Retro Review: Metroid (NES) – NichePlays

Released in 1986 for the Famicom Disk System, before being localized for the US a year later, Metroid is an 8-bit sidescrolling adventure game for the NES. Developed by Nintendo’s R&D1 team in collaboration with Intelligent Systems, the game follows bounty hunter Samus Aran on a planet trekking journey to find and eliminate the dreaded Mother Brain, before she can use the stolen Metroids mentioned in the cold open to, presumably, usurp the Galactic Federation.

The game is an early and touchstone example of a genre that would eventually come to be known as Metroidvanias which, as the title implies, derives part of its title from the game, as well as the many sequels, spin-offs, and remakes that it’s spawned.

Now I’ve always had a lot of love for the Metroid franchise. In fact, the original Metroid was actually one of the first games that I ever played, as my parents owned it for the NES. As I mentioned way back in my Karate Kid NES review, my Mom actually bought an NES back before I was born and would obsessively play Super Mario Bros on it. My Dad, curious about video games himself, ended up buying several NES titles that were mostly sports or card based games. But among the few action games he did buy at the time was the original Metroid.

And he hated it.

Honestly, I don’t blame my Dad for hating it though. You see, he’s never really been into video games, outside of stuff like Galaxian or Galaga, so throwing him in an open world with little direction or guidance proved to be a bit too confusing for him.

And frankly, when it comes to Metroidvanias, the original Metroid tends to be looked at as being one of the more archaic or oblique games in the genre, so starting with that game in particular had to be especially rough on the guy. 

Anyway, at the time of it’s release, the original Metroid received some pretty rave reviews, with players and critics alike complimenting the title for its vast and expansive world, the secrets held within that world and the, then and somehow still subversive inclusion of a female protagonist. 

And yeah, before a few of you start typing a comment about how painfully obvious and over-reported this is, I know this isn’t really news to a lot of us but it’s kinda hard not to at least acknowledge it. And that’s all I’m really qualified and plan to do here, acknowledge it as being culturally significant and flat-out pretty awesome. I especially appreciate how hidden this fact was from players back in the day, as the game only reveals Samus’s true identity after you’ve gotten one of it’s good endings. Heck, the original manual refers to Samus as a straight up male cyborg and a “true form that’s shrouded in mystery,” setting players up to find out that Samus was a woman all along.

But… Does it hold up? Because rave reviews, spawning a popular franchise that’s loaded with great games, and featuring one of the most iconic video game characters of all time is one thing — but managing to remain fresh and playable 35 years later is another feat entirely. And while I have a lot of love and affection for this game, that doesn’t mean I’m blind to it’s many faults or the fact that most players these days have seemingly unanimously decided that it doesn’t.

Gameplay

Metroid takes place on the planet Zebes, which is separated into three distinct areas. These areas are named Brinstar, Norfair, and Tourian, respectively. There are also two hideouts for the games two bosses, Kraid and Ridley, as well as a number of hidden power ups, and energy/missile tanks to help supe up Samus’s arsenal for her journey. 

While many of the powerups found in this game are required for progression, one of the things that I’ve always loved about the original Metroid is how hands off and generally laissez faire the game is about the order in which you go about collecting them. Outside of collecting the morph ball at the start of the game, you can really go about picking up items at your own discretion.

That bit of non-linearity, while heavily iterated on and improved in subsequent entries to the series, proves to be Metroid’s biggest draw for myself and numerous other players around the world. Simply put, it’s really fun to run around Zebes and strip the planet for parts to find upgrades for Samus’ power suit. And you’ll really need all the powerups you can get, especially for the last area in the game, which is populated by the titles titular Metroids and are best disposed of with a combination of the ice beam and missiles. Oh, and nervously rolling around in the morph ball while they literally try to eat your brains. Although, it does kinda make me wonder what these power ups were doing here to begin with. Like, I understand that the subsequent games in the series would elaborate on this somewhat, but I can’t help but ask why Mother Brain and the Space Pirates never did anything about all the chozo statues with powerups or straight-up live ammunition that was laying all over the place. It also makes me wonder whether or not they even knew Samus was loading up like freaking Arnold Schwarzenegger on a mission of total destruction. 


Anyway, when it works, the open ended and maze-like structure of Metroid is a glory to behold and the opening area of Brinstar shows how fun it could be to traverse and navigate an alien world. The only problem is, this kinda starts to fall apart once you navigate to some of the other areas on the planet due to the game lacking a built-in map. In fact, this is actually one of the chief complaints held against the game by modern players as, without a map of some kind to help you chart your journey, a lot of the rooms start to blend together due to a lot of copy and pasted level design. But, and this is purely a personal preference, I actually kind of appreciate the lack of a map here. This could just be due to how used to it I’ve gotten from playing the game so much over the years, but there’s something quaint and even charming about how the game doesn’t try to guide you as much as other games in the genre would go on to. And perhaps I’m just romanticizing things here but the idea of charting your progress through a physical map you would need to draw out yourself honestly sounds really immersive and like it would encourage players to roleplay their way through the game.

That’s not to say that you can’t beat Metroid without a map though, it just means that it’ll probably make for a more tedious and frustrating experience. And even with a map, you’re still in for at least some tedium, as another thing that also makes traversing the map difficult is the lack of any clear indication of hidden passageways in later parts of the game. This is especially weird because the game goes out of it’s way to tell you that the floor of certain areas can be destroyed with a bomb as early as in the second screen of the game, but then expects you to figure out which areas are hidden behind unmarked barriers for the rest of the adventure.

