Tag Archives: NES

Deadly Towers Review

Few games are as unplayable as Deadly Towers. Though it was seen as a novel gaming experience back in 1987, retrospective looks have widely deemed it as the most frustrating game on the NES, and in some instances, the worst game on the console (and boy, is that saying something).

Deadly Towers is supposedly an action RPG, with players taking control of a warrior prince who’s out to destroy in evil force within the titular Deadly Towers by burning the “Seven Bells” in a sacred flame.

Problems immediately arise as soon as players step foot in said towers. Our hero has little health, moves at a snail’s pace (while enemies can move across the screen in an instant), and his only means of attack is by throwing swords (which he has a limitless supply of), with only one sword able to be thrown at a time. You have to wait until a sword passes through the screen or hits an enemy before you can throw another.

“Gotta love those puke-green walls!”

One of the biggest issues with Deadly Towers is that it’s beyond confusing. The tower in which the game takes place is an absolute maze. And of course there’s no map to speak of, so you’re just going from one garish room to another, hoping you’re making some kind of progress. This is made all the worse by the fact that you often can’t tell what is and isn’t a doorway to another room. Sure, there are a lot of entrances/exists that look as such. But just as frequently you’ll be walking near what appears to be a wall, only for the game to suddenly load another room. Worse still, there are some entrances to rooms that are marked by what I can only describe as scratches at the bottom of the screen, with these same scratches also marking many bottomless pits that lead to instant death! If that isn’t a cheap and poorly thought-out trap, I don’t know what is.

The enemies are an uninspired assortment of blobs, orbs and generic spider and bat monsters. As stated, they move much faster than our hero, and can often drain all of your health in a matter of seconds. In case that wasn’t bad enough, the enemies knock you backwards considerably whenever they make contact, which can send you into another room or off a cliff. I’m not exaggerating when I say I experienced multiple instances of getting knocked back by an enemy into another room, only for an enemy in that room to knock me into yet another room, with the process bouncing me around like a pinball until I died.

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of Deadly Towers is that, upon death, you start all the way back at the beginning of the game! You do receive a password upon death (a password which, strangely, is already imputed, leaving the player only to press start), but these passwords are ultimately useless. You still start back at the beginning of the game, losing any money you’ve acquired along your journey. The only thing you retain is the boosted maximum health you gain by grabbing health-boosting power-ups. But here’s the kicker; you don’t start out at the new maximum health level. No matter how many health-boosters you pick up, you’ll always go back to the start of the game at 100 health. But hey, you can slowly farm enemies in the vain hope that they’ll drop enough hearts to get you to your new maximum health.

Deadly Towers is not a fun game to play: Between the slow character and attacks, swarms of enemies, labyrinthian level design, unknowable pathways, misleading traps, and constantly restarting the game, Deadly Towers is nothing short of a painful gaming experience. But it’s also butt-ugly to look at, with grossly colored environments being “complimented” by the aforementioned uninspired character designs. And the music is as obnoxious as anything else in the game, consisting of a single track of music that is not only constantly playing, but doesn’t even loop! Instead, the music starts over every single time you enter a new room, so get used to those first few notes. You’ll be hearing them a lot.

Longtime gamers often look back at gaming’s yesteryear with nothing but delight. That’s probably because they’re reflecting on the Super Marios and Mega Mans of gaming’s early years. But there’s also the ugly side to the retro gaming, especially when it comes to the 8-bit era (and the 32/64-bit generation). Gaming was still young, and there was plenty of experimentation to be done. While some of these ideas soared to greatness, others just feel archaic. But Deadly Towers is a game that feels so prototypical and unfinished in every way, that it might just be the poster boy for this uglier side to retro gaming.

 

1

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Hydlide Review

At first glance, Hydlide might look like a blatant ripoff of The Legend of Zelda. It uses the same top-down perspective, you traverse a fantasy world filled with strange monsters and lush forests, and you have a sword, shield and magic spells at your disposal. But the truth is, the original Japanese PC version of Hydlide actually predates Zelda, though this NES version was released following in Zelda’s wake. Though don’t be fooled, just because Hydlide looks like Zelda doesn’t mean it shares any of that legendary series’ quality. Indeed, after playing Hydlide, it’s easy to imagine it predates Zelda, as it feels downright prototypical and unfinished even without considering the shadow of Legend of Zelda looming over it.

