Breaking Down My Childhood NES Collection

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During a warm spring day in 1990 my mind was pre-occupied as I struggled to push through my half day of Kindergarten.  Although I generally enjoyed school at this young age I knew that something monumental was awaiting me at my grandparents’ house.  It was this year that my grandma began a tradition of letting me pick one large present of my choosing for my birthday, and I picked the grand daddy of ’em all on the occasion of my sixth; the Nintendo Entertainment System.  When I disembarked from the school bus I sprinted to the door as my grandma met me on the porch and told me that there was something inside the kitchen for me.  As I entered the room my grandpa grabbed an unwrapped NES Action Set box from the top of the refrigerator and handed it to me with the immortal birthday wish; “here”.

Although I was late to the NES party, by the time it was demoted to #2 in the gaming pecking order by the Sega Genesis I had amassed a healthy collection of 19 titles that I kept stored in an old beer box.  Culled mainly from birthdays and holidays with a few surprises scattered in, the majority of my games were selected based on price, availability, and box art by members of my family.  NES games were expensive, especially when adjusted for inflation, which meant that regardless of the quality of a game, you played what you got and invested a lot of time into each title.  The following 19 games are a break down of what I played when the console was king and my memories of each one.

BASES LOADED 3 (RYNE SANDBERG PLAYS)

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Since I’m listing these games in alphabetical order, ironically the first game on the list is the last game that I acquired during the NES era.  A friend of mine that lived a few blocks away and had terrible body odor purchased this game from a local grocery store called Dierberg’s.  There was a store within the store that handled VHS and video game rentals and in 1994 they began liquidating their NES stock to make room for more SNES and Genesis cartridges.  Throughout the summer I continued to implore him to bring the game over as I really enjoyed the behind the mound camera angle and the unique gameplay.  Eventually I talked him into selling it to me making it officially my final NES purchase while the console was still commercially available.

Bases Loaded 3 was kind of an odd ball game.  Although the pitching/batting camera angle from behind the mound was a great idea that mimics the presentation of televised baseball games, the center field camera once the ball is in play is utterly ridiculous and contrary to the angle we see on TV baseball as well as every other baseball game ever made.  When playing the game for the first time, throwing the ball to first base by pressing the D pad left in conjunction with the throw button is downright counter-natural as is pressing down to move your outfielders closer to the fences.

The game also lacks a season mode, a playoff mode, an MLB license, and an MLBPA license.  This means that not only are there no real teams or players, but every game is in essence an exhibition contest with the prime objective to “play a perfect game”.  At the end of every game you’re given a score card ranking the player performance in fielding, batting, pitching, errors, etc.  Considering that I already owned RBI Baseball ’93 for the Genesis, it’s unusual that I was so excited to pick this up.

BLADES OF STEEL

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Two games into my list and we are on the second sports title.  The difference between NES sports games and todays offerings however are that NES games are accessible for non-fans to play and typically fun for hardcore sport fans and novices alike.  I was a hardcore hockey fan when I got this for my birthday in 1991 and was enamored with how realistic this game seemed when compared to the earlier Ice Hockey.  With great graphics, voice samples, awesome music, and even a playable mini game during the 2nd intermission, this game had everything a 7 year old hockey fan could ask for.

Although this game lacks real teams and players, it does include a playoff mode and various difficulty levels to keep players coming back for more.  Unlike later hockey games, Blades of Steel places a heavy emphasis on fighting.  When two players begin jockeying over possession of the puck, the announcer shouts “fight!” as the camera zooms in on the two combatants.  During the fight the player can either block, throw a punch to the face, or throw a punch to the body.  When one of the fighters runs out of hit points the fight ends as the referee drags the loser off of the ice and into the penalty box. The winner of the fight continues on with the puck giving his team a power play.  I will echo just about every other person who has ever written about this game when I say that I’d love to see those kinds of rules in the NHL.

The hockey itself is also very arcade like.  The puck never leaves the ice surface, the direction of shots is dictated by an arrow that moves back and forth across the net inside of the goal crease, and the player has control of both a skater and his goalie simultaneously.  I used to score a lot of goals by passing the puck into the opposition net since a forward pass ignores the shot arrow.  After playing for awhile you’ll get tired of hearing the announcer shout “gets the pass”… although there has been a lot of debate through the years as to what the commentator is actually saying.

