The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch) Review

The Legend of Zelda is arguably the most beloved video game series of all time, and few of its entries are as cherished as Link’s Awakening. Though it was the fourth installment in The Legend of Zelda, it was the first to be released on a handheld console. One of the main reasons Link’s Awakening built such a strong reputation for itself was due to it retaining the series’ sense of depth and exploration, despite being released on the original Gameboy in 1993.

Keep in mind this was still a time when a series being translated to a handheld system meant the compromise of its quality (even Mario didn’t quite feel like Mario on the Gameboy). So the fact that Link’s Awakening still very much felt like The Legend of Zelda was a stunning achievement in itself in 1993.

“Bonus points for the hand-drawn, anime cutscenes.”

Link’s Awakening started development as a port of the Super NES classic, A Link to the Past, released one year prior. But somewhere along the line, it became its own beast. Though it couldn’t quite reach the same heights as its SNES predecessor, Link’s Awakening still managed to capture a good deal of its magic, and has certainly held up better than the NES Zelda titles. The title proved so popular that when Nintendo released the GameBoy Color in the late 90s, one of its biggest selling points was a re-release of Link’s Awakening in 1998.

Now, twenty-one years after its GameBoy Color release, Link’s Awakening has been remade from the ground up for the Nintendo Switch, in what is undoubtedly the definitive version of the beloved title.

It’s a match made in heaven, really. Link’s Awakening played a pivotal role in Nintendo’s earlier years in handheld gaming, being one of the few games on the original GameBoy that most would agree felt as big as a home console title. And with the Nintendo Switch being a hybrid of a home console and a handheld, few Nintendo classics would be so fitting for a Switch remake.

2019’s Link’s Awakening is a beautiful recreation of the 1993 GameBoy classic. Taking on a toy aesthetic, this Switch version features character models that resemble Gashapon figures, and environments that look like dioramas. The art direction is oozing with charm, making it baffling how some sections of the Zelda fandom cried foul when the visuals were first revealed (you’d think Zelda fans would have learned their lesson by this point). The art style, combined with the HD sheen of the Nintendo Switch, make Link’s Awakening look right at home in 2019. There are admittedly a few frame rate drops here and there, but nothing too bad.

“Oh no not the bees! AAAAHHHH! They’re in my eyes! They’re in my eyes! AAHHH!”

On the gameplay side of things, Link’s Awakening on Switch features the same timeless gameplay to be expected from 2D Zelda titles post-A Link to the Past. Link is every bit as fun to control as ever. But there are even a few modernized improvements made to Link’s Awakening where needed, the most prominent of which being that Link’s sword, shield and upgrades are permanently equipped once gained. This is something of a godsend, as the limitations of the original GameBoy’s hardware meant players had to constantly be switching out Link’s items and abilities. But with the Switch’s extra buttons, Link is easily able to keep hold of his standard items and abilities, as well as equip two ‘special items’ gained from dungeons at any given time.

Perhaps the only questionable decision with this modernization is that the Roc’s Feather item, which allows Link to jump, isn’t among the permanent abilities, and still has to be equipped like the other special items. This is questionable because, with how fundamentally useful the ability to jump is, you’ll almost always have Roc’s Feather taking up one of your two item slots. The Pegasus Boots – which allow Link to dash at great speed – become automatically linked to a specific button without needing to be equipped. Roc’s Feather probably could have used the same treatment, seeing as I found myself with it equipped for almost my entire playthrough.

“All the monsters say I’m pretty fly, for a Slime Eye!”

Other changes made to the game include more collectibles to give the side quests some extra heft. The total Heart Pieces to be found in the game has increased from the mere twelve found in the original GameBoy version to thirty-two, while the Secret Seashells have gone from twenty-six to a whomping fifty that can be collected. Though simple, searching for the Heart Pieces and Seashells prove to be fun diversions to the main quest.

Perhaps the biggest brand new addition to Link’s Awakening is the inclusion of a dungeon editor. Before you get too excited, it has to be said that the dungeon editor is incredibly limited.

“Most of your edited dungeons follow a preset layout, but eventually you can unlock the ability to piece them together with more freedom.”

By visiting Dampé, players can edit their own dungeons by utilizing chambers collected from the dungeons the player has completed throughout the game (the main quest retains its eight dungeons, and the optional “Color Dungeon” from the GameBoy Color release makes a return). On the plus side, putting a dungeon together from pre-existing rooms and making it all make sense has a fun puzzle element to it. On the downside, the player doesn’t have the ability to edit anything about the chambers themselves. The player can’t place doors, decide what enemies to litter about or what walls can be destroyed with bombs, or even choose what rewards await in treasure chests (if your dungeon ends up having a certain number of locked doors, the chests will at first provide the number of keys required to unlock them all, then have a random amount of Rupees, with the final chest opened always containing the boss key).

Again, the dungeon editor can be fun in its own right, but don’t get your hopes up that it’s the Zelda equivalent of Super Mario Maker (though here’s hoping its presence is something of a test run for just that).

“Dude, I forgot this game had a walrus in it! 10/10.”

