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Smorgasbored!

The NES is lousy with "One-Hit Wonders" -- that is to say, games where your soldier/adventurer/space-motocross-bicycle explodes the moment it brushes against any enemy, bullet, or piece of dirt.
Boy steps on snail...AND IS INSTANTLY KILLED!
On the other end of the spectrum, many other games gave you a life/energy bar, which gave you some ability to make mistakes and still keep playing.
Then there is the subject of today's article, the "fake energy meter" NES games: not only do you (usually) die in one hit, but you also have to keep your "energy" charged, or else you can die even WITHOUT being hit!
But how is this "fake energy meter" different from a standard game timer?
The most important feature of the "Fake Energy Meter" is that you aren't given enough time to complete most levels WITHOUT gathering energy meter power-ups. Some games even scroll at a fixed rate, so there's no way you could just "go faster" and manage to complete the level without gathering fake-energy boosts!
In most games, collecting power-ups is an enticing reward which lets you play longer. In these "fake energy meter" games, if you DON'T collect your energy power-ups, you die.
Well, enough dawdling -- let's look at a few of these succotash-suckers!
Adventure Island
In the oddly-named game, Hudson's Adventure Island, you play as the even-more-oddly named "Master Higgins:"
Master Higgins is the little boy pictured above trotting along in a grass skirt and baseball cap, desperately trying to out-maneuver snails, one of the slowest creatures on earth.
You can see his textbook case of "Fake Energy Meter" Syndrome at the top of the screen: there are "energy bars" which are slowly diminishing, and all the bananas, grapes, meat, milk, etc scattered throughout the level only buys him a few more moments of precious life.
Without constantly shoving these delectable treats down his gullet, he won't have enough power to sprint forwards, stub his toe on a rock, and careen head-first into a spider, crow, or roaring fire!
So munch that produce, gulp that milk -- Master Higgins is a man on a mission! His days may be numbered by his gross incompetence at running/jumping/throwing an infinite supply of stone tomahawks, but as Raiden is his witness (and if PLAYER 1 is handy with the D-pad), he'll never go hungry again!
Noteworthy Note: Adventure Island II has this silly game mechanic, too; however its levels are much bigger, and it has many more exciting power-ups, so it hides it better :)
Seicross
Take one part space shooter, mix with the vague "aliens kidnapping humans" plot of Defender, shoehorn in Excite Bike's motocross wackiness, then spill it all on a bizarre pre-TRON laser-grid, and you have SEICROSS!
The friendly beings hiding underground on planet [insert name of planet from this game here] have decided that the only vehicle capable of rescuing its population from the alien-ravaged surface is a laser-moped...and they've hired YOU to do their laser-moped-scooting for them!
You're that little blue fellow on the bike; you know, the tiny blue biker who's wearing a baseball cap instead of a helmet? That's you! Perhaps your lack of headgear is the reason that a collision is instantly fatal...except against your fellow moped-riders. You can see them above, they're the gray men on the red, green and purple bikes. They have a helmet, but no legs. I guess motocross is a pretty brutal sport on Planet [insert name here]!
Nevertheless, your mission of mercy is evidently so important that you can't make regular pit-stops for fuel, and your "fake energy meter" is constantly ticking down. Unless you pick up the hexagonal "radioactive-symbol" boxes scattered throughout the level, your bike will run out of isotope-gas and grind to a halt...by which I mean, "explode."
Noteworthy Note: Now, if only Ecto-1 in the horrible NES Ghostbusters game blew up the moment your tank of gas was empty!
Then you wouldn't have to hop out and push it to the next filling station every few minutes; instead you could just relax as your vehicle burned to the ground and then just be ghosts -- let's let the NEXT poor ghostbusting bastards try to track your ectoplasmic forms down...at least, until HE runs out of gas, too!)
Section Z
It hurts me to put Section Z in this Rogue's Gallery lineup of crap, because it has some legitimate neatness to it...for example, it achieves some things that most space shooters can only dream of:
YOU CAN SHOOT IN FRONT OR BEHIND YOU, and you can brush against the walls/floors/ceilings without dying!
Also there's a neat "pseudo-maze" mechanic, where, at the end of each few-minute-long "section", you can choose Gate 1 or Gate 2, and each one takes you to a different section. It's not Metroid, but at least it ends up as more exploration than one of those "Door A = next level, Door B = repeat THIS level again!" fake puzzles.
However, it's "Energy/Lives" system is weird enough that it really deserves its spot on today's wall of shame. Let's see how it works!
  • Enemy bullets drains a few of your 20 energy points
  • Physically colliding with an enemy makes you lose one of your 3 lives and 5 energy points
and then...
  • Losing all your LIVES lets you choose to Continue at the current Section you're at (basically the beginning of the level)
  • Losing all your ENERGY throws you all the way back to the most recent 'checkpoint'...
  • You only cross a checkpoint every 10 or 12 sections;
  • and of course, when you lose all your LIVES, you don't get more ENERGY!
It takes a lot of getting used to, and I think fits in with today's "fake energy bar" theme: while it seems exciting to be able to soak up enemy fire without instantly bursting into flame, in the long run you're being conned. Pooh-pooh to you, Section Z, and to L-BRAIN, your incredibly generic master villain!
Dishonorable Mention
There's definitely no shortage on NES games which combine the "one-hit wonder" mechanic onto a very slightly more forgiving system...here's some notes on some of the wackier ones!
Amagon
This fits the one-hit-wonder mold: most of the time you play as puny "Amagon," slain at the slightest brush from the feather of a tiny bird.
However, when you get the Megagon powerup, you can choose when to "hulk out" into your Megagon state...but in a bizarre twist, your energy in Megagon form is based on your current score!
It's a very weird system, which sometimes leads you to delay hulking out to scrabble the last few points...only to bump into a crab or mushroom as Amagon and die instantly.
Pro Tip: do not play this game.
Air Fortress
Another weirdie -- each level of this game is split into two parts:
Part 1 is a standard side-scrolling space shooter, as your hydrocephalic astronaut zips about on a space-sled and dies whenever he bumps into anything. While trying to avoid a grizzly death, he can also gather "B" and "E" symbols, to stock up bombs and energy for...
Part 2, the "Base" level: you have a legitimate energy meter here, but whenever you fly around with your jetpack (rather than shuffling around on foot), your meter slowly drains. Given that you can't jump and the levels are very vertical, you're going to be jet-packing about most of the time. When you sit still, you slowly recharge your "jetpack-spent" energy, to a point...but any energy lost from enemy collisions or bullet-wounds stay drained!
Again, it's a very confusing, and largely unnecessary, mechanic!
That's about all I've got for this week!
...any words of wisdom for us, Pitfall Harry?
"No fake energy meters here, kids -- one touch from a bullfrog and I start doing the cartwheel of death!"
— carlmarksguy, 2012-11-23
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