Back in May, I talked a little bit about my first exposure to the NES. As someone who didn’t have one, and who was instead gaming on the rival Sega Master System, the NES was not only something I had limited access to, but it was a console I greatly desired. I would try to fool myself into thinking that I didn’t really want one, and that my Master System was better, but absurdity has its limits.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved the Master System. As evidenced by my post about the classic RPG Phantasy Star, it played host to a good number of excellent 8-bit titles. It just couldn’t hold a candle to Nintendo’s marketing, third-party policies, and resulting massive library of games. Even the console-specific print magazines were hilariously mismatched: Nintendo Power was this thick, robust magazine full of features, maps, letters, art, hints, reviews, and cool game advertisements. Meanwhile, Sega Challenge was a tiny, low-budget pamphlet that was maybe 16 pages long. I thought it was cool, but you wouldn’t want to bring it to school. You’d get laughed at, and get laughed at I did.
And so, for the three years that I had my Master System, I quietly enjoyed its games while playing a lot of NES games at my friends’ houses. However, even when I was there playing those games, I’d wind up comparing what I was playing to what I had on the Master System. Usually, what I was seeing on the NES was better.
One that really stands out in my mind is Sega’s Pro Wrestling vs. Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling.
In screenshots, you could argue that in some ways, the Master System version above looks a little better. It’s more colorful, its gameplay is tag-team style, players have energy meters, and the ring itself has some 3D perspective. However, that’s where its so-called advantages end.
The NES version, on the other hand, was just a revelation when I first played it. It not only had a really catchy title screen tune, but it was followed by large, beautiful portraits of each of the game’s wrestlers, with stats and other bits of information that made them feel much more human than the generic cast of the Master System game. It was all the little touches that elevated it as well: The ringside commentators, the cameraman filming the action, the fact that you could go outside the ring, the more realistic wrestler animations and interactions, etc. The list goes on and on.
After playing the NES game, I was embarrassed to even show anyone the Master System title! It had its charms with its super-deformed and very Japanese graphics, but it would never appeal to western audiences the way Nintendo’s game would. It truly was a night and day difference, and it remains one of my all-time favorite wrestling games.
Another pair of titles that showed the stark difference between the consoles was Sega’s own arcade conversion of Out Run and little-known (at the time) Square’s Rad Racer.
Again, upon first glance, the Sega game looks pretty good. The Ferrari Testarossa, the track layouts, and the visuals are a decent approximation of the arcade version, which is still a looker to this day. I remember being quite impressed with the screenshots, and when it finally came out as a 2 megabit (256 KB) cartridge in 1987, I couldn’t wait to play it.
And when I did? Man, was I let down. The graphics were so choppy, and even though I knew it wasn’t going to be as smooth as the arcade due to lack of hardware sprite scaling, it just felt way under-cooked. Most disappointingly, the music barely did the arcade soundtrack justice, which is one of its highlights.
Released the same year on the NES, Rad Racer is basically an Out Run clone right down to the Ferrari and opening beach setting, but without the branching paths. I tried to write it off in my mind as just a cheap copy until I actually played it. Wow, I was blown away yet again! Rad Racer moves along at a brisk 60 frames-per-second compared to the choppy mess that is Out Run on the Master System.
Roadside obstacles and scenery scroll past your vehicle smoothly, and while the graphics themselves aren’t as detailed as they are in Out Run, the smooth framerate, convincingly undulating roadways, and responsive gameplay give it a polished, high-quality feel.
Rad Racer also one-ups its competition by letting the player change the music station from within the game instead of being stuck with one song the entire time. Additionally, it has on-the-fly anaglyph 3D mode, which lets you use the included blue & red 3D glasses for a gaming experience that was very cool and unique at the time.
Being such a popular game, Space Harrier wasn’t immune to this either, with Square once again “paying homage” to it that same year with their own run & gunner, The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner.
