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FGC #268 Mario Bros. (Atari)

So many colorsSometimes even an ancient Atari game can surprise you.

Everybody knows Mario Bros. If you’re a certain age (old), you may have seen this primitive Mario experience in arcades. If you’re slightly younger (generally still old), you likely have fond memories of pseudo-Mario Bros. in the two player mode of Super Mario Bros. 3. And, if you’re one of six “lucky” people on this planet, you might even remember Mario Bros. for its spiritual sequel, Mario Clash, the Virtual Boy game that may have damaged your retinas. Mario Bros. might not be Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros, but it’s still a beloved piece of Nintendo history, and most Nintendo fans have played the game at least once.

But… almost everyone that played Mario Bros. played it on actual Nintendo hardware, whether it be a Nintendo, Super Nintendo, or (INSERT NAME OF GAME SYSTEM THAT STARTS WITH “NINTENDO” HERE). Today’s game is Mario Bros, yes, but it’s Mario Bros. for the Atari 2600. It is, effectively, Mario Bros. before Mario. This ain’t Steamboat Willie, this is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Poor Papa. And, sorry to say, nobody has fond memories of that damn rabbit.

And, let’s face facts, there are a lot of reasons to assume Atari Mario Bros. would be terrible. Have you ever played Atari Pac-Man? It might be the worst port of a single videogame ever made. There is one ghost, the screen proportions are all wrong, and somehow even the “dots” aren’t properly distributed. Yes, someone somehow got a game that can be summarized as “a ball moves around a maze” completely wrong. And Pac-Man isn’t alone; at best, an Atari port would be something that reduced the cutting-edge arcade graphics of Joust or Kangaroo down to small-screen appropriate pixels, and, at worst, you’d wind up with something a few degrees better than E.T. (reminder: the game that destroyed the entire industry). And, while we’re at it, let’s note that Mario Bros. is a port of Mario Bros. not actually directed by Nintendo. I’m trying to remember how it turned out when some other Nintendo franchises were handled by studios other than Nintendo, but I’m distracted because I’m so hungry right now, I could eat an octorok.

Turtle turtle turtleSo, suffice it to say, I went into Mario Bros. Atari expecting pretty much nothing. The 2600 could barely render a protagonist that resembles a pizza pie, I couldn’t even imagine how overalls would be interpreted. And the iconic proto-koopa troopas and crabs of the arcade were known for their expressive, cartoony movements during an epoch where the best you could get out of most games was “beware the angry red square”, so their Atari interpretations were inevitably going to be a letdown. The graphics are primitive, blocks are all around, and you are likely to be eaten by a white hue. And, yes, as someone that has played NES Mario Bros and been unimpressed by the port quality there, I didn’t have much faith that Atari could succeed where Nintendidn’t.

But, surprises of surprises, Mario Bros. for Atari ain’t bad.

First of all, it’s definitely Mario Bros. All the familiar gameplay quirks are here, from flipping over turtles to the central POW Block. Even the between levels bonus stages are here for your failing pleasure (seriously, has anyone ever collected all those coins in the proper time limit?). ChillyI only have so much patience for playing early pre-Super Mario experiences, but I tromped through the first ten levels of this port, and it seemed like Mario Bros. all around. It was even as difficult as ever to flip over that final, hastened-by-the-demise-of-his-buddies crab. That’s some genuine Mario Bros. action right there.

But even more surprising than the fact that this game is actually playable is that there are a few items in this game that did not resurface in the “real” NES port. Mario Bros. NES does not feature our friend the turtle exiting his shell and kicking it while flipped over (an adorable bit of animation only seen in the arcade), but it is in the Atari version. Or, okay, the whole animation isn’t in there, but a turtle will stand up and face the player before obtaining a faster shell. It makes it… seem like something is happening. And icicles may fall from the ceiling in the arcade and Atari versions, but no such thing happens on the NES. Like Donkey Kong losing an entire stage, this was likely a concession to accommodate primitive NES programming, but it’s droll to see Atari attempt to stretch the limits of the hardware before Mario’s parent company.

