Some games I played in
2020



It's that time again! I got needlessly wordy and figured I needed somewhere to dump those words. Whether it is of interest to anyone but myself -- or even myself for that matter -- remains to be seen.



Currently unfinished! check back at the end of the year!

 

Turok 2: Seeds of Evil

PC (Steam)
Jan ~ Feb

With Dinosaur Hunter Diaries a go, I had to get a move on with whatever Turok media I hadn't experienced... and would you believe it, I've barely played Turok 2. At least, not without using the level warp and infinite ammo to just blow everything to smithereens. I barely even knew what the game was supposed to play like in normal circumstances! ... and it turns out I don't really enjoy Turok 2!

The game is bigger and badder than before, with larger and more complex environments, meaner enemies and a nastier arsenal. Rather than the simple key-hunting of the last game, however, it goes head-to-head with Goldeneye and foists objectives into all of the stages, be it rescuing captives, triggering beacons, or sabotaging enemy installations.

That is what sinks the game in my opinion. The best levels are built relatively linear, thrusting you into one combat setpiece after another as you engage enemies in tunnels, on rooftops, across walkways, and all manner of interesting locales... but that's not the point. If you reach the end but didn't clear the objectives, it kicks you back to the start to do it all over again. Never mind the fact you got all the keys and can progress to the next stage -- you're not going home 'til you bomb those supply sites, buddy.

Nightdive's remaster does try to circumvent this a little, with indicators that pop up on proximity to objectives, and the ability to travel between any and all warp points, even across levels, cutting down on backtracking. Back on N64, you couldn't even leave the stage 'til you found everything, and that sounds totally miserable as far as I'm concerned.

While this spares you the hours of bashing your head against Lair of the Blind Ones ad infinitum, it does make the game's structure a little more uneven: because I could ditch levels whenever I pleased, I went the entire game without any boss battles until the very end, when I looked up a guide for the single incomplete objectives in each stage. Not a huge loss, mind you --the bosses are among the game's weak points, boasting elaborate animations and multi-phase tactics over, y'know, being fun boss battles.

Turok 2's got ambition out the wazoo, though admittedly it's easier to appreciate it on N64 when the competition was weaker, and seeing the poor console struggle to run at a double-digit frame rate made it look all the more impressive. After the fact, it's just a bit of a slog. None of its innovations are anything I wanted, and hunting for trivial objectives ends up far, FAR overshadowing its better elements like the gunplay and breadth of exploration. Maybe next time I'll just use cheats to turn off the objectives.

The Turok reviews for this article are going to be a little perfunctory because there's a lot of 'em! I've got heaps upon heaps of notes for their eventual blog entries, hopefully due sometime next year, and I've no idea how much of these sentiments I'll be parroting. I'll sing the praises of Turok 2 from a historical and developmental viewpoint, I can say that with certainty. As a game to play for my own amusement? Give me Dinosaur Hunter again, honestly.

Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion

Nintendo 64
Feb

For whatever reason, this entry passed me by at the time. Could I not find it in stores? Did the previews not interest me? Did the lack of dinosaurs put me off? Whatever the case, I've gotta make up for lost time!

Turok 3's a bit of an odd duck among the classic N64 series, as you so rarely hear its virtues extolled the same way the first two are. That's because it's almost nothing like its predecessors -- the fast-paced Quake-like maps and movement have been ditched entirely for something slightly more methodical, clearly inspired by the new giant of PC FPS games: Half-Life!

Levels feel designed to convey a proper-ass narrative, the first one perhaps the most distinctive as you traverse the overrun city, contending first with a violent police force, before mutants, monsters and other abominations become the major threat. All the while there's just enough little environmental details, be it the rooms you explore or NPCs you overhear, to make the level feel like one long setpiece, and not just a map populated with enemies and objectives.

This does mean there's very little Turok about it, mind. There's, like, two dinosaurs in the whole game! There are some cute throwbacks, with classic weapons returning and even an entire world revisiting the iconic jungles of the first game. Although the fast-paced running-and-gunning is slightly downplayed, I'd argue it's a more accessible game than its predecessors.

Its game design feeling much more 'modern', without the frighteningly archaic and obtuse key-hunting that dictated the other two. That can be taken as both a good and a bad thing. I say it's good because I could enjoy it without having to chant "pretend it's 1998, pretend it's 1998" to myself.

Again, the fact this stuff was running on N64 hardware is part of the appeal -- not just the large interactive worlds, but seeing fully voice-acted cutscenes with animated lipsync and facial expressions! The moment it's ported it'll no doubt look a bit naff, but it would be nice to see it get a second lease on life -- as a late-era N64 title, it didn't get the love it might've hoped. Perhaps a tricky one to shill since it's so far diverged from the Turok "brand", but I look forward to returning to it.

Turok: Escape From Lost Valley

PC (Steam)
Feb

It's that one Turok game that's an easy target for unwarranted abuse! I'm gonna try to defend this game something fierce when the time comes -- not because it's outstanding or anything, but because it's trying something different, god damn it. Turok doesn't always have to be '90s ultraviolence! Read some classic Son of Stone, you philistines!

Anyway, Escape From Lost Valley came to be via an indie jam revolving around Universal Studios' IPs; that's why that inexplicable Voltron puzzle game was also a thing. Although you have free reign over where to travel on the level's map, the game plays out like a series of setpieces wherein you battle violent cavemen and honkers.

Combat leans heavily on timing and spacing, waiting for an opening to lay into them with your knife, or sniping with your bow if you're feeling ballsy. It's tempting to make a hackneyed comparison to Dark Souls, but it's just top-down combat with punishing timing, basically. And evasive rolls. Lots and lots of evasive rolls.

There's just enough pretense that it doesn't just feel like a string of combat encounters; encounters with cavemen often end with you aiding them in some way or exploring an area they warned you about, and some levels encourage exploration to find upgrades, be it limited-use poison arrows or new 'armour' for Turok to wear. The armour changes his movement and attack properties, excelling at different playstyles; one's good for hit-and-run, while another is all about brawling. It's a cute gesture and it means you get to dress Turok up like a teddy bear.

Unfortunately something about the game just feels a bit lacking. The "bide your time" style of combat has merit, but never feels truly satisfying, and it's hard to tell whether that's down to the controls, the enemy patterns, or even something as petty as the sound design.

Even with nifty setpieces like outrunning pteranodons across a narrow clifftop, I just didn't find myself all that invested. I finished the game in around 2 hours, and although there's a harder difficulty, I'm not inclined to try. I got the game on sale so I can't be too bitter, but I certainly would be if I paid the shockingly steep $15 retail price.

That said, it's so nice to see a fresh take on a series otherwise only loved by FPS nerds and old comics fans. That the developers looked to the vintage Son of Stone comics for inspiration gives it such a unique identity compared to all the other Turok games.

As an indie contest entry the cutesy super-deformed aesthetic helps it stand out from the crowd, but as a retail product it's left with the unfortunate question of "who asked for this?" I've nothing but respect for it, but presentation aside, there's just something missing to tie it all together.

As of this writing there's apparently a major update on the horizon that's said to give the game a massive do-over... after the devs said they were ending support for it. Has it changed hands? Beats me. It remains to be seen how it turns out, but I'd like to think it may give the game a second chance to shape up. It's got an uphill battle ahead of it, but I want it to do well!

Turok: Evolution

Game Boy Advance
Feb

This is one of those games I've long wanted to enjoy -- it's a Turok meets Contra! That's everything I could've wanted! However, it is not accommodating to casual players in any way -- if you want to make progress, you gotta want it. Who knew doing a serialised blog feature could inspire such dedication in me?