To more or less sum up the game’s overall unfinished nature, there’s no animation to speak of in regards to the player’s character. By holding the A button, you switch from Defense to Attack, and then you just walk into enemies. There’s no animation for swinging your sword or raising your shield. You just hold the button and look at the bottom of the screen to make sure you’re in the desired mode, and walk into enemies. Whether or not you’re damaging the enemy or the enemy is damaging you is anyone’s guess, so you’ll just have to keep looking at your health bar to make sure you’re not the one taking damage, or wait for the enemy to unceremoniously disappear, indicating your “hard earned” victory.

As stated, you can obtain some magic attacks as you progress through the game, but they’re hardly worth the effort involved in using them. You have to again hold down a button to switch to the desired spell, and then press the A button to enter attack mode, and press B while in attack mode to cast the spell. With the sheer abundance of enemies that often appear on-screen, coupled with the tediousness of casting the spells, means you’d rather just use the aforementioned method of charging into enemies and hoping for the best.

Perhaps even worse than the combat are the game’s cryptic puzzles. Actually, cryptic may be an understatement. The original Zelda on NES had cryptic elements (one of the reasons I don’t think it’s held up as well with time as its sequels). What we have here in Hydlide is beyond cryptic, like entering a castle in order to enter a lake (why not?), or hitting two wizards with a spell at the same time to be teleported to an island. These are the kind of things that have so little cohesive logic to their process that you would really need some background information to consider them. But of course, Hydlide gives you no such information or details. It’s a slog of an adventure that consists of one baffling puzzle after another, with none of them making any sort of sense, and having no information made available to fill you in on such preposterousness. Even when Zelda was at its most cryptic, it still gave you hints!

Of course, Hydlide is also the kind of game that starts you back at the very beginning if you die. But wait, there’s a password system! Before you get your hopes up that a password system might make the game a little more playable, it has to be the most convoluted password system imaginable. To save your progress, you have to bring up the menu and select the save option. That doesn’t save things right there, but instead gives you a password that isn’t immediately visible. After selecting save, you have to bring up the menu a second time and this time select the password option to see the password that the save option gave you. From there you can write the password down for later use, but of course the passwords have to be overly long, just to make an already tedious experience just that much more tedious.

Just in case you thought there might be a saving grace in the form of a catchy 8-bit soundtrack, the music is as uneventful as anything. There’s only one short loop that plays for the entirety of the game – from the moment you turn the console on until the last screen of the game – and it sounds like an ice cream truck knockoff of the Indiana Jones theme.

If anything, Hydlide does serve one purpose; and that’s to give players an even stronger appreciation for The Legend of Zelda. Though I think the original NES Zelda has aged in a number of ways (at least when compared to its “sister game” Super Mario Bros., which has better stood the test of time), it really did push the action/adventure genre forward in so many meaningful ways. Sure, the Zelda sequels expanded and redefined what an action/adventure game could be, but going back to a game like Hydlide – which came even before the first Zelda – and you can really see how clunky the genre was before Link took up his sword and donned a green tunic. The ambition for adventure was there, but developers clearly didn’t know how to bring adventure to life through the video game medium yet.

You could say Hydlide was some kind of prototype, and under such rough circumstances I guess I could say it isn’t the worst game I’ve played. But its status as a “Before Zelda” adventure title can’t save it from being a convoluted bore to play today.

 

1.5

Dick Tracy (NES) Review

A video game developer would have to actively try very, very hard in order to make a game more frustrating than Dick Tracy on NES. Though it was released in 1990, around the same time as the Dick Tracy feature film, this Bandai game was more inspired by the original comic strip of the yellow-clad detective. Not that it matters, really. A bad game is a bad game, no matter the source of inspiration. And Dick Tracy on NES is indeed a bad game.

The first issue with the game is its setup. As soon as the game starts, you have a mugshot screen featuring six different subjects. Dick Tracy might have been an interesting game, if it actually made you look for clues to deduce which suspect is guilty. Instead, the game already tells you which of the six is the culprit of the game’s first crime, and you simply have to look for enough clues to have him arrested (if you try to arrest them before finding each clue, you’ll just go back to the police station to continue looking for the clues). The four subsequent crimes that Dick Tracy has to solve follow a similar pattern, which really makes you wonder why the developers didn’t just present the game as a traditional side-scroller. Dick Tracy had the opportunity to make players feel like a detective (if even just a little); instead, the detective-y bits are nothing but window dressing.

