Recently, I’ve gotten the mod bug. Maybe it’s the logical consequence of owning a ridiculously oversized retro console/game library; maybe I just got tired of paying other people to mod things for me. Either way, I picked up a brand spanking new soldering iron about a month and a half ago, and I haven’t been able to stop.
First, I kept it relatively simple, installing a stock mod boards. After a few failed attempts with a Turbo Duo (more on that in a later post), I found some success with an N64 RGB amp… the results came out looking pretty good.
You’re going to have to take my word on it when I tell you I installed the mod myself. I didn’t think to take a picture of the completed installation, and I’m too superstitious to open it up and poke around now.
With a successful console mod under my belt, I started thinking about controller mods, which led me to slagcoin and its treasure trove of PCB diagrams. You have to crawl before you can run, so I thought I’d start small, by putting an LED in an old third-party Genesis controller.
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As that didn’t prove too difficult, I came to the conclusion that virtually everything could be improved through the edition of an LED. Like, say… a few Genesis controllers I spray painted a couple of months back.
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While I think I’ll be putting LEDs into things until the day I die, I was still hungry for more. After looking at some NES controller PCB diagrams, I became convinced that I could add a new button – a “C” button, if you will – that would function as a simultaneous press of “up” and “B.” Theoretically, this would allow me to fire subweapons in games like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden with a single button press. The inspiration came from the “III” button on the Avenue Pad 3 for the PC Engine, which functioned as a second “select” button.
A lot of games for the PC Engine used “select” for gameplay functions, and this bad boy made it easier on the player to make that button press. My “up and B” mod probably wouldn’t be as useful, but hey, I had soldering fever, and I wasn’t going to stop.
I had some tiny little buttons from a breadboard kit, and I figured I’d use them. My first attempt, in all its glory:
The wires on the right side of the button are running from “up” and “B.” The wire on the left side is running out to a ground. On a certain level, this actually did work – pressing that button did trigger “up” and “B” simultaneously. Unfortunately, however, pressing either “up” or “B” individually ALSO yielded simultaneous presses of both buttons. This is because this was a “SPST” – single-pole, single-throw – button. Basically, the wiring of the button was such that by placing “up” and “B” on the same side of the button, I was actually wiring them together.
After reading up a bit and consulting a friend (who happens to be an engineer), I learned that what I needed was a “DPST” – dual-pole, single-throw – button. This would allow me to wire my custom button in such a way that it could complete the circuits for both “up” and “B” without linking them together. My second attempt:
It’s a little more difficult to see, because I reinforced my soldering job with hot glue, but the wires on the right side of the button are running from “B” and a ground and, the wires on the left side of the button are doing the same thing for “up.” The ugly end-result:
It ain’t pretty, but hey, that Nintendo Power sticker from ’93 wasn’t much of a looker to begin with. Did it work?
HELL YES IT DID! The button is kind of touchy (cheap parts or bad soldering on my part, not sure which yet), but it works – you can see it when Ryu sticks his hand out. Fun stuff!
I’d encourage any retrogaming enthusiast to pick up a soldering iron and try their hand at some mods. While I’m still a neophyte in the modding arena, I feel like I’ve revealed exciting new depths to my chief hobby. It’s easier than you think!
It’s time for another Subspace Brief Facts! I don’t know if there’s much else to say about Snake Rattle ‘N Roll other than “it looks great and it’s annoyingly difficult” – but somehow I squeezed a five minute video out of this! Enjoy!
I’m in the process of throwing together a piece on video pinball. Rare’s 1988 NES port of Pinbot didn’t quite make the cut. It plays like garbage, but that seemless split screen effect is something else. Rare really knew how to push the hardware!
Also, the main theme is completely wicked… So I ripped it for your enjoyment.
At least I got to play this on HD thanks to my beautiful new Analogue NT? If I never play this game again it will be too soon… but it’s an interesting historical footnote, so WATCH THE VIDEO. This project was like jumping in front of a bullet that was aimed at no one… but I am happy with the end result!
