SteamWorld Heist Review

By transforming technological ships in outer space into saloons of the wild west and replacing human cowboys with metallic heroes, SteamWorld Heist manages to be a fantastic mixture of genres and styles

steamworld_heist4While some gaming franchises are perpetually stuck inside the confines of the same genre, something that is certainly not inherently negative, SteamWorld has built its reputation on a series of titles that are completely different from one another. The self-explanatory SteamWorld Tower Defense introduced the world to a desolated future Earth inhabited by steam-powered bots that tried to protect their loot from a degenerated and zombie-like species of humans, while SteamWorld Dig sent players towards the core of the planet as they uncovered the secrets of a deep mine that was set up like a big maze. Appropriately, and keeping such tradition intact, SteamWorld Heist ditches all elements from its predecessors – save for their universe and robots – and bets on turn-based gameplay that is centered around shooting, an unusual mixture that besides working wonderfully also lends the game a great deal of originality.

Being original is not exactly new to the SteamWorld saga, but Heist comes off as the culmination of a process in which Image & Form’s developers slowly gained more confidence in their product and, therefore, progressively felt more comfortable to tackle new ideas. Tower Defense approached a style that is frequently explored by smaller developers, but with a few curious twists in setting and gameplay; Dig used Metroid’s general structure as the starting point for the construction of something relatively new; and Heist dares to throw most influences out the window to create its own sandbox.

Just like the events portrayed in Dig occurred long after those of Tower Defense, Heist also takes a considerable leap through time. Hundreds of years after Rusty explored his uncle’s mine with a trusty pickaxe, the Earth has broken into thousands of pieces which have become mining colonies floating amidst the stars. Among the Steambots that have taken the role of space cowboys – struggling for resources, protecting those that are oppressed by an authoritarian government and dangerous outlaws alike, and looking to make ends meet – is Captain Piper Faraday and her crew. Thrown into illegality after refusing to complete an official mission that would have killed numerous rebels, she roams the outskirts of space in her ship, trying to hide and survive.

steamworld_heist1Naturally, as it happens in all games, Piper’s regular life of boarding the vessels of criminals in order to acquire much needed water gallons – which are essential for the Steambots – eventually stumbles upon a much greater thread that sends her on a collision course with the rulers of the galaxy. And so begins the action. Heist is curious not just in its merging of shooting – which requires that players find the correct weapon inclination so that the shot will hit foes – and turn-based movements, but also because it does all of that in a sidescrolling perspective. As Piper and her teammates enter hostile ships, then, a game of cat and mouse ensues: players must simultaneously move their units onto positions that will give them an advantage (and hopefully a clean shot at the enemy) during the next turn, and that will provide some sort of cover from foes’ lines of sight.

Smartly, Heist breaks up its big ships into various rooms of different sizes; a solution that makes battles extremely tense for two reasons: firstly, because its conflicts will happen in tightly enclosed spaces; secondly, due to the fact unvisited rooms appear as black shadows on the map, leaving players completely in the dark regarding their structure and how many enemies are in there until they actually dare to open the doors and enter them.

Moreover, the strategic value is greatly amplified thanks to the intricate design of most rooms, as they are usually multileveled – with lots of catwalks and ladders connecting them – and offer plenty of cover opportunities, explosive barrels, and other assets. That reality becomes even more impressive when one considers that most ships are randomly generated, a feature that causes some difficulty inconsistencies (as some setups, particularly related to the starting position of enemies, are easier than others), but that compensates such a punctual problem by considerably boosting the game’s replayability.

steamworld_heist5Broken up into three sectors and split into over thirty missions, Heist is a pretty lengthy game, especially when its price is taken into account. The twelve hours it takes to clear its campaign, though, are expanded not only by the randomized nature of its level generation, but also by a whopping five levels of difficulty – which can be adjusted at any time – and a rating that is awarded to players after each level is complete, with the number of stars received depending on how many team members made it out of the ship without being blown to pieces and on the full collection of all the loot scattered around the level.

Within the realm of its simple hide-and-shoot gameplay, Heist is able to find a good degree of complex undertones. As Piper advances through space, she comes across bars in which she can buy weapons (such as machine guns, simple revolvers, rocket launchers, and more), other useful items, and also recruit new Steambots. In total, there are nine unique playable characters, which belong to a number of different classes – hence being able to carry specific weapons, gain unique abilities when leveling up, and offer available slots into which utility tools like armor that increases HP, special grenades, and etc. can be equipped. Gamers, then, have, at their disposal, a flexible army that allows the construction of an incredible range of strategies.

SteamWorld Heist, however, does not soar solely due to its gameplay. Under that solid fabric, the game is able to build a world that is utterly fantastic. Image & Form combine various styles and artistic influences into one remarkable and cohesive setting. Most of the title’s visual elements have blatant steampunk inclinations, with that technology having great prominence in the post-apocalyptic scenario that is described. That look, however, pleasantly contrasts with the fact that these robots are still cowboys, as their demeanor is firmly attached to that of the wooden towns in the middle of the desert that served as the background for its two prequels. All of those pieces are, then, complemented by a vintage aura that is exhaled by Heist’s music and cutscenes, which seem to have come out of the 40s, giving birth to an awesome old-school wild-west story supported by steam-powered technology and starred by cowboy robots.

steamworld_heist3Still, SteamWorld Heist is held back by a few problems. Missions, despite being extremely tense and fun, have little variety to them, with most being focused on going into the ships, killing enemies or destroying a certain structure, and evacuating with gathered treasured. Likewise, boss battles suffer from some lack of creativity, as all of the bosses are more focused on summoning hordes of minor enemies than on presenting some sort of creative challenge that is considerably different from what is seen on a regular level. Finally, the limitations of the crew’s inventory and the harshness of the punishment for failing missions or choosing to abort them once one realizes their situation is hopeless are a bit extreme. The former is simply too small, and forces players to buy extra slots one by one for steep prices, therefore greatly reducing the variety of tools and weapons one can carry. The latter, meanwhile, eats half of Piper’s wallet, causing those who have been saving to buy the more expensive items to lose absurd amounts of cash just for making a mistake or wanting to restart the mission from scratch right away.

In spite of those issues, though, SteamWorld Heist absolutely nails its turn-based sidescrolling shooting. The unlikely combination of seemingly heterogeneous genres is matched by the equally wild mixture of artistic and visual influences the game drinks from, and – in both cases – the outlandish combinations are successful. Piper and her crew of Steambots are amazing characters, and the world in which they exist is as alluring as the tension-filled shootouts they constantly find themselves engaged in. Image & Form transforms technological ships in outer space into saloons of the wild west, replaces human cowboys with metallic heroes, and comes away with one astonishing game.


