When I was a paperboy I was supposed to go to 2,000 houses… or 2 dumpsters!
No game in the history of the NES library makes me feel more nostalgic than Atari’s Paperboy. Memories of the street I grew up on wash over me every time I fire up the game. Now, I’m not claiming that I grew up on a street that consisted of unmanned self-propelled lawnmowers or spontaneous breakdance competitions, but we may have had a few unruly skateboarders and evil kids riding around on big wheels. A funny thing about the street I grew up on, almost all of my neighbors had a dislike for one another, and it was always for the most miniscule reasons. But one thing that we all could agree upon was that our paperboy sucked at his job. Our newspapers would end up under water-sprinklers, in bushes, and on top of cars, and that’s if the paper even showed up at all. The paperboy would purposely toss my house’s newspaper in the pile of dog shit that my parents would constantly beg me to pick up, and I knew this was planned because the paperboy was my best friend BJ. Yep, he would stop by after his route to see if he managed to lob the paper in the pile of dog feces, and he usually was successful. It was rare if BJ missed his mark, but I always made sure to locate said paper and place it in the pile myself if he was having an off day. We were trolls in the making.
Everybody is different
When the arcade port of Paperboy was released on consoles, most kids who lived in the United States played the NES version. Young me was disappointed to learn that it wouldn’t be released alongside a bike handle controller similar to the arcade cabinet, but I was even more let down by the ugly subdued graphics that couldn’t hold a candle to the arcade game. Sure us NES gamers were used to arcade ports looking somewhat watered down, but the NES’s Paperboy almost looked like a different game entirely. The paperboy himself resembled a bloated mess of gray and yellow on wheels. If you weren’t lucky enough to have played the arcade game, you were going to have a hell of a time knowing the breakdancing kid was actually breakdancing. In the NES game he just looks like a kid having difficulties pulling his pants up.
Years and years go by and throughout that time I begrudgingly would toss Paperboy in my NES console to get my fix, but then something happened. I picked up a Sega Master System bundle in a trade for some pineapples at a local flea market (you can’t make this up), and in that deal came a copy of the SMS’s Paperboy. I held off playing the Master System version for a while, because let’s face it, how much better could it be than the NES game I grew up with? Eventually the cart made it’s way into my console and I was blown away by how faithful it was to the arcade game’s graphics. The Master System’s Paperboy was bright, colorful, and I could actually make out that I was controlling a paperboy! Throughout my childhood I’ve been playing the inferior cartridge!
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood
The colors pop off the screen on the Master System’s Paperboy and graphically it’s almost identical to the arcade game. Houses look gorgeous with vibrant grass and big multicolor windows just begging to have a paper thrown through them. In this version you can actually decipher that it’s a skateboarder cruisin’ down the street, and not a tall blob of orange and yellow mush resembling a monster. Additionally, the harsh intersections that break up the street are full of vintage sports cars looking to run over the paperboy. These same intersections look to be filled with rusty Volkswagen Beetles in the NES game. You can’t argue here; the Master System port of Paperboy looks stunning.
The SMS Paperboy may remain faithful to the look of the arcade game, but how does it control? Well, it’s not good, but I can’t totally fault the port for that. As i mentioned previously, the arcade cabinet consisted of a bike handlebar to control the paperboy, and the transition to a D-pad just doesn’t fair well. The NES version suffers the same fate, and that lies solely on Paperboy’s isometric view. Most games at the time had the player controlling a sprite that moved in a simple left/right or up/down direction, but because of Paperboy’s angle, pressing left or right on the D-pad would produce unintended results. Even after years of playing Paperboy with a D-pad, I still feel uncomfortable due to the angle of movement. Sadly, this odd angle has become a staple in the series, and has been used in every iteration of the game that has ever been produced.
Being a game without a plot, Paperboy comes down to simple score chasing. The objective is easy. Ride your bike up a street full of wacky obstacles/people, and deliver newspapers to houses that are your subscribers. Subscriber houses are painted blue, yellow, & white, and non-subscriber houses are gray. You’ll be rewarded points as long as the newspaper lands on a subscriber’s doorstep, but extra points can be obtained if you manage to perfect your lob and get the paper directly in the mailbox. . If you fail to deliver a paper to a subscriber or break their window, they’ll unsubscribe. Additionally, if you manage to deliver a paper to all your subscribers, you’ll be rewarded with a new subscriber, increasing your chances to get a higher score. Destroying the property of non-subscribers can also be beneficial since every piece of property destroyed results in points. At the end of the street is an obstacle course that requires the paperboy to toss papers through hoops for additional points. Extra points can also be earned if you decide to start the game on a harder difficulty. There are three streets to pick from: Easy Street, Middle Road, and Hard Way, and each difficulty contains 7 days (Monday-Sunday). The harder the difficulty the more obstacles you’ll have to avoid.
Some may consider this a knock on the gameplay, but I was able to find an exploit within my first 5 minutes of playing the Sega Master System port. If you ride your bike directly on the edge of the curb you’ll avoid 99% of the obstacles. The only problems you’ll run into while utilizing this exploit are big wheel kids and intersections. This cannot be done on the NES port due to the curb’s slant that forces the paperboy onto the street. The SMS port of paperboy features a considerably faster bike speed, and that speed combined with the curb exploit can result in an incredibly fast speed run.
Sound is the vocabulary of nature
The NES port does have one thing going for it and that is the sound. The SMS port sounds god-awful. It can only be described as a bag full of dying birds. A constant beat that is reminiscent of a baby bird begging its mother for food will grate on your ears, and before you know it you’ll be turning the sound on mute. If there was a way to get the NES port’s sound and the SMS’s graphics on one cart, you’d have the optimal port of the arcade game. On the plus side, there is a satisfying chime whenever you deliver a paper, but it’s not enough warrant turning the volume up. It’s worth noting that both the NES and SMS ports are both lacking the voice samples that the Arcade game contains.
If you’re a fan of Atari’s Paperboy and never played the Sega Master System version, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how faithful it is to the arcade game. Sure the controls aren’t perfect, but at this point in the game’s history I think we can all look past that. I love discovering Sega Master System games that I didn’t get a chance to play as a kid and hope to review a handful more in the coming months. Let me know if you have a Master System game you’d like me to review in the comments below!
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Sega Master System (reviewed), NES, MS-DOS; Publisher: Atari Games ; Developer: Atari Games; Players: 1 (2 on NES) ; Released: 1990 (on Master System)
Note: The headline of this review is a quote taken from comedian Mitch Hedberg.