The Video Games of 1991
The Good, The Bad, The WTF
The Games of 1991
[align=center][i]The Good, The Bad, The WTF. . .[/align][/i]
Like everybody else reading this article, I happen to like video games. In fact, I like them so much that I have written several articles about my experiences with a number of consoles and titles over the years here at Retro Junk. It is a subject that I never really seem to get tired of talking about. . .just when you think you have played every video game you thought was worthwhile, you suddenly find out about four or five that you have never heard of, that turn out to be all sorts of awesome.
When I reflect back on my gaming years, it is amazing just how much I managed to recollect. There are some games that I played JUST ONCE twenty years ago that I still recall fairly vividly today. . .which is a pretty telling statement, considering most days, I cannot even tell you what I had for breakfast that morning.
Sometimes, we like to reflect on our days of retro gaming with rose tinted glasses - even the games that, admittedly, sucked still have this distinct, nostalgic air about them today. I really doubt anyone feels like going back and playing the REALLY bad games of 2001, but for some reason, reliving crappy games of twenty years ago is actually sort of fun, in a very bizarre way. Twenty year from now, I HIGHLY doubt that we will be able to say that about the really lame games released for the Wii, PS3, or 360.
1991 was a pretty unique year for gaming. That was the year the Super Nintendo hit the US, and the Game Boy finally hit its stride. Of course, you also had the Sega Genesis and the NES, which were still churning out fantastic games by the truckload. And heck, there were even third party consoles, like the Atari Lynx, the Turbo-Grafix 16, and the Neo Geo, all of which were home to some truly outstanding exclusive titles. And if that was not enough, new cabinets were arriving in arcades across the U.S. on a weekly basis, introducing millions of gamers to titles that would soon revolutionize the way we play games.
There were great games. There were good games. There were games that were way better than they had any right to be. There were games that were just mediocre, some that were EXTREMELY disappointing, and yes, a number of games that just flat out blew. And to top it all off, there were a number of games so bizarre, so surreal, and so freaking out there that all you can do is think WTF while you stare vacantly at the screen.
1991: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and every now and then, it was the weirdest of times. These are the games we spent tons of quarters on, and the games we rushed home from school to play. These are the games that sucked up our Triple A batteries, and swallowed up our weekends whole. These are the games we rented, the games we obsessed over, and the games we loathed. These are the good, the bad, and the WTF. Ladies and genetlemen, I present to you:
The Games of 1991
The Amazing Spider Man Vs. The Kingpin
Really, what more can be said about this kick ass Sega Genesis game? Odds are, if you owned a Genesis circa 1991, you probably owned this game, and unless you are a bona-fide mongo, absolutely loved every chip and micro processor in the cartridge. To be fair, in retrospect, it does have some flaws - for what it is worth, it is a pretty short game, which a lot of people tend to overlook because that final boss fight is just INSANELY difficult. Even so, this is a game that TRULY nailed the Spider Man experience, and had so many neat little touches (like having to photograph enemies to score money for web fluid and using a fire hydrant to take out the Sandman) that even today, it is kind of impressive. The ambience of the game was what really knocked it out of the park for me - at certain points in the game, the game felt a little scary, which considering the fact that you are throwing down with rogues like The Lizard and Hobgoblin, is really a boon to the whole gaming experience. Of course, the mini-boss fights against the dude in a forklift and the escaped gorilla kind of detract from that point, but it does not really matter - The Amazing Spider Man vs. The Kingpin was one of the definitive Genesis games of the early 90s, and a damned fun game to spend an afternoon on today.
Jaleco was a really tremendous (and if you ask me, quite underrated) little publisher. While they are perhaps best known for their console titles, the company actually released a number of arcade games during the late 80s and early 90s, and Avenging Spirit is one of their hidden gems. The game itself was really ahead of its time, as it features cartoony, Contra inspired action (which was later mimicked by SNK s Metal Slug series) fused with an enemy possession mechanic (which was used in The Haunting! On the Genesis in 1993, and Geist on the Gamecube in 2005), with even a little bit of Mega Man-esque platforming thrown in for good measure. That, and the story is actually halfway decent for a coin-op title from the timeframe - imagine, if you will, a mixture of Astro Boy and the Patrick Swayze film Ghost, and you sort of have an idea of the game s plot structure. If you never got around to playing this one in the arcades, I d highly advise you to try and find this one through emulation, as it really is one of the true lost classics of the early half of the decade.
Oh, THIS game. Although Battletoads has basically become synonymous with frustrating gaming, it is still a remarkable little action game, and one of the last truly great titles to be released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Although now it is kind of easy to overlook what Battletoads did, at the time, it was really an extremely inventive game, as very few NES releases fused game playing genres together, let alone as seamlessly and successfully as Trade West did on this game. Essentially, Battletoads gives you pretty much EVERYTHING you could want in a Nintendo game - side scrolling beat em up action, challenging platform levels, and of course, those racing stages. . .which, needless to say, have resulted in more than a few shattered NES controllers over the years. That, and we cannot count out those bungee cord stages, or the hyper innovative (and hyper-lengthy) carousel levels that turned the horizontal brawler into a unique, vertical experience. Sure, sure, the legacy of this game may be one of two-player agitation, but it remains a seriously fun (although occasionally blood-boiling) title all these years later.
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
OK, everybody has at least HEARD of the NES version of the game, and while that one pretty much DESERVES all of the derision it gets, the rarely-spoke of Atari Lynx iteration of the game is actually pretty enjoyable. For those of you that never got your hands on a Lynx, you really do not know what you missed out on - in many ways, the Lynx can be considered the Dreamcast of handheld consoles. While Bill and Ted is FAR from being the best game on the system, it really is not a bad little action-adventure game - in fact, it is a WAY better quasi-RPG than most NES games within the genre from that same point in time. Sure, the graphics do blur a bit, and the sound is not exactly the best chip tune audio in the world, but for a handheld experience, you really do get a lot for your money here - and for the fans of the short lived Bill and Ted Saturday morning cartoon (yeah, both of you), this is probably the ONLY half-way decent video game to feature that particular license.
Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball
If you think crappy, third party launch games are a new phenomenon, think again - this sports clunker was released around the North American launch of the Super Nintendo, and yeah, it is as bad as the god awful box art would lead you to believe. Hey, remember how Nintendo was always going on and on about Mode 7 graphics - you know, that hardware trick that created the illusion of depth and whatnot? Well, in this game, ALL of the dribbling animations are animated via that method - which means, basically, that the ball is a perpetual flicker on the screen. Trust me, that gets REALLY annoying after about five minutes of playing. Also, the game is EXTREMELY simplified, so you use one button to do EVERYTHING in the game - shoot for the basket, pass to your teammate, pick up a power-up, punch an opponent, so on and so forth. And to top it off, the game play itself is molasses slow - all in all, this game is about as much fun as playing an old copy of Arch Rivals with one hand tied behind your back.
Blaster Master Boy
Now this game is the definition of obscure. As much as people loved the original NES Blaster Master, a sequel was never released on the Nintendo (although one was in the planning stages, it was eventually scrapped and re-worked for the Sega Genesis). That said, Hudson did indeed release a sort of sequel for the Game Boy, which was called Blaster Master Boy in the States, and Blaster Master Jr. everywhere else. The only thing about the game is this - it really is not a Blaster Master game. In fact, it is actually a sequel to RoboWarrior, a game that was based on yet another game, Bomberman. So yeah, this is technically a follow-up to RoboWarrior (and a distant offshoot of Bomberman), only with the sprite of the main character adjusted ever so slightly to resemble the hero of the original Blaster Master game. If you were a fan of the original, I really cannot say whether or not you will dig this game, as it eschews a lot of the elements that people loved about the first game (for example, that amphibious tank everybody raved about? Not included here). Still, if you really, REALLY liked RoboWarrior, and do not mind re-playing that game on a monochrome screen, then you may want to search the Mom and Pop s for a loose copy of this one. For everybody else though. . .maybe it is best just to hit up a ROM instead.
The Turbo Grafix 16 was such an awesome console. While the TG-16 was a hit worldwide, its sold about as well in the Unites States as a metric measuring tape. That is really a shame, because some of the absolute best games of the early 90s came out for the system nobody owned - including this early decade gem, which may be one of the absolute BEST 2D plat formers of all time. In a just world, this thing would have become a gaming sensation, making it a system seller on par with Super Mario World and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Sadly, while that never came to be, the game itself is still absolutely amazing, and a must-play for any serious retro gamer. Bonk s Revenge merges the platforming goodness of the Mario series (complete with zany power ups) with the tried-and-true Capcom action-adventure formula. If you liked games like DuckTales or Little Nemo: The Dream Master, you will positively ADORE this title. Additionally, not only does Bonk s Revenge have some of the best game play of any plat former out there, it also has some of the best graphics and sound of any early 90s home console release. Simply put, if you never got around to playing this one, hit it up on the Virtual Console ASAP.
Since nobody I knew had an extra $3,000 to kick around, I never got my hands on an NEO-GEO console - in fact, the astronomical retail price of the machine meant that a good 99 percent of the gaming public would NEVER get an opportunity to shove one of those huge ass cartridges into an SNK branded system. As such, Burning Fight was a relatively enjoyable side scrolling beat em up - think, if you will, of a game like Final Fight or Streets of Rage here. Burning Fight had a lot of really neat touches, like the ability to go into stores and cause massive property damage - since the game also allowed you to pick up items like purses and broaches for health points, I think it kind of goes without saying that the moral tone of this game is indelibly an ambiguous one. Although the game contained a number of celebrity look alike bosses - including enemies clearly modeled after Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, the game is perhaps most noteworthy for containing one of the most WTF opponents in the history of gaming. At one point, you are approached by a homeless character that attempts to attack you by. . .well, let us just say that it is something you DEFINITELY do not want a homeless person doing to you with his mouth. If you want to give this game a try, it is available on the SNK Arcade Classics compilation that was released a few years back for the PSP and Wii - worth the initial $500 asking price, it is not, but it is a fun little diversion for about an hour or so.
Captain America and the Avengers
Data East, the same guys that brought you Double Dragon and Bad Dudes, bring you this four player arcade brawler, featuring heavy Marvel hitters like Iron Man, Hawkeye and The Vision, as well as good old Steve Rogers himself. At some point in the 90s, you simply HAD to have dropped a couple of quarters in this one, or if you are super hardcore, maybe you even dropped about five bucks in quarters to reach that climactic boss fight against the Red Skull. While this game is not exactly the best beat em up of the timeframe (hell, I would not even call it the best arcade beat em up of the timeframe with a Marvel license), it definitely has a lot of things going for it, like the ultra cheesy comic dialogue and the inclusion of some SUPER obscure foes like Whirlwind and The Living Laser, and who out there DOES NOT want to experience the joy of Iron Man throwing a Coke Machine at a robot assassin first hand? Not a great arcade game by any stretch, but a fairly memorable one, if only for the highly-desirable and beloved Avengers license.
Capcom made some tremendous arcade brawlers in the early 90s, and Captain Commando is one of their great, unsung works. I think a lot of that (OK, pretty much ALL OF THAT) has to do with the fact that it is an original intellectual property - if this thing had a solid movie, TV or comic license, it would be remembered as one of the great coin-op offerings of the day. Even so, Captain Commando is a SUPER fun four player ass kicker, featuring perhaps the most eclectic cast EVER in a side scrolling beat em up: there is the titular character (an intergalactic cyborg cop), your stereotypical ninja (who has the ability to LITERALLY slice adversaries in half), a Martian mummy, and, if you can believe it, a baby operating a robotic golem. How the hell this thing never become a Saturday morning cartoon is WAY beyond me. Yeah, the game does have some flaws, particularly the repetitive game play and the ridiculously hard to kill bosses, but then again, what brawler from the timeframe DID NOT have that same problem? Any way you cut it, Captain Commando is a top-notch arcade game, and a game you seriously need to track down on a compilations disc if you have not played it for some utterly inane reason.
