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Revenge of the License: Five NES Games That Missed the Point

I love licensed NES games. I love the sound they make as I yank them out of my system and hurl them against the wall. The relentless plundering through the morass in search of something worth playing and finding the occasional surprise is always delightful, and why I keep coming back to this column over and over again. But all too often the game a publisher slap-dashed a license on to bears so little resemblance to the source materials you’re left wondering how someone could screw it up so badly. More importantly though, suppose you really want to play a game featuring your favorite license but all you know about are the crappy versions? Retro Gaming Magazine has you covered, loyal readers! Here are five of my favorite least-favorite examples of this behavior from the 8-bit era, along with five same-era alternatives you can use to exorcise those demons.

Nightmare on Elm Street Title Screen

Nightmare on Elm Street Title Screen

5 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (Rare/LJN)

Before Rare became a company Microsoft paid way too much money to acquire, they were a spunky developer trying to find their way in the big, bad world of game creation. With only a wish, a prayer, and an NES dev kit, the guys at Rare started making games for Nintendo in 1987. While nobody would mistake Slalom or Anticipation for bonafide classics, many of Rare’s titles are some of the best-loved and best-remembered games of the 8-bit generation. Games like R.C. Pro-Am and the Wizards & Warriors series provided millions of players with hours of enjoyment. People who never picked up a controller know about Battletoads thanks to Pawn Stars, TV Tropes and 4chan. They also programmed A Nightmare on Elm Street for LJN in 1990. While it’s not the most absurd example on this list, it still makes me wonder how a company like Rare lost touch with the source material so badly.

I’m convinced A Nightmare on Elm Street was produced at the demand of Nintendo, who needed something to prove their 4-Player Adapter wasn’t worthless to non-sports gamers. Give credit where it’s due: Rare’s final product isn’t a terrible game and it’s far more playable than much of the dumpster fire that is LJN’s 8-bit library. It’s just such an unremarkable experience as a side-scrolling platformer that you could swap out Freddy Krueger with any other generic villain, call it “Night Terrors” or “Dream Killer” and have a game that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s retro-style iPhone or Android marketplace. Simply having an iconic title screen and a story that involves finding Freddy’s bones and burning them does not a Nightmare game make. Four nameless protagonists picking through abandoned houses and the town junkyard punching spiders and avoiding pits while trying not to fall asleep doesn’t scream competence when you’re trying to produce real screams from your players.

Instead, you should play…

"Howdy, boys and girls!"

“Howdy, boys and girls!”

A Nightmare on Elm Street by Monarch Software for C64 or MS-DOS. I covered this one for a previous column (linked above), so if you want the long-winded reason why that version is superior, have yourself a click. Otherwise all you need to know is Monarch’s version of this game is basically Diablo if Blizzard had programmed the title character to never stop screwing with you and included a time limit. Monarch’s Nightmare is a direct adaptation of “Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors” and it succeeds in every way Rare’s version fails.

The player takes on the persona of one of the actual characters from the film, not just an anonymous nobody. Freddy behaves like his iconic film counterpart instead of being a generic sprite based on some creature we saw in the films. Take too long picking a character, and he’ll eliminate choices by killing them on the select screen. Fiddle around in Freddy’s mansion without making progress, he’ll take a swipe at one of your friends and steal a bit of their soul. Hell, Freddy can even kill you before you reach the first stage of the game. LJN’s Krueger shows up at the end of each level for a brief fight then runs away like a chicken leaving snakes and crows to do his dirty work for him. Monarch’s Krueger is an absolute monster, always lurking in the background, dogging your every step, who isn’t above cheating to make sure you don’t win. That’s the Freddy I want to eventually beat in a video game.

Rambo Title Screen

Rambo Title Screen

4 – Rambo (Pack-In-Video/Acclaim)

A video game based on “Rambo: First Blood Part II” during the NES era should have been impossible to screw up since every shooter from Commando and Contra to Ikari Warriors and Operation Wolf was based on the ‘one-man-army bringing the pain to those who did him wrong’ idea espoused in every action movie ever. Unfortunately the first company to jump on the rights to the Rambo license was brand new Japanese developer Pack-In-Video, who made a version of the game in 1985 for the Japanese MSX computer system. Since they continued holding the rights in 1987, they programmed Rambo for the NES which was published in North America by Acclaim. We’re still wondering why.

Pack-In-Video delivered a Rambo game that is literally unrecognizable as such. While you could have re-branded any of the previously-mentioned games with the Rambo moniker and gotten away with it, Pack-In-Video presented a bizarre world where Rambo fights more with on-screen navigation than the Viet Cong or Soviet forces, and utters more words in dialog windows than Stallone could ever be accused of saying in the film. The game even starts with a completely pointless ‘But thou must!’ sequence where Rambo is given the option to decline the mission and remain in prison, but doing so has Trautman break the fourth wall to tell players the game won’t start until they agree. Wow, what an incredible life-or-death choice you gave us there, Pack-In! From there Rambo turns into an odd mishmash of platforming and adventure that would be better suited to a game called anything but “Rambo”.

