Taz-mania

 

You can't run forever
You can’t run forever

Imagine running down a road forever. You’re running down this road and everything looks nearly identical. There’s some trees. Rocks. Bushes. Birds fly around. Every so often a dingo(…?!) on a motorbike tosses you a literal bone. That’s all Taz-mania is. Forever. You run in a straight line—I guess you can go backward, but why would you?—trying to devour birds. If you stomach the number of birds the level requires, you may even get to run down a road with slightly different scenery. It’s all roads.

Taz hallucinates his food survives digestion
Dying? no, nothing is so easy

Does this sound fun to you? It isn’t. It’s a Mode-7 abomination designed to hypnotize children into seeing the Tazmanian Devil when they close their eyes. Maybe he asks them to buy a Tweety Bird t-shirt. Maybe he asks them to eat their pets. I don’t know. I’m not going to play this awful, awful game long enough to find out what the Devil wants.

I started aiming for oncoming traffic. To let the bus sweep me under and away from this nightmare. But the bus can’t stop the Devil. It just slows him down. The Devil gets right back up and starts running again. He craves that bird flesh. He wants to crack those little bones in his teeth. He may fall in the middle of the road and start vomiting up everything he’s eaten, but he’ll never stop. He’s going back for seconds, thirds, fourths…it’s All You Can Eat on the open road, and the Devil is never full. He says he’s stuffed, but HE LIES.

I wish someone would "stuff" me into a woodchipper
I wish someone would “stuff” me into a woodchipper

Maybe you love this game. Maybe you close your eyes and imagine yourself flying down that blocky road, mouth agape and claws reaching for the winged food all around you. Maybe you already let the Devil take you and you ain’t noticed yet.

You got that Taz-mania.

Body image issues
Please let this end

NBA Jam TE

JAMMIN'
I HOPE YOU LIKE JAMMIN' ALSO

NBA Jam Tournament Edition is one of those games I’d definitely enjoy much more if I had any interest whatsoever in pretending to play basketball. I know it’s stupid and missing the point, but I prefer to do things in video games that I can’t do in real life. Granted, I can’t play basketball worth a damn (I assume), but if I wanted to, I could likely learn. Maybe I’ll go down to the local YMCA and try and hire a basketball coach (I won’t)!

In order to write this review I selected the “Head to Head” setting; it pits two men I’ve never heard of against two other men I’ve never heard of. Ok, that’s not entirely true: I do know who Dennis Rodman is due to his flamboyant antics and the fact that I dislike everyone associated with PETA. I’m totally cool with vegetarians and vegans so long as they don’t try to talk me out of tearing the neck out of a baby lamb, which is my traditional English breakfast. And they always do! Every. Single. Time. “It’s in pain! Can’t you hear it screaming?” “It’s bleating and it won’t be able to much longer anyway. Pass the butter.” Mmm. Baby lamb neck in butter.

This game looks and sounds decent enough; there are fairly clear pictures of each player, and the little announcer voice isn’t bad for a SNES game. Sadly, I like terrible video game voices. They make me laugh, which is like a little gift from the people who make the games. The gift of laughter. That I waste. On everything.

The gameplay was quick and furious, with an awful lot of running back and forth. It made me tired just watching! I had to stand up so I could sit down again. Even though I’d never played before and had no idea what I was doing, the controls were intuitive enough that I managed to tie my opponents. I did find myself grinning every time I slapped the ball away from my opponents, even though it made an odd barking sound effect every time I did so. Perhaps my spirit animal (a snickerdoodle) was giving me aid?

I bet this game is awesome to play with a bunch of drunk friends who hopefully aren’t racist. Stop being racist, you drunks!

Michael Andretti’s Indy Car Challenge

Michael Andretti's Ego-Driven Challenge™
Yes, the wall is covered with nothing but the word "Michael"...

So, do you like IndyCar racing? Do you like looking at Michael Andretti’s face? Do you like looking at Michael Andretti’s name? Not just a little, I mean a lot

Well, then this game’s for you!

Now keep your distance, you sick bastard…

Michael Andretti's Indy Car Menu™
Hey there...

Excessive display of Señor Andretti’s crude, palletized visage aside, Michael Andretti’s Indy Car Challenge presents us with a fairly bland arcade racing experience. The main championship game mode is supplemented by your typical practice race option, as well as a versus mode in case you have any friends who also share an unhealthy fetish for Michael Andretti. That’s about it. Sure, you can use a password to continue an existing championship game, but who in their right mind that isn’t actively defending the Confederate flag as “heritage not hate” whilst proudly displaying it above the gun rack in their beat-up dually truck would want to continue after playing once?

Controls are at least fairly responsive, helping make the game easy to pick up while at the same time remaining challenging/awkward enough that you’re probably not going to succeed in every race on the first try. The game also has the distinction of providing a “reverse” button, because how many times have you played a racing game and wished you could drive in reverse? Well, in all honesty, I admit that I have. Then again, I’m an asshole, so you can’t expect much less now.

