Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Four Unlicensed NES Games My Dumb Ass Has Owned At One Point Or Another

(And an additional four I really wish I would have bought instead)

The Nintendo Entertainment System, as we all know, ruled. From “Tecmo Super Bowl” to “Mega Man 3” to “Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom,” the NES gave us some of the greatest gaming experiences of all time, and many of the console’s standout titles still resonate as among the best video games ever manufactured.

Rounding up, almost 1,000 games found their way onto the NES. As an estimate, I would say that about 250 or so ranged from really good to mind-explodingly awesome, with an additional 250 ranging from just kind of average to absolutely shitty. I would say that in my lifetime, I’ve probably played a good half of the games released on the NES in North America, which, obviously means that I’ve yet to experience the other 500. So, if you were wondering on how I plan on spending my retirement years…there you go right there.

In hindsight, it’s kind of hard to accurately assess NES games, because of that damn technological bias we have today. I’d say that most NES games you’d play - as in, at this very moment, using modern gaming standards - would either be scored as slightly below average, or mildly above average - in other words, you’d have a vast panorama of mediocrity to choose from. Granted, the really great games would still be really great (and the flat out terrible ones would still be flat out terrible), but by and large, you really wouldn’t be able to assess most NES offerings as either good or bad titles - at the most, all you could really say is that they have some good features, and some bad ones, and just call it a wash.

When it comes to NES mediocrity, I reckon you could discuss a whole host of unlicensed games as being exemplary models of games that are neither notably good or notably bad (although as you will soon see, the criteria for modern gaming criticism judges these titles far more harshly today than circa 1991.)

For all of the Gen-Y kids out there, an “unlicensed” game refers to non-sanctioned, non-approved NES titles produced by third party manufacturers WITHOUT the Nintendo Seal of Quality granted to them. The funny thing here is, a lot of games that DID get that Seal of Quality were, in some instances, a bajillion times crappier than any of the games being discussed today - meaning, I suppose, that “quality” is something a little bit more than subjective when it comes to “The Big N” and their business policies.

Very rarely did you find unlicensed games in stores (although one publisher, Wisdom Tree, found a lot of success selling unauthorized NES games with biblical themes in Christian book stores in the early 1990s). However, you would find such games at video stores, and some non-retailers carried them at greatly reduced prices. As such, parents would often pick up two or three “unlicensed” titles, at the cost of what was usually just one “Seal of Quality” granted NES release - and like thousands upon thousands of my cohorts, I was likewise a beneficiary of such frugal purchasing decisions.

In my days of bygone youth, I recollect having four unlicensed NES titles in my library, and because your standards are way, way lower as a grade schooler, I moderately enjoyed all of them. Of course, tastes change over time, but much more importantly, the industrial standards of excellence change as well.

I recently decided to give some of those unlicensed NES games a replay, and I quickly realized that those games I enjoyed as a youth had…well, taken a considerable hit in quality over the last few decades, to say the least. That said, during my all-day emulating spree, I also managed to uncover a couple of unlicensed offerings on the NES I never got around to playing back in my elementary years - and as it turns out, quite a few of them are actually, shockingly, surprisingly kinda’ awesome.

Now, who amongst you is ready to get nostalgic, only to find out that nostalgia was actually ill-founded, only to uncover non-nostalgic items from that same nostalgic period that, despite being devoid of that same semblance of nostalgia, are actually sorta’ kick-ass, thus giving you a proxy sensation of nostalgic bliss anyway? That’s what I thought.

Impossible Mission II

In hindsight, “Impossible Mission II” was sort of a precursor to the early “Oddworld” titles, as you played a guy with absolutely no attacking abilities whatsoever. Actually, now that I think about it, “Impossible Mission II” was nothing at all like “Oddworld,” and after replaying it for the first time in ages, I realize that it, in a word, “blows.”

As a kid, I actually kind of like “Impossible Mission II,” perhaps because it reminded me of a couple of other titles I really enjoyed, like “Xenophobe” and “Elevator Action.” The fact that you couldn’t fight back was a pretty big variable way back when (sort of like how “Bionic Commando” was noteworthy because it was one of the few Nintendo games that wouldn’t let you jump), but today, it just falls flat as a pancake, on virtually every conceivable level.

