Itís easy to become jaded about the lavish, high-profile ad campaigns attached to modern games. Any time thereís a new Final Fantasy, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto?, anyone who isnít living in a cave is going to be inundated by screens, trailers, interviews, and fluff news pieces for a good year or so before its release. Once upon a time, though, between the age of the arcades and the proliferation of Nintendo Power subscriptions, the only information to base oneís game purchasing decisions on was the box art... and as the infamous Mega Man cover and the entire Sega Master System library can attest, those often left much to be desired.
Most of the NESís top-tier games managed to get by on word of mouth. Anyone who played a game like Mega Man 2 or Contra would spread word of its greatness to anyone who would listen. Some games, however, werenít so lucky. Bionic Commando wasnít on a lot of peopleís radar for some time, and to this day a sizable number of people donít realize that not all Metal Gear games are Solid. On the other side of the coin, though, anyone who was heavily into the NES at the time can name a number of games they actively decided to purchase over such quality titles, solely on the grounds that the back of their boxes looked interesting.
Remember Mendel Palace? Of course you donít! It was a long slog through a series of rooms which took a Zelda-like overhead view and applied it to a garish assortment of oversized pastel tiles populated by bizarre-looking ballerinas and sumo wrestlers. The goal was to destroy them all by flipping over floor tiles, pushing what was on them gently away and hopefully into a wall where they would explode. There really wasnít much in the way of level design, just a bunch of big open rooms populated by a total of eight monster types, but developer Game Freak made up for their lack of variety with sheer quantity. Or if you want to be a cynic, they padded out an incredibly shallow game with a ridiculous count of same-y levels.
Or what about Solstice? Here we had some tough-looking wizard on the front, and the screens on the back show this awesome 3D dungeon. Surely this is some sort of RPG or epic adventure game, right? Well, not so much, no. You know how when you have an isometric platformer, sometimes you canít tell if something is at the same height and directly in front of you, or one level higher but off to the side? Solstice is just a couple straight hours of exploiting that ambiguity to intentionally mess with the player while listening to a very short MIDI loop. Itís actually surprisingly enjoyable, but not exactly what one would expect.
Come to think of it, in the wake of The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior, there was a huge boom of sub-par action games that seemed like RPGs based on their packaging. Deadly Towers suckered in its fair share of victims. Wizards & Warriors sounds just enough like Dungeons & Dragons that it has no business being a jump-happy platformer. Then of course thereís Milonís Secret Castle, a pandoraís box of terrible design holding back horrors no one could possibly expect without the benefit of an actual review.
Granted, the first gaming magazines to hit the shelves were little more than corporate propaganda, essentially delivering nothing but multi-page advertisements for the games they were ďcovering,Ē but it was still something. Seeing an ad pitch for Mega Man 2 at least gets across the selling points of acquiring weapons and hitting stages in an order of your own choosing. Meanwhile, full maps for a bad run-of-the-mill platformer give some indication that it isnít worth oneís time, no matter how much hype surrounds it on the page.
Those early publications also helped pave the way for future game writers. Without their influence, a generation of college kids with useless English degrees might never have realized they could band together and pontificate about old games in publications like this one. And in these modern times, journalistic integrity exists to stave off the shilling. On a completely unrelated note, a fellow writer for GameSpite Quarterly reminds me to remind you that you really should look into purchasing Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Contra 4, and Rocket Knight. I hear theyíre all great.