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Little Samson (NES) artwork

Little Samson (NES) review

"This is a pretty neat mash-up of some Castlevania and Mega Man themes. While not sacrificing one bit of those NES series' difficulty!"

Over the years, I've taken my share of potshots at modern games and the degree to which they hold a player's hand, either by extended tutorials or by checkpoints placed so frequently that skill isn't needed to cover a lot of ground. I'm an old school guy, tried and true. Forged by the "score points until you're dead" Atari 2600 games and then heated by the inferno of diabolically difficult NES offerings, I am an exquisite sword capable of slicing through challenges like they're made of butter.

At least, I was back when I was younger. As site regular EmP has said, I'm in the approximate age demographic that means I may have taught Methuselah everything he knew. And man, while I was playing Little Samson, I was feeling it!

What made that realization most frustrating for me is the lack of much of anything that’s cheap or horribly unfair about Little Samson. It's definitely not an easy game, but it actually gives players more advantages than many titles of the NES era did. You receive passwords after successfully completing stages and, after a few introductory levels, can switch between four different characters (each with its own strengths and weaknesses) with ease. There are life-restoring items both scattered through the stages and dropped by enemies, as well as 1-ups, icons that increase a character's maximum health and potions that fully restore the life meter.

This utterly galls me! I can't rant about broken mechanics or horribly cheap level design. Everything is created to be accomplished by a skilled or persistent player and oftentimes, my skill was found to be wanting. This game brought back memories of my youth, when I'd spend entire afternoons working on one game or another just trying to advance a little further in the hopes of one day beating it. It’s the sort of game that would have me enraged and cursing as I'd rip it out of my NES… but then returning a couple hours later with fresh confidence that I'd finally be able to succeed where previously I had failed.

Little Samson could be compared to Castlevania, due to the graphical style wherein ceilings and surfaces are made of easily-identifiable blocks; however, this game moves at a far faster pace, at times reminding me a bit of a Mega Man offering. Sure, part of that might be the result of one boss coming about as close to Mega Man 2's Wily's Fortress dragon as it could without leading to a lawsuit for Taito, but considering two of your characters also fire long-range projectiles in a fast-paced platformer, it still stands as a valid comparison.

Little Samson screenshot Little Samson screenshot

Samson, one of those two warriors gifted with projectiles, is a pretty diverse guy. He can fire bullets, move at a reasonable clip and climb walls. He's joined by a dragon, golem and mouse. The dragon wound up the most useful of the quartet. While it can't climb walls and its bullets curve upwards, it has the ability to fly for brief periods, which is great for avoiding boss attacks and during platforming-intensive regions. Its bullets can also be charged. I found the other two character options to be more specialized. The golem has the longest life bar, seems to be the strongest, can punch in four directions (which is great for taking out foes on the ceiling) and can walk over spiked floors without taking damage. He also is large, slow and poor at jumping, while also only possessing a short-range attack in a game designed in such a manner that each of those flaws are serious liabilities. Meanwhile, the mouse is small enough to fit into tiny passageways and moves really quickly, but its bombs have the shortest range of any attack (a real problem when compounded by the critter’s tiny life meter). Virtually any time you use the mouse, you're rolling the dice with one of your lives.

Since some evil wizard seems to be taking over the kingdom, these four heroes will set out across a dozen or so levels (after each character's introductory stage) to fight his subordinates. While they're all pretty tough foes, extra care should be taken with the main guy's handful of wizard buddies, who upon being defeated, transform into a much more imposing creature, making such encounters a two-part affair. Things go one of two ways against bosses: either you're a skilled player who knows the attack pattern… or you're dead. Little Samson is not kind to the casual gamer, even if its great late-NES-lifespan graphics and music should appeal to them.

Heck, the first real boss was the one that made me realize Little Samson doesn't mess around. Its wizard form wasn't all that tricky, but then it turned into a big cyclops and assaulted me with a couple different kinds of firepower while occasionally moving close enough that dodging any attacks was quite tricky. It took a while to get past that dude, and from there the same was true of pretty much every level-ending battle, whether it be the grim reaper summoning ghosts to assault you while regularly teleporting around the arena, or the knight fond of summoning lightning bolts from directly above your head and giving you next to no time to get out of their path. These were the sorts of exhilarating encounters that routinely had me going to bed with a sore thumb from all the time I spent pounding the "fire" button in hopes that I could slowly whittle a boss' life meter down before it eradicated my own with two or three successful attacks. Yeah, that's right -- these things have really long life meters and it takes a lot less work for them to drain yours, meaning you can take genuine pride in the accomplishment each time you survive such a brawl.

Little Samson screenshot Little Samson screenshot

All of the above makes the difference between "Easy" and "Normal" modes rather annoying and finally gives me something legitimate to complain about. If you play on "Easy," you'll get to the final level and beat a wizard. That duel is followed by a brutally difficult demon head boss, which might lead you to believe you've at last overcome a tough game. Heh… sorry, but you didn't. The regular difficulty setting follows that fight up with word that the real final boss, in the fashion of Dr. Wily, is waiting for you to storm his castle. Remember how I said there's not much that's cheap about this game? Well, the end is when you find that something cheap.

The final castle is divided into four similarly-designed sections that essentially give you a taste of all the stuff you will have gone through up to that point, from leaping from platform to platform over bottomless pits, to climbing long and narrow towers cluttered with hard-to-reach foes. There are no passwords in this place -- once you've started, you have to complete the entire thing in one sitting. If a character dies during any of the first three sections, not only will you have to go back to the beginning that area, but you'll lose the option of using that guy until the beginning of the final zone. Remember those brutally tough bosses? At the end of the first two parts, you'll fight two of them, back-to-back. The third area ends with the true final boss, although he does come off as a bit anti-climactic because you've recently had to re-defeat four comparable foes just to get that far. The game then concludes with a thrilling escape from the crumbling castle… featuring a horribly designed moment where you have to willingly get hit by a falling block so you can use your moment of post-damage invulnerability to dash through a lethal-to-the-touch obstacle that seemingly can't be avoided any other way. What in the name of…?!?

Little Samson is a very good NES game that barely falls short of excellence. At times, it can be tricky to review these older titles because they're so different than most of what is currently released. When it comes to determining if a game is "too hard" or "just tough enough, " I tend to ask myself if my teenage self would look at this as a challenge worth dedicating himself to… or if he'd wind up getting frustrated and resort to his Game Genie. For 90 percent of my recent experience with this game, things rested squarely in the former category, but that true final dungeon was firmly entrenched in the "cheat to win" zone. There can be a fine line between fun and frustration, and that castle tips to the wrong side of it. Still, the overall product is really good. And since you have to choose the tougher difficulty level to even play that castle, the last-minute stumble doesn't completely mar the final product. For the most part, this is a great--but exceedingly rare--game that is well worth experiencing if you can secure a copy without completely emptying your bank account in the process.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 25, 2014)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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Player1 posted March 26, 2014:

Awesome review. This game is excellent, and almost impossible to find now.

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