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 16 ~ Feb 06

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.

E.X. Troopers
PlayStation 3 / Nintendo 3DS
Jan 17 ~ Apr 28 (PS3)
May 07 ~ May 13 (3DS)

I finally, finally, finally sat down and played the game through to the end...! I fell off around chapter 2 last year, and I think the sheer fussiness of my PlayStation 3 was the reason. I was enjoying the game! I just had no patience for the load times courtesy of my knackered disc lens...!

It's easy to sum up the game as "Lost Planet goes anime", yet the similarities aren't entirely there? It ditches the emphasis on 3D space, robot-piloting and weighty animations, and instead leans on usingyour boost ability, for traversing large arenas, evading shots, or delivering mean roundhouse kicks is key.

If Lost Planet's on-foot gameplay needed a kick in the teeth, this provides it. Weaving around foes and learning to stun, juggle and knock down human foes is vital to keeping them off your back is an intensely satisfying mechanic, and adapting the quirks of your various sidearms to your playstyle is the cherry on top. It takes a little while to come together as you're drip-fed new weapons throughout the story, but by the third chapter I'd gotten a loadout I was happy with.

The game's almost entirely in Japanese, but it's not too difficult to come to terms with despite the language barrier. A bit of trial and error will get you through most of the menus, and the most basic acquaintance with katakana or simple kanji is all you need to understand the weapon upgrade screens.

The only tutorial I had trouble understanding was the "counter" mechanic: what you do is boost out harm's way at the last second, which displays action lines on success, and grants you a limited window to fire guard-breaking super shot at the target. Once you start facing Akrid with bullet-hell projectiles, this is essential to give yourself an opening. It's the one ability that's extremely context-sensitive; everything else you an intuit from just trying all the buttons, but you can revisit the tutorials anytime between missions via the pause menu.

The game is comprised of relatively bite-sized missions, and that's where it shines: it's so easy to pick up and play! In addition to the main campaign, there's VR missions you can play solo or online, presenting straightforward gauntlets of enemies or the occasional mission like protecting the data posts from enemies. With only one primary weapoon, one sub-weapon and a special attack (available once you max out your gauge by collecting T-ENG), mixing up your moveset can totally change how you approach combat, especially when you factor in your two AI partners, who only have access to one sub-weapon. Lost Planet 2's very diverse selection of weapons was a draw, and arguably some of the sub-weapons in EX Troopers aren't as immediately useful (I don't think I found a use for the stun grenades...!), but in theory it's all about playing as a team. It's a good formula!

Obviously I couldn't follow the story the first time around, but the presentation and breezy atmosphere is such a breath of fresh air. The characters and their personalities are the stars! So much of Lost Planet is about endless feuds between factions, so it's nice to see EDN III presented in a more friendly light with its cadet school setting. The manga-style cutscenes are a treat, and even without following the plot they're a darn sight nicer than just talky back-and-forths between military dudes in dropships.

If there's one grievance, the in-depth mecha gameplay of Lost Planet is reduced to baby food. Bren pilots the Gingira, a very anime style hominid mech that's used not just in ground-based mech-on-mech combat, but also a couple of Star Fox-esque shooting gallery sequences. It controls nigh-identically to the humans, boasting a greater string of melee comboes, but it lacks the real meaty power of the Vital Suits in the other games. It's obviously not the focus, especially given there's no additional challenges built for it outside of a time attack.

It's perhaps a bit jarring for old-school Lost Planet fans, but EX Troopers is such a more compelling twist on the formula than Lost Planet 3. The story might be anime fluff, but the kinetic energy of its gameplay and sheer replayability easily trumps that game's sluggish plodding a thousand-fold. That the game never saw an official English release is a crying shame, as its pick-up-and-play nature would've been ideal for the 3DS market...!

3DS version: After a slow start I polished off the PS3 version in just a few days in April, and then in May I played it all over again on the 3DS. I simply couldn't get enough of the game!

Performance-wise, I feel like the 3DS version is better...? With the 3D disabled it appears to run at 60FPS, or at least something smoother than what's on the PS3. The game also gives you two save files to play with, while on PS3 you're forced to exit and swap profiles if you want a separate save file.

The game evidently supports the Circle Pad Pro (which the New 3DS has built-in), allowing you to steer the camera with the second thumbstick and fire off EX-T specials using ZL or ZR. While it's nice to have, they're non-essential and using the D-Pad or touchscreen for either command should suffice. The game gives plenty of concessions with its camera and lock-on that you rarely need to steer the camera in the thick of action.

I played this version using rd2k3's translation patch, which I livetweeted about. It's a hefty two gigabytes -- I had to order a new Micro SD card to fit it on! This is because it doesn't just translate all the in-game text, it re-encodes all the pre-rendered cutscenes to have baked-in subtitles. A noble gesture that's probably far easier to do in a pinch than embed brand new subtitling code... but also a totally wasted effort.

See, this patch is a machine translation. The entire game script has been run through Google Translate with minimal proofing, and that's the junk that got pasted on top of the movie scenes. The dialogue? The story? The stuff I was most interested in experiencing after playing the game blind the first time around? Often indecipherable. The script mangles names constantly, completely misinterprets kanji fragments, the works.

The tutorials are nicely cleaned up and perfectly readable, so that's a point in its favour, and it even translates the digital manual that offers a decent quick-start guide. It's just a bummer to see a game that's so rich with attitude and personality rendered almost totally incomprehensible. You can get the gist of things if you squint and have had experience with deciphering Google Translate garbage... but it hurts to see the story and characters done dirty like this.

On the bright side, if someone who proclaims to have no experience in coding or translating could pull this off, then it can't be too hard a feat, surely? It's an appreciated gesture to just show it's possible and help folks understand the basic pretense of the game. Hopefully it'll pave the way for someone with a whiff of reading comprehension to do the script justice.

Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion
Nintendo 64
Feb 13 ~ Feb 14

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 15

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 17

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 simply 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...!

Kid Icarus
NES / Nintendo 3DS
Mar 10 ~ Mar 20

Kid Icarus is one of those early-days Nintendo franchises that, for the longest time, stood out for never quite becoming a 'thing'. It got two games and a foothold in nerd culture thanks to Captain N, but never really rose from there. The 3DS game and Smash Bros. seemed to give it new life... but it's still kind of stuck in limbo. Sakurai's clearly carrying a torch for it, but Nintendo have made no moves to take it anywhere.

Even then, it's a game I hear very little reverence for. It's one of those NES games that folks know has some degree of complexity and place in history, but little interest in exploring it. They scale a few floors, fall down a pit or get clobbered by the reaper, and then give up once they realise there's no checkpoints.

Stick with it, and it's an interesting romp, like a strange fusion of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. 2. The immediate impression you get is that it's a rarely-seen vertically-scrolling platformer, which is a big part of its appeal. By forcing you to ascend and allowing you to wrap around the sides, it's able to construct some interesting platforming that's unlike what you commonly find in Mario.

The screen-wrapping means you can go off the other side, reaching platforms that are seemingly too far away... but it also forces you into tight passages while enemies leap at you from below or soar in arcs above your head, which is an invigorating challenge to overcome. It's a nifty mixture of spacing and crowd control, so to speak, that gives it a different vibe from even the likes of Metroid's vertical passages.

But the game continues to transform! The boss stages are akin to Zelda's dungeons, a series of single-screen rooms all connected by doors on the top, bottom or sides, and it's your job to find the boss and defeat them. There are shops and secrets to find, as well as Eggplant Wizards to become afflicted by, requiring medical attention (vegetative attention...?).

I confess I tried the dungeon 5 or 6 times before consulting Alys' maps; the true path often lies in a nooky exit that's easy to bungle, forcing you to backtrack until you reach the sweet spot again, and it's easy to get lost. There's an in-game map you can find, but getting all of its components is a three-step process just to track your current location is a three-step process. I was hopelessly lost! Still, it's an interesting dynamic, one that further changes the kinds of environments you're interacting with.

Collecting the harp turns enemies into mallets, which you can equip in the boss dungeons to free fellow centurions, who appear as options during the boss fight. It's an interesting idea, but ultimately a waste of time; they have better range than Pit, but die in one hit and haven't the same rapid-fire as him. It's far easier to just get up close with Pit and let 'er rip. Still, I dig the idea. I wish you could employ the options during the actual dungeon: it would make contending with snakes and wrigglesome foes that much easier.

The second world is then entirely side-scrolling, ditching the verticality for long stretches of bumps in the road and platforms over pits and barbs. It's exciting to see the game reinvent itself multiple times through its playthrough, similar yet different to Super Mario Bros. 2's free-flowing mix of horizontal and vertical screens... but these stages aren't that great. It's neat to use Pit's wings to soar far distances across platforms, but the challenge simply isn't as compelling as the vertical stuff.

Much of the game's challenge revolves in its doors and multitudes of items, which are so cryptic to anyone without a manual. Alongside typical shops, you can also survive gauntlets in "harsh training" rooms or defeat enough enemies to 'activate' the otherwise empty Zeus chambers, giving you temporary power-ups or permanent strength increases. Amassing points also extends your health metre after each stage.

There's elements of growth, but also stuff that can be taken away; certain enemies apparently steal your special weapon if shot...? I'll be honest, I bought or earned multiple weapon power-ups but never noticed their effect. I read the manual, and never noticed a change in arrow range or fireballs. The Zeus stuff is noticeable because Pit changes colour, but everything else? A mystery!

There's something to be said for Kid Icarus' "transformative" gameplay -- what begins as a vertical platformer then turns into a dungeon explorer and a side-scroller, and finally a short-lived shoot-em-up! The concept is nifty and innovative for NES, though it takes such a time for these changes to occur that most players probably never notice it evolves beyond just hiking up shafts for eternity.

That, and the changes aren't that great, sadly -- the game is at its most challenging in the vertical sections. The dungeons need a proper map to be tolerable; the sudden swerve in pacing is a bit of a killjoy. The side-scrolling stages are cute, but practically a prolonged breather compared to the tough vertical worlds. And the final shmup stage, one I was looking forward to, simply isn't that compelling. I accidentally discovered the safe spot from Medusa almost instantly! Mind you, beating the microgame recreation of it in WarioWare Gold 100 times probably didn't help.

I do confess it takes some time to warm up; the vertical stages are the hardest, and just by its nature the game throws you in the deep end from the beginning. Use a walkthrough for the first dungeon, and hopefully after that things will fall into place. By having the side-scrolling sections more as lulls to study the design, you get a better idea of the systems in play, and can then apply those to the 'real' stages when you're trying not to die a death.

Still, I'm very glad I played Kid Icarus. It's a NES game I see little discussion or acknowledgment of, and I'm fascinated by its game design. Not just the unique vertical exploration and use of enemies, but even its extremely offbeat style. Nintendo games of the era tended to have offbeat vibes -- look at Mario, for goodness sake! -- but Kid Icarus feels like it really flaunts its aesthetic of cutesy Greek-flavoured anime and weirdo monsters. Reskinning the same enemy patterns with at least three different graphic sets, its constant mixing up of the gameplay formula... it's shockingly ambitious for this era of NES.

The core of the game revolving around entering mysterious chambers is strange to acknowledge, but adds a certain mystique and incentive to better your play; you can't get Zeus' stuff if you don't fight hard, and you won't have a safety net if you don't stock up on money, etc. It's hard to explain, but it's a game that demands you engage with all of its cryptic mechanics, otherwise you're missing out on half the fun. It would be nice to see the game revived in some way to make this stuff less obtuse, but that's part of its identity...!

3DS Classics vs. NES: I first played this via the 3DS Classics version, which is partially based on the Famicom Disk System version with a handy built-in save function. It also introduces new backdrops for each stage, lending a bit of colour to a game that's otherwise set against blackness from start to finish. It makes the worlds stand out and helped me appreciate the small changes in tileset! And of course, the 3DS digital manual is a boon for quickly identifying items in the shop. It comes with its own series of quirks, though, enough that playing the original NES version felt like a very different experience. I address some of the major changes on the blog.

