Tag Archives: NES

Milon’s Secret Castle Review

Milon’s Secret Castle is a prime example of a decent video game concept gone awry. Developed by Hudson Soft for the NES, Milon’s Secret Castle had the potential to put a new spin on the platformer genre by setting all the action in a single location (the titular castle), in which you must uncover secrets to delve further into its chambers. Unfortunately, Hudson went a wee bit too far with these secrets, which end up being so cryptic that getting through the castle no longer feels like a series of puzzles, but one big guessing game.

On the bright side of things, Milon controls well enough. You can walk around, jump, and shoot magic bubbles from a wand. The bubbles are used to defeat enemies, as well as uncover hidden items behind breakable blocks, and reveal invisible doors. If there’s any complaint to be had with Milon’s sense of control, it’s that the only way to run is simply build momentum, which can often be difficult in the castle’s cramped walls. And seeing as Milon was released after Super Mario Bros., there’s really no excuse why a run button couldn’t have been implemented.

The setup of the game goes like this: you traverse the chambers of the castle, looking for hidden passageways and money, which is used to purchase items from shops, which themselves are often hidden. The items are used to make Milon more versatile, improving the damage of his bubbles, or giving him more ways to traverse the castle, like bouncing on springs and shrinking (by the baffling means of being hit by a boxing glove). Additionally, honeycombs can be found hidden within the castle, which add to Milon’s total hit points.

Because of these character-progressing elements, the game almost has an RPG or Metroidvania-type of appeal. This is greatly detracted, however, by how utterly cryptic the game is. Granted, the game is all about secrets, but we aren’t simply talking about solving puzzles to unlock these secrets, but just randomly shooting bubbles at every last pixel on the screen and hoping you get lucky and find something. What’s worse, some of the game’s hidden items randomly generate in different spots, which only makes things that much more of a guessing game. Thankfully the random items are less frequent than the fixed ones, but in a game that’s already so cryptic, adding any random element into the mix was never going to end up well.

This overly cryptic nature prevents Milon’s Secret Castle from reaching its potential, and turns what might have otherwise been a good game into a mediocre one. But the grave flaw that demotes Milon’s Secret Castle below that is that you have no extra lives, and no continues. If you die just once, you have to start the game from the beginning! 

Rarely is a game that gives you no extra chances a good idea, but for a game that already alienates the player with its cryptic elements, the lack of extra tries turns the whole thing into a giant, tedious, trial-and-error affair.

Milon’s Secret Castle had the potential to be something memorable, and had it been developed properly, may have made an impact in the Metroidvania scene. But it’s inability to challenge the player’s thinking, and instead insisting on making the experience feel like a guessing game, coupled with its unforgiving punishment for a single loss, really make Milon’s Secret Castle a massive missed opportunity.

 

3.5

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Karate Champ (NES) Review

Just because a game helped shape a genre, doesn’t always mean it’s good. Sure, the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Tetris are timeless classics that remain entertaining even today, but not all influential games are so lucky. Look for no further proof than Karate Champ, a title which helped shape the fighting genre in its early days, before Street Fighter added depth and fun to the genre.

In Karate Champ’s defense, it probably fared a little better in its original arcade form, in which one or two players would take on their opponent using two different joysticks to perform moves. It still would lack substance, seeing as both fighters are identical in appearance (save for gi color) and moves, and there’s no deeper mechanics to speak of than “land the first hit.” But at least the moves might be at least a little responsive to the joystick controls.

I can’t say that’s the case for sure, seeing as I’ve never even seen a Karate Champ Arcade cabinet. But surely something was lost in the translation in bringing the game to the NES, because Karate Champ can be called nothing short of unplayable.

As stated, the battles really are as simple as landing the first hit to score a point. Score two points and you move on to the next fight. It’s basically just rinse and repeat from there, because every fight is exactly the same. The player (or player 1 if you’re exposing another human being to the game for some reason) is dressed in the white gi. While the CPU (or player 2) is in the red gi. The game couldn’t even be bothered to change the opponent’s gi color per level. The scenery changes (though each stage is just as ugly as the last), but that’s about it.

