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Dragon Buster: It's a bust

On paper, Dragon Buster sounds like a great Japanese arcade game: a side-scrolling dungeon crawler in which you (a boy named Clovis) slay monsters and wizards and collect potions, jewels, scrolls, and other treasure. But when I actually played it, I was disappointed. The stages (dungeons) are made up of hallways, monster rooms, elevators, and a few drops and ledges. Smaller enemies roam the hallways, but each room contains a big monster to fight, such as a Golem or the hilariously-misnamed Bishop, who is an ax-wielding fighting-man. When you defeat it, you collect an item, then continue on your way. In a certain room, defeating the monster will produce an exit instead. Some of the stages are labyrinthine. There are a total of twelve worlds (maps), and you have some choice of which dungeons to do. In the last dungeon of each map, you have to fight a fire-breathing Dragon. Each one has a different weak point that flashes red. The number of dungeons on each map varies greatly, from just o

Gradius (Nemesis): Classic space shooting

Gradius is a classic arcade port on the NES, up there with Pac-Man and Galaga . Released with the title Nemesis in American arcades at the end of 1985, it established a new sub-genre: the side-scrolling shooter. Konami brought it to the NES a year later (under its original Japanese title) with an outstanding port. Some compromises were made, such as removing the vertical-scrolling in some stages and the laser not going all the way across the screen, but it still looks and plays beautifully (flickering sprites notwithstanding). Nintendo's promise to bring fantastic arcade games into your living room was fulfilled. Left: arcade; right: NES In Gradius you control a space fighter jet called the Vic Viper that blasts away spacecraft, dodges myriads of bullets, and avoids obstacles. The gimmick of the game is that you choose which power-ups you want. Whenever you pick up a power-up icon, your menu option shifts to the right. The first option is speed-up, an essential first pick as the V

Ninja JaJaMaru-kun: Lackluster arcade-style platforming

Last month Nintendo added an obscure Famicom title called Ninja JaJaMaru-kun to the NES Switch Online platform. It's an arcade-style platformer from 1985 reminiscent of Namco's  Mappy . Each stage has four floors of enemies to clear, and the screen scrolls a little bit horizontally. JaJaMaru can break brick platforms with his head (not unlike Super Mario), which then allows him to jump between floors. Broken bricks sometimes drop a coin (points), an extra life, or a power-up. The power-ups are medicine (temporary invincibility), a speed-up ball, a throwing star that increases attack range, and a tram car that lets JaJaMaru run over enemies! You have to be careful, though, because broken platforms can also leave bombs that cost you a life if touched. If you collect three different power-ups, a giant frog appears that JaJaMaru rides to destroy all the enemies! As you move through levels, the stage's aesthetic changes a little, and the enemies grow more difficult. They're

Karate Champ: Looks charming, plays terribly

Karate Champ on the Evercade handheld Karate Champ is a port of a 1984 fighting arcade game by Technōs. On the arcade, Karate Champ used a unique two-joystick control system that required different combinations of movements for different attacks. On the NES, however, the A and B buttons had to substitute for the second joystick. Unfortunately, the combinations are not intuitive and are hard to remember. For example, while A throws a reverse punch, if you press it while holding → or ←, you get a kick instead. To do the low punch (the only other punch), you have to press A and B together while holding ↓. Yet normally A and B together give you a roundhouse kick! And there are more combinations. It's necessary to consult a chart while playing, because the whole thing feels very random. The bad controls are made even worse by the baffling hit detection, which causes most apparent hits not to count. The game mimics a karate match, meaning it's point based. Every clean hit should (but

Ghosts 'n Goblins: Punishing as hell

Ghosts 'n Goblins is a port of the 1985 arcade game  by Capcom, which has become famous for its punishing difficulty. Its legacy is strong: it was included on the NES Classic and just got a reboot in the form of Ghosts 'n Goblins Resurrection . Ghosts 'n Goblins is an insanely difficult platformer. You control Arthur, a knight who must rescue Princess Prin Prin (short for Princess Princess Princess, one assumes). An opening cut scene (happily retained on the NES!) shows Satan himself kidnapping her. Interestingly, Satan is not the final boss, which is instead the demon Astaroth. Astaroth most notably appeared in the 16th-century play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. It also appeared as a major boss in Final Fantasy II  on the Famicom. This game is very demon-based — indeed, its Japanese title means "Demon World Village" (see this 2005 interview with the developer). Given that it also has enemies spattering blood, it's a wonder Nintendo of America licens

Super Xevious: The Mystery of GAMP: Can you solve it?

