Monday, June 24, 2019

Games 73-77: Early Nintendo

For a more comprehensive guide to early Nintendo, read Before Mario.

It’s well known at this point that Nintendo began its existence as a playing card manufacturer in the 19th century, and diversified into toys in the 1960’s. For the purposes of this blog, it’s their video games that interest me, and the earliest one listed on Mobygames is Laser Clay Shooting System, as an arcade game from 1973.

Photo found on Quora, original source unknown

There’s not very much information about it, but from what I can tell, the original system would hardly qualify as a video game. Many online websites, including Mobygames, describe it as a 16mm film projection system, but I believe this is incorrect, and that such descriptions are conflating it with the later Mini Laser Clay, which may have used 16mm film to project a scene of a flying clay pigeon for players to shoot at. The original system's projection mechanism seems to be an electromechanical light device, something akin to a blend of a zoetrope and a laser pointer, which Nintendo later miniaturized as a toy called Duck Hunt (no relation to the 1984 NES game, tech-wise).

The next Nintendo game, Wild Gunman from 1974, appears to be based on the 16mm Mini Laser Clay system. There’s more information about how it worked, and there’s even footage on Youtube of two guys playing a faded print at a convention in France.

The cabinet had two 16mm film projectors, one loaded with a film loop of cowboys shooting at you, and the other loaded with an alternate loop where the cowboys fall down dead. Hit, and the system would switch to the “B” projector, and show the defeated cowboy fall down.

It’s debatable whether a film-based system could be called a video game. Nintendo apparently doesn’t, as they officially consider EVR Race, a horse race betting simulator which used a videotape-like format, to be their first real video game, but it’s almost a moot point. These games are all, at best, extremely rare, and it's questionable if emulation is even possible by now. Archivists would need to digitize the films/tapes, and to my knowledge there has never been any serious proposal by anyone to do this.

In 1977, Nintendo released the Color TV Game systems, which were essentially home Pong clones, but with a garish color scheme, multiple game modes, and a TV sports-like score display that appears whenever a point is scored, and is hidden during play. These systems are not emulated, but there’s ample Youtube footage, no doubt thanks to the relative ease of collecting home electronics and their durability.

1978 saw the release of Computer Othello, the first arcade game by Nintendo R&D1 and also Nintendo’s first to be self-published. It also saw Block Fever, a Breakout clone. Both are unemulated, but there is footage on Youtube.

From this, we can see three distinct game modes. Mode 'A' has some blinking blocks, which cause the blocks to start dropping when hit. Mode 'B' has horizontally scrolling blocks. Mode 'C' is simply a Breakout clone.

1979 marks the first year of Nintendo games that can actually be played.

Game 73: Space Fever

The earliest playable Nintendo game, Space Fever is credited to Masayuki Uemura, whose only prior credit is Laser Clay Shooting System. Graphics and artwork are credited to Shigeru Miyamoto, and are his first video game credit ever.

And it’s a pretty shameless Space Invaders knock-off, though not without some differences.

Most notably, there are three game modes to choose from, which affect the invaders’ movement formation. Mode ‘C’ plays exactly like Space Invaders. Mode ‘A’ mixes things up a bit by having the phalanx split into two independent phalanxes which weave in opposite directions from each other. Mode ‘B’ spawns one line of invaders at a time, from the bottom-up, outright preventing the strategy of attacking columns from the outside-in. Occasionally it spawns a row at the top, and I don’t know if this is a glitch or deliberate.

Mode ‘C’ frankly plays the best, showing that Space Invaders got it right the first time, but ‘B’ is the most interesting one, at least from my perspective that if I wanted to play a game exactly like Space Invaders, I'd play Space Invaders. The constantly spawning rows does make hitting the UFOs nearly impossible.

Also of note are the color graphics - a step up from Space Invaders' simple overlays, but well behind Galaxian's multi-color sprites - and the use of music.

Game 74: Sheriff

Of all of the games Nintendo released in 1979, Sheriff is probably the most important, and with references to it in WarioWare and Super Smash Bros, seems to be more fondly remembered by Nintendo. It was the third game designed by Genyo Takeda, whose previous credits are Laser Clay Shooting System and EVR Race. Shigeru Miyamoto, who collaborated on Sheriff, considers Takeda to be Nintendo’s first video game designer.

I played the Exidy-produced “Bandido” at Funspot earlier this year, and remember it having a very stiff joystick. Aiming used a dial with 8 discrete positions, but MAME maps this to a second joystick, akin to Robotron: 2084. Take away the difficult controls, and now Sheriff becomes a very slow-paced shooting game, where you can easily outrun bullets. It’s not often that I say this about arcade games, but the difficulty doesn’t ramp up fast enough.

There are still signs of Space Invaders here, with the bandits moving around in a formation, speeding up and occasionally invading your space as you gradually thin out their numbers, shootable barriers which deflect shots from both you and your opponents until they erode, and vultures overhead that take the place of UFOs.

