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

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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.

 

7

Wario’s Woods Review

*Review based on the NES version of Wario’s Woods, as released on the New Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console*

Wario’s Woods was released simultaneously on the NES and SNES in 1994 (being the last officially licensed game released on the former). Unfortunately for Wario’s Woods, it saw very little attention in its day, seeing as gaming was well into the 16-bit generation, meaning the NES version went under the radar, while the SNES version was released amid many more high profile games. That’s more than a little bit of a shame, because Wario’s Woods brought an interesting twist to the falling-block puzzle genre.

Working as something of a cross between Tetris and Dr. Mario, Wario’s Woods sees players try to eliminate multi-colored monsters from a playing field. Getting rid of these monsters will require the aid of similarly colored bombs. By lining up a row of at least two monsters and one bomb of the same color (either horizontally, vertically or diagonally), you will destroy the monsters. If you can create a stack of at least five objects of the same color (again, with at least one bomb required), the eliminated monsters will leave behind a colored gem. If you line up monsters or bombs with a gem of the same color, every object of that color will be removed from the playing field instantly.

Be weary, if you can’t keep chains of eliminations going fast enough, Wario will appear above the field for a short time, summon more monsters, and lower the ceiling, decreasing the amount of space you have to work with (the ceiling can be raised, as you may have guessed, by completing more rows).

It may sound like standard fair for the genre, but the big twist Wario’s Woods brings to the table is that you manually control an on-screen character. Taking inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 2, Wario’s Woods pits Toad in the spotlight (well before he earned the title of ‘Captain’), who has to pick up and place the monsters and bombs under direct control of the player.

Toad can lift and drop whatever object is in front of him with a push of the B button, and can lift and drop an entire stack of objects with the press of A. Toad can of course only lift things that are level to him, but has slightly more leeway when dropping them (three squares of the playing field above his head). He can even kick an object to the next open space by pressing down on the D-pad along with one of the key buttons. Toad can also drop items/stacks directly underneath himself, and objects Toad is currently holding will also count towards a completed row should it match up. Mechanics like this can really be lifesavers if you find yourself sinking down the board amidst the rising stacks of monsters. Unfortunately, the aforementioned gems are too heavy for Toad to lift, meaning the player will have to get extra crafty if they want to take advantage of their ability.

It sounds pretty simple, but it’s pretty incredible how addicting the gameplay can get. This is one of those games that you can seriously lose track of time with. Wario’s Woods even keeps things fresh as you push further through the game, introducing monsters that can only be eliminated with diagonally-placed rows, and monsters that require to be part of two completed rows in quick succession in order to be vanquished.

The game consists of two different versions of its story mode (oddly referred to as “Round Game”), categorized as “A Mode” and “B Mode.” Both versions feature 100 courses, with the only difference I can tell being that the B game features boss fights. This is a game that doesn’t mess around, either. Wario’s Woods can get brutally difficult at times, with some levels seemingly punishing the player with certain death over one slight miscalculation.

It’s pretty long for a falling-block puzzler, especially on NES. Fortunately, this was one of the few games on the NES with a save function, with every fifth level working as a checkpoint for the player’s progress (with every completed fifth level being selectable thereafter). The downside to this is that if you’ve completed four straight levels and lose on the fifth, you’ll have to go through the previous four all over again. You can obtain continues which can be used to replay the current stage upon defeat, but you can only do so by collecting 30 coins. And you only get these coins if you complete a stage fast enough (every time Wario’s ugly mug shows up, 20% of the stage’s possible coins are deduced). So most continues you get will be obtained in the early stages. Because, again, this is one tough puzzle game. Only the most diehard puzzle fans will consistently claim coins in the game’s later stages.

The difficulty in claiming continues may be off-putting to some, especially considering the game’s already steep learning curve (okay, the basics are simple, but mastering them well enough to finish the stages quickly while avoiding Game Overs is another beast entirely).

