NES

High NEScores

Nostalgia is big business in music. It’s why the Rolling Stones can still sell out stadiums, why “Beatles Cover Band” is a profitable occupation, and it’s why Cheap Trick is still on tour.

Remember Cheap Trick?

Music sticks with us as we grow older, and a song from our youth is one of the few forces in the universe that can, ever so briefly, turn back the hands of time and make us feel young again.

Now: I didn’t really like pop music as a kid. It wasn’t a hipster thing; I just didn’t have much taste. On the other hand, I’ve seen The Symphony of the Goddesses at Madison Square Garden and scored a production I directed of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with remixes of old Final Fantasy tunes hand-picked off of OC Remix. Why did I do those things?

Because old-skool 8-bit NES soundtracks were fresh as hell. Here’s the ten best.

10. Blaster Master (Composer: Naoki Kodaka) – If you played Blaster Master as a kid, and you drive, you’ve either hummed the opening warm-up riff that accompanied Sophia 3rd’s initial blast-off into Level 1 while turning your car’s ignition key, or you’re lying. Sunsoft games back in the day were known for having tricked out soundtracks, and Blaster Master had the best of them. The first half of the game had stronger music than the second half, it’s true… but since the game was freaking impossible (SHUT UP IT WAS) that’s all anyone ever heard, so it worked out.

9. Super Mario Bros. (Composer: Koji Kondo– Millions of thirty and forty-somethings around the world can hum every single piece of music from Super Mario Bros., and not just because Nintendo has re-released the game on pretty much every console they’ve made since. Crafted by legendary in-house composer Koji Kondo, the score to Super Mario Bros. might well be the perfect video game score: catchy and loopable without being annoying (except maybe the castle levels), and better in MIDI form than when played by a full orchestra (although a jazz trio can do wonders with it.) Why so low on this list, then? Maybe it’s repetition; I’ve heard it so often over the years it just doesn’t seem special anymore. Probably, though, because it’s so utilitarian: it’s more practical than it is beautiful. Still, why every 2D Mario game doesn’t use the original 1-1 music for its opening level is beyond me.

8. Punch-Out!! (Composers: Yukio Kaneoka, Akito NakatsukaKenji Yamamoto) – Recently on Nintendo Voice Chat, IGN’s excellent Nintendo podcast, in a discussion about (what else) Breath of the Wild, the show’s hosts mentioned a moment in the game’s wonderful score they particularly enjoyed: when the player defeats a Stone Talus, the mini-boss’ battle theme quickly shifts into a victory motif that incorporates the explosion of the enemy into the score itself. The crew on NVC rightly pointed out that this is no mean feat to accomplish. What they didn’t mention is that it’s a trick that appeared prominently in a Nintendo-published title thirty years earlier: Punch-Out!! Punch-Out!!‘s score is simple: a title theme, a fight theme, a jogging theme, and other bits of incidental music. They’re all great ditties in their own right, but when the game’s hero, Little Mac, gets knocked down by one of his towering opponents, the game’s soundtrack shifts seamlessly into a distress-inducing knockout theme, and by the way, it does the same with a much more hopeful piece of music when Mac knocks down one of said opponents. Punch-Out!!: beating Breath of the Wild to the punch by three decades.

7. Mother (Composers: Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu Tanaka) – Here are the genres of music you can find represented on the 8-bit soundtrack of the RPG classic Mother: Rockabilly, Jazz, Gothic, Gothic Funk, New Age, Metal, Industrial, Orchestral, Electronica, Bubblegum, Pop, Alt-Rock, Avant-garde, Japanese traditional, Blues, Medieval, Easy-listening contemporary, Ethereal, Ambient, Novelty, R&B, and Baroque. Here, just listen to all of them.

6. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (Composer: Akito Nakatsuka)The Legend of Zelda introduced the Zelda series main theme, composed by Koji Kondo, and it is one of the most iconic and enduring pieces of video game music ever written. That first game also included one or two other tunes that were mostly forgettable; its dungeon theme, though iconic in its own right, is one of the most grating pieces of video game music ever created. But Zelda 2, the much-reviled red headed stepchild of the Legend of Zelda franchise, has a score that begins with a warbling, ethereal title tune and transitions into an overworld track inspired by the franchise’s main theme. Along the course of your adventure you’ll be introduced to the excellent pieces of original music that accompany overworld combat, spelunking, town visits, and the game’s final dungeon. Best of all, in the game’s first six palaces, the player is treated to the track that eventually became everyone’s favorite Smash Bros song. Zelda 2 may not have been a better game than The Legend of Zelda… okay, it definitely wasn’t… but in terms of music, the sequel has it all over its older brother.

5. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (Composers: Kenichi Matsubara, Satoe Terashima, Kouji Murata) – We could arguably put the whole Castlevania series on this list, but as great as “Vampire Killer” from Castlevania and “Beginning” from Castlevania 3 are, the all-around strongest score in the franchise’s early days is from the most all-around inscrutable game of the entire series, the you-can’t-beat-this-without-a-guide-but-go-ahead-and-keep-trying Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. One of the first major adventure games to introduce a day-to-night enemy cycle, Simon’s Quest had two distinct overworld themes based on time of day and enemy toughness: “Bloody Tears” and “Monster Dance”. The best track in the game, for my money, is “Dwelling of Doom“, the tune that plays in each of the game’s dungeons. So while you may not… okay, will not… be able to beat Simon’s Quest without a walkthrough, at least it’ll sound terrific underneath your screams of frustrated rage.

4. Mega Man 2 (Composer: Takashi Tateishi) – There’s 50 games under the Mega Man brand, so it’s kind of a shame that the best game in the entire franchise was the second one. What IS nice is that the series’ best game has one of the NES’ best scores. Mega Man 2 opens with a musical preamble and scroll up a building to a helmet-less Mega Man, followed by a transition into the game’s driving title theme, a bit of cinematic flair that is dirt simple by today’s video game industry standards but that in 1989 blew my twelve year-old mind. The eight robot master stages and the boss fight theme are all also standouts of MIDI, but the real bookend to the excellent opening track is “Dr. Wily’s Castle“, the first of two tracks that are used as the background music for, well, Dr. Wily’s castle. If you’re interested, at least twenty hard guitar covers of that one are on iTunes right this second. Enjoy!

3. Final Fantasy (Composer: Nobuo Uematsu) – If there’s a video game composer whose legend rivals that of Koji Kondo, it is doubtlessly Nobuo Uematsu, the man behind three decades of music for the granddaddy of all RPG series: Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy was the 8-bit swords and sorcery game of J.R.R. Tolkien’s or George R.R. Martin’s dreams, and the score includes multiple compositions and themes that would become evergreen editions to the Final Fantasy franchise. Fantastic mood-setting fantasy music accompanies overworld travel, combat, dungeon crawling, and town visits, but the game’s soundtrack truly makes its mark in the piece that would become synonymous with Final Fantasy itself. (Not the “Chocobo Theme”; those giant chickens didn’t show up until Final Fantasy II.) The greatest high fantasy game to grace the NES does not open with a fanfare and crash of thunder, but with the crystalline and meditative “Prelude“, an almost reverential piece of music that belies the grandeur and scope of the adventure it precedes.

2. Double Dragon (Composer: Kazunaka Yamane) – This might be cheating. Double Dragon was an arcade hit that was then ported over to seemingly every home video game console of the day, and then continued being ported to the video game consoles of every other day. Point being, the score to Double Dragon is arguably not a NES score. Like the game itself, the music for the arcade was re-orchestrated (so far as MIDI files can be re-orchestrated) to fit the technical specifications of the NES. But… Double Dragon‘s soundtrack is one knockout blow after another (heh heh), the perfect beat-’em-up, chopsocky, 1980’s B-grade Kung Fu movie soundtrack. Faux-“Oriental” motifs mix with wailing synthetic guitar riffs in what might be the single must crunchable video game soundtrack you can shred on with your hair metal tribute band. I don’t know if I’ve used any of those terms properly, but check this out if you want an example of just how righteous the Double Dragon soundtrack can be.

1. Metroid (Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka) – If it were somehow possible to convert claustrophobia, depression, and loneliness into musical notes, the resulting composition would probably sound a lot like the Metroid soundtrack. While until this point in popular culture sci-fi adventure came packaged alongside pulsing electronica, Star Wars-style orchestral accompaniment, or the ominous humming of the 1950’s take on the genre, Metroid (partially due to technical limitations) took a different approach: using music to constantly remind players that they were lost deep within the caverns of an alien world and likely would not get out alive. The game greeted players with a discordant, droning title theme interspersed with high-pitched alien-sounding chimes, and opened up with the one up-tempo action cue it would offer. That track, “Brinstar”, was a fake-out, for the further the player guided heroine Samus Aran into the depths of Zebes, the grimmer and more hopeless the soundtrack became. Even the tune that greeted Samus in the chambers that hid weapons upgrade seemed to be singing, “You. Will. Soon. Die… This. Will. Not. Help. Much.” You know what? Here’s the entire Metroid soundtrack. You can have a listen, but be sure to have your therapist on speed dial.

0. Silver Surfer (Composer: Tim Follin, Geoff Follin) – I’mma credit my man Johnny Womack of the pop culture/video game/pro rasslin’ podcast Happy Hour with Johnny & the Duce for reminding me of this gem. The thing about Silver Surfer is that it’s not a particularly bad game. It’s just not a particular good one, either. It’s completely forgettable, not to mention balls-out impossible. But. BUT. Listen to this soundtrack. It’s well known among the small circles who know such things that the soundtrack to Silver Surfer for the NES is apeshit banana-pants. Although it is admittedly on the short side, music this good shouldn’t be doomed to live alongside a game this mediocre. I mean, could the NES even MAKE sounds like this? Was that a thing it could do? Maybe Silver Surfer was so “meh” because they used all of the game’s memory to record the unbelievable epicness that is its soundtrack for all of history to enjoy.

