electro-mechanical arcade game released by Nintendo in 1974.  The game featured projection video on film of a gunslinger that you shoot when his eyes flash.  Depending on how quick you are to the draw, you will see another video of the outcome.  This version was brought to America by Sega (yes, Sega) in 1976.  The home version was released in a different year in four territories: Japan in February 1984 on Famicom, October 1985 in North America, February 1986 in Canada, and February 1988 in Europe.  This was the first Zapper game released on the Famicom, while it was released in North America alongside Hogan’s Alley and Duck Hunt.  There is a big box Famicom version of Wild Gunman that comes with a revolver-shaped Zapper gun and a holster to put it in for the most authentic experience.  Nintendo knew they could not get away with a light gun that looks like a real gun in America, so instead we received the futuristic looking Zapper light gun we all know and love.

Wild Gunman is a timed shooting game designed to play like an old wild west style shootout.  The first thing you’ll do is hook up your Zapper.  If you want to read more about how the Zapper works, I wrote up some information in my Operation Wolf review.  When you turn the game on there are three modes to choose from.  You can press Select on the controller to toggle between the modes, or you can fire your Zapper off-screen to adjust the cursor.  When you are ready to play, either press Start or fire at the screen.  The only other use of the controller is to pause the game.

I don’t believe I shot his belt off…

Game A is the standard mode most people think of when they know of Wild Gunman.  You are presented with a single gunslinger as he moseys his way to the middle of the screen.  Each gunman has a specified amount of time between when he draws and when he fires, as displayed at the top of the screen.  You have a timer as well that ticks up from 0.0s at the draw.  You wait until the gunman’s eyes light up and he says the word “FIRE!” in a speech bubble.  Then you draw your weapon and shoot.  You will knock him over if you fire first, then you can see how quick you were and how much time you had left to shoot.  Each gunman gives you reward money listed on the bottom of the screen as points.  You also get a thousand bonus points for every tenth of a second remaining.  You have three lives in this mode.  You lose a life if you get shot or if you shoot too early and cause a foul.  One interesting tidbit about this mode is that the game does not check to see if you shot at the screen, only when you pulled the trigger.  I don’t think any other NES Zapper games of the era worked that way, so you can play this mode on your modern TV if you want.

In Game B, you have to fend off two gunmen at once.  The same rules apply as in Game A.  Each bad guy has his own timer for shooting.  You wait until one of them yells “FIRE!” and then you shoot them both in the allotted time.  This go-around you must aim at the gunman you wish to shoot.  Sometimes only one gunslinger fires as you, so you will need to hesitate ever so slightly so you are sure to fire at just the one.  You lose a life if you shoot an unarmed gunman.  Both gunmen have reward money for points and you get the same time bonus as before for each shooter.

Game C is a different mode altogether.  This is a shooting gallery game that is very similar to Hogan’s Alley.  You are facing a saloon that has five entrances where gunmen appear.  One at a time a gunman will appear from a window or door and you need to shoot him as quickly as possible.  In each wave there will be 10 gunmen to deal with.  You get up to 15 bullets as shown on the bottom of the screen.  For each gunman you shoot, you will see a point total appear behind him that is added to your score.  The quicker the gunman shoots, the higher number of points you get, up to a maximum of 5000 points for the fastest shooter.  If you miss and get shot, you lose a life and must replay that wave from the beginning.  As in both the other modes, you get three lives for this one.

Uhhh, I think his head is gone.

This was my first time playing through Wild Gunman.  I’m pretty sure I was too lazy to test this cart out with the proper Zapper setup.  I knew what the game was pretty much, though having a shooting gallery mode did catch me by surprise.  (This is why I enjoy digging into these games, you never know what will surprise you.)  This cart was a tougher one to track down.  I know a local store had a poor condition copy for a decent price that I passed on.  I am pretty sure I snagged this one in a random eBay lot.  This is one of those games where complete-in-box copies are worth far more than just the cartridge.  Expect to pay around $15 for a loose cart and around $100 for CIB.

Wild Gunman does not have a proper ending in any mode.  The game keeps looping for as long as you can last.  When this happens, I get to determine my own winning condition.  I don’t like rolling the loop counter like the NES Ending FAQ suggests.  The high scores for this game are also very low and don’t feel suitable either.  TheMexicanRunner had the best idea for considering Wild Gunman beaten in NESMania, so a modified version of that is what I went with.  In Game A, the gunman with 0.4s timer is the quickest draw, so beating that wave is the requirement.  Similarly, the wave in Game B where the higher timer of the two gunman is 0.6s is the requirement.  It can either be 0.4s/0.6s or 0.6s/0.6s, both are virtually the same if you have to shoot both men.  Both Games A and B are randomized so you just have to play until you get the hardest wave.  Game C has the most proper ending of the three modes.  The text on the saloon sign changes when the wave is beaten.  Normally it says “Good,” however it displays “Nice” when Wave 10 is cleared and “Master” when Wave 20 is cleared.  That’s as far as it goes, so beating Wave 20 is the winning condition for Game C.

For my playthrough, I took things a bit further.  In Game A, I cleared 20 waves before intentionally losing.  Typically, the hardest wave comes after completing 10-15 waves.  I will note that I started off playing this game by attempting to treat the Zapper like a revolver on my hip, just like a traditional wild west shootout.  I was able to clear Game A that way but wasn’t fast or accurate enough for Game B.  For my longplay I pointed the Zapper toward the screen in all modes like I normally would. In Game B, I ended up rolling the high score past one million points before letting it go.  The hardest wave in Game B comes much later, and at that point it isn’t much of a stretch to just go for the million mark.  I stuck with clearing Wave 20 for beating Game C.  I had to record my longplay video for this game in a couple of stitched-together parts.  It may not be noticeable in my longplay video, but it is not a single-segment run.  I was able to clear Games A and B back to back with no trouble, but Game C needed several attempts to get right.  I also had to re-record Games A and B because I forgot to put my name tag on the pictures I took after Game Over.  I want the scores in the pictures to match the scores in the video.

You gotta be ready to handle two gunmen at a time.

Games A and B were pretty easy for me, but Game C really threw me for a loop in how difficult it was.  Some of the gunman in later waves appear to work on the same 0.4s timing as the quickest shooters in the other modes, and that is tough to handle when you also need to aim unpredictably.  But actually, that isn’t true because I realized that the gunmen in Game C do indeed appear from the same locations every time.  There are a few different patterns where the gunmen appear from the windows and doors in the same order for a full wave.  Furthermore, these patterns are tweaked when they reoccur in later waves so that the timing of when a gunman appears from his location is slightly changed.  As an example, there is a pattern where the last two gunmen appear from the lower-left window and upper-right window respectively.  In later waves using that same pattern, the gap in time between the final two gunmen appearing may either increase or decrease.  It was necessary to pay attention to these nuances to beat this mode.  When you have to defeat ten gunmen in each of the twenty waves, mistakes are amplified when you only have three lives to manage.

