Book review: Become a NES know-it-all with The NES Encyclopedia

It’s fair to say the Nintendo Entertainment System wasn’t a massive success in Europe. Thanks to the bustling 8-bit microcomputer scene the European gaming industry didn’t suffer from the infamous 1984 market crash, so when the NES finally arrived on European shores in 1987 – two years on from its US launch – it struggled to carve its own niche in an already overcrowded market.

It certainly wasn’t perceived as an oddity from the far east in the same way the NeoGeo and PC Engine were – indeed, you could stroll into Argos, Dixons, or Woolworths and find one –  but it still failed to make the same impact here as it did in the US, outsold by the Master System and overshadowed by the then-upcoming Mega Drive and Amiga 500.

Many NES games never left the US, and this is what makes Chris Scullion’s unofficial NES Encyclopedia (or The NES Encyclopedia: Every Game Released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, to use its full title) so compelling. Its pages are full of obscurities, unlikely TV tie-ins, and of course, the occasional stone cold classic. It also helps that Scullion is something of a long-standing NES fan, falling hard for the 8-bit system from a very young age.

All 714 officially licensed NES games are covered here, presented in a uniform fashion, and receiving a quarter of a page and a single screenshot at the very minimum. The NES’s celebrated classics (Super Mario Bros. 1-3, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, et al) all receive a page each – with Scullion going more in-depth into their development and legacy – while a handful of more noteworthy titles are granted half a page. There’s also a four-page history of the NES itself, along with a foreword from the legendary scribe Julian Rignall.

Scullion tends to stick to just the facts for most entries – brief outlines of a game’s plot or premise, along with details of any noteworthy features and/or novel gameplay mechanics. Differences between regions are often covered too – in some instances, UK and US versions differed. And yes, European exclusive games are covered. You can always count on Asterix and the Smurfs to show their faces whenever the words ‘European’ and ‘exclusive’ are muttered.

What you won’t find here are review scores or quotes from the gaming press. In fact, a game’s quality isn’t always brought into question, which allows some of the notoriously poor JLN games to escape the usual ribbing. Scullion’s approach isn’t entirely dry, thankfully, with the occasional joke or wry observation made.

Speaking of facts, every game has its own bonus fact boxout. Bearing in mind here that the NES library had a lot of repetition, Scullion should be commended for finding something different and noteworthy to say about each entry, no matter how minor. The system had four Jeopardy games, for pity’s sake, and just as many entries in the dull RBI Baseball series. That said, these bonus facts aren’t always about the game itself, as in some instances Scullion falls back to talking about any associated licenses or franchises, allowing a little bit of movie/TV trivia to sneak in.

But, wait – there’s more. The NES Encyclopedia is a book of two halves, also giving insight into the remarkably shady world of unlicensed games. 160 unofficial titles are covered in the book’s backend. A heady mixture of curios, hidden gems, blatant rip-offs, and utter trash. Some of the games featured are so rare that it’s believed fewer than 100 copies of each exist.

Both Tengen (a subsidiary of Atari) and Codemasters both refused to play ball with Nintendo’s strict licensing agreements, and so in this section, you’ll find such titles as Dizzy The Adventurer, Micro Machines, and Tengan’s Tetris nestled alongside dubious ‘adult’ games, and righteous Bible-based adventures. The NES’s unlicensed scene was a lawless country where anything went.

Taking both sections into account, this is a fascinating read, giving a thoroughly comprehensive look into a system with a back catalogue filled with just as many oddities as classics (give or take). Even if you consider yourself a NES know-it-all, it’s likely you’ll learn something new here.

The NES Encyclopedia, published by White Owl, is available now. Expect to pay £25-£30.

Leave a Comment