Graphically, this game isn’t going to win any beauty pageants. All cars are palette swaps of the same rudimentary set of illustrations, and the Mode-7 tracks look like…well…Mode-7 tracks. Seriously, you can’t expect much else from the Super Nintendo’s Mode-7 effects. They almost make the platform a breeding ground for boring, ugly racing games.

Michael Andretti's In-game Screenshot For Your Eyeballs™

Unless you absolutely love Michael Andretti and want to have, like, ten million of his babies, you should save your allowance money for something else.

Mega Man X 3

Whatchoo talkin' bout, Willis?
Who died and made you king?

Mega Man X 3 is like a whitewashed tomb: its pristine and beautiful exterior belies the putrid, rotting corpse within.  I don’t usually subscribe to the whole graphics versus gameplay diametric, but this time the relationship is definitely inverse.  In Capcom’s efforts to make a better looking, better sounding Mega Man, they actually forgot how to make a Mega Man game in the process.  Deliberately unforgiving level designs densely populated with death machines hell-bent on your destruction give way to sparse, open, and redundant rooms, sometimes filled with nothing at all.  The former – characteristic of the NES originals – was frustrating yet strangely fulfilling, to the point where you may find yourself yelling to no one in particular, “I AM A HARDCORE GAMER!!” after some astounding feat or other.  The latter will have you scratching your head, wondering when the game will suddenly kick into gear and become a real Mega Man game.  This, of course, never happens.

Mom?  Dad?  Is this a joke?
Hello? Is anybody there?

I kid you not, some of these rooms exist for no reason whatsoever.  You run into the room, only to immediately run out of it again (you even unlock a door on both ends).  And yet, during both these events, the ‘camera’ slide-transitions as if to signify ‘this is the next area’.  That’s just stupid!  If I was the artist, I’d be pissed, not only for wasting a perfectly serviceable room, but also for wasting my valuable time.

X 3 is full of these unnecessary flourishes that force you to expect more than it can hope to deliver.  The polished visuals and cyperpunk settings scream ‘anime’, but its back foot remains firmly planted in the NES era.  The ‘story’, ‘acting’ and dialogue is especially cringeworthy, and while I’m sure it’s no worse than what you’d expect to find in Mega Mans (Men?) 1 through to 6, at least they were upfront about their intentions: to be games.  By bringing the presentation forward, Capcom have announced their anime aspirations.  By leaving the rest behind, the game appears naked and antiquated.  The playable ‘intro’ would have been nice if it wasn’t just a pre-game wank.  You’re Mega Man, you run in there, blow up a few things, only to get punked by a former ally within the first minute (“you’re far too trusting, Mega Man!”).

Mwahahahahahahahaha!!
Excuse me, waiter! There's some Elizabethan acting in my Mega Man!

This is the game’s ‘Raiden’ moment, where Zero (a robot replete with ridiculous anime hair, originally groomed to be the star of the X series) must rescue Mega Man.  Except, instead of saying “I thought this was called Metal Gear Solid because it had Solid Snake in it”, you’ll be saying, “I thought this was a Mega Man game!”  Once you’ve rescued him, though, it’s back to business as usual, and Mega Man will be handling things from here, thank you very much.  This ‘intro’ seems to have served no other purpose than to show off a playable Zero character, only to neuter the titular character in the process.  For the rest of the game, Zero is relegated to piece work and similarly showy cameos.

The hair humanises him a bit more, get it?
Robot hair is all the rage in 21xx.

I tried oh so hard to love this game, but I couldn’t help but compare it to its uglier, more frustrating cousins – you know, games with some semblance of level design.  And then it dawned on me that level design, important though it is, is never graded by the mainstream gaming press alongside the bullet points of graphics/sound/gameplay/replay value.  Even though graphics should be servant to level design; good gameplay is a symptom of good level design; and replay value is a symptom of good gameplay. Followed closely by: how many poorly designed videogames got a pass on those four bullet points alone? Answered by: probably this one, for starters! And then I started thinking about games with good level design, and booted up a new game of Super Metroid.

Mario’s Time Machine

mario's_time_machine_title

It’s a summer’s day, you’re playing hockey in the street with your pals, as all North American kids your age do, when you notice what appears to be a Super Nintendo cartridge lying on the ‘side-walk’.  You run over to it and read the label – sound it out – “Maaa-rii-O’sss…Taiii-mmm…Maa-sheeennn – Mario’s Time Machine! Cool!  A new Mario game!  And he can travel through time!”  You reach down to pick it up, but it’s pulling away from you, across the front lawn, up the driveway – it’s attached to a length of string!  You follow the cartridge-on-string up the driveway, and you notice the garage door rolling up ever so slowly.  It’s a surprise from Mom and Dad!, you think to yourself, squinting to see what might lie beyond the gaping maw.  As your young eyes adjust to the dark, you begin to make out shapes of a chair, a desk, an apple, a man with right arm outstretched.  Depth of field returns to you, and shapes give way to objects.  The apple, red and juicy, sits gleaming atop the desk beside pencils, books and sheets of paper; the chair tucked neatly underneath.

mario's_time_machine_trapped

This familiar conglomerate of images evokes a feeling of immediate danger; you swirl them around in your head as if to taste them all.  DANGER.  Before you hear the next five words, you know you want to run, but you can’t.  Your joints are frozen; your legs like pylons sink into the concrete floor.  All you can do is look, listen, and taste.  The figure steps out from the shadows – it’s your father, and his right hand is holding a stick of chalk.  Your dread is confirmed by the final image – a blackboard mounted on the wall behind him – and those five, fateful words:

“WELCOME TO HISTORY CLASS, SON!”

