Category Archives: Classic Gaming

Contra III: The Alien Wars Review

*Review based on Contra III: The Alien Wars’ release as part of the SNES Classic Edition*

Contra was one of the pioneers of the run-and-gun genre, made famous by its hectic action, steep challenge, and for popularizing the Konami Code. On the NES, Contra became one of the premiere third-party franchises for the console. It made perfect sense then, that Contra would make the jump to the Super NES, like so many other NES franchises did. But while the likes of Mario, Zelda and Mega Man found new life on Nintendo’s 16-bit machine, Contra’s leap to the SNES felt more like a continuation of the NES games, as opposed to their evolution. There’s still fun to be had with Contra III, though playing it today, it seems less impressive than many of its SNES peers.

The setup remains the same, with one or two players taking control of musclebound heroes who are armed with machine guns of unlimited ammo. You run, jump and shoot your way through stages, fight waves of enemies, and take on massive bosses.

It’s standard run-and-gun action, but there are some fun twists added to the mix. Notably, you can carry two different weapons at once. Picking up power-ups gives you new weapons – such as powerful lasers or the impossibly useful homing missiles – and you can carry two power-ups at a time by picking them up when a different weapon slot is selected. But should you die (and you will), you will lose whichever power-up you had in the selected slot when you died.

This makes it rather difficult to hold onto weapons, because Contra III is no slouch in the difficulty department, with a single enemy attack costing you a life. With how often the screen fills up with enemies, it can be hard to master your way around them to survive. And that famous Konami Code doesn’t work here, so there’s no easy access to extra lives. You have to tough it out the old fashion way.

On the bright side, you can find extra lives by defeating certain enemies or destroying certain objects, and you have a few continues to hold onto. On the downside, many enemy projectiles are incredibly small and hard to make out, so you’ll often get killed by an enemy shot that you didn’t even notice because of everything else that’s going on. Worse still, if you run out of continues, it’s back to the beginning of the game.

Admittedly, no matter how often you have to start over, you aren’t going all that far back, because Contra III only boasts a grand total of six stages. This means that Contra III is an incredibly short game, even for its day. While the SNES saw many franchises grow bigger when they made the jump to 16-bits, Contra III feels more like an NES game with a visual overhaul.

Back to the bright side of things, that visual overhaul comes with some benefits, the best of which being the second and fifth levels, which ditch the sidescrolling action in favor of a top-down perspective. Taking advantage of the SNES’ scaling and rotation capabilities, players can spin their character 360 degrees by the presses of the shoulder buttons. These stages make for a nice change of pace, and add a little variety to the equation.

Contra III: The Alien Wars remains a fun and exciting run-and-gun title, and provides a truly testing challenge, especially for two players. But it also feels a tad shallow, and maybe even a little outdated, due to its exceptionally short length. Though many still regard Contra III: The Alien Wars as an SNES classic, it feels more like a “pretty good” NES title that just happens to be 16-bits.

 

7.0

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Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting Review

*Review based on Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting’s release as part of the SNES Classic*

There is no questioning that Street Fighter II is one of the most impactful and important video games ever made. It single-handedly created the fighting game genre, and it could be argued that multiplayer and competitive gaming was forever influenced by it. Street Fighter II was such a success that Capcom continued to re-release the game under various new guises (a trend that continues even today with Ultra Street Fighter II on the Switch). Some of these subsequent releases featured notable changes such as additional characters, others had more subtle gameplay and balancing tweaks. The first such re-release was Street Fighter II: Championship Edition, which turned the four boss characters playable and allowed two players to pick the same characters. After that came Turbo: Hyper Fighting which, although containing the same detailed mechanics as the previous installments, is one of the lesser additions to the legendary title.

Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting retains the same basics as the original Street Fighter II, with a single player being able to take on the other characters in the arcade-style story mode, or two players can duke it out amongst each other in what was always the game’s biggest draw. The fighting mechanics of Street Fighter II were always deep and intricate, and that all remains true here (though so do the original game’s shortcomings, namely stiff character movements and many moves taking a good chunk of health, making for some disappointingly short matches). Turbo: Hyper Fighting also retains the four additional playable characters from Championship Edition, along with the eight originals, so there’s plenty of variety to be had in the combat.

So what’s different this time around? Well, true to its name, Turbo: Hyper Fighting includes a faster playing speed called Turbo mode, which makes the combat more hectic, and is definitely a test for one’s Street Fighter abilities. The characters also have a few new moves in their arsenal, such as Chun-Li now being able to throw a fireball and perform the Spinning Bird Kick in midair. Additionally, there are other, smaller tweaks to the game balance.

These changes are certainly welcome, and probably improve the overall experience. Likewise, the 16-bit graphics and iconic music are as pleasing as ever. But knowing that even more polished and enhanced versions of Street Fighter II were released shortly after, you have to wonder why Nintendo (or Capcom) decided to re-issue this relatively minimal version of Street Fighter II for the SNES Classic Edition. For its time, it may have refined the experience, but in a post-Super Street Fighter II world, it can be a little difficult to look back.

