Monday, December 27, 2010

Super Mario Bros. (1986)

     Everyone knows Mario, and most everyone is familiar with the heralded Super Mario Bros. So much so, that there's almost no need for an introduction. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Mario's hit on the Famicom, and it feels a little wrong not to celebrate with the rest of the world.
     Super Mario Bros., in it's no-save, tough-as-nails glory, really hasn't phased me as much as it should have. I enjoy it to an extent, but to this day I can only get past world 8-3. I've never saved Peach, nor have I felt the burning desire to try hard enough to get past that. 
     And yet, I own almost every North American release of the game, including the Game Boy Advance re-release, which in comparison to Super Mario Bros. Deluxe for the Game Boy Color was ironically inferior. What has kept not only myself, but millions of other gamers coming back to this 25-year-old game? For me, it couldn't possibly be nostalgia; I didn't grow up with the NES, and my first Mario game was Super Mario 64. 
     No, it would be wrong to chalk up the reason to something as labeled, as ordinary as nostalgia. What we have here can't be expressed in words. Super Mario Bros. has the power to turn children into gamers. When one picks up the controller, they just know what has to be done. It is quite clear in my memory that I had no question of how to play the game, and in a generation where tutorials are long, game play complexities high, and casuals be damned, Super Mario Bros offers no hand-holding. There is no clear explanation as to how to play the game, aside from the manual of course, and yet everyone who picks this game up for the first time knows that they must make Mario move to the right. Of course, there's much more to it than that- I can't make it to the final level, but I digress. To me, this is not only refreshing, but arguably what saved the video game industry.
     When viewed literally, like most games, Super Mario Bros. could have been a failure. Playing as a 40-something plumber shouldn't be fun, yet it was revolutionary. The vibrant, colorful worlds filled with mushrooms and turtles is inviting, and instantly accepted. There is no way to explain how Mario-creator Shigeru Miyamoto managed to single-handedly revive a dying market and revolutionize the way we play games, but he did. 
     The gameplay was flawless; I'm trying to think of anything I can say that could criticize it, but it is impossible. The music was flawless; with just three different tracks, Super Mario Bros.' music has such resonance in our culture today, with the main track subsequently being referenced in every Mario game in some form, and in the media. Humming the tune will most likely generate a feeling of familiarity in the minds of those around you who hear it. The only thing I could criticize is it's difficulty towards the end of the game, but I'm stopped by the fact that it's probably just my own lack of skill. 
     Seemingly the only way to explain the unquestionable fun of Super Mario Bros. would be to call it a miracle- you don't know how it happened, or why, but you accept it and appreciate it for what it is. There are better games to play, sure, but would those games exist had it not been for Super Mario Bros.? Probably not. Happy 25th, Mario.
One more copy of the same game shouldn't hurt, so why not really impress your friends, and get a copy of Super Mario Bros. for the Famicom off of eBay:

Monday, November 8, 2010

UmJammer Lammy (1999)

      The PlayStation fell ill to terrible, terrible games. Well, maybe it was just my PlayStation. I received mine pretty late into it's life cycle, and looking back on my collection, I didn't have any of the killer-apps that my friends fondly reminisce about. I never had a game developed or published by Squaresoft, not even a Final Fantasy. I never had a Crash Bandicoot. I never even had Metal Gear Solid. It could have been my age, or my ignorance, but I had games like Streak: Hoverboard Racing, A Bug's Life, Rugrats: the Search for Reptar, and Ninja: Shadow of Darkness. That just scratches the surface of filth. I had the first Tomb Raider, but even that was a port of a Sega Saturn game. Yet somehow, within this terrible pile of coasters, I enjoyed myself at the time. Then I got UmJammer Lammy. This game would not only be my first foray into the rhythm genre of gaming, but a massive wake up call to what I should be playing on my PlayStation: good games.
      Lammy opens as a Saturday morning cartoon, and keeps up that motif through the whole game. It even has the cliche catchphrases one would expect from a 90's cartoon protagonist. The overall challenge is to get Lammy to her band's gig on time, with the meat of the game leading you to that grand finale. Each challenge in the game is it's own little episode, which contains a brief introduction to the problem at hand, a song that you play through that solves said problem, and the outcome.
     Now, as a whole, UmJammer Lammy is completely ridiculous, yet this somehow not only works, but makes the game stand out with flying colors. All of the characters are represented by paper cutouts à la Paper Mario, but this fact is emphasized in the way they bend and move. There's absolutely no continuity as for what the characters are: they range from animals to aliens and vegetables. The songs themselves are fantastic, if not for their actual composition, then for how off-the-wall they are. Lammy has the uncanny ability to turn anything into a guitar to solve the townsfolk's problems; at one point, this lets her play a baby. I love everything about it. I think especially now, with the emphasis on realism in gaming, Lammy is refreshing and a necessary experience to remind gamers of what was so captivating about video games in the first place.
     Specifically for this review, I went back and played through the whole game- yes, the whole game. In one sitting. It's extremely short if your rhythmically gifted, but even taking that into consideration some of the challenges are pretty tough. Needless to say, it was a blast. Even if you haven't played the game, it is absolutely necessary to download the original soundtrack. I laughed. I cried. Well, not really.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout (1997)

