Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

Like Mega Man X6, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies is an unnecessary sequel to a finished storyline, failing to do a single thing better than its predecessors. Unlike X6 however, Dual Destinies remains a "fun" experience from start to finish... provided you can ignore its flagrant leaps in logic. The core Ace Attorney experience remains intact—quirky characters, queer mysteries, and plenty of manzai—so it's not like Dual Destinies is the untouchable black sheep of the series. It's just that the game is... sadly mediocre.


The big question that Dual Destinies struggles with is "who is the main character?" There's effectively three different protagonists (Athena, Apollo, and Phoenix) and they often bump shoulders to stay in the spotlight. By all accounts Dual Destinies is Athena's story and I quite like her cheery demeanor—but Phoenix Wright curiously receives the most screen time. Meanwhile Apollo flitters about, initially acting as a straight man to Athena's naïve goofery before transforming into this weird... aloof vigilante? It's hard to discuss him without veering into spoilers, but I can reveal that despite the series landing into his hands in Apollo Justice, he (and Trucy) have been wrongfully sidelined here. It's like Capcom wanted to return to the Phoenix Wright of old, as well as continue Apollo's journey, and introduce a brand new character. And then instead of making different franchises for each, the developers shrugged and mashed them all together, not realizing it would result in an unsatisfying and messy story.

Speaking of, Dual Destinies comes with plenty of fun twists and turns fans have come to expect from the franchise, but the central theme underpinning the game is extraordinarily weak. Dual Destinies hammers home the ominous "dark age of the law" at every opportunity it can get in its latter half, but it doesn't lead to any pointed remarks or nuanced insights. In fact, the story feels like the most uninspired shonen anime, where "truth = good, lies = bad" and your clients are hopelessly innocent while the killers are unapologetically evil. Even the game's central antagonist—the elusive "Phantom"—shows a lot of promise in the case they're involved in, but the trial inevitably devolves into slapstick, stretching the limits of plausibility as you cry out, "How the hell haven't you been arrested yet?!"


While I can forgive the storytelling of Dual Destinies somewhat—Ace Attorney games never aim to be literature—I remain disappointed in how simple the game's cases are. Dual Destinies is obsessed with guiding the player to its solutions, badgering them with unsubtle hints even after the answer couldn't be made more obvious. On one hand it's nice being able to play a Ace Attorney game without gambling on loosely-related evidence, but on the other your brain barely gets a workout. The only time you're forced to seriously ponder a case is right before the game makes a bizarre leap of logic—surely the killer didn't go to this length to cover their tracks, right? There's always a little bit of that in every Ace Attorney title, but I don't remember it being quite so egregious and cartoony.

Ironically, the oft-derided case 5-2 was my favorite of the lot. I found its theme charming and each stage of the trail was interesting and vaguely plausible—outside of one or two details. It might also be because it centered upon the Apollo & Athena duo, which felt more refreshing than playing as Phoenix Wright for the... 13th? 14th time? Besides that, no other trial stood out to me as notable; 5-1 was unconventional but weak, 5-3 took a nosedive towards its end, and the final two cases squandered too much of the Phantom's potential.

But I'm not all groans and gripes—Dual Destinies knocks its presentation out of the park. The new 3D models are smooth and lively, replacing the 2D sprites almost seamlessly. Likewise the soundtrack continues the franchise trend of implanting secret earworms in your head and being generally fitting overall. I also enjoyed the new mechanic Athena brings to the table (the Mood Matrix), as its more engaging and sensible than having the magatama magically detect lies, or using Apollo's bracelet to repeat a sentence over and over. Occasionally the Mood Matrix could be misleading based on how you think someone should be reacting to the situation, but as there's no penalty for wrong answers, it's really not too bad.


I suppose I was too hasty comparing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies to Mega Man X6, considering the latter is an irredeemable trash fire while the former is just... dull. But conversely it's hard not to see Dual Destinies as the low point of an otherwise fairly remarkable series. It's loyal to the franchise's roots and earnest in its efforts, but its passion fails to overcome just how bog standard the entire game is. If you've not tired of Ace Attorney's peculiar brew, Dual Destinies might be your cup of tea. But I personally feel that Capcom needs to spice up this blend before it gets too bland...



... Thankfully, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles would be the answer to my problem.
---------------------

Images obtained from: nintendo.co.uk, amino.com, gsmarena.com, toucharcade.com

Monday, November 29, 2021

BYE-BYE BOXBOY! - Thoughts


I leave the BOXBOY! 3DS trilogy more pleased than how I entered it, all thanks to its fabulous finale BYE-BYE BOXBOY! Despite failing to rid the series of its fiddliness, BYE-BYE BOXBOY! emerges well ahead of its predecessors by invoking their best aspects: BOXBOY!'s creativity and BOXBOXBOY's intensity. Gone are repetitive mechanics you've long-since learned, replaced by fresh ones like jump-boosting wind, box-buoyant water, weighted scales, and plenty more. On top of that are irritation-free escort quests (!) and four excellent new box powers that change how you traverse levels. Throw in some truly challenging bonus worlds, and BYE-BYE BOXBOY! becomes precisely the puzzle-platformer I wanted out of HAL.


However, I have to be honest—my brain's rotted a bit since I first played the series. I read my previous entries and nearly all of my criticisms still apply. The box limit sharply alternates between generous and cruel, mechanics can have unintuitive rules (eg no snaking in water), the front half of the game is too simple, and the performance-focused grading system remains an ill-fit for the experience. And yet... I wasn't really bothered by any of these... hence the rot. I've grown used to the roller coaster difficulty curve, the game's reliance on phantom boxes, and needing to restart a stage because I don't have enough boxes left to reach the final crown. While I recognize that these problems are no less prevalent in BYE-BYE BOXBOY!, they're somehow less irritating to me now, roughly as intrusive as an ant in my kitchen. Whether that's because I took a break between the games or I've just grown numb to the fiddliness, I'm unsure of—I'm just glad I didn't have to keep an ongoing list of mechanical eccentricities (besides the no snaking in water.)

Perhaps I owe my blind enjoyment to the bevy of new mechanics, each one keeping the gears in my brain turning. While there's still too many tutorial levels for my tastes, it's offset by the experimentation that comes with each strange new gimmick, pushing you to discover the ins and outs of how they operate. This is especially true for the new box abilities, which are easily my favorite part of the game. They're quick to understand but hide a lot of neat tricks, similar to what it was like getting the double box sets at the end of BOXBOY! Except instead of one game-changing power you have four, with each being better than the last. And as soon as you get a grasp on one it's time to move onto the next world—and the next mechanic.


I didn't truly appreciate BYE-BYE BOXBOY! until I reached the end, where the postgame worlds nearly doubled my playtime. I had multiple zen moments here as seemingly impossible puzzles gradually unfolded from "no way!" into "oh that's how!" Most of the stages took multiple attempts, lasting anywhere from three to thirteen minutes, with the worst offenders being 19-6, 20-5, 21-7, and 21-8. These stages were not only tricky to figure out but came saddled with painfully precise box limits, forcing me to develop new ways to cut corners. Although I managed to figure everything out on my own, I definitely wouldn't fault anyone for getting stuck here and dropping the game. For me though, it was puzzle nirvana.

