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Donkey Kong Land: A Retro Review

When going through my archives, I noticed this old post about Donkey Kong Land had been mysteriously deleted and was no longer available on the site.  I actually really liked that post, so I’m restoring it from my Google Docs backup.  I’m being lazy and assuming the backup is the final draft without any proofreading, so I’m hoping there aren’t any embarrassing typos or errors.

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Long before Rare revived the Donkey Kong character with their watershed, Silicon Graphics-infused Donkey Kong Country, Game Boy actually got a pretty rockin’ renewal of the classic arcade game in the form of 1994’s Donkey Kong.  DK94 (as its commonly distinguished today) was an amazing game that stood out among platformers at the time with a fairly unique focus on puzzle platforming in creatively condensed level designs.  Despite being a legendary DK title today, at the time, it was quickly overshadowed by the SNES release of Donkey Kong Country which appeared later that year.  DKC’s impact on the gaming landscape was immense, and the the series it spawned went a long way toward keeping the Super Nintendo not just relevant but dominant until preparations were finished for the N64’s release.  Rare would churn out two infamous SNES sequels in the same number of years, but perhaps less known is the series of similarly annualized  Game Boy Donkey Kong Land games which have faded into obscurity behind the DKC trilogy, as well as the beloved DK94.  Fortunately for gamers though, both the SNES DKCs and Game Boy DKLs have recently made a return via Virtual Console for Wii U and 3DS.

The big hook of Donkey Kong Country is, of course, the use of CG pre-rendered 3D sprites and environments that were widely regarded as “tubular” in the dialect that dominated the mid-1990’s.  In an age when real time polygonal graphics were still very crude, the pre-rendered graphics of DKC were colorful, detailed, and well-realized and were made all the more incredible by being available on the Super Nintendo machines that had been available for years.  Rare was a company that was well-known for its technical wizardry and revitalizing gamer’s admiration for the capabilities of the SNES hardware simply wasn’t enough for them, and, consequently, 1995’s Donkey Kong Land, a monochrome Game Boy game sporting the same pre-rendered 3D graphics as its console parallel, was concocted.

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Impressive graphics for the time and hardware.

Donkey Kong Land is contradictorily both one of the most impressively designed and most poorly thought out games to come out during the long lifespan of the portable platform.  Rare largely succeeded in bringing its impressive pre-rendered graphics to the handheld, but it came at a huge cost.  The simple truth is that the tiny, dimly lit, monochrome, low-res, heavily motion blur-afflicted LCD screen of the system complimented the intricately-detailed DKC-style exceptionally poorly.  The level of detail is such that it’s just hard to tell what’s happening on screen sometimes.  This may not be as apparent on the 3DS VC releases, as the 3DS features a far brighter and crisper screen than the old brick, but the complex grayscale shading of the pre-rendered graphics just makes everything sort of blur together in many scenes.  This is easily the most commonly cited criticism I’ve heard against the game.

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The map of the second world.

When I originally played this game around the time of its release, I was definitely amazed by the graphics, but there was something off about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until the underwater sections in the second world.  I think those underwater levels are actually some of the hardest to follow because of the busy visual design, and they were also the point I finally realized that the graphics were just too elaborate to display clearly on the primitive Game Boy LCD.  Back then, my young brain couldn’t immediately comprehend how something could be a technological leap but also a hindrance.  Today, I feel like so many people are cynical toward advances in video game technology, insisting that we’ve hit a point of diminishing returns, but back in the ‘90s we were exhilarated by the rapidly advancing state of hardware.  Sometimes, it was hard for us to grasp that there would be missteps along the way of progress, and more technically sophisticated graphics weren’t always better by default.  I think Donkey Kong Land first provided that realization for me.

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DKL features sport some interesting locales like these cloud levels.

While I agree that the graphics were a hindrance, I don’t want to give the impression that they completely ruin the game.  When first playing it, I remember I eventually adapted my eyes to focus such that I could keep up with the action more easily.  Actually, I think the game has some far bigger problems than graphics.  The game has an incongruous difficulty level for the platform that I think is its real flaw.  The platforming in this game requires very tight maneuvers which can at times be unfairly arduous, since due to the size of the Game Boy screen, you can’t see very far ahead of the character.  You don’t really want to be running because its easy to bump into an enemy you haven’t seen yet, but many of the jumps require you to be at the elevated speed to successfully land.  To exacerbate the issue, the collision detection is often unpredictable.  Often times, you’ll feel as if you’re about to land a jump but slip through the edge of the platform, or you’ll get struck down by an enemy you could’ve swore you landed on top of.  I think this kind of graceless platforming design is a far bigger issue for the game.  Also, to top it all off, the save system really does not compliment the portable experience very well.  In DKL, the save screen is only accessed after collecting all four Kong coins in a level.  Collecting the coins is fairly easy in the early goings, but in the later stages, you often go a fair few levels without finding all of these collectibles, meaning your cut off from saving.  Such extended periods between saves just aren’t suitable to an on-the-go experience (which is the on-going theme of this game’s design).

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The first underwater level was a particularly difficult struggle for the eyes.

With all that said, I do think Donkey Kong Land has some strong points.  Although only really explained in the manual, the story has always struck me as somewhat clever.  Although you ostensibly fight the Kremlings and K. Rool, the actual villain seems to be Cranky Kong who, out of jealousy for the success of DKC, schemes with the Kremlings to create an 8-bit challenge for Donkey and Diddy that has the banana hoard on the line.  Consequently, DKL features an entirely new set of levels divided across 4 worlds: a pirate ship, a sunken ruin, a mountain, and a city.  Several of these levels have themes, enemies, and gimmicks that I’m not sure have been done in other DKC games.  For instance, there are levels that take place up in the clouds, on construction sites, on mountain cliff sides, etc.  For all of its flaws, there’s a fair bit of originality on display in the game.  And of course, on top of all that, the music is excellent.  (David Wise was credited as a composer.)  When replaying the VC release, I realized just how many tunes that have been stuck in my head for years were heard from this game.

Two sequels would follow DKL, both released across the two subsequent years that followed the original.  Honestly, I never played the sequels when they were originally released, but after having a go at the VC releases, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the first DKL.  The sequels are unlike DKL in that they are actually just miniaturized versions of their DKC counterparts (Diddy Kong’s Quest and Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!).  As far as I can tell, the levels in these games are Game Boy-ized facsimiles of those found in the console games, very closely similar in layout and design with some small changes made to accommodate for the differences in hardware.  Definitely, the lack of originality was a bit of a bummer in light of the completely unique DKL.

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I may be wrong, but I don’t think a city like this was ever depicted in the other Rare Donkey Kongs.

More interestingly, however, is that the graphics are greatly simplified from Donkey Kong Land.  The backgrounds are not fully computer rendered and instead have a “penciled in” quality to them.  This definitely raises the visibility of the on-screen action, and, presumably, that was the intention.  I have some doubts, however.  It’s not just the backgrounds that have been “reduced,”  the sprites also have this sort of lower quality feel to them.  I think its easy to see what I mean when you compare the KONG tokens, as I’ve demonstrated below.  I’ve always wondered if the real reason for the changes to the backgrounds was that Rare appropriated a lower budget to sequels.  These games came out in the years just before Pokemon dropped, and I’ve heard that Game Boy sales were in a slump during that period, so Rare may not have wanted to invest as much effort into the platform.

