Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
16 May 2007
VC Curmudgeon: Battle Lode Runner, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden
Note: the rating system has changed. As Mordrak suggested last time, more curmudgeon-heads should imply a worse game. Five heads means awful, none means great.

Also note: I'm dispensing with the rate-the-most-recent format. I'll just offer a dip into the VC archives each time, as personal knowledge and/or interest merits.

Battle Lode Runner
Produced and released by Hudson. Originally for the PC Engine.

Lode Runner, Broderbund's ancient action-puzzle platformer, has a long and storied history. One of the first real hits of the 8-bit computer age, with ports for most contemporary systems, it featured 150 levels, an editor, and a whole lot of hurt. This is an incredibly difficult game, and it requires complete mastery of the game world's physics and enemy AI to finish it.

Broderbund only released the original computer versions of the game, but licensors in Japan kept the the series going for much longer, up to the N64/PSX era. Battle Lode Runner comes from that branch of the series. All editions are brutally hard puzzle games, and this one assumes players have some past experience, so it gets taxing for newcomers in the first ten levels (of 101), and hard for experienced players within the first 40. You will be stumped frequently, but genuine puzzle game fans wouldn't have it any other way. (Others are directed to GameFAQs, which has an obtuse, but excellent, resource on the game.)

Battle Lode Runner's main attraction is supposed to be its battle mode, which indeed is cool and takes inspiration from Bomberman, right down to offering cameos by the Black Bomber, but for true classic gaming fans puzzle mode is the real draw here... if they can put up with the soul-crushing difficulty and extreme trickiness. For professionals only.

Produced and released by Konami. Originally for the NES.

As Curmudgeon Gamer readers probably can remember, some of us have considerable fondness for the Castlevania games. While I enjoy most of them, if I had to choose my taste would lean more towards the old-school, level-based platformers more than the recent "Metroidvanias." Of them all, my favorite remains this one, the original Castlevania, a game that has been much cursed and loved over the years since its release.

Lots of people dump on Castlevania now. They react with dismay that you can't change your jump direction in midair, how enemies frequently kill you with one knock into a bottomless pit, how you can be screwed over instantly just by picking up the wrong subweapon. I even agree with them on that last bit; I've lost Holy Water too many times because a random monster decided to drop a Dagger on the pixel just in front of me.

But for those who watch for these things, there is a kind of perfection here. Simon Belmont has a peculiar mixture of weakness and strength. His basic attack has a nice, long range, but terrible vertical reach. In order to attack airborne foes or candles, the player must learn the timing to jump and whip just after launching, so the strike comes at the top of the jump.

Once that move is mastered, the game's addictive rhythm begins to be felt, and the player starts noticing that the enemies have their own rhythms. Medusa heads come flying out in a sine wave at regular intervals. Skeleton throwers release their projectiles on a set schedule. Bone pillars fire fireballs over a three-second count. This combines with Simon's steady pace to produce a game with a definite flow, and once you get into it (which can take a while), it's possible to finish whole levels without taking a hit.

But that's when you get into it, and until then, you will die, die, die. Most bosses can be defeated absurdly easily if you get to them with the Holy Water weapon, but if you lack it then the odds are against you, even if you're at full health. Castlevania will probably come as a rude shock to players used to the likes of Aria of Sorrow and Symphony of the Night, but it shows admirably the difficulty and production values that make NES-era Konami so adored by retro gamers.

A note about the game: I actually own the NES Classics rerelease of this game in addition to the recent VC game, and I noticed that the ROMs used in the two are not identical, either with each other or the original NES game! There is a scoring bug in the NES version for when players defeat five or more enemies with one subweapon that can be used to reap many thousands of points, and multiple extra lives on the first level. It has been fixed in both later releases. Further, the Virtual Console keeps the original game's joke credits (all the monsters are played by actors with punny names), but the GBA release sloppily removes them. These are interesting edit decisions, indeed....

Ninja Gaiden
Produced and released by Tecmo. Originally for the NES.

In a way Ninja Gaiden it is a spiritual brother to Castlevania, featuring similarly limited weapons, a nearly identical subweapon system, an obvious analogue to CV's heart weapon-use system, and copious background objects to be destroyed for items. Like Castlevania, there is a subweapon (the buzzsaw-like spin move) that can make short work of bosses, but isn't well-suited to non-boss use. Yet Ninja Gaiden isn't nearly as fun.

Back in the day, everyone loved Ninja Gaiden. It transformed a company known for quirky puzzle-like games (like the awesome Solomon's Key) to the talk of the playground. Ninja Gaiden was maybe not the first game to give us cinema scenes, but it was the first to do it with panache. I like to imagine that the developers, noticing that many anime productions are composed with a relatively small number of flat animation frames, realized that the technique was perfectly suited to the NES' graphics hardware.

