Wednesday, July 22, 2015

“Stanley: The Search for Dr. Livingston” on the NES!

In 1992, Electro Brain released a Nintendo game that was part Mario, part Metroid and part Pitfall. It was also kinda’ racist, and may or may not have endorsed colonialism. 

By: Jimbo X

Even though first-party support for the NES stopped 21 years ago, the console’s software library remains robust enough that old-school gamers are still uncovering rarely-played titles for the platform today. Of course, most of the long-forgotten Nintendo cartridges are obscure for a reason: who cares how kooky a game like “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!” and “Bad Street Brawler” is, when the core gameplay just flat out sucks?

That said, there are definitely some hidden gems out there. “Nightshade,” the two “Power Blade” games, “Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom” -- all really fun, unheralded games that deserved way more attention than they initially received. In that vein, I’m not really sure I would call a game like “Stanley: The Search for Dr. Livingston” great, or even very good. In fact, the 1992 release has some pretty big problems working against it, but alike titles like “Home Alone” and “Platoon,” it does have some structural things going in its favor, including a few mechanics that I don’t believe I’ve seen replicated by any other title on the system.

Really, there were only three kinds of NES games. There were “evergreen” titles centered around sheer gameplay that could be played over and over again (sports games like “Tecmo Super Bowl” and puzzlers like “Bomberman II”), “experiential” titles that often took weeks or even months to complete (most of your RPGs and any battery-powered game, like “Zelda,” “StarTropics” or “Crystalis”) and the “one-and-dones” -- i.e, the relatively short/unchallenging games you could complete in one weekend, if not one sitting (see just about every platformer and SHMUP on the system.)

“Stanley” is unique in the sense that it’s a “one-and-done” style game that I am convinced no one could beat in less than five days. To even think about completing this one, you have to sink hours upon hours of trial-and-error gameplay into the endeavor, and unless you are using some sort of online guide, it’s going to take you at least a week before you know what the hell you are doing. It actually took me three months to conquer a ROM version of the game, complete with save states and the ability to look up cheats on YouTube … had I tried to do that same feat in 1992, it likely would’ve taken me half a year to do so, if I hadn’t just given up on the fucker and traded it in for something better.

The game begins with a brief cutscene introducing our avatar -- mild-mannered reporter Stanley -- mulling the whereabouts of Dr. Livingston, a high-society type who apparently got lost in the jungle and was either eaten by cannibals or become some sort of feral Buddhist naturalist. I probably don't need to tell you this, but this is one of the few NES games that is thematically based on a real-life story ... albeit, with a TON of creative liberties taken, as you will soon see.

The game begins with Stanley stepping off a boat. Rocking a brown and red ensemble that sorta’ resembles Mario’s fire flower regalia in “SMB 3,” you have this really weird marching animation that makes it look like you are trying to knee assault everything in your path. Before entering the jungle, you get to roam around the port city for awhile, chatting with locals “Castlevania II” style. During this section of the game, you will do all of the following:

-- jump off the roofs of hotels, gliding around on a gyrocopter that pops out your hat like Inspector Gadget
-- break into people’s homes to steal knives and spears
-- hit on dames carrying umbrellas, and periodically engage in fistfights with giant spiders (complete with Stanley putting up his dukes like the Notre Dame logo when it comes time to engage the enemy)
-- Punch black people two dozen times and wait for them to explode

You know, there's unabashed racist subtext, and then there's "hey, let's make one of the enemies a monkey-man who LITERALLY chunks spears at you!"

Probably the big “innovation” in this game is that, unlike seemingly every other game on the NES, merely walking into enemies doesn’t hurt you. Instead, your character can only be injured if they directly attack you -- I could be wrong, but I think this is the only game in the 800+ console library to implement that feature.

So, you enter the jungle, which is divided up into dozens of small stages. Using an overworld system of sorts, every time you “discover” a level, you can add it to your literal game map, which also acts as a compass. Unfortunately, much like the map system in “Friday the 13th,” it doesn’t really adhere to the normal cardinal directions and laws of motion, so using it as a proper navigation aid is often a hassle. However, it does give you the ability to teleport from discovered spot to discovered spot, which is immensely handy for the latter portions of the game.

Eventually, you will encounter the village elder -- a dwarf rocking one of those huge Tiki masks -- who tells you to travel north to uncover a “grapnel,” which is basically a grappling hook you can’t do shit without, anyway. Once you initially enter the wild, you will come nose-to-nose with the following foes:

-- multicolored snakes who poop out hearts and gems after you puch them
-- more goddamn giant spider enemies
-- giant beetles
-- disappearing then reappearing platforms
-- lightning bugs that literally shoot lightning at you
-- guys who jump out of the background and shoot you with blow darts
-- possessed tribal masks that shoot, uh, rocks at you?
-- tigers that can jump 40-feet in the air (some which are green)
-- alligators and barracudas, who take chomps out of the game infrastructure while you are walking across bridges
-- and lastly, but most certainly not least, EVIL BUTTERFLIES!

