The Pedestrian Lessons of Paperboy

When I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, one of the first things I noticed about the city was how bad most people were at walking around in it. I wasn’t sure why at first, but I kept zooming by slow rolling groups of tourists without breaking stride, dodging darting crackheads, and steering clear of the random Muni bus that tries to run down the unwary soul. It took me a little while to figure out exactly where these foot-traffic avoiding skills had come from.  I finally stumbled across the answer recently, as I’ve been diving back into the NES.  Paperboy had somehow laid the childhood groundwork for the adult H’s pedestrian lifestyle.

If Paperboy was set in the city instead of the burbs, the Grim Reaper would smell like feet and onions and ask you for 50 cents.

Paperboy was everything you ever wanted in an NES game; ridiculous concept, nearly impossible difficulty, a brief and pointless ending. I can’t speak to that last one personally, because I’ve never beaten it. If I made it to Thursday alive, I was already doing pretty well, and I can’t say I made it that far into the week too often.  If I didn’t get run over by a van or attacked by Death or hit by a tire or tackled by the bulldog or blasted by the tornado, then I ended up I losing all my subscribers, because it doesn’t take long at all to learn that throwing several papers through every single window on a house is more fun than throwing a single paper cleanly into the mailbox. Plus, the neighborhood really brings out the worst in you with it’s relentless efforts to kill or maim you. If you’re not in a window smashing mood by the 3rd house on the route, you’re a better man than I.

The optimism of the title screen soon gives way to harsh reality.

Paperboy pulls the rare trick of having a higher difficulty than real life. I’m grateful the real city doesn’t *usually* throw as many obstacles in my way as the game does, although the more I think about it the real difference might be play control. In real life, if some slow walking tourist suddenly steps into your path, you can just step around them and carry on.  Also, when this happens to you in real life, it’s usually an accident.  In Paperboy, your bike not only changes direction with all the ease and grace of an oil tanker at sea, but an entire neighborhood is just waiting for the right moment to lurch into your path.

Aside from the fact that the dude on the bike is quick and agile instead of sluggish and plodding, that commercial was very literal in terms of what the game play actually consists of.  As we’ve seen, most Nintendo related ads of the era wanted you to think you were going to be an instant badass who could just punch the air until you beat the game, or at least transported mentally into some far off land of fantasy by playing Crystalis or eating your vaguely Mario-shaped cereal.  Paperboy made it very clear at every step of the way: you’ll be playing a game about a boy who delivers papers while a bunch of shit tries to knock you off your bike.  No cryptic title referring to some kind of document-stealing spy thriller game here.

There’s one thing that nobody ever mentions when they talk about Paperboy that I’d like to address at this point. The game presumably takes place at approximately 6 AM, or so you’d expect if they’re really trying to give you a semi-realistic paper delivering experience. So why in the hell is a suburban residential neighborhood buzzing like this?

There’s a guy running a jackhammer. Unattended children are running wild on tricycles. A man dressed like a jockey appears to be practicing his bull-whip skills. Some dude is break dancing in the grass, and by break dancing I mean laying on his back and thrashing his legs in the air. A lawnmower is running in circles, which means somebody had already been at their yard work long enough to get bored and abandon the project without even bothering to clean up or stop the mower- the kind of mental fatigue that comes after hours of labor.

Some might try to point to the skateboarder and say no hesher would have been up that early, but I think it’s feasible he could have been heading back home from the previous night’s activities, so I can’t in good conscience ding the game any points for accuracy there. Same thing for the guys riding the choppers, because ‘the party’ is a fierce and fickle mistress who doesn’t chain herself to any specific time of the day.  Or I don’t know, maybe everybody just got riled up and went outside after that tornado ripped down their street at dawn.

All in all, I suppose it’s clear this game is not meant to be 100% realistic, but I think that ultimately just adds to the educational value. It’s so much more crazy and unforgiving than actually walking around (as long as you keep your damn head up and don’t get hit by a bus), that when you actually do get out and about on your feet or your bike you can’t help but react so much more quickly and accurately than Paperboy lets you. It would be like if you learned to drive on one of those drunk driving simulators.  Once you got behind the wheel of an actual car you’d be amazed by how responsive it was and that you didn’t indiscriminately crash into everything no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.

As frustrating as most of my experiences playing Paperboy were, in the end, it was all worth it.  All those times I died at the hands of a careless motorist, or an angry homeowner, or a jazzed up guard dog, or even Death himself, were simply so that I might be able to live on my feet in the city of San Francisco.

