Retro Gaming Project #3: Contra [NES]

Last year I announced the creation of a Retro Gaming Project in which I would finally go back and play through all of the classic NES and SNES games I missed over the years. This is a long work in progress with no set end date.

Contra [NES]

Contra
System: NES
Genre: Run and gun
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: February 1988

Super C, the 1990 sequel to Contra, may very well be my favorite video game of all time. I know a great deal of my love for the game is owed to nostalgia — it was one of the first I ever played — but I still love dusting off the old cartridge and playing it today. Amazingly, even after all these years, I had never played the original game in the series. In an effort to go back and kick-start this Retro Gaming Project, Contra seemed as good of a choice as any to get back into it.

I felt right at home instantly.

The run-and-gun, shoot ’em up gameplay fits in perfectly with the excess of 80s action movies, and the two dudes on the box art are even dead ringers for Rambo and Dutch from Predator. The plot is standard sci-fi/action fare — aliens have invaded Earth, and only Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer and Lance “Scorpion” Bean are bad enough to destroy them.

Contra [NES]

The gameplay basically consists of shooting everything that moves while dodging enemies and stray bullets. In fact, it’s most beneficial to keep a finger on the shooting button the entire time — you never know when an enemy will pop up out of nowhere.

There are eight levels in total, all but two of which are side-scrolling fare. The other two, the “Base” levels, place the camera behind the player, only showing one room at a time. Once the room is cleared of enemies, it’s onto the next one and then the next after that, ultimately culminating with a boss fight.

The boss fights are glorious as expected, with some really ugly mothers tossed in there. These are always some of my favorite moments in the Contra series, and they do not disappoint here. Destroying the alien heart in the final level is immensely satisfying.

Contra [NES]

Also as expected, Contra is one tough son-of-a-bitch. When I first started playing, I struggled to make it past the first level. I mean, three lives only last so far, especially since it takes just one hit to die. That’s when I remembered the famous Konami code:

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start

With that, I had 30 lives, and the gameplay experience became instantly more gratifying for a rusty gamer like myself. Although it felt a bit shameful to cheat like that, I was happy to make it past the second level and ultimately beat the game. Major props to Konami for realizing their game was hard as hell by throwing a bone for the rest of us.

Contra [NES]

I would be remiss not to mention the existence of the greatest weapon ever created in gaming history: the spread gun. It remains the best, most rewarding gun I have ever come across, and using it is one of the action genre’s greatest thrills. The other weapons (i.e. the laser gun and cluster shot) are effective as well, but nothing compares to the almighty spreader.

Contra still holds up remarkably well today, especially if played with a friend. The run-and-gun gameplay remains a blast (albeit an often infuriating one) on your own, but co-op is the way to go if you have that option. I’m glad that I was able to go back to this classic, even though Super C is still the better game for my money.

9/10

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Retro Gaming Project #2: Chrono Trigger [DS]

Earlier this year, I announced the creation of a Retro Gaming Project in which I would finally go back and play through all of the classic NES and SNES games I missed over the years. This is a long work in progress with no set end date, but it will be a fun adventure while it lasts.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

Chrono Trigger
System: Nintendo DS (originally on SNES, also available on PSN, mobile devices and Virtual Console)
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Square
Developer: Square
Release Date: November 25, 2008 (originally March 11, 1995)

If there was one game that was glorified more than any other during my youth, it was Chrono Trigger. I seemed to have heard more about this Square RPG than any other, as it was often ranked near or at the very top of all types of “best of” lists. For years I skipped over it, either due to its insane SNES cartridge price or simply because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. Looking back, it’s kind of amazing how a once-rare game is now available on so many platforms, including Android and iOS devices. For review purposes, I played through the Nintendo DS port.

Chrono Trigger tells the story of Crono (no “h”), a vibrant young lad with spiky red hair, and his efforts to save the world from its impending doom. Crono becomes aware of this future apocalypse after a freak accident with a teleportation device sends him back in time. Now, with the capability of time travel, Crono embarks on an adventure that takes him all the way back to 65,000,000 B.C. and forward to AD 2300. Along the way, he meets a number of interesting characters (including a robot and a talking frog) who help him on his adventure.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

The time travel dynamic takes an otherwise familiar RPG storyline (youth prevent the end of the world) and adds a fresh coat of paint. Being able to travel to the past and the future is fascinating, especially as Crono attempts to keep the course of nature on the right track. In one early moment, his ally Marle is mistaken for her ancestor, a queen in AD 600, so the group has to find a way to bring back the real royal leader. The ability to travel through time at will is much welcomed.

