The original Legend of Zelda has received a HD remaster treatment by the romhack community.
The hack is playable through an emulator called Mesen. Mesen is free, and you’ll need a copy of a specific version of the original of the Legend of Zelda ROM as well as the HD remake files in order to play it.
Applying the HD remake files to the game is not difficult, but requires following a series of instructions that are demonstrated in the video below.
I gave it a try. The graphical updates give it a look on part with the SNES, and have a look reminiscent of Zelda III: A Link to the Past, although the sprites appear to be original artwork, not rips from the SNES ROM. Likewise, the audio sounds much like a SNES update of the original LOZ soundtrack.
The terrain sprites are fantastic, and make old Hyrule look spectacular. The repetitive tiled look of the original is completely made over, and now overworld features like bombable rocks and burnable bushes are a bit less of a pain than they were before — rather than having to try to burn every single bush on the screen, there’ll be one bush (or a small handful) of bushes that will stand out and look suspicious from the rest of the background terrain.)
I’m not as impressed by the character sprites. Moblins, Goriya, and Stalfos all look less charming than they did in the original. Creatures like Octorocks, Tektites, Leevers, and Kees look like they are done better, to me.
One thing I notice right away is that Link’s HD sprite looks visually smaller than the original, but his hitbox doesn’t seem to have changed. This makes him feel somewhat clumsy, and I kept colliding with enemies when it looked like I should have a bit of space between us. While I’m sure this can be gotten used to, to me it’s an unfortunate, huge, and immediate negative. Ultimately, enjoying a videogame comes down to gameplay, not graphics, and gameplay is impacted by an improper hitbox like this. I believe the developers of the HD Remaster could fix this pretty easily by making adjustments to Link’s sprite.
Another thing I noticed is that when climbing up/down stairs, there is no animation showing Link descending and disappearing into the dark hole, as there is in the original.
The HD Remaster enhances the game in a few other notable ways: increased bomb capacity, pressing Select toggles your B-inventory item so you no longer have to pause to the subscreen to select it, text draws faster, and the dialogs are somewhat altered from the original, offering better translations and more useful clues than were present in the original.
I’ve played through the first dungeon. I notice that in the dungeons, the map doesn’t seem to give you any visual indication to differentiate between rooms you have visited vs. rooms that you have not yet reached. This is another gameplay issue that I feel should be rectified by the maintainers of the mod.
Overall, this seems like a fantastic mod, very well done, but not without minor flaws. It is nevertheless enjoyable and should not be missed if you’re a fan of the original game. Nintendo legal often clamps down on fan projects like this, so if you want to play this yourself, it’s best to grab it while you can. Although, the maintainers do appear to have taken pains to separate the mod pack from anything that directly infringes on Nintendo copyright, such as the original ROM that is needed in order to make the mod pack work.
Since their invention, almost overnight videogames have made a lasting impact on the greater culture. Here are a few of my favorite memorable quotes from video games.
It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!
Game:The Legend of Zelda
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
It’s the mid-80’s. The NES is new, and a chip shortage has made this already-hot game a hard to find must-have for the holidays — despite being released in February. Limited quantities of the special gold cartridge meant that a lot of kids had to wait a long time to get their copy of the game everyone was talking about: The Legend of Zelda. In Link’s first encounter, he finds an old man in a cave with a gift and some memorable advice.
Welcome to adventure, kid.
It’s a secret to everybody.
Game:The Legend of Zelda
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
There’s something seedy about taking free rupees from a cave-dwelling Moblin. Is this a legit offer? What’s the catch? Why is this overworld enemy helping us? But yes, it’s true. Everyone knows that the secret to getting ahead in the world is to have a little money. It can get you into places, and out of jams. You can never have too much, but you can only carry $255. Don’t spend it all in one place, unless it happens to be the hidden shop that sells the Blue Ring!
Uh Oh. The truck have started to move!
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Most videogames for the NES were developed in Japan, and accurate translation never seemed to be a high priority. So many memorable quotes from mid-80’s videogames are remembered for their quirky, incorrect grammar and hilarious misspellings.
In Metal Gear, you sneak about a military base attempting to keep a low profile lest you be discovered and create an international incident. While looking inside a few parked trucks for supplies to aid you in your mission, one of them happens to start up with you inside! Better lie low and hope that you will not be discovered, and that wherever it takes you doesn’t bring your mission to a premature end. Fortunately for you, the blundering enemy has in fact just made it easier for you to succeed, by taking you to an area on the base where you could not get to otherwise.
Earlier in the game, you encounter this tired guard, who, if you wait out of sight long enough, will fall asleep. Oddly, before nodding off he announces, to no one in particular, “I feel asleep!!” Either the designers meant to say he fell asleep, which makes no sense because he’s already asleep, or perhaps they meant to say he feels sleepy. Either way, it’s pretty funny.
The NES port of Metal Gear was a bug-ridden mess, but since most of us didn’t have an MSX to compare against, we had no idea, but we didn’t care. The sneaking about, using stealth tactics to infiltrate the base while quietly eliminating guards, and finding an arsenal’s worth of gear to blow up a nuclear-armed super-weapon were too important to let some bad English stop us.
