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Rescue Rangers

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Long before cable television rendered the idea antiquated, Saturday morning used to mean cartoons.  It was the time of the week that the network television channels would set aside as blocks of animated (and occasionally live action) programming aimed at the younger audiences.  This created an awful conundrum for the viewers of these programs, since it meant having to choose between sleeping in on a lazy weekend morning or waking up early so as not to miss the brief window for catching the shows that you loved.

These cartoons were so long ago that I barely remember them, but I do remember a few of my favorites, and one of them was Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.  The show stars two chipmunks, the titular  Chip and Dale, who run a private detective agency for other animals.  This show isn’t about a world of anthropomorphic animals like Duck Tales, rather it’s set in a world where animals lead a covert existence among humans that are unaware of the intelligent civilization that goes on beneath them (more like The Great Mouse Detective).  The chipmunks and their friends go on various adventures to help their troubled clients while clashing with a series of colorful recurring villains.  While I’m afraid I remember very little of the television show, I do remember in vivid detail the well-known companion game to the show that was released by Capcom on the NES.

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This NES game is a fairly basic 8-bit platformer.  It has some similarities to Super Mario Bros. 2 in that the primary means of attack is to pick up objects from the environment and toss them at enemies.  While SMB2 provides the player with the ability to snatch up baddies and use them against their compatriots, Chip and Dale are hurt if they touch enemies from any direction.  Instead, their weapons are entirely objects found strewn about the environment, principally small brown crates that litter each level by the dozens, but there are also some more distinct items like giant apples (relatively to the chipmunks) and trash cans.  One of the things I always remember most clearly about this game is how enemies “die” once they take a hit.  Instead of falling of screen or blinking out of existence, the bad guy, no matter the size, speedily flies off the screen at a 45° angle.  I always found it super-satisfying to see the enemies before me blasted away in such a manner, and it’s accompanied by a really fun sound effect.

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Capcom was known for it’s great music on the NES, and fellow Disney title DuckTales had easily some of the most memorable tunes on the system.  Regrettably, the compositions found in Rescue Rangers don’t hold as much magic.  It’s not that they’re bad.  It’s just that the background themes in each level are extremely forgettable and compare especially poorly to DuckTales’ remarkable themes.   The only level that I thought had a catchy beat was the final stage. Meanwhile, the only two tracks that I could remember from my childhood were the chiptunes rendition of the cartoon’s theme song that plays at the title screen and the frantic boss music which has gotten stuck in my head quite a few times.  Otherwise, the soundtrack is unremarkable and a major letdown when compared to Capcom’s output in other games.

Recently, I’ve embarked (see here) on creating what I call my “Maximum 30“ list, which are a series of posts covering the 30 games which I consider to have the most personal significance to me.  It’s not necessarily a list of the best games I’ve ever played, just those that have had the greatest impact on me.  I began gaming on the NES at a very young age, and, near as I can recall, Rescue Rangers was actually the first game I ever beat.  For this post, I replayed the game for the first time in forever, and I could immediately see why that was the case.  It’s not a particularly difficult game, really the only part I would consider hard was the final level.

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I still distinctly remember the final boss fight with Chip and Dale’s arch-nemesis, Fat Cat.  True to the cartoon, he towers over the chipmunks and is a huge piece of the background.  I always found his attack to be a little peculiar.  He doesn’t attack with his claws or teeth, rather he moves around his cigar and flicks it at the player.  The hot ashes from the cigar act as projectiles which the chipmunks must dodge.  I have a feeling that in today’s tobacco-conscious world a cigar wouldn’t at all be featured in a product aimed at youths. I grew up when candy cigarettes were still a thing sold to children, but even as a kid, I thought Fat Cat’s prominent tobacco use in the game was a bit bold.

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Another very strong memory of the game is the discovery that it actually has two world maps.  The game begins on a world map that has 7 stages, but after beating the seventh stage and rescuing the chipmunks’ friend Gadget, she tells you that you need to pursue Fat Cat to his secret lair in another area of the city.  The Rescue Rangers then take a *rocket ship* straight up into *space* and then come straight back down onto a new world map which contains the game’s final three levels.  I vividly remember how amazing and surprising this was to me, both because of the discovery of new levels which I never knew existed and also because I thought the little rocket ship ride was absurdly cool.

