NEStalgia Week Pt.7; The Spiritual Successor to The Legend of Zelda

Look, if I wanted to read, I wouldn’t be playing my Nintendo, let’s just do this.

There’s a reason that 99% of the old Nintendo games you find don’t have a manual- because almost nobody read them, you just dived right into the game and either sank or swam.  If you did need a hint, you were going to ask somebody or look in a Nintendo Power, so the manuals got quickly tossed aside and forgotten.  Most modern games have built in tutorials, where they walk you through the first level or two, ensuring you have the mechanics and direction to not wander around lost or subject yourself to repetitive deaths. But the majority of games in the NES day lent themselves to self explanation- they had 2 buttons and a directional pad, how hard was it going to be to figure out Mega Man without the manual? But even at the time, The Legend of Zelda was something different.

The commercial was not.  It was exactly as bad, if not worse, than most other Nintendo commercials of the day.

The Legend of Zelda appears in the top 2 of any self-respecting Best of the NES list, at this point remembered more for impact and influence than the actual game, which is unfortunate. It’s sequel, in terms of gameplay, was the SNES’ A Link to the Past, which is much more highly regarded these days than the original. This makes sense, A Link to the Past is very much a modern game, with in-game tutorial and direction to help guide players of all skill levels and motivation. The original, on the other hand, just drops you into the middle of a wide new world, says “IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS.” and hands you a sword. The rest you have to figure out on your own, because the game isn’t going to give you any clues more transparent than “DIDONGO DISLIKES SMOKE” or “MASTER USING IT AND YOU CAN HAVE THIS”.

Oh…ok. So what do I…oh, never mind.

The Legend of Zelda was one of my favorites as a kid, and for a lot of others as well, because it didn’t feel like any other game. It wasn’t like you just had to figure out the timing of jumping from platform to platform and how to use your blaster, you were given a fresh world to explore, and you had to make a go of it, with the only limits to how far from home you could go being your own courage and whether or not you could survive. Since then, the series has become one of the most popular in video game history. A whole host of Zelda games have followed, but none ever captured the feel of the first in terms of making it’s world seem strange, new and hostile. In this regard, the true successor to The Legend of Zelda is a love/hate indie game that most people are at least passingly familar with at this point: Minecraft.

Looks like a nice spot to settle down in.

Minecraft does no hand holding. No tutorials, no instruction, no nothin’. Just a fresh world to explore, and to build and craft whatever you can out of it. If you’ve never played it or aren’t familiar, the gameplay runs like this: The entire world, which expands nearly infinitely (it can theoretically create a world the size of Venus, though the limits of computing and the necessary human time to explore a world this large make the playing area much smaller), is made up of blocks(your player is about 2 blocks high, for scale) which represent dirt, sand, trees, water, coal, and so on. You start the game in the morning in a totally fresh and undeveloped world, with wild animals distributed throughout.  The geography is realistic, with rivers, hills, mountains, valleys, ravines and caves.

You can wind up starting in any biome with it’s own mix of animals and resources; Desert, Forest, Jungle, Tundra, Plains, and so on. You collect blocks, and use them to create other things- your first move will be chopping down a tree by hand to build yourself some crude tools so you can start mining stone and dirt to build a shelter, which you will need for reasons that quickly become apparent at dusk. At night, monsters come out and try to kill you. Zombies, skeletons, giant spiders and Minecraft’s unofficial mascot, The Creeper.

Get away from my window, pervert!

The first time I played Minecraft, I immediately thought of the first Legend of Zelda. It’s an overwhelming similarity of feeling, the world is strange, new and hostile, and ultimately yours to decide what to do with. If you weren’t even determined to finish Legend of Zelda, you could still spend an incredible amount of time poking around in it’s nooks and crannies, blowing up rocks and burning bushes to see if there’s a hidden cave underneath. What you find may or may not bring you closer to finishing the game, but a lot of stuff is going to try to kill you along the way. The stronger you get, and the more items you accumulate, the wider and longer you can safely survive out in the world. If that doesn’t sound like Minecraft, I don’t know what does.

