Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES) Review

                I played many video games during my childhood. Some of them I have vivid memories of; games that I owned or rented constantly and have many fond memories of playing. But there are other games, ones that I may have only glimpsed while at a playmate’s house, or in any number of other unknown scenarios. These are games that I have tiny snapshots of in my mind, games that I remember as I remember my dreams. I’m often not sure if some of these games ever even existed and were in fact only a dream I had, some fantasy adventure that never was.

                One of these snapshots, one of these mysterious video games that had stuck in my memory, involved a boy jumping into his bed and going to sleep and a bizarre scene in a dark forest, with giant pink snail creatures slithering around. This mystery game lodged in my memory is one those games that I’d think of sometimes and I’d be fascinated by the fleeting memory. Just what the heck was that game? Did it ever really exist? Where did I play it? I’m still incredulous at the thought, but I think I’ve finally found my surreal pink snail game. 

The stuff of dreams

                Little Nemo: The Dream Master is a NES game based on the Japanese animated film, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (which also saw a US release two years after the game came out in the US), which is a film based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay. The game follows a little boy named Nemo living in New York City in 1905. One night, a colorful zeppelin arrives at Nemo’s window and an emissary from Slumberland invites Nemo to come to the kingdom of dreams to be Princess Camille’s playmate. Nemo is weary of playing with a girl but when the messenger offers Nemo candy, the boy climbs aboard the zeppelin and is whisked away to Slumberland.

                Little Nemo is somewhat of a surrealist masterpiece. The game perfectly captures the imagination of a little boy and the wonder and mystique of his dreams. The game is a 2D side-scroller that follows Nemo as he journeys through a series of non-linear “dreams” and collects keys to progress. The first dream is a forest of giant mushrooms populated by the aforementioned giant pink snails and other creatures, and subsequent dreams take Nemo through a giant toy train-ride, a serene nighttime sea, a super-sized version of his own house, and to a ruined city in the clouds. Each level is large and non-linear, full of branching paths and hidden areas. Nemo has to collect a certain number of keys in each world to open a door at the stage’s end. Nemo has no way of defending himself (until the final level where he finally gets a weapon) and has to rely on his never-ending supply of candy to enlist the help of a wide variety of animals that he finds in his dreamscape. By feeding these animals candy, Nemo can take on their powers to help him progress. While he merely rides a few of these animals, others he seems to wear as a suit. Unlike Mario, who also wears animal suits, Nemo seems to drug animals with "candy" until they fall asleep and then wears them like a costume and uses their abilities. This is quite disturbing when you think about it, but it's a little boy's dream world so I guess it's o.k..... Nemo can don a frog-suit to gain super-jumping abilities, ride a lizard that can climb up vertical walls, use a mole-suit to dig underground, use a bee-suit to fly at high altitudes, and is aided by many more creatures throughout his journey. The large worlds coupled with a wide variety of abilities makes for a very intriguing and fun game design. 

                On paper, Little Nemo’s concept and aesthetics are a recipe for a fantastical, imaginative, riotously fun adventure, but there’s a problem with this game: it’s incredibly frustrating. I hesitate to say that the game is properly difficult, but rather several issues combine to create an oftentimes tedious experience. The first dream Nemo visits is well-designed and shouldn’t pose too many problems, but as soon as the second world in the game the frustration begins. For starters, as I mentioned, Nemo himself is pretty much helpless for most of the game, and even when he’s riding or using an animal’s powers, only some of these animals have ways of defending themselves. I also want to mention that one animal buddy in particular, the mouse, has a hammer ability that is used to break certain blocks. This ability doesn't work properly as smashing these blocks head on will often do nothing and only by hitting these blocks at some obscure angle will they break. This is a minor issue and this ability is needed very infrequently, but this issue is still an odd design oversight. Nemo and his animal friends' limited defense and offense coupled with a relentless, infinite onslaught of enemies in the game leads to a lot of raging. 

                I feel like I have to give a special mention to one of the game’s many annoying enemies in particular: in the second world, I first encountered one of the most aggravating enemies I’ve ever had the misfortune of dealing with in a video game. I’m talking about these small critters that look like dandelion seeds with skulls attached to them that mercilessly and endlessly float down from the sky towards Nemo. You can’t outrun them, you can’t hide from them, no matter where you go they will follow you. The player is first introduced to this menace when they are trying to climb a tree in the second world and these nuisances just keep coming, constantly knocking the player around and draining their health and lives. These things show up in almost every world at some point and until you figure out how they work, they are almost game-breaking, such a colossal frustration that the player might just give up after first trying to deal with them in the second world. They are seriously that annoying. The trick to them is that they home in on Nemo, so to bypass them, a player has to stand in one spot until they “lock-on” to Nemo and then move forward as they safely drift down off-screen. But the player has to be careful and quick, because another one immediately appears after the first one disappears.

Pure evil

                In addition to annoying enemies, and limited defenses, while some levels have checkpoints, others don’t seem to have any at all. These levels are huge too and I can’t tell you have tedious and frustrating it is to die and have to start back at the beginning of a stage and have to get all the way back to the point one was at. One level requires Nemo to acquire the “bee-suit” to progress. The bee happens to be located in an out-of-the-way location and since there are no check-points, every time I died I had to go through the tedious process of simply re-acquiring the bee-suit to get back to where I was. This game wastes the player’s time a lot in this way.

                The last world, the appropriately named “Nightmare Land”, is a three-part patience-tester full of the previously-mentioned dandelion skull things, flamethrowers, moving spiked-ceilings, and the game’s only three boss fights. I was very close to giving up while trying and retrying this world. Little Nemo involves a lot of trial and error. The game luckily has infinite continues, but upon losing all of one’s lives, all of a certain level’s keys must be recollected (although this isn’t an issue in the final world, which is more linear than the others and has no keys to collect). The game as a whole will definitely test any gamer’s patience and it’s a shame that the game can be so annoying to get through sometimes because the overall experience ultimately is one worth having.

                  As I said earlier, this game wonderfully encapsulates to dream land of a little boy and playing it feels like not only taking a trip back to my childhood but also a journey through my own subconscious world of dreams. The visuals are vibrant, colorful, and detailed, and the various dream worlds in the game are imaginative and unique. The music is also pretty catchy and the game as a whole has a delightfully offbeat and surreal atmosphere. Despite its frustration, I’d still recommend Little Nemo because overall it’s such a unique experience that succeeds in transporting the player into a world of childhood imagination and wondrous places. The act of playing the game feels like having a wonderful surrealist dream, and that accomplishment alone says something about the brilliance of the game. I suppose the game’s high frustration-level can also be partially praised because completing the game felt very rewarding, and the ending screen, with Nemo rising from bed to a sunny morning, felt very appropriate and I felt as though I had just awoke from a fabulous dream adventure just like Nemo had.


                It’s an odd thing to finally discover the identity of a snapshot memory that has for years perplexed me. To finally travel through that dark forest full of pink snails was a deeply rewarding experience for me. Little Nemo is an experience that highlights my fascination and love of dreams, nostalgia, and imagination. For these reasons, despite the game making me want to tear my hair out and snap my controller in half at times, Little Nemo is still an experience I’ll always cherish and would recommend to anyone who has a desire to reconnect with their inner childhood dreams.

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