Aside from being a standout game on a handheld platform in the early 90s, another reason Link’s Awakening holds such a fond place for many is that it’s quite possibly the weirdest Zelda title. Taking inspiration from Twin Peaks, Link’s Awakening sees Link stranded on Koholint Island, where he must collect the eight Instruments of the Sirens in order to awaken “The Wind Fish” (who is actually a whale) – the island’s deity – who is in a deep slumber inside of an egg on top of a mountain (as whales do), if he ever wants to escape the island.

Not only is the story delightfully weird (and being one of the earliest games in the series, it’s also refreshingly absent of that convoluted “Zelda timeline” nonsense), but Link’s Awakening is also a ‘weird’ entry in that it features many elements from the Super Mario series (as well as a Kirby cameo).

“He does exist!”

While Mario and Zelda have always referenced each other – seeing as they’re the two series most strongly associated with the Nintendo name, and both originally spawned from Shigeru Miyamoto’s mind – Link’s Awakening took things to another level by directly featuring enemies and characters from the Mushroom Kingdom and a profuse amount of side-scrolling sections that pay homage to Mario’s early adventures. Many fans were worried that – much like the Superstar Saga remake on 3DS was absent of a certain cameo found in its original GameBoy Advance version – that the Mario elements would be removed or downplayed in this Switch remake. Thankfully, not only are the Mario cameos and references in full force (complete with the first 3D appearance of Super Mario Bros. 2’s Wart), but Nintendo even doubled down on them with a new side quest focused on collecting Mario figurines. There’s just something about the Mario series that makes the presence of its characters add a little more fun to any game. 

Although the writing may not necessarily be anything to write home about, the Twin Peaks influence definitely shines through in some wacky dialogue and the overall strangeness of the adventure, an influence which I like to think has carried over to subsequent entries in the Zelda series, given its often bizarre characters. That weirdness started here, and perhaps (sadly) hasn’t been outdone by subsequent Zeldas.

“Hi there! Face here! Bur bur BUR!”

Now I have to make a confession, I was never the biggest fan of Link’s Awakening back in the day. It was certainly a considerable improvement over the NES Zelda games, and I loved that aforementioned weirdness of it all, but for one reason or another, it never quite clicked with me in the same way A Link to the Past and some later Zeldas did.

That’s all changed with this Switch remake, which has won me over to Link’s Awakening so strongly, that I would probably now rank it among my favorite Zelda games. The adventure is long and deep enough to feel rewarding, but short enough as to not overstay its welcome. To think that this game was originally a GameBoy title is somewhat baffling. Sure, it’s still on the “smaller” side of the Zelda series, but it was so big back in its own day that Link’s Awakening still feels like a meaty addition to any Switch library.

I’m not sure whether this remake has simply opened my eyes to Link’s Awakening’s full merits, or if its changes and additions have made the game that much better (again, that art style!). Maybe a bit of both.

Whatever the case, Link’s Awakening  on Switch is an ideal video game remake and, quite fittingly, something of a dream come true.

 

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Wario Land: Shake It! Review

Wario Land originally began life as a spinoff of Super Mario Land in 1994, but Nintendo would later re-invented the series with its second entry four years later in 1998. This Wario resurgence lasted for the next few years, culminating with Wario Land 4 on the GameBoy Advance in 2001. After that, the Wario Land series went on hiatus, and with the WarioWare franchise coming into prominence soon thereafter, it seemed like Wario Land was a thing of the past. But after seven years, Wario Land finally made a comeback – and on a home console for the very first time – in the form of Wario Land: Shake It! on the Wii. While Wario Land: Shake It! may seem like a more straightforward platformer than some of its predecessors, it hides a surprising level of depth for completionists, and hand-drawn visuals that make it all too easy to get sucked into.

Wario Land: Shake It! was developed by Good-Feel, the same studio who would later make Kirby’s Epic Yarn as well as Yoshi’s Woolly World and its sequel. But this was Good-Feel’s first instance of tackling a popular Nintendo franchise and giving it a unique visual overhaul. Naturally, you wouldn’t expect Wario to be as cute or charming as Kirby or Yoshi, but that doesn’t mean Wario Land: Shake It! is any less visually captivating than its more well-known Kirby and Yoshi counterparts.

Instead of being made of yarn or crafts, Wario’s adventure from Good-Feel uses entirely hand-drawn character sprites, courtesy of acclaimed anime studio Production I.G. And the results are quite stunning. Wario would probably be one of the last video game characters you’d think of when you think ‘anime,’ and yet, Wario Land: Shake It! is one of the best examples of an interactive anime. Wario’s every action is surprisingly detailed, and the enemies – though more simplistic than Wario – still boast fluid animation. It’s simply a great game to look at, an element that would become a hallmark of Good-Feel’s titles.

The story is, of course, simple stuff. A princess from the “Shake Dimension” has been kidnapped by the Shake King, and her loyal followers, the Mertles – weird bird creatures that remind me of the Flickies from Sonic 3D Blast -have been imprisoned. The Shake Dimension needs a savior…but they end up finding Wario instead. Wario is at first disinterested in saving the day, until an escaped Mertle informs Wario that he can keep the many treasures he comes across in the Shake Dimension, including the kingdom’s most priceless treasure, a bottomless coin sack that will generate money whenever shaken. Naturally, this gets Wario off his lazy butt to set out and be a “hero.”