Your summer is ended.

Fade to black.

Mario’s Early Years: Fun With Numbers

meyfunwithnumbers-title

Mario’s Early Years: Fun With Numbers. Just reading the name alone, I already know that I have no business playing this game. Chances are, you have no business playing this game. You probably already know this, and you’re secretly laughing at me and the other writers at this site for playing games targeted toward preschoolers. I can’t blame you; I would do the same if the tables were turned. Unfortunately, here I am, firing up my 100% legitimate review copy of a game made for two-year-olds.

Fun With Numbers, from what I can tell, is a re-skinning of the other Mario’s Early Years titles, this time with the focus on numbers, shapes, and such. Gameplay, if you can call it that, is extremely basic: move around a cursor to click on the correct object, rinse, and repeat until you know how to recognize Arabic numerals and squares and shit. For someone like me whose already a fully qualified math-magician, such matters are of the most trivial sort (for the record, I really did form this thought as if I were renaissance-faire actor dressed up as a magician, which will probably give me nightmares for the next few days). For a preschool child, it’s probably fairly simple as well. I can’t say for certain how a young child would react to this, though. If I recall, my dad was probably trying to get me to play Astrosmash on the Intellivision instead of some educational title back when I was in preschool. I think he made the right choice there.

This...this doesn't have anything to do with numbers.  You're not even trying!
This...this doesn't have anything to do with numbers. You're not even trying!

So, to sum it up, how does Fun With Numbers deliver? Well, yes, it has numbers. No, it’s not fun. I didn’t see many “with”s in there, though. Ughh…why the hell am I still talking?

Magic Sword

Friendship: The Videogame
Friendship: The Videogame.

Magic Sword is a game about The Power of Friendship.  What appears on the outside to be an overly linear, side-scrolling hack ‘n’ slasher through a castle that sports faaaar too many treasure chests, keys, and doors (far more keys than there are doors, in fact) belies a rather profound co-operative single player experience.

Waiiiiittaminutesingle player co-op?!  How is that even possible?!”  I hear your brain explode.

I know, I know!  I was surprised too!  I’ll try a few different illustrations to give you an idea of what I’m talking about here.

Okay, okay, I’ve got one:

Imagine you’re playing a NES game two-player with your Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.), except he actually works.

'Operating' being the operative word.  NOT!
'Operating' being the operative word. NOT!

Oh, you say you’re not one of the five richest Tsars in Europe, and you don’t actually own a R.O.B.?  Well, then this one’s for you:

Imagine you’re playing an escort mission, except the AI that follows you around isn’t completely useless, and *gasp* actually helps you.

I know!  It’s ridiculous and unheard of in videogames, and that’s what makes Magic Sword so amazing.  For once, the AI on your side isn’t as dumb as dogshit, walking off of cliffs, or any of that nonsense, and you don’t feel like ringing their neck.  More than that, you actually feel close to this virtual warrior with whom you share your travails.

I got your back, bro!
I got your back, bro!

My only real issue with the game is just how short-lived some of these friendships can be.  As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of treasure chests lying around the castle, which you smash open to collect a lot of keys (treasure chests containing keys – go figure), which you use to open – you guessed it – a lot of doors.  Well, behind a vast majority of these doors is a new traveling companion.  Unfortunately you can only travel with one companion at a time.  Oftentimes you’ll encounter three doors in a row, meaning you’ll travel barely one in-game metre with your new buddy before he disappears and is replaced by an even newer buddy.

Sorry White Wizard, you're ditched!  Dark Wizard is my new Best Friend now!
Sorry White Wizard, you're ditched! Dark Wizard is my new Best Friend now! Best Friends Forever!

