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Metroid Prime

Metroid Prime should not have worked. When the game was first announced to use the first person perspective it would be an understatement to say that many expected the worst. It also didn’t help that its developer, Retro Studios, had undergone turmoil within the company leading to Nintendo having to step in and create order from the chaos. The series was known for its tight focus on platforming in desolate environments and to that point the first person shooters that tried (Turok) were dreadful. When the game was first demoed at E3 2002 it seemed as though everyone’s fears would come to fruition as the game was a janky mess.

But then a strange thing happened. In the time until its release that November the game came together in a way that is truly rare in this industry. What many failed to realize is that the pieces were there, they just weren’t assembled into a cohesive whole by the time of E3. Not only would Retro Studios create one of the definitive first person action games of its time but they would also establish themselves as a top tier developer. Metroid Prime brought the series back in style after its eight year hiatus and is nearly as great as Super Metroid. That’s high praise and I mean it.

Taking place between the original and the Return of Samus the story sees Samus intercepting a distress signal from a space pirate frigate under. The frigate is destroyed by her arch nemesis Ridley and it crash lands on the planet Tallon IV with Samus in hot pursuit. You could almost look at this as a prequel despite its place within the timeline considering how backstory the game gives about the Metroid universe itself and that’s part of why I like it so much.

Uncharacteristically for the series Metroid Prime is pretty story heavy. To many this would be a detriment as the series prides itself on its sense of isolation and silent storytelling. However just how much you would like to delve into the deeper plot is completely left in your hands. Using the new scan visor nearly everything in the environment can be scanned to provide background information. Every enemy and object is illuminated with history and data that can even reveal weaknesses. There are extensive space pirate logs that detail their behind the scenes machinations such as their attempts to mine the planet and also keeping track of your progress. Personally my favorite are the Chozo Lore carvings that reveal much of the history of the universe and even Samus herself. Aside from scanning specific background elements to activate elevators and open doors you don’t need to engage with any of this which satisfies both the camps that like being left to their own devices and those that like story.

The one thing that needs to be clear: this is not a first person shooter. Despite its viewpoint this is not intended to be twitch based action game nor should it be. Combat is merely a means to an end with adventure being the prime (heh) focus. The controls are adequate to the task but not to the standard of regular first person action games. The majority of the time you’ll simply lock on to a target and blast away and strafe if need be. Free look and aiming is only available by holding the shoulder button although you won’t need it much. I know dual analog is the default setup for first person games but I can’t stress enough that it isn’t necessary here.

That being said however the action does pick up once the space pirates themselves begin to appear more frequently. The indigenous lifeforms of Tallon IV possess their own quirks but very few are aggressive and dangerous as the pirates in all their forms. Aside from possessing at times variations of your own weapons they can inflict the necessary damage to pose a threat. But these pale in comparison to the many fantastic bosses spread across the planet. These battles are multi-stage affairs that will call on all of your current capabilities to win and become more elaborate the deeper you progress. These boss fights rank as some of the best in the series history.

With a functional combat system the focus is squarely on exploration and it is here that the game truly excels. The majority of the upgrades introduced in Super Metroid have brought over and work extremely well. The various beam weapons can be switched around using the C-stick, a feature the game calls on frequently. The morph ball is the only time the game will switch to a third person view which is a smart decision.

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Possibly the greatest addition to the game are the various visors. Aside from the scan visor you start with throughout the course of the game you’ll receive two additional visors that change your perception of the world. Aside from looking visually their uses in game are completely original. The thermal visor can track heat sources and enable navigation within dark environments. The X-Ray visor can see through objects as well as track invisible enemies. I can’t stress enough how cool they effects are and the way they are integrated into the game is genius.

The way all of the various suit upgrades are integrated into the game goes hand in hand with the expert class world design. Every individual room is specifically named which makes navigation easier. But the true star has to be the 3d map. Traversal around the huge world of Tallon IV is made easier by an increasing number of elevators and shortcuts that become available with every suit upgrade. There is some guidance provided as the game will note one or more locations that you should visit but leaves actually reaching that spot in your hands. Plus it can be turned off if you are that much of a purist. There are environment based puzzles everywhere that make use of one or more of your suit upgrades to figure something out. There are enough subtle hints to guide you with your every action being constantly rewarded. Missile and energy tank upgrades are hidden within the environments extremely and using the various visors in even the smallest rooms will usually yield something. Honestly I’m running out of words to praise the game with as it just screams of a top tier production in every facet.

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Speaking of which, wow. The art direction in Metroid Prime is some of the greatest I’ve seen in any title even to this day. Every single room has been individually crafted with no repetition of assets outside of shared look to each zone. The individual cracks, crevices, and distant details were all modeled rather than using fancy tech to simulate the effect which makes that ridiculous attention to detail even more insane. The various areas that make up Tallon IV are distinct and diverse and sport brilliant architectural design. The snowy peaks of Phendrana Drifts are in stark contrast to the desolate Phazon Mines or the plant like overgrowth of the Chozo Ruins. The special effects used for the visors are still so incredibly cool that I wonder why no game since has copied them; the X-ray visor in particular is just incredible. All of this visual splendor is running at a perfect 60 fps that never, ever drops. These guys are god damn magicians.

That isn’t to say the game is perfect. Looking back at it now some of the low polygon environments definitely stand out. Some of the texture work is garish up close but then again that applied to most games during that period. While it may seem like there are no load times the game cleverly masks it but will occasionally break. Doors will open a little bit slower than normal or won’t allow you to pass for a few seconds despite giving you a clear view of the next room. But if this is the tradeoff for everything else I’ll gladly take it.

The soundtrack by series composer Kenji Yamamoto is just as moody as Super Metroid and I would say even more diverse. The range of instruments is greater with guitar hooks, piano, and other synthesized instruments contributing to the oppressive mood. The sound is also dynamic; when you enter a room you’ll instantly know if there are space pirates present as the music becomes frantic and you’ll hear their guttural howls. Add in a large number of environmental sounds and you have an audio package that is almost as good as the graphics.

There’s nothing more that I can say that the mountain of game of the year and best game ever awards haven’t. Metroid Prime is currently one of the highest rated video games of all time and with good reason. All of its constituent parts come together to create one of the most memorable journeys I have ever embarked on. This is not just one of the GameCube’s best titles but also one of the best video games ever made. Classic.

