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Cabal

Nowadays I have little interest in military shooters but growing up I couldn’t get enough of it. Commando, Contra, GI Joe, I loved that shit. Cabal was fairly innocuous release back in the day but looking back it was pretty ground breaking. It’s actually kind of funny to think about it but Cabal was a pretty innovative take on the action genre popular in the 80s. Honestly I’m surprised this version of the third person shooter wasn’t more popular; outside of the unintentionally funny Nam-1975, Dynamite Duke, and the awesome Wild Guns it gained little traction. Damn shame too as despite their simplicity these games are intense in a way that most action titles can’t manage. The NES port is very well done and aside from a weird control setup (which is perfectly workable I just don’t like it much) is one of the better action games for the system.

When you boil it down Cabal is basically a shooting gallery with limited movement. You have a small space to move around in with the cursor trailing slightly behind. When firing you are locked in position but can freely target anything on the map. For defense every level has a few brick walls or other such objects you can hide behind for cover but much like Space Invaders it will gradually be destroyed. Once that happens you’ll have to master using the dodge roll; you’re invincible while rolling but it is easy to get hit by a stray bullet once it ends. Your only power-ups are a shotgun and a machine gun that last about 10 seconds; go wild! Grenades are in ready supply but due to the controls you’ll end up wasting a bunch of them.

With just two primary buttons it was a challenge adapting the arcade game’s setup to the NES controller and I don’t think they have done the best job of it. The arcade unit used a three button setup, one for shooting, one for grenades, and one for dodging. Here both grenades and the fire button are shared with the B button used for moving faster and dodging in combination with the D-pad. It’s less than ideal and will see you wasting grenades really fast.   It is at least manageable unlike Rare’s port of NARC.

Since this is essentially a shooting gallery length is a bit of a concern however overall this is a pretty meaty game. There are five main stages with four sub-levels each. The objective is to cause as much destruction and death possible to fill the meter to move on to the next stage. Depending on your skill these can last close to 10 minutes each or go by in as little as thirty seconds. Once you know the points where enemies will spawn on each map it’s easy to clear the screen to focus on destroying tanks and the environment which fills up the bar the quickest.

That type of ruthless efficiency is necessary as the game can be a bit of a challenge. It isn’t as cheap as most arcade games of the time but between the control setup and limited continues it will take some doing to get to the end. Overall I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly tough game but it does feel cheap at times as your cover is shredded within moments and there’s nothing you can do about it. I would say the roughest part is getting the mechanics down; the dodge roll isn’t the best survival mechanic even though I like it. The later levels tend to go overboard with the tanks, molotov chucking generals who can actually dodge just like you, and dive bombing jets. The boss battles I found to be easy in comparison; there’s usually a safe spot or two where you can sit and whittle them down.

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As a port Rare has done a pretty good job of recreating the arcade game’s look. Many of the background details have had to be redesigned but it’s all there and fully destructible. The NES reduced color palette does mean that the color is more garish and colorful than the dull grey and brown of its quarter munching counterpart. I will say that I’m surprised that there is no flicker or slowdown even though the screen can get busy in short order. Despite the staunch military setting the game comes across as a bit goofy; your commando is a little too happy at the end of every level having murdered the population of a small town and that end level celebration dance never gets old.

There isn’t a whole lot of substance to it but in the end I really liked Cabal. Maybe the simplicity of the genre wasn’t to everyone’s liking which is why more games in this style were never made which is a pity. This is a quality conversion of a good game.

7-out-of-10-1

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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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R.C. Pro Am II

There were many late NES titles that went overlooked as the SNES took the spotlight, some of them classics, some technically brilliant but sorely lacking in gameplay.  The racing genre was not one of the most crowded in the NES library and so R.C. Pro Am stood out for its unique viewpoint and tight gameplay.  But a lot of its charm was also ruined by the rubber band AI.  R.C. Pro-Am II sought to correct its predecessor’s flaws and does so in many ways while at the same time leaves the most glaring one intact.  This is still an excellent title in spite of that but the game would truly have been incredible if the computer AI had been toned down.

