Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble Review

DKC3

Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble served as a fittingly great end to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the SNES. Though its release in late 1996 meant that it failed to reach the high sales numbers of its two predecessors due to the launch of the Nintendo 64 a few months prior, DKC3 retains the same sense of fun and style as the two preceding games in the series.

Just as DKC2 took DK’s sidekick Diddy and made him the star, DKC3 does the same by putting Dixie Kong in the spotlight. The fact that DK was now far removed from the equation may have impacted the game’s sells all the more, but Dixie Kong is still the most fun Kong to control, not to mention she was one of the earliest Nintendo heroines to get a starring role.

DKC3Dixie is joined on her adventure by Kiddy Kong, an infant gorilla who possesses the size and strength of Donkey Kong himself. Kiddy is admittedly a forgettable character (it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s never shown up in the series since), and his presence leads one to think that maybe Dixie and DK were the original planned duo, but since DK would have taken the spotlight, Rare whipped up a quick replacement instead.

Despite Kiddy Kong not being a particularly memorable addition to the Kong family, his pairing with Dixie gives the game a good mix of the gameplay of DKCs 1 and 2. Dixie can still use her ponytail as a propeller to glide and make her jumps more precise. While Kiddy, having the strength of DK, can take out bigger enemies.

The team-up moves from DKC2 return, with Kiddy being able to throw Dixie to great lengths and find out-of-reach secret areas, while Dixie can throw the hefty Kiddy to bulldoze enemies and break certain walls.

It must be said that many of the situations of DKC3 are more specific to certain Kongs than the previous game, with a number of secrets only able to be found with Dixie’s gliding abilities. Kiddy’s strength comes in handy with finding a few of the game’s secrets, but his unique traits aren’t utilized nearly as often as Dixie’s.

The game basically uses the same platforming gameplay of the past entries, and though the level design never reaches the heights of the second entry, DKC3 was still one of the best platformers of its day. The levels are creative and varied, with new twists and gimmicks added to the stages at an increasingly frequent rate as you progress further in the game.

Animal Buddies also make a return, with Squawks, Squitter and Enguarde making a comeback with all their abilities from the second game. Rambi the rhinoceros has been replaced with Ellie the elephant, who’s cute, but her ability to carry barrels and shoot water with her trunk is never used in a way to make her as fun as the destructive Rambi. A new bird friend named Perry shows up, and simply flies overhead to grab objects the Kongs can’t.

The boss fights have a similar variety to the levels, with each one presenting a different challenge (a few of them require you to combat them as one of the Animal Buddies). Though some boss fights, such as Bleak the snowman, end up being a little underwhelming, they are all at least more than just bigger versions of standard enemies.

While the gameplay retains the same style as the other DKCs, where Donkey Kong Country 3 differentiates itself from its predecessors is its world map.

DKC3Whereas the first two games presented more traditional platformer world maps, DKC3’s map is more flexible, as Dixie and Kiddy travel the “Northern Kremisphere” via boats, hovercrafts and jet skis to various islands, which serve as the game’s worlds. You gradually upgrade your vehicles via Funky Kong, with each new transport being able to take you further than the last. In an interesting piece of nonlinearity, the third and fourth worlds in the game are actually interchangeable (though it’s somewhat disappointing that those are the only worlds that are).

Each world contains five stages and a boss. There are seven standard worlds plus one lost world. Though Funky is only found on the primary world map, Wrinkly Kong is found in every world, as is Swanky Kong. Wrinkly saves your game, while Swanky hosts a ball-throwing mini-game. Strangely, Cranky Kong’s only role in DKC3 is serving as your opponent in Swanky’s mini-games.

New characters include the Brothers Bear, an extensive family of bears who show up in various points in each world. The bears will often have you trading unique items between them, or give you hints about some of the secrets of the game. You can find Bear Coins throughout the levels (which replace DKC2’s Banana Coins), but strangely, only a couple of the bears and Swanky’s mini-games require them. There are also Bonus Coins (replacing Kremkoins), which are won in bonus games and, just like in DKC2, are needed to access the secret levels in the Lost World.

DKC3The DK Coins make a return, but with a twist. This time, instead of simply being hidden within the levels, they are guarded by a Kremling named Koin. Koin uses the DK Coin as a shield, leaving the player to find creative ways to take him down with a steel barrel. It’s a fun twist to the formula, but unfortunately, your prize for getting every last DK Coin almost doesn’t feel worth it. By the time you receive your reward, you’ve almost completed everything in the game, making it feel like it shows up long after it really would have been helpful.

