Cheap as Free: Abobo’s Big Adventure
Broke? Game store closed for the night? If you’re reading this then you’ve got everything you need to play some excellent free games right now! In Cheap as Free, I look at fantastic games that won’t cost you a penny, often developed by people who just love games as much as you do.
Abobo’s Big Adventure can be played or downloaded for free on www.abobosbigadventure.com.
I’d just come off of Double Dragon Neon when I remembered a game that I’d put aside for myself a few months prior. It was a free title called Abobo’s Big Adventure, a loving homage for anyone who’d ever enjoyed a NES game. Even if you’ve never touched that system in your life there’s still lots of fun to be had, as it runs you through many of the great games from its library. These aren’t just straight levels lifted from their respective games, but redesigns that draw from hundreds of other games to create an experience that encompasses the entire lifespan of the NES. It’ll also give you a taste of what the old NES difficulty was like.
Given that it’s free, you think you’d be playing some cheap ROM hack like those crappy versions of Super Mario Bros. where they drew him naked or with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. It isn’t. It’s a colossal work that started back in 2002 when Roger Barr wanted to make a game starring the huge brute from Double Dragon, Abobo. The project stalled at points, but the version you can play today has been worked on since 2006, and it shows. Watching videos of the levels in action doesn’t do justice to the amount of inside jokes, cameos, and secrets that have been crammed into the game. Barr himself touts it as the ultimate tribute to the NES, and I’d have a hard time arguing with that.
It starts off in Abobo’s familiar territory, the first level of Double Dragon, but it isn’t long before things get different. Before you hit the end of the stage, you’ll have fought characters from Kung-Fu, Kid Niki: Radical Ninja, Donkey Kong, River City Ransom, and Super Mario Bros. The only thing you can rely on in the first level is its gameplay, because you really don’t have any idea who’s going to march in from the right side of the screen. In a later level based off of Contra, I fought against Robocop, Jason Voorhees, Krang, and Kirby. The game never stops throwing cameos at you, but never once does it feel like they were shoehorned in. If you’re wondering how you could ever make Kirby fit in with Contra, though, you’ll just have to boot the game up and play it through.
You might find that a little easier said than done, since the game is built to give newcomers a taste of what NES difficulty was like. It’s not that hard, given that you have plenty of lives and as many continues as you’d like, but you still have to start the area from the beginning if you get a game over. It’s a frustration that I haven’t felt for quite some time, but it was welcome change to the constant checkpoints put in place by developers who live in fear of inconveniencing today’s gamers. Besides, a lot of these levels aren’t all that bad if you play carefully. They aren’t all that long most of the time either, so you really won’t be out much if you have to start some levels over.
There is one exception that’ll make most newcomers and veterans turn red, though, and that’s the Balloon Fight level. I’ll save you some anger right now: you can push ‘I’ at any point to just skip the level. I’m not going to say that I think you’re a wimpy little marshmallow who can’t handle a real challenge for skipping it, though. Just putting it out there if you can’t take it.
For anyone who can feel their gamer pride bristling at the idea of skipping the stage, I want you to know that there’s some genuine challenges waiting for you here. There’s no checkpoints, and you can lose a life with one hit from the right enemies. The stage is really long, it never much lets up on you, and you have to beat a stage after that level in order to clear the area. Die five times at any point and you’re playing it all over again. It’s agonizing to have your whole run dangling on the edge of a knife at all times, but that’s how games used to be. This wouldn’t be a tribute to the NES without one level that was designed to break your patience with a gruelling endurance run. I lost about a dozen times before I beat it, and you will too. Keep going, though, and you’ll get to savor what victory in games used to feel like.
There’s a lot more levels culled from the NES library that are much more fun than Balloon Fight, thankfully. They took a water level from Super Mario Bros. just to keep things interesting, as well as the delightful gauntlet that is Quick Man’s stage from Mega Man 2. Each of these levels plays like the games they were pulled from, so expect to bounce around all kinds of different play styles during your run.
They all ape their respective games pretty well, too. That means that any quirks that were particular to that game, like the difficulty to stay airborne in Balloon Fight, have been reproduced for the game as well, but this is rarely an issue. Almost all of the games they chose to replicate are known for their excellent controls, so it’s rare that you’ll be able to blame the controls for any of your clumsy deaths. Some of them have been improved slightly as well, like how your punches have been sped up a bit in Urban Champion. Despite all of the different gameplay types the game still controls like a dream, and is just as much fun to play as the games it pulls from.
Once you’re finished you’re far from done, too. There are a bunch of hidden areas that have been put throughout the game, giving you added reasons to poke around the level and try new things. When I came to the end of the Double Dragon level, I remembered a glitch I’d found as a kid that let me walk up the last wall before the boss. I came up to it in the game and pressed up against it, wondering if they’d fixed it for the new release. I cracked a little smile when I slid up the wall, but I was completely surprised when I entered a weird room at the top of the screen. Even the glitches get a little nod in this tribute, and they also provide a really good reason to replay the game a few times.
Despite all of the work put into it, this game would be nothing more than a fancy ROM hack if it weren’t for its sense of humor. It can be gruesome and insane, and that’s a big part of its lasting appeal. There’s something about being able to kick the head off a hostage and eat it for health that just took me off guard. It was also really satisfying to be able to do a fatality on the guy from Urban Champion and then throw his torso at the girl who throws flowers at you when you win. The idea of one of the Contra bosses fleeing in fear of Kirby, fighting a version of Jaws that was smaller than Abobo, and finding out the identity of the last boss were just really funny. I wasn’t dying of laughter, but watching this game’s sense of humor encompass every one of its design decisions made it that much more appealing.
It’s also done some really impressive work with NES graphics to make itself stand out. There are a handful of enemies and bosses that were inspired from characters in the games, but the developers really made them their own. The fight against the Old Man from The Legend of Zelda was amazing, showing some really fluid animation and design in his movements and attacks. The final boss in the Contra level was gorgeous to see in action as well, surprising me with what that era’s graphics could do. Given how many NES games I’ve played, that’s saying something.
The music does the game justice, too. Many of the tracks are pulled straight from their respective games, but like everything else many of them have been given facelifts or altered in some way. While being nostalgic, the handful of musical changes do keep the game fresh and interesting, and are a great final touch that the developers put into the game. The completely unique tracks are a lot more complex than most NES music, but they fit in with the ludicrous theme of the game. The heavier tracks and effects could be at odds with the graphics on-screen, but their tie to the brutish main character and silly violence make them shine. You’ve heard a lot of this stuff before, but the changes and new tracks really make the game such a complete package.
Even getting one of these levels for free is a steal, but getting this whole game for nothing is incredible. It shows more heart and care than I’ve seen in most AAA titles I’ve played, and is just a great game to spend a night with. If you find yourself with a little bit of extra cash after playing the game, consider donating some of that to the developers as thanks for the work they put into it. Trust me, when you’re finished you will feel guilty for playing something so good without paying for it. Barr set out to make the definitive tribute to the NES, and that’s exactly what he did.
Images courtesy of kocosports.com, dualshockers.com, throwncontrollers.com, retro-video-gaming.com