Kong-a-thon: The Return

December 19, 2014 1 comment

Donkey Kong IconFourteen years is a long time in the videogame world. If Rare had continued to create new games in the DKC series, it surely would’ve kept evolving and changing in incremental steps. By 2010, it might have become something distinctly different from the games made in the mid ’90s. But Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country Returns could be seen as making all those steps at once. I think this tends to draw people’s focus to the differences, and yet it’s still much more faithful to the original DKC trilogy than many of the strange experiments Nintendo tried with the Donkey Kong franchise in the interim.

I think it also undermines how much was actually improved over the original trilogy. Rare’s games tended to become unwieldy with their emphasis on collecting crap. Retro keeps the collection aspect, but hones it down into something more streamlined and purposeful. They also kept the somewhat floaty controls, but added something the original games were always a little flaky about: precision. No more clumsily slipping off ledges or being the victim of weird hit detection. Good ol’ DK controls like a dream.

Screenshot - DKC Returns

Oh, and DK is back front and center where he belongs. But what I really love about him here is how incredibly animated he is. Retro’s impressive attention to detail has given DK so many movements, gestures and facial expressions that he really seems alive and exudes a ton of personality. And I don’t mean in the cutscenes, but during actual gameplay. DK responds and reacts naturally not only to things in the environment, but to every controller input and situation. For example, the way he reaches for vines, even if he misses them, makes it feel like he’s completely simpatico with the player.

I suppose this is in the spirit of the smooth pre-rendered animation Rare was able to achieve in the original trilogy. It just goes to show how far technology has come that now it’s even more detailed and rendered completely in real time.

Screenshot - DKC Returns

One thing does kind of bug me in Returns, however. While it’s cool how the environments are dynamic and change on the fly, they have a tendency to throw obstacles right in front of you without giving you much chance to avoid them. I wonder if this was an intentional throwback to some European game design that tended to rely on trial and error. It can be frustrating, but I also have to admit that there’s a certain addiction factor to it, and I always wanted to keep trying.

I do have to mention the music, though. The soundtrack was composed by four different people under the supervision of Metroid Prime composer Kenji Yamamoto, and a lot of it consists of new versions of classic DKC tracks. It’s great to hear some of those classic tunes again, and the new arrangements are snappy and energetic. But while it fits the action in the game really well, it’s not something I tend to listen to on its own.

That’s something that tends to get criticized about Returns. The original trilogy was always doing new and original things, almost to a fault. Returns brought back a lot of familiar elements, which gave some players the impression that it wasn’t very original. However, Returns is less of a sequel and more of a revival, and after 14 years, I think it makes sense to go back to basics with themes players would recognize. It creates a fresh, strong foundation for Retro to build off of and create a whole new era of Donkey Kong Country.

And that’s exactly what they would do.

Deeper Waters – Sonic the Hedgehog, Part 7

December 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Sonic iconHere we are, heading towards the final showdown with Dr. Robotnik. We’ve come a long way from the more organic grassy settings of the Green Hill and Marble Zones to the construction and development of the Starlight Zone, and here, the oddly named Scrap Brain Zone is an ugly, mechanical, polluted industrial area. It’s a little hard to tell through the dirty brown haze in the air, but the dim light seems to suggest early morning. From the bright blue skies of Green Hill, to the dusk of Spring Yard, and the night of Starlight, it’s taken almost a full day to reach Robotnik’s domain.

The trends leading up to the Scrap Brain Zone might lead us to believe that it will be linear and methodical, rather than open and speedy, but it’s actually a little bit of both. There are upper, middle, and lower paths through Act 1, so it feels open, but there are far too many traps for Sonic to rush through the stage too quickly. Many of the dangers come from either bottomless pits or things that can crush Sonic, both of which cause instant death. Sonic has faced Robotnik, and ultimately drove him out, at the end of every zone. Clearly he’s pulling out all the stops here, and making it his last line of defense.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Entering Act 2, we discover something interesting: the background is different! In all of the previous zones, the theme was consistent across all three Acts. While the foreground is still the same, the background suggest that we are now inside some giant factory. Perhaps this is where Robotnik is converting the animals into Badniks, but we never actually come across such a machine in this game.