While not that bad, and something you quickly grow numb to after a while, it’s a far cry from how later entries in the genre would handle things. I totally get hiding optional passages or powerups behind this kind of game design, but hiding an area you need to access through something like this feels kinda cheap and unfair to the player. For example, there’s a passage hidden behind lava in one point of the game that you’re expected to just know that you can fall through without going all T2: Judgement day and melting to death. And in another area, you’re expected to know that you can bomb your way into a lower part of the world without any indication or telegraphing. 

As for the moment to moment gameplay in Metroid, it’s all pretty good outside of a few flaws. Samus moves at a pretty decent speed and killing enemies feels fun enough, even if you’re often woefully outnumbered and cornered by them. The game strikes a pretty decent balance of making Samus feel overwhelmed by the creatures surrounding her, while also making her feel powerful due to all of the upgrades you can find as she slowly becomes a swiss army knife of alien exterminating goodness. An inspectoid-gadgoid if you will. And while it’s a serious shame that you can’t crouch or fire diagonally, it’s not that hard to get used to, nor is it necessary once you’ve picked up the bomb power up or gotten the screwattack.

However, that doesn’t excuse how outright grindy the combat can get. Upon spawning in a new game or after you’ve died, Samus is stuck with a measly 30 health and in order to recover your lost HP, you’ll need to cozy up in an area with an endlessly respawning horde of enemies in order to grind energy. This isn’t helped by the amount of health that enemies can take away from you in a single blow and is probably the worst part of the game for me because it feels more like a punishment for trying to play the game, as opposed to a gentle nudge of encouragement for you to continue your adventure. Plus, it totally breaks the pace of the game itself and encourages players to approach Metroid in a slower or more cautious fashion.

Which really sucks because I genuinely believe that Metriod is a game best played aggressively. Nothing honestly feels better than zipping across the planet and mowing down hordes upon hordes of enemies like you’re Buzz Lightyear on the hunt for Zerg. While nowhere near as fast paced as something like, Contra or that other Konami game where you rush and attack (I believe it’s called Rush N’ Attack)  it’s a really thrilling way to approach the game.

Being an NES game, the original Metroid also falls victim to your usual slew of 8-bit issues. The game flickers, it slows down whenever there are more than a few enemies on screen, and the fairly limited NES controller leads to some frustrating controls due to all the switching between missiles and your standard beam that you’ll be doing. Oh, and the game also features a very long winded password system as opposed to battery saves in every region it came out in except for Japan.

While each of these issues and limitations are relatively par for the course for the NES and aren’t that bad with the proper context of the hardware in mind, it does make for a somewhat impaired experience. 

Assuming you’re playing this on an actual NES, that is. Thanks to modern technology though, we can actually fix each of these issues with little to no effort. The game’s slowdown and flicker can easily be worked around on something like RetroArch, and we can relatively easily fix the aggravating use of the select button to toggle missiles by remapping the select button to something like the X or Y button on a modern controller. You can even do this on your Nintendo Switch, which offers the game for free to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers. Oh, and the password system? You can just spam savestates to your heart’s content. Even the game’s grinder moments can be improved somewhat on the right emulator thanks to being able to speed up the game and cut those grinding sessions in half.

The quality of life improvements don’t have to stop there either. Thanks to romhacks, you can straight up improve the actual games graphics and experience such as with the fantastic Metroid Mother, which improves the visuals considerably and even adds a map to the game. 

Honestly, with a few of these quality of life improvements on your side, the original Metroid is a fairly breezy experience. And even without these quality of life improvements, there’s no denying that the original Metroid’s appeal is well intact, despite it’s shortcomings. It’s got it’s issues, but the game’s solid structure manages to persevere in spite of it. Simply put, it’s just really fun to play and defeat mother brain.

Visuals

While very limited by the 8-bit hardware it’s running on, the original Metroid manages to provide a dazzling and otherworldly environment for the player to explore, and it manages to do so despite a pretty limited color palette.

Each of the game’s main areas are color coded to stand out from each other and all have distinct enemy designs. This makes trekking between the games several areas feel like a journey across different ecosystems, as well as accomplishes the task of giving the game a relatively varied identity.

Frankly, Metroid is full of personality. For example, despite Samus’ fairly small and straight forward sprite, the game is able to tell you a few things about the various power ups that you have available to you. It’s small, but I love how Samus’ cannon goes from green to cyan when you’re using missiles, as well as how the suit itself changes color once you’ve found the Varia suit. Later games would expand on this greatly, thanks to adding larger and more detailed sprites to the game, but the original Metroid really makes good use of what’s available to it. 

I could go on about how I wish the game featured more animation or larger and more detailed sprites like what are available in some Metroid romhacks, but I personally find what’s on display here to be extremely charming and more than adequate for the introduction to the series. Plus, while a lot of people have probably expressed discontent at how tiny the games bosses are in comparison to later iterations of those same characters… Well, I dunno, I think chibi Ridley and Kraid are kinda cute. Like, look at them, they look like unevolved Pokemon in this game.

The overall sparseness of the world is actually a part of it’s charm for me, such as in how the game’s backgrounds are always a black void. While it’s a pretty common practice in NES games to feature a black background, it actually kinda adds to the ambience of the game here and makes Zebes feel like the desolate and lonely planet that it is. While later games would revisit Zebes and flesh out the world through the inclusion of detailed backgrounds, I find the lack of one weirdly appealing. If I’m being honest, adding backgrounds to this game would just look kinda cursed to me.

