Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review

Before Mario entered the Mushroom Kingdom, met Princess Peach and found an archnemesis in Bowser, there was Donkey Kong. Before Luigi was introduced to the world, before Mario was even named Mario, there was Donkey Kong. Mario and Donkey Kong were gaming’s first legendary rivalry, the dynamic in which all of Nintendo was built on.

But it was not to last. Though they were enemies in the early 80s, as Mario joined up with his brother and began having adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, Donkey Kong was phased out. It wasn’t until 1994 that Donkey Kong saw a complete reinvention, turning a new leaf and becoming the hero of his own adventures starting with Donkey Kong Country (of course, this is actually a different Donkey Kong, so I guess the name is like a title that gets passed down or something). However, earlier in that very same year, the Nintendo Gameboy saw a supposed re-release of the original 1981 Donkey Kong arcade game. But after besting the original four levels from the arcade classic, this version of Donkey Kong (unofficially dubbed “Donkey Kong Gameboy” or “Donkey Kong ’94” by fans) unraveled into a brand new adventure, with nearly a hundred new levels all modeled after the single screen platforming of the classic game, with additional puzzle elements added into the mix.

With Donkey Kong Country becoming a big hit, that served as the foundation of the Donkey Kong series from that point onward (something I very much appreciate, being a DKC fan myself). The downside to this was that Mario and DK’s rivalry was once again put on hold. That is until 2004, when Nintendo released Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on the Gameboy Advance, which was created as a kind of spiritual successor to the original Gameboy’s cult classic.

Mario Vs. Donkey adopts much of the same style as the 1994 Gameboy title, with stages that are comprised of two, single-screen segments (some of the later stages are only slightly larger). Each of these screens serves as a platforming puzzle. In the first screen of a level, Mario must find a key and take it to the door to the second screen, in which the goal is to grab a “Mini-Mario Toy” that’s incased in a glass bubble. And for completionists, each stage also houses three presents (one or two on a screen) that will require extra thinking and acrobatics to collect.

The first six stages of every world work this way, with the seventh stage of a world seeing Mario guide the six collected Mini-Mario Toys to their toy box – which will only open if the Mini-Marios collect the T-O-Y letters scattered about – avoiding dangerous obstacles along the way. The eighth and final stage of each world is a boss fight against Donkey Kong. For most of the stages, a single hit from an enemy or obstacle will do Mario in. During the boss stages, however, Mario’s hit points will be determined by the number of Mini-Mario Toys the player managed to guide to the toy box on the previous stage (for an obvious maximum of six hit points).

It’s a really simple setup, but it works thanks to some fun puzzle design and Mario’s acrobatics. Not only does Mario partake in his usual jumping here, but he can also do handstands, backflips and swing on bars like a gymnast. The levels feature puzzles built around mechanics like red/yellow/blue switches that coincide with similarly colored platforms, timed electrical barriers, and other such trinkets and traps that will test the player’s reflexes and skill.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong is a fun game, but it has admittedly aged a bit. The structure of the game eventually becomes repetitious, and you may find yourself wishing the game would deviate from itself after a while (does every world need the same amount of levels here?). Additionally, the aforementioned Mini-Mario stages can become a bit tedious, and even some of the worlds can overstay their welcome when they lean too heavily on a specific gameplay gimmick (the best Mario games are acclaimed for never letting any idea linger longer than they need. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong didn’t get the memo, I suppose).

I just think there needed to be more variety within the stages and puzzles. When you think of how massively the 1994 Gameboy Donkey Kong expanded the original arcade game, it feels a tad underwhelming that the Gameboy Advance successor released a decade later doesn’t really feel like it adds to the formula all that much. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still provides a fun time in the same vein as the arcade original and the Gameboy remake, but you know the GBA could’ve done more with the gameplay.