It really is just Contra, or Metal Slug, or whatever 2D jump-'n'-shoot you wanna draw comparisons to. Run to the right and shoot everything that moves! Or just survive, that's good too. The game has a somewhat ludicrous arsenal, ranging from machine guns to flame throwers to rocket launchers, and even 'alien' variants of every weapon with different destructive properties.

Yet despite all that, your default melee weapon is perhaps the most versatile of all; it's quick, it's powerful, and often the stunlock is long enough for you to simply run past them. Djunn's weapon in particular is a lot of fun -- not unlike the boomerang-shield from Rygar, it even doubles as a grappling hook, allowing you to propel yourself like crazy across ceilings!

Every boss stage plays out like a shooting gallery in the vein of Wild Guns or Cabal; enemies come in from above and it's your job to gun them down before they get on your tier. Bosses are huge arena-filling monstrosities... with also teeny tiny hitboxes. Trying to land shots as they constantly move is the greatest difficulty of all, and surviving long enough to do it is even trickier given the sheer volume of projectiles and enemies.

The game is extremely tough. Enemies are punchy and ready to inflict carnage the moment they appear on-screen, and only select stages have mid-level checkpoints; if you die, you just have to redo it all from the start. When every encounter is so deadly, it feels like a memorisation game -- jump this first wave, use the flamethrower on these dudes, but save the your ammo for later, these guys just deserve the axe.

And ultimately, that's the game's downfall. By presenting enemies that are such bullet sponges and so strenuous to take down... it's often way easier to just run past them. It's a platform-shooter where engaging with the enemy should only be a last resort. You could argue it harkens to classic Turok ethos: why slay a foe who poses no danger? But it basically means to see most of the game, you have to run past 70% of it.

It's a pity, because the game looks absolutely cracking. The spritework is incredible, and its briefing sequences use completely original illustrations that, as far as I'm aware, have never been reprinted anywhere else. The basic framework of the game is solid, but between limited resources and overpowered baddies, it feels like you have to cheese the game just to progress. When I feel like I'm cheating just by making it to the next level, there's either something wrong with the game, or with my conscious. A game I want to love, but I don't think it loves me back...!

Yooka-Laylee

PC (Steam)
Mar

RQ87 gifted this to me a while back! It's that one Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor by the original team, but, like, modern, I guess. That means massive, absolutely stupidly huge worlds with tiers upon tiers of terrain, all hiding characters to help, objectives to clear, and puzzles to solve all in the name of getting Pagies, the new Jiggy-like collectible.

The game looks the biz, at least. The graphics are up there with Nuts & Bolts in terms of scope and detail. Everything's got that off-kilter vibe to it, the slightly smarmy tongue-in-cheek atmosphere to it, though some stuff is admittedly so detailed it's disgusting. Kartos the talking minecart and the weird asteroid man you accidentally kill in the final world are on the verge of the uncanny valley that they look like they belong in different games entirely.

The game controls well and feels like a decades-later evolution of how BK is framed in your young brain worlds that were so immeasurably huge and packed with so much stuff, how would you ever see it all? Replaying those games years later does indeed show the boundaries quite clearly, which makes them all that more charming... but Yooka-Laylee doesn't get the memo. These worlds are bloody huge. Multitudes bigger than even the worlds in Nuts & Bolts and that game was built for traversal via vehicle! Here, you're meant to plod around on foot without even Banjo-Tooie's warp pads to cut out the legwork!

One of the bizarre new elements is 'expanding' a world it's not enough to unlock it, you need to make a second Pagie transaction to then add layers onto the map, unlocking its full breadth of challenges. Presumably a means of gatekeeping challenges that require abilities from later in the game, or simply making the world feel 'digestible' without dropping everything on you at once... but Galleon Galaxy, the final world, has practically nothing to do when first opened, requiring another instalment of 15 Pagies to get the whole thing.

The game has only five worlds, a bit less than all prior Rare games, but the scale of them easily eclipses everything in Banjo-Kazooie combined, and then some. Yet for all that impressive real estate, you wonder what's being done with it. Finding identifiable landmarks is a nightmare, and there's next to no railroaded path through a stage. I would typically enter a new world and try to find Trowzer to get the newest moves as quickly as possible... but despite being situated close to the entrance, it wasn't until two hours into the casino level that I finally saw him... right next to the entrance.

The game does give almost unparalleled freedom to explore; many quills and collectibles are hidden literally on the borders of levels, on top of craggy walls and slopes that you'd expect to be behind invisible walls if this were an older game.

While having complete, unbridled freedom has its perks, it does contribute to the feeling of aimlessness at times, where the intended outcome is unclear. Do you come back with an upgrade, or is fudging your way up by clipping on seams really the intended method of getting up this hill? This feeling does lessen as the game goes on and you get new abilities, including one to outright fly at anytime... admittedly nulling most previous abilities like the tongue-grapple and the high jump, but still.

Abilities consume a stamina gauge, likely an attempt to lessen the number of collectible 'energy' items, and to tone down the abuse of the roll move, the equivalent of Kazooie's Talon Trot. You can touch butterflies to replenish stamina, or just wait a while for it to recharge automatically. This is fine for the most part, but becomes tricky in boss battles, especially the final one, where you have such a limited window of time for the stamina to refill before an incoming homing projectile is guaranteed to hit you.

The bosses are a weak point, to be perfectly honest, though that's not unexpected; they were rarely a high point in Banjo-Kazooie either. They use the various mechanics in interesting ways, but they're not exactly a great deal of fun.

There's an almost surprising number of mechanics: Yooka and Laylee have their own moveset which expands as you visit Trowzer, and Mumbo Jumbo's transformations are carried over, albeit a little limited in use across the massive, sprawling worlds. On top of that, you can lick plants to gain access to limited-time projectiles, or even change Yooka's properties, allowing him to stick to steep slopes or run through fire undeterred.

It's all very inventive, if a bit difficult to keep track of... especially when the gamut of missions remain so 'stock'. Your basic fetch quests, getting from A to B, literally jumping through hoops... it's stuff we've accepted as par for the course from 3D platformers, but I think I'm just too dang aware of it now. It's easy to say "make better missions!", but even I'd be hard-pressed to think how to gussy it up.

I honestly don't know where I stand on the game. I got some entertainment out of it? The snarky dialogue is fun and some of its gags did gave me cackling, if just for how inappropriate they are ("Go and cast your rod out!" "Yooka's better with his tongue, actually.")... but the game itself? I can applaud individual elements like the controls and certain engaging challenges, but on the whole it feels like a harsh reminder that maybe 3D collect-a-thons just aren't for me anymore?

At least, not at this magnitude. The levels are too dang big to find anything in, and even the hub, with its abundance of detail and horrendous loading times... the absurd scale of everything is kind of a turn-off. It certainly tries, but it only makes me ponder the ramifications of designing via Kickstarter: the stretch goals all do make the game feel that bit fuller, but I'd be hard-pressed to say any of them are fun, entertaining additions. Is it better to forge ahead with these crummy mini-games rather than reallocate resources because folks already demanded it? Who's to say!

It was neat to finally get hands-on with the game, but despite the wordage, it didn't make that big of an impression on me. I think nostalgia and the imagination of youth is what makes these games look so vivid, and without that it just feels like busywork. Maybe The Impossible Lair is a bit more digestible...?

Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe

PC (Steam)
Mar

I needed something quaint to unwind with after Yooka-Laylee, and figured this was finally worth giving a spin.

