Tag Archives: Nintendo Switch

What Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Needs to do to Actually be the Ultimate Super Smash Bros.

Super Smash Bros. hype is a unique entity for me. On one hand, Super Smash Bros. is one of the few remaining series where the announcement of a new entry gets me genuinely excited. But of all my favorite gaming franchises, Super Smash Bros. is the one that can (and has) disappoint(ed) me the most. Of course, it shouldn’t be too surprising, considering this is a series largely built around fanservice, so when it fails to deliver on a much-wanted character or (in the last entry’s case) seems to cater to director Masahiro Sakurai’s favoritism, the experience can feel a bit sullied.

That’s not to say that the games aren’t good though. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, despite being the entry I have the most complaints about in terms of character selections and omissions, is actually the most solidly designed and technically sound iteration yet. Hell, even the bafflingly reviled Super Smash Bros. Brawl is still a really well made video game. But again, this is a series that’s built around Nintendo’s history, and its fandom. So when it feels like Nintendo’s history and its fans are being ignored, it really stings.

“Proof that Sakurai hates us all.”

Case in point, Masahiro Sakurai has actively asked fans to suggest characters for the series since Super Smash Bros. Brawl was in development, and yet, the three most consistently requested characters – Metroid’s Ridley, Donkey Kong’s King K. Rool, and Super Mario RPG’s Geno – were just as consistently ignored. None of them made it into Brawl, and in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, Ridley was made into a stage hazard, while Geno and K. Rool weren’t even that lucky, being represented solely by Mii Fighter costumes, which felt like a blatant middle finger to the fans on Sakurai’s part, especially seeing as that particular entry had a sudden emphasis on his own characters (Kid Icarus suddenly seemed to get plenty of references, conveniently after Sakurai directed Kid Icarus: Uprising on 3DS).

Sakurai has tried to explain his reasons for leaving out requested characters, but most such reasons seem more like half-hearted excuses than anything. He often claimed that “Ridley was too big,” even though by that logic, Captain Olimar should be too small. Or he would claim that he would go over the character and see what uniqueness they would bring to the table…only to fill a good chunk of the roster with clone characters.

Basically, Sakurai’s excuses end up feeling like just that, excuses. Look, I get that not every character can make it in, but when you actively ask people to suggest characters, and then continuously ignore their most wanted characters for over a decade, it’s kind of hard to accept the excuses.

Even worse, however, are the people who defend Sakurai’s every action (whom I refer to as “Sakurai apologists”). Again, I understand not everyone can make the cut, but when people actively defend things like the “Ridley is too big” argument and the overabundance of clone characters, it’s like, just… come on! Sakurai is a great game designer, but it’s okay to admit to his mistakes. And well, blatantly ignoring fan requests after asking for fan requests, and resorting to simply copying existing characters and claiming its another are definite mistakes.

These people will often question what a potential character’s moves would be, but that’s an argument that seems beyond pointless, considering that from Super Smash Bros’ very first entry, Captain Falcon has been a playable character. He’s a character who, in his own series, was never seen outside of his racing vehicle! If they could turn him into a fighter back on the N64 in 1999, there’s no reason why Sakurai and company couldn’t get even more creative with current hardware.

This brings me to the point of all this ranting: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has the opportunity to live up to its name. The game is being billed as the “Smash Bros. for everyone” and is set to include every single returning character from the series’ history, which is a good start. However, the real big news is that Ridley has finally joined the Super Smash Bros. roster as a playable character! Finally, after over a decade of waiting, the patience of Metroid fans has been rewarded.

On the downside of things, Sakurai has already stated that there won’t be too many new additions to the roster this time around. I suppose that makes sense, with so many characters in the game, they’re running lower and lower on classic characters to choose from. But that’s just my point, if we’re only going to get a ‘few’ new characters, why not make them characters that count?

Of the three most consistently requested characters, Ridley has now become the first of the trio to make the roster. So, why not finally pull the trigger and deliver the other two as well? K. Rool and Geno are two characters that have so much potential for the series – let alone their fan support – that not adding them in at this point would seem like petty spite. Hardly what you would want from a game that’s supposed to be the Ultimate edition of a franchise largely built on fanservice.

That would already make something of a statement for the series. It’s like, not only would we be getting every past character from the series history, but also the three most requested, ever-elusive characters. Whatever other newcomer selections could also potentially be filled with old fan-favorites. Again, if the newcomers are going to be few in quantity, they really better make them count in terms of quality.