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SteamWorld Dig Review

SteamWorld Dig turns a concept that could have been repetitive into a kind of grind that is hard to abandon

steamworld_dig2In a world where humans have devolved into brainless creatures whose intelligence lies well below the level of that of a caveman, steam-powered robots have risen as the dominating sentient beings. Rusty is one of those bots. Sporting a look that matches wild-west attire with steampunk motifs, he receives the deeds to his uncle’s mine and heads to where his new property is located: Tumbleton, a decaying town in the middle of a vicious desert. Looking not only to explore the place, but also to discover what has happened to his uncle, Rusty climbs down the entry shaft and starts digging towards treasure and the mine’s distant depths. And dig he will until Tumbleton recovers some of its glory and he finds out what his uncle has left behind for him.

SteamWorld Dig has, since its release, garnered numerous comparisons to the Metroid saga, and such parallels do make some sense. Like Samus, the protagonist is roaming through hostile dark caves that hide a secret and that exhale an air of ominous danger and mystery; moreover, the deeper Rusty digs – and he will indeed do a whole lot of digging – the sturdier his equipment needs to be in order to deal with the threats that lurk in the dark and with the obstacles that stand in his way. However, the similarities end there, as SteamWorld Dig – much to its benefit and to the delight of gamers that decide to jump into these mines – lifts itself from that familiar launchpad to build its own character with a good degree of success.

The first key difference is that SteamWorld Dig is somewhat linear. Starting from Tumbleton, and going down relentlessly, its overworld is one gigantic shaft – of around 1,000 blocks in height – made up of three distinct segments that are progressively deeper are creepier. Additionally, although its setup could be compared to that of a maze, it is not that intricate; in fact, in broad terms that are somewhat unfair to the impressively calculated way in which level designers have constructed tunnels and positioned a wide assortment of enemies, the mine is basically an immense block of solid rock that needs to be broken down piece by piece so that Rusty can make it to his next destination.

steamworld_dig3Therefore, even though there is a general path that needs to be followed (after all, the only way to unearthing the place’s secret is down), players are given plenty of wiggle room to make their own journey and dig their own tunnels, meaning it is highly unlikely SteamWorld Dig has ever been played the same way by two different players. The game, however, is far from an endless series of A-button presses that allow the hero to move forward block by block, as SteamWorld Dig does take some occasional turns towards tight platforming challenges.

At all times, Rusty will be guided by a shiny beacon on his map indicating his next stop, which is invariably a room that has some mixture of jumping, exploring, and puzzle solving; and that holds a power-up that is vital to proceed at the end of its gauntlet, including dynamite, a steam-powered high-jump, a fall dampener, and others. Although those pieces are vital, they are far from being everything that is necessary for Rusty to get to the literal bottom of things. SteamWorld Dig is loaded with extra upgrades that can be purchased back in Tumbleton once enough precious stones have been gathered and converted into sweet gold coins back on the surface.

Other than his uncle’s trusty pickaxe, Rusty also carries a drill to break through solid rock, detachable fists that let him punch distant targets, a lantern whose fire slowly diminishes until it leaves the environment completely dark, a pouch to carry precious metals, and more. All of them – just like Rusty’s health, armor, offensive power, and water tank – can be upgraded many times at Tumbleton’s shops, which is a must considering how the further one gets into the shaft enemies get more powerful, the mine’s stones get more resistant, lakes that replenish water get scarcer, and fire units – dropped by enemies – that recover the lantern’s light get rarer.

steamworld_digSteamWorld Dig, then, is not about mindlessly aiming for the depths of the mine. Players need to explore its areas slowly, not only heading towards their next destination but also mining for ore and punctually returning to the surface to convert what has been gathered into useful equipment. It is an amazing characteristic that adds a lot to the game, giving it a dash of strategic value (as gamers must choose what to upgrade), catapulting the need for meticulous exploration into the stratosphere, and making the whole experience incredibly addictive.

Smartly, SteamWorld Dig turns a concept that could have been repetitive, as there is an eye-popping amount of stone-breaking with varying amounts of pickaxe swings, into a kind of grind that is hard to abandon. To alleviate the backtracking, which is obviously necessary, the two deepest areas of the mine have, at their entrance, tubes that lead automatically back to the town; moreover, all three areas, at their midway point, feature teleporters with the same function. Sadly, the latter’s implementation is poor: instead of featuring three separate teleporters, the town only has one terminal, meaning that it only takes Rusty back to the one that was last used, an issue that could have been fixed if players could simply choose where they want to travel to.

A couple of other issues also affect SteamWorld Dig. The game’s value, despite its low price, is hurt by the fact there is not much reason to replay it, as there are no collectibles or meaningful secrets; its length, however, which ranges between three and five ours, is rather suitable for a title of its kind. Finally, the grand question mark that sends Rusty to the mines does not find a satisfying conclusion, even if one or two things are revealed when the adventure ends; consequently, the game seems to squander an opportunity to deliver one great tale, something that would certainly be worthy of its intriguing setting, great visuals, and general hopeless atmosphere.

steamworld_dig4Nevertheless, SteamWorld Dig is just too good to be considerably harmed by any of those shortcomings. It is a game with clear inspirations, but instead of sinking itself into their waters, it opts to simply take a brief look at them and build its own character from that starting point. Its main motif is unique and somewhat bold, and SteamWorld Dig successfully lands its premise right on target, making it yet another example of how far simple ideas can go when aligned with indie creativity.


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Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga Review

Populated by numerous unforgettable characters and carried by an incredible combination of action-based battles and clever exploration, Superstar Saga is a classic

mlss2Simple ingenious ideas often go a long way towards building a fantastic game, and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga is one of the proofs that turn that hypothesis into scientific truth. It is not that the brothers had never set out on an adventure together; numerous Mario platformers had, before Superstar Saga, given gamers the chance to alternate between both characters, as if they were on a joint venture to rescue Peach from the clutches of that day’s villain. However, the first installment of the Mario and Luigi series was a pioneer in the materialization of that partnership on the screen, with the two characters truly cooperating with one another and walking as a two-men evil-banishing platoon.

Superstar Saga, though, is not satisfied with one victorious idea. Although simultaneously controlling Mario and Luigi as they explore the overworld and tackle turn-based battles is indeed the main component of its fuel, the game is packed with clever concepts and engaging elements that either derive from that central pillar or adorn it. It is a powerful combination that still makes this Game Boy Advance gem feel fresh and unique, even if various sequels have built upon its central mechanic with some success.

