Friday, October 31, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #24 - 17

24. Space Station Silicon Valley (1998)

Pros: Space Station Silicon Valley is an intergalactic zoo plummeting towards earth and poised to annihilate all life unless you, a heroic robot, land on and stop it. You swap your microchip to take control of sheep, dogs, bears, elephants, kangaroos, camels, chameleons, turtles, penguins, vultures, lions, and so on as you platform your way through the various levels. Each animal has different attacks and abilities and means of mobility - I'm sure that you, not being retarded, guessed as much - which means variety out the asshole. Best of all, the levels aren't centered around collecting doo-dads, but a list of objectives ala GoldenEye 007.

The game also has a demented sense of humor: In the opening scene, a dog and sheep proclaim their love and eternal commitment to each other. Your rocket ship then crash lands on and kills the dog. You take his body and while wearing his flesh kill the sheep / his wife to take over her body. This sounds Hannibal Lecter-fucked up, but the dissonantly cute and harmless aesthetic the game presents itself with makes it the finest black comedy you can find in an E-rated platformer.

Cons: I said that DMA's other N64 game, Body Harvest, felt unfinished. Well Space Station Silicon Valley is literally not fucking finished. There's an item you have to collect in one level that they misprogrammed so you pass right through it. Because of this you can't get 100% and can't see the game's best ending without putting in a code. Quality control much, DMA Design? That's like printing and shipping a hundred thousand copies of a book without the last three pages. It's also the only N64 game I know of that suffers from lockups. It's super fun outside of these problems, but sheeeesssh.

23. F-Zero X (1998)

Pros: The primary selling point of Nintendo's flagship sci-fi racing franchise is its unparalleled sense of speed. The F-Zero cars are supposed to go something ludicrous like 700 mph, and it fucking shows - the game may not look like much in still screenshots, but in motion it zips by at a ragged, jaw-dropping, visceral speed that will have every vein taut with adrenaline and boner fully popped. And there's no missiles or items or tricks - just pure racing. There are boosts and you can muscle other cars around, but you have to have superb reflexes and just be better than the other racers to win, period. Gimmick-free, no-bullshit. There's like twenty-four tracks and thirty cars and the play control couldn't possibly be sharper and the hyperactive music is completely badass, perfectly complimenting the on-edge, high-tension experience of playing the game.


22. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000)

Pros: The Legend of Zelda is the greatest thing on earth outside of Star Wars, kittens, and tits. Everyone knows that. A well-designed Zelda dungeon is a perfect tapestry of interlocking puzzles and action, tied together with moody visuals and great music representing Nintendo at the height of their aesthetic power, taxing your brain and skills and topped off with an enormous and awesome boss. That's gaming, baby.

And Majora's Mask - although it's considered the black sheep of the series along with Zelda II - definitely has a few of those sublime dungeons and that magic Zelda vibe, even bringing back the absent-from-Ocarina of Time Zelda overworld fanfare. But it's also drenched in a creepy, cold, off-putting vibe that, while different, makes it probably the darkest of the series and the closest thing to a Zelda horror game, a welcome novelty. Zelda is inherently good; "Zelda" is synonymous with "good."

Cons: In Majora's Mask an evil moon is plummeting down to destroy the world in three days. But you can go back in time at the end of every third day and start over again; you have to plan your schedule just right to make time to do everything. But here's the thing (and I'm almost embarrassed to admit it): I really don't like this gimmick. I hate to be the person lashing out at innovative and clever game design, especially when this was universally praised as a bold breath of fresh air for the series, but I have to speak from my heart. I associate Zelda with exploring and adventure at your own pace, not stressful time limits. I like my Zelda pure.

21. Mario Party 1 - 3 (1999 - 2001)

Pros: Yes, I'm listing all three together, sue me. They're all the same thing: Mario-themed digital board games. You take four players, ideally all humans, and roll dice and move through the board, occasionally landing on traps or buying items and using them to help yourself and attack your opponents. You collect Stars at the end of the board. Every four turns a minigame is played, and there's dozens and dozens of super well-designed minigames flexing all types of gaming muscle in all genres. Stars are also awarded for who wins the most minigames. Whoever has the most Stars at the end wins.

The best part of Mario Party is the profanity. You see, in a normal multiplayer party game like Mario Kart or Smash Bros, the ebb and tide of victory and failure and thus the profanity and trash talking is constant. But in Mario Party there are minutes-long stretches of relative calm, pressure and tension quietly boiling, when suddenly someone steals a Star from someone else or the leader lands on one wrong space and loses all their shit and the whole game goes haywire, and suddenly everyone in the room is screaming "WHAT THE FUCK!!" and "HOOOLY SHIT!!!" and "FUUUUUUUCK!!!!" at the tops of their lungs and calling each other cunts in a cathartic explosion of emotion. Mario Party is best played drunk.

Cons: Single player Mario Party is as retarded as playing a board game with yourself. But why would one ever consider doing such a thing in the first place? CON NEGATED.

20. Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998)

Pros: December, 1998. A time when Star Wars was still motherfuckin' Star Wars, and this ain't some Episode I nonsense like Battle for Naboo - in Rogue Squadron you play as Luke Skywalker and traverse the original trilogy in an action flight sim that's like the first Hoth level of Shadows of the Empire blown up to full-sized game with added cutscenes. Couldn't be a simpler or better concept: take command of X-Wings, Y-Wings, A-Wings, and Snow Speeders and do battle with the Galactic Empire across a dozen worlds. Protect cities from Imperial bombers, take out Imperial bases, topple Imperial Walkers, protect Rebel bases and Rebel transports - all the good stuff that an Alliance pilot did to earn his paycheck during the Galactic Civil War. The visuals were top of the line for 1998 and the game uses all the classic sound effects and a lot of John Williams music to lend to that retro Star Wars vibe.

Cons: Taken as a product of its own time, the only flaw is a minor sense of sluggishness. X-Wings may have sublight engines but here they don't seem to go much past 50 mph. I understand why - the game mostly revolves around tracking and precision shooting small targets. But it would be fun to be able to cut loose and F-Zero across the worlds with a Wedge Antilles "YEE-HAW!!!", a sad impossibility.

