Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles

With my recent overhaul of Wizard Dojo (with a new overall look and new scoring system), I figured I’d ring in this new era of Wizard Dojo-ing with a revised version of the very first ‘top list’ I ever posted here at the Dojo; Top Video Game Launch Titles!

The first time around, I listed five games, plus some runners-up. This time around, I’m upping things to a top 10!

Video game consoles are defined by their best games. Sometimes, a console doesn’t have to wait very long to receive its first masterpiece, with a number of consoles getting one of their definitive games right out the gate. Although it used to be more commonplace for a console to receive a launch title that would go down as one of its best games, the idea of a killer launch title is becoming a rarer occurrence in gaming.

Still, launch games have more than left their mark on the industry. Here are, in my opinion, the 10 most significant video games to have launched their console.

Continue reading “Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles”

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Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards Review

It seemed like an unwritten rule during Nintendo’s earlier console generations that Kirby was to be the closing act. Kirby’s Adventure was the last great NES game, and Kirby’s Dream Land 3 was the last Nintendo-published title on the SNES. Kirby didn’t quite shut the door on the Nintendo 64, but he still arrived late into the game, with Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards arriving on the console in 2000, four years after the N64 launched, and one year before it was supplanted by the Game Cube. 2000 proved to be something of a banner year for the Nintendo 64, as it also saw the release of Majora’s Mask and Banjo-Tooie, two of the console’s few truly timeless games. While Kirby 64 may not boast the depth of those titles – and may even fall considerably short of the pink hero’s SNES outings – it still fit nicely into a stellar calendar year for the N64.

While the Nintendo 64 mostly saw Nintendo’s franchises aiming for a new, 3D perspective, Kirby decided to stick to his two-dimensional, side-scrolling roots (albeit with 3D graphics). Though it may seem a tad disappointing that there’s never been a full-on 3D platformer for the Kirby series, perhaps Hal simply knows something we don’t about how the series would make such a transition. After all, not every series can work in 3D (we all know what happened when Sonic tried his hand at it). Besides, Kirby has always done a fine job at innovating his own formula even in 2D, and Kirby 64 brought one of the best twists to the series: the ability to combine copied powers to form new ones!

Kirby 64 utilizes seven base copy abilities. There’s the usual fire, ice, spark, spike, rock and cutter, with the ‘bomb’ power replacing the usual parasol ability in the ‘Dream Land’ lineup. Each of these copy abilities can be combined with the others (including themselves) for a variety of new abilities that are both unique and humorous.

Combine bomb with spark, and Kirby becomes an explosive lightbulb. Combine two spikes together and Kirby becomes a Swiss Army Knife. Combine fire and ice and Kirby transforms into an ice block that melts into steam. And in perhaps the best idea for a Kirby power ever, combining spark and cutter results in Kirby wielding a double-sided lightsaber a la Darth Maul.

It’s a wonderful take on the classic Kirby formula and, at the time, many figured this would be the direction the series would take going forward. Unfortunately, this ended up being a one-time gig. Squeak Squad would feature a watered down method of combining a small handful of abilities, and Star Allies would add its own twist of combining elements of one power with another. But as far as outright taking two powers and cramming them together to make new powers is concerned, Kirby 64 is it.

This is all the more a shame, because not only is the idea one of the best concepts added to the series, but Kirby 64 doesn’t always do the concept justice in how it presents opportunities for these powers to truly shine within the stages.

Being the follow-up to Kirby’s Dream Land 3, Kirby 64 follows a similar formula, with hidden trinkets being hidden within the stages (in this case, magic crystal shards). Dark Matter has returned once again, and has conquered the distant planet of Ripple Star, whose now-shattered magic crystal can stop the evil entity. Like Dream Land 3’s Heart Stars, every crystal needs to be uncovered in order to face off with the true final boss and complete the game proper.

