Tonight, I was in the mood to play something different. Something old. Something that I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
I perused my collection and my eyes fell upon Legendary Wings for NES.
I used to hate this game as a kid. I wanted to like it so badly because the concept was interesting and the shift between vertically scrolling stages and horizontally scrolling “dungeons” was unlike anything I had ever played. And on top of that, my dad brought it home randomly one night from Blockbuster Video for me. I’m not talking rental, I’m talking used game purchase (yep, that shit started WAY before Gamestop… It even came in a weird, blue case and everything).
So there I was, staring at it in my collection, thinking “I’m going to conquer you tonight.” I grabbed it, Q-Tip’d the hell out of the contacts with some rubbing alcohol, and popped it into my recently-repaired childhood NES.
This game. Is. Brutal.
As a kid, I don’t think I ever made it to the Stage 1 boss. I’m pretty sure this game was a constant rage-quit for me. But tonight, I was determined to “make progress” in it. I plugged in my Advantage joystick, enabled auto-fire, and proceeded to don my 8-bit wings of justice.
First of all, before I get into the gameplay experience… what the fuck is going on in this game? Who am I playing? What are my motivations? What is this strange world I am defending?
The entire game seems to have this Icarus / Daedalus theme going on, along with giant, iconic head sculptures and bio-mechanical abominations. None of this was important to me as a child, but since I have been playing games that rely on narratives for years, my curiosity was insatiable. Since my copy of the game does not include the instruction manual, I decided to consult the almighty Wikipedia.
“Legendary Wings is set in a distant future where an alien supercomputer named “Dark”, which has been helping human civilization achieve a new state of enlightenment since ancient times, has suddenly rebelled against mankind. Two young warriors are given the Wings of Love and Courage by the God of War Ares in order to destroy Dark and ensure mankind’s survival.”
Oh. No shit.
Don’t you miss that era of gaming where the experience just begins, and you have no idea what’s happening unless you read the manual cover-to-cover? Don’t you miss that weird, mid-80s aesthetic of Japanese arcade games that were super creative, surreal, and non-sensical? I do. Capcom seemed to be the embodiment of this with games like Legendary Wings and Forgotten Worlds (another favorite of mine that I will no doubt dedicate too many words to in the near future).
I digress. Let’s continue on with the game experience.
My first impression, after years away from this game, was that it was very, very difficult. I quickly remembered my younger self getting ruined shortly after being enveloped by the giant, yellow-bricked idol head, which places you inside an Abadox-like dungeon of flesh, bone, and gelatinous creature. Interestingly enough, the NES versions of these levels differ greatly from the arcade game, which I didn’t experience until Capcom Collections Volume 1 was released for PS2. In the arcade version, your player stops flying and it becomes a platformer with an entirely different set of monsters. You even have ladders to climb to reach the higher levels… even though you have wings.
Because you have free reign of the screen in the NES version, I would argue that it’s much easier than the arcade game, even though later levels are still quite challenging.
Now, I’m not the world’s greatest shmup player, but CAVE, PSIKYO, and RAIZING games have whipped me into bullet-dodging shape. Modern shmup games are incredibly refined, mechanically-speaking, and present the player with impossible-looking situations that can be navigated with good reflexes, a good memory, and a tiny hitbox.
This game, however, relies on the old-school concept of the entire player-sprite acting as the hitbox. At the end of every level, you must navigate a barrage of bullets that are fired from the heads of gargoyle-like statues, and each one fires 4 bullets in a row at any given moment. If you don’t take them out with your slow-firing grenades, things get really messy quickly.
When I first reached the game over screen, I thought “Screw this game, I remember why I hate it.” The second time, I got a little farther, but was still angry that the pixels on the screen were better than me. The third time, a bit farther, but still frustrated. The fourth time? Same result. I was ready to give up.
The fifth time? I made my way to the level one boss - farther in this game than I ever had in my entire life.
This is a port of a game that was designed to be hard and make money, so of course, it’s unforgiving and incredibly challenging. Old games demand your commitment. Games from this era are against the player, and do not want you to proceed with ease. New games want you to make progress - they want you to experience the narrative and weave your consciousness into the digital experience so you get wrapped up in the dream and forget you’re there. Hell, they might even dangle the real ending of the game behind the gated transaction of DLC (ahem, ASURA’S WRATH).
With each failure, I felt myself inch closer to success. As I learned the patterns of the enemies, and the locations of the hidden tombs that contained extra continues and powerups, I felt the difficulty of the game slipping away. Not only did I make it to the second-to-last-level, but I was fortunate enough to level-up my character to the strongest weapon - the actual legendary wings that transformed me into a sort of burning phoenix with nigh-invulnerability and unstoppable firepower.
That’s one of the illusions of “hard games.” Once you learn the game’s tricks, and once you follow the correct combination of powerups, you are pretty much indestructible, and the game becomes insanely easy.
I’ve heard people, mostly reviewers and journalists, talk of “Gradius-Syndrome,” as if getting the correct combination of powerups to make a game easier is a bad thing. Those people always come across as jaded to me, and must not have the ability to revel in riding that fine line between being absolutely powerful, and completely powerless. What I mean by this is that the moment you die / lose your powerups, the game becomes exponentially more difficult, especially at higher levels. That “fear” of starting the powerup process over from scratch mid-level is kind of like a battle trance that you ride out… the less you actively think about the game and the more you exist in the moment, the more effortless progressing through the game becomes. You’re no longer playing the game, and it’s no longer playing you… instead, it becomes a kind of meditative synergy. You stop thinking about what you’re doing, and you just do. It’s an interesting state of mind that I notice the most with shmups in general. The moment that conscious thought arises though, you’re dead.
I was leveled up to maximum power for 3 levels in a row, and I experienced aspects of this game that I’ve never ever seen. Pixellated artwork of entire worlds that have existed in statis for two decades without my direct experiencing of it. It actually made me consider the amount of content that exists on games that I own that I still haven’t seen yet… it’s funny to me that developers used to make games so challenging that there was a risk that consumers might not even ever see the later levels of the creation.
On the second to last level, I took too many hits from all the insane hazards that were being thrown at me from every direction, lost all my powerups, and burned through 8 extra continues until reaching a final GAME OVER screen. It was defeating, but I was satisfied that I made it as far as I did.
I put the game away, and wondered what other games from my youth deserve a second chance. Now that I’m experienced enough to understand the difference between my own level of ineptness and poor game design, I’m sure there are quite a few!