Jetpac Review

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

1983’s Jetpac is well known for being the first-ever video game by British developer Rare, then known as Ultimate Play the Game (gee, I can’t imagine why they changed that name). Though its utter simplicity means time has exposed something of a shallowness to its experience, Jetpac still retains enough old school fun to make it worth a look for those with a fondness for retro gaming.

Jetpac really is as simple as they come: Stages are single-screen affairs (as was the norm at the time), and your character is an astronaut who can fly through the air (via his jetpack, of course), and can shoot baddies with a laser gun that can only fire forward. The goal of the first stage is to grab the missing pieces of the astronaut’s rocket, and return them to the ship, and then to gather enough fuel to take the rocket to the next stage (the fuel boxes are purple, and the more fuel the rocket gets, the more purple it becomes). Subsequent stages ditch the first segment and go right to the fuel collecting, with enemies trying to stop you at every turn. All the while, random collectibles fall from the sky, and can be gathered for extra points.

Again, it’s all very simple stuff, but you’d be surprised how addicting the game can be, and you may find yourself wanting to restart as soon as you get an unfortunate game over.

There is a fun element of strategy to this simple gameplay though, as the enemies of different stages behave differently. The first stage’s enemies resemble fireballs, and simply fly straight, while the enemies of the second stage (which resemble the old Fry Kids characters from McDonald’s) zigzag around the place. Additionally, the levels have something of a Super Mario Bros. 2 quality in that if you walk into one side of the screen, you’ll appear on the other side. This also applies to the enemies and your lasers. Combine these elements with the fact that your character dies in one hit (though you start with five lives), and you’ll be strategizing different ways to navigate past enemies, grab the items, and complete the rocket as fast as you can.

There’s really not much more to it than that. The graphics are as simple as you’d expect from 1983, though there is an attempt to liven things up by the enemy sprites appearing in a variety of colors (which, from what I can tell, doesn’t alter their behaviors). Unfortunately, there is no music to speak of, which is a shame, considering how catchy video game music could be even back in the day.

Whether or not one enjoys Jetpac depends entirely on how much they appreciate gaming’s early years. What Jetpac lacks in depth, it makes up for in a surprising level of addictiveness. If you’re simply looking for some good old-fashioned, arcade-style gameplay, you could certainly do a lot worse.

 

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I Has a Xbox One!

“Behold, my Xbox One! And…the reflection of my Banjo-Kazooie poster.”

Thanks to the generosity of my cousin, I am now the owner of an Xbox One! But I’m not writing this to brag about adding another console to my collection, but because this now means I’ll be reviewing some Xbox One games!

Now, admittedly, there aren’t as many games on the Xbox One that I’m as interested in as the Playstation 4 or Nintendo Switch (or the Wii U…may it rest in peace). But there are definitely a few games I’ve really been wanting to review for the system, as well as some on the horizon (Cuphead, for example).

My cousin also gave me his copy of The Master Chief Collection, and I picked up a copy of Rare Replay. So now I can review (most of) the Halo games without having to re-buy the previous Xbox consoles, and a good slew of old Rare games (some of which I admittedly already own in their original forms, but many others I don’t). Granted, I still need to get some original Xbox One games to review, but what I have for the system already gives me a large amount of upcoming reviews on their own.

Again, as far as gaming goes, I think the PS4 and Switch (and the SNES, always the SNES) will remain my main focuses here at the Dojo. But it’s great to finally be able to catch up on what the Xbox One has to offer.

Dark Souls III Review

Dark Souls III My Character

The Dark Souls series has quickly become one of gaming’s most revered franchises. But, according to series director Hidetaka Miyazaki, Dark Souls III is to be its final entry. If this should be the last in the Souls series, however, then the series can proudly claim to have gone out on a high note. Dark Souls III is another stellar installment, one that takes bits and pieces of its predecessors (including Demon Souls and Bloodborne) to create an adventure that plays like a greatest hits of the series.

In terms of gameplay, Dark Souls III is largely reminiscent of its predecessors. It remains a smartly constructed action RPG with a Metroidvania-style game world. Combat is tight and intricate, enemies are difficult and deadly, and defeating them earns the player “Souls,” which work as both experience points and currency in the game’s world. Player’s can find an assortment of different weapons – from swords and shields to bows and staffs – as well as armor to boost their character’s effectiveness.

Dark Souls IIIMuch like the past entries in the series, the game has a great sense of balance with its weapons, armor and magic, with the player’s preference in play style taking precedence over some items simply being superior to others, giving the game a nice sense of variety in gameplay. Though Dark Souls III also takes a page out of Bloodborne’s book, with the combat adopting some of said game’s quicker pace when compared to prior games donning the Dark Souls name. So those who may have found previous Souls games to be a little on the slow side may have an easier time getting into Dark Souls III.

