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The Crash Comeback

 

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Crash Bandicoot, the one-time face of Playstation, turned 20 this past week.  I’ve always found it curious that the long decline of Sonic the Hedgehog has been a popular topic of discussion, but the corresponding decline in quality of the Crash Bandicoot series has not received nearly the same amount of attention.  I’ve had a few theories as to why this has been the case.  First, Sonic *was* the Genesis.  When most people think of the good times they had with that machine, the Sonic the Hedgehog games are among the first things that enter their mind.  They are a symbol for an entire gaming era.  But I think when most think of the PS1, the experiences that immediately come to mind are titles like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil.  Even though Crash was generally held up as the mascot of the Playstation, he was not nearly as critical to its success and popularity as Sonic was to the Genesis.  And furthermore, the decline of Sonic is sort of symbolic of the decline of Sega as a whole.  Once a major pillar of gaming, Sega fans have not only had to endure the struggles of one of their favorite characters, but it has corresponded to the waning of Sega’s particular brand of creativity as a whole.

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While Crash was used by Sony as the mascot of the PS1, Sony never really owned the Crash Bandicoot brand.  Instead, Naughty Dog developed the game for Universal Studios’ game publishing arm (which is now defunct).  When Sony bought Naughty Dog to develop PS2 games, the rights to Crash didn’t go with them.  Instead, Konami worked with Universal to take the series multiplatform, and, similar to his hedgehog counterpart, that’s when trouble started to arise.  Now, after a long stretch of diminishing popularity with less than stellar releases, Crash is in the hands of Activision, who have shown little interest in getting the series back on track.  But I’ve noticed more and more over the past few years, however, there’s been a growing fan community that’s trying to convince Sony to take back the series and do it justice.

I’m a long time Crash Bandicoot fan.  The first game was among the titles I originally received along with the console.  As I’ve discussed before, the PS1 is my favorite console, and, as a result, Crash occupies a special place in my heart.  So, I’ve been in favor of the recent fan push to get Crash returned to the hands of Sony and hopefully start a subsequent return to glory.  It’s a long shot, and I know it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a new proper Crash Bandicoot game, but…whatever… you have to support what you love.

Of the original Crash games created and developed by Naughty Dog, I think my favorite would have to be the third game, Crash Bandicoot: Warped (setting aside Crash Team Racing).  I think the time travel plot made for the series’ most creative levels thematically, and while many prefer the levels in Crash 2, I’ve always felt they were a little soulless when compared to the settings that Crash 3 wanders through.  And I’ve also always thought it was an amazing game graphically for the original Playstation.  Crash Bandicoot always had great graphics, especially when it came to animations, but Crash 3 made use of vibrant colors in a way that just made everything pop better.  The final boss fight deserves mention as one of my favorites ever, as Crash faces off against Neo Cortex while also having to avoid getting steamrolled by a parallel duel between his shaman buddy Aku Aku and the evil Uka Uka.

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I also have to mention Crash Team Racing here, as it may be my favorite kart racer ever.  It’s certainly among my favorite games of all time.  In the arena of kart racers, the Mario Kart series basically sits high above all else from a quality perspective, but there has been a small few number of titles to challenge MK’s crown, and Crash Team Racing is undoubtedly one of them.  I would actually rank it above its N64 counterpart, as I think CTR has more interesting tracks and karts that handle better than the slipperiness of MK64.  I also think CTR just has way better visuals than MK64, but that’s a bit of an unfair comparison, since MK64 came out near the beginning of the N64‘s life, while CTR appeared at the end of the PS1‘s.

The fan movement to resurrect the Crash series hasn’t gone unnoticed by either Sony or Activision.  At E3, Crash was announced to be incorporated into the next Skylanders game, but far more exciting, a remake of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy is in the works for Playstation 4.  There was also a major cameo by the character this year in a form that I won’t spoil here, but many of you probably know what I’m talking about.  These attempts by Sony to placate the Crash loyals have been incredibly amusing to me.  Most companies just ignore fan demands to revive old, dormant series.  Sony is oddly trying to sideways satisfy them by throwing out a few bones, but not actually doing what fans are requesting, which is an entirely new game.  Presumably, such a thing is on the table if the remakes do well enough, though.

