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Bucky O'Hare (NES) artwork

Bucky O'Hare (NES) review

"This is a game that seems to delight in making players scream in frustration, and I have better things to do with my time than engage in such a masochistic pursuit."

There’s a common misconception among hardcore retro gamers that older games were difficult because they were designed to be more challenging. This mentality causes people to think that modern games are somehow inferior because they can generally be completed without a lot of difficulty. I reject that notion, and counter it with the possibility that a lot of retro games were punishingly difficult not by design, but because they were poorly made. That happens to be a specific criticism I would level against Bucky O’Hare, a game that does some impressive things with the NES hardware, but which features such an aggravating difficulty curve that most of the fun is drained from the experience.

Bucky O’Hare is based on the Larry Hama comic book, which was later spun off into an animated TV series and action figure line. The story is one of the more basic ones found in games of the era: Bucky’s crew has been captured, and he needs to fight through the evil Toad defenses on various planets in order to get them back. Once he rescues a crew member, that individual will become playable. It’s then possible to switch between characters at the simple press of a button.

The game allows players to tackle the first four planets in any order they like, but there is one serious problem with this structure: Blinky, the robot companion held captive on the Green planet, is required to complete the Blue planet level. It’s strange to let the player choose an order of attack when some choices will inevitably lead nowhere.

Though the game’s story is cliché and rote, Bucky O’Hare does make up for it by doing some things with level design and graphics that are quite surprising. For starters, the character sprites are positively massive when compared to other games on the NES. This really gives the characters a lot of personality, even though there is minimal animation. Bucky, for example, has huge, expressive eyes and those prominent buck teeth. The detail on offer is even more impressive when you consider the fact that this game has five playable characters. The enemies also are comprised of large sprites, with a nice amount of detail, resulting in a cartoony game that stands apart from a lot of the NES catalog.

I’d be impressed with just the character sprites, but Konami went the extra mile with the levels, as well, pushing the NES as hard as it could probably go. Each level is vibrant and colorful, with tons of background detail and sprite artwork that makes objects in the foreground really pop. In an era when it would have been acceptable to simply have the Blue planet look blue and the Red planet red, each location features a distinct look with multiple, varied areas. On the Red planet, for example, Bucky moves from the planet’s Martian-like surface (complete with asteroid showers) and into a molten core where sprays of lava come close to the special effects seen on 16-bit systems. Some levels have massive invading fleets of Toad ships that fill the screen. However, instead of some sort of trickery where the ships are actually part of the background, these are fully interactive sprites that Bucky can use as platforms. It’s amazing to see, and many of the levels move along at a breakneck pace with next to no slowdown or flicker.

Yes, Bucky O’Hare features some impressive levels for its time, but they decorate merciless levels that are designed to kill you at the drop of a hat. This game is relentlessly difficult, and the cause is not a selection of finely tuned obstacles or well-balanced gameplay. Rather, that challenge is the product of punitive design that was either put in place to pad the length of the game, or as a result of too little play testing. Bucky O’Hare throws the possibility of a one-hit kill at the player on nearly every screen. Hazards are precise to a pixel, so there are times when it seems like everything is A-OK, but there’s that smallest of sprite overlap with your not-so-lucky rabbit’s foot and--BAM!--there’s a dead rabbit on the ground. Cheap deaths lie in wait all over the place, from spike-lined cave ceilings to special attacks from bosses to a mine cart section that sends Bucky careening towards pitfalls and spike traps. It’s enough to make a gamer hopping mad.

At least there are unlimited continues. Bucky O’Hare is generous on that score, and allows players to continue at the current act, even if it’s a boss fight. To be honest, though, I only kept continuing for the purposes of writing this review. That meant playing long after the game had ceased to be fun. If I had been forced to return to the beginning of a level when continuing, I probably would have needed medical assistance for high blood pressure.

As annoying and as cheap as the platforming deaths may have seemed, though, at least Bucky and crew would run and jump where and when I told them to. It’s just a shame that the action those movements allowed is nowhere near as inspired as the available environments. Each character possesses a different weapon, but they all seem to do the same amount of damage, and the only thing that sets them apart is range. Power-ups exist to improve each crew member’s special ability, but most of these merely allow improved movement, such as Bucky’s higher jump or Blinky’s hover pack. Shooting segments feel like something that needs to be done to clear the way for additional platforming areas, as opposed to something truly engaging in its own rite.

With its gorgeous sprite graphics and level design, Bucky O’Hare appears to be a blue ribbon bunny. Look closer, though, and you’ll find an ornery rabbit that would much rather stick some dynamite where the sun don’t shine and laugh at the resulting explosion. This is a game that seems to delight in making players scream in frustration, and I have better things to do with my time than engage in such a masochistic pursuit. Odds are good that you do too.


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Freelance review by Julian Titus (May 25, 2013)

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