COBRA COMMAND

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Cobra Command represents one of my first pieces on this website, which is an odd choice in retrospect.  At the time I was transitioning to a new job and had decided that I would like to use some of my spare time to pursue a retro-themed website.  I hadn’t found my tone or style yet and so the piece is probably garbage, but that won’t stop me from linking to it in an effort to get you, the reader, more engaged in my plethora of pitiful content.  Still, Cobra Command represents one of the founding pillars of this unpopular hub on the internet.

As noted in the write up, Cobra Command was never really “my” game.  A high school aged neighbor lived next door to me and he loved to come over and play our NES since he didn’t own one himself.  He was apparently pretty popular within a several block radius and he used to borrow games from other friends and bring them over to my house.  He did that with Cobra Command, and the family he borrowed it from moved away which left me with a bonus addition to my NES library.

Based on an arcade game, Cobra Command has the player piloting a helicopter charged with rescuing POW’s from various battle fields which seem to be scattered around the Far East.  Various upgrades for the craft are available along the way to help negate the increasing difficulty in both enemies faced and level design.  Otherwise it’s a fairly typical action shooter with bad scrolling.  Although not a bad game, there isn’t anything about it that stands out.

FESTER’S QUEST

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Fester’s Quest ranks number one for me…. as the worst game I received as a Christmas present.  My well meaning aunt and uncle gifted this monstrosity to me for Christmas 1990.  To make matters worse, apparently they were originally contemplating buying Batman: The Video Game but heard that it was too difficult.  Upon hearing this my initial disappointment increased five fold knowing that I may have actually gotten a game I wanted in its place.

I still recall my befuddlement when gazing on the box art, which paled in comparison to the confusion I experienced when inserting the cartridge into the NES.  The game begins with Uncle Fester moon bathing while a UFO approaches in the background and begins abducting town denizens.  Apparently it is up to Fester alone to save the world from invading aliens.  There have been worse background stories, but why take the Addams Family license and stick Fester in a game about fighting aliens?  It seems like a wasted opportunity, especially when considering how poorly executed the game play mechanics are.

Fester slogs around the city at incredibly slow speeds blasting aliens with a gun that can be upgraded or downgraded by picking up blue and pink power ups (or power downs) dropped by the destroyed aliens.  Most of the game looks like the on foot sections of Blaster Master (another Sunsoft game) but play far worse.  Some of the weapon upgrades get stuck on the small corridors which makes defeating the constantly re-spawning enemies impossible.  There are also some pseudo 3D sections but I never spent enough time with this game to bother finding my way through them.

IKARI WARRIORS

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Ikari Warriors was a gift of some kind.  I know I didn’t receive it for Christmas but I can’t remember if I got it for birthday, Easter, Valentine’s Day or some other occasion.  Based on the box art it seemed intriguing, and the opening cut scene with a battle damaged plane crash landing in the jungle looked promising enough.  Unfortunately the fun ends there.

Ikari Warriors is notoriously difficult.  The player takes control of a Rambo clone and guides him from the bottom of the screen to the top in what seems like an endless level while hordes of enemies attack from all directions with bullets, hand grenades, and missiles.  Get killed in the wrong spot and your player will re-spawn stuck in a wall and unable to continue.  I never managed to beat the first stage without using a Game Genie.  There are several other stages but trying to make it there is a waste of time.  Apparently this game was popular enough to warrant no fewer than two sequels which baffles me.

JAWS

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Licensed NES games, particularly LJN offerings, have a reputation for being deplorable.  Although Jaws isn’t a good game, it isn’t a bad game either.  It’s utterly average.  The player takes control of a ship on a map screen and endlessly sails back and forth between ports while occasionally being interrupted by random battle sequences.  Here you control a diver that shoots harpoons at all aquatic life while collecting dropped conch shells as currency to purchase upgrades.  These screens are interrupted by bonus stages in which an airplane drops cannon balls on jellyfish.  Just like the movie.  Although I remember playing this game, there isn’t anything particularly memorable about it.

