Title:Bill & Ted’s Excellent Retro Collection
System: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Release Date: 02/17/2023
A year ago, we checked out the last title made in Limited Run’s Carbon Engine. I noted in some recent writeups that despite a bunch of valid concerns and problems I had with the company’s physical side of things, that the quality of that prior Carbon release was enough to give me some hope that the company could do a decent job emulating obscure retro games and putting them back out in a fun, new format for modern platforms. Announced stuff like Boy and his Blob and the mythically rare Rendering Ranger R2 gave a lot of promise, but caught up in all of that was a compilation announced based off a licensed property, one that felt like a completely bewildering pick.
That IP is none other than Bill and Ted, a duology recently turned trilogy of movies that were pretty popular in the late 80s and early 90s, with a recent entry put out a few years back. I have next to no experience with this IP whatsoever, but one aspect I was familiar with was their video game on NES, notoriously discussed as an infamously terrible, cryptic game made popular by the Angry Video Game Nerd. So it completely caught me off guard that this legendarily bad game was given the greenlight and licensing to see the light of day in the modern age of 2023, along with the Game Boy title, Portable Adventure, which was licensed by the same publisher as the NES title, LJN.
Thus, we come to this digital release, stealth dropped on the eShop eight months after the physical pre-orders went up for sale and failed to exceed minimum order quantity in sales. Did people miss out on a misunderstood pair of games, perhaps given the best care possible to make these important in a historical sense, like how lovingly the equally horrendous Ikari Warriors NES was given a great history segment in SNK 40th? Or were mistakes made, as some say. The reason I start with a prelude over the in-game plots is because, well… These two don’t really have much of one! Things are going weird in time and the two heroes have to travel back in time to help out world figures in the NES game, or collect essences of time in the Game Boy game. The Game Boy games have brief cutscenes between worlds, but these don’t mean much at all.
The last carbon engine game was a SNES title, and we saw how well that was handled: varying screen sizes, an animated intro, great control response time, multiple translations, 3D Box Art and manual scans, and a few save slots in an awkward save state system for an overall decent package. That gave me hope that at the very least, we’d have most of those features returning for these two games when applicable, (since obviously these two hit the states so there’s nothing to translate, and I don’t think this IP is worth commissioning a unique intro for) but unfortunately, Excellent Retro Collection isn’t so excellent in this regard.
The cool 3D box replica and manual scans? Gone, neither game has so much as a description on the history of the game, the developer, or even control guides on how to play the games, a completely baffling omission in the case of the most infamous of these two titles. You do get some new borders for the handheld game however, which I honestly wish could be backported into Shantae’s reissue since one of them is a very nifty GBC border that works great with the smaller screen size. Unfortunately, the borders seem bugged here, as quitting a game and reloading it will disable the border entirely. There’s also no attempt of any cool CRT/LCD filters here outside of a very weak CRT one that pales compared to a lot of recent attempts, and considering how Game Boy Nintendo Switch Online launched with some spectacular LCD filters, to not even see one attempted for the Portable Adventure is a disappointment.
The game selection menu? Incredibly basic, with the two games and a credits list, again, lacking any sort of supplementary information. Even the freaking Qubyte Classics gave the original release year! Also of annoyance, is how the Game Boy game is handled. Seeing how the original Game Boy has varying color shades available, you’d expect the Carbon Team to allow the option of multiple game boy filters, or at least a consistent one, but instead you get something sorta akin to the Game Boy Pocket, with no option to change to the DMG Green color, or even the brighter Black & White color palette displayed on the game select menu, but not the actual game itself. Oops. I could also nitpick that technically, a GBC border wouldn’t fit original Game Boy software much at all, but there’s also another cool border that has the color scheme of the OG brick, even if the design is legally distinct, so I feel they did a good job on the border front at the very least.
So, with the barebones presentation out of the way, what are the actual games presented like for the original hardware? Well, the NES game is just purely awful. Very ugly, digitized graphics for the title screen, drab, ugly backgrounds for the in-game levels, and poor sprite design. Oh, and the game’s isometric in a cryptic way, joy. The limited “music” here barely plays and when it does kick in, it is absolutely horrendous, but that’s not the emulation. In fact, sound emulation is top notch for both titles, which I can only commend so much for how bad the NES game sounds.
The Game Boy game on the other hand? It honestly reminded me of those single screen puzzle rooms in the Back to the Future NES sequel game, which considering the same developer worked on this, isn’t a bad assumption. The sprites are tiny, but scale pretty nicely and leave this as a decent looking single screen adventure. The cutscenes are simple, but much more visually pleasing than the dreadful title screen of the NES original. Outside of the aforementioned lack of color options and missing an LCD filter, I can’t think of how you could make this game look any better, and while the game has more music than the other title, it becomes incredibly repetitive real quick, but not awfully so. If the OST is meant to be from the movies, I would have no way of knowing.
