Only horror and death lay beneath its cheery veneer.
In the years leading up to my NES ownership, I managed to become familiar with the system's standout titles and many others that resonated with me for a variety of reasons. Among the latter was Adventure Island, which I played a few times at my friend Mike's house. Mike lived on 73rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenue, across the street from my aunt and grandmother, and was one of the first real friends I ever had. He was also one of those kids lucky enough to own both an NES and a Master System, which I referred to as "the Sega." I find it odd that he never corrected me on my mislabeling of the console and somehow accepted my identifier, as if not knowing the name of his own system. Maybe my obliviousness was infectious?
It's thanks to Mike that I discovered a lot of the two consoles' overlooked or less-popular games like Great Baseball, Great Volleyball, Dragon Power, and, of course, the unassuming Adventure Island. At the time, I enjoyed playing it--it seemed to control well, whether I was running forward recklessly or speeding along using Master Higgins' trademarked skateboard. It had catchy stage themes. And its primitive, stone-age interpretation of an island left an impression on me with its long patches of forest, cloudy seaside areas, and two-toned caverns and rocky fortresses. The only problem was that it quickly grew too difficult; by even the early-going of its second world, it began requiring a level of precision and reaction time beyond what either of us was capable. We gave up on it after a few short sessions spread over a week or two, and I slotted it as is one of those games in which you probably had to invest countless hours if you hoped to become good at it, which was a complete turn-off.
As a prospective NES owner, Adventure Island really wasn't something I could picture being on my radar in the future.
When we got home, I took the green-boxed Adventure Island to my room and started my first more-personal session with it. I found out what I already knew: This game was rough. In fact, it was worse than I could have known as evidenced by what I was seeing in only the first round of its third world, which I had never reached in any of my previous samplings of the game. The challenge-level had suddenly grown exponentially and felt more suited to something you'd see in a "World 8" of a really hard game. I came to realize that its cheery presentation and colorful characters were merely a cleverly devised deception created to mask the game's brutal difficulty beyond the enticing first world.
I mean, it started out simple enough, resembling a more action-based Super Mario Bros. (Master Higgins slightly more equipped with his stone axes in addition to a more-familiar dual-fireball attack), and it had a nice flow to where you could skillfully clear stages if you moved and reacted with a certain rhythm. But it was pure trial-and-error, and you were afforded neither the time nor the lives to satisfactorily progress farther into the game each time. The skateboard would be a big help, you'd think, but it was more detrimental than anything even if it provided an extra hit; obstacles were usually placed as such that the impact of the skateboard's loss would toss you forward into either a pit or a calculatedly placed enemy. For me, it was a "power-up" best avoided. Like in Super Mario Bros., you were golden if you could get a hold of the more-powerful fireball attack, which could destroy rocks and boulders in addition to enemies, but it certainly didn't guarantee your clearance of the nasty platforming sequences.
Though I had played my fair share of difficult games, Adventure Island was my introduction to the term "NES-hard," which was beyond that of anything I'd experienced in previous NES titles and even unforgiving Commodore 64 games like Impossible Mission, Zorro and The Goonies. You had to know exactly how far to jump, where to land, and the points from which the enemies would be spawning, as if blessed with Jedi-like precognition. If that wasn't enough, the health system required that you constantly collect the materializing fruits and vegetables to maintain or replenish your constantly draining meter, whose depletion would spell your death. Yes--Adventure Island, like Super Pitfall, was another one of those games where items were always suddenly appearing in midair and usually scrolling offscreen before you could react. This became a big issue later in the game when produce was in short supply and stages were littered with those concealed and hard-to-avoid eggplants, which hovered overhead for about 10 seconds and drained your health faster than you could grab restoring items.
Seriously--why is always eggplants?
The controls were Super Mario-like but less forgiving, particularly if you started diving forward and then changed your mind. Things would get out of control in a hurry if I tried to floor it; I had trouble adjusting to its handling of momentum, so I resorted to traipsing along each stage if only to get a clear preview of upcoming dangers. This tactic bred little success, as time, via my draining health, was always running out, and certain platforming sequences and obstacles still required a prolonged series of running leaps. The designer's favorite trick was to have enemies spawn right near landing points, whence I was in frantic mode and prone to react foolishly out of panic. They also loved bridging stage sections with long series of falling and moving platforms, as if purposely using the game's wonky jumping mechanics against me; forget about it when they decided to throw in swooping enemies during these sequences.
Castlevania was a cakewalk compared to this. What the hell were they thinking?
