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Buying Guide: The Nintendo Entertainment System

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NES

We all love our retro consoles, but in many cases the consoles we are buying are because they are cheap enough or we have enough money to purchase what we never were able to in our youth.  Unfortunately the business of making used retro items available to the masses can at times be a money grubbing market where consumers are deceived by people they will never meet in real life.  As an individual who has spent the last decade scouring the local area, conventions, eBay, and the internet as a whole I have learned many valuable lessons.  For that reason I present my buying guide series, which is a handy quick guide to knowing what to purchase and what will cost an arm and a leg to replace.

Most of us that are over 30 and grew up gaming had a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) at one point or another in our collection, so it’s not that common to have a reseller screw you over with a used console.  Still, I think it’s best to know exactly what you need to look for in your NES so here’s the official list of items that should be included in a used console:

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Written by Fred Rojas

December 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm

The Japanese Always Get The Better Version: Contra (Famicom)

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contra_boxConsole: NES/Famicom
Released: 1988
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Instruction Manual: Not Necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $26.01 (used), $399.95 (new) (pricecharting.com
Other Releases: Yes – Arcade, Microcomputers, PS2, DS (all are the Arcade version)
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version), XBLA/PSN (Arcade ver) ($5 on all platforms)

With box art that is clearly Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone combining forces to be in a franchise that belongs to neither, Alien, this game has it all.  For the most part you and potential partner rush through eight levels, including a jungle that is ripped straight out of Predator, to attack bad guys and eventually aliens.  It’s a confusing game in America because nothing is spelled out for you, the game just drops you in the jungle without any plot, scene, or explanation.  Now that I’ve played the Famicom version (and the video below will show the complete game to you as well), it looks like there’s a decent plot that unfolds.  Since I don’t know Japanese nor can I read Kanji, what is actually conveyed is a mystery to me, but I’m sure the translated explanation is only a Google search away.  Contra not only introduced us to a frustrating and fun franchise, but it’s also where most of us learned the Konami code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start).  If you put this into the title screen you would begin the game with 30 lives (if you instead end the code with Select before Start you can start a two player game with both players having 30 lives), which was the only way most of us could beat the game when we were younger.  After years of practice I can now complete the game with the given 3 lives, although not flawlessly, and I prove it in the video below. 

contra_jpn_cart

The Famicom version I’ve always heard is “enhanced” over the NES version and the two are worth roughly the same amount, so when I was picking up the title at a retro show I opted for the Japanese version.  It’s not really that different, but the changes of note are the aforementioned cutscenes, moving backgrounds, and slightly easier difficulty.  Either way it just goes to show that the Japanese version of most games will always be the better version.  Then again when this title released in Europe it was renamed to Probotector and features robots instead of humans (although in either version the enemies pop and explode).  Without further ado, I give you the completion video of Contra on the Famicom.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 7, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Genre Study: Japanese RPGs (JRPGs)

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jrpg

Nowadays when people refer to a “JRPG” it’s either associated with a flood of nostalgic love for a handful of long-running series or a groan as modern Japanese companies try to capture the form of evolution that many game players strive for.  This is because modern day JRPGs aren’t a whole lot different from the ones that started life and popularity back in the 16-bit era in Japan and the 32-bit era in America.  If you’re not too familiar with or have never played any of these games, modern or classic, you may wonder why games that follow a well-known and successful formula may fail.  Sure, gamers’ tastes have changed to a certain extent, but there’s still plenty of us that love to play these classic titles and have no problem sinking tens of hundreds of hours into beating them all over again.  Unfortunately for modern titles of this ilk, they suffer from a lack of resources and that personal touch that made the older games so charming.  Even when they do, like the recent Wii release The Last Story, these titles still can’t hold a candle to the heavy hitters of history.  As a result fans of the genre have pretty much independently decided to freeze this genre, and its subsequent games, in time and appreciate that era as exactly that: a specific time of genre-specific gaming bliss.  This makes it difficult for modern gamers trying to break into the genre because the amount of time to complete most games is much lower these days, lack of explanation and exploration are things of the past, and the price tags on the “classics” are either sky high or dirt cheap for the “poor ports.”  For that reason, we’ve compiled a basic overview of the genre as a whole, it’s roots, and the factors that make a title considered JRPG.  At the end we also suggest a handful of very accessible titles that are good for those starting out, especially with many of the classics porting to handhelds with varying results, and will continue coverage throughout this site.

