#7 TMNT II: The Arcade Game


“All the Classic Feels”

tmnt2
Konami / Ultra (1990)

From the comic page to the television screen, from toys to video games to movies, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their biggest splash on popular culture from the mid-80s through the early 90s. These Four-fingered fellows represented the enthusiastic, fun-loving and do-good spirit of their age.

During their original heyday, something about these turtles begged me to physically interact with them. In Kindergarten I boasted I could draw the best Turtles (the key was in the bulbous muscles), and I craved opportunities to play with Turtle-verse action figures at friends’ houses. More than both of these things, I was obsessed with a certain arcade cabinet at our local skating rink.

tmnt-toys
1988 Basic Figures

That game was called simply Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989). If lucky I could recruit up to three friends in braving the nasty Shredder and his Foot Clan. The music was motivating and the graphics were gorgeous. The exciting beat-em-up environment was addicting, and I felt contentedly immersed in the Turtles’ world.

When it came to converting this cabinet classic to console in 1990, there was an understandable downgrade in visual and aural distinctness. But Konami were able to catch enough of the spirit of what they had created on the arcade cabinet to make their NES rendition a timeless title as well. Changing the name to TMNT II: The Arcade Game, the developers brought the Turtles to console better than had ever been done before.

Classic Konami

According to NESguide, Konami were responsible for publishing 30-some US titles and developing about 40 for the NES. They were incredibly diverse with their craft — not only did they create such top-tier titles as Contra, Super C and the Castlevanias, but they made some darn good SHMUPs (Life Force) and war-themed games (Jackal) as well. Konami’s Double Dribble and Blades of Steel — as well as another Konami/Ultra dual effort, Kings of the Beach — are some of my favorite B-tier sports titles for the NES.

Konami tended to use minimal storytelling as an effective means of pacing action. As a result, Turtles II plays out simultaneously as a tense narrative where the gamer is not distracted from all the necessary brawling needed to reach the game’s conclusion. A few opening story screens reveal that the Turtles must save their human friend, the yellow jump-suited April O’Neil. The Turtles find the level 1 boss, Shredder’s goon Rocksteady, guarding a tied up April in her apartment. But when they off him, Shredder whisks April away. After saving April, the Turtles must also rescue their humanoid Rat sensei, Splinter. Each step in the story is animated with a nice little cutscene.

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“We gotta save April!”
Shredder and Baxter have April
“Dang it they’ve still got April!”
Thank God we've got blond-haired April
“Thank God we’ve got (blond-haired?) April!”

The in-level difficulty of Turtles II is spot on, which makes the player feel he’s earned each colorful storyboard. Each level has a sensible difficulty grade. Initially you’ll engage with up to three Foots at a time, which takes timing to off them one by one if you’re solo. There will inevitably be the introduction of projectile-welding Foots, as well as some level-specific mid-tier enemies to deal with. Enter more Foots, then more mid-level baddies before reaching the final boss. Each level has an overall mix of ‘infantry,’ ‘cavalry’ and ‘artillery’ that produce the perfect Konami cocktail.

Classic Cabinet

The main thing Konami did in successfully converting TMNT from cabinet to console was to retaining the game’s sense of epic atmosphere. The music plays a key role in this, as does the visually appealing sprites. While it wasn’t possible to entirely retain the illusion of depth from the arcade, the isometric view in TMNT II is a balance that gives the player plenty of room to brawl without having to waste time plodding from frame to frame. The end result is one of the purest brawlers the NES has to offer.

No arcade beat-em-up would be complete without epic boss battles. TMNT II offers a slew of bads from the original TV show, including Baxter the Fly, Krang the brain from Dimension X, and of course, Shredder himself. The boss difficulty was at times chin-scratching, as some of the middle-game bosses are rather pushover easy. And Stage 2’s Beebop is twice as difficult, if not more, than his counterpart goon Rocksteady, despite their having the exact same attack pattern. All told, the boss battles are best when taken on cooperatively, as one Turtle can duck and dodge while his brother destructs from behind.

While it’s regrettable TMNT II can be played with a max two as opposed to the four of its arcade counterpart, it’s still a lot of fun to play cooperatively. Rather than a point system ala the Double Dragons, TMNT II simply tallies the number of Foots and other villains offed by each player, making an in-game competition of consistency, longevity and even memorization a premium. Or else two Turtles can team up for a pure partnership as they do battle. Whatever, watching two Turtles kick shell is a Turtleverse must that was sadly absent from the 1989 prequel.

Classic Cowabunga!

