Back to the Future Games

Happy Future Day, everyone!

4:29 pm, October 21st, 2015

————-

P.S. Sorry that the audio syncs up like a bad Godzilla movie! That sort of thing happens with a budget slightly too small to buy a bag of Doritos.

Advertisements

Final Fantasy VI – SNES, GBA, Playstation, Android/iOS

The original Insane Clown Posse

The original Insane Clown Posse

Like most people over the age of thirty–at least, those who play video games–Super Mario Bros hooked me. I took one dose, one afternoon at a friend’s house, and that spiraled into a life-long addiction and tens of thousands of dollars I had to scrounge up and commit to feeding my problem. But Mario only acted as a gateway drug. I didn’t really settle into a specific class…er, genre…until the early nineties, when my cousins, on their annual visit to Northern Michigan, brought their Super Nintendo with them along with a little unheard of gem called “Final Fantasy VI.” Er…Final Fantasy III. Whatever. The one with Terra and the espers. I didn’t realize that Square had raised the bar on RPGs forever with this game. I just knew I could play it over and over until the chocobos come home. So, like those in my age range, FFVI became the standard against which I will judge all other RPGs. But how, pray tell, does it stack up as a game by itself?

Well, it turns out that when you use a game as a standard to measure itself, it comes out rather well.  In fact, I couldn’t find anything in which it failed to perform. There. End of article. I can’t remember having an easier time reviewing a game! But…I suppose for the sake of filling out some reading material, I should elaborate.

1/1200 of nothing! Give me the next two minutes of my life back!

1/1200 of nothing! Give me the next two minutes of my life back!

Final Fantasy VI follows a long-term trend in FF games to update technology and streamline design until eventually they’ll have as much in common with the fantasy genre as “The Jetsons,” and instead of riding around on flying boats like in FFIV, the characters will travel on the S.S. Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon. Wait…what? Anyway, FFVI falls in a steampunk-ish world where a power-hungry emperor has discovered the lost power of magic and couldn’t think of any better use for it than building mech armor that protects everything from the waist down, leaving all the soft, vital organs exposed to the swords, lances, and crossbows used by the rebels. Coming out of a magical apocalypse, scholars warn the emperor about using magic, as it might repeat the global destruction from a millennium ago. This makes as much sense as a comet passing over the White House and calling off the raid on Osama bin Laden because we don’t want to repeat the horrible tragedy at the Battle of Hastings.

Just slowly replace the entire script with Star Wars references, and pretty soon you'll have a game as popular as Star Wars.

Just slowly replace the entire script with Star Wars references, and pretty soon you’ll have a game as popular as Star Wars.

Anyway, the Empire uses Terra, a half-human, half-esper, half-protagonist, for her innate magical power. Then the Returners, a group of rebels, rescues her and hopes to use her for her innate magical power. But we don’t mind, because the Empire used a mind-control device to enslave her, whereas the Returners just used good, old fashioned, natural guilt. Because Tolkien taught us that kings always have our best interests at heart, while Star Wars shows us that emperors only want to blow up our planets and strike us dead with lightning. The Empire wages war to collect magic and subdue nations until the Emperor’s “court mage,” Kefka decides to destroy the world and rule the rubble heap as a god. The heroes rush to stop him. Then they lose. Failing to avert the apocalypse, the second act of the game takes off in a non-linear direction in which the player must find all the lost characters, then hunt down side quests that give them each a reason for living.

This game, as I’ve mentioned, defines “good RPG” for me. The story provides fourteen fully unique characters, each with a single unique special skill. Except for two, none of them learn magic naturally or in a pre-programmed order.  All spells are taught by equipping magicite (the petrified corpses of fairy-tale monsters, the Espers) in whatever configuration or order the player chooses. Each character has a certain configuration of base stats, suggesting a use for the character (The old mage, Strago, has higher magic power than physical power, while if you try to teach magic to your ninja, Shadow, you’ll find he has about as much aptitude for casting as a one-armed, epileptic fly fisherman…so about the same as every other ninja that Square tried to improve by giving low-level black magic powers), but magicite often grants stat bonuses when a character levels up, so the player can also customize these. I’ve only played two RPGs that have better character customization mechanics than FFVI: Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics. So with all these fabulously creative systems, naturally Square moved on to FFVII, where you forge your characters with as much care as it takes to put books on a shelf, and who have all the unique features of an NES with a sticker on the top.

So I know we have to fight an epic battle to save all of existence in about three minutes, but this seems like the best time to tell Relm I'm her father.

So I know we have to fight an epic battle to save all of existence in about three minutes, but this seems like the best time to tell Relm I’m her father.

