Wario Land 4 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7

Goodbye Wii Shop Channel

Allow me to get nostalgic – and a wee bit weepy – as Nintendo has officially shut down the Wii Shop Channel, after over twelve years of service.

Now, I’m going to say something that’s bizarrely unpopular, and say that the Wii remains one of my all-time favorite video game consoles. And yes, I liked it better than the N64 and GameCube. One of the (many) reasons the Wii was so great was the Wii Shop Channel.

As Nintendo’s original online store for downloading games, the Wii Shop Channel opened the door for WiiWare – where players could download original titles – and the Virtual Console service, a treasure trove of classic gaming. Sadly, a number of WiiWare games that weren’t released by other means have now entered the nether (and could tragically remain in limbo, lest their developers find a means to code them elsewhere). And although the Wii Virtual Console has long-since been succeeded by the Nintendo Eshop on Wii U, 3DS and Nintendo Switch, the Eshop has never quite matched up to the library of classics the Virtual Console brought to the Wii.

WiiWare introduced the gaming world to titles such as World of Goo, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King (and it’s sequel, My Life as a Dark Lord), and Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, among many others. And while retro gaming had been a thing for collectors for quite some time, the Wii’s Virtual Console service helped popularized retro gaming for the mainstream, allowing easy accessibility for new generations of gamers to discover beloved classics from the NES, SNES, N64, and non-Nintendo consoles like the Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, TurboGrafX-16, Commodore 64, and even Arcade titles!

Yes, the Nintendo Eshop has continued the Virtual Console’s legacy on subsequent Nintendo hardware, but not quite to the same degree. 3DS added GameBoy titles, and Wii U gained the GameBoy Advance (admittedly a HUGE get), but they lost nearly all of the non-Nintendo content, and even ended up with considerably less games from Nintendo’s history. And even though the Switch can easily claim to be one of Nintendo’s best consoles, the fact that its legacy content is still currently limited to a small handful of NES titles is a baffling step backwards. Sure, many complained that the Wii’s Virtual Console could be slow in getting content (getting one to three games every Thursday in the US), when all was said and done, it had such an array of classics that it was more than likely the best collection of retro titles you could hope to find. Combined with the great original games on the Wii, along with the system’s backwards compatibility with the GameCube, and the Wii – believe it or not – may have boasted the most classics of any console. Yes, I said that, and I don’t regret it. Fight me.

Yes, the Xbox 360, PS3, and current generation consoles have thankfully kept easy access to gaming’s yesteryear alive and well. But – perhaps simply because the Wii was the first to have such an extensive library of gaming history – they’ve never quite captured that same magic as when the Virtual Console brought another classic to the Wii.

As someone who, sadly, didn’t always take the best care of their games as a kid (and someone who, strangely, only occasionally played older games as time went on in my younger days), having easy access to so many classics all on one console was a godsend. And perhaps I was just at the right age when it began to really hit me how quickly gaming advances and how older consoles fall out of the spotlight, but there was something great knowing that things like the Wii Virtual Console service essentially helped kickstart the preservation of classic gaming (after all, once a movie left theaters, they’d end up on home video formats. But once games became older, they became collectors items. Frankly, I think they always deserved better).

Yeah, I realize I’m talking a lot more about the Virtual Console side of the Wii Shop Channel than WiiWare. WiiWare was great as well, of course. But I feel like the Virtual Console really helped make retro gaming a more mainstream thing, and ‘old school’ gaming was no longer relegated to those who happened to grow up at the time (and I was someone who did grow up at the time. But the idea of younger gamers – and older gamers just getting introduced to the medium – not having played certain classics broke my heart… I am a weird person). Plus, I just have a lot more personal memories of the Virtual Console.

Playing Super Mario 64 again in preparation for Super Mario Galaxy? Lovely. Playing the Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games on a Nintendo console? Beautiful. Discovering Secret of Mana? Sexy.

Again, it’s tremendous that subsequent consoles have continued to keep retro gaming alive, but now whenever a classic makes its way to a modern console, it feels like an inevitability. But in the Wii’s day, there was something, for lack of a better word, ‘magical’ whenever a beloved favorite found its way to the Virtual Console. But there are two examples in particular that stand out in my memory.

The first was Donkey Kong Country 2. Although I always enjoyed the game as a kid, I never could get over the fact that you didn’t play as Donkey Kong (little kid logic), so I never got very far during my childhood. On at least two different vacations over the years when I couldn’t find my old copy (again, careless kid), I rented DKC2 at hotels, and beat the first world before I ran out of time on the second. These served like teasers for how much I would eventually fall in love with the game, which happened when, you guessed it, DKC2 made its way to the Virtual Console.

