Building a Raspberry Pi Portable Gaming Device (Hack Like Heck: Matthew Eargle – TurtlePi)

If you’re going to build a retro gaming device, why not do it with a little style? The TurtlePi starts with a 1989 Konami Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles LCD handheld with a bad board and replaces the internals using a Raspberry Pi Zero W and Adafruit PiTFT screen to build a TMNT-themed handheld like no other! This video is the grand-prize-winning entry in Element14’s “Hack Like Heck” competition. Special thanks to Element14 and all of my friends, family, and subscribers who supported me in the contest!

Music by Anders Enger Jensen, available at

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? Mind tricklings

? Pictures of my socks

? Behind the scenes

? Everything else is at


“A” Camera: Canon EOS 6D

“B” Camera: Canon EOS T3

Takstar SGC-598 Microphone

Azden 310LT Wireless Lavalier Microphone

Safstar Softbox Lighting Kit

DGK Color Grading/White Balance Calibration Card

Parrot Teleprompter

Zoom H1 Audio Recorder

Selens LED Panel Camera Light

Apple MacBook Pro

Edited with Final Cut Pro

Tech teardowns, repairs, and reviews; sketches; how-to; games; and lots of other interesting geekery. There’s something new every week! Thanks for watching, and be sure to like, share, and subscribe!

Generally, any product links are affiliate links that offer a commission to support this channel at no extra cost to you. Affiliate commissions do not affect advertised prices, but do go to support this channel and affiliated website,


00:00:04,549 –> 00:00:09,590
why don’t we have people send in short
audition videos and put them on the Element

00:00:09,590 –> 00:00:14,690
14 community saying hey here’s Who I am
here’s what I do and here’s how I would

00:00:14,690 –> 00:00:22,359
approach a raspberry pi affordable okay
and the ten best videos that we oh yeah

00:00:22,359 –> 00:00:26,900
what are you doing here we were battling
the shredder and old metal face

00:00:26,900 –> 00:00:33,019
destroyed my favorite video game ever I
need your help to fix it well why don’t

00:00:33,019 –> 00:00:37,370
you get it Donatello to do it nah he’s
busy working on some project for some

00:00:37,370 –> 00:00:42,140
Ben Heck guy whoever that is you think
you can look at it oh yeah this is a

00:00:42,140 –> 00:00:51,320
crush a I’ll see what I can do so
apparently Raphael is entrusted me with

00:00:51,320 –> 00:00:56,629
this vintage 1989 Teenage Mutant Ninja
Turtles handheld game and well it’s kind

00:00:56,629 –> 00:01:01,119
of a one-trick pony though it’s a
rudimentary graphics rudimentary sound

00:01:01,119 –> 00:01:08,330
rudimentary gameplay but what if we can
take these design cues and upgrade the

00:01:08,330 –> 00:01:14,149
internals we’ll say a Raspberry Pi new
screen etc and we can build something

00:01:14,149 –> 00:01:19,939
that celebrates not only a beloved
franchise but retro gaming in general

00:01:19,939 –> 00:01:26,299
much the way that the SNES classic or
the NES classic does so here’s my idea

00:01:26,299 –> 00:01:37,670
we take said TMNT game which is very
poor part and should be able to fit a

00:01:37,670 –> 00:01:47,030
new TFT screen right here we’ll use the
original buttons if I can get some

00:01:47,030 –> 00:01:52,939
replacements we use the original buttons
here we use these function buttons we

00:01:52,939 –> 00:01:59,659
put a power switch here for the on/off
button and then we’ll just use some tax

00:01:59,659 –> 00:02:05,060
switches up underneath we’ll build a new
control set so the screen and a

00:02:05,060 –> 00:02:11,840
Raspberry Pi should just fit right here
may have to take much of this out just

00:02:11,840 –> 00:02:17,600
to fit everything in but we should be
able to have plenty of room here since

00:02:17,600 –> 00:02:21,439
we’re not
gonna use double A’s I should be able to

00:02:21,439 –> 00:02:28,280
get a lipo big lipo battery stick it
right in here and use this room for some

00:02:28,280 –> 00:02:37,579
extra eternals so this looks like it’s a
very viable project so let me order some

00:02:37,579 –> 00:02:43,340
parts and we will start fitting
everything together and see where it

00:02:43,340 –> 00:02:52,280
goes so I think my biggest concern here
is the way that the pie and the screen

00:02:52,280 –> 00:02:59,150
are gonna fit together inside the case
now of course it looks like they’re

00:02:59,150 –> 00:03:03,290
gonna fit so it should be okay but we’ll
know for certain once we get rid of all

00:03:03,290 –> 00:03:07,069
this extra plastic here so I’m gonna
mark off all these areas that we’re

00:03:07,069 –> 00:03:14,870
gonna cut and then once I have all that
now it’s time to dremel yes I actually I

00:03:14,870 –> 00:03:20,209
was afraid of this so the buttons don’t
fit right the screen and they don’t even

00:03:20,209 –> 00:03:24,370
line up right so we’re gonna have to
take those

00:03:36,780 –> 00:03:44,350
so here are the buttons that we removed
and of course you got a uh can actually

00:03:44,350 –> 00:03:47,320
see in here that they just they just
don’t line up right so we’re gonna

00:03:47,320 –> 00:03:56,140
actually create a new pad a new
controller to go in here now before we