Ultima: Quest of the Avatar for the NES is quite possibly one of the most complex RPGs of its era. I tried to beat it when I was in fourth grade and failed miserably. Figuring that I had gotten just a LITTLE bit smarter since then, I thought I’d pop it into my Analogue NT and give it a shot. I found it to be a far more rewarding (and confusing) experience than I thought it could be. For my money, this is the best NES RPG out there – right up there with the Final Fantasy series and Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior. While its PC/Apple II roots probably prevented it from finding any appreciable mainstream acceptance, its sheer depth really makes it stand out from its contemporaries.
Its the ideal game for a retrogaming enthusiast – far too challenging for a child, but more than beatable for an adult. Give it a shot!
Code Name: Viper Nintendo Entertainment System, 1990 Developer: Arc System Works Publisher: Capcom
Last time, we talked about the underrated gameplay of Capcom’s Code Name: Viper. Today, we’ll be talking about its inspirations, or perhaps more accurately, its source material.
It would be diplomatic to say that Code Name: Viper was heavily inspired by Namco’s Rolling Thunder. It would be accurate to say that nearly nearly every aspect of Code Name: Viper’s design was stolen from Rolling Thunder.
Originally released to arcades in late 1986, Rolling Thunder puts the player in control of Albatross, a secret agent on a quest to rescue his partner, Leila. But Rolling Thunder’s epic backstory isn’t relevant to this discussion. If you’d like to learn more about Rolling Thunder, you should read Kurt Kalata’s excellent writeup over at Hardcore Gaming 101. And after you’ve read that, head over to USGamer and listen to the fantastic episode of Retronauts Micro on the entire Rolling Thunder series. Done? Good.
What is relevant to this discussion is that in 1989, Namco decided to to port Rolling Thunder to the Famicom/NES. Tengen would publish the game in the US, in one of its infamous, black, off-brand cartridges. If the Internet is to be believed, the developer tasked with porting Rolling Thunder to Nintendo’s console (at least in part) was none other than Arc System Works. Today, Arc is well-known in gaming circles as the developer of the increasingly eccentric Guilty Gearfranchise of fighting games. Back in 1989, however, Arc would have been just a plucky little upstart development house, somewhere in the middle of its first or second year of existence.
Arc’s port of Rolling Thunder isn’t bad, so much as it is drab and unrefined. The game’s color palette is remarkably restrained: everything looks like it was originally optimized to run on a CGA monitor. And in case you’re under 30 and that reference flew over your head, just take a look:
Until the color green makes its appearance in the third level, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that Arc had intentionally restricted themselves to blues, whites, and blacks. Thankfully, things get a little more varied and colorful as the game progresses.
While Rolling Thunder for the NES borders on indisputably ugly, it plays remarkably well. Generally speaking, the action in Rolling Thunder takes place across two parallel planes – a high plane and a low plane. Albatross and the legion of masked enemies that stand in his way can freely travel between those two planes by way of a perpendicular leap. As Albatross has the smallest of life bars, the player is forced to dart between both planes, around cover, and into hidden doors in order to get the drop on enemies without taking any damage. It’s a nice little gameplay cocktail which makes for some fairly exciting action. One can’t help but think that Arc had the Rolling Thunder formulafairly close to perfected. If only they had another bite at the apple, what might they have accomplished?
As luck would have it, we know the answer to that question. Code Name: Viper is Arc’s second bite. You may have noticed that the last paragraph was comprised entirely of re-purposed and slightly altered sentences from last week’s post. That’s because Code Name: Viper is comprised entirely of re-purposed and slightly altered gameplay concepts and graphics from Rolling Thunder.
You see, in 1990, despite being an extremely prolific developer in its own right, as well as the owner of some of the hottest video game franchises on the planet, Capcom inexplicably decided that it needed to publish what amounted to a port of Rolling Thunder on the NES.