And taken outside of its own time, the GameCube sequel Rogue Leader overwhelms and outclasses its N64 big brother in every feasible way: better control, more ships, more enemies, bigger levels, incredible graphics, and music, missions, & voice acting straight from the films. Poor Rogue Squadron got upgraded like an outdated computer model. It's still fun though.

19. Snowboard Kids (1998)

Pros: One time all the N64 racing games got together for a Christmas party. Long story short, Mario Kart 64 and 1080° Snowboarding had a little too much to drink and bumped uglies sans rubber. Mario Kart got pregnant and turns out the bitch was pro-life and despite 1080°'s protests refused to get an abortion. Thus Snowboard Kids was born. She had her father's snowboards and stunts and airtime but her mother's cute and colorful aesthetic and focus on sabotaging your opponents with collectible items strewn across the track rather than simple outmaneuvering. She grew to be a beautiful game and I loved her dearly.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that the best "Mario Kart" game that isn't Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64 is Diddy Kong Racing. Conventional wisdom is wrong. Diddy Kong Racing is fun but it's such a flat rip-off that there's no reason to not just play Mario Kart instead; Snowboard Kids takes the item mechanic but plays differently and brings something fresh to the table. The gameplay isn't as deep or nuanced as Mario Kart but it's just goddamn fun.

Cons: The races emulate Mario Kart 64's three-lap structure, which is fine, except that you go down mountains instead of around circular tracks so at the end of each lap you have to grab a ski lift back to the top. Which would also be fine except that one time in thirty the game's collision detection farts and you bounce back and fall over from hitting the ski lift chair as if you've hit a wall, which can cost you five or six seconds - which in a racing game can cost you the race. Unfortunate.

18. Rayman 2: The Great Escape (1999)

Pros: Rayman 2 is pretty much a best-of-3D platforming greatest hits album, perhaps not bringing anything fundamentally new to the table but eagerly rehashing the genre's proudest moments and reminding us why we love it. You pretty much know the drill - there's big worlds to explore with jumping challenges, enemies and bosses to fight, puzzles to solve, items to fetch, and subquests galore. Avoid spikes and fire and pits, naturally, and be on the lookout for the occasional vehicle segment. The game also borrows Ocarina of Time's Z-targeting system where you lock onto and circle enemies in combat.

There's isn't five characters and a trillion items ala Donkey Kong 64, the game keeps it clean and streamlined and sticks with what works. The visuals also deserve shoutouts; thanks to the N64's RAM Expansion Pak the draw distance is enormous and there isn't a trace of fog in the whole game. It looks lush and beautiful even by today's standards.

Cons: The only real gripe I can think of is that in a post-Super Mario, post-Banjo-Kazooie, post-Jak and Daxter, post-Ratchet & Clank world, Rayman 2 might feel a little bit generic. Hella fun, but generic.

17. Wave Race 64 (1996)

Pros: Produced by Shigeru Miyamoto and the same team that would later be behind 1080° Snowboarding, this Jet Ski racer was one of the N64's very first games and a high "watermark" for racing games at the time. It was the combination of the speed, the graphics, the play control, and perhaps above all else the water physics - something most games today still haven't mastered - that made it more than just a "drop in the ocean." The way the waves flow and chop and become erratic and toss you about if you're not careful made a real "splash," and the water looks fantastic to this day. The play control is fast and "fluid," with a cherry-on-top system of stunts and tricks and even the ability to ride a dolphin. Wave Race 64 is a "river" of entertainment. There's very little that you will find "fishy" about this game.

Cons: Only eight courses and four characters means that you'll see all the game has to offer relatively quickly. Doesn't mean it won't take you a long time to master it, though; I've had the game for over a decade and Expert mode still makes me feel "wet behind the ears."

Top 64 N64 Games #16 - 9 should be coming on Saturday or Sunday, then I'll be taking a brief break from Nintendo before the final installment to cover the election. But don't worry, the end is now in sight. Sorry I had so many fucking racing games this time, what's that all about?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #32 - 25

32. Jet Force Gemini (1999)

Pros: I have extraordinarily bipolar feelings towards this game; I couldn't quite decide whether it should be ranked in the top 20 or down in the 50s. But let's start positive.

Jet Force Gemini is a third-person sci-fi shooter where you battle an evil empire of giant bugs. It's a high-budget, AAA title by Rare and it shows - the action is fast and intense (and has a co-op mode), with lots of different weapons and bugs of all shapes and sizes to kill. The graphics are detailed, sharp, and colorful, with no fog or pop-ups, and the music is great. You blast your way through jungles and swamps and caves, enemy space stations and battle cruisers, eerie ruins on an ocean planet, high mountain peaks, and bug palaces. It's fun and absorbing, with a Star Warsian pulp sci-fi vibe to it, and the first three-quarters of the game is late-90s 3D action at its near-best.

Cons: But then the doo-dads rear their ugly heads. What, did you expect Rare could just make a well-paced 3D shooter and have it stand on the merits of its action? Young fool. Only now, at the end, do you understand.

There are several hundred Ewoks (they call them "Tribals," but they are Ewoks) scattered across the game, hidden in obscure corners of giant worlds, behind scenery, up on ledges. Dozens on every single planet, in every single spaceship. And when you reach the main villain's palace, you are told quite clearly that fuck you, if you want to play the final level and fight the final boss, you have to comb through the ENTIRE game and collect every. Single. Fucking. Ewok. You have no device to track them. No indications of where they are. Twenty more hours are added onto your adventure and the pacing of the game is destroyed. God fucking damn it, Rare.

Imagine you spend a few weeks wining and dining some hot girl. You're making out with her and you're finally about to seal the deal. Then just when her underwear's about to come off, she tells you "I have hidden three-hundred tokens all over the city. Find them and call me first," then leaves. That's Jet Force Gemini.

31. Beetle Adventure Racing (1999)

Pros: Extended and shameless acts of product placement don't get much better than this, one of the N64's best racers. As indicated by the title you race exclusively in Volkswagen Beetles and the "Adventure" part comes in with the fact that, although there are only six tracks, they are absolutely colossal tracks - easily the biggest and most detailed in any N64 racing game - that take several minutes per lap and are full of dozens of shortcuts, alternate routes, secrets, and easter eggs. The game is technically superb, with enormous draw distance, visual detail that belies the N64's limitations, high frame rate, and a rockin' sense of speed. It also has a funky 70s soundtrack and in contrast to the "extreme" racers of the day doesn't take itself seriously at all.

