Clockwork Aquario Review

Clockwork Aquario is something of a unearthed treasure in the video game world. Originally created in 1992 as an arcade title by the now-defunct Westone (creators of the Wonder Boy series) and to be published by Sega, Clockwork Aquario ultimately went unreleased. In 2017, Strictly Limited Games acquired the rights to the game from Sega. But some of the game’s code had been lost over time, so Strictly Limited Games teamed up with ININ Games to help fill in the gaps. After a few more delays, Clockwork Aquario FINALLY saw release on Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 at the tail end of 2021, nearly thirty years after the game was originally created (claiming the record for longest development time in video game history in the process).

On the plus side, it’s nice to know that such a game has actually been released after seemingly being lost to time. On the down side, the story behind Clockwork Aquario is more interesting than the game itself. Clockwork Aquario provides some fun, arcade-style platforming, but it’s short lived and lacks substance. It’s an entertaining novelty, if maybe not the arcade classic you may have hoped for, given its unique development history.

Clockwork Aquario is an action-platformer in which players can choose from three different playable characters: a boy named Huck Rondo, a girl named Elle Moon, and a robot named Gush. While all three characters have their own animations and sound bites, they all play identically. The goal of the game is simply to make it to the end of each level, defeat the boss, and ultimately defeat the evil Dr. Hangyo (an anthropomorphic fish, of all things) from taking over the world.

“Clockwork Aquario follows the Secret of Mana rule of a boy character, a girl character, and a non-human character.”

The stages are short and straightforward. There’s a time limit on each stage, but I’ve not had it run out on me yet. Each character can either jump on an enemy or slap them, with one hit stunning the enemy, and the second hit defeating them. What’s fun and different about Clockwork Aquario is that once an enemy is stunned, you can lift them up over your head and throw them at other enemies. It’s reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Treasure titles like Mischief Makers or Dynamite Headdy in that respect. Also similar to Treasure titles are the big, ridiculous boss fights, all of which involve Dr. Hangyo piloting a crazy, animal-shaped robot.

Although the core gameplay is fun, there are some annoying aspects to it. Namely, there are numerous segments where enemies pop out of nowhere as soon as you’re on top of them, to the extent that it feels like you have to take a hit to move on. That would be an issue even if you had a health bar, but it’s all the worse since your character can only take two hits before you lose a life. Another issue is that it takes way too long to gain a single extra life. By defeating enemies and getting points, as well as picking up gems the enemies occasionally drop, you slowly build up a meter towards collecting a 1-up. But you’ll often lose all your lives and an extra continue before you fill the bar up, so it feels like the reward isn’t worth it. It’s also annoying that you can’t pause the game once you start. I get that this was originally made as an arcade title, but come on. It ended up released on home consoles. Surely they could have added the ability to pause.

You’ll also find that the game is incredibly short, even by arcade standards. Clockwork Aquario contains only five levels, each of which can be breezed through long before the clock runs out. The game features different difficulty settings, but the only real difference is that the harder difficulties give you less continues (seeing as this is an arcade game released on home consoles, you can’t keep giving the game quarters for more chances). There’s also a ‘training mode’ but that’s little more than playing the first two levels with unlimited tries (which is really weird now that I type it out). You’ll also probably feel that, unless you have a second player with you, there’s not a whole lot of replay value here.

If there are two areas where Clockwork Aquario shines, it’s in the visuals and music. The graphics, character animations and backgrounds have a fun, retro anime vibe. It all looks so smooth and colorful! Clockwork Aquario looks like a suped-up Sega Genesis title. The music is similarly enjoyable. So much so that the game even includes its soundtrack in the main menu (both as the tracks appear in game as well as remixes). Clockwork Aquario is very fun to look at and listen to. Unfortunately these aesthetic pleasures don’t translate to the menus, which are pretty basic and mostly just text.

Clockwork Aquario is decently fun while it lasts, but I do think you need two players to get the best out of it (there’s even an extra mini-game in between the third and fourth stages only when playing with two people). Given the game’s unique history, you do kind of wish there were more to it. But it’s still a fun, novel experience. And worth checking out as an odd little piece of gaming history.

6

Nintendo Wii Turns Fiftiin!

It’s time to feel old yet again! Because the Nintendo Wii turns 15 years old today!

That’s right, somehow, it’s been a full fifteen years since Nintendo’s innovative, wacky-named little ivory box first hit North American stores, on November 19th 2006 (it would be released in other regions in the following weeks into early December 2006).

Before I go on, let me just say that no video game console makes me feel older than the Wii does. Now, I was born in 1989 and had older brothers, so I was born into the days of the NES, and grew up on the SNES, Sega Genesis and (a little later) the Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. But I suppose because I was just a little kid when those consoles were released, I can readily accept that they are now considered things like “retro” and “old school.” Though I was a bit older when the Playstation 2, Xbox and GameCube hit, those consoles were more about powerful technology and refining what came before (to varying degrees of success), so again, I can accept the retro moniker.

But the Wii was, in my eyes, the first console in a long time that really felt like it was breaking new ground with its ideas. The N64 pioneered 3D gaming (and upped the number of players from two to four), but I reiterate that I was still just a kid when that was released, so it would have seemed like magic no matter what. The Wii though… by that point, I could really appreciate what the Wii was bringing to the table. A console built around motion controls, aimed at everyone (the NES and, to a lesser extent, the SNES, were also geared towards “everyone.” But the Wii took that concept to a new level). It really felt like something new, and really lived up to its (admittedly generic) codename of “Revolution.”

So now that this innovative console that exuded such newness is fifteen years old, I really feel like a dinosaur.

I’ll never forget that first time I picked up a Wii remote, simply navigating the Wii home menu gave a huge rush of “whoa” over me. And playing Wii Sports for the first time? I don’t even think I need to explain how joyous that was. It really did bring back that ‘magic’ I felt from my childhood days whenever a new console was released (specifically, it felt very much like Christmas 1996 felt, when Santa had left a Nintendo 64 for my family).

Simply put, the Wii brought “magic” back to gaming.

I know that’d be considered a controversial statement on my part, because the Wii certainly had its detractors. Yes, the Wii tended to favor the “casual” crowd. But I always failed to see why that was considered a bad thing (other than typical gamer ignorance). It was merely a different thing.

Others derided it as being gimmicky with its motion controls – and while in the cases of less competent games that was true – I don’t see why building gameplay around motion controls is any more gimmicky than, say, a game being built around its cinematics for a more movie-like experience. Again, these are just differences.

I have to admit the Wii did end up having a lot of shovelware, but that always comes with the territory of being the most popular console on the market. The PS2 had its share of filler as well. Even the SNES had bad games. But the Wii was the one where people conveniently seemed to ignore the good while spotlighting the negatives. Point being the Wii had its faults, but it also had strengths that it seems people only recently started remembering.

After all, along with being one of the rare post-90s consoles that actually felt like something different and new, it also played a huge role in video games becoming the mainstream pastime they are today. Remember it or not, but before the Wii, video games were still largely seen as an exclusively “nerdy” endeavor. The Wii helped normalize gaming into something that people – any people – just did.

“The Wii also gave us the gift of Miis, simplified avatars you could make in the image of yourself, celebrities, fictional characters, or just straight-up abominations.”