For starters, the graphics are rather insipid, even though the animation, for all intents and purposes, is better than average for the NES (although there sure is a lot of pastel blue and pink all over the place, though). The soundtrack is likewise notably bland, but it isn’t until you get to the game play that this thing really begins to unravel. Every time you hit the jump button, your character does a somersault thing, which makes it extremely frustrating to jump from platform to platform. And I assure you, this is a platform-heavy game, so the frustration meter on this baby is off-the-charts. The objective of the game is to travel around a map, downloading computer files (which results in a quick, puzzle mini-game every time you reach a terminal), while avoiding enemies that are just about unavoidable a good 90 percent of the time. If this sounds a lot like the afore-mentioned “Elevator Action,” that’s because it’s pretty much the exact same game, only without the ability to defend yourself, the fun, or elevators that move at a speed above a slug’s pace.


Rolling freaking Thunder. 

If you’ve ever played the arcade version of Namco’s “Rolling Thunder,” this much, you probably know: it kicks all sorts of ass. While the NES version - an unlicensed port from Tengen - isn’t quite as awesome as its coin-op inspiration, it’s still a really fun action title, and one of the more cerebral run-and-gun titles you’ll find on the console…pending, for whatever reason, you’re kind of looking for that one afternoon.

So, what makes “Rolling Thunder” such a fun, unauthorized NES release? I’d say it’s probably the straightforwardness of the experience, this solid, no-B.S.-attached action game with only minimal platforming, so you never find yourself wondering why a dude with nine billion rounds of ammunition is jumping around ledges when he could just as easily walk into the building and start going John McClane on some mofos. That, and if you have a thing for opening and closing virtual doors…

The Ultimate Stuntman

Did you ever play “The Adventures of Bayou Billy?” Well, with “Ultimate Stuntman,” it’s pretty much the same gimmick, as it involves a mash-up of side scrolling action, non-Zapper compatible sniping and several “Spy-Hunter” like driving sequences. Conceptually, “The Ultimate Stuntman” sounds like a really cool idea for a game, with an absolute ton of different game modes that has you doing everything from gun boating  to hang gliding. The problem is, pretty much all of those varied forms of game play, well…sorta’ suck.

You really can’t fault the developers of “The Ultimate Stuntman” for at least trying the concept, and in some ways, it actually is more successful in its fusion-blended game play than a title like “Bayou Billy.” Some of the aspects of the game - particularly, the platform action and driving sequences - are pretty well-structured, and I’d be a lying sack of dookie if I said I didn’t at least partially enjoy the game on my recent replay. That said, even the portions of the game that are moderately polished still have more than a few obstructions attached, particularly in regards to hit-detection. A lot of times, you end up falling though platforms, and the shooting sections, especially, are poorly designed. Sometimes, a hit registers, and other times, it doesn’t…and in a few glitch-eaten spots, the game just stops recognizing the characters on screen at all, so neither you or the bad guys can attack one another.

All in all, “The Ultimate Stuntman” isn’t a horrible game, per se, but it does have a ton of things working against it. The graphics may be decent,  but the sound is mildly below average and the game play fluctuates from acceptable to unplayable at the drop of a hat - especially because the controls are so wonked out most of the time. You can admire the game for its scope, but at the end of the day, that’s just about the only truly remarkable thing about the title as a whole.


Alien freaking Syndrome. 

“Alien Syndrome” is a long, long-forgotten Sega arcade game that was ported over to the NES - unofficially, of course - by Tengen, the same guys that gave us…well, a whole lot of unlicensed NES games, apparently.

One of my all time favorite genres is the top down shooter, and I have to say, this is one of the absolute best you will find on the Nintendo Entertainment System. OK, so maybe it isn’t as good as 16 bit ass-kickers like “True Lies” and “Zombies Ate My Neighbors!”, but it’s still a really fun game that merges action, puzzling and even a little bit of pre-pre-”Resident Evil” survival horror into one delectable, blob-blasting cartridge. It’s a pretty hard game to find - go ahead, try to eBay this bitch and see what you come up with - but if by some blind luck you find it at a yard sale or a thrift store for 99 cents…yeah, it’s probably worth the Georgie burning a hole in your pocket.


Get it? Because you play a bee, and the term B-52 is a reference to…an overrated band from Athens? Perhaps.

