Arcade Archives: Mario Bros.

One thing I’ve noticed while playing Mario Bros: people either love and defend the 1983 arcade original and its direct ports, or they love and defend the numerous remakes of it, some of which happened in games like the Mario Advance series, as a competitive minigame in Super Mario 3, or even as a Virtual Boy game. Regardless of the quality of the coin-op (spoiler: it sucks), that tells me that the fundamental concept is one of Nintendo’s biggest home runs during their formative years as a game maker. Of all their early titles, it’s certainly the one with the most staying power. And that’s kind of amazing, because Mario Bros really sucks. Sorry for those that I didn’t give proper spoiler warning to above.

For those that say “you’d of had more fun if you played (name of game) co-op”, I played Mario Bros. co-op. I didn’t have fun and dragged an innocent child’s weekend down with me. I’m a monster thanks to your peer pressure. Hope you can sleep at night now, because I won’t be able to. Also, you can’t play the high-score modes or caravan modes co-op. Maybe an option for a version of both would have been nice, but so far the only game in the Arcade Archive series that seems to have gone the extra mile is Donkey Kong, which includes three different ROMs for the game.

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. Mario Bros. actually has a lot going for it, including co-op. People have complained that I don’t always play these arcade games the “best way”, IE with a partner. Because I guess miserly loves company. But the thing is, my family doesn’t really like misery. They get enough of it from me. But, I conned my nephew C.J. into playing a round with me. He couldn’t quite comprehend what the game in question was. “Mario Bros!” “Mario Maker 2?” “Mario Bros!” “New Super Mario DX?” “Mario Bros!” “Mario 3D World?” “Mario Bros!” “I uh.. Mario Maker 1?” That’s not a joke, by the way. He couldn’t compute the concept. Then I showed it to him and I’m convinced he played deliberately poorly just to escape. He’s a shifty one.

By the way, if not for how bad the emulation for Punch-Out!! seems to be, this would be by far the worst of the Arcade Archives releases. Not because the emulation is bad. It’s not, except for the sound. My understanding is that all the authentic pre-Donkey Kong 3 Nintendo arcade games had strange sound programming that requires emulators to take actual audio recordings in .wav files in order to have, you know, noise. It made the sound effects of Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. sound strange. But at least the audio was clear for those. For Mario Bros, sometimes the sound effects sound washed out, like they’re coming from another room. I’d show you a 30 second clip, but video capture is disabled for this one. It’s the first time that’s happened during this mini-series I’m doing. Which really means my fans are just being spared seeing me post roughly two-thousands videos of me dying in a fire(ball).

Probably the biggest difference between all these arcade games and their NES counterparts are the lack of cut scenes. NES Donkey Kong doesn’t have the “how high can you get” screens. Donkey Kong Jr. is missing cut scenes and animations. Mario Bros. is missing explanation screens. It made me wonder why they couldn’t do these things on the NES. The NES went on to do impressive things graphically. Well, I found out that it was a cost-cutting thing. Back in 1983, every KB cost extra money.

Yea, those fucking fireballs. I get why they’re there. Being an arcade game, Mario Bros. was expected to generate revenue for arcade operators. You can’t do that if players last too long. Ideally, you want a fun game where players last just long enough to make them think they’ve got skills, then die in a way where it sure seems like the player, or those watching, think they could have done better. They drop quarters, then die again in the same spot because it’s close to fucking impossible. That’s Mario Bros, only they forgot the fun part.

After a few stages, fireballs start to spawn with such breakneck frequency that it felt like there was no opening to flip the enemies over. I’d go to jump over the fireballs and they seemed like they’d always zag straight into me. You can kill the fireballs the same way you flip enemies over for lots of bonus points, but the vulnerable surface area of them seems very small, and the timing of even being able to stop them is so short that you’re more likely to die pursuing it than you are to succeed. And while all this is going on, the actual enemies you’re supposed to be targeting are still walking around, doing their thing.

The POW block isn’t as useful as you’d think. The crabs take two hits. The flies can’t be hit if they’re not on the floor. For the five-minute mode, I found I did better when I burned it early to shave time.

Mario Bros. goes from simple, reasonable challenge to unmanageable cluster-fuck of shit happening with so little transition in-between that I can’t believe this isn’t remembered alongside Defender or Smash TV as one of the all-time hardest arcade games. It’s insane how tough it is. And this isn’t helped by some of the most slippery, imprecise movement controls of any Golden Age of Arcades title. I actually longed for the lumbering, heavy movement of Donkey Kong Jr. multiple times while playing this steamer, because at least that was accurate. Mario Bros. actually introduces little sentient ice monsters that, if not stopped, will freeze platforms and cause slipping. To quote Dorthy Parker when she heard Calvin Coolidge died: “how can they tell?” Because this shit is already buttered-floor levels of slick to begin with.

There’s less bonus stages in the arcade version too I think. You certainly get the bonus levels faster in the NES version, which only opens with two turtle waves. The arcade game has three before you get to the first bonus round. I pictured a seedy arcade operator, shirt stained, cheap cigar hanging out of his mouth, saying “BONUS STAGES? FREE LIVES? DO YOU THINK I’M RUNNING A FUCKING CHARITY HERE?”

To Mario Bros.’s credit, the framework for something special was laid here. I didn’t like it, but at least the foundation gave rise to Super Mario Bros. and the modern game industry as a whole. And actually, the five minute caravan mode is best with Mario Bros. because it takes about four minutes for everything to become out-of-hand. When things get unplayable then, at least the game is going to end within a minute. Funny enough, I fired up the NES/Famicom version of Mario Bros. to compare to the arcade original. The graphics are a major step down on the NES, more-so than any other arcade game I’ve played so far. And, while the movement is more accurate and less slippery, the home version has a horrible Ice Climber-like glitch where you clip right through the platform if you jump in a certain way. So there were tons of times where I was trying to jump onto the platform above me and went straight fucking through it and back down to the level I was already on, or even lower. That doesn’t happen in the arcade version. That really sucks because now I have to turn my six-game marathon into a seven game one and buy Arcade Archives: Ice Climber to see if the clipping isn’t present in the arcade version of that, which I consider the NES version to be the worst Nintendo game ever. Fuck you Mario Bros. for making me do that.

Fine, but I draw the line at Clu Clu Land. I think that’s reasonable.

Arcade Archives: Mario Bros. was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 said the crabs and flies sort of got the shaft in the Mario universe in the making of this review.

While all indies I review are purchased by me out of pocket, a fan paid for Arcade Archives: Mario Bros. for me. I matched their purchase price with a donation to Direct Relief. Last year, they provided relief to my home state of California, and they’ll sadly have to do it again this year. They need money though. Give them some, please.

LCD Games of the 80s

WE INTERRUPT INDIE GAMER CHICK’S SIX GAME ARCADE ARCHIVE MARATHON TO BRING YOU CATHY BEING SUBJECTED TO LCD HANDHELD GAMES FROM THE 1980s

We what?

Oh fuck my life.

I never owned those cheap Tiger LCDs as a kid and Game & Watch as a series was all but dead by time I was born. The Game Boy came out in the United States just a month after I did. And both of us were discolored and coated disgusting fluids. Or maybe that was just me. But you fuckers haven’t shut up about how “good” these were on Twitter since I started this retro voyage of mine so I found a place that has simulated versions of them. I normally don’t go for playing games via unauthorized emulators here at Indie Gamer Chick (unless I need them to compare to games I paid for) but that’s not exactly what this is. So I’m taking a quick gander at eight LCDs from the 1980s. Alright, my body is ready. Hit it.

DONKEY KONG (1982 Game & Watch)

Nintendo has done a series of Game & Watch Gallery games. They might as well do another round and include them with Switch online.

It took me a while to figure out that you can’t jump if there’s a girder above you. The object is to climb to the second screen, activate a crane, then jump onto the swinging hook to cut wires that support Donkey Kong. Every time you cut a wire you end up having to start at the bottom and climb your way back up, this time with faster barrels and girders that are deadly to you. The concept is fine, and honestly the gameplay, while too easy and boring, is genuinely better than the Donkey Kong 3 arcade game. This is also the game that gave birth to the plus-shaped D-Pad. But I didn’t play with an authentic device so I can’t tell you how it feels. Still, this is a pretty historic game. Crappy, but historic.

Crappy and historic.. shit, this really is a Donkey Kong game!

DONKEY KONG (1981 Coleco Tabletop)

What an absolutely terrible game. Unlike the Game & Watch game (which, to be fair, came out a year after this and could learn from this game’s mistakes), this Donkey Kong actually tried to be as faithful as possible to Donkey Kong. It failed. It failed badly. It’s a fail whale. Hail hail the fail whale. I mean, look at it.

The yellow lines are the ladders. The yellow spots on the floor are supposed to be the rivets. The packages of McDonalds french fries are supposed to be the fireballs. This is Gaming Hell, people.