Luckily, for the less intrepid there's the new challenge worlds: single-screen puzzles with a nifty restriction, like no throwing boxes, snaking, or even jumping. They're not as stupefying as the postgame worlds but they can occasionally throw out a solid stumper like C4-5 and C5-8. I like that these act as clever glimpses into more ways that HAL could play with the BOXBOY! formula, though I doubt a full game could be made from them like the dual box mechanic was. Still, the challenge worlds offer a diverse set of puzzles that play with your understanding of BOXBOY!'s usual mechanics—which is true of all of BYE-BYE BOXBOY! and is likely why I enjoyed it so much.


Overall, the BOXBOY! trilogy is an entertaining and cute set of games, although I'm unsure if I'd call them "essential." They're worthwhile puzzlers for the 3DS in any case, rivaled in my mind only by the Pushmo titles (which I remember being far more delightful and less confounding, but it's been a while). I also have to give kudos to BYE-BYE BOXBOY for achieving the rare feat of ending a trilogy on its highest note, closing out not with a whimper but a planet-sized bang. I've not played BOXBOY + BOXGIRL yet, but BYE-BYE BOXBOY has ensured that I'll go into it with a smile on my face...

... Likely because I'm finally immunized to its befuddling quirks.

---------------------

Images obtained from: nintendo.co.uk, michibiku.com, darkstation.com, 2dradar.com

Thursday, November 11, 2021

BOXBOXBOY! - Thoughts


Alright, so first things first: BOXBOXBOY! does not solve any of my complaints that I had with the previous title. It is direct sequel to the last game not just in name, but in style, design, and gameplay as well. Not only do all of the mechanics from the previous entry return for an encore, but the central gimmick this time around—creating two different "stacks" of boxes—is actually the final ability you're taught in BOXBOY!'s postgame. BOXBOXBOY! fails to bring new ideas to the table, making it less of a proper sequel and more like a collection of spillover puzzles that HAL never got around to finalizing. This might sound like a harsh condemnation of the square boy's second foray, but there's one major upside that keeps the game from feeling vestigial: BOXBOXBOY! isn't afraid to get tough. And no, not simply "remove the kid gloves"-tough—I'm talking "brass-knuckled wallop to the jaw"-tough.


BOXBOXBOY! unfolds in parallel to its predecessor, introducing each mechanic to the player bit by bit across a similar sequence of linear worlds. Your new ability to make a second stack of boxes will keep the experience from feeling overly familiar, though most obstacles boil down to "make stairs with one stack, use the second to complete the puzzle." While the opening few hours of BOXBOXBOY! failed to impress me beyond a smirk here and there, none of the puzzles felt as slow or half-witted as those in the previous game. If anything, BOXBOXBOY! came across as a competent—albeit needless—remake of the first game.

Right around World 6 or so, you'll begin to notice some devious stage design and crown placement that might impede you for a few minutes. The puzzles will be tricky but not anything too taxing... until you reach BOXBOXBOY!'s relentless postgame worlds, where every other screen will have you muttering "how the hell am I supposed to do this?" World 14-8 and 16-5's crowns in particular were nasty, prickly little monsters that had me stumped for over ten minutes, and the penultimate level has one of the most cramped, soul-crushingly precise puzzles I've seen in a Nintendo game. There were dozens of other moments that had me massaging my noggin in despair, but that penultimate puzzle alone took me longer to solve than the entire final world from the first BOXBOY! That alone is worthy of some mad respect.


Yet despite the more stupefying puzzles, BOXBOXBOY! doesn't take much longer to complete than BOXBOY!—expect roughly five hours from both titles. This is because all your knowledge from the first game easily carries over into the second, letting you zoom through the early stages with advance techniques all while the game is trying to teach you pressing switches. And if you're feeling particularly naughty, every costume from BOXBOY! transfers over, including the speedy ninja outfit and bouncy bunny hood. In an interesting development, you'll actually need them for the costumed-specific challenge world, which locks you inside of these sequence-breaking suits and then tosses you through a gauntlet of old levels, where you're forced to finish them with fewer boxes than normal. The challenge world doesn't hold a candle to some of the postgame puzzles, but it's a neat twist to the regular formula that kept the spirit of the game intact.

And that spirit, unfortunately, is still dexterity-focused with a side of fiddliness. BOXBOXBOY! continues to grade players on their speed and thriftiness, which is a terrible combination in a game where you can't see the full level, you can't see a grid to measure distance, and you can place boxes on the very corner of a cliff to cut corners. I've already listed a bunch of grievances in my last entry so I don't need to recite them all—but don't worry, I've found more!

First: phantom boxes don't count towards the crown total, but will count when you're at "0 boxes left to use." Second: with a box attached to your hip, you can't jump and wedge that box into a one-square tall hole... unless you happen to hit a ceiling when you jump. Third: while having your legs dangle over spikes will still kill you, your legs won't dangle if there's a box you can snake to at the end of your stack. And lastly: while phantom boxes cause their corresponding corporeal stack to disappear, the phantom box will get made before the disappearance affects the world. That sentence might read like a brick of philosophical nonsense, but its a quirk that lets you grab the crown in 14-8 by using a phantom box to push yourself to safety before a switch de-presses and kills you. Trust me, if it sounds weird and stupid, imagine how I felt seeing it happen and having that sentence be the simplest rationalization I could come up with.


When it comes down to it, I'm not sure which of the two games I prefer. BOXBOY! has more originality and freshness, while BOXBOXBOY! sees the box mechanic stretched to its mind-boggling limits. The latter is a stronger puzzle game—and thus a easier recommendation—but it doesn't make sense without the introductory context provided by the first title—which makes it perhaps the better recommendation. Worse yet is that both games are bogged down by mechanical weirdness, which may not frustrate casual players but will feel downright ludicrous to those with an eye for elegant design. HAL did an admirable job building off of BOXBOY's base for its first sequel, but they only built the game vertically, recycling concepts instead of expanding outwards with clever new ideas. Hopefully with the next entry, I'll see a tasteful marriage of the first game's innovation with the second game's sharpness... because I don't have hope that the fiddliness will ever go away.

---------------------

Images obtained from: nintendo.com, nintendolife.com, gameinformer.com, macombdaily.com, 

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe - Thoughts


"Smooth"

That's the adjective that immediately comes to mind when I think of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo's most polished racer to date. Like a cool glass of water after a mile run, 8 Deluxe delivers a refreshing racing experience, finally finding the perfect balance between difficulty and fun. It not only builds off the solid foundation laid by the 3DS entry but tosses in new cars, racers, and bonus tracks, bundling the package together with some of the most gorgeous visuals and lively music the Wii U has to offer. 8 Deluxe buffs out almost every blemish in the series, creating a glittering crystal of pure, smooth karting.


