Sundry Sunday is our weekly feature of fun gaming culture finds and videos, from across the years and even decades.
While there are examples of excellent music from the classic era of arcades (Frogger comes immediately to mind), I don’t think there is much that can equal that of Gyruss’ arrangement of Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor. Here it is, isolated from the rest of the game’s soundtrack, from Youtube uploader StyleK226 (1 1/2 minues):
Wikipedia tells us that the arcade arrangement is reminiscent of a version of the song from the British band Sky, titled just “Toccata” (4 1/2 minutes):
If you only know Gyruss from the NES port, you might be surprised that it’s an almost entirely different arrangement from the arcade version! Maybe it was changed because of the similarity to Sky’s version. Some people prefer that one, it’s got a bit more variety, although I think the arcade’s is a bit better. Judge for yourself (3 minutes):
The Toccata is only used for the intro and the first warp on each planet, which is a bit of a shame, the rest of the music isn’t bad, but it’s not Bach. In Japan, Gyruss was a Famicom Disk System game. The FDS had extra sound hardware, and the result is an upgraded version of the NES soundtrack (14 minutes in all):
Dr. Sparkle is back with the 64th installment (Youtube, 55 minutes) of his quest to review every NES and Famicom game. He’s pretty far in! In about ten episodes, he figures he’ll reach the launch of the Super Famicom, which won’t be the end of his journey but will probably mean he’s in the home stretch.
In the meantime, ten games from 1990 are in this episode. They are:
Puss ‘n’ Boots: Pero’s Great Adventure – Technically a retread of a previously-covered Japanese game, this version has substantial differences so Dr. Sparkle decided to cover its U.S. version separately. A very easy game until the last stage where it jumps in difficulty, and then the final boss is absurdly hard. Dr. S expresses confusion why a game made to be so easy that it’s obviously intended for young children would become nearly impossible right at the last second. Personally, I suspect it was done because NES game publishers were terrified of the game rental market.
Wit’s: A Japan-only release, this is basically a de-luxe version of Snake, where your enemies have special abilities that you have to account for. Suprisingly, it’s an arcade port!
Captain Tsubasa Vol. II: Super Striker: A weird RPG take on Soccer, published by Tecmo and based on a manga and anime series. Instead of controlling a player or players completely in real time, the action pauses frequently and asks you what to do. The main screen is mostly animations down on the soccer field. It’s a unique take on soccer, but it’s not the only one: this is the second game to play like this on the Famicom. The Captain Tsubasa game series continues even today: the most recent releases, Dr. Sparkle tells us, are on PS4 and Nintendo Switch, although I don’t know if they take the menu-based RPG approach.
Jyuouki: This is simply a licensed Famicom port of Sega’s Altered Beast, and a pretty bad one at that.
Mahjong G-Men: Nichibutsu Mahjong III: Yet another Mahjong game, although with some interesting features, if you’re into Mahjong. That’s not Mahjong Solitaire, a.k.a. Shanghai, the Activision (and formerly PLATO) computer game where you remove tiles in matching pairs from a tableaux, but the Chinese Rummy-like game using tiles instead of cards. It also has a weird Tetris-like subgame involving Mahjong tiles.
Dr. Mario: The classic Nintendo puzzle game! I always thought it was a bit inferior to Tetris, but then most games are, and that didn’t stop me from playing a ton of it long ago.
Pictionary: Based on the board game, and coming from infamous American NES publisher LJN. Dr. Sparkle is a bit harsh on developer Software Creations, but I think this effort looks pretty well-made to me. It’s not a classic, and it’s actually not really so much Pictionary as a kind of variation on the theme, where players play mini-games to reveal parts of a drawing and then try to guess what the drawing is of. It looks much like one of Rare’s many game show and board game adaptations and creations, and in fact if it weren’t for the Software Creations credit I’d have assumed that Rare made it.
Bigfoot: From Acclaim and developed by Beam Software. It’s fairly well polished for a Beam Software title, but has some weird ideas to it, including a weird control scheme for the events that involves tapping left and right on the control pad. I think the idea has a bit of merit, but that it was probably the wrong place to use it. A Bigfoot game would mostly be bought or given to kids, who would be the absolute last demographic you should expect to master a non-standard control scheme. I’m not one of those people who thinks making a game that goes about its play differently than most other games is always a terrible idea (see: most of what I’ve ever written about roguelikes), and I can kind of see why they did it, trying to make a race game that’s more than just holding to the right. It probably could have used a bit more iteration though.
Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll: A game from Rare that they actually put a lot of effort into, and it shows. And some people really like it, it’s definitely got a cult following. Dr. S isn’t part of it, due to the difficulty of getting used to SRnR’s isometric style. I think what happened was, they had these routines laying around that they used in implementing NES Marble Madness, and decided to do another game that controlled in that kind of way. I think the game was poorly suited to a digital control pad; if it were controlled with an analog stick, or at least a digital control where diagonal movement is easier, I think it’s possible that some people who hate Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll might be able to enjoy it better.
Anyway, here is the whole episode, start to finish:
This tab has been open on my browser for literally months, so I’m finally excising it from the bar….
A while back the site HackADay did a teardown of the NES, going through how to take it apart and reassemble it, and going through some of the elements of its assembly. It doesn’t go into a lot of detail, but that lets it be fairly short, at only nine minutes.
We presented Displaced Gamers’/Behind the Code’s video on the jankiness of kusoge disgrace Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde back on Saturday. They did another video on that game, that delves into why the game’s frame rate is so inconsistent. In summary, its engine throttles its framerate in a terrible way, using long delay loops. It’s a pretty awful idea! It’s 19 1/2 minutes long. The video claims it’s even geekier than their first video on the game, but I think it’s actually slightly less technical, at least it doesn’t fill the screen with as much 6502 assembly code.
Another fact about J&H: the Japanese version had two full levels that were cut from the U.S. version, which replaced them with replays of other levels. It made a bad game even worse!
Now, because of Behind The Code, you know more about the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game than many much better NES titles. Congratulations!
While we’re on the subject, did you know that Jekyll & Hyde has a secret ending? Both endings are shown here (4 minutes):
The “bad” ending is the normal one, and shorter, but is arguably a happier conclusion to the story. To get it, all you have to do is get to the end of Stage 6 with Jekyll. That’s all.
To get the other ending, get to Stage 6 with Jekyll, then turn into Hyde and get to the end of his version of the stage. Usually, if Hyde gets as far into his level as Jekyll has gotten into his, he’s struck by lightning and dies. But in this level he’ll be allowed to reach the end of his version of the level for some reason, where there’s a boss! Beat it, and when you return to Jekyll’s world the enemies will be gone, and he’ll be free to finish the level without harassment. However, ending events will be different….
Looks like we’re on another Youtube binge, ayup ayup. This time it’s another hopeful video constructor asking us to consider the oddity of the score system in the original Mega Man (a.k.a. Rockman).
When you post as many Youtube videos as I do, it’s easy to form opinions about their style. That of “TheRetroDude,” as he styles himself, is interesting, it’s still hyper-edited in the way that so many Youtubers loathsomely adopt, but it’s not nearly as distracting as those. He keeps the volume down, as well as the number of swoopy objects tearing around the screen like a toddler newly introduced to Toblerone.
He has good points about how extraneous the game’s scoring system is too, although his misgivings could be laid against many other games. In Super Mario Bros, score is mostly a spacer before toppled turtles start giving extra lives. I think that score isn’t a bad addition to a game as long as it’s implemented thoughtfully, yet for too long it hasn’t been. Even in the NES days it was included to give players a short term goal to aim for, when they didn’t really need it.
What would a good scoring system look like, one that rewarded skill? Well–
Losing a life would reset score to that at the last passed checkpoint, eliminating point pressing from lives.
Extra lives at game end would be worth a bonus each.
Game timers are worth a small, yet substantial, award at level end, to prioritize fast play over slow.
Awards should be given for score, most typically extra lives, but others are possible too.
Replaying levels, and other means of “minting points,” earning arbitrary scores, should be ruthlessly eliminated. If the player can replay levels indefinitely then think about if your game really needs a score, and if it does, don’t allow players to earn more points from replaying them without costing them the points from that last pass.
Two games that come to mind that do scores well are:
ZANAC on the NES, being a scrolling shooter without checkpointing score is generally fair, although it is possible to warp backwards does break the no-replay rule, and
Star Fox 64, which only adds a level’s score to the player’s total at its end. SF64 is a game obviously designed around score attacks.
Where was I? Oh! Here is that video about Mega Man’s scoring system.
Sundry Sunday is our weekly feature of fun gaming culture finds and videos, from across the years and even decades.
This week’s fun video isn’t decades old, in fact it’s from just a few days ago, from AGDQ.
The NES title Gyromite, a.k.a. Robot Gyro, is a very interesting game from a design standpoint, possibly more interesting than it is to actually play (although I think its music is very catchy). It’s never been rereleased by Nintendo, for the probable reason that it relies on the accessory R.O.B. to play.
