Monday, November 8, 2010

8-Bit Retro

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a gamer by any means.  Even when I was a kid, I always had difficulty with games and needed help to beat them, whether it was getting tips from Nintendo Power or the guy across the street showing me how to find the warp zones in Super Mario Bros.  Later on, I fell out of love with video games entirely and the only things I seemed to play were Final Fantasy and Smackdown games.  Nowadays I don't even do that, not because I don't like Final Fantasy or wrestling, but because of a lack of new quality titles.  I got a PS3 a year ago, and I have still yet to find that one game that makes me glad I bought it. 

Recently, I've been having more fun with NES and SNES emulators.  Emulators have been around forever, but a couple of years ago I bought a controller to plug into my computer so I could play a PC Star Wars game that, surprise, it turned out I didn't like.  Now I needed to find an emulator that supported external controls, since I was sick of the NESticle (whose icon was shaped like a hairy ball sack.  No joke.)  NEStopia turned out to be a great one, and I downloaded roms of Zelda II, The Goonies 2 and Battletoads. 

Zelda II is one I played so many times as a kid that I can still play it by heart.  I looked at a few palace maps just for time expediency, but it is a fairly easy game as long as you have a map of the last palace handy.  Goonies 2 and Battletoads are probably in my top three of the hardest games I ever played on the NES, with the third being Blaster Master.  Goonies is my favorite movie ever, but I played the game long before I ever watched it.  There was a kid in my neighborhood when I was about six named Brandon, who had an NES.  One day I watched him play the original Legend of Zelda, Excitebike and Goonies 2.  So it was one of the first ones I ever played as well.  There's something nostalgic about that old Nintendo logic where yo-yos are instruments of death capable of knocking out grown men with guns and making giant snakes and spiders explode.  The game is more puzzle than platformer, as you play Mikey and have to rescue the rest of the Goonies and a mermaid named Annie (the fuck?) from the Fratellis. 

Every time you enter a door, the gameplay switches to a first person view and you have to use various tools to discover secret passages that lead to other areas or jail cells with your friends.  Sometimes hitting a wall with a hammer of your fist can make a door or tool appear for you to take.  The game's actually a lot easier once you get the candle, which you can use to light up dark rooms.  That's the hard part, in addition to a map that has two ends (front and back) that makes it impossible to tell where you are or remember where you've been before.  You would never know how to get the candle without help, because there's a very specific way to get it.  There are people living in some of these rooms hundreds of feet below the surface for some reason, like Konami Man, who restores your energy, or an eskimo, who helpfully tells you "I am Eskimo!"  There's a cranky lady in one of these rooms who will give you a candle if you, no shit, punch her in the face five times.  There are no clues to this.  Sure, it's fun punching these random people or taking a hammer to them, but all they ever do is repeat, "Ouch!  What do you do?" over and over, so there's no real inclination to keep wailing on them.  Later in the game it gets really weird, as it ups the ante from enemies who make sense in this environment (snakes, spiders, the Fratelli Brothers) and throws monsters like armed skeletons, knights and mini-Godzillas in your path. 

Battletoads is another impossible game that you will not beat without some kind of help, even if it's just using the cheat code at the start screen that lets you start with two extra lives.  Jim and I used to play this with the Game Genie so that we would take no damage, and we still couldn't beat the last level.  I think I managed to maybe once or twice back in the day.  Most of what makes this game difficult is the erratic controls.  There's nothing more frustrating than edging along an icy hill and then suddenly sprinting forward to crash into the spikes you were trying to avoid in the first place.  Sometimes performing one of the power moves, in which your character's fist or foot would briefly become comically gargantuan in size, the forward momentum would carry your character right off a platform, costing you a life.  In two-player mode, there is no distinction between your partner and the enemies, so you will often find yourself accidentally beating up the other player. 

That said, the game is a ton of fun to play.  Battletoads is a TMNT ripoff, but really good as far as TMNT ripoffs go.  It has a backstory that is somehow charming, simplistic and idiotic at the same time.  The Battletoads are Rash, Zitz and Pimple, and they have a vulture (named Professor Vulture) as their leader.  One day, Pimple and some broad named Princess Angelica "were out cruisin'" as the game puts it, in their cadillac/spaceship.  Their spaceship is eaten, literally, by a bigger one belonging to the forces of the Dark Queen.  Your job is to penetrate the planet where they were taken and rescue them.  Between the levels, Vulture will tell you what to expect, while the Dark Queen hurls insults at you. 

Each level itself is creative, keeping the gameplay fresh.  I can't think of any game before or since where a boss battle is fought from the POV of the boss itself.  Most of the levels are platformers, but there's a level where you have to ride robotic snakes while avoiding spikes and trying to find a hole that leads out of the area, one where you rapel down a crater avoiding electricity-emitting robots and beating up ravens, and of course the racing levels.  Ask anyone who played it about the Turbo Tunnel and watch the pain on their face.  Many never made it past that point.  The only way to beat that level was to crash and burn your way through it so many times that the correct movements become ingrained in your reflexes.  It took me a long time to master it, but to this day I can still beat it with minimal life loss.  I defy any game before or since to give me a level that gets the adrenaline up as much as that one. 

The animation is great for an NES game too, due to the game coming late in the system's life cycle.  In addition to the power moves, the king of which is the BT Battleball in the crater level, anytime a boss shows up the 'Toads stop to express their fear via cartoonish eye-bugging and tongue-wagging.  It has a great, memorable soundtrack as well.  All in all, it's difficult to see why this didn't become a much bigger franchise than it was.  There was a SNES Battletoads with even more problematic controls and a Battletoads/Double Dragon crossover, and after that, nothing.  Rare would go on to make other hit games like Donkey Kong Country for SNES and Goldeneye for N64, the latter of which created a revolutionary multi-player engine that has been used in games ever since, such as Conker's Bad Fur Day and TimeSplitters.

I think games are a lot easier these days.  Not just because of a plethora of walk-throughs you can find on any website, but because these days you have 3D games that enable you to move in any direction to avoid damage.  In the NES days, you only had three options:  jump, duck or run the other way.  Now that I don't have to akwardly play the emulator using a keyboard, I can look forward to rediscovering some of these games.