Category Archives: Xbox

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 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, as well as featuring 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

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Cuphead Review

Cuphead certainly looks unlike any game that came before it, replicating the distinct look of a 1930s cartoon down pat, right down to the grainy picture quality and surrealistic character designs. The music and sounds also have that muffled, “in a tunnel” quality of the slapstick cartoons of the era. Cuphead is brought to life through completely hand-drawn visuals. From its shockingly fluid character sprites to its cel animated backgrounds, Cuphead is a wonder to see in action. It may not be the first game to use hand-drawn visuals, but no video game has earned the right to be called an interactive cartoon quite like Cuphead.

Simply put, Cuphead is on an aesthetic level that’s all its own, and it may be a good number of years before another game showcases a similar level of visual inventiveness.

Of course, all the aesthetic pleasures in the world wouldn’t mean much if the game they contained couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Thankfully, Cuphead is a more than capable gameplay experience, even if its action can’t quite capture the same magic as its eye-popping visuals.

Players take control of Cuphead, an old-timey cartoon figure who – as his name implies – has a cup for a head; while a second player can take control of his brother, Mugman. These two characters live on Inkwell Isle, under the watchful eye of Elder Kettle. One day, while Elder Kettle is asleep, the two mischievous brothers sneak into a casino. After at first securing a winning streak, the casino’s owner is revealed to be the Devil, who raises the stakes on Cuphead’s gambling. After Cuphead makes a bad roll, the Devil demands their souls as payment. The brothers plea for another way out of the mess, and the Devil promises he’ll let them go, if they can secure the souls of others who owe the Devil a debt. So Cuphead and Mugman set out to defeat the debtors, and find a way to get out of their contract with the Devil.

It’s a silly plot, but perfectly in tune with the 1930s cartoons that inspired it. People often seem to misremember old cartoons as being more innocent than they actually were. Many old cartoons, even those starring the “squeaky clean” Mickey Mouse, often saw their cute characters go through some extreme circumstances before they learned a lesson, and it’s great to see how Cuphead manages to capture the tone of its inspirations, and that the 1930s cartoon feel doesn’t stop at the visuals.

In regards to gameplay, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer, with a particular emphasis on its boss fights. Cuphead and Mugman can shoot magic from their fingers, and can perform a “parry” action by pressing the jump button against pink objects while in midair. The more damage the heroes do to enemies, the more a special meter builds up in the form of playing cards, with a successful parry automatically achieving a full card. Cuphead can use stronger attacks by using a single card, but if you wait until you have a full five cards, you can unleash a super attack.

Along the adventure, Cuphead can purchase new types of guns (or magic blasts, whatever you want to call them). You can equip two such guns at a time, and can swap between those equipped by the press of a button. Additionally, you can also buy items that provide other benefits, such as additional hitpoints (the standard is three, but you can up it to four or five), or the ability to hit an automatic parry during a jump. To prevent the heroes from becoming overpowered, however, you can only equip one such item at a time.

There are three types of levels in Cuphead: the standard run and gun platforming stages, boss stages, and bullet hell boss stages (differentiated by Cuphead and Mugman piloting an airplane in an autoscrolling level).

The boss fights are the meat of the game, with most stages being gauntlets of either multiple bosses, or individual boss enemies who go through multiple phases. Perhaps most notable is how creative many of these boss fights are. Despite Cuphead’s simplistic gameplay mechanics, the creativity on display with every boss fight makes them constantly surprising, and every last boss is distinct from the others.

On the downside of things, the platforming stages aren’t remotely as fun, and it seems that the developers were well aware of that, seeing as there are only six of them in the entire game. I wouldn’t say these stages are flat-out bad, but they fail to replicate the quality and creativity found in the boss battles, and feel really bland by comparison.

