Saturday, June 13, 2015

NES Versions that are Better than the Arcade, or Graphics Aren't Everything

Part I - The Superior Port

Contra



Contra is widely recognized as a classic on the NES.  It has good graphics (especially the Famicom version, which has animation inthe backgrounds in level 1, 5 & 8) and excellent music for its time.  The play control is very responsive.  The bosses are great (except level 7, which is something of a let down, but is non-existent in the arcade version.)

Compared to the NES version, the arcade original has very short stages and they are very simplistic.  Using a vertically oriented monitor as the arcade original did makes sense in an overhead shooter but not in a sidescroller.  Enemies are on top of you without fair warning.  The graphics use many more colors but everything appears small.  Your characters move like molasses.  The NES's Level 3 boss is much cooler than the arcade's.  The level 5 and 6 bosses are treated more like the level 5 tanks.  Also, the last four levels in the arcade progress without a break.  The NES version gives you a break, and the Famicom version has short scenes that propel the story.

Super C vs. Super Contra



Most of what I had to say about the differences between the NES and Arcade versions of Contra apply here, although Super Contra does bridge the gap more than arcade Contra.  Stages 4, 5 and 7 in the NES versions has no arcade counterparts.  Arcade Stage 5 is very similar to NES Stage 8 and its boss has no NES counterpart whereas the other have.  Obviously Super C is more impressive graphically than Contra or NES Super C and your character has more fluid movement, but that vertical perspective is so inappropriate.

Jackal vs. Top Gunner/Jackal



Jackal for the Arcade came earlier (1986) than either Contra (1987) or Super Contra (1988).  Arcade Top Gunner (Jackal in World versions) is one long stage, no breaks, no bosses (except at the very end and its pretty underwhelming)  It gets very repetitive after a while.  NES Jackal is another great Konami game, and like Contra and Super C and Life Force is a two player simultaneous game.  The Famicom Disk System version of the game, Final Commando, is not quite as impressive as the NES due to the vertical-only scrolling and lack of the first mission.

While I am here, I would like to praise Konami for handling its ports.  When they do things in house, the results are usually pretty amazing.  TMNT 2 - The Arcade Game for the NES is without a doubt the best contemporary port of the arcade title.  However, I do not consider it as superior to its arcade original because the arcade original is extremely colorful like the TV show, well-animated and supports four players.  While the NES version has more stages, it has a severe limit on the number of enemies on the screen and the stages get monotonous.  Green Beret on the Famicom Disk System is a very good port with very catchy music lacking in the arcade version.  Its NES equivalent, Rush 'N Attack, has some difficulty balance issues.

When Konami does not do things in-house or hands a project off to the B-Team, the results are often disappointing.  Metal Gear for the NES is a mess, Metal Gear 2 looks the part of a sequel but that is about it, and TMNT for the NES just did not leverage the license very well and was unfairly difficult to boot.

Life Force vs. Life Force/Salamander



Life Force for the Arcade has some very nice graphics.  The NES version took it as a template and improved on it quite a bit.  The two versions have a nearly identical first, third and last stages, but the NES version's stages 4 and 5 have no arcade counterpart.  They are two of the most impressive stages as well, as stage 4 sends you through what looks like a living entity and stage 5 sends you through an Egyptian pyramid.  Their bosses have no counterparts in the arcade version.  The NES version relegates the less impressive bosses in arcade stages 3 and 4 to mini-boss status in NES stages 3 and 2, respectively.  Arcade stage 2 becomes the first half of NES stage 6 and arcade stage 4 becomes NES stage 2.  Arcade stage 5 is really short and non-descript.  The final boss for stage 6 is far less menacing than the NES version of this boss.  The arcade version has a nice mini-boss homage to Gradius lacking in the NES.

One other advantage the NES has over the arcade is the use of the Gradius-style powerup system.  In the arcade, if an enemy leaves a power up, you have to take what is given.  It can be difficult at first to distinguish the various powerup icons.  In the NES version, you can save power up levels and choose how you want to upgrade your ship.  The Famicom version, Salamander, allows you to have three option pods whereas the NES version only allows two.

I would like to talk about the sound.  Usually the sound effects in Konami's arcade games are good, but they often drown out the music.  Contra is an exception and its arrangement sounds very good.  All these arcade games use FM Synthesis for their music, but I find the FM synthesis for most of these games to be underwhelming compared to the more distinct PSG-based NES music. In Life Force, there is a fair amount of digitized speech, but it intrudes far too frequently and it is often difficult to make out the words.  And this is playing it in MAME, never mind a loud arcade!