On top of that, the Wii also created easy access to retro gaming via the Virtual Console! Before the Wii came along, retro gaming was an expensive collector’s hobby. But the Virtual Console allowed players to revisit (or discover for the first time) games from the NES, SNES, N64 and Sega Genesis, later also adding the TurboGrafx-16, Commodore 64, Neo Geo, Sega Master System and even arcade titles! Combine that with the fact the Wii could play GameCube games, and the Wii had – hands down – the best back catalogue ever. It was the first modern (at the time) console with a retro library, and I’ll go ahead and say it hasn’t been bettered. Even Nintendo themselves haven’t been able to replicate it (on the Wii, you just downloaded the games you wanted, and they went to the first available window on the home channel. Now we have Switch online, where you have to go to a separate screen for each available console, and trudge through all the filler Nintendo keeps adding to find the game you want to play. I just want my favorite retro games on the home screen again!).

“My (probably) favorite video game ever, Super Mario RPG, was celebrated as the 250th Virtual Console game in North America. Its release on the Wii also marked the first time the game was released in Europe.”

Of course, we can’t forget the great games to come out of the Wii itself. I already mentioned Wii Sports, which is the one everyone and their grandmother played. And then around a year after the Wii and Wii Sports were released, the console saw another game that brought back that aforementioned ‘magic.’

“Video game perfection.”

Yes, the Wii would see a number of great games, but it was Super Mario Galaxy that stood out from the pack and became one of the most acclaimed games of all time. It also marked something of a resurgence for Nintendo’s beloved series, after Mario’s humbler critical and commercial success post-Super Mario 64. Notably, it was also the first Mario game to be scored by a full orchestra, which just kicks all of the ass. Despite a few hiccups here and there, the exceedingly high standards Galaxy set for the Super Mario series (and its music) have remained largely intact, with games such as 3D World and Odyssey carrying the torch. It should be noted that the only Wii game that managed to be better than Galaxy was (what else?) Super Mario Galaxy 2.

“The Wii also resurrected Punch-Out!! after a fifteen year absence… and now it’s been absent in the twelve years since the game’s 2009 release.”

The Wii may not have always came out guns ablazing, but when it brought its A-game, it really was a console unlike any other that had been seen before. And with due respect, perhaps unlike any that’s been seen since.

It’s hard to believe it’s been fifteen years since Nintendo changed the game with that little white box and that controller that looked like a TV remote (and let’s not forget that blue light that would creepily turn itself on in the middle of the night). Nintendo has fully embraced bringing back the NES, SNES and N64 in multiple forms. Maybe now that the Wii is fifteen, they’ll find a way to bring the Wii back to modern audiences. I wouldn’t mind a retro mini-console version of the Wii myself. And I know someone else who’d camp out to get one…

Happy fifteenth birthday, Nintendo Wii!

Xbox Turns 20!

“The first Xbox console… not to be confused with Xbox One.”

It’s time to feel old, because today is the twentieth anniversary of the original Xbox console and, by extension, the entire Xbox brand!

Released in North America on November 15th 2001, Microsoft’s Xbox was the first major console created by a North American company since the Atari Jaguar (remember that thing?). At the time, many people wondered how the Xbox would fare against the competition. Industry mainstay Nintendo was releasing the GameCube around the same time, and Sony’s white hot Playstation 2 had been out for a year by that point.

Thankfully, at least one game ensured the Xbox would be a major player in the video game world.

Yes, the Xbox had plenty of great games (my personal favorite being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath), but it was Halo that proved, right out of the gate, that Xbox was a force to be reckoned with, and that it was here to stay.

Though Xbox couldn’t match the sales numbers of the Playstation 2, it left an indelible mark in video games, even popularizing online multiplayer on home consoles with (what else?) Halo 2.

In twenty years, we’ve gone from the original Xbox to the excellent Xbox 360 to the Xbox One to the oddly-named Xbox Series X/Series S (not to be confused with the Xbox One remodels called Xbox One S and Xbox One X…which people have confused it for so why did they call it that?!). Over those two decades, Xbox has provided countless memories of fun and excitement to players the world over. The Xbox legacy has provided so much joy to people, that we can all forgive the fact that its original controller was basically a brick with buttons on it. Seriously, why was that thing so huge?!

Happy twentieth birthday, Xbox!

Pikmin Turns 20!

Today, October 26th 2021, marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Pikmin in Japan!

Yes, somehow, it’s been two full decades since players were introduced to the multi-colored half-plant/half-animal aliens known as Pikmin, and the brave Captain Olimar, the hero of the series.

Pikmin was the brainchild of none other than Shigeru Miyamoto himself, the creator of Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong (in addition to less prominent series Star Fox and F-Zero). Although it’s never achieved the same level of success as Mario or Zelda, Pikmin certainly shares in their spirit, with Miyamoto’s signature “fun at all costs” philosophy present throughout.

The original Pikmin was released October 26th 2001 on the Nintendo GameCube (it barely missed the console’s launch both in Japan and stateside), and saw Captain Olimar utilize three Pikmin types: fast and fire-resistant Red Pikmin; Yellow Pikmin, who could be thrown higher and (strangely) were the only Pikmin who could throw bombs; and aquatic Blue Pikmin, who have since become a staple as the last Pikmin type the player meets in each game. With the help of the Pikmin, Captain Olimar had to recover the 30 pieces of his rocket ship within a 30 day in-game time limit, before his air supply ran out (so its story is kind of like a more serious Toejam & Earl, a game which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary on the 15th, by the way).

Pikmin was a big deal because, at the time, it was the first big new franchise Nintendo had made in some years (the N64 era was mostly about bringing Nintendo’s established franchises into the third dimension). And of course, the fact that Miyamoto was its creator certainly helped. Not to mention its unique gameplay, which combined elements of puzzle, action and real-time strategy into one innovative package.

Three years later, Pikmin 2 was released, also on the GameCube. This entry introduced Louie, the Luigi to Olimar’s Mario, as a second playable character. Pikmin 2 also brought in new Purple Pikmin, who had ten times the strength of other Pikmin types, and White Pikmin, who were not only resistant to poison, but would poison whatever creatures managed to eat them. The story here was that the company Olimar and Louie work for is in debt, and the Pikmin planet just so happens to house treasures that are quite valuable on Olimar’s home planet of Hocotate.

Although Pikmin 2 still utilized a day/night cycle like the first game, it no longer had a time limit for the adventure. Additionally, the player could traverse underground dungeons for the game’s best treasures and boss fights, which ignored the clock altogether until the player returned to the surface.

Oh, and Pikmin 2’s claymation promotional art? Sublime.

Both GameCube titles would later be re-released on the Nintendo Wii with newly implemented motion controls, which some felt improved the games. But outside of those re-releases, the Pikmin series would lay dormant for nine years after Pikmin 2.

Finally, in 2013, Pikmin 3 was released on the Wii U. Though the Wii U would end up being a financial failure for Nintendo, it had a strong selection of first-party titles, and Pikmin 3 was one of the best of the lot.

Pikmin 3 introduced three new characters: Alph, Brittany and Charlie, who came to the Pikmin planet in search of fruit seeds to regrow their planet’s food supply. Though they hailed from a different planet than Olimar, they would encounter the returning Pikmin hero (and Louie) during the adventure. And while the Purple and White Pikmin were sadly sidelined to one of the game’s secondary modes, two new Pikmin types were introduced: Rock Pikmin, who could break through objects the other Pikmin could not in addition to delivering a kind of sucker punch to enemies when thrown; and Winged Pikmin, who could fly, giving the player a whole new way to explore the world.