00:03:56,140 –> 00:03:59,020
get building this thing we should
probably at least set up the operating

00:03:59,020 –> 00:04:02,830
system on the Raspberry Pi and since
this is a PI based gaming system we’re

00:04:02,830 –> 00:04:07,360
gonna use the tried-and-true retro PI so
we’re just gonna jump over to the retro

00:04:07,360 –> 00:04:11,620
pie website and grab the image once
that’s finished downloading use an app

00:04:11,620 –> 00:04:16,810
like etcher to flash it onto a bootable
SD drive disco now I’ve got to

00:04:16,810 –> 00:04:21,520
reconfigure this workstation with the
HDMI monitor the OTG cable and the power

00:04:21,520 –> 00:04:27,700
supply in order to set up the Raspberry
Pi for the first boot okay we’ve got a

00:04:27,700 –> 00:04:31,780
splash screen this is a good sign so
from here let’s go into the

00:04:31,780 –> 00:04:36,330
configuration menu and set up the Wi-Fi

00:04:36,630 –> 00:04:42,730
now we need to enable SSH so we’re gonna
go into raspy config then to interface

00:04:42,730 –> 00:04:49,150
options SSH and 1/8 now back in the main
retro PI interface I’ll go ahead and

00:04:49,150 –> 00:04:53,560
shut down the pi so that I can clear all
the stuff off my workstation now back on

00:04:53,560 –> 00:04:58,120
the Mac I’ll just fire around terminal
and ssh into hi now I haven’t changed

00:04:58,120 –> 00:05:01,450
the knee of the credentials yet but you
absolutely should do that as soon as

00:05:01,450 –> 00:05:08,320
possible now I’m gonna be using a two
fruits 2.2 inch pie TFT hat as the

00:05:08,320 –> 00:05:12,730
primary display so I need to enable
support using the script that they were

00:05:12,730 –> 00:05:20,320
so good to provide I’ll use option 6 for
the manual configuration and give it a

00:05:20,320 –> 00:05:25,990
few minutes for everything to install I
also need to set up a two fruits from

00:05:25,990 –> 00:05:29,890
retro game scripts so I can quickly
assign the GPIO breakout pins from the

00:05:29,890 –> 00:05:35,330
screen module
we’ll use the hi girls zero settings for

00:05:35,330 –> 00:05:42,910
simplicity okay the initial setup is
complete and it’s time to do

00:05:44,620 –> 00:05:49,520
okay so I’ve picked up some bakelite
perfboard so I could build a custom

00:05:49,520 –> 00:05:54,620
controller without having to roll my own
PCB besides it’s quicker and easier if I

00:05:54,620 –> 00:06:00,140
just hand wire everything and I’m gonna
be better able to make adjustments and

00:06:00,140 –> 00:06:06,590
changes as necessary if so to start I
just need to lay out my buttons and make

00:06:06,590 –> 00:06:10,130
sure I have the correct spacing by using
the front panel of the game then I’ll

00:06:10,130 –> 00:06:14,560
press fit my pack switches in the board
and double check the spacing as I go

00:06:14,560 –> 00:06:31,600
once everything is lined up right it’s
time to solder

00:06:31,600 –> 00:06:35,150
now that all the buttons are soldered
place I’ll go ahead and trim off the

00:06:35,150 –> 00:06:39,980
excess bakelite so that the whole board
fits in the case nicely of course this

00:06:39,980 –> 00:06:44,090
is why I’m using bakelite instead of
fiberglass because well it’s I can cut

00:06:44,090 –> 00:06:47,330
it with scissors I don’t have to get out
the dremel and all the safety equipment

00:06:47,330 –> 00:06:51,650
so you know just to make a simple trail
I’m also gonna need to cut out a notch

00:06:51,650 –> 00:06:56,690
here to fit this big beefy power button
that I’m gonna install separately now

00:06:56,690 –> 00:07:00,490
let’s start working on this screen

00:07:03,590 –> 00:07:09,020
so the PI TFT hat actually comes with a
separate GPIO breakout right here below

00:07:09,020 –> 00:07:13,940
the 40 thin connector so that you can
easily attach control wires the cell I’m

00:07:13,940 –> 00:07:17,389
going to connect the buttons and I’m
just gonna use a two fruits default

00:07:17,389 –> 00:07:25,610
layout for their retro game script to
wire everything for now okay just a

00:07:25,610 –> 00:07:29,960
quick orientation check let’s get these
wires soldered to their Horace ponding

00:07:29,960 –> 00:07:36,839

00:07:39,690 –> 00:07:47,670
okay now moment of truth it’s time to
solder the pie to the screen module with

00:07:47,670 –> 00:07:51,470
all the wires sandwiched in between

00:07:57,530 –> 00:08:02,370
now the screen module and the PI are
married I need to ground all these

00:08:02,370 –> 00:08:07,560
buttons to a common line so I’ll just
run some ground lines create a couple of

00:08:07,560 –> 00:08:13,590
buses and connect all of that to one of
the ground pants on the GPIO now I need

00:08:13,590 –> 00:08:18,480
a couple of shoulder buttons and so I’m
going to use these little candy colored

00:08:18,480 –> 00:08:24,330
text witches because they’re going to
fit right into the top of these little

00:08:24,330 –> 00:08:29,820
shoulders here on the bottom of the case
appropriately enough so I’m going to

