NES Launch '85: A Look At The First Games For The Nintendo Entertainment System
The Nintendo Entertainment System, the Westernized version of Nintendo's Famicom console, first debuted in North America 25 years ago today on October 18, 1985. Starting with New York City, the NES was launched in a series of test markets before experiencing a nationwide release in February 1986. The NES was the first third generation video game console to enter the American market, as well as the first gaming system released in America since 1983, when the video game market abruptly crashed due to oversaturation of product and lack of quality control. In order to differentiate themselves from video game systems, which retailers were extremely hesitant to carry, Nintendo packaged their console with a robot and a light gun, and promoted it as a family entertainment center. As we all know, this trick worked: Nintendo broke into the American market in a big way and the robot gimmick was quickly dropped.
When the NES launched, there were eighteen games available for it, a line-up that included four sports games, three light gun games, two ROB games, two racing games and seven other miscellaneous games. As someone who was only four years old when the NES launched, I missed out on these early years, and that's probably for the best. While the iconic Super Mario was available at the system's launch, the NES didn't REALLY hit its stride until 1988, when its game library included titles like Contra, Super Mario 2, Zelda, and Punch-Out. Look at The Best 100 NES Games Ever. The top twenty titles consist of the original Super Mario, Metroid, and eighteen games released in 1987 or later. Quite honestly, I only first played the vast majority of the NES launch titles within the last ten years. Most of them had generic titles, and they all had that unappealing standardized box art that Nintendo would finally break away from with the release of The Legend of Zelda and abandon entirely after publishing Square's Rad Racer. So when I saw these games in the video store, they didn't interest me. Hell, I probably wouldn't have ever given Metroid or Kid Icarus a chance if I hadn't watched my friends play them first. But my friends, being of comparable age and aesthetic sensibilities, didn't own Tennis or Wild Gunman, so they stayed completely out of my realm of interest. But presently, with one unrectifiable exception, I have played all of the launch games. These are my thoughts on them.
Description: A simple football game for one or two players.
Thoughts: My only other experience with football games is Tecmo Bowl, Tecmo Super Bowl, and one of those shitty Tiger Electronics handheld LCD games, so it's hard for me to fully gauge how good this game was. 10-Yard Fight is very straightforward and easy to play, but it doesn't play like real football. First off, there are no plays. You throw to a guy, then run the ball for as long as you can, until you get a touchdown or decide to try for a field goal. Maybe your teammates will block for you, maybe they won't, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Defense is even simpler. You pick one of two players, and then try and stop the guy with the ball. And again, maybe your teammates will do something useful. Also, your guys run really slowly. This is especially annoying because the second player, regardless of whether it's the CPU or not, gets a distinct speed advantage. It's really disheartening to watch your guy crawl towards the end zone, only to see the referee come bolting out like a fucking cheetah on the flag. Why the hell can't MY guy run that fast? Also, the sound is really fucking atrocious. At the end of every play, there's this terrible hissing sound. I imagine it's supposed to be the crowd cheering or something. My favorite part of this game are the kickoffs. Once the ball is caught, the receiving team marches down the field in a circle, until the defense causes them to break formation. It's like watching the goddam "Love Is A Battlefield " music video. As far as lasting appeal goes, there's no reason to play this now. 10-Yard Fight is better and prettier than the football games that came before it, but there have been many better and prettier football games made since then, even on the NES. Like say, Tecmo Bowl.
FUN FACT: 10-Yard Fight is one of two NES launch titles that was not developed by Nintendo. The game was originally developed and published in Japan by Irem, but Nintendo published the North American version. It is a port of an Irem arcade game of the same name.
Description: A simple baseball game for one or two players.
Thoughts: Oh god, this game sucks so bad. The graphics are mediocre, even by NES launch title standards, and the game play is fucking awful. The pitching and batting are fine, but the fielding is fucking awful. The fielders run like they're wading through water, and you don't get control of them until they've retrieved the ball. On top of that, the outfielders lob the balls back to the infield like they're damn kindergartners. So if the computer hits a line drive to the outfield and it doesn't land in or directly in front of a player's glove, then it's a base hit. On the bright side, the same is true when YOU hit a line drive to the outfield. But this game still isn't very good. It may have been rarer, much harder to obtain the necessary hardware for, and slightly less pretty, but Intellivision World Series Baseball was a far better baseball game. You know what else was better? EVERY SINGLE OTHER BASEBALL GAME RELEASED FOR THE NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM. Being the first game in a genre to market on a new console doesn't mean shit if the game is mediocre.
