Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Donkey Kong Classics (NES)

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Memorable characters, fun for a few minutes
Cons: Really short, almost no replay value

Donkey Kong Classics is a compilation that contains both the original Donkey Kong game, as well as the sequel Donkey Kong Jr. Despite having both games on the cartridge, it still only requires maybe 10 minutes to play through as both games are exceptionally short. Donkey Kong contains a whopping 3 levels, and Donkey Kong Jr contains an additional 4 levels. Each level encompasses a single screen from a side-view and requires you to make your way from the bottom left starting area up to the top.
In Donkey Kong, you play as Jumpman (the original Mario) and have to rescue your girlfriend Pauline from the big ape. Apparently he's climbed to the top of a building, so you go through 3 levels working your way up. In the first level, you have to climb a series of ladders up some angled platforms while dodging barrels that Donkey Kong is rolling your direction. Stage 2 has smaller platforms, more ladders and a couple of elevators to work your way up. Instead of throwing barrels, you now have to avoid some type of bouncing objects that the ape throws at you. These are mostly easy as they all move exactly the same. There are also a couple of fireballs that move about, climbing up and down ladders that you have to avoid touching. In the last level, you have 4 large platforms with 2 yellow rivets on each one. Jumping over the rivets removes them, and when they're all gone Donkey Kong falls to the ground and lands on his head, you save your girlfriend and then... you start over back on the first level and do it all over again.
In Donkey Kong Jr you play as, well, Donkey Kong Jr. Your job is to rescue your father, Donkey Kong, from the evil villain Mario who has him trapped in a cage at the top of the screen. In the first level you climb across the screen on vines and work your way up to the top while avoiding little alligator looking enemies that Mario sends towards you. The second level has a spring board on the bottom to launch you onto a moving platform, and a bunch of chains instead of vines. The alligator enemies have been replaced by birds that will occasionally drop eggs on you. Third level is some type of electric level that makes very little sense. There's just a few platforms made of electricity, and little red and blue sparks move around them and you have to avoid the sparks as you climb to the top. It's really easy, but doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the game. The final level just has 8 chains hanging from the top of the screen, and 6 of them have keys on them. You just push those 6 keys up into the holes at the top of the screen, then Mario and Donkey Kong come crashing down. You catch the ape, and let Mario hit the ground and die. After this... you start over back on the first level and do it all over again.
There are single player and 2 player modes, each with 2 difficulty modes. Mode A is easy, while mode B is slightly more difficult. In 2 player mode, the first player will play until he dies and then the second player will start his turn. It doesn't matter if you beat a level, or even beat the whole game - you keep playing until you die. The main competition, other than completing the game, is to see how many points you can get. You get points for jumping over enemies, killing them with the limited duration hammer power-up (Donkey Kong), dropping fruit on the enemies (Donkey Kong Jr), as well as bonus points for finishing the level as quickly as possible. Since you can continue to play over and over again after you finish the game, racking up your score as high as possible would be the ultimate goal of the games.
The graphics are simplistic, but these games are ports from arcade games made in 1981 and 1982. Keep in mind, the original Super Mario Brothers game wasn't released until 1985. The game actually doesn't look that bad; the characters are easily recognizable, there are some basic character and enemy animations and a (limited) variety of game levels. I think they would have been better off to update the graphics before sticking the game on a Nintendo cartridge, especially since neither game made it to North America until 1986 when there were much better looking games available. The sounds are hit and miss. The sound of Mario's footsteps and Donkey Kong Jr's climbing sounds are a little too high pitched and repetitive, and they really annoy me. On the other hand, some of the synthesized background music really good and pretty memorable. That strange level 3 in Donkey Kong Jr has some faster blips and beeps that fit the level design so nicely, even though the level itself seems out of place it's one of my favorites.
Overall this is an average game, but it's certainly a classic that has helped lead the way for future platformer games. Pick it up for a buck or two if you can find it, otherwise pass because the length and replay value of the game don't make it worth much more than that other than as a collector's item.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Really fun game, easy to play, colorful graphics and beautiful music
Cons: Multi-menu interface and maze-like dungeons are annoying