So when I joked about comparing FFVI to itself earlier, I may have lied somewhat, as it actually does exceed the standards it set. While the SNES version reigns supreme in the hearts of those who played it, I actually recommend playing the Game Boy Advanced version, which gives the game an upgrade akin to using a chainsaw to cut down a tree instead of a pocket knife. While Ted Woolsey’s original translation may have won the hearts and minds of 14-year-old boys who listened to the Pimsleur Japanese free sample so they can criticize the subtitles of Sailor Moon episodes, the GBA translation reads as though people actually speak the language used in the story.  It corrects mistakes such as “Lete River,” “Fenix Down” and “Gradius” (Lethe, Phoenix, and Gladius), it allows Cyan and Doma to exercise a Japanese culture rather than bleaching them whiter than a Disney Princess, and it un-censors a lot of the original story.  It also turns some of Woolsey’s garbled nonsense into meaningful dialog. “This kid’s loaded for bear” now reads as “When you showed up, I thought you were one of Vargas’s bears.” (After which, the game humorously speculates on Sabin’s sexual orientation.) Furthermore, Shadow, who learns of his relationship with Relm through a series of dreams, no longer drops that bomb on her just before the final battle, instead suggesting it more subtly.

Look away children! The Goddess statue will steal your soul way if you see her without those extra blue pixels covering her legs!

Look away children! The Goddess statue will steal your soul way if you see her without those extra blue pixels covering her legs!

This most recent playthrough, I decided to watch Star Trek on Netflix while I worked on some side quests. In easily the weirdest moment I’ve ever had playing video games, I look up from FFVI to hear Kirk talking about espers. The term “esper” refers to someone with the ability to practice ESP at will. That, I suppose, clarifies the connection with magical monsters about as well as a six-year-old with cholera clarifies a public swimming pool.

This...might take a little more strategy than "Stick him with the pointy end."

This…might take a little more strategy than “Stick him with the pointy end.”

While the second act glorifies non-linear side quests, RPGs always contain the flaw of running out of stuff to do as soon as all the highest-level weapons, armor and magic becomes available. Like the other GBA ports of the SNES FF games, FFVI adds bonus dungeons to the end. The major dungeon, the Dragon’s Den, resurrects the eight dragons, presumably with a mixture of phoenix down, high doses of caffeine, and anabolic steroids. After making your way past these new challenges, you fight the Kaiser dragon. With even a moderate attention toward leveling up, the game’s final boss will drop faster than a politician’s pants in a truck stop bathroom, and I have literally destroyed him in a single attack on more than one occasion. The Kaiser dragon, on the other hand, puts up more of a fight than a triple-amputee undergoing chemotherapy, so his addition not once, but twice, spruces up gameplay by a healthy amount. He appears a second time in the other bonus dungeon, a 100-battle fight through various enemies and bosses encountered throughout the game.

Also, nostalgic lenses can successfully make the Three Stooges funny.

Also, nostalgic lenses can successfully make the Three Stooges funny.

Yes, I’ll fully admit I may see the game through nostalgic lenses, an unfortunate pair of glasses that look back on high school without the crippling social anxiety or need for anti-depressants, but I’ll also gladly confess to all the standard RPG schlock that comes along with the package. For instance, disposable tents (“I put it up, damn it! What more do you want? You don’t actually expect we’ll need to heal or sleep ever again, do you?”), a comically large cast, thus ensuring you spend half the game trying to decide which four characters to put in your party and denying any of them a significantly flushed out back story and personality, and some carelessly written scenarios, in which the game wants us to question the loyalties of a character who never even hints at ulterior motives, at one point having Kefka place a sword in her hands. At that point, expecting her to do anything but stab him with it would make less sense than dumping a pizza on your lawn every night and expecting the raccoons to not build tiny condominiums under your deck.

This most recent playthrough, I decided to watch Star Trek on Netflix while I worked on some side quests. In easily the weirdest moment I’ve ever had playing video games, I look up from FFVI to hear Kirk talking about espers. The term “esper” refers to someone with the ability to practice ESP at will. That, I suppose, clarifies the connection with magical monsters about as well as a six-year-old with cholera clarifies a public swimming pool.

With extra weapons, armor, espers, spells, and dungeons, plus with a translation that suggests at least one person on the development staff spoke more than one language, the GBA version clearly surpasses the original. However, even the original holds high standards that many games developed recently still fail to live up to. Square filled FFVI with as many options for customizing characters and exploring the worlds as possible, as well as a level of detail and culture into their world that gives even the post-apocalyptic landscape a more appealing atmosphere than our car-exhaust-choked Earth. If you happen to fall into an age range that didn’t hit this game’s popularity at its peak, go out and find a copy. You shouldn’t have trouble; they ported it to just about every system imaginable. Why? Well…I guess the more ports they make, the easier they can hide from the fact that THEY STILL HAVE NO PLANS FOR A 3D REMAKE!! Get your act together Squeenix!