One change that isn’t so welcome is the enemy AI when playing alone. You’d hope that when refining the game, Capcom would have done the same with the AI, but the computer opponents of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting are frustrating for all the wrong reasons, as they spam the same moves ad nauseam. Fighting against a tough opponent is fine, but when Ryu starts cheesing the Hadouken more frequently than even your cheapest gaming friends, it’s more annoying than it is difficult.

Street Fighter II remains one of the most influential video games ever made, and one of the few that can boast it created an entire genre. But each subsequent iteration was an improvement over the last, which makes the previous versions lose a little bit of their luster when playing today. When the superior Super Street Fighter II Turbo, as well as Street Fighters III and IV exist, Turbo: Hyper Fighting comes off as a little underwhelming, competent and fun though it may be.

 

7.5

Super Punch-Out!! Review

The Punch-Out!! series is one that many Nintendo fans remember fondly from the big N’s golden age, and with good reason. Though it seemed simplistic, Punch-Out!! boasts the same level of intricacy and depth that Nintendo games are known for. But it also seems relegated to the lesser echelon of Nintendo titles, laying dormant once Nintendo made the jump to 3D up until the series made a triumphant return on the Wii in 2009; only to once again fall off the radar in the years since (but at least series’ hero Little Mac has made it into Smash Bros. now, though he probably should have made the cut a few entries earlier than he did). The series’ final entry in its heyday was Super Punch-Out!! on the SNES, which remains a stellar experience to this day…even if it can get frustratingly difficult at times.

In Super Punch-Out!!, players take control of a very different-looking, more blonde Little Mac, and fight their way through the boxing world to become champion. The game features three normal circuits to fight through, each consisting of four opponents (three foes to climb the ranks, plus that cup’s champion), with a secret fourth circuit being unlockable if you can make it through the other three without losing (and good luck with that).

Though the NES game displayed the action from a top-down view, the jump to the SNES meant the series could now take advantage of then-new graphical effects, with Little Mac being made transparent during fights to give players a much more welcome third-person perspective.

The controls are simple enough; move left, right and backward to dodge enemy punches, press B to throw a right hand, and Y to give your opponent a mean left hook. Pressing the buttons on their own strikes at the opponent’s body, while pressing up on the D-pad with the buttons takes a strike at their head. Additionally, every hit you successfully land builds up a meter at the bottom of the screen. When this meter completely fills up, you can press the A button to unleash more powerful attacks as long as the meter remains full. Of course, every time Little Mac takes a punch, the meter drops.

“Damn you, Dragon Chan!”

This is all simple in structure, but in execution it makes for some surprisingly deep strategy. You have to constantly play close attention to your opponents’ movements and patterns, so you know what kind of punch or dodge to use at which time. This is made all the more strategic by the fact that every opponent fights differently. Some may fake-out punches before going for the real thing, others have strong midsections and can only be hurt by a punch to the face, and others completely break the rules of boxing by jumping off the ropes. Learning every enemy’s strategy is key to victory, and if you can master them well enough, you can even manage to fell your opponent before the standard three knockdowns.

On the downside of things, there does seem to be a little bit of a trial-and-error method to some fights, particular opponents who posses one-hit KO moves. On its own that’s not a terrible thing, but seeing as you have to start a circuit over should you get a game over, it can get a little annoying when you finally manage to defeat some particularly difficult opponents, only to lose to one of the more trial-and-error fights and have to go through each opponent all over again.

Another questionable element is that every fight has a three minute time limit, and if you fail to knock your opponent out within that time, you automatically lose. You could potentially knock your opponent down twice, and take very little damage in return, but you’ll still lose if the clock strikes the three minute mark. Whatever happened to winning by decision?

“We all box down here, Georgie!”

These complaints are ultimately minor, however, when you consider how much fun the overall package is. Along with the deep combat, Super Punch-Out!! is bursting with personality. Every character is an outlandish cartoon caricature; from Bruce Lee knockoffs to Bob Marley parodies. There’s just so much humor and charm in every fight that it becomes all the more enjoyable.

The upgraded graphics from previous installments help bring out this personality all the more. The character animations are incredibly detailed, and you’d be surprised just how extravagant the character movements and expressions can be, considering this was on 16-bit hardware.

Super Punch-Out!! is a refinement of the NES entry in the series, and remains a whole lot of fun to play today. Only truly dedicated players will probably finish all four of its circuits, but Super Punch-Out!!’s simple controls, deep combat and boatloads of personality make for some great entertainment, not to mention replay value.

 

8.0

Super Mario Galaxy Turns 10!

Super Mario Galaxy was released on the Nintendo Wii on November 12, 2007, meaning that today is the tenth anniversary of its (western) release. Wow… I feel old.

