1987 was a key year for me. For Christmas in ’86, I got a NES as my big present. Packed inside was Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. The former was, as I mentioned before, revolutionary to my young mind. It was obsessively compelling, and there were times that I got in trouble because I yearned to revisit the Mushroom Kingdom. The TV was not in my room (and would not be for several more years), so despite my youthful urges, I had to be cleared to play games by my parents (which was probably a good thing in hindsight…). My parents have sometimes debated if buying me a NES was a mistake. :p I’m glad that they did, though, because gaming has been a massive part of my livelihood, and I wouldn’t want to have missed the experiences, joys and thrills that this medium have given me.
I would not be getting any new games until the following year, so Mario and Ducks were all I had to go on for a while. Luckily for me, a local video rental place started carrying NES games around the time that I got my NES, so one of my great pleasures was going there and checking out games. SMB was a behemoth for any game to compare itself to, and I relished the chance to try out new genres and frontiers. Most did not match up to Mario’s stellar gameplay execution, but as a kid, sometimes even the crappiest games were incredibly engrossing in some way. I seem to remember slogging my way through Godzilla just because I could. Somehow it captivated me, despite it being little more than a slow-paced button masher. And then there’s Back to the Future Parts II and III, which, for the life of me I don’t quite understand, I adored the rental of that. Looking back on it, I’m not really sure why…it was nothing too spectacular, and it certainly wasn’t true to the movie (a rare feat in the NES era, let me tell you :p ), but those collect-a-thon mini-stages were awesome to my little boy brain back then. Go figure.
My mom had a daycare, and early on, she would let other kids play the console with me. I distinctly remember renting Joust, and not having any sort of idea of what the hell I was doing. It soon turned into an over-competitive gauntlet for the controller, however, so that practice quickly subsided. It was a brief introduction of multiplayer gaming, and the possibilities it presented were tantalizing, to say the least.
The NES and I would be spending many years together. Until 1993 or so, it was the only gaming box I had. I got the Commodore 64 around 1993, and a Nintendo 64 in 1996. Many cherished memories would come from that tiny gray box of digital miracles, and the years to come would be some of the most groundbreaking to my youth.
Legend of Zelda (NES, Nintendo)
As the young boy Link, you must recover the hidden Triforce of Wisdom shards, buried deep within diabolical dungeons. During your quest across the vast world of Hyrule, you’ll gather special gear and weapons to help make your adventure easier or to traverse obstacles to find secret passages.
Castlevania (NES, Konami)
As the brave vampire hunter Simon Belmont, you’ll whip your way through the punishing halls of the evil Count Dracula’s castle, defeating various monstrous demons and conquering the difficult level designs with deft footwork. You can collect special weapons and hearts to power them, as well as boost the strength of your whip, Vampire Killer.
Metroid (NES, Nintendo)
Samus Aran, a bounty hunter, has been deployed to the remote planet of Zebes to defeat a space pirate called Mother Brain. Zebes is a labyrinth of open-ended subterranean tunnels and caves clock full of nasty alien life, but Samus has the ability to pick up items that boost her Power Suit’s gadgetry capabilities. Tons of hidden paths reward patient players, and those who have mastered the game will be rewarded with one of the more “shocking” revelations of the NES era: finding out that Samus is a woman!
Last Ninja (C64, System 3)
This isometric action title boasts remarkable backgrounds, tense gameplay and tons of ninja weaponry to wield. Careful footwork and a quick hand to attack are all keys to truly embracing your ninjahood.
In my opinion, the best game of 1987 was…
The Legend of Zelda (NES, Nintendo)
The Legend of Zelda is to this day one of my favorite gaming experiences. The incredibly huge world for its time was perfectly sized, packed with so many tricks and hidden passages that a plucky gamer could spend hours randomly bombing walls, flaming bushes, or pushing rocks to uncover them all…if they had the right tools to do such a thing, that is. Shops supply some items to Link, but the majority of the nifty gizmos Link can use are locked up tight within the game’s nine dungeons. While they are not as puzzle-heavy as later games in the series, the balance between action and exploration is perfect. With a variety of enemy types to deal with, including such legends as Wall Masters, Like Likes, Dodongos and Gohmas, the combat is gratifying and diverse. The boss fights are as engaging as the NES could probably handle, and after defeating Ganon and rescuing Princess Zelda, a second quest appears, offering a more difficult trek through a remapped, retooled Hyrule. The enemies are tougher, the dungeons relocated and punishing, and served as a perfect reward for gamers who hungered for more.