Pikmin 3’s omissions of some of Pikmin 2’s features was met with criticisms (besides the largely reduced presence of the purple and white Pikmin, the game also left behind the dungeons from its predecessor), but it also received strong praise as the most approachable Pikmin title, a sentiment I would have to agree with.

Like many other Wii U titles, Pikmin 3 was eventually brought over to the Nintendo Switch as Pikmin 3 Deluxe in 2020, featuring new modes that brought back Olimar into a playable role.

Besides that re-release, the only Pikmin game since Pikmin 3 was Hey Pikmin! on the Nintendo 3DS, which was like a side-scrolling spinoff game. Hey Pikmin! had a lukewarm reception, probably in no small part to the fact that Pikmin games are so infrequent that fans really just want another proper Pikmin game.

Sadly, we’re still waiting for a full-on Pikmin 4. It’s been eight years since Pikmin 3 was originally released (geez, already?!), meaning that the wait between Pikmins 3 and 4 will match the time gap between Pikmins 2 and 3 in just a number of months… Hopefully Nintendo can at least give us an update on Pikmin 4’s in the not-too-distant future. More Pikmin could only ever be a very good thing.

I guess I should correct myself, as there now is another Pikmin spinoff game, as Niantic – the creators of Pokemon Go – have just given a ‘soft release’ to their new mobile game Pikmin Bloom today, to commemorate the series’ twentieth anniversary. I still play Pokemon Go to this day, so I’ll have to give Pikmin Bloom a go myself!

We may all still be waiting ever so patiently for Pikmin 4, but for a series of surprisingly few entries, Pikmin really has carved a strong legacy for itself in the twenty years since it debuted as that quirky new GameCube game “from the creator of Mario and Zelda.”

“I still have that Pikmin promotional booklet from Nintendo Power!”

Happy twentieth, Pikmin!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES) Review

In the late 80s and well into the 90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ruled the world. Although it started as a comic book by the recently defunct Mirage Studios, it became a pop culture phenomenon with the 1987 cartoon series. TMNT would go on to become one of those rare franchises that hasn’t really lost its popularity in the years since that early booming period, with several movies and subsequent comic books and cartoons that continue to this day. And of course, we can’t forget the many video games to star the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Although the Turtles are most associated with the beat-em-up genre in the world of gaming, they’ve appeared in a number of other genres as well. Strangely, even though the peak years of Turtlemania coincided with the fighting game boom of the early 90s, the Turtles only starred in one such fighting game during that timeframe: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters by Konami.

I suppose you could say the Turtles starred in three fighting games of the time, seeing as Tournament Fighters saw releases on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in 1993, and weirdly made its way to the NES afterwards in 1994, with each version having notable differences from one another (with most praising the SNES version as the best of the lot, because of course it was). Although the pairing of TMNT and fighting games seems like such an obvious success, Tournament Fighters doesn’t seem nearly as remembered as some of the other Turtles games of the time.

Perhaps that’s due in part to the game’s selection of playable characters, many of whom would still be considered deep cuts to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aficionados even today. The SNES version contains ten playable characters, but only half of them would be very familiar to Turtles fans. Four of those are obviously the Ninja Turtles themselves: Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo. The other familiar face is their archnemesis, the Shredder (though he is bizarrely labeled as “Cyber Shredder” in the game).

The remaining characters are varying degrees of niche. There’s Armaggon, a shark-like mutant; Wingnut is a humanoid bat; and the oddly-named War is a purple triceratops-like creature who is not in fact a member of the Triceratons (triceratops-like aliens from the franchise). These three characters all originated from the Archie Comics TMNT series, which I emphasize is separate from the original Mirage Studios comics. Of the lot, only Wingnut appeared in the 1987 cartoon, though Armaggon would eventually show up in the 2012 series. And then we have Chrome Dome, a robot character who appeared in a few episodes of the original series. But the last character is the real odd-duck of the lot.

The final playable character is Aska (which really should be spelled “Asuka”), a ninja woman who made her first and only appearance in the TMNT franchise in this game (meaning we have at least one more deep cut character the newer cartoons can resurrect). Apparently, Aska was intended to be the character Mitsu from the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, to which she bears a strong resemblance (though the video game character is a little ‘bouncier’ in certain areas). But due to that film’s poor reception from fans, the character was hastily tweaked to the Aska seen here.

So if you were hoping for fan favorites like Master Splinter, Casey Jones, Bebop and Rocksteady, Krang, or frequent crossover character Miyamoto Usagi, you’re out of luck. Splinter is kidnapped in the game’s story mode, and Bebop and Rocksteady are background characters on one of the stages. So the character selections may have been off-putting to fans at the time. Seeing as this was around the height of Turtlemania, fans were probably hoping to see more of their favorites in the game. Though perhaps the more obscure selections make the game more interesting in retrospect.

Anyway, aside from the lack of fan favorites, Tournament Fighters has a lot to offer TMNT fans, and is a solid fighter in its own right.

The game features three different modes: Tournament, Versus and Story. Tournament is your expected arcade-style mode, where you pick any of the ten characters, and go through a series of fights. You have unlimited continues, and can switch characters if you lose. Versus allows players to fight matches at their own leisure, and can be played with two players (making it the game’s real main event, and what will keep you coming back if you have other players available). Story is similar to the Tournament mode, but fittingly features more cutscenes and dialogue boxes. You can only play as the Ninja Turtles themselves in this mode, with the order of opponents differing depending on which turtle you select, and you only get three continues here.

The story is that the Shredder has been defeated and is no longer in New York City (though he’s still an opponent, so maybe “Cyber Shredder” is like a robot or something?). But the Foot Clan returns under the leadership of Karai (marking the character’s first appearance outside of the Mirage comics, further playing into the game’s love of lesser-known TMNT characters). Seeking revenge for Shredder’s defeat, the Foot Clan kidnaps Splinter and April O’Neil to goad the turtles into combat. It’s a fighting game plot.

Additionally, players can go to the option menu to alter the difficulty of the game, and even choose a setting that speeds up the gameplay. The Tournament and Story modes end earlier on easier settings (Tournament ends against the non-playable Rat King, and Story against Cyber Shredder, with players only facing Karai herself on more difficult settings). But the easier settings will probably be more enjoyable for most players, since it seems like Tournament Fighters is one of those retro fighting games where the AI opponents can seemingly break the rules of the game on harder settings.

This is the game’s most annoying drawback. I admit I’m not the best player of fighting games, particularly against other people. But I usually enjoy trying out the more difficult settings in the single-player modes. Though some of the older fighting games can get ridiculous on higher difficulty settings. They don’t simply get harder, but the computer AI seems to be able to do things the human player can’t, and unfortunately Tournament Fighters is one of those games. The AI opponents spam moves faster than you can react to them, and on several occasion when I knocked my opponent down and approached them to follow up, they somehow managed to grapple me before they even stood back up! It’s cheap little things like that that make this one of the fighting games where I just don’t want to bother with the harder settings.

I suppose the higher difficulties are only there for those who want them, however. The easier settings will provide some good fun while they last. Though the game’s lasting appeal will of course be its two-player versus mode.

The gameplay itself is tight and intricate, and actually feels on par with Street Fighter II. Each character has two punch/weapon attacks and two kicks (a weak and strong variation) mapped out to the four buttons on the SNES controller. There are familiar button combos and a good variety of moves for each character. Additionally, continuously attacking an opponent will fill up a green meter under your health bar. If you can fill up the bar completely, you can unleash a powerful special move by pressing both of the stronger attack buttons. Sure, by today’s standards, Tournament Fighters may feel a little slow. But for its time, this is as good and fleshed-out as fighting mechanics got. It’s still a fun game to play.

