Being among the first of Nintendo’s official game production licensees, Hudson enjoyed a close, privileged relationship with the soon-to-be juggernaut of the Japanese gaming industry. Despite Hudson’s initial lackluster offerings on Western shores, the Japanese developer was responsible for producing the Nintendo Famicom’s first third-party published mega-hit (1984’s Lode Runner, selling a record breaking 1.2 million copies), and as a result was eagerly welcomed into Nintendo’s confidence. Nintendo was so impressed with the results of Hudson’s efforts that it permitted the company to release officially licensed exclusive reformulations of Nintendo’s earliest hits on Japanese personal computers.
Several PCs unique to the Japanese market, such as Sharp X1, the Fujitsu FM-7 and the MSX, were the beneficiaries of Hudson’s early porting efforts, though the NEC PC-8801 garnered the lion’s share of the company’s efforts. In addition to hosting the first Bomberman, the PC-88 (as NEC’s tireless workhorse came to be known) also provided Hudson a target for rereleases of Nintendo’s Golf, Excitebike, Ice Climber, and Tennis, in addition to liberally adapted renditions of the classic Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros.
Golf, Excitebike, Ice Climber, and Tennis were each relatively straightforward adaptations of the original Nintendo productions refitted to the limitations of the intended host hardware. However, a fair discussion of each of these games must be prefaced with a cautionary note: though the PC-8801 was a powerful computer for its time, it was just as limited as one might expect of a consumer-level computer produced in the early 1980s. It was not designed primarily for gaming, and like the NES, lacked any native hardware-level support for screen-scrolling. The PC-88’s most successful games, text-based adventure games featuring high-resolution still shots, played to the machine’s strengths, and though Hudson’s ports were admirable accomplishments given the platform, there was little to disguise how inappropriate of a substitute NEC’s computer provided for a dedicated gaming console.
Nintendo no Golf
As the port to most accurately mimic its source material, the PC-88’s 1984 release Nintendo no Golf takes extreme few liberties with the original Famicom’s game-play formula. Though it runs at a higher resolution that the console original, the graphics are an accurate reinterpretation, despite the oddly dithered colors and a badly jaundiced Mario taking the helm.
The eighteen holes featured are identical in layout to those enjoyed by the console crowd, and the overall presentation has been given a few enhancements. Whereas the console version has no music whatsoever, a short musical theme convincingly mimicking the early NES games’ style was added to the game’s title screen, in addition to the cheering crowd that sounds whenever the player scores better than par on any given hole. While the enhancements are welcome, Nintendo no Golf’s major stumble lies at the heart of its gameplay: though it looks and sounds nearly indistinguishable from the Famicom version, the computer’s inability to smoothly animate sprites cripples the game’s timing. The power bar governing shot power and direction stutters as it sweeps right to left and back again, making accurate shooting a nigh impossibility without a massive time-commitment dedicated to learning to compensate for this flaw.
Nintendo no Tennis
Hudson’s port of Nintendo’s Tennis provides a graphically questionable representation of the original, owing to its severely compromised color palette (making it resemble something closer to a McDonald’s advertisement than a Nintendo game with the preponderance of red and yellow), coupled with awkwardly slow animation. Most aspects of the original’s game play have been faithfully reproduced, despite the odd timing inconsistencies the animation introduces, but the resultant control difficulties (especially in the timing of the serve) make for an occasionally frustrating experience. Again, as in the case of Nintendo no Golf, Nintendo no Tennis offers a functional facsimile that, thoroughly playable to someone with a willingness to learn its quirks, is soundly beaten by the infinitely smoother and more intuitive Nintendo produced version.
Though it runs slightly slower and far choppier than the NES version of Excitebike, the flow of this Hudson PC-88 remake is shockingly true to its progenitor. Every track is rendered in an unattractively dithered mess of blue and yellow, sprite flicker runs rampant, and screen tearing is prevalent throughout, but the controls are uncharacteristically smooth and responsive for a platform not known for its prowess with action games.
Similar to Golf and Tennis, all of the original game modes are present and accounted for. Unlike its fellow ports, however, Excitebike’s spirit and fun have been kept largely intact, making the aforementioned sacrifices to its presentation wholly worthwhile.
Of all of the straightforward adaptations Hudson created for NEC’s home computer, Ice Climber fares the worst. Though it presents the player with faithful structural reproductions of each of the twenty-six “mountains” from the Famicom edition, the vertical “scrolling” of the playfield is jarring and disruptive to the flow of the game. The controls are maddeningly inconsistent and unreliable, making precise jumping a near impossibility.
The PC-88’s high screen resolution is not used to scale the size of the game’s play field, but instead is used to provide a side-bar displaying important player information (including score, remaining lives, etc). This addition, though novel, does not prevent the game’s technical issues from being further compounded by the eye-gouging color scheme and severely lacking animation. Despite the noble effort behind the port, the issues afflicting Ice Climber interfere enough with the fun to ensure that none but the most patient of players will ever bother playing long enough to reach the later stages.