That’s only the beginning. Dick Tracy includes an overworld map, presented as the big city. You traverse this overworld via Dick Tracy’s car and, my lord, the driving controls are bad. The game forces players to stay in the right lane which, while realistic, makes the driving controls feel really restrictive. When combined with how awkward the turning is, and the driving controls are just a mess.

Yet, that’s not even the worst part of the overworld. That would be the snipers. Yes, atop most of the buildings in the city are snipers, who will shoot at you repeatedly, and drain your health before you even make it to one of your destinations. You can shoot from the car, but it only shoots straight, which makes hitting the snipers nearly impossible. You can exit the car, which gives you more range in movement (and thus, shooting as well), but having to stop the car to exit just to get rid of the snipers just makes the game all the more tedious.

You may be wondering “why not just move around the overworld on foot?” The answer to that is you can’t. As soon as you exit the car, you can only walk around to what’s currently on-screen. Between the horrible controls and the barrages of snipers, driving the car is one of the game’s worst elements, yet it’s the element the game forces you to do the most.

When you actually make it to one of your destinations, things don’t get much better. Dick Tracy can jump, punch, and can use a gun. But in the on-foot stages, Dick Tracy has limited ammo, and can’t shoot unarmed enemies, otherwise you’ll take damage. Sure, it’s realistic that a good cop wouldn’t shoot an unarmed criminal, but the enemies appear on screen so suddenly that you might not have switch back to your fists before hitting the B button. You’ll be shooting at an armed enemy, only for an unarmed guy to appear on-screen and walk in front of the bullet. And with how much the stages love to bombard you enemies, trying to keep track of what enemies are in front of you and what item/weapon you’re currently using just gets way too hectic.

Dick Tracy can swap between his fists, a gun, and first aid kits by pressing the select button. The punches and gun are used by pressing B when they’re selected, but to use a first aid kit to heal yourself, you have to press the select button and B at the same time. Why the developers made such a bonkers design choice is anyone’s guess.

What’s worse with the health situation is that Dick can only carry two first aid kits at a time, and they aren’t always easy to come by. And while they replenish all of your health when used,Dick only has a handful of health, with most of it, once again, being depleted by the snipers in the overworld.

This brings me to the game’s gravest flaw: You only have one life. Just one. If you die, it’s game over and back to the beginning of the game. There is a password system, but only in between cases. And again, going through just one case by finding all the clues, and apprehending the culprit, with all those driving sections sprinkled in between, is no walk in the park. And with players only able to hold onto two first aid kits at a time, the whole experience is unforgiving and unfair.

Dick Tracy is one of the worst games on the NES. Its squandered potential of 8-bit crime solving is further muddled by its atrocious controls, tedious pacing, and its unreasonable difficulty..

 

1.5

Beetlejuice (NES) Review

The opening level in Super Mario Bros. is so expertly realized in introducing players to the game’s fundamental mechanics, that it’s largely taken for granted. From the opening screen that presents Mario is the basics (blocks to jump into for coins and a power-up, a Goomba enemy to avoid or defeat), all the way up to its secret areas and ending flagpole, stage 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. remains a case study on how to properly ease players into the game ahead.

On the complete opposite end of that spectrum, we have the opening stage of Beetlejuice on NES, which is so cryptic, convoluted and unfair that it serves as a means for everything a game designer should avoid when trying to introduce players to the game. Though I suppose for a game this terrible, the introductory stage may actually compliment the rest of the experience (though that statement in itself is certainly no compliment).

Beetlejuice is based on the Tim Burton film of the same name, and like so many ill-fated licensed games on the NES, it was published by the notorious LJN. And like all the other movie-based NES games from the (thankfully) now-defunct publisher, Beetlejuice fails as both a game and in representing its source material.