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Utilizing the same isometric perspective you compete in 24 races that now span more varied terrain for added visual variety.  The first eight are the standard stadium tracks and are followed by eight tracks in the city and concludes its final stretch in desert.  Rather than being awarded trophies you are given points and cash depending on position.  You still have to come in at least third place to move on which kind of sucks.  I’d have preferred the system used in Wave Race in which you need to meet the minimum number of points to qualify but it’s a small issue.

The money earned from placing in the top three and collected around each track is used to buy upgrades prior to each race.  New motors will boost your top speed while better tires increase the fidelity of your handling.  Unlike the first game the impact is definitely tangible especially in the case of gripping; the best tires will allow you to take corners with a level of finesse that borders on poetry in motion.

Missiles and oil slicks return and function the same however a number of new additions have been added to the list of weapons that have situational uses.  The new buckshot isn’t really an offensive weapons but will instead knock cash out of your opponents.  The freeze beam is handy to stop opponents in their tracks at the finish line and secure first place.  The laser is the lamest as it is simply a more powerful missile.  Probably the most crucial is Nitro which gives you a few second boost in speed which when combined with speed bumps can turn the outcome of a race in seconds.

There are tons of items littering each track that provide different benefits.  Stars will allow you to use your weapons more frequently, money bags provide extra cash, and there are random engine parts such as tires and motors that provide permanent boosts to your attributes.  Collecting the letters that spell Pro Am II (rather than Nintendo) will provide a new car that is sleeker and has better handling.  One change that I’m sure most won’t see coming is that your rivals can also collect these items too.  It’s possible that they can get a better car sooner than you at which point you’re screwed.  It’s a much better system (although frightening) than in the first game where your competition received the same upgraded vehicles you did, which made it pointless to upgrade.

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The track design is far more adventurous this time out; whether that’s due to the years of experience working with the hardware or simply a willing to take risks doesn’t matter.  The previously flat and boring layouts of the first game are joined by massive hills, jumps, and other murky terrain.  The changes in elevation alone produce much more exciting moments on each track but the addition of new hazards like slippery ice and planes that perform strafing runs really bring it over the top so long as you aren’t on the receiving end.

As fun as the game can be, especially in multiplayer, the difficulty becomes borderline insane in the later stages of the game.  Even with a fully tricked out car and nitro it’s possible for the computer to leave you in the dust.  The rubber banding has been toned down somewhat but is still present.  It’s disheartening to see a rival car you just shot with a missile and left behind appear behind you within seconds.  It renders your upgrades a bit moot considering the AI can still keep up and surpass you with a lesser vehicle.  The most important moments during any race seem to come down to the final seconds and I can’t say that I found that engaging after a while.

The rubber banding doesn’t become an issue until the back half of the game but can be overcome with careful planning although in my opinion it shouldn’t have to come to that.  R.C. Pro AM II was sadly overlooked as it hit in December 1992 and as such is hard to find and expensive.  Unlike the first game it was never ported to any other console so you might have to eat the cost to experience one of the NES’s finer racers.

7-out-of-10-1

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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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Battletoads

Ah yes, the Battletoads.  Initially written off as a lame Ninja Turtles rip off based on the first advertisements any gamer who took the time to sample its greatness found that not only was that misconception far from the truth it might actually be a better game period.  Now legendary for its insane difficulty the question has always been is it actually worth putting up with?

On a routine mission escorting Princess Angelica to her home planet the Dark Queen abducts her along with Toad member Pimple.  Now Zitz and Rash have to mount a rescue mission on Planet Ragnarok, the Dark Queen’s turf.   There’s a certain sense of juvenile fun at play in Battletoads which is in stark contrast to ridiculous difficulty.  At its best moments Battletoads can stand with the best in the NES library.  However those moments are fleeting because you’ll have to endure some of the most torturous levels in gaming history to get there.  Whether you’ll enjoy the game or not depends on your how long you can endure frustration.

