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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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Kung-Fu

There was something magical about every NES game released in the first year of the system’s life. For those of us that cut our teeth on the Atari 2600 and its contemporaries NES games were on a completely different level. With each new release the foundations of many of the genres we still enjoy today were being laid down. The beat ‘em up genre wouldn’t explode in popularity for a few more years with Renegade and Double Dragon’s release but Kung Fu could be considered the first and the mold that everyone would follow.

Thomas girlfriend Sylvia has been kidnapped by Mr. X and now he has to work his way through the five floors of his stronghold to save her. For such a simple game it has a bit of a history in terms of its name. In the arcade the game was known as Kung-Fu Master. In Japan Kung Fu Master is known as Spartan X and is based on the Jackie Chan movie Wheels on Meals. Since he had yet to make his American debut that story was dropped for the more generic Kung Fu title. Regardless of its name Kung-Fu is possibly the first beat em up and would inspire the legions of games to come. As an arcade port the NES version is a faithful recreation of Irem’s classic and the best of all the 8-bit conversions which shouldn’t come as a surprise as Nintendo did the honors themselves.

Of course I wasn’t aware of any of this history when I played the home port in 1986.  Although simple by today’s standards Kung Fu was among that early batch of game’s that shaped my gaming skills into what they are today. The proper usage of specific attacks, enemy patterns and prioritization, and a steady ramp in difficulty, these were the hallmarks of a well-designed game. While I wouldn’t recommend it today as the genre has evolved so much from these humble beginnings it deserves to be recognized for what it managed to accomplish back in 1985.

Thomas is armed with a standard array of martial arts moves: a punch, kick, jump kick, and a leg sweep and that’s pretty much it. There are no weapons to obtain or health pick-ups to save you, just your god given talents. It seems a bit unfair as the enemies are armed with all manner of weaponry that can sap your life bar in chunks but this was an arcade game; stacked odds were the order of the day to get you to pump more quarters into the machine.  Luckily with keen observation and fast fingers bare knuckle brawling is all you’ll need.

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The game is designed in such a way that there is almost always one preferred attack to defeat an enemy and walk away unscathed. The generic thugs will grab you and drain life so kicks are an easy way to keep them at a distance. The annoying knife throwers have a habit of hanging back while the other enemies swarm. As the levels progress and more enemies such as, uh, midgets and dragons you’ll need to prioritize who is dealt with first. While the levels are short you have to complete them with a single life bar, something that isn’t always guaranteed.

Some levels eschew human combatants entirely and opt to pit you against animals such as flies and dragons (what the hell is Mr. X doing in that pagoda?). These are trickier to deal with as their angle of attack is different. The bosses as well have particular patterns they follow and combined with their ability to inflict massive damage can be tricky.

But in the end Kung Fu is still a simple game and with skill can be conquered in less than 10 minutes. At 5 levels there simply isn’t much to it and the game will endlessly repeat with an increase in difficulty each time. To be fair this was an issue nearly all of those early titles faced.  I almost feel bad attaching a score to this review .

You could look at Kung Fu as an important milestone in video game history as deeper brawlers would follow soon after. It might have created the beat em up genre but today there is little reason to revisit it.

6-out-of-10-1

 

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Star Tropics 2

Star Tropics was a solid game, one that was heavily inspired by Zelda and sort of scratched that itch for those seeking more adventure in that mold. While I enjoyed it I can’t say that I ever found myself hoping for a sequel. Aside from the shocking fact that Star Tropics actually received a sequel was its release; by 1994 the 16-bit war was about to enter its second phase and it isn’t a stretch to say that no one was paying attention to 8-bit releases anymore (unless you lived in Brazil). As one of a handful of NES games released that year Star Tropics 2 improves nearly every facet of the original and while it isn’t the most original or creative game ever made it is highly recommended if you enjoyed the series’ first outing.

Not much time has passed since Mike Jones rescued his uncle Dr. J and the Argonian refugees from the evil Zoda. When Mike helps his uncle solve a riddle that had stumped him for months he is unexpectedly thrown into the past, beginning a time hopping journey to ultimately find the Tetrads and make his way home.

The game’s plot is just as goofy as the first game and full of weird circumstances as well. In one of the game’s stranger sub quests you must retrieve a pizza delivery for Cleopatra, which is absurd not just because pizza shouldn’t even exist in that period but because it also takes days to deliver. The trip through time sees you rubbing elbows with many famous literary figures such as Sherlock Holmes, Merlin, and King Arthur. This is a game that revels in its absurdity with that charm being one of the reasons the game is so enjoyable.

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For the most part the game adheres to the same structure as the original. Rather than a series of different islands the game sees you visiting a different era in time each chapter. The change in aesthetic each chapter alleviates one of the biggest criticisms of the first game; the island theme grew old no matter how they tried to dress it up. As I mentioned previously the game makes the most of its premise by having you visit some historic figure and it can be pretty cool at times, such as solving a crime alongside Sherlock Holmes. The overall maps are smaller but the game is just as long as its predecessor and with its varied locales and brisk pace you’ll actually want to see it through to the end.

Aside from its theme the largest improvement comes from the controls. Like A Link to the Past Mike has full 8-way movement and it does wonders for dungeon exploration. With the rigid, grid based movement gone the game is a lot faster. Mike can also change direction in midair somewhat although it should be noted that the platforming segments are a lot trickier since your movements aren’t so measured. Some smaller gameplay improvements have also been added; your main weapon no longer degrades based on health and you can actually simply walk across the tiles on the floor instead of slowly jumping on each one. In the grand scheme these are minor but when taken as a whole it makes playing the game so much more fluid.

Where the game’s controls have been significantly improved the dungeons do feel like a step back. On average the dungeon’s are of medium size and for the most part follow a linear path. The puzzles have also been simplified although to be fair the first game leaned heavily on its tile based switches. Since you aren’t relegated to playing hopscotch to find tile based switches the clever disappearing blocks and other creative trickery are no longer present. More emphasis has been placed on clearing rooms of enemies rather than finding one off items for progress. While I can appreciate the game’s faster pace it also loses something in the process.

What hasn’t changed is the game’s difficulty. With a tighter focus on combat comes stronger enemies and as early as chapter four your life bar can be torn to shreds in seconds. It took longer to reach that point in Star Tropics and you would think having permanently stronger weapons would help but no dice. A few boss battles such as the undead miner are nearly hair pulling in their challenge and not in a good way. It’s certainly still manageable but the bump in difficulty might come as a shock to veterans of the series initial outing.

In a way it is amazing that such a meaty title was released in the last year of the system’s life as projects of this magnitude are usually bumped up to the successor platform. Star Tropics 2 is a worthy follow-up and a solid adventure game that has a lower profile than it deserves and is worth checking out.

7-out-of-10-1

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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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Kirby’s Adventure

After his initial Gameboy outing it has become somewhat of a tradition that Kirby’s best outings are released toward the end of given platform’s lifespan. Kirby 64 was one of the last Nintendo 64 games and Kirby’s Return to Dream Land was also one of Nintendo’s last Wii games. Kirby’s Dream Land 3 was released so late for the SNES most probably aren’t aware it exists. Kirby’s Adventure was Nintendo’s last major release for the NES in the US and boy what a sendoff. Kirby’s Adventure not only pushed the system harder than nearly any other game but is in the running for best platformer for the system.

In light of that fact it’s actually pretty surprising how far under the radar Kirby’s Adventure has been. By 1993 the 16-bit was in full swing and any NES game, no matter how brilliant just couldn’t compete for attention. I think it wasn’t until the Gameboy Advance remake in 2002 that everyone would realize just how amazing the game truly is. You could make a strong case that this is the best overall NES game but I’ll simply say that the number of platformers for the system that are better can be counted on one hand with missing fingers.

Kirby comes fully equipped with a versatile set of abilities. By holding B he can inhale to suck in enemies, blocks, and even air which can then be expelled as a projectile. Taking in air will allow you to float indefinitely although you can’t attack at the same time. These basic powers mean that the default Kirby is never powerless regardless of the situation although it is less than ideal, especially during boss battles.

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The defining mechanic of the game and the series going forward however comes from the over 25 abilities that can be copied from the various enemies throughout the game. There’s a great deal of variety to the different powers from a sword, a laser beam, a tornado, to the more esoteric like turning into a tire or fireball. While most are offensive in nature there are plenty of defensive and movement related powers to play around with as well. Every level has at least 5 powers that can be copied and generally it is a good idea to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each since you never know when you’ll be stuck using a less than ideal ability.

Beyond the fun of exploring the depths of all the abilities you can utilize is how they are integrated into the game. Every level has multiple paths, hidden doors, bonus areas and secrets that can only be found using a particular power. Sometimes the necessary enemy is in the vicinity, other times you might need to carry it over from a prior stage. It would have been very easy to pack the game full of different powers for the sake of it but the fact that the game literally encourages you to play around and experiment is one of its greatest charms.

It’s astounding just how much depth and variety there is in the game, even rivaling Super Mario Brothers 3. While there aren’t as many levels here as in that game there are just as many secrets. Plus you can revisit any prior level at any time. One plus in Kirby’s favor is its battery back-up. Regardless of how easy it is this is still a pretty long game and the fact that you won’t have to start from the beginning every time is a point on Kirby’s side over SMB 3. I love that game to death but someone needs to be shot over that.

If there is any one criticism I can lobby at the game it is that it is far too easy. Extra lives aren’t doled out so commonly throughout each stage but the various minigames and such you can participate in between levels award them like candy. Beyond having ample stock of extra lives the life bar makes it incredibly easy to brute force your way through even the toughest circumstances. I can’t believe I’m even thinking this but if the life bar were capped at three hits it would have introduced some amount of tension outside of the boss battles. Despite the seven worlds and around 40 levels most will breeze through this in one afternoon with little trouble. But I can guarantee you’ll enjoy every moment of it.

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At 6 megabits Kirby’s Adventure is the largest NES game released in America and the extra space is not wasted. There is no question that this is one of the most visually fantastic titles for the system with very few games on the same level. The smart use of color defies the system’s 16-color limit as the presentation is more vibrant and detailed than any other platformer on the system. There are even a few special effects such as the rotating towers that were the defining feature of other technical beasts such as Ufouria and Gimmick. After seeing Kirby in motion I doubt the system could be pushed any further; this is what 10 years of programming experience on one platform can produce. Even the soundtrack is fantastic although a bit cutesy but I don’t care

In spite of the game’s ease of difficulty and slightly short length I have no hesitation in recommending Kirby’s Adventure to anyone that is a fan of the genre. This is easily one of the best NES games of all time.

9-out-of-10

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Adventures of Lolo

These days developer Hal labs seems to release a new Kirby game every six months and while normally milking a series to that degree would be bad I am continually amazed at how unique nearly every entry in the series has been, with some like Kirby Canvas curse being truly innovative. However during the 8-bit era they were one of the most diverse developers around, seemingly able to handle nearly every genre possible. In 1989 they compiled a collection of some of the most creative puzzles from their PC series Eggerland for the NES created one of the most brilliant puzzle games the platform whatever see. Time is done little to diminish just how amazing this game is it still holds up today.

Adventures of Lolo revolves around a simple concept. Logo must collect all of the heart framers in each room to unlock the chest that will in turn opens next room. Is a lot easier said than done however as each room contains numerous obstacles that must be dealt with in order to be successful. It is in this aspect of the game truly excels as the puzzle design is truly excellent. There are 10 floors with five rooms each and the game has a perfect the learning curve. Reaching the top will require plenty of lateral thinking to solve even the simplest puzzle. It’s hard to believe but the advances of Lolo manages to introduce new mechanics enemies and even clip that makes even the late game fun. This is easily one of the best puzzle games for the NES and one that deserves a higher profile.

In terms of mechanics Lolo is a deceptively simple game. Although Kirby & Lolo both look pretty similar in terms of gameplay that couldn’t be further apart. Where Kirby can eat is eat his enemies and gain their abilities Lolo only has the ability to push blocks. Abilities and items open up when necessary, with the most frequent being a magic shot that will turn and reason enemies into eggs for brief period of time. Once this is done a second shot or move them the playing field for brief period of time but it is more prudent to use frozen enemies for a variety of purposes. Frozen enemies can be used to block projectiles, cross bodies of water or even blockade some of the more tricky that guys. If you’ve screwed up the game conveniently has a suicide button so you can start over; trust me you’ll be using it.

Standing in your way of the various denizens of the tower block your progress in any number of ways. The most common enemy by the snakes don’t actually do anything actually more help than a hindrance. Generally snakes can be ignored but usually they are the key to solving each individual puzzle. As an example reduces will freeze you once you move into their line the site however a snake in the turned toward egg and moved to block their line of sight. Skulls only activate once all the heart framers of been collected. Dragons are similar to Medusa’s but only activate when all the heart frames are collected as well. In this regard most of the puzzles boiled down to set up; positioning blocks or other enemies so that once that last heart framers is grabbed you have a clear path to the exit.

Not all enemies are passive. Leepers will follow Lolo around and fall asleep once they touch him. It sounds silly until he boxes you into a corner forcing you to commit suicide and restart but also has its benefits; he can be used to trap other enemies as well. Home of the armadillos the only enemy that will aggressively chase Lolo, becoming active as soon as you move. Rocky is not too common but will also follow you around and will speed up if you enter his line of sight.