By definition, Beetlejuice is a side-scrolling platformer. Though in execution, it can barely handle being that. Beetlejuice’s jumping is sporadic and slippery, and his only means of attack his a little stomp, which naturally doesn’t harm enemies, but instead is used to crush tiny beetles that pop out of holes in the ground to get points. Beetlejuice can then use those points to purchase “Scares,” the game’s power-ups.

Though you can continuously farm the beetles for points, it proves to be an arduous process: you have to be incredibly precise with your stomps to hit them, and they only give 10, 25, 50 and 75 points (depending on the color of beetle, though even that seems inconsistent, with blue beetles sometimes giving 25 points, other times 50). Considering that it costs hundreds of points to buy even a single use for a Scare, and you’ll often needs multiple copies of a Scare in order to finish a level, you’ll find yourself spending a good deal of time stomping on beetles like an idiot. Sound fun yet?

“The shark fin in the tub can kill you. The torches can kill you. Even that umbrella thing can kill you.”

Another problem with the game is its unfair difficulty, which stems from three primary sources; the first of which being that Beetlejuice is sent flying when touching an enemy or object, which will frequently send “the ghost with the most” careening around the place like a pinball, bouncing from one damaging object to the next until he’s dead. The second issue is that, when traveling vertically, any previous ground that is now off-screen works as a one-hit death trap. The third issue is that you can rarely tell what can and can’t hurt you. Early in the first level, for example, you’ll find yourself inside a house with some torches, which look like simple background decorations, but actually hurt you when touched (even when they’re off-screen).

Combine these three issues with Beetlejuice’s aforementioned slippery jumping, and the game is utterly unenjoyable to play. And all of these issues are at the forefront of the very first stage.

This first level sees players traveling across a small town, where they are soon greeted by an enemy they can’t kill, but one that can easily kill them if it bumps into Beetlejuice and sends him into a nearby pit. Shortly thereafter, the player will enter the torch-riddled house, in which Beetlejuice has to continuously travel vertically which, you guessed it, means you’ll often get hit by a surprise enemy or object, and fall back to what should be a previous area, which instead kills you. After that you’ll find an area where you’ll waste time stomping on beetles (while avoiding another enemy you can’t kill) just so you can enter the nearby building to purchase power-ups. You’ll soon come across a beehive which can only be destroyed by using the skeleton power-up and throwing a fireball at it, which then gives you access to a cloud platform (a baffling scenario which the game never even hints at). Then when you finally make it to the first boss, you’ll find that he’s practically invincible, and can only be killed by spamming the skeleton power-ups and throwing enough fireballs at him to send him to the right side of the screen (once again, the game never tells you to specifically buy the skeleton power-up for the boss, so if you buy anything else, you’re just wasting your tediously earned points). Naturally, this boss can kill you in a single hit, which will either send Beetlejuice back to the first house area of the stage (despite other deaths taking the player back to the spot they died), or you’ll spawn right back at the boss. If you respawn at the boss, you’ll keep doing so. So if you didn’t purchase enough skeletons, or used them up and died, you’ll have to reset the game entirely, because you’re trapped in an impossible scenario.

Again, first level. And it doesn’t get better from there.

To top everything off, the graphics are ugly to look at and, though the music can be somewhat catchy, its upbeat and bubbly tone is anything but reminiscent of the dark comedy on which the game is based.

Beetlejuice is perhaps marginally better than LJN’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure –  if only because Beetlejuice’s bad controls are a relative step up from the unplayability of Bill & Ted – but it still since alongside Who Framed Roger Rabbit on NES as one of LJN’s greatest crimes against the most beloved of 8-bit consoles.

 

1.5

Pictionary (NES) Review

 

Video games based on board games rarely ever turn out well. The nature of board games is just too different from video games to make a direct transition, so often the video game ends up barely representing the board game it’s based on. Pictionary on NES – from the notorious LJN – is but another example of this.

Pictionary is a simple enough board game: one player draws, and the other player tries to guess what they’re drawing. Somehow, that simplicity was completely lost in the NES adaptation.

In the NES version of Pictionary, players are placed on a game board, with a roll of a six-sided die determining how far you move. The spaces come in different colors, with each color seemingly taking you to a different mini-game when you land on it (I say ‘seemingly’ because, though this seemed consistent for some playthroughs, the color of the spaces didn’t seem to coincide with the mini-games after some games went on for a while).