To top it all off, the game looks great. Although maybe not as colorful as the more famous Turtles in Time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters features the kind of detailed, fluidly animated character sprites you would expect from the SNES. The sound is maybe a bit less consistent (Rat King sounds kind of like Sylvester Stallone), but it does what it needs to.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighter may not be the most remembered Turtles game, but it has perhaps held up the best out of those released during the early days of Turtlemania. It clearly took more than a little inspiration from Street Fighter II, and I’m actually surprised how well it compares to the influential fighter.

If you still have a Super Nintendo at the ready, Tournament Fighter is a fun time. And if you have a friend over, it should be a great time.

7

Ten Years of Dark Souls

Today, September 22nd 2021, marks the ten-year anniversary of the original release of Dark Souls in Japan. So not only is September 22nd the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but I guess you could call it Dark Souls Day as well.

Yes, somehow it’s been ten full years since Dark Souls first captured our imaginations (and made us smash our controllers) with its intricate gameplay, epic boss fights and unique dark fantasy world. It would end up being (unquestionably) the most influential video game of the last decade, with many imitators in the “Souls-like” genre (none of which are a patch on the real deal) being made in its wake, and games in just about every other genre adopting many of its elements and mechanics.

Okay, so technically Demon’s Souls started the series. Though while Demon’s Souls may be a classic in its own right, I think it’s safe to say it was with 2011’s Dark Souls that the series really took off and conquered the video game world.

Unlike so many games from the late 2000s/early 2010s, Dark Souls has aged beautifully, and its impact and influence has remained intact in a way that’s usually reserved for Nintendo’s best titles. I mean, who the hell talks about Bioshock anymore? Good riddance, I say.

Ah, but Dark Souls. It really is one of the medium’s modern classics. Although now that it’s ten-years old, do we take out the “modern” and simply categorize it as a “classic?”

At any rate, that’s what Dark Souls is, a classic! Its sequels and follow-ups are also stellar (though BloodBorne is probably the only one whose reputation matches the original). The series was a dominating force in gaming in the 2010s, and it seems its influence will continue well beyond that.

Series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s next game, Elden Ring, is one of the most anticipated games on the horizon. But it certainly has a lot to live up to if it hopes to have the same impact as its 2011 predecessor. A hell of an act to follow.

Happy tenth anniversary, Dark Souls!

“Ah, dang it!”

Dr. Mario (NES) Review

These days, we kind of take for granted the Mario games that don’t fit into the “main” Super Mario series. Unless it’s the next big 3D Mario adventure, we tend to refer to the games as “spin-offs” and don’t hold them in the same light as the “proper” Mario games.

The thing is, Mario was always Nintendo’s renaissance man. Shigeru Miyamoto designed the character with the intent that he could be thrown into any type of game, in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and (most specifically) Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s not as though Mario was created with a definitive story and some big universe of characters already planned out ahead of time. Mario appeared in a number of games before Princess Peach, Bowser and the entire Mushroom Kingdom came into existence in Super Mario Bros. That was Mario’s breakout role, sure, but it wasn’t exactly where he got his start. Although it makes sense that Super Mario Bros. would become the basis of what we all consider to be “main” Mario games, as time has gone on it seems people have diminished the allure of the “other” Mario games as an unfortunate side effect of this.

That wasn’t the case back in 1990, when Mario could suddenly don a lab coat and head mirror, call himself a doctor, and star in a falling block puzzle game, and it would still create an iconic game in its own right.

Dr. Mario was the first such puzzle game in the Mario franchise, which would slowly become its own series, and open the door for puzzle games starring other Mario franchise characters like Yoshi’s Cookie and Wario’s Woods. While some of these later puzzle games were improvements, and subsequent Dr. Mario sequels (such as the underrated Nintendo 64 entry) built on the formula, the original NES release is still a charming and addictive puzzle game.

The goal of Dr. Mario is to eliminate a screen of all of its viruses. These viruses come in three colors: red, blue and yellow. You eliminate these viruses by matching them up with vitamins of corresponding colors. But there are a few twists to keep things interesting.

The first thing to note is that the vitamins have two halves, which can be different colors, so you’ll want to pay extra attention when the viruses are close together. You have to match four objects of the same color in order to eliminate a virus. Each half of a vitamin counts as one object, and a virus counts as another. So you could potentially have three viruses of the same color stacked on top of each other, meaning you’d only have to put one similarly colored half of a vitamin on top of them to eliminate them. You can even eliminate the viruses by placing the vitamins against them horizontally, but it’s much less common.

Additionally, if the vitamins involved in an elimination feature halves of different colors, those halves will remain and fall straight down until they either land on a virus or the bottom of the screen. This gives you an added level of strategy for any nearby viruses, but it also risks filling up the screen with piles of vitamins. If the vitamins stack up to the top of the screen and Mario can’t throw any more, you lose the round.

It’s a nice twist on the Tetris formula, one that remains fun even today. Better still, the game features a two-player competitive mode, where each player aims to eliminate their screen of viruses before the other. And despite the technical limitations of the game (even by NES standards) it makes the best with what it has. The graphics are cute and fun (I especially like how part of the screen is a microscope held up to the viruses, just so you can see them dancing around in all their glory), and the game’s two selectable music tracks, Chill and Fever, are infectiously catchy, and are all too easy to listen to on repeat as you play round after round.

Unfortunately, if you don’t have a second player at the ready to tackle the aforementioned two-player mode, Dr. Mario’s gameplay can only go so far. The lack of any additional modes really stands out in retrospect, and the fact that – unlike Tetris – each round has a set goal to reach means beating your own high score is kind of an afterthought.

Dr. Mario is still fun, no doubt. But it isn’t particularly deep. It’s at its best when two players are onboard, and even in that area it’s been bettered (Dr. Mario 64 turned the formula into a four-player party game. And now I really wish Nintendo would re-release that game or make a proper sequel to further add to the proceedings).

Its limitations are certainly more apparent today, but Dr. Mario is still worth playing. Perhaps more importantly, it represents a time when gamers were a bit wiser, and could accept Mario in any role and not question the merit in its potential.

6

Super Nintendo Turns 30 (in North America)!

Yeah, I know. I already wrote a thing about the Super Nintendo’s 30th anniversary based on its original Japanese release. But we’re talking about a video game console so good, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about it again.

Today, August 23rd 2021, marks the 30th anniversary of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s release in North America. This also means it’s the 30th anniversary of Super Mario World’s release in North America, which I’ll happily say is still the best launch game ever made.

There are a few classic video game consoles from yesteryear: the original NES had perhaps a bigger impact than any other, and was the video game console of the 80s. The Nintendo 64 pioneered 3D gaming. The Sony Playstation, as well as the Sega Genesis, Saturn and Dreamcast, also opened new doors to gaming. But it’s the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that’s the timeless masterpiece of a video game console.

With all due respect to the aforementioned consoles, they have aged in one way or another (well, maybe not the Genesis, but its library wasn’t as deep as the SNES’). That’s not to say that they don’t have their share of timeless games, because they do. But when revisiting those consoles, it is apparent that they came from specific points in the past (as much as I love the N64, and perhaps sometimes I’m too harsh on it, it can sometimes be painfully obvious that it was experimenting with 3D gaming). But the SNES is the one that still stands tall even when compared to today’s consoles. It was that perfect moment in gaming history when developers had mastered the craft of everything that came before. And while it is a good thing that gaming entered new territories afterwards, suffice to say that entering the third-dimension kind of started things over. And in some ways, games still have yet to catch up to where they were (the SNES never had things like microtransactions get in the way of more honest game design, after all).