Music

Composed by Hirokazu Tanaka, the soundtrack is filled with iconic themes and jingles that are appropriately heroic and unnerving when they need to be. The game’s music has been referenced in subsequent titles in the series, as well as in Super Smash Bros, and it’s one of my favorite video game OSTs of all time.

It’s honestly kinda hard to describe Metroid’s music, as a lot of it is honestly fairly lowkey and can even get pretty ambient at points. In the grand scheme of things though, the fact that Metroid’s music was this lowkey was actually a fairly big moment in the history of gaming as, at the time, music for video games typically served the purpose of operating more like fanfare to an adventure than something that underscored a journey. And yeah, Metroid has it’s share of fanfare too, such as in the excellent Brinstar theme, but that quickly falls to the wayside once you start to venture deeper into Zebes.

There’s just something otherworldly to playing through Metroid late at night and having the various bleeps and bloops of the soundtrack to accompany you. Even the more ambient and atonal music, such as the theme for Norfair, manages to add a certain je ne sais quoi to the journey. Also, if any other early 2000’s Cartoon Network viewers are watching this video, can you let me know if I’m crazy for thinking that song sounds like a deranged serial killer version of the Rainbow Monkeys song from Codename Kids Next Door? 

And for fans of the game’s soundtrack that have never checked out the Famicom version of the game, well boy do I have a surprise for you. Because the game was released for the Famicom Disk System and not on a standard cartridge, Metroid’s Japanese OST is actually in higher quality and has a different mix that, frankly, blows the NES version out of the water.

Like seriously, at the risk of sounding like that one friend we all have that swears that listening to the original Mono mixes for Beatles albums of vinyl sounds way better than streaming stereo versions over Spotify, the difference between the two is night and day.

Closing

So does Metroid hold up? Kinda, but not really at the same time. 

While the game received great reviews back in the day and spawned one of my favorite Nintendo franchises, Samus’s inaugural adventure proves to be a fairly rocky adventure. And while I believe it’s aged a lot better than I think a lot of us give it credit for, it’s still a bit rough around the edges and offers little incentive to revisit outside of the novelty of it being the first Metroid game.

However, as I said earlier in this review, a lot of the games flaws are either fairly easy to overlook, can be remedied through the use of emulation, or have almost become a part of the games unique charm 35 years later. 

Simply put, if you’re planning on revisiting the original Metroid, you’d probably be better off revisiting it’s much beloved remake Metroid: Zero Mission, or playing through this one on an emulator for a few quality of life improvements. Don’t get me wrong, the NES original is a great game through and through, but it’s more of a great game within the context of the mid-to-late 80s, and isn’t as much of a timeless classic as, say, Super Mario Brothers. 

Still, it’ll always have a special place in my heart and will probably remain a game that I revisit every year or two. There’s just something really inviting about it’s relatively short length, the nostalgic memories it brings up for me, and watching the patriarchy self-destruct whenever I beat the game.


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Retro Review: Felix the Cat (NES) – Does It Hold Up?

What happens when you take a 1920’s cartoon character, revive him in the 50’s, and then give him a direct to video movie and video game in the 90s? Well, you get Felix the Cat for the NES. Originally released in 1992 and developed by Hudson soft, Felix The Cat is an action platformer for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy that has the titular feline travelling through several worlds on a mission to save his girlfriend Kitty from an evil professor.

I was raised on a pretty steady diet of classic cartoons as a kid, which included a few of Felix’s silent shorts from the early days of cinema. In fact, Felix the Cat has always been one of my favorite animated characters for that reason, as I have a lot of nostalgia for those old shorts, and because of the huge impact that his character and character design has had over the years. And because of that, I had a blast playing through the game for this review. While this is actually my first time playing the NES release of the game, I actually grew up with a bit of an admiration for the port I owned on the original Gameboy. I had picked up the Gameboy version of this title back when I was 5 or 6 and visiting my cousins in the Philippines. It came on one of those bootleg multi-carts you can pick up that usually had a few dozen Gameboy ROMs on it. Of the handful of those multi-carts I had as a kid, the one that had Felix The Cat was always my favorite, in part due it having this game.

But… Does it hold up almost 30 years after its release? While one would assume that this game is little more than licensed garbage, given the NES’s proclivity for such releases, I’m proud to report that this actually isn’t the case here. Felix The Cat is, somewhat shockingly, a really solid game with fluid and fast paced action, colorful graphics, and a fairly good chiptune soundtrack. As for whether or not it’s actively worth checking out these days… Well, I guess you’ll just have to stick around and find out.

Gameplay

Felix the Cat (NES)

The NES version of Felix the Cat takes place across 9 different worlds, with each of them having a unique theme to them, such as tropical, western, or Egyptian. However, the objective for each level doesn’t change, as you’ll always be tasked with traversing the stage and trying to reach the goal. While this is all par for the course, especially on the NES, that’s not to say that Felix the Cat doesn’t try to offer a few subversions to the gameplay. The game features a number of power ups that, when acquired via a heart, transform Felix into one of several different forms. What’s great about this is that these power ups stack on top of each other, allowing players to take extra hits with a penalty of losing your powerup and reverting into the previously powered up form that you had. It works a lot like taking damage with powerups in later 2D Mario games and, as one can only assume that this game was created with younger players in mind, makes for a fairly forgiving and approachable mechanic. 