Finally, the last new item of note are the Banana Birds, which are hidden throughout secret caves on the world map.

If you want to simply play through the game and beat the final boss, DKC3 is decently challenging, though the main quest isn’t nearly as difficult as DKC2. However, trying to complete everything kicks up the challenge considerably, and the secret levels are among the hardest in the series.

To achieve full completion of the game, you’ll have to beat every bonus stage (every level has two, save for some of the secret levels, which have up to three), find every DK Coin, find every Banana Bird, complete every task for the bears, beat the game, and beat all the secret levels. In terms of content, it certainly packs a punch.

By its own merits, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble is an excellent platformer, and I can respect the argument that it’s a “deeper” game than the original DKC. However, DKC3 ultimately falls considerably short of the second installment for a few reasons.

The first of these reasons being the game’s overall atmosphere. It’s true that the graphics are more polished than ever and the game’s scenery is beautiful (some of the best on the SNES), but the world of the Northern Kremisphere feels like a step back from the creativity of Crocodile Isle. Whereas DKC2’s world was a clash of the fantastic and the dreadful, DKC3’s world instead reverts back to the natural settings of the first game. Gone are the pirate ships, beehives and amusement parks of the last game. In their place are water, mountain and tree themed levels. It’s not that the setting is bad. Far from it, actually. But its world lacks the unique tones that the second game exuded.

The character designs have also taken a nosedive in quality. It’s not just Kiddy Kong, but the enemies as well. The original Donkey Kong Country didn’t exactly boast the most creative enemy designs, but they had a charm about them. DKC2 upped the ante with more creative designs and an underlying pirate motif. DKC3 goes back to more of the generic enemy style of the original, but their designs lack the charm, and look more goofy than anything. The Kremlings even have a new leader in a robot named Kaos (though it shouldn’t be a surprise who’s behind the machine), but the robot theme is only reflected in the new mechanical bee enemies, the Kremlings themselves are, well, Kremlings. There’s an inconsistency in the art direction that just feels like a huge step back.

Perhaps DKC3’s greatest sin as a follow-up to Diddy’s Kong Quest, however, is its soundtrack. Now, DKC3’s music is perfectly fine on its own. But considering the sheer heights that the last two games took video game soundtracks, being “perfectly fine” just doesn’t compare. The soundtrack, primarily composed by Eveline Fischer (regular series composer David Wise only contributed a few tracks) is a good mix of music, but it fails to create the atmosphere and moods that the other games in the series did so easily.

DKC3As a whole, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble is an excellent platformer. The level design is great and varied, the gameplay is challenging and fun, the game still looks great, it sounds good, and finding every last trinket gives it a lot of replay value. Problems arise, however, with its inevitable comparisons to its immediate predecessor. Aside from the robust world map, DKC3 is structured very much like DKC2. But the game as a whole is never quite as good. As great as the levels are, they don’t match up to those of DKC2 in terms of creativity and challenge. The fact that it falls so far below its predecessor aesthetically also dampens the experience.

DKC3 remains a more than worthwhile game in its own right. But the fact that it’s so similar to DKC2, yet inferior to it in so many ways, makes it feel like a hallowed out version of DKC2’s accomplishments. Even the subtitle of “Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble” is less clever than “Diddy’s Kong Quest” (I still don’t exactly know what the “double trouble” is referring to).

With that said, even a hallowed out DKC2 is still more fun than most other games. Though it may not be as fondly remembered as its predecessors, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble was a great send-off for Rare’s DKC series.

 

8

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest Review

DKC2

When Donkey Kong Country became a massive success in 1994, it was inevitable that it would get a sequel. Little did gamers know that said sequel would arrive the very next year. With such a relatively short development time, DKC2 could have easily been little more than a cheap cash-in. Instead, it ended up being one of the greatest sequels in video game history, and twenty years later, it can still safely make that claim.

The original Donkey Kong Country is a classic in its own right: It had revolutionary visuals, an unforgettable soundtrack, and some of the most fun platforming gameplay of its day. Still, there was room for improvement, with the overall experience being simple and straightforward when compared to something like Super Mario World, not to mention the dull boss fights.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest not only ironed out DKC’s rough edges, it also improved everything its predecessor accomplished, and added a sense of gameplay depth that makes it one of the few 2D platformers – if not the only 2D platformer – that could better Mario at his own game.

