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2:31 PM on 04.25.2013

How the Rayman Legends Challenge App showed me the stupidity of always-on

Being a Wii U owner, I was, like many others, somewhat disappointed by the massive delay of Rayman Legends. I'd thoroughly enjoyed Origins, and was looking forward to getting another dose of platforming heaven.

It was with eager anticipation, therefore, that I downloaded Ubisoft's "apology" for the delay, the Rayman Legends Challenge App - a free game from the e-shop with daily and weekly updated challenges, meant to tide me over until the full game is released.

I managed to enjoy it for roughly twenty minutes. After twenty minutes? Well, the internet happened.

I could no longer access any of the challenges - because the Ubisoft servers were too busy.

You see, the challenge portion of the game requires a constant internet connection. I suppose this is because a big part of the game is comparing your scores with others across the globe. And that's a nice idea and all, that feeling of connectivity, but that nice feeling quickly evaporates when I CAN'T PLAY THE DAMN GAME.

I could rail at Ubisoft for this shortcoming, for failing to deliver a bloody apology properly, but I won't, because it's Ubisoft, and so I'm hardly surprised.

Instead, I'm going to focus on the opportunity this failing has afforded me - the opportunity to witness first hand what an always-on internet connect does to a gaming experience.

It ruins it. Players of Diablo III learned this. Players of Sim City learned this.

And now I have too.


6:09 PM on 03.12.2013

Retrospective Review: Super Mario Bros. 3

Welcome to The Retrospective Review. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.

Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.

Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.

This week, I'm taking a look at...

Super Mario Bros. 3

And just so you know, the version I played for this review was the Snes version, ported onto the Wii for Mario's 25th Anniversary. In terms of content, it remains exactly the same as the original Snes game.

SMB3 is widely regarded as one of the greatest Mario games ever. Indeed, some hold it as the defining Mario game against which all others must be measured. I actually owned this title as part of the Super Mario All-Stars bundle on my Snes, so let me assure you, I have just as many fond memories of it as the next Mario fan.

So why, once I put the controller down, wasn't I filled with the sense that I had just played the perfect game?

Lets begin with what SMB3 does right. In terms of gameplay, this is classic Mario. The physics are perfect, and every jump feels utterly natural. Considering this is only the second (proper) Super Mario Bros game, it's very impressive that Nintendo got it so right this early on.

Level design is a joy to behold. Those who've grown weary with the same-same presentation of more recent 2D Mario games, are in for a treat. SMB3 eschews the familiar Mushroom Kingdom visuals in favour of something a little more imaginative. Egyptian/desert levels, a region focused largely on pipes and mazes, a world that transitions unexpectedly from green and lush to a cloud environment - it's eye candy galore, especially if your version of choice is the Snes update, with its more vibrant colour palette.

And there's gorgeousness in the details too. Every time you board an airship at the end of the world, it feels like an epic undertaking. There are no goofy, cartoony visuals, the likes of which you've seen in New Super Mario Brothers, the last level is made to feel like a foray into danger. The way Mario leaps and climbs the anchor at the beginning, the slow haunting music, the flashing lightning...all of this culminates in a truly atmospheric experience.

And once you beat the boss and claim the magic wand? Then you're treated to a tinkling serenade, in the form of the victory music that accompanies your floating descent back to the castle. That one tune is a work of art, and it doesn't matter how many times it's played, its beauty never diminishes.

But what about the bad? I type tentatively as I dare to criticise this much-loved classic, but the fact is, it isn't perfect.

The levels are short, and some can be finished in under 30 seconds. My assumption is that this a result of the game's Nes-era origins. Difficulties with console memory etc meant that levels had to be short, so that the developers could cram in as many as possible. In truth, this isn't too much of a deal-breaker as it gives a certain snappiness to the game's pacing. Plus, without the presence of check-points, the short lifespan of each level can be a blessing in disguise.

Less excusable is the repetitiveness of the boss battles. Each world has one or two fortresses, where you fight the sub-boss Boom Boom. Although with each encounter Boom Boom gains new abilities - such as swifter movement and flight - every battle plays out the same. Jump on his head, move aside as his spikes extend, then jump on his head again before he starts moving. There is no variety.

