When you dip your foot into the world of video game collecting there are a few games that come up a lot in discussion. Strangely, most of them typically range from mediocre (The Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak; Chubby Cherub) to downright painful (Cheetahmen II; Action 52). Despite this these games do go for a pretty penny in the collectors’ market. Yet, one game that stands out among the rest is Little Samson. This is not only because it is arguably the most valuable wide retail release on the system (if you discount the repackaged Stadium Events) but also because unlike many odd rare titles, it is one of the best games on the platform.
Little Samson goes one step above being a solid 8-bit platformer by being an inventive, challenging and unique departure for the time. From the outset you chose from four stages and can play them in any order. In each stage you play as one of four characters: the human Little Samson, the dragon Kikira, Gamm the golem, and the tiny agile mouse named K.O. Each of their respective stages are designed with their unite gameplay strengths and weaknesses in mind and are designed to familiarize you with each of the four characters abilities. After these stages are finished, a boss fight ensues and then the core game begins…
It is structured much like the non-RPG Castlevania titles or one of Wily’s castles in the storied Mega Man series by showing you a representation of the world as a map with a line drawn between points representing each stage. As you fight through these levels, you will then want to use each of the characters by switching between them to navigate parts of the world. Since each of the four characters are so different, it is often beneficial to experiment using different characters to find hidden items that help you along the way and to find safe and fast strategies to beat the game’s bosses. The game also borrows heavily from the not-so-good Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in that they keep their current health when you switch between them, meaning you have to watch your meter because if the one you are playing with dies, that’s it.
Little Samson shines brightest in the area of level design. Stages encourage you to discover how to best utilize the attributes of the heroes to clear sections of the levels and find hidden paths and items. Much like Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (which this game can most-safely be compared to), knowing when and how to use each character not only increases your chance of success but also makes the game more enjoyable, breaking up the monotony.
As this was a game released later in the NES cycle in 1992, it really does show what the NES can do graphically. It uses a lot of large, high-detail sprites for bosses and creatures and the world is lush and vivid. On top of that, the world map may very well be the best piece of 8-bit artwork on the NES. This quality shines throughout as this does not feel like a cash-in or a rush job. This is a game the developers wanted you to experience. Parts of the game require you to slow down a bit and observe the world and all of the small visual ideas hint at a greater lore that is revealed to you as you play through the game. It is truly a sight to behold.
One of the strengths of Little Samson is how well-structured it is. Every element of the world is placed so perfectly as to invite you to experiment to learn how to best play the game without a hint of expository tutorial dialogue. You do not need it. The gameplay and world feed you the visual queues organically as you play. It is masterful in its execution.
Little Samson is a legend of its time, but its late discovery by NES fans meant it was not widely owned by console gamers of the 90’s so finding a copy is extremely difficult, and if you do manage to spot a legitimate cartridge floating about on the online market, at retro game stores, or at conventions, prepare to put down a hefty stack of Gil on this gem. As of the time of my writing this article, Pricecharting.com (a reliable resource for aggregate pricing for games based on various sources) lists a loose cartridge for Little Samson as sitting at just over $1,100! Keep in mind, depending on where you find it, who is selling and the condition of the game, this price can vary. Still, $1,000 dollars is a lot of coin to drop on a 90’s NES game and believe it or not, it is not even the most expensive game on the console, it is just the most valuable game to get an official wide release. As a result of this demand and price tag, it has become somewhat of a staple game for collectors who want to have a truly admirable collection and owning a legitimate copy of Little Samson has become a badge of honor, as pretentious as that may sound.
Little Samson is not shelf-candy, either. If you own it, you are going to want to play it. It’s too good to rest in the stacks. It stands out so much among its peers (including those in its contemporary 16-bit libraries) that seeking out a way to play it is kind of a widely-admitted-to vice among retro game fans. So much so that it has become a common game to appear as a reproduction cartridge or on one of the many, many multi-games-in-one pirate carts. However, emulation is really the way most people have had to play Little Samson as it has not received any official digital or retail re-release in North America since its initial sleeper run in the early 90’s. Add to that it being from Taito, who was known for their limited runs on titles at the time, Little Samson is a hidden gem in about as literal terms as you can get while speaking about a video game; It’s about as rare as a diamond and costs about as much as one, too.
So, with a game this good being so valuable, it opens an interesting discussion on the state of video game collecting. I have been an active game collector for about two decades now and have seen game prices increase dramatically over the years for various titles. This is usually a reflection of the popularity of a franchise or discovery of a hidden gem on a console that underperformed. I can definitely speak from experience in saying Little Samson is a very odd exception to the rule when it comes to rare games. It was not discontinued like Action 52; It was not pulled from the shelves like Family Fun Fitness: Stadium Events; Nor was it only released in limited quantities to Blockbuster Video like Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak or Clayfighter 63 ⅓: Sculptor’s Cut. No, Little Samson was released in retail stores, made available to all and is rare simply because nobody bought it when it was on sale. This has led to speculation that the value may decline as more and more copies of this game inevitably pop up, but the demand for this game is still insanely-high. Fans want to own this game and it shares that with other collector’s items like Mega Man 5 and Fire & Ice. If you find or own Little Samson, treat it as the treasure it truly is and it will repay you with years of fun and a stack of cash.