First Blood Part II Title Screen

Rambo: First Blood Part II Title Screen

Instead you should play…

Rambo: First Blood Part II on the Sega Master System. Remember what I said in the last paragraph about re-branding a game for the Rambo license? That’s what Sega did. Their 8-bit offering is a blatant copy-and-paste effort using an earlier game named Ashura which itself is basically a rip-off of Capcom’s Commando. A new sprite on the title screen, and a minor adaptation of the storyline to give Rambo a buddy named Zeke so they didn’t have to strip out two-player support…it might be lazy, but damn if it wasn’t exactly what gamers expected to get when they plugged in a cartridge with “Rambo” on the label.

I give Pack-In-Video props for trying to shove plot and dialog from the film into their NES game, but looking at the overall design, it’s like they thought words on a screen made for a compelling experience instead of realizing why people enjoyed the film to begin with, and this makes the game memorable for all the wrong reasons. Sega, on the other hand, re-branded a game primarily about destroying stuff with guns and exploding arrows with a film license about a guy primarily destroying things with guns and exploding arrows. Well played, Sega. Well played.

Heroes of the Lance Title Screen

AD&D Heroes of the Lance Title Screen

3 – AD&D: Heroes of the Lance (Strategic Simulations/FCI)

I’ve written about this turkey elsewhere on the site, so for the full run-down feel free to click on over. Just know there’s a damn good reason why so many people consider this one of the absolute worst NES games of all time. While the graphics are decent for a game released in 1990, virtually everything else screams lack of familiarity with–and slavish devotion to–the source material at the same time. When a game screws up so badly I write a sentence like that describing it, you know something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Heroes of the Lance stays true to all the wrong bits of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s best-selling novel by including all eight main characters, but instead of building them up and letting us get to know them the way the books do, developer SSI, Inc plops us right in the middle of the novel’s story, where the companions enter the ruined city Xak Tsaroth to find the Disks of Mishakal. This would be akin to starting “Star Wars” at the point where Luke and Han march into the detention block of the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia: there’s plenty of action, and it’s not the story’s climax, but we have no idea who these people are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. The absurdity continues when you realize the programmers allow you to keep playing the game even if a key party member bites the dust which prevents you from winning the game. A few characters are expendable, but Goldmoon’s death means you need to hit Reset, because she’s the only one capable of defeating the end boss. You’d know this if you were familiar with the book, but the game gives no indication that’s the case. Beyond that, SSI’s biggest sin in my opinion is making this an action game rather than an RPG. Yes there are RPG-like elements in that you can cast spells, rest to recover hit points, and so forth but first and foremost Heroes of the Lance is a 2D platformer instead of a role playing game. You know, like the role playing game you licensed? Way to fail that saving throw, SSI.

Pool of Radiance Title Screen

AD&D Pool of Radiance Title Screen

Instead you should play…

…the other D&D  game developed by SSI and published by FCI that year on the NES–AD&D: Pool of Radiance. While Heroes of the Lance departed from the traditional turn-based RPG fare, Pool of Radiance jumped in with both feet and went nuts. The NES version is a stripped-down port of the earlier computer game, so it’s missing a few features like random dungeon generation and the Adventurer’s Journal, but it embraces the D&D license wholeheartedly without hog-tying the player to a preexisting narrative. In Heroes of the Lance, you played the story the way Hickman and Weis wrote it, or you failed. Pool of Radiance on the other hand lets you blunder through however you want and doesn’t require anything other than a colossal investment of your time.

Pool‘s largest downside is the need to be extremely familiar with the first edition AD&D rules, because they apply to everything in the game. If you find yourself asking why your Wizard can’t put on a set of chainmail, or why a lower armor class is better than a higher one, Pool isn’t the place to start your D&D experience. On the other hand, if you enjoy first-person dungeon exploration punctuated with large-scale isometric tile-based combat sequences and know why trying to cast ‘Charm Person’ on a Mummy is a bad idea, you’ll feel right at home here. The “Gold Box” version for the various computer systems of the day is an even better option, but if you have to limit yourself to D&D games on the NES, this is the cream of the crop and will give even seasoned players dozens and dozens of hours’ worth of entertainment.