In a way, it all starts with the Beanbean Kingdom. Perhaps aware that the Mushroom Kingdom had already been the stage for a fair share of role-playing quests, Nintendo and AlphaDream opt to send the brothers away from it, and the decision pays off. One day, Peach receives a visit from that kingdom’s ambassador; sadly, as it turns out, the gesture of foreign diplomacy is a ruse: the ambassador and his assistant are actually Cackletta, an evil witch, and Fawful, her medically insane sidekick. They steal the princess’ voice and replace it with explosive vocabulary, literally. Mario and Luigi are summoned to the scene and asked to head for the Beanbean Kingdom, where the evil pair has fled to, and they are followed by a flustered Bowser, who grumbles he cannot kidnap the princess in her current state, as her words could damage his precious castle.

mlss4Bowser’s understandable concern and the fact that Mario appears in his underwear a few minutes into the opening segment speak volumes about the kind of game Superstar Saga is: one that does not take itself too seriously. For example, as Mario and Luigi join Bowser aboard his cruiser, after a hilarious turn of events, both the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom and the minions in Bowser’s ship are quick to deride Luigi as a disposable hero whose name is unknown to many. What follows, throughout the game, is a line of extravagant humor that walks between nonsense and self-mockery.

The Beanbean Kingdom brings two great benefits to the journey. Firstly, it allows developers to do a good deal of palette cleansing when it comes to characters, enemies, and locations. Toads and Yoshis still appear from time to time, just like settings such as a beach and a desert. However, the beanies and other races take center stage as the towns’ inhabitants; and unusual places, all appropriately named after different kinds of laughter, such as Chucklehuck Woods, Hoohoo Mountain, and Woohoo University, emerge.

Secondly, as Mario and Luigi dig deeper into the question of why Peach’s voice was stolen, the Beanbean Kingdom reveals itself as a place where insanity is the norm. Despite its somewhat commonplace nature, the story does have a few curious twists, turns, and events one would not expect from a Mario game, a fact that turns this RPG quest with traditional elements of the genre like purchasable equipment, items, and stats into something genuinely unique. However, the game’s writing truly shines in its dozens of remarkable side-characters. Starting with Fawful, a brilliant villain whose broken English and senseless metaphors – mostly based around different sorts of food – and branching out to other people and creatures, the game is an endless parade of quirky encounters and funny developments.

mlss3Much like it happens in Paper Mario, its sibling franchise, Mario and Luigi thrives in its gameplay thanks to a solid match of puzzle solving and platforming with turn-based battles with a tendency towards action. Out in the overworld, controlling Mario and Luigi is simple: for the one that is in the front, the R-button lets players navigate through a short list of commands, and the A-button makes the brother perform the action that is selected; for the one that goes in the back, L and B, respectively, serve that same purpose.

Although at first Mario and Luigi can only jump, as the game progresses they slowly acquire other skills. By using the hammer, for example, other than breaking rocks, the brothers can hit one another: Mario can bury Luigi in the ground, while Luigi can make Mario small. Similarly, Luigi can jump on Mario’s back to perform a high jump, while Mario can do the same and execute a tornado move to hover in the air for a short while.

Those moves, and a few others, are used as building blocks for some smart level design. Most of the game’s locations are set up like smaller and simpler The Legend of Zelda dungeons, where Mario and Luigi need to clear puzzles and explore the area in order to get to a certain point in the map. Truthfully, most puzzles are relatively straightforward; nevertheless, they work as a pleasant added spice to the game’s RPG format. The platforming challenges, on the other hand, can indeed get hard in some occasions, requiring the fast switching between abilities and their timely activation in order to be cleared, something that may cause players to fumble with the controls.

mlss5In battles, Mario and Luigi have a nice array of moves, including individual attacks – such as jumping and using the hammer – and the incredible Bros. Attacks, where, together, the duo performs outlandish actions that will require that gamers press the A or B-buttons with perfect timing in order to deal massive blows. As an added twist, once players have mastered the timing of the button combinations demanded by a Bros. Attack, it is possible to up the stakes by removing the visual cues and eliminating the slower speed of the actions performed by the brothers in order to increase the damage that is dealt if the attack is performed successfully.

Due to that, battles – especially the dozens of incredible boss encounters – are filled with action, as players can always enhance the power of any attack with well-timed button presses. Likewise, when it comes to defending, all enemy moves can be avoided; in fact, it is possible to say that in Superstar Saga the learning of how to escape from what foes throw at the brothers is vital to succeed, a sentence that becomes truer the more players advance in the game and the more challenging battles get. Given enemies tend to have more than one type of attack, with bosses having a surprising amount of different moves, battles end up offering an impressive mix of action and strategy, remaining engaging through the entirety of the game.

The final master touch of Superstar Saga is found in its technical department; more specifically, in its visuals. All of the game’s scenarios are beautiful and brimming with color, and the Beanbean Kingdom certainly inspired the game’s art department to come up with some refreshing visual elements. The most impressive component, however, is unquestionably the overall animation. Whether it is in cutscenes, out on the field, or in battles, sprites move with a level smoothness that is flooring, and interactions between characters, including Luigi’s occasional attacks of cowardice and the gibberish Italian uttered by the brothers, are, as far as videogames go, visual comedy at its cinematic peak. And all of that is done in a humble handheld.

mlss6Mario and Luigi may have its flaws: a couple of its segments are not particularly inspired and come off as padding; it has a general lack of compelling sidequests; and its out-of-battle controls might confuse some. Still, it is carried by an utterly clever concept, the kind of idea that turns games into classics; it is populated by an unbelievable amount of unforgettable characters; it takes place in a kingdom bursting with charm and good level design; and it crafts a battle system that is loaded with action without abandoning its RPG undertones. Mario and Luigi’s videogame debut as a cooperative pair of heroes is funny, engaging, and enjoyable. It is no wonder its quality and magic have proven to be quite difficult to replicate.


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Albums of the Month: December 2016

hardwiredAlbum: Hardwired… to Self-Destruct

Artist: Metallica

Released: November 18th, 2016

Highlights: Hardwired, Moth Into Flame, Halo on Fire, Spit Out the Bone

The long interval between releases that is so vividly present in the modern music industry may make one think eight years is not a long time. During that timespan, though, The Beatles went from conquering the United States through their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show to being two years removed from their breakup as a band; that is, eight years is quite a bit. For Metallica, however, eight years was the time it took for the group to coin the successor to “Death Magnetic”, the 2008 album that was seen by some as a spark of light in the wake of the disaster that was “St. Anger”. To those expecting “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” to conclude that crescendo by bringing full redemption to these veterans, as if the energetic angry young men that produced the four records that wrote the book on thrash metal back in the early 80s were capable of emerging from the older shells that now wrap them, the album will fall short; to anyone simply looking for a solid collection of heavy tracks, it will perfectly fit the bill.