A falling-blocks puzzle game where rather than controlling their path, you take command of a dude who's trying not to get crushed by them. Destroying blocks of the same colour awards points and stars stars increase your level, which increases your firepower and score bonus, and destroying bigger chains of blocks gives more points and stars. You can figure it out from there! Stages run on a pattern of intermittent blocks, lines of blocks that fall at once, and then three to four 'hazards', among them spikes, cannons, or even roaming goons; destroying the blocks they're attached to will get rid of them.

It takes a little while to warm up as your default firepower is so piddly, but it eases into a nice flow once the stage really gets going. It's very rewarding to let huge chains of blocks build up, then destroying it all with only a small foothold to keep you from plunging into the pit. It's got an almost Wario's Woods vibe, the challenge of interacting with this changeable landscape, working out how to navigate it as cleanly as possible without disrupting your chain comboes.

The presentation is all platformer there's no "next block" preview or anything like that, you just have to know the flow or what stage-specific traps to expect. While the traps do change the longer it goes on, there's not much in the way of escalation beyond simply maintaining your fully levelled power-ups; getting crushed by a block won't kill you, but instead reduce to a lower power level... unless you're at level 0, in which case you're toast.

In my opinion, where it falls apart is how easy it is to die. Collision detection has no allowances; if you overlap something even by a single pixel, you're dead meat and die instantly. Paired with the lack of visibility for incoming blocks, and the often blinding amount of debris and camera-shaking after a huge combo, it's very easy to die to a sudden spike trap falling onto screen, or a cannon firing a split second before you destroy a block chain.

It lacks the 'panic' sensation so essential to puzzle games when you know you're on your last legs. When the screen gets full of blocks in Tetris and Wario Woods and you're scrambling to clear the way, or fighting for space again the ever-encroaching ceiling in Puchi Carat... 9 times out of 10 you'll be playing an intense game and then it suddenly ends with a wet fart because you scraped your knee against a chainsaw.

It plays into that 'hardcore platformer' vibe that Super Meat Boy ushered in, where death comes quickly and without fanfare...but here it makes you feel robbed of closure. There's no sensation of "I fought to the end, I did the best I could...!" Instead it just ends abruptly, and you'd rather just pick up where you left off. It's like a DVD skipping and stalling. You don't figure, welp, let's leave it there you want closure! You wanna finish the dang movie!!

I feel like if taking damage simply dropped your power level and increased the speed or intensity of block drops, that'd be a more engaging conclusion. Puzzle games are at their best when you're fighting to regain control over chaos, and Super Puzzle Platformer has a hard job combating that once you're adequately leveled and acquainted with the world's hazards. All it can do is puncture your pride by ending the game with little warning.

The game also has a challenge mode, where you simply have to survive the time limit against various hazards; cannons, falling spike blocks, even a unique final boss of sorts. They're cute, but not the dynamic I'm here for; they could fit in any other Super Meat Boy clone, but it's the puzzle game dynamic that keeps me coming back.

A very engaging little game while it lasts, a game that's incredibly easy to pick up and play, with enough stages, characters and extras to make it worth revisiting to mix up your playstyle. I do wish the end state were different; ending the game with minimal impetus just plain stinks, when a Puchi Carat style 'danger' state would spice up the game so much in my book is it worth playing it safe, or should you take damage, weaken yourself and risk a game over just to get more blocks on the board? Something to consider if I ever get the notion of designing my own puzzle game...! (like that'll ever happen)

Mega Man Legends 2

PlayStation
Mar ~ Apr

Mega Man Legends 2 is one of those many games I bought, played for a short while, but literally never made progress beyond the introductory portion of the game. I simply never found my way beyond Yosyonke Town for whatever reason! It's a game I found myself lost in almost instantly, and there wasn't even the concession of a whole island with dungeons to explore in the interim. I figured I'd finally see what I was missing out on.

I always forget how beautiful the Mega Man Legends games are. Capcom were at the top of their game in this era, presentation-wise. Their arcade titles were bristling with still-unmatched pixel art, and even their 3D titles looked the biz, making the most of the hardware limitations; Resident Evil creating iconic setpieces though its fixed cameras and Mega Man Legends building an iconic aesthetic out of its chunky low-poly models and sharp, anime-style textures.

Even the environments, for their blocky, grid-based simplicity, are bursting with personality. While the first game only has a single island to explore, this game is a globe-trotting adventure, taking you to various facsimiles of foreign countries, like the snowy, remote Calinca; the Arabian desert and city; the jungle wildlands; and a city built on an ocean platform.

They're all distinct, and seeing the various living quarters of their townsfolk is always incredibly charming, full of decorations, details and furniture, or even just a fun comparison for how the other folk live; Yosyonke is very indoors and cosy, while others are more spartan where the weather's good. They're unfortunately all a bit spartan compared to the first game's Apple Market; there's no bustling cities or marketplaces, areas so full of colour and characters like that game had.

Despite having "Mega Man" in the title, I keep forgetting how Legends is very much its own thing, more of a 3D dungeon crawler than the familiar stage-based master-weapon malarkey. It's been so long since I played the original (2009 wasn't exactly yesterday anymore...!) I don't know what the exact improvements are. It's fun for what it is, creating something more explorative, atmospheric and dangerous than the 2D stuff, with a fun feedback loop of finding treasure, then returning later with all the new kit you could afford or build from it.

At least, it's fun when you actually get your first sub-weapon -- I somehow went the first four hours with nothing but my crummy buster...! I think that's the problem: it's cool getting fat stacks of cash and finding parts, but you know you'll be missing an essential component that's buried in an unimportant detail in an NPC's house... and that's what building sub-weapons relies on. You might have stacks upon stacks of cash, but money can't buy those parts, and you're lucky if it'll even net you an armour upgrade. What looks like a sweet haul turns out to be small buttons in the grand scheme of things.

Combat's the same as ever -- that is, circle-strafing all the way. You can pick up dudes and throw them at each other, a trick I only learnt late in the game; it's a cute new dynamic, but extremely fiddly and not at all intuitive when the game sitll employs collision damage. You can still only carry one special weapon at a time, which is a huge disincentive to using anything but the homing missile. Bosses and enemies quickly become outrageous bullet sponges later in the game, even with the Buster's power maxed out.

While the game offers setpieces more often in the form of new locales and a distinct boss fight in every town, there's shockingly little story for almost the entire game. The game begins with an absolute bucket-load of lore, from Roll's mother attacking on the back of a robot dragon, causing a ship to crash-land in the forbidden island where many strange people, not all of them apparently human, have been frozen in ice.

Then you spend the next eight hours collecting keys with, like, no new developments. The pirate Bola's carefree attitude is amusing, and there's a funny scene early on of Tron impersonating Roll, but on the whole there's not a lot of story to absorb in the interim.

Until the finale harkens back to MegaMan's origins as an emissary from the creators of the human race or some cobblers, and all the characters we've been following until now are shunted off to the side so we can get an expodump. This results in a boring dungeon, four boss rehashes, and a two-stage final boss that's just stupidly difficult, seemingly with no real tactics beyond stocking up on life refills. It's absolutely miserable. I got it down to a quarter of life before dying, and figured that was close enough to justify using cheats.

For years I've known about the ending where Mega Man's stranded on the moon, and figured it was going to be something well and truly heartbreaking, a melancholy moment of sacrifice for the greater good. Instead... it's just kind of dropped into dialogue at the last minute with little pomp or circumstance. The after-credits scene is at least cute, showing the Bonnes working with the heroes to build a rocket to retrieve him, but I so would've preferred some melodrama from the characters I know, not Mega Man showing sympathy to a bullshit boss that game over'd me six times already.