The mini-games are few, with each one serving as a means to reveal pieces of a picture, which you then must guess. It’s a little…overthought.

The most relatively engaging mini-game is one that places you in the role of an astronaut, who must collect blue orbs on a series of platforms (every orb unlocks a piece of a picture), all while avoiding two odd things that pop up and reduce your time when they make contact with you. A second mini-game sees the player trying to carry boxes from one side of the screen to the other (again, each box reveals a fragment of the picture when successfully delivered), all while avoiding more bouncing things (I honestly don’t know what they are), which eliminate your boxes and take away time. This mini-game quickly becomes infuriating, as you need to go to the left side of the screen, then hold left on the D-pad again to stack up on boxes, and then make your way to the right side of the screen to score each box, with the bouncing things being harder to avoid if your stack of boxes is too tall.

Sadly, the game only features two other mini-games, and they aren’t much better than the box-stacking one. A third mini-game features the player trying to catch people out of a burning building. As you probably guessed, every person that hits the trampoline completes a small part of the picture, and every missed person reducing time. Like the box game, the fire mini-game feels unfair, as oftentimes people are jumping from both opposite ends at the screen at once, making it literally impossible to get them both.

Finally, the last mini-game is like an inverse space invaders, with the player controlling a paint bucket at the top of the screen, and dropping paint on the weird enemies making their way upward. Every defeated enemy, you guessed it, reveals a part of a picture.

The fact that there are only a total of four mini-games means things grow stale incredibly quickly. And with unfair elements in the box and fire games, it really makes things unenjoyable.

“Of course it’s not even a guess. THAT’S not even a picture!”

Here’s where things really go off the rails. When you reveal a piece of a picture, it’s completely random which piece it is. What’s worse, in many cases, the drawing in question only takes up a portion of the frame, with the remainder consisting of pitch blackness. Some pictures are even more vague, with arrows pointing to a smaller portion of the picture (for example, if the answer is “small” the arrow may point to the smaller of two stick figures). But with the randomness of how the pictures are revealed, you’ll frequently only have a small amount of the drawing revealed before it’s time to guess, making the answer unknowable to the player.

Then, just to add insult to injury, typing the answer is as unpolished as anything. You control a pair of shoes who walk across the alphabet, with the controls being way too sensitive. It’s annoyingly slippery to control. And just for the hell of it, if you fail to guess the correct answer, said answer is never revealed, leaving you to ponder at its identity for all eternity.

“I have a finger I’d like to give this game.”

When playing Pictionary, I was largely reminded of Win, Lose or Draw, also for the NES. Both games involve “drawing” and trying to guess what the drawings are. And both games fail to represent their source material (in the case of Win, Lose or Draw, the game show of the same name). Between the two, I’d say Pictionary is marginally better, since the mini-games – while lacking in depth and basic gaming competence – at least add some gameplay to the equation. But that’s not exactly saying much.

Honestly, Pictionary is just another entry in LJN’s library of unfinished NES blunders. A curious time-waster from a bygone era of gaming. Just stick with the board game.

 

2.0

 

 

World Games (NES) Review

Back in the 1980s, there were a series of games known as the Epyx Sports series, consisting of Summer Games, Winter Games, and World Games. These titles found their way onto various platforms, with some versions being considered alright, while others were a little more… disastrous. Perhaps the most infamous ports of the series were those found on the NES, which are notorious for their poor controls.

How bad are the controls in the NES version of World Games? Well, the above usage of the words “poor controls” is probably being generous. Oftentimes, it feels like you have no control whatsoever in World Games. I really wish that were an exaggeration.

The concept of World Games is simple enough, it’s just a series of mini-games based on different sporting events from around the world (you even get an “educational” introduction to each game and its cultural significance beforehand). In execution, however, it’s anything but simple.

The controls are an absolute mess. At their least-offensive, the controls are easy to figure out, but difficult to actually perform, such as in the Caber Toss event, where you have to repeatedly hit left and right on the D-pad. It sounds simple, but it’s utterly demanding, and moving your thumb from one side of the D-pad to the other over and over again might give you blisters.

In the middle of the road are games like the Sumo Wrestling and Weightlifting events, which just feel like button-mashing nonsense. You’ll mash the A and B buttons as well as the D-pad repeatedly. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. I can’t figure them out, but at least something happens if you mash everything enough.