“Bee 52,” although far from being anything remotely resembling a classic, is still a moderately enjoyable title. The game play is straightforward enough - you play a bee that collects honey from flowers, avoiding insects and trying to outrun the clock as you  transport the goods back to your comb - and the graphics are, if nothing else, acceptable. Sure, it’s not “Kirby’s Adventure” quality or anything, but you at least know what the things on the screen are supposed to be. On the flip side, the sound is really pitiful for an early ‘90s release, and while the controls work for the most part, in some of the more difficult levels, prepare to toss down your controller in disgust multiple times.

So, uh…yeah, there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this one. It isn’t particularly good, but it isn’t particularly bad, either - it’s the definition of an average game, that’s fun in short bursts, but it’s definitely going to lose its flavor in a few hours. Even as a kid, this one couldn’t hold my attention for too long - I reckon anybody that has the patience to give this thing more than an hour of attention nowadays has to be a Benedictine monk or something.


Pac freaking Mania. 

At some point in your life, you’ve probably played a Pac-Man game before, if not in its original coin-op form, than at least in one of the nine-jillion ports that have been released over the years. I mean, jeez, the thing even turned into a Google doodle at one point, so your excuses for never playing it at this juncture are virtually nonexistent.

Tengen - the undisputed kings of awesome, non “Seal of Quality” approved NES games - not only released a pretty fun “Pac-Man” port on the NES, but a even awesome-r variation called “Pac-Mania.” What makes “Pac-Mania” stand out is two-fold; for one, it uses an isometric view, so it’s a pseudo 3D game. Now, an almost three-dimensional Pac-Man game on the NES is pretty cool in and of-itself, but it’s the second innovation that REALLY takes this one to the next level: in “Pac-Mania,” YOU CAN JUMP OVER THE FREAKING GHOSTS. It’s a surreal experience, piloting a 3D, pole-vaulting Pac-Man on an 8-bit console, but the fact that it’s a really enjoyable puzzle game - with some extremely tough latter stages - is what truly makes “Pac-Mania” going out of your way to experience.

Crystal Mines

As a kid, I absolutely LOVED this game. A few years later, Wisdom Tree - the aforementioned software company that specialized in “Christianized” NES titles - re-released it, this time with a tacked-on Old Testament theme. I never got around to playing that one in my salad days, but I probably would have enjoyed it as much as I did the original. Hey, even at six, I had some remarkably simple tastes.

“Crystal Mines” is a pretty basic puzzle game, in which you play a fairly-familiar looking android that has to escape from…well, it’s sort of in the title, isn’t it? As such, you have to plow your way through rocky barriers, avoiding various monsters, and keeping an eye on the clock to insure that deadly natural gas doesn’t seep in and do your little R2-D2 look-alike in. In hindsight, it would be easy to write this one off as a “Bomberman” clone, but since I played this game WAY before I played any of those games, I still reflect on this one as the “pioneer” when it comes to “puzzle-escape-explodey” titles.

Admittedly, I still like this one, although the jaded oldster I am, I have to note that the game has lost a considerable amount of its luster. Graphics, as we all know, aren’t everything, but the sprites here are so minimalist that you can’t help but feel a little cheated - that little Sasquatch guy being a perfect example of lazy game design in action. The sound is also fairly lacking, and yes, the game play - which I found so captivating as a youth - is now pretty tedious and repetitive. That said, the nostalgia factor still gives this one a little bit of a boost, and to its credit, it is very much a playable game, and in some ways, even an enjoyable one. “Tetris Attack,” it ain’t, but it’s still a decent way to kill off an hour or too on a boring weekend afternoon.


Micro freaking Machines.

Just about everybody you’ll talk to on the Internet will tell you that Codemasters’ “Micro Machines” is the absolute best unlicensed game ever released on the NES. And for once, the collective dweebs of the Internet are actually right about something.

On the surface, there really isn’t that much “new” about “Micro Machines.” So, the game consists of multi-vehicle, arcade racers, a la “RC Pro Am” and “Eliminator Boat Duel.” And, the character set consists of an array of somewhat offensive stereotypical avatars, sort of like - well, every other game on the NES, I guess. But when you actually kick back and play the game - which might just be the most intense racing game to be found on the system - you begin to piece together the totalistic greatness of the experience. It’s a hard one to explain, no doubt, but if you ever get your hands on the cartridge, you’ll know what I’m yammering on and on about by the time you are on your third or fourth race. That, and it sure is fun trying to figure out what that battery-shaped slot on the back of the cartridge is supposed to be used for…

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