Gameplay-wise, the title feels like a menagerie of classic NES offerings. Obviously, there’s a lot of “SMB” and “Pitfall” in here, but the combat, at times, has a “Castlevania” and “Bionic Commando” vibe. That, and the item-collecting motif definitely gives the game a certain “Metroid” air, even if I’m not really sure I would label this one as a classical “MetroidVania” experience. Oh, and the vine climbing sequences? That shit is such a rip-off of “Donkey Kong, Jr.,” but since the controls are actually better, I’m not going to complain there.

...if the peach-colored cobras don't get you, the horribly insensitive caricatures will.

The game geography is pretty repetitive. You have your jungle sequences (accompanied by a droning, tribal bongo beat), some generic underground cavern sequences, and a few romps through some above-ground ruins. There are also some very, very brief beachside stages (with monkeys tossing coconuts at you and lobsters trying to pinch your 8-bit ball sack), but they are few and far in-between. While mostly linear, the stages often have at least two or three floors to explore, and as an added bonus? There seems to be something of a day-night cycle mechanic in play, so the sky in the background is always changing.

After throwing down with some purple-skinned natives (literally, they look more like California Raisins than people,) a village elder asks you if you have a key to enter a subterranean palace. Of course, he can’t just come out and give you the key, so instead, you have to embark upon the first of many fetch quests. So, you go to a different village, and a different village elder tells you to find these super rare gems to fight evil spirits in the jungle. So, after you find those, you enter the jungle and use the gems to kill the evil spirit warriors, and you go back to the second village and the gatekeeper there gives you a magical seal so you can go back to the first subterranean cavern you couldn’t get into to begin with. Then you have to traverse your way across some ruins until you make it back to super-secret entrance to the first cave, then you uncover some special voodoo power, and THEN you use that to enter the underground temple. But, uh, didn’t they say I needed a key to get in there, and need magical Zulu dust?

So after you get all that shit situated, you have to make it towards your next fetch quest sequence. Thankfully, you can employ the “run like hell past your enemies” approach, and for the most part you won’t take any damage. Oddly enough, no matter which weapon you select, it seems that most foes take the same absurdly high number of hits to finish off … which means you have to whack that green tiger about 18 times, no matter if you’re using a machete or your fists. Sort of like “Castlevania,” the game also employs a “currency” mechanic for your weapons, so in order to punch effectively, you have to keep collecting these little fist icons. It took me two days of playing to figure that out, by the way.

That's called "symbolism," kids. Really, really misplacedsymbolism

So, back to Kelka, the ORIGINAL subterranean labyrinth you were supposed to rummage through. Inside it, you will find some more “spirit magic,” allowing you access to a mountain range filled with deadly, venomous butterfly hordes. After that, you enter a village with an old tribesman giving you a seal to access yet another temple. In the village, it hasn’t rained for two years, and he won’t let you go any further until you make some precipitation happen.

Much like every other action-platforming game on the NES, the cave levels are just grey rocks and a pitch black background. They are also confusing as hell, with completely useless dead-ends a plenty. Eventually, you find the fabled “water stones,” chuck them into a fountain, and what do you know, water starts spouting out of it. For your good deed, the village elder (dressed in traditional Arab get-up) starts performing a happy dance for you.

From there, you enter another chamber, using your shield to kill these super-fast warrior skeleton people who kind of look like the killer Zulu doll from “Trilogy of Terror.” Next screen, you do some platform jumping on some floating skulls and encounter some Venus fly trap, uh, traps. After navigating the labyrinthine temple, you embark upon another journey, this time to retrieve some “lightning stones.” You are told they are in the northern-most tip of the over world screen -- you talk to another village elder who says he knows where Dr. Livingston is, but if you pursue his trail, you will wind up meeting the same ghastly fate he did -- something about pissing off the Mayan gods or something, I really wasn’t paying attention.

Needless to say, some of the stages can be just a wee bit confusing.

Some of the levels can be very, very befuddling. Half the time, you don’t know if the abysses you encounter lead to more game space or an instant kill, so you will be doing a LOT of trial-and-error dying throughout this one. Eventually, you meet a monk who tells you that he doesn’t know who the fuck Dr. Livingston is, but he does “commune with the Cranis for his own reasons.” What is the “Cranis,” you may be wondering? Well, it’s a giant pink afro cotton candy monster you have to fight. After you kill off a few of them, the same monk finds out you have absorbed the beast’s power, so you have to fight him, and then some MORE Cranis monsters. This results in you acquiring a key to a portal underneath a lake, which is accessed via a giant levitating rock that, inexplicably, looks just like a monochrome sombrero.