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But if Sony really were to do a new Crash game, what would that actually be?  Some seem to want a new game developed by Naughty Dog, but I doubt Naughty Dog is up to the task anymore of doing Crash Bandicoot, and I doubt they would want to.  A lot of talent from the Crash and Jak days have moved on from the company, and their current talent pool is more experienced with and seemingly more interested in creating highly linear, story-driven action-adventure titles than making a new 3D character platformer.  In fact, there aren’t really many studios outside of Nintendo that do have such experience anymore, but I can think of a few.  Namely, Sanzaru Games, who did a good job with Sly Cooper 4 on PS3, could be the best match for taking on the task of Crash.  I would also suggest Next Level Games, who did the Luigi’s Mansion sequel on 3DS, could also be a good fit.

And furthermore, what would a new Crash entry even be like?  In its original time, Crash straddled the line between two distinct eras of game design.  Ostensibly, Crash is a 3D platformer, allowing movement along 3 axes.  But unlike other similar releases of the time (like Mario 64, Banjo, and Spyro), Crash was structured much more similarly to 16-bit era games.  While the aforementioned contemporaries featured objective-driven gameplay in open, free-roaming levels,  Crash still had a focus on linear level design that tasked the player with making it from point A (the starting point) to point B (the finish line).  This made it a lot more similar to earlier games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World than other comparable games of the PS1/N64 era.

Should a new Crash Bandicoot retain the linear-style of the originals, or should it attempt something more advanced, like the free-roaming environments of Mario 64?  My feeling is that most fans, myself included, would rather a new game be true to what Crash was at its peak.  But would this make the game feel antiquated?  Ironically, I actually think that more recent games like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land show that linear level design can still be very exciting and modern.

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Regardless of all these questions, I would definitely like to see Crash make a comeback.  Aside from the fact that I’m a huge fan of the originals, these kind of games just aren’t really made anymore, besides those featuring Mario of course.  And I think more than just being fundamentally fun, 3D platformers served an important function in the gaming world, as they were the gateway through which many young people became passionate about this hobby.  I mean, mobile games are fine and all, but I find mobile gaming to be a very limited representation of what games can be as a form of creative art and experience, and now more than ever, we need projects like Crash Bandicoot and Yooka-Laylee to capture the imaginations of young gamers who are otherwise glued to games on their phones and tablets.  In a world saturated with shooters and checklist-driven open world games, I really hope the vibrancy and inspiration of these carefree mascot characters can thrive again.

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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.

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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dk3

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.  

 

The Merits of Remakes, Remasters, and Rereleases

Title Image

My last post ended with me coming to a sudden impromptu realization that almost all the games I’ve played recently and all the games I’m interested in playing in the near future are remakes, rereleases, or HD remasters of games that were released some time ago.  These include the HD remaster of the Resident Evil remake for Gamecube (a remaster of a remake!), Grim Fandango, Duke Nukem 3D on the Vita, The Last of Us Remastered, Brandish: The Dark Revenant, and the upcoming Majora’s Mask for 3DS.  This left me considering two very important questions:  First, why am I apparently more interested in these rereleases than I am the original releases coming up on the slate, and, second, is there merit to there being so many of these types of releases as of late?

