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Action 52 (NES) artwork

Action 52 (NES) review


"52 Ways to Die"



Action 52 asset


On a fateful day in 1989, Vince Perri found his son playing a pirated multi-game cart, which contained more games than your average licensed NES cartridge does. The discovery prompted a horrible realization: all this time, he'd been paying ridiculous prices for cartridges that contained only a single game apiece, when companies could easily have packed them with dozens of games at a time. To combat this perceived travesty, Perri hatched a plan to develop a slew of games and then to offer them in a single, awesome collection. To turn that dream into a reality, he helped form a company known as Active Enterprises, and from there began development on a revolutionary compilation: Action 52.

The first step in his grand scheme was to acquire funds for the project. Perri accumulated $20 million from private investors. That capital went toward legal fees, equipment, and the assembly of a small development team. Armed with a swarm of Atari STs, developers commenced work on Action 52 while Perri and Active co-founder Raul Gomila began promoting the eventual product. Initially they aimed the collection at rental stores, claiming that it would constantly be rented thanks to the offered diversity. What's more, they sounded sure it would be a successful title: "Imagine the happiness a child will have in playing a new game every week of the year," their promotional letter to rental outlets read.

No one can fault Perri for having ambitions, which even included the creation of portable hardware known as the Action GameMaster that was supposed to be compatible with NES, SNES, Genesis, and PC CD-ROM games. Perri’s ambition could have revolutionized the gaming industry. There were only two slight problems: 1) most of his products never actually saw the light of day; 2) those that did were awful.

Action 52 is no exception to that second rule. It may feature fifty-two brand new games, but every one of them is abysmal. Much of this, I think, stems from the lack of experience and expertise on the part of the Active team as a whole. The programmers’ lack of experience is evident in the alarming number of basic score attack games crammed onto the collection, if nothing else. Such games may have sufficed circa 1984, but by the time Action 52 arrived in 1991, most games were headed in a progress-based direction. Video games had evolved to the point where they were more concerned with unique challenges and structured gauntlets than they were pursuit of the high score. That evolution somehow escaped Active’s notice.

Even games from genres that benefit from fleshed out presentation were given the score attack treatment when they appeared as part of the Action 52 collection. This recurring theme crops up most obviously in the anthology's myriad side-scrolling platformers, each of which offers only uncomplicated level designs and basic obstacles with randomly spawning enemies. Games don’t offer an ultimate goal or purpose, either; you’re left to platform and rack up points in the levels while they either recycle endlessly or crash once you encounter glitches. The worst offender amongst these platformers was Bits 'N Pieces, a game wherein you must run to the right and leap over arbitrary monsters without even the benefit of obstacles, pitfalls, or combat. Had the members of Active played more platformers, they might have realized that the genre relies on careful planning and structure. It shouldn't be reduced to banal stage layouts, score racking, and/or randomization. As a longtime player and huge fan of this genre, I couldn't help but shed torrents of tears while playing this collection.

Worse, most of Action 52's platformers are damn near unplayable, thanks to shoddy play control. You'll especially notice that particular issue when you attempt to jump left or right, as most games will not even register that you're pressing a direction while jumping. In most cases I found myself springing straight upward without moving over. In some cases, as in the game Non-Human, the controls would stop responding at all once I was airborne, and I would plummet to my death.

Action 52 screenshotAction 52 screenshot
Left: Bits 'N Pieces; Right: Non-Human


Action 52's lacking design qualities are also evident in its thirteen shooter selections. At its best, this genre boasts excellent visuals, stiff challenges, staunch pattern memorization (which relies on careful planning on the part of the developer), and fast-paced action. Sadly, none of those elements are present here. Every scrolling shooter consists of rocketing forward and blasting randomly spawning ships, space cows, fish, diaper pins, or amorphous sprites that fly in a straight line. You won't find yourself engaging in tricky maneuvers or narrowly escaping tight situations. Hell, you don't even get weapon upgrades! Your options are bland and repetitive when they work (as in Rocket Jockey, where you play through a total of only two levels while a pockmarked red background scrolls behind you) and in some cases impossible to play. Micro Mike, for instance, incorporates sluggish play control, high-speed scrolling, and crushing walls. I trust you can do the math there. Honestly, I never made it past the first wall.

Action 52 screenshotAction 52 screenshot
Left: Rocket Jockey; Right: Micro Mike


There are a handful of other titles on the cart that showcase Action 52's brand of poor programming, as well. One game is called Billy Bob. It’s basically Indiana Jones meets Prince of Persia, and at first you might wonder if perhaps it is the one good game on the cartridge. It functions decently and actually sports surprisingly solid visuals. Unfortunately, the second screen features an insurmountable pitfall that renders the game unplayable. Other entries have a tendency to randomly glitch, like StarEvil. During some sessions that I spent with that game, bosses would refuse to spawn and I'd be stuck shooting an endless supply of cronies, unable to advance to the next stage. Rule systems are also inconsistent throughout the compilation. In some arcade-style platformers, like Chill Out, dropping even a couple of feet from a ladder spells instant death, while Storm Over the Desert allows you to drive into adversaries without losing a life. Finally, there's the awkward Thrusters, a shoot 'em up that stars a phallic-shaped ship firing at other phallic-shaped ships in outer space. Why didn't they name the game Venus Envy? Talk about a huge missed opportunity!

Action 52 screenshotAction 52 screenshot
Left: Billy Bob; Right: Venus Envy Thrusters


Bottom line: none of the games on Action 52 are worthwhile, and the collection as a whole doesn't possess a single redeeming quality.

I can only hope that Perri's experiences with Active Enterprises taught him a thing or two about the gaming industry. The lesson here is that companies don't follow a one-game-per-cartridge policy as a means of screwing consumers, but do so mainly because it takes loads of work, dedication, and focus to produce even middling titles. Developers can't very well crank out dozens of games to slap onto one cartridge in a short amount of time without sacrificing quality along the way. So instead of shotgunning their efforts by producing scores of titles at one time, they tend to focus all of their creativity on fewer projects. You invite trouble when you focus on quantity instead of quality, in other words, a point that Action 52 proves all too well…

Rating: 1/10

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Freelance review by Joseph Shaffer (April 08, 2013)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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