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We're all excited about the new Star Fox being officially announced for the Wii U this past week (I really didn't expect it to happen), so I've decided to dedicate this week's article to one of the few levels that I could actually beat from the original game--Corneria.  Star Fox was one of the, if not the, first 3D games I was exposed to as a kid and I sucked at it.  I don't think that I ever got past the third level on the easy route (I never got the hang of the whole "press up to go down" thing).  But, I loved the game for other reasons:  the delightful characters, being able to look at the whole Lylat system and imagine what some of those other planets were like, and let's not forget those awesome tunes!

Just try to listen to that jam without getting pumped.  And, excitement is really what Corneria is all about.  Before the game even starts, you see a shot of Corneria with the level's boss ominously floating towards it.  When you start Corneria, you're greeted with an intro where the arwings are flying through a long, black tunnel.  The word scramble flashes on the screen while a siren blares.  You hear a voice say "emergency" just before your arwing exits the tunnel and enters the world.  Your crew (Peppy, Falco, and Slippy) chimes in (speaking gibberish) to let you know they're ready.  By the time you take control of Fox, you're excited for this.

Enemies will appear on screen at generally high, medium, or low altitudes.  Buildings are sparse at the beginning of the level to give the player some time to adjust to changing altitudes to shoot things, but they do become more frequent and there's a relatively lengthy segment in the middle where the player's main focus is dodging them.
Gradually, the buildings clear out to make way for some larger enemies that are tougher to take down and will deal some collateral damage to the player if they take too long to so.  Soon enough, the music changes and the boss slowly enters the frame from behind (lower your altitude when you see that shadow, you'll take damage if you're too high up).  

The boss is a test of the aiming and dodging skills that Corneria was intended to help the player develop.  The first phase has three weak points at varying altitudes that the player needs to aim for.  There are a handful of missiles to dodge, but nothing too tough.  The second phase tests the player's dodging skills, as the boss begins to fire bombs in a more rapid succession, which covers its frontal weak points.  When the player gets close enough to the boss, it turns around to expose the weak point on its back, but, in doing so, there's a good chance it will hit the player, so dodging is still important.  If all goes well, the player is treated to some 2D explosions, and then flies past the boss to regroup with the crew and take off to the next level.

Star Fox was designed to show off Nintendo's FX chip, which opened the SNES up to 3D.  As such, Corneria is really an introduction for many players to a new style of gameplay.  Corneria succeeds because it uses a killer soundtrack and adrenaline-pumping intro to get the player excited about the level that follows.  This makes it more likely that a player will keep trying to learn the new mechanics, even though they may be difficult for many gamers (like myself) who were much more familiar with 2D at the time to pick up.  From what I've seen of the Wii U Star Fox, it looks like Nintendo is again trying to introduce us to some new gameplay mechanics.  This is excellent!  I do think Star Fox is at it's best when it's showing off a new mode of gameplay, be it the FX chip, the rumble pack, or real 3D, rather than just being a Star Fox game to be a Star Fox game.  It'll be interesting to see how Nintendo hypes up the opening levels of the new game to help players acclimate to using the Gamepad for a first-person perspective and the TV for a third-person perspective.
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Platformers generally shy away from conventional storytelling elements.  There might be a short exposition with a bit of dialogue, but nothing like what you'd expect to see in an RPG, an open-world game, or even most FPS's.  So, designers often rely on a level's art to convey a particular area's backstory.  Rayman Legends is an extremely well-crafted and beautiful game.  I could write a blog on the character animations alone.  But instead, I'm going to focus on a level called The Mysterious Inflatable Island, which demonstrates how one well-placed set piece can add so much to a level's theme and backstory entirely through its atmosphere.

The Mysterious Inflatable Island is the first level in Rayman Legends' water world, 20,000 Lums Under the Sea (which alludes to two Jules Vernes classics--20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and it's sequel, The Mysterious Island).  The player begins the level atop the titular inflatable island and the feeling is tranquil.  No music is playing save for the sounds of some seagulls in the distance.  There are lums to collect and you can bounce off the island to jump pretty high, but that's about it.  The player inevitably dives into the water and finds a flurry of brightly colored fish to swim with.  There are more lums here, which are actually somewhat difficult to spot given just how many fish are present, and the delightful sound of strange creatures singing, but no danger--the player is peacefully collecting lums and enjoying the bright colors.

Soon enough, the player comes across the anchor and chain that keep the inflatable island tethered in place.  Following the chain leads the player into a dark, green-tinged cavern.  The singing fades as the player swims through some debris until it disappears entirely.  In its place, the bass starts thumping.  The player comes across a teensie in a cage under a flickering green light, which is emanated by a mechanical orb.  If the player attempts to save the teensie while the light is on, then the light will menacingly turn red, they'll get shocked, and they'll lose a point of health.  It's at this moment that the player learns that the theme of this level is deception.