NEStalgia Week Pt.8; We’re Off to See The Wizard

The wonderful wizard of pause? Ugh, forget I typed that.

As NEStalgia week got rolling, I knew that at some point I was going to watch The Wizard.  It’s the only movie that’s really about Nintendo games, as opposed to being based off of one.  It is unapologetic in being a commercial for the NES, for instance, some of it’s titles abroad include; Joy Stick Heroes in Germany, Game Over in Finland, and the straight-forward Video Game Genius, Videokid and Gameboy in Brazil, France and Sweeden, respectively.  Only Japan joins the US in playing it non-literal with the title Sweet Road, which is bitterly ironic considering all the torture the kids in the movie go through on their journey.

Few things have ever served the dual purpose of epitomizing a moment in time and advertising a product as well as The Wizard, and no walk down NES memory lane would be complete without a viewing.  My memories of it are fond, but I didn’t expect it to be a great movie.  Well, I suppose all things considered, it’s not, but I did thoroughly enjoy watching it again, and unexpectedly, it reminded me that as much as life moves forward, everything always comes full circle.

First things first, if you haven’t seen The Wizard, it’s available in it’s entirety on youtube.  To sum up, Fred Savage plays Corey, half brother to a younger kid named Jimmy who was traumatized a couple years earlier by the drowning of his twin sister.  Jimmy lives with his mom now, while Fred Savage and Christian Slater live with their dad (Beau Bridges), the family having fallen apart after the drowning.  Jimmy doesn’t say much, except for the word “California”, but he does keep trying to walk there.  His mom and step father decide to “put him in a home” to use the only phrase the movie ever employs in describing Jimmy’s treatment.  Fred Savage is outraged by this but unsuccessful in convincing Beau and Christian to take action, so he decides to break Jimmy out on his own and run away together and take a trip.  When he gets to “the home” and suggests this to Jimmy, his little brother’s only response is “California?”.  And so they have a destination.

One time and one time only did The Wizard miss such a ripe opportunity for product placement.

Along the way, Fred Savage notices Jimmy has mad Double Dragon skills.  They also meet the plucky young Haley (Jenny Lewis!!), who, after being hustled by Fred Savage and Jimmy, suggests they go to Video Armageddon in California and try to win the $50,000 prize.  She promises to help get them there for half the money.  So they all set off together.  Along the way, they find Jimmy a rival- the infamous Power Glove toting Lucas Barton.  They also manage to get robbed a couple times, and to get Fred Savage beaten up by some kids he and Jimmy hustled.

Meanwhile, in the finest NES racing game fashion, they are pursued by two players; PLAYER1 is the two headed monster of Beau Bridges and Christian Slater, a father and son duo who were doing some serious fighting at the beginning of the movie.  Beau is initially determined to go after the boys alone in spite of Christian Slater’s insistence, until they are comfronted by PLAYER2, the excessively sleazy Putnam, a bounty hunter who goes after children, and who promises to bring back Jimmy and only Jimmy, and insinuates consequences if anyone gets in the way of his bounty.  Next to Lucas Barton’s presidential nuclear football style case for his Power Glove, the idea that anyone would allow Putnam to have anything to do with their children is the least believable thing about this movie.

Well, hardships aside, the rest pretty much writes itself.  Beau Bridges and Christian Slater learn to love each other AND Nintendo games during their trip together in pursuit of the runaway boys.  Sleazeball Putnam almost nabs Jimmy a couple times, but is thwarted by the plucky young Haley and some of her trucker friends.  In contrast to his being hired to safely return a child standing as the movie’s least believable plot point, his being arrested and drug out of a casino accused of molesting one stands as the movie’s most believeable scene.

Fred Savage and Haley develop a pseudo-romance.  And Jimmy beats Lucas Barton and wins Video Armageddon!  He then finally finds “California”, which turns out to be the Cabazon Dinosaurs, where the family had once road tripped together when his sister was still alive.  He sets down his lunch pail of memories of her, and Jimmy leaves with Beau, Christian, Fred and Jenny Lewis.  Now, they have enough money to do what they had planned all along.  Oh, wait, they never said what they were going to do with the money.  I really think this is the only movie I’ve ever seen where the main story arc was going to win a big lump of money and that money wasn’t even intended for any purpose.

