The best thing I can possibly say about Balloon Fight is that it’s innovative for its concepts at the time. Other than that, this isn’t a game I’d recommend to anyone beyond the age of 10 and even that’s pushing it.
The premise is simple: You play as the “Balloon Fighter,” who is tasked with staying alive and defeating enemies in increasingly difficult stages. Two balloons are attached to the Fighter and to the enemies, and the Fighter must pop their balloons while avoiding his own being popped and other obstacles such as a large piranha, water and lightning strikes. The Balloon Fighter is fairly stout and sturdy, seeing as though he can take a lot of bumping and pushing, but if he loses his balloons, it’s a lost life. There are bonus games and a different mode, Balloon Trip, that takes the Fighter through an obstacle course to improve your rank and score. This is all fine and well, but the controls turn what should be a fun and simple game into a nightmare and a chore to actually control. The Fighter flaps his arms to stay afloat and even with both balloons still present, this is extra hard to do and maintain. More often than not, I don’t lose balloons because an enemy popped them; it’s because I landed in the water, was eaten by the large fish or steered myself unwittingly into the lightning I was desperately trying to avoid. Precision flying this is not. To get a sense of what it’s like to control the Fighter, imagine if the horrible Ice Climbers were flying instead of jumping terribly up a mountain.
And while the game is barely playable, the soundtrack also manages to squeak by in presentation. It is a sad day when I declare that a soundtrack from Metroid sound director Hip Tanaka is irredeemable. There is nothing that makes me want to listen to this, and nearly everything that Tanaka has created gets high marks from me. The songs aren’t memorable, there are few songs there anyway, and the lack of varied sound effects is disconcerting. Add the soundtrack woes to an underwhelming graphical palette and the game overall is a mess.
Despite the pedigree of folks who worked on the game (i.e. Shigeru Miyamoto as producer, Metroid designer/director Yoshio Sakamoto and Tanaka), Balloon Fight couldn’t be further away from the quality of Nintendo classics I want to play. Balloon Fight is representative of an older era of games that required a Herculean amount of patience, which I am not prepared to give in this day and age where better games are available.
Super Mario Bros. 2 an uneven, heavy-handed sequel
If there were ever a time when Mario was considered not to be fun, this would be it. I have always had a major fascination with Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom, but the true sequel to one of the greatest games of all time made me wish I didn’t go down the rabbit hole. At first glance, SMB 2 is your typical sequel: Improved graphics and new concepts, such as the addition of the Poisonous Mushroom. But there’s immediately something off putting about the game. It’s familiar yet foreign. A lot of the same enemies are used and the game has a lot of the same story-specific elements as its predecessor. The objective remains the same: Save Princess Peach from the invading Koopa army. But this is where things take sinister and not-so-pleasant turn. I’m not going to beat around the bush: The difficulty level is not friendly. If you didn’t start with Super Mario Bros., stop right now and go back and study up that game. The sequel is designed to be set up and buoyed by the original. If you start here, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The new levels were designed to take “super” players to task and show them that Mario isn’t the cakewalk they thought him to be. So, born from that are Sisyphean efforts such as warps that return you to an earlier part of the level; or my favorite: The fact that using level warps at all prevents advancement to the real ending of the game. This is Ghouls and Ghosts before Ghouls and Ghosts. This frustrating tactic of punishing the player for being too good is exactly why the follow up to Super Mario Bros. would have never flown in America and why we didn’t see the game until a full five years after its release in Japan. People traditionally play Mario to relax, not be thrown backward in a never-ending loop of anger and frustration. This doesn’t appeal to the mass players and it’s cheap and perverse that Mario is used in this way. While it’s not the same Mario in a lot of respects, the same old charm is present. The whimsical jaunt through the Mushroom Kingdom is now fraught with all types of danger, but it’s still pretty to behold. And the music is still the main act of beauty and source of joy in what is a dark skip through the forest of Mario. Somehow, through all of the anger, Koji Kondo’s masterpieces never seem to get old. For the sake of your controllers, I suggest investing in cheat codes to get through SMB 2. It’s one of the few games I would ever give this advice about to beat. We Americans might be lazy and unchallenged (editor’s note: Nintendo confirmed that this is the real reason why we received the much-easier-but-still-hard SMB 2 USA/Doki Doki Panic ripoff), but at least our controllers remain intact and whole, no thanks in small part to getting a far easier version of Mario 2. Super Frustration Bros. would have been a more apropos title for the sequel to the greatest game of all time.