One cumbersome element takes place when the objects fill the screen and the ceiling falls to the point that Toad can only move horizontally in a crawlspace equal to his size. You kind of wish, in these specific instances, that Toad could swap positions with the object directly in front of him. Because at this point, the game is essentially over, unless an enemy/bomb spawns in just the right spot to complete a row out of sheer luck. Some might say this is in the same tradition as Tetris picking up speed until you can no longer control it, but Tetris is a game you play as long as possible to beat your high score. Wario’s Woods features stage progression, so it can be frustrating when you get to the point when you know you’re going to have to replay the last few stages over, but just have to watch helplessly as Toad inevitably gets crushed, unless sheer luck buys you an extra few seconds.

Wario’s Woods also features a time attack mode and a VS. mode for two players, which could certainly become intense showdowns. These alternative modes give Wario’s Woods some variety, and can give you a much needed break when the “Round Game” gets too difficult.

One issue with the game is more of a recurring issue with Nintendo itself. And that’s how it’s the NES version of Wario’s Woods that keeps seeing re-releases, as opposed to the SNES version. For an NES game, Wario’s Woods looks great (being released so late in the console’s life, the game’s visuals are comparable to Kirby’s Adventure in how they push the NES), but it still doesn’t look as good (or as timeless) as the SNES version. What’s worse, every stage in the NES version has the same music. And while it may be somewhat catchy, the lack of audial variety does take something away from the experience.

It’s the NES version that has been released on every downloadable service Nintendo has provided, from Wii to Switch. It’s reflective of a weird trend with Nintendo where they seem to constantly be re-releasing NES games, but rarely those from their other systems. And that’s a shame because (unpopular opinion incoming) aside from the Mario and Mega Man games, not a whole lot of NES titles hold up. Meanwhile, the SNES has a timeless quality to the gameplay and aesthetics of so many of its games, that Nintendo’s apparent preference for its predecessor is dumbfounding. At least Wario’s Woods can claim to be among the handful of NES games not called Mario or Mega Man that’s still fun, anyway.

Wario’s Woods is a challenging puzzle game, no doubt. But those with the patience for it will find an incredibly addicting and rewarding experience that will keep them coming back. Now if only Nintendo could remember that this game was also released on Super NES…

 

7

Wario Land 4 Review

*Review based on Wario Land 4’s Wii U Virtual Console release*

Here’s an unpopular opinion: The original Game Boy hasn’t aged well. Sure, there are a few games from the original Game Boy that hold up decently (namely Game Boy Color exclusives), but for the most part, its games represent a time when the convenience of gaming on the go came at the expense of quality. The Game Boy Advance, however, marked a time when handheld games began to capture a more timeless quality. The GBA was the SNES to the Game Boy’s NES, with its predecessor feeling archaic (save for a  handful of titles) while it itself holds up so well, it doesn’t feel like a retro console at all.

Case in point: Wario Land. Wario Lands 2 and 3 on the original Game Boy were once hailed as some of the best handheld games of all time, and while they’re still decent to play, they’re getting on a bit. Wario Land 4, on Game Boy Advance, however, is still a worthwhile platformer today. Perhaps not an all-time great, but it’s certainly not disappointing to revisit.

Like its predecessors, Wario Land 4 is all about the greedy anti-Mario’s quest for treasure. This time, Wario is pillaging an ancient pyramid in the middle of a jungle, but gets trapped inside and has to find a way to escape, all while collecting as much treasure as possible, of course.

Wario retains his brutish strength from the past games, with his charging attack, ground pound and ability to pick up and throw enemies intact. Additionally, by holding the R button, Wario can run at such a great speed, that with enough momentum, his hard noggin can break through blocks that even his charge attack can’t budge. Similarly, if he ground pounds from a great enough height, he can also destroy these stronger blocks (there’s even one puzzle in the game that cleverly combines this with a teleporter, meaning that Wario was thinking with portals even before Portal).

The structure of the game takes a different approach from its predecessors, however. There’s a quick tutorial that shows you the ropes of the game (it’s actually one of the better tutorial levels I’ve seen, effectively condensing all the game’s elements to their bare basics, thus giving you insight to the entire adventure ahead). After that, the game features four worlds, which you can play in any order you see fit (and if you get stuck in one world, you can leave it and do another for the time being). The worlds themselves follow a more linear structure, however, with each featuring four stages and a boss fight at the end.

