IGC Retro Odyssey: Atari Flashback Classics (Switch)

For the IGC Retro Odyssey concept, I have members of Indie Gamer Team set a target for me, where if I find that many games in a retro compilation compelling enough to play further, the set wins my Seal of Approval. For Atari Flashback Classics, the target number was 50 out of 150, or 33.3%. The actual set finished with..

Fourteen approved. Or 9.3%.

Maybe that was to be expected. I cut my teeth in the PS1/N64 era of gaming. The two most important games of my rearing were Crash Bandicoot and Banjo-Kazooie. Comparatively, most Atari 2600 era games would barely qualify as mini-games even then. I’m sure my opinions on these relics will infuriate the generations that came before me, but remember: nothing bad I say here undoes the historical contributions of Atari or its games. If you genuinely enjoy playing these “classics” today, I’m happy for you. But these games need to be evaluated on their own merit, without historic context, because they’re commercially sold today to gamers of all ages. Games between 29 to 47 years old. Where even the newest commercially-released game (which came out after I was born, I had no idea such games existed for the 2600) is still a game developed for a console that came out in 1977. These games were never meant to still be fun forty-years later. The test of time isn’t fair, but it still happens anyway.

Hell, Atari Flashback Classics is LOADED with games that didn’t even get the test of the present. Maze Invaders is a cancelled arcade game where you play as a drunken Lolo and plays like a cross of Wizard of Wor and Ladybug. It’s terrible, but in an endearing way, like listening to elderly basketball players bitch about the three-point line.

Arcade games are a little more future proof, and that makes sense when you think about it. They’re not something you purchase for the sake of enjoying at home. They were made for route operators or arcade owners to generate ongoing revenue. Companies who made games that quickly went obsolete, ending the lifespan of what should be a long-term investment, would be unlikely to get further business from operators. So the games had to be fun enough to generate revenue for a couple years.

That shows with Atari Flashback Collection. Thirty-two of the titles included are coin-operated games. I liked six of them: Asteroids Deluxe, Black Widow, Lunar Lander, Pool Shark, Red Baron, and Space Duel. One of those, Pool Shark, I’ll admit was a guilty pleasure. The concept is beyond stupid: you play as a cue-ball, and you simply move around a pool table pocketing the other balls. That’s it. It’s so dumb, but it also made me giggle in just how desperate it is. Also, it’s sort of funny because growing up a little girl who had a pool table in her home, I used to “play pool” by just rolling the cue-ball at the other balls with no rhyme or reason besides trying to pocket them. That someone took THAT, a six-year-old’s version of billiards, and made it into a video game.. I can’t help but wonder if creator Michael Albaugh (who was with Atari from 1976 – 2000) had a similar experience to mine. I can’t argue with a straight face that Pool Shark is a good game, but I had fun with it. That’s all that should matter.

By the way, Pool Shark was a complete failure. Operators hated it. Very few units were ever made. I can’t imagine why.

Other games in the set should have been good, but were let-down by poor translations of their unique arcade control schemes. Crystal Castles is one of the better games to come out of the Pac-Man craze, but you can’t replace a trackball with the Switch touch-screen, or even the analog stick. It’s just not the same, and can’t hold a candle to the original. Even with adjustable controls, the bear moved like he had just taken a Belushi-sized speedball, which practically renders the game unplayable (I called it Crystal Meth Castles). Every trackball game suffers this fate. While playing the set, I realized the only way you could do a proper home-version on consoles is to do a bundle that includes replicas of the arcade controls. Which, by the way, would be worth the price. People who actually give a shit about historical accuracy (and I do) would pay the difference. Tempest isn’t Tempest without a turbo spinner. Missile Command isn’t Missile Command without a trackball (weirdly enough, the Atari 2600 port plays MUCH better and was one of eight home games I liked in the collection). In fact, in only one game with unique controls, Lunar Lander, did the touch-screen controls feel like they were a suitable replacement for the original. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the games wouldn’t have stood up anyway. But at least they would have had a better chance. I know for a fact Crystal Castles is better than this, but my rule for IGC Retro Odyssey is I can only evaluate the games as they’re commercially available for modern platforms. The only version of Crystal Castles you can buy for consoles now is bear-ly playable. See what I did there?

This is Red Baron, which does hold up relatively well. It’s not amazing or anything, but it was the game that convinced George Lucas to sign a deal with Atari. So there’s that.

This issue carries over to the Atari 2600 and 5200 games that used unique controllers. For the Atari 5200, forget about it. Every game included with it either controls poorly or is overall a shoddy release. The ports of Millipede and Asteroids were so bad that I was honestly embarrassed for the company. The company that basically no longer exists, but still, they were pretty fucking shameful. Take a look at the 2600 version of Millipede (which I didn’t like overall, but hey, it’s pretty Millipede-like in terms of gameplay if not graphics)..

And now compare that to the Atari 5200 port, made for a significantly more advanced console (and mind you, this game cost nearly $100 in 2019 dollars back in the day)..

Genuinely repulsive. Only the most shallow, vain ignoramus would trade good graphics for good gameplay. Then again, Atari was run by Ray Kassar..

As for the 2600, unfortunately some sacred all-time games didn’t exactly hold up today. Adventure is probably the most famous of the lot that I had to fail. Despite the set being able to “eliminate” the infamous Atari flicker, Adventure still has blinking issues. Additionally, sometimes the Dragon spawns in a way you can’t hope to run away from. Sometimes you can maroon items in a way where you can’t reach them. And it’s just plain dull compared to modern games that I can’t simply vanish the knowledge that they exist from my mind. Honestly, I think I would have been bored with Adventure even if I had been born back then. It’s just such a nothing game.

Duck Duck GOOSE, mother fucker!

Weirdly enough, two of the eight home console games I enjoyed in this set never actually came out. Both Saboteur (which almost got reskinned as A*Team) and Save Mary (by Tod Frye, programmer of the infamous dumpster fire Pac-Man 2600) had more going for them than a typical Atari game. Well, fine, Save Mary is another “glorified mini-game” type of deal, but it’s a cool one. A woman is in the bottom of a well that’s filling up with water. You have to drop boxes that she can stand on. It’s very clever. It’s also the Duke Nukem Forever of its time. It spent years in development (Frye was probably only part-time by then, and the game was developed by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s Axlon), underwent multiple renditions, and ultimately never was completed in its original state. Still, Bushnell himself apparently called it his favorite Atari 2600 game. Meanwhile, Saboteur is cut from the Yar’s Revenge cloth. At heart, it’s a simple shooter, but dressed up slightly better.

Speaking of Yars, it was my favorite home game in the set. It actually held up relatively well, although there’s only two screens. It’s the one and only game in the entire collection I wish had more going for it, because the concept had legs and I would have felt compelled to continue on its own gameplay merits. A home-brew sequel is included in the collection, but it’s really just a glorified ROM hack that moves the action to the center of the screen and feels like Yars’ Revenge as played through a fun-house mirror. Again, ignore the way its advertised as a completely unique game. It’s a ROM hack, and nothing more. There’s a few of those included. Adventure II is a ROM hack of Adventure. Haunted House (the first video game to ever give me a seizure, which happened when my father bought me an early version of the Atari Flashback plug-and-play as a novelty gift before I started IGC) gets a sequel called Return to Haunted House, which is another Adventure ROM hack. Meanwhile, other un-released games included are Combat Two (which is so bad that it’s practically broken) and the 2600 version of Tempest that isn’t even finished and looks like it takes place on Skeletor’s underwear.

I hated the almost the entire Atari experience, but I did learn some things. I learned that Atari’s reputation of having poor arcade translations is total bullshit. Space Invaders isn’t included (give that it was THE killer app that sold the system, come on AtGames: cut a fucking check to include it), but I’ve played the 2600 port and it’s very close to the arcade experience. Asteroids is in the set, and the 2600 version I liked more than the arcade version (others pointed out you can cheese it and not even try, which might be true but I didn’t really explore it). Missile Command is stripped down, simplified, and better on the 2600 than in the arcade version (that might owe to the crappy control translation for the arcade version). Granted, that’s not always the case. Home versions of Crystal Castles, Pong (which has invincible AI), and Warlords are disgraceful. But still, if I were a kid in the 80s who was into Centipede, I don’t think I’d hate the game I got for the Atari 2600 if that was my only home option.

Don’t let the 150 game count fool you though. A lot of the games are stuff nobody in their right mind could want to play today. Educational games like Basic Math, board games like Backgammon or Checkers, and lots of sports games pad out the game count. Some of them are neat as curios. I came very close to saying “yes” to a bizarre one-on-one baseball game called Home Run that was such a desperate, god-awful attempt at doing baseball early in the 2600’s life-cycle (before the file sizes crept up) that you can’t help but admire it. It’s actually kind of playable too. In a silly, I’m laughing at you and not with you type of way. On the flip side of that, there’s stuff like Golf or Miniature Golf, both of which I think would have to be on the list of worst games I’ve ever played in my entire life.

