Tuesday’s Top Ten: N.E.S. Games not Mario-Related

Today is the Thirty-First of May, which can only mean one thing—tomorrow is the first of June!  Well, okay, two things.  The other thing is that it’s time for another Tuesday’s Top Ten, where we take ten things related to video games, no matter how tangentially, and string them up in a nice, logical, left brain-pleasing construction of order.  This week, we’re going to look at the top ten video games for the Nintendo Entertainment System—but with a catch.  The catch is that they aren’t going to be Mario-related.

Now, I love Mario as much as the next guy.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is easily my favorite Mario game, and I even enjoyed Mario is Missing!.  Thing is, the guy is everywhere and beloved by nearly every gamer to at least some extent.  For a gamer to say they like Mario—or even write up a list of the top Mario-related games—is like saying they like breathing and rank their top ten foods that heavily feature “tasting at least somewhat okay or can also be pretty darn awesome”.

There were plenty of other games on the N.E.S., many of them pretty well-designed.  Some went on to spawn long-lived series, and some didn’t, but they all at least had their charm, their interesting mechanics, and so on.  While Mario is certainly a decent enough character, and though most of us enjoy his games, sometimes we don’t remember that there are mighty fine games that had nothing at all to do with Italians or plumbing.  Mushrooms, on the other hand—well, that’s something any very young readers need to talk to their parents about, and if you do be sure to ask about the ‘Sixties.

Anyway, enough dilly-dallying.  Let’s get this started!

10. Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six
As I said before, I played the heck out of this game.  It was a decent platformer, if not a very good Spider-Man-specific game.  The music was alright, actually rather decent for the era, but nothing that really fit Spidey.  The level design wasn’t terrible, and though the bosses seemed a bit tacked-on their levels actually fit them well enough.

It still had a certain charm to it, though.  The web swinging was actually pretty decent; you attached your web-lines to walls, street lamps, and so on, the speed depending on how long the line was.  You had three attacks—a punch, a flying kick, and shooting a bit of webbing.  Web pick-ups were strewn here and there, so webbing wasn’t often a huge problem.  On the whole, it was again a pretty good platformer with the Spidey brand plastered onto it.  You can find a video series of the game here.

09. Gold Medal Challenge ’92
This one was a Capcom game on the N.E.S., so you knew two things right off the bat: One, it was going to be interesting.  Two, it was going to be ridiculously hard.

Control-wise, there were two types of events—most were button-mashers, and there were a few where buttons were pressed in more of a rhythm.  For example, for a running event, when your runner crouched before the start line, you’d mash buttons to get him ready.  When the gun went off you pressed any direction on the D-pad and continued to mash the buttons as quickly as possible.  This got nuts later on, and this game was the entire reason I’d gotten the N.E.S. Max controller, which was an officially licensed controller with turbo buttons.  Anyhoo, for swimming you’d want to time your button presses carefully to maintain speed.  Every few events you’d go to a marathon, and you could set your runner’s speed, then get unskippable updates on how all eight runners were doing.

All in all, it was a very fun game.  There’s an interesting video series on it here, which I’d call a Let’s Play, but the creator calls a “Play It Through”.

08. The Rocketeer
Based loosely on the film, the player controlled the protagonist through five levels of platforming fun.  Though the game was, as a matter of course, by no means easy or less than frustrating at times, it was quite fun.

It was also an interesting (and of course unintentional) treatise on how true to the source a game should be while still being fun.  The game wasn’t really fully true to the movie (there were enemies with jet-packs, for example), but that made the game itself more interesting.  If every enemy were ground-based, you wouldn’t have much reason to fly around.  Speaking of, you also had to collect fuel power-ups that enemies dropped.  If you didn’t collect power-ups, it wouldn’t be much of a platformer, really.  All in all, it walked the line rather well.  There’s an interesting review of it here, which compares and contrasts the N.E.S. version with the Super Nintendo version.

07. Krusty’s Fun House
Puzzle-based games didn’t get much more frustrating on the N.E.S. than Krusty’s Fun House.  Also, there really wasn’t much of a plot—the player controlled Krusty, whose fun house was over-run with rats.  Using convoluted machines and insanely convoluted methods, you took them to their death.  Being a puzzle-based game in that era, though—no one really worried about plot.  Having the Simpsons copyrighted name and likenesses slapped on didn’t hurt, either.

While it wasn’t all that “deep” of a game, it was incredibly engaging.  Each “level” had quite a few rooms to clear of rats, and you worked your way through a handful of levels.  By the end of it, if you won you had a real sense of accomplishment and a not-undeserved sense of pride for figuring out just what the heck you were supposed to do (remember, this was before the days of GameFAQs).

There were secrets galore, so many things to find and see.  The puzzles were surprisingly complex, and as the game progressed they got rather difficult—you could even fail and have to restart that room (which was sometimes actually a big deal, with all the things you had to do) by accidentally getting the rats into someplace you couldn’t get them back out of.  A game play video of a few early rooms can be seen here.

06. Darkwing Duck
Based on the cartoon series of the same name, Darkwing Duck took the player through seven levels of a “Nintendo Hard” mixture of platforming and shoot-’em-up, with a pinch of puzzles for flavor.  The game is almost as humorously silly as its cartoon source, with different types of “gas canisters” for his gun and various quips taken either straight from the series or inspired by it.

