Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Conclusion

Well folks, it has been one crazy month.  You have to know it was a real challenge for me to bring you such witty, well written diatribes on a daily basis for 31 consecutive days.  I'm not smart like most bloggers who write the month's worth of articles in about 3 days and then just post one each day, my stupid ass wrote a new article every day.  I want to thank anyone and everyone who followed along both here and on facebook.  I hope this has been as much fun for you to read as it has been for me to bring to life.  In closing, I thought I would put the entire list together in one spot to save you from having to look back through a month's worth of pages.  I will also share some observations I have regarding the list.  Finally, I would like to mention a couple of games I find to be particularly perplexing that did not make it into the project.  So without further ado, because the above has been more ado than most of us can really stand...I present to you the Official Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever.

1. Ikari Warriors (SNK)
2. Starship Hector (Hudson)
3. Q*Bert (Ultra)
4. Star Voyager (Akklaim)
5. Gauntlet (Tengen)
6. Battletoads (Tradewest/Nintendo)
7. Castlequest (Nexoft)
8. Solomon's Key (Tecmo)
9.Mutant Virus (ASC)
10. Overlord (Virgin)
11. Dragon's Lair (Imagesoft)
12. Magician (TAXAN)
13.Snake Rattle and Roll (Rare/Nintendo)
14.Adventures of Dino Riki (Hudson)
15.Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Tengen)
16. Ninja Gaiden III: Ghost Ship of Doom (Tecmo)
17. Gyruss (Ultra)
18. Adventure Island (Hudson)
19. Conan (Mindscape)
20. Ikari Warriors II: Victory Road (SNK)
21. Klax (Tengen)
22.Double Dragon III: the Sacred Stones (Akklaim)
23. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Ultra)
24. Ghosts n' Goblins (Capcom)
25. Silver Surfer (Arcadia)
26. Kid Kool (VIC TOKAI)
27. Adventures of Bayou Billy (Konami)
28. Abadox (Milton Bradley)
29. Defenders of Dynatron City (JVC)

Wow. Quite a list.  Most of the major companies are there, Konami, Capcom, Tecmo, Tengen.  Strong showings by Hudson and Ultra, but overall a very strong showing across the board.  No single company dominates the list and no single company appears twice in the top ten.  I think this list exemplifies just how strong and diverse the NES library is.  To my mind, the NES has the strongest catalog of games of any classic system.  Of the 341 NES games I own, I would wager than 85% of them are fun and playable.  Some more than others of course, but I believe there are at least 85% that I could pop in and play and have a good time in the doing, even maybe Ikari Warriors....maybe.

The list is also a good sampling of the kinds of games that really shine on the NES. Scrolling shooters, action platformers, puzzle, and adventure games are all present .  The NES was the first gaming console I played that really showed what home video games could be.  Don't get me wrong, I am an Atari2600 kid, but the NES was from a whole other world.  I think if you play all of the games in the list above, not only will you get one hell of a challenge, but you'll get to see the ol' NES really shine.

A few personal notes:  This list held several surprises for me.  Going into the project, I had probably only played 2/3 of the games on the list.  I was pleasantly surprised by Conan and Mutant Virus, two games I had barely heard of and never played.  Both turned out to be surprisingly good games with steep learning curves.  I was also pleasantly surprised by the amount of depth in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Adventures of Bayou Billy, two games that are far more intense than their first few levels really indicate.  The biggest disappointments on the list were Star Voyager and Overlord.  Both games promise epic adventures and depth, but both fail to deliver.

There were two games I lobbied hard to get on the list for this project that were ultimately shot down by the panel.  The first game is Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants.  This game has plagued me since it was created.  I think I have beaten level 2 all of three times in my life.  For whatever reason, the jumps in the mall level are absolutely killer and I cannot get ol' Bart to land where I want him to.  If I do get past those jumps I am so excited that I inevitably screw up somewhere immediately after and have to do it all over again.  Trust me, I know level 1 by heart.  I felt that S:BvSM was well deserving to be on this list and probably would have made my top 10 at the very least.  I have logged far more than 5 hours on that game in my time and it still beats my ass.

The other game I wanted on this list was Gradius.  The Konami killer, Gradius is much like Starship Hector or Ikari Warriors, and probably falls somewhere between those and Silver Surfer on my list.  I don't know what it is about Gradius that is so very difficult for me, but I cannot clear that stupid volcano in the first level.  I know I have done it a couple of times, but not consistently enough to remember much of level 2.  I think there is probably a learning curve involved and given more hours I could probably make better progress, but I get very frustrated by that volcano and end up playing something else, quickly.  I do not think I like Gradius very much.

Alright, I have taken enough of your time.  I really appreciate everyone who stopped by, commented, or just enjoyed taking this trip with me. If you enjoyed this feature, please, I would love to hear from you!  I have other ideas like this one in the works, but would love to hear what you people think about my efforts.

In closing I would also like to thank the remaining 25 signers of the Declaration of Independence who did not get face time in this feature, as well as the 31 who did .  It wasn't always easy putting words into your mouths, and by about July 17th, I was running short of good material, but because I am dedicated to the bit, you moldy old historical figures stuck with me and I actually managed to learn a little something along the way.  So thank you, Abraham Clark, Benjamin Harrison V, Edward Rutledge, Francis Lewis, George Taylor, George Walton, John Adams, John Hancock, John Hart, John Morton, John Penn, Lyman Hall, Matthew Thornton, Oliver Wolcott, Richard Henry Lee, Richard Stockton, Robert Treat Payne, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Lynch Jr., Thomas McKean, Thomas Nelson Jr., William Ellery, and William Hooper.  You all signed the document that lead to the freedom of the great country that brought you this blog, for better or worse.  I was going to include a photo collage of these remaining men, but I really want to go play some Tiger Woods on the Wii, so maybe some other time...

Thank you all.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 30

And the #1 Hardest NES Game Ever is....