Things go from shallow to outright disastrous, however, once you try to control the game. Karate Champ on NES is up there with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, World Games (both also NES) and Dark Castle (Genesis) for the title of most uncontrollable game.

Simply put, you can’t control Karate Champ. You can press buttons, and the character will react, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind the action the character decides to make. You’ll walk towards your opponent and attack, only for the character to perform a leg sweep behind him. Or your enemy might get behind you, and you try to attack him by holding back on the D-pad and striking, only for your character to kick in front of him. It seems no matter what direction you’re holding or which button you press (both A and B perform attacks), the player has no say-so as to which action the character performs. Winning a match ultimately comes down to sheer luck then. I had my best performances simply by standing still and hitting one of the attack buttons once my opponent got close enough. It didn’t always work, of course, but it seemed to give me the best chance of actually landing an attack.

On top of all this, Karate Champ also suffers from some extreme technical issues. Sure, a lot of NES games are susceptible to such technical problems, but Karate Champ seems to constantly be plagued by graphical glitches, freeze-ups and crashes. These issues turn what is already a mechanically unplayable game into a technically unplayable one.

Perhaps the arcade versions of Karate Champ helped pave the way for the fighter, but no doubt pretty much everything that was created in its wake surpassed it by a great margin. And the NES port of Karate Champ may have actually devolved the experience all the more. At the very least, the two player mode may have you and a friend chuckling for a few minutes as you randomly swipe away at each other and see who manages to get lucky and actually hit the other. But it’s a short-lived joke, if anything. The bigger joke may just be how a game this broken eventually lead us to Street Fighter.

 

1.5

Battletoads Review

*Review based on Battletoads’ release as part of Rare Replay*

 

Battletoads is the hardest video game ever made.

That’s an often repeated statement you’ll hear around the gaming community, and it’s a hard point to argue. I can’t think of another video game that demands so many actions to be pixel perfect, or that’s so unforgiving with its level design. Battletoads is on a level all its own in the realms of video game difficulty, with a challenge so incredibly steep that only the most dedicated players will see their way past the first few levels.

To put it simply, Battletoads is one tough bastard.

But is it any good? Well, that all depends. Battletoads is certainly a game that has a lot going for it: the core gameplay is fun, the levels are full of variety, and the music by David Wise is pretty awesome, and sounds a bit like a precursor to the composer’s later work in the Donkey Kong Country series. Not to mention the game has a fun attitude that serves as a pretty funny riff on the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles.

With all that said, Battletoads is also most certainly not a game everyone will enjoy simply because it is that damn difficult. Some levels even feel downright sadistic with their demands on the player. And in what has to be the single dumbest design choice in the game, if you have two players partnering up for the adventure at hand, you can (and most definitely will) hurt each other!

Essentially, Battletoads is a beat-em-up. Players can take control of two of the three Battletoads, Rash and Zits, as they embark on a quest through deep space to defeat the sexy Dark Queen and rescue a princess as well as their kidnapped comrade Pimple (I always wondered why Rare bothered to make three Battletoads characters since one of them always seems to be on the sidelines).

Though the game primarily serves as a beat-em-up, the levels quickly find ways to add variety to the mix. The second level sees the toads traveling downwards in a cavern via ropes, while the infamous third level (the game’s first massive difficulty spike) has players riding hover vehicles through a tunnel with rapidly appearing walls (with a single crash meaning instant death). Later levels include surfing, swimming through sewers, and racing giant rats down a construction building to reach bombs (this particular level being the bane of my existence).

The sheer variety is a constant delight, and even when Battletoads is settling in its traditional beat-em-up stages, it still proves to be fun, especially because of the comical animations (which were quite impressive for their time). If you run and attack an enemy, the toads’ heads will cartoonishly turn into ram horns, and after you smack a foe into the ground, you can kick him into oblivion when your toad’s foot transforms into a giant boot.