Mind you, Mario Bros. Atari isn’t perfect. Apparently, no one on the Atari team could make the fireballs work “right”, so they’re just constantly respawning around the sides of the arena, and are more of an omnipresent threat than the leisurely fireballs that seem designed to merely keep a Mario from standing still too long in the arcade/NES. And, since the Atari had less onboard memory than an abacus, anytime a monster enters a pipe, it effectively respawns, so you have to double-flip those crabs during one stage tour. Oh, and the graphics, while passable, are still pretty “Atari crappy”. I have no idea why a moving “coin” is represented as a square, but here we are. Guess it was just too much trouble to shave off those four pixels and make something that kinda looks like a circle.

Lil' BuzzerBut, minor gripes aside, Mario Bros. Atari is actually Mario Bros, which is no small accomplishment. An arcade-to-Atari port not directed by Nintendo has every right to be absolutely horrible, but, nope, this is actually pretty fun. Maybe some games are good no matter the medium, maybe one team just happened to understand Mario Bros. and “get it right”, but whatever the case, Mario Bros. Atari is a pretty fun time.

Don’t judge a game by its system, I suppose.

FGC #268 Mario Bros. (Atari)

  • System: Come on, man, it’s right there in the title for today. I suppose I’ll note that we are talking about the 2600 here.
  • Number of players: I assume there’s a two player mode, but I literally don’t know where my second Atari control stick has landed. Just as well, I think I chewed on those things as a kid.
  • Favorite Enemy: The Fighter Fly has a very muted hop in this version, but he’s still my favorite. It’s like they’re trying to jump like our hero, Mario, but just not quiiiiiite making it.
  • ShinyDid you know: The turtles are known as Shellcreepers, and the crabs are Sidesteppers. Back in the Eighties, strange alien signals were beamed into children’s brains, so that’s how we knew the names of all the random, weird enemies in NES games. However, these names appear completely new to me, so Nintendo clearly only started subscribing to that service after the release of the NES.
  • Would I play again: This is a really impressive Atari game! Unfortunately, if it’s between playing an Atari game and cleaning my back porch, I’m unfortunately going for the broom. But if I’m stuck on a deserted island with only an Atari library to keep my company, this will be my first choice.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins for the PSP! Arthur is reborn and then quickly forgotten! Please look forward to it!

FGC #267 Home Alone (NES)

Really don't feel like watching this againIt’s time to talk about time.

On both the micro and macro level, time is the enemy of all gamers. Videogames, unlike many other entertainment mediums with strict “running time” limits, can have wildly variable playtimes. Super Mario Bros. and Persona 5 are both great games, but one can be finished in about fifteen minutes, and the other takes roughly that long to make it through the first menu. This can be simultaneously a feature (“Wow, movies end in two hours, I’m going to be playing this game forever!”) and a bug (“I just want to go to bed, why is this stupid dungeon still going?”). Time keeps on slipping, and nobody wants to “waste” their time getting up to this boss that keeps murdering your digital avatar and turn it all off (without saving!) because you have no idea how long it will be before you can beat this damn Wolfgang character. Sunk time fallacy: the game.

This approach to time also bizarrely encapsulates how gaming works in the real world: you only have so much time to play so many games. Your more dedicated (re: insane) gamers have backlogs, aka a list of games that are right there and ready to go, but maybe I’ll get to it later. I have to beat this 80 hour JRPG before I get to that 90 hour JRPG, and then, maybe, I’ll get to the portable rerelease of the 120 hour JRPG. … Are we there yet? Look, I own a lot of videogames, and, while, in my heart of hearts I know this isn’t true, there’s some part of my brain that truly believes I’m going to play through every damn videogame I’ve ever purchased, from Deadly Towers to Persona Q. And the only thing holding me back is that I have, ya know, a life, and maybe there are rare occasions when I’d rather be stomping around the neighborhood with some (real life, fleshy) friends, and not just exploring my 17,000th dungeon. In short, my only problem is time, Ughand, if I had more of it, I’d have beaten that trilogy of Mass Effects. And, yes, if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that one only has less time for hobbies as they grow older, not more, so, ya know, I’m hoping I can get to replaying Mega Man Legends before my thumbs fall off in the upcoming, inevitable Cyber Wars.

