The Mustard of Your Doom

k_roolThe greatness of heroes is somehow limited. After all, their heroic acts can only be as big as the problems they have to solve. A firefighter will not win many medals if all he does is save kittens from the top of trees in some small town; only the very rewarding gratitude of the pets’ owners. However, put him in the middle of an enormous fire with endangered lives and, thankfully, greatness will rise to the surface.

Villains are different, though. Other than ambitions and eventual resources, the extent of their evil plans knows no bounds. That is why, when transposed to the gaming realm, where nearly everything is possible, we are sometimes confronted with megalomaniac plans that include either world domination or its darker and more twisted counterpart, universal destruction. Although some of the villains that have appeared on Nintendo-exclusive games do hold such goals, the wacky nature of many of those major titles has allowed the creation of some quite extravagant and noteworthy individuals.

bowserBowser has the odd obsession of kidnapping Princess Peach endlessly. His motivations, however, are never quite clear. Does he want to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom? Does he envy that she lives in a gorgeous castle surrounded by lush gardens while he mopes in a fortress of rock surrounded by lava? Is he expressing frustration, a feeling that grew so intense he decided to conquer the universe in Super Mario Galaxy, regarding feelings that are not mutual? Is it a sick hobby? Does he crave for attention? It is hard to know. The fact of the matter is that our inability to understand him, plus his willingness to aid Mario whenever Peach is taken by somebody else, turn him into an angry-yet-lovable goofball.

King K. Rool is another personage of equally foggy motivations. There are no biological researches that link crocodiles (especially those that walk on two legs) to bananas. Yet, he and his Kremling Krew have gone to great lengths in order to steal the Kong family’s hoard. Regardless of the existence of a palpable catalyst, though, watching the reptilian army storm DK Island is a true joy given the amusing ways through which the creatures attempt to halt the simians’ advances, which include using mighty bazookas and turning themselves into helicopters.

warioMeanwhile, reason is not something that is missing on Wario’s radar. His goal is clear: he wants to get filthy rich, and his greed is so unstoppable that, aside from collecting gold and other assets like a mad man – something that put him in a collision course with Mario on his debut, he has also ventured into other fields like sports (even those that are not very suitable to his protuberant gut), gambling on board games, and mini-game designing. The ultimate use of all that cash, however, remains mysterious, and any guess ranging from food to the building of a mighty world-destroying machine is plausible.

Similarly narrow, but more harmful, aspirations are held by the wicked Gruntilda. As a means to mock the standard evil witches that populate pop culture, she is offended by the fact someone could be prettier than she is. Therefore, she constructs a needlessly elaborate plan to capture Banjo’s cute sister Tooty and steal her beauty away. Ironically, the fate she meets ends up making her an even uglier version of her former self.

dededeOf equally colorful, and dubious, nature are the famous bad guys inhabiting the wonderful Dream Land. King Dedede’s good will is certainly questionable, for he seems to be more worried about besting Kirby than ruling, but most of his purely evil deeds can be traced back to him being possessed by malicious spirits.

The furtive Meta Knight has a similar dual role to play. As a noble being that works independently, his feelings towards Kirby can be either positive, leading him to help the pink hero when their goals are the same; or negative, making him engage the puffball in fair duels when their intentions diverge. The fact he is basically a dark version of Kirby clad in armor and sporting bat-like wings makes his awesomeness blow through the roof.

On a not-so-light specter, lie the iconic heads of the Space Pirate army, the grandest enemies of Samus Aran and the most visually threatening creatures on the Nintendo lore. Mother Brain is the sentient machine turned evil that plans to recreate the universe with beings whose intellect she deems worthy. To do so, due to the restrictions being a brain in a bowl (but a very badass one, mind you) naturally carries, she decides to enlist the help of the pirates.

ridleyRidley and Kraid are two of the group’s most prominent leaders, and although their bestial forms indicate otherwise, they are intelligent creatures that are actually highly ranked officials. Ridley is especially remarkable not only because, differently from Kraid, he has not been missing for over a decade, but also because he is directly responsible for the murder of Samus’ mother and indirectly accountable for the death of her father. Such brutality, plus the fact a naïve three-year-old Samus tried to befriend the dragon when he invaded her planet with killing on his mind, make their rivalry and mutual hatred the most intense within the Nintendo canon.

A parallel link is shared between Fox McCloud and the maniac Dr. Andross. A brilliant scientist that engaged in productive and beneficial works, he eventually begins to lust for power and perform dangerous tests. One of them fails badly and triggers massive destruction, causing him to be exiled on the deadly planet of Venon. His surprising survival prompts an intergalactic war that culminates with the death of Fox’s father, James, making the young – and newly appointed – leader of the Star Fox Team wish for revenge. In Wolf, the head of Andross’ own band of ace pilots, Fox finds his greatest dogfight rival; one who will stop at nothing to halt the hero’s progress through the galaxy.

ganondorfThe Zelda franchise has also yielded villains with that same dark demeanor. Ganondorf is the king of the Gerudo; the only male to be born in the desert tribe in a hundred years. As he manages to break into the Sacred Realm and obtain the Triforce, he gains power that further increases his hatred and thirst for destruction. Those feelings are so extreme he finds a way to survive across generations in order to constantly torment the descendants of the original heroes that defeated him, and repeatedly engage in acts of genocide.

Less recurring, but perhaps even more beloved, is Skull Kid. The star of the gloomy Majora’s Mask is inherently good, albeit a bit mischievous, and the touching nature of his backstory resonated loudly among players. Thinking that his four closest friends had abandoned him, he buries himself in so much sorrow that his spirit and will become vulnerable to the influence of the devilish spirit Majora. Completely controlled by the evil inside the titular mask after having stolen it, he provokes an impending apocalypse that is miraculously averted in the nick of time.