00:08:29,820 –> 00:08:34,830
need to measure the button cap okay
looks be about 11 millimeters give or

00:08:34,830 –> 00:08:45,999
take so now my stepper bit and you get
to chewing through this plastic

00:08:56,220 –> 00:09:07,259
looking good so now we need some onboard
audio okay let’s take our USB audio

00:09:07,259 –> 00:09:12,120
adapter and and tear off these three and
a half millimeter Jaxx’s we’re not going

00:09:12,120 –> 00:09:18,360
to need them instead we’ll just solder
the leads to our speaker directly to the

00:09:18,360 –> 00:09:22,920
pads where the headphone jack was it
doesn’t really matter which channel we

00:09:22,920 –> 00:09:27,209
use because we’re only going to output
mono sound all these old games did just

00:09:27,209 –> 00:09:31,019
fine with mono sound anyway I mean it’s
not like a lot of TVs back in the day

00:09:31,019 –> 00:09:36,629
had stereo capabilities anyway
kind of reminds me of the Etta reminds

00:09:36,629 –> 00:09:41,730
me of the old game boys you know
dot-matrix with stereo sound but only

00:09:41,730 –> 00:09:55,079
one speaker whatever now we should at
least make sure it works now comes the

00:09:55,079 –> 00:09:57,660

00:09:57,660 –> 00:10:06,810
I need to desolder these wires leading
to the USB plug because well this just

00:10:06,810 –> 00:10:11,280
isn’t gonna work
oh yeah and you might want to take note

00:10:11,280 –> 00:10:16,590
of where each wire is connected to
logistics anyway with the USB

00:10:16,590 –> 00:10:22,530
disconnected I’ll just cut a micro USB
cable that I have lying around and leave

00:10:22,530 –> 00:10:28,140
a micro plug and just a few inches worth
of cable strip it down and solder the

00:10:28,140 –> 00:10:33,390
individual wires onto the appropriate
pads add a little dab of hot glue to

00:10:33,390 –> 00:10:39,840
reinforce the connections and then we’ve
got as a micro USB audio adapter that

00:10:39,840 –> 00:10:49,860
should fit just like so now the last
component I have to build before we put

00:10:49,860 –> 00:10:53,280
this whole thing together is the power
supply now I’m going to use a two

00:10:53,280 –> 00:10:57,810
thousand milliamp power lipo battery to
power the thing with but I’m gonna need

00:10:57,810 –> 00:11:02,910
a way to charge it and to distribute
that power so for that I’m gonna use

00:11:02,910 –> 00:11:09,720
this a power boost 1000 from Adafruit
it’s actually pretty simple to wire the

00:11:09,720 –> 00:11:16,230
battery plugs into this little jack
right here and we just have to run a

00:11:16,230 –> 00:11:22,320
couple of wires from these terminals one
goes to a 5 volt pin and the other goes

00:11:22,320 –> 00:11:26,490
to the ground pin on the PI I’m also
gonna wire this little clicky button

00:11:26,490 –> 00:11:32,820
switch that I have that I’ll use to talk
with power now let’s get these things

00:11:32,820 –> 00:11:37,310
soldered up and that’ll be time to put
this bad boy together

00:11:39,279 –> 00:11:45,379
so I’ve run into a little bit of a snag
on assembling the speaker that I’m using

00:11:45,379 –> 00:11:50,029
is just too big to fit inside the shell
so I’m gonna have to find a smaller

00:11:50,029 –> 00:11:55,360
speaker driver to use now fortunately
the fine folks over at Ben Heck show

00:11:55,360 –> 00:12:00,500
happened to send me another speaker as
part of the build materials for Ben’s

00:12:00,500 –> 00:12:08,149
original bill okay let’s get this bad
boy put together we’re gonna start with

00:12:08,149 –> 00:12:14,449
the power boost unit wire that up to the
five volt in and the ground pin on the

00:12:14,449 –> 00:12:21,500
Raspberry Pi then we want a route ours
power switch into its appropriate

00:12:21,500 –> 00:12:29,209
position all right looking good now we
need to connect the shoulder buttons to

00:12:29,209 –> 00:12:34,189
the main controls we’re gonna start by
running ground lines from the ground bus

00:12:34,189 –> 00:12:38,029
on the controller out to the shoulder
buttons which I’ve attached to these

00:12:38,029 –> 00:12:42,889
small little pieces of perfboard that
I’ve glued into place then we’re going

00:12:42,889 –> 00:12:46,689
to connect our signal wires that we
soldered on to the screen module earlier

00:12:46,689 –> 00:12:52,100
all right everything’s fitting great now
we just need to add a little hot glue to

00:12:52,100 –> 00:12:57,769
hold everything in place and to insulate
our wires okay the last thing we have to

00:12:57,769 –> 00:13:02,110
do is Mount our USB audio so we got to
run the cable right around through here

00:13:02,110 –> 00:13:07,699
plug it in and cut a little piece of
mounting square we’re gonna tack the

00:13:07,699 –> 00:13:15,800
speaker right down on to the battery and
I think we’re actually finished let’s

00:13:15,800 –> 00:13:23,430
give it a shot
it works I’ve works it works okay one

00:13:23,430 –> 00:13:40,320
more thing I’ve got to do and always got
to sign our work perfect now I just got

00:13:40,320 –> 00:13:44,340
to get this back over to Raphael and
we’re good to go okay so the games

00:13:44,340 –> 00:13:47,940
intact but I’ve made a few modifications
that I think you’re gonna enjoy let’s

00:13:47,940 –> 00:13:57,830
check it out wow this is radical this is
way better than the game I used to play

8BitDo NES30 Pro Controller Unboxing

In this archived video, we take a look at the 8BitDo NES30 Pro unboxing and see what kinds of goodies are inside. If you’re looking for the best Bluetooth controller for retro gaming, then look no further than the NES30 Pro series from 8BitDo. With shoulder buttons, 2 analog sticks, and a stylish design reminiscent of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the 8BitDo NES30 Pro Bluetooth controller is made for any retro gaming challenge you can throw at it!