The Turtles of TMNT II have the most even effectiveness out of the trilogy. Unlike TMNT I in which Donatello’s bo staff wielded twice the reach of his counterparts, TMNT II features exactly equal fighting ability for all characters. And while each Turtle is equipped in TMNT III with a unique special move, TMNT II equips each Turtle with the same double-hit power move. While this may seem overly simplified at first, one has to consider the multiplayer element to the game — especially when in friendly competition, it wouldn’t do to have one player with a towering advantage.

leonardo-tmnt2.jpg
 “Leonardo leads”
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“Donatello does machines”

 

 

 

 

 

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 “Raphael is cool, but rude”
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“Michaelangelo is a party dude

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This streamlined approach is more true to the original cartoon than it may seem. While traditionally each Turtle has his own niche in the gang (see above captions), no turtle stands above the rest when it comes to fighting skill. They all work together, and generally all defeat or get parried by Shredder. As it relates to TMNT II, the gamer is still free to choose his favorite Turtle, and be satisfied by the nicely animated whoosh of that respective Turtle’s weapon.

TMNT II stays true to the canon in two ways: by casting characters from the original TV show, and keeping a healthy balance between humor and suspense. Despite the peril of their friends, you have instances of lightheartedness. Such as Michaelangelo’s stumble in the opening sequence, pizza product placement, and … is that a member of the Foot clan driving a Chevy?

TMNT 2 NES screenshot Foot Clan in car
Foot wanting to put Turtles away with style
TMNT 2 NES cutscene burning building

clumsy Turtles (Michaelangelo)

TMNT 2 NES screenshot pizza hut signs
blatant Pizza Hut product placement

Conslusion

All told, TMNT II is a complete video game. Not only was is designed by some of the system’s best developers, it’s a timelessly fantastic cabinet-to-console conversion. What’s best is it kept the spirit of the Turtles in tact. Now that’s Turtle Power.

 

 

 

#6 Kirby’s Adventure: Inhale it!


Kirby's_Adventure_box
HAL Labratory / Nintendo (1993)

One of the most recognizable video game icons to come out of Nintendo in the ’90s has gotta be that pale pink copycat creampuff called Kirby.

Gamers less familiar with their retro roots still recognize Kirby from the battle royal-themed Smash Brothers saga, which has been going strong since its introduction on Nintendo 64. Kirby was an original member of Super Smash Bros (1999), where he was seen donning Link’s Phrygian cap or performing a high-pitched “Falcon Punch” thanks to his power-snatching abilities. In the fray Kirby lacked an all-important quickness that is essential to survival in battle, and the featherweight hero’s negligent center of gravity made him susceptible to projectiles and striking weaponry. Poor Kirby! In the ring he is far removed from a homeland where it is considered cataclysmic for a citizen to experience a night’s sleep sans beautiful dreaming.

kirby smash 64
Super Smash Brothers (N64)

Kirby hails from the aptly named Dream Land, a universe with places like Vegetable Valley and Ice Cream Island. After experiencing a dreamless night, Kirby takes on a quest to gather the broken pieces of the Star Rod, which King Dedede has scattered among his friends. However, when all the pieces are gathered, Kirby finds out that the true cause of Dream Land’s woes is a force far more menacing than silly King Dedede. With the newly assembled Star Rod in hand, Kirby takes on the Nightmare for the final showdown on Popstar’s moon.

Kirby melee
Super Smash Bros Melee (Gamecube)

Dream Land is a whimsical land which blends fantastical elements with the familiar. We have gravity, which Kirby can defy by sucking in a liter of atmosphere, as well as earth-like elements of water, woods and sky. Some of Kirby’s adversaries are of these natural elements, such as first boss “Whispy Woods” and the sun-and-moon tandem “Mr. Shine” and “Mr. Bright.” Many of the bosses Kirby faces are strange animatronic contraptions. There is also a nice triple-boss build-up in the final stage, where Kirby defeats the push-over Dedede before taking on the final Big Bad. In-level, Kirby quickly learns to distinguish between enemies who are nutritious in power and those who are just empty calories.

Gaining powers by inhaling enemies makes Dream Land an enjoyable environment to navigate. Part of what makes this so great is that certain items are more fun to use than they are utilitarian. Most powers are commonly encountered, but even the rarer ones can be accessed out of turn thanks to a randomizer triggered by swallowing multiple power-bearing enemies. When it comes to choosing favorite powers, I often take the rare and nonsensical over the practical:

Kirby UFO     UFO  Hands down my favorite copy ability of the game, UFO is also one of the rarest. It is uniquely the only vehicle Kirby can ride. I love zipping around in this thing and zapping enemies with my charged laser.