Part II - The Superior Adaptation

Ninja Gaiden



Up to this point I have been comparing arcade ports to their originals.  Now I will turn to games that had a (usually exclusive) NES version based off the arcade version, but not a direct port. Let's start with Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden.  The arcade game played like a side-scrolling beat-em-up, sort of like a combination of Spartan X and Double Dragon (or Streets of Rage).  The enemies are extremely generic and do not take many hits to beat.  Ryu's attacks are a punch/kick combo or a jumping head flip.  He does not use his ninja sword that often.  The best part of the game has to be the continue screen, where you see Ryu tied down and looking fearfully at a buzz saw slowly descending as the time runs out.  It is no classic, the graphics are often dull and crude, the music unremarkable and the levels are a long slog.

Ninja Gaiden for the NES is a classic.  It is not a beat-em-up, just a sidescroller.  It does what it does very well, with appropriately gritty graphics, a pseudo-3D perspective is used to great effect, a superb sound track with great use of DPCM-channel percussion.  The control is very responsive, the hit range is fair (something its sequels had trouble with).  The difficulty level is appropriately ramped up throughout the game (although it becomes unfair in 6-2 and beyond) and the bosses are unique.  When you finally beat this game, you really feel like you have accomplished something special.

Most important, Ninja Gaiden had the first known uses of detailed cutscenes in a console video game.  Tecmo used these cutscenes to tell the story in a dramatic way.  Most games up to this point had a perfunctory story that usually could be confined to the manual or used talking heads.   In Ninja Gaiden, the story propels the action instead of feeling tacked on.  It also helps that the dialogue is relatively free from Engrish.  The arcade Ninja Gaiden does not have a story, just a framing device of Ryu traveling to America to defeat an evil cult.   There is simply no time for this sort of thing in an arcade game where the primary object of the game is to make the players pump as many quarters into the machine as they can.

I should also mention that Ninja Gaiden spawned two sequels on the NES and other games in the series for the Sega Master System, Game Gear and Game Boy.  The arcade game went nowhere.

Rygar



Arcade Rygar is a simple side scroller where your character can jump on enemies to stun them and use a retractable discus to hit them.  You walk from left to right across 27 rounds, acquiring powerups that extend the length, speed and damage of your discus.  In addition to having a frontal attack, you can swing the discus overhead to attack airborne enemies.  There is a minimap on the bottom of the screen and you can see your enemies emerge underground, although your character cannot go there.  The graphics are decent, but the music is a single song that gets repetitive quickly.  There is something like a final boss at the end of the game, but no other bosses to break up the monotony.

NES Rygar is an adventure game similar to Zelda 2 in many respects.  Like Zelda II it has a top down style of movement as well as a plaformer style.  You can find items in various zones that will improve your abilities, you can cast a few magic spells by acquiring spell points from enemies, and you earn experience points from killing monsters that increase your attack power and life meter.  You retain the discus and can extend it with the Attack and Assail magic option, but you cannot swing it overhead.  You can also stun most enemies by jumping on them.  Unlike Zelda II, you can fight while in the overhead mode (like the original Zelda).

Even though the graphics are a tad rough around the edges and lacking in color a bit, there are lots of variety of enemies for a game of this vintage.  The various side scrolling levels offer a lot of variety, from swamps and caves to mountains and sky castles.  The music is really good, and even better in the Famicom version.  Proper boss enemies guard the treasures you will need to find.  Like every other adventure game on the NES of this period, clues are very cryptic and not helped by some egregious examples of Engrish.  If you die you can continue from where you left off, but there is no password or battery backed save.  Overall it is far superior to the arcade version and fondly remembered when a Playstation 2 sequel was released in 2002.

Bionic Commando




Bionic Commando is similar to Rygar in that the arcade version is a relatively simple sidescroller while the NES version is an adventure game.  The arcade game has a rather muted color palette (which seems to be something of a common theme of the arcade games featured in this blog post) and some jaunty tunes.  The character designs are very squat and cartoony.  The game at five stages is very short, and there is one part at the end that qualifies as a boss fight, but just barely.

Bionic Commando for the NES was very ambitious for its time.  It has an actual story of your character trying to rescue Super Joe behind enemy lines.  You are a soldier of the Federation, fighting against the evil Badds Empire.  The Badds Empire under the command of Generalissimo Kilt is focusing all its efforts on the Albatros plan, an armored warship that would allow the enemy to control the world.  You traverse 19 zones to find Super Joe, then destroy the Albatros and then prevent the resurrection of the Badds's evil leader, Master D.

