Sunday, November 16, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #8 - 1

8. Banjo-Kazooie (1998)

Pros: Banjo-Kazooie is probably the all-time greatest Super Mario 64 rip-off, if also the most blatant. Rareware took Mario 64's exact formula - Mario explores several large 3D worlds interconnected by Peach's Castle, collecting coins and Stars to open up new worlds - and xeroxed it verbatim, replacing Mario with Banjo bear and Kazooie the bird, Peach's Castle with Gruntilda's Lair, coins with notes, and Stars with Jiggies. They even swiped the flying mechanic and replaced Mario's butt-stomp with an identical "beak-stomp." It's shameless, it's brazen, it's offensive. It just happens to be forgivable because the game is really, really good.

Name any element, and it's top of the line for 1998: The worlds are large but not aimless, full of variety and personality (my favorites being the beach level Treasure Trove Cove and the snow mountain Freezeezy Peak). The gameplay is an excellent mix of platforming, puzzles, action, and exploration. The graphics are gorgeous with enormous color and detail and zero fog or pop-up. The music is great. The control is smooth. It's challenging but always fair. It even has a sense of humor and characters with distinct personalities. Banjo-Kazooie is truly the best possible game about a bipedal honey bear who wears homosexual biker shorts.

Cons: Banjo-Kazooie was the first game I really noticed the doo-dad collecting in; it was present in Mario 64 but so well-integrated I never thought about it. In Mario you have to collect a little over half of the Power Stars to beat the game and the coin collecting is completely optional, but in Banjo-Kazooie you have to amass nearly every one of the hundred golden jigsaw pieces and nine-hundred notes. The notes are particularly brutal since there are a hundred spread through every world and hunting for just one missing note can take an hour. It's under control but it started Rare down the dark path of doo-dads that led to the excess of Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Tooie.

7. Star Fox 64 (1997)

Pros: In a world where forest creatures walk on two legs, speak fluent English, and are involved in an intergalactic war against the armies of an insane madman, I wonder who the fuck came up with this unholy madness. In terms of gameplay alone I think that Star Fox 64 is the greatest on-rails shooter of all time - the pace, sleekness, and sheer frenetic madness of its shooting action will never be topped. It's wild entertainment and the bosses are awesome. But it wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable if not for the inherent absurd charm of its earnestly-presented story of military science-fiction, genocide, genetically engineered bio-weapons, betrayal, dead fathers, and personal angst all starring bipedal foxes, frogs, rabbits, and birds.

It's also the most quotable game in the history of the medium. Lines like "Do a barrel roll!", "If I go down I'm taking you with me!", and "Hey Einstein, I'm on YOUR side!" will haunt me even on my death bed. My last words will be "Sorry to jet, but I'm in a hurry!", leaving everyone present not in tears but utterly baffled.

Cons: "Fox! Get this guy off me!" SHUT UP SLIPPY.

6. Mario Kart 64 (1997)

Pros: Mario Kart 64 is not only the best racing game on Nintendo 64 but also among the greatest series reinventions in gaming history. Don't get me wrong, I loved Super Mario Kart back in 1992, but that game's flat Mode 7 tracks and relatively straightforward gameplay were shattered by the hills, peaks, valleys, terrain variety, obstacles, hazards, and corner-grinding madness of Mario Kart 64. It's an upgrade in literally every feasible way; it's like finding Internet porn after five years of whacking off to black and white Victoria's Secret models in the local newspaper.

Nearly every track is a unique experience. Some of them like the traffic-filled Toad's Highway are fun, wicked insanity and some of them like Mario Raceway are clean, fast, and perfectly constructed for time trials. In classic Nintendo tradition the game is super-easy to pick up and play but deceptively deep as it controls so tightly that the more you play the better and better you get. The multiplayer is just phenomenal, both the racing and the battles; party game brilliance that will cause friend to swear at and strike at friend, shatter relationships, and ruin lives. And that's what gaming's all about.

