December 31, 2010

Greet the New Year... Because it's the Last One You'll Ever See!

On behalf of me and my buddy Cyrus who is doing the artwork for my book "The Zone: Life and Death" I'd like to leave you with some words of wisdom to guide you into the next year.

Seize the day, because by 2012 aliens/jesus/earth will kill us all.

I kid. But seriously, I hope that 2011 will be the start of many great things for me - namely getting my writing published - and hope that the new year will bring more good than bad for everyone else out there. I hope you continue to enjoy my blog and that you keep up the supportive comments and emails that have kept me going throughout the entire process.

Now enjoy the bad-assery that follows:
(click-able link to Cyrus' blog: http://stalker-crossfire.blogspot.com/)

December 27, 2010

Old Skool Gaming Nostalgia - Part IV: SNES (continued)

There were a lot more SNES games I was introduced to over the years, even as the N64 came out. But the ones that had the biggest impact were the one I was introduced to first and stuck with me. I didn't actually own an N64 until around the time I became a teenager so that left a lot of time for the SNES. These were truly the glory days for myself and the console as there were so many good games that inspired me for years afterwards. But alas, there are a few that come to mind that deserve special mention...

A Lot bigger than it looks...
The sequel to the Mario game that came with the system, Yoshi's Island focused on the exploits of (who else) Yoshi and his efforts to rescue baby Mario's twin brother Luigi from the evil wizard Kamek (not Bowser this time), who steals him from the Stork on its way to deliver the twins to their expecting parents. You play as Yoshi and his his friends the entire time while Mario comes along for the ride. You think it's kinda cool at first until you realize that every time you get hit Mario is ejected from his seat on your back and floats off into the air inside a bubble that magically appears. A timer begins counting down from 10-30 depending on how many stars you collect throughout the level and the little bastard cries out "HEY!" the entire time. You will quickly become annoyed with this and wish that something would just swoop down and take him away... which does happen if the timer reaches 0. You also fail when this happens, but at least you get to keep your sanity.

HEY!... HEY!... HEY! *Yoshi puts gun to head*
Most of the time though, you'll be so distracted by the awesome graphics and gameplay that you won't really care. Playing Yoshi is really smooth and you can find yourself getting out of most bad situations easily. Rarely will you die to technical difficulties... especially since you get a limited "floating" ability in case you just miss a small target you may have been trying to jump on. This is a life saver that I quickly came to love.

The scenery and graphics in general were unique to the game and I have never really seen anything similar on the SNES since. Unlike the platforms game before it, it gets away from the blocky feeling of it all with nice, clean transitions between tiles and even adds some nice effects like round, rolling objects (such as giant boulders that chase you through caves Indiana Jones-style).

There are 8 worlds with 8 levels, including 2 boss castles placed at level 4 and 8 of each world. Each boss battle is unique and fun - I went back and played them over and over just because the battles are so amazing. The most memorable battle for me was one where you fight this giant blob of some sort wearing an equally enormous pair of pants, which slowly sink down as you throw eggs at him. When you deal the finishing blow, his pants disappear completely and he turns red (blushing, I always assumed), then flies around the room like a deflating balloon.

Have you no shame?!
Besides him there is a giant Koopa Troopa where the objective is to jump on his head, forcing him to spew out eggs that you can fire at him. You have to wait until he decides to stand up and charge you before firing, which knocks him off balance and leaves his belly exposed. Then you ground-pound the shit out of him. Rinse and repeat. In another battle, you fight a giant water-passed Piranha Plant with tentacles and toxic spores. THEN... as if that weren't enough - you fight a giant crow who picks you up and drops you on the freakin' moon where you literally run around it, wait for him to stand over a stake, then pound down on it from the other side of the moon, driving it up through his insidey parts. Epic!

Suck it Neil Armstrong
The music is very non-Mario-ey - you won't recognize a single track - but, as always, it is very fitting and it'll be stuck in your head all day if not for as long as you have the ability to breathe. This game is truly one of the best evolutions of the platform genre as seen the uniqueness of every level in the game. You spend most of the game taking it all in and enjoying the hell out of it.... but even if you think you've got it down, you're in for a ride when you get to the final level.

No! I'm not Yoshi you idiot! Get the green dinosaur-thing!
In the final castle you finally confront the wizard responsible for all this trouble and meet your soon-to-be arch-nemesis, Baby Bowser. As always, he's too much of a pussy to fight you himself so he instead sends Baby Bowser - who decides he wants to ride you. Baby Bowser can imitate your ground pounds, which he uses in an attempt to mount and ride you like a "horsie" or send a deadly shock wave through the floor to knock Mario off of your back. Seriously, that is his motivation in this battle; he doesn't wanna kill you, he just wants a ride! But you're having none of that - Mario has dibs.

