Monday, October 18, 2010

Celebrating 25 Years of NES

Twenty-five years ago on October 18th, 1985, the Nintendo Entertainment System first reached American shelves, and it was good. It's not my favorite system (that remains and may always remain the Super NES) or even my second favorite (longtime readers may recall my top 64 N64 games list from a couple years back), yet it remains as inextricably bound to my childhood as eating and breathing. I don't know the exact date in '86 that my parents bought our house in New York an NES, because I was still drooling and shitting my diaper at the time, but I do know that I quite literally have no memories of not playing NES.

My infancy was spent watching my older brother play. As a toddler I began fiddling with the controller myself, delighting in making Mario and Mega Man and Kid Icarus move on the screen with no idea that there were even levels or objectives at hand. I sharpened my nascent reading skills on Nintendo Power. The rare hours I wasn't playing were spent crudely drawing Nintendo characters with Crayola Markers. I hummed game music while walking to preschool. I dreamed in pixels.

Twenty-five is considered old for just about any living creature on earth beyond humans and turtles, but when it comes to computer hardware it's positively primeval. Hell, my laptop from 2006 has been on the rattling, crashing brink of death for a year now. The only objects I own that are a quarter of a century old are a handful of books, my Nintendo Entertainment System, and a few early NES cartridges. And you know what? The NES has held together even better than the books. It's been shlepped across the country and lain dormant for years at a time, but when I plugged it in earlier today the red light blinked on and I began playing as surely as if it was straight out the box. The NES is a sturdy motherfucker, and that sturdiness earns sturdy love.

Of course, the hardware itself is nothing to love — without games, all you have is an odd, bulky paperweight. It was the games that consumed my childhood daydreams, the games the images of which flash in my mind when the word "NES" is uttered still today, the games that I love the most. So in light of the NES's 25th I could think of no better way to celebrate than by going back and discussing roughly 25 games that I retain strong childhood memories of. Note, this is not a list of the best NES games; there's masterpieces entirely absent, and there's horrible games present. But it is, for better or for worse, 25 games I'll always remember.

Hell, most of them are sitting on my shelf, so it'd be hard to forget.

Adventures of Lolo Trilogy

Contrary to popular belief, Tetris is not the greatest puzzle game on the original Nintendo. The most timeless, sure. The most famous, absolutely. But the best (and, hell, maybe one of the most underrated game trilogies of all time) is the collective whole of Adventures of Lolo, Adventures of Lolo 2, and Adventures of Lolo 3. Produced by HAL Laboratory, the same in-house Nintendo developer who would go on to create Kirby's Dream Land 1-3, Kirby's Adventure, EarthBound, Kirby Super Star, Super Smash Bros., Super Smash Bros. Melee, and most recently Kirby's Epic Yarn, the Lolo games can be very simply boiled down to pushing stuff. That's all; you push.

You push boxes in front of Medusa statues to block their lethal eye beams. You turn enemies into eggs and push them out of the way or into rivers to make rafts. You push your way through mazes. Anything and everything you can do to reach all the hearts, open the door, and get your ass to the next floor. It sounds deceptively simple, but in all three games the later levels get apocalyptically hard. The Lolo games are some of the strongest (and, more importantly, most fun) exercises in geometry and logic I've ever seen, genuine mind-expanding stuff that proves doddering old farts were wrong about "video games will turn your kids' minds to mush!" from the very beginning. I still don't think I've beaten all three; not without looking up the solutions anyway. Nothing else on NES tickles your brain in a more satisfying way. Love these games.

Bionic Commando

This is blasphemy in certain NES circles, but I honestly can't say I ever enjoyed Capcom's Bionic Commando that much. I know we had it when I was a kid because I still have the cartridge and the first level's music is fresher in my mind than any of Mozart's symphonies, but in well over twenty years since its release I'm pretty sure I've never played beyond a third of the way through the game. I just can't get my head around the lack of a jump button in a shooting sidescroller. It's just too weird.