The RPG gameplay is also familiar, but it is so refined that it ranks among the best I have seen in the genre. For one, there are no random battles. This has always been a pet peeve of mine, and Chrono Trigger thankfully provides visible enemies on screen. This means that many of the battles can be avoided if desired, giving the gamer a bit of added flexibility.

The battle system itself is fantastic. The game uses an Active Time Battle system, which allows attacks to be made once a character’s personal timer fills up. Since this is not entirely turn based, this allows for more freedom and requires a bit more strategy. On top of standard attacks, there is an option to use Techs, which allow for powerful spells that can be combined with multiple characters. These use up MP points and drain each character’s timer, but their damage to enemies can often be very rewarding.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

The game’s dungeons and combat areas are all well-designed, and many of them allow for a good amount of exploration without that frustrating feeling of getting lost. There is a quite a bit of loot scattered around, and some of the bonus dungeons in the DS port include some truly powerful weaponry. Side quests also warrant deep expeditions, and they can help with leveling up before the final epic boss battle.

Upon concluding the game, a new mode opens up: “New Game+”. In this, a new game is started but all of the weapons, equipment, etc. from the first game are carried over. This allows for a quicker playthrough in order to get to a different ending, of which there are thirteen. For those who want to see other possible conclusions, there is a surprising amount of replay value to be found.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

In terms of aesthetics, Chrono Trigger holds up remarkably well. The 16-bit sprites are as gorgeous as ever, and the DS port throws in some well-crafted anime cutscenes as well. The real treat here, however, is the astoundingly beautiful musical score. Composed primarily by Yasunori Mitsuda, the game’s music is unforgettable, as it uses a wide variety of instruments and does not focus on any one genre. Every town and locale in the game has its own unmistakable tune, many of which are outright classics. A quick YouTube search will find countless remixes and tributes to Mitsuda’s work in this game — I cannot emphasize enough how beloved this soundtrack is, and it sounds just as impressive today.

So, does Chrono Trigger live up to the hype 15+ years later? Yes, mostly. I loved the style, the music, the battle system and many of the characters. If I were to find any faults, it would be from the handful of moments where I became stuck and wasn’t quite sure what to do. Thankfully, guides are more abundant today than they were in 1995, so it usually didn’t take long for me to figure out where to go next. I’m not ready to crown Chrono Trigger as the best RPG ever as many do, but I can say with confidence that this is a damn good game that will likely be as endearing in another twenty years as it is today.

9/10

Retro Gaming Project #1: Castlevania [NES]

Castlevania [NES]

Castlevania
System: NES
Genre: Platforming
Publisher: Konami/Nintendo
Developer: Konami
Release Date: September 26, 1986

My first Castlevania game was the PS1’s Symphony of the Night. I bought it on a whim, not knowing what to expect despite seeing great review scores. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on the game’s mashup of action, platforming and RPG styles, all while providing a massive castle to explore. Even the notoriously bad dialogue did nothing but enhance the experience.

Since then, I have played many of the handheld Castlevania titles, most of which are near the level of quality of Symphony of the Night. I have always been embarrassed to say, however, that I have never played anything before SOTN. Wanting to play through this series from the beginning was a BIG reason why I started this retro project.

Entering the gates of Castlevania. So...much...burnt...orange.

It seems unlikely that Konami knew what they had on their hands while making the very first Castlevania. Surely they couldn’t have expected a seemingly generic horror game to spawn more than a dozen sequels spanning over 25 years. But alas, that is what happened despite its humble roots.

Castlevania begins with our whip-carrying hero, Simon Belmont, approaching the castle’s massive entrance gate. He makes his way through the courtyard, cracking open lamps to obtain hearts and weapon power-ups, before entering the castle itself. The castle shows its age right off the bat, as its wallpaper has random tears, exposing the brick beneath. Simon is quickly greeted by zombies, moving much faster than you would expect, but they can be eradicated by a simple crack of the whip. Candles can be broken for more hearts and items, and the path is generally straightforward.

It doesn’t take long for shit to get real.

Whipping a large skeleton, one of the more easier enemies.

