Thursday, December 31, 2015

Not Quite the Power Cosmic: Silver Surfer (NES)

Silver Surfer (NES, 1990)

Silver Surfer is not a bad game. I only say that, not because it's a particularly good game, but because it has a pretty bad reputation, often getting lumped in with the likes of Spider-man and (shudder) The Uncanny X-men. Its notoriety, helped in part due to the Angry Video Game Nerd's review, mainly stems from its absurd level of difficulty. Well, there's no denying that, but it still doesn't make it a bad game.

But wait - I'm not here to shake my cane and defend some old-school notion of "challenge," which is most often nostalgia painted over unfair and cheap game design. Hell no! I'm practically a filthy casual these days, and unless it's a game I really love, I rarely play 8-bit games without the use of cheats or at least save states. No, there's no getting around the fact that the level of difficulty in Silver Surfer is brutally steep, almost antagonistic, as if it defies the player to advance.


Gameplay is straight up shmup, usually alternating between horizontal and vertical segments. Galactus has summoned the Surfer and sent him on a mission to hunt down pieces of some cosmic MacGuffin, allowing him to choose, Mega Man style, the order in which he tackles the five missions (with a final sixth). Look, I'll be honest - the shmup genre is so far out of my realm of experience that it would be silly to pretend I know what I'm talking about. What I do is that shmups are frighteningly hardcore, and that Nintendo consoles are rarely the system of choice for genre fans - the NES being too weak and the SNES prone to slowdown. So I'm going to mention that the Surfer has access to a single, upgradeable attack, and a screen-clearing bomb, and I'm going to say this is pretty normal for the genre, and we'll leave it at that.

What I do about the genre is that the games usually don't translate well to consoles, moreso than other genres - most of them being intense arcade material. So the fact that Silver Surfer was developed exclusively for the NES means that it runs smoothly, with hardly any slowdown and only the usual NES transparency. Which is more than we could say for, I don't know, Gradius or Astro Warrior. No really, that's the extent of my shmup experience.


Levels themselves look fine, and they're varied enough - hellish infernos, cosmic spaceways, magic castles, whatever. They're at least cohesive with their respective bosses - though the actual fights are not the screen-filling, slowdown-causing behemoths I associate with the genre, these are some serious deep cuts when it comes to Marvel villains. Mephisto, Firelord, sure - these are recognizable to the Marvel fan. But Reptyl? The Possessor?! Hell, even those don't ring a bell, and I pride myself (well, it's something closer to self-loathing shame) on being able to name obscure Marvel characters.


Ah, but I'm skating around the real issue here: the difficulty. The Surfer should not die in a single hit. He should not die from brushing his shoulder against the wall. He should not die when a frog leaps at him. He should not die from bumping his board against a rubber duck (I'm not joking). But he does. OK, one-hit death, maybe that's not so unusual. And maybe it's not unusual for a shmup hero/ship/whatever to get destroyed when it touches a wall. But there are a couple of problems here: the Surfer's sprite is a little too big, especially on the vertical levels, and the hit box is a little unclear. Enemies never overwhelm you - because it's the NES, I guess - but the walls do.


It's not just the fact that walls are insta-death for our silver friend, but there are so damn many of them. And it's not just walls - damn near anything could spell death. Navigating it all would be hard enough, but it's incredibly difficult to tell what will and won't send the Surfer falling off his board. I don't know much about the genre, but I can't imagine any other game where navigating the environment is so much more heavily emphasized over killing and dodging enemies. But of course the enemies are still there, and some of them fire - and did I mention dying resets level (and upgrade) progress?

Yeah, it's as bad as it sounds. Throw on the invincibility cheat, just to get a glimpse at the entire game - and it's a decent, if unremarkable, little shmup. There are no other interesting mechanics to speak of. Maybe if the NES could handle it, destructible environments would have gone a long way towards making it both more fun and tolerable. And it'd be a crime if I didn't mention the game's music - put simply, it is one of the best soundtracks on the NES, bar none (composed by Tim Follin, one of the more interesting old-school composers out there). It's reason enough to seek the game out, and maybe get a taste of death-by-rubber-duck for yourself.

As always, screenshots are mine and box art from GameFAQs

No comments:

Post a Comment