And just for fun, let's add in some cactus juice. Only mildly hallucinogenic!

And just for fun, let’s add in some cactus juice. Only mildly hallucinogenic!

Jurassic Park – SNES

All right. This will show up that smug bastard from Duck Hunt. Look at my retriever!

All right. This will show up that smug bastard from Duck Hunt. Look at my retriever!

So I had originally planned to post about Skyward Sword today, but something came up: Jurassic World. Not only has Hollywood finally realized that they don’t have to write sequels by running the original screenplay through a shredder and then taking a dump on what comes out, but they chose Jurassic Park to learn this lesson! Back in 2007, they had announced plans for a movie about genetically engineering raptor-human hybrids for use in Iraq; then Michael Crichton died (*sad*) and Spielberg said, “Why not make a good movie instead?” And Jurassic Park! The movie that gave 10-year-old me more thrills than Michael Jackson at a boy scout convention. Every night, lying in bed, I’d watch my door knob, waiting for it to jiggle, and for the raptors to come in and find me.

Uh, sorry to wake you Miss Raptor, but, uh...I need to kill you.

Uh, sorry to wake you Miss Raptor, but, uh…I need to kill you.

Naturally, Jurassic World brought me back to my ten-year-old self, and since I doubt Spielberg will hire me to write JP5 (I have some ideas, Steven, and I’ll work for free, if you want to talk!), I decided to go back to some old Jurassic Park video games, in no way intending to capitalize off the recent surge of people searching for the movie, mosasaurus, velociraptor, indominus rex, Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Owen, Claire…have I missed any? Uh…cool Indian helicopter guy…meh. I’ll get them in there somehow. Anyway, since I didn’t plan this at all, and since I’d like to do occasional videos (watch out, JonTron!), I went to the game I had played most often and, of course, actually own.

In 1994, Ocean Software released Jurassic Park for the SNES to…well, to stores willing to sell the game. It didn’t make huge news. It didn’t develop much of a fan following. Developed at the tail end of the NES life span, versions for the NES, Game Boy, and several Sega systems all came out together. For all practical purposes, this game appeared as nothing more than another licensed video game cash grab. Gameplay involves…(what? Did you expect me to disagree with that? Say that critics vastly underappreciated it? Honestly, I think it earned the reception it deserved.)

Gameplay involves wandering around the park, blowing up the absurdly high population of predators, accomplishing missions to restore the park to order so you can evacuate and let nature reclaim it. Yeah, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, either, but I guess you need something to do. These missions include harvesting raptor eggs, fumigating the raptor nest, blocking raptors from entering the visitor center, and clearing raptors off a ship bound for the mainland (and also giving it orders not to sail, just in case). The game derives most of its disproportional hatred of raptors from the book, rather than the film, and even contains some animals, like the compies, that only appeared in the novel.

This mission assigned by Dr. Flintstone.

This mission assigned by Dr. Flintstone.

The film’s characters all issue hints and commands to you (as Dr. Grant) from a safe distance, presumably already off the island. Of course, none of them bothered to give you their ID cards before they left, and instead scattered them around the island, often in dark, claustrophobic rooms filled with dinosaurs and behind locked doors. Thanks guys. Furthermore, Dennis Nedry appears with deliberately malicious advice; obviously because an underappreciated, disgruntled computer nerd engaged in industrial espionage clearly cast his lot with the dinosaurs and wants all good humans dead.

Yeah. That stuff can make you go blind. Wouldn't it suck if I couldn't see the dinosaurs jumping out of the trees at me?

Yeah. That stuff can make you go blind. Wouldn’t it suck if I couldn’t see the dinosaurs jumping out of the trees at me?

For all the messages you get from people, they never clarify any details, making them less helpful than Miss Cleo and an army of psychic friends. Block raptors from entering the visitor center? Maybe you could have told me that, in a game where you don’t interact with the environment, you gave me one piece of furniture that moves! A lot of times, their unsolicited advice pops up right over a dinosaur ambush. Tim pops up to say, “Don’t shoot the gallimimus! They might stampede,” and ten seconds later when the message vanishes from the screen, I find a raptor flossing with my intestines. (Almost as though she waited for just the right moment…clever girl!)

Giant beakers full of bubbling liquids. Because science.

Giant beakers full of bubbling liquids. Because science.