Simply put, the gameplay, when taken on its own merits, is fun. But the ridiculous difficulty will no doubt prove alienating to many players. The third stage alone will exhaust all of your lives and continues several times over. And should you somehow manage to make it to the later stages, well, good luck is all I can say.

The aforementioned sewer stage includes sections where you run from giant gears, which will instantly kill you if they get too close. But these gears are fast, and will always seem to be trailing inches behind your character, and when they start chasing you upward, you might find yourself shouting obscenities you may have forgotten you knew, because the jumps you need to make have to be one-hundred percent accurate in order to keep your momentum going and survive the gear. I wish I could say I were exaggerating, but if you’re even a split second off, you’re dead.

Anyone who actually managed to conquer these levels in the game’s original NES release definitely have my respect. How they managed to master such trial-and-error after so many game overs sent them back to the start of the game, I’ll never know.

The Rare Replay release includes a neat way to avoid having to start over, however. Along with being able to save your progress at any time, Battletoads – like the other early titles included in Rare Replay – gives players the ability to rewind up to ten seconds. So while you will most assuredly die and die again, you can, at the very least, rectify most of your deaths  without having to go back to a checkpoint or getting a game over. It was only with this rewind feature that I was able to complete that infamous third level. You may say that I cheated, but as far as I’m concerned, Battletoads cheated first with how long that level drags on, how fast your vehicle ends up going, and how fast walls start appearing right in front of you.

Besides, the rewinding can only help you so much. It still took me countless tries to get those jumps with the gears just right (and even then, I think I got lucky more than I had them figured out). And to be honest, the rewinding ability still hasn’t helped me conquer that dreaded Rat Race stage. Those rats run so fast that rewinding isn’t going to do much other than have you reliving the sight of a giant rat zooming past a humanoid toad over and over. Even if you manage to hit the rats (which, again, requires one-hundred percent precision), you only buy yourself less than a second’s time, since the rats move so fast that, when they hit a wall and turn back around, they’re just going to speed past you all over again.

Yes, even with the rewind feature, I still can’t beat Battletoads. Normally, I like to beat a game before I write the review, but cheat codes and level skips certainly help in seeing enough of Battletoads to write about it. I fear I might otherwise never make it past those rats.

“They are going to die…probably by each other’s hands.”

The disappointing thing is, with a game this difficult, it was just begging to be played with two people working together to help get through it. But then Rare decided to troll gamers by making the Toads able to hit each other, which will result in countless unintentional deaths from each other on top of all the ones you are going to get from enemies and obstacles. What’s worse, the players share lives and continues, so if the players end up accidentally killing each other repeatedly, you’re going to start the whole game over. With a single player, Battletoads feels close to impossible. With two players… it might very well be.

Now we go back to the question “is Battletoads any good?” Honestly, I feel like depending on when you ask me, my answer could be very different. For all the things it does right in gameplay, variety and music, it almost seems to want to turn players away with its frequently unreasonable challenge.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so stumped as to how to score a video game at the end of my review. When playing through Battletoads again, there were times when I felt I’d rate it as high as a 7.5, and times when I felt it was unrelenting to the point that it took away much of the enjoyment, and that something like a 5.5 (or lower) might be more fitting. In the end I’ve decided to settle on a middle ground between those mentioned numbers with a 6.5. Though depending on when you ask me, I might tell you Battletoads is better or worse than I grade it here.

While the challenges Battletoads throws at its players often require them to be one-hundred percent accurate, my ultimate feelings for the game are anything but.

 

6.5

R.C. Pro-Am II Review

*Review based on R.C. Pro-Am II’s release as part of Rare Replay*

As its name so bluntly implies, R.C. Pro-Am II is the sequel to Rare’s R.C. Pro-Am. Once again, the game is an isometric racer, in which players take control of remote controlled cars and use weapons and items during races. Though R.C. Pro-Am II makes some improvements over its predecessor – including the addition of multiplayer – it also suffers from same of the same shortcomings which, when considering this sequel was released four whole years after the original, is kind of hard to look past.