Capcom put out some excellent games on the NES, and Rescue Rangers really isn’t their best.  Even just among the Disney games, it’s easily surpassed by DuckTales.  I owned Rescue Rangers back then, but didn’t own DuckTales.  DuckTales was available for rental in a local shop, but it didn’t come with a manual, and I don’t think I ever knew about the pogo stick move which is essentially critical to completing the game.  Consequently, I don’t think I ever got very far in DuckTales.  Of course, I’ve tried DuckTales again as an adult, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s definitely a better game than Rescue Rangers.

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But, like I said, this top 30 list of mine isn’t necessarily about the best games, rather just those which have left a big impression on my life, and Rescue Rangers easily fulfills that criteria.  I think most people have these games that they played when they were very young that they suddenly realize are super-easy when they come back to them as an adult.  Ironically, I find a lot of other Disney games, like The Lion King and Toy Story, are the opposite.  I mastered those games in my younger days, but now I’m baffled by how frustrating I find them.  I tried to decide which of these sides of the coin was better, harder than the past or easier, but I really couldn’t decide.  I don’t think either is so appealing, and they both betray that those games were more a product of their time and place.  I guess in some ways it’s just another harsh reminder that we can seldom regain those cherished experiences that exist in our memories, no matter how much nostalgia tempts us otherwise.  The great experiences of our futures will lie in that which creates new memories and new feelings, not necessarily that which tries to desperately reassemble the past.

 

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Mappy-Land!

The announcement of the NES Classic Mini has got me reminiscing a lot about those old classic Nintendo days.  The games that immediately come to mind are titles like the Super Mario Bros. series, Rescue Rangers, Duck Tales, Duck Hunt, Zelda, Tetris, and so on and so forth.  But beyond the timeless classics, there’s a lot of games that I spent a ton of time with back in the day that mostly seem like they’ve been long forgotten.  I’m sure everyone has these games that they remember, but seemingly no one else does.  Especially when you’re a kid, you’re sort of at the mercy of what your parents buy you, and particularly in those NES days when adults didn’t know much about gaming, they really didn’t pay much heed to popularity or word of mouth when buying games.  I often found myself the recipient of gifted games that I felt I was the only person in the world who played.

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There are two of those types of games that really stand out in my mind.  One is Dash Galaxy in the Alien Asylum, which might be the most existentially terrifying game I’ve ever played.  The other is the topic of today’s post: Mappy-Land.  Mappy-Land was developed by Namco and is the sequel to what I think was a slightly popular arcade maze game called Mappy.  Mappy-Land tries to do to Mappy what Super Mario Bros. did to Mario Bros., which is to take a simple arcade game with small discrete levels and turn it into a more long-form action-adventure game.  

To understand Mappy-Land, it’s best to first give some explanation of its arcade predecessor, which was a maze game in the vein of Pac-Man.  Mappy is a police mouse tasked with retrieving objects stolen by a gang of literal cat burglars called mewkies.  The mewkies are a group of white cats led by Nyamco, the brown cat.  (Nyamco is a portmanteau of Namco and nyan, the sound a cat makes in Japanese.)  The game consists of Mappy being chased by the cats through their lair, a giant multi-floored mansion, while he collects the stolen goods in each level to advance.  Trampolines allow Mappy to ascend or descend between floors.  The catch is that the trampolines can only be used so many times in a row before they break, after which they become death pits.  These trampolines change color with each bounce, so it’s easy to know when they’re about to fail.

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The original Mappy arcade game.

Mappy-Land follows a fairly similar formula but takes place over levels with more varied settings.  The goal of almost each level is to travel about a multi-tiered maze to gather specific collectibles (such as cheese or wedding rings) which will unlock the exit when all have been grabbed by the player.  Most levels consist of four tiered platforms that can be traversed using trampolines similar to the arcade original.  The mewkies are back to give Mappy trouble and serve as the game’s primary antagonists as they chase the almost defenseless mouse as he goes about his business.

