Version tested: GameBoy Advance
The idea of making ancient games available for a low price is a worthy one that we wish we saw more of. Some of us here at EG towers have been keeping RSI at bay for over two and a half decades now, and a quick trip down memory lane now and then can be a wonderful and terrifying thing. On one hand, the gameplay often transcends terrifyingly bad visuals; on the other, sometimes we simply find out that the things that impressed us back when we didn't know better have long since been superseded, and game mechanics we once took for granted have been booted out of the door for a very very good reason.
Still, regardless of whether the net result is enjoyable or not, it's nice to satisfy your curiosity about the past in either case. But how much should we have to fork out as a tourist to our past? A tenner? Fiver? One ninety-nine? It depends on the game, obviously, but the older the game, the less you should be expected to pay. While the world of literature, music and movies is littered with classic ancient back catalogue that ages like a fine wine, ageing games, for the most part, resemble mouldy old cheese.
How about a NES Classics compilation, Nintendo?
Usually publishers wisely gather up a whole bunch of old 8-bit titles and whack them out as part of some kind of catch-all anthology to give the product maximum sales potential. Think of the Namco Museum series, the Atari Anthology or Midway's Arcade Treasures. Twenty-odd games for less than the price of one. Nintendo, however, believes its mid-80s NES back catalogue is good enough to warrant re-releasing them all individually. Last year we saw eight individual releases, comprising Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Bomberman, Super Mario Bros., and other less well-known titles like Xevious, Excitebike and Ice Climber, and they evidently proved so popular that we're now treated to a second range, all retailing at roughly half the average price of a new GBA title.
Here in Europe we're used to paying more for our games than our Stateside counterparts, so although they're roughly $20 over there, we're paying £14.99 ($28), or �19.99 ($26) - not quite the impulse purchase you'd expect. In truth, if Nintendo was releasing a series of ten-game NES compilations for that price, we'd still have to suggest you think twice, unless you're some sort of ardent mass collector with endless reserves of spare cash. To put it bluntly, you're not going to be buying any of these NES Classics titles on the basis of value for money, so get over that hurdle right away. In fact we'd go as far as to note that next to the current quality levels we're all used to they're blatantly over-priced. But Nintendo knows full well how loyal and completist a lot of its audience is, and knows that there's a market for these games, no matter how nonsensical the pricing is.
In the case of the actual line-up, they sound remarkably attractive purchases on paper. The original versions of games which have long been part of the established gaming order like Castlevania, Metroid, Zelda II and Dr. Mario? How could they possibly be anything less than brilliant? They're legendary! Etcetera. There are doubtlessly a bunch of retro-obsessed gamers out there that doggedly believe many of these games are wonderful, but as someone who lived through that era of gaming, this writer firmly believes that a lot of past games people evangelise weren't even that much cop in the context of what was out then, never mind now. The legend that builds up around certain franchises can cloud the issue. Let's waft away some of the smoke and smash the mirrors. Join us today and tomorrow as we tackle the latest batch of titles - Dr. Mario, Zelda II, Metroid and Castlevania.
Doctor Doctor. Can't you see I'm burnin' burnin'?
In the case of Dr. Mario, this fantastically addictive puzzle title is one of those perfect retro games that will probably never truly date, unlike virtually everything else released at the time. As a game that took the Tetris concept, moved it sideways, rotated it 90 degrees and slotted it into a narrow fissure (why, we'll probably never know), it's one of those games that you can't really improve upon by putting it in 3D and jazzing up the visuals. As with a lot of games of this era, they simply don't work as well out of their cosy 2D environs.
As a fairly basic 2D puzzler, it may look as straightforward as they come, but is still as playable, addictive and maddening as it was back in 1990. The basic principle, in case you're wondering how Mario ended up having a brief dalliance with the medical profession, involves directing coloured shapes as they descend from top to bottom of a rectangular playing field. A bit like Tetris, except here you have to link same-coloured units together into lines of four, rather than creating horizontal lines out of anything that happens to fall out of the sky.
Unlike Tetris, though, there's something else here that disrupts the simplicity of the concept slightly - but only in a good way. In Dr Mario, the basic block-shuffling is upset by viruses, which appear as blocks of colour that impede the space beneath them. Align four blocks of same colour vertically or horizontally and the virus is vanquished. And so it goes on - until the blocks descend faster and force you into making mistakes, with the game ending once the field of play reaches the upper limit.
£14.99? Maybe in a billion years' time
Now, we're not scoring the Classic NES Series, you'll note, because however good or bad the games themselves may be, any figure tacked on the end would be almost impossible to justify, and largely arbitrary. Do you put it in the context of modern games? Of older ones? Do you ignore the price? Do you let the price determine the score almost single-handedly? It's easier, for everyone concerned, if we simply make it clear under what circumstances we'd consider buying it, if indeed we would at all. So, on that basis, if money is of no consideration whatsoever, think of Dr. Mario as a nice reminder of the way puzzle games used to be, and fork over your readies. It's a bit like buying magic beans. Otherwise, go and find Tetris. Or Columns. Or Mr. Driller. Etcetera. Because the chances are you won't find enough value lurking here in this day and age.