Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mario Kart DS ~Lap 5~ My Favorite Courses, Introduction of a Big Nosed Dinosaur, and Michael

Favorites.

We all pick them, whether it's our favorite cousins or favorite foods and even favorite vacation spots. And who can blame us? It's important that we know what we enjoy best, which can be useful in numerous ways such as decision making, goal settings, and even impulse buying. It's human nature.

Of course, video games are not exempt from this. All gamers have various favorites, ranging from favorite games to favorite characters to favorite items to favorite game developers, and yes, favorite levels. These are the levels we frequent the most often, and what we can to regard as the very symbol of the games we play.

Now, I think I've discussed this before, but here's something I always love seeing in Nintendo games: references to past titles. Whether it be cameos or a quick reference, it goes to show that Nintendo is just as crazy about their titles as we are and

And I guess that's why my most of my favorite courses in Mario Kart DS are the ones based off of Mario's earlier adventures. Or maybe it's just that they're really fun to race on. I don't know, but I love them just the same. We've already gone over the Luigi's Mansion course, but what are the other ones I love?

Super Mario Bros. 3 fans might recognize that Desert Hills is obviously a homage to that game's Desert Land, which was home to red pipes, Chain Chomps, and an Angry Sun that stalked you for an entire level.

Mario Kart often has an infamous habit of including obstacles in their courses, and Desert Hills is no exception. The cactus Pokeys will lurch around the raceway, and it's not too difficult to crash into them. One must also be wary of the outside sand, which will induce a screeching halt to any speeding vehicle. Even the Angry Sun gets in on the action, spewing out Podoboos (otherwise known as Fire Snakes) to irritate drivers.

Besides using the Star item, probably the best feeling one has while playing Mario Kart is by utilizing a shortcut so efficiently that you find yourself leaving the rest of your opponents far behind in your dust. Desert Hills is chock full of these, and they're by far the funnest shortcuts in the game. For example, who could forget the pyramid near the beginning with a tight strip of land opposite to the main track? If you have speed-boosting mushrooms, then this path is the obvious one to take.

Then there's the twisting series of turns at the climax, where racers must tread carefully. This isn't a problem if you're boosted by Mushrooms/Stars, in which you can skip the path entirely by boosting over the hills for an exciting leap. If not, then powersliders have a big opportunity here to stay ahead of the crowd or to quickly catch up. An exciting course!

Now, question: Could you see the following stage be used as a basis for a racetrack?

Common sense would say no, but they somehow managed to take Super Mario 64's Tick Tock Clock level and actually make it into a racetrack.

Yeah, a racing course designed around a clock.

It might not sound fun, but it's actually quite dangerous. Clock hands and swinging pendulums dot the tracks, and you have to make constant curveballs to make sure you don't get in their way. Perhaps the most exciting moment is when you come across a cascading set of spinning gears, each spinning in a different direction, so you gotta go with the flow. Powerslide here to excel!

You know what's the biggest bummer that can happen to you in a race? And I'm not talking about being hit with the blue shells, either. It's when you bump into something and it takes forever to get yourself back on track. In the meantime, all of your opponents speed away, not caring for your predicament. Thus, your fate in tagging along in last place is sealed.This happens more often on some stages then others, and this is one of them.

But you know, there's something kind of special about that. And as big of a downer that can be, there's nothing more satisfying then using a combo of well thought out uses of powersliding and (ESPECIALLY) items to get yourself back on the top, and that's one of the reasons why I love Mario Kart so much. Even if you're in last place, the game provides enough tools for everyone to get back on track.

I'm still pissed that this isn't a course avaliable to play online.

Now, what's this course from...LOOKS FAMILIAR.


Ah, yes. One of the Airships from Super Mario Bros. 3!

Packed with excitement all the way through, this course is loaded with obstacles that one must constantly be wary of. For starters, Bullet Bills immediately fire away from the ship's cannons at the beginning of the course, so watch out for that. Also, remember the moles that'd pop out of manhole and throw wrenches? They're back here, and while they're out of wrenches, they'll make you spin out of control if you run into them.

You then enter the interior of the ship, which is packed with flamethrowers! And then, you launch out into a destroyed stone tower!

EEEEYYYAAAAHHHHH!!!!!

Awesome stuff.

Here's a stage that isn't really based on anything: Waluigi Pinball.

Named after a character no one cares about (sorry, bro), the stage makes up for its moniker by including a ton of fun twists, most notably by letting loose giant black pinballs to crush unsuspecting racers. The best part by far is when you find yourself on an actual pinball board, complete with flippers, bumpers, and pinballs. Gotta be careful here!

Also, I like how the usual sound effects are replaced with slot machine sounds. Bazing!

And now, my favorite stage: Delfino Square.

(screenshot's actually from the stage's appearance Mario Kart Wii, which I was trying to avoid but the internet sucks in providing actual Mario Kart DS screenshots..particularly the ones I need. Sorry about that)

In any case, it's a course based off of the main hub for Super Mario Sunshine. No matter what your opinions may be of that particular title, it has no bearing on the awesomeness of this course. So, why is so great?

To be honest, it's complicated.

I talked about how I could memorize what was going on around me whenever I played a game. If I could do that, then there's no doubt we can memorize what goes on in a game. Truth is, just about every gamer can do that. If a game enchants us, we remember all of the game's nuances, beginning with the gameplay to the sound effects, and right down to the tiniest graphical detail. Then there are, of course, our favorite moments, levels, or music tracks that become the very staple of the experience we had with a video game we loved.

Delfino Square is that staple for me in Mario Kart DS.

I just love this course. I love doing a series of zigzagging powerslides up the slope in the beginning and curving right around the defining Delfino Statue. I love shooting off projectile weapons behind me in the tight alleyway right after and hearing my character give a yell of triumph upon success. I love choosing between the two stairways, each with their own advantages. I love the muddy shortcut right after the halfway point, which is easily taken advantage of if you have mushrooms or a star on you. I love the giant drawbridge with boosters on it that blast me off to the final stretch. Most of all, I love the climatic showdown on the grassy path that leads to the finish line. I ALWAYS have these on Wi-Fi matches, and it is no doubt the deciding factor on who wins or loses.

Maybe it's the aesthetic details, too. Isn't it interesting how it has such a ghetto atmosphere compared to the bouncy town featured in Sunshine? Maybe it's the way Pianta spectators hum "bubudodo-bubudodo-bubudodo." Maybe I just love the music for the track.



Man. Nostalgia right there.

Despite all of the reasons I listed above, I feel as if none are really definitive. I could really have said those reasons for just about any course in the game.

Sometimes, we just grow very attached to things without knowing why. Whether they're characters in a TV show or a specific piece of furniture or a certain swing on the playground, we just like them more then the rest. We just have our ambiguous favorites. I don't know why I love Delfino Square so much, but that's okay. I just love it.

ALSO, remember how in the time trials post when I discussed how I thought I couldn't use my favorite kart, the Mushmellow, on the stage because of its low item stats which meant I couldn't employ the use of a certain shortcut? Turns out I was wrong. I had grown so experienced with powersliding that the advantage of the shortcut didn't even matter! Felt so proud of myself.