The layout is similar to Act 1, in that there are multiple paths, but all of them are filled with traps. There are a few different gimmicks here, most notably the conveyor belts which play havoc with Sonic’s momentum. Of course, this makes them the perfect place to put some especially dangerous traps.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Once Sonic makes it to the end of Act 2, we’re presented with an unexpected meeting. Sonic finds Robotnik behind a force field, but the Doctor quickly jumps on a switch and laughs deviously as the ground falls out from beneath our heroic hedgehog. But rather than death, it merely leads to Act 3.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

It seems Robotnik has dropped Sonic into some chemical disposal sewer, although it’s actually just a recolor of the graphics from Labyrinth Zone. Still, it’s yet another change in theme, and yes, we have to deal with yet another submerged stage. (And we thought the worst was behind us.)

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

In another odd twist, Sonic actually has to start off by going to the left, completely reversing what we’ve gotten used to up to this point, and making it feel just a little disconcerting. But that’s just psychological warfare. Similarly to Labyrinth Zone, it seems confusing at first, but all paths lead to the same goal. Clever players may even find a short cut. Traversing through the disgusting pink liquid brings us to a series of springs that vault Sonic back up to the factory for the boss fight.

A title card announces that this is the Final Zone, making the last confrontation a zone unto itself. Coupled with a dramatic change in music, it really builds up a sense of climactic tension. There’s no doubt about it, this one is for all the chips.

The boss fight revolves around four large pistons, two of which clamp down (or up) at once. Robotnik is always hiding inside one of them (for some reason), and as always, Sonic must quickly hit him with his Spin Attack. The tricky part comes from trying not to get squashed by the pistons. Between piston attacks, four large sparks appear at the top of the screen and slowly descend towards Sonic, forcing him to weave between them.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

The alternating cycles draw out the battle, and since there are no rings, a single mistake will cost Sonic a life. Thankfully, it still only takes eight hits to destroy Robotnik’s final mechanism, but somehow, he still manages to escape in his Egg Mobile. If you’re quick, Sonic can still hit it one more time, causing it to explode.

And that brings us to the end of the adventure. We see Sonic running back through Green Hill zone, now flourishing with all of the animals he’s rescued. If you weren’t able to collect all of the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic will show his disapproval by giving you the stink eye while tapping his foot. If you did get all six Emeralds, then we see them rise out of Sonic’s hands only to vanish into thin air, leaving him just as confused as the rest of us. What was the deal with the Chaos Emeralds? What were they capable of? Why were they hidden in psychedelic mazes? We never find out. Either way, the scene ends with Sonic jumping towards to camera in triumphant victory.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Roll credits.

Kong-a-thon: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!!

December 8, 2014 2 comments

Donkey Kong IconOf all the Donkey Kong Country games, I hate to say that I think I feel the most apathetic towards Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble. Not because it’s a bad game, but because I don’t really have much personal attachment or nostalgia for it. It was the only game in the original trilogy I did not buy when it was first released in 1996. At the time, I just couldn’t get too excited for it. There are a few reasons for that, not least of which was because the Nintendo 64 launched around that time and I was busy with that. I didn’t give DKC3 a shot until many years later in 2010 when I bought it on the Wii Virtual Console.

Admittedly, I do have mixed feelings for it. Playing through it again made me wonder whether I only imagined how good Diddy’s Kong Quest was, as Double Trouble feels a little clunkier and inexplicably brings back some of the problems I had with the original game. Hit detection seems iffy again, and I find the level gimmicks tend to be more irritating than interesting.

Screenshot - Dixie Kong's Double Trouble

Image courtesy of vgmuseum.com

On the other hand, I have to give Rare credit for bending over backwards to try to keep the series fresh in its third installment. While the basic gameplay generally remains the same, there are a number of interesting things they’ve added to spice up the experience, including an overworld that’s freely explorable with hidden secrets, several NPCs to talk to, and a few item trading sequences. The game, once again, seems significantly longer than its predecessor, but that might be partially due to the gameplay feeling slower and more methodical than the brisk flow of Diddy’s Kong Quest. It all makes Double Trouble feel more like an adventure game than a straight-up platformer.

