Runners-up of 1988


Super Mario Bros. was the best game of 1985, and the only game that year to receive a Games Appreciation article. It’s not too surprising, then, that the same applies to SMB3 in 1988. It was almost hopeless that any game could reach the same heights–but there are a few games that got close. And here they are.

Blaster Master |Nintendo Famicom|Blaster_Master_boxart

The opening cutscene shows a frog carelessly hopping away from its owner, a boy named Jason. The frog hops over to a barrel of radioactive waste which is half-buried in Jason’s backyard for some reason, and grows many times in size. The frog then leaps down a massive hole and Jason goes down after it. At the bottom of the hole Jason finds an advanced tank just sitting there (along with a suit that perfectly fits him) and gets in. The cutscene ends there. I’m sure I’ve no need to remind you that drug use was rampant in the 1980s.

Blaster Master is a platformer combined with a shooter. The tank fires on enemies and rolls along but it can also spring into the air, meaning that you can “run and jump.” Pressing SELECT make Jason exit the tank and run around. This is necessary for a few things, such as climbing a ladder, but the rest of the time will get you quickly killed. For the most part the motion feels smooth and responsive. That’s not to say that it’s easy, though. Blaster Master is not-so-fondly remembered as one of the most difficult action games on the Famicom.

Blaster Master has plenty of variety in its stages. As mentioned before Jason can exit his tank to reach separate areas designed for on-foot action. There are many dungeons which have a 3/4 top-down perspective similar to Zelda. At the end there is a boss guarding a power-up or other valuable item. Fortunately Jason and his tank have separate life bars. They also have separate power-ups and items. Another cool detail is that Jason holds his blaster in his right hand, meaning all of his shots are off-center. That can be a bit aggravating during gameplay, but it’s cool that such realism is there.

As you progress through the game and the tank gets access to other items, you can equip the tank in a sub-menu similar to the one in later Metroid games. All of these items seem cool at first, although not all of them live up to the hype. The hover rocket has an annoyingly small fuel tank, and the item that enables your tank to climb walls and ceilings often works against you–even dropping you to your death at times.

Sadly, there is no map. Given the sprawling complexity of this underground world, a map screen had been tremendously helpful, but that feature was not expected back in 1988. Gamers were willing to keep a sheet of graph paper nearby so that they could draw their own maps.

An even bigger source of aggravation is the excessive backtracking. Blaster Master attempts to be a Metroid-style game in which you use powerups to access previously unreachable areas, but it’s not fun enough to actually execute it. All-in-all, Blaster Master’s flaws overshadow its promises of greatness.

In case you’re wondering, Jason recovered his frog and escaped the underground lair with his new tank.

Rock Man 2 (a.k.a. Mega Man 2) |Nintendo Famicom|

Rockman2

Rock Man 2 is a dream come true. No, really. It’s a game that never should have existed, but thanks to a team of passionate artists sacrificing their evenings and weekends, we can enjoy this 8-bit treasure.

Rock Man was Capcom’s first true console game. Their previous console releases were ported from arcade. The arcade started to decline around 1986 and Capcom knew that it was prudent to build a game from the ground up especially for consoles. This effort resulted in Rock Man, known as Mega Man outside Japan, which enjoyed a warm critical reception but sold poorly. Capcom had no intention to release a sequel, preferring to accept their losses and try another new property. But Rock Man‘s dev team wasn’t willing to give up so easily. Every day for about four months (four months!!!) the team stayed in the office after work to make Rock Man 2. The Producer and character designer Inafune Keiji explained,

“So we, of our own accord, got together, spent our own time, we worked really, really hard, you know, just 20-hour days to complete this, because we were making something we wanted to make. Probably in all my years of actually being in a video game company, that was the best time of my working at Capcom, because we were actually working toward a goal, we were laying it all on the line, we were doing what we wanted to do. And it really showed in the game, because it’s a game, once again, that we put all our time and effort and love, so to speak, into it, designing it.”

Capcom saw no harm in allowing the team to develop the game after-hours seeing as it was a no-lose situation. Either the dev team made a good game, in which case Capcom would reap the rewards, or it was a bad game, in which case Capcom only had to absorb the cost of manufacturing, not the four-month long development process. And Capcom’s position certainly paid off. Rock Man 2 remains one of the most beloved entries in the entire franchise, and for good reason. You can tell that every single thing about this game is a labor of love. Everything about the original was improved and expanded upon. There are many more stages, more of a story, better music, an expanded system of abilities, and even more adorable characters. Seriously. Look how cute these character concepts are.

Rock Man 2 character art

Many of these characters were actually intended to be in Rock Man but had to be cut because of space constraints. Other changes involved the fans. The first was the ability to store energy tanks to replenish your health. This was heartily welcomed by fans considering the high difficulty of the original. Another was the cast of bosses. The dev team received 8,370 boss designs from fans–the best eight made it into the game.

