Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Then and Now: Perspectives on NES games as a child and adult

For the first time last week, Mike Tyson played Mike Tyson’s Punchout!! for the NES and the brilliant results were captured on film. The video shows Tyson trash talking through his fight with Glass Joe and, as many comments point out, I think we finally know where Glass Joe’s lone victory came from (Tyson himself!). The whole video treads a surreal line and seeing Tyson’s clearly having a good time while playing got me thinking of some of the classic NES games that I remember. Below I give a few of the games I remember from my childhood and express my then and now reactions to them. This list is by no means a “best Nintendo games” ranking and is presented in no particular order.


Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
What is it?
The puzzle and twitch game masquerading as a boxing title. Little Mac works his way through the ranks fighting men literally twice his size and clearly beyond his weight class towards an ultimate confrontation with Mike Tyson himself (or Mr. Dream following Tyson’s incarceration).  Beating Mike Tyson is a testament to one’s skill as the game makes no compromises and is one of the finest examples of old-school difficulty still being a thrill to play.

Then?
As a kid, I never quite grasped that success in Punch-Out was less about wildly swinging and more about dodging and countering. I eventually figured things out against King Hippo (punch his open mouth!) but had difficulty progressing past Bald Bull. That said, I loved trying and would routinely struggle my way to him only to be bull charged into oblivion. Even in my tender youth, I remember thinking that the fights seemed grossly unfair to Little Mac and that real-life boxing didn’t even closely resemble the game.

Now?
I have no problem admitting that I have never beaten Mike Tyson but have, on numerous occasions, made it to him. The jump between Super Macho Man and Mike Tyson is like pixie sticks to cocaine and I tip my hat to those who can muster the skill and determination to be victorious against one of the toughest final bosses in gaming. Punch-Out has remarkably withstood the test of time and the controls still feel tight. Further, defeat is less reliant on cheap AI than on pure skill; if you know the fights, and have the reflexes, you can do it!

Duck Hunt
What is it?
A staple game for anyone who bought the NES with the zapper bundle. Duck Hunt isn’t the most complex game but it expertly showcases the precision and novelty of the light gun. The game also features the most unlikely villain in gaming, your faithful dog.

Then?
The idea of peripherals wasn’t new with the zapper but it was a major leap forward in implementation and design. The zapper did exactly what you expected it to do and it is not hard to imagine that it was instrumental in planting the seeds for the emergence of the FPS genre years later. As a kid I enjoyed the novelty of the zapper but ultimately recognized that the game play of Duck Hunt was lacking. Repetitively shooting targets grew old after about 20 minutes compared to the dynamic environments and fast paced play of Mario (the other bundled game). Naturally, when the game became too fast, I would hold the gun directly to the screen; in retrospect I doubt this improved accuracy.

Now?
Years later, sitting around with a few friends, we got to talking about how the light gun actually worked and successfully deduced that it functions as a rudimentary camera. Unfortunately, this revelation just made it clear to me how limited games could be with this restriction. An FPS using a zapper would probably induce seizures when  firing a mini-gun. While I appreciate Duck Hunt for how inventively it used a peripheral, I still find the game to be stale. That said, the revelation that the second player could control the ducks (something I wasn’t aware of as a child) has made for a bit of fun with buddies while trying to kill a few minutes.

Tetris
What is it?
Seriously? You need an explanation? Tetris is one of the most ubiquitous games of all time. Just do a quick search and play a flash version if you honestly haven’t heard of this (and be prepared to see an afternoon disappear).

Then?
Oh my naive youth. Tetris is boring and nothing ever happens and what the heck is with the stupid building at the end? I guess the music is sort of catchy.

Now?
In my ‘Value for Money’ post, a notable omission was Tetris. I have wasted so many hours stacking blocks and clearing lines that I am certain I could have mastered something totally practical if I focused that time elsewhere. Yet, I have not mastered Tetris. The combination of a consequence-free game that progressively increases in difficulty with individual games lasting seldom over 10 minutes is magic. A Tetris session can be as long as the wait for a bus or a multi-hour marathon and, with age, the addictive simplicity has grown on me. I don’t know if other people dismissed Tetris in their youth as I did, but I am glad I decided to pick it up again.

Master Blaster
What is it?
The genre blending side-scroller/top down shooter sporting an open world to explore and a plethora of power-ups to change the way you play. Master Blaster took the primary gameplay elements of Atari classics and seamlessly blended them together with ideas from its contemporaries. Clocking in at several hours of game play, sporting a tough difficulty curve, and unfortunately lacking a battery save, many players would be hard pressed to finish the game in a regular play session.

Then?
I never had the opportunity to play Master Blaster when I was younger. At the time, resources such as reviews were difficult to come by. As such, I had two things to go on when I picked up a new game: did my friends think it was good and how did the box art look. To its detriment, Master Blaster features some of the ugliest box art of the NES era and I don’t blame anyone for passing the game over based on this criteria. Worse, the art in no way indicates what sort of game to expect. Fortunately, in modern times, great games are unlikely to be overlooked for such ridiculous reasons.

Now?
One of my first experiences with Master Blaster was watching a few guys play it at a party in the background. As the night drew on and most people had crashed, I decided to sit on the couch and watch the action unfold. Several hours later I had long forgotten about sleep or getting another beer and was engrossed by the gameplay. I still marvel at how the game so casually mixes genres while having everything still be intuitive. Given all the recent reboots and modern versions of NES classics, I am surprised Master Blaster hasn’t received much attention as it can easily hold its own in modern times.


I will stop the list there before this post rambles on forever. I think one of the things that can be pulled from the selection I have presented is that different games can appeal at different times. I often wonder how I will look back at some of the games I am playing today; will they have aged well? It is strange to think that we may one day laugh at how clunky the graphics in Crysis look or how stupid the Kinect is (okay, that one may not be so strange).