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. And, all the enemies and objects that you can gets smashes on are spawned by random chance to begin with. 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.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy v Sega Genesis Classics (IGC Retro Bowl I)

Welcome to the first IGC Retro Bowl. Here’s the idea: two classic game collections will be pitted head-to-head with each other in a variety of categories. Whichever game wins the most wins and moves on to face the next challenger. The loser takes their seat somewhere on the IGC Retro Board, which is like the Leaderboard but for Retro Collections instead of indies. That’s coming soon.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, this is the first feature in IGC history where I’m not paying for every game featured. These are not indie games, and I really can’t justify buying games that were not remotely aimed at me. Some of these were supplied by fans who wanted me to experience (or suffer) through the games of their childhood. Others have been supplied by the companies themselves. I’ve also bought a few for myself and will continue to buy others if this feature takes off.

What collections to look forward to for IGC Retro Bowl? Here’s what I already have for it, and I expect to get more:

  • Rare Replay
  • Midway Origins
  • SNK 40th Anniversary Collection
  • NES Classic Edition
  • SNES Classic Edition
  • Capcom Arcade Cabinet
  • Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle
  • Atari Flashback Classics (Switch version)
  • Mega Man Legacy Collection
  • Mega Man Legacy Collection 2
  • Disney Afternoon
  • Namco Museum Arcade Pac

And of course, today’s contenders..

IN THIS CORNER
Dragon’s Lair Trilogy
$19.99 for Nintendo Switch
3 arcade games released between 1983 – 1991
Game supplied by a fan.

IN THE OTHER CORNER
Sega Genesis Classics
$29.99 for Switch, PlayStation 4, & Xbox One
53 console games released between 1988 – 1997 (51 on Switch)
Game supplied by Sega.

I hate FMV games. I’m getting that chiseled on my tombstone. Dragon’s Lair wasn’t the first FMV game. Funny enough, Sega barely beat them to the market with Astron Belt, even though work on it was done much sooner than Dragon’s Lair. But while Astron Belt bombed so badly that you’ve probably never heard of it, Dragon’s Lair went on to become a bonafide legend. It’s still fondly remembered today. I had barely played it at all before a fan bought it for me for this feature and really didn’t understand it. But, I go into every game with as open a mind as humanly possible, and this was no exception.

As for the Genesis, it had NOTHING to do with my childhood. My father insisted he did own a Genesis, and eventually we did find one in the attic. It had two games (Altered Beast and Super Monaco GP) and looked like it had barely been touched. My gaming upbringing really didn’t begin until the PlayStation 1 in 1996. Funny enough, the oldest game released in this set came out in North America a year after I got my PS1. Anyway, I’m known for shitting on Sega games, Sonic especially. So imagine my surprise when Sega actually sent me a code (initially from my friend/surrogate little brother Jon). When I finally spoke to them, I was fully open that I wasn’t the biggest fan. But they were smart enough to know that it didn’t matter if I was. Once my fans saw I was playing the set, they’d find out it existed at all and rush out to buy it. And they did. Sega’s message to me was essentially “sock it to us.” Which is pretty much what happened. And my older readers responded by buying the set OUT OF SPITE for me. Sega: they’re smart cookies.

And so, for our first every IGC Retro Bowl, we’re going to pit these two collections featuring games I have no nostalgia for against each other. Which will soar and which will sink?

Yea, this is a tremendous waste of time. Dragon’s Lair has about as much chance as no-armed golfer using his mouth to swing the club at Augusta. But work with me here.

PRESENTATION

Sega Genesis Classics’ menu is themed like a typical 90s child’s bedroom. Well, an idealized, borderline fantasy one. It’s too clean, among other things. Games are displayed on a wooden rack. You can move the games you enjoy into their own section, which is a nice feature. Selecting games sees them inserted into the Genesis. You can even eject the carts afterwards. There’s a huge variety of options to run the emulation too. Of course, it kind of sucks that sometimes the emulator shits the bed, especially displaying text in games like the Phantasy Star and Shining Force titles.

I questioned on Twitter whether children of the 90s really would have a record player. Most people said yea, they would. I still find that hard to believe but they insist. Guess it’s true.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has a much fewer options. You can display the games with or without an arcade cabinet. You can turn on and off the movements guides. Turning them off is something only the most sadomasochistic person would ever consider. But really, the most noteworthy aspect is how bad figuring out what’s highlighted on the menus can be. Take a look here and tell me which of the two options is selected?

