December 10, 2010

Old Skool Gaming Nostalgia - Part II: NES (continued)

Most of the games aforementioned had a lasting impact on how the next 20 or so years of my life would go. I'll always remember them as the roots that started it all. However I was still too young to really understand exactly what was going on in the games and couldn't quite enjoy them to their full potential yet. It wasn't until the early 90's when I was about 5 years old that the real pants-shitting began.

Super This Game is So Fucking Cool 3.
I remember seeing it first on TV - it was the first video game commercial I had ever seen. It was incredibly cheesy and perfect for my little mind to want more than air itself. One day, it found itself into my little stack of games that I took turns playing through over and over again. Finally, all those hours of gameplay spent honing my skills would pay off. I put it in the console (after blowing on it a few times as instructed by my grandma when it didn't work the first few times) and was promptly greeted with a cinema-quality intro that was nothing like the original Mario.

After quickly spamming the start button Mario materialized on the world map. Once again, I was introduced to an entirely new concept in video games and I loved it. On top of being able to play through the pinnacle of side-scrolling platform action, there was now a world map in which I could see all of this taking place. I felt like I was truly part of the world now. After playing the first Mario Bros., I already had a fairly good idea of what I would be up against and what my objective was - and now that I was older, I was beginning to truly appreciate it and become obsessed with the story.

The game was magical. The ability to fly truly broke the barriers that had limited the other games I had played and opened up the world even more. I would spend my days flying around the open air searching for secret areas and items to aid me on my journey. I ate, drank and breathed Super Mario 3.

This image will be imprinted on my mind forever.
Most sessions consisted of replaying the first few stages over and over. The original guide my grandma had was printed before the game was released so I was on my own for this one. However, somehow other members of my family were in the loop - namely my niece Michelle, who showed me how to get to the first two warp whistles and a few other helpful tricks. Once I had the warp whistles it was game on - now I could warp through worlds and, eventually, all the way to the final world and face off against King Koopa himself.

Water World - not to be confused with the movie starring Kevin Costner.
I warped through the Mushroom Kingdom, conquering stage after stage, world after world. I didn't do them in the intended order, electing instead to visit the ones I had not yet seen to see what troubles were in store. Like Kid Icarus, Mario now had mini-games as well and I would always make my way through to the mushroom houses located throughout the world to see what treasures would be in store. Would it be a mushroom, giving me an extra chance at staying alive and getting me one step closer to a fire flower or "leaf" as I called it? Or would I just get the fire flower or leaf right off the bat, giving me the power of turtle-killing fireballs or the ability to soar through the heavens, avoiding all obstacles below me?

Shooting him in the face with a fire flower is way too much fun.
The best times were getting the unique items you would sometimes obtain, like the frog suit, bear (Tanooki) suit or - one time - the hammer brother's suit. On the rare occasion that I'd have someone else playing along with me like one of my cousins or my younger sister, I would make it into a game to try and guess which of the three boxes would have the special item in it. They would also help me through the Memory card game where you had to flip cards and find two that matched to get the reward on that card. I was the oldest of my generation so that was typically the best help I got from them, otherwise I had to expect a lot of amateur deaths or possibly getting sucked into the sewers by them to play the arcade mini-game where the winner could usurp the current players turn by surviving with the most points.

Turn 17: sucked into sewer by Luigi again...
My favorite level to this day is one level in World 5 "The Sky" or "Sky World" depending on which version of the game you had where you got to hijack a giant boot and bounce around the level, essentially invincible unless you got hit on any side other than the bottom of the boot. I couldn't get enough of it, and would replay the level over and over just for that.

I finally took the dive. I warped all the way to World 8, bypassing several worlds to go straight to the end. It was a ravaged land, torn by the conquest of King Koopa. I would have to face an entire army of tanks, boats, air ships, underground labyrinths, dark lands and - at the end of it all - Koopa's Castle. This world tested all of my skills as a gamer and I failed many times trying to make it to the end, but one day I finally made it. I braved dark, murky waters, flying cannon balls and exploding bombs, flying platforms moving at subsonic speeds, giants, and several smaller bosses and had made it through victoriously.