Stages work a bit differently here than they did in past Wario games (and most platformers in general, for that matter): Wario searches through the levels collecting treasures, but instead of a traditional goal found at the end of a stage, each level features a statue of a blue frog (why not?) that, when jumped on, activates a timer. With the time ticking down, Wario has to make his way back to the beginning of the stage, where a portal now waits to take Wario back to the hub. Naturally, Wario gets to keep every treasure he collects if he makes it back before time runs out.

While most of the jewels and coins scattered about add to Wario’s score, each level also contains three unique treasures: One is a bird with a key for a beak (again, why not?) which is needed to unlock the next level in that given world. Another treasure is a tablet separated in four pieces found in golden treasure chests, with all four pieces in all four stages needing to be found in order to open the boss door. Finally, a well-hidden music CD can be found and subsequently played in the sound room of the pyramid’s overworld.

While these items add some extra depth to the stages, it’s kind of a shame that – aside from the CDs – they’re required to complete the game. Had there been more non-story items, Wario Land 4 would have a fun staying power for completionists, instead of most return visits to levels being out of necessity for having missed a key or one of the four tablet pieces the first time around.

The levels themselves are well designed and creative. It’s fun to search through them for treasures, and they never feel so labyrinthian as to be confusing. The stages are also less bland than in the past few Wario Lands, with fun gimmicks added into the mix. One of my favorite stages is built around knocking over stacks of dominoes, then racing to the end of a room before the final domino falls and hits a switch that closes off a treasure.

Level design is always a make or break factor for platformers, and the clever structure and gimmicks of the stages of Wario Land 4 ascend it above its predecessors. There are, however, two notable elements that prevent Wario Land 4 from reaching its full potential.

The first such issue is that, while Wario retains his ability to gain special powers after being struck by certain enemy attacks (swelling up and floating like a balloon when stung by a bee, sliding across surfaces when frozen by an enemy, etc.), Wario is no longer invincible as he was in Wario Lands 2 and 3. In the past games Wario would gain such abilities from almost every foe (with the exceptions merely robbing Wario of coins), here you rarely know when an enemy attack will give Wario a power, and when it will just take health away. It unfortunately gives the game a gambling element that wasn’t present in the past.

The other issue is the process of fighting the bosses of each world. Not only do you have to find all of the aforementioned tablet pieces in each level just to face them, but every boss also features a time limit. If you take too long to defeat a boss, you’ll miss out on the opportunities to claim all of their treasure chests. That’s not so bad on its own, as before every boss fight, Wario has the opportunity to purchase special items (from what looks like Mr. Game & Watch), which are then used to damage the upcoming boss before the fight begins. Some items will do marginal damage, while others will nearly take out the boss on their own. That may sound like a cheat, but considering this is a Wario game, it’s actually a fitting element that compliments Wario’s character and humor.

None of that is a problem on its own. The whole boss process becomes an issue, however, by the simple fact that you can’t just purchase the boss items with the treasure Wario collects along his adventure. Instead, you purchase the items with special tokens. You get these tokens by spending your points/treasure to play one of three mini-games located before the boss fight of each world. You are then awarded tokens based on your performance in these mini-games. The problem is that acquiring these tokens can take a fair amount of time, and with how slowly Wario chips away at the bosses’ health on his own, you’re going to want to spend the extra tokens for the more powerful items to beat the bosses as quickly as possible. So if you want to claim every boss treasure and complete the game at one-hundred percent, you have to repeat the process all over again if you can’t beat the boss fast enough the first time around. Some might say that’s a fair price to pay since the game essentially gives you the ability to cheat, but buying these items is optional anyway. So why not just use your points to buy the tokens and skip the mini-games? It’s just a tedious process that seems counterproductive.

Aside from those elements though, Wario Land 4 remains a winner in most respects. Wario himself controls better than ever, with his every action feeling far smoother than in past games. The level design finds some fun and creative ways to mix up the formula. The game still looks great with its colorful graphics and vibrant animations, and the soundtrack stands tall above its predecessors, meaning that collecting those CDs is worth the effort.