KARATE CHAMP

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This list just keeps getting worse.  Karate Champ was a birthday present gone bad.  One of the first console fighting games, Karate Champ pitted a white clad martial artist against a red clad martial artist in a series of matches where points are awarded for landing a hit.  Score two hits and the match is won.  The control in this game is abysmal.  Every so often your fighter will jump kick and end up facing the opposite direction.  When this happens you’re pretty much screwed as I’ve never been able to figure out how to reorient my fighter and you probably won’t either.  Between matches someone off screen throws flower vases at your fighter and it’s your job to break them with punches or kicks for bonus points.

The only inspiration to continue is to see what backdrop the next stage places the fighters in.  Eventually they cycle through from the beginning again.  Otherwise there isn’t any fun to be had here.  I was instantly disappointed with this game and after the first few days of owning it, it promptly went to the back of my game stack never to be played again.

KARATE KID (THE)

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The Karate Kid is primarily based on the film The Karate Kid Part II.  It’s a pretty standard beat em up/action title with some mini games thrown in for variety and is so short that I can probably break down every level in this opening paragraph.  Take control of Daniel LaRusso in the first stage which is the tournament from the end of the first movie.  This stage can pretty much be beaten by pushing a single button.  Stage two is a left to right trek through Okinawa until you battle Daniel’s nemesis of the 2nd film Chozen at the end of the stage.  Level 3 is Okinawa again, but in a storm with constant wind that pushes your sprite backwards while birds and sticks fly at you.  Avoid the water and you square off with Chozen.  Lastly, Daniel scrolls from left to right in stage 4’s rocky terrain, beating up bad guys until he confronts the game’s final boss: Chozen.

Since 3/4 of the stage bosses are Chozen and half of the stages are walking through Okinawa the developers added some bonus stages to break up the monotony.  In one stage Daniel is tasked with breaking through blocks of ice.  In another he has to catch all of the flies with a pair of chopsticks within the allotted time.  Lastly is a game where you have to dodge a hammer while standing on a platform.  The first two mini games are pretty fun for awhile, but that hammer game was always frustrating.

I wrote about The Karate Kid and gave it a rather scathing review.  Although there are a lot of flaws here, it’s actually an adequate game and it can be fun.  The biggest issue is the length; or lack thereof.  Four stages with the first stage taking less than a minute to beat.  Considering NES games typically sold for around $50 this game is simply over priced.  As a rental this would be a fun pickup, but as a purchase it’s a ripoff.

KUNG FU

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An early black box game, Kung Fu was an arcade style beat em up that pits the hero Thomas against wave after wave of flunky’s as he attempts to save his girlfriend Sylvia from the diabolical Mr. X.  Some screens scroll left to right, and others right to left.  The player can punch, kick, jump, duck, and jump kick!  This game is as simple as it gets but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.  To this day I enjoy popping it in and trying to beat it in a few minutes as a quick pick up and play experience.  Don’t misconstrue my lack of detail as a lack of worthiness.

PIPE DREAM

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Holy shit.  This game… I received Pipe Dream as a birthday present in 1991 and I hated it.  In fact, for some reason I was terrified of the box/label art because of the slime and the music scared me as well.  I played this game one time and despised it.  I watched my neighbor play it once and didn’t understand the appeal.  It immediately went to the back of my NES game stack so I wouldn’t have to see it and I tried to grab other games out of my box as quickly as possible to decrease the probability that I might glance at the label.  Eventually I made my dad sell it at an auction and I haven’t picked it up since.  In fact, just seeing the box art posted above still gives me the creeps as I write this.

PRO WRESTLING

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An early black box NES game Pro Wrestling stands as the strongest of the “Sports Series” releases.  In fact, not only is it a contender for one of the best black box games but it has been consistently ranked among the top games made for the NES.  Without hesitation it is easily the best wrestling game on the console.  People still wear shirts with the infamous phrase “A Winner is You!” to this day which is a testament to the popularity of this 1987 8-Bit gem.

I got this game as a surprise from my dad who picked it up at a local yard sale.  I was watching Saturday morning cartoons when dad came into the house through the front door and said “here” and handed me his cart only pickup.  I was immediately hooked although I was disappointed that the game starred only fictitious wrestlers as opposed to the licensed WWF/WCW guys that I enjoyed weekly.