Just think of the library of classics the SNES had: Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Yoshi’s Island, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Super Mario Kart, Kirby Super Star, Kirby’s Dream Land 3, EarthBound, the first three Mega Man X games, Mega Man 7, Tetris Attack, the Street Fighter 2 ports, Secret of Mana, and more still!

There were just so many classics on the console, and they remain every bit as fun today as they were then (exception being Star Fox. In a bit of role reversal, it’s the N64 installment in that series that has proven timeless). You also had your lesser known gems (Demon’s Crest), and stronger third-party support than any Nintendo console until the Switch (although the Wii actually had stronger third-party support than it gets credit for).

A classic lineup of games unlike any that has been seen before or since, the Super Nintendo is truly one of the greats. It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty years since the system made its way stateside (I was just a baby at the time!). But you wouldn’t know it by playing the many classics it produced.

Happy 30th anniversary (again), Super Nintendo!

Top 10 Nintendo 64 Games to Play Today

The Nintendo 64 recently celebrated its 25th anniversary! So I figured now was as good of a time as any to commemorate the trailblazing retro console’s best games.

There are a few ways one could acknowledge what constitutes the “best” games on a console, such as its biggest milestone releases or its most influential titles. Or you could go with what games were best in their day. In the end, I decided to go with my usual method of which games are simply the most fun to play today.

Because of this reason, you may see some notable omissions. Case in point: I won’t be including Goldeneye 007. Even though that title was a landmark for first-person shooters (especially on home consoles) and multiplayer games in general, the games it inspired definitely improved on its foundations, which leaves Goldeneye 007 to feel kind of clunky by today’s standards.

But that doesn’t mean that every N64 great is a thing of the past, and the Nintendo 64 games that do hold up, do so pretty swimmingly. The following ten games are the ones I would recommend if someone wanted to play a great game on the N64 today. Not recommending games based on historical purposes to someone who didn’t grow up with the N64, and not selections for someone who did grow up with the N64 looking for some nostalgia. These are games I would recommend simply as great games to play, that just happen to be from the Nintendo 64’s library.

Oh, and to save myself the hassle of ranking this list, I didn’t! I just listed all ten games in alphabetical order and I recommend them as is! Some are colorful platforming romps, some are epic adventures, and some are full of the multiplayer goodness the N64 made famous!

Before we get to the top 10 proper, however, here are some honorable mentions:

Diddy Kong Racing: A Mario Kart-style racing game combined with a Super Mario 64-style adventure! That’s one amazing combination that inspired many other kart racers to follow. Not to mention it introduced us to both Banjo and Conker! It also boasts great multiplayer that is somewhat hindered by the fact that there’s no music when playing with more than two players. To this day, people are waiting for Mario Kart to emulate its adventure mode.

Donkey Kong 64: The biggest Nintendo 64 game in the literal sense of the term. DK64, while still a fun collect-a-thon platformer, is sometimes too big for its own good. With five playable characters, each with their own collectibles, DK64 certainly has variety in gameplay and a lot of things to do. Though for those same reasons, it can become a little tedious having to switch back and forth between characters. But in typical Rare fashion, DK64 also includes a host of multiplayer modes at your disposal. Why on Earth did the idea of single-player adventure games having such great multiplayer options fall out of style?

Mario Kart 64: A beloved, nostalgic favorite today, but Mario Kart 64 actually wasn’t so fondly received critically in its time, being considered a disappointing follow-up to the SNES original upon its release. It admittedly isn’t the best Mario Kart: There are only a few memorable racetracks, the graphics are ugly, and like Diddy Kong Racing, there’s no music when playing with three or four people. But the core gameplay holds up, and Mario Kart 64 has some of the best balloon battle courses in the series (Block Fort!). A fun time, but not the go-to Mario Kart experience today, nor the best example of Mario multiplayer on the N64.

Mario Tennis: The origins of Waluigi, a character destined to… fill out the roster in Mario spinoffs (What can I say? Not every character addition is going to end up having the impact of Yoshi). Mario Golf is also fun, but it’s Mario Tennis that I think is the better go-to Mario sports title of yesteryear. A solid tennis game with a Mario twist. Oh, and while it may have debuted Waluigi, it also served as the last time we saw Donkey Kong Jr., who’s been MIA ever since.

Super Smash Bros.: Ah, the good ol’ days. Back when Super Smash Bros. was actually about Nintendo characters. I miss that. Sure, the N64 original may not have the same depth and polish of later entries in the series, but Super Smash Bros. remains a fun multiplayer romp. And it’s fun just to revisit and see the series in its purest state, before its Nintendo-ness was diluted and it catered too heavily to the Esports crowd. Just pure Nintendo fun.

And now, finally, the Top 10 Nintendo 64 Games to Play Today!

1: Banjo-Kazooie

Let’s be frank: The N64 was Rare’s console. While many of Nintendo’s key franchises made appearances, they could be pretty spread out. In between Nintendo’s big releases, Rare was pumping out one game after another to keep it all afloat. But Rare’s N64 output didn’t just fill in the gaps, they released a number of genuine winners during the era, some of which even outshined Nintendo’s own efforts.

Though the Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the Super Nintendo and Goldeneye 007 were Rare’s biggest sellers, it was Banjo-Kazooie who proved to be Rare’s homegrown hero(es). Simply the most “Rare” of all of Rare’s creations.

A 3D platformer modeled after none other than Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie replaced Nintendo’s iconic plumber with Banjo the bear from Diddy Kong Racing, and the bird Kazooie who lived in his backpack. Replacing Mario’s coins were music notes, and in place of the elusive Power Stars we had Jiggies; magical, golden jigsaw pieces.

Banjo-Kazooie isn’t just Super Mario 64 with a new coat of paint though. Whereas Mario had all of his moves right out of the gate, Banjo and Kazooie learn different abilities as they go, which gave each subsequent level new means for our titular duo to obtain Jiggies. There’s the witch doctor, Mumbo Jumbo, who could transform Banjo and Kazooie into various different forms. There are mini-games abound. And to change up video game traditions, for the game’s finale, Banjo and Kazooie find themselves in the middle of a board game/quiz show (though we do also get a proper final boss, proving that sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too).

All of this, in addition to Banjo-Kazooie’s unique personality (those garbled jibberish voices are just wonderful), meant Banjo-Kazooie was no mere copycat. It took what Super Mario 64 started, and made it entirely its own.

It may seem like a smaller adventure by today’s standards, there are still a few camera issues, and some Jiggies are unceremoniously just lying around, but make no mistake, Banjo-Kazooie is still as fun as it ever was.

2: Banjo-Tooie

While Banjo-Kazooie took a page from Super Mario 64, its sequel, Banjo-Tooie, was like a combination of Mario’s N64 outing and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Tooie is a much bigger game than Kazooie, but seemingly learning from Donkey Kong 64, it never feels too bloated. Late N64 graphics aside, Banjo-Tooie still holds up over two decades later.

