December 14, 2010

Old Skool Gaming Nostalgia - Part III: SNES

I remember the first day I ever saw the Super Nintendo. It was on demo in the Toys R Us near me, off in a lone aisle. I was pa-rousing the store's wares when I encountered it; the pixels lit up when they saw me - beckoning to me. I took hold of one of the controllers and immediately confirmed that this was a new Mario game on a new system. I didn't get to play long before my mom found me and pulled me away but the small taste that I got was enough to intoxicate me. I had to obtain this system and this game so I could play whenever I wanted.

Gorgeous. You would cheat on your system too.
The next few visits to my grandma did little to satiate my appetite for the SNES. If the Nintendo could read my thoughts, it would know I was being unfaithful as my lust for the next generation of games I had seen began to overcome me. Then one day it happened the SNES found it's way to me. No longer could I hide my secret from my past love, the NES. I spent the majority of my visit there familiarizing myself with the new system and it's compliment of games.

The first, of course, was Super Mario World. It was a side-scroller like it's predecessor and used the same system of jumping on enemies to defeat them. There had been updates though, now that there were 4 new buttons on the controllers; the ability to spin-jump through blocks and enemies. Also, the character Yoshi was added to the game, giving an entirely new feel to it all. With Yoshi, you could eat enemies, spitting them out into a crowd of their friends or just swallow them entirely. If you ate a certain color of Koopa Troopa you could also spit out fire, stomp the ground with bone-breaking force, or even fly for as long as Yoshi could hold the shell in his mouth. You could also fly indefinitely, eliminating the need to walk everywhere and making the search for secret areas easier.

Good ol' Yoshi. He goes through so much shit for you.

Once I had the system down it was on to the adventure. The game takes you under, over and through the world map on your journey to once again save Princess Toadstool from the clutches of Bowser - King of the Koopas. Each "stage" - now more of a continent now - was composed of markers representing what the level would contain. Dots were standard levels, there were ghost houses, push-blocks, castles, and caves. There were also warp points, like the other games, though this time they were built into the world map. Pipes would give you previews of different areas or sometimes provide small shortcuts through areas that would normally take a little longer to get to through the standard route. The most interesting addition for me though was Star Road. As soon as you got access it, you could literally warp right to Bowser if you wanted to. The only thing was, if you didn't know how to get through the stages they were particularly difficult in comparison to the levels down below.

Access to Star Road is on your left.

So I skipped Star Road in favor of grinding through the levels below, knowing full well after Mario 3 that full completion was the way to go. So I fought through the plains, caves, mountains, forests and chocolate islands - constantly keeping an eye on the world map to see where I might end up. Sure enough, my journey took me to the mysterious ring of rocks out in the ocean near the middle of the map. As I defeated the boss in Castle 6, the path to a sunken ship just before the rocks appeared to me. I entered the murky depths of the haunted ship, dodging the most dangerous occupation of spirits I had seen yet before finding myself falling down an enormous shaft of some sort. I fell through the air for minutes before crashing into the water below, surviving somehow. A lone item sat atop a mysterious floating pedestal. I walked toward it cautiously - congratulatory music playing as I touched it. The level was complete and mere moments later the world began to shake. The hidden entrance to Bowser's country revealed itself as a giant bowser-shaped mountain of some sort rose out of the ring or rocks. I entered and the final leg of my long journey began.

Through Smiley Tree forest and Chocolate Island into Bowser's smelly mouth.

One thing that I've under-praised at this point is the save system. No longer would codes be required to get you back to where you left off in case the system was turned off or God-forbid you actually had a life and had to go somewhere. This game gave you the option to save your game to 1 of 3 slots and would prompt you to save after completing important stages so all you had to do was select that game next time you wanted to play and you would be right where you left off. There was also a number next to your save, presumably representing how many levels you had completed at that point. I used that to keep track of how many levels I had completed so far in hopes of completely conquering everything the game had in store for me.

Fireballs, lava, and moving platforms... I better get paid for this.