You had three sections to the game, the first two comprised of three levels that could be completed in any order, and in all of them you fought a boss at the end.  Interestingly, and I don’t know how much of this was intended (considering the humor of the show and the game, one can’t really be sure), many of the bosses were actually stupendously easy if you knew a certain trick or two—a spot to stand, say, or a type of “gas cannister” to use, or the like.  This actually includes the last boss, surprisingly.

The plot was, relative to the series, generic.  Bad guys are on the loose, causing havoc and discord, and it’s Darkwing’s job to go stop them.  That’s about as deep as it got, but it made up for it with interesting level design and surprisingly good animation.  A Let’s Play of it can be found here.

05. Mission: Impossible
Admittedly, not many people liked this game, and with good reason—it took the concept of “Nintendo Hard” and cranked it up a few notches—but only by making the player actually think about what they were going to do.  Most games of that era on that system were difficult because of other game mechanics—numbers of enemies, who has how much health, and so on.  The basics.

Mission: Impossible gave you three different characters with different strengths and weaknesses, and let you figure out which would be best in what situation.  That was a lot to ask of young-ish kids who were used to stomping ambulatory mushrooms and shooting fireballs from their fingertips.  That the normal levels were interspersed with auto-scroll levels and other such things didn’t help. I only beat it a handful of times, though it’s easily one of, if not, the most played N.E.S. games I owned.  A bit of the game play can be seen here, which is most of the first level.

04. Mega Man
Ah, yes.  The one that spawned a huge number of games.  This was so early in the series, few of the standards gamers came to expect were present.  Control-wise, he could only shoot, run, and jump.  No charged-blast, no sliding, none of that other stuff.  Rush was just a gleam in Doctor Light’s eye, Beat wasn’t even that, and Roll was just a sprite seen in one or two scenes, off to the side and easily unnoticed.

It was platform hell, it really was—but it was fun.  Mega Man himself was a rather low-resolution sprite, but that was made up for by the levels themselves.  They were beautiful and surprisingly detailed.  Like most other games in the series, the Robot Masters here could be fought in any order, and you could obtain their powers after defeating them, thus making other levels easier and let you potentially find secrets.  It was no surprise that this game turned into a series, one that’s still loved by gamers to this day.  A somewhat humorous (if rather profanity-laced) Let’s Play helps to show why, here.

03. Captain Skyhawk
A top-down flight “sim”, with that being used very loosely, Captain Skyhawk was actually rather interesting.  You fought aliens in what looked like a then-modern jet fighter, upgraded your weapons, saved scientists, and eventually saved the world.  The levels were all designed rather interestingly, though the last half of the game was basically the same as the first, only with everything a palette-swap.  Most levels had multiple paths to take, which didn’t really affect anything but the numbers of enemies, and even then at times it was more an aesthetic difference than anything else.  Some of the levels you went through to get to an enemy base at the end, some you went through to save scientists, and some you went through to drop supplies off.

Between each of those levels you followed your jet in a third-person view, dodging, or preferably destroying, enemy jets.  Later versions of it would include missiles fired at you and faster enemies.  You did all of that for points, which would then be used in your space station to upgrade your weapons and purchase more ammunition.  Eventually you went up against the big boss itself, a giant—eh—floaty-eye-base-thing.  Kind of hard to describe—but luckily enough there’s a  Let’s Play of it right over here, though admittedly profanity-infused.

02. Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?
Though being an “edutainment” game, this game wasn’t really as mindless as, say, Mario is Missing! would be two years later.  It strove for the “entertainment” half of that portmanteau by providing interesting visuals including traps that showed how close you were to your quarry, along with an ability to muck around a little before getting on with your next case.  Now, for the “education” half—let’s just say it came with an encyclopedia.  Not a “kid’s version”, either—a full-fledged (if smaller) edition.  It’s the exact same as the one that came with the Geneis version seen here.  And—you needed it, no joke.

Even as an adult, you might need it for some of the convoluted clues you uncover—but that’s part of the fun.  You’re actively figuring out where to go next.  It’s not like, again, Mario is Missing! where all you have to really have is a half-decent memory (or a scrap of paper and a pencil)—and barring that, patience to try every one of up to nine possible pairings of “loot” to where it belongs.  The plot was that you were a time-detective, traveling to various locations both geographical and chronological, to apprehend crooks and recover stolen items.  It’s an interesting game that let kids forget they were actually learning something.  You can see some game play footage here, as the creator goes through a case.

01. Gargoyle’s Quest II: The Demon Darkness
This was one of the first games I bought with my own money; up until then, I’d mainly received games as birthday or Christmas presents.  I saw it had a monster-thing on the cover and thought it looked neat. I got through the first few (hard as heck, of course) levels and was hooked.  The level design was top-notch, the abilities Firebrand obtained natural for the character, incredibly useful but never feeling too over-powered, and the plot was surprisingly deep.

I didn’t know it was part of a series at the time, so all I had was this game, plot-wise, and it worked.  Firebrand—the protagonist—was away from his village when its entire population just vanished and replaced by strange monsters, and spends the rest of the game trying to find out what happened and why.  Along the way he encounters racism and isolationism, amongst other real issues—all couched, of course, in kid-friendly terms and displays.  A Let’s Play of it can be found here.


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