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
A number of early Capcom NES games rewarded the player who successfully beat the game with this stingy accolade, “CONGRATULATION.” What, just one measly congratulation? Isn’t plural, multiple congratulations nearly always in order when complimenting someone’s happy success? After dogfighting your way through thirty-two (!) stages of bland, slow-moving shoot-em-up “action” against an unbearable monotone soundtrack, this is the thanks we get?
Literally, this is the entirety of what you get when you beat the game. Screw you, Capcom!
Fortunately, they more than made up for this with the sequel, 1943, which features improved everything, including one of the best soundracks on the NES. Capcom went on to produce some of the best titles on the NES, and found even greater glory in the 16-bit era with Street Fighter II. All is forgiven.
A winner is you!
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Pro Wrestling is one of those games that is pretty dumb, and yet really fun despite that, with a one of the hardest boss fights to win, the championship bout against Great Puma. But each time you manage to win a wrestling match, your reward was this message: A winner is you! All right! It really pumps up your self esteem!
You are in a maze of twisty passages, all [alike|different].
Game:Colossal Cave Adventure
System: DEC PDP-10, and others
There’s so much quotable in Colossal Cave Adventure, considering the entire game is entirely text, and one of the first computer games ever. But this quote from the Maze is the one that I come back to the most. To create the feeling of being lost in a maze, the game just repeats the same text in each room, until you manage to solve the maze. There’s no feedback to tell you where you are, or to give yourself a reference point to have some idea where you are. After puzzling over this conundrum, successful players eventually figure out that if they drop an item from their inventory in a room, it will help them to make that room in the maze stand out from the others, enabling them to map out the maze with pen and paper.
To this day, whenever I’m in a confusing situation where there are many options and I don’t know which is the right one, I’ll think back to this one.
I am Error
Game:Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
A genuine WTF moment in gaming occurs when you meet the infamous Error. This is all he ever says to you, “I am Error.” Is that his name? Or is he just a chronic screwup? Or is the game telling you that it has an Error? This was a matter for deep contemplation in 1987.
What a horrible night to have a curse.
Game:Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Castlevania II attempted to innovate by introducing adventure and RPG elements into the action-platformer formula. There’s a level-up system, and shops where you can spend money that you spend hours grinding for… so much grinding for XP and hearts in fact that this game is usually remembered as the least-liked of the NES Castlevania titles. Luckily the music was excellent. Unlike the first Castlevania, rather than having a linear progression through a series of stages, the game featured an open map that you could go back and revisit, and likely would need to several times while trying to figure out some extremely obscurely hidden secrets. Another innovation the game features is a day-night cycle, where during the nighttime hours, the enemies were stronger, doing twice as much damage, and taking twice as many hits to be defeated. Every couple of minutes, day would turn to night, or night to day, and every time the game would freeze and display this message to you… one character at a time… for about 30 seconds. It was… memorable, let me tell you.
Winners don’t use drugs
Game: Various arcade games
If you went to an arcade in the 1990s, you surely saw this message on a regular basis. I don’t know whether it ever stopped anyone from trying drugs who wanted to, but we sure did know who the Director of the FBI was.
It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
The early text adventure games borrowed liberally from one another. In Colossal Cave Adventure, you could die if your torch went out, falling into a pit in the pitch black darkness. In the Zork series, there were locations where you could die without a light source, but it made no sense to have a hole that you could fall into. Enter the Grue, a loathsome fell creature that inhabited only the darkest reaches, and had never been seen by anyone who lived. But what is a Grue? No one knew. Some speculate that the name derived from the word gruesome, which is certainly a likely sounding explanation. On the other hand, the term “grue” is also found in the philosophy of Nelson Goodman, which might have been familiar to the MIT students who formed Infocom. But they’re also a monster in the Dying Earth novels by Jack Vance. So which is it?
Fight, Megaman! For everlasting peace!
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
After winning the original Mega Man, we are informed that Mega Man has to continue to fight (basically telling you that you could now play the game again, enjoying it for “replayability”). “Fight, Megaman!” the game extolls us, “For everlasting peace!” What? How? That oxymoronic statement always gives me a chuckle.
President Ronnie has been kidnapped by the ninjas! Are you a bad enough dude to rescue Ronnie?
Game:Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja
System: Arcade (Data East)
What could be more 80’s than a President named Ronnie? In the last year of Reagan’s presidency, this 2D beat-em-up gave us the attitude of cool badness that we all needed. Are you a bad enough dude? The game play in Bad Dudes wasn’t necessarily great, consisting of mostly standing around on platforms as the level slowly scrolled by, delivering repetitive one-punch or one-kick knockouts to an endless supply of cookie cutter Ninjas, without a great amount of depth or variety to the entire affair. This was a game anyone could beat, pretty much regardless of their skill level, as long as they had enough money. But the giant-sized, 16-bit sprites and (somewhat) challenging boss fights were enough to suck us in and drain the quarters from our pockets.
Game:River City Ransom
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
The famous last words of many dying students at River City High school, uttered as they blinked out of existence and left behind their bouncing pocket change. It’s funny that they apparently literally say “Barf!” rather than making the sounds of barfing, such as “Bleaugh!”
The voice narration gave these words a chilling malevolence. When you hear this, having won two out of three rounds in the Mortal Kombat tournament, it’s time to unleash the combo that triggers your fatality move, giving your opponent a death worthy of the game’s title. Or, if you’re the loser, it’s time to endure the indignity and shame of having your body torn asunder, in the most unpleasant way imaginable. Yet, no matter how many times they die in the MK tournament, you everyone still gets to fight again in the endurance rounds.
