Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#126 – Xenophobe

Not nearly as menacing as it looks.

This music makes this creepier.

To Beat: Beat Level 8
Played: 5/12/19 – 5/15/19
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
My Video: Xenophobe Longplay

Appearances can be deceiving. In the case of Xenophobe, I assumed that this game would be challenging to beat. In what little I’ve tinkered with the game before, I got beat up pretty badly. Navigating the levels are confusing and there are strong enemies everywhere I turn. I know the game is a two-player game, so I figured maybe it was just harder for a single player to manage. Well, after spending a little more time on the game, it turns out it is not that tough at all. I’ll keep saying this: I always appreciate when an easy game comes up on my list. Let’s take a closer look at Xenophobe.

Xenophobe was first released in arcades in 1987. The game was published and developed by Bally Midway. It was designed by both Brian Colin and Howard Shere, and the music was written by Michael Bartlow. There were many ports of the game to home computers, Atari systems, and the NES. The NES port was developed and published by Sunsoft and was released in December 1988 in North America only.

There isn’t much of a story in this game. You are tasked with clearing out various starships, bases, and cities from aliens known as Xenos. They have invaded these locations and you must destroy as many as you can. You also try and recover various artifacts from these areas and bring them back with you. There are eight areas in the game and you beat the game once you finish them all.

There are items to collect! Hop to it!

The main draw of Xenophobe is that is has two-player cooperative play. The screen is split in half horizontally. Each player occupying one half of the screen with shared information appearing in the center. Each player can explore the base separately or meet up and tackle the enemies together. You can play the game single player as well, in which case the bottom part of the screen does nothing but display the name Xenophobe. I’ve seen a similar setup before in Spy vs. Spy. At the start of the game, you get to pick from one of three characters: Dr. Kwack, Mr. Fogg, and Dr. Zordirz. All characters play exactly the same, but they have very distinctive and interesting designs and so they are easy to tell apart in a two-player game.

The controls for the game are a little bit wonky. It starts off simple enough. Use the D-pad to walk around either Left or Right. The B button fires a short-range gun with infinite ammo. The A button is primarily used for jumping, however there are many other operations that also require pressing A. You can crouch by pressing A when Down is held. You can fire low and do a slow crouch walk in this state. Press A to stand back up. If you hold Down and press A while already crouched, you will throw a grenade if you have one. You can pick up items by pressing A while on top of them. Sometimes a small critter enemy will latch on to you and you can get them off by pressing A. You can also interact with some of your surroundings with A. Small buttons on the wall will warp you if you stand by them and press A. You can also take an elevator appearing in the middle of certain rooms. Press A to initiate the elevator, then press either Up or Down to take the elevator whichever direction you are permitted.

The layout of each level is similar. Each floor of the base you are on is eight rooms across. The rooms on the end are blocked off by waves of electricity that hurt you and are impossible to cross. There are warp buttons that transport you to a different room. There are also elevators to take you between floors. Each level has a different number of floors to explore. The first level has only one floor but others can have as many as four floors. Each room contains one or two enemies specific to that room. As enemies are defeated, other ones will appear to take their place. Fresh enemies can show up in any room.

It might not be obvious this is an elevator room.

You begin the game with 1000 health points, and naturally, enemies and traps reduce your health. There are only five types of enemies here. Critters are tiny creatures that crawl and you have to duck to shoot them. If they touch you, they latch on to you and you have to press A to throw them off. Snotterpiller is the biggest, toughest enemy in the game. It makes large jumps back and forth across the screen, occasionally stopping to spit acidic slime. Laser balls are floating orbs with a tiny turret on them. They fly in small bursts around the room and occasionally fire. Slimes are low, slow-moving enemies that don’t post much of a threat. Finally, Spiderion is a tall enemy that hangs from the ceiling and tosses bombs when you get close. Other traps include dripping slime from the ceiling and the electric bars that prohibit you from passing through.

There are a bunch of pickups for you that the enemies drop. Perhaps the most important are the weapon pickups. The standard phaser is a slow, single shot, so any upgrades improve on that. Laser pistols fire at a very high rate. The lightning gun has reduced range and speed but deals more damage. The smoke gun is the strongest gun by far, but it has such a short range that it almost functions more like a melee weapon than a gun. These guns all have unlimited firepower and are retained until the end of the level. You can also pick up grenades which deal the most damage when tossed. Weapons aside, there are about a dozen other objects to grab. Some of them like the medicine or coffee cup add health, while the rest are just for points.

The way to clear each level is to defeat as many enemies as possible. You explore to look for weapons, items, and enemies to defeat. After killing enough enemies in the level, an orb appears that you grab to get beamed out of the space station and finish the level. There is a hidden timer going that helps keep track of one of two outcomes at the end of the stage. If you beat enough enemies fast enough, the space station is declared “cleared of Xenos” and you are awarde and end-of-level point bonus. Otherwise, the station is “overrun by Xenos” and you get no bonus. The bonus is both points and some additional health, so it is something you want to strive for. You also get bonus points for each item recovered during your run. The bonus points for items increase between levels as you acquire more items because the game keeps track of all past items collected, so your bonuses scale quickly once you have cleared multiple levels successfully.

These snotterpillars are really annoying enemies.

This was my first time playing Xenophobe. As mentioned in the intro, I’ve tinkered with the game in testing but that’s all. I didn’t play the arcade version because I don’t think I ever saw a cabinet for it. This is a common, cheap cart that I have owned at least a few copies of while collecting.

This seems at first to be a difficult game for a few reasons. You only get one life in this game and there are no continues. The big Snotterpillers can overrun you in a hurry and they constantly respawn. The levels are confusing to navigate. It seems much worse than it is. Here is my strategy and secret for dealing with this game. I guess this is the spoiler warning if you want to try and figure it out for yourself. Since the goal of the game is to defeat enemies, you don’t have to explore much at all if you don’t want to. Each room can only hold two enemies at once, including the dripping slime. Only the first two or three enemies in a room drop items, so you might want to explore a little bit, but otherwise you can stick around in the same room and keep defeating enemies as they spawn. I like to explore until I find a better blaster, but it’s not strictly necessary. The trick to fighting Snotterpillers is to jump over them as they land, then you can follow them to the wall and blast them from behind. You can do this with the normal gun with slow, rhythmic firing; a better gun simply makes it easier. If you get a bad spawn point or start to get overwhelmed, just leave the room and try from a fresh one. If I get a room emptied out, I can usually take out a new Snotterpiller before the next one spawns. From there, it’s just repeating that consistently until you get the orb to finish the stage. It might be dull playing this way, but it is effective.