10-out-of-10

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The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers

When you think of the Lord of the Rings you think of an epic adventure. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone from assuming that the games that would accompany the three Peter Jackson movies would probably be action RPGs but kudos to Electronic Arts for defying expectations and creating some of the best beat em ups released in years. From the nuanced combat to its slavish devotion to the source material I wish more licensed games were built with this much attention to detail. It’s a bit ugly now but this will still provide hours of entertainment.

Although the game is named the Two Towers it follows the plot of the first two films, albeit in a condensed form. Most of the key points of the two movies are touched upon and serve as excellent source material for the levels. It should be noted that EA only had the license for the films (Vivendi had the book license) and as such were limited in what they could use. While I can appreciate them using clips from the movie as framing devices it does come across disjointed as a whole. But let’s be honest, you’re not here for the plot.

Aside from the brief introduction in which you control Isildur the primary heroes are Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. While it is slightly disappointing that the other members of the Fellowship aren’t playable they do fight by your side in most of the levels. And besides, the trio are so fully fleshed out ability wise that the game would have seemed bloated anyway. The differences between the characters are significant and unfortunately Aragorn is too well rounded. Legolas is best with a bow as he attacks faster and is equipped with 60 arrows to start. However he is physically weak and will die in a few well-placed hits. Gimli is physically the strongest but outside of maybe one level is too slow to warrant constant use.

To start with you are armed with a fast attack, a heavy attack to break shields, and a few defensive moves to parry attacks or shove enemies out of the way. Each character can also perform a ranged attack of varying speed and strength. Knowing which attack to use when surrounded or when dealing with heavily armored attackers is key to keeping your combo strings going as you are graded on your performance. Like Devil May Cry your combos are awarded ranks with the best being perfect, which allows one hit kills for a brief time. Chaining attacks together without being hit is the fastest route to perfect status which not only helps clear the screen but awards the most points at the end to buy upgrades. Defense is also absolutely critical as a result; while the screen is never as crowded as in Dynasty Warriors it does get pretty busy. The smaller crowds do avoid the repetition inherit in those games as well.

The Two Towers avoids the flaw of a limited move set inherit in most brawlers by offering a substantial upgrade system after each level. There are a variety of techniques to learn, some requiring pretty complex button combinations and while you can pull up the menu at any time it isn’t necessary. One technique in particular, Isildur’s Swift Terror and its upgraded counterpart are so overpowered you don’t need to bother with anything else. That’s just my opinion of course but the depth is more than welcome in allowing some leeway in terms of how you want to play the game.

Over the course of the twelve missions the difficulty has a relatively nice curve. The initial few are easy and almost impossible to fail but once you reach Fanhorn Forest there is a sharp increase. The level structure is constantly shifting as well. Most levels follow a linear path but usually have a set objective to break from the monotony of killing the same goblins and Uruk-hai over and over. Some will task you with killing a set number of enemies, or even something as short as beating a few dire wargs and their leader. Only the last few stages drag on far too long but that is a small complaint.

There are a host of extras included as incentive to go back and replay stages to earn a better ranking. There are numerous interview with members of the cast as well as production artwork, and brief movie clips. Unfortunately the interviews range in quality as it is obvious which members of the crew have actually ever played a videogame in their lives. The true meat of the extras would be an additional playable character and a 20 floor tower that that will really test just how well you have mastered the battle system. There are also character specific missions that unlock once the game is completed, making a game that is already packed with content that much more fulfilling.

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Back in 2002 this was a pretty good looking game, like Dynasty Warriors if it had an actual budget. EA were able to seamlessly blend film footage and real time cutscenes together that was pretty impressive for the time. Despite the high number of polygonal models during battle there is rarely any slowdown. The character models are pretty ugly however, less so on the GameCube than PS2 where overall image quality is cleaner. The environments are incredibly detailed; because the camera is fixed most of the time the artists were able to deliver maximum visual impact. The soundtrack is largely the same as the movie which means it is stirring and epic.

The Two Towers remains one of my favorite beat em ups after all these years and outside of two-player coop I can’t think of anything it is missing. A decently long quest and a wealth of extras will keep you occupied for hours in what is one of the better licensed titles out there.

8-out-of-101

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Wave Race Blue Storm

I can safely say that I’ve sunk more hours into Wave Race 64 than any other racing game outside of Super Mario Kart. I went into it with no expectations and was completely blown away. Who would have thought a sequel to a little known Game Boy title would be one of the most stunning games of that generation? So of course when Wave Race Blue Storm was announced they had my immediate attention. Although it doesn’t stray far from what made its predecessor great (it is a racing game after all) Blue Storm is a more than worthy follow-up to its legendary predecessor.

Right off the bat it is obvious the game has been significantly expanded. The roster of competitors has doubled to eight which has a major impact on the game’s championship and stunt modes. Now each character is rated in five different categories so that you can see where there strengths lie. There’s a wide spectrum in terms of performance with the likes of Ryota and Akari being perfect for beginners while Serena and David Mariner have steep learning curves in order to bring out their best.  Every character leans towards a particular stat and it has a substantial impact on the game’s handling.

There are a number of subtle additions to the controls that can affect your performance and help shave seconds off the clock or boost you to number 1. Both L & R allow you to lean and make sharper turns while B will crouch and build speed, perfect for straightaways. The Turbo you get from passing the buoys correctly can be used for a quick burst of speed as well. While you can ignore some of these mechanics on the harder difficulties they are practically essential. You can still customize the tightness of the handling and whether your jet ski will prioritize acceleration or top speed but they don’t feel as tangible as in Wave Race 64. I’ll admit that adjusting to the tightness of the controls here was difficult at first; I’ve dumped hundreds of hours into the N64 game so I think my initial reaction was always going to be biased. But once I tooled around the tracks in Free Run I began to appreciate the added nuances and can see why they are such a great fit.

