Monday, February 8, 2016

Hidden Gem: Captain America and the Avengers (NES)

Captain America and the Avengers (NES, 1991)

Not only did Data East make an awesome arcade beat-em-up that kind of reveled in its own dumb sense of Silver Age fun, they ported it to NES like so many other arcade classics. Except "port" isn't the right word; it's a different game entirely. In a time when multi-generation, multi-platform games are just watered down versions of the same thing (or beefed up, depending on your point of view), multi-generation games that were released in the twilight years of the NES and the early years of the 16-bit onslaught were often entirely different games, as was the case with Batman and its sequel Batman Returns.

And let's face it - at this point, the end of 1991, the 16-bit wars are starting and the NES is on the way out; the Janet Jackson to Sega's Boyz II Men, if you will. Which is sort of a shame because Data East's - we'll call it adaptation - of the arcade classic is a solid game in itself. Unlike its big brother, it's standard NES fare - the old standby, the action-platformer - but like the arcade game, its attention to detail and fun superhero vibe help it stand out. And perhaps this is a dubious distinction - but it's the best Marvel game on the NES (perhaps the only good one, really).

Iron Man and Vision are down for the count. The game opens with a map, not so unlike Bionic Commando. As Cap or Hawkeye, you take a superheroic road trip across the U.S., fighting classic Avengers villains along the way. Each hero starts off at two different points on the map; if Cap clears Hawkeye's stage (or vice versa), the pair will move as a team, after which, by simply pausing, you can swap out either hero at any point in the game. This is the central crux of the game, because unlike, say, TMNT, the playstyles for each hero are fairly different. This is a big part of the game's success.

There are situational instances that require one or the other's skillset, but most of the time you're free to play as whomever you please. Captain America has more mobility - he can hang from bars and has a powerful dash attack. His shield goes through walls and is generally more powerful - but he can only throw it when standing, and only in one direction. While standing, it makes for - well, an actual shield that protects from projectiles, and he can use it to float in water or poison. Hawkeye, on the other hand, cannot hang from bars, and has no way to get across water - though in a nice change from the norm, water doesn't kill or even hurt, except for the toxic variety. His arrows are weaker, and they can't go through the environment - but he can shoot them while crouching, or jumping, and can also aim them up or diagonally. It's clear a lot of care went into balancing the game so that both are required to progress, while either can be used most of the time - even more impressive is that each hero's playstyle just feels appropriate to the character and his abilities.

It's a lovely looking game - as a late NES release should be - sound is in good form, and like its arcade brethren, the music is choice. It's one of my personally favorite NES soundtracks - each song is perfectly matched to its hero, and like the arcade game, the hero's theme interrupts the boss theme when the boss is nearly defeated. Beyond that, though, the game just feels right; controls and platforming are smooth, and the physics and enemy placement never leave you feeling cheated (most of the time...). Taking an enemy out with a well-aimed arrow or Cap's dash attack is simply downright satisfying.

Which is good, because you'll be fighting the same enemies for the entire game - dudes with guns and dudes with rocket launchers. Each hero can be upgraded by collecting crystals from little wall pockets - think candles in Castlevania or lanterns in Ninja Gaiden: a bigger health bar, exploding arrows, a wider shield throw radius. It's fun to upgrade, until you realize those same two enemies are also getting stronger; which makes upgrading feel less like an incentive to hunt down crystals and more like a necessity for survival.

And you'll need to actively search for them because most levels are fairly non-linear. Most of them take place in big warehouses (or something), and the main goal of all stages is to hunt down a red orb to unlock the exit. The non-linearity is a big plus, and interspersed between these stages are more linear platforming levels and random mini-bosses. While the music is excellent, you'll be hearing the same two tunes for most of the game; by the same token, the repetitive enemies and warehouse levels grow equally stale about halfway through what is a pretty big game.

Eventually one hero will die - and the remaining Avenger will then need to backtrack through every stage and beat his original level to get him back on your team. It's an absurd and frustrating decision that might ruin the game if we weren't blessed the modern miracle of save states. Eventually you can unlock the Quinjet, which lets you skip over previous cities - at the end of the game. On top of that - there's no save or password function.

And this is not a quick 40-minute game. It's a damn shame, because they got so much else of the game right, including the bosses. Wizard toys with you from off-screen, Crossbones fights in a room full of deathtraps, and Ultron literally brings the city down into rubble as you fight him. A fun little two-player fighting game is also available, which lets one player pick any of the villains. In a nice reference to the game's core crystal power-ups, the Red Skull uses the same crystals to transform into a more monstrous version of himself.

It's a shame the game is either overshadowed by its arcade sibling or else lumped in with the other lousy Marvel NES games. With a few extra months of development time to diversify the enemies and repetitive warehouse levels, and a save or password feature, the game might have been considered one of the best action platformers on the console. Regardless, it's still a joy to play - provided you have a quick save state finger.

All screenshots are my own; box art from GameFAQs

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