Tag Archives: 1990

Ultima: Quest of the Avatar

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!

3/22/2015: Updated! Screens!

Code Name: Viper – Part 2

ViperTItleCode 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.

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-19 21-50-55

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.

rollingcoverWhat 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 Gear franchise 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:

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-19 21-50-22

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.

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-19 22-10-34
Say, this verdant hideout looks familiar, yet ugly.

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 formula fairly close to perfected. If only they had another bite at the apple, what might they have accomplished?

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-19 22-17-38
Ahh. That’s better, yet refreshingly similar.

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.

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-20 22-41-23
Blue, blue, electric blue, that’s the color of this room. Oh, hey, grenades!

Perhaps this was some sort of jab at its arcade competitor, Namco? The world may never know.

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-11-17
Blue, blue, electric blue… that’s the color of this room, too. Might as well be the same room, really. Oh, hey, Molotov cocktails!

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:

ViperThunderShoot

They both fire their machine guns from the same posture;

viperthunderleap

they both share the same awkward jumping pose;

ViperThunderDrop

they have nearly identical falling animations;

viperthunderpants

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…

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-19 20-16-47

with the second level of Code Name: Viper:

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-30-39

Even the interstitial sequences which feature the bad guys watching a computer monitor were taken from Rolling Thunder…

Rolling Thunder Screenshot 2015-10-20 21-07-04

… though they’ve got far more polish in Code Name Viper.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 22-51-07

This is just the tip of the iceberg, really; the enemy 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.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-04-01

Unless you’ve got a Genesis, that is… but that is a story for another time.

Code Name: Viper – Part 1

ViperTItleCode 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.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 19-58-50

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.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-02-14

Mr. Smith can do 5 things:

  1. Walk
  2. Jump
  3. Jump higher
  4. Duck
  5. Shoot

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.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-04-33
Hiding inside a box for a whole level! Syndicate employee of the month, right there.

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.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-05-41

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.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-13 20-41-13
Let’s see the goods, homie.

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.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-13 20-41-22
You pulled a grenade out of your ass for this? Time to rethink your career choices, buddy.

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:

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-13 20-33-00

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:

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 22-57-54This 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.

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-13-20

 

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…

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 23-14-08

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:

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 23-23-54

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.

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-20-29
“E” omitted due to technical difficulties.

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:

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-19-01
Alas, we never got a sequel.

Yep, Kenny Smith goes full on Dirty Harry. He even gets rid of his badge:

Code Name Viper - Night 2 Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-18-06
You know, you could still use that gun, Kenny.

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.

Code Name Viper Screenshot 2015-10-14 20-06-51

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!

Super Dodge Ball

superdodgeballcoverNekketsu Kōkō Dodgeball Bu: PC Bangai Hen
PC Engine, 1990
Developer: KID
Publisher: Naxat Soft

Like many gamers who grew up in the heyday of the NES, I have fond memories of playing Super Dodge Ball.  Tecnhos’ 1988 classic was an early highlight in what I lovingly refer to as the “fake sports” genre; a game that, without licensing any official league, athletes, or actual sport, provided you with all of the thrills of a “legitimate” athletic simulation, with a little extra panache to boot. The NES Super Dodge Ball replicated the excitement, drama, and intrigue of fourth period gym without the need for you to actually get beaned in the head by a rubber ball.

That is, when it wasn’t stuttering, blinking, and running at a snail’s pace every time the action picked up. Super Dodge Ball was a great concept, but actually playing it could be extremely frustrating at times. The game’s ambitions far outstripped what its designers were capable of getting out of the NES in 1988. It wasn’t uncommon for sprites to simply vanish from the screen, and the framerate dipped to borderline unplayable levels. It was a lot like playing a UbiSoft game in 2014 (zing!).

So when I learned that Super Dodge Ball had received a facelift for the PC Engine,[1] and that some guy on eBay was selling it for less than $30.00, I knew I had to have it. If the game was halfway decent on the NES, it had to be at least twice as good on PCE, right?

The answer to that seemingly rhetorical question is an emphatic “YES.” The extra power of the PC Engine allows Super Dodge Ball [2] to fully deliver on the promise of its predecessor.

SuperDodgeBallVs
Finally, the grudge match the world has been waiting for.

The rules of the game are simple enough. The court is divided into two halves, and each team consists of four infielders and three outfielders. The object of the game is to defeat the opposing team’s infielders. Outfielders are confined to the sidelines on the opposing team’s half of the court – their primary function is to toss the ball back to the infielders, but they are capable of mounting a modest degree of offense as well. Confused? Well, just watch the video at the end of the article and it will all make sense.

