Sometimes you just can't be as hardcore a gamer as you want to be. Sure, there's nothing like sitting down and marathoning through a game like Dragon Warrior in a 20-hour stretch of levelling madness, but as you get older and summer vacations become a thing of the past, most of us don't get that kind of quality time in any longer unless you wind up both independantly wealthy and without a significant (or dependant) other.
So what do you do when you want to game, but you only have an hour or less to pick something up, play for a little while, and then put it down again to return to the real world? Here's my list for the NES and my reasons. Feel free to pick it apart, gripe about your favorite game not making the list, or fuss about the order in the comments section.
10 - Tetris
Everybody knows what Tetris is all about, so you'll forgive me if I don't discuss it very much. Note that we're only talking about the Nintendo incarnation here, or the single-player Tengen version. The two-player mode on Tengen's Tetris has been the cause of more violent conflict than I care to talk about, and is for the hardcore only. But single-player Tetris? You can zone out, play for a while, then put it down when you lose. Perfect casual gaming fodder, and it never gets old.
9 - Super Mario Bros. 2
This is on the list simply because it's a Mario game without a timer. You can mess around in any of the worlds of Subcon for as long as you like without losing a life, and sometimes it's just fun to see how many enemies you can skip a vegetable across or how far you can ride that turtle shell. Plus, Luigi's jumping animation is always worth a chuckle.
8 - Arkanoid
Sure, it's a shameless clone of Breakout. But even so, it's tons of fun to pick up and play. Bounce the ball off your paddle, break the blocks, lather, rinse, repeat. How much more casual can you get, really?
7 - T.M.N.T. II: The Arcade Game
This might surprise some people, but it's one of the most playable casual action games on the NES, with basic enemies that are a cinch to slaughter, and bosses that take a modicum of strategy. While a protracted game will probably make you want to add a second player and a 10-life cheat, when you've only got a little while and you want to bash something, the Turtles are your buddies here. Die, Foot Clan, die!
6 - Balloon Fight
Detractors of this title call it "Joust" with different graphics. But truly hardcore casual NES players (is that an oxymoron?) know that Balloon Fight easily holds its own against its cousin. For while the normal play mode is indeed like Joust, the Balloon Trip mode sets it apart from the pack as your lone balloon racer tries to get home while dodging lighting bolts, sparks, open water, and other hazards.
5 - Ice Hockey
Many people would claim that sports games themselves are casual gaming exercises, but I would disagree. Madden, for instance, is meant for hardcore football fans, not people who think it's fun to toss a ball every so often. Nintendo's own Ice Hockey is everything amusing about the sport taken to an absurd degree. With four players per team, two teams on the ice, and a time limit that can set the quarters to short, five-minute increments, Ice Hockey is meant to be picked up and played. Plus, it's impossible not to get a kick out of the zambonis that drive across the ice during half-time. With a second player, this can sometimes turn downright ugly especially when fights break out on the ice, but when it's just one player vs. the AI, you can dominate the crap out of the NES and feel good about doing it.
4 - Dr. Mario
Yes, I know, Dr. Mario is basically Tetris in drag, but it's still an amazingly good choice for pick-up-and-play time. Eradicating viruses with pills is what the world is all about in this day and age, and Nintendo gave us plenty of reasons to go visit the Doctor when this hit came out. Add a nice dose of cool tunes to enjoy while performing microbial genocide, and you have the formula for a casual gaming panacea.
3 - River City Ransom
Nothing combines butt-kicking with hilarious subtitles like the genius that is River City Ransom. Everything about this game, from the outrageous kung-fu moves to the grade-Z storyline of gangs taking over all the schools in River City is filled with charm and a tongue implanted firmly in the genre's cheek. While it's possible to play it as an epic combination of street brawler and RPG, it's just as easy to forego passwords and start from the beginning, smashing your way through as many gangs as you can. There are no lives to lose, so you can call it quits whenever you like, and the game will happily give you a password whenever you ask. One of the most immediately accessible and playable fighting games of all time. Note: beating up on a friend in 2-Player Mode B is for the hardcore only, as this will do nothing but encourage the giving of rug burns, wedgies, and other forms of torment in the real world.
2 - Excitebike
Seriously, what could be simpler than condensing the sport of motocross down to two simple buttons and five basic tracks? Nintendo managed to do just this with Excitebike, one of its earliest offerings on the console. Each of the five courses can be completed in under five minutes each, making it possible to beat Excitebike in under half an hour if you want to go that far. But what's far more enjoyable is setting it to Mode B and just knocking the AI riders off their bikes right before important jumps. Nothing beats the feeling of knocking that darn blue rider off his bike in mid-air with a strategic lane change.
1 - Super Dodge Ball
Another Techno creation like River City Ransom, Super Dodge Ball takes extreme sports to the absurd by placing you in the shoes of the fictional US olympic dodgeball team some twenty years before Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller made it the topic of a comedy film. A game which openly defies the laws of physics and gravity (often simultaneously), SDB is nothing more than a hilarious parody of all that is serious about normal sports games. It even includes the enormously fun "Bean Ball" mode, where you play one of the six US players who take over a school yard and proceed to smear one another all over the dirt. No lines, no rules, no fouls, just chaos. A two-player mode is provided, but see the entries for River City Ransom and Tetris for why this disqualifies it from "casual" gaming territory. Playing two-player Super Dodge Ball will expose you to behaviors outside the game that barely qualify as socially acceptable, while also introducting you to exchanges of verbal tirades and expletives that would make a Marine cry.
As you can see, "casual" games don't have to be "dull" or "boring" games. There's plenty of action and fun to be found in games that are simple to just pick up and play for a little while and then put down when you're done. And even though the NES gave rise to the phrase "Nintendo hard" in describing games that are only for hardcore purists due to absurd difficulty, tricky jumps or relentless enemies, not every NES title fits that description. These are my 10 favorites. Got one you think I overlooked, or something that didn't deserve to be on the list? Speak your thoughts below!