Junior high was a rough time for me. Not for the reasons you might expect junior high to have been rough for a guy who’s now in his forties and writes about video games. I wasn’t harassed by bullies or painfully awkward around girls or constantly picked last in gym class.
Junior high was rough for me because I didn’t have a Nintendo Entertainment System.
Do you remember that comic book ad with kids making fun of Maxy because the only video games at his house were weird computer games no one had heard of? Well, I was Maxy. While all the other kids at my school were bonding over a common love for Super Mario Bros. and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, the only thing I could add to the conversation was “I finally got through level 18 in Cave Fighter last night.”
“What the $%@& is Cave Fighter?” a big tough kid who’d been held back at least once would growl before asking a kid he should’ve been stuffing into a locker to explain how to get through the last level of Contra.
Well, Carl (the kid’s name was Carl), Cave Fighter is a Commodore 64 game designed by Richard Clark and originally released by Bubble Bus in 1984. It was later included as a free bonus game with a terrible Kung Fu Master knock-off called Snap Dragon, which I bought thinking it would be a good Kung Fu Master knock-off. (How could it not be good? There was holographic foil on the box!) I played Snap Dragon twice, and the second play was really just to confirm that it was as bad as I thought it was after playing it the first time.
I played the $%@& out of Cave Fighter though.
Cave Fighter was, by a wide margin, the most Super Mario Bros. game I owned. It is exactly like Super Mario Bros. in precisely two ways: the action moves predominantly from left to right and there’s a lot of jumping. It stars an unnamed character I like to call Giuseppe, a name that’s exactly like Mario in precisely two ways: it’s Italian and it ends with a vowel. The player guides Giuseppe through 31 caves filled with obstacles such as aliens that will kill Giuseppe if he touches them, walls that will kill Giuseppe if he touches them, water that will kill Giuseppe if he touches it and a timer that will kill Giuseppe if it reaches zero. Basically the only thing Giuseppe can touch is the ground, as long as it’s neither too bumpy nor perfectly smooth, and ropes, which he must be perfectly centered over to hold on to.
Giuseppe can shoot in eight directions by holding down the fire button and moving the joystick. Holding the fire button down while the joystick is centered causes him to squat and build up Jump Power. When the button is released, Giuseppe will launch himself into the air, how high and far depending on how much Jump Power has been built up. Too much and he’ll hit the ceiling and die. Too little and he’ll hit the edge of a platform and die.
There’s a lot of dying in Cave Fighter. It’s a brutally difficult game that requires precise movement as well as some planning to determine the best route. As numerous as the deaths are, they rarely feel cheap, although a randomly placed alien will sometimes be in a spot that makes continuing impossible. Fortunately you can begin a game at any level, allowing you to easily pick up where you left off or skip a particularly annoying stage, and give yourself as many as 99 lives, providing yourself with plenty of chances to make it through that particularly annoying stage.
I did finally get a Nintendo Entertainment System. In college. And I played some Super Mario Bros. and some Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, I even played a few games of Contra. Objectively, all of them are better video games than Cave Fighter (and not one of them was ever tossed in with another game for free), but none of them made me to play until I couldn’t see straight the way Cave Fighter did.