While Mario Kart 8 brings a host of improvements worthy of merit—the live-studio retro remixes being among the best—the biggest one personally is the new ranking system. Back in the Wii and DS titles, there were a number of factors that could lead to a sub-optimal ranking, including but not limited to: time spent off course, shells blocked, obstacles hit, walls hit, pits fallen down, lap time, and number of drift boosts achieved. In 8, all of that is thrown in the rubbish bin for a pared down premise: simply place 1st in all four races. This keeps the single-player "endgame" more competitive than Super and 64 while avoiding the hair-pulling perfection required in Wii and DS, granting the best of both worlds. And considering that the trophies you earn in 150cc count for both 50cc & 100cc, it also skips the dull busywork of every game prior.

Of course, Mario Kart 8 remains "Mario Kart" at its core, so expect to wronged every now and then. Victories can (and will) be stolen by last-second blue shells just as often as opponents will attack you after you've already been hit, swiftly booting you from 1st to 9th. I think the item balance is better than its been (at least for the Wii U version), but chaos remains a large factor in determining outcomes—at least larger than I'd prefer. I also think the boomerang is an annoying item (it's useless when you have it and unavoidable when you don't) but it's thankfully counterbalanced by the super horn, a phenomenal new item that can reliably repel blue shells. Admittedly I didn't get to use it that frequently (I prevented a grand total of two blue shells) but I was always happy to see it pop out of the roulette.

If there is one thing to be disappointed by in Mario Kart 8, it's that the anti-gravity sections don't really add that much to the game. If anything, their constant bending and winding can blur details in the background, just as their twisting of the road obscures corners, thereby rendering them less impactful. This tends to make tracks feel less distinctive, despite their paradoxically stunning visuals and catchy music; it takes a while for me to recall which courses are in each of the cups, despite having played 8 longer than any other entry thus far.


Then again, I'm likely just grasping at faults for the sake of fairness, as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe delivers a bevy of fantastic new circuits. While there are a few that are groan-worthy (I'm looking at you, Dolphin Shoals and Baby Park), there's still plenty to look forward to. Sweet Sweet Canyon, Toad Harbor, Sunshine Airport, and Hyrule Circuit are all delights to race on, Ice Ice Outpost and Cheese Land have excellent (but risky!) shortcuts, and Mount Wario outshines 7's Rainbow Road as the best single lap track in the series. The retro track selection is no slouch either, especially since the SNES and GBA courses have received a much-needed, three-dimensional makeover. With a whopping 48 courses total, it's impossible not to discover a few new favorites.

By now if you haven't noticed, I've been using 8 and 8 Deluxe interchangeably, as I wound up playing (and three-starring!) both. I was initially curious if I could spot any changes between the versions, but after a while I found the game so relaxing and fun that I eagerly completed both. For the most part 8 Deluxe is the better of the two: it comes bundled with the DLC, has sharper graphics, a better battle mode, a new pink boost, a (presently active) online service, and it's more portable than its Wii U counterpart. Deluxe also brings back double item slots, but they're a double-edged sword: you have a better chance at getting an item to defend yourself, but the CPU will be tossing a lot more colored shells your way. Solely due to that I think I prefer the Wii U version more, but I can't deny that Deluxe is straight-up a better package.

Lastly 200cc is—hands-down—a brilliant addition. I was skeptical approaching its high-octane difficulty since I had heard that the game wasn't really designed around it, but what I love is that it transforms the circuits into the most dangerous part of the race. Tracks that were originally a snoozefest (Donut Plains 3, Animal Crossing, Special Cup's Rainbow Road) become brake-filled nightmares that can shorten your hard-earned lead in an instant. While it's vexing to constantly be flying off course and smashing into a wall—Bone Dry Dunes and Animal Crossing seriously require practice—it was great having a challenge independent of RNG; for once I found myself more afraid of hairpin corners than the whistle of a blue shell. Plus the CPU is poorly optimized for the breakneck speed, leading to a lot of hilarious moments where they overtake you just to zoom over the side of a cliff. I really can't suggest 200cc enough, especially if you've grown bored of conquering 150cc.


If you set aside nostalgia, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe emerges head and shoulders above its peers. It's gorgeous, easy to control, loaded with characters, karts, and tracks, and both the AI & item balance feel perfect. It took 12 years but at last Mario Kart has built a sturdy bridge between competitive and casual play, especially for single player; aiming for three stars is a serious challenge that's tense without being rigid, and light-hearted but not lackadaisical. If Mario Kart Wii left me feeling like I had choked down ice cream slathered in ketchup, 8 Deluxe was akin to feasting on an unlimited supply of buttery waffles and crispy fried chicken. It's not only the best Mario Kart, but possibly one of the best arcade racers ever made...

... so long as you can overlook the ever-awful blue shell.

Monday, October 25, 2021

BOXBOY! - Thoughts


BOXBOY! is a neat game that's tethered to some unfortunate... eccentricities. While suffering through the merciless Snakebird, I needed something to play before bed that could give my poor brain a pat on the back. I remember enjoying BOXBOY! back in 2015 yet had left it curiously unfinished, so I started a new save file and dove in. Sure enough, HAL's humble adventure worked well as the polar opposite to Snakebird: it was slow, mechanically diverse, and extremely easygoing—I can count the amount of times I was stumped on one hand. But it had one other quality, one that most other puzzle games try to avoid: BOXBOY! was fiddly.


In BOXBOY! you play as the eponymous boxboy, who extends boxes out of his body and can detach them at any point to form bridges and staircases. You might be fooled into thinking the game plays like a 1-D Sokoban clone, but there's a lot more to BOXBOY! than mere switch-pressing. There are conveyor belts, cranes, portals, circuits, gravity lifts, and lemming-like enemies that you must guide safely to a device (which happens to be a compactor that crushes them, ironically). Each mechanic has its own "world" devoted to it, gently introducing you to the gimmick one puzzle at a time. Only at the end of the game will they combine together to form more devious stages, the worst of which are entirely optional postgame content.

That means for the most part, BOXBOY! is a cakewalk. Occasionally you'll run into a stiff challenge that might seem physically impossible on first glance, but your options are always surprisingly limited due to the set number of box permutations you can produce. That means the solution is never far from hand, as reckless experimentation can often net you a lucky victory. BOXBOY!'s difficulty curve reinforces its laid-back nature too; expect less of an uphill climb and more of an EKG monitor, where any spike in difficulty is often followed by bafflingly simple stages you can puzzle out at a glance—even in the postgame levels. While I have no qualms against easy puzzle games (Hook and Zenge can be quite meditative), BOXBOY! treads a fine line between being clever and dull, with its easier stages often sliding into the latter.


One optional goal that adds a decent challenge to BOXBOY! is collecting crowns. Each level has one or two crowns that the player (usually) has to go out of their way to snag, with the catch being that you have a limited number of boxes to reach them under. That means that if you come to a spot where you need four boxes to reach the crown but only have three, you'll either have to puzzle out an alternate pathway or restart the stage with the aim of being more efficient with your box placement early on. While this sounds like an interesting limitation to play around, this is unfortunately the start of the dreaded fiddliness.