Dragon Warrior is a game that is very near and dear to my heart; it was one of the first RPGs I cut my teeth on, along side The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy and Ultima: Exodus. When we got our first Nintendo when I was young, we only had a few games for it, so those games ended up being played so often and engraved into my brain that I'll never forget them. Dragon Warrior being all the more fun because it came totally free with our subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. Now that I'm older and have started collecting vintage Nintendo games, I have a much larger collection - but I still love to take out a few from my childhood and replay them for the nostalgic value. Often I'll start up a game and instantly remember every single thing about it, and this was the case with Dragon Warrior as well.
Dragon Warrior (known as Dragon Quest in Japan) is a role playing game that was developed by Chunsoft and published by Enix in 1986, though it didn't make it to North America until 1989. It's features a pretty standard story these days, where you're a stranger who comes to the kingdom of Alefgard and is tasked with saving it's princess and defeating the evil Dragonlord and recovering the Balls of Light he has stolen. Along the way you fight monsters like slimes, magicians, knights and dragons in random encounters on the world map, gaining experience and gold as you go. You actually rescue the princess fairly early in the game, and technically you can even skip rescuing her all together. When you finish the game, she'll be back at home in the castle anyway. If you do rescue her though, she gives you her "love" as an item that you can use to tell you how much experience you need to level up, as well as give you your coordinates on the world map. This is helpful for finding one of the items necessary to complete the game, so unless you're using a walkthrough or have beaten the game previously it's probably best to go ahead and save her.
The world map is setup in a tile-based overhead view, and your single character can walk around in four directions. Enemies all have fixed stats and do not gain in strength as you do. The map is pretty open, allowing you to travel almost anywhere you want - but if you try to go to an area that's too difficult the enemies will make mincemeat out of you. Crossing bridges across rivers signify major changes in enemy difficulty though, so at least you have some sort of warning that the difficulty is going to increase as you travel. There are a number of different enemies in Dragon Warrior, but many of them are just palette swaps (the same graphic as another enemy, but colored differently). For example, the slime, red slime and metal slime; or the drakee, drakeema and magidrakee. Departing from the overhead view of the rest of the game, the enemy appears facing you in a box that takes up the middle of your screen. Enemies only appear one at a time, and you fight them in a turn-based fashion using a small menu consisting of Fight, Spell, Run and Item commands.
There are only a small number of different weapons and armors that you can equip, but on the other hand this means that each new piece is a noticeable upgrade. You can also obtain a limited number of items such as torches, medicinal herbs, magical wings to transport you back to the starting castle, etc. There aren't that many items, but it's almost a good thing because you have very limited inventory space in Dragon Warrior. You will often find yourself throwing away herbs or torches or something that you wanted to keep because you need the room for other things. You also start off not knowing any magic, and gain a new spell every few levels, for a grand total of 10 spells. These spells allow you to heal yourself, exit a cave, return to town, light up a cave, keep weak enemies away for a brief time, hurt an enemy, put them to sleep or stop them from using magic.
One thing that always annoyed me about Dragon Warrior was the user interface. It's not exactly bad, but it's totally menu driven, with lots of sub-menus to get anything done. Especially climbing up and down stairs... instead of just walking onto the stairs, you also must hit a button to bring up the menu and then select "Stairs" from the menu. The same holds true for talking to people, opening doors or treasure chests, searching the area... The other annoyance is the fact that dungeons are all mazes that are pitch black. Using a torch illuminates one square around you until you leave, while the Radiant spell illuminates 3 squares around you and then reverts to 2 squares after a while, then down to 1 square and finally disappears entirely. A torch often isn't enough to help figure out the maze-like dungeons, and you don't even learn the Radiant spell until level 9. This makes early dungeons really annoying to traverse. Later ones aren't that much better, because they're usually longer and filled with thougher enemies, so you want to save your limited magic points for healing or battle spells.
You have 3 "Adventure Logs" that allow players to pick a name and a message display speed for 3 different games on the cartridge. When we first got the game I wasn't the only family member playing it, so it was nice that 3 of us could all play our own games (one at a time). You can save your game by talking to the king and recording your journey in the "Imperial Scrolls of Honor", and it saves to the cartridge's battery backed RAM so there are no long annoying code strings to input to continue. If you die, you're transported back to the king, so it's often useful to suicide on purpose rather than walk all the way back if you don't have any magical transport wing items.
The vibrant and colorful artwork in Dragon Warrior was drawn by Akira Toriyama. Some may quickly recognize him as the creator of Dragon Ball, one of my favorite manga and anime series of all time. Characters in the game are drawn in the same style as Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda, where they have short bodies and big heads. This makes it easier to add details to the head where they'd be more recognizable than on the body, and also makes the characters look more cute and fun. The character style meshes well with the bold and colorful tiles that make up the world, making the whole game look charming and appealing.
The music in Dragon Warrior was composed by Koichi Sugiyama, who is well known for his composition of Japanese television shows. It's beautiful and melodic, and some of my favorite music from the Nintendo era. The soundtrack features eight classic sounding pieces, including the introduction, castle, town, world map, cave/dungeon, battle, final boss music and the ending track. The world map music is free and airy, giving you a sense of freedom as you explore. This is contrasted harshly by the dire battle music when you engage in a random encounter with enemies. The music for the final dungeon is ominous and foreboding - you know you're getting near the end when you walk into Charlock castle by the music alone.
I'd recommend that everyone should play Dragon Warrior at least once. If you have a working Nintendo, the game can be found for about $5 online. It has also been remade (along with Dragon Warrior II) for the Super Nintendo and the Gameboy Color in a 2-game cartridge if you can play it that way. It's truly a fun game, though it offers little replay value. Once you've beaten it, you pretty much know everything there is to know about it. I still play it every couple of years for the nostalgic value, but I can breeze through it in a day now.
"Congratulations! Thou hast restored peace unto the world! But there are many roads yet to travel. May the light shine upon thee."

