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DONKEY KONG CLASSICS

NINTENDO

 

ACTION

 

NES

 

 

I must say that I'm both surprised and amazed by Nintendo's home conversions of Donkey Kong.  I'm surprised the NES version of the popular coin-op, which was crucial to Nintendo's success as a game publisher, is not the perfect translation one would expect.  I'm amazed that Nintendo published it a second time (along with its sequel, Donkey Kong Jr.) with the same flaws and omissions.  Frankly, I think most NES players expected better, and every Donkey Kong fan deserved better after putting up with a half-dozen weak translations for other systems.  An incomplete conversion is understandable on the ColecoVision, but Donkey Kong is Nintendo's own game, and it should have been flawless when designed by Nintendo's own programmers, on Nintendo's own system.  Considering the circumstances, anything less than the absolute best- anything less- is unacceptable.

I'm certainly not expecting too much, but maybe I am overreacting... this conversion of Donkey Kong is far more faithful to the arcade original than any that have come before it.  It blows away the very incomplete, yet strangely popular, ColecoVision game with brighter, more colorful graphics, better sound effects, more accurate physics, and many of the gameplay elements that punched out around the time the ColecoVision game was under construction.  When Donkey Kong throws a barrel in the NES version, it rolls all the way to the bottom of the screen until it reaches the oil can, where it's reborn as a fireball with beady little eyes.  In the ColecoVision game, the same barrel would make a sneaky exit off the side of the screen after rolling past Mario.  This makes the NES version a lot more exciting and intense... all those barrels put a lot more pressure on the player, even if some of them are no longer able to harm him.  Speaking of pressure, Mario doesn't get a free ride from the hammer like he did on the ColecoVision... this less mighty mallet will only destroy barrels if it physically touches them.  If your back is turned when one of Donkey Kong's unwelcome gifts hits you, Mario is gonna die, just as he should.  Even those great little point labels were left intact; leap over something dangerous and the NES will inform you of your reward, unlike the same game on the ColecoVision.  Apparently, the designers didn't think they were important... but screw that!  They're important to me!

Although there's no question as to which version is best, Donkey Kong on the NES is still missing a lot of things from the arcade game.  You could have lived without them in 1983, but you tend to be less forgiving five years later, after you've played the more complex Super Mario Bros.  Just like in the ColecoVision version, the cement factory is gone, and so are most of the intermissions... the only one that made it is Donkey Kong taking a dive after you pull the rug (and girders!) out from under him in the last round.  You'd think it wouldn't be too tough for the NES to draw a black screen with a few silly looking apes stacked on top of one another... after all, it was the same system that turned the otherwise mediocre Ninja Gaiden into a legendary cinematic experience.  This doesn't really affect the gameplay, but the simplified bonuses and less reliable hammers definitely do.  Jumping clusters of barrels nets you... 100 points for each barrel, rather than a much deserved special award.  The new scoring mechanics don't give you much incentive to take a risk and clear multiple barrels at once.  As for the hammer, you're no longer warned when it's about to disappear, which is pretty important information when the barrels get thick.  It would be like Namco releasing a Pac-Man game where the monsters don't flash white before turning back... there's just not enough indication of how long you can count on being protected from the enemies.

The NES version of Donkey Kong Jr. must have been born a year or two after its pop, because it's a more complete conversion of the arcade game.  You get a complete set of rounds, including a power plant teeming with deadly sparks.  It's no cement factory, but it does help close the gap between DK and DK Jr. with its emphasis on jumping rather than climbing.  The intermissions are still gone (which is doubly frustrating, because who the hell remembers them from the arcade game?), but overall, this is a better translation than Donkey Kong.  The other edge of this blade is that Donkey Kong Jr. is an inferior game.  Mario's not a great villain (I don't buy him using a whip, not even during intimate moments with the princess), and Donkey Kong sure as hell doesn't fit the role of the damsel in distress.  Donkey Kong Jr. fares better than either of them... he lacks the appeal of today's video game mascots, but he does have a nice blend of toddler cuteness and gorilla goofiness that adds personality to the game.  However, his inexperience as a hero really shows when he's climbing ropes at various inconvenient speeds and leaping to tiny platforms... then missing them.  The level design isn't very impressive either, thanks to the abundance of vines and chains that slow the game down and make it tough to dodge the flocks of parrots and Mario's wind-up bear traps (I bet these would be a lot more useful to Mario now, although they don't really fit his current harmless image.  Maybe he'll lend a few to Wario when he gets his own GameCube game).