Cons: Single-player races are you and seven other cars (standard), but for some reason in multiplayer races rather than you, your friend, and six AI cars it's just the two humans with no option to bring the computers in. Kind of lame.

30. Bomberman Hero (1998)

Pros: I'm actually in the minority in liking this game a lot; for all its limitations, it charmed me. It's a Bomberman game in name only - you play Bomberman and attack with bombs, but unlike the rest of the series it's a platformer with jumping, you throw bombs like projectiles instead of lying them, there's not many puzzles, and there's no multiplayer. But there's a beauty to the streamlined simplicity of the levels; they throw a good combination of tough but reasonable enemies, action, and jumping challenges at you, with cool jetpack and submarine segments and neat bosses. Not imaginative, perhaps, but simple gaming comfort food. When I rented it a decade back I pretty much played through the entire game in one weekend-long sitting.

Cons: First, the flat and workmanlike visuals of the game aren't even particularly good by 1998 standards. But more damningly the game suffers from pretty much the exact same shit I just discussed with Jet Force Gemini. There's a fake final boss, but to fight the real final-as-fuck boss you have to find twenty-four crystal orbs spread through the game, which isn't too bad since you can grab them all in an hour with a guide, and get an "A" score rank on every level, which IS REALLY BAD, because that means you will probably have to play every single level in the entire game over again. This is a very dire pacing problem that makes the game unbeatable to all except the extremely autistic.

Basically, if a game has X number of collectibles / secrets in it, the amount required to beat the game should never be any more than 2X/3, and it should never, ever be X.

29. Pilotwings 64 (1996)

Pros: The first N64 game alongside Mario and in September 1996 the most advanced flight sim on a home console, Pilotwings 64's best features are its variety and play control. You have three different "vehicles" (plus the Birdman wings) - airplane, jet pack, and hang glider - and each is a completely different gameplay experience that controls nothing like the others. My favorite is the jet pack because it's hilarious to fly your dude three miles straight into the air and then run out of fuel and fall like a minute to your death.

Tasks range from flying through rings to landing on floating platforms to popping balloons to missile targeting to taking photographs to time attacks to battling a giant robot, with nearly everything executed well and every vehicle controlling like silk, especially the super-responsive jet pack a.k.a. hilarious suicide facilitator. Landing the plane is a little bit tricky but since I've seen Air Force One I know that's true in real life as well.

Cons: As a very, very early 3D game the aesthetics haven't aged well, with smeared textures, a bizarre sense of scale where your characters are taller than houses, and elevator tunes. And the giant robot battles and missile targeting are kind of frustrating because your missiles don't aim very well. It would also be nice if after touching onto ground in the jet pack or Birdman wings you could walk around. But I feel like I'm just being an asshole criticizing such an early and innovative game. It's good. Don't worry about it.

28. Yoshi's Story (1998)

Pros: Teaching children everywhere about the joys of cannibalism, Yoshi's Story is an in-house Nintendo sidescroller that roughly emulates the engine of Yoshi's Island - same eating enemies, forming eggs, throwing the eggs, kicking to float through midair, and ground pounding. The only thing missing is baby Mario. As an in-house Nintendo game, it has super smooth control and interesting and fun level design, with the usual Mario series mix of grass lands, caves, lava lands, oceans, swamps, clouds, snowy fields, and Bowser's castle.

But where the game might stand out the most is in its aesthetics; Yoshi's Story is bar none the most gorgeous sidescroller on the N64. The game has a storybook theme and each level's terrain and background is composed of some mix of felt, patchwork cloth, paper cutouts, and so on. It's bright, colorful, detailed, and truly innovative.

Cons: This game is easier than a homeless crack whore offering to blow you for $3. Except for one or two tantalizing levels, you will not be pushed or challenged at any point in Yoshi's Story; it's a disturbingly simplistic cakewalk on a nearly unprecedented scale with easy enemies, easy platforming, and fucking pathetic bosses. You'll fly through every level in a couple of hours, a goddamn shame after the brilliant, perfectly balanced, and challenging Yoshi's Island. I understand that not every sidescroller needs to be Contra or Ninja Gaiden, but I gotta be met halfway here.

27. Goemon's Great Adventure (1999)

Pros: Think of it as the "Zelda II: The Adventure of Link" to Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon's "Legend of Zelda" - dropping the 3D roaming and Zelda-esque dungeon designs of its N64 predecessor, Goemon's Great Adventure is a good old sidescrolling action game where you take control of Goemon and his three friends Ebisamaru, Yae, and Sasuke, and blast your through level after level stuffed with bad guys and platforming action. Like Zelda II the sidescrolling levels are broken up by an overworld, have some nonlinearity to them, and most notably have you visit villages between levels where you talk to townspeople, shop, and solve puzzles. Two player co-op, an actual sense of humor, lush settings full of visual variety, and solid music don't hurt either.

Cons: As with Zelda II, the town segments are sometimes welcome, but sometimes break up the momentum a little bit if all you want to do is get back to fighting bad guys and you have to solve some town nonsense first.

26. Conker's Bad Fur Day (2001)

Pros: To my knowledge the only N64 game where a giant mound of feces comes to life and sings about flinging his shit at you, Conker's Bad Fur Day was conceived as a cute, G-rated platformer in the mold of Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, seemingly the ideal vehicle for Rare's adorable squirrel mascot. Then someone at Rare had a psychological breakdown or had their girlfriend break up with them or something and decided to repaint the entire game with blood, gore, profanity, vomit, shit, and piss. Tasks involve convincing a flower lady to expose her breasts so you can bounce on them to the next level, engaging in an ultra-bloody parody of Saving Private Ryan's opening scene except with squirrels, and wielding your urine stream as a weapon.

It arrived in the N64's last year and is perhaps the system's most technically advanced game, with graphics that already seem halfway-to-GameCube and more voice tracks than any other N64 game. And get this - it's a Rare platformer that does NOT involve going from world to world collecting doo-dads. I'm dead serious. The game actually flows reasonably from one level and task to the next. Rare, you're growing up!