In terms of challenge, Cuphead is as deceptively sinister as the cartoons that inspired it. Its opening tutorial is perhaps the easiest I’ve ever played, but once you step into the actual game, it can get incredibly punishing. Cuphead’s steep difficulty curve means it certainly isn’t a game for everyone. You won’t find any checkpoints in the boss fights or the levels, so if you die, it’s back to the starting line. And some of the bosses are unrelenting in the amount of alternate forms they take and how many projectiles they throw at you at once. Thankfully, as challenging as it is, the difficulty is mostly fair (I only felt there were two boss fights where it seemed like there were a distracting amount of going-on on screen).

The bosses do include a “simple” option where you’ll only face off against their first few phases at the expense of not getting their soul contract and, subsequently, being unable to progress until you try the actual thing (making the simple mode more of a practice mode than anything).

With how painstakingly long it takes to create hand-drawn animation, Cuphead is an understandably short game, with only three “proper” worlds and a fourth world that consists of one particularly lengthy gauntlet and a battle with the Devil himself. But for the most part, Cuphead is a blast while it lasts. The standard stages may be a little bland, but the boss encounters are one delight after another. And in terms of style, Cuphead is second to none.

 

8.0

Sonic Mania Review

Sonic the Hedgehog is back!

It feels so good to be able to say that again, but it’s finally happened. Sonic the Hedgehog now has a new title to his name that lives up to the series’ most iconic entries on the Sega Genesis! In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Sonic Mania outdoes them.

Back in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog hit the gaming scene, and quickly became a video game icon. Sonic was to be Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario, and indeed, for a few years, Sonic was even more popular than Nintendo’s famous plumber.

But it was not to last. While Sonic’s first several outings on the Sega Genesis (and its add-ons) are still highly revered even today, what he’s done since then has been a little less consistent. Mario proved to be a jack of all trades, seamlessly making the jump to 3D with Super Mario 64, transitioning into other genres with the likes of Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG, and still producing some of the best titles in gaming decades later with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Sonic, on the other hand, felt lost in time.

Though Sonic initially looked poised to replicate Mario’s versatility, the series would soon lose its footing. There wasn’t a proper Sonic title to be had on the Sega Saturn (and that console’s would-be Mario Kart, Sonic R, was a bit of a disaster), and though the Sonic Adventure titles on the Dreamcast were praised in their day, time hasn’t been kind to them, exposing utterly chaotic camerawork and more than a few notable technical issues. After that, Sonic became a multiplatform series once Sega went the third-party route, and things didn’t ease up for the blue blur.

During these years, Sega would try all kinds of experiments with their mascot. Some of these experiments worked to a degree, while others were all-time lows for the series. In many cases, it seemed like the Sonic franchise just leached its way onto anything, and that the developers at Sega would rather be making something else entirely (quite literally in the case of the infamous “Sonic the Hedgehog ’06”).

Whatever Sonic games that did shine during this time were those that played closest to the Genesis playbook, with Sonic Colors and Generations becoming fan favorites. Though sometimes Sega could get carried away with the nostalgia card, with the two episodes of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” feeling like watered down, clunky versions of the classic template.

But now, we have Sonic Mania, and it’s a thing of beauty.

“Sonic Mania even includes an anime-style opening a la Sonic CD.”

Released as part of an extended 25th anniversary celebration to the franchise, Sonic Mania is perhaps a better gift to the series and its fans than they could have even asked for. Sonic Mania is everything Sonic should be.

Though Sonic Mania is published by Sega, its development team consists of notable members of the Sonic fan-game community. The game was helmed by Christian Whitehead, who was famously recruited by Sega to port a number of the classic Sonic titles to mobile platforms, and teamed by PagodaWest and Headcanon, who have a few Sonic fan-games to their resume.

I’m not sure whether it’s poetic or ironic that it literally took the fans to create the best Sonic game in over two decades, but the end results prove that Sonic Mania truly is a labor of love by people who love the franchise, for people who love the franchise.