About ten years ago, my Dad bought me a MAME panel, fully-loaded, off Ebay. Seven buttons per a player. Authentic arcade parts. It’s very nice. And I bring that panel up because included on its surface is a turbo spinner that exists just to play Tempest. That’s how important that spinner is to the Tempest experience: an arcade panel that cost close to $1,000 has an interface just for it. (Well, it also works as a steering wheel too, and it’s not like I’ve played all 12,000+ games I have for MAME so there might be other spinner-based games). No amount of controller adjustments to the Switch Joycons or alternative controllers (I tried a Pro and GameCube controller) can make up for the speed-of-light accuracy of the turbo spinner.

Really, there’s easily under 100 games in the set that most people would actually want to at least experiment with. But experimenting is as far as you’ll probably make it. The legendary Swordquest games are included, and the comic books that the tie-in contest used are available, but the gameplay is so abstract and so anti-fun that you can completely understand how only a handful of gamers submitted the correct answers. Neat ideas, I guess, but the actual “gameplay” would boil down to variations of Avalanche or Frogger or other games that already existed. And the Frogger-like components in the Swordquest games were honestly the worst versions of Frogger I’ve ever played. The Swordquest games started as a sequel to Adventure, and not that I like Adventure, but at least it was its own thing instead of derivatives of other, better games.

That was the story for Atari Flashback Classics to me: lots of ambition (sometimes. Anyone that thinks they weren’t totally phoning it in with garbage like Basic Math or Slot Machine is so drunk on nostalgia they probably vomit out chunks of Punky Brewster), lots of imagination, but no means to see it out. A lot of Atari’s staff were handicapped by things like limited storage (every single KB cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in production posts) and a cut-throat work environment where programmers cliqued-up and rarely intermingled. So yea, I hated most of the games. But, that I actually liked eight of 2600 games is kind of a miracle. I wish I could recommend the set because no collection of classic games is closer to the modern indie can-do experience.

It says Spire. IT SAYS SPIRE! That gigantic, bejeweled sword is MINE!

But I can’t. The controller translations are garbage. There’s no bonus features unless you count unreleased games (which I’m not) or instruction books. There’s online leaderboards, but only for the arcade games, and online leaderboards for terrible games is like putting garnish on a plate of shit. And there’s a lot of missing games. Why isn’t Battlezone on this set? Why couldn’t they spring the extra money and include Activision games? I mean, this is a $40 game. That ain’t cheap, and these games have such limited play value that you need as many reasons to buy as possible. I’m guessing Activision’s 2600 games haven’t aged that much better than Atari ones, but I can’t know until I play them. The only third-party games included are M Network games, and they all aged badly too. Really, this set just feels incomplete and cheap. Not as cheap as Flashback is on Xbox One, where the same games are broken into three sets of fifty games each and will cost you $60 to get them all. But still, the only thing keeping this from being the worst set of classic games I’ve ever played is the fact that I own Dragon’s Lair Trilogy.

INDIE GAMER CHICK RETRO-APPROVED RANKINGS

Arcade
1. Lunar Lander
2. Space Duel
3. Black Widow
4. Red Baron
5. Asteroids Deluxe
6. Pool Shark

Atari 2600/5200
1. Yar’s Revenge
2. Save Mary
3. Fatal Run
4. Saboteur
5. Combat
6. Bowling
7. Asteroids (2600 version)
8. Missile Command (2600 version)

Total Games: 150
IGC Goal: 50
IGC Approved: 14
**SET FAILS**

Atari Flashback Classics was developed by AtGames
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$39.99 just lost points with the senior demographic in the making of this review.

The same game is $19.99 on Vita. Same collection. Switch Tax!! Ba na na na na na na na SWITCH TAX! Yes, I just sang the Batman 60s theme but replaced the words “Bat” and “Man” with “Switch” and “Tax.”

Donkey Kong (Game Boy)

Donkey Kong, aka Donkey Kong Game Boy, aka Donkey Kong ’94, aka Donkey Kon-go.. okay I just made that last one up.. is one of the few original generation Game Boy titles that still holds up today. Barely. I actually prefer it to Mario vs. Donkey Kong on the Game Boy Advance or any of the Minis spinoffs that proceeded it after MvDK failed to light up the sales charts. Do you know why Mario vs. Donkey Kong failed, at least in my opinion? The misguided choice to use Donkey Kong Country style rendered graphics instead of cartoonish pixels. No clue why they chose that. Especially since it really needed to differentiate itself from the Country series. And no, morphing into a shitty Lemmings knock-off wasn’t the way to go about it. The formula for Donkey Kong ’94 was perfectly fine. This is a very good video game. Also, I was kidding. It’s those shitty Lemmings stages that killed Mario vs. Donkey Kong. Nobody liked them. Nintendo turned the series into being about them anyway. To quote the name of the watering hole with a black hole in the bottom of it: well that sucks.

Well.. that sucks.. because it’s got a black hole. Get it? Sorry.

I’m really only reviewing this because when I was bitching about how bad the arcade original aged and/or suggesting that Nintendo would be well served to remake it and Donkey Kong Jr. with additional levels, people said “but Donkey Kong ’94!” quite loudly. Even though Donkey Kong ’94 is nothing like the arcade Donkey Kong. This is actually one of the few retro games I grew up with, and the only black-and-white Game Boy title I had besides Pokemon, which I had for the Game Boy Pocket I pestered my parents for and received a mere month before the Game Boy Color came out. And BOY were they happy with me when they found out the device they just bought me was already obsolete. I believe Donkey Kong was a throw-in “buy a Game Boy Pocket and get any Greatest Hits title for free” deal and it looked neat to me. And then I didn’t actually play it until much later. Which is weird because Pokemon Red certainly didn’t withstand the test of time. Donkey Kong has. It does so by the skin of its teeth, but still, it’s fine. (Side note: Donkey Kong cost $3.99 while Nintendo has the balls to charge $9.99 for the old black & white Pokemon games. That’s worse than the Switch Tax!)

This remake of the original final board of the arcade Donkey Kong is neutered by the backflip move. You can seriously beat it in under 10 seconds.

Donkey Kong ’94 gets off to a truly bizarre start as it immediately recreates the four levels from the arcade game. Fine idea, except all the special moves at Mario’s disposal are there from the start instead of being earned as the game progresses. To say this nerfs the difficulty of them is an understatement. Using the handspring-jump-power-jump combo, you can shoot right up the iconic barrel-hopping stage or the pie-factory in no time flat. I’ve had a harder time getting a locker open at the gym than I had with the first four levels. From that point forward, the game moves on to 97 new levels, the main mechanic of which is picking up a key and carrying it to a door, with every fourth level being a direct encounter with Donkey Kong himself. At this point, Donkey Kong becomes one of the most clever and consistently fresh platform-puzzlers of all-time.

And one of the most toothless. Free lives are so abundant that by time I finished level 1 – 8, I had thirty lives. THIRTY! That’s after I got killed a couple times getting myself reacquainted with the controls. Speaking of which, movement seems stiffer and less responsive than I remember it being. I honestly don’t know if that’s due to the tired and true nostalgia drunkenness that I’m normally not vulnerable to or if the emulation of Game Boy on 3DS isn’t spot-on. The only other Virtual Console games I’ve got are the first three Game & Watch titles. It’s completely possible that the controls are identical and this is one of those instances of “gaming has come a long ways.” Which is not to say the controls are crap or anything. I just had trouble getting the timing of the handspring triple jump correct. Too much trouble for it to be on me. I mean, I did beat Cuphead (suck my asshole). Doing the backflip was a bit trickier too.

Sorry there’s not better pics. One of the best parts of modern gaming is the ability to take screencaps and clips easily. I’m spoiled by it. I can’t ever go back. Anyway, count the free lives here. There’s as many as eight, actually. You get one for the 1up, as many as two for the time you have remaining (which gets you a free life for every second you have left after four stages are completed.. it even rounds up doing that.. and as many as five for getting the hat/purse/parasol combo and winning them in a bonus game. That’s batshit.

Well, my family is on-board with this whole Indie Gamer Chick thing, and it so happened we had access to an old school creamed-spinach and pus colored-screen Game Boy, and they tracked down a copy of Donkey Kong ’94. They had to pay $100 for it, but they got fourteen other games with it. I popped in the cart, and the difference was immediately clear. On the very first stage I could spring myself straight up, not once failing to pull-off the triple jump, or any backflips for that matter. Then I switched back to 3DS and the timing window was again much smaller. I had Brian and CJ give it a try too. It wasn’t just me. It was clearly an issue with the emulation. This won’t hurt 90% of games, but if there’s a sequence that has relatively small action-timing windows, you might have trouble getting the hang of it.