Battletoads has many features working in its favor beginning with the characters.  Both Zitz and Rash are able to transform their bodies into various weapons of destruction.  These take shape in the form of the finishing moves.  Ram horns, giant fists, and spiked boots; there are many that make every encounter worth it just to see what part of your body will change.  Even some of the vehicle levels like the bungee tunnel of level 2.  Accompanying these changes are a wide set of animations; I’m actually astounded at the sheer volume, something I didn’t think possible on the NES.

With 12 levels this could very easily have become boring as you go through the motions however Rare has built a roller coaster of set pieces.  There are very few side scrolling levels, half at most.  But even within these stages the objectives are varied.  The snake pit is a spike laden maze of adjourning rooms that will challenge you to stay alive long enough to reach the exit.  The Rat Race is precisely that; a race against a giant rat down the Dark Queen’s Tower to see who will blow the other up.  Because the gameplay switches every level you’ll never settle into a routine and become bored of its mechanics.

The rest see you pilot a vehicle of some sort as you dodge obstacles on the way to the finish.  These levels have you pilot speeder bikes, a surfboard, a mini-plane, and a cycle.  Your reflexes are put to the ultimate test as all manner of obstacles and timed jumps are thrown in your path.  While some of these are similar in theory in execution they are different enough that they each present new challenges and are fun for the most part.

For the most part.  I can appreciate a good challenge but there is such a thing as too hard and artificial difficulty shouldn’t play a part in it.  You are given 3 continues with no passwords or battery backup to complete the game, and as someone who spent a significant chunk of one summer working through this game I can tell you that this is bullshit.  Battletoads is a long game that requires far more trial and error than you’ve probably experienced in the past.  Extra lives are not in plentiful supply so those 3 continues dry up fast.  There are 4 Warp portals that will allow you to skip a level but not the most difficult ones unfortunately.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that 90% of gamers tapped out in the Turbo Tunnel, which is only the third level.  Anytime a vehicle level begins it more or less boils down to whether you can react fast enough.  But you are only given a second or two at best to do so and the margin for error is slim to none.  All of these levels are pretty long and by the end become so gobsmackingly fast that it’ll leave you a gibbering mess the first time you get that far.  With the exception of the first two stages you’ll need to memorize the massive layout of every other stage one by one if you even hope to reach the Dark Queen.  And the game is glitch.  The most infamous glitch that someone should have been fired for leaves player two unable to move on Level 11, meaning they’ll have to waste all of their lives just to let Player 1 hopefully finish in order to progress.

While Battletoads is unfairly hard and has many just complaints for that reason no one can complain about the graphics.  Next to Kirby’s Adventure this is one of the most technically proficient NES games conceived.  Almost every level features parallax scrolling backgrounds, some 2-3 levels deep.  The animation is insane for an 8-bit title with a lot of variation in the special moves.  But most importantly the game has a wonderful sense of visual design tying it all together and some great music.

Whether the tall challenge lain before you is worth it is entirely subjective.  As someone who was eventually able to overcome it I’d say yes but I am fully aware everyone has a different breaking point.  What I can say is that if you stick with it Battletoads will reward you with awesome gameplay with a wide assortment of play mechanics at every turn.  And if you beat it it definitely counts as a badge of honor.

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R.C. Pro AM

My memories of RC Pro AM are distinct: one of the first vehicular combat games with a unique perspective and tight gameplay.  It could possibly be the best racing game on the NES.  However there is one flaw that drags the game down, and while it doesn’t knock it from its top position on the platform it can ruin your enjoyment of the game depending on how much tolerance you have for it.

You compete in a series of 24 races against 3 opponents with the object being to place in the top 3 to advance.  Played from an isometric perspective RC Pro Am’s viewpoint set it apart from its contemporaries.  Most racing games of the time were first person or behind the vehicle; the ¾ perspective allowed you to see a larger portion of the track and plan ahead.  Although the vehicles are a bit large there are convenient arrows that will alert you to upcoming turns.  Since you are controlling radio controlled vehicles the handling is a bit different than you would expect.  This is one of the earliest instances of drifting, and mastering its use is crucial to victory.