The 1984 arcade game Super Xevious received a Famicom-exclusive spin-off of the same name but with the sub-title "Ganpu no Nazo," which translates to "The Mystery of GAMP." GAMP is an acronym for General Artificial Matrix Producer, the final boss of Xevious and Super Xevious. GAMP's "mystery" (or puzzle) refers to how each level requires the completion of a hidden objective to proceed. The level keeps looping until you do it. The first level, for example, requires you to fly your ship (the Solvalou) into a random cloud. The second level requires you to rescue another ship (called Phantom). None of the objectives are off-the-wall, and several are just destroying all the ground targets. As in Xevious, you shoot your gun with B and lob bombs at ground targets with A. The actual shooting part of the game is not too difficult. The enemies never overwhelm you, and there are rarely too many bullets to dodge. That's not to say that the game is easy . I hav

Urban Champion: The first and worst NES fighting game

Urban Champion was the first fighting game to arrive on the NES. (The launch title Kung Fu , though it influenced the fighting genre, is a one-player beat-'em-up.) Within months it was surpassed by a port of the popular arcade game Karate Champ , because Urban Champion is just bad . The word primitive does not do this justice. Urban Champion has even less depth than Tennis , Soccer , Pinball , Golf , and Baseball , and those are all very bare-bones affairs. The game is just two palette-swapped fighters punching each other until one is pushed into a man hole. B throws a hard punch and A a light punch (barely faster). If you hold ↑ while punching, the blow is directed at the head instead of the torso. Holding ↑ or ↓ without attacking blocks the head and the torso, respectively. There is no kicking, jumping, throwing, or special moves. There is a stamina value at the bottom of the screen, but I have no idea what it indicates. The "champions" move back and forth along a multi

Mach Rider: Mad max speed

Mach Rider is another NES game I'd never heard of before beginning this retro quest. It's a post-apocalyptic motorcycle game that was clearly inspired by the Mad Max movies. You ride your bike along desolate highways with ruined cityscapes, shooting at alien invaders in vehicles called Quadrunners. The game is challenging because of the Quadrunners, especially when they come up from behind and ram into the Mach Rider, smashing him to pieces. Weirdly, he re-assembles after being destroyed, which is part of the futuristic storyline. Most video games don't bother to explain how you have multiple lives, so it's kind of neat. After the starter course, you only get three lives but earn a bonus life after every third course. Fortunately, the game includes a "Solo Course" that lets you practice courses without any Quadrunners. You can play this way to get used to the controls and courses. The game's main mode (called "Fighting Course") has ten unique cou

TwinBee: Double your pleasure, double your gun

When I was playing early Famicom games, I accidentally skipped TwinBee (because I saw its later re-release date for the Disk System). It is a port of a 1985 arcade game that never left Japan. TwinBee was Konami's answer to Namco's Xevious . As with many early arcade titles, the NES only got the sequel, Stinger (whose Japanese title translates to "Burning TwinBee: The Rescue of Dr. Cinnamon"!). TwinBee Famicom cartridge TwinBee is a vertical-scrolling shoot-'em-up. It uses a cutesy style ("cute-'em-up"), so the enemies are things like kitchenware and flowers. The game's main gimmick is that power-ups are gained through color-changing bells. When you shoot certain clouds, a yellow bell flies out. If you catch it, at first you get a mere 100 points, but their value increases sequentially to a maximum of 10,000 points. If you let it fall through the bottom of the screen, it resets to 100 points. But you can also "juggle" the bells by shoot

Mario Bros.: Plumbers' pest program

The original Mario Bros. arcade game holds a special place in my heart because I played it once when very young at Chuck E. Cheese. It had already been succeeded by Super Mario Bros. , but it still seemed so cool to me. Mario Bros. introduced Luigi and established the brothers as plumbers (in Donkey Kong Mario was a carpenter). This is shown through iconic green pipes in the corners. The goal of the game is to clear the screen of "pests" by jumping and hitting them from below, then kicking them away before they flip back over. There are three main enemies: Shellcreeper (a turtle, the predecessor of Koopa Troopas), Sidestepper (a crab), who becomes fast when hit and must be hit again, and Fighter Fly, who jumps. Each time you clear a pest, a bonus coin appears. Fireballs also bounce around the screen. A POW Block can be hit three times to flip over all enemies (except Fighter Flies in mid-jump), collect coins, and elminate Fireballs. You can't rely on this, however, as it