GameBoy Round-Up: Randomizer

Something I’ve heard a few people online and in person say about the Nintendo Switch is that it is both a home console and a handheld console. It can rest in a dock for use on your TV or be picked up and taken anywhere provided the battery is charged. Although the Switch in my home never leaves the dock, I’ve seen many people using them at parks, in malls, on the train, and in restaurants. The system has been showing up the same way the 3DS was a couple of years ago, and the DS before it, and the GameBoy Advance before that, and so on and so forth. It got me wondering if the switch has marked the end of the GameBoy.

The innovations of the GameBoy extend beyond the convenience of playing games on the go. As a system, the original GameBoy blew the competition out of the water. The handheld cartridges, graphics, and ease of use made it better than the Tiger Electronics games, and although it may not have had as many flashy features as Sega’s Game Gear, its reliable performance and solid battery life made it a better buy. In addition, the system’s affordability and vast game library made it a good alternative for families that couldn’t afford the big new video game systems. 

Original GB

Over time the GameBoy evolved with the industry. The GameBoy Color, GameBoy Advance, and later the DS and 3DS all made improvements and gained their own vast libraries of stellar titles. The Switch is certainly a fun console and it’s mobility makes it a great option for games on the go, but with the recent release of the Switch Lite, I think that the legacy of the GameBoy may never truly end, but will continue to evolve.

When I was a little kid, we didn’t have a main system for our TV, but my brother owned an original GameBoy, and eventually I got a GameBoy Pocket. Sure the time came when we got an N64 and loved it do death, but for a good long time the GameBoy dominated our playtime. For this round up, I’ll be looking at some games for the first generation GameBoy. Now, there are many fantastic and outstanding games on the system, but for the truly heavy hitters, like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Metroid II: Return of Samus, and Final Fantasy Adventure, I would like to dedicate full, focused reviews. This roundup will be more of a random selection of titles that are of note, but don’t really warrant a long form review. The only through line will be the system of choice.

Let’s GO!

Bart Simpson’s Escape From Camp Deadly

Camp Deadly Banner

Oh The Simpsons, that classic pop culture icon that got made into everything from clothing, to flatware, to music albums. This is but one in a long line of games based on the series, none of which are that good. Did they do it right this time?

Simpsons Title

Escape From Camp Deadly loosely mimics the premise of the episode Kamp Krusty from the show. Bart and Lisa Simpson are enrolled in a summer camp run by Ironfist Burns, the nephew of Homer Simpson’s boss Monty Burns. When they arrive Bart and Lisa find the camp to be a torturous hell hole. The Springfield Elementary School bullies are the camp counselors, while the other adult staff go out of their way to make the activities as painful as possible for the campers. Leaving the camp grounds is strictly prohibited and it just so happens a mad man has escaped from the Springfield Mental Hospital and is prowling around the woods surrounding the camp. The game follows Bart’s stay at the camp before he ultimately decides to make a break for freedom with Lisa.

In terms of gameplay, it’s a basic side-scrolling platformer. You control Bart, and just maneuver through a series of obstacles to reach the goal. In the early levels there is usually an objective to be cleared before continuing. For example, a couple of the early levels have Bart playing Capture the Flag against the bullies. If you don’t get the flag, you don’t go on. It’s pretty straightforward.

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The only level with a more unusual goal is the Mess Hall stage. Here you have to get across the mess hall while avoiding attacks from the bullies. As you move along you will pick up food to fend off assailants, however if you throw food with a staff member passing by, they’ll drag you back to the start of the level and you’ll have to do it again. If you make it to the end, you’ll have to watch Bart throw away any unused food, so if you were holding on to it the whole way through this could take a while.

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The control in the game feels pretty loose. When you jump it feels really floaty, and landing on a tree branch, floating log, or outcrop of rock runs a strong risk of instant death. In terms of combat you have virtually no defense besides jumping over your enemies. Occasionally, Lisa will provide you with a weapon (including a boomerang that apparently obliterates your enemies), but you have limited ammo. On other occasions you’ll have to pass by a swarm of hornets to progress and Lisa will give you a beekeeper’s outfit to defend yourself. However, this only lasts a few seconds and if you don’t pass the hornets in time, you’ll just have to take the hit, or start over.

