Little Nemo: The Dream Master ReviewJoe Shaffer
As a kid, I was always told that video games would "rot my brains" because they were so devoid of content that promoted thought or creativity. Thinking back on it now, I beg to differ, especially when you consider how creative and surreal some games on the NES were. We're about talking a system that featured a game about a pyrokinetic plumber who could grow to twice his size by eating mushrooms, among many other bizarre titles that spit in the face of logic, reason and realism. Maybe I didn't write essays based on this material back then, but it did engage my childhood imagination and prompted me to fabricate more inventive concepts during playtime.
Of all developers who contributed to the insanity, it was Capcom who received a golden ticket for weirdness when they landed the Nemo license. For within the game Little Nemo: The Dream Master, every stage is straight out of the sleeping imagination of the young protagonist. As we all know, anything goes in Slumberland.
In a way, Little Nemo is fairly tame about its weirdness and doesn't fully make use of its dreamlike surrealism. Seldom does it attain a Ninja Baseball Bat Man or a Ufouria: The Saga level of strangeness, but at the same time it isn't vanilla. In it, you play a pajama-clad lad armed with an unlimited supply of bubblegum as he ventures through dreamy landscapes. Tossing the packaged sweets at most enemies will stun them, but certain ones will happily munch the stuff and fall asleep. Only then can Nemo take possession their bodies by wearing them like suits or by riding on their backs and forcing them to do his bidding. Each animal friend he takes over in such a way begets special powers and advantages to the youngster. For instance, taking over a horny toad will allow him to leap high and defeat foes by jumping on them, with the drawback of a sluggish walking speed. One of my favorites, though, was a bee that could fly for a short amount of time and fire deadly stingers from its rump, making short work of pesky airborne adversaries. There are also other handy creatures, like the lizard or the mouse, that allow Nemo to climb walls and gain access to out of reach sectors.
The combination of this feature and the game's basic premise, which consists of finding several hidden keys to open doors at the end of each stage, make for some rather offbeat experiences. You'll find yourself dodging kamikaze toy planes while riding on the roof of a massive toy train, punching spider-octopus hybrids while straddling the back of a gorilla, flying through the clouds as a bee to travel to a ruined city in the sky, and warring with plate-throwing monkeys and sinister dandelion seeds attached to skulls in an upside-down house. All the while, you'll travel through peculiar locales including a mushroom forest, an oversized version of Nemo's abode, the depths of the ocean, and even Nightmare Land itself.
Cosmetically, the levels are fantastic. Utilizing a balance of gorgeous bright and dark tones, each stage captures the feel of a childish imagination while maintaining a dreamlike quality. The light coloration gives the game a cute, innocent appeal common to many 8-bit platformers, while the darker visuals reinforce the nightmarish aspects of dreams. I especially enjoyed the second stage, Flower Garden, and its vibrant landscape placed against a light violet background similar to a twilight horizon. The atmosphere it created belied the benignity of the stage rife with horrifying monstrosities that hung from trees, fell from the sky, and even burst forth from the ground.
Stages are not only beautiful, but also well designed. Rather than sending you through eight basic left-to-right missions, each stage features secret nooks and crannies holding sweet goodies like extra lives, health restoration items, and the aforementioned keys. Because many keys lie in remote locations, exploration is an integral part of success in Slumberland. For example, some require you to take possession of a mole or hermit crab and burrow underground in order to locate them. You'll find others high atop trees, deep in ponds, or through holes in the ceilings throughout your quest, requiring you to rule out many possibilities for hiding places. At the same time, the stages aren't overly convoluted in design. As such, discovering each of the secrets doesn't require a counterintuitive approach or an odd ritual, and each one can be easily stumbled upon.
Unfortunately, this means anyone new to Little Nemo is going to spend a decent amount of time completing each stage, so much that they'll likely want to take regular breaks. Even if you know where you're going, it's easy to grow weary of the experience and need a time out. Should that happen, you might be tempted to leave your NES on (though I don't recommend that), as the game does not feature passwords or saves. In other words, you have to power through all eight stages (ten if you count the three-part final stage as three individual levels) in one sitting. Although there is a level select code, it would have been nice to include a means of allowing players to pick up where they left off without forcing them to cheat.
Put aside that small qualm, though. Little Nemo: The Dream Master is a wonderful 2D platformer from a bygone era. Its dreamlike presentation combined with stellar level designs help it to stand out in a once-saturated genre. If, like me, you decide one day to revisit the platformers of old, put this one near the top of your list. Just be sure to have plenty of supplies around your armchair or sofa before firing this one, because it could be a pretty lengthy ride.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.