Cons: Despite the game's claims that it is for "17 and up" gamers, the toilet humor would really best serve boys around the age of 11 or 12. Not that there aren't some laughs to be had, but farts only get you so far. But I don't want to chastise a game for trying something new and provocative, so I won't dwell on that. You could also argue that the sheer number of different gameplay styles it tries a hand at (particularly the somewhat awkward shooter segment) makes it a jack of all trades, master of none, but I also don't want to criticize a game for attempting variety. It's a good game, I don't have to much to say here.

25. Sin & Punishment (2000)

Pros: Now this shit is awesome. Sin & Punishment is spectacle of hyperkinetic shooting action paced quicker than that time you lost your virginity and lasted for two minutes, a wonderful translation of hardcore arcade gaming straight to your N64 (or Wii, since it didn't receive formal American release until the Virtual Console). Your dude runs forward on an on-rails path wielding gun and sword against teeming hordes of enemies, dodging their bullets and attacks and taking down planes and tanks and the occasional gigantic bioweapon. It's an adrenaline-pumping blast, and the art direction is so classy and unique that the game can even in 2008 produce an appreciative whistle of "damn, that look good."

Like with WinBack: Covert Operations, I'm not quite sure whether to count the ludicrous story - in this case a generic sci-fi anime yarn of giant robots and genetically engineered mutants - as a pro or con, but hell, it just adds to the charm, let's go for pro.

Cons: There's a lot to keep an eye on at one time - your character's right-to-left movement, dodging obstacles in your path, jumping over pits, moving your aiming cursor, marking and shooting at the enemies, using the right weapon, and dodging enemy bullets and attacks. It's kind of like the gaming equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach while hopping on one foot, and while most of the levels do balance this well there are one or two segments that throw everything at you at once, upon which the gamer may be excused for letting loose a single "FFUUUUUUCCCKK!!!!" at their inevitable death.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #40 - 33

40. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (1997)

Pros: Imagine, if you will, a long-lost time called "February 1997." The concept of first-person shooters on home consoles was still twinged with exoticism and the genre largely synonymous with Doom. Then along came Turok, the N64's first first-person shooter, to shake things up. The game's wide-open outdoor jungle levels flew in stark contrast to the enclosed labyrinths of Doom and as you bloodily cut your way through evil soldiers and dinosaurs and giant insects and lizard men you also blazed new ground in gaming history. The control system of using the C buttons to move and the control stick to look and aim is roughly emulated to this day.

Cons: Some games stay perfect and timeless forever - when the aliens take over Earth in 2200, Super Mario Bros. 3 will still be awesome - but in a genre that has evolved as quickly as action-based first-person shooters, Turok looks like a dinosaur (PUN MASTERSTROKE) when compared to your modern Halos and whatnot, not just in terms of its foggy and repetitively-textured graphics, but in terms of control smoothness, weapon variety, level design, enemy AI, general storytelling, style, aesthetic, and scale (and of course its lack of multiplayer). It would probably be hard for someone who got into gaming today to go back to and enjoy. It's a piece of history, like a Chaplin movie, if a Chaplin movie had more T-Rexes and geysers of blood.

39. Harvest Moon 64 (1999)

Pros: All the fun of farm maintenance with none of the soul-crushing, back-breaking toil, Harvest Moon 64 is the third game in the ever-ongoing life simulation series. The game opens with your grandfather's funeral and your subsequent inheritance of his farm and from there on out it's like an RPG if it were nothing but the minigames - you have to grow and maintain crops, go to festivals, woo and marry a pretty lady, build bridges, go to horse and dog races, go fishing, improve your house, and acquire and care for chickens, sheep, and cows. If one of your animals gets sick and dies then you're greeted with a funeral scene where you bury them next to your grandfather, which seems normal until you realize that you're burying a chicken next to your grandfather, upon which it becomes fucking hilarious.

Cons: Like all Harvest Moon games it operates in a strict cycle - every day you wake up, clear weeds, feed animals, water plants, harvest plants, and hit the shops, in cycle dozens and dozens of times. Now, this is part of the appeal for many people - whether or not it's repetitive or Zen bliss is entirely up to you.

38. Snowboard Kids 2 (1999)

Pros: Snowboard Kids 2 is basically the original Snowboard Kids' engine lifted exactly - same graphics, same controls, same item and weapon engine, everything - and given nine new courses to race on. Only a few of which actually take place in the snow; mostly you're "snowboarding" through beaches or the ocean or castles or space stations or I don't know what the fuck. And I love Snowboard Kids. Everything good about this game is also good about Snowboard Kids, so we'll save that conversation for later.

Cons: It's more an expansion pack than a full-blooded game, declining to really expand on the ideas of Snowboard Kids beyond adding a tiny town for you to walk around in between levels (kind of pointless) and "bosses" that you have to race every three levels (which I wasn't really crazy about in Diddy Kong Racing or here, they kind of break the momentum). The engine also has some inherent flaws but again I'll save those for when I talk about the first one. Don't wanna blow my Snowboard Kids wad; that sounds like a one-way ticket to jail.

37. Resident Evil 2 (1999)

Pros: Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield find themselves trapped in the bloody, apocalyptic chaos of Raccoon City amidst a zombie invasion, and do what any desperate person would in the same situation: solve puzzles involving pushing statues. Ok, there's also zombie-shooting. 

Upping the ante from Resident Evil 1 in pretty much every way - horror, graphics, puzzles, action, and thankfully voice acting - Resident Evil 2's N64 port was the first of the PS1-originated series to hit a Nintendo system, and through some arcane and forbidden black magic managed to shove on a cartridge not only all the prerendered backgrounds of the Playstation original but all the FMVs too. All that while doubling the in-game resolution and adding analog control. Sweet!

Cons: After the glorious cum fiesta that was Resident Evil 4 it's a little hard to go back to the first three games - not the graphics, which I don't care about, but that goddamn camera that sets itself in predetermined, static positions and you constantly have to readjust to. Of course I realize the first three games had no choice, because they didn't actually have polygon-constructed locations, just prerendered background images that your polygonal characters move through, but it's still aggravating. And the pre-Resident Evil 4 controls were also always on the stiff side.

