Top Ten Launch Games for the Nintendo Entertainment System
In 1985, in North America, the videogame industry was dead. Arcade games and PCs puttered along, and Japan was going nuts with the form, twisting it to narrative designs that Ed Logg would never have imagined. Over here, though, a glut of low-quality Atari cartridges led to the Great Crash of 1984. Home game consoles were a fad, and the fad had ended.
Back across the bay, in 1983 Japan's oldest playing card manufacturer chose to fill the local shelves with its own home-gown game system, the Family Computer or FamiCom. It was a decent console, about as powerful as a Colecovision, and it was the go-to location for home ports of Nintendo's classics like Popeye and Mario Bros., but on the world stage it was invisible in the shadow of American-made hardware like the Intellivision and the Atari VCS.
Then came the crash, and the shadow was lifted -- and the house that Donkey Kong built saw room for expansion. Their entry to the US market was slow and cautious. Game consoles were dead here, but PCs and VCRs were all the rage -- so the toy-like FamiCom became the Nintendo Entertainment System, a serious, gray, boxy device. Sure it played games, but the NES wan't just a game system; it was an all-in-one plug-and-play entertainment center. Look, you could even control a robot!
In late 1985 they tested the waters in FAO Schwartz, with a small library of 18 first-party games. The numbers were promising, so over the next six months they bombarded the airwaves with hype. Finally in June 1986 came the wide release, and with it an extra eight games, bringing the launch library up to an arbitrary but impressive 26.
This launch library had a bit of everything -- light gun shooters, arcade ports, sports games, action games. There was even a "programming" series, to lend today's budding developers their first taste of game design. Not everything was great, but amongst that scattershot of ideas were some startlingly original, daring concepts. Here's the best that a young Nintendo had to say.
You might think that the highlight of Nintendo's first batch was Shigeru Miyamoto's mega-opus Super Mario Bros. Not so! The most elegant and lasting of the batch, as becomes all the more clear in these days of the indie and mobile game, was Nintendo R&D#1's enhanced remix of William's Joust. Instead of knights and ostriches we have little guys dangling from balloons. Here the protagonists have two balloons, so you can sustain two pops before you fall.
The design is so simple: use the D-pad to move, and use the A or B button to flap. (One button is basically set to turbo-fire, a couple of years before the NES Advantage brought that idea home.) You have momentum, and that is much of the interest and challenge of the game -- steering yourself against the laws of physics. As you (and possibly a friend -- it's two-player co-op) play on, the level design evolves. The game presents bonus levels. It's a fun, genial, very economical experience.
And then there is the alternative play mode, a sub-game called Balloon Trip. This is, basically, Flappy Bird -- except thirty years early and much better. It's better still for the rockin' Hip Tanaka soundtrack, which has sort of become the game's legacy in the rare occasion that it should come up in a modern discusison.
Although it lacks the clumsy ambition of Miyamoto's tentpole release, Balloon Fight is a simple and joyous experience that prefigures the current trends in game design now that we have started to side-step the vertical clutter of the Miyamoto model.
Speaking of indie games, where would modern design be without Lode Runner and the blank canvas of Nintendo's Programming series?
In Japan Nintendo's most popular add-on was the Famicom Disk System, basically a floppy drive for their home console. In a startlingly forward-thinking move you could walk up to a Nintendo kiosk and, for a relatively small fee, download the latest games to your floppy disk. Since this was a writable medium this meant that unlike with a hard-coded ROM cartridge you could also save your progress. In time this notion would lead to huge, nonlinear games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo's first idea, though, was why not just let people design their own levels?
Of course, we didn't have that add-on over here, so the games were pressed to ROM chips, so you couldn't actually save your work. Oh well. It was still an amazing and rare look behind the curtain, suggesting that videogames were a thing that you could actually make yourself and giving you the tools to play around with that concept within certain pre-defined barriers.
Of Nintendo's Programming trilogy, the most intriguing is Wrecking Crew. This is the one to give the player a straightforward grid, a collection of unique background tiles and sprites, and a few rules, and otherwise to more or less throw up its hands. Design whatever kind of level you want. Make it as hard or as easy. Experiment with the game's logic. Try to understand how it thinks, and how all of these pieces fit together.
The game even includes a layer of secret rules that only come to surface with certain experiments in level design -- secret items like the Golden Hammer that, to my knowledge, never arise in the normal course of play.
Although Wrecking Crew is all but lost to modern memory, it is one of the most progressive and generous projects that Nintendo has ever published.
And here is a bit of whimsy, which in its lateral design logic suggests the kind of thinking that videogames soon began to lack.
In essence Gumshoe is an extended riff on Balloon Trip. It has a more developed premise, more detailed sprites, and more to do at any given moment, but the basic idea is the same: you're always moving in one direction, and you need to bop up and over obstacles to survive. The catch here: for some reason the game is played entirely with the Zapper light gun.
