It's all bells and whistles. Konami's Stinger:
The Nintendo game time forgot.

Matt - 6.09.02 /// Previous ArticleX-ENext Article

Stinger, a Konami release for the Nintendo back in the 80s, was never real popular with any group of gamers. I'm not exactly sure why that is - it's a pretty fun game, by no means a classic but way better than dozens of titles that way outsold it, and it's just so god damned weird that it's impossible to be completely apathetic towards it. It's been awhile since we've done a full-fledged video game review, so today we try to demystify Stinger: the only cart I've ever played where one of the main enemies is a giant, living watermelon.

Whether it was poor marketing or just too much saturation in the industry at the time, Stinger never achieved any really notable level of success. So it's no surprise that I wasn't first introduced to the title by matter of word-of-mouth or a great write up in Nintendo Power - the reality was, I only ever played Stinger because I was a bratty asshole of a child who probably needed parents who believed in hitting their kids. See, my older sister bought her boyfriend (now husband) a Nintendo game for Christmas, continuing on with her belief that he actually played the damn thing. He never did - many of his games were still shrink-wrapped, and the Nintendo itself rested, comfortably unplugged, under his bed. I know this because the only time it was ever dragged out is when I came over. My sister knew video games like I know football: she'd have an easier time performing a kidney transplant blindfolded than picking out a 'good' video game. With nothing to go on - no experience, no friends who played video games, nothing - she simply picked whichever one looked interesting. If you're curious as to why she got Stinger, it's pretty easy to explain. My sister, obviously, was a girl. A very girly girl. Not a videogamey girl. Stinger came in a silver box. It *must've* been something wonderful, aye?

Anyway, she makes the mistake of showing it to me before giving it to him, asking me if it's a good game. I, of course, insist that it's the worst game ever forged. This was my way of getting her to give me the game. It didn't work. If there's one thing my sister knew less than video games, it was the fear of awkwardness after giving a shitty gift. The way she saw it, twenty minutes spent in the crowded, stinking aisles of Kay Bee were enough of a present in itself. So, she wrapped the present, stored it in the secret place in her closet that I was all too aware off, and went on her merry way. It didn't take long for my gears to turn. How would I get my hands on this game? More importantly -- how would I do it without ending up dead at the hands of my sister, at the time the scariest of all my six older siblings. When I was young, ticking her off was basically the equivalent of throwing a pile of mud at a collection of 300-pound bikers. Still, I needed the game. What self-respecting little kid could go about his business knowing there was a new Nintendo game in the house just dying to be played? It was my duty as an American to get Stinger.

I did end up with the game, though the story that takes us to it is neither heroic or a very pleasant memory for yours truly. More on that at the end of the article - first, let's learn about the game.

Details are sketchy, fortunately I've got an old handbook to help us understand the premise: Professor Cinnamon, creator of the world's first 'bio-nuclear sweetener,' has been kidnapped by hungry aliens who want to turn the Earth into a gigantic snack. And with that, we learn the first and primary reason why the game didn't sell well. Cinnamon looks a lot like Dr. Wily from the Megaman series, which could be viewed either as a tribute to a better game or the understanding that anyone prefaced with 'doctor' or 'professor' in video game lore must be a balding old guy with white hair and a lab coat.

You play one of the 'Stingers' - an elite group of fighter-pilots sent to defeat the bad guys and rescue the good doctor. I never beat the game, so I can't comment on the ending, but as far as I know we never get to see who we're playing. Oh well. The vehicle you pilot varies - usually a jet that shoots odd shaped bullets, other times a hovercraft with little coptor blades, but you're always painted blue and you're always shooting things. That remains constant. The levels however, do not. One of the strong points of Stinger is that it doesn't rely on one specific course of gameplay throughout the shindig - they mix it up quite a bit. Here's a look at the first stage:

The setting is phenomenal - so phenomenal, in fact, that it's nearly impossible to keep track of what you're doing. The boards are so chock full of power-ups, goodies, bad guys and the random Jesus cross (yes) that you'll often lose lives from being too overwhelmed by the overall prettiness. Admittedly, with a little getting used to, you'll learn to tune out the things that can't kill you.

Enemy-wise, you're facing some pretty odd birds. In this stage, the villains range from flying Cheerios to bullet-shooting balloons, but my personal fave are the oblique green monster faces that just hover around doing positively nothing. They're all really easy to kill, it just takes one bullet, but they've got the strength of sheer numbers on their side. If I may draw a comparison to the classic 1942 game: picture that, only there's 15,000 more planes shooting at you...only they're not planes, they're evil pieces of candy or party supplies. Your main problem will be dealing with so many enemies at once - there's rarely any breaks between the action, and if you're not quick with your trigger finger, it takes all of five seconds for the entire screen to become saturated with stupid bad guys who want to eat away at one of your three lives.

Here's a tip: avoid racking up points. They're no big help. I think they might grant you a free life or a continue if you get enough, but really: the point bonuses are so low compared to the other ways to get 'em, and in the process of trying to gather them up, you're going to end up dead a whole lot faster. This is for a few reasons. #1: most of the bonus points are located at the bottom of the screen, where the colors are so busy that you can barely see yourself. #2: some of the power-ups don't seem to do anything, instead opting to turn into skull heads when you roll over them. I'm not sure what the skull heads do, maybe they're there cause the designers were big fans of the Punisher series. Finally, #3: you'll only get a few hundred points collecting those worthless bounties. The real points are found in the bells that come flying out of clouds.