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The pencil like backgrounds of DKL2 provides for better contrast with objects on screen.

As I close out this post, I’m sure I may leave some readers with a difficult impression as to whether the 3DS VC release of DKL is worth playing for those with no prior experience with the game.  That’s a difficult question to answer.  The massively superior 3DS screen alleviates many of the problems with the difficult to discern graphics that had to be endured on the far less crisp Game Boy display.  But the erratic and fickle difficulty design, of course, still remains.  Think about it, though, I realize that the first SNES DKC also had this aspect at times.  Ultimately, I think fans of the SNES DKCs who might have never played this version but are looking for something new to sate their nostalgia will enjoy this game.  It does put more than a few of its own twists on the DKC formula, and the availability of save states on the 3DS VC will definitely provide a less stressful alternative to the game’s original save system.  Unfortunately, I think those without much affinity to the series will not gain as much fulfillment from this game, especially if they haven’t played the SNES counterparts which are superior and without question better games to check out first.

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Picross S!

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I love Picross.  But I also kind of hate Picross.  Picross is Nintendo’s version of nonograms, a type of pencil-and-paper puzzle similar to crosswords or sudoku.  That might sound boring at first, but there’s something about nonograms that make them more interesting in video game form than crosswords or sudoku.  Perhaps it’s the Nintendo touch, but it might also be that the relative complexity of this type of puzzle makes it work better in an electronic format.

Picross starts with a square grid of unfilled tiles with each row and column bordered by a series of numbers.  The idea behind picross is that you fill in uninterrupted blocks of tiles in each row or column based on the numbers that line the grid.  So if a row has a 3 5 next to it, that means you need to fill in a string of 3 tiles followed by a string of 5 tiles with at least one unfilled tile in between these strings.  The trick is that the tiles you fill in for that row or column must be consistent with the requirements of the columns or rows that run through it.  The game is called Picross because each puzzle should make a crude pixelated image when the tiles are filled in correctly.

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I think like most people in the U.S., I was introduced to Picross through Picross DS.  I have to confess something now.  I have a secret dark history with the Picross series, specifically, Picross DS.  There were a few weeks of my life that I was maybe a little too hooked on that game.  I would sit down after coming home in the afternoon and open up my DS and tell myself that I would only play for fifteen or twenty minutes, but before I knew it, hours would go by and the entire evening would have evaporated.   I would complete one puzzle and would tell myself, just one more!, and keep going and going.  I guess the dopamine rush I would get from solving each grid just made me not want to stop.

Eventually, I sort of triggered on the fact that spending so much time with the game was probably unhealthy.  I considered just throwing the game in the trash to deprive myself of the addiction, but I ultimately decided this would be wasteful.  I distinctly remember pulling the game out of the DS and sticking it back in its case and then burying it deep within my closet so that it would be hard to get to.  And with that, my obsession with the game just sort of dissipated.

Since then I’ve been more successful at playing new Picross games, although I haven’t played them all.  I’ve been able to avoid falling down the rabbit hole that I did with Picross DS.  But each time one comes out, I still get a little suspicious that it might make me fall into the old habit.  I especially liked Picross 3D and a few of the Picross e games that were released on 3DS.  Pokémon Picross I thought was interesting, but I’m not a big Pokémon guy and didn’t really feel the need to pay to unlock the full game.

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The latest Picross game that I’ve hopped on board with is Picross S, recently released on the Switch.  Unlike games like Picross 3D and Pokémon Picross that attempted to inject new ideas into the series, Picross S is a fairly standard expression of Picross.   There are two modes, standard picross and mega-picross, each which I think have 150 puzzles a piece.  The standard mode is Picross according to its most basic ruleset, while the mega-picross mode changes up the formula by having hints that span adjacent columns or rows.  Mega-picross has been featured as a side mode in previous editions, but I think this game has the largest collection of mega-picross puzzles in the series yet.

To be honest, even though I’ve been a picross addict in the past, something about this version just wasn’t doing it for me.  The standard version of Picross just felt rote and boring.  I got fairly deep into this mode before realizing that I just wasn’t really enjoying it all that much.  My guess is that my lackluster feelings are more a result of me burning out on Picross and less a result of the quality of work they’ve done on this game.

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As the monotony of the standard mode set in, I turned my attention to Mega-Picross mode and……wow, I got more than I expected out of it.  Mega-Picross has been featured in some of the past editions, but I don’t think it has ever been given equal focus to the standard mode like it has in Picross S.  It’s always really been a side mode.  Personally, I’ve never really messed around with this variant of the game much.  I guess I’ve really just been too lazy to learn it. The new rules can be quite intimidating at first.  But after really taking some time to understand how it works, I could immediately feel myself getting hooked again like old times.  The new dimensions of logical reasoning this mode adds were a real shot in the arm for the Picross formula.

Picross S is a good package.  With just standard picross and mega-picross, it’s far from the most innovative or ambitious title in the series.  While other releases (with the exception of Picross 3D) were also heavily focused on vanilla picross, they did try to introduce new side modes and mechanics to experiment with the formula.  But Picross S fortunately makes up for its lack of adventurousness with just a lot of content.  I don’t think any of the picross games on 3DS delivered this many puzzles for $8.

Honestly though, I don’t think I’ll be going back to anything that is simply vanilla picross.  It’s just gotten old to me.  While mega-picross has been satisfying, I think it’s time they come up with another major reinvention of the game like they did with Picross 3D.  Hopefully, picross will see as bright of a future on Switch as it did on DS and 3DS, and we will see something revolutionary materialize.

 

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe!

In the wake of the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, I’ve heard a lot of people contend that Mario Kart 8 was the best of the series, and I think they probably have a reasonable point.  I personally feel that it’s kind of hard to name one Mario Kart the “best” out of all of them.  They each have their own unique strengths, but also their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies.  MK8 was and is a really amazing game, though, and quite possibly my favorite of the entire series.  It’s great that it’s come to the Switch., but I vacillated quite a bit on whether I would purchase this new deluxe version.  Ultimately, I bit the bullet as it’s always hard to resist this series.

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While there have been several tweaks to the racing side of Mario Kart 8, a revamped battle mode is the most prominent addition, which replaces the Wii U original’s relatively hated and water-downed offering.  This time they’ve actually created 8 new arenas specifically for battle mode, as opposed to what they did on the Wii U which was to reuse the racing tracks from the grand prix.  This alone makes the new battle mode a huge improvement.  In addition, they’ve added several new game types that offer a lot of variety to the player.  To be honest, I haven’t really put a lot of time into battle mode since Double Dash.  They’ve really neglected this part of the series over the years, as it was also less than stellar in Mario Kart Wii.  I’m a huge fan of car combat games, and MK8D’s improvements in this feature have been a great addition, but, to be honest, I still find myself leaning more to the racing side of the game.  There’s just something about the raw adrenaline and speed of the racing mode that gets me hooked.