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There are definitely some head scratching puzzles within the game and just when it seems nearly impossible you’ll stumble across the solution, usually so simple that you wonder why you didn’t see it before. It’s definitely addictive, to the point you’ll find yourself completing just one more puzzle because it was so engaging the last time. There’s nothing worse than setting up an elaborate series of blockades and grabbing the last heart framers only to realize that you screwed up right from the start. It sounds frustrating but these moments have just the right amount of “oh yeah” that you won’t even mind. The difficulty curve is perfectly balanced as the game introduces new mechanics such as one-way arrows hammers to destroy Iraq’s and ladders to bridge gaps at a decent clip. You’ll definitely stare at each puzzle for decent amount of time before even making your first move. There is a heavy trial and error element to the upper floors of the tower luckily there are passwords and unlimited continues making again accessible to everyone.

This style of puzzle solving has never been all that popular and so releases like The Adventures of Lolo are that much more special. This is not only one of the best puzzle games for the NES but one of the best puzzle games of all time. This series is practically screaming for an E–shop revival.

9-out-of-10

 

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Terranigma

We should have received Terranigma in America. The localization was complete however Enix had already closed their US office, thanks in no small part to their oddball decisions on what games to bring to America. Robotrek, 7th Saga, and E.V.O. instead of Dragon Quest? Yeah. However the game oddly enough was picked up by Nintendo of Europe but not their US counterpart, shame on them. RPG fans back in the day were familiar with Quintet’s work even if they had never heard of the developer themselves. Actraiser, Soulbazer, and Illusion of Gaia are all excellent games that share a similar theme of rebuilding the world and guiding the people. Terranigma was the final game in their loose trilogy and the greatest, taking all of the ideas they had previously explored to their nadir. It is one of the best action RPGs of the 16-bit era and one that desperately needs to be re-released.

Thousands of years ago war raged between the Light and Dark sides of the planet. This war ravaged the world, leaving only a mirror image in its place, the Underworld. Terranigma begins in the village of Crysta, the only pocket of humanity left. Ark is a young mischievous lad who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. His penchant for trouble dooms nearly everyone when opens a mysterious forbidden door and the village is frozen. The Village elder, the only one unaffected, instructs Ark that he has to conquer the five towers in the area that will not only free the people but also revive the continents of the upper world. Since he is the one that set these events in motion it is also his task to guide the upper world to self-sufficiency.

The game’s plot combines the sense of discovery and adventure present in Illusion of Gaia with the world building of Soul Blazer and takes the themes present in all of Quintet’s past works to its fullest extent. While the main cast of characters is kept fairly small there is plenty of room for growth and the story has many poignant moments and twists. It loses the intricate character relationships of IoG but gains a much grander story in the process, one that I can’t really say I enjoyed more but is just as good. The only negative I can legitimately bring up is that the story doesn’t pick up until the latter half of the game but it does so brilliantly, bringing together all of the smaller tasks you have accomplished to show how big of an impact you have had on the world.

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Controlling Ark is a joy as he is an incredibly nimble protagonist. All of your weapons are variations on a spear and you are equipped with plenty of attack techniques to keep combat from becoming boring. Most of these moves will come in to play at some point as some enemies can only be damaged by certain attacks. Two particular techniques however, the Middle Slicer (the RPG equivalent of Bison’s Pyscho Crusher) and the Rush Attack are so overpowered you can probably cheese your way through most of the game with just those two. Magic is also available for purchase using prime blues, crystals scattered all around the world. While most of the spells aren’t as powerful as your standard attacks healing, and warping out of dungeons is indispensable. Plus they are animated beautifully.

This is a far more nonlinear adventure than Illusion of Gaia and is more in line with Soul Blazer. As you venture out into the world reawakening the plants, animals, and finally humans there are plenty of side areas not visible on the world map to discover. Once you’ve reached Chapter 3 and humans have populated the world the game truly opens up. You can simply follow the guided path to the end of the game or engage in numerous side activities that truly take guiding humanity to heart as you help various people around the world make landmark discoveries such as electricity, the invention of the camera, various food items and such and trade them around the world. These undertakings aren’t just a checklist either; as you spread these technologies and culture to different countries villages will prosper and grow in size, becoming more modern and offering new items in return. This is the full realization of the theme of death and rebirth prevalent in nearly of Quintet’s games and the fact that you have control over how deep you delve into this element is wonderful.

The game makes use of an experience based leveling system rather than the static stat growth of its predecessor. This works great in that the boosts in strength with each level are pretty significant and will always keep you on even footing with enemies and bosses. It’s also evenly paced so you’ll never have to grind outside of one specific point. In Sylvan Castle the boss Bloody Mary is vastly overpowered compared to the level 90% of players will be (about 21 or 22), to the point your attacks will only inflict 4-5 damage. Your only options are to buy as many elec rings as possible and pray or grind to level 26 or 27. This is so out of place compared to the rest of the game that it bears mentioning.

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Terranigma is an exceptionally pretty game and fitting to sit beside other last generation Super NES efforts like Chronotrigger and Seiken Densetsu 3. While not as full of special effects as other titles released in that period the artwork is excellent and what few effects they do employ such as transparencies and Mode 7 are used to great effect. The underworld uses double Mode 7 to mirror the surface on its ceiling and the effect is still amazing to see in motion today. There are some uneven elements to the graphics such as the heavy recycling of forests and caves towards the end. The more fantastical environments are visually inspired while the game’s realistic settings once you reach Chapter 3 lack that same visual flair. The one consistent visual stand out are the bosses, large multi-jointed monstrosities

The soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, encompassing a wide range of themes throughout the course of the adventure that are always fitting. While there aren’t as many stand out tracks like your typical Final Fantasy or even Illusion of Gaia as a whole it is generally excellent. Like many of their prior titles some of the sound effects are carried over from Actraiser but it is not something I would hold against the game.

At this point there really is no reason why Terranigma hasn’t officially been released on the Virtual Console or as a port to the 3DS. This is one of the best SNES action RPGs period and one that any fan of the genre should play.

9-out-of-10

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Super Metroid

The greatest video game of all time. The best overall Super Nintendo game. Masterpiece. Many are the accolades that Super Metroid has received over the years and they are all accurate to an extent. The scary thing is the game really is that good; Super Metroid is one of the best video games ever created and a master course in game design. As one of my most anticipated releases it did not disappoint and even after nearly 20 years of endlessly replaying the game I’m still discovering new secrets and hidden items. It has spawned an entire genre of games in its wake from the numerous handheld Castlevanias to superb indie titles such as Cave Story and Valdis Story. But beyond all that it is simply an amazing sci-fi game that does everything right.

Picking up directly after the events of Metroid 2 Samus delivers the lone baby Metroid to the Ceres Space Colony to see if they could harness the Metroid’s energy seeking powers. It isn’t long before the space station is attacked by the space pirates and the Metroid larvae kidnapped and taken to the Planet Zebes with Samus in pursuit.

Metroid was our first taste of what a nonlinear adventure entailed alongside the Legend of Zelda and Return of Samus provided a bit of back story to the proceedings. But both games were not without their flaws. It was Super Metroid that would take stock of what did and did not work and reduce the frustrations many had to deal with in this nascent genre. With an auto-mapping feature and waystations that provide a rough map of your current locale gamers no longer had to break out the graph paper to chart their progress. That is only a fragment of the improvements that make this one of the best adventure games of all time.

The return to Planet Zebes is both familiar and alien at the same time. Your initial journey into its corridors will take you back into the most memorable areas of the series’ first installment as the planet is completely lifeless. Once you’ve taken the morph ball from the same pedestal the world comes to life as the pirates are now aware of your presence. The first hour or so of progress is guided as you are herded toward the basic tools you’ll need go off and explore on your own. Once you’ve destroyed your first major boss the entire planet is more or less at your disposal as you seek new power-ups to further mine the depths of this gargantuan world.

And what a set of weapons they are. Each new item added to your arsenal produces a domino effect as you’ll think back to prior areas you couldn’t access before. A number of new beams join the now classic ice and wave beam and they all stack on top of each other to produce an alien killing beam of destruction. The power beam lets you charge up a more powerful shot while the spazer gives it the power to pass through walls. The screw attack is saved for late in the game as it is the most powerful and trivializes most of the content.

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The old favorites are nice but it’s the new stuff that is the most exciting. Super missiles and power bombs are insanely powerful and will also reveal hidden passageways and shortcuts. The Speed booster is possibly the most fun addition as you plow through walls and enemies after building up speed. The grappling hook is used extensively to swing across gaps or to even latch onto certain enemies. For the obsessive compulsives that need to find everything the X-Ray scope will be your new best friend. At the touch of a button you can scan every room to reveal items, traps, breakable blocks, etc. It’s amazing how well hidden some of the missile upgrades are; there are times the X-ray Scope will show one directly under your feet!

The best tools in the world would be nothing without suitable localations to use them in and once again Super Metroid delivers. Each of Zebes’ six regions are distinct, from the plant laden Brinstar, lava filled Norfair, the underwater Maridia and the derelict remains of the Wrecked Ship. Each is absolutely massive in scope and even accessing the map of each area doesn’t tell the whole story as there are tons of secret passages that you’ll have to discover on your own. It’s a literal work of genius the way every area on the planet is connected and you unlock shortcuts to each one. Some you can explore nearly completely the first time through but in most cases you’ll need to save certain portions for later once you have the appropriate item.

Or not. The beauty of the game’s design is that most of its weapons are completely optional and with enough skill you can still manage to explore each area. Sequence breaking has been alive since the original Legend of Zelda but Super Metroid is one of, if not the game that popularized this concept. The game has enjoyed nearly 20 years of popularity as gamers of all stripes try to obtain the absolute bare minimum for completion and shave time off the clock. With multiple endings it’s almost encouraged in order to earn the best ending.

Beyond the multiple endings there is still lots to discover about the game. There are a number of advanced techniques such as the crystal flash, bomb jumping, beam shields, wall jumping, and even super jumping (which looks ridiculously cool). What’s cool is that there are instances where the game will show you how to perform these without explicitly stating so; pay attention to the non-hostile aliens you encounter.

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Super Metroid isn’t big on special effects but instead nails the cold and lonely feels it’s going for thanks to expert art direction. The environments are filled with tons of details that are easy to miss; bugs feast on dead bodies, loose wiring produces sparks, and flower petals fall heavily in the distant backgrounds of Brinstar. When the game does decide to use an effect it’s always to heighten the atmosphere; the heat haze used in Norfair really sells you on the temperature of the environment. The bosses are a far cry from the forgettable mayors of the series’ first installment and resemble something out of a nightmare. Kraid is no longer a squat midget but a massive two story tall monstrosity. Ridley is one of the game’s most difficult encounters and is joined by the creepy Phantooon and Crocomire. I’ll just say this about the game’s finale; the fight against Mother Brain is one of the greatest in video game history.

The soundtrack aids in setting the right tone for each location and is perfect. The atmospheric music is has amazing range and never limply plays in the background. It’s creepy when it needs to be, such as exploring the frigate before the power is restored. Laid back and dreary when exploring Maridias’ aquatic confines, and dark and foreboding, especially when you reach Tourian and see its residents drained of life.

What more needs to be said? Use whatever metric you want and you’ll still come to the same conclusion; Super Metroid is one of the finest 16-bit, no, games ever made and a classic in every sense of the word.

10-out-of-10

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Star Tropics

These days there are probably few who remember Star Tropics as it seems Nintendo has washed their hands of it completely.  While some remember it fondly to others it has a bad rap as a cheesy Legend of Zelda rip-off.  To some extent it’s true; it’s immediately obvious where the game’s inspiration came from.  But in my opinion there are enough unique ideas in Star Tropics that it can stand on its own two feet as an enjoyable action RPG for fans of the genre.

Mike Jones is visiting his uncle, archaeologist Dr. Jones for the summer on C-Island only to find him missing on arrival.  After questioning his assistant Mike decides to explore the surrounding islands for his uncle after discovering a letter addressed to him, stating that he was in fact abducted by aliens.

From its interface, puzzles, and many of its items Star Tropics is a blatant clone of Zelda.  Created specifically for America I wonder if the reasoning behind its creation is that Zelda might have been too complex for most gamers.  As a linear experience it’s much easier to get into and its mechanics and puzzles never reach the abstract levels of its older brethren.  While the feeling of déjà vu is ever present the game’s story and setting are at least interesting enough to make up for it.  Despite the massive coverage Nintendo Power dedicated to the games the series never caught on as well as it should have, leaving guys like me to extol its virtues.

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Since the game is divided into 8 chapters you won’t have to explore the overworld for your next objective.  The overworld map is littered with many towns, dungeons and other locales to explore.  In most cases you’ll enter the towns to learn of a problem that needs solving in order to progress, leading to a cave or dungeon.  Though linear you are still free to explore the confines of each chapter’s section of the world map.  Heart containers and are hidden in clever locations for those willing to seek them out.

The caves and dungeons are where you’ll spend the majority of your time however and this is where Star Tropics takes its cues from Zelda.  All dungeons are room based and reach pretty sizable proportions early on.  There are enough hidden rooms, fake exits (you’ll curse when it happens), and traps that it’s conceivable that you’ll die often.  By Chapter 4 the number of instant death traps like spiked pits, rolling balls and my favorite, water traps increases significantly.  To say nothing of the game’s tricky puzzle elements.

The vast majority of puzzles you’ll encounter in the game are of the switch pushing variety.  The special switches perform numerous functions such as opening doors, destroying passages, revealing items, or even assisting in killing bosses.  It could very easily have become repetitive in short order but Nintendo has varied up the switches so that each one feels unique.  In most cases you’ll see the switch but will have to figure out the proper route to hit it.  There’s a heavy dose of platforming in the game that steadily ramps up in difficulty. You might not think it’s possible to die seeing as you can only jump when there are blocks to reach but disappearing blocks or approaching enemies will throw you off your game.   It’s in this regard that Star Tropics manages to distance itself from Zelda despite its surface similarity.

