It’s time to feel old, because today is the twentieth anniversary of the original Xbox console and, by extension, the entire Xbox brand!
Released in North America on November 15th 2001, Microsoft’s Xbox was the first major console created by a North American company since the Atari Jaguar (remember that thing?). At the time, many people wondered how the Xbox would fare against the competition. Industry mainstay Nintendo was releasing the GameCube around the same time, and Sony’s white hot Playstation 2 had been out for a year by that point.
Thankfully, at least one game ensured the Xbox would be a major player in the video game world.
Yes, the Xbox had plenty of great games (my personal favorite being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath), but it was Halo that proved, right out of the gate, that Xbox was a force to be reckoned with, and that it was here to stay.
Though Xbox couldn’t match the sales numbers of the Playstation 2, it left an indelible mark in video games, even popularizing online multiplayer on home consoles with (what else?) Halo 2.
In twenty years, we’ve gone from the original Xbox to the excellent Xbox 360 to the Xbox One to the oddly-named Xbox Series X/Series S (not to be confused with the Xbox One remodels called Xbox One S and Xbox One X…which people have confused it for so why did they call it that?!). Over those two decades, Xbox has provided countless memories of fun and excitement to players the world over. The Xbox legacy has provided so much joy to people, that we can all forgive the fact that its original controller was basically a brick with buttons on it. Seriously, why was that thing so huge?!
*Review based on Perfect Dark’s Xbox 360 re-release as part of Rare Replay*
In 1997, Rare (then known as Rareware) released Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64. Based on the James Bond film released two years prior, the video game adaptation proved to be the far more influential entity, single-handedly reinventing the first-person shooter genre on home consoles, which remain the most prominent genre of video game on home platforms even today. It was inevitable that Rare would seek to create a sequel, but after losing the James Bond license, the developer had to start from scratch, opting for a spiritual successor to continue Goldeneye 007’s legacy.
The game in question ended up being the 2000 N64 title Perfect Dark, an original IP that combined Goldeneye’s gameplay with a new science fiction setting. The tonal shift allowed for some fun additions to what Goldeneye started (alien weapons!), and though the 360 release and an Xbox One controller make Perfect Dark more playable than Goldeneye by modern standards, it has still felt the effects of aging. While Perfect Dark once felt like an all-time great, it now comes across as a merely decent FPS outing.
The setting for Perfect Dark sees two alien races at war with each other; the Maians, who resemble the typical gray alien archetype, and the Skedar, vicious reptilian creatures who can use holographic technology to disguise as humans. The struggles between these two races have found their way to Earth, with the Maians finding allies in the Carrington Institute, a research and development facility; and the Skedar serving as benefactors to the corrupt dataDyne corporation, who are using Skedar technology and weapons for nefarious means. In the middle of it all is Joanna Dark, an agent for Carrington Institute tasked with uncovering dataDyne’s plots.
It’s actually a pretty entertaining story, and it has a lot of fun with long-standing conspiracy theories and old sci-fi tropes. Joana Dark also had all the makings of an iconic video game character, which sadly never quite came to fruition (largely due to the game’s underwhelming 2005 sequel). Perhaps best of all is that the game itself is still pretty fun…if you’re playing the re-release that was first available for download on the Xbox 360 and became a part of Rare Replay.
The sad truth is that – with the exception of a handful of titles (namely those with “Mario,” “Zelda” and “Banjo” in the titles) – the N64 library hasn’t exactly aged gracefully. There is some reason to that, of course. After 2D gaming had time to develop and evolve, leading to the 16-bit golden age, the N64 was part of gaming’s early 3D years. Things were starting over, and the Nintendo 64 was like Nintendo’s canary in this new mine.
I’d be lying if I said Goldeneye 007 lives up to its reputation when playing today. Yes, it played a hugely influential role in the direction gaming would take from that point on, but it feels bare bones compared to what the FPS genre has provided since, and it feels like an utter slog to control. The same could probably be said about Perfect Dark’s original N64 release, as it followed close to Goldeneye’s rulebook, and there’s only so much developers could do to work with that awkward N64 controller. But while the character models may still look clumpy, Perfect Dark’s re-release allowed Rare to implement some much-needed improvements to the control scheme. It may still feel small by today’s standards, but at least the re-release prevents Perfect Dark from feeling like a relic like Goldeneye.