Also, the animated scenes in between stages remind me a lot of Pac-Man, but Sheriff came first. What was the earliest game to have these?

Game 75: Radar Scope

An infamous flop, Radar Scope, could have been the game that killed Nintendo's American operations arm. They had bet the bank on its expensive, full-color graphics hardware. But now it’s known as the game that Miyamoto salvaged by developing Donkey Kong as a conversion kit.

But, how does it play?

Well, it’s a lot like Galaxian, but kind of bad. The odd 3D-ish perspective makes hitting enemies harder without really adding to gameplay, but being able to fire more rapidly means you don’t need to be so precise. Annoyingly, your firepower seems to decrease when the screen is full of chaos, as if there’s an absolute maximum on-screen projectile limit which your own shots are subject to. The enemies seem a lot less aggressive than the Galaxians, which sort of balances the difficulty out, but doesn’t make it more interesting. A twist on the formula is the “damage meter,” which accrues damage as certain types of enemy fire hits the bottom of the screen (you still die in one hit).

Not sure what else to say about this game. The artwork by Miyamoto is kind of neat, so I left it in.

One last game of 1980 before it’s on like Donkey Kong.

Game 76: Game & Watch: Ball

Back in 1998-2002, Nintendo released a series of “Game & Watch Gallery” collections for the Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance, which I found immediately addictive, not so much for the gameplay, but for the emphasis on unlocking stuff like galleries, history files, and more games. These games were very simple but well-designed within their limitations, far superior to those awful Tiger Electronics handheld games that my dentist used to keep his waiting room well stocked with.

MAME emulates some of these games, but not (yet) the very first, simply titled “Ball.” (update: it does now) It isn’t the best Game & Watch, but I think it would be the best candidate to serve as a representation of the series as a whole. I opted to play a fan-made simulator, rather than go with Nintendo’s official Game & Watch Gallery 2 incarnation.

You control the arms of a juggler, and have to keep some balls in the air for as long as possible.

There are two game modes, and the scoring system difference is quite lopsided. In Game A, there are two balls to juggle, and each ball caught is worth a point. In Game B, there are three balls, and each catch is worth 10 points. Between getting ten times as many points and having to juggle the balls 1.5 times as often, it doesn’t take long at all to reach 1000 points, which was the rollover point in Game & Watch Gallery 2.

I suicided deliberately after reaching 1000 points, which displays fine in this version. I don’t know if that’s an authentic G&W property or not.

Game 77: Donkey Kong

How much you got?

My first serious attempt at Donkey Kong was the bonus game included in Donkey Kong 64, which requires you to beat all four levels of the original arcade game, and to do it starting with a single life. Before that, I had rented the NES port once, and couldn’t even beat the first level, and had once played an arcade machine with a broken joystick that wouldn’t move left or right.

The U.S. version has a significant gameplay change, so I opted to play the original Japanese version, where the loops behave as you’d expect. There, you have to beat all four levels in order, and then do it again on a higher difficulty. The U.S. version doesn’t let you play through all four levels until the third loop, which I already find pretty odd. Even more strangely, the level I find the easiest, the cement factory, is locked for the first two loops, while the barrel stage, which I find the hardest, is there from the beginning.

And if you can make it beyond the third loop, the fourth inserts an extra barrel stage after the cement factory, and the fifth inserts another after the elevators. After that, all loops are like the fifth.

Consequently, “beating” the Japanese version could be seen as easier or harder depending on your criteria. If you just want to defeat Donkey Kong in the rivets stage once, then the U.S. version is marginally easier as you’ll skip two moderately easy stages. If you want to beat every level, then the U.S. version is much harder, as only the Japanese version allows you to do this on the first and easiest loop.

I managed to beat three loops, which is more than I was hoping for. I certainly don’t intend to go for the killscreen, let alone obtain a million points.

An embarrassing amount of deaths happened because Jumpman got “stuck” on a ladder when I tried to move him and he wasn’t quite all the way at the top. Most of my deaths occurred on the first level, where random barrels falling down ladders can really screw you over.

Seriously, what was I supposed to do here?

It’s been said that Donkey Kong is the birth of the side-scrolling platformer, and I’m inclined to agree, but there’s a bit of unbuilt trope here. The genre is all about jump physics, and this is the earliest game I know of that has any, but there is no sense of momentum or any kind of in-air control. You can essentially jump forward, right, or backward, depending on which direction the joystick is pressed when jumping, and there is no way to alter your jump’s height, distance, or speed. Falling too far will kill you, and the exact distance for a fatal landing seems rather arbitrary, barely higher than Jumpman’s jumping peak, and falling any distance without jumping first is certain to be deadly. The act of ascending platforms with jumps, a crucial part of platformers, isn’t present at all except for in the elevator stage. And, of course, there’s no side-scrolling here, even though we’ve already seen it in games like Defender and Super Cobra.

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