But the game hasn't aged well. Castlevania's weighty, striding protagonist keeps the flow of that game reasonable and provides it with a pace, but Ninja Gaiden's Ryu streaks across the scene and gets knocked around almost before the player can react. And the game doesn't keep track of which foes you killed in an area, so if you scroll past a location where you killed a foe and return to it, he will have returned. And while Ryu can be controlled in mid-air, this doesn't apply if an enemy hits him, so pits here are nearly as bad as Castlevania's. Add in a wall jump with twitchy timing, annoying jumping puzzles, and a primary weapon with way too short a reach relative to enemy speed, and most players will get frustrated fast.

This isn't to say that Castlevanis isn't frustrating too. But that game rarely gives you the feeling like you have had no time to react, while Ninja Gaiden gives this impression constantly, and its constant stream of reappearing, tiny foes with two-step walk animations stand in contrast with the slick cutscene graphics.

It is possible to like Ninja Gaiden. We all did once. But we also once liked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, and Transformers. Despite what Michael Bay seems to think, it seems that childhood fondness can only take you so far.

EDIT: Title changed to something slightly more appropriate.

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--John Harris at 21:19
Comment [ 6 ]

Comments on this post:

I was poking fun. In all seriousness, your vast(?) readership might be confused by an inverted rating system. Or, it might prompt them to read the text instead. Nah, that's unlikely. Heh.

By Blogger Mordrak, at 17 May, 2007 04:27  

I like the inverted rating is very curmudgen-ish. The fact its might add to the confusion is likely the penultimate curmudgeon reason to keep it.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 17 May, 2007 10:18  

Many of those that still like Transformers have had more than a few issues with what Michael Bay thinks.

What I remember of Ninja Gaiden was that it was more prone to dangerous flickering than Castlevania? Maybe it was the speed of Ryu versus the sluggishness of Simon.

Also, Ninja Gaiden's stage artwork hasn't aged as well. At the time, Ninja Gaiden probably looked fancier against Castlevania's classic bright blocks. But since graphics have gone so far beyond the early NES days, the practicality of the Castlevania look shines over the somewhat muddled look of the city of Ninja Gaiden's first stage.

Still, I recall Ninja Gaiden being easier than Castlevania, despite a couple of really evil sections. (Like one particular jump in the cliffs section where a bird is positioned to hit you in mid-air. Or the final boss fight.) Not sure how that would compare to me these days. I probably don't have the patience for either game anymore.

By Anonymous Baines, at 19 May, 2007 02:05  

Yes, but why not play on an NES, etc? What's Wii about VC for these games? Anything?

I[E?]nquiring mind[s] want to know. I guess.

By Blogger rufbo, at 21 May, 2007 17:34  

I believe the VC games have emulator state-saving. (If I'm mistaken in that, ignore most of the rest of what I'm about to say.) So you can stop at any time and come back right at the instant you left off. I can't recall another commercial emulator/simulator for a console that has that.

The commercial DS and PSP emulator/simulators at least benefit from being able to sleep the handheld, but you can't switch to another application and come back to pick up right where you left off.

This ability has nothing to do with the Wii itself, of course. It just happens that the VC games have that ability.

By Blogger jvm, at 21 May, 2007 19:14  

All the Virtual Console games have automatic state saving except the N64 titles (which would eat up significant flash memory to provide such a thing). This lets players do things like maintain high score lists on games that maintain them but don't save them anywhere, like Alien Crush.

It's got limitations though:
1. The player absolutely must return to the Wii Menu via the Home button to save a state. Anything else will cause the file not to be recorded and the state will be lost.
2. Despite this, sometimes it is difficult to NOT save a state if you don't want to. The opening "movie" for Kirby's Adventure (the sketch animation) doesn't show up again if you just do a manual reset, you had to hard-power the NES for it to happen. The result is I've only seen it once.
3. When a state is loaded, it's deleted from flash memory, so it can't be used for checkpoints.
4. It can sometimes be confusing, to players who know the checkpoint feature exists, to distinguish between saving (a checkpoint) and saving (as by SRAM).

Other reasons to play Virtual Console even if you have the carts handy:
- A Wii takes up less room than a NES and cart, let alone a living room full of consoles, games and controllers.
- Many games can be played right from the remote, wirelessly.
- There are also availability issues. We've seen one VC game, Battle Lode Runner, that never got a US release.
- Virtual Console games output at higher screen resolutions than the original systems, sometimes resulting in a sharper picture. N64 games, additionally, have sharper graphics.

(That's pretty much an exhaustive list.)

By Blogger JohnH, at 21 May, 2007 21:27  

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