Sunday, June 1, 2014

Wrecking Crew - Tearing Down Those Barriers
Some of the shiniest gems are hidden in plain sight.

Wrecking Crew was another of those early NES games that I first previewed at my friend Dominick's house. My first impression of it was that its aesthetics and presentation reminded me a lot of Gyromite, to which he introduced me about a year earlier, and it had an instantly curious appeal. It was a fun, solid game, its building-demolishing concepts creatively applied and its mechanics easy to understand. As was the case with many of the Commodore 64 games I'd sampled, Wrecking Crew felt invitingly familiar but had a certain divergent quality that I wasn't yet experienced enough to properly identify. That is, it looked to share the design philosophy that fueled games like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Mario Bros., but it was somehow different, its modifications perhaps imperceptible to anyone who never spent hours a day pumping quarters into an arcade machine. 

It's decades later that I can observe the clear delineation: The NES' debut lineup of arcade ports was meant to ease adopters in and establish for them the template for the new brand of upcoming "arcade-like" games, which were their necessary evolution. 

"Now wait a minute," you object, perplexed. "Aren't they the same thing?" 

Not exactly. An "arcade-like" game is one that resembles its coin-op cousins but has seen the deemphasizing or supplanting of some of its core values. When we hear the term "arcade," we think of games that afford you only a limited number of lives using which you try to earn a high score by clearing a series of stages that were designed to kill you off quickly. An "arcade-like" game might still be, say, high-score-focused, but it will instead be designed to hold your attention for long periods of time. One might be difficult to master but spend a fair amount of time teaching you how to play, as did that oft-studied first level of Super Mario Bros. Another might do away with lives, time-limits, and continues altogether and allow you start on whichever stage you please. Even home conversions of arcade games (like Trojan and Renegade) can be arcade-like in how they feature a noticeable drop in difficulty and supplementary systems that empower you or at least put you on par with the originally-indomitable enemy force. You could call it the "consolization" of games.

Wrecking Crew was one of the NES' earliest examples of this new paradigm.

Wrecking Crew was one of those games that I picked up during the summer of '89 when I scored Balloon Fight, Ice Climber and a few others as a reward for helping to paint my aunt's house. Sure--my interest in it was partly derived from my developing copycat tendency, but I truly was a fan of games that combined platforming with puzzle-solving; I had been weaned on Commodore 64 titles like The Goonies, Hard Hat Mack and Cliff Hanger, so the NES' early assortment of arcade-like games was right up my alley. Wrecking Crew was a known quantity as was its protagonist, the hammer-wielding Mario, who to me had become synonymous with quality; there was no safer choice, really.

The objective for each of its 100 stages is simple: Avoid all of the enemies and destroy the different types of walls, which include wooden panels that shatter in one hit, and two shades of sturdy brick partitions that require two and three hits respectively. Mario can't jump, but he can survive long-distance drops, which is a change from his earlier fragile disposition. Ladders are his only means of travel, but he can otherwise escape to the other side of a stage using the looping screen-edges as previously seen in Mario Bros. The obstructive enemies have observable patterns: The wrench-shaped creatures (the purple ones being faster than the reds) gravitate in your direction, always taking the most direct path, and the bipedal eggplants (again with them) move in one direction and are forced to climb any ladder they pass.

More perilously, there will be many instances where you'll encounter a stage as "supervised" by the Wario-like Foreman Spike--the spiteful boss who can mimic Mario's movements and knock him down to ground level by destroying any structure in front of which he currently stands; Spike can't damage Mario with direct contact, since he lingers in the background layer, but his relentless antics can repeatedly screw up your timing and strategy plus he can knock Mario down to a potentially blocked-off, inescapable lower level. There's no time-limit to force your hand, but a Mario Bros.-like waving fireball will periodically appear and trail along whichever level Mario is currently lurking, forcing you to flee (though, if you can focus and time it correctly, you can bravely run beneath it when it arcs upward). If you pay attention to the music, you'll soon be able to predict the emergence of these fireballs, whose appearances coincide with certain notes of the game's only stage theme.

Typical of this game-type, you can start from any of the game's 100 stages, but there's no points carryover if you die and continue. Also, you'll be awarded a bonus phase anytime you complete four stages in a row; in these timed challenges, you can earn up to 5000 points for being the first to locate a coin as randomly hidden behind a destructible wall, and you can potentially procure a 10,000-point Super Bonus for finding it in your first shot. If the competing Spike uncovers the coin first, no bonus will result.

Its rules highlight the main appeal of Wrecking Crew: It had the quick, reflexive action that was attractive to a younger me, but it also gave me time enough to pause the game and plan out my path of destruction in the more-relaxed home environment. Like others of its ilk, it captured some of the allure of one gaming pillar (the arcade) while creating a separately functioning brand that was more than just a spinoff. As per its origin, it was one of those games I felt compelled to play with friends, since it also borrowed that arcade-feeling vibe that seemed to beg for the augmentation of social interaction; I'd play it mainly when a friend was visiting, and we even continued to bust it out at Dominick's house in a repeat of a scene that played years earlier.