As somber as he is, and although the darkness of Majora’s Mask – Nintendo’s most ominous game – derives from him, he is not as bleak as Giygas: a villain so evil and corrupted his attacks cannot be grasped, making him worthy of the title “Embodiment of Evil”. An alien raised by an abducted couple, his race is eventually betrayed by the curious male and Giygas is sent to earth to stop vital information about his people from spreading and, through the possession of Porky, finds a human ally to pave the way to his glory. Conflicted between the deep love he still felt towards his human mother and the need to save his race, his repression of the former in benefit of the latter leads him to a violently broken mental state, mutually turning him into diabolical and tragic.

fawfulFor a company that is known for its quirky family-friendly games, Nintendo sure has built a cast of villains that is impressive and varied, falling under categories that go from silly to disturbing. Heroes and videogame icons would never truly exist without them, and as Fawful, the most completely insane and grammatically challenged bad guy a virtual hero has ever had to face, has gloriously stated, these guys “have fury”, are rarely “beefless”, do not have time to “sample the sprinklies in life’s salad bar”, plan to “fold their enemies like napkins who are crying”, are “high-fived on their faces by power”, and crave to “have victory”. They are “on the TV show of our tears” and want to “spit on our lives that are now but a caricature of a cartoon drawn by a kid who is stupid”. They are the “mustard of our doom”.

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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D Review

With an unparalleled sense of urgency and doom, Majora’s Mask rises once more as the franchise’s darkest and most sinister hour

majoras_mask2The years that have passed since the original release of Majora’s Mask have transformed the game from a pleasant little surprise that came a meager two years after the gargantuan Ocarina of Time into a highly beloved classic. Much of that fully justified adoration steams from the fact Link’s second Nintendo 64 quest is a delightful oddity, a point that stands far and away from the general curve that describes the overall progression of the Zelda franchise. Fifteen years later, it arrives in a spectacularly remade format to flaunt its sinister quirks to a whole new generation and remind older gamers of its undeniable greatness.

Saying Majora’s Mask is different from all Zelda titles that both preceded and followed it is a massive understatement. Majora’s Mask is, actually, very different from most adventure games ever put out by the industry. Sure, the core gameplay elements of puzzle-solving, character interactions, and dungeon crawling that are the bastion on which the franchise stands are almost intact, but here those assets are not the game’s gravitational core; they are actually the peripheral bodies that circle around the true lord of Majora’s Mask: time, or better yet, an endless unstoppable countdown to the utter annihilation of the game’s universe.

A Skull Kid, a forest imp of the mischievous kind, goes on a pranking spree after being abandoned by his closest friends. During that reckless outrage, he happens to rob a mask salesman of his most valuable and twisted possession: the titular Majora’s Mask, an item once utilized by an ancient tribe during cursed rituals and that ended up being discarded due to the overpowering evil spirit that resided within the mask. Possessed by its wickedness, the usually harmless attacks of the creature turn darker as he wrecks havoc on the land of Termina; harming people, dooming the land’s four regions to vicious curses, and – ultimately – summoning the moon to come crashing down on the world, an event that will spell the end of everything within seventy-two hours.

majoras_maskThe game’s greatest calling card then, and the one that makes it stand out, is its overwhelming urgency. While on most games villains spend their on-screen time planning unspeakable evils that will never come to fruition due to the interference of the player, Majora’s Mask flips the script. The world is already drowned in the gutter, and three days separate it from sinking to irreversible nothingness. As the hours pass (the three in-game days correspond to only fifty-four minutes in real time), the gigantic angry-faced moon comes closer and closer to the ground and earthquakes get more frequent. When Majora’s Mask tells players to “hurry up”, it means it with all its heart; there is no time to fool around in the closest inn or visit the neighborhood’s shop to see what’s new in stock.

Link gets pulled into the mess when, following the events of Ocarina of Time, he calmly wanders through the forest with Epona when, suddenly, he becomes yet another victim of the possessed Skull Kid; losing all his belongings in the process and being nightmarishly turned into a Deku Scrub. Once he rids himself of his curse, the clock begins ticking down on players and they must venture into Termina’s four regions to clear them of their respective calamities and wake up the guardians who can stop the moon from consuming everything.

Thankfully, with his ocarina, Link can revert the three-day cycle to its beginning at will. That relief, however, comes at a cost, and it is from that punishment that players will constantly be running away. Going back in time means that the game will basically reset the world: Link loses all his minor collectibles (bombs, arrows, deku nuts, and even rupees); any progress made in dungeons, unless the boss room is reached, in which case a shortcut will promptly open, is erased; previously restored areas go back to their original state even though their guardian remains awake; and characters with which Link had interactions completely forget about what happened.

There are indeed some punctual annoyances that come with the resetting of the world. For example, the clearing of some sidequests requires that some areas be restored, which consequently entails beating the temple’s boss once more; and a few mundane tasks must be repeated over and over again.

majoras_mask5Thankfully, otherwise Majora’s Mask would be completely unplayable, it is not all as bleak as it sounds. For starters, rupees can be conveniently stored in a bank that will keep them safe even when time goes back. Additionally, it is possible, via a famous device, to slow down the passage of time so that the time limit becomes almost negligible, something that is a blessing to those who despise time limits, but a move that takes away the game’s two most memorable, unique, and special qualities: the excitement and nervousness that arise when one has to rush to finish a task so that their efforts are not lost.

Most importantly, though, Majora’s Mask is outstandingly smart when it comes to structuring its adventure in a way that will allow players to progress little by little, hence creating an unbelievably fantastic balance between tension and frustration. It is unquestionable anyone going through the game for the first time will eventually fail to complete a quest before time runs out, consequently forcing them to restart an activity; however, whatever it is that will be lost will never be much.

In order to get into the dungeons, Link will often need both a song and one or more abilities that will be acquired along the way. Since neither tunes nor equipment or learned skills are lost when going back in time, that setup allows players to manage their fifty-four minutes with relative tranquility once they get a hold of the game’s mechanics. One can, for example, use three days to do the tasks required to learn the song; the next three days to find the equipment; and then wrap to the dungeon’s entrance – through an effective web of checkpoints that are nicely placed and are not erased when the days are reset either – so they can enter the puzzle-ridden maze with a full three-day cycle to spare.

majoras_mask4Even within that almost perfect balance between forcing players to rush while never allowing them to lose much (the worst-case scenario of progress loss is certainly having to restart a dungeon because one could not get to the boss room on time), does not stop the playing of Majora’s Mask to feel like a constant rush of adrenaline. After all, not only do players know that the moon is falling, time is about to be up, and progress will be lost, but they can visually see and feel that the apocalypse is around the corner, easily making the game the franchise’s darkest and most desperate hour.

