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.

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