This week’s Video Chronicles project casts its gaze back to what may well be the most unconventional light gun game ever to appear on NES: Gumshoe.
I really love this game in principle, although I am super terrible at it. It’s such an odd and unusual concept for a Zapper title: An attempt to marry side-scrolling platform game design with a shooting gallery. It almost works, but for its absolutely brutal difficulty level. A little kindness (like, say, removing instant deaths and giving poor Mr. Stevenson a few hit points to soak up unhappy collisions) would have gone a long way. Maybe someday I’ll make it past the first stage… but more likely I’ll go to my grave never having seen level two in the flesh. Alas!
This does bring us, at last, to the end of the NES launch rollout in America, which Nintendo staggered across two phases (October 1985 and June 1986). From here on out, Nintendo will no longer be the only publisher on NES games. And, as denoted by Gumshoe, not every game going forward will necessarily have appeared in Japan first. Unlike the first 25 games for Good Nintentions, Gumshoe never had a Japanese release. Things are a-changin’ in NES land.
But before we get to the arrival of NES third party releases, I think Game Boy World is feeling a little lonely…
When I started up the Good Nintentions project, there were a few specific games I had in mind to write about. I knew that for every Stack-Up or Urban Champion I had to slog through, there would be highlights like Super Mario Bros. as well. And today, we come to one of the classics I was most excited to write about: Balloon Fight.
I never owned Balloon Fight back in the day, but it was one I borrowed from that obligatory friend everyone had — the one who seemed to have an infinite budget for getting all the best stuff that the rest of us could only gaze upon in envy but was always really cool about it. I didn’t really enjoy it that much at the time… which isn’t to say I disliked it, and in fact I really dug Balloon Trip mode. But this was 1988 we’re talking about, and I had already savored the pleasures of Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros. It was kind of tough to go back to a single-screen arcade-style experience, especially when I’d played its inspiration (Joust) to death back when it was a current arcade release.
Over time, though, I gradually began to appreciate Balloon Fight more. It’s a Joust clone, yes, undeniably so. But I realized that, heretical as it may be to say, Balloon Fight is the better game. The two-hit balloon mechanic grants a bit more mercy to the player that comes as something of a necessity, since your characters appear larger on the screen, meaning the action can become quite crowded in a hurry. The level designs change, which keeps things varied, and the later stages can become quite unpredictable thanks to the inclusion of elements like spinners that send anyone who collides with them flying off in different directions. And, of course, that Balloon Trip music.
Even though this video clocks in a bit shorter than many retrospectives for much lesser games, there is no less love invested into this one. I even managed to convince my wife to play it with me for the co-op footage, and while she doesn’t play many games, so really seemed to enjoy this one (and we made it quite a ways into the game in her second time through). In short, it’s basically just a great game.
Over the past few weeks, Good Nintentions has featured two different Donkey Kong titles for NES. Well, hold on to your heinie, because this week’s Retronauts Video Chronicles brings us a third installment in the adventures of Donkey Kong. If you can believe it, this one is called Donkey Kong 3. And it is the final Donkey Kong game for NES, aside from a repackaging of the first two games into a single combo cart to keep them in circulation once Nintendo took the Black Box series out of circulation.
That’s right — Donkey Kong 3 didn’t even get crammed into the Kong multicart. That maybe should tell you everything you need to know about where this one exists in corporate canon.
I actually think Donkey Kong 3 is pretty fun. I also recognize that it’s not all that great; besides the inexplicable setting and genre switch, which do nothing for the property, the mechanics are just a shade too complicated for their own good. The game throws a lot of stuff at you all at once, but without enough visual variety to make it work. I’m thinking particularly of the beetles, which are about the same size and color as standard enemies but behave differently, always lurking at the edges of the screen and always in your peripheral vision.
Anyway… it’s a little bit of a mess as video games go, and that speaks to the underlying difficulty of the entire concept of Kong himself (or should that be “kongcept”?). His rival would go on to have the longest and most fruitful career in gaming, but it wouldn’t be until 20 years after the original debut of Donkey Kong 3 that Nintendo would finally figure out what do to with Kong. No, not Donkey Kong Country; those were fine, but they didn’t really suit the character. It was the offbeat GameCube-era stuff like Jungle Climber and Jungle Beat that really spoke to the unconventional nature of Kong, and I’d love to see Nintendo do more like that on Switch. I mean, seriously, the Joy Cons are just begging to be used for a Jungle Beat sequel….