Some of you know that Wild Gunman made an appearance in the movie Back to the Future Part II.  In the film, Marty jumps ahead in time to October 21st, 2015 and enters an ’80s café where he finds and tries out a Wild Gunman arcade game.  While they nailed the look of the characters in the game footage, the game play looks quite a bit more advanced than the actual game.  Plus, there was never a dedicated arcade cabinet for the Wild Gunman video game, aside from its appearance on Nintendo’s Play Choice 10 system.  Anyway, many people had fun reminiscing and celebrating the Back to the Future series on 10/21/2015, and Nintendo got in on the fun themselves.  Nintendo of Europe released the Wii U Virtual Console version of Wild Gunman on Back to the Future Day where you can use the Wii remote as a makeshift Zapper.  Nintendo of America held back Wild Gunman’s Virtual Console release until early 2016.  NOE got this one right.

Wild Gunman is a simple NES light gun game with some charm.  This has nice graphics for an NES launch game with large, detailed gunman sprites full of personality.  The music is simple in this one, but I think more fondly about the sound effects.  They help carry the gameplay and get you ready to shoot when the time is right.  The Zapper controls are nice and responsive.  I did have a little trouble with certain shots in Game C, but I kind of think that was more my fault anyway.  The gameplay, while novel for its time, is both simple and repetitive.  However, Game C kept me on my toes with its combination of memorization and twitch timing.  I was not expecting to have to develop strategies for this game.  I consider that a nice surprise, even if it meant I needed a couple additional days to clear this game.  I am glad I played the game, but considering the simplicity of it along with the required Zapper setup, I think Wild Gunman is more of a collector piece today.

#139 – Wild Gunman (Game A)

#139 – Wild Gunman (Game B)

#139 – Wild Gunman (Game C)


#121 – To The Earth

Get your trigger finger ready, you are gonna need it!

Going to Earth? How hard could that be?

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 4/7/19 – 4/27/19
Difficulty: 10/10
My Difficulty: 10/10
My Video: To The Earth Longplay

Before starting this project, I had a pretty good idea of what the hardest NES games were going to be. I already had 10-20 games earmarked as potential 10/10s. To The Earth was on my radar but I was certain it would end up a 9/10 for me. As I struggled to make progress and the attempts piled up, I was won over to the idea of rating this a 10/10. It stands up as one of the hardest NES games and likely the most difficult Zapper game to beat.

To the Earth released in November 1989 in North America and in February 1990 in Europe. This NES-exclusive game was published by Nintendo and developed by Cirque Verte. There is very little known about the developer of this game. Evidently Cirque Verte was discovered in copyright records as the author of To The Earth. This is the only game credited to them. I can’t figure out if Cirque Verte is a company or if it is a pseudonym for the actual developer. Very strange.

The story for To The Earth takes place in the year 2050. Earth is under a biological attack from the Raggosians. You are in the cockpit of a spaceship called The Tempest. Your mission is to collect resources from Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, and the Moon so that you can create an antibacterial agent to defend society from the Raggosian attack. The enemy is relentlessly trying to stop The Tempest from its journey, so you must use your Zapper to fend off the enemy. There are four levels in the game that you must clear to beat the game.

Many passive enemies start off this journey.

This is a very simple game to control and play. To start, plug the Zapper into the second controller port and optionally plug a normal controller into the first port. You can control the game entirely with the Zapper. You fire to start the game and fire to begin each mission. The only thing the controller is used for is to pause the game by pressing Start. When enemies appear on screen, shoot them with your Zapper. You can let most enemies go by harmlessly. Many enemies fire missiles that you can destroy with your Zapper.

The game takes place from the perspective of the cockpit of The Tempest. Therefore, the lower part of the screen contains your ship’s data. You can see the score, destination, and how many minerals you have collected. The most important thing to pay attention to is the yellow energy bar in the center of the dashboard. This is your lifeline and primary mechanic in the game. You lose some energy if you get hit by an enemy or a missile. You gain energy back if you shoot an enemy ship. You lose a little bit of energy if you shoot and miss. You don’t gain or lose any energy whenever you shoot and destroy an enemy missile. You are beaten when you run out of energy, so with the way the system is structured your best chance for success is to shoot as many things as possible as accurately as possible.

There are some pickups that will help. Periodically, a friendly ship will fly across the screen from right to left. There is an E icon in the lower left that appears here. Shoot the E to restore half of your energy. Do not shoot the friendly ship! If you do, you lose a ton of energy. Sometimes a comet will appear on the right side of the screen. Shoot the comet to earn a barrier shield. This lets you take several enemy missile hits without losing any energy. The dashboard changes colors as you suffer damage and when it is red it means you have one hit remaining before the shield is gone. The final item is the smart bomb. You earn this after defeating so many enemies when you are at full energy. The bomb appears blinking in the lower right corner when you have one. Simply shoot the smart bomb to destroy all enemies and missiles on screen. You also earn energy for each enemy defeated just like normal, so the smart bomb is best utilized whenever multiple enemies are on screen.

Just shoot the energy capsule, not the ship.

The game starts off gently. The first stage isn’t that difficult. Some enemies here move pretty quickly but many of them don’t attack you. You will get your first taste of enemy missiles and shooting them down to defend yourself. You get some opportunities to refill your energy and get your barrier shield. At certain times, the screen will flash an alarm and display either Condition Yellow or Condition Red. This is the game’s way of giving you a natural pause. You can sit on this screen for as long as you want, then shoot the Zapper to continue playing. Each level ends in a boss fight. These are the only encounters in the game that take multiple hits to destroy. The first boss is Tri-Opticon, which naturally has three segments you have to destroy.

The second level ramps things up a bit. Most enemies shoot missiles, and some enemies fire more than one missile. I found this level provided the best chance of defeating enemies just as they show up but before they fire at you. This level also introduces the asteroid field. These parts generate a series of asteroids. The lower ones will hit and damage your ship, so make sure to identify and shoot those down. The end-level boss is Zambuka, a long space snake. This level can be tricky but I handled it well.

The third level is where the game gets hard. You start off with a lengthy series of ships that all fire missiles. This part can down you in a hurry if you start missing shots. This level introduces the hyper missile, which is hands down the most difficult thing to deal with in the entire game. These missiles look like spiky balls and move about twice as fast as the normal missiles. You can shoot them down but the timing is very difficult and you need to anticipate where they originate from on the screen to have a real chance of defending yourself. The boss here is Gyron that is surrounded by mini-satellites. I’ll say more about the final level a little later but suffice it to say it is incredibly difficult. The final boss and last line of Raggosian defense is Nemesis.

After each stage, you see a screen that contains for each stage your score, number of shots taken, number of hits, and your accuracy percentage. You also get a total of those columns for the entire game and you get your overall high score at the top. You get the same screen if you lose a level by running out of energy. You are allowed to continue two times at the start of the level where you died.

Often it’s best to shoot only the missiles.

To The Earth was a game I had in my childhood collection. We might have bought this game brand new for cheap, but I can’t remember. I played a few levels of it casually. A couple of years ago, in the Nintendo Age forum thread where everyone collectively beats every NES game, this was the last game remaining. I worked on it for a few days until someone else finished it up. My best progress at that time was near the end of Level 3. This is a cheap, common cart that should cost no more than $5.

The difficulty curve in this game is very severe. It is a gentle curve up until the start of the third level. That first onslaught can be tough but I rarely had issues with it. The introduction of the hyper missiles is what bumps this game up to 10/10. There are a few in the middle of the level but you can just take the hit and be alright. Before the boss there are multiple enemies that all fire hyper missiles. Here there are too many to absorb so you have to fire away and hope for the best. If you can make it past that, the final level is the ultimate test. Nearly every enemy fires hyper missiles. If you can’t defend yourself, you will lose energy very quickly and that’s that. That last level is one of the nastiest single levels I’ve ever played in a game.