The 3DS version has the option for tighter controls, a more colourful presentation that makes it more accessible, and the digital manual makes a handy reference to better understand the game's eccentricities. Not having to remember stupidly long passwords is neat, too. A fair bit of challenge is diluted through nerfed enemy patterns, though, and not being able to revisit stages via passwords is a crime, honestly. I'd argue there's merit in both -- the NES is the core game with extra challenge and access to passwords, while the 3DS is good to take on the go, with a slightly different experience courtesy of its new controls and quirks.

Yooka-Laylee
PC (Steam)
Mar 11 ~ Mar 25

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...?

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters
Game Boy
Mar 22

It's the same formula, only on handheld! Travel upwards, shoot enemies, enter doors for shops and challenges, and increase your power via the same old means. I had tried this in the early days of my Kid ICarus obsession, but bounced off it completely; its cramped screen and reliance on horizontal-scrolling threw me off, but I figured after beating the NES game three times, I was hungry enough for more Pit to muscle through it.

The big changes include the omission of death pits entirely; you can fall down as far as you've climbed, and your only punishment is having to climb back up again. I admit this was one of my first gripes -- it takes away the immediate peril of punishing you for your slip-ups, that death is always false leap away... but it does incentivize exploration, especially in levels with very winding paths that are difficult to circumvent.

The levels are still only as wide as the NES levels and retain the screen-wrapping, but with the zoomed-in camera, it gives the impression they loop endlessly. It's a bit confusing at first, but given the circumstances it works fine, even if I do prefer having the full visibility of what's on-screen. This change does make the side-scrolling stages that bit more compelling, hiding passageways and goodies out of sight on high ledges. The cramped screen prevents them from having the same daring leaps as the NES version, but being forced to explore more for secrets is a point in their favour.

Pit can now float by mashing the A Button; it doesn't slow his descent as much as I'd like, but it's a nice gesture. You can also equip collectible hammers at any time; they're in limited supply, but they do 5 pips of damage to a foe, and can break blocks to reveal items, hidden passages, or surprise enemies. There are new hint chambers that offer pointers on where to find secrets in the current stage; I never felt inclined to explore, but since you're free to backtrack, you've got time to reconsider if looking for that hidden hot springs is worth your while.

The same basic enemy patterns return, with a few new ones. The dungeons feature slimes that leap from floor to ceiling, leaping spiders, fireballs that track your position, and guards with spears. The specknose pattern has been replaced with enemies that fly in zig-zag motions and wrap around the screen, which sadly aren't as tricky as their predecesors. It's similar to the last game, but not a total retread; there's enough new patterns to keep you happy.

Dungeons remain unchanged, only your power-ups remain in effect and you no longer rescue centurions; those statues just contain health refills, enemies, or goodies like the map. By virtue of having a scrolling camera the stages feel more immersive, as you have to look around for where the exit from a room might be.

The bosses are a true step-up, and can be extremely difficult. Set in tall, narrow chambers, they've got more involved patterns than the NES game's bosses and can be particularly deadly, with huge arcs of projectiles or great balls of fire. I had a lot of trouble with the first boss (I don't think my arrow strength was higher than level 3), and I only beat it by standing up close and using auto-fire to fire a million shots a second. The others I had more resoruces at my disposal, but they are a tad intense. They're definitely far more engaging than the lousy NES bosses, but they perhaps went a bit too far...?

The final stage drops the shmup aspect but still gives you all the gear, allowing you to fly through a craggy palace and fight enemy centurions, still able to enter doors and find secrets. What it lacks in novelty compared to the NES finale, it makes up for in being a more engaging challenge. The new abilities feel like a true endgame power-up and not just a genre shift. Orcos in particular is a tough and engaging boss; Medusa was short and sweet, but Orcos feels like a proper test of skill

The game's greater incentive to explore and more 'compact' levels does give it a unique vibe, perhaps one that makes it a little easier to get to grips with. There's elements of its design that improve on the original, and bits of the NES game that still come out on top.

If you can cope with the cramped screen, I want to argue this is perhaps a smoother experience than the NES version... but there's something about the original that's hard to beat. Seeing the design get ported to Game Boy is really nifty, and I wish there were another 2D instalment so it could iterate further...!

Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe
PC (Steam)
Mar 25 ~ Mar 27

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 28 ~ Apr 11

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 29 ~ Mar 30

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 30

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
Mar 31

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 1

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 2

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 19 ~ 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.

Bot Vice
PC (Steam)
Apr 22 ~ May 04

After acing both versions of Wild Guns I wanted something similar but different to sink my teeth into, and this looked like it'd plug the gap. It's very much its own beast though, and while not without merit, I probably approached it with something specific in mind rather than ready to accept what it was delivering.

Although very much a gallery shooter, it's not quite a crosshair shooter the way Wild Guns was -- you always have control of your character's movement, but your aiming is limited to firing straight forwards or at the nearest lock-on target. Enemies tend to fly around willy-nilly, so you're expected to keep up with some zippy firing and manoeuvring of your own. Action is fast and frantic, with incoming enemies abounds and oodles of destructible, explosive terrain to help you in your cause.

Shooting small droids will items, among them health refills and five types of weapons that you can cycle between with the left triggers, but it's difficult to make strategic use of them. The action's too fast for you to pick the right one in the heat of the moment, and their ammo burns away so quickly you have to specifically use short, controlled burst to preserve them... and the game doesn't exactly promote that kind of behaviour. I typically used the machine gun and spread shot on clusters of grunts, dumped the rest on the boss, and tried not to think about how uselessly situational the flame shot.

There's a bunch of defensive manoeuvres as well, including a dive roll, a sword for attacking close-range enemies and erasing projectiles, and holding Up to hunker under bunkers. The sword's range is wider than it looks compared to the sprite, but its use feels limited. Only late in the game does erasing bullets feel more tactical than simply rolling through them, and enemies are rarely within range for its offensive properties to feel satisfying.

Ducking, meanwhile, is a feature I'd almost always forget, and I don't know what use it has...? Later levels love firing volleys of slow-moving projectiles in different directions that make rolling tricky, but it feels like one mechanic too many. Enemies can damage and destroy parts of the bunker, depriving you of cover, but the few times I thought, maybe cover will help me more than rolling, I took damage anyway. Oh well!

The 25 stages are all short and fast-paced, lasting only a minute tops, and as such the lack of checkpoints isn't much to worry about. It'll often take a life or two to acknowledge all the threats you'll be facing in one level -- an unexpected fast-moving attacker is enough to ruin your first run! -- but it's satisfying to play through and never felt too frustrating. Levels aren't marathon gauntlets, which is appreciated.

The presentation is slick, boasting cute chubby little sprites and a terrific palette. Everything's very readable, if a bit too fast-paced for my ailing eyes. If I had to grumble, the story is just a bit of a bore. Lots of Mega Man X-style pontificating over the legitimacy of robotic life and separation between man and machine, all told through tiresome voiced dialogue between the snarky pop culture referencing heroine and the slimy bestial villains. It's part of the developer's brand, but it never did much to engage me. Less is more, dude!

In addition to the main campaign there's another 25 bonus mission after the fact, so there's a good bit of content to keep you going. It's a fair enough shooter, but just a little unfocused for my liking. There's one or two mechanics too many to be in control of, and they're often not as satisfying as the game hopes; the slash and cover moves just lack the oompth of a good roll.

Perhaps what gets me is the lack of score mechanic. There's no points of any kind, only grades for how much health you retained and how fast you cleared... and I never saw anything below an A. Again, maybe this is because I'd sooner act foolishly and die multiple times than play cautiously and beat a stage first try... but it stinks knowing aside from doing a no-hit run, there's no score mechanics to come back and master. The short, bite-sized stage format is appealing, but there's something to be said for the challenge of Wild Guns, having only a few lives to get you through a gauntlet of stages.

Perhaps not the level of replay value I'd like, but it did its job of keeping me occupied while I waited for a game to install on my PS3, so mission accomplished. I'd like to give the bonus stages a bash and see what I'm missing, but it's hard not to forever draw comparisons to Wild Guns. That game set a high standard!

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation

Apr 23

Pal herrDoktorat and I had begun watching movies together during quarantine, starting with Final Fantasy: Advent Children, Sonic the Hedgehog and Bumblebee, before moving on to one of his personal favourites: er, this. It's a film I've only seen in bits and pieces as a young'un, and bless him, as a fan of the movie, Dok was the first person to willingly subject themselves to it to help sate my curiosity.

So Shao Kahn showed up at the end of the last movie to say "fuck that" to the rules, he's back, he's killed Johnny Cage, and he's kidnapping Kitana as part of some dodgy scheme to fuse Outworld and Earthrealm into one continuous hellscape for him to rule over... or something. I'm pretty sure that's just conjecture. Plot really wasn't at the top of the movie's priorities.

The film was released in the wake of Mortal Kombat 3 so characters are thrown around like confetti. Here's the new, good guy sub-Zero! But forget about him because he only has one fight scene and disappears forever! Here's Nightwolf! You might think he's going to be a main character, but no, he also clears off after his one inconsequential scene! Even major baddies, who you'd expect to at least participate in a decent fight scene like Sheeva, are completely written out with barely any pomp and circumstance. To be fair, the film moves so fast you tend not to notice until after the fact, when it's too late to realise you were robbed.

It's a bizarre lineup of characters, honestly. Liu Kang, formerly an ideal leading man with great charm and fighting talent, spends most of the movie on some dumb solo voyage where he does nothing but ask questions. With Johnny dead, Sonya is left to babysit Jax, her special forces partner who's fitted with cyborg ams and a tiresome macho attitude. Kitana straddles the line between character and non-character, while Raiden finally gets a chance to kick ass -- but it's questionable what that brings to the table besides him dressing like Vanilla Ice. And that's before we even address the villains' shocking lack of presence...!

Where the focus lies is on the eye candy. No longer stuck on one island, this film is a globe-trotting adventure across realms and dungeons, all cast in extreme mood lighting. The whole movie is just one gigantic flex from the effects team, with gonzo spectacle like giant hamster balls to carry them along caverns, or a variety of bizarre CGI monsters that show up to pad out fight scenes or inexplicably kill off major players (sad to see you go, Jade...!). It's very hit or miss, natch, but the film has such confidence in it that it's hard not to be swayed by it.

That's a thing: the film's pacing is all over the shop. The first film wasn't good either, but this one builds some great energy in the middle, and yet somehow it completely fizzles out before the end. Fights frequently feel half-baked, utilising so many setpieces but rarely making the most of them. Even though the finale has four duels going on at once, one of them involving a centaur dude, it's completely devoid of 'wow' factor. Maybe they put all the good fights in the wrong places. Maybe it's the fact they killed off all the fun characters. Whatever the case, the film just kind of sputters out long before the credits have run.

Special shout-outs to Sindel, who I'm sure does nothing key or vital to the plot (what plot?), but goddamn does the actress ham it up bigtime. She is a queen. In the wake of all this mystical plot bullshit that nobody cares about, amidst all these stock-serious macho power fantasies, this scare-queen diva swans on screen and is beaming from ear to ear. More franchises need a character who epitomises "fuck the lore, I'm just here to have a good time."

Less-than-special shout-outs to Sheeva, whose actress absolutely rocks the look, but gets nothing to do beyond look menacing in the background before getting flattened with a cage. Fuck that. I demand a reshoot.

I think I liked Annihilation more than the first one...? It helped that watching with Dok was a treat, being able to bounce banter back and forth rather than unanimously dunking on it. It doubles down on the worst faults of the original, with wham-bam pacing launching you from dumb plot into dumb action with zero warning... but it's also got waaaaay more variety. More characters, more locations, more setpieces!

But because of that, it comes with soooo much wasted potential. So many characters that do nothing, a staggering number of fights against nameless nobodies, and a shocking lack of decent martial arts? After the highs of the original's Reptile fight, you feel that should be the bar set by this one, but I can only imagine production was so breakneck there was no time for decent choreography.

So long as a movie makes an impression I'm reluctant to consider it "bad", but I'm in no rush to recommend Mortal Kombat Annihilation, to put it politely. It's got a whole lotta scope and ambition, and I love how shameless it is in simply throwing everything its got at the screen, no matter how terrible, like that woeful Animality battle... but I can't help but imagine what it could've been like if it used every part of the buffalo. Like, meaningfully, not just splattered on a film reel. That's a bad analogy.