The second joystick found on contemporary controllers alone improves Perfect Dark’s sense of control greatly. And the additional buttons only add to this improvement, making the overall control scheme much more fluid than it could be on the N64’s controller. Sure, there are still a few dated design choices (like Joanna being able to carry as many weapons as you could find, which makes cycling through them a bit of a chore), but again, it’s great to be able to play Perfect Dark with some lessons learned from the FPSs that showed up in the years after its original release.
Another great addition is the inclusion of online multiplayer, which came courtesy of Perfect Dark’s 360 release. Perfect Dark was one of the Nintendo 64’s better multiplayer titles back in the day, and the online functionality only gives it more replay value.
On the downside of things, some of Perfect Dark’s more dated elements also find their way into multiplayer modes. Back in gaming’s earlier years, being able to find “cheats” was something that was rewarded, and concepts like balance weren’t the issues they are today. That was true even in the N64 years, with Perfect Dark’s weaponry often being a case of just that.
Sure, some of these weapons were cool and novel – such as the Laptop Gun, which could be used by the player or placed on the ground to act as a turret – while others were a bit too overpowered. The primary culprit of this being the Farsight, a Maian sniper rifle that could not only see through walls, but killed opponents in a single hit without fail. Back in the day we all accepted the Farsight as its own reward for finding it. But now that video games have matured a little bit and don’t reward shortcuts quite so prominently, something like the Farsight now feels like a cheap and annoying product of a bygone era.
Perfect Dark certainly won’t wow anyone who didn’t experience it back in its day, and it probably won’t impress those who did if they take off the rose-tinted glasses. But the adjustments made to Perfect Dark’s re-release make it feel far more functional than its archaic predecessor Goldeneye 007. Just make sure you play it on more contemporary hardware. Revisiting Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64 could prove every bit as disappointing as a revisit to Goldeneye.
*Review based on Banjo-Tooie’s release as part of Rare Replay*
There’s perhaps no game that better represents the “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality than Rare’s Banjo-Tooie. This 2000 sequel to Banjo-Kazooie looked to improve upon its predecessor in virtually every regard. Though Tooie was also released after Rare’s over-bloated Donkey Kong 64, so it attempted to find a balance between making the Banjo-Kazooie experience bigger and better, while avoiding the pitfalls of tedium found in DK64. For the most part, Banjo-Tooie succeeded in its difficult balancing act, providing one of the N64’s best experiences, and an adventure that was so massive it still feels like a hefty title even by today’s standards.
Though Banjo-Tooie retains the same Mario 64-style gameplay of Kazooie, it also seems to have taken a few notes from Ocarina of Time, as Tooie’s overworld structure feels more like something out of an action/adventure title. The whimsical yet sinister halls of Gruntilda’s Lair give way to the wide, open world of the Isle O’ Hags (named for its penchant of housing evil old crones like Gruntilda and her sisters, Mingella and Blobelda), of which Spiral Mountain and the aforementioned Lair are only a small part.
The story here, while possibly even more loose than Kazooie’s, is perhaps presented in a more original manner. Instead of the usual damsel in distress plot of platformers, Banjo-Tooie more or less feels like a quest for vengeance, albeit one in which the characters are a bunch of comical animals who are constantly making fun of each other.
Appropriately set two years after the original, Banjo-Tooie sees Gruntilda resurrected by her sisters (who promptly tell the now skeletal witch to stop with her constant rhyming). Seeking revenge, Gruntilda decides to destroy Banjo’s house, where Banjo and Kazooie are playing a game of poker against Mumbo Jumbo and Bottles. Mumbo Jumbo sees the undead Gruntilda readying a devastating spell, and warns the others. Banjo and Kazooie join Mumbo in evacuating the house, but Bottles – believing it to be a rouse to cheat in the card game – stubbornly stays put. Banjo, Kazooie and Mumbo remain unscathed (unbeknownst to Gruntilda at the time), but the destruction of the house also leads to the death of Bottles, who becomes a cartoony ghost floating above his crispy corpse.
