Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Study Hall: Back To Cool

Note: This was originally supposed to appear in the Nintendo Age web magazine, but I think that thing went under. 

Study Hall: Back to Cool

All NES games should have 80's Radio
In my humble opinion, some of the best games the NES had to offer in its heyday were those that brought a unique arcade experience into your home. Games like Donkey Kong Jr., Marble Madness, and Snake Rattle & Roll required a painstaking amount of practice, but once thoroughly studied, could probably be beaten in 5-8 minutes or less. Moreover, let’s face it, we all are here because we have nostalgic attachments to the times we spent playing these games as children. I specifically remember having a friend in kindergarten who said he had a relative that worked for Nintendo; me and my classmates wasted countless hours drawing maps for the new Donkey Kong country levels or making up our own games in our notebooks.

                In some form, we all—at least ones born on or around 1987—kind of have similar experiences. Our parents were cool (or disinterested) enough to let us play games. We get warm and fuzzy about the one or two games we obsessed over as children. Study Hall serves as a means of time traveling back to this nostalgic mindset while providing serious challenges along the way. So far, I’ve spent about 10-15 hours with Study Hall and I still can’t beat it. Kind of like school, Study Hall forces you to think in order to successfully navigate all of the levels. On top of that, your reflexes are forced to keep up as the game gets progressively more devilish in its level design as you get further into it.

Teleporting Sprites!
You start the game as a school-aged kid trying to distract himself long enough to make it to spring break. The levels resemble the types of games we would have drawn in our notebooks as kids. The background is always lined paper, and the aesthetic is heartwarming to nostalgic freaks like me (and probably you.) The game play is more like DK Jr. without the ability to jump. Each level basically requires you to climb to the top of the screen; as simple as that sounds, the deceptively simple level design lends itself to making the game tremendously difficult later on. Essential to the completion of almost every level is that you find keys that allow you to pass through the gates sometimes obstructing your path.  At the beginning, the game eases you into its climbing mechanics. A couple of levels in, you start getting besieged by randomly placed cannons. Thankfully, with the amount of lives you get, it seems doable to actually make it to the end of school, but I have yet to do that and have only ended up in detention getting hit by cannons or paper airplanes. 

The game also has several other features that make it quite unlike any other NES game that is worthy of discussion by the homebrew community and NES enthusiasts in general. First off, it saves on flash memory, not a battery. This in itself is awesome, being that it’s way more reliable; according to KHAN, bunnyboy was able to help him figure that out. Study Hall also happens to be the first NES game with achievements, which give you good reason to come back and keep playing through the game to get every single one. Study Hall saves all of your scores and achievements to the flash memory and you can reset that memory whenever you choose from the main menu. It has all the bells and whistles of an arcade game, and then some. 

             By far my favorite feature is the 80s radio accessible from the main menu. When you select it, you are allowed to cycle through a selection of great tracks such as “Cruel Summer” by Ace of Base (one of my personal favorites), “Time After Time” by Cindi Lauper, and “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel, plus a few more I won’t spoil. Now, this also brings me to my biggest qualm with the game—I would have really enjoyed the chance to choose the songs I wanted to hear for each stage, but all the stages were devoid of any musical accompaniment. I could understand that it would help time your movements on later stages, but I would have liked the option to have music on the stages. I mean, the music is really great and I’m a hard-to-please music snob living in Brooklyn. 

                All of that said, the lack of a level soundtrack doesn’t take away from the core experience of the game. It’s at its most enjoyable when you are making crazy split-second decisions the perfect moment to climb up and when you finally experience the joy of making it to the next class. More than that, this game is an emotional throwback for me, like running into an ex-girlfriend or hearing a song reminiscent of your childhood. It’s also a challenging and rewarding arcade experience that invites you to master it through repeated playthroughs with its various achievements. The lack of music on the stages was, at first, jarring—it reminded me of the first time I played Quackshot for the Genesis as a kid—but it’s really not enough to stop me from buying a copy of this game as soon as it’s available for public consumption.
Full disclosure, I, pk space jam, am right now learning assembly with the creator of Study Hall, KHAN_GAMES. I promise to give the most objective review of the game possible. No, I won’t just say nice things about the game to win his affection, I already did that with a Marble Madness prototype.

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