The most immediate difference players will notice between DKC2 and the original is the absence of Donkey Kong. The subtitle of “Diddy’s Kong Quest” is more than just a brilliant pun, as this game took DK’s sidekick and put him into the spotlight. The big ape himself has been kidnapped by K. Rool, with the villainous crocodile now going by the monicker of “Kaptain” to reflect the new pirate motif of his minions.

DKC2 retains the tag team style gameplay of the original, however, as Diddy is now paired up with his girlfriend Dixie Kong. Though Diddy and Dixie are closer in size and appearance than DK and Diddy were, they are actually more distinct gameplay-wise. Diddy retains his faster movement and farther jumps, while Dixie – the most useful Kong to this day – can use her ponytail to glide and make her landings precise.

An addition has been made to the tag team setup, as Diddy and Dixie can now climb on each other’s shoulders for team-up moves, with the currently-controlled Kong able to throw their teammate to defeat enemies or reach places that are otherwise unreachable.

The addition of Dixie and the team-up moves add extra layers of depth to the experience, and makes the gameplay stand tall over its predecessor.

Donkey Kong Country 2Then there are the Animal Buddies, who are more versatile and instrumental this time around: Rambi the rhino returns with a new charge attack, as does Enguarde the swordfish with a similar new move. Squawks the parrot has seen a complete overhaul. No longer confined to holding a light on a single level, Squawks is now big enough to carry Diddy and Dixie in his talons and fly to great heights, and can spit projectiles at enemies. Winky the frog has more or less been replaced by Rattly the rattlesnake, who betters his predecessor’s jumping capabilities. Then there’s Squitter the spider, who can take out enemies from a long distance and create platforms with his webs.

Though the Animal Buddies were fun in Donkey Kong Country, their inclusion feels far more integral in Donkey Kong Country 2, with entire levels being dedicated to their mechanics.

Donkey Kong Country was a success in large part due to its visuals, which were a revelation in their day. It shouldn’t be a surprise that DKC2 upped the ante in this area, with a wider array of colors, more detailed backgrounds and visual effects, and even more fluid character animations. But the technical advancements are merely a bonus, as the art direction proves to be the game’s real visual treat.

Whereas the action of Donkey Kong Country took place on Donkey Kong Island, with locations that were to be expected from a platformer starring simians – such as jungles, forests and snowy mountains – the adventure of Donkey Kong Country 2 takes place on K. Rool’s home turf of Crocodile Isle, which serves as a dark, gloomy, and melancholic contrast to platforming norms.

Donkey Kong Country 2Crocodile Isle will see Diddy and Dixie venture across pirate ships, volcanoes, thorny mazes, giant beehives, and dilapidated amusement parks, to name a few of the game’s locations. Even when it uses familiar themed environments of the platforming genre, it puts new spins on them. When you make it to the game’s forest world, for example, it’s an haunted forest filled with ghosts and skeleton crocodiles. The game’s seven worlds usually have a primary theme, but are not restricted to them, with Rare wisely employing a variety of stages within each world.

It’s in the levels themselves that the creativity shines brightest. There’s a sense of imagination stemming from every level that’s rarely approached in gaming, with every stage presenting new gameplay ideas that still feel fresh and original today. Many levels are built around a unique hook, like controlling your jumps through gusts of wind or racing a series of Kremlings on a roller coaster, that are utilized to their fullest and then gracefully left behind after their level is done. Every stage of Donkey Kong Country 2 is swimming in creative ideas, and the game knows better than to let even one of them overstay their welcome.

Donkey Kong Country 2The boss fights greatly benefit from this new sense of creativity. Where the first game enlarged regular enemies, had DK and Diddy bounce on their heads a few times, and called it a day, DKC2 instead presents a more varied and challenging rogue’s gallery of big bads, with even those that fall under the “big enemy” category bringing a unique challenge to the game.

Though Donkey Kong Country was always a challenging game, it was here that the series became known for its great difficulty. Each world of DKC2 is considerably more challenging than the last, and a host of secret levels are among the toughest obstacle courses in any platformer. But never once does the game feel unfair. The challenges stack up reasonably, and continue to grow as you get more accustomed to them. The difficulty curve is pretty much perfect.

Additional challenge and depth has been added through the game’s collectible items. Though bananas, balloons and the K-O-N-G letters all return to give Diddy and Dixie extra lives, the new items have a greater range of uses.