Video Armageddon is not a means to an end in The Wizard, it IS the end.  The main message of the film is that Nintendo games are awesome, and in this message, it is successful beyond belief.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the best selling games ever in North America, and it exploded onto the scene fueled by the hype and anticipation kids had after watching Jimmy play it in the film’s climactic sequence.  Every major character in this movie who is not a slimeball loves and plays Nintendo by the end of it.  It was unanimously panned by critics at the time of it’s release- Roger Ebert amongst others dismissed it as being a thinly veiled commercial for Nintendo products.  I didn’t have a problem with it as a kid because NINTENDO IS AWESOME was the level of my thinking then.  I don’t have a problem with it now because not only is Nintendo still awesome, well, the veil just doesn’t seem that thin.  There is nothing about this movie that doesn’t claim to be anything but an ode to the NES and it’s games and peripherals.

Some of the products it advertised were more successful than others, of course.

It is exactly what you would expect overall, very much a cheesy 80’s movie that at this point can be enjoyed both nostalgically, and also for it’s unintentional humor.  But for me, the journey was ever so slightly more personal, and watching it again, I realized a couple things.  My life has moved forward in a linear sense- I’m older, a working man, in a 5 year relationship, and like both Jed Clampett’s kinfolk and little Jimmy, we said “California is the place you ought to be” and loaded up the truck and all that.  But 23 years later, I’m pretty fond of Jenny Lewis, I’m all into my Nintendo again, and still jazzed about playing Super Mario 3.  Even if The Wizard is the longest and most well directed commercial ever, I’m glad it reminded me that as much as things change, they always stay the same.

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.6; Three Failed Nintendo Products and The Commercials That Introduced Them

The late 80’s were the golden age of badly planned Nintendo products.

When most children of the 80’s hear the words ‘Nintendo’ and ‘Commercial’ used in the same sentance, they immediately enter a trance-like state where their eyes roll back in their heads as they drop to their knees while beginning to foam at the mouth, and from somewhere deep within them, a pitched voice that is not their own is heard to shout “IT’S A CEREAL, WOW!”

I had to chuckle as I watched this for the first time in what was certainly over 20 years. I thought I remembered that the only lines in the ad were the droning “NIN-TEN-DO” and “It’s a cereal, wow!”, and even though they weren’t, they might as well be. ‘Zelda too!” sounds great until they show the purple starfish shaped blob that’s supposed to be Link. I can only imagine how disappointed the Nintendo execs who came up with the idea of launching a cereal were when Ralston-Purina sent them up the sample of what it was going to look like. Seriously, if you can call whatever the shapes in the Fruity half of the bag are ‘Mario’, you could call them anything. They could have come out with a Jurrasic Park cereal a few years later and just reused the Mario shapes without anyone noticing.

Also, I’m not sure I buy the idea that eating the cereal is going to be a magical ticket where you suddenly feel like you’re inside the game. You know what else might do that? I dunno, maybe playing the damn game in the first place? You could argue that the feeling is obviously metaphorical, but the ad writers felt it necessary to not just show the children dancing inside the games, but also with cardboard TV sets around their head, so at the very least it was a metaphor they wanted to beat you to death with.

What if this commercial had been successful? A generation of kids might have been convinced that eating their allegedly nutritious breakfast was more exciting than playing Nintendo. It could have been a financial disaster for the company. Thank god Nintendo cereal flopped as fast as it did, otherwise we might never have had Super Metroid.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that in the late 80’s, Nintendo didn’t just introduce ill-advised food products. They also introduced ill-advised gaming accessories.

Between the Power Glove’s debut commercial and it’s appearance in The Wizard, it’s clear that Nintendo wanted you to know that this was a device specifically made for BAD MOTHERFUCKERS. Which is ironic, because the Power Glove is not compatible with either Bad Dudes or Dudes With Attitude. You can play it with Double Dragon though, where a chopping motion equals a punch, a punching motion equals walking, and God help you and any living thing within a 6′ radius if you need to climb a ladder.

Only slightly more successful than the Power Glove, the Power Pad failed for reasons more related to the awkwardness represented in it’s commercial than anything else. Everyone looked like leather jacket guy using the Power Glove, even if you might as well have jammed a library book into your NES for all the luck you were going to have playing a game with it. The Power Pad, on the other hand, made everyone look as uncoordinated as yellow sock kid. Most people who are into sports games probably aren’t going to be up for using an accessory that makes them look like they just learned to walk that afternoon, regardless of how well it works with Track and Field.