That's right. After a few shooting gallery games like Hogan's Alley and Wild Gunman, whoever was responsible for these games -- I'm going to assume it was R&D#1 again -- quickly saw the limitations of this particular accessory, and then chose to subvert them. Here's a game that only really needs one trigger, so why not map it to an actual trigger?
As with so many early Nintendo games, Gumshoe is more of a design sketch than a fully developed and nuanced idea -- but what a mischievous little sketch it is.
Super Mario Bros.
Oh, you know this one. For all its clumsiness (particularly in its power-up structure and the almost total failure to wed it to the level design), this is where most people will say that the modern videogame begins. You get the quest narrative, the large and varied levels, all of the iconography that at this moment you may have stuck to the back window of your faded blue hatchback. That's all... fine, inasmuch as it plays into Miyamoto's own personal creative vision.
What's really important here is the level design, and how invisibly it teaches the player how to play the game. No budding game designer or journalist should be allowed out of the gate without writing a dissertation on the symbolic language and didactic dynamism of level 1-1. The game is also a step up in tactile involvement, with the way that Mario can leap up and touch, and shape his environment at will.
A shame that the fire flowers don't do much but kill things and that there is no point to the magic mushroom except lending you another hit point. That whole idea of growth and different character sizes, you'd think there would be some mileage there. You'd think a game might actually use its core gimmick for something functional. Oh well! Can't have everything.
Modern gamers will recognize Popo and Nana from their Smash Bros. apperances. Their original game is a distilled hunk of charm, though, and one of the best things to arise from Nintendo's early years. One or two players (another co-op game!) battle with arctic creatures and whack away at the scenery much as Mario does, to climb up one mountain peak after another in search of frozen vegetables. Should the player reach the top, then there is a pterodactyl to grab.
The whole premise is bonkers in the best way. Most of the monsters have meaningful roles to play, such as the miniature yetis that try to repair the player's damage on the upward journey, or the polar bears that punish distracted players and force them to focus on the climb.
You could sort of call Ice Climber a vertical Super Mario Bros. without the clutter or storytelling ambition, but with cooperative play and a greater sense of cohesion. Everything is there for a reason, and everything serves the game's basic design goals.
Except the jumping physics. Lord, those are terrible.
Here's a game that everyone likes to forget, because the NES only took off like crazy after Nintendo ditched R.O.B. the Robotic Operating Buddy and packed in Super Mario Bros -- and because everyone assumes that you can only play the game with the aid of our clunky light-sensitive robot friend.
Not so! For a pack-in launch game, particularly one developed on short notice to justify a throwaway marketing gimmick, Gyromite is an amazingly complex, thoughtfully designed action-puzzle game. Basically you play as Professor Hector (or Vector, if you alternate with a second player), on a mission to disarm various time bombs scattered around his lab. In his way are red and blue pillars, the control of which is in principle R.O.B.'s responsibility, and the dreaded Smicks -- curious green insect-lizard creatures with an affinity to radishes.
Raise and lower the right gates to let your professor through yet block or crush the Smicks. Pick up radishes to lure them away or to their doom. And... that's pretty much it. But the elements combine in so many ways. Actually, with such a small vocabulary of dynamic elements this would be a good candidate for the programmable series.
The deal here, of course, is that all R.O.B does is press the A and B buttons on controller 2, through the most convoluted of methods. Get in a second player, and suddenly you have a great co-op experience. Player one guides the character; player two mans the security panel, manipulating the pillars to ease passage and protect the first player's interests.
Now for a co-op experience, that's an interesting split in duties. The basic premise of Gyromite could easibly be revisited today, with playes forced to collaborate by voice in order to solve the level's puzzles together.
As with Balloon Fight there is another "B game"; in this one your given professor endlessly sleepwalks, and your goal is merely to protect and guide him through use of the pillars. It's a similar idea to Balloon Fight or Gumshoe, except without the physics. Nice to have, anyway.
For variety, here's Nintendo's port of Irem's arcade game based on a Jackie Chan movie. What Kung-Fu (more so even than its arcade counterpart, Kung-Fu Master) is elegance. This is the game that typifies the now dead-in-the-water walk-and-punch genre that would see its possible zenith in Data East's pop-schlocky Bad Dudes. It's a pretty cool genre, much like the brawler (Double Dragon, Streets of Rage) but with more momentum and focus. Don't worry too much about strategy or spending five minutes beating up that one guy; just keep walking and punching, and kicking and jumping.
The world of Kung-Fu is drawn in simple strokes and gestures. You have a half-dozen enemy types, each of which looks and behaves totally different from the rest. You have a few unique environmental traps. And then you have the bosses, each of whom has a different gimmick and pattern to master.
Really this game is all about obsevation. It's almost a rhythm game. Instead of Up-Down-Left-Right Chu-Chu-Chu, you get punch-punch, jump-kick, pause, duck, kick.