Bokosuka Wars

Bokosuka Wars is one of the most awful games on the NES, a game that sails so far beyond the realm of ineptitude as to become a fascinating grotesquerie, like the grisly aftermath of a fatal car accident. Basically, it's a kind of prototype real-time strategy RPG where you command a king and his knights and soldiers in a campaign against an ogre chieftain. Battles are completely random; when you walk one of your men into a bad guy the game simply flips an internal coin and one is left standing. If you make it to the final boss only the king can beat him and you have a 50% chance; if you're unlucky you start the whole game over again. The control is slow and horrible and the soundtrack, consisting of one grating, hideous song, will drive you to murder. It's easier if you just see for yourself.

Yet for some reason I retain a bizarre fondness for this game. It's so lovable in its ineptitude. "So bad it's good" is a conceit generally applied to passive media like film and television while in mediums like gaming and literature that force you to actively engage bad is usually just considered bad, but I confess that in my life I have probably put a good three or four hours total into this putrid piece of shit. Bokosuka Wars is the worst game of all time. It rules.

Castlevania Series

The original Castlevania is totally sweet. Not as sweet as Castlevania III and certainly not as sweet as 1991's Super Castlevania IV, but it oozed gothic atmosphere in a way that no contemporaneous NES games even began to measure up to. I don't want to call it "mature," because it still had a narrative that amounted to "go kill king bad guy!", but compared to what else was available on the system, it totally was. It had a grim atmosphere and skeletons and mummies and vampires and Medusa and Frankenstein and Death and badass tunes. Sure, the controls were stiff and the difficulty was brutal, but it felt cool, foreboding. It remains a classic.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is less impressive. Still got sick beats, but it introduced exploration and nonlinear elements akin to a poor man's Metroid and their clunky execution made it the weakest of the NES trilogy (however, I still played it to death as a little kid — I couldn't beat any of the Castlevanias any more than I could sprout wings and fly, so as long as I could whip zombies it didn't make much difference if I couldn't beat what I was playing due to impossible jumps or baffling structure). Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse wisely decided to just reprise the original, but enhanced: three additional characters, branching paths, radder bosses, crazier level design, more attacks and techniques, slicker graphics. It's the best of the three and probably one of the best sidescrollers on NES.

Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers

Rescue Rangers is pure sidescrolling bliss. Lightning-paced levels, zippy tunes, and fast and fluid control make it one of the most kinetic games on the system. Mix that with crazy fun two player co-op and clean, colorful graphics that perfectly capture the look of the Rescue Rangers cartoon and you got a rare licensed game that actually does justice to its namesake. The difficulty is also perfectly balanced, far from easy but nowhere near as insurmountable as Castlevania. In summary, game rocks hard.

Beyond the jump, many more NES memories!

Dragon Warrior

Dragon Warrior is not the best traditional RPG on the Nintendo — it is surpassed by its own three sequels as well as another obvious game we'll discuss in just a second — but it is and will always be the one I most strongly associate with the system, the one that commands my nostalgia. It's virtually plotless, paced like a snail, and has blocky graphics and a clunky interface (you actually have to crack open the menu and select "STAIRS" to go up or down a staircase you're standing on), but something about it is so very nostalgic it becomes almost melancholy.

This was before RPGs had stumbled onto the idea of multiple party members, so it's just you and you alone on your quest. You get all the equipment and you learn all the spells and you fight all the battles by your lonesome, and this isolation does lend a certain Metroidian dread to every trek into an evil cave or castle. Also, in an age of laughable Engrish translations in many if not most NES games, Dragon Warrior's translation isn't just coherent, it takes the time to adorably pepper its dialogue with "thee," "thou," "hast," and other medievalisms. What it lacks in story it almost makes up for in personality and atmosphere. Oh, and as a kid I don't believe I ever made it more than 10% of the way through the game. All the experience points and levels were so very baffling.