Game: Just about every one, ever.
System: All of them.
Game Over, man. Game over!
To be sure there are many more memorable videogame quotes that I’ve left out. What are your favorites?
I pre-ordered my AVS about a half hour after hearing its announcement, about after carefully reading the details and specs. While waiting on my pre-order to be shipped, I saw many skeptics on RetroUSB’s facebook page, complaining about this or that, mainly the price, or questioning the need of yet another console that plays NES games.
Many people think it’s best to play on original Nintendo hardware, on an old NTSC CRT TV, and have taken to repairing and modding their consoles for improved reliability and improved video, split-mono sound, etc. and a cottage industry has grown up around supporting these enthusiasts in keeping their original hardware running.
Still others think that having access to the entire NES catalog for free via emulation and ripped ROMs is the way to go, and that emulation is good enough that there’s no reason to spend money on games anymore.
To be fair, there have been a lot of other products over the years that have over-promised and under-delivered: Messiah’s Generation NEX, the various Retron consoles, etc. It’s fair for the market to be leery of yet another console promising the moon.
I’m not here to tell anyone how to play, or why they have to buy something new. People can make up their own minds. But I will explain why I was excited to buy an AVS, and share my experiences with it.
The most important feature that the AVS delivers, is HDMI without upscale lag. I have played my NES and Generation NEX on a HDTV, and it’s just not good. I only kindof understand why, and it’s complicated to explain, having to do with the differences between CRT and LCD screen technology, differences between the old NTSC standard and modern HDTV standards, and the fact that the NES doesn’t output a true NTSC 480i signal. This leads to visible artifacts as well as processing lag when an HDTV attempts to handle the raw signal coming through an NES.
Rather than try to explain it all, the TL;DR version is that I wanted a simple way too play NES games on a modern TV without having to educate myself to the point where I could be a video engineer.
Now that the AVS is here, it seems that they really have delivered a high-quality modernized NES that gives gamers everything they would want in a tricked-out NES: HDMI output; built-in 4-score; no problems with the 10NES lockout chip or worn out ZIF socket; and a 100% hardware, no-emulation implementation to provide full and faithful compatibility with the entire NES and Famicom libraries (with the exception of light gun games, where the compatibility is due to the TV display technology, not the console). If you happen to have a CRT HDTV that can handle 720p, however, you may be in luck (I have not tested this).
The top competition to the AVS currently are the Retron 5 by Hyperkin (not recommended, so no link), the HiDef-NES mod from Game-Tech.us, and Nintendo’s upcoming NES Classic. I covered these in a previous article, but to briefly recap:
The NES Classic held no interest for me at all since it does not support playing my vast, existing collection of cartridges, but it may be of interest to more casual gamers who never had (or no longer have) the original games, and want to relive 30 of the most popular NES titles, with the addition of save states. It is official Nintendo hardware, and is the cheapest option at $60.
The Retron 5 does HD output, but has some significant limitations, being an emulator-based solution it cannot properly handle some games, and has some ethical issues with stolen software and comes with a really, really bad controller, but on the other hand it can emulate multiple consoles. Currently it is no cheaper than the AVS, and given the choice I’d overwhelmingly prefer perfect accuracy in playing my NES library to imperfect support of multiple consoles and unethical abuse of software license.
The HiDef-NES mod requires you supply your own NES console, or else buy a pre-assembled one from Game-Tech if one is available for $500. On the other hand, it’s a true-hardware solution and does 1080p while the AVS does 720p, and the firmware on the mod gives you some great options including color palette choices. I’m planning on getting my top-loader modded soon, because I’m a geek like that. Also, Game-Tech have a great YouTube channel and do fantastic work repairing and modding old consoles, and deserve support.
Analogue NT is another modern, upgraded, high end system, and they are rebuilt from original NES components, but very expensive and not currently in production. Analogue are taking pre-orders for a new NT Mini system, at $449. Original NT’s are available on eBay for hundreds of dollars more.
Normally, I’m leery about buying new electronics products, until I’ve heard whether they’re good or not, and to wait for 1.0 bugs to be patched.
However, with the AVS I pre-ordered as soon as I found out about it. I didn’t want to take the chance that the initial product run would sell out. I have ordered other products from RetroUSB in the past: controller adapters, mainly, and knowing the quality of these products made the decision easier.
I first heard about the AVS in early August, so my wait time was only a month. Compared with many other product pre-orders (mostly crowd funded) this was a reasonable wait. RetroUSB promised delivery by mid-September, and importantly they successfully delivered right on time.
Way to go, RetroUSB! This, and their years of presence in the retro game market, inspires a lot of confidence.
Out of the Box
The AVS comes with the AVS console, power adapter, USB cable, and HDMI cable, and owner’s manual.
Audio: 48kHz HDMI output with expansion audio from carts
Display: Variable pixel scaling including integer options(1:1, 4:3, 5:3) with optional variable darkness scanlines
Carts: Front loading NES, top loading Famicom
Ports: Built in NES Four Score Pro, Famicom Expansion Port
Ports: HDMI Type A for video and audio, USB Mini B for power and data
Cheats: 5 cheat code slots with built in code database supporting Game Genie, Pro Action Replay, Pro Action Rocky, and raw formats
Online: NA Scoreboard online score system through USB
Updates: Upgrade FPGA configuration and menu system through USB
The AVS didn’t come with a controller, and before you start complaining — it doesn’t need to. If you don’t have your original NES controllers handy, they’re easy to find and cheap.