Banana Coins are a common new item, and are used as currency for the Kong characters who appear on the world map: Cranky Kong gives tips on the levels’ secrets, while his wife Wrinkly Kong saves your progress and gives advice on the game’s basics. Funky Kong can take you to any previously visited locations, and the aptly-named Swanky Kong hosts a quiz show that gives Diddy and Dixie the chance to earn multiple extra lives.

The two big new collectibles in the game, however, are the Kremkoins and Donkey Kong Coins. The Kremkoins are won in the game’s bonus stages (every level has one to three), and are traded to a Kremling turncoat named Klubba for access to the Lost World, where the aforementioned secret levels await. Fifteen Kremkoins are required to visit each level within the Lost World, which makes hunting down and completing the bonus games a much more worthwhile and rewarding endeavor this time around.

Every level in the game also houses a single Donkey Kong Coin, which must be located in order to obtain a full one-hundred (and two) percent completion (as well as earn the right to be called a video game hero by Cranky Kong).

Getting through the game itself is already a great challenge, but if you’re going for full completion, Donkey Kong Country 2 remains one of the toughest games to appear on a Nintendo platform.

Donkey Kong Country was already a platformer with a strong sense of atmosphere, and this is but another category in which the sequel outshines it. I’ve already touched on the visuals and art direction, but what really gives DKC2 its unique soul is its soundtrack.

The music of Donkey Kong Country 2 is composer David Wise’s opus, and combines memorable melodies with ambient sounds that give the game a mood that’s all its own. The music of DKC2 perfectly captures the sense of urgency of this quest to save a fallen hero, while also reflecting the game’s often dreary environments beautifully.

Donkey Kong Country 2The soundtrack works in a wonderful contrast to that of the first game, with the more swanky and energetic score of the original being replaced with more somber and menacing tunes (you need only to listen to the tracks that accompany the world maps of both games to understand the drastic change in tone). In one of the game’s subtle works of brilliance, the most beautiful and soothing tracks usually accompany the most difficult stages, which encourages you to keep trying your hand at them in hopes of triumph, instead of giving up on them in a fit of rage.

Despite how appropriate each track is to their location, this is also a soundtrack that can very much be enjoyed as its own entity. As great as the soundtrack to the original Donkey Kong Country was, the soundtrack to Donkey Kong Country 2 is that much greater.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest is one of the best and most creative platformers ever made, and a perfect example of what a video game sequel should be. It betters everything its predecessor did right, while also correcting whatever missteps it had. And it does it all with a tone that is entirely its own, combining cartoony characters with a world and soundtrack that’s dark and melancholic.

You won’t find many games that are built so strongly around such contrasts, and none that execute them better, or provide this much fun while doing it.

 

10

Donkey Kong Country Review

Donkey Kong Country

When it was released in 1994, Donkey Kong Country was a revelation. The game’s visuals pushed the Super Nintendo to its limits, with the pre-rendered character models giving this sidescrolling platformer a 3D look just as polygonal consoles were beginning to emerge. The impressive graphics helped Donkey Kong Country become a massive success, which in turn lead to an extension of the SNES’ lifespan and, ultimately, the console’s “victory” over the Sega Genesis. In later years, some have criticized Donkey Kong Country for being little more than a parlor trick, winning gamers over with fancy graphics over deep gameplay. These detractors might simply be viewing things from a glass half empty, however, as playing Donkey Kong Country today is still a whole lot of fun.

Admittedly, Donkey Kong Country was never the most original game out there, as it more or less took the platforming standards of Super Mario World and made its own platforming world out of them. Coins are replaced with bananas, balloons in the shape of DK’s face take the role of 1-up mushrooms, finding the K-O-N-G letters on each stage grants DK an additional extra life, not unlike the dragon coins of Mario World, and the concepts of Yoshi and power-ups are fused together in the form of DK’s “Animal Buddies.”

Donkey Kong CountryThat’s not to say that DKC doesn’t have tricks of its own, however. Donkey Kong is paired up with Diddy, who made his very first appearance in this game. DK is obviously the muscle, and can take out larger enemies that Diddy can’t, and can even slam the ground to find hidden items. Meanwhile, players can take control of Diddy for farther jumps and greater speed. When playing in single player, the two characters work as a tag team, and can be switched at any time at the press of a button. Having both characters also makes the player stronger, since both Kongs must be eliminated in order to lose a life.

The two character concept is extended to multiplayer, where two players can competitively take turns as both Kongs to see who can complete the most levels the fastest, or cooperatively with two players taking control of one of the Kongs.

