Favorite NES Games. Part Five.
Top five. This is when it gets major. These are the games that have that vintage stamp on them, the ones that you want to frame and display on a mantle. The ones that shaped the way you heard music down the line, the ones that set you up for the ones you were hoping to play in the future. These games are the ones that weighed the scales, the ones that twenty years down the line are what are causing debates on forums about what makes one game gold and another game garbage. These games shaped the vision that I of what a game should be, hands down.
5. Mendel Palace
This game was a gift. One given to me without any explanation or understanding or request. My cousin (again, I think I mentioned early on that he was a major influence in my gaming life) brought this with him and gave it to me for a birthday that I think we threw at Space…plex? Space Plus? I was young and really don’t recall the actual name of the place. But I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what kind of game I was getting into. But, the cool part that I immediately noticed was that on one screen, friends and I can play through it together. All the way through. And that was important.
The game itself is fairly basic, and there’s not a lot of dynamics to it. You are a little boy trying to save your friend or girlfriend or sister from her dream world where her toys are coming back to life to kill, or hurt, or kidnap her… again? There are different tiles that you can flip over and they either blast the entire screen, or give you power ups, or lock into place as metal hatches. And you have to basically crush all of the dolls into a wall to make it up to the next floor of each individual character’s palace.
So many of the levels had their own little dynamic to it, like the swimmers flipping their own tiles as they went over the tiles, the sumo wrestlers not being able to budge very far. But overall, the game itself feels very set in stone from the very beginning.
But this was one of those games that I spent a lot of time playing together with my sister. The co op factor of it was perfect. It was one of those games where the co op element perfectly matched the skill level that both myself and my partner were at. It was fun, it ended up with little elements of challenge, and it built a really strong, dramatic and exciting dynamic while barely squeezing past or through bad guys. Hitting a tile that knocked an entire row of panels over and accidentally side swiping your friend was nerve wracking. It was such a light, fun game.
The animation also had a sort of interesting effect on me. The way the first guys you face, the almost puppet type guys fall backwards and slide on their back felt like I was affecting something. The way the ballerinas looked at you in a hurt almost scorned way, I felt like that was such a cool, full experience for me. While some games sort of just had even the most normal of people launch into the air and explode into fire, at least when I would pull the rug out from some of these guys, the way that they fell and landed made sense. Going back, I think this was one of the earliest I remember feeling that cool, full feedback from a video game’s enemy.
4. Maniac Mansion
God. This game was always WAY beyond me. I initially tried playing it with my cousin and separately, my older sister. And if I remember correctly, even they had a hard time. The beginning portions of the game were played so frequently. Selecting the characters who each had their own different kind of vibe. 80s “punk” style guys, a typical nerd, a surfer guy, some guy who always reminded me of David Bowie for one reason or another. Just a wide array of different characters who you eventually find all had different strengths and could take you to finish the game in different ways.
I remember microwaving a hamster, I remember going up and into the house and feeling TERRIFIED. This, for me at that time, was the first time where when you were playing a game, you weren’t already set up and in the middle of the task at hand. So you actually had to sneak in. And in the early moments of the game, you go into the house and the opening lobby area is completely empty and you can go in certain rooms, and all of it feels like you’re about to get caught at any given time. So scary.
I used to have the house mapped out really well in my head, but if I were to jump in now, the only memory I would have is that the first door you can go into is the kitchen. And if you spend too much time in there, I think the mother of the family can come in and capture you, sending you to the dungeon. Another distinct memory is going up a set of stairs and there is a green tentacle who wants to eat fruit (GIVE Green Tentacle Wax Fruit) and when you give it to him, and maybe a little before that, he sort of talks your ear off like any normal type of teenager/early twenties person. A lot of those moments in games had a pretty big effect on me.
There were sort of cutscenes where you would see the Mad Professor talking to the meteor, who ends up being the actual star of the show. I remember him being possessed or completely influenced by this meteor that crash landed. I remember the son, Weird Ed, being obsessed with being in the armed forces possibly and driving a car named the Weird Edsel. All of these characters end up sort of interacting in really interesting ways. It never feels bland, or like you’re being chased recklessly by “bad guys”. Antagonists have full on conversations with you that really flesh out their characters in hilarious and meaningful ways.
And the fact that this game had MULTIPLE ways to complete it was one of my favorite things about the game. I think I only remember one, and it has a very specific way to set up the characters. But beating it and getting through the whole game was an ACHIEVEMENT for me. The way that the screen had a ton of different commands you could give listed along the bottom and that there was a point and click system was fully unique to me and at times felt limiting, but now that I look back, it feels genius. It really feels like it makes you work for different actions and not just be able to outsmart different things. It adds a deliberate layer to all of the characters’ choices. And to know that this system went on to influence Secret of Monkey Island is enough to slap a stamp on this guy.
3. Final Fantasy
Say no more, fam.
This game is the game that made me say that my favorite style of game was RPGs for the longest. This is the game that made me want to play games that have swords and spells. It was also a game that had the leveling up aspect, which let me make my guys stronger over time. I could shop in the stores with the gold I was making by killing enemies. And it ALSO had a story that seemed to sprawl far beyond my reach.
