Monday, May 26, 2014

NES Replay: BurgerTime

Kurt Vonnegut, the late, great famous author, told a story about his brief time at Sports Illustrated. His first day at the magazine, he was assigned to write a story about a horse that jumped a fence and tried to run away. He stared at the paper for about a half an hour before finally typing, "The horse jumped over the f---ing fence," then left.

That's how I felt while I was trying to write about BurgerTime. "The cook walked over the f---ing burger."

In BurgerTime, you play a little cook that has to walk over pieces of a hamburger, which drops them down to the lower levels of the screen. Completed burgers earn you points. Meanwhile, food items are following you around the level and trying to kill you, and eliminating them only stops them for a second or two before they come back. It's like Guy Fieri's fever dreams come to life.

BurgerTime is fun, kind of. It feels like the difficulty is ramped up a touch compared to the arcade original , but it's still an entertaining time, a completely competent game with no major demerits or outstanding bright spots. It's like the gaming equivalent of a Chevy Lumina: Not flashy, and won't brag that you have one, but it gets you where you need to go.

So let's talk about Data East. So far, some of the stinkiest stinkers in the NES' lineup have been games by Data East, like Tag Team Wrestling and Karate Champ. However, in their early years, starting from 1976 to about 1982, they had some pretty cool games. BurgerTime was originally released in 1982, and after that they kind of lost their way. Even their good games, like Caveman Ninja and Al Unser Jr's Turbo Racing, were never great.

How come? In 1981, a few of Data East's people broke off and formed Technōs. Technōs ended up developing Double Dragon, Renegade, and River City Ransom and developing Nintendo World Cup. It appears like all of the good developers split off and made Technōs, while the ones who knew how to run a business stayed at Data East. Technōs closed in 1996 due to bankruptcy. Data East lasted all the way to 2003, but they were flush with BurgerTime cash and other mildly successful arcade machines.

There's really not much more to say about BurgerTime, unfortunately. It's good, not great, does nothing objectionable, and is perfectly acceptable.

Monday, May 19, 2014

NES Replay: Track & Field

The arcade cabinets for Track & Field took a beating.

Track & Field is a collection of small olympic-based minigames, and the way to control several of them is by pounding on the buttons as fast as possible. Players tried to come up with various ways of speeding this up, so they used stuff like golf balls and metal rulers to get an edge. Even when it was a popular game, it was very hard to find working Track & Field machines in the wild.

The NES port retains this gameplay, and that makes Track & Field a game that you can only play for a short time. My family used to play Track & Field II together, and after a while everyone had cramps in their wrists. It's hard to keep up such a furious attack on the controller.

About a year later, Nintendo released something that made these types of games exponentially easier: The NES Max controller with a turbo button. The turbo buttons made the system think that you were pressing the buttons on the controller rapidly. That made games like Track & Field hilariously easy. It was like pressing a button marked, "I win." For example, the world record at the time for the 100 yard dash was a little under 10 seconds. With the turbo button, you can complete it in about 7.5 seconds.

However, there are a few games included in Track & Field that won't work with any turbo controls and actually require skill, like skeet shooting and archery. The skeet shooting is especially notable, since they made a really cool decision.

Most developers would have had you move a pointer around a screen to shoot down the clay pigeons. However, Konami realized that a pointer controlled by the controller would be too slow or inaccurate. They could have had people use the Zapper, but that would have taken up a controller port that would have stopped people from playing two-player games, so that didn't work either.

Instead, they had the system auto aim to some extent while still having the player press the button to fire at the proper time. It's a lot harder than it sounds, as you have to quickly press left or right on the d-pad, then shoot before the clay pigeon moves out of range. I couldn't get the hang of it, despite how absurdly simple it was.

Even with all this, though, Track & Field still felt kind of dull. It was certainly done well, but the presentation was sort of lacking. I didn't feel like there was any overarching goal, just a bunch of events that you could play individually. After a while, I remembered how great Track & Field II was, and fired that up instead. I ended up playing Track & Field II for an hour.

So, while Track & Field was certainly on the right track (wordplay!), it wasn't exactly where it needed to be. For a first attempt, there were some admirable concepts that Konami would later expand and deepen.

Monday, May 12, 2014

NES Replay: Rush'n Attack

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: April 1987
For our younger readers, I have a question: Do they still do duck-and-cover drills in school?

If they don't anymore, here's what they were. For years, the US was terrified that the Russians (or Soviets) would destroy us in a nuclear war. For some reason, they decided that the best way to protect kids was by having duck-and-cover drills. We would hear a siren, and all the kids would get underneath our desks and cover our heads so that in the case of a fiery death by nuclear bomb, we would be protected by the nuclear-resistant coating on the school desks [citation needed].