Persona 3 FES
PlayStation 3
May 06 ~ Oct 16 (The Journey)

It's the closest I've come to playing a modern contemporary game, and it's still nearly fifteen years old! Maybe this decade I'll finally see what this Gears of Wars business is all about!

Pal herrDoktorat talked me into this after wanting to expose me to Persona in more ways than reading his and Angevon's lovely fanfic. As much as everyone alternate raves and/or shits upon Persona 4, I feel like I've already played the game with the amount of pop culture osmosis I've been exposed to.

I've read Dok's fanfic (AND YOU SHOULD TOO), I've seen the Hiimdaisy comics, I've scrolled past years of discussion on random social media feeds, I struggled through two episodes of the anime before screaming "get to the new shit already!" This was Dok's personal favourite in the series, and it happened to be the only one available on PSN, so I figured I'd take the dive. I wanted something to surprise me!

Ordinary teenager Jerry Ramstone (that's his canon name and you can't convince me otherwise) awakens his Persona, a superpowered reflection of their inner self. By day you attend school and manage relationships and responsibilities, and by night you fight crime shadows, beings that attack society during the timeless Dark Hour and reside in the fucked-up tower of Tartarus.

Juggling your daily life in between visits to Tartarus is interesting, and I can see the fun routine in deciding what's a better use of your time -- exploring Social Links and stat boosts, or just pursuing whoever's the most fun to hang out with. In between periodic boss dungeons there's stuff like school exams, sports training and other responsibilities, so it's a nifty world to engage in.

One of my stumbling points with RPGs, particularly non-linear ones, is literally not knowing where to go next. My eternal problem with the first Final Fantasy has been getting lost on the massive overworld, going completely the wrong direction, and by the time I'm on the right track I'm overlevelled to the point that I've erased all the challenge. Exploration can be fun, but in RPGs where the chance of winning or losing is controlled more by numbers than your personal skill, it's the sort of thing that can get dicey either way.

By basing the progression around days on a calendar and limiting your exploration to only a few locations on a list, it streamlines the entire process of exploring and progressing. There's never any fear of "where do I go next?" because the answer is always "go to bed, idiot."

This means the concern is rarely about missing vital items in a dungeon (it's all randomly generated anyway!), but wondering if you used each day to their full potential. Are there people worth talking to in this area? What about on certain hours or days? It's a different kind of exploration, arguably more time-management than anything, that's not without its own foibles (i literally never knew Fuuka had a social link until a week before endgame...!), but it strips away the problem of becoming daunted by such a huge, sprawling world.

By splitting the day into afternoon and evening activities, it makes you choose your priorities -- do I pursue social links? Do I stick with one story or do I diversify my portfolio? Or should I grind for stats to unlock new social links? It's a trifle aggravating knowing how little gets done during the day, but juggling the needs of yourself and your peers is a neat challenge. Social links earn experience points when fusing new monsters, so sometimes it's worth slogging through some boring asshole's story arc just to power up a beefy monster.

It's when Tartarus enters the mix that this flow gets disrupted. A breezy week can fly in ten minutes if you stick to your charted course, but since there's no limit to how long you explore during the Dark Hour, you can spend multiple real-time hours in there, exploring dungeons, tackling requests, fusing Personas... and during that time it's nothing but raw gameplay.

Despite being surrounded by your teammates and fellow students, there's nothing for them to say but scripted lines relating to battle or their condition. It's hard not to feel a dissonance when I can spend hours upon hours grinding in a single night, everyone bailing each other out of sticky situations... and by the time it's morning Junpei's still a jackass stuck in his inferiority complex arc. To expect relationships to develop over the course of busywork is demanding a lot from a game that's already got an in-game year's worth of story to fill, but even just idle banter would've helped. Pineapple Smash Crew did it! It was nothing but quoting catchphrases from British sitcoms, but it made an impression!

One thing I appreciate is, although the player character is given leadership during field missions, the story largely unfolds without his input. The characters resolve personal crises and come to conclusions on their own or amongst themselves; you the player are privy to these scenes, but your character isn't, simply waking up the next day to realise, eyyy, someone's conquered their personal demons or whatever. To see the cast come out of their respective shells and show great strength is satisfying to see, without it coming down to picking premade responses. Save that for contrived social links!

For the purpose of story and pacing, exploring Tartarus is perhaps a bit of a drag, but I personally quite enjoyed it. I never ever hear anyone discuss the actual dungeon stuff in Persona games (probably because waifu wars dominate the discussions, spare us all), but the randomised floors are neat. It took me a while to find a good flow to exploring them, but there was something zen-like to spending an hour each evening roaming the floors, leveling up my party and acquiring new Personas to fuse.

While I grouch about the lack of meaningful interactions during them, they were perfect for zoning out and listening to a podcast for the duration. It made for a charming evening routine. I might've overdid it on grinding, mind -- in the early game some bosses are roadblocks because you simply don't have the resources at your disposal, be it elemental weaknesses, multi-purpose Personas or even just an excess of items. Come mid-game though, I never had too much difficulty with any of the boss fights.

Speaking of fights... hey, the battle system is compelling! So many articles simply equated it to Pok้mon, but it feels so much more dynamic than that. What grabbed me the most was its way of weaponising turns, so to speak. Striking a target's weakness will knock them out for that turn unless they're attacked again, as will landing a critical hit. For the player, this means stumbling all foes allows you to perform an all-out attack, a free action that does fat damage; when AI partners achieve it you might as well let them, but for yourself you may want to use that window of opportunity to cast buffs and refresh yourselves.

Of course, foes hitting your weaknesses or landing crits stinks, and you want to optimise your party and current Persona so you're not susceptible. Most early bosses I had to do a doomed test run or two just to learn its moveset and weaknesses, and then restructure accordingly.

Likewise, stuff like Final Fantasy always struggled to make physical weapons seem exciting compared to magic -- magic's got a swish animated vignette attached to it, while attacking is just a static sprite waggling above your head. It's very possible it's a standard of JRPGs -- do I look like I've been paying attention? -- but Persona 3 makes both elemental magic and physical attacks have their own uses.

Weapons have a greater chance of landing multiple blows or critical hits, and every crit is a knockdown. When you don't have a monster's elemental weakness, sometimes eschewing powerful magic for just laying on blows can make a difference, with the hope of a crit to ground them and paving the way for an all-out attack. It sounds basic, but when a turn-based RPG makes manipulating turns such a key component, I find myself way more invested!

A feature I've heard people grumble about but I personally enjoyed was the lack of control over your party members. Everyone else will act on their own accord, hitting weaknesses once they're clued in, healing themselves or others in dire straits, or just sitting out a turn for lack of anything meaningful to contribute. It took me an embarrassing amount of time before I even discovered the tactics command, allowing you to issue protocols on what foes to target, what kind of attacks to land, or to simply sit back and support the team.

It can be aggravating when party members would rather idle when they could be healing (HEAL ME!!!! IT'S GAME OVER WHEN I DIE!!!!), but it made me far more engaged in the mechanics, and better acquainted me with each member's perks and traits. In some fights it was more beneficial for me to sit back and keep everyone else healed, as they were better equipped to deal damage it than I was at times.

Lining up comboes that others could maximise with their own toolset felt very satisfying, especially knowing they themselves made the decision, rather than me having to manually command each and every action. If someone thinks it's worth buffing, they must know what's up! Partially automating the battle process is such a boon when countless random battles not worth running from were what reduced my brain to mush in most other RPGs. And these are supposed to be thinking games, you say...!?

By the mid-game there's stacks of resources at your disposal -- no shortage of items from repeat dungeon sweeps or Elizabeth's requests, boosted EXP via social links -- but no matter how beefy you may seem, one wrong move still has dire consequences. Landing a surprise attack or getting struck first on the overworld can be the difference between success and a game over.

Even foes you've blitzed countless times before can suddenly wipe out your whole party if you don't take them seriously. Having the wrong Persona equipped can be enough to get demolished by foes who know your weakness, which resulted in some extremely salty game overs... but it felt good to be reminded to never take things for granted and to always play smart. I only came to that conclusion after ragequitting and stomping off first, mind, but better dying with a lesson learnt than dying to badly designed bullshit.

The story that drives the action is pretty boilerplate for most of the game, just enough to give you an objective and get some insight into the other characters. Getting acquainted with your partners and the community around you is the real deal... though I perhaps took for granted how much of it is anime bullshit. Nobody told me these are games are populated with teenagers! I do not want to hang out with your hot-for-teacher ass, Kenji, and you need to grow a personality, Kaz. If you're not a cute girl then get the fuck out of my face.

That was admittedly my struggling point early on -- lack of engagement! Gimme some meaningful interactions! While the social links are all interesting, it takes a while and some stat-grinding before the more interesting ones become available, and you go a shocking length of the game before you actually get to hang out with your fellow teammates. What's Yukari up to? I've no idea, I just gotta wait 'til the next plot event in however many weeks...!

Come the Autumn seasons I became truly invested in the game, thanks to new members joining with dark histories and bad blood, and the repercussions of their actions beginning to effect the world around them. I didn't see some of them as much as I would've liked (though it's possible I missed optional scenes or what-have-you), and I think that's either my beef with the storytelling or my failure at parsing stories in video games.

It felt like I was expected to step into the shoes of the player character, and really view all these events through his eyes: what it's like to now be living with middle-schooler Ken or having a dog and a robot join the team. To extrapolate things more than simply reading whatever text is dished out on-screen. I struggled to parse the main character as a character and not just an avatar of my limited input as a player... but that's a ludonarrative debate to have with someone more qualified than myself.

The final boss takes a sudden swerve for the obscenely difficult, forcing me to reload an old save to beef up my party and spend five hours coming to terms with the fusion system. A trifle unexpected and perhaps slightly unwarranted, but it was nice to see a proper challenge after all this time...! I was glad to beat it -- it's a game I wanted to see through to the end. It was nice to see what all the fuss was about.

That, and keeping Dok informed of my progress was a big part of it. I joked about us forming a "video game book club", and this is the closest we've come to that. Being able to discuss plot developments or character actions has me far more engaged in the goings-on than I would if I were playing it on my lonesome. Discussing the characters arcs of Junpei, Shinjiro and Ken... it helped give a fuller picture than what I would've observed from only my own preconceived notions. Is it better that Shinjiro dies a hero, or would it have been more compelling to see him live to address and unravel the mess he'd gotten himself into?

When I play a game it's usually the moment-to-moment stuff that I'm invested in most, hence why Undertale made such an impression. Persona 3's far, far more long-form and way more large-scale, as the day-to-day goings-on are mostly your decision, individual plot threads with no direct bearing on the story beyond the themes of humanity and understanding. Like I've said, there's a lotta distractions and so many ways to banjax the pacing that it's easy to lose sight of the big picture.

It was a chance to engage with the game even when I wasn't playing, to hear a different point of view from what I took from it. I love picking apart and dissecting game design (if these obsessively wordy articles about bloody Mario Party Advance haven't been a clue), but engaging with stories and themes isn't exactly my strong suit.

To read into characters' motivations and actions and get a clearer view of the game's worldview was very satisfying, and making it an ongoing discussion helped me make time for the game rather than let it fall by the wayside. If I'm going to drop a hundred-plus hours into something, I want to mine some good earnest debate out of it, gosh darn it!

Er, yes, my final post-credits save file clocked in at 95 hours, but I'm certain there were at least another 30 hours on top counting all my game overs and redoes. It's the longest I've sunk into a game since my Nintendo 64 days, I'm pretty sure. Steam tells me I dropped a dozen hours into each mode of Shovel Knight, but that's another kettle of fish...!

Was I glad to have played the game? Yes, very. It was good to have a reminder that RPGs can be good, actually. The writing perhaps wasn't as mind-blowing as people hyped it up to be (no joke, I was spoilt by making Dok's fanfic my introduction to Persona. it's written so much better than the canon...!), but it felt good to have a story to get invested in, and more importantly a battle system that felt rewarding to master rather than just mashing through commands brainlessly.