Another element introduced in DKC are barrels, which are used to add many fun twists to the gameplay. Barrels can be thrown at enemies, used as shields, break open entrances to bonus rooms, and some can even be ridden on as they roll across the ground.

DK barrels will revive a fallen Kong, while TNT barrels can take out particularly troublesome obstacles. Even the checkpoints are barrels. Though perhaps the barrels with the most staying power in the series are the rocket barrels, which DK and Diddy use to launch themselves in all directions, and are utilized in many clever instances of level design.

The aforementioned Animal Buddies also add some variety to the gameplay: Rambi the rhino can smash through walls and take out enemies with ease. Enguarde the swordfish allows for faster swimming and can take out underwater enemies with his nose. Winky the frog can jump to great heights and jump on foes that even DK can’t take out. Expresso the ostrich can rush through levels at great speed, has short bursts of flight, and can walk right over small enemies. Meanwhile, Squawks the parrot, the only unridable Animal Buddy, shines a light for the player in an otherwise dark cave level.

Donkey Kong CountryAlong with these features, many of the levels themselves introduce their own one-off gimmicks to change up the gameplay. The water levels (arguably the best in the genre at the time) make DK and Diddy defenseless without Enguarde, which makes obstacles and enemies all the more dangerous. One factory stage has the lights repeatedly failing, leaving the player to look carefully where they need to jump next while they have the chance so they don’t fall into the abyss when the lights go out. DKC also popularized roller coaster-like levels in platformers with its mine cart stages, which have since become so synonymous with the series that Donkey Kong Country Returns featured an entire world built around them.

The challenges that Rare (then Rareware) put into the levels were really unique for the time, and many platformers since have adopted DKC’s bag of tricks to their benefit. It is true that Donkey Kong Country is a far more linear experience than Mario World, with every level leading to the next. It lacks the branching paths, alternate exits, or secret levels that Mario World boasted (though the sequels would add these elements to the series). But extra depth is added to the experience through the bonus stages, as finding every last one of them is required to achieve one-hundred (and one) percent completion. You can get through the game with some challenge as it is, but finding every last bonus room proves to be a truly hefty undertaking.

Donkey Kong CountryAn area in which the creativity doesn’t shine lies in the game’s boss fights. Aside from the stellar final battle with King K. Rool, the boss fights in Donkey Kong Country lack the complexity of later entries in the series. Most of the bosses are just giant versions of regular enemies. Unlike the later Yoshi’s Island, which employed a similar technique, the bosses don’t expand on gameplay concepts introduced by their common, diminutive counterparts, but really are just big versions of common enemies. What’s worse is that DKC even recycles the first two bosses for later encounters, with very little differences added to them. And perhaps the most eye-rolling boss in the DKC series is found here in the form of the aptly-named “Boss Dum Drum,” who is little more than a cylinder who drops regular enemies on the battlefield.

Aside from those disappointing boss fights, the original DKC remains an incredibly fun platformer. But if there are two aspects of it that stand out more than the rest, it’s the game’s audiovisual achievements, and its reinvention of the Donkey Kong series itself.

I’ve already mentioned how the graphics lifted the SNES to new visual heights, and while they may not hold up as state-of-the-art by today’s standards, they still give the game a look that’s all its own. It may not look as timeless as Mario World, but the uniqueness of DKC’s visuals have made them hold up better than you’d think. Special effects such as rain, snow and lighting were ahead of their time, and still give the game some visual flair. And the animations are among the most complex in the SNES library.

As good as those visuals were and still are, it’s the music that truly shines. Composed primarily by David Wise, as well as Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland, the music of Donkey Kong Country gives a sense of style, personality and atmosphere that was unmatched at the time, and it remains one of the all-time great video game soundtracks. Combined with the game’s visuals and sound effects, the music of DKC gave the game a strong sense of atmosphere that you don’t normally associate with platformers, and one that helped establish this reinvention of the series.

This reinvention – which turned Donkey Kong from an arcade villain who hadn’t been relevant in years into one of Nintendo’s premiere heroes – was so impactful that this is the standard for the series that we still see today. It’s the DK with a red necktie who originated here that appears in Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, and continues to star in his own games. Diddy Kong is now a permanent fixture as DK’s sidekick, and the original Donkey Kong who was Mario’s rival in the arcade classics grew old and became Cranky Kong, aspects that Nintendo still acknowledges.