KA hammer     Hammer  Kirby can really get his ‘smash’ on with this mallet that is exactly his size. When it comes to everyday use it’s not as practical as the Sword, but there are situation-specific moments when the Hammer can make goodies accessible or even unlock secret areas.

KA parasoul     Parasol — While it does supply a weak thrashing attack, Parasol is the most defensive copy item available to Kirby. It’s not merely sun rays he need defend against in Dream Land! The Parasol is also perfect for allowing Kirby to fall from great heights with style.

A huge factor in the success of Dream Land as an atmosphere is its music. Every track is a hit. With names like “Green Greens” (my favorite) or “Island Paradise,” they are less an emotive embodiment of the level theme than they are connected to Kirby as a positive, fun-loving hero. The easy-going, hummable soundtrack is yet another reason why Dream Land is enjoyable to peruse, and not just blaze through from screen to screen.

Kirby’s Adventure is a solid experience from top to bottom. One reason that might be given as to why it does not reach the top-tier of games on the NES console is its lack of gripping storyline. Sure, there is explanation for why Kirby must go on his adventure — Dedede has broken the star rod and dispersed it among friends — but there aren’t frequent checkpoints during the course of the game which remind Kirby to what end he adventures. The bosses seem quite random; a bit of dialogue regarding why they are protecting the shards from Kirby would have gone a long way. Instead, Kirby is left to drift sleepily from one world to the next — or to not, as Dream Land seems somewhat indifferent on the matter.

Another factor of Dream Land that makes it a less hostile place than it could be is its difficulty. Kirby’s Adventure is extremely easy. Part of this has to do with the fact that Kirby is so navigable and nearly always seems capable of performing what you need him to. Another reason is the ability to save your progress, a benefit Kirby’s Adventure gains from such a late release in the NES’s life. The difficulty does play out as  an intentional part  of the game’s design, however. Yet some gamers may wish there was an option to up the difficulty. Or how about this — especially since it’s established that he is benevolent, how about the option to play as King Dedede once the game has been beaten?

kirby brawl
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii)

Kirby may not seem like the toughest adventurer on the NES console, but given that his default weapon is a gush of hot air, this little hero is nothing else but resourceful. He may ever be considered a lower-tier Smash contender, but he’ll always be one of my favorites. Maybe it’s his ability to become many things that attracts me. In my own traversing through life, I’ve found there’s not much that will get you further than malleability and a whimsical response to challenges.

#5 Super Mario Bros. 3: He did it all with the Tanooki


mario 3

If you have any interest in video games from generations past, chances are high you’re familiar with this one. Regularly considered one of the best video games of all time, Super Mario Bros. 3 was originally released in 1988 (1990 in the US) along with its Gameboy contemporary, Super Mario Land. While combined sales of these classics only reached a “mere” 36 million against the original Super Mario Bros.’ (1985) 40 mill, the tandem effort was nonetheless able to ensure that the 80s, at least when it came to video games, was a decade that belonged to Mario.

I have met many people who remember the original Mario NES titles, but get them confused. I hear questions like, which was the one you would jump on flags? (SMB1). Which was the weird one where you could be the princess? (SMB2). Which was the one where you could fly? (ding ding ding !!! — SMB3) Let’s further differentiate: none of the Mario trilogy titles would allow you save your place as you could in Zelda or such amaze-balls sports titles like Tecmo Super Bowl, but Mario 3 is the only one where you could collect inventory items as you go. Mario can collect up to 14 items: in addition to the power-ups mentioned below, Mario can stash away stars for limited invincibility, as well as Mushrooms that make him taller and provide a hit buffer. Other inventory items, such as musical notes and hammers, are interactive with their respective stage map. So what happens when all of Mario’s inventory items are used up, and he must enter a level his little lonesome self? Well, then we’ve returned nostalgically to Mario 1 when we were left counting coins and playing it safe to survive another day!

But before we get into some of the more unique elements of the game — like what in the Land of Darkness even is a Tanooki?– let’s get to the basics. Mario Bros. 3 is all about fun, go-at-your-pace platforming, with challenges increasing as the worlds progress. Being secondary to the action, the story is repetitive in that each of Bowser’s children has attacked one of the Mushroom Kingdom’s countries, or “Lands.”

Each Land has its own personality, and to some extent, a power suit equipped specifically for its challenges. Grass Lands is such the cake walk of elementary levels that one can emerge from the dust of World 1’s castle with two gleaming warp whistles and half a dozen extra items in Mario’s pocket. Much longer by comparison is Desert Land, where the power Leaf goes a long way in allowing Mario to hop out of sticky sand pits, tail-whip ground baddies, flutter around an angry sun or fly past entire patches of cumbersome platforms.