Or maybe Silver Surfer is a terrible character who doesn’t deserve a game better than this. Still, seriously: listen to this soundtrack, and prepare to have your face melted.

(Cover image original link.)

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NES, Wii U, & Everything In-Between: Ranking Nintendo’s Consoles

* Originally published on 8bitchimp.com.

A couple of ground rules:

  1. I’m only ranking consoles from the NES to the Wii U on. Yes, Nintendo is a 125 year-old company, and yes, they made the Game & Watch systems prior to the NES (or Famicom, for you Japanese readers), but for all intents and purposes the NES is the console they rose to fame with and the console that jump-started the modern video game industry. But more on that later. And I’m stopping at Wii U because… that’s the last thing they put out.
  1. Nintendo is very good at what they do, and (almost) every console they’ve ever released has had for it at least a handful of great games. So if your favorite system is ranked lower than you’d like, it’s not that it’s a bad system. It’s that it’s not as good as the ones above it.
  1. I’m not counting iterations, of which Nintendo’s portable consoles in particular had plenty. Example: for our purposes today, the Nintendo 3DS encompasses the 3DS XL, the 2DS, and the New 3DS. The exception to this rule is the Game Boy Color, which was not necessarily just a fresh coat of paint on the Game Boy, but a brand new system complete with exclusive-for-it software.
  1. I’ve owned most of these systems and I’ve played all of them, in their day and not as after-the-fact as museum pieces. Yes, I’ve even got hands-on experience with our first entry:

12.) Virtual Boy

Year of Release: 1995 – Best Games: Not Applicable

The Virtual Boy is the one absolute bona-fide disaster Nintendo has ever released. A pair of VR goggles attached to a tripod that demanded the user hunch over and cramp their back to play, displaying games in eyeball-splitting blood red and black. Why this ever made it out the door as a commercial product, nobody will ever know. So complete was Virtual Boy’s failure, that it anecdotally forced the retirement from Nintendo of creator Gunpei Yokoi, the producer of such legendary Nintendo titles as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Metroid, and Kid Icarus, not to mention the mind behind their aforementioned Game & Watch handheld devices. Years later it was suggested that Virtual Boy was pushed too quickly out the door so that Nintendo could devote more resources to the development of the N64, but rather they had canned the product than rushed it to market. The Virtual Boy is the type of device that sinks companies; fortunately, Nintendo quickly realized what they had done and quietly swept the Virtual Boy under the carpet just a few months after its release.

11.) Game Boy Color

Year of Release: 1998 – Best Games: Zelda: The Oracle Duology; Shantae; Pokemon Silver & Gold

Game Boy Color was the follow-up to the wildly successful Game Boy and an attempt to compete with other color consoles of the day, but it was in retrospect a strange little device with a very short lifespan. (Though technically it was on the market until 2003, the Game Boy Advance shipped in 2001, effectively making the era of GBC only 3 years long.) The GBC library is falsely inflated, as the device was able to play the entirety of the massive Game Boy library. Games made specifically to take advantage of the GBC hardware, though, were few and far between, and while it features a pair of secondary Zelda games as well as a pair of Pokemon titles, there arguably isn’t a true classic in the system’s entire exclusive repertoire.

10.) Wii

Year of Release: 2006 – Best Games: Wii Sports; Super Mario Galaxy; Zelda: Skyward Sword

The Wii, though a staggering commercial success, arguably did more harm than good to the Nintendo brand by the end of its lifespan. (Side note: Nintendo still sells the Wii Mini in stores. It still moves units.) The Wii was a fascinating thing, tall and thin and pristine white, with a weird remote control motion controller. Families gathered to marvel at the simple, undeniable fun of Wii Sports, not then realizing that this pack-in game-slash-tech demo would arguably be the pinnacle of the console’s achievements. Woefully underpowered hardware as compared to the competing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms put the final nail in the coffin of Nintendo’s relationship with 3rd party developers, whose games just couldn’t chug along on the antiquated Wii framework. The much-vaunted waggle controls proved to be virtually useless for anything but the most casual of mini-games, which led to an avalanche of awful shovel-ware as well the sort of game that no longer lives on consoles but in the mobile space, and the biggest sin of all was that the Wii offered lackluster versions of many of Nintendo’s major franchises. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mario Kart Wii, Metroid: Other M, Zeldas: Twilight Princess (really a GameCube title ported to the Wii) and Skyward Sword… these titles are often considered among the weakest of their respective franchises. The only escapee was Mario, whose New Super Mario Bros. Wii and especially Super Mario Galaxy were bright spots in what ended up being a very dark time for Nintendo fans.