The Bees!

Presentation is pretty weak. The characters are clearly defined if a little deformed, but they don’t look too bad. The environments on the other hand are very bland. They’re just your generic forest and cave design with some slight variations in between. The nighttime forest level probably looks the best, but that’s not really saying much. Music was handled by Mark Van Hecke, and it’s pretty underwhelming. The GameBoy rendition of The Simpsons theme is pretty good, but it is one of only about four songs in the entire game. The game also isn’t very long, and if you’re a master at the clunky controls then you should be able to beat in in less than forty minutes, but in that time, hearing the same songs over and over is rather unpleasant. 

The control is bad and the presentation is nothing to get excited about. If you are the type of Simpsons fan that must own everything every made with their brand, give it a go. For the rest of us though, leave it be.

Batman The Game

Batman GameBoy Banner

Sunsoft really hit it out of the park with their NES adaptation of the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film. They were in charge of the GameBoy version as well and what with the limitations of the system being what they are, one would assume that the game would fail to live up to it’s home console counterpart. In short, no, it doesn’t live up the the NES game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.

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While the NES game follows the climax of the film, when The Joker wages his attack on Gotham during the city’s 200th anniversary celebration, the GameBoy version retells the whole movie. Sing along if you know the words! Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne has waged a one man war against crime in Gotham City. Using his vast funds, he has created the persona of Batman, an avenging dark knight who guards the citizens of Gotham from all manner of crime. One evening, Bruce overhears that the notorious mobster Jack Napier is planning a raid on the AXIS chemical factory. Bruce suits up and thwarts the criminal, however Jack in accidentally knocked over into a vat of chemicals and is presumed dead. Soon, a deranged criminal mastermind calling himself The Joker starts taking over the organized crime operations in Gotham, and only Batman can save the city from his evil plans. 

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The gameplay in this title really isn’t what one would expect from a Batman. Rather than a side-scrolling beat-’em-up, or even a smaller version of the NES game’s platforming, Batman on GameBoy is a platform shooter. Although I mentioned in my review of The Shadow that Batman was such a carbon copy of the original Dark Avenger that he carried a gun around, eventually an abhorrence for guns became one of Batman’s defining characteristics, so this was an odd direction indeed. You go from stage to stage with a Bat-Gun to take down swarms of thugs and criminals. In each stage there are blocks that you can shoot to find upgrades that increase your rate of fire, turn your bullets into Batarangs, or even a protective Batarang shield that can be upgraded to take multiple hits.

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I can honestly say I wasn’t expecting it, but it works as a fun gameplay mechanic. the platforming is pretty precise, but you’ll still find some of the jumps aggravating and in some areas you can wind up shooting out the platforms you need use to continue. One little unique bit in the game comes near the end where you take control of the Batwing and enter a Gradius style air shooting stage. It’s a neat little stage and keeps things from getting stale before the final confrontation.

Bat-Wing

The presentation in this title isn’t that bad. The levels all draw inspiration from the film and all the major scenes are there, from Jack Napier’s raid on the AXIS chemical factory, to the defacing of the Gotham Museum, and the final battle in Gotham Cathedral. The characters are a little goofy, mostly just being tiny blobs of pixels, but it conveys the action clearly enough. One of the neater features is that between most of the levels there are small cutscenes that depict bits from the movie. Though I must say, as a kid the scene where Jack taunts Batman after becoming the Joker always freaked me out.

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Sunsoft brought their “A” game for the music once again. Naoki Kodaka, who had composed several stellar soundtracks to other Sunsoft games such as Blaster Master and Journey To Silius, provided the music for both the NES and GameBoy versions of Batman and he delivered once again.

Sure, the game isn’t quite as classic as the NES game, but it’s still a fantastic GameBoy title.

Super Mario Land

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What would any Nintendo system be without a Mario game? If you owned a GameBoy, then odds are you also owned, or at least played, Super Mario Land. In many ways Mario Land feels like the off brand Mario Bros., while still being directly produced by Nintendo. The GameBoy’s Duplo to the NES’ Lego if you will. Unlike the main series, Mario Land was produced by Metroid creator, and GameBoy mastermind, Gunpei Yokoi with no involvement from Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto.

