Sophomore Slump of Classic NES Games

Where the sequels felt just a bit "off"
February 10, 2014
I think it was Christmas 1985, or maybe 1986, when the Nintendo Entertainment System began to rule the world! 1985 was when the original Super Mario Brothers came out, and suddenly every kid in America wanted to have an NES under the tree that year. Granted, there were Atari games and the Commodore 64 was churning out a TON of games at the time, but nothing on either system had the look and feel of the original Super Mario Bros. A new age had begun.

Soon, Nintendo was commonplace, discussion of Nintendo games dominated playground discussions, and one of my all time favorite periodicals, Nintendo Power, began publication. There were some great early releases for the NES that even today are still classics, and are still the go-to Nintendo franchises. Zelda, Mario, Metroid, and Castlevania were huge. What’s interesting is how these four franchises are still creating new games, and anytime Nintendo releases a new console, one of these, most often Mario, is a launch title, and you can rest assured that the others will soon make an entry to the new platform. And, you start to expect certain things from each of them. With Mario, you’re going to hit blocks to get power ups, and probably rescue Princess Toadstool (YES, I’m still calling her Princess Toadstool! When I grew up, that’s who she was, NOT Peach) for the umpteenth time. With Zelda, you’ll have swords, a bow and arrow, a boomerang, and explore an increasingly difficult series of dungeons.

But in the early days of the NES, there really wasn’t a precedent for any of these games yet. With only one release, the “rules”, for lack of a better term, for these now treasured franchises hadn’t been set in stone. The result, was some lackluster sequels that felt very off compared to their predecessors. Now, I should clarify and say these were NOT bad games in their own right….it’s just after the mind blowing originals, a lot of gamers felt a bit let down. These are some sophomore slumps in great gaming franchises.


The first Castlevania game was an instant classic. It’s also a great example of what many players refer to as “NES Hard”. Back then, creators of a game had to justify a $50 (in 80′s dollars) price tag, by creating a great deal of difficulty in a game to ensure re-playability. I’ve played this game on and off for about 20 years now, and I still haven’t managed to beat it. Every time I play it, however, I still find I enjoy it immensely. It’s classic side scrolling, and has such a cool variety of monsters. You fight hunchbacks, bats, giant spiders, Frankenstein’s monster, the Grim Reaper, and of course, Dracula.

So after playing this game a lot, I was excited to see the awesome cover of Nintendo Power that was going to talk about the “terrifying sequel” to Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. I already mentioned this issue briefly in my tribute to Nintendo Power, but I love this issue’s cover so much, I’m posting it again.

“Holy shit” my young self thought when I first saw this. “You get to cut off Dracula’s head??! This is going to be AWESOME!” I was psyched to play this, and remember my dad driving me to the video store on a Friday night so I could rent it. I went home, popped that bad boy in, and experienced, as the kids say today, a WTF moment.

I was walking in a village?? I could talk to people? Okay, but where are the monsters?? Well, I had to actively venture outside of the village to start fighting baddies. But where were the cool other weapons like the axe, boomerang, or the dagger?? I was sad to find that I had to collect hearts in order to BUY these. Oh, and last but not least was the crappy sprite they used for Simon this time. In Castlevania, I thought he looked awesome, at least by 8-bit standards.. But in this one, I swear he looks like he’s wearing bicycle shorts.

This game played a lot more like a traditional RPG, which isn’t a bad thing in its own right, but when you’re a kid wanting to just walk through a castle whipping monsters and collecting power ups, deciphering clues and having to collect enough money to buy things was a real drag.

The dialogue was pretty pointless, most of the villagers outright lied to you. The only real way to get clues was to refer to the pages of Nintendo Power. For example, there is a part where you come to what looks like a dead end, the only way to proceed is to select your red crystal, kneel down for a few seconds, and wait for a tornado to appear. How the hell would any kid figure that out? It’s not mentioned in the game, and trust me, I wasted time talking to all the stupid villagers!