The main bosses aren't much better. At the end of each world, you'll fight one of the Koopalings. Again, there are minor differences between each - sometimes they'll be riding a ball, sometimes their wands will launch different projectiles - but ultimately it comes down to avoiding their very similar attacks, jumping on their head, dodging as they withdraw into their shell and jump at you, and repeat.

These battles all require good reflexes - but every single one is the same fight, with your opponent wearing different skin. Again, I'm led to chalk this up to a remnant of the Nes-era. When Nintendo produced SMB3, limited processing power meant that they couldn't engineer hugely diverse boss battles. The problem is, this decades-old limitation is still in place, dampening the otherwise brilliantly imaginative-scope of the game.

And my final criticism has to be the difficultly. Hard games are good. I like hard games, and I like a challenge, but I don't like infuriating games. SMB3 is infuriating.

In terms of difficulty levels, SMB3 manages a perfect upward curve as the player progresses through the game. The amount of skill they gain in playing is directly proportional to how much harder the experience gets. But then, at world 7, the difficulty sky-rockets. Levels become a nightmare of awkwardly timed jumps and cruel enemy placement. The fortress right before the World 7 castle is an exercise in sadism that I will never forget.

And this sudden leap in difficulty wouldn't be such an issue - if the player could save their progress properly. From the Snes port onwards, players can save each time they finished a fortress or a castle. The catch? If you've made it halfway through a world, beaten the fortress, saved, and then turned your console off / run out of lives, when you restart the game, you have to do all the levels of that world again. Only the fortress(es) remain defeated.

This isn't such a problem early on in the game, but by the time you get to the longer, tougher latter stages, the prospect of going through every level again is truly depressing. It's fine if you can finish the whole world - the game will remember that you progressed to the next, but pulling that off without running out of lives becomes an ordeal towards the end of the game.

Considering the Snes' larger memory, and the fact that this redundant save system is still in place for the GBA and Wii versions, it's inexcusable that it has been allowed to endure. I'm all for preserving games in their original form, but improving what was a serious deficiency, even at the time? That should be a given.

And exacerbating this fault is the inability to revisit past worlds and stock up on items. I understand that even during the Snes-era, memory limitations might not have allowed this, but it doesn't stop it from being a huge drawback, and for the GBA and Wii, it should have been added. By the time you reach the last few worlds, you will need a good reserve of items to see you through. But without the option to go back and earn more from Toad Houses, Card Games or beaten levels, you'll find yourself taking on ludicrously difficult stages as small Mario. I know that the hidden Warp Whistles help with this matter somewhat, but considering the game doesn't hint as to their location until after you've passed them, it's little comfort.

I can see why SMB3 is so dearly loved by gamers. Its original launch on the Nes pre-dates my birth, so while I did enjoy this game as a kid, I didn't enjoy it in the same way. Before SMB3, all gamers had was the excellent Super Mario Bros, and the oddball Super Mario Bros 2 (a Mario game in name only) When SMB3 came along, however, it blew gamers away because it showed Mario looking like a real guy and not a collection of blocks, it added environments gamers had never seen before, and the power-ups were unprecedented. The ability to fly with the raccoon tail? I can only imagine how amazing that was to experience. SMB3 was everything gamers had come to love about Mario by playing SMB1, and then some.

And remember, this was a time before Mario became a franchise, with each subsequent title adding power-ups and concepts. The very idea of adding new things to Mario, was itself brand new. Try to imagine that, if you will.

But Mario - and gaming - has come a long way since then, and with its roots firmly planted in the Nes-era (despite some minor updates) SMB3 is lagging behind. It's actual gameplay is absolutely fine. If you've played any of the NSMB titles, the skills you've learned are totally transferable. SMB3 is a master class in creating a fantastic game, with minimal visual prowess.