Gruntilda’s not done there though, and soon plans to use a machine to drain the life out of as many people as possible, in what is a seldom mentioned means of making a new body for herself. Gruntilda manages to zombify a Jinjo king named Jingaling, but like the first game, Gruntilda’s machinery is a bit buggy, and so she needs a lot more time to power it up to drain enough life from the island to bring back her former, girth-y self. This of course gives Banjo and Kazooie ample time to adventure out and stop the witch, in hopes of avenging their friends and hoping for a way to bring them back (though Kazooie is a bit annoyed that she needs to go on another adventure for Bottles’ sake).
Like the first game, it’s a simple plot that’s made more lively by the funny characters and dialogue (with the gibberish, garbled speech making a triumphant return), and its darker tone certainly sets it apart from other games in the genre (seeing Spiral Mountain dilapidated and ruined serves as a fitting introduction to this sequel’s tonal shift).
As stated, this is a much bigger adventure than the original Banjo-Kazooie, with more moves to learn, more items to collect, and much bigger stages to visit. Tooie is a wise game in assuming those who are playing it are familiar with the original title, and thus the titular duo retain all the moves they learned in their first go around, and tutorials are kept to a minimum (though Bottles’ ghost can refresh you on the basic moves if you visit one of his molehills in Spiral Mountain). This means that, while the adventure might be a much heftier affair than Kazooie, you feel like the adventure gets going just as quickly as its predecessor.
There are, of course, some changes to the mix: Jiggies are still the main collectible, and are needed to unlock new worlds. But now the Jiggies are to be taken to the temple of Master Jiggywiggy, a powerful sorcerer with a comical, puzzle piece-shaped head who tasks the heroic duo with completing interactive puzzle mini-games in order to open up a stage. This adds a bit more fun to the equation than the first game simply having Banjo stand on a pad and pressing a button to use the Jiggies and unlock a level.
Music notes are now gathered in clumps of five, as well as a hidden bunch of twenty to be found on every stage. So while there are still technically a grand total of 100 notes per stage, there are less physical items to collect. The notes also serve a new purpose, seeing as Gruntilda’s Lair is behind our heroes and they no longer need to open its many doors. With Bottles dead, his drill sergeant brother Jamjars takes over in mentoring Banjo and Kazooie their new moves, and requires a set amount of music notes for each subsequent move in his arsenal (which, to be honest, feels like a more fleshed out mechanic than simply finding a molehill). The moves here are a lot more robust and varied than the first game (including new fire, ice and grenade eggs), with the main hook being the ability to split Banjo and Kazooie up, with each also learning their own solo moves.
Another new character – and change to the formula – comes in the form of Humba Wumba, a shaman who takes over Mumbo’s former role of transforming our heroes into various forms. Mumbo Jumbo himself now becomes a playable character, with both shamans requiring Banjo and Kazooie to find a creature called a Glowbo in order to perform their shamanistic duties on every stage.
Perhaps Tooie’s other great addition is the implementation of proper boss fights. Sure, Gruntilda proved to be a memorable final boss in Kazooie, but aside from her, anything that resembled a boss encounter was closer to being a minor obstacle than they were a level’s crescendo. Every level gets its own boss battle here, and the overworld even sees three fights with Gruntilda’s baffingly loyal henchman, Klungo. While they may be a bit on the easy side, the boss fights that are present in Tooie feel like they add a bit more personality to the stages, and are certainly a step up from the non-bosses of Kazooie.
The differences in boss encounters between games may also be telling of the overal nature of the N64 Banjo games themselves. As great as Banjo-Kazooie was, Banjo-Tooie simply feels like a more fleshed-out experience. Much of what the first game attempted is more properly realized in this second adventure.
Banjo-Kazooie saw a tiny taste of Metroidvania added to the 3D platforming mix, with the titular duo learning their moves to access new areas of Gruntilda’s Lair. But the game failed to capitalize on the concept and implement such elements into the levels themselves, meaning that once a stage was drained of its collectibles, there were no reasons for return visits. Banjo-Tooie pulls the trigger on the concept, and though it may not exactly be the 3D Metroidvania that Metroid Prime or Dark Souls would end up being, it was probably the closest thing 3D gaming had to the genre at the time of its release.
Banjo-Tooie frequently features segments in levels that must be returned to at a later time, once some additional abilities have been earned. More interesting still, the Isle O’ Hags is even presented as a connected world, with some stages directly linking to others. To emphasize the concept, there’s even a train that connects a handful of the levels and the overworld together. Some may find the backtracking a tad excessive, but some accommodations are made by implementing warp pads in the stages, and silos that allow Banjo and Kazooie to fast-travel the overworld.