Capcom's DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers may not be officially related but they make a perfect one-two combo, both being sidescrollers adapted from Disney Afternoon shows with gameplay styles that complement each other's strengths and weaknesses. While Rescue Rangers is all about forward momentum and nonstop action, DuckTales is a little bit slower and more methodical, with half as many levels which tend to be twice as big. And not just simple platforming stages, either, oh no. DuckTales' levels are mini-Metroids of a sort, large maps that demand exploration to find treasures, health upgrades, and the bosses hidden somewhere within their walls. It doesn't hurt that Scrooge McDuck's cane is reinterpreted into a crazy sweet pogo stick that lets you bounce everywhere like Tigger or some shit. Mix with cool music and you got a complete package.

Final Fantasy

Objectively, Final Fantasy is a better game than Dragon Warrior in literally every way. Deeper combat system, four-person parties, better music, smoother graphics, more enemies, more variety in both dungeons and towns, a less sadistic encounter rate, a rad airship, and even a story that, while still anemic, certainly has more meat on its bones than Dragon Warrior's. To make a film analogy, Final Fantasy dominates Dragon Warrior every bit as much as WALL·E sweeps aside Kung Fu Panda. It's not that Kung Fu Panda and Dragon Warrior are bad. It's just that WALL·E and Final Fantasy are clearly better. (Same thing applies to the entirety of both series, by the way. To say that Dragon Warrior's Enix gained more than Final Fantasy's Square in 2003's Square Enix merger is putting it real goddamn mildly.)

Yet I retain more personal fondness for Dragon Warrior for the simple reason that I played it before I can remember, while I didn't go back and play the original Final Fantasy until after I'd played Final Fantasy IV (then known as Final Fantasy II) on the Super NES, and it paled in comparison. Dragon Warrior was an absolute, while Final Fantasy was merely a shadow of its own descendant.


Gauntlet is a clunky port of the arcade game of the same name with an extremely fast pace and a strange, primitive aesthetic that feels like a gestational period between Atari 2600 and NES. There's no better way to get a feel for what I mean than just taking a look. I never beat it once but I remember the two player co-op being a lot of brainless fun. Looking back, I don't think it was ever actually good, but I liked it.

Also, the summary on the YouTube video I linked says "Play-it-through of the NES Gauntlet with Questor, the Elf. WARNING: Any offensive comments, including trolling, hate comments, and terrorism, will be promptly removed and that user immediately blocked. No warnings will be given." I can see it now; Osama bin Laden typing a nasty message, getting ready to post, then reading that and going "damn it!" and exiting the browser in defeat.

Kid Icarus

Now here is a game I love unconditionally. I loved playing it as a little kid, I loved playing it as a teenager, and I love playing it today. It comes with warm nostalgic memories, yes, but more importantly it just rules and is one of the best games ever. It was developed as a sister game to Metroid, both produced by Gunpei Yokoi and using many of the same assets, but as great as future Metroids would become Kid Icarus obliterates the original. This game's got it all. Running, jumping, and shooting? Check. Tons of cool monsters? Check. Level gaining and lots of additional weapons, items, and power-ups? Check. Nonlinear enemy castles? Check. Charming graphics? Check. Sweet nostalgic tunes? Check. Terrifying Eggplant Wizards? Check. A grand adventure? Oh yes, check.

That sense of adventure is one of Kid Icarus's great and subtle strengths. I love Super Mario Bros., but other than the levels getting harder you can't say that World 1 informs the terrain or atmosphere of World 2 in any way, let alone World 8. It's all real arbitrary. In Kid Icarus, however, you play an angel who has been cast to the bottom of the underworld during Medusa's coup against the Goddess of Light, Palutena, so, naturally, the game begins deep underground and you move upwards to advance. The terrain of the first stage is largely brown, but around level three you begin seeing increased greenery. After beating the underworld castle you return to the surface, with blue sky and plants and ocean, now moving horizontally. A few levels later you're on platforms in the starry sky, making your way up towards Palutena's Palace where Medusa now rules. Finally, you strap on the wings and holy bow you've collected during your journey, fly through the Palace, and face down Medusa in Palutena's throne room. And as the player, that's awesome, because holy shit! You've made it from the bowels of the underworld to the pinnacle of the heavens! Now THAT's an adventure.