The storyline of the game varies a bit through each of the game’s four worlds.  The common plot setup between worlds is that Mappy’s girlfriend/wife, the princess Mapico, sends the hero out on a quest to collect certain items to bring back to her.  So for instance, in the first world Mappy collects cheese to bring to her birthday, and in the second world, he collects marriage rings to bring to their wedding ceremony.  Each world features the same series of eight levels (which include settings like a train station, the wild west, a pirate ship, etc.), but the level layouts differ between each world.

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Two levels deviate from the maze-style of the rest of the game.  Those are the jungle levels and the graveyard levels.  The jungle levels are more standard platforming stages which require Mappy to jump over water pits, climb on vines, and make use of moving trampolines to reach hard to get items.  The moving trampolines are actually quite hard to work with and require very precise timing to land right, so I consider these levels to be among the game’s most difficult.  Meanwhile, the graveyard is the easiest.  These levels focus on fighting a horde of ghosts that haunt the sky over the cemetery and feature a balloon Mappy can use to fly.  Exclusive to these levels, Mappy has a flashlight that will kill any ghost that he can catch in front of him.  Since these levels have a weapon that can be used for defense, they tend to be by far the easiest in the game.

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The final level in each world, called “Milky Town”, has two parts.  The first part takes place outside a castle, and Mappy can enter this building through the big doors in the middle when he has all the collectibles.  Inside, there’s another maze segment that features no enemies.  The goal in these areas is instead to get six collectibles and then meet up with Mapico who stands on a platform at the rightmost edge of the level.  The player fails if they don’t get all the items to Mapico before the background music stops or if they approach her without having collected everything first.  If one of these things happens, then the player gets a screen where Mapico absolutely lays into Mappy, berating him for his failure.  She apparently demands nothing short of perfection from her long suffering mate.  I always took these screens really hard as a kid.  To me, the music in this stage is something that even to this day conjures up a sense of panic due to the way you have to quickly and precisely rush through these levels lest you get greeted with Mapico’s fiery rage.

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I’ve always enjoyed the weird personality quirks of Mappy-Land.  The music is genuinely catchy, and the backgrounds look nice for what they are.  In fact, my mom actually once called Mappy-Land beautiful, which is the first time in my life I think I heard someone compliment pixel art.  And despite the fact that Pac-Man is one of the most iconic games of all time, I don’t know of any other maze games that really managed to catch on.  I give a lot of credit to Namco for trying to meld the maze genre with the more popular action-adventure genre.

But Mappy-Land has always been something of a menacing and, in a way, sad experience to me.  The game was always kind of scary to me.  I think it’s because Mappy-Land is a game about being chased, and especially for a young kid, that creates a lot of emotional tension.  Pac-man is a game about being chased, but I never found it as heart-racing as Mappy-Land.  Maybe it’s because the power pellet allows Pac-man to turn the tables on the ghosts.  Mappy-Land has objects and traps that can be used to distract the mewkies, but they’re not nearly as effective or as empowering as the power pellet.

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It’s a sad game because Mappy’s life strikes me as a living hell.  The mewkies are complete bullies who hound the poor mouse wherever he goes.  And his girl is probably even worse than the cats.  Mapico isn’t Princess Toadstool.  She’s no victim in this game.  Mappy’s arduous quest is entirely motivated by her greed and materialism.  And if he performs even slightly less than her extreme standards demand in the final level, she throws a merciless tantrum.  How many wedding rings does a woman really need to tie the knot!?!  How many pieces of cheese does she need for her birthday!?!  Mappy and Mapico’s entire relationship seems to be built around Mappy bringing her stuff.  Does she even love him?  The fear of a being stuck in a loveless marriage is not something I think a lot of young people think about, but even when I was just a small kid, this game actually disturbed me with thoughts about that kind of stuff.