There are a wealth of modes to keep anyone entertained for many hours. Championship is the game’s heart and soul and has been overhauled. With double the competitors the number of qualifying points is stricter but it also allows for some room for error. The three difficulty settings take place over the course of 5, 6, and 7 days with each day comprising one race. Rather than following a set path you can select which is to your benefit as certain tracks are a nightmare depending on the weather. This allows you to save the tougher courses for clear days that are simpler. Overall the difficulty is pretty steep as the game throws you in the deep end after the initial exhibition round. It will definitely behoove you to tool around each track in the Free Run mode to learn their intricacies. The Stunt Mode returns with a slew of new tricks to perform but is also subject to the bump in difficulty. The tutorial mode will teach you how to perform each trick but actually performing them when it counts is a true test of skill. All of these modes can also be enjoyed with up to four players this time around as well.

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The water physics are already pretty astounding but what truly adds another dimension to the game is the weather system. The five weather conditions (Cloudy with slight rain, clear skies, partly cloudy, rainy, and thunderstorm) have drastic efforts on the water levels, visibility, and even the height of the waves. Ocean City Harbor is already challenging with its tightly packed buoy placement but a rainstorm will cause huge waves that can send you crashing into walls. Rain is completely bad as it can even be beneficial; Aspen Lake has huge boulders that need to navigated around but with a rise in water they are submerged. What’s even cooler is that the system is dynamic and will change from one lap to the next. Although there are only eight tracks the weather adds a huge amount of variation and even the difficulty you select will open up new routes and such.

As much as I do like the dynamics the differing weather bring to the table it is still true that the game can feel more like an expansion pack than a true sequel. Of the eight courses Dolphin Park and Southern Island are exactly the same as their Nintendo 64 counterparts. Aspen Lake and Ocean City Harbor draw strong parallels to Drake Lake and Twilight City. The graphical facelift certainly does help to make them feel new but it is still disappointing that almost half the content feels like a rehash.

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Naturally with the move to the GameCube the graphics are amazing. The chunky character models have been completely overhauled and actually resemble human beings rather than lego blocks stitched together. There is far more track side detail and even under the water there is a vast amount of sea life that truly brings the tracks to life. There’s a greater variety in the locations you’ll visit plus the varying weather completely changes the tone as well as look of each course. The lighting and actual fog effects are still astounding to this day and the frame rate is locked at 30 with almost zero drops, even in multiplayer. Truly impressive stuff.

The game’s water is both impressive and a bit disappointing. The transparent water and perfect reflections on its surface are just…exquisite. These reflections also warp and distort in sync with the wakes the jet skis kick up which goes to show the attention to detail the designers put in. However the cool specular lighting of Wave Race 64 is gone and its absence is definitely noticeable. The clear water looks nice but also seems a bit too perfect. If you look close you’ll spot a number of low resolution textures scattered about and the riders themselves feel flat and undefined. These sacrifices were probably made to keep the frame rate so steady and in that respect they’ve succeeded.

The synth music of Wave Race 64 has given way to a more contemporary rock soundtrack that isn’t to my liking. There’s a great deal of music here but a lot of the tracks are simple remixes of the core 10-15 songs. Each character has their own announcer, no doubt thanks to the added disc space and they are all just as exuberant as the first game.

Despite being a GameCube launch title Wave Race Blue Storm still held the title as the best water based racing game of the generation. While it doesn’t reach the same height as its predecessor it is an excellent sequel and a game that is definitely worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Lost Kingdoms

These days From Software are mostly known for the Dark Souls series of games as well as an endless parade of Armored Core sequels and expansions. However before they hit the mainstream they were a diverse developer and one of their most unique efforts was Lost Kingdoms, a game centered around card battling conveniently around the time Yugioh hit America. Games that feature card based battles have typically been the province of handheld platforms, especially on mobile phones. So in this regard Lost Kingdoms was able to stand out even more aside from being the only RPG for the system at the time. Though flawed in some respects it would pave the way for similar titles such as Baiten Kaitos and Culdcept.

As the GameCube’s first RPG it is easy to have flashbacks of other first generation RPGs that were absolute crap like Beyond the Beyond, Orphen, or Virtual Hydlide. It goes without saying that RPGs released early in nearly every console cycle are usually terrible as the desire to take advantage of new technology takes precedence over tight mechanics. Luckily Lost Kingdoms bucks that trend somewhat and while it isn’t an epic along the lines of Final Fantasy it is a solid game with an interesting hook that is still compelling even today, especially since it is shorter than average for the genre.

A mysterious substance known as the black fog has begun sweeping the world, consuming everything it touches be it people, castles or even entire towns. No one knows where it came from but when it invaded the land of Argwyll King Jade ventured out to discover the source only to never return. It is now up to his daughter Princess Katia to follow in his footsteps and continue his quest.

It’s a generic premise and unfortunately the story takes a back seat to collecting cards and only serves as window dressing to send you to the next area. The cast of characters can be counted on one hand and there is no character development to speak of. In fact there are no towns and only a few random NPCs to converse with. That leaves the gameplay to do the heavy lifting and at that it succeeds although I say that with a few caveats.

In the world of Lost Kingdoms cards are everything. Princess Katia does not equip weapons or armor or use items; in fact none of those exist in the game. Cards are your only means of offense and as you progress you’ll add more to your deck. In total there are about 100 cards to collect with demons of every elemental alignment filling the ranks. The cards have a variety of effects, with some summoning independent creatures that fight by your side until destroyed or appearing for a single attack. The cards used during battle gain experience that can be used to either make copies or evolve them into stronger creations; the Princess’s stats increase at set points in the game.

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It goes without saying that deck building is the most crucial element of the game. You can build a deck of thirty cards to bring into every dungeon and it is imperative to know the quirks of each individual card such as their attack, range, and alignment before tossing them in your hand. A random selection of four cards are selected from your hand with new ones shuffled in as they are spent. Having a balanced assortment is important due to a few factors: Katia cannot attack on her own so if you have used up all cards in your deck there is no choice but to return to the world map and start over again. Nearly every dungeon has a deck point where you can add cards to your active deck as well as fairies that can randomly refresh one card but it’s almost guaranteed that your first time in every dungeon you’ll need to start over. Regardless of the fact that all chests opened stay that way it sucks to have to replay the same dungeon twice no matter how much faster it is the second time around.

It also inhibits the game in other ways. Because your deck size is so limited the dungeons are incredibly short with only a few rudimentary puzzles to break the monotony. The encounter rate is actually managed fairly well however due to the random deck shuffling it is possible to blow through a number of cards in one battle. Trust me reaching a boss only to realize you have 3 cards left is not a good feeling. Despite these misgivings the game is actually incredibly short with most probably seeing the end credits after 8 hours. There is a multiplayer mode that is actually surprising fun but it still isn’t enough to make up for the lacking core game.

