Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#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

Kid Icarus Box Cover

#26 – Kid Icarus

As long as you don’t fly into the sun, you will probably enjoy this game!

Nice cheery title screen music is an excellent way to start!

Nice cheery title screen music is an excellent way to start!

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Get the best ending
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Got the best ending
Played: 8/22/16 – 8/29/16
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 6/10

It’s always a good day whenever one of the classic NES titles comes up in my list! It can be a little rough around the edges at times, but Kid Icarus has a lot of neat ideas that come together well for a game this early in the library.

Kid Icarus was first released on the Famicom Disk System in Japan on December 19, 1986 under the name Hikari Shinwa Parutena no Kagami which translates to Myth of Light: The Mirror of Palutena. It was co-developed by Nintendo R&D1 and Tose with R&D1 handling the design and Tose handling the development work. The game took advantage of the expanded capabilities of the FDS by including more game content than what was previously done on cartridge, a save game feature, and enhanced audio. Kid Icarus was later ported to a cartridge for release in Europe in February 1987 and a few months later in North America in July 1987.

Kid Icarus received a sequel on Game Boy in North America in November 1991 and Europe in May 1992. Curiously it was not released in Japan until appearing on the Japanese 3DS Virtual Console. The gameplay is very similar to the NES version but it is an all new game. The series would then go into hibernation for over 20 years aside from seeing a Virtual Console release in 2007. The newest title in the series is named Kid Icarus Uprising released in 2012. In that same year the original game received a 3D Classics remake on the Nintendo 3DS.

Kid Icarus is a side-scrolling platform action game. You play as the angel Pit in his quest to save the goddess Palutena and Angel Land from the evil Medusa. The game takes place over four main areas: Underworld, Overworld, Skyworld, and the Palace in the Sky. The first three areas are comprised of four sections each and the final section is a fortress that plays differently than the rest of the game. The object is to recover one of the sacred treasures in each of the three fortresses and use all three of them for the final battle against Medusa.

Thus begins the long ascent...

Thus begins the long ascent…

The first thing you’ll notice when playing Kid Icarus is that play advances upward with vertical scrolling. This is one of the few early NES games to employ vertical scrolling like this as a main component of the game right from the start. Unfortunately the game only handles one-way scrolling upward, and if you happen to fall back down you will die regardless of what platforms you left behind. This is why Kid Icarus seems to be regarded as a difficult game because the early game platforming must be completed with minimal mistakes. The reasoning behind the vertical level is symbolic as Pit begins at the bottom of the Underworld and must ascend upward to reach the Overworld. Stage 2 switches to more traditional horizontal scrolling before going vertical again in the Skyworld. The overall idea here makes sense from a storytelling perspective but it tarnishes the initial impression of the gameplay experience.

One neat aspect about the vertical levels is that Pit can loop around the screen horizontally. You can leave the screen on the left and reappear on the right, and vice versa. This leads to some interesting level design in a few places where you will need to take advantage of the looping mechanic to overcome some obstacles.

Pit can walk left and right and jump typical of a normal platformer game. He can fall through some thin flooring by pressing Down, which can sometimes lead to unintentional falling to your death. He can also shoot arrows from his bow to the left, right, and upward. Pit also has a health bar and he can take a few hits from enemies before defeat. The enemies tend to appear in groups though there are stray single enemies every once in awhile. When they are defeated they leave hearts behind and these are used as currency. Small hearts are worth one, large half hearts are worth five, and large full hearts are worth ten. Pit can hold up to 999 hearts and there are many items that can be found or purchased with these hearts. You can track just about all of the items on the subscreen that is displayed when the game is paused with the Start button.

Kid Icarus sure doesn't pull punches early on.

Kid Icarus sure doesn’t pull punches early on.

There are several types of chambers that appear throughout the levels by way of open doors. Among the most common rooms are two different kinds of shops. The basic shop has items that are fairly priced. The mallet is the cheapest item and is a limited use subweapon that can be equipped by pressing Select during play. It is very strong but each mallet acquired only allows for a single swing before it is depleted. They have a special use in the end of level fortresses that I will cover later. The Water of Life chalice restores some health, and the Water of Life in a bottle will automatically deploy its health boost as soon as Pit runs out of energy. The Angel Feather lets Pit survive a fall off the bottom of the screen by initiating a brief period of flight to recover onto a ledge. These are very useful but are pretty expensive and therefore are not as easy to acquire when you really need one early in the game.

The other kind of shop is the Black Market. This shop is overpriced compared to the normal shop, but these are worth visiting in some situations. The Water Barrel item can only be purchased on the Black Market and it allows Pit to hold more than one Water of Life bottle at a time. If you don’t already have a Water of Life it gives you one for free, otherwise the one you are carrying gets saved in the barrel. There are also some other special items that show up here under special circumstances that I will also mention later.

There is a treasure room that contains eight pots each with a question mark on them. You can destroy a pot to reveal an item but it costs five hearts per pot. You may destroy as many pots as you want. Collecting a revealed treasure removes all the remaining pots but you can grab all the items you found. However one of the pots contains the God of Poverty and if you find him you lose all of the items and are booted from the chamber empty handed. If you break all the pots and leave the God of Poverty for last, the final pot instead contains a more substantial treasure. The bonus treasure can be an Angel Feather, a Water of Life Bottle, a Water Barrel, or the Credit Card. This is the only way in the game to obtain the Credit Card. You can use it in the Black Market to buy items that you cannot afford. Of course if you do so you will be in his debt and are unable to buy any more items until you pay off what you owe him.

Decisions, decisions!

Decisions, decisions!

Another type of room is the Sacred Training Chamber. A God in this room will summon a bunch of randomly moving enemies that look like floor tiles. The object here is simply to survive, and if you do so you are rewarded with your choice of one of three special weapons. The Fire Arrow adds a little fireball to the standard arrow that deals extra damage to an enemy. The Sacred Bow increases the range of Pit’s arrows. The Protective Crystal spawns two crystals that spin quickly around Pit and give him a way to easily defeat weak enemies up close. Over the course of the game you can acquire all three at once, however you cannot use them until you have enough health. There are some enemies in the game that will steal one of these weapons if they collide with Pit. You can recover the stolen weapons by buying them for very inflated prices in the Black Market, or you can earn it back by completing the training again in a later chamber.

The other three chambers you can encounter are more straightforward. The enemy lair contains a swarm of enemies that all drop big hearts for a quick money boost. The Strength Upgrade chamber contains a God that will give you a stronger arrow. There are five levels of arrow strength and you increase it by one for each God you find in this chamber. However, there are some special hidden requirements defined by how well you play that determine if you qualify for the upgrade at all. Finally there are hot springs that restore your health slowly just by relaxing inside!

To cap off the normal item list, sometimes in the levels you will find a harp that turns all of the enemies into mallets for a brief period. This is the easiest way to collect lots of mallets. You can also find the chalices here that restore health.

There is a scoring system in place as well. The score for the current level and the total cumulative score appear on the subscreen. You get points for defeating enemies, although the enemies inside the enemy lairs do not give any points at all. After each section is completed your points are added to the total score. Reaching specific point intervals here will trigger the message Power Up and Pit is awarded an increase to his maximum health. You begin the game with one segment of health and can get up to a maximum of five.

More health makes the journey more manageable.

More health makes the journey more manageable.

As mentioned above, the last section of the first three levels is a fortress that mixes up the formula of the game. The fortress is a non-linear maze that contains a boss hidden within. There are even more items here that assist in exploring the fortress. The check sheet is a blank map of the fortress that draws a grid on the subscreen. It must be found in a specific location in the fortress. The pencil can be bought in a shop and marks off each room on the check sheet that you enter for the first time. The torch must also be bought in a shop and it highlights the current room Pit is in. These items are helpful to show both where you are and where you have been so that you can narrow down where the boss is located.

There are a couple of interesting elements in the fortresses. There are statues scattered all around the fortress that can be broken with the mallet revealing a centurion. Each centurion saved here flies away for now but shows up later during the boss fight to aid Pit in the battle. On the flip side, there is an awful enemy type unique to the fortress called the eggplant wizard. They toss eggplants around that turn Pit into an eggplant himself should he be struck by one. While in eggplant form Pit is unable to fire arrows at all and it is a permanent state that leaves Pit defenseless. The goal from here is to find a nurse inside the fortress who will restore Pit back to normal at no cost. The eggplant wizards are often placed along the critical path to the boss and it is a huge hassle to go back and find the nurse.

When each fortress boss is defeated, one of the sacred treasures is left behind inside a treasure chest. When all three chests are collected all treasures are revealed and equipped for the final level and showdown against Medusa. Here the game switches play to an auto-scrolling shooter that is unique to this last area.

A nightmare scenario...

A nightmare scenario…

Just like Metroid before it, Kid Icarus was updated to include a password system for its NES cart release. The passwords are 24 characters long and comprised of many different characters. The long passwords allow a lot of information to be stored within them. When you continue your game with a password, it saves the level you last played, your heart balance, and all your items, weapons, and upgrades. Even though they are tedious to document and input, it works just as good as a save game and makes it much easier to slowly work though the game a stage or two at a time.

Kid Icarus was one of the titles I have held onto since childhood. I know that I spent some time with it growing up but I could never quite remember if I had played the game all the way through for myself. I definitely beat the game with a password taking me straight to the final level, but I imagine I pulled that out of Nintendo Power or a guidebook. As an adult I have picked it up casually a number of times and I always would stall out prior to the first fortress. The first level is quite difficult with the vertical layout combined with a lack of powerups and abilities for starting out. It took me a dedicated effort this time to finally mark it off as complete.

During my playthrough I really struggled to get through Level 1-3. I did not earn enough points in the first two levels to increase my health bar which really made things harder on myself. I also insisted on clearing the first Sacred Training Chamber since I didn’t how many opportunities I would have later on in the game. It was tough but I made it through after nearly a dozen attempts.

Of course there also has to be fire pits to deal with while you climb.

Of course there also has to be fire pits to deal with while you climb.

From the first fortress onward, the game eased up in difficulty considerably. In the fortresses all the enemies respawn any time you leave the room. I found an area near the boss that had a hot spring a few rooms away from a room full of enemies that left behind big hearts. Between those two rooms I maxed out on hearts plus I managed to earn enough points to max out the health bar at the end of Level 1. Having full health allowed the weapon I earned prior to kick in which also helped. I focused more on the platforming and I was able to beat the game without too much trouble. I would say the third fortress was the hardest challenge remaining and that took some practice with some of the eggplant wizard placements.

Once I completed the game, I decided to investigate how to get the best ending. I had collected everything except for the credit card and I was missing two strength upgrades. I figured that had something to do with it and it turns out my suspicions were mostly correct. Here is how the endings work. There are four separate goals to complete: Have the maximum health bar, have maximum strength, have all three special weapons, and have the maximum number of hearts. You get a different ending for how many of those goals are completed at the end of the game. I got the middle of the road ending by having all the health and all three special weapons. I would have had enough hearts had I not spent some on a Water of Life right before the third fortress boss, but I missed out on two of the strength upgrades and I couldn’t understand why I missed them.

The easiest way to get the best ending is to start a new game immediately after winning. You will restart at Level 1-1 with everything carried over from the end of the previous game. Since I already had found two of the strength upgrades the first time through I earned those again which put me at maximum strength. Then it was only a matter of making sure I had enough hearts before the final level to meet all the requirements.

The boss encounters were among the highlights of the game for me.

The boss encounters were among the highlights of the game for me.

Now this replay wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Upon beating the game the first time, I killed myself off in Level 1-1 and saved my password to play later on. When I started up the next day and input my password, I began at Level 1-1 but I had lost all of my progress. It was the same as starting a brand new game. I thought that I had either messed up my password or the passwords don’t work on subsequent playthroughs. I found out there is a glitch in the game where it does not save your data on any password starting in Level 1-1. If I had gone on to at least Level 1-2 and took my password there, then the data would carry over. I suspect that when the game loads the first stage it always runs the code to initialize the game state even if the game is loaded from a saved password. I had actually started to replay the game from scratch for a little while before using my old password to resume at the start of the final level.

There are some interesting technical tidbits I think are fun to examine for a little while. Some fine folks have deconstructed the system by which you qualify to earn the strength upgrades. It really is based on how well you play. There is a hidden scoring system calculated behind the scenes in each stage and you need to earn a certain number of these “skill” points to trigger the god to appear in the Strength Upgrade Chamber. Some actions add skill points and others take away points. I won’t go into all of them. You earn points for things like defeating enemies, collecting hearts (but not when you are maxed out), buying an item, or just entering any chamber. You lose points for taking damage, shooting arrows, or breaking pots in the Treasure chamber. Typically all you need to do is take your time and kill many enemies and that will be enough to earn the upgrade.

The password system retains all of the data associated with a playthrough, but it also contains information that determines if the password is legitimate or not. The first 22 characters of the password translate to all of the data the game tracks between sessions. For instance, some of the characters relate to the saved score, some of the characters track how many hearts you have, and so on. The final two characters are called the checksum. Basically the game runs some kind of formula against the password and generates the checksum and adds it to the end of the password. Upon submitting a password on the continue screen, the game runs the same calculation and sees if the last two characters of the submitted password matches the checksum. The password is accepted if it matches and rejected if it doesn’t. Many of the more well-known passwords are not hard coded in the game but are just a byproduct of how the password system works.

The final area mixes up the gameplay one last time.

The final area mixes up the gameplay one last time.

The final tidbit I want to share is that the endings differ between the Japanese release and the US release. Not only are the endings a bit different but the way to get them is completely different. The ending calculation in the Japanese version is the number of health bar segments plus the number of strength upgrades minus the number of deaths in the game. This number determines which of the five endings is received. The best ending in the NES version is not present in the Japanese version. Instead of that ending, there is an even worse version of the bad ending that takes its place. The Japanese version does not allow you to replay the game with item carryover, so instead you would have to play near perfectly in one try to qualify for the best ending. The save system in the Disk System version was likely the driver behind the ending criteria. The method in the US version works better for me anyway!

Kid Icarus is one of those classic NES titles that I think belongs in any library. The graphics are not too bad and the music is pretty catchy. The controls are a little slippery at times but they perform well enough. The major thing going against it is the uneven difficulty curve. The game starts out challenging and gets easier the further you go. Too bad many people would likely give up before getting to some of the later parts of the game that are a lot of fun to play. I enjoyed the game a lot and I am glad that I can finally claim for certain that I have beaten this game!

Kid Icarus Ending Screen

#26 – Kid Icarus