In terms of gameplay, Wario Land: Shake It! at first appears to be a pretty straightforward platformer, but with a twist: after you make it to the end of a stage (a caged Mertle that can be freed by shaking said cage), Wario must race back to the start of the stage before time runs out, lest he lose his accumulated treasures.

Like in Wario Land 4, our mustachioed, garlic-obsessed anti-hero is no longer invincible as he was in Wario Lands 2 and 3. Though with that said, you’ll still likely rarely lose a life (during my play through for this review, I only ever actually died during the final boss). So the game may be easy from that perspective, but as Good-Feel would later implement in their future titles, the real challenge of Wario Land: Shake It! comes in the form of total completion. Each stage houses three unique treasures to be uncovered, as well as a series of challenges (which basically work like Xbox achievements or Playstation trophies), from three to five depending on the stage, that need to be completed in order to unlock that stage’s soundtrack, which is necessary for those seeking 100% completion. Some stages will even have some challenges that contradict each other, meaning you’ll have to repeat those stages in order to check off every challenge. Additionally, the game features a few hidden stages, unlocked upon finding hidden maps within the normal levels.

The downside to Wario no longer being invincible (aside from the obvious) is that the transformations of Wario Lands past have been greatly reduced. In Wario Lands 2 and 3, Wario’s invincibility was part of an elaborate joke, in which getting hurt by enemies gave Wario different “transformations” as opposed to taking damage. In Shake It!, only Wario’s fire and snow forms return (that is to say, Wario can catch fire or get trapped in a snowball to his advantage), but otherwise, Wario’s gameplay is more traditional than in some of his past ventures.

The irony in this scenario is that Good-Feel would later incorporate character invincibility in Kirby’s Epic Yarn. So Good-Feel’s entry in the Wario series is lacking one of its past trademarks, but the studio incorporated it into their Kirby installment two years later.

Still, Wario remains a fun character to control. He’s still his brutish self, so he can charge, throw and butt-stomp enemies into oblivion. And in the game’s signature addition to Wario’s repertoire is that he can now shake enemies and objects he’s holding (done by shaking the Wii remote). Enemies will often drop health-replenishing garlic, but some of them, as well as plenty of objects, will dish out coins by the dozens.

Unfortunately, despite the bountiful amounts of cash-money Wario is bound to come across, there’s only so many uses for it in Wario Land: Shake It! The gold can be seen as the equivalent to points, with players trying to best their “high score” with return visits to stages. But since Wario’s collected gold actually has practical use, it really stands out how few uses there are for it. After a world is completed, Wario can purchase access to the next world – as well as an additional hit point – from his former rival, Captain Syrup. If Good-Feel were going to include things to spend Wario’s stolen hard-earned loot on, you can’t help but feel there could have been better things to spend them on. It would have made more sense if the secret levels had to be purchased, and if there were additional abilities to unlock, instead of spending Wario’s gold on things that just feel like the natural progress of the game.

Players seeking a tougher challenge will probably skip buying the extra hearts anyway, and the fact that Wario has to purchase the next world in line instead of simply progressing to it just feels like a forced reason to have Wario spend his gold. At that point, Wario’s treasure may as well just be for a high score.

Still, while Wario’s abilities may have been trimmed down, and he may as well be holding his gold, I do ultimately feel that Wario Land: Shake It! has aged better than its predecessors. Its level design (and the optional challenges therein) get progressively more difficult and clever as the game goes on. And with the aforementioned mechanic of racing back to the start of the levels after rescuing its Mertle, Good-Feel finds various ways to incorporate unique puzzle elements into the stages (oftentimes the player will have to pay close attention to how Wario interacts with the environment on the way to a level’s ‘end,’ so that he has a quicker path back to the starting point). In regard to this level design, Wario Land: Shake It! remains a creative platformer over a decade later. And its striking, hand-drawn imagery still stands out. Shake It! may not last long for those simply rushing through the levels, but because of the depth of the game’s exploration due to its collectibles and objectives, it should have completionists salivating.

Sadly, after Shake It!, Wario Land entered its longest hiatus to date, which continues to this day. Maybe one day, Wario will find a convenient enough time for himself to go on another adventure. But at least Wario Land’s last ride (so far) was one that still holds up today, and still looks as stunning as ever.

 

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WarioWare Touched Review

*Review based on WarioWare Touched’s release on the Wii U Virtual Console*

WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgames was one of Nintendo’s unsung classics of the 2000s. WarioWare stripped the very nature of video games down to their bare minimum, leaving its many microgames as a platform for Nintendo to test out myriads of gameplay ideas. The concept of WarioWare was perhaps more fruitful than Nintendo initially realized, with the series’ formula allowing them to push the innovations of their hardware.

2005 saw two such WarioWare sequels. One of them, released on the GameBoy Advance (home of the original title in the series), was WarioWare Twisted, which had a built-in “gyro-sensor” that allowed for motion controls. The other was WarioWare Touched on the Nintendo DS, which utilized the handheld’s touchscreen and microphone features.