Of course, even with Ridley’s inclusion, there are still causes for some concerns. The fact that clones now have the ‘official’ label of “Echo Fighters” has me greatly worried that Sakurai might just be doubling down on them (again, quality, not quantity. A bunch of clones is hardly something to get excited over). And in another downer, Bomberman is finally making his debut in the series…as an Assist Trophy. Considering how big of a multiplayer franchise Super Smash Bros. is, it’s a real shame that Bomberman – one of the pioneers of multiplayer gaming – can’t make the cut as a playable character.

Still, Ridley’s presence gives hope that not only could Geno and K. Rool make their long-awaited debut, but that the select amount of newcomers might bring out the more creative side of the developers. If Sakurai and company can deliver everything from Super Smash Bros. past (which looks to be the case so far), and throw in the few remaining missing elements that fans have been craving, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate may just live up to its name.

Between the presence of every returning fighter and the debut of Ridley, so far so good. But to make Super Smash Bros. Ultimate truly the ultimate Super Smash Bros. experience, the rest of those newcomers really have to mean something.

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Mario Tennis Aces Review

Although they’ve never produced any all-time classics in the way the primary platformers of the Super Mario series, the Mario RPGs, and the Mario Karts have, the Mario sports title may be the best example of the franchise’s unique ability to seemingly make any genre more fun simply by having its name associated with it. Even those who have no interest whatsoever in any given sport should still be able to find enjoyment out of it when it’s given a Mushroom Kingdom twist. I mean, when you add in characters like Luigi and Donkey Kong, and then throw in some crazy gimmicks and special moves, something like golf suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. Perhaps the most consistent of Mario’s sporting endeavors are his ventures into tennis. The newest entry, Mario Tennis Aces, perhaps polishes up the core gameplay more than any previous Mario Tennis title, though it does come at the expense of a relative lack of content.

“Rosalina is best girl!”

Mario Tennis Aces seems to be all about refining what we’ve come to know about Mario Tennis. In this sense, the game is a roaring success. Mario Tennis gameplay has simply never felt so smooth and fluid. No matter which character you pick, the game feels great to control, with slight differences given to each character based on their weight class (don’t expect Bowser to move as gracefully as Rosalina). Mario Tennis Aces features a variety of control styles, all of which feel comfortable, though my personal preference is a Joy-con in each hand.

“Waluigi is here. That’s one thing Mario Tennis will always have over Smash.”

Different types of shots are mapped to different buttons on the controller, while combinations of those buttons (one to prepare to strike the ball, one for the strike itself) add to the mix. Should you charge a shot long enough before striking the ball, you build up energy, which can be used to slow down time, perform a quick counter-shot, and – if the energy meter is completely full – a special move. Additionally, stars appear on the court from time to time, which allow players to perform a “zone shot,” which briefly brings things to a first-person view for player’s to throw an exceptionally fast ball.

This brings me to one of the more disappointing elements of Mario Tennis Aces’ gameplay: the zone shots and character specials are more or less the same. The only difference is that the special moves come with a unique animation beforehand, and do more damage to your opponent’s racket. If a player (or the CPU) doesn’t time the ball just right after their opponent hits a zone shot or special, their racket will take damage. With enough damage, your racket will break, thus ending the game early.

It’s easy to imagine this being a divisive mechanic. On one hand, it provides a unique spin to the series, and adds a different element of strategy to the proceedings as you gain energy and plot to build up to the point of destroying an opponent’s racket. But on the other hand, it kind of makes a drastic change to the very game of tennis. But if you’re among those frustrated with the mechanic, you can always turn it off.

Though this leads to another questionable design decision for the game. While you can choose whether or not your rackets can break during a match, you cannot change the length of a match or set in a game of tennis. And, bizarrely, you can’t directly select which court you wish to play on, instead having to “deselect” stages you don’t want on the options menu, which seems unnecessarily arduous. Perhaps in another tennis game it wouldn’t be a big deal, but given the unique themes and gimmicks of Mario Tennis courts, it would make a basic level select option all the more ideal than in normal circumstances.

Thankfully, the core gameplay is so much fun, that if you’re playing multiplayer (whether online or next to a friend), you might not mind the limited options. Single player, however, does leave a bit more to be desired.

“Mario Tennis Aces brings back the odd Mario sports tradition of resurrecting Super Mario Sunshine bosses.”

The primary single player mode in Mario Tennis Aces is an adventure mode that sees Mario on a journey to collect five power stones to stop the power of an ancient, evil tennis racket, which has taken control of Luigi, Wario and Waluigi. It’s a surprisingly humorous story mode with its wacky plot, and it features some fun RPG elements to it (Mario can gain experience points and levels, and additional tennis rackets can be obtained through optional stages). Not to mention it provides a fair bit of variety in its challenges. The downside to the story mode, however, is its severely fluctuating difficulty curve.