The bosses are much more enjoyable to play against this time, for the most part. They have more animations this time around, making them easier to read and counter, but are still challenging.

Here’s a video of me playing the Air Man stage.

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Enemy swarming is much less frequent in this game. You could see that the only swarms in the Air Man stage were the hatchlings, but this could be avoided by shooting the egg as it falls. Aside from that, enemies rarely engage you more than two at a time. The challenge comes from how you handle the obstacles before you, rather than trying to repel constant military invasion from all sides. Most stages feature a unique challenge, such as outrunning beams coming from either side of the screen, or avoiding jumping too high so as to avoid ceiling spikes. There’s always a good balance. Either you’ll be dealing with difficult platforming with few or no enemies, or you’ll deal with many enemies while on relatively stable ground. Items 1, 2, and 3 enable you to revisit stages and play them in new ways, further increasing the replayability and strategic depth. Finally, the abilities that you gain from bosses are more useful than those in Rock Man.

It doesn’t matter which order in which you play the stages, although the bosses have an intricate system of weaknesses against the other boss’ weapons that can assist you greatly. Air Man takes double damage from your default arm cannon. From Air Man’s corpse you receive the Air Shooter against which Crash Man is weak, and Crash Man’s Crash Bomber is effective against two other bosses, and so on. On the other hand, Air Man is easily defeated with the Leaf Shield which you receive after defeating Wood Man. But Wood Man is weak against the Air Shooter. So if you fight Air Man first then Wood Man is easier to beat, but if you fight Wood Man first then Air Man is easier to beat. It’s no surprise that different players devise their own strategies for tackling the bosses. The “correct” order for playing the game seems to one player like a game of rock-paper-scissors, but seems to another player a catch-22. This depth of strategy is one of the things that makes Rock Man 2 such a vibrant topic of discussion. Many players go for Metal Man first because his Metal Blade is an effective weapon not only against two other bosses and a useful item in its own right, but highly useful against regular enemies. It uses very little ammo and can be fired in multiple directions. If you wish to make the game easier for yourself, definitely go after Metal Man first. But no matter which path you choose, remember to have fun.

Along the way you’ll be treated to some of the best music on the Famicom. The soundtrack was composed by Tateishi Takashi, with Rock Man composer Matsumae Manami returning to co-compose the Air Man stage music. The music keeps getting better and better as the game goes on, until the very last stage when it unexpectedly cuts out. That lack of music is creepy, which is the perfect setup for the equally creepy “secret” final boss. I won’t give it away; I’ll only say that the ending of the ending is beautiful and poetically tragic.*

Sadly the journey isn’t quite worth it. Rock Man is a simplistic game meaning that it needs to be solid in order to prevent repetitiveness; it does not. The metal blade is so overpowered that once you have it the shooting gameplay becomes a cakewalk. Worse still, much of the non-shooting gameplay is unfair. Take, for example, the disappearing platforms over bottomless pits whose pattern must be memorized by trial and error. Dr. Wily’s fortress is the worst part of the game, with the wall bomb boss being passibly the worst boss in the series. You need a full reserve of ammunition when you enter the room, and you can’t miss even once or else you need to die. When you die you’ll need to grind outside the boss room. You also need a full meter of bubbles to defeat Dr. Wily. With all the other bosses you don’t need a specific weapon; you can defeat them with only your default arm cannon. For the last two bosses to require a specific weapon, and to not supply ammunition refills, is sorely unwelcome. Before you get that far, however, you’ll be forced to complete a boss rush (a challenge in which you face every boss in the game a second time). It’s nothing but pointless filler, and is the final straw when it comes to evaluating this game’s quality.

The best version of Rock Man 2 is the one contained in Mega Man Legacy Collection. This version contains a bevy of options to tweak the game ever so slightly, as well as extra content such as new game modes and galleries.

Mega Man Legacy Collection is available for PC here, or for many different platforms elsewhere.

*To elaborate on the game’s ending: After we see Rock Man walking through nature during all four seasons, we are left with a picture of his helmet left on the ground.

https://i0.wp.com/www.vgmpf.com/Wiki/images/2/23/Mega_Man_2_-_NES_-_Ending.png

You’ll notice that on the title screen Rock Man is standing on the roof of a tower without his helmet, his black hair waving in the breeze. When you press START, his helmet teleports onto his head and he’s whisked off the screen to start his adventure. The free-flying hair represents freedom, and the helmet represents duty. Rock doesn’t desire to be Rock Man. He’s just a pure-hearted little boy who longs to be carefree. When he leaves his helmet behind at the end of the game, he’s almost defiantly asserting his freedom–but knows full well that the helmet will go back on his head if he’s needed again. This retroactively gives a completely new context to the game that you just played. Playing the game is fun for you, but it’s a daunting, unpleasant duty for Rock. This dramatic shift was unheard of when Rock Man 2 was made. In 1988 we almost never saw how the characters felt about anything.

