Retro Review: Little Nemo (NES)

As part of my journey to chronicle my video game collection, I wanted to go back visit a few old favorites. My logic was that if these games were tough when I was a child, surely adult me would find them easy. I’ve logged thousands of hours of game play since then. My skills must have improved exponentially. I have games I’ve never played, and games I’ve played but never beat. For each gaming system, I wanted to finish a game I hadn’t beat before and play at least one new-to-me game. For NES, I picked Little Nemo to try and beat finally.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master is a single-player platform game released in 1990 that was loosely based on the movie, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, which was a childhood favorite of mine and the reason I still kind of want a flying squirrel for a pet. The movie was based on the old comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay. I never read the comics, but my husband has the omnibus because he was as big a fan of the game and movie and his love (and collecting) of comics convinced him to buy them. The comics are a spin-off of an earlier strip called Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Which prompted my husband to order rarebit one time at an English pub here in town. And that’s the story about how a video game got my husband to eat weird cheese bread at a bar. But that’s not the story I set out to tell. I’m here to review Little Nemo, the NES game.

So I sat down the other night in our comfy gaming chair in front of our giant CRT TV, grasping a controller with only two buttons and a directional pad that felt very small in my hands. In the game, our hero Little Nemo drugs animals and rides them. I’m not making that up. After three pieces of candy, you hop into them and become a weird Nemo-animal Pokéfusion. Each animal gives a specific ability, like digging or flying. Maybe the inspiration for Rambi the Rhino in Donkey Kong Country? As I fed and then became the frog, I was hit with that happy wave of nostalgia. Those first few moments of finally being able to jump the way you want, bliss. I remembered the feeling intensely. Then I promptly leapt into another frog and died. I remembered that feeling too.

It took a few tries, but I found all 6 keys and unlocked the door to escape from the first Dream (aka level), Mushroom Forest, without too much trouble. I was getting the feel for the game again. This was going to be a piece of cake. The next Dream, Flower Garden, was a bit tougher, but I found those keys and made it out after a few tries. I couldn’t help but laugh at the screen between Dreams 2 and 3 which is a shot of pixel Nemo sitting up in bed, and the line:

“Nemo! Why are you out of your bed? Get back to your room this instant.”

I relate more to Nemo’s parents than Nemo.

With Dream 3 the difficulty ramped up. There are no animals to help Nemo out. You’re riding a train that keeps on rolling while the enemies fly at you and hazards drop, kind of like the scrolling levels in Super Mario 3. It’s the same every time so it’s basic pattern recognition. The pattern being my inevitable death. I died over and over. I could not get the timing right. Also at this point, I was getting pretty tired. I didn’t start until after the kid had gone to bed, and I really only have a bit of gaming energy before I need to go to bed. The more tired I got, the harder it became to time the jumps (your jumping ability is absolutely horrendous without the frog… reminds me of the first six months of my toddler trying to jump when her feet didn’t leave the ground at all). After about 4 or 5 attempts, I gave up. My husband, who had been watching, took over.

My husband started over from Dream one (because I had turned off the game in a fit of rage and there are no saves). He beat the first level without dying. Then, the same for Dream 2. Dream 3, the train level, gave him a bit of trouble, but he got it after a couple of tries. Dream 4 was a breeze. My insecurity began. I thought the game was hard, but am I just bad? Am I a fake gamer? Do I have no credentials? Should I shut down my blog immediately and take up a new hobby like underwater basket weaving?! On Dream 5, my husband got a bit lost, and by this time it was supremely late and we both needed sleep.

Queue the Google searching while lying in bed:
Can you review a game you can’t beat?
How many levels are there in Little Nemo?
YouTube Little Nemo complete playthrough
Therapy + Giving up when I’m not instantly good at something

The next night, I sat down more determined than ever to beat this game and prove my chops. It took a while but I finally got through Dream 3, and then 4, and I made it to 5 right at the same time that my eyes couldn’t stay open a second longer. I learned from the YouTube playthrough I watched that there are 8 levels, and the final one is on the long side. I also got to read all of the other lines that Nemo’s off-screen parent screams at him:

“What’s gotten into you? Why can’t you stay in bed?”

“Again? What does it takes to make you just sleep?”

“Why me? Do everyone else’s kids give them much trouble about sleeping?”

It took me 14 months to get my kid to sleep through the night (as if I had anything to do with it, ha), and it probably wouldn’t take 14 months of Little Nemo for me to get a perfect playthrough like the ones I watched. The question becomes, do I want to? The controls were frustrating, the story was non-existent, the linear level design was standard, and the graphics were just okay. With all that working against it, I still enjoyed my visit back to this classic. Nostalgia probably playing a huge part in that enjoyment. And as much as I loved Nemo as a kid, I found myself itching to play something else after two days.

My final impressions of Little Nemo:

  • Little Nemo is a game about getting your kid to go to bed.
  • The lack of a code to skip to a certain dream (the retro equivalent of a save) means this game, like many others on the NES, are not ideal for parents who need to break up gaming sessions across multiple days.
  • I have never and probably will never make it to Dream 6 in my lifetime. And I’m okay with that.

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