It’s clunky. Without movement it’s hard to know what stuff like the fireballs in stage two (which tries to mimic the rivet board from the arcade game) will actually do. It’s even ugly to look at. At least Game & Watch releases had neat, clear looking LCD characters that had funny, distinctive faces. They were so nice looking that they became a Smash Bros. character. This? Imagine being a kid in 1981, seeing this in stores, and begging your parents for this for Christmas. It cost $60 in 1981, which is over $150 today. A lot of money for most families. And then you get it, and you play it, and you realize there’s no Santa Claus. And your parents hate you because they just spent over $150 in 2019-equivalent dollars on something you can’t possibly play for more than 10 minutes before wanting to die.

Nice cameo in Gremlins though.

DONKEY KONG II (1983 Game & Watch)

Again, shockingly, this is more engaging than Donkey Kong 3. It really speaks to how bad of an idea that game was.

Not to be confused with Donkey Kong Jr., though the game actually stars Junior and seems based on his game. You start on the bottom screen, jump up to get a key, then zig-zag your way to the top screen, where you have to again jump for the key, then push it into one of the locks caging Donkey Kong. Unlike Donkey Kong, where you automatically go to the bottom screen upon completing a cycle, in DK II you have to get to manually make your way back to the bottom to start the cycle over. Or, you can sacrifice a life to get there. The concept is fine, but like every other game I’ve played, getting the timing down is hard because there’s no actual motion to track. It’s guess work, and if you have no sense of timing, you’re fucked. Also, there seemed to be a few times that I don’t think surviving was possible because any direction moved, including jumping, would lead to my death based on where the enemies were. Another turd.

DONKEY KONG JR. (1983 Nintendo Tabletop/Game & Watch Panorama)

It actually looks like something. That’s swell.

This is an odd cat. Unlike the Donkey Kong tabletop that was developed by Coleco, this one was made by Nintendo, presumably to show Coleco how to make a decent LCD game. Not that Nintendo’s Game & Watch games were amazing or anything, but compared to the shit Coleco seemed to have been vomiting up, they were incredible. And this is actually one of the better games. You grab a key and zig-zag Junior to the right of the screen, where you use umbrellas and balloons to free your Daddy. I’d still rather play anything else, but if.. okay WHEN.. I go to Hell, if Satan tells me my only options are to play LCD games, if this is on the menu it won’t be so bad.

DONKEY KONG CIRCUS / MICKEY MOUSE (1984 Game & Watch Panorama)

Mario is a cruel taskmaster. Which is the original origin story of Donkey Kong. It’s true.

It’s juggling. With Donkey Kong or Mickey Mouse. It’s boring. Please shoot me.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (1981 Mattel Electronics)

You’re warned if there’s pits nearby. ET really could have used that.

This is an interesting one that requires you to draw a map using pen and paper like a fucking savage. You’re placed in grid that’s full of pits. Somewhere in the maze is a magic arrow and a dragon. You have to find the arrow, then sort out what room the dragon is in, get next to that room, point at it and shoot the arrow. It sort of defeats the purpose of being a handheld game by needing pen & paper to play it, though I guess it’s not really D&D without those materials either. It’s an incredibly simple concept, but it works. It’s not really fun in the strictest sense but it’s a decent enough time waster. And with all the pits, I’m curious if Howard Scott Warshaw owned one of these.

MARIO BROS. (1983 Game & Watch)

I like the idea of Mario & Luigi having a boss that cusses them out. No wonder they’re so merciless against Bowser’s army. They have a lot of pent-up anger from their day jobs.

This one makes no effort to play like the arcade game. Instead, you have to pass packages between Mario and Luigi up a series of conveyor belts. It’s basically another take on the plate-spinning style gameplay that’s common in these LCD games. They’re all boring. This one is no exception.

TRON (1982 Tomy Tabletop)

The MCP looks good at least.

This one tries to recreate the light-cycle scene from the movie, but in over ten minutes of playing I couldn’t once beat the computer. Even when I had a speed advantage and got in front of it, it would always turn fast enough to hang in there. When I finally thought I had boxed it in, I simply died anyway. It makes me think the Donkey Kong Jr. game above had the right idea by trying to play tribute to the spirit of the game while also making something original that is more tailored to the hardware.

Shit like these games makes me appreciate my gaming upbringing a little more. I’ve had a LOT of my older fans wax nostalgically about the glory days of these things. I hope this doesn’t come across as condescending, but I feel a little sorry for them. Because these are terrible games. I honestly can’t believe they were ever considered an acceptable substitute to arcade games or even the most primitive Atari 2600 games. At least with the 2600 you could see objects move. Here they just sort of blink out of existence in one part of the screen and reemerge somewhere else. Maybe you guys from that time felt like you were getting away with something naughty by playing these at church or at school. Maybe they were bad deliberately, as part of a conspiracy. By teachers. Because compared to these, school work.. any school work.. would probably look pretty damn stimulating.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong 3

I’m going a little out-of-order here, but I wanted to get all the Donkey Kong games out of the way. Then again, I sort of already did that. Because Donkey Kong 3 is such a radical departure from the first two games that it really has nothing to do with them. I look at it and I wonder if people at Nintendo sat around thinking “I can’t believe we were the only company that didn’t successfully cash-in on the Space Invaders craze. Fuck it, we’re successful now. We can do this guys!”

They couldn’t.

The beauty of a screenshot is that you can’t tell that it’s Stanley the Bugman shooting DK here. For all we know, Donkey Kong’s coconut gun just fired in spurts and Stanley is about to be Bukaked on.

Once again, Hamster has put together a well-emulated package that’s all for naught, because Donkey Kong 3 is a terrible game. How come it never comes up in the discussion of potential worst Nintendo developed titles? Because it’s pretty fucking sorry. The aim here seems to have been to combine platforming with space shooting, but the platforming elements really aren’t a major factor in the game and the shooting elements leave a lot to be desired. Instead of dealing with space bugs, you’re dealing with garden-variety Earth bugs in a greenhouse that attack in waves and sometimes just straight-up shoot you with a stinger with seemingly no visual or audio warning it’s coming. Between these and the caterpillars that serve no purpose but to block your attacks, Donkey Kong 3 really didn’t seem to have a vision for the  type of fast-paced, white-knuckle gameplay that the genre required by this point. All it has going for it is the hilarious idea of shooting bug poison up Donkey Kong’s bum. Which is funny. Don’t me wrong. I’m not a complete ogre.

But seriously, three levels Nintendo? Three? Until this point, I can’t remember playing a Nintendo-released game where it feels like they just gave up. (Okay, fine, maybe Wii Music.) Donkey Kong 3 is the “weird one” in the series, but it’s also one of the very worst Nintendo games ever made. I genuinely disliked my experience playing Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., but, I was never bored playing them. I was bitching the entire time, but they were always interesting. The one interesting mechanic of Donkey Kong 3, shooting a centralized, heavy target enough to push it past a goal, is just not well implemented. There’s a powerful bug spray that, while it only works temporarily, carries over between stages if you have enough juice left in it. Getting the bug spray in the first stage carries over to the second stage, where you can hit DK enough to beat that stage in a couple seconds.

The problem is that they wanted a “climax stage” like Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. had with the rivets and the keys. But there was no way to implement a unique finale mechanic the way they designed Donkey Kong 3. So the climax stage is just a short wave where you push DK’s head up into a beehive. It’s lame as fuck. Which means it fits-in perfectly here. Is this the low point of Shigeru Miyamoto’s career? Actually, no. But this is probably the game where he found out he can’t work miracles. Nintendo tried for years to get their hands on that sweet, sweet space-shooter cash. They had Radar Scope, a game so boring they had to turn it into Donkey Kong to save the company. They had a game called Space Firebird that allegedly Donkey Kong 3 is based on, though I honestly couldn’t see it myself when I watched gameplay videos. There was a game called Sky Skipper that was so hated by players and arcade operators that they rushed Popeye through production to convert the Sky Skipper cabinets into. Really, I think Donkey Kong 3 was the last straw before they realized where their bread was buttered. History has sort of forgotten it, and those who remember it call it the “weird one.” That’s unfair. It’s the bad one. The really, really bad one.

So, what else can I say about Donkey Kong 3? It’s $7.99, like all Arcade Archive releases. It’s not worth it. Not just because that’s too much to pay for a small, short, obscure 1984 arcade game that sucks. But because they really should have just combined all these Nintendo arcade releases into a compilation. When I was complaining about the lack of fairness of the out-of-nowhere stingers on Twitter, longtime IGC fan Tobby Watson had the following astute observation:

This is pretty much the case for all early arcade stuff. It’s the main reason I’d say compilations of these sorts of titles are the best way to experience them now. The patience required to “get good” at something that is often luck based can be miserable, and having more games to play mitigates that disappointment a bit. Quarter munching obstacles like this are just a real by-product of the time and the industry.

I was born in 1989, and by time I was into gaming, arcades were pretty much dead. I wasn’t there to experience “quarter munchers” but shouldn’t the ability to munch quarters be predicated on the game, you know, being fun?