On to Bowser then. I had finally made it to his dark, world - presumably in an alternate dimension or something since I had just entered a huge mountain in the middle of the ocean that somehow had a lightning-filled sky above it. I didn't care too much about that though as I faced the hardest levels I had seen yet; bottomless levels, haunted houses built like labyrinths, castles with giant spikes filling the halls and intersecting like I was fighting my way out of a piranha's mouth. It took several tries... but slowly and surely I made my way to the front door of Bowser's castle and entered.

I wonder if this is the right place...

There were 8 doors within, 2 of which I could choose to enter. I chose randomly, and was presented with 8 different ways to get to the end of the castle. This part was by far the biggest pain to get through on my first try and took several more lives away from me in the process, but when I had passed both tests and found myself on the approach to the top of the castle I was overjoyed. A big red door representing the boss room  lay ahead - the point of no return.

Bowser flies around in a flying clown machine of some sort and has 3 stages of attacks - after you survive whatever tactics he employ on you he'll throw out 2 Mechakoopas, which you can stomp on and then pick up and throw. I found that the trick is to throw it into the air where he will be and make it land on his exposed head. If you can do that twice, he changes up his attacks, but not before filling the stage with fire that you have to dodge first. If you survive the "purge" Princess Toadstool will momentarily appear from the top of the clown ship in Bowser's place and offer you an item to aid you before the next attack begins. If you survive all 3 waves of attacks, the flying clown malfunctions and send Bowser flying off into oblivion as Princess Toadstool casually floats down towards you (thank God, otherwise you'd be chasing her ass into space or something). She gives you a kiss and fireworks shoot of into the air before the credits roll.

Help! He's trying to show me Shorty Koopa!

Like Mario 3, you get to see all the stages you went through - reminding you of the shit you went through for her. This time though, the entire cast of enemies also gets mention and there's even a small scene where you trek all the way back to Yoshi's house (walking of course, the Princess gets to ride Yoshi) to witness the birth of Yoshi's children. They're all different colors, which leads to an awkward silence from Mario upon learning that Yoshi is an incredible whore, then the game is over.

After beating the game I learned of the "Special" land and a few other secrets I would have never found on my own. I also learned that the color of the dots representing the levels also represented if the level had a secret exit or "key hole" as I called it. Yellow meant the level had one way out, red meant there were two. The real challenge was the levels that didn't show this, like haunted houses - which were an icon with no color. The way to Special land was also difficult to find because all of the Star Road levels have red icons, but the main exit always leads back to the star you came from while the key exit takes you forward - except for the last level where the main exit completes the shape of the star and the key is incredibly hard to get to without a blue Yoshi (which will fly with any colored Koopa Troopa shell in it's mouth). But I finally found it, after much exploring, and was on my way to what I consider my first "easter egg".

A warp zone within a warp zone... the universe will now implode.

It was a warp zone within a warp zone - a world  above the stars. The world was just one big path that lead to yet another warp point - but the levels along the path were hard as balls. Even with all my experience with other games and the defeat of Bowser it was still quite an endeavor. I went through dozens of lives before I finally made it to the end and reached ascension. I can only assume that's what happened, because I began to see the world in a different light... literally. As I warped on that final warp point, completely expecting to be beamed straight into heaven or at least another galaxy - I found myself instead back at Yoshi's house... but something had changed. The world had changed it's color and even some of the enemies were different. The Koopa Troopas sported strange masks, the Piranha plants looked like jumping Jack-o-Lanterns, and I was confused.  Apparently I had warped so high that I was now in a different dimension; an alternate reality if you will. Touche universe...

If you made it this far you must be mad by now. Warp to find out!

After playing around in the alternate universe, going back to see what all had changed, another game found it's way into the ever-growing stack of SNES games now taking the place of the original NES stack.

Those are SNES graphics? Oo

Donkey Kong County was and is still one of the prettiest games ever released on SNES and, in mt opinion, any console. Graphically, it soars over all the other games on the console by far. Anyway, besides how pretty it was, I had no idea what to expect when I saw this game. I was familiar with Donkey Kong from the NES version where you play Mario in an attempt to rescue your girlfriend from his clutches. I had also played Donkey Kong Jr. once or twice, so I generally thought of Donkey Kong as the bad guy. Not the case here.