36. 1080° Snowboarding (1998)

Pros: 1080° is an in-house Nintendo game so a certain degree of polish and production value is implied, and it's hard not to compare it to Nintendo's other "realistic" N64 racer, Wave Race 64, especially given that both were produced by Shigeru Miyamoto and programmed by Giles Goddard and Colin Reed. 

Whereas Wave Race had the realistic water physics, 1080° has an unparalleled sense of speed as the snowy levels blur by, music by Kenta Negata (of Mario Kart 64 / Double Dash fame) so rockin' they included some of it in Smash Bros. Brawl, tight, responsive controls, and a plethora of tricks to perform during your substantial airtime. It's just a sleek, polished racing game, and probably the best of the (admittedly few) realistic snowboarding games I've played.

Cons: The game was evidently made in only nine months (like a baby!), and while this doesn't show at all in its physics or control or graphics it DOES show in the fact there are only six tracks. You can blitzkrieg through this fucking game. It'll be a fun experience but it'll climax when you feel like you're just getting started, like how it must feel for girls when I have sex with them. Wait what

35. Mario Golf (1999)

Pros: This game is about as relaxed as multiplayer gets. Oh, it's hard, no doubt; you have to adjust for wind and weather and terrain and obstacles and determine which club to use and where to hit the ball, not to mention the button press-timing game every time you swing. A mistake can send you right into the rough. But there's always a minute or two after your swing to watch your opponent make his or hers, and during your own move you're doing more squinting and studying and "hmm"ing then anything else. The relaxation is only aided by the game's aural combination of elevator tunes and Mario music. It's a game that makes you feel like you should be sipping tea and eating biscuits while playing. A pleasant lazy afternoon sort of game.

Cons: Single-player Mario Golf is boring.

34. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (2000)

Pros: Kirby has never quite been a "prestige" Nintendo franchise to the same degree as Mario, Zelda, and Metroid, but I think Kirby is the motherfucking shit. Anyone who has played Kirby Super Star and doesn't think Kirby is the motherfucking shit should immediately report to my house for mandatory euthanasia. He runs and flies around and sucks you up and steals your power and it's awesome; there has never been a bad Kirby sidescroller.

Kirby 64 throws a unique twist onto the formula. There are seven basic powers to copy - Burn, Ice, Needle, Bomb, Cutter, Stone, and Spark - but each can be combined with another to create a total of twenty-eight super powers. Ultra-special shoutouts to the Spark + Cutter combo, where Kirby literally busts out a yellow double-bladed Darth Maul lightsaber and starts spinning it around and slicing down enemies, fulfilling nerd fantasies from sea to shining sea. Hoooly shit that's awesome.

Cons: Here's the thing - I LIKE sprites. I understand that polygons are way easier to animate since you don't have to draw a fresh sprite one frame at a time, but I would have much rather seen Kirby 64 with high-res, top-of-the-line sprite artwork ala Playstation's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night than the colorful but vaguely bland polygon graphics we got. Polygonal sidescrollers just don't get my retro gamer blood pumping the same way. It's a good game but my favorite Kirby games still remain, by far, Kirby's Adventure and Kirby Super Star.

33. Diddy Kong Racing (1997)

Pros: Hahaha, Rare is fucking shameless. I mean, I love 'em, but let's not kid ourselves and just go ahead and call this game Mario Kart With Rare Characters. In Mario Kart With Rare Characters, you race in go-karts around colorful levels, grinding your way around corners, and picking up items strewn about the track that boost your speed or fire projectiles to knock out other racers or lay traps. It plays a LITTLE bit like Mario Kart might if it had Rare characters in it.

The difference lies in the fact that it has a one-player "adventure" mode where you have to explore the courses for doo-dads (oh, Rare!) and race bosses, which seems like bells and whistles but at least it all ties back into racing. There are also hovercrafts and airplanes for water and sky races, which is a neat twist, and a fair number of secrets. Also, "I'M BAAANJO!!! WHOOOAAAA-AAAOHH!!!!!"

Cons: With eleven years retrospect it's kind of funny to distinctly recall people calling Diddy Kong Racing the Mario Kart 64 killer when it came out. And while it's true that this game's single-player adventure has more levels and stuff to do and variety than Mario Kart 64's single-player, in the actual races, your control over your vehicle's cornering and acceleration and movement is only about 80-85% as precise as in Mario Kart. And while 80-85% is a decent score on your English test, in gaming terms it means that Mario Kart's racing and multiplayer is objectively deeper and better and that's why people still love Mario Kart to this day but you don't hear much talk about Diddy Kong Racing anymore.

(Also, Diddy Kong joined the Mario Kart roster in Mario Kart: Double Dash, so I guess even he agrees.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #48 - 41

48. Rocket: Robot on Wheels (1999)

Pros: An underrated entry in the ever-present genre of N64 platformers, Rocket: Robot on Wheels actually has a couple elements that set it apart from the rest. For one you have this little mini-tractor beam that lets you pick up and move around basically any object that isn't bolted down (think Syndrome's zero-point energy beam from The Incredibles) to solve puzzles or defend yourself with.

And two, it has what was by 1999 standards a pretty sophisticated physics engine. For example, a round object put at the top of a hill will actually roll down and pick up speed while it goes, whereas a square object will sit still and a semi-rounded one will bounce down awkwardly. You also have unusually realistic momentum and different objects have their own buoyancy. With a lesser emphasis on fighting enemies and platform jumping in favor of lots of puzzles involving these unique elements, it's a thinking man's platformer.

Cons: Let's see... a 3D platformer that came out after Super Mario 64... gee, I wonder if this game involves roaming a series of worlds in search of doo-dads that will open up other worlds? Just kidding, no I don't, of course it does. Way to think outside the box, guys. Also, the entire game and every world has a circus theme, which is all well and good except that this means that the only music in the entire game is hyperactive circus tunes. I'm sorry, but this game is aural torture. Play it with the sound off.