That was the US version's story.  The Japanese version was called Top Secret, Hitler's Resurrection.  The Japanese version squarely identifies the enemy as being Neo-Nazis and Master D as being Adolf Hitler.  (The US manual refers to the enemy group as "Nazz", not "Badds".)  There are swastikas in the Japanese game, which were adjusted for the U.S. version.  Even in the U.S. version, the insigna for the enemy was changed to Nazi-appropriate Albatrosses.  Generalissmo Kilt/General Weissman looks like Herman Göring.

Bionic Commando for the NES has excellent gameplay, taking the main idea from the arcade and developing it into a superb adventure game.  The game is still a side scrolling game, and the bionic arm works just like the arcade.  You can send the arm up, diagonally at an angle or straight in front.  You can latch onto objects and platforms and use them to pull yourself or swing.  Because you cannot jump, you have to show a bit of foresight on where you want to go and how you are going to get there.  It is extremely impressive for a game of its vintage to use diagonal scrolling on the NES.  Most of its contemporaries and predecessors did not scroll, scrolled either horizontally or vertically or both but not at the same time.

Bionic Commando requires you to beat each of the twelve enemy zones and rewards you with a new item when you beat each one.  You start off with a basic gun, but soon you will have access to more powerful weapons.  You will also find helping items that are necessary to explore some of the stages.  You must destroy the reactor core of each area to get its item.  These reactors are defended by increasingly difficult guards, making the reactor rooms the equivalent of boss fights .

In order to unlock the doors that keep you from getting to the reactor core for each stage, you have to enter communications rooms and communicate with your allies or eavesdrop on your enemies.  They may give you helpful information or just spout nonsense.  There are four communicators in the game, each one only works in three of the enemy zones.

You find communicators in the seven neutral zones.  Neutral zones are zones where you will not be officially attacked by the Badds, but if you shoot then the civilians disappear and hostile soldiers spawn in until you leave the area.  You can receive information or be taunted by characters in these zones and find communicators and other items inside the rooms.

There is an RPG element to Bionic Commando.  When you first start the game, one touch or bullet from an enemy will kill you.  As you kill enemies, they drop bullets.  By picking up these bullets, you will eventually gain the ability to take a hit, then two, then three and so on.

There is an element of non-linearity to Bionic Commando.  You can fly to many zones in the beginning and do not necessarily have to complete each in a certain order.  However, some zones you are not intended to enter before beating others, and you cannot travel to zones eight and above when you start, so non-linearity has its limits.  Also, you won't be able to continue your game unless you clear the stages where your helicopter encounters an enemy convoy on the map.  These stages use an overhead view and are very simple, but you collect continues by beating the large enemies in those stages.

Although there is some variety in the enemy zones, they are essentially military bases and look the part.  The obstacles provide a good deal of the challenge and fun.  Since you cannot jump, elevators become very helpful.  However, this game has a lot of traps, including disabled elevators, man eating plants and ambushes in the communications rooms.  There are lots of enemies, including standard soldiers, little soldiers driving big rigs, a huge soldier that throws steel balls and laser turrets travel back and forth across the screen shooting beams.  Sometimes the stages become exercises in determining whether you have mastered the use and timing of the bionic arm.  There are times you have to use your arm very precisely in order to avoid falling to your death.

The NES game loses the cartoon theme of the arcade and has a much more serious military theme.  The English dialogue includes the word "damn", something of a no-no for Nintendo's censorship policies of the NES era.  While there is some Engrish, it does not get to laughably bad too often.  The graphics are always good and some of the enemies are quite large.  Character interaction use head portraits.  The music, of which two pieces have been taken from the arcade game, is utterly fantastic.  The arcade game has been mostly forgotten, while the NES game spawned a Game Boy game, a Game Boy Color game, and a remake in 2008 and two followup games thereafter.

Little Nemo Dream Master vs. Nemo



Little Nemo was an odd title to make a licensed game.  Little Nemo in Slumberland was a newspaper comic strip drawn by Windsor McCay from 1905-1914 and from 1924-1926.  The property had some occasional revivals and was fondly remembered by the cartoonists who were influenced by it, but it had not achieved continual currency of near contemporaries like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula or Mickey Mouse or even Tarzan.  However, in 1989 there was an animated feature film called Little Nemo : Adventures in Slumberland, and Capcom based both games off that adaptation.