You would think that the stages would gradually get more progressively difficult as you go, especially seeing as this is a Mario game, and that’s an area in which the franchise usually shines. But the challenge of the story mode in Mario Tennis Aces is all over the place. You’ll go from a ridiculously easy stage to a ludicrously difficult one at any given time, with seemingly no warning as to when the difficulty is going to spike to a new high or drop to relaxing low. Two stages in particular – against Blooper and Boom Boom, of all characters – gave me a considerable challenge. The story mode does provide some solid fun in the gameplay, variety and RPG elements, but the inconsistent difficulty may be too jarring for some.

“Chain Chomp FTW!”

Even with these issues, however, Mario Tennis Aces is an undeniable good time. The sheer polish that exudes from its gameplay marks a new high for the series, while free play and tournament modes give multiplayer a huge amount of replay value. Add in the fact that you can not only play as series regulars like Mario, Luigi, Peach and Bowser, but entertaining newcomers like Spike and Chain Chomp, and you have one of the most distinctly ‘Mario’ of all Mario sports titles. If Nintendo and Camelot can take this core gameplay for the next entry, while refining the single player campaign and adding more play styles and customizable options, and we could have the Mario Kart 8 equivalent of Mario’s sports titles. As it is, well, the pieces are in place.

 

7.5

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: Donkey Kong Adventure Review

Downloadable content has become one of the more polarizing aspects of modern gaming. While the prospect of a game gaining additional replay value post-launch is enticing, many developers have used it as a cheap means to release a game before its initial vision is finished, thus charging consumers more money at a later date to make the game the complete package it should have been at launch. Well, let the Donkey Kong Adventure DLC for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle – 2017’s surprise of the year – be a shining example of how to do DLC right. Working more as a mini-sequel as opposed to a light extension of the original game, Donkey Kong Adventure proves once again why this most unlikely of crossovers shouldn’t be underestimated.

As the title suggests, Donkey Kong Adventure takes the Mario + Rabbids formula out of the Mushroom Kingdom and into Donkey Kong Country. After a string of events sends Princess Peach’s Rabbid doppelgänger, as well as robot guide Beep-0 and a bitter and defeated Rabbid Kong into “another dimension,” they find themselves in the world of Donkey Kong (I thought Mario and Donkey Kong were part of the same world? Oh well, the Rabbids crossover changes things up I guess). Rabbid Kong goes berserk, gaining newfound strength through “bad bananas” (bananas infected with the virus from the base game), and attempts a monopoly on all the bananas of Donkey Kong Island. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with good ol’ Donkey Kong, who joins forces with Rabbid Peach, Beep-0, and the Rabbid equivalent of Cranky Kong (named Rabbid Cranky, naturally) to put a stop to Rabbid Kong’s plans.

The core gameplay remains the same; it’s still an X-COM-style tactical RPG that’s separated into two primary segments: exploration and puzzle sections, and combat. During the former, player’s control Beep-0 (who is being ridden by Rabbid Cranky like a segway), and you navigate the maps while solving the occasional puzzle to progress or collect treasure (new weapons, artwork, and music). Additionally, Donkey Kong Adventure takes a cue from Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country games, and includes twenty hidden puzzle pieces that must be found to unlock more secrets.

The basics of combat still remain intact: every character can move along the grid-like battlefield, perform either a primary or secondary attack, and use a special ability per turn. You can get some additional damage in by performing a slide attack during movement, and can gain more ground by performing team jumps. However, the two new characters, especially Donkey Kong himself, really change things up.

“DK can lure in enemies with his Donkey Konga inspired congo drums, which makes for a great combo with the devastating ground pound move.”

Rabbid Peach retains her blaster/sentry weaponry, along with her healing and shielding abilities. Rabbid Cranky introduces a crossbow and grenades into the mix, while also boasting an ability that allows him to attack an enemy during movement, as well as the power to put foes to sleep. Donkey Kong is the game-changer, however. Defying the standard mechanics of the game, DK doesn’t possess any firearms, instead wielding a boomerang-like banana as a weapon, and using his own fists to perform ground pounds in place of a secondary weapon. DK can hop on higher surfaces without the need of a warp pipe, and new DK pads allow him to swing from one section of a battlefield to another. DK also breaks the established rules by lacking a team jump and slide attack. Instead, DK has the more useful ability of being able to pick up teammates, enemies and objects during his movement phase. By picking up Rabbids Peach and Cranky, DK can carry and throw them to great distance, while enemies and objects can be thrown at other foes for another means of attack.

Donkey Kong’s presence alone greatly differentiates this DLC campaign from the base game, as he goes against many of the game’s mechanics while still fitting neatly into them (being paired up with two more traditional characters really brings out the best combination of old and new). If the campaign were just a bit longer, Donkey Kong Adventure would feel like a proper follow-up to Mario + Rabbids, as opposed to DLC.

