Monday, December 1, 2014

NES Replay: Section Z

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Released: July 1987
Side-scrolling shooters were plentiful in the early years of gaming, so much that they were starting to become passe. By 1985, developers were already thinking about new ways of presenting them. Of course, Capcom was right there too, thinking of new ideas. One of their ideas was simple, but effective: Maybe you could make a nonlinear shooter. What if you moved from section to section of a spaceship, moving deeper into it, but you could skip certain parts if you picked the right paths to move forward?

Thus was Section Z born. They tried this out first in the arcades, and it was fun. For the NES port, they decided to expand on it a little bit and try some extra stuff out. It ended up mildly successful, but not for the reasons you’d think.

In the NES port of Section Z, the B button has your player shoot to the left and the A button shoots to the right, giving the game the feel of a twin-stick shooter. As in most shooters, you can pick up powerups that will increase your strength, give you a shield, etc. etc. The gameplay itself is pretty stock stuff for shooters of its time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

NES Replay: Rygar

Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Released: July 1987
Imagine that you work for Tecmo. Your team has made an arcade game called Rygar. It’s OK, I guess. It’s really repetitive. The main character, Rygar, basically moves from left to right, jumps over barriers and hits enemies while picking up powerups. That’s all you do throughout the entire arcade game, and it doesn’t exactly set the world on fire.

It’s time to port this game to the NES. You’ve got two choices: Port the arcade game exactly as it is and hope for the best, or maybe, just maybe, try something a little different. How different? Well, someone on your team has got a crazy idea: What if you copied some of the ideas from the game, except Rygar got experience points for killing enemies, and Rygar could pick up different powers throughout the game, which would open up new areas? Wouldn’t that be neat?

If that description sounds a little familiar, that’s because it’s what we call today a “Metroidvania” game. “Metroidvania” is a portmanteau of the two prime examples of this time of game, Metroid and modern Castlevania games. Most people view Metroid as the first example of this style, but did you notice that we haven’t discussed Metroid yet? That’s because Rygar for the NES beat it to market by a month. Yes, Rygar was Metroid before Metroid was Metroid.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

NES Replay: The Legend of Zelda

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: July 1987
Of all the games Nintendo made for the NES, there were two great, towering achievements that stand above them all. The first was Super Mario Bros. The second was The Legend of Zelda. Super Mario Bros. was a demonstration of pure game design at its most distilled. Zelda, however, was pure technical prowess. And, oh, the gameplay was pretty amazing too.

The Legend of Zelda featured one of the most expansive worlds that had ever been put on a console. Here, look at this overworld map and compare it anything else at the time. When looking at that overworld map, just remember that there were also nine dungeons and a completely hidden second quest. How did they fit so much into such a tiny cartridge? After all, the NES had a very, very limited amount of working memory to work with. How did they do it?

Nintendo had quickly hit the limits of what their NES could do by 1987, so they started having to come up with workarounds to give the system more memory. The had a breakthrough with a memory management controller (MMC), which could go into the individual cartridges. An MMC would swap out chunks of memory from the cartridge to the NES as the game was being played, giving the NES more to work with. That led to bigger and bigger games.

Friday, October 24, 2014

NES Replay: Kid Icarus

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: July 1987
Kid Icarus is one of the more difficult games to write about, for one big reason: It’s easy to appreciate Kid Icarus, but hard to like.

We’ll back up a moment. The development of Kid Icarus was troubled. Initially, Nintendo was trying to make a side-scrolling action game with role-playing elements. There were delays and problems during development, so they had to change directors just to get the game out of the door. The new director, Yoshio Sakamoto, had just come off of Metroid, a completely different type of game. In order to get the game in the can, large chunks of Kid Icarus had to be scrapped or rewritten.

This made Kid Icarus a little more disjointed than it could have been. You can see pieces of the platformer-RPG that it was intended to be. Your arrows get stronger, your health bar can grow, and there are rooms that you can enter into to buy items to help you on your quest, among other things. However, each of those pieces is a problem on its own.

We’re going to spend a lot of time ragging on this game in the early going of this review, so you might think that this is a totally negative review. However, we’re tearing apart Kid Icarus, not because it's bad, but because Kid Icarus almost touches greatness in so many ways. Unfortunately, the individual pieces are so flawed that they can’t congeal into a cohesive and satisfying whole.

Friday, October 10, 2014

NES Replay: Devil World

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: July 1987

Shigeru Miyamoto has made a lot of his games in his storied career, and the most amazing thing about his career is how consistent his games are. He’s arguably only ever had one unmitigated stinker (Stunt Race FX), and every other game has some redeeming quality to it. We’re lucky he’s still around, and we should hope that he's around for a long, long time.

However, there’s one Miyamoto game that those of us who live in the United States have never had a chance to play. Why didn't it get to our shores? Was it too hard to translate? Was it too complicated for audiences in the US? Was it just not cost-effective to bring it here?

Well, try this one on for size: The game that never made it over here was called Devil World. It was a game where the main character picked up crosses to shoot enemies and pick up pellets, and picked up bibles to close up portals where demons would come out of. A demon at the top of the screen directed the gameplay.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

NES Replay: Side Pocket

Developer: Data East
Publisher: G-Mode
Released: June 1987
Like many other mildly physical activities, I enjoy playing billiards even though I’m not good at it. While this is a running theme among pretty any much any sport that exists, I’ve spent enough time playing billiards to know that Side Pocket is a really, really good interpretation of it. While there are a few minor quibbles, there are a few things that Data East absolutely nailed.

Before we talk about Side Pocket, let’s do a quick run-through of the history of video game billiards. As near as I can tell, the first video game to attempt billiards was Video Hustler, which sounds like it should be something else. Anyway, it was released as an arcade game in 1981, and it was competent, if nothing special. After that, there was silence until Lunar Pool was released in 1985, then Side Pocket in 1987.

Some sports, like baseball or soccer, had lots of video games right from the start. So why weren’t there a lot of games about billiards? Most arcade machines were purchased by bars in the early days, and let’s face it: If you were going to play billiards in an arcade, chances are the arcade had its own billiards table. What would be the point of playing a billiards arcade machine when there was a table right there?

Monday, September 22, 2014

NES Replay: Mighty Bomb Jack

Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Released: May 1987
A good-sounding name can get you pretty far.

Like, say you have a name like Max Fightmaster. With a name like that, you could walk into any security agency or dojo and immediately have a job, or at least lackeys. With a more nebbishy name, like, say, Lee Evans, you’re lucky if you can get people to read articles you’ve written about NES games.

Mighty Bomb Jack is a great name for a game. I mean, just say that name out loud! It rolls off the tongue, and it sounds like excitement personified. A game with bombs! Mighty ones, at that! How could it be anything but awesome?

Tecmo has been profiting off that name for years. Every time Nintendo opens up one of their Virtual Console services on a new console, Mighty Bomb Jack is one of the first games for sale. Someone has to be buying it, and I’ve almost been tempted a couple of times just because the name is so cool. That's the power of a good name.