The mid-late 1980’s, and early 1990’s were a magical time. Forget Iran-Contra, forget Black Friday, forget the rampant materialism of the Baby Boomer generation, forget “yuppies”, and forget the Gulf War. During that period of time, we had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Karate Kid, G.I. Joe and Transformers, Ghostbusters and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!, and so much more. And we had video games. If you’re reading this, you’re likely either from my generation, and have fond memories of the 80’s and early 90’s, or you’re experiencing them for the first time, something I often wish I could do, as I approach 40 years of age. For those in the latter camp, I envy you.
One of the things any child of the 80’s and early 90’s can tell you is that, in the pre-internet age, we had to take a chance any time we bought a new video game, music album, or other medium that we couldn’t preview ahead of time, like theatrical release movies. With that, we often had to literally “judge a book by its cover”, by interpreting the cover art for a new video game or album/CD we wanted, and try to make decisive purchases based on our reaction to an artist’s rendering on the front cover. Depending on your viewpoint, i.e. glass half empty or glass half full, it was either a total crap shoot, or an adventure that always had an element of “danger” to it. Would your purchase be rewarded with an excellent experience that you would cherish for years to come? Or, would your hopes be dashed, as you discovered that the artist, whose work adorned the front cover of the purchased item, let you down by painting something that didn’t truly communicate what you were getting?
Nail ‘n Scale, by then stalwart publisher Data East, sort of fell into that trap. Based on the cover art on the box & cartridge, it looked like an intense journey through a unique world, where formidable enemies besieged you at every turn, you clung to life while hanging from nothing but a large nail, traversing vast expanses of blocks and platforms suspended in mid-air. The artist gets it half right, but the menacing enemy designs, combined with the highly stylized, chrome logo akin to that of the era’s heavy metal bands, promised a much more frenzied experience than what was delivered. Having said that, it’s not a bad game. As a matter of fact, it’s a fun little romp.
Here’s the setup: you’re Spike, an unassuming guy, presumably a construction worker of some kind, who, for reasons unknown, is trying to scale walls in a building that is made up of all square blocks of different make-up, and in each room, your goal is to find the door to escape each room. How you get dropped into each of these rooms is unclear, but you must escape. After 9 stages of scaling walls, fighting or dodging enemies, and finding doors, you encounter a boss character, usually an over-sized animal of some sort, who always spits out some kind of projectile at you. Once you discover their weak spot and hit them several times with your nails (or spikes), you defeat them and it’s on to the next 9 levels of climbing action. Your only weapon, which doubles as a tool to help you climb walls, is an endless supply of nails/spikes, which you can throw either to the left or right of you, straight up, or straight down. You also have the ability to jump, including a unique mechanic where you can jump in mid-air, provided you have stepped off a platform. This feature becomes a critical component in the game as you traverse through the various levels.
The impetus behind the name is the way you get from place to place in the game. There are several types of blocks in the game, some of which you can toss your nails into and they’ll stick. If you throw a spike into a brick horizontally, you can then stand atop that brick. If it’s a plain “white” or “gray” brick, jumping on that nail twice will break and destroy that brick. If it’s one of 2 or 3 other varieties, the block won’t break, and you can continue to stand or jump on that nail until it vanishes within a few seconds. If you throw a nail downward, you can do the same thing, breaking a brick by jumping on top of the nail’s head. For large groupings of blocks that you need to break into, you can use a horizontal break to open a hole, then use a vertical throw to stick a nail into the corner of the next brick you want to break, then jump on top of it. This has been dubbed “corner breaking” by those who have written FAQs on the game, and it’s a technique you’ll want to master, along with the mid-air jumping. Some blocks cannot be pierced with spikes, so you’ll need to be cognizant of those as well, knowing when you have to find an alternative path or way to scale the heights. You have 3 power-up icons available to you, should you find and accumulate them through play. The “white” nail will pierce bricks as normal, but breakable bricks will not be broken by standing on these nails. Striped spikes are explosive, so once you throw one, get out of the way, because the blast radius is just a bit larger than what the explosion animation would lead you to believe. And, for those who give up easily, there’s a small door icon you can grab, and using that power-up will allow you to simply skip a level, effectively creating an exit door wherever you’re standing. Oh, and to keep things interesting, none of these powerups are available during boss fights. As with most puzzle platformers, one hit and you die, fall into a fire pit and you die, etc. Some enemies are impervious to your spikes as well, so they’ll just need to be avoided.
Nail ‘n Scale suffers from a few issues. First and foremost, the game was released in 1990 as Dragon Tail by Japanese developer I’Max, and wasn’t localized in the west until 1992. By then, developers had really begun to eek a lot of impressive things from the Game Boy, so by the time this game hit our shores nearly a year and a half late, it had been eclipsed in the audio-visual department by nearly everything else out there at the same time. The game is also somewhat unique, which works in its favor, and I felt it was relatively intuitive, but the concept of throwing nails into walls and jumping on them to break them seems like a dated, hold-over kind of idea from the early arcade development days. I’Max did something interesting with it, but on paper (and on the back of the box), it doesn’t sound that appealing. As you get into later levels, some of the puzzles become very obtuse, requiring odd choices as far as your character’s path through a level. Unless you can figure out the one most effective way to beat a level, you may end up “cheating” slightly, and racking up exploding spikes by dying once or twice after collecting them so you can stockpile a bit to help you get through a level. Once you get up past level 40, the game also becomes quite punishing, even on the Easy difficulty level. Some of the precision required to complete a couple of the last levels is downright maddening. When you crank up the difficulty to Hard, it cuts your jump height by roughly 1/3, so those precision jumps become nigh impossible without pixel-perfect accuracy and timing in their execution. The game has 50 levels, but lacks a password system, so if you want to complete it, even with unlimited continues, expect to play for an extended period of time. Works in theory, but for a portable system, it would be especially useful to have a password every 5-10 levels, especially with as many tries as some levels may take to solve.
Despite the game’s flaws, I had a lot of fun with it, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll have that “Eureka!” moment from time to time when you figure out a particularly hard level. It helps that you can pause the game and use the D-pad to look at the entire layout of the level, sans enemies, to plan out your strategy, and that certainly makes the game a bit more forgiving. Having said that, the fact that level 43 and up on Easy Mode made me want to pull my hair out, I’d say my motivation to play on Hard Mode is pretty much zero. When I discovered this game out in the wild, there were 2 loose carts side by side in a display case, priced at $15. I asked the clerk if there was any wiggle room, and she checked the computer to discover that both should have been priced at $10. I had enough fun over many weeks to justify that price, but I wouldn’t recommend paying any more for it loose, despite the fact that it’s probably not a particularly common cart. It won’t change your world, and it’s one that, unless you pull it out every few years to refresh your memory on the puzzles, probably won’t be frequenting your Game Boy much. Recommended for puzzle platform nuts, and casually recommended for anyone else if you can pick it up cheap.