Admittedly, Twisted has aged far more gracefully, with its gameplay features still feeling unique today. That’s not to say that Touched has aged poorly, but because its (pardon the pun) ‘twist’ was that it utilized features that were standard on the DS, it’s kind of lost some of its individuality over time. The later WarioWare Smooth Moves on the Wii would similarly use its platform’s capabilities, but I feel that Smooth Moves managed to do so with considerably more creativity. Smooth Moves brought out the best it could from the Wii’s features, whereas Touched feels more like it’s falling in line with its platform’s standard.

Again, that’s not to say that WarioWare Touched is a bad game by any means. It is WarioWare, after all. And if it doesn’t leave you with some kind of goofy grin on your face at one point or another, you may be dead inside. The issue is simply that Touched is the one entry in the WarioWare series that no longer stands out.

The basics of the series remain intact in WarioWare Touched: Players face gauntlets of seconds-long microgames, with each character in the game boasting their own such series of games. You only get four chances to slip-up before a game over, and the microgames pick up in speed after you have conquered a number of them (the tougher gauntlets naturally increase speed much sooner than the earlier challenges).

The difference here, of course, is that along with button presses, the microgames of Touched are mostly played with the touchscreen controls of the Nintendo DS (or Wii U Gamepad, if you’re playing the Virtual Console release), and some of the latter microgames even utilize the mic on the system for some delightful gameplay quirks.

WarioWare Touched can be a lot of fun at times, with the simplicity of the series’ gameplay being complimented by the DS’s hardware features. Whether you’re swiping, tapping, spinning, or tracing, Touched is a fun example of how the WarioWare series can be used to showcase gameplay ideas and utilize hardware.

On the downside, simply being WarioWare on the DS no longer really stands out for the series. Subsequent WarioWare titles have been released on the DS and 3DS, which boasted additional gameplay innovations on top of the DS’s touchscreen features. WarioWare D.I.Y allowed players to create their own microgames, and WarioWare Gold features most of Touched’s microgames, in addition to those from Mega Microgames and Twisted, plus a number of games of its own. So being the “DS WarioWare” no longer works in Touched’s favor, and hasn’t for quite some time now.

WarioWare is almost always going to a fun experience (Wii U’s Game & Wario being the exception), and the simplicity of the DS’s features has its charms. But it would be hard to recommend WarioWare Touched over a number of its sequels. There’s still good fun to be had with WarioWare Touched, but it’s short-lived, especially when you consider the great replay value the series is capable of.

 

6

Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman Review

Despite having originally been released in 1983, Bomberman is a timeless game, comparable to Tetris or Super Mario Bros. in this regard. Like Tetris, Bomberman is the kind of game that’s held up well enough that it could be ported to any modern console or device and be justified in doing so. And like Super Mario, it has produced numerous sequels in the decades since its original release.

But Bomberman sits somewhere between Tetris and Mario. Tetris is still released on every available platform to this day, and Super Mario Bros. – though holding up well on its own merits – has been bettered multiple times over by its sequels. Bomberman, meanwhile, has seen many iterations through the years, and while some of them have added a lot to the formula (Saturn Bomberman being a particular highlight), many of its sequels are so close to the original that they can feel more like ports.

That brings us to Bomberman GB. As its name implies, Bomberman GB was to be the Gameboy edition of the series. Released in 1994, Bomberman GB successfully brought the classic Bomberman gameplay to the handheld. But for the game’s release outside of Japan, Bomberman GB was given a slight makeover. Hudson Soft (Bomberman’s now-defunct original developer) and Nintendo decided to add one of the latter’s characters into the game, and chose to use Wario, the comically villainous “anti-Mario” who had debuted two years earlier in Super Mario Land 2 and quickly became one of Nintendo’s most iconic characters.

The end result was Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman, a game which successfully translates the Bomberman gameplay to Nintendo’s Gameboy handheld, but doesn’t do too much more than that. Though Wario Blast is fun, it’s far from the best Bomberman game, and the fact that Wario’s presence in the title is simply cosmetic means his addition – while welcome – isn’t exactly meaningful.

Like any traditional Bomberman game, the goal is to eliminate all of your opponents on the battlefield. Your weapons are (quite obviously) bombs, which you use to destroy obstacles in your path, and ultimately try to blow up your opponents. The bombs explode in lines that travel in four directions, and you are susceptible to your own bomb blasts, meaning you’ll often have to take cover behind walls to avoid destruction by your own hand, as well as your enemies’.

Some of the usual Bomberman power-ups also return, and can be found after destroying certain obstacles. The bomb power-up allows you to plant an additional bomb on the field (one extra bomb for every power-up gained), while the fire power-up increases the range of your bombs’ explosions (making it easier to destroy your foes…and yourself). There is also a skull power-up, which is something of a double-edged sword. At first, the skull power-up seems purely bad, as it temporarily removes your ability to plant bombs (as well as the character skills you learn as the game progresses). But on the plus side, if you’re crafty enough, touching an opponent while under the effects of the skull will remove their ability to plant bombs as well. And if you infect an enemy with the skull, its negative effects will wear out on you before them, making for an easier target.