But what holds SMB3 back is the technology upon which it was built. The issues with saving and backtracking don't make it hard, they make it unapproachable. These faults don't challenge the gamer, they alienate them. And what really irritates me is that these shortcomings are such an easy fix. Why they've been allowed to last so long is beyond me. Super Mario Bros 3 starts out as gaming-perfection, but by the end transforms into an ordeal. It's worth your time, and it's worth your money, but it isn't worth your patience.


11:33 AM on 03.03.2013

Retrospective Review: Metroid Fusion

Welcome to The Retrospective Review. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.

Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.

Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.

This week, I'm taking a look at...

Metroid Fusion

Released way back in 2002 for the Gameboy Advance, Metroid Fusion falls right at the end of the Metroid chronology, occurring just after Other M. In terms of development, however, it is the fourth Metroid game, coming in after the highly-esteemed Super Metroid.

Every Metroid game sees Samus building her arsenal of weapons and suit upgrades in order to progress. A key feature of the Metroid series has always been this theme of gradual empowerment.

But in Fusion, Samus doesn't just start out weak, she starts out vulnerable. Stripped of her original Power Suit by a parasitic organism called "X", Samus is left with only the barest bones of her armour. I'm honestly not sure if Samus takes damage more easily in Fusion, or if it just feels that way, but throughout the game, the player is made to feel far more wary of the enemies they must defeat.

This constant vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with the less bulky appearance Samus takes on in her Fusion suit. Those thick layers of metal that kept you safe in Super Metroid? They're gone. The Fusion suit looks more like artificial skin. Samus is "naked" here, exposed to the dangers around her. She's not on a mission to eradicate Metroids or take down Space Pirates, she's fighting for survival in an alien situation that she (by design) does not fully comprehend.

Which makes the threat of her nemesis - the SA-X - all the more brilliant.

The SA-X is her previous, superior Power Suit under the control of the X parasite. Throughout the game the SA-X hunts Samus, appearing at certain moments and forcing the player to hide (often just inches from it) or flee while it attacks with its more powerful weapons. Every time the SA-X is encountered, every time you hear its signature music, you will feel fear.

And not only does it exploit Samus' innate weakness by dealing massive damage, but it emphasizes that weakness to the extreme. There is nothing you can do to fight back (save freeze it, once ice missiles are acquired.) Until the very end of the game, no matter how many upgrades you gain, you are powerless.

But the real genius of the SA-X is that it is a reversal of how the player perceives the Metroid franchise. If they've played a previous Metroid title, the player will know the sense of empowerment that comes from achieving a fully upgraded Power Suit. Suddenly, all the difficulties in the game are as nothing. You can blast through walls and flesh, space jump up sheer cliffs, obliterate obstacles with the screw attack, freeze your target where they stand... and all this destruction comes so easily. Foes that once posed a challenge can be taken down without a second thought.

The SA-X takes that sense of smug superiority, and turns it on the player. You are the prey this time, running and hiding in order to achieve your objective.

This vulnerability is at the core of Metroid Fusion, and is what makes it stand apart from the rest of the series. However, in terms of gameplay, Metroid fans will find plenty of the familiar. As heir to the "original" titles, Fusion builds on the 2D platformer roots of its predecessors. It takes everything that worked in Super Metroid and improves it. Samus' movements are much snappier. She breaks into a run faster. The momentum of her jumps is more easily controlled. The angle of her arm cannon is controlled with just one shoulder button, leaving the other to activate missiles (rather than requiring the player to scroll through her extended arsenal with the Select button.)

Everything about Fusion's control scheme has been streamlined. In my review of Super Metroid, I commented on how sluggish Samus felt. That's all gone, leaving behind a control system that I would argue is absolutely perfect. If you make a mistake in this game, it is entirely your fault. Nothing can be blamed on the design.

By comparison to its fore-bearers, Fusion is a much more story-driven addition to the series. Previous titles have seen Samus dumped in a hostile environment and told to explore and shoot her way to the last boss. Simple but effective. In Fusion, her objective develops over the course of the game. At first you're just investigating unusual occurrences, then you're adapting your plan of action in response to the X's actions.