Given all this, it’s kind of surprising more games don’t have set time limits. Yes, you’ll see this in games based on sports with quarter limits (like the footsball) and other competition-based games (hi, Smash Bros!), but even something like Street Fighter and its round timers is basically a lie. This match will be over in a maximum of ninety seconds (times three or so rounds)… except in one player mode (assuming the game has a one player mode) you know damn well that beating M. Bison could take the rest of the afternoon if you’re not that familiar with your chosen fighter. And suddenly ninety seconds has become nine hours and don’t you have to wake up in the morning for your wedding or something? Ugh, stupid M. Bison.

Today’s game actually does have a set time limit. Home Alone for the NES is a game that will always take twenty real world minutes, because the point of the game is to “survive” for twenty minutes (presumably the amount of time it takes for the local constabulary to arrive). Save for the miracle of pausing, a game of Home Alone will always only take a maximum of twenty minutes.

And it will be the longest twenty minutes of your life.

It's a map!It’s one thing to say a game will only last twenty minutes, but it’s another thing entirely to be told that the “win condition” is surviving for twenty minutes. What could be “this should be a fun way to kill twenty minutes” quickly becomes an event wherein you are watching the clock like a hawk, because every second “wasted” is a second closer to your goal. What’s more, the basic gameplay of Home Alone encourages the player to not play the game. Kevin McCallister must thwart the (two) Wet Bandits with a variety of interesting traps (okay, they’re all just boring squares that Kevin drops on the floor, but they’re supposed to represent interesting traps), and… there’s no other goal. You’re just dealing with a pair of immortal, but stunnable, enemies, and you don’t have to do anything other than endure their onslaught. As a result, it seems like the best option is to find some corner somewhere, block the only entrances with a trap or two, and then, when the thieves finally come calling, trip ‘em and run over to the other corner. While you’re waiting for the burglars to arrive… may as well grab a soda or something, I don’t know. The entire point is that you’re trying to kill time, and any time the Wet Bandits are over at the other side of the building falling over a picture of a bucket, you’re in the clear. Another thirty seconds off the clock while Kevin just sits there! Yay!

Except… well, I have some bad news here, but watching your 8-bit hero doing nothing while you’re playing a game that encourages doing nothing… it’s just a little bit boring. In fact, when you’re a kid sitting in your basement playing a videogame wherein you watch a kid sitting in his basement organizing an inventory of boxes… Okay, that’s a lot boring.

And this is why, while a time limited game may be fun, a game that is dedicated to running out the clock is maybe the worst idea in gaming. When time is the overt enemy in a videogame, the only design options are resetting the clock as a punishment (which, obviously, guess what happens when Kevin is caught by a crook) and rewarding the player through… wasting time. This can't be safeConsidering videogames are built to be pretty much the opposite of work (… fun?), the concept of watching the second hand click by like you’re waiting for Mr. Slate’s assistant to pull the cord on that bird is the antithesis of the way any videogame should work. Videogames are supposed to be an enjoyable way to spend time, not a way to squander your life doing nothing. Every minute watching Kevin loaf around his tree house is a minute I could be loafing around my tree house!

Maybe there is a place for “limited time” games. Maybe people would enjoy such experiences, as we live in a very regimented society (“I have exactly a half hour before Post-Apocalyptic Sexy CW Teens comes on, I wonder if I’ll see a save point before then…”). Maybe such a thing would be a hit. But, in the meanwhile, we have Home Alone, a game that reminds us all that when time is the enemy in a videogame, boredom is the only abstract concept that wins.