While the revamped battle mode may be the big new addition to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, they’ve also made some tweaks to the racing mode, as well.  Unfortunately, it’s nothing major, only two changes really stand out.  The first major tweak is that drifting now rewards a third tier of sparks, pink sparks, that give an even greater boost than the blue sparks. The more noticeable change, however, is that racers are allowed to hold two items at a time, similar to Double Dash on the Gamecube.  Unlike DD, though, they can’t switch between the items they’re holding.  Whichever item comes up first must be used first before the second item can be fired off.  

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It’s a bit annoying, as sometimes I find myself wasting the “top” item just so I can use the “bottom” item.  I imagine this was a feature that was actually meant to improve battle mode by reducing the amount of time the players have to spend seeking out item boxes, but even so, Double Dash’s implementation offers much more strategic depth.  I’m actually wondering if the reason they don’t let players switch between items is because it would require an extra button, and the game already uses all the buttons available on a single Joycon controller.  

There are a few new characters added to the game, such as King Boo and the Inkling characters from Splatoon, but regrettably there are no new racing tracks added.  The 16 DLC tracks for MK8 on the Wii U are included out of the box, however.  The lack of new racing content is probably the biggest bummer to me.  Historically, there has only been one Mario Kart game per Nintendo console (not including VC), and I guess a big part of my disappointment stems from uncertainty as to whether or not this will be the only MK released for Switch.  I really really hope we don’t have to wait for the Switch’s successor to get new MK content.

Ultimately, I went back and forth on whether I should spend money on MK8D.  I was a huge fan of the game on the Wii U, but I questioned whether MK8D offered enough new content to be a worthwhile reinvestment.  In the end, it came down to my interest in battle mode as a car combat fan, but mainly was due to my desire to retire my Wii U.  When I travel to see family and friends, I often lug the Wii U with me so we can play Smash and MK, as I did with the Wii before it.  Nintendo systems have always been the “party systems” to me, at least since the N64.  Unlike Sony, Microsoft, and all the third parties, Nintendo still puts a lot of emphasis on local multiplayer.  It’s hard to even think of great local multiplayer games from recent times that weren’t made by Nintendo.

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The Wii U was just super annoying to travel with, however.  Between the gamepad and its charger and the console and its power box and the sensor bar and the extra controllers, it’s all just a lot to have to pack up and carry around.  Worse yet, I got a big scratch on the corner of my gamepad while traveling with it that just drives me crazy.  The Switch, on the other hand, also has a number of pieces to keep track of, but it’s all much more compact and manageable.  I was able to buy a nice carrying case on Amazon that I really like that can fit both the Switch tablet and the dock, as well as extra controllers and cables, and it makes taking the system on the go with me much less frustrating.

Honestly, it’s just been great to play MK8 again, and I’m really enjoying both racing and battle modes.  If you haven’t played MK8 before and own a Switch, I highly recommend it.  For those of us who’ve played MK8 on the Wii U, it’s a harder value proposition, since I don’t think the new additions will necessarily justify a full price purchase for everyone who has already played the game to death.  Regardless, I don’t think it’s a game that will leave any Mario Kart fans unsatisfied.

My Top 5 Wii U Games

The Wii U ended up being a surprisingly forward thinking platform for Nintendo.  Although its central conceit of introducing second screen gameplay hasn’t gone very far, it managed to introduce a few exciting new series to Nintendo’s stable that pushed what we all thought the company was capable of.  Games like Splatoon and Mario Maker marked incredibly successful forays into online multiplayer functionality and community building, while established series like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. received a long tail of support and substantial new content post-release.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to look at Wii U as a low point for the company, especially after the obscenely successful Wii.  Some of Nintendo’s best series have gone missing or fell flat on the machine.  No Metroid, no Animal Crossing, a lackluster Paper Mario game, a Zelda game delayed all the way to the launch of its successor, a Star Fox title that baffled a lot of gamers, sporadic and inconsistent Virtual Console support.  The Wii U has definitely had some high-highs, but also some low-lows.

In the end, I enjoyed the Wii U, even if it did sit idle for months at a time.  Now with the Switch finally out in the wild, I’ve decided to highlight my favorite 5 games of the Wii U (in no particular order).


 

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Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

Captain Toad was a smaller Wii U title that doesn’t get as much credit as I think it’s due.  This game is a spin-off of the Captain Toad levels from Super Mario 3D World, but I think it actually managed to be something far more interesting and imaginative than the those small bonus stages in its progenitor.  Treasure Tracker differentiates itself from 3D World by focusing on puzzle platforming that tasks the player with getting the main characters (Captain Toad and Toadette) across small 3D levels without the ability to jump.  The game displays a huge range of imagination across its many tiny but dense levels, similar to the kind of creativity and diversity that you would find in a mainline 3D Mario game.

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Super Mario 3D World

Although I think I prefer the Super Mario Galaxy games, Super Mario 3D World (and Land on the 3DS) are undeniably great Mario games.  While the sidescrolling New Super Mario Bros. series has gotten stale, 3D World lives up to the imagination and inventiveness of its 3D Mario predecessors.  The simple fun and wonderment of this game was a huge source of brightness in my life when I originally played it.  I wish I had more thoughtful things to say about it, but it’s just pure, uncompromised Mario goodness, the kind of which is a reminder why this character has been the de facto mascot of gaming for over 30 years running.

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Super Mario Maker

I liked the first two New Super Mario Bros. games, especially the Wii one, but like a lot of other gamers, I thought the series quickly started to stagnate, with the 3DS and Wii U games being less than inspiring.  I was beginning to think that classic sidescrolling Mario had run its course again, but then came one of the most impressive games I’ve played in many years, Super Mario Maker.  For a company as stubborn and old-fashioned as Nintendo, Mario Maker was a huge surprise with its focus on online community and user created content, two things Nintendo rarely exhibits an interest in.  I had a ton of fun playing community levels, but also I was surprised at how much my imagination was stoked while creating my own levels in the editor.

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Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8 may very well be number 1 amongst Mario Kart titles for me.  I think in trying to tone down the chaoticness of Mario Kart Wii, Mario Kart 7 ended up feeling rather boring and uninspired.  Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, managed to find the perfect balance between creatively-designed courses and combat and well-balanced racing challenge.  Also, building on what I said about Super Mario Maker, Mario Kart 8 was surprisingly modern and forward-thinking for a Nintendo game and featured a competently designed online mode and DLC packs that actually provided substantial content to the game.

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Super Smash Bros. 4

I often drag the Wii U home for the holidays to see family, because we typically plug a lot of time into Mario Kart together (as we did with the Wii before it).  All that changed, however, after I introduced Super Smash Bros. 4.  At first, my sisters were really unsure about this mess of a fighting game, but it didn’t take long for them to get hooked.  Featuring a ton of great characters from across Nintendo’s history, like Bowser Jr., Ike, and Little Mac, but also a few not so great characters, like Villager and Dark Pit, Smash Bros. is an amazing gift to Nintendo fandom, but also just a fundamentally good game for friends and family from one of the few companies that still puts a lot of effort into high-quality local multiplayer games.