Arcade Nemo is somewhat obscure, and it is easy to see why.  While it looks very nice, it is very a simple 1990 sidescroller.  There is very little diagonal scrolling and Nemo's primary attack is a wand that he uses like an energized baton.  He can also throw objects and collect power ups to make his attack stronger.  He has a lifebar.  In a two player game, the second player plays as Flip.  The bosses get very weird in this game, which is very appropriate considering the source material.  Level 5's boss is a very clever parody of a boss in Konami's Gradius III.  There are seven stages and some variety between them.

NES Little Nemo is another very strong licensed game from Capcom.  It seems that only Capcom and Konami were able to do justice to licensed properties on the NES.  Little Nemo is a sidescroller, but unlike the arcade game, there are large open worlds to explore.  Nemo explores each world after an introduction from another character like Flip.  He has to collect a certain number of keys throughout the level to advance.  There are no boss fights until the last stage. The has a short life bar, which can be extended.  His only weapon is candy, of which he possesses an unlimited amount.  He can jump, but not very high.

His candy can stun some enemies, but what it is really useful for is to lull certain animals into sleep.  After you get an animal to sleep, Nemo can become the animal and use its abilities.  The frog allows Nemo to jump very high and defeat enemies by landing on them, the mole allows you to dig through dirt, and the bee allows you to fly and shoot a stinger, the ape can punch enemies out and the lizard can climb up walls.  You won't have access to an animal helper at all times, you have to dodge, stun or otherwise avoid many enemies.  These add a strategic element to what could have been a run of the mill adventure game.  On the eighth stage do you get to use the wand and face the Nightmare King and several mini-bosses before him.

The graphics are very bright and colorful.  The stages all look distinct and the music is another Capcom showcase (Capcom had some very good composers working on the NES).  There are nice opening, middle and end sequences.  The only downside to this game is that there was no password save.

Part III - The Miscellaneous

Port or Adaptation? - Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!! vs Punch Out!!!



Arcade Punch-Out!!! and its sequel are good games, but Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!! is sublime.  The arcade game was overdesigned with its dual monitor cabinet, the upper monitor is simply not vital to the gameplay. Arcade Punch-Out and Super Punch-Out have six unique fighters each.  It has voice samples, but they constantly play to the point where they become annoying.

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out has eleven unique fighters.  The NES version also has Mario as the referee, three rounds and cut scenes where your trainer can try to give you advice and your opponent can taunt you and transition scenes where it shows you doing road work with your trainer.  Nintendo made the inspired decision to use the name and likeness of the then-current undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and one of the most feared fighters of all time, Mike Tyson.  They made him one of the most feared video game boxing opponents ever as well.  The game just made you keep coming back to try and find the patterns and weaknesses in the fighter you were stuck at to get to the next one.  Nintendo also allowed players to return to the circuit which they left off with a password, which helped players get to where they wanted to practice much more quickly than going through the whole game.

The Reverse Port - Castlevania vs. Haunted Castle



Castlevania came first on the NES (Famicom Disk System really), then a related game was developed in tandem and released a little later on the MSX2 platform and finally a very similar game got released for the arcade.  The NES game is a classic, the MSX2 game is sort of an alternative version and very good, but the arcade game is garbage.  The problems with the arcade game are that the play control is incredibly stiff, your whip's attack range is pathetic, the enemies can hit you very easily and give out massive amounts of damage.  You will be lucky to get to Medusa, and you only have about four quarters worth of continues before the game forces you to start back at the beginning.  This was a also present in Konami arcade games like Contra and Super Contra and Life Force, but was taken to a ridiculous extreme in this game.  The special weapons are not very useful either and ammunition is hard to obtain.  The graphics are weird in a kind of cartoony way and rather ugly looking, but the music is very good.  You will have to play the game a lot to hear it legitimately.

Castlevania for the NES is no cakewalk, but it runs to the not impossible side of the difficult scale.  It offers unlimited continues, and even still it will require lots of practice and enemy memorization in the later levels.  The FDS version would save your level progress.  Unlike Haunted Castle, Simon Belmont's whip has good range and can be powered up easily to have a longer and more powerful attack.  Hit detection is solid and jumping, while stiff, is not nearly as ungainly as the arcade version.  The NES version ramps up the difficulty very nicely and is well paced.