Will I play another Persona game? That... remains to be seen. I really am in no rush to play P4, possibly out of spite. If I were I'd probably explore spinoffs first, or even the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, but truthfully, I think one hundred-hour RPG is enough to sate me for a while.

Will I look for other RPGs to play? The game was a reminder that good, engaging mechanics can make such a difference to the grind, and knowing how much love Dok holds for the genre, I feel like I'm missing out. That said, the back-and-forth of discussion was half the appeal. To play an RPG on my own with no one to discuss it with just sounds just a little bit miserable, honestly. Whether or not this is a silent plea for people to request RPGs just so we have a mutual topic of conversation... well, there's only one way to find out!

Anyway! Persona 3 was good. Wasn't entirely satisfied with the ending, but a hundred-plus hours raises expectations a bit, don't it. I still have the after-story The Answer to play, but knowing it lacks the social links and EXP bonuses from fusions is a bit of a killjoy. Glad to experience it, would say I had a good time with it (on average!), and whether you take that as a recommendation is down to your personal tastes and also how much you read into my duff opinions.

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 my way through that I figure I can extrapolate on feelings I had when I foolishly played it 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.

Mortal Kombat

May 9

Another watch with Dok, and a film I'd already subjected myself to two times in as many weeks just ten months prior. I loathed it once, then subjected a friend to it just to make them suffer, and now Dok suggested it to fill a lazy afternoon. Will a third watch suddenly change my tune...?

As a youngster it was hailed among friends because "IT'S JUST LIKE THE GAMES!!!", easily more accurate to the source material then the likes of the Mario or Street Fighter. I don't think any of us actually gave a crap about Mortal Kombat, so this was kind of a pointless thing to boast about, but it's shocking the amount of hills a ten year old will die on if given the opportunity.

I just find the film shockingly dry. Its plot is incredibly thin, giving the three stars only the barest reasoning for entering the tournament, and it feels like every subsequent plot beat is pulled out of its ass. About the only character whose quest we're actively engaged in is Sonya's, who's out to kill Kano and avenged her fallen partner.

Kano is the most 'human' villain, a swaggering, boasting lout who gets three scenes to himself, tops. He makes a mean presence in those three scenes, though! Then he gets his neck snapped in a crap fight scene and Sonya has nothing left to do, so Shang Tsung turns her into a damsel in distress. It's not great.

The film's basically a parade of fight scenes -- what more do you want from a fighting game adaptation? -- but there's so little variation to them. Everything's one-on-one! Everything's fisticuffs! There's no physicality to the environments, barely using props or elevations to their advantage in a creative way... hell, most of the fights barely even have an environment, they just take place in what might as well be a flat arena.

The only good fights: the scrap with the hooded grunts is energising, partly because it's one of the few multi-man melees, and for its somewhat unwarranted use of the iconic Mortal Kombat rave theme. Scorpion vs. Johnny Cage is decent once they warp to hell, because they actually acknowledge the bomb-ass environment as something to be utilised for dumb flips. And of course, the completely inexplicable fight between Reptile and Liu Kang is the kick in the teeth the film sorely needs: fast-paced, balls to the wall, and with some thumping techno backing it.

... unfortunately, by that point you're over 70 minutes into the film and it's running out of steam. So many of the fights until this point are short, unexciting or otherwise make no impact. The plot is now Shang Tsung playing hide-and-seek with the heroes in Outworld, and they interrupt it with a completely out-of-the-blue fight sequence. Where was this fight fifty minutes ago?! And when they find Shang Tsung they interrupt it again when he summons a bunch of souls to fight Liu Kang! I don't care if it's homaging the arcade game's endurance matches, just get to the final boss already!

The film just lacks the moment-to-moment buzz that other '90s video game movies boast. There's a few good character interactions and amusing moments, but most of the time it's just knee-deep in prophecy bollocks. The actors for Liu Kang and Shang Tsung are terrific, giving both characters more oomph than they had in the games of the era, but there's barely any script to sink their teeth into.

Hell, there's no blood or gore! Scorpion dies burning, bleeding and exploding (but he's a skeleton so it's okay), and Shang Tsung gets a drop of blood on his lip. That's your lot! Goro, impressive as he is for an animatronic, sets up multiple instances where you expect him to crush a dude's head or rip them in half, and he always sets up for disappointment. To be fair, I do respect that -- MK's cartoonish level of violence is acceptable with silly digitised sprites, but in any other format it's a bit much to handle, personally. Better to let the action speak for itself than cloud it with messy amputations or whatever.

To its credit, hats off to Paul W.S. Anderson for making this his first film production. Like so many movies of the era, it goes absolutely ham on set design, and it's my favourite part of the movie: the exotic locales in Liu Kang's temple and the tournament island are beautiful, and the otherworldly locations they visit like the temple and more are filled with outstanding statues and detail.

The film loves zooming matte shots, and while they might be cheesy nowadays, they do wonders for painting the place as bigger and denser than you could ever imagine -- this ain't just behind some trees, this is an entire freakin' complex! It really sells the island as truly mysterious, with more going on than you could ever know. Forget fighting games, I want a Myst clone set on the island.

At the end of the day, it's just a martial arts movie. I struggle to call it anything more than that. By no means a slam on the genre, but it not only fails to hold a candle to most other films of its kind (it probably doesn't helped I watched Enter the Dragon the week before i watched this last year), but it feels a lot less ambitious than its video game competitors.

Super Mario Bros. was a cyberpunk family adventure movie. Street Fighter was a campy espionage thriller, equal parts Die Hard, James Bond and cocaine. Those films are bursting at the seams with characters and plot threads, and even if you can't keep up, there's always something new and outlandish to look forward to, be it ridiculous setpieces or corny dialogue.

... and then Mortal Kombat is just a martial arts movie.

I will admit I think I have misplaced nostalgia for those screwball nothing-like-the-source adaptations like Street Fighter. To see something that's so solidified over the years of new releases and more lavish tie-ins twisted into something nigh-unrecognisable is hella compelling! What I'd give for more Street Fighter media based on the movie! What's Steven E. DeSouza doing these days, and what's his commission rates? If there's one person powerful enough to write a sequel...!

But at the same time, Dok rightfully said that he was disappointed in that movie for the same reason. If you liked the Street Fighter games in the '90s, you were shit out of luck if you wanted more like it, as the movie, cartoon and comics all had their own bizarre takes, warping its pre-established characters and plot threads. Mortal Kombat has its own idiosyncrasies between its spin-offs, but at least the plot, the theme, the characters are all roughly the same. I mean, what is there to mess up...?

Long story short: surprise, watching the film with someone who enjoys it rubbed off on me a little! Less of a surprise: I don't want to rewatch this movie anytime soon!

Mega Man 11
PC (Steam)
May 18 ~ 22

Mega Man finally goes next-freakin'-gen! He hasn't done that since the bloody PS1 era!!! MM9 and 10 were good, but the blue bomber practically sat out everything after the PS2 era, though not for lack of trying. There's already been reams of spiritual successors and games clearly inspired by it in the interim, indie darlings like Shovel Knight and undeserved punching bags like Mighty No.9.

I won't lie that I found myself in the same line of thinking that I had when New Super Mario Bros. came out: It's been nearly a decade since the last instalment... imagine how much bigger and better it's going to be with the leaps in design and technology! All the weird design choices they experimented with in Mega Mans 6 through 8 can finally be done right!

Mega Man 11's just back to basics with added 3D graphics, for all intents and purposes. It's exactly what you'd expect from a Mega Man. It's still a side-on 2D platformer, it's still got 8 robot masters to beat, and four fortress stages at the end. There's a shop where you can buy upgrades, some of them familiar staples, some of them new quality of life features. I will admit I was hoping for something more, but I'll also fess up that my expectations were pretty stupid.

The closest it's got to new features is the Double Gear system, allowing you to slow down time or power up your weapon (including the master weapons) so long as it doesn't overheat. A lot of challenges are built around the Speed Gear; in addition to zippy attacks and boss patterns, numerous stages feature auto-scrolling death traps that highly encourage you slow the game down and plot your next move carefully. The Power Gear is a bit fiddly, but it boosts the power and range of your weapons that, when sussed out, is very useful; Tundra Man's column of ice becomes a full-screen bomb, and applying that power-up to a boss's weakness can demolish them in just a few strikes.

On Normal mode at least, the Double Gear is an extremely limited crutch at best; using it to its full effect with its tiny energy metre and long recharge time is very tough, especially when the game throws proper bullshit challenges at you. In addition to the usual surprise enemies that knock you into pits, the race-against-death-traps often give you little warning they're coming, with next to no room for error. Please do yourself a favour and play your first run-through on Casual. Starting the game on Normal did not do my mood any favours. (do you know how long it's been since i got 7 game overs in a single sitting?)

The series makes the jump to 3D pretty smoothly. Mega Man's jumping is perhaps a little off compared to the eight NES-style instalments before it, and the very minor perspective on platforms makes some jumps a little deceiving... but on the whole, it plays well. It's exactly what you'd expect from a modern Mega Man. All his staple moves are back, including some quality-of-life features like mapping Rush functions or even the slide to buttons. You can finally use the right stick to quick-select master weapons, and click it to reset to buster; it's a bit hectic to use when you're scrambling for answers, but it results in far less problems than scrolling through them with the shoulder buttons.

Despite my grief at enduring so many game overs, the difficulty can be tweaked in a number of ways. Alongside the four difficulty settings, the in-game shop offers not just extra lives and E-Tanks for super cheap, but also a variety of optional upgrades that can be ticked on or off any time in the pause menu: auto-charging your buster, increasing the length of the Double Gear gauge, etc. Casual difficulty is a blessing if just for including far more checkpoints; having to redo huge chunks of stage in Normal because you died at the first of three mid-bosses is a prime way to make me hate things.

Playing it a second time did make me appreciate the game's design. Finding uses for the Power Gear'd master weapons, little shortcuts to bypass sections be it with Rush Jet, or finding a stage enemy's unexpected weakness. Even how interactive enemies can be with one another is neat; the bomb dudes in Blast Man's stage serving as weapons, or the destructive liquid in Acid Man's stage. It's a game that feels especially tailored for replay, where experimenting and optimising your route is the bigger reward than finding secrets or what-have-you.

It's admittedly hard not to wish there was something more, though, or at least refined. The game finally has proper voice acting (Mega Man 8 didn't make a good impression did it), and I found it more distracting than anything. The robot masters are hard to hear over the music, but Mega Man's death scream is so obnoxious I'd no incentive to ever take it off mute.

The cutscenes are still steeped in the old-fashioned sprites-standing-in-a-line presentation, and while the story is the first to properly explore Wily and Light's relationship, one can't help but wish for something involving the robot dudes we're more invested in. Nice to give the docs a bit of depth after all this time, at least...!

I haven't explored the Challenge Menu much because it feels so tucked away from the rest of the game. Mega Man 9 and 10 felt like they proudly boasted its new challenges and DLC content, which included brand new bosses and levels and felt truly exciting for it -- and extra playable characters, to boot! MM11, meanwhile, is mostly limited-resource challenges or time attacks, and the couple of mini-games I tried were... not great. Especially when the time it took to load the leaderboards and retry was about as long as some of my attempts. Optimise your load times, people!

I think I'm unfairly biased towards the 8-bit titles. Every time it's stepped beyond that it's been hard to come to grips with their new quirks and idiosyncrasies, which is perhaps why MM9 made such a splash. All it had to do was fine-tune Mega Man into the best it could be! All staple themes and weapons we've seen before, but refined to the most inventive challenges and multipurpose use, with a flow to its stages that felt spot-on. A bit brutal to a first-timer or someone learning the ropes again, but it felt challenging and engaging without entering ROM hack territory. MM10 kind of hurt perception by just doing the same old trick again. It's fine, but at that point you wanted something a little more fresh.

Mega Man 11 is also fine. It's good and competent, but even with its new graphics and extra bells and whistles, I didn't feel the same sense of invigoration as I did from MM9. Some setpieces are good but there's some duff screens too. Some weapons are excellent and some just fill a gap. The Wily fortress is exactly how you'd expect it to be, complete with Yellow Devil retread, boss rush, skull mech, the works.