I think the lesson is that marketing goes a long way in making up for a terrible product, but it only goes so far.  While Nintendo Cereal System and the Power Pad were successful in being edible and accepting user input respectively, they were both unimaginative products with awful and awkward advertising campaigns accompanying them which helped seal their fate.  The Power Glove was essentially unusable, but it’s marketing aimed squarely at yellow sock type kids who desperately wanted to be BAD MOTHERFUCKERS.  They did manage to sell some, but in the end the unrelenting uselessness of the glove won out, and hundreds of thousands of children who were already once disappointed by the lackluster Power Pad were driven away from gaming-related excercise forever.   At least if they wanted a chance to escape reality for a little while, they could turn to the imagination stoking powers of the Nintendo Cereal System, and feel like they were really in the game.

NEStalgia Week Pt.5; The Rescue Ranger Redemption

It may have taken a game with a rather gentle difficulty to get me over the top, but I finally climbed the mountain and finished something on my return to the NES this week. I was stuffed by Castlevania III. Psyched out by Power Blade. Uh…rolled…by Marble Madness. And in the unkindest cut of all, Paperboy wasn’t working. It refused to fire up, the first casualty to turn up in the collection. The game that taught me the random crazy people/insane traffic dodging skills necessary to navigate the pedestrian traffic of my every day commute was dead.  I needed hope.  It arrived in the hands of 4 rodents and a fly.

Rescue Rangers is the comfort food of the platforming genre. Chip and Dale leap great distances with incredible control, allowing you to simply jump over almost all the game’s enemies. The environment is jam-packed with platforms of varying heights, and you can leap to/drop from them nearly at-will. In a stunningly rare NES nod to realism, Chip and Dale actually seem to move with the litheness and quickness of real chipmunks. You know, if chipmunks could pick up small boxes and apples and hurl them in any direction they chose at a speed that would impress Aroldis Chapman.

This is all to say you have more than the necessary tools for the demands this game makes on you. The controls are snappy and responsive, among the best in the NES catalog. The bosses are nonthreatening, to say the least. For each fight, you pick up a little red ball and hurl it in the direction of the boss. You then use your ridiculous chipmunk quickness to get out of the way of their scattered and predictable shot. Not one of them, even Fat Cat, has a 2nd attack pattern. It becomes almost impossible not to beat this game when you combine all the above with the fact that the game also tosses a slew of extra lives, and a constant supply of acorns for health refills.

You can kill the robo-dog, hop over it, or even just let it bash into you and pick up an acorn immediately after.

This breezy difficulty might make for a snoozer if it wasn’t for the fact that the smoothness of the control scheme, the ease of interacting with the environments and the general cuteness of the Rescue Rangers crew just make it a hell of a lot of fun to play.

Once you beat Fat Cat for the final time, the game suddenly decides that you’ve had enough fun. It presents you an ending that’s underwhelming, even by NES standards. I kept waiting for it to go back to the start menu, but by the 4th time the Rescue Rangers theme song started repeating, I knew this game had no intention of rewarding my modest effort in beating it by saving me the trouble of getting up and hitting the reset button.

For all that NES magic (seriously, if a Nintendo game gives you fantastic play-control and a memorably awful ending, it’s worth playing any day of the week) the game’s best feature might be the sweet 2-player simultaneous co-op. I asked AJ if she wanted to play, but she was working on some documents and expressed disinterest. I guess I didn’t ask Htopia’s official feline Calliope if she wanted in on the fun, but she let out a pretty sizeable yawn and fell asleep when I beat the first boss, so I don’t think she would have been up for it anyhow. I personally had to go it alone, but if you have the opportunity, Rescue Rangers is best enjoyed with a friend.

Calliope: Not up for a round of Rescue Rangers.

A man has to learn to walk before he learns to run, and before he learns to walk he’s going to stumble a few times. I stumbled through a few games before I got my feet under me again, and all it took was Rescue Rangers’ high fun/low frustration ratio.  Now, I’m running full speed.  I breezed through Marble Madness immediately afterwards, which had given me the slip just a couple days earlier.  Though I wouldn’t mind my next round being a bit more challenging, I’m convinced that anyone in need of a dose of gaming confidence should invest the 30 or so minutes necessary to beat it.

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.3; An Erosion of Skills in Castlevania III

One of my core beliefs is that adults are better than children at pretty much everything that’s worth doing. We’re bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than these little people, and we rarely have to prove it because we literally own and control everything. The next time some baby fires me from a job or beats me to the good seat on the bus will be the first.  But as I’m finding out, one of the few areas in which Child H might have had the upper hand over Adult H is in video games.