It may not be among the best games on the Game Boy Advance, but Wario Land 4 is another testament that the GBA is when handheld gaming truly made it.

 

7

Sonic R Review

*Review based on Sonic R’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*

Despite being the “fastest thing alive,” Sonic has always been playing a game of catch up with Super Mario since day one. Despite Sonic’s early titles and a handful of the blue blur’s other adventures over the years achieving their own sense of timelessness, Sonic never did catch up with Mario. If there is one genre that seemed like Sonic would, by default, have the upper hand on Mario, it would be the racing genre. Sonic is a character built around his speed. Taking the series and adapting it into a racing game seems like it should have had minimal bumps in the translation.

Which is why it’s both dumbfounding and hilarious that Sonic R – the first Sonic racing game on a home console – is an utter disaster, and one of the worst games Sonic has ever appeared in (and boy, is that saying something).

Depressingly, Sonic R was the only exclusive Sonic game released on the Sega Saturn, with the two other Saturn Sonics, Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic Jam, being a port and a compilation of the Genesis Sonic titles, respectively. Although the Saturn was otherwise a stellar and underrated console (possibly my personal favorite from Sega), the fact that Sega’s biggest franchise only managed to pop out this turd of a game on the Saturn may have had something to do with the console’s short lifespan in the midst of the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64.

“My eyes! The goggles do nothing!”

As stated, Sonic R was a racing game starring characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Unlike other Sonic racing games that would follow, most of the characters run on foot. That may sound like it makes sense, since Sonic can run at the speed of light, and Knuckles and Tails are inexplicably just as fast (and, bizarrely, Dr. Robotnik has continuously outrun the blue hedgehog). But it ends up having disastrous results, as developer Traveller’s Tales apparently had no idea how to implement the traction and physics of running characters.

As soon as a race begins, it’s an absolute mess of game design. Your character reaches top speed instantly, while turning your character feels like a herculean feat of strength. As you can imagine, this makes Sonic R’s sense of control nothing short of abysmal. Amy Rose (who drives a car) and the unlockable Dr. Robotnik (who pilots his hovercraft…again, despite outrunning Sonic on numerous occasions) control marginally better, but that’s not saying much.

To make matters worse, the game as a whole just feels unfinished. You’ll often run through objects, get stuck in the scenery, or get magnetized to walls. The entire game feels like one big glitch. Combine that with the hellish controls, and Sonic R is downright agonizing to play.

Even the graphics are a drizzling mess. Okay, so most early 3D games aren’t exactly pretty to look at these days, but other Saturn titles – such as Nights Into Dreams or the 3D overworld of Sonic Jam – still have a lively look about them. Sonic R, by contrast, often looks like one massive blur of colors. It’s all too easy to go off track during a race because you can’t tell where you are and aren’t supposed to go.

It’s not just technical and graphical sins that Sonic R is guilty of, but even on a creative level, the game falls utterly flat. Sonic R boasts a grand total of five courses to race on, none of which are memorable. And the only modes to speak of are Grand Prix (which is a single race) and Time Trials (with Versus races just being two-player Grand Prix).

Compare that to Super Mario Kart on Super Nintendo. Released five year earlier on less advanced hardware, Super Mario Kart boasted twenty racetracks, five races in one or two player Grand Prix, one-on-one Versus races, and its iconic Battle Mode which featured four maps of its own. And while Sonic R may have more characters available than Super Mario Kart did  – along with Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and Robotnik, you can also unlock robot versions of each character (sans Amy) as well as Super Sonic – each race here can only have five participants at a time, as opposed to Super Mario Kart’s eight. And while the characters in Mario Kart had differences in things like weight and acceleration, the characters of Sonic R often have unfair advantages over others (Robotnik can simply hover over bodies of water, which are entirely detrimental to Sonic and friends). In both concepts and execution, Sonic R feels greatly underdeveloped.

If I had to give credit to any of Sonic R’s ideas, it’s that it had an interesting attempt at adding an exploration element into the mix. As in the classic Sonic games, rings are scattered about everywhere, with their purpose this time around being unlocking doors that lead to shortcuts and hidden items. Each of the four starting stages houses one or two Chaos Emeralds, and five Sonic Coins.