You start off with a view of the island Donkey Kong lives on, which then zooms in to a nice tropical beach near the shore where his house is located. When you start the level, the very first thing you do is burst out of your front door high up in a tree. At the bottom is the door to a cave under the tree - which you can enter to find your banana hoard. DK will do a face-palm upon being reminded that it is completely empty, having been stolen (as I found out later).

I'm guessing I've got to go all the way to the top, right?

The first level really sets the pace of the game with it's tribal jungle beat, fast pace, and lines of enemies which you can roll or cartwheel through, depending on whether you're playing as Donkey Kong or his companion Diddy Kong. Halfway through the level you can even find one of your animal companions - a rhinoceros - who can charge through the level, using it's horn to blow through enemies and even some walls. Like all good video games had done before it, the game is riddled with secret areas and shortcuts that the dedicated/observant gamer can find. The map works much like Super Mario World in that when you complete a stage, the path to the next stage is revealed. I always liked this for some reason... maybe it was because it made it feel more like a journey with a starting and ending point that I could look back and see as I progressed.

K is for Kickass!

The effects in the game also help make it shine. From the bright, cheery forest we go to a dark and rainy version, then swim through a lake, a cold cavern, then back to the forest... only a more fortified version with stronger enemies. One thing that took me a little while to master was the barrels that shoot you through the level. The marking one them dictate whether they're automatic or if you have to trigger them. Usually, the ones you have to trigger, spin around and/or move, making it difficult to hit your target - whether another barrel or solid ground. It's easy early on, but there are stages that require a lot of skill to get through... especially when not only aim matters, but timing also.

When you get to the first boss it's pretty straight-forward; avoid getting run into and pounce on his head. If you've got your companion you can make one mistake, if you're all alone you've got one shot. The fight isn't hard though, so once you know what to do there's not much skill required. Once you defeat "Gnawty" - the giant gopher-like boss - a giant banana drops mysteriously from the sky and you do a little victory dance that I never get tired of watching.

Once out of the jungle, the real shit begins. You've made it up to the mountains, filled with old mining complexes and ancient ruins. The first level starts out with more awesomely atmospheric music and scenery, plus another animal companion (if you find him) that will help you through the level. The level is generally very calm, which is an excellent prelude to the next one - which is a mine cart ride from hell. 

Oh my God! Who's idea was this?!

This is the first level that really gave me trouble the first time I played it. But even with all the times I died, I was having an insane amount of fun trying. It's incredibly fast-paced and the gaps, dips, and obstructions in your path require your undivided attention and quick reflexes. It reminded me a lot of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I loved it... and was anxious for more.

The rest of the stage is filled with mines and finishes with ancient ruins before the next boss. Another level here that gave me a lot of trouble was one of the ancient ruin levels where, the entire time, you're chased by an enormous stone block that will run over you if you don't outrun it. Again, it reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark - the first Indiana Jones movie. Even though I got squished over and over, I was eating this up - I loved it! After defeating the second boss - a giant flamingo whose beak you need to jump up and smack with the aid or a rubber tire - you're on to the mountainous forest.

Boing... boing...

This area is not for the weak; the stages are long, filled will all kinds of difficult enemies - not the least of which is swarms of birds that you can't hit head on and fill the screen in waves. Once again, insanely impressive graphics make a great distraction as you make your way through the level, dodging enemies left and right. One of the stages is actually a treetop town, which looked similar to the Ewok village in Star Wars. Did George Lucas endorse this thing or what? Eh, no matter. It's filled with waves of enemies on the platforms and a cluster-fuck of barrels that require excellent timing to navigate through. 

Unfortunately, no Ewoks are here to help you.

Towards the end of the stage is another tropical jungle, like the one you start in, only infested with annoying birds and rodents. Eventually you make it to the next boss - a giant bee named "Queen B." - who you have to throw barrels at as she zips around the screen trying to impale you with her stinger. This is the first boss you can't just jump on like the others, so it makes for an interesting fight.

The stages that follow become increasingly harder and put everything you've learned so far to the test. In one of the upcoming worlds you find yourself in an industrialized area, far from the trees and mountains you're used to. Just when you think you might get a taste of nature again, you find yourself instead in a lake completely polluted by the nearby factories and filled with enemies none too happy about their predicament. If you survive to the end you have to take out a giant drum barrel by avoiding it as it smashes down on you.