9.) Nintendo 64 – Year of Release: 1996

Best Games: Super Mario 64; Zelda: Ocarina of Time; GoldenEye 007

Now, hold on a second: I know. The N64 had a collection of genre-busting, industry-redefining, amazing games. Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, and GoldenEye 007 are some of the best games ever, and Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Star Fox 64, and Mario Kart 64 were all great second-tier games for the system. So while the N64 featured more great games than the Wii, like that console the N64 was a long-term nightmare that the company is still feeling today. So what’d they do wrong? First of all, the N64 was designed to play one game: Super Mario 64. Anybody who owned it knows that arguably half of its line-up was composed of Mario 64 knock-offs that were nowhere near as good as that masterpiece, and the difficulty of programming any other sort of game for it was the first wedge driven between exterior developers and Nintendo. Secondly, Nintendo made N64 a cartridge-based system, ignoring the CD-ROM that was becoming the industry standard. The miniscule memory offered by carts led many developers to jump ship, most notably Square (now Square-Enix). How different would today’s gaming landscape be if Square’s Final Fantasy 7 had been a Nintendo-platform exclusive instead of a PS1 game? Sony may never have gotten a foot in the console door, and the PlayStation brand may have been one-and-done. Instead, the PS1 sold three times more units than the N64, Nintendo lost its place on top of the games industry, and Sony dominates today’s marketplace while Nintendo is struggling to play catch-up.

8.) Game Boy Advance

Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Metroid Fusion; Zelda: The Minish Cap; Advance Wars

The Game Boy Advance represents the last great hurrah of sprite-based gaming, and truth told it’s lower on this list than I’d personally like. Two great 2D Metroid titles, the first Amerian Fire Emblem games, Advance Wars, a revitalized Castlevania franchise, well-received entries in the Mario Kart and Zelda series, the required Pokemon games… the GBA moreso than the Game Boy Color was a worthy successor to the original Game Boy. The GBA was also the console where Nintendo really grabbed hold of the “let’s repackage our past for profit” idea, a gimmick that the company arguably grew to over-rely on as the console’s lifespan grew. The GBA’s library is riddled with remakes and rereleases, many of which were in fact sub-par to the original games being remade. In fact, the GBA is the only major Nintendo console to not feature an original Super Mario game, only re-packaged versions of older ones. In hindsight, how is that even possible?

7.) Nintendo DS

Year of Release: 2004 – Best Games: New Super Mario Bros.; Brain Age; Pokemon Diamond & Pearl

The Nintendo DS was the company’s top selling console of all time, and the second-highest selling console ever, beaten out by the PlayStation 2 by the slimmest of margins. Why was it such a hit? The DS signified the moment when Nintendo began to transition to the company they are today, a company willing to think outside the box and market some very non-game-y things to demographics beyond the usual young males (who had begun flocking to Sony and Microsoft). It gave us the Brain Age franchise, the Professor Layton franchise, WarioWare, Nintendogs, a new Animal Crossing, scads of strategy games that made great use of the stylus controls, a potpourri of JRPGs, and Picross. The device also was a haven for rediscovering old-style games in new franchise entries: a brand-new 2D Super Mario Bros., a fresh spin on Tetris, an old-school top-down Grand Theft Auto, a continuation of the excellent Castlevania side-scrollers that debuted on the GBA, top-down stylus-controlled Zelda games, some of the best Pokemon titles in that franchise’s history, and the list goes on with something for everyone. Still, the DS era was, in a way, a tech demo for what would become the 3DS era, and the still-raw polygons of a lot of DS games have not aged well. Additionally, a lot of those quirky, everyone-can-play titles ended up not having the franchise staying power to make them perennial favorites. In the moment, though, nobody cared. All that mattered was that the Nintendo DS was fun, and it certainly was that.

6.) Game Boy

Year of Release: 1989 – Best Games: Tetris; Pokemon Red & Blue; Donkey Kong; did we mention Tetris?

Yes, it had a puke-green and grey screen. Yes, too much of its library was poor ports of NES titles. Yes, the thing was an awkward-to-hold grey brick. But the Game Boy moved almost 120 million units in a day when numbers like that for a video game console were unheard of, and the-little-LCD-screen-that-could is immortalized for a handful of monumental achievements. First, it essentially made portable gaming a thing, showing the industry that cheap plastic Tiger Electronic toys were no longer acceptable gaming platforms. It featured as one of its best games the only true sequel to the original Donkey Kong. It’s lifespan saw surprisingly deep entries into the Super Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Final Fantasy series, games that largely still hold up today. And last but not least, the Game Boy is responsible for unleashing two of gaming’s largest-ever phenomenons upon the world: Tetris, the brick-twisting sensation of a pack-in game that drove device sales through the stratosphere, and then, of course, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue, games that launched an international craze and gave the Game Boy its second wind.