The creator of Minecraft generally credits 2 or 3 games as being his inspiration, and none of them are the Legend of Zelda, but spiritually speaking, it is Minecraft’s true ancestor. The original NES Zelda was so stark and daring that even it’s sequel, The Adventure of Link, didn’t attempt to emulate it, and the games that eventually did added in an awful lot of hints and instructions. It took an independently designed and published computer game 25 years later to capture the same feeling of limitlessness, and to trust it’s players’ intelligence enough to simply plop them down somewhere totally foreign and let them go wander off and figure things out for themselves.  Although, it might be nice if every once in awhile in Minecraft, you dug through the wall of a new cave system and an old man was waiting to tell you this:

Some of you may have noticed NEStalgia Week is in overtime.  The response has been great, and I’ve been enjoying it, so rather than be constrained by the calendar, I’ll be finishing it up and posting the final 3 articles over the next couple days.  And look for more retro-gaming content regularly on Htopia going forward!

NEStalgia Week Pt.4; Power Blade, Repetitive Bats and Two Great 2-Player Games

Surprisingly not pictured on cover: the Power Blade

After taking my beating at Castlevania III, I popped in Power Blade, determined to make a go of something.  Power Blade is probably a little overrated. It’s well regarded for the most part, but it’s very similar to Batman, and it’s controls aren’t quite as smooth, nor is it as diverse in it’s game play. On the whole though, it is definitely a solid title.  If movement isn’t easy, at least blowing stuff up is.  It mixes the fun of slinging 3 boomerangs at once and using the power blade suit (which is both less frequent and less exciting than you’d hope from the title of the game) with the frustration of platform jumps that feel like they’re happening in ankle-deep water to provide a reasonably enjoyable experience.

I was rolling right along, until in the 2nd level, where I ran into bats that looked surprisingly similar to the bats from the Castlevania games.  Similar to say the least. I looked a little further and found that Power Blade bats and Castlevania bats were the same exact sprites.

Everyone else sees the bats, right? I’m not going crazy?

They were slow moving and easy to dodge or kill, but my concentration was broken.  For one thing, my Castlevania III deaths were still fresh in my mind, and here was that game’s most boring and lazy monster suddenly staring me in the face again.  I mean seriously, what the fuck are Castlevania bats doing in Power Blade?  They’re just splashed in there for no good reason, in a game where every other enemy is a robot or a computer or some kind of energy beam.  If you’re going to stick in something as pointless as bats, why not a red slime?  That’s at least ambiguous enough to make some kind of sense in a game set in the semi-distant future.  I quickly lost my last 2 lives, distracted by my irritation at the omni-present bat, and decided not to play any more Power Blade for a bit. The Nintendo Gods had mocked me.

Maybe the problem has been that I’ve been trying to walk the road alone. Here I am, trying to jump right back in with a bunch of tough platformers, when all this time, I should’ve just invited a few people over for a little NES party. Everything’s easier with help, and some encouragement would probably go a long way towards building my Nintendo related self esteem back up. The NES has a whole slew of fantastic 2 player titles to choose from; Super Mario 3, Contra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Super Dodge Ball, RBI 2, and so on. For me though, I know two multi-player games really stand out from the rest.

Cheerful and to the point. I like where you’re going, Bubble Bobble.

Bubble Bobble was one of the weirdest and most randomly enjoyable NES games. You could go it alone and slog it out, but it was really meant to be played 2-player.  So intended, in fact, that finishing the games’ 100+ stages of fun by yourself got you this screen:

Well, I’m turning the power off, so it’s a true ending for now.

It’s all for the best. With another person in the room, you have someone to pipe up after a few minutes and suggest muting the game and putting other music on, which is extremely helpful in Bubble Bobble’s case, because that catchy little loop just goes on and on.
It’s impossible not to have fun playing this game with a friend, and since there are only about 4 concepts to master (jump, blow bubbles, pop bubbles, collect fruit) and the controls are simple, you can play it with just about anyone, regardless of skill level. The first time you pop the last bubble on a level and the sky randomly rains green chile peppers, you’ll be hooked.

How could you ever start to describe it to someone who hadn’t played it? Once you got to the part about touching a plastic jug of orange juice and suddenly playing a mini-game where you tried to collect cookie looking things that probably were supposed to be coconuts or something, your friend would give you a blank look and tell you to eat some more pills. And speaking of pills…

Dr. Mario generally winds up somewhere in the 40’s or 50’s on most of the top 100 NES lists you see floating around on the internet. It was well liked, but people who only played it single player just saw a game that was similar to Tetris, and without much to offer once you could max out the level meter and keep going. But I say from experience, and I’m sure a few of my readers will know what I’m talking about: 2-Player Dr. Mario can get heated like no other NES game.