The aesthetics might also be a mixed bag for some. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong utilizes pre-rendered character sprites (a nod to DKC’s influence to the Donkey Kong series), which admittedly look unique for the system, and Mario’s animations are surprisingly fluid. The music and sound, on the other hand, might quickly wear on you. The music isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable (which seems like a sin for a Mario game, doesn’t it?), and the sound effects are mostly recycled sound clips from previous games (Super Mario 64 for Mario, Donkey Kong 64 for DK, and Super Mario Sunshine for Toads). And while the Mini-Marios’ cry for “Mario” may be cute the first time one of them gets lost, it may start to get on your nerves when you start constantly hearing it as they stop following Mario due to the tiniest obstruction in their path.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong remains a fun game in its own right, but one that you can’t help but feel could have been better. It lacks the variety and challenge that could have made it more engrossing (though again, completionists will have a bit of a challenge trying to claim high scores and unlock the secret ‘Expert’ stages). And sadly, this is the current end-of-the-line for Mario and DK’s age-old rivalry. Sure, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong spawned its own sub-series (some of which included level editors, a feature that was originally planned for this title and really would have benefitted the finish product), but each sequel put more focus on the Mini-Marios and gameplay associated with them, and less on its titular rivalry (one entry even replaced the “Vs.” in the title with “and,” which really hit home the change to the series). So as far as the gameplay produced by the original Donkey Kong goes, it has now been on its longest hiatus (if you can believe it), with the original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still being its most recent offering.

That’s a real shame. Even though Mario Vs. Donkey Kong has unraveled a bit with age, it still shows that the formula originally conceived in 1981 still has something to give.

 

6

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Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge Review

I love Banjo-Kazooie. I love the Gameboy Advance. This makes it so disheartening that Banjo-Kazooie’s oft-forgotten GBA spinoff – Grunty’s Revenge – is forgotten for a reason. Despite a surprisingly accurate translation of the gameplay from Banjo-Kazooie’s N64 duology at first glance, Grunty’s Revenge boasts none of the depth of its predecessors, and ranks as the worst game the bear and bird duo have starred in (yes, even Nuts & Bolts had more going for it).

Strangely, Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge was the first game released by developer Rare after they had been purchased by Microsoft. The game had gone through a few different development phases over a couple of years, and by the time Rare became Microsoft’s property, Grunty’s Revenge was too far in production to scrap entirely. Thankfully for Rare, Microsoft’s lack of a handheld gaming platform meant they could still legally release the game on Nintendo’s handheld, but required a middleman publisher since neither Microsoft nor Nintendo could do the honors (which seem so silly in retrospect, now that we live in a time when Xbox Live can be played on Nintendo Switch). THQ ended up being that publisher, and Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge saw release in 2003, to little advertisements and fanfare.

To bring in a bit of personal history, I didn’t even know about the existence of the game ahead of its release. I just opened one of my birthday gifts that year, and lo and behold, Banjo and Kazooie were in a Gameboy Advance game…apparently. I was excited, to be sure. But it didn’t take very long into the game to realize that Grunty’s Revenge was something of a step backwards for handheld gaming, harkening back to the times of the original Gameboy when the transition of a franchise to a handheld usually meant the compromise of its quality. Consider how well so many of the Gameboy Advance’s titles have held up over the years, and Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge’s flaws are only magnified with hindsight (Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was released the very same year on the GBA, but you’d never know it from the difference in quality between the games).

When you first start the game, it looks promising. Even though the GBA didn’t have the power to recreate a full-on 3D platformer in the vein of the N64 Banjo-Kazooie titles, Grunty’s Revenge still does a solid job at finding a way to translate the series’ gameplay to the handheld. Grunty’s Revenge takes on an overhead camera view, and uses pre-rendered character models (a la Donkey Kong Country), which faithfully recreate the characters and enemies from the N64 games. And despite the GBA’s relatively few buttons (A and B on the face of the system, plus two shoulder buttons), Grunty’s Revenge even does a pretty good job at making Banjo and Kazooie’s moves feel reminiscent of their classic N64 outings. Even the iconic gibberish voices return!

But those similarities are short-lived, unfortunately.

The game begins with a rather rushed story. Sure, the Banjo-Kazooie games were never a story-focused series, but they had humorous writing, charming characters, and strong production values for the time. But here, the story just kind of happens on itself, and the game never really capitalizes on its concept.