?‍♂️ If you enjoy watching these videos and would like to see them more often, please consider becoming a patron

☕️ You can also support AirborneSurfer with a one-time donation at

? You can also support this channel by using my Amazon affiliate link before you shop!

? Get your own domain name and web site for CHEAP with Namecheap!

? Get better performance out of your YouTube videos with TubeBuddy: ? Use to take your YouTube analytics to the next level:

? Production videos Mon @ 9am Pacific (when available)

? Freeway Forum LIVE Thu @ 5pm Pacific (every week)

? Workbench LIVE Streams & Replays Sat @ 12pm Pacific (when available)

? Freeway Forum Replays Sun @ 9am Pacific (every week)

? Be sure to subscribe!

? Mind tricklings

? Pictures of my socks

? Behind the scenes

? Everything else is at


“A” Camera: Canon EOS 6D

“B” Camera: Canon EOS T3

Takstar SGC-598 Microphone

Azden 310LT Wireless Lavalier Microphone

Safstar Softbox Lighting Kit

DGK Color Grading/White Balance Calibration Card

Parrot Teleprompter

Zoom H1 Audio Recorder

Selens LED Panel Camera Light

Apple MacBook Pro

Edited with Final Cut Pro

Tech teardowns, repairs, and reviews; sketches; how-to; games; and lots of other interesting geekery. There’s something new every week! Thanks for watching, and be sure to like, share, and subscribe!

Generally, any product links are affiliate links that offer a commission to support this channel at no extra cost to you. Affiliate commissions do not affect advertised prices, but do go to support this channel and affiliated website,

Soldering Supercut: Project QuickShot

Project QuickShot is a variation on the Nintendo NES Zapper light gun that is designed to provide emulated light gun functionality for modern displays. QuickShot uses an ATmega32u4 to create mouse movements based on the relative movement of the Zapper’s barrel. It’s a different skill set, so it’s a different kind of hand-eye coordination challenge from the original!

On Game Design: Difficult vs Frustrating

I was thinking a little bit about video games this morning and the differences between a game that’s difficult (or even extremely difficult to where it’s almost impossible to finish without the help of Game Genie or save states or anything like that) versus games that were just arbitrarily difficult because they wanted to just fuck over the player.

Like, the difference between something like Ghosts ‘n Goblins that’s arbitrarily difficult for the sake of being arbitrarily difficult because they just do things to make it arbitrarily difficult throughout the entire game and then when you finally finish the game–if you finally finish–you don’t actually finish the game! You have to start over and then there is an item that you have to collect somewhere in the game that you don’t know about and you don’t know the whereabouts of it and it’s entirely random where it shows up and you have to get that and you have to finish the game again and you might get the good ending because it depends on how you played the game originally.

I feel like that is not the mark of good design. It’s not the mark of a good game, and–especially at the end–it’s not at all rewarding! It’s just been so frustrating to get to that point that you’re rewarded with a simple “Congratulations” screen and that’s about it! It’s like “No no no no!” I mean, at least give me a credits crawl or something! Maybe rudimentary animation? Give me something to be proud of!

Of course, this is the earlier 8-bit era games, and this franchise–especially being a port of an arcade game–is meant to be extremely difficult. These games are meant to eat quarters, but there’s a difference between being just arbitrarily difficult and being difficult in a fun way that encourages replay. I don’t believe the NES port of Ghosts ‘n Goblins encourages replay. It’s a frustrating game that is not fun enough to play again; however, the later ones are okay–like they’re fun diversions. The arcade version is actually kind of fun to play through, but the console versions–by and large in my experience–have just been arbitrarily difficult and they’re set up to be that way so that you play them for a long time. In my experience, though, it just means they get thrown into a corner (or traded or sold) and never touched again by that player.

Contrast this to something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original one that everybody hates but I actually enjoy). Everybody loves to hate that original Turtles game, but I love it. I think it’s a lot of fun, it’s unique, and it’s more interesting than the beat-em-ups that came later. Granted, I do love Turtles IV on the SNES because I think that’s a beautiful port of a really fun arcade game and the console version actually adds to the arcade game. Of course, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade was ported to the NES as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game and it was amazing when it came out and it was a lot of fun and it was great to play to be able to play the arcade game at home but it and its successor The Manhattan Project just don’t grab me the way the first one does.