In general terms, when compared to Ocarina of Time, the gameplay is pretty much intact. The most considerable difference, and perhaps the greatest and biggest addition ever made to the franchise’s formula, further making Majora’s Mask a very unique game, is spelled right on its title: the masks. As soon as Link is able to escape his Deku form, he will gain the ability to transform back at will. As the adventure goes on, he will also come across masks that will turn him into the other two major races of the Hylian universe: Gorons and Zoras.

Alongside the hero’s traditional equipment, the abilities granted by those three masks are smartly incorporated into puzzles and quests; in fact, out of the four dungeons present in the game, each of the first three is centered around the use of a specific disguise while the last one brings them all together into an all-encompassing test of skill and reasoning.

As a Deku, Link will be able to shoot bubbles and use flowers as trampolines from which he can soar into the air for a limited amount of time; as a Goron, he will become invulnerable to fire and gain the skill to roll around like an unstoppable wrecking ball; and as a Zora he will walk underwater, swim with beautiful fluidity and speed, and shoot fin boomerangs.

majoras_mask3In addition to those three core and mandatory masks, there are another twenty-one of them that can be collected via multiple sidequests scattered around Termina. While some of them are one-trick ponies whose only purpose is the solving of other sidequests, hence creating a clever web of dependencies; others give Link very useful skills, such as the Bunny Hood, which increases his running speed; the Blast Mask, which replaces bomb by allowing the character to create explosions at will; or the Stone Mask, which makes him invisible to most enemies.

The whopping number of twenty-four masks also has the indirect benefit of adding numerous extra quests with interesting rewards to the game. The amount of dungeons of Majora’s Mask – four, might seem a tad too little when compared to the eight present on Ocarina of Time even when the collectible fairies hidden inside them are considered, but numbers can be deceiving. First of all, the in-between dungeons segments here are meatier and often feature interesting mini-dungeons packed with their own enemies, puzzles, and equipment.

At the same time, as most Zelda veterans will quickly realize, the fact there are only four dungeons means that out of the twenty possible hearts Link can have by the end of the game, a shocking thirteen of them are assembled via the collection of heart pieces, consequently totaling fifty-four of those extra items that are added to the twenty-one non-mandatory masks as optional content.

In other words, that means Majora’s Mask is absolutely loaded with fun sidequests. Not only are their rewards great, but they also offer a level of character development that is unknown within the franchise. It is not just the main actors of the plot that are fully detailed; the same level of attention is given to many minor folks that inhabit Termina and, especially, its central village: Clock Town.

majoras_mask6As a game where the passage of time is so present that the current hour is constantly displayed on the bottom of the screen, pretty much all events are time-oriented and a practical notebook that is automatically filled as players come across new happenings helps them keep track of what is going to happen and when. Characters will follow a scripted routine whenever the seventy-two-hour countdown beings, shops will open and close depending on the hour, and certain occurrences and places can only be accessed if Link is able to correctly interfere with the lives of specific people; qualities that make the world feel specially alive. Some of the quests are so ridiculously detailed that they extend through the entire three-day period.

Although many years have passed, Majora’s Mask remains a very impressive entry on the Zelda franchise. Despite its smart structure that reduces the losing of progress, its time-related quirks might frustrate some players who enjoy to roam aimlessly and explore carefully, but to those who are able to enjoy its general uniqueness, the brilliancy of its masks, and the smartness of its dungeons, this 3DS upgrade ends up being the game’s definitive version for its flooring graphical improvements, which go along with an ominous soundtrack that perfectly conveys the game’s darkness, and other punctual enhancements.

With incredible smoothness, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D further solidifies the game’s hold on the title of the most sinister Zelda installment up to this day. Never has Nintendo been this overwhelmingly dark, and rarely has it incorporated so many changes on one of its major franchises with so much success.

Majoras Mask 3D

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Steampunk Freedom

steamIntelligent Systems is one of Nintendo’s most respected and beloved subsidiaries. As a company whose output has been generally remarkable and includes absolute classics such as Paper Mario, WarioWare, Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, and even Super Metroid, any new franchise blasting out of its gates will naturally garner a considerable amount of attention. Case in point, a brand new first-party property labeled Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is hitting the American market on this very day, and expectations towards what it will accomplish are, supported by the studios’ track record, justifiably high.

Much of that hype finds its roots on the fact Intelligent Systems are absolute masters when it comes to strategy games. After all, two of its most popular products – both the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars lines – are gigantic landmarks of the genre that have, throughout their respective histories, barely failed to deliver.

While the developer’s strong links to that niche of turn-based goodness are a source of excitement, they can mutually serve as a reason for general disappointment. The reasoning is simple: given Nintendo itself likes to build its astonishing collection of franchises around various genres in order to infuse variety into their catalog, does Intelligent Systems really need yet another strategy asset?

fire_emblemFrom a superficial outlook, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. easily comes off as redundant; a product that will naturally tackle the same terrain plowed by Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. However, a more profound analysis proves otherwise; the title is in fact a much needed addition to Intelligent Systems’ library, for it gives the company something neither Advance Wars nor Fire Emblem can offer: sheer freedom in game design.

Although those two franchises have received plenty of gameplay upgrades during their lengthy journeys, they abide to traditional norms that somewhat shackle developers in relation to how far they can take the game. Respecting those rules is by no means inherently bad; the world needs what is classic not only to create a line against which one can measure what is extraordinary, but also because a well-done conventional game is as delightful as an great unusual one.

With Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, especially the latter, Intelligent System is able to take standard turn-based strategy into unimaginable heights of content and quality, and every new installment sees the dawn of clever mechanics that add depth to storytelling and gameplay comfortably restricted by traditionalism.

steam2Meanwhile, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. comes as a immensely valuable opportunity for the studios’ developers to mess up their perfectly combed hairdos, open the top button of their immaculate shirts, grind their ties on a paper shredder and go absolutely wild with ideas, concepts, and general wackiness. It would not be surprising to, down the line, learn that many of the farfetched quirks displayed by the game are actually things the team wish they had implemented on the most recent Fire Emblem games, but never could due to the fact they would not fit within the franchise’s overall style.