So, weirdly enough, while Donkey Kong ’94 is a well-designed (if insultingly easy) action-puzzler, I’m struggling to recommend it on 3DS. I still do, because it’s just plain stupid fun, but I think gamers deserve stronger emulation. While nothing is announced yet, I have to believe some sort of option is coming for Switch. I’ve been playing a LOT of commercial emulated games lately (Castlevania Anniversary Collection, Switch Online’s NES library, Arcade Archives, SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, etc) and I’m used to emulators with cleaner emulation and more bells and whistles. The effort is not there on 3DS Virtual Console. Moreover, Donkey Kong ’94 served as the launch killer app for the Super Game Boy accessory and showed off the capabilities of the device, but none of those color palettes are present here. You get two screen options: black and white or the kava-based-diarrhea greens that the original Game Boy was famous for. None of the more vibrant Super Game Boy colors are here, even though they’re presumably in the game’s code. One thing about Virtual Console: it NEVER went the extra mile (except StarTropics of all games, where the “dip the note in water” shit was digitally recreated).

It’s time for a new commercial Game Boy emulator. I’d even pay extra for it. Or I would have, but considering how hot the NES library started and how much it’s gone to hell over the last couple months (Donkey Kong 3 and Wrecking Crew are the only two new games coming in July), at this point I wouldn’t pay $20 extra a year for the subscription-based service to add Game Boy to the library unless the opening lineup was really good. I’d have no faith that the games they’d add every month would be ones people would actually want. I have their shoddy NES library track record to go off of. Like, seriously, who got excited over TwinBee? Wait, you did? Go stand in the corner for ten minutes and think about what you’ve done.

The map is functionally useless. You don’t move on it. You can’t replay extra levels. It’s just a built-in break between stages.

But, Donkey Kong is good enough to stand on its own even with timing issues. It’s a quick game, too. You can complete most of the 100 levels in under a minute. The most involved puzzles aren’t more complex than “activate lever when enemy is on gate, causing enemy to fall to different platform, allowing you to ride it.” Really, what stands out about Donkey Kong is how fine-tuned the timing is on so many gameplay aspects. You can touch special icons that allow you to place bridges or ladders or single-block platforms that disappear after a short time. But, if you use them right, they always last long enough for you to get whatever part of the puzzle you’re doing without feeling too rushed. The same with the in each stage, which you pick-up Mario 2-style. If you’re not holding it, it resets to its starting position after a few seconds. But, some levels require you to toss the key around or place it on conveyors. It never once felt like there wasn’t enough time. This is a very polished game in terms of gameplay, if not presentation.

I have no clue why Nintendo even bothered with a lives system, since the game practically hand-feeds you extra ones like you’re fucking Caesar or something. Maybe they thought their fans in 1994 would be unaccustomed to using their brains. I kid. If the game was a punisher, I’d get it. But it’s not. I actually have a theory: I think the special moves weren’t originally in the game. Weirdly enough, Donkey Kong ’94 is the turning point in Mario’s evolution. This is first game where he can be considered a full-fledged acrobat. Before DK ’94, his abilities were limited to running and jumping, with everything else requiring a power-up. Donkey Kong ’94, and not Super Mario 64, is the game that introduced Mario staples like the triple-jump and the backflip. Which is awesome in theory. In execution, you can use them to circumvent so much of the puzzling and platforming that it saps a lot of the design logic out of most stages. Like, seriously, it’s crazy how many stages you can spot the elaborate puzzle intent and then completely ignore it. I literally can picture the puzzle designer laying out the steps required to get the key to the door, then seeing someone just do a tumbling act through the level in seconds, leaving them in tears. I can’t help but wonder if these were last second additions that weren’t all the way thought-through, like the running jumps in Super Mario 2 that weren’t part of the original level conception of Doki Doki Panic.

My theory is that Super Mario 64 had began development by time Donkey Kong ’94 was nearing completion. The jump to 3D was going to be a radical enough change without Mario suddenly having all kinds of new abilities related to his leaping. With no other Mario platform games planned between 1994 and the launch of the Nintendo 64, I think Nintendo shoehorned the gymnastics into Donkey Kong at the last second as a way of prepping Nintendo fans for the acrobatics coming within the next couple years. I have no confirmation of this, but it makes sense to me. Donkey Kong was going to be tied to the highly anticipated Super Game Boy with a big marketing campaign, and Nintendo fans being generationally loyal, would be familiarized with the moves, eliminating some of the learning curve of Mario 64.

Or they just thought it’d be fun. Either/or.

The Donkey Kong encounters are the best stages. Each world has at least one that’s simply based around getting to the platform next to Pauline. The final one of each world involves picking up barrels and hitting DK three times. They’re always fun. DK Junior even cameos in some, proving my theory that Mario is NOT the villain in Donkey Kong Jr.

And yea, pulling off a backflip to skip a ladder or a platform and get higher faster is fun. And the “ta-da” style arm-raise Mario does when pulling off the triple jump is just plain adorable. But those moves also cripple the game’s difficulty. I’d go so far as to call Donkey Kong ’94 the easiest Mario game.. well.. ever. It’d probably be a great game to ease young children into more complex thought-process gaming, but even my father, who has taken up gaming in his early 70s as part of his regime to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, made it to the game’s fifth world in around two hours with a maximum stockpile of lives. This is only his fifth game he’s playing to the end. It’s too easy. It’s worth mentioning he had fun with it, and so did I. But I also finished Donkey Kong ’94 in about two hours and with 99 lives left. There’s something spectacular here, and I really wish they’d go back to this style of Donkey Kong or Mario vs. Donkey Kong and drop the boring Mini stuff.

Really, there’s two great lost Nintendo series: Mario vs. Donkey Kong (of which Donkey Kong ’94 launched) and Punch-Out!! I can’t see either coming back. One has been turned into a snore-fest Lemmings knock-off, and the other is a game about punching ethnic stereotypes in the face, which is still fun for the record (take my word for it: slugging a Frenchman wearing a beret is totally worth the fine and probation) but not kosher in 2019. Then again, you’d think the idea of Lemmings being suicidal and directionless would also not be considered politically incorrect. You guys know that’s a bullshit urban legend started by the Walt Disney company, right? It’s not true. Lemmings don’t jump off cliffs.

They jump into deep fryers only.

We call them Chicken McNuggets in America.

Donkey Kong was developed by Nintendo
Point of Sale: 3DS

$3.99 said Mario vs. Donkey Kong is worth the $6.99 on Wii U if you still have one in the making of this review.

Donkey Kong is Chick-Approved, but as a non-indie is not eligible for the IGC Leaderboard. Stay tuned for the Retroboards.

Arcade Archives: Sky Skipper

Over the last eight years, I’ve watched some incredible indie developers pour their hearts and souls into their projects, often only to be met with tumbleweeds or apathy. Whether anyone believes it or not, it always hurts my heart to see a game fail to find its audience. I don’t personally understand the demoralization. I can’t. I’m not a creator of games. I put everything into my work as Indie Gamer Chick, but it’s nowhere near the artistic spirit that goes into so many games that never catch on. A lot of those devs go on to be my friends. Some of them even close friends. I try to be encouraging and comforting when the greatest of efforts fails, but more often than not it feels like my words fail me.

With that in mind, have a look at Sky Skipper. This is an actual Nintendo coin-op from 1981 that was designed by the man himself, Shigeru Miyamoto. Well, actually there’s a sticky bit a business involving a guy named Ikegami Tsushinki who claims he’s the real creator and designer of all the Nintendo games up to Donkey Kong, and possibly Sky Skipper too since it was developed alongside DK. There was a lawsuit. Nobody knows what the result was. Having played Radar Scope and Space Firebird on my MAME, I’ll say that the difference between those games and the 1981-onward Nintendo titles is night and day. I’ll buy that someone else programmed them at that phase of Nintendo’s existence, but the design of Donkey Kong and Sky Skipper seem a little too original compared to everything that came before it. And, let’s face it, at the end the day, Miyamoto is revered among his peers while Tsushinki is barely worthy of being the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. There’s always going to be people who say legendary creators didn’t really create their work. They say it about Shakespeare too.

Sky Skipper ain’t much to look at. In fact, with the jaggy straight-lines and overly bright blue background, I can’t help but wonder if the graphics were unfinished as well. It’s so.. ugly. Also, this picture shows what I mean about how sometimes the cards refuse to free themselves even if the thing guarding them is out cold. Yea, I think it’s safe to say Sky Skipper was unfinished.