The premise of this game is simple; win every match against increasingly difficult opponents until you face the VWA champion King Slender.  Once you win the title you must mount ten successful title defenses before wrestling for the VFW champion Great Puma to unify the two titles and win the game.  Honestly, I’ve never made it that far.

PUNCH-OUT!!!

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One of my childhood friend’s lived next door to an adult Nintendo player that would routinely lend us his games.  That is how I first encountered Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and I was hooked from the moment we successfully managed to get the dirty cartridge to work by blowing in it.  Hilarious stereotypes, giant sprites, addicting game play, tense music that filled the player with a sense of anticipation; this game had it all.

For months I raved about this game until my mom agreed to let me buy it with some money I had been saving in the autumn of 1991.  I still recall her taking me to the local Toys R Us and helping me pick it out as the clerk commented that it was a great choice.  Unfortunately, by that time the Mike Tyson version was out of production and replaced by the version featuring Mr. Dream.  Through the end of 1991 and into 1992 I played this game near nightly and often would even ask my mom to wake me up early so I could play it before school.

Although most would consider this a sports title, it actually plays more like a puzzle game.  Each bout focuses on uncovering a weakness in your opponent and exploiting it in addition to recognizing patterns and cues that tip the player off.  Punch-Out also requires incredible timing and precision with button presses which are the ultimate test of dexterity for the player.  In fact, this game requires such quick reflexes that it’s nearly impossible to play on a modern TV because of the screen lag.  Without a CRT television Mr. Dream/Mike Tyson may as well be unbeatable.

I finally conquered this game in the summer of 1994 which was a major feather in my gaming cap.  To this day I routinely pop this in my toaster oven NES and plug in the code 007 373 5963 just to prove to myself that I can still topple the most infamous boss in gaming history.  I have recorded a lot of footage of myself playing and beating this game over the last 4 years since establishing this website and have been planning to write a feature on it since the beginning.  Sadly I feel like I can’t dedicate enough time to the piece to do this game justice.  Needless to say, this game is a classic and one of my all time favorites.

RAMPAGE

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I was given this game as a gift although I don’t recall the circumstances surrounding it.  What I do remember is adoring the simple game play.  Take control of either a giant lizard named Lizzie or an Ape named George and terrorize denizens of major metropolitan cities by leveling every building on screen.  After the screen has been cleared move on to the next level, of which there are 128.  Destroy every major city in the US and Canada and you win the game.  In grade school I used to enjoy geography and day dreaming about visiting different cities and exciting locales around the globe.  Now I just drive back and forth to work and don’t like to leave the house on my days off.  Adulthood does that to you I suppose.  I don’t have a lot to say about this simple game other than that I enjoyed it.

SPIDER-MAN: RETURN OF THE SINISTER SIX

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At some point during the summer of ’93 I went to a friend’s house who was renting Spider-Man vs The Kingpin for the Sega Genesis.  Not only was I impressed with the game, but this was my first encounter with Spider-Man and I was instantly intrigued with the character.  The web slinging, the ability to scale walls and cling to ceilings, the cool looking costume, and just the general attitude of Peter Parker made me an instant fan.  Having just received a Sega Genesis for Christmas ’92 I was needing additional games for the console and decided I’d use some of the money I had been saving for Spider-Man on the Sega Genesis.

Mom took me to Toys R Us on a Friday afternoon to purchase the game but it wasn’t in stock.  With cash in hand and badly wanting a new game to play, I stupidly squandered my money on Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six for the NES thinking that it would provided a similar experience.  What I didn’t realize is that Spider-Man for the Sega Genesis was a console exclusive and that the NES game had an entirely different plot and developer, and was published by the notorious LJN.

Needless to say I was instantly disappointed with this game, but since I spent my hard earned money on it I tried to make the most of things.  Grinding through five poorly designed levels, the furthest I ever made it in the game was to the Hobgoblin’s stage.  Spider-Man only has 1 life and one continue with no health power ups.  On top of that, the fundamental concepts of the Spider-Man character are poorly executed with web swinging nearly impossible to pull off, web firing limited to a few shots upon picking up a pulsating piece of gum, and ceiling clinging non-existent.  This game was a major dud.