The first problem with this is simple: just where is the crown? A single stage will stretch across multiple screens with the crown often hovering near the end, but you won't know precisely where it is until you physically get there. That means that you won't know if you're using too many boxes until you reach the exact screen with the crown, and the only way to reset the limit is to restart the entire stage. And since you can be given you a limit of 30 boxes or more (one stage gives you 45!), you have no clue at all if you're being efficient with your boxes until it's often too late.

This might sound like an annoying problem for the game, but a good 80% of BOXBOY! is extremely generous with its box limit. Sometimes I would reach the crown with three boxes remaining, or six, or even double digits. Most of the time the limit adds no pressure, but that makes it far more noticeable when you run into a punishing level that's easy to solve but absolutely brutal with its box limit, requiring perfect play from start to finish. Like the difficulty curve, the box limit is unpredictable in that it occasionally spikes out of nowhere and then doesn't matter at all in the next level, giving some bizarre whiplash to an ostensibly quaint game.


Which brings me to the next fiddly issue, and arguably the bigger one: BOXBOY! is weirdly reliant on execution. Having a challenge about using as few boxes as you can sounds like a logistical conundrum, but you'll soon realize there's ways to bend and manipulate this limit. Boxboy can only jump one square high and two squares across—but you can actually make it three squares across if leap from the edge of a ledge. While occupying a one square wide platform you can't create boxes on the same ledge with you—but you can drop them next to you, effectively creating stairs and bridges where there shouldn't be. There are unlockable costumes later on that change the speed you move and height you jump at, further bending what's possible in both box limitations and puzzles. Lastly, and weirdest of all, is that boxes that extend out of boxboy don't count towards the box limit until you let go the Y-button, allowing you to interact with certain stage gimmicks without generating "real" boxes.

That last point—which I call "phantom boxes"—is a weird quirk among many that BOXBOY! expects you to understand and utilize by its end. Another that always bothered me is that boxboy is technically 1.5 squares tall because he possesses legs, meaning you can't enter into a 1-square high corridor—unless you use boxes to push yourself in there, at which point you can shimmy in and out. Another is how "snaking" works: at first it seems intuitive—it's kind of like a grappling hook where you pull yourself to the location of your final box—but like shimmying, it only works when you're stuck. That means if you want to get atop a high platform, you have to come up with a contrived way to get boxboy stuck so that the snaking prompt pops up. Note that none of these problems are game-breaking or too niche to comprehend; they're just unintuitive skills that feel like they follow arbitrary logic. They don't feel like new rules as much as they are bizarre edge cases that you're forced to learn—they're fiddly.

Nothing captures the problematic quirkiness of BOXBOY! better than an experience I had in one of the postgame levels: there's a group of spiked conveyor belts boxboy needs to ride to the exit, while also keeping a box above his head to block a laser on the ceiling. So I extend boxes out from boxboy's right side and curve them up around his head, creating a little dome where he can safely ride across the spikes to victory... except that since boxboy's legs dangle, they interact with the spikes and kill him! So you might assume I have to put a box below his feet to stop that, perhaps turning the dome onto its side... except that one time I was able to get across the spikes unharmed with the original configuration. Why did it fail five times in a row but work on the sixth? I don't know. And saying "I don't know why I won" is something you never want the player to admit in a puzzle game of all things.


It's so strange how BOXBOY! expects you to solve puzzles with a degree of platforming finesse—I mean, what was the last puzzle game you played that had unlockable time trails and marathon runs? CatherinePortal? Yet if you play BOXBOY! that way, it begins to creak and jitter, too imprecise to be a platformer yet too demanding for a box-placement puzzler. I might just be overcritical; BOXBOY! remains plenty of fun, offering about thirty minutes of playtime per dollar spent on it. But I'd hesitate to call it a must-play, or even smart. It's cute—true—and occasionally clever, but it's just too frequently fiddly for my tastes.

---------------------

Images obtained from: wikipedia.org, theverge.com, modernwarfare7.com, nintendolife.com, nintendo-europe.com

Monday, October 11, 2021

Mario Kart Wii - Thoughts


If Mario Kart DS tested my patience, Mario Kart Wii almost snapped it in half like a twig. Wii takes the punishing ranking system from DS and mixes in more chaos, adding four additional racers and some annoying new items. Prepare to be bombarded by blue shells, lightning bolts, POW blocks, mega mushrooms, stars, and bullet bills—all of which can jump out at any moment and sabotage your lead, especially if you're hit mid-air. Although Mario Kart Wii looks like a lighthearted racer with a goofy control scheme, it hides a callous ranking system that's impossible to please.


Just so you know, I've had my fair share of doubts about aiming for three stars. Why intentionally frustrate myself over Mario Kart of all things, a series most folks would agree is more fun than balanced? Three-starring every cup is a meaningless, time-consuming accolade, akin to platinuming a mediocre RPG. Except instead of completing sidequests and exploring different classes, I'm running the same cup over and over until the planets align and I finally clinch a victory. Anyone that's played Mario Kart Wii knows just what I mean—blue shells will ruin races more often than not.

But without focusing on the star ranking, what else is there? The online for everything but 8 Deluxe is defunct, Mario Kart DS is the only entry with a mission mode, and neither battle mode nor time trials are my cup of tea. Netting a gold trophy in every cup has always been the traditional goal of Mario Kart... but that's hardly a challenge outside of SNES title. Even on 150cc/Mirror most of the cups are conquered on your first or second try; hell, it's mathematically possible to place 2nd in every race and still come out on top. That's why I thought it would be fun to get three stars for each game (sans the terrible Super Circuit), as it would familiarize me with the courses better than filling the digital trophy case would. And for the most part I'd say this endeavor has been an enjoyable experience... but that's largely because I'm thinking of my time with 7 and 8.

Without question, I found Mario Kart Wii to be the nadir of my three-star journey. It's a really cool, colorful, approachable game, but Mario Kart Wii has absolutely zero qualms with treating the player like garbage. The added racers and POW block crank the game's zaniness up way too high for its own good, transforming your suffering from "frustrating" into "nihilistically comical". My thoughts on the DS game were sprinkled with personal examples of misfortune, but there were too many for me to count for Wii; I think the worst example is when I took five blue shells in the final two laps of a circuit. On top of that I've been blue shelled before the finish line, sent helplessly careening into a pit, and walloped by consecutive red shells, each a dozen times—or more! At one point I got so thoroughly thrashed in a single lap that I felt as though I had achieved rage nirvana, stoically realizing there was nothing inside of me save for the solar-hot ire of contempt.


I suspect this blog post reads like an indictment of my own obsessive nature, so let me reiterate that Mario Kart Wii is still plenty of fun, especially if played casually. The tracks featured in both the nitro and retro cups range from decent to phenomenal, with the standouts being Toad's Factory, Coconut Mall, Grumble Volcano, and Moonview Highway; Wii's Special Cup is definitely one of the best cups in the entire series. Motorcycles are also an interesting addition, giving you the option to go faster on straightaways at the cost of control and balance, causing a single bump from another racer to fling you off course. This happens more often than it should due to the CPUs zipping all over the road (without a drop in speed, irritatingly) but I appreciate being able to do something on long stretches of empty road. Wheelies serve as a good compromise between the dynamism that coins provide and the high-stakes nature of classic drifting.