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This is Yoshi.
Perhaps the most adorable character in the series, Yoshi is perhaps even more affable then Mario and the two have been buddies since childhood. Often accompanying his best buddy on his travels, Yoshi allows Mario to saddle up on him and provides a great variety of powers, whether it's using his long stretchy tongue or his own brand of transforming powers. Yoshi himself has gone on solo adventures, armed with producing eggs and throwing them. Despite being only able to speak his own name, his shining demeanor allows him to get along with nearly everyone. Like the rest of his kind, he gorges on whatever food is avaliable...not including red peppers.

Yoshi shares an affinity with Toad in that he too carries the name of his own species. They all sport a veritable rainbow of colors, including green, red, yellow, dark blue, light blue, pink, white, black, orange, purple, and brown. The Yoshis find their habitat most comfortable in tropical paradises, most notably Yoshi's Island (Yoshi's Island/Yoshi's Story), Dinosaur Land (Super Mario World), and Lavalava Island (Paper Mario). Their roles range from friendly villagers to baseball participants and on one occasion even a member of an RPG party. Despite the genders being split into male and female, they all reproduce asexually. All female video game players have their hearts melted by them and adore them to infinity and beyond.

-Canonically speaking, Yoshi's first appearance was in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. In this game, he and his fellow Yoshis aim to protect a lost Baby Mario and reunite him with his brother Luigi, all of this while trying to find the infant's home. The game, critically acclaimed by most, was a completely different take on the usual Mario sidescroller and lead to a separate series on its own.

-....of which most people believed the subsequent titles that followed failed to live up to the original. Perhaps most notable is 1998's Yoshi's Story for the Nintendo 64, which had a considerable amount of hype put into it but the brain dead difficulty and incredibly short length (despite its style of replayability) turned off many. That, and the graphical art style, despite being an innovation at the time, didn't help the unfortunate stereotype of Nintendo only appealing to kids.

....confession: I've never beaten Yoshi's Story. See, I was scared shitless of the Yoshis dying in the game when I was six/seven, and as such I refused to play the last Castle levels, which were full of spikes and buzzsaws. I've never really picked up since then, sooo....

-Of all the Mario characters, Yoshi is perhaps the one character who has made the most prolific cameos in other titles. Notable appearances include:

-You are able to win a Yoshi doll in 1993's Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. The item description notes the character has been appearing a lot recently.

-Believe it or not, another Yoshi doll that's paired with a Mario one appears in the Gamecube remake of Konami's Metal Gear Solid in the character Otacon's office. If shot with a gun, the doll will make Yoshi's trademark squeal.

-My personal favorite: Once you have collected all 120 stars in Super Mario 64, Yoshi will appear at the top of Peach's castle. After you've talked to him, he'll grant you a new triple jump and one hundred lives.


-Yoshi is perhaps the ultimate fan favorite of the Mario Kart franchise. Categorized in both light/medium weight classes, Yoshi's speedster status is well known in the Mario Kart fandom, and is just as easy to pick up as the Mario Brothers. As such he's an incredibly popular pick with both experienced and casual players. In Mario Kart DS, you'll often find him paired with the Yoshi Egg kart, which has devilishly high acceleration/handling, which is perfect for (GASP!) the infamous "snaking" technique, which we'll discuss later.

Yoshi was also Michael's favorite character to use.

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I host a ton of regrets.

It's a wide variety, really. I had an awful habit when I was younger of not watching what came out of my mouth and as a result I've said some rather untactful things. Until recently, I never really spent time with my relatives and there was a point where I became so self-excluded from life that they might have well been non-existent. I've let people step over me, most of the time in unfair situations where they were just generally being assholes to me and my lack of social expertise never allowed me to unleash my true feelings.

But my biggest regret of all is not taking my brother's addiction seriously until it was too late.

The announcement of his addiction breezed by so quickly without warning, not even two months after he had entered West Chester. He called me on an October night and listed off everything that had happened, about how he had to drop out of college and how he sold off his iPod and guitar and everything. I just nodded my head, said "yeah" a lot, and that was it.

By then, I had successfully detached myself from the world. To this day, I honestly can't tell you whether or not I cared back then. I had probably written it off as a case of Michael getting into trouble again, and he'd get himself back on track in a month or two.

Despite this, I visited Michael a lot, even if my mind was occupied elsewhere. The first time I visited him in rehab was with my Mom, and I just sat there reading Dragon Ball manga while he and Mom droned on in the background about his treatment. One of his meetings was in a small hall filled with seats. I situated myself with my DS in tow. Before the discussion began, I was playing Battle Mode. A girl leaned over and asked, "Is that Mario Kart?"

"Yes, it is." Michael laughed.

"Haha, I love Yoshi. He's my favorite."

It wasn't always like this. Before I lost touch with reality and he dived into the world of drugs, we were close. I described in my tribute that while we weren't interested in each others hobbies, we still enjoyed being around one another. We watched South Park and Family Guy, engaged into becoming smartasses with our parents (in good nature!), and getting to know his friends.

Michael himself was a figure I looked up to. While friendly and certainly socially active, he was adamant about his beliefs and morals and knew when to be serious. When something pissed him off, he let it be known and described exactly what got him so ticked. He'd often give advice to me, although it wasn't always with proper etiquette. I knew he wasn't perfect, but the fact that he never made himself feel inferior and unheard left a strong impression on me that I still covet.

But our relationship fell apart after his brush with drugs. He was focused on getting his life back on track, moving past drugs, and the Lansdale music scene; I was focused on Mario Kart DS, Tales of Symphonia fanfiction, and reading Dragon Ball/SGT Frog. We had submerged in completely different worlds, him out of the house 24/7 while I was left behind, both in terms of him never being home and moving on with life.

Yet in some way, it doesn't feel right blaming my indifference regarding Michael's situation on the fact that I excluded myself from life. I guess I can assume the main reason why I didn't take Michael's addiction seriously was what I mentioned earlier: Him getting into trouble wasn't exactly uncommon. He had a bad habit of lying or playing dumb, he'd get into conflicts at school, and he'd get into fights with our parents more times then I could care to count. As rigid as he could be with his confronting his pet peeves, common sense wasn't at his side at all times.

To this day I still wonder how my relatives thought about the first stages of his addiction, but I guarantee that they took it way more seriously then I did. At that point, I grew up learning from D.A.R.E officers that "Drugs are bad, don't do them or they'll screw you up." I didn't even stop to think of what could ultimately happen to you if you get tangled up in drugs. The message was that they were bad and as such I stayed away from them. My uncles, aunts, parents, and probably even most of my cousins weren't so naive and probably knew the full consequences of what Micheal had gotten himself into, most likely at much larger extent then I ever did that fall. That alone speaks volumes.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that I started paying attention to Michael's addiction when he started to involve me.

It is the summer of 2007. I recently had my leg undergo Reconstructive Foot Surgery, of which the purpose was to fix an anomaly in my feet. Each foot would had a respective year to heal, and during those periods I lived downstairs in the living on a hospital bed playing Wii all day. As such, I could hear whatever was going on downstairs.

One summer night, Michael was visiting and had an argument with Mom. She thinks he's relapsed and needs to get medical attention; he denies all accusations and thinks she's being a nag. No words were shouted, only statements by my Mom that were incredibly firm. I didn't know what to think of it.