Proving James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Robert Trujillo are fully aware of the context that surrounds the release, “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” rocks with vengeance in its eyes, showing that a band this successful can carry a chip on its shoulder. Many of the record’s tracks easily rank as the roughest and most aggressive pieces of music Metallica has recorded since the final song from 1988’s “…And Justice for All”. “Hardwired”, the opener, channels the aura of “Kill ‘Em All” in three brief minutes, embracing the formula of brutal riffs and catchy hooks that drove the band to stardom; whereas the closer, “Spit Out the Bone”, does the same via a more considerable length, traveling through multiple sections and demanding that listeners raise the volume of their speakers. At the other end of the spectrum, tunes such as “Now That We’re Dead” and “Halo on Fire” revisit the mid-tempo guitar crunches that populated “Load” and “Reload”, albeit – to the relief of millions of fans – with much stronger songwriting as far as riffs and melodies are concerned.

For all the accolades it rightfully earns as an album that seamlessly connects the unfiltered rage of Metallica’s early years with the friendlier material of the midway point of their career, “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” falls short of pure success. Firstly because it feels bloated, an issue that has plagued all of the band’s works since “Load”. The twelve songs, two albums, and seventy-seven minutes of music are too much. Part of the material could have been easily cut, as the second record does not live up to the greatness set by the first; and some songs could have been made shorter, as they meander through grooves that lose their appeal after a while. Secondly because the lyrics are thematically repetitive and range from poor-to-average, dealing with the usual subjects touched upon by metal (anger, anguish, and other mental disturbances) without enough creativity to stop them from coming off as satirical. Finally, because Kirk Hammett’s performance is inconsistent, as he alternates great solos with poor ones, showing that the first-solo-best-solo approach he took to “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” did not yield many benefits.

Those issues, however, are drowned by the overwhelming fire that lies within “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct”. Metallica has not sounded this inspired in twenty-five years, and gems like “Moth Into Flame” and “Atlas, Rise!” show that, even though they are not as good as they were in their heyday, they deserve being the most respected and important metal band in the world. The thirty-three years that have passed since they debuted are indeed a lot – it is at least four times longer than The Beatles’ journey from Ed Sullivan to retirement – and the group has inevitably changed. They are, however, still around and rocking spectacularly; we should all be thankful.

blue_lonesomeAlbum: Blue & Lonesome

Artist: The Rolling Stones

Released: December 2nd, 2016

Highlights: Just Your Fool, Commit a Crime, Everybody Knows About My Good Thing, Hoo Doo Blues

Out of all rock bands that have flirted with blues, either those from the early days of rock music or contemporary acts that drench themselves in nostalgia, no group has done it better than The Rolling Stones. Maybe it is due to the fact Jagger and Richards ate records of American black music for breakfast when they were younger; maybe it is because Richards’ feeling-based guitar playing is a perfect fit for the raw emotion that carries the genre; or maybe such talent was polished to razor-sharp lengths as the band began its career by unleashing a sequence of albums composed mostly of covers. Most likely, though, The Rolling Stones’ mastery of the genre is the result of a combination of factors that have turned this rock and roll entity not only into the biggest channel to the modern world for the black singer-songwriters who crawled from the outskirts of Mississippi, but also into the main gateway youngsters of many distinct generations have used into that realm. Certainly aware their historic run is coming to a close, and probably conscious of the huge debt they owe to blues musicians, The Rolling Stones pay, in “Blue & Lonesome”, their final homage to their musical forefathers.

Given “Blue & Lonesome” was reportedly recorded as the band was warming up in the studio, the album will likely not be The Rolling Stones’ last effort. Nevertheless, it serves as some sort of bookend to their illustrious journey, being a grizzled counterpart to the LPs that introduced the world to the quintet of white British boys that fearlessly tackled R&B classics. Differently from those records, though, which embraced a myriad of genres inside that branch of the tree of American music, “Blue & Lonesome” gravitates solely around blues: more specifically, its urban Chicago-based variation. By looking back on this old songbook, and by doing so inside such a loose environment, The Rolling Stones find youth: it is clear, throughout all the twelve tracks that form this collection, that the boys are having a blast; they had not sounded this energetic and natural since 1972’s “Exile on Main Street”, and they had not released something as consistent since 1981’s “Tattoo You”.

“Blue & Lonesome” lands like a victory of passion. It is guts over brains; instinct over calculation; and feeling over meticulousness. Richards and Wood, always smiling onstage with their guitars in hand, take that vibe straight into the studio, as they lay down solid grooves over which they deliver am impressive amount of licks – whether by themselves or with a little help from Eric Clapton, who shows up in two of the record’s cuts. Meanwhile, Watts swings and pounds on his drum kit like the master of rhythm he has always been; and Jagger proves that while age may have reduced his ability as a vocalist (he is human, it seems), time has eroded neither his capacity to convey emotion, as he adds power to these tunes, nor his terrific harmonica playing, which has never been in evidence as much as it is here.

Time, in fact, seems to have greatly benefited The Rolling Stones when it comes to playing blues. Although “Blue & Lonesome” may not carry the variety and the adventurousness of the band’s cover records of the 60s, it comes off as more confident and firm. Jagger and Richards may be decades away from their peak as songwriters, even if 2005’s “A Bigger Bang” was a worthy effort by what was then a quartet of sexagenarians, but as they live into their seventies they produce yet another masterpiece made up of covers. It is hard to imagine a band as gigantic as The Rolling Stones could have anything left to prove at this stage in its career, but “Blue & Lonesome” does send a message to a horde of critics that sees the group as a walking museum piece. The Rolling Stones show they still have fuel to burn. Perhaps now, at last, they are indeed out of things to prove and thresholds of greatness to reach. If this is a final bow, then it is a pretty fantastic one.

unknown_pleasuresAlbum: Unknown Pleasures

Artist: Joy Division

Released: June 15th, 1979

Highlights: Disorder, New Dawn Fades, She’s Lost Control, Shadowplay

The fact that Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s vocalist, hanged himself in his kitchen at the tender age of twenty-three, less than one year after the release of “Unknown Pleasures”, makes it hard not to look at the record as some sort of statement – or maybe a cry for help – from a tortured soul. Curtis, after all, suffered from both depression and epilepsy, the latter of which often attacked his body in the middle of live performances, something that he frequently, and darkly, satirized by performing sudden violent movements on the stage. However, despite the strong association that exists between such issues and Joy Division’s two records, “Unknown Pleasures” is still quite haunting if analyzed out of that context, for few albums in the history of rock music manage to be so consistently ominous.

