If today's game was a person, it'd be sitting backwards in a chair, ready to "rap" with the youth about some of the way-uncool things that are out there on the streets. That's right, it's time for some edutainment, with a game full of warnings about the perils of drugs and drink but quite happy to see kids taking the subway on their own and rummaging through the sewers. It's American Game Cartridges' 1992 NES just-say-no-em-up Wally Bear and the NO Gang!
Here's Wally himself, rendered in the worst colour palette the NES has to offer. He may look like he's been crudely carved from a selection of excrement at various stages of decomposition, but that won't stop Wally Bear from being cool. How do I know he's cool? Because he's riding a skateboard, and he's wearing his sunglasses even though this image is set at night, presumably so he can keep track of the visions in his eyes. But what about Wally's family? Are they cool, too?
No, they are not. Mother Bear looks more like a mule with hair extensions, and Daddy Bear is parading around the house without any trousers on, the filthy get. It's hardy surprising, mind you. The Bears couldn't even afford any furniture, they definitely don't have the spare cash for a pair of slacks. Anyway, Uncle Gary Grizzly has organized a party for Wally and the NO Gang, which is a truly crappy name for a gang. Is it the set up for a "Who's on first" style vaudeville routine? "What Gang are you in, Wally? The NO Gang. So you're not in a gang? Yes. But what's it called? NO!" and so on and so forth. Also, you'd think the last thing a videogame from '92 that's supposedly about keeping kids on the straight-and-narrow would want to do is put the idea of forming a gang into their heads.
Getting to Uncle Gary's is the aim of the game, then. Shouldn't be difficult, I've got a skateboard and Wally's parents wouldn't let him go on his own if it wasn't safe. Of course, it should be safe for Wally wherever he goes, because he's a bear. Who's going to mess with a bear?
I'm not taking advice from anyone who thought that wallpaper with that carpet was a good idea. I'm outta here, squares!
Immediately I've encountered a problem: there's just not much to say about Wally Bear as a game, especially in the early stages. It's generic side-scrolling platformer action with an emphasis on avoiding enemies, because when you start the game you don't have any way to attack. So, left-to-right it is, along what is mostly a flat plane with the occasional wall to skate along or house to climb, all while avoiding the deadly birds and angry dogs. The natural darkness festering at the heart of all birds explains why they want Wally dead, but what's the dogs' problem? Is it, like, a prison thing, and they think if they can take out a bear then everyone will respect them? Maybe they're just dicks. Either way, Wally's skateboard skills are gnarly enough that you can jump over them on your board without much trouble.
Wally's always riding his skateboard, but it doesn't have much impact on the gameplay - he still just runs and jumps like every other NES platform hero, with maybe a touch more momentum than most. There's little to impede Wally's progress through this quaint neighbourhood of white picket fences and rabid dogs, aside from getting stuck on the odd fire hydrant. It's not bad enough to make me want to take up hard drugs, at least.
In an effort to liven things up, I posed Wally Bear in such a way that he looks like he's shitting down someone's chimney. Immature? Yes. Pointless? Also yes. But... well, that's it, really. It was just immature and pointless.
The stage ends as Wally reaches the subway, but before he can board his train he's met by one of his friends - a rabbit in a Croatian national team football shirt. The rabbit fills us in on the situation: Ricky Rat is pressuring Toby Turtle - great work on the names there, fellas - into joining his gang, and for his initiation Toby Turtle must take some pills. Wally Bear absolutely will not stand for that, and so he sets out to save Toby Turtle from a lifetime of grinding his teeth and havin' it large in Ibiza.
As much as I'd rather be playing Ricky Rat and the YES! Gang, I'm stuck with guiding Wally through this subway train. Now, I know it's difficult to make an interesting platformer stage out of a train - the inside of a train, anyway - but couldn't the developers think of one single thing to include that would have stopped it from being the perfectly flat series of identical carriages that this stage ends up being? There are some rats, Ricky's henchmen no doubt, that try to get in your way. However, somewhere along the line I picked up a frisbee that Wally can throw as a deadly projectile so I don't even have to jump over the rats. Inch forward, throw a frisbee at a rat, repeat. Toby Turtle had better appreciate what I'm doing for him here.