Kirby's Adventure

If I step back from my nostalgia hotspots and wield the lens of objectivity, I think that Kirby's Adventure is probably the second greatest game on the NES (behind that one with the frog suits and shit). And why shouldn't it be? It was released in 1993. Japanese developers had had an entire decade to unearth every scrap of power that could possibly, physically be mined from an 8-bit cartridge, and it shows. Kirby's Adventure has the most beautiful graphics on the system (the entire final battle sequence is some next-level shit virtually unrecognizable as being an NES game), tons of varied power-ups, and about forty hugely creative levels, not counting bosses and minigames. The final stage is more or less the entirety of the original Kirby's Dream Land packed into a single level, as if to say, "is this the ultimate sequel, or what?" It also introduced Meta Knight, by far the most badass of Kirby characters. It's terrific, I loved playing it as a kid, and it's still my favorite Kirby game.

Legacy of the Wizard

Legacy of the Wizard is the most inscrutable, frustrating game on the NES — if you try to play it blind, that is, which I did as a kid many, many times. It's basically a Metroid game, with one giant nonlinear world you must explore to get the items you need and beat the bosses until you can open the way to the final boss, only reinterpreted into a nightmare. You see, when I said giant nonlinear world, I meant giant nonlinear world. Look at this fucking map. Just look at it, and keep in mind that your character would be approximately two pixels tall if placed in that image and there are dozens of spots where you need items and keys from other points on the map to advance.

When I was really little, I'm fairly certain I believed that Legacy of the Wizard had no borders and no ending; it just kept going indefinitely like time or the cosmos. And what, not understanding the logistics of technical limitations, did I have to refute that? No matter how far I went, no matter what direction I went, I never, ever seemed to stop uncovering places I hadn't been before until I died and was sent back to the beginning. I thought it was just an endurance challenge game to see how far you could make into the hell labyrinth without dying, and from that perspective, I was a winner, beating my record many times. But from the perspective of the real game, I was the biggest possible loser. I've still never beaten it. I would, but I'd rather just play Metroid again. The game engine is more fun and it can be done in under fifty thousand hours.

The Legend of Zelda

I have a theory (well, not even a theory, just an observation) that Nintendo's Mario, Zelda, and Metroid series all followed the exact same pattern for their first three games. Each began with a game — Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid — that basically created a genre, or at least crafted the rudimentary Atari 2600 blueprint of that genre into something elegant and timeless; sidescrolling platformer with Mario; overhead action RPG adventure with Zelda; and nonlinear 2D exploration with Metroid. Each followed with a second game — Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Metroid II: Return of Samus — that threw out most of the original's engine for something unique never attempted again in the series to this day, and while not considered bad it's clearly a black sheep, less popular than either of the games sandwiching it. And that's because the third game — Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid — is a genuine undisputed masterpiece of the medium that retreated to the mechanics of the original but streamlined and enhanced them to craft one of the finest games ever made.

I'll be honest (and keep in mind this is coming from someone who considers both A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time to be on his top ten all-time): I wasn't really into The Legend of Zelda as a little kid. It was just so oblique, and I never felt like I was making any progress. And indeed, I wasn't. The problem wasn't the monsters; the problem was that I couldn't find the goddamn dungeon entrances. A couple decades later I've beaten the game several times, but I still primarily value it as the foundation for its sublime Super NES descendant. Believe it or not there's actually another overhead action RPG on the NES that I prefer, and yes, it's coming up on this list. Hint: it's a first-party Nintendo game that never saw a sequel beyond the 8-bit generation.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master