It was during that earlier period, actually, where Dominick taught me all of the tricks that made me feel like an expert Wrecking Crew player, whether it was trapping enemies in barrels, using bombs to destroy a series of damaged walls as sandwiched between them, luring strings of enemies into doors to freeze time, or striking bombs in a certain order to beckon the appearance of the Golden Hammer (the "Super Hammer," as we called it), which could destroy any wall in one hit and send enemies plummeting to ground-level with expertly timed strikes. You could also earn a 1up, we learned, by destroying five specific walls in a certain order and therein make each letter of Mario's name appear, but we weren't crazy enough to exhaust the hundreds of possibilities searching for the correct combinations. Who was?

In reality, we only knew how to make the Golden Hammer appear in Phase 6, a stage we'd always visit if only to activate the hammer's snappy, empowering theme, which would play until Mario lost a life. I wasn't even aware that the Golden Hammer could be used to float over empty spaces until it appeared as an item in Super Smash Brawl years later. "How did I miss that?" I wondered. There's always that moment--a few short, paralyzing seconds of shock--when you discover that a game you've been playing for years had extra depth of which you were never aware.

For better or worse, what made Wrecking Crew stand out to me was its projection of rawness. There were some aspects of it that felt largely unaddressed or rough around the edges, making it feel coincidentally like a livable-but-unfinished building. If you trapped yourself in a barrel, for instance, your game was over; since they didn't program in a self-destruct command, your only recourse was to hit the Select button, which wiped out your progress and defaulted to the game's title screen. The completing of some stages required knowledge of inexplicable, glitch-level techniques (like positioning yourself atop a ladder and overlapping a level barrier, which made you immune to damage from enemies that passed overhead). And its "Design Mode" wouldn't allow you to save your created stages even though a "Save" option was clearly visible on the menu; this was of course the result of the game's conversion from a writable Famicom disk to an NES cart, which I couldn't have known about, but it felt sloppy (the manual deceitfully tries to make the saving-and-loading system seem like content that would soon be enabled via an add-on that never existed).

It was Wrecking Crew's "Design Mode" that actually taught me a lot about myself and my creative aptitudes. That is, I seemed to have an inability to create stages that were interesting in any way or complicated beyond ridiculous waves of dark-gray walls. I'd try to brainstorm themed or cleverly scattershot stages but would usually resort to sickeningly simple symmetry or obvious patterns, like the spiraling maze of barrels I would always replicate. My obsessive-compulsions led me to imagine that game design was something stressful, painstaking, and certainly not for me, and this mode proved it. I've never liked or bothered to experiment with create-a-level modes since. The only exception was my continued dabbling in the creation of Doom wads, all of which featured, naturally, thirty or forty neatly arranged rows of enemies placed in size order.

Another aspect that fascinated me was the nature of Mario's inclusion. "How did a circus-trainer-turned-plumber wind up as a construction worker?" I considered perhaps too zestfully. At a time before Nintendo dismissed any notion of continuity or canon, I used to wonder about Mario's past; I'd frequently draw up timelines of his life, trying to figure out when he settled into all of these odd jobs and how his career path led to plumbing and his eventually being sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom. Was he a construction worker before he worked at the cement factory? Where did his officiating duties fit into all of this? How versatile was this guy? Truthfully, I never stopped thinking about such things until Shigeru Miyamoto revealed that any Mario game was akin to an episode of the cartoon Popeye and had no real connection to any other. As it was in the case of releasing an actual Legend of Zelda timeline, it all seemed part of the company's mission to remove all of the wonder and mystery from its past works.

The discovery of its sequel, Wrecking Crew '98 for the SNES, was both a source of excitement and immediate disappointment. I stumbled across it in, say, 2000, right about the time I was learning about the existence of treasures like Rockman & Forte and Beyond Shadowgate, and my enthusiastically expanding world certainly had room for a more-realized sequel to one of my favorite arcade-like NES games! Instead, Wrecking Crew '98 turned out to be a competitive block-dropping puzzle game in the vein of Wario's Woods and not anything close to being in its predecessor's league. It was also a compilation of sorts, featuring a poorly emulated version of the original Wrecking Crew for Famicom (mainly, its music is low quality and compressed-sounding). I don't know that I'll have much to say about it in the future.

My routine for revisiting Wrecking Crew hasn't changed since the early days; I load it up with the intention of clearing a few stages but wind up playing through the entire game in sessions spread out over a few days ("Just one more stage"). It's still as fun and addicting as it was back then, and the challenge of the later stages always comes close to breaking me even though I endure it out of affection. I'm not really interested in setting a high score, but I usually do set a goal of making it as far as I can using only the lives they afford you (before, you know, playing through the rest of the game, anyway). Though it's by now cliche, I have to say that its simple, unique-feeling aesthetics always manage to conjure up thoughts of my early NES years, and I'll always associate the game with Dominick's house and that quiet corner of 85th street, which I miss considerably.

I consider Wrecking Crew to be one of the best of its kind and a perennial contender in the underrated/overlooked category. It doesn't carry the cultural weight of Mario's big NES adventures, but it's a worthy entry in the mustachioed hero's sizable portfolio and another important building block of my gaming DNA.

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