47. Castlevania (1999)

Pros: The first attempt to bring Castlevania into the third dimension is similarly structured to its 2D brethren. You start in a forest outside Dracula's castle, fight your way through the undead into the castle, past various bosses and traps and puzzles, up through the clock tower, and finally battle Dracula himself. The game is roughly linear; there's no reason to backtrack once you reach a new part of the castle but each individual section has plenty of exploring to solve puzzles, doors to open, passages to roam, treasure to find, and so on, a nice balance that keeps the pacing focused but not constrictive.

Also, special shoutouts to the hedge maze where a giant Frankenstein monster with a chainsaw chases you down and murders you if he finds you. I've played through all of Eternal Darkness and Resident Evil 4 stony-faced, but that made me shriek like a little girl.

Cons: Woe is the controls. Loose and floaty, with a lack of any sense of weight to your character, every time you make a jump is a literal leap of faith. Which wouldn't be too bad if the game didn't have dozens and dozens if not hundreds of leaps to small platforms across bottomless pits. You will fall and you will die countless times, and you will feel frustrated because not being able to stick the landings feels like the game's fault, not yours.

Koji Igarashi, the producer of Castlevania, has publicly stated that he prefers making 2D games, and I gotta agree with him. No 3D Castlevania has ever really surpassed "pretty good," whereas I thought 2005's 2D Castlevania, Dawn of Sorrow on Nintendo DS, was one of the best games of the year. Keep it sidescrolling.

46. WWF No Mercy (2000)

Pros: With over sixty wrestlers and eight arenas and a plethora of moves, props, weapons, and hidden wrestlers to unlock, this game's variety is matched only by its homoeroticism. You can also create your own wrestler from scratch and edit his or her gender, facial features, costume, and moves. The graphics are pretty damn good and the control is free from any lame button combos that make other wrestling games (particularly in the pre-N64 days) feel like watered down fighting games. While I freely admit I am no wrestling aficionado I have read other people on message boards saying this is their favorite wrestling and / or N64 game of all time.

Cons: There's really nothing outside of some occasional slowdown for me to actively critique. Any problems I have with the game are just problems of taste; like I said, I don't care for pro wrestling so the fairly authentic mood and vibe and atmosphere and aesthetics of the game do nothing for me. Also, you can play as Chris Benoit, which is awkward since he turned out to be a real-life murderer.  Oh, ho ho... murder.

45. Mission: Impossible (1998)

Pros: A very loose adaptation of the Tom Cruise movie, Mission: Impossible is a stealth-action game that merges a lot of different gameplay styles into one package. A few levels are straight-up sneaking to get past enemies to the goal, spray painting security cameras and copying / wearing the faces of guards and so on. A few levels are pure action - run through and kill everyone and stay alive. A couple are pure puzzles with no action to be found. One level involves hanging from a fiber-optic wire and dodging lasers and in one level you have a sniper rifle and have to cover a guy from agents trying to kill him. No lack of variety here.

Cons: It definitely feels low-budget, featuring kind of dull visuals with a ton of fog and pop-ups and somewhat loose, floaty, and imprecise controls that call the N64 Castlevania to mind. The bullet detection is also kind of bizarre, with guards that sometimes take two seconds to react to being shot. Stick with it beyond technical limitations and there's certainly a nugget of goodness to be found, but as far as stealth-action goes it's a far cry from Metal Gear Solid.

44. Pokémon Puzzle League (2000)

Pros: This is a straight-up port of Tetris Attack on the Super NES with a Pokémon coat of paint slapped on it. In Tetris Attack blocks of different colors rise up from the bottom of the screen and you have to match them in combinations of three or more to keep the stack from touching the top. And let's not mince words - I fucking love Tetris Attack. In fact, it's one of my favorite puzzle games of all time and while I admire the innovation and impact of the original Tetris I love Tetris Attack even more as a game. It has a lot of depth as you learn to perform chains and combos and the multi-player is ridiculously fun.

Cons: While Tetris Attack had a fairly innocuous Yoshi's Island motif with a few Yoshi avatars on the side of the screen and some Yoshi tunes, Pokémon Puzzle League's motif is much more aggressive with every chain or combo accompanied by voice clips from the Pokémon anime of Ash shouting "Good job!" and Pikachu talking and Jigglypuff singing and I don't know what the fuck. I like Pokémon, but let's be honest: If you're fourteen years old and say you're playing a cool game called Tetris Attack, no one bats an eye. If you say you're playing a cool game called Pokémon Puzzle League, you're just begging to get your ass kicked.

43. Banjo-Tooie (2000)

Pros: I have immense fondness for Rare's Banjo-Kazooie (I'll be discussing that game later) and many of the things that made that game sensational stand true in its sequel. It's fun to control, has a lot of worlds with a huge amount of variety (the half-lava, half-ice Hailfire Peaks is particularly cool), tons of moves, one of the smoothest flying mechanics on the N64, puzzles, a few neat bosses, truly excellent graphics that still look clean and colorful and attractive today, good music, and a lot of humor and personality. If you like 3D platformers then it's probably a must-play.

Cons: I'm just going to copy-and-paste this from my Donkey Kong 64 review a few days back: "Super Mario 64 wasn't designed around doo-dad collecting, it was designed around high-energy, fast-paced 3D platforming. You aren't meant to aimlessly poke around for the Stars; each Star is an explicitly telegraphed goal and a self-contained platforming level. The collecting was the cleanest and easiest way to facilitate the platforming, not vice versa. And the smaller worlds weren't a design flaw, they were exactly the size they needed to be to be full of novel challenges and interesting design elements and have each Star take a couple minutes to get.

In [Banjo-Tooie], however, the platforming seems merely to facilitate the endless collecting. There's just so much shit you have to collect that it gets frustrating, and the reason that the worlds are massive is because there's huge amounts of negative space."

Rare was a company that knew what they were doing with the N64's hardware; they knew how to produce outstanding graphics and music and giant worlds. But they sometimes as in Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Tooie got too caught up in size at the expense of gameplay. Walking into a world that makes Super Mario 64's biggest look pocket-sized is visually impressive and produces a brief rush of awe, but it makes gameplay feel like a chore when it takes fifteen minutes at a time to get anywhere.

