October 18, 2010 marks the 25th anniversary of the NES according to Nintendo. That means a quarter of a century has passed since the second rise of video games and Nintendo’s dominance. But the NES itself has already been talked about to death. Instead, we’re going to celebrate the past by taking a look at the present. 2010 has been surprisingly full of franchises continuing their NES legacy. Let’s take a look at each of these franchises — both then and now — to see what has changed and what has remained the same.
NES: Super Mario Bros. was one of the most influential games of all time, setting the standard for platformers and expanding the definition of what video games entailed. Its eight precisely designed levels are still highly playable even to this day. And its sequels continued this tradition, both exploring new expressions of the platforming genre and evolving the formula into something new. It’s safe to say that the industry would not be where it is today if it wasn’t for Mario.
2010: Today, Mario hangs in both the 2D and 3D plane, but 2010 was all about 3D Mario. Super Mario Galaxy 2 took the formula that Super Mario 64 started and went completely wacky with it, compartmentalizing the level design through groupings of planetoids. And while this was an invention of the first Galaxy, the second one wasn’t afraid to go completely crazy and churn out even more fresh ideas. While Mario is moving around in 3D space, the level design remains linear for every Star, staying truer to its NES roots than 64 or Sunshine ever did.
NES: The nonlinear platformer owes everything to Metroid, Nintendo’s ambitious experiment in progression through exploration. Not only did it challenge the popular standard of running from left to right to progress, it provided a wealth of incentive to explore as well, from the necessary upgrades to additional missile packs. And while it didn’t have an in-game story to speak of — for the most part — its thematic touches impressed in their minimalism, especially Samus’ big reveal at the end. It was a bold game that gave way to even better things as developers refined the formula.
2010: Metroid is still trying to push into new territory, though not in the direction everyone expected. After Super Metroid perfected the nonlinear 2D platformer, the folks making Metroid began to show a desire to make it something more than it was. Because of this desire, they added a more in-depth story in Fusion at the cost of some of the series’ trademark nonlinearity. The culmination of this was Metroid: Other M, an attempt at making a big-budget game with over-the-top narrative to match. In the process, they stripped away even more nonlinearity. It became one of Nintendo’s rare misses, with unfortunate voice acting, a laughable story, and simplified gameplay.
One thing the designers got very right was making a 3D game feel like a 2D one without compromising the advantages of 3D, creating a more direct evolution from the original 2D games than has ever been seen. Now if only we could get the original NES game’s nonlinear exploration back….
NES: Gamers largely overlooked Kirby’s NES outing when it came out because Nintendo released Kirby’s Adventure quite late in the system’s life. That's too bad because it was one of the best games for the system, with charming visuals, a wide variety of fun mechanics, and great level design. The graphics were especially impressive, as they pushed the system to make visuals that no one ever thought possible on the NES. It was incredibly satisfying in every way.
2010: Beautiful visuals come into play once again with Kirby’s Epic Yarn, though not in the traditional way. Everything is made of yarn, felt, and other assorted textiles. Better still, the gameplay results from the graphical style, making it more than just hollow window dressing. Epic Yarn carries over Adventure’s groundbreaking visual evolution and adapts to the times by trading in hardware prowess with sheer ingenuity.
NES: Blaster Master was one of those weird NES titles that mashed disparate elements of different genres together into one game. Here, you control a tank-like vehicle in side-scrolling levels where you can enter rooms that are top-down stages, like Commando or Ikari Warriors. The result was one of the more unique titles for the system, providing a nice compromise between stage-based titles and purely nonlinear ones. And though the difficulty comes from an unreasonable continue system, this title was a staple of the NES library.
2010: Over the years, attempts to resuscitate Blaster Master have utterly failed to capture the quirky goodness of the original, with crappy sequels populating multiple systems. But Sunsoft’s recent revival has finally produced a worthy follow-up wtih Blaster Master: Overdrive for WiiWare, a new game with updated graphics done in the style of the old game. While it doesn’t bring much new to the series, it does provide some modern niceties like save points. In the end, it’s great to have the series back in a respectable form.
Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest
NES: Enix’s world-shattering RPG phenomenon had humble beginnings on the NES. Localized as Dragon Warrior, you were a lone warrior in the center of a fairly compact world, with little direction. There wasn’t really any formal structure to speak of, and you were expected to poke around gathering items until you found your way to the final dungeon. The inclusion of a walkthrough in the manual was welcome, but something can be said for minimalist, open progression. Three other games appeared on the NES, adding in party members, a job system, and a new spin on RPG structure, but the core remained the same even as it became more focused.
2010: After seeing a couple of games on Sony systems, Dragon Quest makes a return to Nintendo with Dragon Quest 9 for the DS. At a glance, it is the same as the old games, with a linear structure slowly giving way to a more open one. However, several key features push the series forward, including a refined job system and robust community features. Dragon Quest may be a series of tradition, but it still finds room to innovate in ways that stay true to its NES roots.