This is what it was like in the US for 50 years. We knew, just KNEW, that the godless communist Soviets were going to blow us up with a nuclear bomb and then launch a full ground invasion so we had to be prepared any way we could. In reality, the vast majority of Russians were just trying to keep their head above water in a horribly corrupt system, but the citizens of the US had no way of knowing this. To us, the Russians were a technical powerhouse and we had to fight them however we could.

Monday, May 5, 2014

NES Replay: Volleyball

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: March 1987
I love playing volleyball in certain environments. Basically, if no one's keeping score and all of my friends are just having a good, relaxed time, it's the best game in the world.

Something happens every single time I play volleyball: Someone starts keeping score. Then, that person starts trash talking, and then someone else does, then my old, familiar competitiveness kicks in, and then I have to quit because I get too angry. Even just thinking about it makes me mad.

Why do I get so frustrated? Because volleyball is meant to be fun. It's played in sunny places, on the beach, with people throwing frisbees nearby. It's not supposed to be a hyper-competitive trash-talking game. If you're playing volleyball and you don't have a Corona with a lime wedged into the rim of the bottle waiting for you on the sideline, you're playing it wrong.

Understanding this about volleyball is key to understanding why Volleyball is such a waste. Volleyball is supposed to be fun! Getting hit in the face with a volleyball while someone screams through a net at you isn't fun.

Monday, April 28, 2014

NES Replay: Soccer

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: March 1987
They say that soccer is the Beautiful Game. Being raised as a 'Murican, I was disinclined to agree for a long time. How can a soccer match that ends 1-0 be more interesting than a football game that ends 24-17?

Now that I play soccer more, though, I get it. Playing a game of soccer requires outstanding stamina and balletic skill. Unlike sports like football, baseball or basketball, soccer doesn't stop. Everyone is always running at all times. Your footwork has to be impeccable or you'll end up looking stupid out there, so hours of practice has to go into flexibility and movement so that you can apply those skills when the time comes. Also, because goals aren't as common, each one is either amazing or devastating, depending on which team you root for.

It's the world's most popular sport, so naturally developers have been trying to make soccer video games almost from the beginning. One of the earliest attempts was on the Atari 2600, with Pele's Soccer. Pele's Soccer showed the field from a top-down view, and all the players sort of looked like blobs. Next, the seminal Football Manager games came out for the PC starting in 1982, and it was very popular. (It has no relation to the current Football Manager series.) However, the player couldn't control the match while it was in progress.

So, yes, in the early years there were soccer games available, but none that really approximated what the actual game of soccer was like. Understanding this is key, because if you compare Soccer to modern games it feels really bare-bones. For its time, though, it was the best soccer game available for consoles.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: Yoshi's New Island

Developer: Arzest
Publisher: Nintendo

Nintendo keeps on crapping on the Yoshi's Island series, and it bothers me.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island was one of the most innovative games to come out of the SNES years. The music was great, the levels were smart, it had a totally unique aesthetic that no other game could quite copy, and it was fun.

Nintendo handed off the series to Artoon for 2006's Yoshi's Island DS, and the results were disappointing. It looked like Yoshi's Island, certainly, and the controls were lifted wholesale from Yoshi's Island, but it didn't feel like Yoshi's Island. The bosses were rehashes of the first game, the levels weren't as innovative, and it just felt... off. It wasn’t a terrible game, just limp.

Fortunately, Nintendo cut ties with Artoon, so Yoshi's New Island wasn't going to end up in their hands. A new developer, Arzest, turned out to be the developer of Yoshi's New Island.

But wait, where did Arzest come from?

They're old developers from Artoon.


Monday, April 21, 2014

NES Replay: Pro Wrestling

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: March 1987
The last thing I wanted to do after the twin terrors of M.U.S.C.L.E. and Tag Team Wrestling was play yet another wrestling game. Yet, there was Pro Wrestling, standing in my way. Something happened, though: I found that Pro Wrestling is really, really fun.

So what's the difference between Pro Wrestling and those other, terrible games? Controls, controls, controls.

When someone first picks up a fighting game, the controls are unknown. Oh, sure, you can look in a manual and read the buttons to press, but the timing necessary to pull off moves can only be learned by playing the game. It takes a little bit of training to figure out the timing, but in the meantime a novice player can "button-mash." By doing things that they think might work, they're usually able to pull off some moves and be mildly successful.

Some "hardcore" players think that fighting games shouldn't allow players to button-mash, but this period is crucial. Without a brief window where a player can get used to the controls and achieve a little bit of success, they give up. Having novice players quit on you is great if you want your favorite genre to die out due to lack of interest. A regular, fresh influx of players is the only way to keep a genre afloat.

For Your Consideration