But maybe the quality of life stuff makes up for it. You can save or visit the shop in between fortress stages, and a completed save file lets you revisit them all. It's a darn sight more generous than MM9 was, if you ignore the death trap auto-scrollers. It just tends to feel a bit one-and-done if you were hoping for more than just the bare essentials of a Mega Man game. Better that than promising the heavens, I suppose.

It's simply another serving of Mega Man, and how much you appreciate that depends on how much the clones and inspired-bys scratched an itch. Having seen how Mighty No. 9 handled weapons that drastically changed how you approached challenges, or Shovel Knight's whole new approach to 'boss' levels and 'bonus' stages... there's a part of me that wishes Mega Man 11 did more than just slap on a new coat of paint, and really went out there and reinvented itself. But there's merit in simply having another new Mega Man game with no frills attached. Would've been nice if people reciprocated its release after years of banging their fists on tables for it, mind. People were screaming their lungs out in demand, and I still barely hear any discussion of it...!

Mega Man 9
PC (Steam)
May 23 ~ May 27

Mega Man returns and goes back to basics -- he's just not 8-bit, there's no charge shot, no slide, just the basic buster and maybe Rush Coil if you're lucky! The slide and charge were kind of easy to fall back on, rushing through stages and blasting through foes without much care, and while I wouldn't want it to be the new standard, I'd argue in this case ditching them does make the game feel that bit more unique.

Primarily because the master weapons are so good. This is why I like the game so much. Every weapon feels unique and has a distinct property to be utilised during stages. Splash Woman's trident, ordinarily a basic shot about as powerful as a charge shot, also has piercing properties that allow it to destroy blocks and kill foes behind shields. The concrete block is powerful and can freeze stuff, or even create temporary platforms against walls. Even Tornado man's weapon allows you to jump higher temporarily, something that can easily launch you into spikes if you're not aware, but becomes a handy tool once you know how to use it!

The stages have a terrific flow to them as well, usually boasting a stage-specific setpiece of some kind, be it against a mid-boss or a special challenge like Splash Woman's bubbles or the swinging platforms in Jewel Man's stage. Everything flows fast and smooth, granted you don't fall folly to not just the old staple of dastardly tricks, but new, nastier ones too.

That's ultimately the game's major flaw: it leans heavily into its "retro" difficulty, released in an age where "retro" often translated as "stupidly, unfairly difficult". It makes for a game that's probably refreshingly challenge for oldschool players, but inconceivably hard for newcomers. Resources are in short supply, and even grinding for bolts to afford things from the shop is tricky. most of what's on offer are one-time-use items...

... and the shop is entirely off-limits once you enter Wily's fortress, perhaps one of the most brutal end-games in a Mega Man, with difficult, belaboured boss fights... and no option to save partway through. The final area in particular is exhausting; after using all your weapons to defeat the boss rush, you then have to contend with a three-phase Wily fight, all of which can mess you up in record time. If you're going to use an e-Tank, you better be certain you'll make it through, otherwise that's one less resource for next time.

It's a game I wish I could happily turn off before playing the fortress, if it didn't keep introducing new unique challenges: platforms powered by the tornado weapon, a vertically-scrolling anti-gravity sequence where Mega Man's trajectory is dictated by his buster shots, and so on. The game continues to introduce new ideas to the end, even if they do get more and more devilish. I played this via Legacy Collection 2, which allows you to reload from checkpoints and retain your supplies, mercifully, but the inability to use the shop is maddening.

Mega Man 9 has got its foibles, from its brutal reliance on oldschool difficulty and perhaps leaning too heavily on its heritage: imagery and setpieces are lifted entirely from older games, including the bubble sequence in Wave Man's stage. Still, the game is extremely solid in my opinion; it shows that just by bringing out the best qualities in the tropes we've seen again and again - the same old weapons, the same old themes - it can still knock out a rock solid game from the old fundamentals. You don't have to completely shake up Mega Man to make it work, it just needs a bit of spit and polish... when we're talking 8-bit instalments, at least. I just said I wanted a little more from Mega Man 11, didn't I...?

Dragon Bros.
PC (Steam)
Jun

A game I'd had on my wishlist forever based purely on its appealing Steam Greenlight page, but I don't think it had ever gone on sale. In theory it should be right up my alley? It's a 2D run and gun shooter, a mixture of Metal Slug and Contra! And it's got dragons!

Playing the game shows even more to be enamoured with, as there's a mixture of gunplay and basic melee moves, including a downward slam that's limited in use but rewarding to pull off. The map is split between large levels that count towards progress, and smaller one-off challenges typically built around a central gimmick, like a specific weapon, using the roll command, or even a straight-up Space Invaders homage. The concept of mixing longform and shortform challenges is something I crave and exactly what I want more of! Heck, the game even brings up the difficulty select before each stage, allowing you to finetune the challenge without backing out through menus. What a treat!

... sadly, the game itself just leaves a lot to be desired. For all its running and gunning, the game just feels very tepid somehow? Your movement is limited with only a tiny jump that has difficulty even reaching low ledges, and the roll command is almost a bit too good, flinging you further than you'd expect. Not that the game dabbles in much platforming; levels are stop-and-go affairs wherein you're forced to weed out slowly-incoming waves of enemies.

Gunplay just feels limp. The viewing space on screen is massive and your default shot fizzles out halfway across, I assume an effort to stop you from sniping everywhere. The default gun is weak and piddly and has a sluggish auto-fire; you're forced to spam the button to get a good rate of fire going. Melee is inefficient thanks to its crummy range and the fact you take collision damage, and the slam attack is good only from high elevations; your jump isn't even good enough to jump over enemies with ease.

Only in designated areas do you pick up new weaponry, and they feel designed to be as inefficient for the current area as possible...? The shotgun has absurdly short range, other projectiles move incredibly slowly, and you never seem to have much ammunition. The weapons are collected from bubble icons, which in no way suggested "new gun" to me, so by the time I realised they replaced my peashooter I'd already have burned through most of the ammo.

Defeating enemies drops pellets that fill up your Ultra metre: activating it will temporarily increase your damage output and range... when I say temporarily, I mean temporarily. It lasts barely five seconds! It does fill up quickly enough, but it means collecting more pellets is a waste; it doesn't refill the draining gauge once it's activated, nor is there a surplus gauge to fill once it's full. Since you're stuck with the pea shooter most of the time, you're forever burning through Ultra just to make a dent in the crowds. Killing dudes to recharge energy required to kill more dudes is a mechanic that could be interesting if applied correctly, but it just came across like they forgot to balance the weapons correctly.

Checkpoints are semi-frequent and refill your health, meaning each chunk of a stage plays like a dedicated challenge; there's no lives, so you never have to worry about redoing the entire stage unless you quit manually. Levels tend to go on a little too long for my liking, and by the second world had already gotten tiresome.

The first boss was also extremely lousy, pitting you between two orb-firing cannons and giving you a laser with barely two seconds of fire in it. The challenge was negligible, it was just maintaining the patience to last it out and not throw yourself into incoming fire.

I simply wasn't having fun with the game. It boasted so many design elements I wanted to love, but the execution felt so, so tepid. For its hard rock soundtrack, the action never feel intense or fast-paced, and a myriad of factors -- the lack of weapons, the collision damage, the weak shots -- meant there was no incentive to do anything but camp and wait for enemies to come to me. The game slowly introduced new threats and enemies, but the only notable ones were traps that move to the beat of the music, and robots that were only vulnerable in their teeny tiny heads. I figured if this is the only meaningful thing it's introduced, then I've no hope for the rest of the game.

It pained me to ask for a refund, as it's a game I long wanted to try and enjoy, and if nothing else I want to support indie devs... but I was getting zilch out of it. I could've made an indepth review picking it apart, highlighting what it did right and what it did wrong, but I've enough needless projects as it is. I bought this game for something to enjoy, not give myself more work!

Handsome Mr. Frog
PC (Steam)
Jun 19

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 21 ~ Jun 23

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 29

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 04 ~ Jul 16

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.

Mega Man 8
PC (Steam)
Aug 06 ~ Aug 22

By virtue of PlayStation/Saturn emulation being dogshit at the dawn of the millenium, I never had the same familiarity with this game as I did the rest of the classic Mega Man series, and apparently my first time playing it was back in 2009, where my takeaway was seemingly "jump-jump slide-slide can go fuck itself." Pal HerrDoktorat holds the game as among his favourite Mega Mans, so I figure I owe it a second chance. I can't damn the game forever based on decades-old opinions, be they my own or those of ye olde fan communities!

Classic Mega Man goes 32-bit, and just like Mega Man X4, seems to streamline the design after the increasingly complex instalments before it. Where that game simply ditched extraneous garbage like the themed Ride Armours and other obtuse gimmicks, MM8 chucks out long-held staples like E-Tanks, Rush's bevy of commands, and even passwords. In turn, it ups the scope in grand new ways, with sprawling setpiece-laden levels, quirky new upgrades, and more.

As always, anytime Mega Man ventures beyond its 8-bit aesthetic I'm instantly flummoxed, and it takes some time getting used to the slower speed or even his ability to swim underwater. After a decade of straight-forward jump-and-shoots, it's somewhat jarring to see new gameplay elements like the infamous "jump jump slide slide" auto-scroller sequences or even gimmick-laden level designs, like Astro Man's screen-wrapping maze and Sword Man's puzzle chambers.

I seem to recall fan perception of this game being extremely negative in communities in the early 2000s, citing its strange new direction and many omissions as a misstep; Mandi Paugh's comments on her Mega Man Home Page seemed to set a precedent. Again, I'd argue the lack of easy emulation for it heightened expectations in many ways (don't forget SNES emulators at the time couldn't even handle translucency! water levels in any of the SNES games were completely unplayable!), and to track the game down only to find something so different from the norm must have been disappointing.

Yet I'd argue, as jarring as some of the changes are, the game tries its best to play more fair than its predecessors... for the most part. Boss patterns seem to be more telegraphed, and taking down the robot masters with just your charged shot feels a lot more feasible... yet having their weakness doesn't completely undo the challenge, it's more a tool for interrupting their patterns and creating openings.

It helps that the game makes some helpful concessions. You're given the Mega Ball in the intro stage, a gimmick weapon that can be directed, bounced off walls, and even helps boost your jump if need be. Beating Tengu Man nets you the Tornado Hold, which is also dead handy for aiding with verticality. By blocking access to the second batch of stages, it employs the first set of weapons as essential to progression -- swinging on hooks with the Thunder Claw or extinguishing instant-death fires with Frost Man's power. It's far more engaging than the strictly-optional stuff in Mega Man 7, though like a lot of things, it sometimes left me stumped because this stuff feels so out of the ordinary Mega Man wheelhouse...!

There's still some bullshit in there, like the shockingly intense sub-boss in Sword Man's stage who's trickier than the robot master himself, or a variety of tricky jumps that are hard to judge with the game's wishy-washy perspective. The lack of E-Tanks has been a long-held complaint against the game, and while I don't see why they weren't included, I would attest that the game seems a lot fairer in its damage output than prior games, which smeared you against the wall in just a few bodily collisions. This has the unintended side effect of making instant-kill hazards feel even more obnoxious. Why wasn't I warned raging tower of fire would disintegrate me?!

While the jump-jump-slide-slide stuff isn't quite my bag, it's at least an attempt to liven up the otherwise formulaic, er, formula; Wave Man's stage was the closest we came to a forced change in format, but once was enough. Rush Jet is repurposed from a way to bypass platforming and instead for short side-scrolling shoot-em-up sections, complete with upgrades and options collected from surprise balls. These sections I'm a little more partial to, if just because it's a fresh new way to engage enemies, even if most of the game's master weapons are functionally useless in them.

If I had to grumble, the game's selection of weapons are a bit crap. The Flash Bomb remains a staple if just because it's so straight-forward, as are Search Man's Homing Missiles. A lot of other weapons tend to feel extremely situational or hard to judge their true strength. If Frost Man's weapon could travel across ceilings it could have found a purpose during the vertically-scrolling segments, but as is I simply couldn't find it that useful. A lot of them go to waste in the Rush Jet segments, and it's hard to feel satisfied when wiping out a line of enemies as you can't even reap the rewards -- anything they drop just plummets off the bottom of the screen...!