The first element behind that attribute is the production work of Martin Hannett. Formed by Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, which greatly admired the simplicity and rawness of the Sex Pistols, Joy Division was a band that, outside the studio, existed inside the aggressive edge of the post-punk movement. Hannet, however, perhaps spotting the gloominess that lied within the group’s music, boldly built a sparse soundscape and locked the quartet inside it. “Unknown Pleasures” is executed in the sparsity of a bleak vacuum; its sounds expand and reverberate inside a cave whose walls cannot be seen, making it simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic. Echoes and distant unusual sound effects – such as a glass shattering – pop up out of nowhere, creating an atmosphere in which comfort does not exist. It is quite possible to dislike the inbred slow-paced monotony of “Unknown Pleasures”; staying indifferent to it, though, is inconceivable.

In mood, “Unknown Pleasures” is indeed far removed from the punk waves that propelled Joy Division. In terms of execution and composition, though, the album embodies the movement’s motto of stripping rock to its basics; the difference is that the bare-bones songwriting tackled by the band is rather distinct from that of its forefathers. The riffs come not from the guitar of Bernard Sumner, but from the bass of Peter Hook, which is – with one or two exceptions – the lead instrument of all tracks, providing not only the hooks but also some of the greatest bass lines ever put on record. Accompanied by the drums of Stephen Morris, those riffs make the songs sound almost tribal, as if the group were trying to tap into the most contorted depths of the human soul by providing a musical link to our primitive selves. The guitar, then, punctually comes to the forefront to deliver remarkable lines, which range from jangly pop to brutally raw, that serve to ornate the atmosphere, adding aggressive and threatening touches to it.

The final ingredient of “Unknown Pleasures” is Curtis himself, who stands on top of that web expressing his pain, confusion, and anger with a vocal approach that is somewhat lost and distant, as if he were aimlessly floating inside Hannett’s vacuum looking for answers he knew he would never find, not in this realm at least. In that sense, “Unknown Pleasures” fits nicely within the chaotic shouts of punk, as it expresses much of the same breed of despair. However, its more introspective and hopeless demeanor, and its sparse atmospheric sound, paved the way to hordes of Gothic and post-punk bands that used its sound as a sacred blueprint, and connected to millions of depressed teenagers and young adults. It spoke to a generation that, up to that point, did not have a voice, and it is no wonder it has remained so influential and relevant.

timAlbum: Tim

Artist: The Replacements

Released: October 16th, 1985

Highlights: Hold My Life, I’ll Buy, Left of the Dial, Here Comes a Regular

For most great alternative rock bands, there comes a time when the bigwigs of the major music labels come knocking on the door. It is a pivotal moment that usually sees those groups trying to juggle the expectations of their established fanbase, who look at their idols as bastions of rebellion and integrity, with the members’ natural urge to speak to a wider audience. For The Replacements, that moment came as they geared up towards “Tim”, their fourth album. As a band that was often way too drunk to perform live shows properly, it is surprising The Replacements got their chance at all; conversely, given their spectacular third album, “Let It Be”, was simply way too good to be ignored by executives and investors, such turn of events could as easily be classified as expected.

For a group always so careless and driven by sheer gut instinct – if said gut has been recently drenched in alcohol – the choice of Tommy Ramone as the record’s producer is astonishingly calculated. It is a letter by Paul Westerberg to his followers – misunderstood outcasts who, like him, lived on the fringes of life – telling them that even though the band had to share a few meals with those who control the system, their hearts remained wild and punk. Truthfully, Tommy does, to a certain point, polish up the edges of The Replacements’ sound: “Tim” is a spacious album full of reverb, making it miles removed from the garage aura of the bands’ first two works. However, Paul Westerberg is just too witty and Bob Stinson too true to their underground origins to let The Replacements come off as controlled, focused, or restrained. “Tim” ends up being a smart kind of rebel; one that instead of sabotaging itself to make a point, opts to sneak its powerful statements past the radar of those it wants to show up.

Packing such a display of intelligence in eleven tracks and thirty-six minutes would already be enough to propel “Tim” to the upper echelons of music. Yet, it is Paul Westerberg’s songwriting that emerges as the album’s highlight. Not overwhelmed by the larger stage that was given to him, Westerberg gets intimate with his audience of misfits. He does so by proclaiming “Hold my life until I’m ready to use it / Hold my life because I just might lose it” in the unsafe roller coaster that is the chorus of the opening track; by channeling the anxiety, awkwardness, and despair of teenage love through just five words “Your tongue, your transfer, your hand, your answer” in “Kiss Me on the Bus”; and by building an anthem to all neglected renegades in “Bastards of Young”. All the while, musically, he is brilliantly drinking from rockabilly (“Waitress in the Sky”), Chuck Berry’s guitar licks (“I’ll Buy”), jazz (“Swinging Party”), hard rock (“Lay It Down Clown”), and even acoustic balladry (“Here Comes a Regular”), proving that The Replacements can infuse any genre with their loose demeanor and, consequently, turn it into something other losers could identify with.

Nowhere is the power and importance of The Replacements better exposed than in “Tim”, and no track in it conveys that idea as masterfully as “Left of the Dial”. Its title, a reference to the position of college and underground stations on the radio dial, and its closing verses, “And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while / I’ll try to find you / Left of the dial”, are a comforting reminder that through all hardships we may endure, our favorite songs – be it by The Replacements themselves or by anyone else – will always be right there where they have always been. Neither “Tim” nor The Replacements ever made it as big as they should have. And while it is sad Westerberg and the band never got their well-deserved dues, it is nevertheless reassuring to know that the few outcast hearts beating out there that end up coming across The Replacements will feel accepted and understood. The Replacements will never jump to the mainstream. They were born left of the dial, and that is where they will always be; the misfits will know where to find them.

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Pokémon Sun and Moon Review

Sun and Moon may not be the best Pokémon versions ever produced, but technical updates, a relaxed aura, and gameplay enhancements make them quite unique

sun_moon3With two decades marked by record-setting sales and supported by an armada of fans of all ages and backgrounds, the Pokémon franchise reaches its seventh generation with the arrival of Sun and Moon. Like all versions that preceded them, the two installments embrace the philosophy that states things which are not broken do not require any sort of fixing. Therefore, they preserve the series’ universally known trope of assembling a Pokémon team, and catching as many monsters as possible, in order to become the top trainer of a specific region. At the same time, though, Sun and Moon take some noticeable steps towards the elimination, or the improvement, of some of the franchise’s established quirks.