The other key ‘lacking’ aspect of the original which is polished by Tooie are the transformations. This time around, every stage has its own transformation, and the different forms the titular duo take – whether it be a T-rex, a submarine, a washing machine that launches underwear at enemies, or the returning bee – are all a lot more versatile than they were in the first game. Granted, it’s still unfortunate that most of the transformations are still only used to gain one or two Jiggies apiece, but at least they feel properly implemented this second time around.
Sadly, Banjo-Tooie itself falls victim to its overly ambitious nature, and at least one of its own elements is as underutilized as Banjo’s transformations in the first game. Strangely, this element once again revolves around Mumbo Jumbo. That is to say, his addition as a playable character feels underdeveloped. As cool as the idea of playing as Mumbo is, he doesn’t really have a lot to do, nor does he have a lot he can do. Mumbo is simply used to walk to a ‘Mumbo pad’ to perform a level-specific spell. While these spells can sometimes be interesting (the very first stage allows Mumbo to take control of a golden giant who can crush anything in its path), they once again fall under the “one or two Jiggies” category, and even then, it’s still usually Banjo who needs to collect the Jiggy in the end. Mumbo’s moveset is also extremely limited, as his only other actions aside from walking and casting spells on the Mumbo pads are jumping and shocking enemies with his magic wand. I wouldn’t assume Mumbo would have the versatility as the primary characters and learn new moves throughout the adventure as they do. But perhaps if he had a few more of their acrobatics, and a little more to do, it would make Mumbo’s promotion more worthwhile.
If there’s another complaint to be had with Banjo-Tooie, it’s that one of the game’s eight proper stages – the smog-riddled factory of Grunty Industries – is a bit of a convoluted maze, with environments that look similar to each other, and some needlessly tedious changes of pace to the fast-traveling (with elevators only being accessible in Banjo’s washing machine form, and the warps pads being inaccessible to said washing machine). Having played through Banjo-Tooie numerous times, it is this level that seemingly breaks the flow of the adventure. Sure, things pick back up a bit with the two subsequent stages, which house the game’s most original themes (one being the crossover fire and ice world of Hailfire Peaks, and the other being the bizarre sky world of Cloud Cuckooland), but Grunty Industries is probably the point in the game that will deter players from achieving one-hundred percent completion.
All things considered, however, Banjo-Tooie is an improvement over its predecessor, and remains one of the N64’s few timeless titles. It may still have some flaws holding it back from stealing Mario’s platforming crown, but Tooie perhaps remains the most ambitious platformer ever made (so ambitious, in fact, that a notorious “counter-operative” multiplayer mode – in which a second player took control of Bottle’s angry spirit – though unfinished, remains intact in the game’s code.). If the hefty adventure somehow weren’t enough, Banjo-Tooie also features a multiplayer mode where players can partake in the many mini-games once they’ve been played in the main story, and can even face-off in first-person shooter death matches that parody Rare’s Goldeneye and Perfect Dark (and, humorously, hold up better than the games they’re parodying). Top it all off with some of the best graphics of the N64 generation, and another stellar Grant Kirkhope soundtrack, and Banjo-Tooie remains a platformer whose aspirations have been seldom approached in the years since.
*Review based on Banjo-Kazooie’s release as part of Rare Replay*
In the wake of Super Mario 64 came a new kind of platformer. Differing from the 2D sidescrollers of the past and earlier, more linear 3D platformers such as Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64 ushered in a more open-world style for the genre, one that had a greater focus on collecting specific key items at the player’s own leisure, as opposed to simply making it to the end of a stage. Of all the ‘collect-a-thon’ 3D platformers that were born in Super Mario 64’s wake, there’s perhaps no more beloved example of this sub-genre than Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie.
Released in 1998 – a mere two years after Mario took his revolutionary first steps into the third-dimension – Rare sought to accomplish the seemingly impossible, and beat Mario at his own game. Rare’s bear and bird duo nearly pulled off that feat, delivering one of the N64’s best offerings, and one of the few games for the console that’s still a whole lot of fun to play today.
In Banjo-Kazooie, players take control of the titular duo: Banjo, the lazy honey bear, and Kazooie, the sarcastic bird who lives in Banjo’s backpack. The player primarily controls Banjo for movement, with Kazooie boasting most of the special abilities.