Yeah, we all know the saying about NES games based on movies usually sucking, but Darkman is actually a pretty enjoyable little action-platform game - hard as all hell, but still, a pretty entertaining little offering. For starters, this is one of the few movie tie-in games for the Nintendo Entertainment System that seems to revere and follow the mythos of the actual license. There are so many neat little odes to the movie in the game that makes it all the more endearing to fans of the 1990 Sam Raimi movie - heck, even the in game timer is that dipping duck prop from the first film. Darkman is a game that really does a lot of things different with the tried and true platform genre. Among other things, you HAVE to take running starts to make jumps, and before you can masquerade as someone, you have to take their photograph first. So yeah, Darkman is SORTA like Metal Gear and Golgo 13, only with way more emphasis on the Mario style game play. Of course, the game does have some flaws (the health system and the tight rope walking controls, namely), but for gamers out there that enjoy a challenging 8-bit experience, Darkman may very well be a game you might consider investing a weekend afternoon on.
Dracula The Undead
As a kid, I absolutely hated adventure games, so this game was originally about as appealing to me as a lukewarm can of Faygo. It was not until WAY later that I developed a taste for games like Shadowgate and Deja Vu, and upon revisiting this title. . .yeah, I still thought it sucked. Not to be confused with Castlevania or the 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Dracula the Undead is an Atari Lynx game that moves at an unbelievably stilted tempo. Oddly enough, the game begins with an introduction from Bram Stoker himself, who calls the game an interactive novel. Basically, that means you are basically playing with a brick for the next three hours, as you wander aimlessly around a puke-green castle trying to find keys while avoiding red herrings (and yeah, there are plenty of those to be found, in case you are wondering). Do not let the box art fool you here - instead of being a kick ass combination of Castlevania and Night Trap, this thing is just a tedious mess hardly worth anybody s time.
There is no denying that the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck games on the Genesis rule. Castle of Illusion, Quackshot, World of Illusion. . .all awesome games, and all games worthy of your collection. This game, however, is a surprisingly BAD game, which seems to lack any and all of the whimsy and wonder that made the afore-mentioned games beloved classics of the 16 bit era. For one thing, the animation and music in this thing is remarkably bad, and the level design is recycled numerous times. There really is not that much variety in the actual game play, and the in-game enemies are boring, forgettable, and typically a breeze to get past. Hell, the game even LACKS a proper boss fight with the devil in the end, which is sort of like making a game based on The Lion King in which Scar IS NOT the final boss in the title. If you are looking to get your 16 bit Disney fix, I would highly suggest looking elsewhere, since pretty much every Mickey Mouse game from the timeframe is superior to this one.
Hey, do you remember an OLD, OLD assed game show on Nickelodeon called Fun House? Well, even a grizzled veteran like me barely recalls the program, but I seem to remember the gist of the show involving kids running around a cluttered maze trying to find red tags amidst a sea of debris. Yeah, it is the kind of concept that really does not seem to lend itself very well to an NES game, and guess what? IT DOES NOT. The makers of this game did not even bother making the game comparable to the television program. Instead, the game feels sort of like Smash TV, only instead of gunning your way through an ocean of bullets and mutants, you run around shooting these lame ass red dots at glowing orbs in increasingly larger rooms. In that, I can think of at least two misnomers about this game s title: outside of having NOTHING at all to do with a house, you probably will not find much fun within the cartridge, either.
If you do not remember this game from Nick Arcade, you have failed as a child of the 90s. This SNK top down shooter is fairly comparable to games like 1942. In fact, it even borrows the World War II theme from Capcom's venerable series, although in my humble opinion, SNK does a better job with the finished product. The thing I really liked about this game was the fact that it was so straight forward - unlike games like Gradius or Raiden (which I still really like, by the way), Ghost Pilots was all about the straight up shooting action, so that means no laser cannons or alien fire balls come into play here. Granted, it does take quite a few liberties with the historical background of WWII, but it is forgivable, seeing as how the game plays so smoothly. That, and the game features one of the best co-op SHMUP experiences of the early decade - if you are looking for a terrific two-player shoot em up, look no further than this title.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
You really would not expect Gremlins 2 to be a great game, but as far as movie games on the NES are concerned, it is actually pretty damned phenomenal. For one, the graphics in this game are down right fantastic for an 8-bit release, and the soundtrack is definitely above average for the time frame. Usually, I am not a fan of top down platforming games, but this one manages to pull that particular setup off rather nicely. That, AND it actually manages to stay faithful to the source material, as you find yourself collecting various objects to construct a Rambo-like bow and arrow by rummaging through cable television sets and very familiar looking office spaces. Really, the only negative thing I can say about this game is its difficulty - not only is this game INSANELY difficult, it also has some of the toughest (and unfortunately, slipperiest) jumping controls you will find on the NES. If you are up for a truly skill-testing platform game (and especially if you dig the Gremlins franchise), this is a game you REALLY need to give a try.
The Harlem Globetrotters
In theory, a video game based on the Harlem Globetrotters sounds like a no-brainer. I mean, really, an NBA Street / NBA Jam type arcade basketball game with that license could not possibly suck, right? Well, the problem here is that it is almost IMPOSSIBLE to create something like that on an 8-bit console. While And1 style dunks and dribbles can be recreated on a 16 bit machine, asking the NES to do something like that is a recipe for disappointment - and although it really should not come as a shock to anybody, this is NOT a very good game. Despite the inclusion of the Globetrotters, the game plays out like a basic 8-bit basketball title. In fact, you would be hard pressed to differentiate this game from any number of generic B-ball games on the Nintendo, like Hoops or Magic Johnson s Fast Break. I suppose the selling point for the game was that it allowed four players to play simultaneously using the 4Score Adapter. . .you know, for the eight people that actually paid good money on such a worthless accessory. Long story short, there really is not anything here that you need to go out of your way to see. . .unless of course, you just HAVE to play as the Washington Generals at least once before you die.
Yeah, it is pretty hard to go into this one with high hopes, but it is actually a QUASI enjoyable action-platform hybrid. Granted, it is not a great game (or even a really good one, at that), but the NES version of the doomed Bruce Willis crime caper is a far more entertaining offering than the film that inspired it. In this game, you play a super deformed Bruce, running around museums in order to steal priceless statues and paintings. Armed with only your fists and some baseballs, you have to sneak your way under video cameras, avoid laser traps, knock out security guards and solve a series of switch puzzles in order to navigate your way through the game s multitude of labyrinthine levels. By no means am I trying to be a Hudson Hawk apologist here, but for all intents and purposes, this is a much better game than it had any right to be - and if you have been avoiding it all these years, you may just be pleasantly surprised when you finally get your hands on a copy.