Just where they disappear to, I’ll never know, but at least there’s 50 levels packed to the gills with keys and doors, so you’re sure to become acquainted with them again (*how* they get trapped behind other doors to be rescued yet again, is another mystery).  Just think of it as an episode of Friends, or something – sometimes Joey just hangs out with Chandler; sometimes Joey hooks up with Rachel; mainly Rachel hooks up with Ross (and then changes her mind); Ross is Monica’s brother; Monica is Chandler’s girlfriend; Phoebe plays “Smelly Cat” on her guitar far too often at the cafe downstairs where Rachel works YOU GET THE IDEA – they’re on rotation.  I suppose if you wanted to stick with say, the ninja for a bit longer, you could just *not open the doors* for a while, but when you’ve got this whole Spartacus-frees-the-slaves thing going on, you really don’t want to.  It’s satisfying.  You open the door, a friendly warrior appears, he or she says “thank you!”, throws you a special item to you, and agrees to fight alongside you.  So basically, you get to make nine new friends during the course of the game, and they’re all completely awesome.  Like this guy:

"You can always depend on the kindness of strangers/ To pluck up your spirits, and shield you from dangers/ Now here's a tip from Blanche you won't regret/ Yes, a stranger's just a friend you haven't met/ Youuu haaa-ven't met!"
"You can always depend on the kindness of strangers/ To pluck up your spirits, and shield you from dangers/ Now here's a tip from Blanche you won't regret/ Yes, a stranger's just a friend you haven't met/ Youuu haaa-ven't met!"

It doesn’t matter that the dungeons-and-dragons setting has been done to death; it doesn’t matter that your character is a blatant He-Man rip-off; it doesn’t matter that the game is altogether too easy; it doesn’t even matter that the title is grossly misleading (there is no singular ‘Magic Sword’ as such, rather multiple magic swords that you obtain during the course of the game, and your quest is to destroy the Black Orb, as wielded by the Dark Lord Drokmar…) – this game plays like a good friend.  And friends aren’t always perfect.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

zelda_cover

It is with great trepidation that I come to this review of Nintendo’s classic game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

There is no perfect introduction to this great work of art that has ignited so many imaginations; a game that has danced in the minds of young children with magic and possibility. I know this because I rehearsed them all in my head a hundred times before I could even sit down and write this, and each one of them – in the nicest possible way – failed to encapsulate the full gamut of what this game represents to Gaming as a whole.  How do you review something that you know will outlive you? How do you review…a Legend?

Well, you can start by slinging a few tired cliches. Let’s call them ‘adages’ for legitimacy’s sake.  There are two adages that spring to mind when playing A Link to the Past:

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

AND

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Zelda games are 3-D now, but graphical updates aside, scant little of them have strayed from the indelible watermark set by this game.  It may as well be set in stone: the multi-level dungeons, the hookshot we all take forgranted, the Pegasus Boots, the MASTER SWORD, the Spin Attack, HYRULE CASTLE – THE HUB OF THE ENTIRE SERIES, Nintendo’s now-infamous Light World/Dark World theme (or in broader terms, travelling between two parallel worlds) – all emerged for the first time right here.  Even the fan-favourite Ocarina has its origins here, though the English translation yielded only the word ‘flute’ (presumably the Western gaming world was not yet ready for the word ‘ocarina’). Zelda‘s musical landscape as you now know it – “Zelda’s Lullaby” (Princess Zelda’s Theme), “Ganondorf’s Theme”, “Hyrule Castle”, “Kakariko Village”, “Fairy Cave” (better known as THE SELECT SCREEN SONG) – was brought into being by Koji Kondo for this game. Even Link’s wide sword swing had its genesis in – you guessed itA Link to the Past. So little has changed because so little needed changing. If any Zelda game or game *period* deserved a dubious 10 out of 10, it was this one.

Speaking of dubious 10s, The Ocarina of Time is a sacred cow that I take great pleasure in sacrificing on a regular basis. Those familiar with this particular habit of mine; feel free to roll your eyes knowingly at this point.  But when the two games sit right next to each other on my Virtual Console, comparisons are going to be made.  Ocarina of Time is, for all intents and purposes, A Link to the Past in 3-D.  It was not the revolutionary trend-setter 19-year-old Nintendophiles claim it to be.  It’s barely evolutionary, and its ‘innovations’ – context-sensitive buttons; NAVI, YOUR HELPFUL FAIRY GUIDE – loathe as you may be to admit it, could well be the reason you have to sit through a compulsory three-minute tutorial before you can play Wii Sports Resort. The introduction of one of Gaming’s most irritating support characters was the first of many steps towards Nintendo’s long-term stupefication of the gaming population. Z-Targeting meant a lot to 3-D games, but only insofar as it made what was already a simple task in 2-D games tolerable on an additional axis. Like the fifth generation consoles themselves, the shift to 3-D was completely arbitrary. I don’t know what flavour Kool-Aid we were drinking, but all of a sudden we were willing to lay down Super Street Fighter II for Battle Arena Toshinden, Sonic 3 for Crash Bandicoot, Tetris for Tetrisphere.

And Link to the Past for Ocarina of Time.