As well as its puzzles Star Tropics manages to avoid bogging you down with an extensive inventory.  Your initial weapon is a yo-yo that will upgrade to a Morning Star and finally a Super Nova.  Your weapon is dependent on your life bar as it degrades once your life dips below certain points.  There are a slew of secondary weapons such as baseball bats, bolas, and lasers that are limited in use.  There are a few special items that only see use in the dungeons as well, such as the Rod of Sight (to see ghosts), the lantern, or stop watches to freeze enemies.  While the burgeoning inventory of Zelda and other games of its ilk is missed it does keep the game flowing.

What doesn’t however are the game’s rigid controls.   Like the blocks that you spend copious amounts of time jumping on the game’s movement is grid based.  You can’t make slight movements, it’s all or nothing.  While the original Zelda limited movement to the four cardinal directions it was designed around that restriction.  With the exception of the floor tiles each room here is not.  Speaking of tiles, because you move so slowly (especially when jumping) the later portions of the game that feature excessive platforming become tedious.  It’s not to say you can’t adjust but the game suffers slightly as a result of this.

Star Tropics is a solid alternative to Zelda and a game that I urge any fan of action RPGs to seek out.  Nintendo’s use of Zelda as a starting point works in the game’s favor and in the end Star Tropics is unique enough that it shouldn’t be a deterrent.

7-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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Banjo Kazooie

Once Super Mario 64 revolutionized the industry we all knew, it was only a matter of time until the clones came running.  And boy did they!  Collectathon 3d adventures replaced the generic 2d mascots of yesteryear and most were just as insipid as Bubsies, Zools, Awesome Possums, and every other furry animal you can imagine.  There’s nothing wrong with using the framework of a popular title so long as you put your own spin on it but they didn’t even bother going that far.  Who the hell remembers tripe like Jersey Devil or Croc?

Banjo Kazooie was announced along with Conker’s Quest in 1997 to some trepidation.  As dual platformers starring bright eyed animals they were criticized for ripping off Mario 64.  Both were delayed, with Conker undergoing a massive overhaul as an f-you to critics that actually worked.  Banjo Kazooie however stayed the course and was able to overcome its stigma as a copycat with fresh ideas and fun gameplay; it even betters Mario in many respects.  This is one of the strongest titles in the N64 library and an absolute must buy.

The evil witch Gruntilda wants to be the most beautiful in the land.  Unfortunately she learns of Tooty, Banjo’s sister who currently holds that title.  Not one for competition Gruntilda kidnaps Tooty while Banjo is sleeping, prompting him to mount a rescue with bird companion Kazooie in his backpack.

The similarities to Super Mario 64 simply can’t be denied as it is very clear Rare used that game as their template.  Banjo replaces the stars with jiggies (which are basically puzzle pieces) and coins with musical notes while also adding an assortment of other items to collect along the way.  Gruntilda’s lair acts as the hub world in much the same way Peach’s castle functions.  Both share similar themes for their levels although to be fair ice, fire, desert, etc. are simply universal video game staples.  You also don’t need to collect every jiggie in the game to reach its conclusion.

However there are just as many differences.  Although you primarily control Banjo Kazooie shares equal billing in the gameplay through the use of numerous abilities throughout the length of the game.  This team-up aspect is at the heart of the adventure and what really sets BK apart.   There’s a large selection of maneuvers that utilize either Banjo or Kazooie or sometimes both in different ways, from basic attacks to item usage.  The game’s control scheme makes use of nearly every button on the controller yet still feels intuitive.  The only control quirk that is annoying would be the camera’s tendency to move while aiming an egg shot.  Speaking of the camera you’re going to have to babysit and finesse it more than I would have liked although the addition of an auto facing button alleviates this somewhat.

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There’s quite a collection of items to find and while I’m sure those that grew to hate Rare’s penchant for collectathon bullshit (I’m having nightmares of Donkey Kong 64 as we speak) are wincing they all serve a purpose and there is some restraint.  In every level are 10 jiggies gained through various means, some simply lying around while others will require a bit of thought to obtain or completion of a task.  Jiggies are used to fill in the missing pieces of each world’s painting to gain access, with each requiring more pieces.  There are 100 musical notes which are used to unlock new areas in Gruntilda’s lair.   Mumbo tokens are currency to pay for transformations.  Lastly the five jinjos are usually hard to find but will also cough up a jiggie once saved.  Any other items such as feathers and eggs are completely optional and if necessary in any parts the game will usually provide them.

Each of the nine worlds are designed in a nonlinear fashion so that you can collect the jiggies in any order you decide.  There’s so much to see and do that it is almost overwhelming as each world is simply bustling with activity.  No two jiggies are obtained the same way with variety being the name of the game. There’s a bit of everything in here, from straight platforming to action with loads of hidden areas to discover.  The various minigames are worthwhile diversions and not merely filler designed to pad out the game’s length with their added diversity being a welcome addition to the game.  The best aspect of collecting jiggies would be that you aren’t teleported out of the world upon collecting one; you are free to keep going.  And like Mario 64 if you become bored you can just as easily go visit some other stage.

To be honest the only annoying aspect of the game is accessing each level.  The paintings representing each level are not located in the same area as the world’s entrance outside of Mumbo’s Mountain.  You’ll spend just as much time finding each stage as you will collecting jiggies because the overworld is too damn big for its own good.  Whoever decided to place Freezeazy Peak toward the back of the damn hub (while its painting isn’t far off from the entrance) deserves to be shot.

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Banjo Kazooie was a technical showpiece for the N64 in 1998 and is still fairly impressive even today.  Rare ditched the flat shaded polygonal look of Mario 64 for a fully textured mapped adventure, an area that the system didn’t necessarily excel do to hardware constraints.  However through some creative programming techniques Rare were able to overcome that.  Banjo Kazooie exhibits a level of texture design and variety that few games of that generation could match.  The animation is equally as brilliant in spite of Rare’s, uh, lack of creative character design.

Probably even more impressive than the seamless blending of textures is the games draw distance and frame rate.  Climb to the highest point in any given level and you can see the entirety of the map with no fog.  Seeing the whole island of Treasure Trove Cove with its numerous mountain peaks and various smaller beaches is simply magical.  The sizes of the maps are absolutely gargantuan which makes this even more impressive.  By having smaller objects such as notes and jiggies fade in as you approach they’ve managed to keep the frame rate high even in the most strenuous instances.  It’s a near perfect balance that was sadly tossed aside in its sequel for grandeur which caused the game to suffer.

The collection of tunes range from somber and moody to vibrant and happy depending on the situation as the music is dynamic, subtly blending from one track to the next.  For a cartridge title the number of instruments used in music is fairly complex, especially considering the large number of sound effects the game also employs.  Nearly every individual character, from the random NPCs down to the jiggies and items you collect has their own unique “voice” in a Charlie Brown style manner.  Considering the length of the adventure it’s a wonder that they were able to make them all distinct.

Banjo Kazooie is one of the best N64 games of all time and one that is still worth tracking down even today.  Whether it’s the cartridge or its enhanced re-release on Xbox Live fans of platformers would do well to track down one of the genre’s greatest entrants.

9-out-of-10

 

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country hit the industry with a level of hype not seen since the release of Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers 3.  With its revival of a long forgotten gaming icon, tight gameplay, arresting visuals, and oh yeah, the insane graphics no one was prepared and it became a monster hit.  And while it is an excellent platformer it was definitely overrated at the time with many perfect scores.  Donkey Kong Country 2 however really is that good.  With more of everything that made its predecessor a hit except more refined it is the game that signified in my eyes Rare’s status as a top tier developer.  In the era where the 2d platformer ruled DKC 2 is still easily one of the best games of the 16-bit era.

After the defeat of King K. Rool Donkey Kong settles down to enjoy his recovered banana hoard but is kidnapped by the returning King, now going by the name Kaptain K. Rool to go along with his pirate attire.  Diddy Kong is joined by girlfriend Dixie and an expanded Kong family to mount a rescue from the now pirate themed Kremlings.

You might be fooled into thinking both kongs are identical since their physical characteristics are similar however Rare has done a great job of differentiating the two.  Using her ponytail Dixie can float by spinning and also use it to pick up and carry objects.  Diddy is more adept at taking out enemies with his cartwheel plus he holds his barrels in front of himself, useful for head on collisions.  He gets extra range on his jumps by tumbling off a platform first.  There are a few team up moves you can pull off such as piggy backing on your partner or using them as a projectile.  Since they’re both small the larger Kremlings still pose a threat, a nice little touch.

The list of additions is simply staggering with many more items to collect (all with a purpose), secret areas to find, and just more of everything in general.  Aside from the standard bananas and balloons for extra lives there are banana coins which function as currency around the island.  The various members of the Kong family offer many services at a cost; Funky Kong will allow you to revisit prior worlds, Wrinkly Kong gives basic tips about the game and saves, Swanky Kong hosts a game show where you can earn extra lives, and finally Cranky Kong offers cryptic clues on the whereabouts of the rare DK coins.

The Kremcoins found in the bonus areas are used to access the Lost World, the DK equivalent of Super Mario World’s Star Road.  These 5 levels are some of the toughest in the game and have the steepest requirements to access.  You’ll need to find all seventy five Kremcoins in the game (15 per level essentially) which is a task in itself.  Aside from the satisfaction of knowing you’re a truly great player to have done so you’ll also get the best ending if you can muster the skill needed to reach the true final boss and the best ending.

The main game has a pretty steep learning curve that I feel is near perfect.  It is assumed that you are familiar with the series (and the mechanics are simple enough anyway) and so the game throws you into the deep end and never lets up.  When comparing the two games Donkey Kong Country is definitely where Rare sort of established the series play mechanics but were careful not to push too far.  Here every so often a level such as Bramble Blast and Red Hot Ride are thrown in to keep you from settling into a rhythm.  Even the terribly boring boss battles of the first game have been overhauled.  Where they seemed to be included simply as a matter of course DKC2’s mayors constantly evolve in their attack patterns throughout each fight making them a worthwhile part of the game.

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The pirate setting may seem limiting but it in fact has given the game far more variety than most platformers combined.  Each locale is its own separate themed world with very few themes repeated throughout the length of the game and even so there are significant changes to make them feel fresh.  Glimmer’s Galleon which you must navigate using only the light provided by Glimmer’s proboscis is wholly separate from Lava Lagoon, where Clapper the Seal must cool down the water for short periods in order for you to progress.  Amazingly the game keeps up this level of variety right up to its climax with new mechanics introduced at every turn.  Even the signature barrel blasting sees new life with the addition of new barrels.  Steerable barrels allow you free movement while inside for a limited time, while rotatable barrels allow you to choose your firing direction, once again within a limit.  My personal favorite are the plus and minus barrels which are only used a few times but each is memorable. In the Haunted Hall you must hit these barrels to increase (or if you aren’t careful, decrease) the amount of time you are invincible lest Kackles the ghost catches you.

It’s almost overwhelming just how many secrets are hidden throughout the game.  I honestly doubt most will ever complete the game 100% without the use of a guide.  The best kept secrets will require you to pay close attention to the environment for hooks or barrels slightly off screen or cleverly blended into the background.  The expanded number of animal companions also play a large role locating the game’s most well hidden trinkets.

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It’s hard to believe that in the span of a year Rare were able to surpass their work on the original Donkey Kong Country but it’s true.  The more consistent theme and varied worlds produce a visual feast for the eyes that I feel is superior to its predecessor.  Crocodile Island is darker and moodier than the cheery jungles of the first game and host to a larger assortment of wonderfully designed creatures even in spite of Rare’s sometimes questionable art.  The multilayered backgrounds host a ridiculous amount of detail for a 16-bit title with some of the best character animation from that generation.  There are very few SNES games, let alone 16-bit titles that are in the same league.

The game’s orchestral soundtrack is some of the finest music produced for the SNES.  The soundtrack for DKC was largely tropical themed but that would be inappropriate tonally with this game’s setting.  The music is moodier and tense but can swing back to joyous and upbeat when necessary.  There are more instances where the music will fade to put the sound effects in focus and it works wonderfully.  Even the comical sound effects are a perfect match for the music.

Nothing more needs to be said.  Donkey Kong Country 2 is possibly Rare’s finest hour and certainly one of the best platformers ever made.  There’s no higher praise than that.

10-out-of-10

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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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Tetrisphere

As innovative and addicting as Tetris is for years every developer who touched the license was content to simply put out their own version of the same game over and over again.  Whether  it was due to restrictions placed on them or fear of screwing up a sure thing, the most popular puzzle game in the world was facing stagnation.  A truly new variant on the familiar would not come until creators H2O created Tetrisphere, at first due for the Jaguar but rescued from obscurity by Nintendo.

Calling Tetrisphere a variation on the traditional formula is selling it short; it completely alters your perception of what Tetris is supposed to be.  Rather than completing lines as pieces fall in a vacuum now you are tasked with removing pieces from a sphere to expose its core.  Since the game takes place on a 3d sphere you can rotate it to look for the best possible spot to use the famous Tetris pieces to chip away at the blocks surrounding the core.  That’s the gist of it but it gets more complicated from there.  The game’s tutorial does a good job explaining the basic techniques you’ll be using and the practice mode allows you the freedom to putz around without fear of failure but it isn’t until you actually jump in and face the consequences of your actions that it will click (that sounded way more philosophical than it should have).

To begin removing pieces you must force three of the same type of piece to touch by “dropping” a brick on top of it.  Once a drop has been made a reaction occurs in which the pieces connected will implode and disappear and can even set off further chain reactions if more of the same pieces are connected.  There are strict rules regarding this behavior of course; an “I” shaped piece must have full contact with another I in the initial reaction to at least start a chain.

