Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Disappointing Use of Licenses in NES Games

Often, when a video game relied on a licensed character or movie, the results often were terrible.  It is as if so much of the budget was taken up by the licensing fees that there was nothing left over to make a good game or hire good programmers.  Most games based off movies are garbage on the NES, no one particularly enjoys having to play through Total Recall, Predator or Hudson Hawk.  Many of those games were released by LJN or Acclaim, but picking on them is rather like picking the low hanging fruit.

Instead, I am going to focus on games from developers or publishers with a proven record of good games.  My criteria for this blog entry is that the license has to come from another type of media, whether a film, a TV series, a cartoon, a toy line, a comic book or a novel

Konami :

Monster in My Pocket
This is a decent game, but when dealing with Konami, decent just doesn't cut it.  While you have two characters you can play as, they aren't really all that different.  This side scroller does not have any substantial flaws, but there is nothing especially memorable about it.

Star Trek 25th Anniversary
When I play this game, I get the feeling like it so wants to be the PC game of the same name.  This is not surprising because Interplay was responsible for both.  The NES game takes some elements of the classic PC adventure game like having crew members on the away team with different strengths and each officer on the bridge having his or her own position.  However, the top down exploration stages with constantly respawning hidden enemies and maze-like environments does not feel very Star Trek 25th-Anniversary like to me.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Where do I begin?  TMNT may have sold well but only because the Turtles craze was just beginning to establish itself.  This game does have a certain Konami polish to the graphics and music, but the game is way too unfair.  Enemies constantly respawn, there is laughable recovery time after being hit, the turtles have a huge hit area and except for Donatello their weapons do pathetic damage to their enemies.  There are tricky jumps and the play control is a tad too loose.  Flicker is all over the place.

The next two TMNT games for the NES are much better than this.  I always get the feeling that with this first game, Konami really did not "get" the Turtles.  While most of the elements that had been established by 1987 were there, the resulting game did not feel like an adaptation of the cartoon series, which was the catalyst and the focus of the phenomenon for the next several years.  The moody music and outlandish enemy designs feel like they came more from the original comic than the cartoon.

I understand that the developers had little to work with, only elements from the comic book and season one of the animated cartoon were available as reference materials.  However, the arcade game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was also released in 1989 and does not feature any material beyond season one, yet that game was able to capture the spirit of the franchise admirably.  Looks like Konami gave the NES game to the "B Team".

Top Gun I & II
Most NES flying games are not especially memorable, and these are no exception.  One of the main problems are the endless hordes of indistinguishable enemies.  The NES simply did not have the horsepower for anything more than rail-shooters, so these games don't offer you any real freedom.  The first game has some of the most annoying landing sequences ever found in a video game and you cannot seem to turn fast enough to attack enemies.  The second game overcompensates by having too sensitive controls and enemies that fly by too fast to hit.

Sunsoft :

Fester's Quest
While Sunsoft appeared to adapt the overhead view of Blaster Master for this game, that was about the only smart thing they did with the title.  The Addams' Family is little seen and the Addams Family Mansion is reached only far into the game.  The enemies constantly respawn and your gun and whip do little damage.  A turbo controller is required to really play.  Instead of losing gun or whip power when you get like Blaster Master, you lose it by touching gun and whip downgrades, which become more common as you power them up and are surprisingly easy to touch.  Fester moves slowly, and if he gets hit by the flies, his movement rate gets far worse until he finds some shocks.  You have a tiny lifebar and the bosses take a long time to beat.  You find bosses in these buildings with featureless 3-D Mazes, something I always hated on the NES.  There is almost nothing of the quirky macabre humor which the Addams Family was known for.

This was a port of a Commodore 64 game, and while its not as bad as the port of Myth to Conan, the original game just isn't that good.  The game is essentially a collection of mini-games, and usually in 8-bit land the sum is not the greater of its parts when it comes to different gameplay styles being combined in a cartridge.  The first stage is a maze of finding objects, but most of the time you are simply trying to avoid dead ends.  You are easy to hit, there are hard to see traps and bullets, and enemies can be unavoidable.  The music is appropriately moody, but the backgrounds just appear to be shades of brown.  The second stage is something like a 3-D maze, but at least it has something like a map.  I never bothered to get past the second stage.