The story is simple stuff, with an evil witch named Gruntilda kidnapping Banjo’s younger sister Tooty in an attempt to steal her beauty. Unfortunately for Gruntilda, her henchman Klungo is a bit of a bungler, and his beauty-extracting machine is on the fritz, giving Banjo and Kazooie ample time to set off to Gruntilda’s Lair on a rescue mission. It’s your typical damsel in distress plot, but the game’s consistently charming characters and often hilarious dialogue make it a unique adventure.
Speaking of dialogue, Banjo-Kazooie’s “garbled speech” is one of its most iconic attributes, with each character having their own distinct gibberish noises playing over dialogue instead of any kind of traditional voiceovers. Some of these “voices” may be a little irritating, but they’ve become somewhat iconic in the years since the game’s release, as they’ve added to the game’s already stellar sound work, with an unforgettable soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope that captures Banjo-Kazooie’s unique sense of charm and whimsy.
In terms of gameplay, Banjo-Kazooie is incredibly similar to the Mario adventure that inspired it. After completing a tutorial in Banjo’s home of Spiral Mountain, you traverse the chambers of Gruntilda’s Lair, which serves as something of a more sinister contrast to Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64. Golden jigsaw pieces – called “Jiggies” – serve as the equivalent of Mario’s Power Stars, and a set amount are required to unlock each of the game’s nine proper stages. Meanwhile, music notes more or less take the place of coins, but have an added usage in unlocking further chambers within Gruntilda’s Lair.
Each of the stages house 10 Jiggies and 100 musical notes, while the Lair itself has an additional 10 Jiggies to collect, for a grand total of 100 Jiggies and 900 music notes. Not every collectible needs to be obtained to complete the game, however, and all of these items can be gathered at the player’s own pace.
This is where Banjo-Kazooie begins to deviate away from Mario 64’s influence and becomes its own beast. While Super Mario 64’s levels were presented in a sequence of missions (with players only able to go off the path and collect alternate stars from the selected mission on occasion), Banjo-Kazooie’s stages serve as wide-open sandboxes, with players able to gather the collectibles in whatever order at almost any time.
Perhaps an even bigger change to Mario’s formula is that Banjo and Kazooie progressively learn more moves throughout their adventure, provided they can find Bottles the mole hiding in one of his molehills on the first few stages. These moves range from using Kazooie’s legs to walk faster and climb steep slopes to shooting eggs from Kazooie’s mouth and rear. These moves are not only used to navigate through levels and defeat enemies, but many of them are required to find new sections of Gruntilda’s Lair and to reach specific Jiggies, giving the game a small dose of a Metroidvania element.
Along with Bottles, the most important side character is Mumbo Jumbo, a mystical shaman who transforms Banjo and Kazooie into a variety of forms, ranging from termites to pumpkins to bees. Just find some Mumbo Tokens and take them to Mumbo’s Hut to be able to achieve a level’s transformation at any given time.
There is a downside to both the progressing moveset and transformations, however, in that both features can feel a bit underutilized. While the prospect of revisiting levels with new moves to reach previously inaccessible places and items may sound enticing, chances are you’ll find every molehill in your first go around of one level and have everything you need for the next. Only two of the levels (the snow/Christmas-themed Freezeezy Peak and the desert stage of Gobi’s Valley) are particularly interchangeable, as both are unlocked close together, and each features one Jiggie that can only be accessed with a move learned in the other. As for the transformations, you’ll only change forms in five of the nine levels. And when you do get to transform, the different transformations are more or less just used to squeeze into a particular area Banjo himself can’t reach, all to obtain a single Jiggie.
The fact that such elements are present at all is a joy, as they’re a testament to the inventiveness that went into Banjo-Kazooie’s creation. But perhaps they were ideas ahead of what Rare could handle at the time, with both concepts of revisiting levels with new moves and the transformations fulfilling much more of their potential in the game’s 2000 sequel, Banjo-Tooie. By comparison, time has shown that Banjo-Kazooie couldn’t quite reach its ambitions.
