Originally, I was going to include these as part of my 700th blog (spectacularsaurus…whatever I called it). But that ended up long enough as it was, and I was writing it really late. So I had to cut things a tad short, but I still wanted to write these bits, so here they are!
A human experience – engrossing, yet flawed…
Upon completing my first 10-12 hour playthrough of Quantic Dream’s latest, Detroit: Become Human, I had experienced a wide array of different emotions and levels of intrigue in an engrossing cinematic experience that notably fumbles but succeeds in many ways. The selfless sacrifice of one character proved to be a surprisingly poignant moment, given how I struggled to find any empathetic value in their relationship with one another. A rebellion with a just cause to advocate their sense of being and self-actualization in a pacifist orientation proved to be a taxing, yet ultimately satisfying ordeal. The buddy cop narrative of friendship, betrayal, and loyalty retained the highest level of consistency, resulting in a story-arc that was riveting from start to finish. My plethora of dynamic choices led me to these final moments; with each choice stemming a branching pathway, the sheer number of different storylines, narrative combinations, and chapter variations is downright staggering – everything is impressively laid out via Detroit’s engrossing Flowchart system. It wasn’t until I finished Detroit for the second time, opting to use polarizing choices, that I truly understood its level of outcome variation, resulting in anything from minute variations in dialogue to entirely new chapters and/or set pieces. Detroit: Become Human does stumble more often than not, preventing it from becoming the “great” experience it could easily be. Pacing issues, divisive writing, monotonous chapters, and certain levels of inconsistency plague Detroit, and while its explorative/QTE based gameplay is undoubtably the most refined and intuitive of Quantic Dream’s repertoire, these negative qualms ultimately detract from Detroit’s overall positive experience. While it never reaches the heights of Quantic Dream’s pinnacle experience, Heavy Rain, Detroit: Become Human still manages to deliver an engrossing experience that offers an unparalleled sense of player choice and narrative variation.
Welcome my friends, to the 700th blog spectacular(saurus Indominous Alpha 3)! That’s right, I’ve written a grand total of 700 blogs for this site! Oh, joy!
Ah yes, there are many ways to celebrate such a landmark blog, none of which are quite as good as a bombardment of gifs!
Alrighty, that’s enough gifs (for now). Let’s move on to (relatively) serious matters. Continue reading
*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.
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.
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).
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.
With his introduction as the antagonist of Super Mario Land 2, Wario became an immediate Nintendo mainstay. Who knows if it was the original intent when the character was created, but Wario ended up hijacking the Super Mario Land series, being the star of its third entry in 1994 before it full-on transformed into the Wario Land series. Though the Wario Land sequels would add a bit more originality to the proceedings, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 remains a fun and surprisingly deep platformer.
Wario Land played a bit closer to the Mario Land rulebook than its sequels would, with floating blocks containing items being scattered about, and Wario running, jumping and collecting power-ups to clear stages. But this isn’t merely Super Mario Land with a change of main character, as Wario has a few tricks of his own to justify his promotion to starring role.
The dastardly villain is – fittingly – a lot more brutish than Mario, coming equipped with a shoulder charge attack, and after jumping on enemies, he can pick them up and throw them at others. In place of Mario’s power-ups are three different helmets: The bull helmet makes Wario’s charge attack more powerful, in addition to giving him a butt stomping attack. The dragon helmet shoots a stream of fire from its nostrils. And the jet helmet grants Wario a higher jump, in addition to allowing him to use his charge attack in midair and under water.
On top of differing his core gameplay from Mario’s, Wario’s level design makes some notable changes as well. Wario isn’t out to save the day, but to scour the land for all the loot he can find (in another fun twist from the norm, while Mario often ventures to rescue Princess Peach, Wario is simply trying to steal a giant, golden statue of her). This means that simply making it to the end of a stage isn’t your main goal. Taking a page from Super Mario World, some of the stages contain alternate, secret exits, which lead to more stages and, in one instance, an entire optional world. Additionally, there are fifteen secret treasures to be found in the game, which will result in Wario becoming substantially richer at the end of the game if collected.
These alternate exits, optional levels, and hidden treasures make Wario Land a much deeper game than the Super Mario Land duology, adding to the game’s length and replay value. There are a few unfortunate downsides to how these elements are implemented, however.
While the levels with secret exits are distinctly marked on the world map, the levels that contain the secret treasures are not. That may not seem like a huge problem, but a few of these treasures must be collected by replaying earlier levels after a later stage or world is completed. So you’re basically just left guessing what stages you need to revisit.
The levels containing secret exits also disappear from the game entirely about midway through, leaving the first half of the game to feel more inspired than the second. The boss fights also lack creativity, and the music is a surprising step down from the Super Mario Land titles (thankfully, the graphics are on par with those of Super Mario Land 2).
Even with these complaints, Wario Land is still entertaining even today, which is quite the feat for a Game Boy title. It’s fun just to find more coins and treasure, and seeing if you can hold onto them by a level’s end, a concept which the game has even more fun with. Complete a stage, and you can play a mini-game where you get three 50/50 chances of doubling your coins or reducing them by half. Meanwhile, checkpoints require a small fee (10 coins) to access, but the coins you got up to that point aren’t saved if you die, giving a nice twist on checkpoints where you have the choice of using their security or keep more gold at a greater risk.
Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 may not be one of Nintendo’s finer platformers, but it did serve as a fitting introduction for Wario as a video game star. Though it is a bit strange that Wario got his own game after just two years, while the world is still grossly absent of a game starring Bowser after over three decades…
It may seem a bit strange today, given that it seems to have left no long-lasting impact on the Super Mario series as a whole, but 1989’s Super Mario Land remains one of the best-selling titles in the entire series. In fact, up until the Wii re-popularized Nintendo games, Super Mario Land was the third best-selling Mario game, behind only Super Mario World and the original Super Mario Bros. Though the high sales become a bit more understandable when one remembers that this was not only Mario’s first handheld entry, but also a launch title for the Game Boy. Releasing a Mario game to launch the Game Boy was a no-brainer, and with the handheld’s seldom-approached success, it only makes sense that Super Mario Land would rack up sales numbers. And for the time, Super Mario Land was a nice introduction for the series into the handheld market, though time has revealed that Mario compromised a lot in the transition to the Game Boy’s launch.
Super Mario Land, at first glance, seems to have all the trappings of Mario titles of the time. Mario still runs and jumps across different kingdoms, collects power-ups, and rescues a princess from a villain. But it won’t take long into playing to realize that things are just a little…off.
While mushrooms still make Mario bigger (thus giving him an additional hit point), flowers grant Mario with a bouncing ball, as opposed to the more accurate fireballs of Mario norm. Perhaps more bizarrely, while stars still grant Mario temporary invincibility, the usual Mario invincibility theme (AKA the most hypnotic 18 notes in gaming history) is replaced with a rendition of the Can-Can. It turns out that the princess involved isn’t Peach (or Toadstool, as she was known in the west at the time), but Princess Daisy. And the baddie isn’t Bowser, but a much more generic spaceman villain called Tatanga.
Those are something of excusable changes, considering Super Mario Land was created by a different team than the rest of the Mario titles of the time (it was the first Mario game without direct involvement from series creator Shigeru Miyamoto). But there are other changes that are a little less forgivable.
The most noticeable is Mario’s control, which feels far more slippery and chaotic than his NES and SNES adventures. It’s not outright bad to control, but considering Mario more or less wrote the book on making fluid platform jumping, anything less than the series’ standard really sticks out. Worse still, Super Mario Land plays some dirty tricks that work against the intuition this very series created! Notably, Koopa Troopa shells explode about a second after a Koopa has been defeated. Perhaps in a home console title, where there could be a visible distinction between your standard Koopa shell and an exploding one, this might not be so bad. But with the limitations of the Game Boy, it just looks like a Koopa Troopa. And with how the series has ingrained the idea of kicking Koopa Shells into our minds, it all just comes off as a cheap stunt.
Being a Game Boy launch title, suffice to say Super Mario Land isn’t a pretty game to look at (though at the very least, the ability to play it on a 3DS – with a backlight and whatnot – means that today you can experience the game in any lighting without having to strain your eyes). Thankfully, the music is actually pretty good. Certainly not among the best Mario soundtracks, but all things considered, it’s catchy and fun.
Of course, if there’s any great limitation to Super Mario Land, it’s that it is one short game. Okay, so it shouldn’t be assumed that a Game Boy launch title would be particularly long, but Super Mario Land can be beat in a half hour…if that. At the time, Super Mario Land had the benefit of being the Mario on the go. But now, with so many other options – whether one of the meatier, contemporary Mario handheld games, or a portable re-release of one of the console classics – you don’t exactly have a lot of incentive to play Super Mario Land in their stead.
Super Mario Land is not a bad game, but retrospective has exposed it as the weakest Mario platformer. For its time, Mario on the go was an accomplishment in its own right. But despite nothing being particularly bad about it, Super Mario Land doesn’t feature any elements that weren’t considerably bettered by Mario games before and since, leaving it feeling like Mario’s most mediocre moment to contemporary eyes.
Then again, the fact that Super Mario Land unleashed Princess Daisy onto the series may just constitute an unforgivable sin.
Appeasing the gods…
God of War will stand as one of greatest reinventions in gaming history, breathing distilled life into a dormant franchise and reconstructing the preconceived notions of an established anti-hero. God of War is a brilliant thought piece that blissfully ripens with each passing moment, embodying the very foundation of the snowball effect. Its true brilliance lies within the sum of its parts and how each element is seamlessly weaved to craft an impeccably paced experience that rivals the meteoric heights of literature’s finest. Each exceptional element stands audaciously on its own but are beautifully accentuated as an ensemble, personifying a melodic orchestra of sorts. From its profound deconstruction of the familiar, redefinition of established characters, and completely revamped combat system, God of War is a blissful experience that constantly evolves and is exquisitely surprising. Its effortless transition from tranquil exposition to impeccably constructed gameplay is a pristine work of art, encompassing its creative theme of seamless harmony. Whether if you bask in the glory of its exceptionally gorgeous world, delve into the tantalizing water of its Norse mythology, deviate the beaten path in a rewarding sense of exploration and discovery, or partake in one of the most brutally satisfying combat systems to ever grace the medium, no single piece of the puzzle ever outshines God of War’s greatest triumph: its poignant story of paternal love, acceptance, discovery, and redemption. God of War is indicative to the strength of the single-player experience and their importance to this growing infrastructure, a bold proclamation to their sense of hopeful permanence. Its enriching sense and scale of world building, level design, and creative direction is an exceptional achievement that rightfully surpasses the likes of anything that came before it. God of War is a masterpiece in every meaning of the word, as it impeccably redefines the conventions of this established series, crafting a new powerful identity that is quintessentially more resonant and accessible, all of which is captured in one continuous camera shot of glory.