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Far out from the Mushroom Kingdom lies Sarasaland, a united realm of four kingdoms governed by the noble Princess Daisy. One day, an army of invaders flew down from the skies and overthrew the four kingdoms. The leader of the invasion was the space alien Tatanga, and after his lieutenants took over the four kingdoms, he captured Princess Daisy to force her to marry him. News of the invasion eventually reached the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario set out to rescue Daisy and free Sarasaland from Tatanga’s tyranny.

So the unusual departures from the traditional Super Mario story elements is pretty out there, but the principal gameplay is mostly intact. In fact, the majority of differences between the NES games and this one are in the aesthetics. Super Mario Land is still a side scrolling platformer. Each stage is split up into three levels where you avoid enemies and obstacles to get to the goal in the time limit, before confronting a boss and moving on to the next stage.

Mario 1-1

The first stage of this game kind of settles you into the weird designs. Although the Pyramids loom high in the background, these intro levels are very much like the original Super Mario Bros. You start the game as regular Mario, goombas and piranha plants waddle around and pop through pipes, soon you’ll find a block containing a mushroom that turns you into super Mario and a fire flower that lets you shoot fireballs. It’s around this point that you run into your first Koopa. In the original game, jumping on a koopa troopa causes them to hide in their shells and you can kick them away. In this game they explode. It’s a rude reminder that things aren’t quite what they seem and you must stay on your toes.

After the goombas, koopas, and plants, you won’t recognize a single classic Mario enemy in this game. The new guard is very odd and behave in different ways. You’ll find flies wielding spears, running and flying Easter Island heads, fish skeletons, and that most fearsome of foes, the chicken. Regardless of how weird most of these guys are, one or two good stomps will take them down for good. Except for those weird hopping guys in world 4.

Hopper

Some of the unusual gameplay tweaks in this game include the end of each stage having two exits, the unique boss encounters, and the two special vehicle levels. First off, instead of sliding down a flagpole to finish the level, you get two exits. One leads to the next stage, while the other leads to a bonus stage where you can get extra lives or a fire flower. It’s pretty easy to get to early on but near the end it can be quite a challenge. 

Bonus Stage

Secondly, every boss in the original Super Mario Bros was a run in with Bowser at the end of every third level, but Mario Land shifts things up a bit. The first Boss behaves a lot like Bowser from the NES game. He guards a door while breathing fire and you can either defeat him with fireballs, or jump past him to knock out the floor beneath him. The third boss is similar, but he throws boulders at you that you must climb up to take him out.

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The second and final bosses are met in the vehicle stages. These levels are similar to the Batwing stage in Batman as they also put Mario in some sort of vehicle and have you shot out oncoming enemies. It’s an interesting change of pace and offers some interesting environments.

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The presentation is rather solid. Although all the characters are just tiny masses of pixels and are somewhat undefined, the stages are all unique and have their own interesting feel with small details giving them more variety than seen in the original Mario, such as the hieroglyphics in world 1-3, the bamboo shoots in 4-1 and 4-2, and the waterfalls and stalactites in 3-2 and 3-4. The music was composed by Hirokazu Tanaka, and while it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard in a Mario game before, it’s not bad. 

Super Mario Land is definitely a nostalgic classic. The game is pretty short with only four worlds, but it makes the most of each stage in terms of design and gameplay variety, and if you beat it you can try again in hard mode for an extra challenge. As a very early GameBoy game it broke new ground, and while new gamers may not be as impressed with what the game has to offer, I don’t think any GameBoy collection should go without it.

Wizards and Warriors X: The Fortress of Fear

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Wizards and Warriors was an odd series from the NES by Acclaim. I say odd more out of their unique (not necessarily good) game design. The series follows the adventures of the Warrior Kuros, as he battles with the evil wizard Malkil. Acclaim had tried to make the series something of a headliner for their company in the same way Mario represents Nintendo or Sonic represented Sega, but it didn’t really pick up the way they were hoping. Three titles made it to the NES, but one title made its way to the GameBoy.

