Paperboy is one of the more unique arcade games I can remember, getting away from the predominate space fighter or scrolling fighter genres of the 80s. You play as a paperboy delivering the morning edition from his bike. The arcade cabinet had a set of bike handlebars for a controller (cool!) as well as an obviously brighter palette of colors and detail. In that sense, the NES cart pales in comparison, and comes off as another lackluster port “crippled” for the home system. But as far as the gameplay and ideas go, they’re still there, and still just as fun.
You ride your bike down an isometric view of a neighborhood street, passing a few different layouts of suburban houses. Crashing into anything costs you a life, and the only pickup in the game is a bundle of papers to replenish your supply, so gameplay is fairly simple. You can turn with the direction pad, accelerate with up, and brake with down, but you can never completely stop or reverse directions. You’re in a hurry, you see, so the intent is to nail a delivery as you pass.
Placing the paper on the porch is the minimum requirement for a successful delivery, with different houses making this easier or harder depending on their size and layout. If your timing is particularly dead on, you can land the paper inside the open mailbox for extra points. Houses are divided into subscribers and non-subscribers, with their paint changing accordingly for easy recognition (white and red). If you fail to deliver a paper to a subscriber, they cancel their subscription and lower your potential points. Should all subscribers cancel, the game is over. The inverse is also true, so if you hit all your deliveries, more people sign up to reap the benefits of your expert rag-tossing skills.
The other opportunity for points comes in the form of rampant potential vandalism. Property damage to any of your subscribers will result in a cancellation, regardless of whether you delivered the paper or not. Non-subscribers are fair game, and you can chuck headlines through their windows, topple their trash cans, and defile their gravestones with complete impunity and bonus points to boot. In that sense, you’re a little like the mob roughing up the neighborhood until they pay protection. You’ll need to make sure to keep enough papers for your legitimate deliveries, but it’s pretty enjoyable to knock the jack out and drop a car atop the guy working on it. Maybe you should subscribe next time!
After two blocks of houses, you run through a brief training course where you can score even more points by hitting targets and jumping off ramps. This section is optional in that crashing here won’t cost you a life, but it’s pretty crucial in getting anything resembling a high score.
Of course it’s not going to be that easy, and plenty of NES Logic foes come out to stand in your way. There are the static barriers like hedges, white picket fences, and the houses themselves. There are mobile foes requiring quick direction changes, like the skateboarder, angry puppy, or little kid in the go cart coming out of the driveway. Then there are the weird ones, like the grandma who chases you with a rolling pin unless you deliver her paper, an intelligent and mobile mini-tornado, and Death himself. All of these foes increase in number as the game progresses.
There are only seven levels, for each of the days in the week. You will only have three lives to take you through them all, not counting any extras you gain for score milestones. Unlike the arcade, there’s no selectable difficulty or different streets, but what’s presented here will make getting to Sunday a challenge. Your bike moves quite sluggishly compared to the arcade, as if you were biking through mud or sand. When trouble comes barreling down the sidewalk and you have to wrench it into someone’s garden, your bike will frequently move too slowly to make it. All enemies also conveniently move about twice as fast as you’re capable of, making this less of a reactionary game, and more about gambling on how long you can stay in a particular area.
To clarify, you can’t stay in the lawns for very long before you naturally run into a house or fence. You can’t stay on the sidewalk for the entire game because a skateboarder will eventually come rushing at you. The street is the most dangerous, as a random car eventually will appear to run you over as punishment for staying in that area for too long. Where it was a reaction challenge in the arcade, here all you can basically do is divvy your time up among the three possible areas you can be.
The collision detection is also a bit of a cheap shot. The bike takes up most of the sidewalk at a 45-degree angle any time you turn. Plenty of bad guys tagged me on my back wheel as I desperately tried to steer out of the way. You’re actually safer going straight as you present less of a target, but the isometric view makes this a little hard to discern. It’s certainly harder than it should be.
Paperboy has one theme that plays constantly during all the levels. It’s actually fairly catchy and recognizable. You won’t have “The Paperboy Theme” loaded anywhere on your .mp3 player, but it doesn’t wear out its welcome during play. A basic collection of five or six effects rounds out the set, and are reused frequently. Any breaking objects use the same glass breaking effect, any crashing uses the same tipping garbage can noise. It’s undeniably sparse, but pretty average for the time.
When put up to a direct comparison with the arcade, the NES version should hide its face and walk briskly to the car. The graphics and presentation don’t come close. But I’ve always felt that such direct comparisons were unfair, and I remember people making them about NES ports in general when they were released – “this is just a crappy port of the arcade.” To me, the fact that the colors are less varied and vibrant, the characters overly simplified, and the digital voices and bullseye animations are removed are offset by not having to pay $10,000 for the cabinet, or a sackful of quarters and your afternoon. Paperboy is fun, and for playing Paperboy at home, the NES delivers a typical port experience. The only real caveat to make is that Paperboy 2, for both the arcade and the quality of the NES port, kicks so much ass as to make playing this one almost not worth the time.
Capable conversion of a great arcade game.
Can’t replicate the arcade hardware, bike moves a little too slowly.