We continue our look at all 30 NES black box titles with this penultimate post, which includes such favorites as Mario Bros. and Popeye. These early games for the console continue to resonate with our bidders and with gamers in general, and they are easily recognizable not only by the box coloring but also by the iconic 8-bit box art style, which was much different than the elaborate paintings on the Atari 2600 game boxes of the previous generation. Thanks to their desirability and recognizability, these games frequently appear in our auctions and always garner plenty of attention.
14. Hogan’s Alley
After getting my original NES for Christmas in 1987 when I was 20 years old, Hogan’s Alley was one of the first games I bought because I loved the 1984 VS. arcade version and because the screenshots looked just like the coin-op game’s graphics. I liked Duck Hunt, but I spent a lot more time with this lesser-known, but still popular light gun shooter.
A system launch title, the game has players pointing Nintendo’s Zapper gun at the screen, firing at targets. In game A, three panels appear in a row, facing sideways. The three panels will then turn in unison, displaying a drawing of a person on each panel. Players should shoot the gangster panels (there are three types of gangsters) while avoiding the lady, the professor, and the policeman. In game B, similar rules apply, but with panels appearing in the windows of buildings and around said buildings. Game C is Trick Shot, in which spinning cans move from right to left across the screen. Players must shoot the cans to keep them from falling too far and to guide them to platforms of varying point values.
Hogan’s Alley is a fun game that works well with the Zapper, but it does have one flaw. In the arcade original, you can experience all three game types in one play session, but here they are all separated into different modes, which was a baffling choice by Nintendo. Even so, I have great memories of the game.
15. Ice Climber
Ice Climber never came close to the popularity of such similar titles as Donkey Kong or Popeye. Still, it’s a solid game in its own right, especially for us nostalgia enthusiasts who miss these types of simple games where climbing is a big part of the action. In this game, you are armed with an ice hammer and you must scale 32 multi-leveled mountains. Each mountain is basically a series of platforms, many of them covered in ice. To achieve your mountain-climbing goal, you must break holes in the floors above you so you can jump up to higher and higher platforms. While you scale the slopes, creatures called Toppies will sometimes fill in the holes you have made. Also, polar bears will cause avalanches, and Nitpicker birds—first seen in Donkey Kong Jr.–and other pests will try to knock you off of the mountains. You can clock these creeps with your hammer to remove them from the screen. When you make it to the top of each mountain, you will enter a timed bonus round where you gather vegetables (we LOVE bonus rounds here at Heritage!).
You can play Ice Climber by yourself or, better yet, team up with a friend. If you ascend a mountain too rapidly in the two-player mode, your partner is left behind, biting the proverbial dust. The controls aren’t as smooth as those in Donkey Kong or Popeye, but Ice Climber, a system launch title, oozes with old-school charms and challenges.
16. Kung Fu
For many gamers who grew up during the NES launch era, Kung Fu was their first experience playing a side-scrolling beat-’em-up. A nice port of the 1984 Data East arcade classic Kung-Fu Master, the game helped pave the way for such iconic titles as Double Dragon and Final Fight, making it an underrated title in terms of historical importance. It wasn’t the first beat-’em-up, but it certainly helped popularize the genre.
In this landmark game, players guide a kung fu expert named Thomas as he runs, jumps, punches, kicks (including jump kicks), and crouches his way through a barrage of knife throwers, grippers (who hug players and deplete their health), fire-breathing dragons, poisonous moths, and other baddies. Enemies steadily attack from the left and right.
During this mission to save his girlfriend Sylvia, Thomas will also fend off confetti balls and other items that drop from the ceiling, and he’ll engage in boss battles with such characters as Boomerang Fighter, Black Magician (who can grow back parts of his body), Stick Fighter (wields a whirling stick), Giant (slow, but powerful with a hard punch), and The Gang Leader, Mr. X (a master of all martial arts). The simple fighting action is dated (not to mention brief), but it is fun, and the game is a system launch title that holds a special place in the hearts of many early NES owners.
17. Mach Rider
It’s easy to forget that Mach Rider is a futuristic racer, but it takes place in the year 2112. Players drive a speedy motorcycle down winding highways, firing a machine gun at enemy vehicles while avoiding rocks, oil spots, oil drums, water, tacks, and bomber balls. The enemies all have the same design (post-apocalyptic three-wheelers), but they do come in six different colors and strengths, ranging from one shot to destroy the pink vehicles to six shots to destroy the black ones. You not only pass enemy vehicles, but enemies will come up from behind, and they can be tough to dodge. You can elect to race without enemies as well.
If you drive slowly or crash you lose energy, so keeping a good pace and using your reflexes to steer quickly is important. Shifting through the four gears is important as well for going fast. Your motorcycle has no brakes, but you can downshift to slow your speed. Driving on the shoulder also slows you down. Mach Rider is part of Nintendo’s Programmable Series; in Design Mode, you can use 37 different course parts to create (but not save) your own tracks.
Released in 1985, Mach Rider is a system launch title that will remind many gamers of Sega’s Hang-On, an arcade game from the same year that was later ported to Nintendo’s 8-bit rival, the Master System console. Needless to say, Mach Rider and the NES far outsold Hang-On and the Master System.
18. Mario Bros.
It makes me crazy when people shorten “Super Mario Bros.” to “Mario Bros.” when discussing the iconic side-scrolling platformer because it confuses things terribly. It also undercuts the greatness of the earlier title, the superlative-less Mario Bros., which is one of my favorite two-player games of all time.