Mine arrived on 9/16/16, right on time for the mid-September shipping date promised by RetroUSB.
I didn’t crack the case for a look inside, so this is just a review of the construction of the system from an external perspective. The outer shell feels like it’s constructed from good plastic, not cheap flimsy junk plastic. The Power and Reset buttons look and feel just like real buttons from a toaster NES. The colors of the plastic are accurate to the original toaster NES. The cartridge slots grip games snugly, the controller ports plug in firmly. Everything looks and feels well made.
One thing I noticed, the AVS that I received does not have any UPC symbol or SKU number printed on the box, and the AVS itself does not have a serial number. Based on this, it appears that RetroUSB intend to be the sole distributor and seller of the system. This may be a necessity due to the power that Nintendo still has with retailers, or it may simply be that RetroUSB want to maximize profits and eliminate middleman markup.
The AVS comes with a USB cable and power plug adapter to allow you to plug it into the wall, but if your TV happens to have a USB slot on it, you can use that to power the console.
The USB port is also used for data transfer. Firmware updates are applied over USB with a PC as the host for delivering the update. I haven’t had to do a firmware update yet, but it’s nice that the device has this capability. As of this writing, the current firmware version is 1.10.
You can also use a PC with RetroUSB’s software to copy saved high scores off of the AVS, and upload them to Nintendo Age (and perhaps other participating websites).
Finally, the AVS has a Famicom expansion port on the back, meaning that you should be able to plug in Famicom devices that use this port. I don’t own any, and so am unable to test this out, but it’s very cool to have this option, and I may end up picking up some Famicom accessories in the future now that I have an easy way to play with them.
When you power up the AVS, you don’t see the game right away, but the AVS menu, which shows all the options: Start Cart, Scoreboard, Video Options, Controller Settings, and Game Genie Codes.
Start Cart will play the game currently loaded in the cartridge slot. The NES cartridge slot is very tight, and it’s difficult to pull the game out, mostly due to there being not much room to grab the cartridge with your fingers. I feel that RetroUSB could have done a little bit better here. My preference would have been for both the Famicom and NES slots to be vertical, like the top-loader NES, and lose the cover door. I suspect that RetroUSB chose to design the cartridge slots this way in order to make it impossible to have both slots loaded at the same time, but whatever the reason, I would have liked for it to be easier to remove NES carts.
Scoreboard allows you to store your high scores, which can be downloaded from the AVS over the USB port using a PC, and upload them to Nintendo Age if you want to see how your scores compare with the rest of the world. I have yet to try this, as most games that I play on the NES don’t even have a score, but it’s an intriguing feature.
The video and control options provide you with various adjustments to fine tune how your games look, and how the controllers work. The options are all fairly straightforward. You can adjust the height and width of the pixels, draw simulated scan lines for a more classic CRT look, and enable/disable extra sprites, which helps with flickering graphics that are a result of the limitations of the original hardware. The controller menu allows you to set turbo rates for the buttons, and some other miscellaneous settings.
The Game Genie codes are built-in, so you don’t have to enter them manually; just select them from the menu, and play. This is a great timesaving feature, and recordskeeping feature.
Light gun games do not work with HDTVs due to timing issues with LCD and Plasma based HDTV screens. This is not a shortcoming of the AVS. If you want to play light gun games, go with an old NTSC TV and original hardware. It might be that light gun games could work on the AVS if it is connected to a CRT-based HDTV, but CRT HDTVs are rare, haven’t been manufactured in years. If you happen to have access to a CRT HDTV, give it a try. Fortunately there were never that many light gun titles for the NES.
It may well take months or years for me to exhaustively test the AVS with my full library of NES and Famicom games, but so far everything I’ve tried with it plays. I’ve tried both the NES and Famicom slot, and both work with every game I’ve played in it so far, and, not that I claim to have a perfect memory, but I don’t notice any problems. As I continue to play games on it, if I notice anything I’ll come back and update this article.
Accessing the AVS’s configuration menu is only possible before starting a game; you can’t change settings in the middle of play. Interrupting and going back to the menu kills the game session. This is unfortunate, but I suspect that it is a concession to making the FPGA implementation of the NES hardware as accurate as possible, and there wasn’t a way to introduce a pause-exit to AVS config-resume feature without making some concessions. If not, then who knows, there could be hope for delivering this as a feature in a future firmware update.
It’s hard to see this from the photos on the RetroUSB site, but the AVS is shaped like a trapezoid. There’s nothing wrong with this, really, but it was surprising to me. From the camera angles they shot it from for their site, it tricks the eye into thinking that it’s a rectangle.
From this angle, it is less obvious that the AVS is shaped like a trapezoid.
For aesthetic reasons, I’d prefer if it were a rectangle. It would be keeping more in the tradition of the aesthetics of the original NES. But from a functional standpoint, it really doesn’t matter.
The flip-up door cover that covers the cartridge slots is quite large. Compared with the flip-up door on the toaster NES, it’s much longer. This means that there is potential for much more leverage to be exerted against the hinge, which could make this part prone to breaking. When open, inadvertent force applied to the door could cause the hinge to snap off. Although the plastic feels sturdy enough, I will be treating the door with a bit of care.