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Review: Retro City Rampage

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Every now and again a video game comes out that completely embraces the culture of growing up with gaming, most of these developers being in their 30s and were kids in the 80s during the so-called “Nintendo Generation”.  These games borrow commonalities with their aged ancestors, but refine the years of innovation and can generate an even better title than was possible back then.  Retro City Rampage (RCR) doesn’t really do that.  Instead, this game packs itself to the brim with 80s pop culture references while walking, talking, and acting just like a classic 8-bit Nintendo game.  While the nostalgia factor, especially for a gamer like me and readers like you, is always a welcome addition, it does cloud the focus of the developers to the point that the gameplay is a jack of all trades and expert of none.

Retro City Rampage actually started life back on the original NES as a homebrew project.  Designer Brian Provinciano began the project in 2002, building his own NES dev kit and trying to “demake” – a term used for modern games remade on classic consoles – his favorite titles, one of which was Grand Theft Auto III.  For years he was creating technical breakthroughs on Nintendo’s old gray box and possibly pulled off a faithful demake entitled Grand Theftendo before deciding to scrap the NES limitations and continue in PC development.  By 2007 he decided to integrate some classic game references (leading to pop culture references as well) and eventually creating the original title Retro City Rampage.  If this hasn’t already become abundantly clear, those that didn’t grow up playing Nintendo games will likely be lost on the (sometimes obscure) references.  That doesn’t stop this GTA clone from still being an amusing romp and shouldn’t discourage anyone who would like to check out what is ultimately a decent-sized game that doesn’t lose pace, even at the end.

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Written by Fred Rojas

October 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Podcast: NES Business Practices

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It’s been a very busy week, but we at Gaming History 101 will never disappoint or miss a week.  In this Fred Rojas solocast we discuss the various practices that Nintendo imposed on the US NES market to basically secure profit on every game and control competition to remain the only game in town.  Stories abound and a partial introduction to the company Tengen and why they are one of the only companies with unique NES carts.


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Written by Fred Rojas

October 11, 2012 at 11:41 am

Games You’ve (probably) Never Played: Zombie Nation (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1991
Developer: KAZe
Publisher: Meldac
Famicom? Yes (as Abarenbou Tengu Translation: Hooligan Tengu)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? No
Value: $187.49 (used) $127.61 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Digital Release? No

Aside from the steep price tag, there are few games on the NES that are like Zombie Nation.  Not only is it it an original horizontal scrolling shmup, but it does many technical tricks not often seen on the console.  Starting with the title screen, which has a line effect that resembles many arcade shmups of the time period, there is a lot happening onscreen at any given time.  The NES would often suffer stuttering or slowdown when the screen was flooded with only a few enemies – heck, Double Dragon couldn’t have more than three characters on screen at once!  Zombie Nation has far more than that with little slowdown and even background effects with everything from burning buildings to guiding lasers.  Additionally the boss battles and frantic later levels would dowse the screen in bulletfire, making it a precursor to the popular “danmaku” genre of shmups that emerged in the mid 90s.    Did I also mention it’s fun as hell?

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Written by Fred Rojas

October 6, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Know this Publisher: Sunsoft

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Normally we focus on developers, the true makers of video games, but it’s also important to focus on the publishers responsible for making sure we ever see the game in stores.  In many cases these notable publishers are the ones that grab a bunch of smaller developed or imported games and grants them release in another region.

Sunsoft was such a great publisher back in the days of the NES.  Back in those days the few of us who read the labels of game boxes didn’t normally notice a developer, but rather a the publisher logo (although to be fair the two were often the same).  Whenever the Sunsoft logo crossed your boxed copy you could almost guarantee two things about it that normally don’t go together: 1.) your game would be a license game 2.) it would be good.  Yes, you read that correctly, Sunsoft made good licensed games on the NES.  As time continued, Sunsoft got more linked in with lackluster mascot games of the 16-bit era, but that doesn’t stop them from still being a publisher worth noting.  In fact, had it not been for Sunsoft porting many a game that wasn’t slated for release outside of Japan, we may never have seen these classics.  Oh yeah and Blaster Master, they made that too.