The core gameplay, for better and worse, is nearly identical to its predecessor. The cars still control surprisingly accurately to remote controlled toys, which is an interesting quirk, but can make some of the gameplay a little frustrating. You still race three other cars, and can still pick up missiles, bombs and shields to aide you in your races. But there are some new twists this time around.

For starters, multiplayer has been added to the experience. This is definitely the game’s greatest contribution to the formula, as it was something the first game was just begging for, but lacked. All the better is that this was one of the few NES games to be played with up to four players! Though getting four people the chance to play at once was certainly a complicated task back in the NES days, the Rare Replay version makes the four-player mayhem far more accessible.

Another difference between this game and the original R.C. Pro-Am is that you no longer pick up weapons and items on the racetrack. Instead, you pick up money during the races, and then purchase upgrades to your car and weapons in between races.

Now, this setup certainly is unique, and in concept I don’t dislike it. But in execution, it has its flaws. For starters, many of the items are just far too expensive. Sure, you can save up money from race to race, but if you want to get any of the good items, you’ll have to go several races without buying anything, which will leave your car slow and defenseless in that duration. But if you buy smaller items as you go, you’ll probably use them up in one or two races (most likely missing your targets due to the controls anyway), and then you won’t be able to afford the fancier stuff. At the very least, they could have made it so you can pick up the traditional items on the tracks, and then use the money for the vehicle upgrades.

What makes this all the worse is that the computer opponents can take the money during races. Now, I suspect this is due to that the other cars could potentially be other players, but couldn’t they have programmed it to differentiate when the other cars are players and when they’re AI, so that the computer can’t take away the player’s potential currency (which, as far as I know, the CPU doesn’t use)? The AI can even pick up 1-ups from the racetrack, preventing you from gaining a potential continue.

Another bit of a downer is that you have no control over what tracks you’re racing on. You simply go through the courses in order, with no alternative modes providing a level select of any kind. Sure, it was the same way in the first game, but that was 1988. R.C. Pro-Am II was released in 1992. You’d think by this point they could have expanded things a little bit.

This brings me to another downside to the game. Despite the four-year gap in between releases, R.C. Pro-Am II uses the same graphics and sounds as its predecessor. Now, as far as NES titles go, R.C. Pro-Am was already pretty colorful and had some catchy music, so it’s not that the aesthetics are bad. But again, with the extended timeframe between the original and this sequel, you’d think a few things could have been touched up. The Super Nintendo was out by this point, and Super Mario Kart was released the very same year as this title. When you take that into consideration, it really makes R.C. Pro-Am II feel like it didn’t give the effort it could have.

This may all sound very negative, but I will stretch that the core gameplay is still fun, and the fact that this entry actually has multiplayer – and for up to four people – helps keep it afloat even with its design flaws and recycled elements. Sure, you’d be better off playing Super Mario Kart with a buddy, but if you want to try out some four-player NES mayhem (even if it’s on Xbox One), R.C. Pro-Am II is definitely a great place to look.

 

6.0

Cobra Triangle Review

*Review based on Cobra Triangle’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Cobra Triangle is one of Rare’s more fondly remembered NES outings, and it isn’t too difficult to see why. Though at first glance it may appear to be little more than a boat racing game, Cobra Triangle quickly proves itself to be a game of surprising variety.

The first stage of Cobra Triangle is wonderfully deceiving, being a racetrack you may have predicted from the game’s artwork, with controls that are eerily similar to R.C. Pro-Am’s, albeit with a boat instead of remote controlled cars. Your boat also has the benefit of having projectile missiles equipped at all times, as opposed to Pro-Am’s weapons being power-ups.

Once you finish that first race, however, the game starts throwing curveballs at the player through stages that have varying objectives. Soon you’ll be defusing water mines, fighting massive sea monsters, collecting items, and saving swimmers, among other goals. There are twenty-five stages total, with some stages trading places depending on which paths you decide to take in the racing courses.

The sheer variety of ways Cobra Triangle creates with such seemingly simple gameplay is the highlight of the package. As far as NES games go, few titles in the 8-bit console’s library could boast such versatility.