Then, at the very bottom of the lot, we have mini-games that seem uncontrollable. The Barrel Jumping and Slalom Skiing just seem out of the player’s control. There are only so many buttons on an NES controller, but it seems like no matter what you do your character doesn’t react. It’s almost as bad as Dark Castle on Sega Genesis.

The only redeeming aspect about World Games may be that its status as a two-player title means you can have a couple of minutes having a good laugh seeing who manages to pick up a win out of sheer luck (which is more than you can say about Dark Castle). But the humor to be found in the game’s irony can only go so far.

With some of the most abysmal and baffling controls in video game history, World Games on NES serves as little more than a prank to play on your friends.

 

1.5

Win, Lose or Draw (NES) Review

Win, Lose or Draw on the NES is quite possibly the stupidest game I have ever played. It’s not the worst, mind you (though it’s probably somewhere on that list), but it’s almost guaranteed the dishonor of being the stupidest.

What do I mean by “stupidest,” exactly? Simply that, by concept alone, this game never would have worked. But the developers went through with it anyway, and playing it for just a few minutes will prove just how pointless it is.

Long story short, Win, Lose or Draw was an American gameshow that ran from 1987 to 1990, and worked like something of a televised version of Pictionary. A team of men went up against a team of women, with one team member drawing an object, and the other members of the team trying to guess what they were drawing.

It certainly makes sense as a gameshow, but how do you translate such a concept to the NES? As it turns out, not very well.

In the video game, players can select to be a team of men or women (which does nothing but change the genders of the crudely animated characters sitting on a couch on-screen). You have two primary options of playing the game: one in which the computer automatically draws the subject, with players taking turns guessing the answer, and one where one player draws, and the other tries to guess.

The former mode is certainly the easier of the two, but seems to take away the whole point of the game itself. And who’s to say the players can’t just help each other out in guessing the answers?

The latter mode, in which players do the drawing themselves, sounds more ideal in concept, but we’re forgetting a very important detail: you have to draw with an NES controller!

Win, Lose or Draw of course uses pixel art, which you have to draw by using the D-pad. Suffice to say, it’s not ideal for drawing, particularly when the game asks you to draw round objects (my attempts at drawing a ball always ended up looking like diamonds). Sure, it’s not impossible to draw with a D-pad, but it is insanely difficult to draw most of the objects within the allotted time limit and make them even remotely discernible.

What’s even worse is that the game finds a way to make the process even more difficult. You would think that you’d simply have to hold down the button while moving the D-pad to draw, and letting go of the button would give a brief pause in the drawing in case you need to reposition the curser. But no. Instead, you just press the button to activate the “ink” and then move the curser with the D-pad. You then have to press the button again in order to turn the ink off. It sounds like a simple gripe, but it’s an awkward setup that just goes against your basic instincts. Coupled with the already tedious task of drawing using a D-pad, and it becomes disastrous.

Much like how players could potentially help each other when the computer is drawing, there’s really nothing that prevents the guessing player from seeing the word describing what the drawing player is supposed to draw. Players are asked to look away or close their eyes, but again, there’s nothing from stopping the players from helping each other out or cheating by looking at the answer ahead of time. This is just a concept that was doomed to fail.

“There’s nothing preventing you from seeing the answer and then guessing correctly before the picture is even drawn.”

Sadly, this is a game that is easy to imagine could work on more recent hardware. Imagine a similar game on PC, where one player sees the name of the object they’re supposed to draw, and use a mouse to draw it, while the other player gets a view of what’s being drawn and has to guess from their own computer and keyboard. Or what about a Wii U version, where one player draws the object on the Gamepad’s touchscreen, while the other players look at the drawing from the TV screen and type the answer using their controllers?

Basically, the very concept of Win, Lose or Draw is decent enough fun. But there was never any way that it would ever work on the NES, and it shows. The NES was just too limited to accurately capture the idea behind the gameshow in any sensible way.

I admit that I’ve played worse games than Win, Lose or Draw, and more broken ones as well. But with the exception of Where’s Waldo (also on NES), I can’t think of another game where the developers could have (and should have), at some point, stopped and realized there was just no way the game was going to work out.

 

1.5