Taking place between Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, Grunty’s Revenge sees the titular witch Gruntilda – still trapped under a boulder after the events of Banjo-Kazooie – transfer her ghost into a robot body made by her henchman, Klungo. She then kidnaps Kazooie, and travels back in time (whether by her magic or the new robot body is anybody’s guess), in an attempt to stop Banjo and Kazooie from ever meeting, thus ensuring they would have never defeated her in the first place. Thankfully for Banjo, the witch doctor Mumbo Jumbo had witnessed the whole thing, and uses his magic to send Banjo to the same, vaguely-implied time period as Gruntilda.

Like the Banjo-Kazooie games proper, the goal is still to collect Jiggies (10 on each stage) and Musical Notes, the latter of which are used to purchase moves from Bozzeye, a mole who is an ancestor of both Bottles and Jamjars, who played a similar role in Banjos Kazooie and Tooie (respectively).

Aside from the presence of Bottles’ nondescript ancestor, there’s really nothing in the game that takes advantage of the time travel plot. The stages (of which there are five, along with the hub of Spiral Mountain) all follow standard themes and environments for the genre and series (farmland, beach, swamp, harbor and a fire/ice hybrid). In Banjo-Tooie, we got a dinosaur world, and that game didn’t even feature time travel. And that same game featured an infinitely better fire/ice hybrid world. What about the worlds of Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge so much as implies the game takes place in the characters’ past?

Wouldn’t it have been neat if the stages were direct adaptations of those from the N64 games, but with twists that showcase how they take place before the events of those games? For example, maybe you could visit Mumbo’s Mountain from Banjo-Kazooie, and the giant termite mound from that game is still under construction. Or maybe you could revisit Rusty Bucket Bay at a time before it became overwhelmed with pollution? Grunty’s Revenge is already re-using level themes from the previous games, anyway. Why not make it literal and find a way to capitalize on the time travel setup of the story?

As stated, the game actually does a decent job at bringing the series’ gameplay to the GBA, but the more you play Grunty’s Revenge, the more you realize how stripped down it is. Sure, the translation to a handheld system back in 2003 was going to come with a few expenses. But this sadly isn’t a simple case of a simplified Banjo-Kazooie on the go (that might have actually been pretty sweet). As stated, Grunty’s Revenge harkens back to the days of the original Gameboy, when a popular franchise making its way to a handheld device meant it’s quality was going to suffer.

“Also the boss fights suck, largely due to their lack of creativity and challenge, and their sheer repetition.”

The levels are just too empty, and the objectives too mind-numbingly simplistic. The N64 Banjo-Kazooie games did a great job at making the experience feel like an adventure, but Grunty’s Revenge just feels like it’s going through the motions with no rhyme or reason.

Even the moves Banjo and Kazooie learn from Bozzeye are just ones they already learned in the previous games. The only real difference is how you start the game with Banjo on his lonesome. But even that feels underplayed. Wouldn’t it have made for a more unique game if the player had to continuously switch between playing as Banjo and Kazooie? If you’re going to separate the two characters (and not manually, as in Banjo-Tooie), might as well roll with it and take advantage of the concept.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but there is actually one thing that Grunty’s Revenge does better than its otherwise far superior N64 predecessors. And that’s how, this time around, the different transformations provided by Mumbo Jumbo carry over to subsequent levels once unlocked. This means that the transformations actually have more uses here, since you’ll have to revisit Mumbo’s hut in a particular stage to utilize a different transformation in order to nab a Jiggy or two. Though it must be said that even this element suffers from a lack of communication to the player, as one stage features a Jiggy that needs a later transformation to obtain, with the game never even hinting that to be the case (going back to my personal history with the game, I gave up on it for a time back when I was younger because of this segment, in which I had no earthly idea what I was supposed to do). The  real Banjo-Kazooie games could get a little cheeky and have a character (or google-eyed object) tell you when something was meant to be revisited at a later time. While that may be a bit overt, it’s certainly a better option than leaving the player entirely clueless. And while in concept, the idea of Mumbo changing you into any available form on a given level is an improvement for the transformation concept, it still never reaches its full potential for the aforementioned reason that the objectives themselves feel so uninspired.