In a nutshell, it’s Bomberman, but on the Gameboy. On the plus side, Bomberman is one of the few games that could be translated onto the original Gameboy and not feel like it’s sacrificing the series’ quality for the sake of portability. On the downside, it’s Bomberman… but on Gameboy. That’s all well and fine, except unlike Tetris, this isn’t supposed to be a port, but is instead one of Bomberman’s less creative sequels.

There are some changes, with the most prominent (aside from Wario’s mug being added to the game) being that the rest of Bomberman’s usual items (such as the ability to kick your bombs forward) are now instead permanent abilities that are learned after defeating bosses.

There are eight worlds in the game, each comprised of four stages (again, bringing Super Mario Bros. to mind). The first three stages of each world are the traditional Bomberman battles (the first against a single opponent, the second against two, and the third against three), which are played in best two-out-of-three rules. The fourth stage of each world is the boss stage.

“Of course I’m going to pick Wario in WARIO Blast.”

Though the game allows you to play as both Bomberman and Wario, the change really is purely cosmetic. The only difference is Bomberman’s non-boss enemies are Wario clones, and Wario’s are Bombermen (additionally, the passwords for each stage differ between the two characters). And considering these are Gameboy sprites we’re talking about, the cosmetic change only goes so far (though in all honesty, just play as Wario. You can play as Bomberman in any Bomberman game, so you may as well play Wario and benefit from the crossover aspect).

Though the game is short (it probably won’t take much longer than an hour), the fact that each world introduces new stage gimmicks means there’s some fun variety throughout. And I enjoy the two-out-of-three nature of the stages. Though even with these benefits, Wario Blast does feature some unfortunate shortcomings.

One of the big issues is that – with the abilities gained from the first few bosses – the player quickly becomes overpowered. I can accept the usual power-ups from the series are made into learned abilities (though there’s also an argument to be made that aspect in itself takes something away from the experience), but one ability which sees the player learn how to dash an enemy against a wall to stun them makes the proceedings way too easy. The early stages will see the AI try to outmaneuver you (to varying degrees of success). But in later stages, you can just pick up bomb and fire power-ups as you go, and once you run into an enemy, just dash them into a wall and plant a single bomb for an easy win.

Another problem is that there’s an awkward few seconds after your opponents have been defeated where you can still potentially die before the victory screen is displayed. You’d be surprised how often you’ll end with a draw and add another round to the best two-out-of-three because of it.

While Wario Blast may have a number of elements holding it back, I have to reiterate that the classic Bomberman gameplay will always be fun. And sure enough, Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman is a rare example of a Gameboy title that’s still fun to play today. But Wario Blast does suffer from being one of the more basic Bomberman sequels, offering little to the experience that you couldn’t find in every other Bomberman title.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of Wario Blast, however, is the simple fact that Wario’s inclusion in the game was merely shoehorned into the game’s international release. Perhaps if Wario Blast lead to some follow-ups of its own that integrated Wario’s presence into the proceedings in more meaningful ways relating to gameplay or level design, it would be easier to look past Wario Blast’s underutilization of its namesake character. But because this was the beginning, middle and end of Wario butting heads with a third-party character, it’s more than a little disappointing that the game never had a real chance at fully delivering on its concept.

Think about it, what better video game character is there to go toe-to-toe with various gaming heroes than Wario? Super Mario is the face of gaming, so it only makes sense that the “anti-Mario” would try to sabotage other people’s games and try to slap his face on them. Hudson Soft and Nintendo could have been onto something here with Wario Blast. Sadly, instead of seeing Wario face off with Bomberman again, or try to hijack Mega Man, Castlevania, or any other series, it all ended just as soon as it began. By the time Bomberman GB 2 made its way westward, Wario was nowhere in sight…

But hey, Wario Blast is still fun. And that definitely counts for something.

 

6

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review

Before Mario entered the Mushroom Kingdom, met Princess Peach and found an archnemesis in Bowser, there was Donkey Kong. Before Luigi was introduced to the world, before Mario was even named Mario, there was Donkey Kong. Mario and Donkey Kong were gaming’s first legendary rivalry, the dynamic in which all of Nintendo was built on.

But it was not to last. Though they were enemies in the early 80s, as Mario joined up with his brother and began having adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, Donkey Kong was phased out. It wasn’t until 1994 that Donkey Kong saw a complete reinvention, turning a new leaf and becoming the hero of his own adventures starting with Donkey Kong Country (of course, this is actually a different Donkey Kong, so I guess the name is like a title that gets passed down or something). However, earlier in that very same year, the Nintendo Gameboy saw a supposed re-release of the original 1981 Donkey Kong arcade game. But after besting the original four levels from the arcade classic, this version of Donkey Kong (unofficially dubbed “Donkey Kong Gameboy” or “Donkey Kong ’94” by fans) unraveled into a brand new adventure, with nearly a hundred new levels all modeled after the single screen platforming of the classic game, with additional puzzle elements added into the mix.