The games’ most considerable trait, perhaps due to the fact it permeates the whole adventure, is the region in which it takes place. Alola, whose name itself is a clear indication of the place’s Hawaiian inspirations, is not one piece of land, but a chain of four islands floating in the middle of the ocean. Such geographic isolation makes the area rather idiosyncratic in both setup and spirit. The former is unique because it shuns big cities and urban landscapes in favor of small villages and wilderness expanses in which people lead simple lives alongside their Pokémon. While the latter is remarkable because of the laid back aura exhaled by the territory and its inhabitants.

Most of all, though, Alola is utterly gorgeous, and not just because of the inspired design of its natural locations. Even though Sun and Moon are housed by the same hardware that powered X and Y, the games are victorious in delivering a significant visual update in relation to their direct predecessors, both in and outside battles (with the animations being impressive in the former, and with the improvement of the latter being particularly eye-popping). That leap, however, causes the game to suffer severe frame-rate drops in a few special battles when played on a standard 3DS.

sun_moon2Away from the influence of Kanto, Unova, Kalos and other lands of the Pokémon world, Alola is devoid of gyms. Trainers who go there, instead, are tested via a series of seven trials scattered across the four islands, dubbed the Island Challenge. Rather than facing a chain of trainers until the gym leader is reached, players are thrown into locations prepared by Trial Captains and are forced to explore the places and engage in battles against a few wild creatures. All trials culminate with skirmishes against Totem Pokémon, the franchise’s take on boss battles, which are Pokémon of standard species but that have boosted stats, much bigger size, and the ability to call for help, thereby summoning other creatures.

Not only are trials refreshing in how they replace, with quality, a core element of the franchise that had been untouched for twenty years, but they are also decently challenging. Totem Pokémon are genuinely hard to take down, even with moves that are super effective, and they reveal one of Sun and Moon’s best features: their difficulty. Unquestionably, Pokémon remains an easy game that gravitates around a rock-paper-scissors chain of advantages, immunities, and disadvantages among the eighteen types of monsters that are available. Still, especially following the walk in the park that the X and Y versions were, Sun and Moon is considerably harder, with the level gap between Pokémon held by CPU-controlled trainers and players being kept to a minimum throughout the whole game.

The tighter connection between Alola’s population and their Pokémon is responsible for the departure of yet another feature, this time one that was undeniably bad, that had been with the series since its inception: the dreaded Hidden Machines. These moves, which were mostly useless inside battles but that had to be taught to Pokémon because they could be employed outside combats in order to affect the environment – hence allowing players to progress in their exploration of the overworld, are completely gone.

sun_moon5It is an undeniable improvement. Hidden Machines are replaced by the ability to summon certain Pokémon, which become available little by little as the adventure progresses, at will, such as Taurus for moving faster and destroying roadblocks; Lapras for traversing bodies of water; and Machamp for pushing boulders. The only setback in the implementation of that feature is how Charizard’s flying is restricted to the island players are currently on, therefore forcing them to use the much slower ferries to move between those locations.

Those changes are overwhelmingly positive to the overall experience of Sun and Moon. This is still a Pokémon game like all others in terms of how addictive and engaging it is to travel this fantastic world with nothing but a backpack and a handful of pokéballs, and the joy of watching one’s team develop from that single starter of choice into a full-fledged combat machine ready for whatever obstacles can be found out there remains the same one that existed in the Blue and Red versions. However, more than the 81 new creatures – some of which have blatantly questionable designs – and the handful of redesigns and retypings of first-generation Pokémon, these morsels of change lend Sun and Moon an aura that is clearly unique and special.

As usual, since Diamond and Pearl, the traditional set of online features, like battles and trading, give these titles endless value; they keep on giving and offering new challenges and goals for as long as players feel like finding them, be it filling up the Pokédex; grinding for EVs and IVs; breeding endlessly so that a Pokémon can be born with an ideal nature (which affects how their stats grow) and an coveted ability (which gives them specific powers during battle); looking for shiny or legendary monsters; building an unstoppable team; or tackling the new, and weird, Battle Royal format – where four trainers battle one another simultaneously and, after one of them runs out of Pokémon, the one that has downed the most monsters walks out victorious.

sun_moon6Some glaring issues, however, keep Sun and Moon from being crowned as the finest Pokémon games out there. For starters, its progression is way too restricted: during most of the adventure, players will only have one specific path to follow, with any routes, caves, and cities that stray away from that predefined trail being blocked by questionable and poorly explained reasons. Truthfully, such measures – which corrode a sense of freedom that would have greatly benefited the title – have always been a part of the franchise. Yet, as gaming progressively moves to more open-ended grounds, never have these limitations been more obvious and annoying.

The second shortcoming, and perhaps the biggest problem Sun and Moon have, is related to the storyline: a component of the saga that has always been, at best, decent. Sun and Moon try to alter the course of that trend by devoting a whole lot of energy to a plot that does indeed show the results of such efforts. Even if it is miles away from being remarkable, it is possibly the best one the franchise has produced, despite some cringe-worthy dialogue lines that are courtesy of Team Skull. Sadly, the problem here is that developments in the story – in other words, gameplay interruptions – are way more frequent than they should have been. Literally, almost every route that is explored or city that is reached will feature dialogues or cutscenes, a reality that disrupts the flow of the adventure regardless of how brief or significant these pauses may be.

At last, where X and Y took major steps towards making EV training – a process that allows players to tweak the individual stats of their Pokémon – accessible and fast, Sun and Moon regress. The two mini-games that support that kind of training have effects at a much slower rate than the one featured in X and Y, making it far more productive for players to grind for those EVs in battles. The fact that Pokémon in Alola have the habit of calling other creatures for help (which can be awfully annoying when trying to capture the monsters since it is impossible to throw pokéballs when there is more than one creature on the field) is quite effective for EV grinding, as the acquired EVs double for every Pokémon that is taken down. However, going out to the wild and waiting until a specific Pokémon summons a specific peer can be ridiculously frustrating.

sun_moon4Like all installments that preceded them, Pokémon Sun and Moon are excellent titles and mandatory additions to the collections of newcomers and veterans alike. They may not be the best versions the property has ever produced, but their technical updates, gameplay enhancements, and online features are more than sufficient to turn them into the definitive games of the saga, at least until their successors come out in a few years. They are charming games with a lot of heart and considerable degrees of depth, and they show that Pokémon is still as big of a phenomenon as it was back in 1996.