Maybe it’s because I had the first one and I really enjoyed playing it a lot, putting a lot of time and effort into playing it and getting good at it. Maybe I’m different because I never felt that the dam level was all that difficult? It seems everybody hates swimming under the dam and doing the bombs, but I’m like, “That didn’t take me long to learn and get through it!” It’s difficult, but it’s not so difficult that it becomes frustrating and has that arbitrary feel to where it’s just full of “gotchas”. Ghosts ‘n Goblins is full of gotchas, but Turtles is just a genuinely difficult, skills-based game. It’s not a memory-based game where the difficulty lies in simply memorizing all the patterns and knowing exactly where the enemy is going to be before it appears on the screen.

Turtles, like many well-designed games, is a game where you really have to develop certain skills in order to progress through the game. You have to learn how the dam works. You have to learn to lay out of the dam. You have to learn the swimming mechanic. You have to learn the map of level 3, And yeah, that’s a little bit of memory work, but there is there’s a Metroidvania-like discovery mechanic, and there’s a lot of skill-building involved where you’ve got to start getting good at using the individual turtles to your advantage because they all have different strengths and weaknesses and you have to be able to play that. Then there’s certain jumps that you have to make, and you have to make them a certain way, and you make them with the certain turtle (because of his weapon).

There’s a lot that you have to learn and a lot that you have to know, but there’s a lot that you have to actually be able to do versus something like Ghosts ‘n Goblins which is just run and gun and know where the bad guys are going to pop up. It’s not like you can watch the screen and time it, you just have to know before it happens, and that is the difference: You have to know before it happens.

If you can’t look at the screen and see what’s going to happen as it’s happening, and instead just have to know it’s going to happen before you see it, that’s a mark of bad design.

There have to be visual cues in order for the game to be fun. When you can see the visual cues, you can learn them. Then you can apply that to other places in the game versus just having to know where everything is and memorize the whole game in order to be able to beat it. Visual or auditory cues are the key to good game design. You don’t want to spoon feed anybody like modern games do, but you don’t want to leave them without any way to figure out the problem. It’s a delicate balance, and some games do it really well while some games do not.

Then there are games like Fun House (NES) which is very much skills based, but also memorization. In this title, you have to be good at controlling the avatar through its unique control scheme and you have to learn the layouts of every level! Meanwhile the designers did a decent job of placing cues and directing the player where to go. Once you’ve played a level two or three times you know how it works, but you’ve run out of lives and now you have to go back and you play it again, but there’s a fair “continue” mechanism that won’t set the player back too far and there are enough lives that troublesome spots aren’t detrimental.

A good design for a game keeps you playing; It has replay value. A well-designed game is just addictive enough, and it’s just difficult enough to warrant another try. Turtles is an extremely difficult game, but it’s also fun. Fun House is an extremely difficult game, but it is also fun. Mickey Mousecapade is ridiculously difficult! I’ve only beat it once (and I think I did that by accident), but it’s actually fun. It’s challenging–not something that is beyond your ability as a mere mortal–but just challenging enough to test your ability, and that’s the difference!

You don’t want games to be so difficult they’re not fun, but you don’t want them to be so easy they’re not fun either. I look at modern equivalents like I Wanna Be the Guy or  VVVVVV and they’re just difficult for the sake of being difficult, but they’re also doing it in a tongue-in-cheek way and you go into the game knowing that! You go into the game knowing that they’re just fucking around with you and they’re playing against all these different tropes that came before–all these different conventions. So they set it up and they’re all tricks! Every design element is there to trick the player, but it’s specifically done that way and it’s more of an artistic statement, I think, in how can conventions can inform our decisions and how we can play off of those conventions to misdirect and I appreciate what they did. These titles may be arbitrarily difficult, but they’re arbitrarily difficult for a specific reason. They are arbitrarily difficult because they’re setting you up for failure on every screen and that’s part of the fun. It’s subverting those tropes and those conventions, and it makes for a very fun experience even though it is hopelessly difficult.

There’s a lot of commentary on game design in those pieces, and even though I’ve never felt compelled to play through either of those examples, I appreciate what they’re saying. These games fit into the gaming landscape much in the same way that films from Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker fit into the larger landscape of cinema. These are pieces that play with established conventions and techniques, and while not always considered “good” by critical standards, they know exactly what they are and why they exist, and they delight in deconstructing everything you thought you understood about the medium.

Embracing The Weird: Reflections on [The Legend of] Zelda II

I Am Error. You should meet my friend Bug.
Contrary to popular belief, this is the intended text.

What can one say about a game developed nearly 40 years ago that hasn’t already been said in the year 2021? Despite literally everything possible being said about this title, I’d like to put in my own two cents. It’s an interesting piece of gaming history, and–if you will forgive the tired trope–really not as bad as people may think. Perhaps if it had been allowed to evolve the way it had initially been constructed, we would be talking about it in an entirely different context. The game, of course, is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Not “The Legend of Zelda II”, mind you, but simply “Zelda II” which is strange, and–apparently–only because of the habit in the era for games to have short titles. Of course, there’s also the habit of the “cool kids” to shorthand titles as an indication of their savviness, so the two phenomena probably played into each other. The second entry in the Legend of Zelda franchise–beyond its chosen nomenclature–is a strange duck that exists the way it does mostly due to the experimental nature of Nintendo in the 1980s combined with their cautious growth in markets outside of Japan.

Now you're playing with power!
Compton’s was basically this design, but a store.