The inflatable island and the brightly colored fish were a deception intended to prevent others from investigating what might be going on below.  But, the player dug deeper and must now use deception to make it through the level.  There are only a handful of enemies in this cove.  The trick to getting through the level is to hide behind pieces of debris or floating mines until the time is right, either the mechanical orb's light has gone out momentarily or its facing a different direction, and then quickly swimming to the next hiding spot.  In the few instances where there are scuba-diving enemies, the player can often sneak up behind them by swimming through a hidden corridor.

At the end of the level, the player enters this airlocked door to some underwater facility that houses the majority of 20,000 Lums Under the Sea's levels, reminiscent of Bioshock's Rapture.  It's amusing to imagine Andrew Ryan ordering Rapture's engineer's, supposedly the world's greatest minds, to develop a structure to keep the city hidden from the outside and them proposing a big inflatable island as the solution.  Rayman Legends envisions a cartoony world where that essentially happened.  The game doesn't explicitly say that, but rather implies it through its art and design.  But, of course, that's just my interpretation.  Someone else may have seen that inflatable island and thought of something completely different, maybe even something kinky...

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The Wii U is a platformer fan's paradise right now and Donkey Kong Country:  Tropical Freeze is only one of the console's exemplary titles.  In my years of gaming, I've found that one hallmark of a truly great game is that its later levels are just as polished and entertaining as its beginning levels.  I had the pleasure of completing Tropical Freeze this past weekend and I'm happy to report that the game delivers quality levels beyond the scope of the main game.  Secret Seclusion, the unlockable world, rewards the player with a trio of difficult yet rewarding experiences for collecting all of the KONG letters in the main game and completing all six temple levels.  So, for my inaugural edition of Level Lowdown, I've decided to focus on Rocket Rails, one of Secret Seclusion's unlockable delicacies.

What first struck me about Rocket Rails was the level of diversity contained within it.  There are five distinct parts to this level, including both a mine cart and a rocket segment.  You begin the level in a temple.  Both Rocket Rails and Levitation Station (another Secret Seclusion level) carry a temple motif, which ties them to the temple levels that the player must complete before unlocking this hidden world.  The temple is crawling with Snowmads--the villains of Tropical Freeze and essentially Retro's answer to the Kremlings (who I'm assuming Rare owns the rights to).  The trick to clearing this segment is timing.  Platforms are constantly shifting and/or collapsing if the player rests on them too long, and so its important to know where to move and when.

Eventually, the player reaches a blast barrel that propels them out of the temple and onto a mine cart.  The key to clearing this section is avoidance.  There are flying fish floating all over the track and the player prevails by either ducking or bouncing when appropriate.  What's interesting about this section is that there are massive fish statutes in the background and, oh yeah, floating fish, which are present nowhere else in the game.  It really adds to the mystique of Secret Seclusion that there's this area full of fish that can mysteriously fly.  At some point, these fish must have been known to some race of creatures that built these statues and temples.  But, given the fragmented nature of the track and the fact that the temple is crumbling, it appears that this species is long since gone and only the fish remain.  The cart section ends by plummeting into an empty pool, which raises numerous unanswered questions about whether the fish have any connection to the pool.  Then, its onto another blast barrel and into another temple.

The third section of this level is another temple and again there are Snowmads.  Again, the focus is on timing.  There are large falling blocks in the temple and the player must time their jumps and blast barrel ignitions so as to avoid taking damage.  The player ultimately blasts out of the temple and into a rocket barrel, which begins the fourth part of the level.  Here, avoidance is once again key so that the player does not take damage from rising and falling blocks or moving enemies.

The fifth and final section synthesizes the level's running themes for satisfying finish.  As with the temple portions, timing is essential to the player's success.  However, this part of the level takes place outside temple walls and instead of jumping from platform to platform, the player jumps from fish to fish.  Solid ground becomes progressively sparse as the player pushes on until the grand finale when the player is tasked with timing four consecutive bounces off of floating fish.  The lack of solid ground in this portion of the level adds to the atmosphere of this level.  There may once have been a civilization here.  But, it's been gone so long that it's impossible to navigate simply from point A to point B.  Notably, the player is required to roll jump at one point from a sliver of solid rock to a floating fish, which emphasizes just how unfit this area is for any lifeform other than the fish.

Rocket Rails succeeds because it throws many different elements at the player, but still manages to tie them all together in a way that is both challenging and rewarding.  Throw in a tinge of mystery added by the level's art and atmosphere and you've got yourself a truly great stage.  Given how few players make it to the end of a video game, I'm always thankful when developers add in quality post-game content.  Secret Seclusion, and especially Rocket Rails, is a huge compliment for anyone with the dedication to play the main game of Tropical Freeze through to completion.  I've got a hunch that Nintendo is about to put the Donkey Kong franchise on ice for a bit and let Retro work on some other projects.  So, those of you who are platformer or Donkey Kong fans owe it to yourselves to check this one out.
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