SUPER MARIO BROS / DUCK HUNT My sister Libby and I got our Nintendo for Christmas in 1988. By then, most of our friends had an NES, so we’d played a few games including these two classics. I was always pretty lazy with Super Mario Bros: beat the first level, warp in 1-2 and go to the fourth level, beat 4-1, warp in 4-2 and go to the 8th level. Some real Nintendo Power short-cuts. Even with that advantage, I still to this day can’t get past 8-2 with all those crazy jumps. Duck Hunt I was terrible at. It took a few years before we realized how near-sighted i was, so from a regular distance I couldn’t hit a duck to save my life. I would sit right up next to the TV and point the gun right on the screen which was all well and good when no one was around, but when my friends would come over and see what I was doing they’d clown me to no end.
GAUNTLET I can’t remember who, but my sister borrowed this from someone she knew and we never gave it back. I think they had one of our games and we made an unofficial trade. Which is unfortunate because this game blows. Gauntlet was an unlicensed game that came in this weird rhombus shaped cartridge. It’s basically running through a dungeon trying to find an exit while ghosts and other creatures molest you. Since it was originally an arcade game meant to pump quarters out of kids, instead of lives you have a time limit and the game ends when the time does. This makes no sense on a home console because it’s a huge dungeon area with a ton of secret stuff, so your instinct is to explore and kill everything, but because of the time limit you’re rushing through it in order to beat the clock. Do not bother killing any of the enemies in this game. Most of the time it’s easier and faster to just run as quick as you can while bad guys relentlessly plow into you. Wank.
SPY VS SPY Based on the Mad Magazine comic, Spy vs Spy is a split screen item-collecting game. Your spy is on the top half of the screen and the computer or 2nd player is on the bottom so you can always see what the other person is doing. The goal is to collect a briefcase and four items from various drawers around the level before exiting to the airport and leaving the other spy to explode. The game is timed, and if you die you lose additional seconds before being revived. You could either grab all the items and bolt, or you could continually kill the other spy thus reducing his time and giving you a chance to collect all the items without interference. You can kill the other spy by either collecting a pipe or knife and assaulting them, or by planting a variety of awesome traps: a bomb that explodes when someone opens a drawer, a poison gas that slowly kills you when you enter a room, a spring which knocks you against a wall, and my favorite a pail of water that when you open the door falls over and electrocutes you for some reason. When you kill someone, your spy giggles to himself like the horrible sadistic monster he is. Also, that sound is immensely satisfying. As a game, Spy vs Spy is nothing special and it can be a little repetitive but with two players it can also be really fun.
SOLSTICE It’s pretty easy to remember which games I picked out and which ones my sister did. Mine were usually based on comics or cartoons I liked and Libby, who was five years older and much hipper, would choose these weird off-kilter kind of games like Solstice. This game is one of the coolest and most interesting games on the Nintendo and doesn’t get a ton of shine on the top 100 lists. Solstice is a puzzle game where you run through a maze of dungeons trying to find pieces of a staff that will defeat the last boss. You don’t have any weapons, so it’s about avoiding enemies and pitfalls in order to win. It’s from an isometric viewpoint which other games like R.C. Pro-Am used, but in Solstice it’s much more faux 3D awkward. Something I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere is that the game is MUCH easier if you hold the controller sideways so that left is now up and up is now right. It sounds as weird now as it did in 1990, but for me it only adds to the awesomeness. My sister wasn’t huge into video games, but she was way into Solstice. So much so that when she got to the very last screen and couldn’t figure out how to get any further, she called the Nintendo 1-800 hotline. And guess what? Solstice was so hard that even the guys who were paid to know how to beat it couldn’t figure it out. Also, the opening music is the most awesome complex arrangement on the NES. It’s very Yes era of prog-rock.
IRONSWORD: WIZARDS AND WARRIORS II
What to say, what to say? I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT BUTTER!!!!!!!!!!
FAXANADU This game rules. It’s a lot like the Zelda II: The Adventure of Link but bigger and much darker. Unlike that game though, you couldn’t save in Faxanadu. Instead you had these 3o letter passwords that took 5 minutes to write down perfectly (so as not to fuck up later) and 15 minutes to re-type. You absolutely need those passwords because this game is insanely big and has a ton of items you can get. At the beginning of Faxanadu, you can buy the best shield and magic but they’re super expensive. My sister and I would spend hours killing the same enemies over and over and over in order to save money and buy one of these things. Then of course, we were bored of the game and wouldn’t make it any further. It’s a strong lesson about giving into temptation. Oh well.
ASTYANAX Man, we had a lot of these kind of ancient knight fighting monsters kind of games. Astyanax combines Greek and Japanese motifs to create a pretty fun and visually compelling game. There’s these rad cut-scenes between levels that used to scare the hell out of me, especially this Skeletor looking guy:
Our folks were very generous to buy us these games, but we were definitely balling on a budget. As such, we generally bought games that were less expensive than say Contra, but that were also games that none of our friends owned. A bunch of the other kids in the neighborhood owned Nintendos, so every once in a while someone would let us borrow Legend of Zelda or we’d be at a friend’s house and for one level they’d let us play as the Princess in Super Mario Bros 2. As such, we used our parent’s money to get weird discounty games that no one else wanted. One exception to this was Hoops. A friend of mine owned Hoops and I would go over to his house all the time and play it. He was the first friend I had from our neighborhood who moved away, so I think that was my reasoning for buying this. It’s your basic basketball game. You pick two players and play against the computer or the 2nd player (who can also be your teammate). It’s supposed to be “street” evidenced by no referees and those colorful kids drawings I think are supposed to graffiti. I stuck with Bomber, the short fast kid who could shoot from half-court, and Face, the tall tough kid. If you picked Wiz or Barbie…good luck.