You defeat him by sending the same shock wave back at him, making him trip, and then ground pounding him instead. It's called Karma little guy. When you feel manly (dinosaurly) enough, having sufficiently beaten up a baby, the wizard Kamek will rain magic down on him, like every other boss before you, enhancing his abilities. Apparently he gave Bowser a little too much out of desperation, which results in him growing to ridiculous proportions, destroying most of the castle on the process. Oh well, there's probably thousands of minions who would like to stop pacing in far-off regions anyway.

Nice night were' ha- HOLY DONKEY BALLS!
Now the system changes and you face the background where Bowser looms over you, wreaking all sorts of havoc on the remains of the castle. Every once in a while, giant eggs will rain down - which you can grab like any other - and hurl at Bowser. This totally changes the aiming system you may or may not have mastered by now, and can be a real bitch to figure out, since you're no longer firing in a straight line, but an arc. You'll be forced into a crash course since, the entire time you're trying to hit him he moves closer and closer to you, making the battle a race against time. Every time you hit him he runs several paces forward too so if you manage to beat him  -whether by a wide margin or a matter of seconds - he'll be way too close for comfort.

When you do finally defeat him, he'll erupt into magical fireworks and collapse on the remains of the castle before you. Then, you save Luigi and are returned to the Stork who delivers you to your parents. Decades later, a sibling rivalry begins that makes Yoshi will wish he had just stayed out of the whole thing and saved himself the trouble.

For me, the game was a perfect mix of cheeriness and ominousness. Most of the levels are bright and happy with friendly-ish enemies who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, whereas the castles are dark, dreary, and usually consist of non-biological enemies like spikes, crushing blocks... and spiky crushing blocks. On top of that, the replay value is great because each level keeps a score of how many items you collect and "grades" you for your completion with a percentage. You can go back and see all these percentages on the level select screen and unlock bonus levels upon completing every level in a world. This brought me countless hours of enjoyment as I scoured the levels for secrets like all the good platform games before it.

Not your grandfather's platform game...
But my fascination for the platform genre could only hold me over for so long when I suddenly happened upon a little gem... a game that would go on to be one of my favorite games of all time.

I just came.
The first two adventures had left me craving more... and now it was here, in all it's 16-bit goodness. As had become my custom, I blew through the intro in favor of jumping right into the gameplay without a clue as to what the story was. The game starts out on a stormy night where you - Link - are abruptly awakened from your sleep by a vision of Zelda begging you to rescue her from the dungeons of Hyrule Castle. Apparently some wizard is attempting to free Ganon - your arch-nemesis -from the Dark World where he was imprisoned when he stole the Triforce from the Sacred Realm.

So you wake up as your uncle heads out the door to deal with some situation at the castle. He tells you to stay inside and heads out into the storm. You dick around inside for a while, throwing pots around in a fit because he treats you like a little kid. Wait... you are just a kid. How did that happen? Oh well, moving on. You walk outside and follow the road north to the castle, getting heckled by any guards you talk to along the way, eventually making it to the courtyard of the castle. After being turned away by a rather menacing-looking guard, you find your way in through a hole in the garden and enter the castle dungeons.

Before long, you bump into your fallen uncle who was beset by castle guards - who have gone mad for some reason - and tells you to take up his sword and shield and attempt to finish the task he could not; rescue Princess Zelda. This is where you get your first real experience in fighting - both in-game and out it would seem since you're just a boy now - as you clear the way through the dungeon guards to the cell where Princess Zelda is being held hostage. Once you defeat the jailer and rescue the princess, she asks that you take her to the sanctuary by means of a secret passageway hidden in the castle. You brave your way through dungeon rats, bats, and other perils then finally make it through the the sanctuary where a wise old priest agrees to keep her safe while you try to figure out why the hell you just had to fight through once-friendly guards.

You better not molest her while I'm gone.

The majority of the game involves just that as you traverse all of known Hyrule in search of three pendants of power that you need to obtain the long-lost Master Sword from the Lost Woods. The Master Sword is the only thing that can stop the evil wizard and his plans to enter the Dark Land and free Ganon. The pendants are hidden away in three castles located all over Hyrule. Each castle has items that will help you along your way, like all the Zeldas before it. You can also find items in other places that will help you greatly, which really promotes exploration as a lot of them are hidden away.

The boss battles are exciting and each victory is sweet, leaving you with a great feeling when you manage to kill the boss. Bosses are much more intelligent and Link is much more controllable than previous Zelda installments so it really gives the game a whole new epic feel. The music does nothing but compliment the intense battles and atmosphere of the game, so I was constantly immersed in it. The villages and townsfolk who live there are also a welcome change in pace when you come back from the dangers of distant locations.