If that is the case, it’s simply another testament to just how creative Rare was during Banjo-Kazooie’s development. The gameplay itself is some of the best on the Nintendo 64 and, much like Mario 64, remains a joy to play even today (though Mario 64’s sometimes clunky camera is still present). And the nine featured levels may just outdo Mario’s famed N64 outing, with some truly ingenious obstacles created to take advantage of Banjo and Kazooie’s versatile moves; and they feature themes that add new twists to platforming norms (such as the aforementioned ice world also being built around Christmas, or a sewer stage that houses a mechanical shark as its centerpiece. And Rare was wise to save their most creative level for last; a giant tree that can be visited in all four seasons of the year, with each season changing both the level’s challenges and its inhabitants). If that weren’t enough, Banjo-Kazooie’s playful spirit is perhaps most present after every level is completed, where the heroic duo take part in a quiz show/board game against the evil witch, in which players have to remember details about the game and their playthrough.
Banjo-Kazooie is simply a great time from beginning to end. That so many other games from its era – including beloved titles like Goldeneye 007 – feel so outdated by today’s standards while Banjo-Kazooie still remains one of the best games in the 3D platforming genre is telling of just how much creative energy went into the game, and how well it executed it. It may not always achieve its lofty ambitions, but Banjo-Kazooie is creative, fun and charming enough to stand the test of time.
Though I am an avid supporter of the idea of video games as an art form, I have two major criticisms with many other stances that support the claim. The first is that many seem to believe that the concept of video games being an artistic expression is a newer idea, when in reality it’s easy to see that there’s always been an artistry to the medium. My other complaint is that the games that tend to be labelled as art are merely ones that declare themselves as such. The games that so desperately want to be viewed as something more than “just” a game, and continuously force themselves on the player as a means to prove their point, which only ends up making them feel more self-aggrandizing than artistic.
Video games that have truly artistic designs and narratives often go unappreciated for their artistic achievements, while lesser games can simply declare themselves as art and critics and audiences will follow suit. Though mainstream games have seen their share of such games, during the mid-to-late 2000s indie titles seemed especially susceptible to this epidemic.
Limbo can be seen as one of the poster children of this forced “art house” movement in indie gaming. Though it reaped critical acclaim and a devoted following due to its aesthetics, playing Limbo just a few short years later reveals how shallow of a game it really is.
In Limbo, players take control of an unnamed boy, who is searching for his missing sister. His actions include jumping and pushing and pulling objects, which he’ll need to do to solve puzzles and avoid countless one-hit kill traps.
The boy’s actions are incredibly limited. Perhaps it was inspired by Ico and its minimalism, but at least Ico could ward off monsters with a stick and had a second character to look after, which added some depth. In Limbo, the controls really do amount to little more than push this, pull that, and maybe jump a few times in between. Worse still is that the boy’s controls feel eerily similar to LittleBigPlanet’s Sackboy. His jumps feel weighted down, making the platforming segments feel clunky and stiff. At least Sackboy had charm and player editing to fall back on.
The majority of puzzles also feel incredibly bland. You might push a box onto a button, which subsequently activates a trap, but also provides your only means of avoiding said trap. Or you move a bear trap into the path of a giant, menacing spider, thus sending it running out of your path. There are a few inspired puzzles later in the game, but they are in the minority, with most of the better ones just feeling like cheap knockoffs of ideas from more genuinely creative games like Portal and Super Mario Galaxy.
The big draw of the game are the aesthetics, which admittedly do create a nice sense of atmosphere. The game is entirely monochromatic, with all the characters and objects appearing as silhouettes. Limbo also features film grain and lighting techniques, in addition to minimal ambient sounds in place of music, to give it both a retro and gloomy atmosphere.
Aesthetically, the game is unique and pleasing, but when the game itself feels so hollow, it all only goes so far. On top of the less-than desirable controls and mostly bland puzzles, Limbo also has a cheap sense of difficulty. It implements a trial and error approach not out of ingenuity, but as a means to add difficulty in its absence. You’ll often run into an unseen trap and meet a gruesome end in order to know to avoid it next time. If there were more to the gameplay the trial and error approach may not be so bad. But without gameplay depth, it just feels like a lazy means to add difficulty to an empty game. At the very least, the automatic checkpoints are frequent, which means you quickly get the chance to correct your mistakes.
Even if you’re viewing Limbo from a narrative standpoint, there’s not much to it. This is another game that utilizes minimalism in its story, but it uses it more insistently than wisely. It wants to be an interpretive narrative, but if it leaves room for interpretation it’s only because there’s nothing there, not because it features a rich narrative or deep thematics.