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Lost Kingdoms has a clean visual presentation and is darker in tone than most GameCube titles. Most of the design work clearly went into the creature models as the game’s artwork and monster design are generally excellent. However the models are blocky and the frame rate takes a massive hit when 4 enemies are on screen. The environments are drab unfortunately and uninteresting; you can only see the same graveyards, castles and dirt textures so many times before getting sick of it. There isn’t too much music in the game and it limps along in the background, leaving the sound effects to carry the load. More could have been done sonically.

There are aspects of Lost Kingdoms that I like but overall I found it only above average. Its features however would form a solid base for its much improved sequel.

6-out-of-10-1

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Mario Kart Double Dash

Mario Kart Double Dash is often looked on as the black sheep of the series as it introduced many new elements that were not fully embraced by the fans.  Let’s face it, innovating within the kart racing genre (or racing games in general) is damn near impossible as their mechanics are pretty well set.  Which is why it isn’t needed so long as the core mechanics are well done, which in the case of Double Dash fully applies.  Mario Kart Double Dash is an excellent racing game and one that is still fun even in light of superior games in the series.

The roster of characters has significantly expanded from 8 to 20 with plenty of new faces to the series.  Baby Mario and Luigi, Diddy Kong, Wario and Waluigi, Bowser Jr, Birdo, Daisy, and Toadette join the cast.  As big as the Mario universe is it seems kind of stupid that they would simply resort to chibi versions of the main cast to expand the playable roster.  Unfortunately many of these additions seem redundant although they do tie in with the game’s big new feature that of tag team kart racing.

The big new feature presented in DD are two man teams for every kart.  Players choose two characters, one for driving and one for using items that can be switched off at any time.  Depending on the pairing of characters you’ll have access to three different karts rated in three categories: speed, acceleration, and weight.  It’s isn’t as deep as you would expect as they generally fall into three groups; high top speed but low acceleration (heavy kart), fast acceleration but middling speed (light kart) and your typical average racer.  There’s no bonus from trying to match up Donkey Kong with Baby Mario for instance or other similar matchups which would have been cool.

The real interesting perk of character choice comes in item usage.  The list of items has nearly tripled since there character specific power-ups for everyone on the roster.  The Mario Brothers pick up a row of fireballs that bounce along the length of the track while Bowser has a gigantic turtle shell that is hard to avoid.  It’s fun to mix and match characters based on what items you’ll potentially have access to.  It also prompts you to take advantage of switching positions since both characters can hold one item but only the one riding Dutch can pick them up.

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The track design is both interesting and more of the same.  There’s a nice mix of longer and shorter tracks that experiment with the number of laps.  A track such as Baby Park is a simple circle that lasts all of 30 seconds but is 7 laps long with a heavy emphasis on weapon usage to earn your position.  Mushroom City is reminiscent of Toad’s Turnpike except fully realized, with more traffic and multiple pathways to the exit.  But for every one of these there is a Dry Dry Desert that feels far too plain and more like rehash than something new.  There’s nothing inherently wrong that of course, but it swings from some wild extremes. All of the Special Cup tracks are excellent and will require plenty of practice before you’ll earn that gold cup.

The intolerable rubberband AI from Mario Kart 64 has been toned down significantly, if not outright removed.  That was the one element that ruined the single player mode of that game and now it’s satisfying to gain the lead and actually keep it using skill.  You’ll still have to deal with the fact that items weigh in favor of the ones in the lowest positions but I’ll gladly take that over artificial bullshit.  The improved handling also helps make the campaign more enjoyable.  The power slide is more integral to winning on the higher classes and the game does a good job of easing you into its use.

Battle mode has been the series biggest draw suffers from the same highs and lows as the single player.  Here the wealth of new items truly begins to shine with a few creative game modes like Bob Bomb Blast but the game is slowed down considerably to accommodate the smaller arenas.  Which is also the other let down, the arenas are completely lacking in exciting design and are mostly relegated to generic square boxes.  They could have done more with the system’s power to create some elaborate battlegrounds that could have added a strategic element.

In light of the insane amount of unlockables Super Smash Bros. Melee was packed with this installment of Mario Kart feels lacking in comparison.  After you’ve earned gold in the first three cups you’ll unlock the Special Cup, which houses four of the most difficult courses in the game.  Beyond that there are a few karts, characters, and battle mode tracks to earn.  Beyond 150cc class is Mirror Mode, which reverses the course layouts.  I’ve never been too big on mirrored tracks in racing games but will admit that for certain games it really does feel like a new set of tracks.  The most extensive end game addition is the All-Cup Tour.  This puts you in one long grand prix featuring all 16 tracks in the game, with all but the first and last tracks randomized.

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The blurry textures and ugly rendered character sprites of Mario kart 64 have given way to a vibrant full 3d world that is absolutely beautiful to see in motion.  There’s a level of bustle and activity to each course that is pretty exciting to watch and at the time of its release there were no other games that could match its vivid color palette and sense of design.  It also ran at a perfect 60 frames per second in both single player and four player split screen mode, a technical feat to be sure.  There were some sacrifices made to achieve that level of performance; if you look closely you can see some average texture work and low poly count buildings and objects.  However when it all comes together those elements are easy to ignore.

The soundtrack is full of bright and cheery midi tunes that are adequate but not all that memorable.  It’s doubly disappointing considering Mario Kart 64 had numerous tracks that are all time favorites, and that was a cartridge game.  The one area of the game’s overall aural package that is annoying are the character voices, especially the baby characters.  It’s obvious they were going for cute but veered off into the irritating zone somewhere along the way.  At least there isn’t that much of it.

While most of its additions fall short of being worthwhile the fundamentals of Mario Kart Double Dash are still sound and make for a great kart racer.  There are some missed opportunities here and there, especially in regards to multiplayer as LAN support is no substitute for full online play but what can you do?