Ikari Warriors

I played Ikari Warriors for five hours and barely made it 1/3 of the way to the end of the first level.  Now granted there are only four levels, but if it takes 5 hours to get to the third pole of the first level, and we presume the levels get harder, then this game is officially the hardest NES game of all time.


Your Ikari warrior is made of absolute paper and is instantly killed by interacting with anything in the environment.  I can understand being shot and killed (I mean you are shirtless), but if you touch an enemy soldier, you are dead.  If you are near an explosion, you are dead.  Everything in this game kills you, and kills you fast.  You might even be able to overcome your absolute defenselessness, excepting that there are so many enemies and they come at you from all directions shooting rifles, lobbing grenades, firing mortar rounds, and dropping bombs, that it is impossible not to get caught in the confluence of artillery.  Right from the get go you are swamped by a stream of enemy soldiers and then scattershot by a gunner in a pillbox.  I cannot tell you how many times I died before seeing what was past that pillbox, and this is literally 10 seconds into the game play.
Take a good long look.  This is probably the last time Ikari Warriors will find itself in my NES.  I hate you SNK.

Now generally, the standard tactic in these situations is to go into button mashing mode and just wash the field with gun fire.  Sadly, that strategy does not work in Ikari Warriors because you have a limited ammo supply.  And since touching anything in the game kills you, once you are out of ammo you are effectively dead.  So you have to make every bullet count and firing indiscriminately only leads to your demise.  More ammo can be obtained, so all is not a total loss, but if you get in a tight spot and get panicky, you can very easily end up empty.

The only saving grace in Ikari Warriors are the vehicles.  If you can penetrate deep enough into the jungle, you can acquire a tank and a helicopter.  These vehicles give you increased fire power and a handful of hit points.  While inside you can wreck some serious havoc,  but you have to be careful because your vehicles can run out of fuel or get destroyed by enemy fire.  When that happens you have to jump out quick and run like hell, or you will be killed when the vehicle explodes.  There may be other surprises deeper in the game, but only getting near the half way point in level 1, I may never know what they are.
Where am I in this shot?  Dead, of course.

Because your character is made of paper, and because you only get two lives and no continues, and because the game throws a million enemies at you from all directions in a never ending stream, I declare Ikari Warriors to be the hardest NES game I have ever played.  Anyone who claims they can beat this game without the ABBA code must immediately sit down in front of a TV and prove it.  I suppose the game could be learned if you were able to take it inch by inch, enemy by enemy, and shot by shot, and you had a couple hundred hours to spend, but I honestly cannot imagine anyone who can take that kind of punishment.  It was hard enough for me to sit through that damn plane crash and the first 30 seconds of the game, over and over and over, just to put in my five hours.  Five hours and only 1/3 of the first level completed.  Seriously.  Ikari Warriors, you win.  I suck at video games and you are the master of difficult video games, therefore you are king.  I cannot imagine a game out there that is harder than this one.
Thanks William Whipple!  Couldn't have said it better myself!  See you back here tomorrow kids!

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 29

Starship Hector

That's right.  From out of nowhere, harder than Battletoads, Gauntlet and Silver Surfer (way harder than Silver Surfer) comes Starship Hector, a game you may not have even heard of before, but a game that is absolutely brutally hard.

Our list thus far has been a good blend of action/adventure games (including platformers), puzzle games, and, of course the scrolling shooter.  There are no two ways about it, scrolling shooter games are tough.  They feature lots of enemies attacking from many directions, many obstacles to avoid, and fast paced action that puts your reflexes to the test.  Starship Hector is a game that exemplifies the form and demonstrates just how difficult the scrolling shooter can be.

A hidden gem in the vast, offbeat, and incredibly diverse Hudson library, Starship Hector doesn't really offer us anything new in the genre, but it shines a bright light on many of the smart things about scrolling shooters.  For starters, the game features dual level battle.  You will face foes both in the air and on the ground and you must attack each with a different weapon.  Again, not new, we've seen this in games like Fantasy Zone, AD&D Dragonstrike, and Super Cobra.  But in SH it is done in a way that makes the game viciously difficult.   There are times when 85% of the attacks are coming from the ground.  Then, from out of nowhere an aerial bombardment begins, or a killer mini-boss pops up and wipes you out.  SH comes at you from both levels full tilt and right from the very beginning of the game.  There is no learning curve in Starship Hector, you just have to be good, immediately.  And just hitting A and B at the same time doesn't cut it, smart guy. The enemies in this game take multiple hits to kill, so a blanket strategy will not yield you many kills.  You'll have to make tough decisions about which targets are priority and which are less deadly.  And you will have plenty of targets to choose from.  Starship Hector has no shortage on enemies.  There are times when the screen is filled with land and air targets.  You will be wishing for the slow, plodding, methodical enemies of Silver Surfer.

Starship Hector also features vertical and horizontal scrolling much like in Legendary Wings.  But unlike many games with this aspect, SH demonstrates mastery of both styles.  You will not get a break when the direction of the scroll changes like you will in some games which have a clear bias toward one style or the other.  SH beats you both ways and smiles while it happens.  (I would love to give you a screenshot of this, but in going back and trying to get screenshots I was not able to clear level 1, and I played for about 30 mins.)

Bomb the statue, or kill the two squid things?
There are some other really nice things in Starship Hector that make it a lot of fun, even if it is repeatedly kicking your ass.  Some of the larger ground targets are usually remotely controlled by a hidden panel.  If you can find and destroy the panel, all of the targets will self-destruct.  That may not sound like much, but it is a nice little bit of attention to a logical detail.  There are also bizarre statues on the ground that, if bombed repeatedly, will replenish your ship's power to help you stay alive.  The trick is having enough time to give the statue proper attention without being wiped out by the relentless waves of enemies.  Likewise, there are hidden bonus panels on the land as well that spell out HECTOR when you shoot them.  Oh, if only you had time for such silly side tasks...