BAD DUDES A lot of my friends ask me why I don’t just play roms instead of buying the actual games. I think Bad Dudes can be used to explain this. When you’re 8 years old and you only own a few games, you play the hell out of them. If you bought a kind of crappy game, which happened all the time in the era before consumer reviews, you stuck with it and made it as fun as possible. With roms you have instant availability of 700 games to choose from which is great from a variety standpoint, but it leaves little patience for some of the less instantly gratifying games. Bad Dudes wasn’t a particularly great or fair game, but I was way into it at that age and would wake up on Saturday before soccer games and play it over and over. When I finally beat Bad Dudes and who I assumed was George HW Bush congratulated me, I distinctly remember how pumped I was. I went and woke Libby up to tell her of my amazing achievement and she of course didn’t give a shit. Playing it today, it’s pretty awful for sure but back then, it was immensely satisfying nonetheless to exclaim “I’m BAD!”
CASTLEVANIA III: DRACULA’S CURSE Around this time, my sister started high-school and pretty much stopped playing the Nintendo after which point all the games were chosen by me. This game is so awesome, but at the time I thought it was way too hard. I played this game for years and couldn’t get past the forests in the 3rd level. As I’ve revisited a lot of these games in recent years, for the most part I’ve found my patience for them to be severely diminished. Astyanax for instance I couldn’t play for more than a few minutes. But Castlevania III has been a rare exception and I’ve finally been able to play long enough to get all the extra characters. It is still insanely hard, and as far as my tolerance goes, eternally unbeatable. Along with Mega Man 2, this game has my favorite music on the NES.
MEGA MAN 4 This was a Christmas gift from my grandparents and I remember just being in awe of it. I just never thought I’d own a game like Mega Man let alone Mega Man 4! It all seemed so epic at the time, punctuated I’m sure by the fact that we were in DC when I got the gift so I had to wait a whole week before we got back to Atlanta and I could play it. I practically memorized that instruction manual. Most people agree that it’s the weakest one in the series (6 in total) but at the time it was the only one I’d played and it was pretty amazing.
TALESPIN I really liked this show as a kid, and I’m a big fan of the other Capcom/Disney games (especially Duck Tales) but this game is awful. Tale Spin is a typical shooter where the screen moves to the right and you shoot stuff except that you can press reverse and suddenly you flip upside down and fly to the left. It’s a great way to get trapped against a wall and killed once the screen edge catches up to you. Which now that I think of it is kind of a weird concept to grasp. The edge of the screen is kind of this evaporating void trying to catch up with you? That’s so bizarre.
POWER BLADE In retrospect, it’s kind of baffling that I bought Power Blade. I hadn’t heard anything about it and all the other games I bought I had some reference for, either from friends or from pop culture. Beats me, but I’m glad I did because this game rules. It’s basically a Mega Man clone but less cartoony and your character’s got these rad boomerangs for weapons. Everything about this game is over the top testosterone, from the Schwarzenegger imitator on the box art to the giant hamburgers your guy eats to keep his strength up.
ZEN THE INTERGALACTIC NINJA This game was released in 1993 by which time most everyone but me had moved on to the Super Nintendo. The games released on the NES between 1992-1994 aren’t usually big in the public consciousness, which nowadays makes them a bit pricy to acquire. There’s a lot of cool games with pretty impressive graphics and memory (like Kirby’s Adventure for instance) and Zen the Intergalactic Ninja fits that bill for sure. I had heard of the comic which was pretty underground by comics standards, so I remember thinking this must be rare so I should get it. The story is basically that you’re a Captain Planet guy saving the environment by beating up polluting bad guys. What’s cool though is that each board is totally different in design, objective, and style. One of them is on a mine cart, one of them is using extinguishers to putting out fires, and another is climbing trees to fight a boss while stopping to stab plants which are being acid-rained upon. It’s all pretty odd but overall very fun.
JUNGLE BOOK Jungle Book was released in the US in 1994 making it one of the last games released for the NES. It’s also one of the only Disney games on the NES not made by Capcom. Tidbits aside, it’s kind of like a jungle version of the Batman game in that you can cycle through different kinds of weapons, but not quite as good. I’m pretty sure I bought this at a time when few stores still sold NES games and I took what I could get.
SPIDERMAN: RETURN OF THE SINISTER SIX By this time, kids were so over the NES that they were starting to give me their games, and cartridges started to show up in thrift stores. So at a time when I was finally playing Super Mario 3 and Mike Tyson’s Punchout, I also bought my last official Nintendo game sold in stores which is Spiderman: Return of the Sinister Six. It’s not a great game and honestly would be a pretty shitty game if not for Spiderman. Although, look at him in the picture above. He looks like one of those Spiderman’s you rent for kids parties.