There are no words to describe my pure, feverish love for Little Nemo: The Dream Master, one of my favorite Capcom games of all time. It's just perfect sidescrolling, fusing the colorful graphics, catchy tunes, and tight control of Capcom's Mega Man series with costume change power-ups reminiscent of Mario Bros. 3 (you can harness the abilities of a frog, flounder, bee, mole, lizard, mouse, gorilla, or hermit crab), open but nonlinear levels superior to those of DuckTales, and a charming storybook atmosphere. I never actually owned this game as a kid, but I rented it many, many times. I bought it from a retro game pawn shop in New York a few years back for $8, and let me tell you, that was one hell of a bargain. This game is mad sexy. It balls nasty.

Mega Man Series

Where to begin? Mega Man is quite simply the ultimate NES series. That's not to say that any one game is necessarily the best on the system, but taken as a whole it's six games of dense awesomeness, something even the plumber can't claim. So many levels, so many bosses, so many weapons, and all of them sweet as hell. Certain retro gaming hipsters like to whine about how the series went downhill after the first three, but fuck that noise. Sure, Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 are the best, but to claim any of these sublime platforming shooters falls below the 95th percentile of NES games is lunacy. Even the oft-maligned Mega Man 6 has an awesome jet pack that makes you feel like Boba Fett or some shit.

Mega Man 2 is the one that holds the most cherished memories (although the somewhat easier Mega Man 4 is the first one I ever beat). It sits alongside Super Mario Bros. and Kid Icarus in that special category of games that I have no memories of not being intimately familiar with; I began playing it as a wee toddler and never looked back. I think I could even beat a few levels back then, and if you knew how much I sucked at video games when I was four years old you'd know what that says about how much time I spent practicing. Nowadays I can sit down and casually play through the whole game in under an hour. How time distorts things.

The series is also known for having the illest tunes on the NES. I could link dozens of songs and barely scratch the surface, but I ain't got all day so I'll just point you towards the best of Mega Man 2: Metal Man, Bubble Man, and Wily 1-2.


Much like the original Legend of Zelda, I primarily appreciate the original Metroid as the blueprint for its SNES sequel, Super Metroid, arguably my favorite one-player game experience of all time. I said above that I consider Metroid's sister game Kid Icarus to be the far better of the two, and I stand by that — Metroid is a game that has its problems, including repetitive scenery that makes it easy to lose track of where you are, starting you off with 30 health every time you play, a tedious password system, and getting rid of your ice beam or wave beam when you collect the other instead of letting you switch off. But I still enjoy it, probably more than the original Zelda, because I dig nonlinear 2D exploration and this game remains a far better example of the subgenre than Legacy of the Wizard. Its alien settings and eerie music and lonely atmosphere are unlike anything else on the system (and it's pretty cool how you can beat it in like half an hour if you know exactly what you're doing).

Metroid is also known for its "plot twist," wherein protagonist Samus Aran — whom most players had assumed to be male or even a genderless robot — takes off her suit during the ending to reveal that she was a she all along in an era where women in games were always damsels in distress, retroactively making what you just played a feminist statement. I have no recollection of not knowing Samus was female any more than I recall not knowing Vader was Luke's father, so I can't describe my initial reaction to this information, but it gives the game a second interesting historical dimension beyond the way it developed nonlinear 2D gaming.

Mickey Mousecapade

It's from Capcom, creators of Mega Man 1-6, DuckTales, Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, and Little Nemo: The Dream Master, so it must be good, right? Turns out, no, to both parts of that sentence. The game was developed by Hudson Soft but for some reason published by Capcom, who had nothing to do with its contents. Unfortunately, it's Capcom's name at the top of the box, which is more than a little embarrassing. I blamed them for over a decade before learning the dark truth from the internet, upon which I felt like I'd put an innocent man in prison for a murder he didn't commit. They should make a cheesy movie about my ordeal starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell.