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge isn’t a total waste. As previously stated, the visuals find a way to bring the look of the N64 games onto the GBA with surprising accuracy. Similarly, the music captures the familiar charm of the real Banjo games. And the initial feeling of the controls is how you would imagine Banjo-Kazooie should play on the handheld system. But Grunty’s Revenge ultimately stumbles because of how far it misses the target on any of its concepts.

That initial feeling of “this is how Banjo-Kazooie should play on a handheld” quickly fades away as you realize that accuracy only exists on face value. It soon becomes apparent that Grunty’s Revenge fails to realize what made the Banjo-Kazooie games so memorable to begin with, and just coughs up a cheap imitation of what a Banjo-Kazooie game should be. The setups of time travel and separating the heroes don’t come into play in either the story or the game itself in any meaningful way.

Grunty’s Revenge is only kind of Banjo-Kazooie. Just enough to pique the curiosity of my younger self back on my 14th birthday, but not nearly enough for it to live up to the bear and bird duo who adorn its title. It’s not even in the same ballpark.

 

4

WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgames Review

The Game Boy Advance should rightfully rank as one of Nintendo’s greatest systems. While the original Game Boy’s influence can’t be understated, and the Nintendo DS helped push Nintendo’s innovation forward, it’s the Game Boy Advance which boasts a timeless appeal that makes it akin to the handheld equivalent of the SNES. The GBA’s library of games brought a newfound quality to handheld gaming, and many of its titles have stood the test of time swimmingly. Among the Game Boy Advance’s many accomplishments was that it introduced the world to the WarioWare series.

Released in 2003, Mega Microgames kicked off the WarioWare series. By throwing players into one series of seconds-long “microgames” after another, each of which only required a press of the A button or two, or a few touches of the D-pad to complete. As a series of microgames continues, they pick up in speed, testing the player’s reflexes.

In essence, WarioWare has always been a deconstruction of video games themselves, stripping away all of their complexities until only the bare minimum of what a video game is remains. It’s simplistic to the point of hilarity (an element that’s magnified by the often silly concepts and goofy graphics of the microgames themselves). WarioWare is a genius subversion of video games, presented in the most manic package possible.

The only real downside to Mega Microgames is – as the first game in the series – it shows its limitations when compared to its sequels (most specifically it’s GBA follow-up, WarioWare Twisted and WarioWare Gold on the 3DS). Mega Microgames – somewhat ironically – falls short of its successors by being the bare basics of the series, even if that “bare basics” element is the appeal of the series as a whole.

Simply put, Mega Microgames is WarioWare in its purest form, for better and (relatively) worse. You play through “chapters” of the game, each distinguished by a different character (with Wario serving as the opening and closing chapters, with the rest represented by the WarioWare cast first introduced here, like Mona, 9-Volt and Jimmy T.). Later entries in the series would better define each character’s chapters with specific themes (whether through twists to the gameplay or unique aesthetics), but here, the gimmicks of each character are a bit less defined.

9-Volt, for example, may have always been a Nintendo fanboy, but here, not all of his microgames use retro Nintendo games as their template. Meanwhile, the games that do use Nintendo’s past as a backdrop quickly begin appearing as other characters’ games as well. In fact, you’ll notice the same microgames getting recycled a lot sooner here than you would in later WarioWare entries, leaving you to wonder why there needed to be as many different character chapters as there are.

Playing through the story mode (if it can even be called that), probably won’t last over an hour. Thankfully, after you conquer a chapter, you can play through its games at your own leisure to go for a high score. Additionally, besting certain chapters will even unlock brand new games outside of those in the main game. So even if you can run through Mega Microgames, it still provides a decent amount of addicting gameplay nonetheless.

WarioWare Inc. Mega Microgames remains a lot of fun even today. The only thing preventing it from being more strongly recommended is that it (understandably) feels like an unpolished diamond in hindsight. Later entries would bring so much out of WarioWare’s brilliant concept of rapid-fire gauntlets of mindlessly simple games – both in terms of the number of microgames and variety in their gameplay – that Mega Microgames feels prototypical by comparison.

Mega Microgames kickstarted one of Nintendo’s most quietly beloved franchises, and gave the Wario character newfound life and purpose. Its successors may have added to the formula, but the original WarioWare still provides a good amount of fun.