Felix the Cat’s power ups also help complicate the gameplay by way of offering specific advantages to using each specific form. For example, while Felix’s default attack of punching enemies with a boxing glove that’s attached to an extending arm offers the least range of any attack in the game, it can also technically clip through certain objects and damage enemies from behind barriers. On the other hand, Felix’s tank powerup offers increased damage and range, but at the cost of firing at an arc which makes it more difficult to hit enemies at close range. Likewise, Felix also has a powerup that fires stars in every direction and is great for defense play, but suffers from having as much range as the boxing glove. It’s a pretty nice touch and invites players to try and replay the game while relying on different power ups. In fact, I actually want to try and beat the game using nothing but Felix’s boxing glove — a decision that is sure to make for a significantly harder game. 

And, as if that weren’t enough, power ups also come with a time limit that can be extended by finding bottles of milk that are hidden throughout the game. Although, I really didn’t even notice this mechanic until well into my playthrough as it’s actually pretty hard to run out of time with your powerups. You’re simply more likely to beat the stage before you transform into a weaker state, or take some damage and lose your powerup anyway. It’s still a fairly nice touch though, even though it comes across as arbitrary in implementation. 

In terms of performance and how the game itself plays, Felix the Cat is a buttery smooth beast of a game. Unlike some other later NES games, like Kirby’s Adventure for instance, the game suffers from little to no slowdown or sprite flicker. It’s actually a really well optimized game that runs incredibly well. Overall, movement feels pretty quick and snappy, and the game’s hit detection is also solid. I will say that things can occasionally feel a little more slippery than I’d like it to, but that slippery movement is something that can easily be adapted to after a few minutes in the game.

Honestly, the only major complaint I have with the gameplay is what can best be described as some slight screen crunch. I don’t know if this is due to the game being co-developed for the original Gameboy or not, but I can’t help but feel like Felix the Cat needs a wider field of view. While not as bad as stuff like the Game Gear Sonic the Hedgehog games, there are several moments where its easy to take damage, either by jumping into an enemy you didn’t know was above you, or by walking into a projectile that was fired by an enemy that was offscreen. It’s not the biggest deal, by any stretch of the word but it’s a shame nonetheless, as those moments feel pretty unfair. Granted, this issue doesn’t actually make the game that much harder though, as power ups are relatively plentiful and it’s also pretty easy to stock up on lives.

In fact, Felix the Cat isn’t even that hard of a game, probably due to needing to appeal to a younger demographic. The game is a pretty cozy adventure, with relatively short and sweet levels, plenty of opportunities to power up your character, and boss battles that can be steamrolled relatively quickly if you’re powered up. There is a difficulty curve in the game, for sure, but it’s a relatively gradual curve that does a fairly good job of holding the players hand and should allow for newcomers to platforms of all ages to get at least a decent amount into the game, if not beat the game before long. I’m pretty okay with this game’s relatively low difficulty though, as I believe that difficulty is usually hardly indicative of how enjoyable a game is. However, if you pick this game up looking for a challenge, I’d recommend trying to do a playthrough without any power ups or something along those lines to artificially raise the difficulty.

Graphics

For an NES title, Felix the Cat looks solid. The worlds are vibrant and colorful, sprites are solid and well animated, and things are generally easy to decipher and interpret. For an NES game, Felix the Cat manages to squeeze a lot of detail and personality out of the consoles limited color palettes. While it is a little annoying that Felix’s powerups stick to a weird and kinda nauseating salmon and lime color scheme, it’s also not the worst thing I’ve ever seen and is due to a relatively understandable limitation of the hardware.

One of the little details that I happen to think is a pretty nice touch is the fact that, at several points in each level, you can see clouds on screen that are in the shape of Kitty calling for Felix’s help. Little details like this are absolutely delightful to see and do wonders at helping shape this games atmosphere.

Now I could be wrong in saying this, so take this with a grain of salt, but I do have to circle back on the games screen crunch issue. Things just feel a bit too cramped on screen for my liking and like they should be a bit more zoomed out to help players see more of the action. As I mentioned earlier, this is hardly a game breaking issue, but it’s still a bit weird to see be a problem to begin with, especially since the game’s score and lives information is displayed on a card that takes up a lot more of the bottom of the screen than it needs to. My only guess for why this is the case to begin with is that the game needed to run at a lower resolution in order to play smoothly, but I also don’t know if that’s true or not, or whether simply designing the levels differently could have circumvented this issue. At any rate, it’s kinda a shame that this is the case as the game is a delightful looking NES title that would have benefited from being able to see as much of the levels as possible at any given moment.

Music

Felix the Cat also happens to have a pretty great soundtrack for a licensed NES title. None of the songs sound all too similar to each other and are all pretty catchy and enjoyable on their own merits. Some songs are better than others, sure, but I also certainly wouldn’t call any of them duds either. They all have at least one segment to them that gets stuck in my head whenever I play the game and honestly sound really good for the NES. There’s also a really nice detail in this game where the music’s instrumentation starts to simplify itself as you approach the exit of each stage. It’s actually pretty awesome. Besides that, there really isn’t much else to say about the music here. It’s simply solid.

Closing

So does Felix the Cat hold up? Absolutely! As I mentioned earlier in this review, it’s easy to ignore licensed NES titles as there are a lot of them out there that are little more than shovel ware. But that honestly couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to this game. Felix the Cat has great gameplay, a ton of personality, and makes good use of the NES’s hardware. These qualities, coupled with the relative surprise of it being a good licensed title, means that Felix the Cat absolutely holds up. Expectations can sometimes be weird like that, as having lower expectations for a product can result in you being pleasantly surprised by it.