My final time was 10:40, though I'd wager it was really around 14 or 15 hours counting game overs and retries. I admit I'm not sure if I was actually enjoying myself or not; it was mostly an excuse to get away from the computer. It's a lovely game to just soak in the visuals and idle exploration, but it also feels its design is hampered by hardware limitations. I respect the game, but I think my time for truly appreciating it has passed. It would've been nice to have seen MML3 come out and try to iterate on the gameplay with over a decade's worth of advancements, but that ain't happening, is it.

Turok: Battle of the Bionosaurs

Game Boy
Mar

I wasn't looking forward to this one. My prior attempts to play it had me lost, confused, and in no way gelling with the game... but it has to be done. I have to play Turok on Game Boy. My dumbass completionism demands it.

And you know what? It's actually kind of nifty. The game goes above and beyond to try and replicate the feel of Dinosaur Hunter on N64. You travel between stages via the hub gates, collecting keys and amassing weapons as you explore their expansive worlds, and even fight all the same bosses. Darn near every weapon makes it in, even if their dynamic, explosive projectiles are invariably represented by differently-sized balls.

Of course, that's not to say this is perhaps a bit much for the little Game Boy to handle. There's very little visibility, and you're expected to hang down from ledges so you don't make a fatal plunge... and sometimes it just expects blind leaps anyway.

This is made worse by the limited checkpoint system, where you're put right back to the start of a world if you hadn't crossed one already. This is a great way to skip backtracking, but if you still had plenty of world to explore, it can be a right pain finding your way back.

Combat is not the game's strong suit, and it's more stressful than challenging -- enemies love banging headfirst into you, and entering and exiting from rooms often puts you right in the path of a roaming enemy. This is not a welcoming game by any stretch. I admittedly played the game with savestates, and it made for a far more tolerable experience. Retaining your lives and your ammo after foolishly retreading old ground takes the edge off a little.

Battle of the Bionosaurs has chutzpah. It puts on a solid presentation for a monochrome Game Boy game, with Joshua's slick animations reason enough to keep going. Navigating across its huge worlds with no map to speak of is crazy daunting, yet it's very satisfying to see everything eventually click into place. A tough game to get into, and arguably one I'm intrigued more by its ambition and concepts than its actual execution, but I gotta give the little guy some respect.

Turok 2: Seeds of Evil

Game Boy Color
Mar

Built on top of the last game's engine, this ditches the nonlinear exploration and key-collecting for something a lot more straightforward. For the most part all you do is forge forward, shoot dudes, and do a modest amount of switch-activating to open doorways and portals. It's not 100% linear, but it's a far more guided tour than the sprawling debacle the last game was.

In place of its missing ambition are various gimmick stages, riding a pteranodon or velociraptor across auto-scrolling shoot-em-up-esque stages; they're cute changes of pace, but nothing remarkable.

The most bizarre inclusion of all is the prologue, where you play as a totally unarmed Joshua Fireseed, wading through crowded streets to find your Light Burden, which allows you to see which of the humans are dinosoids in disguise. It's an interesting way of tying the comic's lore into interactive gameplay, but it's also a remarkably obtuse way of kicking off an action game.

I arguably got more immediate entertainment out of this game than Battle of the Bionosaurs or even its N64 counterpart... but it's also wildly forgettable. So much so I forgot to include it in my tier list! It's nowhere near as adventurous as its predecessor, but sometimes a game you can finish in two hours is all you want.

Turok: Rage Wars

Game Boy Color
Apr

Now boasting the power of the Game Boy Color, the 2D platforming malarkey is dropped in favour of a top-down shooter. Why, you'd think Turok should be right at home in a genre like this!

Ooh, I wish. Now with full 8-directional movement, levels come across as way more sprawling than before, with visibility issues at their absolute height. Any hopes of running and gunning are done in not just by the incredibly zippy enemies, but the total lack of concessions for gunplay.

Lock-on? Strafing? Evasive manoeuvres? Get out of town, buddy. This isn't trying to be Ikari Warriors. If you want to shoot a dude, you have to line yourself up just right, while they can aim perfectly in your direction with every shot. Nobody said war was fair, pal.

The game is dripping in bizarre new gimmicks, among them auto-scrolling stages, undercover stealth missions, a complex shield system to make up for only having four hitpoints, and even the ability to upgrade or combine your weapons using toolkits... but none of it really matters. The game boils down to slowly inching forward, opening fire the moment an enemy appears, and invariably dying by some means or another. It is so easy to die. My god. Who knew?

As a big dumb Turok fan there's a few elements worth lauding for big dumb Turok reasons, but as someone who likes to play games that are fun, this wasn't a good time.

Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion

Game Boy Color
Apr

Turok's final outing on Game Boy, and still trying to make the top-down stuff work. It tries its best to tighten it up; the free-roaming stages have been dropped entirely in favour of vehicular hubs, wherein you track down and assault enemy bases -- that is, running through corridors, planting bombs, hitting switches, breaking boxes, and other activities that qualify as base-assaulting.

Some of the bases are still unfortunately complex, full of nigh-identical chambers and plenty of back-and-forth as you figure out which switch opens what. Still, it's a lot more accessible than the last game; Joshua has a sizable health bar, eschewing the need for the fiddly shield system, and enemies are no longer as oppressive thanks to their speed being toned way down.

There's not the same level of gimmicks as before either; the vehicles serve only for navigating the hubs, and are otherwise used only in one level and one boss fight. The game is otherwise exclusively exploration and shooting, save for a fun challenge late in the game where you have to guide a 'running bomb' to the enemy base; if it gets shot or stuck behind scenery, kablooie.

By cutting the crap, it's perhaps the most accessible of the handheld Turok games to get into... but it's perhaps the least memorable for that very reason. There's not the same level of design choices that have you pondering what the reasoning was; they simply refined it to something that's just "fine". Turok nuts might be intrigued by its unique storyline distinct from the N64 game and even the comics, but otherwise? It's fine.

Turok

mobile phone (J2ME)
Apr

Aaaaaand I capped off my playthrough of all the Turok games with this: the mobile phone adaptation. My expectations weren't high, lemme tell ya! My placeholder text for this in my notes when I started Dinosaur Hunter Diaries was "it probably isn't good". What was there to expect from a mobile phone game?

Well, you know what? It's not half bad. Perhaps because of those lessened expectations, I enjoyed it more than some of the other Turoks! The fact it didn't take 15 hours to complete was a blessing, too. Lookin' at you, Seeds of Evil.

This is a distilled adaptation of the 2008 game on Xbox 360 and PS3 (played last year), but presents it from a side-on perspective not unlike ye olde Prince of Persia. It's not exactly a platformer -- Turok's jump has a preset distance and he bites it if he falls more than six feet, so it's more about navigating the treacherous jungles and caves as safely as possible. This entails climbing cliffs to avoid enemy encounters, or even using a modest bit of stealth to get the jump on soldiers, executing them silently before they sound the alarm.

Failing that, you can go in guns-blazing too; once you've been spotted, the hide command is used to evade shots, meaning you pick and choose your moments to fire back. There are also setpieces wherein raptors flood in from all corners, and you have to blast them before they get too close. They're a nice change of pace from the more methodical gameplay, providing a quick burst of something more arcade-like.

It's a game that would look primitive on the contemporary handheld consoles, but as a Java phone game, its simple structure comes across as smart design. For such a limited framework it gives you a pleasing amount of control, and its challenges are easily registered but satisfying to conquer -- something its console counterpart had trouble with. Again, perhaps not what folks would want from Turok, but who knew a Prince of Persia clone would work out so well? It might just be the bias talking. Seriously, I had no reason to think this would be good...!