To me, it seems that the modern craze over rereleases began when Sony realized that it could smush together an entire series of PS2 ports onto a blu-ray disc (an advantage it had over the Xbox 360), and the transition from SD to HD resolution that occurred during that generation created a reason why such ports would be attractive to customers over just buying relatively inexpensive used copies of the PS2 originals.  But that’s not to say that this sort of thing hasn’t always been a part of the gaming industry.  From Super Mario All-Stars to Final Fantasy on the GBA, it’s easy to come up with a long list of efforts by game producers to mine their old content across electronic gaming’s short history.  While there’s a ton of cynicism toward these kinds of releases now, I think there was a time “before” when gamers were much more receptive.  I know there was a lot of fanfare for the GBA Final Fantasy versions, as well as many of the SNES ports that system received.  It was exciting to get to play those universally-praised games on a convenient handheld format.  And it was exciting to get all the Mario games with updated graphics on SNES.  So what has changed?  Why now are people so derisive toward making the great games of the past more accessible?

Super Mario All-stars

For me, the Super Mario All-Stars collection was the first time I remember a collection of games given a graphical makeover for a new console.

I don’t think all that much has changed really.  Rather, I think that gamers now get excited for rereleases of specific games, while they are dismissive toward the trend as a whole.  I’ve seen near universal excitement for Majora’s Mask, Resident Evil, and Grim Fandango.  So the question then becomes more about why gamers can be both welcoming and shunning toward the practice.  I think this incongruous attitude is deeply rooted in the hyperconsumerist mentality that unfortunately remains entrenched in certain parts of the gaming community.

I think ever since the proliferation of home internet access,  a large chunk of the gaming community has become particularly susceptible to pre-release marketing with there being an overbearing term that has crystallized around this behavior: “hype.”  It is that pervasive obsession with trailers and previews and getting nasty about reviews that inevitable bring things back down to earth.  I’ve always considered hype a bad thing, because it generally leads to a complete irrationality and immaturity regarding the ultimate quality of a game.  But these are just my opinions, and I know that there are a lot of gamers out there who actively demand to be hyped up by marketing machines and see it as a critical part of their gaming experience.  All of this ties in with the topic of this post in that this deep-rooted obsession with the latest new thing hampers our appreciation of those things which are far less new.  Playing a game becomes more about being caught up with a marketing and consumer event than it does about playing a game for the simple entertainment and stimulation that it provides.  And when the old is released as new again, I think there is maybe an inclination to feel as if these companies are trying to take advantage of or trick their customers, hence why there is some backlash.  (With all that said though, I don’t want to be too judgmental of anyone.  Heaven knows I’ve spent way more on gaming than anyone should in a given lifetime.)

This cult-of-the-new attitude has been especially inflamed by the trend of the release calendar being seen as a bit barren ever since the latest round of consoles came out.  And then to exacerbate the issue further is the fact that a nontrivial portion of the big name releases have been hampered by serious issues, both from a design and technical perspective.  This hurt the perception of rereleases in that many gamers began seeing them as cynical attempts to fill out an empty release schedule instead of delivering new experiences that exploit the power of these new gaming machines.

Namco Museum

Namco Museum is a series of Namco arcade compilations that are much treasured by Playstation collectors.

But are all these rereleases just a cynical cash grabs?  The answer is probably yes, but I say that under the realization that it is a certainty that every action a major game producer takes is largely guided by its business interests, rather than its creative interests.  So really, you can’t fault these rereleases for being cash grabs unless you leverage the same complaint against original titles, because they’re both just calculated attempts by a company to make money.  And while some may complain that these are being pushed on the market in lieu of new experiences, I also doubt that is the case.  The amount of manpower and resources that went into fixing up Resident Evil for modern gaming machines is probably a much smaller fraction than what would have went into making a new Resident Evil game, and, in fact, Resident Evil Revelations 2 is being released in just a short while.  Same thing for Grim Fandango and Zelda, as Double Fine seems to have a number of other projects cooking, and Nintendo plans a new Zelda for later this year.  In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that we got an excellent Zelda for the 3DS.