It may come as some surprise to people that know me that I did not really grow up playing Zelda II or, really, many of the Zelda franchise games beyond the first one. My only real experience with Zelda II prior to my adulthood was playing this “strange game” at Compton’s World of Nintendo–an independently-owned Nintendo boutique at Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, Georgia. Walking into Compton’s was like walking into a Nintendo advertisement: all very geometric, black and grey decor like the design of the promotional posters that came in those early cartridges punctuated with a few of those sparkly fiber-optic “World of Nintendo” signs for good measure. The store sold all the latest releases along with every kind of licensed ephemera imaginable, but the real draw were the 3 Nintendo M-82 demo kiosks near the front entrance. At Compton’s, you could choose from a maximum of thirty-six different video games–ALL FOR FREE (versus the couple dozen games at either Aladdin’s Castle or Jolly Time that each cost at least a quarter a pop), so for an elementary-school-age kid without an NES, it was an experience to relish! It was here that I had a lot of my first experiences with Nintendo, a year or so before my parents bought one, and the one that still stands out in my mind is Zelda II.

I still kinda want one of these signs.

I had played and enjoyed The Legend of Zelda on occasion with friends, and I really wanted to get into Zelda II, and I would play it any time I was at the mall despite the fact that it may have been the most confusing thing I had played since attempting to play Gyromite without the benefit of R.O.B. Of course, playing at Compton’s, I lacked the luxury of Nintendo Power–or even just an instruction manual–so I was flying blind trying to apply what I knew about TLOZ to this side-scrolling environment with towns and semi-random encounters.

At its most basic, Zelda II, appealed to me at a visual level and the strangeness intrigued me that I wanted to understand it. Here was this strange game that was so visually different from its predecessor that didn’t play anything like its predecessor, but it was such a visceral experience from the very first screen seeing Link as a full-size person and Zelda lying there in the background. You immediately know what the objective is and what the stakes are, so you leave the palace and you’re back on the familiar top-down screen, but the baddies appear randomly, and you try to strike them with your sword when–BAM! You’re in a side-scrolling environment and everything is different and you can’t reach the monsters with your dinky little sword, and you can’t jump very high, and things are coming at you from every direction when you try to run away. If you’re lucky, you’ll get away, then try to go in that cave to find a better sword, but you just get killed by some invisible enemy in the dark, and then the machine resets because your time is up, and you just stand there confused thinking the game itself has conspired against you (games cheat, you know). It’s just a very, very different experience, and to a little kid, I think it was something more interesting in concept rather than in practice.

I finally broke down and bought my own copy at the SoCal Retro Gaming Expo a few years back.

Side note: I think a lot of things that I get myself involved in are more interesting in concept than in practice. For example, I like to think of how nice it might be to have certain things exist or I romanticize certain concepts and want to will them into existence, but doing so points out all the various reasons why that concept doesn’t work in reality. Nevertheless, I persist in making this thing exist and I enjoy the process and the end result for some time. I feel like this is what Zelda II is for me: a very interesting concept that promised to be an immersive experience (with the leveling system and world building), but in practice it was just a beast. Of course, not knowing the reality, I did want a copy so that I could properly play it through. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to get a copy for some time because there were so many games that caught my attention over the years–especially licensed titles–and when you only purchase at most 1-2 games per year, you have to be more discriminating!

Since I could never wrap my head around Zelda II, I didn’t pay much attention to it until I was in high school in the late 1990s. The Nesticle emulator had just landed and I, again, tried to trudge through Zelda II before rage-quitting to savestate-grind my way through Batman. Around the same time, Funcoland opened a store in Austell and I quickly became a “retro gamer” and “retro enthusiast” before such a concept really existed. I was cheap, and new games were expensive, so I would drop $20 a Funcoland and walk out with a stack of 2600, NES, SNES, and Genesis carts (since the PlayStation and N64 debut in 1995, even Genesis was already considered “retro”). There were still a few titles that held their values, among them were Super Metroid, Ecco The Dolphin, and Zelda II so even at Funcoland in 1999, these titles commanded obscene amounts of money!

GameStop could burn for all I care if it meant getting FuncoLand and Electronics Boutique back.

With the release of the NES Classic Edition, I finally had a real chance to play this confounding title start-to-finish (and with an instruction manual and archived copy of Nintendo Power to help)! Naturally, I was very frustrated by the game. Many reviewers will point out that Zelda II is not a “difficult” game, per se, but that it is very unfair. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment in that it’s not a very skill-intensive game once you’ve learned the mechanics and know where you’re going, but there are a lot of design choices that make it “unfair” to the player. Design choices like placing specific enemies in specific places that make it difficult or impossible to attack without taking damage or concentrating magic-draining enemies in dungeons where a lot of magic is necessary to proceed. Of course, the most heinous drawback is the “Game Over Return To Start” mechanic that forces the player to traverse the entirety of the game map (and it’s a big map) to return to a dungeon in progress. Such a setback is arbitrary and inexcusable other than for the fact that developers were trying to squeeze as much playtime out of titles as possible back then (hence the description “Nintendo hard”). The Classic’s save states served as a balm to soothe some of the frustration by eliminating those arbitrary design choices, making the game much more enjoyable while no less challenging.