Anyway, the ten-year milestone is always a big one, but I feel this is an exceptional cause for celebration in the video game world for a couple of reasons.

The first such reason is that Super Mario Galaxy can be seen as a resurgence of the Super Mario series, which is still going strong these ten years later. Sure, the Mario series never got into any real slump (he’s not Sonic, after all), but aside from the two Paper Mario titles on the N64 and GameCube, it felt like the series had been missing that little something extra after Super Mario 64. But then Galaxy came along and brought the series back to its strongest. Here was a game that could ranked alongside any of Nintendo’s best. And because of it, we later got the holy-crap-it’s-somehow-even-better Super Mario Galaxy 2 a few years later. Sure, Super Mario 3D Land was a bit of a regression, but Super Mario 3D World, while no Galaxy, delivered another Mario great shortly thereafter, largely because of the impact Galaxy made to the series, and its influence on Nintendo’s designers.

“Super Mario Galaxy also introduced us to best girl, Rosalina.”

This influence stretched past Nintendo’s doors, however, as many other developers sang the praises of Super Mario Galaxy. It also seemed to shift the industry as a whole in a more positive direction. After the early 2000s seemed to transform gaming into “edgelord” mode, where everything was dark and gritty, and vengeance seemed to be the go-to motive for the armies of “anti-heroes” of the time; Super Mario Galaxy’s high praise and strong sales seemed to lighten things up a bit, and reminded people that a colorful, cheerful game doesn’t equate to a bad one. Thankfully, we see a much wider variety of tones and styles in games today then we did in the 2000s, and although that’s not all on Galaxy’s shoulders, it probably is the centerpiece of this shift thanks to its acclaim and influence.

“Galaxy reintroduced Mario World’s constant sense of invention to the series. There was never a dull moment in Galaxy.”

Now perhaps this is just me talking, but I feel like Super Mario Galaxy revived the “perfect 10” in video games. That’s entirely subjective, of course, but I think if you look at most publications’ records of perfect scores, they seemed to pick up in numbers with the release of Super Mario Galaxy. I don’t think critics are any easier in giving perfect scores, I just think games have gotten better, and are at a height they haven’t been in since the 16-bit days. Again, it’s not that Galaxy magically made perfect 10s possible, but it can be seen as the beginning of this high level of quality.

Even on a more personal level, there were plenty of games I enjoyed greatly during the early 2000s, but at the same time, there aren’t a whole lot I’m quick to point out as some of the best games I’ve ever played if asked today. That’s certainly not a knock on those games (again, many of them were great), but as stated, I think Galaxy resurrected that timeless quality in games that hadn’t been seen since the Super Nintendo era.

I mean, when the worst thing I can say about Galaxy is that Galaxy 2 and Super Mario Odyssey are even better, that kind of speaks volumes about it.

Happy tenth anniversary Super Mario Galaxy! An all-time classic, without question.

Super Mario Sunshine Review

*This review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

Ever since its release on the GameCube in 2002, Super Mario Sunshine has been one of the black sheep of the Super Mario series. Its water pack-themed gameplay and stagnant setting certainly make it stand out from other Mario titles, but it’s those same elements (and a handful of others) that have always prevented Sunshine from being the kind of revered classic that Mario is used to starring in.

It’s all relative, of course. On its own merits, Super Mario Sunshine still provides a great gaming experience, and it probably holds up better than the other 3D platformers of the GameCube/PS2/Xbox era. If it were an entry in another series, Sunshine may have been a defining moment. But in a series that houses more “best games ever” than any other, simply being “great” isn’t great enough. Sunshine was a victim of its own expectations.

Those expectations certainly were high, seeing as Sunshine was the follow-up to Super Mario 64, a title that changed the direction of gaming from then on out. And with a six year build-up to a 64 sequel, suffice to say Sunshine had a lot to live up to. Those shoes were simply too big to fill.

If we take a step back and look at Sunshine on its own merits –  away from all-time greats like Super Mario Bros. 3, World, 64, Yoshi’s Island, and the later Galaxy games – it’s easy to see that there’s a lot to love in Mario’s polarized GameCube outing.

In Super Mario Sunshine, Mario, Princess Peach, and a group of Toads are vacationing to the island resort of Isle Delfino. Of course, there’s never time for Mario to catch a break, and no sooner does Peach’s plane land on the island’s airstrip that they realize something is horribly wrong, with a toxic goop polluting the landing pad. Mario quickly finds a strange, talking water pack called F.L.U.D.D. (Flash Liquidizing Ultra Dowsing Device), and uses it to clean up the airstrip (why anyone else couldn’t use F.L.U.D.D. when it was just lying around is anyone’s guess). As it turns out, the whole island is being covered in this strange goop, with the culprit being a Mario doppleganger attempting to frame Mario for the ordeal.