Unfortunately, the short running time of the campaign may be the downside to Donkey Kong Adventure. Granted, I wasn’t expecting it to be as long as the base game, but I don’t think the overall length even reaches the halfway mark of the original campaign. That wouldn’t be too much of a complaint, except that the uniqueness that DK brings to the gameplay feels like it has more potential that goes unrealized. Not to mention the boss fights lack the variety found in Mario + Rabbid’s original release. Still, after the campaign is done, there are additional challenges to be tackled, so while I wish there were a bit more of this Donkey Kong goodness, the unlock able challenges do add a nice bit of content to the package. Another downside is that some of the technical issues still persist in the game. Nothing major, but some occasional slow-ups, as well as graphics taking some time to load still show up.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was already one of the best games on the Nintendo Switch, and now Donkey Kong Adventure adds an exclamation point to that claim. It’s a hefty piece of DLC that differentiates itself from the core game while simultaneously adding to it. All the while, Donkey Kong Adventure pays beautiful homage to the entire Donkey Kong series. The DKC aesthetics bring out the best in Mario + Rabbids’ already stellar visuals, while hearing classic Donkey Kong tunes given new life via Grant Kirkhope’s composition is a real treat. Even the loading screens pay tribute to those of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. If Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the surprise hit of the Nintendo Switch, then this Donkey Kong Adventure expansion is a perfect companion piece to it, proving that, beyond all expectations, the merging of Super Mario and Ubisoft’s Rabbids (and Donkey Kong) really was a match made in heaven.

 

8.5

Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn Review

In this day and age, where pop culture is obsessed with nostalgia, it seems anything is fair game for a remake, reboot or sequel. Whether it’s beloved franchises making a welcome return, or something more obscure crawling its way back into the spotlight, if it existed in the 80s or 90s, it’s making a comeback. 2017 saw the baffling return of Bubsy – the nadir of the 90s platforming boom – and now 2018 follows suit with the “long-awaited” sequel to Shaq-Fu, widely regarded as one of the worst video games of all time. Though to its credit, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn at least knows what it is, and while that may mean it’s a bad game, does it hurt it that much if that’s pretty much what it was trying to be?

Calling A Legend Reborn a sequel to the original Shaq-Fu may not be entirely accurate, as both are actually very different games. The original was a fighting game, while this entry is a side-scrolling beat-em-up. What they have in common, however, are Shaquille O’Neal, and a whole lot of absurdity.

Here, Shaquille O’Neal is a “humble, Chinese rickshaw driver,” who learns kung-fu from Master Ye-Ye. Shaq ends up being a chosen one destined to defeat an evil demon who threatens the Earth every 1,000 years. The demon’s newest plan is to subvert the human race by “stupefying” them with celebrity culture. So it’s up to Shaq to fight armies of demons and celebrities in order to save the world.

Yeah, it’s stupid, and it knows it. The downside is that the whole “ironic, self-aware, fourth wall-breaking” brand of humor is kind of white noise in this day and age (sorry Deadpool fans). Making fun of tropes has become the single most cliched trope out there by this point. With all that said, I will admit that Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn has some genuinely funny moments, due in no small part to Shaquille himself, who certainly seems to have a great sense of humor at his own expense (one of the game’s best meta-gags is that its life-replenishing item is the Icy Hot Patch, which Shaquille O’Neal is of course the spokesperson of in real life).

The jokes on celebrity culture can be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, basing a boss fight off an angry, drunken Mel Gibson is something that will always be funny, but a boss fight parodying Paris Hilton seems about a decade late. Of course, due to legal reasons, the game can’t use the real names of these celebrities (a la South Park), so instead has to make due with approximations that you wish could at least be a little bit closer to the real thing (a la The Simpsons).

In terms of gameplay, well, it’s fittingly mindless. Just punch hordes of enemies to build up “combo points” which you can then use to unleash Shaq’s size 22s to flatten the bad guys. And if you build up power (which is strangely separate from the combo points), you can perform the Shaq Smash, which easily dispatches foes. Occasionally, you can find two different power-up transformations: The Shaq Diesel merges the basketball star – excuse me, rickshaw driver – with a diesel engine, allowing Shaq to perform rapid punches simply by holding the attack button. But punch too much and you’ll have to unleash a diesel powered Shaq Smash, lest the engine burn up without unleashing that power. The other transformation (and another one of the game’s best gags) is the “Shaqtus,” which is, as it sounds, Shaq as a cactus, allowing him to shoot spines at enemies.

The transformation sequences are the game’s best bits, as they are really the only times the gameplay changes from what is a rather monotonous beat-em-up. Sure, you can pick up weapons here and there, but nothing else really changes up the button-mashing gameplay to any significant degree.