 

7

Wario Land 4 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7

Kirby and the Amazing Mirror Review

Kirby and the Amazing Mirror

There are two kinds of Kirby games: Those that follow the traditional platforming of the series, with Kirby able to copy the abilities of his enemies, and those that rip Kirby out of the platforming genre and do something more out of the box. 2004’s Kirby and the Amazing Mirror lies somewhere in between the two halves of the series.

Amazing Mirror has the same basic gameplay of the traditional Kirby games, with the spherical pink hero being able to steal the powers of the bad guys he eats. He can jump, slide and fly, as is the norm for Kirby. But unusual for the series is that Amazing Mirror falls into the Metroidvania genre, with the level-based progression of most Kirby titles being tossed aside in favor of one big, explorative world.

The game world is divided into nine themed “areas,” each one containing a major boss as well as mid-bosses, in addition to the usual sub-bosses from the Kirby series. Though you don’t have to complete one-hundred percent of the map to complete the game, you will have to defeat every area’s main boss in order to finish the game, as each of them holds a fragment of the titular Amazing Mirror, which works as a portal to another world where a kidnapped Meta-Knight has been taken.

The Metroidvania setup is a unique take for the series, and was previously only touched on in the “Great Cave Offensive” sub-game of Kirby Superstar. It’s a refreshing change, but on the downside, the layout of the game could have used a little more polish, since the world of Amazing Mirror can be a bit on the confusing side.

You’ll find yourself backtracking very frequently, as certain powers are needed to reach some areas. Unfortunately, this can prove to be more tedious than you might think, because the game world is so large and it’s often confusing where certain areas connect with others.

Each area contains a map that can be found in a large treasure chest, but the maps aren’t nearly as helpful as they are in other games of the genre. Whereas Metroid and Castlevania’s maps give a clear indication of where one area connects with another, Amazing Mirror instead displays different sections as squares with lines in between them. Though it shows how many sections connect with each other, it’s a little too vague to provide any more help than a basic idea of where to go next.

The game does provide a hub room which you can go back to at any time, but it doesn’t connect with each of the nine areas. Instead, you have to search through the areas themselves to find doors to some of the other areas, so if you need to backtrack for any reason it can become an arduous process.

A key feature to the game’s original Game Boy Advance version that’s no longer present in the Wii U Virtual Console version is the multiplayer. In Amazing Mirror, Kirby has been split into four different colored versions of himself (the original pink, as well as red, yellow and green). The game was originally built with multiplayer in mind, with all four players being able to venture together or go their separate ways throughout the game’s world. Some of the game’s hidden treasures (which include Music CDs and other collectibles) even require the aide of multiple Kirbys to reach them. Kirby still has his cell phone that allows him to call the other Kirbys for help, but their AI is so unreliable it turns claiming even the simplest treasure chest into a chore.

Amazing Mirror also houses a trio of mini-games to play, but again this is a feature intended for multiplayer. You may have some quick bursts of fun with them, but unless you’re playing the GBA original with friends, the mini-games don’t have much staying power.

Kirby and the Amazing MirrorThe core gameplay remains fun, as is always the case with Kirby. Some new powers introduced here include Cupid, which allows Kirby to fly more freely and shoot arrows, Missile, which naturally transforms Kirby into a wildly-controlled missile, and Smash, a cool power that gives Kirby his moveset from the Super Smash Bros. series. These powers are nice, but don’t add a whole lot to the experience. It’s a shame that they’ve rarely shown up in the series since, however, as they could have been expanded on. One missed opportunity of a power comes in the form of Magic which, despite the promising name, ends up being little more than a random roulette wheel with varying effects (like giving Kirby a different power, of all things).

Another normality for the series are the quality visuals and sound. The game still looks impressive today, the character designs are simple and cute, and the game loses none of its visual charm when brought up to scale on a TV screen. The soundtrack is similarly lively, with a number of catchy tracks and memorable tunes.