Hearing the name Track & Field II easily creates powerful nostalgia in me. I was a young girl learning the ins and outs of an NES in 1989 when my older brother, Tony, brought home the Olympic contest title. It was the last year that we lived in the same house and had time to sit down and play video games together. That was the year that I learned what it meant to duel an older sibling who had far better hand-and-eye coordination and reflexes and why teenagers seem to do much better at games than little kids.
I’m no Olympic athlete so I’d rather try my hand at the digital versions. Track & Field II offers a virtual bounty of events from which to choose, and all of them are pretty faithfully recreated from their original counterparts. There are 12 events to choose from, with three that can be chosen in different modes or as special events.
The events, ranging from hurdles to gymnastics and swimming, are fun to try but frustrating to learn the nuances. It took consultation with Tony, an NES Max controller and many years to get the hang of certain events. This is mostly because there wasn’t a lot of info out there in the days before the Internet and because, again, I had terrible untrained coordination and reflexes. Even today, with a wealth of tips out there, it’s still hard to get a bull’s-eye in the archery, and it’s been nearly 30 years. Graphically, there’s a few things to look at, especially for an NES title. It’s not going to set the world on fire but the graphics are fine for the time period and don’t detract from the overall experience. The music, while not especially memorable, is still serviceable. It’s not something you’re going to be humming well after you’ve put down that turbo controller, but it’s not bad, either. A lot of the tracks are well done and fit the general mood of the event you’re participating in. There are a lot of sound effects in the game and they are generally what make the game what it is.
The nostalgic factor is what keeps me coming back to what is a generally frustrating game. That nostalgia is what turns a potentially controller-throwing hurdles event into a first-place triumph over a notoriously hard A.I. that likes to punish at every chance.
It’s my chance to feel like the Olympic champion that I will never be.
I don’t believe there is anyone who reads GI who doesn’t know that I don’t care for Donkey Kong. By now, it should be painfully obvious that I don’t care for the simian’s retro exploits or his more recent outings, either. It’s not that I don’t respect what the great ape has done for gaming; it’s more that I feel he gets credit for mediocre-to-horrible games. Donkey Kong Jr. falls on the lower end of the spectrum.
Much the same tripe as the original, you’re tasked with saving someone by moving across hell and high water. But wait, this time it’s different! No, you aren’t saving Pauline this time around; no, you’re Donkey Kong Jr., the scion of Kongdom saving your incorrigible father from the clutches of evil human Mario. The fact that another ape has to save his parental figure from Mario in a complete role reversal begs several questions: Where was Junior when his father was kidnapping innocent maidens and running rampant? Why would Mario even bother to kidnap the great ape in the first place? Sure, there’s the motive of revenge, but you’re never going to get your question answered, try as you might. You just have to accept that DK needs saving and it’s up to you, his reliable offspring, to do the job.
Hoping that your adventure in saving your father is worth it, the game tasks you in utilizing a jumping and climbing mechanic that may or may not work, depending on where you are height wise. Any fall more than a few pixels high will kill you, which makes about as much sense as the kidnapping caper you seem to be embroiled in. Whoever had the bright idea to make jumping a chore and maneuvering your ape around impossible obviously didn’t get that this was a bad design decision immediately. Seeing as though they are the only skills your ape has, it would have been a little bit wiser to make those work well. Instead, you’ll watch Junior repeatedly get eaten alive by crocodiles (we’re not sure why a plumber would employ these dangerous live creatures to kill an ape), nailed by random falling objects and fall to his obvious and horrific death, all because he’s underdeveloped at jumping and climbing.