He’s right! I blitzed through every title in Midway Arcade Origins and Capcom Arcade Cabinet earlier this year and was downright shocked by how brutal they all were. Most of the games aged poorly (especially the Capcom stuff), but as miserable as I was, at least I paid one low price for everything in those sets. With Donkey Kong 3, I’m now $24 into this six-game project I foolishly committed to that overall $48 was spent on. Each game costing $8, none of them worth it so far even with online leaderboards and special challenges like the five-minute caravan mode. Mind you, a $20 a year Switch Online subscription nets you over 50 NES games with more coming (and Famicom too if you create a JP account to download the launcher for) AND Tetris 99, my current 2019 Game of the Year front-runner. Maybe if we were talking the best games ever made, $7.99 would be a good price. For Donkey Kong 3? I feel like Stanley was pumping MY ASS full of poison.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong 3 was developed by Hamster Co
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99’s coconut gun can fire in spurts in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong Jr.

Donkey Kong Jr. is this baffling anomaly of a game. I like it even less than Donkey Kong, but I also find it so much more interesting. At least from a gameplay perspective. I think that’s because we’ve seen tons of platform games that involve jumping over stuff and climbing ladders. But the vine mechanics of Donkey Kong Jr., while not completely unique to the game, still feel like they’re exclusively the property of DK Jr’s legacy. Fundamentally, Donkey Kong Jr. isn’t as big a departure from Donkey Kong as fans of the game would have you believe. You start at the bottom left corner of the screen and zig-zag your way to the top. It’s the way you get there that feels so different. And somehow, get this, still feels fresh 37 years later. How is that even possible?

It struck me that the gameplay of Donkey Kong Jr. often feels more like trying to cross a busy highway than Frogger, a game that’s literally about trying to cross a highway. What could be done to fix the controls? I wish it was smoother to transition between vine to vine. That’s it. The idea of using two vines to climb faster and one to slide down faster is brilliant. It also creates all kind of defensive options. Donkey Kong Jr. is deceptively complex as far as early 80s games go.

Well, it’s the Super Mario 2 Rule: since nothing quite like Donkey Kong Jr. has been done by Nintendo in the nearly 40 years since the game came out, it’s able to retain the charm it had from the start. This in the face of decades of gaming evolution. That’s probably Junior’s greatest achievement. And yeah, Donkey Kong on the Game Boy (aka Donkey Kong ’94) had vines and the little alligator head things. But, you controlled a completely different Mario than you did in the early 80s arcade games. One that did backflips and handstands with silky smooth accuracy, and it was a puzzle game where you took a key to a door. It’s as far removed from Donkey Kong Jr. as a 2D platformer can be. There’s never been anything quite like Donkey Kong Jr.

And I hate it. Because movement is so slow and clunky. Now, there seems to be confusion over what that means to a game from retro enthusiasts. Yea, if you put enough time into a game with poor controls, you can get used to them. Maybe even to the point that you instinctively compensate for the shortcomings the controls have and they become a total non-factor for you. This is absolutely possible. But that a player can get good at using bad controls doesn’t change the fact that the controls are bad. Donkey Kong Jr. controls the worst of the original “trilogy” of Nintendo games. Donkey Kong and Popeye control bad, but they’re Mario Worlds apart from how bad DK Jr. feels. It’s always sluggish, and it hurt my enjoyment of it so much.

Both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. really stand out because the best levels are the “climax” in terms of the narrative. I prefer removing the rivets in Donkey Kong’s final board to pushing the keys up into the locks in Junior’s. That’s the one gameplay mechanic from Donkey Kong that I feel has legs for more stages.

Such a shame, because it feels like it has the highest ceiling for enjoyment of any of those original Nintendo arcade games. And the most potential for more stages not yet created. Myself and others have been pondering on Twitter how viable it would be for Nintendo to bring out new releases of these arcade games, not in arcades but as downloadable titles, that simply add dozens, maybe even 100, new levels. Not like Donkey Kong ’94 did, but using the actual arcade hardware. Hell, find a ROM hacker and do it. It worked for Sega and Sonic Mania, which became probably the best 2D Sonic game ever. It sold great. It was critically acclaimed. Nintendo could do that with Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr and it would get attention and sell. There’s really no reason not to do it.

I guess any discussion of Donkey Kong Jr. has to include talking about Mario being the villain. Or is he? I mean, what did we know about Donkey Kong? He apparently kidnaps women against their will and tries to murder their rescuers by crushing them with barrels or burning them alive with fireballs. That’s who you’re trying to rescue in Donkey Kong Jr. Mario is NOT the villain. Junior is! This is the first verified game where you play as the person who is trying to make the world a worse place! It’s historic in ways nobody realized!

But, I’d want more fixed with Donkey Kong Jr. than adding levels. I’d want more responsible controls. The classic gaming fans would scream bloody murder over that, saying “that’s not MY Donkey Kong Jr.” And.. yeah, it wouldn’t be. It’d be better. It’d be Donkey Kong Jr. finally realizing its potential. Actually, Donkey Kong the character is just fine. He’s a staple in gaming still, in 2019. Junior is the one that history kind of screwed. He was a racer in the original Mario Kart, but they shit canned him for Donkey Kong. He was in Mario Maker, but that was one of the most meaningless cameos ever. This concept of making a new version of Donkey Kong Jr. with the original arcade graphics but more levels and better controls would be the perfect way for him to come back. Otherwise, the character is just sort of rotting on the vine.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong Jr. was developed by Hamster Co.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 (too much) noted the emulation again is perfectly fine in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong

I want to get the technicalities of this release out of the way first: I hated the previous two efforts in the Arcade Archives series that I played. Punch-Out especially felt like it had butchered the original game, with the timing all off and input lag from Hell. And I really like Punch-Out and would probably accept even the most mediocre game in the series, which tells you how bad the Arcade Archives release had to have been. The second game, Vs. Super Mario Bros. (which my sadistic fans chose for me), also suffered from slight control issues. I confirmed those issues were tied to the emulator Arcade Archive used and not part of the original game by checking other emulators in a way that was, ahem, totally legal. Cough.

Very unfortunate luck on my part, because it made me assume all the Arcade Archives releases were trash. But I’ve been monkeying around (see what I did there?) with Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. for the last two days. I’ll get to Junior in the next review, but right now I want to talk about Donkey Kong. Yea, this is going to be one of those preachy not-really-a-review reviews I sometimes do like the Mario 2 piece from a few months back.

Review of the actual product: if you want a version of the actual arcade Donkey Kong from 1981, and not the mediocre NES port that’s missing an entire level and tons of animations, this is what you’ve been waiting for. The shit authentic arcade controls are replicated in all their putrid glory here, so you can’t blame the emulator for this one playing like clunky shit. And it even has online leaderboards, the Japanese version that changes the ordering of stages, and an earlier version of the DK ROM that’s easier. And, like other Arcade Archive releases, there’s the five-minute time limit “Caravan Mode” that is a LOT more fun for Donkey Kong than it is for other games. So, nice package Hamster. Bravo.

This is the legendary “pie factory” level that was deleted from the NES port of the game. The truth is, it’s the easiest BY FAR of the four stages. I could often just run straight up to the top in just a few seconds. But, if you care about your score, you actually do have to use the hammer and get smashes. Of course, the second hammer is positioned in a location so as to be functionally useless. The neatest thing about playing Donkey Kong in 2019 is that it’s the learning curve game for what became, let’s face it, the most important game designer of all-time. And you can see the learning-on-the-job unfold before your eyes.

The thing is, you can’t polish a turd.

But, you can put that turd on a pedestal and say it’s one the most important turds ever. It’s still a turd, but look at it! Wow! What a glorious, important turd!

And Donkey Kong is important to gaming history. Hell, to world history. It put Nintendo on the map. It gave us Mario. It launched the career of Shigeru Miyamoto. It drew one of the most important trademark lawsuits in history that’s still taught in law schools to this day. Donkey Kong as a franchise is still popular and profitable to this day.

But, the 1981 arcade game and ports of it being fun and relevant to gamers today?

Nah.

This is NOT a port of Donkey Kong. This is a completely unrelated platform-puzzle game that had the first four levels of Donkey Kong shoehorned into it. Like taking an otherwise healthy person and skin-grafting a cancerous tumor to them. UPDATE: By popular request, I reviewed this. There, I think I’m covered on my vintage Donkey Kongs. At least until someone bitches at me to review Donkey Kong Country.

Over the next few reviews, all of which will be Arcade Archive releases that I’m doing as part of my self-discovery/reflection via games from before my time journey I’m on, you’ll be hearing the phrase “gaming has come a long ways” a lot. That’s because it has. And while Donkey Kong has possibly aged better than I previously gave it credit for, it’s still not really a well made game. In fact, while playing it over the last couple days, I found myself baffled that it’s become this staple of high score chasing among classic gamers. You can probably thank that on the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

I didn’t realize how silly it is trying to explain Donkey Kong score chasing until I typed everything below. It’s absurd. Mesmerizing, but absurd.

So, let’s talk about that flick and why I found myself so bewildered.