When you pull off a 2-part or more combination of pill popping (I’ll be reusing that phrase in my review for the upcoming Lindsey Lohan: Nightlife game for the PS3), random colored pieces of pills start to rain down on your opponent. The larger the combination, the more pieces fall, and the larger the chance that you spoil your friend’s almost completed combo of their own. You’ll utter few expletives louder than the ones after your sweet 5-part drop that you’re about to set off is bombed by 4 red pills from the sky, all while someone you once called a friend snickers quietly.

Words cannot express how much fun this is.

As intense as the action can get, the real key to the good Dr.’s party game status is that since the levels and speed can be set however you like, new players can play on a low level side by side against a seasoned pro on level 20. You can easily fine tune the difficulty to make for a competitive game between any two players. I can’t think of another NES game where you can play with a handicap in this way, but it means that anytime you fire it up, you’re in for a high-pressure scrap.  Friendships can be tested.  Controllers can be broken.

Plus, the Chill music from the game rates as one of the better jams of the 8-Bit era.  Again, speaking from experience, unlike Bubble Bobble, you can go ahead and let that one play for the long haul without fear of serious mental imprint.

NEStalgia Week Pt.2; The Retro Duo

Does the Retro Duo kick open the door to enjoying your old NES carts?

Oh, man, it was rough. Once it flared up, that Nintendo itch would not die back down. I went to bed a couple nights with the music of Maniac Mansion dancing in my ears, and thinking of how awesome it would be to bust up Fat Cat’s criminal empire one more time. The lady of the house had to put up with (is still putting up with) my Nintendo addled brain.

H: *combing Amazon, 3 AM* Hey babe, did you know a copy of Ninja Gaiden 3 is worth like 30 bucks these days? Haha, and nobody gives a shit about Elway Football! 87 fucking cents! I know, it’s crazy, right?

AJ: *is sleeping*

Does it have anything to do with my impending 30th birthday? I’m crossing into the realm of being an official grown ass man here. It makes some kind of sense that a gentle nudge would push me over the edge into some lazy waltz down childhood memory lane. Except for the fact that Nintendo is specifically FOR grown ass men and women. So, guilt free, I ordered myself a RetroDuo console, and eagerly awaited it’s arrival.

The unit, unboxed. With 2 Controllers, AC adapter, S/AV Video out.

It’s a trim little piece of hardware, about the size of 3 DVD cases. It comes with two SNES knock-off controllers that are surprisingly sturdy, if a little lighter weight than the originals. (For NES games, only 2 buttons are active) The console is compatible with the original SNES controllers though, so if you still have yours, by all means, plug em’ in. 3rd party consoles can be spotty because they attempt to emulate the original hardware with varying degrees of success. I did some research before buying, and the RetroDuo was the best reviewed of the bunch.

And so far, it hasn’t disappointed. I’ve only had it for a few days, but I’ve cleaned up and tested about 1/3 of my games, and it has successfully fired up every NES game I’ve thrown at it without a single glitch or hiccup. The graphics and sound are great, or as great as they can be when you revisit the 8 bit era after a lengthy absence.

The graphical cutting edge, circa 1986.

The smoothness of the unit’s operation can be rather jarring to someone raised on a lifetime of blinking red lights and flashing grey screens. Watching AJ play Super Mario Bros 3 for several hours without a hitch and not having had to stoop to the indignity of performing oral sex on grey plastic to get there, I almost wept with joy.

The barrier to enjoying the classic NES games has always been the unreliability of the consoles themselves.  Not many party games are better than Dr. Mario, but not many things kill a party faster than dicking around with a Nintendo for 45 minutes trying to get it to work.

The original NES design was meant to be distinctive, to load like a VCR and separate itself from other consoles. Separate itself it did. The springs on the connector wore out quickly and were difficult to keep clean. The top-loading Nintendo solved the problems of the original, but it came late in the NES lifespan and relatively few of them are out there. The ones that are have been mostly snapped up by NES enthusiasts, so to get one, you pay a premium.

Reliable, and looks like it could grill a mean veggie burger.