Anyway, enjoy the video. Next week, I bring you abject suffering.
For this week’s Video Chronicles feature, I found myself taking a long, hard look at a familiar game — a too-familiar game, I should say — and reevaluating it. I’m old enough to remember playing Mario Bros. in arcades when it was brand new… and I also remember when Super Mario Bros. came along and suddenly made a perfectly entertaining arcade platformer feel like a terrible dinosaur. I’ve noticed a general sense of dismissal among Nintendo fans when it comes to the original Mario Bros., and the way it’s showed up as a bonus add-on in something like a dozen different Mario titles in the past 30 years hasn’t really done much to warm players to it. It can be difficult to care about a game when it’s treated as a sort of half-baked bonus, you know?
But taken on its own terms, Mario Bros. is still pretty fun. It’s a lot more primitive than Super Mario Bros., sure, but its stiff controls and jump physics somehow feel a lot more refined than those in games that Nintendo produced afterwards, e.g. Ice Climber, a similar co-op platformer whose physics were scientifically based on subatomic particles of pure anti-fun. On Famicom, Mario Bros. arrived a good two years before its sequel, but on NES we actually received after. Or at the same time, if you weren’t one of the cool kids who picked up an NES at its test launch in 1985. Still, that’s pretty rough treatment for a game that deserved a chance to shine on its own merits!
Anyway, find a friend and play some cooperative(-ish) Mario Bros. You might be surprised by how good it is. Unless you’re one of the few faithful who never lost sight of its appeal, in which case: Well done, you.
This week’s Video Chronicles feature couldn’t have been timed more fittingly, although I admit the scheduling was nothing more than a coincidence: Popeye for NES, wherein a mumbling spinach junkie attempts to rescue his lady love from the burliest of competing suitors. If things had gone as originally intended, though, this game might have been something completely different; Donkey Kong would have been a Popeye game, making Popeye and Olive Oyl gaming’s original romantic couple… and also meaning Mario would never have existed. Now there’s an alternate timeline worth contemplating.
Playing Popeye for this production gave me a better appreciation of the game. I’ve always considered it a lesser work by Nintendo, but it’s better than I’d originally given it credit for. Not a timeless great, certainly, but decently ambitious.
Tuesday is normally Video Chronicles Day, but this week I’m on Japan time. Which means… this should have been up on Monday, not Thursday. Well, I’m also on jet lag time, as well as really nasty cold time. So… just forgive me this one scheduling glitch.
My hope is that you’ll find the quality of the content justifies the delay:
We’re just about through the NES debuts of all of Famicom’s launch-day titles, and also just about through the NES Donkey Kong trilogy. While this is all pretty well-trodden territory, you’ll be pining for the delightful excellence of the Donkey Kong series once we hit Urban Champion. Mark my words.
Another week, another video… specifically, another video about Donkey Kong.
Might as well get used to it. Good Nintentions is about to hit a thick patch of Nintendo arcade classics, including two more Donkey Kong games, Mario’s first solo outing (which is, of course, a Donkey Kong spinoff), and Popeye, which is what Shigeru Miyamoto originally wanted Donkey Kong to be. That big ape cast a big shadow over Nintendo’s early console days.
I appreciate the fact that this video has sparked comment debate over which home version of Donkey Kong was best — Nintendo’s NES game looked most faithful, but plenty of people will vouch for other platforms where the game included all levels, animations, and music. Of course, Nintendo could easily put this debate to rest by releasing an official version of the arcade game that isn’t locked inside a grindingly tedious 3D platformer, or by making Donkey Kong Original Edition widely available. Wouldn’t that be swell?
The ongoing absence of a proper release of such a pivotal title remains pretty baffling. Knowing Nintendo, they’re going to make Original Edition one of their “free” sample titles for the Switch’s subscriber service, which ceases to be freely playable after one month, but not actually offer the game for sale. That would be awful, but somehow perfectly in keeping with the way things have been going for the archival travails of Donkey Kong.
In the course of my chronological console library video projects, there are certain Big Ones: Games that carry considerable weight, whether that’s historic or merely psychological. This week’s Good Nintentions tackles a game that possesses both kinds of weight: The original Donkey Kong.