That, and some of the supplementary stuff feels a little obtuse. Defeating sub-bosses nets you new Rush commands, but these are never explained in-game or even highlighted in any way; you just have to try them out for yourself, after which it can't be used again until you die or enter a new stage...! I'm still not sure what Rush Cycle is really good for besides absorbing damage and making turning an awful nuisance.

Collecting bolts is a fun extra and arguably more engaging then grinding for them in other games, and the upgrades you can buy are very nice; quicker charging, variants on your charged shot, and so on. The game tries to design itself to be a healthy challenge for even novice players, and encourages you to practise old stages and get upgrades rather than brute force it with extra 1ups or E-Tanks. The descriptions are translated a bit crap, though, and some upgrades I passed on because I wasn't even sure what i was getting out of it. It's a bummer stuff like this (or the voice acting...!) weren't tidied up for the Legacy Collection, but whaddaya gonna do. If the Anniversary Collection 15 years ago didn't do it, they're hardly gonna do it now.

Arguably a more ambitious move into 32-bit than Mega Man X4, intentionally changing some core design to make something a bit more fair than what the series is typically known for. It's not without its missteps, but it's cool to see the series try and branch out in some regards, squeezing in new gameplay challenges and even trying to make master weapons pull double duty by filling in for stuff like Rush Coil. I'd like to have seen them continue along this track, but I guess classic Mega Man just wasn't cutting it -- and Rockman & Forte absolutely did not take any of these lessons to heart. Make the game fairer? Balls to that. That game will rake you over the coals and make you say "thank you". I'll defend it, but that game's a tough cookie...!

Pac-Mania
Game Boy Advance
Aug 09

I suddenly found myself in a Pac-Man mood and I've no idea why! Am I just flashing through every short-lived hyperfixation I had as a kid this year? Mega Man, Bomberman, Banjo, Croc, Pac-Man... still waiting for the inexplicable Jackie Chan phase to kick in. Jackie Chan Extreme Stuntmaster might be good, you don't know! Unless you do in which case don't spoil the surprise.

Pac-Mania's one of those games that seemed so exciting as a kid -- it's the next-generation of Pac-Man! And yet, actually playing it felt like a step down. The isometric graphics are cute, the backdrops especially, but the fact the screen has to scroll already makes it less compelling; you're not playing with a full deck, so to speak. Being able to see the entire board is what made the game such an enticing spectator sport, with friends crowding around and keeping tabs on ghosts, items and leftover pellets.

Here, the screen scrolls and you only see a sliver of the screen at a time. Maps get pretty big pretty quickly, with world 3 even wrapping around infinitely on the middle tier, so you need to learn the lay of the land before the enemies start bearing down on you. It probably didn't help that I played this on the Pac-Man Collection port on Game Boy Advance, which made zero concessions to resize the game to accommodate for the smaller screen -- it just crops a big chunk of the top and bottom. Oh well.

The isometric graphics also mean it's harder to tell collision detection; you can't corner nearly as sharply as in the classic game, and you need to be right up on that dot to swallow it, so you have to completely re-learn when's the right timing for savvy u-turns. While the graphics are cute, there's not really enough personality in them to make them worth it; the ugly muted colour palette isn't good either. I'm sure that's just a quirk of developing for arcade monitors, but I don't believe any of the home ports, nor this GBA version, ever attempted to fix it.

I do like how large the maps are, and they seem to be of varying shapes and sizes. The variety of locales, with different graphics and palettes between screens is appreciated; it's all aesthetic, but it feels like tangible progress compared to ye olde identical black screens.

The big new thing is the jump ability, allowing you to sail right over enemies' heads. It's a cute new addition, but rarely feels as satisfying as you'd hope. It often just means having to backpedal for pellets you jumped over, and later worlds give certain ghosts the ability to jump as well, requiring the right timing to pass them. Ghosts get faster as the levels progress, so it quickly becomes impossible to outrun them -- the only option is to turn around and jump over them.

It mixes things up, but I didn't find myself that enamoured with it. Jumping just didn't feel satisfying, y'know? Pac-Man's all about the cat and mouse game. Having to duke them through smart thinking and quick reflexes was what made the classic so compelling -- little things like having sharper turning, or the ghosts slowing down in the wrap-around tunnels, it put you both on the same level but just enough little tricks to slip ahead. Pac-Mania kind of feels like an arms race -- you've got a jump, but they've got numbers, and when they start having jumpers of their own, jumping over them just means you've landed in a whole crowd of them.

I finished the first loop and was happy leaving it there. It resets to the first stage and strips away the ghosts' jump power (for now...!), but maintains the sheer number of ghosts and relatively short power pellet time. I did use savestates so it wouldn't wipe my pellet progress upon game over; I just wanted to chill, man...!

It's nice to give the game the time of day and see what I've missed out on all this time. Pac-Man's a franchise that's kind of struggled with how to innovate without just complicating the whole thing. Jumping is neat, but feels less like a cool new ability and more an excuse to multiply your stress levels. Something to worry about, without the same satisfaction as simply mastering your manoeuvring.

I personally wonder if turning jumping into something more limited but more 'powerful' -- it can only be used so often, but it slows down ghosts and might even stun them, who knows -- might have made the design more compelling... but I'm just wading into game design talk here. Spare us all.

Sonic Rivals
PlayStation Portable
Aug 11

Still workin' Sonic out of my system! It's a 2.5D platformer... except the entire gimmick is every stage is a race against an opponent. I enjoy Sonic 2's race mode as much as the next person, but this is a game design that's a little hard to wrap my head around.

Levels are kind of what you'd expect from 2D gameplay in 3D environments? Lots of swooping cameras and loop-de-loop excitement, yet because you're always racing there's even less incentive to stop and think about what you're doing -- gotta go fast and all that. It's built on the same 'tier' system that modern instalments make a point of emphasising, where going high up is riskier but offers far zippier shortcuts, bypassing a lot of the tedium of going low.

The big gimmick are vault ramps that either launch you skyward with X (jump), or forward with Circle (dash). A big part of playing efficiently is knowing to react to these in time, and knowing which path you want to go. The circus stage even has barriers that bounce you back if you don't pick the correct option. It's a very fiddly mechanic; if you don't react in time you simply stumble over it, either losing your momentum or falling into a pit. To outright pause your forward movement to determine what way you want to boost seems kind of strange, though the game's pacing as a whole is kind of off-kilter.

Visibility is perhaps the game's worst point. the camera is so zoomed in...! You're lucky to see anything coming that isn't broadcast by the circuit looping below you. Later stages have the camera zoom out to show a dynamic setpiece, or angle upward when the upcoming segment is particularly vertical, but the fact you've no control over it is frustrating. Get good and memorise everything, I guess...!

The bosses are perhaps where the rival mechanic is at its best, as you fight on a looping circuit while waiting for the boss to make its move, and whoever lands six hits is the winner. To confine both players into a small space means you're interacting with each other constantly, squabbling with each other and the boss's attacks to get to its weak spot first is pretty fun. The boss patterns are simple, but having another player here does spice things up a bit.

Given the nature of Sonic, you're either far ahead of your rival or far behind -- you're rarely squabbling for pole position like in traditional car sims. As such the race mechanic feels particularly unsatisfying. You can collect power-ups to use against one another; various elemental moves to paralyse each other, reducing visibility, and all-purpose projectiles, but this just makes it feel so impersonal. It's hard to treat the game even as a traditional Sonic platformer when, by pure crapshoot, the enemy can zap you while you're on a zipline and dunk you in the abyss.

Interacting in person isn't much better either, since a lot of things just feel... muddy. My character seems to lose speed arbitrarily, and I don't know if it's enforced rubber-banding, a status effect, or just my PSP's d-pad showing its age. You don't just run past each other, colliding with your rival is like hitting a wall, which really neuters the satisfaction of passing them. What is satisfying, however, is vaulting off them with a homing attack and launching yourself onto a high shortcut. That's the one time it pays off, and you're lucky to make it happen more than once.

The game's difficult is pretty middling, with very little overt challenge; it's only when a stage is devoid of items towards the end that things get hairy, as there's no hope for a surprise comeback. Consider it a firm lesson to shape up! Up until the circus stage I could coast through the game without paying attention... and then after the circus stage I could go right back to doing that.

The final stage is the only one to abandon the racing mechanic, presenting it as a straightforward platformer... and unfortunately, it immediately shows that the game's got little going for it without the pressure of racing forward. People joke about Sonic being nothing but holding right, but Sonic Rivals honestly comes close to that. I'm surprised it isn't automatic! There's little incentive to turn around except maybe to take another stab at a vault I fumbled.

To its credit, the game looks quite nice, and the premise is definitely something original. with four story modes presented vaguely like a visual novel is nifty. To make Knuckles a main character after being practically irrelevant ever since Sonic Adventure is a nice gesture... not that it gives him much to do, but nice to see him allegedly on equal billing as Shadow.

In addition to story mode and versus there's also cups, a prepackaged gauntlet of stages to marathon, and challenges, where you get graded based on things like attacking the rival, tricks, rings, etc. Neither mode really fleshes out the game, and its idea of replay value is awarding you cards for every race you win. There's no text associated with them or anything, it's just promo art from the past 15 years of Sonic games. Look, when you're making a game on a budget, you gotta make content somehow.

I'm just not sure what to make of the game. Playing this after both versions of Sonic Rush and Generations probably wasn't smart, as this is a totally different line of design. Credit where it's due, Sonic Rivals is certainly an interesting change from the norm. Sonic is franchise I've forever wanted SEGA to experiment with, especially given their weird directions ever since Sonic 2006. Given my love of Sonic R, to see another Sonic game bill itself as competition-focused should be nifty... but here we are.

Were it a cheapie downloadable game, maybe it would pass muster, but as Sonic's headlining release on PSP, it pales in comparison to its DS counterpart. The comparative lack of depth and little incentive to revisit it beyond getting high scores and cards... there's nothing I want to master. Playing Sonic's story was enough, and I can't imagine any of the others will be enough to compel me. Maybe the sequel is better...?

Sonic Rivals 2
PlayStation Portable
Aug 14 ~ Aug 15

I played this because I'm predictable. This is the year for being needlessly exhaustive on things I'm not even that into. What else is there to do, right?

It's much the same game as before, but kicked up a notch in terms of presentation and scope. It's hard to pinpoint the changes, but the game design seems tweaked in such a way to better facilitate forward motion, if that makes sense? There's not nearly the sense of stop-and-go from the first game; level designs feel more optimised, you no longer lose speed after performing ground attacks or tripping over vaults...

Levels also seem to use more gimmickry: the first level has rolling barrels (which might've been in the first game, i forget), the second level introduces climbing poles and walls you have to button-mash to clamber up, and so on. They help spice the game up, using every possible item in the 2D platformer toolset to keep the races fresh, though not only are they perhaps a bit at odds with traditional Sonic gameplay, the button-mashing always throws me for a loop. In a game where you want your button presses to be precise, it throws a spanner in the works to suddenly be forced to mash the PSP's puny little buttons.

Each zone is still two races and a boss, but now there's arena-based rival battles added into the mix, most commonly Tag and Knockout, though Single Event shows there's other modes in this vein: capture the flag, king of the hill, and collecting the most rings in the time limit. They're cute, I'll give them that. The game desperately needs something to break the tedium of simply running forward, so it'll do in a pinch.

Maybe it's better against human opponents, but against the CPU it's frightfully dull. In Tag I was frequently able to find a high spot and just camp out there, while Knockout is easy to to cheese via cheatsy comboes. I give credit to the Backbone team for trying to make the most of the arenas; whether or not it's good is circumstantial when it simply counts as extra content! That first game was barebones, y'all...!

The story mode instantly looks so much nicer. The presentation is still very visual novel, and the writing's still not much to write home about, but hearing the 4Kids cast fully voice-act every line of dialogue immediately gives it a bit of punch. The sheer number of characters is compelling; there's 8 characters paired up across 4 stories, it's fun seeing how they bounce off each other, and you wanna know what plot prompted such oddball pairings.