While most of the game gives you an overhead view of Dr. Grant, it switches to first-person when entering buildings. Grant doesn’t have a lot to fear here, as the only damage comes from looking left/right when entering a room, only to find the dinosaur on his right/left. Raptors walk back and forth or charge straight at you, and dilophosaurs stand there and spit. Unlike their outdoor counterparts, they take significantly higher damage, and usually explode if you so much as look at them disapprovingly. Any challenge in the first-person segments comes from the labyrinth of identical rooms with no reasonable floor plan, map, or distinguishing features to help you figure out where to go. Most buildings have multiple floors linked with elevators, the largest of which–the ship–has five stories to explore and get lost in. Apparently they decided that skyscrapers have excellent buoyancy.

The computer interface makes up for its obnoxiousness by offering user settings, like desktop backgrounds. Because what can model chaos better than a Bush? (I think Jeb may have discarded that slogan...)

The computer interface makes up for its obnoxiousness by offering user settings, like desktop backgrounds. Because what can model chaos better than a Bush? (I think Jeb may have discarded that slogan…)

With no saves or passwords, the game can take upwards of four or five hours to finish, so make sure you don’t have anything going on that day. I first beat this game in 8th grade, staying up late, tag-teaming the game with friends. Jason had just got a dial-up internet connection and I guess game walkthroughs seemed like the best thing for people to upload at the time. Six hours after starting, Jason had control of the characters, I relayed information from ol’ dial-up Bessie, and Chadd sprawled out on the floor with a migraine from focusing on the screen. But we made it. At roughly 2:00 am, we finally got to the helipad and evacuated the island…only to find out that the game’s ending just played the introductory booting animation in reverse.

Uh...so...can I assume this means game over?

Uh…so…can I assume this means game over?

Meh. Whatever. I love Jurassic Park. I read the novel at least sixteen or seventeen times, and recently started reading it to Anne, who as a former researcher, occasionally stops me to explain that she used to do what Crichton wrote about, and how he accurately described science a quarter century ahead of his time. She has a thing for the compies, so one of these days I expect to come home to a herd of chicken dinosaurs. But while not all of the franchise’s installments live up to the novel or the original movie, I still get excited about dinosaurs in my thirties. Chris Pratt made an excellent Alpha raptor, indominus rex proved surprisingly effective as a villain, and while I like that the T-Rex came back for a cameo at the end, we all know that the mosasaur really saved the day. So I hope you enjoyed today’s entry; if not as funny as some of my others, hopefully you’ll appreciate the gushing over Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Jurassic Park 3, Jurassic World or, if the Mario trend in naming continues, the upcoming Jurassic Park 64 and Jurassic Galaxy.

I’ll let you know if Spielberg asks for my script ideas.

Super Mario World – SNES, Game Boy Advance

By the way, anyone who can surpass my score (without hacking) gets their own shrine set up on this blog. Good luck.

By the way, anyone who can surpass my score (without hacking) gets their own shrine set up on this blog. Good luck.

One night a while back, I finished a game rather early in the evening. Anne put on a movie, and I found myself with nothing to do. I needed something to keep my attention (and I didn’t feel like watching Paranormal Activity 4 for the twenty-seventh time), but without making too much noise or launching me immediately into another long-term game commitment (see, I just got out of a serious game and don’t feel ready yet…). So congratulations Mario! I finally found your strengths as a game! Now get in there and let me do some low-thought, mindless time-killing!

Disco ball and dancing ninja star reused from Nintendo's failed attempt at putting Mario into a DDR game.

Disco ball and dancing ninja star reused from Nintendo’s failed attempt at putting Mario into a DDR game.

I know I’ve railed on Mario in the past, but I suppose I should confess–I don’t actually hate Super Mario World. Before you picture me throwing myself to the ground in self-flagellation driven by my sorrow for having offended the mascot-god of video games, let me list a few other things I don’t hate: the Star Wars prequels, Pauly Shore, banjo music, China’s one-child policy, and ancient literature. While Mario did invent the primary plot device of Man vs Gravity, I shouldn’t draw and quarter him for the fact that every other game developer took platform jumping, avoiding holes and collecting hoards of coins and junk like a pack rat with ADHD as Aristotle’s Unities of Gaming. Of course, if so many industry professionals can look at Mario and miss the point as badly as a prostitute sucking on an elbow, what chance to I, a mere hobbyist, have of saying something profound? Well, remember that “industry professionals” have also brought us the controller with an “annoy Facebook” button and a camera that lets Microsoft watch you like Norman Bates.

Apparently, beating the special zone turns the island into mint chocolate.

Apparently, beating the special zone turns the island into mint chocolate.