NES: The original Final Fantasy was an amazing realization of RPG conventions up until that point. It streamlined battles and customization similar to that of Ultima just enough to make them accessible to console players and provided a massive quest not before seen on the NES. It was a revelation which sparked a revolution of RPGs on the system and beyond, and though it feels arcane now, it is still very much playable today.
2010: Since its inception, Final Fantasy has never stopped changing, stretching the boundaries of the RPG from within the genre while still retaining populist accessibility. Final Fantasy 13 attempts to replicate the adrenaline-inducing state of an action game with its own unique take on the Active Time Battle system. Meanwhile, though it is quite unfinished in its current state, Final Fantasy 14 aspires to lure in players who aren’t usually into MMORPGs. The Final Fantasy of today bears little resemblance to the Final Fantasy of the NES era, but its eye for mainstream appeal has always remained constant.
NES: Putting aside the infamous “I FEEL ASLEEP” line, the NES classic was actually a port of an MSX2 game, and though it is remembered fondly as a stealth pioneer, the version everyone played was actually fairly compromised. It added a level outside of the main fortress, but it was a dreadful addition. And worse still was the fact that it omitted the most important ingredient of a Metal Gear game: a Metal Gear. Instead, the final boss was a stationary computer screen. And yet even these failings weren’t enough to temper the public’s satisfaction with sneaking around rather than just killing everything in sight yet again.
2010: After concluding the Metal Gear Solid series with 4, series creator Hideo Kojima made Peace Walker, a portable Metal Gear that captured the qualities of its console predecessors while playing to the strengths of the PSP. And though the 2D gameplay of the NES game has made the transition to 3D, it is still very clearly an evolution on what came before, carrying on the spirit of the older games. In this way, Metal Gear is perhaps the purest expression of a series evolving over time.
Dragon Power/Dragon Ball
NES: Bandai released an anonymous little title called Dragon Power on the NES, and while it didn’t make much of a splash, it is notable for actually being a Dragon Ball game scrubbed clean of its identity. The Dragon Ball anime would not make it to American shores until years later, so Bandai removed all confusing elements from the stateside relase of the game. As an experience, it isn’t terribly notable. It consists of 2D overhead action punctuated by side-scrolling boss battles, but it still ended up being an interesting curiosity.
2010: Given the colossus that was Dragonball Z, Dragon Ball was soon to follow in its success. And the only logical conclusion to that is cashing in with licensed games. While Namco Bandai has milked Dragonball Z dry over the years, Dragon Ball has seen a couple of products as well. The most notable of these is Dragon Ball: Origins, a DS game that utilizes an overhead view with a Phantom Hourglass-like control interface. It was a surprisingly good action-adventure title for a licensed product. Its sequel came out this year, continuing the Dragon Ball storyline with gameplay similar to the first entry. Best of all, it almost seems to mirror the NES game, if only in perspective alone. And on a final cyclical note, Dragon Power actually came with the Japanese release of Dragon Ball: Origins 2, though almost certainly with the license intact.
Prince of Persia
NES: The classic PC platformer received an NES port and widened its audience in the process. However, it had some problems that compromised the experience. While the core game was unchanged at a glance, many elements were flat-out missing, including animations, items, and even some short scenes. Still, Prince of Persia introduced a generation of console kids to that special brand of Persian rotoscoping that we all know and love, so it wasn’t completely in vain.
2010: Much like Metal Gear, Prince of Persia successfully transitioned into 3D while still resembling what people have come to expect from the series. Unlike Metal Gear, successive games have begun to feel like a holding pattern with very little evolution. This year, The Forgotten Sands retreats to the Sands of Time mold to provide a focused, linear platformer. But while the series isn’t exactly influential in its latest incarnation, it’s still a blast to play becasue of its strong level design. The fun of acrobatics never gets old, even decades later. It's also funny to note that it's a PC game that appeared on consoles and became a console series that gets ported to PCs.
NES: Konami made many a schoolkid’s fantasy come true with Castlevania, which pitted the player against a cavalcade of horror movie creatures in challenging action-platforming stages. It was an incredibly satisfying and visceral experience. And though the series took a turn for the experimental in the sequel, the third game greatly expanded the scope of the first, with branching paths and multiple characters. An attention to detail and great music seal the deal in making the series one of the best of the NES era.
2010: Looking to diversify the brand, Konami put out two very different Castlevania games this year. Harmony of Despair was a mess artistically, but the mishmash of environments, the linear-yet-open timed structure, and the collision of past Castlevania heroes makes it something of a greatest hits package of almost every era of Castlevania. On the other hand, Lords of Shadow bears little resemblance to its own franchise and instead features elements of other games like God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, and Uncharted. It has a couple of references to the past, such as Gabriel Belmont’s character design and a few of the enemies. On the whole, it feels removed from any era of Castlevania. Then again, it has brought mainstream interest to the series once more, so I doubt Konami is complaining.
Jeremy Signor also contributed to Gamespite Quarterly #5: The NES Turns 25, 440 pages of NES nostalgia available now. More information on the book can be found at gamespite.net.