The Little Mermaid (NES) review
"It turns out that most of the enjoyment you'll derive from this game comes from tossing such bubbles. There are all sorts of nooks and crannies spread all over the place, and they often hold hidden treasure such as forks and pipes that are worth points when you complete a level. More importantly, you can often find hearts that give your life meter a boost."
When you were a little kid growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, Christmas was about the only time of year you could expect to get videogames. Whatever showed up under the tree, it was something to be treasured as if no other games would ever come into your possession. I learned this fact of life early on. While my sister got whatever interested her (usually not videogames), I typically got a videogame. One surprising year, my sister's package was the same size as mine (perhaps the reason she was often called a tomboy). While I unwrapped my gift and found myself the proud owner of Battletoads, my sister tore into hers and found that she finally could live out her dreams as a mermaid named Ariel (to be fair to my sister, I don't believe she ever expressed even the slightest interest in the game; parents can be interesting at times).
A few days later, Battletoads was still kicking my butt and it was time for a change of pace. My sister had been playing The Little Mermaid, and it looked kind of fun. So I set about begging her to give me a turn at The Little Mermaid (in my defense, the other way to spend one's time was to build forts constructed out of sagebrush).
My sister wasn't all that interested in letting me have a go at her new game, not until she had finished it. Just once, she said, she wanted to 'beat' a game before I did. And so she did, and finally I got to play. Now, before I start analyzing things proper, I would ask you to remember an important detail: my sister was a little girl. Her skills with games were nothing short of lacking. And she still beat the game after owning it for less than a week and battling with me over the single television. Easy? Yes, the game is a piece of cake.
There are a few reasons the game is simple. First, there's the fact that the game only has five rather short stages. Just a moment ago, I flew through the game in the space of about twenty minutes, while pausing frequently to snag screenshots. The game is that short. And what's there isn't very challenging in and of itself. The stages are simple side-scrolling affairs, for the most part, with some vertical exploration thrown in for good measure. A typical round involves Ariel plopping into the water, then swimming along to the right while she grows accustomed to the hazards within a given area.
Aquatic threats range from underwater volcanoes to starfish to sea horses and squids, with a boss encounter at the end of each stage. For the most part, things only go wrong if you bump into one of the afore-mentioned objects, though a few of your foes have the ability to send projectiles your way. As you swim all over the place, most of the sea life ignores you until you come within range, at which point it will zip toward you. Therefore, all you need to learn how to do is watch the enemy patterns, then approach at an angle that gives you a straight shot at your opponents, as well as time to react to any unexpected movements.
Ariel, it turns out, is a bit of a wimp. She has a life meter that contains five hearts (you start a given area with three), and even the slightest brush with disaster removes one of those. Rather than attacking directly, she flips her tail in the water. This creates small bubbles that capture her nefarious antagonists. Once they are in their watery prison, you can grab them and toss them.
It turns out that most of the enjoyment you'll derive from this game comes from tossing such bubbles. There are all sorts of nooks and crannies spread all over the place, and they often hold hidden treasure such as forks and pipes that are worth points when you complete a level. More importantly, you can often find hearts that give your life meter a boost.
Besides the openings, there are other objects likely to attract your attention. Treasure chests have fallen all over the ocean floor, for example. These must be opened with seashells, which you will also find in plentiful supply. Conches make good shields; find one and Ariel can swim through the current level segment, using it as a buffer so that she can knock enemies. She can also open those treasure chests, and it's imperative that she do so.
Treasure chests typically contain red or purple pearls. The purple ones are particularly important. When first you start swatting bubbles toward your enemies, a first shot will stun and a second is required to capture them. Get an upgrade and you can snag your smaller foes with one hit. To get the largest of opponents (such as the occasional rogue octopus), you'll have to get the second upgrade. Of course, your range isn't that great no matter how many purple pearls you snag, which is where the green ones come into play. With those, you can swat your projectile a lot further.
The upgrades are essential because the minute you reach a boss, you'll want to have all the range and power available. With the exception of the third level's boss, your strategy almost never changes: just avoid enemy shots and grab the small fish that are swimming by, then throw them toward the boss. This isn't terribly difficult, provided you have at least one purple upgrade, but it is possible to mess up. For example, suppose you get to the boss with only one heart left, then get careless. If you do, you'll be knocked back a ways in the level, and lose all your upgrades. From there, beating the boss is much more difficult until you've gathered the appropriate rewards.
Even with this handicap, the game still isn't going to provide you with a lot of trouble. Clearly, it was designed with younger gamers in mind. And if that was the goal, well, Capcom succeeded admirably. The Little Mermaid could have been just a generic, rushed platformer. Instead, it's actually got some depth.
I've already told you about the gameplay mechanics, which are the most important element, but they wouldn't engage children if the game itself looked like crap. Fortunately, it does not. The visuals here are some of the best the NES played host to. Each stage has its own general look. The first level is fairly generic, the second takes place inside a rotting ship, the third is filled with ice, and the fourth is over a series of underwater volcanoes. Finally, things end in Ursula's lair. No matter where you are, you'll never doubt that you've progressed through a varied world. It's amazing that Capcom was able to cram so much visual splendor into an 8-bit NES title.
Sound is also impressive, from a technical standpoint. The title screen features the main theme from the movie, and each of the stages has its own little ditty that keeps you feeling energetic and spunky. If mermaids listened to old NES midis, they'd listen to these. Sound effects, meanwhile, are the typical stuff you'd expect from Capcom's titles of that time. Inoffensive fluff, I guess you would say.
My sister no longer plays the game. She has a daughter of her own, now, and the game still rests on a shelf at my parents' house. One of these days, though, I wouldn't be surprised if my little niece finds out that there is fun to be had with a little 8-bit cartridge for the NES. If that day comes and she decides retro gaming is worthwhile, The Little Mermaid might well be the game that proves it to her.
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 23, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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