Runners-up of 1986

Following the success of Super Mario Bros. in 1985/86, there was an explosion of games in the US, especially for the NES. Most of these, I must confess, were awful. But among the fields of thorns there were quite a few roses. These are the ones that almost made it into the bouquet, but had to be pruned off for the benefit of the fair recipient (that would be you).

Alex Kidd in Miracle World |Sega Master System|

Not only was Alex Kidd conceived of as Sega’s answer to Mario (and five years before Sonic, I might add), but this game was built-in to many Master System consoles. As a result, the cartridge version is one of the rarest for the system. The gameplay is your average platformer, but they tried to include a great deal of variety. Alex Kidd can punch, jump, swim, ride a motorbike, and more. The bosses in the game are defeated not by combat, but by a game of rock-paper-scissors. The main antagonist of the game is named Janken, which is the Japanese name of the game. Janken is very popular in Japan, as the Japanese are non-confrontational and like to use a quasi-random game in order to avoid disputes. Alex Kidd also has puzzles and other obstacles, which are made no easier by the strange physics and reversed buttons (you press the left button to jump and the right button to punch). AK was a difficult game and overall was not nearly as good as Super Mario Bros., but it was still a good offering for those who wanted a platforming game on their Sega.

Arkanoid |Arcade|

As we saw in the 1970s Retrospective article, there was a slew of games based on Pong, and they got pretty creative. Among the best of these Pong-derivatives was Breakout!, in which the player moves a paddle at the bottom of the screen to bounce a ball against some bricks to break them. Arkanoid is essentially a clone of this. It has a few features that make it more varied and enjoyable. Bricks will sometimes drop capsules upon being broken, and if the paddle touches these capsules something cool will happen. My favorite capsule makes the ball split into two identical balls. Not only can you break twice as many bricks, but you are also less likely to lose a life because if one ball slips past you, there’s a back-up still on the board. Arkanoid is fun, but ultimately it ends up just being a time-killer. It’s just a fun novelty, a way to pass some time.

Here’s a video of me playing.

Castlevania |Nintendo Famicom Disk System|

This is one of the classics right here. Castlevania takes all the staples of horror movies–vampires, bats, mummies, creaky old castles, etc.–and mashes them all together in one action-packed platformer. The protagonist, Simon Belmont, is tasked with destroying Count Dracula. Castlevania tried to squeeze every bit out of the primitive Famicom hardware to produce an atmospheric, spooky, and robust adventure. They mostly succeeded, with the control issues being the weakest part of the game. For example, using staircases is finicky and can sometimes result in Simon taking damage if he walks up/down a staircase when you don’t want him to, or vice versa. Simon also jumps back every time you take a hit, which can lead to an instant death if you get hit next to a bottomless pit. Simon will just jump right down to his doom. Later levels become extremely difficult. Many game developers back then made short games and then greatly increased the difficulty to artificially extend the length because many gamers wanted (and still want) quantity over quality. Well, in any case, Castlevania was a good first iteration (and Castlevania 2 was a bad second iteration) for what the series would eventually become.

Here’s a video of me playing.

Lock-On |Arcade|

To be quite frank, Lock-On is really fun. It’s a rail gun shooter (meaning that the character has to fly down a “tunnel” but may veer slightly to any direction) developed by Sega for the arcade. It features a pseudo-3D view from behind the fighter jet that the player is controlling and allows for full-screen rotation. It is a blast to play and probably blew some minds back in 1986 with its convincing 3D effects.

Kid Icarus/光神話: パルテナの鏡 |Nintendo Famicom Disk System|

Light Mythology: Palutena’s Mirror, or Kid Icarus as it’s known outside Japan, is a somewhat experimental title by Nintendo. It combines the platforming of Super Mario Bros. with the vertical/horizontal scrolling and shooting of Metroid, and throws in some elements from Legend of Zelda such as dungeon maps and item purchases for good measure. It takes place in an interpretation of Greek mythology, hence the American name Kid Icarus. The angel Pit must obtain three sacred treasures in order to rescue Angel Land and its ruler, the goddess Palutena. There are three levels, each with a dungeon at the end. The first level, the underworld, is also the most difficult. Kid Icarus is quite unusual in that it has a reverse difficulty curve. The player who finally breaks through to the second level, the over-world (Earth) will be surprised at how easy the game becomes. The second level is horizontally-oriented whereas the first level and the third level (the sky world) are vertically-scrolling. The fourth and final level, which requires the player to switch to side B of the disk, is a horizontal shooter that leads to the final boss, Medusa.

