The NES is like heroin, and not in a good way

NES Logo

Nintendo Entertainment System (1987)

To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, retro, for lack of a better word, is good. Retro is right, retro works. Retro clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the gaming spirit. Retro, in all of its forms; retro for life, for money, for love, for knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind. Retro is what sells, and everybody wants to be retro.

This retro desirability was pretty evident when the NES Classic came out. I know geek stuff has gone mainstream, but there were people frothing at the mouth for this little device. When the NES Classic came out, you couldn’t get your hands on one for love nor money. People really wanted Excitebike, it seems. Those poor fools. I had to laugh from my ivory tower, because I knew better.

I knew only too well what some of those games were like. Yes, games like Ghouls ‘n Ghosts are your dictionary definition of classic, but come on. It’s like that pet that you unconditionally love and only ever see good qualities in, even when it rears up and bites you at every opportunity. When people say classic, I immediately think of a hateful ferret or a mean cat.

The controller is classic too, and you’ll delight upon holding one for the first time. Unfortunately, the controller is not as happy to see you. Right from the off, it’s an unrelenting square that’ll tear welts in your hands before you even come near to beating the game. You’re clinging on to the hard plastic for dear-life, desperately trying to avoid Mike Tyson’s lethal punches, and you feel every bit of the struggle. So that’s great – even the controller hates you.

It’s one thing to have a NES, but you can’t consider it truly complete until you get a R.O.B. unit alongside. Having switched careers from being a nuclear missile launching platform for the Japanese, the Robotic Operating Buddy is a delightfully insane but ultimately useless piece of kit that barely responds to the whole two (cack) games it’s designed to work with. But that’s retro in a nutshell, whether it’s games, cars, or antiques – looks great on a shelf, but wheezes and spits back at you when you fancy turning back the clock and actually firing it up for old time’s sake.

Of course, you’ve always got to undergo the classic ritual of blowing on cartridges. It’s a necessary evil because you will never, ever get these games working on first try. Now that mankind has undertaken extensive cartridge study, we know that blowing on the cartridges will possibly do the trick in dislodging some dirt and get the game playing – but only for now.

Turns out however that it’s actually quite bad in the long-run, as you’ll be showering the cartridge connectors with little bits of spittle, eroding the chips and diodes and connectors as if they were sandcastles. Is blowing on the cartridges really that bad? Probably, and I’ll have to cede to the boffins on this one. But I’ll still do it until the day I die, because no other measure works so consistently.

Even after you’ve just about gone light-headed from blowing on the game, blowing into the console, and even blowing into the controller ports for good measure, you’ll immediately know that your efforts are in vain when you see the blinking red Power light. Now, you’ve spent an absolute bomb on the NES console and games, because stuff this retro doesn’t come cheap. And then it refuses to power on for you.

That’s not right, is it? Heroin costs a bomb as well, but heroin works. You buy it, it performs its function as expected. There’s always an aspect of caveat emptor of course, but otherwise drug-dealers seem to adhere strictly to the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know personally if heroin works, but I have it on good authority. That ‘authority’ being the drawn-out, strung-out, monotone drone that’s been perfected by junkies on the back seats of buses up and down the country. Heroin seems to work just fine for them.

The NES ought to be heroin, but all too often it’s Tic-Tac Ecstasy tablets, talcum powder cocaine. You’re all excited, you try to get a bang out of it, but then nothing occurs and you’re left feeling… not much. Just slightly disappointed. You’d half-expected it, really. If ever there was a console to emulate and save yourself aggro on, it’s the NES.

Anyway, even if you did get the game to work, then what? You’ll find that maybe about ten NES games of a US library of over 700 are worth it nowadays. You’ll get good mileage from the three Super Mario Bros games, which are timeless. Once you have a guide, you can get into the original The Legend of Zelda. If you’re pretty hardcore, you can move on to Zelda II, so long as you’re prepared for the chance that you might hate it.

Mega Man 2 and perhaps 3 are good fun, the other four Mega Man games aren’t especially worth it. Contra and Super C are great. Castlevania 1 and maybe 3 are worth a look – if you can hack the difficulty. Finally, you can pick Kirby’s Adventure, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and one of Crystalis, Startropics or Tetris.

You’re struggling after that. Final Fantasy will put you to sleep. Metroid will have you tearing your hair out. The Dragon Quests, or Dragon Warriors as they were, are stone-age. Ice Climber and Balloon Fight are just laughable. We never received Fire Emblem. We did receive Kid Icarus, which is unfortunate. And you’ve just got to see Soccer and Pro Wrestling for yourself.

Those are the good games, but that leaves us with 600-odd average, mediocre, or downright gank games to sift through. The games were bad enough to give the Angry Video Game Nerd a career, and if there was a film released in the 1980s or early 1990s, you’d best believe it had a bad NES game based on it. If you’re looking for even one good game out of Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future, Karate Kid and Hook, then I’m sorry, but your childhood has just been destroyed.  

Even if you did play them, they all suffer the same fate that plagued almost all NES games in that they are unrelentingly rock-hard. Why was that? I can somewhat understand that some games only had the capacity for a few limited levels, so to artificially extend the game’s length, the developers just made each level nails. It’s sneaky, but I understand that. What I don’t understand is that the developers at the time, as incompetent as they were, seemed almost frightened of allowing people to beat their games.  

I like to replay Mega Man 2 (on Normal difficulty of course) because then I can actually get to the end. There’s a bit of a difficulty curve, but it’s manageable. Then you get a game like Dragon’s Lair or Double Dragon III that tells you to go and pleasure yourself. It’s no coincidence the most fondly remembered games are the ones that can actually be beaten by us mere mortals.

Ultimately, the NES has aged just that bit too poorly. The Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive is about as far back in gaming history as you can get without it becoming wholly depressing for all parties. Retro enthusiasts will always pay through the nose for a NES with games, chasing that incredible retro hit from way back when. But when the Nintendo refuses to power on and the internal springs start to break and the cartridges throw up glitched graphics, don’t blame me when blood starts pouring from your nose and Lou Reed starts playing in the background.

24 December 2019

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