My past experience gave me a good start this time. In fact, I don’t think I failed out once in either of the first two levels. The final part of Mission 3 was the first place I got stuck. I needed somewhere around five to ten tries from the start to finally clear Level 3. Keep in mind that since you get two continues, that could have meant I took as many as 30 attempts just at that one part. The final level was even worse. Much worse. I had trouble getting through the first part of the stage with just the normal missiles. After that, everything shoots the hyper missiles for the rest of the time. My accuracy in the first three missions was close to 90%, but with the hyper missiles that dropped to about 75% for that final mission. It is a lengthy stage too just like the others. I spent about two weeks making attempts on that final stage. I could consistently reach Mission 4 with all continues intact. I estimate I played that final level 60-80 times before finally winning. This is another case where I wish I kept better track of my attempts. Either way, that is a significant amount of time. My winning run came on my last attempt that session and on my last continue. I had went to sleep early and woke up wide awake in the middle of the night after about four hours of sleep. So, like any responsible person would do, I got up and played some To The Earth. I beat the game at 3:30am and it was tough to fall asleep after riding that victory high.

If you can even reach this boss, you are doing well.

The thing that makes To The Earth beatable is that the game is almost completely predictable. Enemies approach from the same direction, make the same movements, and fire missiles at the same time. Missiles always move at the same trajectory, and subsequent waves of enemies always come in the same order with the same timing. It’s entirely scripted, is what I’m trying to say. You can use that to your advantage to predict when and where enemies appear. A lot of times you can take out enemies when they are just specks in the distance before they get close enough to fire missiles. In some cases that was mandatory to keep from dying. I found that the game was very rhythmic. I would match my movements and trigger timing to the enemy’s approach. That was particularly helpful when trying to defend against a series of hyper missiles. The only thing I found in the game that was not predicable was that sometimes the game would not pause on the final Condition Red in the fourth stage. It was too easy to let my guard down there and that got me in trouble more than a few times.

When I was struggling to figure out the final level, I got some advice from another player who had beaten the game. He recommended I mess around with the settings on my TV. The claim was you can put the settings in a way that makes it much easier to hit the targets. The manuals for Zapper games do recommend adjusting the brightness and contrast on the TV so that the two can work together as intended. The wrong settings can cause the light gun not to pick up on direct hits, which obviously would be frustrating. On my TV, I already had the brightness turned all the way up and there was no contrast setting. I was hoping to introduce some blur to the image that might give the enemies a larger hitbox. After messing with the TV settings for a while, my results were inconclusive. This is a dark game, so it does make sense to turn the brightness all the way up on the TV. Maybe my settings were already optimal from the start since the hitboxes seemed to be generous enough. It’s just something to keep in mind in case you want to play.

Swarms of enemies with hyper missiles are the worst.

Now it’s time to see how this game stacks up against the other 10/10s. This one is tough for me to decide because all games are very different from each other. I have chosen to put To The Earth as #3 on my current list. My first two are set and are probably going to be at the top together for a long time. I am really trying to compare To The Earth and High Speed and these two games aren’t alike in any way. To The Earth is a 20 minute game and High Speed took me over two hours, but To The Earth took so many more attempts at just one singular level. I think that’s the determining factor to me. You have a lot more leeway with High Speed and all the extra balls you can earn, permitting you to make more mistakes and retry some of the boards multiple times to get the win. You don’t get that breathing room with To The Earth. It’s a close call, but I’d say To The Earth is the more difficult game. Here is my current 10/10 ranking board:

Ikari Warriors
To The Earth
High Speed

To The Earth is a very difficult game, but it is a pretty good Zapper game. The graphics are average I would say. The enemy sprites look detailed and there are several frames of size of each one when you see them from the distance. Backgrounds are usually just stars but you do get to see the planets as you approach the bosses. The music is simple and mostly quiet, but it is fine. You really need a good Zapper with a strong trigger to play this game. That is especially evident during the bosses where you have to drain dozens of shots into them. The main drawback to the game is the high level of difficulty, and also have the proper setup of CRT TV and a Zapper. Even casually it is enjoyable for at least the first couple of levels as a pure target shooter. There is enough depth and strategy to it if you really want to dive in. This was a good accomplishment for me. I just hope there aren’t any harder light gun games after this one.

#121 – To The Earth


#120 – Ice Hockey

Skinny, regular, or fat, they are all great players!

Here there are more players than allowed on the ice.

To Beat: Win a game
To Complete: Win against all teams
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 4/6/19
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Ice Hockey Longplay

I am surprised at how few hockey games there are on the NES. There are only four of them. Hockey may not be one of the more dominant professional sports in the US, but there are many NHL teams and tons of fans all over. I’m surprised that there are more wrestling games than hockey games, for instance. I am not huge on hockey, but I have spent a lot more time playing a couple of the NES hockey games than many other sports games. Ice Hockey is in the conversation for the most popular NES game of the sport.

Ice Hockey was developed and published by Nintendo. I couldn’t figure out if it was made by either their R&D2 or R&D4 divisions at Nintendo. It was first released in January 1988 in Japan on the Famicom Disk System. The NES release launched first in North America in March 1988 and in PAL regions in April 1988. That’s a pretty quick turnaround for converting an FDS game to an NES cart and launching worldwide within months of each other.

Ice Hockey on NES is a simple game. This is a five-on-five game with four players on the ice for each team and a fifth player serving as goalie. The action all takes place on one screen that pans side to side to follow the puck. Games are three periods long. To beat the game, all you have to do is win a single match.

I always pick two skinny and two fat.

At the start of the game, you can choose options for your match. There are six teams to pick from: The United States, Sweden, Poland, Canada, The Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia. Choose your team and your opponent. Each team is a different difficulty level, but it’s hard to tell which teams are easier or harder aside from experience. In a two-player game, each player picks his or her team. Next, choose the game speed from one to five, which is from slowest to fastest. You can also choose the length of each period. They can be either seven, ten, or fifteen-minute periods. Press Start to move to the next screen. Now each player can select the lineup of the starting four. Use the D-pad to move the cursor between players and press A to change the player type. The three player types are skinny, regular, and fat players. At least that’s what most players I’ve heard call them. The players are also numbered on this screen. Players 1 and 3 are supposed to be defensive players while 2 and 4 are offensive players. To finish up here and get started with a game, move the cursor to END and press A.

Each period begins with a faceoff. You can set up your players in the formation you want. Use the D-pad and the A and B buttons to swap players around before the puck is put in play. The referee will blow a whistle to signal the end of setting up the formation. The two players nearest the referee will wait for the puck to drop. Mash the A button to hopefully pass the puck to a teammate before the opponent gets a hold of it.

I found the controls to be a little tricky but not too bad. The D-pad moves you in all directions on the ice. You only control one player at a time. The buttons do different things depending on if you are on offense or defense. On offense, the A button passes the puck to a teammate. Control moves to the closest player in the direction of the pass. The B button is used for shooting. You can hold down B before releasing to perform a more powerful shot. On defense, the B button changes which player you control. The flashing player is the one you move. You can also move the goalie to protect the goal. At all times, the A button is used for battling for the puck. Get near the puck and press A to fight for it. This can help you steal the puck away from an opponent or knock away a defender trying to steal from you.