James Bond, Jr.
Hey, do you remember the short lived Fox Kids show James Bond, Jr.? Well, nobody else does, either, but apparently, it was popular enough to inspire at least one video game before it got the axe. James Bond, Jr. plays out like your standard left-to-right action game: think, if you will, a very, VERY relaxed Contra, only with WAY more jumping sections. As shocking as it may sound, this is not a very memorable game, as the most notable thing about the title I recall was the absurdity of the character s ability to sustain damage. In the game, you can jump twenty feet in the air, fall from eight hundred feet, land on your face and get shot twenty times, point blank, right in the skull, and your life bar BARELY dwindles away. However, as soon as you touch just a drop of water - you re dead before you even have time to hit the jump button. The designers here tried to be a little different and incorporated a few puzzle sections, but at the end of the day, this is just another generic action game. It is not bad, it is not good, it is just. . .meh. You can do worse, but at the same time, you can do A LOT better, too.
Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters
Twenty years and one Super Smash Bros. appearance later, this is STILL the last time we got our hands on a full fledged Kid Icarus game. While we all anxiously await the upcoming 3DS game, this is a game that you should really give a try if you never got a chance to back in 91. Essentially, the game is a Metroid-Vania action-plat former, which should make the game instantly accessible to anyone that grew up on Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid. The levels in this game are pretty long, and for a relatively early Game Boy release, it is a fairly lengthy title - odds are, it will take you at LEAST a month or two to get through the thing, pending you do not cheat and hit up the GAMEFAQS with the game paused. Granted, the game does have some notable flaws, primarily, an emphasis on grinding in order to procure enough hearts to purchase some much needed hammers and rejuvenation potion. However, the game also has some damned terrific boss fights, and the vertical-horizontal-side scrolling game play will definitely keep you entertained for a lot longer than you may expect. An all time classic, it may not be, but it is still a title worth playing, pending your toaster sized original Game Boy still works. . .
King of the Monsters
Hey, another SNK game made famous by Nick Arcade! Now, I am not saying that the company paid off Nickelodeon to feature their games on the program, but let s face it: they probably did. Payola or not, King of the Monsters is a ridiculously entertaining game that serves as something of a hybrid between a Godzilla movie and a pro wrestling game. You choose between a number of monsters, all of whom bare an uncanny resemblance to certain famous movie villains, including Godzilla, King Kong, and for some reason, and eighty foot dude wearing a green and purple Captain America costume. Yeah, do not ask about that one. Anyway, the game consists of matches in numerous Japanese cities, as you get bonus points for causing destraction - because, as we all know by now, SNK does not need spell checking for their arcade releases. This is really a game that you need to play at least once, if only for the sheer awesome-absurdity of the thing - if you ever wanted to German Suplex a nine story tall muck monster through a nuclear reactor, this may be your only opportunity to do so during the 16 bit era. A must play for all kaiju-movie connoisseurs out there, no doubt about it.
The Lone Ranger
Circa 1991, the Lone Ranger property really was not that in demand as a potential gaming license. For whatever reason, Konami decided to snatch up the rights, and the end result is not only one of the most shockingly decent games on the NES, but for my money, one of the absolute best licensed games of the 8-bit era. What makes the game so great is that it merges so many genres seamlessly. I have always been a huge fan of top down shooters, and this one incorporates a lot of RPG aspects which makes it feel a little different than most NES action games of the time frame. Also, the game utilizes a lot of side scrolling levels, which by and large, are quite expertly arranged - not too surprising, considering this IS a game made by the same folks that brought us Contra and Castlevania, of course. Heck, the game even throws in a couple of Zapper-compatible shooting sequences, making this a game that fuses just about every style of game play under the sun into one cartridge. Call it an overstatement if you wish, but I really do think this is as close as we would have gotten to an 8-bit version of Red Dead Redemption - there is a lot of exploration, excellent use of the Wester motif, and even a little bit of moral selectivity here and there. When I think of criminally underrated NES games, this is one title that always leaps to mind - if you find yourself with the opportunity to give it a try, I fully encourage you to pick up a copy.
Mega Man 4
Pretty much everybody agrees that this is the game where the Mega Man series began to go downhill. Since Mega Man 3 is oft considered one of the greatest video games ever made, it really should not be too surprising that Capcom could not outdo the previous title in the franchise. Although this game gets a pretty negative rap from the gaming throngs, I still think it is a really enjoyable game, and a title that MOSTLY succeeded with its innovations to the series. For starters, the Mega Buster and the Power Slide really do change up the game play, making it a faster experience overall. Also, the stages this time around are a lot longer than they were in the first three games, and there is a greater emphasis on environmental threats - meaning that by and large, the stages themselves are bigger threats to you than any enemies you encounter in the game. That said, there are still PLENTY of valid criticisms to be found about the game, from the disappointing music to the lackluster robot master line-up (really? Dust Man? Toad Man? A dude whose head is a freaking light bulb?), not to mention that INSANELY stupid storyline involving a NEW evil robot lord named Dr. Cossack. . .which for those of you that are twenty years late to the party, results in one of the lamest plot twists in the annals of eight bit gaming. It is an all right game, but considering it s pedigree, you would really expect a lot more out of the experience.
Metroid II: The Return of Samus
The Game Boy follow-up to one of the most popular NES games ever certainly does not disappoint - despite being scaled down to handheld size, Metroid II is still a lengthy adventure that maintains everything you loved about the original game. In fact, not only is Metroid II a faithful recreation of the Nintendo classic, it may actually be an even better version of the game. Although it does not seem possible to create a graphically stunning Game Boy title, what the developers of this game managed to do with such a limited color scheme is downright amazing - this certainly has to be one of the best looking Game Boy releases ever. Even more impressive is the atmosphere the game creates: despite being a portable title, you really do feel a sense of deep immersion, and I would be lying if I said it did not get creeped out while playing it a time or two. Simply put, everything you love about the Metroid series - the exploration, the puzzles, the killer boss fights, and yes, all of that damn backtracking - is here in full force in this title. Not only is this a stellar Game Boy title, it is one of the absolute best handheld games ever made - needless to say, you REALLY need to give this one a try if you never got around to it.