But Starship Hector will not give you that time.  It will beat you down, over and over, with endless waves of enemies great in number and power.  And even though you have a hit point meter, some enemies hit so hard, and others so often, that having a lot of HP will not really save your ass during a thick spot.  Your only hope is to learn the levels inside and out and hone your reflexes until you are like a cat who is also a ninja.
Told you.

In five hours, I did make it to level 3 a couple of times, but it was not easy and I didn't last long.  Starship Hector features six levels.  While I cannot see a huge increase in difficulty from level to level, if the remaining levels are as hard as levels 1 and 2, then this game might be impossible to beat.  Oh, someone out there can probably beat it, as with any game, but Starship Hector is not for the feint of heart.  Of the 29 games I played for this project, it is second only to our final game, to be announced tomorrow.  Can you stand it?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 28


I'll keep this short and sweet: Anyone who claims that have beaten Q*Bert (without cheating) is a damn dirty liar and you should punch them in the face.

Yes, that little green bastard!
Honestly, I believe the game is beatable and maybe there is a true Q*Bert master out there somewhere who can beat this game.  Maybe.  But brother, we are talking about the elite 0.01%.  Q*Bert is freaking impossible.  It starts out innocent enough, but by level 4, you can just forget it.  Too many enemies attacking from too many directions, the solution for changing the cubes in each pyramid becomes too complex to achieve given the quantity of enemies, and there simply aren't enough extra lives and continues to give you a fair fighting chance. And just when you think you have finally worked out a win, that little green bastard shows up and wrecks the whole damn thing.  You may as well just jump off the edge and start over.

I made it to level 5-1 ONCE.  In 5 hours.  You can play a LOT of Q*Bert in 5 hours.  And to only get to level 5-1 out of a total nine levels?  Screw this.  Q*Bert is stupid, ridiculous hard.  There is nothing more to say.  I'm still annoyed by Q*bert and I haven't played it since last year.  Here, look at some screen shots:


Just frustrating.
Even William Paca is at the end of this rope.
Is it tomorrow yet?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 27

Star Voyager

This is as exciting as the graphics get, kids!

Akklaim takes a lot of flack for being "Ak-lame" and while I think they have made some really good games that I enjoy, Star Voyager seems like a strong argument for the derogatory appellation. Basically a Star Raiders clone with about half the complexity, none of the fun, and far more difficulty than a game of this sort needs, I was originally convinced that this game was broken and could not be beaten.  As a matter of fact I lobbied hard for it to be expelled from the project based on the pure fact that after more than 5 hours of playing it, I was unable to take even the first step toward victory.  Obviously I was overruled and the game stayed.  Not only did it stay, but it found itself here at #4.

Lost in Space!
What makes Star Voyager so damned difficult is the learning curve.  I have no doubt that someone with infinite patience could learn how to beat the game, but I don't know anyone with that kind of patience.  Much like other Star Raider-esque games, your job is to wipe out an imposing enemy fleet and defend your galaxy.  In Star Voyager, enemy fleets are made up of mother ships and fighters.  You must wipe out the mother ships to successfully destroy the fleet.  The fighter ships run interference and can't take much damage, but the mother ships are armored to the teeth.  First, you must locate the enemy fleets as they spread out into your sector of space.  Once located, you engage in battle.  You have shields and guns and all of the usual space combat stuff at your disposal.  The fundamental game is not much different than a TIE Fighter sequence from Star Wars The Arcade Game.  What is different is just how freaking hard it is to defeat a fleet.  The fighters hit you hard and full throttle from the minute you enter their sector of space.  The mother ship hits twice as hard and takes a ridiculous amount of punishment before it can be destroyed.  Your ship is not so well equipped.  Unless you keep moving, you can be taken out completely in about 2 minutes.  Sadly, maneuverability is not your strong suit either.  The enemy ships dart in and out of your sights with unnerving speed and adroitness.  Just locking on to an enemy ship is an act of god.  I have never played a game where dog fighting combat is this one-sided.  In all honesty, I played this game for nearly 7 hours and never once did I destroy an enemy fleet.  You can count the mother ships I destroyed on one hand.  It is just brutally hard.
The game does feature things to assist you in your mission.  Scattered throughout the galaxy are friendly planets and if you land on the right ones, the denizens of that world can upgrade your engines, your shields, or your lasers.  The tough part is finding the right worlds.  You can waste a lot of time and energy planet hopping and not come up with any improvements.  All the while, the enemy fleet is encroaching on your home base.  So it is great to go looking, but waste too much time and all of the upgrades in the world cannot save your game.  There are also star bases located around the galaxy that you can dock at to repair your ship and refuel.  These are vital as you are going to be taking a LOT of punishment.  The tough part is that every retreat takes you away from where the action is and wastes valuable time and energy you need to spend pounding the enemy.  It is also difficult if the enemy hits your engines because the trek back to a star base can be extremely difficult and sometimes futile.  These two aspects are meant to help you take down the enemy fleet, but more often than not they are a source of frustration and waste valuable time.
If you are lucky, Space Jesus will come and make your ship more powerful!  Start praying now!

I think I was destroyed every way possible during my time with Star Voyager.  I was blown to bits by the enemy, I was stranded when I ran out of fuel, and I lost the home world while I was away searching planets for upgrades.  The only thing I did not do in Star Voyager was anything remotely connected to beating the game.  My general sense is that there is a learning curve in there somewhere, and once you get past that the game opens up and becomes much easier.  However, I must conclude that after 7 hours of play, that learning curve is so deep into the game that few will ever find  and overcome it.  The game just flat out beats the hell out of you and doesn't let up.  I'm not saying I am the master gamer over here, but if I played Star Voyager for over 7 hours and never beat a single fleet, then it must be pretty tough, and that for me is top 5 Hardest NES games material.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 26


A game so hard that even though they give you codes it is still in the Top 5 Hardest NES games of all time.  That's right, Gauntlet is a son of a bitch.