But hey, this game was designed entirely to be a joke and follow-up one of the most infamous games of all time. So I guess the monotony was intentional? Even if we give Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn that benefit of a doubt, however, the game still has some glaring shortcomings in execution and technical polish.

First and foremost, it’s baffling to think that Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn is exclusively a single-player game. Beat-em-ups are a genre made for couch co-op, and with a game like this, which is intentionally stupid, wouldn’t it be the kind of joke that’s funnier if you’re sharing the experience? This is only magnified more by the fact that, at six stages, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn is incredibly short, and provides little (if anything) in the way of replay value. Had the game featured multiplayer co-op, the act of sharing Shaq Fu with someone else might have been incentive enough for some replays.

Then there are technical issues, and not just simple slow-downs and light freeze-ups, either. During my playthrough, the first time I died wasn’t by an enemy hand, but by Shaq randomly sinking into the ground and the game suddenly telling me I’m dead. And the game completed froze on me at least four times (two of which were on the same section) in my playthrough.

Look, I don’t know what else to say. Is Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn a good game? Certainly not. But that’s kind of the point. It’s a title made entirely to live off the legacy of a notorious 90s game. It purposefully sets the bar low, and, well, it hits the mark it set out to. Not all of the humor works, the gameplay is repetitive, and the technical issues are glaring. But hey, Shaquille O’Neal himself has a good sense of humor about it. So I guess I can too.

 

4.5

Early Thoughts (and Concerns) on Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

The Switch’s iteration of Super Smash Bros. has been revealed as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate! So far, from what I’ve seen and the little I’ve played, it seems like a refinement of the franchise. It’s faster paced like Melee, but looks to incorporate the sense of balance from the Wii U version. Despite Nintendo’s overall lackluster E3 Direct, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate looks to please its loyal fanbase, and then some.

However, even though Ultimate looks like it could be the definitive Super Smash Bros. game, I do have a few reservations about it. Primarily, it may seem awesome on one hand that the game will feature every character who has ever been in Super Smash Bros. history – from the N64 originals to the one-timers from Melee and Brawl to the DLC characters from Smash Bros. on Wii U – on the other hand, series director Masahiro Sakurai said they planned to emphasize the inclusion of every past character, so to “not expect too many new additions.”

But is that really what anyone wanted? Sure, Ice Climbers and Solid Snake had plenty of support to make a return, but did anyone really want characters like Pichu and Wolf O’Donell to make a comeback? Don’t we have enough clones as it is?

Speaking of clones, that brings us to another source of concern: Sakurai has given clone characters the official name of “Echo Fighters.” The problem with this is that the fact that clones nw have an official label could imply that Ultimate is doubling down on clone characters.

I know, a lot of people like to claim that “clone characters don’t take up much data, and so they aren’t getting in the way of anyone else.” Maybe, but if you ask me, I’d rather see a smaller roster with unique characters than a large roster filled with half-assed, copied-and-pasted clones.

The reason why I’m concerned about this (other than the fact that the clone characters are already just lazy additions) is that, with the Inklings from Splatoon and Metroid’s Ridley being the only completely new characters announced for the new game, along with the grim promise that there won’t be too many new additions, this could mean that most of the potential new characters could just be clones. And who the hell wants that?

Things get worse, however, with the revelation of the first new “Echo Fighter” in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is none other than (oh lord, give me strength)… Princess Daisy.

Ouch! It hurts just to type that.

Look, I understand that Ridley was one of the most requested characters for years, and Splatoon is Nintendo’s biggest new franchise, but Daisy? I don’t know, seems like we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel here. And yeah yeah, once again “clones don’t use up a lot of data,” but when they start stacking up clone after clone, the roster just feels watered down.

Now, part of me isn’t too disheartened with the idea of only a handful of new characters (I remember when Melee first showed off Bowser, Peach, Zelda and Ice Climbers as new additions, and I didn’t mind it when I thought they were the only new additions to Melee). But, if we do see only a handful of new characters, and most of them are just going to be clones, it would feel like a waste. And don’t even get me started on Bomberman being relegated to an Assist Trophy while Princess Daisy makes the roster. That’s just insulting.

I hope I don’t sound overly negative, because I love Super Smash Bros., and from what I played of Ultimate at E3, it looks to be excellent. But while it looks like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate may refine the series’ mechanics and competitive nature, it runs the risk of diluting the experience with an overtrumped roster largely comprised of characters who lack uniqueness. I mean, this is a series built on Nintendo’s illustrious history and peerless catalogue of video game icons. I’d hate to see it simply decide to settle on the quick and easy alternatives in place of meaningful additions.