8-out-of-101

 

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Eternal Darkness

Eternal Darkness was a long time in coming, having started life on the Nintendo 64 before moving to the GameCube sometime before its release.  As one of the N64’s last games it had a large amount of hype behind it; there were very few if any adventure games half as ambitious that were even attempted for the platform and as the previews mounted it became obvious it would be something special.  The decision to move it to the GameCube wasn’t a popular one at first but the subsequent upgrade in graphics and gameplay quieted the storm.  Unfortunately ED did not land with the impact it should have but it remains a quality adventure to this day with some unique gameplay points that have not been replicated since.

The plot of Eternal Darkness will eventually take players on a ride through numerous periods in history with over a dozen characters as players unravel the mystery of the three Elder Gods battling for supremacy with humanity caught in the middle.  The plot is centered on Alexandra Roivas, who has just inherited her grandfather’s mansion after he is brutally murdered.  With little help from the police Alexandra explores the mansion for clues to his death and instead discovers his research into the Tome of Eternal Darkness and takes up the fight in his stead.

The story covers one of the largest spans of time, dating as far back as 26 BC.  Although Alexandra is the central figure for the most part she merely serves as a bridge between the various characters you’ll play as.  From a Roman centurion to an Italian architect and even an archaeologist and firefighter in near modern times the well-crafted story manages to bring together all of these disparate character’s exploits together beautifully as each has a role to play in the game’s eventual outcome.  Although you’ll only spend a brief time with them you’ll become invested in their eventual fate; not every story has a happy ending but it all serves the greater good.

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13 characters with their own play mechanics could easily have been a large clusterfuck but they all have a solid base to start from.  The controls are solid, none of that tank style movement so prevalent in the genre.  All characters can target individual body parts of enemies which is an effective way to prevent damage.  This is one of the most crucial skills to master in the game and is mandatory for progress.  Taking off an enemy’s head will render them a non-threat since they’ll flail about helpless and might even attack their comrades.  Most of the basic fodder will be encountered in groups and this tactic will alleviate some of the stress.  Disarming larger enemies such as Horrors will make your life easier as they have a long reach.  Some have specific weak points that must be targeted and with one particular character’s ability to perform autopsies you can do so easily.  The targeting isn’t perfect unfortunately; as the targets move around it becomes harder to focus on the same point as it jumps around relative to their position which is realistic but is frustrating to deal with.

There’s a large assortment of weapons available, possibly one of the biggest collections assembled to that point.  All armaments are true to their respective era meaning you’ll wield numerous swords, blades, and guns and adapt to their individual quirks.  Maximillian’s flint lock pistol can only fire one shot before reloading which is a laborious process.  Ellia’s blowgun poisons enemies which forces you to dodge their advances while it takes effect.  The size of the weapons will also affect the player in numerous ways.  A smaller characters such as Anthony will move and swing slower while wielding a two hand sword for instance.  You’ll have to pay attention to the environment when in combat as walls can obstruct your swings.  There are occasional collision issues where attacks that clearly connected will not register and a bigger issue, they’ll fall to the ground and clip the background making it impossible to finish them off and restore sanity.

The magic system might seem complex at first but is simple in practice.  Spells are learned from scrolls and can be cast in a 3, 5, or 7 point array, increasing its power.  In addition each spell can be cast in one of three alignments, Red (Chatturga), Blue (Mantorok), or Green (Xel’lotath).  There’s a rock, paper, scissors style system in place as to which colors are weak or strong against the other, a fact you’ll have to take advantage at numerous points.  The spells run the gamut from enchanting items to self-defense and healing and most importantly once a spell is learned every following protagonist has access to it.  Magic is a bit game breaking as it refills over time, meaning there is no penalty for staying put and letting it recharge in order to refill health and sanity.

Perhaps Eternal Darkness’s most famous aspect is its sanity system.  As you encounter the various demonic denizens in each chapter your sanity will decrease when spotted.  The amount varies depending on the hero; someone like Pious Augustus who is a battle hardened veteran will lose very little as he is fearless.  Ellia and Paul Luther have very short sanity bars and will succumb to madness quicker.  By finishing off downed enemies you can restore sanity or use magic.  There are repercussions for letting it drop such as increased damage from enemies and health dropping.

Eventually despite your best efforts that meter will deplete and at that point you’ll start to lose your mind, literally.  There are somewhere around 50 effects, some so subtle you won’t notice it.  Sometimes blood will drip from the ceiling, others a bug will land on your screen (I guarantee you’ll think it’s real!).  The more unnerving are the chants or random door banging.  It gets more manic than that however; the most extreme effects will cause you to explode when casting spells or disregard all player control.  It’s all in fun as you’ll be taken back to the last room you’ve entered in the most extreme circumstances.  I’m purposely not going into detail as its better to experience them yourself.

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At its release Eternal Darkness was a pretty game but the years have only highlighted its flaws.  The character models still show their N64 roots at times with low poly counts and blurry textures.  The animation is excellent with all characters switching it up depending on the weapon equipped and level of health.  The frame rate never drops even in the most hectic situations with as many as 7 or eight zombies bum rushing you.  The indoor environments fare better with incredible lighting and shadow effects complementing the intricate architecture.  There’s some light bump mapping used to make the smaller background details pop, giving the game a stronger look than you would at first expect.  It’s apparent some levels had more work done to bring them up to par than others; whether that was a conscious decision or time constraint we’ll never know.

The sound design is all around excellent with a sweeping score that is both haunting and melodic.  The sound effects  such as banging doors, footsteps, and demons wailing will have you on edge at all times, especially once your sanity dips below the halfway mark.  The voice acting is especially strong overall with no weak performances to speak of.  There is some repetitive dialogue that is shared between protagonists; most notably the nervous chatter of insanity but it doesn’t mar the strong sound design at all.

Eternal Darkness will last somewhere around 20 hours for first time gamers and with its unique gameplay and excellent story is one of the best action/adventure games of that era that has held up to this day.  You can find copies of Eternal Darkness dirt cheap so there’s no reason not to experience one of the most unique gaming experiences to date.

8-out-of-101

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Luigi’s Mansion

It’s hard to believe that it took nearly 20 years for Luigi to finally get the starring role in his own game (I’m well aware Mario is Missing exists but if you consider that a game I have a copy of Captain Novolin to sell you).  For the entirety of his existence Luigi had been overshadowed by Mario but with Luigi’s Mansion Nintendo used the opportunity to define his character and show that he is a unique character in his own right.  While you would expect the game to be a platformer it is instead the Ghostbusters game we’d always dreamed of (to an extent).