Perhaps the game that defines the genre "dungeon crawler," Gauntlet is a brutal mish-mash of action adventure, puzzle solving, and role playing that pits you as a legendary character (your choice of 4) who must navigate a hellish dungeon in order to find the mystical orb stolen by the Evil One.  This is a game that goes beyond being a classic to being one that is a cornerstone of all classic gaming.  Without Gauntlet you wouldn't have half of the MMORPG's (that is what they are called, right?) that wither the dating potential of millions of awkward  male twenty and thirtysomethings these days.  Everyone knows Gauntlet and everyone has played Gauntlet, at least a little bit, if they are at all familiar with games made before 1995.  But how many people do you know that have actually finished Gauntlet?  Furthermore, how many have finished it solo?  Exactly, and do you know why?  Because the game is hard. (you do realize why we are here right?  Top 30 Hardest NES games...?)

The difficulty in Gauntlet is a beast of many faces.  The straightforward action is hard enough.  There is a never-ending supply of bad guys who pour forth from monster generators with a single-minded goal of draining your life force.  There are tons of traps to stumble into and even Death himself lies in wait for you to set him free that he may drain your very existence with his deadly touch.  Gauntlet would be difficult enough on the back of that alone.  But wait, there's more!  Level design is another aspect of the game that can drive you to madness.  Each level is a maze, some with more than one exit, but all designed to waste time and get you so turned around that you aren't even sure where you are when you are looking right at the screen.  Some levels have invisible walls (these are pure evil), others have strategically placed enemies or traps that force you to either think around the bad guys or rush right in head first and hope for the best, still others have locked barriers that can only be undone with a key hidden somewhere in the level.  Many have false exits or teleporters that keep you guessing.  So while you are fending off the galloping hordes, you will also have to do some on the fly puzzle solving.  But wait, there's more!  Remember when I said levels were designed to waste your time?  Well in Gauntlet, time is not something you have a lot of.  Your hit points are constantly counting down from the moment you set foot in the dungeon.  Run out of hit points and GAME OVER.  You can keep yourself healthy by finding food and water, but you cannot stop that timer.  So each level becomes a mad dash to the finish to preserve as much life as possible for the next level.

But wait, there's more!

All of the things above describe what is going on within the levels, but you also have to mindful of your main goal, to locate the orb.  Well, guess what Bingo, that orb is sealed away behind a locked door that only a certain combination can unlock.  To figure out the combination, you must locate "clue rooms" in the dungeon and piece together the correct combination.  The combination is different for each player so there will be no cheating. (well at least not for purists, you can find the codes on this blasted internet these days, if you are a sissy).  And don't think you'll automatically find yourself in each of the clue rooms, either.  Many rooms have multiple exits and it is easy to clear a whole level and not go through the clue room.  So plan to play each level over and over, and many of the rooms over and over, until you figure out the right exits to take that ensure you find all of the clues. You do NOT want to get to the final level with half of the combination.

So while you are fighting off a million minions, racing against the clock, you are also trying not only to find the exit, but to find the right exit that will take you to the right rooms so that you can beat the game.  Easy right?  Hardly.  The last two levels are absolutely evil.  By the time you reach them, your HP is already low, the enemies are tougher and tougher and the puzzles are down right mean.  Level 4 is the water level and most of the walls are invisible.  You must feel your way around the room to find the exit.  And level five, Volcana, well, let's not talk about level 5, let's just say you'll be seeing a lot of Death.
Your only saving grace is the generous code system that allows you to start over after any treasure room for which you have a code.  You can see the code for your progress on the pause screen.  But just because you have the code doesn't mean the game is easily beaten.  You'll start the room over exactly how you entered it, so whatever conditions you were operating under before, you'll be operating under again.  The password just saves you the work of playing previous levels ad infinitum.  Although that is not always a bad thing either. If you get better at the early levels you can put yourself in a better position on the later ones and therefore increase your chances of winning the game.
The dude's name is freakin' Caesar! Look at that cat!

Gauntlet is a complex game that offers challenges on many levels.  The greatest difficulty stems from the need to find exactly the right exits to locate the clue rooms.  This means you'll be playing a lot of rooms over and over until you find the correct path.  Even then, once learned, getting the job done, solving the individual puzzles and beating back the relentless monsters, in the time allotted, is nearly impossible.  I have no doubt there are Gauntlet experts out there who can zip through the game in their sleep, but for the average gamer, this bad boy is Everest.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day25


Another shoe-in for #1 comes tumbling down the list and finds its way to #6, of all places!  Battletoads is so hard that at the 2010 Cleveland Classic Gaming Convention a group of vendors held a contest: the first person to sit down and beat Battletoads at the show, would win a sweetly decorated Battletoads custom NES console. 

No one won that console.

Battletoads' difficulty is infamous.  It is heralded in many circles at THE hardest NES game ever.  And that reputation is not unjustified.  Battletoads features some of the most difficult platforming levels you are going to find in the 8-bit era.  The game doesn't pull any punches.  Level 3, the dreaded Turbo Tunnel, is a madcap race through an obstacle course on a hover jet-ski looking thing.  The action is fast paced, the obstacles are just plain mean, and even top gamers can easily find themselves at the GAME OVER screen as a result of this level.
That was one friggin' sweet system!

The level designs in Battletoads are what give the game its core difficulty.  Some levels throw lots of tough enemies at you, others ask you to race to the finish on surfboards or navigate vertical tunnels on the back of burrowing robot snakes.  Variety is the spice of life in Battletoads and you'll need all of your skills if you are to see the end of this game.  Making matters worse, your Toads have plenty of hit points and you can score extra lives to keep going (not to mention a generous helping of continues), but there are lots of ways to die from a single mishap like falling in a hole, running into something while on the hover bike or surf board, and so on.  There are also some enemies that hit really hard and can take half of your life in one shot.  This greatly reduces the amount of careless hits you can take, particular during the more standard levels.  It also means you have to learn the levels inside and out if you are going to clear them without major loss of life.
Most players get this far and go home.  The Dreaded Turbo Tunnel is only three levels deep into the game.
Due to some of the more ball busting levels there is some added difficulty, at least for me, from the amount of frustration that can build up from not making it through that damn turbo tunnel again!  Or the surf board level, or the stupid snakes.  Plus, once you feel like you have a handle on some of the early levels, it is easy to get miffed by stupid deaths (jumping off the screen in the combat part of the Turbo Tunnel level, or getting zapped by the robots in level 2, for instance).  Battletoads is one of those games that gets my anger management sponsor a few extra phone calls during dinner and may or may not have cost me the start button on one of my controllers (don't ask).  The point here being: Battletoads is hard.