Well, after writing this list, I’m suddenly realizing that it’s basically all games featuring Mario or the Mario universe.  Of course, there were a few non-Mario games that I came close to adding to the list, namely Splatoon deserves credit.  The two Zelda remakes (Wind Waker and Twilight Princess) were also pretty good, but I would rather not count remakes in a list of like this.  The releases have been thin over the years, but I’m hoping they’ve been saving up for the Switch.  Definitely, I’m excited for Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Splatoon 2, and I’m curious about ARMS.  Even though the Wii U had its troubles, I’m cautiously excited for Switch.  Nintendo has its ups and downs, but they’ve always managed to maintain consistent quality over an impressively long history.

Kirby’s Star Stacker!

The final months of the year always mean handheld gaming for me due to the travel that time of year always necessitates.  I always try to load up my 3DS with a few games to get me through the season.  Back in November, Nintendo was having a sale on a handful of Virtual Console titles, and I decided to snag Kirby’s Star Stacker for the measly price of $1.49.  I have mixed feelings about Virtual Console.  I would love to load up my 3DS with a bunch of classic games, but knowing that these purchases won’t transfer over to future Nintendo platforms is strongly off-putting.  Consequently, I tend to only buy things when they go on sale for super cheap (which they rarely do considering Nintendo’s aversion to sales).

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Star Stacker is a Game Boy falling block puzzle game of the kind that was so prominent back in those days.  In this entry of the genre, falling from the top of the screen are dimeric blocks that are composed of either star tiles (or other special tiles) or animal tiles featuring one of Kirby’s three animal friends (the hamster, owl, and fish from Kirby’s Dreamland 2).  The goal of the game is to specifically eliminate sequences of star tiles, which is done by sandwiching any number of them between two matching animal tiles.  For each star tile that is eliminated, a counter on the right side of the screen is reduced, and the round is cleared when the counter hits zero.  The counter is meant to be indicative of King Dedede’s HP, and his face hovers above it while displaying a range of emotions in reaction to the player’s current condition.  In addition, any time two or more matching animal tiles touch each other directly, they are eliminated from the screen, but these do not affect the counter.  In later rounds of the game, special tiles come into play, like bombs that wipe out a row of tiles when triggered.  

As a falling block puzzler,  Star Stacker’s main mode is more akin to Dr. Mario than the archetype’s progenitor, Tetris.  Star Stacker is composed of discrete stages that begin with a preset configuration of blocks and end when King Dedede’s HP has been depleted.  Thus, stages in Star Stacker are more like stages in Dr. Mario where the player has to clear a preset configuration of the virus enemies to progress, as opposed to Tetris where the entire game is one continuous session and the stage number rolls over when a certain score threshold has been met.  I think I tend to prefer Star Stacker and Dr. Mario’s style, as completing handcrafted stages gives me a better sense of progression.  Usually, I don’t care much for games that are purely score attack, especially when there are no online hooks to foster competition.   

Star Stacker initially offers the player four difficulty modes (Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and Super Hard) each with their own unique sets of stages.  Despite their formidable names, these modes aren’t especially challenging.  The thing about this part of Star Stacker is that it’s actually really easy to get lucky and wipe out huge portions of Dedede’s HP in one move.  There were many many times when I was on the edge of filling up the screen, but then, out of nowhere, I triggered a long chain reaction that that wiped out a huge number of blocks and slid me to victory.

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In this first part of Star Stacker, it’s just really easy to “accidentally” set off massive chain reactions.  I think it’s because it doesn’t take much to make a match in this game.  There are only three animal tiles, and it only takes two adjacent to each other to make a match, so the probability of matches being formed as part of a chain is very high.  This is exacerbated by the fact that, as a reward, after each step of a chain, the game will randomly dump clusters of transient star blocks that can make matching sequences like normal star blocks, and only exist for the duration of the chain reaction (they disappear afterwards).  I realize I’m probably not explaining that last concept well, but I’m just mentioning it to illustrate that chains in the game tend to be self-propagating, which makes it easy to wipe out huge chunks of Dedede’s HP in one swoop.  This adds a huge element of luck (which strongly favors the player) to the game.  Personally, my brain is really only fast enough predict chain reactions up to the second, maybe third, step in the chain, so any additional matches I get past that is pure luck.

While even Super Hard mode seems like a breeze, the game shows its true colors once this last “normal” mode has been beat, and the secret Insane mode becomes unlocked.  This mode is where things get tough.  Insane mode possesses 50 stages (far longer than any other mode) and is arguably where the real game begins.  I had initially been a bit disappointed by how simple and easy the game had been up until that point, and then my opinion immediately did a complete 180, as the game became incredibly challenging.  Especially the back half of this mode is super difficult, and some levels can take well over an hour to put to rest.  This is due to the sheer perfection the game begins to demand from the player, as a single mistake can completely ruin your chance to succeed.  For me, round 42 was particularly overwhelming.  I estimate it took me three to four hours just to beat that one.    

The difficulty spike in this stretch of the game is due mostly to the way the blocks are arranged at the start of each round.  Often times, these stages start with a good chunk of the screen filled with special blocks that need to be “sandwiched” by the animal tiles twice to be eliminated, and the difficulty of clearing these things can get each level off to a rough start, especially as these rounds tend not to begin with many animal tiles already on screen.  In addition, King Dedede’s HP really begins to balloon, which makes each level quite a bit longer, and thus the potential for critical mistakes to occur much more likely.

The gruelling nature of Insane mode really started to get to me after a while.  I found that finishing off the final gauntlet of levels often required a lot of luck and incredible precision.  I really started to reconsider whether my mission to beat the game was worthwhile.  Considering the many hours I put into getting to the end of this game, I probably should have given up on it and spent that play time elsewhere.  But, I really can’t deny that the basic matching mechanics of Star Stacker are incredibly compelling (to the point of compulsion).  Add to that the fact that I just reached a point where my pride and competitiveness eventually awoke and wouldn’t let me let myself be beaten by this game, and I ended up sticking it out to the very brutal end.

 
I guess I have a strong love/hate relationship with the game, as cliche as that sounds.  The central mechanic is incredibly fun, but the wonky difficulty tuning that swings from too easy to too hard created a lot of frustration.  Ultimately, it’s just one of those puzzle games that’s just hard to put down, like the original Tetris or Lumines.  

Rescue Rangers

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Long before cable television rendered the idea antiquated, Saturday morning used to mean cartoons.  It was the time of the week that the network television channels would set aside as blocks of animated (and occasionally live action) programming aimed at the younger audiences.  This created an awful conundrum for the viewers of these programs, since it meant having to choose between sleeping in on a lazy weekend morning or waking up early so as not to miss the brief window for catching the shows that you loved.

