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Banjo-Tooie Review

*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.

“I’m sorry, was it Humba Wumba, or hubba hubba?!”

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.

“Though the FPS segments are few, they provide a fun change of pace fro the rest of the game.”

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.

“Like the first game, Banjo-Tooie ends with a game show. Only this time around, you can also play said game show with other players.”

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.

 

9.0

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Banjo-Kazooie Review

*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.

 

9.0

Cuphead Review

Cuphead certainly looks unlike any game that came before it, replicating the distinct look of a 1930s cartoon down pat, right down to the grainy picture quality and surrealistic character designs. The music and sounds also have that muffled, “in a tunnel” quality of the slapstick cartoons of the era. Cuphead is brought to life through completely hand-drawn visuals. From its shockingly fluid character sprites to its cel animated backgrounds, Cuphead is a wonder to see in action. It may not be the first game to use hand-drawn visuals, but no video game has earned the right to be called an interactive cartoon quite like Cuphead.

Simply put, Cuphead is on an aesthetic level that’s all its own, and it may be a good number of years before another game showcases a similar level of visual inventiveness.

Of course, all the aesthetic pleasures in the world wouldn’t mean much if the game they contained couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Thankfully, Cuphead is a more than capable gameplay experience, even if its action can’t quite capture the same magic as its eye-popping visuals.

Players take control of Cuphead, an old-timey cartoon figure who – as his name implies – has a cup for a head; while a second player can take control of his brother, Mugman. These two characters live on Inkwell Isle, under the watchful eye of Elder Kettle. One day, while Elder Kettle is asleep, the two mischievous brothers sneak into a casino. After at first securing a winning streak, the casino’s owner is revealed to be the Devil, who raises the stakes on Cuphead’s gambling. After Cuphead makes a bad roll, the Devil demands their souls as payment. The brothers plea for another way out of the mess, and the Devil promises he’ll let them go, if they can secure the souls of others who owe the Devil a debt. So Cuphead and Mugman set out to defeat the debtors, and find a way to get out of their contract with the Devil.

It’s a silly plot, but perfectly in tune with the 1930s cartoons that inspired it. People often seem to misremember old cartoons as being more innocent than they actually were. Many old cartoons, even those starring the “squeaky clean” Mickey Mouse, often saw their cute characters go through some extreme circumstances before they learned a lesson, and it’s great to see how Cuphead manages to capture the tone of its inspirations, and that the 1930s cartoon feel doesn’t stop at the visuals.

In regards to gameplay, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer, with a particular emphasis on its boss fights. Cuphead and Mugman can shoot magic from their fingers, and can perform a “parry” action by pressing the jump button against pink objects while in midair. The more damage the heroes do to enemies, the more a special meter builds up in the form of playing cards, with a successful parry automatically achieving a full card. Cuphead can use stronger attacks by using a single card, but if you wait until you have a full five cards, you can unleash a super attack.

Along the adventure, Cuphead can purchase new types of guns (or magic blasts, whatever you want to call them). You can equip two such guns at a time, and can swap between those equipped by the press of a button. Additionally, you can also buy items that provide other benefits, such as additional hitpoints (the standard is three, but you can up it to four or five), or the ability to hit an automatic parry during a jump. To prevent the heroes from becoming overpowered, however, you can only equip one such item at a time.

There are three types of levels in Cuphead: the standard run and gun platforming stages, boss stages, and bullet hell boss stages (differentiated by Cuphead and Mugman piloting an airplane in an autoscrolling level).

The boss fights are the meat of the game, with most stages being gauntlets of either multiple bosses, or individual boss enemies who go through multiple phases. Perhaps most notable is how creative many of these boss fights are. Despite Cuphead’s simplistic gameplay mechanics, the creativity on display with every boss fight makes them constantly surprising, and every last boss is distinct from the others.

On the downside of things, the platforming stages aren’t remotely as fun, and it seems that the developers were well aware of that, seeing as there are only six of them in the entire game. I wouldn’t say these stages are flat-out bad, but they fail to replicate the quality and creativity found in the boss battles, and feel really bland by comparison.

In terms of challenge, Cuphead is as deceptively sinister as the cartoons that inspired it. Its opening tutorial is perhaps the easiest I’ve ever played, but once you step into the actual game, it can get incredibly punishing. Cuphead’s steep difficulty curve means it certainly isn’t a game for everyone. You won’t find any checkpoints in the boss fights or the levels, so if you die, it’s back to the starting line. And some of the bosses are unrelenting in the amount of alternate forms they take and how many projectiles they throw at you at once. Thankfully, as challenging as it is, the difficulty is mostly fair (I only felt there were two boss fights where it seemed like there were a distracting amount of going-on on screen).

