21/09/2011

STAR WARS (JAPAN) (NES)

Brace for impact: here comes a gloriously geeky clash between retro gaming and Star Wars. Yep, it's Star Wars for the NES, but probably not one you've seen before. Rather than JVC / Beam Software's more widely-known (and more widely-released) NES Star Wars game, today I'll be looking at Namco's Japan-only take on moviedom's most fiddled-with saga.

Oh, from such humble beginnings do mighty monuments to weirdness spring. It starts off faithful enough, with an 8-bit version of the John Williams score, the famous text-crawl, and a pretty excellent recreation of the first shots of the movie.

Exciting, isn't it? Of course, this being a Japanese-only title from a Japanese developer things aren't going to stay this sane for long.
The first thing to do is select your difficulty level, either novice or pro. I'll be playing on novice. While I'm sure there're plenty of you out there saying "but VGJUNK, you're a certainly a pro Jedi if ever I saw one," you'll soon come to understand that all the new-age hippy space-magic in the universe won't help you get through pro mode.

Things start off mostly as they do in the movie: R2-D2 vomits out a hologram of Princess Leia, although in this version she's directly addressing Luke and asking him to rescue her kidnapped friends. As we shall see soon enough, by "friends" Leia actually means "all the major characters which, in the movie, you haven't met yet."
Judging by his facial expression, Luke is a little pissed off about having his day interrupted by a demanding princess.

Man, those power converters are never going to get picked up now.
The first stage begins, and the first thing that happens is that R2 gets half-inched by some Jawas, the thieving little pricks.

Luke reacts by doing what any teenage bumpkin who suddenly has access to a laser-sword and magical powers would - by cutting a bloody swathe of destruction across the planet of Tatooine, destroying anything that dares to cross him.

Okay, so "bloody swathe" was exaggerating a little. Still, Tatooine is a dangerous place and there are plenty of critters lying in wait that need to be dispatched with a swing of the trusty lightsaber, like this weird little thing.

I have no idea what that is, but I do know that you either need to avoid it or chop it into neatly-cauterised chunks. As you might have guessed by now, this iteration of Star Wars is a side-scrolling platformer, much in the style of Mega Man. Much, much in that style, to be frank. You've got one button to jump and one button to swing your 'saber, you need to get to the other side of the stage, fight a boss and find your captured friend.

It's a lot more difficult than Mega Man, though. This isn't due to the challenging level design or anything fun like that, but more because Namco decided to let their sadistic tendencies run wild and made Luke such a complete wuss that one hit from anything more hostile that a used hanky will kill him immediately. So, it's like a Mega Man game where all the enemies are covered in spikes and they have spike guns that fire spikes at you while surrounding you with spiked platforms.

Oh, and there are no continues either. And no save game or password feature - apparently saving the galaxy is something you have to do in one sitting. Worst of all, Stormtroopers can actually hit you with their blaster fire. Madness! I guess Luke's Plot Armour is out for dry-cleaning.

At the end of the sandcrawler is the boss and it's... Darth Vader? Already? Well, this could end up being a very short game indeed.

Wait, Scorpian Vader? Whatever, look, are we going to fight or what? I've already started making the vwoom vwoom noises, I can't back out now.

Right, here we go, I've just got to dodge his swings and get an attack in and there, I hit him!

And then Darth Vader, Sith Lord and all-round badass, turns into a giant scorpion. I'll admit, I'm a little lost for words here. Instead of having some kind of Tatooine-themed boss like, I dunno, a big Tusken Raider or Greedo or something, Namco thought it'd be a good idea to make every boss in the game a Vader decoy that turns into something that most assuredly is not Darth Vader. Well, he's still a boss and therefore needs killin', but that's a simple enough task that can be accomplished by hopping over him and chopping at his back.

Once Scorpion Vader is dead, you can free R2 and get off this godforsaken rock.

There's a short landspeeder section first though. Luke continues his Grand Theft Auto-style rampage by ramming his landspeeder into any wildlife or Stormtroopers who get in his way. I've got a Jedi Mind Trick for you - it's called get out of my way or so help me God I will orphan your children.
Once that's over, you have an off-screen meeting with Han Solo and Chewbacca, who graciously grant you control of the Millennium Falcon.

Yes, I know you're Obi-Wan. We met, like, this morning. You gave me a lightsaber, remember? Oh never mind, I'm coming to get you.

Between stages, there's a short section where you control the Millennium Falcon (or the gun turrets, at least) and blast as many TIE fighters as you can while you wait for Chewie to get his goddamn act together and make the jump to hyperspace. The controls are simple: the d-pad moves the reticule and B fires. Occasionally the TIEs will fire at you, and you can either try to avoid the shot or press A to activate your shields. However, your shield only stays active for a second or so, you can only use it three times per stage and yes, you still get destroyed in one hit. I'm beginning to think Luke would have been better off trying to walk to Kessel.

And that's how the rest of the game goes: you land on a planet, fight Fakeo-Vader, rescue your friend and then shoot some TIEs while travelling to the next stage. Next up: the mysterious mountainous planet of Kessel.