SUPER MARIO BROS. / DUCK HUNT

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The most common NES cartridge on the market, Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt came bundled with my NES Action Set.  This cartridge is what made Nintendo a household name.  I’ll spare you the game descriptions as I’m sure everyone reading this article is quite familiar with these titles and instead focus on some anecdotes.

My dad was at work when I received the NES and I remember my mom having horrible difficulty trying to connect it to our console TV.  Honestly, it was a simple process and the NES came bundled with an instruction manual that contained not only clear and concise instructions on how to connect the “control deck” to the TV, but was very well illustrated. All she had to do was connect the RF adapter to the 75 ohm to 300 ohm transformer and we were in business.  Now I’m assuming that our rabbit ears antenna was throwing a wrench in the works for her, which Nintendo still accounts for.  Simply connect the included 300 ohm to 75 ohm transformer to the opposite end of the RF adapter and connect your antenna.  Granted I’m better informed than most with this stuff and I’m breaking down a scenario that happened 29 years ago so I do have the advantage of some time and wisdom on my side.

Eventually our neighbor came over and helped connect the NES but we then encountered a different issue: the water in level 2-2 was purple.  Initially my mom assumed that there was some issue with the NES or the cartridge, but the following day she discovered through some tinkering that the tint settings on our TV were just screwed up.  A quick turn of the dial and I never had purple water again.

On a side note I urge everyone to read a copy of the Super Mario Bros. instruction manual at some point.  King Koopa transformed the peace loving subjects of the mushroom kingdom into various objects such as horsehair plants and blocks through black magic.  This means that every time Mario smashes through bricks he is murdering a mushroom kingdom subject.  The NES had some awesome back stories for its seemingly simple games.

SUPER MARIO BROS. 2

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During the Christmas season of 1990 I asked Santa Claus for both Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3.  Since Nintendo games were expensive, “Santa Claus” didn’t have the capacity to provide both for me on a single holiday.  My dad, eager for me to lose my cool, took the first opportunity to notify Santa of my bad behavior and absolve him of the responsibility of gifting both titles.  I still recall watching my dad pick up the yellow rotary phone that hung from our kitchen wall and call Claus advising him “not to bring one of the Mario games” that year.  I was devastated.

Since Super Mario Bros. 3 was a newer release, it was difficult to obtain and was still being sold for full retail price.  Therefore, for Christmas 1990 the Mario game I received was Super Mario Bros. 2.  I still recall dad instantly tossing the box in the Christmas garbage bag despite my better judgement.  Millions of other game boxes suffered the same fate as mine.

That said, Mario 2 was an excellent game that has provided me with countless memories over the years.  I remember my neighbor coming to our house and telling me that the door on the ledge in level 1-2 took you to Brooklyn.  Such fabrications were prevalent on the playgrounds of America back then.  Super Mario Bros. 2 also holds the distinction of being the first Mario game I beat (albeit with using warps).  The ending still chokes me up to this day.

SUPER MARIO BROS. 3

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Perhaps Mario’s greatest adventure, Super Mario Bros. 3 stormed onto the NES in early 1990 and the ripple effect was immediate.  If the world was gripped in “Mario Madness” when Super Mario Bros. 2 was released, then Super Mario Bros. 3 would have to be classified as Mariomania, as we all know that Mania is superior to madness.  This is a lesson I learned from the World Wrestling Federation as Hulkamania > Macho Madness.  I believe this is called the Hulk-thagorean Theorem.

Although the previous two games are classics in their own right, Super Mario Bros. 3 took everything that was great about the Mario formula and not only improved it but expanded upon it with amazing new features and concepts.  It would have been easy for Nintendo to simply push out another Mario game using older technology while adding new levels and make a fast buck.  Instead Nintendo built this game from the ground up and completely re-tooled the format of the game allowing for more creativity and a more immersive experience.