And while you’re witnessing this obvious act of poaching, it’d be wise to use some headphones. The music, much like the original game, isn’t the greatest and it will get monotonous immediately. Donkey Kong Country this isn’t.
Your best bet is to try the game just for the nostalgic factor in seeing a pretty rare character; Junior was last seen, by my count, in Super Mario Kart for the SNES. He isn’t putting in too many other appearances and maybe, just maybe, it was this trip out of the jungle that convinced him to let his father do all of the adventuring in the family. This barrel isn’t full of laughs or a blast.
It’s one thing to trade off of nostalgia. And we all know Nintendo does that often and well. What we don’t often get to see is Nintendo using its history to change the way its games are played. Until now. That’s where Ultimate NES Remix comes in. The question is, do you want to play these remixed games again and at what price?
Remix takes a few of your favorites NES titles and adds different conditions to them in an attempt to spice things up a bit. In Super Mario Bros., for instance, you have to reach the goal in a certain amount of time or defeat a certain number of enemies within a time limit. That’s the mundane stuff in the beginning. Later edicts get harder the further down a game’s list you go so as to provide more of a challenge. Whether or not you enjoy these challenges depends sharply on whether or not you enjoy playing games you probably already have played and want to see something different within them. While the challenges may be different, there isn’t much else different about the games. The music and graphics from the 8-bit era remain intact and about the only thing that’s changed is the slick modern packaging of the Ultimate Remix itself and the addition of leaderboards and championship mode. So, don’t come into this expecting depth or some magical upgrade to modern day standards of graphics.
If you enjoy the days of yesteryear and can and will pay $30 for a compilation challenge package, by all means shell out for Ultimate NES Remix. The challenges are amusing for the most part, and there are a few extras that make playing through the multitude of games offered (16 in all) a real treat. But take it with a large grain of salt and look at it for what it is: A chance to drag the original NES games out that you loved as a kid, more than likely, to get a piece of your now-adult wallet. Ultimately, this could have been a lot more.
Nearly everything game industry legend Shigeru Miyamoto touches turns to gold. The keyword there is nearly. While it might be considered blasphemous in some circles to question the godlike tendencies of Miyamoto-kamisama, there are sometimes valid reasons strewn about his resume. Excitebike is one of those excuses to point to when someone says that Miyamoto is capable of committing no wrong in game design.
Excitebike isn’t a terrible game. In fact, it’s one of the better games to come out of the NES lineup. But that isn’t saying much in the long run. Excitebike takes a simple concept and makes a mountain out of a mole hill. So much so that if you have no idea how the game works, you’re not going to immediately figure it out just by rumbling through a couple of tracks. My personal learning curve stretched from age 8 to age 28, and it was only because I asked someone about the nuances that I became a better player.
That’s the thing about Excitebike, though: I get that it’s a really simple game. You, the dirt bike rider, are gifted and able to challenge a multitude of tracks. You aim for the highest score, stay off the rough patches, use your boost to speed up and attempt to keep your bike level with the course once you make big leaps. That’s the extent of the game. There’s a track editor thrown in for good measure and a second type of race that’s basically time trials. Simple, right? Yes.
And frustrating. No one knows what I would have given to know that pressing A rapidly when you fall off your bike helps with recovery. I would have traded my tiny kingdom in little old Columbia, S.C., to know that. It would have also helped to know that driving over the arrows on the ground reduces bike temperature. Knowing these two important pieces of information might have made a distinct difference in my continued career of dirt bike racing. But, alas, that dream went right out of the window with my inclination to continue renting the cart back in the day.
If you want nostalgia and you can appreciate being forced to learn the ins and outs of dirt bike racing, by all means pop a wheelie in Excitebike. But don’t be surprised with the unimaginative locales, race layout and penchant for keeping you the player in the dark. Simple concept? Check. Simple controls? Check. Mario cameo? Triple check. But Shigeru Miyamoto’s genius touch to make the game a better experience for the uninitiated? Nope. That’s still sitting in the garage with my drive to play the game as a frustrated 8-year-old and now as a more discriminating 32-year-old.