First there are the obvious connections to the Genesis classics; the 16-bit visuals and character sprites make the game feel like a proud follow-up to Sonic’s initial outings, albeit taking advantage of modern hardware to make for some dazzling effects that weren’t possible back in the day. Additionally, the majority of Sonic Mania’s “Zones” are new versions of those found in Sonics 1, 2 and 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD. Some such “remixed” Zones even use the templates of their original forms, but with some new additions and tweaks, so that even when Sonic Mania is at its most comfortably familiar, it’s still full of surprises.

“Here’s the final boss from Sonic 2 in the first level of Sonic 1.”

For example, the game begins in Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone. While that first-ever level of the franchise has been countlessly recreated in recent years, it’s never been done so poetically as it is here. The Green Hill Zone begins almost identically to how it did back in 1991, until suddenly you notice one of Sonic 3’s magnetic shields in place of Sonic 1’s standard force field, and the corkscrew loops from Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone are at play. Alterations such as this are just the tip of the ice burg, as Sonic Mania is constantly finding ways to reinvent what we know about Sonic’s past.

That’s not to say Sonic Mania is simply falling back on nostalgia, however, as it also includes level design that is entirely its own. Along with a few brand new Zones unique to Mania, the second “act” within the returning zones are less remixed, and more built from the ground up. Sonic Mania really is the perfect marriage of the old and the new for the franchise.

The gameplay is, once again, Sonic at its purest (and best) form. Players can select Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, each with their own abilities (Sonic is fastest and now has a “Drop Dash” move to keep momentum after jumping, while Tails can temporarily fly and Knuckles being able to glide and climb up walls). You’ll run through stages collecting rings, which once again work as a kind of health system (get hit and you lose your rings, get hit without rings and you’re dead). You can collect the aforementioned force fields and shields from Sonic 3 (magnet shields pull in rings and grant a double jump, fire shields give a charging attack and can burn through certain obstacles, and bubble shields allow you to breath under water and jump higher). There’s also a new power-up in the form of blue rings, which are something like a ‘ring insurance.’ The blue rings will make sure that, the next time Sonic gets hit, he can still reclaim every last ring he held by clumping them together in a few giant rings. The blue ring may not sound like much, but in those times when you make a little mistake that would have otherwise cost you hundreds of rings, it becomes a godsend.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 16-bit Sonic title without some 3D bonus stages. If you can reach a checkpoint with twenty-five rings secured, you can jump into a halo above said checkpoint and play a new version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s famous Blue Sphere mini-games (and yes, they’re as hard as ever). Should you complete a Blue Sphere mini-game, you are rewarded with bonuses such as new game modes and unlockable content.

“Sega Saturn FTW!”

But Sonic Mania once again goes beyond the call of duty by including a second such bonus stage, this one brand new (albeit inspired by Sonic CD). If you can find a giant ring hidden in a stage, you are transported to one of these new bonus stages, where Sonic (or Knuckles or Tails) have to catch up to a UFO to claim a Chaos Emerald. These bonus stages have you collecting blue spheres to pick up speed to reach the UFO, while also gathering rings to put more time on the clock, all while being presented in Sega Saturn-inspired visuals.

Another iconic attribute of the Sonic games were the soundtracks. And good heavens, does Sonic Mania deliver on that front. Once again the creation of a series fan (Tee Lopes, famous for covers of various Sonic tracks), the soundtrack to Sonic Mania includes stellar remixes from Sonic’s past (each returning zone gets a different remix for both of its acts), while the brand new tracks are more than worthy successors to the franchise’s legendary music. Though the soundtrack takes most of its cues from Sonic CD – which up to this point had the best soundtrack in the series, hands down – it also feels distinctly its own. It may even be my favorite gaming soundtrack of 2017 and, yes, it may even top Sonic CD for the title of “best Sonic music ever.”

