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?

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