Driving this ever-changing story is Samus' commanding officer, an AI named Adam. The introduction of a secondary character is an interesting change of pace for the usually isolationist Metroid series, but the dialogue with Adam - and Samus' monologues during lift transportations - both develops the plot and assists in character development. By the end of the game, Samus and Adam alike have genuinely come alive as individuals. It's striking that Fusion achieves a level of character development and relatability with a few lines of written text, while Other M attempted the same thing with big cut-scenes and failed.

For some Metroid fans, the plot-driven, slightly more linear nature of Fusion has been a point of contention. Certainly, what makes Metroid so distinctive is its "barest of hints" style of open exploration. But the reduction of this element isn't, in my opinion, a mark against Fusion's success. It is good that the title went for a different feel to its predecessors. Staying the same over long periods of time leads only to stagnation. Fusion tried something different, both in tone and plot presentation, and it pulled it off. For that, it deserves nothing but praise.

If the Snes and Super Metroid embody the Golden Age of pixel gaming, then the GBA and Metroid Fusion is pixel gaming in its maturity. Fusion is a stunning example not only of how to craft a tight, perfectly balanced game, but how to take an established formula in an intriguing new direction. I literally cannot find fault with this game, and the sheer number of times I have replayed Fusion since its release are a testament to how much I have enjoyed it.

Fusion is an important, but often overlooked, landmark in not only Nintendo's history, but the history of gaming as a whole. In an age where bigger budgets and better graphics are looked to by the larger developers as an answer to any and all of gaming's issues, many a lesson could be learned from simply playing Fusion and appreciating just how much it achieves, and how little it needs to do it.

Want more Retrospective Review? You can find my review of Super Metroid here:   read

3:08 PM on 02.25.2013

Retrospective Review: Zelda: Oracle of Seasons

Welcome to The Retrospective Review. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.

Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.

Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.

This week, I'm taking a look at...

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons

Released for the Gameboy Colour (or Color, depending on your location) it could be said that Seasons is the last in the line of the original Zelda games. Top-down in play style, artistically it's almost identical to Link's Awakening - arguably the definitive handheld Zelda experience. After Seasons, influences from Windwaker - and eventually the introduction of 3D graphics on the DS - moved the series in a visually different direction.

But Seasons occupies a very interesting period in Zelda history. Released just after Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, the influences of these N64 games (especially Ocarina) upon this - a Zelda game aesthetically similar to Awakening - makes for a strange and sometimes too-familiar blend.

Early into the game, you meet Din - previously a Golden Goddess but now re-imagined/reinvented as a dancer and the Oracle of Seasons. Later, the Maku tree is introduced - a massive sentient tree that acts as your guide. Twin Rova appear, and even Ganon pops up (surprise surpise) as part of the extended story.

Zelda has always recycled its elements into new contexts - it's a series trademark that fosters both familiarity and innovation, but with Seasons, it all feels too obvious. Of course there's a Deku (sorry, Maku) Tree. Of course you have to rescue Zelda (sorry, Din). Of course Ganon is the real enemy.

This wouldn't be such a big deal if the game felt like it was meant to be a main Zelda game, such as Link to the Past, Ocarina, Skyward Sword etc, but with its emphasis on Din and a land outside Hyrule, Seasons at first seems like it's trying to forge its own place within the Zelda mythos, akin to Minish Cap.

And that would have been a good thing. Seeing Link displaced into a totally different type of adventure, with new foes and characters could have made for a truly memorable experience. Instead, the game feels like a Zelda-by numbers - a shallow attempt to cash-in on the love for Ocarina that was rampant at the time.

Even the game's central mechanic - changing the seasons - has lacklustre implementation. You simply change the season to progress through the overworld. Spring brings flowers that catapult you, Summer brings vines to climb, Autumn fills holes with leaves, and Winter freezes water and grants access to higher paths by way of snow drifts. It's all so standard, so unimaginative. Why wasn't the season changing mechanic used in any of the dungeons? Why didn't the seasons have a greater effect on the world? Why did the season changing feel so...secondary?