This is a game that I downright adore, despite its numerous weaknesses. Nightshade is basically a fusion game that combines action, adventure, sleuthing, puzzle solving and the occasional karate fight into a self-reflexive, absurdist satire of detective games. A lot of NES games tried to be funny, but this is one of the few games on the console that succeeded at making me laugh out loud - granted, it IS an incredibly corny kind of humor, but more than a few lines of dialogue are sure to make you groan / chuckle. Just exploring the game is awesome, as the game gives you a plethora of side quests and mini-games to try your hand at. Although I will not go as far as to call this one a Nintendo version of Shenmue, it actually is a damned ambitious 8-bit game, and a title that should be praised for at least attempting half of what it aims for. Sure, the combat is not the deepest, and yes, there is a tremendous amount of trial and error game play involved, but at the end of the day, this is just an immensely fun little game that defies any and all genre labeling. Certainly, it is not for everybody, but for Nintendo aficionados looking for something different, this is a cartridge you need to get your hands on PRONTO.
Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom
The Ninja Gaiden series has a reputation for being tumor-inducing difficult, and this installment of the franchise is no different. Far and away, this has the best graphics and soundtrack of the NES series, but at the same time, it also suffers from the weakest game play of the triad, too. For one thing, the developers tried to mix up the game play by adding more environmental obstacles - you know, quick sand, sinking levels, etc. Also, this game require FAR more platforming know-how than the last two games in the series, making it a far more tedious experience in the process. However, the absolute backbreaker for this game is the absolutely ABSURD difficulty level. From level 5 onward, you pretty much HAVE to have the invincibility power-up turned on, especially if you have intentions of doing ANY sort of platform hopping. There are a lot of good things you can say about this game - the vibrant animation, the relatively fluid controls, the kick ass boss fights - but because the game is so migraine-causing HARD, it ultimately becomes a game about as enjoyable as a root canal.
OK, so a Game Boy version of Contra does not seem like it would be that effective, but what do you know? This little portable title kicks just as much ass as its NES forerunners, and provides an action packed experience no Game Boy owner should miss out on. If you played Contra, Super C or even the super-underrated Contra Force, you will be right at home here. Although the game play is not as hectic as the NES games, it still packs a wallop for when you want some quick run and gun action. That, AND the game even contains a couple of extended levels from the top down perspective, making it something of a mixture of Contra and Ikari Warriors. The game play, needless to say, is extremely diverse and satisfying, and the controls are about as smooth as you could want them to be. However, where the game TRULY shines is in the soundtrack department: not only does this game have arguably the best sound of any Game Boy game out there, it also has some of the most kick ass sounding music in ALL of early 90s gaming. You do not need me to tell you awesome this game is - if you have not played it, you have no idea what kinds of awesomeness you are missing out on.
Peter Pan and the Pirates
Ah, man - remember this show when it used to come on Fox Kids back in the day? No, you are thinking of Pirates of Dark Water, which is a totally DIFFERENT program. Hell, with those and Hook, 1991 was really a banner year for revisionist Peter Pan enthusiasts - unfortunately, this NES title is about as enjoyable as a prostate exam from Captain Hook. Granted, there are some BAD licensed games out there, but this one is particularly awful - the graphics suck, the sound blows, the controls are terrible, and the game play is downright awful. It is rather clear that the guys that made this game were not even trying, and simply hoped that the appeal of the license would have drawn in unsuspecting gamers for a wasted weekend rental. Hell, even the game s ONE distinguishing characteristic from the million-billion other plat formers out there - a flying mechanic - is totally broken and rendered utterly pointless. Truthfully, there is NO reason why you should ever come into contact with this game - and if you do, may God have mercy on your pitiful soul.
OK, so the box art for this game may look generically awful, but the game itself is definitely all kinds of kick-ass. Power Blade is an NES game developed by legendary publisher Taito - you know, the guys that gave us Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble, and dozens of other awesome games in pretty much every conceivable genre out there. This game is a tremendous action-plat former. . .essentially, what would happen if you merged Castlevania, Mega Man and Strider into one title. While the appearance of lead character Nova may seem pretty bland (as is the super weak storyline), there is NO denying the awesomeness of the game play here, and in addition to providing a killer gun and jump experience, the title has some of the bossest music of any NES release EVER. This game is pretty much the definition of hidden gem - if you see an old copy at your local mom and pop video game store, do yourself a favor and scoop it up. I assure you, you will not regret the decision to plop the spare change down on this one. Besides, how many other games out there let you throw boomerangs made out of lightning at gigantic robotic drones with the face of Vladimir Lenin?
Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom
You know how sometimes, you just sort of wonder why a great game never took off with the general gaming public? Well, in the case of Princess Tomato, it should be for pretty obvious reasons. . .I mean, really, who in their right mind would want to play a game that came in a box that looked like that? Even so, the game within that horrid box art is actually a rather tremendous little game - in fact, I would go as far as to say that it is one of the most underappreciated role playing games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. In this Hudson Soft release, you assume the role of Sir Cucumber, a gallant pickle that must save the Salad Kingdom from the tyranny of a giant pumpkin. Really, this game deserves major props for simply throwing in as many vegetable puns as it does - I really do not think there is a SINGLE veggie that they do not include in the title, to some extent. The game is basically a text-drive adventure game, like Shadowgate or The Uninvited, and the amount of stuff the game allows you to do is actually fairly impressive. All in all, this is a very competent RPG, and a surprisingly fun little diversion for about a week or two. You might want to see if an old copy turnips at your local video game emporium, as this is one obscure title that sure is hard to beet.