You're brushing shoulders with Shadow and Espio, who all have their own mysterious agendas, and it seemingly has ties to Sonic 06 courtesy of its parallel dimension ruled by ancient lava monster Ifrit? That's one way to keep Silver relevant and put those Crisis City assets to use, I guess.

Each character has a unique special ability, which can be used once the metre is filled by collecting rings, an immediate improvement than getting it by chance in the item roulette like the last game. How helpful they are is questionable; Shadow's time stop is incredibly useful, while whatever Knuckles' power is did me no good at all. Some levels are particularly difficult without a good special move; I had a hard beating Frontier Canyon with Knuckles, as the last quarter of the race is devoid of items, denying me any hope of closing the distance.

The first boss is absolutely perfect for the head-to-head setup, as you endlessly pursue the boss and squabble over each other to be the first to hit its weak spot. All the bosses thereafter are puzzle bosses, unfortunately, where you have to strike them or reveal their weak point in some obfuscated fashion.

The second one is a highlight as it can't be hit directly, forcing you to bash bats to drop bombs onto its weak spot. This totally flips the metagame, as the boss itself poses little to no threat -- it's your opponent you've got to worry about, keeping them stunned long enough to drop the bomb in time, or even dropping bombs prematurely to throw them off their game. It's the kind of thing that'd erupt into hilarious shouting matches when played with a friend... but against the CPU, it just becomes a battle of tedium and attrition.

This approach is perhaps an adequate way of spicing up the player-to-player interactions, so they're not just trampling over each other to land the next hit. It's when there's so much roadblocks towards landing a hit that these fights get real tedious. The casino boss drops numbered blocks that you touch to light up a bingo board -- get bingo and it lowers to a perfect height for clobbering. Botch the numbers somehow, and it chases you with a laser for ten seconds straight, wasting everybody's time.

Frontier Canyon is a twist on the first boss as you outrun a giant mechanical bull, waiting for it to stop by wonky scaffolding you have to climb to get in range. For whatever reason, they're the most awkward platforms in the entire game to scale, and the bull's lock-on range is shockingly tiny. If that weren't enough, window of opportunity to hit it gets shorter and shorter; I'm sure I went a solid five minutes with neither player unable to land a blow...!

I won't lie, the first Sonic Rivals was a game I played only because I'm a hopeless Sonic nerd. It's a game I'd struggle to recommend beyond completionism. The sequel isn't without its faults, but I found myself... enjoying the game? It's a decent improvement on the first game with, like, stuff to do, y'know? The arena modes are a bizarre novelty, there's slightly more incentive to try other characters, and stuff like Free Play adds a new twist to just racing as you explore levels solo, with hidden Chao to find.

Even the card system is an immediate improvement -- no longer just random draws, they're now awarded as achievements for high scores, accomplishments, etc., so to get them all you need to actually do things, not just grind mindlessly. It's not a patch on the more technically-orientated Sonic Rush or anything, but if you're just that desperate for Sonic on PSP then it could've been a lot worse, I suppose.

It's kind of melancholy realising this is the last of many things for Sonic. The last time amigos like Espio, Rouge and Silver have even been playable outside of sports games; to see Rouge be such a smarmy pest to everyone around her is a delight. The last original title made for handhelds. Heck, the fact we've yet to get a full 3D Sonic game on handhelds. the game's environments do show their seams when you pause at inopportune moments, but they look nice and soaking them in when the camera allows shows they're nifty little biomes for what they are.

Even multi-player! This feels like the last game to offer a proper multi-player suite. It's strange to think that Sonic had beat out Mario in that regard in many games; Sonic 2 and 3 had the competition modes, Sonic Adventure 2 had its terrific if slightly unbalanced head-to-head mode. Even Sonic Heroes, Shadow and 2006 tried with their somewhat ill-fated attempts at racing, battle, and even co-op. But after that, poof. Not worth the time. understandably, given how much strife making the bloody foundations of a Sonic game had been for SEGA, never mind all the fancy stuff to make it feel like a robust package.

I don't know if the PSP would be the ideal hardware for a 3D Sonic, but having an extra dimension would immediately make the battle modes have so much more meaning, y'know? They're modes to make the most of 3D space, while in 2D they're just kind of fudgy and awkward, weird treks across the same terrain expecting to bump into each other again. to make the game in 3D would quintuple the effort required in designing stages and mechanics, probably... but gosh darn it, at this point i'm just dreaming about what could've been because no 3D fangame has progressed beyond proof-of-concept guff yet.

Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind
Super Nintendo
Aug 16 ~ Aug 17

It's mascot mania, apparently! I figure I'm long overdue to give retro gaming's favourite punching bag a fair shake after years of making unfair comparisons to it.

It's easy to see why it gets compared to Sonic constantly. The first world feels right at home, with great slopes and countless ways to build up speed and launch yourself over environments. The game even makes accommodations for its speed, pushing the camera forward so Bubsy is on the left side of the screen, giving you more forward visibility... in theory. Often you move so fast that you've no time to react to hazards, which can range from innocuous things like eggs, manhole covers, ice cream cones, or even just smashing clean into a wall. You can go fast, but you don't necessarily want to go fast...!

Early on, I'd argue Bubsy's greatest asset is its dizzying verticality. Running even at mid-speed greatly increases your jump height, and bouncing off things from a high up only shoots you higher and higher. Paired with his glide ability you can cover a whole lotta ground like this! The first two worlds play with that element a lot, giving you drastically different challenges to explore if you stick to the ground if you dare tackling the floating platforms.

Bouncing off foes and racking up points and airtime is incredibly satisfying, and although you're fighting Bubsy's trademark momentum even in midair, I personally feel that adds a lot of personality to the game: learning how to use his glide to counteract it without overshooting your mark entirely. It's very unlike most other platformer physics, and I won't deny it's mighty finicky, but mastering it with relative success is a treat.

The Retro Pals have used Bubsy as their yardstick for 2D platformers in their Mascot Friday rankings, and it's easy to see why. The game makes a really positive first impression in its first two stages; huge worlds with lots to see and do, but also extremely rewarding to breeze through with little effort. It's like a whole new spin on the best qualities of Sonic!

And then comes the third level and suddenly things just get... fussy. The level is drenched in water that'll kill you instantly, with floating platforms that are easy to fall off of and blind drops that lead to almost-guaranteed death -- not if you land on the tiny platform that you're absolutely not going to know about ahead of time. You can fight an uphill battle past the entire first segment, contending with tiny platforms, hazardous slopes and all manner of death lurking beneath you... or you can enter a door a few steps from the entrance that'll skip you past it entirely, and put you right next to a checkpoint to boot.

The level design's just plain bizarre at times. For every instance of it actively welcoming Bubsy's abilities, there's putting an egg-throwing woolie where you absolutely cannot react in time, or forcing you to jump between narrow platforms surrounded by spikes. The game yearns to dabble in precision platforming, but between Bubsy's ungainly hitbox and his fussy, slidey momentum, it feels like a lost cause. Progress can come to a standstill because of one blind jump, or forcing you to redo a teleporter maze before every attempt at a boss.

The fact the fast-paced forward-flowing gameplay is interrupted by stop-and-go retries really kills the momentum. There's no mercy for fuck-ups like in Sonic, which had a perfect system with its rings. Bubsy has nothing! One hit from anything remotely hazardous will kill him dead, dunking you back at the last checkpoint. When hazards include thrown eggs or thumb tacks, you're often left wondering "what the hell even killed me?"

All enemies you defeated and items you collected remain that way when you respawn, which is both good and bad. One of the train levels begins with a vicious volley of woolies that I simply had to sacrifice a life to get rid of one by one, and then pick up from there. Unfortunately, without the yarn balls to guide you towards key platforms or the right enemies to bounce off of, you're left having to approach the stage without your usual landmarks, putting you at a unique disadvantage. It's one thing to learn the level layout, it's another to remember all the changes you've made to it!

The first two levels are perhaps the peak of its design, with great expansive locales but also comparatively telegraphed threats and enemy placements. Even the theme park keeps up some of that, only with more airborne enemies and extremely hazardous rollercoasters (seriously! they give you zero mercy time to bail out before killing you instantly!). The train world is incredibly stop-and-go, forcing you to navigate across oddly-shaped terrain and frequent blind drops into pits or spikes... and it has the gall to be twice as long as the prior worlds, with each level having a train and canyon segment, the latter of which are littered in -- you guessed it! -- more pits and spikes. Those cacti are not part of the backdrop, by the way, you will have to carefully jump over each and every one of them. The worlds afterward all lean heavily on verticality, as if the game's begging me to eat my words on that being among the game's high points.

What gets my goat is that the game actively weaponises your own movements against you as it goes on. Bouncing off foes will spring you directly into the path of bullets just off the top of the screen. You're averse to ever going fast because of traps or even just banging into a wall. The vertical levels get hazardous because Bubsy's jump inches past the top of the camera, and doesn't scroll up until he lands, meaning an enemy can snipe you in that brief window of obscurity. The key path is so obtuse that you're given no choice but to make blind leaps, that I wonder how you're even meant to play the game by the end.

The graphics are cute and the cartoon animations for Bubsy's deaths are charming, yet the game still feels like it's lacking a certain charisma. It's got a boring fictional universe! There's no real brand identity here the way Mario or Sonic have immediately recogniseable styles, it's just generic cartoon fluff. The Woolies are the closest it gets to a trademark villain, and they look boring as piss.

The sound design is perfect when it comes to its bouncy music and the 'pop' of picking up yarn balls, and yet there's barely any sounds for interacting with enemies -- almost all deaths occur with zero pomp or circumstance, you'll just see Bubsy smile at the camera before shattering to pieces or melting or whatever. When stuff like Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry excelled in having great punch to its physical comedy, it stinks having this stuff feel so flat after the first couple of times.

It even extends to gameplay functions. Sonic had different themes but kept the essentials recognisable -- spikes are always this big, springs are always this shape, etc. No hazards remain consistent in Bubsy! Spike hazards can range from giant cacti, to tiny, barely visible thumb tacks, to totally indistinct brambles.

The Woolies are the one enemy who appear in all stages, and yet their behaviour changes constantly; sometimes they throw eggs, marked by an egg pile next to them, but sometimes there's no eggs and they'll just shoot you anyway. There's no visual rulebook to play by, or any rulebook for any category. What's the general consensus on level design? Who fuckin' knows, dude!

In most platformers there's the sense of showing where your strengths are, where your weakneses are, and then challenging you on both. Sonic 1 feels perfectly optimised in that regard: Green Hill Zone gives the player free-flowing environments and uninhibited speed, before slowing them down in the small, cramped Marble Zone, but both levels are relatively safe environments to learn the ropes. Once you're clued up, then it starts pitting you against challenges where speed is forced upon or taken from you, learning to control it is key.

But Bubsy... I don't know what it's really going for? The dope in me absolutely wants to see someone disect Bubsy and see what makes it tick, if there is indeed a core design in there somewhere... or if it really is just cynical guff made maximise rentals with its obscene difficulty. The first two levels are ideal, and although shaky, the first five levels are where the game is at its strongest. After that it just loses the plot... which isn't good when two thirds of the game is effectively a write-off in that case.

I can absolutely see the appeal in Bubsy, and feel with a second instalment to finetune the quirks, it could've done gangbusters, and not just ironically either. There's a real thrill in bouncing off dudes to ludicrous heights, and to make that the real draw over its ludicrous speeds could easily have been its new identity. Instead Bubsy 2 ditched everything and became an ugly, slow, weighty maze-like mess instead. Bollocks to that.

I wish I had some kind of final remark to sum up Bubsy's worth, but it's kind of muddled in wishy-washy design and undue fondness for dumbass animal mascots. Bouncing off stuff is neat. Gliding from high altitudes is cool. Having such varied paths to explore is nifty. But then it crosses a certain threshold and all of those things just aren't fun anymore.

For the love of god, stop me now before I try and find redemption in Bubsy 3D. I've tried before. It never ends well.

Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon
Game Boy
Aug ~ unfinished

I was still in a Goemon mood but wasn't quite ready to tackle any of the bigger games. I think I must've last played this in 2011 in an ill-fated attempt to complete it, before realising my time was worth more than this. Well, time means nothing this year. To spend two days trying to find merit in a garbage Game Boy title is absolutely the kind of distraction I'd happily dive into!