Capcom :

Disney's Adventures in the Magic Kingdom
As with Platoon, noted above, this is another collection of mini-games.  The platforming in the Haunted Mansion is passable, but Space Mountain feels like Dragon's Lair with the "press the right button at the right time mechanic."

Capcom made six games based off Disney TV franchises, and five of them (Ducktales 1 & 2, Chip 'N Dale 1 & 2, Darkwing Duck) were great.  This one, while a decent game, is not great.  Its a shump and has a certain amount of distinctiveness in that there are horizontal and vertical scrolling portions in the same level and that you can fly forwards and backwards.  However, the chief issue is that the scale is wrong, the characters and enemies are too small to be really distinctive.  Also, your character moves too slowly and his default gun is hard to aim diagonally, does little damage and upgrades are not plentiful.

Pony Canon/FCI :

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons : Heroes of the Lance
Pony Canon/FCI could usually be counted on for reliable, if not spectacular ports of PC games, but this one is where they utterly failed to release a playable game.  Heroes of the Lance is based off the Dragonlance Saga series of novels and AD&D campaign setting from TSR  The object of the game is to take a party of eight heroes into a dungeon to recover a magic item.  It was released first for PCs and then got a NES port.  Whatever virtues the underlying game had, and they seem pretty sparse, were totally lost in translation.

This game has virtually no redeeming features.  The in-game graphics suffer from being too small in relation to the background.  The status menu takes up half the screen.  The character sprites have so little detail and the backgrounds are just drab gray and black.  The music is the same monotonous piece that seems to play throughout the game.  There are only three types of enemies when you first start, a fighter, a dwarf and a lizard-creature.  The latter two are both unfair, the dwarf attacks lower than you normally do, making him hard to hit.  The lizard creature shoots projectiles at chest height and impossible to dodge.  By the time you close in to melee with him, one of your characters may be dead.  The control scheme and hit detection must have been devised in Hell, the very act of attacking is a chore.  When you close into attack range, you can hold down the B button to attack, but it rarely registers a hit on a monster regardless of how close you are.  Your characters move and attack so slowly.  You can run by holding down a directional.  Jumping across chasms is pretty much accomplished by luck.

This game has battery backed memory for saving games, but considering how awful this game is, it is a waste.  There were far many better games more deserving of a battery save than this piece of garbage.

Kemco :

The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle
This originally was a Roger Rabbit game when it first appeared on the Famicom Disk System, but Kemco only held the license in Japan so it did a graphics makeover using Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes characters when it was released.  This game is very monotonous, with the same music playing over and over and very few environment changes.  Weirdly, most of the enemies are differently colored Sylvesters with occasional appearances of Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote.  However, in the original game, the Sylvesters were the Weasels, of which there were four in the movie.   You cannot really stop yourself going in and out of doors and down an incline or scroll the screen to see what is just outside your view, leading to many cheap deaths.

The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout
This game is more ambitious than Kemco's previous offering, but its far easier than you would expect.

Superman never had a great reputation for spawning great video games, and this one is almost as bad as the N64 title.  Super-deformed characters and pastel graphics remind me of the Atari 2600 title, which was no classic.  The music is nothing you will be humming in the shower either.  Superman in this game can use several powers, but for only a very limited number of times unless you find a way to replenish each special power bar.  He default attack is a punch, but the punch has no animation that tells the player the range of the attack.  How close do you have to be to an enemy?  It is hard to say.  Of course, the enemies you first encounter shoot at you, and as either Clark Kent or Superman you are quite vulnerable to bullets.  You jump almost to the top of the screen as either Clark or Superman. It does not take too much punishment to kill Superman, enemies can damage you even by touching and when they die they will often release an item that will reduce your life.  The game gives you virtually no guidance on what you need to do.