5.) Wii U

Year of Release: 2012 – Best Games: Super Mario 3D World; Mario Kart 8; Super Smash Bros. for Wii U; Splatoon; Super Mario Maker; Zeldas: Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD Remakes

Nintendo’s current-gen console, the Wii U, gets a bad rap, and in some ways it deserves it. In terms of computing power it, like its predecessor the Wii, lags behind the field. It has is virtually zero AAA 3rd party support in its software library, a few notable exceptions aside. Its primary feature, the Wii U Gamepad, in spite of finally proving necessary for a hit game (the 2D level-builder Super Mario Maker), is still best utilized for off-screen play and Netflix. But… the games. The best Mario Kart ever, the best Smash Bros. ever, the best 3D Super Mario ever, the best Pikmin ever, definitive HD versions of Zelda: Wind Waker and Zelda: Twilight Princess, surprise hits Hyrule Warriors and Captain Toad, an exciting new IP in the ink-splattered Splatoon, adorable Yoshi and Kirby games, a hit 2D Super Mario game alongside a 2D DLC spin-off starring Luigi, a best-in-show exclusive action title in Bayonetta 2, the LEGO exclusive Lego City Undercover, two Arkham games, two Assassin’s Creed games, indie darlings Shovel Knight and Guacamelee… the list goes on. There have been missteps, to be sure; Star Fox Zero certainly has its major detractors, and the overall Wii U experience has had its flaws, particularly in the realm of marketing and branding. Those flaws, though, do not change the facts, and the fact is this: Wii U may feature the most consistently excellent line-up in Nintendo’s console history.

4.) GameCube

Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Zelda: Wind Waker; Metroid Prime; Super Smash Bros. MeleeRogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader

It’s easy to look at the modest-selling GameCube as a bit of a failure, as it went head-to-head with (and made barely a dent against) the best-selling video game console of all time: the Playstation 2. But what GameCube had were games, and masterpiece after masterpiece found its way onto the console. Even in a generation where the Mario game was weird (Super Mario Sunshine) and the Star Fox game was weirder (Star Fox Adventures), the GameCube still featured an embarrassment of riches in incredible software. Zelda: Wind Waker is arguably the best game in the entire franchise. Super Smash Bros. Melee the same, and it still is the game of choice for serious Smashers. Star Wars: Rogue Leader is in the conversation for the best Star Wars game of all time; Resident Evil 4 is considered by many to be the high point in that storied franchise’s entire run. The Pikmin series debuted on the GameCube, as did Animal Crossing. And lest we forget Metroid Prime, possibly the best 2D to 3D franchise conversion ever, even in a universe were Super Mario 64 and Zelda: The Ocarina of Time exist. GameCube was the underrated purple box with the library of must-play games that, if you haven’t, you still must play today.

3.) Nintendo 3DS

Year of Release: 2011 – Best Games: Fire Emblem: Awakening; Super Mario 3D Land; Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

For the quintessential Nintendo experience, it’s hard to do better than 3DS, which is home to great 2D and 3D titles in both the Mario and Zelda franchises, a port of the best of the Star Fox franchise, a this-shouldn’t-be-real entry in the Smash Bros. franchise, four 3D Pokemon titles, the quintessential Fire Emblem game, three more Fire Emblem games, a great Final Fantasy game that isn’t a Final Fantasy game (Bravely Default), Mario Kart greatness, the first new Kid Icarus in forever, backwards compatibility with the massive Nintendo DS line-up, old-school homage Shovel Knight, and then there’s best game available on the device: Luigi’s Mansion 2. (Okay, maybe that’s just my opinion.) As icing on the cake, all the company’s greatest hits from the NES, Game Boy, and Game Boy Color era are available for the system’s Virtual Console, and the SNES era is also well-represented on the “New” model. The Nintendo 3DS feels very much like a culmination of everything the company has been working towards for thirty years, folded together into one neat little package that is the must-buy current-market Nintendo system for any and all fans of gaming.

2.) Nintendo Entertainment System

Year of Release: 1986 – Best Games: Too numerous to mention.

Without the NES, video games as we know them wouldn’t have happened. Let’s be clear about that. The industry was dead as a doornail when Nintendo’s premier gaming box hit living rooms, killed by the excesses of Atari and by the dismissal of the art form as just another dumb kid’s fad. Then the NES arrived, and re-wrote history. Oh, sure, it’s possible some other company would have been able to succeed in the same way in the same time in the same space, given the opportunity. Others, though, tried and failed, and it was up to Nintendo to dig gaming up out of its grave and drag it down the road. Besides, can you possibly imagine anyone else launching hit franchise after hit franchise at the rate Nintendo and its licensees did during the NES heyday? Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Punch-Out!!, Contra, Kid Icarus, Fire Emblem and Mother (well, in Japan, anyway)… all of these classic gaming franchises began on the NES. Many, though, would not be perfected until…

1.) Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Year of Release: 1991 – Best Games: … almost all of them?

The Super Nintendo took the formula established by the NES made it… well, super: bigger, brighter, more colorful, faster, and better designed. Almost all of the major franchises that started life on the NES found a similar home on the SNES, and it would be one of the last times in Nintendo console history could that be said. The holy trilogy of Nintendo gaming was represented with a triumvirate of all time great games; Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid are still considered three of the greatest games of all time, and may by themselves represent the quintessential Nintendo experience. Add to the mix new high-polished entries into such great series as Castlevania, Contra, Mega Man, Punch Out!!, and Final Fantasy, throw in the dueling fighting phenomenons Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, and then factor in the debut titles of even more fantastic Nintendo franchises (Star Fox, F-Zero, Donkey Kong Country, and Mario Kart spring immediately to mind), and what you have is the console of Nintendo’s golden era, the symbol of a time when they dominated the marketplace creatively, technologically, and economically. The Super Nintendo and its library of games are must-play for any fan of the medium, games that perfected the NES properties that saved an industry, and games that still hold up today, twenty-plus years later.