With Donkey Kong Country becoming a big hit, that served as the foundation of the Donkey Kong series from that point onward (something I very much appreciate, being a DKC fan myself). The downside to this was that Mario and DK’s rivalry was once again put on hold. That is until 2004, when Nintendo released Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on the Gameboy Advance, which was created as a kind of spiritual successor to the original Gameboy’s cult classic.

Mario Vs. Donkey adopts much of the same style as the 1994 Gameboy title, with stages that are comprised of two, single-screen segments (some of the later stages are only slightly larger). Each of these screens serves as a platforming puzzle. In the first screen of a level, Mario must find a key and take it to the door to the second screen, in which the goal is to grab a “Mini-Mario Toy” that’s incased in a glass bubble. And for completionists, each stage also houses three presents (one or two on a screen) that will require extra thinking and acrobatics to collect.

The first six stages of every world work this way, with the seventh stage of a world seeing Mario guide the six collected Mini-Mario Toys to their toy box – which will only open if the Mini-Marios collect the T-O-Y letters scattered about – avoiding dangerous obstacles along the way. The eighth and final stage of each world is a boss fight against Donkey Kong. For most of the stages, a single hit from an enemy or obstacle will do Mario in. During the boss stages, however, Mario’s hit points will be determined by the number of Mini-Mario Toys the player managed to guide to the toy box on the previous stage (for an obvious maximum of six hit points).

It’s a really simple setup, but it works thanks to some fun puzzle design and Mario’s acrobatics. Not only does Mario partake in his usual jumping here, but he can also do handstands, backflips and swing on bars like a gymnast. The levels feature puzzles built around mechanics like red/yellow/blue switches that coincide with similarly colored platforms, timed electrical barriers, and other such trinkets and traps that will test the player’s reflexes and skill.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong is a fun game, but it has admittedly aged a bit. The structure of the game eventually becomes repetitious, and you may find yourself wishing the game would deviate from itself after a while (does every world need the same amount of levels here?). Additionally, the aforementioned Mini-Mario stages can become a bit tedious, and even some of the worlds can overstay their welcome when they lean too heavily on a specific gameplay gimmick (the best Mario games are acclaimed for never letting any idea linger longer than they need. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong didn’t get the memo, I suppose).

I just think there needed to be more variety within the stages and puzzles. When you think of how massively the 1994 Gameboy Donkey Kong expanded the original arcade game, it feels a tad underwhelming that the Gameboy Advance successor released a decade later doesn’t really feel like it adds to the formula all that much. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still provides a fun time in the same vein as the arcade original and the Gameboy remake, but you know the GBA could’ve done more with the gameplay.

The aesthetics might also be a mixed bag for some. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong utilizes pre-rendered character sprites (a nod to DKC’s influence to the Donkey Kong series), which admittedly look unique for the system, and Mario’s animations are surprisingly fluid. The music and sound, on the other hand, might quickly wear on you. The music isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable (which seems like a sin for a Mario game, doesn’t it?), and the sound effects are mostly recycled sound clips from previous games (Super Mario 64 for Mario, Donkey Kong 64 for DK, and Super Mario Sunshine for Toads). And while the Mini-Marios’ cry for “Mario” may be cute the first time one of them gets lost, it may start to get on your nerves when you start constantly hearing it as they stop following Mario due to the tiniest obstruction in their path.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong remains a fun game in its own right, but one that you can’t help but feel could have been better. It lacks the variety and challenge that could have made it more engrossing (though again, completionists will have a bit of a challenge trying to claim high scores and unlock the secret ‘Expert’ stages). And sadly, this is the current end-of-the-line for Mario and DK’s age-old rivalry. Sure, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong spawned its own sub-series (some of which included level editors, a feature that was originally planned for this title and really would have benefitted the finish product), but each sequel put more focus on the Mini-Marios and gameplay associated with them, and less on its titular rivalry (one entry even replaced the “Vs.” in the title with “and,” which really hit home the change to the series). So as far as the gameplay produced by the original Donkey Kong goes, it has now been on its longest hiatus (if you can believe it), with the original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still being its most recent offering.

That’s a real shame. Even though Mario Vs. Donkey Kong has unraveled a bit with age, it still shows that the formula originally conceived in 1981 still has something to give.

 

6

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge Review

I love Banjo-Kazooie. I love the Gameboy Advance. This makes it so disheartening that Banjo-Kazooie’s oft-forgotten GBA spinoff – Grunty’s Revenge – is forgotten for a reason. Despite a surprisingly accurate translation of the gameplay from Banjo-Kazooie’s N64 duology at first glance, Grunty’s Revenge boasts none of the depth of its predecessors, and ranks as the worst game the bear and bird duo have starred in (yes, even Nuts & Bolts had more going for it).

Strangely, Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge was the first game released by developer Rare after they had been purchased by Microsoft. The game had gone through a few different development phases over a couple of years, and by the time Rare became Microsoft’s property, Grunty’s Revenge was too far in production to scrap entirely. Thankfully for Rare, Microsoft’s lack of a handheld gaming platform meant they could still legally release the game on Nintendo’s handheld, but required a middleman publisher since neither Microsoft nor Nintendo could do the honors (which seem so silly in retrospect, now that we live in a time when Xbox Live can be played on Nintendo Switch). THQ ended up being that publisher, and Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge saw release in 2003, to little advertisements and fanfare.