Hudson Mario Titles
Hudson’s Mario based games are very different in nature from the above discussed games. Though they approximate the mechanics of the games from which they reap their names, Mario Bros. Special, Punch Ball Mario Bros., and Super Mario Bros. Special are unique Hudson creations that are more accurately classified as “creative reinterpretations” of Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. than they are attempts to directly recreate the experiences offered by the originals.
Mario Bros. Special
Though its play mechanics strongly resemble those featured in Mario. Bros, Mario Bros. Special stages’ objectives and layouts diverge widely from those of Nintendo’s original arcade and NES hit. Rather than tasking Mario with clearing each progressive round of meandering hostiles, the first stage requires that he flips the five switches lining the top of the playfield. Each switch requires two hits to activate, and once all five have turned red, the exit will open allowing Mario access to the next round. The second round features a field of trampolines that Mario must jump on as an enemy crosses, knocking it over and leaving it vulnerable to attack. The third stage is involves collecting dollar signs and a large ring while avoiding wandering foes, while the fourth and final round (before the stages begin to loop at a higher level of difficulty) is a bonus stage, requiring that all dollar signs are collected before time runs out.
Like Mario Bros., each stage in Mario Bros. Special occupies a non-scrolling, single-screen playfield, though unlike the Famicom edition, it does not allow Mario to dispatch his foes by jouncing the platform beneath them. Mario controls reasonably well, the graphics are fairly good despite the heavy flickering present, and the sound is as cheerful and as full of beeps as any nostalgic gamer could ask for. It’s unfortunate, however, that it lacks any real depth, and as such, will not sustain players for longer than a few short games.
Punch Ball Mario Bros.
On the surface, Punch Ball Mario Bros. bears far closer resemblance to Mario Bros. than does Mario Bros. Special, but it is still a markedly different experience. Unlike Mario Bros. Special, Punch Ball does require that Mario clear the field of enemies to progress. Like in Mario Bros., the POW block occupying the lowest level of each stage can be struck to knock each enemy on the ground from its feet, and Mario’s ability to bash a floor with his head to stun enemies has been restored.
Punch Ball Mario Bros. primary innovation lies in its titular feature, the “punch ball.” Mario begins each stage armed with a red boxing glove that he may throw at approaching enemies to stun them. The glove can bounce across platforms, and further into enemies below when used closely enough to an edge. This mechanic provides a creative and unique opportunity for strategy that grants a legitimate improvement and an added layer of complexity over Nintendo’s original production, making Punch Ball Mario Bros. a game to be recommended to long-time fans that want to experience a different, yet highly successful, take on the classic formula.
Super Mario Bros. Special
Of all of the games discussed, Super Mario Bros. Special is the one that had the most potential to excite new players, and because of this, ultimately becomes the most disappointing. Released on the NEC PC-6001/8801, the Fujitsu FM-7, and the Sharp X1, Hudson’s 1986 follow-up to Super Mario Bros. features the classic aesthetics, level design, and fun cast of characters that the world so fondly remembers its namesake for.
Goombas, Koopa Troopers, Bowser, and the other usual suspects all participate in this adventure, as do some enemies newly introduced to the Super Mario universe from other Nintendo titles (namely Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong). The unforgettable Mario main theme beeps away pleasantly in the background, urging the player on as Mario searches for the princess inevitably in yet another castle, despite the likely concussion he’s suffered from jumping into every floating brick he can in search of coins, power-ups, and invincibility stars.
Unfortunately, nearly all of the good will the game builds with its comfortable and familiar atmosphere is undermined almost instantly once the game begins and the player takes control. Like with the Famicom sports game’s ports, the game’s problems don’t belie a lack of skill or effort on behalf of Hudson’s programmers so much as they reflect the limitations of the hardware. Super Mario Bros. was an extremely sophisticated piece of software when it was released in the mid-1980s, and it is glaringly evident that the computers that Super Mario Bros. Special was designed to run on simply could not deliver the same experience as the Famicom/NES, especially with the newly introduced memory-mappers that greatly expanded on the capabilities of the dedicated game console.
The most apparent problem with Super Mario Bros. Special is its lack of screen-scrolling. Rather than anchoring scrolling to Mario’s movement, the screen with change once Mario has reached the right-hand side of the area he is in. While this is an understandable limitation of the machines that the game was produced for, the stages are laid out in such a way that Mario must leap pits and obstacles that span screens, forcing blind jumps with troublesome regularity. Enemies can travel between screens, as can turtle shells that often come flying back straight into Mario after bouncing off of unseen pipes and blocks. The hit detection is also off, making landing on enemies without being killed extremely difficult at times, and the timer runs fast enough to ensure that lollygaggers will hear the “hurry” music more often than they might be accustomed to.
The skill and care that went into building Super Mario Bros. Special is apparent from the elements that successfully evoke an honest “Mario feel,” but these are largely wasted on an overly ambitious game that tends to fall apart due to the limitations imposed by inappropriate platform choices, namely the PC-8801. The X1 version is by far the best of the three versions, with smoother animation and color, a sliding screen transition that gives a fair sense of continuity to the stages, and better control in spite of the inconsistent speeds that the game runs at.