OK…I’m back. It’s only been 3 weeks to research, play and review 3 games. Should be easy, right? Well, here in the 16th month of 2020, nothing is easy. It’s cool. I’ll watch Top Gear highlights on Youtube, and we’ll get it done.
Two days later…
OK. We’ll try to do this while watching the Cards play the Fish.
Spends 15 minutes researching what a balk is exactly and how to see one, and the difference between a fastball and a changeup. (a balk is any attempt to deceive the runner, which is a strange way of saying no faking. Which, in itself, is a strange rule. All faking all the time, in my mind. Bring out another fake ball. Use an ambidextrous pitcher with a crazy double glove and make the batter decide if he’s gonna get a righty fastball or a lefty curve as soon as the wind up starts. Hell, pitch behind the back, pickoff a runner with a headstand. Let’s keep this interesting.)
Really, really hard to get my mind in this game lately.
Depression sucks. I hate it.
OK, MJ. Buckle down, and let’s get through this.
(authors note: He did not, in fact, buckle down and get through this. Pinball was finished 6 days after talking about buckling down. The author, instead, fought with his arcade cabinet (he did get the trackball working for Golden Tee) and also fought with the never-ending table project…which still isn’t finished). Excitebike was finshed another week later. This post is going up 5 weeks after the last one.
First up, Clu Clu Land.
Clu Clu Land
Simply put, Clu Clu Land is reverse Pac Man.
Really, I know that’s about as simple of a description as I can get, but that’s what it comes down to. I mean, there’s a lot more to this game that simply being a Pac Man clone. Instead of a set, repeating level with the enemies getting faster as you advance, the levels ALL change. They’re not even the same every run through; while the framework for the first level is always the same, the pattern to be discovered shuffles between a number of options. Additionally, the character can “shoot” at the enemies, and there are black holes and rubber traps for the character to avoid. Finally, instead of following the paths on a level like Pac Man, the main character swings from peg to peg, constantly shifting direction.
But for all of that, instead of a chomping yellow dot eating pellets laid out at the beginning of the level, the player swings through the level and finds the hidden “gold bars” and figures out the pattern they are hidden in.
It’s really that simple.
As much as I say that, the game is not easy.
I can play a game where it’s about pattern recognition. My reflexes may not be as great as when I was 11, and my eyesight certainly isn’t that good, but I can still keep up on games based on patterns and reflexes.
I can’t figure this game out at all. At first, I thought it was because you don’t change direction upwards and downwards by pressing up and down, it’s left and right (you throw out the appropriate hand and rotate around the peg). But that’s not actually it. I tried playing on the NES controller. I tried playing with the keyboard. I even loaded it onto my arcade and played it with a joystick.
Still feel like I’m playing left handed and in a mirror.
(hell, maybe I should play left handed in a mirror.)
But the game has a super cute back story (Bubbles the bubblefish is saving Clu Clu Land’s gold from evil sea urchins.) And the amount of game sprites and sounds that will get reused in other games are super cool…the rupees from The Legend of Zelda first appear here, and Mario’s jump sound also comes out of this game. (Or vice versa, it’s REALLY hard to tell with early games.) And the game gets referenced well across Nintendo, as there’s playable versions within Animal Crossing and it’s mentioned in Smash Brothers as well.
But I’ve played this game 25 times, and I continue to feel like I have NO idea what I’m doing.
Pinball is a strange one. It’s not really a port, but it IS based on a game for Nintendo’s “Game and Watch” system from earlier in the 80s. Game and Watch was a handheld console that played single games and also displayed the time…hence the name. It was a small success, and helped Nintendo make the move to the NES after knowing they could pull off non-arcade cabinet games.
But Game and Watch Pinball was pretty simple. Small, handheld, and not truly animated, Game and Watch games used a permanently painted foreground and showed motion and movement by animating large black LCD spots, shifting from one to another. (Yes, I know that’s how all animation works, but there’s only a few pre-set spots on the screen, and the ball moved from spot to spot in chunky animation.) The whole thing had a 4 bit processor.
It wasn’t an amazing technological achievement, but it was a form of pinball you could put in your pocket. It did have different responses to the ball coming off the flipper depending on the timing, so it was ALMOST like pinball in that respect.
AND IT TOLD TIME!
While I can’t find actual stats on the sales of original Game and Watch systems, Pinball apparently sold well enough that the decided it should be included in the launch of the NES.
Like most of the super early NES games, there’s almost zero info on who actually created and coded this game. Wikipedia references two men, one of whom was actually in high school when the game was released (he was maybe an intern?). The other has a long history with Nintendo…Sitoru Iwata started as a programmer with HAL, a company CLOSELY linked to Nintendo. (HAL picked their names so they’d be one ahead of IBM, which is hilarious to me for some reason). Iwata worked on games like Kirby, Smash Bros, and the original Pokemon Games. After rising to the top of HAL in 1993, Iwata moved to Nintendo proper in 2000, eventually becoming the CEO of the company in 2002. He lead for 13 years, which notably included Nintendo’s release of the Wii and a pivot to mobile gaming. Iwata sadly died in 2015, after starting the creation of the Switch.