To bring in a bit of personal history, I didn’t even know about the existence of the game ahead of its release. I just opened one of my birthday gifts that year, and lo and behold, Banjo and Kazooie were in a Gameboy Advance game…apparently. I was excited, to be sure. But it didn’t take very long into the game to realize that Grunty’s Revenge was something of a step backwards for handheld gaming, harkening back to the times of the original Gameboy when the transition of a franchise to a handheld usually meant the compromise of its quality. Consider how well so many of the Gameboy Advance’s titles have held up over the years, and Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge’s flaws are only magnified with hindsight (Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was released the very same year on the GBA, but you’d never know it from the difference in quality between the games).

When you first start the game, it looks promising. Even though the GBA didn’t have the power to recreate a full-on 3D platformer in the vein of the N64 Banjo-Kazooie titles, Grunty’s Revenge still does a solid job at finding a way to translate the series’ gameplay to the handheld. Grunty’s Revenge takes on an overhead camera view, and uses pre-rendered character models (a la Donkey Kong Country), which faithfully recreate the characters and enemies from the N64 games. And despite the GBA’s relatively few buttons (A and B on the face of the system, plus two shoulder buttons), Grunty’s Revenge even does a pretty good job at making Banjo and Kazooie’s moves feel reminiscent of their classic N64 outings. Even the iconic gibberish voices return!

But those similarities are short-lived, unfortunately.

The game begins with a rather rushed story. Sure, the Banjo-Kazooie games were never a story-focused series, but they had humorous writing, charming characters, and strong production values for the time. But here, the story just kind of happens on itself, and the game never really capitalizes on its concept.

Taking place between Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, Grunty’s Revenge sees the titular witch Gruntilda – still trapped under a boulder after the events of Banjo-Kazooie – transfer her ghost into a robot body made by her henchman, Klungo. She then kidnaps Kazooie, and travels back in time (whether by her magic or the new robot body is anybody’s guess), in an attempt to stop Banjo and Kazooie from ever meeting, thus ensuring they would have never defeated her in the first place. Thankfully for Banjo, the witch doctor Mumbo Jumbo had witnessed the whole thing, and uses his magic to send Banjo to the same, vaguely-implied time period as Gruntilda.

Like the Banjo-Kazooie games proper, the goal is still to collect Jiggies (10 on each stage) and Musical Notes, the latter of which are used to purchase moves from Bozzeye, a mole who is an ancestor of both Bottles and Jamjars, who played a similar role in Banjos Kazooie and Tooie (respectively).

Aside from the presence of Bottles’ nondescript ancestor, there’s really nothing in the game that takes advantage of the time travel plot. The stages (of which there are five, along with the hub of Spiral Mountain) all follow standard themes and environments for the genre and series (farmland, beach, swamp, harbor and a fire/ice hybrid). In Banjo-Tooie, we got a dinosaur world, and that game didn’t even feature time travel. And that same game featured an infinitely better fire/ice hybrid world. What about the worlds of Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge so much as implies the game takes place in the characters’ past?

Wouldn’t it have been neat if the stages were direct adaptations of those from the N64 games, but with twists that showcase how they take place before the events of those games? For example, maybe you could visit Mumbo’s Mountain from Banjo-Kazooie, and the giant termite mound from that game is still under construction. Or maybe you could revisit Rusty Bucket Bay at a time before it became overwhelmed with pollution? Grunty’s Revenge is already re-using level themes from the previous games, anyway. Why not make it literal and find a way to capitalize on the time travel setup of the story?

As stated, the game actually does a decent job at bringing the series’ gameplay to the GBA, but the more you play Grunty’s Revenge, the more you realize how stripped down it is. Sure, the translation to a handheld system back in 2003 was going to come with a few expenses. But this sadly isn’t a simple case of a simplified Banjo-Kazooie on the go (that might have actually been pretty sweet). As stated, Grunty’s Revenge harkens back to the days of the original Gameboy, when a popular franchise making its way to a handheld device meant it’s quality was going to suffer.

“Also the boss fights suck, largely due to their lack of creativity and challenge, and their sheer repetition.”

The levels are just too empty, and the objectives too mind-numbingly simplistic. The N64 Banjo-Kazooie games did a great job at making the experience feel like an adventure, but Grunty’s Revenge just feels like it’s going through the motions with no rhyme or reason.