As for the plot, Dark Souls III continues the series’ trademark subtleties in storytelling and lore. The player takes control of an undead known as the “Ashen One,” who is tasked with averting the destruction of the kingdom of Lothric by rekindling the “First Flame,” by means of destroying four renegade Lords of Cinder; previous kindlers of said flame whose duties have driven them mad. The game leaves most of the finer details of the plot in bits and pieces to be uncovered by those who want to know more about Lothric’s history and characters, but those who simply wish to run about the kingdom slaying monsters with as little plot as possible are free to do so as well.

Of course, Dark Souls III carries the Hidetaka Miyazaki tradition of intense difficulty. In many ways, Darks Souls III is the most difficult entry in the series, with often relentless enemies and brutally unapologetic level hazards. But the game never feels unfair, as it utilizes a trial-and-error approach rather brilliantly. Almost every encounter and situation asks players to think over their tactics, and to use any and all mechanics at their disposal. It rewards patience and those willing to think things through, and punishes those who would blindly run in to get the most kills.

Dark Souls IIIStill though, this level of difficulty won’t be for everyone. And if the difficulty curve of past Souls games turned you away, chances are Dark Souls III won’t win you over. But for those who appreciate what the Souls titles have to offer – from trap-filled environments to memorable boss fights – Dark Souls III has the formula down pat.

Aesthetically, the game is a marvel. The series has never looked better, with polished graphics, great character and creature designs, and beautiful and dreary environments. The soundtrack is grand and perfectly captures the many moods of the game, and Dark Souls III continues the series’ tradition of having perfect sound effects. You get a sense of weight in the weapons and armor from the sounds alone.

If there are any downsides at all to Dark Souls III, it might just be that most of the optional areas in the game are a bit on the short side, at least when compared to the lengthy and often epic optional zones of Bloodborne. They still provide their share of memorable (and frustrating) moments as well as incredible boss fights, but they lack the grandness of the game’s mandatory zones which, again, is disappointing after how much detail went into Bloodborne’s optional content.

Dark Souls IIIThat’s ultimately a small complaint, however, when one takes into consideration everything Dark Souls III gets so right. It seems the further you delve into the adventure, the deeper the game becomes. There are covenants to join (each with their own special player vs. player gimmicks), sidequests to tackle, and even upgrading your equipment is made into an addicting game in its own right. And if things get too difficult for you, you can always summon other players to lend a hand. You may even have a great time simply being summoned by other players yourself, and reaping the benefits of Souls and covenant items that come with it.

For those willing to face Dark Souls III’s steep challenge, it provides a compelling gaming experience that seems to constantly introduce more layers of depth as the game progresses. It’s brilliantly paced, staged, and full of surprises. Dark Souls III takes many bits and pieces of the previous Dark Souls games, as well as blood relatives Demon Souls and Bloodborne, to create something of a Frankenstein’s monster of the franchise’s elements. It may not reinvent the series, but if this is truly to be its final installment, then Dark Souls III is a hell of a way to go out, solidifying the series as one of the most consistent, and richest, in gaming history.

Praise the sun!

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Limbo Review

Limbo

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.

LimboThe 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.

LimboEven 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.

 

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Top 5 Most Anticipated Games of 2016

Now that it’s December, 2015 is nearing its end. Along with preparing for the holiday season (and subsequently, the one-year anniversary of this site), Star Wars, and New Year’s Resolutions that I’ll probably stick to for five days, December also serves as a time to reflect on the year ahead.

This future-hype naturally finds its way into the world of video games as well. So as we all prepare to look back at the best games of 2015, we also look forward to our most anticipated games of 2016. And I am no different!

The following are my top five most anticipated games of 2016. They may look a bit different from most people’s selections, but for one reason or another, these games all have my attention. Let’s start with a runner-up then get to the top five!

Runner-up: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Honestly, I had six games that stood out that I could choose from, so I feel guilty about placing any of them as a runner-up. But since a “top 6” list just sounds goofy, someone had to take the fall. Since Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam comes out in January, I don’t have much more of a wait. So that bumps it to a runner-up on this list of anticipation (just go with it).

Aside from Paper Mario: Sticker Star, there hasn’t been a bad Mario RPG. Though Dream Team was a considerable step down from Bowser’s Inside Story, I have high hopes for Paper Jam. Being a crossover between Mario’s two ongoing RPG series, Paper Jam has the potential to bring a new sense of creativity to the Mario RPG formula.

I do have to wonder where Mario RPGs will go from here though. After you have both series cross paths, it seems like it would be a good time to give Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi a break, and maybe start a new direction for the Mario RPGs. But maybe that’s just me.