There are a few things about the game that keep it from being number one on my list.  First, the warps.  There are plenty of warps in this game that, once learned, can have you near the end pretty quickly.  There is one at the start of the very first level, another near the end of the Turbo Tunnel, as well as others scattered about.  Finding these can catapult you over some annoying levels and put you closer to the end with more lives and continues in tact.  Speaking of which, there are also a few ways to scum yourself up some extra lives.  The crows in level 2, for instance.  If you can keep juggling their corpses as you descend the tunnel, you can rack up some serious extra lives.  And I don't have to tell you why that is important.  And if the lives weren't enough, Battletoads is surprisingly generous with the continues as well.  Therefore, if you can master the early levels via repetition,(of which you will get plenty), utilize the warps to your advantage, and exploit the system for some extra lives, you can get pretty near the end of the game with a decent stockpile and cushion yourself against the worst the game has to offer.

I came very close to beating Battletoads several times and I think if I did more yoga to keep my anger in check I could probably take it down.  But that is going to have to wait for another day, somewhere in the distant future perhaps.  There is no doubt that Battletoads belongs in the top 10 Hardest NES games ever, it has earned its place, but I dare say there are 5 games that are even harder...
To this day, Thomas Stone refuses to play any video game that features mild violence, Battletoads included...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 24


Exactly how hard is Castlequest?  The developers give you 50 extra lives to start AND a complete map of the game that shows the location of ever single item and enemy, and the game is still in the top 10 of the Hardest NES Games.  That is one tough mother.

Castlequest is the last true puzzle game on our list and any puzzle game that is going to oust Solomon's Key had better bring its A game. Castlequest brings that and more. The game is the sum total of its design and that is the entire reason it ranks so high on this list.  Castlequest is the definition of a game that demands a perfect run because the game is designed around using exactly the right item at exactly the right time. Nothing can be wasted and nothing in the game is thrown away.  Even with the map, this game is going to take hours to figure out and complete.

If you are not familiar with Castlequest, you should be.  The game is super common and can be found in most second hand stores for around $5-8 (don't expect to get the map, though, you'll have to search the internet for that one.  Here's a hint: in your search window backspace over "porn" and type in "Castlequest map"). Assuming you don't have the time for all of that right now, let me give you a quick breakdown.  In Castlequest, you are a young prince determined to rescue a princess from an evil wizard.  Pretty standard stuff really.  The princess is trapped somewhere in one of the one hundred rooms of the evil wizard's castle.  You must search each room and seek out the princess, but your task will not be an easy one.  The wizard's castle is a treacherous maze filled with deadly traps, menacing minions, and many, many locked doors.  These doors are the source of your undoing, for each door is color coded and only the key of the correct color can unlock the door.  No big deal, right?  Wrong. For you see, the real difficulty lies in the fact that there are more doors than there are keys.  Open the wrong door and you have wasted a key you will need somewhere else in the castle later.  How do you know which doors to open?  There is no way to know apart from trial and error.  So prepare to start the game over and over and over.  A lot.

And right there is the cornerstone of Castlequest's difficulty.  There are a finite number of keys and more doors than keys to open them.  Furthermore, other helpful tools in the castle, like the aqualung that allows you to breathe underwater, do not regenerate once used. So when you use that aqualung to swim through the submerged part of the castle's lower depths, you better be sure you don't need to go back that way.  That aqualung is a one way trip.  This is what I mean when I say that Castlequest demands a perfect run.  There are no backsies.  Oh sure, you can afford to be crushed by an elevator or destroyed by a goblin here and there, the 50 extra lives help absorb some of that damage, but if you use that pink key now and find out there is nothing on the other side of that door worth a pink key, it doesn't matter if you have infinite lives, your game is over.
Gonna grab that aqualung and go swimming?  Better be sure...
 Now for the truly bizarre thing about Castlequest: in all honesty you can, and should, beat the game without ever turning on your NES.  Playing the game is more of a formality than a necessary part of beating it.  If you want to beat Castlequest, what you should do is spend about 8 hours pouring over the map, locating all of the necessary doors and the keys needed to open them.  Once you have done that, plot out your course so that you know the correct order to visit the rooms in.  After you have done all of that work, then you can plug in the game and execute your plan. The actual game itself is pretty simple once you know what you need to do.  Some of the enemies are a pain, but practice makes perfect in taking them out and once you get the hang of how to kill them you will start mowing through them with little trouble.

50 extra lives and a complete map means beating Castlequest is an exercise of planning and patience.  Needless to say there was no way to beat this game in 5 hours.  Heck, I would wager I didn't complete 20% of the game in 5 hours.  I have no doubt it can be done, if you use the method I detail above.  Beating it without the map is probably also possible, but only if you are willing and able to map out the castle on your own.  Without a map at all, I'll go so far as to say Castlequest is impossible.  You simply cannot luck into the solution.  Castlequest's difficulty has more to do with design than it does with the game play, but that does not mean it is any less worthy of its spot here at #7.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 23

Solomon's Key

Go ahead and post your hate mail to the comment section of this entry.  So many people had this one pegged as #1 for this list, but baby, it ain't even close.  I'm not saying Solomon's Key is easy, far from it, but I am saying that it is much more beatable than its reputation.  Heck Solomon's Key isn't even the hardest puzzle game on the list (that's for tomorrow).  What Solomon's Key is, however, is one tough puzzle game that, like Mutant Virus yesterday, wants both your attention and you reflexes.
You better run, squirrel!