The Nintendo catalog has been kicking my ass so far. I’ve mostly been shut out on runs at games I used to polish off without a sweat. Mega Man 2? Gave Wood Man the business, then didn’t even make it through Air Man’s stage for the boss fight. Marble Madness? Wasted too much time on the Silly stage, then totally ran aground on the first obstacle in the Ultimate race. Castlevania III? Hoo boy, let me tell you about that.

The story of a character named Help Me

The Castlevania games were never ones to build up your self esteem. The first one was actually pretty nice in terms of it’s learning curve and difficulty, but required you to play with measured pace and an abundance of caution. The second one was opaque in it’s direction, and even with instruction on how to proceed turned out to be pretty tedious, as the Video Game Nerd once so eloquently pointed out. And then, there was Castlevania III. Dracula’s Curse. One of the Nintendo’s all time great games, and definitely a hard row to hoe. I owned it and beat it several times as a kid. Now, I’m finding the road is a little tougher.

Herky jerky quickness for a game where moving slowly and cautiously is the order of the day? Sounds awesome.

If you don’t recall, Castlevania 3 was the one that allowed you to play as a few alternate characters in addition to your standard-issue whip & dagger toting Belmont; Grant the Pirate, Syfa the Vampire Hunter, and Alucard the Vampire. It’s not terribly surprising given their full titles, but none of these guys got along with each other, so you could only tote along one at a time.

I didn’t play with Grant much as a kid. Yeah, the clock tower level was pretty sweet, but it was also long, and after beating it you still had to do the laborious half of the haunted forest anyways. The 1st half of the haunted forest was a point-collecting waltz, and then the 2nd half was a slow slog of attrition that you had to do in both cases, so why waste 20 minutes of game time to pick up a dude that was hard to use and was going to bail out as soon as you picked up a better partner?

The “job” he’s talking about was ditching 3 lives by falling off ledges into pits.

After the owls picked you half to pieces, and with or without your spry but fragile friend Grant depending on if you went up the tower first, you faced the game’s most crucial fork in the road. The top path led you to the game’s best alternate character, Syfa, and then the Ghost Ship level. Syfa looked hideous, like they never bothered to color in his sprite, but he was actually pretty interesting in terms of game play, and his spells could be devestating if used correctly. He was the slowest character, but again, proceeding cautiously is the order of the day in this game. Sadly though, I didn’t play with Syfa much as a kid either. I was smitten with the bottom path.

The bottom path took you through the arduous demon frog swamp and the mysterious mining caves, where you picked up the game’s other alt personality, Alucard. Big Al was always my choice of partner growing up, because when you’re a kid, having the ability to turn into a bat and fly around is going to trump any questions of strategy or subtle applications of skill. When I was young, I breezed through the swamps and caves, picked up Drac’s son, and went right on my merry way through the flooding level, no sweat. Now, every 3rd frog that hops out of the mud takes a bite out of me. I don’t have my timing down on the bats, and half of them go ahead and bonk me on the way by.

Fixin’ to take some damage.

Now, when I finally do get through the Caves and get Alucard on the bandwagon, whatever momentum I had grinds to a halt. Those lightning mummies that toss the bandages or snakes or whatever the fuck they are? Ugh, that’s like half my life bar. Big Al keeps getting hit and can’t kill anything with his weak little glow ball shot. All the enemies just shrug it off like it’s nothing. All he’s really good for is flying around. Further complicating things, he’s about a half block taller than everyone else, so he also gets bonked by more stuff than the rest of the characters.

Alucard, doing what he does best: Get hit by projectiles.

So after Bat Boy and Trevor’s quest met an end, I figured it was about time to go back and play through the Syfa route. That hasn’t been any picnic either.  Because I spent so much time playing the lower road as a kid, I neglected the supposedly easier high path. Now, there’s nothing easy about it, because even without Alucard or Grant throwing themselves into pits and burning off my extra lives, my memories of it are fuzzier, which leads to it’s own problems. “What am I supposed to do against the Cyclops again? Oh, that’s right, I stand over here and- oh, whoops, no. He clubbed me to death. Shit.”

The good news is I’m getting better, but I’m not sure Dracula needs to be sweating things just yet. Although Adult H might not to be any threat to Young H gaming wise, after my repetitive failure at Castlevania 3, I did get to crack open a beer, walk downstairs, smoke a cigarette and watch the city stroll by for a few minutes. I enjoyed the cool evening air at my leisure. If I wanted to, I could have gone to the gentleman’s club. You can do that kinda stuff when you’re a grown man. You can have Castlevania III superiority, young H.  I’m not threatened.