In the very descriptively titled LittleMac’s 30-Minute Retro Reviews!, LittleMac puts in 30 minutes playing the NES and SNES games on Switch Online so that you can make more judicious decisions about how to spend your retro gaming time!
Whenever there’s a new batch of releases, we’ll cover those! Otherwise, we’re going back to the start and playing through every game in order. For at least thirty minutes. Yes, including Clu-Clu Land.
Don’t believe me when I say I have recently played these games for thirty minutes each? Well, I brought receipts!
This week, we’re continuing with the original wave of NES Online releases! Let’s dive in to (Not Super) Tennis, The Legend of Zelda, and Yoshi!
If you’ve been following along with this column, you know that I’ve argued that sports provide their own templates for video games on account of being, in themselves, systems of rules that create games. Further, I’ve opined, this means that the earliest sports games essentially create the mold for that particular genre of sports game, with later games iterating on and deepening the established mechanics. You may also be aware that in the previous column, I reviewed Super Tennis for the SNES (no relation). Knowing all that, you may not be surprised to hear that this game is a lot like Super Tennis (and, really, a lot like all tennis video games), but with less stuff in it!
One of the earliest Famicom games, part of the original North American NES launch lineup, and a bonafide Shigeru Miyamoto production, Tennis does an excellent job of establishing how a tennis video game should work, while also being kind of superfluous if you have access to later, more sophisticated tennis games. Two tennis players (or two teams of two tennis players) face off across a net and play a three-set game of tennis. During serves, the player can decide where their character stands (within the legal limits!) and use A or B to decide when their character will whack the ball after they (automatically) toss it up. Then, players move around the court with the D-pad, volley with A, lob with B, and deliver an overhand smash by pressing A in the correct context (i.e. when they are underneath a high ball). It’s tennis!
As one of the earliest tennis games (though not the earliest: there’s an Atari 2600 Tennis that, wouldn’t you know, looks an awful lot like this game, except crummier), Tennis doesn’t provide a huge range of modes. You can play Singles mode, in which you select a starting opponent from a 5-point difficulty scale and then progress up that difficulty scale as you win, or you can play Doubles mode, in which you and a friend select a starting pair of opponents from a 5-point difficulty scale and then progress up that difficulty scale as you win. You cannot play against your friend. You cannot have an AI companion in Doubles.
All the core rules of Tennis are here: points, sets, and games; faults and double faults; nets and outs. The game’s referee (Mario, from back before he realized that, as a remarkably athletic plumber with nigh-limitless stamina, he should really be playing sports) even knows about the doubles lanes. There may well be some obscure rules of tennis that I don’t know about that aren’t captured here (in fact: since there are only male players, the game doesn’t have any sexist dress codes. Equality at the expense of realism!), but everything obvious is included.
Mechanically, Tennis is very sound: it’s easy to judge the positioning of the ball (even its height!), and the collision detection is reasonable. Only true beginners will want to start from Level 1, as the difficulty level controls both the ability of the opponent and the speed of the ball (Level 1 games are slooooow marches on a road to easy victory). From Level 2 onward, you can look forward to a well-paced (or, eventually, exceedingly fast-paced!) and challenging good time. I spent a lot of time with this game as a kid, and I don’t know that I ever managed to best the Level 5 player!
Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?
This game was on the 42-in-1 bootleg cartridge my father got me for the same Christmas where I got my NES, so I’ll always revisit it from time to time for nostalgia purposes. Should you, though? Well, if you don’t have a pre-existing emotional attachment or strong historical curiosity, I’m not sure I’d recommend this over a tennis game that has more modes, characters, and shot types.
The Legend of Zelda (1986)
It’s possible that you’re already familiar with this game.
Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka worked on the original Legend of Zelda concurrently with the original Super Mario Bros. (sort of like if Michaelangelo was hammering out his David during breaks from work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling). The two games share DNA in the form of Miyamoto’s boyhood memory of exploring a cave that he found while wandering outside Kyoto. To differentiate the two series, they started from a simple principle: Mario’s adventure would be linear and Link’s adventure would not. Where Super Mario Bros. litters hidden secrets throughout its tightly-constructed left-to-right obstacle courses as detours on the way to the goal, The Legend of Zelda litters hidden secrets across a huge, four-directional map viewed from a top-down perspective, and the entire goal is to find those secrets.
With concessions made to the NES gamepad’s limited coterie of buttons, The Legend of Zelda presents a control scheme that would see many iterations but few changes until 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. One button (A, if you must know) is assigned to Link’s sword, while the other (figure it out; process of elimination) activates whichever special item you’ve assigned to it. The Start button brings up a sub-screen that lets you change the assigned special item. The D-Pad moves Link around. If just leaving the game on the sub-screen while you pee isn’t enough for you, the Select button will officially pause the game.
Later games in the series would be criticized for excessive tutorializing, but The Legend of Zelda did not start that trend: players are dropped into the vast 8×16 screen Hyrule with no weapons, items, or directions. Mercifully, Link finds himself outside a cave where a friendly old man offers him a sword and confirms that it is dangerous to go alone (the old man does not offer to come along and help). From there… it’s up to you! Explore! Read the manual! Convince your mom to subscribe to Nintendo Power! Ask around at recess! Somehow or other, you’ll figure out that you need to discover eight dungeons guarding the eight shards of the Triforce of Wisdom, the Magical Sword, and the Silver Arrow, and then seek out a ninth dungeon where you can use these items to slay Ganon (Hey! Who’re you callin’ a ‘dorf’?!) and rescue Princess Zelda. Oh, and Link and Zelda are the latest reincarnations of two ancient heroes who embody the traits of Courage and Wisdom, while Ganon is just one entity, infused with the essence of the ancient god Demise, who continually resurrects himself and does battle with those reincarnated heroes, and this is all taking place in a splinter timeline that isn’t considered “canon” because the Hero of Time version of Link officially prevailed in his que–but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Zelda series has accumulated a lot of lore in the thirty years since the legend began with “IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS.” Later entries weave a complex mythos and send Link on involved journeys filled with varied objectives (for instance, in the recent Breath of the Wild, Link must find a hang glider before he sets off to defeat Ganon). Fans who became acquainted with the series through the 3D epics might be surprised by how devoid the original is of character, plot, and spectacle. The Legend of Zelda presents a sparsely-populated Hyrule where the handful of friendly strangers Link meets speak no more than two highly utilitarian sentences. They don’t have names. They do not have identities, or even unique sprites. They don’t have subplots, unless you count the Old Man who says “SHOW THIS TO THE OLD WOMAN” and hands you a note that, when delivered, causes the formerly silent Old Woman to become a potion shop. The game is filled with magic, but the flashiest visual spectacle is a lakebed drying up (the pixels turn from blue to brown to beige).
The reason this spare, story-less adventure managed to create a world that fans get very invested in comes down to how the gameplay incentivizes deep engagement with Hyrule. Players are dropped into a harsh landscape filled with hostile monsters and repeating arrangements of trees and rocks, and have little option except to start messing around. Find bombs and start trying to blow things up. Find a candle and set some bushes on fire. Push up against… everything. Then, crucially, the game constantly rewards the player for messing around, as there are lots of walls that do explode, bushes that do burn, and boulders that do roll aside. Finding things makes Link just a little bit better at not being killed, enabling players to explore further from the starting point. Now there are more things to find! All along, the familiar discovery jingle rings out, telling you to celebrate every time your experimentation pays off. Gamers at the time became invested in Hyrule not because it was a lush landscape filled with colourful characters and epic adventures, but because it cajoled them into exploring the far reaches of its map while poking and prodding at any object that seemed like it might stand out. To make it through this adventure, you need to get to know this Hyrule.
Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?
Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. I’d also heartily recommend that younger players/newer fans give it a go if they haven’t already (perhaps with a source of hints more helpful than the people of Hyrule handy).
Developer: Game Freak
When people think of the acclaimed developers at Game Freak, they think of the studio’s collaborations with publisher Nintendo–collaborations like Yoshi. Yes, we’re talking about the game that inarguably set the stage for Pokémon, and which is also widely acknowledged as the second-best early-90s Yoshi-branded tile-matching puzzle game developed by one of Nintendo’s third-party partners.
The game has a standard falling blocks conceit with Mario iconography: tiles displaying classic enemies (Goombas, Bloopers, Piranha Plants, and Boos) fall two-at-a-time into a bin, stacking up in four columns. If a tile lands on a matching tile, both disappear. Occasionally, a top or bottom half of a Yoshi egg can fall in place of a tile. Top halves typically shatter when they land, but if they land on a stack that contains a bottom half, the two halves join together to form a full egg, eliminating all tiles between them. If the bin overflows to the point that a new tile is blocked from entry, the game is lost.
Players have no control over the falling tiles; instead, they control the stacks themselves via Mario, who appears from the shoulders up, squished at the very bottom of the bin. Mario has his hands above his head, holding on to the platforms at the bottom of two adjacent columns. The D-pad adjusts which of three possible positions Mario occupies. Pressing A or B rotates Mario 180 degrees, swapping the positions of two stacks of tiles. By arranging for tiles to land on matches, the player tries to manage the ever-filling bin. There are no chain reactions to set off; you just move the stacks around to make matches with the falling tiles. It’s a pretty simple game.
Because of that simplicity, I didn’t have fond memories of Yoshi coming in. However, during my thirty minutes with the game I discovered that there is some fun to be had if–and only if!–you choose the right settings. The game offers two modes, A Type and B Type, only one of which connects with the limited mechanics to produce an engaging play experience. A Type is your standard endless mode: just keep making matches so you can keep playing. Nothing much happens as you carry on managing the bin. With no objective and no opportunity to set up cool moves, A Type is not putting Yoshi‘s best foot forward, even as its name suggests that it’s the primary mode! Worse still, a beginning player is likely to select Low speed (it’s Low or High; we don’t do Medium here), Level 1, and the default music to start out. Now you’re gently bopping your head to a low-energy chiptune while tiles float gently into a bin that will only fill up if you let it or if you play for so long that you advance to a much higher level, all with no concrete objective besides “keep doing this, because your mom isn’t going to take you back to the store to rent another game for the weekend.”
To find engaging gameplay in Yoshi, you’ll want to start on B Type at High speed. B Type introduces an objective: you’re trying to empty out the bin to advance to the next stage, which gives you a sense of advancement, an actual challenge (manage the bin so that you can eliminate the last pair of tiles, hold the line until the correct falling pair appears, and then stick the landing), and a simple reward system (the interstitial scenes are not going to make anyone forget Ms. Pac Man, but at least they break up the visual monotony of the gameplay screen). It’s still not a mind-blowing gameplay experience (a lot of your success depends on waiting for the random number generator to dispense the exact two tiles you need to clear the bin), but it’s a gameplay experience, which gives it an edge over A Type.
There’s also a two-player mode where you and a friend (as Luigi, of course) compete to see who can win a B Type stage first. With no ability to “attack” your opponent (even clearing many tiles with a Yoshi egg does nothing except buy you space in the bin), this is not a particularly compelling Vs. mode, but two players could probably have a bit of fun racing each other if they have comparable skill levels.
Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?
It’s a decent bite-sized experience (now that I’ve rediscovered the settings on which it can be decent), but on an online service that offers numerous vastly superior falling-block puzzle games, I don’t expect I’ll be tempted back to this one very often. Are there rights issues with Yoshi’s Cookie, Nintendo?
And that’s it for this edition! Unless Game Boy Online makes a surprise debut, I’ll be back to the SNES a fortnight hence, tackling The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, and Super Mario World!