Lest you think RC Pro AM is a strictly left to right racing game it introduces power-ups starting with Round 2.  Although other games such as Death Race preceded it I would say RC Pro Am popularized the concept of vehicular combat and largely spawned the genre, with the likes of Mario Kart and Rock and Roll Racing running with it years later.  Scattered around the tracks are various power ups such as missiles, bombs, stars for ammo and the invincibility roll cage.  By collecting the letters that spell Nintendo you can upgrade the standard RC truck twice: first to a van then to a race car. The joy of getting a new vehicle is dampened a by the fact that the computer is upgraded too.

There are other power-ups such as tires for traction, gears for acceleration, and engines for top speed.  Truthfully aside from the momentary boost they give you the difference is negligible.   With the exception of invincibility the AI can’t use other weapons as the game would be impossible otherwise.  A well timed missile or running the computer off the road while invincible can mean the difference between third place and game over.  There are usually plenty of opportunities to make a come from behind victory using each weapon but even despite the slight edge you have it can be tough.

Each track is littered with various hazards that will trip you up, such as oil that causes spin outs, water to slow you down, rainfall that does the same or the worst one, and retractable walls.  The water hazards are simple annoyances that you will more than likely power through however oil will cause to spin and lose control while keeping your forward momentum.  The retracting walls are a near instant loss if you collide with them since you’ll have to wait a few seconds for your truck to repair and build up speed again.  Working in your favor are the zip lines that provide massive bursts of speed.  If you see one you have to do everything in your power to hit it because the computer definitely will.  Every time.  Which is part of the problem.

It’ll take a miracle to come in first place in the later tracks.  If you fuck up like the screens above you might as well prepare to lose or reset.

That flaw that I mentioned earlier?  My biggest pet peeve when it comes to racing games: rubber band AI.  RC Pro Am is host to some of the worst rubber band AI I have ever experienced.  This goes beyond simply catching up when you are ahead.  The game will give the computer such ridiculous speed boosts that not only will they pass you sometimes they even fucking lap you! Luckily instances like this are few and far between but you still have to be at the top of your game.  If you don’t hit every zipper and crash into a wall even once or twice the computer will pass you.  Guaranteed, every single time.

Is it still a classic?  Certainly.  But I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the cheap AI.  Honestly the only thing missing from the game is multiplayer but that can be overlooked considering everything else it does right.  Mario Kart and Twisted Metal have taken the ball and run with it but RC Pro Am is still the originator.

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Cobra Triangle

You know secretly I think Rare hated all gamers in the 80s.  They created so many classic NES games during that period (the actual number of games they made is somewhere around 60!) that were amazing but ball-bustingly hard.  Everyone knows about and has probably had their little gaming heart crushed by Battletoads but the subject of this review is also a member of that club.

Cobra Triangle was released by Nintendo in 1989.  There’s no back story, who the hell needs that?  You are a badass speedboat and have 25 stages to complete to reach the end, that’s all you need to know.  The similarities to R.C. Pro Am are immediate: both use the same isometric perspective and both are pseudo action games that feature weapons to pummel the competition.  However this isn’t a race to the finish like that game despite what some levels will tell you.  It’s more about survival, which the game does rather brilliantly.

Each group of 5 levels are broken up into multiple types with their own objectives.  Race to the finish is exactly what the name suggests, however you aren’t fighting for position, just staying alive to the end.  Dispose of mines pits you against a rival boat whose job it is to keep you from taking the bombs to the designated point for disposal.  Save the children places you in a grid full of children you must protect for a given length of time, one of my favorites.  Jump the waterfall is one of the most complicated, a simple title but the execution is of it is anything but.  Fry the monster is a good old fashioned boss battle like all good classics have.

You aren’t sent out into these levels unarmed either.  Cobra Triangle employs a Gradius like power up system to turn your ordinary boat into a veritable death machine.  Speed, firepower, missiles, turbo, and force can be obtained by collecting pods from rival boats or the bonus stages.  While it isn’t as advanced as Konami’s classic series it’s sufficient to get the job done.  Despite being able to upgrade some weapons even further such as homing missiles and the like it doesn’t make the game a cake walk.  Far from it in fact.