Never mind the fact that these mechanics work better in two dimensions; never mind the garish, jagged, polygonal puppet show before you; it’s in 3-D, kids!

zelda_dungeon

Why do I feel the need to tear strips off Ocarina of Time – a great videogame adored by thousands (millions even?) – for a Link to the Past review?  Think of me as a critical Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed the poor. Earlier I alluded to a very vocal segment of the gaming population, the circa-19-year-old gamer whose first videogame console was the Nintendo 64, to whom Ocarina of Time represents the dearest experience one can have with a controller (albeit an absolutely terrible one). To those people, please understand that it is not my desire to stomp all over your childhood memories, I merely seek to contextualise the pedestal you place them on. The fifth console generation coincided with the rise of the internet, and so unanimously lauded franchise entries reached critical mass very, very quickly. Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Timeall new entries to long-standing franchises; all made relatively successful transitions to the third dimension; all were the first of their respective series to appear on the fifth generation of consoles; all were hyped like hell on a worldwide scale by online and print media – all received unanimous critical praise, and all have been claimants to the title of “Greatest Game of All Time”. Gamers today are no strangers to “Sequel Syndrome”, nor its dark brother “sequelitis”, and so I’m sure you can appreciate the powerful effect this had when unleashed on the international consciousness for the first time. Again, that’s not to belittle the achievements of these great titles, but the fifth generation of console owners had found their international voice for the first time, and that voice was saying “[Franchise Sequel X] is the Greatest Game of All Time” on a semi-regular basis. Those that had experienced previous console generations and earlier iterations may have perceived Franchise Sequel X in a different light, instead approaching it in the wider context of their place in the series as a whole.  Had the internet reached critical mass in say, the late 80s, we might have proclaimed “Final Fantasy III/Metal Gear 2/Super Mario Bros. 3/The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the Greatest Game of All Time” upon release.  And we may have been right.  But that’s not the point – the point is that the current Loudmouths of Gaming first owned a Nintendo 64 and their Greatest Game of All Time is Ocarina of Time.  I disagree.  I put my own bias under scrutiny, however, with the admission that I reached the “golden age” for gaming (that’s eight years old) during the 16-bit era and my first console was the Sega Megadrive.  And so this could easily be [mis]interpreted as generational walking-stick-waving at good-fer-nuthin’ whippersnappers who don’t know no better.  “In my day we played real games with real difficulty, no tutorials, and graphics that don’t look ugly as fuck in retrospect, and we walked barefoot eight miles to school every day in the blistering snow” and so on and so forth. Well guess what?  I missed out on A Link to the Past during the 16-bit era.  I played A Link to the Past for the first time via the Wii Virtual Console.

zelda_oneeye

Now, whenever I ask [goad/provoke/whip into a frenzy] OOT fans just what it is that makes the game worthy of ‘Greatest Game of All Time’ status, they are happy to provide me with a laundry list of reasons.  However, it wasn’t until I played A Link to the Past that it occurred to me: a vast majority of the things they loved about Ocarina were present in the series before Ocarina. To be precise, most of the things they loved about Ocarina of Time were introduced in A Link to the Past.  The rest centred around nostalgia or something else unquantifiable like watching a Hyrulian sunrise for the first time (which, by the way, sounds like a great name for a drink). None of these things are enough to melt this cold, cold heart.  Now, if someone was to craft a compelling argument citing OOT‘s contributions to the development of Hyrulian anthropology, that is something I could get behind.  But in pure gaming terms, I’d have to award my “Best of Series” to A Link to the Past.  Now falls to me the thankless task of convincing you.

Let’s begin by revisiting one of my earlier statements:

‘[The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is] a great work of art  that has ignited so many imaginations…’

Recently I likened creative genius to a bag of Pop Rocks, buzzing and crackling with ideas and potential – it’s a strange feeling, to be sure, but damn if it doesn’t feel great.  Now, Miyamoto is credited with most of these – it’s difficult to tell with the Japanese – certainly he was [and is, and probably always will be] ‘the fall guy’, taking responsibility for the team’s collective brilliance and blunders.  Regardless, Link to the Past bursts at the seams with all the vitality of an art form that’s never been done before.  There’s a sense that these guys are creating their own rules; their own language; and quite frankly, it’s exciting.  Those who travel to the Dark World without the aid of the Moon Pearl transform into a creature befitting of their nature, in Link’s case, a pink rabbit.  The Book of Mudora can be used to translate ancient Hylian runes.  A curse that threatens to ‘halve’ your magic bar actually doubles it.  What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? At this point I was willing to accept that the helpful sage, Sahasrahla, might communicate his cryptic clues via wall-intercom; though others seem to put this down to telepathy; or even something as unremarkable as wall plaques (spoilsports!).

"...and User of Intercoms!"
“…and User of Intercoms!”

Returning to the rest of that sentence:

‘[The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is] a game that has danced in the minds of young children with magic and possibility.’

I’ll make that more specific for you: Link to the Past is the quintessential boy’s game.  It’s packed with the things that boys love to do.  One need only look as far as Link’s inventory screen to realise this: a sword, a shield, a bow and arrow, a mallet, a boomerang, a grappling hook, BOMBS, and a BUG-CATCHING NET. Let’s focus for a second on the bug-catching net.  Nothing appeals to my boyish mischief more than catching a fairy in my bug-catching net and being asked by the game:

“you have caught a faerie!  Would you like to:
→ Keep it in a bottle
Set it free?”