Whatever happened, Donkey Kong was a big hit. Sky Skipper? Not so much. It was given a very limited release in Japanese arcades, where it was ignored by players and hated by operators. Ten units were made for testing in North America, but because the game air-balled in the Japan, the USA test was apparently cancelled and the cabinets were instead turned into Popeye units for distribution. A single Sky Skipper cabinet was saved and kept by Nintendo of America. After years of restoration efforts, Nintendo allowed the ROM of their cabinet to be dumped by Hamster for this Arcade Archives re-release. One that apparently few people bought. I’m currently among the top 50 on every online leaderboard in the game (#18 in Caravan Mode!) despite my skills leaving a lot to be desired, which tells me it sold about as well as the Pontiac Aztek. Maybe if Nintendo had actually put out some kind of “hey, check out this lost game rediscovered of ours by the man who created Mario and Zelda” campaign it would have gotten some traction. But Nintendo really doesn’t seem all that interested in promoting ports of their own work. How peculiar. Maybe they’re as embarrassed by the $7.99 price tags as everyone else is.

Now, I’ve played my share of lost games. More often than not, they tend to suck. That’s why they found themselves lost in the first place. Look at Star Fox 2. I imagine many a slobbering fanboy with an SNES Classic had to spin with all the fury of a tornado in order to convince themselves they were having fun playing that clunky piece of shit. But I’ve had a lot of luck in 2019 with games like Joy Mech Fight and Kid Dracula (both Famicom games unreleased in the United States), and now Sky Skipper. A lot of people are shitting on it calling it confused or directionless. But honestly, this was easily my favorite of the nine Arcade Archive releases of Nintendo coin-ops I’ve played. It’s still original in 2019. There’s nothing quite like it. I also totally get how a game like this could bomb in 1981. You can be too original.

This is not a photoshop. The game says “damn it!” I was ten times more excited over this development than anyone in their right mind should be. I was practically doing cartwheels. Look! It’s a 1981 Nintendo game saying damn it! That is objectively FUCKING AWESOME!

The basic idea is you command a biplane that has to rescue sentient playing cards and a royal family from the clutches of evil gorillas, some of which look just like Donkey Kong but are most certainly not Donkey Kong nuh uh no sir not Donkey Kong at all how can you even say that?

Sorry.

You have limited gas (though I only once in dozens of sessions came close to running out) that can be refilled by flying into the starting flag of each stage. The cards and royalty are stuck in little compartments and will begin to leap up and down if you incapacitate the Notkey Kongs guarding it. Flying into them rescues them (presumably, that or you’re purging the royal blood blind and shredding them in your propeller. This can’t be ruled out) and scores points. Rescue all of them to advance to the next level. There’s four levels total, at which points stages recycle, just like every other Nintendo coin-op. Of all the early Nintendo arcade games, Sky Skipper is the most complex. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t a hit. The levels are sprawling, the object not entirely clear, and sometimes it doesn’t work exactly the way it should.

For example, sometimes the cards won’t start to jump even after their guards are temporarily knocked out. Other times, they’ll jump even when the patrolrillas are active and right above them. It makes me think the game wasn’t ever properly finished, because it’s never consistent from one round to the next and makes trying to shoot for high scores in the five minute caravan mode a chore. If it were finished, it’d actually be a nice gameplay style that features a deceptively complex scoring system build around the order you rescue the cards. Getting all the matching suits in a row scores extra points, while getting cards of matching colors in a row scores lightly less extra points. In theory, the royal family should act as wildcards, but they don’t seem to. Still, the relatively complex scoring was ahead of its time. It was even adapted to the Atari port of it.

Yea, if the name sounded familiar to older gamers, it’s because Parker Bros released a port of Sky Skipper for the 2600. I don’t think they actually wanted it. The deal they made was for Popeye (which Coleco, normally Nintendo’s partner during this era, passed on because of the cost of licensing the Popeye character). Nintendo threw Sky Skipper in with it. This was the first time I played an emulator to check a 2600 version of a game. It was fine. The cards are replaced with animals and the level design and enemy danger is toned drastically down, but it certainly passes for what they were aiming for. That really had nothing to do with this review, but you try making an interesting article out of an unreleased 1981 arcade game that was skipped for a reason.

This is the Atari 2600 version. Honestly, it’s no worse looking than the VCS version of Donkey Kong.

Actually, Sky Skipper is genuinely fun. I can also totally understand why this wouldn’t fly in 1981. Defender had already reached arcades by time Sky Skipper was ready for release. Defender, which I still hold up as the gold standard of arcade games, was fast-paced and white knuckle. Even with the throttle up on Sky Skipper, the pace is slow and plodding and the combination of Pac-Man style mazes and cutesy graphics with flying and a bombing giant cartoon gorillas just doesn’t seem like the type of thing that would catch attention on either side of the Pacific Ocean. But still, it’s a crying shame that a game with real entertainment value was trashed while actual garbage like Donkey Kong 3 was given a green light. Don’t get me wrong: Sky Skipper isn’t exactly incredible. It’s just alright. If the situation where the cards jumping to be rescued were fixed-up so that they behave more logically, it might even be a good game.

The gorillas throw baseballs that explode at you, but these don’t kill you directly. They cause you to lose control of the plane and crash into walls. Actually, the most lethal objects in the game, for me at least, were clouds. I lost more lives flying into them on accident than anything else. What kind of airplane can’t survive a cloud? Hell, what kind of pilot wouldn’t thrive on flying into clouds?

The Arcade Archive package isn’t exactly stellar either. I’d go so far as to say the five-minute Caravan Mode is functionally useless as a measuring stick of ability. There’s a lot of downtime between levels in Sky Skipper, but, the timer doesn’t stop between levels or when the plane is taking off at the start of new stages. It easily shaves a minute off the time and is so painful to sit through. In fact, most Arcade Archive games don’t stop the timer. Only Mario Bros. does as far as I’ve noticed, where the timer stops during the explanation screens. But in other games, like Vs. Super Mario Bros. the timer runs even if you’re not in control between stages. The obvious explanation is that Hamster has gotten lazy and complacent since Mario Bros. was released in October of 2017 and maybe some effort was made, while everything from Vs. Super Mario onward (with the exception of Donkey Kong, which has extra ROMs) was phoned in. Why bother with special features when anyone who would buy the port would do so either way, right?

As much as I’ve hated on Hamster and the Arcade Archive series (seriously, it’s 2 for 9 following this review, and the only other game in the series I actually liked was the universally hated Urban Champion, go figure), I really like what this release represents. In fact, it’s the first Arcade Archives game where I’m okay with the $7.99 price tag. I’m all about preservation and giving gamers and game developers access to lost or unfinished games to take apart like a digital autopsy. Maybe in the future, developers can finish cancelled games, BUT, also include things like the last stable build before it was cancelled. Imagine what students creating new games could learn if they had the ability to play the unfinished parts of Duke Nukem Forever or the original tech demos of Mario 64 or Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Weirdly enough, nowhere in the advertising does it mention the game’s lost status. That’s strange, because it’s literally the only reason anyone in their right mind would want this. I mean, I had fun, but it’s not even that legendary. I hadn’t even heard of Sky Skipper until last week.

You see, we’re all products of every game we’ve played up to this moment, and the same goes for developers. All of them are inspired by their favorite games, but the best of them learn from their least favorites and study those that they know to be bad. If every game is an opportunity for education, having access to the unreleased failures of those who came before them is invaluable to their progress. There’s lessons to be learned in them. So on this, my 30th birthday, I want to share this advice with everyone: you will fail sometimes, and that’s okay. Shigeru Miyamoto probably felt dejection when Sky Skipper was ignored by players and loathed by arcade operators. Look what he went on to accomplish. Dreams are always out of reach to those who quit. Not everyone who perseveres will find success, but you can be proud of yourself knowing that you didn’t fail you. And, if you press on, maybe one day a future generation indie critic will look back on your early work and say “well, that sucked, but I’m happy they didn’t give up.”

Arcade Archives: Sky Skipper was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 took the sky from me in the making of this review.

Sky Skipper is Chick-Approved. Non-indies and retro games are not eligible for the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. BUT, the IGC Retroboards are coming very soon.

LCD Games of the 80s: Part Three (Game & Watch DSiWare)

Well, I don’t want to be accused of creating cost-free content OR pirating games. So I bought all nine DSiWare Game & Watch titles. All of which have a nifty feature where, if you lack the patience to build up to a certain speed of the game, you can set the starting score to a certain point and begin the gameplay from there. Cool idea but it would sort of undermine the point of getting high scores I would think. Of the nine available games, I had only covered one previously: Donkey Kong Jr. The DSiWare version plays smoother than the simulated version I played. Well, duh. Official releases are like that. These each cost me $1.99 each, and between the time I bought them on Sunday and doing the write-up today, I suddenly can’t look them up on the official Nintendo website anymore. There’s a chance they might get pulled from the market soon, so if these boring pieces of shit are something you genuinely want, act now. Finally, I have no means to get pictures off my 3DS so I had to use pics of the UK versions.