Ganbare Goemon has historically been a mixture of top-down overworld sections and side-scrolling platformer stages, but this game is unique in it going all-in on the top-down guff. I personally found that kind of appealing; wandering the towns is where a lot of the franchise's trademark flavour is found, and by adding jumping, you'd think it might become something more engaging! To hope it'll be like Link's Awakening is expecting too much, but one can dream, right?

It's quite telling right away that it's missing something vital. The jumping is in stark arcs with next to no midair control... which sucks when even jumping to a platform only 2 tiles away is life-or-death. Falling in the drink warps you to the entrance of the area, which is unpleasant when every locale, be it a town or a cave or an evil hideout, is built like a labyrinth.

Even something as simple as combat is lousy, as your range is limited to only one tile in front of you, with an option to fire a limited supply of shurikens. Enemies have cute patterns and move smoothly across the screen, but there's zero reward for killing them, not even to replenish items or recover health... so why bother?

The goal of each world is to find the person who holds the key item, complete their mini-game, and then use it to progress to the boss. There's people to talk to, sometimes with dialogue that's almost faintly amusing ("The Black Ship gang come from a black ship!"), but it's almost entirely fluff. You find money in chests to buy health refills and shuriken from shops, and that's about all the luxuries you get. There's no fun stuff to spend your money on, nor any attractions to get lost in... the game's just strung together from the bare minimum of features, with no love or depth put into any of them.

And that stinks, honestly. From the word go you can see how much the game design is lacking, and something as simple as enemies dropping items would instantly add more incentive to engage with it. There's weapon upgrades later on, but no power-ups of any kind, something even Link's Awakening had -- an oddity for a Zelda game but an addition that made the moment-to-moment action that more rewarding, y'know?

I played the game hoping there'd be something to make it click -- maybe the boss fights are good? Maybe the mini-games in later worlds are worth a damn? But... no. What you see is what you get, and the judgment you make based on the first five minutes is good enough to indict the whole game.

What a waste. For a late-era monochrome Game Boy release it looks really old-fashioned (to have a 256kb ROM in 1998 feels real stingy!), though it's possible the devs just weren't acquainted with the Game Boy; KCEN's Castlevania Legends also looked and played a bit of a dog, and yet Azure Dreams and their later licensed work are that much more appealing.

It's a perfectly functional game by its own low standards, but it's such a disappointment, y'know? To buy this after the cracker N64 game was a blow, and even looking at the manual now, it's got such lovely characterful artwork... and yet the game itself looks so bland and joyless. It stinks to acknowledge a game in a franchise you're invested in is just a cheap cash-grab, but outside of observing what not to do, I can't find any merit in this game.

Mario vs. Donkey Kong
Game Boy Advance
Sep 21 ~ Sep 30

This is one of those games I've long tried to finish, but something about it always pushes me way. Donkey Kong on Game Boy is one of my all-time favourites -- it was my first ever game for the handheld! -- so it's hard not to draw the comparison to what it's clearly trying to build upon, the formula that the original did so flawlessly.

It's a puzzle platformer! Carry the key to the door while interacting with a variety of slowly-introduced mechanics, the most common of them colour-coded switches, which toggle the appropriately-hued objects on or off. Each level is divided into two screens, and every seventh level mixes things up by having you escort the Mini-Marios to the toy box, manipulating the environment via switches to aid their lack of jumping prowess. Clobber Donkey Kong at the end and you're onto the next world. Rinse and repeat!

I think what immediately upset me when I first played the game was how... strictly formula-driven it is. Donkey Kong GB obviously played by a stable ruleset, but something about its large levels and sheer variety of themes and hazards felt so invigorating. Turning the arcade gameplay on its head by launching you into a puzzle-platformer set the bar for how impressive it sought to be, and in short order you were pushing the platform-placing tools to their limit. I won't lie, it got ambitious so fast that it took me years to even get past the second world -- manipulating the bugs via closed doors among other things was a bit heady to wrap my head around! -- but the impression it made can't be topped. That's nostalgia, babe!

So Mario vs. Donkey Kong ditches the placing-platforms stuff with coloured switches, which is a lot easier to understand, but also far more tepid. Rather than having some control over how you solve the puzzle, you know how many times you'll be backtracking between switches at minimum. The game has holdovers from the original game like climbing vines, wielding hammers and swinging on tightropes... but they tend to feel a bit shoehorned in.

The hammers don't appear often enough to feel like a core feature, and swinging on ropes is such a drag; it takes too long and they don't give enough height to make them feel rewarding, y'know? However, I do respect the game simplifying things and trying to emphasise replay value. Each level is relatively bite-sized, and collecting all the presents and making quick time is key to beating the level's high score.

The game takes a serious uptick in difficulty come World 4, and it doesn't pull any punches. Stages demand you do a very precise sequence of switch-pressing and conveyor-toggling for things to play out as intended, and knowing the limits and idiosyncrasies of Mario's moveset is key.

The first level in World 6 demands you know the difference between letting go of a rope, jumping off a rope, and falling off a rope. They're all different! and falling off a rope (that is, holding a direction until Mario lets go that way) is necessary to reach the key. Letting go drops you straight down, and jumping will make you hit the ceiling and also plummet. That was an inexplicable and frustrating roadblock... and then once I learnt that knowledge, it's never expected from me again.

Levels get very large and very ambitious, often demanding you scout it out using the free-look command (L and R together!) to chart out a path. There's so many optional dangers just to hide a bonus present that you can safely avoid if you've no interest in them; the bonus games are lousy anyway. While it's satisfying to find shortcuts via use of the backflip or triple jump, at times it feels essential because something as simple as grabbing onto a rope without clonking against the ceiling can be so fiddly.

Boss battles are still in the classic vein of chucking barrels at DK's bonce; some are the kind of straightforward arcade action you want, while others feel lke they've been sourced from the worst fangames. The battles get progressively more puzzle-orientated, dealing damage via abstracted means, often with very little risk of the boss actually hurting you.

The penultimate boss is the worst offender, where all you're doing is toggling conveyor belts to push Bob-Ombs in DK's direction. The final fight is the closest the game gets to classic arcade Donkey Kong, with high scaffolding to scale as you carry barrels up with you. It's finally the kind of arcade action you want, as the bosses are otherwise a snooze, an obfuscated roadblock when all you want is a breather from puzzle nonsense.

The sound design absolutely fucking blows, though. I honestly think that's why I always find myself so repulsed by the game. I don't think I had too many grievances with the added voices in the Super Mario Advance series, but every sound in this game is a digitised grunt, squeak or shout, always magnitudes louder than the music, and always disgusting to listen to.

All the noisy digitised voices, the twinkly plonky music, the obnoxious squeaks and squonks... it's all absolutely obnoxious. Having to listen to Donkey Kong's squeezing and groaning at the start of every stage or Mario's prolonged celebrations afterward is well and truly mind-numbing.

I've expressed grievances in the past with the game's graphics as well, commenting on how fuzzy and indistinct Mario is. I think my stance on it has slackened; if nothing else I do enjoy how well-animated everything is. Everything's got an unnecessary amount of animation frames, and for Mario and DK especially, there's a fun snap and flow to the way they move.

Mario's sadly not as malleable as he was in DKGB... yet the few times you do see him get pummeled into paper is strangely unsettling. He otherwise just falls down when hit by a lethal object, but the way it lingers on his flattened body for a needless amount of time is just unpleasant. Compare that to Super Mario Galaxy, which shows it just long enough to convey "don't stand under Thwomps you fucking idiot" before throwing you back into the action. Getting Mario crushed is like it expects you to inform his next of kin.

The graphics have merit, but something about the game just feels so rote, with no room for variation or surprises. every world's in the same order, with the boss stages an underwhelming break from the norm by the time they finally come around. with each stage split into two screens, levels tend to feel longer than they should be, and by the end when screens get particularly huge, you're practically dealing with two deadly challenges in a marathon. The likes of DKGB or even Super Mario Bros. 3 knew the merits of short, self-contained challenges, and the two-screen setup exists only to facilitate the score attack function, where time carried over from the first screen is key to earning mad points.

I had gotten seriously burnt out by the time I reached the last world, and the unchanging formula did nothing to alleviate that. The game's dedication to not surprising you in any way only makes the revelation there's another six worlds after the credits that bit more frustrating. I wanted to put this game behind me...!

But I'm glad I stuck with it, because hey! Suddenly the game has the spark of life again! World + is an extension of the Mini-Mario levels, the goal is now to escort the key-bearing toy to the exit door, using your usual repertoire to lead them there unharmed. The Mini-Mario can use springs but not ladders, and only scale heights that are 1 tile high or gaps 2 tiles wide. They instinctively follow Mario to his position whenever possible, so sometimes blocking their path until you're in the right place is key to prevent them from coming a cropper.

This mode ditches the tutorials before each stage, mostly because you should be acquainted with all the moves by now... but it's learning the ropes of Mini-Mario himself that's the struggling point. World 3 was a huge stumbling block when the toy refused to drop down a hole in favour of springing up to my position, and as far as I could tell the solution was to trap him inside a block... a feature I've never had to use before and seemed like an honest-to-goodness glitch. When the tutorials exposed me to the most brain-dead of tips and tricks, it would've been nice to know this was a feature and not a bug...!

Teething pains aside, this mode is suddenly a breath of fresh air after I'd run out of steam on the main quest. It helps that it feels arguably more streamlined than the base game, with better emphasis on player action, so to speak: rather than passively carrying a key around, the key is now a living object that's vulnerable and has a mind of its own, and learning how to lead it and protect it is, well, key. It effortlessly streamlines all the back-and-forth into something way more immediate and compelling.

That and it feels so much more arcadey. Some levels are shockingly short, and each stage is just a single screen, none of that double-length malarkey. Some are more thoughtful, requiring you to waste enemies and chart a path for both of you, while others are little more than gauntlets, running between hazards or outrunning rising lava. Levels are short and sweet, and by virtue of omitting the two-tiered time bonus, it's extra incentive to properly get good at racing through them to beat the score. Surviving an ordinary stage without dying, no matter how tardy, was usually enough to beat the default score.

It's frustrating that this mode is locked off until you've beaten two thirds of the game (you'd think it's a half, but counting the double-length stages...!). It's so much more immediately engaging than the key stuff, and a more fresh approach on the formula that doesn't draw nearly as many comparisons to DKGB.

I can understand not wanting to bill it as a main feature, though: it's a mode all about escort missions, innit? The puzzle-platformer dynamic gives it an edge, but escorting vulnerable people through dangerous environments, no matter the context, tends to be a warning sign in video games. It's good though! It's a breath of fresh air! Take from me, notorious bad opinion haver!!!

While the main game was an exhausting affair where some days I only had the patience for a single stage, I breezed through all of World + in one afternoon. Occasional roadblocks and crummy revisited bosses aside, it mostly sticks the landing. The final boss is a rehash of DKGB's giant Donkey Kong; it kind of flubs some of the original's design choices, and it doesn't make the same impression as the original because nostalgia, natch, but nice to see it try.

Beating World + then unlocks Expert Mode, where your high-score stars are put to use by unlocking 12 more levels. I think I'm good. Maybe some other time. Kudos to the game for packing in so much content, but I'm done...!

It wasn't without a whole lot of frustration I could've done without, but it was nice to see the game through to the end. I do wonder if it were more adventurous in its formula and presentation, not afraid to mix up the goal between levels, it would've made a better impression. Hell, changing the soundscape would make a difference too. Knowing the game was American-made is a novelty; fair play to them for getting an entire franchise to themselves! It would've been nice to see another instalment reiterate on this instead of turning into a Lemmings clone, but seeing how burnt-out I got, perhaps that was a good turn. It gives the Mini-Marios more to do than simply be damels in distress, I suppose.

DKGB's such a great game it's unclear what you could really do to expand on it without just retreading old ground or adding arbitrary gimmicks. Fair play to them for trying; better to see something fresh than needlessly remake something that was already perfect. Good to experience one of my comparative blind spots in the Mario and Donkey Kong franchises, but it's only got me wishing DK had better games. This was a rough period for the big ape...!

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