Clu Clu Land
Description: Navigate underwater mazes to collect gold bars. Dodge and fight sea urchins. Features two player cooperative play.
Thoughts: You know what people weren't completely fucking sick of in 1985? Pac-Man rip-offs. You know, except they totally were. Clu Clu Land is the story of Bubbles who, despite looking like a self-aware red balloon with hands and propeller, is apparently some sort of fish. Bubbles is tasked with retrieving gold bars from underwater mazes guarded by evil sea urchins. The twist is that instead of picking up the gold bars, Bubbles must simply reveal them by passing over them. In later levels, passing over a gold bar that's already been revealed will hide it again, not unlike the later levels in Q*bert where stepping on a square you've already touched will reset it. Also, Bubbles cannot move freely. In order to change direction, Bubbles must grab onto one of the poles on the board and swing around. Additionally, there are black holes on the board that generate sea urchins. If Bubbles touches one of these black holes, she gets sucked in and dies, unless she's swinging on a pole. As for the sea urchins themselves, Bubbles can stun them by sending shock waves at them, then finish them off by pushing them into a wall. All in all, this game isn't particularly good. Having to swing to change directions is a lot less fun than being able to roam freely through the mazes. Oh yeah, there's also a fucking timer, and it's not a very generous one either. The only thing I like about Clu Clu Land are its tenuous ties to The Legend of Zelda. The gold bars that Bubbles collects look almost exactly like the Rupees in Zelda, and the sea urchins look like prototypes for the Blue Octoroks. Also, one of the sixteen gold bar patterns in Clu Clu Land is an eagle. And what's the first dungeon in The Legend of Zelda called? THE MOTHERFUCKING EAGLE. Hey, I said links between the games were tenuous.
Donkey Kong Jr. Math
Description: In Calculate A, one or two players attempt to arrive at the number presented to them by Donkey Kong using basic arithmetic. When the number is reached, a new one is presented. Once a player reaches the correct sum five times, the game resets. Calculate B is the same concept, only Donkey Kong presents you with larger numbers. In Exercise mode, a single player attempts to solve ten problems in an arithmetic set and difficulty of their choice.
Thoughts: Whereas the Famicom got Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and spiritual successor Popeye as launch titles, the NES got fucking Donkey Kong Jr. Math. What can be said about this game, other than it sucks? How about this: it's boring, it's repetitive, and the controls are terrible. Like, unbearably terrible. Whoever thought that it would be fun to make players guide Donkey Kong Junior up and down chains to grab the numbers and/or symbols necessary to solve math problems was wrong. It's not fun at all. In fact, you can solve these problems a lot faster with plain old paper and a pencil than you can with Donkey Kong Jr. Math. And that's a huge fucking flaw. When you can do math faster without the use of educational tool that's supposed to be improving your math skills, then said tool is completely useless. This game was a launch title for one reason: to help further promote the NES as something more than just a video game system. Donkey Kong Jr. Math was educational, dammit! If it only it were actually helpful or enjoyable.
FUN FACT: The first Christmas that I had a Wii, I sent the Virtual Console version of this "game" to several friends as a "gift". It's the thought that counts!
Description: Shoot at one duck, two ducks, or clay pigeons with your NES Zapper.
Thoughts: Is there anyone out there who owned an NES back in the day and DIDN'T own Duck Hunt? I mean, realistically I know that there had to be, but it's hard to believe. Duck Hunt was a pack-in game from the launch date, long before Nintendo thought to make Super Mario Bros. a pack-in game as well, or put the games on the iconic multicart. And while other bundles were eventually offered by retailers, I'm pretty sure that the Super Mario/Duck Hunt console bundle was available at least up until the Super Nintendo came out, not to mention the Super Mario/Duck Hunt/World Class Track Meet console bundle Nintendo introduced back in 1988 when they were trying to push the Power Pad. Those multicarts, as cool as they were, were a major fucking slap in the face of consumers. Nintendo was admitting they could fit at least three full retail games on a single cartridge, and that they had effectively been ripping us off for years by not creating games that were rich and full enough to fill the majority of a game cartridge. That being said, Duck Hunt was really fun. At least, shooting ducks was fun. I never really liked shooting at the clay pigeons. This is because murdering living things is more fun than smashing inanimate objects. Also, the clay pigeon mode was harder.
Obligatory Joke About The Dog: Fuck you, dog!
Description: Race your motorbike on five different tracks, either while dodging other racers or on an empty track. You can also create your own track.