Perhaps this was some sort of jab at its arcade competitor, Namco? The world may never know.
Again, if the Internet is to be believed, Capcom hired the uniquely qualified Arc System Works to do the grunt work. The end result: Code Name: Viper, which is both highly derivative of Rolling Thunder, yet refined and improved in nearly every single way.
The similarities in both of Arc’s games are readily apparent. All you have to do is compare the sprites for Mr. Smith and Albatross:
They both fire their machine guns from the same posture;
they both share the same awkward jumping pose;
they have nearly identical falling animations;
and, hell, they are both wearing the same set of disturbingly flesh-toned, high-waisted pants. Apparently, and unfortunately, Arc felt they’d accomplished all they needed to accomplish in the realm of covert operative leg-wear.
The similarities extend beyond character sprites as well. Just compare the second level of Rolling Thunder…
with the second level of Code Name: Viper:
Even the interstitial sequences which feature the bad guys watching a computer monitor were taken from Rolling Thunder…
… though they’ve got far more polish in Code Name Viper.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, really; theenemy designs, the music, the power-ups – Code Name: Viper lifted so much from Rolling Thunder that it probably threw its back out in the process. It is for this reason that Code Name: Viper has been dismissed as little more than a ripoff, and perhaps rightfully so.
But here’s the thing: if Code Name: Viper is simply Rolling Thunder under another name, it’s indisputably the best version of Rolling Thunder on the NES. Arc’s second crack at Rolling Thunder’s particular brand of spy-themed action improves on their first effort in nearly every single way: the graphics are more detailed, the control is tighter, and the music is catchier. It’s the Rolling Thunder that Namco should have published in the first place. Sure, you can choose to view Code Name: Viper as a ripoff, but I choose to view it as an example of a developer revisiting its freshman efforts and improving upon them in virtually every single way. Capcom copied Namco; Arc merely copied itself.
Regardless of how you come out on Arc’s peculiar brand of sub-contracted self-plagiarism, it’s hard to dispute that it resulted in quality release in Code Name: Viper. It’s the closest thing to a South American vacation you’ll find on an 8-bit console, and it’s a fair shake more pleasant to look at than its drab predecessor. Skip the originator and go right to the imitator.
Unless you’ve got a Genesis, that is… but that is a story for another time.
Code Name: Viper Nintendo Entertainment System, 1990 Developer: Arc System Works Publisher: Capcom
As anyone who walked into an arcade between the years of 1989 and 2000 can tell you, winners don’t use drugs. This of, course, is why drug dealers make for fantastic video game adversaries. Today, franchises like Grand Theft Auto sell millions of copies on the backs of protagonists who openly deal in narcotics. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, however, gamers were far more likely to be destroying drug labs than running them. Of all the games that sailed on the wave of the “just say no” sentiment that was pumped into my brain during the Reagan/Bush era, Capcom’s Code Name: Viper is indisputably my favorite.
Like most games of its vintage, Code Name: Viper has the simplest of plots – you couldn’t even roll a joint with the paper it would take to transcribe the whole thing. The player assumes the role of Kenny Smith, whom we can only assume is the eponymous “Viper,” as the game never refers to him as such. An agent of “Special Missions,” Mr. Smith has been tasked by his cigar-smoking superior, Commander Jones, with destroying the seven hideouts of “the huge drug syndicate in South America.” In each location, he must also recover one of his fellow agents, who has been “hurt and captured” by the syndicate. Simple stuff, right? OR SO THE U.S. GOVERNMENT WOULD HAVE YOU THINK. But we’ll get into that later.
Mr. Smith can do 5 things:
It’s a pretty basic moveset for a guy code-named after a venomous snake, but it’s not Mr. Smith’s moves that make the game so enjoyable, it’s the level design. Generally speaking, the action in Code Name: Viper takes place across two parallel planes – a high plane and a low plane. Both Mr. Smith and the legion of literally faceless enemies that stand in his way can freely travel between those two planes by way of a perpendicular leap. Each plane is also populated with various objects that effectively serve as waist-high cover for Mr. Smith’s adversaries.
