Little Nemo: The Dream Master
Nintendo Entertainment System
Genre: Action Platformer
Growing up, there were a few movies that I found myself addicted to. Like most kids- whether my parents liked it or not- I insisted on watching certain cartoons until my VCR had them memorized.
One of those movies was ‘Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland’, a story of a young boy who lives out wild escapades in his dreams and inevitably saves the surreal world of Slumberland from the forces of evil that had been locked away (until he showed up, but that’s another story for another time).
I found out that there was a Little Nemo video game, and I was floored. Not only had this game been out already for a couple of years by that time, but I could play through the movie that I had watched almost daily. How amazing was that for my six-or-so-year-old brain to take in?
Well, it wouldn’t be until about a week ago that I actually played through and finished that game. Sit down and little me tell you a little story about Little Nemo: The Dream Master.
Originally based on a comic strip by Winsor McKay from the early 1900s, Little Nemo– both the film and the game- follows the titular character through some adventures in the world of Slumberland. As he meets some of the world’s inhabitants and traverses the dangerous landscapes of the world, he learns that there is an evil that has been locked away for some time named the Nightmare King (which I believe is where the comic and films deviate). Like all evil does in these situations, the Nightmare King escapes, kidnapping King Morpheus, and it is up to Nemo to save him.
Little Nemo plays like most platformers, though you need to avoid most enemies rather than jump on them or dispose of them. Initially, all you can do as Nemo is jump, run, and throw candies. These can either freeze enemies for a short time or can be fed to ‘friendly’ animal types that you can commandeer for different modes of travel.
A bit more on that in a moment, though.
The goal of each level is to find a certain number of keys and reach the end to open the door back to the waking world. This takes a lot of exploration and experimentation with your animal friends, along with guidance from the occasional passerby that you may run into.
Now about these ‘animal friends’ of Nemo’s: they are the most interesting and befuddling mechanic of the game. Each of them has a different ability and life bar that differs from Nemo’s usual three hits. For instance, the frog can jump on enemies to get rid of them and jumps high while the bee can fly for a short amount of time and can shoot stingers while it is in mid-air. Finding these animals is usually a chain of using one to get to the one that you really need to progress, which makes for an interesting puzzle aspect at times. It can get confusing, though, when you jump through hoops to find a lizard (which you can ride on and climbs walls) only to reach a spot where another lizard is lying in wait for you to proceed with.
Side note: it’s hard to tell, but these poor animals cannot be comfortable with Nemo given his penchant for wearing them like a Mario suit. It’s whimsical and doesn’t really affect anything. Nemo’s absolutely adorable in most of these animal guises but- it’s a little unsettling to think about mechanically.
Mechanically, though, the game is solid. The physics are great, and the levels make it obvious when you’ll need a little help from a friend to get further. The amount of exploration in most of the levels is satisfying, and the levels keep things interesting shifting between forests full of giant mushrooms to a runaway train set and even an upside down manor that can get slightly disorienting for even veteran players.
The final three levels of the game are where things get a bit more generic and action based rather than puzzling out what to do- not that that’s a bad thing. Much like Wily’s Castle in the Mega Man games, the final three levels all play as one long level broken up by bosses (the only bosses in the game, mind you). They also grant Nemo the Morning Star, a magically imbued wand that can be charged and fires in an upward diagonal to take out enemies. While the animals do show up to help you progress, these are all about a driving force to get to the end and take on the Nightmare King. The game does a great job with the tone shift on a number of points, and I remember just about everything from those final levels as a result.
Little Nemo, however, is notoriously difficult. For players with the instinct to run and jump to get through to the next part of the game as quickly as possible, you’ll find yourself at the continue screen more often than not. I found a lot of my lives were wasted because I jumped up to the next platform rather than waiting to see what the enemy was going to do or because I just tried to power through a spot that I needed to see patterns in. Don’t get me wrong, though; the game is merciless at points, and there are plenty of spots where you can meet immediate doom. The game does have an unlimited amount of continues, however, and there is a well-known Stage Select code if you truly get stumped trying to progress.
The music in this game is uncanny in how good it is. You may become enraged with it, depending on how long it takes you to get through a given dream, but each track has its place and feels appropriate. The House of Toys train ride’s track is adventurous and has a driving beat, the Topsy Turvy mansion has a surreal sounding high class lilt to it, and the Nightmare King’s lair’s music is heroic and inspiring. If I have any qualms with the soundtrack, the ending theme is pretty lackluster, given the effort it takes to get there. The sound effects can be a little jarring, but they are nothing out of the ordinary from Capcom’s usual library from the time. If you’ve played Ducktales or Chip and Dale, you’ve probably heard these sounds before.
Graphically, the game is sound for the most part. Everything has a dream-like quality to it from the enemies to the animal friends, and each level has a distinct palette and look to it. The first dream in the Mushroom Forest has a lot of earthy tones of greens and reds and in the next dream, the Flower Garden, it shifts to a pastel sky with pink and purple throughout. Like most Capcom games, there is a little distortion when too many sprites are on screen or too many actions are taking place. Overall, though, the game is clean and fun to look at.
If you have patience and perseverance- and I won’t lie, a bit of twitch gaming skill- Little Nemo is a rough adventure, but it is full of interesting things to experience and moments of accomplishment once you’ve cleared each level. I will admit that my nostalgia filter may be on high with this title, though, so you should feel free to check it out yourself. It may be one of the most difficult games in Capcom’s NES library, but it is definitely one of the most imaginative.