Better than you thought.

Retro Gaming Reflections: Jaws (NES)

 

Retro Gaming Reflections is a series of informal, first-person retrospective articles written by Eric from NintendoLegend.com, in which he more lengthily expounds on his personal experiences concerning games, genres, themes, and other topics, especially as related to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console.

We all have our sentimental favorites.

There is that oddball movie you like to watch and re-watch that nobody else seems to “get,” or the one track from a 1980’s country crooner’s album you really seem to dig for some vague reason. This could be the greasy-spoon diner within walking distance that others claim to smell funny or have terrible food, but you can always count on them for a hot cup of coffee and a BLT just the way you like it on a late weeknight or an early morning pick-me-up. Your parents never understood why you threw such a fit when they were about to put your favorite toy in the yard sale; despite, of course, the fact that you had not played with it in five years – which was especially relevant, given that you were 17 and no longer in need of a teddy bear.

These whims of nostalgia that paint otherwise foregone items in a rose-colored hue are the organic byproduct of our uniqueness; that is, the distinctive combination of traits, characteristics, and experiences that every human being has as an individual, further shaped by their exposure, upbringing, education, and a star-crossed myriad of other developmental factors. However it works, in the arena of gaming our tastes lead some retro gamers to prefer the shoot-’em-up genre while others pine for a good old-fashioned JRPG, though neither may have the best argument as to why their category is definably best. It is understood as a preference, a choice that is tinged with prior fondness.

Everyone has their likes and dislikes that go against the norm. For me, many examples can be found in the 8-bit NES library of video games alone. For instance, Caveman Games was a title I had as among my first cartridges, and was among the very few two-player gaming options I had for a while. I grew to become quite good at it, to develop warm-fuzzy memories of heated (excuse the pun) Firemaking battles with a friend or sibling, and to appreciate the developers’ efforts to infuse the game with Stone Age humor. Nowadays, those with a passing familiarity with the multi-event button-masher may dismiss it as crude, monotonous, and shallow, while oddly content with a Track & Field that does not even offer a character selection (in full disclosure, though, I do admit that T&F is the superior title).

Then there is Jaws. I do not remember how I came to own it, whether by birthday present from a relative or parental purchase at the local superstore, but I sure did have me a Jaws Nintendo game for my toaster console. Although I enjoy NES instruction manuals, and often liked to read them before playing the game, many titles were immediately playable right out of the box, especially if they were a platformer. Jaws, meanwhile, pit the player at a dock in control of a boat, off to sail the semi-open seas. What is the destination? What is the point? And what is that nois-AAAAAAHHIT’SJAWS!

Despite any initial cognitive dissonance, the goal of the video game becomes very clear: Traverse from port to port in order to upgrade your weaponry to be powerful enough to take down Jaws the next time he attacks, rather than always having to avoid him. These upgrades are purchased with conch shells, collected by killing sea creatures (sounds so PETA-friendly in hindsight, right?) in intermittent random encounters across the sea, in addition to Jaws encounters. Once Jaws is incapacitated, gameplay changes to a parallax-scrolling horizon-view mode where Jaws must be coaxed out of the water by use of a strobe, of which the player has a limited amount, and then thrust the boast forward to spear the beast with the enormous spear-like protrusion on the bow of the ship.

The video game’s full title is actually Jaws: The Revenge, and is based on the third film in the Jaws series, thus explaining why the ending sequence has the player spearing Jaws with a boat and not trying to shoot an oxygen tank in his mouth. This, alone, is an intriguing distinction: Other than its more-recent release date, why on Earth would a publisher choose the third film, and not the iconic first feature, to make a licensed game from?

The result, however, is a fun little video game. Misplaced sentimentality can be dangerous, but doggone it, there is a soft spot in my heart reserves for Jaws on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Perhaps it is through the miracle of repeated viewings enhancing my enjoyment rather than growing annoying, but I seem to have gained a strange appreciation for every little facet of this cart.

Let’s begin with the sound. The effects are sublime. Now, you may not have thought so before, and may have vague memories of it not being especially notable in your opinion, or perhaps you have never heard it but, upon checking it out, would not be duly impressed with it. But, I assure you, the sound effects in Jaws are sublime.

Drop into the water and fire a harpoon shot. Have you ever heard a sound effect quite like that in a video game for the NES? Or any other console ever, for that matter? No, no you have not. It is such a sharp, biting, quick-punch sort of effect, enjoyable on a visceral level, very satisfying. I have no idea what a real harpoon would sound like when fired underwater, and I very much doubt that it sounds anything like the NES Jaws iteration would suggest, but I find this to be a tragedy, since it is so indelibly seared into my brain. The noise makes no sense but is exaggerated for the player’s delight, much like fisticuffs are caricatured in the mediums of films and comic books alike.