R.O.B. was a motorized accessory that activated servos in its arms depending on light signals sent to it from the screen. No cords went from R.O.B. to the NES. It used photoreceptors in its “eyes” to detect the screen signals, which were ultimately caused by player input on the controller. A fairly roundabout means of control, honestly.
Only two official R.O.B. games were made, and Gyromite (Going by its Japanese name “Robot Gyro” according to the title screen) used the “gyro” accessory for play. A platform is placed in front of R.O.B., on which you place the controller for Player 2.
On the controller is a device that spins the “gyros,” colored weighted tops. By manipulating the arms with action on Player 1’s controller, making them swing around and opening and closing the claws at the right time, you can cause R.O.B. to lift the spinning gyros from their platform, then set them down on the NES controller’s buttons. In the game, this caused colored pillars to rise or fall according to the control signals.
While manipulating all of this, you also have to watch out for the action of the game itself. Gyromite is a simple platformer, but one without a jump button. The difficulty comes from having to essentially play two games at once, the platforming on screen and manipulating R.O.B. to position pillars in the right places in space and time.
R.O.B.’s motions are not simple to command either. It takes time for the arms to pivot between their destinations, time that must be accounted for in the on-screen action, and while the tops spin for quite a while they will eventually have to be collected and set back on their pedestals so they can be spun back up to full speed, or else they’ll topple over on the button. This doesn’t produce a failure state in the game. It’s just left to you to pick the top up yourself and put it back on its stand to be spun again. R.O.B. isn’t capable of such feats of dexterity.
There’s a lot more to say about R.O.B., and how it was mostly distributed as part of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s “Deluxe Set” in the U.S., the more expensive version that didn’t come with Super Mario Bros. Instead of that, let’s talk about how, due to the fact that R.O.B. is just a fancy-shmancy way to press controller buttons, that you can replace it entirely with some other mechanism, or indeed, even animal.
That’s what happened Wednesday at AGDQ, where Peanut Butter the Dog, with coaching from JSR_, left R.O.B. gathering dust in the closet as they played through Gyromite Game B.
They didn’t make it all the way without running out of lives, but they picked back up and kept going. And that doesn’t detract at all from Peanut Butter’s skills, or amazing doggy focus. They are intent on reading those hand signals and getting those tasty treats. So while they didn’t earn a world record, for “Dog playing Gyromite Game B,” their accomplishment is of definite note.
There are around four minutes of introductions at the start of the video, so if you want to jump right in to the run, begin here.
I already shown it off on Mastodon, but I’m so pleased with getting this bug on video that I’m re-reporting it here! First, though, some background.
I’ve been looking into the various home computer ports of Pac-Man lately. One of the better ones is the one for Famicom/NES, probably because it was made in-house at Namco, which I presume because while it’s by no means perfect, it has ghost AI that much more closely matches Jamey Pittman’s definitive Pac-Man Dossier than the others. This is a bit more important than the other ports because, due to the relative familiarity (that is to say, inexpensiveness) of NES emulation at this point, Famicom Pac-Man is often put in compilations, especially in dedicated consoles, instead of the arcade game. In point of fact, the Namco Museum Archives Vol. 1 that’s available for various consoles uses the Famicom versions of all its games, not the arcade, and Pac-Man is one of the included games. To tell the difference: if the score, fruit tally and lives are to the right of the screen, instead of above and beneath it, and Pac-Man looks a little too big to fit in a maze passage, then what you have is an inferior home conversion.
How is it different? Well:
The sound of Pac-Man eating dots is much worse, for starters, it never fails to bother me.
More substantively, the ghosts have slightly different constants in their chase routines: it’s slightly harder to fake out the Pink ghost (Speedy/Pinky), and the Orange ghost (Pokey/Clyde) gives up the chase a little more reluctantly.
The timing for scatter periods, relative the speeds of the ghosts, is a little off. Scatter periods are usually slightly longer.
The speed of the game as difficulty increases is also a little off. In the arcade, the First Apple board (Level 5) marks a noticable increase in Pac-Man’s speed, but it seems to happen around the Second Orange (Level 4) on Famicom. Yes, that’s how much of arcade Pac-Man and its port that I’ve played-it could be subjective, but maybe it’s not.
The bug that affects Pink’s and Blue’s (Bashful/Inky) AI when Pac-Man’s facing up doesn’t exist here.
When ghosts enter Scatter mode, they don’t reverse direction. This makes the game easier (one less sudden reverse to throw you off) and harder (no obvious indication that the ghosts are scattering, and one less thing to throw them off from immediate pursuit).