42. Shadow Man (1999)

Pros: Shadow Man has all the good stuff Nintendo typically frowned at back in the day - mass murder, serial killers, occult horror, apocalyptic themes, zombies that explode into gory chunks, profanity, sexual situations, swimming through lakes of blood, fun for the whole family. A highly nonlinear zombie-shooting adventure through the land of the dead, it'll take at least a few dozen hours to beat and with a formula where you find items that enhance your abilities, allowing you access to new areas with new items that enhance your abilities, and so on, it plays almost like the N64 Metroid that never was. 

The graphics are outstanding for 1999, with highly detailed settings and no fog to be found. It also has a bona-fide storyline with an hour or more of cutscenes, character development, and a plot twist or two. It's much less famous but I would personally say that as far as horror games go it's aged better than the original Resident Evil.

Cons: It has a ton of backtracking, and while there is a warping mechanism that substantially aids this, it can get a little exhausting. The controls are also a bit on the stiff side (this seems to be a running theme for this portion of the list) and turning around in particular is a huge pain in the ass. Pushing back on the control stick will just make you walk backwards, and if you want to turn around you'll have to push to the side and slowly swing around, which takes two or three whole seconds - kind of annoying when an enemy is behind you mauling you.

41. Wetrix (1998)

Pros: Now THIS is what I'm talkin' about. No vaguely repainted port of Tetris or Tetris Attack, no tile-based puzzler that could have easily been on NES or Super NES, but an actual, original, full-blooded puzzle game that could only have been made on 3D hardware. In Wetrix you have a board. Falling down upon this board for you to control the orientation and landing point of are "uppers" that raise the floor to create dams, "downers" that flatten it, water that must be contained (if a given amount goes over the edge you lose), fireballs that vaporize the water for lots of points, and deadly bombs that ruin your hard work and you have to aim at the least harmful spot. It's lightning-paced, requires both a lot of thought and fast reflexes, and has solid water physics; a good player can keep a single game going for half an hour. Awesome.

Cons: The camera isn't great, occasionally zooming in and cutting off the corners of the board from your vision. It would have been better if free-roaming camera controls were mapped to the C buttons.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #56 - 49

56. WinBack: Covert Operations (1999)

Pros: Taking a page from the Metal Gear Solid playbook, WinBack is a stealth-action game that sometimes feels like it wants to be a spy thriller movie where you play an agent sneaking into a military base to shut down a terrorist weapon, killing bad guys, solving puzzles, and fighting a few bosses along the way. The stealth element is primarily based around the gameplay mechanic of being able to slide up against walls while seeing enemies around the corner. It's linear but entertaining, an ideal rental circa 1999.

I'm honestly not sure whether to count the fucking ludicrous story as a pro or a con, but it's no more absurd than contemporaneous games like Resident Evil, so I'll go for pro. You certainly can't deny that it attempts to have a narrative, with extended dialogue scenes, betrayal, good guys dying, personal tragedy, a "no man should have nuclear weaponry" message, and so on, all delivered with nuance and subtlety of an anvil and perhaps all the more charming for it.

Cons: I hope you like the color gray, because gray is what you're going to get. Gray walls. Gray floors. Gray background. Gray enemies. Gray machinery. Gray crates. Gray sky. It's borderline depressing, and while I'm no "graphics whore," I do enjoy seeing a primary color from time to time. And although the corner-sliding stealth mechanic is pretty neat, it's also how you kill pretty much every enemy in the whole game and it eventually gets a little stale.

55. Hybrid Heaven (1999)

Pros: The third of the N64's five RPGs (previously covered: Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage, Quest 64) involves the unravelling of an alien conspiracy housed in a vast lair beneath New York City to replace all of Earth's leaders with puppet clones, thus conquering the world. It's some hardcore X-Files shit. It's a sort of action-RPG hybrid where you run, jump, and dodge minor enemies in real time but major battles shift to a traditional menu-based battle format with an experience points system so hardcore that each of your limbs actually gains independent experience, levels, and stats. What!

Cons: The flaw of Hybrid Heaven lies in the pacing. The entire game is one big dungeon ala Metroid or Metal Gear Solid or Castlevania - unusual for an RPG but not inherently wrong - and this would be fine if the game was a taut, compact four or five hour sci-fi adventure with a fast pace of plot twists, big battles, novel settings, and unique puzzles. The game is instead artificially inflated to about twenty hours with cut-and-paste corridors, the same puzzles and sequences of events repeated over and over, and it frankly becomes a bit tedious. Sometimes brevity is bliss, and late 90s game developers were still working their minds around this concept.

54. Donkey Kong 64 (1999)

Pros: Rareware's Donkey Kong 64 was one of many post-1996 platformers that aped (pun?) Super Mario 64's fundamental design of collecting doo-dads in large 3D platforming worlds to open up more worlds; the doo-dads here are called Golden Bananas. Upon release it was lauded with 9/10 ratings and bountiful praise for its huge worlds and vast, sprawling design, and it's easy to see how it was enchanting back then - it really was THE biggest platformer ever made. Hell, it still might be, and the graphics were top of the line for 1999. It also has the original arcade Donkey Kong included in whole, which rocks.

Cons: It seems like every post-Super Mario 64 platformer decided it had to BE Super Mario 64, and they all - Donkey Kong 64, the Banjo games, Jak and Daxter, and so on - drank deep from Mario's design. In Mario 64 each 3D world had seven Stars to collect, so Rare upped the ante into the stratosphere by spreading 25 Golden Bananas across each world (along with small bananas, coins, blueprints, keys, and weapons to collect). Not only that, but you have five different playable Kongs and have to play through each world five times to get everything. And these worlds are absolutely fucking colossal, geographically orders of magnitude larger than Mario 64's.

But here's the problem - they completely missed the point. Super Mario 64 wasn't designed around doo-dad collecting, it was designed around high-energy, fast-paced 3D platforming. You aren't meant to aimlessly poke around for the Stars; each Star is an explicitly telegraphed goal and a self-contained platforming level, and Mario moves like greased lightning as he jumps, runs, and flies to meet these challenges. The collecting was the cleanest and easiest way to facilitate the platforming, not vice versa. And the smaller worlds weren't a design flaw, they were exactly the size they needed to be to be full of novel challenges and interesting design elements and have each Star take a couple minutes to get.

