I hate to admit it, but I kind of hate what Super Smash Bros. has become.
I know, I’ve complained a lot about Super Smash Bros. in the past. But I finally think I best understand where my disillusionment with the series lies. In the past, I’ve not-entirely joked about my disdain for the overabundance of “anime sword guys” in the series, and I stand by those complaints in that their execution lacks variety. But that’s ultimately only a critique. My real issue with the series is actually much deeper than that.
Super Smash Bros. simply isn’t the same series it once was. By that, I mean that it no longer feels like the “Nintendo fighter” that it used to be. In its earlier entries, Super Smash Bros. was all about Nintendo’s history, pitting the company’s many characters against each other in bouts that were one part 2D fighter, one part Mario Kart, and one part sumo wrestling. The series was as much a love letter to Nintendo history as much as it was a combination of a party game and a fighter.
That “Nintendo-ness” has been lost to the series in more recent entries: There are no longer trophies that give brief glimpses to the deeper nooks and crannies of Nintendo’s back catalogue. The once simple arcade-style single player modes are replaced with overblown “story” modes with cinematics that look more like something out of Kingdom Hearts than Super Smash Bros. And while the series used to pluck Nintendo characters like Ness or the Ice Climbers out of obscurity, these days we instead just get more and more third-party characters who have less and less to do with Nintendo. The franchise now feels like it’s more about the hype than the history, with each subsequent third-party addition getting a more over-produced reveal trailer than the last.
I know, by now you’re probably ready to jump down my throat for being a Nintendo fanboy. But this isn’t a case of “X company is better than Y,” it’s a simple matter of a series forgetting what it once was. Super Smash Bros. is bigger than ever, but it’s kind of lost sight of its original purpose as it expanded.
I miss the humbler days of Super Smash Bros. Back when the inclusion of someone like King Dedede was considered a big deal, because he was a classic Nintendo character. Nowadays Super Smash Bros. just seems like it’s trying to get bigger and bigger, gluttonously trying to snag as many of the biggest names from other people’s games as it can get.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the idea of third-party characters being included in Super Smash Bros. But I do think the series has gone too far in this direction, and needs to take a few steps back in this department. Back in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (the first entry to introduce characters from outside of Nintendo) they made it a point to keep the third-party characters to a minimum (it had two). Now, they just can’t stop adding them. It’s kind of polluted the whole point of the series.
It isn’t just the number of third-party characters that’s diluted the Nintendo aspect of Super Smash Bros. on its own, but who they’re selecting. I liked the idea Sakurai and company had going into Brawl, that the third-party characters had to have some history with Nintendo (which makes the fact that Solid Snake was the first such character added a little odd, since his presence on Nintendo consoles wasn’t too expansive). I think maybe, going forward, the series should look back and double-down on that notion, and the third-party characters should at least have strong ties to Nintendo’s own history. Mega Man and Simon Belmont make all the sense in the world. When you think of third-party games in Nintendo’s early years, that’s immediately who you’d think of. Banjo-Kazooie also makes perfect sense, given that Rare was probably the most beloved and prolific second-party Nintendo ever had (they basically carried the N64).
Those characters’ series all played a key role in Nintendo’s history, so they still feel like they fit in to the proceedings. They may not have been made by Nintendo themselves, but their association with the Big N is so strong they feel right at home in Super Smash Bros. The same can’t really be said about Final Fantasy VII, Fatal Fury, Persona, Tekken or Minecraft. That’s not to say anything against those games (well, maybe Final Fantasy VII), and some of them have appeared on Nintendo consoles at one point or another. But you can’t really make an argument that they are as much a part of Nintendo’s history as Mega Man or Castlevania.
Now I know people will really want to thrash me, and accuse me of being “salty” that my favorite character didn’t make it or whatever. Lord knows the Sakurai Defense Force grab their torches and pitchforks and spread their toxicity whenever someone shows the smallest modicum of disappointment in the series. I personally don’t find it unreasonable if someone is disappointed in a game about fanservice when said game fails to deliver on that fanservice. But that’s besides the point. The point is that Super Smash Bros. now just feels like a big hype machine, a shallow commercial more focused on the promotion of other people’s games and the production values of its own trailers than it is about, you know, Nintendo characters fighting.
I’ve heard some people claim that Super Smash Bros. “isn’t about Nintendo history anymore” as a means of defending the series. But that’s exactly the problem! There used to be a spirit of playfulness and inventiveness to the series, a trait shared by other Nintendo staples like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. And that just isn’t present anymore. The heart and soul of Super Smash Bros. has all but disappeared as it becomes more and more about shallow, meaningless hype.
Think back to the original Super Smash Bros. No one knew who this Ness kid was. You could almost hear the collective “What the hell is EarthBound?” of everyone who played it. Then there’s the reveal trailer for Super Smash Bros. Melee, which introduced Princess Peach, Bowser and Zelda to the series, then turned around and also reminded fans of the existence of the Ice Climbers! Even when Brawl introduced Solid Snake to the series (whose reveal seems as tame as a kitten compared to what we have now), it did so only after bringing in Wario, Meta Knight, Zero Suit Samus and a freshly-resurrected Pit from Kid Icarus.
These were all eclectic combinations of classic Nintendo faces, as well as some that inspired players to look deeper into Nintendo’s history (or elicited delightful surprise to the few people who were aware of the more obscure characters ahead of time). Sure, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate brought in longtime requests Ridley and King K. Rool, and that was amazing. But then it all gets kind of diluted when the focus quickly shifts to a revolving door of third-party characters. There’s been so many third-party characters added through the game’s DLC, that Ridley and K. Rool’s welcome inclusions feel like they’ve been drowned.
Some people would say that they’re running out of Nintendo characters to use. Like hell they are! Series like Advance Wars and Golden Sun still go unrepresented, despite demand from fans (but those fans are naturally just supposed to shut up “because SepHiRoth!!1!”). There are characters like Stanley the Bugman or Muddy Mole that they could pluck from history. Hell, Takamaru from The Mysterious Murasame Castle has been considered for inclusion into Super Smash Bros. in the past, but was rejected for “not being as recognized as other Nintendo characters.” Since when was recognizability a factor? Good thing Ness and Pit made it in when they did, I guess.
Point being, there’s no shortage of Nintendo history that can still be drawn upon to be included as playable characters in Super Smash Bros. It’s just that Nintendo and Sakurai and whoever else choose to focus on the big names they can get elsewhere. It was fun for a while, but by this point, it’s kind of robbed Super Smash Bros. of what made it special to begin with.
The fans who want to see these characters from Nintendo’s past often seem to get bullied online by Super Smash Bros’ strangely zealous defenders, since those characters “don’t have a chance” to make it. Funny, because in the Super Smash Bros. of old, those are exactly the kind of characters who would make it. Resurrecting characters from the obscure corners of Nintendo’s history is the most “Super Smash Bros.” thing imaginable. Or at least it was back when the series was actually about Nintendo characters (it may be worth pointing out that learning the reason for Takamura’s exclusion was what brought me to the realization of what’s wrong with Super Smash Bros’ current mentality).
It isn’t just the characters though, but the gameplay of Super Smash Bros. itself seems to care less and less about the items, the stage gimmicks, and all the Mario Kart-esque party elements that separated Super Smash Bros. from other fighters in the first place. I think the competitive gaming scene has had a largely negative influence on the Super Smash Bros. series (I would argue competitive gaming has had a negative impact on a lot of other series as well, but let’s stick to Super Smash Bros. for now). I don’t have a problem with people who want to play Super Smash Bros. as a competitive game (I myself often played the series on flat stages with little to no items). But let’s be real here: Super Smash Bros. was never a hardcore fighter. While it’s admittedly a good thing that the series has had more of a focus on character balance in recent entries, that’s one of the few positives as much of the series’ appeal has been lost as it caters more and more to the competitive crowd.
Take, for example, the WarioWare stage. In Brawl, if you were playing on the WarioWare stage with AI opponents, and one of the stage’s “micro-games” showed up – asking the combatants to play along with its goofy instructions – the AI would follow those instructions, because it was like WarioWare. That was the appeal unique to that level. That was the kind of playfulness the series used to have. In Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, however, if you do the same thing, the AI opponent will ignore the WarioWare rules and just keep fighting because hardcore fighter!
Where’s the charm? Where’s the personality?
They’ve been lost, unfortunately. Lost to Super Smash Bros’ insistence on being taken seriously as a competitive fighter, and its even more egregious ambitions of being a hype machine.
It’s almost like Super Smash Bros. has had a direct opposite trajectory as Paper Mario in regards to the changes the series has made over time, but both have been damaging to their respective series’ heart: Paper Mario continues to strip away its depth to the point of being an empty shell of its former self, while Super Smash Bros. just keeps adding bells and whistles to the point that it’s lost its identity as Nintendo’s take on the fighter.
Again, some people claim that Super Smash Bros. is now something more than it once was, as it now encompasses video games as a whole. I’d argue that it’s become too much, and that less would actually be more at this point. Give me the smaller, more creative Super Smash Bros. over its garish, Esports-pandering current self any day.
Some even argue that Super Smash Bros. is bigger than “just Nintendo” at this point, but does it really have to be?
Personally, once the DLC characters for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are good and done with, I hope Nintendo, Sakurai and everyone else involved take a good, hard look at the series. After Ultimate, I’d love to see the next installment go back to its roots. Yes, that means cutting a lot of the fat which yes, means cutting back on characters like Cloud, Sephiroth, Joker, Terry, Steve and Kazuya. Will that disappoint some people? Sure. But hey, at least those characters had their time in the sun. Besides, their fans seemed to relish in rubbing the disappointment of other people in their faces, so I can’t say I’d feel too bad for them.
Let’s have the next Super Smash Bros. include the original N64 cast, and those of Melee and Brawl as well, but maybe be a little more selective of the characters from subsequent entries. Characters like Mega Man, Simon Belmont and Banjo-Kazooie can stay. But let’s really try to keep it to a minimum with the third-party choices. A few new characters who actually have meaningful ties to Nintendo’s history can join in as well, whether they be recognizable or not. Let’s maybe have a few fun modes instead of trying to concoct this big, epic storyline that couldn’t be more out of place in this series. And let’s stop pretending that Super Smash Bros. should be some big ESports franchise, and bring back the playfulness and emphasis on fun of the earlier entries.
Super Smash Bros. would do well for itself to go back to basics. To self-reflect and realize it doesn’t have to be the hulking monstrosity it’s become. Just let it be Nintendo’s fun take on the fighter genre again. Maybe then it can reclaim its heart and soul, instead of just being the empty embodiment of hype.
It may have taken twenty-five years, but Space Jam finally has a sequel. Yes, the Looney Tunes are back on the basketball court in a high stakes game, this time starring LeBron James in place of Michael Jordan, for a more contemporary take on the concept. Though Space Jam: A New Legacy provides some zany fun and ironic entertainment, its profuse emphasis on Warner Brothers properties as a whole (as opposed to just the Looney Tunes) may prevent the film from being the Space Jam follow-up fans have been waiting two and a half decades for.
I guess, to be fair, the original 1996 Space Jam isn’t exactly what you would call a “good movie.” But it’s such a distinctly 90s absurdity that it has a certain appeal: It threw Michael Jordan – the most famous athlete in the world at the time – into a family comedy alongside the Looney Tunes. It was the kind of movie concept that no one seemed to question back in the 90s, but these days could only exist in the form of a nostalgic sequel to those times as evidenced by A New Legacy.
Interestingly, the original also seemed to add to the mystique of Michael Jordan himself. I’m not about to pretend that I know much about sports (I’m a nerd writing a blog about movies and video games, after all), but I do know that Michael Jordan is one of those rare individuals who seems to transcend their craft. Back when I was a kid during the days of the original Jam up to today, Michael Jordan has always been talked about as an almost mythic figure, and Space Jam leaned into that. Not only did it present Jordan as a kind of superhero who was needed to save the beloved cartoon characters, but the movie itself was basically a giant Michael Jordan vehicle. In particular, its soundtrack (specifically “I Believe I can Fly” and “Fly Like an Eagle”) feel more associated with Jordan than they do the film itself. Space Jam didn’t use Michael Jordan to sell itself, it used itself to promote Michael Jordan. Space Jam was effectively just a part of the Michael Jordan legend.
By contrast, Space Jam: A New Legacy kind of just recycles the original template, and features LeBron James as part of it. James is simply thrust into the events of this movie, as opposed to being its nexus. On the plus side, James is probably a better actor than Jordan.
The story here is that the very real LeBron James is having trouble connecting with his very fictional son Dom (Cedric Joe). LeBron wants his son to follow in his footsteps on the basketball court, while Dom wants to create video games. LeBron finds video games to be nothing but a distraction, with the film’s rather weak reasoning for this being that LeBron himself was briefly distracted by a Game Boy before a basketball game as a kid. But after his wife informs him that Dom has nearly finished creating his own game, LeBron starts to take interest in his son’s passion. Dom’s game is “Domball” a very video game-y take on basketball (so it’s basically NBA Jam). Though LeBron and Dom start to connect, a glitch crashes the game and ruins the moment. To cheer up his son, LeBron invites Dom to tag along to a “movie deal thing” with him the next day.
The movie deal is at Warner Bros., which the film is sure to tell us is the “studio behind all the classics” (I think Universal and Disney might have something to say about that). The studio has recently created the Warner Bros. “Serververse” using an AI called Al-G Rhythm (an already weak pun which is only undermined by the fact the movie uses the word algorithm about 50 times). Through an app called Warner 3000, people can use the Serververse to scan digital copies of themselves into the movies. Warner Bros. wants LeBron to be the spokesperson for the Serververse, but the basketball superstar shoots down the idea hard (needlessly hard, really). Though Dom shows that he might be interested in helping with the idea, and also lets it slip that he plans to attend “E3 Game Developer Camp” in the coming week, which naturally conflicts with the basketball camp that takes place at the same time (as we all know, basketball and video games are destined to conflict with each other). This causes LeBron and Dom to butt heads yet again.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) has developed self-awareness, and has taken offense to LeBron’s dismissal of his hard work. Al-G plans to use Dom’s interest in the Serververse to his advantage in his planned revenge on LeBron James. Al-G lures Dom to some high tech secret lab within Warner Bros. Studios (which I’m sure actually exists), and zaps the boy into the world of the Serververse, and LeBron soon afterwards. Al-G then challenges LeBron to a game of basketball. He gives LeBron a full day to find a team of Warner Bros. characters to compete against a team of his own. If LeBron wins, he and his son get to go home. If Al-G wins, LeBron is stuck in the Serververse forever (I guess as its mascot, since he didn’t like the idea of being its spokesperson).
Al-G of course intends to cheat, and plans on using Dom’s game design skills to generate a super team of overpowered characters. He gives LeBron a further disadvantage by dumping the basketball star in the Looney Tunes world of the Serververse, or the “land of the rejects” as Al-G calls it (which seems a bit weird, seeing as Al-G was created by Warner Bros. and the Looney Tunes are the studio’s iconic mascots. Can you imagine a Disney film calling Mickey and friends “rejects?”).
When LeBron lands in the Looney Tunes world (becoming a cartoon himself in the process), he soon learns that Bugs Bunny is the only Tune left, as Al-G separated the Tunes by promising them greater opportunities elsewhere in the Serververse. Bugs Bunny agrees to help LeBron in his quest to find a basketball team, and after hijacking Marvin the Martian’s spaceship, they set out into the Serververse to find the perfect dream team, though Bugs is using this as an excuse to reunite the Looney Tunes.
From here, much of the movie plays out like a big HBO Max commercial, with Bugs and LeBron travelling to the worlds of different Warner Bros. properties and extracting Looney Tunes from them. To be fair, there is some fun to be had here: Having the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote superimposed into Mad Max: Fury Road just feels right. And while an Austin Powers reference may not be most timeless, I’d be lying if I said seeing Elmer Fudd playing the role of Mini-Me didn’t put a smile on my face.
In a way, Space Jam: A New Legacy kind of reminds me of Ralph Breaks the Internet, the unfortunately-titled but otherwise pretty great sequel to Wreck-It Ralph. Though that movie had some fun showcasing different Disney properties, it never lost sight of telling its own story. A New Legacy doesn’t possess that restraint, and instead devolves into one cameo after another just for the hell of it, and the whole “Looney Tunes team up with an NBA star” concept of the series kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Did the world really need another Matrix reference? And I could live a full and happy life never seeing Rick and Morty ever again.
It all just becomes too much. The idea of using Space Jam as a means of a big Roger Rabbit-style crossover of Warner Bros. properties isn’t a terrible idea in concept, and it could have been fun if it played out like a loving tribute to the history of the studio. But the movie becomes so engrossed in the cameos and name drops that it loses the whole “Space Jam” aspect after a while. The film doesn’t even do anything really substantial with the properties, even missing the opportunity to use Warner Bros. villains for Al-G’s team, which would have at least been a more meaningful usage of these characters than simply having them cheer in the audience of the climactic game, which is what the film does end up doing (though respect to the guy giving it his all with his Arnold Schwarzenegger Mr. Freeze impression, complete with the character’s bathrobe from Batman & Robin).
The villains we do get here are the “Goon Squad,” a team of monster-ized versions of basketball players created by Al-G using Dom’s video game and its scanning technology. They include a naga, a birdman, a spider, a water/fire hybrid, and Dom himself, whom Al-G has been manipulating with flattery (and who doesn’t know his father’s freedom is on the line). Although I’m sure some won’t like the CG garishness of them, I do appreciate that the film makes its villains very distinct from those of its predecessor.
Speaking of CG garishness, it should also be pointed out that during the big game in the film’s third act, the Looney Tunes get a CG makeover. I don’t want to sound like one of those people who needlessly complains about CG, but I do have to say it is a little bit of a disappointment that we only get to see either traditionally animated Looney Tunes interacting with a traditionally animated LeBron James, or CG Looney Tunes interacting with real life LeBron James. In this day and age when live-action and traditional animation no longer share the screen together, shouldn’t the Space Jam sequel, of all movies, have been the primed opportunity to bring that idea back? If anything, it would have made the movie standout from a visual perspective in 2021.
Another weird thing about the movie is that the big basketball game at the end isn’t actually basketball. It’s Domball. As in, the video game that LeBron James’ fictional son created. I suppose no one is watching a Space Jam movie for a legit basketball game, and the 1996 film saw the Looney Tunes perform their usual antics within the game (which should surely constitute cheating), so I guess it isn’t a big deal. But Domball is so loose with its rules – which are seemingly made up as they go – that it does take something away from the film’s finale. You kind of have to understand the rules of a game before you can feel the tension in it.
One of the big issues with A New Legacy is its lack of a memorable soundtrack. I can still remember as a kid, how inescapable the soundtrack to the original film was. I mentioned how the soundtrack to the 1996 film added to the ‘legend’ of Michael Jordan. But there’s really nothing here that does the same for LeBron James. Even as I’m writing this, I can’t remember any of the songs or music from the film. The soundtrack doesn’t do anything for the film or for LeBron.
Still, as negative as I’m being in regards to Space Jam: A New Legacy, I have to admit I was entertained at times. LeBron James, like Michael Jordan in the original, has an inexplicable charisma as a movie star, despite not being one in the traditional sense (with LeBron getting extra points for landing the comedy). The movie has some jokes that work, a number of the Looney Tunes get their moment to shine in the big game, and Don Cheadle seems to be having a good time hamming it up as the villain. It’s a fun movie when it wants to be.
The problem with A New Legacy is that its place as a Space Jam sequel can really get drowned out with all the other movies going on around it. The references (and straight-up recreations) of other movies is fun for a while, but they end up feeling like padding after a point. Much like the original movie, it seems like there wasn’t much to the script other than the basic premise. So in between LeBron meeting Bugs Bunny and the big game at the end, the film throws in as many of these other movies as it can as to stretch out the running time. Maybe a little more time dedicated to the main plot could have helped make this a legitimately good Space Jam movie (and filled in some of the gaps in the plot, like why Al-G wanted to separate the Tunes in the first place). As it is, Space Jam: A New Legacy might scratch the itch for a goofy good time in the same vein as the original, though it’s so similar to the first movie in premise, and so busy showing off other movies, that it can’t quite create a charm of its own.
It’s time to celebrate (and also feel old), because Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is twenty years old today! Yes, it’s been twenty years to the day that Spirited Away was released in Japanese cinemas: July 20, 2001.
Spirited Away tell the story of Chihiro, a ten-year old girl who’s a bit spoiled and apathetic. Chihiro’s family makes a wrong turn on their way to their new house, which results in them being trapped in an alternate world of spirits, witches, gods and monsters. With her parents turned into pigs, Chihiro must find her inner strength and brave this new world in order to save her parents and return home.
The film would go on to become a massive critical and commercial success, not just in its native Japan, but throughout the world. Praised for its storytelling, characters, animation, and ineffable imagination, Spirited Away would quickly become one of the most acclaimed and beloved films of all time, animated or otherwise.
Spirited Away won Best Picture at Japan’s (far more open-minded) Academy Award equivalent, and would later win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (the second-ever awarded in the category, and still the only traditionally animated winner of that award to date). But more important than any awards, Spirited Away won the hearts of moviegoers the world over (myself very much included).
Personally speaking, Spirited Away is my favorite film of all time (perhaps tied with a previous Miyazaki masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro). As someone who hopes to one day create wondrous fantasies of his own, Spirited Away has been my biggest source of creative inspiration. In the over eighteen years since I first saw it, I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about it in some capacity. And it’s because of Spirited Away that this site even exists at all! Suffice to say, Spirited Away had an impact on me.
But who cares about me? We’re here to celebrate the film itself!
It’s kind of weird thinking how there’s now generations of children who have grown up watching Spirited Away, and how a movie I saw when it was new is now firmly established as an all-time classic. It really makes one feel old, but like, in the best way.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since Spirited Away first captured the hearts and imaginations of the world. May it continue to do so forever more!
Wish Dragon was released on Netflix in June of 2021, as the latest example in the recent trend of American-Chinese co-produced animated films. Some recent films of this burgeoning sub-genre include 2019’s Abominable and 2020’s Over the Moon, both by China’s Pearl Studio (with the former being co-produced by Dreamworks and the latter by Netflix itself). Wish Dragon, however, is a joint venture between Sony Pictures Animation and Beijing Sparkle Roll Media Corporation. Though Wish Dragon’s story and humor eventually pick up before the end, it lacks the heart of the aforementioned films, and it emulates Disney’s Aladdin so strongly it robs itself of some identity.
I suppose, to be fair, Over the Moon also had some overfamiliar narrative beats of its own. But that film made up for it by having some genuinely moving emotional moments, eye-popping visuals, and a terrific soundtrack. Wish Dragon doesn’t have those luxuries to wash away its shortcomings. And it isn’t simply overfamiliar in a general sense, but Wish Dragon’s overly similar elements to a specific movie are a bigger issue, as it makes comparisons to the movie it’s mimicking unavoidable.
Wish Dragon is basically Disney’s Aladdin, only set in modern day Shanghai instead of the Middle East of centuries past, and with a dragon in place of a genie. There’s even a scene where the dragon explains the shortlist of wishes that he isn’t allowed to grant, which feels dangerously close to what Robin Williams’ Genie told Aladdin back in 1992. I guess you could do worse than copying one of Disney’s most beloved animated films, but Wish Dragon doesn’t just wear its inspiration on its sleeve, it’s flaunting it on a bodysuit.
The main character here is Din (Jimmy Wong), a working class college student who lives in the same cramped apartment he grew up in with his mother (Constance Wu). When Din was younger, he was best friends with a girl named Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who moved away ten years ago once her father became a successful businessman, with Li Na now living a lavish life as a model. Din wants nothing more than to reunite with his childhood friend.
I have to admit, I actually find that character motivation to be something different. Din’s relationship with Li Na is only quasi-romantic at most, and it’s more about him wanting to reunite with his childhood friend than it is him wanting to “get the girl.” So that’s something original, at any rate.
Li Na’s birthday is coming up, and Din sees this as the opportunity to be reunited with her. He’s been skipping classes to work for a food delivery app, saving up money to buy a suit and gain access to her high class social event of a birthday party. One of Din’s customers turns out to be a strange old man living in a dilapidated house who claims to be a god (Ronny Chieng) . The old man tells Din that he is “pure of heart” and pays for his order with a jade teapot. That same night (the night before Li Na’s birthday), Din discovers that the teapot contains a magical wish dragon named Long (John Cho).
Long claims that Din is his tenth and final master, and after he grants the boy three wishes, he can finally ascend to heaven. But before Din can make a wish, a trio of hired goons – lead by a man called ‘Pockets’ (Aaron Yoo) – who have been hunting for the teapot, attempt to steal it from Din. Din inadvertently wishes that he could fight, which enables him to escape the bandits for the time being, as well as using his first wish.
From there, Din realizes that Long’s magic could be his ticket to reuniting him with Li Na, though he and the dragon have differing views as to how to go about that: Din thinks he needs to wish for just enough to gain access to Li Na’s party, while the dragon insists he do the same thing as his previous nine masters and just wish for unfathomable wealth. Here the human is more innocent while the dragon is cynical, so it’s like an inverse Raya and the Last Dragon dynamic.
The setup to the movie is fine, though I have to stress again that its similarities to Aladdin are so strong they can become distracting. You probably guessed already that Din’s second wish is the modern day equivalent of becoming a prince (a fancy suit instead of a princely robe, a hot car in place of an elephant, and Long disguises as a human chauffeur, as opposed to the grand marshal of a parade). But it can still be a fun ride, and the characters are likable enough.
On the downside of things, I think the animation of Wish Dragon is serviceable, but for a big budget, CG animated film, you’d certainly expect better. The art direction and character designs are nothing to write home about (I do like that they made the dragon pink, however. What other color could possibly standout as much?). Din in particular has an unfortunately bland character design. I get that maybe he’s not supposed to look like anyone special, to contrast with the beautiful Li Na, but it is possible to make a character look intentionally bland, but still have a memorable character design. And well, I don’t think Wish Dragon accomplished that with Din. Though I give the film credit for the fun idea of its villain Pockets who, true to his name, always has his hands in his pockets, and does everything with his feet instead (no matter how much it may defy physics).
The humor may try the patience of some older audiences. While Wish Dragon does have some jokes that land, most of them happen in the later parts of the movie. For much of the film leading up to that, the humor leans to the juvenile side of things, and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I suppose it’s better to end strong than it is to start strong and run out of steam. And by the end of things, Wish Dragon did win me over, both in humor and in story (I also feel that I’m appreciating the film more as I write this).
Wish Dragon isn’t going to go down as an animated classic, and making its inspiration from Disney’s Aladdin even a little less obvious would have benefitted it greatly. But hey, I started out rolling my eyes at the movie, only to find myself smiling because of it later on. That counts for something, right?
The old saying “better late than never” gets thrown around a lot, but it is very appropriate when talking about Marvel’s Black Widow, which finally give’s Scarlett Johansson’s titular character her long overdue solo film despite being one of the original big screen Avengers. Though you could also argue that Black Widow’s starring role has come too late in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Johansson’s Black Widow debuted in 2010’s Iron Man 2, a year before Thor and Captain America even joined in the proceedings. Though she was a secondary character, and marketed mostly for her sex appeal back then, Black Widow quickly grew into one of the MCU’s more complicated characters. Taken from a young age, brainwashed, and trained as a KGB spy under the “Red Room,” Natasha Romanoff (AKA “Black Widow”) would later gain her freedom and dedicate her life to saving the world, as a means to redeem her tragic past. She would eventually become an Avenger, no less (one of the original six, as far as the MCU is concerned).
Despite not getting her own movie until now, Romanoff had one of the more fleshed-out backstories of the MCU, up there with Iron Man and Captain America themselves. While the MCU hasn’t always done right by Johansson’s character (that forced romance with Bruce Banner that came out of nowhere in Age of Ultron comes to mind), she remained a fan favorite all throughout. And with years of rumblings of a Black Widow solo film, it makes it all the weirder that such a film is only happening now.
As of Avengers: Endgame, Romanoff’s story in the MCU – like many of the original Avengers – is over. As such, Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, so I guess it counts as a prequel at this point in the MCU. So here we are, after eleven years, and Black Widow’s long-awaited first solo film is also her last, which seems woefully unfair to the character and to Johansson. I would have enjoyed a series of Black Widow movies.
Still, while a Black Widow movie should have happened sooner,I guess one Black Widow film that serves as Johansson’s farewell to the MCU is better than no Black Widow movie at all. Though the film has its issues, it’s a fittingly entertaining installment in Marvel’s mega-franchise that does give its titular character some additional closure.
Black Widow gives Romanoff that closure by means of finally having her confront the Red Room, the organization responsible for robbing her – and many other women – of their lives by turning them into child assassins (or “Black Widows”). So we finally get to see Natasha Romanoff get some much-desired recompense.
Here we delve even further into Romanoff’s backstory, and learn that, for three years during her childhood, she was part of a family. Well, a fabricated family that was a front by the Red Room. The real identities of her “parents” are Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a Red Room spy and former Black Widow; and Alexei Shostokov (David Harbour), Russia’s only super soldier, the “Red Guardian,” and thus their answer to Captain America (with whom Alexei claims to have a long-standing rivalry). Meanwhile, Natasha’s younger ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) is destined to become another Black Widow.
Once Alexei finished his undercover mission in America, the ‘family’ was broken up, and the sisters separated. While Natasha was forced back into her old cycle of training and brainwashing, things were taken further with Yelena, who became one of the Red Room’s test subjects of full-on mind control. So while Natasha was eventually able to break free, Yelena didn’t have that ability.
Fast forward to the present (of this particular movie), and things take a turn for Yelena when one of her targets exposes her to a substance called Red Dust, which cures her from her mind control, and she then defects from the Red Room. Taking the remaining Red Dust, Yelena sends it to Natasha, hoping the now-Avenger can help her free the other Black Widows from the Red Room’s control.
Naturally, the Red Room is on Natasha and Yelena’s trail, sending its soldiers after the duo, not least of which being the Taskmaster; a mysterious, masked foe. So the two Black Widows will need allies to take down the Red Room and its leader, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Keeping in mind that this film takes place after Captain America: Civil War, Natasha is part of the group of Avengers who are now fugitives from the law (some are already in custody, others are in hiding). So she can’t just call for backup here. But perhaps she can reunite her old “family” for help?
Admittedly, the film treads a lot of familiar ground for the MCU, especially echoing the Captain America sequels, which Johansson’s character is already strongly associated with. The entire “mind-controlled soldiers” idea is very Winter Soldier-esque. And with David Harbour’s character literally being the Russian equivalent of Captain America, you really can’t escape the similarities. On the plus side, the Captain America sequels are highly regarded as some of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Black Widow is at least aiming high with which past entries it emulates.
Black Widow has some strong themes it wants to convey, though they may get a bit lost in the shuffle at times. It’s obviously dealing with many of the same ideas of freedom that the aforementioned Captain America films also dealt with. And it probably won’t be lost on anyone that it’s a man pulling the strings of mind-controlled female assassins (the film makes sure Winstone’s Dreykov is the kind of villain you can’t wait to see get his ass kicked).
Where the film really delivers is in its action scenes. The set pieces of Black Widow feel more akin to those of the recent Mission: Impossible films than the usual MCU fare. Although Black Widow can’t quite reach the heights of the recent Mission: Impossible outings (admittedly a very high mark), the action sequences here are similarly satisfying.
Perhaps the best aspect of Black Widow are the characters themselves. Natasha has been one of the MCU’s mainstays due in large part to being one of its most beloved characters, and Black Widow is a great way to finally focus on her as a character (though sadly also reminding us that this all should have happened much sooner). Yelena is every bit her equal, not just in combat skills but also as a character, showing a strength and depth that should make her one of Marvel’s primary heroes going forward (don’t wait a decade to give her her own movie!). And Alexei is part huggable bear, part dumb lummox; his fabricated family being just another mission to him, but he slowly begins to realize what his ‘daughters’ really mean to him. Melina may be something of the odd woman out in regards to screen time, but I think her character shows enough promise that she can be expanded on in future movies.
Sadly, the Marvel villain curse rears its head once again in Black Widow. It’s weird how the MCU has done a (mostly) wonderful job in regards to bringing Marvel’s comic book heroes to life, but its villains haven’t been anywhere near as consistent. People remember Thanos and Loki, of course. And some other villains have received quieter acclaim (Michael Keaton’s Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming really deserves more praise). But many of the MCU’s villains either mimic the heroes too closely, are too underutilized, or fall back on a disappointing twist.
Though I mentioned Dreykov is effective in making the audience hate him, he falls under the ‘underutilized’ category, only really getting a few short minutes of screen time. Meanwhile, Taskmaster falls under the ‘plot twist’ category, with a reveal that ends up feeling as underwhelming as it does pointless. With a stronger villain scenario, Black Widow may have kicked things into a whole other gear.
Black Widow is one of the smaller-scale films the MCU has seen in recent times (‘smaller’ being a very relative term in regards to the MCU). But that’s kind of what I like about it. Just because the Avengers have saved the universe by this point doesn’t mean all of their adventures have to be taken to such extremes. A big super hero romp can still be a great time even if the stakes are smaller and more personal. Though I suppose it’s all the more of a shame that over on Disney+ we have the obnoxiously apathetic Loki beating us over the head with the idea that nothing in the MCU matters compared to Loki’s wacky shenanigans through space and time. But let’s ignore that show for now (please) and appreciate that Black Widow can make a ‘smaller’ story in the MCU still feel important to it, even after all the places it’s been.
The unavoidable dark cloud when it comes to Black Widow, however, is simply that it should have happened years ago. For all the entertainment it provides, Black Widow can’t help but feel like too little, too late. For this movie to finally happen only after Natasha Romanoff’s story has ended and Scarlett Johansson is leaving the MCU behind her feels deflating, and the movie gives off a “contractual obligation” vibe as a result.
Black Widow gives us some great action set pieces, a good story, and Florence Pugh and David Harbour are great additions to the MCU that hopefully we’ll see a lot more of. It may be a fitting sendoff for Johansson’s agent Romanoff, but it probably shouldn’t have been a sendoff in the first place.
Forty years ago today, the original Donkey Kong game made its way into arcades! That’s a big milestone for the game itself, but even more important is that it marked the debut of both its titular ape Donkey Kong and the character who would become known as Super Mario!
Why Nintendo isn’t celebrating this themselves, I’ll never know. It’s only their two oldest and iconic characters celebrating their 40th anniversary! And no, Mr. Game & Watch isn’t older because he wasn’t an actual character, just a placeholder graphic given the limitations of the Game & Watch handhelds (the name “Mr. Game & Watch” only dates back to 2001 with Super Smash Bros. Melee). So Mario and DK are the oldest.
Donkey Kong and Mario would eventually branch out on their own, and star in a number of their own series. They still meet up in some of Mario’s spinoff games, but I don’t think DK should simply be classified as a “Mario character.” I think of it like when Iron Man and Thor meet up in the Avengers films. You wouldn’t call Thor an “Iron Man character” would you?
Mario would go on to have a stronger resume than any other character in gaming, and DK isn’t too far behind. And they both got their start in a little arcade game that – had licensing not fallen through – would have starred Popeye and Bluto! Hard to imagine what video games would look like if Shigeru Miyamoto’s original classic didn’t have its own original characters. I shudder to think.
Nintendo may be mysteriously silent on the occasion, but don’t worry Mario and Donkey Kong, we remember!
Happy anniversary to an arcade great! And happy 40th birthday to Mario and Donkey Kong! Video games wouldn’t be the same without them!
There are a few ways one could acknowledge what constitutes the “best” games on a console, such as its biggest milestone releases or its most influential titles. Or you could go with what games were best in their day. In the end, I decided to go with my usual method of which games are simply the most fun to play today.
Because of this reason, you may see some notable omissions. Case in point: I won’t be including Goldeneye 007. Even though that title was a landmark for first-person shooters (especially on home consoles) and multiplayer games in general, the games it inspired definitely improved on its foundations, which leaves Goldeneye 007 to feel kind of clunky by today’s standards.
But that doesn’t mean that every N64 great is a thing of the past, and the Nintendo 64 games that do hold up, do so pretty swimmingly. The following ten games are the ones I would recommend if someone wanted to play a great game on the N64 today. Not recommending games based on historical purposes to someone who didn’t grow up with the N64, and not selections for someone who did grow up with the N64 looking for some nostalgia. These are games I would recommend simply as great games to play, that just happen to be from the Nintendo 64’s library.
Oh, and to save myself the hassle of ranking this list, I didn’t! I just listed all ten games in alphabetical order and I recommend them as is! Some are colorful platforming romps, some are epic adventures, and some are full of the multiplayer goodness the N64 made famous!
Before we get to the top 10 proper, however, here are some honorable mentions:
Diddy Kong Racing: A Mario Kart-style racing game combined with a Super Mario 64-style adventure! That’s one amazing combination that inspired many other kart racers to follow. Not to mention it introduced us to both Banjo and Conker! It also boasts great multiplayer that is somewhat hindered by the fact that there’s no music when playing with more than two players. To this day, people are waiting for Mario Kart to emulate its adventure mode.
Donkey Kong 64: The biggest Nintendo 64 game in the literal sense of the term. DK64, while still a fun collect-a-thon platformer, is sometimes too big for its own good. With five playable characters, each with their own collectibles, DK64 certainly has variety in gameplay and a lot of things to do. Though for those same reasons, it can become a little tedious having to switch back and forth between characters. But in typical Rare fashion, DK64 also includes a host of multiplayer modes at your disposal. Why on Earth did the idea of single-player adventure games having such great multiplayer options fall out of style?
Mario Kart 64: A beloved, nostalgic favorite today, but Mario Kart 64 actually wasn’t so fondly received critically in its time, being considered a disappointing follow-up to the SNES original upon its release. It admittedly isn’t the best Mario Kart: There are only a few memorable racetracks, the graphics are ugly, and like Diddy Kong Racing, there’s no music when playing with three or four people. But the core gameplay holds up, and Mario Kart 64 has some of the best balloon battle courses in the series (Block Fort!). A fun time, but not the go-to Mario Kart experience today, nor the best example of Mario multiplayer on the N64.
Mario Tennis: The origins of Waluigi, a character destined to… fill out the roster in Mario spinoffs (What can I say? Not every character addition is going to end up having the impact of Yoshi). Mario Golf is also fun, but it’s Mario Tennis that I think is the better go-to Mario sports title of yesteryear. A solid tennis game with a Mario twist. Oh, and while it may have debuted Waluigi, it also served as the last time we saw Donkey Kong Jr., who’s been MIA ever since.
Super Smash Bros.: Ah, the good ol’ days. Back when Super Smash Bros. was actually about Nintendo characters. I miss that. Sure, the N64 original may not have the same depth and polish of later entries in the series, but Super Smash Bros. remains a fun multiplayer romp. And it’s fun just to revisit and see the series in its purest state, before its Nintendo-ness was diluted and it catered too heavily to the Esports crowd. Just pure Nintendo fun.
And now, finally, the Top 10 Nintendo 64 Games to Play Today!
Let’s be frank: The N64 was Rare’s console. While many of Nintendo’s key franchises made appearances, they could be pretty spread out. In between Nintendo’s big releases, Rare was pumping out one game after another to keep it all afloat. But Rare’s N64 output didn’t just fill in the gaps, they released a number of genuine winners during the era, some of which even outshined Nintendo’s own efforts.
Though the Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the Super Nintendo and Goldeneye 007 were Rare’s biggest sellers, it was Banjo-Kazooie who proved to be Rare’s homegrown hero(es). Simply the most “Rare” of all of Rare’s creations.
A 3D platformer modeled after none other than Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie replaced Nintendo’s iconic plumber with Banjo the bear from Diddy Kong Racing, and the bird Kazooie who lived in his backpack. Replacing Mario’s coins were music notes, and in place of the elusive Power Stars we had Jiggies; magical, golden jigsaw pieces.
Banjo-Kazooie isn’t just Super Mario 64 with a new coat of paint though. Whereas Mario had all of his moves right out of the gate, Banjo and Kazooie learn different abilities as they go, which gave each subsequent level new means for our titular duo to obtain Jiggies. There’s the witch doctor, Mumbo Jumbo, who could transform Banjo and Kazooie into various different forms. There are mini-games abound. And to change up video game traditions, for the game’s finale, Banjo and Kazooie find themselves in the middle of a board game/quiz show (though we do also get a proper final boss, proving that sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too).
All of this, in addition to Banjo-Kazooie’s unique personality (those garbled jibberish voices are just wonderful), meant Banjo-Kazooie was no mere copycat. It took what Super Mario 64 started, and made it entirely its own.
It may seem like a smaller adventure by today’s standards, there are still a few camera issues, and some Jiggies are unceremoniously just lying around, but make no mistake, Banjo-Kazooie is still as fun as it ever was.
While Banjo-Kazooie took a page from Super Mario 64, its sequel, Banjo-Tooie, was like a combination of Mario’s N64 outing and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Tooie is a much bigger game than Kazooie, but seemingly learning from Donkey Kong 64, it never feels too bloated. Late N64 graphics aside, Banjo-Tooie still holds up over two decades later.
Though Kazooie’s name is sadly no longer in the title, she may be even more present here than she was in the first game, as Banjo and Kazooie can now go their separate ways and claim their own Jiggies. There are now more prominent boss fights in every stage. There are first-person shooter segments that hold up better than the actual first-person shooters on the N64. You can now play as Mumbo Jumbo. The level themes are more unique (the fire world and ice world are one and the same, there’s a dilapidated theme park, and a dinosaur world). And there’s now a host of multiplayer modes to enjoy!
On the downside, there are eight stages here compared to Kazooie’s nine (and ten less Jiggies as a result). One of these stages, Grunty Industries, is pointlessly convoluted. And Mumbo should really have more to do when you play as him. These are ultimately small prices to pay, considering just how good Banjo-Tooie is otherwise.
Twenty-one years on, fans still debate which is the superior game between Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. While the original seems to have the slight majority vote, I think I’m on the side of Banjo-Tooie. Despite the aforementioned reduction in stage numbers, I feel like Tooie otherwise builds on and improves just about everything from the original. We may all still be waiting for a third Banjo-Kazooie entry (a real third entry), but Banjo-Tooie was such a hefty adventure in its day, and so well executed, that it feels right at home among today’s games.
3: Conker’s Bad Fur Day
Oh look, it’s Rare again! But of course it’s Rare again. They carried the N64!
Released in 2001 – the same year the GameCube would later debut – Conker’s Bad Fur Day was one of the N64’s last hoorahs (along with a few other games on this list). Though it was planned to be released much, much sooner in the console’s lifespan, under a very different guise.
Originally envisioned as “Twelve Tales” and “Conker 64,” the game was to be a cute, cartoony platformer in a similar vein to Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64. But a troublesome production meant Conker kept getting delayed, to the point that, after Rare released a series of colorful platformers on the N64, interest in Conker waned. So designer Chris Seavor took over the project and gave Conker a complete overhaul.
Raunchy, violent, and riddled with swear words and poop jokes, Conker’s Bad Fur Day seemed to both address the concerns of “too many kids’ games” on the N64 while simultaneously making fun of the people who made those complaints by going to such extremes. Though you have to see the irony in how, these days, people crave more colorful, kid-friendly platformers. Different times.
Some aspects of Conker’s former life remained: the game was still a story-driven platformer, as Twelve Tales was always planned to be. It realized the vision of the original game to feel like an interactive cartoon (the animations and lip syncing were so far ahead of their time, they still rank as some of the medium’s best). And true to Conker’s humble origins in Diddy Kong Racing, Conker himself never actually swears. It’s everyone else who’s foulmouthed.
More important than the “adult” humor, however, is how the gameplay is always changing whenever Conker finds himself somewhere new. Sometimes it’s a platformer, sometimes it’s a shooter, sometimes it’s a racer. Conker’s Bad Fur Day is that rare kind of game that’s always finding something new. And in typical Rare fashion, Conker’s Bad Fur Day features seven different multiplayer modes. No one overdelivered like Rare did back in the day.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day isn’t perfect, however. Like so many N64 games, the camera and some of the controls can get a little iffy, not all of the movie parodies work (ugh, The Matrix), and not all the multiplayer modes are equals. But Conker’s Bad Fur Day is as unique today as it was twenty years ago.
4: Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards
Masahiro Sakurai may have created Kirby, but I think Shinichi Shimomura – Nintendo’s most elusive, mysterious game designer – best understands how to represent the character and his world. Sadly, Shimomura only directed three Kirby games before seemingly vanishing: Kirby’s Dreamland 2, Kirby’s Dreamland 3, and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.
Though Kirby 64 foregoes the Animal Friends of Dreamlands 2 and 3, it (almost) makes up for it with a new twist on Kirby’s trademark copy abilities: Kirby can now combine two powers to make new ones! Even though Kirby 64 treads a lot of familiar ground elsewhere, the ability to combine powers keeps things fresh and exciting. Sometimes you may realize you need to revisit a stage with a different power combination in order to obtain one of the titular crystal shards.
While Sakurai’s Kirby games later adopted something of an of edge, Shimomura’s Kirby titles really doubled down on the cuteness of the series (sans the final bosses, giving them an appropriate contrast to everything else). There’s a softness to the visuals that have held up incredibly well since the game’s 2000 release, the music is energetic and infectious (in that very specific, late-90s/early-2000s Kirby way). It’s just an all-around comforting video game.
Some may lament that Kirby 64 is a pretty easy game. But not every game needs to be Dark Souls. Sometimes it’s nice to just be able to experience an adventure, and Kirby 64 provides just that. It takes a simple, straightforward platforming romp and turns it into something memorable with its little touches. Along with the aforementioned visuals, music and personality, Kirby 64 also has some fun level themes (the snow world is also the robot-themed world!), and the levels even manage to tell their own little stories as you progress through them, which was pretty unique at the time. Oh, and there are moments where the player takes control of King Dedede. That’s always a huge bonus.
To top it all off, Kirby 64 even features a multiplayer mode. Though it may not be as gloriously excessive as those from Rare, Kirby 64’s multiplayer provides three mini-games that are addictively fun with friends. One of these mini-games, Checkerboard Chase, even feels like a precursor to today’s wildly popular battle royal genre.
I still hope we one day see the combined copy abilities return to the series in their full glory (Kirby Star Allies featured a watered down version of it). But if Kirby 64 is the only game to feature them, at least it’s an easy game to get sucked back into even today.
5: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
For all its acclaim, Ocarina of Time is actually a pretty conservative game, as it’s structurally following A Link to the Past nearly beat for beat, albeit in a 3D environment. Ocarina’s follow-up, Majora’s Mask, is conversely one of the most “different” games in the entire Zelda canon.
Using many of the same assets as Ocarina, Majora’s Mask repurposes them to craft a new world and adventure that’s uniquely its own. The Happy Mask Salesman, for example, was merely a shopkeeper in Ocarina. But here in Majora’s Mask he’s a key player in the story. The same goes for the Skull Kid, who has been promoted to tragic antagonist.
Similarly, while Ocarina of Time featured masks as items for the occasional sidequest (or just for the giggles), here they play a much larger role in gameplay. Three masks in particular completely change things up, allowing series protagonist Link to transform into different species from the series: a plant-like Deku, a powerful Goron and an aquatic Zora. These transformations only add that much more variety and depth to Majora’s Mask, and it’s kind of weird how Nintendo hasn’t revisited a similar idea since.
This is all before we even get into the game’s time travel motif, which sees Link travel between the same three days over and over again in order to prevent the moon from crashing into the land of Termina. There are different things to do, different people to talk to, and different events occurring between the three days, so Link will have to use that trusty Ocarina of Time to revisit and relive certain situations in order to complete the adventure (insert mandatory Groundhog Day comparison here).
Admittedly, the time travel setup isn’t for everyone, and having to redo an entire game-day over because you may have missed one thing can grow a little tedious. It’s also one of the shorter Zelda titles, with only four dungeons to complete before you unlock the final area of the game. So it may be easy at times to see why Ocarina of Time’s more straightforward, more epic adventure may continue to steal the spotlight.
Still, Majora’s Mask remains one of Nintendo’s most beloved games, and one of the most acclaimed video games of all time, for a reason. It’s not only different from any other Zelda title, it’s unlike anything else Nintendo has ever made. With a pedigree like The Legend of Zelda’s, it may be easy to hold things so sacred that it fears to branch out. Yet Majora’s Mask – coming off the heels of Ocarina of Time, no less – decided to take the series in a daring new direction. One that still holds up to this day.
6: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Yes, I may have just said Ocarina of Time is a conservative game, but when it’s sticking to a formula as great as A Link to the Past’s, you can’t complain too much.
For a good while, Ocarina of Time was almost unanimously held sacrosanct as the “greatest video game of all time.” While in more recent years, that debate has grown more open-minded – sometimes for the good (Super Mario Galaxy), sometimes for the not too good (The Last of Us) – for its time, it’s easy to see why Ocarina of Time garnered such praise. A Link to the Past and Super Mario 64 were probably the most acclaimed games up to that point, and Ocarina of Time was essentially a combination of the two. The “best of both worlds” if you will.
Following in its SNES predecessor’s footsteps, Ocarina of Time sees Link partake on an epic adventure to save the land of Hyrule from the evil Ganondorf. Link will travel the land, meet new people (and species), and brave dark and dreary dungeons to become the hero Hyrule needs. Ocarina perfectly translated the Zelda series’ combination of action, exploration and puzzle solving into a 3D environment. And its lock-on combat was a revelation for 3D games.
Sure, the graphics definitely show their age, but the gameplay of Ocarina of Time hasn’t really lost a step. While most series may show obvious improvements with each subsequent entry, Ocarina of Time had refined its gameplay so strongly in 1998 that it still feels surprisingly close to the Zelda titles that have arrived since.
On the downside of things (and this is a hugely unpopular opinion on my part), the soundtrack to Ocarina of Time is one of the weaker ones in the Zelda canon. I know, we all love the obvious ones like Saria’s Song/Lost Woods and the Song of Storms, but they’re in the minority of what is largely an adequate soundtrack for the time. It didn’t even feature the main Legend of Zelda theme until the 3DS remake! And even in Zelda, that N64 camerawork can still be a bit of a problem.
So maybe Ocarina of Time isn’t absolutely flawless, as we once so readily accepted. But it’s still an unforgettable adventure in gaming. One that still feels deep and rewarding even by the standards of today.
7: Mario Party 3
Not every great game has to be some grand adventure. Sometimes, fun is all you need to stand the test of time. And that’s where Mario Party 3 comes into this list: it may not be the deepest game here, and it even contains some questionable design choices. But damn it all if Mario Party 3 isn’t fun!
We’re talking about a very specific type of fun here. That unique type of fun that Nintendo seems to have mastered (but that they’ll never fully admit to): the kind of multiplayer game you play with your friends for some good times, only for it to slowly unravel and make all the players involved out for each other’s blood by the end of it all. You can get some of this “friends turned enemies” fun from Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. But Mario Party personifies it.
From friends stealing each other’s stars and coins, to screwing each other over when they’re supposed to be teamed up in mini-games, Mario Party is designed to make you hate your friends! Okay, maybe not literally, but imagine how Dark Souls makes you feel towards its bosses. Mario Party makes you feel that towards your friends! It’s all in good fun, of course.
Honestly, you can go ahead and lump Mario Party 1 and 2 here as well and call it a tie. But I think that, being released in 2001 at the tail-end of the N64 (it was the last Nintendo-published title on the system), Mario Party 3 had refined the formula a bit. Each game board has some fun gimmicks, the mini-games are more plentiful and varied, and you have more items than ever to sabotage your friends with. Perhaps best of all, Mario Party 3 is the only entry in the series to include “Duel Mode,” which sees two players travel across the board trying to deplete each other’s hit points with the aide of partners. These partners are Mario series enemies that could be placed both in front of (attack) and behind (defense) the player, making Duel Mode something like Mario Party meets Paper Mario. Why Nintendo hasn’t revisited the Duel Mode concept in the many, many Mario Parties since, I’ll never know.
Yes, many of Mario Party’s elements are based on luck, not skill. In just about any other type of game, that would be a huge drawback. But Mario Party is all about chaotic fun with friends. The first two Mario Party entries also provide a great time, but the third is where the series really hit its high point (making it all the weirder that Nintendo has only ever re-released the second entry). On a console known for its madcap four-person multiplayer, Mario Party 3 reigns king.
8: Paper Mario
Yet another late-game entry in the N64’s library, Paper Mario was released in 2001 after years of delays in production.
Originally conceived as a sequel to Super Mario RPG, the game that would become Paper Mario had to make countless changes early on, as Square retained the rights to the original elements of Super Mario RPG. With Square moving away from Nintendo at the time, the big N turned to one of its own studios, Intelligent Systems, to pick up the pieces.
Paper Mario ended up being its own kind of Mario RPG. Mario is equipped with hammer and jump attacks, is joined on his adventure by a parade of cute partners (each inspired by different enemies from the series’ history), and gains new bonuses and abilities based on the badges he wears. These make the battles more simplified than those of Super Mario RPG, but because the game retains its spiritual predecessor’s action commands, they’re no less fun.
Bowser has stolen a magical artifact, the Star Rod, to grant his every wish. The King Koopa has granted himself invincibility, as well as absconded with Princess Peach’s entire castle, and taking it into the sky. So Mario is off on an adventure to rescue seven Star Spirits (held captive by Bowser’s forces) so they can help him undo Bowser’s magic and save the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s every bit as epic as Link’s Nintendo 64 adventures.
Of course, we have to talk about the visuals. It is called Paper Mario for a reason. Originally planned to use SNES-style sprites (prototype screenshots even showed Yoshi ripped directly from Super Mario World), this quickly evolved into making the characters literally flat amidst a 3D environment. It’s kind of fitting, really. Super Mario RPG pushed for 3D at the tail-end of the two-dimensional Super Nintendo, and Paper Mario, towards the end of the Nintendo 64, did the opposite for the 3D console. And while Paper Mario’s soundtrack could never hope to reach the heights of Super Mario RPG’s (still Yoko Shimomura’s best work by far), it still created a fun, fittingly cute soundtrack that ranks among the best on the N64.
Whereas the SNES was full of great RPGs, Paper Mario was really the only notable one to speak of for the N64. But man, is it ever a good one! Its engaging battle system, epic storyline, and insurmountable charm ascend Paper Mario into being one of the genre’s true greats.
Paper Mario’s distinct art direction means it hasn’t really aged visually, and there’s no fussy camera to wrestle with, either. And the gameplay is every bit as fun today as it was twenty years ago. Of all the games on this list, Paper Mario may just be the most timeless.
9: Star Fox 64
Star Fox is something of the one-hit wonder of Nintendo’s franchises. Some of its installments sit at the edge of greatness (others a bit further away), but only one managed to claim it: Star Fox 64.
In a bit of a turnaround from the norm, Star Fox is that rare series (the only series?) where the SNES entry is the headache-inducing eyesore, while the N64 follow-up is a timeless classic.
Originally released in 1997, Star Fox 64 is a remake of the SNES original story-wise. But its gameplay is a refinement of the rail-shooter that builds on every aspect of its predecessor. Such a refinement, in fact, that it has rarely been approached in the genre in all the years since.
Players take control of Fox McCloud, as he pilots his flying Arwing, the Landmaster Tank and (in one level) the underwater Blue-Marine. He’s accompanied by his crewmates: Grizzled veteran Peppy Hare, inventive rookie Slippy Toad, and obnoxious jerk Falco Lombardi. Fox must blast his way through the armies of the evil Andross to save the Lylat System.
Simply destroying the bad guys and making it to the end of a stage aren’t all there is to Star Fox 64, however. Certain actions will unlock branching pathways and new routes through the game. Some alternate routes are easier to find, others not so much. You’ll only go through a handful of stages on any given playthrough, but finding different paths and trying different combinations of stages give the single player mode tremendous replay value (which it already would have from the gameplay alone).
Oh, and just in case the timeless single player campaign isn’t enough, there are also multiplayer modes to keep you coming back for more.
Different vehicles. Teammates with their own benefits (Peppy gives advice, Slippy displays the bosses’ health, Falco helps find some alternate paths). Free-roaming “All-range mode” stages. Multiplayer. A strangely memorable (if corny) storyline… There’s just so much to it. Aside from the obvious 1997 visuals, Star Fox 64 has aged like a fine wine.
10: Super Mario 64
A good chunk of this list is comprised of games released towards the end of the Nintendo 64’s timeframe (Banjo-Tooie, Kirby 64 and Majora’s Mask from 2000; Conker, Mario Party 3 and Paper Mario from 2001). Given the N64’s pioneering of 3D gaming, it makes sense that it would take time for developers to hit their stride and create something that holds up down the road.
But Super Mario 64 was there from day one, and is still an adventure worth taking all these years later. It’s easy to talk about how revolutionary and influential Super Mario 64 was, but this list is meant to discuss how much fun it still is.
What’s amazing is how Super Mario 64 translated the key elements of Mario’s 2D platformer adventures so seamlessly into 3D, while also establishing a new set of rules for 3D platformers. I mentioned how Ocarina of Time follows the same blueprint as A Link to the Past, only in 3D. But Super Mario 64 is structurally a very different game than Super Mario World, though it retains enough key elements of Mario’s past (jumping is important) to still make it feel like a proper follow-up. And just like the 2D Mario games before it, Super Mario 64 has stood the test of time.
Okay, okay. So obviously the visuals scream 1996 (compared to Super Mario World’s sprites, which look just as colorful as they ever did), and the camera can be a pain at times. And like Ocarina of Time, I don’t think Super Mario 64 boasts one of the better soundtracks in its series, despite a few standouts (Dire, Dire Docks comes to mind). So maybe Super Mario 64 isn’t the most timeless Mario game, but for a launch game on the Nintendo 64 to still be this much fun to play? That’s got to be some kind of small miracle.
The camera may be a bit tricky to handle, but Mario himself controls just as he should. It’s hard to describe, but the sense of control Mario has just feels right. Then we have fifteen big levels to explore, a host of bonus stages, and the best hub world in gaming history (don’t even argue). Mario must explore every nook and cranny of these locations; fighting monsters, racing penguins, flying through clouds, swimming with dinosaurs, and a plethora of other objectives to claim those elusive power stars that can break Bowser’s curse on Peach’s castle and its occupants.
Sure, the graphical and mechanical limitations are present. But Super Mario 64 was so forward-thinking in its ideas and so polished in its execution, that this 1996 Nintendo 64 launch title can still claim to be one of gaming’s greats. Proof that fun knows no age.
There you go, my top 10 Nintendo 64 titles to play today! Although I suppose I haven’t played every Nintendo 64 game (I recently purchased the two Goemon N64 games, which I’ve heard good things about, so I guess I’ll see if those deserved a spot here soon). But I think I’ve played so many of them over the years, that my experience on the subject has some merit. I like to think so, anyway.
It’s hard to believe the Nintendo 64 is over twenty-five years old now. It’s as old as the movie Twister, and the Tickle Me Elmo!