In the movie, the defending world champion of Donkey Kong, Billy Mitchell, has his record chased by an unemployed engineer/school teacher named Steve Wiebe. It’s an absolutely engrossing film in part because of how big of losers everyone in Mitchell’s camp are portrayed. Especially Billy himself, who comes across as someone who tried to ride his fifteen minutes of fame long past the expiration date. When Wiebe breaks his world record on his own Donkey Kong machine, people show up to his house to inspect his Donkey Kong (that sounds like something a urologist would do), without him apparently knowing it. Twin Galaxies, the self-appointed governing body of high scores that was given legitimacy by Guinness World Records, disqualify his completely legit score citing a “gummy substance” on the board and a guilt-by-association taint because Wiebe had interacted with a guy who called himself “Mr. Awesome.” Mr. Awesome was persona non grata for, among other reasons, calling Mitchell and his camp a bunch of cheaters.

So Wiebe flies to the destination of all classic gaming high score chasers: an arcade in Bumfuck, New Hampshire and AGAIN breaks Mitchell’s record. For a day. While this is happening, a video of a previous high score Mitchell claims he had been holding onto is sprung on Twin Galaxies immediately following Wiebe’s victory. Despite the tape being of poor quality and having seemingly weird edits made to it, the head ref of Twin Galaxies, Walter Day (who fawns over Mitchell like a love sick puppy for most of the movie) declares it a legit game and score and Billy once again the World Champion of Donkey Kong. The favoritism displayed for Mitchell is made perfectly clear to the audience. Since the movie’s release, that side of the equation has claimed they got a “bad edit” and the order of events was distorted. The movie ends with Billy no-showing a challenge to play Wiebe live, but Walter Day issuing a completely meaningless apology for the way they treated Steve. No happy ending.. until the epilogue, where Wiebe once again passes Billy and becomes the undisputed Donkey Kong champion.

Besides Mitchell, Wiebe, and Day, the person most people remember most from King of Kong is this guy. He was one of Billy’s lackeys. He’s the one who went to Wiebe’s house uninvited to “inspect” the arcade machine. When Wiebe traveled across the country to set the new record in New Hampshire, this guy was there, trying like a total rat to psyche him out because he aspired to be the first person to reach the Donkey Kong kill screen at that particular arcade. When it becomes obvious that Wiebe is going to make it, his last ditch attempt to cause Wiebe to fail (at least as it’s framed in the film) is to lure a crowd around Wiebe and add to the pressure. He walked around annoying other players by telling them “there’s a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up.” When Wiebe sets the record, Kuh makes a HILARIOUSLY sad face about it. It’s the type of face you’d expect to see from someone who just got notarized message from their parents declaring them to be an accident. Kuh has gone on to call the movie distorted or fake and edited to make him look bad. I mean, for that to be true it’d require flagrant cherry picking of footage with a lower moral footing than Homer Simpson wanting to grab the babysitter’s sweet-sweet can. But hey, it might be true. Guys in Mitchell’s camp would know a thing or two about doctored footage!

That was 2007. Now, while I have a TON of friends who are into that scene and know a lot of the players in King of Kong personally, I’ve never really given two squirts about high score chasing. King of Kong was a fascinating movie, but my interest in the culture was limited to that.

AND THEN..

The domino effect started in early 2018 when a guy named Todd Rogers was exposed as a cheater and all his high scores were wiped by the new ownership regime at Twin Galaxies. A regime that had no loyalty or fanboyism for Mitchell and his crew. His most famous high score, for the Atari 2600 game Dragster, was proven to be impossible. The evidence was indisputable, and Rogers also claimed other scores that nobody could possibly achieve. Not only were his scores wiped, but he was banned from competition. He’s not even allowed to submit new scores even if those scores are certified by the Pope.

Rogers also happened to be one of the only “witnesses” to some of Billy’s Donkey Kong scores. While the Donkey Kong world record was now well out of reach of Billy’s skill level (the strategy he used had long been abandoned by experts of the game when new tactics had been discovered), Billy’s scores were still on the scoreboard. When people put those under a microscope, they decided that they had really been done with MAME, the most popular arcade emulator in the world. Why does that matter? Well, the great thing about emulated games is you can use these things called save states. Anyone who has followed my look into gaming’s past knows about these well. I’ve been abusing the SHIT out of them in order to complete some very hard classic games. Of course, I’m actually admitting I’m doing it. Mitchell had claimed that his scores had been done on a real Donkey Kong cabinet. The score in particular that sunk his battleship happened during a pre-planned event where he also claimed to have set the Donkey Kong Jr. record, and they staged a video of them switching the boards used, but the video clearly shows they just took one board out of the machine and put it back in, essentially revealing that at least one of the two high scores couldn’t have been possibly done at that time.

But the kill screen on Billy Mitchell’s records came in part from the tape he submitted to beat Steve Wiebe in the King of Kong. People realized that older versions of MAME load Donkey Kong’s levels differently than a real arcade machine. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s easy to see once you know what you’re looking for. And while not all MAME versions load levels this specific way, NO real Donkey Kong arcade cabinet does. In all the tapes that were examined that Billy Mitchell submitted, of which the only live witness was a guy already banned for cheating, the levels loaded like they do in MAME, and not an arcade machine.

Billy Mitchell’s scores.. ALL his scores, even ones not disputed like his perfect score in Pac-Man.. were removed from Twin Galaxies and he was banned from further competition.

My high scores I have here, which are pathetic (I set out to break 50,000 and barely got past 30,000 twice at my best) would be considered legally higher than the highest score by the guy who was recognized internationally as the best Donkey Kong player ever for decades. I’m also, as far as the governing body of baseball is concerned, a much better baseball player than Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose too.

I can’t stress enough how damn riveting this entire fiasco was. It was fascinating. It was by far the most interesting gaming story I saw unfold in 2018. Even more fascinating was how Billy’s camp really didn’t want to believe any of it. And they still don’t. Watching this thing play out made me realize how a televangelist can get caught with a roomful of prostitutes and crack and keep their flock. Flocks are made of sheep, and sheep don’t care what the shepherd does. That’s what makes them sheep. They just follow. Mitchell has since claimed he was railroaded, but now the people in charge of the scores aren’t susceptible to Jedi mind tricks. Seriously, in King of Kong Walter Day says Billy can just distort the truth like a Jedi and people will listen, and he says it with a gleam in his eye. Well, that cool kids club is on the outs and now getting high scores is held to a higher standard. Then again, since the guys setting the records in the 80s and 90s were also apparently the ones running the scoreboards, the standards weren’t high to begin with. It’d be like the office workers at the PGA saying “hey Bob, did you see Tiger Woods won the Masters?” “No he didn’t.” “He didn’t?” “No! (types into computer) BECAUSE I DID!” As absurd as that sounds, that’s basically what happened with multiple video game records and a guy who was not a champion got to walk around calling himself a champion for over thirty years.

And now that I’ve actually put more than a few minutes of playtime into Donkey Kong, all I can say is “I don’t get it.” Because I don’t. Why would people get worked up over high scores in a game where the scoring is determined by complete random chance, Thanos style.

Because seriously, it is. Most people don’t realize this about Donkey Kong. It wasn’t covered in the movie.

When Mario gets the hammer and smashes pies or fireballs, the score you get for doing so is completely random. You have a 25% chance of scoring 300 points, a 50% chance of scoring 500 points, and a 25% chance of scoring 800 points. Smashes are keys to world record chasers, but players have no control over what they get. People who are emotionally invested in that pursuit look at me like my head is on backwards when I say that it’s a meaningless world record that in no way signifies who is truly the best Donkey Kong player. The best of the best players all are capable of reaching the “kill screen” where the game runs out of memory and simply crashes 22 levels in. Since the scores you get along the way are out of their hands, shouldn’t the best player be considered the player that crashes the game the fastest? Or maybe the fastest player to the kill screen but requiring players to reach a scoring benchmark that you’d reach even if you ignored the RNG and just smashed X amount of pies, barrels, or fireballs per stage just to prove they have the chops to score points and complete the game at a fast clip. So, like, call it 500,000 points + fastest to the kill screen = undisputed best in the world at Donkey Kong.

Well, even that idea wouldn’t work because the enemies and barrels spawn randomly as well. Honestly it just should be fastest to the kill screen.

It’s worth noting that in one of Billy’s high scores, he got an ABSURD amount of smashes. A statistically unlikely amount, especially considering that none of the other documented high scores could even get a fraction of the smashes he got. Fun fact: with emulation, you can use a technique called “stitching” which allows you to use save states to “stitch together” perfect videos of games. If you mess up, or if the RNG lottery isn’t on your side, if you reload a previous save state, the video being created of the game in the emulator (which really just maps button inputs and isn’t the type of video you’d get using a camera, but more like a record of what buttons were pressed at what times during a particular gaming session) won’t even mark the spot where the save/reload happened. In fact, that stitching technique is the secret sauce that made the coolest special feature in SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, the video mode where you can take over the controls at any point, possible.

Oh wait, I forgot: nobody made a movie about the person who got to the kill screen fastest, so nobody cares about that record. But really, any prestige on being the Donkey Kong champion seems like it’s somewhat tainted because so much of the game is random. It’d be like calling the person who won highest Powerball jackpot the most skilled lottery player in the world. All games have random elements, but Donkey Kong is almost always governed by randomness, from enemies to the scores. While skill matters, each new record is owed in a larger part than other games to those skilled players having lady luck give them a reach around.