Sure enough – despite the doppleganger’s obvious blue, gelatinous body – the inhabitants of Isle Delfino (the tree-headed, big-nosed Piantas and the hermit crab-esque Nokis) hold Mario responsible for the crime, and sentence him to clean up the island and clear his good name. It’s definitely a nice change of pace from Peach getting kidnapped (though that happens a little later as well), but the voice acting (yes, voice acting) leaves a lot to be desired.

That’s all besides the point really. Mario games are never about the story, and all this polluted island clean-up business is little more than a reason to introduce the new water-based mechanics.

Being a sequel to Super Mario 64, Sunshine plays very similarly to its revolutionary predecessor. Mario retains his triple jumps, summersaults, wall jumps, butt stomps and dives that he learned in 64, only now he has possession of the F.L.U.D.D. to give him new moves.

The two primary functions of F.L.U.D.D. are the squirt nozzle and the hover nozzle, with players being able to switch between the functions with the press of a button. The squirt nozzle is used to clean up sludge and to shoot other objects when necessary, while the hover nozzle, as its name implies, allows Mario to hover for a short time, which really comes in handy for some of the trickier platforming.

Additionally, two other nozzles are acquired later in the game, and are more or less Sunshine’s equivalent to the usual Mario power-ups, as they temporarily replace the hover nozzle when obtained. The turbo nozzle allows Mario to move super fast, being able to break through certain walls and run on water, while the rocket nozzle gives Mario a higher jump than he’s ever had before or since.

“Drink up.”

Although F.L.U.D.D. may seem a bit on the gimmicky side, it’s a gimmick that ultimately works, as it adds a new twist on 64’s platforming mechanics. Meanwhile the fact that you’ll frequently have to “reload” it by finding a body of water to recharge gives it a little something of a shooter element (I can’t help but feel Splatoon borrowed a little something from F.L.U.D.D.). And the idea of a water-based platformer is still an intriguing concept looking back on it today.

Best of all is that Sunshine’s Mario controls so well. Mario wrote the rulebook on how to make a platforming hero control fluidly, and Sunshine provides some of the most cohesive controls in the entire series. Aside from wall jumping sometimes being a little finicky, I can’t think of much to complain about in the control department.

Sadly, not everything in Sunshine works as well as Mario and F.L.U.D.D. The camera, though an improvement over 64’s, still suffers a bit from the same faults of its predecessor. A number of bonus areas, in which Mario is thrown into more cramped platforming gauntlets, are particularly hindered by the camerawork, as it can be difficult to get the camera in the right angle while simultaneously trying to make sure Mario doesn’t fall to his doom on a tricky, moving platform.

Similarly, you may find that there are more than a few technical issues with the game. Though they may be small and (mostly) inconsequential, pointing out technical issues in a mainline Mario title is normally unheard of. But it seems Sunshine didn’t have as much time to receive the usual “Mario polish,” and you may find Mario getting stuck or an enemy’s animation not showing up more often than you’d like.

Still, while these flaws are notable, they’re hardly game-breaking. With how well Mario controls, along with the overall execution of the level and mission designs, it’s hard to complain too much.

Super Mario Sunshine ultimately has a similar structure to 64, with Mario traversing a central hub world to access the “proper” stages, which house a series of missions, each one capped off with acquiring a Shine Sprite (Sunshine’s equivalent to 64‘s Power Stars). There are, however, a few differences that perhaps played a part in Sunshine’s more divisive reception.

“Sunshine reeeally likes falling back on the red coin missions.”

The first of these differences is that Sunshine is actually more linear than 64. Contrary to recent popular opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with linear games, but considering that many like to praise 64 and Sunshine for being the “sandbox” Mario games, it may surprise some to revisit Sunshine and find out that’s only true to an extent. While Banjo-Kazooie dropped players into a stage to unearth its collectibles at their leisure, 64 and Sunshine’s mission-based level format gave a set objective that needed to be accomplished at that time. 64 did actually allow players to tamper with that format, as they could at times accomplish the requirements for a stage’s later stars while attempting to get an earlier one, but Sunshine doesn’t share that element, instead having the selected mission dictate the Shine Sprite to be collected almost entirely (the only exceptions being a handful of the game’s hidden Shines, or a level’s obligatory 100-coin Shine Sprite). The delightful hub world of Delfino Plaza is where the game is at its most open, but the stages themselves are more limiting.

Again, that’s not a bad thing per se, but perhaps one reason Galaxy was so warmly received is that it was more honest with its linearity. Galaxy had level structure that was more akin to Super Mario World than 64, so the linearity felt like a cohesive whole. But Sunshine presents its stages as open-world sandboxes but, fun though they may be, they’re not quite that.

One of the other big differences in Sunshine from other Mario titles is that every stage is built around its tropical island theme, which works for better and worse. In terms of better, it makes Isle Delfino feel like an alive location, with the different levels even being visible in the distance of others. In terms of worse, it also means that Sunshine lacks the sense of variety and surprise that the best Mario titles have. Sure, there’s a dose of different locations, like a harbor and a beach and a haunted casino (which is located on another beach…), but there are no castles or giant worlds to speak of. Isle Delfino is definitely a unique location in the series, but it seems to be in some kind of bubble away from the franchise’s usual fairy tale elements.