While Xenophobe is probably a challenging, more engaging game in the arcade, I found the NES port to be a bit underwhelming. The graphics in the game are decent. I like the character designs a lot. I think the backgrounds can get a little too busy at times, but there are some interesting looking rooms if you search around. Sunsoft doesn’t really do wrong in the music department, but here there’s only the title music and end-of-level music. During gameplay there are only ambient sounds of the space station along with standard sound effects. The controls are sometimes cumbersome to use. The floaty jumping is both a benefit for aiming at airborne targets and a hindrance for delaying your next shot if you miss. The gameplay would have been more fun if I had more of an objective than just defeating enemies over and over. It didn’t take long for me to figure out how to effectively kill enemies, and the game became a drag once I reached that point. Xenophobe is definitely not a bad game, but it’s not an essential game either.

#126 – Xenophobe

#126 – Xenophobe


#99 – Sky Kid

Take to the skies in this lengthy shoot-em-up.

It’s called Sky Kid, not SkyKid.

To Beat: Defeat the spaceship to see the ending
To Complete: Complete two loops
What I Did: Reached the halfway point of the second loop
Played: 8/21/18 – 9/7/18
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 9/10
My Video: Sky Kid Longplay

This project is constantly full of surprises. Most of them are good, and I’d like to think I have hit a nice string of positive surprises. Sky Kid was the kind of surprise that blindsided me a little bit. Here we have a cutesy shoot-em-up game with little airplanes, tanks, and loop-de-loops. It’s just the happiest looking game. Underneath the pretty exterior, however, is something far more devious than I would have imagined. Sure, the missions get more challenging as you go, but Sky Kid just keeps going and going. Just how many missions does this game have? I won’t keep you waiting too long for the answer.

Sky Kid was first released in the arcades in Japan in December 1985. It was developed and published by Namco. It was quickly followed by a sequel, Sky Kid Deluxe, in February 1986, featuring expanded missions, enemies, music, and other features. The original version of the game was ported to the Famicom in August 1986. The NES port came out later in September 1987 and was published by Sunsoft. Both the arcade version and NES versions were released on all versions of the Virtual Console.

Sky Kid is a horizontal scrolling shoot-em-up. You play the role of Baron and the second player is called Max. The names are short for Red Baron and Blue Max. There’s no story here, just fly your plane through the standard missions as they are called out on the screen. Sky Kid features a whopping 26 missions. It may not sound like a big deal, but trust me, it’s quite a lot for a game like this. The goal of the game is to destroy a spaceship that appears in the final mission. Do that to get the ending.

Up, up, and away!

The controls are simple. Use the D-pad to fly in all directions. This game is an auto-scroller so when you fly left or right, you are actually just speeding up or slowing down. The A button fires your machine gun. You have unlimited shots and can have three bullets on screen at a time. The B button lets you perform a loop-de-loop move. If you collect a bomb, drop it with the B button. The Start button pauses the game.

All missions share the same structure. You begin a mission on the runway with the goal of bombing the target. Then the game starts scrolling to the left, instead of to the right like most horizontal shooters. You have to steer upward right away so you don’t crash into the scenery ahead. When you approach the end of the mission, you will see a row of three girls wearing red. Soon after that is the runway with text on the screen telling you to Land Here. Simply touch the runway to land and end the mission, no matter if you actually bombed the target or not. If you skip the runway you will be taken over open water and will automatically crash into the sea. I guess this is the way the game tells you that you have no more fuel. Crashing past the runway does complete the mission, at least.

A game mechanic clear from the start is that you can fire your machine guns in three directions. Shots will fire only in the direction you are facing. Fly up and your plane will angle upward, allowing you to shoot diagonally. Same thing goes for flying down. Hold steady to shoot forward. To take advantage of this style of aiming, the game has both air enemies and ground targets for you to blow up.

You can aim upward or downward toward pesky enemies.

The loop-de-loop is a handy maneuver that you can perform at any time. Simply press B while holding still to fly quickly in a clockwise arc. This moves you backward to the right a fair distance and you can use the move while being tailed to get behind the enemy. You can also perform an upward loop by pressing B while flying up, and a downward loop while flying down. The upward loop pushes you both up and to the right a little bit, while the downward loop pushes you down and slightly forward. Beware that some enemy aircraft can also perform loops. While in the loop, you are invincible to both enemy fire and enemy planes, so this is both an evasive move and a defensive move. You can’t just spam the loop-de-loop the whole time because there is a brief delay between finishing one loop and starting another, not to mention you can still collide with the scenery while looping and die that way. You can loop as many times as you want! You can also shoot your gun while looping. With good timing you can fire backward. In my experience this isn’t something you can reliably count on, rather it’s more of a happy accident if you hit someone behind you.

In addition to the basic air and ground enemies, there are large bases on the ground. You destroy these bases with bombs. As you are flying along you will hear a beeping indicator over the music to tell you a bomb is approaching. The bomb lays on the ground and you pick it up simply by flying into it. Now you will hold the large bomb underneath your plane. You can deploy the bomb at any time by pressing the B button. Now since the B button is used for this purpose, that means you can’t do loops while holding a bomb. Ground bases are comprised of three parts and you want to aim for the center section. Hitting the middle destroys the entire base and gives you more points than if you hit either side of the base.

Sky Kid also has a recovery mechanic for when you get shot or fly into an enemy. When you get hit you start to spin out and descend, and you lose complete control of your plane. You can regain control by holding Up on the D-pad while pressing A and B rapidly. You are bound to hit the loop button after recovering like this, and normally that is okay. It does put you at risk of colliding with something else and spinning out all over again. It takes longer to recover for every time you get hit and eventually you will end up crashing if you take too many collisions like that. During a two-player game, a player can shoot his partner to recover him during a fall instead of performing the button mashing. Teamwork does make a difference!

Enemies come from almost every direction.

