Ocarina of Time – N64, Game Cube, 3DS

OoT Shiek

Link rockin’ out with his total platonic effeminate ninja friend. Pretty soon they’ll be good enough to take their band on tour. We’re talking Ren Faire groupies, y’all!

“Sweet, merciful lady of the tortilla,” you’re shouting as you look at the title of this week’s entry. “He’s ready to sully yet another beloved classic with his foul outlook!” As valuable as suspense is to a writer, and as much as I’d like to keep you on-edge and tense as a drug deal in a donut shop, I liked the game. So much for my attempt to finally elicit comments out of you by enraging you so much that Bruce Banner thinks you need anger management. No, Ocarina of Time succeeded when the move to 3D ruined a lot of other games—Mario 64 stripped out a lot of the charm of blazing through levels with the murderous glint of a colonial-era explorer, robbing the land of its power-ups, slaughtering native wildlife, toppling their existing governmental structure by sticking a flag in their castle, and then turning your back on it and never returning to your devastation, while the Metroid Prime games felt like leaping blindfolded from timber to timber on the rotted remains of a dock while trying to juggle chainsaws. Rather, the only way the first 3D Zelda game backfired was by making people completely forget about 2D Zelda games.

OoT Pedo Tree

Judging by the Deku Tree’s stache, this is the fantasy equivalent of “Free candy in the back of my windowless van.”

To recap for the newcomers, Ocarina of Time works as an origin story for the franchise, as opposed to Skyward Sword who draws a paycheck and has an official title as origin story, but who got the job because his uncle works for Nintendo and spends most of his day sleeping at his desk and playing minesweeper without actually getting any better at it. The game opens with the Deku Tree, all-powerful guardian deity of the forest, who has about the same temperament toward spiders as my ex-girlfriend; he sends his fairy servant, Navi, to wake up a ten-year-old boy to come kill the spider while he stands there unmoving, jaw agape in fear. Thus begins Link v1’s quest to go find a villain to slay to save Hyrule. And he finds one relatively early on in Gannondorf, who he finds bowing down and offering his service to the king, despite the only things on his resume being “Overbearing patriarch of criminal enterprise / harem” and “Murdered all-powerful guardian deity of the forest.” Fortunately, the king’s ten-year-old daughter isn’t as easily as fooled as the…man entrusted with the safety and prosperity of the realm…and she sends Link to retrieve some magical macguffins, which gives Gannondorf just enough times to murder the king and pull off a coup that would make Cersei Lannister sweat.

When Link accidentally leads Gannondorf to the ultimate macguffin, the Triforce, the powers that be decide, “This may not be the best time, Link,” and seal him away for seven years, forging the perfect hero: a seventeen-year-old adonis who wields the Master Sword, the Triforce of Courage, and the emotional and mental capabilities of a ten-year-old. As a bonus, Link can drop the Master Sword back into its pedestal and turn into his ten-year-old self again, setting up a defining feature of the game, which you use exactly twice (unless you want to go side-questing).

The game works because it retains everything fun about the 2D Zelda games, and it just changes the perspective. You still trek through underground labyrinths looking for buried junk, and each one offers more uses than a Swiss army knife, unlike later games where Link’s tools amount to nothing more than an exotic and unwieldy key chain to flip through every time you get stuck at a dead end. Nintendo decided to split adult Link’s and child Link’s inventories into two nearly separate collections, for no purpose that I can see other than teaching players the value of Venn diagrams. Once Link grows up, he no longer can throw a boomerang and finds the slingshot a bit childish…but that bottle of Lon-lon milk has at least reached a good vintage, looking awfully tasty after seven years in the fridge. At any rate, while this should add challenge and variety to the game play, it ultimately just gives adult Link a few weapons that have more-or-less the same use as the ones he used as a kid, so they feel almost like upgrades instead of new weapons. But bonus points to Nintendo for running out of ideas for items and making it look intentional.

OoT Fish

Because who wouldn’t want to virtually simulate sitting still for hours on end, doing nothing but staring at the water with wet socks?

You still explore an expansive world although there are some limitations. Hyrule doesn’t seem like an easily navigable country, considering anyone who wants to visit the desert has to first engage in some deep-sea spelunking in order to find the proper tool, or that anyone wishing to attend a Sunday mass at the Shadow Temple has to find an enchanted ocarina, play the proper melody to teleport to the graveyard, and then magically light about six dozen torches at once. The original Legend of Zelda and a Link to the Past had a good deal of replay value by giving the player a certain degree of freedom to roam wherever and tackle dungeons in a number of different orders. By cracking down on that freedom, forcing the player to take the standard tour to see what the game wants you to see when it wants you to see it, Hyrule feels less like a fairy tale kingdom and a little more like a dystopian communist police state.

OoT Shadow Link

Shadow Link. Boss of the second game in the series. Still a bitch after all these years.

Of course, not many police states will arrest your protagonist, then throw them in an easily escapable dungeon with all their tools and weapons, just for a forced stealth sequence. Even in Ocarina of Time, this doesn’t work very well, especially considering that after proving himself against the most vile abominations Hyrule has to offer, he just throws his hands up and goes along politely with the Gerudo guards every time they catch sight of him from a distance. I get he has to prove himself to them somehow in order for the story to work, but honestly, I think he’s had one too many swigs of fermented milk to be such a pushover. Also like its 2D predecessors, Ocarina of Time puts its secrets in plain view rather than sealing them away in concrete like nuclear waste and burying them so deep you need a walkthrough to even know they’re there. I generally enjoy seeing my goal and using my wits to attain it, rather than trying to look up answers in order to figure out the secret handshake.