Do you ever wonder what it would be like if you merged Bionic Commando with Super Mario Bros? While this game really does not deserve to be brought up into discussion with either of those legendary games, this NES release at least deserves some praise for attempting a pretty difficult premise, and actually succeeding with the gimmick for the most part. In Rockin Kats, you play an anthropomorphic cat armed with a boxing glove gun, which also doubles as a grappling hook. Throughout the game, you can pick up various secondary weapons, like projectiles and rocket boots, which you will DEFINITELY need as the game progresses. Although the game has some pretty challenging boss fights and a unique style of game play going for it, it also has a lot of problems with the control set-up, which makes timed attacks very, very uncertain and unwieldy. Also, the inclusion of mini-games makes the title pretty easy to spam, as you can level up your character before the second stage and pretty much breeze through the rest of the game. While Rockin Kats is far from a classic, it is at least worthy of a ROM play through - although by the time you conquer it a few short hours later, you will wonder why the game was even put out there to begin with.
For you kids born during the Clinton Administration, you totally missed out on the roller derby trend. RollerGames was this really crappy show that was scripted a la professional wrestling that ran on syndicated cable for quite some time. To me, the most memorable thing about the show was that it featured legendary conservative loudmouth Wally George as a play by play analyst, and much to my disappointment, he is not included in this arcade game. Granted, it does not seem like it would be the easiest idea to translate into a coin op release, and the end result is really a muddied mess of a game. Ultimately, the title is a generic brawler, only with a brief (I am talking like three seconds here) rhythm-action sequence at the beginning of each stage. The graphics and sound in this game are shockingly bad for a 1991 arcade release, and the controls and game play are perhaps even worse. I would like to say that the game has some nostalgic value, but even that is almost impossible to detect here - all in all, this is one arcade cabinet that would have been better used as the frame for a vending machine, IMHO.
The Simpsons Arcade Game
Even if you were not a fan of the television series (and let s face it, you would have to be an absolute nincompoop to not be), you more than likely fed a small bank account of quarters into this game during its heyday. The Simpsons arcade game is long considered to be one of the absolute best side scrolling brawlers EVER, and a game that, for whatever reason, was never ported to home consoles by Konami. The storyline for the game is pretty basic, but come on, it is not like you play beat em up games for the plotline, anyway. This is an extremely satisfying title that pays homage to the classic TV show rather well (heck, you even see some of the Life in Hell rabbits pop up every now and then!), even if the developers did decide to throw in some, uh, non-canonical aspects - like Marge being able to fly, and the inclusion of Mecha-Mr. Burns at the end of the game. All in all, this game is an undisputed coin-op classic - there is really no need for me to go on an on about how great this game was, because everybody reading this already knows it.
Another righteous game from Jaleco, and a game that features arguably the hardest hitting protagonist in the history of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Sure, we have all commandeered guys with some wicked fists in our 8-bit gaming sojourns, but have you ever played as a dude that can literally PUNCH his way through everything in his path? That is one of the many things that makes Shatterhand such an awesome, under-the-radar release. Of course, the killer game play, which at once, merges Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, Bionic Commando and Journey to Silius into ONE experience, is not only another reason to pick this game up, but among some of the best action platforming you will find on the NES. Sure, the protagonist may look like Michael J Fox in Teen Wolf, and yeah, that box art is absolutely atrocious, but it is what is on the inside that counts here - and I assure you, Shatterhand is one AWESOME game that time has all but forgotten.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Playing this game for the first time was one of those transcendent gaming moments that pretty much made me realize that 16-bit gaming was ALL that it was cracked up to be and then some. In hindsight, we sort of forget just how gargantuan a leap it was from 8-bit to 16-bit, and the original Sonic game is one of those watershed moments that epitomized the changing of the video game guard. Yeah, Sonic the Hedgehog was fast, but at that same time, it was fluid and beautifully animated - the vibrant backgrounds, the blur-less Blast Processing, the expertly-crafted definition of the foreground. In my humble opinion, Sonic was one of the most visually stunning games of the early 90s, and you know what? After twenty years of playing it, it still manages to wow me - a feat that should speak volumes about how terrific this game truly is. That, and who can forget about that stellar soundtrack and amazing game play? The music, the controls, the challenging stages, the bonus stages. . .this game is an out and out masterpiece of gaming, and if you never played it, you simply are not a true gamer.
. . .yeah, I am as speechless as you are. You really have to wonder how much the publisher researched American lingo before this game was released in the States - apparently, in Japan, the term spanking the monkey has some totally tertiary meaning that I have yet to be informed of. Outside of the awe-inspiring namesake (and nearly vomit inducing cover art), the SNES launch window game is a pretty lackluster little offering, essentially a 16-bit rip-off of Bubble Bobble that really fails to take advantage of the Super Nintendo s high-powered hardware. The graphics are really washed out, and the soundtrack is particularly bad. The game play is really simplistic, so much so that it really takes you out of the experience - the boss fights in this game are real snoozers, and whoever decided that you had to find stage exit points a la Milon s Secret Castle deserves an atomic noogie no amount of hair cream can soothe. The insanely stupid cover art may tempt you into giving this one a play, but take my advice - this is one long-forgotten cartridge you are better off not monkey-ing around with.
Spider-Man: The Video Game
This arcade release from Sega, for whatever reason, never seemed to take off the way the X-Men and Captain America cabinets took off, which is really a shame, because I think this may have been the best Marvel based coin-op of the timeframe. In this four player game, you take control of an eclectic band of superheroes (really, Namor the Sub-Mariner?) as you fight your way across a massive cityscape, doing battle with villainous rogues like Venom, The Scorpion, Doctor Octopus and ultimately, Dr. Doom. Needless to say, this game has an absolutely STACKED line up of bosses, which makes it a must play for hardcore Spider-fans for that facet of the game alone. That, and this game is more than just another side scrolling brawler, as it incorporates a healthy bit of platforming, which was extremely rare for beat em ups during the era. Granted, you may be turned off by the relatively slow pace of the game, but I think the neat comic book touches (the word panels, the constant zooming in and zooming out, etc.) more than makes this game worthy of a run through a MAME emulator.