Data East :

Captain America and the Avengers
As far as superhero games go on the NES, this may be the best of the bunch that is not part of the Batman franchise.  You can play as Captain America or Hawkeye, but the two are not really that different.  Captain America has a more limited range than Hawkeye shield comes flying back and he jump higher, but otherwise there is little else to distinguish the two.  The main issue is that the play control is stiff.  Graphics are okay, but the music is bland.  Compared to X-Men, Silver Surfer and Spider-Man, this is probably the high water mark for Marvel Comics-based NES games, but that is damning with faint praise.

Taito :

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Weirdly, both Taito and Ubisoft released games based off the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  They could not be more completely different.  Ubisoft's version was atrocious and looks like a port from the ZX Spectrum.  However, Ubisoft doesn't have a reputation for NES classics, Taito does, but not judging by this game.  The graphics are small and hard to distinghuish.  The game is very monochromatic with brown and gray hues throughout.  Trying to digitize real life photographic images never works on the NES, the palette color restrictions make it almost impossible to do well.  The music, after a passable rendition of John Williams' music from the film, but otherwise it is pretty nondescript.

The gameplay reminds me of the PC game Bruce Lee, where you run back and forth trying to avoid bad guys, but having to fight them if you cannot.  In fact, the Cross of Coronado level requires you to beat a certain number of them before you can acquire the cross.  Fighting bad guys is just a button mash and many of them take lots of hits and inflict lots of hits on you.  There are also overhead racing sequences like Spy Hunter and a timed puzzle with the move the blocks with one empty block.  You are quickly given choices of what you can do, but in order to complete the game, you have to beat all stages.

Rare :

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Rare is known for some good NES games, although all its games during this period were published by third parties.  Unfortunately, Roger Rabbit's official NES game is no better than what was done with Bugs Bunny's Crazy Castle.  Roger Rabbit is an adventure game where you collect items to overcome obstacles and there are lots of items to collect.  The most important objects are the four pieces of Marvin Acme's Will, scattered across four areas of Los Angeles.  Most items unfortunately only have a limited number of uses and replacements are hard to come by.  That is because almost all the items in the game are completely randomized when you start a new game.  You can go around the four areas of the game world and talk to people, but most are unhelpful.  You have to protect Roger, who is otherwise useless, from the Weasels.

Some items allow you bypass obstacles, rattles get you past rattlesnakes, a rose lets you talk to Jessica Rabbit, and TNT and a Detonator lets you break the barrier to the Toontown tunnel.  Others like the gun and exploding cigars, are more useful as weapons.  You shouldn't go into caves without a flashlight, rattles and spring boots.  You can find and ride Benny the Cab, which is far faster than walking across L.A. If you encounter weasels, you have a limited amount of time to select the punchline to a joke or they capture Roger and you lose a life.  You also lose a life if you get run over, fall into a pit or get bumped too many times and lose your sense of humor.

The graphics and music for the game is pretty appropriate.  Unfortunately, you will have a hard time from keeping from bumping into things like cats and dogs.  They can bump you while you are searching drawers and desks for items or talking to people and you cannot move to avoid them while you search or talk  Also, defeating Judge Doom at the end of the game will have you throwing your controller at the screen.

Mostly, this game is about constant searching, everywhere, for everything.  There is little sense of progression, just doing the same thing over and over and over again.  It takes seemingly forever to search desks and cabinets, and the game has lots and lots of them. The people can sometimes tell you if the building has items in it. The maps reuse the same tiles over and over, making it easy to get lost.  The items are mostly randomized, which may have worked in Atari's Adventure when there were only six, but not when you need to collect almost two dozen.  Finally, the game gives you three lives and two continues, but when you lose those continues, you have to start over from the beginning.   The game has a 22 digit password, but as a final kick in the teeth, you have ONLY 45 SECONDS to write it down.

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