I’ve played this game enough that I’d like to think that I can speak Chinese in an alternate reality where I’d never heard of Zelda, with almost every moment of that time spent on the N64 version. This time I opted for the 3DS. Personally, I find the graphical upgrade an oddly mixed blessing. They packed more detail into the textures and more stuff into houses and other locations to make Hyrule look like a well lived-in kingdom, and it really let me take my invasive need to snoop through other people’s homes to a new level. “Hey, listen! Go save Hyrule from evil!” “Can’t, Navi. There’s a banjo on this lady’s wall, and I want to see what’s in this box.” The great fairies’ breasts no longer look like someone carved them out of rock, with the indentation they left behind literally becoming the uncanny valley, but I’m still convinced they’ve probably had work done. On a similar note, Ruto no longer looks like she’s wandering around naked inside Jabu Jabu, but the fact that Nintendo successfully made me stare at fish tits for so long has left me feeling deeply confused…and oddly aroused…but definitely confused.

OoT Ruto

Still about as much fish as your average mermaid, but trading the tail for the head? Meh. I’m game. Let me dive into your water temple, o sage.

After beating the 3DS version, you unlock the master quest. I have never played this and will probably save it for another entry some day, but in short, this parallels the master quest of the original NES game, with new dungeon layouts and increased difficulty. One of the features, which I gather is unique to the 3DS, is that the overworld is, for whatever reason, completely mirrored, much like the Wii Twilight Princess. Since most Wii players are right-handed, this made sense for motion controls. However, since the only motion controls here involve a weird gyroscopic aiming option that just sends your arrows off into oblivion while inducing a mild sense of nausea, the only thing I can see is that this is to make the game more difficult. The concept of making a 20-year-old game harder is a good one, but there’s a difference between making enemies deal more damage and putting a virtual pair of beer goggles on the player.

Honestly, I liked what they did with the 3DS remake. More than the graphical update, they’ve also tweaked a few mechanics, such as making the boots usable items instead of demanding they be equipped and unequipped every few seconds—honestly, you’re supposed to be the Hero of Time, not an asthmatic knight gearing up for a joust. So worry not, readers, I still enjoy Ocarina of Time and will not malign it.

Even if Link to the Past was the better game.

OoT Zelda

Just tell me you didn’t love me when you thought I was a man and I’ll go.

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Conker’s Bad Fur Day – N64

The true impetus for getting Conker out the door. However, much like psycho, the money only acts as a macguffin.

The true impetus for getting Conker out the door. However, much like psycho, the money only acts as a macguffin.

While growing up, I always had this nagging awareness that the video game industry, much like fast food, big tobacco, and Fox News, designed their products for a target audience of children. That thought worried me, as I knew one day either my hobby would suddenly have no more relevance to me, or that I’d have to grow a peach fuzz mustache, don a dirty, faded, and malodorous My-Little-Pony T-shirt and start hanging out with boys 30 years younger than me if I still wanted to have interesting conversations. Although I nailed the prediction that grown-up conversation would be boring enough that I wish it would bore a hole in my head so I’d at least get to sit there, all content and lobotomized, I had little realization at the time that Rareware had already begun developing games for adults, and that it might have a little more polish than Custer’s Revenge.

What a mess they make.

What a mess they make.

I did have a vague understanding that Conker’s Bad Fur Day existed, but the commercial (below) tells surprisingly little about game play, and actually does quite a bit to frighten off all but the most disturbed teenage boys. So I didn’t pay much heed to the ads, and when I finally did see samples of gameplay, it just looked like another anthropomorphic version of some cute animal jumping through a cartoonish world picking up someone’s trash while trying to avoid falling into holes. And honestly, after Sonic, Yoshi, Banjo and Kazooie, Bubsy, Crash Bandicoot, Earthworm Jim and the rest of the damn zoo of stagnant ideas, Conker didn’t look that interesting, and I never put it together that I may actually want to play this game.

So this game flew under my radar until a few years ago when, indulging Anne in her youtube fetish, I saw it on an episode of The Completionist.  Finally, I began to take note of the humor involved, and resolved to play Conker myself. Except the cartridge costs a minimum of $70, and you can pretty much only find it on eBay. So I waited. And it searched. And the price stayed the same. Until, of course, the day came when I bought a new computer with the processing power to run an N64 emulator. (What? It’s not like Rare gets royalties from used games, anyway.) And trust me…I got my money’s worth out of Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

Conker Zombie SquirrelAt heart, Conker’s Bad Fur Day follows the same platforming formula used by all the games it.  Usually, I suspect that developers only release platformers when their lack of ingenuity and patience to design a good game conflicts with their desire to tear the cash directly out of our hands, but I figured for a game full of adult humor, video game satire, and at least one major musical number, I could sit through one game’s attempt to chuck me into holes for ten hours. The Completionist, however, could cover a raging fungal infection with enough saccharine to give the entire cast of Candy Land diabetes, and I probably should have heeded his subtle remarks that “the controls are a little difficult” with a red flag large enough to attract all the bulls in Pamplona.

But I should start with the story. If you’ve seen the Completionist’s review, you know that Conker spends a night out drinking, neglecting his poor girlfriend Berri at home. He stumbles out of the bar, takes a wrong turn at Albuquerque, and winds up in a wacky world of adventure! Meanwhile, the evil Panther King sends out his goons to kidnap Berri as bait for Conker, because Weasel Dr. Strangelove decided that nothing can balance out a wobbly table like a red squirrel. And there’s a giant poop monster.

Berri clearly exhibits inappropriate behavior for a kidnapped princess.

Berri clearly exhibits inappropriate behavior for a kidnapped princess.

In all fairness, I doubt I could come up with a more coherent interpretation. In reality, Berri never realizes that Conker ditched her, since her jazzercising covers up the sound of the phone, and while Conker claims he wants to get home, he actually romps through the countryside, performing favors for the animals (which often involves murdering other animals), and then extorting them for cash.  A giant rock monster knocks on Berri’s door, apparently kidnapping her, but the two apparently resolve their differences in a civil and diplomatic fashion as we next see her dancing in the rock monsters’ night club, and Conker reacts to seeing her with a characteristic lack of interest. None of the enemies seem in league with the Panther King, and I use the term “enemy” loosely; the game doesn’t so much have enemies as it has things that can harm you if you interact with them improperly. I have things like that around me, too, but I’ve never really considered my snow blower an enemy. (Rather, we form a reluctant alliance against the snow plow)

...nope. Not human enough. Just creepy.