Despite being awkwardly large, the door still will not close with a famicom game inserted into the cartridge slot. This is simply a matter of poor design. I can’t understand why RetroUSB didn’t take the time to design a console that either had two vertical slots for NES and Famicom games and no door, or a door that would work with a famicom cartridge inserted.
There is no serial number on the console anywhere that I can find. There is what appears to be a model number, but no serial number. This is pretty unusual, as just about every manufactured thing these days does have a serial number. It seems a bit un-professional not to have a serial numbering system. This could make it harder to do repairs and maintenance if RetroUSB goes through hardware revisions.
The RetroUSB AVS is everything I want in a modernized NES setup, without all the DIY complexity. For the cost of all the mod kits, time spent figuring out how to solder everything together and hope it still works, at $185 + shipping, it’s money well spent.
For people complaining that it costs this much, consider that it’s a small production run, not a mass consumer item made by a manufacturing giant. RetroUSB are hobbyists turned pro and are doing a great service to all gamers by helping to keep the NES alive and relevant.
On paper this looks to be the best of the bunch. This is a real-hardware console, incorporating a NES and a Famicom cartridge slot, built-in 4Score (4 controller ports), power supplied by USB cable, and does HDMI output in 720p. This is pretty much everything you’d want in a NES, all in one package.
It remains to be seen whether RetroUSB will deliver on time, and what the quality of the hardware will be, but this could be the way to go if quality is good. They are an established company and have been producing controllers, adapters, and homebrew carts for NES and other old school consoles for years, so they do have a track record of doing quality work.
This is a DIY kit (professional installations available through various 3rd parties for around $85) for original NES (both the front and top loader). You do surgery on your NES and add a daughterboard that gives you HDMI-out.
Designed and engineered by well-known console hacker Kevtris, the Hi-Def NES appears to be a very well done mod, yielding a high quality 1080p image without the lag associated with running a NES through upscalers, and provides many options in firmware to tweak the output to taste, including aspect ratio, scan line, and interlacing adjustments, to ensure you can get your picture just right.
The mod is fairly involved to install, so paying a professional to do it right is probably worthwhile, but going this route makes it a little more expensive than the AVS. As well, the mod doesn’t do anything about adapting Famicom games to play on it, although you can just get an adapter or run Famicom and PAL games through a flashcart, and if you’re a serious enough retro gamer to go for this mod, these are probably already in your arsenal.
Best of all, it’s available now. Game-tech does other mods and repairs of old consoles, although right now they’re focusing exclusively on selling Hi-Def NES, and from watching their youtube channel it’s apparent that they know what they’re doing, have a lot of experience, and really care about old school gaming.
This is an official Nintendo product. It comes preloaded with 30 titles, all of which are worthwhile games, but does not have a cartridge slot, and does not have a way to connect to the internet to download any other games, which are serious downsides for many. It does have HDMI output, and allows you to save your games, which is a new feature unavailable from the original hardware.
It’s considerably cheaper than either the AVS and Hi-Def NES modkit, making it an attractive option to gamers who have never owned a NES and don’t already have a library of cartridges to play. Given the cost in the collector’s market of the top titles on NES in their original format , acquiring such a catalog today starting from nothing would be a very expensive prospect compared to just buying this.
While I don’t expect that this option will hold as much appeal for gamers who still have their collections, it should have some appeal to a broader market.
Iron Tank (1988, SNK) is a mostly-forgotten title for the NES, but deserves more recognition than it’s gotten. I think of it as a spiritual companion to the other great NES WWII Shooter, Capcom’s 1943.
Many of its features were successful in other popular games, but it has enough of its own unique strengths that it can stand up proudly as an innovative game with an experience you will find similar to many other games, but still feeling original and well done, not generic or derivative:
Radio communications screen for narrative elements (Bionic Commando, Metal Gear). The radio will sometimes give you warning about upcoming challenges, or some mission background to explain why you’re here and what you need to do. This is mostly inessential because the mission is always “Stay alive, destroy enemies, and advance, and destroy a boss.” but it still gives the game a story of sorts. Often the radio message will be “too late” advice, warning you to be careful about a challenge you just got through. Toward the end, the enemy starts broadcasting to you, threatening/begging out of desperation to get you to turn back. This boosts your ego, and is a neat reward for the player.
Configurable power up system (many NES games featured this, but Iron Tank’s is unique in its implementation, but perhaps could be described as a combination of Mega Man and 1943.) Your main gun has four different types of power boosts — Long range, Rapid fire, Armor Piercing, and Bomb shells — which you refill through pickups.The pickups are odd in that they are letters which sometimes don’t have an obvious relationship to the power boost they represent. L = Long Range (ok, fair); V = Rapid (velocity?); F = Armor piercing (huh?); B = Bomb Shells (right). Rather than remain enabled until expended or a timer runs out, you can enable/disable them on a sub-screen as needed. This means there’s strategy to the game — you can save up your power and use it when you hit a really tough spot in the game. Managing your power-up resources is critical to winning. Knowing when you need them, and deciding what you need at a given time, and balancing that against the yet unknown challenges that lie even further ahead makes for a cerebral game that layers on top of the action game. There are times when an obvious approach of using power-ups isn’t really necessary, because a subtler strategy will enable you to get by with a stock configured tank, and it often pays off to take the harder challenge now, conserving the power boosts for an even more difficult challenge later.