Believe it or not, CONTINUE is what’s selected right now. I have no clue why they decided to make the duller color the cursor, but they did. And that combines with other issues. There’s no language options, which is weird because you’re watching a movie. I mean, sorta. And while the extra features are nice (more on them later), you can’t skip to different parts of the interview, nor can you rewind or fast forward. You either watch it all at once or not at all. Lame.
Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

HISTORIC IMPORTANCE

Dragon’s Lair is slightly more than a weird anomaly. In 1983, it received the largest order for units in the history of the Chicago Coin convention. It shattered every previous record, by some accounts securing more orders than all other games at the show combined. That order was for $10,000,000. That’s in 1983 dollars, or over $30,000,000 in today’s dollar. For an arcade game. Granted, Dragon’s Lair cost between 3 to 5 times as much as other games did, but still, it’s pretty noteworthy. And that investment did pay off for arcade operators. Arcades were starting to decline, but Dragon’s Lair brought players back and kept them there. Even being the first upright game to charge $0.50 a play didn’t deter gamers.

In a set based on an anomaly, Space Ace is itself an anomaly. Of the three, I think it has the best story and best animation. It certainly has the highest potential to become a property with actual value today. Besides, it’s about emasculating a dude-bro. I heard that’s topical today.

For a few months at least. What Dragon’s Lair really did was attract a crowd to arcades so they could check out the latest titles from other manufacturers. Dragon’s Lair was neat to watch, but players quickly caught on that it wasn’t really interactive. You had no control over Dirk the Daring and once the novelty wore off, so did Dragon Lair’s use. It didn’t help the machines were prone to breaking down. No game from its era displayed “out of order” signs more than Dragon’s Lair. When Space Ace came along, the boom was even briefer. Funny enough, Dragon’s Lair was so uncommon by 1991 that Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp also very briefly caused an arcade resurgence. And once again, the same thing happened: fans quickly caught on that it was a horrible game and moved on to other things. Still, people do remember it for reasons other than being shitty, and that counts for something. I had a gamer from that era tell me that Dragon’s Lair was like a bright, beautiful shooting star. Look away for even a second and you miss it completely, but everyone who saw it will never forget it.

But the historical significance of Dragon’s Lair pales in comparison to the Genesis. They’re polar opposites in terms of their trajectories. Dragon’s Lair made a major impact immediately and then fizzled out quickly. The Genny arrived with little fanfare and support. Gamers of the time wanted to wait on the next new Nintendo console. But then an incredible marketing campaign (Genesis Does What NintenDon’t), an aggressive free-game for early adopters program, competitive pricing and the arrival of Sonic T. Hedgehog turned around the fortunes of the console. By time the SNES launched, the Genesis was legitimate competition for it, and that carried on for the entire generation. The Master System flopped. The Saturn flopped. The Dreamcast, regretfully, flopped. Sega still carries clout and reverence to this day, and the main reason for that is the Genesis.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

Oh my God, Genny fans will hate me for this: I actually liked Toejam & Earl 2 more than the original, which I didn’t like at all. I think the idea for TJ&E was great and this was a case of being ahead of its time. “The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak” type of deal based on the limitations of the Genesis. That’s why I’m excited for the upcoming reboot. It’s going to be what the original wanted to be and wasn’t.

BEST AND WORST GAMES

I blitzed through all fifty-one games in the Switch port of Genny Classics over a two-day period. Twenty of those games got a more in-depth look from me afterwards. But during that initial blitz, only one of the games had me so sucked in that I couldn’t put it down until the credits rolled. That game was Gunstar Heroes. I’d heard the stories of course, but most titles from that era that carry the legend of John Henry’s hammer never live up to their towering reputation. With Gunstar, I was so awed by the marvelous gameplay that I literally started to cry in euphoric elation. It was so fun. I couldn’t believe a game that good was in a collection that had so underwhelmed me up to that point. Not only does it hold up today, but it should be studied by all game design students. It drops all the bullshit and focuses on fun, tight shooting gameplay. It’s one of the 25 best games ever made, and the best Genesis exclusive from its generation. It’s probably worth $29.99 on its own.

Sometimes the legends live up to their reputation.