As the game advances in difficulty, in the arcade, on the 4th Key board (level 17), the ghosts won’t turn blue and vulnerable when you eat an Energizer, and instead will just reverse direction. And from the 6th Key (level 19) on, the ghosts will never turn blue again! NES Pac-Man instead gives them a very tiny bit of blue time, about a half-second’s worth. It never reaches a state where the ghosts become completely invulnerable.
And at last, the bug which I have confirmed. On the 10th Key board (Level 22), and every level thereafter, the ghosts will start out in an unusually long Scatter period. Their usual habit is to emerge from the box in the center of the screen and move to a corner of the screen, and circle there for a few seconds. Pink goes to the upper-left, Red (Shadow/Blinky) to the upper-right, Orange to the lower-left, and Blue to the lower-right. This period is called a “Scatter Mode” in the Pac-Man Dossier.
In most levels, presuming you don’t lose a life, the ghosts will enter Scatter Mode at exactly set three times: from the start, about 25-or-so seconds in, and about 30 or so seconds after that. These periods are usually five seconds long. There are some minor details I won’t get into-you can read the Dossier for those. These periods are lifesavers for intermediate Pac-Man players playing without patterns, as they are the only really safe ways to access the bottom passages of the board without getting trapped or wasting an Energizer.
Each Scatter Mode is only supposed to last five-to-seven seconds, but on Level 22 and after, all of the Scatter Modes last around 20 seconds. Here is the bug in action, demonstrated in Namco Museum Archives Vol. 1:
Why would this board be different from the others? In the arcade, the 9th Key (Level 21) is the maximum difficulty the game reaches. Any pattern that works on the 9th Key level will work for the rest of the game, all the way up to the kill screen on Level 256. It seems that, on the Famicom/NES version, after that level the game may not have data for the level to follow? But I haven’t looked at its code to know for sure. Maybe I should make that a future project.
Greg’s Game Room on Youtube looked at 28 games with both NES and Commodore 64 versions. It’s not by any means all of them, but a good selection. Usually its the NES version that’s better, but there are some surprising upsets, especially if the game originated on a microcomputer platform.
The Commodore games that won out are Ballblazer, Castelian, Die Hard (but the C64 version’s really different), Ghostbusters, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Q*Bert and (surprisingly) Smash T.V. Decent C64 games that nevertheless lost are Blades of Steel, Commando, Donkey Kong, Mighty Bomb Jack and Super Mario Bros. (rated were both the similar Great Giana Sisters and the recent fanmade version of SMB that uses advanced scrolling tricks). Gyruss, Mario Bros. and Pac-Man were rated at a tie.
Dr. Sparkle has come through once again with the 63rd edition of Chrontendo! It’s the third we’ve linked to from Set Side B (even if, for a while, we incorrectly labeled the previous one as #68, oops).
The games covered by this one are:
Knight Move (Japan only): A puzzle game involving landing a chess knight trying to land on a target square. Apparently this got a later release on PC by Spectrum Holobyte. Wikipedia tells us that the “A. Pazhitonov” listed as the creator on the Famicom version’s title screen is Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris. I cannot speak to that fact’s veracity, but it seems plausible enough. Pajitnov later would be hired by Microsoft to make puzzle games for them around the Windows XP era.
The Mafat Conspiracy: the sequel to Golgo 13! The US release does its Japanese manga source material a great disservice by not having the grim face of protagonist Duke Togo visible anywhere on the front of the box, instead using extremely generic cover art. In play, it’s very similar to a slightly more competent version of the original, just with a different scenario.
Disney Adventures in the Magic Kingdom: Another of those Capcom Disney games, a glorified minigame collection, and probably the worst of the bunch! We’re a mile away from Ducktales here. As if to confirm the player’s low expectations, trivia questions are part of the game.
Solstice: Isometric platformer of the style well-known around that time in the UK, a very difficult yet respectable exploration game, and probably the best game in this episode. I prefer its SNES sequel Equinox, programmed by the Pickford Brothers, which has a highly distinctive look.
The Last Starfighter: This is secretly a renamed port of the Commodore 64 classic Uridium! A little of the bloom is off the rose here, if only because high speed scrolling of the kind you see here is so common on the NES, yet so difficult to accomplish on the Commie. The C64’s distinctive look was heavily influenced by that system’s limitations: it takes some serious programming effort to get the C64 to be able to scroll significant screen data in a frame, enough so that, to do it, you basically have to leave color memory unchanged, since it can’t be relocated like tile definitions can. The NES can do scrolling much more easily than the Commodore 64, and had been doing very colorful fast-scrolling games like the Super Mario series for years, yet the game kept the same nearly-monochrome look as the C64 game. That’s why Uridium got such acclaim in the UK, because scrolling games like it were unknown on the system at the time, while the NES had support for it in the hardware, so it didn’t have nearly the same impact.