Everything about Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. – from its cartoonish visuals to its somewhat hilarious Japanese subtitle “Lincoln vs Aliens”, which is truly the perfect summarization of its plot – exhales an air of overblown insanity and tongue-in-cheek goofiness. If that creative hyperactivity is perfectly inserted in its gameplay, then the game could turn out to be a pleasant and less serious alternative to Intelligent System’s other long-standing works of the same genre. And Nintendo could have yet another monster under its belt.

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest Review

dkc2Under the light of the character’s lengthy exposure on the platforming genre, it is easy to take for granted the wonders the introduction of the Donkey Kong Country franchise did for its titular simian. Once relegated to an arcade gameplay structure that gained multiple renditions due to its importance to Nintendo’s history, Donkey Kong – under the guidance of an inspired Rareware – found, on the franchise, a way to extend his legacy past the role of a barrel-throwing villain. By taking the reins of his destiny and starring on a game of his own, he escaped a possible limbo and the stigma of being remembered as a side character. Additionally, he solidified his position as, more than a complement to Mario’s sidescrolling antics, a rival to the plumber.

Donkey Kong Country 2 is, as its title plainly indicates, the second step on that journey, and it is a landmark in more ways than one can count, for – aside from introducing various elements that would become vital in the long run – it marks the franchise’s very peak, and the one instance where it might have actually risen above its Mushroom Kingdom counterpart. It starts out by borrowing the borderline unbelievable pre-rendered visuals its predecessor achieved through the use of the Silicon Graphics workstation, a technological achievement that supported both the use of 3-D effects throughout the game – mainly on the character’s sprites, and impressively detailed animation.

Even though the game does look better from a technical standpoint, especially regarding the backgrounds and effects, hence showing a more profound mastery of the hardware, its greatest improvement is artistic. Diddy’s Kong Quest uses a much wider palette of colors and explores scenarios that are far more whimsical, therefore lending the game a more appealing look. The standard caves, ruins, and jungles of Donkey Kong Country are replaced by pirate ships, volcanoes with bubbling lava, bee hives, decadent amusement parks, ghostly woods, mazes of thorny bramble, and more.

dkc4What truly makes the title standout both within the franchise and the genre itself, though, are the dark and urgent undertones that the game carries. The adventure is triggered when Donkey Kong, while relaxing by the beach, is taken away by the Kremlings. Led by King K. Rool, who reasons that stealing the Kong family’s banana hoard will be far easier with the main hero out of the equation, they give the remaining members of the clan two choices: hand over their precious treasure or never see the monkey again. Diddy Kong, however, joined by his girlfriend Dixie, carve out a third option, to rescue DK themselves, and so the quest begins.

Diddy’s heroism is unanimously doubted, and the game accurately captures the almost impossible nature of the endeavor that throws two kids against an organized army of humanoid crocodiles. That vibe is broadcasted perfectly by the game’s often ominous overworld design, as the settings on which the levels are organized are nothing but extremely threatening, and the urgent tune that constantly plays on the world’s map as the pair moves between the stages. It is a very special case of a game whose colorful looks and cartoonish plot are able to let out a truly serious, sinister, and dangerous atmosphere.

Much of those three qualities are tightly connected to the soundtrack. Diddy’s Kong Quest holds what is the very best array of songs to ever grace a game on a Nintendo system. It is, by a considerable margin, the masterpiece of David Wise’s brilliant career, and there is not a single tune in the bunch that falls even a few inches below the emblematic bar.

dkc1By merging traditional melodies with instrumental noises that mimic sound effects pertaining to each level’s theme, Wise builds extremely rich soundscapes within the confines of the limited hardware. It is truly no exaggeration to say that players will, undoubtedly, eventually pause the gameplay to just take in the musical greatness that resides in Donkey Kong Country 2, and be filled with a weird sense of joy when having to restart a level just because they will get to hear a tune for a longer period of time.

Diddy and Dixie traverse the levels as a duo, with players controlling the current leader of the group. Each monkey is lost with a single hit, but punctually placed barrels can be used to recover the one that is missing. That dynamic drives the game’s sense of tension through the roof, as gamers will be always either one mistake away from utter failure or on the verge of falling into such scenario. Luckily, halfway through each level, an always well-placed starred barrel serves as a pleasant checkpoint to keep frustration to a minimum.

Such relief is necessary because Diddy’s Kong Quest is hard, and it can soar to brutal altitudes for those who want to target full completion. The difficulty curve is flawless, as levels get progressively harder and every new world that comes around presents a considerable leap in difficulty, therefore creating a constant sense of challenge without ever being maddening or seemingly unsurmountable.

Like it happened on the original, where Donkey and Diddy had clear distinctions, the same applies to the new pair. Diddy is far more agile and his jumps offer greater maneuverability and height; meanwhile, Dixie is slightly slower but can use her ponytail as a helicopter to slow down falls and precisely control her eventual landing spot. The controls and physics work masterfully, and the possibility to switch between the characters proves of great strategic value as players can choose what monkey is more suitable for each situation they encounter.

dkc3Diddy and Dixie add a new weapon to their arsenal through the team-up ability. By riding on one another the monkey that is on top can be thrown to either hit enemies like a boomerang sort of weapon or reach places that would otherwise be impossible to get to.

The game is organized into seven thematically distinct worlds that, with the exception of the last one, hold between five and six levels, a creative and decently challenging boss battle, and a few points of assistance provided by other members of the Kong family. Wrinkly, the grandma, represents save points; Cranky, the grandfather, gives, in exchange for coins, tips regarding where to find secrets in each of the world’s levels; Funky, the uncle, provides transportation between worlds that have already been cleared; while Swanky runs a fun question-based game show that awards players with a number of extra lives that is correspondent to the difficulty of the riddles.

Thankfully, for the sake of dynamism and variety, the themes of the stages are not restricted to that of the world within which they are contained. In a smart turn that proves the well-designed nature of the overworld, environmental distinctions on the general area where a level is located indicate a different theme; for example, a pirate ship stuck in the muddy swamp world will lead to a stage aboard a sunken vessel rather than one set on a marsh. It is a detail that further highlights the differences between levels in the same world, making them far more distinctive.