As for the stinkers, over half the set has games that couldn’t withstand the test of time, but, nothing really stands out as abysmal. Except Sonic Spinball, which was never good for its day. Riddled with slowdown and technical issues (no surprise, it was made in only two months in order to replace Sonic 3 for a Happy Meal tie-in), the game is almost unplayable. Even then, Sonic Spinball has more gameplay at its worst moment than any of the three games in Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has. FMV games are limited in their capabilities, but I can’t let that be an excuse for just how crushingly unfun these relics are. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp probably plays the best of the collection. It’s more clear which direction you’re supposed to press, which is something you can’t say about a few rooms in Dragon’s Lair or especially Space Ace. I preferred Space Ace to Dragon’s Lair 1 because it has a little more going on with the energize concept, but none of these anti-classics are really all that playable. Plus, they’re so prohibitively difficult that I think the average gamer will never put more than five minutes at most into any one of the three games even if they want to. They’re putrid.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

Dragon’s Lair II was co-written by an author whose initials are L.S.D. if you catch my drift.

EXTRAS

Hey, congratulations Dragon’s Lair Trilogy! You didn’t get shutout! Due to licensing issues, the Genny collection couldn’t include things a true museum-style collection probably ought to, like the iconic Genesis advertising. I can understand that. What I can’t understand is why things like concept art or interviews weren’t included. You do get online play and leaderboards, but I found the co-op to be laggy. There’s also “challenges” on the Switch version which stand-in for achievements from other ports. It’s a low-effort affair, with the best “special” feature being alternate region versions of games like Streets of Rage that differ sometimes in small ways and sometimes in huge ways. It’s a nice touch, one that a lot of my fans were shocked but very happy to learn about.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy has a few bonuses. There’s a twenty-minute or so interview with Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Rick Dyer. It’s not long, but there’s some nice info in it, including plans for a line of thirty (!) FMV games, none of which materialized. An unproduced concept, The Sea Beast and Barnacle Bill, was going to be inspired by vintage Popeye cartoons and even had a promotional flyer made. But, nah, a game based on golden age animation would never succeed.

There’s also the animatics for part of a deleted stage (complete with voice acting) from Dragon’s Lair II, attract screens, and the ability to watch the complete movies without playing them. Those tell you everything you really need to know about Dragon’s Lair: that the best extra feature is the ability to not play the game.
Major Edge: Dragon’s Lair Trilogy

 

The dude in the middle did all the work and got none of the credit. Then he went bankrupt trying to push a Laserdisc-based console. No happy endings here, anyone.

WHAT IS MISSING THE LEAST?

My first exposure to Dragon’s Lair as a franchise came at the age of 13 with the release of Dragon’s Lair 3D: Return to the Lair for Xbox and GameCube (and PS2 if you were in Europe, though I heard it was broken on that platform). When I heard the term “Dragon’s Lair Trilogy”, I honestly thought the third game was going to be that, not Space Ace. It aspired to be what people always wanted to be able to do with the original game: actually play it. With the invention of cel-shaded graphics, it was now possible to take full control over Dirk. Return to the Lair did recreate all the famous set-pieces from the arcade original, and it looked very convincing. But, the game controlled miserably, had a terrible camera, and just still wasn’t very fun. Still, at least it’s a game and not a glorified string of DVD menus. Also missing are more gamey ports of Dragon’s Lair. Data East released one for the SNES. Absolute released Space Ace for the SNES. A Dragon’s Lair III was released on Amiga computers. There’s not even a mention of them here. While getting the rights to these games might have been prohibitive, it’s regretful that there’s nothing here but the three famous laser disc games. Then again, since all these games sucked (the NES Dragon’s Lair is famous for it’s horribleness), we really aren’t missing that much. Thayer’s Quest is probably the biggest omission. It was a conversion kit for Dragon’s Lair and I assume Rick Dyer has to own the rights to it. And at least that has something resembling gameplay and interactivity. But ultimately, nothing important is missing.

The same can’t be said for Sega Genesis Classics. The Genesis was defined by its sports games, but none of those are here. Nor are celebrity games like Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. None of the three Ecco the Dolphin games are included. Sonic & Knuckles isn’t included. Sonic *3* isn’t included (apparently due to music issues). Eternal Champions isn’t included. It’s not as if these are minor omissions. These are first party Sega games that helped define the platform. Maybe they would have bumped the cost of the set up and that’s why a better effort wasn’t made to secure the rights to them. To which I say: I think most Genesis fans would have paid $10 more to have them involved. It’s not a complete set without them. Even stranger: the Switch version specifically is missing the two Wonder Boy games PS4 and XB1 owners got. Bizarre.
Edge: Dragon’s Lair Trilogy

 

Jokes aside, this would probably KILL upon solo re-release today. Someone really should get on it.