What does that mean?  New power ups joined old favorites which allowed Mario not only to take additional damage or throw fireballs, but now he could fly, swim like a frog, toss hammers, and turn to stone.  Instead of limiting each world to 3 or 4 stages, Nintendo introduced the map system with branching paths and themed worlds that took Mario away from the simple structure of overworld/underworld/water/castle and tossed Mario into grasslands, desserts, oceans, tundras, and even a land of giants.

I was gifted this game for my birthday in 1991 and if I recall correctly my mom paid a pretty penny for it.  Somewhere in the range of $70 I believe which is not only a tidy sum today, but when adjusted for inflation it shows how expensive NES gaming was at the time.  One thing I can say has improved in the gaming industry is that prices have fallen dramatically due to competition and better manufacturing methods.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE ARCADE GAME

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Like most children my age I was a huge fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon.  When the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game made its way to the NES I was very excited about the prospect of two of my favorite passions coming together.  Instead I was immensely disillusioned by the game and although I logged several hours playing it over at different friend’s houses, I really didn’t have any interest in owning it.  Unfortunately it would seem that the TMNT franchise would be relegated to cop out cash grab games like so many other licensed franchises.

Then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game was released and changed all of that.  Rather than expanding upon the format of the first game, Konami ported their immensely popular and extremely well done arcade title to the NES and expanded on it.  No more unpleasant beeping noises at low health, massive slowdown, or constantly flickering sprites.  Instead players got what they wanted from a Ninja Turtles game from the start; non-stop Foot Clan bashing action.

TMNT II had great graphics with large sprites and detailed environments.  The music was catchy, the game play was addictive, and unlike the first game which seemed to be based more around the comic than the cartoon show, TMNT II referenced the cartoon throughout.  Although the graphics and sound weren’t up to snuff with the actual arcade cabinet, Konami adjusted the difficulty, lengthened the levels, and added new stages to make this a worthy purchase.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III: THE MANHATTAN PROJECT

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Turtles III is essentially a continuation of TMNT II with some altered graphics and different levels.  Although it’s technically a superior game to its predecessor, I still hold the second game in higher regard.  Having said that, Turtles III is still an excellent game and adds enough to the beat ’em up formula to keep things from getting stale.

The premise in this one is that Shredder has once again kidnapped April O’Neil while also turning Manhattan into a floating island.  The turtles are on vacation in Key West when this happens and have to fight their way back to New York to challenge their old foe.  This gives the game some nice variety as we begin on a beach in Florida, move on to a surf board stage, board a ship, and eventually make it to Manhattan, the sewers, the subway, and the Technodrome.

Konami has added some special moves to the Turtles arsenal and included a lot of bosses from the TV show which excited me as a kid.  However I always considered the Turtles and the foot soldiers to look a tad “off” in this game.  I can’t put my finger on it other than that I just didn’t feel they looked quite right.  Still the graphics are top notch and there are some impressive effects in this game as it is a later NES release.  I got this for my birthday in 1992 and it was the last NES game I’d add to my collection prior to getting a Sega Genesis.  I should’ve probably stopped here and went out on a high note rather than buying that awful Spider-Man game or that needless Bases Loaded game.

CONCLUSION

There you have it.  That was my complete NES collection; a total of 19 different cartridges.  Overall I’d say the quantity of games I had was probably a little more than most, although the quality wasn’t as high as it could have been.  Although I did have some heavy hitters in the form of the Super Mario Bros. trilogy, and the two best TMNT games on the system, I did not own a single Castlevania, Zelda, or Mega Man title.  I also had a fair number of duds like Karate Champ, Fester’s Quest, and Ikari Warriors, and a large number of mediocre games like The Karate Kid, Jaws, and Cobra Command.

Fortunately I began buying NES games again rather early.  Originally I picked up 10-Yard Fight in 1998 from a K-Mart store near me that was selling old NES cartridges wrapped in cellophane for some reason.  The next year I would begin buying games on eBay which began with WWF WrestleMania and Back to the Future.  Why I continued buying older NES games after coming out of the gate with titles like those is beyond me.  Luckily things would improve drastically as I purchased The Legend of Zelda from a kid at school and The Adventure of Link on eBay in the late spring of 1999.  Although my interest would wax and wane over the years I’ve more or less continued to add to my NES collection ever since.

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