I could first customize my party of four characters with any classes that I wanted to set up. And after going through the first area several times and getting a good idea of what the set up was that made sense to me, I would always go with Fighter, Thief, White Mage, Red Mage. Even though the Black Mage has one of the coolest designs of all time in terms of iconic vision. The blue robe and the tall hat was so cool. So memorable. To be honest, though, even to this day, I just don’t often use that much magic. Which, as a sentence, is incredibly absurd. But with these four characters each set out with a dark elemental orb that would be relit once they defeated a specific elemental boss character in different regions of the world. Over time, you’d meet different townspeople and monarchs of the different areas and aid them to gain help, greater power, greater tools and even better ways to traverse the terrain. It really felt that as a party, you were slowly building a repertoire, a reputation, and your skills. It felt more than just a heroic quest against some evil. It felt nuanced and rich. At least for its time, and for what I was ready for at the time.
The biggest skill and the biggest impact that this game had on me at that time was something that they call “grinding” now. Going out in a random field, walking left to right over massive terrain, left to right, up and down and finding randomly generated battles that would pop up. You’d fight the monsters you were dealt and gain experience over time. This was something that was tedious and repetitive and joyless, but it had purpose. It gave you a level of understanding in your party. In these small battles, it helped you get the practice you needed with new spells or new weapons. It let you work on strategy and timing and healing rotation. This would go on for hours. And it’s something that I think at this time feels like a broken system. It was one that carried forth through Final Fantasy 2 (or to some, Final Fantasy 4), Final Fantasy 3 (or to some, Final Fantasy 6), and even through the big daddy of them all, Final Fantasy 7. But this. This was the game that started it all off. So even though the grinding was a necessity, it was something that you kept your eyes to the ground and worked out.
The coolest thing I remember chasing down at one point was the fact that at some point during the adventure, you run into a character who, in exchange for a rat’s tail, gives your characters an upgrade to their classes. But to me, when you went through that, it felt like your characters actually grew up. Your entire party had a different look. The hoods came off. They went from cute[-ish] versions of their likeness into taller, more defined, harder warriors. And it felt like you were entering into a new fight, completely headlong. More dedicated and more fierce. That was a big transition for me. Most of what I had done before this was just little upgrades in games. You could obtain a more rapid fire gun, or faster feet, or a new heart container. Even within this game, you could buy a sharper sword or get a stronger spell. But for your character to actually LOOK stronger… that was intense for me. That was big.
There is just something about this game that pushed forward this format in such a strong way. This game was one that I never actually completed, sadly enough. By the time I was actually ready for a ride like this, I think Final Fantasy 3 dropped and I was putting all of my effort into that particular game. I never went back. I may have picked up the rerelease for PSP, but for me, handhelds never really got the respect it deserved. But this game started it up. This is the cornerstone for all of the interest in FF3, FF7, DQ8, even Skyrim, even Fallout, all of the RPGs that came after it, even to the point of them getting a bit more casual and digestible… this is the one. This is it. This game helped Square from going under. A truly special place in my heart for it.
2. R.C. Pro-Am
This is a game I initially didn’t own, but played at a friend’s house first. I had really enjoyed Super Sprint before it, but beyond that hadn’t had much interest or experience with racing games. Sprint allowed you to see the entire course at once, and had a lot of looping and circling tracks. And over time, the game got harder and harder, BUT you were able to collect wrenches and upgrade your car over time. This game took that element and expanded upon it. While you were driving, different upgrades would pop up and you could get better tires, faster acceleration or higher top speed. There were also speed boosts to get you through massive straight aways, oil slicks to wipe you (and the computer players) out and water patches to slow down the drivers.
Beyond that, you could collect the letters that make up NINTENDO and once you collect all of them, you would be able to upgrade the type of car you were driving. It went from a bigger, chunkier truck, to a lower to the ground car, but then after that you would have a real sort of slick funny car style. And that, really, was the chase. Trying to continuously upgrade your car, get better and faster and get the best, different type of car and complete all the races.
On top of THAT, you were able to collect missiles and land mines, an early inspiration that you can see used in later games, namely the Mario Kart series that eventually perfected the formula. This made the game become far more than just about the racing. Because at some point, you can perfect the ability to race around turns and not slip up. This made it far more competitive and far more intense. It gave you a chance to catch up, a chance to change the playing field once you fell far enough behind. It added such a depth to it. And depending on how you were playing at any given time, the game took on different shade. A straight racer, one with tons of drifting and hitting corners way faster than you should be, but being able to pull off some pinpoint whippage and making it work. One with super fast, turns that came up dramatically after an almost too long straight away. Or it can be a straight shootout, where you’re taking every single race and every single sleight personally and are trying to obliterate every other racer on the course mercilessly. OR it can be a game with a purpose that sees you trying to “beat the game”, keeping your eyes peeled for letters and upgrades, trying to get your car to be the best it can possibly be and getting through the circuit without coming in last and losing your continues.