Limbo is also an incredibly short game, with the whole adventure taking a little over an hour to complete. Frankly, there’s not much incentive for return visits unless you’re hunting for achievements.
To put it simply, Limbo just isn’t a fun game. I know indie gaming hipsters might counter that statement by arguing that video games, being an art form, don’t need to be fun. But while video games may be an art form, they are still games. They’re interactive, and by definition they should be engaging to play, otherwise it makes it hard to care about their other merits. Video games can indeed be more than “just” entertaining, but they should still be entertaining as well. It’s hard to invest your time in a game if playing it feels like a chore.
No matter how much a game might demand for itself to be labelled a work of art, if it’s not a good game it all becomes self-defeating. And Limbo simply isn’t a very good game. But, y’know, it’s indie and atmospheric, so I guess it’s art.
Spelunky is one of the more notable indy releases of recent years, as its a favorite among speedrunners and those who appreciate an immense challenge. The game certainly has a lot to offer such groups, and it can even boast a bit of originality. Though it’s difficult to say how much enjoyment other audiences would get out of it.
The setup of Spelunky is simple enough. You play as the Indiana Jones-like Spelunker (or one of various unlockable characters), and you navigate cavernous regions in search of treasure and damsels in distress. You fight enemies that include bats, snakes and spiders, as well as skeletons, mummies and yetis, to name a few. All the while you try to collect as much gold and other treasures as possible while finding the exits that lead to the next level in line.
It may sound simple enough, but actually playing through it is anything but. The Spelunker can jump on some enemies and take them out with a whip, and he has a replenishable supply of ropes and bombs. Ropes can be set up to climb to out of reach places, while bombs can destroy large chunks of rock that may be in the Spelunker’s way (all of the environments are entirely destructible). Additionally, you can buy other upgrades and weapons from shopkeepers found throughout the levels.
Here’s where things get really tricky. Every level is randomly generated, meaning you never quite know what’s coming next. The Spelunker only has so much health, and the only way to replenish it is to find a damsel hidden on a stage and carry her to the exit. But the real dangers are the one-hit kill booby traps, of which there are aplenty. The worst part is that every time you die, you have to start over from the very beginning! There are no continues, no extra lives, nothing.
The game is actually really short, so those who dedicate their time to the game can learn all the game’s traps and layouts, even with the randomly generated levels. Some speedrunners can beat the game in just a few short minutes, and my hat goes off to them.
The problem with Spelunky is that, unless you are among such dedicated people, you may find the game more frustrating than fun. Spelunky never eases players into things, instead it throws them into really difficult levels from the get-go. There’s no learning curve like in other difficult games such as Dark Souls or the newer Donkey Kong Country games (aside from some brief tutorials, but those merely show you the mechanics, and don’t give you time to prepare for what’s ahead). You’ll repeatedly die and have to start over, without knowing how the levels will play out the next time.
What makes it all worse is the way Spelunker controls. Now, the controls are far from broken, but the jumping feels too stiff, and running feels too slippery. Again, it could be a lot worse, but for a game that’s already quite difficult, the control quirks don’t exactly make things less frustrating.
The game features local multiplayer with co-op and death matches. Between the two, co-op will probably be the more fun option, provided you’re playing with someone who’s on equal footing with you in terms of Spelunky experience. The death matches are frankly just too chaotic, with most rounds lasting only a few brief seconds before a winner is declared (or isn’t, as it’s very much possible for all combatants to die).
I don’t want to sound like I’m simply writing off Spelunky. The game has many novel ideas working for it. The level design is actually really clever, and their randomness, along with the various weapons and items you can purchase, give the game a sense of variety and surprise despite its short length. There’s a good sense of creative freedom with how you want to reach every level’s exit (you can be more crafty, or simply blast your way through if you use your bombs wisely). The character designs are cute, with the Spelunker looking like a cross between Indiana Jones and Super Mario. The graphics have a nice balance between modern and retro, and the soundtrack is reminiscent of the old Sonic the Hedgehog games, albeit with an appropriately slower pace.
Spelunky is a good game, it just isn’t a good game for everyone. It caters to a very specific audience, and if you don’t have the patience for it, you might not even be able to appreciate its qualities.