Circus Charlie - Nintendo NES
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Circus Charlie

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Release year: 1986 | Players: 1-2 players | Developed by Konami

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Circus Charlie (AKA サーカスチャーリー Sākasuchārī in Japan) is a 2D arcade video game developed by Konami in 1984. The game was ported to the NES (Famicom) in 1986.

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the one-man star of the circus: Charlie! Watch in awe as he guides a lion through rings of fire, tightropes his way through with monkeys in the way, and leaps from precarious rope to precarious rope! Wait, what are you saying? You’ve never heard of Charlie the clown? Well, then.

Chances are good you’ve never seen Circus Charlie except on a bootleg; say, an 82-in-1 cartridge. For good reason, too – this game was never released in the US, and so by technicality this is a Famicom game, not an NES game. This is also another port of an arcade game, in this case a 1986 release of a 1984 Konami classic.

For all the bad reputation it gets for featuring prominently in pirated cartridges and consoles, Circus Charlie is not a bad game. It’s a Konami game back in their heyday, after all, and it shows in its decent… well, everything.

Circus Charlie Cover Box

Circus Charlie Cover (MSX)

Let’s start with what matters most: the gameplay. Four options are available to the player – two versions of 1 player and alternating-play 2 player games, with the B versions getting an extra life and a difficulty increase over the A versions. This version of Circus Charlie runs through five of the six stages of the arcade original, with the trampoline stage getting the cut.

The first of these stages is the fire jump, featuring Charlie’s trusty lion. Flaming hoops and fire pots threaten to burn both to a crisp if they mess up, and it’s your job to guide them through their fiery stunts.

This early on, it’s easy to get a grasp of the controls in Circus Charlie for NES. The whole of it is standard platforming affair, with a slight twist – like Simon Belmont, Charlie cannot change his trajectory in mid-air. Furthermore, he has exactly three jump arcs: forward, upward, and backward. This makes seemingly simple jumps a slightly trickier deal than in many platformers, but it also emphasizes its strength as an arcade game: easy to remember, difficult to master.

On one hand, it’s difficult to get a feel for the jumps, especially since there is no sense of inertia in Charlie’s movements. On the other, this makes planning ahead a simple affair, since you can accurately judge where Charlie will go with every jump. Still, if you’re feeling squeamish about a given jump, you can stop or move back to prepare yourself.

But not too long, however – you don’t want to bore the audience, do you? A bonus counter ticks down from 5000 and doubles as his timer; let it drop to zero and it’s a life lost. There are other scoring tricks, like hopping over a single fire pot repeatedly and uncovering 5000-point coins through specific actions, but speed-running is the most obvious way to score high.

The second stage in Circus Charlie sees Charlie on a tightrope, jumping over brown monkeys and the occasional fast, aqua-colored monkey. It’s more or less a similar affair, with the aqua monkey tripping you up every so often.

Circus Charlie Screenshot 1

Circus Charlie Screenshot 1

The third deviates slightly, as the objective is to hop from ball to ball, riding them all the way to the end. The fourth is a retread of the first, with the catch being that the horse is far less cooperative about the matter than the lion. Who knew, huh? Thankfully, the trampolines themselves won’t harm you – but slamming into them at high speeds will.

The fifth and final stage is a very different affair, as Charlie tries his best to swing from rope to rope and the occasional trampoline. Here, you have little control over his trajectory save what the ropes give you, so patience is a must.

Does the game end there? Hardly, but there is nothing new to do after that. The game simply loops on a harder, faster difficulty level, and lasts until you inevitably make enough mistakes to end the game. This is where Circus Charlie’s arcade roots suffer most – there really is nothing to do but continue onward and try to get as high a score as possible. Each ‘loop’ lasts all of maybe 10 minutes; hardly enough for a single sitting, and once you’ve played through one, you’ve pretty much played through all of them.

Circus Charlie Screenshot 2

Circus Charlie Screenshot 2

Still, Circus Charlie is a pretty fun diversion, helped by the simple but cute assets used for the game. The art is a pretty faithful rendition of the original, and Charlie himself is a tad bit cuter on the NES than in the arcades. Messing up here is a fairly silly affair, particularly the frizzled sprites of Charlie and lion after touching the flames. The sound effects are pretty good, as standard with Konami in those days – check out how this game manages to portray a cheering crowd!

And the music? It’s unfortunate that there are only three tracks in Circus Charlie, because the ones that made it are pretty close to the originals. The percussion is left out due to the limits of the console, but the rest is all good, cheerful, and fitting for a circus act. The rope swing, in particular, plays a section of the Blue Danube; not the section most people are familiar with, but the section right after.

Of all things to be happy about, there’s the matter of the ‘life lost’ sequence. The decreased speed actually allows the player to absorb the ‘whoops!’ aspect of messing up, and makes the little jingle a little sillier, too.

So, what of this star of the show? This game a bit of a cult classic for a good reason, and that is due to its solid, arcade-worthy gameplay. Alas, it is also a fairly bare-bones game, good for a short diversion but without depth to truly make it last. For what it does, however, it’s a solid contender for one of the better games on the NES, and it’s a good title if you’re itching for a 2-player scoring contest.

Circus Charlie game has been ported to Arcade (original), Commodore 64, MSX, Sega SG-1000, ColecoVision, and Nintendo NES (this version).