Late in the night, I was on my laptop waiting for the Smash DOJO!! to update with the latest Brawl update when Michael messages me on AIM. He brings up the subject of the argument and assures me there's nothing to worry about. He's never done this before, but I knew he knew that I listened to what was going on. This time, I am not so naive. I tell him I'm genuinely worried about him and that he needs to move on with his life. The conversation goes nowhere, and he eventually signs off.

Mom approached me the next day and asked me if Michael talked to me about what happened the night before. Whether or not it was her scanning my instant messages or a case of women's intuition is up for debate, but the whole experience left a mark on me that I'm not sure I ever erased. Strangely enough, after that we never heard a peep about drugs...for a while.

Michael wasn't done yet.
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Eeek, the last part was really hard to write. At least I had fun with the first two.

Sooooo...how about the new game announcements from yesterday? Holy CRAP, did ANYONE expect a NEW KIRBY GAME THAT WAS A REVIVAL OF THE CANCELLED GAMECUBE GAME?!?!??

I AM NOT KIDDING YOU I DANCED AROUND THE HOUSE SCREAMING FOR TEN MINUTES AFTERWARDS



God, you know, I LOVED Epic Yarn. I really did. But this is what I need. HAL, just be sure to include the new standards introduced from that game (apartment/voiced cut scenes) along with the partner system from Super Star (FOUR PLAYERS PLLLEEEASSSEE) and you're set.

NINTENDO RELEASE THIS, THE LAST STORY, XENOBLADE AND PIKMIN 3 THIS YEAR AND WE ARE GOLDEN. DO YOU HEAR ME, GOLDEN.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Games I've Playing Part #2: Mickey Mouse and the Curious Village

Ugh, you know what? If I give a date out, don't even bother listening to me. I feel like I've been in a daze for the past few days..

Let's get this over with.

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

So, the 3DS is soon to be upon us. Some are excited, some are not so welcoming to the news. Myself? I think I'm covered. The $250 price isn't a problem, friend codes aren't an issue since I'm not lazy, I realized I could just plug in the darn thing to avoid the short battery life, and the launch lineup...well, it could be better, but some of them look interesting.

Still, that doesn't mean I'm going to stop playing DS games. In fact, I'd say this motivated me to check out some titles that passed me by, notably one Professor Layton and the Curious Village.

A popular series of puzzle games that's origins originate from Japan, Professor Layton is indeed a curious title. The games have captivated all of Japan, and achieved cult status in America following a celebrity appearance in its advertisements. I've heard of the supposed brilliance of the title for several years, but only just now managed to try it.

The plot of the game features the titular character, who's an apparent master of solving puzzles. He one day receives a letter asking him to to investigate the meaning of a late baron's will, which hints at an mysterious artifact known as the Golden Apple. He accepts the challenge and takes his apprentice, Luke, to the village known as St. Mystere. However, it becomes obvious to the pair that the village is not what it seems, and mysteries upon mysteries pile upon each other, ranging from a murder, a large, mysterious tower, loud rumbling sounds, and even a supposed dislike of sweets. Just what sort of conspiracy is afoot?

It's especially difficult to balance Layton's pros and cons, considering that it's notably ambitious for a puzzle game. Witnessing a puzzle game spinning a yarn isn't so rare nowadays, but what really makes Professor Layton stand out is the use of animated cutscenes, which even have their own voiceovers. The art design for the characters is simple, but at the same time each character feels distinctive enough and the animation/voice acting is surprisingly competent.

That said, while the story does succeed in intriguing the player with its trove of mysteries, it's kind of obvious that the story serves as a backdrop to the gameplay; as in, you'll be solving random puzzles more then you will be investigating (at least where I'm at, anyway). So if you're expecting, say, an experience exactly like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, you're outta luck. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. While Layton does make a few mistakes with its central mechanic, it does enough right to engage the player.

The setup is something like this: The game is divided up into nine chapters, each one presented with an assortment of puzzles. Utilizing a point-and-click motif, you'll explore the mysterious village of St. Mystere while chasing some sort of objective; however, for the most part you'll just be solving any puzzle that comes your way. This is accomplished by talking to the eccentric residents, who can't talk for more then a minute without bringing up some sort of puzzle. As you progress through the game, you'll notice patterns that emerge in these puzzles, such as:

-Matchstick formations
-Mazes with movement limitations (Example: "What's the longest way you can move around these blocks without going through the same route twice?")
-Word problems
-Shape formations/problems
-Water pitchers
-Picking out which of the four suspects is the liar

Here's the big question: Do the puzzles work?

The game offers a mixmash of puzzles that can easily be separated into two different puzzles: word problems and interactive puzzles. You'll find the word problems are by far the game's favorite, which will no doubt stump the slow thinker crowd (read: me). The word problems have a nasty habit of tricking the player into thinking too hard, so you have calm down, try to remain one step ahead of the question, and lay out the facts and see what you can apply to them.

Then you have the interactive puzzles, which are by far the funnest ones. These can range from the simple (dividing three cups of water so that two will contain exactly eight liters) to the devious (can YOU solve incredibly difficult sliding puzzles?!?). You'll constantly find different patterns that lead to other patterns in the same puzzle, and some will end up being dead ends, so you'll eventually learn not to repeat your same tactics over and over if they're not working.

Most of these are presented with some sort of backstory, which like any good puzzle, attempt to trick the player. As such, you must read each explanation carefully and then aim to solve the puzzle. This, of course, involve thinking outside the box. You're going to have moments where, upon figuring out the problem given to you, smack yourself on the forehead and wonder why you didn't figure it out sooner. You are going to stumped, and you will have no one to blame but yourself (MOST OF THE TIME).

Disregarding the lack of a powerful narrative, what I think Layton's strongest appeal here is it's fair regarding its own puzzles. While I think the game could have used a better difficulty curve, most of the puzzles given to you aren't fully outrageous and won't destroy your brain unless you try too hard. The game is also careful in giving you incentive to solve these puzzles by giving you rewards, which range from pieces of a robot dog, to puzzle pieces, to furniture in Luke and Layton's hotel room. Totally pointles? Sure, but apparently they unlock something!

And that's not mentioning the score system, which is known as Picarats. The amount of Picarats you will earn will reflect your performance on solving these puzzles, which is decided by how many attempts it took you to figure out the answer. For example, if you get the right answer the first time, you'll score all of the Picarats that particular puzzle has to offer. If you get it wrong numerous times, however, the Picarats will decrease significantly. This, of course, adds to the pressure of solving these problems and will act as the main hook to further engage the player. Smart move on developer Level 5's part!

That said, there are few...undesirable types of puzzles. I gotta ask: was it really necessary to include puzzles involving math? I mean, I'm okay with doing addition for word problems and such, but if you're going to include geometry involving tile squares and such, then I'm not even going to bother. Do I really want to do this in a video game?

And then every now and then, you'll come across a puzzle that just screws with the player. Case in point: The tongue-in-cheek puzzle with a fictional monster attacking St. Mystere. You're supposed to spot the monster and stab it with a knife, but the text, let alone the illustration, gives not even the slightest indication of where the monster is. Spoiler alert: It's in the moon. How the hell was I supposed to spot that? There is some explanation hovering around that the stars/trees/roofs were supposed to create the outline of the monster with the moon being its tooth. I don't see shit. Kind of reminds me of the Goldeneye boxart and how three years ago everyone JUST noticed what was wrong with James Bond's face despite the fact I noticed it immediately in 1998 when I was SIX YEARS OLD.