But for all of the background on Sitoru Iwata, I can’t find any actual proof he actually designed it. Nintendo was pretty small in the early days of the Famicom, and the tiny team would have stayed in house as much as possible. (and as far as I can tell, Iwata’s first game for the NES was a port of Joust, which was released in 1988)
But none of this information actually talks about the game itself.
In an effort to make the “table” of the pinball game as large as possible, and in order to keep the ball from being tiny, the design team chose to split the table into two screens, with flippers on the bottom of both screens. A ball that passes between the flippers on the “top” screen drops into the lower one. There’s a series of drop targets, kickback targets, and gates the ball passes through, and it plays just like pinball on a table, with the ball coming off the flippers at different angles based on the timing.
There’s also a special “Breakout” style side-level, where a familiar red-wearing plumber holds up a platform, bouncing the ball to break bricks overhead until a similarly-familiar pink princess drops down, is caught, and is escorted off the screen.
For a game that’s 36 years old, it still plays pretty well. Timing is good, and there’s two game modes, with the second one being slightly harder than the first. I played a good half an hour this weekend and enjoyed it. It’s easy to keep the ball in play, but hard to hit the targets, so the replay value is pretty good. There’s even a two player mode so you can challenge your buddy.
My only real complaint about the game is the control setup. You’d think that the common sense controls would be B controls the left flipper, A the right, and you could also use the D-pad in the same way. Sorry. In this one, both buttons control the right flipper, and any direction on the D-pad moves the left. Honestly, it’s the only real complaint I have about the game.
Finally, as with many of the early NES games, Pinball appears a couple of times in games throughout Nintendo’s history. The most notable of them is a playable version in the GameCube version of Animal Crossing, but also in the original, Japanese version of Animal Crossing for the N64 as well.
Here’s my lead for Excitebike. Of the original 17 games, this was my favorite when I was younger.
It’s still my favorite now.
Excitebike brings us back to our old friend, Shiguro Miyamoto. Yes, the man who gave us Donkey Kong and the Mario Bros also brought us Excitebike. But strangely, that’s about all of the information available on the background of the game. I know that Miyamoto directed (and produced) the game. I know that Toshihiko Nakago was the lead programmer. (Nakago was THE lead programmer for Nintendo in the early days, programming for SMB (and SMB 2, and SMB 3), The Legend of Zelda (and A Link to the Past) as well as multiple games across the history of Nintendo). I know that a team from Nintendo Tokyo did the bulk of the programming work. (There are even stories that Miyamoto and Nakago had to share hotel rooms when they’d travel to Tokyo…the room thing came from multiple sources, and I’m not REMOTELY sure why it kept coming up.)
And that’s about it.
And I’m cool with it. Excitebike is a great game.
Game play isn’t hard to describe. D-Pad controls motorbike movement…up and down move the motorbike up and down on the course, and left and right control bike angle, allowing the driver to climb bumps on the course and control height during jumps. The A button provides a standard speed, while B provides a turbo-boost, but can overheat your motorcycle if you run it in turbo too long.
There are 10 courses, and each can be run simply against the clock solo, or against the clock with opponents on the course as well.
Honestly, this alone would be good. The game has high replay value, and the challenge of playing solo, then re-racing the same courses with opponents makes it even better. The game scales well, and the higher levels are hard.
And then there was the level design. Oh man, level design.
This was the first game I ever played (and the ONLY game, for a long while) that let players configure the game in any way you want to. Want to make a course where you perfectly time hitting an arrow JUUUUUUST before you overheat and just go for top speed? Want a course with tons of jumps? Tabletops on tabletops? One that’s nothing but mud? Go for it.
Excitebike continued to influence Nintendo for years after the original games. There are at least 5 remakes and sequels for various systems, including Excitebike 64. ExciteTruck, and Excitebike World Rally. It’s one of the unlockable games in multiple versions of Animal Crossing. There’s even a manga, where the unnamed racer gets a name (Rocky) and, I’m guessing, races bad guys. There’s Smash Bros trophies across that game all based on Excitebike.
But my personal favorite is the Excitebike Area in Mario Kart 8…instead of the side-scrolling action, it’s a First Person View of a constantly changing “Original” Excitebike course.
Here’s my only complaint about the game (and it’s really not much of a complaint, more something that my 8 year old mind couldn’t figure out.) Why was there an option to save and load personal courses when it didn’t work? The simple answer is it did work, at least in Japan. There was a FAMICOM Disk System using cassettes that DID magnetically save information, so you could save your user created courses. It was never sold here, but they didn’t recode the game.
In America, we got stuck with the system resetting when power was turned off. I can remember a friend making a course on Tuesday after school, telling me about it on Wednesday, and then not turning off (or using) his NES for 4 days until I went over Saturday afternoon.
Turns out, it was a pretty cool course.
Finally, 1,904 days after I posted my first entry on this site, we finish the final game of the first 17.
That’s exactly 112 days per game.
Out of ~670 games released in the United States.
Good news. I’m on pace to finish by July 16, 2221. (That’s a Monday, if you’re scheduling around when I post.)
It may be time to pick up the pace.
I promise I’m going to get through the games faster than the rate I’ve been going. I make no promise as to what that faster rate actually is. Only 5 years for the next 17 games?