I have to do what?"
"You have to jump over each octopus. You can't stop and you can't make a mistake. That egg that's normally a powerup actually means instant death in this instance. You can't tell beforehand. If you're too slow, you die due to time running out. If you're too fast, you die due to enemies coming out of nowhere. Some platforms fall, some do not. You're given no warning. If you die while near checkpoint 3, you'll start there without a hammer and it will be impossible to proceed. All jumps require perfect timing, or you die. Also, the hit detection is buggy. Your character is fat and slips around all over the place, and even when you pass this level you've still got 11 more to go before you beat the game."
"Why am I playing this game again?"
"If you don't want to play ..."
"No way, you wait your turn."
This whole scenario started like most great and painful ideas do, with a reasonable amount of alcohol. We have a night of sh*tty movies lined up when my friend informs me of his recent purchase of an old school NES. It's a nice setup, with Super Mario 1 and 3, Mega Man 3, Life Force and ... Adventure Island. The name fires off a long neglected neuron in the back of my internet-soaked mind. Adventure Island is supposedly one of the hardest/buggiest NES games ever made. I could only recall several people cursing it's name, not what caused the trauma to begin with, so I decided to take a crack at a level or two.
He had already made it to world 6-1, which is evidently when the designers decided to stop making a game and start making a machine that forces children to cry. It seems to work equally well on grown men. Each movement requires precision timing, which frequently isn't enough as the game is so buggy and laggy that you die regardless. A decent amount of luck is required to get through any later level in Adventure Island, but world 6-1 is the worst I have played by far. By the time we beat that level, I have each jump and platform imprinted on my brain. I can still recall the tricky frogs just past checkpoint 3. But we eventually beat 6-1.
The experience takes me back to the most recent action game I played, Prey. Prey was a great roller coaster while it lasted, full of neat encounters and interesting takes on FPS gameplay. You know what I remember most about Prey? The opening bar sequence. By far, the best part of Prey, drops you in a bar bathroom and lets you explore, trying to figure out what you're doing here. It doesn't take long for you to figure out that it has something to do with good-looking bartender up front, which when you find her you trigger the beginning of the FPS sequences proper. Still, I wandered around for a good 15 minutes trying to figure out how to get to the action. Just exploring the bar was the most enjoyable 15 minutes of the entire game. The rest of the game is pretty much a blur.
Prey was a wondeful ride, great hills, rolling valleys, and tons of velocity. All on a smooth, climate-controlled, lap-restraint, double-padded, you-must-be-this-tall-to-ride track. I can't recall one instance where I was hurting for any reason. 300 billion aliens destroying the human race, all gunning for me, and I don't think I broke a sweat once. I'm not that great either. I've played FPS games against people who are good and they were bored with my antics. But in Prey, I was a god.
Adventure Island sucked up hours of that night: it turns out the movies were worse than we'd thought. By the end of it, I was still plugging away at the NES, cursing Adventure Island's chubby little protagonist to one of the more annoying and inventive corners of hell. While I wouldn't describe the experience as mind-blowing fun, I remember every enemy, every jump in those levels. I could draw you a map of 6-1 from memory.
I don't remember anything about Prey. And the reason I don't is the same reason Superman is boring. Always winning sucks. In order for a character to be interesting, they have to be faced with interesting decisions. What's interesting about the choice between winning and also winning? I know I was riveted in Superman Returns when he had a choice between saving the day by pushing things or pushing things really hard. In Prey, I was faced with a similar dilemma and it was spellbinding! Truly a decision of epic proportions. Should I shoot them or should I shoot them? Either way, I win. Hell, I could run through and not shoot anything and still have a chance of winning most of the time. There's just no struggle, no drama to it. Why go on when you know it's always going to turn out the same way?
So should enemies in games have crazy hitpoints and precisely timed jumping puzzles? Hell no. I'm not advocating Adventure Island 3D. As hilarious as it would be for someone to make that game, I'm not sure I'd want to play it. Requiring memorization and ridiculous timing just to move forward in a game is frustrating and self-defeating. If 99.9% of the time you end up dead, is that any better than always winning? At least that way, you've got the .1% of the time where something dramatic and interesting could happen. I may not remember anything about Prey, but I can remember the time we got lucky and made it through world 6-3 in Adventure Island. Can't we find a middle ground where the player isn't Superman that doesn't devolve into a sadomasochistic beatdown?
All I know is, Adventure Island sucks. But hey, I've only got 5 more levels to go.