…nope. Not human enough. Just creepy.

The initial scenes between the Panther King and his mad scientist set up a joke about duct tape that never gets to any sort of reveal or punch line, and most of the game’s third act involves a war between the squirrels and the tediz (Teddy Bear Nazis), a cause that Conker throws himself into wholeheartedly for no reason other than some steroidal army squirrel hitting him on the head and throwing him in a troop transport.  Through the whole game, Conker shows no interest in anything except monetary personal gain–and an opportunistic interest in breasts–but throw him into a Saving Private Ryan parody and he whips out a cigar and starts mowing down stuffed bears. Rare must have written the story by placing all the scenario writers in separate counties and forced them to communicate via smoke signal, then combining each one’s interpretation into one script, transcribed in Swahili and run through Babelfish.

And so we say goodbye to good old unforgettable what's-his-name, who we have known for an entirety of this half of the war level.

And so we say goodbye to good old unforgettable what’s-his-name, who we have known for an entirety of this half of the war level.

Much like the story, the game play of Conker’s Bad Fur day redefines itself as the game progresses. And while that fluidity may not spell out a cohesive narrative, it actually does quite a bit to keep the game interesting. Conker has no way of directly fighting back against dangers in his environment. He can swing a frying pan, but only to knock small things out briefly enough to pick them up. At first glance, the game actually takes cues from point-and-click adventures, requiring the players to use their wit in figuring out how objects in the environment alter each other. And true to point-and-click adventure fashion, these puzzles usually make about as much sense as a Texas public school science textbook. Later in the game, Conker picks up guns, which transforms the game into first a Resident-Evil-with-Squirrels zombie shooter, and then a modern warfare shooter.

I can't think of any way to describe this that won't sound like a euphemism. I'll just say it. It feels like trying to hang on to a weasel.

I can’t think of any way to describe this that won’t sound like a euphemism. I’ll just say it. It feels like trying to hang on to a weasel.

Conker has a fatal flaw that may just break the game for me–the controls. Platforming by design requires a certain level of coordination, but developers should still find a balance between clever, challenging world design and performing drunken brain surgery during an earthquake, and while Conker usually hits that mark, some segments felt so difficult to control they made me physically ill. As someone who has, in real life, attempted to safely guide drunks away from danger, making sure they pee in the right direction and at a proper intensity, I fail to see the appeal in simulating the experience for enjoyment. Yes, I understand that Conker gets witty super powers by guzzling booze from a cartoonishly large barrel. But when I have to force him to pee in a straight line while rock monsters want to pummel him, and he exercises the coordination of your average Friday night frat boy, well…let’s just say that asking me to help him crawl to the Alka-Selzter after he sobers up doesn’t make me laugh as much as you think it will.  And even when sober, Conker’s controls made me want to punch a hole in my screen. From a lava surf board with a seemingly magnetic pull towards rock walls to gun crosshairs that can’t sit even as steady as a three-year-old overdosing on caffeine pills, I honestly don’t believe I could have finished this game without the use of save states.

Conker NeoConker’s Bad Fur day, as far as platformers go, kept me entertained for the most part. Not great, but nice. I guess the biggest problem for me stems from Conker himself. Yeah, I enjoy mocking video games by using the most unlikely protagonist, but does he have anything else going for him? The indulgent lifestyle and self-centered opportunism effectively satirize our worn-out, cliched game heroes, but if we had to deal with Conker in real life, we’d hate the furry bastard. Who among you really wants to spend any amount of time with a crass drunk who always wants to swindle or mooch money off of you? The guy with a super-hot girlfriend who he barely notices and clearly doesn’t appreciate? The humor in Conker only goes so far. The character only has a superficial level of appeal, the outdated movie references will fly over the heads of anyone younger than 20 years old, and when you take those out, all you have left is a platform game covered in poop jokes. And as a rule, I generally like things less and less the more shit I find piled on top of it.

'nuff said.

’nuff said.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – N64, Game Cube, 3DS

Link, who signed on with the Happy Mask Company in Ocarina of Time, learns that pyramid schemes often shake down their employees for money.

Link, who signed on with the Happy Mask Company in Ocarina of Time, learns that pyramid schemes often shake down their employees for money.

So…uh….I…I honestly don’t know how to start this one. Having harbored an unnatural obsession with the Zelda series since it only contained two games, I really can’t fathom why it took me so long to play Majora’s Mask. Back in high school, my income range fell in the category of “nothing” to “whatever rupees I could earn cutting grass,” and the idea of paying for the N64 expansion pack just to play two games didn’t seem like an efficient use of money. In college, Walmart pulled a nasty trick on me, forcing me to wake up early on Black Friday, risk my life in a fluorescent dungeon of shoppers under the promise that their Game Cubes would come bundled with the Zelda collectors’ pack. After defeating the boss (re: paying the cashier) and escaping, I found the dungeon item did not quite live up to said promises (seriously…fuck you, Walmart, even a decade later). So I didn’t even own the game until 2009 when I bought the collectors’ pack on eBay, and I didn’t get around to playing the game until Anne got bored at the Mall of America and bought the 3DS Remake. So finally, nearly fifteen years after its release, I can stand here confidently to say:

“What the fuck does everyone love about this molderm-infested pile of dodongo shit?”