These cartoons were so long ago that I barely remember them, but I do remember a few of my favorites, and one of them was Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.  The show stars two chipmunks, the titular  Chip and Dale, who run a private detective agency for other animals.  This show isn’t about a world of anthropomorphic animals like Duck Tales, rather it’s set in a world where animals lead a covert existence among humans that are unaware of the intelligent civilization that goes on beneath them (more like The Great Mouse Detective).  The chipmunks and their friends go on various adventures to help their troubled clients while clashing with a series of colorful recurring villains.  While I’m afraid I remember very little of the television show, I do remember in vivid detail the well-known companion game to the show that was released by Capcom on the NES.

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This NES game is a fairly basic 8-bit platformer.  It has some similarities to Super Mario Bros. 2 in that the primary means of attack is to pick up objects from the environment and toss them at enemies.  While SMB2 provides the player with the ability to snatch up baddies and use them against their compatriots, Chip and Dale are hurt if they touch enemies from any direction.  Instead, their weapons are entirely objects found strewn about the environment, principally small brown crates that litter each level by the dozens, but there are also some more distinct items like giant apples (relatively to the chipmunks) and trash cans.  One of the things I always remember most clearly about this game is how enemies “die” once they take a hit.  Instead of falling of screen or blinking out of existence, the bad guy, no matter the size, speedily flies off the screen at a 45° angle.  I always found it super-satisfying to see the enemies before me blasted away in such a manner, and it’s accompanied by a really fun sound effect.

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Capcom was known for it’s great music on the NES, and fellow Disney title DuckTales had easily some of the most memorable tunes on the system.  Regrettably, the compositions found in Rescue Rangers don’t hold as much magic.  It’s not that they’re bad.  It’s just that the background themes in each level are extremely forgettable and compare especially poorly to DuckTales’ remarkable themes.   The only level that I thought had a catchy beat was the final stage. Meanwhile, the only two tracks that I could remember from my childhood were the chiptunes rendition of the cartoon’s theme song that plays at the title screen and the frantic boss music which has gotten stuck in my head quite a few times.  Otherwise, the soundtrack is unremarkable and a major letdown when compared to Capcom’s output in other games.

Recently, I’ve embarked (see here) on creating what I call my “Maximum 30“ list, which are a series of posts covering the 30 games which I consider to have the most personal significance to me.  It’s not necessarily a list of the best games I’ve ever played, just those that have had the greatest impact on me.  I began gaming on the NES at a very young age, and, near as I can recall, Rescue Rangers was actually the first game I ever beat.  For this post, I replayed the game for the first time in forever, and I could immediately see why that was the case.  It’s not a particularly difficult game, really the only part I would consider hard was the final level.

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I still distinctly remember the final boss fight with Chip and Dale’s arch-nemesis, Fat Cat.  True to the cartoon, he towers over the chipmunks and is a huge piece of the background.  I always found his attack to be a little peculiar.  He doesn’t attack with his claws or teeth, rather he moves around his cigar and flicks it at the player.  The hot ashes from the cigar act as projectiles which the chipmunks must dodge.  I have a feeling that in today’s tobacco-conscious world a cigar wouldn’t at all be featured in a product aimed at youths. I grew up when candy cigarettes were still a thing sold to children, but even as a kid, I thought Fat Cat’s prominent tobacco use in the game was a bit bold.

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Another very strong memory of the game is the discovery that it actually has two world maps.  The game begins on a world map that has 7 stages, but after beating the seventh stage and rescuing the chipmunks’ friend Gadget, she tells you that you need to pursue Fat Cat to his secret lair in another area of the city.  The Rescue Rangers then take a *rocket ship* straight up into *space* and then come straight back down onto a new world map which contains the game’s final three levels.  I vividly remember how amazing and surprising this was to me, both because of the discovery of new levels which I never knew existed and also because I thought the little rocket ship ride was absurdly cool.

Capcom put out some excellent games on the NES, and Rescue Rangers really isn’t their best.  Even just among the Disney games, it’s easily surpassed by DuckTales.  I owned Rescue Rangers back then, but didn’t own DuckTales.  DuckTales was available for rental in a local shop, but it didn’t come with a manual, and I don’t think I ever knew about the pogo stick move which is essentially critical to completing the game.  Consequently, I don’t think I ever got very far in DuckTales.  Of course, I’ve tried DuckTales again as an adult, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s definitely a better game than Rescue Rangers.

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But, like I said, this top 30 list of mine isn’t necessarily about the best games, rather just those which have left a big impression on my life, and Rescue Rangers easily fulfills that criteria.  I think most people have these games that they played when they were very young that they suddenly realize are super-easy when they come back to them as an adult.  Ironically, I find a lot of other Disney games, like The Lion King and Toy Story, are the opposite.  I mastered those games in my younger days, but now I’m baffled by how frustrating I find them.  I tried to decide which of these sides of the coin was better, harder than the past or easier, but I really couldn’t decide.  I don’t think either is so appealing, and they both betray that those games were more a product of their time and place.  I guess in some ways it’s just another harsh reminder that we can seldom regain those cherished experiences that exist in our memories, no matter how much nostalgia tempts us otherwise.  The great experiences of our futures will lie in that which creates new memories and new feelings, not necessarily that which tries to desperately reassemble the past.

 

Mappy-Land!

The announcement of the NES Classic Mini has got me reminiscing a lot about those old classic Nintendo days.  The games that immediately come to mind are titles like the Super Mario Bros. series, Rescue Rangers, Duck Tales, Duck Hunt, Zelda, Tetris, and so on and so forth.  But beyond the timeless classics, there’s a lot of games that I spent a ton of time with back in the day that mostly seem like they’ve been long forgotten.  I’m sure everyone has these games that they remember, but seemingly no one else does.  Especially when you’re a kid, you’re sort of at the mercy of what your parents buy you, and particularly in those NES days when adults didn’t know much about gaming, they really didn’t pay much heed to popularity or word of mouth when buying games.  I often found myself the recipient of gifted games that I felt I was the only person in the world who played.

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There are two of those types of games that really stand out in my mind.  One is Dash Galaxy in the Alien Asylum, which might be the most existentially terrifying game I’ve ever played.  The other is the topic of today’s post: Mappy-Land.  Mappy-Land was developed by Namco and is the sequel to what I think was a slightly popular arcade maze game called Mappy.  Mappy-Land tries to do to Mappy what Super Mario Bros. did to Mario Bros., which is to take a simple arcade game with small discrete levels and turn it into a more long-form action-adventure game.  

To understand Mappy-Land, it’s best to first give some explanation of its arcade predecessor, which was a maze game in the vein of Pac-Man.  Mappy is a police mouse tasked with retrieving objects stolen by a gang of literal cat burglars called mewkies.  The mewkies are a group of white cats led by Nyamco, the brown cat.  (Nyamco is a portmanteau of Namco and nyan, the sound a cat makes in Japanese.)  The game consists of Mappy being chased by the cats through their lair, a giant multi-floored mansion, while he collects the stolen goods in each level to advance.  Trampolines allow Mappy to ascend or descend between floors.  The catch is that the trampolines can only be used so many times in a row before they break, after which they become death pits.  These trampolines change color with each bounce, so it’s easy to know when they’re about to fail.