Friday, December 2, 2011

Duck Tales (NES)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: A fun little game with smooth controls, colorful graphics and recognizable characters
Cons: A tad short, characters from the show could have played larger parts in the game

Duck Tales was a cartoon series produced by Walt Disney Television Animation that aired between 1987 and 1990. In 1989 Capcom developed and published this video game version of Duck Tales for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Duck Tales is a side-scrolling platform game that is similar to Mega Man in a number of ways, being created by the same company.
Many of the characters from the cartoon make appearances in the game, including Huey, Dewey and Louie, Mrs. Beakley and Webby, Launchpad and Gizmo Duck. Usually they are just brief appearances to offer a hint, drop some food or blow up a wall blocking your path. Some of the cartoon's main antagonists also appear, including The Beagle Boys, Flintheart Glomgold and Magica De Spell.
Like Mega Man, players will move about the screens from left to right eliminating enemies, climbing up and down vines and ropes, jumping over pits and collecting items. Unlike Mega Man, Scrooge doesn't equip various weapons to complete his task. This duck's old, but he's not helpless - he jumps around on his cane like a pogo stick and eliminates enemies by bouncing on their heads Mario style.
There are five different areas of the game, these include the African Mines, Amazon, Himalayas, Moon and Transylvania. Each one can be selected from the main screen and completed in any order for the most part. There are exceptions, like if you enter the mine one of Scrooge's nephews tells you that you need the key to enter the mine, and the key is in Transylvania - and then you are teleported to Translyvania. The goal is to recover a piece of treasure from each area, and every area is distinct and plays a little differently from the others. One is full of mirrors that you touch to warp you around the level, another has vines to climb, and another has snow that keeps you from bouncing along the ground on your cane.
Duck Tales is a fairly easy game, and also fairly short once you figure out where to go in each level. There are three difficulty settings; easy, normal and difficult, which does help to add some challenge to the game. Still, you can breeze through it on hard in 10 or 15 minutes after you know where to go and what to do. Scrooge has 3 little orbs of health, and he looses one each time he takes damage. These can be replenished by collecting little ice cream cones from killing enemies or from treasure chests. You also collect various sizes of diamonds to add to your score. If you collect enough money and find the 2 additional hidden treasures, the game rewards you with a slightly alternate ending.
The graphics are vivid and colorful, characters easily recognizable and everything is smooth and polished for a game of this age. It's really very similar to the first Mega Man game, and that's a compliment folks. There are a variety of different enemies from little grey robots and white reindeer to gorillas and bees. The bees fly, deer jump fairly high and bounce around the ground - most every enemy is unique.
The music is also mostly above average and fitting. Each level has a different piece of background music that really adds to the ambiance - in Transylvania the music is dark and mysterious, on the moon it's upbeat and futuristic. The theme song from the cartoon also plays during the title screen in 8-bit synthesized glory, and it sounds terrific.
Overall, I'd say Duck Tales is one of my favorite Nintendo games. To this day, every time I plug it in and start playing it reminds me of sitting at my grandma's house playing it for hours with my cousin. It's also one of the few games based on a television show that's actually worth playing, and a must-have for anyone who still has a working Nintendo.