Poor guy has monkey wrenches for hands.

BALL (1980 Game & Watch)

Ball was the first Game & Watch game. And, if you were a platinum Nintendo Club member, you might have gotten a replica of the original LCD handheld of one. It’s a simple juggling game where you shift your hands left and right to keep the balls in motion. In Game A, there’s two balls, while Game B adds a third. Weirdly, Game A scores in increments of one point while B scores by the 10. That makes no sense. It also occurred to me that some games that I’ve labeled “spinning plate games” could be called “jugglers” or “ball-likes” instead. I’ll try to note that in the future. Anyway, Ball was probably incredible in 1980. I mean, look, it’s a game that looks sort of like a video game. Take that, Electronic Football! Today? Pretty dull.

FLAGMAN (1980 Game & Watch)

Fun story related to Simon: Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer got caught up in a lawsuit over Pong, because Magnavox (producers of Baer’s Odyssey console) could prove that Nolan attended a conference that showed off Baer’s version of video table tennis right before he came out with Pong. Baer’s tennis didn’t resemble Pong at all. You have to use a second knob to control the angles of the ball, whereas Pong used a segmented paddle that angled the ball based on where on the paddle it hit. Atari settled anyway. They ended up taking a license on the technology becaues they were in start-up while Baer’s backers had the means to trounce them in court, even though the suit really wouldn’t have held up in court today. Years later, Baer played Bushnell’s Touch Me game and copied it to make Simon, justifying it by saying Nolan didn’t have a patent and Simon’s buttons made distinct noises. We owe Baer a lot, but he wasn’t the kindly grandfather type we picture him to be. He worked for a defense contractor, was quite litigious, would pursue lawsuits on people who he perceived to have ripped him off while simultaneously copying ideas from others.

It’s Simon. Dude holds up a set of flags. You memorize the order. Keep going until you miss three times. This shit has been done a million times. Next.

VERMIN (1980 Game & Watch)

If a lot of these animations look familiar to you, that’s because I think Nintendo selected the DSiWare releases based on graphics adapted to Mr. Game & Watch for Smash Bros.

Of every game that I’ve covered in the LCD features, this is the one I was most familiar with by virtue of it being a microgame in WarioWare for Game Boy Advance that I, one day when I was younger, got caught up playing for hours unable to die while I was trying to unlock all the extras. Then again, a lot of Game & Watch titles are part of the WarioWare franchise, the original of which everyone knows is my favorite game of all-time. I don’t know if that’s why I found the actual Game & Watch to be so easy, but I scored over 500 points before dying in Mode A and 400 in Mode B. Frankly, Vermin’s take on whack-a-mole is too easy. There’s too much leeway in how long a mole can be out of a hole before you lose a life. This would have probably been a great game for really young kids because it’s incredibly easy, so much so that I couldn’t get into it.

JUDGE (1980 Game & Watch)

See what I mean? This is probably the most famous Mr. Game & Watch attack. As a game though, Judge is awful.

Well, at least this one tries something completely different. Here, you and the AI (or a second player in mode B) hold up a random number between 1 and 9. If your opponent is holding up a higher number than you, you dodge. If they’re holding up a lower number, you attack. The first player to press the correct action scores. First to 99 wins. I beat the AI 99 to 27 and then beat my father 99 to 27. So I’m consistent. Three cheers to me, or actually make it 27 just because that’s what I apparently deserve. They were really stretching for game ideas here. It’s weird that it took them so long to figure out the right way to make compelling, addictive games using the limited technology. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, but then again, this is before they had a hit in Donkey Kong.

HELMET (1981 Game & Watch)

Maybe this was the end result of a Decepticon being blown up by Bumblebee.

This is more like it. A cross-the-road game where you dodge falling tools as you make your way from one shed to the other, which visually for some reason reminded me of The Prestige teleporting man trick. The shed doors open and close in random intervals and you might get stuck in the playfield, where I’m almost certain there’s scenarios that are unsurvivable. And, once again, it’s too hard to judge the speed of the falling objects without motion. They were on the right track here, though. I still hated Helmet, mostly because this was the game that fucked me over playing 9-Volt’s stage in WarioWare the most.

CHEF (1981 Game & Watch)

I don’t think this would be considered sanitary.

A juggler/spinning plate game, with the twist being that a cat will occasionally show up to stop the momentum of one of the food pieces you’re having to juggle. It’s yet another game where motion is almost essential for what they were aiming for, though they were getting a little closer to getting the idea right without it. Fire, which is not included in this set but is part of a few of the Game & Watch Gallery releases, was the first to get it right without needing to actually see the objects move. Chef has tons of issues with figuring out which food item is the next you need to save and I’m not really willing to put the time in needed to figure it out, because it’s not fun either way.

Manhole (1981 Game & Watch)

A spinning-plate game where you have to replace manholes so that runners don’t fall into sewers. It’s one of the simplest Game & Watch concepts and it’s actually probably the best of the early lineup. It’s easier to get a feel for the timing of the runners, negating the need to see actual motion. This so far is the only one of the games that I tried the Game & Watch Gallery remake of, where the manholes stay in place and only collapse if Toad, Donkey Kong Jr, or Mario run over there without Yoshi having its tongue attached to them. The remake works, but the original was (mostly) not that bad. It’s boring, don’t get me wrong, but if there had been online leaderboards I might have been more invested. Come to think of it, why wouldn’t they include leaderboards? With so many cheap options on 3DS, who would want these unless there were online leaderboards or if you were an indie critic on a journey into gaming’s past that wanted to spend actual money so as to avoid feeling like a pirate?

In 2019, gamers would expect this to be the opposite: removing the manhole covers in order to kill bystanders. YOU KNOW I’M RIGHT!

The most notable thing I have to say about Manhole is I was quickly able to deduce that Game & Watch Gallery, while not being an emulated game but rather a recreation, actually retails the same sluggish response time that the DSiWare version (that looks like a near-perfect recreation of the handheld) sports. The issue is sometimes the game would straight-up not respond to me pressing the button to go from one corner to the other. In order to be able to cover ground more quickly, you can press a button to take you from the upper left to the bottom right, or the upper right to the bottom left, and so forth. But, sometimes I’d press the button and Mr. Game & Watch would stay in place for no reason. It’s a laginess/response issue that is bizarrely universe no matter which version of the LCD-based game you play. This doesn’t happen in the modern remake version in Gallery. Which made me wonder if these really were recreations or if some form of emulation was used. Either way, Manhole is so much more frustrating than it needed to be. Game & Watch’s modern version was fun though. Stay tuned for the full reviews of those.

Mario’s Cement Factory (1983 Game & Watch)

If you let the cement overflow, there’s a hilarious death animation of Luigi (I think it’s Luigi) being crushed to death by cement. Okay, maybe only I found it funny. I have issues.

By far the game people wanted me to play the most (besides the Tiger Electronics Full House game, seriously you sadistic fucks?), Mario’s Cement Factory is a legendary Game & Watch on the grounds that it’s an original Mario game designed specifically for the LCD line. And it’s certainly an ambitious title. It combines plate-spinning mechanics, road-crossing/platforming, and a bit of “transport object from point A to point B” gameplay into one giant smorgasbord of an LCD. A lot of my fans insisted this is the only “really good Game & Watch” but I honestly though it was too complex. There’s two cement mixers that you have to travel up and down a pair of moving platforms to release to the accumulated cement from. The layers cement fall down to the next level, eventually reaching the truck that you score points from. If the cement overflows, you die. If you fall off a platform, you die. If you get squashed while riding the platforms, you die. When the action speeds up, there’s just too much shit to keep track of.

I imagine someone at Nintendo had seen the famous I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode and decided to make a Mario game based on it. Because, like the show, things get out of hand too quickly and the speed of which you can move and release the cement is too limited. If this weren’t a Mario game, nobody would give a shit about it today. Being part of the Mario mythos shouldn’t override the fact that Cement Factory is boring at best, while an aggravating exercise in futility at worse.

Vermin (pictured), Helmet, Ball, Octopus, Manhole, and Oil Panic (not featured yet) were parts of the WarioWare series. Ball and Oil Panic were part of Touched! while Helmet and Vermin were in the original. Octopus was in Smooth Moves. Manhole is part of 5-Volt’s stage in Gold on 3DS. WarioWare actually did the impossible: making Game & Watch part of something fun. Of course, it did this by limiting the gameplay to two-second chunks. Hey, whatever works!