I’ve also heard the complaint levied that returning to and reproducing so much content isn’t good for gaming as a collective creative endeavor.  I agree with this to some extent.  I always want gaming to move forward, and I strongly support the growth of new creative experiences.  I don’t want to allow obsession with nostalgic past experiences to take over any part of my life, gaming or otherwise.  But I also feel that it’s important to have played and experienced the great games of the past to have a better understanding of the potential and depth of gaming as a creative endeavour.  No one in music has ever said that you shouldn’t listen to Led Zeppelin because Fall Out Boy just released a new album, and, similarly, I don’t think anyone should say that you shouldn’t play Ocarina of Time because you’ve played the latest Dragon Age.  I get most excited by rereleases of great games I’ve never gotten the chance to play.  I don’t think anyone can say that they’ve played every classic game out there, and these rereleases create accessible and convenient versions of these classics for the broader audience of gaming today that are compatible with the current technology we use for gaming and attainable through the storefronts that are most readily available to us today.  And taking it a step further, I hope this trend can help introduce younger audiences to what I/we consider important gaming experiences.

Sega 3D Classics

Sega 3D Classics are a series of Sega arcade and Genesis games that have been expertly recrafted to take advantage of the 3D capabilities of the 3DS.

To wrap up this long rambling post, I want to return to the other question I asked myself in the opening:  Why am I more interested in rereleases than I am original content right now?  I think it’s just a coincidence really.  The release schedule right now is not so good.  It’s typical of the post-holiday time really.  The big name original releases that are coming out, such as The Order and Evolve, just don’t resonate with my personal interests, and even the indie gaming scene, which is usually so restless, is a bit quiet right now.  So I turn my attention to all these classics that are gurgling up.  And having just got out of grad school (which was a long period where I had to agonize over all my buying decisions), I have the time and money now to go revisit some of the games I’ve felt bad for missing but always wanted to play, and I’m actually somewhat thankful for this opportunity.

15th Anniversary Tribute to OCRemix

I’ve always been a big fan of OCRemix, and just last month the video game fan-driven community of musicians celebrated its 15th birthday.  It’s a site that I’ve kept up with on-and-off over the years, but it’s great to see that it still seems to be going strong.  As a toast to it’s success, I’ve compiled a list of 10 of my favorite tracks from the site, a list that I think puts a good emphasis over the talent and diversity that can be heard in the vast library of music that can be found there.

1) Ska Buffet (All You Can Eat: Clean Version)
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR02254
Game: Kirby Super Star
Artists: AMT, Avaris, Cyril the Wolf, Level 99, LuIzA, PrototypeRaptor, Swann, The OverClocked Plaid Muffins, Xenon Odyssey

This bouncy, ska tribute to the pink puff ball’s endless gluttony wins big points with me for having a great vocal track, something that is often missing from most OCRemix releases.  Also, the version listed on OCRemix’s site labels this as the “clean version,” which gives me a chuckle, since somewhere out there someone has released an explicit remix of a Kirby theme, of all things.

2) Power of the Meat
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR02118
Game: Super Meat Boy
Artists: Josh Whelchel, Melinda Hershey, Poolside

OCRemix is overwhelmingly dominated with tracks derived from 8- and 16-bit classics. Therefore, I always find it great to see musicians stretch out to more modern titles, and Poolside have produced this amazing track out of a relatively obscure Super Meat Boy level theme.  This incredible, epic rock-opera style track has possibly the best vocals I’ve ever heard on OCRemix, pitting singers Josh Whelchel and Melinda Hershey together as the three main characters of the game: Meat Boy, Bandage Girl, and Dr. Fetus.

3) The Frog Dance
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR02189
Game: Chrono Trigger
Artists: Vyper

As I’ve mentioned above, OCRemix is maybe a bit overrun in techno remixes of 16-bit games.  The Frog Dance, derived from Chrono Trigger, more than just contributes to the oversaturation, but rather it may just be the techno-iest of the techno.  Ripped straight out of a ‘90s dance club, it might not be the most unique track in existence, but there’s a catchiness to it that I find hard to forget.  Of course, Frog’s Theme is excellent source material to build off of.