The bosses do include a “simple” option where you’ll only face off against their first few phases at the expense of not getting their soul contract and, subsequently, being unable to progress until you try the actual thing (making the simple mode more of a practice mode than anything).

With how painstakingly long it takes to create hand-drawn animation, Cuphead is an understandably short game, with only three “proper” worlds and a fourth world that consists of one particularly lengthy gauntlet and a battle with the Devil himself. But for the most part, Cuphead is a blast while it lasts. The standard stages may be a little bland, but the boss encounters are one delight after another. And in terms of style, Cuphead is second to none.

 

8.0

Blast Corps Review

*Review based on Blast Corp’s release as part of Rare Replay*

I mean this in the best possible way; Blast Corps feels like it was conjured up by an eight-year old boy who has run amok with his Hot Wheels toys. The concept goes like this: a runaway truck carrying nuclear warheads needs an escort to take it to safety. You’re in charge of getting said truck to safety. But there’s a catch; the truck is on auto-pilot, and its fixed path means it will crash into anything blocking its way, which will set off the nukes. So you have to demolish everything in the truck’s path in order to complete your mission.

Using an array of vehicles, you’ll break every building and construct that stands in the truck’s path; whether it be farm, factory, or even houses. Break everything that stands in the truck’s way, and you unlock the next few stages (which can be played in whatever order the player wishes). There are additional objectives in the stages, like rescuing every civilian from danger, and finding satellites hidden in every stage. There are also the occasional racing levels, and a few bonus stages which give you more unique objectives, like destroying a certain amount of buildings in a set time, or using a particular vehicle’s special ability on a set number of objects.

Blast Corps features a wide variety of vehicles to play as. Some are more simple, like a sports car that’s used to speed between areas, or a dump truck that knocks down buildings by swerving into them. Others are more extravagant, such as a missile-firing speeder bike, a truck that launches fists from both sides to punch objects, and even a few anime-style giant robots (one of which causes destruction by performing acrobatic flips).

When it comes to which vehicles you play as, there are three different kind of stages: many levels are built around a specific vehicle’s mechanics, and you must use that vehicle. Other levels will have you start out in a particular vehicle, but you’ll have to transfer to others in order to solve the level’s puzzles. Finally, there are levels where you are fixed to one vehicle, but have a selection to choose from before the level starts.

The simple concept behind Blast Corps allowed Rare to get really creative with how to expand it, with the different vehicles providing many different twists to the gameplay, and the level designs bringing out everything they can out of them. While the similar setup being reused for the majority of stages may have grown stale under less capable hands, Rare kept Blast Corps a game that consistently delights players with new ideas in its already original concept.

“The jetpacking, building-stomping mecha is one of the most fun vehicles. I just wish you got more chances to play it.”

There is a downside to this, however, in that not every vehicle brings out the best of the game. The aforementioned dump truck can be particularly tricky to use effectively, as swerving it just right so that its back smashes into buildings never really gets any easier. And yet, the dump truck seems to be the vehicle that you are forced to play as the most. The speeder bike can also be a bit unwieldy to control. Another downside comes in the form of the camera which, like many N64 titles, is less-than ideal.

All of these are ultimately small complaints, however, as the sheer fun and originality of Blast Corps elevate it to being one of those rare Nintendo 64 titles that’s a pure joy to revisit. What could have been a pretty mindless game about destruction quickly evolves into an engaging puzzler that will really test your skills. It’s really only a shame that it never received a sequel (especially considering a certain 2008 sequel to a certain other Rare franchise focused on vehicle construction, and probably would have been more warmly received as a follow-up to Blast Corps).

Though it was made by a small team of developers (four at minimum, seven at maximum), Blast Corps has the same sense of fun and charm as the biggest and best games of Rare’s heyday back in the mid-to-late 1990s. It may not be pretty to look at by modern standards, but Blast Corps is so entertaining and original you probably won’t care.

After all, this is a game in which an acrobatic anime robot can backflip buildings into oblivion to prevent a nuclear disaster. Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

8.5

Killer Instinct Gold Review

*Review based on Killer Instinct Gold’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Killer Instinct was Rare’s answer to the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat craze of the 1990s. Though it never reached the same popularity of those two series, Killer Instinct was a worthy third piece in this equation, with a strong emphasis on combos over its competing series (thus “C-C-C-Combo Breaker!” was born). However, Killer Instinct’s popularity was not to last. While Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have seen many iterations over the years, Killer Instinct only had two titles to its name back in the day (though the 2013 reboot has helped revive interest in the brand).