Thankfully, the next time he came over to my house, Mike revealed the existence of the "continue bee" (a miniaturization of Hudson's mascot Hu-Bee) near the exit to the first stage. It allowed me to continue from the start of any stage, rather than the beginning of a world, provided I could properly input the code (hold Up, A, and Select before pressing Start), which I thought was great. What a luxury! It didn't mean squat. I could now make it pretty far into the game, yes, but it was still so unbearably difficult (I'd say flat-out unfair) that I typically had no choice but to give up at around world 5 or 6 or whenever I inevitably screwed up the continue-code input out of frustration. By this point in the game, they were overwhelming me by throwing so much cheap trash in my direction at one time and at such routine intervals that continuing just wasn't worth it, as the only thing "continuing" was my pointless struggle.
Adventure Island's was another case where I liked a game's aesthetics more than the game itself. I was already fond of its graphics and its use of color, as discussed, but I had also come to appreciate its soundtrack, which was composed in a way to reveal the game's increasingly grim nature without it becoming too obvious. That is, the music at first was inviting and happy-sounding but grew increasingly somber in tone, somehow exemplary of the experience. Its woodsy starting rounds would greet you with an upbeat, inspiring melody while stage themes in following would maintain some of that same tone while mixing in more-melancholy-sounding baselines--this until you reached the domain of the round-4 boss, whose short, sinister-sounding overture was a sign that things were about to get serious.
I also liked how they denoted each stage's four checkpoints with tiny numbered posts, which always reminded me of the mile markers I'd count off on the highway whenever we'd drive to New Jersey or Long Island. If anything, the game connected with me on an emotional level, and its simple, colorful world left an image--a permanent imprint--in my brain.
I'd return to Adventure Island every now and then, since there was clearly something appealing about it, but I always did so with a sense of dread. It was one of those games, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES version) or Battletoads, that created an unbreachable wall of doubt in my mind, a preemptive feeling of defeat and an acceptance of the idea that my efforts would probably be futile no matter how many times I came back to it. Truthfully, I did finish it one time, sometime during the mid-90s, but with the help of a Game Genie code that granted unlimited health (but no protection from pitfalls). I wasn't looking for a false victory as much as I just wanted to see the ending; I wanted to witness the amazing, life-altering scene that just had to be waiting for me after this long nightmare and if it was all worth it considering the hell they put me through. Guess what? It was nothing--a single-screen reunion between Master Higgins and his girlfriend, a cliched "congratulations," and a short description of what I'd just done, as if they expected me to have been beaten into such a stupor that I wouldn't be able comprehend anything more.
So they guessed correctly.
Maybe it's because the game had traumatized me so, but it wasn't until fairly recently that I began thinking about its weird history. And, really, the extreme difficulty does make sense when you consider its origin. That is, Adventure Island is a conversion of Escape's Wonder Boy, which was published by Sega in arcades in 1986 and also made its way to the company's two 8-bit consoles (the SG-1000 and later the Master System). Hudson Soft got hold of the license; dumped Wonder Boy and replaced him with their own creation, Master Higgins, who was based on quick-fingered executive Takahashi Meijin; made additional cosmetic and musical changes; and ported the game to both the Famicom and MSX under the name Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima (translation: Master Takahashi's Adventure Island). The title was shortened to "Adventure Island" for its North American NES release in 1988, and it even found its way to the Game Boy years later in 1992. Meanwhile, the Wonder Boy series continued in arcades, with the sequels instead adopting a fantasy setting (perhaps in response to Hudson's antics); they were ported exclusively to Sega consoles, and Wonder Boy, himself, became somewhat of an early mascot for the company.
I'm surprised that Mike, being more of a Sega fan, bought Adventure Island instead of Wonder Boy. Though, I'm not sure that it would've made much of a difference, since the choice breaks down to your preference of either swimming in boiling vats of acid or drinking spoonfuls of Drano.
Spurning its arcade origin, the Adventure Island series continued as its own entity and spawned three sequels. I plan on discussing these titles in the future, so I'll only say that I enjoy playing the follow-ups over the original because they retain its spirit whole toning down the difficulty and having more fun with the concept, with fleshed-out stages, rideable dinosaur buddies, and unique boss battles. The first two sequels are casually dismissed by gamers who regard them as slightly polished retreads, but I'd argue that they're a lot of fun and certainly underrated. The Japan-only Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima IV (or "Adventure Island IV," as we'll call it), which swaps the series' stage-by-stage stylings for a Metroid-style action-adventure formula, is one of the Famicom's hidden gems and the type of game the Virtual Console was made for. I hope to see it there one day.
The original Adventure Island is its own animal and, I think, a metaphor for life: That is, no matter how long you live or how hard you try to find ultimate success, you're destined to tragically fall into an abyss, get crushed by a large boulder, be set on fire, or have a great number of selfish leeches and lingering stresses slowly suck the life out of you until you die.
Thank you, Adventure Island, for being so blunt.