Yes, bells that come flying out of clouds.

In Stinger, the only way to get better weaponry is by shooting the clouds and hoping the one you're shooting at has a big giant bell living inside. If it does, the bell will come flying out - if you shoot it enough times, it'll change color. Run into it, and BAM! Super lazers aplenty. What should've been a cool feature ends up being the most annoying aspect of the game, because it's nigh-impossible to hit the bells a specific number of times as the screen's filling up with enemies and you're flying into them constantly trying to nail that sweet, sweet power up. The only upside is the sound the bells make when you shoot 'em - an addictive little 'clang' that almost makes up for the game's usual score, which sounds like something from a TJ Hooker chase scene.

Okay, let's talk about the boss characters. My feeling is that they've become one of the most important aspects of gaming - reaching a majestic boss character and seeing what it looks like is almost as rewarding as kicking it's ass. Sadly, the bosses in Stinger don't have the charm of a Bowser or a Mother Brain. Hell, they don't even have the charm of Digdogger or the elusive Mew in Pokemon Snap. Instead, the game proves it could only come from the minds of those wacky Japanese by giving us boss characters such as this:

In Stage 1, you end up fighting a seed-spitting watermelon. If that doesn't sound weird enough on it's own, also consider that this is all set up by sirens going off for half a minute while the screen haphazardly morphs to black. Suddenly, you've gone from casually gliding across the countryside to a one-on-one death battle with the deadliest fruit of all. The game loses it's fleeting sense of realism at this very moment, as everyone knows the pilot should just leap out of the plane and eat the bad guy to death. I mean you can't very well shoot a watermelon to death. Or maybe you can: shoot it long enough, and it'll evaporate like water vapor or when you jump on a goomba in Mario Brothers.

Stage 2 features what's either a red jellyfish, crab, or multi-legged gumdrop. Whatever it is, the thing shoots it's tentacles at you while blinking it's eyes randomly, as if to say 'I may be trying to kill you, but I'm not really all that bad.' It's the first major video game villain I've encountered who's been able to pull off looking apologetic.

The game has many stages, and they're all quite different, but I'm way too lazy to play the whole game for review purposes. I think you'll get the general idea from a look at just the first two. Speaking of which, here's the second level, which takes us away from the air and down to the sea, with a plethora of new enemies and power-ups, but still tons of cute clanky bells...

Now piloting some sort of hovercraft, Stinger must take on a heapload of ocean-themed villains: turtles with stars painted on their backs, jellyfish and red puffers that look suspiciously like those found in world 2:2 of SMB, meanspirited starfish, and so on. The schematics are basically the same, only you'll spend a little more time wondering how starfish got their hands on guns than you did in the previous level.

Stinger is one of those games that just didn't get a fair shake. My gaming library is made up primarily of such games, since I'm by no means an addict or expert or even pretty knowledgeable about them overall. Most of the ones in my collection were either received as gifts or picked up on a whim in video store bargain bins and yard sales. Sometimes I get the shaft, but in the case of Stinger, the cartridge nobody loved, I feel like I'm keeping a great secret the rest of you might wanna check out. Am I fifteen years too late telling you this? Certainly, but the net didn't exist back then I was too busy eating glue to be bothered with the quality level of the games you were playing. Now I'm older, wiser, and really bored on a Sunday night. If you're like me - and you've still got your Nintendo laying around (wink wink emulationahah har har) - go pick up this almost-forgotten title and give your other worn-out carts a rest.

Oh that's right, I still gotta finish my story!

So my sister's got this game, wrapped and tucked away in her closet. She's out for the day, and I'm home with mommy. Desperate for a solution, I decide to ply my trade at making the whole thing my mother's fault. Quickly, I feign an illness - I was asthmatic as a kid, so I ran with it and faked the greatest asthma attack of all time. This performance was way beyond all my previous fake sickness pleas - I was literally forcing myself to bleed from the throat. Ten minutes later, I'm in bed with a plate of crackers and honey tea. Unfortunately, it wasn't honey tea or crackers I was after: it was my sister's Nintendo game. Within minutes, I convinced my mom that the Nintendo game was actually for me, and I helped my sister pick it out for my birthday gift. Coughing a lot, wheezing, the works - it was all too much for my mother to bear. She let me open my sister's gift early, not realizing that it wasn't meant for me, much less than I was healthy as a greedy bastard horse.

Later that night, my sister came home. At first, things were calm. A quiet dinner, a little television, the usual. I think I was busy pillaging through the Xandria porn catalog that occasionally landed in our mailbox for reasons I choose not to explore. When my mother informed Darling Sister of what transpired, and the truth got out, asthma became the least of my worries. I won't go into detail, but I will say this: it's an oddly proud thing to be the youngest kid in the neighborhood with a shiner.

But, for the sweet sound of those colorful, empowering bells? It was all worth it.

I realized this feature was shorter than usual, so I took the liberty to get beefy with Chef Boyardee and create a little gallery of various Nintendo toys and collectibles from throughout the years - enjoy! (by the way, if you're interested in the Stinger rom, download it here)

- Matt
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