Cons: Unlike Star Fox 64, which remains the highlight of the Star Fox series, Mario Kart 64 has been one-upped multiple times over by Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Mario Kart DS, and Mario Kart Wii, which trump it in speed, gameplay depth, visuals, character / kart / level variety, and in the case of the latter two, online multiplayer. It does, however, have more memorable music than any of them.

5. Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (2000)

Pros: We come to it at last. The great RPG of N64's time. Sure, it's only competing in a field of five games - itself, Paper Mario, Hybrid Heaven, Quest 64, and Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage, the last of which is only just barely preferable to most genocides - but it would be a really fucking good game stacked up against the library of any console in gaming history.

As a strategy RPG where you have dozens of characters, all of whom will likely have to get in on the action at some point between protecting your bases and engaging the enemy, Ogre Battle 64 is first and foremost a micromanager's wet dream. You'll have to customize the weapons, armor, classes, and alignment of dozens of individuals one at a time before organizing these soldiers into units and legions, giving it plenty of depth and endless number of nuances to tinker with even between battles.

It also has a pretty elaborate and entertaining high fantasy narrative, in classic RPG tradition starting off fairly small-scale but eventually expanding to encompass the fate of the kingdom and then the entire world, with plenty of engaging heroes and villains and enough plot twists to shake a cock at. It was also the first Nintendo game I remember where they regularly swore, and I would giggle whenever they said "shit," because I'm twelve. I will always be twelve.

Cons: Ogre Battle 64 has multiple endings. By itself this isn't a problem; Chrono Trigger had a dozen endings and that's one of many things people recall fondly about it. But Ogre Battle's six endings range from mega-happy to depressing depending on how well you play the game, which means that once you're sixty hours in you probably have your ending set and it's too late to change it. It's frustrating to sink the equivalent of three days of your life into a narrative and not be able to see the mega-happy resolution without YouTube.

4. Super Mario 64 (1996)

Pros: Super Mario 64 is the greatest technological leap forward in the history of video games. It's been baby steps before and since, watching graphics, control, technology, and genres gradually evolve, but it needs to stand in history that Super Mario 64 was a ridiculously bold and risky leap into the unknown, Nintendo gambling their most bankable intellectual property and perhaps the fate of their new console on a fledgling genre - the 3D platformer - that they were essentially constructing wholesale from the ground up. It was a complete success. Super Mario 64 rightfully shook gaming at its very core.

I've slathered numerous other 3D platformers with praise for elements that Mario 64 pioneered - the variety of worlds and tasks and the mix of platforming, puzzles, and bosses - but the main reason Mario 64 still makes me pop wood all these years is the controls. There's a certain lightness to the control that's as tricky to verbally nail down as explaining why a food item tastes good. Not looseness - the control is incredibly tight - but Mario moves with a slick and incredibly fun speed both in the air and on the ground that no other franchise has matched. Twelve years later, the only two 3D platformers with smoother and more intuitive control than Super Mario 64 are Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy.

This is also the game that changed Princess Toadstool's name to "Peach," which weirded me out at first until I realized that since Toadstools are a race in the Marioverse her old name made about as much sense as a fictional President of the United States being named "President Human."

Cons: None.

3. GoldenEye 007 (1997)

Pros: Until I played GoldenEye 007 I didn't really like first-person shooters. Sure, I was primarily basing this opinion on Doom, but Doom was very popular and I figured that if I didn't care for the most beloved game of a genre I probably wouldn't care for the genre as a whole. It took one Agent 007 James Bond to show me the folly of my ways.

While GoldenEye has a few levels of pure run-and-gun action (and does them well because the engine is a lot of fun), the majority of the game is centered around stealthy spy missions. Sneak through levels while being silent as possible and keeping a low profile, sniping bad guys with silenced pistols or avoiding them when deemed prudent, disabling security systems and shooting cameras, stealing documents and hacking computers. It really makes you feel like motherfuckin' James Bond. The single-player mission is superb.