That’s not to say that Sunshine is devoid of the series’ indelible mark of surrealism, as the aforementioned platforming gauntlets that serve as the bonus stages – where Mario is robbed of F.L.U.D.D. and has to rely on his own abilities – seem to be housed in a bizarre, often pixelated dimension, with random shapes and objects suspended in space in such a way that they feel like a precursor to the Galaxy titles. It may not be a surprise that Sunshine’s detractors often single these segments out as the game’s highlights.

“Maybe Yoshi shouldn’t drink so much Hi-C…”

While Mario’s world may seem (relatively) more grounded and less fantastic in this GameCube adventure, there’s still a terrific sense of joy to be had. Many of the Shine Sprites are a blast to obtain, and even Yoshi joined in on the action (albeit sparingly), being able to use his hovering and enemy-eating abilities of the past, while also being able to spit up juice (eewww!), which works similar to F.L.U.D.D. but with its own properties (like turning certain enemies into platforms). Not to mention that Super Mario Sunshine still looks visually impressive for a fifteen year-old game, and its music is upbeat and fun, and perfectly captures the game’s setting.

There are some other disappointing elements though. Not counting Delfino Plaza or the bonus stages, Sunshine only boasts seven proper levels, which is considerably less than Super Mario 64’s fifteen! Yet, the game has just as many Shine Sprites as 64 had Stars (120), with a decent chunk of twenty-four of them being obtained by trading blue coins to a raccoon in Delfino Plaza (ten blue coins for one Shine).

With twice the number of blue coins as there are Shine Sprites, collecting them all may have made for a fun sidequest, especially seeing how some of them are so esoterically hidden (stand on a certain platform and squirt the moon!), that finding them would actually feel more worthwhile if trading them in unlocked some kind of secrets. By simply making them a means to get every Shine Sprite, it makes it feel as though both the Shines and the blue coins were only partly realized. I would have much rather had the game spent more time crafting another level or two for those additional Shine Sprites, and thinking of something more unique to do with the blue coins, then simply slapping them together in what really feels like an effort to save time.

It should once again be emphasized that , while many of these criticisms are just, others are more relative. Sunshine has both the honor and misfortune of being a part of a series with an abnormal consistency in high quality and creative spark. So while Sunshine may be well executed in most respects, and is still a whole lot of fun to play today, its more restrained and conservative sense of invention makes it lesser than most of its Mario series brethren, and its more rushed elements bring it down a peg further.

For most other series, a game of Sunshine’s quality may  have felt like a trip to paradise. But for Mario, it feels like he’s taking a vacation from being the best at what he does.

 

8.5

Banjo-Tooie Review

*Review based on Banjo-Tooie’s release as part of Rare Replay*

There’s perhaps no game that better represents the “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality than Rare’s Banjo-Tooie. This 2000 sequel to Banjo-Kazooie looked to improve upon its predecessor in virtually every regard. Though Tooie was also released after Rare’s over-bloated Donkey Kong 64, so it attempted to find a balance between making the Banjo-Kazooie experience bigger and better, while avoiding the pitfalls of tedium found in DK64. For the most part, Banjo-Tooie succeeded in its difficult balancing act, providing one of the N64’s best experiences, and an adventure that was so massive it still feels like a hefty title even by today’s standards.

Though Banjo-Tooie retains the same Mario 64-style gameplay of Kazooie, it also seems to have taken a few notes from Ocarina of Time, as Tooie’s overworld structure feels more like something out of an action/adventure title. The whimsical yet sinister halls of Gruntilda’s Lair give way to the wide, open world of the Isle O’ Hags (named for its penchant of housing evil old crones like Gruntilda and her sisters, Mingella and Blobelda), of which Spiral Mountain and the aforementioned Lair are only a small part.

The story here, while possibly even more loose than Kazooie’s, is perhaps presented in a more original manner. Instead of the usual damsel in distress plot of platformers, Banjo-Tooie more or less feels like a quest for vengeance, albeit one in which the characters are a bunch of comical animals who are constantly making fun of each other.

Appropriately set two years after the original, Banjo-Tooie sees Gruntilda resurrected by her sisters (who promptly tell the now skeletal witch to stop with her constant rhyming). Seeking revenge, Gruntilda decides to destroy Banjo’s house, where Banjo and Kazooie are playing a game of poker against Mumbo Jumbo and Bottles. Mumbo Jumbo sees the undead Gruntilda readying a devastating spell, and warns the others. Banjo and Kazooie join Mumbo in evacuating the house, but Bottles – believing it to be a rouse to cheat in the card game – stubbornly stays put. Banjo, Kazooie and Mumbo remain unscathed (unbeknownst to Gruntilda at the time), but the destruction of the house also leads to the death of Bottles, who becomes a cartoony ghost floating above his crispy corpse.