Of course, there are some people out there who probably loved Donkey Kong Jr., and wouldn't mind getting a competant translation of Donkey Kong to go along with it.  I'm sure they'll be satisfied with this cartridge, but I'm not.  I just can't be happy with a good version of Donkey Kong when I'm sure Nintendo could have made a perfect one.
 

FREEDOM FORCE

SUNSOFT

 

LIGHT GUN

 

NES

 

 


Although it was one of the most widely distributed peripherals ever, Nintendo's Light Zapper didn't get much use past the obligatory games of Duck Hunt when players first took their systems out of the box.  How many other light gun games do you remember for the NES?  I'm guessing that, unless you had a subscription to Nintendo Power from the very beginning and still haven't let yours lapse, you can only come up with Operation: Wolf and possibly Baby Boomer... and that's only if you were a sadist who thought you could actually fire at the baby.  Whatever you came up with, it's unlikely that you thought of Freedom Force at all.  That's a shame, because this often ignored Sunsoft release was easily one of the best NES games specifically designed for the Zapper.

As the name suggests, Freedom Force has you and a friend (if you don't mind passing the gun around like a hot potato between rounds) battling terrorists.  Neither the identity of these bag-headed bastards or their ambitions are ever really explained in the game itself, but hey... they're terrorists, and they're holding Americans hostage.  What more motivation do you need to blow them away?

Like most NES Zapper games, Freedom Force is more a test of accuracy than today's over the top titles, which require fast, constant firing.  Once a terrorist is shot, you can put the rest of his body in a bag and forget about him... this isn't House of the Dead, where you have to puree' the enemy with bullets before it finally gets the point and stays down.  Speaking of which, it's worth pointing out that Freedom Force is pretty simplistic in comparison to Sega's light gun games.  You can't break any background objects, and there are no hidden items.  The few bonuses you can get are collected from the lower right hand corner of the screen rather than from enemies.  Just be careful when you try to get these, because the computer likes to throw in an icon of a terrorist... nick this with a bullet and the screen will quickly become congested with angry bagheads.

That's one thing that keeps this admittedly simplistic game from becoming boring... it can get intense.  You'll have to fire quickly and precisely to tag all the terrorists and keep yourself from being injured by their sprays of machine gun fire and grenades.  The hostages and a limited supply of ammo keep you from getting too reckless, although you can rack up quite a body count before the game bothers to punish you for your mistakes.  Aside from this, the game is pretty realistic... instead of shooting cute duckies or cardboard cutouts, you're in a serious real-life situation, and the game very nicely reflects this.  Enemies don't just flash when you shoot them... they'll collapse, sometimes falling out of windows and always spurting a little blood.  The animation in general is excellent for an early NES game... you can see just how evil the terrorists really are when they shove hostages into doorways, hoping to use them as a diversion, then yank them back out if you don't take the bait.  The music is just as exciting, especially once the penalty icon's been hit... after an initial note warning you of your mistake, the soundtrack becomes incredibly frantic.  If you remember the boss fights in Sunsoft's more popular game Blaster Master you'll know what to expect.

Unfortunately, Freedom Force's requirement of a light gun kept players from paying much attention to it when it was first released, and it's just as detrimental now that most people play NES games on emulators.  Most emulators just don't have support for light gun games, and the few that do expect you to play the games with a mouse instead.  As you might imagine, it's a lot tougher to kill a terrorist with a mouse than a gun, not to mention a lot less satisfying.  That's why I couldn't really recommend Silent Scope for the Dreamcast, and it's why I can only recommend playing Freedom Force on a real NES.  Sure, it takes a lot of effort to actually get a Nintendo Entertainment System to work, but you'll be happy you struggled with it after you've played a few games of this outstanding shooter. 
 