If I had to nitpick anything about Sonic Mania (and you’d have to nitpick to have anything negative to say), it’s that some of the obstacles in the Flying Battery Zone feel a bit unruly and hard to predict, which lead to more than a few accidental fumbles; and the Hydrocity Zone can be a little on the confusing side. But again, any complaints to be had are minor.

“Old levels now feature new gimmicks, like these bouncing gels in the Chemical Plant Zone.”

Sonic Mania obviously plays the nostalgia card, it is so much more than simply a trip down Hedgehog memory lane. This is exactly the kind of sequel the franchise has been begging for for two decades, and the kind of Sonic experience Sega has tried to create themselves in the past, but couldn’t quite get right (Sonic Generations was probably their best attempt). This is the classic Sonic gameplay we all know and love, but it’s also smarter than the games that inspired it. The level designs – which contain so many alternate routes and introduce so many new gameplay gimmicks that they never lose a shred of their charm – are arguably the deepest in the series, and even have a Mario sense of exploration about them to track down their every last secret. And the boss fights are, bar none, the most consistently entertaining in the franchise. No matter how difficult (or easy) the boss fights got, they all provided something new and left their mark.

Sonic Mania is the game fans have waited ever so patiently for. It’s so lovingly crafted, and so well executed, that it may actually have you forgetting about Sonic’s missteps over the years and make you feel like the series never slowed down. From the obvious homages to the most esoteric of references, Sonic Mania oozes an unmistakeable love for all things Sonic (well, all the good things), and lives up to the very best games the blue hedgehog has ever starred in.

If Sonic Mania is anything to go by, then Sonic has finally returned, and in such fashion that it feels like he never left.

 

9.5

Blast Corps Review

*Review based on Blast Corp’s release as part of Rare Replay*

I mean this in the best possible way; Blast Corps feels like it was conjured up by an eight-year old boy who has run amok with his Hot Wheels toys. The concept goes like this: a runaway truck carrying nuclear warheads needs an escort to take it to safety. You’re in charge of getting said truck to safety. But there’s a catch; the truck is on auto-pilot, and its fixed path means it will crash into anything blocking its way, which will set off the nukes. So you have to demolish everything in the truck’s path in order to complete your mission.

Using an array of vehicles, you’ll break every building and construct that stands in the truck’s path; whether it be farm, factory, or even houses. Break everything that stands in the truck’s way, and you unlock the next few stages (which can be played in whatever order the player wishes). There are additional objectives in the stages, like rescuing every civilian from danger, and finding satellites hidden in every stage. There are also the occasional racing levels, and a few bonus stages which give you more unique objectives, like destroying a certain amount of buildings in a set time, or using a particular vehicle’s special ability on a set number of objects.

Blast Corps features a wide variety of vehicles to play as. Some are more simple, like a sports car that’s used to speed between areas, or a dump truck that knocks down buildings by swerving into them. Others are more extravagant, such as a missile-firing speeder bike, a truck that launches fists from both sides to punch objects, and even a few anime-style giant robots (one of which causes destruction by performing acrobatic flips).

When it comes to which vehicles you play as, there are three different kind of stages: many levels are built around a specific vehicle’s mechanics, and you must use that vehicle. Other levels will have you start out in a particular vehicle, but you’ll have to transfer to others in order to solve the level’s puzzles. Finally, there are levels where you are fixed to one vehicle, but have a selection to choose from before the level starts.

The simple concept behind Blast Corps allowed Rare to get really creative with how to expand it, with the different vehicles providing many different twists to the gameplay, and the level designs bringing out everything they can out of them. While the similar setup being reused for the majority of stages may have grown stale under less capable hands, Rare kept Blast Corps a game that consistently delights players with new ideas in its already original concept.

“The jetpacking, building-stomping mecha is one of the most fun vehicles. I just wish you got more chances to play it.”