Originality might be lacking, but what Seasons does have in droves is classic Zelda gameplay. If you've enjoyed Awakening or Link to the Past, you'll be very much at home here. The land of Horon might not look too big on your map, but when it comes to actually exploring it, you'll find there's plenty to do. Dungeons are challenging, with tons of just-hard-enough puzzles to test your wit. Plus, the overall difficulty is considerably greater than later entries to the series. Bosses will kill you. That is a fact.

Which brings me to my next criticism. A constant feature of the Zelda series has been that upon loading your game or restarting after death, you have to begin at a certain location or at the entrance of the last major landmark you entered. Originally this was (I assume) an unavoidable consequence of older game consoles' limited memory - they simply didn't have the power to remember your exact location in the game.

Seasons does this too, of course, and it is a massive pain. Bosses require you to learn their attack patterns before you can defeat them. Bosses also do a good deal of damage. This means that when you face them for the first time, you are going to die. Hell, on the later bosses, you're going to die several times. And once you've died, you'll have to trudge through much of the dungeon again just to have another go (though each dungeon has one warp point, which cuts travel time...a little.)

It isn't the Gameboy Colour's fault that this happens. It is limited by the technology of its time. Nonetheless, it makes for a truly frustrating experience, and one that detracts heavily from Season's enjoyment factor. I'm all for punishing the player for failure, but this strays too far into rage-quitting territory. Games can be hard, but they should never be irritating. I'm left wondering why the developers didn't think to add another warp point, right before the boss door, to allow the player faster access. This would have made the issue of console-memory largely moot.*

In terms of length, Seasons is pretty good value for money. Back when it was new, however, its hook was that it was even longer: once you finished it, you could connect with its sibling, Oracle of Ages, and carry on the adventure. It's not hard to guess that this was a direct result of the popularity of Pokemon, and in theory, it was a neat idea. Once you finished Seasons, you could (sort of) carry your data across into Ages by way of a password system (or by linking games) then play the whole of Ages, but with slight alterations that expanded it into a wider story (featuring Ganon, sigh).

Today, without the novel excitement of alternate game versions, it feels like a con. If you're lucky enough to have a friend with the opposite game, it's not a problem. But if you don't, you'll have to straight up buy a whole another game just so you can get at the real story. Comparisons with modern day DLC spring to mind, where developers hold back content that should have been part of the main game, just to squeeze a few more bucks from their customers. But with Seasons, it's even worse, because you aren't paying a few pounds for some new content, you're shelling out for the price of a whole other game.

Getting around this issue is pricey. Both games still go for quite a bit of money, especially if you want a fully-boxed copy. You can't even go online and find the password required to unlock the expanded story, because if you want to continue your Seasons gamefile, you can't do it on your Seasons game cart - it has to be continued on an Ages cart, and vice versa.

On its own, having two versions of a game isn't a bad idea. It works in Pokemon because it gives you access to a few extra elements without hindering the main experience, and you don't have to buy the other version if you don't want to. In Seasons/Ages, the sibling versions are there to fleece you - it's as simple as that. Capcom might not be getting your money any more, but the damage to your bank balance remains.

I'm well aware of how well Seasons was received upon its release, and I'm sure that when it's re-released for the 3DS e-shop, it will still be critically praised. I'm happy to say that this is a challenging game that will fill you for nostalgia for Zelda's earlier years. Seasons really doesn't do anything wrong (except for the alternate version con).

My problem with this title is that it could have been so much more. From the box art alone, it feels like a stand alone entry to the Zelda universe - and it should have used that opportunity to cement itself as a unique, interesting and even quirky member of the family. Yes, it has animal companions to ride on, but they have no depth as characters and become redundant once you acquire later items. Yes, there's the underground world of Subrosia - but it's just a location that does little to endear itself to you as something memorable. Yes, there's a never-seen-before final boss, but in the end, it's all just about Ganon anyway.

If you love Zelda in all its forms, then go ahead and play Seasons. There's enough of the familiar here to keep you satiated for a few hours. If you're looking for a retro-classic, look somewhere else.