There is a certain amount of technique needed to maximize how fast you dig through the sphere along with advanced techniques to do so.  Once you’ve cleared some space pieces can be slid around to form combos which not only increase your score multiplier but can cascade and eliminate pieces connected adjacently and even below.  Gravity is also your friend in clearing chunks of space as any pieces left suspended in thin air will fall and potentially set off another chain as well.

It’s in your best interest to keep the combo chains flowing as are important not just for scoring purposes but in gaining magic.  Once you’ve removed 20 pieces from the field you’ll gain a spell such as a rocket, dynamite, lasers, etc. that each have a pattern of removal and area of effect.  The bottom line is these spells are absolute life savers when employed in the most dire situations.

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This is not a good position to be in……

Just like the original Tetris you can fail and Tetrisphere skews closer to more traditional games in this regard.  You only have three lives and once they’re gone its game over.  Dropping a brick that doesn’t cause a reaction will take one away; this is easily avoided as the color of the bricks will change if a reaction will occur.  At least it is under normal circumstances.  There’s a timer that constantly ticks down; once it hits zero the sphere will begin to slowly zoom in and a red timer starts. As this clock ticks the sphere will ultimately hit the screen and force whatever piece you have to drop, costing a life if a reaction doesn’t occur.  It’s harrowing to try and concentrate once this process begins, causing sloppy drops in the process to try and reset is position.

Tetrisphere has a full complement of alternate modes for those that don’t find the near 300 levels of the normal Rescue mode fun.  My personal favorite is puzzle mode, which challenges you to clear a given set of blocks using a limited number of pieces and slide moves.  I freely admit that I’ve never been good at these types of challenges but I’ve always loved the lateral thinking it fosters.  Hide & Seek is a slight variation of Rescue that gives specific goals such as finding pictures hidden within the core, shattering a tower by unseating the blocks beneath it, and protecting another tower from damage while shifitng blocks around it.  Multiplayer is truly addicting but anyone who has been lucky enough to link two Gameboys together should already know that.

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The presentation is simple and to the point with very few special effects used outside of transparency and minor lighting effects.  The N64’s anti-aliasing allows the sphere to be perfectly rounded; trust me the game would have looked like shit on the PlayStation and Saturn.  The true star of the game is the music, a solid selection of techno beats that made the hardware sing.  The quality of the game’s soundtrack came at a perfect time when the system was being criticized for the lackluster soundtracks that plagued its games due to limited cartridge space.

Tetrisphere is a complex but ultimately satisfying variant of Tetris that offers up a unique set of play mechanics that hasn’t been duplicated since.  Unfortunately it hasn’t seen a rerelease on any platform so your only course is to track down the cartridge itself.  If you love puzzle games then this is a no brainer.

8-out-of-101

 

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Donkey Kong Country

Few games have hit the market with the impact of Donkey Kong Country.  By the time 1994 rolled around the Genesis had been on the market for 6 years and the SNES was entering its 4th.  It was reasonable to assume most developers knew the limits of both consoles but then the Summer CES came along and Rare dropped a bombshell.  For its time DKC was light years ahead of what we expected from a 16-bit console visually and that fact probably helped it garner near perfect scores across the board.  It doesn’t reach those lofty heights but DKC is still an excellent platformer.

Donkey Kong’s hoard of bananas has been stolen by King K.Rool and his kremling minions.  Donkey sets out with nephew and sidekick Diddy Kong to get them back and is joined by an all new cast of characters, including the original Donkey Kong.  Normally I would say that they did a great job fleshing out the Donkey Kong mythos (god I feel silly even typing that) but truth be told there wasn’t one to begin with.  Prior to DKC’s release the property had been dormant since the early 80s, a point in time where games were so simple it wasn’t necessary to think about an extended universe of characters.  Rare, in an uncharacteristic move by Nintendo, were granted free reign to change that.  The different members of the DK family all provide certain services such as saving the game, warping you to prior locales and giving hints pertaining to particular levels.

DKC’s release was practically the gaming event of the year.  Through a bit of genius marketing in the form of a videotape sent to thousands (maybe even millions!) of subscribers of Nintendo Power only heightened anticipation for the game.  Cheesy production values aside it was effective at selling just how “advanced” the game was over its contemporaries, a fact not lost on gamers as DKC would eventually become one of the best-selling SNES games of all time.  All of that aside is Donkey Kong Country really all it’s cracked up to be?

In single or two player coop you’ll be controlling both Donkey and Diddy Kong.  Only one character is active while the other tags along and follows your movements.  They also function as a life bar; taking a hit causing the active one to become captured and unavailable until you find a DK barrel.  There are subtle differences between the pair; Diddy will bounce off larger enemies instead of bowling them over and can move faster and jump higher.  Donkey Kong is stronger and has a ground slam when rolling isn’t an option.

When they said Donkey Kong’s banana hoard they weren’t joking.  There are more bananas scattered throughout the game than you can possibly imagine.  Collecting 100 will award an extra life, something the game seems to cram down your throat with regularity.  There are a ton of other items to collect but thankfully they’re all strictly optional.  Similar to Super Mario World’s Yoshi coins collecting the 4 letters that spell Kong will award an extra life.  While it might seem like an easy reward the placement of the letters becomes more spaced out and well hidden with time.  Red, Green, and Blue Balloons will grant 1,2, and 3 extra lives respectively but you have to be quick, they’ll fly away!   Lastly the different gold animal statues will lead to a bonus area tailored to that specific creature where you have a limited amount of time to collect as many of their emblems as possible for even more lives.

Speaking of bonus areas the game is absolutely teaming with them if you know where to look.  Every stage has at least 2-3, many hidden in pretty clever locations.  Many of them can only be accessed by your four animal companions, Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and Espresso the Ostrich or the different barrels peppering the landscape.  All of the bonus levels offer many opportunities to earn extra lives, which the game seems to throw around freely.  All those extra lives you’ll undoubtedly build up will come in handy as the last few areas really kick it up a notch in difficulty.

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It’s actually pretty cool how Rare incorporated the trademark barrels into all facets of the game.  Any red blooded gamer who grew up in the 80s will remember the infamous ape threw an infinite supply of barrels in your path but now they are here to help rather than hinder.  DK barrels will contain your partner if he is lost, standard barrels can be picked up and rolled in a manner that would DK Sr. proud.  TNT barrels are also available but will explode on impact.  But the best is saved for last as rocket barrels are used in some of the game’s most grueling platforming segments.  The early levels ease you into it shunting you to the next barrel automatically but soon enough you are left to your own devices and forced to time each blast manually.  Later stages will require you to perform these acts in rapid succession and it’s pretty thrilling to see it in motion when executed correctly.

The game doesn’t solely rely on its barrel blasting mayhem to carry it.  At around 40 levels total the game covers a lot of terrain, from standard platform fare such as slippery ice levels and forests to its exhilarating mine cart sequences.  The previously mentioned animal companions can be ridden and used to defeat otherwise invincible enemies and access previously unavailable areas.  It is true that this series isn’t as heavy on the play mechanics as the Mario series but it offers a great deal of variety in its own right plus offers a higher level of difficulty.  By a third of the way through the game it ramps up considerably which is why you are given so many extra lives.  The one area the game is lacking are the boss battles, which are so mind numbingly dull they shouldn’t have bothered.

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At the time of Donkey Kong Country’s release no other game looked like it, even on the Jaguar and 3DO and it basically made us redefine the limits of 16-bit technology.  Rare’s ACM technique gave the game one of the most distinct looks on the market and may have single handedly helped push the SNES past the Genesis in America.  Most of that visual flair hasn’t held up as well over the years in the same way hand drawn art has; rendered graphics increase in fidelity every year and the low resolution of the backgrounds stands out.  While some of the backgrounds have aged the animation and art direction are still stellar.  The plastic look of the trees in that initial forest is still unique to this day and most of the game’s other locales are just as distinct, such as the temples and treetop villages.  The soundtrack composed by David Wise is also simply stellar with a wide range of mood setting tracks.  The underwater theme is right up there with DuckTales Moon song as a videogame classic at this point and the rest of the OST is near that same level of quality.

Donkey Kong Country might not be as visually arresting as it was in 1994 but it is still an attractive game and one that has held up in terms of gameplay beautifully.  It sparked a revival for the character that still persists to this day and has seen a rerelease numerous times in various formats; any version of the game is worth your time if you are a platform fan.

8-out-of-101

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Super Punch Out!

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out was an international phenomenon and something of a cultural touchstone in America for every child of the 80s.  If you watch any retrospective of that decade chances are Punch-Out! will come up.  Even A-list celebrities have played the game, that’s how popular it was.  The question is how do you follow that up?  In 1994 Nintendo would answer that question with Super Punch-Out, a good game in its own right but one that doesn’t quite recapture the magic of the original.

Little Mac is back to challenge the WVBA once again with a slew of new boxers standing in his way.  Sadly without a Mike Tyson endorsement (we all know why) there isn’t a dream match with Kid Dynamite to look forward to in the end but the game provides plenty of challenges along the way.

The NES Punch-Out! Was loosely based on the arcade game of the same name but featured enough changes that it became its own beast, one that was better than the game that inspired it.  With the SNES’s added muscle Super Punch-Out! is more faithful to the arcade game of the same name and while it is an excellent game overall it loses some of the personality that made the NES game a classic.

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For the uninitiated the Punch-Out series is more of a rhythm game than a straight boxing match.  Not in the sense that you’re following button prompts that fly by on the screen; you are watching for cues or “ticks” that are a dead giveaway as to your opponent’s intentions and responding in kind.  Every opponent has specific moves they employ and will telegraph them beforehand; how you respond will determine the victor in the end.

Little Mac’s arsenal of left/right jabs and body blows remains the same as well as the ability to dodge side to side, block, or duck.  The star system of the first game has been ditched in favor of a special meter that builds up as you inflict damage and decreases when hit.  The special meter can be used in multiple ways, for knockout body blows, uppercuts, and rapid fire punches.  One last upgrade comes in the form of the power-up system, noted by the changing portrait color.   It functions like an alternate version of the special meter in that all of your punches increase in speed and power.

The added diversity of attacks is necessary as Super Punch-Out has an almost entirely new cast of fighters, with fan favorites Bald Bull, Sandman, and Super Macho Man the only ones returning.  With 4 circuits and 4 opponents that’s a lot of new patterns to learn.  The series has always been known for the outlandish antics of its fighters and that aspect has been taken over the top in this installment.

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Dragon Chan practically cheats by bouncing off the ropes to deliver Liu Kang style flying kicks.  Mad Clown is amazingly agile for an overweight circus act and will backflip to gain enough distance to pelt you with his juggling balls before delivering a knockout blow.  Masked Muscle will literally spit in your face to obscure your vision, the cheating ass.  And I have to mention Hoy Qarlow, a decrepit old man who employs his walking stick in his matches.  Unlike the first game you won’t face anyone twice meaning every fight is a new experience.  Some fighters like Bear Hugger and Piston Hurricane are practically carbon copies of prior fighters, namely King Hippo and Piston Honda so at least in that respect the same tactics will apply.

Its’ a much needed break as Super Punch-Out! can be extremely tough.  The 3 round structure has been removed in favor of a single three minute match.  If time runs out you automatically lose.  I feel Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! was a lot more balanced in terms of giving you enough chances to stage a comeback because of the multiple rounds.  You could completely botch the first round and then dominate the second since you would have seen everything each opponent had to offer; no dice this time.  With limited continues its rough being sent back to the beginning of each circuit but at least there’s battery backup.

One feature that seems typical of a sports game but really added some incentive to replay each fight was the Time Trial mode.  Competing against the developer’s fastest times is awesome and a great incentive to learn the intricacies of the fighting system.  There are some ridiculous, borderline insane records already in the game that do highlight another feature.  Each fighter is susceptible to a particular combination of hits that when executed correctly will result in an automatic KO.  Seeing Nick Bruiser taken out in under 30 seconds is simply unbelievable and a demonstration of how skilled you can become with practice.

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Super Punch-Out ditched the midget Little Mac of the first game for a transparent boxer and a near first person perspective.  Its world’s better than the wire frame model used in the arcade as it allows you to actually see what the hell is in front of you.  The perspective also allows much larger fighters and the increased size allows for a much better set of animations.  The huge cast of characters exhibits a ton of different animations and sport some bizarre designs like Heike Kagero and the Narcisse Prince.

But for all of the strides in presentation Super Punch-Out has lost the identity that was so crucial to the first game.  Little Mac might have been a squat dork but you were invested in his progress as he faced insurmountable odds.  Seeing his training sequences and the newspaper articles as you rose through the ranks added a sense of personal investment since you were responsible for his progress.  And who could forget the between round chatter?  Even though Doc was a blatant Nintendo shill he was at least there to try and encourage you if your face resembled a slab of meat and Bald Bull threatened to send you home in a body bag.  The generic blonde guy you now control is just that: some dude.  You never learn anything about him or care about why he wants to be the champion.  The Mike Tyson endorsement was a genius move along with his involvement in the game’s marketing.  At the time Iron Mike was the biggest boxer in the world and his presence brought a lot of interest to the game.  It’s just too bad there wasn’t anyone on the same level at the time of this game’s release to add some character to its campaign.

Setting that aside Super Punch-Out! is still an excellent game but I would recommend Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out first .  For those that are tired of losing to Mike Tyson in under 20 seconds Super Punch-Out is an superb continuation of that gameplay style.

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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Super Mario Kart

Who would have thought a simple racing game made with crude Mode 7 effects would go on to become one of the most beloved series in gaming?  Mario had somewhat of a reputation for starring in games other than platformers, such as Wrecking Crew, Dr. Mario, and even the referee in Mike Tyson’s Punchout so it wasn’t much of a shock to now see him in a racing game.  But the fact that not only was it excellent but offered many innovative features and would spawn an entire genre was unprecedented.