Yeah, Toby, you big idiot. Listen to me, Wally Bear, your good friend - you are a complete moron for even contemplating taking drugs, and you're lucky you never swallowed those pills because if you had then your blood would be joining that of Ricky Rat on the rim of my frisbee. What I'm saying, Toby, is that you're dumber than a sack of doorknobs.
I would argue that it's okay to be yourself, unless you leave the house wearing lime-green slippers and a beret. In that case you should be someone, anyone else.
The next stage is pretty much the same as the first, only with a slightly different colour scheme and a new gas station that pops up as a background building. There is nothing interesting about the gas station.
I found another couple of frisbee power-ups on my travels, so now Wally can throw three frisbees at once. It's rare that you'd need to throw three frisbees at once, but they serve another, more important purpose. Wally Bear dies in one hit, until you collect a power-up - each time you get hit after that, the level of your power-ups decreases by one, so frisbees also work as health items. Well, this game wasn't going to let you get stronger by eating mushrooms, was it?
The rats in this stage throw things at Wally. They're probably supposed to be rocks, but I'm going to pretend they're pill and these rats are determined to get the kids hooked on loosely-defined narcotics by any means possible.
Back in the subway, and Ricky Rat has stolen Priscilla Poodle's radio and rather than calling the police she's telling Wally all about it, knowing full well that Wally's commitment to moral fortitude and radical skateboard moves are a combination that Ricky Rat has no answer to. Wally's basically a cooler, more hardcore Batman.
The subway level is identical to the previous subway level, except now I can throw multiple frisbees so I can clear the stage just by tapping both buttons as I hold right on the d-pad to create a wall of deadly flying discs. I would never have thought it possible for this stage to be less interesting than it was the first time around. It's amazing, really.
Once he's out of the subway, Wally Bear finds himself on the wrong side of the tracks, a desolate, war-torn part of town full of ruined buildings and rats that are so enraged by Wally's attempts to break up their drug ring that they're trying to kill him by throwing bombs at him. It rather makes a mockery of Wally Bear's message about staying safe on the streets, unless the idea is to scare kids into never leaving their homes. I think my favourite part of this area are the signs that say "NO" dotted around the place. No what? No anything, that's what. Whatever you were thinking about doing, you better forget about it right the hell now.
Another animal child appears, taking refuge from the nightmarish, lawless world outside by hiding in a multi-storey car park. When a dark car park feels like the safest place in town, you know you're really in trouble. I think this animal is supposed to be a tiger, so he's almost certainly called Timmy Tiger. He informs Wally that he just saw Larry Lizard getting trollied. No-one likes a grass, Timmy. Well, except Wally, he loves it when people snitch and so off he goes to slap the bottle out of Larry's hands.
In his "completely bongoed" state, Larry Lizard refuses to accept Wally's help and tries to kill him with a rock. There's a bit of a shift in the gameplay here, with this stage taking place in a single large area. Your goal: to hunt down and eliminate all the clones of Larry before you can move on to the next area. It's okay, I guess. A nice change of pace, although still very easy if you make sure you're always throwing frisbees. That way, most of the time you'll take Larry out the moment he gets on the screen.
After than unpleasantness is dealt with and Larry's brief flirtation with alcohol has been punished by a barrage of flying plastic, Wally heads into the sewers. I imagine he thought they'd be safer than the city streets, and at least down here there's no-one throwing bombs at Wally, but it's definitely a step up in terms of difficulty. A rather jarring one, in fact, and while the rest of the game so far has been extremely easy, at this point you'll have to start paying attention. There are far more hazards and enemies than before, like dripping sewer water and snakes that haven't evolved enough to be given clothes and alliterative names. Bottomless pits are now a feature, too, and as Wally traverses the many tiny platforms, one slip-up means instant death regardless of how many frisbees you're carrying.
The surprising thing is that it's not terrible. Don't get me wrong, Wally Bear is a dull, uninspired platformer without a single new idea of its own, but I was expecting so much worse. I thought I was going to be suffering through "Chinese bootleg" levels of broken controls and glitchiness but nope, Wally Bear's gameplay is solid. Smooth, even, and aside from Wally being a little slippery when he's on small platforms, there's the core of a decent platformer in here somewhere.
Further into the sewers lies a Satanic temple of some kind, which might explain why the city above is such a shithole. Larry Lizard wanders around outside, desperately searching for booze. Wally dispatches him with a well-aimed frisbee before Larry can once again succumb to the demon drink.