Street Fighter II
The game that rejuvenated the lagging U.S. arcade market, the game that turned fighting games into a multi billion dollar a year industry (and for better or worse, sparking off the longest-lasting genre trend of the decade), and the game that single-handedly redefined what we considered competitive gaming. There really is not much new you can say about Street Fighter II, nor is there really a way to overstate its importance. This game, and its multitude of re-releases, found their way in pretty much every discount store and pizza parlor in America - this game was pretty much as ubiquitous as gumball machines during the early 90s. We all had our favorite characters (mine? Ryu, beeyotch!) and I think it is safe to say that we all learned a lot of pivotal lessons from this game: like how all people from Brazil are green skinned electricity monsters, and that an 80 pound Chinese school girl can easily defeat a three hundred pound, seven foot tall Muay Thai fighter in seconds. That, and I do not think there is a child out there that did not want to try to dragon punch their mom s car after playing this game for a couple of weeks. . .although for the life of me, I am STILL trying to figure out how to land that damned Hurricane Kick in my Brazilian Jiu-jitsu classes.
You have to give major props to Konami: these guys knew how to readjust an old formula so well, that I wonder just how long they could have kept the side scrolling brawler genre alive if they had stuck to coin-op development instead of console gaming. Sunset Riders is not technically a side scrolling brawler, but more or less, a side scrolling shooter with a Western motif. You choose one of four stereotypical Western characters (my personal favorite was the poncho-wearing, borderline offensive Mexican guy with the hand cannon), and embark upon a left-to-right journey across no man s land, making about four states worth of widows and orphans in the process. It was the little touches that made this game so cool - like entering saloons for health points, and having to doge the periodic cattle stampede. That, and the horseback levels were really rather well done, and I do not think you can have any complaints about the core game play here. While Sunset Riders may not be the absolute best arcade game of the year, it is definitely one that inspired a lot of late afternoon quarter munching sessions, and a game that remains uncomplicatedly enjoyable to this day.
Super Castlevania IV
Forget Super Mario World, forget Pilot Wings, and forget Sim City, THIS was the game that made me lust for a Super Nintendo. Super Castlevania IV is remembered as one of the absolute best action platform games of all time, and for good reason - this truly is one of the best games of the 16-bit era, and a game no supposedly hardcore gamer should miss out on. For me, what was really awesome about the game was how it managed to incorporate aspects of the first three games in the series - it had the boss fights from the first game, the music from the second, and the gears and Medusa heads from part 3 - only amped up to eleven and made even more awesome thanks to the miracle of 16 bit processing. That, AND the new additions to the game play - such as the newfangled whip controls - made this game an absolute dream come true to play, even if I STILL think that one rotating stage is a major pain in the ass. This game looks, sounds and plays positively phenomenally - not only is this game an unmistakable classic, it s a game that should be included in any serious gamer s collection.
Super Ghouls N Ghosts
While the original game was harder than a concrete dipped bowling ball, the SNES sequel took gaming to all new heights of frustration. The first stage of this game is positively brutal, and the subsequent levels just KEEP getting more and more hair-yankingly difficult. When people talk about the lack of challenge in modern gaming, they mean experiences like THIS title - although the game was often about as agitating as a scratched up Gilbert Gottfried comedy album, it was also an incredibly addictive and well constructed game. Even though the game was guaranteed to crush your ass over and over, you simply HAD to keep playing it - the controls were super-responsive, the graphics were tremendous, and the sound was positively awesome. Ultimately, Super Ghouls N Ghosts was a game that rewarded players that took the time to map out the levels, and knew when, where and how to coordinate their movements. Not only did you have to precisely time your jumps and attacks in this game, you often had to place Arthur at a very exact PIXEL on the screen - needless to say, this was the kind of game DESIGNED for the most hardcore of hardcore gamers. The title is available on a number of Capcom compilation discs, and I am fairly certain that it has been released for the Virtual Console - if you are one of those modern gamers that continues to complain about lack of challenge in today s titles, why don t you try your hand at this stellar blast from the past?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project
You see, this is the forgotten gem in Konami / Ultra s TMNT quadrilogy - while that newfangled arcade release Turtles in Time may have gotten all of the praise, this game, which was one of the last high caliber releases for the NES, was a downright terrific side-to-side beat em up, which if you ask me, is every bit as good, if not better, than the highly vaunted TMNT II that proceeded it. By now, you know the drill - you play as one of four characters, all of whom have special attacks and weaknesses. The cast for this game is really notable, as it throws in obscure foes like Dirtbag (an evil, mind controlling gopher-miner?) alongside the tried and true rogues of TMNT like Bebop and Rocksteady. The graphics and music in this game were very well done, and the controls here are perhaps the most nuanced of the three games that were released on the NES - for a game with only two face buttons, you really do have the ability to pull of a lot of attacks. Ultimately, there really is not too much to say about this game. . . other than the fact that it freaking rules, of course.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Every arcade in America had at least one of these machines - although I highly doubt anyone will recall it as a coin-op classic, it is at least a highly memorable arcade title, and a game pretty much everybody reading this had played a dozen or so times. T2 is really a simplistic game - you put in a quarter, you hit start, and then . . .you blast the living hell out of anything that does not appear human for the next hour. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about this game, as it was clearly designed to snatch quarters from the pockets of mall rats across the United States. Death came early, and death came often. . .and if somehow you managed to save your own ass, those super frustrating escort machines would soon have you depleted of whatever change you had when you walked into the arcade. This game is just wall-to-wall action, and a game that if nothing else, should satiate whatever penchant you have for Ah-nold fueled violence. . .although I must, say this thing WILL make your trigger finger hurt like a bitch for at least a week afterward.
Three Wonders, an arcade game from Capcom, has a downright ingenious gimmick - it is a coin op cabinet with three games built into the hardware - an action-plat former, a horizontal side-scrolling shooter, and a block-busting puzzle game. Of the three, the action-plat former, a kick ass game entitled Midnight Wanderers, is definitely the best of the bunch - not only does the game feature frenzied, cartoony Contra-inspired action (alike Metal Slug, only YEARS before the first game in that series was released), the main character of the game bares an uncanny resemblance to DJ Quall, the jug-eared hero of The New Kid and Road Trip. Oh, and there are definitely a number odes to other classic arcade action games to be found there, especially Ghosts N Goblins. The shooter, called Chariot, is a mildly below average offering, that somewhat stands out due to the mythical theme - it is not revolutionary, but it is a nice break from the myriad spaceship blasters and WWII dog fighting sims of the timeframe. The third game, a puzzle title called Don t Pull, is easily the least of the three games, and is somewhat comparable to the Adventures of Lolo titles. Three Wonders has since been ported to consoles via a number of compilation discs, and if you ask me, is worth a play or two - especially if you never got your hands on Midnight Wanderers, which really should have had a full fledged, feature length sequel of its own.