Yes, I know people revere Majora’s Mask as a fan favorite, an original idea, darker in tone than any other game in the Zelda series. But I played it. The game plays like a fan hack of Ocarina of time. They used ideas so original, they must have programmed them into the game before even putting them down on paper, making them about as effective as applying hemorrhoid cream using an angry hedgehog. And while the story has a handful of dark moments, I suspect that the true popularity of the game stems from the “Ben Drowned” urban legend and the “Dead Link” game theory.

Uh...Goodnight Moon. I'll just close my curtains now...and pass up my usual night lite in favor of a 10-gauge shotgun.

Uh…Goodnight Moon. I’ll just close my curtains now…and pass up my usual night lite in favor of a 10-gauge shotgun.

The story begins by implying that Link has embarked on a quest to look for Navi, who ditched him after Ocarina of Time, most likely annoyed beyond reason at the obnoxious elf-kid’s refusal to look at anything or listen to a word she had to say. Link falls into a hole in a tree and comes out in Termina, Hyrule’s own version of wonderland, where the Skull Kid from OoT has stolen Majora’s Mask, a powerful artifact cursed with a complete and utter lack of back story or explanation, and wants to use it to pull the moon (which apparently has suffered from a raging steroid addiction and a series of botox injections gone horribly wrong) to Termina, terminating everyone. And Link only has three days to stop him. Fortunately, Link had caught Hyrule’s Bill Murray Marathon before he left, and decides to pull a full-on Groundhog Day to get the job done.

Up yours kid. You made me wet in the last game. And it took so long to bake that cake, too.

Up yours kid. You made me wet in the last game. And it took so long to bake that cake, too.

The game reuses a number of graphics from Ocarina of Time, giving the impression that Nintendo hacked their own game to develop a new one. A number of characters appear identical to characters in OoT, including the Spirit Temple boss, Twinrova, both apparently alive and well (or not, if you subscribe to the dead Link theory), running a brewery in a swamp like redneck moonshiners. OoT revolved around magical songs that affected the environment, so Majora’s Mask does too. Except it wants to revolve around the use of masks to solve puzzles, so the game spreads these elements a bit thin. Except for a few core masks and the bunny hood (the greatest time saver since the Pegasus shoes), I used each mask once or twice, if at all, and except for the three songs recycled from OoT, I never memorized any of the music–of course, since they have all the melodic appeal of a dog jumping on a piano, that may account for my lack of interest–and since most songs have very limited uses, I needed to glue myself to a walkthrough to realize when the game wanted me to play one.

Link busts a move to commemorate the only time he will ever use the dance mask.

Link busts a move to commemorate the only time he will ever use the dance mask.

And the rest of the game felt just as convoluted. Also like a lot of fan hacks, the designers nail technical aspects of coding the game felt, but they lack the art required to design a well-flowing story and logical gameplay. Actions and items required for progressing in the story don’t usually make themselves apparent until you wander in circles enough to finally piss you off enough to find a walkthrough online and read through that instead of the game. In addition, they made the challenge platforming-heavy. Majora’s Mask includes a number of sections that require careful jumps, precise timing, and dodging enemies and obstacles, and if you screw up, it rewards you with a long fall and the chance to replay a good section of dungeon all over again. I spent hours hopping from platform to platform, only to miss by a hair or get broadsided by an enemy only to go through a half dozen rooms, re-solving the puzzles in each one.

The Bunny Hood: Because continuously rolling across Hyrule field didn't actually make you move faster.

The Bunny Hood: Because continuously rolling across Hyrule field didn’t actually make you move faster.

Most sources I found praise this game for introducing unique concepts to an otherwise formulaic franchise. I agree, they used original ideas that had a lot of promise, but you could force Epona to ride link and praise it as an original idea, but it still forces Link to bend over to let a horse mount him. Most noteworthy, Link has to use the Song of Time to replay the three-day period prior to the moon apocalypse. Props to Nintendo for taking the time loop idea straight out of the X-Files, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Stargate, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, The Twilight Zone, Once Upon a Time, Sesame Street, and dozens of other TV shows and calling it “original,” but they didn’t do it carefully enough. Tracking down people and items with virtually no hints or logic in a four-dimensional space just ends up in–my old nemesis–pulling up a walkthrough online and periodically glancing over at the game to monitor your progress.

And on the note of progress, the Groundhog Day mechanic usually means if you don’t entirely complete a story event, destroy the temple boss, find all the faeries in the dungeons, receive a major item or learn a song before the moon falls, you have to start over from the very beginning. To add insult to injury, you lose all your bombs, arrows, rupees, and other minor items and key items every time you reset the timer. Only major items, like the bow or the hookshot, stay in your inventory. Even temple bosses come back to life. I had to defeat one three times because his death transformed one area from winter to spring. At this point, Nintendo, just admit you only wanted to pad out the play time. I don’t like games with timers, especially when they add to that stress by forcing you to replay pointless sections and puzzles.

Ever play Ocarina of Time and wish you could play as something cool like a Gerudo or a Sheikah? Well good news, in Majora's Mask, you can fulfill your lifelong dream of playing as a dried out bush!

Ever play Ocarina of Time and wish you could play as something cool like a Gerudo or a Sheikah? Well good news, in Majora’s Mask, you can fulfill your lifelong dream of playing as a dried out bush!

I found the game boring, tedious, and repetitive. But in light of the hoards of fans ready to lynch me for not liking the game, I guess I could summon up the kindness and good will to use only the phrase “kicked in the head.” My opinion on the story–which focuses more on side-quests than, well…the focus of the story–did change after completing the “Anju’s Anguish” quest (finished courtesy of my laptop battery, which allows me to keep a walkthrough open for three full hours without plugging in!). The moment between Kaefi and Anju, just moments before the moonfall apocalypse, drew me in enough to completely change my mind on the story, and I resolved to search for more of these quests…only to find just one other listed in the walkthrough. Then I ended up playing the same four rooms of the Ikani Fortress on repeat for two hours, and I rescinded my previous change of opinion.