The crazy plot sees Luigi winning a mansion in a contest.  Oddly enough he had never entered the contest in the first place so agrees to inspect the place with Mario.  Unfortunately Mario is kidnapped by ghosts before Luigi arrives, leaving the cowardly member of the duo to save his bro.  With the assistance of Professor E. Gadd and his Poltergust 3000 Luigi plans to save Mario and rid the haunted mansion of its ghostly inhabitants.

As an action adventure game Luigi’s Mansion is armed with a raft of play mechanics.  The primary pair are the Vacuum sucking Poltergust 3000 and the Flashlight.  Throughout the adventure there are tons of ghosts that first need to have light shed on them to expose their heart, leaving them vulnerable to the vacuum’s gust.  Once you’ve begun the process of trying to reel them in it becomes a frantic battle to trap the bastards as they fight tooth and nail to get away.  The entire process calls to mind the best episodes of Ghostbusters and it’s everything you can possibly imagine and more.

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More mechanics are introduced as the game progresses and the game does an excellent job easing you into their uses.  The Game boy Horror serves as a map and in game hint guide; should examining objects prove futile taking a picture will provide further clues. Later in the game the vacuum can gain elemental properties of fire, water, and ice, which increases the number of ways to capture ghosts.  The dual analog setup takes some getting used to but comes in handy when dealing with faster ghosts but for those who can’t wrap their heads around it isn’t mandatory.

Obviously the ghosts are aware of their weakness and so will hide in everyday appliances, forcing you to flush them out.  Each room of the mansion is dark until you’ve cleared the ghosts restoring light and protecting them from further manifestations (at least initially.)  The mansion is divided into 4 Areas and a basement, with access to each blocked off until you’ve met certain conditions.

While there are a ton of standard ghosts to learn the ropes on it’s the 21 Portrait Ghosts that truly bring out the game’s best elements.  These apparitions are more savvy than the typical fodder you deal with and require more meticulous methods to defeat.  It isn’t immediately obvious what needs to be done to get their attention, and their complete lack of interest in your presence certainly doesn’t help.  Snapping a picture with the Game boy Horror will give a slight hint at times but you’ll need to observe your surroundings to parse out their weakness.

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One of the first examples would be Lydia, the mother ghost.  While she is oblivious to your presence as she constantly combs her hair the more observant will notice that the window is open.  Pulling back the curtains will let in a draft that will interrupt her.  As she gets up to close them her heart is vulnerable.  There’s a nice ramp up in terms of steps necessary to bag each one.  Mr. Luggs (an optional ghost) is another example.  Normally invisible, lighting the candles at his dinner table makes him corporeal.  If you suck in his dinner completely as well as the servants that attempt to bring him a replacement he will become furious and attack.  Waiting it out will exhaust him and expose his heart.  There’s a high degree of creativity poured into each one of these signature encounters, sometimes more than 2 or 3 games combined.

This makes it all the more frustrating that there aren’t more of them!  In between these fresh battles the game becomes incredibly formulaic since each room can be boiled down to the same 3 or 4 steps.  Outside of the boss battles at the end of each area there’s very little challenge or sense of danger, meaning you’ll blow through the game pretty quickly.

That highlights Luigi’s Mansion’s biggest problem: its length.  Even a novice gamer should be able to complete the game in 5 hours or so, which is a decent length in most cases but not here. This is the type of game that has zero replay value; once you’ve captured all of the ghosts the mystery is gone on successive play through.  There are 50 optional boos you can go back and capture if you so choose but aside from the initial thrill of tracking them through previously cleared rooms isn’t as rewarding.  You are awarded a score based on the amount of cash you’ve acquired throughout the game which unlocks the hidden mansion, which is the same mansion with parameters changed, such as mirrored rooms, alternate locations, and faster antagonists, but once again, it’s still the same content you’ve already seen before.

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Before it blossomed into a full game Luigi’s Mansion was a tech demo used to demonstrate the GameCube’s advanced functions, a task that it does beautifully.  The lighting and shadowing effects in particular were beyond the vast majority of games to that point and are still impressive today.  Waving the flashlight around illuminates and casts shadows on nearly every surface in a realistic manner.  The cloth physics employed when using the vacuum are eerily realistic as well.

The character models exhibit a wide range of expressions, especially Luigi.  His fear is instantly palpable when a ghost sneaks up behind him and his nervousness is portrayed perfectly in his shaky knees and worrisome expression.  The ghosts themselves look almost as though they were plucked from a cartoon; this is expert art direction at its finest.

The sound design has its highs and lows.  The music is a bit Spartan, with very few tracks that tend to repeat frequently.  At the very least they are catchy.  It’s in the moments with no music that are fantastic.  Luigi is a coward so he’ll nervously whistle the game’s theme song to try to calm his nerves or hurriedly call for Mario when terrified.  the sound effects from the ghosts are pretty hilarious as well, lending to the game’s cartoon like atmosphere.

It might have been a bit unfair to look at Luigi’s Mansion as the GameCube equivalent of Super Mario 64 at release but in the end it manages to stand on its own two feet.  Had the game been longer it would truly have been excellent, but will have to settle as a solid foundation for its upcoming sequel.

7-out-of-10-1

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Star Fox Assault

This should have been a match made in heaven.  When Nintendo and Namco announced a joint collaboration to create the next Star Fox in the summer of 2002 heads turned.  With the Ace Combat team at the helm along with Shigeru Miyamoto and EAD supervising the results could only turn out legendary.  However as the years passed with little or no mention of the game elation turned to doubt.  Would the alleged development troubles affect the final product?  In the end what we would end up with is a solid entry in the Star Fox series with some misguided gameplay decisions.

With Andross defeated the Cornerian army is busy destroying the remnants of his empire which is now under the control of his nephew Oikonny.  No sooner is Oikonny dealt with than a new threat approaches, the Aparoids.  Part machine, part organic life, the Aparoids exist to convert all living matter into Aparoids like themselves and join their hive mind.  With an even bigger threat to the galaxy at hand the Star Fox team is called in to action, with Krystal replacing Peppy.