Solomon's Key is an extremely intelligently designed puzzle game that asks you to find your way out of a room by locating a magic key and then figuring out how to reach the door it unlocks.  In the path of your success are many different kinds of monsters, a time limit and of course the puzzles themselves. Picking up faeries along the way will grant you extra lives and other power-ups are there to help you solve the puzzles by destroying enemies or adjusting your time limit.  Your only real ability in the game is to magically create or destroy earthen blocks.  You  must use this ability to solve each room's puzzle, find the key, and leave.

Top: The Puzzle, Bottom: The Solution
The puzzles are the meat of Solomon's Key and the sole source of the game's difficulty.  And these puzzles are daunting.  Some ask you to stretch your brain to its limits others demand swift reflexes and the most insidious of the lot insist upon both.  Some puzzles are straightforward action: dodge enemies while making a mad dash for the key and then door.  Others are more plodding and want you to carefully construct or deconstruct a structure made from your blocks.  Some want you to face enemies head on, others force you to seek ways around the bad guys.  No two puzzles are the same, even thematically, and there isn't necessarily only one solution for each puzzle.  It takes many, many tries to learn how to solve each room and each puzzle, and in many cases the solution isn't obvious, even after many tries.  Quite often a room will seem impossible and completely unsolvable, but trust me, it isn't, the solution just hasn't come to you yet.  I have been there several times, especially after Room 17.

There are no continues in Solomon's Key (not without cheating anyway) and with 50 total rooms in the game, you can expect to become a master at the earlier rooms pretty quickly.  As a matter of fact, that might be why the game isn't #1 on this list.  Once you learn to solve a room, it's solved.  Oh, sure you have to do everything all over again, but the legwork of figuring out what works and what doesn't is already in the can.  When you know what you have to do, executing that isn't so tough (admittedly, some rooms are still a beast, but the real difficulty stems from figuring out what to do, not doing it).  So, you actually do become a master of the earlier rooms, and pretty soon that means rooms 1-15 and beyond as you delve deeper into the game. What's more, once you know the rooms inside and out, and the location of the shrines, you can use that to your advantage to stockpile extra lives and power-ups that make your job in the new, tougher rooms, just a little bit easier.  You can easily get to room 20 with 9 extra lives, and having all of those extra tries at that level means you can experiment a little more without having to worry about the big start over.

In my 5 hours of playing Solomon's Key for this project, I was able to make it to room 21 (out of 50) on a fairly consistent basis.  The funny this is, rooms I thought were impossible soon became routine once I had solved them, and I was getting through them with little effort.  It was always the new room that was beating me down.  However, with sufficient practice and trial and error, the solution for each room can be found and accomplished.  Solomon's Key is definitely one of the top 10 hardest NES games ever, but maybe not as hard as some people claim.  Send hate!
Thomas Jefferson once said Roger Sherman was "a man who never said a foolish thing in his life. "  See, don't take my word for it!  Listen to Roger Sherman for the love of God!  He signed the Declaration of Independence and like every other historical document of the period!  Sheesh!

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 22

The Mutant Virus

Before we get going I have two stories tied to this game that I must share with you:

First, be very careful if you are obtaining the ROM for this game somewhere on the internet. First of all, I think it is still illegal to do so, and second of all due to the name, some people have apparently found it hilarious to go ahead and tack on a REAL computer virus to the file.  So if you download the ROM for this game please be very careful.  A guy I know named natS downloaded the ROM for this game and got the virus and it screwed up his laptop royally.  So be careful out there.

Second story.  When trying to track down a real copy of this game, the only place I could find one was a second hand store a bit out of the way and run by a very nice, but somewhat country-fried fellow.  When I inquired about the game (in a glass case) and its price, the fine gentleman told me, and I quote, "yeah, them Turtles games are getting harder and harder to find.  I think this one is one of the more rare ones. But I'll let you have it for $8."  That's right, somehow Mutant Virus has fallen under the TMNT brand umbrella.  Very interesting.

Now, on with why Mutant Virus is the ninth most evil game in the NES library.

See this screen:
Get used to it.  You will see it a lot if you ever decide to take on Mutant Virus.  The game is just flat out hard.  Take a mind bending puzzle game and mix in some thrust based action (think Gravitar, or Thrust + for the Atari 2600) and you have a really tough video game that will tax your brain and your motor skills.

The basic premise behind Mutant Virus centers around a computer virus that is threatening to destroy all of the world's computers.  You are a technician who can shrink down to tiny size, enter the computer and fix the damage caused by the virus as well as destroy the virus itself.  You do this by "shooting" a form of counter programming at the infected areas.  Doing this in key sequences of code, or at clutch replication points for the virus, will cause your "cure" to spread and cleanse the computer's systems.  You can obtain other cleansing tools as well the deeper you delve into the CPU.  Direct contact with the virus will drain your energy and ultimately kill you, so you must keep your distance and maneuver around the digital plague by using your thruster backpack.  Since there is no discernible gravity at your tiny size, you must rely on the thrusters and your own inertia to move you about the CPU.  To make matters even worse, there is a time limit for how long you can take to cleanse each area of the computer.  Take too long, the virus spreads and the world's computers are finished.  That is one great set up for a game!

And don't let the first level deceive you, this game gets mega-hard, mega-fast.  The first level is kind of like an intro level to get you used to the controls and the basic idea behind the game.  Unfortunately, it is also far too easy and doesn't give you a true feel for what you are about to encounter.  The second level starts off with a bang and drops you right into a very tricky puzzle.  The puzzle designs are what give Mutant Virus its strongest difficulty.  The puzzles are devious in that there is usually a simple solution that can wipe the virus out in a matter of seconds if you know exactly where to strike the second you enter a room.  However, learning where that point is and how it cripples the virus usually takes at least an hour of getting it really, really wrong.  Furthermore, fighting the virus and figuring out the puzzle can be a long and frustrating task.  As the virus spreads out through the room you will find you are fighting it on multiple fronts and that often an area you thought you had locked down has instead flared back up and now threatens to take over the entire room.  I can only imagine this game is much like fighting a fire in a seven story building.  Every room has clutch points where the virus pools or replicates.  The key to solving a room usually involves finding these points and figuring out how to cleanse them, all the while keeping the remaining virus at bay so that the clutch point is not reinfected.  I cannot tell you how many times I had a room nearly cleared only to lose the whole thing to one wandering strand that I could not keep under control.
It might look like I'm winning here, but I am totally not

Mutant Virus is made of up four levels, each comprised of several rooms, all infected by the virus.  When you enter each room, the virus begins to spread, and to make matters worse, while you are battling the virus in one room, the viruses in the other rooms will continue to work.  Take too long and it is game over and you'll have to start the level again.

