Sunday, August 7, 2011

Kirby's Dream Land

Kirby is a character that almost never happened. A simple pink blob (despite the fact that the box art for Kirby's Dream Land depicts him as white), Kirby pioneered the puffy ball of cuteness in a time when one's response to "Jigglypuff" was typically "God bless you." But did you know that Kirby's design was just a stand-in while the developers tried to come up with a real character for their game? They just found the little rascal so cute they decided to keep him on. Then they named him after a vacuum cleaner, stuck him in a Game Boy cartridge, and called it Dream Land.

Me big.The basic plot of Kirby's Dream Land is that the self-proclaimed ruler of Dream Land, King Dedede, has gone around stealing food from everyone because he's hongry. Kirby, a resident of Dream Land who is honestly equally famished, decides to go retrieve the food. That's basically it. Two gluttons fighting over a banquet. Also, as though it's somehow important, the feast is supposed to be eaten at midnight. I don't know if there's some sort of Cinderella vibe going on here, but the game itself never alludes to this - in fact, it's never even dark, which would seem to put the whole thing to rest. Unless...

Maybe Dream Land has multiple suns! You know, it's not Earth or anything. We're talking about a world where little pink things go around swallowing everything that moves. Why should we assume that they have the same sort of solar cycle as we do? Or you know what? Maybe they don't even have a sun at all! Yeah, maybe the world is lit up by something magical. the ground is covered in glittery gumdrops! They're too small to see on the Game Boy, of course, but they project enough light to make it like an eternal day. But see, they're spread out so uniformly that you don't notice they're the world's light source at all, unless you really get down and examine them scientifically. But nobody does science in Dream Land! That's got to be it!

Haha.Aaaaaanyway, Dream Land really is a happy place. They even name their major landmarks things that invent memes. I mean, who was really using the internet back in 1992? And if you were, you certainly weren't hunting down memes. You didn't even know what they were. But here comes Kirby's Dream Land, dropping the lulz all over you. Now, I admit it's possible that this is pronounced "low low low," but doesn't that just make it the predecessor for this instead? You cannot avoid the truth here: Kirby's Dream Land changed the entire course of mankind. There, I said it.

Kirby's main weapon is a little on the lame side. It's air. See, Kirby can inhale, exhale, and that's basically it. But he can inhale a lot of air, to the point where he can even float around. Now, this doesn't make any sense, because inhaling the air doesn't make him lighter than air, but you have to remember that this is a Game Boy game, and stop expecting so much. He can also expel this air with such force as to kill small lifeforms, something which will occur with some frequency in this game. In addition, of course, you can just directly inhale the enemies themselves, and spit them out as stars. Don't ask.

Balloon Fight.Now, Kirby's air-sucking abilities allow him something rather unique in platformers; he can essentially fly anywhere at any time. It's this dynamic that sets Kirby apart, more than any other single thing. They even have you fight a boss in this way, though they give you a power-up just prior that allows you to spit air puffs indefinitely. The other bosses are largely forgettable, except for the first. That's Whispy Woods, a tree that tries to Newton you to death, dropping apples from its branches in hopes that one of them will strike you. This would turn into Kirby's sort of trademark boss-that's-not-really-very-important-to-the-story, which a few other games utilize as well.

The basic enemies in this game are actually mostly "normal," considering everything else going on. You've got Waddle Dees, which appropriately do nothing but waddle. You've got Waddle Doos, which are like the Dees, except cycloptic and they shoot crap out of their eyes. Perhaps most treacherous are the Gordos, which are, and I ask that you brace yourself, sentient, mobile spikes. Say WHAAA? Remember in Sonic how dastardly those things were? Or heck, go back even further to Mega Man! Or even Mega Man 2! Jiminy Crickets man, even Mega Man 3! Spikes are deadly abominations of sin. You see a Gordo, you RUN. You hear me? RUN!

Killer rabbit.And then there's these little spawns of Satan. I know. You think I'm some sort of cold-hearted maniac. How could anyone not adore those happy little bunnies floating there disembodied staring blankly into space? You're in for a rude awakening. These guys are no less vicious than the rabbit that attacked King Arthur and his knights at the caves of Caerbannog (check your history textbooks; it's there). You make one wrong move, and they will charge you and explode. All over your face. That glee on their face isn't because they think Dream Land's a pretty spiffy place to raise a family - it's because they can't wait to blow you into little pink bits the color of which your game system can't even recognize.