I’ve previously compared platformers to religion. They appear simple on the surface, but require constant practice, which usually demands tedious repetition (apparently, society feels that I need to hear about Jesus’ torturous execution every single year, but that one time I eked out a C in differential calculus pretty much got the point across for my entire life). Furthermore, if you want to find any value in them, they have to hook you young, otherwise people won’t really understand why they should invest all their time into getting better at it. That last point explains why I can–occasionally–enjoy Mario, whereas that time Knuckles and Tails showed up at my door asking if I’ve accepted Sonic as my personal lord and savior of all woodland creatures, I slammed the door in their face. Mario games don’t really have an advantage over Sonic, but I never had a Genesis as a kid. Likewise, I can mumble through the Nicene Creed in a pinch, but don’t know anything in Hebrew and can only name one Sutra, albeit not for religious reasons.

What, you mean like the vacation they took to Dinosaur Land that got them into this whole mess?

What, you mean like the vacation they took to Dinosaur Land that got them into this whole mess?

So like the birth of Christ, what story requires such intense study that we need to repeat it in about 50 different games? Bowser kidnaps Princess Toadstool (Peach, to her friends). Okay, okay, so Super Mario World does have a bit more than that going on. Mario, Luigi and the Princess went on vacation to Dinosaur Land because they apparently thought Jurassic Park looked relaxing. Toadstool disappears. Mario and Luigi find a dinosaur, Yoshi, trapped in an egg who tells them about Bowser. Then they take turns punching Yoshi in the head, force-feeding it bullets, bombs and sentient creatures, and dropping him into pits. After they do this for a few hours, they beat bowser and rescue the princess. No innovations there. We always knew Mario had a sadistic side–which, I suspect, encourages the princess to run off with Bowser so often.

Get used to this screen. You'll spend more time going back and forth to this area than you'll spend playing each level.

Get used to this screen. You’ll spend more time going back and forth to this area than you’ll spend playing each level.

How about the game play? I could tell you about that. Let’s see…you collect coins, as usual, but now they’ve introduced another type of coin. Likewise, you need to find power-ups, but this time you find a feather that makes you fly instead of a leaf. You still go through pipes (because dinosaurs invented plumbing?), but sometimes the pipes will shoot you out like a cannonball. You break blocks, but…you know what? This game doesn’t really care about gameplay. You get to ride Yoshi. Everything else, they lifted straight out of the Mario formula. This game exists for the sole purpose of showing off the power of the Super Nintendo. In fact, has Nintendo sold a console since the SNES that came with a bundled game?

Genius! I would have posed for a lot more family portraits if I didn't actually have to pose with the rest of my family.

Genius! I would have posed for a lot more family portraits if I didn’t actually have to pose with the rest of my family.

Of the few noteworthy things to mention about the game itself, it has a now rare appearance by Bowser’s own litter of minions, the Koopa Kids–although, since the series never mentions any romantic interests for our reptilian antagonist, it forces me to question their maternity. What exactly does Toadstool do with Bowser? Does this mean that Rosaline shares some DNA with Lemmy? The koopalings all bear names suggesting famous musicians, as well as the new Fortress Mini-Boss, Reznor. Technically, this feature sprang from Super Mario Bros. 3, but I mention it here because it seems odd that in a game celebrating music, every last fucking level uses the same damn melody! Koji Kondo, well known for his musical variety on the Legend of Zelda series, decided to play it easy for Super Mario World, and just wrote variations on the same theme for each stage. Don’t get me wrong–he wrote them brilliantly. But that sort of repetition has an insidious tendency to take root in my brain and never leave.

Actually, that seems like a very good description for this game. You won’t get rid of it. Ever. In fact, you didn’t come here to decide whether or not you want to play this game. If you’d like it, you already know. If not, keep moving. And since I have so very little to actually say about Super Mario, I’ll give you some bonus screenshots. Enjoy.

Mario World's walk of fame. Clockwise from the top: Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Bob Hoskins, Fox McCloud, with Zsa Zsa Gabor in the center.

Mario World’s walk of fame. Clockwise from the top: Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Bob Hoskins, Fox McCloud, with Zsa Zsa Gabor in the center.

Try this, if you will...we know Mario will head straight toward the boss room, right? How about you take out the platform entirely and have Larry watch via CCTV from another room?

Try this, if you will…we know Mario will head straight toward the boss room, right? How about you take out the platform entirely and have Larry watch via CCTV from another room?

Note the look of shock on the adult Yoshis' faces. I can only assume they expected contained rubber gloves, IRS Forms and a healthy mixture of mud.

Note the look of shock on the adult Yoshis’ faces. I can only assume they expected contained rubber gloves, IRS Forms and a healthy mixture of mud.

Donkey Kong Country – SNES, Game Boy Color

Obligatory Ice Level Cliche.

Obligatory Ice Level Cliche.