But that is, as we say in the old country, merely the tip of iceberg. It was this game's stupidly fun multiplayer death match mode that gave it years and years of replayability. It's simple as can be in concept, just dropping you in levels from the game and letting you shoot each other to death, but in 1997 it was about as much fun as four people could have sans orgy.

Cons: GoldenEye's multiplayer mode would eventually be trumped by Perfect Dark, but as a product of its time I have no gripes except that the single-player mode's storytelling is a little whack. It's a very, very rough recreation of the movie's narrative that you can follow if you've seen the 1995 film but otherwise I'm not sure it would make any sense at all. Also, despite playing as James Bond, no matter what button I push I can't convince any of the digital women to sleep with me. Fucking technology.

2. Super Smash Bros. (1999)

Pros: Between 1999 and 2001 I needed Smash like a drug addict needs heroin - constantly and right into my vein. It's funny; like with GoldenEye and the shooter genre, I wasn't particularly crazy about fighting games until I played Super Smash Bros. Sure, I played Street Fighter II some during the 90s, because you weren't no one if you couldn't bust out a Hadouken, but Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Virtua Fighter, and so on held no more interest to me than vaginas hold to a Catholic priest. But come 1999 I found a fighting game seemingly built for my heart.

Smash Bros., how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. One, it draws deep and shamelessly from a generation of Nintendo nostalgia, amassing in one game a large collection of Nintendo characters, locations, items, theme songs, and general iconography. I'm a Nintendo junkie, so I dug that. Two, each of the twelve fighters (except Mario and Luigi) plays completely and totally differently than each other, with completely unique attacks, jumping ability, speed, strengths, and weaknesses, leading to endless battle variety. And three, the controls actually resemble a Nintendo platformer more than a conventional fighting game, with none of the stiffness I typically associated with the genre.

It all adds up to a ridiculously crack-like multiplayer mode that headlined the "Holy Trinity" of itself, Perfect Dark, and Mario Tennis that my old N64 crew played nonstop from 1999 - 2001. I must have put a thousand hours into this fucking game. The folly of wasted youth... the joy of smashing Pikachu in the face with a baseball bat.

Cons: Super Smash Bros.' massive character variety is also its one downfall - there are a few fighters that stand very clearly head and shoulders above the rest and no matter how well you play some of the lesser characters, such as Yoshi, Link, and Donkey Kong, you will always be at a severe handicap. It's also, as I've mentioned with a few other games on this list, overshadowed by its sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube. Melee's battles are lightning-paced and the original feels sluggish when you go back to it.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

Pros: If 1985's Super Mario Bros. is the Citizen Kane of video games, taking every element available to its young medium and simultaneously surging every one of them forward in one package, then The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is The Godfather of video games, the culmination of a more mature art form that has had time to grow and experiment, an epic that revolutionizes while embracing the best traditions of its medium, sublime in every element. You could easily mount an argument that Ocarina of Time is not only best game on Nintendo 64 but the best game of all time.

The general format of Ocarina is typical of its genre - you explore towns and find secrets and gather items and most notably journey through nine monster and puzzle-filled dungeons. Between dungeons there are plot events and subquests and set pieces that open up the next dungeon, and so on and so forth up to the end - basically the same format as previous Zeldas.

But the execution is just flat-out better than any other game of its type. The dungeons are atmospheric, brilliantly designed webs of interlocking puzzles. The jaw-dropping, often massive bosses are terrific. The high fantasy plot unfolds with the streamlined beauty of myth. The artwork, design, and music are among the best of any console. The variety of items and weapons you get is without equal. The minigames, such as the fishing hole, are good enough that lesser companies might have released them as their own games. There's endless secrets and subquests. The game radiates an unparalleled at the time sense of style and elegance. You even get to ride a goddamn horse.

Total victory. Best game on the Nintendo 64 and certainly one of the top five games of all time.

Cons: There are exactly two imperfections in Ocarina of Time: I wish that the overworld music in the future was the classic Legend of Zelda theme song, and I wish that the final battle against Ganon was more challenging.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Zelda in front of Goldeneye? Is it a joke?