*(Fortunately, Seasons' upcoming release in the 3DS e-shop, which will make use of the 3DS' restore point functionality, will make this a non-issue.)

Want more Retrospective Review? My review of Banjo-Kazooie for the N64 is right here:   read

4:29 PM on 02.15.2013

Retrospective Review: Banjo-Kazooie

Welcome to The Retrospective Review. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.

Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.

Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.

This week, I'm taking a look at...

Banjo Kazooie

As a child, I wasn't a very good gamer. That's something I've come realise. I may have played many great titles, but being the fickle little thing that I was, I hardly ever saw those games through. I'd simply lose interest as new games were released.

Banjo-Kazooie is one of those games I played but never finished. So I went back to it recently, armed with experience and maturity, and what I found was a game to fall in love with.

For those who might not know, Banjo-Kazooie is an N64 title where the player takes on the role of the titular Banjo (a bear) and Kazooie (a foul-mouthed bird) as they set out to rescue Banjo's sister, Tootie, from the evil witch Gruntilda, who intends to steal the girl's youth.

It's a game brimming with bright visuals, fantastic humour, original design and... to be honest, no description could possibly do a better job of summing up this game than the following video, taken from the game's opening:

This delightful, entertaining style persists throughout the entirety of the game, and never gets old. Whether it's Kazooie mouthing-off at characters that are trying to help you, Banjo being a tad dim-witted, or Grunty attempting to insult you through diabolical rhymes, everything about BK is brimming with hilarity. Even the supporting characters (too numerous to name here) are deftly crafted to this comic style. Nothing about Banjo-Kazooie is forgettable. This is a game that will stay with you, long after it's completion.

Of course, the first thing you'll notice upon slamming the cartridge into the console is that Banjo-Kazooie's graphics have aged, badly. It's a real shame that so many titles from the N64/PS1/Dreamcast era have visually depreciated in this manner, but there's no escaping it. Time waits for no video game. Fortunately, Banjo-Kazooie holds up better than most. This is partially because it's graphics were never about realism - they were about goofy characters and bright colours. Had this game been graphically realistic, it would likely look horrific now, but since BK focuses on cartoon-style visuals, the ravages of time are less profound.

But the ravages are there - you probably felt as much from watching the video. Plus, on your lovely widescreen TV, the game is going to look even worse, even if you alter the aspect ratio. Yet once again, BK's saving grace is it's design. Playing Banjo-Kazooie is a very immersive experience. With only a few flaws (which I'll get to) BK's gameplay is a real pleasure, and combined with its rainbow-hues and comedic value, it'll only take a few minutes before those dated visuals seem like a distant memory.

How telling is it, when a game fifteen years old still holds up, despite outdated graphics? It makes me wonder just how many current titles, with their cutting edge graphics, will endure as well.

At its heart, Banjo-Kazooie is a game about collectables. Though the adventure takes places across numerous worlds - with themes as diverse as forest, shipyard, ancient Egypt and a giant snowman - your aim as the player is always stays the same: collect X many items in order to progress. There are several types of collectables, but the most important are Jiggies (jigsaw pieces) which fill in the pictures that open the worlds, and musical notes, which open the doors required to progress through the overworld of Grunty's Lair.

Cards on the table, I don't much like collectables. I have a theory that gamers are either "collectors" - insatiable seekers of every item in a game, or "droppers" - progression driven maniacs who's sole purpose is reach the end of the level. Banjo-Kazooie forces players to be both, and honestly, there were times when it really grated. If you're a "collector", then BK will be a blast for you. However, if you're more like me, then you are going to feel frustration as the game demands you up your total of notes by eleven before you can access the next section.

And that brings me to the game's two greatest (and arguably only) faults. The first is that it doesn't let you collect notes from each world over more than one session. Once you enter a world, you have to collect as many notes as possible, because if you return to Grunty's Lair or die, you have to start all over again. The game does remember your personal best, but if you want to increase it, you have to start again from zero.

