Then and Now: Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES)

This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.

Google not only has awesome doodles, they have awesome doodles that teach people things. For example, I didn’t know that this week was the 107th anniversary of the start of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, an iconic comic telling the story of a little boy who would dream wild adventures, which often ended with his falling out of bed after some calamity. The strip ran for twenty-two years and was eventually adapted into various forms of media. One of those forms was a 1989 Japanese movie titled Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, which was a bit of a commercial flop worldwide but achieved some level of fame in Japan. Capcom made a game for the movie called Little Nemo: The Dream Master, which actually ended up preceding the movie by two years. Back then, Capcom was a master of taking cartoon properties and turning them into amazing games. Ducktales is one of the best examples of this.

As a ten-year-old upon the release of The Dream Master, the game was my first exposure to Nemo or any of his adventures. Though the game didn’t quite interest me as much as other Capcom titles of the era, such as Mega Man, Little Nemo is still regarded positively by retro gamers nowadays. Today’s question is simple: is that praise justified?

Little Nemo: The Dream Master
Original System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Original Release Date: September, 1990

HOW WAS IT THEN: Just like Capcom’s other early-90s stuff, Little Nemo was a quality licensed property that got the most out of an established name. Unlike other games like Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers and Ducktales, however, Little Nemo was punishingly difficult at times, even by NES game standards.

Nemo goes through each world armed with nothing more than candy. The candy can be used to stun hostile enemies for a spell, or it can be fed to enemies that can be made friendly (the general rule is that if the enemy is cute, throw candy at it). Once an enemy is made friendly, Nemo is able to morph into that monster, drawing upon new strengths and weaknesses. All of the monsters, regardless of what they can and can’t do, are necessary to find all of a stage’s keys. The keys are used to unlock the door out of the dream, which ends the stage. All of the keys must be found to complete the stage, which added replay value back in those days as it encouraged exploration.

I mentioned that the game is difficult, and I wasn’t lying. The layout of most stages often put Nemo at a disadvantage, especially since the candy is his only defence. That doesn’t help for much. Some enemies do have some defence mechanisms; for example, when Nemo’s a frog, he can jump on enemies Super Mario-style. Oftentimes, though, the Select button, which is used to morph back into Nemo, is necessary to avoid taking a hit.

Even back in 1990, the lack of any kind of save mode—password, battery, etc.—was painful; Little Nemo had to be completed in one setting. Due to the game’s high difficulty, this added a bit of artificial padding to the game because it would take many playthroughs to complete the game. However, there was a continue option that brought players back to the beginning of each stage if used.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master was a good game for its time, but it didn’t quite live up to the standards Capcom had set at the time. It was a little too frustrating for the kids it was aimed at, and it didn’t have the stage design that other Capcom titles did.

THEN: B-

HOW IS IT NOW: When played in 2012, Little Nemo is very much like most of the “new retro games” one sees nowadays, like Oniken and Retro City Rampage: it’s great for those who have a perverse idea as to what “NES Hard” is, but it’s questionable if this game can really be enjoyed by most gamers nowadays.

The number one issue is the difficulty. There’s not enough margin for error to allow for the amount of cheap hits that this game will throw at the player. Enemies come in waves, and usually at the worst possible time for them, at someone who has virtually no defence against it. It’s not hard so much as cheap, and though there’s a subsection of gamers that love that if only so they can act like video game hipsters, it’s not good for anyone trying to get through a game without destroying a controller.

Unlike a game with a similar befriend-a-monster element. such as the later Adventure Island games, the monsters confer just as many disadvantages as advantages. In Adventure Island 2, the animals could be put away, used at convenience between stages, and conferred very real advantages that wouldn’t have been there had they been lost. However, oftentimes in Little Nemo, the animals in question are more of an impediment than anything, made worse by how they’re often necessary to advance in the game because the player needs their skills to get those keys. In other words, the animals aren’t additions that make the game more fun for the most part; they’re part of a punishing puzzle that must be endured to advance. There’s a fine but noticeable difference, and it severely impacts one’s enjoyment of the game.

Worst of all, in a day when save points are necessary, this game has none. Want to finish three stages and pick it up later? You’d better be running an emulator, then, because you won’t be able to otherwise. That’s bad news in a game this tough, and though there’s a good continue system—if there were limited continues, I’d eat my cartridge—it still drops players to the beginning of the stage with no progress. First-time players can finish Little Nemo in an hour or so, but it’ll be a frustrating experience.

After all is said and done, there are good parts to the game. The music is beautiful, and in an interesting bit of trivia according to Capcom’s Wikia page, Little Nemo was the final game done for Capcom by the highly underrated Junko Tamiya (Gun.Smoke, Strider). The game is also very bright and colourful, typical of Capcom’s games from that era, which makes it easy to get lost in the environments that the Little Nemo cartoon strips were famous for. Maybe they’re not quite as absurd, but the stages were gorgeous nonetheless. Best of all, for those who don’t like to emulate, the cartridge is affordable, averaging under $10 on eBay. There’s also a really good boxed copy available for $45 on eBay that looks to be worth it for collectors.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master wasn’t a bad game so much as just one that assumed too much of the player. That’s well and good in 1990, especially for a company that had Capcom’s pedigree. But in 2012, that’s simply not good enough. The game is too frustratingly cheap to recommend to anyone but sadists, and due to that, it takes its place on the second tier of Capcom licensed games from that era alongside Adventures in the Magic Kingdom.

NOW: D+

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.