Tie - Willow



Willow for the Arcade was a good game and pretty faithful to the film, following the plot reasonably closely.  The levels are bright and colorful and many of the bosses come from the movie.  You play as Willow (1, 3 & 6)  and Madmartigan (2, 4 & 6), both of whom have different attack styles.  You get to choose which character you can play in stage 5, which has the most impressive boss fight by far.  Willow throws magic acorns, which he can charge for a more powerful attack.  Madmartigan uses his sword, making his attack up close and he can also charge up his attack.  The brownies can help Willow at times.  By defeating enemies and opening treasure chests you can earn gold which you can use to buy items and permanent power ups at shops.  Most of the six stages end with a boss battle.  Your characters start with a lifebar of three units, which you can extend.  All in all, it has more depth than your average arcade platformer.

Willow for the NES is more of a very loose adaptation of the film to serve a top-down Zelda style adventure game with RPG elements.  It feels like Capcom set out to make a non-Willow game and then tacked on the Willow elements when it paid for the license.  Willow is armed generally with a sword and a shield.  There is no gold, you find all your items.  You have hit points and magic points, and raise them by defeating monsters for experience points.  You can get up to level 16 in the game.

Not only does Willow's attack power increase with levels, so does his attack speed with the various swords. Willow can either thust with his sword or slash with it.   Magic can be used to heal, to stun enemies and to attack enemies.  The shield helps from Willow getting hit and can block enemy projectiles.  Willow has a rather large area for enemies to hit him otherwise.

The game has a huge world with several towns with townspeople, some of whom may give you weapons and magic.  There are overworld areas and many caves and castles filled with enemy monsters.  Monsters will appear randomly on any of these screen.  A neat effect is the wind tunnel when enemies spawn on the overworld.  The game did not come with maps, which are essential to getting around in this game.  I do have to fault the game with the constant reuse of map screen types and there should have been more music.  The music here is very good, however.

Not Superior - Strider vs. Strider



Strider for the Arcade and the NES is one instance where I have to award the better version award to the arcade, even though the NES version is an adventure game.  Strider for the arcade is classic.  Hiryu has pretty good control for the time, can acquire temporary power ups like an extended sword and robot and eagle helpers.  There are five stages in total, and each one has many memorable moments.  Each stage could be viewed as series of set pieces with the music changes showing the transitions.  The big boss fights may not always happen at the end of the stage, but each one is memorable.  Hiryu can grab onto platforms and walk up walls.  There are points in the game were gravity is reversed and you must fight upside down.  The difficulty follows a fairly linear curve, but there are few nasty spikes on the way.  When you die, you continue at the beginning of the scene you died on, not at the beginning of the level.  The graphics are great with plenty of bold color and some very large enemies.  The music and sound effects are also top notch.

Strider for the NES is something of a mess.  It has a lot more plot, your character becomes stronger as you progress through the levels and there is a password save.  You can also acquire the equivalent of magic, you can shoot fireballs and heal yourself and jump higher, among other things.  You can acquire items like the Aqua Boots, which let you stand on water and Attack Boots, which give you a sliding attack.  You have hit points and energy points, but they are not raised by the number of enemies you kill but when you beat a stage.  You will also need to acquire keys and files to get past certain obstacles.  You can use your sword similar to the arcade version, but it has less range.  You can also attack by raising it above your head and jumping up, and later you acquire a charged shot.  Your helpers are absent.

The trouble with Strider is mainly one of play control.  This Hiryu moves very stiffly.  He can do a wall jump, but pulling it off is nearly impossible.  There is one or two spots in the Egypt level that requires this jump, but thereafter you never need it again.  Replenishing your health or energy can be done by pills dropped in certain places or by certain enemies, but there are times when they never seem to drop, usually when you most need them.  The music is very good and appropriate to the stages, but the graphics are really gritty and fuzzy.  There is a lot of slowdown and flicker when enemies are on the screen.  Sloppy object removal code leads to unwanted graphics and colors seen on the edges of the screen of the more revealing monitors.

Many of the levels have a boss encounter, a Zain mind control machine.  These are always the same and can be destroyed very easily.  The plot is typical anime stuff, and there is some pretty goofy Engrish throughout.  Hiryu can be hit easily and repeatedly, leading to many cheap deaths.  There are also several tricky jumps with punishing consequences for missing them.  The game is not super difficult, just too inconsistent to overcome the superior arcade version, which has spawned other action-oriented sequels.  The adventure-style NES game has not had its elements carry over into later entries in the series.  Still, taken in its own right it is enjoyable and uses a password system.

I am indebted to MobyGames for the arcade game screenshots.

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