This absolutely infuriating system is, admittedly, the product of the N64's limited memory capabilities. Remembering your note total, then letting you build upon it, was one step too far for "the fastest most powerful games console on earth" (the N64's UK promotional slogan). It's tempting to let this failing slide, because it really isn't the game's fault. However, the sheer level of fury I experienced each time I died on the later levels, or the groan-aloud irritation of firing up the game, knowing I'd have to revisit an old world and collect at least 70+ notes, just to push my grand total up another ten, forces me to penalise BK. It's a serious drawback, and it detracted heavily from an otherwise pleasant experience.

I'd liken this fault to reading an old, but highly praised, book - such as Lord of the Rings. Arguably, it's a masterpiece. But with the passing of time and the evolution of literary conventions, its style has become somewhat alienating to read. If you can put up with it, then there's plenty of great content to be experienced, but there's no denying that the antiquated prose detracts from your overall enjoyment.

Banjo-Kazooie's second shortcoming is its controls. For the most part, they're fine. Indeed, I can't think of a better way the N64's unique controller could have been implemented. Yet, there were two issues that continued to plague me. The first was the insensitivity of the the joystick. This is, of course, the fault of the controller itself, but bear with me. Several of the later levels require precise timing and accurate manoeuvring - but time and again, my controller let me down. My suspicion is that the N64's joystick does not age well, and with constant use, it's sensitivity has reduced. Obviously, this wouldn't have been a problem when game and controller were new. But now, after so many years of use, the combination of BK's required precision, and the controller's weariness, make for a lethal cocktail. It isn't really the game's fault - you can't blame the developers for an unforeseen hardware shortcoming - but considering how often I slipped to my death, or miss-aimed a jump because of it, I'm hard pressed not to consider this a mark against playing BK. Blame can't reasonably be laid at BK's feet, but the fact is that it detracted from my enjoyment of the game.

(I'm more than willing to admit that, with a newer controller, this might be a non-issue. However, if you're using an older controller - and it's likely you will - it's a problem you could well encounter)

The second control issue is the camera angle. Countless times I found myself mashing the C buttons to try and bring the camera into a position where scenery or objects weren't blocking it. Holding the R button does bring it directly behind Banjo, but often you need the camera to point in a different direction, and that requires turning Banjo, then realigning the camera behind him. It was time consuming and frustrating, and this time, the fault is most certainly the game's.

If you feel I've been rather negative, over a series of relatively minor issues, some of which aren't really the game's fault...well I understand your position. 80-90% of the time, BK will be a blast, and you won't give two hoots about those shortcomings. However, when you do occasionally encounter them, you'll be shouting at the screen, I promise.

But to say these faults ruined the game for me would be a lie. Frankly, this game defines the N64 era. When people study the history and development of video games, they will hold Banjo-Kazooie as a prime example of how developers successfully adapted to the brave new 3D world that was unfolding around them.

I'm hard pressed to think of titles currently being released with this level of originality and charm. Banjo-Kazooie is a classic - and more than that, it is a cornerstone in the progression of gaming. It deserves a place in your collection, and more importantly, it deserves a place in your heart.

Want more Retrospective Review? My review of Super Metroid is right here:

(PS: I'm aware that Banjo-Kazooie is available on XBLA, and that this updated version resolves a number of the issues that I raised with the original. I've not played the newer version, however, and so can't comment on it at any length.)   read

5:09 PM on 02.08.2013

Retrospective Review: Super Metroid

The Retrospective Review is something I've thought about doing for a while now. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.

Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.

Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.

(And to clarify, let's say "retro" means at least two generations old)

So, without further ado....

Super Metroid

Third of the Metroid games released, Super Metroid is held by most as the series' coming-of-age game. It was at this point that "Metroid - the franchise" effectively evolved into what it is today (as far as the 2D games are concerned).

A quick glance at Amazon will tell you that Super Metroid still attracts a 30+ price tag, indicating the kind of respect this game continues to command. Fortunately, a while ago it was released for the Wii virtual console (and is coming to the Wii U VC in just a few months) and so can now be enjoyed without causing such a dent in your bank account.

So how does it hold up?