As the spiritual sequel to Smash TV, Total Carnage more than lives up to its namesake. You control either Commander Carnage or Major Mayhem, two muscle bound death machines that are single-handedly enlisted to dispose of a Middle Eastern dictator named Akboob. Along the way, you will rescue captured American vacationers, do battle with acid vomiting purple monsters, and oh yeah. . .blow the living hell out of every single thing you come into contact with. When this game says Total Carnage, it freaking means it, as you have everything from flamethrowers to fly-by bomb strikes in your repertoire of devastation. The thing I most remember about the game was the ending: if you managed to collect 200 keys throughout the course of the game, you were allowed access to a hidden, final level called the Pleasure Domes. From there, the game teased you that if you collected EVERY single item in the stage, you would get to see some 2D girls in a bikini do. . .well, something. For years, I heard urban legends of kids that knew kids that got the super secret ending of the game, only to find out YEARS later that there IS no bonus ending: even if you do collect all the items, you get the exact same ending as you did before, sans any pixelated nudity whatsoever. Oh, those bastards at Midway. . .
Vice: Project Doom
The guys at Sammy really made a lot of great games, that more than likely, would have received more acclaim if they had been published by a more well-known developer. If Vice: Project Doom were made by Activision or Capcom, it would be considered a classic of the era, but as it is, it remains one of the single most underrated games out there for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This game is pretty much a mixture of every game ever, as it combines Spy Hunter, Ninja Gaiden, Metal Gear Solid and Rolling Thunder into a single experience. Looking for a GOOD story-driven action game on the NES? Outside of Golgo 13, I kind of doubt you will find a better one than the driving narrative behind this game. And hey, what about that actual game play? Buddy, this is a DAMNED phenomenal action-plat former, a game that I would say is easily on par with games like Power Blade, Metal Storm and Shatterhand. . .if not even better. The game is challenging without being cheap, and accessible without being too formulaic - some of the boss fights here are among the most epic to be found on the console, and the overall experience of this title is something no NES owner should miss out on.
OK, we all know what to expect when you boot up an LJN game, and while this title is FAR from being worthy of a spot on your collection, all in all, it is not as bad as some people would have you believe. Wolverine is your basic action-plat former, only with the X-Men theme. The graphics here are pretty unremarkable, and the sound is likewise lackluster - the controls are merely OK, and the game play, while manageable, is certainly lacking in a lot of areas. You run into a lot of generic foes in this game, which is pretty weird, since you think the developer would have tried to milk the license for all it is worth. Instead of throwing down with the Juggernaut or The Blob, you have to battle naked silver guys with plasma cannons and, for some inexplicable reason, these giant dudes with enormous pumpkin heads. The game gets STUPIDLY difficult at certain junctures, and man oh man, is the health system in this game a bigger mess than the one in the U.S. of A. If you simply had to, you could probably play through this one, and depending on your levels of ennui, even get SOME level of enjoyment out of the experience. Just do not expect to find this one an immediately re-playable experience, though.
WURM: Journey to the Center of the Earth
WURM is a game that combines pretty much EVERY genre imaginable into one NES game, and the final product is. . .eh, uneven, to say the least. The game, for the most part, is a horizontal space shooter, comparable to Gradius or Life Force, but at certain intervals, the game transitions into a vertical, 1942-like shooter. The game also incorporates a lot of anime-style design, so if you liked games like Golgo 13 or Clash at Demonhead, you may want to give this one a play, if only for the aesthetic experience. WURM is very much a story-driven game. . .in fact, there is probably WAY too much story going on here for its own good. While the game moderately succeeds with the space shooting segments, the game takes a considerable dip when trying its hand at other game play formats - the Metroid / Journey to Silius style action platforming segments are pretty boring, and the turn based, first person shooter segments (yeah, you read that right) bring the game to a screeching halt. I really cannot say that WURM is a good game, but if you see it at a yard sale for a dollar or two, it probably would not kill you to give it a try. . .although at certain points, you may think you will die from boredom.
And last, but certainly not least, our whirlwind tour of the games of 1991 concludes with this arcade release from Technos, which is considered by many pro wrestling fans to be the single greatest 2D WWF game of all time. The game featured an all star cast of early 90s grapplers, including guys like Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, and Jake The Snake Roberts. The game was really noteworthy for containing appearances by guys like Earthquake and Sgt. Slaughter, who were not featured in too many WWF games. Also, to the best of my knowledge, this is the only video game out there where you can play as the bondage gear wearing, Kiss face paint clad tag team Demolition, which makes this game worth tracking down for that reason alone. The game was pretty true to the real life product - pretty much all of the finishing moves were included, and astute observers may even notice facsimiles of some prominent on-air announcers throughout the game. This is the kind of game you simply could not stop feeding quarters - if you are looking for addictive, wrestling action at its finest, you would have a hell of a hard time finding a more engrossing title than this one.
Whew! That was one long ass stroll down memory lane, huh? Now that our thumbs are sore and our pockets are devoid of tokens, I guess the only thing left to do is reminisce. A lot of theses games are all time classics, some are supremely underrated gems, and some are just flat out pieces of crap. And yeah, more than a few of them had to have elicited a WTF out of you a time or two. Although video games are still around, it is an entirely different industry today than it was twenty years back. There are fewer consoles, fewer developers, and arcades have all but become antiquities of the modern era. The thing is, even though TWO decades have passed since these games have been released, they all maintain a certain attraction, a certain mystique, if you will. They remind us of simpler times, when technology was at that great impasse between the days of the cathode ray tubes and Wi-Fi hotspots. Twenty years down the line, we are still playing these games, albeit in wholly different incarnations than we did way back when. These games may be old, but they still have a certain charm, and in most cases, they still remain rather playable and immersive today.
So here s to the (virtual) class of 1991 - you kicked ass then, and you still kick ass all these years later.
James Swift is a freelance writer and author of two books, How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks. Follow him on Twitter at JSwiftMedia, or subscribe to his YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/JSwiftMedia