PLAY VALUE TODAY

All games are a product of their time, so perhaps the test of time is an unreasonable one. That doesn’t make it any less real. I didn’t grow up in either set’s respective eras. Their play value to me has to exist without historic context. Under those terms, at least the a few of the Sega Genesis Classics hold up reasonable well and can stand on their own merits. Besides Gunstar Heroes, I think the average gamer will still be able to enjoy games like Sonic 1 and 2 (I literally can’t believe I just said that), Alien Solider, the Streets of Rage games, the Shining Force games, and at least two of the three Phantasy Star Games included. There’s something for everyone here. And if you’re a slobbering 90s fanboy, that precious nostalgia dopamine is bound to hit even for stuff that aged especially poorly. You’ll feel like a kid again. And probably act like one too when you read how much younger people hate your childhood favorites.

A priest wants to “investigate” a bunch of children “to make sure nobody is hurt.” Well, if that’s not timeless, I don’t know what is.

I don’t think the same can be said about Dragon’s Lair Trilogy. No matter how fond your memories of it are, playing these games today is the pits. Putting aside how beautiful Don Bluth’s animation is, they have to also hold up as video games, and they don’t at all. They basically didn’t from the moment they launched. They’re frustrating, quarter-snatching slogs. Even by the low standards of FMV games, badly designed too. I can’t tell you how many times the on-screen indicator was placed in a way where it wasn’t clear if you’re supposed to move one direction or another. It forces you to use a guide that was added to this set in order to know what you’re supposed to do. The greatest irony of Dragon’s Lair and its ilk is that excelling at playing them can only be done by paying as little attention to the artwork and the storylines as possible. Only when you ignore the only possible reason you’d want to play them can they be played well. And that, above all else, makes them some of the absolute worst games ever made.
Major Edge: Sega Genesis Classics

 

WINNER
SEGA GENESIS CLASSICS

And let’s face it: it wasn’t even a fair battle. I had never played Space Ace or Dragon’s Lair II before I got this set, but having spent five minutes previously with a BluRay of Dragon’s Lair, I sort of had. I’m not taking anything away from what these games accomplished. But it’s pretty telling that most of the fondest memories from Golden Agers are not of actually playing Dragon’s Lair itself, but watching others play it on a second monitor most cabinets came with. I’m sure the visuals were mindblowing for their time. It’s not their time anymore. It stopped being their time long ago. Really, did any game lose its relevance faster during that era than Dragon’s Lair?

Sega Genesis Classics is hardly a flawless set. The lack of extras, frequent emulation issues, laggy online play, and perplexing omissions frustrate for sure. But there are games here that have value today, in 2019. More than one. I think there’s even games that initially were shit on, like Sonic 3D Blast, that are actually better than anyone gave them credit for being. Genesis Does indeed.

Arcade Archives: Punch-Out!! and Vs. Super Mario Bros (and NES Super Mario Bros)

Ugh. So yea, these aren’t indies. But I’m currently on a harrowing journey of self-discovery as I delve into the games that existed before my time. And it seems like the arcade is as good a place to start as any. You’ve probably seen those Arcade Archives releases on Switch and wondered if they were any good or not. I mean, for the price of $7.99 for old games, they probably should be, don’t you think? Hell, for that price you wouldn’t be out of line to expect the games to also suck you off. I selected one and chose Punch-Out because I’m such a fan of the series. Ready to have your mind blown? I think it’s probably my personal favorite Nintendo franchise. Yep, I went there.

For the second game, I narrowed it down to four options and let my readers choose. They chose Vs. Super Mario Bros.

What did I ever do to them?

Bull. Shit. There is *no way* someone can score that many points in five minutes in Super Mario 1.

First thing’s first: developer hamster has created a fairly minimal package here. Compared to other retro games I’ll be tackling over the rest of 2018, what you get when you purchase Arcade Archives leaves a lot to be desired. You get the main game and, in the two I bought, a “caravan mode” which is really just a five-minute scoring competition with online leaderboards. I was *blown away* by how far out of my reach the scores were. I’m guessing cheating was involved for the top scores because I can’t for the life of me imagine that you can legitimately score 1.7 million points in Super Mario in five minutes (and the timer doesn’t pause between levels or entering the pipe for level 1 -2). For Punch-Out, I didn’t even do particularly well and finished in the top 200. Oh yea, a top 200 finish for a game that is absolutely fucking shitty.