The Metroid Dilemma

I’ll start with this: Super Metroid is one of my all-time favorite games. It’s part of the “Trifecta of Perfection” from the SNES days along with Super Mario World and A Link to the Past. I’m not alone in my opinion. Metroid is a fan-favorite Nintendo franchise, and a big part of the appeal of the original game came from the sparse nature of its world and soundtrack, both held back by the hardware limitations of the original NES. It was a sprawling open-world adventure before that was even a thing.

Mario and Link and Samus Aran: they were the original Nintendo Big 3. Samus, though, has arguably since been overtaken in Nintendo’s hierarchy of characters by the likes of Pikachu and Kirby, two later-era Nintendo megastars whose franchises get new titles far more frequently than does that of Metroid‘s femme fatale. The last Metroid game was the poorly-received Metroid: Other M for the Wii in 2010. Prior to that, in 2009, the remastered Metroid Prime Trilogy was released for the Wii, but the last really well-regarded Metroid title in new release was Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, also for the Wii… in 2007. That’s right, almost a full ten years ago.

While it appears Wii U will come and go without every being graced by the Metroid franchise, the latest game in the series is due out this August on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s a multiplayer shooter game called Metroid Prime: Federation Force, far from the traditional isolated adventure style of gameplay the franchise is known for, and let’s just say Metroid fans are… less than enthused. Calls for its cancellation, petitions against it, accusations of ruined childhoods… you know, all the usual responses when superfans unite against a product. Never mind that Federation Force is being produced by Kensuke Tanabe, who produced every other installment of the much-beloved Metroid Prime series. Never mind that Tanabe-san has been quoted repeatedly as saying this is the Metroid game he’s been wanting to make for awhile. Never mind that the developers behind the title are the generally well-regarded Next Level Games (who made one of my favorite 3DS games, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon). Fans are aghast: this is NOT the Metroid game for which they’ve been clamoring.

And they have a point. While new Zelda and Mario and Kirby games, spin-offs or otherwise, seem to pop up every year, Metroid is the tree from which the fruit is rarely offered. Nine years between proper installments of a cornerstone franchise (remember, nobody counts Other M as a “proper” installment) is a long time. So what’s the problem, Nintendo? Why are you hating so hard on Metroid?

The answer is probably easier than you’d think: Metroid games are big, sprawling, graphically demanding adventure titles that take time, resources, and money to make, and the truth of the matter is they just don’t sell that well. The best selling Metroid of all time is Metroid Prime, which moved approximately 2.82 million units*, making it and the original Metroid the only games in the series to break 2 million units sold. 2 million units is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but what does it say that the three series entries released on the Wii (Other M, Metroid Prime 3, and Metroid Prime Trilogy) cleared 1.63, 1.11, and .65 million units, respectively, on a console that sold over 100 million units? That is a woeful attach rate (the percentage of owners of an individual console who own a particular piece of software for said console.)

Now compare this to a few other Nintendo big-money franchises. The Legend of Zelda series saw only one game in its entire franchise history come in below 3 million units moved: Four Swords, which only moved about .65 million units. The next lowest series sales figure was Skyward Sword at 3.31 million units, and most Zelda titles have averaged between 4 and 8 million units moved.

Then there’s Super Mario Kart, a franchise that at its worst moved 5.47 million units (Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the GBA) and at its best moved a whopping 32.01 million units (Mario Kart Wii). Do you WANT to talk about Pokemon, which moves 10 million units per game without even trying? Or Super Mario Bros., well over 200 million sales and climbing?

So why is Metroid the weak link? Why hasn’t it struck the same chord as so many of Nintendo’s venerable IPs? At the very least, Super Metroid, Metroid: Zero Mission, and Metroid Prime could arguably be on the list of anyone’s all time greatest games; hell, the series has even spawned its own genre, the Metroidvania, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania used to describe a game that apes both series’ format of back-and-forth dungeon crawling in search of items to overcome obstacles and allow further progression.

Maybe Metroid just isn’t popular enough in Japan. Maybe it’s too weird, its face-masked hero to impersonal, its titular creatures to creepy. Maybe it’s too daunting for the neophyte gamer. After all, Metroid on the NES offered no map through its maze of corridors and no save functionality a’la The Legend of Zelda; perhaps this curtailed the series catching fire like Link’s original open world adventure (which featured both maps and game saving) or like Mario’s much simpler NES pack-in offer.