Without exception, all of the stages are bursting at the seams with creativity, and the mechanics explored by each one of them are extremely clever. Aside from making use of Diddy and Dixie’s set of skills and displaying charming enemies that pose varied threats, levels also gain an extra boost in their design due to the fact the game is filled with animal buddies. What was once a rare sight in the original Donkey Kong Country, becomes – for the best – extremely commonplace in Diddy’s Kong Quest.

dkc5Rambi the Rhinoceros, with his sheer power; Enguarde the Swordfish, with his underwater agility; and Squawks the Parrot, which now can carry both Kongs as he flies through dangerous terrain all make a return. Meanwhile, Rattly the Rattlesnake and her glorious high jumps; Squitter the Spider and his web weaving platform-creating ability are introduced and, like the veteran animals, create very unique and interesting platforming scenarios that players must tackle.

Besides bananas, golden coins, and the K-O-N-G letters, which when collected award players with an extra life, each stage now has two kinds of very valuable collectibles that are key to anyone looking for full completion of the adventure. Given Donkey Kong Country lacked any item of the sort, those two elements set Diddy’s Kong Quest apart from its predecessor, making its replay value and difficulty level rise high.

Firstly, there is the Donkey Kong Coin, which is hidden in progressively devious spots by Cranky Kong in order to measure Diddy’s heroism. And secondly, there are the Kremkoins, which are found at the end of very fun mini-game like bonus rooms which ask players to do a certain varied task, such as killing all enemies or traversing a dangerous segment, within the allotted time.

Given there is one Donkey Kong Coin and anywhere between one and three bonus rooms on each stage, locating those items demands a whole new level of careful exploration by the players, hence transforming the game from a head-on platformer to one that requires a more meticulous approach. As a nice helping touch, the game indicates the Donkey Kong Coin and the Kremkoins for a certain level have been collected by, respectively, placing an icon and an exclamation mark besides the stage’s name.

dkc6Although finding all Donkey Kong Coins has no practical reward other than the satisfaction of being named the greatest videogame hero of all time by Cranky Kong and driving the completion percentage up to the elusive 102%, Kremkoins are different. For every 15 of those, Diddy and Dixie gain access to a level located on a secret world of brutal difficulty that houses the game’s true last boss and ending; a huge and pleasant addition that drives the gameplay time past the twelve-hour mark.

The sole issue that hits Diddy’s Kong Quest derives from its save points. In general, they are located halfway into each of the worlds, meaning that players will only be able to save their progress after clearing two or three stages.

The unfortunate part is that, differently from Super Mario World, clearing a world does not automatically save the game. Therefore, if by any bad turn of events, one runs out of lives before reaching a world’s save point, they will be sent all the way back to the halfway mark of the previous world rather than to the beginning of the world they are currently on. The game might be relatively generous with handing out lives, but most players will most likely eventually fall into such a situation where the punishment is taken a little bit too far, hence generating frustration.

Yet, there is just no way around it: Donkey Kong Country 2 is one the, if not the, best sidescrolling platformers of all time. It checks all requirements with style: it has a great amount of extra content, a daunting but fair level of difficulty, unforgettable enemies that are fondly remembered until this very day, good boss battles, clever mechanics and creative levels that make full use of them. What takes it over the top, though, are its haunting atmosphere that combines cartoonish inspirations with a dark quest of urgent nature and a soundtrack for the ages. Donkey Kong Country 2 proved that, more than mere competition for the plumber, Rareware had the capacity to craft games to top Nintendo’s best efforts.

Donkey Kong Country 2

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Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker Review

capt_toad4Captain Toad is one fearless fellow. Part of a race that displays an incredible ineptitude to either partake in grand quests or deal with bad guys, the little mushroom man is further hindered by the fact he, like any experienced treasure hunter, carries a backpack of overpowering weight. Yet, regardless of being unable to run very fast, jump, or beat enemies directly, he presses forward magnificently powered by his love for adventuring and shiny loot. Armed with nothing but his unshakable determination, he must make his way through over sixty levels that come together to form an adventure of uncanny charm and brilliant design.

The character is not precisely new. Before deservedly starring on his own game, he had been an adorable minor character on the Super Mario Galaxy saga and then proceeded to become playable on a handful of diorama-like levels that could be twisted and turned by the player on Super Mario 3D World. As it turns out, those stages were far more than a deviation from the standard gameplay found on that title; they were one of its finest and most original ideas, naturally pushing fans to claim for more.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is the materialization of those wishes in the best possible way; not as an extra pack of levels or as a downloadable software, but as a full-fledged retail treat that is worth the price of admission. Nintendo listened to the cravings of their fanbase and delivered with style; Captain Toad seems to be here to stay.

capt_toad1The game is centered around relatively small scenarios that often feature a glimmering star in plain view. In order to get to it, though, players will have to maneuver the titular character through a series of puzzles or traps that can only be cleared by spinning the level around and exploring the numerous hidden tunnels and rooms the different perspectives will reveal.

In that sense, Captain Toad’s limitations fit the overall gameplay like a glove, for instead of working as a fast-paced experience, Treasure Tracker is actually a unique mixture of environmental puzzle solving and platforming that requires patience, reasoning, and calculation. It perfectly channels the meticulousness the work of an explorer requires and the rewarding satisfaction that comes with every new discovery.

The structural simplicity of the game’s levels are not exclusively beneficial to its gameplay; they also do wonders for its graphics. Treasure Tracker will go down as one of Nintendo’s most adorable games ever, and much of that is related to the attention to detail that artists were able to put into the software. Not only does it highlight one of the company’s cutest heroes, but it also does so with animation of such unbelievable fluidity that it adds an incredible level of cuddliness to the product. Captain Toad is intrepid in a lovely way.

capt_toad3Besides the riddles and exploration themselves, much of the game’s demand for planning also comes from the enemies. Captain Toad is only able to defeat those by either throwing turnips or finding a way to fall right on top of them, meaning that the opportunities to do so are limited, which forces players to map out their moves and either slowly rid themselves of the baddies or opt for a bolder approach of sneaking around and treating foes like just another obstacle that must avoided.