With all of this, it's nice that the game gives you a health bar instead of the Mario style "stub a toe on a goomba and die" method of meting out punishment. And the health can be healed by - what else? - eating. Specifically, there are giant tomatoes emblazoned with the letter M that will restore your life completely. Or, if you're only feeling a tad thirsty, you'll find bottled water lying around, ready for the ingesting. You eat the plastic too, but to no apparent ill effect. And look at it this way: when you have to poop, you're recycling!

Flying V.So...King Dedede. Did you know he's a duck? A big ol' duck with a hammer. Wearing a wooly cap and a bathrobe. All right, I'll roll with it. I've come this far. Defeating him is a tad troublesome at first because, like the other bosses in the game, he is immune to your bursts of air. But, unlike the previous bosses, he doesn't generate any objects for you to inhale and spit back at him. Eventually you've got to just say "This is crazy, but..." and swallow the biggest thing you can see in the foreground other than King Dedede himself - the animation of his hammer hitting the ground. Yes, the cute little star that poofs out to show impact is itself your weapon. It's ridiculous, it's absurd, it's genius.

Beating Dedede causes his castle to start spontaneously ejecting all the food he'd collected. So I guess if you ever had a strong desire to watch a castle vomiting various fruits and fish, you can always hit up Kirby. I have to admit though that it's really an unsatisfying finish. Frankly, the game is too easy. From start to finish, nothing here is a challenge. They even have you replay all the earlier bosses before fighting Dedede in the Mega Man style, but the bosses were easy the first time, and now you already know how to beat them. It's a rather short game too; you can finish it in 30 minutes or less without any real problem the first time through.

Bub.All this is mostly rectified, however, by the inclusion of an "extra game." After emerging from Dedede's castle victorious and sitting through the game's credits, you'll be presented with a code to enter at the title screen for this extra game. It's the same thing, only with harder enemies (same dealio as Super Mario Bros.). It won't take long before you notice the increased difficulty here. There are more enemies, and all of them are more difficult than their previous incarnations. You'll even see little walking cupcakes that launch their icing at you. Nothing really ever shot at you the first time through. Whispy Woods starts dropping Gordos from his tree as well as apples, and he drops them faster. The list goes on, but the point is that the extra game is basically the challenge that Kirby arguably should have been in the first place.

Kirby is a refreshing departure from the usual offering of platform gaming, daring to be creative in what was already threatening to be a stagnant genre. You've got to respect it for that. While its concept was original and entertaining, its execution left a bit to be desired. It was too easy, too short, and relatively unfocused. Still, they gave us an option in the game to correct the first flaw on that list, so all in all, you've got to say it was a good start for Kirby and the gang.

Bottom Line: 13/20

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Star Wars: Dark Forces

When you think about it, Doom was one of the best things ever to happen to Star Wars. The franchise had already seen some games released, but they were at times just pitiful Game Boy ports of nearly as pitiful NES games. Even good games like X-Wing and TIE Fighter only granted you interaction into one aspect of the Star Wars universe: ship combat. But with the onset of first-person shooter technology made effective and popular by Doom, they could finally set you in the role of an individual without resorting to stupid side-scrolling levels full of spikes.

Ackbar.In Dark Forces you play as Kyle Katarn, a mercenary running jobs for the Rebel Alliance because the Empire had a hand in the still-not-totally-resolved murder of his father. The game opens with you having to steal the Death Star plans to deliver them to Princess Leia, which of course immediately precedes the first film's events. Cool tie-in, if nothing else. Then the rest of the game takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but by now you're a known entity, and the Empire wants you dead.

Maybe it's just the fact that this is the first time Star Wars has ever been experienced in this format, but Dark Forces is just so full of murderous intent it's a little frightening. Everyone in this game wants to violently end your life. We're not talking about the legions of hell from Doom, or even the dehumanized Nazis from Wolfenstein anymore. These are living, breathing, thinking, presumably otherwise moral human beings. Sure, they may hide under clunky white suits of armor, but for crying out loud, doesn't anyone think twice before pulling the trigger? Has anyone really ever sat back and contemplated what it truly means to end a life?