Thoughts: You know, the NES Launch was full of empty promises. The system came with a fully supported robot... that only ever had two games released for it. The system would be educational as well as recreational... it wasn't. And according to the Excitebike instruction manual, some day you'd be able to save your custom race tracks. THAT DAY NEVER FUCKING CAME. Despite this, many people (including me) have very fond memories of the game. Excitebike was one of three NES launch titles that I ever owned and even though I was terrible at it, I never got bored with it. The title screen music was catchy, the tracks were well-designed, and building your own tracks was really fun, save feature or not. My brother and I used to take turns designing sadistic tracks for the other one to try. And when that got boring, we'd fall back on the most fun track design ever: nothing but speed ramps.
Description: Play through 18 holes of golf with one or two players. In a two player game, you can choose between stroke or match play.
Thoughts: Do you enjoy golf? If so, you probably won't enjoy Golf, where you can hit your ball along one of sixteen vectors with the normal array of golf clubs, while attempting to adjust for wind. The biggest problem with this game is that there aren't enough vectors to choose from. The basic strategy in a golfing game is this: aim for the pin and swing as hard and as straight as you can. In Golf, this strategy doesn't work. First off, because of the limited vectors, it is rarely possible to aim straight at the pin. Secondly, a perfect swing with your driver, which is damn hard to pull off, will go just over 300 meters. Since only four of the eighteen holes are under 300 meters long, those are the only holes where it's possible to get on the green in one shot. And that's the best you can do in one shot: get on the green. You want a hole-in-one? Too fucking bad. You're going to have to putt for a birdie. Despite being not especially good, Golf pioneered a feature that most golf games still use today: the power/accuracy bar. So thank you, Golf. You may not be a great game, but you invented a great game mechanic.
Description: In Game A, one or two players, as Professor Hector and Professor Vector, attempt to remove dynamite from their forty-room lab while avoiding the Smicks, a group of man-eating lizards. In Game B, a sleepwalking Professor Hector must be safely guided through twenty-five rooms in the lab. For use with ROB.
Thoughts: As you're probably aware, the big draw to Gyromite was ROB, the loud robot that would open the red and blue gates for you. If your robot broke or if you didn't have one, you could use the second controller to open the gates. What's really weird is that the second controller was used to open the gates for BOTH players in the two player version of Game A. So the second player could totally fuck over the first player if they wanted to, either by opening or refusing to open a gate at an opportune time. And since the second player wouldn't get a turn until the first player died, there was very little reason not to fuck your game partner over. I remember really wanting ROB back when I was five. Unfortunately, by the time I got an NES in December 1988, ROB was out of production, out of stores, and Nintendo was busy pretending it never even existed. To this day, I have never owned a ROB. But I have played Gyromite. And without the robot gimmick, it's nothing but a cutesy rip-off of Lode Runner, minus the really cool level editor that made Lode Runner such a hit in the first place.
Description: Fire at the targets holding guns while taking care not to hit the unarmed targets in this law enforcement trainer. Game A takes place in a shooting range, while Game B takes place on a city backdrop. Then there's Game C, where you can practice your trick shooting on tin cans. For use with the NES Zapper.
Thoughts: I don't know why, but I always liked Hogan's Alley. It should have been lame that you were shooting at cardboard cutouts instead of real people, but it wasn't. In fact, that was part of the charm. Watching the targets roll out and watching them spin when they got hit was pretty cool. And the game was fair. In games such as Area 51 and House of the Dead where innocents would lunge out at you for no practical reason other than the programmers wanted to fuck with you, you could only excel through rote memorization, because the games were designed to be unfair. Meanwhile, Hogan's Alley was all about shape recognition and reflexes. It's certainly no coincidence that the professor and Gangster-A have the same trenchcoat, or that Gangster-C uses the same color palette as the cop, and you'll often have to make a split-second decision about whether or not a subject is a threat. If you shoot the lady though, you're a terrible player. She's wearing bright pink for Christ's sake. Get your eyes checked.
Description: Ascend 32 different mountains while dodging yetis, birds, icicles, and polar bears, then collect vegetables in the bonus stage.
Thoughts: I fucking hate Ice Climber. I really do. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the game physics are fucking awful. Any game where I can make ridiculous vertical jumps but only complete painfully short horizontal jumps is fucking bullshit. If this game used Super Mario Bros. physics, or even the earlier Mario Bros. physics, it would have been a hell of a lot better. And like most early cooperative games, the players are more of a hindrance to each other than a helper. If one player ascends the mountain faster than the other, they will repeatedly knock their partner off screen forcing them to respawn, though not at the cost of a life. But still, it's fucking annoying. Hell, the whole game is fucking annoying. Fuck Ice Climber.
