Playing the covers

I’m kicking off a series where I play through the NES games featured on the covers of Nintendo Power in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

I didn’t have a lot of video games growing up. I had the important ones — all of the Mario games — but I never had a huge collection. Getting a new video game was a big event, and as best I can remember, I only ever owned ten games for the NES. This was my entire library:

  1. Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt
  2. Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage
  3. Blaster Master
  4. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
  5. Super Mario Bros. 2
  6. Super Mario Bros. 3
  7. Hogan’s Alley
  8. Dragon Warrior
  9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game
  10. Back to the Future Part II & III

I begged to get that NES for Christmas in 1988, but I never really followed up by asking for a lot of games. The quality of half the games I did own is even pretty debatable. That’s not to say I didn’t play lots of others. Back in those days, video game rentals were a big deal, and a much more cost effective way to play a new game than shelling out $50 to buy it. Chances were pretty good that a new game would probably be frustrating and not very good anyway. Online gaming was decades away, so it’s not like you could play against your friends who owned the same game. That made it easy to just borrow games from your friends, and it’s how I played most of my favorite game. So I did get to play a lot of different games, even if I only owned a small handful.

Whenever I load up an older NES game in OpenEmu, especially one I’ve never played before, I usually play for a few minutes and then give up. It’s hard to even know what’s any good, and more often than not, I end up just replaying one of the games I’ve played dozens of times before. Part of it is just the overwhelming paradox of choice. There are hundreds of choices, and I remain convinced that most just weren’t very good. At the same time, I know there are amazing games worth playing. Rather than ask around or search for top ten lists, I’m just going to defer to Nintendo Power’s authority.

I’m kicking off a series where I play through the games featured on the covers of Nintendo Power in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Like many kids in those days, I first subscribed in late 1990 to get the free copy of Dragon Warrior. I seem to remember a lot of the issues that predate the giveaway, and I know for a fact that I had the very first issue, which my elementary school music teacher took away from me for reading it in class. That would have been published before I even owned a Nintendo, so I must have gotten my hands on those older issues at some point before I actually became a subscriber.

Despite being mostly a big Nintendo ad, Nintendo Power actually had some pretty good information. The maps were invaluable, but dig through some old issues and you’ll find them pretty unvarnished talk about straight-up bugs in games. A tip in the Classified Information column describes a bug in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link that is used today as an essential part of sub-one-hour speedruns. Even the Konami Code was mentioned in the very first issue.

This gets said a lot these days, but video games used to be hard. Like, really hard. Very few NES games had the ability to save your progress, which required a battery inside the game cartridge. It’s hard to imagine The Legend of Zelda without the ability to save progress, but there were plenty of games of this scale without a battery. When you ran out of lives, you started over, and you sure as hell couldn't turn off the Nintendo if you were making good progress. You can argue that today’s games are too easy, but this technical limitation made games in those days even harder than they had any right to be. I had games like Blaster Master that I never bothered to beat until very recently. They were just too hard to be fun, especially for a kid.

But what if they actually are fun? Or, more precisely, what if I can make them fun? There are a lot of games that I wanted to play that I never got the chance to, and plenty that I’d like to revisit. I don’t have time these days to invest in getting really good at a 30-year-old game just to beat it, even for games I liked. Emulators solve this for me. Not only can I save and load right before a difficult part, I can actually rewind the action and replay the annoying parts until I get through it.

Purists will hate this, but I’ve got absolutely no problem using emulator features get through a game. If I’m not playing against anyone except myself and the game, who cares? Everybody knew these games were next to impossible back in the day, which is why millions of people can recite the Konami Code in their sleep, and the Game Genie was a smash hit. If that wasn’t enough proof, think about these numbers: Only around 50 NES games had save batteries, but over 150 SNES could save. Super Nintendo games also increasingly had built-in cheats and hidden developer menus that could unlock power-ups, all to make the games a little more playable. There’s nothing new about taking every opportunity to make games more fun and playable.

Part of my reason for restarting this site was to write about the old games I’ve been playing. I recently played through all of the NES Zelda and Mario games, as well as Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy. I’ve beaten them all before, but I also started playing a few games that I’d never beaten, and I wanted to write my thoughts on them.

I don’t know how far I’ll get through the list of Nintendo Power cover games, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Some of what I write may end up being fairly in-depth, while other games just don’t lend themselves to more than a few paragraphs. I’m not sure how much there is to say about Track & Field II, but I do want to find out. Likewise, you can’t beat Tetris or Dr. Mario, but I can probably find a few worthwhile things to say.

The emulator tools, including Game Genie codes, are going to be necessary if I want to avoid pulling all my hair out. There was a jump in Adventure Island that I couldn’t get past no matter how many times I tried until I put in a Game Genie code. Thankfully Adventure Island isn’t a cover game, because it’s incredibly repetitive and I have no desire to play it ever again. If you’re ever curious about what’s after the first few levels, don’t bother. It’s just more of the same.

First up is Super Mario Bros. 2, which just happens to be one of my favorite games of all time. It’s going be a long road to get to Felix the Cat, which was featured on the September, 1992 cover, but we’ll just have to see how it goes.

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  1. Jim Rementer
    When you get to issue 2 Simon’s Quest, I strongly suggest you play through the original rom and then the Simon’s Redaction rom hack. Fan community fixed much of the cryptic nonsense and bad mechanics for a better experience.