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.

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. 

You’re No Longer Playing With Power

Last week, a quiet press release that largely went unnoticed outside of a few sentimental blog posts announced the end of an era that most people didn’t even realize was still underway, namely, the era of Nintendo Power.  Yes, if you missed it, the venerable source for everything both Nintendo game related and credibility stretching positivity related is finally drawing to a close after 24 years of publishing, and the only surprising thing about it is that they were still printing the magazine at all. If you’d asked me to put a guess on when they’d stopped, I definitely would’ve tossed out a date that started with a 19.

For me, and I suspect most others as well, Nintendo Power can only ever be associated with games in rectangular grey plastic form. In the era of the internet and photo-realistic graphics, it must have looked like a dinosaur. Frankly, even in it’s heyday, it wasn’t exactly pushing the boundaries of gaming journalism. It was a stroke of genius that they included helpful maps and walk-thrus for some really good games, because otherwise it traded exclusively in hokey jokes and relentless boosterism for questionable products.  Pointless and dull comics about some kid named Nester (yes, we all saw what you did there, Nintendo Power) weren’t helping things.

With the benefit of hindsight you should go ahead and miss Mission Impossible and Kickle Cubicle.

But those walk-thrus and maps! Only the early onset hipsters denied using them. “I don’t even OWN a Nintendo Power, bruh. I beat Super Mario 3 before Fred Savage’s weird little brother made it cool.”

Without the tips, maps and screenshots Nintendo Power provided, most of us would wander endlessly through a game like Maniac Mansion, just picking up every piece of junk or food you found that wasn’t glued to the wall and sacrificing the lives of your closest friends so you could rifle through Aunt Edna’s drawers or fuck with Weird Ed’s Hamster.  For sure, it was a hell of a lot fun to fire up the space-capable Edsel and watch it annihilate the garage, but it didn’t get you any closer to finishing the game.

Score one for pointless destruction.

But armed with Volume 16 of Nintendo Power? Suddenly you became a manuscript-writing, meteor-arresting dynamo! If you stole pointless stuff from the house, it was because you wanted to be a jerk, not because you didn’t have anything better to do. You cleaned out the fridge for fun, not because you were absolutely sure a can of whipped cream might somehow come in useful later on in the game.

We fucking stole it, man.

My memories of Nintendo Power end in the SNES era, when they updated their tagline to “Now You’re Playing with SUPER Power.” The magazine really hadn’t changed by then, it was still doling out the same chipper optimism for games both great and terrible alongside the much appreciated walkthrough for Final Fantasy 3.  The only difference between then and when they started was the number after Final Fantasy, and the different date on the spine of the magazine.

Although I didn’t read it or even know it still existed for the last 15 years, I would imagine it carried on pretty much as it always had.  I’ll always look back kindly on those early years, and hearing the news of the end certainly stirred up my nostalgia for the first issues and the games they helped so many of us enjoy, but I can’t say it was surprising beyond the fact that it hadn’t happened sooner.  Although I suppose this does mean that I definitely waited too long to submit those Solar Jetman high scores.