HOGAN'S ALLEY

NINTENDO

 

LIGHT GUN

 

SYSTEM

 

 


Since picking up Freedom Force, I've gotten into the odd habit of collecting NES light gun games.  However, if most of them are as bland and uninvolving as Hogan's Alley, I'll probably kick this habit like a bad... well, you know.

There are three different modes in Hogan's Alley... the first is a very simple reproduction of a police firing range.  Three cardboard cutouts are pulled into the end of a corridor, then flipped around revealing both dastardly criminals and mild-mannered citizens.  The artwork for these characters is probably the best part of the game... they're very well drawn charicatures of sleazy thugs, grumpy old men, and stick-wielding, big-chinned cops.  You can almost hear the Edward G. Robinson imitation when you blast that snarling mafia boss, complete with sunglasses and a corsage.  Unfortunately, this silly yet savory Nintendo cheese is spread across a very thin cracker... you'll deal with the same number of targets in the exact same places every single time, and you'll spend more time waiting for those targets to roll into place than firing at them.

The game picks up a little in the second mode, which takes the same six targets and distributes them throughout a small, simply drawn city.  All you'll find in this town are a construction site, a gun shop (which makes sense, since nearly everyone in the game seems to have one), and an apartment building, all drawn with text and leftover Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong graphics.  They're functional at best, but the backgrounds do give the targets more places to hide, rather than lining up in neat little rows just waiting to be picked off.  Some of the cutouts will even move while they're vulnerable, too, which adds variety to the game (boy, does it ever need some).

The final mode, the can toss, is the most clever but also the most frustrating game in Hogan's Alley.  In it, cans will fly from the right of the screen, and you've got to guide them to the ledges on the left by firing at them.  The lower the ledge, the higher the points you'll get... however, if the can hits the side of the ledge rather than landing on top, it bounces off and forces you to continue firing to keep it in mid-air.  This portion of the game is frustrating because the cans are very small, and you'll generally miss them unless you fire several times.  After a few minutes of this, your fingers start hurting because the Zapper's trigger is so hard to squeeze down... and because you keep pointing the middle one at the screen when the cans somehow pass through your hail of bullets and fall off the screen.

I'm not sure if Hogan's Alley was this dull and annoying as an arcade game, or if this is yet another of Nintendo's lackluster arcade translations, with more accurate graphics than conversions for older systems but the same incomplete gameplay.  Whatever's the case, you should save your ammo for something better... I personally suggest the aforementioned Freedom Force.

MECHANIZED ATTACK

SNK

 

LIGHT GUN

 

NES

 

 

OPERATION WOLF

TAITO

 

LIGHT GUN

 

NES

 

 

Please excuse any typos you might find in this review... I'm typing this with only nine fingers.  The tenth fell off from a frantic session of Mechanized Attack and I think the cat carried it under the couch.

That's the problem with both of these games... they're just not suited to the NES and its light gun.  I didn't have many complaints about the Zapper before, but after the arthritis-inducing combination of Operation Wolf and SNK's derivitive Mechanized Attack, its limitations become pretty clear.  The same gun that was great for simple, slow-paced target shooting just isn't a match for hundreds of angry, sometimes bullet-resistant soldiers... the Zapper's trigger is too tight to squeeze repeatedly over a long period of time.  Also, the screen flashes that were tolerable in Nintendo's less demanding light gun games become overwhelming here... they're enough to make an epileptic's head explode.

If you think you can handle all of that, you're going to have a lot of fun with Mechanized Attack... although not so much with Operation Wolf.  After milking the game in arcades for years, Taito evidently didn't think that it would be important to spend much time porting it to the NES.  The situation was reversed for Mechanized Attack... this clone of Taito's extremely popular light gun shooter didn't get much attention in arcades, so SNK used its second chance more wisely, making the home version of Mechanized Attack good enough to keep Zapper fans playing even at the risk of snapping off their trigger fingers.

