You can’t keep a good retro platform down ladies and gents, and while I think I do want to look at Nintendo’s first party lineup at some point, I think the third parties deserve some more love first. So here we go with a second round of third party stuff!
We’re gonna take another quick look at four classics today, though the bad news is not as many of them have modern options to play beyond emulation. In fact, only the first one does. A couple others do have remakes or reboots that are good though.
GENRE: Licensed property platformer that’s actually good!
AVAILABLE ON: The Disney Afternoon Collection on Steam
Back in the 80s? Ducktales was *HUGE* Every kid watched it, it was that big. Its first season was unheard of in terms of how good it looked, and the fact it was actually one long, overarching plot where we were always looking forward to what would happen in the next episode. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it got a videogame adaptation. What WOULD come as a surprise though: In today’s age where so many licensed movie tie-in games or similar licensed tie in games are absolute garbage, Ducktales was an absolute masterpiece. It helps that at the time, Capcom was basically the sole rights holder of any Disney videogame adaptation as Disney had yet to create their own inhouse gamedev studio. And well, it’s Capcom. Specifically, 80s Capcom. These guys knew their stuff.
Ducktales was an absolute joy to play due to simple but effective controls: You primarily jumped, but could also hold down on the dpad mid jump to go into a Pogo-stick mode with Uncle Scrooge’s cane, which let him jump off virtually anything, even spikes! You could also use the cane like a golf club by holding left or right on the d-pad while next to an object and pressing B, this was used to deal with some enemies, as well as striking rocks into other objects for finding secrets and bonuses. While the controls were simple, they absolutely got the job done, and made exploring the game’s levels a joy. Similar to Megaman, you chose the order you challenged levels in, though some areas had spots that could only be accessed by finding keys, and in some cases the key might be in a different level entirely. Exploration was key in Ducktales, as every level was non-linear and had various paths to take. While your ultimate goal was to defeat each level boss and claim their treasure, we all know what Scrooge is about: MONEY! And that meant if you wanted to play Ducktales the intended way, you searched every last inch of every level for treasure, aiming to get as high a score as possible by the end since your money *was* your score and determined just how great of a treasure hunter you were. It also has some of the best tunes of the NES era, Transylvania and The Moon will forever remain iconic tracks. Heck, The Moon was so iconic they used it as a song in the Ducktales reboot cartoon awhile back. But seriously, if you want to play one of the best third party platformers the NES ever had? Play Ducktales. It’s short, but oh so sweet.
It should be noted Ducktales also has an HD remaster that is actually really good, and is available on Steam. It has been de-listed in the past though, so I’d grab it sooner rather than latern.
THE GUARDIAN LEGEND
GENRE: Topdown free roaming and vertical shmup hybrid
AVAILIBILITY: Original hardware/emulation only, sadly.
If there’s any one game that has never gotten a sequel and outraged me to this day because of that? It’s The Guardian Legend. Developed as a joint effort between Compile and Irem, with the latter being the publisher and rightholder, and licensed in the US by Broderbund, a somewhat big name for its time that went defunct back in 1998. What makes Guardian Legend so special is the way it blends genres in a way no one else has managed to do. The game makes use of two different gameplay types but blends them together in a near seamless manner that no one else has done. The game opens with a vertical shooter segment as you blast your way into the alien planet of Naju, which is threatening Earth. Upon breaching Naju’s outer defenses it’s revealed your ship is actually an android capable of transforming between humanoid and android forms. In humanoid form, you’ll explore large maze like areas to find new items and upgrades, battling enemies and minibosses all the way. Your eventual goal is to find the Corridors that act as the “dungeons” of the game, and play out as vertical shooting sequences like the opening act. Some corridors require you to solve a puzzle to open them with a hint located elsewhere in Naju’s depths.
What makes dual approach so great is that you use the same arsenal if you’re on foot *or* flying through one of Naju’s corridors, meaning your abilities and upgrades are universal: So getting stronger benefits you regardless of which type of gameplay you’re currently doing. It also made switching between the two feel seamless, as you had the same weapons at your disposal in both modes. Another feature is that your Score isn’t just for show: Hitting specific milestones on your Score would result in a “Level up” that fully restored your health and increased your max health limit. Though unfortunately, if you manage to actually break the score’s buffer of 9,999,999 the game will crash, though this isn’t something that occurs on a typical playthrough unless you are grinding way more than you should in the exploration areas, or farming points off a boss without killing it. Guardian Legend features a large arsenal to play with, your standard gun being your reliable option at all times, but you’ll also find a variety of subweapons that utilize your Power Chips, an ammo source that also doubles as money, and the power level of your primary gun. The more chips you had stocked, the better your main gun was, which made it a very delicate balancing act: At times you absolutely need the extra firepower of a good subweapon, but it means your main gun suffers until you find more chips. The gameplay loop is absolutely solid: Explore an area, find upgrades, beat the corridors, get keys from the corridors to find new areas to explore: Rinse and repeat until the finale.