This place scared the shit out of me.
My family gathered 'round as I announced I had entered the castle of the mighty self-proclaimed king. I fought through the maze within - danger around every corner. I fell many times but quickly learned from my mistakes and pressed on, wiser with each passing moment. Finally all was quiet and I sensed the end was near. I approached a mysterious bridge that was oddly quiet. This must be it. I inched my way forward to find King Koopa fall down from the ceiling, landing on the other side. He immediately began spewing fireballs at me, giving me no time to think and only time to react. I dodged each one as they flew past me, singing my plumber overalls and hat.

Then, without warning, he lunged at me - throwing himself into the air and quickly crashing down on the bridge beside me as I dove out of the way. The bridge began to break under his weight. That was it... I had to  wait for him to jump again so he would break through to to endless expanse below. I dodged more incoming fireballs, waiting for him to make his move. Finally he jumped, coming crashing down on top of me. It hurt, but luckily I had eaten a mushroom beforehand and was good to go, despite my reduced stature. More fireballs and a jump. I moved away as he fit squarely into the hole he had made before, destroying even more of the bridge presumably separating me from the princess.

No axe this time... he kills his own fat ass.
It took me quite a few tries to learn the pattern and the best way to dodge but after a few tries, while my extra lives dwindled, satisfaction washed over me as I watched that overgrown lizard smash through the remaining bricks at the bottom of the bridge spanning the great divide. He continued through, landing with an enormous thud on the unseen floor of the chasm below. Victorious music played as my final score was tabulated and a mysterious door appeared on the other side of the broken bridge. I entered anxiously.

Inside, to my expectation and relief was Princess Toadstool herself. I had done it. Once again I had defeated all of King Koopa's minions throughout the long span of the Mushroom Kingdom and had saved its ruler. But what's this? A familiar and unwelcome message appeared at the top of my screen as she gave thanks for my heroic rescue.

Do you have any idea what I've just been through?!
So not funny. Lucky for me, she changed her tune when she saw the fire flower I had used to give me an edge against King Koopa begin to burn in my hands. After that, the curtain that had opened to begin this adventure closed and the adventure came to a close. I let the music of my victory seep in as I sat back and relaxed, fully my well-earned reward. Then, the curtains suddenly sprung open again and the music changed. A montage of all the worlds and their enemies began to play, showcasing everything I had just been through to achieve this. Suddenly realization hit me... I hadn't truly deserved all of this. I had skipped to the end - cheapening my victory. I would spend every available moment making my way through these unvisited worlds, overcoming all enemies and obstacles to ensure that the Mushroom Kingdom was truly safe and earn the finale I had just been given. That is... until a new game found it's way into the pile.

Inside the golden cartridge, a wonderful thing was present.

This one stood apart form the rest - it's golden cartridge glittering like only one I had seen before it. The clouds parted and the heavens opened when I learned that this was, indeed, the sequel of the Zelda game I knew and loved. I put it in and powered the Nintendo. Welcoming me back to Hyrule was another amazing title screen and story I skimmed briefly before plunging into the game.

How ironic... this time, you start practically on top of her. What were you doing in here before anyway?
I found myself in a temple of some sort, a woman lay dead or sleeping on a table above me. This, unlike its predecessor, was a side-scroller instead of a top-down adventure game. I really didn't have a preference seeing as it was Zelda and couldn't possibly suck. So I left the temple which took me to a zoomed-out version of the world map that I could actively move around in. Initially I had no idea what the hell was going on and, before I could even think to start exploring, instantly found myself under attack my mobs that had materialized out of nowhere. I fought my way through what I could only describe as jumping globs of Jello oozing through the grass towards me. Once I had defeated them I returned to the world map, just to have it happen again a few seconds later.