It was cathartic to finally see the whole gamut of Turok video games... but it was also a little depressing knowing I had no more of them to look forward to. Nightdive has teased the possibility of making a new instalment of their own, and there's been at least two fangame attempts that never progressed beyond the asset creation stage... I just wanna see the man done justice! Now I know how comic fans feel 90% of the time, especially Superman fans. That dude still hasn't gotten a decent game, has he...?

Riddled Corpses

PC (Steam)
Apr ~ unfinished

I wanted something breezy to play, and figured surely that's what twin-stick shooters are about, right? It's a genre that's never quite gelled with me, yet I thought it'd be neat to play one to get a handle on what people want and expect from the genre.

This was a bad one to play.

It's as basic as basic gets. Shoot zombies for a minute per wave, then slooooooowly scroll for another minute to a new location, which might have a landmark if you're lucky, and repeat. Sometimes enemies and objects drop health refills and shields. You can pick up and deploy screen-clearing bombs or time-stops if the game's being generous. Aside from that, there's nothing more to the game than walking and shooting!

The game's philosophy seems to be built entirely around the grind. You start with the weakest, shittiest projectile imaginable, and there are no in-game power-ups. Killing foes drops gold, which you then spend on the upgrade screen to beef up your firepower or unlock new characters. Different characters have different perks, like extra health, attracting gold, etc., but they're also bloody expensive. Each new firepower upgrade increases in price, so the game expects you to die, spend your earnings on upgrades, make it a little further, and repeat.

I can see how this would appeal to some folks: the slow power creep, making incremental progress, seeing numbers tick up. That's why RPGs are so addicting, right...? But it makes for wearisome gameplay. There's very little drive to your actions. You can't speed up how long each wave lasts, nor the long trek between them. Aside from random item drops, there's no complexity to your moveset; no fighting for upgrades or even fancy movement or counter systems. All you do is walk and shoot.

The game takes its sweet time showing you what it's made of, too. The first level is composed entirely of enemies who slowly shamble at you, with no projectiles and only varying degrees of bullet-sponginess. It takes until the boss for it to spring proper bullet-hell patterns on you, and suddenly the game has a bit of life to it. Would've been nice if we saw it sooner though! Or if that one stage weren't 10 fucking minutes long!

Even with only walking and shooting at your disposal, progress often feels arbitrary. The screen is cluttered with enemies and debris, and when you take damage it can be hard to tell what from. The HUD is enormous and often obscures the action; you can turn it off, but the game only tells you the controls when you boot the game up, no joke. Better turn the game off if you want a refresher!

The twin-stick stuff is adequate, but doesn't really excite me; without access to different weapons, it's just an ugly puke stream of bullets that literally look more and more puke-like the more you upgrade. I thought playing with mouse and keyboard would be more satisfying, but then the game adds an absolutely fucking gigantic crosshair to wherever you're firing. Your mouse is already on-screen! You don't need to highlight it! The crosshair is so obnoxiously large, so comically obtrusive, it makes it even harder to see what's going on, and there's no option to disable it. It's a fucking terrible feature.

I've sunk two hours into the game and still haven't gotten past level 2, even after upgrading the default character to maximum firepower. I'd be hard-pressed to say I actually enjoyed much in that time. Using a bomb to wipe out a screen full of baddies and then navigate their fire to reap the rewards does have its charms, and the Survival Mode is more engaging if just for having lower stakes; a single fuck-up isn't denying you the chance to see the next level.

I keep wanting to play the game to get further and see if it gets any good, but I really do wonder if the bosses are the only decent challenge? The rest of the stage is just the most joyless of slogs, and the slow trickle of gold and exorbitant upgrade fees just stringing you along. I'm lucky to make 300 gold from a session of Survival Mode, which is more than completing a 10 minute level. To get a character with double health you need 25,000 gold. Balls to that.

The pixel aesthetic is cute and the minuscule file size is a boon, but I just don't get this. I want to understand the genre, but this was a lousy way of going about it.

The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror

Game Boy Color
May

I was ripping the sprites from this while on an inexplicable Simpsons kick. I didn't exactly sit down and play the game, per se, but I saw enough of it while cheating and hacking through the game that I figure I can extrapolate on feelings I had when I foolishly played the game years ago.

Credit where it's due, it's not a completely brainless "licensed platformer" archetype. It's not a left-to-right hop-'n'-bop like so many attempts before it. It's instead more exploration-driven, giving you large, open landscapes to investigate as you hunt down macguffins to open new areas and complete the stage.

The first stage is perhaps the epitome of this, as Bart has to gather keys to unlock parts of the house, as well as fuses to power the lights, otherwise rooms in darkness will be occupied by invincible killer brooms. Exploring the Simpsons' house from a 2D side-on perspective is perhaps a bit jarring when one is so familiar with how it flows based on the show, but using domestic settings in video games is always strangely appealing.

It's a pity the execution is just so bleugh. The game's speed is unpleasantly sluggish, not just in its framerate but in how the characters move, with big windups before and after very jump, a nuisance when contending with enemies who've got no such hitches in their movement. While the sprites are big and well-animated, there's so little visibility to work with, making the likes of robot-Homer's mission a nightmare as you explore a labyrinth of nigh-identical ladders and hallways. The camera has to whip around madly every time you turn around, and with the low framerate it gets positively nauseating very quickly.

Although explorative, each stage is played against a time limit, and dying by any means will force you to redo the entire stage, keys and all. This is almost acceptable in smaller stages like King Homer or fly-Maggie's, but when every other stage is incredibly sprawling and fussy to explore, it's a bit of a kick in the teeth. It really doesn't help that the music is incredibly repetitive and grating as all hell... or that it restarts every time you enter a new room. You get real acquainted with those first few droning notes, lemme tell ya.

About the only halfway tolerable stage is Marge's, which is a simple top-down shooter as you march through zombie-infested Springfield. It helps that by sticking to the corners you can avoid most of the enemies, and the game only stops you once you reach a boss. It feels more 'hands-on' than the comparatively passive approach all the other stages employ, and while it's by no means a stunner -- it's still hampered by low visibility, limited movement, and crummy attack options -- it's more immediately enjoyable than the other guff.

When I first bought the game it was a toss-up between this or Mario Kart: Super Circuit. That probably says a lot about me, don't it? Super Circuit might not have been a terribly exciting entry in the long run, but it's serviceable for what it is. Yet I'd sooner try a game that's almost guaranteed to be bad (IT'S A SIMPSONS GAME!!), if just to see what it attempts. There's maybe some ideas in there if you squint, and it would be nice to see a handheld Simpsons game that was halfway decent... but I should quit with the thought exercises and just play a good game for once in my life.

Handsome Mr. Frog

PC (Steam)
Jun

I don't exactly go scrounging for them, but I'm always intrigued when a new single-screen arcade game comes along, so I was overdue to give this a spin. Enemies fall on screen from the top corners, and it's your job to dispose of them by licking them up and spitting them out again into each other. Failing that, just bash them for a box for less points.

Enemies bounce off-screen when they're clobbered, and you get multipliers if more enemies are hit in a chain reaction. After four waves you move on to a new area, progressing through four themed levels before it begins recycling layouts but with a grab-bag of random enemies.

Its physics are very heavy and weighty, making it stand out from classic clear-the-enemies arcade games like Bubble Bobble or the like. The fact it's so immediate is perhaps kind of jarring -- Super Mario Bros. 2 would have you jump on an enemy first before picking them up, or Mario Bros. knock them from beneath to stun them. Bubble Bobble and Snow Bros limit how you can 'manoeuvre' a captured enemy... but in this game you just lick 'em up and spit 'em out. It's simple, but almost jarringly simple. Where's the complexity?!