4) Spirit of Law
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR02616
Game: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Artists: Detective Tuesday, melody

Gaming has tons of heroes, but despite his relatively down-to-earth job, I think Phoenix is one of the noblest.  He’s not out to save the entire world, rather he is tasked with preserving the innocent against a system that is overwhelmingly stacked against them.  The courtroom theme is suitably gloomy, but at the same time righteously persistent.  And here we have a jazzy, hip hop rendition of the theme that I think captures the defiantly altruistic “justice for all” theme of the classic courtroom series.

5) Transient Shadows
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR02135
Game: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Artists: WillRock

Surprise! Another SNES-inspired techno remix!  Yes, I know, I know.  Again, not necessarily the most interesting selection, but again, as with The Frog Dance, this track really left an impression on me.  Specifically, the wild sax solo at the end always gets to me.

6) Burning Up
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR01547
Game: Dr. Mario
Artist: Dj Redlight 

Dr. Mario fans should be well aware of the eternal argument over the virulent puzzlers two themes: Fever and Chill.  Although I think most people favor Fever as it is the default background music, Burning Up completely opened my eyes to the lesser appreciated of the two tracks.  The most prominent feature of this track is its radical organ solo which combines with its squeaky sci-fi take on the classic composition to elevate this to one of the site’s best remixes that lacks vocals.

7) Tetris Plays You!
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR02457
Game: Tetris
Artists: Block Party, Diodes, Jillian Aversa, Level 99, Palpable, zircon

It’s been a long time since Tetris burned the famous Russian folk song Korobeiniki into our brains.  This epic collaboration between various remixers and vocalists is not so much a remix of the tune of the ubiquitously-known theme, rather you could probably consider a rewriting of the lyrics.  In this version, from four separate vocalists, each representing one type of tetromino, we are told the tale Tetris from the point of view of the falling blocks, replete with characterizations of their own personal idiosyncrasies.

8) Static Aversion
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR00451
Game: Silent Hill 2
Artists: Children of the Monkey Machine, Steve Pordon

Resident Evil always seems to take a top spot in rankings of video game music from professional sites.  This has always been surprising to me since I can’t seem to remember a single bit of music from that series.  I think that is because the background music in RE tends to be more atmospheric in nature, meant to subtly help amplify the mood rather than gain attention for itself.  The same could possibly be said for the music of the Silent Hill series, but for some reason, I’ve found the rambling dissonance of Akira Yamaoka’s compositions have lingered with me far more.  Static Aversion represents a fairly long-winded tribute to Silent Hill 2’s haunting sounds.  It doesn’t really pick up until about the three minute mark, but I think its worth a listen for any fans of Silent Hill.

9) Voodoo, Roots ‘n Grog
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR00451
Game: The Secret of Monkey Island
Artist: Diggi Dis

This track is a remix that combines LeChuck’s theme and the game’s opening theme with, apparently, a little bit of Sagat’s theme from Street Fighter 2 of all things.  I think this one is noteworthy because of its elaborate instrumentals, which most prominently feature trombone, but also piano, some funk synth and even a chiptune breakdown which manages to feel right at home.

10) Tutti I Frutti: The Ballad of Piantee Joe
http://ocremix.org/remix/OCR03045
Game: Super Mario Sunshine
Artist: MC Final Sigma, Sir Jordanius 

Despite it’s age, OCRemix is still very much a site that gets frequent updates, and I thought it would be best to complete the list with a remix that just saw recent release.  Tutti I Frutti is touted as the site’s first composition derived from Super Mario Sunshine, and the result has definitely been worth the wait.  Tutti I Frutti is a funky track that introduces us to Piantee Joe, a sly-witted, not entirely all-above-the-table fruit salesman from Isle Delfino.  While the melody here is excellent, the lyrics are actually some of the most cleverly-written that I’ve ever heard from the site.

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