I have to say that I think the soundtrack is a major step down from the two previous games. Composed primarily by Eveline Fischer, the music is much more subdued. It’s not bad by any means, but it certainly doesn’t have the impact of David Wise’s compositions. In fact, I enjoyed the first two soundtracks so much that I bought the third without even having played the game. I was so let down by it that it was probably a factor in my skipping the game when it came out. (David Wise actually recomposed the entire soundtrack for the Game Boy Advance port of the game, but I’m not really familiar with it.)

Another might be the fact that, once again, Donkey Kong is not actually playable in a Donkey Kong Country game. (The title “Donkey Kong Country” is still omitted from the actual title screen.) This time, the spotlight is passed to the previous game’s sidekick, Dixie Kong. Now, I’ve actually grown to like Dixie quite a bit over the years, so I’ve got nothing against her, and it’s awesome she even has her own game. But I really wanted to play as DK again, and why he couldn’t at least fill the partner role in Double Trouble is beyond me. He certainly would’ve been a better choice than the forgettable Kiddy Kong. Maybe it’s a petty complaint, but it’s just another of those little niggles that adds up.

Screenshot - Dixie Kong's Double Trouble

Image courtesy of vgmuseum.com

Or maybe I was just losing interest in the Donkey Kong Country franchise by this point. I didn’t bother with Donkey Kong 64 at all when it came out a few years later, and I’ve still never played it. Based on what I’ve heard of it, it wouldn’t be my cup of tea anyway. So, needless to say, I won’t be covering it in the Kong-a-thon.

So, for me, Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble is a little bit of a mixed bag. It has its rough spots, but also some cool touches. (I always enjoyed the “merry” code that gives all bonus rounds a holiday theme.) Maybe it’s just a step too far removed from feeling like a Donkey Kong game, but considering it’s the third game in the series, it deserves credit for having its own unique identity.

Arcade Mania – Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp (1991)

December 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Dragon's Lair II iconIt’s the early ’80s and video game technology is in its infancy. How do you improve the graphics past blocky abstractions into film-quality animation? You essentially make an animated short and shoehorn in the illusion of interactivity. This was made possible by the advent of laserdisc technology which allowed full motion video to be played via a random-access medium.

And that led to the original Dragon’s Lair in 1983, the most well-known of the laserdisc arcade games of the ’80s. While it was rather shallow as a game, its novelty as a technological showcase featuring animation from Don Bluth raked in the quarters.

By the time Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp, the first true sequel, showed up in arcades in 1991, the technology seemed, ironically, a bit old fashioned.

Once again, you play as Dirk the Daring on a quest to save his beloved Princess Daphne, but instead of raiding the titular dragon’s lair, you’re on an adventure through history (sort of) with a clunky time machine. The gameplay is about as linear as it gets for an FMV game. While the original game used randomized sequences to keep players on their toes, the sequel is entirely sequential. The only “branching paths” come in the form of picking up optional treasures, and only by collecting all of them can you reach the ending of the game.

Screenshot - Dragon's Lair II

As with the original game, everything is a quick-time event (although this was long before the term QTE was ever coined), and you simply need to tilt the joystick or press the “Sword” button at just the right time to keep the movie playing. Things are more obvious here than in the original, however, as there’s a bright flash indicating exactly what you need to do and when to do it. There were hints of this in the original (and Don Bluth’s other FMV game, Space Ace), but it’s fully evolved here. Still, there are times when it’s a little confusing exactly which direction is supposed to be pressed.

Despite there not being much of an actual game here, I have to admit, it’s got a certain charm and rhythm. A lot of it is trial and error, but once you memorize things to the point where you can play without interruption, it’s strangely satisfying. There’s also a lot of creativity in the stages, and some of them are just downright off-beat. You travel through Wonderland, witness Beethoven composing the fifth symphony while floating through the clouds, and Dragon’s Lair II probably has the funniest depiction of the Garden of Eden I’ve ever seen in a game. While the game does wear out it’s welcome after a while, it doesn’t really last that long anyway.