FGC #267 Home Alone (NES)

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System for the purpose of this review. For the record, there are many other versions across many other systems (probably to be expected of the most popular movie for kids of… No, I’m not going to look up what year, it will make me feel too old), but they all have vaguely different gameplay. In some of the versions, you actually have to do stuff.
  • Oh who cares?Number of players: I’m kind of surprised they never made a Home Alone movie that, like, featured two kids? Maybe they’re left home alone, and they don’t like each other, so they have to learn to work together when the bad guys show up. A lesson is learned, and someone has to walk on broken glass. Just like Die Hard. Errrr… anyway… one player.
  • Favorite Trap: I guess the spider? All the traps seem to be exactly the same, and the only difference is how long a bandit is knocked down. As a result, the more active traps (like our friend the spider) don’t move at all, and, even more unfortunately, you can swing paint cans from the ceiling. Lame.
  • Get ‘em early: Considering the Wet Bandits start all of five feet from Kevin and move with a hedgehog-like swiftness, I wonder how many people never got longer than five seconds into this game.
  • Did you know? There are apparently two different versions of this game: one where Kevin appears on the game over screen, and one where it simply says “Oh no!” without Kevin’s screaming face. Apparently I own the “only oh no” version. Considering how easy it is to get captured, I’m kind of amazed that no one noticed this “glitch” on the kill screen. Then again, this game was probably only made by like six dudes anyway…
  • Would I play again: I just don’t have twenty minutes to waste.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mario Bros! For the Atari 2600! It’s the classic Nintendo game in classic Atari form! Please look forward to it!

I don't want to leave

FGC #266 Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy

Trevor!The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an incredible game, and, should the Nintendo Switch crash and burn before we even get to see New Donk City, the Switch will be remembered fondly for its remarkable maiden voyage. Yes, there were other launch games, and, yes, Breath of the Wild is also available on the WiiU, but, for a healthy chunk of the gaming population, BoTW is always going to be the Switch, and you can’t buy that that kind of festering nostalgia. Like its ancestors, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, and Wii Sports, BoTW is a game that is going to define gaming for a console generation. BoTW makes one thing clear: We’re here, we’re top tier, and we wanna ride some bears. While there are many, many reasons this is the case, it all boils down to the fact that, from the first moment and until Ganon is in the grave, BoTW is just plain impressive. And, when you’re the ambassador for a whole new videogame system, “impressive” might be more important than anything.

Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy is the least impressive console launch game in history.

The Atari Jaguar might be the worst videogame system ever released (and, as the owner of a Virtual Boy, I don’t use that phrase lightly). For those of you that missed the heady age of the Sega vs. Nintendo days, back during the 16-bit era, Atari attempted to reassert its console dominance with the release of the Jaguar, the first 64-bit gaming system. Unfortunately, that “64-bit” headline legally required asterisk after asterisk, and, spoilers, the system was “64-bit” in the same way that a “Diet Slim Jim” is healthy eating. Aside from the fact that most of the Atari Jaguar library was simply a collection of (marginally) upscaled 16-bit ports, the Jaguar also possessed what may have been the worst controller in gaming history. Look at this abomination:

What?

We’ve got three “action” buttons, a start/select, and a damned contemptible phone pad. What was the reasoning there? No one has ever enjoyed gaming on a phone pad (just ask anybody that tried those 1-900 “phone videogames” back in the 80s… not that I know anyone silly enough to try those things… on their parent’s credit cards… cough…), and it’s just few enough buttons to not work as a keyboard. I guess it could come in handy for a calculator-based videogame, but there is absolutely no part of that phrase that sounds fun at all. And heads up, holding that block of plastic is about as comfortable as attempting to beat Super Metroid with a particularly spiky rock. That is also on fire. And that fire burned off all your flesh and nerve endings long ago, so all you can do is sit and watch in horror as it consumes the last vestiges of your soul. And then your dog tells you she’s leaving you because you smell so horrible. Look, what I’m saying is that playing the Atari Jaguar is not in any way an enjoyable experience.