Kirby and the Amazing Mirror remains a fun game in essence, and I long for the day that Nintendo decides to revisit the concept of a Metroidvania Kirby. But the map and layout of the game hinder the otherwise interesting change of pace for the series. And the game’s emphasis on multiplayer features means the original GBA release is still the preferred version. Not to mention this is the only Kirby game in history to not feature King Dedede in any capacity. Now that’s just shameful.

 

7

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon Review

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Symphony of the Night marked a major turning point for the Castlevania series. By combining the traditional Castlevania action-platforming with the exploration of Metroid and added RPG elements, it effectively launched the Metroidvania sub-genre as we know it today. Though recent years have seen a reboot on the franchise that abandons the Metroidvania structure in favor of 3D action, the style laid down by Symphony of the Night continued for a decade through six titles released on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. The first entry in the GBA trilogy, Circle of the Moon, had a lot to prove, being the closest thing to a successor to Symphony of the Night at the time. Though Circle of the Moon remains a fun game in its own right, today it feels somewhat lightweight compared to some of its other Metroidvania siblings.

Circle of the Moon abandons the usual Belmont clan and Alucard in favor of a new hero named Nathan Graves. Nathan is the student of former Dracula-slayer Morris Baldwin, along with Morris’ son Hugh. When Dracula is once again resurrected by one of his minions, Nathan, Morris and Hugh venture to Dracula’s castle to banish the vampire lord. But upon their arrival, Dracula sends Nathan and Hugh plummeting into a pit, while Morris is kidnapped in order to be sacrificed to revive Dracula’s full power. Nathan and Hugh awake in the bowels of Dracula’s castle, with both going their separate ways to rescue their master before the sacrifice can take place at the full moon.

It’s a simple plot even by Castlevania standards, and one that has been retconned as non-canon in the series’ timeline (to the chagrin of many fans). But any excuse to traverse the labyrinth of Dracula’s castle is a good one, I suppose.

Castlevania: Circle of the MoonThe first thing you’ll notice about Nathan Graves is that he controls very similarly to the Belmonts. He is even equipped with a magic, vampire-hunting whip. Like the Belmonts, he can also pick up secondary weapons such as throwing axes and boomerang-like crucifixes, which require collectible hearts to be used.

On the downside, the whip is the only main weapon Nathan has. While the combination of Symphony’s structure and traditional Castlevania action is interesting, the lack of alternate weapons also means that Nathan’s gameplay lacks the variety of Alucard or Soma Cruz.

On the plus side, the game has an unique hook in the form of the Duel Set-up System (DSS). The Duel Set-up System takes the form of magic cards that are found by defeating enemy monsters.

There are two types of DSS cards: Action and Attribute. The action cards determine the type of magic that Nathan can use, while the attribute cards add different effects to them. For example, you can use an action card to add lightning damage to Nathan’s moves, and an attribute card that will multiply your strength by the percentage of the castle you’ve explored. You can combine one action and one attribute card at a time, for a total of 100 different combinations.

The DSS cards are definitely an interesting twist, though they ultimately aren’t as captivating as the Tactical Soul System from the later Aria of Sorrow. And they are used somewhat awkwardly, since you use them by highlighting the cards in the pause menu, and then un-pausing, as opposed to simply selecting them in the menu itself. You then activate their powers by holding the L button, which eats up magic points.

The castle itself is a decently large place, though it feels smaller than in the later handheld entries. Though it may feel bigger than it is due to Nathan’s slow movement, which makes traversing the place feel like a long process. You gain the ability to run early on, but you still have to activate it by pressing forward twice. A held button press may have felt more natural. Better still would be if Nathan Graves simply moved faster by default.

Besides running, Nathan Graves learns other moves like double jumps and wall kicks after defeating bosses, which help him access new areas of the castle. You can still gain experience points and level up, but in order to boost your Hit Points, Magic Points, and Hearts, you have to find special items hidden throughout the castle.

Castlevania: Circle of the MoonYou can pick up armor for your body and both arms throughout the adventure, as well as healing items. But they end up feeling like tacked on elements. You rarely seem to have to change your armor, and most of the items seem to help with minimal effect, with initial potions only healing twenty hit points, which quickly becomes a very small fraction of your health.

