Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wrecking Crew For NES

Super Mario Brothers is the British Invasion of video gaming. By and large, console games released before it played much their arcade counterparts: bite-sized chunks of video entertainment meant to briefly hold the player's attention, but lacking any real goal to meet beyond setting a high score. There's nothing wrong with this style of videogame at all, but once SMB was released, the immersive world its complex, elaborate, and interconnected levels built made older games seem quaint and limited by comparison.

So why am I yammering on about Super Mario Brothers? Like SMB, Wrecking Crew is an NES launch title, and it features Mario (and Luigi in two-player mode) in a prominent role. However, if SMB is the Beatles, Wrecking Crew is Fabian: It's fun to play, but it feels instantly dated by comparison. Your goal in the very arcade-like Wrecking Crew is to demolish nearly all of the standing objects in each level with your trusty hammer. There are brick walls, cement walls, pylons and breakable ladders that all must be smashed to complete the level. There are also ladders that can't be destroyed, barrels that block your path, and bombs that will blow up all other destructible objects adjacent to them. Hot on your heels are bipedal monkey wrenches, mask-wearing eggplants and big huge jerkface, Foreman Spike. The wrenches and eggplants just hunt you down and kill you, but Spike will ruin your life! He shadows you, occasionally smashing walls in your face and knocking you down, destroying objects critical to finishing the level or stealing your bonus coins. Since this is a family game, you can't cave this asshole's skull in with your hammer, no matter how hard you might like to. Instead, you can only avoid Spike and the other enemies, trap them in dropping barrels, or knock them off ladders. That is, unless you find the game's single power-up, the Golden Hammer. It's more powerful than the stock hammer, and Mario can swing it much more quickly. It can even knock enemies off the level if you're lucky enough to land a blow before they catch you. Unfortunately the Golden Hammer doesn't turn up very often, and you lose it if you die.

The enemies in Wrecking Crew certainly keep you on your toes, but the real challenge lies its puzzle elements. Mario can't jump or remove obstacles in his path, so you have to avoid trapping him or isolating him from the remaining objects you need to smash in order to complete the level. This is easy to accomplish in the early levels, but as you progress, it becomes clear that the bombs, ladders, pylons and such must be smashed in a very particular order. The upper levels are devilishly clever, so figuring out that order without the aid of a walk-through is a laudable achievement.

Nintendo generously included 100 official levels, but if that's not enough, a simple level editor is also included. In shades of Lode Runner, you can build up to four Wrecking Crew levels from scratch, and play through them in sequence. Unfortunately, this isn't Load Runner running off a floppy disk; it's Wrecking Crew on an NES cartridge with no battery backup. There's no saving your work here, which may confuse gamers when they try to select 'save' or 'load' from the menu screen. Selecting either option causes the game to freeze--pretty frustrating if you've just put the finishing touches on your own masterpiece of Wrecking Crew devilry. Evidently, the Famicom version included support for the Famicom Data Recorder, a glorified tape recorder similar to the Commodore 64's Datasette. The Data Recorder was never released for the NES, but Wrecking Crew left the Famicom version's save/load functionality in the game, assuming it would be one day.

Again, Wrecking Crew is an NES release title, and it shows in more ways than just the save/load bug. The NES may not have a huge palette of colors to work with, but it seems even fewer than normal are used in Wrecking Crew. This game would fail to impress if it were running on the Colecovision. The background of each level is a drab, black screen. Mario and Spike look ok, but the enemies lack much in the way of detail or variety. I thought the angry wrench monster was a road-killed dinosaur when I first saw it. Weirdly, Luigi has the same jaundiced skin color he sported in SMB, but now he's decked out in a hot-pink hard hat & overalls. The music and sound effects are lifted almost wholesale from Gyromite, another launch title meant to work with ROB, the NES robot. They're not bad per se; they're just derivative and not really memorable.

The germ of a really great classic game is hidden in Wrecking Crew, and had it been given more development time, it might have become one. It mixes action platforming and problem-solving successfully enough to be quite fun in short doses.Without much variety to the gameplay, though, it gets stale quickly. It's available for download on the Wii and 3DS virtual console where, mercifully, Nintendo has corrected the save/load bug. Give it a whirl if you still prefer the pompadour to the mop-top.

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