So I came to realize that despite my namesake, I haven’t done a lot of retro reviewing. So I figured it was time I started doing that. For those of us who grew up in the good ol days of the NES and onward, consider this a trip down memory lane, or possibly finding some gems you missed. For the younger crowd, consider it a chance to see the roots of gaming and see just how far things have come, and just how well some things still hold up.
This week? We’re looking at some third party NES titles that absolutely deserve a look, whether it’s on the NES Classic, or through uh…Other means.
DISCLAIMER: While I do not condone or promote piracy, I do consider emulation more of a grey area due to several factors: Lack of digital availability, inflated prices on rare games due to collectors, and other things. Whenever possible, I strongly encourage grabbing games through official channels, and will try to mention them where relevant. Needless to say though, for legal reasons I cannot and will not provide assistance in locating emulation related items like game roms. Now then, let’s talk about some of the best stuff on the NES that Nintendo themselves didn’t put out.
BEFORE WE START: A QUICK SAFETY WARNING
Again, I cannot and will not provide assistance in locating roms, but I *WILL* offer some safety advice for anyone doing so. This should be common sense, but we all know how much THAT’S lacking these days. So here’s some important tips to keep in mind:
-IF THE DOWNLOAD IS AN EXE FILE, DELETE IT IMMEDIATELY
No rom archive should be in EXE format. If it is, odds are 99.9% it’s a virus, malware, or similar bad thing you do NOT want on your PC. This is also true for powershell scripts (.ps1 files), script files (.sh files) and batch files (.bat).
-DON’T GO LOOKING FOR ROMS WITHOUT A SCRIPT BLOCKER OR SIMILAR PIECE OF SOFTWARE ON YOUR BROWSER
While I personally don’t consider emulation of old hardware piracy, there’s still a lot of piracy associations with emulation, and what’s associated with piracy? Malware, malware, MALWARE. Lots of distributors embed unpleasant scripts, pop ups, pop unders, and similar to try and get bad stuff put into your system and compromise it. Honestly no one should be browsing the web without a good script blocking tool. If you’re on Chrome, I recommend uBlock Origin.
Okay, PSA’s out of the way, let’s get to the games.
GENRE: Run n Gun Granddaddy
AVAILABLE VIA: Contra Anniversary Collection (Steam) (This collection is available on all major consoles as well)
Oh man, where do I start? Back when Konami was actually about the games, this was probably one of the biggest “must have” titles on the NES. It’s a case where the home version absolutely destroyed its arcade equivalent, and for good reason. Contra is essentially what put Run n Gun on the map for a lot of players. It introduced countless ideas that would set it apart from similar games at the time, such as 8-direction aiming, an impressive weapon variety, a few behind the back perspective levels, and solid 2 player co-op. Is it a hard game? Absolutely, you die in one hit and lose any special weapon you have, but it’s not nearly as hard as some would have you believe. Contra is a game that lacks time limits, and therefore discourages blindly rushing in. Slow and steady wins the race in Contra, as you can easily clear any obstacles in your way with well placed shots before moving onwards. There’s also light platforming, but nothing as tricky as you would find in dedicated platformers. Contra is more about your movement and jumps being used to avoid enemies and bullets, versus traversing lots of gaps. It’s also about placement, and being in the right spot to lay down rapid fire to quickly destroy anything in your path. While the Spreadgun is admittedly the best weapon in the game, learning to make use of its entire arsenal is key since a death may leave you having to resort to another gun. Just don’t pick up the Flame (F) weapon…It sucks. Everything else is pretty much fair game though. Oh yeah, it’s also the game that introduced many players to the Konami Code: Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start. There’s no select in the code, unless you’re playing two players. If you enjoy the Run n Gun genre and somehow never played Contra? You need to fix that. And remember, there’s no shame in using Autofire.
LIFE FORCE (AKA SALAMANDER)
GENRE: Horizontal *AND* Vertical shmup
AVAILABLE ON: Nothing aside from the original hardware, unfortunately.