The graphics of the game have held up somewhat decently. The enemy designs still stand out, though Nathan Graves’ sprite looks simple even by GBA standards. It doesn’t hold up as well as (the still beautiful) Aria of Sorrow when played on your TV through the Wii U Virtual Console, but it still looks nice on the Gamepad. The music is catchy, though it falls considerably short of the series’ standard.

The other big drawback to Circle of the Moon is the castle itself. It just feels more straightforward and less creative than the castle found in the other Metroidvania entries of the series. And Nathan’s aforementioned slow pace only makes matters worse. It’s not terribly designed by any means, but where Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow’s level structure are pure genius, Circle of the Moon’s castle just feels simple by comparison.

Circle of the Moon remains a fun game, and the adventure will last a decently long time for a handheld title. The DSS cards also add a nice twist to the equation, but as a whole it feels like a more watered-down version of the Metroidvania concept. It does deserve credit for continuing this beloved style of Castlevania and bringing it to handhelds. But it lacks the variety and depth of some of the more notable Castlevania titles of the style.

 

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Mario Kart: Super Circuit Review

Mario Kart: Super Circuit

Though every Nintendo console and handheld since the SNES has had its own iteration of Mario Kart, the Game Boy Advance’s Mario Kart: Super Circuit is the only entry that plays like a direct sequel to the SNES’ Super Mario Kart. If you’re a fan of the original, then Super Circuit may be worth a revisit. Just know that it hasn’t aged quite as well as Super Mario Kart, and its transition to the Wii U Virtual Console has removed some key features.

Super Circuit retains the play style of Super Mario Kart, where courses are mostly flat and straightforward when compared to the other sequels in the series (though they retain the fun Mario themes). Much like the original game, it feels more like the tracks are moving instead of the character, which can take some getting used to, especially when one realizes the turns are much sharper and the vehicles more slippery than in Super Mario Kart. It doesn’t feel as immediately fun as the SNES game, but for those with the patience for it, Super Circuit ends up being a similarly entertaining experience.

There’s also a good sense of balance with computer AI and the items. Playing on 150cc will still prove incredibly difficult, but playing on lesser difficulties make things feel more fair and less random than in some entries of the series. The items consist of all the basics like bananas and shells, and lack the more overpowered weapons of later Mario Karts.

Mario Kart: Super CircuitThe character selection is identical to that of Mario Kart 64: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Bowser, Toad, Donkey Kong and Wario are all playable, with no secret or surprise characters making the roster. Even back in 2001 when the game was first released on GBA there was no shortage of Mario characters to work with, so the recycled selection is a minor bummer.

The visuals are the aspect of the game that have been most affected by age. Though the game is colorful and the game’s merging of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64’s art styles is interesting, it looks neither as lively as the former or even as visually pleasing as the latter (normally you’d expect an early 3D game like MK64 to have aged worse visually than a 2D game like Super Circuit, but somehow the exact opposite is true). The game’s Virtual Console release is also better suited for off-TV play on the Gamepad, since playing on the TV stretches the visuals and exposes its datedness all the more. Some of Super Circuit’s rotation effects might even prove bothersome to those with sensitive eyes.

The single biggest drawback to the Virtual Console release, however, is that it no longer has a multiplayer option. That’s right, it’s Mario Kart without multiplayer now. If you can track down an original GBA copy of the game and a couple of link cables, you can still have some multiplayer fun. But without a means to replicate the link cables, or a split-screen option to make up for it, the Virtual Console version of the game lacks the series’ defining feature.

Still, there’s fun to be had with the core gameplay. And additional single player modes like Time Trial and Quick Run (a more customizable VS. mode) ensure that there’s more to do than the Grand Prix mode. You can even unlock all twenty tracks from Super Mario Kart on top of the twenty tracks introduced here, giving Super Circuit more courses than any entry in the series up until Mario Kart 8 introduced DLC into the mix. So despite the limitations, there’s still plenty to do for solo players.

If you cherish the gameplay of the original Super Mario Kart, then Super Circuit is still worth a spin, though preferably in its original GBA incarnation. For those who feel the series has improved for deviating from the SNES game’s blueprints, you may want to hit the brakes before downloading Super Circuit.

 

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