The most interesting power-up mechanic is the [R]efuel tank, which gives you a secondary life bar that extends your primary life bar — but only if you choose to have it enabled. Another interesting thing is that you can both shoot and run over foot soldiers — and the game seems to encourage you to run them over, as doing so gives you a tiny but vital boost to your main energy.
Infinite continues, and a password save feature, allowing the game to be longer than would otherwise be practical to beat in one sitting, and not punishing the player too severely for not being able to make it through the challenging parts of the game, and allowing therefore for those parts of the game to be even more challenging.
There’s a very good “Let’s Play” series on YouTube, if you aren’t familiar or need to get reacquainted. You are Iron Snake, commander of the Iron Tank, invading Normandy and liberating Europe from an implied but unnamed Nazi occupation. And by “liberate” I definitely mean “blow the hell out of.” Actually, there are occasional resistance fighters and POWs who you’ll rescue throughout the game, as well.
Controls are often a weak point in games featuring tanks. Not so in Iron Tank. Your tank features an aimable turret, which allows you move and aim independently. The way this was implemented on the standard NES gamepad was effective — hold button B and the D-pad controls the turret. This takes a little getting used to, but is very effective and you can be quite nimble with practice. Being able to aim to the side or diagonal and strafe is an important tactic, and makes the game more realistic and more fun.
There is a huge variety of tile-based backgrounds, for simulating the European countryside, cities, docks, airplane hangers, the Normandy beach, cliffs, trees, roads, paths, rail tracks, fortresses, you name it. Even for the 8-bit NES, these are a little rough in spots, though never truly bad, and the variety makes up for it.
The music in Iron Tank is really first rate. It is heroic and epic, evokes both the military marches and the WWII era, adds drama and tension, and provides cues to when more challenging areas are up ahead. Most of the music is in the lower and mid octaves, which gives it a characteristic unlike most other background music on the NES, while seeming suitable for a game about tanks.
There really isn’t anything in Iron Tank sophisticated enough to call AI. The enemies all move in basic, simple patterns and pre-set routes, but a lot of variety makes the game challenging. Some tanks sit still, others chase you, while others seem to stand off at a distance and duck and feint, and still others will enter, make a quick attack, and then retreat before you can retaliate.
There’s also a great variety of enemies: infantry, officers, tanks, train guns, fortresses, turrets, and boss tanks called “Think Tanks”. I guess they’re hard enough that you need to think about how to defeat them? You even do battle with airplanes and submarines. Of course tanks are the star of the game, and there is a satisfying variety of enemy tanks, different styles of light, medium, and heavy, which vary in their speed, armor, and armament. Some are barely any threat to you, while others necessitate caution.
This variety of enemies invites a variety of tactics, which keeps the game fresh and challenging. The key tactic is avoiding being in range of the enemy cannons, flanking the enemy’s turret when you can, or when that isn’t possible, waiting for a pause in their fire and placing a well-timed shot to take them out. You can also sometimes use your long range shots to safely take out enemies before they’re able to engage you with their own armaments. Individually, their cannon fire is usually not too hard to dodge, being limited to 8 directions, resulting in predictable pie slices of safe zone. It’s not too hard to take out enemy tanks when they don’t outnumber you too badly and there’s plenty of room to maneuver. Sometimes moving slowly and cautiously, taking out the enemies one at a time, picking apart their defenses is the best approach, other times it’s better to just run for it.
Some terrain is more open than others, however. The variety of terrain matches the variety of enemies and enemy tactics, and itself influences the tactics that will be most effective in a given area. Although the game is 2D, there are simulated ledges, cliffs, and rooftops where placed guns can harass you, sometimes out of your own reach unless you have some power boosts enabled. There are walls and buildings and natural barriers that can constrain your movements, but provide cover in return. Water likewise blocks your path, but leaves you exposed to fire.
There are wooded areas where the tree canopy foregrounds partially obscure the action beneath them. The NES didn’t have a capability of alpha channel, but they still made the forest sprites partially see-through, so that when you go under them, you can see the unobstructed part of your tank (or lurking enemies) through them. This is really cool.
Insta-kill anti-tank landmines will block your progress along otherwise open and inviting pathways. They blink, being invisible half the time, so can be difficult to spot.
While not dynamically destructible, there are enough buildings and walls that you can blow up to uncover secrets or alternate paths that it’s worth mentioning. Being in a tank and not being able to destroy these things just wouldn’t feel right.
I don’t know of any other NES game that did this, so Iron Tank deserves special recognition for this design. At several points in the game, you’ll encounter road signs that point out a fork in the road. Depending on which path you take, you’ll proceed to a different level, with different terrain and enemies. One path might be more difficult, but you have no way of knowing before you make your choice. This means that in order to experience every bit of the game, you’ll need to play through it multiple times.
Instead of having an edge, the map wraps on the x-axis. There are certain places on the map where there are no side walls, and you are unbounded in your horizontal direction, but in these locales, the map wraps around. While not exactly realistic, it does make for some potentially useful tactics, as you can return to an area by continuing in one direction, without needing to double back.
Iron Tank is a solid effort from SNK. The game integrates a lot of the features and design elements of successful NES classics, and does it well. While mainly an action game, the story elements provided by the radio communiques and the configurable power-ups give an element of strategy almost like a proto-RPG. It’s one of my favorite lesser-known games on the NES.