WHO PUTS A GUN THAT CLOSE TO THEIR FACE?

...but that's a subject for another time.

In any case, at the halfway point I think I can call Layton a winner. I just wish I had more time this year to check out the rest of the titles...that'll be my new's years resolution for 2012!
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And now, for something completely different: A game I was playing, but gave up on.

Now, lemme just make something clear here: For some strange reason, I possess an abnormal immunity to some of the most notorious problems in some of our favorite games. The Knuckles and Rouge levels in Sonic Adventure 2? No problem. The tripping in Super Smash Bros. Brawl? Never noticed it, and I'm of the strident opinion that anyone who tells you it ruined the game for them, along with R.O.B/reduced speed/lack of advanced techniques, is an idiot. The sailing in Zelda: The Wind Waker? Ha! I'll have you know that after I finished the Triforce hunt, I sailed in EVERY SECTION of The Great Sea and reveled in every moment.

One of the things I've learned while gaming is that people like to exaggerate...a lot. However, there are times where their complaints are well founded, and even someone as patient as me has to give in eventually. Unfortunately, there are times when multiple problems consistently spring up in a game, and it gets to the point where the player can no longer accept its shortcomings and as such the game is void of any fun. Recently, I just had to do that with Junction Point's anticipated title Epic Mickey.


When described, the game sounds like it has everything going for it. Epic Mickey's director goes by the name of Warren Spector, who has designed critically acclaimed hits such as Deus Ex. The game was assigned to his new studio after he had expressed an interest in reviving the Mickey Mouse character, which was mutual with Disney themselves. The leaked concept art showed a steampunk version of Disney World and a ZOMBIE GOOFY. Many were astounded by the supposed "dark" atmosphere of the game and hailed it as the return of Mickey Mouse.

And then there's the story. Long before his famous years, Mickey stumbled across Fantasia wizard Yensid's project of creating a world for the forgotten, which he accidentally ruined by spilling thinner on it. Years passed by, but one day an old foe by the name of the Phantom Blot, created by the thinner incident, dragged Mickey back into the forgotten world, which was now a wasteland populated by a horde of forgotten Disney characters; most notably Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the first creation of Walt Disney who, as such, resents Mickey's popularity. Faced with the consequences of his foolish youth, Mickey is tasked with either repairing the forgotten world and gaining Oswald's friendship...or annihilating it all completely.

What's not to like? Unfortunately, a lot.

Epic Mickey is a platformer filled with references to the forgotten. You remember Horace Horsecollar and Gus the Gremlin? Of course you don't, but Epic Mickey will make you remember. You will traverse abandoned Disney World rides, a futuristic space land with references to Tron, and even explore a mountain littered with forgotten Mickey Mouse merchandise. At first glance, it's an engaging premise, but one riddled with problems. For one thing, many of the environments are dark and bleak, and while this might have been appealing to the game's aesthetic sense, it's hard to see where you're going. The game supplies a map in the pause menu, but it's worthless because the legends are not named and it doesn't mark where you are.

In a clever twist, the game employs a number of portals, via projector screens, that lead Mickey from hub to hub by making him travel through 2D sidescrolling versions of his black-and-white adventures. It's a great idea, but not one well executed. While it may be fun to hop around on various cartoon props, most of these levels are far too simple and bland, as they only rely on the antiquated look to impress the player. They do not impress in the slightest from a gameplay perspective and they leave no impact on the player, aside from the fact that you have to play through them multiple times. If they didn't rely so much on nostalgia and instead focused on creative gameplay techniques, we might have a winner here.

As you might have guessed from the plot summary above, Epic Mickey revolves around a morality system that revolves around being good or bad, which is completely up to the player. If the player wishes to fix the heaps of trouble the Wasteland faces, then they can. If the player wants to contribute to those problems, well, they can. This is all done by choosing between blue paint and green thinner, both employed by Mickey's magical paintbrush. For example, you can restore a missing bridge by spreading paint on it, or destroy a building by splashing it with thinner.

Despite being the main attraction of the game, this is where the game falters the most. Epic Mickey provides an extraordinary wealth of quests for Mickey to embark on, most of which are based upon the various whims/favors of townspeople. One of the main problems here is that there are so many of these fetch quests that it's nearly impossible to keep track of them all, and this unfortunately conflicts with the game's usage of "points of no return"; in other words, excluding the hub areas, once you enter a new area, you can't go back a previous one. So if this means you slipped up and couldn't find a vital item for a quest, then you're out of luck.

What is perhaps the biggest flaw here is how the game balances the good/evil acts. Despite being told by the game that thinner is bad, why is it that in order to make a bouquet I have to destroy gardens with thinner so that I can dive underground and grab a white flower, despite aiming for a good profile? There are no hints given by the game's missions that the player must suddenly switch between using paint and thinner, which is incredibly irritating for both sides. By far the worst culprit was something I encountered early on.

In a replica of Mickey's house, a talking phone (roll with me here) requests you to set up a phone network in Mickeyjunk Mountain. Upon entering a factory in said mountain, I come across a machine that can take in either paint or thinner. Since I was aiming for a good file, I naturally filled it up with paint. As I left the factory, I was told that I failed the quest. Surprised, I looked it up online and found out I had to fill the machine with THINNER so I could open another pathway to a character who would fix the network for me. This wouldn't have been possible if I chose paint.

But can you blame me? There was absolutely zero indication that I had to fill the machine with thinner. Why on earth would I have bothered with thinner when I knew doing so would've created a mark of infamy? It makes no sense and was without question the most aggravating game element I have encountered in a long time.

Believe it or not, that wasn't what made me gave up on the game. It was the combat. While the game employs a neat tactic of having the Phantom Blot's minions join your side by splattering them with paint, it doesn't change the fact that the combat in this game is dreadfully boring. The game forces you to use elaborate tactics on what are supposed to be minor enemies (such as, say, spraying thinner on robotic enemies and smacking 'em with your spinning move), and as such it feels like you're spending too much time on them, and that's not to mention how difficult they are. The worst were by far the robotic pirates of Venture Land, who swerved around EVERY time I reached their weakpoint and killed me five times before I called it quits. There's a difference between fighting a challenging enemy or failing against one who use cheap tactics.

What makes this hurt is the game occasionally flickers with moments of brilliance; most notably the story itself, which is eased along by animated cutscenes. Despite being in only 1-2 minute bursts and not even voiced, they're incredibly charming, full of wit and at times even touching. The plights of forgotten characters, such as Horace Horsecollar slumping at Mickey not being able to remember him, are perhaps the most effective. It's moments like this that show the amount of depth this game could have had, both in storytelling AND gameplay, if given several more months of development. Instead, the abundance of faulty level design and repetitive fetch quests result in what is a mediocre package.

The unfortunate lesson here is that not even a compelling concept can hold a game together if it's not adequately designed, and I hope Warren Spector and the rest of Junction Point can take the game's criticism to heart.

At least it's selling well.

----

...man, I feel like I rushed that one.