And that’s just a single sound effect. So much magic there. Once you get the mini sub, you are granted the glory of an impossibly science-fiction sounding gunfire sound effect. BLOO BLOO BLOO BLOO! Get those crabs and stingrays! Every animal makes a deliciously bubble-pop sort of noise when they die. The sound of grabbing a conch shell is appropriately rewarding. All the fx seem to be carefully measured and metered to deliver the right amount of “oomph” without overwhelming or annoying the player.

And the music! Not only did you have the signature Jaws theme present at the title screen, but even throughout the gameplay were flourishes of quality and class. The background music during the undersea portions is a gradual, lulling, takes-its-time sort of paced nuance not usually found in 8-bit titles. While other games are content to blare, burst, or assault the ears with machine-gun fire, Jaws actually aims for a sort of pent-up tension – and even achieves it, to an extent. The overworld music is similar, a fade-into-oblivion sort of track that is suddenly excitedly punctuated by that foreboding radar, tracking the movements of the leviathan monster beneath the water.

The actual gameplay is solid as well. I found this to be a perfect cartridge to pop in when nothing in particular seemed appealing, or just as a white-noise sort of game to kill a small chunk of time in a lazy afternoon. It was a good “hey here’s an example of a video game on the NES” title, or one to introduce someone to. Although it did not have any form of co-op mode, the actual playthrough was typically short enough that two could take turns and see if both could beat it, or without losing a life, etc.

Just when you eventually believe that the gameplay is innovative but not groundbreaking, just when you think the experience is going to be typical of your run-of-the-mill license games, just when you think you have witnesses something intriguing but not genuinely unique, Jaws suddenly throws its bonus rounds at you. The screen would go black with white text announcing, “BONUS SCENE!” Then, in the midst of an idyllic background track, a plane would fly back and forth along the top of the screen, making passes above the water – while, below its surface, jellyfish arrived in waves to form elaborate synchronized swimming displays. The goal was to bomb the jellyfish. Yeah, it is as awesome as it sounds. Let me use that phrase again, because I do not get to very often: Bomb the jellyfish.

Those were different, simpler days, and chockfull of fun. In the modern times of pervasive Internet access, Angry Video Game Nerd, and the geek chic culture of retro gaming, Jaws has not stood the test of time and popularity very well. This was, after all, a video game developed by the notorious LJN, purveyor of some terrible cartridges over the years, and of whom seems to have been given a permanent, dark stigma over their body of work.

When I played Jaws, though, I did not consider who made it, or where it fit in the support cycle of the console, or who the composer was for its chiptunes. No, I just enjoyed it. This may sound like a simplistic take, but there I was growing up, having fun with it, not susceptible to the views of popular opinion, revisionist history, or LJN haters.

Now, at this point, someone at least mildly familiar with the title may be wondering, “Geez, Eric. It sounds like you played Jaws an awful lot. Did you really like it that much? I was under the impression that it provides a very short completion. Why did you play it so much?”

I have a story for you, reader.

You see, the problem was not that I never beat Jaws, or that I beat it every time I played – The issue is that I beat it once. Somehow, by luck or freak accident, I beat the game on one of my first playthroughs. The bow of the boat punctured the body of the beast and I was granted the glorious ending screen with the plane’s flight over the coastline by sunset.

It was likely some time later when popped the cartridge back into the old NES console and tried again, only to fail. And fail again, and further fail on continued attempts. For some reason, I just could not spear Jaws. I kept trying, and trying, but simply did not seem to get it. I swear, I kept aiming exactly for the middle of his belly, but maybe he needed to be a pixel closer before the strobe —

Those who understand Jaws, though, would have seen the real difficulty I was having. To kill Jaws, you have to get him not directly head-on, but at an angle; he actually has to rotate a bit, so that it is more like you are stabbing him in the gills than in the belly.

But to my simple mind, to my rigid, cold, mechanical, symmetrical, analytical mind, I just assumed you had to stab him right in the belly. I must have forgotten the angle when I first beat it, never took it into account, or maybe had been aiming for the middle that time too but struck askew by luck. Whatever the case, I kept persisting, firing up Jaws every once in a while, futilely unable to defeat him, despite my uncanny, relentless, precision ability to always go for his midsection.

I am not kidding when I say that years of gameplay would pass without me killing Jaws again. I began to believe it was very difficult, that somehow I hit him on a fluke that first time. But, of course, years later, a simple check on the Internet would reveal the cause of my calamity. Just like Jaws turn a bit. Go for the gills. Game Over.

Despite my sincere frustration at the time, I can laugh at it now. This only drives the point home even further for me, and more interestingly: Would I have enjoyed Jaws as much if I found it easy every time? Does this have implications for my understanding of other games I find hard? Was it really so instinctual to go for Jaws in the belly or was I just that stupid?

I like Jaws. I am not saying it is my very favorite title, or that it is an all-time great video game, even for the NES. But I am fond of it, and that is good. We all have our sentimental favorites… even those borne of average-looking LJN license games with short playthroughs.

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More of Eric’s writing can be found in his reviews at NintendoLegend.com, where he is currently on a crazy mission to play and review every North American released NES video game.