By contrast, the Retro Duo will set you back about 50 bucks, after you include shipping, assuming you’re not hard up for the purple/grey SNES color scheme, which for some reason is $15 more expensive than the other color options. There is an adapter which allows you to play Sega Genesis games through it, which will also set you back 15-20 bucks, but it’s reputation for reliability is not as strong. The Retro Duo, though, has exceeded all my expectations, and is in the process of reintroducing me to all my favorite childhood games. The only disappointment so far was finding out that Pro Wrestling‘s graphics were actually meant to look like that.

NEStalgia Week Pt.1; The Bubble Bobble 2 That Got Away

It’s NEStalgia week on Htopia!  Several features to come, including; humiliating attempts at beating Castlevania 3, a list of the best multi-player titles for your retro gaming get together, the Badvertising of the Nintendo era, and much more!

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In the disposable and constantly recycled world of modern pop culture, our very natural and human feelings of nostalgia tend to lead us down one of two paths. The first leads to questionable remakes of movies and shows that didn’t call for a revamp, except for the fact that there was money to be made by scratching that nostalgic itch. Everyone complains about reboots, but people keep seeing them enough to make them profitable, and so Hollywood is going to keep right on making them, regardless of whether or not you asked for a gritty modern take on The Monster Squad.

On the other hand, if your nostalgia calls for an experience that stays truer to your memories, well, you can always just pay a premium for some plastic shit you already had once as a kid.  And I have always felt most kindly towards the Nintendo plastic shit of my youth.  But if you want to get back on board that train now, the ticket is starting to get awfully expensive.

My white whale.

Used copies of Bubble Bobble 2 start upwards of $200 for just the cartridge, not even including box or manual. I scoffed at $12 for one in a video game store a few years back, when NES games had next to no resale value and working Nintendos were few and far between. Now, because of it’s combination of rarity and uh, fun-ness, if you want a copy you have to shell out some serious style.  If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dunk my own head in the toilet for a few minutes.

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I suppose a little context might be in order. I had about 25 games when I was a kid, and I hung onto them through the years, even after the old Nintendo stopped working. When I started going to thrift stores and flea markets, I found that a discerning eye and a little patience would over time net you a pretty good cross section of quality carts, all for dirt cheap. I slowly built a solid NES collection of about 90 games that way over a several year period, and I never paid more than a couple bucks for anything, even stuff like Final Fantasy, or Super Dodge Ball.  Actually, I couldn’t have afforded to, working Nintendos came and went, and any money spent on plastic rectangles that were just going to sit unused in the closet was wasted, in the young adult urban survival sense.

So yeah, even though the first Bubble Bobble is one of the great multiplayer games of the early console era, I passed on it’s sequel because at the time, anything north of $5 for a used Nintendo game without a box seemed fairly outrageous. Even as conservative as I was with it generally, it never once occurred to me that I should have been more liberal in my spending. It was always an idle nostalgic itch scratching, not an attempt to build a comprehensive collection for future returns.  Eventually, my last working Nintendo passed on, and the days when you could find another working one for under $20 bucks were passing by, so I stopped sniffing out NES games.

Then about 2 years ago, while my collection lay sleeping in the cabinet, the NES resale market unexpectedly began to take off, fueled primarily by the new wave of 3rd party consoles (like the Retro Duo, which I’ll be reviewing later in NEStalgia Week) that can play old NES and SNES games without invoking the traditional magics of rubbing alcohol or the NES blowjob.

Now suddenly given life again, quality rarer games like Bubble Bobble 2 or Little Samson can fetch $250-$350 for a working cart, and even shitty rarer games that nobody wanted in the first place, like Wayne’s World, can net you $50-$100. The more common stuff we all had ( think Excitebike, Super Mario 1, 2 & 3, or the Castlevania games) generally settles in the $2-$20 range, depending as always, on relative rarity and quality.

Awesome and Common = $6.

But you know, I’m not quite ready to sell, even if this might be the right time for it. When the news that the Nintendo Power was going out broke, the old NES itch flared up once more, and I picked up a Retro Duo and broke out some old games. So it turns out, I might just be buying again. Kid Icarus and Ninja Gaiden are still out there for just a few bucks, and I want to fill in the gaps in the collection. Sadly, Bob and Bub’s 2nd journey to the cave of monsters will have to be left to some other Nintendo enthusiast, because while in the last few days I’ve remembered that 250 rupees buys a Blue Ring in The Legend of Zelda, I have never once forgotten that 250 dollars buys a lot of god damn groceries in real life.

How many groceries is your collection worth? This price guide averages sale price across ebay, amazon, and half.com.