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Wario Ware Inc.: Mega Microgames Review

A game of such great insanity that it is not surprising it came out from where it did: a minor studio quickly put together by Wario and his peers

wario_ware5One can rightfully accuse Wario of being a man of many sins. He gets angry for petty reasons, hates losing to the point of resorting to cheating in order to avoid defeat, and needs little to no motivation to come up with schemes to trip his rivals. Most of all, though, he is greedy. Laziness, however, has never been part of his persona; his love for gold runs so deep that, in fact, it has sent him – more than once – crashing towards adventures packing high degrees of danger, including meetings with pirates, encounters with powerful curses, a battle against a murderous clown of nightmarish look, and more.

Perhaps tired of life-threatening undertakings, and alerted by a television commercial that announced the skyrocketing of the profits of the gaming market, Wario Ware Inc. shows the character tackling a new money-making scheme. Wario buys a computer and sets up his humble software-development studio in his own house, much like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur before fame and fortune struck. Always a giving soul, he invites his friends to create games under his company’s umbrella, and the first installment of the Wario Ware Inc. saga – a Game Boy Advance classic – is born.

Surprisingly, Wario and his outlandish gang are innovators rather than imitators. Certainly aware that mini-game collections are a generally easy way to make money, they look into the overly explored genre, but – unlike many gaming companies that dabble into that market – come up with a new concept: microgames. Where mini-games present activities that last a few minutes, microgames take brevity to an extreme: a one-word short instruction, usually in the form of a verb, pops up on the screen, and players have less than five seconds to figure out what to do in order to succeed. It is an insane idea that could not be found anywhere else before Wario Ware Inc. came to be, and it’s fun, hilarious, and engaging.

wario_ware3The originality of Wario Ware Inc.: Mega Microgames does not stop there. Actually, its greatest stroke of genius is how it puts players through a thrilling test of endurance, as the microgames are played in unstoppable succession. In total, there are eleven packages of microgames: one for each of the seven developers of the company; two coming from the boss himself; and another couple of sets that mix microgames from different packs. In all of them, the challenge is the same: gamers start with four lives and must play through a series of microgames that only ends when all lives are lost. If a certain amount of microgames is cleared, one or more new sets are unlocked.

The experience is best described as utter senseless lunacy, not only because of its frantic rhythm, but also due to how crazy the microgames are, as they could only have been produced by someone with a twisted sense of humor and minimal regard for public perception. Their production values are intentionally poor, and their nature is deliberately baffling. Players will catch toasts that are about to fly out of toasters, swat flies, pick a nose, eat a banana, march as a penguin, capture a fish as a pelican, avoid crashing into buildings while flying as a superhero, shoot down spaceships, assemble robots, navigate through an asteroid field, control little aliens that are trying to avoid being trapped inside a giant glass cup, find the right cat in a dark alley infested with the felines, park a car, count the number of frogs that jump across the screen, munch a hot-dog, shake an apple tree, raise a flag, help Link reach a cave, blast Mother Brain as Samus Aran, squash Goombas as Mario, and much more.

There are small twists to the experience that add an extra flavor of demented fun to the whole package and augment its challenge and thrill. Punctual boss mini-games, that appear every time a specific number of microgames is beaten, give players back one life if successfully cleared. Additionally, the bigger the sequence of microgames is, the tougher the microgames get (as each of them has at least three difficulty settings) and both the transition between them and the time to react and perform the required activity become shorter. Therefore, Wario Ware Inc. is a game that dares players to try to use all of their skills, cold blood, and reflexes to surpass their own longest sequences in each of the packages, keeping track of the top 3 highest scores for all of them.

wario_ware2As an extra layer of weird nonsense, of the positive kind, all sets of microgames are centered around a theme and underlined by a storyline, quickly told through charming cutscenes of pixel art. Mona, for example, whose games are grouped under the “Strange” theme, is running late for work at a gelato shop and the speed of her scooter has attracted the attention of an armada of police cars; every cleared microgame, then, shows Mona successfully hitting one vehicle with a banana peel in the best Mario Kart fashion. Similarly, Dr. Crygor, which focuses on activities based on reality, has a bathroom emergency of scatological nature caused by wrongly mixed potions; while Dribble and Spitz, who embrace sci-fi elements, are taxi drivers tasked with taking a passenger with a surprising secret to his destination.

The shining highlights of the bunch, however, are certainly Orbulon and 9-Volt. Among all of the 200 microgames that are invariably easy to control (players just need to use the A-button or the D-Pad), creative in the weirdest way, and fun, theirs are the best. Orbulon, an alien that has hit an asteroid and needs to be rescued, offers an array of brainteasers that, due to the fact they require some level of reasoning and logic, have a couple of seconds of extra duration when compared to an average microgame, and therefore provide a pleasant change of pace. 9-Volt, meanwhile, a young Nintendo fan, bases his efforts on both the company’s classic and obscure titles, bringing a nostalgic and highly recognizable breath of fresh air to the package.

Beating Wario Ware Inc. and watching the final credits roll should not take players more than a handful of hours: it is a short experience to be enjoyed in quick bursts, a nature that fits like a glove on the handheld format. The game’s value, however, is strong, for it is mostly related to how addictive its brutally original concept is and how it is impossible not to feel the urge to try and beat the best scores for each microgame package. In addition, Wario Ware Inc. has a considerable amount of extra features. There are unlockable single-player and multiplayer mini-games that have the same captivating and simple nature of the microgames, the latter of which are insanely played with two gamers holding the same system; special microgames challenges, such as a boss-only package and a set where only one life is available; and an option that lets players tackle any of the individual microgames to death.

wario_ware4Wario Ware Inc.: Mega Microgames is a game of such great insanity that it is not surprising it came out from where it did: a minor studio quickly put together by Wario and his peers. In the exploration of the gaming developers that had been lurking inside each one of them, though, they have come across a concept whose originality is hard to match, bringing a refreshing perspective to an industry that often lacks sense of humor and that tends to forget that its main products are not games themselves, but sheer fun and entertainment. Their packages of microgames, approaching varied themes, may have low production values, but what could have been an issue becomes a major asset, for it works as the perfect background to the craziness and untamed joy contained within the game’s cartridge. Wario Ware Inc.: Mega Microgames is engaging, addictive, fun, hilarious, and weird; it is pure gaming bliss.