I don’t often get to use the term “disgusted” with how a game makes me feel, but I am fucking livid at how bad the arcade Punch-Out is on Switch. If I didn’t know this was the original Punch-Out that spawned the console franchise, I would swear it’s a bootleg. The dodge/counter mechanics I love barely seem to have showed up at all, replaced with a mostly mindlesss button masher. One that I couldn’t finish. Arcade Archives: Punch-Out!! is barely playable, with possibly the least responsive controls I’ve ever encountered. I’m not exaggerating when I say I would often press a button to punch four times before a punch was actually thrown. The lag is especially noticeable with the blocking move, which is done by raising your gloves up and down. Well, sometimes the gloves needed a couple of seconds before doing the moving. Same with dodging left and right. It’s safe to say Punch-Out!! is kinda busted.

There’s two screens because Punch-Out!! was created as a means to dump excess monitors. Anyway, this is Kid Quick, but really your toughest opponent will be “Button Slow.” Just take my word for it.

I can only review the version I paid for, and so I can’t find a better version and say the game is great. Having said that, I went to watch a YouTube video to figure out what I was doing wrong and noticed some major differences between the version I paid for on Switch and videos seemingly taken from MAME or via Direct-Feed from an authentic coin-op. Most noticeable was on the videos, the referee counted slowly, whereas on the version I was playing, the count was *really* fast no matter if I changed the game’s timer to slow or fast or whatever. I happen to have a pretty sick MAME machine, so I busted it out and booted up Punch-Out!!. It made me realize most of my struggles on Switch were probably the result of bad emulation. On Switch, I couldn’t get past Pizza Pasta, the fifth (of only six) fighters even with the game set to “easy”. On my MAME? Without changing any default settings, I beat the game on my first attempt. It was night-and-day how much more responsive the controls were, and it made beating the back-three fighters (Kid Quick, Pizza Pasta, and Mr. Sandman) kind of easy. On Switch, I most often lost to Kid Quick by running out to time, because it’s hard to beat a guy who moves quick when button response time is slow.

By the way, if you’re curious, I wouldn’t give Punch-Out!! my Seal of Approval even with it working. All the stuff console fans associate with Punch-Out!!’s play mechanics are missing. It really just does feel like a button masher, nothing more. But it still sucks that the emulation is as crap as it is. And, given how short Punch-Out!! is in the arcade (six fighters? are you shitting me?) it really wouldn’t have killed them to have included both the arcade version of Super Punch-Out!! (which includes five more opponents) and Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! spin-off Arm Wrestling (which includes a cameo by Bald Bull) to give players some value for their money. I’d call Punch-Out a rip-off, but then I played Vs. Super Mario Bros. and learned what having a bonfire with your cash is really like.

I never came remotely close to beating Pizza Pasta and I still put up a respectable score. Though I should point out that everyone is placed in the same rankings even if you change the setting to “easy” and the timer to “slow” which seems kinda weird to me.

Vs. Super Mario Bros. was designed to capitalize on the success of the NES game and starts off just like the home version does. But then it slowly starts to warp with remixed levels designed for absurd difficulty. I’ve been told to think of Vs. Super Mario as being somewhere between NES Mario 1 and the Japanese Super Mario 2, which became known as the Lost Levels in the US. And yea, that’s probably a good comparison. Vs. Mario isn’t as insanely unfair in its level design, but there are tons of blind jumps and single-space ledges you have to jump to and from. It’s ridiculous, almost as if it were a modified version of a classic game designed not to be fun but to steal quarters from children one by one. Oh wait..

And it actually controls like ass. Now I’ve always been of the opinion that the original Super Mario was slippery, but Vs. Super Mario Bros. takes that to a new level. Movement feels imprecise and unrefined. It’s very subtle but it’s there and noticeably different from the NES version. I know this because I booted up four different versions of it, for Wii U, for the NES Classic, from the Switch Online’s NES program, and from an actual, authentic NES that we even had to blow on the cartridge to get to work. In all four of those versions, movement was consistent (which actually shows just how good Nintendo can emulate the NES). For Vs. Super Mario? Movement was *this close* to being like the others, but just enough off to be directly tied to a few deaths, especially with precision jumping and those aforementioned single-space ledges. I had my family play it too just to make sure it wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just me. Though about half my family said they felt it played better on MAME, while myself and a few others felt the MAME version and the version on Switch using Hamster’s emulator felt identical. We all agreed that the NES versions control better though. And if you knew my family, you’d know we can barely agree on what time to eat dinner, let alone how accurate a game controls. So there’s that.