Every stage in Kirby 64 hides three crystals, one of which requires a power combination to unlock. On paper, this may sound like an improvement over Dream Land 3’s ‘one Heart Star per level’ setup. But Dream Land 3 always seemed to find new and creative ways to use its powers and animal friends to uncover those Heart Stars. Kirby 64, on the other hand, rarely has you doing anything other than breaking a wall with a certain ability to claim that hidden crystal. And with the other two crystals on any given stage being barely hidden, there feels like a missed opportunity here in making the level design and power combinations mesh together to make something deeper.

Kirby is joined on his adventure by Ribbon, a fairy from Ripple Star, as well as returning characters Waddle Dee, Adeline and King Dedede. Sadly, these allies don’t really provide anything to the gameplay (Adeline sometimes paints a clue towards an upcoming puzzle, but nothing direct). The exception here is King Dedede, whom Kirby can piggyback in certain sections. Sadly, with these segments being few and far between, along with Dedede’s limited abilities, even the good king seems underutilized, which may simply leave you missing the old animal friends (who only show up here in cameo forms via the cutter/rock power combo).

Multiplayer shows up in a limited capacity, being relegated to three Mario Party style mini-games (which are fun, but again, there are only three).  you’ll probably miss the co-op gameplay found in Kirby’s SNES outings, especially seeing the N64’s emphasis on four-player party games.

Even with these shortcomings, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards is still ultimately a fun game. The different power combinations are always exciting to discover and fun to use, the graphics look as clean and colorful as an N64 side-scroller could, and per the norm, Kirby once again boasts one of his home console’s most terrific but underrated soundtracks, with a number of its original tunes being some of the best in the series (which are thankfully seeing new appreciation with their remixes in more recent titles). The levels even have a fun sense of telling their own little stories, with the progression in each stage directly leading in to the next (the second world sees Kirby traversing a desert/canyon world, which eventually leads him to a spaceship. A little narrative that plays out within the stages of that world).

Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards remains a fan favorite for many, due in large part to the ability of combining powers, which remains one of the series’ best ideas. But it does stumble a bit in its execution of that idea, making for a solid entry in the series, if maybe not the most spectacular one.

 

7

Perfect Dark Review

*Review based on Perfect Dark’s Xbox 360 re-release as part of Rare Replay*

In 1997, Rare (then known as Rareware) released Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64. Based on the James Bond film released two years prior, the video game adaptation proved to be the far more influential entity, single-handedly reinventing the first-person shooter genre on home consoles, which remain the most prominent genre of video game on home platforms even today. It was inevitable that Rare would seek to create a sequel, but after losing the James Bond license, the developer had to start from scratch, opting for a spiritual successor to continue Goldeneye 007’s legacy.

The game in question ended up being the 2000 N64 title Perfect Dark, an original IP that combined Goldeneye’s gameplay with a new science fiction setting. The tonal shift allowed for some fun additions to what Goldeneye started (alien weapons!), and though the 360 release and an Xbox One controller make Perfect Dark more playable than Goldeneye by modern standards, it has still felt the effects of aging. While Perfect Dark once felt like an all-time great, it now comes across as a merely decent FPS outing.

The setting for Perfect Dark sees two alien races at war with each other; the Maians, who resemble the typical gray alien archetype, and the Skedar, vicious reptilian creatures who can use holographic technology to disguise as humans. The struggles between these two races have found their way to Earth, with the Maians finding allies in the Carrington Institute, a research and development facility; and the Skedar serving as benefactors to the corrupt dataDyne corporation, who are using Skedar technology and weapons for nefarious means. In the middle of it all is Joanna Dark, an agent for Carrington Institute tasked with uncovering dataDyne’s plots.

It’s actually a pretty entertaining story, and it has a lot of fun with long-standing conspiracy theories and old sci-fi tropes. Joana Dark also had all the makings of an iconic video game character, which sadly never quite came to fruition (largely due to the game’s underwhelming 2005 sequel). Perhaps best of all is that the game itself is still pretty fun…if you’re playing the re-release that was first available for download on the Xbox 360 and became a part of Rare Replay.