I think the worst part of this game was the progression between night and day. While it was pretty ground breaking in 1988 to have a game where the day turned into night, it made the monsters all that much stronger, and you wouldn’t be able to buy anything in villages or heal at the church. All you could do was whip zombies until morning came. It got a little bit tedious.

Now, the game was not without its charms. As I said before, it worked more like an RPG, a genre that I’ve really grown to love over the years. It was my first time dealing with experience points, and actually growing stronger from fighting. And the dungeons had some pretty cool designs to them. I found the mansions a little challenging, though always having to find the guy with the oak stake and hope that I had 50 hearts available to purchase grew old pretty fast.

The music was pretty solid, and even though the game wasn’t going through a castle on an hours long killing spree, it still had a Castlevania feel to it, and is a game I’ve replayed many times. Still, compared to the original Castlevania, this one fell pretty flat.


One of Nintendo’s biggest franchises is the Zelda franchise. Much like Mario is constantly battling Bowser and rescuing Princess Toadstool, so does Link having to constantly battle Ganon to rescue Zelda. The first Legend of Zelda blew me away. Before that, I’d only really played Super Mario Brothers, so playing an early sandbox type game, where you’re free to explore a giant world, was revolutionary. It’s a classic, and even today, I enjoy playing the original immensely.

This game was a huge hit, so of course there was a big push for a sequel. Much like Simon’s Quest, the sequel to Zelda, The Adventure of Link, tried to rework everything. The problem? They REWORKED EVERYTHING! I guess it all goes back to the saying “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”, but to be fair there really wasn’t any sort of Zelda “template” at the time, so if there ever was a time to try something new with the franchise, this was probably it. To their credit, the introduction of magic was a cool feature, I just feel they changed too much.

Much like Simon’s Quest, Zelda II acted very much like an RPG, where there was more of an emphasis on talking to people and deciphering clues, rather than just blasting through stages killing bad guys. Some of the items to decipher were beyond cryptic. To find a hidden temple, you’re expected to cast a spell at what appears to be a dead end. Without Nintendo Power, that would be near impossible to figure out! Another example isthe use of the magical flute. In most any Zelda game, a flute can be used to transport you to other places on the map. In this game, it’s used to get a spider out of the road.

The next big thing that was changed was the fact that this game was mostly a side scroller, rather than the cool overhead view that I’d been used to with the classic Zelda. The only time there was any overhead views was on the overworld map, and that looked pretty crude, as you can see above. It looks like it was edited in Microsoft Paint! The side scrolling, I feel, made the game a lot more difficult. For starters, the range of Link’s sword was pathetic, especially when it came to the beam that is typically fired. In the first Zelda, Link could shoot a beam out of his sword that would go across the entire screen. In this game, you’d better hope the enemy is 1/8 inch away from you, or too bad. This pathetically short range was a HUGE disadvantage to the player.

The short sword range made the enemies a lot more difficult to fight, especially the infamous Ironkunckles. The knights that constantly blocked with their shields, and occasionally threw their swords, cost me a lot of health, and gave me a lot of headaches. Combat in this game was brutal!
Oh, but like any video game, you can just continue if you run out of lives, right? Or you can stockpile extra lives? Nope! The biggest challenge of this game is running out of lives sends you back to the beginning of the game! And the few extra lives that are in the game (I think there are only 5 total) are one time use only. You find one, it doesn’t regenerate! I saw this screen WAY too often.

While the first Zelda was classic, and is a game I could play a thousand times and still enjoy, Zelda II was a really bad sequel to a great game.


What can be said about the original Super Mario Bros that hasn’t already been said? It launched Nintendo into the stratosphere. It set the standard for side scrolling platformers, it had every other game maker out there trying to copy it. The game was huge, launching everything from a cereal, to an afternoon TV show, to a horrific movie with Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo. Super Mario Brothers was, and in may ways still is, the gold standard of video games.