There is a wide variety of enemies and enemy types. Air enemies are mostly planes that resemble yours, however there are a few different movement patterns and tactics to deal with, plus they can enter the field from either the left or right side of the screen. Large planes fly in from the right side and drop several slow-moving bombs that you can destroy with normal fire. There are green parachute enemies that have an upper and lower portion. You get a point bonus for destroying both parts before they get away. Ground targets include armored cars that have no guns and tanks that either fire straight ahead or up at an angle. Ground turrets fire large shells that have a spread effect when they blow up, and these shells are even aimed at you a little bit. Boats can fire both normal and large shots. Submarines pop up briefly but give you a point bonus if you take them out. In later levels, if you hang out in the upper-right part of the screen for too long, Kamikaze pilots will come at you and detonate large explosives. There are other hazards that show up in later stages.

At the end of each mission you can earn bonus points. Sky Kid keeps a tally of each air target, ground target, and base you destroy within the mission. For both air and ground targets, you get a medal for every five enemies of each type you shoot down up to a total of six medals for destroying thirty or more enemies. The bonus points are awarded depending on your medal count. You get 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000, 7,000, or 10,000 points for one through six medals respectively. You earn a large medal for each base you destroy which is worth 10,000 points. You must blow up the entire base by hitting the center to earn the medal.

Drop your bomb early so that it hits the center of the base.

Missions 8, 16, and 24 are Shooting Gallery stages. There are no enemies at all, just targets to aim at. These are short levels and are a nice breather from the normal firefights. After the mission you get medals and bonus points depending on how well you do. You can earn up to four medals for a total of 20,000 points. I know you get 10,000 points for three medals. I never scored any worse than that. Interestingly, there is no bonus for shooting all the targets beyond the 20,000 points for four medals. You are allowed to miss either three or four targets and still get the best bonus.

There are a few other fun ways to earn even more bonus points by clever use of loop-de-loops. Some stages will have ladies dressed in blue. Fly above her and loop to cause her to release several hearts. Each heart collected is worth 1,000 points given out in a special scene after the mission. Some levels have large billboards in them. Loop above the billboard to generate either a medal or an explosive. The medal is worth 1,000 points but the explosive will kill you. I think this was more lucrative in the arcade version. In this port it’s neat to try but not worth it. Some stages have background elements that you can interact with by looping. For example, in the second level, you can loop while flying in front of the sun to turn it into the moon. This also changes the entire color palette of the level from day to night. You get a 1,000 point bonus too. There are a few of these one-off type interactions over the course of the game.

Each game of Sky Kid begins with three lives and you can earn more lives through your score. You earn a life at 30,000 points, another at 80,000 points, and one for every 80,000 points thereafter. There are no continues in the game and no other ways to earn extra lives. Every life you can earn and every life you can save from crashing matters in this game.

Break the targets!

This was my first time playing Sky Kid on NES. I know I tested this game when I bought my cart but I only vaguely remembered it. I believe I bought this game at a local game store for cheap. Sky Kid was featured on a James and Mike Mondays episode in February 2016 and the game shot up in value for a short time. It started under $10 and peaked at $25 and above for loose carts only. Now it has settled back down into the $10-$15 range. For some reason, 5-screw variants of Sky Kid tend to sell at $15 while 3-screw copies sell for closer to $10. As far as I know, there’s no real difference in rarity between the two games.

It turns out I was misled a little bit on where the game ends. The very useful NES Ending FAQ states you get the ending by blowing up the spaceship in Mission 11 and every eleven missions after that. It also says later that you have to let it go in Mission 11 and get it when it shows up next in Mission 26. Allow me to clear it all up here. The spaceship does appear in Mission 11 but it is just a tease. You need a bomb to destroy it as your bullets go right through it harmlessly, but the issue is there isn’t a bomb available until after the spaceship leaves. You could theoretically beat the game in Mission 11 if you used some kind of cheat code to get a bomb early, and it sounds like that’s what the author of the FAQ did. In Mission 13 there’s a large blimp that appears and you can shoot it down by dropping a bomb right on top of it. It’s not the spaceship though. It counts the same as blowing up a base and the game keeps going. I had hoped that maybe the game looped after Mission 15, and that Mission 26 was just the second run of Mission 11 with an early bomb. That was wishful thinking too. Indeed, there are 26 unique missions you have to play under normal circumstances.

What a tease!

Playing through the whole game is quite a feat. I really had no idea this game would be so challenging to beat. I wish now that I had better documented my attempts. I estimate that it took me 30-40 attempts to beat the game over 15-20 hours total. Progress through the game was slow but steady. At first I could only beat a couple of missions. By the end of the first day I reached only Mission 7 or 8. Missions 11-14 represented the first major roadblock and a noticeable bump in difficulty. Mission 20 was a particularly challenging one as it introduces a new hazard that appears to be somewhat randomized. The last two missions are very difficult. Once I was consistently reaching the 20’s, it became a matter of getting that far with enough lives in reserve to survive until the end.

I experienced several near misses and heartbreak before finally beating the game. I reached Mission 25 seven or eight times and Mission 26 at least four times. One time I got to Mission 25 with four or five lives in reserve and lost them all in a row. I had a run where I played almost perfectly through the 20s only to have the TV get shut off during the final mission. My AVS console is powered by the TV through USB so that run vanished when I lost power to both. I saw the Mission 26 spaceship for the first time on my last life of a run. I picked up the bomb I needed, but I got shot soon after which causes you to drop the bomb. I watched the spaceship go by hoping the stage would repeat somehow. It turns out the final mission has no runway, just the final expanse of water. Watching my plane crash into the sea was devastating. The next time I saw the final spaceship I kept my bomb and didn’t miss. Sky Kid’s second loop increases the difficulty by making everything fire much more frequently. In my longplay video, I got up to Mission 39 before losing for good. Reaching halfway through the second loop was more than I could have hoped for.

The action can get a little overwhelming.