If there is a notable complaint to be found, it’s that the aforementioned “swimmer rescuing” missions are considerably more difficult than the rest of the game, to the point of being frustrating. Enemy ships will come charging at the poor swimmers like bats out of Hell, and your boat isn’t fast enough to keep up with them all. Add in enemy missiles that temporarily stun you, and things get downright stressful. Granted, there only needs to be one swimmer remaining in order to move on to the next stage, but that is much easier said than done (especially when you consider that your thumb might be exhausted, as you have to repeatedly press the attack button to continue firing missiles instead of simply holding it).

While the rescue missions may drain your lives quickly, the rest of the game provides a steep but reasonable challenge. And once a level’s goal has been met, your boat grows a helicopter propeller and flies to the next stage. How cool is that?!

Cobra Triangle also made the best of its 8-bit limitations with vehicle (and monster) sprites that were really impressive for their time. Like a number of Rare’s other early titles, the game is played in an isometric view, which can admittedly lead to some tricky perspectives at times (such as when trying to collect items when jumping off ramps). But from a technical standpoint, the graphics remain impressive for how there can be so much going on on-screen, yet it can manage to keep up with the action of your ship without any notable graphical hiccups.

On top of all that, Cobra Triangle also features a catchy soundtrack by none other than David Wise. Though it may not have the same depth or atmosphere as Wise’s later scores, the acclaimed gaming composer does help bring out Cobra Triangle’s unique charm through its soundtrack.

Cobra Triangle remains a fun game to play today, which is quite impressive for something that, on the surface, may just appear to be an NES boat racing game. The rescue missions may break the pacing of the game a bit with there considerably difficulty spike, and the perspectives can be a little misleading at times. But there’s no denying the fun, variety and ambition that Cobra Triangle brought to the NES.

 

7.0

Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll Review

*Review based on Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll has to be one of the more unique games in the NES library, and it’s understandably gained a reputation as one of developer Rare’s classic titles. An isometric platformer that put its own spin on the genre, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll is still a lot of fun today, even if some of its elements can be a little on the frustrating side.

One or two players can join in Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll, with the playable characters being the titular serpents Rattle (a red snake) and Roll (a blue snake). The goal of the game is to extend the snakes’ tails by eating little orbs called Nibbley Pibbleys.

These Nibbley Pibbley’s come in three different colors; red, blue and yellow. Depending on which snake you’re playing as, the red and blue Nibbley Pibbleys will be worth one or two points (two points for eating those that are the same color as your snake, and one point for the opposite color), while the yellow Nibbley Pibbleys grant three points. Every time your snake consumes four points worth of Nibbley Pibbleys, they gain one extension to their tail. When the tail reaches its maximum length for a given stage, the end of the tail begins to glow. When in this state, the snakes are heavy enough to ring a bell on a weighing machine, which opens up the exit to the next stage.

There’s another twist in this scenario, as being hit by enemies will take away the progress on your tail, piece by piece. And you only have so much time to finish a level, so if enemies start chipping away at your tail faster than you can extend it, you’re in trouble. The Nibbley Pibbleys are constantly spawning via Nibbley Dispencors, so you can always potentially regain your tail, provided you’re fast enough.

Before things can become too repetitious, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll throws another curveball at the player in that the Nibbleys behave differently in each of the game’s eleven stages. On the first level, they are simply rolling balls, but during the second stage, they begin bouncing around. The third stage sees them growing legs and running away, while on the fourth stage they temporarily melt into the ground, which prevents you from gobbling them up for a short time. It may be a small difference, but the fact that the Nibbley Pibbleys act uniquely to each stage adds a nice touch of variety to the core gameplay, and ensuring that it feels fresh the whole way through.

Considering Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll was released in a time when every platformer was simply trying to copy Super Mario Bros. (and never replicating its magic), the game was a really fresh take on the genre in its day, and it still feels unique even today. With its genre-defiant attitude, however, come two unfortunate aspects of the game which haven’t aged so gracefully.