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The original Mappy arcade game.

Mappy-Land follows a fairly similar formula but takes place over levels with more varied settings.  The goal of almost each level is to travel about a multi-tiered maze to gather specific collectibles (such as cheese or wedding rings) which will unlock the exit when all have been grabbed by the player.  Most levels consist of four tiered platforms that can be traversed using trampolines similar to the arcade original.  The mewkies are back to give Mappy trouble and serve as the game’s primary antagonists as they chase the almost defenseless mouse as he goes about his business.

The storyline of the game varies a bit through each of the game’s four worlds.  The common plot setup between worlds is that Mappy’s girlfriend/wife, the princess Mapico, sends the hero out on a quest to collect certain items to bring back to her.  So for instance, in the first world Mappy collects cheese to bring to her birthday, and in the second world, he collects marriage rings to bring to their wedding ceremony.  Each world features the same series of eight levels (which include settings like a train station, the wild west, a pirate ship, etc.), but the level layouts differ between each world.

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Two levels deviate from the maze-style of the rest of the game.  Those are the jungle levels and the graveyard levels.  The jungle levels are more standard platforming stages which require Mappy to jump over water pits, climb on vines, and make use of moving trampolines to reach hard to get items.  The moving trampolines are actually quite hard to work with and require very precise timing to land right, so I consider these levels to be among the game’s most difficult.  Meanwhile, the graveyard is the easiest.  These levels focus on fighting a horde of ghosts that haunt the sky over the cemetery and feature a balloon Mappy can use to fly.  Exclusive to these levels, Mappy has a flashlight that will kill any ghost that he can catch in front of him.  Since these levels have a weapon that can be used for defense, they tend to be by far the easiest in the game.

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The final level in each world, called “Milky Town”, has two parts.  The first part takes place outside a castle, and Mappy can enter this building through the big doors in the middle when he has all the collectibles.  Inside, there’s another maze segment that features no enemies.  The goal in these areas is instead to get six collectibles and then meet up with Mapico who stands on a platform at the rightmost edge of the level.  The player fails if they don’t get all the items to Mapico before the background music stops or if they approach her without having collected everything first.  If one of these things happens, then the player gets a screen where Mapico absolutely lays into Mappy, berating him for his failure.  She apparently demands nothing short of perfection from her long suffering mate.  I always took these screens really hard as a kid.  To me, the music in this stage is something that even to this day conjures up a sense of panic due to the way you have to quickly and precisely rush through these levels lest you get greeted with Mapico’s fiery rage.

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I’ve always enjoyed the weird personality quirks of Mappy-Land.  The music is genuinely catchy, and the backgrounds look nice for what they are.  In fact, my mom actually once called Mappy-Land beautiful, which is the first time in my life I think I heard someone compliment pixel art.  And despite the fact that Pac-Man is one of the most iconic games of all time, I don’t know of any other maze games that really managed to catch on.  I give a lot of credit to Namco for trying to meld the maze genre with the more popular action-adventure genre.

But Mappy-Land has always been something of a menacing and, in a way, sad experience to me.  The game was always kind of scary to me.  I think it’s because Mappy-Land is a game about being chased, and especially for a young kid, that creates a lot of emotional tension.  Pac-man is a game about being chased, but I never found it as heart-racing as Mappy-Land.  Maybe it’s because the power pellet allows Pac-man to turn the tables on the ghosts.  Mappy-Land has objects and traps that can be used to distract the mewkies, but they’re not nearly as effective or as empowering as the power pellet.

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It’s a sad game because Mappy’s life strikes me as a living hell.  The mewkies are complete bullies who hound the poor mouse wherever he goes.  And his girl is probably even worse than the cats.  Mapico isn’t Princess Toadstool.  She’s no victim in this game.  Mappy’s arduous quest is entirely motivated by her greed and materialism.  And if he performs even slightly less than her extreme standards demand in the final level, she throws a merciless tantrum.  How many wedding rings does a woman really need to tie the knot!?!  How many pieces of cheese does she need for her birthday!?!  Mappy and Mapico’s entire relationship seems to be built around Mappy bringing her stuff.  Does she even love him?  The fear of a being stuck in a loveless marriage is not something I think a lot of young people think about, but even when I was just a small kid, this game actually disturbed me with thoughts about that kind of stuff.

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For the longest time, I believed that Mappy-Land was an original game.  It wasn’t until I messed around with one of those little plug-and-play TV games that had a bunch of Namco arcade titles that I realized Mappy had starred in an earlier game.  I suppose the poor mouse is just one of those long lost and forgotten mascot characters like Rocket Knight or Plok.  Mappy-Land was recently released on Wii U Virtual Console, and there have been a few obscure cell phone games released in Japan that are based on the character.  So I guess someone somewhere must remember this character.  Still, his lack of notoriety is somewhat endearing to me.  I kind of feel like Mappy is my thing, something that only I appreciate.  I’m sure other people out there have similar feelings to their own favorite obscure games or music or books or movies or whatever.  It’s comforting in a way.

Gaming and Fireworks

Independence Day means a trip to the local pop-up fireworks stand for my family.  While there this year, my video game-addled brain was gleefully struck by the extent of the copyright infringement I saw from my favorite hobby.  Here are some pics of what I was able to catch.

Fair warning up front, these photos aren’t great.  The camera on my phone isn’t so good at taking indoor shots.  I almost didn’t post these because of the poor quality, but I ultimately decided what the heck.

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Poor Samus.  The Metroid series has been missing in action for quite a while, and now that a new release has finally been announced, it doesn’t even star our favorite mute galactic bounty hunter!   With her career prospects in the gaming industry looking glum, I guess she had no option but to spokesmodel for this cheap imported fireworks brand.

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This one is utterly baffling to me.  The character in the center is completely unknown to me, and I assume he’s an original design by the manufacturer.  But in the background……..the clouds are immediately recognizable to any longtime Nintendo fan.  What’s impressive is that they are very close replicas of the clouds from the original Super Mario Bros., except completely de-pixelated.  I’m bizarrely fascinated by the how and why of this.  Did they have an artist trace over the old 8-bit art?  Or maybe they just applied a filter in Photoshop to eliminate the pixelation?  And why go through this trouble of copying the clouds from SMB?  It’s not like clouds are hard to draw.

Other than the clouds, the big cylindrical hills are clearly imitated from the New Super Mario Bros. games.  You know, I could understand ripping off a popular character like Mario for your packaging.  He’s recognizable and eye-catching.  But why copy something so obscure like parts of the environment that only a handful of obsessed nerds like myself would spot?

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Here’s one which I initially passed over, but then was struck by a lightning bolt when I realized what I had seen.  The logo is straight taken from the old Xbox 360 RPG, Blue Dragon.  The only difference is that it’s been tilted just a little bit.  What’s interesting is that the artwork of the blue dragon behind the logo doesn’t come from the game’s art.  I tried to do a Google image search to find its source, but nothing came up.  I can only assume it was lifted from some poor Deviant Art page out there.

