Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 8    February 1999

Way Before N-64: The NES

An Old System Through New Eyes

by Chris Federico

I haven't had much experience with the first Nintendo, the NES (N. Entertainment System). It's a machine that I've never owned or taken a significant interest in, despite having gotten very good at Castlevania and sharpened my Metroid skills in the late '80s on my younger brother's system, and having ruled the Super Mario Bros. 3 world in the early '90s, once my band-mates had hooked up someone's console in our first apartment away from home.

When Adam bestowed a Nintendo upon me this Christmas, he included every game that I'd mentioned as a favorite over the prior couple of years, along with The Legend of Zelda (a game Adam has wanted me to try out for some time, since he knows that I love action/adventure games) and its sequel. Featured below are some fresh perceptions on titles that have returned from my past to tint the present gaming environment.

I thought for years that Zelda might be a mere, multi-screen hack'n'slash, masquerading as an adventure game; but I find now that it actually is an adventure, requiring hours of exploration (my favorite aspect to find in any game) and some major long-term planning. For being a game laden with so many enemies, it fortunately has quite a lack of cop-out bad-guy addition. In fact, there's only one that truly drives me nuts (the recurrent Bitch in the Lake, as I call her).

One thing that I definitely disagree with is the saving method. I much prefer passwords to an internal battery with a limited life. It was supposed to last only five years. The one in Adam's own cartridge, and the one in the cart that he's given me, have both lasted much longer than that (obviously; they still work); but why did they settle on a short-term saving method, when passwords can be used for the duration of a cartridge's life? And they obviously knew that it was a sensitive battery -- there's even a warning on the screen, instructing the player to hold RESET as the system's being turned off, to forestall inadvertent memory loss.

I've even lost saved games to the problem that every NES eventually develops -- when you have to keep a cartridge toward the front of the console as far as possible while inserting it, scraping the inner front edge of the port, if you want it to run properly. If this doesn't work the first couple of times with Zelda (it doesn't work the first couple of times with most carts), your saved games are erased for some reason. The battery being that fragile, why didn't they just use the much more dependable password method?

Besides that non-play element, however, Zelda is terrific. I've already found that there are stretches of days during which I don't want to play anything else; the addiction factor is certainly there, but along with it comes a stout degree of frustration. The difference between Zelda's stressful battles and the high-temper level of such phases in other games is that with practice, anything in Zelda can be consistently conquered, game after game. This adds to its addictive fiber; throw in the searches over river, mountain and waterfall, and treks through forest, desert and maze for people who will sell secrets about the kingdom, merchants with weaponry and healing agents, successively powerful swords, hidden caves and stairways found via bomb or fire, and the castle-like inner levels with their own secrets, and you have a game that's very hard to stop playing.

On a few occasions, I mentioned to Adam that I'd loved Castlevania as a teenager. In retrospection, it's more likely that I just spent a lot of time playing it.

It's a great game with a great setting and fun mechanics; I can't imagine the Nintendo without the facility to appease the periodic urge to whip the hell out of bad guys and pulverize the occasional, weak wall block. But as a game to plod through until you beat it, it offers only a high rate of frustration, which is almost (but not quite) rectified by your ability to continue the game to your collected-hearts' content.

There are two main problems. The game gets more and more linear, calling for exact steps to be taken at exact places through nearly every later vicinity. This turns the fun exploration of castles into a narrow path through redundant hazards. Second: If you whip a baddie at the same time that he collides with you, you both win, which means that he wins. He does dissolve, but you also fly back a couple of inches, making the careful jumps from surface to surface over precipitous drops (i.e. the majority of the game's landscape) inconsequential. You've balanced all that way, and you've even whipped this meanie in time, but it's all come to nothing, and you can only watch Simon fall to his death.

Metroid is an excellent idea with top-notch mechanics, an irresistible audio-visual setting and excessively fun shoot-'em-up qualities, combined with the thrill of wide-scale exploration; but it's incredibly difficult, due to the requirement of repeated slayings of the same bad guys over and over and OVER and OVER to build up your easily lost energy. Again, it's a great game in theory, but just too repetitious, and hence frustrating to play to the end.

Of the three Super Mario Bros. games, only the third one stands out as utterly fantastic. The first game captured my rapt attention when I encountered the coin-op version in the '80s; I thought that it was one of the greatest things I'd ever seen. I played it as often as I could, getting further and further each time (the mark of a well-designed game) and trying fanatically to remember where everything was concealed. So it's a great game, of course; but the extra control and location enormity offered by the third game completely wiped out the first.

You can travel backward now, and the extra dimension that this adds, especially as coupled with the other supreme element in this installment -- the magnitude of secrets -- makes this one of the few follow-ups in gaming history to succeed its originator so decisively as to make it much less appealing to play than it seemed before the comparison was possible.

Controller-wise, the NES's pads were revolutionary, prescribing what would unfortunately become the standard scheme. (I still prefer the original Atari joystick over any other. Diagonals are more difficult with button controllers, to name only one reason.) In terms of the software, when a programmer threw his heart into the creation of a game, the limited little 8-bit NES really did shine above and beyond its peers. Few games in existence are quite as addictive as one of the really good ones for this console. The bad or ludicrously derivative games are instantly forgettable, but the great ones are truly great, and therein lies the collective flame that boosted this first Nintendo system's popularity over the top -- and continues to assure its place as an enduring classic. -- CF