Unlikely But: The NES version of Ice Climber featured a yeti enemy known as Topi. In the original Japanese version, this enemy was a seal, and it was changed due to cultural concerns that Americans might not enjoy beating seals to death. However, in Nintendo's rush to the American market, some copies of the launch games were assembled using Famicom chips and fitted with adapters that made them playable on an NES. So, if you're exceptionally lucky, you might be able to find a copy of the NES cartridge that has the seals.
Description: Fight your way through five floors of enemies to rescue Sylvia from Mr. X!
Thoughts: Besides 10-Yard Fight, Kung Fu is the other NES launch title developed by Irem instead of Nintendo. Like 10-Yard Fight, Kung Fu is a port of an arcade game. The arcade game in question, Kung-Fu Master, was loosely based on the 1984 Hong Kong action movie Wheels On Meals, with the characters of Thomas and Sylvia, being based on characters played by Jackie Chan and Lola Forner respectively. Despite this, the gameplay more closely resembles Bruce Lee's Game Of Death, where a lone hero battles through five floors of a pagoda, fighting boss characters at the end of each floor. I never owned Kung Fu, and I'm not sure I'm disappointed that I didn't own it. Don't get me wrong, Kung Fu is a great game. It's a game that I was glad that my friends owned and that all three video rental stores in town had, because it was fun to play it every so often. But the game was also way too fucking short, as it was still very much a product of the arcade game mentality. As previously mentioned, there are only five floors, and each one is pretty short. Yeah, the game loops and gets harder, but that's hardly any consolation. Imagine if Super Mario Bros. was comprised of five looping castle levels. Do you think it would still enjoy the same level of enduring popularity it has today? No, of course not.
Description: In the year 2112, the Earth is a wasteland. You are Mach Rider, a lone motorcycle-riding hero, who battles the evil Quadrunners and dodges obstacles as he travels through ten sectors. The game consists of three different modes. The easiest mode is Solo Course, where you must dodge or shoot obstacles and travel a certain distance down a course within a time limit; collisions will cost you valuable time. Endurance Course is the same concept, except now there are Quadrunners on the track as well to dodge and shoot. The last and hardest mode is Fighting Course. In this mode, you get to choose between a Track A and Track B in each sector, and there is no timer, only a set distance you must travel. In this mode, your lives are limited, making collisions even more perilous. You can also create your own tracks, and race them in any of the modes.
Thoughts: I didn't like this game at first, partly because I was too stubborn to read the directions and partly because the game puts its difficulty levels in descending order instead of ascending order. Since when has that EVER been proper protocol? But once I finally did read the booklet and learned how to switch gears though and get the bike up to top speed, I really began to like this game. The action is fast, the courses are colorful, the difficulty curve is fair, and the game has some of the most beautiful sprites that the launch had to offer. I was a huge fan of Pole Position on the Atari 2600 back in the day, and Mach Rider blew that game away in every way possible. The track creator is pretty lame though. You only get to design the basic track route; enemies and obstacles are randomly generated. So basically, you only get control over the least fun part of Mach Rider course design. Weak.
Description: A simple two-screen pinball game for one or two players. The game features two different play modes, A and B. In Game B, the ball is "heavier", resulting in faster gameplay. A bonus stage can be reached from the lower half of the table, where Mario must use the pinball to rescue Pauline, his oft-forgotten love interest from Donkey Kong.
Thoughts: This was one of like six NES games my uncle owned, with some of the other ones being Infiltrator, Captain Skyhawk, and Silent Service. So anytime my brother and I would go over there for a cookout or for my aunt or uncle's birthday party, this is the game we'd play. It wasn't great, but it was better than Captain Skyhawk. I'd spend most of my time trying to enter the bonus stage because that was the most fun part of the game. Also, that part had Mario and Mario makes everything better. At least, he did back then.
Description: A series of games involving ROB where he moves five plastic chips back and forth. Features three one player modes and a two player versus mode.
Thoughts: I've never played Stack-Up. Unlike Gyromite, which was playable without the use of ROB, Stack-Up very much required the robot, as well as large array of additional pieces that came packaged with the game. The game was not produced for very long, and complete copies go for well over $200 on eBay. It would cost me at least $400 to acquire both ROB and the complete Stack-Up set, and that's way more than I'm willing to pay for a game I wouldn't play more than a handful of times. Sorry. With a little luck, I'll have them in time for the 30th anniversary of the console.