Large players tend to knock over smaller ones.

There are some advanced techniques that are handled by the B button. On shooting, the longer you hold down B, the more powerful shot you will take. Keep in mind this leaves you open the longer you prepare for your shot. Instead of holding B, if you quickly tap the B button while holding the puck, you will pose for a shot but not actually shoot. Sometimes faking out your opponent like that is helpful. The manual mentions that you can do “flip shooting” by storing enough power in a shot by holding B. This lets you shoot through an opponent. I’ll be honest, I don’t really understand how or if this works or how to pull it off. The final B button control is a defensive one. If you are actively defending the goal, rapidly tapping the B button causes all the players to move in near the goal, helping you in defense and probably recovering the puck after a missed shot.

Much of the strategy in this game depends on the mix of players on your team. The three player types have different characteristics. The regular-size player is the typical average player that has no real strengths or weaknesses. The skinny player is a weak shooter and he does not hold up well in a puck battle. However, he is the fastest player on the ice and he is really good at winning a face-off. The fat player is just the opposite. He is very slow and is poor at the face-off, but he has a very powerful shot and he is good at body checking opponents in the fight for the puck. You can choose whichever mix of players you want that either fits your playing style or provides balance.

There are some penalties in the game. The main one is icing. I’m not going to pretend to understand how icing works. I’ve read the explanation several times and have even watched videos on it, and I still don’t quite get it. What you need to know is that icing stops play and results in a face-off. You can also be penalized for getting into a fight. If a puck battle goes on long enough, other players will join the fray. Eventually the referee will come in, break up the fight, and send one player into the penalty box for a couple of minutes. The harder you mash the A button during a fight, the less likely you are to be penalized. With one player out of the game temporarily, obviously one team has more men on the ice. This is called a power play. You want to take advantage of the power play to help score as much as possible.

Quite a scrum in the middle there.

The game mixes things up a little bit between each period. Teams switch sides at the start of a new period. After the second period, you’ll see a brief cutscene of the Zamboni machines smoothing out the ice. There is overtime if both teams are tied up after regulation. Overtime periods are two minutes long. If both teams are still tied after that, they go into a shootout. Each player goes one-on-one against the goalie of the opposite team, and any goals scored are tallied. If the game is still tied after the shootout, it loops back to another two-minute overtime period. The game will cycle back and forth between overtime periods and shootouts until a winner is crowned.

Ice Hockey seems to be one of the most popular two-player games on the NES. While I have never actually played multiplayer, I have played the game solo once before as part of the Nintendo Age contest. I was happy enough just to win a game. I’m not skilled enough for any huge blowout scores like would be expected in a contest setting. This is a very common game. I’ve acquired many extra copies and still have several spare carts currently.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not very good at this game, even though that would be expected for not having much experience with the game. I started playing by picking USA every time and playing the remaining teams from left to right on the highest speed. My lineup was two fat players and two skinny players. I was able to win just barely on the first try against Sweden and Poland, and I won with a sizeable lead against Canada. I first lost big then won easily against the Soviets. The Czechoslovakian team was far and away the most difficult team for me to beat. Their team has three heavy guys and they just wrecked me all over the ice. I had a lot of trouble scoring goals because I couldn’t get good position and didn’t really figure out any consistent strategy to scoring. I had the best luck scoring with a skinny player and “passing” the puck into the net. After a few tries, I played well enough to squeeze out a win.

Skinny passing into the net was sometimes effective.

After reading through the manual, I decided that my goal was to beat all of the other teams. If you defeat all the countries on speed level 5, then you get to change the lineup of the opposing team before a match. Ultimately, I was not able to unlock that feature. I had a couple of really bad matches that went off the rails so early that I reset the game. I figured resetting was why I couldn’t do anything extra after finishing off the last team. It wasn’t until several days later that I realized I never actually beat the USA team and that was probably my issue. Oops! I went back and beat USA in a single game, so now I have beaten all teams.

There are a couple of bonus features that you can enable by entering in a code. On the title screen, press and hold the A and B buttons on both controllers, then press Start on Controller 1. This removes goalies from the game. If you do the same button inputs on the team selection screen, this disables puck friction. When the puck gets loose, it will fly about and ricochet until either a player collects the puck or it enters a goal.

I can definitely see the appeal of Ice Hockey on NES and why it is highly regarded as a fun game to play. It is a simple game with a good amount of depth. The graphics are simple but charming. It is clear what is going on all the time. It has good music. The controls are straightforward, yet it has some complexity with some additional features that only use the two buttons. The gameplay is solid and it is an ideal two-player game. It certainly checks all the boxes for what you want in an NES game. For so few hockey games on the NES, this is definitely one you want.

#120 – Ice Hockey

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#94 – Volleyball

Nintendo’s Black Box Volleyball is the only game of its kind on the console.

Good on the players to practice before getting started.

To Beat: Win a single match
To Complete: Win a match against Russia
What I Did: Won a match against Korea
Played: 7/15/18 – 7/17/18
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 7/10
My Video: Volleyball Longplay

If you have been following my project closely, you probably will disagree with my initial tagline. After all, I have already played an NES volleyball game already in Kings of the Beach. The only other games are Super Spike V’Ball and the unlicensed Venice Beach Volleyball. The main difference between these games and the original Volleyball is that the other games are beach volleyball and this one is standard volleyball. That means this game is a full six-on-six match while the others are strictly two-on-two. I can see why two-on-two volleyball makes sense on the NES. A four-player sport is perfectly suited as a Four Score title, and fewer characters on screen reduces the amount of flicker and graphical issues. It’s interesting to me that the first volleyball game on the NES is the only one to tackle a standard game, and it does a noble job of it. It’s also quite a bit more challenging than I bargained for.

Volleyball first launched on the Famicom Disk System, releasing in July 1986 in Japan. The NES version arrived in March 1987, and the PAL version followed in November 1987. It was developed by both Nintendo’s R&D1 division and Pax Softnica. Interestingly, this game is credited on the title screen to Tomoshige Hashishita (written T. Hashishita), which is unusual for early Nintendo games. I don’t know if that means he was the main developer, designer, or perhaps the sole creator of this game.

As mentioned in the introduction, Volleyball is the only NES game that covers a standard game of volleyball. Two teams of six players each play in a normal game. You can play in either the men’s or women’s league. In a two-player game, each player chooses his or her own team, while in single player, you will play as the USA team. There are eight teams in all to pick from. There are no additional gameplay modes in Volleyball, so winning a single match is good enough for completion.

Nice touch to animate teams lining up.

The game is structured in the same way as other volleyball games on the system with the same mode of play. One team earns possession of the ball and one player serves the ball from the back line into the opponent’s court. Each side may hit the ball three times before they are required to return the ball to the other court. A team earns the serve if the ball falls within the opponent’s court or the opponent fails to return the ball after three hits into the team’s court. If the serving team wins the serve again, they also score a point. Each match consists of up to five sets. In each set, the score is reset to 0-0 and the first team to 15 points, while also winning by two, wins the set. The first team to win three sets wins the match.

A good place to start with this game is the training mode. This is selectable from the title screen and you go straight into playing without choosing teams. This is for single player practice only. There are two differences between training and the standard game. First, the speed of the ball is decreased, and second, the active player’s uniform changes to red. This will help you see which character you are allowed to control at any given moment. Certain game situations force you to control only a subset of the team at one time, so training mode gives you an immediate visual of who you control so you can get the hang of it.