I have a few tips and observations of the game that might be a little helpful. I appreciate that Sky Kid has some innate risk and reward elements to its playstyle. If you think about it, the safest place for you to be is the top of the screen. Being as high as you can offers you the most time to make a recovery if you are shot down. It also helps you fly over the hills and buildings that often appear in a level’s landscape that force you to the top anyway. Now you don’t want to be in the upper-right corner because that triggers the Kamikaze pilots. I found the safest location on-screen is a bit left of center at the top. There’s enough time to handle threats from the left while keeping distance from everything else. Ground turret shells can still reach you but there’s enough time to react. If you are being pursued by a plane from behind, you can sometimes do a loop at the top of the screen so that they will follow you and despawn. Now you could stay up there the whole game but you will forfeit a lot of points. Bombs must be obtained from the bottom of the screen and blowing up bases is the key to racking up points and extra lives the fastest. Besides, you are in danger at the top of the screen more often than you would think. There’s room here to play the way that fits your style. I like to score a bunch of points anyway, but here it’s a good strategy because I know I’m better off with more lives and more chances. I tend to stay in the middle of the screen where I can just reach the ground targets. Of course, there’s value in learning the mission layouts and being in position to nix enemies before they become threats. You do have to know some of that to have any shot at later challenges. I have proven you can beat the game with an aggressive approach, and I’m sure you can beat the game with a low score and conservative approach as well.

Sky Kid is a cute shoot-em-up that is fun to play. The graphics are cartoonish in quality and lack some detail, but it looks nice for an early NES game. One graphical issue I failed to mention is the white text is hard to read against a light blue background. There are only a few short songs in the game but they are upbeat and happy for the most part. The controls are responsive. Looping is a fun mechanic that can bail you out of a tough spot but can also get you in trouble if you abuse it. There are several neat details and embellishments such as interacting with background elements and all the ways to earn points. This is a game suitable to play casually, with a friend, or just for points. Trying to beat the game will test you for sure and not many are going see it through to the end. Because this is a simple game, I am going to assume that most people interested in NES games will pass over this one in favor of better, more complex games, and I think that’s okay. Even an average NES game can still provide a good time.

#99 – Sky Kid


#38 – Spy Hunter

Take pursuit of the top score as the bad guys pursue you.

The font is a bit hard to read.

To Beat: Complete the Winter season and the River section
Played: 11/21/16 – 11/23/16
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
Video: Spy Hunter Longplay
Bonus Video: Spy Hunter Glitch

This is another first for Take On The NES Library with the first racing game covered on the site. However, if you know anything about Spy Hunter then you’ll already know that this is a loose claim at best. Since Spy Hunter is less about racing and more about combat, survival, and high scores, we will have to save the first true racer for another day.

Spy Hunter is originally an arcade title released by Bally Midway in 1983. It was supposed to be a James Bond game and it carries that kind of vibe. Spy Hunter was popular enough to spawn a pinball game bearing the same name in 1984. Later the game was ported to a host of home computers and other consoles. The sequel Spy Hunter II was released in 1987 and featured more of a 3D perspective from above and behind the car as opposed to an overhead view. The NES port of Spy Hunter was also released in 1987 and was both developed and published by Sunsoft. In 1991, Sunsoft released a Famicom title called Battle Formula which plays as a racing shooter game similar to Spy Hunter. When they brought the game to the NES, they obtained the Spy Hunter license from Bally Midway and released the game as Super Spy Hunter in 1992.

Spy Hunter experienced periods of dormancy sandwiched between a number of reboots. The next Spy Hunter game was released in 2001 along with a sequel, Spy Hunter 2, in 2003. Around that time a Spy Hunter movie was starting up but it has not yet seen the light of day. There was a movie tie-in game called Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run that was released in 2006 anyway despite no movie release to go with it. After another long quiet spell, yet another video game reboot of Spy Hunter was developed for handhelds in 2012. There have been rumors that a Spy Hunter film is still in development as recently as 2015, but at this point it seems unlikely this will ever come to fruition.

Just crusin’ along!

Spy Hunter is a top-down racing and shooting game. You control the G-1655 CIA Prototype Interceptor as you are being chased by a bunch of enemy agents who only want to destroy you. Your task is to take out the enemy agents, protect innocent bystander vehicles, and drive as far as you can.

The controls are simple. Use the D-Pad to steer your vehicle left and right. You go faster by holding up and you slow down by pressing Down. Your Interceptor is armed with a machine gun that you can fire with the B button. If you have a special weapon you can use it with A, and the Select key will switch between special weapons if you have more than one. There is no pause feature with the game which is a significant omission as far as I’m concerned.

When you begin the game you are unloaded by the big brown weapons van and you can start driving right away. Your score counter is displayed on the upper-right of the screen and it increases as you drive. You want to stay on the pavement since you don’t get score while you are riding along the edge of the road. If you go faster you accrue points more quickly while at a higher risk of crashing. There are a number of vehicles and hazards that will get in your way from both ahead and behind so you want to maintain a decent speed. You also earn points by defeating the enemy agents. If you happen to bump into or destroy a non-enemy vehicle your score counter blinks and stops increasing for a little while.

Try to avoid shooting the regular cars.

There is also a time counter on the bottom-right that ticks down pretty fast from 999. The timer ties to an interesting mechanic concerning your lives. As long as the timer is running, you can crash your vehicle and you can get right back on the road with no penalty. The timer runs out quickly and it only counts down once at the start of the game, so this juncture is when you want to be more careful. You want to drive well enough to earn at least 10,000 points before the timer runs out. Fail to reach that score and your next crash ends your game immediately. However, if you reach that mark then you get an extra life that is shown where the timer used to be displayed. If you play really well and get to 30,000 points you get another extra life, and you can earn another life at every 30,000 points beyond that.

The enemy vehicles on the road all share the same deep blue color so you can easily distinguish them from the others. There is a skinny enemy called the Tire Slasher. You can easily shoot it with your machine gun when it is in front of you, but if it gets to your side it will deploy spikes out of its tires and try to collide with you, causing you to lose control of your vehicle completely. The second enemy agent is a thick car called a Bullet Proof Bully. Naturally this vehicle is immune to your machine gun, so the way to take it out is to bump it off the road with your Interceptor. This enemy will try and do the same to you, so be careful. The third agent is a long Limousine. This vehicle attacks you via a backseat passenger firing a pistol out the side windows whenever you run along side of it, so you want to avoid approaching it just as you want to avoid the Tire Slasher. There is a fourth enemy which is a white helicopter. This is the only flying vehicle and you can hear it coming long before you see it. The helicopter drops deadly bombs on the road that create a deadly pothole in the ground should you run over it.

The helicopters are relentless!

