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.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.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.