The first installment went from arcades to the SNES, while Killer Instinct II made its way to the Nintendo 64 in the form of Killer Instinct Gold. While Killer Instinct Gold can still provide some solid fighting gameplay, it does suffer from many of the shortcomings the genre suffered in the wake of Mortal Kombat’s influence.

In terms of mechanics, Killer Instinct Gold has many of the elements you would expect from the genre: characters have light attacks, heavy attacks, projectiles and special moves, which can be performed with a variety of button presses and combinations. The main draw to Killer Instinct, of course, was its emphasis on combos, with pretty much every characters’ moves being able to be linked together if the player can perform them quick enough.

The moves themselves are easy enough to use, though the game does suffer a bit from the stiff character movements that were frequently seen in fighters of the day (floaty jumps, some slowly-performed moves, etc.). The fighting can be fun, but its sense of character control certainly has a “for its day” feel to it.

Killer Instinct Gold, like most fighting games, is better played with a human opponent. You can certainly have more fun trying out combos  and doing battle with a friend than you can against a computer AI. Especially since Killer Instinct Gold follows Mortal Kombat’s lead in having AI opponents who can seemingly go against the game’s own rules, making single player bouts often feeling more unfair than fun.

If you’re playing Arcade mode, you may find that the computer opponents can interrupt your combos with ease, while you can’t seem to do anything about it if you get caught in your opponent doing the same thing. You’ll frequently be in the middle of an attack, only for the AI’s attack to take priority and render your move useless.

I even lowered the difficulty settings so I could try out different combos easier, and the computer was still able to to have its way more times than I’d like to admit. I’d get an opponent down to the tiniest shred of health, only for them to get a second wind and immediately bombard me with life-depleting combos. It’s one thing for a fighting game to be difficult, but in the case of Killer Instinct Gold, it seems like the rules just don’t apply to the AI. I have a friend who’s a big fan of Mortal Kombat, and even he admits that, in that game “the computer cheats.” And it’s basically the same story here in Killer Instinct Gold.

The single player modes greatly suffer due to this AI problem, but Killer Instinct Gold does have enough depth in its combat to help elevate the gameplay higher than it otherwise would be.

The character roster is a little bit of a mixed bag. Though the non-human characters standout – such as Spinal, a skeletal pirate; and Glacius, an alien being with ice powers – the human character designs feel downright uninspired and boring. Tusk, for example, looks like a first draft for a Conan the Barbarian type character, and the other humans look equally as rushed.

This inconsistency isn’t just found in the art direction, but in the visuals as well. While the character models use a similar pre-rendered look to the original game and Donkey Kong Country, and hold up pretty well, the 3D backgrounds have that glaringly dated N64 look. Of course, it’s hard to be too critical on the graphical limitations in the games of yesteryear, but the fact that the character models still look relatively impressive while the backgrounds look so ugly does make you wish Rare had just used one cohesive visual look.

While Killer Instinct Gold may provide some old-school fighting fun if you have another player by your side, the more dated elements do prevent it from being as timeless of a fighter as the Street Fighter games. Though I suppose it does boast more depth than the early Mortal Kombats, so you could say Killer Instinct falls in the middle of the 90s fighting trifecta.

 

6.0

Battletoads Arcade Review

*Review based on Battletoads Arcade’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Battletoads had all the makings of a solid franchise. From its distinct characters and attitude to its notable gameplay and difficulty, Battletoads should have went further than it did. Though the disgustingly-named toads Rash, Pimple and Zits have started popping up in games like Shovel Knight and the 2013 Killer Instinct reboot as of late, the Battletoads only had five total games, all of which were released in the first half of the 1990s.

The 1991 NES original is the most famous entry in the franchise, notorious for its excruciating difficulty. A watered-down Gameboy port soon followed. And in 1993 the Battletoads starred in two more games; Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, and the unique crossover title Battletoads & Double Dragon, both of which were on 16-bit platforms. Then in 1994, the currently-final entry in the series, the aptly-named Battletoads Arcade, made its way to arcades… and it bombed.

Yes, despite the popularity of the franchise, the Battletoads’ debut in arcade cabinets was a financial failure for Rare. So much so, that the game’s planned home console ports were cancelled. Battletoads Arcade’s disappointing sales may have even been the reason for Rare putting the franchise on the back-burner, where it still remains to this day.

That’s a damn shame, because Battletoads Arcade is a whole lot of fun, which more and more people have realized after the game made its quite-delayed home console debut as part of Rare Replay.

Battletoads Arcade, much like other entries in the series, is a beat-em-up. Even more so than the NES original, Battletoads Arcade is all about laying the smacketh down on hordes of enemies. You just go from one end of a stage to the other, pummeling any and all foes who stand in your way. It’s pure, unadulterated beat-em-up. It’s simple stuff, but very fun.