Between applying for PhD programs, Evil Dead: The Musical performances, and preparing for next semester’s classes (while this post says “January,” I actually wrote it about the day my Evil Dead: Hail to the King entry posted), I’ve had just enough time to glance longingly at the pile of 20+ books that I may some day have a chance to read. Sorry to say, my to-do list requires a few sacrifices, but rather than ritualistically stabbing my Playstation until my hands run wet with sticky, electrical discharge, I opted to suck up my pride and whip out a platformer, under the assumption that the pain, at least, wouldn’t last long, and I could count on the popularity of Donkey Kong Country to garner a few more views per week than normal. Sadly, I think the entirety of this paragraph might tip my hand a little prematurely, but before you all start chucking barrels at me, I promise to remain as objective as I can. Even if game reviews inherently rely on subjective analysis.

Congratulations. You'll have more use for them than the Kremlings. But 99% of them will still rot before you can eat them. An illustration of wealth distribution in Ape society.

Congratulations. You’ll have more use for them than the Kremlings. But 99% of them will still rot before you can eat them. An illustration of wealth distribution in Ape society.

Anyway, Donkey Kong, after a ten-year hiatus in which he realized Mario had turned to completely lavish his attentions on Bowser, returns to his home island. However, Donkey Kong Country has its own reptilian antagonists, and they want bananas. Yes, for some reason, a crocodillian race of carnivores has need for a cavern full of bananas and will fight to retain their plunder from its rightful owners, a family of five apes who likely couldn’t eat that much fruit before it turned black and shriveled up anyway. So Donkey Kong and his nephew Diddy Kong–whom he finds stuffed into a barrel like he hadn’t paid his protection money to the crocodile mafia–set out on a banana-hunting quest, taking a path so roundabout that it would only make sense in an action platforming game.

Obligatory Underwater Level by character with infinite lung capacity cliche.

Obligatory Underwater Level by character with infinite lung capacity cliche.

Through my first impressions of the game, I reasoned that while Donkey Kong hadn’t participated in the Mario games since 1983, he at least spent a good deal of time playing them, and has learned much specifically from Super Mario World. I’ve established his cold-blooded baddies already. Much like Mario, DK takes out the majority of opponents via massive head trauma. When he can’t bring the full weight of a 300kg gorilla down on their skulls, he can throw barrels at them, a move clearly taken from the original game, but vaguely similar to Mario’s koopa shell kicking. Both Mario and DK travel from level to level through multiple zones of their respective islands. They can take up to two hits with appropriate power-ups–if we compare Diddy to an amanita mushroom–and collect either 100 of something, or a small number of level-specific items to get an extra life. They also ride animal pals–four of them–who each have unique abilities. They both shoot themselves out of cannons and find secret rooms with bonus games. Rare simply changed the characters, maps, and artwork from Super Mario World and called it a new game like an electronic Sword of Shannara, hoping we wouldn’t notice.

An illustration of Karma in Ape society.

An illustration of Karma in Ape society.

I don’t like platforming games and really can’t pretend to hide that. Years ago, before Final Fantasy VI introduced me to RPGs, I did play my fair share of Mario, and I’ll even admit that an afternoon playing Super Mario Bros. at Danielle Lehto’s house in first grade introduced me to a lifelong meth-style addiction to video games. But the idea of running through levels trying not to touch monsters except on their heads, all the while avoiding the plummet into bottomless holes appeals to me about as much as the thought of telephoning strangers at 11:00 pm to bring them the word of Lovecraft and convert them to the Cult of Cthulu. Simplicity, repetition, and pointlessness don’t make for great selling points, and much like religion, if you didn’t grow up with it, platformers just provide a tedious, time-consuming practice of learning thoughtless, reactive patterns with very limited returns.

I'll call him "Bright Eyes." Comment if you get the joke.

I’ll call him “Bright Eyes.” Comment if you get the joke.

Having said that, I recognize you may not agree with me. In fact, I know a lot of people out there think that nothing epitomizes enjoyable entertainment like trying not to fall into holes. If you like this, if you want to find a game with simple, bland gameplay that lacks all the cumbersome issues of a well-written story and the addictive, rewarding noises, flashes, and rewards of an iPhone game, then yes, Donkey Kong Country might deserve the 9/10 stars reviewers commonly give it. If you like Mario, you might want to try it. It does differ quite a bit, though. Rather than a hub design, DK Country lays out its world map like an air-travel montage from an Indiana Jones movie. Most levels run exclusively from left to right horizontally. They have multiple hidden bonus rooms, but no secret endings or branching paths. Some have stage-exclusive gimmicks like fueling up a moving platform, turning on lights, or traveling with a parrot holding a flashlight.

