Little Samson
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Platform:
    • NES
  • Developer:
    • Takeru
  • Publisher:
    • Taito
  • Released:
    • JP 06/26/1992
    • US November 1992
    • UK 03/18/1993
Score: 85%

This review was published on 12/13/2016.

Little Samson is a side-scrolling platform video game developed by Takeru and published by Taito Corporation for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Famicom. It was originally released in Japan on June 26, 1992, North America in November 1992, and Europe on March 18, 1993. The game's known in Japan as Lickle: Legend of the Holy Bell. In the early 1990s, 16-bit consoles like the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis were already out, so the 8-bit NES was on its way out. However, many games were still officially released for the NES up until around 1994, and of those, a fair amount of them were good. Because most people were too busy with 16-bit consoles at the time, plenty of these late era NES classics went largely unrecognized by the general gaming public. Little Samson is one of those games, although it did get featured in Nintendo Power's 40th issue, but that wasn't enough to pull it out of the depths of obscurity. That's a sad tale, because this is definitely one of the NES' top games.

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Dire times have fallen upon the Kingdom of the Imperial Forgy. Red lightning has destroyed the magical seal that held Ta-Keed, the Prince of Darkness, allowing him to escape his supernatural prison. Now he is wrecking havoc across the countryside to exact his revenge for centuries of captivity. Unable to beat Ta-Keed with his own soldiers, Emperor Hans sends carrier pigeons to request the aid of those who wield the Majestic Bells of Power. These are Samson the mountaineering youth, Kikira the dragon, Gamm the golem, and K.O. the mouse. Once gathered at the throne room, Kikira picks a fight with Samson, but the situation quickly resolves itself and they agree to be a team. Together, the four heroes must defeat the evil Ta-Keed and his armies of deadly creatures. Instead of wasting the player's time with huge text dumps, this basic premise is beautifully conveyed via pantomime cutscenes with no dialogue. This style of storytelling was prevalent in many 16-bit games of the early-to-mid 1990s, so being that Little Samson is an 8-bit game made during 16-bit times, it adopted that technique. It's the ultimate form of "Show, don't tell."

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By the time of this game's release, developers had already mastered the hardware of the NES. As a result of that, this is one of the best looking games on the system. The graphics are simply outstanding, squeezing out every ounce of the NES' limited color palette to render some truly vibrant environments. Backgrounds and foregrounds are all intricately woven, sporting a ton of detail. Most enemy and character sprites are small, but also sport a ton of detail. On top of that, the sprites have some amazing animation, even by today's standards. The most flagrant demonstration of this is how Samson gratuitously twirls his body like a ballerina after every single jump. There are other examples, too, like sword enemies that rotate in a completely smooth motion. It's a wonder how the developers got these effects to work on an NES. The music isn't anything to sneeze at, either. Each character has a distinct theme that compliments their personality. The only issue is that you're basically listening to the same four music tracks all throughout the game, but they're catchy enough for this to not be annoying.

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This game's main feature is the fact that you can play as four different characters. All the characters can be controlled by using the d-pad to move, the A button to jump, and the B button to attack. However, each hero has different abilities and unique characteristics, making each one quite distinct. Samson is fast, can climb walls and ceilings, and is able to rapidly toss bells as projectiles. To climb walls, you hold forward and press the A button when near one, and climbing ceilings is as easy as holding up on the d-pad when touching one. Kikira can fly for a short period of time, shoot fireballs that travel in an upwards arc, and is able to charge her fireball attack to make it even stronger. Gamm is slow and doesn't jump very high, but he has a powerful fist attack that can be aimed in the four cardinal directions and is able to safely walk on spikes. Lastly, K.O. has the same climbing abilities as Samson, but he's the fastest and smallest character in the game, plus he's able to drop tiny bombs. All the characters are extremely useful and fun to use.