Whether it be the beachy tracks of Koopa Island in Super Mario Go Kart or the dire, dire docks of Jolly Roger Bay in Mario 64, aquatic terrain plays an important part in any vintage Mario title. Super Mario Bros’ gift to the legacy is the Frog suit, a power-up that gets Mario along swimmingly in the water and adds mad hops to his Robinia on land. While I appreciate this adage to the classic arcade game Frogger, I tend to stick to the Fire suit in the water for a couple reasons: I’d rather eliminate my enemies than have to evade them, plus I don’t suppose I’ve gotten over the novelty that Mario’s fire DOESN’T EVEN GO OUT IN THE ACQUA.

In world 4 Mario finds that some of his enemies and terrain have rudely blown out of proportion. What better way for our hero to respond than to mimick some of his enemies by wearing a Hammer suit? In his Hammer Bros. get-up Mario chucks hammers in an awkward high arc that are much more likely to hit targets that are disproportionate.

World 5, which I tippsily warped to after I couldn’t manage to knock off Iggy Koopa in my playthrough (sorry, king of Water Land, I guess you’ll be stuck in your transformed state forever), is split into two sections. The first portion features three levels, two ‘goodie houses,’ two Hammer Bros encounters, a mini-castle and finally, the brick tower that lifts Mario to the sky. These levels are fun and offer an excellent difficulty, introducing new enemies like Chomp and new terrains like bouncy notes over open spaces.

Having progressed through four worlds already, Mario ought to be hip to the traits of the Power Leaf, which he will need plenty of if he doesn’t want to fall off the face of the sky. Mario can also use a P-wing which will give him infinite flying capabilities, but if he’s in it for the long haul, he’s better off saving Peach’s precious presents for World 8 where things get real. Still, one could argue that the P-wing is most appropriate when used high up in Sky Land.

mario ice land
The brilliantly gleaming Ice Land.

Then it’s on to Ice Land, which whether Mario knows it or not, puts him a mere 1472 km from Norway. While Super Mario Bros. 1 sought to depict icy terrain by replacing the game screen colors with black-and-white and the platforms with ice, Mario 3 chooses goes a different route: ice is used as an esthetic upgrade to the game map screen, and in contrast is less dominating in the levels. Ice Land also gives a taste of the puzzle-like elements which will become so prevalent in Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo. My favorite part of Mario 3? Rescuing coins trapped in ice bricks by melting them with my fire balls!

Super Mario Bros. 3 NES review
So many Tubes. Where do they lead?

I always thought World 7, “Tube Land,” to be highly anti-climatic. Until recently, I didn’t realize there was a third warp whistle hidden late in Desert Land, so I would use the first two whistles found in Grass Land to get as far as I could, which was World 7. Not only is Tube Land difficult, but it’s cumbersome to navigate — you think you can take shortcuts to further parts of the World, but you end up having to play pretty much all of them in the end. Tube Land has even more puzzles than Ice Land, and more piranha plants than you can shake a Wii controller at, so get your fire balls a’ toastin’.

Now I know what you must be thinking. WHAT ABOUT THE TANOOKI?! The Tanooki Suit, or ‘Bear Suit’ as we affectionately referred to it back in yesteryear, is a highly stylized — though impractical — power-up that is unique to Mario 3. The Tanooki allows Mario to fly ala the Power Leaf or ‘Racoon Suit,’ but it has one hidden attribute: turning Mario into a statue! Why a statue? Because in Japanese mythology, the tanuki, or raccoon dog, is considered to be a master of disguise and shape-shifting.

Super Mario Bros. 3 NES review
Epic battle between raccoon dog and dragon turtle.

There are 9 possible Tanooki suits to obtain; five can be acquired as inventory items, while four others are found in-level. Three are in World Four, two are in World 5, One is in World Six and three more are in World Seven. It goes without saying that this is more of an ‘advanced’ item,’ and thus my obsession with it.

As great as Mario 1 was, and it was dang near penultimate for a game released in 1983, Mario 3 was far greater. One can think of this true successor as the halfway point between the brilliant “1” and the magnificent “4” released that was one of Nintendo’s opuses for the new Super Nintendo. In fact, they are nearly contemporary. To me that says a lot. Mario 3 is nearly a perfect game — well deserving of a top 5 pick on my list of 100 NES games.

Super Mario Bros. 3 NES review
Tanooki! How spooky!

Want to learn more about the influence of Japanese mythology Mario’s Tanooki suit? Check out this 2011 feature from Nintendo Life.