The scoring display is at the top of the screen during gameplay. The viewpoint scrolls from left to right to follow the action and the scoreboard is in the center making it visible at all times. The three-letter team abbreviation is displayed vertically on the appropriate side. Next to that is a column of five rectangles. This represents each set and the team that wins each set has their light turned on. The current set will blink on both sides of the scoreboard. In the center is the score for the current set. Below that are a series of lights that show which team is the serving team.

Good timing on your serves is always helpful.

The first thing you will need to do in single player is serve the ball. The server waits behind the back line for the referee to blow the whistle. Press A to toss the ball in the air and then press A with good timing to hit the ball to the other side. If you hit the ball early, you will do a high serve, and if you wait until the ball is low to the ground, you will perform a low serve. Be careful not to let the ball hit the ground or you lose the serve. You can also aim the serve by holding a direction on the D-pad while you hit the ball.

The D-pad controls the team members while the ball is in the air. There is a line close to the net on each side called the spike line, and there are three team members on either side of the line. You control the set of three players behind the line if the ball is hit toward the back, and you control the three players by the net if it is hit near the net. The ball casts a shadow on the court and you use this to anticipate where the ball might land according to its flight path. The ball often gets hit high above the playfield to where you can’t see it, and the shadow is usually all you can go by. Get into position and press either A or B to receive the ball. The B button is a low hit that is not often used. The third hit automatically sends the ball to the other side of the court.

You can also aim the ball a little bit while receiving. Simply hold the D-pad in the desired direction of the hit as you smack the ball. Holding down the button also locks the player in position and he or she cannot move unless you release the button. If you press toward the opponent’s court, you will hit the ball there even if you aren’t on the third hit. Another wrinkle is that if the center player receives the ball and you direct the ball either up or down, control is locked to only the player on that side in the same row.

Spiking is an essential skill here.

You can spike the ball on the third hit. The first hit is the bump, second is the set, and third can be the spike. Get the player into the position where the ball is expected to land, then press B to jump. Hold the button and you will spike the ball at the top of your jump. You can also aim the spike with the D-pad. You can cross spike with Up or Down, or do a feint by holding back toward your court. The spike is a difficult move to pull off with the arc of the ball and anticipating the shot without seeing the ball the whole way.

On defense, you can block the spike in much the same way. Simply press and hold the B button to jump by the net. If you press the D-pad toward the net, you will do a double block with two defenders. Optionally, while the ball is in the opponent’s court, you can press A to bring the front row of defenders together in a tight row automatically. One big difference here is that you cannot direct the ball on a block directly with the D-pad like you would in other situations. The direction of the ball coming off the block is determined by the angle of the block. For instance, if you block the ball using the right side of your body, the ball will shoot off to that side.

There’s a few more tidbits about the game. The seven teams you compete against are Russia (USSR), China, Cuba, Japan, Brazil, Korea, and Tunisia. These teams are in order of difficulty from hardest to easiest as determined by head to head ranking in the 1981 and 1985 World Cup tournaments. At the start you can select from either the men’s or women’s teams which determines the speed of the ball during play. In addition to player sprite changes, the ball moves faster in men’s mode than women’s mode. Lastly, teams switch sides after each set. If the match is tied two games to two, teams will switch sides in the middle of the set once one team scores eight points.

I love getting the other team to whiff on a hit like this.

This was my first time playing and beating Volleyball. Despite being a pick up and play style game, this is not one I spent much time with in testing carts. I do recall this was my 400th licensed NES cart I bought for my collection. That wasn’t planned or anything, just how it worked out. I have had a few copies of this game pass through my hands. The game primarily is found in the original 5-screw form factor, but there were some copies made after the conversion to 3-screw carts. I have a couple of 3-screw variants of Volleyball that are a bit more valuable than the 5-screw cart. The game sells for around $10 for a loose cart.

I had heard that Volleyball is a difficult game that you might not expect, and I agree with that assessment. I really wanted to beat the hardest team, Russia, but first I started on the opposite end with Tunisia. I ended up winning my first match in four sets, giving me a false sense of security for the harder difficulties. The Tunisia team makes a lot of miscues that you can benefit from. I played a few matches with Russia and got destroyed every time. My best single set over all attempts was a 15-4 loss. I played the middle difficulty Japan team a few times and also got my butt handed to me. I did figure out an exploit on serving against Japan. When on the left court, I could hit a low serve to the bottom right corner and the defender would whiff on it most of the time. That could only help me win two sets and I didn’t play well enough to win the entire match. I settled with beating the second-weakest team, Korea, but it was a close game. I won in five sets 15-10, 15-12, 5-15, 13-15, 15-8. That match was the one I recorded for my longplay. I had thought about stepping up a team at a time just to see the toughest team I could beat. I didn’t have a chance to win against a tougher team before leaving on vacation, and I wanted to move on to something else once I got back home. As much as I wanted to stick it to the Russians, this would have to be good enough.

The ball can easily go above the screen.

I had some issues with the game that made it difficult to play. I found the controls got in the way of keeping the ball in play. One example is if a ball is hit near the spike line. Either the front row or back row will be active at once, and sometimes I anticipate that the ball will land in a spot where the inactive group should get it. There is a little bit of time to recognize which group of players is moving, but I found it wasn’t enough for me to recover from a misjudgment. Another control issue occurs when setting the ball with one of the middle players. Setting off to one side leaves only the player on the same side active for the spike. I guess I just messed up the controls in the heat of the moment, but I left myself in situations too many times where I hit the ball to a non-moving player. Defense in Volleyball is really challenging and I just could not figure it out consistently. The ball moves so fast enough on opposing spikes that you really need to block. A successful block requires both good jump timing and good positioning. If the opponent hits the ball off the edge of one of your blockers, it flies off the court and there’s nothing you can do about it. I also either spiked or blocked the ball into the net a lot. It’s so cramped by the net that I can’t tell the outcome until the referee sorts it out. I didn’t play long enough to tell if either bad timing or bad luck caused issues with maintaining possession of the ball. It was a struggle at times to string points together but I managed the best that I could.

Black Box Volleyball is a noble, early effort on the NES, but I didn’t really have a lot of fun with it. The graphics are extremely basic, but that’s to be expected for an early game. Simple sprites help keep the action fast while avoiding graphical flickering. The music is not that bad. There are some shared sounds and songs from other early games Nintendo put out, but they are good enough. The action is very fast. Normally I find that a good thing, but I think that works against the game in this case. Too often the ball gets hit high in the air and you are left to guess when and where it will land, with not much time to react. Good luck defending enemy spikes or smacking the ball through their defenses. The speedy pace, difficult teams, and some control issues further mar the experience. It’s not an awful game, but there are better NES volleyball games.

#94 – Volleyball


#68 – Super Team Games

Great, another exhausting Power Pad game!

Some balloons burst to get you started.

To Beat: Win all four events in single player
To Complete: Win all events on the highest difficulty
What I Did: Beat all events on the lowest difficulty
Played: 12/21/17 – 12/28/17
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 7/10
Video: Super Team Games – All Events

Another Power Pad game already? I just finished World Class Track Meet not even a week before this. There are only a handful of Power Pad games that reached the NES, and it is just dumb luck that we get two such games almost back to back. This may have been a good thing here since my Power Pad muscle memory from the previous game carried over to this one. I needed that because Super Team Games is significantly more challenging than World Class Track Meet.