During 2007 when DKC2 made its way to the Wii, I finally played through the whole thing, and damn, had I been missing out all those years. I always liked the original Donkey Kong Country, but it really doesn’t compare with its sequel. The level design is among the best of any platformer, and the more I delved into the game on my Wii, the more I fell in love with its (quite unique) sense of atmosphere, and its incomparable musical score, which played a part in the indelible influence the game has had on my own creativity.

So yeah, it may have taken me 12 years, but I finally discovered my full appreciation for a game that was originally released in 1995 thanks to the Virtual Console.

The other big memory I have is (as you may have guessed if you keep up with my blog) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Now, unlike DKC2, I had always loved Super Mario RPG, and even beat it twice back in the day. But I hadn’t played it in years, and it was around the time of the Wii (again, thanks to the Virtual Console) that I began to realize that not every game from my childhood stood the test of time. I craved Super Mario RPG, but admittedly had a little concern that maybe my memories of it wouldn’t reflect the game itself.

“This was basically me when I beat Super Mario RPG on the Virtual Console.”

Thankfully, when it was released in September (my birth month, no less) of 2008 on the Wii Virtual Console and I jumped right back into Super Mario RPG, it quickly became apparent that it was a fine wine of gaming. It had only gotten better with age. It lived up to my memories and solidified itself as one of my all-time favorites. It was magical.

Come to think of it, the Wii helped solidify most of my favorite games it seems. It all goes back to the “rediscovering of retro games” thing I keep bringing up (as well as the fact that the Wii brought Super Mario Galaxy to the world). I mean, as has become a recurring joke here at my site, the current console generation has really made me flip-flop a lot in regards to my favorites. But when it comes to the titles I can safely say have a secure spot on my list, the Wii really played a helping hand in that.

I guess what I’m getting at is that the Wii marked the time when my enthusiasm for games wasn’t restricted to the moment (or the occasional revisit of a classic), but I really began to think more about video games on a deeper level. And yes, a large reason for that was the Wii Shop Channel.

Now, we have to say goodbye to the Wii Shop Channel. It’s legacy may live on through the Nintendo Eshop, but the Wii Shop Channel itself holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers, myself obviously included. Now, ironically enough, Nintendo’s little download service that helped preserve gaming’s past has now become a nostalgic memory itself.

Thanks for the memories, Wii Shop Channel!

Oh yeah, and we can’t forget what is perhaps the biggest contribution the Wii Shop Channel made to the world of gaming: This delightful music!

Bonk’s Adventure Review

*Review based on the Wii U Virtual Console port of the TurboGrafx-16 version*

Bonk's Adventure

Though Bonk isn’t exactly a household name these days, there was a time when he was a relatively prominent mascot character for the TurboGrafx-16 console. The system would see no less than three different Bonk titles in its lifetime, the first of which was 1990’s Bonk’s Adventure. Though it may not be one of the best platformers of the 16-bit era (admittedly a difficult feat to accomplish), it still has a charm of its own, even if it hasn’t aged particularly well.

Bonk’s Adventure stars the titular Bonk, a young caveboy with a comically large head that’s as hard as a rock. Bonk is on a mission to save a dinosaur princess, and will have to use his thick noggin to take out enemies.

Whereas most platformers of the time simply had players jumping on enemies to defeat them, Bonk instead uses a headbutt as his signature attack. Bonk can headbutt enemies on the ground, or jump in the air to perform a diving headbutt. In a fun twist to platforming norms, Bonk’s regular jumps can only damage enemies if they are above him, as his head is harder than his feet.

Bonk has three hit points to start with, which can be replenished in increments by finding fruits and vegetables, while small hearts will replenish an entire hit point, and large hearts refill all of Bonk’s health. Meanwhile, two blue hearts are hidden in the game, and will increase Bonk’s maximum hit points by one.

Bonk's AdventureAdditionally, Bonk can find pieces of meat, which serve as power-ups. Finding one piece of meat supercharges Bonk, who can use his diving headbutt to stun all on-screen enemies (defying all logic, this includes enemies in midair). Finding a second piece of meat when powered up will send Bonk into a temporary invincibility. You can even skip the stacking and go straight to invincibility if you find a big piece of meat.

The core gameplay is decently fun, though it must be said that Bonk’s movements and jumps feel slower than those of Mario or Sonic. If you’re used to the more popular platforming heroes of the era, then Bonk’s relatively slower controls have noticeably aged.

Another downside is that the levels are incredibly basic. While there are some platforming challenges to be had, the levels really come down to little more than going from one end of the stage to the other. There are some fun ideas in terms of environments (including the belly of a dinosaur in an early stage), but the level structure never comes anywhere near the creative heights of Super Mario World or Sonic the Hedgehog.

