Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bill & Ted's (not so) Excellent Video Game Adventure

The NES era of games can be described by either using the opening line of a Tale of Two Cities, or perhaps by the ending line of the nursery rhyme about the girl with just one curl. What I mean is, there are some really great games on this system, and there are also absolutely terrible ones. Since the internet didn't exist in the 1980s there were two ways for you to get information about a game before you played it - gaming magazines, mostly Nintendo Power, or through word of mouth via your friends. Nintendo Power wanted you to buy their games, so you weren't going to find a bad review in its pages. There were so many games out there chances are your friends hadn't played them yet. So really you just went to the video store to rent, or maybe you were really lucky and got to buy one, and you hoped for the best.

At the video store, all of the games were lacking boxes with descriptions and most of them didn't include the manuals. So you looked at the sticker on the cartridge and the words and art posted there were all you had to go by. If the game was based on a movie, tv show, or cartoon you liked, chances are you were going to want to rent it. I imagine the kids with more spending money than I also took the leap and purchased these games for similar reasons. Video game companies realized this and jumped on the chance to purchase these licenses and create games off them. Unfortunately, most often the majority of the game's budget was spent on purchasing the license and not on actually developing a good game. These days we get awful licensed games because they are often rushed to release date to coincide with movie releases. In the eighties a lot of times this wasn't really an issue as the game would often come out long after the movie. Bill & Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure for the NES was released two and a half years after the movie came out, so there's really no excuse beyond LJN wanting to cash in on the movie's popularity with minimal effort. LJN was notorious for doing this. Scanning the list on this page, I can only find one game I liked out of their entire catalog.

My experience with this game in my youth mirrors a lot of other bad games we rented from this period. Pick it out, bring it home, load it into the console. Watch the intro then attempt to start playing the game with the very little information provided. Attempt to get used to the controls while also trying to figure out what you're supposed to do. End up dying a lot and making no progress until we eventually see the game over screen. At this point we would either 1)Search our Nintendo Power issues for any possible clues to the game, 2)Try again, often with mostly the same results, 3)Go to Dad and tell him we need to bring this one back and get another one. Option 3 rarely worked and mostly resulted in going back to Option 2 and trying to make the most of it for the rest of the weekend, or just flat out giving up and playing something else.

Pretty good for 8 bit, no?

The intro of the game sets up the basic premise, with Rufus telling both Ted and Bill (in separate phone booths) that rebels have misplaced various historical figures in the wrong time periods and it is now up to you to put them back in the right place. That's a decent enough set up for the game. Trying to actually recreate the movie probably would have resulted in you just grabbing historical figures from their own time period, so this little twist helps to make it a little more interesting.

I'm ashamed I can't tell you where in the movie this pic is from.
Whenever they talk, you get these cute images taken directly from the movie next to their speech bubbles.

I'm pretty sure this is from the final report though.
Though they don't always make the most sense..

I'm pretty sure this is Bill smiling after Lincoln name drops him in his speech.
Bill's sprite looks NOTHING like him at all.

I'm not sure again.  Fail.
But at least he talks like him.

Rufus' sprite has a face, but the two main characters do not. I've had nightmares about things like that.

The items at your disposal are pudding cups, firecrackers, a textbook, and a cassette tape. While the firecracker is completely out of left field, the others all make sense. You travel through time by dialing a number for the time period, and once you do you'll go to a screen where you travel through the circuits of time to reach your destination.

The problem with this game is all in the execution. After the intro, you'll be brought to the phone book which lets you flip through the pages. Each page contains a different historical figure and their phone number.

Apparently Al Capone lives in Hell. Type his number on a calculator if you don't know what I'm talking about.

At first you might think you can just pick one and dial, but you actually need to flip all the way through to find the one that has a second number in red flashing underneath it. This number is the area they are currently displaced in. You'll need to go there first to find the person.

Trust me when I tell you it's actually flashing in the game.
The place you need to go will always be the same number for each level. But you have to flip through the book anyway because it'll help you to know who you're looking for.

The phonebooth is a pay phone, so if you dial the wrong number you've just wasted some of the few precious coins you're allowed in the game. Inside the circuits of time you'll see the numbers laid out along the path. You also get a red circle that you can move, but there's no kind of instruction whatsoever as to what you are supposed to do with it.

Attempting to select a number or the phone booth by themselves doesn't do anything. You'll just watch the phone booth move from number to number until you eventually reach the last digit and it brings you to your destination. Apparently you can select the phone booth while it's over a number and somehow fling it forward ahead in the numbers, thereby saving you some coins. But if there's a way to control the phone booth's direction when you do this, I couldn't figure it out.

At this point you learn you are playing as Ted. You're in a medieval setting and there's a lot of peasants all around you. Some are standing still, others are walking around peacefully, and still others are running with their arms out. The ones standing will give you some kind of vague hint or an item. After you finish talking to them, they will turn into the walking peasant. The walking peasants are mad that you bumped into them and so they will demand one of your coins. Once you run out of coins, they send you to jail. The running types are already in pissed off mode and out to get you, and if they catch up to you or you accidentally run into them, they will also put you in jail. You're given skeleton keys at the beginning of the level and once you run out of keys to let yourself out of jail with, it's game over. Basically, going to jail is the equivalent of losing a life in this game.

You're probably cursing at this point.
You will see this screen A LOT.