SuperDodgeBallNewspaper
I can only assume this is a rules pamphlet.

So the rules of the game are simple, but… WHY? Why do I want to play dodge ball? I need some motivation!

Well, that’s a good enough reason, I guess. This is the introduction to the game’s Tournament Mode, in which we take team Japan on a globe-trotting quest to prove that the land of the rising sun will not suffer beanballs lightly.

SuperDodgeBallPlaneAnd by “globe-trotting quest,” I mean “charmingly racist dodge ball safari.” You’ll travel to many exotic locales and throw dodge balls at any number of classic ethnic archetypes, including….

SuperDodgeBallEngland

Jolly old London town, where you’ll play on the banks of the Thames against a team of angry, pasty, cod eaters!

SuperDodgeBallIceland

Iceland! While penguins look on, you’ll battle it out with some vaguely Eskimo looking dudes as you slip and slide over some glaciers!

SuperDodgeBallChina

China! Play against a team of jaundiced obese children in front of  a picture of Chairman Mao! Bonus points if you kill some sparrows with your dodge ball.

SuperDodgeBallKenya

Kenya, where you’ll play against a team of extremely fast athletes on the sun-scorched Serengeti!

SuperDodgeballAmerica

And of course, the worst nation of them all, AMERICA. You’ll compete against a team of roided-out supermen on the top of some fictitious skyscraper frighteningly close to the statue of liberty!

And what is your prize, for defeating this murderers’ row of dodge ball assassins?

SuperDodgeBallSuperman

Superman descends from the sky to present you with a trophy, of course, presumably renouncing his American citizenship in the process. Nippon ichi!


You can play through tournament mode on loop for hours, but that’s for chumps. The real action is in the PC Engine exclusive QUEST MODE. Why would a dodge ball game have a quest mode, you ask?

Aliens? To quote Will Smith, “AW, HELL NO.” Quest Mode tracks team Japan on its quest to hunt down the intergalactic asshats that wasted some untold amount of fuel to fly to Earth and bean us in the head. How does this play out you ask? Well, surprisingly similar to Tournament Mode, at first. You’re immediately dropped into a match with a rival Japanese team which plays out exactly like any other bout in the game. However, when things finish up, we are presented with… Dialog options?

SuperDodgeBallConvo

While I don’t speak a word of Japanese, based purely on gameplay experience, I’m willing to bet the post match conversation between you and the opposing team’s captain breaks down like this:

Him: Yo dawg, good match. You beat us good. Mind if I leave these simps behind and go on the road with you?

You: Hell yeah, brah. We lookin’ for these aliens. They done beaned us in the head.

Him: You serious, man, aliens? Let’s do this.

You: Fo’ sho. Hey, you seen a UFO?

Him: Naw man, try checking any other country with a national dodge ball team.

And that’s exactly how quest mode progresses. You travel from country to country looking for your alien rivals, recruiting each team’s best infielder along the way.  Each recruitable player has has two unique “super throws” he can utilize against the enemy, which range from conceivable (100 mph beanball) to absolutely ridiculous (dodge balls dropping from orbit). The catch is that you only have four infielder slots on your team – you have to kick someone off to make room for someone new. You have to pay attention to your adversaries’ skills in order to determine whether they are worth recruiting.

SuperDodgeBallYay
Weirdly, they never seem too upset when you ask them to leave.

As quest mode progresses, you will slowly discover that alien invaders have been impersonating members of each nation’s dodge ball team.

SuperDodgeBallAlien

And as you discover each alien invader, its corresponding nation is wiped off the game’s map, meaning you can no longer recruit from that country.

SuperDodgeBallQuestProgress

When you’ve finally uncovered the last of the body-snatching fiends….

SuperDodgeBallRocket

Let’s just say it’s a pretty epic conclusion.


All goofiness aside, there’s not much to find fault with in Super Dodge Ball for the PC Engine. It’s a wonderful game with tight controls, colorful graphics, and a refreshing sense of goofiness that is rarely found in the sports games of today, fake or otherwise. Buy it, emulate it, steal it, do what you need to do…. but I heartily recommend that you play this game.

And on that note, I leave you with this – The greatest comeback in fake sports history, as Kenya Bill overcomes insurmountable odds against team Moonman:


 

[1] The Japanese name for the console known as the Turbo Grafx in the US.

[2] The actual name of the game, as indicated at the beginning of this post, is Nekketsu Kōkō Dodgeball Bu: PC Bangai Hen – Literally, “Hot-Blooded High School Dodgeball Club: PC Extra Edition. For ease of reference, we sill simply refer to the game as Super Dodge Ball.