Within that narrow scope, and bound by a character that can only walk and throw items, Nintendo was able to work creatively to come up with a set of levels of impressive variety. By pulling settings from various parts of the Mushroom Kingdom universe, Captain Toad will face challenges that present different gameplay ideas that work beautifully within the confines of its cubic structure, like exploring ghost mansions with doors that lead to unknown places or dark corridors that are lightly illuminated by his trusty lantern, having to move platforms around by touching the Gamepad’s screen, and much more.

Smartly, even though it always keeps its perspective-centered puzzles as the body around which everything gravitates, the game sometimes takes a few interesting detours from its original formula. For starters, not all levels are completely cubic; some of them are actually big enough not to entirely fit on the screen. Secondly, a couple of mine-cart stages, where a gorgeously cinematic view of the action is shown on the TV while players must focus on the Gamepad where they see the world through Toad’s eyes and madly shoot turnips at everything in sight are undeniably fun.

capt_toad2Finally, a few action-centered chapters, that either have the good captain epically going through a gauntlet of enemies or rushing through tight platforms will add a surprising rush of adrenaline to the mix. The downside of the latter, though, is that neither the game’s controls nor its camera system were made for the kind of platforming precision and fast reaction speed demands, therefore making those levels slightly frustrating. The damage, however, is minor, as there are only two of those among the game’s sixty-four stages.

The highlight of those departures are, undeniably, the bosses. It is worth noting that, disappointingly so, there are only two of them, which are fought three times each during the adventure on progressively complex levels. However, trying to survive a barrage of attacks while solving puzzles and shifting the stage’s view to look for alternate paths is a thrilling blast, and it is an aspect of the game that should have been more developed, as its unique gameplay paves the way to many inventive clashes.

Even when it comes to bosses, getting to the star at the end of every stage is not very hard, but to those looking for an extra kick, Treasure Tracker has plenty to offer: all levels have three hidden diamonds that can only be located after a great deal of exploration and puzzle-solving has been devoted; and a challenge of deeply varied nature to be cleared. Those challenges include engaging and reasonably attainable tasks like beating the level without taking damage, collecting a certain amount of coins, not being spotted by any enemies, among others.

Although it is delightful to go after those, two problems stop them from being as great as they could have been: the game mysteriously lacks a “Retry” button on its menu, which means that – whenever players notice they will fail to achieve a certain goal – they have to retread all the way to the “Select Stage” screen and choose the stage once more; and, in what comes off as a cheap tactic to force gamers to replay most levels, all challenges are only shown after the stage has been beat once.

capt_toad5Doing those two extras is enough to unlock a bonus set of stages, but to those looking for insane degrees of difficulty Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker comes through on its time trials, whose target speed is frequently that of beating the stage while performing with utter perfection; a complete delight to speedrunners.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker might not execute all of its tricks flawlessly, but one thing is for sure: it is the full expansion of one of the most refreshing gameplay ideas Nintendo has had in recent years. Although its potential does not materialize to its fullest, it succeeds in entertaining and working within the scope of its concepts to deliver constantly amusing stages. It is a light-hearted experience that offers fun for all ages and gaming backgrounds while creating yet another iconic hero to be put under the Big N’s belt.

Captain Toad

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Albums of the Month: February 2015

the_cureAlbum: Pornography

Artist: The Cure

Released: May 3rd, 1982

Highlights: One Hundred Years, The Hanging Garden, Siamese Twins, Cold

Robert Smith, the constant mastermind behind The Cure’s works, stated that, during the time preceding the recording of “Pornography” – the band’s fourth album, he had two choices: either giving in to his depression or writing songs about it in order to get it out of his system. Although such declaration is quintessential to the understanding of the record, anyone completely unfamiliar with that quote could clearly tell that “Pornography” is not the product of a brain that is perfectly healthy; it is, in fact, one of the rawest musical depictions of a totally broken state of mind.

It is not that The Cure had never flirted with darkness before. “Seventeen Seconds” and “Faith”, the two albums that preface “Pornography”, were undeniably gloomy. However, with their fourth effort, the band took its down-in-the-dumps soul to uncharted depths filled with so much distress that the album feels like the reaching of a whole new sonic horizon; not due to its mood, which was far from a novelty at that point, but because of how disturbing and self-destructive the atmosphere had suddenly gotten.

It is not just that Smith, going from anger to depression, sings lines like “One more day like today and I’ll kill you” or “I close my eyes / Move slowly through drowning waves / Going away”. Despite the fact they already pack a good share of agony, most of the record’s hopelessness derives from its instrumentation. The post-punk roughness of the band is still relatively intact, but replacing simplicity are layers of atmospheric keyboards, vocals that seem to have been recorded from the bottom of a well, and a spacious mix that joins echoes and sound to produce astonishing immersion. It is so hypnotic and involving that one could easily feel locked up by the immense walls of keyboards that constantly engulf listeners like frozen gigantic waves on “Cold”.

From the coiling guitar that seems to be going down a spiral of death on “One Hundred Years”, passing through the haunting thumping bass-and-drums combo that pushes “The Figurehead” forward, and culminating with the chaotic cacophony of the title tune, “Pornography” never lets on. It is a trip via weird song structures hand-in-hand with a tormented soul that is on the verge of utter collapse. Smith ends the album by singing “I must fight this sickness / Find a cure”, and it is clear that his salvation was the writing of the record itself. As a band known for its sulky outlook, The Cure never reached grounds as disquieting as those they struck here.

white_lightAlbum: White Light

Artist: Gene Clark

Released: August 1st, 1971

Highlights: The Virgin, With Tomorrow, White Light, For a Spanish Guitar

By the time “White Light” came out, Gene Clark – the most prominent and creatively active member of The Byrds – had already released three records away from the group he had abandoned a few years earlier. “White Light”, however, feels and plays like his true solo debut; not only because it marked the first time Gene penned a full album on his own, but also due to the fact the work shows the songwriting skills he had displayed in the Californian folk-rock group blossom into an unprecedented level of craft and depth.

Aware of the sheer strength of the nine-song repertoire, which included the Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel classic “Tears of Rage”, the songs are all supported by arrangements that are positively low-key. The introspective, acoustic, and subdued atmosphere the performances exhale play right into the hands of the compositions, which have their beauty highlighted by the overall lightness of the musical approach the band takes and the empathic thoughtful tone of Clark’s unmistakable voice.