None of the DSiWare titles are worth $2 on their own, especially considering that I bought Game & Watch Gallery 1 for $2.99 on 3DS along with Game & Watch Gallery 2 & 3 for $3.99 each. Combined, the trilogy ran me $10.47. Throw in another $6.99 if you want Game & Watch Gallery 4 for the Game Boy Advance and still own a Wii U. Those titles all have multiple recreations of the original LCD screens with very accurate-to-the-original gameplay PLUS superior minigame remakes. Comparatively, the nine DSiWare Game & Watch titles ran me $17.91, had NO features besides local-only leaderboards and the ability to start a game at any score, and skipped the modern remakes. Besides the infamous Mario’s Cement Factory, it’s not like the nine games chosen were exactly all-stars in the Game & Watch lineup to begin with. Ball, Judge, and Flag are so primitive that they have no reason to be re-released on their own ever again. This re-release series had to be among the most soulless cash-grabs Nintendo ever did. You know what I could get behind? Making these free to Switch Online subscribers, with online leaderboards. What I can’t get behind is charging $2 a pop for old games that have no gameplay value today. So I’m now 0 for 24 in looking for an LCD that I can say without qualification is worth checking out.

Arcade Archives: Ice Climber

THIS, my friends, is the worst Nintendo game. Well, maybe not. Donkey Kong 3 is pretty damn shitty. And Nintendo has made a lot of games that are uninspired at best, if not actively horrible. Now granted, I haven’t played Stack Up, and unless Nintendo does a digital simulator for R.O.B. it’s unlikely I ever will. I’m not sure why Stack Up has such a bad reputation besides being a game that requires players to keep score via the honor system. It seems like totally functional concept that wouldn’t be bad if it weren’t controlled by an accessory so slow that you have to measure its movement speed in epochs. I know that part is true because I have played Gyromite. With actual gyros. It’s plodding, but it works. But, I don’t think the NES robot games should be in the discussion. They were never meant to be good. They were part of Nintendo’s trojan horse strategy to get the NES into retailers. Expecting them to be good would be like a pothead giving glaucoma a positive review because at least it gives them a legal excuse to smoke weed.

We’ll never see Stack Up again. I mean, that Ron Howard likeness license ain’t cheap.

Well hell, shouldn’t part of the requirement for a worst-game contender be that the game had aspirations of high quality? People find charm in Ed Wood’s failures because he was trying so gosh-darn hard to make something good. That he was giving his maximum effort and still ended up with Plan 9 from Outer Space is adorable in how pitiful it is. That’s why I found Press X to Not Die so obnoxious. It’s not just because it was bad, but because it was trying to be deliberately 90s FMV-bad. But those games like Sewer Shark or Night Trap weren’t trying to be badly acted or horrible to play. That’s just how they turned out. They have camp value specifically because everyone involved didn’t know they were making bad games. Being bad on purpose takes no skill or effort. Anyone can do it. Being remarkably bad takes ambition and the belief you’re making something good. Remember, it’s not really failing if you didn’t even try. Which, coincidentally, is what New York Knicks management have to say to themselves just to sleep at night.

The one less-negative thing I can say about Arcade Archives: Ice Climber is that it controls not-as-horrible as the NES version. I don’t want to use the word “better” to describe anything related to this game. It doesn’t deserve even the slightest hint of positivity.

I suspect Ice Climber was considered a high-prospect game at Nintendo. In the immediate aftermath of Super Mario Bros., they probably thought jumping and scrolling were the keys to its success and decided “well, Super Mario worked horizontally, so let’s quickly make a vertical scroller and corner that market too!” If true, that’d be a solid theory. But the problem is Super Mario Bros., for all the shit I’ve given it for its relatively bad control (compared to how the series evolved at least), was probably the best controlling game Nintendo had ever made up to that point. Ice Climber goes the other way. It has bizarre jumping physics that severely limit how much horizontal distance you can cover each jump, presumably to make it clear that this is the vertical game. It honestly feels like something is physically pushing into your character while you jump. So the characters can jump fairly high vertically but not to the left and right. Fine. And then they built a game not tailored to these specific physics that requires you to jump up and to the left or right. Not fine.

Ice Climber is so putrid that it’s insane to think anyone could have been satisfied releasing this in the state it’s in. It’s horrible. Maybe with tight level design built to the strengths of the jumping mechanics it could have been something. But Ice Climber often requires quick jumping reflexes and precision movement. Some of the floors are like conveyor belts that push you one direction. Sometimes there’s wind blowing against you in addition to the strange leaping physics. Sometimes progress is dependent on waiting for slooooooooowwwwwww moving platforms. If there’s multiple moving platforms, they obviously weren’t programed with any form of synchronization in mind. You might end of having to wait a long time for them to line up in a way that’s useful. That mostly happens in bonus section of levels, where if you fall to your death you don’t lose a life. But, sometimes you end up getting stuck waiting in the actual level part of stages. And mind you, there’s a penalty for lingering. Simply atrocious. Gaming has come a long way and we should all take a moment to be thankful that little things like moving platform design have evolved to the point they have. But, even when everything seems like it’s working right, something will happen like trying to jump to the level above you and clipping through the floor instead. Really, Ice Climber’s most amazing aspect is how little time you spend playing it where nothing is wrong or off at that specific moment.

Pictured here: the climber clipping right through the blocks. This is incredibly annoying. The NES version of Mario Bros does this too. The arcade version of Mario doesn’t, which is the only reason why I bought Arcade Archives: Ice Climber. I figured if Mario Bros’s coin-op fixed my biggest complaint about the NES port, maybe Ice Climber’s would too. It doesn’t. I was constantly trying to jump to above platforms only to go straight through them because I didn’t land flush-enough, even though the majority of my body was over the platform. If Ice Climber was a little more forgiving, it might be a fun game. Probably not, but you can’t rule it out. Also, in Japan, instead of furry little monsters, you club seals. I’m not kidding.

And so, yeah, this is the worst Nintendo game. The most annoying mechanically. The most boring in level design. The least rewarding to complete. And it’s not even historically important. Finally, it’s not even fun in a campy type of way. Being a bad game isn’t like being a bad movie. Movies are a passive experience. You just sit back and watch them. Games you take an active role in. I never thought there was value in bad games. Ice Climber is worthless in every way a game can be. If not for the fact that they wanted some obscure gag characters for Smash Bros. Melee and thought Mr. Game & Watch was too obscure, Ice Climber would be completely inconsequential to gaming today. Donkey Kong 3 is bland, but Ice Climber is bland AND bad. It’s the worst combination imaginable. It’s terrible in ways that almost defy reality. This was developed alongside Super Mario Bros. Someone looked at both games and said “yep, we’re on the right track!” It’s unreal that nobody said “look at how the Super Mario project is going. We can do better!” Ice Climber deserved to be lost to history. It almost was. And then Sakurai needed a joke for Melee and snatched it from oblivion. Funny joke, but not that funny.

Oh, right, Arcade Archives release. This cost $7.99. HAH. There’s, that’s my review of this port in its entirety.

Arcade Archives: Ice Climber was developed by Hamster.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 said honestly using a gun would be a kinder form of robbery than charging $8 for Ice Climber in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Urban Champion

Reputations are a fickle thing. They happen for a reason, are usually rooted in some form of reality, but just as often as not, are completely inaccurate. I have a reputation for being a tough but fair game critic, which I take great pride maintaining. But among some, my reputation is also that I’m anti-retro and anti-Nintendo. Those are fiction. The anti-retro thing comes from the fact that I don’t bend the knee to every legendary older game based on their legacy alone. I hated Super Mario Bros. I hated Centipede. I owe them nothing and have no problem telling people I think they suck. But anti retro? Are you kidding? If the rep were true, would I have needed to pause my session of Gunstar Heroes just to cry tears of joy at how awesome it was? Because I totally did. It was so good and I was so blown away. And I even wrote a two-thousand word essay on how amazing Super Mario Bros. 2 is. If that’s hate, by all means, hate me that way.

The anti-Nintendo rep comes from the fact that I’ll criticize Nintendo when I think the situation calls for it. That’s really it. That alone makes you “anti-Nintendo” to the generation of latchkey kids raised by an NES or a Wii who live their lives under the delusion that Nintendo is their bestie. Or, even worse, an insecure deity, and if they stop kissing its ass for even a split second, they might end up never seeing more entries in their favorite franchises. Because, right, Nintendo is totally going to stop making Metroid or Zelda games if anyone expresses even the faintest hint of rejection. Uh huh. By the way, my rep there is, again, obviously untrue. I’ve named two Nintendo-developed titles my Game of the Year since starting IGC (Link Between Worlds in 2013, Mario Odyssey in 2017) and my site has been focused recently more on Switch indies and releases. Strange way of being anti-Nintendo: covering games that would serve to help their bottom line. So, I’ve learned to take reputations with a grain of salt and judge people and things by my experience with them.