I don't want to throw Hudson Soft entirely under the bus, as they would go on to create my beloved Bomberman 64 in 1997, but Mickey Mousecapade is just not good. I knew this even as a wee child. The graphics, bland. The music, ghastly. The levels, uninspired. The play control, floaty. Basically, you know all those things that make an NES sidescroller good? Well, Mickey Mousecapade doesn't have any of them.

Ninja Gaiden

Sorry, Contra. Sorry, Castlevania. You put forth a valiant effort, but Ninja Gaiden is the king of brutally difficult NES action. Everything about this game is awesome, even though as a little kid I'm reasonably certain I was never able to make it beyond the third level (and I know I tried a bunch of times). The gameplay is so fast and so fluid, it's crazy fun to cling to walls, it's got cool music, neat subweapons, and really makes you feel like a goddamn ninja. And yes, it's harder than Ron Jeremy's dick. This game is so, so, so, so fucking hard. And it doesn't have a steady incline, either, it's exponential; every level is twice as difficult as the one preceding it. The first level, no sweat. The second, manageable. The third, tough. Skip ahead to the final level and you find yourself the center of a maelstrom of bottomless pits and malicious bats and enemy ninjas that will break your sanity. I have beaten it, but only once. It took dozens of hours of practice for the final level alone and I'll never, ever do it again.

The game's other noteworthy feature: cutscenes! A lot of them! Before and after levels, coming out to a grand total of about twenty minutes. They may not look like much today, but keep in mind that this was only a few short years after NES cutscenes amounted to "THANK YOU MARIO! BUT OUR PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE!", and this shit was high cinema in comparison. I mean, these cutscenes had plot twists, conflicting motivations, good, evil, familial strife, death, romance — this was some epic material for the NES. Plus they gave you a break from constantly getting knocked into pits by birds for a few minutes.

Spy vs. Spy

We had this game when I was a kid for some reason, and it was so fucking terrible. You run around these six-rooms maps while a piercing song plays and look for your opponent then you punch them to death using the broken fighting interface. I still shudder every time I think about it. Playing it was the first time I realized that a video game could actually be bad, a harsh lesson for any preschooler. Mysteriously, it's one of the only games I know for a fact we had when I was a kid that's no longer in my collection. I don't remember selling it, so I can only assume hell opened up and devoured it back from whence it came.


I said above that The Legend of Zelda isn't my favorite overhead action RPG adventure on the NES, and StarTropics is the reason why. One of the only first-party Nintendo games to never see Japanese release in the history of gaming (despite having a 100% Japanese development team... I don't understand either), I consider StarTropics to be much more of a spiritual sequel to Zelda than Zelda II ever was. Like Zelda, it's got cool dungeons filled with monsters, a mysterious overworld, and plenty of additional weapons and items. But it actually expands upon Zelda in ways beyond superior graphics; the dungeons are far more intellectually elaborate affairs, with puzzles that resemble ideas in A Link to the Past more than anything in the original Zelda, it has much more intimidating, cinematically presented bosses, and more of an in-game narrative that subtly and slowly introduces its science fiction elements before exploding into a full-blown space station final dungeon. It's really cool and blew me away when I rented it as a kid, so it's a shame the StarTropics series saw only one late, middling NES sequel before quietly fading away.

Super Mario Bros.

The sheer ubiquity of Super Mario Bros., the one game on this list actually as old as the NES itself, makes it surprisingly difficult to discuss. I mean, there's not a lot left to say — it's a masterpiece, of course. The Citizen Kane of video games, a game that took all the resources at hand to its young medium and combined and innovated every one of them in a single, sublime package. Up to this point, video games tended to be limited to a single screen or two, with gameplay consisting of performing a single action, made harder and harder, until you couldn't do it anymore and you died (think Pac-Man, Frogger, Donkey Kong). Super Mario Bros. was an adventure, with an ending. It also more or less singlehandedly established "physics" in gaming by introducing momentum to Mario's running. It's easy to overlook the significance of today, but the fact that getting a running start actually increased the distance of a jump was a big, unprecedented deal at the time. Koji Kondo's Super Mario theme remains an iconic anthem of gaming a quarter of a century later. Could this game BE any better?! [/Chander Bing] I'm so sorry I just did that.