#4 Duck Tales: Treasure-hunting like a hurricane


Scrooge McDuck isn’t satisfied watching his wealth acrue from the comforts of home, oh no. Just like Indiana Jones can only don his tweed jacket for so long before entering an archaeological adventure, so Scrooge decided to leave his cane and iconic Top hat at home to make a wealth collecting quest. That is, until Gyro fixed me cane up with deadly pogo activation and hockey tape. And on second thought, maybe we better bring the ole Topper too. What’s the point in carousing if you’re not stylin’?

dtales stage select
Pack your suitcase, we’re going to the flea market.

Scrooge braves the four corners of the earth (plus moon) with naught but his cane, spectacles, and a fiery lust for wealth. He must weild his way through the perils of the Amazon forest, a Transylvanian keep, a Himalayan mountainside, an African mine and a UFO marooned on the moon. There are tons of tasty ice cream treats for Scrooge to collect which restore his health and fatten his wallet. His family and friends, who are also lurking in various corners of the environs, stand ready to  offering help or ask for it.

As in any serious platformer, the magic of Duck Tales is in its charismatic levels. Each one has its own cast of baddies and a big bad boss at the end who coughs up the level’s main treasure. There’s also an out-of-the-way secondary treasure chest which Scrooge can only find by putting on his Capcom ‘hidden secret’ shades. The levels carry a unique element of treachery. There are mine carts in Africa, teleporting mirrors in Transylvania, snow to sink into in the Himalayas, and feather-ruining brambles in the Amazon. As for the moon, well let’s just say it has the most beautiful level soundtrack in the history of the NES, so good luck staying focused.

duck tales gold cart
Bless me bagpipes!!! A gold cart of Duck Tales with shredded cash for dunnage.

Without further delay, let’s take a look at the nature of each of each stage in Scrooge’s quest. Here are my own videos of a Duck Tales run done on an emulator set on the EASY difficulty setting. By no means did I explore every nook and cranny, so some of these runs are quite short. Duck Tales doesn’t take long to get through once you get the hang of it. Thankfully, there is plenty of character in each level to make up for a lack of length.

Amazon

Amazon is a perfect starter course with fittingly carefree music. There are four tiers of terrain for Scrooge to navigate. An early cave brings Scrooge below where he can find some goodies amidst the giant spiders and epic bramble patches. On the surface is where Mr. McDuck gets plenty of golf practice, caning various tiles in his environment to eliminate enemies and reveal small treasures. After Scrooge climbs his way skyward, he will have to be daft in evading some pesky bees who threaten to knock him to the rainforest far below. Finally, Scrooge finds himself in the cramped environs of an Incan ruin.

Like pretty much all bosses in the game, Incan Sentinel follows a standard figure-eight pattern that is pretty easy to get in synch with. The challenging part is waiting for the big bad statue to stop blinking before pouncing again. All in all, not a very difficult boss, but very fitting for the tone set by the level design.

Transylvania

Transylvania is a downright spooky place. You’ve got reanimating duck skeletons sprinting at you, large mummies trying to stray from their ball-and-chain, and ghosts popping out of crypts where you were hoping treasure to be. Transylvania is not as extensive as some of the others levels, but there are labyrinthine elements to stretch your mind. Every wall is worth a test for transparency, and every mirror must be checked to determine whether you’re sent to a secret goodie … or back to the beginning of the level.

Magica DeSpell is probably the most recognizable boss from the TV series. In the remastery, her accent is a godawful mash-up between Russian and something completely fabricated, so perhaps it’s a good thing she doesn’t speak a word here. She will try and trick you with her vulture transformations, but a little patience and pogo-caning will make her cough up the Coin of the Lost Realm without too much trouble.

African Mines

Can someone say, social consciousness much? I am glad to report that, instead of children working under inhumane conditions, these mines are inhabited by the friendly Terra-Firmians, as evidenced by Scrooge’s eventual showdown with their leader over the Giant Diamond of the Inner Earth. African Mines feels vast, probably because it only expands southward. There is a decent mine cart mini-game, but I never seem to be able to find when I want to.

The king of the Terra-Firmians has two ways of attacking. He will either roll at you or … roll away from you. Needless to say, it takes just a bit of patience and timing to fell this holy-roller. Which is a bit of a letdown, I must say. As a kid I was enamored with the premise that smooth and pudgy creatures could ball themselves into perfect spheres and throw themselves against cavern walls for sport. Thankfully, they are given a spot more character development in the 2013 redux.