What kind of boy wouldn’t take the first choice? A fairy boy, that’s what! I chuckle evilly as I stuff the helpless creature in its glass prison. It tries to get out, but I knock it back in and press the lid down tight. I shake it up a little to let it know who’s boss. I put breathing holes in the lid of course! Then I stuff the jar in my rucksack. My childhood was filled with stuff like this – I have a fairly amusing story of a boomerang that flew into a tree and disappeared (a MAGIC BOOMERANG, if you will) – and who here hasn’t fashioned a sword, or bow and arrow out of wood to fight with their brothers? Who hasn’t tied a stick to a length of rope and swung it onto the roof? Who hasn’t – with their friends – pooled together resources from their fathers’ garages to make a bomb and set it off in the park?

Ummm…nevermind.

Link to the Past lets you do all of these things and more without fear of reprisal from disapproving and fun-hating adults – mischief is encouraged! Where do I sign?! A Link to the Past is A Link to Your Past; it taps into your boyhood fantasies* and imaginary play, and coming at this game for the first time as a full-grown man (debatable, I know), I can say that its effect is profound. It doesn’t rely on nostalgia, it evokes nostalgia.

* Sorry ladies, how about…Animal Crossing?

zelda_dungeon

ALTTP reminds me of another ‘toy’: Rubik’s Cube. The entire game is a puzzle, from the Hyrulian overworld to the deepest dungeon. You can view the puzzle holistically (from a ‘helicopter view’, if you will), then by working away at a particular section, the puzzle begins to open up to you. And when you discover the secrets of a dungeon or a map, it feels as though they’re opening only to you. It’s all a clever ruse, of course, as they’re often necessary to completing the game, but this is a feeling distinctly missing from all subsequent Zelda titles. The Navis and the Midnas of the 3D Zeldas robbed me of any cleverness I might have had, and for the most part secrets have now been relegated to ancillary discoveries. In A Link to the Past, the dungeons themselves are the puzzles. And while the game does bottleneck at points (most notably at its beginning and end) – like Rubik’s Cube, there’s no ‘correct’ order of completion. The design encourages a particular dungeon order, but it does not force one, which is, you know, kinda nice. Multiple routes means you can skirt most of the overworld from the start, despite not being able to access it in its entirety. It’s not a case of “what are you doing here?! You’re not allowed in this area yet!” More like, “I wonder how I can get over there…” As you gain new items on your dungeon crawl, new paths begin to open up in your mind, and you begin to see how the Rubik’s Cube fits together. Then you start getting real clever, when you can exploit the subtle differences between the Light World and its Dark World counterpart, switching between the two at will.

Light World/Dark World
Light World/Dark World

The Hyrule of Link to the Past is the perfect size: open enough to explore from the very beginning, but dense enough so as to prevent getting lost or bored, with enough *just* beyond your grasp to keep things intriguing. The place is a veritable hive of activity, where stuff actually happens. Guards are constantly scouring the streets and forests for you, thieves are trying to rob you, and the villagers are trying to run from you. The landmarks are distinct and memorable, and it ranks as the only incarnation of Hyrule I’ve ever memorised incidentally. By comparison, Ocarina of Time (et. al) may as well be a barren wasteland (the original Hyrule was intentionally a wasteland, in line with its narrative**).

Hyrule will never be the same again.
Hyrule will never be the same again.

While we’re on the boredom score, what other Zelda game throws you headlong into its main dramatic situation from the outset? None, that’s what! **The original game didn’t have a dramatic situation at all per sé, instead motivating players through its over-arching narrative of survival and exploration, and power to it – but every other Zelda game opens with a whimper that can only come from performing menial tasks for village idiots. Link to the Past opens with a telepathic distress call from the titular princess. You receive your sword immediately from your dying uncle, and head directly to Hyrule Castle for the rescue. There are, of course, other forces at work, lest the game be finished within its first half-hour, but no time is wasted on Navi-coddling (“hey, listen!”) or training (welcome to Link’s Crossbow Training – who’da thunk they’d ever make a full game out of it?).

Like most elements of this game, the combat is nuanced enough to be satisfying, but simple enough to keep things in perspective. There’s less dicking around in the item-switching department, for one.  Power gloves and flippers kick in at will when required, while boomerangs, arrows, bombs or hooks can be fired in tandem with sword-swinging without overtaking your primary aim (compare this to say, Twilight Princess, where the world virtually stops for you to take the shot). That’s not to say it’s a cakewalk, either – indeed, if you’re not on your A-game, you can find yourself in a very tight spot, scrounging for hearts wherever you can.  The combat is never drawn out; rather it’s a vehicle for further puzzling. In this way it’s similar to one of the truly great 2-D-to-3-D migrations, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – combat is a pace-changer but not a pace-breaker.