Super Team Games was developed by Sonata (who would later become Human Entertainment) for release in Japan in November 1987. It was originally published by Bandai, and it was the seventh game in their Family Trainer series. Nintendo published the NES release in November 1988, branded as a Power Pad game. It did not include any Family Trainer or Family Fun Fitness branding, just like World Class Track Meet. This was the final game of the Famicom’s Family Trainer series to reach North America.

Super Team Games is a running race game where you compete in different types of events and try to beat your opponent. There are several smaller events that are arranged into larger obstacle courses. There are several different modes for single player, two players, and two teams of players. Since multiplayer modes are competitions against each other, only the single player modes count for beating Super Team Games. There are four different obstacle courses in single player mode, and when you win all of them you have won the game.

You gotta start jumping pretty early.

This Power Pad game uses Side B, which contains blue buttons on the left and red buttons on the right, all individually numbered from 1 to 12. In single player, we are only concerned with the blue buttons. The top row buttons are 1 and 2, the middle row buttons are 5 and 6, and the bottom row buttons are 9 and 10. Multiplayer games use the red buttons, so just add two to each button number to get the same mappings for the second player.

The menu controls are the same as World Class Track Meet. On the title screen, press Select to move the cursor and press Start to go to name entry. In the tournament mode, you first select how many teams you want between three and six. Use the D-Pad to move the cursor at the bottom and press Select to lock in your choice. You then move to name entry which is identical for all modes. The blinking cursor at the top part of the screen determines which character in the name you want to choose, and you move that cursor by pressing B to move it left and A to move it right. Use the D-Pad to move the letter selection cursor at the bottom part of the screen. Press Select to write the selected character in the name field. When all names have been entered, press Start to begin.

Now you move to the event screen. There are flags displayed with the names of all the events. Press Select to choose the event and press Start. In 1 Player and 2 Player modes, the events are Super Obstacle Course, Obstacle Course A, Obstacle Course B, and Skateboard Race. The 2 Team Play and Tournament mode events are 6 Legged Race, Tug of War, and Relay Race. More on these modes later. The next screen is the versus screen showing who is competing in the race. If you are playing Tournament mode, you will see a screen in between showing the bracket setup. In single player, the versus screen lets you decide which computer character you want to race against. Press Select to choose from either Ollie, Jimmy, or Jack, and press Start to go to the race. Ollie is easy mode, Jimmy is medium difficulty, and Jack is the fastest.

What lovely flags!

The gameplay screen has the same structure in all events. The left runner, designed as the White team, is displayed on the top part of the screen and the right runner, or Red team, is below. At the bottom of the screen is a minimap that shows how far each player or team has reached in the current race. You also see times for each runner. This timer freezes briefly during checkpoints so you get a better glimpse of how you are doing as you compete. To begin the race, all active participants must be standing on the Power Pad in their designated spots. For single player, stand on 5 and 6. A whistle is blown and soon the referee fires the starting gun.

Let’s look at each of the events first. Then I will explain how they combine into the different courses.

The Log Hop is exactly how it sounds; you run and jump over stationary logs. This introduces the standard controls that apply to many events in the game. Run on 5 and 6 in the middle row to move forward. Take a step back and run on 9 and 10 to back up a little bit if you need to. You can run right up to the log and then jump in the air so that your character jumps as well. The logs are medium height so they aren’t too tough to jump over. You can even land on top of the log and run right off.

No, you can’t run around the ball.

The Belly Bump Ball has the same controls as the Log Hop. Here a giant beach ball is in the middle of the track and you have to bump it forward by running into it. The faster you run into it, the farther down the track it goes. Ideally you want to get into a good rhythm of bouncing it far ahead and then running fast to knock the ball ahead again. If you come at it slow, the ball won’t go very far and then you don’t have the distance necessary to build up speed unless you take a few steps back and give yourself some running room.

Water Cross is similar to the Log Hop. There are pools of water on the track that you want to jump completely over if you can. Run up to the edge and jump to hopefully get across. More than likely you will fall into the water. You can swim by running on 5 and 6, but you will cross very slowly and use up a lot of time.

In the Crab Walk, I guess you wear a crab outfit? It’s weird. You want to put your left foot on the 1 and your right foot on the 9 and then run in place to inch ahead. It’s different than the other events since your feet are much further apart. I could move forward but really couldn’t get the hang of this one like I should have.

The Wall Jump is exactly like the Log Hop. The walls are thin and much taller than the logs. You really need to jump high to get to the top of the wall. Not only that, but there are two different heights of walls just to make things more exhausting.

This is a very sturdy bubble.

In Bubble Run, you first approach an air pump and must blow up your bubble. Hit 1 and 2 in the first row to inflate your balloon. The manual says to hit the buttons with your hands, which makes sense since you are working an air pump. You can run on it if you want, but my legs needed a break! Once the bubble is filled, then run on 5 and 6 and take the bubble to the end.

These are all the basic events that combine to form the larger events that you choose from the menu before play. In the Super Obstacle Course, you run all six of the above events in that exact order. In Obstacle Course A, you do the Log Hop, Water Cross, and Wall Jump, and in Obstacle Course B you do the Belly Bump Ball, Crab Walk, and Bubble Run. The Relay Race in the team play modes is the same as the Super Obstacle Course. Instead of running the whole thing alone, you pass the baton and substitute team members after each pair of events.

That’s not all! There are also three other unique special events:

The Skateboard Race is for one or two players. In this mode you don’t have to run, which is quite the relief! Your front foot position will either be on the 5 or 6, and your back foot position is either 9 or 10. First, stand on 5 and 6 to start with the whistle blow, then put your front foot on 5 and your back foot on 9. I like to face right while on the mat. This will position you in the top row in your course. Move your front foot to the 6 and then move your back foot to the 10 to move your character to the bottom row in the course. You can switch positions one step at a time to slide your skateboarder. You may rhythmically step between positions to slalom and that lets you move faster down the course. You also need to sidestep to dodge obstacles on the course. Some obstacles block both lanes and you must jump to get past them. If it sounds complicated, I’m sure you will get it once you finish the course once or twice.

Try to weave around the obstacles.

The 6 Legged Race is a team event only. You need six players for this event! Each team of three stands back to back on the respective spaces on the Power Pad so that there is a foot on every button. Each team must take left and right steps together as if their feet are tied together. If someone is out of step the racers will fall over and make it harder for the team to continue to walk. There’s no feasible way for me to play this event, but I bet it would be hilarious!

The Tug of War is another team event that can be done with either two, four, or six players against each other. Within a team, the first player stands on 5 and 6, the second player stands on 1 and 2, and the third player stands on 9 and 10. The other team takes the respective positions on the right side of the Power Pad. When the firing gun starts, everyone runs as fast as they can. Whichever side has pulled more of the rope after 30 seconds wins the Tug of War.

I’ve never been a Power Pad player, so this was my first time playing through Super Team Games. All of the Power Pad games tend to teeter between common and uncommon, but they are neither difficult nor expensive to track down if you really want them. Well, aside from Stadium Events that is. I got my original copy in a lot on eBay early on when I had made my big push to collect the other half of the NES licensed set. I remember seeing it and getting pretty excited since I had never seen the game before and thought it might have been worth something. I quickly found out that it was cheap because no one wants it. I’ve had a few different copies come through my possession.