To help fend off the enemies, you can find three special weapons. At certain times the same brown van that drops you off at the start appears with a symbol on the top. If you get close to the van it drops a ramp so that you can drive up into the back of the van. If you do this, the van will pull over to the side of the road and drop you off with your new weapon. The weapons are indicated by letters in the upper-left corner of the screen. The one denoted by an S is the smoke screen which lets you spew a wide fan of smoke out of the back of your Interceptor. This pretty much causes everything behind you to crash, including innocent drivers which halts your score counter. The M is a homing missile that is used solely to take out the helicopter. You have to drive in a way to keep the helicopter still long enough so that you can hit it, and getting the hang of it takes some time. The O is an oil slick which drops a car-wide stream of oil behind you. The effect is similar to the smoke screen but it is much easier to target a single enemy. These weapons are useful but if you crash you lose them all.

As you drive you will occasionally find forks in the road. You have to be careful to pick a side so that you don’t crash in the median. You will also drive across long bridges. When you come out of the other side the background scenery changes. There are four different areas you drive through and each one corresponds to a season. You can bounce around a bit between the different seasons, but usually you go through Spring, Summer, Fall, and then Winter.

If you get really far into the game you will eventually come across a small branching path to the left with a small building at the end. It’s very easy to miss it when you are going fast, and it is completely optional anyway. Drive into the building and you switch over to a boat and drive on the river. There are two types of enemy boats you will encounter and no friendly vehicles to avoid. Cruise boats fire torpedoes both ahead and behind them, and speed boats drop explosive barrels you need to navigate around. Enemy helicopters can also join the fray. You can stay on the water for as long as you want, or eventually you can find a path back to the boathouse and get back on the road.

The water is more dangerous than the road.

Looking around online, it seems a common rumor about Spy Hunter back in the day was that the game eventually has an ending if you play long enough. I can put that rumor to rest: Spy Hunter is an endless game. With an endless game comes deciding on what constitutes a win. The closest thing Spy Hunter has to levels are the seasons and the river. Winter is always the last unique season you will encounter in the game, so my winning condition is to drive through the Winter scene and also survive one loop of the river.

Spy Hunter is one of my childhood games and one that I spent time with on an occasional basis. Play sessions are pretty short so this was a good choice for a pick up and play game. I never committed to it long enough to ever get really good at the game, so this was my first real shot and beating it and seeing everything the game has to offer.

Because Spy Hunter is a pretty short game I ended up recording all my attempts, so I have some hard data on my effort in beating the game. It took me 18 attempts over almost exactly an hour and a half of total playtime. 17 of those attempts took place the first night I played, and the next time I sat down to play I had my winning run on the first try. I took on the river at my first opportunity and ended up getting through it for the first time in my life. The river scene was a childhood gaming nemesis that I was super proud to finally conquer. Going from car to boat or vice versa is the only time the game stops for long enough to capture a proper picture since there is no pause feature. I managed to capture a quick image with my camera even though I hadn’t technically finished the game yet. I was able to drive well enough to pass through Winter and beat the game with a final score of 108,595.

I don’t think many Spy Hunter players have seen this snow!

My 11th attempt was where I got my highest score. I looped through Winter twice and was going pretty well when I decided to go for it and try the River. Unfortunately, I failed out pretty fast. I earned a score of 134,525. I don’t remember what happened after that but I must have been pretty disappointed that I missed my best chance to that point. I stopped recording for a little while and then started back up again a little later. Those last attempts that night were not very good so I smartly cut my losses and went to bed.

During my 4th attempt I unintentionally triggered a glitch that soft-locked my game. I was trying to drive into the weapons van when I bumped into another car at the same time. The game started the sequence of steering the Interceptor into the van without actually putting the car inside. It left my car in a state where it was hovering over the road where I couldn’t move it and no one could touch it. That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen while playing and I had no choice but to reset and start over. I bet the timing of the glitch is really tough to reproduce!

Spy Hunter is a classic game that would be a good fit it any NES collection. There may not be a lot of substance to the game, but it plays well and it is a great game to pop in if you just want to kill a few minutes. I’m just glad to say that after all these years of playing that I have finally seen all there is to see, and it didn’t take me nearly as long as I thought!

#38 – Spy Hunter

Lemmings Box Cover

#17 – Lemmings

Follow the leader to the ends of the earth no matter what the cost.

Let's play a New Level!

Let’s play a New Level!

To Beat: Beat the last level (Mayhem 25) to reach the ending
To Complete: Beat all 100 levels
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Complete the game
Played: 2/5/16 – 2/28/16
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 8/10

I haven’t looked ahead at my master game list for Take On The NES Library since I first finalized it many months ago, but I remember Lemmings was on the list early on and I knew it was going to take me a long time to get all the way to the end. That proved to be correct! Despite the long play time and figuratively banging my head against the wall on some of the final levels, I had a lot of fun with Lemmings. The NES port has many limitations but despite that it is a surprisingly faithful version of this classic title.

Lemmings was originally released on the Amiga in February 1991. It was developed by DMA Design and published by Psygnosis. The NES version was developed by Ocean Software and published by Sunsoft. There is an account on the history of the development of Lemmings by Mike Dailly, who is one of the founding members of DMA Design as well as a programmer and artist. Definitely check that link out if you want to read the whole story. The idea for the game all started with an animation of what would become the lemmings in the game. They were mocking up little men as targets for a game they were creating called Walker. The idea was to make very tiny men around 8×8 in pixel size. After some refinement of the animation, one of the team members, Russell Kay, noted that “there’s a game in that!”

Update 5/27/16: There is some confusion around who exactly developed the NES port of Lemmings. The opening scene and most sources I found say that Ocean Software developed the port, but in the credits of the PAL version of the game the developer is listed as Special FX Software. They are not listed in the credits of the NTSC version that I played. It appears that Special FX Software was formed by members of Ocean Software after they left the company, so perhaps they acted as a contractor to Ocean at the point of release. It is also possible that they only worked on some sort of conversion to the PAL release, though from what I can tell the NTSC and PAL versions are the same except for the difference in the credits. My hunch is that Special FX Software was indeed the developer of NES Lemmings, but I cannot say with 100% certainty. Special thanks to Nintendo Age user ruudos for the tip!

The game even has a cute little intro scene when the game is turned on.

The game even has a cute little intro scene when the game is turned on.