“It should more appropriately say “We’re sorry you played.””

If you nab the Chaos Emeralds and claim first place, you get to keep the emeralds (which is much easier than it sounds, as the AI is so slow you can take your time hunting down these items and still end up lapping them). Collect every Chaos Emerald to unlock Super Sonic. Meanwhile, if you can collect all five coins on a stage in a single race, and get in at least third place, you’ll race one of the robot doppelgängers. Beat the metallic lookalike in their race and you unlock them. And for the curious, the fifth stage is unlocked simply by claiming first place in the four starting stages, with Robotnik being unlock upon victory in said secret stage.

But Diddy Kong Racing this is not. While these hidden goodies sound enticing in theory, the utterly chaotic, unfinished nature of the game itself makes their addition mean nothing. It’s like having sprinkles without the ice cream. And the implementation of these items is so half-assed anyway that you can unlock everything in about a half hour.

Some variety in the racetracks is attempted by means of having different aesthetic settings for the courses (such as nighttime or winter, the latter of which freezing water), but they ultimately have a minimal effect on the gameplay, and only serve as an outdated showcase of the Saturn’s graphical capabilities. Apparently there wasn’t enough time to design more levels or polish the gameplay, but at least the developers found time to add rain effects to the courses.

The one element of Sonic R that I will admit is enjoyable is the music. Now, it isn’t genuinely awesome music as in the Genesis Sonic games. Rather, Sonic R’s soundtrack is when the music of the series began to enter “so bad it’s good” territories. Each race track comes equipped with a cheesy theme song with surprisingly high production values (a la the early seasons of the Pokemon dub) that may give you a bit of earworm.

“You’re winner!”

Sonic R was a bad game in its day, and its lack of quality has only been magnified in the years since its 1997 release. To say Sonic R failed at being a Mario Kart killer is a gross understatement. At the very least, Sonic can take solace knowing that he eventually found himself in one of the better Mario Kart clones in Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and its sequel. But the damage done by Sonic R was so great that it took Sonic and friends a good, long while before they reached that point (and even when they did, they were still ultimately not Mario Kart).

It’s hard to imagine how a Sonic racing game could go wrong, let alone this wrong. But Sonic R is indeed one of the worst racing games of all time.

 

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Tails’ Adventure Review

*Review based on Tails’ Adventure’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*

The Sega Game Gear may not be the most remembered handheld of its day -being in the shadow of the wild success of Nintendo’s Game Boy – but it did have its moments. One of the more fun ideas to come out of the Game Gear was giving Sonic’s two-tailed fox sidekick Tails some games of his own. A duo of titles starring Tails were released on the Game Gear. One of those titles, Tails’ Skypatrol, was a bit of a disaster. The other, Tails’ Adventure, however, displays some fun ideas. And though the passage of time has worn Tails’ Adventure down a bit, its ambitions are still quite admirable.

While Skypatrol was an auto-scrolling flight game whose ideas never seemed to mesh together, Tails’ Adventure has a much clearer focus on what it wants to be.

Tails’ Adventure is a side scrolling platformer, but greatly deviates from the norms of Sonic games at the time. While Sonic’s platformers were focused on action and speed, Tails’ Adventure is much slower and built around exploration. To be more precise, Tails’ Adventure follows the Metroidvania route, with Tails progressively improving his abilities, and finding new items so he can access previously unaccessible areas.

At the start of the game, Tails’ only means of attack is throwing an endless supply of bombs at enemies (the game takes place before Tails met Sonic, and thus hasn’t yet learned the speed or spinning attacks from the blue blur). But you’ll quickly start finding more weapons and items hidden throughout the game’s stages. You’ll find ‘Super Gloves’ to lift heavy object, additional bomb types, a hammer for melee attacks, and a remote-controlled robot dog who can crawl in small spaces.

Once you gain new items and weapons, you’ll often have to revisit a previous level to see if there are any new paths you can find with the tools you’ve gained. Tails can only hold four of these items at a time, however, and in between stages, players have to return to Tails’ lab to choose which four items they want to bring with them.

