has to be one of the most original game designs of all time. If defies the lazy taxonomy of genre, combining elements of the action, racing, and even shooting genres. The basic idea is simple enough: deliver papers to your customers, ignore the houses of non-subscribers. Sounds pretty lame on paper, doesn’t it? Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.
Atari’s Paperboy was released to arcades in 1984, with its now-famous handlebar controls. It featured challenging gameplay, a cool Zaxxon
-like isometric viewpoint, and colorful, varied graphics. Graphically and stylistically it shared a lot in common with 720
, and for good reason--they were both designed by David Ralston. The same hip humor that made 720 such a blast is found in Paperboy as well, from the bizarre obstacles (breakdancers, kids on Big Wheels, the Grim Reaper) to the offbeat “oh man!” comments your character makes, with his paper-bag over his head, after falling off his bike.
I have three possible theories about Paperboy: one is that the kid must have been a real dirtbag in a past life, hence he was reincarnated as a paperboy on the route from hell; two is that perhaps the entire “town” is actually a sophisticated paperboy testing ground, similar to the X-Men’s Danger Room; the third possibility is that the game is set in a nihilistic future, a la Running Man, where lawlessness reigns supreme and the act of killing a paperboy is considered an acceptable form of entertainment. One thing is certain, his route travels the deadliest, unfriendliest, most breakdancingest street in the country. This city block has more headspins per square inch than the director’s cut of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
. Weirdness abounds everywhere one looks: tombstones on a house’s front lawn, the abnormally high frequency of tornadoes, magical animated lawn jockeys. An experimental traffic law apparently dictates that only cars can travel north and south, while the east and west lanes are reserved for the city’s huge biker population.
As with most arcade ports, the graphics in the NES version are a big letdown. You don’t notice it much in the NES ports of Donkey Kong
, but in an arcade game as artistically rich as Paperboy the difference is huge. The two biggest disappointments are the limited color palette and the lack of details. It’s those little (and unnecessary) flourishes that gave the arcade game
such visual appeal—the tape over the Volkswagen’s broken headlight, the individual house numbers, the burglar you could bean with a well-thrown newspaper to score some extra points. As a young arcade patron, it was playful details such as these that made games like Paperboy and 720 so much fun to play, even if I stunk at the actual game. “I wonder what the paperboy will say if I fall off the bike this time
?” Sadly, the speech too was excised from the Nintendo release.
The gameplay in the NES version is nowhere near as intense as that of the arcade. Just figuring out how to control the bicycle required a learning curve; then you also had to remember to deliver your papers to the subscribers as well as avoiding the ample and varied obstacles. The Nintendo’s controls are a much simplified adaptation of the original. It’s now practically impossible
to get hit by the cross-town traffic at the end of the street. Similarly, riding into the edge of the sidewalk doesn’t make you crash as it does in the arcade. Maintaining the same high level of graphical detail and challenging gameplay would’ve made this game a bona fide classic on the NES, something gamers would come back to time and time again to master its intricacies. Unfortunately, the reality of the matter is that the translation is lukewarm at best. I give it a 6 out of 10
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