That’s what’s so weird about Donkey Kong to me. I’m not talking about the franchise or the game’s historical achievements, but rather the game as an entity unto itself. The one thing that keeps it relevant today, in 2019, thirty-eight years after its release, is so completely meaningless. Remove the mainstream knowledge of the high score chase from the equation and all you have left is another historically important Golden Age game that aged badly. Really badly in Donkey Kong’s case. The controls are terrible. The movement is uncomfortable. It’s not entirely clear to me why sometimes when I jumped over a barrel I would get 100 points and sometimes nothing would happen.

And man, that collision detection is absolute dogshit. You know how with some games, you set off the detection when you’re well away from an object? Donkey Kong goes the opposite direction. There were multiple instances where I was clearly striking barrels or fireballs with the hammer and registering no damage at all, leading directly to my death. It never seems consistent from one moment to the next, and unlike the King of Kong crowd, I don’t find the game compelling enough to put in the time to figure out what pixel on a barrel or fireball I’m supposed to be striking that destroys it and grants me my random score. I’d rather chase scores in WarioWare. At least that’s still fun today.

Nothing mean (but completely fair) I say about Donkey Kong takes away from what it accomplished. It was the Little Engine that Could of gaming. It gave birth to multiple icons, real and fictional, and even took down Universal Pictures in a court of law while it was at it. Hot damn, that is so fucking cool. I can’t think of any other single game that directly caused so many important chapters in our community’s history than Donkey Kong. And that’s why it should be remembered and celebrated.

But playing it today? Meh, whatever floats your boat. Just don’t tell people my age or from generations after me that we’re assholes if we don’t have fun doing so. Because Donkey Kong really truly isn’t a good game, people. Not in 2019. And honestly, based on the games from that era I’ve played, not in 1981. If all you’ve ever got to eat for years is bread and water and someone offers you a plate of tofu, you’re going to remember that tofu as the best fucking meal you had long after you started to eat real food. Maybe Donkey Kong stood out to you because there was nothing like it at the time. It would seem pretty sweet then and the memories would only grow sweeter. But I can’t believe people would actually defend a game with so many horrible design problems. If I paid for a game with rules that say hitting something with a hammer destroys it and instead the hammer went right through the fucking thing multiple times, I’d ask for my money back. But I’m not suggesting that’s what classic gamers should do. Donkey Kong was shit, but it gave us everything we love. That debt has long since been paid.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong was developed by Hamster Co.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 (are you fucking kidding me??) said there’s a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up if anyone is interested in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Donkey Kong was purchased by a fan for me to review. Indies I pay for myself out of pocket. Retro games I’ll accept from fans. Because $7.99 is a gigantic waste of money for this, so much so that I feel a little guilty about it, I’m matching the purchase price with a donation to Direct Relief. It’s fire season in California, everyone. Please donate. These guys show up to help when people actually need it.

Super Mario Bros. 2

I have a reputation for being “anti-Nintendo” and “anti-Retro.” Neither is true. The reality is Nintendo was as important to my gaming upbringing as it was to any slobbering fanboy. The Nintendo 64 I got on my 9th birthday in July, 1998 is what solidified gaming as my passion. I think that’s a bit profound, especially given that it wasn’t the first game console I wanted for an important holiday. The first time I asked for anything gaming related, it was the original PlayStation over a year earlier. I loved my PlayStation, but I didn’t truly love gaming until Nintendo became part of my life. What a hater I am.

As for retro-gaming, fine, I’ve probably earned the “anti” perception, even if it’s not true of me. But, in my defense, I’m 29-years-old. I grew up in the 32 bit/64 bit era. The games of the past were just old games to me, nothing more. By time I took interest in gaming’s history, I had developed epilepsy. Those older games relied heavily on strobe effects, which is my specific trigger. But, that really has nothing to do with my opinions on classic games. It’s more about how people from generations before me tend to put them on a pedestal based not on gameplay merit but on what the titles meant to their childhood. It’s something my generation doesn’t really do. Then again, I grew up in the early 3D era. It was a time full of games destined to age as badly as Lindsay Lohan.

Before we continue, shout out to Nintendo. They removed the dangerous strobe effects from the games in the Switch Online NES library. Now, when you die in Zelda II, the screen turns pink instead of trying to give players a seizure as punishment for not surviving their shitty, unplayable, prohibitively difficult Zelda sequel. Why pink you ask? Well, I can explain. You see, when you’re making love to your husband and then hear the horrifying sound of a “snap” commonly associated with a broken condom, you have to pee on a stick to find out whether or not you have to pay a visit to Dr. Coathanger. If the strip on the stick turns pink instead of blue, it means you’re not pregnant. Not pregnant means no life. See, it makes perfect sense!

I’ve always done my best to separate games I consider the best ever with games that are my personal favorites. I would never argue that WarioWare Inc.: Mega MicroGame$ for the Game Boy Advance is the best game of all-time. It’s not. If pinned into a corner, I’d probably say Tetris or Portal have to be up there because I can literally find no fault with them and they happen to be insanely fun. I think the drama mostly comes from people who truly believe that their childhood favorites like Super Mario 1 or the original Legend of Zelda are still the best games of all time and have never been topped. Which is just absurd. They’ve been topped many times. What hasn’t been topped is the blood-dopamine levels your prepubescent body generated when you played these for the first time. Your adult body isn’t even capable of naturally creating that much dopamine now. Hence, no game can ever match-up to how those games made you feel. I’m not making that up. That’s the actual science behind it. Well, unless you’re self-aware enough to realize that gaming is better now than it was during your childhood. For all the bitching we do about microtransactions and pay-to-win or too much DLC, gaming today is better than it was then. There is something for everyone now, at affordable prices to boot.

Take a deep breath, classic gamers: it’s alright for some of your childhood favorites to have aged badly. Almost all of mine did! Crash Bandicoot? Unplayable today. My entire 3D Nintendo 64 library? How did I never notice how shitty this frame rate was? Like seriously, who replaced my copy of Goldeneye, a game that gave me hundreds of hours of top-rate multiplayer mayhem with this slow, buggy, low-frame-rate, unbalanced biowaste dumpster fire?

Oh wait, nobody did. Goldeneye was cutting-edge back then. That’s why we never noticed. Games didn’t get more advanced at the time. They’re way more advanced now. That’s why those technical hitches stick out so much more today.

While playing Kid Icarus on Switch Online, I triggered slowdown as the result of having too many characters on-screen no less than five times during the first stage alone. To hell with “true to the originals” emulation. Can’t they patch this shit out?

Here’s the thing about the test of time: it’s gaming’s most unfair testing standard. Developers of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, or 2010s mostly didn’t have it in mind. They wanted to sell product and make money then. Most major, tentole releases were based on the tastes and trends of the moment. It’s our industry’s version of a pop quiz. Nobody prepares for it, and yet we should have all known it was coming eventually.

Here’s another thing about the test of time: it’s gaming’s most cruel testing standard. You can factor in historical context or popularity or importance to culture all you want. It won’t change a single thing about how good a game is today.

One more thing about the test of time: whether you like it or not, it does exist and surviving it should be rare. It wouldn’t be special otherwise. And really, the vast majority of games don’t do it. Some games that are considered all-timers are just plain not fun today. It’s a major issue for retro gamers to come to terms with: that their childhood favorites aren’t fun anymore.

I don’t really think Super Mario 1 is fun at all. The same exact formula has been done better so many times. I didn’t like New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS either, and I got that the day it came out. I thought it was really boring. But I’d much rather play that installment in the franchise than the 1985 Super Mario. It controls better, has more stuff to do, has better level design, more replay value, and just is better on its own merit than Super Mario Bros. 1. It’s not even close, really. For those 80s gamers reading this and feeling their blood pressure spiking, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s true. Old games were not made to be good thirty years later. Yes, it’s unfair to think they could hold up, but it’s downright delusional to think they should hold up.

Here’s one that retro fans SWEAR holds up. Well, change that. They swear Tecmo SUPER Bowl holds up. But we won’t see that one again anytime soon because it costs something like two trillion dollars to license the term “Super Bowl.” That’s why so many people call it “The Big Game” in advertising or other works. But, let’s face it, “Tecmo Big Game” sounds lame as fuck. My suggestion: Tecmo can just change the S to a D and re-release it on Switch online. Seriously, would anyone care if they called it “Tecmo Duper Bowl” instead. Wait.. really? You would? It’s literally the same game with a different name. Oh wait, I forgot you retro types lose your shit over having Mr. Dream in Punch-Out!! instead of Mike Tyson.

But there are some exceptions.

Take Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s still, to this day, my favorite 2D Mario game. Kind of. You see, up until this last week, I’d never played the NES port of it. I first played it in 2001 when a steroided up version of it, Super Mario Advance, was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance. And really, that version of it is the version that I hold up as my personal favorite 2D installment in the Mario franchise. Now cue the inevitable know-it-all fanboys who want to show off how deeply knowledgeable they are by pointing out that it’s not a real Mario game. Yes, yes, we all know about Doki Doki Panic. Yes, we all know there’s a different Super Mario 2 in Japan. Well, Japan sent the real Super Mario 2 to Nintendo of America. NOA said “this sucks, give us a better game.” Case closed: US Super Mario 2 is the real Super Mario 2. You fanboys can have your unplayable, anti-fun ROM hack of Mario 1. It’s all yours.