Unlike those 3-D adventures, however, Link to the Past‘s combat isn’t lumbered with an invisible tractor beam in the field of battle. Z-targeting was Ocarina‘s ‘solution’ to its own camera-wrangling problem, praised for its ‘innovation’ – what it *was* was a sufficient stop-gap, not a praiseworthy one. Would you praise a biochemist for providing the cure to the flesh-eating virus of his own creation? Would you thank a snake for biting you and then slipping you the anti-venom vial? No, you’d be relieved perhaps, if not slightly annoyed at the inconvenience, before you dust yourself off and be on your way. And so it is with a mixture of relief and annoyance that I approach the Past and ask the Snake [Nintendo]: why bite in the first place if you’re not going to make a meal of it? Why create a flesh-eating virus if not to wipe out millions?

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Killer Instinct

Yeah, I'm so hardcore.
Killer Instinct presents: a Festival of Shoryukens.

Killer Instinct was the quintessential “cool” game of my generation. It’s one of those games that made me hate my SNES-owning best friend; when ‘begrudgingly’ playing a rival console could no longer be feigned, and enjoyment of a Nintendo-exclusive could no longer be hidden. Rareware forced these situations upon me on a regular basis. Now my internal struggle has long since ended, and I’m free to say what my heart always felt: KI may try too hard, but it’s still pretty cool.

Right out the gate, metal MIDI riffs chug along relentlessly like a crazy train from hell; Quasimodo clobbers the bell with the satisfying ‘chink!’ of his mighty gavel every time you toggle a setting; a garbled, manly voiceover announces your every decision with a foreboding shout-that-is-a-whisper. Killer Instinct makes you feel like a real hardcore sonovabitch.

That’s the menu screen done, now let’s take a look at the actual game. Killer Instinct is the bastard child of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. Its Mortal Kombat genes are more readily identifiable: the game was co-published by Midway for starters; it uses pre-rendered ‘movie’ sprites for the characters; and ‘No Mercy’ moves take the place of fatalities. The recessive Street Fighter gene is evident in the controls – light, medium, hard punches and kicks – and the moveset. Every second fighter seems to have a Dragon Punch up their sleeve, and if they don’t, you can bet yer ass they’ve got an Hadouken (or both).

SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!
SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!

Perhaps a latent Capcom fighting gene in the mix manifests itself in the ‘combo’ system, which is all kinds of ridiculous, and sets the bar for future combo-fests like X-Men versus Street Fighter, Marvel Versus Capcom, Capcom Versus SNK, Capcom Versus Larry Flint, and Capcom Versus Every Man And His Dog. It was certainly the first game I had ever played with upwards of 80-hit combos. It’s fairly safe to say, then, that the combo system pretty much defines KI as a fighter and sets it apart from the rest of the riffraff. It’s a pity, then, that I can’t do them. Couldn’t do them then and I still can’t do them now. I have three excuses prepared for this:

  1. My USB Saturn controller is still in the mail at the time of writing and I’ve got a deadline to keep here (or at least not stomp all over).
  2. This is a game that you really need the manual for. The special moves may be Street Fighter knock-offs but they’re not exactly logical. Glacius’ Dragon Punch uses a kick, for example. And those Mercy Moves aren’t going to just fall from the sky.
  3. Even when I have the manual, I’ve never bothered to master anything beyond what’s written in it. Got a combo I can do? Write it in the manual. Super Combo Moves were the best thing that ever happened to this lazy gamer, all wrapped up in a neat little bow.

If you’re into that kind of thing I’m sure love will find a way. Hardcore Voiceover Man will high-five you for your trouble – “Triple Combo!”, “Super Combo!”, “Brutal Combo!”, “Master Combo!”, “Awesome Combo!”, “Hyper Combo!”, “ULLLTRA COMBOOO!!” – a different superlative for each number of hits, it seems.  They want you to do lots of combos, get it?

SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!
SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!

There’s even a character named Combo. TJ Combo to be exact. That’s where the try-hard factor comes in. The “Teej” is a try-hard, Jago is a try-hard, Fulgore is a try-hard – every second character thinks they’re just so freakin’ cool – like the genetic by-product of a failed marriage between a pop singer and an Hollywood actress. The coolness rubs off to an extent, but the sons and daughters of privilege should never forget their place. Just put down the coke bowl for a second and slip into this gold bikini for me, willya?

Yeah, Killer Instinct, you’re cool, alright? You’re that kid on camp (you know, that kid) with the undercut number one shave that pretends to chew gum all the time as you size up the other kids, spits on the ground as if generally unimpressed with what this planet has to offer, and doles out approval to the rabid underlings that hang on your every word.  Like I said – cool.  But next time you turn your cap backwards and do olleys on your skateboard out the front of school, remember one thing:

Street Fighter got a little drunk at a party one night, looked over at Mortal Kombat across the room, and thought to himself, I’d smash that. And that, son, is how you came to be.

SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!
SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!

Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues

Scientists have since hypothesised that dinosaurs were in fact canines.
Scientists have since hypothesised that dinosaurs were in fact canine.

Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues – not to be confused with The Lost World: Jurassic Park – is eerily prophetic with regards to the second movie’s plot.  In fact, the plot of Jurassic Park 2 actually makes more sense.