Released in early 2005 Star Fox Assault featured nearly of all the staples the series had become known for but differed in many ways.  Far more story heavy than prior entries the plot driven action means the galaxy map with multiple paths is gone.  The linear chapter progression allows the game to tell a focused plot but hurts the game’s replay value in the process.  While I can appreciate the effort to build a concerted narrative story is ultimately not what we play Star Fox for.  This is only the first in a series of gameplay decisions that ultimately harm the game; there isn’t any one critical flaw that brings the experience down but a series of smaller missteps that add up to ruin your overall enjoyment of the game.

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Those that dreamed of epic space faring battles in a decked out Arwing can rest easy as Star Fox Assault at least gets that right. The Arwing levels are everything you could possibly dream of; epic in scale, beautiful, and control like a dream.  The opening Chapter is a massive fight against the entire Oikonny fleet and is just as epic as you would expect given the GameCube hardware.  What EAD managed to pull off with the Katina level in Star Fox 64 seems like child’s play compared to this battle.  Of the game’s 10 missions about half are Arwing based with the rest comprised of ground missions.

The ace gamers who combed every inch of Star Fox 64 were able to eventually unlock on-foot combat in the game’s multi-player mode.  That makes a return in Assault except it’s given a shot in the arm for the story campaign.  As Fox you can collect a series of weapons ranging from rocket launchers and machine guns to laser pistols.  These missions usually charge you with destroying a set number of targets in an enclosed space with masses of enemies strewn about.

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The ground missions are an interesting diversion but are also boring.  Every mission plays out the same, aside from the few times you can hop in an Arwing or the Landmaster tank, usually to deal with larger enemies or bosses.  Star Fox 64 had a few missions with the tank and submarine but they were used for specific reasons and had more interesting objectives, such as destroying the supply train on Macbeth.  The ground levels comprise half of the game, with 2-3 levels taking place on a planet’s surface before stepping back into an Arwing.  This hurts the game’s pacing considerably.

The controls don’t help these missions either.  While the default scheme is serviceable it never reaches the level of intuitiveness that it should.  Fox moves a little too quick for the way the environments are designed, leading to many awkward falls and hits as a result.  Controlling the Landmaster isn’t any better.  The tank is slow as it should be but turns like a drunken walrus.  You can flip sideways which helps combat but maneuvering the cramped environs is a chore.  These control problems are exacerbated by the need to save your squad members every so often, which is stupid.  Following a jet on foot and trying to target lock speedy enemies is frustrating when you can’t even see where they are.  It should be the other way around in my opinion.

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One area that Star Fox Assault does not slack is in the graphics.  This is an insanely pretty game at times and represents everything we dreamed of after Star Fox 64.  Space combat has not looked this good since Rogue Squadron 2 & 3 with massive space armadas, tons of space debris, and explosions galore with little hit to the frame rate.  Taking a dip below the clouds and going planet side reveals a startling amount of detail in the environments and the mechanical designs of the enemies fit perfectly within the Star Fox universe.  Although the on foot segments don’t manage to keep up the same level of detail the size of the environments makes up for it.  The music does not keep pace with the graphics unfortunately, consisting of remixes of past music and the few original tracks leave something to be desired.

Without multiple paths to the end of the game the story campaign only lasts a few hours.  The game’s replay value comes in the form of a survival mode and multi-player.  Survival tasks you with completing the story mode without saving but doesn’t offer substantial rewards for doing so.  The multi-player is somehow less engaging then its N64 counterpart despite featuring the same options and even more content.  Some of the campaign levels can be unlocked for competitive play and they work seamlessly at that.  But the overall level design for multi-player is lacking.  While the few stages available in Star Fox 64 were small they were immaculately designed, small enough to force confrontation but open enough that you can skillfully evade enemy fire.  That Namco didn’t take the multi-player in a new direction or advanced it beyond a game from 1997 smacks of a missed opportunity.

In the end that’s what Star Fox Assault ultimately is: a missed opportunity.  This could very easily have been the definitive Star Fox game with a few slight tweaks.  While the graphics and scale of the game are nice the pacing and mission structure are not on the same level.  What could have been an excellent entry in the series is only a solid rail shooter in the end.

7-out-of-10-1

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Tube Slider

NEC came back to the US gaming scene initially with the weird Dreamcast game Industrial Spy: Operation Espionage in 2000, ending a 7-year publishing hiatus.  While they had disappeared after the failure of the Turbo Grafx-16 in Japan they were a prolific publisher, supporting nearly every console overseas.  With their resurgence it was thought that maybe some of their more popular franchises would come to the US, such as Black Matrix but instead we were gifted with Tube Slider, an interesting futuristic racer with interesting ideas that suffers in execution.

The similarities to F-Zero and Wipeout are there and can’t be denied.  Like both games Tube Slider takes place at an indeterminate point in the future.  All 3 games put behind the wheel of a hovercraft in a mad bid to finish first.  But Tube Slider differs in that all races take place in tube shaped courses that allow you to drive on all sides any time you want.  While F-Zero X flirted with this mechanic Tube Slider is completed based around it, for better or worse.

The tubular design is not the only unique aspect of Tube Slider however.  Prior to every race you have the option to choose between Turbo and Boost, different speed increases that have their benefits.  Turbo is a continuous boost that offers less speed but lasts as long as the meter lasts.  The other benefit is that it can be activated after a short charge time.  Boost is an instant shot of nitro that is faster but has its limitations.  You can only hold 3 charges at once and each needs to be filled before activation.

While it’s obvious that everyone will have their favorites it does pay to learn the ins and outs of each course and pick accordingly.  Longer straight tracks will favor boosting while the curvier tracks turbo clearer takes the lead.  The shorter bursts of speed are more favorable since you won’t get the full benefit of boost.  The most important mechanic of the game that is crucial to success is the ability to tailgate opponents and steal their boost, significantly increasing your own at their expense.  Mastering this mechanic can quickly change your fortunes if applied correctly, but the same can also apply to you.

That mastery will take far longer than necessary however as Tube Slider has one of the steepest learning curves of any racing games I’ve experienced.  The initial circuit is exceedingly easy, to the point you won’t need to bother with almost any of the game’s features.  Once the second class of tracks opens up the game becomes so hard you’ll wonder if you were ever playing the game “right” to begin with.  Computer racers are viciously aggressive and it seems they are always faster than you no matter what.  No matter how perfectly you manage to steal boost from the computer and manage it they will always be on your tail.  The rubber band AI is bad; not Mario Kart 64 level but still noticeable.