Well, the first thing you're going to notice is that Samus feels...sluggish. If you've played any of the later 2D games (ie Fusion or Zero Mission) the lethargy of Super's controls will feel especially pronounced. But even if you haven't, coming at this Snes-era giant with the expectations you've developed from playing more recent platformers will leave you feeling that Samus should be less awkward when in motion.

However, despite the initial frustration, it's something you get used to as you delve further into the game, so don't let it worry you.

And as you delve, you'll soon reach a conclusion: Super Metroid is massive - and it's all the more glorious for it. One of the things I've always loved about the Metroid series is the blending of platforming and open-ended exploration, and Super Metroid has both in droves. Visually varied environments, complex but never too tricky puzzles and a multitude of different enemies make the act of simply working through Super Metroid a joy that has not diminished with time.

The make-or-break aspect of any Metroid game, however, is that while exploration should feature heavily, it should never be a chore. The best 2D Metroid games manage this by making sure the player notices doors or sealed areas that they can't yet access, but will remember for when they've unlocked the upgrade that does make them accessible. It should be a perfect balance of player intuition and design-led guidance.

And mostly, Super Metroid handles this with the kind of grace that Fusion and Zero both manage. Unfortunately, there is one section about....halfway through the game, where I was completely stumped. I spent a good hour wandering around, before finally giving in and checking an online guide. It's possible that my terrible sense of direction contributed to this...but I can only speak from personal experience. It broke the flow, albeit temporarily.

A separate, but equally serious issue I encountered concerned the Grapple Beam. I'm sure that at the time of release, the Grapple Beam seemed like a dynamic and awesome feature. "The ability to build momentum and then release for a massive jump? Radical! The smooth way Samus swings back and forth? Groovy!" - are all things 90's people most definitely said. Now, however, that damn beam is a huge pain. Aiming it mid-flight for multiple swings (especially with Samus' limited directions of aiming) was a nightmare, and the grapple points were often difficult to latch onto, needing a perfect shot. Sections requiring the beam's use had me shouting at the screen.

In terms of presentation, Super Metroid is still pretty darn...pretty. Playing the original Snes version on your big TV will lessen the picture quality, but that's an unavoidable consequence of technology's endless forward march, and so can hardly be held against the game itself. (I'm not certain, but I believe the Wii VC version suffers less on the big screen). Regardless, overall Super Metroid is a shining example of the Golden Age of the Pixel. Everything about its visuals scream "I'm the height of gaming on the Snes, and for that alone you'll love me!"

And the music...oh, merciful Buddha, the music. Just have a listen of this:

Moody, tense, how can you not love it? Alright, I'll admit, it's a bit...90's, and the sound quality could perhaps be crisper, but this was as good as it got back in '94, and frankly, it's part of the charm of playing an older game. That rough-around-the-edges sound, it's sort of like listening to a Rolling Stones song on LP. Sure it's crackly, but that's half the fun. If you wanted "perfect", you'd have downloaded a remastered version.

So, to wrap up.

Super Metroid isn't the shining beacon of perfection that you've probably heard it to be. It has flaws with pacing and mechanics that can't be excused on the grounds of time's passage. It's also not going to look as nice now as it did back in the day. That niggle can be excused, however, because though the pixels might be a little stretched on today's behemoth TVs, enough of their original artistic brilliance is intact. As I said earlier: this is pixel gaming at its peek. Bask in the visual glory of a different age! Bask!!

If you're a fan of the Metroid series, but are (inexplicably!) yet to try Super Metroid, you'll doubtless enjoy it. Though the series may have changed in a few ways since Super's release, there's enough of the familiar here that it'll share all the reasons you love the rest of the games.

If you've never played a Metroid game before, but are looking to try a reputed classic, you aren't going to be disappointed. Super might not be perfection embodied (but then, what is?) but it is a fantastic example of Snes gaming at its best. Super Metroid has aged extremely well in the eighteen years since its initial release, and can certainly compete with newer games of a similar style.

And there's no avoiding the fact that this is a piece of gaming history. Play it, and you'll feel connected to a point in time when gaming was its adolescence, and you can't put a price on that.


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