This arcade original is also notable for being one of the few games where players can actually play as all three toads (the other being the Double Dragon crossover). What’s even better is that the game supports three players, so all three toads can partake in the mayhem at the same time. All three toads play identically, through they each have their own animations for their attacks.

“Yes, the toads use these giant rats’ cojones as punching bags…”

Another aspect that sets Battletoads Arcade apart from its predecessors is that, being self-published by Rare onto arcade cabinets as opposed to another company’s home consoles, the game gets away with a lot more violence and gross-out humor. Blood now flies out of enemy rats as the toads punch them around and stomp them into oblivion, and Pimple has an attack in which he crushes a downed opponent’s head when his foot transforms into an anvil. There are also enemy rats that puke after getting punched in the gut, and in one stage, you can even find some rats using the toilet in the background (complete with sound effects). This is certainly the crudest and most violent Battletoads game, and may even feel like something of a precursor to Conker’s Bad Fur Day in terms of tone.

The gameplay is a whole lot of fun, and unlike the original Battletoads, very much welcomes additional players, with some of the stages feeling tailor-made with two and three players in mind. The graphics and animations are another highlight, with the Battletoads’ signature cartoonish transformations looking better than ever. And once again, the series is livened up with a killer score by David Wise.

There is, however, a bit of a drawback in that the game is only six stages long (that’s half as many as the NES original). Now, you expect an arcade beat-em-up to be on the short side, but Battletoads Arcade ends all too abruptly. After a comically lengthy boss fight against Robo Manus, one of the Dark Queen’s henchmen, the game ends. You don’t even get to fight the Dark Queen herself. I’m guessing the short length is due to the game’s difficulty, which in an arcade cabinet would surely gorge on coins or tokens. But the sudden end does kind of seem disappointing, and perhaps two or three additional levels could have added some extra heft and variety, with only the existing fourth and sixth stages changing up the gameplay styles as it is (the fourth level seeing the toads descending down a cavern via jetpacks, and the sixth stage having the toads taking part in a shoot-em-up with machine guns).

I mentioned that the game is difficult, and though I stand by that due to the epic boss fights, waves of enemies, and health-depleting mid-bosses. But, due to the game’s transition to a console, it’s also – strange as this may sound – kind of easy.

By that I mean that, although the game itself is quite challenging, you have infinite continues, and come back to life exactly where you died. Thankfully, you don’t have to fork over hard-earned cash to continue playing like you would in an arcade, but there really is no real penalty for dying. You’ll still die a lot, to be sure. But when enemies get the jump on you, you’re basically just slightly slowed down, without ever suffering a real defeat. But I suppose I’ll take that over the needlessly punishing quality of the original Battletoads any day.

Battletoads Arcade is an excellent beat-em-up. Though it’s all too short and all too easy to beat (despite its moment-to-moment challenge), it provides a great deal of fun, and manages to squeeze a decent amount of variety in the few stages it has. Top it of with crazy animations, a great soundtrack, and Battletoads co-op that’s actually enjoyable, you have a great, pick up and play experience on your hands.

The facts that it tanked in arcades and is still the last Battletoads game may be a bit disheartening, but its inclusion as part of Rare Replay has now brought the game to a wider audience, and its inclusion is one of the best pieces of the Rare Replay lineup.

Between you and me, I like it better than Turtles in Time.

 

8.0

Battletoads Review

*Review based on Battletoads’ release as part of Rare Replay*

 

Battletoads is the hardest video game ever made.

That’s an often repeated statement you’ll hear around the gaming community, and it’s a hard point to argue. I can’t think of another video game that demands so many actions to be pixel perfect, or that’s so unforgiving with its level design. Battletoads is on a level all its own in the realms of video game difficulty, with a challenge so incredibly steep that only the most dedicated players will see their way past the first few levels.

To put it simply, Battletoads is one tough bastard.

But is it any good? Well, that all depends. Battletoads is certainly a game that has a lot going for it: the core gameplay is fun, the levels are full of variety, and the music by David Wise is pretty awesome, and sounds a bit like a precursor to the composer’s later work in the Donkey Kong Country series. Not to mention the game has a fun attitude that serves as a pretty funny riff on the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles.

With all that said, Battletoads is also most certainly not a game everyone will enjoy simply because it is that damn difficult. Some levels even feel downright sadistic with their demands on the player. And in what has to be the single dumbest design choice in the game, if you have two players partnering up for the adventure at hand, you can (and most definitely will) hurt each other!