Super Mario 2 is a genuine gaming rarity: it’s every bit as fun today as it was in 1988. No matter your gaming background. No matter what order you play the Mario series in. Age does not factor in at all. Maybe the port you play does matter, but having just played the vastly inferior NES version, a major step backwards from the remake I played when I was 12, yeah, no, it’s still fun regardless. Besides, Mario Advance is actually just as much a port itself from the Mario 2 in Super Mario All-Stars. And ideas like having more hidden stuff or the bosses taunting you was borrowed from BS Super Mario USA Power Challenge, a game for the Super Famicom Satellaview. Have a look.

The step backwards from Mario Advance to Mario 2 isn’t merely graphical. There’s no score. There’s no super coins to find. There’s no Yoshi eggs. Instead of a Robo-Birdo for the boss of the World 3, it’s just a pallet-swapped Mouser (in fact, Doki Doki has a third Mouser as the boss of world 5 instead of Clawgrip the crab). The most consequential change is if you die on a stage, you’re committed to using the character you just failed with instead of getting to re-pick. That’s brutal. I had buyer’s remorse selecting Luigi in level 5 – 1, but I was stuck. And finally, you can actually see the reels of the slot machines and use timing to win the lives. In the NES version it really is just luck. But using the Switch Online platform, I didn’t need luck. Just save states. I’m guessing that strategy wouldn’t work at a real casino. “Uh.. hey guys. Pause. Load state. I want to try that hand again. Let’s start at the flop. I checked when I should have raised. Give everyone the same hands as before. Now remember everyone, pretend like what just happened after the flop didn’t happen. Why are you calling security?”

There’s no point in doing a traditional review of Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s older than I am. It’s gotten its feedback. But, I’ve been a bit obsessed with it as of late. It seemed like a game that defied conventional wisdom. It should have aged as badly as every other NES game, because it has a lot wrong with it. There’s blind jumps that are completely unfair. Luigi is grossly over-powered to the point that you can bypass large sections of stages just by using his charge jump. Peach is nearly as bad, though at the cost of her being significantly slower at picking things up. A running Luigi jump clears as many blocks. A big part of why these balance issues exist is because Doki Doki Panic didn’t have a run button. Levels weren’t designed around running jumps. That’s why you can circumvent large sections of the game. So why did they add such a feature? Because you could hold B to run in Super Mario 1, and they wanted at least one mechanic from the original Super Mario Bros to carry over to the not-sequel that became the sequel. B-Running was chosen, and in doing so, they inadvertently nerfed nearly half the game.

The flash from the bombs is gone in Super Mario 2 as well. Thankfully when I tweeted about this the majority of classic gaming fans were happy for me and didn’t go all Star Wars fandom “rape my childhood” for Nintendo having done a couple very minor graphical changes that most non-epileptics didn’t like anyway. I think one person complained about the “slippery slope” of changing graphics in a game that came into existence by changing a previous game’s graphics.

And yet, Mario 2 is still a masterpiece. I’m writing these words over thirty-years after the game released in the United States. How the fuck did Mario 2 escape Father Time? I spent over a week studying the levels and the history of the game. I talked with fans who were around at the time it came out. For most Mario fans, Mario World is the one they still hold in the highest esteem, with Mario 3 close by it and Mario 2 left completely in the dust. And I get that. Mario 1 was probably the game that made them want an NES in the first place, and Mario 3 was the first direct-sequel to it. It took the franchise back its roots with question mark blocks, power-ups, end-goals at the end of levels instead of killing a Birdo and walking through the door. It’s what they wanted Mario 2 to be. Mario World doesn’t have as wide a variety of power-ups, but it makes up for that with (mostly) superior level-design, better innovations (Yoshi and the idea of having an item on reserve), and better balancing.

I’m not hating on Mario 3 or Mario World like I do Mario 1. In fact, I’d put them in the pantheon on platformers. They’re so good that it’s a no-brainer, really. But both have felt the ravages of time a lot more than Mario 2 has. Mario 3 has a lot of cheap design, under-utilizes some of the more fun power-ups (especially the Hammer Bros. suit), and most damning: a few of the worlds are actively boring (especially world 2, the desert) or just plain crappy (world 6, where the ice stages are). Mario World is a lot better, but also gets interrupted somewhat frequently with more basic, bland stages that feel like filler. And I think the auto-scrolling areas of both Mario 3 & World can go fuck themselves. With the exception of one incredibly cheap blind fall in Mario 2, its flaws have a lot less impact. It didn’t just age better. It practically didn’t age at all.

Of all the memorable moments in Super Mario 2, this is my personal favorite. It was just so unexpected. “Holy shit, the door is trying to kill me now!” My personal choice for the best surprise boss fight in gaming history.

And I know why: because it was never done again. The original Mario formula has had multiple chances to be re-worked. Super Mario 3, World, New Super Mario, and so forth. Not to mention the countless games that Super Mario 1 inspired. On the other hand, Mario 2 was pretty much never done again. The closest any game apparently ever came to it was an unlicensed game based on Bible characters for the NES. Sure, it was remade, but that’s different from being completely rebuilt. We’ve seen lots of games built on the foundation Mario 1 poured. But, thirty years later, there’s still only one Mario 2. It never got a direct sequel. Its primary mechanics never carried over to another major game. It defies aging on the basis of never having been attempted again. And that’s strange, because we’re talking about one of the single most important games ever made. Even StarTropics got a sequel, for fuck’s sake. Kid Icarus got a couple! Excitebike got a 3D remake! Mario 2 outsold them all combined and was still a one-off. Some of its characters became Mario staples, but its gameplay never resurfaced again. Even though almost everyone likes it, if not loves it. Weird.

So actually, Mario 2 is even more exceptional than you first realized. Think about it: the NES was scorching hot in 1988, when it released. Fans were clamoring for the sequel to Super Mario Bros. As popular as the NES was, it wasn’t quite solidified yet. For all the world knew, it was a brief resurgence of an otherwise passed fad: video games. If Mario 2 had sucked, or had outright bombed, it absolutely could have cooled Nintendo’s jets and put a grinding halt to their momentum.

And then gamers get Mario 2, and it’s so fucking weird. A complete departure from the original. No question mark blocks. No fire flowers. No Goombas or Koopas or Bowser or any enemies from Mario 1. No flagpole. No killing enemies by jumping on them. The coins work completely different and aren’t just scattered around stages. Everything is built around picking up and throwing stuff, with only a few cursory nods to the original, like the star or the mushroom. It’s a Mario game in name only, with westerners mostly oblivious to its origins as a reskinning of a completely unrelated game based on mascots for a glorified Japanese state fair being put on by a television station.

You kill Wart by feeding him vegetables. He hates vegetables. Which is why he placed a fucking vegetable generator in his throne room. Like, seriously, have we considered he never returned because he’s too dumb to sign the contract?

Everyone knows the story of Nintendo risking everything when they launched the NES in North America, offering an insane no-risk deal to stores in order to get them to carry the console. That move deserves the recognition it gets, but I wonder why nobody looks at Super Mario Bros. 2 in the same light. Because it certainly was a huge risk for Nintendo. If fans had rejected Super Mario 2, imagine what a catastrophe it would have been. Especially considering that Zelda II: The Adventure of Link released around the same time and was an even more polarizing departure from the original game in its series. Early Nintendo adopters could very easily have decided that Nintendo wasn’t giving them the type of games they were asking for and moved on to other things. It seems absurd now, but it was definitely on the table back then.

Thankfully, Super Mario 2 was so good on its own merit that it continued to sell even after word-of-mouth that it was nothing like Super Mario 1 had a chance to take hold. Ten million copies on the NES were sold. You don’t get sales like that on name value alone. And Super Mario 2 as an entity onto itself was so viable that a remake of it was chosen to be the Mario launch game for the Game Boy Advance. It was thirteen years later. Thirteen! Thirteen years ago today, George W. Bush was still President and nobody knew who Barack Obama was. That’s how fast the world changes, and yet, Super Mario 2, thirteen years-old, was still good enough to be a flagship launch game for a major platform. I’d never argue against Super Mario Bros. being the reason there was so many Nintendo Entertainment Systems in households in the 80s. But in major way, Super Mario Bros. 2 is what assured there would continue to be Nintendo devices in American households into the 90s and beyond. Yes, it’s the “weird one” in the series. But it’s the one that I most tip my hat to. Against all odds, it holds up better than any “real” Mario game. To paraphrase an old adage: man fears time. But time fears Super Mario 2.

Super Mario Bros. 2 was developed by Nintendo
Free to Play with a Switch Online Subscription

Interested in Super Mario Bros 2? Boss Fight Books has a book detailing its history by Jon Irwin. Check it out here for $4.99.

indie-gamer-chick-approvedSuper Mario Bros 2. is Chick-Approved, but as a non-indie is not ranked on the IGC Leaderboard.