See you soon.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Break

Hey, guys.

Sorry for the sparse updates, but I'll be undergoing another break. Long story short, 2011 hasn't exactly given me the best start and I'm feeling stressed out. That, and I'm still unsure as how to handle certain future posts. I need a moment to recollect myself and review everything I have lined up before moving on.

Mario Kart DS will be finished by mid-February, and we may or may not move on to another game in March. Miscellaneous gaming posts will also continue. I'll probably be back before the 24/25th.

See you then.

Also, I'm totally buying the 3DS at launch.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Donkey Kong Country Returns ~Review~

Note: this review does not meet my current quality standards and will be superseded in the future. A link to the new review will be provided whenever it arrives. 
 Donkey Kong Country is one of the most famous names from the 16-bit era, and the trilogy is often cited as the key for the Super Nintendo's victory over the Sega Genesis. The first Donkey Kong Country, released in November 1994, immediately piqued the public's interest with its pre-rendered CGI graphics, which were ground breaking at the time. The title tied with Super Mario Kart as the highest selling stand-alone Super Nintendo game, and the game's two sequels enjoyed similar records. The series was highly acclaimed for its addictive varying gameplay, beautiful atmosphere, David Wise's spectacular music score, and brutal difficulty. Donkey Kong, who until then had only been featured in arcade classics, was now a force to be reckoned with in the game industry along with the rest of the Kong family.

Unfortunately, his success did not last. Rareware, the British developer behind the trilogy, gradually grew in irrelevance after the release of the Nintendo 64's Donkey Kong 64, a title that received a mixed reception within the game community and ultimately did not live up to the Super Nintendo classics. Despite critical successes with Banjo Tooie and Conker's Bad Fur Day, the sales did not match the score numbers. Nintendo realized Rare had become dead weight and sold the company in 2002 to fellow game competitor Microsoft.

While it might have been a wise move financially, it became obvious that Nintendo had no idea what to do with the Kong family now that Rare was out of the picture. As such, Donkey Kong was reduced to starring in spinoff titles such as the Donkey Konga rhythm games and various handheld adventures. An attempt to revive the franchise was made with Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, which featured the familiar treading of two-dimensional platforming and a beautiful jungle atmosphere. Despite being a great game in it's own right, stubborn Country fans did not accept its new moniker and it did not catch on with gamers thanks to the limiting Bongo control scheme.

Were DK, Diddy Kong, and the rest of their posse doomed to reserve slots in Mario sporting spin-offs for the remainder of mortal time?

NOT ANYMORE, BABY!!!!!

Donkey Kong Country Returns was the bombshell representative for the Wii that year and had fans flying out of their seats, some with tears in their eyes. It turned out that Retro Studios, the designers responsible for the highly acclaimed Metroid Prime trilogy, had been tasked with developing a new entry to the Country series two years earlier, and it was to be finally released that fall.

However, as the dust cleared, many began to question the new management. Having grown bitter over the years with Nintendo seemingly forgetting their favorite franchise, most of the fanbase questioned Retro's decisions with their version of Donkey Kong Country and bitched at every piece of news. Why were underwater levels omitted? Why couldn't they hire David Wise to score the game again? They didn't bring back the Kremlings?!? Worst of all, Diddy Kong was playable only in co-op?!?

Gee, seems like every review I write always has some sort of negative opening. This time however, it's not on my part. I guess everyone but me and my friends were induced into a mass outbreak of amnesia and forgot how amazing the Metroid Prime games were. Aside from the 3DS' selection of titles, Donkey Kong Country Returns was the only game I had absolutely no doubts with, and was 100% guaranteed to be an AAA title. I mean, hey, RETRO STUDIOS was the one behind the title. How could it go wrong?

And having spent two months with the game, I turned out to be right.


Donkey Kong Country has, indeed, returned.
--------------------

Before I pen the rest of the review, I just want to admit something about my relationship with Donkey Kong Country: I haven't actually played the series much.

Believe it or not, I never grew up with the series. I owned the first Donkey Kong Country, but it was much too hard for a seven year old experienced with three-dimensional titles and unfortunately it became lost several years later before I could give it a proper playthrough. I did own Donkey Kong 64 and it's endless parades of collectathons, but I think we can all agree it wouldn't serve as a proper barometer to test Returns' worthiness of living up to its own name. In any case, I am definitely no Donkey Kong Country guru, but having recently beaten the first Country and spending two months with Returns, I think I can repeat with confidence what I stated in my earlier impressions of the game.

This is a new Donkey Kong Country. Yes, the game still stars Donkey Kong and his pal Diddy. Yes, the game is still in the cherished two-dimensional perspective. Yes, most of your favorite tunes and gameplay mechanics are back. And yes, even the ball busting difficulty has returned. But everything else has been given a complete renovation. Indeed, Retro Studios has taken control of Rare's beloved trilogy, but they took with them only the essentials. Retro has added so much of their fantastic new elements to the game, whether it be the new Tiki enemies, time trials, unlockable artwork/dioramas/new game modes/, rocket barrels, and most importantly, out-of-this-world level design. Donkey Kong Country Returns is not only effective as a reboot of the series, but one that far surpasses the standards of the Super Nintendo classics and wisely applies itself to the standards found today.

Nostalgia be damned, I'm going to be blunt. Returns is better then the original trilogy.

But how so?

Read on to find out.

---



Donkey Kong Country was always a series rooted in sidescrolling gameplay, and Returns is no exception. It should be noted, however, that Country is a much more different beast then, say, Mario's older adventures. The older Mario games' level designs are beautiful in that despite being trapped in a two dimensional perspective, the mechanics and designs are so subtly diverse that you're able to play them in a bajillion ways, effectively making them timeless. Donkey Kong Country is much more curt in that there's not a lot of freedom, but the fun comes from blasting through the levels at high speeds and memorizing whatever quick-fire obstacles come your way while performing satisfying bouncing combos on your enemies.

Is this great fun? You bet. However, over the years some game publications have called out on this particular design as being outdated, and used it as an excuse to label the series overrated. I will admit I would agree with this...if Retro had borrowed the same system above and used it in Returns. Fact is, it may not have been outdated then, but it certainly is now, and I'd like to think this is the main reason Returns is in a completely different league then in the originals. Despite many key mechanics returning to the game, the level design found in Returns is far and above what Rare had accomplished so long ago and in fact may be the finest example ever created in 2D platforming.

Last year's Super Mario Galaxy 2 (and mostly its predecessor) was an anomaly in three-dimensional level design. The most abstract of ideas sprung out of every crevice, things that were never quite thought possible in video games, and every single one was handled with perfect execution. It was as if it had begun to bend the very fabric of game design to its whim. In case you don't know where I'm going with this, Donkey Kong Country Returns is the two-dimensional version of Galaxy 2. Or should I say, the more bombastic, heart-pounding version.

Just as in the original trilogy, you will find yourself blazing at high speeds across the over 70 levels. Back then, the only real dangers were mistimed jumps and conveniently placed baddies that interrupt your leaps. This time around, however, they are joined with much more obstacles that stand in your way. Pirate ships shower the beaches with bombs, boulders dash down mountain ramps and head towards your general vicinity, a giant octopus will stalk you wherever you go on a stormy night, and molten rock shift and rumble underneath your feet and collide with each other. You are constantly under pressure and have to consistently watch your footing, especially considering that Donkey Kong can only take two hits.