Released in 1992 Mario and company take to the streets in head to head racing action rather than butt stomping through different worlds.  The 8 characters represent the most popular (at the time) members of the franchise, The Mario brothers, Toad, and Yoshi to Donkey Kong, Bowser, and even a Koopa Troopa.  Super Mario Kart was born out of a desire to create a two player racing as opposed to F-Zero’s solitary experience hence the split screen view at all times.  The unique mix of straight racing to the finish combined with adding weapons to the mix spawned a genre that still inspires imitators to this day. Even considering its age Super Mario Kart has lost little of its luster and is still an enjoyable experience to this day.

Broken down into 3 Cups (with the Special Cup unlocked after winning 100cc on the prior 3) with 5 tracks each there’s a lot of content on offer.  Each race is 5 laps with the top 4 receiving points needed to progress to the end.  The option of 50cc and 100cc corresponds to easy and normal difficulty and does more than make the computer faster; it increases computer aggressiveness but it never descends to the rubber band AI bullshit of Mario Kart 64.  It’s actually a totally different experience bumping up to 100cc and once you unlock 150cc you’ll need to stay on your toes at all times to even dream of beating the AI.

The introduction of weapons in the mix truly sets Mario kart apart.  The traditional Mario items such as turtle shells, mushrooms, and stars are joined by banana peels, lightning to miniaturize the competition and the feather for bigger jumps.  There’s nothing quite as satisfying as trailing whoever is in first place only to get a red shell that seeks out and blasts them, enabling you to steal a last minute win.  Although the items are simpler than in later installments they serve the shorter tracks well.  Anyone in lower positions has a higher chance of getting the better items such as stars or red shells which has always been a point of contention; I will say because the items are so simple in this game it isn’t as bad as some of the later games.

One gameplay feature Super Mario Kart has over some of the series later entries is the use of coins.  The coins scattered around the track serve multiple purposes.  First and foremost they help you reach your maximum speed; for slower characters such as Donkey Kong and Bowser they are crucial.  Secondly any collisions with other players or weapons will cause you to lose a few coins rather than spin out.  In 100cc and above you’ll be making a mad dash for those coins as the computer is ruthless.  Lastly any time you fall in lava or the boundaries of a track Lakitu will pick you up for a few coins.  With nothing to pay him with you’ll have to climb out yourself which is pretty much the kiss of death.  A lot of these features are rather innocuous so it’s easy to overlook until five racers pound you from behind and you basically have an epileptic fit on the track.  I don’t see why they were removed from the later games as it fit with the Mario theme of the series.

While the single player is fun the multiplayer is what helped Super Mario Kart rise to fame.  And unfortunately it’s a bit lacking in this first game.  The 2-player limit couldn’t be helped at the time but at the same time there are other aspects that are wanting.  The arenas are far too big for just two people, leaving large periods where you won’t even see your opponent.  Also the weapon selection is a bit too simple for exciting matches outside of using well timed feather jumps to dodge turtle shells.  That’s not to say it isn’t fun but the novelty of it will wear off pretty quickly.

Mode 7 is used to simulate a 3d plane like F-Zero however Super Mario Kart is more advanced in that regard.  The terrain is more varied than in that game and the Mario theme makes for some very interesting track locales.  Time has not been kind to the overall presentation though.  What was once a (relatively) beautiful game is now a flickery and pixelated mess.  You can definitely see how this was revolutionary at the time and appreciate it for what it is but a pretty game it is not.  The music however is still excellent.

Despite over 9 games in the series (including the arcade games) the original Mario Kart is still worth a shot.  It won’t turn heads but in terms of gameplay it is still one of the best kart racers of all time.

8-out-of-101

 

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Super Smash Brothers

Nintendo has always excelled at taking genre’s they are not comfortable with and putting their own unique spin on them.  The Mario Kart series was born from this as an example.  So when word came of a fighting game starring their most iconic characters the gaming world lost their shit.  You could say it was a dream of many growing up and although everyone assumed it would be a straight Street Fighter rip off what we got instead is wholly original and a big love letter to the fans.

To more or less quell fears that Nintendo’s mascots had suddenly gone homicidal the game is presented as a series of toys that have come to life to fight amongst each other.  It’s a simple premise and it works wonderfully well as a means to bring so many disparate franchises for one brawl to end them all.  What is more interesting however is Super Smash genesis.  Begun as a series of tests with Nintendo characters in a new fighting engine it was billed as not commercially viable and wasn’t scheduled for release worldwide.  Can you believe that?  Cooler heads prevailed and we were graced with one of the most original fighting games created and a riotous party game that is still enjoyable to this day.

As the first game in the series the biggest all stars in Nintendo’s library of intellectual properties come to the fighting arena as well as some lesser known properties.  That means Link is rubbing shoulders with the Mario Brothers, Samus can chill in space with Fox and crew, and Kirby can show the Pokemon crew whose boss.  They even snuck in a few dark horses like Ness from Earthbound and Captain Falcon from F-Zero.  All told 12 playable heroes represent a wide spectrum of gaming worlds, more than enough to provide enough diversity in items and mechanics to last a long time.  The important thing is they grabbed the characters everyone wanted to see; imagine the shit storm if they left out Yoshi or Link!

Throw any preconceived notions of the fighting system; you’ve never played anything like this.  The object of the game is to knock your opponents out of the ring.  Sounds simple right?  It can be if you know what you’re doing.  Rather than a static life bar that depletes over time you have a percentage meter that increases as you take damage.  As it gets higher you fly farther from taking hits; by 250% simple impacts can cause an automatic KO.  There’s no limit to how high you can go either but by 300% you’re pretty much fucked.  It’s a highly original system that works hand in hand with the move sets of each character

The concept of special moves doesn’t really exist in Smash Brothers.  All characters more or less have the same basic moves, a projectile(s), a shield, and a multi-hit attack.  However the range and power behind these attacks make all the difference.  The Mario Brothers are not only well rounded but extremely powerful.  Jigglypuff and Ness require more thought behind their attacks but are equally effective in the hands of a “master” (that doesn’t sound right).  A gaggle of items from each gaming universe are randomly dropped and can both help and hinder you at the same time.  Some are offensive, like Fire Flowers (so powerful!) while others restore health.  They drop frequently enough that it keeps every battle interesting.

The backdrops serve as more than window dressing.  The layout of each stage can present many opportunities to screw over friends by trapping them behind obstacles and unable to climb back in the ring. A lot of thought went into each one and many are interactive, such as the rising lava on Zebes or the random wind in Dream Land.  And they look pretty by N64 standards as well.  Even the classic tunes are well done.  It’s one big fanboy nerdgasm and knows it and that’s why it works so well.

As accomplished as the play mechanics are the single player mode is lacking.  They do a good job of varying the fights , such as the battle against a giant Donkey Kong or Metal Mario however these gimmick fights are few and exactly the same every time.  The Bonus stages are excellent but once again there aren’t too many.  There are few unlockables to keep you coming back so it’s a good thing the multiplayer saves the game.  Plug in 4 controllers and watch the hours fly by.  The multiplayer is what this game was made for and it shows.  The sequels would go into fan overload with a ton of trophies and extras but at the very least this was a good start.

While it pales in comparison to its sequels Super Smash Brothers laid the foundation for later games and is still fun with a group of friends.  There’s a reason these games are best sellers when released and it ain’t just nostalgia.sellers when released and it ain’t just nostalgia.

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F-Zero X

I remember the racing games of the 32-bit era pretty well.  Most were a stuttering mess that could barely keep a decent framerate and even when they did it was in the low 20s at best.  Sure we had our Gran Turismos and Ridge Racers but those were the exception, not the rule.  The N64 saw far too many racing games and admittedly a nice chunk of them were decent.  But one game stands apart from the rest for its technical achievement and content, and that is F-Zero X.

Released in 1998 worldwide many of the series staples were introduced in this game.  The F-Zero Grand Prix is brought back after a hiatus (clever) with new rules and regulations but the name of the game is the same; place first to win.  Noted for its rock steady 60 fps performance and abundance of content F-Zero X was an anomaly for racing games of the time.  Most racing games back then only had 3 tracks and maybe 5 or 6 cars which when is pretty fucking pathetic considering these were CD games.  But leave it to Nintendo and cartridges to pack the game with relevant content that helps the game stand out as one of the best of that generation.

The majority of the characters fans would come to know and love in the series were introduced here.  The number of competitors is increased to 30, including the 4 from the original game.  The differing characteristics between each vehicle are greatly enhanced and have a notable impact on gameplay.  You still have the option of adjusting the balance between top speed and acceleration to offset your chosen racers weaknesses.  New to the series is the ability to hit other vehicles with a spin attack and side attack, which when timed right can create awesome pileups and the opportunity to steal first place.  While the basic race mechanics were given an overhaul the track design saw the biggest changes.

With the move to 3d came the opportunity to create wicked courses that twist and bend in ways not possible in 2d.  The addition of hills, loops and tunnels really changes how you approach the finish line.  Most courses have corkscrews and pipes that allow you to drive on all sides, completely bypassing head on confrontations with fellow drivers or creating opportunities to ambush them and completely knock them off the track.  The same applies to you as well so you need to stay on your toes.  The two attacks at your disposal definitely do a good job of livening up the staid race to the finish without changing the feel of the game into Wipeout or Mario Kart.

Aiding in this are the perfect controls and physics.  Maneuvering around each track is a breeze and almost becomes “zen” when you’re in the zone and completely focused. The learning curve is a bit steep and I can guarantee you’ll be making the most of the adjustable difficulty settings.  But its worth it put in the time and learn the games quirks because there is a wealth of content to keep you occupied.

Broken down into Jack, Queen, and King Cups, each with 6 tracks you won’t see everything in an afternoon.  But on top of that are two hidden cups you have to earn.  The first, Joker cup is considered Expert level difficulty and the tracks bear that out.  The computer AI is vicious but if you persevere you gain access to X-Cup, which is, get this, a random track generator.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Although they are a bit simple the game will pump out an infinite number to keep you entertained for as long as you like.  The standard Vs and Practice modes are joined by Death Race, with the object being to eliminate the other 29 competitors in a set time limit.  You see all that?  That’s how you make a racing game.  None of those bullshit 3 tracks and 3 more flipped and mirrored.

While the graphics occasionally has its moments its nothing to write home about.  But that sense of speed man!

Once you start the game the sense of speed is immediate.  F-Zero X was like nothing else on the market with its blistering pace.  Even with all 30 cars on screen and bombs going off the framerate never dips below 60 and this applies to split screen multiplayer as well.  To achieve this though Nintendo sacrificed detail and effects but it works in this case.  There are some subtle lighting effects here and there but nothing spectacular.  But when you’re twisting around a pipe at 1500 mph and smacking AI cars around with butt rock in your ear it won’t matter.  Speaking of the soundtrack, I’m not the biggest fan of the music but it does seem appropriate for the tone of the game.  There are some remixes of the SNES music but overall I prefer the orchestral sound of its predecessor.

Nintendo had a specific goal in mind for F-Zero X and they delivered.  With blazing fast graphics, a smooth frame rate and tons of content there’s no reason to skip this installment in the series.  It will definitely whet your appetite for the masterpiece that is F-Zero GX.

 

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Yoshi’s Story

Absolute crushing disappointment.  That’s the only way I can sum up Yoshi’s Story.  You have to understand: this was the sequel to Yoshi’s Island, one of the greatest platformers ever made!  And now the next iteration was going to the N64, imagine what they could achieve with 64-Bits!  Well their vision and our imaginations took a huge fucking detour somewhere along the way because the game in question is boring as hell.

Yoshi’s Story was released in the US in March 1998.  The Super Happy Tree has kept the Yoshi population happy for generations but Baby Bowser in his jealousy steals it to make the Yoshi’s miserable.  Six Yoshi eggs survive and set out to retrieve the Happy Tree and bring sunshine back into their lives.  If it sounds kid friendly that’s because it was done on purpose.  The Story in the game’s title is taken literally, from the presentation to the plot.  Too bad they mean kid’s story because Yoshi’s Story is clearly meant for younger players, which isn’t bad in itself, but they clearly tried to bait gamers who loved its prequel with promises that this was more of the same.

Most of the abilities from Yoshi’s Island are present, which could have formed the basis for an exceptional game if not for unnecessary changes to the formula.  The structure of the game is the first major change.  The game is broken up down into 4 pages, each of which is comprised of 6 levels.  The goal of every level is to eat 30 fruit to advance to the next.  Fruit come in many varieties with varying point values as well.  Each Yoshi has a favorite fruit that will award even greater points when consumed.  And therein lies the problem.  It’s boring.

There is very little sense of danger in the game due to its structure.  There is no time limit and no Baby Mario to worry about.  While he was annoying Baby Mario at least created a sense of urgency if you were separated.  Here you are free to take your time avoiding enemies and being picky about the fruit you eat to maximize your score.  Since the levels cycle back to the start if you stray too far it reinforces that point even further.  At 6 levels per play through you can finish the game in an hour.  The levels on each page are ranked by difficulty with some measure of your performance determining which you’ll gain access to.  But the only thing that awaits you is more of the same lame gameplay.

At least it looks pretty though.  On this front you’ll hear no complaints from me.  The pre-rendered graphics echo Donkey Kong Country taken to the next level.  Rather than dipping into the cliché platforming well Nintendo decided to create levels based on different materials such as wood, denim, rubber and cloth.  And it works.  The varieties in art styles are a breath of fresh air for an at times stale genre and are still mind blowing today.  The special effects and animation also deserve mention, with many enemies that squash and stretch in ways you’ve probably never seen before in a platformer.  They definitely put the console’s power to good use.