 

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection v Capcom Arcade Cabinet (IGC Retro Bowl II)

I really should have started off the IGC Retro Bowl concept with SNK 40th Anniversary Collection v Capcom Arcade Cabinet. The two companies are already linked through some fighting game crossovers. And both these sets are sort of unique among retro compilations because they specifically cover each company’s early efforts before they found real success and notoriety. Also, I’d never played any of these games before I got these sets. Just the NES port of Ghosts ‘N Goblins, which isn’t included. But the real reason I should have led with this match-up is because just how damn similar so many of these games are. It’s truly remarkable. It literally made me feel uncomfortable. Playing these two sets next to each-other was like watching someone actively peaking at a fellow student’s test answers, and you’re the only one who sees it and wonders if they should say something. So, sorry Sega Genesis Collection. You’re going to have to wait. We have a grudge match to settle.

IN THIS CORNER
SNK 40th Anniversary Collection
$39.99 for Nintendo Switch (coming to PS4 in March)
23 Arcade Games and 9 NES games released between 1979 and 1990
Game purchased by me.

IN THE OTHER CORNER
Capcom Arcade Cabinet
$4.99 for Starter Pack (required), $24.99 for “All-in-One” pack (all remaining games) $3.99 for each individual game, or $9.99 for packs of multiple games sorted by year for Xbox One via Xbox 360 backwards compatibility.
17 Arcade Games released between 1984 and 1987
Game supplied by fan.

Before getting started, I want to point out how stupidly convoluted getting some of these games for IGC Retro Bowl has been. To purchase backwards-compatible Xbox 360 games on your Xbox One, you can’t actually use your account’s existing balance. Xbox 360 games require you to have a credit card on record. That is so stupid. I understand it has to do with the agreements made with third-parties for how Microsoft would handle the transition from one console to the next. But I didn’t know that until after a fan had already attempted to purchase Capcom Arcade Cabinet for me while it was on sale. This will actually come into play for more upcoming IGC Retro Bowl games like Rare Replay (which features backwards compatible Xbox 360 ports of N64 games) and Midway Origins (another backwards compatible collection).

ORIGINALITY

Now look, I’m not naive. I know the game industry is a gigantic match of “monkey see, monkey do” done with a series of 1s and 0s. It’s been that way literally from Pong onward. But it’s sort of amazing how many games in SNK’s collection are eerily similar to stuff Capcom already made. Commando came out about seven months before Ikari Warriors. Street Fighter (not included in this set) came out two years before Street Smart. Ghosts N’ Goblins was a smash, and then Athena was shat out by SNK (which I pronounced as SINK for the longest time). But the truly amazing thing is how rare it is that the later SNK versions improve upon the stuff they were aping. Only Psycho Solider, which borrows heavily from Capcom’s SonSon, feels like lots of effort was made to ramp-up the formula. Of course, that came out three years after the game it was, ahem, inspired by. I hope it would be better after that long.

To be honest, even with Psycho Soldier putting in a bigger effort, I liked SonSon more. But, I didn’t enjoy either game so that’s damning praise. Most fans of Psycho Soldier.. that’s apparently a thing that exists.. remember it more for its music than it’s gameplay. I played both sets muted for the most part and no siren call is going to convince me that game of all games isn’t just fucking boring.

Not that Capcom are saints in this category. Pirate Ship Higemaru is basically their version of Sega’s 1982 arcade anti-classic Pengo. And there they somehow made a shitty game even worse with some of the most crappy, unresponsive controls I’ve seen in a game like it. The issue is more that at least some of the Capcom games feel like they were taking existing concepts and trying to evolve them. You don’t get that sense with any of SNK’s 23 primary games, with one exception: Crystalis. Which can be summed up as “SNK’s version of Zelda.” It retains the action-RPG concept of the original Legend of Zelda but throws in actual leveling-up mechanics and other role-playing conventions. Yes, Zelda II did that as well, but that’s a side-scroller. Crystalis feels like a sci-fi version of the game most Zelda fans were hoping Adventure of Link would be and wasn’t.

But that’s the lone exception, and even then, it feels like they’re playing follow-the-leader. All the games in SNK 40th Anniversary can be comfortably described as “SNK’s version of..” fill-in-the-blank. Fantasy is SNK’s version of Donkey Kong. Ozma Wars is SNK’s version of Space Invaders. Sasuke vs Commander is their version of Galaxian or Galaga. The most original game is Paddle Mania, and it really sucks. Capcom wasn’t exactly inventing new genres, but at least it feels like they were building onto them instead of just xeroxing them.
Edge: Capcom Arcade Cabinet

Vanguard is both an example of everything right and wrong with the SNK set. It’s actually one of the more fun games to play, but it’s so generic and so derivative that it’s no wonder it was completely lost to history.

EXTRAS

Gameplay is king. That has been my mantra at IGC since day one. But the special features for SNK 40th are so jaw-droppingly awesomeballs that it almost overrides the actual games. I’m such a hardliner for gameplay over bells and whistles that my friends and family literally can’t believe I’d even have to stop and think about it. SNK has a museum menu with tons of information, sort of like a guided tour. Tiny little factoids, even for dozens of games not included in the set. And there are cabinets and flyers and promotional art assets and concept art. It’s all well sourced, cleaned up, and easy to access. None of it is locked (though the museum stuff did seem to cause my game to crash a lot, like 20+ times since December). More than I can say about Capcom’s set, where everything is locked and what little I was able to get wasn’t remotely impressive. Some of the extra-extra features require putting in as much as 25 hours combined on the 17 games here. If they had aged particularly well, maybe they can justify that. They didn’t, and so Capcom can’t. My friend Garrett was supplying me with more factoids and trivia than they did. They should have just packaged him with every copy.

Apparently the files for Yosaku are mostly lost, and a good dump of it doesn’t exist, or so I’ve been told. As the collection notes, it’s one of the most rare arcade games out there. There’s not TONS of information for each game included with SNK 40th. It feels like a coffee table book in video game form.

That’s enough right there for SNK to win, but they spiked the ball by including the ability to rewind games so that you can undo your mistakes, an increasingly common feature I’d like to see more of in the future. But even that wasn’t enough. SNK 40th has the single coolest feature of any classic set ever made. All the arcade games (along with NES-exclusives Crystalis and Iron Tank) allow players to watch a video of someone (possibly tool-assisted AI) making a perfect run at each game. Now, are you ready to have your mind blown? You can actually stop the video at any time and take over the controls from there out, in the exact same spot the video was at. You really have to see it to believe how cool it is.

This, ladies and gentleman, better be a regular feature in classic collections going forward. If it’s not, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.
Major Edge: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

BEST GAME

1943 Kai is probably the best overall game from either set. I can already hear Crystalis fans reaching for their keyboards to complain. Well, actually I think the best game in SNK is one I’d never even heard of before buying it. It’s called SAR: Search and Rescue. It’s an early blood-and-guts shooter. The original arcade machine, like several SNK shooters, used a special rotary joystick that allowed you to move in one direction and shoot in another without the need of a second stick (like Robotron used). Without that specialized input, SNK 40th converted the titles to twin-stick shooters for this collection. This is actually a positive, as fans of the era told me the twin stick step-up is less clunky and more intuitive. And SAR is genuinely riveting in a time capsule type of way. It’s just so.. gory. I wasn’t expecting that. Despite being a bit slower than I prefer such a game, it never got boring, plays great with two players, and really feels like they were trying to grab attention. If it had actually been given a decent name, maybe it would have taken off. Search and Rescue for a sci-fi game like this? Lesson learned, kiddies: put more than two seconds thought into your names.

That’s a lot of red stuff for a game that came into the world the same year I did.

Meanwhile, 1943 Kai is a moderately upgraded version of 1943, itself a sequel to 1942. The 19XX series is to gaming what the Fast and Furious franchise is to movies. It initially tried to stay somewhat grounded in reality, but by the third installment they were just out of fucks to give. Kai changes the plane and gives it lasers and other futuristic power-ups. Consequently, it feels more modern and, gasp, fun. Neither compilation has a particularly strong lineup, and I don’t know what it says that I wasn’t truly in love with anything from either set. But if I had to choose one game to play for the rest of my life, I think I’d rather play Kai.
Slight Edge: Capcom Arcade Cabinet

I don’t think this is historically accurate.

WHAT’S MISSING THE LEAST?

Both sets focus on the formative years of the respective companies and both are missing a lot of games. In the case of SNK, the initial release was missing a lot more, but an update added 11 titles. That still leaves several no-shows. Games like Atom Smasher, Satan of Saturn, Lasso, Marvin’s Maze, Vanguard II, Gladiator, Jumping Cross, Main Event, Canvas Croquis, Hal 21, Touch Down Fever, Fighting Golf, Fighting Soccer, Mechanized Attack, Baseball Stars, Sky Adventure, or Touch Down Fever II. Now, I won’t pretend like I’m some kind of SNK aficionado. I’d never heard about most of these games until I read about them. But I did just read about their existence.. in SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, where they are displayed prominently in the game’s museum. While I’m sure it would have been time and resource consuming to port all those as well, the fact that there’s so many of the games missing with no word of more DLC coming, free or otherwise, makes this set feel very incomplete.