Unfortunately, there are some so-called “purists” out there that will balk at my use of save states, saying that I “cheated” because I didn’t “beat the game as intended” or that my experience was somehow hollow because I didn’t have to practice for months to pass a very particular section or that somehow I’m not a “real gamer” because I didn’t beat the game “fairly”. These sad people will look for excuses to decry someone else’s enjoyment of “their” activity simply because it is a different experience than what they deem “correct”. To them I want to remind that each experience is unique and that each individual has goals and desires that frame their enjoyment (or non-enjoyment) of a particular activity. If I enjoyed the process of playing the game–even if I used some handicaps–is that not cause for celebration? We, as a society, often spend too much time looking for ways to separate ourselves that we don’t celebrate our similarities. Gatekeeping is anathema to joy, and I prefer to celebrate shared experiences rather than waste energy attempting to discredit them. Zelda II is an unforgiving game with very tight tolerances in many sections that can become frustrating and not-fun very quickly, but using modern tools to build in a little bit of slack makes the game approachable, enjoyable, and keeps it relevant to newer audiences.

So Zelda II is an interesting title within the franchise, and as such, a lot of people refer to it as a “black sheep” or misfit. And while it is a sharp departure from the pilot entry of the series (and, in hindsight, even those that came after), I think that these people do so because they’re missing a lot of the context that comes into play when we discuss Zelda II as part of the overall franchise. When the Famicom and NES were really starting to gain popularity, the home video game industry was still in its early stages. As such, Nintendo was still being very experimental with their approach to game design. Shigeru Miyamoto was really playing with this new medium and coming up with all kinds of novel designs based on relatively simple game mechanics. These game concepts were entirely new and many of them became the archetypes we look at historically when describing many modern games: the side-scrolling platformer embodied by Super Mario Bros. and the top-down adventuring dungeon crawler that became The Legend of Zelda.

Tadashi Sugiyama

Miyamoto also had a team helmed by director Tadashi Sugiyama playing around with a side-scrolling, sword-and-sorcery RPG that borrowed elements from tabletop games like the ever-popular-at-the-time Dungeons & Dragons. This would be a game that really leaned into the sword mechanics, enabling a player to strike high and low, block, and use these novel upward and downward strikes to progress through the game. Sugiyama’s team developed this concept while Miyamoto personally worked on what would become The Legend of Zelda with Takashi Tezuka. The two games developed alongside each other through the mid-eighties with TLOZ being released in 1986.

The next part of the story is a bit fuzzy: there are reports that say that Miyamoto wanted a new and completely different game for the sequel to the wildly successful first Zelda game, and there are reports that say that Nintendo decided to shoehorn Link, Zelda, Ganon, et al into the sword-and-sorcery title already in development to capitalize on the popularity of the Zelda franchise. Considering the fact that both games were already in development at roughly the same time and that Miyamoto did not actively take part in its development, it is my opinion that the game that became Zelda II was originally slated to be its own independent franchise similar to Kid Icarus or Metroid. Lending credence to this theory, Sugiyama himself stated in an interview with Nintendo Everything that

Rather than being a continuation of the series, it started as a new sword and shield type of action game. We were experimenting while producing the game so we didn’t really have the first game’s systems in mind while developing it. As for it being unique within the series, we were searching for new ways to play so you could say it’s like a spin-off. At the end of development we decided on a story and that Link would be 16 years old then attached [The Legend of Zelda 2] and released it as the second game in the series.

I think that it would have been interesting for this “sword-and-shield” game as its own entity and really explore its own world with its own mythology instead of the sloppily-retconned notion that the Zelda from the first game wasn’t the actual princess (“Sorry, Link, but our princess is in another title”). In hindsight, it did perform very well and established some extended mythology for the Zelda franchise. There is a lot of Zelda II’s DNA in later titles with character names and musical cues alluding to the franchise’s “black sheep”, but I also think that had it not been saddled with the legacy of the first game, it could have received better reviews without the burden of comparison. Since it was developed as its own game, it’s really not fair to compare Zelda II to the original. It’s not a top-down Zelda game, but it was never meant to be, and without that comparison, Zelda II is actually a pretty solid classic Nintendo title.

I think that if Zelda II had been released as its own franchise pilot and allowed to really stand on its own merits, we would very likely be having different conversations about it. We certainly would not be talking about it in the context of the wider Zelda franchise, and, I think, a lot of the hate that it receives wouldn’t exist. It’s entirely possible that this hypothetical game could have spawned one of the great Nintendo franchises–its leveling system combined with powerup collection placing it somewhere on the spectrum between Metroid and The Legend of Zelda–instead of a misfit, RPG-like entry along the lines of Castlevania II: Simon’s Curse. It’s a worthwhile play, and correcting for the obscene, arbitrarily difficult elements, it’s a lot of fun!

Your Mission Should You Decide To Accept It: Reflections on Mission: Impossible (NES)

Mission Impossible NES box art
This cover screams spy action, and it doesn’t disappoint!