Additionally, each stage is filled with an absolutely absurd amount of “secret” revolving doors; I’m not exaggerating when I say that nearly every entryway in this game is both concealed and rotating. I’ve seen Narcos; I know secrecy is important drug cartels, but Code Name: Viper takes it to ridiculous lengths. In addition to containing power-ups and hostages to rescue, these doors also serve as a means of hiding from enemies. By holding up on the control pad, Mr. Smith can remain inside a door for as long as he likes, during which time he is impervious to harm.
As Mr. Smith has the smallest of life bars, the player is forced to dart between both planes, around cover, and into hidden doors in order to get the drop on enemies without taking any damage. It’s a nice little gameplay cocktail which makes for some fairly exciting action. Take a look:
Each level ends in a dead-end. Mr. Smith cannot break through these barriers until he has rescued the captured commando hidden in each stage, who, inexplicably, will be carrying high-powered explosives. As I assume that any “huge drug syndicate” with the foresight to cover half of South America with hidden revolving doors would have frisked its captives, we can only assume that these commandos have swallowed these live explosives, like so many condoms full of cocaine, and retrieved them rectally. Talk about using your enemies’ methods against them.
At the end of each level, Mr. Smith sits down with the commando he’s rescued, who reveals what syndicate secrets he’s uncovered. Invariably, what he’s obtained is a portion of an internal drug cartel memo, lovingly scrawled on what appears to be paper torn from a child’s wide-ruled notebook.
At each level’s conclusion, the player is also treated to an image of an unidentified person observing Mr. Smith’s progress through a state of the art CRT monitor:
Presumably, this person is a high-ranking member of the huge drug syndicate, as his hands take on a slightly more nervous posture as Mr. Smith closes in on the final level:
This is a nice little touch which really adds a bit of spice to the game’s otherwise sparse plot.
With each commando he rescues, Mr. Smith uncovers more and more lines of the huge drug syndicate’s TPS reports. By the time the seventh stage has been completed, the entire vile, drug peddling plot has been lain bare before us.
Sweet Jesus. The WHOLE world? Not just through drugs, but BY DRUGS? And COMMANDER JONES is behind it? How could he do such a… uh…
That works. Thanks, Kenny!
But seriously, that memo is great. It reads like they’ve been having problems with the new hires contacting Commander Jones to refill the toner in the copy machine. It even concludes with “pay attention to this matter.” The only thing missing is a sentence about how Darla down in coca leaf processing is running a 5k to support prostate cancer survivors, and donations can be left in the jar behind the secret door in the mail room. Let’s not even touch the fact that they divulged Commander Jones’ location for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
Obviously, Commander Jones is not pleased with these developments:
HE SMACKED THE TABLE SO HARD THE MONITOR TURNED OFF. HOT DAMN! While this plot twist has very little impact, I’ve always enjoyed the way these little interstitial scenes play out over the course of the game.
Of course, this revelation leads to a surprise EIGHTH stage where the player must infiltrate Commander Jones’ chic Beverly Hills drug den and defeat him in a surprisingly brief, but challenging, boss battle. At the conclusion of the game, we’re treated to a brief text scroll of an ending:
Yep, Kenny Smith goes full on Dirty Harry. He even gets rid of his badge:
If you think about it, this ending could be viewed as a little bit subversive. While it’s not rare for NES games to invoke the “your employer is the villain,” trope, in Code Name: Viper your more or less working for the CIA. The game is as much a critique of the US government as it is an indictment of drug cartels. Pretty weighty stuff for something that was sold as a toy for children. SEEDS PLANTED. Well done, Capcom.