The sad truth is that – with the exception of a handful of titles (namely those with “Mario,” “Zelda” and “Banjo” in the titles) – the N64 library hasn’t exactly aged gracefully. There is some reason to that, of course. After 2D gaming had time to develop and evolve, leading to the 16-bit golden age, the N64 was part of gaming’s early 3D years. Things were starting over, and the Nintendo 64 was like Nintendo’s canary in this new mine.

I’d be lying if I said Goldeneye 007 lives up to its reputation when playing today. Yes, it played a hugely influential role in the direction gaming would take from that point on, but it feels bare bones compared to what the FPS genre has provided since, and it feels like an utter slog to control. The same could probably be said about Perfect Dark’s original N64 release, as it followed close to Goldeneye’s rulebook, and there’s only so much developers could do to work with that awkward N64 controller. But while the character models may still look clumpy, Perfect Dark’s re-release allowed Rare to implement some much-needed improvements to the control scheme. It may still feel small by today’s standards, but at least the re-release prevents Perfect Dark from feeling like a relic like Goldeneye.

The second joystick found on contemporary controllers alone improves Perfect Dark’s sense of control greatly. And the additional buttons only add to this improvement, making the overall control scheme much more fluid than it could be on the N64’s controller. Sure, there are still a few dated design choices (like Joanna being able to carry as many weapons as you could find, which makes cycling through them a bit of a chore), but again, it’s great to be able to play Perfect Dark with some lessons learned from the FPSs that showed up in the years after its original release.

Another great addition is the inclusion of online multiplayer, which came courtesy of Perfect Dark’s 360 release. Perfect Dark was one of the Nintendo 64’s better multiplayer titles back in the day, and the online functionality only gives it more replay value.

On the downside of things, some of Perfect Dark’s more dated elements also find their way into multiplayer modes. Back in gaming’s earlier years, being able to find “cheats” was something that was rewarded, and concepts like balance weren’t the issues they are today. That was true even in the N64 years, with Perfect Dark’s weaponry often being a case of just that.

Sure, some of these weapons were cool and novel – such as the Laptop Gun, which could be used by the player or placed on the ground to act as a turret – while others were a bit too overpowered. The primary culprit of this being the Farsight, a Maian sniper rifle that could not only see through walls, but killed opponents in a single hit without fail. Back in the day we all accepted the Farsight as its own reward for finding it. But now that video games have matured a little bit and don’t reward shortcuts quite so prominently, something like the Farsight now feels like a cheap and annoying product of a bygone era.

Perfect Dark certainly won’t wow anyone who didn’t experience it back in its day, and it probably won’t impress those who did if they take off the rose-tinted glasses. But the adjustments made to Perfect Dark’s re-release make it feel far more functional than its archaic predecessor Goldeneye 007. Just make sure you play it on more contemporary hardware. Revisiting Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64 could prove every bit as disappointing as a revisit to Goldeneye.

 

5

Banjo-Tooie Review

*Review based on Banjo-Tooie’s release as part of Rare Replay*

There’s perhaps no game that better represents the “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality than Rare’s Banjo-Tooie. This 2000 sequel to Banjo-Kazooie looked to improve upon its predecessor in virtually every regard. Though Tooie was also released after Rare’s over-bloated Donkey Kong 64, so it attempted to find a balance between making the Banjo-Kazooie experience bigger and better, while avoiding the pitfalls of tedium found in DK64. For the most part, Banjo-Tooie succeeded in its difficult balancing act, providing one of the N64’s best experiences, and an adventure that was so massive it still feels like a hefty title even by today’s standards.

Though Banjo-Tooie retains the same Mario 64-style gameplay of Kazooie, it also seems to have taken a few notes from Ocarina of Time, as Tooie’s overworld structure feels more like something out of an action/adventure title. The whimsical yet sinister halls of Gruntilda’s Lair give way to the wide, open world of the Isle O’ Hags (named for its penchant of housing evil old crones like Gruntilda and her sisters, Mingella and Blobelda), of which Spiral Mountain and the aforementioned Lair are only a small part.

The story here, while possibly even more loose than Kazooie’s, is perhaps presented in a more original manner. Instead of the usual damsel in distress plot of platformers, Banjo-Tooie more or less feels like a quest for vengeance, albeit one in which the characters are a bunch of comical animals who are constantly making fun of each other.