I’d rather play Spirit Tracks. At least the boredom of riding a train for a 25-hour game doesn’t raise my blood pressure and bother my neighbors with me screaming at the game.

Oh yeah. This douchebag shows up. Suddenly Navi doesn't seem so bad, does she?

Oh yeah. This douchebag shows up. Suddenly Navi doesn’t seem so bad, does she?

Star Fox 64 – N64, 3DS

What worries me more; that someone built a plane with a mid-air brake, or that Fox accepted a deadly mission without knowing how to fly it?

What worries me more; that someone built a plane with a mid-air brake, or that Fox accepted a deadly mission without knowing how to fly it?

“Do a barrel roll!”

Now that I have the formalities out of the way, let’s talk about Star Fox. The SNES game reached an incredible zenith of popularity, earning it a permanent place in the hearts of its fans probably for life. Clearly, in order to top that record, Nintendo only had one option: get more than six people to play the game. So the original didn’t live up to the hype, and maybe people didn’t fully appreciate the technical implications of what looked like a kindergarten acid trip. And yes, maybe with a canceled SNES sequel, Star Fox didn’t show much promise as an up-and-coming game franchise. But now the series boasts…five whole games. And a remake. And the canceled project. And one slated for release next year. So that…raging…popularity must have come from something, right?

If you’ve kept with me for at least that last paragraph, you probably already know why: Star Fox 64. This game sold both the franchise’s name and the N64, even showing us the system’s potential for multiplayer games–at least until Rare released Goldeneye, which made Star Fox’s dogfighting look as bare bones as, well…the SNES game. It came bundled with the rumble pak, Nintendo’s most popular useless add-on since the oh-so-bad Power Glove flopped like a dead carp and R.O.B., unable to find anyone to play games with him, had to take a side job as Fox’s secretary. Uhh…okay. So in retrospect, maybe Nintendo bamboozled us all with a stealthy, ninja marketing attack. But clearly that didn’t work with the original, so obviously something must have gone right with the game, right?

...uhh, Falco, maybe we can cut back on the racism a bit?

…uhh, Falco, maybe we can cut back on the racism a bit?

More of a reboot than a true sequel, Star Fox 64 introduces a more refined story for the game. Evil Monkey Scientist Wizard Thing, Andross, has invaded Corneria from his charming, elegant gated community on planet Venom, a world known for its atmosphere of pure smog and oceans of corrosive acid. General Pepper of Corneria, convinced that he’ll suffer no negative consequences from banishing a telekinetic evil genius to an unpleasant and inhospitable world, shows the utmost faith in his men-in-uniform by hiring a team of mercenaries to assault Andross. James McCloud, Peppy Hare and Pigma Dengar fly to venom, where Pigma turns them in to Andross. James, not as gifted as his cousins Connor and Duncan, dies, and Peppy escapes to tell Fox about his father’s demise. General Pepper, certain that a new team consisting of a) James’ obviously less-experienced son, b) a Star Fox member who clearly failed the same mission on his first attempt and c) an obnoxious mechanic with with a high-pitched whine and zero combat aptitude will certainly save the day, sends them off to Venom to make as much headway as they can, then presumably to die so Pepper doesn’t have to pay the bill.

You mean 9 million, right? Please tell me you actually know how hot stars can get. Slippy...you dumbass.

You mean 9 million, right? Please tell me you actually know how hot stars can get. Slippy…you dumbass.

The game shows more refinement than the SNES installment, but I might as well say that the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto shows more refinement than a dead log. While still basically made from rendered polygons, the objects in the game make up shapes more complex than a box of tinker toys, and have textures that clearly took more effort than figuring out to work the “fill” tool in Microsoft Paint. High-quality sound recordings let the characters talk to each other and tell a story; a story about three pilots who constantly need their boss to rescue their inept asses without ever bothering to shoot down any enemy pilots themselves. That really sums up the game right there. Very minimal character development–none, if Peppy didn’t occasionally comment “You’re becoming more like your father,” who, I’ll remind you, died. Pretty steady conflict, with no escalation. Every so often you’ll run into an old friend or rival mercenaries, Star Wolf, but while that may affect events in subsequent levels, it doesn’t really add anything to any semblance of “plot.” No, as Fox, you fly straight through the levels, shooting down monsters and enemy pilots alike, while your three wing men kindly offer themselves as bait to lure occasional enemies into your line of fire, and then demand you immediately save their lives.

...I mean, get the three behind me. And also this one.

…I mean, get the three behind me. And also this one.

Also new to the game, Star Fox 64 introduces “all range mode” for certain boss battles and a few stages. In this mode, the tips of the arwing’s wings will extend slightly outward, which any physicist can tell you gives a plane the ability to fly in more than just one direction. Fox has a square field to engage in dog fights, sometimes literally as all your battles with Star Wolf occur in all range mode. Most of these battles involve trying desperately to brake, bank, roll, u-turn or somersault only to discover the enemy outmaneuvered you and still enjoys burning you with lasers from behind. Perhaps more descriptive than “all range mode,” they should have called this “always turning around mode.”

Star_Fox_64_MapWhile in the first game, the controls reacted on a timeline akin to plate tectonics, Star Fox 64 controls allow plenty of time to dodge, collect power-ups, and do however many barrel rolls you wish with a reasonable response. The game offers more power-ups and a reasonable amount of health-refills, even if Fox has the tendency to hoard them all to himself when Slippy might find better use for them. But the game really shines in its adaptive difficulty. While at the beginning of the original, you picked a hard, medium or easy path from Corneria to Venom, Star Fox 64 allows you to proceed to more difficult levels depending on certain events or your performance in the stage you just completed. Small tweaks to levels, such as guest characters showing up later if you play certain stages, and dozens of different possible paths to take introduce a surprising amount of replay value. Even the final boss changes depending on which direction you approach Venom from. And if you get through the difficult final stage, the game even graces you with a visit from Ghost Dad. Er, James McCloud, not Bill Cosby.