You know the drill here for a compilation review: with next to nothing in terms of bonus content or supplementary material, we just have the two games! …With no button remap, normal save states (more on that in a bit), or a manual to mess with, which you’ll be desperately wanting for the first game on this time cruise…
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure (NES)- Bill and Ted must use the power of weird phone numbers to go back in time to fix history. You enter the number, you play this weird circuitry minigame to shoot your spinning phone booth to the goal, and then you’re in a time period.
With next to no direction as you wander an isometric hellscape, desperately hoping to find out where to go next. You have an inventory menu with some handy items like bombs and rocks, but unless you figure out when you need then, you better not waste them. You can jump, and it’s the best way to discover secrets, but that usually means you have to jump around a bunch like an idiot until what you want comes out. You can talk to NPCs, but some may be hostile and capture you, and even then, this entire game is a frustrating, very unfun crapshoot from the very first stage. I tried wandering around for a good ten minutes before giving up and looking at a video guide, only to realize that no, even with a guide, this game is just badly designed and really not fun.
The reputation this NES title has is fully deserved, which makes it all the more disappointing this set doesn’t include anything cool on this game or why it is so un-fun. No developer interviews/history, manual scans, in-character remarks on how this game is uncool, or anything to give it at least some sort of merit on why it exists and was brought back for a new generation to be tormented by. I can laugh at NES Ikari Warriors with a friend and read the history in the SNK museum to numb the pain, but this game’s just so poorly made i’d rather try to 1CC that miserable title instead. Definitely, definitely do not try to fully play this game.
Bill & Ted’s Portable Adventure (Game Boy)- Here’s the surprise of the set, and the main reason I bought this with my own money. While the NES game is infamously terrible, the Game Boy game is seldom talked about much at all, and it seemed like a decent offering that aims to be like a single screen arcade game. You play as one of the two main characters, you dodge funny historical figures in different time periods, collect all the items, and get out of there through the door that spawns in. Rinse and repeat, and you have yourselves a decent little single-screen game.
Note I said decent, for this game is still pretty janky, and has some problems that can make moments frustrating. Your jumps are weird and floaty, and the game loves to throw death pits at you that can be irritating to dodge. There’s also the typical of the era difficult enemy placements, but you can at least eventually get past it with trial and error, and this was still a decent enough gameplay loop I tried to play through the entirety of this, and generally had a good time, until I learned how this compilation handles saving.
See, your save options are not like a traditional save state, even though there’s no reason it couldn’t be. You hit save, the game kicks you to the menu, and then you can choose to continue the session or start a new one when you come back to it later. Except this loading system is the only way you can load your save state, for prepare for a ton of menuing if you want to use this to get through a tricky stage. (exiting without a save and re-loading the save state from the title select is literally the only way to use this feature) Oh, and for some reason, the emulator loads with an A press, which is the jump button. Hope you didn’t save state underneath a hazard that would kill you if you jumped into it!
Alas, this baffling save system led me to realize that yeah, this compilation needs a lot of work, and a more traditional save state system, like what other porting companies use regularly, would do wonders for making this the fun pick up and play experience it originally was, with less of the frustration. While I personally don’t mind the A/B jump system, the lack of a button remap feature is equally confusing to not have as an option. The game itself does have a scoring system, but no hi-score display from what I can see, so you really don’t have any point in going after points besides extra lives, which you’ll need lots of to beat the game. …Or you could go old school with an infinite lives code and just marathon it. Your choice!
In conclusion, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Retro Collection confuses me in so many ways. When this was announced last E3, I was baffled and found it utterly stupid how the NES title of all things was picked to be re-issued, but had some optimism in the Game Boy title and the general quality of the last Carbon release for this to still be worth a look from a historical perspective. Unfortunately, while the emulation is generally pretty good, there’s barely any features to speak of, with a confusing save state system that does nobody any sort of favors, and the NES game being left completely as is without so much of a manual or any other QOL mechanics, with the obscure, decent gem of a Game Boy title ported over without freaking Game Boy palette options or a LCD filter.
Considering how sets like the Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection or even the overpriced basic edition of that game come out with a lot of QOL tweaks, Bill & Ted feels like a joke compilation in comparison, even compared to both prior carbon releases: Shantae had an art gallery and a GBA display mode, RCG0 had a ton of love and care plus that cool box replica and manual, what’s this set’s excuse for being so paper-thin outside of having a music player? Other licenses could have worked for a better collection: Rambo, Back to the Future, Batman, but alas, we got stuck with these two.
I give Bill & Ted’s Excellent Retro Collection a 4 out of 10.