Additionally, Tails can find the Chaos Emeralds, which essentially level up our two-tailed hero, RPG style. Rings still serve as health as they do in the Sonic games. But here the rings aren’t gathered and lost in bulk, but are more like hit points. At the start of the game, Tails has a maximum of ten hit points, with each Chaos Emerald claimed adding ten more to that maximum. Similarly, Tails retains his ability to fly by using his tails like a propellor, but can only do so as long as he has stamina. As you may have guessed, the Chaos Emeralds also add to Tails’ stamina bar.

It’s actually a pretty fun progression system. It adds a bit of depth to the experience and while simultaneously differentiating it from Sonic’s games, and still being simple enough to feel at home in a handheld game in the mid-90s. The concept may not be as refined as it is in Metroid or as it would be in Castlevania (being released in 1995, Tails’ Adventure predates Symphony of the Night by two years), but it’s fun and creative.

Sadly, as enticing as the game is in concept, much of its execution has felt the effects of aging.

As stated, the game is slower than Sonic’s outings, but Tails perhaps moves a bit too slowly, to the point that it makes the platforming a bit annoying (yes, you can usually fly from one platform to the next, but the game will often throw a wrench in that plan, like a strong gust of wind, to leave Tails reliant on traditional platforming). One item you get during the game are shoes to make you run faster. It sounds like the shoes would solve this issue, except they have to be equipped in the lab like the other items (thus taking up a spot for an item better suited for exploration), and still need to be selected to be used (meaning you can’t attack with them in use). Additionally, using the shoes has an awkward feel to it. Instead of just holding the action button to run while moving, you have to hit the action button at the same time you move for a quick burst of speed, but Tails won’t keep the momentum if he changes direction. It has a very clunky start-stop feel to it.

Other issues are typical design pitfalls: spikes or lava being placed just out of view, leading to some “leap of faith” moments. The boss fights are repetitious and uneventful. And it would be nice if the game gave some description of the items once you’ve claimed them (it took me a while to realize what the Super Glove did, as it does nothing unless there’s a liftable object right in front of you, with not even an audial or visual cue to let you know you’re pressing the action button in vain).

Perhaps the most unfortunate drawback of the game are the submarine stages. While most levels are played as Tails on foot (or in the air, as it were), others are played underwater as Tails pilots the “Sea-Fox.” Similar to the general gameplay, you get new weapons and enhancements for the submarine, but the constant stopping and switching between items feels out of place with the faster paced submarine sections. And to be blunt, the Sea-Fox levels just don’t seem as well thought out on the whole.

So many of its gameplay elements haven’t aged gracefully in execution, but that doesn’t mean they were inherently bad. Considering Tails’ Adventure was a handheld title in 1995, its emphasis on exploration and character progression are admirable. And given its hardware limitations, the game looks and sounds great. The visuals are on par with the Genesis Sonic titles, and while the soundtrack may not match Sonic’s ventures, it’s fun and catchy in its own right. Sure, it may stink that Tails still isn’t allowed to fight the same level of villains as Sonic, at least the antagonists this time around have a consistent theme (robot ducks!) and aren’t a random hodgepodge like in Skypatrol.

If you’re comparing it with many of the platformers and Metroidvanias that have been released in the two and a half decades since, it’s hard to say Tails’ Adventure stacks up. But its ambitions and ideas make it easy to respect and appreciate. Tails’ Adventure may not boast the timeless appeal of the Genesis Sonic games, but it’s a game that still deserves some applause in its own right. It’s actually a shame this was the end of the road for Tails, and he’d soon be relegated back to being Sonic’s player two forever more. If only  sequels were allowed to build on Tails’ Adventure’s foundation, Tails may be flying high right now.

 

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Tails’ Skypatrol Review

*Review based on Tails’ Skypatrol’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection for Nintendo GameCube*

There are plenty of bad games out there, but it takes a special kind of bad game to make me think “what the hell am I even doing?” while playing it. Tails’ Skypatrol is one such game. One of only two Sonic spinoff’s to star the blue blur’s sidekick, Tails (both of which were released on the Game Gear handheld), Skypatrol takes the two-tailed fox in a unique direction for the series. One that really didn’t pay off in any way, shape, or form.

