Game Journal: Die Hard and the Lone Ranger are Pretty Neat?

July 7th, 2024

I find myself a dabbling viewer of Jeff Gerstmann's Ranking of Every NES game series. I appreciate The Science, even if I can't understand a world where Commando ranks higher than Guerrilla War... but science isn't an answer, it is a process, and more important than the exact rankings is hearing Jeff's process, hearing him try to decouple his preconceptions from the game sitting before him. While this kind of objective(Big 2000s internet forum energy) approach is one I find myself trying to get away from, it's still interesting to hear someone older, and with a wider breadth of knowledge, contextualize these games in ways I could not. It's pretty good stuff, though not the point. The point is more that in the last episode I watched, he ran into and was taken back by two crazy, ambitious games, Die Hard and The Lone Ranger.

Die Hard

Die Hard made me pause Jeff's video within 20 seconds to run off and go play it. I even thumbed through a pixelated, awful scan of the manual before getting started, because the smell of the game had this... weird simulationist vibe. Or even a rogue-like vibe? The game isn't some licensed game action platformer or shoot'em up(Literally every other Die Hard on every other platform will fill these roles instead). There aren't levels or bosses. The game is almost a simulation. A Simulation of the movie Die Hard. You are in this building, free to explore. You kill a man and get a radio. You listen to the terrorists communications. They try and track you down. You have fog of war. You have a Foot Meter(Shush). Why?

Because you step on glass, of course. The terrorists shoot the glass while your shoeless character desperately dives around for cover.

The action in this game isn't, by "objective" standards very good. A bit too chaotic, too little control, your ability to aim a bit too hindered. In a sense though... that's the point? There is a finite time limit, a finite amount of goons. It's 1 vs 40 and you're not supposed to be rambo. When there is action, it can be dynamic, parts of the stage bursting apart, flashbangs going off everywhere. Combat is supposed to be scary, chaotic and uncertain. Being a clumsy and almost unfair isn't the best way to do that sort of things, but it is a way that could be done quickly and I'm sure the game designers knew it. Touches like the fact you drop items -- sometimes plot critical items -- when you get hit basically confirm this. You are a scared underdog, scrounging for resources, fighting to survive and the somewhat flawed combat succeeds in giving this fantasy. Perfect cannot be the enemy of good enough.

So you try and take people out safely, one at a time. You hide in vents and stairwells. You run away to bust open soda machines for health. You don't fight fair, because if you fight fair, the game will not be fair back. This is part of that roguelike quality. The game even has an advanced mode that somewhat scrambles the starting conditions. Not enough to matter, mostly your starting floor, but it hints at a larger game that could have existed.

The game as is, despite it's flaws is cool and open ended. You can skip whole optional parts of the game. You can win by simply hiding for long enough. You can steal the enemy detonators and trade them back in a hostage trade. All while this is happening, the terrorists are hacking their way into the vault, giving you updates over the radio.

This game wouldn't have been worth full price when it was released over 30 years ago, but as a game you can play for free now, it's pretty cool.

The Lone Ranger

A wildly ambitious game, cursed to be released on the same month as the SNES. It's as if Konami knew that if they wanted an NES game to survive in the era of the SNES, they had to go hard. Harder then they tried to go with The Adventures of Bayou Billy, 3 years earlier. A large action/adventure game, with an overworld map and 5 other play modes(Top down, Platforming, Maze Crawling Zapper Dungeons, Zapper Horseback Chases, and Sidescrolling Horseback Chases), two of which optionally use the zapper. You go to towns, find out the towns problems, and go out and solve them. With a gun. Then, with your collected bounties, you buy ammo, maybe a new gun, maybe some explosives, maybe visit a doctor and head off to the next set of towns to do it again.

Each individual section of the game is nothing inherently special, but the way the game uses it's different play modes and how it sets them up makes these segments feel constantly fresh. Clearing out simple bandit camps, to finding the artifact map pieces to recover an ancient treasure, to searching multiple towns to track down 3 famed gunmen, your goals are constantly changing. Maybe you're fighting a boss in a train filled with hostage women you you have to take great pains to protect. Maybe you're being chased on horse back by indians who have been lied to about your identity. Maybe you're... fighting a fake confederate army, while dodging cannon fire?

(Flashing Warning)

The game never gets too comfortable with what it's doing. Exploring a cave with a dungeon crawler style 3d maze is cool, but it's suddenly cooler when you're exploring a hotel, complete with furnished rooms. The overworld gets interactive in new ways, from moving bridges, to taking trains, to getting into battle on roads, to chasing or being actively chased. Suddenly you're on in mounted gunfight in the middle of the night, this sudden change in the time of day represented in 4 different game modes. Nothing feels rigid, everything can change.

Your existence feel fraught. You purchase almost(Picking up ammo in the zapper segments is so weird and goofy) every bullet you shoot. You can punch, but bullets are survival. Even the nature of your revolver will come to haunt you, when your 7th trigger pull is merely a reload when you forgot to pay attention to your HUD. You are a Ranger and you feel the importance of the weapon of your trade. You feel the price of every bullet.

Even to the end of the game, it is still pulling out new mechanics and new modes of play. In fact, the game is back loaded. It respects your efforts and rewards you for them. The game never takes your participation for granted.

The game is, if anything, perhaps a tad too hard, especially near the end. Death isn't brutal, but it's pretty unforgiving, requiring large(even by NES standards) sections to be replayed. This would hurt less if some aspects didn't seem kinda dodgy, but that's par for the course in this era. In fact, the most interesting thing about The Lone Ranger is how middle of the road so much of it is. It's not a game you play to get a unique gameplay experience, like Die Hard. It's a game you play to feel the ambition. It's a game that is many times more than the sum of its mediocre parts. It feels like the most NES game you could have, the logical end point of all the design trends of its day. It is, frankly, cool as hell.

A quick aside about emulators and Zappers

Playing this on the nestopia core of Retroarch was a pain in the ass because it's so easy to get zapper implementations wrong in emulators. The game required strict clicking on hitboxes when the zapper itself is a relatively forgiving(if inconsistent) device, operating almost like a shotgun(A reverse shotgun, where light shoots into it). The hit boxes aren't designed to be hit by a tiny dot, but by a somewhat large circle. This turned all the shooting segments into save state city. The non-zapper mode of this game seems even more challenging, so I'm not sure what the best way to go is, outside playing this on a real CRT with real hardware. Does anyone know an emulator or core the handles this more gracefully? Something to consider if you give this game a try.