What makes this all work is just where the level takes you. You'll climb on grass, bounce on hippos, jump on swinging mechanical hands, and repeatedly turn on red/blue switches to activate their respective colored platforms. You never really quite know where the game will take you, and each level is a wonder. A particular stunner is the sunset/fog levels, in which DK and Diddy Kong are only visible by their silhouettes, which adds quite a bit of depth in not just aesthetics, but gameplay as well. You'll have a challenging time jumping and searching for secrets in these foggy levels.

In a nod to the original game's mine cart/barrel blasting levels, Returns throws in levels that are centered around a certain gimmick. The big deal here are the rocketbarrels, which upon contact blast off with DK along for the ride. As you collect bananas, you usually find yourself under attack by varying enemy types, such as crab pirates that fire anvils, deranged flying moles and falling crystals, and giant laser spewing bats. These are by far some of the most challenging levels in the game (THE LAVA ONE OH MY GOD) and don't feel like a cheap add-on.

However, it is really the Forest section that really proves just how far video games have come. In one level, you run for dear life from a horde of parasitic munchers while quickly navigating yourself through the maze-like passageway. In another, you blast from barrel to barrel through chomping totem poles and rush through huge, rotting trees. Then the game's shining moments involves DK holding onto grassy, giant decayed logs as they swing in humongous arcs, each one gradually growing in size. Every level in that section had me whooping for joy, and ties with the Caves section (more on that later) as the best part of the game.

And you know what the greatest thing about all this is? No two levels are a direct copy of each other. This was something that the original Donkey Kong Country was guilty of, and not a trace of it can be found here (with the possible exception of the bosses, but even they excel in design). Sure, some may borrow the same motif (The rocketbarrel/silhouette levels), but they all add in their own twists to keep from growing familiar. This is amazing considering that Returns follows a theme for each of its worlds, such as beaches, jungles, temples, and factories, and yet none of them are copied off of each other. That's to be applauded.

Anyone looking to develop a new 2D game in this day and age should look no further then Returns as their role model.

To see the sunset/swinging levels, please check out the videos below:




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

Of course, it wouldn't be Donkey Kong Country without some familiar elements. No matter how far you stray from a game's original design, certain staples must remain intact or else the feel is lost. What also makes Returns excel so efficiently is that it takes these staples and revitalizes them in a way that don't make them feel antiquated. Of course, this isn't just limited to gameplay.


Yes, before you ask, Donkey Kong's banana horde has once again been stolen. The culprit is not the series enemy King K. Rool and his platoon of Kremlings, but an army of evil Tikis who have hypnotized the island's animal populace into stealing the bananas for them. What for? We don't quite know until later, but nonetheless, Donkey Kong and the other apes are immune to their bewitching powers and set out to reclaim their treasure once again. The story isn't expanded upon with the exception of the pre-boss battle scenes, and makes itself as invisible as possible. A wise choice.

DK's number two, Diddy Kong (depicted on the right), joins the big guy on his latest adventure, though this time more as a peripheral tool. Once again, you'll find him trapped in a barrel and once freed, he'll cling to Donkey Kong's back and provide support, such as giving boosts from his own pair of Rocketbarrels or speeding up Donkey Kong's rolling prowess by comically sprinting on top of his big buddy (useful for avoiding cannon fire!). Diddy will also add some extra hits to the big guy, so you'll want to nab him in order to increase your vitality.

Improvements range from the small to the extreme. For example, those who've played the original might remember how in each level there were four letters scattered around that, once collected, spelled out KONG. Back then, doing so gave you an extra life. In Returns, they serve a difference purpose in rewarding you with a clear mark once you find them in a level. Not only that, but finding them all on each section of the island rewards you with one of the eight Temple stages, designed only for master players.

You'll of course revel in the return of the Barrel Cannons, in which the apes jump into a suspended barrel and engage in a series of blasting into a maze of barrels, which requires quick thinking and timed button presses. In Returns, these barrels provide some jaw-dropping sequences, whether it's rocketing through stone walls, blasting DK through the masts of pirate ships, dodging falling stone towers or launching him into the BACKGROUND, where even more platforming hijinks await you.

Animal buddies, also known as the guys that gave DK and Diddy a lift and pounded on every enemy in sight, aren't as frequent anymore. On the bright side this means we get to fully engage in all of the brilliant level design, but nostalgic fans might feel the opposite. Thankfully, Rambi the Rhinoceruous makes brief comebacks and like before will trample the hell out of anyone in his way. Just look at the way he plows through those spikes!

Just like before, each and every level holds a host of secrets, whether it's secret bonus rooms or extra bananas. This time, you'll make use of Donkey Kong's improved array of moves, all achieved through using the motion on the Wii Remote. Swinging the remote will unleash DK's Hand Slap, which will destroy rock formations and suspicious cracks in the ground. Your reward? Banana Coins, which is the currency used at Cranky Kong's shop, or Puzzle Pieces, which will unlock concept art from the game's development. Holding the 1 Button and shaking the remote while running will make Donkey Roll roll, which once again is an incredibly crucial action and will help you out of many jams.

However, this is all small potatoes compared to what is by far the biggest renovation of the game. Fans of the original will no doubt remember the thrilling mine cart rides of the original, which were filled with broken tracks and lots of jumping. Now it is the video game version of a diabolical roller coaster ride. The cart track will now randomly crumble around you, and giant crystals will fall from the ceiling and fall in front of the hapless DK. In the climax of one level, the end of one track will give away and roll off with Donkey Kong still inside of it! It is all absolutely INSANE and has to be seen to be believed. This alone makes me want a sequel!!

So are all of these perfect? Well, the use of motion control has by far been the biggest negative target of Returns, with many claiming it to be unresponsive or uncomfortable. Personally, I felt that performing rolling by shaking the Wii Remote felt incredibly satisfying and never once had a problem with it. Unfortunately, there were moments where the remote wouldn't catch on to the performing the Hand Slap, which can have major detriments on certain Time Trials (more on that later). Then there's the act of blowing, in which Donkey Kong will lean down and blow out a gust of air, which is used to uncover hidden items underneath flowers, grass, or even propellers. The problem isn't so much that it interrupts the flow of the game, but that it's only an optional feature and doesn't add much to the central game itself.

Thankfully, these are the only minor kinks in these revivals and do not leave a major impact. Almost everyone has been brought back without a scratch and a beautiful homage to the Country games of old. Kudos to Retro!

To see one of the minecart levels in action, please check out this video:


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

Difficulty.

Once a staple in the two-dimensional era, hard games are few and far between these days. Perhaps its a matter of us growing up, but there are some games, such as Ghosts 'n Goblins and F-Zero, that are just as hard as they were back then. Games that can be difficult today mostly fall into two different categories: They either aim to be nigh impossible, or can never distinguish a proper balance between being easy or hard. Only a few games today can pull off difficulty without the game feeling like a chore, most notably Fire Emblem, Professor Layton, and the new Punch Out!.