Donkey Kong and Diddy supposedly have different skills. Diddy can jump higher and farther–but still can’t quite make it to the hard-to-reach barrels and items. Donkey Kong supposedly has more strength, but has to jump on most enemies just as often as Diddy. Occasionally I stumbled across an item located deep down in a hole with absolutely no clear method of obtaining without winding up as donkey guts on a rock somewhere. For these, I took a few leaps of faith before converting to Donkey Atheism. I suspect the secret involves some of these character skills, but I didn’t have the patience to keep replaying levels just to figure out the puzzles. After a while I found an enemy that Donkey Kong could kill that Diddy couldn’t, but using this to proclaim uniqueness of character falls under the same category as trying to sell a new model NDS on the virtue of an upgraded picto-chat.

Uh...this just disturbs me.

Uh…this just disturbs me.

Due to Donkey Kong Country’s incredible simplicity, I can’t really find much to say about it. People love this game, but I don’t see it, and while I find alliteration light-hearted and cartoonish, whenever someone starts converting Cs into Ks for such a purpose, I generally eye them up with the astonishment I’d give to a banjo player performing minstrel tunes in blackface. Rare didn’t provide the easy access to save points that Mario has, but a skilled player could probably recover Donkey Kong’s entire banana hoard in two or three hours, coincidentally the same length of time a fresh banana in my possession usually takes to turn into a brown slimy pulp.

Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars – SNES

Here we see Smithy at his forge, creating the Republican Party platform.

Here we see Smithy at his forge, creating the Republican Party platform.

Square must have cornered the market on awesome with Final Fantasy. Yes, I can say “I love those games!” emphatically as though someone had offered a roomful of people a potion that would make orgasms last fifteen minutes each, and they will only give the potion to the loudest, most excited person in the room, but I still might understate the effect of those games. See, people keep going to Square and handing over the rights to their personal characters, requesting they scan them, digitize them, and build a game around them. And this doesn’t mean any yahoo on deviantart with a thrice-yearly web comic about a stick figure super hero who beats up all the people who called him names in high school. No, Square has people handing them Batman. And Disney (which means we’ll likely see Darth Vader team up with Sora in Kingdom Hearts 4). And, of course, Nintendo’s own Super Mario. Apparently, Shigeru Miyamoto felt his favorite character still wallowed in obscurity after his debut fifteen years ago, and thought that redesigning his game into an RPG might help Mario find his niche.

Obviously "Mushroom Retainer" doesn't refer to a feudal warrior bodyguard. Perhaps it means the Princess regularly pays Toad for legal council?

Obviously “Mushroom Retainer” doesn’t refer to a feudal warrior bodyguard. Perhaps it means the Princess regularly pays Toad for legal council?

The game opens with the Super Mario Super Cliche. Bowser kidnapped Princess Toadstool. Mario goes to the castle to rescue her. Pretty standard stuff, and thankfully, Square only subjected us to that torturous redundancy for the first ten minutes of the game. In the middle of Mario’s duel with Bowser, a sword big enough to loosen even Crocodile Dundee’s bowels falls from the sky and embeds itself in Bowser’s keep, presumably until a titanic-sized King Arthur comes along to declare his rule over an entire solar system. But in absence of giant boy kings, the sword declares the glory of the Smithy Gang, and claims the Mushroom Kingdom in the name of Smithy. The force of the colossal impalement sends Bowser, Mario and Peach flying to various assorted parts of the game. Mario assumes a quest has begun, although no one ever really states whether he wants to rescue the princess or defeat Smithy, but both those points become irrelevant about five or six hours into the game when he meets up with Geno, a spirit from the Star Road, searching for seven star pieces destroyed in Smithy’s latest giant knife-throwing circus routine. Without the star pieces, the world will have no more wishes. And go.

You can't ignore fan theories as crazy anymore. Mario officially lives in a world with psychadelic amanita mushrooms.

You can’t ignore fan theories as crazy anymore. Mario officially lives in a world with psychadelic amanita mushrooms.

The design team attempted to create an RPG that still had the feel of a Mario game. As such, Mario retains his signature special abilities. Namely, he can jump, and subjects of the Mushroom Kingdom constantly request demonstrations and/or autographs from him. In fact, other than his basic attack, Mario can only either jump on or shoot fire at enemies in battle, and leveling-up only teaches him upgraded versions of those two attacks. Jumping in battle consumes three flower points, the game’s version of MP, except the party shares one communal total of FP rather than giving each character their own. So if Geno shoots off his beam too much, Mario simply won’t have the energy in him to jump, and will have to resort to blunt trauma instead. Until the battle ends. Then he can jump until his shins shatter without even stopping to catch his breath. While the game functions perfectly from a technical and mathematical standpoint, that inconsistency really marks the game as confusing, to say the least.

After jumping over these things since 1981, do you think you could help me out a bit, Princess?

After jumping over these things since 1981, do you think you could help me out a bit, Princess?