A lot of the tweaks are subtle in the early stages. In later stages, levels are lifted directly from Super Mario 2 in Japan. Levels made when Miyamoto was on his man-period or something because the game was so prohibitively hard that Nintendo of America asked for a different game.

By the way, while sitting to do this review, it came to my realization that I had never purchased any version of the original Super Mario Bros. before. I was born in 1989 and by time I started playing games, Mario had come a long ways. I think my first time actually sitting down and trying to play Super Mario 1 was on Animal Crossing for the GameCube. This apparently comes as something of a shock to my older readers who hold the title in reverence, but I didn’t like it. I had better Mario options by time I started playing games. I already owned and finished Super Mario Advance 1 & 2 by time I unlocked (via Action Replay cheatery) Super Mario for Animal Crossing. And I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. It didn’t hold my attention at all. Which, granted I have a short attention span. It took me four days just to finish this sentence.

So actually, Vs. Super Mario Bros was the first time I bought any version of Super Mario Bros. out-of-pocket. I think the one on my Wii U I just got somehow, because I never would have bought it. Not even for a dollar. Some of my fans are aghast that when I finished the Switch Online version of Mario 1 this morning, it was the first time I had ever beaten Super Mario Bros. (By the way, I did it without using save-states!) Some people can’t comprehend that I, a relatively famous indie gaming personality, had never finished what is probably the most iconic video game. But I hadn’t, because it was a “before my time” game. Over the last 72 hours, I’ve had people tell me they’ve legitimately lost respect for me and my opinions on games because I never beat Mario 1, or that all my previous reviews were now invalidated in their mind’s eye. Nobody I respected, thankfully. And besides, I can now say I’ve beaten Mario 1. And hell, I even did the Minus World trick afterwards for good measure. Oddly enough, I don’t feel like my gaming life has been altered now. I’m still the same person I was before. I just have beaten Super Mario Bros. now. I don’t feel particularity validated. Should I be glowing or something? Will I get a membership card in the mail? Will someone show up and teach me the secret gamer handshake?

I don’t get it. Because at no point did I ever say any of them were stupid for liking Mario 1, nor did I take away from what Super Mario Bros. accomplished in 1985. Like everyone else, I probably owe my gaming existence to it. What I’m am saying is that I can’t play the game under the context of it being a new, fresh idea. Because it wasn’t for me. Based on the games I played before I played this, Super Mario had no reverence to me from a gameplay perspective. Controls are sloppy. Level design is basic. Not a lot of strategy really. And those opinions in no way take away from how important the game was for history. But saying Super Mario Bros. is the best game ever or still as good today as it was in 1985 is every bit as absurd as the AFI naming Snow White the greatest animated film of all time. Which they did. That’s why they had to quit making those AFI 100 Years, 100 Films specials. Because nobody can take anyone who would say Snow White has never been topped and is still the best animated picture ever seriously or respect what they think about movies. And honestly, if you’ve played games for the last thirty years and still think Mario 1 is every single bit as fun today as it was when it first came out and the BEST GAME EVER MADE, I respect your belief as much as I respect a Flat-Earther’s belief. Which is to say, not at all.

And that’s basically how I feel about Super Mario Bros. Being important to gaming history isn’t the same as being fun to play in 2018. And Super Mario Bros. isn’t fun to play in 2018. At least for me.

Anyway, Vs. Super Mario Bros sucks and I think even the most drunk-on-nostalgia fanboy would be insane to shell out $7.99 for it or any Arcade Archive title. They might be the worst values in all of gaming. For an extra $12 you can subscribe to Nintendo’s online service for a year, get a better version of Super Mario and a lot of other games. Including Mario 3, which withstands the test of time better and is still genuinely fun today. I paid $8 a pop for these and I honestly I might as well have wiped my ass with the bills instead.

Arcade Archives: Punch-Out!! and Arcade Archives: Vs. Super Mario Bros. were developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Punch-Out!!, Vs. Super Mario Bros.

$7.99 each said “great bitching! You’re an up-and-coming critic!” in the making of this review.

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