Though Kazooie’s name is sadly no longer in the title, she may be even more present here than she was in the first game, as Banjo and Kazooie can now go their separate ways and claim their own Jiggies. There are now more prominent boss fights in every stage. There are first-person shooter segments that hold up better than the actual first-person shooters on the N64. You can now play as Mumbo Jumbo. The level themes are more unique (the fire world and ice world are one and the same, there’s a dilapidated theme park, and a dinosaur world). And there’s now a host of multiplayer modes to enjoy!

On the downside, there are eight stages here compared to Kazooie’s nine (and ten less Jiggies as a result). One of these stages, Grunty Industries, is pointlessly convoluted. And Mumbo should really have more to do when you play as him. These are ultimately small prices to pay, considering just how good Banjo-Tooie is otherwise.

Twenty-one years on, fans still debate which is the superior game between Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. While the original seems to have the slight majority vote, I think I’m on the side of Banjo-Tooie. Despite the aforementioned reduction in stage numbers, I feel like Tooie otherwise builds on and improves just about everything from the original. We may all still be waiting for a third Banjo-Kazooie entry (a real third entry), but Banjo-Tooie was such a hefty adventure in its day, and so well executed, that it feels right at home among today’s games.

3: Conker’s Bad Fur Day

Oh look, it’s Rare again! But of course it’s Rare again. They carried the N64!

Released in 2001 – the same year the GameCube would later debut – Conker’s Bad Fur Day was one of the N64’s last hoorahs (along with a few other games on this list). Though it was planned to be released much, much sooner in the console’s lifespan, under a very different guise.

Originally envisioned as “Twelve Tales” and “Conker 64,” the game was to be a cute, cartoony platformer in a similar vein to Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64. But a troublesome production meant Conker kept getting delayed, to the point that, after Rare released a series of colorful platformers on the N64, interest in Conker waned. So designer Chris Seavor took over the project and gave Conker a complete overhaul.

Raunchy, violent, and riddled with swear words and poop jokes, Conker’s Bad Fur Day seemed to both address the concerns of “too many kids’ games” on the N64 while simultaneously making fun of the people who made those complaints by going to such extremes. Though you have to see the irony in how, these days, people crave more colorful, kid-friendly platformers. Different times.

Some aspects of Conker’s former life remained: the game was still a story-driven platformer, as Twelve Tales was always planned to be. It realized the vision of the original game to feel like an interactive cartoon (the animations and lip syncing were so far ahead of their time, they still rank as some of the medium’s best). And true to Conker’s humble origins in Diddy Kong Racing, Conker himself never actually swears. It’s everyone else who’s foulmouthed.

More important than the “adult” humor, however, is how the gameplay is always changing whenever Conker finds himself somewhere new. Sometimes it’s a platformer, sometimes it’s a shooter, sometimes it’s a racer. Conker’s Bad Fur Day is that rare kind of game that’s always finding something new. And in typical Rare fashion, Conker’s Bad Fur Day features seven different multiplayer modes. No one overdelivered like Rare did back in the day.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day isn’t perfect, however. Like so many N64 games, the camera and some of the controls can get a little iffy, not all of the movie parodies work (ugh, The Matrix), and not all the multiplayer modes are equals. But Conker’s Bad Fur Day is as unique today as it was twenty years ago.

4: Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

Masahiro Sakurai may have created Kirby, but I think Shinichi Shimomura – Nintendo’s most elusive, mysterious game designer – best understands how to represent the character and his world. Sadly, Shimomura only directed three Kirby games before seemingly vanishing: Kirby’s Dreamland 2, Kirby’s Dreamland 3, and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.

Though Kirby 64 foregoes the Animal Friends of Dreamlands 2 and 3, it (almost) makes up for it with a new twist on Kirby’s trademark copy abilities: Kirby can now combine two powers to make new ones! Even though Kirby 64 treads a lot of familiar ground elsewhere, the ability to combine powers keeps things fresh and exciting. Sometimes you may realize you need to revisit a stage with a different power combination in order to obtain one of the titular crystal shards.

While Sakurai’s Kirby games later adopted something of an of edge, Shimomura’s Kirby titles really doubled down on the cuteness of the series (sans the final bosses, giving them an appropriate contrast to everything else). There’s a softness to the visuals that have held up incredibly well since the game’s 2000 release, the music is energetic and infectious (in that very specific, late-90s/early-2000s Kirby way). It’s just an all-around comforting video game.

Some may lament that Kirby 64 is a pretty easy game. But not every game needs to be Dark Souls. Sometimes it’s nice to just be able to experience an adventure, and Kirby 64 provides just that. It takes a simple, straightforward platforming romp and turns it into something memorable with its little touches. Along with the aforementioned visuals, music and personality, Kirby 64 also has some fun level themes (the snow world is also the robot-themed world!), and the levels even manage to tell their own little stories as you progress through them, which was pretty unique at the time. Oh, and there are moments where the player takes control of King Dedede. That’s always a huge bonus.

To top it all off, Kirby 64 even features a multiplayer mode. Though it may not be as gloriously excessive as those from Rare, Kirby 64’s multiplayer provides three mini-games that are addictively fun with friends. One of these mini-games, Checkerboard Chase, even feels like a precursor to today’s wildly popular battle royal genre.

I still hope we one day see the combined copy abilities return to the series in their full glory (Kirby Star Allies featured a watered down version of it). But if Kirby 64 is the only game to feature them, at least it’s an easy game to get sucked back into even today.

5: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

For all its acclaim, Ocarina of Time is actually a pretty conservative game, as it’s structurally following A Link to the Past nearly beat for beat, albeit in a 3D environment. Ocarina’s follow-up, Majora’s Mask, is conversely one of the most “different” games in the entire Zelda canon.

Using many of the same assets as Ocarina, Majora’s Mask repurposes them to craft a new world and adventure that’s uniquely its own. The Happy Mask Salesman, for example, was merely a shopkeeper in Ocarina. But here in Majora’s Mask he’s a key player in the story. The same goes for the Skull Kid, who has been promoted to tragic antagonist.

Similarly, while Ocarina of Time featured masks as items for the occasional sidequest (or just for the giggles), here they play a much larger role in gameplay. Three masks in particular completely change things up, allowing series protagonist Link to transform into different species from the series: a plant-like Deku, a powerful Goron and an aquatic Zora. These transformations only add that much more variety and depth to Majora’s Mask, and it’s kind of weird how Nintendo hasn’t revisited a similar idea since.

This is all before we even get into the game’s time travel motif, which sees Link travel between the same three days over and over again in order to prevent the moon from crashing into the land of Termina. There are different things to do, different people to talk to, and different events occurring between the three days, so Link will have to use that trusty Ocarina of Time to revisit and relive certain situations in order to complete the adventure (insert mandatory Groundhog Day comparison here).

Admittedly, the time travel setup isn’t for everyone, and having to redo an entire game-day over because you may have missed one thing can grow a little tedious. It’s also one of the shorter Zelda titles, with only four dungeons to complete before you unlock the final area of the game. So it may be easy at times to see why Ocarina of Time’s more straightforward, more epic adventure may continue to steal the spotlight.

Still, Majora’s Mask remains one of Nintendo’s most beloved games, and one of the most acclaimed video games of all time, for a reason. It’s not only different from any other Zelda title, it’s unlike anything else Nintendo has ever made. With a pedigree like The Legend of Zelda’s, it may be easy to hold things so sacred that it fears to branch out. Yet Majora’s Mask – coming off the heels of Ocarina of Time, no less – decided to take the series in a daring new direction. One that still holds up to this day.

6: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Yes, I may have just said Ocarina of Time is a conservative game, but when it’s sticking to a formula as great as A Link to the Past’s, you can’t complain too much.

