NES Classic Edition: Complete Reviews Volume 1
The NES Classic Edition is upon us, being quickly swept out of stores and propped under trees for the upcoming holiday season. Of course, some of us have no interest in giving away such a prized item as a gift, and the very thought of waiting until Christmas to play it is just flat out preposterous! But are all thirty games worth playing, or might there be a lump of coal or two tucked inside this pretty package?
Well, I’m going to find out by playing and reviewing every single game present on the North American version of the console!
1. Balloon Fight
Games like Balloon Fight are interesting because they serve as a time capsule into an earlier era. While most NES games have beginnings and endings, Balloon Fight is a relic of the industry’s arcade origins. Its longevity comes not from introducing lots of levels and mechanics, but by delivering a simple but challenging game that encourages players to chase high scores. Balloon Fight has no ending, and will repeat endlessly so long as the player stays alive.
Balloon Fight is a competitive action game in which players fly around the screen with two balloons tied to their backs. Players move by flapping their arms by using either the A button, which must be mashed repeatedly, or the B button, which can simply be held. Players compete across in infinite number of single-screen stages with the goal of popping enemy balloons while keeping their own in tact.
Enemy characters come in three varieties, differentiated by their color, and by the aggression in which they pursue the player. Enemies will attempt to position themselves above the player, and must be lured into a vulnerable spot so that the player can pop their balloon and then wreck their parachute as they attempt to land. After each enemy balloon fighter is defeated, the player moves onto the next stage, which will contain a different level layout, and different enemy placement. The idea is to survive as many stages as possible in order to achieve a high score. And while the stages may repeat infinitely, there’s really only twelve before you start seeing the same ones again.
Mechanically, Balloon Fight is unique in that your balloon’s momentum and inertia must be carefully controlled in order to maneuver effectively. It’s easy to sail out of control by flapping your arms too fast, and it can be difficult to turn back around, and to make tight maneuvers. It actually feels pretty good in practice, and it doesn’t take long to learn the nuances of the controls and become a better balloon fighter. There’s also an endless obstacle course that you can fly through if the base game gets too tedious.
And tedious it will get. For a mini-game, Balloon Fight is kind of cool. Popping enemy balloons is satisfying, and it’s certainly a skill-based game that allows players to get better with practice. But there’s just too little content. Old-school high-score chasing gamers may enjoy it for a while, but even they have better options on this very console.
2. Bubble Bobble
Bubble Bobble is an arcade style action game that allows one or two players to embark on a journey into the cave of monsters in order to save their girlfriends. Players take the role of Bub and Bob, two boys who have been transformed into cute little bubble-blowing dinosaurs. The game has 100 levels, each of which is a single screen wide. To advance, players must destroy all of the monsters in every level by capturing them in bubbles and then popping them before they escape.
Bubble Bobble is one of the more accessible games on the NES Classic Edition because it’s cute and simple with controls that are easy to learn. In early levels, the game is as simple as hopping around platforms and blowing bubbles at monsters. It’s well-balanced, because its difficulty and complexity unfolds slowly. Soon, you will find yourself riding on bubbles by hopping on top of them, while collecting power-ups that can help you defeat foes in a number of novel ways.
Levels are also subject to a soft time limit. If you spend too much time on a given level, enemies will become angry and will move faster as a result. Even worse, the dreaded Baron Von Blubba will eventually show up. He’s an invincible flying enemy that will pursue you, getting faster and faster until he either kills you, or you clear the level. As you progress through the game, your time limit for passing each level gets shorter. Baron Von Blubba is a novel method of enforcing a time limit, and learning to avoid the evil Baron is a skill in and of itself.
The level design also becomes harder to navigate as players progress through the game, and this can actually prove a bit annoying. Enemies end up in difficult-to-reach areas, and your bubbles are swept away so quickly in the currents that learning how to navigate certain stages can feel like trial and error. Still, the game is forgiving enough, featuring unlimited continues and a password system.
Bubble Bobble isn’t the most complex game around, but with diverse levels and enemies it provides a fun and challenging casual experience. There’s a point system in place for high-score chasers, and it’s a fun cooperative title for two people. It’s a nice little inclusion on the NES Classic Edition.
Castlevania is a platforming action-adventure game, taking place in Transylvania and featuring a great cast of classic horror monsters and villains. As Simon Belmont, it is your duty to traverse Dracula’s castle, using your trusty whip to beat back skeletons, ghouls, and hunchbacks before facing off with the dreaded vampire himself. Most of Castlevania’s challenge is combat oriented, though there is the occasional jump puzzle that you’ll need to master.
The game’s pacing is slow and deliberate. Simon can only walk so fast, and he feels a bit stiff compared to other platforming heroes of the day like Mario and Ryu Hayabusa. Jumping provides a particular challenge, as you cannot change your trajectory in midair. Instead, you are immediately committed to your jump, and if that means careening into a pit or colliding with an enemy, then you just have to live and learn.