Things are getting weird here in Wally Bear's world. It all started off as real-world lessons (delivered by a cartoon bear, but still) about staying safe, but now I'm hopping across the ancient ruins of a lost civilisation and I have no idea why. Who's that guy up there with the big yellow face? Is he the founder of this city, a city that was later overrun by animals that have learned to walk and talk and distil liquor? Does Wally Bear take place far in the future? If it does, it shows an impressive longevity on the part of skateboards and sunglasses that they're still considered "cool."
Also in the sewers: a ruddy great castle. Yeah, sure, why not? I hope the game ends with Wally finding the Ark of the Covenant down here or something. At least let me knock a Nazi to his death by whipping a frisbee at him. To escape the castle, you have to find the right door by jumping along the very narrow and often hard to see platforms until you find the correct exit. You can see one of these easy-to-miss platforms if you look about half-way up the right-hand side of the central column in the screenshot above. Yes, the three slightly raised bricks. You can stand on those, and if you eventually manage to land on them you can take a moment to rest, reflect and curse Wally for bringing his skateboard on this adventure.
Yikes. Does this make Wally Bear and the NO Gang the only NES game in which a sex offender who preys on children is a thing? I hope so. No wonder this game doesn't have the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality.
Thankfully, Stevie Whateverthehellheis - Stoat, maybe - was wise enough not to get into the strange man's car. I'm not sure I'd want to continue playing if the final stage involved Wally rescuing Stevie from a basement somewhere. Instead, I just have to get to Uncle Gary's house.
The sun has set. It's taken Wally all day, but he's almost there. Just one more section of blasted urban hellscape to get through and then Wally will reach the safety of his uncle's house, where he can call his parents and say "what the hell!? Were you not aware that Uncle Gary lives in a part of town that makes Aleppo look like Centerparcs? You are terrible parents!"
After the sewers, Wally Bear's difficulty level takes another swing back down towards the easier side, thanks mostly to the absence of holes for you to fall into. A nice, relaxing victory lap to end the game, then, and I'm excited to meet Uncle Gary. Would you like to see the building that Uncle Gary lives in?
Jesus Christ, how depressing. I can't look at this building without mentally adding the sound of distant police sirens. What went wrong in your life, Uncle Gary? How did you end up here while my parents have a comfortable if somewhat trouser-less life in the suburbs? No, don't tell me your story. It's probably too depressing for words.
A shiver of dread runs down Wally's spine as the door locks behind him. Uncle Gary gestures to the empty room. "We've all been waiting for you!" he says.
"I see you've brought a new friend." says Gary. Wally looks around. There is no-one with him. "Does he mean my skateboard?" he thinks, while stepping backwards, his feet moving, unbidden, until his back is pressed against the bolted door. Uncle Gary is excited to start the party. Oh, what fun he will have. Such fun!
And then all Wally's friends jump out from wherever they were hiding - up the goddamn chimney seems like the only potential hiding place - and as the party begins Wally Bear and the NO Gang comes to an end. Wally signs off with the advice that if someone tries to make you do something and you know it's wrong, say no. Of course, this doesn't explore the complex issues of morality needed to make such decisions. How do you know if something is wrong, Wally? A simplistic view of such matters will only cause problems later on.
As a game, Wally Bear and the NO Gang reaches a level of distinct mediocrity, and that's far better than I expected. It's not a good game, but it's not awful either. Perhaps it's a bit too easy, but then it had to be - it's aimed at kids, and what would be the point of trying to teach them lessons about personal safety and substance abuse if they never made it past the first stage to see those messages? Poor little Jimmy, he couldn't beat the sewer stage so he got into a car with a stranger. However, those messages are where the game falls down. Maybe it's just because I was a cynical child, but I'm sure Wally Bear wouldn't have taught me anything. I wouldn't have been paying attention to text in an NES platformer for starters, and even if I had there's no explanation about why these things are bad. Just telling a child "No, don't do that" is unlikely to make them not want to do that. Wally Bear got his chance to try again, however - he was used as a mascot and educational aid by the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, including having his own phone line, so you could call Wally for a chat about, I dunno, why you shouldn't be snorting rails of coke instead of eating your school dinner. He never appeared in another videogame, though, and that's probably for the best. While I didn't hate his first and only NES adventure, I reckon a little of Wally Bear goes a long way.