Another case of Konami doing a solid arcade to home port, Life Force (known as Salamander in Japan) also makes use of the Konami Code if you decide you need 30 lives to beat the game, which you probably will until you get to know it better. A spinoff of Konami’s popular horizontal shooter, Gradius, Salamander tasks you with flying a ship through several hazardous levels, blasting away enemies while avoiding bullet and terrain alike. What sets this apart from other shooters is the power-up system. Rather than instantly getting some kind of upgrade when you grab a power-up, it increments a slot on your power-meter. Hitting the A Button will activate the highlighted power-up slot, and then reset your meter progress. This means you have to choose what powerups to get and when, adding a tactical element to your upgrading, as you have to choose what takes priority: A better gun? Or a mini-ship that effectively doubles your firepower, and then triples it when you get a second one? A shield to let you take a few hits without dying? While your powerups are lost when you die, your mini-ships (Known as Options) can still be recovered if you grab them before they get scrolled off the screen, giving you a means to recover some of your firepower even if you bite the dust. Another neat thing is that Life Force has both horizontal and vertical orientation for its stages, switching each stage, while maintaining the same type of gameplay and shooting whether vertical or horizontal. It’s a solid entry and one of the best shmups on the NES, which is all the more reason it’s a crime there’s no good way to play it besides the original hardware or emulator of your choice.
GENRE: Jumpin n shootin man!
AVAILABLE VIA: The Megaman Legacy Collection (Steam). Also on a lot of other platforms.
MegaMan 2 is the game that basically put the Blue Bomber on the map. On a system full of action platformers that had some shooting elements, MegaMan 2 stands out for several reasons. One, the fact you picked the order you tackled its first 8 levels in. Two, the fact you got a new weapon from every boss of those first 8 levels once you beat them. Three, the fact the gameplay was incredibly solid, blending both shooting and platforming elements together in a glorious harmony. Four, the music’s so damn good. While the original MegaMan pioneered the ‘choose your level order and get weapons from bosses’ aspects, 2 refined it and effectively improved on it with better levels, better weapons, and more forgiving difficulty with more plentiful extra lives, as well as a means to fully recover your health at any time you wanted via a stored life recovery item, giving you a way to deal with boss fights you might find too difficult. It also included an easier option (Normal) compared to the original game’s only difficulty (Difficult) for players who wanted an easier time, and a means to save your progress via passwords. MegaMan 2 put our blue boy on the map for a ton of good reasons, and they’re all reasons you should play it if you haven’t already. While all of the NES games are good (though some less than others), 2 is easily the most important of the 6 NES MegaMan titles, as we likely wouldn’t have had 3-6 if 2 hadn’t done so well.
GENRE: Action RPG
AVAILABLE ON: SNK 40th Anniversary Collection (Steam). Also on PS4/Switch/Xbox Series.
Crystalis is an absolute gem that a lot of people probably slept on, but thankfully SNK had the courtesy to give it a second lease on life in their 40th Anniversary compilation. Crystalis takes place after the world ends in 1999 (A popular year for the apocalypse at the time), and you are a hero from the pre apocalypse days, tasked with preventing a second apocalypse. What makes Crystalis so fun is that it’s an RPG with a focus on a faster, action oriented gameplay approach. Think Legend of Zelda, but with faster attacks and the ability to charge your attacks with the attack button to fire increasingly more powerful attacks based on how long you charge. Each sword you find offers its own element which is good against some enemies, but ineffective against others. You’ll also get a variety of items and spells that are used to keep yourself going and progress through the game’s obstacles, while dealing with a variety of enemies and bosses. It also allows you to save almost anywhere, making it easy to pick up where you left off. My only real complaint about this one is enemies and bosses have a minimum level you must be at to damage them: If you’re not at that level, you can’t do anything against them except flee (Or die if it’s a boss fight). So yeah, this one is a case of Guide Dang It at times, but it’s still an incredibly fun title with a solid soundtrack, and one of the better NES gems that got overlooked by a lot of people but thankfully can be purchased still via the SNK 40th Collection. It also has a Gameboy Color port but uh…We don’t talk about that. Just play the NES version, trust me.
Needless to say, there’s a LOT of good stuff in the NES library, and there’s no way I can cover it all in a single article, but since I’ve felt a bit of a draught in review inspiration on what I’m playing currently (As I’ve yet to finish a lot of those games, like Elden Ring, which is good, I’ll say it right now) that perhaps it might not hurt to look to the past for a bit, rather than the present. So expect to see more of these. There’s plenty of third party NES gems, and of course I’ll look at first party at some point too.