That comes largely in monitoring enemy behaviour. They all have basic patterns; birds will chase after you and jump if they have to, while crocodiles just walk straight forward. penguins can build up crazy speed by sliding, while ghosts can phase through walls, and so on. Unlike other arcade games where enemies turn around on contact or simply phase through each other, Handsome Mr. Frog's foes bounce off each other like walking bouncy castles, hurling them across the map at unpredictable velocities. It's not enough to know the patterns, it's steering clear of an unexpected cannonball!

It's only after the four themes are completed that the game truly opens up, with a seeming random selection of enemies now in old stages. The first loop only uses two enemy types per stage, intentionally designed to contrast a simple pattern with a more complex, adversarial behaviour. The new levels ditch that and throw everyone into the same pot, presenting something a trifle chaotic and overwhelming, forcing you to make use of the wrapping screen to duke them, avoiding projectiles and the like.

The game can feel a little cramped and perfunctory at times, though; the graphics are big and boast some fun cartoon detail in their limited palette, but it means there's far less screen real estate than even the likes of Donkey Kong Jr.

Enemies can creep up on you real fast, at times too fast to process what just killed me! Collision detection's perhaps a bit fiddly, with Frog bigger than you'd think and his projectiles smaller than you'd hope. All that, and it's still very much an arcade game -- you still have to play from the very start every time. If you want to practise on the second wave, you just gotta get good and hold onto your stock of lives.

Still, the game's simple and pleasant enough. The retro aesthetic is charming, with little flourishes like rotating sprites and sweeping grass to give it some spice. There's no music of any kind, the soundscape is little more than spartan bleeps and blorps, with heavy 'thunks' for enemy collision, sounding like the physical sounds for the arcade Donkey Kong.

It's distinct, but also means the game kind of lacks a hook until the gameplay wins you over; there's no bouncy themes to sweep you along for the ride, it hinges entirely on the game itself clicking with you. Which is fair, to be honest. It's a strange thing to compliment, but there's some games I wish would let the game speak for itself without flourishes. Do I really like this, or am I just enamoured with the window dressing...?

The arcade presentation does mean I'm rarely in the mood to play it; being able to skip to when things spice up would be nice, or even the option to randomise the themes and enemies, but it's a very lo-fi game on all fronts. It's cheap as chips so it's hardly going to induce buyer's remorse (lookin' at you Dragon Bros!!!), but it's very old-school in its design.

Banjo-Pilot

Game Boy Advance
Jun

Found myself with an inexplicable hyperfixation over this game! It's pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a GBA kart racer... only now there's a Y-axis as well! It's somewhat negligible, as there's no elevations to contend with outside of the occasional road hazard, yet you feel like it adds something to the game; orientating yourself to hit boosts and grab items, determining where exactly's the best place to lay an ice trap for enemies to crash into, that kind of thing. You still slow down if you fly off the 'track', an inexplicable notion that's just an unfortunate concession for not having 3D-rendered walls to crash into.

The game doesn't have quite the finesse as Diddy Kong Racing, sadly, but it's got its own fun meta. The ice cubes aren't just for laying traps, but also for destroying incoming projectiles; failing that, you can flip and somersault with the L Button, which evades such hazards and even nets you a boost if timed correctly. Of course, if there's two projectiles on your tail at once then you'll crash and burn no matter what, but it's satisfying to pull off and can potentially turn the tide if you're stuck in a crowd.

After the grand prix's four races you face a final challenge before the trophy is yours: a 1-on-1 dogfight! You take turns playing offense or defence, either shooting at your weaving foe from behind, or avoiding incoming fire and grabbing items to ward them off. It's just more Mode7 but it's a great showcase of the GBA's effects to sell the vibe of flying high above the land.

I'd argue it's a pity more grand prix modes don't mix things up like this; why should Mario Kart settle for four races when they could throw in a battle arena as well? Put all your skills to the test, not just racing! It's a cute way of capping off the grand prix, although admittedly a trifle pointless; you can retry the dogfight as many times as as it takes, and the ultimate tactic to evade enemy shots is simple to fly counter-clockwise around the edges of the screen. It's a fun change of pace up until you learn how to break it...!

Another fun addition that harkens to Banjo's crap-collecting mentality is Cheato. Winning any challenge earns you pages, a currency that buys you new characters, new multiplayer tracks, new cups, or even Glowbos; these fuzzy critters show up on tracks once unlocked, and activate limited-time boost pads when shot. The wares are only updated sparingly as you make progress, but it's a neat extra and also a nice incentive to replay stages if you have to; collecting Notes in the GP will multiply your reward of pages, so you can knock out a couple hundred for every four races you do. The Glowbos aren't necessary, but they come in handy especially in the Jiggy Challenges.

The Jiggy Challenges are this game's equivalent of the Silver Coin Challenges from Diddy Kong Racing; you have to collect the six Jiggies throughout the course and also beat Bottles to the finish line. It's right up my alley, though not quite as intense as DKR; racing against only one opponent is a bummer, although Bottles is faster than any other character in the game. The lack of 3D spaces to explore for Jiggies is disappointing but understandable; they can still be difficult to see due to the draw distance, though they're also marked on your mini-map for convenience. A fun challenge and a neat way of maintaining the collect-a-thon theme.

Ultimately, the game's difficulty is kind of hit-or-miss. The AI racers all tend to drive in a line until they start attacking each other, and how capable they are of catching up is pretty variable; even if an opponent is a thorn in your side during one race, they're lucky to hold a consistent enough score to challenge your position in the rankings. The entire time trial mode is a bit of a waste, too, as without the hurdle of 3D environments and the finesse of DKR's boost mechanics, it takes no effort to beat the records besides knowing where the boost pads are.

Once you clear the Jiggy Challenge, you unlock Bottles as a playable character... and by that point, the game might as well be over. Bottles is the best character in the game, quite simply. He's faster than everyone else by an outrageous margin, with killer acceleration and handling to boot. Unlocking him for play also adds him to the roster of CPU opponents across all modes, so now you are forever doomed to 2nd place in every race; you can expect him to be halfway around the track by the time you reach the 3rd lap, with no hope on earth of catching up.

On that note, beating all the time trials (which I didn't bother) unlocks the Rare staff's times, which are finally somewhat challenging... and made exclusively for Bottles. No one else has any hope of breaking the records. The lap times are pretty tight, but the course records don't require more advanced tactics than the old ones, outside of getting used to the mole's squirrely handling.

Clearing the game also unlocks the Jinjo GP, effectively the game's hard mode, queuing up six random courses and pitting you against extremely fast Jinjos who give the regular cast a run for their money... but Bottles can outpace them with no effort involved. Characters like Humba Wumba are just too slow to keep up without fortuitous item usage, so the mode effectively turns into a question of "what's feasible?" Bottles is too fast, but Humba and Jinjo are too slow. Does that leave Grunty, Banjo and Klungo as the only feasible options...? And thus the game falls into the interminable well of dodgy balance, where the devs throw up their hands and leave it to the player to sort out this mess.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Banjo-Pilot is the game's set dressing. By reusing the same basic tilesets (grass, beach, desert, ice, lava) but applying a different backdrop, it kind of sells the idea that these are varied locations. Treasure Trove Cove really looks the biz just by pasting the familiar arch-shaped island into the background.

Clanker's River looks identical to Spiral Mountain, save for the big mechanical whale parked in the distance; it's cheap, but it gets the imagination whirring. What would the big lug be like if he got out of that dingy cavern? The Grunty GP even recolours all of the levels to some degree to at least give you something new to look at, which is appreciated. It almost makes me wish more 3D collect-a-thons reused assets in such a way, and not just Super Mario Galaxy's remix stars.