I want to like Mario Kart Wii more—I really do!—but when I think back to it I'm instantly caught up in the misery of the three-star swamp. It hit early on in 50cc too, where despite being twenty seconds faster than my closest competitor I was still receiving a humiliating two stars. Not even Mario Kart DS had the nerve to waylay me on the easiest setting! Because of this I likely learned Wii the best out of all the games, which isn't too bad since it has some of the best courses... but what stymied me the most were the boring and short tracks! Shell Cup in particular was a nasty experience, as the races are so brief that a single shell or slip-up can doom your run. Even when I won I didn't feel like it was due to smarter or snappier play as much as it was just dumb luck; escaping the CPU conga line of death always gave me the best shot at 1st place, a task that hinged entirely on early item RNG.

Between the Wii and DS titles, I'm not sure which I ultimately prefer. They both provide similar but asymmetrical experiences: DS has tougher CPUs that frequently boost ahead for no reason, but Wii arms them with stronger weapons (most of which rob you of your defensive item). Wii includes better retro tracks that gel nicely with the new aerial boosts, but it lacks the quirky mission mode from DS. DS has a player item tally on the bottom screen which lets you be on the lookout for blue shells, but Wii offers more methods to play. The Wii looks better but the DS is easily portable and can be played with friends that own the console, but not the game. I think personally what gives Wii the edge in the end is that it's simply easier on your thumb, introducing a boost system that's easy to comprehend and perform but no less engaging than the ol' left-right-left-right.


Look—I can handle being blindsided by a blue shell. I can endure several of them per cup! I readily tolerate lightning bolts killing my momentum, bananas lurking behind massive ink blotches, and untimely POW blocks hurtling me into the depths of Mushroom Gorge. My problem is that when I overcome these perilous trials, managing to recover from catastrophe after catastrophe, I'm rarely rewarded for the effort. Most of the time—despite finishing first in every race!—I walk away with one or two stars, which leaves me to pour over my failings, both real and imagined. Was I not fast enough? Bounced against one too many walls? Should I have waited for the red shell to hit me before going over that jump pad?

Mario Kart Wii and its nasty DS cousin care not for your excuses; you play by their rules, get judged by their metrics, and take a blue shell whenever they damn well want you to. It would be foolish to argue that they're not fun racers, but I find their ranking system to be rude, capricious, and indecipherable. It never tells you what you did wrong and blames you for mistakes beyond your control, forcing you to run clean races in a messy racing game. A good ranking system adds nuance to a victory; Mario Kart Wii makes you feel bad for winning.

---------------------

Images obtained from: wikimedia.org, gamefaqs.com, nintendolife.com, wired.com

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Mario Kart DS - Thoughts


Mario Kart DS seriously tested my patience at times. I think it's leagues better than the first three entries, but it is not a kind nor forgiving experience. DS is like a parent you can never please, unhappy with your performance in spite of you trying your best. Some days it'll let you get away with a sloppy corner or two, but most of the time it will stare down its nose, scoffing, "You call that a drift boost?" If you can ignore its harsh grading, Mario Kart DS is a fun little package with good ideas. However, if your heart's desire is the hallowed three stars, prepare for that dream to be laughed at and spat on.


Mario Kart DS is the last game in the series to use the classic drift boost system, and I'm not sad to see it go. You activate it by alternating left and right while drifting, but it's never been something I could consistently pull off in any of the titles. Its problem is less that the maneuver is difficult to perform and more that it's unclear what separates a successful boost from a failed one. Even when I'm confident in a corner, boosting is always a gamble; take too long to perform the action and you'll find yourself off course, careening towards a wall. And though I appreciate the dexterity required to pull it off, boosting every race can physically wear on the thumb—especially if you're using the 3DS's jagged d-pad.

Inconsistent boosting wasn't a huge deal for the earlier titles—64's rubberbanding is a bigger bur—but the difference between those games and Mario Kart DS is the punishing ranking system. To be as efficient as the game thinks you should be, you'll not only have to get accustomed to drift boosting but also come to terms with the fact that you're going to lose. A lot. To succeed you'll have to stay within the bounds of the course, bump as few walls as possible, and keep a hold of 1st place for the majority of the race—and even then might only qualify for two stars. On top of that, blue shells will show up on every race (with 4-6 of them in the worst scenario) and DS's red shells have developed a nasty tendency to curve into your side, bypassing whatever defensive item you're holding. Now matter how many hits you suffer—and trust me, you'll suffer a payload—you still have to place first or you can kiss those three stars goodbye.

In theory, I don't think there's anything wrong with including a system that ranks you based on how well you did. But the ranking in Mario Kart DS is a pile of garbage straight-up crapshoot. It's fickle, punitive, and apathetic to your excuses, even if you get bumped off the road or sent spiraling into a pit by a lightning bolt. The ranking system won't acknowledge that you got blue shelled on Baby Park of all things (seriously, that track is 50 second long!), or that you kept getting fake item boxes so you had no way to avoid four red shells in a row—you perform up to the game's expectations, or run the entire cup over again. But the worst part about all of this—the thing I absolutely cannot stand—is that you are given no feedback as to what you did wrong. There's no score, time tally, or track-by-track rundown—just a simple grade, devoid of context. Was it that thwomp you ran into? The mud you slid across in Wario Stadium? Should you have drift boosted more? Mario Kart DS cares not for your cries; you will receive that two star rating and stew in solitude, left to ponder where it all went wrong.


Most of the time though, you know where it all went wrong—you were blue shelled (then red shelled) right before the finish line. Or you tried to cut a corner and ran into a chain chomp. Or you bumped into two walls over the course of an entire cup. But what's frustrating is that, akin to the drifting, the ranking feels unclear and arbitrary in its stringency. Sometimes you can slip into a pit, crash into a snowball, and rarely boost all lap... and nevertheless clinch a three star victory. It feels great when you succeed, but it makes your defeats all the more crushing, since you can rarely identify a mistake that wasn't present in your other victories. You don't learn how to play the game better as much as you just randomly manage to achieve three stars, which will happen more often should the blue shell forget to show its ugly face.

On one hand, Mario Kart DS's ranking system gives the game more longevity, providing a suitable challenge that will even give experts a run for their money. But on the other hand, it completely forgets that Mario Kart isn't about perfection—it's about fun, chaos, and a keeping sharp eye on the road ahead. Once you apply a rigorous formula that makes no exceptions or excuses, it turns Mario Kart into an RNG-heavy pain-in-the-ass with the odds feel stacked against you, given that you have to run not one but four flawless races in a row. You can gloat about being good at the game until you're red in the face, but that won't change the fact that some some victories will unequivocally be stolen from you. And that sucks. You might still snag a gold trophy in the end of course, but if you set your eyes any higher, prepare for the game to fight back with a dispassionate cruelty.