Himalayas

With some of game’s toughest enemies and terrain elements, Himalayas is without a doubt the most challenging stage. On the surface level Scrooge must side-step burrowing snow bunnies while dodging heinous mountain goats, all the while remembering that his pogo-cane is moot in the powdery snow! Effective once again in the icy cavern below, Scrooge’s pogo-cane is helpful in gaining purchase on the slippery icy platforms (hello, Flash Man!). He must also be wary of the lurking giant spiders who are mean and exhausted after their cross-continental commute from the Amazon.

My favorite enemy encounter of the game is when Scrooge proves he was part of the original Mighty Ducks by knocking off a hockey-masked duck with a daft slap-shot. The yeti is a pretty good level boss, too. He’s no nimbler than the game’s other bosses, but his avalanche will make you wish the boss music wasn’t so skittish. And don’t forget to keep that pogo-cane sheathed until you’ve got a clear shot at yeti noggin!

Moon

The Moon stage is the perfect concluding course to the Duck Tales experience. That music though! You’ve got a moon ground level that is thankfully not too dusty for Scrooge’s cane to gain purchase, then several floors in the UFO. Webby sends Scrooge on a side-quest by explaining the need for a key, which he’ll need to summon Gizmo Duck’s crater-crumbling abilities.

By now you know that the bosses in Duck Tales are pie, and the Robot Rat hoarding the Green Cheese of Longevity is no different. I remember the first time I encountered that rat bastard, I was like, what is a mouse doing on the moon? Doesn’t really fit in with the level design (other than, ‘the moon is made of green cheese’), but that’s part of what I love about Duck Tales. It makes it’s own style, baby.

Final Fight

If you don’t want to know how the game concludes, don’t watch this next vid. You can get there yourself, I promise. But here’s what it looks like if you are curious.

Duck Tales is one badass Capcom platformer. It’s not as developed as your Mega Man classics. I really could have gone with several stages per environment. That’s precisely what Capcom should have done for Super Nintendo. But we can’t have everything in life. As it stands, Duck Tales (woot-woot!) is a classic, and obviously, one of my favorite video games of all time. Play it today.

#3 R.B.I. Baseball 2: Tengen’s ballpark classic


rbi

The NES produced many a solid baseball game using every angle imaginable: Little Leaguers were featured, as well as baseball Legends, and even robots. Naturally, most games revolved around the MLB by licensing either the league or its players. One revered series to chose player licensing over league was R.B.I. Baseball. Developed by Namco and published by both Namco and Tengen 1986, the first installment of the series was a smash hit that has gained cult following, and honored with roms such as “NCAA Baseball.”

By the time the series’ second sequel was released in 1991, R.B.I. Baseball 3 had expanded its reach to include not only the players and “teams” from the 1990 season, but all division winning rosters from 1983 – 1990, in addition to the 1989 all-star teams. The 1985 National League East winning St. Louis Cardinals are curiously left out, which is too bad since it keeps the tally of playable teams from reaching an even 50 teams. The addicting pitch-and-catch gameplay is nearly identical in all three games. The graphics are cookie-cutter as well, with the sole difference being the players in R.B.I. 1 look like pudgy middle-schoolers in comparison. So with the cult classic status of the original and R.B.I 3 having stars from most of the 80s, how does R.B.I.’s middle-child beat out its siblings, not to mention make it so high on my list of top NES games? Glad you asked my friend.

eckersly
don’t let that suave mustache fool you! this is one deadly submarining strike-out king.

The simple answer would have to be, “nostalgia.” My brothers and I must have rented R.B.I. Baseball 2 a dozen times before we wised up and invested in our own cartridge. Frequently my younger brother and I would square off in multi-player competition. He would choose the star-studded gents in forest green from “OK” (Oakland Athletics), and I would take the far boisterous boys in aqua blue from “KC” (Kansas City Royals). On occassion my dad would answer a challenge and pick up a controller. One magical day saw me beat my old man solely relying on one Rich Yett, a relief pitcher of the Cleveland Indians with a high ERA and the stamina of a toothbrush bristle.

But as fun as nostalgic sentiments are they can only take you so far. In the end, a classic video game is going to have to offer more than fond memories, and it’s my opinion that our game in question does just that. I keep coming back to R.B.I. Baseball 2 because of the fun and consistent pitch-and-catch structure at its core. Fielding is important, but not nearly as much as an ace pitcher or big-stick batter. In 1-player mode I always feel like the results are fair — if I get hits it’s because I was smart with my swings, and if I come up dry it’s because I wasn’t discerning enough. The intensity rises to a whole ‘nother level in multiplayer, however. Every battle between pitcher and batter is a chess match with potentially game-changing repercussions.