There is a downside to this, however, in that not every vehicle brings out the best of the game. The aforementioned dump truck can be particularly tricky to use effectively, as swerving it just right so that its back smashes into buildings never really gets any easier. And yet, the dump truck seems to be the vehicle that you are forced to play as the most. The speeder bike can also be a bit unwieldy to control. Another downside comes in the form of the camera which, like many N64 titles, is less-than ideal.

All of these are ultimately small complaints, however, as the sheer fun and originality of Blast Corps elevate it to being one of those rare Nintendo 64 titles that’s a pure joy to revisit. What could have been a pretty mindless game about destruction quickly evolves into an engaging puzzler that will really test your skills. It’s really only a shame that it never received a sequel (especially considering a certain 2008 sequel to a certain other Rare franchise focused on vehicle construction, and probably would have been more warmly received as a follow-up to Blast Corps).

Though it was made by a small team of developers (four at minimum, seven at maximum), Blast Corps has the same sense of fun and charm as the biggest and best games of Rare’s heyday back in the mid-to-late 1990s. It may not be pretty to look at by modern standards, but Blast Corps is so entertaining and original you probably won’t care.

After all, this is a game in which an acrobatic anime robot can backflip buildings into oblivion to prevent a nuclear disaster. Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

8.5

Killer Instinct Gold Review

*Review based on Killer Instinct Gold’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Killer Instinct was Rare’s answer to the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat craze of the 1990s. Though it never reached the same popularity of those two series, Killer Instinct was a worthy third piece in this equation, with a strong emphasis on combos over its competing series (thus “C-C-C-Combo Breaker!” was born). However, Killer Instinct’s popularity was not to last. While Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have seen many iterations over the years, Killer Instinct only had two titles to its name back in the day (though the 2013 reboot has helped revive interest in the brand).

The first installment went from arcades to the SNES, while Killer Instinct II made its way to the Nintendo 64 in the form of Killer Instinct Gold. While Killer Instinct Gold can still provide some solid fighting gameplay, it does suffer from many of the shortcomings the genre suffered in the wake of Mortal Kombat’s influence.

In terms of mechanics, Killer Instinct Gold has many of the elements you would expect from the genre: characters have light attacks, heavy attacks, projectiles and special moves, which can be performed with a variety of button presses and combinations. The main draw to Killer Instinct, of course, was its emphasis on combos, with pretty much every characters’ moves being able to be linked together if the player can perform them quick enough.

The moves themselves are easy enough to use, though the game does suffer a bit from the stiff character movements that were frequently seen in fighters of the day (floaty jumps, some slowly-performed moves, etc.). The fighting can be fun, but its sense of character control certainly has a “for its day” feel to it.

Killer Instinct Gold, like most fighting games, is better played with a human opponent. You can certainly have more fun trying out combos  and doing battle with a friend than you can against a computer AI. Especially since Killer Instinct Gold follows Mortal Kombat’s lead in having AI opponents who can seemingly go against the game’s own rules, making single player bouts often feeling more unfair than fun.

If you’re playing Arcade mode, you may find that the computer opponents can interrupt your combos with ease, while you can’t seem to do anything about it if you get caught in your opponent doing the same thing. You’ll frequently be in the middle of an attack, only for the AI’s attack to take priority and render your move useless.

I even lowered the difficulty settings so I could try out different combos easier, and the computer was still able to to have its way more times than I’d like to admit. I’d get an opponent down to the tiniest shred of health, only for them to get a second wind and immediately bombard me with life-depleting combos. It’s one thing for a fighting game to be difficult, but in the case of Killer Instinct Gold, it seems like the rules just don’t apply to the AI. I have a friend who’s a big fan of Mortal Kombat, and even he admits that, in that game “the computer cheats.” And it’s basically the same story here in Killer Instinct Gold.

The single player modes greatly suffer due to this AI problem, but Killer Instinct Gold does have enough depth in its combat to help elevate the gameplay higher than it otherwise would be.