Super Mario Bros. 2

I'm one of those boringly generic people who holds the boringly generic opinion that Super Mario Bros. 2 is the weakest of the primary Mario platformers. It's not that it's bad or anything, it's just that everything about it feels very off (because, of course, it wasn't originally developed as a Mario game, only having Mario characters inserted for the American release). It lacks the satisfying Marioian physics I just talked about, it's missing the power-ups, jumping on enemies doesn't kill them, none of the iconic musical themes are there. But it did introduce Shy Guy to Mario canon, and I love Shy Guy.

One habit that has stuck with me from early childhood to today is using Princess Toadstool 99% of the time I play this game, to the degree that the entire experience feels alien if I play as the title character. You just can't beat her hovering technique. Far as I'm concerned, this game has a female protagonist same as Metroid.

Super Mario Bros. 3

Frog suits. Hammer suits. Tanooki suits. Kuribo's shoe. Airships. Toad's house. Boom Boom's fortress. Warp whistles. Koopalings. Parabuzzies. Boos. Boss Bass. Bob-ombs. Sky high flying. Deep sea diving. P-Switches. Infinite 1-Up tricks. Grass world. Desert world. Water world. Giant world. Sky world. Ice world. Pipe world. Bowser world. All these things and more can be found in the NES masterpiece Super Mario Bros. 3. I love it today every bit as much as ever did. As Ferris Bueller once said, it is so choice.

Vice: Project Doom

Vice: Project Doom isn't a very famous game, but I love it because it rips off Ninja Gaiden exactly, right down to the controls, the look of the status bar, the presentation of the cutscenes, and even the obnoxious enemy birds. I'm honestly surprised that Ninja Gaiden developer Tecmo didn't sue Vice: Project Doom developer Aicom, because they would have had a pretty clear-cut case on their hands. But lucky for me, I love Ninja Gaiden, so I'm happy to play more of it (and I know there are two actual NES sequels to Ninja Gaiden, but Vice: Project Doom is better than either of them). The game adds overhead driving and on-rails first-person shooting sections to the Gaiden formula, but the sidescrolling slash 'em up stages remain the best parts by far. It's also just a little bit easier than Ninja Gaiden; still too tough for the layman, but within reason for someone with a little patience and sidescrolling skill. The final stage is hard, but unlike Ninja Gaiden's it doesn't feel like the brainchild of Satan and Hitler.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Of the many strange Nintendo sequels, Zelda II stands alone. It's not my least favorite Zelda — I prefer it to the Nintendo DS games Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, which I didn't like at all — but its sidescrolling and traditional level-gaining make it the blackest of sheep. As a kid I understood it even less than I understood the original. I think I was able to make it to and through the first dungeon, but that's about where I hit the proverbial brick wall. Still, I know some people love it, and if you're among those rare folk you might want to check out the NES games Rambo and The Battle of Olympus, which pretty exhaustingly ape its visuals, control, and structure. The three games almost form an unofficial trilogy. Zelda II is also the only game in the series' 24-year history where Link and Zelda make out. Unfortunately, it's immediately after this particular Zelda has awoken from a centuries-long slumber, so her morning breath must be rank. Link, I'm disappointed.

Honestly, whenever anyone mentions Zelda II, the first thing I think of is bar none the greatest title screen on the NES. I mean, whatever you may think of the rest of the game, that is one evocative title screen. It radiates with the promise of an epic journey to come. Well, okay, until the last sentence of the story scroll clunkily informs us that "Link set out on his most adventuresome quest yet." Still, in the pantheon of terrible NES translations that's a pretty minor party foul. I'll let it slide.

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