?Games of the NES era barely had stories. They had premises, characters, and, if you were lucky, an ending that wasn’t just YOU ARE THE GREATEST PLAYER or CONGRATURATIONS! spread across the screen. These games were simple things, and they usually had simple endings. That was fine with us. We needed only short and triumphant conclusions that showed Hitler’s head exploding or Samus Aran revealing herself to be a woman (or, in the words of That Weird Kid at school, “a man with huge chest muscles”). NES games weren’t supposed to disturb us or challenge us with their endings. And they certainly weren’t supposed to make us feel bad.
Well, some games did just that. They were the rare NES titles that blindsided poor young players with some ugly little surprise after putting them through hours of tediously designed labyrinths or cruelly positioned bottomless pits. And so na?ve children of the NES era learned a valuable life lesson: you can conquer everything that comes your way and still fail in the end. Now go ask your parents for another game, kids.
10) Monster Party
It’s hard to play Monster Party and still believe that most NES games were marketed with children or families in mind. Following the sight of a fanged, slime-vomiting creature on the title screen, this bizarre little offering from Bandai finds a boy named Mark snatched off the street by Bert, an armored bird-man from a monster-besieged world. Bert mistakes Mark’s baseball bat for a legendary weapon and insists that the young man join the fight.
Bert doesn’t mention that his world is a freakish realm where the first enemies Mark encounters are twitching pairs of legs stuck into the ground. Then the game changes its smiling little blocks and happy trees into a grotesque hellscape of anguished faces and bleeding skulls. For that final touch, Monster Party is also repetitive and fairly hard, making sure you’ll see the same nightmarish ghouls, weird bosses, and blood-drenched continue screen many times before you reach the ending.
And that ending isn’t much of a reward for taking on snake-people, a huge piece of talking shrimp tempura, the grim reaper, dancing zombies, and a bloated corpse that just sits there and decomposes. After Mark destroys all of these, Bert gives the boy a present and sends him back to Earth. Inside the box is a “beautiful princess” who rises out like a stripper from a giant cake and promptly turns into a horde of the undead. As they devour Mark, he awakens, realizes it was all a dream, and merrily skips off to the front door. Bert’s waiting right there, apparently threatening Mark into another round of 8-bit hell. Strangely enough, this inescapable horror was strictly for American kids, as Monster Party was never released in Japan.
9) Snake’s Revenge
Fans of the Metal Gear series often disdain Snake’s Revenge, an NES Metal Gear sequel that didn’t involve franchise creator Hideo Kojima. Snake’s Revenge was invalidated by every official Metal Gear sequel since, but it’s really not such an awful game. Well, it’s a mediocre stealth-action game where the villain is called “Higharolla Cockamamie” in the manual, but it’s really no worse than the muddled NES version of the original Metal Gear. And while it lacks Kojima’s gifts for clever design and painfully long-winded melodrama, there’s one part of Snake’s Revenge that’s true to Kojima’s habits.
That part is the ending, where the UN proclaims “World Peace Day” and the game ignores the accomplishments of its doughy, fake version of Metal Gear hero Solid Snake. Instead, it reminds the player what happened to Not Solid Snake’s allies: John Turner is MIA and Nick Myer is dead. It’s even more disheartening to play through the game now, because Kojima’s sequels mean that John and Nick never existed in the first place.
8) Dragon Warrior III
The Dragon Warrior games may be dreadfully boring today, but they were great finds for any kid who just wanted a long-term investment for their NES budget. A Dragon Warrior title was good for dozens of hours of grinding levels, exploring dungeons, and sitting through the work of Enix’s Ye Olde Englishe Translatione Shoppe. At the end of Dragon Warrior III, an exceptionally long game for its day, the player’s avatar is dubbed “Erdrick” by a grateful king, and all is well.
The name Erdrick probably seemed familiar to many Dragon Warrior fans. They’d heard it in the original Dragon Warrior, where Erdrick is revealed to have died and bequeathed his legacy to a descendant. So, Dragon Warrior III player, you’ve just sat through a tedious RPG to find out that you’re already dead. Well, you can always play the original Final Fantasy, where the first town rubs in your demise by featuring Erdrick’s tombstone.
7) Bubble Bobble
Bubble Bobble is a game that should cheer you up. It stars adorable little dinosaurs named Bob and Bub, who yap out bubbles to defeat equally adorable monsters. It even tries to teach a valuable lesson about comradeship with its final boss: a huge hooded dragon-thing that takes nearly a hundred hits to defeat. If you bring down the boss alone, you’ll get the “bad end.”
If you finish the game with two players, you’ll get the “Happy End” and an unfortunate surprise. You’re not really cute little dinosaurs after all. You’re just fat-headed munchkins. And the game doesn’t even get your names right.
6) Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Simon Belmont, hero of the original Castlevania, went through a lot during the NES years. He was turned into a hideous, self-obsessed buffoon in Captain N: The Game Master. He was replaced in the third Castlevania by a guy named Trevor. And, in at least one of the endings to Castlevania II, he just up and dies.
This is made all the more annoying by the fact that the final battle with Dracula is distressingly easy. Due to Castlevania II being a barely finished mess of a game, Simon can pretty much just stand in one spot and throw knives at Drac’s floating spirit while taking no damage himself. But he dies anyway if you take too long to finish the game. Things aren’t too much happier in the best ending, where Dracula’s sequel-hungry hand crawls up out of his grave.