The character roster is a little bit of a mixed bag. Though the non-human characters standout – such as Spinal, a skeletal pirate; and Glacius, an alien being with ice powers – the human character designs feel downright uninspired and boring. Tusk, for example, looks like a first draft for a Conan the Barbarian type character, and the other humans look equally as rushed.

This inconsistency isn’t just found in the art direction, but in the visuals as well. While the character models use a similar pre-rendered look to the original game and Donkey Kong Country, and hold up pretty well, the 3D backgrounds have that glaringly dated N64 look. Of course, it’s hard to be too critical on the graphical limitations in the games of yesteryear, but the fact that the character models still look relatively impressive while the backgrounds look so ugly does make you wish Rare had just used one cohesive visual look.

While Killer Instinct Gold may provide some old-school fighting fun if you have another player by your side, the more dated elements do prevent it from being as timeless of a fighter as the Street Fighter games. Though I suppose it does boast more depth than the early Mortal Kombats, so you could say Killer Instinct falls in the middle of the 90s fighting trifecta.

 

6.0

Battletoads Arcade Review

*Review based on Battletoads Arcade’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Battletoads had all the makings of a solid franchise. From its distinct characters and attitude to its notable gameplay and difficulty, Battletoads should have went further than it did. Though the disgustingly-named toads Rash, Pimple and Zits have started popping up in games like Shovel Knight and the 2013 Killer Instinct reboot as of late, the Battletoads only had five total games, all of which were released in the first half of the 1990s.

The 1991 NES original is the most famous entry in the franchise, notorious for its excruciating difficulty. A watered-down Gameboy port soon followed. And in 1993 the Battletoads starred in two more games; Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, and the unique crossover title Battletoads & Double Dragon, both of which were on 16-bit platforms. Then in 1994, the currently-final entry in the series, the aptly-named Battletoads Arcade, made its way to arcades… and it bombed.

Yes, despite the popularity of the franchise, the Battletoads’ debut in arcade cabinets was a financial failure for Rare. So much so, that the game’s planned home console ports were cancelled. Battletoads Arcade’s disappointing sales may have even been the reason for Rare putting the franchise on the back-burner, where it still remains to this day.

That’s a damn shame, because Battletoads Arcade is a whole lot of fun, which more and more people have realized after the game made its quite-delayed home console debut as part of Rare Replay.

Battletoads Arcade, much like other entries in the series, is a beat-em-up. Even more so than the NES original, Battletoads Arcade is all about laying the smacketh down on hordes of enemies. You just go from one end of a stage to the other, pummeling any and all foes who stand in your way. It’s pure, unadulterated beat-em-up. It’s simple stuff, but very fun.

This arcade original is also notable for being one of the few games where players can actually play as all three toads (the other being the Double Dragon crossover). What’s even better is that the game supports three players, so all three toads can partake in the mayhem at the same time. All three toads play identically, through they each have their own animations for their attacks.

“Yes, the toads use these giant rats’ cojones as punching bags…”

Another aspect that sets Battletoads Arcade apart from its predecessors is that, being self-published by Rare onto arcade cabinets as opposed to another company’s home consoles, the game gets away with a lot more violence and gross-out humor. Blood now flies out of enemy rats as the toads punch them around and stomp them into oblivion, and Pimple has an attack in which he crushes a downed opponent’s head when his foot transforms into an anvil. There are also enemy rats that puke after getting punched in the gut, and in one stage, you can even find some rats using the toilet in the background (complete with sound effects). This is certainly the crudest and most violent Battletoads game, and may even feel like something of a precursor to Conker’s Bad Fur Day in terms of tone.

The gameplay is a whole lot of fun, and unlike the original Battletoads, very much welcomes additional players, with some of the stages feeling tailor-made with two and three players in mind. The graphics and animations are another highlight, with the Battletoads’ signature cartoonish transformations looking better than ever. And once again, the series is livened up with a killer score by David Wise.

