Come and reminisce about the first five years of Nintendo games.
By Benjamin Turner & Christian Nutt

Faxanadu (1988 USA)

I consider a few games I like to be guilty pleasures, and this is one of them. Even when it came out, Faxanadu's gameplay felt a little stiff and rusty, but the enticing combination of dark, moody visuals and timelessly catchy music made it an action / RPG worth playing. Incidentally it was developed by Falcom, a company that would soon win renown for its Ys series of action / RPGs. This is one of their B titles, but an enjoyable one.

I tried to enjoy this game at the time, but I found it frustrating and confusing. I've gone back to it since and I can definitely see its charms. I became a Falcom devotee on the TurboGrafx, thanks to Ys, so I learned a bit of trivia: Faxanadu is a collusion of Famicom and Xanadu. Xanadu is a popular Falcom game series in Japan, and when they did an original game in it for the Famicom, that's how they named it. I love stupid little factoids like that.

The Final Fantasy Series

Final Fantasy
In 1987, thanks to a number of missteps, Square was in danger of fading away into nothingness, so it used its remaining resources to create what it thought would be its swan song: Final Fantasy. So the story that explains the series' title goes, anyway. I just knew the game had a cool title and looked like the kind of thing I was starting to get interested in, and when my best friend Jeff called me to clue me in to how it was cooler than I'd even dreamed, I couldn't wait to check it out. The first Final Fantasy, which debuted in the U.S. three years after its Japan debut (just like Dragon Warrior before it), was Nintendo attempting to get Americans interested in RPGs again. Anecdotally, I'd say it was more effective, since FF was a much more fully-realized game than the first DW, and I know that my friends and I responded.

Final Fantasy III
Of course, Japanese kids loved it even more. After Final Fantasy hit in December of 1987 and made waves, Square prepared a sequel for almost exactly a year later, debuting Final Fantasy II in December of 1988. Final Fantasy III appeared in April of 1990, before the original Final Fantasy had even hit U.S. gamers. Square had, probably on the strength of Rad Racer, decided to open a U.S. branch to distribute its own NES games. With the rise of the SNES in 1991 concurrent with the release of Final Fantasy IV, Square ignored FFII and III in favor of the newer model. Of course, at the time I had no clue -- I was just amazed at how much better "Final Fantasy II" was than the original. Thankfully, the recently released Final Fantasy Origins compilation for PlayStation offers FF and FFII in excellently remade form, so you can see just how bizarre the gameplay systems at the core of FFII really are.

Goonies II: Fratelli Saigo no Chousen / The Goonies II (1987 USA)

The vast majority of NES-based movie games are crap. Not so with Goonies II, one of the highlights of Konami's early library. The game featured the Cyndi Lauper hit "The Goonies R Good Enough" as background music in the first area, and it featured a lengthy quest split across two sides of a labyrinthine corridor system. I really enjoyed this game, but I didn't actually ever manage to beat it. It was long and hard, but a lot of fun to explore. In fact, I don't think I know anyone who beat it without the assistance of the maps in The Official Nintendo Player's Guide. The title referred to the fact that there had been a previous Famicom Goonies game that didn't come to the U.S., but I think most kids I knew thought it was supposed to be a sequel to the movie. Since you had to rescue trapped Goonies and Annie the Mermaid, it certainly didn't relate to the movie I knew and loved.

But that's not a bad thing. After finally seeing The Goonies recently, I was appalled at how annoying those kids were. I mean, really. Little jerks!

Highway Star / Rad Racer (1987 USA)

Nintendo didn't have a realistic driving game, so it co-opted one released in Japan by Square, who hadn't quite hit the U.S. yet. Rad Racer was surprisingly compelling for an early effort from a (then) no-name developer. The sense of speed is appreciable, with twisty roads and a road that doesn't just look flat -- nice hills and swoops, even if they don't make much of a difference in the gameplay. I borrowed this one from a neighbor and remember being pleasantly surprised by it. The title sucks, though -- the Japanese moniker, Highway Star, sounds much less dated these days. There was some sort of gimmick involving those cardboard red/blue 3D glasses but I gave up on that after only a few minutes. Square would later release Rad Racer II in the U.S., but nobody noticed.