Oh come on! I was only in those trees for 2 seconds! 
So I learned quickly to stick to the path to avoid being ambushed, which kinda discouraged exploring in any way for fear of being randomly ambushed somewhere far away from the safety of the path. The first logical thing to do was enter one of the towns located along the path to avoid another ambush. Like most games I had played to date, I was one again introduced to more elements that would be used heavily in RPGs - explorable towns, and characters you could speak to and get hints, health, or even spells from. Most of them would just give very general advice but if you spoke to the right ones they would give you good hints on where to go or what you should be looking for. The first one of note was the candle in the northern palace, which would allow me to see in the dark. Why not? Now that I had somewhere to go, I could take on the random mobs that were sure to ambush me now that I had an objective to accomplish.

A common harlot. She's got the stance and everything.
So I went north, passing through a cave so dark I couldn't even see the monsters attacking me. I died a few times trying to fight back, which was a bad idea in retrospect since they knew where I was at all times. Talk about unfair. But finally, I made it through to the sandy shore of the other side, heading north towards what I recognized as the northern palace.

There's a lot of these giddy assholes in here.
I entered, and the mood of the game immediately changed. This was a real level... like the dungeons of the Zelda before it. The Overworld and perspective had changed, but this began to feel a lot more like Zelda. I traversed the dungeon, killing enemies, finding items, locked doors, keys,  and eventually the dungeon's special item - the candle. After all this, I was able to open the locked door in the lowest recesses of the dungeon and take on the first boss.

It was rough at first, but once I got it down it was time to rape this horse.
It took some time to get used to jumping and stabbing in order to hit him in the head where he was vulnerable, but eventually I got the hang of it. Slowly but surely, his life bar began to drain. As I scored the final hit he froze, then slowly disintegrated as the screen flashed dramatically. Afterward, a key inexplicably fell form the ceiling, allowing me to advance into the room beyond. As I stood next to a stone totem in the middle of the room, a small light shot out of my hands and traveled up to the totems forehead, locking in place as some music played. The points I had acquired thus far rose suddenly until they capped out and a small notification box appeared, allowing me to select either hearts, life or attack to "level up". I chose life at random, watching as it rose from 1 to 2. I'd come to remember this moment as the first time I had leveled up and been given a choice as to what skill to level up.

The rest of the experience was a mixture of exciting adventure and frustrating defeat. The game was hard... even by today's standards. I've only seen the final boss in videos since the road to him is hard as hell to travel down. I've only made it to the actual temple once and I had failed to lower the barrier protecting it so I was forced to go back and promptly died on the road.

On my way to retrieve a "P bag". I really hope there's money in there...
Overall, the game really reinforced the whole adventure/exploration theme for me which would work to make my imagination run wild with my own adventures. When I was forced away from the magical grey box to go outside, I would be the one to come up with the fun scenarios and games to play with my cousins and younger sister. It was around this time that I got my first Legos too and since I usually played by myself I could go for hours sending them on adventures I would construct with obstacles, items and, of course, monsters and a boss of some sort. Little did I know, I was a little DM (Dungeon Master).

But this list wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention one more game that made the final critical impact on my young gaming life...

This is a game I wasn't introduced to until a few years later. The SNES was out, but I didn't own one so this game helped hold me over in the meantime.

This screen would be seen over and over after I learned about the famous "Konami Code"
Right off the bat, I discovered that this game was hard as balls. I died over and over, rarely making it past the first stage. You play a commando who runs and guns through an army of terrorist or something who have set up a bunch of defenses on an island out in the ocean. Your mission is to make it to their base and destroy their operation. Of course, at the time, I knew nothing of this. All I knew was to hold down the trigger and run my ass off, flipping over and ducking under bullets on the screen as they came at me.

Die! Die! DIE!
The game was pretty violent, all things considered, but it's not until later in the game that you discover the true grotesqueness of it all. The game was published around a time that I was just beginning to be introduced to "R" rated movies such as "The Terminator" and "Rambo". Having the ability to wield one of the guns so common in 80's action movies and use it to mow down hordes of enemies was something new and exciting for me. But there was another movie out around the same time that I had seen pieces and parts of, even though my parents absolutely refused to let me watch it so I knew what was going on here.