Because why would you attack a train with a vehicle that can travel at mach-3 and shoot lasers and bombs when you could follow it at 10 mph and fire bullets?

Because why would you attack a train with a vehicle that can travel at mach-3 and shoot lasers and bombs when you could follow it at 10 mph and fire bullets?

I really enjoyed this game, which shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, in high school, I’d often visit friends houses, and due to my ability to wake up completely alert at any hour of the day, I’d have to keep occupied while waiting for my friends to wake up…so I just might have the high score on three or four different cartridges out there. But that had nothing to do with the fact that I never got invited back again. I should say, though that most people enjoyed Star Fox 64. Nintendo really screwed up one thing, though; they didn’t try to replicate this game play at all. I’ve avoided Star Fox Adventures for years because it doesn’t look like a Star Fox game–which, considering the two previous releases in the franchise, only makes a small amount of sense. I enjoyed Star Fox Command, but only for a little while, and for some reason, Star Fox Assault didn’t even show up on my radar until recently. But if I ever get my student loans paid off, I have them on my list, and maybe I can say more about the newer games than I can about this one. I usually try to write two full pages on each game, but I can only find so many ways to point out how the SNES Star Fox felt like Star Fox 64 in beta.

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire – N64, PC

6157-1-star-wars-shadows-of-theI’ve spent well over a year writing about games from all sorts of origins, but this entry will mark only the second time I’ve written about an N64 game. The deadbeat of the console family, the 64 had all attention diverted from it in its toddler stage for the newborn baby Playstation, which we all soon realized came out with dozens–and eventually hundreds–of good games. (I figured I’d pass on the chance to make an amniotic fluid joke in there) And of course, this problem plagued Nintendo through the Game Cube and even a little into the Wii era. Fortunately by that time, they’d noticed the DS. “Oh, really? Players enjoy a wide array of fun games, along with backwards compatibility so they can still play all those old games floating around?” See, it turns out that selling a system on the tech alone just doesn’t cut it. But sadly, the N64 hadn’t quite read that memo yet, and millions of people decided to bypass its wonderful new 3-D environments in favor of the 3-D environments that Playstation developers made fun and exciting to play in.

So, hunt down about twenty of these guys and kill them. Oh, and you don't have lasers or missiles. Oh, and crashing into anything kills you instantly.

So, hunt down about twenty of these guys and kill them. Oh, and you don’t have lasers or missiles. Oh, and crashing into anything kills you instantly.

Still, while terms like “amass” feel too grand for what happened, I did accumulate a modest collection of cartridges for the system, about three or four of which I actually enjoyed playing. Of the handful of these I have, I probably encountered Shadows of the Empire before anything else. It impressed me. It hooked me on the system, like a free shot of heroin that would eventually lead to an unsatisfying and expensive habit. But hey, Star Wars! In 3-D! The ability to walk around in the Rebel base on Hoth amazed me. Wandering in and out of my star ship…yeah, it sounds stupid now, but at the time it felt like strapping on a virtual reality suit and logging into Quest World (speaking of nostalgic disappointments). Still, I while I do have a tendency to overlook my N64 games in favor of a towering mass of Playstation discs, I recently began to wonder why I had ignored Shadows of the Empire for so long. So I pulled it out, dusted it off, jammed it in the slot and turned it on…then turned it off, pulled out the cartridge, blew the dust out of the game, blew dust out of the N64, put it back in, and sat back in amazement as I realized “Oh yeah, it doesn’t actually have much to offer.”

Hello Mr. Chicken Walker, you have some explaining to do. Seriously...how did you get in here? Look at the size of those doors.

Hello Mr. Chicken Walker, you have some explaining to do. Seriously…how did you get in here? Look at the size of those doors.

Shadows of the Empire owes a lot to two things. The first, in a move surprising both for the game industry–in basing a game adaptation off something other than a movie–and for Hollywood–to resist hacking and slashing an obvious cash cow of a book into bloody pulped mash of beef and bone–they took inspiration from a Star Wars expanded universe novel. The book focuses on the period of time between Empire and Jedi, while the film’s heroes search for Leia’s hunk of a carbonite boyfriend, matching wits against a crime syndicate lord jealous of all the attention Palpatine gives to Vader. The crime lord hatches a plot to bump off Vader, thus endearing himself to the Emperor (a plan which would make no sense with anyone other than Palpatine) and becoming his new green-guy Friday. So the novel ends up looking at how Luke and Leia get by without the disarming wit and street-smarts of Han Solo, pushing them to their limits to test their mettle. Just kidding. They introduce Dash Rendar, a character exactly like Han, who fills his function just long enough to get them through to Jabba’s palace. Dash, a relatively minor character from the novel, becomes the central figure of the game, driving much of the action.

The rebels may have fared better on Hoth had they filled their prisons with Imperials rather than the indiginous fauna.

The rebels may have fared better on Hoth had they filled their prisons with Imperials rather than the indiginous fauna.

Second, the Super Star Wars SNES games clearly influenced Shadows of the Empire’s creation. It retains the same semi-animation style of cut scenes, at least one secondary blaster power-up, and even some of the slightly nonsensical premises for dashing through a gauntlet of stormtroopers, droids and wampas rather than just landing your ship in a better location; it also makes sure you destroy your quota of tie fighters before jumping into hyperspace. The vehicle levels also feel lifted straight out of Super Star Wars, especially the one level they literally just took from Super Empire Strikes Back, spruced it up a bit, and used to open their game; you fly a snowspeeder at the Battle of Hoth, slaying progressively larger and more dangerous enemies that didn’t actually fight at the Battle of Hoth (we all see you, Probe Droid!) until you have to harpoon a handful of AT-ATs and bring them down in what always feels like the sci-fi video game equivalent of walking heel-to-toe while saying the alphabet backwards.