Sakurai is known for asking his fans to “just be happy.” But if we’re getting a bunch of throwbacks and cookie cutter additions at the expense of worthwhile newcomers, it makes it kind of difficult.

“The physical incarnation of “we’re all out of ideas.””

But seriously, just give me Geno and Dixie Kong and I’ll take it all back and love it 100% LOL.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch) Review

*This review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

When Retro Studios revealed Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze at E3 2013, it was received with a lukewarm reception. People were baffingly disappointed that the studio opted to create a second DKC title (apparently forgetting how good Donkey Kong Country Returns was), and were clamoring for the developer to return to the then-dormant Metroid franchise (apparently forgetting Retro already made three titles in that series). This immediately lead to unfair criticisms towards Tropical Freeze and, coupled with questionable marketing, a delayed launch, and the overall underperformance of the Wii U, Tropical Freeze failed to receive the mass-appreciation it truly deserved. It quickly became a cult classic for many, due to its pitch-perfect gameplay, impeccable level design, and God-tier soundtrack, but it never became the best-seller it should have been. Now, Tropical Freeze has been given a second chance on the Nintendo Switch, in hopes that it can finally find the audience it so rightfully deserves.

Although the core game is mostly unchanged from its release on the Wii U four years ago (save for some touch-ups with the graphics, and some new character animations), DKC: Tropical Freeze is more than worth another go on the Switch, as it remains one of the finest platformers ever made.

Being a follow-up to Donkey Kong Country Returns, Tropical Freeze adopts the basic blueprint of its predecessor. But while Returns was an excellent game in its own right, it often relied on falling back onto nostalgic memories of the original 1994 Donkey Kong Country on SNES. Tropical Freeze – being Retro’s second go at the series – was able to break free from the familiarity of Returns and craft an identity of its own for the series.

The story here is that a gang of vikings called the Snowmads (comprised of arctic animals like walruses and penguins) have invaded Donkey Kong Island. Doing their best Elsa impression, the Snowmads freeze the entire island and make themselves at home, banishing the Kongs in the process. But DK is not one to simply let it go, and he, along with Diddy, Dixie and good ol’ Cranky, set off on an adventure across multiple islands to take back their home from the Snowmads.

“Despite being a side-scroller, Tropical Freeze features dynamic camera angles during certain stages to change up the gameplay in unique ways.”

Of course, any semblance of plot is really just an excuse to get DK off his keister and into those platforming stages. It’s within its gameplay and level design that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze becomes a work of art.

The level design of Tropical Freeze is among the best you’ll ever find in a platformer (or any genre, for that matter). Every stage introduces new mechanics and gameplay elements, making every last level feel fresh and original. Tropical Freeze almost epitomizes a “you know what would be awesome” mentality…as in, it’s all too easy to imagine the folks at Retro Studios exclaiming “you know what would be awesome?” right before they pitched their ideas.

There are a few shared elements between stages, namely the collectible puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters that are hidden within them (the puzzle pieces unlocking extras such as concept art and music, while nabbing every K-O-N-G letter in every stage of a world unlocks that world’s secret temple stage). But there’s not a level in the entire game that falls back on recycling a level concept brought up earlier in the adventure. The level design of Tropical Freeze is an utter delight the whole way through.

“That is one big-ass polar bear.”

This is also true of the game’s boss fights. Though the old tradition of one boss per world means that such encounters are limited at six, each one of them provides a clever challenge that’s full of creativity.

Player’s primarily control Donkey Kong, of course. He still runs, jumps, rolls, pounds the ground, and throws barrels. This time around, he can also pluck certain objects from the ground, as well as pick up certain enemies to throw them at others. Along the way, DK can team up with the other Kongs who, in addition to granting the player two extra hit points, come with their own special abilities.

Diddy Kong, returning from DKCR, comes equipped with a jetpack, allowing DK to hover for a short time. Meanwhile, Cranky Kong makes his long-awaited debut as a playable character, and can use his cane as a pogo stick – Scrooge McDuck style – to not only jump higher, but also to allow DK to jump across surfaces and enemies he otherwise couldn’t (such as thorny brambles or enemies with spiked viking helmets). Dixie Kong, true to form, proves to be the most useful, however. With her helicopter-like hair, Dixie Kong not only gives DK a bit more air, but also increases the height of his jumps. When playing solo, the additional Kongs more or less serve as power-ups, but they are also readily available for a second player to select in the game’s co-op mode.

On the visual front, Tropical Freeze looks better than ever, which is no small feat, considering how great it already looked on the Wii U. The graphics may technically be the same, but it all looks sleeker and smoother than it did before. And perhaps best of all, the load times have been drastically reduced in this Switch release.