I’ve always felt that Code Name: Viper is one of the more under-appreciated titles in the NES catalog. It has more or less vanished from most gamers’ memories, despite having stellar graphics, a refined, yet simple, control scheme, and uncommonly catchy music. But there’s a very good reason why history hasn’t been kind to Code Name: Viper – it’s a blatant rip-off of another game. But we’ll save that for Part 2. Tune in next time!
Wizards & Warriors Nintendo Entertainment System, 1987 Developer: Rare Publisher: Acclaim
Shortly after my family welcomed a NES into our home in 1988, I was desperate to complete a game. There was only one problem: at six-years-old, I had yet to actually develop any video game playing skill. My options were limited. I had tried to conquer both Super Mario Bros. and its sequel, but found them to be to be too challenging. My mother had purchased me a copy of RC Pro AM, but my brain was not yet developed enough to understand high-level concepts like “acceleration” and “steering.” World Class Track Meet? Forget it, I was a little chubster. I lacked the physical stamina to beat that one, even using my hands to cheat. Duck Hunt? I’m not sure that one ends.
Wizards & Warriors, though? That game gives you infinite continues. It lets you start in the exact same location where you last met your demise. A monkey could beat it if you just gave it enough time. It was a layup; the perfect game for putting that first notch on my control pad. As such, one Sunday afternoon in the late ’80s, after several hours of intense effort, Wizards & Warriors became the first NES game I ever completed in its entirety.
Prior to this week, I probably hadn’t touched Wizards & Warriors in over 20 years. However, as I recently purchased a shiny new an Analogue NT, I thought it would be the perfect time to revisit my first NES conquest – in STUNNING HD. And you know what? It’s still fun.
I could try to describe the plot of Wizards & Warriors to you, but the game’s manual does a much better job than I could ever do. Unfortunately, most of my NES manuals were turned into a moldy mess in the great basement flood of ’91. Thankfully, the good folks over at World of Nintendo have me covered:
She’s asleep now, the Princess. But who knows what he has planned for her once she awakens… He is the Wizard Malkil. Legend has it that Malkil was once one of the greatest. So great, in fact, that even the renowned Merlin was his pupil. But alas, Malkil has gone mad with age, and turned his powerful magic to the dark side. You are Kuros, the only knight warrior brave enough to enter the woods of Elrond. Strong enough to wield the Brightsword. Powerful enough to ward off the demons, the undead, and the caverns of fire. And clever enough to discover where Malkil has hidden his prisoner.
So, in short, you play as Kuros (a guy who looks nothing like he does on the sweet box art) on a quest to rescue the unnamed princess (of a kingdom shamelessly named after a character from The Lord of The Rings)from Malkil (a wizard whose name sounds like a 7th grader’s attempt to translate “bad murder” into Latin). I just have to laugh when kids these days complain about the quality of writing in modern video games.
After you press start, the game presents you with a cross-section of the Kingdom of Elrond (presumably ruled by Hugo Weaving), ominously labeled as “THE MAP:”
As this is a video game from 1987, we know that the unnamed princess is being held in the giant castle. However, as THE MAP, clearly shows us, in his madness, Malkil has cut all funding to the Kingdom of Elrond’s Streets and Paving Bureau. Two massive potholes are preventing us from simply walking straight to the castle. Instead, we’ll have to take the scenic route, through such exotic locations as…
The woods! Where you’ll encounter werewolves that look kind of like Marmaduke and the elusive pink bald eagle.
The blue caverns! Home to Boo Berry™ and fire-spewing smiley faces!
The red caverns! These are surprisingly similar to the blue caverns, but with fire.
The purple caverns! If you liked the red caverns and the blue caverns, you’ll love these. It’s like a greatest hits compilation, only with bats and snakes.
The OTHER woods! You might think that these are the same woods from before, but no – the eagles and the werewolves have been replaced by gargoyles and angry cactus-throwing gnomes.