Whatever the reason, when you factor in the struggling (and poorly trending) sales of the Metroid franchise, you start to realize the dilemma that Nintendo is in. While Metroid games are flagship titles demanded by the company’s hardest-core fans, the line seem to be drawn there, as sales figures indicate there are very few crossover gamers playing Metroid. So it makes sense, almost, that the company would be trying something new with Metroid Prime: Federation Force, turning this entry into the franchise into a multiplayer shooter/adventure title with bite-sized micro-stages. This is, of course, the antithesis of what Metroid has always been, so while the vociferous overreaction to the MP:FF reveal two E3’s ago was (and remains) silly, it’s going to be interesting to see if the game can, on the very popular Nintendo 3DS console, hit some respectable sales figures. If no, then Nintendo will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with some new tactic as they continue in their attempts to solve the Metroid dilemma.

*All sales figures courtesy of VGChartz.com.

Legends of Cannon Fodder: Phanto

“Legends of Cannon Fodder” is an ongoing series of articles that sing the praises of non-boss enemies (no mini-bosses, either!) who are nevertheless memorable foes that provide engaging conflicts. Which makes them the opposite of cannon fodder, I suppose… but I like the name so I’m sticking with it.

It is dark in the pharaoh’s tomb. You step into the secret chamber hidden beneath a clay pot and find what you are looking for: a key. You reach towards the key, but hesitate. Hanging about the pot are three red-and-white masks, featureless save a sinister, demonic smile. You shake your head: your imagination is simply getting the better of you. But when you bend over and pick up the key, the chamber shakes. One of the masks begins to vibrate, and then… it looks at you. With a cackle, it dive-bombs towards you; you just barely manage to duck in time. The race is on. Your blood pumping, you leap out of the jar and scurry once more through the depths of the tomb, the grinning monster on your heels, screaming towards you again and again from all directions as you search frantically for the locked door that will take the key and end this nightmare…

That is what we call a dramatization, but I’mma be honest with you: that’s what it felt like every time 11 year-old me had to pick up a key in Super Mario Bros. 2. I’ve written about SMB2 before, and it is very possibly the game I have spent the most total hours playing over the course of my life. Over all of those hours, nothing was so stressful as finding a locked door, searching for and picking up the key to that door, and then running back to the door while dodging the red and white hellspawn the SMB2 instruction manual called Phanto.

Gaming obstacles, by design, are conquerable. Video games are supposed to feed the gratification centers in our brains with little *Pings!* each time we get past that which stands between we, the gamer, and our goal: save the princess, save the kingdom, destroy the giant bubble-spewing toad man… whatever. A game’s protagonist goes through a miniature dramatic arc with each goomba they stomp or moblin they skewer: conflict, resolution, repeat; conflict, resolution, repeat; etc., etc.

Phanto, though, is different. He is the direct descendent of Evil Otto, the “Time’s UP!” smiley face of doom that came hunting for a taking-too-long-to-destroy-all-the-robots Player One in the Atari-age classic Berzerk! Like Otto, Phanto’s smile is the harbinger of unstoppable doom. If most video game enemies are antagonists to be conquered, Phanto is one to be endured and escaped. He’s not Darth Vader, he’s the twister from Twister (only with a better backstory.)

I had my Phanto avoidance skills down to an art. I don’t know if I was an overly anxious kid or what, but I didn’t want to see him, ever. He only showed up when you were actually carrying they key, so I, as I’m sure everyone else did, repeatedly picked up the key and threw the key, picked up the key and threw the key, pick up, throw, pick up, throw… all the way to the locked door, a move which keeps Phanto zipping on-screen and quickly off-screen, on-screen and off-screen, a poorly rehearsed actor who keeps jumping his cue. Forget the bomb-throwing mouse or the cross dressing bird. Phanto was my nemesis, my Sub-Con nightmare.*

But can you blame me? Trying to figure out which of the masks hanging around the key is going to come to life, the shaking awakening, the swooping, the face stuck halfway between clown and demon… I haven’t played Super Mario Bros. 2 in years, but the next time I do, I can guarantee I’ll be right back to my Phanto dodging ways.

And loving every second of it.

* That’s a pun, cuz Super Mario Bros. 2 was all a dream. Remember? Remember? And Sub-Con was the name of the dream world you were saving. Remember? I’ve ruined it.

The Curiosity, The Catastrophe, and the Classic

The NES entered our household just as the second wave of titles for the machine, the second generation, began to appear. One development cycle under their belts, the programmers at Nintendo and at their third-party licensees (that’s right; they used to have those) had begun to figure out the real tricks of the trade that would result in the system’s golden age, an age that lasted from 1988 to 1990.

(Aside: 1990, of course, is the year the last great NES game, Super Mario Bros. 3, launched, and although games were published for the system until 1994 most gaming historians, I’d wager, would agree the book can be closed right there. You’d do better arguing me that the golden age began earlier; my defense is those early games created an industry but weren’t better designed than their sequels: Super Mario Bros. didn’t let you scroll back, The Legend of Zelda was a fantasy adventure that took place in a lifeless wasteland Nintendo has been trying for years now to fold into the series’ canon, Metroid’s greatest design appeal — its atmosphere of isolation and foreboding — made it into the game due to system limitations… etc., etc.