Essentially, Battletoads is a beat-em-up. Players can take control of two of the three Battletoads, Rash and Zits, as they embark on a quest through deep space to defeat the sexy Dark Queen and rescue a princess as well as their kidnapped comrade Pimple (I always wondered why Rare bothered to make three Battletoads characters since one of them always seems to be on the sidelines).

Though the game primarily serves as a beat-em-up, the levels quickly find ways to add variety to the mix. The second level sees the toads traveling downwards in a cavern via ropes, while the infamous third level (the game’s first massive difficulty spike) has players riding hover vehicles through a tunnel with rapidly appearing walls (with a single crash meaning instant death). Later levels include surfing, swimming through sewers, and racing giant rats down a construction building to reach bombs (this particular level being the bane of my existence).

The sheer variety is a constant delight, and even when Battletoads is settling in its traditional beat-em-up stages, it still proves to be fun, especially because of the comical animations (which were quite impressive for their time). If you run and attack an enemy, the toads’ heads will cartoonishly turn into ram horns, and after you smack a foe into the ground, you can kick him into oblivion when your toad’s foot transforms into a giant boot.

Simply put, the gameplay, when taken on its own merits, is fun. But the ridiculous difficulty will no doubt prove alienating to many players. The third stage alone will exhaust all of your lives and continues several times over. And should you somehow manage to make it to the later stages, well, good luck is all I can say.

The aforementioned sewer stage includes sections where you run from giant gears, which will instantly kill you if they get too close. But these gears are fast, and will always seem to be trailing inches behind your character, and when they start chasing you upward, you might find yourself shouting obscenities you may have forgotten you knew, because the jumps you need to make have to be one-hundred percent accurate in order to keep your momentum going and survive the gear. I wish I could say I were exaggerating, but if you’re even a split second off, you’re dead.

Anyone who actually managed to conquer these levels in the game’s original NES release definitely have my respect. How they managed to master such trial-and-error after so many game overs sent them back to the start of the game, I’ll never know.

The Rare Replay release includes a neat way to avoid having to start over, however. Along with being able to save your progress at any time, Battletoads – like the other early titles included in Rare Replay – gives players the ability to rewind up to ten seconds. So while you will most assuredly die and die again, you can, at the very least, rectify most of your deaths  without having to go back to a checkpoint or getting a game over. It was only with this rewind feature that I was able to complete that infamous third level. You may say that I cheated, but as far as I’m concerned, Battletoads cheated first with how long that level drags on, how fast your vehicle ends up going, and how fast walls start appearing right in front of you.

Besides, the rewinding can only help you so much. It still took me countless tries to get those jumps with the gears just right (and even then, I think I got lucky more than I had them figured out). And to be honest, the rewinding ability still hasn’t helped me conquer that dreaded Rat Race stage. Those rats run so fast that rewinding isn’t going to do much other than have you reliving the sight of a giant rat zooming past a humanoid toad over and over. Even if you manage to hit the rats (which, again, requires one-hundred percent precision), you only buy yourself less than a second’s time, since the rats move so fast that, when they hit a wall and turn back around, they’re just going to speed past you all over again.

Yes, even with the rewind feature, I still can’t beat Battletoads. Normally, I like to beat a game before I write the review, but cheat codes and level skips certainly help in seeing enough of Battletoads to write about it. I fear I might otherwise never make it past those rats.

“They are going to die…probably by each other’s hands.”

The disappointing thing is, with a game this difficult, it was just begging to be played with two people working together to help get through it. But then Rare decided to troll gamers by making the Toads able to hit each other, which will result in countless unintentional deaths from each other on top of all the ones you are going to get from enemies and obstacles. What’s worse, the players share lives and continues, so if the players end up accidentally killing each other repeatedly, you’re going to start the whole game over. With a single player, Battletoads feels close to impossible. With two players… it might very well be.

Now we go back to the question “is Battletoads any good?” Honestly, I feel like depending on when you ask me, my answer could be very different. For all the things it does right in gameplay, variety and music, it almost seems to want to turn players away with its frequently unreasonable challenge.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so stumped as to how to score a video game at the end of my review. When playing through Battletoads again, there were times when I felt I’d rate it as high as a 7.5, and times when I felt it was unrelenting to the point that it took away much of the enjoyment, and that something like a 5.5 (or lower) might be more fitting. In the end I’ve decided to settle on a middle ground between those mentioned numbers with a 6.5. Though depending on when you ask me, I might tell you Battletoads is better or worse than I grade it here.

While the challenges Battletoads throws at its players often require them to be one-hundred percent accurate, my ultimate feelings for the game are anything but.

 

6.5