None of the games listed in this screenshot from the complete SNK timeline included in the collection are present in the game. That kind of sucks. I thought Vanguard was interesting and now want to play the sequel. Game companies that put these sets out might inadvertently send gamers rushing to MAME to check out the stuff left on the table. It makes me wonder if they would have been better off waiting to release the collection in November of 2019 in order to include more games. But then again, SNK 41st Anniversary Collection doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Capcom’s heavy hitters can’t be satisfactorily explained away either. Yes, more complete Capcom sets (Capcom Classics Collection Vol 1 & 2) were released for the PS2 and original Xbox. Well, this isn’t those consoles. There’s no original Street Fighter. Or Final Fight. Or Bionic Commando. Or Mercs. Or Tiger Road. Or Forgotten Roads. And yea, some of the games did get a separate release in Capcom Beat-Em Up Bundle. But again, this is actually a backwards compatible game from a previous generation. They didn’t plan the Beat-Em Up set yet. So skipping those games here feels very lazy. What we did get feels like a dumping ground of games nobody in their right mind would actually want as anything but part of a collection. I don’t think that’s true of SNK. Even with so many missing games, I don’t feel anything that is definitively SNK is missing from that compilation. There’s no truly iconic Capcom game in a Capcom collection, and that’s just plain baffling.
Edge: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE

The following is an indisputable fact: the Capcom that exists today is, for better or worse, the same linear company that made the games featured in this set. You can’t say the same about SNK. The SNK that published the games in this collection.. well.. died. And that makes perfect sense. I’m guessing diehard fans of the company that are older than me won’t want to hear it, but I always looked at SNK like a cover band that made inferior versions of more popular work. They were making the Dollar Store, off-brand also-ran fighters that didn’t sniff 1/10th the success or reverence Street Fighter II did. I’m sure there are people out there that will swear on a stack of Bibles that King of Fighters or Samurai Showdown were better games than Street Fighter II and its twenty-two billion special editions. But they weren’t making terrible movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme based on King of Fighters. For my generation, we mostly know SNK from generic, red arcade cabinets containing four generic games from franchises they don’t make new games for (mostly) today.

Before buying SNK 40th, the only time I heard of any of the games included in it were from people talking about how bad they were. Like the Angry Game Nerd riffing on the NES version of Ikari Warriors (included in this collection, and yes indeed, it’s truly horrible). Prehistoric Isle is probably the third best game of the set. Not great or anything, but genuinely fun. Good use of theme. But it’s not exactly the type of game that comes up often in casual conversations with Golden Agers. That’s the SNK set in a nutshell: okay games you’ve never heard of and probably will never play again once you finish them once.

But, the issue is none of either company’s truly iconic franchises are here. And trust me, while you’re sitting there stewing that some hateful millennial said tons of mean things about your favorite classic games, I’ve been sitting here for hours positively stumped about how I quantify the historic value of the games we actually have in the set. Ghosts ‘N Goblins is probably the most overall famous title of anything featured today. But it’s famous for all the wrong reasons. It’s not so much a “good ole days” game as much as it was a “games were harder back in the day” crowing point that blowhards point to. Almost none of whom actually beat these games on the developer’s terms. They needed save states or Game Genies or any other laundry list of help to make anything resembling progress. Ghosts ‘N Goblins is famous because it’s a terrible game that lots of kids really wanted to like and actually didn’t. Everything else in the Capcom set barely qualifies as a footnote in gaming history. And the one game that most gamers do remember and still talk about, they talk about in the same tone that they talk about their old high-school friend they reconnected with on Facebook only to find out he’s since become a holocaust denier.

Maybe you can say the same thing about the SNK set, but this is where the extra features provide an assist. Because the games in that collection are framed in a way where the hateful millennial you’re still pissed off at gets education on why these games mattered, and how they laid the groundwork for the company that SNK would become. I didn’t know their first arcade game had intended to use interchangeable cartridges, and even if that game isn’t present here, I think that shit is neat. Like, wow, they actually had something like Neo Geo in mind right from the very foundation of their existence in the 1970s. That’s swell. Maybe Capcom wouldn’t have lasted if they hadn’t found moderate successful with games like Side Arms or Vulgus, but what we do have feels almost unimportant. The games in SNK’s set are displayed with such care and love that it makes them feel more important to our community’s history than they probably are. Plus they included NES ports of the games, as if to say “well if you think Ikari Warriors was shitty in arcades, you should see what people at home had to suffer through.” Both sets feel light on importance, but..
Slight Edge: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

“Maybe if we just throw all the game artwork into a big pile and use that for a menu, nobody will notice the complete lack of star-power in our set.” Oh, and you can only get Vulgus and 1943 Kai if you buy every other game in the set. They can’t be purchased separately and are “bonus games.” Kai is the best game in the collection and Vulgus is at least decent enough to not be painful. You really dicked fans with this one, Capcom.

PLAY VALUE TODAY

Probably the biggest issue with Capcom Arcade Cabinet is just how maddening the games are. I adjusted every game’s difficulty to easy and I still was losing virtual quarters in under a minute to most of the games. Gun.Smoke I lasted 35 seconds my first attempt. Of course, for Fantasy on the SNK collection, my first play took me 2.3 seconds of actual game-time to lose all my lives. Yes, you read that right: 2.3 seconds. If I had been a teenager in 1981, I’d probably have been arrested for punching out the screen. It’d been my final Fantasy if you catch my drift.

But nothing else in the SNK set fucked me to the degree Fantasy did. And while most of the games underwhelmed me in both sets, the issue with Capcom Arcade Cabinet is how samey it is. Most of the games are some form of a shmup, and all the ones that aren’t I found to be terrible. Ghosts ‘N Goblins? Terrible. Gun.Smoke? Terrible. Avengers? No, not that Avengers. No, not one either. No, an original game called Avengers. It sucks. Trojan and Black Tiger seemed like they could be fun, but even on easy the enemies drained health too fast and the overall design seemed like it was based around taking quarters with little regard for giving players value. I started a life in Black Tiger and in under 30 seconds, I opened a treasure chest that caused an instakill. It’d be like if the old man in Zelda said “it’s dangerous to go alone, take this” and then pulled out a glock and capped Link. Game Over. I somehow doubt Zelda goes down in history as an all-timer if it pulls that stunt.

The most interesting game in Capcom by far was Speed Rumbler, a game so lost to history that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. It plays like a primitive form of the old 2D Grand Theft Auto games and might have been fun. But again, prohibitive difficulty and unresponsive controls sort of make it hard to appreciate that it might have been the unstated inspiration for one of the biggest franchises in gaming history. Or, as a friend pointed out, it might have inspired the NES Roger Rabbit game. (Hey, why not both?) Two games in Capcom’s set I could unambiguously say I enjoyed: Side Arms and 1943 Kai. Out of seventeen games. The rest are either broken, boring, or so underwhelming that my saying “it’s alright” would immediately be followed with a yawn.

Speed Rumbler also suffers from extreme difficulty. It makes me wonder if the “easy” options are purely decorative.

With SNK 40th Anniversary, nothing blew my mind. Both the games that had the highest potential to do so (Crystalis and SAR) have something so wrong with them that it mutes my enthusiasm for further playtime with them. Crystalis controls too loosely and the primary weapon feels weak and unsatisfying to stab stuff with. SAR simply plays too slow and lacks enough wacky weapons to make it truly the spectacle I suspect it was trying to be. The best game with the fewest problems, Prehistoric Isle, is really just another fucking shmup that happens to have an interesting theme and little more going for it. To be clear: these are good games. But, the rest of the set can say what Capcom can’t: the games are playable and never feel demoralizing. Maybe I was underwhelmed with Ikari Warriors 2, but it hardly sucks. Bermuda Triangle isn’t mind-blowing, but it wasn’t worthless either. The two best games in Capcom are probably better than anything in SNK’s set, but SNK has more stuff worth looking at. Gameplay is king, and you just plain get more with SNK.
Edge: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

WINNER
SNK 40TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION

And that makes me happy for one primary reason: Capcom’s set feels like a cynical cash-grab. I’m surprised the emulator isn’t constantly shitting the bed with it. It’s that half-assed and that rushed. It’s such a lazy, uninspired set of games. If they were excluded from a real Capcom’s greatest hits set, I don’t think anyone would actually miss 80% of them. The irony is that SNK’s games all felt about as original as an Asylum film, but there’s nothing about SNK 40th Anniversary Collection that feels soulless or like a cash grab. It’s a labor of love. I can’t imagine this particular collection of games would sell a lot. I’ve even seen people who came close to buying it only to change their minds when they found out Neo Geo era games weren’t along for the ride. Given that none of these games, even Crystalis, are exactly legends, it wouldn’t be reasonable to think a compilation like this would ever grace a top-sellers chart. This seems like a bad investment for SNK to make. And yet, it exists, and it’s actually really beautiful. SNK 40th Anniversary Collection was made as a way for SNK to tell their fans “you know what? We always did appreciate your support.” When do you ever seen that from a major game company anymore? I didn’t even like most of the games in it, but I’d recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who wants to take a stroll down memory lane with someone who deserves to take that journey with you. And from what I’ve seen here, SNK absolutely should be that company.

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