First of all, the main character is Dr. Alan Grant NOT Ian Malcolm.  We all know (or at least strongly suspect) that Ian Malcolm’s role in The Lost World was a plot contrivance based on Sam Neill’s reluctance to reprise the role of Dr. Grant (making his decision to appear in III all the more baffling).  Sure, Malcolm was the only one who was right about everything, but to us kids, he was the spoilsport trampling all over our hopes and dreams.  (We don’t want your science, Mr. Voodoo Man, we want magic!) Dr. Grant was the hero; the Everykid staring up in awe at a living, breathing Brachiosaurus for the very first time.  He didn’t cling stubbornly to the vestiges of his adulthood; he didn’t even care that his very livelihood as a paleontologist had become obsolete; he simply released himself to the magic of a dinosaur he could see and touch.

(It would be remiss of me at this point not to mention that while Alan Grant remains the central figure of this game’s story, he is not in fact a playable character.  The player controls Tactical Sergeant Michael Wolfskin, a mercenary dispatched by John Hammond to accompany Dr. Grant on this dangerous mission.  Regardless, in the context of an island overrun with wild, prehistoric lizards, an armed mercenary makes far more sense as a protagonist than a chaos theorist and mathematician.  He also looks a bit like Paul Reiser of Mad About You (and Aliens) fame, which doesn’t hurt.)

Dinosaurs were the cultural zeitgeist back then – we knew all of their names from Parasaurolophus to Pachycephalosaurus, we argued about them in the schoolyard (the ‘smart kid’ at school tried to tell me that Tyrannosaurus Rex was not the quintessential King of the Dinosaurs.  If only I could journey back in time to inform him that its name literally translates as ‘tyrant lizard king’ in Latin.  PWND!), and we went to the museum, for fun.  I’ll repeat that for effect: we WENT TO THE MUSEUM, for FUN.  Such was the power of the terrible lizard.

JP2 also accurately predicted the rise of the DS to gaming prominence.
JP2 also accurately predicted the rise of the DS to gaming prominence.

Second of all, Jurassic Park 2 takes place on the same island as the first film, Isla Nublar.  As the title suggests, it has been released into chaos since the events of the first film.  The Lost World contrives a second, neighbouring island known as Isla Sorna.  The idea behind this second island was that it was the ‘control group’, so that they could observe dinosaur behaviour outside of captivity.  How on earth they planned to do this is beyond me – did they get out there with a helicopter and a clipboard?  So essentially, InGen, Hammond and company decided to make the same stupid mistake a second time; albeit a stupid mistake that had a far greater potential for abject failure and complete disaster.  The plot of JP2, on the other hand, sees the original, abandoned park discovered by a rival company (the appropriately named BioSyn) which attempts a very literal corporate takeover of Jurassic Park and its reptilian denizens.  How did a group of game developers manage to come up with a better, more plausible plotline than Hollywood?!  I fear that I am destined to take this mystery with me unto death.

Jurassic Park 2, though repetitive, and tougher than granny’s gingernut biscuits, is positively dripping with atmosphere.  Tensions are always high, be they in the jungle or inside an abandoned complex.  Raptors stalk and surprise as well as they do in the films – perhaps a little *too* well…

jp2_biohazard
Biohazard's the right word for it!

“Clever girl!”

In many ways JP2 is reminiscent of Alien 3 for the Sega Megadrive (another game superior to its film counterpart – by no means an astounding feat).  Activity time!  Substitute the word ‘raptors’ into the following sentence every time you read the word ‘xenomorphs’:

The xenomorphs are so fast you have to shoot off-screen constantly while running to avoid death.  This places unreasonable demands on one’s ammunition supply.

(May I suggest a raptor-killing tactic?  Set phasers to stun, charge your weapon while running, jump as soon as you see the raptor, turn and release.  Rinse and repeat.  The strongest breed of raptor (grey) takes no more than three fully charged energy bolts to put down.)

This game is so atmospheric it uses graphical filters in the foreground – clouds of dense fog in the swamps, a spotlighting effect in a dark facility – I know because I fiddled with the emulator–I mean, my legitimately purchased Super Nintendo Entertainment System – settings to switch them off and on again.  I don’t know how many other 16-bit games did this, but I’m impressed by the graphical spit and polish on this thing.  The moody synths and tribal beats only amplify the game’s tangible sense of dread, on level with the raptors-in-the-kitchen scene of the first film.

Fog and fluid animation: a match made in heaven.
Fog filters and fluid animation: a match made in heaven.

If you’ve read Jared’s review of Jurassic Park, you’ll be coloured the same shade of surprised I was to find that not only was Jurassic Park 2 developed by the same company that developed the original (Ocean Software) – it’s also not crap.  In fact, it’s really quite good.  There is only one satisfying explanation for this singularity: a lack of info from Hollywood and a stricter deadline leading up to the first game’s movie tie-in release; versus the creative freedom afforded by not having to stick to a highly classified film script for the second game.

It doesn’t take a chaos mathematician to work it out:

Tie-in = Tied Down.