Gruntilda’s not done there though, and soon plans to use a machine to drain the life out of as many people as possible, in what is a seldom mentioned means of making a new body for herself. Gruntilda manages to zombify a Jinjo king named Jingaling, but like the first game, Gruntilda’s machinery is a bit buggy, and so she needs a lot more time to power it up to drain enough life from the island to bring back her former, girth-y self. This of course gives Banjo and Kazooie ample time to adventure out and stop the witch, in hopes of avenging their friends and hoping for a way to bring them back (though Kazooie is a bit annoyed that she needs to go on another adventure for Bottles’ sake).

Like the first game, it’s a simple plot that’s made more lively by the funny characters and dialogue (with the gibberish, garbled speech making a triumphant return), and its darker tone certainly sets it apart from other games in the genre (seeing Spiral Mountain dilapidated and ruined serves as a fitting introduction to this sequel’s tonal shift).

As stated, this is a much bigger adventure than the original Banjo-Kazooie, with more moves to learn, more items to collect, and much bigger stages to visit. Tooie is a wise game in assuming those who are playing it are familiar with the original title, and thus the titular duo retain all the moves they learned in their first go around, and tutorials are kept to a minimum (though Bottles’ ghost can refresh you on the basic moves if you visit one of his molehills in Spiral Mountain). This means that, while the adventure might be a much heftier affair than Kazooie, you feel like the adventure gets going just as quickly as its predecessor.

There are, of course, some changes to the mix: Jiggies are still the main collectible, and are needed to unlock new worlds. But now the Jiggies are to be taken to the temple of Master Jiggywiggy, a powerful sorcerer with a comical, puzzle piece-shaped head who tasks the heroic duo with completing interactive puzzle mini-games in order to open up a stage. This adds a bit more fun to the equation than the first game simply having Banjo stand on a pad and pressing a button to use the Jiggies and unlock a level.

Music notes are now gathered in clumps of five, as well as a hidden bunch of twenty to be found on every stage. So while there are still technically a grand total of 100 notes per stage, there are less physical items to collect. The notes also serve a new purpose, seeing as Gruntilda’s Lair is behind our heroes and they no longer need to open its many doors. With Bottles dead, his drill sergeant brother Jamjars takes over in mentoring Banjo and Kazooie their new moves, and requires a set amount of music notes for each subsequent move in his arsenal (which, to be honest, feels like a more fleshed out mechanic than simply finding a molehill). The moves here are a lot more robust and varied than the first game (including new fire, ice and grenade eggs), with the main hook being the ability to split Banjo and Kazooie up, with each also learning their own solo moves.

“I’m sorry, was it Humba Wumba, or hubba hubba?!”

Another new character – and change to the formula – comes in the form of Humba Wumba, a shaman who takes over Mumbo’s former role of transforming our heroes into various forms. Mumbo Jumbo himself now becomes a playable character, with both shamans requiring Banjo and Kazooie to find a creature called a Glowbo in order to perform their shamanistic duties on every stage.

Perhaps Tooie’s other great addition is the implementation of proper boss fights. Sure, Gruntilda proved to be a memorable final boss in Kazooie, but aside from her, anything that resembled a boss encounter was closer to being a minor obstacle than they were a level’s crescendo. Every level gets its own boss battle here, and the overworld even sees three fights with Gruntilda’s baffingly loyal henchman, Klungo. While they may be a bit on the easy side, the boss fights that are present in Tooie feel like they add a bit more personality to the stages, and are certainly a step up from the non-bosses of Kazooie.

The differences in boss encounters between games may also be telling of the overal nature of the N64 Banjo games themselves. As great as Banjo-Kazooie was, Banjo-Tooie simply feels like a more fleshed-out experience. Much of what the first game attempted is more properly realized in this second adventure.

Banjo-Kazooie saw a tiny taste of Metroidvania added to the 3D platforming mix, with the titular duo learning their moves to access new areas of Gruntilda’s Lair. But the game failed to capitalize on the concept and implement such elements into the levels themselves, meaning that once a stage was drained of its collectibles, there were no reasons for return visits. Banjo-Tooie pulls the trigger on the concept, and though it may not exactly be the 3D Metroidvania that Metroid Prime or Dark Souls would end up being, it was probably the closest thing 3D gaming had to the genre at the time of its release.

“Though the FPS segments are few, they provide a fun change of pace fro the rest of the game.”

Banjo-Tooie frequently features segments in levels that must be returned to at a later time, once some additional abilities have been earned. More interesting still, the Isle O’ Hags is even presented as a connected world, with some stages directly linking to others. To emphasize the concept, there’s even a train that connects a handful of the levels and the overworld together. Some may find the backtracking a tad excessive, but some accommodations are made by implementing warp pads in the stages, and silos that allow Banjo and Kazooie to fast-travel the overworld.