Then we have that epic soundtrack. The first two installments of Donkey Kong Country remain highly regarded for their music, though the third entry’s score, while still good, fell considerably short of its predecessors. Meanwhile, Returns’ soundtrack mainly relied on remixes of the first DKC’s soundtrack, which is great and all, but didn’t exactly help in giving the game an identity of its own.

With Tropical Freeze, however, Retro Studios managed to cook up a musical score that ascends to one of the all-time greats in the medium, and more than lives up to the first two installments. It should come as no surprise that the key ingredient to the soundtrack’s roaring success is the return of original series composer David Wise, who made a triumphant return with Tropical Freeze after an extended hiatus from scoring mainstream titles. Much like the first two SNES DKC titles, the score of Tropical Freeze manages to encompass a shocking amount of variety, all while building the atmosphere of the game’s world, and turning the simple story of a bunch of apes fighting walruses into something truly epic and beautiful. As far as gaming soundtracks go, Undertale might be Tropical Freeze’s only real competition for the title of best of the decade.

While Tropical Freeze served as a vast improvement over (the admittedly great) Donkey Kong Country Returns in nearly every regard – from level design to boss fights to music – there were, unfortunately, two aspects in which Tropical Freeze merely followed suit with its predecessor, as opposed to improving it.

The first are the bonus rooms scattered throughout the levels. While these bonus stages are fun in their own right, they are all simple variants of “collect all the bananas.” It’s not a major issue, but considering the variety of bonus stages housed in the DKC games back on the SNES, you kind of wish Retro Studios could have touched up on the repetition of the bonus rooms found in Returns with their second outing. The other blemish is that Rambi the Rhinoceros is once again the only Animal Buddy present in the adventure (unless we count Squawks, who can be purchased at Funky Kong’s shop and alerts players to nearby puzzle pieces). While riding on Rambi and bowling through enemies is fun, he only shows up on a handful of occasions, leaving you wanting more out of him, as well as a return of more Animal Buddies such as Enguarde or my man Squitter (or for Retro Studios to develop some Animal Buddies of their own).

“I wonder if Funky is out looking for inter-planetary visitor dudes. Wow, I just made THAT reference.”

It also has to be said that the only major addition to the Switch release of Tropical Freeze is its new “Funky Mode,” which serves as a beginner-friendly playstyle for those who find the core game too difficult. Essentially, it’s easy mode, with Funky boasting all of the abilities of the other Kongs, as well as having more hit points and unlimited oxygen when swimming. On one hand, I can appreciate the game having an easy mode. Given its often intense difficulty, providing an easier option for beginners might give Tropical Freeze a wider audience. But on the downside, it is kind of a shame that the new playable character has to be confined to it. Having Funky as a unique character with his own abilities in the core game might have been a nice twist on this modern classic, while the easy mode could have potentially given DK the extra benefits and such, thus separating it and the new character.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was not only my favorite game of 2014, but also one I can confidently say was my favorite in the entire Wii U library. It’s a platformer that easily ranks among the best of them, with sheer creativity and gameplay brilliance pouring out of every level. The fact that it was initially met to such a lukewarm reception was a damn shame, and played a part in Tropical Freeze becoming quite possibly the most underrated game in Nintendo’s history.

Now, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze can safely claim to be one of the very best games on the Nintendo Switch. Sure, the lack of variety in bonus stages and Animal Buddies is still a bit of a bummer, and the fact that Funky Mode is the only prominent addition to this second release can feel a little like a missed opportunity. But make no mistake about it, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze should rank among the best games Nintendo has ever made. And hopefully this time, more people will get to realize that.

 

9.5

Kirby Star Allies Review

It can’t be stated enough that Kirby has always been the unsung hero of Nintendo. The pink, spherical star warrior has often been in the shadows of Mario, Zelda and Metroid, while quietly providing consistently entertaining and innovative experiences. So while Kirby may be relatively under the radar, he still deserves recognition for being one of Nintendo’s brightest stars. Kirby’s debut on the Nintendo Switch, Kirby Star Allies, continues the pink hero’s impressive resume. By combining elements from various titles from Kirby’s past, Star Allies provides a consistently fun experience that should rank as one of the highlights of the long-standing series.

Kirby Star Allies brings a traditional sidescrolling Kirby platformer to a home console for the first time since 2011’s Kirby’s Return to Dreamland on the Nintendo Wii. Like Return to Dreamland, Star Allies turns the Kirby experience into a multiplayer romp for up to four players. But while Return to Dreamland saw three additional players take control of Waddle Dee, Meta Knight and King Dedede, Star Allies takes a page out of fan-favorite Kirby Super Star’s playbook and allows Kirby to turn his standard enemies into partners (in addition to being able to copy their abilities). Waddle Dee, Meta Knight and Dedede are still available after certain points of the game, should players want to play as one of the series’ mainstays. But combining Return to Dreamland’s multiplayer setup with Super Star’s enemy-to-allies mechanic is Star Allies best hook.