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For the longest time, I believed that Mappy-Land was an original game.  It wasn’t until I messed around with one of those little plug-and-play TV games that had a bunch of Namco arcade titles that I realized Mappy had starred in an earlier game.  I suppose the poor mouse is just one of those long lost and forgotten mascot characters like Rocket Knight or Plok.  Mappy-Land was recently released on Wii U Virtual Console, and there have been a few obscure cell phone games released in Japan that are based on the character.  So I guess someone somewhere must remember this character.  Still, his lack of notoriety is somewhat endearing to me.  I kind of feel like Mappy is my thing, something that only I appreciate.  I’m sure other people out there have similar feelings to their own favorite obscure games or music or books or movies or whatever.  It’s comforting in a way.

Turnip Time: Super Mario Bros. 2

Super Mario Maker has gone a long way to revitalize my passion for classic Mario.  Not that I ever really lost any love for those titles, but Mario Maker has really helped me reconnect with why I treasure those games as much as I do.  Of course, Mario Maker’s level editor has one glaring omission from the classic Mario cannon:  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Turnip Version).  SMB2 is the odd-man out of classic Mario, as it is actually a Mario reskin of the Famicom Disk System game, Doki Doki Panic.  The “real” SMB2 never made it to the NES as Nintendo of America considered it too hard for the American market.  (It’s also just a lackluster game, but more on that later.)  But even though we now look at SMB2 as an anomaly in the classic lineup, for those of us who were gaming at the time, the world of Mario was still very new and weird to us all, so the unusual setting of SMB2, the dream world of Subcon, didn’t feel all that unusual given the context of the series.  It also wasn’t all that unusual for sequels of NES games to be radically different from their predecessors, which means I don’t think I ever personally thought of it any less for being such a unique game amongst its brethren.

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It’s unfortunate that SMB2 was left out of Super Mario Maker, but actually fairly understandable.  Not being a “true” Mario game, the mechanics of SMB2 deviate significantly from the rest of the series.  In SMB1, 3, and World, Mario interacts with the world primarily by stomping on things and bumping/breaking things with his head as he jumps.  Jumping on enemies/objects to attack/break them ended up becoming a fairly standard mechanic in the platforming genre.  But SMB2 is fairly unique in that it is a game that is about picking up and throwing things.  The levels are filled with environmental objects to grab and toss, like buried vegetables, mushroom blocks, and keys, and the majority of enemies can be snatched up and used as projectile weapons against their allies.  While it doesn’t seem like a radical idea, I’ve racked my brain trying to think of platformers that use this mechanic, but while I can think of a lot of games where jumping on enemies is used as an attack (Sonic, Crash Bandicoot), the only platforming series I can think where tossing enemies and objects is a central mechanic is Donkey Kong 94 (and its sequel Mario vs. Donkey Kong) and arguably the Wario Land games.

What I really admire about SMB2 is how well it expands upon the adventure aspect of the original SMB.  While I enjoy a good challenging platformer, the thing I like most about the classic Mario games is the sense of wonder and discovery that comes with exploring the levels.  While SMB is a game about going forward from one edge of the screen to the other without turning back, the levels in SMB2 are about travelling up, down, left, right, inside, and out.  I think my favorite level is World 3-1 which begins at the base of a waterfall that the player must travel upward through.  At the top, the player must knock an enemy off a flying carpet which can then be ridden farther upward into the clouds.  The game even begins with a long straight fall down through darkness that lands in the world of Subcon.  These new degrees of freedom give the world of SMB2 a liveliness that didn’t quite exist in its predecessor.

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Beyond just level structure, there’s tons of imagination in SMB2.  The world of Subcon is filled with strange and unusual creatures and features.  A number of recurring Nintendo characters made their first appearance in this game including shy guys, sniffits, bob-ombs, and pokeys.  Easily the most memorable baddie in the game is Phanto, the relentless flying mask that pursues the player as they carry the cursed keys that are required to open the many locked doors that stand in their way.  Being chased by that nightmare abomination is probably one of the most tense memories that a lot of gamers have from their early years.  And the landscapes and artifacts of the dream realm are almost completely peculiar and unique to this world’s creative vision.  Mario and crew journey across the backs of whales in an icy ocean, jump into TARDIS-like vases that are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside,  and of course buried in the ground there are the iconic red potions that create doors to the shadowy subspace where power-ups are hidden.