Wait...platforming? Does the game think we'd rather play Mario than shoot storm troopers?

Wait…platforming? Does the game think we’d rather play Mario than shoot storm troopers?

That sort of drunken play control really marks the game, unfortunately. As an early N64 title, it almost feels like a demo they decided to market. I could almost feel the separate layers of the graphics, with Dash responding to the controls on top and an environment doing the same on a layer beneath. The amazing 3-D environments in retrospect come off as simple and non-interactive, with only a handful of objects that do anything more than just sit there, not letting you walk through them and looking all Star-Warsy. Each level jumps up and down like a 3-year old desperately trying to show you what it can do, especially in the various vehicle levels and the one moving-along-the-train level designed by a programmer who apparently slept through high school physics. While Dash has all the equilibrium of Mario in an ice world, once you get the jet pack the game really starts to handle as well as reading a newspaper in a gale force wind.

Flying like a drunk with a pilot light hanging over his ass, Dash Rendar never lacked popularity with his frat brothers.

Flying like a drunk with a pilot light hanging over his ass, Dash Rendar never lacked popularity with his frat brothers.

But I’ve safely navigated through Mario games before, so I can forgive that. I can even forgive the rarity of blaster power-ups effectively classifying them as too-awesome-to-use items. The save feature, though, pisses me off to the point where I’d gladly strangle a Lieutenant if one made itself available. And I had Force powers. Not yet reaching modern times, Shadows of the Empire uses lives. But still in love with itself over 3-D capabilities, it also uses enormous levels that can take upwards of 30 minutes to an hour to complete. If you don’t get to the boss and die. Like I did. Numerous times. On the medium difficulty setting. A setting which otherwise offered the perfect balance of challenge without frustration, yet still allowing adjustment for veteran players. The game only saves at the ends of levels, meaning any mistake and you get to play through everything again! Better pick something good to watch on TV while you do it. (I recommend Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”) For extra challenge, each level contains either hidden or difficult-to-reach challenge points. Collecting enough of these will grant you bonus lives which become part of the save data, carrying over into the next level (meaning you can play through old levels again to potentially increase your life total for the next). While discovering these trinkets gives the same rush as finding a twenty dollar bill in a parking lot, the bonus lives don’t add to the minimum–if you have one life left and get three bonus lives from challenge points, the game feels that raising you back up to the minimum lives ought to reward you enough.

Shadows of the Empire has all the nostalgic appeal of Johnny Quest–something you loved as a kid, but then you go back and catch the disturbing racial overtones and shallow plots. The game doesn’t come off as racist (well, unless you count casting green aliens as villains and white humans as heroes), but does kind of flop as a retro hit. For all the frustrations, I’d definitely put it in the top…let’s say fifteen N64 games. Maybe even top ten. But let’s face it; it didn’t exactly have fierce competition.

Perfect Dark – N64

perfectdarku
People remember the N64 very fondly.  Almost excessively so.  If you lived through that era with a decent enough memory, you may remember the burgeoning Sony, best known at the time for making VCRs and portable cassette and CD players, blossoming onto the console scene with a 32-bit system and a library of games such as Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve, Resident Evil, and more. I didn’t notice right away.  I bought the 64 because I had always owned Nintendo’s consoles.  And as I soon found out, the 64 sported a library of games that rivalled the great Library of Alexandria’s…collection of video games. Seriously, when I think of how difficult a time I had finding good games for that system, vultures will actually leave carcasses bleaching in the desert to come and circle over my head.  However, through a magnificent gift of fortune, a sign of massive favor from the gods, and the store selling out of Star Fox before I arrived to buy the system, I managed to pick up the undoubtedly shiniest gem of the 64-era: GoldenEye.

I, for one, really find it obnoxious that Mario shows up in the most random of games.

I, for one, really find it obnoxious that Mario shows up in the most random of games.

I have played few games as extensively as I did that one.  My cartridge currently has four 007 save slots.  I explored every level, experimented with every cheat, and shot every enemy in every extremity with every weapon just to see what would happen.  I became one with the multi-player mode like some kind of nerdy guru, and to this day, I have only ever lost a round on the day I first bought the game. I even tested this out about three or four years back, as a friend-of-a-friend wound up in my apartment, noticed I had the game, and needed with all his soul to break out this classic.

“Let’s do a deathmatch!” he said.  “I want to customize the weapons.”
“Actually,” I responded, “you have to choose from pre-determined sets.”
“Well, fine.  As long as we can make the bots difficult.”
“Actually, this game doesn’t have simulated players.”
“What? Eh. Whatever. Let’s just start. How do I jump?”
“Actually…”

As much as I love the game, I got bored with it, and it didn’t age well.  Fortunately, Rare developed Perfect Dark as a spiritual successor to the Bond classic.  Unfortunately, the N64 decided to experiment with accessorizing like the ditzy teenage daughter of the super-rich Nintendo.  Rumble packs, needless memory cards, disk drives, voice recognition, transfer packs: all of which worked for less than a handful of games, simultaneously draining your wallet and filling the plastic bin by the TV with more video game hardware that would eventually collect enough dust to make you feel guilty about owning it in the first place.  So while you may hear about Goldeneye outperforming Perfect Dark in sales, keep in mind that I didn’t feel like one game (Majora’s mask came out on the game cube and I never had any interest in Donkey Kong Country) justified buying the expansion pack until a few weeks ago.

Yes. He loves his new planet that much.

Yes. He loves his new planet that much.