There is some good news though: the new courses are pretty good! Every cup has two tracks that can compete at the top of the Mario Kart echelon, balanced with a good amount of turns and fair stage hazards. Not only that, but quite a few tracks have some fantastic, fresh themes that are worthy of praise all on their own—Waluigi Pinball, Tick-Tock Clock, and Luigi's Mansion are what I'd deem the most memorable. Mario Kart DS is also the first (sorta second) appearance of retro courses, a much-needed inclusion that bulks up the game. Sadly, the retro line-up here is largely unimpressive; tracks from Super Mario Kart and Super Circuit are flat as a sheet of paper, dominated by boring straightaways and peppered with corners that have been neutered of their danger (due to DS having better controls). Plus the track selection is exceedingly dull: the Shell cup features not one but three intro tracks, and there's nothing exciting or noteworthy in the final retro cup.

Last but not least, Mario Kart DS's most notable feature is probably its Mission Mode: solo challenges that place you in a variety of wacky events, ranging from "race against the clock" and "collect coins" to "drive backwards" and "shoot baddies with shells". I think these are mostly... fine, I suppose. Every now and then there's a cool alteration or mechanic (like the boss fights) but some missions really don't work well within the Mario Kart framework, requiring too much precision or relying on luck. Yet the bigger sticking point for me is—you guessed it!—the ranking system. Some missions will gladly hand over three stars on a first or second completion, while others will see you running the course over and over, cutting off tenths of a second in the hopes of appeasing the go-kart gods. And similar to the ranking system in the grand prix, you're never given a threshold to hit nor told what you're doing wrong; you either do well, or run it again and again and again and again.


For casual play, it's hard to beat Mario Kart DS. It has a good selection of original tracks, a sizeable mission mode, and single-cart multiplayer to keep amateur drivers entertained. But beneath the exterior is a condescending ranking system that blends F-Zero GX's perfectionism with Mario Party's adoration for RNG-determined winners. It creates a foul mixture, the video game equivalent of dousing ice cream in ketchup. For some people that might work (or even sound appetizing), but it's undeniably a hard form of entertainment to stomach. Even when you finally net three stars in everything, you won't be relieved—you'll be angry and tired, sapped of your adoration for the franchise. Who knew that including a harsh grading system in a series that's all about enforcing equitable treatment would be about as fun as professionally speedrunning Candy Land.

---------------------

Images obtained from: nintendolife.com, gamereactor.com, eurogamer.net, twitter.com

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Dragon Age: Inquisition - Thoughts


Despite having played only two entries, Dragon Age has built up an intimidating aura for me. It's a series that augurs gloom and frustration, rivaling (and at times surpassing) the most vexing games on the NES. The first two Dragon Ages are long, hazardous affairs that will have you routinely rifling through your inventory and nervously stockpiling potions, because you've experienced firsthand how ruthless the journey can be. Time and time again, you'll suffer that one downed party member or mis-timed spell that rapidly results in a team wipe—seriously, just look at the sky horror fight from Dragon Age 2. You may not rack up as many "game overs" as other notorious classics, but fights are both long and swingy, making defeat more crushing than whenever Simon Belmont accidentally slips into a pit.

So naturally, I went in trepidatious of Dragon Age: Inquisition. And while it's more difficult than any of the Mass Effect titles, it was also much, much more lenient than its ancestors. Potions are limited but always restock at camp, fights don't drag for nearly as long, and you won't have to deal with a figurative flood of reinforcements raining down on you like in Dragon Age 2. There are some unfortunate downgrades with the transition to open world, but Inquisition remains the "friendliest" Dragon Age, being easy to understand while simultaneously offering loads of tactical depth to sink your teeth into. And your chompers better be sharpened because there is a ton of Inquisition to devour—arguably far too much.


At the core of Dragon Age: Inquisition is a troubling question: what content is worth experiencing? You are presented with a lot of quests in Inquisition, but outside of the main story bits (which require levelling up to access) you are left on your own to explore the world. While each locale has a main objective woven into it, these are often vague and imprecise: "go stop bad guys" or "look for grey wardens" or "find out what the bad guys are doing here." Questlines in previous games were more rigid and direct, telling their own little story or wrapping up in unexpected ways (I was woefully unprepared for Gaxkang). Meanwhile in Inquisition you'll run into quests frequently and randomly, covering your map in objectives that have the most tenuous of stories attached to them.

And though not all the quests are pointless (I enjoyed a couple of the companions' missions) it's difficult to tell which quests will be meaningful as opposed to those that sorta just... end. I played a ton of this game—over 100 hours worth—scouring the world for interesting stories... but there's honestly not that much that I can recall. There was that one haunted mansion, the barbarians in the swamp, the flooded town, and... that's mostly it? Everything else was an outpost you needed to attack, a corpse you needed to investigate, or an item you needed to collect. Occasionally you come across some cool moments, like stumbling upon a dragon nest in a coliseum or exploring a temple frozen in time, but these aren't storylines as much as they're just "neat" events you'll gradually forget.

The main story on the other hand fares much better in comparison, telling a riveting tale that outdoes both Origins and 2. Where most other games skirt the religious implications of being the "Chosen One", Inquisition embraces it wholeheartedly, acknowledging that some interesting problems arise from your deific duty. Do you actually think you're ordained by the Maker? Do you think it is your duty to right the wrongs of the world? Would you play kingmaker and willingly let a ruler whom opposes you fall? Additionally, Inquisition bears some fascinating lore implications for the Dragon Age universe, but almost all of it is constrained to the main story and subsequent DLC. If you stray off the main path, prepare for a lot of bland fetch quests with mundane conclusions, which only serve one purpose: to feed you XP for the long road ahead.


I'm of two minds about Inquisition's combat: on one hand it's very accessible and well-balanced, but lost are the explosive moments from launching key spells. That trade-off was inevitable if the series ever sought to shake its CRPG roots, but it renders a lot your abilities as low impact. Enemies are still able to shred through HP like tissue paper, mind you, so you'll just have to be more active about using your abilities; no longer can you rely on the tried-and-true "hold the choke point and fireball everything." And while there are a couple of death-dealing combos you can discover (Hidden Blades + Mark of Death = 80k damage, RIP last boss) for the most part you'll have to rotate through abilities more often in order to survive. It keeps combat interesting, but piles more busywork onto the player.

Thankfully, Inquisition offers the console player a saving grace: finally you're given the ability to control the pace of battle with a tactical mode! This feature pauses the battlefield and lets you direct party members where to go, which spells to use, and whether to hold their ground, letting you finally control the fight from an overhead perspective. Ironically it's not needed for most of the battles, but its addition is more than welcome in the harder encounters. Dragons in particular have been made more fun than frantic, thanks in part to being able to tell your mindless allies to get out of the goddamn breath attack range. They'll still get blasted occasionally, but at least now you can tell yourself, "I really should've started this fight in tactical mode."