 

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Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360

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This is another odd Mario one.  This particular fountain was called “Pure Fantasy” and had several fantastical characters drawn on the packaging.  The weird thing was that most of the characters on the box seemed to be generic animals and fantasy creatures.  Nothing looked to come from a trademarked property except for this very conspicuous Mario knock-off.  In general, I would have expected to see a lot more infringing material from things like cartoons or movies, but for some reason, I only found stuff lifted from video games.  I guess for the people whose life’s work is making pretty explosion, they find some sort of kinship with the gaming industry.

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This one was a bit of a dud.  I snapped it thinking that it was a loading screen from Duke Nukem.  But after doing some Google image searches, it does bear some similarities, but it’s not a direct screenshot.  And considering the Duke Nukem logo is just a radiation symbol which is commonly associated with big (nuclear) explosions, the similarity may just be coincidental.

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The loading screen from Duke 3D.

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There was also another box that caught my eye that was simply called “FPS”.  This one was in direct eye line of the cashier, and I didn’t want her to see me snapping pics, so I don’t have any photos of that one.  It had what looked to be a screenshot of an old FPS covering the box, but I couldn’t quite place the game, so it may have been a completely original image made by the fireworks company.  But again, it just reinforces my notion that the fireworks industry has a fixation with gaming.

Luigi’s Mansion Arcade

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It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a proper arcade (well, at least as proper as they come these days).  My local bowling alley has a decent sized collection of aging and decaying ticket games off to the side of the lanes, but I don’t really count that.  I recently visited a more well-equipped venue, and I was incredibly surprised to see a cabinet based on Luigi’s Mansion.  I’m a big fan of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon on the 3DS, so I had to give the game a go once it was free.

Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is heavily based off of its 3DS counterpart.  I played through two levels which appeared to me to be exact replicas of the Gloomy Manor and Old Clockworks stages of the handheld game.  As far as I can tell, I think the game just takes the exact levels and art assets from Dark Moon and scales them up to a big screen experience.  And the game looks great, despite everything originally being designed for a tiny handheld display.  It’s a testament to the strength of the visual design that was present in the excellent original.

Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is probably best grouped with the lightgun games, although it’s not really a shooter.  The machine features two (one for each player) fairly hefty and solid replicas of Luigi’s Poltergust 5000, which is the gun peripheral used to play the game.  If you’ve never played a Luigi’s Mansion game, then the brief explanation is that Luigi explores a series of haunted mansions using a vacuum-like contraption, the Poltergust, to capture the various spooky ghosts that evilly inhabit each residence.  There are two buttons on the arcade game’s Poltergust peripheral.  One on the top is used to blast a bright flash of light (the Strobulb) that stuns the ghosts and makes them vulnerable to attack.  Once stunned, the button on the Poltergust’s grip can be used to start vacuuming in the specters.  

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Gameplay mostly consists of Luigi slowly making his way through each mansion of the game, with the players having a first person view of his perspective.  The game is on-rails, so there is no direct control of Luigi’s movement, but there are a few branching paths offered in each level.  During the downtimes of the game, the players can aim the Poltergust at various objects that decorate each mansion to try to suck out some some loose coins to add to their score.  Each time you suck up a coin, there is a very satisfying *ka-chink* recoil that is triggered in the peripheral’s force feedback.  After a bit of this, you’ll begin to hear the snickering of ghosts or catch glimpses of them preparing an ambush, and this is the cue to get ready for a fight.

Combat consists of flash stunning the ghosts before they can attack, and then using the suction on the Poltergust to vacuum them into captivity.  If you know the home games, then you’ll know that when vacuuming up a ghost, you need to pull them in the opposite direction to which they’re travelling.  This is featured in the arcade game by aiming the poltergust away from the ghost as you’re capturing them.  So, for instance, if the ghost is moving toward the right side of the screen, you need to aim the Poltergust to the left side of the screen to more quickly reel it into the vacuum.  Each ghost has a health counter that depletes as you wrestle with it, and the ghost is finally captured when this counter hits zero.

I’ve always found Luigi’s Mansion to be a rather hectic game.  You see, as you are working on wrangling in one ghost, other ghosts usually come out to attack.  The player is defenseless while using the vacuum, which means that they need to properly time when to let go of the ghost they’re currently capturing.  I don’t think this is necessarily obvious to someone who has never played a Luigi’s Mansion games.  Sometimes, there’s a lot of ghosts that come out of the woodwork at one time, and the game becomes a bit overwhelming.

Most shooter-type games in the arcade are very simple, you just point, shoot, and reload.  And because of the nature of arcades, these types of games need to have a “walk-up and play” quality where anyone can drop money into a machine and quickly understand the basics of what they need to be doing.  But with the need to flash the ghosts first (which sometimes requires precise timing), suck them up, and play defensively, it may be a bit complex for someone who has no prior experience with the series.  I know the girl I enjoyed the game with expressed some confusion as to exactly what we were supposed to be doing.

It’s not that the game doesn’t try to explain all of this to you.  Quite the opposite.  As you move about outside of combat, there’s a constant stream of messages at the bottom of the screen from Professor E. Gadd, the inventor of the Poltergust.  But these messages are text only, since E. Gadd speaks in his “wabba wabba” style gibberish from the home games.  I actually didn’t pay much attention to these communiques, since I was too busy probing the environment for hidden coins during these segments.  I suspect most people will be similarly distracted from E. Gadd’s chattiness.

I really liked Luigi’s Mansion Arcade.  It’s a unique and visually attractive game, and the Poltergust is probably my favorite controller I’ve ever used in the arcade.  But  I feel it’s not necessarily a good arcade game, because I fear that it’s not particularly accessible.  It’s also an unusually slow game for the arcade, as combat is broken up by the walking sections which are fairly slow and uneventful.  But it’s a cool game, nonetheless.  Some might not remember, but Nintendo used to be a real presence in the arcade before their extraordinary success with the NES and Game Boy caused them to turn their entire focus on home gaming.  From my understanding, this game was actually developed by Sega on behalf of Nintendo, but regardless it’s still awesome to see Nintendo in the arcade again.

 

Donkey Kong 94

Donkey Kong is easily one of the most important games ever released.  It started Nintendo on its path to becoming a titan of the art and probably the most influential creative force in gaming history.  Not only that, it was the world’s introduction to the character that would become gaming’s most iconic symbol.  But this post isn’t about that game…… rather, it’s about a Game Boy classic that many might not know parades under the guise of the arcade masterpiece.

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Donkey Kong has principally had two eras of peak popularity.  The first, of course, came with the arcade series of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and (to a far lesser extent) Donkey Kong 3, and the second occurred toward the end of the Super Nintendo’s run when the Donkey Kong Country trilogy breathed new life into the sunsetting 16-bit machine.  But wedged in between these two series was a 1994 Game Boy title simply called “Donkey Kong,” that managed to completely reinvent the arcade classic just months before Donkey Kong Country would turn the character completely on his head.