      As mentioned prior, I love manga artist Akira Toriyama. Something about Dragon Ball Z's absurdly muscled fighters gently levitating in the air and screaming for half-an-hour has had me hooked for 12 years now. With continual re-releases and new toy sets based on a long-dead anime/manga, it's safe to say that Z's allure has captured the imagination and closet wrestler of us all. 
      And yet, while Dragon Ball was still a relevant series, there was not one good fighting game based on it. Beginning with the Famicom, every release had the potential to take all that was great about Dragon Ball's ridiculous fights and put them in the control of countless rabid fans with the one requirement of being a good game. That's all the fans wanted. Released for the PlayStation, Bandai delivered Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout.
      Final Bout was released just as the Dragon Ball series was finishing up in Japan, thus Bandai had the series' entire back-catalog to form the game's roster. Just thinking of all the potential "what if?" fights I could have staged makes me giggle. Given the PlayStation's limited memory, Bandai should have been frugal with their character choices. Instead, they opted towards having multiple iterations of the same character.

     I count at least five Gokus and three Trunks.

      And that's not even the worst of it! Following the character selection is quite possibly the worst pre-match taunt accompanied by the worst voice actors the English localization team could have found. In Bandai's defense, Final Bout was released even before Dragon Ball Z hit Toonami in '98. Not only were they localizing a game who's namesake was based on a show that hadn't made it overseas, but there also wasn't an established English vocal cast yet. However, this doesn't account for the actual fights themselves to still have the prerecorded Japanese voice actors for every Kamehameha, Big Bang Attack and jump. This provides a nice touch of inauthenticity, as the males in the Japanese Z have quite high-pitched voices, especially when in contrast against the American dub. Perhaps they were lazy? Maybe they wanted the presentation to reflect how half-assed the actual game play was. 
      Oh God, here comes the game play. There is not one thing about the controls that I can praise. I remember subscribing to Beckett's Dragon Ball Z Collector magazine when I was twelve, and they had a section in one issue dedicated to importing Dragon Ball games. They had a review of Final Bout, and it closed with how badly the controls were. Picture this: there's a tiny man who's sole purpose is to tell the characters in Final Bout what action to perform. In order to do said action, you have to manually write out what the action is, hand it to the little man, who in turn runs down the entire length of the PlayStation controller chord, and delivers the action to the character on screen. Beckett's simile was so spot on, that I'm actually questioning whether or not they're on to something. Playing this game requires an unforgivable amount of dedication, investment, and patience; it's almost like having a relationship with the game, yet I've had relationships that have lasted shorter than how long it takes Vegeta to turn around. 
      This game is not worth the 30+ dollars it costs to find a copy of the original 1997 American release, and it's not worth the fifteen dollars I spent importing it when I was twelve. There was a re-release in 2004 when Dragon Ball GT actually started airing in America, so the value has naturally gone down, but why bother?


Friday, October 8, 2010

Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: The Fighting Edition (1995)

     It's a safe assumption that if you were a boy in elementary school in the early '90s, and liked smashing things, you were smitten with the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. It's execution of huge mechs and monsters going toe-to-toe was unrivaled up to that point, and as a kid, it was awesome. With a franchise as popular as Mighty Morphin', the inevitability of terrible, officially incensed games was predictable. 
     Not so with The Fighting Edition. Though the box art does a terrific job leading the buyer to assume the game must be terrible as well, I assure you it's a façade. Disregard the universe it's set in, and you're presented with a really decent fighting game. 
     With a cast of four Megazords and four villains, The Fighting Edition is essentially your basic 2D fighter, except with amazing visuals and a gimmick that works surprisingly well: underneath your health bar is a secondary bar that repeatedly refills and empties over the course of the battle. I discovered through playing that if you pull off a special move right as the bar is completely filled and flashing, the bar will change color. Repeat the process several times, and you pull off a super fancy, oh-my-god-what-the-hell-is-going-on move. It's really cool, and it's a nice touch to the overall metagame, as it requires impeccable timing.
     When it comes to every fighter I've ever played, I shamefully adhere to the button-mashing code of suck. However, I actually found a bit of a scapegoat from my routine in The Fighting Edition. The game is actually really easy to pick up and play; I figured out your basic Hadouken equivalents and physical combos fairly easily, which is kind of a big deal for me. When I played the game with a few buddies, it was even easy for them to pose a serious challenge to my patented "Mash the D-Pad in a counter-clockwise motion, while repeatedly pressing the energy button" strategy (which, might I add, is exactly what I told them to do.). I think part of The Fighting Edition's pick-up-and-play focus could be attributed to the fact that it's demographic is 10-year-old's, but that really doesn't detract from the game. 
     The visuals and sound are pretty great! The included fighters are very accurate representations of their television counterparts, and they move very fluidly. Once I got a Game Over in the Arcade/Story mode, I was treated with an illustrated depiction of Lord Zedd that was one of the best looking images to ever come off of a SNES, hands-down. The soundtrack that serves as a supplement to your brawls contains a pretty faithful composition of the main theme, as well as other songs featured from the show. I had a good laugh with most of the backgrounds, though. For example:


     It's good to see that Zordon finally upgraded to that 700 foot flat-screen plasma he always wanted. I don't remember the Command Center taking place inside of a computer. I digress, the game is very detailed, and one of the better-looking fighters on the SNES. 
     Coupled with the gimmick mentioned prior, The Fighting Edition really is a solid fighting game, and even hardcore fighters should find a home with it. Though there aren't any outstanding flaws in the game, it's more of a game to play in quick bursts or simply for those bursts of nostalgia with a few friends. 
     Also, Shogun Megazord is terribly, terribly broken. I had a rougher time fighting him than I did with the final boss. It isn't his size exactly, it's more of how much straight up discipline they managed to pack into one character. It's like, all of the other characters are balanced simply because the majority of the available programming was put into Shogun Megazord's flaming sword. When playing as Shogun Megazord, I can't even beat Shogun Megazord, yet he's based solely around defense. I'm thinking that if you land one hit on him, then stand still, blocking, Shogun Megazord won't know what to do, and you'll win simply because the time runs out. He's so used to kicking total and complete ass that he won't know what to do. He's accustomed to being approached first that he can't make the first move. It's almost crippling for him. Shogun Megazord has Asperger's.  

Buy Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: The Fighting Edition (feat. Shogun Megazord) on Amazon 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Go Go Ackman (1994)

     Like the other boys in my 7th grade, I followed the trend of obsessively watching Dragon Ball Z, and in turn worshiping Akira Toriyama, and every piece of manga and video game artwork he produced. During one of our Toriyama-researching binges, a friend of mine had found a Super Famicom game that had somehow gone under the radar: Go Go Ackman. Best described as an action platformer, it held our interest for about half an hour before we moved on to looking up Dragon Ball Z hentai involving Android 18 and Dr. Gero. A grave decision on my part, as we spent more time looking at that than playing this surprisingly well-made platformer. I know now that it was time wasted indeed.
     I recently re-obtained the game, and it's incredibly good! The game never saw a release Stateside, so the dialogue is completely in Japanese. However, there's a surprising amount of English in the menus; more than enough to get one's grips of how to play. From what I can vaguely understand given the language barrier, you're Ackman. There's a cherub that for whatever reason is your nemesis, and you have to make your way past his minions to arrive at the inevitable showdown between the two of you.
     I'm a sucker for 2D platformers, and this one takes the tried-and-true formula and ups it a few dozen pegs past my expectations. Ackman traverses through about 9 different stages to get to each end-of-stage boss battle, defeating cherubs, monsters, and humans along the way. At first glance it comes off as a standard, run of the mill licensed platformer that the Super Famicom/SNES was quite partial to in the early '90s. Not so! In hidden nooks, Ackman can obtain power-ups to easily ward of any challenge to come his way. These range from bombs, swords, boomerangs, and in one level, a jetpack. As if that weren't enough, the second level is completely vehicular and solidified my adoration for this game; Ackman, behind the wheel of a sports car, weaving his way past landmines, and around cherubs on hover bikes is the red ribbon of the creativity in this game. These additions add a really nice hook to the game that makes it stand out from other platformers, aside from the tight controls and it's beautiful visuals, in vibrant 16-bit glory. Speaking of which...
     The visuals! The details shine throughout the game, so much so that there's no question that Toriyama did the artwork for this game. The backgrounds are multi-layered, with clouds moving at different rates and close scenery passing from view faster than images farther away. It provides a nice touch of depth to each world, and it's appreciated. The sprites are larger than the Super Nintendo norm, providing near-perfect recreations of the characters in the manga this game is allegedly based upon. Each character, namely Ackman himself, has many different individual frames for each motion as well. Everything is really detailed and a treat to view.
    Of the two qualms I have with Go Go Ackman, the one that bothers me the most is how bland the music is. It isn't bad or irritating, really, but I honestly can't remember one memorable track from the game. It's a shame because the soundtrack for a video game is always the one thing that really stands out in a video game for me. I understand that's just personal preference, and it may not matter to most, but in this case it's a problem. The other qualm, if you can call it that, is the lack of a save feature. I tend to look past this, though, because the difficulty isn't ridiculous, and the game itself is fairly short for a platformer.
     I beat Go Go Ackman in about an hour and a half, but that actually didn't bother me! Compared to the sprawling RPG's and FPS's of the current generation, Go Go Ackman was a nice change of pace and equally fulfilling in enjoyment through playing and the impression it left on my afterward. It's a really fun, good-looking game, and it's worth a look if you're looking for something freshly retro...if that makes sense.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Banjo-Kazooie (1998)