There is, however, a bit of a drawback in that the game is only six stages long (that’s half as many as the NES original). Now, you expect an arcade beat-em-up to be on the short side, but Battletoads Arcade ends all too abruptly. After a comically lengthy boss fight against Robo Manus, one of the Dark Queen’s henchmen, the game ends. You don’t even get to fight the Dark Queen herself. I’m guessing the short length is due to the game’s difficulty, which in an arcade cabinet would surely gorge on coins or tokens. But the sudden end does kind of seem disappointing, and perhaps two or three additional levels could have added some extra heft and variety, with only the existing fourth and sixth stages changing up the gameplay styles as it is (the fourth level seeing the toads descending down a cavern via jetpacks, and the sixth stage having the toads taking part in a shoot-em-up with machine guns).

I mentioned that the game is difficult, and though I stand by that due to the epic boss fights, waves of enemies, and health-depleting mid-bosses. But, due to the game’s transition to a console, it’s also – strange as this may sound – kind of easy.

By that I mean that, although the game itself is quite challenging, you have infinite continues, and come back to life exactly where you died. Thankfully, you don’t have to fork over hard-earned cash to continue playing like you would in an arcade, but there really is no real penalty for dying. You’ll still die a lot, to be sure. But when enemies get the jump on you, you’re basically just slightly slowed down, without ever suffering a real defeat. But I suppose I’ll take that over the needlessly punishing quality of the original Battletoads any day.

Battletoads Arcade is an excellent beat-em-up. Though it’s all too short and all too easy to beat (despite its moment-to-moment challenge), it provides a great deal of fun, and manages to squeeze a decent amount of variety in the few stages it has. Top it of with crazy animations, a great soundtrack, and Battletoads co-op that’s actually enjoyable, you have a great, pick up and play experience on your hands.

The facts that it tanked in arcades and is still the last Battletoads game may be a bit disheartening, but its inclusion as part of Rare Replay has now brought the game to a wider audience, and its inclusion is one of the best pieces of the Rare Replay lineup.

Between you and me, I like it better than Turtles in Time.

 

8.0

Battletoads Review

*Review based on Battletoads’ release as part of Rare Replay*

 

Battletoads is the hardest video game ever made.

That’s an often repeated statement you’ll hear around the gaming community, and it’s a hard point to argue. I can’t think of another video game that demands so many actions to be pixel perfect, or that’s so unforgiving with its level design. Battletoads is on a level all its own in the realms of video game difficulty, with a challenge so incredibly steep that only the most dedicated players will see their way past the first few levels.

To put it simply, Battletoads is one tough bastard.

But is it any good? Well, that all depends. Battletoads is certainly a game that has a lot going for it: the core gameplay is fun, the levels are full of variety, and the music by David Wise is pretty awesome, and sounds a bit like a precursor to the composer’s later work in the Donkey Kong Country series. Not to mention the game has a fun attitude that serves as a pretty funny riff on the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles.

With all that said, Battletoads is also most certainly not a game everyone will enjoy simply because it is that damn difficult. Some levels even feel downright sadistic with their demands on the player. And in what has to be the single dumbest design choice in the game, if you have two players partnering up for the adventure at hand, you can (and most definitely will) hurt each other!

Essentially, Battletoads is a beat-em-up. Players can take control of two of the three Battletoads, Rash and Zits, as they embark on a quest through deep space to defeat the sexy Dark Queen and rescue a princess as well as their kidnapped comrade Pimple (I always wondered why Rare bothered to make three Battletoads characters since one of them always seems to be on the sidelines).

Though the game primarily serves as a beat-em-up, the levels quickly find ways to add variety to the mix. The second level sees the toads traveling downwards in a cavern via ropes, while the infamous third level (the game’s first massive difficulty spike) has players riding hover vehicles through a tunnel with rapidly appearing walls (with a single crash meaning instant death). Later levels include surfing, swimming through sewers, and racing giant rats down a construction building to reach bombs (this particular level being the bane of my existence).