Bonk's AdventureVisually, Bonk’s Adventure still holds up, with the graphics and animations possibly being the game’s highlight. The character designs are simple but colorful, and the environments are fun to look at. Best of all is Bonk himself, who has some hilarious animations. Bonk’s transformations when grabbing the aforementioned meat, as well as his death animation, are both done in a Looney Tunes-esque cartoony style. My personal favorite animation is when Bonk climbs steep walls, which he accomplishes by biting them with his teeth.

Bonk’s Adventure also features some cute and catchy (if not entirely memorable) music. Once again, it can’t match many other platforming soundtracks of the time, but it fits with the game’s tone and simplistic nature.

Suffice to say that Bonk’s Adventure hasn’t aged as gracefully as many of its 16-bit platforming peers. Though it’s not necessarily bad, either. It simply lacks the depth and creativity that platformers of the 90s were quickly becoming adept in, which ensured their timeless appeal. Today, Bonk’s Adventure may be a good place to start for younger gamers and platforming newcomers to get a taste for the genre. But for platforming veterans, it may feel a little too vanilla.

 

4

The Legend of Zelda Review

The Legend of Zelda

With the exceptions of Super Mario Bros. and Tetris, there is perhaps no other game that has had such a longstanding influence as The Legend of Zelda. The 1986 NES title not only started one of gaming’s most heralded series, it also served as a forerunner for both the action/adventure and RPG genres, and can be seen as the originator of sandbox games, as Zelda introduced a greater sense of player freedom than what had been seen before. Though this trailblazing title remains fun in a number of respects, age has magnified how prototypical it was towards the greatness that would later stem from the series.

As you would expect, The Legend of Zelda laid the groundwork for the series, with many of the franchise’s established elements showing up in more primitive forms.

Link must traverse the land of Hyrule collecting weapons and items as he tackles dungeons to collect the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom in his quest to save Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. Later entries would add stronger storytelling into the mix, but the basic premise of the original makes for a more open gameplay experience.

While there is a recommended order to tackle the game’s dungeons, player’s are actually free to take them on in any order they see fit. Those who have mastered the game can even face the final boss without gaining the sword! The Legend of Zelda boasted a level of freedom that was unheard of at the time, and as the series has become more story focused through the years, it’s easy to say this is the most open-ended Zelda title to this day.

The Legend of ZeldaThe dungeons are the highlight of the game. Every time Link steps into a dungeon, the adventure becomes more focused. Take out enemies, collect the dungeon item, as well as the map and compass, work your way to the boss, and defeat it to gain a Triforce shard. The dungeons don’t take more than a few minutes, but they each feel like their own complete adventures.

Traveling across the overworld is considerably less fun. Many of the areas look similar, other parts are maze-like, and others still serve as continuous loops unless you can figure out the required pattern to make it through. It can feel confusing and tedious. There are also barrages of enemies, many of which pop out of the ground as you’re passing by, making them difficult to avoid, and others who use ranged attacks that fly passed the entire screen. It’s just way too easy to die when you’re just walking around. There are fairy fountains scattered here and there to heal your health, which helps ease the difficulty a bit, but that’s when you can actually manage to make it to one.

Combat is simple and fun, with the sword and various items being incredibly easy to use. Though Link’s limited movements of up, down, left and right can feel a bit stiff at times, especially when you’re bombarded by those aforementioned waves of enemies.

The graphics have understandably aged, but remain charming. Meanwhile, the music is a highlight in NES soundtracks, and laid the groundwork for the legendary music of the series.

As a whole, The Legend of Zelda can still provide some good, old school fun. But the difficulty can be frustrating, and it goes without saying that the elements it created were bettered a number of times over in the sequels. It doesn’t feel entirely obsolete when compared to its successors, however, due to its more open-ended nature, which gives it a unique flair for the series. Its unique place in its series means that it’s aged better than Metroid. But it also feels incredibly prototypical and “for its time” when compared to later entries, so it doesn’t boast the timelessness of Super Mario Bros.

The importance of The Legend of Zelda is difficult to understate, but I’d be lying if I said it holds its own against other Nintendo greats. Its contributions to gaming are close to unrivaled, but there’s a reason why when people discuss the greatness of 2D Zelda games, they’re usually referring to A Link to the Past.