Now on to the top 5!

5: Dark Souls 3

Dark Souls 3

Platform: Multiplatform

Dark Souls is one of the better modern franchises in gaming (even if I kinda suck at it), and I’m really excited to die repeatedly play this new entry. I do kind of hope it adds more to the series than Dark Souls II did though. As great of a game as it was, I don’t want the third entry to just do what the first two already did. I hope DS3 can take all the good things from the series (of which there are many) and add some new twists into the mix as well.

What makes the Dark Souls series great is that it really feels like a modernized version of the kinds of games you’d play on the NES back in the day. It’s incredibly difficult, focused entirely on gameplay, and features a kind of progression that would feel at home on an 8-bit console. Yet it also feels brand new. The series has so far continued this trend through three games (remember, Demon Souls was the first game, Dark Souls was the second), and I’m confident it can repeat its success for a fourth time.

4: Star Fox Zero

Star Fox Zero

Platform: Wii U

Lack of multiplayer aside, Star Fox Zero looks to be the return to form I’ve been waiting for from the series. The gameplay looks like a modernized Star Fox 64, none of the weirdly sexualized characters from the subsequent games are present, and the story is going back to basics. It pretty much looks like the proper follow-up to Star Fox 64, which has somehow not yet happened in almost two decades.

If Star Fox Zero does indeed end up being this generation’s Star Fox 64, then it will be well worth the wait. Now I just hope the game’s delay into 2016 means they’re adding a multiplayer mode.

3: Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9

Platform: Multiplatform

Though the Red Ash Kickstarter fiasco might have put a sour taste in gamer’s mouths in regards to Keiji Inafune’s Comcept studio, I’m still super excited for Mighty No. 9.

It’s hard to believe Mega Man hasn’t appeared in a game outside of Super Smash Bros. for over five years. But if Capcom won’t let us have the Blue Bomber, at least we have a spiritual sequel to look forward to.

Mighty No. 9 really does look like a Mega Man title, and hopefully the gameplay and level design can live up to that heralded series. As a huge bonus, the game looks to feature several different additional modes to add some replayability and change up the experience.

2: The Legend of Zelda Wii U

Zelda Wii U

Platform: Wii U (but maybe NX)

The latest “proper” addition in The Legend of Zelda series looks to be the most ambitious entry yet. It could be one of the last great Wii U games, or one of the first great NX ones. Or both.

The Legend of Zelda is one of gaming’s greatest series, and a new home console entry is always a big deal. But this one in particular seems to be aiming to change up Zelda conventions, and hopefully, as we learn more about the game, that becomes more apparent.

Though I really wish Nintendo would give the series another art direction as daring as The Wind Waker, I like the new cel-shaded look. It looks a lot like a more advanced take on what Skyward Sword did visually. But while Skyward Sword used its visuals to guise the aging technology of the Wii, this new Zelda actually looks to be taking full advantage of its hardware.

My two great hopes for Zelda Wii U is that it really does change up the series, since Zelda games, great as they are, lack the consistent sense of newness of its sister series, Super Mario, and that the main adventure is only as long as it needs to be. I’m actually among those who loved Skyward Sword, but I admit that game would have been better if it were trimmed a few hours shorter. There’s no need to stretch a game’s length just for the heck of it. I’ll take a 10 hour game that feels complete over a 60 hour one that feels largely comprised of filler.

Anyway, it’s Zelda. Of course I have it on this list!

1: Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee

Platform: Multiplatform

Rare made some of the greatest video games of my youth. With a resume that includes the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 (arguably the best 2D platformer), Banjo-Kazooie (arguably the best 3D platformer until Mario went to space), Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, and so many other classics, it’s a wonder how the developer has fallen so far from grace over the last decade.

Yooka-Laylee is something of a dream come true for me. The new studio Playtonic Games – founded by a small group of some of Rare’s finest former developers – debuted the game as a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series in a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. And so far, everything about the game is looking like a modernized version of the Banjo-Kazooie style of platformer.

Playtonic has been vocal in saying that the game isn’t merely a re-skin of Banjo-Kazooie, however, and that Yooka-Laylee is making the winning formula new again. The collectibles will all serve a purpose, the game will have a greater sense of freedom in exploration, and players will have some forms of customization in gameplay and progression.

After Nuts & Bolts more or less kicked Banjo-Kazooie fans in the… nuts & bolts, Yooka-Laylee looks like the proper follow-up to Banjo-Tooe that I’ve waited fifteen years for. It was even the first game on Kickstarter I’ve helped fund. The only other game I’ve funded since was Red Ash. And well, let’s just move on.