     Banjo-Kazooie is a platformer developed by the Twycross, England-based Rareware. Following the fail-safe pattern of developing masterpieces on the SNES, Rare developed a string of masterpieces on the Nintendo 64 throughout the late 90's, often being cited as one of the few developers who brought the little system any revenue. If you're curious, this game is one of those masterpieces.
     Originally conceived as a game for the SNES, Banjo-Kazooie began life under the project name Dream. Dream, from what Rare's following has pieced together, was initially a completely different game, with Banjo-Kazooie's leading honey bear, Banjo, a mere supporting character. One thing lead to another, and while it appears most of the story of Dream was scrapped, it ultimately became one of the most glorious pieces of platforming gamers have ever experienced.
     The story of Banjo-Kazooie is that of a standard fairy-tale; a witch captures the damsel-in-distress, thus the hero must rise to the damsel's aid and ultimately saves the day. Banjo, with the aid of his breegul-buddy Kazooie strapped to his back, must traverse through nine beautifully rendered worlds collecting various objects that will aid him in his quest to save his sister Tooty from the clutches of the evil witch Gruntilda. Grunty has captured Tooty because... she's the fairest of all. In a throwback to Snow White, Grunty's jealousy hatches into a plot to take Tooty's beauty with the aid of her right-hand grunt Klungo. By collecting musical notes to open locked doors, and jigsaw puzzle pieces to open new worlds, or "jiggies", Banjo and Kazooie must make their way to the top of Grunty's tower to save his sister from impending ugliness... It isn't exactly the greatest back-story, but doesn't take away from the quality of the game in any way. Because Banjo-Kazooie is intended to be a light-hearted adventure, it actually fits quite fine. In every other way, the writing is great. The exchange in dialogue between characters is often very humorous and sarcastic, and it was one of the most text-heavy platformers- I mean that in a good way, of course.
     Upon blowing into the cartridge, and turning the power on, I was greeted with a song-and-dance introduction composed by the wonderfully talented Grant Kirkhope. Oh God, the music! Kirkhope has done most of the musical segments for Rare's back catalog, throughout the 64-bit era up until his unfortunate departure from Rare in 2008. The music is nothing short of fantastic, even if towards the end of the game most of the later songs end up having bits of the same music from earlier pieces. Regardless, it perfectly captures the overall feel of the setting of Banjo-Kazooie. Actually, I downloaded the soundtrack some time ago and willingly listen to it on a regular basis; it's that good! One thing I really loved about the music was the seamless transitions between pieces. Kirkhoppe actually composed several completely different versions of every area's theme. These songs changed frequently; for example, if Banjo were to go underwater or into a structure, the area's theme would change to fit the setting. It was such a cool addition that I don't think many games had done up to that point.
     Rare has always been known to go above and beyond the graphical expectations of consoles, and Banjo-Kazooie is no exception. The colors are so vibrant, and every character and enemy has their own distinguished look and feel. Enemies are rarely recycled, with most pertaining to the theme of their respective levels. The attention to detail that the developers paid really shines in every area, and there's never any sign of repetition in that regard.
      Unfortunately, Banjo-Kazooie adheres to Rare's decision to turn every platformer into a collect-o'-thon. There isn't as much back-tracking when compared to, say, Donkey Kong 64, but collecting the 900 musical notes scattered across the worlds and the tens of Jiggies required to reach Gruntilda could come off as tedious to some, but it didn't bother me too much. The difficulty is never insane, and it offers a bit of a challenge to 100% the game, a feat I heartily enjoyed completing.
      Rare really outdid themselves with Banjo-Kazooie. I'm pretty sure that most everyone who was a '64-kid in the '90's has beaten this one ten times over by now, but if for whatever ill-fated reason you haven't played it, the game has since been re-released in HD on the XBOX Live Arcade for a mere fifteen dollars. You could even pick up the cartridge for cheaper than that if you're a Nintendo-purist. Regardless of how you play it, you owe it to yourself not to miss out on this gem.

   Buy Banjo-Kazooie on