In terms of pure game quality, I’d likely say that Felix the Cat is a competently made and fairly worthwhile title. However, the inherent value and enjoyment one can get out of the game is raised somewhat due to the fact that people are less likely to want to seek it out to begin with, when compared to trying or replaying more common and well beloved titles like Ducktails. It is worth mentioning though that while I was pleasantly surprised by this game, that extra enjoyment I got out of playing this over something else wasn’t explicitly from the gameplay itself, but rather how I didn’t expect this title to be as good as I had remembered it being from back in my childhood.

Pound for pound, Felix the Cat is a great game and is worth adding to any NES collection or backlog for fans of the platforming genre. It’s a bit of a pricey cart though, so you may be better off emulating this one or using a flashcart if you plan on playing on original hardware. 


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Retro Review: The Karate Kid (NES) – Does It Hold Up?


Is Karate Kid for the Nintendo Entertainment System as bad as people say it is?

That’s a question I asked myself as I was re-watching The Karate Kid Part II the other day. For those unaware of this game, it was released on the NES back in 1987 and loosely follows the plot of the first two Karate Kid movies. However it’s greatest claim to fame was that it was featured in one of the earliest episodes of the Angry Video Game Nerd, back when he was known as the Angry Nintendo Nerd. In fact, I think this may have been the first AVGN video I ever saw. I actually grew up playing this game on my Mom’s NES. Back in the mid 90’s, my mom had picked one up on clearance at Woolworths while she was pregnant with me. She used to come home from the hospital she worked, and still works at, and would apparently play the original Super Mario Brothers on it every night. After I was born, she continued to play video games every now and again and one of my earliest memories is actually picking this game up at Kmart with her and my Dad.

In hindsight, it’s kinda nuts that I was even able to buy new, sealed, NES game in a department store in the late 90s. I was born in 1995 and I’m assuming we must have found this game in the clearance bin or something in 1998 or 1999. Anyway, I actually have a lot of fond memories towards this game. I’ve always loved The Karate Kid franchise, and remember having a lot of fun with this as a kid, even though I could almost never beat the third level. I was actually so into this game for some reason that I remember taping one of the few times I got to the fourth level of the game onto a VHS tape to show my mom after she had got home from work that day. I even remember beating the game for the first time and excitedly running over to my parents room to tell them all about it. If I’m not mistaken, this could be the first game I ever beat too.

So yeah, you could say that I have a lot of nostalgia for this game, which is why I was pretty confused by how much some people online seem to dislike this game. While it’s certainly no hidden gem and, while I’m admitting that I’m probably a little biased here, I don’t know if I’d go as far as to call it terrible. I mean, while it was published by LJ, it was actually made by Atlus, so that’s gotta count for something right? How can you hate something that might be a Persona reference?

Jokes aside, I thought now would be a great time to revisit this game, what with the third season of Cobra Kai right around the corner. So without further adieu, I present to you… The Karate Kid for NES. Will this game help me master the martial arts, touch of death style, as it’s cartridge says it will? Let’s find out.

Gameplay

Moments before Daniel’s, erm, climactic battle with Chozon…

The game can best be described as an action platformer that’s split across four different levels and also features several mini-games.  While that sounds short, and it is, I actually am pretty okay with this sort of game length. I get how it had to have been frustrating for gamers who paid full price for this game back in the day, but over 30 years later, the game’s short length helps keep this game from growing too stale for me. 

It’s first level (which is based on the tournament from the first Karate Kid) is actually a series of one on one fights against four other martial artists, culminating in a battle against Johnny Lawrence of the Cobra Kais. You wouldn’t know that though unless you’ve seen the movie, as the game doesn’t refer to him as Johnny Lawrence and, outside of wearing an all black gi, he looks nothing like the guy. It’s kinda weird that Atlus didn’t bother to give the guy the right hair color but… whatever. I’d also say it’s equally strange that a game that revolves around light platforming and action decides to start off as a one on one fighter, but I honestly don’t mind that decision too much. It helps ease newcomers into the games controls, while also giving them a safe enough arena to test their skills in. As for the controls themselves, they’re perfectly functional. You can move Daniel from left to right as well as jump and duck using the D-Pad, while the the B and A buttons are reserved for punching and kicking, respectively. Daniel can also perform the crane kick and drum punches to do extra damage by performing a punch or kick when he’s standing still, though you can only perform these attacks if you have the appropriate energy to do so, as these attacks are available via pickups you earn on the platforming levels or via the games bonus stages.

Speaking of attacks, punching is borderline useless in this game. While the drum punch attack is more useful than it’s regular counterpart, mostly due to it elongating Daniel’s arms for some reason, a standard punch offers less range than a kick and is harder to land on an opponent. It does become a bit more useful later in the game when you’re fighting opponents on higher ground than you, but I honestly found myself kicking most of my opponents for most of the game. Simply put, the kick has more range than a standard punch and seems to do just as much damage to enemies, so there isn’t really much reason to try and punch to begin with.

After you finish the All Valley Tournament, the game transitions over to covering the plot of The Karate Kid II, turning into an action platformer. Each stage is loosely inspired by a scene from the film. Stage two is based off of Daniel and Kumiko exploring Okinawa and wandering upon Sato’s Dojo, stage three is based off of the storm scene from the end of the film’s second act, and the fourth and final stage is inspired by the festival at Sato’s castle from the end of the movie.