"Mountainous" of course equates to "floating platforms". Luke has some decent long-jumping skills, although he is prone to sliding off platforms which again usually results in his instant death. Small wonder the Jedi were almost wiped out, but I managed to redress the balance slightly by finding a Blaster pick-up. It may be more clumsy and random than a lightsaber, but it does mean you don't have to get right up close to the enemies and subject yourself to the whims of the lightsaber's fickle hit detection.

Did I mention that Kessel has an ancient Egyptian theme? Maybe this is some kind of Star Wars / Stargate crossover. Given the vast morass that is the Expanded Universe, this is entirely possible - I believe the Expanded Universe is now so big that all possible Star Wars stories that could be written have been written. It's like Borges' Library of Babel, except with more stories about that time Chewbacca travelled back in time and met the first Ewok or something.

Kessel's boss is Gyaos Vader, some kind of skeleton pterodactyl thing that you have to fight while Tutankhamen looks on dispassionately. Is there a Darth Anubis? No? Well, if there are any SW fanfic writers reading this, there you go: feel free to use the Darth Anubis name. It's my gift to you.

Luke rescues Obi-Wan, and they share a tender embrace. Go on, Obi-Wan - tell Luke about the time you kicked his dad into a volcano. You'll never get a better opportunity than this, surrounded by the calming mystical influence of the pharaohs.

It's C-3PO? Well shit, I thought it was Andre the Giant. Everyone's favourite robot with the soul of a spinster aunt is trapped on the water planet of Iscalon, which sadly means it's time for a tedious underwater stage. It's a tough level, because your momentum means Luke slides through the water like butter down a drainpipe and navigating him through the narrow, spike-encrusted passageways is a nightmare. Sadly, Jedi mind tricks don't seem to work on fish or spikes, so you have to carefully avoid touching anything, anything at all, because otherwise Luke will rupture and spill all his blood and organs into the sea. And before you go thinking that this stage is too normal, you appear to be swimming around the sunken ruins of the Capitol Building.

And the boss? Shark Vader, naturally!

Ironically, Shark Vader is probably the toughest boss in the entire game, and if you've ever taken part in an underwater swordfight with a shark you'll understand why. Jedi are simply not designed to fight underwater... although going back to the Expanded Universe, I'm sure there are Jedi who are designed to fight underwater.

Namco make a vague effort to link the game back to the movie with the next stage, as Luke heads to the Death Star to rescue his sister...

...and it's not-too-shabby a recreation of the Death Star, either. Well, aside from all the spikes. This level is a giant maze of single-screen rooms, most of them filled with spikes, ladders and very difficult jumps. God knows what the Rebellion thought when they first got hold of the Death Star plans and found out it wasn't a giant battle station but an interstellar transport craft for spiked platforms.
Luckily you do have some Jedi powers to help you out of a tight spot. They're powered by those blue crystals that you can see in some of the screenshots, and you select them from the pause menu a la the powers in Mega Man. It's a pretty standard array of techniques that will see you banished to the lowest pits of Hell for practising sorcery: long jumping, invincibility, the ability to shoot Link-style laser beams from your lightsaber, a time stopper, a smart bomb and one that warps you back to an earlier point in the level. The most useful power by far is the levitation, which grants you the power of flight and is almost mandatory at some points in the game. If you weren't limited to collecting 99 force crystals at any one time, I'd suggest saving up for the whole game and then just flying through the final stage.

Boba Fett makes an appearance in the detention zone, or at least I think it's Fett: it's difficult to tell. He doesn't get any fanfare or special introduction, and he dies in one swipe, so maybe it's just a Stormtrooper who wanted to jazz up his armour with a lick of green paint.Yeah, that's it: it's simply a Stormtrooper who wanted to dress up (for whatever reason, no judgement here) as Boba Fett in the privacy of an empty detention cell.

Whaddya mean I'm a little short to be a Stormtrooper?! Look lady, I just killed Boba Fett!
Anyway, Luke rescues Leia, they both turn into blonde-haired little cherubs and their faces begin to merge together like something out of Videodrome. Disturbing. Now get in that garbage compactor, you pair of weirdoes.

Aside from your Jedi powers, you also gain access to each of your friends when you rescue them. Sadly, you can't play as them or anything, and all they're used for is some specific area where you have to summon them or you can't continue. In the trash compactor, for instance, you have to call R2 to open the doors for you. It seems a bit of a wasted opportunity, really - and I never figured out what the hell Han Solo is used for. Banter, perhaps?

The boss is Darth Vader - not in the Gyaos or Scorpion editions but cool original Anakin flavour. He's much easier than Shark Vader, or at least he is once you realise that you have to call Obi-Wan Kenobi during the fight to make your blows have any effect. Obi-Wan naturally advises you to "use the Force", so I did: I used the invincibility power. It doesn't work against Vader. Cheers, Obi-Wan.