Atlantis No Nazo box art

Sunsoft is not in any way related to the short-lived SunSoft that was part of Sun Microsystems in America, but rather a subsidiary of Sun Denshi (or Sun Electronics) that entered the video game realm in the late 1970s.  When the publisher/developer opened a branch in the United States it went under the title Sunsoft of America but the logo still remained simply “Sunsoft”.  They developed mostly unknown games on arcades at that time: Arabian, Ikki, and Kangaroo – a weird hybrid of Donkey Kong and Popeye – but it wasn’t until the company moved to the NES that it really started making waves.  Sunsoft developed arcade ports and original Famicom games in Japan, mostly odd titles that would never come out over here like Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi (English: Stations of the Tokaido), which is a side scrolling action platformer where you play Kintaro, a fireworks salesman and use fireworks as a weapon.  Of the most famous is a kusoge (Japanese slang for cult video games that literally translates to “sh*tty game”) known as Atlantis No Nazo (English: Mystery of Atlantis), which has the player navigating an explorer through 100 levels of platforming.  What most don’t know is that the hit detection is horrendous and the platforming physics are a crash course in masochism, not to mention the game doesn’t move linearly (ie: you don’t necessarily go onto level 4 when you beat level 3).  Like most other games of the 8-bit era, a game over results in you completely starting over and the real aggravating part is that the game is completed by doing a sequence of about seven brutal stages in a certain order (including hidden warp zones).  Without having the information from the onset, I’d safely declare this title impossible.

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Written by Fred Rojas

August 17, 2012 at 11:06 am

Head to Head: Super Mario Bros. 2

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Ask anyone who grew up playing NES games and they will tell you that Super Mario Bros. 2 was somewhat of an anomaly.  It is completely unlike the other games in the series, complete with an Arabian theme, veggie-pulling, the option to select one of four protagonists, and Bowser (King Koopa) is nowhere to be seen.  Fortunately for Nintendo it blended right in with sequels to various other popular franchises in the console, including the radically different Zelda II: Adventures of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.  As a seven-year-old gamer back then I shrugged it off and said, “why not?”  It may shock you to discover that the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is not actually the intended sequel to the original Super Mario Bros., nor is it in Japan.  The true Super Mario Bros. 2 is better known as Lost Levels in America and our Super Mario Bros. 2 began life as the game Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic! and based on a Saturday morning cartoon in Japan and was later re-worked, improved, and re-released as Super Mario Bros. USA.  Both versions of Super Mario Bros. 2 are as different as two games can get and thus warrant a head to head.

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Written by Fred Rojas

August 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Review: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1990
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Famicom? Yes (as Akumajo Densetsu – English Translation: Devil’s Castle Legend )
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $12.25 (used) $172.82 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $15-$20 (used) $289.00-$500.00 (new) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version) – $5.00

What are you supposed to do?

Castlevania III returns to its roots and is an action platformer.  Unlike the original, the game isn’t entirely linear, giving you branching paths along your way.  Of the game’s 15 levels, you will play 9-10 of them depending on your decisions, eventually making your way to Dracula.

Review

As one of the later games on the NES, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is surrounded by technical mastery.  In fact, it utilizes such an expansive amount of supplemental hardware (ie: chips) that the Japanese version isn’t even capable of working with the NES (unless you modify it, of course) and the US version is incompatible with “famiclone” systems.  For all that work, however, Castlevania III is a great title that impresses on all fronts.  Back to the extra hardware – the memory management controller chip, version 5 (MMC5) allowed the game to be playable on the NES albeit at the cost of some of the impressive sounds and graphics in the Japanese version.  This doesn’t mean it’s bad by any means, the game still looks and sounds better than a majority of games ever released on the console, it’s just that the Japanese version is a bit better thanks to the VRC6 microprocessor.  Normally I don’t gush on video game soundtracks, because save for a select few I don’t really consider it a notable factor.  This is one of those rare cases that I must say the game sounds amazing, in any form.  1up’s own Jeremy Parish captured the difference in a YouTube video that I have provided below so you can hear the difference for yourself.

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Written by Fred Rojas

July 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Review: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1988
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Famicom? Yes (as Dorakyura Tsu: Noroi no Fuin – English Translation: Dracula 2: The Seal of the Curse )
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $4.80 (used) $195.00 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $15-$20 (used) $400.00-$1,000 (new) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version) – $5.00

What are you supposed to do?

Control Simon Belmont through an open world and collect the five scattered body parts of Dracula and a magical cross.  Once all of these items have been discovered, Simon returns to Dracula’s castle and assembles the parts to fight and kill Dracula, who has put a curse on Belmont.  Depending on how fast you can complete the game, you will be given one of three endings.

Review

In Konami’s follow-up to Castlevania, the developer attempts to refine the game mechanics and make the sequel quite different from the original, as many NES games at the time were doing, with RPG elements.  Simon Belmont can level up, purchase upgrades and weapons from townspeople, and freely explore an open world.  The gameplay of fighting enemies remains mostly the same, however with the new open world format there is little direction as to where to go but blocked paths and out of reach ledges due to not having the right item streamlines it into a somewhat linear experience.  In addition, day and night cycles keep the player on their toes as night time removes the safety of villages and doubles the strength of enemies.  At face value the concept of this game was great, but there are some big issues that prevented us from enjoying it then and now.

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Written by Fred Rojas

July 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm