Dr. Mario (NES) Review

These days, we kind of take for granted the Mario games that don’t fit into the “main” Super Mario series. Unless it’s the next big 3D Mario adventure, we tend to refer to the games as “spin-offs” and don’t hold them in the same light as the “proper” Mario games.

The thing is, Mario was always Nintendo’s renaissance man. Shigeru Miyamoto designed the character with the intent that he could be thrown into any type of game, in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and (most specifically) Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s not as though Mario was created with a definitive story and some big universe of characters already planned out ahead of time. Mario appeared in a number of games before Princess Peach, Bowser and the entire Mushroom Kingdom came into existence in Super Mario Bros. That was Mario’s breakout role, sure, but it wasn’t exactly where he got his start. Although it makes sense that Super Mario Bros. would become the basis of what we all consider to be “main” Mario games, as time has gone on it seems people have diminished the allure of the “other” Mario games as an unfortunate side effect of this.

That wasn’t the case back in 1990, when Mario could suddenly don a lab coat and head mirror, call himself a doctor, and star in a falling block puzzle game, and it would still create an iconic game in its own right.

Dr. Mario was the first such puzzle game in the Mario franchise, which would slowly become its own series, and open the door for puzzle games starring other Mario franchise characters like Yoshi’s Cookie and Wario’s Woods. While some of these later puzzle games were improvements, and subsequent Dr. Mario sequels (such as the underrated Nintendo 64 entry) built on the formula, the original NES release is still a charming and addictive puzzle game.

The goal of Dr. Mario is to eliminate a screen of all of its viruses. These viruses come in three colors: red, blue and yellow. You eliminate these viruses by matching them up with vitamins of corresponding colors. But there are a few twists to keep things interesting.

The first thing to note is that the vitamins have two halves, which can be different colors, so you’ll want to pay extra attention when the viruses are close together. You have to match four objects of the same color in order to eliminate a virus. Each half of a vitamin counts as one object, and a virus counts as another. So you could potentially have three viruses of the same color stacked on top of each other, meaning you’d only have to put one similarly colored half of a vitamin on top of them to eliminate them. You can even eliminate the viruses by placing the vitamins against them horizontally, but it’s much less common.

Additionally, if the vitamins involved in an elimination feature halves of different colors, those halves will remain and fall straight down until they either land on a virus or the bottom of the screen. This gives you an added level of strategy for any nearby viruses, but it also risks filling up the screen with piles of vitamins. If the vitamins stack up to the top of the screen and Mario can’t throw any more, you lose the round.

It’s a nice twist on the Tetris formula, one that remains fun even today. Better still, the game features a two-player competitive mode, where each player aims to eliminate their screen of viruses before the other. And despite the technical limitations of the game (even by NES standards) it makes the best with what it has. The graphics are cute and fun (I especially like how part of the screen is a microscope held up to the viruses, just so you can see them dancing around in all their glory), and the game’s two selectable music tracks, Chill and Fever, are infectiously catchy, and are all too easy to listen to on repeat as you play round after round.

Unfortunately, if you don’t have a second player at the ready to tackle the aforementioned two-player mode, Dr. Mario’s gameplay can only go so far. The lack of any additional modes really stands out in retrospect, and the fact that – unlike Tetris – each round has a set goal to reach means beating your own high score is kind of an afterthought.

Dr. Mario is still fun, no doubt. But it isn’t particularly deep. It’s at its best when two players are onboard, and even in that area it’s been bettered (Dr. Mario 64 turned the formula into a four-player party game. And now I really wish Nintendo would re-release that game or make a proper sequel to further add to the proceedings).

Its limitations are certainly more apparent today, but Dr. Mario is still worth playing. Perhaps more importantly, it represents a time when gamers were a bit wiser, and could accept Mario in any role and not question the merit in its potential.

6

Top 10 Nintendo 64 Games to Play Today

The Nintendo 64 recently celebrated its 25th anniversary! So I figured now was as good of a time as any to commemorate the trailblazing retro console’s best games.

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!

1: Banjo-Kazooie

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.

2: Banjo-Tooie

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!

Happy Nintendo 64, everybody!

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD*

And now for something completely different.

That Monty Python quote may be a tad overused, but it’s certainly a fitting way to introduce Stranger’s Wrath, which has to be the odd man out of the Oddworld series, and I mean that in the best possible way.

After Munch’s Oddysee – the second installment in the originally planned five-part “quintology” of Oddworld titles – failed to meet its creators’ vision, in addition to having a disappointing reception from critics and fans alike, developer Oddworld Inhabitants hit the pause button on the Quintology and decided to make a whole new kind of Oddworld game. Unlike the previous “bonus game” in the series, Abe’s Exoddus, this new title wasn’t to be a more polished version of an established formula (though there was some talk of a Munch’s Exoddus back in the day), instead, this new Oddworld entry would be unlike anything that came before it. This game would end up being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, a title whose bold ambitions and deviations from series’ tradition paid off in spades.

Originally released on the Xbox in 2005, Stranger’s Wrath was, like Abe’s Exoddus before it, quietly one of the best titles on its console (and I’d argue it’s whole console generation). Stranger’s Wrath became a surprise critical hit and quickly gained cult classic status. Though poor sales numbers and falling outs with publishers saw Oddworld Inhabitants leave the video game industry for near of a decade shortly after the game’s release. It’s a crying shame. Though Oddworld has reemerged in recent times, you can’t help but wonder of all the possibilities the series missed out on during those silent years, especially after Stranger’s Wrath pulled away the curtain and proved Oddworld was a series that could go seemingly anywhere.

After having created unlikely heroes in both Abe and Munch – characters who were incapable of defending themselves but could find other ways to overcome enemies and obstacles – Oddworld Inhabitants decided to make their third protagonist a stark contrast to his predecessors: The titular “Stranger” of Stranger’s Wrath has a face like a lion, and arms like a gorilla (making him the first mammalian creature in Oddworld, unless the Fuzzles from Munch’s Oddysee count). To cap it off, he’s a badass bounty hunter carved from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Suffice to say, the Stranger is pretty far removed from Munch.

Although Stranger’s Wrath takes place on the same continent of Oddworld as the previous entries in the series, it’s in an area untouched by the industries of the Glukkons (the series’ usual antagonists), being largely underdeveloped and reminiscent of the wild west. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s ever been confirmed if Stranger’s Wrath takes place around the same timeframe as the other Oddworld games, or if its events occur sometime in Oddworld’s past.

You’ve probably deduced by now that Stranger’s Wrath is a western. As stated, the Stranger is a mysterious, no-nonsense bounty hunter, drifting from town to town bagging outlaws for precious Moolah (the currency of Oddworld). Though Stranger’s quest for cash isn’t all about greed, as he requires a hefty sum to pay for a life-saving operation, giving the character a vulnerability that makes this lion-gorilla more human.

It’s not just Stranger and his place in Oddworld that differentiates Stranger’s Wrath from the previous Oddworld titles, but it’s also very different as a game. Whereas Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were 2D puzzle-platformers, and Munch’s Oddysee attempted to translate that into 3D (while introducing several original ideas that, sadly, didn’t quite pan out), Stranger’s Wrath combines a first-person shooter with a third-person action-adventure.

Given the game’s time of release deep into the Xbox/PS2/GameCube generation – something of a creative dark age for gaming in which concepts like color were frowned upon for being “too kiddy” – the changes Stranger’s Wrath made to Oddworld may have damaged the series under less talented hands (need we remember how Jak & Daxter tried to be more “edgy and mature” with its sequels, which now just seems like laughable conformity in retrospect). Thankfully, the creativity of Oddworld Inhabitants is still at play here, and arguably at its best. Somehow, Stranger’s unlikely marriage of genres works seamlessly at the press of a button.

“The 2010 HD update still looks pretty impressive.”

If the Stranger has anything in common with Oddworld’s past heroes, it’s in his disdain for guns. Putting an Oddworld twist on the first-person shooter, Stranger is equipped with a crossbow over his right arm, which doesn’t shoot bolts or arrows at enemies, but the various little critters scattered about Oddworld, humorously referred to as “live ammunition.”

When in first-person mode, the player can equip two forms of ammo onto Stranger’s crossbow at a time (one on the left, one on the right). There are eight primary types of this live ammunition, giving players a lot of options and combinations as to how they want to tackle a situation: Zapflies are electrically-charged fireflies that can be shot in quick succession or be given a short time to charge up and do some real damage or knock out electrical devices. Chippunks are foul-mouthed little rodents who will lure an enemy away from a group with its insults (the bad guys can’t wait to step on them). Bolamites are spiders that wrap enemies in their webbing for a short time. Fuzzles – returning from Munch’s Oddysee – can be fired directly onto enemies or planted as a trap, and provide continuous damage with their ferocious bite. Thudslugs are heavy, beetle-like creatures that can knock an enemy out with one well-aimed shot. Stunks are like skunk versions of chippunks, leaving a terrible smell where they land, causing the bad guys to vomit and making them easy pickings for Stranger. Stingbees, which come in massive quantities, are fired like a machine gun. Finally, Boombats, as their name bluntly suggests, are bats that explode.

What Oddworld Inhabitants managed to successfully do with the live ammunition concept is create a variety of well-defined weapons that each have a distinct role, and will all come in handy at one point or another. Though different ammo types are better for certain situations, none of them ever come across as a pointless addition.

Bad guys are worth more Moolah if they’re captured alive, but there’s also nothing stopping Stranger from taking them out of the picture altogether. Some ammo types are better suited to incapacitating enemies (like Stunks or Bolamites), whereas others are more lethal (Stingbees, Boombats and Fuzzles). After an enemy is downed or killed, Stranger can use a vacuum like device on his crossbow to suck them up to collect the bounty (a mechanic I have to applaud. So many story-focused games are so concerned about something being “too video game-y” as to not fit in with their narrative, so it’s great to see games like Stranger’s Wrath not feel embarrassed to embrace a more convenient video game element to go with their story). Personally speaking, my favorite is the Chippunk/Stunks combo, luring in an enemy with the former then using the latter to capture said foe whilst they puke.

The boss outlaws are trickier, having both a health bar and a stamina meter. If you want to bag a boss alive, you have to find the best way to deplete their stamina, which is different depending on the boss. The only setback to this is it’s rarely apparent what a particular boss’s weakness is, and if you’re out of that particular ammo by the time you get to the boss, you don’t always have an opportunity to get more of that specific ammo during a boss. It isn’t a huge drawback, but it is a little bothersome to not know ahead of time if you’re trying to bag the boss alive for more Moolah.

Stranger finds more ammunition by coming across the nests of each respective creature, knocking them out and collecting them. The exception are the zapflies, of which Stranger has unlimited ammo. This might be my only critique with the live ammunition. While it makes sense from a gameplay perspective that Stranger needs one type of unlimited ammo so that he always has a means to collect more, I think the zapflies are a little too good to be the one that comes without limits. The other ammo types (other than Stingbees) are in short supply, with Stranger holding a max of about ten to fifteen shots apiece (though you can buy upgrades for more ammo). So it seems a little overpowered that the ammo you can charge up for a stronger shot is the one you can’t run out of.

The first-person aspect is only half of the equation, of course. Players can also swap to third-person to use melee attacks and run faster (with Stranger going beast-mode and running on all fours at top speed). Like the bosses, Stranger also has a stamina bar, which is used for the melee attacks and, interestingly, to heal. Instead of finding health around the place, the player simply needs to hold a button for Stranger to “shake off” the damage at the expense of stamina. That may sound like another overpowered element, but you’d be surprised how many times you can still manage to bite the bullet as you wait for your stamina to replenish during a gunfight.

Like Abe and Munch, Stranger can communicate with NPCs. Due to the game’s heavier focus on action, “gamespeak” has been streamlined to a single button, with Stranger simply asking what he needs to for information (or to remind the player what they’re supposed to be doing, if there’s no NPC present).

The structure of the game is simple enough. Go to the bounty store, accept a job, head out to find your target, take out his gang and eventually the boss himself (usually cumulating in a big shootout with the boss and his gang, or a more traditional boss fight). After you’ve exhausted a town of its outlaws, you move onto the next and do the same. Sometimes, you’ll even have an option as to which job you want to take at which time. And just before the formula might start to feel repetitious, the game throws a huge curveball at the player, and though the core gameplay remains intact, the structure changes drastically.

I won’t give away any spoilers, but you could say that Stranger’s Wrath is divided into three acts: Act one comprises of the first two towns and their bounties. The second act is the third town, where the game gets considerably bigger. And act three comprises of everything post-shift.

Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it should be noted that the twist the game takes has been a talking point ever since the game’s 2005 release. Some love it as an all-time great gaming twist that benefits the story of Stranger’s Wrath, while others feel the game becomes far more linear after the twist. While I can understand the complaints of the latter category, and may even personally prefer the more game-focused first two acts as opposed to the story-based third, I find myself siding more with the more positive outlook of the twist. So many games want to be everything (a trend that started in the generation of Stranger’s Wrath, which saw the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls, and has only become more extreme in the years since), but they end up lacking a definitive purpose. It’s refreshing to come across a title like Stranger’s Wrath that knows exactly what it wants to be, and executes it so well.

Though I will admit I have two issues with the game’s post-twist timeframe: the first is that (again, without spoiling anything), it becomes much easier to get a hold of more ammo, which takes away some of the uniqueness that hunting it down has in the earlier parts of the game. The second is that each of the Live Ammunition types (save the Zapflies) get an upgrade during this section. That may sound cool, but the issue I have is that I kind of like the functions of some of the un-upgraded ammo better, but once it gets the upgrade, you can’t switch it back. Given the direction the game goes, these changes make sense. But it would be nice to have the option to use the tools at play the same way you did up to that point.

Though it may be something of a shooter, I actually think the best game to compare Stranger’s Wrath to would be another beloved 2005 title: Shadow of the Colossus.

Like Colossus, Stranger is a story-driven game in which the game drives the story. Some may complain that these titles are “too linear” or that “they don’t have enough for the player to do other than the main objectives.” But to complain about such things is kind of missing the point of these types of games. While today, we have the dreaded “walking simulator” (first-person games with minimal gameplay in which the player simply walks through the story), Stranger, like Colossus, tells its story through a game. Perhaps it’s not quite on the same level of “a story only a video game could tell” as something like Undertale. But like Colossus, Stranger is the combination of gameplay and narrative done right.

It’s impressive how Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath both deviates away from the series’ past while also somehow managing to fit right in to their established world. The only returning creatures of Oddworld’s past are the aforementioned Fuzzles, and the doctor who plans to perform Stranger’s operation, who is a member of the Vykker species introduced in Munch’s Oddysee. There’s not so much as a mention of Mudokons, Glukkons or Sligs. The townsfolk are all featherless chicken people called Clakkers, while a tribe of natives, salamander-like creatures called Grubbs, also show up. Meanwhile, the outlaws Stranger hunts down are an assortment of goblins, dinosaurs and slugs (their specific species are still unnamed, though it’s pretty cool how the game utilizes a consistent batch of creature designs for a varied assortment of baddies). It’s the right kind of franchise reinvention, which of course makes the series’ extended absence after Stranger’s release all the more heartbreaking.

There are a couple of areas in which Stranger’s Wrath may show a bit of age. Namely, the jumping definitely feels very “mid-2000s action game” in that it feels a little slow and awkward. This can make some moments that implement a bit of platforming feel a bit less than ideal. It should also be noted that there are some technical issues with the game, particularly in the Steam release I played for this review (the achievements are notably buggy in this version, but I suppose that’s only an issue if you’re really into those kinds of things). There were also a few graphical errors during some in-game cinematics (I actually beat the game twice ahead of this review, and while most of these graphical hiccups only showed up in one playthrough or the other, one particularly funny moment happened during both).

I used an Xbox One controller for my playthroughs, and it has to be said that whatever the default controller settings are on Steam for Stranger’s Wrath are dumbfounding. I admit I was worried for a brief moment that maybe Stranger was always just a mess a to control, and the game itself didn’t live up to my memories of it. Thankfully, a quick internet search gave me the instructions I needed to reconfigure the control setup to feel more like it original release, putting my concerns to rest. Stranger’s Wrath has also been made available for the Playstation 3 and, most recently, Nintendo Switch. I’ve heard the PS3 version lacks the technical bugs of the Steam version, and I’m assuming the Switch version follows suite. So those might be more ideal ways to play Stranger’s Wrath today, but none of the bugs found in the Steam version interfere with gameplay in the way those of Munch’s Oddysee did. So if you reconfigure the control setup for the Steam version it’s still plenty playable.

And play it you should! Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, like Shadow of the Colossus, is one of those games that quietly received praise for its originality, but went under the radar in its initial release. Whereas Shadow of the Colossus eventually went from being recognized as a cult classic into an all-time great, Stranger’s Wrath has unfortunately never broken through that glass ceiling that Oddworld has sadly been under since day one. In a more perfect world, Stranger’s Wrath would have ascended right alongside Shadow of the Colossus. Here’s hoping that one of these re-releases will eventually see Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath takes its place on the pedestal it’s always deserved.

9

Puyo Puyo 2 Review

*Review based on Puyo Puyo 2’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service*

Puyo Puyo is one of the most popular falling block puzzle series in gaming history. So it can be a little strange to go back and see how skittish publishers were with releasing the series in the west. The original Puyo Puyo received a makeover with established gaming franchises on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo with Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche, respectively. Meanwhile, the second entry didn’t even get a western release on home consoles until it was made available on retro downloadable services like the Wii’s Virtual Console and, most recently, the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service.

The gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 should be familiar to anyone who’s played the series: multi-colored blobs fall from the top of the screen in clumps of two, which the player can move around and rotate. If you match up at least four blobs of the same color together, you will eliminate them from the screen. And if you plan and strategize the placements of the blobs well enough, you can connect more than four of them or even get a chain of eliminations one after the other, with both scenarios resulting in you sending marble-like ‘trash’ blocks to your opponent. The marbles will of course make get in your way, making it more difficult to connect the blobs. But if you can eliminate blobs adjacent to the marbles, you can remove them from your board. But should the blobs and marbles reach the top of the screen, it’s game over.

The adjustments to the core gameplay are minimal, with the biggest difference being that it takes bigger stacks of blobs and more chains of eliminations to send marbles to your opponent than the first game. The minimal changes aren’t really an issue though. Puzzle games are – along with platformers – the genre that represents gaming at its purest, and because of that, they never really lose any of their appeal no matter how much time passes. And Puyo Puyo, I must say, is one of the most fun and addicting of puzzle games.

The major differences here are that the game can be played with up to four players, which was a rarity in the Super Famicom days (it’s actually much easier to play the four-player modes in the Switch release than it was in Puyo Puyo 2’s day). Suffice to say, the more the merrier when it comes to falling-block puzzle mayhem. It should be noted, however, that the Switch release remains untranslated, so unless you can read Japanese, you’ll have to test out the game’s different options to figure out what’s what (there are some clues to the number of players per mode as indicated by the number of blobs next to each, but otherwise it’s a guessing game for sad sacks like me who can’t read Japanese).

The only real issue with Puyo Puyo 2 is the difficulty in its single-player mode. Puyo Puyo is often cited for its difficulty, going back to the Mean Bean Machine days. But the series usually at least gradually gets more difficult as you go. The difficulty of Puyo Puyo 2’s single player mode, on the other hand, feels all over the place. You’ll fight your way through several “levels,” each one comprised of multiple opponents, but the challenge of each individual opponent varies wildly. I’ve beaten the single-player mode a few times now, and there will be certain opponents early on that take me several attempts to conquer, followed up by easier opposition for the next few rounds before I run headfirst into another wall of difficulty.

Unfortunately, I’m not perceptive enough to notice if the easier and harder challenges were consistent with the character who served as my opponent (though I think that might be the case). Whether there is or isn’t that consistency almost doesn’t matter, because the order you face your opponents is done via a roulette wheel (the player can stop the wheel when they choose, but until you’ve chipped away and eliminated the opposition of each round, you’re not likely to land on the baddie you want to face). So again, the game doesn’t so much get progressively more difficult, as much as it is sometimes easy, and sometimes frustratingly hard.

“The fish with human limbs might be my favorite character.”

That’s not a deal breaker, however. And suffice to say that the core gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 is as fun as ever. Plus, with the crisp 16-bit graphics, cute character designs, and catchy soundtrack, Puyo Puyo 2 is yet another puzzler that’s pleasing to the senses. Bring a few friends over to enjoy Puyo Puyo 2 to its fullest. But if you wish to enjoy the game alone, that works too. Just be prepared for a seemingly random difficulty curve.

 

7

Brawl Brothers Review

*Review based on Brawl Brothers’ release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Brawl Brothers, released on the SNES in 1993 by Jaleco, is a side scrolling beat-em-up game, and the second installment in the Rushing Beat series. Curiously, it’s noted as being the only SNES game to feature both its western and Japanese releases on the same cartridge (the Japanese version being accessible via a cheat code). Other than that little piece of trivia, however, Brawl Brothers doesn’t provide a whole lot to write home about.

“The playable roster admittedly looks like the bargain aisle equivalent of Street Fighter characters.”

Let’s get one thing straight, I really like beat-em-up games. Their simple, straightforward, arcade-style gameplay makes them among the purest “video game-y” of video game genres, alongside the likes of platformers and puzzle games (albeit beat-em-ups don’t have the same depth of those genres). Walking from one side of the screen to the next, punching bad guys to a pulp along the way, is so simple and satisfying, particularly when multiple players are involved. But if not done right, beat-em-ups risk falling into monotony. Unfortunately, Brawl Brothers is one such beat-em-up.

The main issue with the game is that the hit detection feels way off. You repeatedly mash the attack button on an enemy, hoping that you’re aligned at just the right pixel to land your punches. You just walk into enemies to grab them for throwing attacks, but sometimes the enemies grab you instead, an issue that could have been easily avoided if you used a separate button to grab enemies instead of walking into them.

While Brawl Brothers provides a versatile (for the time) roster of five characters, each with their own special moves, another major issue with the game is that using these special moves drains your health bar. I’m guessing this was done to prevent players from constantly spamming the special moves, but surely there was a better way to go about that? Why not build up a separate meter with the more hits you land on enemies or how many of them you defeat, and once said meter is full, you can use your special move? That sounds like a better option than draining a huge chunk of your own health amidst an onslaught of enemies to prevent them from…draining a huge chunk of your health.

Perhaps the most aggravating issue with Brawl Brothers, however, are the maze levels. This is first present in the game’s sewer stage, with the player potentially cycling through the same screens non-stop unless they know which doors to take on which screen. The big problems is the game gives no indicator this is the case, so naturally, I followed the rules up until that point, going to the end of the stage expecting to move on, only to start doing the same thing over and over again. I had to look online to figure out what I was doing wrong, only to find out about the maze element. If you know the pattern, it’s not too difficult. But if the game is going to abruptly change the rules on the player, it would be nice if there were some kind of hint about that happening. Again, even if the answer isn’t too cryptic, having to learn that answer via the web for a game released in 1993 is kind of annoying.

Believe it or not, but the Japanese version of the game doesn’t include the maze elements, with those stages still following the more straightforward approach. Why the western release decided throwing in cryptic maze-like stages into the mix without any indication of such was a good idea, I’ll never know. Thankfully, as previously mentioned, the Japanese version is readily available on the western cartridge (and that’s still true for the Nintendo Switch release). Repeatedly pressing B, A, X and Y (in that order) on the ‘Jaleco’ screen will appear to glitch things up, indicating you can now enter codes. From the glitchy screen press start, hit down three times, and press start again, and you’ll be in the options menu for the Japanese version of the game. Simply continue from there and voila!

Look at me, giving away a cheat code in a review. But this is a rare exception, because the lack of the maze stages makes the Japanese version of the game so much better. Granted, the hit detection is still off, and the special moves still drain health, but at least it fixes one of Brawl Brothers’s most glaring issues. Plus, one of the characters can hit enemies in the groin in the Japanese version!

Other than that, there’s really not much difference between versions, but the removal of mazes alone makes the Japanese version the preferred method of play.

Still, even with the marginal improvements of the Japanese version of the game, Brawl Brothers still feels like one of the more dated beat-em-ups. The graphics are great (that’s Super Nintendo for you), and the music is catchy. And fans of the genre might still have a fun enough time. But no doubt there are plenty of other, better beat-em-up options out there.

 

4

Super Earth Defense Force Review

*Review based on Super Earth Defense Force’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Originally developed by Jaleco for arcades in 1991, Earth Defense Force made its way to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System the very next year, with the appropriate “Super” added to the title. Super Earth Defense Force is a simple side scrolling rail-shooter that provides competent enough fun, but features some questionable creative decisions that hold it back.

The player takes control of a space fighter, which is accompanied by two satellite fighters. At the start of each stage, players can select which weapons the satellite fighters have, with eight possible options. But you should always pick the “homing” option.

This is the game’s first big creative misstep. The homing attack is so overpowered and so much more useful than the other seven options that it makes them close to pointless. I’m not talking about the good kind of overpowered which simply makes the character feel more powerful, like the cape in Super Mario World or the Crissaegrim from Symphony of the Night. This is the bad kind of overpowered, as in “did anyone test this to properly compare these weapons?” Though the game sees the player automatically traveling to the right side of the screen, enemies don’t just spawn ahead of, but behind, above, and below as well. As such, the homing attack is the only one that can reliably hit these enemies. And in some instances (even on the first level), there are numerous enemies descending from the top of the screen that are difficult to avoid unless you destroy some of them, but you can’t hit them unless you – as you might have guessed – picked the homing attack. There’s no reason for you not to pick it.

The player has three hit points, and four total lives. The only way to heal is by completing a stage, and there is no way to gain extra lives. Additionally, the stages feature no checkpoints, so every defeat will send you back to the start of the current stage. This all makes sense for an arcade game, where no doubt additional coins would allow for more continues. But it’s a shame that Earth Defense Force’s transition to the Super NES didn’t consider the differences in arcade and console gaming. With no way to heal or continue past your four initial lives, it makes the game an entirely trial and error approach. You’ll make more and more progress every time you play and figure out which enemies spawn at which point, but only after learning from being defeated by surprise attacks time and again. That might make sense for an arcade game, but on the SNES, the occasional healing item or extra life would be appreciated.

In the case of extra lives, Super Earth Defense Force even provides an apt opportunity for such things. As you defeat enemies, you’ll gain experience points. Once your experience bar fills up completely, you’ll gain a level, which will upgrade your weapons (preferably your homing weapons). On the plus side, you’ll keep your accumulated level and experience points even after you lose a life. On the downside, this would have been a primed opportunity to also give the player an extra life, giving them more time to utilize and appreciate their upgraded weapons.

As it is, the game’s trial and error approach will see you gradually gain a level, die, then make more progress through the current stage with your upgraded weapons. With only four chances to make it through the whole game, the experience becomes little more than a memorization game.

Super Earth Defense Force isn’t a bad game. The gameplay is simple and fun, the graphics are nice, and the music is catchy enough. But Super Earth Defense Force isn’t really special in any particular way, which means it can’t really make up for its increasingly tedious sense of trial and error. Playing on Nintendo Switch makes it a bit more tolerable, given the save states provided, but such things weren’t in Jaleco’s mind when developing Super Earth Defense Force back in the day. Even the game’s attempt at variety is undone, thanks to one weapon option being as objectively right as you can get in this kind of scenario.

 

5

Demon’s Crest Review

*Review based on Demon’s Crest’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch online service*

For my money, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is, hands down, the best retro video game console. Sure, we all have consoles we have a nostalgic soft spot for, and there are certainly those that were significant to video game history. And sure, a number of retro consoles house a few titles that remain all-time greats. In most cases, however, such examples of standing the test of time so prominently are the exception, not the rule. But the SNES is the retro console which has an arsenal of classics so strong and timeless, that the console can go toe-to-toe with the games of today without batting an eye.

With that said, even the SNES had some gems that fell under the radar. Case in point: Demon’s Crest.

This 1994 spinoff of Capcom’s Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series fell largely under the radar in its initial release. Even in the years since, it often seems left out (or placed on the lower end) of lists of SNES classics. That’s a real shame, because Demon’s Crest is a unique experience on the SNES. One that, in many ways, felt ahead of its time.

While the Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series has a lightheartedness to it that counterbalances its gothic elements (such as the series’ hero, Arthur, being a cartoonish knight who loses his armor and winds up in his undies upon taking damage), Demon’s Crest leaves behind the more cartoonish elements and doubles down on the gothic horror aspect, which makes it feel more in line with Castlevania.

In Demon’s Crest, you play as the recurring Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins enemy Firebrand, a winged fire demon, on a quest to collect the six Demon Crests (Fire, Earth, Wind, Water, Time and Heaven), as all six will allow their holder to rule over all demons.

In the game’s intro, it’s revealed that Firebrand had just wrested the last crest in a hard fought battle against a demon dragon, but Firebrand was so weary after the battle, that he was easy prey for the evil demon named Phalanx. Phalanx attacks Firebrand in the sky, and manages to secure all but the fire crest, which ends up shattering into five pieces during the scuffle (Firebrand holds onto one shard, while the others fall to the earth below). Even without the fire crest, Phalanx manages to conquer the demon world, entrusting the crests to his minions (save the heaven crest, which Phalanx keeps for himself). Firebrand is banished to face the zombified remains of the demon dragon in a coliseum, with the game beginning right out of the gate against this boss fight, after which Firebrand escapes his imprisonment and sets out to find the remaining shards of the fire crest, and reclaim the other crests from Phalanx.

It is, of course, a simple “get the magical items” plot common to video games. But what I really like about Demon’s Crest’s story is how it’s presented in its early moments, with the plot segueing into the opening boss fight and Firebrand’s escape. The game as a whole has a nice, atmospheric, cinematic aspect to it, while never getting bogged down by profuse cutscenes.

“The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)”

Like the Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series, the gameplay of Demon’s Crest is largely a run and gun style sidescroller, but with a bit of Castlevania, Mega Man and Metroid thrown into the mix, making for a more versatile experience. Firebrand is able to shoot fireballs, headbutt background objects (yeah, that’s a little weird), and even fly (though his maximum height is limited to how high he can jump in his normal state).

The simple goal of each stage is to get to the end and defeat a boss, but Demon’s Crest spices up the formula by giving stages multiple pathways that lead to different bosses, which oftentimes require backtracking with newfound abilities to find these new paths. So even though the game utilizes a more traditional series of stages, it has a hefty Metroidvania element to it, which is all the more impressive when you remember Demon’s Crest was released the very same year as Super Metroid, the “mother” of the genre.

“When you press start on the world map, you get an overview of the layout of the map. Seems like there’s room for another stage or two in the northeast section.”

You access the different stages via a world map in the same vein as Final Fantasy or Secret of Mana. It’s a nice touch that further adds to the game, though there may not be quite enough stages to justify this method of travel, with much of the map feeling bare (there are a few bonus areas hidden throughout the map, but still not quite enough to make the world map live up to its potential, I feel).

Defeating major bosses will reward Firebrand with either a new Demon Crest, or a shard of the fire crest. The shards of the fire crest will give Firebrand a new attack, while the other shards will grant the demon a new transformation. The earth crest, for example, will allow Firebrand to break through heavy objects, and shoot a projectile that travels across the ground. The wind crest transforms Firebrand into a flying beast who can lift far higher into the air than his standard form. And the water crest, appropriately, turns Firebrand into an aquatic monster who can breath underwater.

The new moves and transformations are what give the game a nice Mega Man feel to it, and give Demon’s Crest a lot of variety in play styles. Some bosses will even be susceptible to particular abilities and transformations. Though on the downside, while Mega Man will give the player a basic idea of which Robot Master’s power would work well against another with its Rock, Paper, Scissors style layout of boss themes, Demon’s Crest requires a lot more guessing in that department.

With Mega Man, you see who the bosses are ahead of time, and can make an educated guess at their strengths and weaknesses. But unless you’ve played Demon’s Crest before, you’re not going to know who the boss is on any given path of a level, or what crest you’ll get for defeating them. So while in Mega Man you could figure out “okay, the water boss will give me a water power to take out the fire boss” Demon’s Crest is a bit more vague. You need the water crest just to get to the water bosses in Demon’s Crest, for example, but there’s nothing to tell you which stage houses the water crest. It’s not overly cryptic, but it’s vague enough that I admit I had to use a video walkthrough to know where to get what.

Another minor issue is that the only way to switch powers and transformations is to pause the game and select what you want/need. Granted, you have to do similar actions to switch items in Legend of Zelda or (once again) the powers in Mega Man. But here, there will be times when you have to repeatedly swap out between powers in quick succession for level progression or boss strategy, so it can feel a little tedious at times. Additionally, while all the transformations feel useful, I actually managed to beat the game without using some of the fire crest abilities, obviously making them feel less important (though perhaps they may have come in handy against a boss or two I had a tough time with, come to think of it).

In addition, the player can also find health-extending items throughout the game, as well as vials for potions and scrolls for spells hidden in certain stages. While finding an additional hitpoint always feels like a joy, I do have to admit the potions and spells could have been better implemented. The game’s first stage after the world map opens up features a small town in its beginning, where the player can purchase potions and spells (being able to carry as many potions as you have vials, and as many spells as you have scrolls). There are a few shops and mini-games tucked into the world map as well, but there are only a handful of spells and potions that are really worth going back to the town for, to be honest (stock up on the healing potions for the boss fights, and you’re basically good).

An additional collectible is hidden throughout the game in the form of five talismans, human artifacts that will give Firebrand passive abilities (like enemies dropping more money or health, or taking less damage), though only one can be equipped at a time. Seeking out these talismans is a fun endeavor, though I wish there were an in-game description of what each talisman does. The talismans come in the forms of a skull, a crown, armor, a fang and a hand. While gaining a new crest or shard informs the player precisely what that item does, there’s nothing in-game that tells you the affects of the talismans. The only one talisman that has a logical connection to its ability is the armor, which grants the aforementioned extra durability to damage. But I wouldn’t have known what the others did had I not looked it up online. Again, it’s nothing major, but how would I have figured out that the skull makes enemies drop health more frequently and the fang makes my magic attacks stronger?

“Meow!”

None of Demon’s Crest’s drawbacks are dealbreakers, but there are enough little issues that add up that I might not have known what I was supposed to do without a guide. But while the game’s somewhat cryptic elements may show their age, the core gameplay itself has held up exceedingly well, and many of Demon’s Crest’s creative decisions were ahead of their time.

To add to the game’s depth, Demon’s Crest even includes multiple endings depending on how many crests, shards and talismans you have when you face the final boss. And should you get the “best” ending, you can restart the game with a brand new transformation that allows you to face off against a secret boss for the true ending.

The combination of RPG-style progression, backtracking and alternate paths into a side scrolling action game may seem common nowadays, but Demon’s Crest was essentially a forerunner in the ‘Metroidvania’ sub-genre in the same vein as Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And along with the forward-thinking gameplay, the utilization of finely detailed graphics and character designs, as well as a simply awesome soundtrack (that’s SNES for you), gives Demon’s Crest a unique sense of atmosphere and identity in the SNES library.

“What a looker…”

While Super Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts may be the more well-known entry in the series on the Super Nintendo, Demon’s Crest is undoubtedly its better. Hell, it’s even a better SNES Castlevania titles than the actual SNES Castlevania titles!

While I appreciate that Demon’s Crest doesn’t hold the player’s hand, it is a little unfortunate that sometimes it’s a little too vague as to where the player should and shouldn’t be going. Still, Demon’s Crest is nonetheless an underrated gem in the SNES’s crown that deserves more attention than it received upon release. And with it readily available to play on the Nintendo Switch, there’s really no excuse not to play this tragically overlooked classic.

 

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Super Mario Galaxy 2 Turns 10!

“Behold, my (new) Super Mario Galaxy 2 poster! I’m building up quite the video game poster wall.”

May 23rd of 2020 marks the ten year anniversary of the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii in the US (which is where it was released first, so I guess I could have just said Galaxy 2 is ten years old, without having to specify which region it was released…).

That’s right, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a decade old now.

Wow, the anniversaries of both Super Mario RPG and Galaxy 2 are separated by a mere ten days? May is a hell of a month for our man Mario. We should rename the month “May-rio” in honor of this. We should totally do that.

Anyway, this is a big anniversary in gaming, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 puts up a major case to being the best video game of all time! Yes, it’s that good. The first Super Mario Galaxy already felt like a perfect game, but Galaxy 2 was somehow even better than perfect. It’s advanced perfect!

How good is Super Mario Galaxy 2? Well, back in 2015, on the game’s fifth anniversary, I gave it a 10/10 review! The first 10/10 I ever dished out to anything on this site! You can read my review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 here (and boy, do I feel old now).

Happy anniversary, Super Mario Galaxy 2!

Super Mario RPG Turns 24!

“Behold, my Super Mario RPG poster! Fittingly next to the poster of my other favorite SNES game, DKC2, and one of my other favorite Mario games, Galaxy 2. I need to squeeze Super Mario World and Odyssey in there somehow…”

Today, May 13th of 2020, marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG’s release in the US (it was released in Japan two months prior, in March of 1996, and wouldn’t be released in Europe until its 2008 release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, which at the time was a record for longest delay between region releases for a single title).

As far as I’m concerned, Super Mario RPG is one of Nintendo’s finest achievements, and has steadily remained an all-time favorite of mine for these twenty-four years. If you ask me, it’s still the best damn RPG ever.

Sadly, despite being one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, it’s one of the very few that never received a direct sequel (it did inspire the wonderful Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series, but none of them quite recaptured the same magic as the originator). And it’s basically the only Mario game to not have its characters or world elements carry over to subsequent games (save for a cameo or two). But that hasn’t stopped fans (myself most assuredly included) from hoping and begging Nintendo and Square to bring back this beloved game either through a sequel or simply resurrecting its characters for new titles.

Seriously Nintendo, just put Geno in Super Smash Bros. already. We’ve only been asking for it for twenty years! I don’t mean an insulting, slap-to-the-face Mii costume. The actual character as a playable fighter. You can’t stop adding those Fire Emblem swordsmen that no one asked for. Why not add another character people have actually wanted and asked for for years?

 

Anyway, happy anniversary to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars! A Legend indeed.

I reviewed Super Mario RPG as my special 300th video game review. You can read my 10/10 review here.

Final Fantasy Adventure Review

*Review based on Final Fantasy Adventure’s release on Nintendo Switch as part of the Collection of Mana*

Originally released on the GameBoy in 1991 as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan, and later released in the west as Final Fantasy Adventure (US) and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest (Europe), this Final Fantasy spinoff would eventually spawn the Mana series of games, dropping the Final Fantasy name entirely.

It was with the second entry in the series, Seiken Densetsu 2 – more widely known as Secret of Mana – that the series would really come into its own (and, in my opinion, established itself as Final Fantasy’s better). But the seeds of greatness were planted here in Final Fantasy Adventure on the GameBoy. Though the GameBoy’s limitations do mean that this original entry in the Mana series hasn’t aged particularly well, its ambitions for the time and hardware are nothing short of commendable.

Some fans bemoan the Mana series for its lighter emphasis on story in comparison to Final Fantasy, but seeing as these are video games, I feel that gameplay is the far more important feature. And in that regard, the Mana games stand tall over Final Fantasy with ease. Take the story out of the old Final Fantasy titles, and they are, admittedly, the ‘vanilla’ of RPGs. But by implementing Final Fantasy’s RPG mechanics into gameplay inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, the Mana series feels more distinct and refined as a game. Though, as stated, that mostly applies to the second and third entries of the series, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure attempted such a feat on the original GameBoy as early as 1991 is an impressive feat in and of itself.

Unlike later entries in the series, the player only directly controls one hero character, though a second, non-playable character will join them from time to time. The layout of the world and control is reminiscent of the original Zelda on NES. With the top down perspective, similar gameplay, world and dungeons. But your character also gains experience points, levels up, gains new weapons, and can improve different stats as the player sees fit, as in Final Fantasy.

In concept, Final Fantasy Adventure had a lot going for it. Remember, this was five years before Pokemon was released in Japan, and two years before Link’s Awakening. To have an adventure of this scale on the GameBoy was unheard of. At the time, it’s easy to see why Final Fantasy Adventure would have been considered a classic. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy Adventure aims higher than the GameBoy would ultimately allow, and its lofty ambitions feel restrained by the limitations of its hardware.

For example, it’s often difficult to tell when you’re being hit by an enemy. Your hit points are displayed on-screen via a number, but it’s easy to lose track of it during gameplay. Your character doesn’t react to getting hit by an enemy, like in Zelda, so amidst all the chaos of combat you may not realize when you’re low of health until its too late. At least it’s clear when you’re hitting enemies, so it’s not abhorrent in the same vein as Hydlide, but it definitely doesn’t help the game stand the test of time.

“Okay, I can see where I am. But where am I supposed to be going?!”

Then there’s the simple matter of the game being way too cryptic. The map screen itself is confusing, with the world map being presented as a squared grid, with the player’s current location being represent by a blinking square, and the towns being represented by houses. Other than those markers, you have no clue where anything is. And with how vague the NPCs are with their advice, you’re often left scratching your head as to where to go next. Even if someone gives you something of an idea of a location, you have no idea where it is because the map is just non-specific squares.

Unfortunately, this grows to become a pretty big issue. There are just too many segments in the game where you’re left wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do. And while the core gameplay is decently fun, it goes without saying that Secret of Man – being a Super Nintendo title – more than perfected the formula.

That’s not to say all is bad in Final Fantasy Adventure, however. As a huge bonus, you can save your game at any point during gameplay. How a GameBoy title achieved this while RPGs on the PS2 still demanded players to find specific save points is both a testament to how the Mana series tended to look towards the future, and indicative of how the RPG genre on the whole took a while to move forward. And the soundtrack to Final Fantasy Adventure is one of the few GameBoy soundtracks that still sounds great even by modern standards (that main theme is just lovely).

Final Fantasy Adventure is simply too grand of a journey for the GameBoy to handle. For its day, Final Fantasy Adventure was quite an impressive feat. Unfortunately, like so many titles released on the original GameBoy, timeless appeal ultimately wasn’t one of its strong suits. Still, I suppose when most GameBoy games felt like they compromised so much quality for the sake of accessibility, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure’s biggest drawback is being too ambitious to be properly realized on the GameBoy is a testament to what it did manage to achieve.

 

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