The other key ‘lacking’ aspect of the original which is polished by Tooie are the transformations. This time around, every stage has its own transformation, and the different forms the titular duo take – whether it be a T-rex, a submarine, a washing machine that launches underwear at enemies, or the returning bee – are all a lot more versatile than they were in the first game. Granted, it’s still unfortunate that most of the transformations are still only used to gain one or two Jiggies apiece, but at least they feel properly implemented this second time around.

Sadly, Banjo-Tooie itself falls victim to its overly ambitious nature, and at least one of its own elements is as underutilized as Banjo’s transformations in the first game. Strangely, this element once again revolves around Mumbo Jumbo. That is to say, his addition as a playable character feels underdeveloped. As cool as the idea of playing as Mumbo is, he doesn’t really have a lot to do, nor does he have a lot he can do. Mumbo is simply used to walk to a ‘Mumbo pad’ to perform a level-specific spell. While these spells can sometimes be interesting (the very first stage allows Mumbo to take control of a golden giant who can crush anything in its path), they once again fall under the “one or two Jiggies” category, and even then, it’s still usually Banjo who needs to collect the Jiggy in the end. Mumbo’s moveset is also extremely limited, as his only other actions aside from walking and casting spells on the Mumbo pads are jumping and shocking enemies with his magic wand. I wouldn’t assume Mumbo would have the versatility as the primary characters and learn new moves throughout the adventure as they do. But perhaps if he had a few more of their acrobatics, and a little more to do, it would make Mumbo’s promotion more worthwhile.

If there’s another complaint to be had with Banjo-Tooie, it’s that one of the game’s eight proper stages – the smog-riddled factory of Grunty Industries – is a bit of a convoluted maze, with environments that look similar to each other, and some needlessly tedious changes of pace to the fast-traveling (with elevators only being accessible in Banjo’s washing machine form, and the warps pads being inaccessible to said washing machine). Having played through Banjo-Tooie numerous times, it is this level that seemingly breaks the flow of the adventure. Sure, things pick back up a bit with the two subsequent stages, which house the game’s most original themes (one being the crossover fire and ice world of Hailfire Peaks, and the other being the bizarre sky world of Cloud Cuckooland), but Grunty Industries is probably the point in the game that will deter players from achieving one-hundred percent completion.

“Like the first game, Banjo-Tooie ends with a game show. Only this time around, you can also play said game show with other players.”

All things considered, however, Banjo-Tooie is an improvement over its predecessor, and remains one of the N64’s few timeless titles. It may still have some flaws holding it back from stealing Mario’s platforming crown, but Tooie perhaps remains the most ambitious platformer ever made (so ambitious, in fact, that a notorious “counter-operative” multiplayer mode – in which a second player took control of Bottle’s angry spirit – though unfinished, remains intact in the game’s code.). If the hefty adventure somehow weren’t enough, Banjo-Tooie also features a multiplayer mode where players can partake in the many mini-games once they’ve been played in the main story, and can even face-off in first-person shooter death matches that parody Rare’s Goldeneye and Perfect Dark (and, humorously, hold up better than the games they’re parodying). Top it all off with some of the best graphics of the N64 generation, and another stellar Grant Kirkhope soundtrack, and Banjo-Tooie remains a platformer whose aspirations have been seldom approached in the years since.

 

9.0

Banjo-Kazooie Review

*Review based on Banjo-Kazooie’s release as part of Rare Replay*

In the wake of Super Mario 64 came a new kind of platformer. Differing from the 2D sidescrollers of the past and earlier, more linear 3D platformers such as Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64 ushered in a more open-world style for the genre, one that had a greater focus on collecting specific key items at the player’s own leisure,  as opposed to simply making it to the end of a stage. Of all the ‘collect-a-thon’ 3D platformers that were born in Super Mario 64’s wake, there’s perhaps no more beloved example of this sub-genre than Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie.

Released in 1998 – a mere two years after Mario took his revolutionary first steps into the third-dimension – Rare sought to accomplish the seemingly impossible, and beat Mario at his own game. Rare’s bear and bird duo nearly pulled off that feat, delivering one of the N64’s best offerings, and one of the few games for the console that’s still a whole lot of fun to play today.

In Banjo-Kazooie, players take control of the titular duo: Banjo, the lazy honey bear, and Kazooie, the sarcastic bird who lives in Banjo’s backpack. The player primarily controls Banjo for movement, with Kazooie boasting most of the special abilities.

The story is simple stuff, with an evil witch named Gruntilda kidnapping Banjo’s younger sister Tooty in an attempt to steal her beauty. Unfortunately for Gruntilda, her henchman Klungo is a bit of a bungler, and his beauty-extracting machine is on the fritz, giving Banjo and Kazooie ample time to set off to Gruntilda’s Lair on a rescue mission. It’s your typical damsel in distress plot, but the game’s consistently charming characters and often hilarious dialogue make it a unique adventure.