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While all the characters share the same lives, each one has a separate life bar that can be extended by collecting health upgrades dropped by enemies or hidden in the environment. The amount of life each character starts out with is different, plus the absolute maximum their life bars can extend to through upgrades is also different. Some characters, such as Gamm, are eventually able to amass multiple life bars, allowing him to take far more punishment than any other character. Then there are characters like K.O. that get KO'd easily, because his life bar is always puny, even when fully upgraded. Additionally, every character is allowed to carry one life restoring potion that can be used from the start menu at any moment. Resource management becomes an important strategy in the tougher sections of the game, as you need to ration your health carefully, plus you need to figure out who to give upgrades to. There are more than enough upgrades to fully upgrade everyone, but this still adds an extra layer of strategy to the game.

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All the stages are beatable with Samson's abilities alone, but switching to the other characters at the right time will make things far easier. Often, there are optional paths leading to helpful items that only certain characters can take, like tiny tunnels that only K.O. can fit through, or a spiked path only Gamm can traverse. The stages also exploit the fact that you can climb walls and ceilings, leading to far more varied and sophisticated designs. Naturally, there'll also be plenty of enemies to get in your way. The enemy design is fairly creative, like spherical dragons that spit spheres at you before shrinking down to size, ghosts that possess statues to attack you, one-eyed worms that climb walls, and more. You may even ride atop a giant crab at some point. Surprisingly, most enemies don't respawn after you kill them, which is an oddity for an NES game, albeit a pleasant one.

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When the game begins, you'll be treated to a stage select screen similar to that of the Mega Man series. There are four stages here, one for each character. These are basically the tutorial stages for the characters, which allow you to familiarize yourself with their abilities. However, once you finish the introductory stages, the game becomes more linear, eschewing the stage selection process altogether, although you've still got a cute map screen to look at. Despite that, there's still a degree of nonlinearity here. While the stages themselves are mostly linear, you'll sometimes have a choice at the end of certain stages on where to go next. Generally, these branching paths still all lead to the same final destination, but the journey will be different. There's even an instance where falling down a pit during a boss fight leads you to a different stage! This slight nonlinearity gives the game more replay value. There are also quite a few stages, making this a rather meaty adventure.

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Bosses appear at the end of most stages and some of them are quite big. The giant boss monsters are visually impressive, as their sprites are the most detailed in the game. Their designs are also rather menacing, which contrasts with the more childlike appearance of the rest of the game. This thematic clash makes the bosses feel that much more terrifying. Anyway, most major bosses begin as wizards with wizardly attacks, usually teleporting around the area and casting dangerous spells in your general direction. After having their life bar depleted, they'll then transform into a gigantic beast of some kind, like a dragon, Cyclops, or even the Grim Reaper himself. Not all the bosses follow this formula, though. This is when life bar management becomes important, because you can strategically switch between characters during a boss battle to split up the amount of damage your team takes. All the bosses are pretty good, and there are a fair amount of them.

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You've got two difficulty modes: Easy and Normal. It'd be more appropriate to call them Normal and Hard, though. Among the differences, Normal has more enemies, and the maximum capacity of each character's life bar is substantially lowered. However, the biggest thing about Normal mode is that, if a character other than Samson dies, they'll remain dead until after you beat a stage or if they have a potion to revive them. Also, the last set of stages and true final boss can only be reached on Normal mode. While the game is quite a bit easier than your average NES title, it does get ridiculously hard towards the end, especially on Normal. There are infinite continues and a password system to help with that, but it's still a rough climb. All the passwords are only four alphanumeric characters long, so they're easy to write down and input.

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Doomed to obscurity due to the time and platform it released on, Little Samson certainly deserved a better fate, because it's one of the best NES games ever made. Luckily, the game is now recognized as a classic among NES aficionados, so much so that a working North American cartridge goes for a couple hundred dollars. Part of the reason for the high price is probably because there weren't many copies manufactured back in the day due to the game's lack of popularity, but the demand is certainly there today. This is definitely a game everyone should play, so if it's out of your price range, then you may want to consider emulating it. You didn't hear that from me, though.

Word Count: 1,696

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