Listening to Gene conjure great songs does not come as a surprise given his track record with The Byrds. The true shock that comes along with “White Light” is how the lyrics have matured. Once a man devoted to writing verses concerning attractive girls and other matters of the young heart, Clark suddenly showcases an impressive level of wisdom and thematic variance. “The Virgin” is a fleshed out narrative about someone who heads to the big city to find their way; the title song features a rich description of a small town; “One in a Hundred” is so reflective it borders on philosophical; and “For a Spanish Guitar” is an extremely poetic ode to the enigmatic power of music.

Even numbers that touch on more commonplace topics, such as relationships, hit with a newfound sense of discernment, as it is the case on “With Tomorrow”, “Because of You”, and “Where My Love Lies Asleep”. Although, as a standalone artist, Gene Clark never found the commercial success his talent deserved, the candid and pure musicianship of “White Light”, fueled by great lyrical insight and organic performances of timeless value, is still able to enchant and touch the hearts of those who decide to reach for this often forgotten fruit of the folk and country tree.

rid_of_meAlbum: Rid of Me

Artist: PJ Harvey

Released: May 4th, 1993

Highlights: Missed, 50ft Queenie, Dry, Me-Jane

Through the presence of Steve Albini, the producer who knows like no other how to capture the sound and rawness of a band playing live, PJ Harvey’s second record finds a way to achieve a level of brutality greater than her already gruesome debut. What were bruises, here become exposed fractures; maniac emotions reach new heights of duality, alternating passionate love and uncontrollable hatred sometimes in the same song; and wild urges become accentuated due to the fact Polly Jean needs wail considerably louder so that her voice, buried in the mix of instruments, breaks through the wall.

As it kicks off the album, the title track makes it blatant that “Rid of Me” is a work of polar extremes. Its quiet moments are soft whispers, whereas its outbursts of feelings are loud and rage like a bonfire. Initially, Harvey is desperately pleading her lover not to leave her; but, suddenly, when desperation turns to threat, the guitars explode loudly and she angrily asks her former special one if he now regrets meeting a new girl. Such is the beauty of Harvey’s early work: one moment, she loves you madly, but – after the passing of a few seconds – she starts craving for blood. It is dark, disturbing, and twisted, and the sound follows suit.

Aside from heavily benefiting from the sonic dynamism brought in by Albini’s recording methods, the band’s roughness and the often psychotic themes are also aided by the unpredictable song structures. Where her first album featured tunes of clear verse-chorus-verse progression, “Rid of Me” is not that obvious; many of its tracks come and go without a clear main hook inserted within a traditional chorus. Although it is a nature that makes for a more demanding listen, it allows Harvey to go all out in her songwriting, not shackling the emotional roller-coaster that characterizes her numbers to limiting patterns.

“Rid of Me” ends up serving as a showcase of how positive sheer freedom can be to an artist as gifted and original as PJ Harvey. Albini’s hands-off approach and focus on catching sound at its purest state joined by Harvey’s decision to set the bones to her tracks in the same schizophrenic and wild vein as the feelings in her lyrics create an album that dresses music with a clear display of humanity’s most primal emotions. Love, hatred, vengeance, sex, violence, cravings, needs, and sins come together in raw sound waves of garage punk played with the dramatic flair of hard rock.

jefferson_airplaneAlbum: Surrealistic Pillow

Artist: Jefferson Airplane

Released: February 1st, 1967

Highlights: She Has Funny Cars, Somebody to Love, My Best Friend, White Rabbit

“Surrealistic Pillow” is one of those sophomore efforts that, while not being a huge departure from its predecessor, displays an astounding level of growth. For starters, whereas most tunes inserted on “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off” were the brainchild of guitarist and singer Marty Balin, hence being joined at the hip by an encompassing folk-rock aura that had already been far better explored by groups such as The Byrds, “Surrealistic Pillow” sees other musicians of the group contributing as well, with a whopping five members chipping in with tunes of their own.

The result is obvious: “Surrealistic Pillow” embraces a wide palette of styles and is able to join them with a good degree of homogeneity and coherence on the same record. “She Has Funny Cars” moves forward with a traditional rock and roll beat that turns to weird terrain when the chorus, where Balin and newly added member Grace Slick sing partially disjointed and partially harmonized vocals, kicks in; “Comin’ Back To Me” is a haunting ballad accompanied by a woodwind that lends it an ancient folky grace; “3-5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds” rocks with loud ferocity; and the sublime “Today” paints a lush landscape with its wide mix and numerous instrumental and vocal tracks.

The greatest prowess of the band’s second work, though, is not its variety, but the fact that – with it – Jefferson Airplane found a musical niche to call their own; one where folky tunes meet restrained psychedelia. The songs are short and melodically simple, even if sometimes they present some significant shifts in tonality, and the album exhales a distinctively psychedelic soul, whether it is on its occasionally laid back and floaty vibe or on lyrics riddled with references to drugs, counterculture, and sensitivity that transcends of an average sober human.

The peak of that web, and the point where all of those elements are clearly brought together, comes with “White Rabbit”, a song which would – naturally – go on to become the ultimate symbol of the band’s first phase. By referencing “Alice in Wonderland”, Grace Slick builds a growing and increasingly maddening crescendo that starts out monotonous until it explodes on a blatant, and loud, display of vocal talent. In a way, “Surrealistic Pillow” is a lot like that fictional world: it is hard to know what is coming next, but one thing is for sure, it will entertain through obvious insanity, low-key tripiness, or odd peace of mind.

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Super Metroid Review

Never has Nintendo crafted a game that boasts such an uncanny level of immersion, loneliness, and looming threat

super_metroidSome games spend the whole length of their running time searching for a defining watermark; a moment of remarkable weight that will be imprinted in the minds of gamers for decades to come. For Super Metroid, though, that quest comes to an end right as it is turned on. The words “Metroid 3” come in as if relayed from a mysterious outer space source, indicating the game’s placement on the franchise’s timeline, and, soon thereafter, players are met with a vision of utter calamity: as an ominous tune plays on the background, a dimly lit room filled with dead scientists is shown, and while the machinery remains operational, a lonely caged Metroid screeches as if calling out to someone.