I remember very well burning the first bush that led to a secret stairwell, untangling the chaotic Lost Woods maze to end up in the graveyard, inadvertently stumbling into the waterfall to find a hidden cave, discovering that Athos statues can come to life if you touch them, using the Whistle to drain the entrance to a cleverly disguised dungeon, riding the raft, fighting the seemingly invincible Digdogger (figuring out that the whistle was needed to greatly weaken him was a pleasant untangling of the game’s occasionally obtuse hint system in my younger days), feeding bombs to Dodongo, being grabbed by a Wall Master, fuming after a Like Like swiped my Blue Ring and Magic Shield by my clumsy mistake…in short, this game is packed full of memorable moments that imprinted themselves to my gaming meddle. This is exactly what games are supposed to do! This concept, born from Shigeru Miyamoto’s early childhood wandering the Japanese countryside, has left its mark again and again on countless gamers all over the world.
Some personal anecdotes:
This game and I have a funny habit of losing each other. I owned the NES game twice. I gave them to friends to play, never to see them again. I’ve closely guarded my Gamecube Collector’s Disc, as it remains the only copy of the game I currently own. I could download it onto my Wii, sure, but why do that when I don’t need to? I have become very protective of my games because of this, rarely lending them out to anyone, even to people I trust.
My dad got into the original Zelda quite a bit. He arguably spent as much time playing it as I did when we first bought it. However, the gaming bug did not hold onto him, and it took the Wii all these years later to reel him (and my mom, who isn’t a game player by any stretch of the imagination) back in. I suppose I should alert him to being able to download this, eh?
I sat down and properly beat the Second Quest the summer of 2010. I was very happy to be able to check that obstacle off of my checklist. I still like the first one more, but it didn’t disappoint with its high degree of challenge.
Starting this year, I will be much more thorough with my award giving, including Surprise and Disappointments of the Year, dividing Heroes and Heroines into separate categories, covering the best overall soundtrack of a game, and also giving nominees to all of the awards. As I officially became a console owner in 1987 with the NES, it feels appropriate to dig deeper into these choices.
Worst Game of the Year: Street Fighter (Arcade, Capcom)
Street Fighter is a fine concept marred by poor execution. As a successor to Karate Champ and its other martial-arts cousins, it fails to capture the precision of those title’s controls. It instead relies on delayed responses and wonky movement to power its gameplay, and those give a player little motivation to keep plugging away at it. Granted, the original control scheme was meant to use two joysticks: one that would move Ryu around and the other to create attacks. Alas, that too didn’t work due to the sluggishness of the character’s reactions to the button inputs we see now. As for the visuals, the backgrounds are pretty nice, but the character design and animation leave much to be desired. Luckily, Ryu, Ken, Sagat, Adon, Birdie, Gen and Eagle would have a chance to see their initially uninspiring designs see significant improvement in later games. To sum up, clunky gameplay and somewhat dull graphics do not add up to awesomeness. Those traits would arrive with the sequel.
Contender: Avengers (Arcade, Capcom)
Surprise of the Year: Black Tiger (Arcade, Capcom)
Black Tiger’s a good mix of arcade action and platforming. It’s definitely an quarter-muncher in terms of its difficulty, but the game world is rather unique, the controls are responsive enough, and there’s plenty of opportunity to expand your stats and march into these levels with a sense of confidence. Black Tiger is also a fairly impressive hero with his long-range mace/dagger combo. If only his shield did something. :p
Contender: Side Pocket (Arcade, Data East)
Disappointment of the Year: Bionic Commando (Arcade, Capcom)
Having played the superior NES game first, realizing that the arcade original was so substandard was pretty hard to take. It lacks the precision, flow and fluidity of the NES game, coming off as clunky and, as much as I don’t want to say it, boring. There’s really no need to try out this one compared to its excellent cousin.
Contender: Mega Man (NES, Capcom)
Best New Hero: Mega Man (NES, Capcom)
Ah, Classic Mega Man is one of the legends of the gaming pantheon, and he wholeheartedly deserves the status. I love the little guy. He’s a great design with a great mechanic backing him (stealing the weapons of his opponents), and Capcom had managed to maintain his awesomeness despite overdoing his sequels nonstop in the NES era. He’ll always be one of the best examples of an action game hero in my eyes.
Contender: Link (Legend of Zelda, NES, Nintendo)
Best New Heroine: Samus Aran (Metroid, NES, Nintendo)
Samus is a complex character, that she is. Her origins were shrouded in her heavy armor, and her sex was a revelation revealed through a …lingerie striptease. :p However, despite the occasional sexist angles her designers have put her through over the years, Samus Aran is one of the finest woman protagonists in all of gaming lore. Her wide arsenal and her Power Suit abilities are unique and incredibly cool. I really like playing as Samus, and two of her adventures, Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, are among the greatest games ever made in my book, so I definitely consider her an incredible leader for female character design.