The sheer variety is a constant delight, and even when Battletoads is settling in its traditional beat-em-up stages, it still proves to be fun, especially because of the comical animations (which were quite impressive for their time). If you run and attack an enemy, the toads’ heads will cartoonishly turn into ram horns, and after you smack a foe into the ground, you can kick him into oblivion when your toad’s foot transforms into a giant boot.

Simply put, the gameplay, when taken on its own merits, is fun. But the ridiculous difficulty will no doubt prove alienating to many players. The third stage alone will exhaust all of your lives and continues several times over. And should you somehow manage to make it to the later stages, well, good luck is all I can say.

The aforementioned sewer stage includes sections where you run from giant gears, which will instantly kill you if they get too close. But these gears are fast, and will always seem to be trailing inches behind your character, and when they start chasing you upward, you might find yourself shouting obscenities you may have forgotten you knew, because the jumps you need to make have to be one-hundred percent accurate in order to keep your momentum going and survive the gear. I wish I could say I were exaggerating, but if you’re even a split second off, you’re dead.

Anyone who actually managed to conquer these levels in the game’s original NES release definitely have my respect. How they managed to master such trial-and-error after so many game overs sent them back to the start of the game, I’ll never know.

The Rare Replay release includes a neat way to avoid having to start over, however. Along with being able to save your progress at any time, Battletoads – like the other early titles included in Rare Replay – gives players the ability to rewind up to ten seconds. So while you will most assuredly die and die again, you can, at the very least, rectify most of your deaths  without having to go back to a checkpoint or getting a game over. It was only with this rewind feature that I was able to complete that infamous third level. You may say that I cheated, but as far as I’m concerned, Battletoads cheated first with how long that level drags on, how fast your vehicle ends up going, and how fast walls start appearing right in front of you.

Besides, the rewinding can only help you so much. It still took me countless tries to get those jumps with the gears just right (and even then, I think I got lucky more than I had them figured out). And to be honest, the rewinding ability still hasn’t helped me conquer that dreaded Rat Race stage. Those rats run so fast that rewinding isn’t going to do much other than have you reliving the sight of a giant rat zooming past a humanoid toad over and over. Even if you manage to hit the rats (which, again, requires one-hundred percent precision), you only buy yourself less than a second’s time, since the rats move so fast that, when they hit a wall and turn back around, they’re just going to speed past you all over again.

Yes, even with the rewind feature, I still can’t beat Battletoads. Normally, I like to beat a game before I write the review, but cheat codes and level skips certainly help in seeing enough of Battletoads to write about it. I fear I might otherwise never make it past those rats.

“They are going to die…probably by each other’s hands.”

The disappointing thing is, with a game this difficult, it was just begging to be played with two people working together to help get through it. But then Rare decided to troll gamers by making the Toads able to hit each other, which will result in countless unintentional deaths from each other on top of all the ones you are going to get from enemies and obstacles. What’s worse, the players share lives and continues, so if the players end up accidentally killing each other repeatedly, you’re going to start the whole game over. With a single player, Battletoads feels close to impossible. With two players… it might very well be.

Now we go back to the question “is Battletoads any good?” Honestly, I feel like depending on when you ask me, my answer could be very different. For all the things it does right in gameplay, variety and music, it almost seems to want to turn players away with its frequently unreasonable challenge.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so stumped as to how to score a video game at the end of my review. When playing through Battletoads again, there were times when I felt I’d rate it as high as a 7.5, and times when I felt it was unrelenting to the point that it took away much of the enjoyment, and that something like a 5.5 (or lower) might be more fitting. In the end I’ve decided to settle on a middle ground between those mentioned numbers with a 6.5. Though depending on when you ask me, I might tell you Battletoads is better or worse than I grade it here.

While the challenges Battletoads throws at its players often require them to be one-hundred percent accurate, my ultimate feelings for the game are anything but.

 

6.5