If you liked this game, you’ll want to check out 1943, Guerrilla War, Commando,Jackal, Heavy Barrel and Ikari Warriors. All have a similar WWII/war theme and vertical scrolling shooter gameplay.
If you’ve never played a Pitfall game before, it’s best to go back to the beginning to the original Pitfall! on the Atari 2600. One of Activision’s finest games, and one of the best on the console, or on home consoles of its day, period. Pitfall!’s adventuring theme was in style thanks to the popularity of the new blockbuster movie with Indiana Jones, but wasn’t based on the movie. Although it lacked actual “platforms” the game might be thought of as a prototypical platformer — the gameplay is all about running and jumping. Pitfall was followed by a sequel, Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns, which featured a more expansive map, engaging background music, and a real ending, but suffered a bit from repetitive gameplay. Overall it was still a highly regarded game and one of the most technically advanced titles released for the Atari 2600.
In 1985, Nintendo released the NES in North America, and put an end to glut period in the market that had plagued the industry from 1983-4. The consoles of the Atari generation were long in the tooth, but had been so popular in previous years that anyone who could was releasing anything they could burn to an EEPROM cartridge and slap a label on, regardless of quality. This resulted in a huge glut of terrible games, sales plummeted, and some analysts were saying that videogaming was just a fad that had seen its day come and go. Fortunately, Nintendo reversed that thinking, largely on the merits of Super Mario Bros., itself a sequel of sorts to their popular Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong, Jr., and Mario Bros. arcade titles from the previous generation. SMB was an innovative next-generation platformer, which advanced the state of the art over former running and jumping king Pitfall Harry, and introduced many, many innovations and superb level design and a forgiving, yet challenging difficulty curve.
A full two years after the launch of the NES, Activision released Super Pitfall. Only this time, they didn’t develop the game in-house, instead opting to farm it out to a company called Micronics for Pony Inc., I assume due to lack of familiarity with programming for the NES hardware. The game was a failure on so many levels, it’s difficult to enumerate them all, and unbelievable that the game got released at all given the quality of the competition at the time. It’s interesting to contrast Super Pitfall against Super Mario Bros. because fundamentally they have so many things in common, yet one game does everything so well, and the other does everything so poorly.
As a 12 year old, I was excited to play what seemed like a promising title — the Activision games for Atari were top notch and pushed the hardware past the limits of what many thought possible, and the Pitfall games were the creme de la creme.
I can’t promise an exhaustive list of all the ways that this game fails, but here’s my best attempt. Keep in mind I haven’t played this game since I was 12 or 13, so going on 22 years — THAT is how indellibly the “suck” was burned into my cerebral cortex.
Plotwise, Super Pitfall is basically just a rehash of Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns. You’re supposed to rescue your niece Rhonda, her pet cat Quick Claw, and find treasures. Apparently, no one at Activision had bothered to put any time into coming up with any new ideas since the release of Pitfall II in 1984. Did they think not enough people had played Pitfall II, and so the plot was still fresh? Did they think that plot didn’t matter for adventure games in the NES era? I can’t say; I can say that the game feels stale from the minute you start reading the instruction booklet. Come on, anyone who liked video games played Pitfall II in 1984; it’s been three years, couldn’t they have taken 15 minutes somewhere and wrote up a new plot?
It’s tough to appreciate how poor the graphics performance is in Super Pitfall without seeing a video. Still screenshots do not convey the problem adequately. There is so much flicker that it becomes easy to lose track of something on the screen because it’s been invisible for that long. Not only do the sprites flicker like a strobe light on low, but they are poorly animated as well. Pitfall Harry looks like Mario dressed up in an coal miner costume — nothing at all like he looked on the Atari. On the Atari, Pitfall is thin, and looks like he might be a tall, wiry guy. In Super Pitfall, he looks tubby, with a big nose and mustache, like Super Mario. This is at once both a sacrilege to the real Pitfall Harry, and a pale, pathetic imitation to Mario. Scrolling is very jerky. Rather than smoothly draw in the new background tiles as the screen moves, it seems to wait until there is space to draw the entire row or column of tiles, and then draws it in all at once. This creates a clunky, lurching effect that looks and feels horrible.
Hit detection is imprecise, to put it kindly. Often you die for no apparent reason. Stuff that looks like you’re clear by a good distance can still hit you. Worse, it appears to be inconsistent. Sometimes you die, sometimes you live, with little visually apparent distinction between the life and death. It’s as though the hit detection mask is a variable sized, invisibile object that orbits around the visible graphical sprite that is Pitfall. It is probably also a rectangle, rather than a precisely fit shape.
You move slowly, the controls respond slowly to player input, have barely any control over your jump once it’s initiated. It’s just about impossible to get out of the way of anything unless you see it coming well in advance, and it moves in a predictable way. The aforementioned flicker and hit detection problems make this far from simple. The poor jumping control is probably the most inexcusable flaw in the game, after the graphical glitches and performance problems. In a platforming game, jumping is crucial to get right. Super Pitfall blunders by conceding to realism the fact that in real life you can’t alter your trajectory once your feet leave the ground. In Super Mario Bros., you can control much more finely how far and how high you jump, and it makes jumping fun. Mario gets jumping right.