This is a game that I always held dear, one I really loved for all of the sound effects and memorable “3, 2, 1” countdown sound. When I had an emulator a few years ago, I ran across Micro Machines which came close to being as good a game, but it just wasn’t as clean, it wasn’t as sharp. And it was late last summer that Rare Replay dropped and I was finally able to jump back into this game and really enjoy it for what it was as an adult and not a little guy. Still so challenging, still just as engaging. The game just has an eternal sort of appeal. It breaks down all of those elements into a digestible and simple, two button game. It lets the player do the deciding. There are no specific prerequisites that force you into levels where you have to master any specific skill. Just get there. Get the gold. Make it happen. Phenomenal. Such a pure experience.
1. Mega Man 2
(Woof. That cover.)
This is it! The big dog! Where do I start for this one? This feels like the sort of description I would write for the best man at a wedding or at their induction into a hall of fame.
In second grade, I started playing this game alongside my next door neighbor. We would play this game constantly. We’d hit points where we figured out who could defeat who, what weapons worked best against other bosses. We hit a wall when we got up to Quick Man. That’s the level where at one point you’re trying to head downwards in his level and these large laser beams are hitting you and destroy you in one shot. You had to be nimble and you really had to know where the lasers were coming from. We were in second grade and were still sort of getting our shit together. That being said, we hit a wall and couldn’t pass it. We couldn’t do it.
I remember reading a Nintendo Power article about the game over and over. I remember getting tracing paper and tracing the laid out maps that they’d set up for you and having my mom make copies of the pages. In the book that we made, we left notes like “this part is hard” and “jump over the guy here, he’s too hard to beat” and things like that. We still hadn’t beaten Quick Man. I’m pretty sure we just assumed you had to be some kind of master at games as a whole to crush it.
I remember one Saturday afternoon, we were playing in the living room and I feel like my dad was sitting in the room and he watched us get past the lasers that were flying by and my neighbor and I literally started jumping up and down and hugging each other. I did the corny little kid thing where I raised my fist in the air and yelled “YESS. YES! YES!”
My dad pretty sternly said “Steven. It’s just a game.”
And that was one of those few moments that I knew, for sure, “naw man. This isn’t just one of THOSE games.” I knew the difference. Some games are just games and you beat a stupid thing or do a stupid thing. No way. This was a game that I’d worked hard on, had fallen in love with. I’d learned every corner of it. I’d gotten to where I was with that game at that point by pure repetition. And enjoyed every moment of it.
Air Man, Crash Man, Metal Man, Bubble Man, Heat Man, Wood Man, Flash Man, Quick Man. That’s my order. And then once I’d beat Quick Man, it was time for Wily’s Castle. And those levels were just well built platformers. I remember being STOKED at how cool it was that the run up to the castle itself, Wily’s Castle Level #1 was OUTDOORS and I was running my way into the fortress. I beat all of those, over time. Then faced all the robot masters. Then got to Wily. And the fact that you had to use Bubble Lead as the final weapon to beat the final holographic representation of Wily was a beautiful thing. I hadn’t used that weapon all game. And now it actually got to a point where I needed every item from the robot masters. Blown away. And the ending ‘movie’, of donning all of the suits as you walk through all of the seasons IS SO TOUCHING. It gave a worldly feel. One that I now can compare to John Rambo or Ryu from Street Fighter.
I mean, those are all purely sentimental attachments. That represents me as a second grader beating and bonding with a game.
But even playing it now, there’s a clean, crisp style to it. Nothing too hard. Nothing too cheap. Everything in its right place. All the boss battles have a design to them. A pattern. And with the right robot master weapon, you can beat each of them appropriately. There are no points in the game that feel like it forces you to squeeze through an impossible space and choose to get hurt in one way or the next. Every risk/reward situation that comes up has a way for you to get through to the other side unscathed if you take your time, patience and skill. At 34 years old, playing this game is a pure joy. It’s a game I encourage my friends to play. It’s a game I encourage the present day 9 year old Parker to play. To learn. To fall in love with.
But honestly. Let’s not forget the soundtrack. Let’s be super real. This is what most people, even if they think the game is just okay, will remember. From the suspenseful crawl up the side of the building and the twinkling slow build to the fast paced and exciting title theme. Every level feels like a pop song. Somehow, these 8 bit jams have hooks. And what’s more, as I’ve gotten older and spent a lot more time diving into music (moreso than games, overall), I can hear how complex and incredible the bass lines are. The composer Takashi Tateishi. And he really never went on to do much more than that. And that’s heart breaking. Impossible. But true. This is one of those soundtracks that stands tall against any and all of the best.
I just purely love this game. It’s incredibly difficult to point out the specific little moments that really won my heart. The giant dogs that breathe fire in Wood Man’s stage. The huge fish with the lightbulbs on their heads in Bubble Man’s stage. The exhilaration of beating the lasers in Quick Man’s stage. How unbelievably versatile and strong the Metal Blade is. This is my favorite game. Maybe not just on NES, but of all time. There are few pieces in media that I have as much genuine love for now as I did when I first encountered it back in my youth. Few things that I’ve spent this much time with. This game is comfort and challenge. It’s actual joy. It’s my game.