I digress. So while my parents didn’t want me to get a NES, once I had one they were as on-board with it as a limited budget household could be. In fact, my dad was quick to score me a gaming coup: when Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. 2 not long after my brother gave me the best Christmas present ever, it became a Holy Grail of gaming, in-demand and sold out by the truckload. In one of those rare moments, though, when the stars align and the cosmos bring forth true justice, my dad happened to know a guy who knew a guy at work, and he scored me a copy of the game before any of my friends had it. It was one of those rare moments in life where I had something first, where I was cool. (Remember grade school in the 80’s and 90’s, when ownership of a Super Mario game could make you cool?)

I’ve spent more time playing Super Mario 2 than I have any other game in the Super Mario series. Yes, that vegetable throwing Doki Doki Panic facelift game, that one that made zero sense even for a Super Mario game, the one that, while largely ignored in future Super Mario canon, has been cherry-picked over the years of its ripest fruit (Bob-ombs, Shy-guys, Birdo, the different abilities of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad)… I’m as familiar with the ins and outs of Super Mario Bros. 2 as I am with any other game ever made, and even more than the original Super Mario Bros. it defined my sense of what made a platformer a platformer. While it is often regarded as the black sheep of the Mario family of games, it’s always been on my list of favorite NES games (very close to the top, actually) and if Nintendo ever made a true sequel to it, not an impossibility given the quirky throwback nature of the company, I’d be a very happy retro gamer.

My other big NES ownership item was another franchise classic sequel just as different from its predecessor as Mario 2 was from Mario 1, but time has not been anywhere near as kind to its reputation. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link is as different from The Legend of Zelda as you could imagine, foregoing the top-down dungeon crawling of the original for a hybrid RPG/Action-Adventure mash-up with a top-down overworld that would throw you into side-scrolling battle if you collided with an enemy’s shadow. (Abuh?) Zelda 2 had experience points that you doled out as you leveled up to increase your magic, attack, and life meters, and you learned combat and defense spells as you did in almost every JRPG ever made and as you didn’t in just about every Zelda game before and since… and those three useless spells from Ocarina of Time don’t count. It was a departure from the series, yes, and is now perceived as the red-headed stepchild of Zelda, but I really think the un-Zelda play style is not the real reason for its dismissal by many gamers.

The real problem is that Zelda 2 is, by far, the hardest Zelda game ever made.

Look: the gameplay and overall game experience was as spot-on and polished as you’d ever expect from a Nintendo published title, particularly a core title like a Zelda game. The two-level side-scrolling sword fighting comes to mind, which was arguably more challenging, rewarding and even fun than the lock-and-wait Z-target combat popularized in the 3D Zelda games. Zelda 2 was, however, controller-throwing hard. (The quest through Death Mountain for the frakkata hammer comes to mind.) I finished Mario 2 numerous times as a child. I never finished Zelda 2 as a child. Nor, actually, as an adult, and I’ve tried, but even on the Virtual Console I haven’t been able to defeat the game’s final palace. To this day, Zelda 2 is the lone Zelda game I’ve really tried to beat that I haven’t been able to. And yet, my experience with the game is as formative as any gaming experience I’ve ever had on the NES. I imported many of the attributes given to Link exclusively in Zelda 2, particularly his combat spell system, into the daydream superhero version of Link I’d fantasize about being, running around and fighting alongside Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe.

But enough about that.

Carrying the antithesis of the reputation Mario 2 and Zelda 2 share, Mega Man 2 is widely recognized as the best Mega Man game of the 8-bit era, and perhaps even when you take into account all the Battle Network and X and Zero spin-off titles, as well. Inspired in level design and balanced within an inch of rock-paper-scissors-fire-leaf-missile-bubble-boomerang perfection, Mega Man 2 bested its predecessor and successors in just about every way: challenging without being frustrating, lengthy without being tedious, packed with various items and power-ups without being overwhelming.

Unlike Zelda 2 and Mario 2, Mega Man 2 was a title I did not own, but I did borrow it and take it along on a family vacation to visit our cousins in Maryland. Play outside? Pfft. My cousin Kenny and I played the crap out of Mega Man 2, and it was a legitimate cause for celebration when we figured out which of the Blue Bomber’s many weapons we needed to use to take out Dr. Wily’s android form, and if that last sentence made any sense to you, then congratulations! You’re as cool as I am.

Take that for what it’s worth.

Mega Man 2 set the bar for action platformers, a genre mastered during both the 8 and 16 bit eras by Capcom, the game publisher of Street Fighter 2 fame. Capcom’s platformers were funtime masterpieces in every way, but they exceeded all but Nintendo’s own published titles in one area: play control. The physics and precision of control in Capcom’s platformers ingrained in me what I, to this day, consider to be the most important element of any action game. ‘Cuz if you can’t control it, it ain’t fun, and if you CAN control it, then even insanely challenging games aren’t hyper frustrating because at least the playing field between you and the CPU is even.

So it should come as a surprise to nobody that the absolute best game of the 8-bit NES era was also a Capcom platformer: Ducktales. Hell yeah, it was. Ducktales. Woo-hoo.