There most definitely was a game in that! Lemmings was a big hit for DMA Design and it was easily their most successful game to date. It is also one of the most widely ported games ever. I found a list of Lemmings releases in this article in Hardcore Gaming 101: Amiga, Amiga CD32, Amiga CDTV, IBM PC, Windows 95, Apple IIGS, Macintosh, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum, PC-98, Acorn Archimedes, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, SAM Coupé, NES, SNES, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Turbografx CD, Lynx, Master System, Game Gear, Genesis, 3DO, CD-I, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PSP, and Mobile. As you can see, Lemmings was just about everywhere! There would be a few Lemmings sequels and additional level packs along the way. It may have been DMA Design’s biggest hit, however the company would go on to later launch the first game in an even bigger and more successful franchise. DMA Design created Grand Theft Auto in 1997. After a series of acquisitions, DMA Design became Rockstar North and they are still developing Grand Theft Auto today.

Now, onto the actual game! Lemmings is a puzzle platformer, but it can also be considered as a predecessor to the real-time strategy genre. The object of the game is to guide a group of lemmings to a goal. The lemmings themselves have very basic behavior. They will always walk forward only turning around in the other direction if they collide with a solid object. They will fall off ledges and into traps to their death if you let them. You cannot directly control the lemmings, Instead, you control a cursor by which you can assign specific lemmings a task. There are eight tasks that you can give to the lemmings that aid in creating a path to the end of the level. There is a limit to how many times a task can be given within a level and sometimes a skill is unavailable. The game plays out over 120 levels spread out in groups of 30 levels over four difficulty settings, and there are passwords handed out after every level. Each level dictates how many lemmings appear in the stage, what percentage of lemmings must be saved to win the level, the amount of time given, how fast the lemmings emerge from the entrance, and how many of each skill is available. Early on the game provides more than enough options and leeway to finish a level, but later on you are not given that much to work with so you must be creative and resourceful in determining how to solve a level. In fact, some levels are repeated with a different, more limited mix of skills that greatly changes the way you approach the solution.

The game starts off with a nice safe area.

The game starts off with a nice safe area.

These are the eight tasks at your disposal:

  • Climber: Allows a lemming to climb vertical walls. This skill stays with the lemming for the entire level.
  • Floater: Lets the lemming pull out an umbrella to float down when falling. Lemmings will die if they fall from too high so this skill lets them survive. It is a persistent skill just like the climber.
  • Bomber: Sets a countdown timer from five and when it runs out the lemming explodes! This explosion kills the lemming of course but it puts a hole in the ground where the lemming used to be. Other nearby lemmings are unaffected when he explodes.
  • Blocker: The lemming stands in place holding his arms out so that no lemmings can pass. If a lemming runs into a Blocker he will turn around. Blockers cannot be assigned any further tasks except for the Bomber skill to blow them away. There is one exception. If a blocker has the ground removed out from under him, he will fall down and resume walking as an ordinary unskilled lemming.
  • Builder: Allows the lemming to build a bridge. The lemming will put down the sections of the bridge piece by piece, building upwards around a 30 degree angle. A Builder will need to be reassigned the Builder skill multiple times consecutively to create large bridges.
  • Basher: The lemming will claw horizontally through the ground clearing a path forward. This must be used near a wall or a mound where the dirt is right in front of the lemming. When the path forward is clear, the lemming resumes his walking.
  • Miner: Same as the Basher except the lemming carves a path at a downward diagonal slope.
  • Digger: Same as the Basher and Miner except the lemming digs straight down.
This ledge is too high without some lofty assistance.

This ledge is too high without some lofty assistance.

As the game progresses, you will discover certain behaviors or tricks that are vital to solving later levels when the available skills are much more limited. One example is that if a Builder bumps his head against the ceiling, he will stop building and start walking in the opposite direction. This is one way to get a lemming to turn around. Sometimes you will need a Blocker and you don’t have one. A way to get around that is to have a Miner go partway into the ground to create a wall and then assign him the Builder skill to stop mining and turn him around since he can’t build into a solid wall.

What I have been describing up to this point is how most of the versions of Lemmings play. The NES version of the game has some significant changes that are there primarily because of the limitations of the NES hardware. There are only 100 levels with 25 per each difficulty level. The maximum number of lemmings per level is 14 instead of 100. This is because the NES can only display 8 sprites per scanline at one time. The lemmings themselves are drawn as sprites and they flicker whenever there are more than 8 in a row so that you can see them all. I suppose the development team decided that 14 lemmings was as high as they could go to make the flickering tolerable in the worst case scenario, and this also keeps the game from slowing down too much. Curiously, there is one level that has a maximum of 20 lemmings but only 14 will appear at the same time. The rest of the lemmings will emerge only if a lemming is killed or exits the stage. The level layouts themselves are shrunk down so that they fit in a map exactly two screens wide. This is done because the NES can have two screens worth of level data drawn out side by side with smooth scrolling without having to draw additional columns of tiles on the fly. I’m sure this was done to save memory of map data as well as for avoiding any possible slowdown or display corruption by drawing out the level one time at the start.

None shall pass!

None shall pass!

The change that has the biggest effect on game play has to do with aligning actions to a grid. The NES background layer that holds the level layout consists of a grid of 8×8 pixel tiles. Every action that affects the level map adheres to this grid, while in other versions these same actions can take place on any pixel. It’s hard to explain but video should help. If you look at this footage of the SNES version, whenever a lemming bashes through a wall he shaves off individual pixels, whereas in this video of the NES version the lemming will remove an entire 8×8 pixel tile at one time. In the NES version, whenever Bashers, Miners, or Diggers are assigned, they will not being taking action until they move to the middle of the tile so that they can remove the entire tile ahead of them. Miners actually affect two tiles at once to make the slopes work. Builders will not start building until they move to the seam between two tiles and they build upward at a 45 degree angle. This causes the segments of the newly built bridge to occupy a full tile when they are finished. To pull off the animation of building the bridge, I think the game swaps in a new tile containing the next step of the bridge. The exceptions to this rule are that Blockers and Bombers take effect immediately after the skills are assigned regardless of tile position.