“I told you to make my hair look like Elvis! This isn’t Elvis! His hair wasn’t green!”

I bring up reputation because Urban Champion is, by reputation, the worst Nintendo game ever made. There’s of course outliers who argued that the title belongs to Ice Climber, Clu Clu Land, NES Baseball, Stack Up (the R.O.B. game), or even later stuff like Wii Music or Pokemon Channel. Hell, I’d throw Kid Icarus: Uprising into that mix. The fact that they had to include an accessory just to play it without causing damage to your hands should have been a warning to them that maybe the game needed serious re-thinking. But, Urban Champion is the game that comes up most, at least from what I can tell. It’s not even close. The argument is never that it’s unplayable or broken, but rather that it’s so bland and uninspired that it almost defies belief. Even while I was playing it and uploading videos today, people pointed out that, after five seconds, you’d seen everything the game had to offer. A baffling argument in my opinion. I mean, how many seconds do you need to see everything Pac-Man has to offer?

I’d never played Urban Champion properly. I’d played it as part of NES Remix or a microgame in WarioWare, but I’d never played the real deal. I wasn’t sure what to expect. And then I turned it on, and I started playing it, and now I’m sitting here wondering how in the world this of all games became the worst Nintendo game title holder. Because it’s not. It’s not even the most bland early Nintendo game I’ve played. It’s fine, honestly. There’s not a whole lot of depth here, but the concept of two guys throwing punches on the street, high and low, jabs and heavy punches, works. And, in fact, being a fan of games where attacks feel like they have real world weight and impact, I liked Urban Champion’s violence a lot. The punches feel like they’re connecting and hurt. I’d be nice if the characters looked like they had damage, like a black eye or swollen faces just to really sell it, but still, it’s not bad. It’s almost unreal that a rushed, half-assed 1984 arcade game genuinely feels like a real fist fight between two angry people, but Urban Champion pulls that off.

You’ve got to appreciate that citizens of Urban Champion City keep confetti by their windows so that if someone below their apartment happens to punch some other poor SOB into a sewer, you can help them to celebrate their almost-certain manslaughter.

And it’s slightly more than a button-masher. It’s basically rock-scissors-paper with a fourth option. There’s two types of punches: a jab and a “knock-out punch” that, if you land it, always knocks a person to the ground. Both types of punches can be thrown to the face or to the gut, giving you four total attack methods. Every landed punch moves your opponent backwards. After a character is knocked back two screens, the third screen will always have an open manhole, where to win the fight you have to punch them into it. It’s a novel version of the round format, and really, a sort of precursor to Smash Bros when you think about it. They’re both fighting games where you’re trying to knock your opponents off the screen. I’m not saying Urban Champion is the grandfather of Smash Bros, but there’s some shared DNA for sure. In the same way humans are related to sea sponges, but it still counts.

Of course, the problem is that there’s not a lot of meat on these bones. Each opponent is identical in model with only the coloration changed. The difficult does ramp up, but rounds of Urban Champion are still long and slow. I can’t imagine arcade operators ever liked this. Then again, most of my fans weren’t even aware this was an arcade game. In fact, this (along with other current Arcade Archives releases like Clu Clu Land, Ice Climber, and Excitebike) were part of the Nintendo Vs. System that were basically made of slightly upgraded NES hardware. The games were interchangeable, with operators simply being given different marquees and other decorations to change the look of the cabinet. This is why the arcade version of Super Mario is called Vs. Super Mario Bros. It was a hugely profitable set-up, but it was limited to one, maybe two games, per unit. Nintendo eventually discontinued it in favor of the PlayChoice-10, which many of my older fans describe as “playing an NES, five minutes for 25¢ at a time.” Anyway, Urban Champion was part of the Vs. Series, though it’s so rare that not a single person registered to the Killer List of Video Games owns one, or even the board for it. As an NES game, it’s not hard to find, but it’s not exactly wanted as anything but a curio either.

Imagine how hilarious it would be if Urban Champion was announced as the next Smash Bros DLC. There’d be an internet riot.

I think history was a bit unfair to Urban Champion. If this had come out for something like the Intellivsion or Colecovision, it might have been remembered as one of the all-time greats. It even feels like it belongs more on one of those consoles. Maybe if it had been, today it’d be considered the rightful patriarch to games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. Instead, titles like Karate Champ or Yie Ar Kung-Fu hold that distinction, even though I think Urban Champion is a better game. Compared to other early NES titles like Super Mario Bros. or Legend of Zelda, Champion feels so damn primitive. Maybe it was the victim of the worst timing in gaming history. And being slightly bland or limited in play mechanics aren’t the only flaw. The police periodically resetting a round, seemingly at random, is annoying as fuck. The people dropping pots out the window, sometimes in your favor and sometimes not, break up the game’s flow terribly. There’s no special moves and I hate having to move manually after every knock-down and to start every round. But, I liked the no-frills fisticuffs it offered. Urban Champion isn’t the worst Nintendo game. It’s not even a bad game. It’s genuinely decent. I liked it. I’m sure people will think I’m being sarcastic or taking the piss. I’m not. Urban Champion is underrated. It has the most undue reputation in all of gaming, positive or negative. I’m dead serious. Check it out if you get the chance.

Now, having said all that, the package and value of the Hamster release is pretty terrible. There’s only three modes. The first allows you to mess with options, though the game defaults to easy so really the only thing you can tinker with is your life count. Which, even if you do, you can post a high score to online leaderboards with it. The second mode is high-score, which you have to use the default settings. The third is caravan mode, which is the typical five-minute timer mode with online boards. Thankfully, for this release, the timer actually stops when the action does between rounds. Nice touch. The problem with this mode is that you’re playing a game where you’ll be hitting the buttons a lot, including the B button. If you’re doing that and the time runs out, you reject your own score and it doesn’t get posted. I had a top 50 score and threw it away, and I’m fucking pissed off about that. It’s such careless, lazy, stupid design. Have a fucking warning screen or something before tossing a score out. It’s just common sense. Just because your company is called Hamster doesn’t need you need to display the brainpower of one.

And finally, there’s the price tag: yet another $7.99 game. And that’s what presents a problem for me. If the game had been $1, I’d considered it one of the best dollars I’ve spent on a game in recent memory. EIGHT FUCKING DOLLARS FOR THIS? I bought six discounted Switch indies for that last night. All these Arcade Archives releases (and their Johnny Turbo cousins) are terrible values. $5 is a good price for an old game. That’s an impulse buy. $7.99 is something most people will want to think about. And that’s where I’m struggling here. You see, I liked Urban Champion. I just detest the price. But, my rule here is that price and value are not what I’m deciding on. I’m reviewing a game as a game, not a product. So, for that reason, I have to give Arcade Archives: Urban Champion the Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval. And I have to tell people to not buy it for $7.99. If you get a chance at $5 or less, give it a chance with an open mind and you’ll probably walk away agreeing that Nintendo not only has done a lot worse, but that Urban Champion shouldn’t even make the list. But for $7.99? Urban Champion and this whole series (which I’m not done with yet, two more to go) can jump in a manhole and become part of a fatberg. A fatberg is a congealed mess of wetwipes and cooking grease that clogs up sewers. There’s also dozens of overpriced arcade relics on home consoles holding it together. I’m almost certain of this.

Arcade Archives: Urban Champion was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 (TOO MUCH, DON’T BUY IT, IGNORE THE SEAL OF APPROVAL) said “maybe if I make the seal of approval smaller nobody will notice” in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Urban Champion is Chick-Approved but as a non-indie isn’t ranked on the IGC Leaderboard.

LCD Games of the 80s: Part Two

“Waaaaa, you didn’t play the good ones.” There are no good ones. But fine. Here’s eight more LCD games, some of which I got from here.

BARTMAN: AVENGER OF EVIL (1990 Acclaim)

If you can do the Bart then you’re bad like Michael Jackson. It’s true. Michael Jackson did a lot of ten-year-olds.

Okay, so this is from the early 90s. Sue me. This one sort of tries to do what the double-screened Game & Watch games do, only on one screen. Here you play as Bart Simpson. On the top of the screen, Nelson has kidnapped Maggie and is shooting rocks at you. You have to dodge them while waiting for the Bartman costume to spawn. Once you have all three pieces of it, the action moves to the bottom of the screen where you dodge watermelons and apples. Santa’s Little Helper will occasionally give you an apple that you throw back at Nelson. Ten apples and the gameplay loop resets. Once I figured out what I was doing, the game was still boring but at least playable. It’s better than the Simpsons Arcade Game because at least this is quick.