Puzzle challenges aren't the only source of difficulty in Mutant Virus, the controls are also a source of frustration.  Thrust controls are finesse controls.  A little nudge here or there and your inertia can send you across the room.  This means that a simple trip around a ninety degree corner can be a two minute ordeal.  I have never been very good with thrust controls.  Never.  Too much finesse, no room for error and not enough control for me to feel comfortable.  So Mutant Virus is extra hard for me, simply because of the control scheme.  That said, the thrust controls make the game challenging even for those not crippled by them.  Most of the puzzles ask you to hit very small targets with your cleansing spray and lining up that shot with thrust controls can be a tricky thing to do.  Avoiding the ever-spreading virus can also be a challenge when you are being surrounded with only a small safe zone to hover over and your thrust controls jostling you this way and that.  Just navigating the playfield can be half the battle in this game.

I played Mutant Virus for the full five hours and maybe a little more.  There were several moments where I had a breakthrough and thought I had figured it all out, only to have the virus laugh at me and crush all of my hard work in seconds.  I managed to get nearly to the very end; I think the second to last, or maybe even the last room on the final level.  I managed to do that once.  You see in Mutant Virus, just because you were able to solve the puzzles once, that is no indication that you can do it again, ever.  After getting to the final level successfully a few times, I soon found myself stymied on the third or even second level.  Puzzles I had down pat were suddenly alive and angry again.  It was as if the game had figured me out instead of the other way around.  And even once you get proficient at the puzzles, the time limit can be a killer.  Several times on the final level, I was trucking along fine and then BAM!  I was out of time and had to start over.  The game on the whole is relatively short, but the puzzles are devious enough to make for a long day if you try to beat it.  And I do think the game is beatable with a lot of practice and ten times that much patience.  I did not have that patience and was soon becoming irate (we have discussed my anger management issues in the past...).  I really enjoyed the game and hope to tackle it some day, but the unforgiving nature of those wicked, wicked puzzles secure Mutant Virus's spot at #9 on this list.
I think some kind of Mutant Virus had a party on Carter Braxton's face. Mr. Braxton could not be reached for comment.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 21 TOP TEN BEGINS HERE!



Yeah, I hadn't heard of it either. But everyone said this game was absolutely vicious and after five confusing and aggravating hours I have to agree.  Sadly, it's not that Overlord is a bad game.  Quite the contrary, I bet it is a very good game. Even the kind of game I can really get sucked into...if it were on a system that could handle what it is trying to do.

Overlord is one of those early micro-management games similar to something like SimCity and something almost exactly like a predecessor to the very cool Star Wars Rebellion game for the PC from a while back.  In Overlord, you are the commander of a planet whose galaxy is being threatened with take-over by an evil...wait for it....overlord.  Your mission is to gain control of the galaxy by inhabiting and arming the various planets and then use your might to force the overlord to stand down (kind of thus becoming an overlord yourself, the irony is thick).  To do this, you must first build up resources on your existing planet and then send out terraforming parties to claim the uninhabited worlds.  Once you terraform them, you can mine them for resources, build up a population and arm them for defense or war.  To achieve success you must become a sly resource manager and administrator (unleash your inner Lando), and you must be ever vigilant, because the evil overlord is on the other side of the galaxy moving toward you in much the same way.
There are four levels of play, basically only changing the size of the galaxy and cunning of the overlord.  To consider the game "beaten" you must win each scenario.  The general idea is that if you start on the smaller galaxy you can develop the wherewithal to tackle the larger ones (Rebellion is much the same way)

All of that sounds amazing, and honestly it really is, but the NES just cannot deliver a game of this scope and magnitude in a way that does the genre justice.  Heck anyone who has played SimCity on the SNES knows that system isn't even equipped to truly run one of these kinds of games.  Games like Overlord belong on the PC.  I can say this to you because I loved Rebellion, Roller Coaster Tycoon, SimGolf and many other games like these on the PC.  Rebellion in particular did every aspect of a complex micro-management exactly right.  Overlord on the NES just comes up very short in so many ways that it actually makes the game extremely difficult.  I'm a classic gaming enthusiast. Readers of this blog (all 5 of them) know that I am all about the game play and innovation of pre-disc era games, but Overlord is a clear example of the NES's reach exceeding its grasp.  There are just some games you cannot play with a D-pad and two buttons.

And therein lies the chief difficulty in Overlord: figuring out how to do all of the things the game wants you to do with its limited resources.  Of the five hours I spent playing this game (more honestly) for this project, I would wager that over half were spent in trial and error defeats just trying to work out what I needed to do, how to do it, and then how to do it effectively.  To be honest, I never really got to a point where I was 100% comfortable.  However, I did get far enough past the learning curve to actually play the game.  And when I did, I was miserable.  One of the biggest problems with games like Overlord is getting yourself ready for the first onslaught from the opposing force.  Generally if you can survive that encounter you are on good footing to take on the rest of the game.
Is that Zoidberg's evil brother?

I never really got to the point where I could survive that encounter and have enough left to challenge my opponent.  The resource management is clunky at best and very slow.  It is extremely tough to build resources and manage your planets, much less build up a surplus to arm a fleet.  Resources are acquired very slowly and your income is insufficient to the task at hand, even on the easiest levels.  Combine that with an extremely aggressive enemy and you have one hell of a challenge ahead of you.  I kept waiting for that breakthrough point where everything would be clear and I would know exactly what I needed to do to succeed. It never came.