AHHHHH!!!
'86 was a great year for video games and movies alike. I was born into a pot of inspiration and creativity, riding out the tides as I allowed myself to be mixed into it all. Later on in the game, you begin to see increasingly odd things that break from the terrorist plot mode and begin to seep into the alien invasion mode. After you destroy the first two bosses things start to get weird. The boss at the end of Stage 3, known as "The Waterfall", is this giant alien creature with snakey arms who shoots fireballs from his mouth.

All this thing needs is a smaller mouth inside its big mouth and Ridley Scott could sue.
OK... there's definitely something fishy going on here. That thing looks like something directly out of the Alien movie. With a little twist of the imagination, I was now officially playing my first horror game. Though I wasn't "horrified" perse, the intensity of it all was still something that I enjoyed experiencing and would again in the future.

Automatic weaponry FTW!
But before any of that, I would need the Konami Code. I was taught this code later by a friend who owned the game, who I assume had learned it from another friend and so on and so forth. I didn't ask and I was too anxious to see what lay ahead to care. After an annoying experience of testing the code to see if it worked and finally seeing that it did, we were ready to go. We selected 2 Player mode with 30 lives each and went to down, gunning down enemy soldiers base defenses towards our ultimate goal... whatever that was.

An enemy base mid-wreckage.
He died more than I did so we quickly discovered that you could sap lives from the other player when that happened and we failed a couple of times because of it. But eventually, we got the hang of it and, when he would lose all of his men, the pressure would build and I would be forced to survive alone. Adrenaline flowed in my veins as I dodged walls of fire, floor spikes and every form of weaponry imaginable on my way to yet another stage boss.

When he was killed, exploding in the mandatory ball of fire common to enemies in the NES days, we continued on into the next enemy fortress. I had earned a few extra lives in the endeavor so he came back in and we went to work wreaking havoc on the enemy defenses, using the upgrades weaponry we had recovered from the "eagle boxes" and "balloons" that appear throughout the levels. Once we destroyed the "super computer" at the end of the stage we were off to face the final and most difficult challenge yet. A test of skill and will.

Lawsuit! LAWSUIT!
This is where things took a surprising twist. No longer did we find ourselves surrounded by enemy soldiers and advanced weaponry. No... this was different. We entered into the bizarrely organic stronghold of the enemy leader, evading shrimp-like but alien creatures floating around on a collision course with us. He quickly succumbed to them and, once again, I was forced to press on alone in this horrifying place.

After destroying another large alien creature that looked identical to the aliens in Alien I continued forward to find an oddly familiar sight. I would soon discover that the mastermind behind this entire operation was just that; literally a mind.

Face-huggers and Mother Brain. This game ripped off so much in a good way.
Strange scorpion-like aliens emerged from pods around it, crawling along the ceiling and floor, attempting to latch on to me (Face-huggers from Alien!). I ducked and jumped, shooting all the while as the pods were destroyed, then focused my efforts on the overgrown mass filling the back of the room. Completely unprotected, I took it down easily enough and, like every other enemy, it had a fiery death. Apparently these aliens were prone to spontaneous combustion. No matter, the alien boss was dead and we [I] had survived the chaos. The experience of surviving a nest of horrifying alien creatures bent on the destruction of mankind by shooting and blowing up everything in the way would leave an impression on me that would influence my creativity from then on.

This brings us to the end of my NES days as I remember them. There were a lot of other awesome games I played, but none that had as big an impact as those listed had on me. I also enjoyed Super Mario Bros. 2, Rad Gravity, Little Nemo and classics like Tetris and Dr. Mario, but these are the games I will always remember because of the way they made me feel and the ideas they inspired. I was a great time in my life that I'll never forget... but it was only the beginning. With the Super Nintendo released, I was ill-prepared for the fresh wave of 16-bit games that were about to completely redefine gaming as I knew it...

Coming Soon: The experience of a lifetime in another grey box on top of your TV.

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