The Mega Man Series

Mega Man
Celebrating the 15th anniversary of Mega Man is bittersweet, as the series doesn't exactly resemble its origins. Whether you look at the downward-trending Mega Man X games or the compelling RPGs of the Mega Man Battle Network series, the original hero is nowhere to be found -- and he originally meant so much. I picked up the first Mega Man game based on some images I'd seen in a rip-off of The Official Nintendo Player's Guide published by some other company. I remembered wondering how such a cool-looking game had slipped past me and everyone I knew. By 1988, it was hard to find Mega Man in stores, but it was well worth it.

Mega Man II
When Mega Man II hit in 1989, everyone knew it was awesome and it was one of those "it" games the NES was jammed with. I couldn't help like feeling I got in at the ground floor, so to speak. The second Mega Man game did some impossibly cool stuff with the NES -- stealing your enemies' weapons had originated in the first game, and it was as cool as ever, but the giant bosses from the second game's final levels blew everyone away, along with its catchy music, great level design, neat enemies, and excellent variety.

Mega Man III
It was followed up in 1990 by Mega Man III, which is my favorite MM game for NES. Opinions are divided over whether II or III is the pinnacle, but I couldn't have been more into the third installment. I even, with the help of a friend, figured out a way to turn designing Mega Man levels and enemies into a school project. The Mega Man sequels soldiered on even as most developers left the NES behind; Capcom released IV in 1991 and V in 1992, with Nintendo releasing VI in the U.S. due to Capcom's disinterest in the series as the quality decreased. The series' next great installment after III was Mega Man 8 for the Saturn and PlayStation, to my mind, though the original Mega Man X for SNES hit all the right buttons, too. I'm still waiting for Capcom to announce Rockman 9.

Metal Gear (1988 USA)

Hideo Kojima's legacy of tactical espionage action began on the Japanese MSX computer, and continued here, in this capable port to the Famicom. While the English version is known for its loopy translation ("I feel asleep!") as much as its gameplay, Metal Gear really was a very innovative action / adventure game. Before playing it, I had never even considered using the element of stealth as a gameplay mechanic, and it took quite a while to adjust and figure out how to cope. I'm not sure what new players would think of it today, but I do know this: At least it doesn't have 30 minute codec conversations about your nerdy operator's oedipal past.

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Crazy Old Square

Square didn't always used to be RPG heavy. They continue to dabble in other genres with mixed results to this day, but in the early days of Famicom they were extremely experimental -- so much so that, as has been mentioned countless times, they almost went out of business until they were saved by the popularity of Final Fantasy. One of their early experiments (1986) was to set up a collective publishing group called DOG -- "Disk Original Group" -- to publish Famicom Disk System games. This experiment didn't go over so well, and DOG was abandoned.

Square, of course, also developed the hideous King's Knight, a medieval fantasy shooter that debuted on the Famicom in 1986 -- it came here in 1989 after Square USA was formed, but if you've played it, you know it never should have (despite the cool cover art.) Rad Racer, of course, was a Square creation. Of course, the success of Final Fantasy settled them down into their RPG niche pretty quickly. One of the most amusing Square games that didn't come here was Square's Tom Sawyer, an RPG starring the happy-go-lucky boy wonder that featured a ... racially insensitive ... character. PlayStation showed a return to experimental form, with surprise non-RPG hits like Einhander and Tobal 2.

The Hollywood Curse

Along with the Atari 2600, the NES helped create the considerable stigma that floats around movie-licensed video games. For whatever reason, games like The Goonies II were the exception, and the considerable majority just tended to suck. A few of the worst:

Total Recall: You'll be craptivated by Acclaim's 1990 opus of utter worthlessness. It's almost inconceivable that such a solid action movie (which is almost like a video game itself) could be turned into such a horrible video game, but the developers at Interplay did a stunning job. Total Recall is so bad that it's actually funny; we laughed out loud when, two seconds into the game, a midget pulled Arnold into an alley and started beating the crap out of him. Once he struggled out of the alley, a car whizzed by and emitted two small, unidentifiable objects, which traveled diagonally upwards in the most curious fashion. Our curiosity was spent, though.

Back to the Future: You think Back to the Future was an exciting movie? Guess you haven't seen the director's cut, in which Marty valiantly struggles to walk up a street without tripping on oil puddles, hula-hoop girls and small plants. The geniuses at Beam Software decided to base their game on all this excised footage, and the result is... well, stultifying. And the music ... oh god, the music. Just... we can't talk about it anymore.

Back to the Future Parts 2 & 3: You'd think that after the last game Acclaim would have given the license to another developer. You'd be wrong. Suffice to say, Beam Software did it again. They freaking did it again. Wild Gunman, fire at will.