Nostalgia is a powerful thing. You never know what will make an impression on you. You'd think it'd be the good experiences that resonate deepest, but instead it could be something quite the opposite. Case in point, one of my fondest childhood NES memories is not of playing games I was actually good at, like Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom or Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, but instead is of Little Nemo: The Dream Master.
If you haven't heard of it before now, Little Nemo: The Dream Master was an NES platformer from Capcom that people bought for children they really loved/hated. It was a game from Capcom USA, a developer that clearly had either the worst quality control department ever or secretly discovered the frustration of children could be channeled into a green energy source back before that was even popular.
The story is that Nemo had been invited to Slumberland to act as the princess' playmate. If you were one of those people who quickly clicked your way to the title screen, though, you'd easily miss this bit of storyline, as Little Nemo: The Dream Master believes no exposition is the best exposition. Each night when Nemo sleeps, he's journeying through another area of Dream Land on his way to meet the princess. It's not a pleasant place though, as he has to use candy to bribe various Dream Land animals into assisting him in finding the keys to unlock the door to the next area.
This part was awesome. Bribing the animals granted Nemo access to some of the cutest transformations in the history of video games. Bee Mario has got nothing on Bee Nemo. The foundation of Little Nemo: The Dream Master was sound. Different animals had different skill sets. The Lizard Nemo could stick to walls and fit through cracks. Frog Nemo could jump, was a decent swimmer, and could bounce off of enemies. Bee Nemo, the best Nemo in my opinion, could fly for a short duration and send out needles. You had to constantly swap loyalties to proceed through areas and obtain every key. It's my firm belief that this aspect is what lured people into this game and made them either forget or forgive Capcom for making such a broken game.
The moment enemies and traps were added to Little Nemo: The Dream Master, reason went out the window. I got this game for my eighth birthday. I didn't legitimately make it to the second level until I was nine. You know how many games from back in the day featured respawning enemies? Little Nemo: The Dream Master had enemies that instantly respawned. If you stepped away for one second, you could turn back and face the bee you had just dodged. It was as though Capcom finished level design, figured hiding the keys and requiring all sorts of animal buddies wasn't enough to make people think, and proceeded to make enemies that had the resurrection power of Jean Grey and Rory Williams combined.
Still, those dedicated to the cause fought the power. The concept of Little Nemo: The Dream Master was so good that even the broken respawning system could be overcome. So Capcom summoned up the House of Toys. The House of Toys is the auto-scrolling level of doom. I admit that 22 years later, I still have never beaten that level. Nemo must ride a moving train through what appears to be a playhouse filled with dive-bombing planes, bomb-dropping hot air balloons, kamikaze flying squirrels, and spike-covered ceilings and floors that are constantly rising and falling in the hopes of squishing the poor boy. No play date is worth this. There was a similar segment in the Cloud Ruins level, though this was slightly less traumatizing, as failing on the climbing portion would allow you to pick up on your next life at the top, and the descending portion wasn't nearly as trying.
Yet, these incredibly broken challenges helped further embed Little Nemo: The Dream Master into our hearts and minds. As unfair as the situation was, there was no greater feeling than that one moment where you manage to beat the system. You don't remember the eight times you didn't get the first key that was up the tree in the Flower Garden level. You remember the one time you did, despite the deadly, fanged dandelion puff seeds' best efforts. The feeling of satisfaction that stems from mastering a Little Nemo: The Dream Master level is something that lasts a lifetime. In fact, you may even remember years later the strategy used and implement it again. When I came back to the game two weeks ago, after about ten years of not playing it, I still remembered where every key in the first level was, not to mention the location of the hidden lizard and one-up. Your victories never leave you, which is a powerful factor in keeping a broken game from falling into obscurity.
Not to mention that Little Nemo: The Dream Master had one last glimmer of hope that kept people from rage-quitting after that first level brought up tears of frustration and feelings of inadequacy. I'm talking about the cheat code. You couldn't tap your way to invincibility or instant keys, but you could up, select, left, right, A, A, and then B your way to Dream Select. When this option was on the title screen, you could press A to skip your way through the worst levels. Want float past the House of Toys and find yourself at the Night Sea? Tap A three times. Want to visit Nightmare Land first? Hitting A seven times will do it. It was ingenious, really. Sure, this particular Little Nemo: The Dream Master level is too difficult to beat on your own merits, so do a little mashing and you'll find yourself in yet another level you can't complete. At least you have that option.
All of that is precisely what made Little Nemo: The Dream Master great. It's hopelessly flawed, constantly scheming against you and often insurmountable, but there's enough promise there to keep the haunting memories at bay and only allow the fondness to seep through. A replay will absolutely assure you that the game is broken beyond repair, but the nostalgia factor keeps those imperfections hidden until that bee soldier steals away another bar of your health despite what appeared to be a perfect Gorilla Nemo punch because it was one pixel out of range. Only time will tell if games like Fallout: New Vegas and Red Dead Redemption will provoke the same warm fuzzies that will make us forget frame-rate issues, freezing, and inexplicable NPC behavior. Call me in ten years and I'll let you know if I forgot the time I saw a ghoul take flight.
Date: October 29, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*