Because Simon isn’t especially mobile, playing the game successfully means learning its nuances. Players need to watch enemies and learn how to position themselves and how to time their attacks. This is easy in the first couple of levels, but later in the game the enemy placement becomes more sadistic and difficult to deal with. Bats and Madusa heads are particular annoyances, as these flying enemies approach endlessly from off-screen. It can be difficult to anticipate where they might come from, and they bob and wave in such ways that they might clip you from an angle that leaves you defenseless. These creatures aren’t too bad on their own, but they often appear in tandem with other monsters and bottomless pits.
Castlevania is a difficult game, but with unlimited continues and a short length, most players should be able to complete it with a little persistence. Most of its frustration comes from getting knocked into pits, as well as from late game bosses such as Death and Dracula himself. It’s rewarding to overcome these obstacles, and there’s a nice variety of special weapons to be found that can make your life easier. Axes arch through the air and are great for hitting flying foes, while the holy water stuns and makes short work of tougher enemies and bosses.
The game is enhanced by an excellent soundtrack and a unique visual style that is more dark and macabre than your average NES game. This great presentation goes a long way in establishing Castlevania’s identity, and cement it as a memorable classic for those of us who played it when it came out so many years ago.
4. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a significant departure from its predecessor. While it’s still an action-adventure side scrolling game, it’s also non-linear, taking place across a vast region filled with villages and a number of RPG elements that were unique for the time. Players can purchase items in each village including weapon upgrades, and it’s up to the player to explore the world and discover each of the six castles that need to be traversed.
The core gameplay of Simon’s Quest remains mostly intact from the previous game. Simon continues to fight classic horror monsters with his whip, but the level design is more labyrinthine, with repetitive regions and simplistic layouts. Indeed, the actual gameplay is a significant step down in complexity. Gone are the tough bosses and challenging stages. Where before, enemies and platforms were placed thoughtfully to encourage careful play, the castles in Simon’s Quest are just rows of blocks with random enemies that appear to be pasted into the game with little care. As a result, Simon’s Quest features easier combat, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an easier game.
Sadly, the difficulty in Simon’s Quest falls on its propensity to confuse players with its cryptic puzzles and maze-like map. Many of the game’s regions can only be reached by fulfilling specific requirements. These requirements are so obscure that most players will never be able to guess them. Internet walkthroughs will help you get through the game, but if you refuse to rely on them, you’re likely to have a bad time wandering around aimlessly.
Still, for all its flaws, Simon’s Quest isn’t all bad. It features great music including the classic track Bloody Tears, and introduces new monsters and areas that are fun to trek through, at least for a while.
As an experimental game, Simon’s Quest is a worthy curiosity. It does things that no other Castlevania has done before or since, while also being the first game to put the Vania in Metroidvania. The free exploration can be fun and rewarding at times, and there are lots of optional items to collect. The game’s graphics and music are as memorable and iconic as any in the series, and who can forget the classic phrase, “What a horrible night to have a curse?”
With a guide, Simon’s Quest is even worth a playthrough, but it’s a far weaker game than its predecessor. It’s a shame that the NES Classic Edition included this, but failed to find room for the far superior Castlevania 3.
5 and 6: Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.
It may seem unfair to review Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. at the same time. After all, each game has its own place in history, and the nuances of each make them stand out as completely different experiences to those who are students of the games. Lumping the two together may indeed be blasphemous to the classic arcade community that competes for and follows the ongoing pursuit of high score chasing.
But then again, I’d rather write one review than figure out how to reword the same points over and over. These games are so short and so similar, that they don’t really require their own space. In the ’80s, the two games were even compiled onto the same cartridge, which I owned as a child.
Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. are classic platforming games, ported to the NES after successful runs in the arcade. Each game takes place over a few single-screen levels, and these repeat with increased difficulty until the player loses all of their lives. In Donkey Kong, there are three such levels, including the classic “jump over the barrels” bit, while in Donkey Kong Jr, there are four levels. That’s to say, there are seven levels total between the two games.
In Donkey Kong, you play as an early incarnation of Mario who must jump and climb his way up towards the evil ape in order to rescue his girlfriend Pauline. Donkey Kong Jr. follows a similar premise, though this time you play as Donkey Kong’s son who is looking to rescue his father from the dastardly Mario. Donkey Kong Jr. introduces refined climbing mechanics, allowing you strategically switch between vines to climb while dropping fruit on the unsuspecting baddies below.
Because Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. were made so long ago, they were in fact pioneers for the hundreds of platforming games we know and love today. Sadly, this also means that they show the growing pains of a burgeoning genre. in both games, the controls are loose and wonky, requiring you to accustom yourself to their relative imprecision. The graphics are ugly and pixelated, and the sound is so far below the NES standard that it more closely resembles the Atari 2600.
It’s easy to finish all the levels in Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. In fact, you will probably do so within minutes of playing each for the first time. But these games don’t exist to be beaten. They’re all about pursuing high scores. Sadly, that won’t matter to most gamers, unless they live in a competitive household that can somehow rally behind Donkey Kong scoring tournaments. Perhaps in the old days, such a pursuit was feasible, but there are just too many superior games these days, and too many better ways to spend time. Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. will always be loved by the historians and purists of the gaming industry, and while their influence can’t be ignored, games have come a long way since these titles started collecting dust.