For a good while, Ocarina of Time was almost unanimously held sacrosanct as the “greatest video game of all time.” While in more recent years, that debate has grown more open-minded – sometimes for the good (Super Mario Galaxy), sometimes for the not too good (The Last of Us) – for its time, it’s easy to see why Ocarina of Time garnered such praise. A Link to the Past and Super Mario 64 were probably the most acclaimed games up to that point, and Ocarina of Time was essentially a combination of the two. The “best of both worlds” if you will.

Following in its SNES predecessor’s footsteps, Ocarina of Time sees Link partake on an epic adventure to save the land of Hyrule from the evil Ganondorf. Link will travel the land, meet new people (and species), and brave dark and dreary dungeons to become the hero Hyrule needs. Ocarina perfectly translated the Zelda series’ combination of action, exploration and puzzle solving into a 3D environment. And its lock-on combat was a revelation for 3D games.

Sure, the graphics definitely show their age, but the gameplay of Ocarina of Time hasn’t really lost a step. While most series may show obvious improvements with each subsequent entry, Ocarina of Time had refined its gameplay so strongly in 1998 that it still feels surprisingly close to the Zelda titles that have arrived since.

On the downside of things (and this is a hugely unpopular opinion on my part), the soundtrack to Ocarina of Time is one of the weaker ones in the Zelda canon. I know, we all love the obvious ones like Saria’s Song/Lost Woods and the Song of Storms, but they’re in the minority of what is largely an adequate soundtrack for the time. It didn’t even feature the main Legend of Zelda theme until the 3DS remake! And even in Zelda, that N64 camerawork can still be a bit of a problem.

So maybe Ocarina of Time isn’t absolutely flawless, as we once so readily accepted. But it’s still an unforgettable adventure in gaming. One that still feels deep and rewarding even by the standards of today.

7: Mario Party 3

Not every great game has to be some grand adventure. Sometimes, fun is all you need to stand the test of time. And that’s where Mario Party 3 comes into this list: it may not be the deepest game here, and it even contains some questionable design choices. But damn it all if Mario Party 3 isn’t fun!

We’re talking about a very specific type of fun here. That unique type of fun that Nintendo seems to have mastered (but that they’ll never fully admit to): the kind of multiplayer game you play with your friends for some good times, only for it to slowly unravel and make all the players involved out for each other’s blood by the end of it all. You can get some of this “friends turned enemies” fun from Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. But Mario Party personifies it.

From friends stealing each other’s stars and coins, to screwing each other over when they’re supposed to be teamed up in mini-games, Mario Party is designed to make you hate your friends! Okay, maybe not literally, but imagine how Dark Souls makes you feel towards its bosses. Mario Party makes you feel that towards your friends! It’s all in good fun, of course.

Honestly, you can go ahead and lump Mario Party 1 and 2 here as well and call it a tie. But I think that, being released in 2001 at the tail-end of the N64 (it was the last Nintendo-published title on the system), Mario Party 3 had refined the formula a bit. Each game board has some fun gimmicks, the mini-games are more plentiful and varied, and you have more items than ever to sabotage your friends with. Perhaps best of all, Mario Party 3 is the only entry in the series to include “Duel Mode,” which sees two players travel across the board trying to deplete each other’s hit points with the aide of partners. These partners are Mario series enemies that could be placed both in front of (attack) and behind (defense) the player, making Duel Mode something like Mario Party meets Paper Mario. Why Nintendo hasn’t revisited the Duel Mode concept in the many, many Mario Parties since, I’ll never know.

Yes, many of Mario Party’s elements are based on luck, not skill. In just about any other type of game, that would be a huge drawback. But Mario Party is all about chaotic fun with friends. The first two Mario Party entries also provide a great time, but the third is where the series really hit its high point (making it all the weirder that Nintendo has only ever re-released the second entry). On a console known for its madcap four-person multiplayer, Mario Party 3 reigns king.

8: Paper Mario

Yet another late-game entry in the N64’s library, Paper Mario was released in 2001 after years of delays in production.

Originally conceived as a sequel to Super Mario RPG, the game that would become Paper Mario had to make countless changes early on, as Square retained the rights to the original elements of Super Mario RPG. With Square moving away from Nintendo at the time, the big N turned to one of its own studios, Intelligent Systems, to pick up the pieces.

Paper Mario ended up being its own kind of Mario RPG. Mario is equipped with hammer and jump attacks, is joined on his adventure by a parade of cute partners (each inspired by different enemies from the series’ history), and gains new bonuses and abilities based on the badges he wears. These make the battles more simplified than those of Super Mario RPG, but because the game retains its spiritual predecessor’s action commands, they’re no less fun.

Bowser has stolen a magical artifact, the Star Rod, to grant his every wish. The King Koopa has granted himself invincibility, as well as absconded with Princess Peach’s entire castle, and taking it into the sky. So Mario is off on an adventure to rescue seven Star Spirits (held captive by Bowser’s forces) so they can help him undo Bowser’s magic and save the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s every bit as epic as Link’s Nintendo 64 adventures.

Of course, we have to talk about the visuals. It is called Paper Mario for a reason. Originally planned to use SNES-style sprites (prototype screenshots even showed Yoshi ripped directly from Super Mario World), this quickly evolved into making the characters literally flat amidst a 3D environment. It’s kind of fitting, really. Super Mario RPG pushed for 3D at the tail-end of the two-dimensional Super Nintendo, and Paper Mario, towards the end of the Nintendo 64, did the opposite for the 3D console. And while Paper Mario’s soundtrack could never hope to reach the heights of Super Mario RPG’s (still Yoko Shimomura’s best work by far), it still created a fun, fittingly cute soundtrack that ranks among the best on the N64.

Whereas the SNES was full of great RPGs, Paper Mario was really the only notable one to speak of for the N64. But man, is it ever a good one! Its engaging battle system, epic storyline, and insurmountable charm ascend Paper Mario into being one of the genre’s true greats.

Paper Mario’s distinct art direction means it hasn’t really aged visually, and there’s no fussy camera to wrestle with, either. And the gameplay is every bit as fun today as it was twenty years ago. Of all the games on this list, Paper Mario may just be the most timeless.

9: Star Fox 64

Star Fox is something of the one-hit wonder of Nintendo’s franchises. Some of its installments sit at the edge of greatness (others a bit further away), but only one managed to claim it: Star Fox 64.

In a bit of a turnaround from the norm, Star Fox is that rare series (the only series?) where the SNES entry is the headache-inducing eyesore, while the N64 follow-up is a timeless classic.

Originally released in 1997, Star Fox 64 is a remake of the SNES original story-wise. But its gameplay is a refinement of the rail-shooter that builds on every aspect of its predecessor. Such a refinement, in fact, that it has rarely been approached in the genre in all the years since.

Players take control of Fox McCloud, as he pilots his flying Arwing, the Landmaster Tank and (in one level) the underwater Blue-Marine. He’s accompanied by his crewmates: Grizzled veteran Peppy Hare, inventive rookie Slippy Toad, and obnoxious jerk Falco Lombardi. Fox must blast his way through the armies of the evil Andross to save the Lylat System.

Simply destroying the bad guys and making it to the end of a stage aren’t all there is to Star Fox 64, however. Certain actions will unlock branching pathways and new routes through the game. Some alternate routes are easier to find, others not so much. You’ll only go through a handful of stages on any given playthrough, but finding different paths and trying different combinations of stages give the single player mode tremendous replay value (which it already would have from the gameplay alone).