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Diddy Kong Racing Review

Diddy Kong Racing is able to, with a great deal of charm and creativity, lift itself above the generic building blocks it uses

dkr3According to the norms established by Mario Kart, the franchise that invented the kart-racing genre and showed the world how successful and fun it could be, games of the sort should follow a specific recipe. Companies should get a group of recognizable characters that inhabit one or more universes in which racing is not a highlight, put them aboard simple karts with metal frames, place them in a bunch of courses of outlandish design and that are inspired by the games of origin of the racers, and allow competitors to break all fair-play rules by arming them with items that – in the real world – would cause brutal injuries, uncontrollable brawls, and arguments packed with inappropriate vocabulary.

With the discovery of such goldmine, many were the companies that jumped at the opportunity to put out a title of the kind; results, naturally, were of varied degrees of quality, with most heavily leaning towards the end of the spectrum reserved for poorly produced efforts that were nothing but quick cash-ins. Among the few that were indeed successful, Diddy Kong Racing – coming out just one year after the release of Mario Kart’s second installment – is one of the best and, unquestionably, the most original one.

Diddy Kong Racing does respect a bunch of the genre’s rules: a horde of colorful characters does race in wacky tracks while using items to gain an extra competitive edge. At the same time, though, either because it cannot follow them or because it chooses not do so, it overlooks many of those regulations. Mostly, such a fact comes as a blessing; on one occasion, however, it slightly hinders the game’s greatness.

dkr6That one problem that arises is related to the word “recognizable”. In the building of Diddy Kong Racing, Rare only had access to a single character of worldwide fame: the starring monkey present in the game’s title. Truthfully, Banjo and Conker, of classic Nintendo 64 platformers that only arrived in the years following Diddy Kong Racing, are part of the group of ten racers (two of which are unlockable). And so is Krunch, a Kremling of King K. Rool’s pirate crew. Elsewhere, though, Rare was forced to fill up the game’s roster with critters – like Tiptup, the turtle; Timber, the tiger; Pipsy, the mouse; and Bumper, the badger – that while lovable and charming, are certainly not remarkable.

Perhaps realizing that their project did not have the benefit of dressing up its visuals and building its tracks with powerful references, Rare went out of its way to make Diddy Kong Racing unique. And they absolutely succeed in doing so. Not content with presenting kart-racing by the book, Rare pushes the title beyond that genre: Diddy Kong Racing actually offers a mixture of racing and adventure that cannot be found in any game that preceded it.

Timber’s parents, rulers of the island where Diddy Kong Racing happens, go on vacation and leave their son in charge, letting him race with his friends on the many courses of the region. In the meantime, a wizard pig from outer space shows up, locks all racing tracks behind sealed doors, corrupts the four animal guardians of the place, and promises to leave only if he is defeated in a race. It does not make any sense – no premise that leads to kart-racing really could – but the game does not spend more than a few seconds with it either. What matters is that the story sets the table for a blend of racing sprinkled with overworld exploration.

dkr2In total, the island has four worlds in the shape of lobbies surrounded by doors (with a fifth one becoming accessible later on). Players, then, have to locate the entrance to those lobbies, open them by acquiring a certain quantity of balloons (which are the rewards for winning races and that can also be punctually found around the overworld), and partake in the many varied challenges inside them. It is a simple setup, and it works wonderfully: there is a genuine sense of discovery in finding the entrance to the lobbies, even if the overworld is not that big, and the racing is simply a blast.

Smartly, the worlds pack more than standard races, otherwise Diddy Kong Racing’s single-player campaign would be miserably short. Gamers need to achieve victory in normal races in all four tracks; defeat the area’s boss in a frantic race; go through each course once more, this time collecting eight silver coins and trying to win in the process; and, finally, face a tougher version of the boss. Additionally, there is also a point-based four-race championship and a battle stage, which is unlocked by finding a golden key that is hidden in one of the lobby’s four tracks.

All of those challenges are genuinely fun. The initial standard races shine because Diddy Kong Racing’s tracks, despite not being located in famous settings, are excellent, centering around somewhat commonplace themes like dinosaurs, a volcano, a lagoon, a medieval village, and space. With the track design learned and victory attained, the coin-collecting races up the stakes considerably, featuring coins that have been placed in devilish locations that, unfortunately, sometimes come off as cheap. At last, racing against big-sized animals in especially designed stages is a thrill; and the battle levels, including combat via items and variations of capture-the-flag, are entertaining breaks from the norm.

dkr7Another rule that is broken by Diddy Kong Racing is how it explores a couple of vehicles other than the simple kart: the airplane and the hovercraft. It is a feature that, besides the adventure mode, happens to be the game’s signature component, as tracks are set up with one of the three vehicles in mind, even if – during multiplayer sessions – players can individually choose, if the track allows, which vehicle they will use. Although the plane and the kart are relatively easy to control, with the former even being able to perform loops, the hovercraft offers a steeper learning curve, as it can be easy to lose control of it during sharp turns until gamers get its quirky physics down.

As a final, and simple, new twist, Diddy Kong Racing’s implementation of items is quite different from the one that is seen in Mario Kart. Firstly, the color of the balloons indicates the item they carry (the blue one, for example, hands out a boost), allowing players to pretty much choose what they will pick up. Moreover, items can be powered-up by running over equally colored balloons while not using the items. A single missile, for instance, becomes a set of ten if racers go through three red balloons. Not only do such measures remove luck from the equation, as the entire field of eight racers can get whatever items they choose to, it adds a good layer of strategy to the competition.

The game also excels in its technical department. Graphically, it replaces the dull sprites of Mario Kart 64 with very good 3-D models that are bursting with personality, and features scenarios that are exploding with bright beautiful colors – reaching an almost psychedelic extravaganza in the space world. In terms of sound, although the repetitive sound effects emitted by characters do get a little annoying, the music is masterful, as David Wise penned one specific tune for each of the twenty tracks, and their quality is generally high.

dkr5Diddy Kong Racing is able to, then, lift itself above the generic building blocks it uses. Differently from most kart-racing games, it may not be stacked with recognizable brands, characters, and assets, a reality that is slightly harmful to the overall experience. However, Rare – in the midst of a breathtaking streak of creativity – was able to infuse the title with enough content, genuine challenge, and refreshing ideas to transform it into the Nintendo 64’s most fun racing effort and one of the few games of its genre that rightfully deserves to be placed alongside the best entries of the Mario Kart franchise. That, in itself, is a feat that reveals a lot about the degrees of creativity and dedication that were employed in the game’s making.


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