Screenshot - Dragon's Lair II

Dragon’s Lair II is available on several systems and devices, including interactive DVD and Blu-ray editions (the latter of which is even a full HD remaster). One of the best packages is the Dragon’s Lair Trilogy on the Wii, which also includes the original game and Space Ace.

I never played the original Dragon’s Lair in the arcade. I had too much trouble trying to wrap my young brain around the idea of “playing a cartoon.” But by the time Dragon’s Lair II showed up in arcades, I popped the occasional quarter into it, and I actually kind of enjoyed it. Yeah, it’s not much of a game, but it’s a fairly entertaining experience.

Kong-a-thon: Diddy’s Kong Quest

December 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Donkey Kong IconWhat a difference the details make.

Released just one year after the original game in 1995, it would be easy to think of Diddy’s Kong Quest as a quick cash-in to the runaway success of Donkey Kong Country. I was a little lukewarm to it myself when I first saw it in Nintendo Power magazine, as it just looked like more of the same. But one thing convinced me to give the series a second chance: Nintendo Power‘s review noted that it was much more difficult than the first game. (On a side note, it irked me that they listed the difficulty as the game’s sole negative. Since when did a good challenge become a bad thing?)

Was it more of the same? Yeah, but Diddy’s Kong Quest improved upon its predecessor in every way. The basic foundation was there. It was still a Mario-style platformer. There were still bonus rooms to find and tons of MacGuffins to collect. But all of the previous game’s rough edges had been smoothed out, and everything that worked was accentuated. It was like Rare had gotten the flashy graphics out of their system with the first game, and had more time to spend on honing the design and polishing the gameplay.

Screenshot - Diddy's Kong Quest

Screenshot courtesy of vgmuseum.com

It was the details that really made the difference. It had better hit detection, better stage gimmicks, better boss fights. Bonus barrels were clearly marked as such, and you could backtrack to re-enter bonus rooms as many times as you like without having to restart the entire stage (a very smart design decision). The bonus rooms, themselves, actually served a purpose this time, rewarding the player with “Kremkoins” that could be used to unlock more full-length (and ultra challenging) stages. And the game, overall, was significantly longer.

That’s not to say the presentation took a back seat. There are some nice new graphic effects, like the dynamic sunbeams shining through the trees in the forest levels. Enemy sprites, particularly for minor foes, are bigger and have more personality. David Wise also returned to score the soundtrack, and he really outdid himself this time with an eclectic mix of complex compositions. It’s still one of his masterworks. The overall atmosphere of the game is darker, but extremely well done and compelling.

Diddy’s Kong Quest easily became one of my favorite SNES games back then, and it was the first time I was ever compelled to “100 percent” (or 102 percent, as the case may be) a game entirely on my own.

If one thing struck me as odd, it was that Donkey Kong, himself, was not one of the main playable characters. Instead, Diddy was shoved into the spotlight with his own new partner, Dixie Kong. Perhaps it’s telling that the actual title screen only reads “Diddy’s Kong-Quest” with no mention of “Donkey Kong Country 2.” I missed playing as DK, but the combination of Diddy and Dixie has a somewhat fairy tale feeling to it, like “two kids on a dark adventure.” Also, I wonder if Rare was just trying to establish their own identity rather than rely on Nintendo’s character for recognition.

Screenshot - Diddy's Kong Quest

Screenshot courtesy of vgmuseum.com

I’ll admit, I was a little apprehensive about revisiting the game for the Kong-a-thon. It had been a few years since I last played it, and I thought that it might not hold up after I had played the more recent iterations of the series. But as it turns out, it holds up surprisingly well! It’s a little hard to pin down exactly what’s so dramatically different about it from the first game, but after playing them back to back, it’s clear that Diddy’s Kong Quest is just a huge improvement. It’s Donkey Kong Country done right, and in my opinion, it’s still one of the best platform games of its generation.


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