Yooka-Laylee simply looks to bring back a style of game that’s been all but forgotten in the last few console generations. Given the minds behind it, I have a lot of confidence they’ll be able to pull it off. Really, there’s no reason why Yooka-Laylee wouldn’t be my most anticipated game of 2016.

Shovel Knight Review

Shovel Knight

On the surface, Shovel Knight might resemble any one of the countless retro-inspired indy titles that have been released since Mega Man 9 made 8-bit graphics popular again. While most such NES-inspired indy games seem to completely fallback on nostalgia, Shovel Knight is a much wiser game. It doesn’t bother to hide its inspirations of Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania and, most prominently, Mega Man. But Shovel Knight understands that there were more to these games than 8-bit sprites and chiptunes. These games aren’t remembered for nostalgia alone, and they continue to endure because of the genius of their game designs. Shovel Knight seeks to replicate a similar genius, and while its inspirations are obvious, it does so in its own way. If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shovel Knight was a NES classic from gaming’s earlier days.

Shovel KnightShovel Knight works like many platformers from the 8-bit era, though its titular character has two primary means of attack: A simple strike with his mighty shovel or – pulling a page from Scrooge McDuck – a pogo stick-like jump. Shovel Knight also gains magic items throughout his adventure, akin to Castlevania, which grant him additional attacks or defensive actions.

Naturally, wielding a shovel as a weapon also means that Shovel Knight can dig up dirt to find gold and gems, which he’ll need in order to buy upgrades to his armor, shovel, hit points, magic points and the aforementioned magic items. But be weary, because defeat means that Shovel Knight loses a chunk of his collected treasure. If Shovel Knight can return to the spot he fell he can reclaim it, but should he fall again before regaining his lost treasure, it’s gone. The game lacks a traditional ‘lives’ system, so game overs are never a concern even in the game’s most difficult moments, but losing your collected goods is a fun, modernized compensation for the traditional game over.

The gameplay really is as simple as that. Run, jump, shovel, dig. But the game uses these simple mechanics to their fullest, and through some incredible and varied level design, it ends up being a deep gameplay experience.

Shovel KnightThe stages are strewn together through a Super Mario Bros. 3 style world map, separated into four different segments. Shovel Knight allows players to select which order they want to tackle the levels in each segment, but every main stage in each must be completed before moving on to the next segment.

The main stages are lengthy platforming romps that not only grow progressively more challenging, but also more creative. Each main stage is capped off with a boss fight against a different themed knight (all of which includes the title of “Knight” at the end of their name, in a nice tribute to Mega Man’s Robot Masters). Additional challenges, boss fights and optional stages can be found on the world map, should you want to go the extra mile for completion and treasure.

Like many such indy games that build on old school blueprints, Shovel Knight is a challenging game. But whereas many of its peers feel the need to throw insurmountable obstacles at players right out the gate to prove their difficulty, Shovel Knight instead has a nice difficulty curve. It starts off with a simple introductory level to ease players into the game, and continuously becomes more difficult as the game goes on. This helps Shovel Knight’s difficulty feel more fair and, as a result, more fun than its contemporaries.

Despite Shovel Knight’s challenge, it finds a brilliant means to cater to players of varying skill levels through its checkpoints. The levels all feature numerous checkpoints, so more easygoing players don’t have to fret about starting a stage over should they run into a particularly difficult section. But those wanting to test their abilities can destroy the checkpoints – gaining additional treasure in the process – to render them moot, meaning they’ll have to go through the whole stage all over again should they fall. It’s a simple but genius mechanic that adds an interesting twist on difficulty and balance.

The game features an appropriately simplistic story, with Shovel Knight traveling to defeat the knights of the Order of No Quarter in order to unlock the Tower of Fate, hoping against all odds to defeat the evil Enchantress and rescue his (presumed dead) partner, Shield Knight. What’s interesting about Shovel Knight’s story is that, simple as it is, the game finds time to provide some quiet story moments to make Shovel Knight a more sympathetic character than most of his 8-bit kin. And despite what the game’s title and its hero’s weapon of choice might suggest, the game and its story never once feel tongue-in-cheek. It earnestly pays homage to retro games and their simplicity, never falling prey to cheap and easy parodies.

Shovel KnightNaturally, Shovel Knight also includes a soundtrack reminiscent of the 8-bit classics that inspired it. Shovel Knight’s soundtrack is full of personality and energy, and can be compared favorably to many of the Mega Man soundtracks, which is no small feat. It also takes advantage of modern hardware by allowing more colorful visuals than the 8-bit games of yesteryear.

It’s hard not to be wowed by everything Shovel Knight accomplishes. Its tight, polished gameplay is complimented by fantastic level design, a nice difficulty curve, fun visuals and stellar music. It not only draws its inspiration from Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania, but it can sit comfortably alongside them in 8-bit glory.

 

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