Ghostbusters Title Screen

Ghostbusters Title Screen

2 – Ghostbusters (Activision)

I don’t even know where to start with this abomination, although I should point out the 1986 NES version is a port of the 1984 computer game developed for release alongside the original movie. This game commits the cardinal sin of being boring as hell: drive your Ghostbusters (well, three of them…Winston is apparently out with a head cold or something) around town waiting for reports of ghostly activity, grab a few ghosts in your trap, earn cash, buy new equipment, and repeat until the PK Energy readings get high enough to go fight the final boss. Oh but before you do that, make sure you’ve been working on your cardio! There are twenty-three floors between you and Zuul (or whatever that naked pink thing sporting a Wolverine haircut is supposed to be) and the elevators aren’t working.

The name ‘Activision’ is synonymous with ‘classic’ in most gamers minds, but it’s for reasons like Pitfall and River Raid, not tripe like this. Dull gameplay, sprites which look nothing like the characters from the film thanks to licensing restrictions, and a ham-fisted rendering of the iconic Ray Parker, Jr. theme song make this version one to avoid at all costs. Factor in the port stripping the ability to upgrade your vehicle like all the computer versions had, add the finger-destroying final sequence to climb the skyscraper, and this one cements itself as one of the true terrors of the 8-bit age for all the wrong reasons. What the hell were you thinking, Activision?

New Ghostbusters II Title Screen

The New Ghostbusters II Title Screen

Instead you should play…

Hal Laboratories’ 1990’s New Ghostbusters II for the NES. What’s that? You never heard of New Ghostbusters II? Not surprising if you live in North America since it was only released in Japan and the UK, but this is, bar none, the best Ghostbusters title available for an 8-bit system. The good news? Your favorite NES emulator will run this bad boy just fine and you will love the hell out of it (before nailing it with your proton packs and sucking it into a trap for safe keeping).

Hal’s Ghostbusters game is everything that every other Ghostbusters title should have been and failed to be up until the PS3/Xbox 360 version. New Ghostbusters II not only puts Winston and Lewis Tulley in the game as playable characters (instantly elevating it above Activision’s crapfest), but includes places we see in the film, like the courthouse, subway system, and the Museum of Art in a style that would later be adopted by the likes of Zombies Ate My Neighbors. This 2.5D top-down perspective is perfect, the paranormal activity is real, the ghosts are a delightful selection of heinous haunts, the music is nicely-rendered pieces from the film soundtrack, and the challenge is supernatural. The game finds so many different ways to pester, harass, and annoy your team that every stage offers surprises and opportunities to curse loudly in equal amounts. It’s a shame this game never made it out of PAL territory, because North American gamers would have slimed themselves in excitement. With this one in your collection, you need never fear playing a terrible Ghostbusters licensed game again.

Star Trek The Next Generation Title Screen

Star Trek: The Next Generation Title Screen

1 – Star Trek: The Next Generation (Absolute Entertainment)

“Make it so”? Eh…more like, “Make it? No.” Absolute’s tribute to “Star Trek: The Next Generation” hit the NES in 1993, well after the release of the SNES, where a game like this truly belongs. Absolute’s programmers had some good ideas, not to mention some slick digitized images of the cast, but instead of crafting a nice story that plays like an episode or two of the television show, they instead delivered a complete mess of a simulation.

Star Trek: TNG wants to be taken seriously, with mission briefings delivered by Captain Picard, and a faithful recreation of the LCARS style interface from the NCC-1701D’s computer systems, but the problems show up almost immediately. Everything takes place on the ship, so there are no away missions. Your job is to command the bridge through a series of randomly generated tasks which, when pieced together, sort of form an overall mission. Command your crew well, advance in rank, and take on more challenging duties. While it’s often implied in the show that much of what happens on the Enterprise is routine, the crux of the show isn’t the downtime or the points when the Enterprise swept a new planet with its sensors and found nothing out of the ordinary. The crux of TNG is the story, the character development, and watching the crew work together to overcome obstacles and dilemmas that dog their work. Absolute’s Next Generation is about beaming people from Point A to Point B, having LaForge repair a faulty power conduit, and frequent ship-to-ship combat. Send this one back to the Academy.

Star Trek 25th Anniversary Title Screen

Star Trek 25th Anniversary Title Screen

Instead you should play…

…Interplay and Ultra Games’ earlier foray into the Star Trek universe, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. It’s true, you won’t see Data or Worf on the crew roster, but this is Star Trek as she was meant to be played. 1991’s 25th Anniversary is a well-crafted graphical adventure for the NES featuring Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov that focuses on telling a coherent story rather than just stringing together a bunch of otherwise unconnected tasks.

Both games feature transporters, communicators, Red Alerts and warp drive, but Interplay’s Trek understands what Absolute’s did not: those are important aspects of the Star Trek universe, to be sure, but they’re just side dishes to be served with the meal. While Absolute’s Trek feels like an endless table of appetizers, Interplay dishes up a full-course meal with its exploration, character interaction, and light combat elements. If you need 8-bit Trek in your life, pick up Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. Next Generation on the NES is nothing but trouble without the Tribbles.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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