Super Mario Bros. 2 |Nintendo Entertainment System|

Following the smashing success of Super Mario Bros., developers at Nintendo wished to give fans a greater challenge than the built-in New Game+ mode, and made Super Mario Bros. 2, a game that was called a sequel but is more accurately described as an expansion pack. The game used most of the same character and level assets from the original but used them to create more difficult levels–even the first level can earn you a Game Over if you’re not careful. There are downright contemptible additions such as poison mushrooms and reverse warp pipes (which send you to a previous world rather than a further one).

Super-Mario-Bros-Poison-Mushroom-smaller

Well, he looks friendly enough.

When Nintendo of America’s Howard Lincoln saw SMB2 he immediately rejected it for release in North America, supposing that American gamers would dislike the high difficulty of the game as well as the similarity to the original game, and might stop liking Mario as a result. SMB2 was eventually released in America as part of the Super Mario All-Stars bundle, in which it was rebranded as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. For the time being, however, America had no new Mario game. The solution that Nintendo came up with was to reskin a currently existing game and release it in the west as Super Mario Bros. 2.

The game that they reskinned was an obscure title called Doki Doki Panic, based on a TV show of the same name (ドキドキ is a Japanese onomatopoeia that mimics a quickly beating heart, signifying excitedness, and “panic” of course is what you might do when you ドキドキ).

Mario Vs Doki Doki

Doki Doki Panic had an Arabian motif to it, which includes flying carpets, earthenware jars, and oil lamps. Most of these are removed in the SMB2 reskin, although a couple remain. It’s not only the visuals that were carried over, but the gameplay too. In the first game, Mario defeated enemies by jumping on their heads, but in this game he must stand on their heads and pick them up then throw them. Suffice it to say that SMB2 is a radical departure from the previous game and the one to follow–SMB3, despite having many new features and going in new directions, is a faithful successor to SMB1. No matter how you look at SMB2, it’s the black sheep of the family.

Interestingly, the Famicom library is full of “2s” that are the outcasts. Zelda 2 is a sidescrolling platformer/overworld RPG, Castlevania II is a talking-to-NPCs simulator in a bizarre nightmare world,  Final Fantasy II displeased almost everyone with its unique leveling mechanic, and so on. Unlike these others, SMB2 justifies its strangeness by being a dream. The entire game, except for the opening and closing cutscenes, takes place in Mario’s subconscious.

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The insult most frequently lobbed against SMB2 is that it isn’t the “real” sequel to SMB–allegedly The Lost Levels is the real sequel and SMB2 is just a reskin. This isn’t really a fair assessment because The Lost Levels isn’t a real sequel either; it’s just an excessively difficult follow-up using the same assets. Miyamoto Shigeru didn’t even work on The Lost Levels, but he did work on Doki Doki Panic and SMB2.

DDP‘s engine was made by the Mario dev team for the purpose of being used in the next Mario game. But a rushed licensing agreement compelled Nintendo to use the engine for a prototype game being developed by Tanabe Kensuke instead, and the result was DDP. Unsurprisingly, Miyamoto considers SMB2, not The Lost Levels, to be the true sequel to SMB. At least SMB2 offers something new. Several somethings, in fact. SMB2 featured the first appearance of Shy Guys, Birdos, Pokeys, Snifits, Bob-ombs, and several others that have become staples of the franchise. It was also the game which established that Luigi is taller than Mario. In Mario Bros. and SMB he was just a palette swap of Mario.

The central game mechanic–pulling vegetables out of the ground and pulling enemies over your head–admittedly gets old pretty quickly, but the variety of levels, enemies, and secrets keeps it interesting. The camera can scroll horizontally and vertically, although the game often needs to pause for a couple of seconds while the screen shifts. It wasn’t until SMB3 that Mario had completely smooth scrolling in all eight directions.

SMB2 is visually and audibly appealing, and its overworld theme shall be forever stuck in my head. SMB2 was so well-received in America that it was brought over to Japan as Super Mario Bros. USA. The game was not only updated for Super Mario All-Stars, but was also remade on the Game Boy Advance as Super Mario Advance. The GBA version also includes a remake of Mario Bros.

Here’s a video of me playing the first level.

Usually I have notes for every video released in a given year, but there shan’t be any for 1988 because the file was corrupted. Sorry about that. Next time, we’ll be moving on to 1989.

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