Captain Skyhawk: The main things I remember about this, a game which I’ve played and beaten, is it was made by Rare, and that Dave Barry once wrote a column about how much his kid dearly wanted a copy of this game. Dr. Sparkle is pretty hard on this one too, and I think for good reason. This is clearly a game intended to be in the River Raid style, but with elevation. It could have been done as a quasi-flight sim, with targets you have to duck beneath or fly over, but in its design the elevation barely matters, and instead it’s a lot more like a standard vertical shooter. The enemies don’t even cast shadows! Helicopters or ground vehicles alike can be shot if if they were on the same plane. It would have done better if it had either gone all-in on the elevation, maybe tying it to the player’s speed, and having fewer yet smarter enemies that also had elevation; either that, or taking out the elevation completely and making it into a 2D shooter more like Zanac or Raiden. Rare at that time understood the NES hardware better than most developers, and was more than capable technically of going with either approach. But they didn’t.
Then after you have Afterburner-style dogfighting levels, then the point where most players threw down the controller in disgust, when they’re asked to align and dock with a rotating space station. It all resembles a tech demo at Rare that Milton Bradley decided to try to make a few bucks off of selling as a game.
Hatris: Another game designed by Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov, it’s also nowhere near as iconic as Tetris was, but as time has shown us, very little else is. I get the play mixed up with that of Nintendo’s Yoshi puzzle game, perhaps for good reason. Turns out there was an arcade version of this!
Palamedes: Another Tetris-ish generative piece-laying puzzle game, this one with a dice theme. And there was an arcade version of this too!
Hiryu No Ken III: 5 Nin No Ryuu Senshi: Only released in Japan. Dr. Sparkle is quick to let us know right off this isn’t the “Fist of the North Star” Ken, but the Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll Ken. These games are a bit more simulationist (in a sense) in their depiction of martial arts than most beat ’em ups.
SD Hero Soukessen: Taose! Aku No Gundan: Also Japan-only, second in a long series of “super deformed” (basically meaning big headed, small bodied humanoid figures depicted in a cutesy kind of way) robot fighting games. The robots (and tokusatsu characters) are licensed from a variety of media, making this a massive crossover media series that could be seen as an inspiration for the hulking monstrosity that Super Smash Bros. has become. Properties that I recognized from the video are Kamen Raider, Gundam and Ultraman. This one has a fan translation patch.
Few games for the NES have been better treated by hindsight than Friday the 13th. At the time it was regarded as a terrible game with difficult play and nearly impossible to win.
But even then there were things about it that indicated that there might be a little more going on then than was first apparent. Publisher LJN was known for making terrible games, but they outsourced their work to different companies that often weren’t actually that bad, just given weird properties for video games (The Karate Kid? Jaws? T&C Surf Designs??) and approaching them with experimental gameplay. And for their part, all of LJN’s games are technically sound, and manage to hit their 60fps frame rate targets, which is much more than you can say for many other NES games, including some from big manufacturers like Capcom, like Ghosts & Goblins and 1942, both implemented by Micronics, or Strider, which as we’ve noted before is a mess.
It has come time, as we all knew it must, for Jeremy Parish to collide with Jason’s axe, and as befits the game’s redemption, his video is divided in half, first about its reception at the time, then later now that it’s appreciated a little better. Just don’t turn it off after the 8 minute mark, there’s still more than half of it to go!
A while ago Displaced Gamers, as part of their great Behind The Code series, did a video about how awful NES Strider’s sprite updating was. Arcade Strider was huge hit and outright masterpiece, a great arcade platformer released right before fighting games took over game rooms around the world, but NES Strider was a wretched thing, full of big ideas but with code woefully unable to live up to them. Imagine a puppy trying to do your taxes. It might put up an adorable effort, but it’s just not going to get the job done.
We linked to their last video examining its malformed construction. Well, Strider is the well of crap that keeps on gushing, and so Displaced Gamers has another video on the subject of the flaws in its programming, this time about its player physics. Walking into walls causes Strider Hiryu to shudder in place; jumping beneath a low ceiling causes him to bump his head repeatedly as his jump continues even though there’s no room to ascent; and his infamous “triangle” wall jump is so wonky that it literally requires a frame-perfect input to pull off, and not even the right frame. You have to jump the frame before you contact the wall!
Here is the new video, which explicates the entire cruddy system. It goes into exquisite/excruciating detail, including tracing the code and examining Hiryu’s X and Y coordinates on a frame-by-frame basis. It’s the kind of deep geekery that I just know you love/hate! Enjoy/despair!