System limitations should have prevented this game from ever making it to the NES. The learning curve is so steep that getting into the game and learning what makes you successful is nearly impossible.  That said, the system limitations reduce the complexity and make the game beatable for the lucky devil who can hit upon the exact right formula.  What hopes to be a very smooth and engaging micro-management game turns out to be an extremely hard challenge, even for the gamer experienced in these sorts of games.  I played for five hours, all on the easiest level, and never once controlled more than half of the galaxy.  Overlord earns its spot at #10 on the list of hardest NES games ever.

Baby, you don't argue with Thomas Jefferson.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 20

Dragon's Lair

Keeping with the theme of games that look spectacular, but fail to deliver in the game play department, let us turn our attention to perhaps the greatest affront to classic video games and text book example of the theme:  Dragon's Lair.  Fans of Don Bluth's definitional laserdisc arcade masterpiece, please look away now.  Seriously, leave the room, don't read the rest of today's entry, just go do something.  Don't let this take a part of your soul the way it did mine.

When I heard that there was a Dragon's Lair game for the NES, I was shocked and skeptical (heck I was shocked and skeptical when I heard there was one for the SNES).  There was no way they could pull off a good Dragon's Lair game for such a simple system (and yet they would do just that for the Gameboy Color...).  And I was right.  If you put in Dragon's Lair for the NES with the expectation of seeing the titillating Princess Daphne in all, or any, of her glory, then you are a fool. Oh, I'm sure she's in there, but she don't look like this.

This is not to say that the game doesn't look amazing.  It does.  As a matter of fact it looks far too awesome to suck as royally as it manages to.  With the exception of Dirk, the sprites look really cool, the backgrounds are a little sparse in places, but colorful and well detailed the rest of the time, and the attempts to capture and translate aspects of the arcade game are all very much right there. But all of that amazing packaging is for absolute naught as the game fails to deliver in the most fundamental aspect: it is virtually unplayable.
But this looks so cool!  Look at the Lizard King!

I say "virtually," because the game is in fact playable.  Like many games on this list, there is a steep learning curve that keeps the game from being instantly engaging and pick-up-and-play ready, but even with that learning curve the execution of the game play is just flat out clunky.  Clunky, I said.  The first major problem is that Dirk moves like he is slogging through molasses.  If you have played or even seen the original Dragon's Lair, you know that Dirk is certainly not lacking in the spryness department.  Character inconsistencies aside, a platforming game with a debilitatingly slow main character is a recipe for disaster already.  Compound that with an awkward jumping mechanic and sloth-like responsiveness, and you've got a frustration machine masquerading as a video game.  Dirk does nothing quickly or adroitly, so you'll not be able to make any sudden moves or adept maneuvers to stay out of danger.

None of these miserable controls are helped by the plodding level design.  While most of the levels are pretty straightforward, their designs are not ideally suited to the control scheme.  There are lots of false floors that only crumble once you are upon them; and with Dirk's decrepit reflexes no way off to avoid death.  There are some enemies that kill you outright (read "most") and some that only chip away at your energy level, but either way you'll be dying a lot and usually very suddenly, particularly when enemies pop out of nowhere like those orange and black snakes.  The later levels also ask you to make a lot of very tricky jumps and dodge a lot of traps in succession.  These become finesse puzzles more than action sequences and often want you to do a lot of trial and error to discover the perfect path through the peril.

The only screen most players will ever see...
Let me give you an example of all of this.  The first screen: The Drawbridge.  In the original DL, all you had to do was fall down a hole, swipe at a moat monster, climb up and run into the castle (took about 20 seconds if you did it right).  In the NES version this is a pretty similar situation, although falling through the drawbridge = death, so don't do it.  Instead, you first approach the bridge and throw a knife at an oncoming bat, then you must jump over the hole (which only crumbles after you step on it), and land on a "safe" part of the bridge.  Once there, a sea serpent will bust up through the bridge to attack you.  You cannot attack the serpent where you are, Dirk's knife throwing skills toss the blades right over it. Instead, you must turn around (not as easy or quick as it sounds), jump back over the hole, walk all the way to the left and duck.  Why duck?  Because by this time the sea serpent is spitting fireballs at you.  Ducking, by the way, takes about 30 seconds, so be ready.  While ducking, you can lob a few knives at the serpent, but he will sink back down.  So you must stand up to get him to peek out at you.  Riddle him with as many knives as you can before he starts spitting again, then duck.  Repeat until he is dead.  After that, the bats come back and you must knife them as you jump, again, over the original hole and the new hole made by the sea serpent.  Do it successfully and you are in the castle.  Oh there is a "Gold Token" at the top of the screen if you dare try to jump for it.

All told that will take you about a half an hour to learn and master, even after I have told you exactly how to do it.  Furthermore, just doing those simple things takes about 2 minutes.  In any other game, that is a 15 second screen.  Now imagine an entire game built around that kind of fun.

At the end of the day, I found Dragon's Lair to be far more playable than I had originally assessed and as had been rumored, but I did not find it to be fun.  I think the game is beatable.  There are a couple of points in the later levels where you can earn an extra life early on in the level so that you can virtually keep trying over and over until you get it right without having to start entirely over from the beginning.  This really helps, but as you get to the later levels, you face much greater challenges.  I think you have to look at Dragon's Lair like a puzzle game with platforming elements rather than a true platforming game.  If you do that, and forget that there should be anything like real action, you stand a better chance of overcoming the learning curve and making progress.  In my five hours , I actually managed to get pretty far (I think two levels from the end), however I that may only be because I was forced to. I don't think the average gamer is going to make it past the Drawbridge without financial incentive.  The learning curve is just too steep and the controls are so inconsistent with the game play that the game is far more difficult than it needs to be and easily one of the hardest NES games out there.
Sorry, kids, the sweet Singe figure is NOT included, although it IS cooler than the game...