On top of there being a large variety of weapons to play with, they all increased in level as you found copies of the same weapon, making that weapon even stronger and giving you something to look forward to as you see just how strong your arsenal can get. Between this, and some absolutely solid shooting sections and intense boss fights? It again must be asked: HOW THE HELL DID THIS GAME NEVER GET A SEQUEL!?
GENRE: Platformer where you can’t jump
AVAILABILITY: Original hardware/emulation only. Remake exists, but isn’t quite the same.
Yes, you read that right. In Bionic Commando, you cannot jump. Probably because of how heavy that Bionic Arm of yours is. But that doesn’t stop this from being an absolute gem of a platformer, and one of a kind on the NES due to the unique “no jumping” aspect. This is yet another Capcom gem that cannot be ignored.
In Bionic Commando, your Bionic Arm is your lifeline, almost literally so. It can be extended out in front of you, diagonally upwards, or straight up to attach to solid objects and pull you towards them. And in the case of grabbing objects at an angle, you can swing from them to clear gaps and reach higher areas. In some cases, you’ll have to grapple from point to point with your arm, swinging off each object just to grab the next as you fly off the previous one. You’ll only start with a basic gun, but find new weapons as you progress through the game’s many levels (although admittedly the rocket launcher you get early on is the best gun in the game). You’ll progress across a world map, going from level to level, though sometimes getting to choose the order you tackle things in depending on where on the world map you are. Enemy trucks travel the world map as well, which result in a top down shooting sequence inspired by Capcom’s arcade title Commando whenever you hit one. Your overall goal is to reach and stop the top secret weapon of the enemy, the Albatross. Along the way you face a lot of different threats in the form of various enemies, and new tricky obstacles that require creative swinging with your Bionic Arm to get through. Just be warned things start out kind of difficult as you die in a single hit at first, but grabbing health capsules will eventually level up your max health, adding a single pip to your healthbar each time it happens.
Admittedly, the bosses are a bit of a weak point in Bionic Commando, but that doesn’t stop its level to level gameplay from being an absolute gem. Plus, you get to see Hitler’s head explode at the end of the game, in full bloody detail. We still don’t know how Capcom got this past the censors when Nintendo was very anti blood at the time. If you want to see how a platformer can be a platformer without a jump button? Grab this game and get swinging. Or if you’d rather try the modern and still good (but somewhat different) remake, go for Bionic Commando Rearmed on Steam.
GENRE: Shooty platformer and topdown shooter hybrid (Yeah we’ve got a thing going on here)
AVAILABLE ON: Original hardware/emulation. A reboot trilogy exists though.
Blaster Master is yet another hybrid NES gem, this time by Sunsoft. Known in Japan as Metafight, the game got an entire story change for the US release, though gameplay wise it’s completely unaffected.
In the case of genres, Blaster Master has you doing side-scrolling, platformer segments with a heavy dose of shooting in your tank-like vehicle, the Sophia. Able to shoot straight ahead or straight up, and surprisingly agile and capable of gaining a lot of air via jumping, this “metal attacker” as it’s called in Japan will be your ride throughout the underground worlds you explore. Along with its gun, it has homing missiles, 3 way missiles, and a lightning strike that can hit enemies below you, giving you plenty of options to deal with the many things that want you dead. But there’s more to it than that, this is a hybrid game! There are areas where you’ll be forced to leave the relative safety of the Sophia and go on foot, where you are incredibly fragile in the side view areas. Thankfully, you typically only get out of Sophia to access doorways that lead into top-down sequences where you aren’t QUITE as fragile.
The topdown areas change things up a fair bit, as you have to rely on your personal gun and grenades as opposed to Sophia’s big cannon and subweapons while on foot. The big challenge of the top down areas is some can be downright maze-like, and your ultimate goal is to find a specific top-down area in each level that has a boss battle in it, with that boss providing an upgrade that will let Sophia reach the next level. It’s not quite Metroidvania level exploration, but you’ll always have to find a new area to reach with each Sophia upgrade you pick up.
That said? Blaster Master is *HARD* Mistakes can result in a lot of lost health, and you have a limited number of lives *and* continues to finish the game with. On top of that, there are no one ups to be found anywhere in Blaster Master, so this is a game where you need to be ready for a challenge…Or use a lot of save states if you’re emulating.
While Blaster Master is a solid game, there are certainly some valid complaints one can give: The fact most topdown areas are filler being one of them. Only one top-down area in each level is actually important, with the rest just…Having health and weapon powerups, though you can find a good chunk of those just by heading straight to the boss in some cases. The only upgrades are from bosses themselves, so a lot of the exploration feels like padding instead of being rewarding. That doesn’t change the fact Blaster Master is a solid NES title though that you should try if you’re into these kinds of games. And there’s actually a really good reboot trilogy available as well, that being the Blaster Master Zero trilogy, available on PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch.
Needless to say, there’s plenty more gems on the NES beyond these, but I felt this week I’d highlight some of the better titles that blended genres or just did one thing really well, and I think these four fit the bill. As usual, there’ll be more to see in future articles!