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with everything that had to do wish espionage and spycraft–that whole fantastic world of cloak and dagger–primarily because of James Bond. I was a Bond fan from a very early age because they were routinely broadcast on TBS, so I got to experience the films and enjoy them on a fairly regular basis. My interests branched out from there into things like those children’s science experiment kits–the ones that would show how invisible ink or fingerprinting or Morse code worked–and there was trading cyphers and setting up “treasure hunts” with my friends, coming up with clues and hiding them around the house, anything that would allow me to pursue the fantasy of the secret agent. Because of this, I knew about Mission: Impossible (the television series, as this was well before the Tom Cruise film), but it sort of existed as a cultural meme–I wasn’t really intimately familiar with it like I was James Bond, though, as it wasn’t something that was on my “cultural radar” at the time (if it didn’t come on TBS or if it wasn’t a cartoon, it practically didn’t exist in my world)

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I’m browsing the Nintendo aisle at Toys R Us when I find that there is a Mission: Impossible game for the NES. Of course, I still know nothing about the franchise except that it’s basically an American James Bond, full of action and spycraft, and I knew that I had to experience it! Like so many other kids of the era, I was completely sold on the game by the cover art alone. It screams action and intrigue! However, apparently unlike many of my peers, I actually like the game! It’s an action game, but it’s not super actiony. It’s actually a fairly “slow” game, incorporating more puzzle-solving and exploration elements along the lines of The Legend of Zelda than the twitchy platforming of Ninja Gaiden. The game is even projected top-down, so it is very much like Zelda except with spying–which makes it awesome. On top of the puzzle-solving elements, you have a character select mechanic like one of my other favorite titles of the era, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I thought was awesome because I could play as my newly-adopted favorite character Nicholas Black. Of course, I had no idea that hot-swapping characters was part of the game’s strategy, I just thought it was awesome that one of the characters was a “master of disguise”, was an Australian who carried boomerangs (Crocodile Dundee was one of my absolute favorite movies at the time), wore glasses like I did, AND WAS A FREAKING SECRET AGENT!!! Of course, I never made it very far with Nick by himself, and I learned to begrudgingly use Grant and (ugh!) Max for specific actions in the game.

Mission Impossible NES
The snow this year is better at Innsbruck (but not at San Mortiz).

Despite the difficulty of the game, I always enjoyed playing it. There’s a very focused puzzle-solving mechanic to the sprawling level designs, and I feel like that helped keep my interest in the game piqued over the years. The game is definitely a puzzle adventure first and an action game second, much like its Konami predecessor Metal Gear (M:I was published in the USA by Ultra Games, an “alternate label” that Konami used to get around restrictive quotas set by Nintendo). Mission: Impossible definitely borrows from Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheap copy. The gameplay is slower and more deliberate with fewer boss battles or run-and-gun opportunities, but you get a sense of the pedigree that M:I inherits: it’s an interesting mix of Metal Gear, The Legend of Zelda, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that shines as its own clever, if underappreciated, title on the NES.

Mission Impossible
Two hits and you’re dead. Avoid at all costs.

As much as I personally enjoy the game, it seems that many of my peers do not like the way that Mission: Impossible plays. It is a difficult game, but it is generally not an arbitrarily difficult game in the way that titles like Ghosts n’ Goblins or Ninja Gaiden are. The difficulty of Mission: Impossible lies in its tight tolerances for success–the need to proceed with precision and finesse rather than nimble reflexes–much like Zelda II. Enemies generally do not respawn over the course of a level, and there are ways to navigate around most encounters without taking any damage. Unbeknownst to my younger self, the biggest strategic advantage in the game is knowing which character to use when–each has his specific skills and abilities that make him uniquely qualified to proceed through specific areas. In this way, the game plays more like The Lost Vikings. If you approach the level with the mindset of getting all three agents through the level alive (rather than as three chances for one character to make it through), then the connection to the game’s source material becomes more apparent. The Impossible Mission Force has to work together to complete a mission. Grant is the electronics expert that can break locks, Nick can use his disguises to sneak past impassable gauntlets, and Max is the marksman who can take out enemies before they see him! The game requires practice to get each level’s “choreography” right, but the game doesn’t punish you too badly for failure. There are unlimited continues, though you are reset to the beginning of the level (which can be quite frustrating during very long sequences like levels 3 and 6), and the level design rewards exploration despite the dangers faced. Admitted, to finally finish the game, I used save states on my NES Classic Edition. The game is still quite difficult, but this took a little bit of the sting out of trying to complete the final level (which, I will admit, suffers from the worst game-lengthening cop out: the “Uh-oh, now you have to play this super difficult level all over again!” trope), and allowed me to continue to enjoy a childhood favorite since adulthood tends to rob me of that precious practice play time.

Honestly more fun than the time Bond did it
Nothing says “action” like speedboats and machine guns in Venice!

Of course, every good spy thriller needs a chase sequence, and Mission: Impossible does not disappoint! There are two “chase” levels that evoke the action one would come to expect in such a genre–one in a speedboat and one skiing downhill–and they provide a deliciously novel break from the slower-paced stealth action of the main game. I would often jump to these levels using their respective passwords when I felt like a quick arcade-style distraction without commitment–great for commercial breaks or between homework assignments! These different gameplay elements help to complete the feel of a great piece of spy fiction while Jun “Dog-Man” Funahashi’s banging soundtrack reminds the player that this is definitely a Konami title.

Mission: Impossible is not Metal Gear, nor does it really pretend to be. The latter is definitely the OG granddaddy of the stealth action genre, but M:I stands on its own as a fine entry in the Konami catalog. It’s a cleverly designed homage to spy fiction, and honestly plays more into those tropes than contemporary platform action games based on the James Bond franchise. There are puzzles to solve, chases to be made, sneaking to be done, and worlds to save. If you’re a fan of either Metal Gear or The Legend of Zelda, I would give it a shot. You might be surprised by this undercover gem.