Super Mario Bros.
Description: Fight through up to 32 different levels to rescue Princess Toadstool from Bowser, King of the Koopas.
Thoughts: There seems to be some debate over whether or not this was an NES launch title. Some pages list it as one, others do not. But Nintendo's own website lists it as one, and I'm inclined to consider them a reliable source for the release dates of their products. Either way, it was not originally the pack-in game that most of us fondly remember it as. Instead, the NES came bundled with boxed retail copies of Duck Hunt and Gyromite. But it would be Super Mario that would go on to define the system. Whereas the rest of the launch titles featured repetitive arcade style action, Super Mario had a beginning a middle and an end. There were shortcuts and secrets to find, and an actual goal; there was nothing else quite like it, though its formula would quickly and repeatedly be imitated. This was the game that marked the dawn of the era of completing the game as a more important goal than simply playing beating your old high score - the era of Mega Man, Castlevania, and Adventure Island. Without Super Mario Bros., the Nintendo Entertainment System would have been just another mediocre 80s gaming system alongside Intellivision, Colecovision, and a long string of Atari products.
Description: A simple tennis game. One player can compete against the CPU in a singles match, or two players can compete against the CPU in a doubles match.
Thoughts: Do people like tennis? I don't, unless it features interesting game physics and Mario characters. This game has realistic game physics and generic characters, not to mention a generic name. Aside from 10-Yard Fight, which Nintendo didn't name, all their early sports game had really bland names. Tennis? Nintendo couldn't come up with a fucking better name than just Tennis? Why isn't there an adjective in there? Why not Exciting Tennis? Or Super Real Tennis? And why can't two players compete in a singles match? Fuck this shit.
Description: Take on one or two gunfighters in a duel, or go down to the saloon and take on a whole gang of outlaws. For use with the NES Zapper.
Thoughts: Whereas Hogan's Alley took place in contemporary times and let you shoot at cardboard cut-outs of gangsters and women, Wild Gunman took place in the Old West and let you shoot at bank robbers, livestock rapists, and other assorted outlaws. Game A and Game B are dueling modes where you must dispatch one or two baddies before they shoot you. In the interest of sportsmanship, you can't fire until you're told to do so. Game A is pretty easy, but Game B, where you have to outdraw TWO guys is fucking bullshit. Game C is a lot like Hogan's Alley's Game B. Bad guys emerge from a backdrop and you have to shoot them. There are two differences between this and the Hogan's Alley mode: there are no innocents to accidentally shoot in Wild Gunman, and the bad guys return fire. I'm not sure why, but this game doesn't seem to garner the same fond memories within the gaming community that fellow Zapper launch titles Duck Hunt or Hogan's Alley do. Maybe it's because American audiences generally considered the Western motif to be dull and hackneyed by the 80s. Or maybe it's because Wild Gunman's dueling modes felt way more repetitive than anything in those other two games and having to wait before you could shoot the bad guys was really fucking lame.
Description: Guide Mario as he attempts to demolish 100 levels and sets off bombs while dodging sentient wrenches, eggplants, fireballs, and an evil foreman named Spike. You can also design your courses.
Thoughts: I liked the whole "climb ladders, dodge enemies, destroy stuff" concept better when it was called BurgerTime. Okay, that's a complete fucking lie. BurgerTime pisses me off; you have to work way too hard to trick the bad guys and keep them off your ass. On the other hand, I don't really like Wrecking Crew, either. I'm sorry, but I grew up in a world where Mario is allowed to jump, and in some cases, fly. I wish I had nicer things to say about Wrecking Crew, but after writing about 16 incredibly repetitive games, finding nice things to say about a 17th one is a massive chore. I will say this though: Wrecking Crew is way better than Baseball, Clu Clu Land, Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Golf, Gyromite, Ice Climber, Tennis, and Wild Gunman. I think we can assume it's better than Stack-Up, too.
Well, the NES launch may not have been filled with memorable titles, but it got the job done. As later Nintendo launches would reaffirm, you only need ONE memorable title and well-organized hype to sell a game console. As long as you're able to keep supplying your install base with new games at short, regular intervals, a small launch selection isn't a problem. If you're not able to do this, you're fucked; the N64 is a great example of this. Nintendo's home console empire may have been built on the backs of robots, guns, and Super Mario, but their continued commitment to innovative hardware and software is the reason that they still exist - and thrive - today.
Posted by: Syd Lexia
THE SECTOR AHEAD HAS FALLEN TO THE FORCES OF EVIL!