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!
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.
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!
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Nintendo Gamecube, 2002
Developer: Silicon Knights
Eternal Darkness is the rare game with both a stellar critical reputation and a rabid cult following. Ask anyone who played the game at the time of its release, and they’ll more likely than not proclaim it to be one the Gamecube’s best titles. It’s considered one of the crown jewels of Silicon Knights’ catalog, and widely thought of as one of the best horror games of its console generation, if not of all time.
I didn’t get the opportunity to play Eternal Darkness in 2002, so when I saw it for sale at a flea market a few weeks back, I pounced. As someone with more than a passing interest in both the horror genre (and old video games in general), I was eager to finally dig my claws into this consensus classic.
The verdict? It’s just okay. No matter how much slack I try to cut Eternal Darkness, no matter how hard I try to view the game through the lens of historical context, I simply can’t escape the conclusion that it is, at best, just an average game. Eternal Darkness is certainly ambitious, but it ultimately fails to properly execute on any of the novel concepts it presents.
The plot of Eternal Darkness spans nearly 2,000 years, and incorporates 12 distinct playable characters. At the onset of the game, the player takes control of Alex Roivas, a college student who has traveled to her family’s ancestral home in Rhode Island to investigate the grisly murder of her grandfather. As Alex explores her grandfather’s mansion, she stumbles upon the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a Necronomicon knock-off that serves a framing device for the game’s story beats. As Alex unearths the tome’s apocryphal contents, she slowly reveals an ancient demonic plan for world domination. Each section of the tome Alex reads is presented as a new gameplay scenario, told through the eyes of one of the book’s prior owners. It’s an entertaining narrative trick which allows the game to span hundreds of years and incorporate a wide-variety of playable characters. While the game’s script is nothing to write home about, it has held up quite well, thanks to top-notch voice acting and excellent cut-scene direction:
Eternal Darkness is also quite visually striking. The environments are beautifully rendered, and stylish lighting is employed to great effect. Bright flames and phosphorescent magic spells contrast beautifully against the game’s dark and and oppressive set-pieces, creating a mysterious and dreadful atmosphere. The character models are beginning to show their age, but as a complete package, Eternal Darkness still looks fantastic. That it holds up as well as it does in 2015 is a testament to Silicon Knights’ wonderful art direction.
So, yes, Eternal Darkness has a well-constructed story and beautiful graphics. Unfortunately, this intriguing facade quickly crumbles into the rickety foundation of Eternal Darkness’ questionable gameplay. Eternal Darkness is fundamentally imbalanced to such a level that it fails to serve as either a compelling horror or action experience.
With a few exceptions, each playable character in EternalDarkness has three status meters: stamina (red, signifying health), magick (blue, signifying arcane power and stylistic misspellings) and sanity (green, signifying ambitious but poorly conceived game design). The stamina and magick meters are self-explanatory, but the sanity meter? That’s the wildcard that’s supposed to serve as the linchpin of the Eternal Darkness experience.
As you your character witnesses traumatizing events and encounters any of the game’s numerous eldritch horrors, his or her sanity meter will slowly deplete. As the sanity meter depletes, you’ll begin to experience “sanity effects.” These effects range from subtle (skewed camera angles), to silly (shrinking your character to a minuscule size) to outright bonkers (pretending to delete your save files). My personal favorite sanity effect features your character’s head falling off and delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet:
Ask any fan what they liked the most about Eternal Darkness, and undoubtedly, the sanity effects will be near the top of that list. The sanity effects were one of Eternal Darkness’ most highly touted features; indeed, they are identified as a key feature on the game’s packaging. To be frank, they’re one of the chief reasons I wanted to play Eternal Darkness to begin with. Unfortunately, if you play the game in a halfway competent manner, you’ll almost never see them.
There are two ways to replenish your sanity in Eternal Darkness. The first is to deliver a fatal blow to an incapacitated enemy. Encountering an enemy usually reduces your sanity meter by a moderate amount. By incapacitating your foes (Eternal Darkness has contains a simple limb targeting system that allows you to reduce most of your foes to headless amputees with relative ease), you earn the opportunity to perform a finishing maneuver. Each successful finishing maneuver will allow you to earn back most, if not all, if the sanity that enemy drained from your character.
For the most part, combat is a relatively simple affair, so regaining your sanity in this manner is not terribly difficult.
The second method of recovery, though, is what breaks the sanity mechanic entirely. Very early in the game, you’ll learn a recovery spell which allows your character to recover their lost sanity at the cost of a portion of their magick meter. While this sounds like a fairly routine trade off, it’s really not, as all the player has to do to replenish their magick meter is move. Not even far. Simply spinning the control stick in a circle will do, actually. As long a you’re somewhere safe, you can simply whirl your character around like the Tasmanian Devil until you’ve fully recovered your sanity. Safe havens are not in short supply, either – as long as you can backtrack a room or two, you’ll make it through Eternal Darkness with a firmly sound mind.
As such, you’ll only really see the sanity effects if you’re actively looking for them. If you’re the type of person that enjoys wandering around a game looking for things to unnecessarily impede your progress, great – you’ll have a blast. But if you enjoy playing games in even a remotely competent/functionalist fashion, you’ll rarely, if at all, encounter any of the interesting sanity effects. Sanity effects barely rise to the level of window dressing, and never impact the game in a truly meaningful fashion.
Combat is similarly hamstrung by the aforementioned recovery spell, which can also be used to replenish your health meter. It’s rare to encounter an enemy that you can’t flee from in Eternal Darkness, and as long as you can retreat to a safe place, there’s no reason why you simply can’t replenish your health ad infinitum. Additionally, as you acquire additional offensive and defensive spells, your damage output exponentially increases and your character becomes nigh-invulnerable. As these painfully apparent gameplay holes manifest themselves over time, the game loses all sense of challenge, particularly when one considers that you can save your progress at virtually any point. The below footage, taken from the game’s penultimate chapter, demonstrates just how easy it all becomes:
This poorly conceived combat loop removes any sense of danger or tension from the game, preventing it from delivering any truly potent scares. If you’re not spoiler averse, I’ve included footage from the game’s final battle, which serves as the perfect microcosm of the Eternal Darkness experience: an effortless war of attrition interspersed with a few decent story sequences.
Eternal Darkness isn’t a bad game; it’s just an extremely disappointing one. While Eternal Darkness’ complex narrative is engaging enough to keep you playing, its ambitious sanity system is completely crippled by deeply flawed gameplay mechanics which render the game impotent as a horror or action title.
Gamecube fans often hold out Eternal Darkness as one of the system’s finest titles; they seem baffled as to why this game suffered from lackluster sales. I can honestly say that I am baffled as to why they are baffled.
Played through a d-terminal connection on a Nintendo Wii, upscaled to 1080p through a Micomsoft Framemeister.