They are now joined by one more title.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is the hardest Nintendo game I have played since 2003's F-Zero GX. I cannot, and I do mean I CANNOT, recall the last time I have wished strangulation upon the game's creators. It will make you leap out of your chair and stomp on the floor. This game will make you scream at the TOP OF YOUR LUNGS LIKE THIS. It makes you WANTS TO PUNCH THINGS. THIS GAME IS HARD OH MY GOD THIS GAME IS SO HARD

And what is to blame here? The devilish level design, of course! You will make a bad jump. You are going to run into an enemy unintentionally and die. You will scream in horror as, after making a series of awesome acrobatics, get nipped by a bird and die. YOU ARE GOING TO CRASH THAT ROCKETBARREL. YOU ARE GOING TO ZAPPED BY THOSE @#%& JELLY FISH SWEET JESUS I HATE THOSE JELLYFISH THEY POP OUT OF NOWHERE INTERRUPT YOUR JUMPS ANDNEJR RERGHE R)JEB UBYBUBUBUBU NYAYRGHGHARRANAYRRGGHHHHHH

do you see those little bastards DO YOU SEE THOSE FLOATING BASTARDS ABOUT TO ELECTROCUTE OUR HEROES. SWEET LORD I DO NOT WANT TO ENGAGE IN A RAMBLE HOW MUCH I HATE THESE HELLSPAWN. THIS IS THE ONLY GAME ON EARTH THAT HAS MADE ME WISH DEATH ON AN ENTIRE SPECIES. I HATE JEELYLFISHENEBE

I've had my suspension of disbelief nearly crumble with certain previous Nintendo titles, but this is the only one that came to annihilating it entirely. This is the only game I have ever played that made me pause it, walk up to the TV and grip it with my hands and stare deep into the screen and then yell, "WHY THE HELL DID YOU JUST DIE BECAUSE YOU RAN INTO A TOUCAN'S BEAK?!?!?!? IT'S A ****ING TOUCAN! YOU'RE A GIANT GORILLA! YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE THE RULER OF THE JUNGLE!!! YOU'RE DONKEY KONG!!!!!!! AEEEYIIIAAAGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!!"

Okay, I didn't actually do that, but I almost did.

Almost.

The difficulty of the game can range from many different obstacles, whether it's a mistimed jump triggered by the stress of the level or whether you crashed your mine cart. Death will arrive abruptly, and you must stay two steps ahead of the game itself (in other words, memorize the patterns) in order to conquer it. Of course, it is way harder then it sounds, particularly in the Rockebarrel levels because YOU ARE GOING TO CRASH AND YOU WILL REVEL IN YOUR OWN TEARS. SOME OF THEM TOOK ME OVER 50 EFEIJONGKE TRIES MAEMJKEHEGH

Luckily, the Checkpoint Pig makes your woes not as bad as they seem. The jiggling, rotund figure will serve as a checkpoint to your levels, and once activated, that will be the spot DK will respawn at when you lose a life. You remember the Checkpoint Barrels from the original? It's like the same thing.

If the game notices you have died over eight times in a single level, the pig will offer the choice of having Super Kong, a white version of DK that the game controls, beat the level for you. The cool thing about Super Kong is that not only is he useful for the more inexperienced tots, but you can jump in at any time once you feel you're confident enough to clear the level for yourself. However, using Super Kong comes at a cost: Not only will you not gain any of the collectibles in the level, but the the usual mark for completing the level will be replaced by a wooden one, indicating you had to use him to clear the stage. This is of course meant to give those forced to use the character give the level another shot by themselves, and the best thing about the whole deal is that Super Kong is completely optional to those who feel confident enough in their own skills. I, for example, beat every single level in the game without his help.

Unfortunately, there is another tool you can use that anyone can, and will, take advantage of. The game's currency is in the form of Banana Coins, which each level is loaded to the brim with. You can spend these coins at Cranky Kong's store, who will offer you Squawks the Parrot's services in finding puzzle pieces, keys to extra levels, and varying amounts of balloons, which represent extra lives in Donkey Kong Country. There's no stopping anyone who can feel like buying dozens of balloons, and considering the abundant resource of Banana Coins, you'll never run out of cash. This isn't such a big mark against the game, but it does remove the heart-pounding pressure of "WILL I MAKE IT TO THE NEXT SAVE POINT?!!!!????" found in the original games, and softens the impact of Returns' difficulty. Then again, the inclusion of auto-saving after beating each level does remove that pressure, anyway.

But no amount of balloons or Super Kongs will prepare you for the game's hardest ordeal: Time Trials. These sons of Satan time you on how fast you can reach the end of the level. AND THEY ARE NOT EASY. You must make use of every shortcut, no matter how small or how big, whether it's gaining momentum from jumping on an enemy or taking advantage of the Barrel Cannons. You must constantly roll. You HAVE to ROLL. YOU MUST KEEP ROLLING. YOU MUST NOT STOP. SPLIT SECOND DECISIONS CAN DESTROY YOUR CHANCE OF GETTING A GOLD MEDAL. YOU CAN'T MESS AROUND IF YOU DO YOU'RE SCREWED. YOU HAVE TO KEEP MOVING WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT.

SOME OF THESE ARE NIGH IMPOSSIBLE, PARTICULARLY THE BEACH ONES. I DON'T KNOW THE DEVILS WHO ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS, BUT I HAVE TO ASK THEM: WHY IS THAT WHENEVER I CLEAR THE FIRST TWO BEACH LEVELS THAT I'M FIFTEEN SECONDS BEHIND?!?!? I DON'T GET IT! I'M GOING AS FAST I CAN WHY CAN'T I DO THIS NYAARRGHHHHHH

You know something? This isn't even required to BEAT THE GAME. I just get some virtual gold medals to prove that I'm the best at some game. IT'S JUST NOT FAIR. Some form of sick masochistic trait born deep inside of me constantly pushes me past my limits JUST TO OVERCOME THE INANE TRIALS THIS GAME IS FORCING ME TO UNDERGO. WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME O SWEET LORD?!?

GOOD LORD THIS GAME IS HARD.

So despite the display of rage above, is it worth it? Well, the goddamn Jellyfish are one thing, but I'm glad to see Nintendo man up and show young kids today just how brutal games used to be. Despite my anger with the time trials, it's probably the first time in forever that something so challenging has kept me engaged for so long and strangely enough it's a bag of fresh air. In fact, the whole package is the same deal for Nintendo games in general and I'm wondering which of their other games today can take advantage of the difficulty. Zelda, perhaps?

To see how much a gaming hotshot you have to be in order to do the Time Trials, check out the video below!



...SO HARD.

------

The soundtrack for the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, composed by David Wise and Eveline Fischer, has often been lauded as some of the best in video game history. I think the reason for this is not just how rich it sounded on its own, but the way it complimented the CGI setting. Much of it was atmospheric, either focusing on simple percussion (DK Island Swing), soothing waves (Aquatic Ambiance), and even traces of fear (Cave Dweller Concert). Each left an powerful impact, and even as a five year old I remember thinking just how beautiful Aquatic Ambiance was. With the exception of Star Fox, it was far and away beyond anything video game music at the time had ever accomplished. In a way, it felt more real than the graphics ever did.