And so, we’ve made it to the final quest. First, we do battle with these big green fuzzy monsters that look a lot like Broby from “Yo! Gabba-Gabba” and then you encounter ANOTHER dude in a robe outside a Tiki statue who tells you to give him EVERY SINGLE FUCKING ITEM you’ve collected thus far in the game. Then, he sends you out on a fetch quest to retrieve more powerful items, so you can enter the last hidden temple.

First, you give a shield to a temple guard, who gives you a golden fist power-up that allows you to shoot projectile punches a’la Mega Man. Then, you climb over some blinking Tiki statutes, fight three Zulu warriors with bows-and-arrows and retrieve a golden breast plate. This grants you access to the final portion of the game, a multi-story temple that, for an NES offering, is actually really damned big.

While levitating around with your gyro-hat, you have to evade pink electricity barriers, which is absolutely freaking impossible. Then, you battle more Zulu doll on meth hyper speed running enemies, avoid random arrows that just fucking launch themselves out of random walls and try not to get crushed by an elaborate rock-on-a-pulley system death trap.

Once you make it to the VERY bottom of the temple, a cutscene is triggered, in which your arrival awakes (and irks) Dr. Livingston. From there, you are sucked up into a UFO(!) and enter what is presumably Nirvana. An emaciated looking Livingston says some pseudo-philosophical-sounding stuff about the god Amuk, and Stanley asks him to come back home with him. He says no, so you … just take off into the clouds with your gyro-hat, as the end credits scroll.

Yep, that’s right, the game concludes WITHOUT a climactic boss battle or any real denouement about why Livingstone disappeared, or even what he’s doing in the jungle now. And after risking life and limb and facing down God knows how many supernatural demons, Stanley just nonchalantly heads back home without once attempting to convince Livingston to reconsider his idea. That's either the absolute best or the absolute worst ending in video game history, depending on your perspective.

Coincidentally, that'll probably be the expression you make at following the game's non-ending.

The game was published by Electro Brain, a small, Salt Lake City based company that's probably best known for its niche sports games (like "Best of the Best Championship Karate" and "Boxing: Legends of the Ring") and its cult NES offerings "Eliminator Boat Duel" and "Ghoul School." They also did a couple of SNES games, like "Vortex" and "Jim Power," but let's face it, nobody ever played any of those. Believe it or not, the game was actually developed by Sculptured Software, i.e, the same guys that made the trilogy of "Star Wars" games on the Super Nintendo. They are also responsible for a couple of mid-90s WWF and "The Simpsons" game, but for my money, they will always be noteworthy for producing that tremendous"The Punisher" beat-em-up, which was every bit as awesome on the Genesis as it was in the arcade.

As far as the content of the game, there are quite a few things we need to address in the post-script. For one thing, the concept of the title alone is pretty bizarre -- it's a Nintendo game that's more or less serving as a high-concept adaptation of a nonfiction memoir. Of course, it doesn't really stick closely to the accepted historical narrative as it pertains to Henry Morton Stanley's quest to "rediscover" the famed Scottish explorer, who not once mentioned "lightning stones" or having to hack flying voodoo masks to death with a Jason Voorhees knife in his articles. Then again, if you pay real close attention, you would have noted that the title of the game is either a crass typo or it's a really, really lazy effort to "fictionalize" the character of David Livingstone (not the "e" at the end there, folks.)

Seeing as how the early 1990s wasn't the same swarming bed of political correctness overkill that we live in today, it's probably a bit shocking to see some of the less-than-noble portraits of Africans in the game. Indeed, the entire game paints a portrait of the Dark Continent that's about as glowing as that one episode of "The Simpsons" where they went to Brazil. Sure, kids today may look at "Stanley," punching spear-throwing natives who are the same hue as literal eggplants and view it as racism personified, but back then, in pre-Internet America? We just didn't give a fuck -- that, and we were too busy earning $4.25 an hour to buy $129.99 "pump-up" shoes to think that a game intended for children involving karate fighting tigers had anything worthwhile to say about anything, politically or socioculturally.

As before, it's a stretch to call "Stanley" a great game, but I would feel somewhat comfortable labeling it as a better than average offering for the NES, especially considering it came out towards the tail-end of the console's lifespan. The presentation was OK and while the map system produced a lot of headaches, it also had a lot of interesting mechanics and, by and large, the controls were fairly solid. It didn't reinvent the wheel, per se, it just spun really, really well. If you're a hardcore platformer enthusiast, this is also one of the more challenging to be found on the platform -- as long as you're cool with backtracking and having no idea where the hell you are supposed to be going for a good 95 percent of the game, you might actually enjoy this one quite a bit.


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