The Karate Kid’s action stages are, seemingly, inspired by none other than Data East’s Kung Fu, which was ironically also inspired by a movie. That game was modelled after Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, and was also initially released as a tie-in with Jackie Chan’s Wheels on Meals.

While that game found you (mostly) traveling from right to left, fighting hordes of martial arts as you climbed a tower, The Karate Kid has you traveling from left to right while fighting hordes of martial artists in Okinawa. But, and this is a big difference, The Karate Kid also has you performing what should be very simple acts of platforming while you do so, while Kung Fu doesn’t. It sounds like a small thing to point out, but the inclusion of platforming in this game, and the fact that failing at any of these tiny, occasionally hard to spot, platforming challenges results in an immediate death, turns what would otherwise be a pretty alright game into a fairly frustrating experience. This isn’t helped by the fact that this game’s collision detection can occasionally crap out, leading to attacks missing for seemingly no reason, or your character clipping into part of the level and being unable to move until you jump. The spotty collision detection can make these platforming segments incredibly frustrating as there are usually enemies on either side of you while you’re trying to clear a hazard, and getting hit by them sends you flying back and possibly into the hazard you were trying to avoid. You can even get stunlocked by multiple enemies, if you manage to get cornered by them, and, on the third stage, you can actually get flung back by a pretty large portion of your screen due to the level’s wind gimmick..

The games hit and collision detection also rears its ugly head at you in the games final stage, when you’re pit against enemies that have a spear. I don’t know if it’s the hit detection or The Karate Kid’s hit boxes specifically, but knocking a spear away from these enemies can be next to impossible, unless you use a special attack, which is why I usually hoard them until the final level. You can actually get quite a bit of your special attacks saved up if you use them conservatively and get lucky with the games bonus stages. While you’re traveling through the action stages, you’ll sometimes be able to enter random strangers’ homes or shops in order to participate in one of three mini-games. These games usually only last for a couple of seconds, but if you do well enough at them you’ll be able to collect some crane kicks and drum punches that’ll make the game a lot easier. The mini-games themselves aren’t anything special. You’re either forced to train with the swinging hammer, which can be done by facing it and punching at the right time before it hits you, to karate chop six blocks of ice by attacking when you’ve maxed out the mini-game exclusive power meter, or by catching flies with a pair of chopsticks. Of all the mini-games, this one is by far the easiest, as you can basically just go berserk on your NES controller and catch all of them before time runs out. The mini-games you’re given are randomized each time you play the game, which is nice in theory, until you realize that this bit of RNG can directly impact whether or not you’ll be able to survive the game’s last level.

Daniel training with a swinging hammer (The Karate Kid NES)

At the end of each action stage, you’ll face Chozon, Daniel’s rival from the film, in one on one combat. However, these three encounters aren’t identical and each feature slightly different fight parameters. Your first fight against Chozon is a simple one on one fight, but your second fight actually doesn’t even require that you fight him at all, as you only need to rescue the girl from the telephone pole near him to end the level. In fact, it’s actually advisable that you don’t fight him here, as that would likely mean using a few special attacks, which are vital to beating the fourth level. As for your third and final fight with Chozon, you do need to fight him here, while also making sure that Kumiko doesn’t fall off the arena you two are fighting on. It’s actually quite simple though, as all you need to do is play defense and spam special attacks at Chozon to defeat him. Playing aggressively doesn’t work here, as advancing on Chozon will either lead to Kumiko falling to her death, which results in you losing a life, or you kicking Chozon off the arena. Kicking him off is the worst scenario here as it actually heals him completely, prolonging the battle. Beating Chozon at Sato’s castle leads to a pretty lackluster and minimal congratulations screen, followed by an even simpler “The End” screen before the game resets to the title screen.

Closing

 All in all, The Karate Kid is a pretty short game, clocking in at just about 10 minutes long if you know what you’re doing. While that’s extremely short for an NES game, I honestly can’t say I’m particularly bothered by that. In fact, if anything, I’d say that this game’s short length is a bit of a plus for the title, especially nowadays since it can only really be looked at as a curio. By being four levels long, the game honestly doesn’t outstay it’s welcome for me and actually feels pretty well paced, all things considered. It’s first level eases the player into how combat works in the game, before introducing them to a fairly standard and easy platforming stage. Then, the difficulty is raised by the storm level, which introduces more stage hazards and the idea of a secondary boss objective and culminate in the final, much harder, level. On paper, this is actually a fairly decent structure for a game, and makes a bit of sense. The execution definitely leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s still a fairly well paced game. The short length honestly also helps curve the games difficult a bit, by ensuring that you won’t have to wait that long to get back to where you had previously been in the game after getting a game over. 

Overall, The Karate Kid on NES is fine. It’s nothing to write home about, but it definitely doesn’t deserve the hate it gets. I actually kinda prefer it to the game that seemingly inspired it too, if I’m being honest, as that game also had its share of collision issues and a high difficulty. Although I’ll also be the first to point out that, as a game released in 1987, this is pretty bare bones. Kung Fu, on the other hand, was originally released in Japan back in 1985, which was a very different time in gaming. It was perfectly fine for games like Kung Fu to be the way they were when they were released, and The Karate Kid unfortunately came out in a time when games were getting longer and more complex. While the game’s introduction of platforming changes reflects this increased complexity, it’s fairly obvious that at least some it’s design was a little antiquated for the time.