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On my recent playthrough of SMB2, I was actually pretty amazed at how unique and memorable each level was.  It’s been many years since I’ve played the game, but most of the levels were immediately recognizable to me.  I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about original SMB.  Outside of 1-1 and 1-2 (which I’ve played thousands of times), the stages of the original SMB just sort of blur together to me.  I remember specific types of stages, like the underwater worlds, flying fish bridges, tree tops, etc., but I don’t really remember the fine details of specific levels that well.  SMB2 has much more individually distinct stages to explore.  In addition to the aforementioned waterfall level, I’m a big fan of the level that is styled after Pitfall with caves that are visible beneath the character’s feet, and the ice level where the character must cross an ocean on the backs of a pod of water-spouting whales.  

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It’s also cool that the game allows the player to choose between Mario, Luigi, Toad, or the Princess at the beginning of each level.  No other classic Mario game really offers that.  At best, you can choose to play as Luigi (and usually only if you’re Player 2).  The four characters also control differently, and many consider Mario to be the least interesting character.  I think most people are like me and consider the Princess their favorite as she can float horizontally for a short moment during her jump.  To me, SMB2 is really a Princess Toadstool game.  I know the people who market games often have cynical attitudes toward the willingness of male youths to play as female characters, but all my friends at the time preferred the Princess.  I also know that many really like Luigi since he has the highest jump, although his movement is slippery and a bit harder to control.  I’ve never bothered much with Mario or Toad honestly.  Mario is supposed to be the well-rounded character, but he ends up being kind of boring.  Toad is slow and can…..ummm…. dig up plants really quickly???  

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Of course, there is that other SMB2 out there, the Japanese version that is known as The Lost Levels over here.  The Lost Levels was first released as a part of Super Mario All-Stars in the US, but I’ve only ever played the English localized 8-bit version available on the North American 3DS eshop.  After playing that version, I’m incredibly glad that game never made it to the NES.  I’ve found it to be such a joyless game, and I think it probably would have dampened my excitement for Mario back then.  

The Lost Levels focuses less on expanding the adventure aspect of Mario and more on greatly increasing its challenge.  The game was admittedly advertised on the box as being for advanced players, and while the original Super Mario Bros. could be quite difficult in later levels, The Lost Levels is much harder.  And not a fun kind of hard like Super Meat Boy or Mega Man 9, The Lost Levels has a difficulty that is more focused on just trying to screw the player.  Remember how amazing it was to discover the warp zone at the end of World 1-2????  Well, The Lost Levels has parts where the player can get trapped in reverse warp zones that send them back to worlds they’ve already beat. The Lost Levels is far from an insurmountable challenge, but in obsessively trying to beat down the player, it strips out all the wonder and thrills that were found in the original.  That’s not to say that fiendishly difficult levels don’t have a place in Mario games, but I think the best way they’ve been incorporated is as optional secret content like they were in Super Mario World.  An entire game that is nothing but those kinds of levels just loses its charm very quickly.

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Ultimately, despite it’s rationalizable exclusion from Super Mario Maker, I don’t think SMB2 is a particularly underappreciated game on Nintendo’s behalf.  It was the first game they remade in the Super Mario Advance series, as SMB1 and Lost Levels had already been remade in Super Mario Deluxe.  And certain aspects from the game have made their way into the “true” Mario games, such as pokeys and bob-ombs, although the most iconic enemy, the shy guy, has only been featured in spin-offs like Yoshi’s Island.  But I do hold out some hope that we might get some SMB2 love in Mario Maker.  After Nintendo’s excellent continuing support of games like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, I would like to think that it might not be impossible that an SMB2 tileset could arrive in the form of DLC.  I personally wouldn’t even really have any objections to paying for a piece of content like that.

 

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