For instance, the first half of the game sees Mario hunting down Princess Toadstool and rescuing her from a bizarre man-child with the most severe case of Asperger’s syndrome I’ve ever seen. The game relegates her to the role of Damsel in Distress because, let’s face it, if she didn’t enjoy the thrill of a good kidnapping, she would probably have upgraded her security after SMB 3–if not after the original SMB. For contrast, the introduction to the title screen shows her sitting alone in the middle of a field staring at flowers when Bowser swoops in–on the same clown-duck thing he used to kidnap her in Super Mario World–and carries her off. After you rescue her, though, she joins your party and, despite fighting with stereotypical glove slaps and healing spells, actually shows a remarkable competency in battle. So, uh, Princess…how about rescuing yourself for once? Sound like an idea? Give Mario a day off and bust out of Bowser’s dungeon yourself.

Peach slaps the snake. Should we interpret that as a euphamism?

Peach slaps the snake. Should we interpret that as a euphamism?

Beyond that, Mario displays quite a few skills that would have come in handy in some of his other games. For example, touching monsters without throwing himself to the ground, screaming in pain. Maybe taking more than one hit, or having the ability to block? He apparently can shape shift, which he uses in lieu of language, but not for anything practical like a stealthy disguise or a hilarious mistaken-identity comedy-of-errors. Maybe, though, these abilities mean to offset his nasty habit of standing around in silence watching various major enemies escape. I mean, yeah, he catches up with them later, but why not make the game a little shorter and fight them now? At least the weapons he can equip show some consistency. Mario can use hammers, alluding to his days fighting Donkey Kong; a turtle shell, an obvious reference to his side-scrolling, koopa-stomping adventures; and uh…gloves, which hearken back to his ability to break blocks with his fist? Maybe? Or referencing his time as a referee in punch out? Super Mario RPG really excels at these nods to Mario’s history, which players of the older games may appreciate more than those just coming into the series in the last fifteen or twenty years (god, I feel old…they released this game eighteen years ago!). One room in the penultimate dungeon even requires you to leap over barrels thrown by an ape.

I don't know what bothers me more; that I only had a 10% success rate with three choices, or that they put "Yoshi" in quotation marks.

I don’t know what bothers me more; that I only had a 10% success rate with three choices, or that they put “Yoshi” in quotation marks.

So I’ve put this off long enough–I know everyone loves this game, but yes, I found issues with it. Three-dimensional platforming didn’t work well in Super Mario 64, which felt like playing skeeball blindfolded. The attempts at action-platforming on the Super Nintendo upgrades that analogy to…let’s say, playing piano blindfolded while wearing hockey gloves over numb hands. Also you can’t hear the piano. For most, but not all, attacks, special abilities and items, you can tap the command button at a certain time during the animation in order to receive an upgraded effect; however, counting for the difference in animations, the uncertainty of whether or not the attack has an upgrade, and the lack of a clear point to double-tap the button makes this…uh, let’s say like playing banjo in hockey gloves? (Hey, I don’t have a limitless supply of analogies and I just have to make them up based on what I see in the room!) Geno’s special “charge” attacks almost never worked for me, but honestly, regular attacks outclass special attacks by so much in this game that I rarely used flower points for anything but healing. Square included these elements in order to give the game a more action-oriented feel. Thank you, Square, for interpreting the challenge in turning Mario into an RPG as “How to make it feel less like an RPG.”

Yes! Level 2! Now to just finish off the final boss...

Yes! Level 2! Now to just finish off the final boss…

Also, Square populated the Mushroom Kingdom with enough enemies to rival a plague of locusts or an invasion of army worms. In a genre where people criticizes most games for repetitive, time-consuming battles, “adding more enemies” really doesn’t make up for a short game length. And no, the solution employed–handing out exp with the generosity of a Republican in a soup kitchen–doesn’t really fix the issue. In fact, if I spend twenty-some odd hours in battle alone, I’d appreciate it if I could finish the game a little higher than level 25. Character growth, for the most part, remains static, so no matter who you use in battle, they all level up at the same speed, and learn their predetermined skills at a predetermined time, allowing for no more customization than adding one or two points to your choice of stat at each new level. Because fighting Smithy with an attack power of 225 made a world of difference compared with 200. (And before you ask, I dumped all of Geno’s bonuses into his special attack, and even at level 25 his physical attack did more damage.)

...yo, is this racist?

…yo, is this racist?

I know everyone loves this game and it makes top-ten lists all the time. And in all fairness, I liked the cartoonish feel to it as well as traveling through a Mushroom Kingdom filled for the first time with people and villages and things other than jutting ends of pipes, piles of bricks and other mostly unfinished attempts at improving infrastructure. But the game feels more like a novelty than a masterpiece. Worth playing, maybe, but not often. Also, Mole Village gives off a vaguely racist vibe.