The problem with those standing peasants turning into walking peasants is that logic is going to make you stand in front of them to talk to them and chances are you're not going to move out of the way before they start walking. Logic is also going to make you press B or A to talk to them the first time, but in fact in this game you just bump into them to do so. If you hit A you jump, and if you hit B you will throw an item which will result in the person running away from you. When you jump in this game, 9 times out of 10 you fall on your butt. You then have to watch the character shake his head a few times before he will stand up and you can move again. For the life of me I can't figure out why this happens except to be really annoying. Of course when you're stuck like that, you've got a pretty good chance that the walking or angry peasants are going to run into you and most likely throw you in jail.

This is the second most common sight you will see, with just the background changing.

After no doubt running out of coins and getting thrown in jail at least a few times, you've now figured out that you should approach the standing peasants from behind or the side in order to speak to them. You may have also been lucky enough to figure out what the items do. When you throw the pudding cup the peasants run after it because who doesn't love pudding. When you throw the firecracker, they all run away from it to avoid the explosion. Throwing the textbook will make everyone on screen disappear and throwing the cassette tape will make everyone stop and dance for a short while. Basically, the items are there to try to help you avoid the walking and angry peasants and get to your destination.

You might think that would be a huge help, but the movement controls are not very responsive and it makes it really hard to dodge and weave. On top of that, sometimes it's ok to walk on the grass and sometimes it's not. I found myself jumping frequently just to get Ted to move at all. It's maddening.

Eventually the standing peasants will tell you what direction to find your historical figure in. They will also tell you that "something strange" can be found in a certain direction. Chances are on first run through you're going to try to make it to the historical figure, right? Who cares about the other items, I'm trying to win the game here. Unfortunately, the historical figure is not going to come with you unless you find a specific item that serves as bait to convince them. These can actually be quite funny.. Sitting Bull needs a lawn chair, for instance. But first you have to find the stuff.

There are some buildings you can enter and there will be people inside. You talk to them and you're given usually two or three choices to respond to them. Say something too rude, and they'll throw you in jail. Say something just wrong, and they'll tell you to go away. Hit the lucky string of answers and they'll give you a clue just like the random standing guys outside. Logically you would think you would scroll through your answer choices by either moving the D pad (possibly up and down or left and right) or maybe even pushing select. But no, you scroll through the choices with A and select one with B. If you didn't notice the little tiny 1 next to your first answer, you might not realize you even have a choice in what to say at all.

The peasants kept telling me I could find something strange "in a tree near the stable," "at the last fence," "at the crossroads," "at the four rocks," and even once "nearby." The problem is there's no marker at all for these objects, and all you literally do is walk around and hope you'll stumble on them. You can't use any of the buttons to search, you just have to hope you hit the right pixel marker eventually.

This poor horse looks really bored, doesn't he?
Ok, there's a horse here, is this the stable? I tried touching that tree plus a couple more slightly above it, but didn't find anything.

You can also ride the horse, but it's so hard to control you'll get knocked off him almost immediately.

Just looking at this image makes me groan.
Someone told me to find the rock by the end of the river. For the longest time, I couldn't find the river. When I finally stumbled upon a body of water, I couldn't walk. So I had to keep clumsily jumping to try to go down as far as I could. If you end up jumping into the water, it will take you all the way back to the start. It turns out I found the wrong end of the river. I painfully jumped through at least 6 screens of river just to find out I was supposed to find the opposite end first, jump into a canoe, and I'm guessing I would have to collide with the right rock in the river and THEN I could finally get the item. Well, after jumping all the way down the very long river, I accidentally jumped over the canoe and it brought me all the way back down to the end.

So, that's it. I did as much as my sanity could take. But I couldn't find a single object and I couldn't find Rembrandt.

Luckily these days there is and I was able to get the password to the second level. This one is located in the old west, and you get to play as Bill.

Where does Bill keep those items without the backpack?
Look, it's different!

I don't want to know what that crate's for.
Oh, wait. No it's not.

So that's as far as I got. Perhaps with a larger amount of time, I could have gotten further, and had I used save states via a ROM I could have tried and tried again and reduced some of my frustration. But I wanted to recreate the experience you would have originally had playing this game back then. I wasn't completely authentic because I did check a walkthrough to help gain some extra knowledge. A huge shout out to Wilson Lau for compiling this walkthrough 9 years ago because I wouldn't have been able to do as much as I did without it. If you're crazy enough to want to give the game a try yourself, I highly recommend consulting that to help you with talking to the people in the houses and knowing what bait you need for each historical figure.

Another small note: The music in the game is ok, even if it's not the power metal you hear in the movie. The strange thing is it doesn't loop. It will play for a set time, then leave you to do the rest of the level in silence. I'm not really sure what that's all about.

Shut up, Rufus.

There were also B&T games for the Gameboy, Atari Lynx, and the PC. The gameboy game seems to be actually loosely based on Bogus Journey (and I do mean loosely) because it mentions DeNomolos as the main villain. Apparently the object is to collect orbs on a screen while dodging enemies, so sort of like the original Mario Bros game, I guess. The Lynx game seems to be very similar in set up to the NES one, except that you collect music notes and for some strange reason the plot is that Death has kidnapped the princesses. The PC game actually followed the plot of Excellent Adventure and required you to locate the historical figures in their own time periods. Since I don't have access to these games, I can't review them. If you have any experience with them, please share it in the comments.

Next up: I'll be reviewing the live action TV series and I'll also touch on the cereal. No, I'm not going to eat any, don't worry.

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