WWX Title

It has been some time since Kuros’ last victory over Malkil. Peace has returned to the land, but Kuros still can’t help but wonder what has become of his old nemesis. One night, the Princess of Zanifer, Elaine, is kidnapped and the king sends for Kuros, who agrees to rescue the fair maiden. Following the kidnapper’s trail, Kuros finds himself in the dark woods bordering Zanifer and discovers the long abandoned Fortress of Fear in the middle of a hidden lake. The fortress however is noticeably populated by many evil creatures. Steeling himself Kuros crosses the ruined bridgework leading to the Fortress to save Elaine and defeat whoever is behind this plot.

The gameplay of the Wizards and Warriors series is difficult to get a handle on. In the home console games, You play as Kuros exploring large levels for gold, hidden items, weapons, and armor. Once you’ve obtained the items you need, the path onward opens up and after a short stretch, you encounter the level boss. Sounds straightforward enough, but the devil is in the details. The control is slippery, combat and hit detection are buggy and imprecise. Progressing through the levels takes forever if you don’t know what you’re doing and the way onward is never clearly marked. W&WX actually chooses to forgo many of the gameplay elements of the NES games in favor of a more streamlined side scrolling platformer design.

Broken Bride

Although this is an improvement in terms of level design, the game still suffers dearly from many of the problems of the other titles. Platforming and jumping is still very slippery, although you have a relatively large character sprite, you almost always have to land dead center on a surface to make your jump, otherwise you’ll fall to a lower level or down an instant death pit. You can jump pretty far, and if you find the Boots of Jumping in a stage you can get even better lift. Unfortunately there are two problems with this. One is that your jumps are super floaty. Your slow rise and fall make judging your landing difficult. This combined with the slippery controls will lead to many an unwanted falling death.

Stumped

The second issue is a series mainstay they kept, falling damage. This made more sense in the NES games because of how big the levels were, but if you fall too far then Kuros will fall on his backside and be dizzy for a bit,leaving him open to enemy attack. These long drops negate a slippery landing, but you do lose health.

Fall Damage.png

Combat has improved slightly from the main games. In those you start with a short sword and have to find better gear over the course of the game and until you had a good weapon, you’d just be flailing around, hitting your enemy only occasionally. In this one you start with the Ironsword from the second game which has pretty good reach. You can swing overhead and stab in front of you, and this serves for most encounters. None of the enemies require much more strategy besides wailing on them and avoiding their movements. 

Snake Pit.png

The presentation has its ups and downs. The character and level design is pretty good. Sprites are large and well done for the system, and the levels, while all being variations on a medieval castle, have some variation. The downfall is the sound and the music. The sound effects for the most part are rather tame, but every single time you hit any enemy they let out an annoying buzz that drowns out everything. The music was done by the great David Wise. Wise is a veteran game composer who worked on several Rareware games including all three Donkey Kong Country titles. Sadly, this is not one of his stronger scores. There are some decent tracks, such as the title piece, but others are downright unpleasant.

Although Acclaim wanted their name all over this thing, the really tragedy for me is that the series was actually developed by a young Rare, the creators of Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, Perfect Dark and Banjo Kazooie. They didn’t really hit their stride until the early 90’s but nonetheless, I’ve found this series to one of the least enjoyable they ever worked on. From the bad controls and obnoxious music and sound effects, Fortress of Fear is a game you’ll want to forget as well.

Operation C

Operation C Banner

One of my favorite series from Konami is the run-‘n-gun action franchise Contra. The initial titles on the NES start you off in a very rote action setting with waves of soldiers coming after you while you’re muscle bound heroes race through the enemy stronghold, but this military setting takes a sharp turn down H.R. Giger Boulevard towards the end when the standard bases and labs are replaced by pulsating alien innards and hives. The tough as nails difficulty also makes for a very punishing, yet rewarding experience you can go alone or take on with a friend. When it came to the GameBoy entry, Operation C, I was actually kind of worried. My prior experience with Konami’s other foray in adapting their mainstay series, Castlevania: The Adventure, was less than pleasant, but as a die hard fan of the series I was willing to give it a go.