On paper, Tails’ Skypatrol is a simple auto-scrolling flying game, in which Tails is constantly on the move, and players having to avoid obstacles in order to get to the end of the stage. It sounds simple enough, but actually playing the game proves to be a whole other beast entirely.

Seeing as Tails is now constantly in the air, he can no longer use his usual rolling attacks from the Sonic the Hedgehog games. Instead, Tails comes equipped with a ring which he can throw at enemies like a boomerang. Okay, so things still don’t sound too bad, but here’s where things get completely batty.

The stages are filled with items and obstacles which can help or hinder Tails, but he can only grab these items and obstacles while the ring is in his hand. If the ring is currently flung at an enemy, Tails can’t pick anything up or interact with objects around him.

There are more than a few issues with this approach, not least of which being that the game seems inconsistent in acknowledging when the ring is and isn’t in Tails’ hands. It seems like after the ring returns to Tails, there’s oftentimes an awkward window of time where Tails still can’t interact with things, but sometimes there isn’t. The game’s core mechanics are finicky and indecisive, which naturally makes for an aggravating experience.

This is made all the worse by the fact that if Tails makes contact with any wall or floor, he dies. It’s very reminiscent of Silver Surfer on NES in this regard, and every bit as annoying. The one thing that’s less frustrating here than in Silver Surfer is that enemy fire doesn’t immediately kill Tails (robot lasers aren’t as deadly as lightly bumping into a wall, apparently). Instead, when struck by an enemy, Tails will tumble to the floor. If he makes contact with the floor, he dies, but you can get your altitude back simply by pressing any button. Have you ever heard of a video game where you can prevent death simply by pressing a button?

Another price for getting hit by an enemy is that it takes away from Tails’ flight meter. If the flight meter runs out, Tails will crash to the floor and no amount of pressing a button will save him. What’s even worse, however, is that throwing the ring at enemies also uses some of the flight meter. And yes, the meter even depletes on its own over time.

You can refill the flight meter by grabbing candy. But guess what? The candy is found on the floor! So you’ll often die trying to get the candy because you bump into the floor while getting it. Do you think maybe, in a game in which the character is constantly flying and dies if they touch the ground, the healing items should have been floating in the air?!

I can at least respect what the developers were attempting with some of the game’s obstacles, but suffice to say the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Having Tails grab a heavy weight to fall fast before hitting a wall, or grabbing a balloon to slow his ascent, and things of that nature seem like they’d add to the auto-scrolling gameplay. But the atrocious level design completely takes away any positives these elements may have otherwise provided.

The level design is simply the final nail in the coffin of Tails’ Skypatrol. The game has a sadistic trial-and-error approach, and requires the player to lose repeatedly and simply memorize what’s ahead in order to make any progress. There are downright cheap tactics deployed at every turn, like flight refilling candy placed at a dead end, which you can’t tell is a dead end until it’s too late. There are objects to latch onto that sometimes help, and sometimes hinder Tails’ progress, so attempting them is a total gamble (even more so when you remember that Tails doesn’t always grab objects as he’s supposed to). And it’s often difficult to tell when a background or foreground object is there for decoration, or if Tails can crash into it and die. It’s all just one leap of faith after another until you have the brutality memorized.

“Seriously? That guy wouldn’t even be a good villain in a breakfast cereal commercial!”

Admittedly, the visuals were decent at the time, though the music is entirely forgettable. To add a cherry on top of it all, Tails isn’t even allowed to fight Dr. Robotnik’s forces. Instead, the villain is some generic witch and a trio of google-eyed animals. It’s like the developers went out of their way to make Tails look bad.

Poor Tails. Always in Sonic’s shadow, and when he finally gets the chance to shine, this is what he gets? Then again, perhaps Tails’ problems are his own doing. I mean, if simply bumping into a wall while flying can kill him, maybe Tails should just stop flying. And if that ring he’s holding can latch onto things to hinder him, maybe he should just drop the damn ring! Is he stupid or something?

 

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