PEW PEWBut there were people that bought the Atari Jaguar. Not many, mind you, as the system was a flop the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since the last time Atari tried to make videogame consoles, but there was definitely a user base (and, to be clear, I was not an Atari Jaguar early adopter, because Nintendo Power didn’t tell me to buy this system I have excellent taste). This means that, technically, there had to be people that purchased their brand new 64-bit videogame system, and, in a desperate need to see all this new system had to offer, purchased Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy, the only non-pack-in game available at the launch of the Atari Jaguar. This isn’t the demo game! This is the real McFur! The first real game for the first 64-bit system in gaming history. This is going to be marvelous!

And… it’s a lame Gradius clone.

But a shoot ‘em up could have worked! If you look at the Dreamcast (from a far-flung future where Sega crashed and burned as badly as Atari), it seemed to do well with showing off “next gen” graphics on vertical and missile-based shoot ‘em ups. Sure, we’re still talking about “primitive graphics” compared to the likes of Soulcalibur and… Sonic Adventure? Huh. Yeah, maybe a shoot ‘em up is the best way to go. After all, it started the Super Nintendo off well with Gradius 3. Do you remember that stage that was totally on fire? That was rad.

But Trevor McFur doesn’t even muster the raw graphical impressiveness of its 16-bit brethren. What we have here is a “space shooter” with levels that appear to be endless slogs in front of the most generic backgrounds available. There’s something distinctly… No need to dodgelow rent going on here, as if someone made one passable tile, and then copy and pasted it ad nauseam. All of the worlds start in space, which is penny-saver black, and then you’ve got the planets themselves, which are “generic sci-fi fantasy”, save the one level that is inexplicably just a child’s drawings. I guess it’s supposed to be a virtual world or something? Don’t know, don’t care. What I do know is that these stages all feature approximately three different enemies, and they’re repeated about as generously as their tiresome backgrounds. All told, it makes every level seem about five times longer than it really is, because you’ve literally seen everything a stage has to offer within its first few seconds. Except the bosses, which, legitimately, appear to be where the “64-bit graphics” of Trevor McFur went… except they have way too much life and the dumbest patterns, so even those showcase pieces crumble too dust (albeit, not nearly fast enough).

In short, there is nothing about Trevor McFur that encourages you to play the game.

And it’s funny how that complete blunder can sour you on an entire system. The Atari Jaguar has an awful controller, and its smattering of software was terrible. Trevor McFur was just the leader of the first vanguard, it’s not like (the other launch game) Cybermorph, Kasumi Ninja, Zool 2, or (ugh) Atari Karts ever did anything to rectify the situation. There was never any fun to be had on the Atari Jaguar, so it’s no surprise it crashed into the annals of Horrible Videogame History. And, yes, it all started with Trevor McFur, the least impressive launch game ever.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Trevor McFur was never a videogame. Perhaps Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy was nothing more than a warning to others in cartridge form. I suppose it’s a warning a number of people heeded.

FGC #266 Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy

  • System: Atari Jaguar. Just the Atari Jaguar.
  • Number of players: This kind of suffering can only be experienced by one person at a time.
  • What is even happening here?Favorite Powerup: Oh yeah, unless I’m missing a button here, there are a myriad of powerups available, but you have no control over which powerup is used at any given time. Maybe I’m supposed to touch that damn keypad? I’m not doing that. Regardless, one of the powerups summons a little ship dude to help out, and that’s a damn bit more useful than the magnet attack that drags monsters right into Trevor’s windshield.
  • Say something nice: I do like that there’s a full paragraph of “lore” for every planet and monster. They’re not really well thought out (there seems to be no distinguishing between a “planet” and a “moon”), but at least somebody tried the tiniest bit.
  • I just got that: Trevor McFur is a jaguar. Right. Duh.
  • Did you know? Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy was released the last day of November, 1993. Star Fox, a furry-based shoot ‘em up designed to showcase new videogame hardware, was released in North America on March 26, 1993.
  • Would I play again: Does anybody want a used Atari Jaguar?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Home Alone for the NES! Wow, ROB, really great picks here, champ. What’s next? Spice World 2? Bah, please look forward to even more fun!

Rawr