Appropriately set two years after the original, Banjo-Tooie sees Gruntilda resurrected by her sisters (who promptly tell the now skeletal witch to stop with her constant rhyming). Seeking revenge, Gruntilda decides to destroy Banjo’s house, where Banjo and Kazooie are playing a game of poker against Mumbo Jumbo and Bottles. Mumbo Jumbo sees the undead Gruntilda readying a devastating spell, and warns the others. Banjo and Kazooie join Mumbo in evacuating the house, but Bottles – believing it to be a rouse to cheat in the card game – stubbornly stays put. Banjo, Kazooie and Mumbo remain unscathed (unbeknownst to Gruntilda at the time), but the destruction of the house also leads to the death of Bottles, who becomes a cartoony ghost floating above his crispy corpse.

Gruntilda’s not done there though, and soon plans to use a machine to drain the life out of as many people as possible, in what is a seldom mentioned means of making a new body for herself. Gruntilda manages to zombify a Jinjo king named Jingaling, but like the first game, Gruntilda’s machinery is a bit buggy, and so she needs a lot more time to power it up to drain enough life from the island to bring back her former, girth-y self. This of course gives Banjo and Kazooie ample time to adventure out and stop the witch, in hopes of avenging their friends and hoping for a way to bring them back (though Kazooie is a bit annoyed that she needs to go on another adventure for Bottles’ sake).

Like the first game, it’s a simple plot that’s made more lively by the funny characters and dialogue (with the gibberish, garbled speech making a triumphant return), and its darker tone certainly sets it apart from other games in the genre (seeing Spiral Mountain dilapidated and ruined serves as a fitting introduction to this sequel’s tonal shift).

As stated, this is a much bigger adventure than the original Banjo-Kazooie, with more moves to learn, more items to collect, and much bigger stages to visit. Tooie is a wise game in assuming those who are playing it are familiar with the original title, and thus the titular duo retain all the moves they learned in their first go around, and tutorials are kept to a minimum (though Bottles’ ghost can refresh you on the basic moves if you visit one of his molehills in Spiral Mountain). This means that, while the adventure might be a much heftier affair than Kazooie, you feel like the adventure gets going just as quickly as its predecessor.

There are, of course, some changes to the mix: Jiggies are still the main collectible, and are needed to unlock new worlds. But now the Jiggies are to be taken to the temple of Master Jiggywiggy, a powerful sorcerer with a comical, puzzle piece-shaped head who tasks the heroic duo with completing interactive puzzle mini-games in order to open up a stage. This adds a bit more fun to the equation than the first game simply having Banjo stand on a pad and pressing a button to use the Jiggies and unlock a level.

Music notes are now gathered in clumps of five, as well as a hidden bunch of twenty to be found on every stage. So while there are still technically a grand total of 100 notes per stage, there are less physical items to collect. The notes also serve a new purpose, seeing as Gruntilda’s Lair is behind our heroes and they no longer need to open its many doors. With Bottles dead, his drill sergeant brother Jamjars takes over in mentoring Banjo and Kazooie their new moves, and requires a set amount of music notes for each subsequent move in his arsenal (which, to be honest, feels like a more fleshed out mechanic than simply finding a molehill). The moves here are a lot more robust and varied than the first game (including new fire, ice and grenade eggs), with the main hook being the ability to split Banjo and Kazooie up, with each also learning their own solo moves.

“I’m sorry, was it Humba Wumba, or hubba hubba?!”

Another new character – and change to the formula – comes in the form of Humba Wumba, a shaman who takes over Mumbo’s former role of transforming our heroes into various forms. Mumbo Jumbo himself now becomes a playable character, with both shamans requiring Banjo and Kazooie to find a creature called a Glowbo in order to perform their shamanistic duties on every stage.