Donkey Kong 94, as it’s usually called to distinguish it from the arcade version, starts off innocuously enough.  Mario must tackle the original 4 arcade levels in a quest to rescue his girlfriend Pauline from the clutches of the renegade primate.  But after Donkey Kong falls to his doom at the end of the fourth level and all would seem well for the reunited lovers, something completely off-script happens.  Donkey Kong doesn’t stay down, rather he springs back up, snatches Pauline, and makes a mad dash out of the construction zone that the arcade duel took place in.  At this point, the player is introduced to the first world map in the game, and an amazing new adventure begins to unfold.  

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In many ways, Donkey Kong 94 is a logical extension of its arcade forebear, but in other ways it sets out to create something deceptively fresh.  Rather than having levels that mostly see Mario travelling from left to right across a linear series of obstacles as happens in the Super Mario Bros. series, DK94 focuses on condensed platforming stages that are usually not much larger than a few screens.  This makes it similar in design to its namesake.  However, after the initial four throwback levels are completed, the game takes on a puzzle platforming twist.  The goal of each stage (aside from the boss battles) is to reach a key that needs to be carried back to a locked door which blocks Mario’s pursuit of the ill-tempered ape.  Often there is a bit of trickery involved in getting the key to the exit which is where the puzzle aspect comes in.  All-in-all, DK94 has a formula that is incredibly well-suited to portable gaming.  

In some ways, though, I feel like calling the game a puzzle-platformer is a bit misleading.  I feel that most games that carry that moniker are heavily skewed to puzzle solving, which is to say that they are really just puzzle games delivered via a side scrolling perspective.  But DK94 actually requires a relatively high degree of skill in navigating the obstacles in each environment.  An important new aspect is that Mario’s moveset has been expanded a bit, and he can do backflips and handstands that let him jump higher, but require deft reflexes and timing to pull off right.  Perfect execution of these moves is often critical to success.  I would say that the challenge of DK94 is split roughly 50/50 between puzzling and skill-based platforming.

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The “real” world setting of the first Donkey Kong game makes a return here, not the Mushroom Kingdom that would later become Mario’s home.  Many of the worlds resemble the current day, such as the first world which is a contemporary city that prominently features skyscrapers and modern architecture.  There is also an unusual world simply called “Airplane” that takes place on what I think is a large cargo plane.  There are no Toads or Goombas or the like to be seen.  Instead, a new set of enemies appears that is in-line with the new aesthetic, and there are some prominent baddies that return from the arcade games.  Furthermore, Princess Peach is entirely absent.  The leading lady is instead Pauline, Mario’s long forgotten first damsel-in-distress.  Meanwhile, Donkey Kong Jr. also makes a few mischievous appearances to thwart Mario’s progress.  A big part of the reason why I favor this game so much is because these characters and settings make it feel so distinct from the rest of Marioverse content.  

You know, I’ve always thought Donkey Kong was a cool arcade game, but it’s unfortunately short.  The coin-op machine had a mere 4 levels, and the NES port had even less than that (the cement factory level was cut) and doesn’t even loop back to the first level when you beat DK.  Consequently, I’ve always found it hard to be particularly passionate about that game.  It provides a fun time and is an iconic part of gaming history, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to return to it.  And that’s why DK94 is so special.  It takes that awesome original Donkey Kong game and explodes it into an epic new adventure.  It has enough familiar aspects to make a rightful claim to the Donkey Kong name, but adds enough of its own ideas to sustain itself for an amazing ~100 level quest.

And before going on, I would be remiss not to mention the excellent music.  If you want to listen to some bleep-bloops sing, DK94 definitely doesn’t disappoint.  Even to this day, these catchy tunes still get still get stuck in my head sometimes.  I’m particularly partial to the theme of the Desert world:  

If you’ve read my recent post on my Top 30 games, you may remember that DK94 was one of those that made it high on the list (which means it immediately comes to my mind as one of the greats).  I really love this game.  It’s probably my favorite Game Boy game, with the only other real contender being Super Mario Land 2.  I think DK94 has a slight edge, since SML2 is kind of an easy game, which makes it less replayable to me as an adult.  

Loathe as I am to admit it, I never actually beat DK94 as a kid.  I remember getting stuck in one particular level in the Iceberg world, although I can no longer remember exactly which level it was.  My problem really had to do with the fact that I couldn’t get the key to the door fast enough before the timer ran out.  This was an incredibly frustrating experience, since I loved the game so much as a youngster.  Later in high school, I found the game in a drawer and decided to give it another go.  I sailed through to the end this time, never encountering the same trouble I had before.  I couldn’t even figure out which specific level was the one I had issue with!

The game was made available on 3DS Virtual Console relatively early in Nintendo’s 3DS VC initiative, which I was extremely pleased with.  For the most part, I prefer to use Virtual Console to get into games I didn’t get a chance to play before, as opposed to rebuying games I’ve already had a go with, but DK94 is one of the few exceptions I’ve made.  I would, of course, highly recommend anyone interested in the game with a 3DS to check it out.  However, original Game Boy games on 3DS VC are all monochrome, and I think the coloration that you get when playing the cart on a GBC or GBA is fairly good.  So if you’re inclined toward “authentic” hardware, I would recommend grabbing a cart to play on a (backlit) GBA.

DK94 would get a worthy successor on the GBA, called Mario vs. Donkey Kong, which continued the puzzle-platforming formula.  Although it’s reasonably faithful to the original DK94, Mario vs. Donkey Kong would introduce the Mini-Marios, which were wind-up Mario toys that Mario must collect in each stage to help him out in the boss battles with DK, and these little creatures would become the central focus of the MvDK series in subsequent releases.  The first title to feature the Mini-Marios as the star of the show was Mario vs. Donkey Kong: March of the Minis, a Nintendo DS game that operated like Lemmings instead of a platformer.  Despite being a significant departure from its predecessors, March of the Minis was a pretty good game that made a lot of sense for the DS, as it was designed nicely around the DS’ touch controls.  

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Unfortunately, the series has basically stagnated since then.  The Lemmings-style gameplay has become the crux of almost all of the subsequent sequels.  There have been five games in total that have been released since the inception of the DS era which follow this formula.  The latest release was Mini-Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge, a free-to-play game that requires the player to own very specific amiibos to unlock packs of levels in the game.  Unfortunately, Nintendo has never really gone back to the puzzle-platforming design of DK94 and MvDK on the GBA.  However, the first release on 3DS, titled Minis on the Move, did shake things up a bit, introducing a new type of gameplay that is somewhat reminiscent of Pipe Dream, an old DOS game.  I really liked Minis on the Move in particular, and the Lemmings-style games have mostly been solid (albeit quite stale), but I do wish they would at least make an attempt to return to the old-school style of the series.  I have no idea what’s stopping them.

I honestly don’t think I can praise DK94 enough.  It’s a cart that I had a lot of good times with, and it left a lasting impression.  I wish I had more profound things to say about it, but I don’t, because really this is just pure and simple gaming bliss.  I think anyone who has any love for the old Game Boy should at some point in their life give this classic a go.  

 

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