Although there is no differing of avatars, it is amazing the life breathed into the players with solely a name, position, and batting average / ERA to call them by. Games that have to make up player names just can’t compare. Despite there being no MLB licensing, R.B.I. 2 is still able to create the sense of league atmosphere. One of the most enjoyable aspects of season play is finding a niche for players that they never would enjoy in real life. Want Don Mattingly as your Yankees lead-off? Knock yourself out. Each team has a single jersey color that really pops, most commonly royal blue or maroon. One of the reasons I prefer R.B.I.’s first sequel to the original is that it is steeped in Tengen style. There are electrifying fireworks for every home-run and cheereladers pomming after every victory. The most notable Tengen-ism is the treat for playing and beating every team in your league: by playing the game developers themselves!

When it comes to mechanics, the AI in the R.B.I. series is a fun mix between robotoic and humane simulation. While it doesn’t always make the best choice, the COM is very consistent. You will never see a fielder dive for a ball like a human-controlled avatar, or make a quick tag before throwing out the batter at first. As the human in the equation, you will learn which ‘live ball’ sequences the COM will make a play on and which ones they will take all day to track down. There are ways to regularly fool the COM AI — such as being granted a free stolen 2nd base any time you have a runner on 3rd — but you will learn to distinguish between the tricks you can perform and still sleep at night and those that’ll weigh on your conscience.

Peanuts and crackerjacks, are you saying the game has programming flaws?! Of course there are some of those lying around. If I wanted to play a game that has air-tight AI and exact player likenesses, I would invest in the newest gen system — but that’s just not my style. I’d rather stick with a game with the basic construct to get me coming back for more for years. Pitch and catch. I wanna be taken to the ball-game, I want to hear the crowd. I wanna try and mow down Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco with my man, Brett Sabrehagen.

As an aside, I know it may be a discredit to some gamers that two of my top NES games are in the sports genre, but I gotta speak from my heart. There won’t be too many more sports games.

… Or will there?

#2 Mega Man 2: Rock Man at his finest


mega_man2_box_us

The Mega Man series is one of the NES’s great legacies. In an affably cyclical storyline, a kindly brilliant doctor/engineer sends his greatest creation to fight the deadly wiles of a mad brilliant doctor/engineer. Mega Man is equipped with naught but a proton blaster, but Dr. Light has given our hero the uncanny ability to absorb the powers of the robots he defeats. The ‘Blue Bomber’ must use his own scientific method to decipher which of his newly equipped resources are best suited to battle each of Dr. Wiley’s robot masters, as well their respective environs.

In my book, Mega Man 2 the pinnacle of this legendary series, although excellent arguments can be made for several of its installments (who will also appear on this list in good time). Given that each title follows a familiar pattern, what distinguishes the second game from its siblings? Mega Man 2 delivers on an exceptional level all of what the saga has to offer: a highly consistent and interactive hero, unforgettable level music, and iconic robot masters. Along with the likes of Super Mario Brothers 1 and 3, Mega Man 2 happens to be an original standard by which all 2D action platformers are judged.

Mega_Man_2_-_NES_-_Stage_Select

One of the brilliantly original concepts of the Mega Man series is its nonlinear gameplay. The stage select screen is a three-by-three grid of the eight levels, as well as one central box the gamer will unlock after completing the stages in any sequence that fits the gamer’s fancy. Knock yourself out: play the easiest first and save the hardest for last, or reverse that concept for a special challenge. It’s common practice to go after Metal Man first for his coveted, highly maleable metal blade power. In some cases, the level difficulty is cut in half by possessing certain powers: the disappearing bricks of Heat Man’s stage and the fatal cross-screen lasers of Quick Man are two classic examples.

Memorable robot bosses are critical to Mega Man package, and part deux delivers with a mixture of elemental and conceptual themes. We’ve got a wind-worker in Air Man, a water-worker in Bubble man, a fire-worker in Heat Man, a sort of earth/vegetative-worker in wood man, and even the metal-working Metal Man. You’ve got Flash Man who can stop time and Crash Man who obliterates matter with his explosives. Lastly there is Quick Man, who not only eqips Mega Man’s arsonal with a boomerang projectile to ward off any mech-dragons he might find in Wily’s castle, but also elevates his wardrobe with a pair of kitsch, hot-magenta skivvies.