There's no place like ho- wait, water isn't green...

Once you're "out of the woods", you come to the tip of the mountain. As expected, it's covered in snow and is prone to white-outs, which make it near impossible to see, steep drop-offs, ravines, and slippery ice-filled caves. While the white-outs and large gaps requiring barrels to cross are a real pain, the level that gave me the most frustration was the ice cave. The floors weren't the problem; it was the frozen ropes the you slide down (or up) while a swarm of enemies lie in wait for you to mess up once. You might jump to one thinking you're safe only to have it make you slide up too quickly and jump right into an enemy waiting at the top of the next rope or have you shoot down so fast that you slip off completely and fall to your death.

Balls...

If you manage to make it this far, congratulations - now comes the REAL hard stuff. The last world before the end of your journey is a mix of industry and abandoned caverns - all stuff you've seen before, but mixed together now. Most of the levels are open cave spanned by a vehicle that runs on a track. The first version of this isn't too hard, as long as you watch for gaps in the track and find either the next vehicle or solid ground to land on before it falls into oblivion. The next version of the level, however, is no similar tale...

This time the vehicles require fuel to move or you're fucked. And yes, the fuel is a bitch to find let alone acquire. You'll find yourself jumping over big groups of enemies, running above the vehicle on platforms, hoping to God you find fuel before it runs out and the vehicle sputters out, standing you. If that wasn't enough, enemies will constantly bombard you and even try to land on your vehicle. If you're DK, you can jump on the big ones and send them flying overboard, but if you're Diddy Kong, jumping around them on the tiny platform is your only savior. But towards the end is where it gets interesting, because the final wave of enemies can only be killed by explosive barrels, which you probable won't have on hand 100% of the time, so you'll be forced to time your jump perfectly to jump around them. 

Step forward to enter your death.

Needless to say, I almost rage-quit on this level... but after a small break I was able to come back, try again, and finally beat it. Once you break through this madness it's on to the pirate ship docked on the other side of the island.

Here, you meet the mastermind behind this whole operation: King K. Rool, who holds the remainder of your once grand banana hoard. The fight starts off easy enough - all you have to do is dodge his boomerang-like crown as he throws it at you and it return to his hand. Jump over it, and then hop on his head. He'll run around like a maniac and try again. Eventually, he'll tire of this and bound off-screen, causing a torrent of cannonballs to rain down from the top of the ship. If you can dodge these, he'll try the crown tactic again. Each time you'll hit him, he'll jump away, causing more cannonballs to rain down on you. Then, before you know it, he's down on the ground and you do your victory dance as the end credits begin to roll. But wait... what's this?

"The End?"

King K. Rool in all his pissed-offness.

Is that a question? The answer came immediately when the downed king began to grunt and jumped to his feet, hopping around like a giddy kid with a sugar-high. Once I got the pattern down, I waited for him to throw his crown again then continued to knock some sense into him. Finally he got the message and laid back down, acknowledging my superiority over him. Of course, it took me several tries to get to that point - but I was used to memorizing patterns at this point and, once I had it down, it got a lot easier.

Finally, the real end credits begin to play, complimented by a show of cast - reminding you of the difficulty you faced in getting this far. Once the credits are over, you have the ability to go back and play any level you've already played for fun or to search for secret areas if you want. Also, if you decide to re-enter DK's banana hoard, you'll find all of them returned to their proper place. You'll do your victory dance again and continue on your merry way.

Aww... he's applauding me. Thanks DK!

Overall, the game was an amazing experience that made me believe that platform games like this would always hold a chapter in my life, and I was right. Even today I find myself coming back to these games to relive the experience of those days. Though the initial feeling of excitement is gone, the feeling of nostalgia is still a strong one. It's like love; every time you experience it is different but it's still a strong feeling.

As great as those two games were, my experience didn't stop here... oh no, not by a long shot. This console was graced by many fantastic games... the only question I'm asking myself now are which of these gems left the biggest impact on me. More on that when I win that mental battle...

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