This was a really bad jump attempt.

Super Team Games is a significant step up in difficulty from World Class Track Meet. Naturally, I learned this the hard way. My first time playing I picked the Super Obstacle Course against the fastest computer runner Jack. He completely blew me away. He completed the entire course in under three minutes while I hadn’t even reached the halfway point yet. I had to stop and step away in the middle of the race for a little while to catch my breath. I kept at it just to get through it, but I never did finish the race. After 10 minutes have elapsed, the race just ends. I was at the very end of the course with the finish line in sight when this happened. So annoying. I’m calling it impossible for me to beat this on the hardest difficulty and immediately accepted the idea of beating it on Easy and stopping there.

I moved on to the Skateboard Race next which is the easiest mode and much less strenuous. It still took me two attempts to beat easy difficulty Ollie. The first attempt was learning the course and the controls, and then the second try was enough to win the race. I then switched over to trying Obstacle Course A and managed to win that race too. The only problem is I forgot to hit the record button on my PC. That really upset me and I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I completed it again. I was completely spent from playing this game to the point where I had to rest for a couple of days before trying again.

I finished all of the modes over the next three play sessions. The Super Obstacle Course took me two tries to win against Ollie. He finishes the race in around six minutes. I was about twenty seconds behind the first try and then I won by more than that the next try. It also took me two tries to beat the Obstacle Course A again. The first try I quit part way because I was too far behind and exhausted from winning the Super Obstacle Course just before. The next try I won the race by just barely passing Ollie on the final stretch. That was way too close for comfort. Obstacle Course B is quite a bit easier than the other two obstacle courses, but I think that took a couple of tries as well. I used the Skateboard Race as a warm up exercise and finished it a couple more times for good measure. I learned from my mistakes and recorded everything the way I wanted.

That’s how close I was to losing Obstacle Course A.

I think Super Team Games requires more consistency and better form than World Class Track Meet. You can be successful by stepping on the Power Pad as quickly as possible, since that’s more or less what I did. However, it does seem that you are rewarded for having proper form in your steps and jumps. I will caution that I cannot be entirely sure about this. The manual tells you what to do, but not how to do it well. It’s not really feasible for me to test any hypotheses either because I can only play a little bit at a time before wearing out. My theories will have to do. I was able to do a really long jump a few times and I never understood how it happened. I’m sure it has to do with the timing of my jump while running with some speed, maybe even by jumping off of one foot and landing on the other. I also noticed that I accelerated sometimes while jogging for some distance. There does seem to be some momentum inherent in the game physics as long as you keep going without slowing down too much or missing any steps on the buttons. Again, these are just theories. I assume there has to be some kind of technique that I didn’t understand that could help me perform at a higher level.

I do have a few observations about racing Ollie that might be helpful if you want to play this game single player. I found that I was about on par with Ollie in all events but two. Ollie does the Crab Walk well, but does the Belly Bump Ball terribly. I have no idea what the secret is to crab walking and I always lost ground during that event. The Belly Bump Ball is best way to take a big lead. Ollie gets no momentum at all and only pushes the ball a short distance while never backing up to get a better shot at it. If you run fast, pause briefly just after you bump the ball, and repeat, you should clear the event quickly. This was the key for me completing the Super Obstacle Course and Obstacle Course B, leaving only Obstacle Course A without an easy exploit. The sad thing is that the game manual tries to make you feel bad for even coming close in a match with Ollie. From the manual: “Ollie: A push over. Shame on you if you lose!” Let me tell you, there is no shame in losing to Ollie. This really is a tough game.

Super Team Games is not fun to play in my opinion, but it is a competent title. The graphics are simple and clean. The music, while not notable, is decent. The controls work well once you learn how to navigate the menu. There is a wide variety of events, especially when you include many players. The real fun of Super Team Games lies in playing this game with someone else. Racing against another player or coordinating large groups for team events are the kind of activities that form memories and build bonds, even in the heart of strenuous competition. Super Team Games is also a good exercise tool for Power Pad owners, so long as you take it easy and don’t worry about trying to outrun the computer players. Trying to beat the game in single player mode is too tedious and exhausting to be fun, and I missed out on everything in the other modes that would have made it enjoyable. I think the best part of Super Team Games was the feeling of relief to check it off the list and move on to the next game.

#68 – Super Team Games (Super Obstacle Course)

#68 – Super Team Games (Obstacle Course A)

#68 – Super Team Games (Obstacle Course B)

#68 – Super Team Games (Skateboard Race)


#50 – Dragon Warrior

Baby’s first RPG!

Title screen fanfare is nice!

To Beat: Reach the Ending
Played: 4/18/17 – 4/27/17
Difficulty: 2/10
My Difficulty: 1/10
Video: Dragon Warrior Endgame

It took me longer than I expected to get this far, but I have finally reached this milestone of the review of my 50th completed game. I thought I might do special games at milestones like this one, but my current plan is to take games as they come. In this case, it ended up working out to a game that is good enough for the 50th post. Dragon Warrior is an extremely basic role-playing game, or RPG, but it is an important game that eased me to the genre and was a gateway to more complicated and challenging games in this style.

Dragon Quest is the first game is a long running series of RPG games under the same name. Yuji Horii created Dragon Quest in response to other RPGs of the time like Wizardry and Ultima. The driving force behind Dragon Quest was that it would appeal to a much wider audience, even those who are not interested in or familiar with video games at all. The result was a much more simplistic game with a larger focus on story to draw more players in. Dragon Quest was very successful in Japan and it still one of the most popular game series there today. Dragon Quest XI was just recently released in 2017, and there are various spinoff titles and remakes as well as forays into novels, manga, and anime.

Dragon Quest was released on the Famicom in Japan on May 27th, 1986. It was developed by Chunsoft and published by Enix, now known as Square Enix. North America would not receive this game on the NES until all the way in August 1989, just a few months before Dragon Quest IV released in Japan. Here the name was changed to Dragon Warrior due to a naming conflict with the pen and paper RPG DragonQuest. Its success in Japan did not translate over to the US and sales were poor. In 1990, Nintendo Power gave away copies of the game as a subscription bonus for the magazine, and that greatly helped the series gain traction. The NES would eventually receive all four Famicom Dragon Quest titles under the Dragon Warrior name.

Some olde time English here.

The plot of Dragon Warrior is a simple one. In the land of Alefgard, the evil Dragonlord had stolen the Balls of Light from Tantegel Castle under the rule of King Lorik. The hero Erdrick managed to reach the Dragonlord’s castle on an island but was never heard from again. Years later, the Dragonlord attacked Tantegel Castle again, kidnapping Princess Gwaelin in the process. You play as an unnamed hero who seeks to follow in the footsteps of Erdrick by defeating the Dragonlord, retrieving the Ball of Light, and saving the princess.

A lot of what I have to say about Dragon Warrior is not only basic knowledge of this game, but of RPGs in general. If you have played any games of this style, most of the game description will be quite familiar. Dragon Warrior was aimed at newcomers, and so this review is also going to be focused on that same audience. I do think there is still value in Dragon Warrior as a beginner’s RPG, so I’m happy to go into detail that might be more rudimentary for some.