Perhaps Tooie’s other great addition is the implementation of proper boss fights. Sure, Gruntilda proved to be a memorable final boss in Kazooie, but aside from her, anything that resembled a boss encounter was closer to being a minor obstacle than they were a level’s crescendo. Every level gets its own boss battle here, and the overworld even sees three fights with Gruntilda’s baffingly loyal henchman, Klungo. While they may be a bit on the easy side, the boss fights that are present in Tooie feel like they add a bit more personality to the stages, and are certainly a step up from the non-bosses of Kazooie.

The differences in boss encounters between games may also be telling of the overal nature of the N64 Banjo games themselves. As great as Banjo-Kazooie was, Banjo-Tooie simply feels like a more fleshed-out experience. Much of what the first game attempted is more properly realized in this second adventure.

Banjo-Kazooie saw a tiny taste of Metroidvania added to the 3D platforming mix, with the titular duo learning their moves to access new areas of Gruntilda’s Lair. But the game failed to capitalize on the concept and implement such elements into the levels themselves, meaning that once a stage was drained of its collectibles, there were no reasons for return visits. Banjo-Tooie pulls the trigger on the concept, and though it may not exactly be the 3D Metroidvania that Metroid Prime or Dark Souls would end up being, it was probably the closest thing 3D gaming had to the genre at the time of its release.

“Though the FPS segments are few, they provide a fun change of pace fro the rest of the game.”

Banjo-Tooie frequently features segments in levels that must be returned to at a later time, once some additional abilities have been earned. More interesting still, the Isle O’ Hags is even presented as a connected world, with some stages directly linking to others. To emphasize the concept, there’s even a train that connects a handful of the levels and the overworld together. Some may find the backtracking a tad excessive, but some accommodations are made by implementing warp pads in the stages, and silos that allow Banjo and Kazooie to fast-travel the overworld.

The other key ‘lacking’ aspect of the original which is polished by Tooie are the transformations. This time around, every stage has its own transformation, and the different forms the titular duo take – whether it be a T-rex, a submarine, a washing machine that launches underwear at enemies, or the returning bee – are all a lot more versatile than they were in the first game. Granted, it’s still unfortunate that most of the transformations are still only used to gain one or two Jiggies apiece, but at least they feel properly implemented this second time around.

Sadly, Banjo-Tooie itself falls victim to its overly ambitious nature, and at least one of its own elements is as underutilized as Banjo’s transformations in the first game. Strangely, this element once again revolves around Mumbo Jumbo. That is to say, his addition as a playable character feels underdeveloped. As cool as the idea of playing as Mumbo is, he doesn’t really have a lot to do, nor does he have a lot he can do. Mumbo is simply used to walk to a ‘Mumbo pad’ to perform a level-specific spell. While these spells can sometimes be interesting (the very first stage allows Mumbo to take control of a golden giant who can crush anything in its path), they once again fall under the “one or two Jiggies” category, and even then, it’s still usually Banjo who needs to collect the Jiggy in the end. Mumbo’s moveset is also extremely limited, as his only other actions aside from walking and casting spells on the Mumbo pads are jumping and shocking enemies with his magic wand. I wouldn’t assume Mumbo would have the versatility as the primary characters and learn new moves throughout the adventure as they do. But perhaps if he had a few more of their acrobatics, and a little more to do, it would make Mumbo’s promotion more worthwhile.

If there’s another complaint to be had with Banjo-Tooie, it’s that one of the game’s eight proper stages – the smog-riddled factory of Grunty Industries – is a bit of a convoluted maze, with environments that look similar to each other, and some needlessly tedious changes of pace to the fast-traveling (with elevators only being accessible in Banjo’s washing machine form, and the warps pads being inaccessible to said washing machine). Having played through Banjo-Tooie numerous times, it is this level that seemingly breaks the flow of the adventure. Sure, things pick back up a bit with the two subsequent stages, which house the game’s most original themes (one being the crossover fire and ice world of Hailfire Peaks, and the other being the bizarre sky world of Cloud Cuckooland), but Grunty Industries is probably the point in the game that will deter players from achieving one-hundred percent completion.

“Like the first game, Banjo-Tooie ends with a game show. Only this time around, you can also play said game show with other players.”