So after that long explanation that probably made no sense, how exactly does this affect gameplay? This gives you a timing window to make moves that are applied to a very specific location. Because the lemmings must walk a bit to align to the tile, there are several frames where that task can be given which affects the same spot. A practical example of this is with building bridges. A Builder will create a bridge spanning exactly two horizontal tiles before he resumes walking. If you need to cross a gap exactly four tiles wide but you only have two Builders remaining, you can pull it off quite easily. You can assign the Builder when he is standing anywhere on the last tile before the gap and he will walk right up to the very edge and start building. Chain two builds together and his finished bridge will end exactly on the other side so that lemmings can cross. Making exact moves like this is very helpful. The downside to this is that in the later levels you get exactly enough skill assignments to complete the level though you will have plenty of opportunity to practice your precision. The levels were tailored from their original versions to fit the NES limitations which shows how much care was put into making the port work despite the differences between other platforms. There was some really nice programming done on this game to really pull everything together and make this a good experience on NES.

Sometimes sacrifices must be made.

Sometimes sacrifices must be made.

One real negative of NES Lemmings that I want to address is that it is almost impossible to give tasks to the lemming you want whenever they are bunched together. There is just not enough precision in the cursor and when lemmings overlap while walking in different directions that doesn’t make a difference anyway. I can’t tell you how many times I wasted tasks and restarted levels because I couldn’t make the assignment I wanted. Unless my solutions were sub-optimal, sometimes I was required to try making an assignment and hope for the best that it was what I wanted. It’s just a limitation of the game as it’s designed but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to deal with. The pause feature of Lemmings occasionally will make this somewhat easier. You can move the cursor around and scroll the level when paused. A good technique is to frequently pause the game to try and isolate a lemming who is a bit separated from the pack. You can then take your time and put the cursor exactly where you want it so you can unpause and very quickly assign the skill. It’s far from perfect but with some patience it does increase the odds of making a successful move. You cannot assign a task while paused which is consistent among all ports of the games. However, the NES version does not allow switching the skill selection when paused which the original version of the game and many ports allow. This can lead to some frantic switching when the situation calls for giving distinct tasks at the same time, but for most purposes you just need to remember to switch which task you want to use before pausing.

Before this blog, most of my experience with Lemmings was with the SNES version which is said to correlate quite closely to the Amiga version. I have owned the game since the 90’s and I made it maybe three-quarters of the way through before I moved on to some other game. The NES port of Lemmings was among the first games I sought out when I set out to complete my NES licensed cart set just because of my fondness for the SNES version. I ended up buying it at a used game store for $13 in late 2013 which was a solid price. They had it listed for $18 but I had a $5 off coupon that I used. It was the last coupon I have ever seen from that particular chain of game stores but I made sure I put it to good use. I went out with a couple of my friends to make a special trip out to that particular store to get the game. I got a ribbing from one of my friends for buying it because he had no idea why I would want the NES port of Lemmings. I didn’t care because I knew I wanted the game for my collection! I ended up getting a double of the game in an eBay lot for a good price because the game had a ripped label. It turns out the label was fine and it was a sticker over the top of the label that was torn instead. The cart cleaned up really nice and it ended up being the copy I kept for my collection.

You can only bash through arrow walls in the direction of the arrow.

You can only bash through arrow walls in the direction of the arrow.

Even though I spent the most amount of time on Lemmings for any game covered thus far, I don’t have a whole lot to say about my playthrough. I mowed through levels early on and I had to spend some time solving later levels just as one would expect. I didn’t get stuck on any one level for too long. In fact, nearly every time I sat down to play I would complete at least one level and some of those play sessions were only 20-30 minutes long. I’m really thankful for password saves after every level so I could inch my way through to the end. My prior experience with Lemmings helped me remember many of the tricks needed to solve the puzzles. I decided to drop the difficulty down a notch for me because of this. I was very tempted to put this game as the first 10 on the difficulty scale, but for now I will leave it at 9. It is quite challenging but I think it will probably fall just a bit short of the hardest games the NES has to offer.

I found a video solution guide for the NES version of Lemmings for all difficulty levels: Fun, Tricky, Taxing, and Mayhem. I solved all the levels on my own without any outside help but I liked having a solution from someone else to watch. I looked at quite a few of these after I finished the game and most of the solutions differed slightly from how I solved the stage. It’s a testament to good game design here that despite some strict limits there is still more than one way to get to the same place in the end.

Lemmings on NES is an example of a well-done port on a limited platform in spite of some significant changes needed to make it work. If the developers would have tried to shoehorn in all the levels and allow more lemmings on-screen than the NES could handle, it would have bogged the game down into a much worse overall experience. Instead, they tweaked the game just right and made the NES port very playable, even if it is not the best way to experience Lemmings. If you really want to play this game, I would skip the NES version in favor of one that is more true to the original Amiga game. Maybe now I am well prepared to finish off the SNES version that I started long ago.

#17 - Lemmings

#17 – Lemmings

Journey to Silius Box Cover

#14 – Journey to Silius

This is one journey that is well worth going on!

Another sweet title screen tune!

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 1/25/16 – 1/29/16
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 8/10

Okay, now we’re talking! Probably the biggest thrill of Take On The NES Library is whenever a random game shows up that I’m really excited to play and Journey to Silius fits the bill completely. Appearing on many “hidden gems” NES lists over the years, I think the cat is let out of the bag on this one. It’s a little pricey as a result but not too expensive and it’s a game that fits well in just about any NES collection.

Journey to Silius was released in the US in September 1990, just after the Japan release in August 1990 named Raf World. It was developed by Tokai Engineering and published by Sunsoft. Tokai Engineering developed three games for the NES: Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, and Super Spy Hunter. Their first game was a Famicom only game called Ripple Island and their fifth and final game is Albert Odyssey on the Super Famicom.

Journey to Silius is a run-and-gun action game. You play the role of Jay McCray as he fights a terrorist group responsible for the death of his father. You can jump and shoot a basic hand gun and you can also duck and shoot low. There are six weapons total but you only start with two and have to acquire the other four along the way. The initial special weapon is the shot gun that is a three-way shot useful for reaching high enemies. The machine gun is like the hand gun with rapid autofire. Homing missiles target the enemy for you. The laser gun shoots a beam that blasts through enemies. The grenade launcher is a single but powerful straight shot.

Quite a few enemies pose a challenge even early on.

Jay has both a health bar and a gun energy bar indicated on the upper left of the screen. The hand gun has infinite shots but the other weapons drain your gun energy gauge. This is shared between all the weapons and when it runs out you can only use the hand gun. Enemies will occasionally drop a blue power up that refills a portion of your gun energy, and enemies can also drop a red powerup that restores some health.