With this in mind, it's no wonder that most were worried about the musical presentation Returns would give to the world. The songs are the most beloved out of the entire Super Nintendo era, perhaps only challenged by Chrono Trigger and Earthbound. The songs have been remixed and covered hundreds of times on OCRemix and Youtube. Aquatic Ambiance and Stickerbrush Symphony are known to be some of the most beautiful songs in all of gaming (though if you ask me, I don't see what's the big deal about the latter). David Wise himself even contributed to the Donkey Kong Country 2 remix album titled Serious Monkey Business. It's a big deal.

Who wouldn't be worried?

Good news.



THE SOUNDTRACK TO THIS GAME KICKS ASS!!!!

Metroid Prime composer Kenji Yamamoto returns to yet another Retro project to work on, and has worked his magic to each and every piece. Mr. Yamamoto has accomplished a number of things here with these familiar tunes, and they simply have to be gushed about.

Returning tracks are all from the first Country, and most of your favorites return (let's have a moment of silence for Gangplank Galleon and Cave Dweller Concert...). What has to be said first is that Yamamoto has made numerous versions of most of these pieces and as such there's something for everyone. Didn't like how the jazzy DK Island Swing didn't put much emphasis on the melancholic second half? Don't worry, the next level's music focuses ENTIRELY on that. Not a fan of how he did Mine Cart Madness? Nothing to be afraid of. He's done at least five to six other remixes that blow it out of the water. If one version rubs you the wrong way, there will be another to lift your spirits.

There are several that only receive one remix, but these are the ones that are done so perfectly there's no reason to make more then one. I like what he's done with Aquatic Ambience in particular, which removes some of the mystique from the original but instead employs a form of calming elevator music. Despite not being underwater, it perfectly conveys the atmosphere of the level you're in. Also, this may just be a coincidence, but it plays in the ONLY level that you can relax. (OR NOT. THANK YOU JELLYFISH)

...you know what, I'm going to be blunt here: Some of these are actually better then the originals. It's the truth. For example, Forest Frenzy and Tree Top Rock are far more bouncy then they were originally were, are a joy to listen to (just listen to the beginning of Tree Top!), and will immediately nostalgia bomb any Country fan in attendance. By far the best improvement, however, is the above rendition of Life in the Mines. I'll be honest in saying wasn't that great in the original, which felt rather empty. It is completely the opposite here, and sucked me right in when I started the level. Just stop and listen to when it picks up at 1:11! Tell me that isn't better then the SNES original! I would totally jam to it at concerts.

There are also a plethora of original songs packed in with the revised tunes, and while they don't leave as much of an impact, they serve their purpose well. Luckily there are some standout tunes, such as the upbeat Rocketbarrel theme and the pumping vocals for the lava stages. If only more of them were on par with Wise's classics.

So which soundtrack is better? I still think there's an atmospheric element to the original that Returns didn't quite touch, but there's no denying the quality put into the game we have here. That, and it's clear some songs were far better then they were on the Super Nintendo. It probably concludes at a respectable tie, but if they up the Midi quality or go for an orchestra, I think we'll have a new winner. Bravo, Kenji Yamamoto.

The game's soundtrack is so good that I'll leave some extras here. Listen to them when you have the time.






-----

As noted by my nearly complete gushing over the game, it's clear that we have a guaranteed winner, right?

Much of the fanbase didn't seem to think so before the game's release, and this lead to a rather bitter reception up to the launch date. The ironic thing about this is that while many gamers and the industry itself clamor for change, so much more turn against it and even fear it. Retro made a number of changes to certain classic elements that not everyone was happy with, and I think I've come to the conclusion that most of these are just worthless nostalgic attachments.

For example, the previous series antagonists, the walking crocodile Kremlings, were replaced by the Tikis in Returns. Many mourned the loss of King K. Rool and his minions and felt that they were far superior to the new wooden foes. I'm not really sure what the big deal is. Sure, I love K. Rool too, but the claim that the Tikis have no personality is pure bullcrap. Did you not see the antics of the hypnotized animals they're corrupted? Did you not listen to the raving tune they played while performing said hypnotizing?

In addition, there are few things in life as enjoyable as beating the shit out of these guys by shaking the Wii Remote once you defeat a boss.

Also, tell me this ostrich isn't the most hilarious thing you've ever seen.


Then there's the issue of Diddy Kong, who is only made playable in two player mode. This has lead to what is no doubt the biggest controversy of the game. In the original games, one could simply switch the two characters at the press of a button, whereas here he is only a playable character in the two player co-op mode. It just so happens that Diddy Kong is a very popular character and most prefer to use him over DK despite there being almost no difference in terms of gameplay...in the originals.

There's a very clear reason as to why Retro made this move, as there's is a very wide difference between the two characters in Returns. It's obvious that Diddy's new gadgets provide a much bigger advantage then the barebones mechanics of Donkey Kong, and as such everyone would pick the second banana over DK. One could make the argument that had they not given such tools to Diddy, it'd either still remain the same even if there was no difference in the first place.

But, see, there's this thing called change. And I think that's really what Returns is all about.

What's truly the most beautiful thing about Donkey Kong Country Returns is just how it perfectly melds new and old together and makes it a satisfying purchase in today's modern world. No matter how much one might miss the Kremlings or the "run and jump" gameplay, the fact is that times have changed and changes to certain elements have to be changed in order to refresh every title that comes out. If the Kremlings were back, people would just list off the game as being "same ol', same ol'." If the gameplay was the same, it'd be exactly the same. Not every game takes advantage of this, unfortunately, but it's a vital piece of today's gaming world, and I'm still amazed that most gamers haven't picked up on this.

Returns isn't a rehash of the original Country games, and it doesn't need to be. It is its own entity, bound by only certain key staples and free to move on to everything else. It is still a Country game, but at the same time it's also a new one. You can't really say that about a lot of sequels today, and that's why it's easily one of the best games of 2010.

-----



Retro Studios has done it again. They had successfully revived the Metroid franchise, and now the same treatment has been given to Donkey Kong. For some reason, though, reviving the series is not the most amazing thing they've done here, either. It could be that they've actually made it relevant, or quite possibly crafted the greatest two dimensional video game of our time (Watch out, Super Mario World!), or, hell, just made a really good game.

And that's really what's the most amazing thing about the game. They have succeeded with blazing colors on every single essential here that there's hardly a problem to be found, and even then those nagging bites can be shrugged off instantly. Super Mario Galaxy 2's focus on sheer fun might win out in the end, but Returns' difficulty and simultaneous appeal to all sides makes it a worthy runner-up.


It's clear that Retro has engage in some form of witchcraft in order to make all of their games knockout successes, BUT IT DOESN'T REALLY MATTER. Retro, if you're reading this...MAKE A SEQUEL!!! And after that one, make a new Star Fox! PLLLLLEEAAASSEEEEEE?

Highly, highly recommended.

-Motion controls don't always respond
-Coulda used more Rambi.
-Difficulty is softened by buying balloons

+....BUT IT'S STILL HARD AS HELL OH MY GOD
+Quite possibly the greatest level design in all of 2D gaming.
+Revives all returning game mechanics perfectly to fit the standards of today.
+THE MINE CART LEVELS
+Fantastic soundtrack that does the original justice.
+Did I mention it was really hard?
+Always hands out the proper motivation to complete even its most arduous trials.
+The checkpoint pig
+Look, it's just really really good, alright?