Perfect Dark, though.  I should talk about it, at least before the halfway point of my article.  While James Bond games and movies have always courted science-fiction like a Republican congressman who picks up drag queens in truck stop restrooms, Perfect Dark openly embraces the genre, strutting about the sci-fi stage looking fabulous.  As such, the game can explore territories that traditional spy fiction, much like the aforementioned congressman, wouldn’t dare traverse openly.  Agent Joanna Dark infiltrates a corporation and picks up information about an alien war about to spill over onto earth.  She picks up a sassy alien sidekick named “Elvis” after rescuing him from Area 51, and with his help, she brings down the evil alien race, saving all of humanity.  Not exactly Pulitzer material, but simple, interesting, and it retains the noir tone of spy fiction while seasoning it with some inter-genre ideas and garnishing it with a sense of humor that, let’s face it, James Bond simply wouldn’t understand.

image10Agent Joanna Dark, (named after Joan of Arc (Jeanne D’arc) in a massive fit of historical amnesia, forgetting that other than breaking the siege of Orleans, she lost every battle she led) provides an excellent protagonist, on par with Samus Aran.  The hegemony of spy fiction dictates that the characters ooze sexuality.  Men charm, while women slink around and act sultry.  Dark however, shows us a competent professional who unlike Bond, doesn’t do her best work on her back.  Short hair, strong face, and average figure, she comes off as attractive, but based on character traits, not an exaggerated physique.  Until, of course, Microsoft got their hands on her and redesigned her in the image of Christina Hendricks. But even Samus’s developers shamed her into a tight blue bodysuit in later games.

Whether intentional or not, Rare actually figured out what people like in game sequels–more of the same, but improving things barely enough to notice.  Based on the GoldenEye engine, Perfect Dark feels exactly like playing through new levels of the same game.  However, they’ve added small features here an there: reloading animations, smoother polygon rendering, secondary functions for each weapon, and for the multiplayer, customizable weapons and sim-opponents.  But still no jump.  No addition to game play, however, deserves more note than the voice-acting.  While GoldenEye offered a handful of out-of-context paraphrased subtitles from the movie, Perfect Dark plays out like its own film with cut scenes and actors who don’t always always beg for their lives like a J-Pop rapper (that particular character even sways from side-to-side as though dancing while you hold the gun to his head).

Perfect Agent, yes, but in just a minute she'll get stuck trying to go around the barrier to pick up their ammo.

Perfect Agent, yes, but in just a minute she’ll get stuck trying to go around the barrier to pick up their ammo.

Still, the voice acting has a down side.  Anyone who’s played Final Fantasy Tactics knows the intense feeling of guilt when you dismiss a character from your roster, and they leave with a line about how sad they feel that they have to part ways with you.  Well, bring on the guilt and multiply it by ten, as each enemy you shoot feels perfectly fine letting you know what a horrible crime you’ve committed with such snappy comebacks as “Why me?” “You bitch!” and “I don’t wanna die!”  In an early stage, I even barged in on two guys lounging around in a break room.  Do security guards have to stop intruders if they’ve punched out for lunch?  Does their company require them to lay down their lives while on break?  It seems almost unfair to kill them when they just wanted to sit and scarf down a sandwich for a half hour.

I do enjoy the game.  Despite losing an interest in first-person shooters, I found the combination of a new game with the nostalgia of an old one invigorating, and the difficulty at the perfect level to keep me interested (at least until I decided to move on to another game) in the same way I loved GoldenEye.  But do you know what I hated about GoldenEye? Natalya.  My mother ran a daycare–out of our house–for 25 years.  I had a playpen in my bedroom until ninth grade.  Let me tell you, having witnessed babysitting that close, I can say with complete confidence that the job has never had any redeeming, let alone interesting, qualities to it.  Never.  At least in Resident Evil 4, you had the option of telling Ashley, “Wait here,” and “Follow me,” (even if she didn’t have the sense to move when a monster showed up to carry her off) but Natalya just stood there and let Sean Bean’s soldiers pump assault rifle rounds into her head.

This guy! Arrgh! I actually loaded a mission once because I just wanted to shoot him myself.

This guy! Arrgh! I actually loaded a mission once because I just wanted to shoot him myself.

So Rare asked themselves, “How can we improve this?”
“I know!” Someone said.  “How about they have to babysit inanimate objects!”
“Great! We’ll give them an explosive box to carry around to protect, even though they could easily use grenades to blow open the wall in that level! What else you got?”
“A flying laptop computer!”
“Not annoying enough.”
“Well, it deliberately flies into the crossfire as a helicopter shoots you relentlessly.”
“Getting there, but not quite.”
“You can’t tell it to stay behind, and when you push him out of the elevator, he insults you for forcing him not follow.”
“Genius! Let’s go!”

While they experimented with more complex mission objectives than “go here, don’t die, shoot this, don’t die, press the action button here, shoot this person, and don’t die,” some of their ideas end up a little infuriating, such as the flying computer guy, or mission briefing that only sort of hints at how you need to accomplish your tasks, or simply wandering around in labyrinthine maps where every area looks the same.  If explained more clearly, the rest of the game offers the perfect (and adjustable) levels of difficulty, not too easy, but also allowing you to finish the game (mostly) without forcing you through the impossibly difficult setting.  Still, wandering around in tunnels for a half hour while trying to figure out that apparently an X-ray scanner that you may or may not have noticed you had will tell you which four of eight switches you need to shutdown an outer defense…well, you get the picture. Boredom does not equal challenge.  Furthermore, the menu system does not play well with others.  There.  I said it.  It spreads out the games options and doesn’t explain them well.  You did much better in GoldenEye, Rare.

To emphasize the connection with Goldeneye, look at this bathroom.

To emphasize the connection with Goldeneye, look at this bathroom.

But after you finish the game once, the replay value goes into overdrive.  You can revisit each stage on higher difficulty levels and practice them, trying to earn the cheat codes, you can play through with the cheat codes, and of course the multiplayer option, which now no longer requires multiple players, offers a nice chance just to run around and shoot people.

Like I said, I’ve lost interest in most eff-pee-esses these days, but I’d still stamp this game with my seal of approval.