Banjo-Pilot is fun while it lasts, though the more you play the more cracks in its design begin to show. The vertical movement is only there to facilitate hitting collectibles and boosts, and rewarding good placement of traps. The item roster is simple and lacks the risk/reward factor of Diddy Kong Racing, where stocking up on boosts or missiles could really pay off. Until Bottles tears the difficulty a new one, it's a breezy enough game that's well suited to quick pick-up-and-play sessions, especially with the ability to save your progress in the middle of a grand prix. You don't need to marathon 4 races in one sitting! Mario Kart still doesn't do that!

A big dumb tirade about characters or something, I don't know: I'd argue it's a bummer that the game was released as Banjo Pilot. The 2003 prototype of Diddy Kong Pilot has heaps more visual flair, really corny voice acting from characters we rarely hear form full phrases, and the cast of Donkey Kong Country just feel more... appropriate for this kind of thing? Like, all the major characters are movers and shakers in some form, and could feasibly hop into the ring if given the chance; ever since Mario Kart Wii Funky's shown he's more than just a travel agent. When's Candy Kong gonna prove herself? Or get a character design that isn't terrible?

Acknowledging that made me realise that Banjo's kind of a weird franchise by comparison. So many video game series have casts with impetus, with purpose, who go out and do things. Banjo only barely fits those qualities. Heck, Banjo himself is barely a protagonist, but he'll do in a pinch. He's the hero because he's the only one in Spiral Mountain with actual legs, probably. Each game in the series comes with a cast of dozens, but never people with ambitions -- just folks desperately in need of a sucker to do their dirty work. You enjoy the cutesy-snarky aesthetic, but you're rarely itching for a chance to engage more with the world, y'know? They're all dickheads!

I guess something about Donkey Kong Country lent itself more to projecting feelings onto. Its dialogue (courtesy of Cranky) is in a similar vein of British irreverence, yet it feels like it has a more earthy and dramatic tone to it at times. Probably thanks to its beautiful pre-rendered backdrops and atmospheric soundscape it used in its SNES trilogy, but also for the implied lineage of the Kongs, connecting DKC to the arcade games, Diddy Kong Racing to Rare's other spinoffs, and to the greater Mario universe in general. Even when it's dumb as heck, you know it's part of something larger; when K.Rool's up to no good, you can assume Wario or Bowser are out there in the world also being assholes.

I think what put me onto Banjo and this bizarre tirade was exploring fangames for my YouTube channel. I've been on a weird fangame kick all year -- not just recording them, but spitballing ideas if I were to ever bother farting around with Clickteam Fusion for more than just silly animations. My particular ax to grind is seeing underrepresented characters... get represented!

You'd be shocked how few Mario fangames give Peach a shot in the spotlight. I don't care if it's no different than the dime-a-dozen clones out in the wild, to make a fangame starring Rouge the Bat or Paper Mario's Vivian or even freakin' Groose, I dunno, would automatically give it a leg up on the competition. The official games certainly aren't gonna cover that base! It's free real estate!

Yet as much love as people have for the extended cast of Donkey Kong Country, it's rare to see that love extended to Banjo's rogue's gallery. They're cute and amusing, but never worthy of getting invested in. Nobody's thinking "Mumbo Jumbo absolutely deserves his own game". Son of a bitch barely even deserved to be playable in Banjo-Tooie, honestly.

This is a long, roundabout way of saying that Banjo Pilot has a weird roster. How do you make an exciting lineup when the cast are all idle homebodies? It's cute to see the Jinjos join in, and getting to take control of Grunty and Klungo in some fashion is a novelty. But... Jolly Roger? Not even Captain Blubber? He's the one character who canonically drives!

He's a main character and all, but I don't think anyone was hankering to play as Bottles, who's essentially the fursona of your boring neighbour. Kazooie aside, absolutely none of these characters go looking for trouble or adventure, and to get them into vehicles could only have happened with prodding and negging. Please write in to tell me if my interpretations are out of line, though.

The GBA and DS are littered in bizarre licensed racing games, from Shrek to Antz to Digimon to goodness knows what else, all seemingly baffling choices to everyone except the superfans of those specific franchises. And as much of a following BK has in some circles, even I struggle to think, yeah, of course I want to play as Kazooie in a plane-based racing game.

I mean, to be fair, it was the best kid-friendly series Rare had after the buyout that could almost be considered recognisable. What's the alternative? Killer Instinct Kart? Grabbed By The Ghoulies Grand Prix? Battletoads Bikes could've been a contender, though. Rare's got franchises, but who wants 'em...?

The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Juggernauts

Game Boy
Jun

A game I first discovered through dodgy old Spanish multi-carts, and next to Road Rage is perhaps the Simpsons game I've put the most time into... even though I never got past the second set of challenges. Time to put an end to that!

Yet another bloody Imagineering game, responsible for Bart vs. the Space Mutants and all the other dodgy NES and Game Boy entries. This one stands out by being a glorified mini-game collection, pitting you against an increasing number of challenges each 'week' as you try to earn enough points to pass the score threshold.

The games range from glorified circus attractions, a grid-based capture the flag run, and various iterations of one-on-one combat. It's all loosely inspired by American Gladiators, with silly sports-like premises, lots of bodily collisions, and the occasional deadly trap thrown in for good measure.

You're given three attempts at each game, and there's just enough strategy that working out how to get the highest score is fun to figure out. Is it worth risking the lives bonus just to save time and score more balls in the tile game? The nuclear power plant arena has some trickery where you can deal double damage by hitting where the opponent is exposed, or whacking radioactive ooze at them... but it's also just as effective to jab endlessly.

The mini-games are relatively self-explanatory, barring a retry or two... except for the wrestling game. The goal is simply to shove the opponent out of the ring, yet all of Bart's moves are nigh useless. The seemingly worthless jump button is instead where all the best moves are hidden; holding up and double-tapping performs a mean dropkick, while holding down and double-tapping causes Bart to bull-rush forward.

Trying to play normally is an exercise in frustration, trying to figure out what you can and can't do, when and why the opponent just bounces you across the ring for no reason... but if you use turbo and hold down you'll just bull-rush them out of the ring in seconds flat.

Admittedly playing for score is more important than a quick finish, and sometimes that requires drawing it out as long as you can. Earning and wasting extra chances in the skateboard mini-game are what nets the highest reward, as well as last-second finishes in the wrestling ring. So long as you beat all the games you're usually good, though it can still be a bit of a crapshoot; I failed the final week's threshold by 2000 points, and then beat it by twice that on my next attempt, despite no changes in tactic.

The game is pleasantly spared from Imagineering's dodgy platforming... right up until the final week. It's the one event that's not timed, meaning nothing's stopping the devs from building the tallest, most obnoxious level they can imagine. Visibility is lousy with key jumps indicated only by a tiny dangling rope at the top corner of the screen, and it's very easy to lose stacks of progress not even with a whiffed jump, but just Bart's slippery controls. It's not great, and a hell of a crummy way to end the game. Heck, I'd argue all the games introduced past the first week don't hold a candle in comparison, but it's the novelty of seeing something new, innit.

I always find a certain charm to seeing the Simpsons characters rendered in monochrome pixels, including bit-players like Marvin Monroe or Lance Murdock. Things are relatively on-model given the limitations, which makes it all the more special when Bart undergoes some ghoulish wild-takes, a very misshapen Barney appears in the wrestling ring, and Krusty... is perhaps the most frightening he's ever looked. They're few and far between, but they made my day.