 

6

Kirby: Squeak Squad Review

Squeak Squad

Kirby has one of the most varied libraries of games in the entire Nintendo canon. Kirby games often follow their usual platforming formula, or do something completely different. Kirby’s unique combination of familiarity and freshness is perhaps surpassed solely by Mario in the realms of longstanding gaming franchises. Though Kirby remained absent from home consoles from 2001 through 2009, he was still right at home on Nintendo’s handheld systems. The Nintendo DS was a particularly noteworthy showcase of the two sides of the Kirby series. 2005 saw the release of Kirby’s Canvas Curse, which utilized the DS’ touch screen in innovative ways, becoming one of Kirby’s most unique adventures and arguably the first great game on the handheld. Fast-forward one year later, and Kirby returned to the Nintendo DS in the far more traditional Kirby: Squeak Squad.

It’s understandable that Squeak Squad was met with a more lukewarm reception. After Canvas Curse marked a creative departure for the series, Squeak Squad felt incredibly safe. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it remains a fun game in its own right.

Squeak Squad looks and plays a lot like the GBA entries in the series, but with even cleaner sprites due to the more advanced hardware. The characters are cute and well animated, and the gameplay remains simple, smooth and fun.

Kirby still goes through levels, eating enemies to copy their abilities. He still jumps, flies and slides. But Squeak Squad did introduce a somewhat intriguing addition in the form of bubbled powers and items.

When Kirby grabs a bubbled-item, he stores it in his tummy (displayed on the lower screen as an alternate dimension). You can store up to five items at a time, and many of which, including powers, can be combined by using the touch screen.

Don’t get too excited though. The ability to mix powers isn’t nearly as creative as it could have been. Kirby 64 remains the only title in the series where you could truly combine powers. In Squeak Squad, combining one power with another usually just results in a random roulette wheel to get another power. The only two powers that can be properly combined are Sword, which can be merged with Fire, Ice, and Spark, and Bomb, which can also be paired with Ice and Spark.

Though the ability to store powers for later comes in handy, you can’t help but feel that it was a hugely missed opportunity for the series to bring back Kirby 64’s mechanics and do something new with them.

Squeak SquadSqueak Squad does include some new powers though, most of which are pretty cool, but have yet to show up again in later entries. Some of the new abilities include Ghost, which allows Kirby to possess enemies, Animal, which gives Kirby sharp claws to dig through dirt and attack enemies,  Metal, which turns Kirby into an invincible metal form at the expense of speed and jumping height, and Bubble, which may be the most useful power in the game as it turns enemies into bubble powers.

Additionally, the Magic power from Amazing Mirror has been tweaked to become a proper power. With merging powers serving as a randomized roulette wheel, Magic Kirby can now attack with throwing cards, doves, and jack-in-the-boxes from a magic top hat. There are over twenty powers in the game in total, so there’s a good amount of variety in that department.

The story of the game is that Kirby had a strawberry shortcake stollen from him. He initially believes King Dedede to be the culprit, but his cake has actually been stolen by a gang of mouse-like bandits called the Squeak Squad. The Squeaks have bigger schemes brewing, but all Kirby wants is his cake, and he’ll take out the entire Squeak Squad in order to get it back.

The plot is probably the silliest in the entire series, but it’s not too important anyway. Still, when Kirby is usually out trying to save his planet, the whole cake rescue mission thing is kind of underwhelming.

Squeak SquadLevel progression in Squeak Squad is incredibly straightforward. There are eight worlds total, each consisting of five required level, a boss fight, and a secret level. Kirby goes from one level to the next, beats the boss, and moves on to the next world in line. Considering how flexible level progression has been even in early Kirby titles, the point A to point B approach feels like a little step back for the series.

The levels themselves are pretty quick, but fun. Most won’t take much longer than two or three minutes to complete, if that. There has been some depth added to them through the use of treasure chests, which return from Kirby and the Amazing Mirror.

Each level has one to three treasure chests, many of which require a specific power to find them. When Kirby claims a chest, they are stored in his tummy along with any bubbled items (and yes, the chests count among the five maximum items you can store. So pick what items you want to keep wisely). Upon completing a level, the chests are opened and reveal the items inside, which range from spray paints to change Kirby’s color, music to listen to on the sound test, keys to unlock the aforementioned secret levels, and heart pieces, which work similarly to those in Zelda and increase Kirby’s maximum health when you find enough of them, to name just a few of the prizes.

While the treasure chests add some depth to the levels, most are pretty easy to find, and don’t extend the game’s replayability very much. You might be able to complete the entire game and find every chest in about two hours or so. There are a trio of mini-games which can be played in multiplayer if you’re playing the original DS version, but the multiplayer option is absent in the Virtual Console release. Still, they only add so much to the package.

If you simply want a quick dose of traditional Kirby goodness, then Squeak Squad is still a thoroughly enjoyable game. But if you’re familiar with the series, you’ll know that Kirby can do better, whether as a platformer or something else entirely.

 

6

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.

 

6