Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I'm Canadian: Wolverine (NES)

Wolverine (NES, 1991)

A cursory glance at Wolverine probably tells you all you need to know: an action platformer for the NES released by those evil scientists at LJN, who specialize in shitting on beloved properties and inflicting tremendous amounts of pain on children everywhere. It must be garbage, you say.

Well, it is and it isn't. It's not as bad as Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six, and not nearly as bad as the atrocity known as The Uncanny X-Men. By all rights it's pretty standard stuff, as Wolverine jumps and punches his way through bog-standard NES levels, eating burgers (no joke) and drinking "Power Potions" (as the manual calls them) to refill health. And you'll need it: using your claws drains your health bar pretty quickly.


Wolverine has been kidnapped, or something, by Sabretooth and Magneto, and placed through a number of trials before he can fight them (no other bosses exist in the game, oddly enough). Each stage is designed around a single theme: aerial platforming, a water level, castle level, fire level, etc. It's not especially imaginative but it's at least cohesive. And maybe we just take for granted how a competent platformer has level design, visual cues, and consistent platforms - but it should be mentioned that this, at least, is never a problem in Wolverine.


What is a problem is that there is a great deal of verticality in most levels, which includes dropping down below into the unseen - like, say, bottomless pits, or insta-death spikes. The game actually starts off easy enough, but later levels are sadistically cruel in the way traps are designed - half the time there's some hazard hiding behind health pickups, for instance. At least when Wolverine dies - which is often - he starts back right where he fell. Which includes directly on top of enemies.


If you have the platforming skills (controls aren't terrible, though the duck and jump tend to stick sometimes), you will still die a lot - merely by coming into contact with enemies. I'll let Wikipedia explain: "Unlike many other NES games, where the player's character is given a grace period of invulnerability after sustaining damage, Wolverine's energy is simply drained for as long as he is in contact with an enemy or hazard." What that really means is that there is no indication, other than your life bar, that Wolverine is taking damage. He doesn't get knocked back; he doesn't so much as flinch.

I hate to keep using the term "unfinished" to refer to bad, old games, but that's precisely how it feels - like someone forgot to add a damage animation, or forgot to program temporary invulnerability. Walk through an enemy, and you will likely die. The problem is compounded by two things: first, Wolverine's reach is so damn short (his health-draining claws don't add much length, either). Which means that, every time you swing, you're just as likely to run into an enemy (and die) than you are to hit him. To make it worse, the game, as early as the first level, relies heavily on very narrow platforms - an enemy might be taking up the whole space. Sometimes the best strategy is to just rush through and hope there's a burger on the other side (that also best describes how I go about my daily life).


And maybe it's just as well - because of the narrow platforms, if Wolverine were to get knocked back every time he took damage - well, the levels would be damn near impossible to get through. That's just how cheap and infuriating the last few are. Apparently there are cameos and associated power-ups from Havok, Jubilee, and Psylocke. I only ever encountered Jubilee in a hidden room - she gives a power-up to let you breathe longer underwater. The water level is so unintuitive and cheap, though, that air supply is the least of your worries. I never saw anything to do with Havok or Psylocke - levels are fairly spacious and encourage exploration, to some extent.


I can at least say I enjoyed the final fight against Sabretooth; instead of killing him (you can't), you must continually knock him back until he falls off the cliff you're fighting on. It's climactic and makes sense within the limits of the characters. The game doesn't look terrible either - you'll find better on the NES in 1991, no doubt, but it's rarely straight-up ugly. The soundtrack is decent, if forgettable, composed by the great Tim Follin's brother Geoff. Ultimately, though, the game is best remembered as an example of how a single design/programming flaw can utterly cripple what otherwise might be a thoroughly mediocre experience.


All screenshots are mine; box art from GameFAQs.

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