It's neat to see the game to the end; it arguably wasn't worth it, but I can't get too salty over spending an hour or two on it. It's a pity this was Imagineering's one attempt at a non-platformer (or at least, didn't mutate into one after the first level ala Bart vs. The Space Mutants), as it's arguably a more compelling format if just for the variety. Not that it's actually, like, good or anything. Once again I find myself making concessions for absolute stinkers...!

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty's Revenge

Game Boy Advance
Jul

After Banjo-Pilot this is the last Banjo game I've yet to finish, though not for lack of trying -- this was my third stab at it, but on all prior attempts I just bounced off it completely. I would slog through the boring first world, maybe reach the beach, before ultimately dropping it. Does it pick up after that...?

Banjo's converted to a 2D approximation of 3D pretty well on GBA, at least from a visual perspective. Many of the same assets and animations from the N64 games are converted into pre-rendered graphics, so everything looks as you remember them. Familiar characters use the exact same animations as before, and although the locations are new, they tend to evoke iconic locales like Treasure Trove Cove or Bubblegoop Swamp.

Whether you can tolerate playing from the top-down perspective is another matter, though. Losing the analogue movement takes some getting used to, though the controls are adequate, if a bit fiddly to keep track of all the commands. Depth perception becomes very tricky without a true sense of perspective; where is this platform in 3D space? Is this platform in front of me or high above me? The first two stages are very light on platforming, using hills and walls only as a means of segmenting different areas of the map, with proper jumping skills only required for hidden goodies like empty honeycombs.

Admittedly the game has a very sluggish start. The first world has extremely little to offer beyond learning the bare basics, and the beach is an iffy hodge-podge of duff mini-games and undersea navigation. Once you get Kazooie things start to liven up, not just by adding more traversal options, but also by having the familiar back-and-forth banter between her and the characters you meet. Banjo's cute, but he lacks moxie, y'know?

Later stages place a lot more emphasis on platforming, and it's a source of unwanted difficulty. Bad Magic Bayou's upper half is built on slanting slopes and verticality that's very hard to perceive, with key progress behind near-blind jumps. It makes one take for granted how compact the first two worlds are; later worlds and especially the hub are almost needlessly sprawling. If the graphics weren't so big it might not be so bad, but you've so little visibility...!

Navigation isn't too tricky, but the lack of visibility makes it an endeavour; it's not like the 3D games where you could stop and adjust the camera to observe your surroundings, or even enter first-person to scout out a path. Grunty's Revenge gives you no option but to simply wander, so you better get acquainted with what few landmarks there are!

Maps are usually segmented into at least three 'screens', so there's that, though at times the linking point is less than clear; it took an hour of wandering Spiller's Harbour before I even realised there was a third screen, its entrance marked only by an insignificant change in the floor tiles.

The game has only five worlds, and it makes for a somewhat sharp difficulty curve. Cliff Farm is a pushover, Breegull Beach is when things get a little more interesting... and then everything afterward just throws you in the deep end. Bad Magic Bayou, Spiller's Harbour and Freezing Furnace are all bordered by hazardous water, Bayou and Furnace almost exclusively on narrow platforms suspended above the stuff.

The Bayou is a little more courteous about it, but the other two go absolutely ham on their population of tough, tenacious enemies who are hard to shake off! Matters aren't helped when some enemies can only be killed by a specific attack; unsheathing Kazooie into egg-firing mode takes so long you're bound to take damage if you aren't quick about it.

It doesn't help that it loves ramping up the enemies' durability too. There's multiple recolours of Gruntling and Whiplash that take multiple attacks to defeat, and can even knock off 2 to 3 hitpoints in one go! The game has infinite lives and respawns you at your last entry point, so it's never truly progress-stopping... but it is a bit obnoxious.

A collect-a-thon always brushes against the ceiling of variety and feasibility, and the formula of Grunty's Revenge becomes obvious pretty quickly. There's always Jinjos to find, at least two mini-games and one set of arbitrary collectible before you get a Jiggy, at least one usage of a transformation, plus a boss fight. I'm sure you can break down the N64 games in the same way as well, but without the whimsy of three-dimensional worlds to explore, there's a lot less distractions to gussy it up.

The game ends up feeling a tad cheap in its latter half... not just because of difficulty balance, or the somewhat under-utilised final upgrades, but also in production value? Some of Freezing Furnace's design decisions feel a bit egregious, even if I'd be hard-pressed to pin down why. Oddly convoluted navigation, even more worthless gubbins to track down, and an igloo that just plops you into another mini-game rehash instead of a new area. After the appearance by a young Captain Blubber, it seems a perfect spot for Boggy to show up -- and indeed, he's got sprites buried in the ROM, totally unused. It just seemed a tad out of place even before I knew that, I don't know.

Bosses are rarely the highlight of these games, so it should be no surprise they're all a bit crap. Grunty and Klungo are the only two bosses in the game, fought multiple times, and they both amount to watching them run through their patterns and waiting for their shields to disappear.

They're easily exploitable, and the first Grunty fight even has a safe spot where she can't hit you with her stomp attack. The most interesting of them plays out like a shooting gallery where you must avoid Grunty's projectiles while aiming for her weak spots; I wouldn't declare it good, but the variety is appreciated.

You only need 50 Jiggies (out of 60?) to access the final battle, and it's a bit shit: it's just a rematch with Grunty, Klungo, then Grunty again, all using patterns we've seen already with only minor additions. It also busts out the ol' quiz game schtick again, though the breadth of questions leaves something to be desired, and sometimes it just chucks you a mini-game to finish.

This isn't just a bore (it's made us play all the mini-games twice already!), the ice-fishing mini-game is particularly nasty as you run the risk of losing health if you pick up a crab... and there's very little clue what you're picking up. You might have all your health intact after round one with Grunty, and then be on door's death again because of a mini-game!

On top of that bullshit, the very final phase involves Grunty splitting into three ghosts and you have to hit the right one, otherwise you take damage. I only ever reached this phase with low health, enough to kill me for a wrong guess. Maybe it is instant death? It's a bit of a shit surprise, I tell you what. You're meant to hit the fastest one, by the way.

Oh, and if you die at any point during this four-phase battle, you're kicked back to Spiral Mountain and have to do it all over again, including the timed event just to open the boss door. It's not a difficult fight, just marred by multiple unexpected crapshoots.

The game is cute, and I'm a sucker for any opportunity to horse around in the Banjo world; seeing new characters, the amusing dialogue, the few times it actually addresses the time travel plot in a meaningful fashion. But I'm hard-pressed to say any of this is must-play material. So much of Banjo's appeal was in its rich 3D worlds, and to flatten them down like this takes away a lot of the charm. Would even hand-drawn sprites have made a difference...? It just feels like a bit of a hollow experience. What am I really getting out of a portable Banjo?

The final time on my completed file was just shy of 3 hours, though I'm pretty sure it was at least 4; I don't know if deaths and retries are counted as part of the final time. Kudos for not wasting my time, I guess! 50 Jiggies is a digestible amount, though the final challenge was absolutely not worth sticking around for... and now I'm wondering what was worth sticking around for. Ooer.

I've heard rumblings of the game's troubled development, so I can understand the game leaving something to be desired; to try something so out-there when Rare's foundations were shaking must've been an endeavour. Learning the game began development on Game Boy Color as a 2D platformer had me pining for that instead, though.

It was neat of them to try, but honestly, it's the one Banjo game I'd dare say you could safely ignore. It's a novelty seeing the bear and bird come to handheld, but it's hardly innovating through limitations the way Super Mario Land did.

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