The first of these drawbacks is that the isometric perspective can make certain perspectives really tricky, making the platforming of the game often feeling awkward. The second such drawback is that the jumping mechanics can feel a little floaty, with the snakes often seeming like they can only decide where they’re jumping after they’ve already taken to the air. Combine these two elements together, and Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll can feel infuriatingly intricate with its platforming elements. And considering the stages don’t have outer walls, you can easily overshoot a jump and fall to your death repeatedly due to the floaty jumps and difficult perspectives.

While these elements do hold the game back from being one of the best NES titles, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll still remains a highlight in the NES’ library, and something of a turning point for Rare, as it marked the beginning of the cartoonish silliness and wacky humor that would go on to define the British developer for years to come (even the enemies are an odd assortment of vinyl records and sentient feet). And the game has a memorable score by David Wise, taking inspiration from popular music of the 1950s (including, of course, the game’s namesake Shake, Rattle and Roll).

Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll may not be perfect, due to some tricky and aged mechanics,. But the uniqueness and fun of its concept, two-player co-op, and undeniable charm shine through, making for one of the more memorable NES outings you and a friend can partake in even by today’s standards.

 

7.5

R.C. Pro-Am Review

*Review based on R.C. Pro-Am’s release as part of Rare Replay*

R.C. Pro-Am marked a turning point in Rare’s history, as it’s often regarded as the developer’s first big success on a Nintendo platform. Rare was previously known for their titles for the ZX Spectrum back when they were known as Ultimate Play the Game. But R.C. Pro-Am’s success on the NES lead to a nearly unparalleled partnership between Rare and Nintendo; one which would lead to years of success due to the creation of games like Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, Goldeneye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie.

When playing R.C. Pro-Am today, it’s easy to see what made it so appealing way back when, though it may lack the depth to make it a worthy alternative to more contemporary similar titles.

R.C. Pro-Am is a racing game. A racing game in which you can pick up upgrades and weapons to help to achieve victory. If that sounds a bit like Mario Kart, well, that’s because that’s very much what it’s like. Though with its 1988 release on the NES, R.C. Pro-Am predated the original Super Mario Kart by four years.

Of course, being released four years beforehand, and on a less advanced console, means that R.C. Pro-Am is also a simpler game than Mario Kart. While Super Mario Kart used the SNES’ Super FX chip to give the race tracks a sense of three-dimensional space, R.C. instead went with an isometric view.

The race tracks are small, and only consist of a few twists and turns, and the cars control in a way that feels surprisingly similar to a remote-controlled toy cars. You’ll always race against three other cars, and will have to use weapons to hinder your rivals and boosts to help you achieve first place. Weapons come in a small variety, like missiles which you launch forward, and bombs which you drop behind.

There’s really not much more to it than that, but the gameplay is still engaging and strangely addictive even today. Though there are some drawbacks to the experience.

On the downside of things, each race ends as soon as one racer reaches the finish line. This means you could be in first for the majority of the race, but then potentially fall into fourth place in the last lap, and lose the race as soon as one rival clears the finishing line, thus not giving you a chance to better your placement. This can be particularly annoying because there are only ever four racers at a time. Claiming first through third places will nab you a gold, silver and bronze trophy, but coming in fourth means you lose that race. Lose three times, and you have to start all over. The penalty for the losses is reasonable, but the fact that you can easily get a loss because of one small slip-up is a bit less so.

Another big drawback is that R.C. Pro-Am is only a single-player affair. With its chaotic, combat-heavy races, this is a game that was begging for a second player to get in on the action. Sadly, your only options are to try to beat the computer and better your performances. As fun as the gameplay is, adding a second player to the mix would have given it so much more replay value.

As it is, R.C. Pro-Am is still a fun game, being something of a precursor to the combat-racing and cartoony go-karting genres, and it boasts a fun musical score by David Wise (always a good thing). But, as you may have noticed, I’ve brought up Mario Kart a few times in this review. Considering Mario Kart is beloved for its multiplayer, well, you may find R.C. Pro-Am may make you want to play Nintendo’s iconic racing series after a few short sessions.

 

6.0