Oh, and just in case the timeless single player campaign isn’t enough, there are also multiplayer modes to keep you coming back for more.

Different vehicles. Teammates with their own benefits (Peppy gives advice, Slippy displays the bosses’ health, Falco helps find some alternate paths). Free-roaming “All-range mode” stages. Multiplayer. A strangely memorable (if corny) storyline… There’s just so much to it. Aside from the obvious 1997 visuals, Star Fox 64 has aged like a fine wine.

10: Super Mario 64

A good chunk of this list is comprised of games released towards the end of the Nintendo 64’s timeframe (Banjo-Tooie, Kirby 64 and Majora’s Mask from 2000; Conker, Mario Party 3 and Paper Mario from 2001). Given the N64’s pioneering of 3D gaming, it makes sense that it would take time for developers to hit their stride and create something that holds up down the road.

But Super Mario 64 was there from day one, and is still an adventure worth taking all these years later. It’s easy to talk about how revolutionary and influential Super Mario 64 was, but this list is meant to discuss how much fun it still is.

What’s amazing is how Super Mario 64 translated the key elements of Mario’s 2D platformer adventures so seamlessly into 3D, while also establishing a new set of rules for 3D platformers. I mentioned how Ocarina of Time follows the same blueprint as A Link to the Past, only in 3D. But Super Mario 64 is structurally a very different game than Super Mario World, though it retains enough key elements of Mario’s past (jumping is important) to still make it feel like a proper follow-up. And just like the 2D Mario games before it, Super Mario 64 has stood the test of time.

Okay, okay. So obviously the visuals scream 1996 (compared to Super Mario World’s sprites, which look just as colorful as they ever did), and the camera can be a pain at times. And like Ocarina of Time, I don’t think Super Mario 64 boasts one of the better soundtracks in its series, despite a few standouts (Dire, Dire Docks comes to mind). So maybe Super Mario 64 isn’t the most timeless Mario game, but for a launch game on the Nintendo 64 to still be this much fun to play? That’s got to be some kind of small miracle.

The camera may be a bit tricky to handle, but Mario himself controls just as he should. It’s hard to describe, but the sense of control Mario has just feels right. Then we have fifteen big levels to explore, a host of bonus stages, and the best hub world in gaming history (don’t even argue). Mario must explore every nook and cranny of these locations; fighting monsters, racing penguins, flying through clouds, swimming with dinosaurs, and a plethora of other objectives to claim those elusive power stars that can break Bowser’s curse on Peach’s castle and its occupants.

Sure, the graphical and mechanical limitations are present. But Super Mario 64 was so forward-thinking in its ideas and so polished in its execution, that this 1996 Nintendo 64 launch title can still claim to be one of gaming’s greats. Proof that fun knows no age.


There you go, my top 10 Nintendo 64 titles to play today! Although I suppose I haven’t played every Nintendo 64 game (I recently purchased the two Goemon N64 games, which I’ve heard good things about, so I guess I’ll see if those deserved a spot here soon). But I think I’ve played so many of them over the years, that my experience on the subject has some merit. I like to think so, anyway.

It’s hard to believe the Nintendo 64 is over twenty-five years old now. It’s as old as the movie Twister, and the Tickle Me Elmo!

Thanks for reading, and I hope this list could bring back some fond memories, or inspire you to pick up one of these games again, or even help you discover them (okay, that last one is a lie. No one is discovering these games from my blog). At any rate, I hope you enjoyed!

Happy Nintendo 64, everybody!

Magical Drop 2 Review

Magical Drop is a series of falling block puzzle games originally developed by the now-defunct Data East. It was a popular series in arcades (particularly in Japan), but the series found a newfound popularity when the second and third entries were ported to home consoles. Though the series continues to take long absences between releases as it bounces around from one developer to another, the older titles continue to find their way onto modern gaming hardware. Such is the case with Magical Drop 2’s release on the Nintendo Switch’s Online service, a port of the Super Famicom version of the game. While fans may still be left wondering why Nintendo seems to refuse to add EarthBound and Super Mario RPG to the Switch’s retro lineup, Magical Drop 2 is a surprisingly welcome addition, providing the pure gaming fun that you expect from its genre.

Most falling block-style puzzle games see the blocks fall from the top of the screen to the bottom, with the player trying to prevent the blocks from rising back up to the top. The schtick with Magical Drop, however, is that the game is over as soon as the blocks (or “bubbles”) reach the bottom of the screen. So instead of blocks falling one at a time, the bubbles of Magical Drop slowly descend in rows, with the player trying to eliminate these rows before they reach the bottom of the screen.

How the player does this is pretty unique: the player can grab onto one color of bubble at a time (though they can grab as many of that color as they can), and then throw those bubbles back to the rows above. The player has to line up at least three of the same color bubble vertically in order to eliminate them, but the really cool thing is that if there are other bubbles of the same color coming into contact with what the player pieces together, every connected bubble of that color will be eliminated. So if you play things carefully enough, you can destroy many blocks in different rows with one fell swoop.

It’s a fun setup, and like many games of the genre, the simplicity the gameplay displays on face value hides a whole lot of depth and strategy. Certain modes will also introduce their own gimmicks, such as special bubbles that, should they touch a completed column, will subsequently destroy an entire row, column or surrounding area of bubbles. There are also ice blocks, which are basically neutral bubbles, with all adjacent ice blocks disappearing if a row of bubbles is completed next to them, no matter the color.

The game features several playable characters. They are all charming enough with their cute anime designs. Though one of the game’s more questionable elements is that each character supposedly has their own abilities, but unlike something like Tetris Battle Gaiden, where these abilities are obvious and manually performed by the player, the character abilities in Magical Drop 2 are a lot more vague. From what I understand, the character abilities here revolve around how the rows of bubbles fall, but the action is so fast paced I haven’t the eye to notice the differences between them. And there’s no in-game description of what their abilities do, other than a one-to-five star rating for a character’s strength, and a vague image under their “magic” category. So you’re guess is as good as mine.

Magical Drop 2 features four different modes of play: a single-player mode where the player simply tries to last as long as possible and beat their high score. Then there’s the two player battle mode, of course. There’s also a story mode, where the player selects their character and faces off against the others. Finally, there’s the oddly-named “puzzle” mode, which has the player trying to eliminate screens of all their bubbles in as little moves as possible in order to add more time to a constantly ticking clock. So there’s actually some good variety here, for a game of its time. And given how addictive the gameplay already is, there’s some really good replay value here.

The game features some fun visuals (the characters’ victory and defeat animations are surprisingly fluid), and the music is appropriately upbeat and catchy. Though the game’s audio takes a hit simply because the narrator can get pretty annoying. I’m someone who honestly doesn’t mind Baby Mario’s crying in Yoshi’s Island, and finds the garbled voices of Banjo-Kazooie to be charming, so it’s saying something when a soundbite in a game gets on my nerves. Magical Drop 2’s narrator’s shouts of “No!” whenever something doesn’t go right for either participants (computer player included) is so constant it becomes stressful. The narrator doesn’t even say anything else during a match. It’s not a major issue or anything, but it is a shame that the endless stream of “No!” drowns out the delightful music.

The falling block puzzler is one of gaming’s most purely enjoyable genres: instantly entertaining, addictingly engaging, unhindered by the bells and whistles that gaming has adopted over the years. Magical Drop 2 is another reminder of why the genre is so enduring.

7