If only the exceptional graphics were married to gameplay of the same standard.  This was clearly aimed at kids and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But they shouldn’t have bamboozled gamers into thinking it would be a prettier Super Mario World 2; I should know, I followed its progress back in 1997.  There’s no reason to play this other than to marvel at the graphics and you can use youtube for that.

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Metroid

 

These days any game that has an open world that allows you to collect items and pass previously insurmountable obstacles is referred to as a Metroid clone.  But back in 1986 no such distinction existed.  The only thing we were aware of is that this was unlike anything we had played before and that we wanted more.

Metroid was released in 1987 for the US, among the second wave of Nintendo’s games for the NES.  Space Pirates have attacked the Galactic Federation and stolen samples of the Metroid creatures, organisms able to drain the life energy from anything they touch.  Wanting to stop their nefarious plans, the Federation sends in bounty hunter Samus Aran to their base of operations on Planet Zebes.  A mix of Mario’s platforming and Zelda’s open world structure, Metroid was unlike anything released prior and dazzled gamers with its ominous alien world and escalating sense of scale that would inspire many games to come, such as Cave Story or the Divide: Enemies Within.

Upon landing on Zebes the first thing that strikes you is the choice of 2 directions to go.  This is deliberate; from the onset the developers are letting you know how you approach the adventure is up to you.  Another clever hook, by going right first you will eventually run into a wall you can’t pass, forcing you to go back and explore the other side, eventually finding the Maru Maru ball.  This is to clue you into one of the most important facets of the game; making mental notes to go back to particular areas once you’ve found new power-ups.  In the first few screens alone you’ll see many areas that are out of your reach.  This is intentional.  This sort of invisible tutorial about the mechanics of the game is subtle but effective, much like the Legend of Zelda. When all else fails and you see no other way to proceed you know to come back once you’ve found a new weapon.

The weapons you find scattered around Zebes upgrade your meager starting weaponry, if you can call a 5 foot pea shooter a weapon.  Energy Tanks expand your life bar, missiles are powerful tools that eliminate most enemies in one shot and blast open doors, the Long Beam relieves your need to get up close and personal, etc.  Nearly every single one has a secondary use outside of the obvious; the Ice Beam conveniently turns every enemy into a possible stepping stone, and bombs, although they can kill enemies, find the most use discovering hidden passages, which the game is overflowing with for example.

The beauty of your ever increasing arsenal is that they afford you the option of reaching new areas in a number of different ways.  Most situations are never so cut and dry that they have only one solution; there are many instances where you can “sequence break” the game and get upgrades earlier than anticipated.   Even that is a misnomer because the game doesn’t necessarily tell you if you’re doing things the “right” way.

The games’ freedom in many ways is also its biggest flaw.  Even by NES standards Metroid is massive, maybe even rivaling Zelda in terms of size and but in this case you have no map.  None.  Remembering how or even where that previously unreachable door is can be frustrating, a situation that isn’t helped by the repetitive architecture.  The lack of any kind of direction doesn’t help either; ultimately you have to defeat Mother Brain, but how you reach her is never explained.

Through exploration you’ll eventually find the passageway that will lead to her but first you must defeat her two lieutenants, Kraid and Ridley.  But where are they? The game doesn’t tell you.  You simply have to follow any path you find and hope it leads to them.  It’s disheartening to spend large amounts of time going down deeper corridors only to find it’s a dead end.  I’d wager that a significant portion of gamers who have played Metroid never finished it, not because it’s hard but because they just didn’t know where to go.

Speaking of hard, in complete opposition to the majority of games released Metroid actually becomes easier over time.  You start out pathetically weak and in short order become powerful enough to kill most enemies before they reach you.  By the midpoint of the game (if you can even measure that) you can kill most anything by simply jumping at it.  Energy tanks are in ready supply and there are many convenient respawn points if you can stand the tedium.

It isn’t until the end of the game that you’ll meet your first Metroid and it’s a pants shitting moment.  In stark contrast to the rest of the game these bastards are aggressive in their pursuit and can easily reduce you to a stack of exploding pixels.  The entire game is a massive kick in the teeth compared to the rest of the game; I guess Nintendo remembered that video games are supposed to challenge you in the end.

Often imitated but never really surpassed Metroid is a classic in the industry and with good reason.  Often voted pretty highly on most Best of all time lists Metroid’s issues are symptomatic of the era it was released and as such can at least be forgiven.  In spite of that the game is still fun and if you enjoyed Zelda this is right up your alley.

Yeah I spoiled it so what?  Deal with it!

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Pilotwings

It’s not very often that a launch title for a new console can withstand the test of time.  More often than not most launch games are shallow experiences that aim to coast by on sheer wow factor in terms of graphics.   The SNES was fortunate in this regard since it had two groundbreaking titles as part of its lineup: the first was F-Zero, the other was Pilotwings.

Pilotwings was released at the SNES’s launch in North America in 1991.  You are a rookie pilot out to earn his pilot’s license in for 4 vehicles.  With the help of your instructor’s hopefully you’ll become proficient at hang gliding, the rocket belt, sky diving, and the light plane.  Up until that point flight simulators were strictly the realm of PCs however Nintendo used the SNES’s Mode 7 to replicate the feel of flight, creating an easily palatable simulator accessible to anyone.

4 Events await, each presenting their own unique challenges.  The Rocket Belt will task you with learning to adjust your height and speed to navigate through rings, hoops and other assorted obstacles before making a landing.  The Light Plane has you following a path of orbs to eventually make a runway landing, with the complexity ramping up as you progress.  Skydiving deploys you from ever increasing altitudes to learn how to control your descent and rotate on an axis.  Hang Gliding proves the most involved as you catch thermal drifts to ascend to a designated height and then land in the targeted area.  It’s a small list but the devil is in the details.

Each event takes place in its own training area and are graded based on specific criteria.  These can be anything from time to completion, completion of the objectives, landing accuracy, etc.  Points are awarded after succeeding or failing, followed by comments from the instructors.  To pass you have to amass a point total for all events from each instructor.  Bonus stages are available to add to your score and possibly bail you out if you’ve really screwed up but you’ll have to work for it, naturally.  The last mission after completing your certification is a rescue mission in an attack helicopter to save your instructors.  This is the only concession for twitch gamers and is a welcome change of pace from the rigid structure of the main game.

Are you good enough to make it this far?

It’s hard to quantify what makes Pilotwings so great.  Is it the sensation of flight?   For its time no other game on the market could compare to the freedom granted in the game and even going off the rails just to enjoy the sights is enjoyable.  The mission structure is deceptively simple on the surface but the way you are graded encourages multiple attempts to increase your score, even if it’s only by a few points.   True there are only 4 events but each features its own play mechanics and has a near perfect difficulty curve as you progress.  For those that want even greater challenges earning your Pilot Wings will unlock even harder versions of the main events, now with new elements such as varying weather conditions and steeper point requirements.

Gratuitous use of Mode 7 in the early days of the SNES life was rampant however Pilotwings was a prime example of how to do it right.  The backdrops are simply incredible, with silky smooth scaling rotations effects that were unrivaled on consoles.  In many ways it was the precursor to the 3d phenomenon of if you can see it you can go there.  The sound effects and music heighten the experience, with convincing engine noises and upbeat music to inspire you.  In all facets Pilotwings was the complete package.

The only bad thing I can say about Pilotwings is that it’s a shame it didn’t encourage other developers to give the genre a try.  The long years in between releases in the series are painful but when each is of this level of quality it’s worth the wait.  I urge anyone and everyone to give this a try, there truly is something for everyone.

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Star Fox 64

The early months of the Nintendo 64’s life were dark day’s man.  As someone who lived through it, I can tell you the anemic release schedule up until the end of its first year was enough to send most gamers back to their Playstations.  So why did so many of us put up with for so long?  Because the games,when they did come out, were phenomenal, unlike anything else available and generally ground breaking.  One of the brightest stars in the first half of 1997 would be Star Fox 64, heavily delayed but more than worth the wait.

Star Fox 64 was released In June 1997 for the US and Japan.  After the cancellation of Star Fox 2 for SNES many of the concepts and ideas were incorporated into Star Fox 64.  With the added power of the N64 Nintendo were able to take the game even further than what they would have achieved on the aging 16-bit console. Plus by 1995 Star Fox 2 would not have looked so impressive next to Panzer Dragoon.

Evil scientist Andross has attacked the Lylat system, and lacking the resources to stop him on their own, General Pepper has hired the Star Fox team to fight back.  Star Fox 64 aside from being the best game in the series would also introduce Rumble technology to the gaming world, a feature that every console since then has incorporated.  Regardless of the impact the rumble pack had on gaming, Star Fox 64 remains one of the greatest rail shooters ever released.

The name of the game is evolution rather than revolution.  All of the gameplay elements established in Star Fox return but have been given a spit of polish.  There are many more advanced maneuvers to perform in your Arwing aside from barrel rolls, such as somersaults to get behind enemies.  Your shots can lock onto enemies and destroy them in clusters, earning hit bonuses that bring you closer to receiving medals for each stage. The increased focus on the number of enemies shot down goes in hand in hand with other elements of the game I’ll go into shortly.

Your wing men now provide secondary gameplay functions besides getting on your nerves; Slippy will display the boss’s life bar, Peppy will provide gameplay advice and boss strategy, and Falco will open secondary routes through some of the levels.  If they are shot down they are unavailable for one level.  The land master tank and a submarine join the roster of vehicles you can pilot for a nice change of pace.  All-Range mode allows total freedom of movement within a closed environment, with these levels containing the most action packed scenarios, such as an all out brawl against your rivals the Star Wolf team.  This was a feature almost everyone wanted in the first game and it delivers.

There are over 15 levels on the map and unlike the original you don’t choose one of 3 routes to Venom.  Accessing the different planets is achieved in numerous ways: following Falco through a second route through a level, with unique bosses and challenges, reaching a particular hit count on each level or destroy a set number of objects such as gates.  The large amount of levels increases the replay value tremendously since every level has different objectives.  You might be tasked with protecting a base from an alien invasion (in a not so subtle nod to Independence Day) to shooting down missiles before they reach the Great Fox.  The percentage based performance of Star Fox has been replaced with a hit counter that awards silver and gold medals that unlock bonuses in the multiplayer mode.

What could easily have been a throwaway addition to the game actually adds longevity to the title.  Imagine those entire awesome dog fighting scenes from your favorite movies; that’s what you get here.  Available for up to 4 players the arenas are large enough that you can give chase and try to outmaneuver your opponents but at the same time small enough to force confrontation regularly.  The 3 modes, point match, battle royal, and time trial are insanely fun.  By winning medals in single player you will eventually gain access to the Land master and the option to fight on foot.  I freely admit, I wasn’t expecting much from the multiplayer. Initially; we gave it a shot because there wasn’t any other games releasing in the near future that were interesting.  What we didn’t count on was becoming addicted to it for the majority of that summer.

For its time Star Fox 64 was one of the best looking games on the market.  The scale of the levels were simply unmatched back in the day.  With less technical limitations EAD increased the scope of the levels tremendously.  The homage to Independence Day is pulled off beautifully and is only one of a number of levels that are truly memorable.  It isn’t perfect however.  The frame rate nosedives whenever the action becomes too hectic, and some levels are more blurred and dithered than others (Aquas especially), which is a bit disappointing.

What doesn’t disappoint is the ridiculous amount of speech in the game.  For an 8 Megabyte cart this is insane: all dialogue is spoken, and competently too!   There are some nutty bastards out there who will say the mumbles and gurgles of the original Star Fox are better; those people need to be shot.  The music suffers somewhat because of this but that isn’t to say it’s terrible, just that it isn’t on the same level as the graphics and voice acting.

You have branching paths, a robust multiplayer mode, and a truckload of secrets all wrapped up in a single package to create one of the best rail shooters ever made.  Why this genre seems to have died out I don’t know but don’t make the mistake of missing out on this fine shooter.  Star Fox 64 is available on the Wii’s virtual console and a remake for the 3DS is available with improved graphics.  This was one of my most anticipated releases and I’m happy to say it lived up to the hype.

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F-Zero

The early months of the SNES’s launch saw a slew of developers shoehorn Mode 7 effects into their games for no discernable reason.  Seriously, how many games in the first year did the “zoom into the map” effect?  Not that I blame them, it was an easy effect used to dazzle tween minds across the world, and I was one of them.  But in this sea of gratuity there were two games that made legitimate use of it; one was Pilotwings, the other was F-Zero.

F-Zero was released at the SNES’s launch in every territory and with good reason. In terms of sheer wow factor it oozed it in spades.  You have your choice of 4 pilots, each with their own unique craft as you participate in the F-Zero Tournament.  This was one of the first futuristic racing games and is largely credited with creating the subgenre.

Each pilot has their own stats with the most obvious being max speed and acceleration curve.  One less obvious facet is the weight of each hovercar; lighter cars replenish life slower while heavy cars are the opposite.  The 3 racing leagues, Knight, Queen, and King correspond to the game’s difficulty levels, each with their own unique courses.  There are no powerups or items to collect, the action is clearly focused on the racing itself.  Every course has at least one pit area that can be used to recover life because trust me, you’ll need it.  The tracks are littered with hazards, such as mines and magnets to drive you into the sides of the road and lose life.  After every lap you receive one boost and determining the best time to use it can change the outcome of a race significantly.