Contender: Alas, I haven’t played any other games that star a female protagonist from 1987 enough to proclaim a second place winner. I’d count the roller skater from California Games, but that’s sort of cheating. XD
Best New Villain: Ganon (Legend of Zelda, NES, Nintendo)
Ganon is such a terrific antagonist. His first appearance here was terrifying, as he drifted around his lair under a cloak of invisibility, and without the right tools he would quickly shrug off Link’s attacks. As he evolved over the years his dastardly deeds would increase, and his design would become more wicked and sinister, developing into Ocarina of Time’s Ganondorf, which is my personal favorite of his many personae. A masterful and powerful force in evil, without question.
Contender: Ridley (Metroid, NES, Nintendo)
Best New Enemy: Metroids (Metroid, NES, Nintendo)
Borrowed from an Enemy Encounters article:
The most fearsome game enemy in existence to me is a Metroid. I remember back when I got to Tourian in the original Metroid and being freaked out when these jellyfish-like enemies began flying my way. Panic is a natural instinct that occurs once they latch onto you, leeching away all of the hard-earned energy you spent a lot of time replenishing for the final battle.
Aye, I love these jellyfish-inspired aliens. Among the most terrifying enemies in all of gaming!
Contender: Reapers (Kid Icarus, NES, Nintendo)
Worst New Character: Rastan (Arcade, Taito)
Rastan is a very blase barbarian type, with very little to distinguish him from the army of other barbarians that permeate gaming of this era. His clunky animation, lackluster moveset and slow response time doesn’t aid his cause. A boring, typical stereotype hero that could have used some significant time in the development oven.
Contender: Duke Davis (Bad Street Brawler, NES, Mattel)
Best Box Art: Castlevania (NES, Konami)
Taken from an Artistic Discussion:
Konami had the rare capability to create box art that wasn’t god-awful in the NES era, and Castlevania is a shining example of this talent. The essence of the game is perfectly rendered on this box. A bold warrior, whip in hand, squares off against the evil Count Dracula (or at least, a vampire, but I figured it was Dracula on first glance, myself), and the demonic castle that gives the series its namesake is prominently featured. Moody colors and the striking silver border surrounding the art create a haunting motif that remains a highlight of the NES era.
Contender: Galaga ’88 (Arcade, Namco)
Worst Box Art: Mega Man (NES, Capcom)
Borrowed from my Artistic Discussion rant:
There’s so many things wrong here that it’s hard even to begin. Mega Man’s pose is awkward in multiple ways: his legs jut out at odd angles, his shoulders are too far forward, his left arm is holding the gun unrealistically, his helmet is off-center, his right arm is not drawn to scale, his boots look like they were merely colored over his original legs…etc. The background fails perspective 101 practically everywhere, with only the explosives resembling anything that looks like…what it should be, I suppose. The random palm trees that abruptly cut off, the bizarre domes that are in the foreground that seem to serve no purpose other than adding some buttcrack peaches into the mix, and god, I could keep going. When the best part of your box is the nifty 80′s grid BEHIND your composition, there’s a problem!
Contender: Avengers (Arcade, Capcom)
Best Song: Wicked Child (Castlevania, NES, Konami, Kinuyo Yamashita)
Taken from a Song Highlights:
Man, how I do love me some Wicked Child. Definitely one of the finest NES compositions, this tune captures the frantic pace of the third section of the game perfectly. With its tough foes (especially the Fleamen, whose random hops manage to tie into this tune very well), high amount of pits, and the ambient scenery of scaling the castle’s walls and towers, this is a lovely example of how to properly set up a tense mood with your gaming music. I wonder why Konami hasn’t brought back this classic into the modern Castlevanias…scared of living up to the awesomeness of the original, perhaps?
Contender: Norfair (Metroid, NES, Nintendo, Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka)
Best Soundtrack: Metroid (NES, Nintendo, Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka)
From its ominous introduction to its atmospheric caves to the decadent conclusion, Metroid’s overall soundtrack is among the finest on the NES. All of it suits the place it represents, and almost all of it has been revived one way or another down the road. Tanaka did a splendid job with the variety and quality of this game’s music.
Contender: Castlevania (NES, Konami, Kinuyo Yamashita)
Worst Song: Stage Select Theme (Street Fighter, Capcom, Arcade, Yoshihiro Sakaguchi)
The song in question starts about 0:30 in. Sakaguchi is quite capable of good music, but the majority of Street Fighter’s soundtrack doesn’t showcase his talent. This grating stage select theme stands out as the horrendous epitome. Perhaps he took some vital lessons from this game for his future projects. Don’t listen to it for too long!
Contender: Under Attack (Kid Icarus, Nintendo, NES, Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka)
Back to 1986 – Forward to 1988