When you begin the game, you choose from one of three save slots. When starting a new game, you will give your hero an eight-character name and set the text speed. The game begins in a top-down view in the king’s throne room in Tantegel Castle. The king will give you an explanation of the task at hand, and from there you are on your own. You will want to visit the king often over the course of your adventure because this is the only place you can save your game. For now, this area serves as a pretty decent tutorial for how you navigate the menu and see all the things you can do.

The game would be over sooner if you could swim.

You use the D-pad to move the hero in the four cardinal directions as well as move the cursor to choose options on the menu. Press A to bring up the Command menu. As a rule, the A button proceeds and the B buttons cancels or goes back. You can also press Start to pause while walking around, but there is never a reason to do so.

There are many options on the Command menu. The first option is Talk which lets you talk or interact with the person you are facing. Status lets you see your statistics such as health, attack power, or which weapons and armor you are using. The Stairs command lets you walk up and down stairs that you are standing on. Most games will assume you want to take the stairs when you stand on them, but here you must use the specific command. Search lets you examine the ground at your feet for anything interesting. Spell brings up a list of spells that you can cast, but at the start of the game you don’t have any available. The Item screen lets you view and use items you are holding. You can only carry eight items, but certain items group together so you can hold several of them while only utilizing a single item slot. Door lets you open a closed door you are facing, but only if you have a key. The Take command lets you open a treasure chest you are standing on.

When you bring up the Command menu or just stand still for a while, you bring up a panel on screen that displays some basic stats. The LV counter is for your experience level. This indicates how powerful you are and it begins at one. HP stands for Hit Points and this is your health. MP stands for Magic Points. You spend magic points to cast spells. G stands for Gold which is the game’s currency. E stands for Experience Points and you earn these by defeating enemies.

I’ll take one of everything, please.

One of the chests in the throne room contains some gold to get you started. One of the first things you will want to do is spend that gold on some equipment. Unfortunately, there are not any shops inside the castle, but you still want to explore and talk to people here. Exiting the castle takes you to the world map. There is a nearby town to the east called Brecconary that should be your next stop. There are more people in town to talk to as well as places to shop.

The shop in the northwest corner of town is the weapon shop. You can only hold one weapon, one armor, and one shield at a time. There are several options and the more expensive options are more effective. An equipped weapon increases your attack power and either an equipped armor or shield increases your defense. When you buy something from this shop that replaces something already equipped, the shop will buy back the old item at half its value.

The shop in the southeast part of town is the item shop. Here you can buy or sell items from your item stock. It might be useful early on to buy an herb that lets you restore some health from anywhere. The inn is located in the southwest corner of the town. You can spend some gold to stay the night which replenishes all your HP and MP. The shops and the inn are the basic features of each town you encounter in the game.

Get used to seeing this screen a lot.

Most of your time in Dragon Warrior will be spent battling enemies. As you explore the world map or caves, an enemy may appear on screen that you must engage one on one. This bring up a smaller Command menu. Both Spell and Item appear on this menu and they act the same as in the standard menu. Fight lets you attack the enemy. Run gives you the chance to run from the fight and keep exploring, although the enemy may not let you escape. You and the enemy alternate turns until one either wins the fight or runs away. There is a text box at the bottom of the screen that describes what is going on, such as whose turn it is and how much damage is inflicted.

When you win a fight, you are awarded both gold and experience points. If your HP is running low, the text boxes all change color from white to red to show that you are getting close to death. If you succumb to the enemy, then you are returned to the castle in front of the king. Not only does he lecture you on dying, but you lose half of your gold. The good news is you do not lose any experience points or equipment when you die, so even if you lose many fights you will continue to get stronger as long as you keep playing.

When you meet certain thresholds of experience points, you will gain a level. This is noted after a battle with some fanfare. Going up a level gives you stat boosts. You can gain strength, agility, maximum HP, maximum MP, and sometimes even learn a new spell. The strength stat translates into additional points in the attack power stat, and agility translates into additional defense points.

A warrior and a wizard!

At certain levels, you will also learn a new magic spell. Each spell requires a certain amount of MP to cast. You will learn ten spells in all and they have various uses either in combat, while adventuring, or both. The Heal spell restores some of your HP. Hurt is a combat spell that deals damage to the enemy. Sleep is a combat spell that sometimes lulls your enemy to sleep, preventing them from taking their attack turns until they wake up. Radiant is used in dark caves to see as many as three tiles ahead of you in all directions. Stopspell is a combat spell that may prevent the enemy from casting their own spells. Outside lets you leave a cave automatically, and the Return spell sends you back to the castle from anywhere in the overworld. Repel is used on the world map to keep weak enemies from engaging you in battle. There is also a stronger healing spell called Healmore and a final attack spell called Hurtmore.

As you venture further out into the world, you will come across stronger enemies. Not only do later enemies have more health, attack, and defense, but some can cast spells of their own or do alternate attacks. You will need to spend a lot of time fighting weaker enemies and testing yourself to see if you can take on stronger enemies that bestow more gold and experience. You will encounter other towns throughout Alefgard that have new shops with better equipment, as well as different tips about the world to point you in the right direction for story progress. But most of Dragon Warrior is spent fighting enemies to strengthen yourself for tougher enemies.

I have beaten Dragon Warrior several times over the years and I am very familiar with the game even now. I remember finding the game while going out to yard sales with my grandparents as a kid. It was out of place for sure, laying on a table complete in box amidst random knick-knacks. It cost only $5 and they were happy to buy it for me. I didn’t know anything about the game from Nintendo Power because I wasn’t subscribing then, and it may well have been one of the subscription incentive copies. Happy to find a new NES game that day, I gave it a play that night and I got sucked in. The simplicity of the game combined with an abundance of childhood free time was the perfect recipe for a new RPG addiction.

You are the Dragon Warrior after all.

Aside from tracking down a few items, Dragon Warrior is a very easy game. For me, the challenge lies in making the time to play through it. I estimate it took me 15-20 hours to complete the game, though I insisted on leveling up to the highest possible level. I already knew the areas that were best for gaining experience points more rapidly. That helped keep the game shorter, as well as reaching towns as early as possible to buy better equipment. The more time I could spend fighting tough enemies, the faster I could max out experience points. Another time saving tip is that Dragon Warrior is just about a perfect game to grind while doing something else, such as watching TV. I’m not ashamed to admit I grinded out a few levels while listening and participating on conference calls while working from home.

The speedrunning community has managed to achieve seemingly impossible times in completing Dragon Warrior. What took me over 15 hours to accomplish has been done in a world record speedrun that runs a little over 25 minutes. There are certain timings to inputting commands that lets the hero do things like make higher damage attacks, dodge enemy attacks, and avoid random encounters. By using these timings combined with a heavy dose of luck, Dragon Warrior can be beaten at a very low experience level. It’s all very impressive!

Dragon Warrior was a formative game for me. It was my entry point into the Japanese RPG genre at a time when I could give a lot of energy into the experience. From there I sought out the NES sequels, and I eventually moved that interest over to the SNES and some of its top-class RPGs. Therefore, I have much appreciation for Dragon Warrior. Outside of that context, it’s not a game I see myself playing again unless I get bit hard by the nostalgia bug. It’s too simple, too plain, and too grindy. But if you are looking to get into the genre while not getting too deep into the weeds, Dragon Warrior is a fine place to start.

#50 – Dragon Warrior