The main aspect of F-Zero that still stands out today is its intensity.  Every course is 5 laps and maintaining your composure as the final lap gets closer is harrowing.  The computer can be brutal at times, willing to bump into you and knock you around the track and exploit any screw ups on your part immediately.  The difficulty curve is pretty steep, even in the Knight League, and I’ll wager most will use  their continues by the end of the Queen league.  The track design is incredibly clever with many tight hairpin turns and long stretches of hazards that are extremely rewarding to master.  Thankfully there is a practice mode to hone your skills without any outside interference.  The only thing F-Zero is missing is multiplayer, likely a victim of a launch crunch.

The SNES Mode 7 was able to for the first time bring the same level of scaling and rotation seen in many arcade games to home consoles.  The pseudo 3d courses twist and turn in unbelievable ways thanks to Mode 7, and even today the effect is impressive.  The courses span a wide range of settings and even the multiple iterations of the same theme, such as Mute City are all unique and sometimes take place at different times of day.  The soundtrack is also phenomenal; every track has its own theme and there are as many as 2-3 remixes that are unique.

Still fun and just as groundbreaking as it was in 1991 F-Zero is a fun and challenging trip down memory lane.  It’s a shame the US and Europe never received the updates released through the Satellaview but that’s understandable.  If they would have included a multiplayer option this would have been the complete package.  That’s a minor issue though, as the sequels more than made up for that.

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Goldeneye

By now Goldeneye has gone on to become legendary. There were honestly no expectations placed on upon its release; if anything you could say it was expected to be horrible. Movie licensed games on average usually turned out terrible, and Goldeneye had a protracted development schedule, further placing it in the doghouse. But its release came as a more than pleasant surprise and actually carried the N64 for many months after.

Goldeneye was released worldwide in August 1997. A bit odd, coming 2 years after the movie had faded from the public’s conscience. It follows the plot of the movie closely, with James Bond fighting to stop an evil syndicate from destroying London with a satellite weapon. All of the film’s characters make appearances and the only concessions made are for gameplay reasons. Goldeneye was revolutionary for a number of reasons: its mission structure, multiplayer mode, and level designs were first rate and would largely begin the fps revolution on consoles, with Halo later picking up the baton and running with it a few years later.

First person shooters had existed on consoles before, with the likes of Doom and Wolfenstein 3d receiving many console ports with varying degrees of success. The 32/64 bit generation would be the first time that a console would have the necessary power to do the genre justice, with the N64 especially receiving many PC ports and exclusives designed for it.  Even years later Goldeneye still held its own thanks to the craftsmanship of Rare.

Unlike Doom or Heretic, Goldeneye is mission based, with your objectives laid out beforehand. These range from the simple, such as escaping in a waiting plane before it is blown up to the more complex, such as protecting a scientist while he performs his necessary task. 3 difficulty levels are available, Agent, Secret Agent, and 00 Agent with the amount of objectives increasing for each one. The implications of this were huge: not only did it increase replay value and add incentives for trying harder settings; it changed how you would approach the levels as well. Large chunks of each mission can be ignored when playing on Agent; it’s when you crank it up to 00 Agent that you get the whole picture and really learn to appreciate how well thought out the environments were designed.  There are no time limits but it is tracked. Completing a mission within a strict time limit will unlock a large volume of cheat codes you can use for single or multiplayer.

You’ll start every mission with the standard pistol, wrist watch, and whatever gadget Q has cooked up that is relevant for the task at hand.  Modems, magnet attract watches, camera, data thieves, key analyzers, laser watches, and other classic James Bond-style spy toys all play minor parts in weaving your way through multi-objective based missions. There are a host of weapons to use, ranging from the standard Sniper rifle, pistol and grenades to the Klobb and proximity mines.  They all vary in terms of speed, power and ammo and also inflict different amounts of damage depending on the body part hit.  This was another innovation Goldeneye brought to the table; targeting body parts produced different results.  Head shots are obviously instant death kills but shooting a hand will cause a soldier to drop his weapon or a leg shot will make him hop around and buy you time.  The weapons and gadgets chosen are integral to completing the missions depending on your play style and learning when and where to deploy each one is integral to completing a given task. This is where Goldeneye is a cut above most games.

The mission structure is incredible in its variety, changing the pace frequently so you never become too comfortable. The simpler missions such as bun geeing off the dam in the beginning are akin to Doom, where you can play it as a straight shoot em up and power your way to the end.  The more complex, like the Facility, task you with multiple objectives, failure to complete any of which forces you to restart.  The incorporation of stealth elements works well, as you’ll have to consider how loud your weapons are, avoid security cameras, and avoid tripping alarms or being seen by guards.  The enemy AI, while rudimentary now, was revolutionary in its time. Guards actively tried avoiding your bullets, sometimes rolling or ducking behind cover. If outgunned they would activate alarms for reinforcements, forcing you to prioritize runners.

The level of detail the game exhibits was astounding: enemies featured a range of animations such as reacting to location specific damage, and there are even destructible environments. There are all kinds of small touches that can be easily missed, such as shooting the hats of enemies or hidden Easter eggs that reference prior movies in the Bond franchise.  It still baffles me how Rare were able to cram so much into so little cartridge space.

While the single player campaign was strong the multiplayer mode is where the game truly became a phenomenon, dominating college dorms for years.  The N64’s four controller ports made it easy to assemble 4-player death matches that would last hours.  The options are staggering considering this was their first attempt at such a mode, with 31 characters and 11 arenas becoming available when all is said and done. The modes encompass all of the standard PC game tropes such as deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag.  In my opinion License to kill mode was the best, with 1 hit kills boosting kill counts and causing rage quits aplenty.

Sure it’s easy to ask what the big deal is; these were all things PC gamers had been accustomed to for years.  In the console space however it was a revelation.  Time has not been kind to the multiplayer however, as the pace is freakishly slow and the arenas very small. But you can hardly fault the game for that.  Considering the game’s troubled development it’s a wonder the multiplayer mode was even added to game at all and that it turned out so well.

You only need to see the list of awards Goldeneye has won to know this is a classic gaming at its best.  Frequently voted as one of the greatest games of all time it matches its lofty reputation and lives up to the hype. The multiplayer has been surpassed by many games now but the single player campaign still wipes the floor with many of today’s new releases.  Goldeneye set a new standard in the first person genre and stands as one of the best movie to game conversions of all time.

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Illusion of Gaia

While most of developer Quintet’s SNES output focused on creating/recreating the world, Illusion of Gaia bucked that trend and instead focused on discovery.  The second in the unofficial creation trilogy Illusion of Gaia continued the steady progression in quality with excellent action, higher production values  and strong writing.  Illusion of Gaia was released by Enix in Japan and Nintendo in the rest of the world.  A strange move at first but when you stop and think about it it makes sense considering its similarities to the Zelda series.

Illusion of Gaia follows Will, who returned home after a failed expedition to the Tower of Babel with his father a year prior with no memory of the events that transpired.  Rumors of a comet slowly approaching persist and although he would like to spend his days lazing about with his friends events emerge that force Will to return to the Tower of Babel and solve the mystery of the impending comet.  The game takes place in a fictionalized version of the real world, with real life locations such as the Great Wall of China and Angkor Wat serving as the dungeons you’ll explore.

illusion-of-gaia-u-064

Gameplay is split between town segments and the various “dungeons” you explore.   You converse with the townspeople to learn about the world and find new locations to visit on the world map.  The towns merely serve as anchor points between the dungeons to propel the game forward as there aren’t any shops or weapons and armor to buy.  Although you travel with a large entourage Will (and his alter egos) are the only playable characters.

Unlike Soul Blazer the game is very linear in the sense that there is no backtracking and you can only visit locales that have been revealed to you or that the game deems currently relevant.  There is only 1 optional side quest; there are 50 Red jewels scattered around the world in every locale.  There are various reward tiers for collecting the Red jewels however the prize for finding all 50 is only relevant to those who are familiar with Soul Blazer, not to mention it’s easy to fail since you cannot revisit any areas once cleared.  Since there is no experience system the game handles character progression differently.  There are no shops to buy weapons or armor or even currency for that matter.  All stat upgrades come from the dungeons themselves.

Retro RPG gaming at its finest.

The dungeons will immediately remind you of Zelda.  By killing all enemies in each room one of 3 things will occur: one of your stats (hp, attack, & defense) will increase, a barrier will be removed, or you’ll receive an item.  At any given time you can check your map to see how many enemies are left on a given screen along with treasure chests left.  It sounds like it would be repetitive but the creators were very aware not to overload each room with too many enemies and let’s be honest, you would have killed all of them anyway.

By finding the Dark Spaces occupied by Gaia Will can transform into the Dark Knight Freedan and later Shadow.  All 3 characters possess unique powers that are integral to solve the puzzles occupying the dungeons, making switching important to completion.  The puzzles themselves usually involve figuring out how to destroy some out of the way monster that will then remove an obstacle in your path.  As you move on to different dungeons the layouts become trickier and more dense.  There are numerous head scratching moments as the solution to some of the puzzles aren’t immediately obvious.  The simplicity of earlier dungeons fade as you’ll make extensive use of both Will and Freedan in every area. I feel the game makes excellent use of the abilities of all 3 characters with its well designed puzzles.

The challenge is about average as you’ll steam roll most enemies but carelessness can still get you killed.  There aren’t many medical herbs in the game since you can’t buy them so it’s very easy to lose track of your life bar during a boss fight and die  The gems you collect function as checkpoints that start you closer to where you’ve died so the penalty for sloppiness isn’t too steep.  Bottom line, you won’t be sweating bullets too often.

The story is where the game shines even despite its age.   The game is squarely set during the age of discovery with all of the real world locations just as new to the characters as well as you.  That sense of exploration is fully realized as the sense of awe the characters are experiencing upon reaching each new vista is conveyed very well.  The character growth each member of your party will experience is exceptionally well written for a game of that period.  The entire trip plays out over a very long length of time and each of Will’s friends has at least one traumatic event that forces them to grow up, so to speak.  Surprisingly the story is a bit dark and explores slavery, starvation, love and death.  There are moments of comedy to break up the tense atmosphere and thankfully they are well timed for the most part.  Kudos to the writing staff for handling the subject matter intelligently without dumbing it down.

Some would say the linear structure is a let down after the freedom of Soul Blazer but I think the strength of the writing compensates.  The polished graphics and exceptional soundtrack don’t hurt either.  For those that like classic Action RPGs I highly recommend it.

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Mario Kart 64

The early days of the N64 can be summed up in 1 word: waiting.  As third parties ran screaming from cartridges and Nintendo’s hefty license fees not only were releases few and far between but constantly delayed as well.  As someone who lived through that period it was infuriating, let me tell you.  The games more often than not were worth the wait, many of them achieving classic status but its not an exaggeration to say you could add 4-6 months to any release date and it would be accurate.  With nothing else new to keep us occupied we had no choice but to turn to multiplayer, which the N64 excelled at.  Mario Kart 64 was one of the earliest 4 player games on the system and would be a main stay in N64 consoles years after release.

Mario Kart 64 was released in February 1997 for the US with Europe getting hosed as usual and forced to wait until June.  The first major release after the system’s record breaking holiday season, it benefited from having no competition while also largely meeting gamers’ expectations.  A direct sequel to the SNES game, Mario Kart 64 benefited from the move to 3d in terms of track design, with large hills, pits, and walls now possible instead of using sprite trickery to fake it.

The advances in track design would also extend to the riotous multiplayer mode, with more complex battle arenas that offered unique opportunities to ambush fellow players and quickly escape.  Despite all of these advances not every element of the game was met with favoritism by players.

Four gameplay modes are available: Mario GP, Time Trial, Vs. and Battle.  Time Trial and Vs. are both self explanatory Grand Prix is divided into 4 Cups with 4 tracks each.  The different CC classes (50, 100, & 150) correspond to difficulty, as you and you’re opponents increase in speed and aggressiveness.  Unlike most racing games, all of the tracks are available right from the start.  16 Tracks was a massive amount considering the majority of racing games during that period only had 3-5 at most if you were lucky.  The 8 characters available are rated in 3 categories although the game never explicitly states it.

A host of new items were added, many of which would go on to become staples of the series.   Turtle shells now have a blue variant which seeks out the rider in first place.  In addition you can gain 3 red or green shells that rotate like a shield and can be launched at your discretion.  The ghost will steal a power-up from the nearest opponent, the lightning bolt will shrink everyone but you for easy squashing, and a new multi use boost mushroom round out the list.  As useful as these are in single player it’s obvious from the beginning they were designed with multiplayer in mind and this is where Mario Kart 64 shines.

Plug in 4 controllers and the game takes on a whole new life.   2 players can go through GP mode together but that’s not where the meat of the game lies.  The battle mode is what made late night college parties a daily occurrence.  The 4 battle arenas truly take advantage of the jump into 3d with a ridiculous number of holes and side rooms to duck and cover in the heat of the moment.

The new items added to the game truly shine here and create legendary moments, such as using the ghost to steal a red turtle shell at the last moment before losing and turning the tables.  Vs. is available for up to 4 players but there are no computer controlled cars disappointingly.  Bottom line, you play multiplayer for the battle mode.  It’s fortunate that it turned out so well as the single player is truly lacking.

Be prepared to have someone on your ass at all times.  It really is not fun to drive perfectly and

yet the computer is 2 paces behind without missing a step.

The problems with the single player mode largely stem from Nintendo’s efforts to make it more engaging.  The game is largely focused on weapons with far more item boxes littering the tracks.   The issues stem from the way it’s balanced.  Lower ranked players receive the better items while those in first or second are shafted with the pathetic banana more often than not.  But this takes a backseat to the biggest offender, the rubberband AI.  Not since R.C. Pro AM have I experienced AI so cheap.  The AI aggressively speeds up as soon as you are in first, to the point where you will never have a comfortable lead at any point.  Crank it up to 100 or 150cc and it borders on retarded.