Mechanized Attack benefits greatly from SNK's extra attention, which you'll see once you compare it to Operation Wolf.  The graphics are more detailed and clearly defined, making it easier to pinpoint and take down each enemy.  The backgrounds in both games are pretty repetitive, but you won't mind seeing five screens of the same jungle quite so much in Mechanized Attack thanks to the more intricate artwork.   There are enough soldiers in SNK's game to keep you blasting, but never enough to make you feel helpless, which was a common occurance in Operation Wolf.  Mechanized Attack also gives you extra lives to go with your two credits, giving you a shot at beating the game.  Frankly, you'll be lucky to beat the first round of Op Wolf thanks to its unfair difficulty.  Even the control is better in Mechanized Attack... both games force you to press a button on the joystick to launch a grenade, but it's much more reliable in SNK's shooter... once you press the button, you can count on your character throwing a grenade in the exact spot you're holding the Zapper.  Finally, Mechanized Attack has a wide variety of bosses, some very large and a lot of fun to fight against.  I've never found any in Operation Wolf, although it's possible they do exist... when you can't make it past the second round of the game, it's hard to say for sure.

The only thing that Operation Wolf does better than Mechanized Attack are intermissions from the arcade game, and even those are a little disappointing... where once there were detailed backgrounds behind your soldier, there is only empty blackness.  Mechanized Attack gives you a single picture of your soldier getting gunned down, and that's more impressive than any three of Operation Wolf's stills put together.

If you think that Nintendo's more sedate light gun games are too light on incoming and outgoing lead, you'll be thankful for Mechanized Attack.  As for Operation Wolf, it's best played with a real gun, using the cartridge as a target.  Just be sure to use a high calibur weapon on this low calibur game.

NINJA GAIDEN

TECMO

 

ACTION

 

NES

 

ARCADE:


Sometimes less is indeed more. Having just gone back and played both of these games, I can say that the dramatic departure of the simpler yet almost paradoxically more clever NES game from its arcade counterpart is something to behold. How, pray tell? Well, let me attempt to explain.

The arcade version of Ninja Gaiden is basically a Double Dragon clone with impressive graphics, poor controls, unimaginative enemies, and inscrutable action. Although the scissor leg grab is well-done, thatís about the only thing Iíd say is inspired. Basically you run around in two and a half dimensions fighting the same two or three clones (one Jason Vorhees lookalike, one vest-clad stick-wielding biker type) with poor moves.  All those clones eventually and quite unfairly gang up on the player... donít they have the decency to attack individually like in nearly all other martial arts contests? Much of the stuff on the streets is breakable, revealing gems, vitamins, and other items invaluable to a ninja battling thugs. On the rare occasion that a sword is given, of course, it only lasts a short duration. Not that your ninja ever thought of using the sword on his BACK, mind you. It seems rather silly that the best attack is performed by grabbing overhead bars and using the leverage to kick with both feet. In addition to that, all sorts of unfair objects like oncoming traffic will cause the player to mindlessly continue until the enemies and obstacles have been overcome. The only neat thing about this whole game is the CONTINUE? screen which depicts our helpless martial arts expert (deservedly) about to be bifurcated by a rotating saw. Ninja Gaiden certainly doesnít have the ability to hold interest like other quarter munching fighters like TMNT, Crime Fighters, Double Dragon, The Simpsons, Shinobi, or even Bad Dudes.



However, the NES version is quite different. Why this was given the same title is a mystery. This is your basic side-scroller, but in addition to your sword are useful powerups including throwing stars, fire, the ability to freeze time, "boomerang" shurikens, and others. The appearance of the levels, characters, bosses, etc. are merely adequate, as are the sounds. However, the challenge of each level and surprisingly attractive cinematic sequences will keep gamers coming back for more. Itís hard as hell to complete some of these jumps while avoiding and/or annihilating enemies at the same time, but you just KNOW you can do it if you persist. A very tough, very enjoyable game, the original Ninja Gaiden on the NES is my personal favorite in the series.

So, avoid the arcade game, but donít miss the NES version of Ninja Gaiden. Hopefully the update will be worthwhile, too...



NINTENDO NES

tech specs

CPU

6502

MHz

1.79MHz

RAM

2K + cart RAM

Media

cart, max 6Mb

Sound

onboard

Gfx

Ricoh RP2C02

Res

256x240

Color

53

Sprite

64

Polys

N/A

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