This is kind of an aside, but one criticism I have about the game is the low drop rate on the powerups. The blue ones show up often enough but the red ones drop far less often. In most playthroughs I see maybe two or three health drops total, and I bet someone could play the whole game without seeing a single one. They pop up so infrequently it’s hard to believe that they exist at all. I once encountered two in a row and I didn’t know how to handle it! It would have been nice if I actually needed the health at that time.

There are five levels in total: Outside a deserted space colony, an underground tunnel, the enemy headquarters, the enemy spaceship, and the enemy factory. These are all horizontal scrolling levels with the occasional brief vertical section mixed in. Each level except the last has a mini-boss at the end that drops a new special weapon when defeated and there is also a main boss at the end of each one. The mini-bosses are unique enemies a bit larger than the normal ones but the end level bosses are huge and fill up the screen. You only have three lives with no way to gain any extra lives which contributes to the overall difficulty. The levels have checkpoints scattered about so there isn’t a ton of ground to gain back if you die, but if you lose all your lives you have to continue back at the beginning of the stage. You are only allowed three continues before having to start all over from Stage 1 so it’s important to take your time and preserve as much health as you can as you progress deeper into the game.

Some serious firepower here!

I remember renting and playing Journey to Silius when I was a kid. I overlooked it quite a few times in favor of something else and once I did rent it I don’t think I got very far in the game. I was really into games that had score at the time and Journey to Silius doesn’t have any points, so looking back I’m surprised I gave it a chance at all.

Journey to Silius was one of the first games I tracked down individually when I hunkered down to pursue the rest of the NES licensed set. I learned an interesting thing today. When doing some research on the game I Googled it and it pulled up my eBay order for the game in the search. I guess Google searched my gmail and noticed I had ordered it, so you can use Google to look up past orders. It’s a little unsettling that they can do that. Anyway, I won it in an auction on eBay in 2013 with no picture for $5 plus shipping. A few weeks after that my local store got a copy of the game in and I bought it for $3 which was a great deal so why not! I ended up with a third copy that I bought in an eBay lot in practically mint condition and that’s the one in my collection.

I have played the game in the past couple of years but I never committed to beating the game before. That recent experience did give me a bit of an edge for the first half of the game. Overall it took me four attempts to beat the game. My first two runs ended at the Level 4 boss and Level 5 boss respectively, and on my third try I regressed a bit and died earlier in Level 5. My fourth and winning run was quite the rollercoaster of emotion … at least it was for me. I will be spoiling the endgame so if you’re looking to avoid spoilers just skip the next two paragraphs. It’s okay, I don’t mind!

Huge boss, huge claw, huge pain!

My final run started out as just about the perfect run. Mind you, I’m not saying that I’m so good that I can get far without taking damage, but on this run I limited it enough to keep alive. I made it all the way to the Stage 4 mini-boss before I took my first death and I finished the level on my next life, so I reached the final level with the two lives remaining and all three of my continues. Of course, this is where the wheels fell off. The first four levels I found myself taking things slow and focusing on killing the enemies quickly and with this strategy the game is pretty straightforward after enough attempts. The last level completely changes things. It’s an auto-scrolling level with a heavy emphasis on platforming with no enemies to shoot at all. You are fighting against the level and the level is just brutal. There are crates that fall, lava that flows down from the ceiling, conveyor belts, moving crushers, you name it. I find the jumping to be a little bit inconsistent and that becomes a problem when every jump matters. The game expects you to jump off of moving crates as well. There’s one part in particular where the best way to get through is to jump on a moving crate as soon as it scrolls on screen. Missing that, which you absolutely would the first time through, leaves you only one more narrow opportunity to get through or you have no choice but to die. It takes a lot of practice to get through this level and being the last level you have to work hard to get that far in the first place.

Pretty soon I burned through my lives and had to continue. Pretty soon I used up all of my continues too with nothing to show for it. The worst is when you are interacting with a moving platform and you somehow get pinched and immediately die. It feels like such a cheap death and this happened to me two or three times. In times like this my emotions can really vary. I can get pretty frustrated at time but here I wasn’t even angry. I first laughed it all off and accepting all these weird deaths and that shifted to getting despondent. I was already thinking about having to start the game all over again. My last continue started off better. I got a good start to the level before dying and on my second life I was finally clearing some difficult obstacles but draining health quickly in the process. At my last sliver of health I got hit by a falling crate for my second death, but somehow during the death animation I teleported into the boss room and finished dying there. I wish I knew how that happened, but I’ll take it. My last life began at the boss and I had a game plan after dying there once before in a prior attempt. It didn’t go the best but it was okay. However after the boss there is a second, final boss which is a tall humanoid robot. There is no refilling of your health and weapons before the fight so I was left with no gun power and about a third of a health bar left. I got backed into the corner and ducked, which turns out to be a safe spot since the boss stops advancing that far against the side and is unable to punch you when you duck. I got him stuck in a loop! After observing the timing for awhile I could jump up to shoot him in the face and resume ducking while missing his punches. It took a bit of time and I got down to my very last sliver of health but I beat the boss and beat the game. Whew! That was one of my best wins in quite awhile!

Falling crates on conveyor belts while scrolling. It’s tough!

After the ending and credits, you go back to Level 1 exactly as you ended the final boss fight. So I started over with no weapons and that sliver of health. I kept going and it didn’t take long before I ended up dead and back at the title screen. From what little I played it didn’t seem to be any more difficult, and I couldn’t find any information on it so it looks like there is no hard mode here.

I think this has sort of become well known regarding this game, but originally Journey to Silius was supposed to be a licensed game based on the movie The Terminator. Somewhere during development Sunsoft lost the Terminator license so they took the work that was already done and retooled it into the game we got today. There is a licensed Terminator game on NES that I haven’t played much, but I think Journey to Silius is the better game of the two. Also, the game has a really good soundtrack. Naoki Kodaka is the composer for the game and his style tends to revolve around using the NES DPCM sound channel to play bass samples. The Stage 2 music is a deep, moody track and is a favorite among NES music enthusiasts.

Journey to Silius is a lot of fun to play and I’m glad that the game is getting more recognition in NES collecting circles. It feels good to beat this one having tinkered with playing it off and on!

Journey to Silius Ending Screen

#14 – Journey to Silius