Once I had acquired all three pendants I was off to the Lost Woods. As soon as I entered I was immediately hit by the atmosphere of the place; the thick, fog slowly rolling by, the twists and turns of the old gnarled wood and the suspenseful music as I searched for the resting place of the one and only Master Sword. Then I saw it. A beam of light shone down upon the stone pedestal bearing it through the ages. Small critters scurried away as I approached the pedestal and presented the pendants before the alter. With new strength, I claimed the sword and held it high above my head, feeling its awesome power course through me. She must have sensed my success because soon after, I received another telepathic vision from Princess Zelda, once again beseeching me to come to her aid as guards approached the sanctuary that she had been hiding in.

Note to self: do NOT sell this to a merchant.

I rushed to her aid but was too late. The old priest lay dying on the floor - killed in cold blood in a holy temple of the gods. He urged me to pursue the guards on the way back to the castle before they could sacrifice the princess and break the seal of the old wise men. I fought my way through each level of the castle and up to the roof, breaking through the magical barrier with my new weapon. By the time I found the wizard at the top of the castle I was too late. I watched as Zelda disappeared before my eyes, and the seal was broken. With that, the wizard disappeared to attend to whatever business he was occupied with. But I wasn't falling for any bar tricks. Enraged, I followed his image through the curtains behind the sacrificial alter and found him in his lair.
For my next trick... bubbles!

Caught off guard, he went into a flurry, unleashing his foul magics against me. With the aid of the Master Sword, I found I was able to deflect his attacks back towards him. After a long battle of deflecting balls of plasma, dodging lightning bolts, and staying keen as he transported around the room, I defeated him. But he was not willing to give up yet. With his last ounce of power, he opened the way to the Dark Land, sending me through to meet my doom at the hands of the evil trapped within.

As the dizziness wore off I found myself in the tainted Dark Land; a shadow of the former Golden Land that contained the legendary Triforce. In order to restore the land to it's original state and defeat Ganon, I would need to rescue the seven maidens, ancestors of the original wise men who had formed the seal on the Golden Land. Once rescued, they could combine their powers to break the seal on the wizard's fortress atop Death Mountain. The enemies and obstacles I faced before me made the dangers of Hyrule pale by comparison. The seven bosses guarding the crystals entrapping the seven maidens proved to be an enormous challenge as the power of the Dark Land enhanced their abilities greatly. But one by one they fell, and at last I had all seven crystals I needed to break the seal to the wizard's lair.

The not-so Golden Land.

I climbed Death Mountain, battling monsters I had only heard of in legends as I made my way to the peak of the mountain. With the seven crystals in hand the seal was broken and I entered the final dungeon. An immense labyrinth lay before me. After much time and effort I finally found my way to the final chamber. I would end this cruel wizard's life and finally all of this madness would come to and end. He came at me, stronger than ever in the heart of his power. But his arrogance was once again his mistake as I anticipated his attacks and fought bravely to combat them... but again he was unwilling to quit, morphing into a giant bat and fleeing the scene. I was granted a vision, and watched as he broke through the roof of the pyramid-like structure I had found myself on when I had come to this land.

I tracked him down, making my way back to the pyramid and jumping down the hole the wizard had made in the top. Then it hit me; the pyramid was the resting place of the Triforce... and Ganon himself was the new curator. There was no way out now; it was inevitable that we fight... deep down I knew it would happen all along. He tested my abilities like a child tests a bug, toying with me as he threw a trident around the room like a boomerang. I got a few stabs in at him, which he quickly laughed off and proceeded to blow all the lights out in the room, not giving me the decency of fighting him face to face. I scurried to relight the torches, hoping even the dimmest light would give me a glimpse of his shadow as he moved stealthily around the room in full stalker mode. He clawed at me in the dark as I struggled to fight back, sustaining several blows before he finally backed off. This went on for ages until, at last, he let out a final growl and collapsed to the floor. I had done it - I had defeated the greatest evil Hyrule had ever known in the Golden Land, tainted by his power.

He was the only blue pig growing up, and that made him weird. 

Deeper inside the temple I found the Triforce. The voices of the ancestors greeted me as I reached out and touched it, instructing me that I could have whatever my heart desired. I thought back to all those who had helped me during my journey and all their troubles and wished them all happiness, then watched as my wish unfolded before me. I was taken back to my home land, seeing it changed for the better and safe from Ganon and his evil minions. I had done it. I was a hero.

Too... heavy...

Whew... epic walk through complete. Needless to say, The Legend of Zelda was the first game that truly made me appreciate the modern RPG and set the bar for what an adventure should truly feel like. After defeating Ganon, I played again, making an effort to search far and wide for any lost secrets that I might have missed the first time through - but mostly it was just to relive the great adventure I had just experienced one more time. The SNES saw many amazing video games - many of which were the blueprint for a lot of modern games that we know and love. Although the aforementioned games had the largest effect on me, there were several other games that I played later that definitely deserve mention for their ongoing impact on me and the industry itself.

To be continued...

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...

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.