Operation C Title

Some time after the defeat of the Red Falcon Organization, which proved to be nothing less than an interstellar invasion, Corporal Lance Bean and Sargent Bill Rizer, the heroes who defeated the Red Falcon on two occasions, have taken their well deserved vacation. Unfortunately for the human race, some aliens just never give. Wounded, but not defeated, Red Falcon fled back into deep space to recover and plan its next move. It sought the aid of another alien warlord, the Black Viper. This terrifying creature pledged a battalion of alien soldiers and creatures to Red Falcon in return for a share in the spoils of war. Thus equipped, Red Falcon stealthily returned to earth. Going back to basics, it took over a small island to build and fortify its position on the planet, and to breed a new alien race to wipe out humanity and claim the Earth. Fortunately, a chance glimpse of the base by a CIA satellite alters the government to the threat. Lance is summoned to action, but Bill, still recovering from his wounds after the last battle, won’t be able to back him up. This time Lance will have to go it alone against the forces of the Black Viper and Red Falcon.

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Sidecrolling platform shooters are pretty common, but the Contra series has always been the king of that genre. Each of the games are fast paced, action packed, and the controls are smooth and tight. You can shoot in all eight directions, you can go prone and attack under enemy fire, and the variety of weapon upgrades allows for more versatile gameplay. In translating the series for the GameBoy, Konami managed to preserve almost every aspect of the gameplay. 

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It’s just as fast paced and the controls are just as responsive. The only notable differences are in the weapon upgrades. Just like the main series, occasionally these floating containers will pass by and they will drop icons for the different weapons you could use. The NES games had four alternatives to your standard rifle, but Operation C only has thee. Your starter rifle is now automatic by default, which is a huge advantage compared to the previous titles. The fire gun, and spreader rifle make an appearance, and the game even introduces a homing rifle whose bullets track down enemies.

Weapon Hanger

The levels follow the structure of Super C, the second of the NES games. every other level is a top down shooter similar to Capcom’s Commando or SNK’s Ikari Warriors. You move upwards towards the goal while enemies move all around you. These sections shake up the gameplay a good deal and still control pretty well. The only real departure from series tradition is that the game lacks a co-op mode, but it’s absence is not too sorely missed, and the game is still great fun on your own.

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Konami’s presentation with this one is top notch for the GameBoy. All the character and enemy sprites retain their size and detail from the NES game, the backgrounds are full of detail, and the whole package runs smoothly. Hidehiro Funauchi, who provided good music for the GameBoy Castlevania games, returns for this title and does a good job remixing some classic Contra tunes with a couple of original tracks thrown in the mix.

I have to say that as a Contra fan, Operation C delivers. It’s a solid Contra title in a small package that any fan of the series should seek out. Batman from earlier is a good example of a decent but average side-scrolling shooter, but Operation C is the real deal in tight, challenging, thrilling, action.

Conclusions:

The GameBoy is a system that’s very close to me, and the characteristics of games on the system, such as the controls, the way the music sounds, and the limitations of monochrome graphics are things that stand out to me, but I hold more affection for them than contempt. A couple of these games had a personal connection for me. A cousin of mine owned Super Mario Land, and I remember periodically trading something of ours for it even though none of the games we owned at the time were mine to lend out. Batman and Wizards and Warriors both belonged to an uncle and were games we enjoyed borrowing from him and I have a pretty high degree of nostalgia for them.. 

(Incidentally, when I was very young I remember fiddling with his copy of Wizards and Warriors, thumbing a loose part of the sticker. Before I knew what was happening, I accidentally tore the whole thing off. I was devastated that I had ruined something of his. I never heard anything of it again, but years down the line he told me that he always hated that game and regretted spending money on it. So, at least he wasn’t super attached to it in the end I guess.)

Escape from Camp Deadly and Operation C don’t have any special significance for me, but they do represent two sides of the spectrum of quality that runs along any system’s library. Escape from Camp Deadly and Wizards and Warriors feel rushed and unrefined, while Super Mario Land and Operation C are tightly made, and make the most of what the system has to offer, with a decent game like Batman roughly in the middle leaning towards good quality. 

The original GameBoy may not have aged well in many ways, but if you are willing to wade through the chaff, I promise you’ll find games well worth playing.

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