Also, Super Pitfall has a pistol available as a power-up item. The original Pitfall games were essentially non-violent. Pitfall could die from scorpion stings or eaten by alligators, but he himself never committed any violent acts. I’m not against new features, but again, the implementation was shoddy. And I did think that having guns in the game changed the spirit of the original Pitfall, to the detriment of the franchise. What I’m not sure about was the design decision to make the original games non-violent.
Pitfall Harry takes a lot of his cues from Indiana Jones, who only ever used a pistol once in all his movie adventures. So that’s one good reason for Pitfall Harry not to need a gun. As well, in the early 80’s there was a lot of concern about violence in video games affecting young minds, just as there is today. It’s hard to believe, given how cartoonish and low-res the sprite based graphics of the day were back then, but in the early 80’s there were crazy people who were worried that shooting in a video game would result in an increase of shooting in real life. I’m not sure if Pitfall was originally nonviolent due to pressure from these organizations, or due to the idealism of the designers, who maybe wanted to show that non-violent games could be fun, or due to technical limitations for how much you can cram into 4k of 6502 Assembly, or possibly a combination of all three. Partly, I think it was simply because there was only one button on the joystick, and it was for jumping. But the main, and best, reason is that the original games didn’t need a gun. It made for more exciting gameplay if you had to run, evade, and jump past obstacles rather than blast your way through them. Besides, many of the obstacles in the game (I call them obstacles and not enemies, because most of them are indifferent to your presence in the game, and only kill you if you blunder into them) are rare, exotic animals. It just doesn’t seem right that Harry would be willing to gun down some endangered species just so he can get through unimpeded.
Maybe they needed to give you something to do with that second button on the NES game pad. But it’s implemented terribly compared to games where shooting is the main point of playing. In a shooting platformer game, like Contra, you can shoot in any direction, have unlimited ammo, can have as many bullets on the screen as you want. In Super Pitfall, ammo is a resource that you have to collect, you can only fire one bullet at a time, and it sometimes takes several shots to kill an enemy, although I could never tell if this was due to bad hit detection or because there was a variable amount of damage done with the bullets and it sometimes took multiple shots to kill certain enemies. Regardless, killing an enemy feels like a cop-out to avoid having to jump over obstacles. But given how much the hit detection sucks, it’s worth it when you can. But the ammo is so scarse that you dare use the gun only when you’re faced with a situation that you couldn’t possibly jump through unassisted. The idea seems to be that they didn’t want to turn the game into a shooter, and so each bullet you pick up is almost a surrogate for an extra life, and you spend them whenever you see a situation where it looks likely that you’d die if you didn’t use them. It would have been better if they had allowed Pitfall to shoot himself and end the misery.
Hidden stuff, yet no clues as to where they are or what they are for:
Hidden secrets were a big part of Super Mario Bros. popularity. Finding all the hidden coins, bonus rooms, and warp zones was a smart design choice that gave the game a lot of replay value. Super Pitfall has many secrets, too. But again, it’s all spoiled by terrible implementation. Most secrets are discovered by jumping in specific locations on the map. This causes some secret item to appear close by. There’s never any apparent visual cue to tell you that you should try jumping in a specific location; the game sortof expects you to “mine sweep” through the entire map, tile by tile, jumping every step of the way, until you find a secret. Once you do, you’d better memorize it or mark it on a map, or you’ll never find it again. Many of these secrets are essential to making forward progress in the game — keys that unlock other levels, or even the actual gateway to another level. This means if you can’t find the secret, you can’t complete the game. You end up frustrated and give up. There’s no replay incentive to go back again and find secrets, since in order to beat the game once you will end up finding them all, or at least all of the critical items. The non-critical items (bullets, extra lives, bonus points) don’t aren’t necessary if you make it through without getting them, you’re just that much better at the game if you don’t end up needing them, and discovering them is so counter-intuitive and tedious that the less of them you need to find, the happier you are.
Game Map is next to impossible to navigate:
One thing I’ll say about the Lost Caverns that Super Pitfall takes place in: the designers sure gave a convincing feeling that you were lost. So many areas of the game look identical to other areas that it’s very difficult to determine if you’re in a new place or if you’ve somehow looped back to where you had been before. The different areas in the game are linked together through “warps” that take away your sense of geography and you lose your spatial orientation. I couldn’t even tell if I’d left “world 1” and proceeded to “world 2” and then to “world 3” when I warped, or if the entire game was open to me and I was simply warping from Point A to Point B back to Point A. In several places the connection points from one warp area to another are stuck in dead-end passages that you would have no reason to walk down. They look like they’re merely “filler” space on the map and have no purpose.
I was fortunate in that I discovered the game at a video rental store, so I didn’t waste my money actually buying it. A better title for this game would have been Super PitFAIL. This game was so bad it basically trashed the franchise. I never bothered even looking at any Pitfall title that came afterward. Activision’s execution here is abominable and inexcusable, a travesty to fans of the greatness that was the Atari-era Pitfall. This game has a lot of similarities to Super Mario Bros. when you look at a list of its features and the elements of play, but when you look further, the only real similarity these two games share is the word “Super” in the title.
To properly appreciate how badly designed AND badly constructed this game really is, you should watch a video of it on youtube. There are many, but one of the better one’s is by game reviewer Aqualung. (Warning, may contain objectionable language.)