Continuing in resurrecting elements from Kirby’s past, Star Allies also finds a means to bring in a sort of successor to Kirby 64’s ability-combining mechanic. Kirby can throw hearts at enemies to bring them to his side, and if Kirby’s team boasts the right combinations, they can work in tandem to create new powers.

“Ice + Rock = Curling. It’s science.”

Elemental abilities like fire, ice, water, spark and wind (available via the broom and bird abilities) can be added to weapon-based powers such as the sword, hammer, yo-yo, whip and ninja. Other powers can be combined for one-time special attacks (such as spark and water, which send electrified splashes at enemies for extra damage). And other powers still have unique combinations with each other, such as the ESP ability (returning from Planet Robobot) being able to join with the rock ability to perform geokinesis. It may be a little disappointing to know that not all of Kirby’s abilities can combine with each other in the same way they could in Kirby 64, but finding which abilities go together and what they produce still makes for a constantly surprising and fun experience in Star Allies.

Of course, there are a few new copy abilities thrown into the mix as well: Artist allows Kirby to attack with a paintbrush, as well as send sentient paintings and sculptures at foes. The spider abilities sees Kirby trapping enemies in webs, as well as providing trampoline-like webs for his friends to jump on. And the staff ability has Kirby walloping baddies with a bo staff. These new abilities join a host of recently returning and long-standing favorites, making for one of the most robust libraries of copy abilities Kirby has ever seen (as well as giving players two through four plenty of character options).

“Keep rollin’, rollin’ rollin’, rollin’!”

That’s really the core of Kirby Star Allies: working together as Kirby and his friends (who can be controlled by surprisingly competent AI when playing solo) to work as a team to gain new powers and to complete the game’s stages and solve its puzzles. There are even sections in which Kirby and company will join forces to create bridges, form a wall-climbing train, form a wall-breaking wheel, and piloting a star (for some shoot-em-up action).

“Move over, Ben Swolo.”

The experience is consistently fun and enjoyable, and will surely leave a big smile on your face. The level design and gimmicks are varied, and though the adventure may sound short on paper at only four worlds, these worlds differ greatly in the number of levels they house, with myriads of secret stages being tucked away in each, should you be able to find their switches hidden in the standard stages. Star Allies even breaks tradition by not saving a singular boss fight at the end of each world. Instead, a number of levels end with a boss fight, and although they aren’t particular difficult (the penultimate boss was the only one that killed me in the adventure mode), the game is pretty generous with how many of them it provides. The final boss, in particular, provides one of the grander set pieces in the series’ (and Nintendo’s) history.

The easy difficulty extends past the boss fights, and indeed the entire adventure mode is a bit of a breeze. That should be expected from Kirby games by this point, and isn’t really a bad thing on its own. However, while past Kirby games have offered a host of hidden collectibles to add an extra challenge for completionists, the only hidden trinkets of Star Allies are puzzle pieces, which only unlock pieces of art work that celebrate Kirby games of the past (a fine unlockable for anyone who appreciates such things like myself, but I’m not sure they’d be incentive enough for most players to go through the trouble of seeking them out). A few extra collectibles – such as the strangely absent music tracks of past titles – could have made for an additional challenge in exploration.

If it is a challenge you want though, Star Allies follows suit with the more recent Kirby titles in providing a host of post-game modes which add some extra difficulty. But perhaps in the future it might be a nice option to have a more difficult mode available from the get-go.

Still, it’s always hard to complain too much about Kirby. Not just because the adorable characters and colorful worlds make it all too easy to smile, but because they have always provided such strong, straightforward fun. And Star Allies is certainly no exception. The charming and creative gameplay of Star Allies is joined by some truly impressive visuals (my goodness, the water effects!) and, like most Kirby games, a beautiful musical score that will, sadly, probably become underappreciated (the game playfully uses orchestral pieces for most stages, whether original or remixed tunes, while the aforementioned secret stages pull a classic track right out of Kirby’s past).

Kirby Star Allies is perhaps not the most original Kirby title: utilizing elements from Return to Dreamland, Kirby 64 and Super Star (as well as the cancelled GameCube Kirby title). But it uses these bits and pieces to create something of a Frankenstein’s monster that provides one of Kirby’s most fun adventures, while also celebrating the series’ storied history. And frankly, Kirby’s is a history that doesn’t get celebrated nearly as much as it deserves.

 

8.5