MM2_Dragon_Boss

Once he has crumbled the robot bosses and absorbed each of their powers, Mega Man is given one last password before he makes his way to the newly unlocked territory. In a refreshing and challenging way, Wily’s castle alters the pattern set by the first eight stages of the game. It’s more difficult to predict what’s around the corner, and the bosses have a way of fooling with the very tiles beneath your feet. Even the soundtrack gets a redux: one of the castle’s tricks is transitioning from the mesmorizing (and frequently remixed) stages 1 & 2 theme to the monotonous and angst-inducing stages 3 through 5 theme, only to shut the sound off altogether in the final stage 6! Mega Man 2’s soundtrack, the collaborative efforts of composer Takashi Teteishi and sound programmer Yoshihiro Sakaguchi, is my favorite of any video game ever.

Needless to say, the second installment of the Mega Man classic series is an essential experience for fans of retro games, and even moreso for those who enjoy platformers. Those who are well-versed in all that it has to offer may benefit from a refreshing return to Mega Man 2 by downloading some of the roms developed by some of its many followers, for which the user will need a ‘clean rom’ of the original to play on an emulator (use discretion in your downloads, please!). These roms are a testament to the ‘perfect 10’ that is Mega Man 2, my number 2 game on my list of 100 NES greats.

#1 Tecmo Super Bowl: Tecmo’s gridiron classic


Tecmo Super Bowl, NES, football video game, NFL
Tecmo Super Bowl NES review

Tecmo Super Bowl is a fantastically high-paced football sim with reality-suspending elements and season-long rewards. The game features rosters and teams from the 1990 NFL, including players like Bo Jackson, Joe Montana and Lawrence Taylor. It may not seem like much now, but TSB was the first football video game to feature actual teams and accurate rosters at the same time. TSB was ahead of its time, and it wasn’t until the late 90s when editions of Madden would come close to matching its magnitude.

While the bright jersey colors and magenta end zones are pleasing to the eye, the graphics are not particularly impressive overall. It is the cut-scenes that really dazzle and produce a high-tempo atmosphere: quarterbacks barely avoiding their passes being blocked, wide receivers and defensive backs soaring to catch or defend a ball in the air, and linemen break through to block a field goal or PAT. TSB’s programmers did an impressive job of simulating 11-on-11 arcade action using the limited NES hardware. One of the very few flaws is a flashing of avatars when too many converge on one tile.

Tecmo Super Bowl, NES, football video game, NFL, Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
Tecmo Super Bowl NES review

The tunes during gameplay are very energetic, although there aren’t too many being that this is a sports game with just a few game modes. Soud effects are limited, but effective. Jingles play during first downs and touchdowns, giving the auditory palette some variety.

Some of the quirkier aspects of the game are its most memorable, whether it’s lineman who grapple then throw their man ten yards, a quarterback’s 100-yd bomb, or a kicker’s 70-yd field goal. Another difference from real football is that there are no penalties. Not even a delay of game, so you can wait before a play and listen to the quarterback bark, ‘hut, hut, hut,’ to your heart’s conent! Excluding penalties from gameplay produces a fast-paced environment where the outcome is decided by the gamer with the controller and the players on the field, not some referee meticulously looking under a hood at an instant replay challenge.

Tecmo Super Bowl, NES, football video game, NFL, LA Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Bruce Smith, Bo Jakcson
Tecmo Super Bowl NES review

There are some other quirks to the game that don’t add value to the experience, but neither do they affect gameplay enough to be considered glitches. The first is what is sometimes referrred to as a ‘chop-block.’ On certain run plays, a lineman for the running team will sort of stick himself on the ground just past the lower outside linebacker, causing any defender who comes in his vacinity to get chucked seven yards away. The other neutral quirk to the programming is the way statistics are accumulated in season mode. The quarterback rating system is particularly strange; although impractacle, it is certainly fun to achieve that coveted score of 250+ rating.

Overall, I give Tecmo Super Bowl a perfect 10, because I will never get sick of it. Whether it’s the original on console or a rom created with hacked material, I can’t seem to get enough. Sure, the game has some blemishes, but for the most part they are the kind that endear the gamer to the time period.

But did you already know about this game and wish to be connected with others who love it? Then you need to expose yourself to the online Tecmo community where there are discussion forums, rom downloads, and anything else Tecmo-related you can imagine. You will find info on Tecmo Super Bowl’s sequels from other systems, as well as its prequel, Tecmo Bowl.

So go to Tecmobowl.org. Go there now.

Other interesting links:

Go to TecmoGeek.com for quick info on player ratings.

Go to GameFAQs for one of the earliest comprehensive FAQs for the game.

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Update: I recently made my first youtube video ever, which I recorded with an emulator. It features one of the many excellent TSB roms out there. Welcome to the Ultimate Tecmo Challenge!