Even the moves Banjo and Kazooie learn from Bozzeye are just ones they already learned in the previous games. The only real difference is how you start the game with Banjo on his lonesome. But even that feels underplayed. Wouldn’t it have made for a more unique game if the player had to continuously switch between playing as Banjo and Kazooie? If you’re going to separate the two characters (and not manually, as in Banjo-Tooie), might as well roll with it and take advantage of the concept.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but there is actually one thing that Grunty’s Revenge does better than its otherwise far superior N64 predecessors. And that’s how, this time around, the different transformations provided by Mumbo Jumbo carry over to subsequent levels once unlocked. This means that the transformations actually have more uses here, since you’ll have to revisit Mumbo’s hut in a particular stage to utilize a different transformation in order to nab a Jiggy or two. Though it must be said that even this element suffers from a lack of communication to the player, as one stage features a Jiggy that needs a later transformation to obtain, with the game never even hinting that to be the case (going back to my personal history with the game, I gave up on it for a time back when I was younger because of this segment, in which I had no earthly idea what I was supposed to do). The  real Banjo-Kazooie games could get a little cheeky and have a character (or google-eyed object) tell you when something was meant to be revisited at a later time. While that may be a bit overt, it’s certainly a better option than leaving the player entirely clueless. And while in concept, the idea of Mumbo changing you into any available form on a given level is an improvement for the transformation concept, it still never reaches its full potential for the aforementioned reason that the objectives themselves feel so uninspired.

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge isn’t a total waste. As previously stated, the visuals find a way to bring the look of the N64 games onto the GBA with surprising accuracy. Similarly, the music captures the familiar charm of the real Banjo games. And the initial feeling of the controls is how you would imagine Banjo-Kazooie should play on the handheld system. But Grunty’s Revenge ultimately stumbles because of how far it misses the target on any of its concepts.

That initial feeling of “this is how Banjo-Kazooie should play on a handheld” quickly fades away as you realize that accuracy only exists on face value. It soon becomes apparent that Grunty’s Revenge fails to realize what made the Banjo-Kazooie games so memorable to begin with, and just coughs up a cheap imitation of what a Banjo-Kazooie game should be. The setups of time travel and separating the heroes don’t come into play in either the story or the game itself in any meaningful way.

Grunty’s Revenge is only kind of Banjo-Kazooie. Just enough to pique the curiosity of my younger self back on my 14th birthday, but not nearly enough for it to live up to the bear and bird duo who adorn its title. It’s not even in the same ballpark.

 

4

WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgames Review

The Game Boy Advance should rightfully rank as one of Nintendo’s greatest systems. While the original Game Boy’s influence can’t be understated, and the Nintendo DS helped push Nintendo’s innovation forward, it’s the Game Boy Advance which boasts a timeless appeal that makes it akin to the handheld equivalent of the SNES. The GBA’s library of games brought a newfound quality to handheld gaming, and many of its titles have stood the test of time swimmingly. Among the Game Boy Advance’s many accomplishments was that it introduced the world to the WarioWare series.

Released in 2003, Mega Microgames kicked off the WarioWare series. By throwing players into one series of seconds-long “microgames” after another, each of which only required a press of the A button or two, or a few touches of the D-pad to complete. As a series of microgames continues, they pick up in speed, testing the player’s reflexes.

In essence, WarioWare has always been a deconstruction of video games themselves, stripping away all of their complexities until only the bare minimum of what a video game is remains. It’s simplistic to the point of hilarity (an element that’s magnified by the often silly concepts and goofy graphics of the microgames themselves). WarioWare is a genius subversion of video games, presented in the most manic package possible.

The only real downside to Mega Microgames is – as the first game in the series – it shows its limitations when compared to its sequels (most specifically it’s GBA follow-up, WarioWare Twisted and WarioWare Gold on the 3DS). Mega Microgames – somewhat ironically – falls short of its successors by being the bare basics of the series, even if that “bare basics” element is the appeal of the series as a whole.

Simply put, Mega Microgames is WarioWare in its purest form, for better and (relatively) worse. You play through “chapters” of the game, each distinguished by a different character (with Wario serving as the opening and closing chapters, with the rest represented by the WarioWare cast first introduced here, like Mona, 9-Volt and Jimmy T.). Later entries in the series would better define each character’s chapters with specific themes (whether through twists to the gameplay or unique aesthetics), but here, the gimmicks of each character are a bit less defined.

9-Volt, for example, may have always been a Nintendo fanboy, but here, not all of his microgames use retro Nintendo games as their template. Meanwhile, the games that do use Nintendo’s past as a backdrop quickly begin appearing as other characters’ games as well. In fact, you’ll notice the same microgames getting recycled a lot sooner here than you would in later WarioWare entries, leaving you to wonder why there needed to be as many different character chapters as there are.

Playing through the story mode (if it can even be called that), probably won’t last over an hour. Thankfully, after you conquer a chapter, you can play through its games at your own leisure to go for a high score. Additionally, besting certain chapters will even unlock brand new games outside of those in the main game. So even if you can run through Mega Microgames, it still provides a decent amount of addicting gameplay nonetheless.

WarioWare Inc. Mega Microgames remains a lot of fun even today. The only thing preventing it from being more strongly recommended is that it (understandably) feels like an unpolished diamond in hindsight. Later entries would bring so much out of WarioWare’s brilliant concept of rapid-fire gauntlets of mindlessly simple games – both in terms of the number of microgames and variety in their gameplay – that Mega Microgames feels prototypical by comparison.

Mega Microgames kickstarted one of Nintendo’s most quietly beloved franchises, and gave the Wario character newfound life and purpose. Its successors may have added to the formula, but the original WarioWare still provides a good amount of fun.

 

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