All things considered, however, Banjo-Tooie is an improvement over its predecessor, and remains one of the N64’s few timeless titles. It may still have some flaws holding it back from stealing Mario’s platforming crown, but Tooie perhaps remains the most ambitious platformer ever made (so ambitious, in fact, that a notorious “counter-operative” multiplayer mode – in which a second player took control of Bottle’s angry spirit – though unfinished, remains intact in the game’s code.). If the hefty adventure somehow weren’t enough, Banjo-Tooie also features a multiplayer mode where players can partake in the many mini-games once they’ve been played in the main story, and can even face-off in first-person shooter death matches that parody Rare’s Goldeneye and Perfect Dark (and, humorously, hold up better than the games they’re parodying). Top it all off with some of the best graphics of the N64 generation, and another stellar Grant Kirkhope soundtrack, and Banjo-Tooie remains a platformer whose aspirations have been seldom approached in the years since.

 

9

Blast Corps Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7

Killer Instinct Gold Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5

Xena: Warrior Princess: Talisman of Fate Review

“Caesar! Caesar!”

If you choose to play Xena: Warrior Princess: Talisman of Fate on the Nintendo 64, be prepared to hear those words often. Why? Because one of the characters in this 3D fighter – based on the popular television series from the 1990s from the studio that brought the world Superman 64 – is Caesar, and one of his moves involves him raising his arms in the air, to which an unseen audience shouts “Caesar! Caesar!” which inexplicably knocks any opponents to the ground. This move can be spammed repeatedly, and though it doesn’t do any damage, the fact that you can just repeat it non-stop to incapacitate your opponents gives Caesar an insanely unfair advantage.

It’s a broken move from a gameplay standpoint, but it also doesn’t make any sense. What’s knocking the opponents down, exactly? Are the thunderous roars of Caesar’s fans so loud they push Caesar’s opponents to the floor with force? Or could the crowd be stomping their feet in support of Caesar with such enthusiasm that it causes a small tremor, thus causing Caesar’s foes to lose their footing? In either case, shouldn’t Caesar also be affected by this, considering he’s standing on the same ground as his opponents?

I may be going on and on about a single move, but said move somehow sums up Xena: Warrior Princess: Talisman of Fate as a whole (though “from the publisher of Superman 64″ might also explain everything). This is a fighter that’s sloppy, clunky and broken in pretty much every regard.

As stated, this Xena video game adaptation is a 3D fighter, with players being being able to choose from a variety of characters from the TV series. Among them are the titular Xena, Gabrielle, Ares and *sigh* Caesar. Battles can take place between two to four players, with team options also being available.

The controls are a mess. The four C buttons are used for attacks, Z ducks, R jumps, and A and B switch targets. There’s nothing about the control setup that feels intuitive. It’s a game that just feels awkward to play. Combine the poor controls with clunky character responses, and it becomes an utter mess (some characters have magic moves, but good luck hitting anyone with them with how long they take to activate).

“Gee, I wonder how he won?”

The graphics are similarly horrible. Now, the N64 is not one of the better-aged consoles of yesteryear, so dated visuals are to be expected. But even by N64 standards, the game is ugly. The characters look like blocky shapes tied together, and only vaguely resemble the characters they’re based on. The arenas are just wide, empty spaces that don’t stand out in terms of visuals or stage design.

I will admit, however, that the music – though not necessarily what I would call good – adds a bit of personality to the game. The “best” of the musical lot being the theme music for Joxer, the series’ comic relief character, which is intentionally annoying to such a way that, when coupled with the disastrous gameplay, makes for a good laugh if you’re playing with friends.

Really, there’s not much else to talk about here. Xena: Warrior Princess: Talisman of Fate is one of the emptiest, most poorly-designed fighters I’ve played. It fittingly sits alongside its fellow Titus-published brother Superman 64 as one of the worst games on the N64. Between the two, Xena might be marginally “better” if only because, unlike Superman 64, it may put a goofy grin on your face at its own expense, as opposed to driving you mad with rage.

 

“Caesar! Caesar!”

 

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