In Donkey Kong 64, however, the platforming seems merely to facilitate the endless collecting. There's just so much shit you have to collect that it gets frustrating, and the reason that the worlds are massive is because there's huge amounts of negative space, paths you have to walk for minutes to make progress, made all the more tedious by the fact that the Kongs move at half the speed Mario did. And making you play through each world five times? That's twisting the knife right there. 

It's 100% true that, as advertised, the game will take a bare minimum of 60 hours to beat, maybe close to 80 hours. But there's a nugget of maybe 20-25 hours of actual platforming with tons and tons and tons of padding. There's nothing wrong with A-cup tits and if you pad them to D-cups with silicon you have made them four times as big and one-fourth as appealing. Donkey Kong 64 is the same way; four times the size, one-fourth the pleasure. Donkey Kong 64, you are the fake tits of the gaming world.

53. The New Tetris (1999)

Pros: I'm honestly not sure where to rank this - despite the false advertising in the title, The New Tetris is pretty much pure Tetris. Tetris is sublime; Tetris is brilliant. Tetris is like the chess of video games, an easy to play but deceptively deep and arguably perfect design. The New Tetris takes Tetris and adds cool techno music, higher-resolution graphics, and backgrounds of famous landmarks, which don't change the gameplay but don't hurt either. Everyone likes Tetris. You know who didn't like Tetris? That's right - Hitler.

Cons: That said, I can only rank a port of a fourteen year old game so high. If you owned Tetris on NES or Game Boy there wasn't really any reason to own The New Tetris. No reason not to, either. It's Tetris! I've typed the word "Tetris" too many times, it's lost all meaning.

52. Body Harvest (1998)

Pros: An alien invasion action game by DMA Design (later renamed to Rockstar North of Grand Theft Auto fame), the concept is probably the neatest part of Body Harvest. The earth is under siege by giant alien bugs in all places and all eras and you travel across time to various cities protecting the citizens by (what else?) blasting the shit of of the aliens. You're pretty weak on foot though, so you take command of some sixty assorted vehicles - cars, tanks, planes, helicopters, boats, flying saucers, and so on - to kick alien ass and find ways to traverse the world. It plays a little bit like Blast Corps might if that game had enemies in it; a clever and fun design.

Cons: The problem with Body Harvest is that it feels unfinished. That sounds cold, but seriously - the game has a clever concept and could probably be remade today with current graphics and gameplay and be superb, but Body Harvest looked and felt outdated the moment it was released. The control is loose making it difficult to aim, and the graphics are bad. I don't mean bad compared to today, I mean that if Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 were 1996 games, this looks like it should have been a 1994 or 1993 game; it's ultra-foggy, the characters are blocky, and the settings barren, like they ran out of time in which they planned to do shading and add about three more layers of detail or the game suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome or something.

51. Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (2000)

Pros: The year was 1996, and Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr. was no stranger to video games, with several point-and-click adventures and sidescrollers under his belt. But then along came a game called Tomb Raider, an action-adventure game where you took control of an archaeologist and avoided traps, solved puzzles, and fought bad guys while delving into ancient tombs and temples for treasure, and you could almost hear someone at LucasArts shout "Son of a bitch! Why didn't we think of this?!" So they ripped it off exactly.

Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine plays pretty much identically to Tomb Raider. Take control of Indy in third-person and, in your excavation of temples to try to get a powerful artifact before the Soviets do, pull levers and push buttons and solve puzzles and make daring jumps. There's also a whiff of Zelda 64 in that you assign an item to each C-button and the Z-trigger locks onto enemies and lets you circle them in combat. It's pretty fun.

Cons: The play control is a little bit on the stiff side (again like Tomb Raider) and there are some glitches. The voice actor for Indiana Jones also doesn't even roughly attempt to kinda sorta approximate Harrison Ford, he just sounds like some asshole off the street.

50. Spider-Man (2000)

Pros: Note that this game actually precedes the 2002 film by two years and its nonsense story is based off the Spider-Man comics. So although there's no Tobey Maguire voice acting and the villains' costumes are cartoony, this thankfully means that we don't have to listen to Aunt May give a ten-minute monologue about responsibility and being a man between every level.

Like Activision's later movie-licensed Spider-Man games, this game's greatest strength by far is the actual webslinging. Swinging from building to building, zip-lining from surface to surface, crawling on walls and ceilings and getting the drop on enemies, shooting bad guys with web blasts; it's all exactly the empowerment fantasy it needs to be. You really do feel like Spider-Man.

Cons: The combat engine is unfortunately not quite as fun as the webslinging - something which has been true for every one of Activision's Spidey games. Whenever you're on a mission indoors you find yourself itching for the freedom to web sling from buildings and it gets a little claustrophobic. 

Overall, while the game is fun, I would say it's definitely completely overshadowed by the Spider-Man 2 movie adaptation game on GameCube / PS2 / XBox. While that game is still flawed in terms of mission structure and combat, swinging from building to building in the giant recreated New York City feels just right. Now if only someone could make a Spider-Man game where every element matches the quality of the webs.

49. Bomberman 64: The Second Attack! (2000)

Pros: In classic over-the-top Japanese gaming tradition, this game is about the Angel who created the entire universe deciding that it is time to obliterate all existence and start again with a new universe. So Bomberman bombs his way past all the servants of god, into heaven itself, battles all the archangels, and finally does cosmic battle with the Angel who created existence for the fate of the space-time continuum. I'm not even close to kidding. I cannot believe how fucking hilarious this game's plot is.

Putting aside plot it's a pretty typical Bomberman game. Your bombs explode in a plus shape and you drop them, kick them, and toss them towards enemies and obstacles in a series of rooms to get through, occasionally solving a puzzle or fighting a boss. Simple clean fun.

Cons: But let's get one thing straight - I fucking love the original Bomberman 64. Not just the multiplayer (for the record, the best Bomberman multiplayer is Bomberman '93 on TurboGrafx-16), but the single player adventure. I thought the way it fused classic overhead Bomberman gameplay with large, free-exploring, puzzle-filled Mario 64-esque worlds was pure genius. So while I find The Second Attack! fun, I am a bit disappointed it scaled back to SNES-style Bomberman with simple series of enclosed rooms. Felt like a step backwards.