But in the 21st century, I’d hardly call that a problem. Nowadays, The Karate Kid is just a short, relatively flawed game. While I wouldn’t go as far as to recommend it as something worth going out of their way to play, I’d also call it a relatively fun title for what it is. It’s graphics are fine, it’s music isn’t terrible, it’s simply… a game. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t particularly memorable either.

So did The Karate Kid for NES hold up? Kinda? I mean, I think this games deflation in value over the years has actually helped justify picking it up, if anything, so I’d say it’s aged well in that regard. If you can get this game for cheap, and I mean cheap, you might have some fun with this one. It’s got a two player mode that’s similar to what’s on the original Super Mario Bros, which can be fun, and it’s also got a one on one mode that exists, and nothing more. It didn’t teach me any karate though. So that’s false advertising. 


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Retro Review: Balloon Fight (NES) – Does It Hold Up?


Oh Good ol’ balloon fight. Where do I start with this classic NES title? It’s original Japanese release was for Nintendo’s classic console, the Famicom, before working getting released for it’s western counterpart, the NES, as one of the consoles’ famous Black Box games. Like several other early NES titles, it also had an arcade version appropriately titled “VS Balloon Fight, which actually came out before the NES/Famicom version. It’s since been ported to a handful of 80’s PCs, got a second arcade port via the NES Play Choice 10, has been released on each iteration of the Virtual Console and NES Online service, and was also available on the Game Boy Advance e-Reader, which is actually the first version of the game that I owned as a kid. Even though my first copy of the game was for the e-Reader, I had actually grown up playing the NES release at a family friend’s house. The teenage son of one of my mom’s friends used to baby sit me when I was little, and I remember being mesmerized by his NES collection, as I recognized the console due to my Mom owning one and a copy of Super Mario Bros. Playing his NES when I’d visit his house was actually how I was introduced to games like Balloon Fight, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and is probably one of the reasons why I’m a fan of retro gaming to begin with. 

But back to Balloon Fight.

At it’s core, Balloon fight is an extremely simple game and owes a lot of it’s design to 1982’s Joust. Honestly, while one could easily put both games beside one another and quickly conclude that Balloon Fight is nothing more than a Joust clone, I like to think that they’d be wrong in that regard. While undeniably similar to Joust, I do think the tweaks and variations that Nintendo’s version made to the graphics and presentation of the game make it a more interesting and fun experience. However, this could also just be bias on my part, as I’ve been playing Balloon Fight for as long as I can remember.

I’ve always felt that, when it came to the early NES library, specifically the black box titles, games came in one of three flavors. There were your sports titles which mostly haven’t aged well, your arcade titles that have aged better but are also rooted in mid 80’s game design, for better or for worse, and your company defining Italian Plumber’s games. Oh, and fourth tier for the Donkey Kong games, which honestly fall into the second tier of early NES games but are more iconic due to featuring Donkey Kong. However, of all of the early NES’s arcade-style games, again excluding Donkey Kong, I actually think that Balloon Fight is the best of the console’s early offerings.

Gameplay

Balloon Fight’s title screen, showcasing it’s 1-player, 2-player, and Balloon Trip modes.

Upon bootup, Balloon Fight has three different modes. It has your standard single player mode, a cooperative mode that mirrors it, albeit with a second player and the inclusion of friendly fire, and a third mode named Balloon Trip, which I’ll get into later.

The main objective of Balloon Fight is to fly your character around the stage in order to pop the balloons of the other characters on screen. You can pop their balloons by crashing into them from above, which sends them parachuting to the ground. Once they’re on the ground, you’ll be able to — uh — kill them, I guess, by crashing into them a second time, though it can be from eye level now if you like to stare your victims in the eye before de-rezzing them. If you fail to finish them off once they’ve landed, they’ll eventually inflate new balloons and take to the skies again.

Like I said earlier, it’s a very simple game and fits in very well with other arcade titles from the early 80’s. While there are obstacles for you to avoid, such as a giant fish, flippers that would later become iconic thanks to their appearance in the Super Smash bros series and lightning sparks that can one shot you, Balloon Fight lays a lot of its cards on the table in it’s first stage, which only has three enemies and a single large platform. This first stage is incredibly easy and can be beaten in seconds, but it’s a low stakes enough arena for new players to acquaint themselves with the controls.

 In order to fly, you’ll need to repeatedly tap the A-button or hold the B-button on your controller in order to make your character flap his arms as if they were wings. The controls are remarkably simple, and perfectly functional. They’re good, but not too good, and can best be described as the right mix of being floaty enough to be challenging, but responsive enough to feel intuitive, falling perfectly into the arcade design maxim of being “easy to learn and hard to master.” While your character is flapping his arms, you’re able to steer him to the left and right of the screen, either to chase or escape your enemies. Because you can only steer while you’re flapping your arms, there’s a layer of strategy to traveling around the game’s stages, and you’ll often find yourself needing to balance your ascent and descent in order to wiggle your way out of tricky situations and avoid taking a hit. Similarly, you’ll often find yourself rocking the d-pad to the left and right in order to stop yourself from overshooting your target. Your character comes stocked with two balloons and can get hit twice before losing a life. I love the fact that this is clearly telegraphed to the player by the number of balloons that your character has as, while it’s a small detail, it’s as quick and easy an idea to pick up as the rest of the game, which helps with it’s accessibility. If you lose a balloon and finish a stage, you aren’t automatically re-equipped with an additional balloon until you reach the games bonus stage, which has you chasing free floating balloons as they escape from pipes. Again, really simple stuff here, but a lot of fun nonetheless due to the controls, which keep things feeling just a little hectic. 