Magnetized.Maybe it's just that they're too stupid to even reflect on such matters. After all, if you stand behind a transparent forcefield, they will continue to shoot at you with reckless abandon, even as the lasers reflect back into their own armor. Yes, that's right. You can eliminate entire rooms of enemy soldiers without ever firing a shot, simply by standing there and letting them shoot themselves down. They're more efficient at that than at shooting you anyway. Stormtroopers have never exactly been renowned for their accuracy.

But you know what? I think they get judged a little unfairly on that. After all, Dark Forces is the first time we really get to use that blaster rifle for ourselves. And let me tell you - it ain't going to win you any target shooting contests. It's not that the stormtroopers have abysmal aim, it's that the gun the Empire foists upon them can't fire straight in the least. I can only imagine the frustration. We're talking about the dominant force in the galaxy with all the resources you can imagine and they just refuse to equip their infantry with so much as a gun that can fire straight. It's darned irresponsible, that's what it is.

Huttese.Not that accuracy is really going to be working in your favor either here. Dark Forces defies reason and makes all your weapons shoot off to the left instead of the center. Why this is I have no idea, but it'll throw you way off at first. Even your "accurate" pistol has this issue. Once you lock down what the correction is in terms of aiming to the right of what you want to hit you'll be fine on that issue, but there are others. You see, Dark Forces made a couple leaps forward in FPS technology. For the first time, levels are in legitimate 3D. This means you can jump, duck, swim, have rooms on top of other rooms, and perhaps most notably, look up and down. Unfortunately you can't aim vertically with your mouse. You've got to actually hit your page up and page down keys to adjust your vertical aim, and there's no way to restore you to default height automatically.

The game tries to make up for this by auto-adjusting shots vertically to an extent. This creates graphical confusion when you point a gun straight forward and see the laser shoot to the left and downward at a 70 degree angle, but I guess it does make the game playable. I'll give them a bit of a pass, because I understand that nobody had worked out all the 3D kinks yet. I mean, they include "bottomless" pits in some levels that all have visible bottoms. You may even intentionally leap into one because you can see the floor and you think "I might survive that." Nope. You'll just hear yourself screaming from a stock sound effect and have to try again. Works the other way too though - I don't know why, but you can jump like 5 feet vertically in Dark Forces. Don't be silly.

IMIceYou want proof this game wants to end your life?
Why is there an ice level in a shooter?! And don't tell me it's just aesthetic because that crap is slippery for reals. You actually have to find "ice cleats" in the level to stop from sliding uncontrollably, and you know where they put those things? On a narrow cliff over a bottomless (that is to say, bottomed) pit. You also get other little gadgets and extras as you go, like IR goggles that don't actually view anything in infrared (it's more of a night-vision puke green), and a gas mask that is absolutely necessary to survive one section of a level.

What? Plot? Oh, all right. The main premise of the game is that the Empire has begun building "Dark Troopers." These are, for lack of a better word, Terminators. You've got to find out how and where they're making these things and then destroy all associated facilities in their production before blowing up an Imperial ship acting as the mobile launching base for them. Eventually the metal endoskeletons get enhanced with armor, a jetpack, and a giant plasma rifle with an attached missile launcher. Yipes. But they're still not the scariest things in the game. That distinction is reserved for two other baddies.

Boom.The first are the Gran. They're an alien species with multiple eyes protruding out of the forehead. Eyes that in Dark Forces glow green. In the dark. And guess what they do?

Do they lob infinite numbers of thermal detonators?

Absolutely correct!

Good news? You can load up on the things when they die and use them to explode entire rooms of guys who would do the same to you if given half a chance. They've got sick aim too. And those eyes....*shudder*

The other most deadly enemy? Turrets. There are ceiling turrets in various places throughout the levels. They have tons of health, a fairly quick rate of fire, and they never miss (even if you're sprinting randomly). Probably responsible for a healthy majority of the deaths I experienced playing this game.