Even after you’ve mastered advanced techniques such as sliding and mini turbo boosting every race is a literal photo finish.  Just to give you an example:  In Wario Stadium there is a shortcut at the beginning that will dump you in the last 3rd of the track.  I can guarantee by the time you begin the second lap the AI will be right behind you like a rabid dog.  Some might say it makes every race visceral but I would say they have a hole in their heads.  If I’m running a perfect line, sliding into every turn with machine like precision I should reap the rewards, not have the computer receive a miracle bullshit speed boost to keep up.  It ultimately makes the single player mode feel hollow as you’ll never feel as though your skills make any difference.

The multiplayer still holds up but the single player is just as disappointing now as it was then.  My recommendation still stands: play this for the multiplayer thrills and Diddy Kong Racing for single player.  It would have been awesome to have both in one retro package but sometimes you can’t have everything.

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Wave Race 64

Hype is an inescapable part of the video game industry.  Whether it is a developer extolling the virtues of their latest creation to game journalists struggling to put into words how awesome a new product they’ve just seen is, we are all guilty of falling for it.  New console launches are when these events are at their peak.  We can all remember the PS2 hype and how it played a part in killing the Dreamcast.  But arguably the N64 played host to even bigger launch promises, such as being a Silicon Graphics Workstation in console form.  It fell far short of those expectations but still we wanted to believe.  Why?  Because of games like Wave Race 64.

Wave Race 64 was released as a near launch title for the N64 in the US.  Previously demoed at Nintendo’s annual Shoshinkai show in 1995 it would emerge some months later in a completely new form, ditching the Speedboats from the original gameboy game (bet you didn’t know about that) for riders on Jet skis.  The change made little difference as the game was and is absolutely phenomenal, with a wealth of game modes and tracks to plow through.

You have a choice between 4 riders with their own stats in 3 categories.  These can be manually edited to create the feel you want to an extent.  Championship pits you in a race against 3 opponents as you accrue points needed to qualify for the next race.  3 opponents does not sound like much but it will make you shit a brick when you are in 4th and in danger of disqualifying.

Depending on the difficulty the amount of points needed to progress increases as well as adding new tracks to the race, giving you further incentive to move ahead.  Stunt mode lets you show off your tricks for points, and I freely admit to losing any skill I once had in it.  The tracks unlocked can be taken for a test drive in Warm up mode and Time Trial.  Memorizing the layouts will only get you so far as the accurate water physics represent the other side of the picture for each race.

The water does a lot more than simply look pretty.  Depending on the track, difficulty, and racer chosen your handling will be affected, giving you something else to consider besides the other racers.  The way the jet skis bob and weave along the surface of the water, cut into the waves as you turn or even skid on ice is simply unparalleled, even to this day.  As you build up speed itwill also play a factor in how the water will affect your handling.  The tracks change dynamically as time passes, with once blocked off track elements opening up to reveal shortcuts that come with equal parts risk and reward.

Kicking up the difficulty  enriches the tracks with more buoys to pass, spikes to knock you off your jet ski and a bump in the CPU rider’s driving prowess.  There are no cheap gimmicks used, they’ll simply bump you more aggressively and actively use shortcuts as they open up.  In addition water conditions become more erratic with far more big waves to ride and currents that will throw you around.  They almost become new tracks and enhance the fun factor as you familiarize yourself with buoy layouts.

Back in 1996 no home console game looked like this.

A lot of promises were made about the N64’s graphical prowess and while the system did not live up to the lofty expectations placed on it games like Wave Race made everyone forget.  Wave Race was a virtual revelation, with ridiculous transparencies and previously impossible water.  The weather conditions change as time passes setting the mood for the courses, such as the setting sun of Sunset Bay or the night lights of Twilight City.  Watching the fog part and seeing the perfect reflections on the surface of the water of Drake Lake is still magical nearly 20 years later.  The only sub par element would be the blocky character models but you aren’t even paying attention to those lamers anyway.  It took many years for the water in this game to be surpassed, a testament to the creator’s craftsmanship.

This is still one of the best racing games ever made.  When you think about it it seems really stupid that very few racing games on water had been made.  Nintendo kind of ruined it for everyone else by setting the bar so high but we as gamers ultimately benefited.  Its funny to think that concerns were raised that because of cartridge space there wouldn’t be enough content to satiate gamers when this game had more to offer than 3 or 4 of the racing games of the time combined.  A masterpiece however you slice it.

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Diddy Kong Racing

During the 32-bit era no exclusive developer was more important to their partner than Rare was to Nintendo.  You could argue Squaresoft filled that role for Sony but the truth is even without them there were a ton of other third parties that would have picked up the slack.  Whenever Nintendo would delay a game or had a hole in their lineup Rare was there to cover their ass.  In 1997 when both Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Quest were delayed it could have been a disastrous holiday for Nintendo if Rare were not prepared with Diddy Kong Racing.

Diddy Kong Racing was released in the fall of 1997 completely out of nowhere.  No one was even aware of its existence until 2 months prior to release.  Released to fill the hole left by Banjo and Conker’s delay that the game was so good despite no prior coverage was a shock to many.  Although Mario Kart 64 had already seen release earlier in the year Diddy Kong Racing was different enough that the two games could co-exist.  Despite genre similarities, both games excelled in separate categories.

You have your choice of 8 characters to go through the game, each with their own stats in terms of speed, acceleration, and cornering.  Unfortunately you are not privy to this information anywhere in the game.  The stat differences actually do have a tangible impact and give you a reason to use the characters that are fast but have terrible handling and acceleration.  Nearly all courses allow you to race in the stock car, hovercraft or plane.  Bananas scattered around the tracks increase your top speed and all weapons can be upgraded 3 times.  It wears its Mario Kart roots on its sleeve but what it copies it then improves upon.  And best of all none of that rubberband AI bullshit from Mario Kart 64.  Thank the lord.

The game is split into two parts, adventure and multiplayer.  In the adventure mode you are assisted by Taj the Genie as you visit 4 separate hubs to find the pieces of the Wizpig amulet.  Once assembled you will then have the right to challenge Wizpig to a race.  The adventure in the title is no misnomer as there is a wealth of content.  20 courses total, 10  boss battles, 4 multiplayer challenges, Time Trial races, and the silver coin challenge is a lot of content to work through, something very uncommon for games in this genre.

By completing all 4 races in a world you are allowed to challenge that world’s boss, who in turn will give you the silver coin challenge.  The silver coin challenge is a grueling race to collect 8 silver coins on each level and still place first.  Beating the boss a second time nets you a piece of the Wizpig Amulet.  Rare had started to develop a reputation for collectathon bullshit and this game could be seen as the start of that.  To the game’s credit the majority of this stuff is completely optional.

You wouldn’t expect it as Kart racers are usually aimed at younger audiences but there is a decent amount of challenge in the game.  The bosses are cheating bastards that require you to run a near perfect race in order to win.  Your choice of character for these will largely determine whether these battles are near impossible or a piece of cake.  The silver coin challenge will force you to become intimately familiar with the tracks as many of the coins are placed in such a way that you’ll have to go out of your way to reach them.  I love that they don’t hold your hand through these as it is impossible to scrub your way through them, a bit rough considering the target audience but a necessary step in building their skills.

Multiplayer surprisingly is a bit weak.  The standard 4 player races are available for all of the tracks unlocked.  The battle mode is where it comes up short.  On 1 level of each world there is a key that will unlock a multiplayer challenge, completion of which unlocks it for the multiplayer mode.  2 of these are battle royales and the others are objective based, an attempt to inject a bit more life into multiplayer.  Regardless the level designs just don’t hold up and are boring, an area Mario Kart got right. These stages are far too spacious, leaving you alone with no sight of your opponents for long stretches at a time.  It’s a bit of a shame but the Adventure more than compensates.

Rare were one of the few developers able to overcome the N64’s patented blurry look and this game is a showcase for the hardware.  The overall look of the game is very vibrant with some sweet specular highlighting and transparencies.  The overall look of the game is super clean due to smart art direction and technical know how.  The only hitch would be the at times sub par frame rate and saccharine character design.   The music is also wonderful, able to change dynamically on the fly with a diverse array of themes that are also a bit cutesy at times.

After the slight disappointment of Mario Kart 64 this was a breath of fresh air.  Play this for the single player mode and Mario kart for the multiplayer.  This is one of the few times where a clone is able to legitimately one up its inspiration in many facets and turn out to be a better game overall.

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Star Fox

We live in an era right now where, through the wonders of modern gaming technology, we can create any possible game world you can imagine in 3d.  From fantasy to hard sci-fi if you can picture it you can create it, and quite beautifully I might add.  But things weren’t always like this.  There was a time when the concept of making actual video games with real 3d was a foreign concept.  Some companies had dabbled with it, mostly on the PC side and especially in the arcade.  So it came as quite a surprise when Star Fox was announced for the SNES.

Star Fox was not even on my radar back in 1993 although the marketing for it was everywhere.  The commercials for the game were pretty awesome; in a rare move Nintendo took direct pot shots at Sega.  Even if you didn’t like the game you would still remember that advertisement.  I completely wrote it off and even arrogantly chalked up all the praise the game received as everyone falling over something new just for the sake of it.  It also didn’t help that whenever I would go to a store with a demo unit the controller was broken.    All of these factors contributed to my not giving a damn.  My epiphany came when a friend’s older brother bragged that I had probably beaten the game already, not knowing that I had never even given the game a chance to that point.  With my reputation on the line I gave it a shot.

Star Fox was created as a collaboration between UK based Argonaut and Nintendo with the latter creating the characters and gameplay while Argonaut assisted with programming.  The Super-FX chip used in the game to power the 3d visuals was revolutionary for the time.  It’s crude to look at now but for its time this was ground breaking.  You control Fox McCloud, leader of the Star Fox team as you travel through various planets with your crew to defeat Andross on his home planet of Venom.  Gameplay takes the form of a rail shooter switches between first and third person view.

Right away the game impresses.  The intro still manages to bring a smile to my face.  In fact all of the “cut scenes” in the game are very well done, making excellent use of different camera angles for dramatic effect.  You are presented with a map at the start with a choice of 3 different paths to Venom.  It’s not stated outright but each one represents another difficulty level.  What’s even more awesome about this is each has their own unique levels and is a huge replay value incentive.   Although you are on a straight path through the levels you can obviously move in any direction and on the space levels even pan the camera up and down, which does come in handy to locate enemies that are hitting you off screen.  It never dawned on me as odd back then but the addition of a life bar was huge.   Most shooters at the time and even now are 1 shot and you’re dead.  That model would not have worked here as the game would be impossible.

At the end of every level you are graded on the percentage of enemies shot down and while I generally don’t give care about scoring something compelled me to get 100% on every stage.  You contend with just as many stage hazards as enemies such as sliding doors, pillars that spawn from behind, above and even from the sides,and asteroids to switch things up.  The scenarios read like a sci-fi greatest hits and are awesome.  Flying through an asteroid belt?  Check.  Attacking a space armada?  Hell yeah.  Hell if you’re good enough you can even explore a black hole.

Your crew members are with you throughout the entire game unless you let them get killed; if this happens they’ll be absent for 1 level before returning.  I liked having them with me even though they are off screen for the most part.  Your primary interactions with them come from them asking for help when in trouble.  These moments will keep you on your toes as they can come at any given moment, usually when you’re dealing with enemy fire of your own.  It does start to get annoying when they occur 2 or 3 times in a row.  It’s weird, you don’t even see them 90% of the time but it still feels like a team effort.  Part of this comes from their personalities.  You’ll hear their radio chatter constantly, some of it relating to the current situation, some of it just for fun.  Falco is arrogant and will never directly ask for your help, even going as far as chiding you for “butting into his business.  Peppy is a font of knowledge, being the senior member of the crew and will be the one to give you helpful hints when needed.  Slippy is……………………a useless nutsack.   The majority of the time someone needs help?  F*cking Slippy.  But you know what?  You still can’t help but love the little bastard regardless.

F*cking Slippy.

The 3d visuals haven’t aged so gracefully but you can still see how they worked within the limitations they had to execute their vision.  Everything is made up of simple flat shaded polygons but I love the way they use varying shades of color to add detail.  It’s a simple detail but in a way that sums up the graphic style.  The design of the Arwings are the graphical highlight of the game.  They work perfectly with the simplified style and cut scenes in between levels show off many angles of the ships.  The biggest detriment to the graphics would be the frame rate which by today’s standards is atrocious.  This will sound strange after that last comment but it doesn’t really matter in the end.  I feel the low frame rate was taken into account and it doesn’t detract from the gameplay too much.  The draw distance as well is not very far, with large objects appearing seconds in front of you.

The varying camera angles to a degree are self indulgent and show the designers going nuts and playing around with a new toy.  I mean that in a good way.  They create these awesome cinematic moments that will remind you of great sci-fi films from the past.  The quality and amount of speech in the game was and still is impressive.  I think only Joe Montana Sports Talk Football had more at the time, unless you want to count Awesome Possum.  But you shouldn’t.  Because Awesome Possum can eat my ass for all I care.  And it’s the good kind of speech, not that phlegm in the throat stuff prevalent during that era (alright mostly in Genesis games).  Especially the ending.

This was mindblowing back in 1993 and still is today.

Does it still hold up?  Definitely.  The frame rate puts a little dirt on its sheen but the gameplay is what truly matters, and it doesn’t hamper that.  You’ll wonder why more games like this aren’t made.  I wonder why Nintendo doesn’t just make a real god damn sequel instead of all the experimental shit they’ve done since .  But that’s a discussion for another time.

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Buy Star Fox