“We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
—World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.”
-Arthur O’Shaughnessy, Ode
Little Nemo: the Dream Master is a side-scrolling platformer released on the NES by the king of platformers at the time: Capcom. Known as Pajama Hero Nemo in Japan, the game follows the nocturnal adventures of the titular boy as he journeys through Slumberland. There, he meets Princess Camille and discovers that her father, King Morpheus, has been taken captive to Nightmareland. The Nightmare King wishes to destroy all good dreams and it is up to Nemo, armed to the teeth with candies and a magic scepter, to confront the Nightmare King and save Slumberland.
The game has a lot of NES charm, due largely to its developers at Capcom who were at their peak. Also, the game benefits from a wealth of lore and characters and settings it borrows from previous incarnations of Little Nemo. Most notably, the game uses imagery from the 1989 anime Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. The animated film is worth watching if you never have before. Somewhat frightening and surreal for a kids movie. Though a lot of humor falls flat, the animation is top notch old school anime.
The NES game was based on the film but the film was based on the original comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay, which ran from 1905 to 1926.
Its elegance and surrealism, soft colors and Art Nouveau detail ensured it was the launching pad for comic books and strips for years to come. Though it might be largely forgotten nowadays, it’s easy to see why this highly artistic strip was the influence for later works, such as those of Bill Watterson, Maurice Sendak, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.
In New York City, 1902, Nemo is whisked away in his dreams. In each stage he must find several keys (usually six) to unlock the door at the end of the level to reach to the next dream. Along the way, he can throw his candies at animals that inhabit his dream land. Generally his candies will only stun animals temporarily, allowing Nemo to avoid them and escape damage. Other animals can be lulled to sleep (do they have dreams in this dream?) by throwing candies at them and then Nemo can ride them to use their abilities.
If Nemo tames a wild gorilla, he can ride it and use it to punch enemies. Frogs allow Nemo to leap higher, moles to dig underground, and bees let him take flight and shoot stingers. There are other tamable creatures in the game but some of them are optional. Special abilities from riding the animals are not always essential to completing the stage.
If you do not find all of the keys before reaching the door at the end of the stage, you’ll have to do a bit of backtracking and exploring. That’s not always fun considering there are enemies everywhere and there isn’t much diversity in the backgrounds in a single stage. It’s also dangerous. With so many hazards, it’s easy to get hit too much and die. Especially since some of the animals you “ride” result in Nemo having less max Life points.
While being typically NES in its presentation, a lot of the graceful style of the original source material is lost in this video game adaptation. Maybe the world was not yet ready for a Little Nemo game? If you ask me, somebody needs to create a real artsy indie game based on the comic strip.
Somebody get on that.
The 8-Bit Review
There’s a lot to visually impress in Little Nemo. As a late NES game released in the 90’s, it shows off a lot of what the Nintendo system was capable of. Shimmering starlight, rustling leaves, fading reflections on stalactites, brief but cinematic scenes. It’s got some character to it.
Again, it isn’t and cannot be on par with the Nemo of the anime or the strip, but it does its best. If anything, the extremely limited and ugly palette of pinks and browns is what drags Nemo down. Not the best looking game on the system but probably one of the best.
Like the graphics, the music is characteristic of 8-bit era platforming. Some of it misses its mark with only a few songs being pretty good. The first stage mushroom forest song is great and everything that’s great about NES music is in it: the driving percussion, the fast pace, the classic chiptune sound. After stage one, there isn’t much else notable. At least, nothing major stood out to me. One song was particularly atrocious, but I must’ve blocked it out. The song for the Topsy-Turvy stage was unique and I also liked the theme for Nightmareland. The soundtrack ranges from average to good, but that stage one song I think I’ll listen to again right now.
You get the sense right away that Nemo is woefully unprepared. He’s in his pajamas, yes, but his best weapon for most of the game is a handful of candies. It’s not until he’s given the magic scepter (called a Morning Star here) that he finally has a weapon worthy of the task of destroying the Nightmare King. The arcane armament was one of my favorite parts from the anime so seeing it here and being able to charge it up and fire it in an upward slant was a bit of joy.
However, the addition of taming and riding animals seemed pointless and at times it was even tedious. It felt almost out of context. Here, a little boy was in a dream and the best he could come up with was riding Donkey Kong? Lame. Give me more of that magic scepter beam attack. On a stupid note: Nemo’s sprite is already carrying the scepter on his back well before it’s given to him in the game.
Nemo himself moves at such a sluggish pace. Capcom should’ve given him Mega Man’s slide for speed.
Occasional characters make an appearance at the beginning of each stage and there are longish bits of dialogue that remind us there’s a story behind the platforming.
But it’s really a shame that these character beats seem largely tacked on to gameplay that’s almost entirely distinct from them. With a feature length animated film and more than twenty years of comic strips to draw from, it’s surprising there isn’t more background and charm to Little Nemo. As it is, the scant narrative that is present is there merely to serve as bookends and punctuation to the platforming experience. Example: I was looking forward to the battle with the Nightmare King as a climax similar to the confrontation in the anime, but unfortunately the final battle is barely a footnote. The real difficulty is in the stages themselves.
Nemo, seriously try harder next time to make a better game.
There’s plenty of room and opportunity to experiment with riding animals and new abilities. With less than a dozen tamable creatures in the game, there isn’t too much that will come as a surprise to you. Without a time limit, you’re under no pressure to find all of the keys. There are a handful of secret passageways in the game so it’s a good thing there’s no time limit.
Okay so I was surprised at how hard this game was. I really hate it when a game that looks for all intents and purposes like a “kiddie” game turns out to be excrutiatingly difficult to beat. It’s like whenever I lose it’s taunting me: “Want me to call you a Waaaahmbulance? You don’t like baby game time? Can’t even beat this widdle baby game?” I should’ve known better. The NES had a great library and the majority of its games are a thousand times harder than what we’re used to these days. Bits of the train sequence in the House of Toys level involves toy planes diving at you, hot air balloons dumping bombs on you, and a ceiling of spikes that suddenly decides to come crashing down on top of you. Another horrific sequence involves ascending up to the ruined city in the clouds. You have to really be on your toes as the screen scrolls extremely fast. A challenging platformer.
This is the only game that I know of based on Little Nemo in Slumberland. It’s essentially just a repackaged basic platformer. Throwing candies and riding animals didn’t do much to revolutionize the genre, not surprisingly.
My Personal Grade: 4/10
As a classic platformer, how does Little Nemo: the Dream Master hold up after all these years? Well, I didn’t enjoy playing it very much. It had its moments but the dialogue dragged on, the level design was uninspired, the game went from piece of cake to wildly difficult, finding the keys and taming animals was sometimes a chore. I suggest you simply watch the anime unless you’re interested in retro gaming, because this title isn’t going to win someone over to the golden age of gaming who hasn’t already dabbled in it before. For those that have played most other NES games but missed this (I hesitate to call it a “gem”) game, you can find a steep challenge and demanding platforming.
For me, Little Nemo will have to resign itself to the category of “Better when I was younger”. We’ve grown up. It’s time to wake from the dream.
Aggregated Score: 6.6