You'll notice I didn't include any bosses among the game's enemy elite. There's a couple reasons for this. First, there's only one boss in the whole campaign, at the very end. Secondly, if he weren't chatting dialogue at you as the fight started, you wouldn't even realize he was a boss. He acts virtually identical to the Dark Troopers and doesn't seem any more difficult to kill. Who I really feel bad though is the single Imperial officer hanging out in the only room after the boss fight. He was assigned "guard the shuttle" duty, but the idiots had the brilliant idea to load the shuttle bay with explosive barrels. And if you just knocked out the "hardest" enemy in the game, what chance does this fool have? Makes me think that all their efforts to execute me might actually be in vain.



Dark Forces is a somewhat decent game flawed by a number of imperfections that can mostly be chalked up to being the first to attempt the things they were attempting. The cutscenes are pretty good for the era, though I do feel obligated to mention that the line "Stop, rebel scum!" isn't said with as much zest as would feel appropriate. It's a moderately tough shooter that looks and feels a lot like Doom without the demons...though those garbage monsters come pretty close. Don't swim in trash, folks. Shizz is nasty.

Bottom Line: 12/20

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Every video game family has a black sheep. I'm talking about that game where they tried to be "different" or "innovative" but instead ended up being "mediocre" or "lame." In the NES era, it was the second game of franchises that tended to trend this way. Castlevania II was noticeably different from its predecessor, though maybe in that case it was a good thing. Super Mario Bros. 2 was obviously quite a departure from the first game. I could go on, but you get the idea: the sequels to popular NES games are usually odd. And thus I present you Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Title.The astute among you may have noticed that we are no longer speaking of The Legend of Zelda, but just Zelda II. Which might normally cause you to believe that Zelda will be more prominent in this game than in the last, but she is, if possible, even less involved than before. You see, apparently some years after Link saved Hyrule and dipped out of town for a while, Zelda's spoiled brother wanted the third Triforce piece (that one we wouldn't discuss last time around) and when Zelda wouldn't tell him where it was, he had some wizard stick a sleeping spell on her so powerful that the wizard died while casting it. So, you guessed it: while Zelda spent the entire first game kidnapped, she gets to spend the entire second one unconscious. At that point I can't even fault them for officially declaring her life less legendary. Sheesh.

So anyway, you've got to go find the third Triforce (now called forevermore the Triforce of Courage) because it's the only thing that can awaken Zelda. To do that you've got to take some crystals and stick them in six palaces/temples across Hyrule, which will reveal the resting place of the little golden triangle that everyone's so worked up about. Meanwhile Ganon's loyal minions found out that you're back in Hyrule and they want you dead. Evidently if they sprinkle your blood on Ganon's ashes, he'll come back to life. Gross.

Matryoshlink.Unlike the last game which used an overhead perspective, this game is comprised of a bunch of sidescrolling "action screens." You'll walk around the overworld map in the usual way, but periodically shadows of enemies will appear and chase you. If one touches you, you enter the action screen to do some 2D battle with it. It throws you off a little at first for a couple reasons. For one, Link is just abnormally big and blurry. You don't notice it too much until you go into a village and see the other people, but you are huge and obviously a lower res than the world around you. And if you see how low res the world around you is, well... The second odd moment will be when you first kill an enemy and see experience points awarded. Like a real RPG. People usually try to claim that the Zelda games are all RPGs, and they're all clearly wrong. Still though, Zelda II comes closer than any of them to crossing that genre.

When you reach your experience goal you'll get the option to increase one of your only three stats: life, magic, or attack power. They have differing levels of cost, but if you just buy the cheapest thing every time you'll progress fairly evenly. You can also find hearts and magic potions hidden in the world that increase your gauges at the top from 4 all the way up to 8. But all is not well on the experience front. Zelda II can save, which is great and all, but here's the catch: the game doesn't save your experience. Oh it'll save your purchases, so all your stat upgrades will be there, but it'll reset your actual experience pool to nothing whenever you exit the game. So let's say you need 5000 experience points to buy something, and you get to 4995 but then have to quit. When you load back up, it's 0/5000. BONED. Maybe that's why they stick P-bags around the world too, that just give free experience. But they're one-time use too, so if you used one then quit, your experience is gone and so is the bag. Ruthless.