While the first few levels aren’t too difficult, the game sees a drastic spike in difficulty about halfway through the campaign. Medusa heads fly through the air, determined to knock you off the ground and into the deep, dark abyss below. Tiny flea men bounce around as if all hopped up on caffeine, sporadically moving about while constantly bumping into Simon. Getting hit by an enemy in the later levels takes up a significantly larger amount of his health, often causing cheap and frustrating deaths.

Don’t get me started about the bosses. The battles against Death (level five) and Dracula (the final boss) are among the hardest I have EVER played in a video game. It took me a hell of a long time to just get to Death, but no matter what I tried I could not beat the bastard through conventional means. Dracula was just as bad, although his second form doesn’t hold a candle compared to the first.

Frankenstein & Igor, the bosses of stage four

There are unlimited continues, thankfully, but they generally place you at the start of the stage upon going through the original batch of lives. So yeah, Simon has to make his way past all of the Medusa heads, Axe men, flea men and random other horror enemies before facing that son-of-a-bitch known as Death.

What makes the game most difficult are its decidedly poor controls. Simon cannot control his direction once in the air, and he can only crack his whip straight ahead. When he is hit by an enemy, he goes flying several feet backward. This leads to some infuriatingly cheap deaths, particularly from those blasted Medusa heads or flying bats that show up at the most inopportune times.

Climbing the stairs to that son-of-a-bitch Dracula

Borderline extreme difficulty be damned, this is still Castlevania, and damn if it isn’t fun. The classic, sexy 8-bit tunes, the campy horror atmosphere, the random inclusion of cooked turkey hiding in the walls… this is what it’s all about. I haven’t been as pissed off at a video game as much as this in recent years, but I couldn’t stop playing it anyway. A great start to an impressive franchise.

8/10

Introducing: The Retro Gaming Project! [Nintendo Edition]

NES Cartridges

One thing I have learned from my ongoing 50 Movies Project is that I accomplish so much more when I have a set list to follow. As someone who has been wanting to dig deeper into older video games and play the many that I missed out on over the years, I have decided to create a retro gaming version of the project.

I grew up playing the NES, often having intense gaming sessions of Super C, Super Mario Brothers 1-3 and other classic titles with my older brother. When he moved out of the house, there was a gap in gaming until I later received a Sega Genesis as a Christmas present. From that point on, I grew with the consoles, eventually upgrading to a Playstation then PS2 then Xbox 360 and so on. While I loved the Genesis dearly, this transition meant that I missed out on the entire Super Nintendo system, aside from playing it at a friend’s house. I eventually bought a SNES during college, but it mostly gathered dust as we played the latest games instead.

SNES System

My Super Nintendo broke shortly after moving to Chicago a few years ago, so I bought a Retro Duo system to replace it. This nifty little console could play BOTH regular NES and SNES cartridges, and I caught up with a bunch of my old games. Unfortunately, it completely died out on me within a year of owning it. I opted to replace this with the FC Twin, a similar console but with slightly better reviews.

Between the FC Twin and my growing stack of cartridges, the modern disc collections of retro games, the various remakes and downloadable versions of these titles, and even *gasp* emulation, there is no excuse for me not to catch up on so many of the NES/SNES classics that I have missed. That is why I have started this project, as it will give me even more initiative to revisit the past. I have compiled a list of 50 games that have either received major critical acclaim or have been incredibly influential over the years. I do not have a set timeline for when I will finish this project, but I am confident that putting this list together will keep me motivated to get back to my gaming roots.

If you have any requests/suggestions, please let me know.

NES
Battletoads
Bionic Commando
Bomberman
Bubble Bobble
Castlevania
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
Contra
Crystalis
Double Dragon
Double Dragon II: The Revenge
Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone
Duck Tales
Excitebike
Kid Icarus
Kirby’s Adventure
The Legend of Zelda
Maniac Mansion
Mega Man
Mega Man 2
Mega Man 3
Metal Gear
Metroid
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
Ninja Gaiden
River City Ransom
StarTropics
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

SNES
ActRaiser
Chrono Trigger
Contra III: The Alien Wars
Donkey Kong Country
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
Earthbound
Final Fantasy II (IV)
Final Fantasy III (VI)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Mega Man X
Secret of Mana
Soul Blazer
Sparkster
Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
Super Castlevania IV
Super Mario Kart
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Super Metroid
Super Punch-Out!
Zombies Ate My Neighbors

Thoughts? Suggestions? I left out quite a few classics that I have played to death already (NES Mario games, Super C, Dr. Mario, Tetris, etc.), but I am open to other ideas.