The best part of the game is its music. The opening theme is one of the best pieces of music to come out of the 3rd generation.


Metroid |Nintendo Famicom Disk System|

Oh, man. Metroid was the start of something good, let me tell you. After the platforming goodness of Super Mario Bros. and the open world exploration of Legend of Zelda, Nintendo tried mixing the styles together and the resulting gameplay was Metroid. Metroid was inspired by the movie “Alien;” this is apparent in the naming of a boss as Ridley, after “Alien” director Ridley Scott. The atmosphere of Metroid is creepy and unsettling, in a good way. Even at the very beginning you are greeted by an other-wordly theme against a dark and foreboding background.


And from then on, little changes. Metroid pits the protagonist Samus Aran, a lone bounty hunter, against the entirety of the planet Zebes. You are utterly alone in an intricate network of underground tunnels. You have no one to rely on except yourself. You will face countless terrors and you must destroy Mother Brain before the galaxy is overrun and consumed by the diabolical parasites known as Metroids. And if you fail, all of civilization will crumble and fall. Have fun!

The game does a great job making you feel alone and hopeless. But at the same time, it makes you appreciate just how awesome Samus and the power suit are. You will grow more powerful throughout the game, finding items and powerups that will not only enable you to access new areas, but also increase your chance of survival. And you will need increased chances. Metroid is a darn difficult game, and the last area of the game doesn’t take any prisoners. In the home stretch you’ll be facing metroids themselves. They are fast, difficult to attack, and very difficult to get off if they latch onto you. The end boss Mother Brain will fire dozens of projectiles at you simultaneously, and what’s more, after you destroy it you’ll have to escape Zebes before the self-destruct timer runs out. But if you do, you’ll be treated to a surprise.

That’s right. The galaxy’s baddest bounty hunter is some blonde lady. This was a big deal in 1986 because it played with gamers’ expectations. Many of them assumed that such an amazing warrior must be a bad dude.


Of course, because this was a Japanese game there had to be a bit of pervertedness mixed in. If you beat the game very quickly Samus will make it amply clear that she is, in fact, a woman.

Samus’ gender reveal had a huge impact on the medium. Within only a couple years of Metroid‘s release we saw more and more female protagonists in games, such as Maria from Ghost Lion, Turbo Girl from Turbo Girl, and everyone’s favorite Chinese operative, Chun-Li from Street Fighter II.

Oh, and the music was great.


Starflight |Home Computers|

Starflight is a curious game. It’s a combination RPG/space exploration sim set in the year 4620. It was published by EA Games, which is fitting because it heavily influenced Mass Effect which was also published by EA 21 years later. The premise of the game is that stars everywhere are producing flares like crazy and it’s your job to explore the galaxy trying to figure out why and stop it.

While flying in space you’ll come across alien races from time to time and, depending on various factors, you can trade, talk, or fight to the death. But don’t get the idea that this is a shooter. You will usually want to avoid combat at all costs. Much of the fun comes from scanning solar systems, landing on planets, and exploring them in your ATV. You can find minerals to upgrade and refuel your ship. Some of the planets are populated by wild animals that may attack you, but you can fight back and loot their hides, so no worries. You also have to deal occasionally with natural disasters and limited time. If you can find good planets to colonize, your people will generate tons of money for you. The most important items to find are alien artifacts and cryptic messages that will allow you to piece together what is happening in the galaxy.

The UI is generall pretty good, and the Sega MegaDrive port makes it even better. The sound is average, but that’s OK. Starflight is a game that requires thought, forethought, patience, strategy, problem-solving, and a love of space.

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