Next up, the ice world which is presumably Hoth. Chewie's here, frozen in a block of ice, and after the Death Star's giant maze this stage is something of a relief. I don't know if you slide around on the icy platforms because that happens on every platform. Some jetpack Troopers appear. It's all nice and normal, until you have to tell C-3PO to ask a whale to give you a lift.

If you know six million forms of communication, you're bound to have "whalespeak" in there somewhere, right? It's just next to Welsh, and probably used about as often.

The boss is Wampa Vader, although I'm not sure he's done much to earn his "Vader" title. He's just a Wampa in a cave, kidnapping Wookiees and pretending to be a Sith lord. Sad, really.

"But you'll keep me warm, won't you, Luke?"
The final stage looms close, and Namco again try and force the game to roughly align with the plot of the film by sending you to Yavin to rescue Han Solo and defend the Rebel base from attack. At least that's what he says: Han's probably just been put in the brig for excessive smugness and aggravated flirting.

"And they took my nose, too!"

Yavin is a stage much like the other, except with fiddlier jumping and a section inside a temple. Think of it as the Wily's Castle of Star Wars, especially given this incredibly frustrating section of delicate jumps between dissolving platforms:

You need to get up there to free Han, but Namco decided this was too easy and ramped up the difficulty by making Luke jump half a second after you press the button, leading to many failed jumps where you've tried to press the button right at the edge of the ledge for maximum distance only to see our Jedi hero blithely walking to his death. It's not even like you can try again if you miss, because if you fall, you die. If you want to make it through this game without your heart seizing up through sheer, frustrated rage, you better make damn sure you've saved up enough crystals to levitate up there.

Yeah, what he said. It's the final Darth, the real one this time, and it's the same as the last time you fought him except now he can shoot lasers from his lightsaber. He's still not as difficult as Shark Vader, though. He should be the Emperor's real right hand man, uh, fish - travelling across the cosmos, brutally putting down rebellions with a slap of his salty fin, training a young starfish in the ways of the Sith.
Defeating Vader isn't the end of your quest, though: Luke hops in his X-Wing and attacks the Death Star trench.

This final section mostly plays like an early top-down racing game: you have to get the X-Wing through the trench, avoiding obstacles and shooting TIEs until you reach the exhaust port. Strangely, the TIE lasers don't cause you any damage, which is a good job because if they did this section would be impossible rather than simply very difficult. Not only do you have to dodge enemies and navigate the trench, you also have to pick up icons to increase your time, which is difficult when your X-Wing is moving along at a fair old clip. In a rare moment of clemency, Namco made the firing of the torpedo down the exhaust completely scripted so if you do manage to reach the end of the trench it's goodbye to the Death Star, and hello to the welcoming arms of hundreds of grateful female rebels.

What a peculiar game. Not gameplay-wise, obviously: in that department it's a standard Mega Man-type action platformer, albeit and extremely difficult one with poor jumping controls and wonky lightsaber collision detection. In terms of the setting, Namco must be congratulated for making a game that is clearly identifiable as a Star Wars title and yet takes such wild liberties with the source material. So many unanswered questions! Why does everyone's hair keep changing colour? When did the ancient Egyptians settle on the planet Kessel? Why is Han Solo wearing some kind of strap-on codpiece during the ending?

A metal groin-plate combined with that smug expression is not a good look. Mind you, Chewie doesn't fare much better: he looks like he's wearing a knitted sweater. I think Leia's wary expression sums the whole thing up pretty nicely.

Is Namco's Star Wars a good game? Well, it has its moments. The graphics are nice, the NES versions of the famous musical themes are good and the Jedi powers are well-integrated... but it's just too hard. The difficulty level ruins the game, especially as it makes you do it all in one attempt. If only I was sure that was supposed to be Boba Fett in the Death Star level, that'd probably just about swing it. Oh, and there's no Cantina music, which should be the first thing that goes into any Star Wars game. Essentially, if it didn't have the Star Wars name on it, it'd be a forgotten and very average platformer.
Still - there's always room on this planet for a game where Darth Vader turns into a shark.

BONUS!
Mega Man X Star Wars: Coming soon to a game console near you!

Oh, and I was playing an unofficially translated version by Gil Galad / Honookatana.

4 comments:

  1. Cheat code: use a coin and short out the underneath of the controller's connector contacts on the famicom.

    ReplyDelete
  2. lunarplasma: Haha, does that actually work? Excellent. Although, if I ever play this again I think I'll just drink a crate of Red Bull and try "communing with the Force".

    ReplyDelete
  3. I didn't remember about that trick until I read your excellent playthrough. I used to do it to get to the Death Star trench run because that was what I enjoyed most.

    I think it used to work for some other games as well, but I can't tell you which ones.

    Thanks for this article, btw. Only now, looking back at it 20 years on, do I realize how stupendously strange it all is!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm going to have to look into this coin thing, it sounds great. Although, I wouldn't have fancied explaining to my parents why I was jamming loose change into this expensive games console.
    And thanks for the comments, much appreciated!

    ReplyDelete

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