I speculated in the first set of LCD reviews that a major part of the appeal of these games was that kids thought they were getting away with something naughty by playing them. Even if the gameplay was horrible, it’s the idea that they were playing video games when they weren’t supposed to. By time Bartman came out, Game Boy was out and there were better options. BUT, in 1990 the Simpsons was considered bad for kids. Because Bart said “damn” and “hell”. Of course, like anything else, the controversy just made the Simpsons even more desirable for children. So imagine you’re a young person in 1990, sitting in church and playing a Simpsons game. You’d feel like you were the biggest little stinker in the world. I hate to break this to you, but they knew. Yes, they knew you what you were doing and you’d already gotten your punishment. You were playing this.

ZELDA (1989 Game & Watch)

“Zelda” is shorthand for either the game series or the original Legend of Zelda. But, in fact, the only actual game in the franchise that is called simply “Zelda” is this one.

This released three weeks after Game Boy in North America. So imagine going into a store and seeing this, which was relatively expensive ($34.99 in 1989 dollars, about $75 today) and Game Boy ($90 in 1989, or about $190 today). One was a permanent investment in gaming. The other you’d be lucky if a child pulled five minutes of enjoyment out of. If your parents opted not to save up for the Game Boy, I hope you didn’t follow their example of impatience and bad purchase judgment. Because it’s probably one of the worst of the Game & Watch games. You move left and right on the bottom screen, killing an enemy on the right. Then you climb stairs. This goes on until you fight a dragon on the top screen. It really does seem like it’s trying to make it feel as Zeldaish as possible with hearts and potions to use, but Zelda Game & Watch is soooooo bad. It makes the CDi titles look like game of the year contenders by comparison.

SAFARI (1981 VTech Time & Fun)

When Game & Watch became an unprecedented hit, there were a lot of companies that hopped onto the bandwagon. VTech was one of the most successful at getting shelf space. They did well. They’re still in existence today and were actually part of a massive data breach at some point. Maybe they should have stuck to the off-brand games. In fact, there’s a strong chance a lot of my older fans who THINK they had an actual Nintendo Game & Watch as a kid might have really had a VTech Time & Fun game. But unlike other companies (many of them Russian) who would just straight-up clone Game & Watch titles and slap a different name on them, VTech made their own, original games, most of which seem to retain the same “keep it simple, stupid” gameplay that made Game & Watch titles, if not good, still playable today. Safari uses the “cross the street” mechanics that were popular with LCD games. Here you’re an explorer who must.. avoid..

Is that………..

Oh God.

OH GOD!!

Oh. Yeah.

It was a different time.

THE TERMINATOR (1988 Tiger Electronics)

“You didn’t do any Tiger Electronics games! How could you do a review of LCDs and not do a single Tiger game?”

Yeah, I’ve heard the reputation of them. I feel fear too, you know. I never claimed to be brave.

Thank god Arnie would never be associated with another bad game after this.

Tiger Electronics’ handheld LCD games are universally considered some of the worst “video games” ever made. But, honestly Terminator isn’t that bad. It’s a really simple gallery shooter. Apparently someone included Tiger in MAME, but I’m nowhere near my MAME cabinet. And the computer that runs my cabinet uses a 2010 version of the emulator and I really don’t want to update it since my understanding is it might render some ROMs non-working. It’s a lot of work. I’ll stick to the simulators. Find me more of them that require as few clicks to play as possible and I’ll gladly do them. Anyway, this is an insanely, crazy simple game that’s boring as fuck. Move left and right, shoot, rinse, repeat. If Donkey Kong 3 is the current “it must be as good as the actual arcade version of Donkey Kong 3 to not completely suck” barometer, Terminator doesn’t quite make it. It’s that boring.

Though I do appreciate that you can’t actually see (most) of the bullets you shoot. I don’t know what kind of guns they use to fight aliens in Contra, but like, that’s not how guns work! You point one, you pull the trigger, and before your brain can process that you’ve finished the task of firing the gun, the bullet has already completed doing its thing. So go figure that a Tiger Electronics handheld from 1988 would have the most accurate depiction of firearms in gaming history. Well, besides Duck Hunt, which I guess works that way too and has a muzzle flash. I guess that whole paragraph was pointless. Moving on..

MARIO’S BOMBS AWAY (1983 Game & Watch Panorama)

I’m not freaking out. Even Pluto joined the army once, and Donald Duck dreamed he was a Nazi.

Another “cross the road” format game. Honestly, the best Game & Watch titles follow that formula. It’s simple and allows for the most variations without feeling like you’re just copying one game over and over. Here, you’re Mario fighting in an actual war (holy shit!), carrying bombs across enemy lines so you can blow up the camping soldiers (HOLY SHIT!!). I mean, Jesus Christ! Mario was a solider! With a body count! Do you wonder if all the “adventures” he went on afterwards were a coping mechanism fantasy to deal with the PTSD he developed from all the terrible atrocities he had to commit here? It can’t be ruled out.

Anyway, this is one of the better LCD games I’ve played so far. I almost gave it the IGC Seal of Approval but it came up just short. It’s, once again, too hard to get the timing down of when the torches will light the bomb fuse without being able to see motion. And also, look at Mario’s face on the device. That’s the face of a dude that’s seen things. Horrible, horrible things.

DONKEY KONG JR. (1982 Game & Watch)

There’s more LCD versions of DK Jr. than there are Army of Darkness DVDs.

This is not to be confused with Donkey Kong II or the Tabletop/Panorama LCD (which was made by Nintendo but released outside of Japan by Coleco). This is like a smaller version of Donkey Kong II BUT with a larger emphasis of using the vines. Once again, you have to grab a key and zig-zag Junior to the top of the screen to unlock your Daddy. Honestly, I think this game plays better than Donkey Kong II. It combines elements from several authentic DK Jr. stages and even has the “drop a fruit on the enemy to score points mechanic” that, to be honest, I would never have expected to have been attempted in one of these.

Is it fun? Well…………… no. But I did have to think about it this time.

EGG / MICKEY MOUSE (1981 Game & Watch)

Screw eating the eggs. That hat you’re using seems to have an unlimited capacity. Patent it and feast upon filet mignon for the rest of your days.

Nintendo reskinned several Game & Watch games to star Disney’s cash rat. Thus, Egg became Mickey Mouse and Donkey Kong Circus became.. well.. Mickey Mouse. That must have been confusing. Weirdly, Egg and Mickey Mouse both came out on the same day in August, 1981. Besides cross-the-road games, the other common, easy to execute LCD gameplay style is “spin the plate” games, where you have to judge which of several objects is the next one you have to touch. Also, this might be the first ever video game where you play as the villain. Because in Egg, you play as the Big Bad Wolf, stealing eggs from chickens. Wouldn’t the Big Bad Wolf.. you know.. EAT THE CHICKENS?

Imagine a parent in 1981 trying to REALLY make their child happy and buying both Egg and Mickey Moues, thinking they’re different games. You know this had to have happened at least once.

Well, I think the issue is Nintendo was trying to get the Disney license (they’d worked together for decades when Nintendo made playing cards) but wasn’t sure if they would get it. So they made two versions of this, and had to design a character that could seamlessly replace the Mickey Mouse character if they couldn’t work with the House of Mouse. That’s my theory, at least. Anyway, I’m not a fan of these because it becomes too hard to determine the speed after a while. This is one (two) of those games where Game & Watch Gallery had a really easy time making the concept more playable. Just add motion and poof: you’re 80% less boring. 20% being purely genetic.

Does that count as eight? Only seven? Fine.

OCTOPUS (1981 Game & Watch)

The Octopus should seriously come back as a boss somewhere. Great character model.

I’m guessing if any Game & Watch game, or any LCD for that matter, is going to break through the glass ceiling and win the Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval, it’ll be a cross-the-road game that has a unique, addictive play mechanic. Octopus is almost that. That idea is you have to wait for the tentacles to coil and uncoil, move to the treasure chest in the bottom corner of the screen and scoop up as much loot as possible, then return to the ship for bonus points. The more points you score, the faster the tentacles move. And that’s really it. It’s almost fun. It’s this close. It’s easily the best of any of the sixteen LCDs I’ve played so far, with Mario’s Bombs Away being a distant second.

And now I feel like I’m on a quest to find a good one of these LCDs. I just bought every DSi Game & Watch release, plus the first three Game & Watch Gallery titles on Virtual Console for comparison sake. Weirdly enough, playing these games does make me feel like I missed out on something. I’m gaining an understanding of the gaming upbringing of my older fans, and a better appreciation for the era that I came into the hobby, from 1996 – 1998. By that point, I never had to worry about getting stuck with one of these crappy “games.” Nope. I just have to hear older people say that this is all they had and they walked uphill in three feet of snow both ways to get them and they liked them. Weirdos.

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