But tactical mode comes with a trade-off: you can no longer customize companion AI, nor bring more than eight abilities into battle. Note that you can alter whether an AI uses an ability or not, as well as learn as many spells as you want, but those two restrictions keep combat from feeling truly free. It can be nice not having to deal with a laundry list of if-then statements, but conversely, it's frustrating to have no control over which target the mage places barrier on, or whom the rogue puts to sleep during combat. Likewise, locking the toolbar to eight powers renders levelling up past 20 as moot, as most of your abilities have been set in stone and already upgraded. Neither of these are detrimental—I'd sacrifice tweaking AI priorities for tactical mode in a heartbeat—but they narrow combat ever so slightly, streamlining the game so it won't appear too complicated.

And yet they kept inventory management complicated—and it sucks.


More than any other game, Dragon Age: Inquisition bogs down your inventory with a ton of clutter. There are dozens of mods, sigils, runes, recipes, remains, and accessories that you'll gather on your journey, and they all take up precious inventory space, requiring frequent trips back home (or at least a vendor). There's plenty of cool gear to happen upon, but the vast majority of it will be a waste of time, thanks in large part to the shoddy UI. The menus are cumbersome to navigate, take forever to load in, and you can't compare unequipped items to one another—hell, you can't even compare stats when looting a chest! Plus you have to endure a loading screen every time you want to access your storage container, and there's no way to sort the damn thing! Whatever open-world gripes I have may be up for debate, but you will never be able to convince me that Inquisition's inventory even approaches the word "decent." How the older games manage to be superior in this regard is beyond me; trudging through your inventory is hands down the worst part of Inquisition.

Runner-up to that terrible accolade is the similarly terrible crafting system that's been senselessly tacked on. Potion brewing was a part of both Origins and 2, but Inquisition steps it up and lets you forge new weapons and armor... which means there's scores of raw materials to gather. It's downright incomprehensible how the game expects the player to keep track of what minerals do what, where to find most of them, and what schematics even utilize them. Buying schematics is an alarmingly dumb process too, as you're not given any details about the item besides its nebulous "tier" ranking. Worse yet is once you dig into the system you'll be overwhelmed with a bevy of mediocre options, most of which fail to compete with the game's unique drops. You honestly only need it if you're underleveled; the less time you spend in the forge, the better.

The last aspect that'll drain you of time is the war table—a feature I'm torn on, like with a lot of things in Inquisition. On one hand the war table features some of the coolest choices and flavor text you'll encounter in the game. On the other... well, it doesn't really do much. Sure, you can send spies to investigate an outpost, rendezvous with seedy figures, and blackmail religious officials into obedience... but it'll just result in riches, treasure, or influence (perk XP) most of the time. Like I said in the Mass Effect retrospective, I typically find the decisions you're forced to make more interesting than their outcomes. But that's not true in all cases, as Inquisition has shown me—sometimes you need something more than "new horse unlocked!" to feel like you've made a difference.


I spent a long, long time with Dragon Age: Inquisition, but I'm not sure it bodes well that I don't have any strong feelings coming out of it. There's definitely plenty that I appreciate—tactical mode, party members, the tremendous worldbuilding—but it took the franchise formula and added a bloat that's hard to overlook. It doesn't feel like a leap forward for the series as much as a side step, one that's overly proud of the size of the footprint left. And while I'm excited where the Dragon Age narrative is heading, I feel strangely disconnected from a lot of my decisions in the game, possibly due to the war table dulling expectations. I wouldn't hesitate to call Inquisition a good game, but it did leave me with a strange feeling, one that lingers like chalk on my tongue: was this truly the experience BioWare wanted to make? I mean, is this really where modern Dragon Age is headed?

Y'know, it's funny: Mass Effect: Andromeda tried its absolute best to copy Dragon Age: Inquisition, when Inquisition is barely worth copying in the first place. It's like cheating on a test by cribbing answers from a B- student.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order


If you had told me the Titanfall developers would go on to make a game that blends Sekiro, Uncharted, and Metroid Prime 3 together, I would've said "there's no way that can work" before pre-ordering the hell out of it. However, if you added "... and it's a Star Wars game!", I would've been considerably less eager. That's why Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order completely flew past my radar; Star Wars is as unappealing to me as bug-eyed highschool anime girls are to others (which yes, I did watch all of Clannad). I don't have a problem with people that are drawn to it, but personally I've grown bored of evil empires and jedi mind tricks long before The Force Awakens was even in production.

Yet when Fallen Order came to Microsoft's Game Pass, it was hard to ignore it—especially after getting rave reviews from my friends. And while the game hasn't shifted my opinion on the franchise as a whole, it does make a serious argument for being the best video game bearing the Star Wars brand.


One of the best things Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order has going for it is that it's (mostly) untethered from any of the movies, letting the player run around the universe and meet brand new characters. This keeps the experience feeling fresh as you're not tasked with blowing up the Death Star for the 100th time, but instead retracing the steps of a jedi master, taking you from subterranean alien dens to the top of a gargantuan world tree. There's a good variety of planets that manage to feel distinct from one another, though they're all winding mazes of predominantly one color. Their labyrinthine nature shouldn't be understated either; expect to stare at the map often if you want to hunt out secret areas and power-ups.

Unfortunately, Fallen Order is pretty barebones when it comes to power-ups. There's the ever-important estus upgrades stim cannisters, focus upgrades, health upgrades, and... that's basically it. A majority of the goodies you'll scavenge are mere codex entries and cosmetic options, which—while neat—don't expand your gameplay options nor add a strong incentive to keep exploring. Really, the best thing about opening those space-chests is that it's one less spot that'll distract you on the hunt for stim cannisters. There's also a number of mandatory upgrades that'll expand your traversal options, but I didn't really find any of them clever or unique enough to comment on.


But Fallen Order doesn't really need to be clever or unique to do well, an approach it takes with its parry-heavy combat. It's unfair to weigh it against Sekiro as both titles were in development at the same time, but the comparison is unavoidable: Fallen Order plays like a slightly sloppier Sekiro. The key word there is slightly as you can still enter a room and dispatch half a dozen storm troopers without breaking a sweat, but I never really felt confident in my parrying. It was hard deducing when to counter certain attacks due to the small delay in blocking, or if parrying would even work at times—it generally felt like a crapshoot against creatures larger than you. Sekiro may have suffered from a block-spam problem, but Fallen Order's alternative is to make blocking feel like a gamble; halfway through I stopped caring about attacks slipping through my defenses and focused more on offense. Also the input for healing can sometimes go ignored too, which just makes Sekiro shine that much brighter in comparison.

Note that receiving the "runner-up" award for parry mechanics is still an achievement unto itself. Fallen Order's encounters are rarely something you'll shy away from, as you'll be champing at the bit to flex your skills. Both the enemies and the player dish out considerable damage, making fights meaningful and delicate, rarely lasting more than twenty seconds. Throw in some nifty force powers that let you toss obnoxious snipers off cliffs, as well as a diverse cast of imperial henchmen to learn, and Fallen Order stands tall on its combat alone. Sadly boss fights are few and far between, with most of them being regular enemies with souped-up health. I think it's neat how bosses can get thrown at you at unexpected times, but if you're expecting climactic fights to close out your adventure through each world, know that Fallen Order doesn't play by those rules.

