Overall Rating: 3/5 Stars
In the fall of 1990, Konami (under their Ultra label) published an 8-bit video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System based on the high-stakes scene of roller derby against the backdrop of the side-scrolling beat-’em-up genre tropes of the time. The result was RollerGames, a unique entry on the NES library.
RollerGames is a one-player game that takes place in a fictional universe where there are six teams of rollerblade racers, three good and three evil, that are in violent competition as the good team seeks to rescue the head of the RollerGames, who has been kidnapped by the evil teams. There are six stages in total, each divided into a couple or few sections. The stages are in two primary types, determined by how the screen scrolls: For half the stages, the screen can (and will) scroll in any direction, while on others like the second level, the screen automatically scrolls in one direction.
In either case, the challenge is to navigate the street course while dodging deadly obstacles and beating up all enemy combatants encountered. There are some sections where the screen will not scroll, and a certain number of foes must be beaten up before the area advances. There are even boss fights, representing the heads of the three evil teams.
Regardless of the level type, the control scheme remains consistent. The A button jumps, the B button attacks, mid-air attacks are included, pressing A and B together launches a special attack allowed three times per area, and the directional pad provides movement. The player is given two extra lives to start with, and there are three score intervals at which an extra life can be rewarded, based on points earned for defeating enemies and completing the levels.
The three good teams can actually be chosen from before each level starts, which alters the skater that the player will use. Each has a different special move in combat, looks different, and represents a differing type of athlete. In terms of overcoming the courses, however, each moves basically identically, resulting in the core challenge of RollerGames.
When gamers refer to “cheap deaths” or similar tricks used by developers to artificially inflate replay value by incorporating increased difficulty through unfair means, RollerGames can be cited as a great example. While the game scrolls smoothly and the travel through the large levels is impressing for an 8-bit outing, a player would have to have world-class reflexes and reaction time to stand any chance of actually completing every stage without dying. The oncoming rolling barrels, the thin jumps with a narrow margin of error allowed, the instant deaths from falling through holes in the street, the “blind” jumps where the player does not not where the landing point has to be until already pressing A, among other examples, all combine to form a particularly hard game.
The beat-’em-up sections are a fun twist, as the rollerbladers smoothly roll around the screen, punching each other and falling over until a flashing death. Rapidly punching an opponent held down until they are dispatched is more satisfying than leaping over a chasm, even if these fights seem somewhat watered-down when compared to more traditional beat-’em-ups such as the Double Dragon series on NES.
By 1990, Konami was already an accomplished NES developer, and their craftsmanship shows: From the colorful enemy sprites to the detailed backgrounds, RollerGames presents a visual feast for pixel lovers. The skyline on the second stage is a highlight, along with the simple fact that many enemies seem to be sporting more than the usual three colors used with most NES sprites due to hardware limitations. There are even some nifty cutscenes and somewhat of an overworld view at work, though there are also flickering issues with everything going on at once, and on-screen text that crawls along painfully slow.
The soundtrack is great. The original compositions that form the music provide an appropriately upbeat, roller-hip feel for the fast-paced action. The sound effects are classic, from audience cheering similar to that used in Blades of Steel to the pause effect used in many Konami titles, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. Every time the player-character faceplants, the resulting harsh high-tone gives a sense of failure, and punches land with an approving solid smack.
While other NES cartridges incorporated roller skates into enemy designs, or even were eventually made based entirely around rollerblade racing (see: Rollerblade Racer), RollerGames remains a game that sticks out among the NES library for its distinctiveness. The time limit on each stage amps up the tense atmosphere that likely results in even more player spills and mistakes than would have naturally occurred anyway, and tying in a generic kidnapping plot seems like a bit of a stretch. Full of quirks and design quality, but ultimately only going to be loved by those looking for a truly arduous old-school challenge, RollerGames nets three stars out of five.