Adapted from Nintendo’s 1983 arcade classic (created by legends Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi), which featured the debut of Luigi and established Mario (formerly Jumpman) as a plumber, Mario Bros. finds Mario and Luigi hard at work doing some underground plumbing. Creatures called Shellcreepers (turtles), Sidesteppers (crabs), and Fighterflies begin coming out of the pipes, complicating matters for our heroes. The brothers must knock these sewer pests into oblivion before the timer runs out.
You control Mario, and a second player can join in as Luigi. After you defeat all the creatures, you move on to the next level. The playfield is comprised of seven platforms and a brick floor. To stun a creature, you must get directly under it and jump, effectively punching the platform it is walking on. While the creature lies motionless, you hop up to where it is and knock it off the screen before it has time to recover. If it does get back on its feet, it will become faster and therefore harder to stun. You can stun or revive all the onscreen creatures simultaneously by hopping under a “POW” button that appears near the lower portion of the screen.
In the super entertaining two-player mode, you can work together or, better yet, sabotage one another, in part by bumping each other into creatures and fireballs. In later levels, both players must be wary of Freezies, which spread out and harden, making the platforms slippery. If you haven’t played two-player Mario Bros., you are missing out on some serious fun.
As a “pinball wizard” of sorts back in the day, racking up tons of free games on real pinball tables like Firepower, Hot Hand, and Dolly Parton, I really liked shoving the machine to influence the direction of the ball. Unfortunately, unlike many pinball video games, Pinball for the NES lacks a way for you to “nudge” the table to achieve similar results. Despite this glaring absence, it is a solid virtual version of the popular pastime, and it even includes an appearance by a certain Nintendo mascot.
The table for the game, which features bumpers, playing cards, seals, baby chicks popping out of eggs, spinners, and other targets, is basic in design and extends vertically over two non-scrolling screens, each of which has a pair of flippers. There’s also a bonus stage screen–reachable by hitting the ball into a side pocket–where players guide Mario as he walks back and forth along the bottom of the playfield, using a construction girder to rebound the pinball back up into a playfield containing 12 bingo lamps, two bumpers, and a lady who walks back and forth along the top. When the damsel in distress falls, Mario should save her.
There’s music during the title screen and right as the play begins, but then it stops, making for a fairly quiet experience, so you might want to crank up some tunes on your stereo while you play. Selectable options influence ball speed and the game’s overall difficulty.
A cute, colorful climbing game (aka non-scrolling platformer), Popeye lets you control the famous spinach-loving sailor. In each of the three rounds of play, Brutus, your big, bearded foe, chases you around a series of platforms, ladders, and stairways, trying to punch you out. You must grab all the items your gal pal Olive Oil floats down from the top of the screen: hearts, love notes, and letters spelling out HELP. The first two rounds are played on basic platforms while the third takes place on a boat. You are powerless against Brutus unless you eat the can of spinach you’ll find on each level of play. This temporarily gives you the ability to punch him off of the screen.
In addition to dealing with Brutus, you must avoid or punch flying bottles, bouncing skulls, and the Sea Hag’s vulture Bernard (you must be energized by spinach to punch out a vulture). During the second stage, watch for floating baby Swee’Pea, who you can bounce up to and grab for extra points.
Yeah, there’s a lot going on here for a simple game, and it’s a bucket of fun. The game is based on Nintendo’s 1982 arcade classic, and it’s only missing a few minor flourishes, including the “Popeye!! Catch” text and Popeye holding out a flower at the beginning of the game, Wimpy eating hamburgers during the second screen, and the celebratory giant Popeye face that appears after the third stage. These things don’t affect gameplay, so no biggie.
Donkey Kong was originally going to be a Popeye game, but the licensing deal hit a snag. Luckily, things eventually worked out for Nintendo, and the comic strip/cartoon character got a game of his own. And a very good one at that!
21. Pro Wrestling
“A Winner is You!”
Yes, Pro Wrestling for the NES is responsible for this internet meme. The broken English congratulatory remark appears after you beat the match opponent, and the phrase began spreading online in 2004, giving the game added notoriety beyond being a quality black box title.
A favorite among many retro wrestling fans, the game offers enjoyably simple gameplay and nice visual detail, including a referee, a cameraman, and an animated crowd. There are six wrestlers from which to choose, each with fairly similar fighting moves, and each with one or two unique special moves. Playable characters include judo expert Fighter Hyabusa (back brain kick); super space-traveler Starman (somersault kick, flying cross chop); living karate tool Kin Corn Karn (Mongolian chop, karate kick); ultimate human weapon Giant Panther (iron claw, head butt); half-piranha, half man The Amazon (piranha bite, outlaw choke); and cold-blooded warrior King Slender (backbreaker).
Players engage in a series of five-minute matches, culminating in a ﬁght against the mysterious Great Puma, a.k.a. “the perfect wrestler.” Throws, top-of-the-ring jumps, and fighting outside the ring are all part of the fun. When wrestling another gamer, it’s a two-out-of-three fall match with no time limit—the first wrestler to pin his opponent twice wins. As with many of these types of games, two-player is the way to go for the most fun.
But Wait, There’s More…
Stay tuned to this site for our Collectors Guide to NES Black Box Games – Part 4 where we’ll cover the final nine titles in the iconic series.
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