The NES version of Strider was an odd creation. It shared a name and a main character with Capcom’s arcade Strider, but it was really based on a Japan-only Strider manga that Capcom had commissioned. Strangely enough, the NES Strider never came out in Japan, just like Monster Party. Maybe it was just too bleak for that.
The game stars Strider Hiryu, a member of an international political ninja cadre lazily described in the intro as “the toughest group of people.” Hiryu is dispatched by Matic, his commanding Strider officer, to find and kill his captured comrade Kain. Hiryu tracks Kain down and spares him, kicking off a wide and awkwardly programmed odyssey that stretches from Kazakhstan to Australia.
To make a long story short, almost everyone dies. Matic kills Kain and Hiryu’s almost-girlfriend Sheena, then Hiryu kills Matic and most of the Striders following him. At the game’s end, Hiryu ignores any offers to rejoin the Strider organization and just wanders off, a lonely shell of a man. And you, the player, made him that way.
4) Golgo 13: The Mafat Conspiracy
It’s a bit silly to expect pure and happy endings from Golgo 13. After all, he’s an assassin whose manga exploits have caused political turmoil, government collapse, the impersonal pleasuring of beautiful women, and the controversial Florida ballot count that put George W. Bush into office.
Of course, we didn’t know that back in 1990, when Golgo 13, or “Duke Togo” as he is often called, was just the unsmiling hero of two NES games. The first one, Top Secret Episode, closed its tale of death and intrigue with only a brief rolling of the credits. The second game, The Mafat Conspiracy, plunged headlong into the manful bleakness that’s made Golgo 13 a favorite read among harried, subway-riding Japanese businessmen for over three decades.
The Mafat Conspiracy finds Golgo 13 taking down a secret cabal wrapped up in nuclear warheads and orbital weapons, though he’s aided by his CIA contacts Sylvia and James. He sets everything to rights with characteristic Golgo efficiency, but there’s one twist after the major villains fall: James grabs some secret satellite documents, shoots Sylvia, and heads for filthy Commieland. Sylvia delivers this news to Golgo 13 shortly before dying in his arms, and her demise convinces him to do a little pro bono sniping on James at the airport. The game ends with James lying dead on the tarmac while papers of vital government importance are carried off by a breeze. No one wins except Golgo 13. And he’s never happy.
3) Vice: Project Doom
Vice: Project Doom is one of those unfortunate NES games that came out shortly after the Super NES arrived, when the last thing anyone cared about was a game for the distinctly non-super NES. Yet those who picked up Vice: Project Doom got an excellent side-scrolling action game interspersed with driving, first-person shooting, and, of course, despair.
Over the course of the game, Special agent Quinn Hart steadily uncovers secrets involving aliens and corporate sabotage, and it costs him the lives of his girlfriend Christy, his former partner Reese, and Christy’s adorably ’80s punk hairdo. What’s more, Hart finds out that he’s a clone built by the evil organization behind everything, and he destroys the apparent ringleader.
But nothing really changes. Our hero’s friends are still dead, and his fellow alien clones are still out there. Take note, young Nintendo players: you can’t fight the system. You can only walk grimly and very slowly away from it.
The limited hardware of the NES was a blessing in disguise for some arcade games, which inspired radically different and much-improved remakes on Nintendo’s console. Bionic Commando became unique and complex. Rygar became a lengthy action-RPG. Ninja Gaiden became a magnificently challenging side-scroller. But such betterment was not for Data East’s Karnov. The NES version is a scaled-down clone of the arcade game, and it’s all the worse for it. So what awaits the players who make it through?
Yes, that’s all. In America, anyway. The Japanese version of the game has three different endings, each of which shows the Creator Himself thanking Karnov. The arcade version concludes with Karnov frolicking on a pile of treasure. Data East, apparently shocked at such blasphemy and avarice, cut all of the endings and replaced them with a single “Congratulations!” screen, making many kids suspect that mom and dad might be right: maybe videogames were a waste of time.
1) Startropics II
Nintendo didn’t invent the idea of videogame heroes rescuing princesses, but they cemented this possibly sexist goal with their first two NES hits: Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. So it was accepted that if there was a princess in a Nintendo-sponsored game, she’d be rescued by the hero and live happily ever after in the bliss of traditional gender roles.
Startropics II isn’t having that. The original StarTropics stars a yo-yo-swinging kid named Mike Jones, who explores sunny islands and eventually saves the Zelda-esque alien princess Mica and some other extraterrestrial kids from the overlord Zoda. In the sequel, Mike is plunged back in time to hunt down Zoda and collect Tetris blocks. He meets various historical figures along the way, though most children probably knew that Sherlock Holmes and Merlin weren’t real people. That’s OK. Neither is Mike Jones.
In a progressive yet unsatisfying twist, Mike doesn’t get the girl at the end of the game. Mica, who started Mike off on this bizarre journey in the first place, tells him “I’ll be thinking about you!” backwards, and then she and the rest of the aliens fly back to their home planet of Argonia. Mike is left behind to stare off into the sky. What’s strange is that the ending of the first StarTropics clearly states that Argonia was destroyed. The game’s willing to violate its own continuity just to give poor Mike a case of intergalactic blueballs.
StarTropics II’s ending is even more pathetic when you realize it was the last time Nintendo cared about Mike Jones and his romantic failures. Not even the Smash Bros. series remembers him now.