I think most everybody was introduced to Nintendo with the original Mario Bros, and its popularity practically demanded a sequel get made. And in 1988, gamers got their wish when Super Mario Bros 2 was released. Much like Castlevania and Zelda, this game also tried to re-work too many things, and the result was another sequel that didn’t live up to its predecessor.

Now, Mario 2 isn’t a bad game. Actually, it is rather enjoyable, but has always been considered the black sheep of the Mario franchise, and has never quite felt like the rest of the series. So, what’s wrong with it? Welllll….

The biggest thing I noticed right off the bat was that you can’t jump on enemies. Okay, so maybe you need a fire flower to take out your enemies? Wait! There isn’t any fire flowers either?? How do you take out enemies? By picking up vegetables from the ground, and throwing them at your enemies! Whaaaa?!

Part of the fun of the original Super Mario Brothers was getting coins and items out of blocks. In this game, there aren’t any power ups, there is no item blocks, and there isn’t even Bowser around to foil your plans. The big baddie in this game is a giant frog named Wart, who you defeat by, you guessed it, throwing vegetables. Even as a kid, I always wondered that if Wart hates vegetables, why does he have a vegetable machine in his chambers??

Not just Wart replacing Bowser, but NONE of the bad guys from the first Mario game made an appearance in this. There weren’t any turtles, no goombas, no Buzzy Beetles, none of them! Was this really even a Mario game?

Well, it turns out that this game was actually called Doki Doki Panic in Japan. When demand for a Mario sequel came out of America, Nintendo decided adding Mario sprites to this game would fill that void, not issuing the REAL Mario 2 until years later under the title The Lost Levels. Their logic? Lost Levels would be too difficult for American gamers, and it was! So instead, America received a Mario-ized Doki Doki Panic as Mario 2.

There were some fun parts to this game, however. Being able to play as Luigi, Toad, and the Princess in addition to Mario? That was pretty cool! And the colors were great, and the level design provided a good deal of challenge. But, with the stellar success and fun that was the original Mario Bros, this was pretty weak.

The sophomore year of most Nintendo franchises all seemed to suffer from the same thing. Too many things were changed, that really didn’t need to be. This doesn’t mean any of them were that bad of games, it’s just that after the first one, gamers like myself were expecting a lot more. In many ways, it’s like a movie franchise, where a sequel is seldom as good as the original.

Luckily, Nintendo soon realized their mistake, and with the 3rd edition of all these games, they knocked it out of the park!

After Castlevania 2, we were given Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse. This game went back to the style of the original Castlevania, and added even more, including alternate characters you could play as, including Dracula’s son, Alucard. It was a return to the classic platform style of the original.

Realizing the shortcomings of Zelda 2, Nintendo went back to basics with the third Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This was one of the early titles for the new Super Nintendo system, and in my opinion, is still the best Zelda game that’s been made. There was a return to the overhead POV, the items were similar to the first game, with cool new additions like the hookshot and magic rods, and they even incorporated a few of the stronger points of the second Zelda game, such as interacting with villagers and NPCs. The colors looked amazing, the gameplay was simple to get used to, the story was strong, and the music was some of the best on the SNES.

And, of course, Mario’s development team also went back to the drawing board and took the strongest points from the original, and added a TON of awesome features. The result was arguably one of the greatest titles on the NES, Super Mario Bros 3. I remember going to see that crappy movie The Wizard solely on he fact that we’d get the first peek at Mario 3, and it was worth it! This game was amazing in every way, and has set the standard for every Mario game since. It’s simply a masterpiece.

I suppose you can’t really blame Nintendo for trying something new with the early sequels to their treasured franchises, I just feel that too much was changed. They’re not bad games in their own right, but as I’ve said throughout this piece, after the awesome build up of the premier titles, the typical sophomore slump set in. But, as with most of the classics, I still find myself replaying these often, if only for the pure nostalgic value.
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