Donkey Kong Country also established the extended Kong family, which would prove both a good and bad thing through the years. Here, the Kongs included not only DK, Diddy and Cranky, but also Donkey Kong’s girlfriend Candy Kong and general cool dude Funky Kong. Cranky, Candy and Funky all set up shop in each world in the game: Cranky gives minimal helpful advice amid maximum berating and fourth wall-breaking (his words would become a lot more helpful in the sequel). Candy is in charge of the save points. And Funky can provide you with flights to any previously visited locations.

Donkey Kong CountryAside from Cranky, the additional Kongs don’t have a whole lot to their personalities, but they opened the doors for better (and some worse) things for the series.

Donkey Kong Country may have its naysayers these days, but that’s really a shame. The game was a big deal in its day thanks to its technical power. But play it today and the experience is more than just graphics. It may be a bit rough and simple when compared to its sequels, but you’ll still find few platformers that are as fun and feel as unique as Donkey Kong Country.

 

8

Kirby and the Amazing Mirror Review

Kirby and the Amazing Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon Review

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mario Kart: Super Circuit Review

Mario Kart: Super Circuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (1997) Review

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter

There are few things in gaming as painful as revisiting a once-beloved game from yesteryear and realizing it’s aged like milk. Such is unfortunately the case with 1997’s Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. As the first third-party-developed game for the Nintendo 64, Turok was seen as an influential entry in the console first-person shooter genre back in the day. But those with fond memories of the game are best leaving them be. Returning to the game is close to a tragedy, and newcomers will find nothing enticing about it.

Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was based on the comic book of the same name. It takes place in a world known as the Lost Land, a place lost in time that’s inhabited by everything from dinosaurs to aliens. An evildoer called the Campaigner wishes to find the eight pieces of a broken artifact called the Chronoscepter, with which the Campaigner can break a barrier between the Lost Land and Earth and create chaos. Meanwhile, there is a tribe of Native Americans who protect the Lost Land, with their eldest male taking up the mantle of “Turok.” Players take control of the Turok warrior, who is out to save the Lost Land from the Campaigner.

It’s a very simple plot, but at the very least it provides an interesting setting. Throughout the game’s eight levels, Turok fights dinosaurs, hunters, cyborgs, aliens, giant insects and demons. You have to appreciate the variety, if anything.

The game is a first-person shooter that combined the run-and-gun action Doom with more exploratory elements. But before you think this was the Metroid Prime of its day you should know that those exploration elements feel incredibly limited, and are mainly reduced to climbing small cliffs or walking down tiny corridors that aren’t on the main path, and usually result in finding ammo or health. Nothing more.

What really makes Turok: Dinosaur Hunter feel like a relic are the controls. It was an early console FPS, and boy does it feel like one. The control stick is used to look around, while the N64’s C buttons move Turok of all things. The R button is used to jump, Z shoots, and A and B switch between weapons, which range from knives and hunting bows to shotguns and pistols to alien nuclear guns. The control scheme is simply a mess, to the point that I’d have to congratulate my younger self for his patience for being able to put up with it at all.

The jumping is the absolute worst. It’s stiff, clunky, and Turok seems unable to leap the distances that the game often demands. I am not exaggerating when I say I got stuck for almost an hour in the first level simply because I couldn’t make the jumps between a set of platforms about midway through. It turns out to make any of these jumps at all, you have to look down at Turok’s shadow with the control stick, run and then jump just as you step off a ledge, and even then it only seems to work a fragment of the time. Can you imagine if you had to go through so many hoops just to jump in Mario 64? Turok turns the most simple of mechanics into a chore.

The graphics have aged poorly, which is forgivable given how rapidly gaming technology advances. Less forgivable are the slow-ups that occur when more than a couple of enemies appear on-screen. The music is at least somewhat atmospheric, but it gets repetitious very quickly.

Turok: Dinosaur HunterOn the bright side of things, I like the level setup of the game, which is reminiscent of Mario 64. The first level works as a hub world, and within it Turok can find magic relics that are needed to open portals to the other seven levels. The weapons also have an unique sense of variety given that they come from various worlds and timeframes. And the game was one of the first to have enemies react in different ways depending on how you kill them (shoot an enemy in the neck and he gives an over-dramatic death sequence to accompany the fountain of blood shooting from the side of his neck). But when the game feels so fundamentally clunky, the things it does right feel microscopic. There’s not even a multiplayer mode to fall back on.

Yes, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was something of a big deal back in the day. But it simply isn’t worthy of a revisit. Though the game is set in a world where time means nothing, time has done the game itself no favors whatsoever.

 

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