From that moment on, Super Metroid is nothing but a large sequence of iconic moments that come together to form what is Nintendo’s finest moment on their very best console: the unforgeable Super Nintendo.

After supposedly ridding the universe of every single Metroid by raiding the creatures’ home planet, Samus Aran discovers that a lone larva has survived the massacre. Given she meets it at the moment of its hatching, the young Metroid sees the hunter as its mother. Unable to kill the organism, she chooses to take it to a Galactic Federation space station where it will be studied by scientists. When a distress signal calls her back to the orbital laboratory, she encounters numerous corpses and witnesses the powerful life form being stolen by Ridley, the leader of the Space Pirates, and taken to Zebes: the hostile headquarters of the intergalactic outlaws. Naturally, she promptly gives chase.

super_metroid_3That, right there, is the full extent of Super Metroid’s plot development. And, like almost everything else about the game, it is done in a concise and effective way. Through a mixture of cutscenes and short gameplay segments, the adventure’s introduction is driven home within a few minutes filled with dread and excitement. With the passing of a short time, Samus will have landed her ship on Zebes and – after giving players an invisible pat on the back and silently whispering “Good Luck” – the game will abandon them to their own luck.

Starting from the hero’s landing pointing, players will be tasked with exploring a gargantuan maze composed by six distinct locations that are connected to each other in various ways and extend all the way from Zebes’ outermost layer to its darkest depths. There is the rocky and superficial Crateria, the organic Brinstar, the watery Maridia, the fiery Norfair, the sinister Wrecked Ship, and the technological fortress of Tourian.

The beauty of this interminable web of rooms, shafts, corridors and caves comes in the fact that under no circumstance whatsoever will the game give as much as a minuscule nod that might tell players the direction on which they must head. Super Metroid marks the first time a game of the series presented a highly useful map that is slowly revealed as Samus explores the vicinity, but other than a few markers indicating possible points of interest like save rooms, missile recharge stations, and the hiding venue of eventual power-ups, it offers absolutely nothing in terms of clues.

super_metroid_4Starting the game with nothing but the most basic version of her suit, which is practically only capable of shooting weak beams, Samus must scour the planet for places that can be reached with her current equipment so that she can find upgrades that will allow her to access new locations. It is a grand circle of constant investigation and discovery, and it often demands that players remember where previously unreachable doors are so they can backtrack there once they find the power that will serve as the key to unlocking those secrets.

The upgrades she will come across are numerous – there are more than twenty of them – and extremely varied, including the famous Morph Ball, the powerful Super Missiles, and the handy Grappling Beam. True to the game’s hands-off approach in relation to helping players, the acquiring of any of those abilities will only come with a simple one-line set of instructions on how to use them, leaving it up to gamers to figure out how the skills can be used effectively and where they will be useful.

Furthermore, as a great statement on Super Metroid’s loosely structured exploration patterns, some of those upgrades are entirely optional, like the X-Ray Scope and a few of the items that make the beams that shoot out of Samus’ canon arm more powerful.

Hence, although Zebes has its fair share of enemies and environmental hazards, Super Metroid’s challenge does not lie in keeping Samus alive, but on figuring out where to go next inside this planetary labyrinth. It is true the monstrosities that are the game’s bosses do pose quite a threat, and the accumulated damage from minor creatures and other traps can leave the hunter in a very precarious state, but those work as a nicely done complementary element rather than the game’s actual meat.

super_metroid_2As a perfect turn that fully depicts Zebes’ overall nature as a hostile and wild planet, its organisms behave in distinct ways. While some beings will show an unchanged behavior despite Samus’ presence, others will actively try to kill her as soon as she is seen.

All those elements, the natural demeanor of the enemies, the solitude of the quest, the scarcity of information as to where to go next, the slightly sinister vibe that emanates from Zebes’ visuals and – especially – the music that accompanies them, and the lingering feeling that bad things are always about to materialize, raise Super Metroid to a level of its own within the Nintendo lore in terms of conveying the feeling of complete isolation.

The game’s greatest victory is, by far, its ability to make players feel totally immersed in the events happening on the screen. Samus’ lonesome quest, one that pits the hunter and her swiss army knife of a suit against a highly organized and intelligent army, is fully broadcasted in all its daunting and secluded glory.

To go along with the intricate exploration needed to clear it, Super Metroid has many collectibles that expand Samus’ arsenal, upping the number of missiles, super missiles, power bombs, and energy tanks she can carry. Locating them frequently demands a great level of attention not to mention a solid memory as some of those items are spotted when the hunter still does not have the equipment needed to reach them, hence forcing completionists to backtrack when her suit is properly upgraded.

super_metroid_3The problem is that, although most collectibles can be encountered in places that are reasonably seen by anyone that is looking attentively, some are impossibly hidden. Super Metroid, sometimes, becomes way too enamored with secret tunnels covered by normal-looking blocks that require bombing and items that are only revealed by shooting random rocks. On certain occasions, it is possible to deduce, via visual cues, that a specific mass can be broken apart; but, usually, it just comes off as a cheap way of hiding secrets. Yet, such a flaw is only a small smudge on the game’s otherwise flawless armor.

The game’s value is also considerably boosted by its legendary speed running opportunities. As it is made clear due to the fact Super Metroid holds tiny surprises in its ending depending on how quickly the game is beat, it is possible to find alternate paths through Zebes and skip parts of the adventure entirely. That built-in bag of tricks is an alluring doorway to anyone who enjoys challenging themselves by blasting through a game as fast as possible.

Through the decades that have come to pass since its release, Super Metroid has remained as the franchise’s primary source of inspiration, the grail it is constantly trying to recreate, due to a very clear reason: never has Nintendo crafted a game that boasts such an uncanny level of immersion, loneliness, and looming threat. It is a planet-wide adventure on which players, guided by nothing but their own noses, must slowly navigate the arc between being poorly equipped to achieving the status of a one-woman army set to blow the whole place to smithereens. It is a brilliantly paced and extremely demanding journey, but it is one packed with powerful feelings of isolation and exquisite rewards.

Super Metroid

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