Playing NES Before the Net

Life before Walkthroughs and Code Sites...
February 12, 2008

When I was in 4th Grade (So we're talking 1988ish) anyone who was anyone had a NES. Sure the rich kids and the lucky ones had a NES AND a Sega or a NES AND a TurboGrafx-16. And sure some of the snottier kids would go on and on about how much better the Segas were, and blah blah blah. But frankly, I didn't care. I had gotten a taste of Super Mario Bros and I wanted a NES!

Well luckily for me, my beloved grandparents came through that Christmas and I got my very own NES. I can even remember the games I got with it. Of course it came with Mario/Duck Hunt, but I also got Mega Man 2 (which eventually became one of my FAVORITE NES games ever), the impossibly horrid Ghostbusters and some sports game that I never played (sorry I have never been into sports, I think I eventually traded the sports game for Zelda II).

This used to be my favorite stage, before I forgot how to time my jumps...

And thus started my obsession with the NES and many of its games. I still have an original old skool NES. To get it to play games I have to smash the carts into the system, and even then they sometimes don't work, but for me its all part of the nostalgia.

You know what else is part of the nostalgia for me? Getting stuck in a game so bad that you want to throw the controller through the TV! Granted at the time it was horribly annoying, but at least the games were CHALLENGING! Today's games, not to start a war here, are so focused on great graphics and creative game play that an awful lot of them are totally lacking any sort of challenge, which is why I refuse to even bother with new systems (the newest one I own is a Game Cube and only so that I can play my GBA ports of old skool NES and SNES games on the TV).

Awww if there's a cute little kid involved its gotta be easy right???

Sure you look at it now and you wonder how anyone could have found Kid Icarus challenging, what with the plethora of passwords out there to get you fully loaded from the very beginning. Or there's the walkthroughs for games like Rygar that can have you beat the game in half an hour tops.

Back when I was gaming there were two specific ways to get help while stuck in a game: Nintendo Power and the school video game expert.

If I remember correctly this cover was the source of much controversy and also was easily my favorite cover of all time

Remember how every NES game came with a promotional card to subscribe to Nintendo Power? That's some pretty awesome marketing right there. The summer before I entered 5th grade Nintendo Power came out and I immediately begged my mom to get me a subscription. Finally I could figure out where the 7th dungeon in The Legend of Zelda was!

So my first issue came and I was AMAZED to see that the magazine not only gave you helpful maps and tips and tricks, but super top secret (yeah right) passwords and other cheats to help you beat the games.

I'll never forget finding out about the Contra password and running out to the video store to rent it, even though it wasn't really my type of game (I preferred games with more fantasy appeal).

However the problem with Nintendo Power was that it never gave away everything. Sure occasionally an awesome password or tip would get dropped (one of my favorite cheats was the "Help Me" one for Castlevania III), but usually the experts and Nintendo Power would only give you so much help before leaving the rest to yourself.

MOST. USEFUL. GUIDE EVER!!! (at the time)

Hell even their Nintendo Power Strategy Guide for Final Fantasy had the maps of the final dungeon upside down on purpose just so that they didn't give EVERYTHING away.

Plus it was a magazine so they couldn't cover everything about every game. Just because the average person didn't find Milon's Secret Castle all that challenging, doesn't mean that I didn't get stuck on the very first level and wish that Nintendo Power had covered it.

Freakin Milon's Freaking Castle! To this day I refuse to play it!
So then you had to turn to your other option...the school's official Nintendo expert.

Oh come on now, if this guy went to your school you'd have thought he was soooo cool

I'm sure your school had one, you know the type, either he's got some sweet after school job working in a video store or his parents are loaded and he gets every single game ever made, or possibly he's just read and memorized every issue of Nintendo power, but there is always a kid in school who you could ask when you got really stuck.

In my school, that kid was Paul. Paul's mom and dad were divorced and his dad made up for the fact by giving Paul every video game under the sun. And Paul was some crazy type of video game genius and could beat them all (at least that's what the rumors all said, I actually think, looking back, that he probably just subscribed to a lot of the video game guide magazines that were out there at the time).

Ah yes the hidden village of New Katsuo, and yes I totally had to check an FAQ to get the name...

Anyways, whenever I got really stuck, and couldn't figure out what to do next, I'd ask Paul. He was the one who helped me find the hidden village in Legend of Zelda II, and he was also the one who I turned to when I didn't realize that you couldn't go up the mountain in Crystalis without being at a certain level.

But even with those two helpful sources, we all still managed to get stuck on certain games. For me that particular game was Kings Quest V. I had never played text based games (as I never had a computer growing up), so I had no idea how to even play this game. In fact I felt pretty cheated since the box makes the game seem like its a cool RPG style fantasy, instead its one of those annoying games like Uninvited where you have to wander around throwing pies at Yeti's and die from the stupidest things.

I swear this is probably as far as I could ever make it (I believe this was the very first screen after the start menu...)

However, I was so determined to beat the damn game! I talked to Paul who had never played the game, so he couldn't help me. So I did the most logical thing. I wrote to Nintendo Power hoping that one of their experts could help me. Well guess what? At least three months later I got a reply! I didn't keep the letter so I don't remember exactly what I had asked or what he had told me, but I do remember that his tips got me about 10 minutes further into the game before I got stuck again, and then turned the game off and admitted defeat.

Today I'm sure I could find a copy of Kings Quest V and go onto a walkthrough and beat the game in an hour. But the fact that I had plenty of games I couldn't beat just made me appreciate them all the more. In fact one of my favorite games of all time I've never beaten.

Damn you little deformed man!!!!

I'm talking about Castlevania. I must have played this game five hundred times and I've never gotten any further than the first part of stage 5. Usually Frank and Igor best me, they're too freaking hard! But the one or two times I've beaten them and made it to the Grim Reaper's stage...I've been annihilated in just a few seconds. That game is incredibly hard, and even with a walkthrough I doubt many people can beat it. There's no password feature to skip stages, no special warp zones or special controller functions to make yourself invincible. It is just incredibly challenging, and it keeps me coming back constantly!

Heigh Ho Heigh Ho A-burnin' trees I go!

The Legend of Zelda was another one that was incredibly difficult. Luckily for me, I had a cousin who had shown me the ropes before I scored my own cartridge. However, I must have spend hours on this game just wandering around bombing things, burning things, just to find stupid shops and caves. When I play this game now, I refuse to play it without a walkthrough handy. Yes, its fun to wander around, but its also far too time consuming, and the game is big enough that a walkthrough still won't get you to beat the game in ten minutes.

Oh you just know to get here the person used the ICARUS FIGHTS password!

Probably the game that frustrated me the most when I was a kid was Kid Icarus. I was passionate about playing this game all the way through. Since I was one of those geeks who loved Greek Mythology, I thought this game rocked! However, its also one of the hardest games ever made for the NES. Without the 8uuuuuuu(etc) password of ICARUS FIGHTS MEDUSA ANGELS passwords I have only ever made it to the first palace. At some point someone told me about the above two passwords, and I had a blast beating the game.

All in all, I'd say that NES games are probably some of the hardest video games out there. The games weren't designed to be easy to beat, they were designed to be a challenge. On some games you'd need lightning fast reflexes, on others you'd need to draw your own maps, some would require using pretty challenging logic, and some would require incredible patience. And since we didn't live in the time of the internet, you had to work just as hard to find out how to beat these games.

As I mentioned before, today's video games just aren't nearly as challenging as their NES predecessors. When we were kids the parent groups all protested that video games rotted your brains. I'd say games like The Legend of Zelda helped develop kids' problem solving skills. Those parent groups should have been applauding NES, not protesting it!
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