Although vastly inferior to the arcade original, I loved the Master System version of Space Harrier. For the hardware it’s on, it looks great, has gigantic, screen-filling bosses, bonus content, and good versions of the game’s iconic music.
It’s somewhat choppy, though, and the techniques used to create such large visuals means there are flat, square-like edges around everything, and that detracts from the overall effect.
By contrast, 3-D WorldRunner is cartoon-like and not very interesting to look at in screenshots, but much like Rad Racer, it’s something entirely different in motion, moving smoothly at a near-constant 60 FPS. It has fun backgrounds like Sega’s own Fantasy Zone, and a similarly lighthearted tone.
While I remember it being criticized for just being a Space Harrier clone, I thought it was unique enough. Sure, it’s set in a very similar world with creatures and obstacles that bear more than a passing resemblance to Sega’s creations, but the run & jump gameplay sets it apart, as does the 3D feature, similar to that found in Rad Racer.
It’s one of those examples where I would say they are as unique as they are alike. I enjoy both games for different reasons, even though one was obviously influenced by the other. As they said in 1996’s Swingers, “Everybody steals from everybody; that’s Hollywood.”
Similarly, we see this — and will continue to see this — all the time in the videogame industry. How many “match three” games are there on Google Play and the Apple App Store? By today’s standards, Space Harrier and 3-D World Runner are very different games.
As an aside, I wish Square would go back and make more games like this again, or at least work with the Japanese developer M2 to make good 3D conversions of them for systems like the Nintendo 3DS.
These are just a few of the many examples of genre and style crossover between the competing consoles. Sega would also bring out games that were déjà vu familiar to what was already on the NES, like Compile’s Golvellius: Valley of Doom. This is what Sega owners got instead of The Legend of Zelda.
Golvellius had great music, and side and vertically scrolling action sequences replaced the dungeons found in Zelda, but the bulk of the game was spent in a very similar overworld, complete with hidden caves, vague hints, shopkeepers, and other near-homologous design elements.
It’s hard to deny that both of the opening landscapes had quite a lot in common, but as a Master System owner used to a slow trickle of quality games, Golvellius went down as one of my favorites back in 1988.
The Legend of Zelda would, of course, go on to become one of the most memorable and timeless classics on any console.
Content is king, as they say, and the NES — despite the many stinkers that called it their home — had so many more great games that victory was a foregone conclusion.
Then there were those times where neither game was all that good. Rambo: First Blood Part II (SMS) and Ikari Warriors (NES) come to mind, which were both part of the popular vertically scrolling military shooters at the time.
Rambo had decent visuals, and the gameplay was rather smooth, but it was slow. Painfully slow.
The thing about both of these games is that they are based on controls that were impossible at home at the time: a joystick that could simultaneously control the on-screen character and independently aim their gun in any of 8 different directions. This meant that at home, whichever way you were facing, that’s where you were firing, making strafing impossible. That was a huge part of Ikari Warriors‘ appeal, and would thankfully be addressed in its follow-up, Victory Road.
And speaking of Ikari Warriors, what a mess. Choppy, simplistic graphics and a pace that felt even slower and more punishing than Rambo. I played this around the same time as Capcom’s 1942 on the NES and remember thinking, “Man, this console absolutely sucks for arcade ports!”, but as I discussed back in May, Rush’n Attack changed my opinion on that completely.
As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there were a lot of games that seemed strikingly similar to one another. It’s interesting to think back on the fact that it was pretty rare for the same game to be on competing consoles, even through the 16-bit era. A few come to mind, like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Earthworm Jim, but it seemed like the exception, rather than the norm.
Each individual system played host to a slew of exclusives you couldn’t play anywhere else, despite their similarities. It’s a very different landscape today, and while it is apples and oranges to this discussion, it’s not so much about having the exclusive title anymore, but more about who has the exclusive content or lead release window.
I wouldn’t mind a return to the basics. Speaking of which, I think I’ll play a little Rad Racer right now.