Thanks for reading, and I hope this list could bring back some fond memories, or inspire you to pick up one of these games again, or even help you discover them (okay, that last one is a lie. No one is discovering these games from my blog). At any rate, I hope you enjoyed!
It’s been a rough few years for the US of A, and the world for that matter. Thankfully, things are starting to look a bit brighter. So why not spend some quality time with friends and family, break out the barbeque, listen to Hulk Hogan’s theme music, and (safely) set off some fireworks! But don’t be a jerk and get those really loud, screechy fireworks that terrify dogs and other animals. Be considerate!
To my fellow Americans, Happy Independence Day! And to everyone not from America: you have a great, super day as well! Let’s all have a great time!
Magical Drop is a series of falling block puzzle games originally developed by the now-defunct Data East. It was a popular series in arcades (particularly in Japan), but the series found a newfound popularity when the second and third entries were ported to home consoles. Though the series continues to take long absences between releases as it bounces around from one developer to another, the older titles continue to find their way onto modern gaming hardware. Such is the case with Magical Drop 2’s release on the Nintendo Switch’s Online service, a port of the Super Famicom version of the game. While fans may still be left wondering why Nintendo seems to refuse to add EarthBound and Super Mario RPG to the Switch’s retro lineup, Magical Drop 2 is a surprisingly welcome addition, providing the pure gaming fun that you expect from its genre.
Most falling block-style puzzle games see the blocks fall from the top of the screen to the bottom, with the player trying to prevent the blocks from rising back up to the top. The schtick with Magical Drop, however, is that the game is over as soon as the blocks (or “bubbles”) reach the bottom of the screen. So instead of blocks falling one at a time, the bubbles of Magical Drop slowly descend in rows, with the player trying to eliminate these rows before they reach the bottom of the screen.
How the player does this is pretty unique: the player can grab onto one color of bubble at a time (though they can grab as many of that color as they can), and then throw those bubbles back to the rows above. The player has to line up at least three of the same color bubble vertically in order to eliminate them, but the really cool thing is that if there are other bubbles of the same color coming into contact with what the player pieces together, every connected bubble of that color will be eliminated. So if you play things carefully enough, you can destroy many blocks in different rows with one fell swoop.
It’s a fun setup, and like many games of the genre, the simplicity the gameplay displays on face value hides a whole lot of depth and strategy. Certain modes will also introduce their own gimmicks, such as special bubbles that, should they touch a completed column, will subsequently destroy an entire row, column or surrounding area of bubbles. There are also ice blocks, which are basically neutral bubbles, with all adjacent ice blocks disappearing if a row of bubbles is completed next to them, no matter the color.
The game features several playable characters. They are all charming enough with their cute anime designs. Though one of the game’s more questionable elements is that each character supposedly has their own abilities, but unlike something like Tetris Battle Gaiden, where these abilities are obvious and manually performed by the player, the character abilities in Magical Drop 2 are a lot more vague. From what I understand, the character abilities here revolve around how the rows of bubbles fall, but the action is so fast paced I haven’t the eye to notice the differences between them. And there’s no in-game description of what their abilities do, other than a one-to-five star rating for a character’s strength, and a vague image under their “magic” category. So you’re guess is as good as mine.
Magical Drop 2 features four different modes of play: a single-player mode where the player simply tries to last as long as possible and beat their high score. Then there’s the two player battle mode, of course. There’s also a story mode, where the player selects their character and faces off against the others. Finally, there’s the oddly-named “puzzle” mode, which has the player trying to eliminate screens of all their bubbles in as little moves as possible in order to add more time to a constantly ticking clock. So there’s actually some good variety here, for a game of its time. And given how addictive the gameplay already is, there’s some really good replay value here.
The game features some fun visuals (the characters’ victory and defeat animations are surprisingly fluid), and the music is appropriately upbeat and catchy. Though the game’s audio takes a hit simply because the narrator can get pretty annoying. I’m someone who honestly doesn’t mind Baby Mario’s crying in Yoshi’s Island, and finds the garbled voices of Banjo-Kazooie to be charming, so it’s saying something when a soundbite in a game gets on my nerves. Magical Drop 2’s narrator’s shouts of “No!” whenever something doesn’t go right for either participants (computer player included) is so constant it becomes stressful. The narrator doesn’t even say anything else during a match. It’s not a major issue or anything, but it is a shame that the endless stream of “No!” drowns out the delightful music.
The falling block puzzler is one of gaming’s most purely enjoyable genres: instantly entertaining, addictingly engaging, unhindered by the bells and whistles that gaming has adopted over the years. Magical Drop 2 is another reminder of why the genre is so enduring.
Aardman is one of the most beloved animation studios around. Their lighthearted stop-motion creations have captured the hearts of audiences around the world. At the heart of Aardman’s popularity is animator Nick Park, who created and directed all of the Wallace & Gromit films, in addition to directing Chicken Run and creating Shaun the Sheep. There’s probably only a handful of animators out there who have reached a similar level in both popularity and acclaim.
In 2018, Park directed Early Man, his first time in the director’s chair since the 2009 Wallace & Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, and his first full-length feature since Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005. With a pretty much unblemished record under Park’s belt up to that point, there was a good deal of anticipation surrounding Early Man before its release. That’s why it’s so disheartening that the final film is notably underwhelming.
To be fair, Early Man isn’t an outright bad movie, and the sheer herculean craftsmanship that Aardman puts into its plasticine creations always deserve praise. It’s just that the film ultimately ends up being just kind of okay, and unfortunately forgettable. And this coming from the creator of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep? That kind of hurts.
As the title implies, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, where a tribe of cavemen live in a lush, green valley… surrounded by a volcanic wasteland. The tribe’s chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) leads his people in a simple life of rabbit hunting. But a young man in the tribe named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) wishes the tribe would branch out a bit and be more adventurous.
One day, out of the blue, a tribe of invaders – unlike any that Dug and his people have seen- make camp in the valley. These invaders come from beyond the wastelands, and have advanced into the Bronze Age while time left Dug and his people in the Stone Age. The invaders, lead by the greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), have come to dig up the land in search of more bronze, unflinching to the plight they’re creating to Dug and his people.
Dug soon infiltrates the Bronze Aged people, and learns that much of their culture is built around football (or soccer, as us Americans call it, even though the soccer-type of football is the type of football where the player’s actually use their feet). When it looks like his people are going to be banished to live in the dangers of the wastelands, Dug makes a deal with Lord Nooth: his tribe will take on the Bronze people’s team in a game of football. If the cavemen win, they get to keep their valley. But if Nooth’s team wins, the cave people will be forced to slave away in a bronze mine for the rest of their lives (that’s a bit of a careless bet on Dug’s part, though he doesn’t quite seem to understand what that means when he makes the deal).
And so the stage is set for the cavemen to get an understanding of football so that they might have a fighting chance to keep their valley. Thankfully for them, a young woman of the bronze people named Goona (Maisie Williams) – who knows the game well but can’t play for her own tribe as Lord Nooth doesn’t allow girls to play – has sympathy for the cavemen’s plight, and wishes to join them and teach them the ins and outs of the game.
If you’re at all thrown off by the sudden emphasis of football (or soccer or whatever you want to call it) in a movie about cavepeople, well, you’re not alone. When the film was released, no one really expected this to be a sports movie (that aspect was completely omitted from its advertisements, at least in America). I mean, an animated sports picture that just so happens to take place in prehistoric times isn’t the worst idea out there. And to be fair, Early Man introduces the sport in its opening scene, with the ancestors of Dug’s people inadvertently inventing the game by kicking a recently-crashed meteorite, so it isn’t entirely out of the blue. But the sports aspect of the film seems to completely engulf everything else after a while, making the film’s prehistoric setting feel like a missed opportunity.
There is some fun to be had with Early Man: There’s the occasional joke that sticks the landing and brings a good laugh, the voice work is great (Hiddleston is a particular highlight, making Lord Nooth a snobby Frenchman), and of course, the painstaking work that goes into animating any stop-motion film – especially those with the attention to detail of Aardman – is always commendable. But by the time Early Man reaches its end you can’t help but feel like it could have, and should have, been more. Some of Nick Park’s shorts are ranked among the most acclaimed animated films of all time, while Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were similarly praised as feature films. So for Nick Park’s third feature – and his comeback after a such a lengthy absence – to end up being just kind of okay is a stinging disappointment.
I do have to stress that Early Man is not a bad movie, but it falls short of many of Aardman’s other works, and considerably short of those that had Nick Park at the helm. It’s a visually pleasing, lighthearted entertainment. But this is one instance in which Aardman’s craftsmanship can only take them so far.