Combat may be at the heart of Fallen Order, but you'll be spending just as much time climbing across ruins and scavenging through downed ships. Fallen Order's levels are massive, multi-layered beasts that can be hard to read at times; the mandatory path is always easy to find, but backtracking can feel like untangling an elaborate knot of pathways. On one hand each planet is a marvel of intricate level design, but on the other you'll be aching for a quicker way to move around (given that there's no fast travel). Again, this isn't an issue that pops up if you play the game as a linear campaign, especially since Respawn is pretty good about giving you something to do on your way back to your ship. Once you venture out on your own, however, be prepared to circle back through a lot of familiar areas and enemies.


Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order delivers a good time, whether you're a fan of the franchise or not. There's exploration and puzzles for adventure fans, quick and flashy combat for action fans, and a decent chunk of cutscenes for those in need of a reason to push on. I may have spent an inordinate amount of time griping about Fallen Order's problems, but they're minor things, no worse than a dent on your bumper. The campaign presented here is admirable; Respawn Entertainment is slowly cementing themselves as one of the best single player developers in the AAA scene.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Donkey Kong 64 - Thoughts


I had always thought of Donkey Kong 64 as a "worse Banjo-Kazooie", but my recent 101% revisit confirmed just how pitiful it truly is. Donkey Kong 64 is not just a poor video game—it's probably the nadir of collect-a-thons, or at least a strong contender for the odious title. It's long, boring, repetitive, dreary, and humorless, lacking both the stellar design of Donkey Kong Country and the warm charm of Banjo-Kazooie. How Rare of all developers churned out a game so irreparably vapid is beyond me.


I don't think Donkey Kong 64 was destined to fail just because it jumped to the third dimension, but it was facing an uphill battle. The Country series is defined by its unique stage gimmicks and deviously hidden bonus barrels, both of which could work in 3D but would require a focused "smaller stage" approach, similar to Super Mario 3D World. Instead Rare honed in on the "completionist" aspect of the series, using Banjo-Kazooie as a springboard. Donkey Kong 64 would have a hub world, several learnable moves, and hundreds of items to keep track of. Then Rare lost their goddamn mind and jammed five playable characters into the game, each with their own collectibles to gather on every level.

While that didn't necessarily condemn Donkey Kong 64 to the trash bin, the inclusion of the tag barrel certainly did. With it, the player can only swap characters at designated spots, meaning that they'll have to backtrack to a tag barrel just to re-explore a level. And exploring isn't all that fun since stages are filled with boring enemies and nearly zero platforming. There's what, the sand you have to hop across in Angry Aztec, the entirety of Creepy Castle... and that's it for notable obstacles. Most of the time you'll be holding forward on the control stick, ignoring enemies, and slowly climbing up trees. And then at the top you'll realize you need Diddy Kong not Lanky Kong to obtain those five bananas, so you'll saunter back to the tag barrel, switch characters, forget where that particular tree was, and lose a bit more of your sanity.

People often deride the game for forcing you to play it essentially five times, but I think the senseless level design is what's truly detrimental. There's nothing to do the first time you're in the area let alone your fifth, besides activating teleport pads and making note of what Kongs you'll need where (and good luck remembering it all.) Stages are just boring busywork meant to waste time until you get to a golden banana challenge, which at their best are simply "okay." Sometimes you can't progress deeper into a level without a particular Kong's skillset either, and the lack of consistency here bugs me. You might need to shoot a switch or use a music pad or grab a golden banana to unlock a new area—and all of these will look the same as every other switch, pad, and banana. It's frustrating because it means you can't start a level with a single Kong and net all their goodies; you'll have to frequently swap between all five simians, only stumbling upon an "optimal route" after the stage is fully cleared.

Hell, there's no consistency in the golden banana rewards either. Sometimes you'll be given one for merely hitting a switch, and other times you'll have to undertake multiple steps and platform through an area just to get to an accursed bonus barrel, which contain their own challenge. It feels like it's a 50/50 shot whether you'll get a bonus barrel at the end of your road or not, and almost none of them are enjoyable. I think an argument can be made for Minecart Mayhem and Kremling Kosh, but the others alternate between mindless (Peril Path Panic, Krazy Kong Klamor) and unbelievably frustrating (Big Bug Bash, Searchlight Seek, Beaver Bother.) Worse still is that most of the bonus barrel minigames repeat themselves, so you might find yourself playing Beaver Bother twice in a single stage—with zero variation between the two minigames, no less!


Speaking of, Donkey Kong 64 has some really bizarre, unjustified spikes in difficulty. The aforementioned Beaver Bother is a buggy nightmare that takes an hour (or two) to learn to play properly, and both races against the beetle are way, way too demanding. These aren't just "hard" either; they require such articulate, flawless execution that they spiral into torture until you miraculously manage to edge out a victory. It's one thing if your goal is to make a dull game that you can practically sleepwalk through, but these spikes (among a few others) are so unbelievably rude that the game morphs into Schrödinger's Disrespect: I don't know whether Donkey Kong 64 is going to demand too little or too much from me until I hop into the bonus barrel.

While I think the stage design and bonus barrels are the worst part of the game, I think there's also significant lost potential with the characters. Sure, they all have a distinct personalities and gear—but they don't play all that differently. DK and Chunky are big and slow, Tiny and Diddy are small and fast, Lanky can attack enemies from far away... and that's about it? Each one uses essentially the same gun, their musical instruments all have the same effect, they can all ground pound, and even the way they lob oranges is the same. Most unique abilities—like Lanky's floating and Chunky's gigantism—only work at designated areas that limit how long you can stay in that state, or just bar you from exploring beyond a specified pen. You basically play as the same character five different times, with individuality allotted only where the game deems fit. Diddy Kong's jetpack is probably the most unique ability, but even that thing feels so slow that I'd rather not use it most of the time.

I'll throw Rare a bone and admit that while the design is atrocious, it's a generally well-made game. Sure, there are a number of bugs and glitches (I fell out of bounds once), but it technically works and doesn't have any dumb ways to lock yourself out of 101%. That, and the end of the game is pretty good, all things considered. Hideout Helm is a decent test of all you've learned and the final battle is ironically one of the best fights Rare has ever produced. It's just a shame that they're locked behind so much mediocre-to-bad gameplay; they're diamonds in the rough, if the "rough" was a mile wide pit of banana-yellow quicksand.


Donkey Kong 64 is a 20+ hour collect-a-thon that is massively unrewarding. Even if you like the idea of scouring a level for hours on end looking for any nooks you've missed, Banjo-Tooie's got you covered. As a Donkey Kong fan, this is the lowest the series has ever been and I pray the franchise won't ever return to this formula. It's not hyperbole to claim the best thing about it is that deliciously corny DK rap; Donkey Kong 64 is just not worth playing, let alone completing.

---------------------

Images obtained from: gamesradar.com, hardcoregaming.net