Speaking of dialogue, Banjo-Kazooie’s “garbled speech” is one of its most iconic attributes, with each character having their own distinct gibberish noises playing over dialogue instead of any kind of traditional voiceovers. Some of these “voices” may be a little irritating, but they’ve become somewhat iconic in the years since the game’s release, as they’ve added to the game’s already stellar sound work, with an unforgettable soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope that captures Banjo-Kazooie’s unique sense of charm and whimsy.

In terms of gameplay, Banjo-Kazooie is incredibly similar to the Mario adventure that inspired it. After completing a tutorial in Banjo’s home of Spiral Mountain, you traverse the chambers of Gruntilda’s Lair, which serves as something of a more sinister contrast to Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64. Golden jigsaw pieces – called “Jiggies” – serve as the equivalent of Mario’s Power Stars, and a set amount are required to unlock each of the game’s nine proper stages. Meanwhile, music notes more or less take the place of coins, but have an added usage in unlocking further chambers within Gruntilda’s Lair.

Each of the stages house 10 Jiggies and 100 musical notes, while the Lair itself has an additional 10 Jiggies to collect, for a grand total of 100 Jiggies and 900 music notes. Not every collectible needs to be obtained to complete the game, however, and all of these items can be gathered at the player’s own pace.

This is where Banjo-Kazooie begins to deviate away from Mario 64’s influence and becomes its own beast. While Super Mario 64’s levels were presented in a sequence of missions (with players only able to go off the path and collect alternate stars from the selected mission on occasion), Banjo-Kazooie’s stages serve as wide-open sandboxes, with players able to gather the collectibles in whatever order at almost any time.

Perhaps an even bigger change to Mario’s formula is that Banjo and Kazooie progressively learn more moves throughout their adventure, provided they can find Bottles the mole hiding in one of his molehills on the first few stages. These moves range from using Kazooie’s legs to walk faster and climb steep slopes to shooting eggs from Kazooie’s mouth and rear. These moves are not only used to navigate through levels and defeat enemies, but many of them are required to find new sections of Gruntilda’s Lair and to reach specific Jiggies, giving the game a small dose of a Metroidvania element.

Along with Bottles, the most important side character is Mumbo Jumbo, a mystical shaman who transforms Banjo and Kazooie into a variety of forms, ranging from termites to pumpkins to bees. Just find some Mumbo Tokens and take them to Mumbo’s Hut to be able to achieve a level’s transformation at any given time.

There is a downside to both the progressing moveset and transformations, however, in that both features can feel a bit underutilized. While the prospect of revisiting levels with new moves to reach previously inaccessible places and items may sound enticing, chances are you’ll find every molehill in your first go around of one level and have everything you need for the next. Only two of the levels (the snow/Christmas-themed Freezeezy Peak and the desert stage of Gobi’s Valley) are particularly interchangeable, as both are unlocked close together, and each features one Jiggie that can only be accessed with a move learned in the other. As for the transformations, you’ll only change forms in five of the nine levels. And when you do get to transform, the different transformations are more or less just used to squeeze into a particular area Banjo himself can’t reach, all to obtain a single Jiggie.

The fact that such elements are present at all is a joy, as they’re a testament to the inventiveness that went into Banjo-Kazooie’s creation. But perhaps they were ideas ahead of what Rare could handle at the time, with both concepts of revisiting levels with new moves and the transformations fulfilling much more of their potential in the game’s 2000 sequel, Banjo-Tooie. By comparison, time has shown that Banjo-Kazooie couldn’t quite reach its ambitions.

If that is the case, it’s simply another testament to just how creative Rare was during Banjo-Kazooie’s development. The gameplay itself is some of the best on the Nintendo 64 and, much like Mario 64, remains a joy to play even today (though Mario 64’s sometimes clunky camera is still present). And the nine featured levels may just outdo Mario’s famed N64 outing, with some truly ingenious obstacles created to take advantage of Banjo and Kazooie’s versatile moves; and they feature themes that add new twists to platforming norms (such as the aforementioned ice world also being built around Christmas, or a sewer stage that houses a mechanical shark as its centerpiece. And Rare was wise to save their most creative level for last; a giant tree that can be visited in all four seasons of the year, with each season changing both the level’s challenges and its inhabitants). If that weren’t enough, Banjo-Kazooie’s playful spirit is perhaps most present after every level is completed, where the heroic duo take part in a quiz show/board game against the evil witch, in which players have to remember details about the game and their playthrough.

Banjo-Kazooie is simply a great time from beginning to end. That so many other games from its era – including beloved titles like Goldeneye 007 – feel so outdated by today’s standards while Banjo-Kazooie still remains one of the best games in the 3D platforming genre is telling of just how much creative energy went into the game, and how well it executed it. It may not always achieve its lofty ambitions, but Banjo-Kazooie is creative, fun and charming enough to stand the test of time.

 

9.0