At the end of last year I was reflecting on people I was thankful for in my life, and one of the people I reached out to was my buddy Scott, a fellow enthusiast of retro games. I told him that I wanted to double down on joy in 2023, and that included more time for playing retro games.
He was in firm agreement on this, and so we made it happen. Thursday nights became retro game nights. More often than not we’d enjoy some pizza, possibly a dessert (I enjoyed coming up with new recipes to try out throughout the year), and we’d play through a retro game of our choice. Usually we’d need two sessions to play through a game completely, but some of the games were quicker to play through and we’d play a couple in one evening.
I’m not going to leave reviews of every single game, but I do want to share some highlights:
Scott was very excited to introduce me to Mega Man and he was not shy about selling it hard. I believe his exact words were that it would “change my life.”
And I have to say, the games are great. We played all the NES games, starting with Mega Man 2 through 6, then playing through Mega Man 1 after (Scott felt that Mega Man 2 was far superior to Mega Man 1 but when we played through it I found it to be quite solid and I would have enjoyed playing that first).
If you want to play Mega Man on a modern console, it’s available for the Switch, and I actually prefer playing this way because it includes a Turbo mode that prevents frame rate slowdowns (especially noticeable in Mega Man 3), and you get a rewind feature and save states, both of which are super handy when trying to do a play-through.
I am deeply impressed overall by the graphical quality of the Mega Man games. Levels are beautiful (especially when you know the limits the NES has in terms of color palette) and the soundtracks absolutely slap.
Mega Man bosses do not fuck around, though. In the earlier games they aren’t so bad (especially when you accumulate weapons in the right order and use them strategically against the right bosses) but in the later ones they get punishingly difficult. Mario bosses are downright child’s play by comparison.
One other thing I loved about playing the games in order was seeing the evolution of the weapons and tools, and letting that complexity gradually build up so I didn’t get overwhelmed by choices. Each boss you defeat does give you a new weapon and that can be overwhelming, but my strategy was generally to stick with the default Power Buster gun which is really great. In the later Mega Man games it became possible to press and hold B to get a charge shot, making the power buster a great all-around weapon.
The Mega Man X games for SNES feel like a lovely evolution of Mega Man. They didn’t mess with the format much, but they used the extra graphics headroom to make even more beautiful levels, and the extra controller buttons made it easier to perform maneuvers like sliding. The X games feel more forgiving than the NES games to play (I didn’t find myself pining for the save state/rewind functionality when playing the SNES games on real hardware). My one criticism is that the Mega Man X soundtracks aren’t nearly as memorable as their NES counterparts. Something about the constraints of NES sound hardware really brought out great music composition, and with the SNES that felt lost.
I think Mega Man X is my favorite of all of them though.
Modern Homebrew Games
It delights me to no end that to this day, there are game developers actively making new games for the NES, and in many cases they will actually ship real physical cartridges for these games too.
Yes, you read that correctly. In the year of our lord 2023, game developers are continuing to make and manufacture brand new games for the NES console. It truly speaks to the caliber of the NES as a game system. It’s not the only retro game platform getting new games made for it, but it seems to me like it gets the largest number of games.
Scott and I played several of these, and they’re great.
Two of my favorites are Spacegulls and Böbl, both by Morphcat Games. Spacegulls is a demo that was built in just a week and can be played through in under a half hour, while Böbl is a bit more substantial (I think still weighing in under two hours).
In Böbl, you play a bubble and you navigate through water by diving, trying to avoid touching solid blocks which will pop you. I don’t think there’s any other NES game with a play mechanic that works like that, and the game is delightful to play; everything feels very smooth.
Micro Mages is another fun one, and it’s one of a handful of games you can actually play with four players simultaneously on the screen (with an accessory like the Four Score). One thing I found fun about Micro Mages as a rather mediocre player is that even when I was dead, I remained a ghost on screen who was capable of moving around more easily and I was able to stun enemies, providing assistance to the other players.
Finally, if you’re interested in an incredibly ambitious NES game, look no further than Full Quiet. I got a chance to meet its lead developer at PRGE this year, and he was absolutely a delight and I appreciated his goal with this game, which was to make a game that wasn’t a quick play-through; instead, it involved a massive amount of discovery and trial and error. It respects you as a gamer because it expects more from you than most other games.
Full Quiet has been around for months and it’s only recently that we’re starting to see players managing to finish the game or offer speed runs.
In the game you play a father looking for your lost son in the forest, and to do this you need to travel to different outposts and get radio equipment working to restore the radio grid.
The game’s graphics are stunning, and as you play you are spanning many days, so you get to experience daytime mode, evening mode, and night mode. You need to get to camp in time or you will get eaten by monsters!
I was more deferring to Scott when playing this together, and he got through more of it than I did, and we have yet to fully finish it, but it’s a wonderfully ambitious game and I love that something like it exists now for the NES. But it is not for the faint of heart.
It’s also available on the Switch and I purchased it if for no other reason than to support the developer.
Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll
When I was first introduced to Scott we bonded early on over our shared enjoyment of the game Snake Rattle ’n Roll, a delightful game that doesn’t get discussed that much.
The game is super whimsical and fun, though. The levels are isometric, and in 2 player mode both players are on screen at once. You play snakes who need to grow by eating little balls called “Nibbley Pibbleys” until your snake weighs enough that you cause the door to the next level to open.
It’s a delight, and you’ll want to use a Game Genie code for infinite lives to play this one.
The soundtrack slaps as well, and you can even get it on vinyl (the record itself is beautiful too).
I was also delighted to introduce Scott to Mendel Palace, a game he was unfamiliar with but one that I played a lot as a child. The story is that you play a good doll that belongs to this girl, and the girl’s other dolls have all turned evil, and you must fight these evil dolls by playing these puzzle like levels where you flip tiles to push the other dolls toward the wall in a sort of sumo-like fashion.
Songs for this one are memorable too.
It’s a very easy game to pick up (I played it as a five year old) but it’s a formidable challenge to play all the way through; those final bosses get challenging!
For some reason I always thought of Kirby games as a less challenging game for little kids, and I regret sleeping on Kirby’s Adventure for NES in particular.
It was one of the later games made for NES (released in 1993 after the SNES was starting to come onto the scene) but because it was released so late in the NES’s life it is very well-programmed and is able to achieve beautiful graphics and fluid gameplay with minimal slowdowns.
I recommend this Kirby game in particular because the SNES Kirby games all felt relatively disappointing by comparison.
This is total ’80s copaganda/“Just Say No” anti-drug type content, but the game itself is kind of fun and the soundtrack is quite possibly one of my favorites for NES.
Am I a Gamer?
I played a decent number of video games as a child, but throughout high school and college I kind of fell out of touch with gaming and didn’t pick it up much as an adult.
For a few years now I had been meaning to dedicate more time to gaming, and I thought of my commitment to retro game this year as a sort of New Year’s resolution. It’s a little silly; most adults are resolving to read more or hit the gym, and I’m over here committing to playing more video games, but I really was excited to do more gaming, and I think it was important for me to get deeper into it, and my ADHD-addled brain has benefited from developing the habit of giving these games more dedicated focus.
As a kid I always just dabbled in stuff. I never really played all the way through games (I think the only game I fully played through on my own was Donkey Kong Country), and it has felt really good to be playing games through to completion as part of these game nights. Having a companion who’s great at gaming really helps too, and for the single player games we had a driver/navigator dynamic going where the person not driving was helping guide.
I never stopped loving video games, but this year helped rekindle my love for them. It’s even gotten me more interested in some modern stuff. I’ve been playing more games on the Switch, and I have been deeply enjoying Super Mario Bros Wonder (fun fact: the five people who worked on the original Super Mario Bros for NES worked on this game too!). I’ve been casually playing Kirby and the Forgotten Land and it’s an absolute joy (and does a great job of retaining the fun of being a platformer while being a 3D game).
After the Nintendo 64 came out I had long been dismissive of more modern games as having left me behind, being too complex. And there are certainly plenty of video games out there nowadays that are quite involved to play, but I think it’s been a delightful discovery that there are still games being developed for me to this day (whether for today’s systems or for the systems of yesteryear).
Also, it’s kind of funny: I still haven’t thought of myself as a serious gamer. But one evening back in October Scott was going over the games we had played and pointed out we had played over 30 games together (and that’s just the games he and I played). That’s more than just dabbling, I think! I also enjoy my Playdate.
We ended the year of retro game nights playing Mega Man X3 for the SNES. To help commemorate the year of playing great games I decided the best move would be to play the game on real hardware with a real cartridge. Mega Man X3 is relatively rare, but I managed to snag an X3 cartridge on eBay and gift it to Scott so he could complete his collection of Mega Man X SNES cartridges, and he was like a kid at Christmas. Indeed, X3 was a delight to play.
2023 has been a really difficult year for me, but it was nonetheless full of bright spots. Having game night to look forward to every week wasn’t just a bright spot in my week, it was a constellation of bright spots in a very dark year. I’m really happy to say that things started to turn around for me in the last few months and I’m looking forward to even more retro games next year, and possibly some field trips as well (the Next Level Pinball Museum in Hillsboro sounds tempting).
Here’s a full list of the games we played so far, in no particular order. We played most of these games this year.
- Mega Man
- Mega Man II
- Mega Man III
- Mega Man IV
- Mega Man V
- Mega Man VI
- Mega Man X
- Mega Man X2
- Mega Man X3
- Terminator (actually Journey to Silius, but with a ROM hack to make it look like Terminator, which was what the game was originally slated to be)
- Mendel Palace
- The Legend of Zelda
- Monster In My Pocket
- Micro Mages
- Super Bat Puncher Demo
- Mr. Gimmick!
- Kirby’s Adventure
- Star Fox
- Star Fox 64
- Donkey Kong Country
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II
- Mario Paint
- Snack Rattle ’n Roll
- Full Quiet (WIP)