While I’m not the best Balloon Fight player in the world, I never feel particularly cheated out of a life when I’m playing the game. Yes, there are moments where I feel out of control of my character, but I always am reminded of the fact that this is by design and, as such, don’t feel that frustrated. The only real complaint I have is that you don’t get any sort of invincibility frame after you take a hit, which means that it’s easy for enemies to trap you on the top of the map and quickly pop both of your balloons, causing you to lose a life. This probably has more to do with the game being from the mid 80s  than anything though, and while I’m not thrilled about it, does lead to more tense and thoughtful gameplay for you, the player.

Visuals

Presentation wise, Balloon Fight also keeps things simple. Your character has a couple of animations that he cycles through, and is a fairly small and undetailed sprite. Despite this, it’s a little hard not to get a feel for the sort of character that he is, given his primary color scheme and the fact that he’s flying around on balloons. He comes across as a bit whimsical and playful and certainly represents that Nintendo wholesomeness that the company has tried to sell us since the 80s. In fact, I vaguely remember thinking that he was Mario as a kid, likely due to him and the unpowered up Mario sprite from the original Super Mario Bros being similar sizes. The graphics surrounding him are also somewhat playful — though it’s interesting that Balloon Fight takes place at night against a black background when the games playful theme and premise are almost begging for a sunshiney backdrop, which is even reflected in the games Famicon artwork. I’m assuming this had something to do with hardware and color palette limitations from the time, but I could be wrong. Either way, I actually like how sparse the background is in this game as it keeps the focus squarely on your character and his opponents, who are colored to contrast against you.

Balloon Fight (1-Player) Gameplay

Music

There’s even a lack of music in the typical Balloon Fight stage, which also points towards trying to focus on popping your enemies bubbles. That’s not to say that there isn’t accompaniment to the gameplay though. In addition to the sorts of bleeps and bloops that you’d expect from an NES title, there’s also what could best be described as “free-form sine-waves” that follow you through the gameplay. It’s a little hard to listen to at first, sounding a bit like  but I’ve even kind of come to be amused by it and like to imagine Bugs Bunny conducting a high-pitched Moog synth or something whenever I hear it start playing. I honestly don’t miss listening to chiptune-y music while I’m playing this game, which might be due to it’s arcadey design. It reminds me of being in high school and playing Atari 2600 or early arcade game on an emulator in the middle of the night, with my only accompaniment being the bleeps and bloops of the gameplay.

However, that’s not to say that Balloon Fight doesn’t have traditional music in it. In fact, Balloon Fight has what might be one of my favorite NES tunes of all time. In the games bonus stages, as well as in it’s third game mode, Balloon Trip, the game hits you with an absolute bop of a song. It’s an extremely playful song that has the kind of bassline that gets stuck in your head, as well as a melody that’s equally catchy. Balloon Fight also has a great game over jingle that, in my opinion, is equally catchy Both tunes capture the sort of whimsical presentation that I believe elevates this game over Joust. There’s a breeziness to this game that feels incredibly inviting to newcomers, and the music, despite how it isn’t even played during levels, is a great companion to that.

Balloon Fight (Balloon Trip)

Speaking of Balloon Trip, it’s crazy to think that this is only a secondary game mode, as it’s extremely addictive. Instead of floating around a static screen and trying to ruthlessly murder other air travelers, the objective of this mode is to navigate a autoscrolling obstacle course, which is filled with sparks for you to avoid, balloons for you to collect, and bubbles that can stop the screen from moving for a couple seconds. That’s seriously all there is to it; it’s an extremely quaint romp that repackages the flight mechanics of the main game and turns them into an endurance test. While it’s the part of the game that a lot of us remember most fondly, it’s also really only designed to be secondary to the main game mode. That said, I’d honestly love to see Nintendo revisit Balloon Fight and give this mode a treatment similar to Super Mario Bos 35 or Tetris 99. I think the idea of racing through an obstacle course with maybe a dozen or so other players would be a lot of fun, and it would be cool to see Nintendo revisit another one of it’s classic games outside of giving his trademark flying abilities to Animal Crossing characters in Super Smash Bros. 

Closing

And there you have it. Like I’ve said multiple times throughout this review, Balloon Fight is an extremely simple game. While it doesn’t have that much going for it in terms of variety or complex objectives, it gets a lot of mileage out of what is there and honestly has some pretty incredible physics for an early NES game. Thanks to being such a common early NES title, as well as one that’s not necessarily in that high of demand, it doesn’t seem to command that high of a price online either, at least once you factor in the fact that NES games seem to be rising in price, That’s mostly anecdotal to what I’ve seen though, but the point I’m trying to make is that Balloon Fight is a great addition to any NES newcomers collection. It provides tons of fun, bite-sized, gameplay through it’s main game mode, as well as a ton of fun to be had via the Balloon Trip mode. If you’re new to collecting for the NES and are looking for something easy to pick up and play, perhaps with family or a younger sibling, you really can’t go wrong with Balloon fight. And for Nintendo Switch owners, you can actually play the game for free right now through Nintendo Switch Online. If you’re like me and like to mindlessly play video games while you rewatch a TV show for the millionth time, this game will be right up your alley!


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