This video is ostensibly about the NES version of the game, but in practice I barely even touch on that adaptation. There’s a great deal to be said about Donkey Kong, and I tried to say as much as I could here. The NES version analysis will have to wait until next week’s episode, I’m afraid.
I’ve written quite a lot about Donkey Kong over the years, and I’m perfectly happy to make this video retrospective a sort of final statement on the subject. It probably won’t be, but it could be, is what I’m saying. Anyway, please enjoy.
Today’s a Tuesday, which means it’s (1) the day Bison visits Chun-Li’s village and (2) the day a new episode of
Good Nintentions Retronauts Video Chronicles goes live. This time around, it’s a look at Mach Rider for NES:
Like Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Mach Rider exists in a state of quantum actual-release-date flux. Nintendo says it launched one date (Oct. 1985); every other source from the time says it launched considerably later (anywhere from March to August 1986). So, I’ve grouped it with Math as a provisional 1986 release and called it a day.
For the most part, this video focuses on the game’s design and how its racing tech (and uncredited development staff) appears to tie it to an older Famicom game that never shipped in the U.S.: F1 Race, which like Mach Rider was co-developed by HAL. Everything I’ve come up with is, unfortunately, speculative, but it’s not difficult to connect the dots and see how one game might have served as the foundation for the other, given the common staff, similar tech, and seemingly U.S.-oriented aesthetics and design of this game.
As for Mach Rider itself, it’s decent enough. I’ve never been able to find much to love about it myself, but I came into it later. I imagine it was probably a heck of a showcase for the console’s capabilities back in 1986. The game moves fast when you’re in 4th gear… maybe too fast. The lack of any actual scaling technology in the NES hardware means that obstacles on the road become extremely hazardous due to positional ambiguity. It becomes difficult to judge how far away objects are from you and where on the road they actually lie, laterally speaking. It feels kind of shabby to criticize the game, though — this was an early NES game running on bare hardware with no cartridge enhancements, and while it’s certainly no Out Run, it’s an impressive example of what the most accomplished NES programmers could achieve without add-on aids. That it’s ultimately only so-so as a game puts it in good company with far less spectacular-looking releases of the era; at least this one has visual pizzazz going for it.
And a brazen Rush reference. That counts for a lot, in my book.
I’m not sure that anyone has ever used the terms “Donkey Kong Jr. Math” and “platonic ideal” in the same sentence before, but we like to do things differently around here. DK Jr. Math, as I mentioned a few posts down, was the subject of this week’s Good Nintentions video:
…and, while there’s not really all that much to celebrate about the game itself, this coverage really does embody the essence of what I’ve been working toward with projects like Good Nintentions and Game Boy World. By no means is this the first video anyone has ever produced about the game, nor even the first video that consists of more than just ranty swearing about how terrible it is. That part isn’t particularly unique.
Nah, it’s all the other stuff that comes along with the video that makes it (in my opinion) worthwhile: The post at the Good Nintentions site that contains a revised version of the video script, direct feed screenshots, and — happily — lots of photos of the game’s packaging. Since the complete physical edition of DK Jr. Math now sells for as much as $1500 — almost double the $800 it was selling for when I began accumulating material for Good Nintentions two years ago! — this is a pretty hard-to-come by set. Having it documented this way at least provides a decent record of the game and its packaging materials, courtesy of generous collector/friend of Retronauts Steven Lin, who very trustingly lent his copy to me to be photographed. Eventually, high-resolution versions of all of this photography will go into another Good Nintentions book, and there’s something about print that makes material like this real. A permanent record, I suppose.
And that’s really what I’m after with these documentary projects: To get as much material as possible into a single place as comprehensively as I can. I’ve been doing the best I can in my spare time, but now that Retronauts and the documentary video ventures are becoming a primary concern, I’m excited about what we’ll be able to accomplish. I just hope we’ll be able to track down the box to Fish Dude one of these days…
The one down side is that every time I hit a sort of goal or target, I realize there’s even more that can be done. For instance: Since documenting the box for DK Jr. Math, I’ve gotten my hands on a much nicer camera and invested some Patreon money into a rather pricey but incredibly worth-it high-speed macro lens — a combo that does much better justice to these artifacts. But now I feel like I need to do a bunch of reshoots. It never ends.