The design here is as bold as in Super Mario Bros., with its roster of memorable monsters.. The character moves with a satisfying snap and crunch and muffled voice sample. Between the lines there is a whole world with its own laws and reasons and mythology, which the player enters as an invited guest. Most games are more complicated than Kung-Fu, and most of the time this is to their folly.
Of the launch roster, Excitebike is one of the few to retain some name value over the decades -- most recently with the brilliantly weird sequel Excite Truck, on the Wii.
It's not that there's much to the game, exactly. You race to the right, trying not to overheat your motorbike, shift up and down the playfield, and take various complex jumps, all the while trying to stay ahead of the competition. The main game isn't even all that interesting to play, really. Where the real joy enters is in, yes, the design mode.
Excitebike is the second best of Nintendo's Programming Series. Here, instead of laying down tiles and designing a whole side-scrolling level, you're laying jumps on a track. If you've ever played Stunts for the PC... no, you're more likely to have played Excitebike. Never mind. Really the fun here is in laying out the most convoluted series of jumps you can imagine, and then trying to master the mechanics well enough to avoid crashing on every set piece.
That description sounds a little dismissive. By no means, though; Excitebike is a genuinely cool game, and the intersection of original level design with active competition is an unusual one even today.
Donkey Kong Jr.
In this first batch of software, Nintendo basically dumped all of its arcade hits at once -- which meant a lot of Mario and Donkey Kong. The problem is, for one reason or another most of them are kind of lousy! No one needs to play Donkey Kong 3 or Donkey Kong Jr. Math. Mario Bros is... intellectually interesting in retrospect, especially if you come at it with the knowledge that this was Miyamoto's take on Joust and you try to contrast that vision with Balloon Fight. And then the NES port of Donkey Kong is just missing a bunch of stuff. The cement factory level is gone entirely.
That leaves us with Donkey Kong Jr., possibly the most interesting game in its series anyway. Here, for once, Mario is the villain. The player takes the role of young Kong, out to free his father from captivity. Compared to the original Donkey Kong, this sequel actually gives the player quite a lot to do. In place of just walking back and forth and jumping over barrels and fireballs, Junior can climb vines -- either individually, or for speed he can take one in each hand. This lends some much needed business to play and interactivity to the environments.
It's quite a good game, and yet so overshadowed by its predecessor that there's a good chance you haven't played it. If you have, it's probably been decades. Go check it out, and see if it hasn't held up.
Clu Clu Land
So here's an oddity. One of the most admirable qualities of Nintendo's early days was the willingness to experiment. Not every game was even meant to be a triple-A tentpole multi-million seller. For every Zelda you got a half-dozen small-scale doodles like Gumshoe or Balloon Fight or Clu Clu Land. They didn't have to be wholly successful; they just had to do something new, or to try something familiar in a brand new way.
Clu Clu Land is a bizarro (two-player co-op!) take on Pac-Man. As in that game your character just keeps moving in a direction unless rotated, and the goal is to "complete" the level by covering every inch of the screen while avoiding a pack of hungry monsters.
Here, your character is a fragile sea creature called Bubbles who must avoid boing popped by the vile sea urchins (who themselves look like a prototype for Zelda's Octorocks). The object is to scoot around a grid, uncovering all of the level's gold, the abstract of which usually sketches out a simple picture.
The curious thing comes in the character's locomotion and steering. Bubbles will bounce off of any hard surface and rebound the other direction, at a steady vector. To guide her velocity (yes, she's a she) you hit the right or left arrow to stick out a claw and grab one of the pegs littering the level's grid. Bubbles will then spin around and around the peg until you let go of the button.
It's a weird, experimental control scheme, and even when you get used to it, it can lead to a few headaches. There lies the key, though: it is experimental, and it is weird. Maybe there's a reason that this game hasn't been imitated over the years, but the point is that this is an original perspective on game design that you aren't going to see elsewhere.
As with so many early Nintendo games, Clu-Clu Land was a bold and wacky game to release -- especially at what must have been full price, which in 1985 dollars would have been... yikes. It's games like these, though, that lend context and meaning to the ambitious and ultimately safe headline projects that make a publisher's bottom line. Without this kind of weirdness the game industry (or any other creative medium) will quickly begin to eat itself and turn into endless iterations of the two or three design concepts that sales figures have determined are the correct way to do things.
In any creative medium, there is never a right way. Given a particular creative goal, there is often a more or a less elegant way to express what you're there to say, but art isn't a rational language. Just as it's folly to look for a Platonic ideal of the correct film or painting, it's silly to think of videogames in terms of right or wrong or better or worse, except insofar as how well they individually express themselves.
Any game that has something new and brave and different to say is to be applauded and cherished, and the early days of Nintendo are a hotbed for this originality. The later days... maybe not so much. But that's a story for another time.