From stage 2 onward there is a sizable jump in the difficulty.  The ever present danger of the timer makes the already harrowing level objectives more nerve wracking.  It’s very easy to lose track of how much damage you’ve taken and die unexpectedly, which you want to avoid seeing as how extra lives are in short supply.  There are several tactics you can use to cheese your way through some levels; instead of trying to save all the kids why not take one and run down the clock (it sounds so wrong!)?  Or hide in a corner safely out of reach during boss fights?  Some of these aren’t so much clever as they are borderline mandatory for progression.  With only 2 continues only the best will ever see the end of the game.  But it’s a wild trip to get there.

Difficulty aside Cobra Triangle holds up admirably.  The variety in objectives keeps the game from becoming stale, the graphics and music are excellent, and most of all the game is fun.  I still wish there were battery backup or passwords, come on man how many times did they gloss over that in their games?  Fucking Rare.



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Wizards & Warriors

Every so often as I take my daily trips down memory lane with retro video games I come across a game that I initially look back on as a classic.  However once the controller is in hand I discover they’re anything but.  You could argue that Wizards and Warriors is classic but then my question would be”have you played it recently?”  Because if you had you would see it for what it is: a sloppy attempt at an ambitious adventure.

Wizards & Warriors was developed by Rare and released by Akklaim in 1987.  The evil wizard Malkil has kidnapped the Princess along with her hand maidens and taken over the kingdom of Elrond.  The Knight Kuros is the only one brave enough to face him.  The awesome box art promises a grand adventure full of demons and magic and in that category Wizards & Warriors delivers.  However the execution of its numerous features doesn’t match its technical brilliance (for the time).

This is the literal definition of the word platformer.  Every level, whether it’s a forest, fiery cave or castle interior is a complex series of platforms both big and small that you’ll have to navigate.  The primary goal is to collect a set number of gems to bribe the knight guarding the entrance to each level’s boss.  That goal is easier said than done.  The levels become more and more intricate with an army of monsters ready to swarm you at every turn.  Literally.  They don’t stop.  Helping to navigate each level are doors that lead to or warp you to other sides of the map, most requiring a blue, red, or pink key.  The other is the massive inventory of items you will undoubtedly amass.

There are quite a lot of secondary items to use spread out over the course of the game in treasure chests.  Some are passive, such as the various shields, to the more active and essential, like the Potion of Levitation. Some replace others and unfortunately unless you know which exact chest they are located in you can accidentally lose an important item for long stretches or even permanently.

While a lot of the weapons sound cool in practice they are useless or even worse, don’t work.  Losing the Boots of Force (which allow you to kick open treasure chests) for the stupid Staff of Power sucks hard.  The most famous example of an item that doesn’t work is the Cloak of Darkness, which allegedly makes you invisible to enemies; instead it makes Kuros invisible to you while the enemies still attack en mass.  Another is the Boots of Lava Walk; you still take the same amount of damage as before and they’re only useful on one level.  Lame.

As much as the game has going for it it’s let down by the controls.  They are sloppy.  Although Kuros is controllable in the air it doesn’t stop him from slip sliding around.  Because the vast majority of the platforms are so small landing on them is usually a roll of the dice.  Your basic attack, if you can call it that, is pathetic.  You don’t so much swing your sword as waggle it an inch in front of you; trust me it looks worse than you’re imagining.

Because of all these factors you’ll take untold amounts of damage from the relentless onslaught of enemies.  Death comes frequently and I believe that’s why you have unlimited continues.  While you still have to at least work your way through the game it’s a bit too generous.  You pick up exactly where you died, and even in boss fights any damage incurred stays, so the game can be brute forced if you are determined enough.

If they could have polished the game even a little more than this really would have been a classic of that era.  As it stands now it’s a bit too frustrating to be considered for that status.  It’s decently fun if you can overlook its issues just know that they are many.

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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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