While the Tube tracks make for some interesting track design they do present problems of their own.  It’s exhilarating to cruise the walls to blow past the AI opponents the sudden turns and changes in elevation have a habit of completely turning you around or worse causing a near dead stop, at which point a last place finish is assured.  There are a number of track elements that don’t make sense such as rows of arrows on the walls and ceilings that give the impression of a speed boost a la most racing games.  Rather these indicate the best routes but in most cases the tracks will suddenly change and make you spin out and lose speed.

Speaking of speed, there is very little sense of it.  In F-Zero it’s immediately palpable when you’re approaching max speed.  Outside of boosting the regular pace of the game feels agonizingly slow.  It picks up slightly as you unlock more cars but it never approaches anything resembling fast.  Racing games live or die by their speed; it is a race after all and unfortunately Tube Slider has a tendency to feel like an evening stroll.

Graphically Tube Slider is uneven.  The game runs at a smooth 60 fps which is immediately noticeable.  The tracks are very interesting and well designed with a large number of themes they are based around.  Even the familiar themes such as forests and industrial zones are unique.  While the tracks are mainly confined to tubes the walls are frequently transparent or wide open to give you a view of the backgrounds which are routinely beautiful.

It is obvious where shortcuts were taken to achieve the visual splendor.  There’s a distinct lack of any advanced lighting effects and shadowing which does produce a slightly flat look.  The hovercraft, while well designed, are comprised of a minimal amount of polygons.  It’s a sacrifice that was well worth it in my opinion because at the end of the day the feel of the game is right.

At the end of the day Tube Slider is an above average game that could have used a month of tweaking to make all of its elements gel together.  Once you’ve taken your licks and gotten used to the brutal computer opponents it is a satisfying experience to win.  It’s just a matter of whether or not you have the fortitude to stick around that long.

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Ikaruga

Developer Treasure were no strangers to the shmup genre, having released what many consider to be one of the finest shooters of all time, Radiant Silvergun for the Saturn and arcade.  Sadly it never saw the light of day in the US until its recent XBLA release but even a decade of time did nothing to tarnish its sheer polish and innovation.  When news of a sequel hit everyone took notice and then came the wait for a possible home port.  And Ikaruga lived up to the hype established by its prequel in every way.

There’s some semblance of a plot but I won’t bore you with it because it has no bearing on the gameplay whatsoever.  Originally released in the arcade Ikaruga was ported to the Dreamcast and then the GameCube the following year.  The polarity switching mechanic at the core of the game had been used in Treasure’s other Saturn (and later Playstation) release, Silhouette Mirage.  However I feel it was taken to its zenith with this release, creating one of the most brilliant and most of all fun shmups of all time.

The polarity system is the life blood of Ikaruga.  At the touch of a button you can change between light and dark polarity.  The benefits of each are the same and need to be juggled to truly be effective at the game.  Bullets of the same color can be absorbed to power your homing lasers while only bullets of opposing polarity can kill you.  Naturally attacking with the opposite polarity will yield the best results against all enemies, including the bosses.  It’s a simple system in practice but is executed in game brilliantly with many rewards for the players who truly maximize its potential.

All enemies come in one form of light and dark and in multiple waves.  The key to playing Ikaruga is to min/max how long you stay in one polarity long enough to soak in bullets and make use of your homing lasers, which I should add you don’t need to be stingy in its use.  There are many environmental hazards that spew massive bursts of energy you can simply sit in and absorb, filling the weapon meter in seconds.  At times Ikaruga will delve into bullet hell shooter madness but in this case you don’t have to learn the sweet spot to stay alive, you’ll spend more time examining how long you can stay light or dark before you have to switch.

The boss battles are the ultimate litmus test as to how well you’ve mastered the game’s mechanics.  These mechanical monstrosities will nearly cause you to drop the controller at the sight of their mad bullet patterns but those with a keen eye and fast reflexes will see the path to victory.  Most bosses telegraph their next move in advance and move slow enough that you have enough time to react.  At least in the first half of the game.  God be with you in the later chapters; I pray to God you’ve mastered the game’s nuances by then.

By chaining enemy kills in one polarity in groups of 3 consecutively your score multiplier is increased and is the key to earning extra lives frequently.  The levels are set up so that once you are good enough you can possibly chain a good quarter of a stage if you are careful and smart in pacing your kills.   Seriously there are some insane videos on youtube if you want to truly see just insane it gets at times.

At 5 Chapters Ikaruga isn’t long but you sure as hell will not finish it in one sitting.  Or even a few.  The challenge is not so high that it feels impossible; in fact it’s the opposite in many ways.  Whenever you die you’ll see exactly what you did wrong and how you can improve next time.  If the game itself were no fun most would simple play something else.  But the core concept that the game is built around is so fun to play around with that you can’t help but give it another try.

The GameCube version has a number of extra modes to ease players into the game.  The Trial mode has infinite lives but only consists of the first two chapters.  There’s a slow motion tutorial mode that goes in depth on the finer points of the game’s mechanics and most of all there’s a two player coop.  Maybe it’s just me being anti social but I don’t think I could ever trust another player to be on the same page as me in this game but I would love to see a full clear video of 2 player coop.

The art direction in Ikaruga is simply unparalleled in the genre.  With most of the primary illustrations and 3d objects designed by Sin and Punishment artist Yasushi Suzuki it’s to be expected.  Despite being an overhead shooter you’ve never seen a game quite like this.  The backgrounds shift perspective multiple times and the effect is beautiful.  The mechanical designs in the game are second to none, especially the multi-jointed bosses.  While the game can be a bit drab color wise every chapter has a specific theme that breaks the monotony.  Simply put there are very few shooters that match up to Ikaruga visually.

What more needs to be said?  Hands down this is one of the best shmups ever created and anyone with even a passing interest in the genre needs to rush out and buy it as soon as possible.   The Dreamcast version was never released in the US and fetches high prices on Ebay.  The GameCube version did see a US release but isn’t too common.  However Ikaruga saw an X-Box Live Arcade release last year so now it is finally widely available to anyone interested.  This comes with one of my highest recommendations.