Nearly three decades later, it’s easy to mock Wizards & Warriors repetitive level design, but by early NES standards, the levels were quite stunning – not to mention large and open-ended. Each stage scrolls horizontally and vertically, and Kuros is given free reign to explore each secret-filled level to the player’s heart’s content.
But what are you looking for when you explore those levels? Well, each level in Wizards & Warriors has an identical goal: reach the exit, defeat the boss that lies beyond that exit, and rescue the distressed damsel that said boss has imprisoned. Fairly standard stuff, but there’s a bit of a wrinkle:
Each level’s exit is guarded by an invincible palette-swap of Kuros. These scarlet sentinels are impervious to all forms of bodily harm, but they have one weakness: cold hard cash. You can’t pass through the exit until you’ve picked up enough gemstones to bribe these guards. Stashes of these gemstones (and other goodies) are hidden behind colored doors and treasure chests, which you’ll need to find correspondingly colored keys to unlock. While “bribery” is not the most heroic mechanic to build your central gameplay loop around, we really didn’t think twice about these things in the Reagan era. Kuros worked hard for those gems, after all.
On his quest, Kuros will acquire numerous magical items, which run the gamut from “extremely overpowered” to “practically useless.”
Certain items, like the above-pictured Potion of Levitation, will add height to Kuros’ jump, making the game’s platforming sections infinitely more tolerable. Compare this with the set of lava-proof boots that is, in fact, not lava-proof at all. True fact: when replaying Wizards & Warriors, I consulted an FAQ not so I could FIND these powerups, but so I can avoid them – you’ve only got so many item slots, and the last thing I wanted to do was swap out my Boots of Force, which allow Kuros to open any chest at will, for the Cloak of Darkness, which renders Kuros invisible – BUT ONLY TO THE PLAYER.
Ipresume that Wizards & Warriors would be incredibly difficult if not for the aforementioned infinite continues – but that’s the thing about infinite continues, isn’t it? You never really try if there’s no penalty for failure. Enemies spawn infinitely and attack with relentless ferocity, but the only incentive to avoid them is the annoyingly cheerful tune that plays on loop when your health is low (thanks to YouTube user GBelair for uploading that theme).
Fortunately, the rest of the game’s music is downright stellar – especially by 1987 NES standards. One of the first games scored by David Wise, who would later provide the music for Battletoads,Donkey Kong Country, and many other classics, the soundtrack to Wizards & Warriors is pure ear candy. Just listen to this opening theme:
It’s been stuck in my head for days now. The soundtrack has also been covered by the improbably venerable Minibosses – if prog rock covers of game music are your thing, you should definitely have a listen.
It’s easy to pick apart Wizards & Warriors’ little imperfections in 2015, but the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. The game controls wonderfully, and its graphics and sound have aged spectacularly, particularly when compared to its contemporaries. Wizards & Warriors can easily be completed in about an hour, but it’s an extremely enjoyable hour. While the game is not without its failings, you could tell that its developers, Rare, really set out to expand on the “save the princess” platformer in ways that had yet to be seen on the NES. Their reach may have ever-so-slightly exceeded their grasp, but in the process, they created a bona fide classic. If you’ve got the means and the time, I strongly suggest playing it all over again.
I can’t think of any better way to conclude this writeup than by posting a video of one of the game’s final levels, which features Kuros scaling Malkil’s castle. In my mind, it’s one of the most memorable levels from the NES’ early days, and it showcases everything that makes Wizards & Warriors great – the music, the scope, the visuals – it’s all there. Enjoy!
If you’ve watched any of the live streams, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that I occasionally enjoy beverages. When I am not holding my beverages, I am placing them on these – the official coasters of Subspace Briefcase:
I purchased this fine set of three coasters at the Punk Rock Flea Market here in Philadelphia last month. I wish I could credit the fine craftsman or craftswoman that created them, but alas, I cannot locate their name. If you’re out their reading, rest assured, that I am thinking of you every time I lose a life because I have had too much to drink.