8 legs of death.You also never get life back from enemies. Oh sure, they'll drop the occasional magic potion or the rare P-bag, but never any health. It makes each section of progress a sort of gauntlet, because you can't heal until you get back to a town or luck into finding a fairy hanging out in some meadow, begging you to touch it. It's like that scene in Hook where Julia "Tinkerbell" Roberts tries to have sex with Peter Pan. It gives you the willies. And come to think of it, Link and Peter Pan aren't really dressed that differently, they're both boys in their know, I think we're getting off track here.

If you've read my Castlevania review you know there is one kind of enemy attack pattern so heinous its inventors were executed for crimes against humanity: the medusa head. Unfortunately for gamers, the people behind Zelda II saw that sine wave-looking unavoidable onslaught of death and said "Hey, that's a good idea!" In Zelda II it's skeletal fish heads instead of medusas, but the effect is the same. Except that these ones spit rocks at you too. And oh yeah, if you touch one you lose experience. What the hell man! I might have even given all this a pass because at least they can't cheese you off instant-death ledges like in Castlevania, until I remembered that they most frequently appear on bridges over lava or, you know, nothingness. The only thing the medusa heads still have on these guys is that the Zelda bonefish move a little slower and Link is a little more agile than Simon "Belmondo." Dear game developers: NEVER DO THIS AGAIN. Regards and etc., Homicidal Gamer #749201.

Knight rider.Link's got a couple helpful abilities though. For one thing, his sword shoots out energy when he's at full health. This is, of course, completely unexplained, but you'll take it. Later on in the game he'll find recluses in towns who will teach him how to stab upward and downward in midair with his sword. You wouldn't think someone would actually have to show you how to angle your sword, but whatever. When you get these attacks, they will become all you use. Jumping on someone's head and holding down, you'll become a living pogo stick of death and destruction. Some of the fiercest enemies in the game (like knights in blue armor who are absurdly strong) can just get destroyed by this.

Towns are awesome. They're full of villagers, though almost all of them look the same, and most of them will just tell you that they can't tell you anything. But each village has a house with a hottie in a red dress who invites you in for a little sumthin-sumthin' to restore your life. That is glorious. There's another house with an old hag who invites you in to restore your magic, though I'ma wager she just offers you tea. Or maybe some stew. You'll also find random stuff like a fat dude in a purple tunic saying "I am ERROR." Great work guys on checking that text for bugs. In one house there's a disembodied voice from under a table. You're so intent actually on invading people's homes that you'll even occasionally pull a Santa Claus and jump down their chimneys. And nobody even seems to mind! Hyrule is laid. back.

It's not please.Every town also contains an old man with a pulsating beard anxious to teach you some magic. None of it's super impressive - we're talking about jumping higher, or taking less damage...utility-type stuff. Of course, one of them teaches you the Heal spell and your life stops sucking that instant. But in order to earn the spell you usually have to complete silly errands for the chick guarding the house's door. "A child in the town went missing, please bring him back!" "I lost my trophy! Please find it!" Or, in the case of one haughty broad, "Fetch me some water." You should take pointers from the lady at the sex hut, hun. That girl knows what's up.

A couple more complaints and observations before we hit the last area. First, why do some of these temples look straight-up like Bowser's castle? And second, why is it that if I try to quickly turn around I pinball all over the screen? No lie, if you move in one direction, then quickly turn the other way and back again, you will launch off to the side of the screen, taking damage from everything in your way. After a time you'll slingshot back the other way automatically. I don't know why this happens and I tried it on multiple copies of the game to make sure it wasn't just the one I was playing, and they all had this problem. It's easy enough to say "Well just don't rapidly turn around anymore," but that invites all kinds of other problems in combat when you're moving all around trying to avoid things like, oh, say, bony fish skulls spitting rocks and stealing your experience. That's a pretty major glitch, Nintendo.

Same type damage.But if you persist through it and get to the Great Temple, you'll see the giant laser beams blocking its entrance disappear and you can go inside. It's a long journey but when you finally reach the boss pictured here, guess what? It's invincible. LOVELY. There's a sort of "spell to end all spells" you have to get to damage this boss, but there's no indication of that until you're at the boss itself. If you reach it without the spell, you've got to kill yourself repeatedly until you use a continue, then journey all the way back from the temple to hunt down this last spell, then go all the way back to and through the temple again. And using the spell doesn't kill it; it just makes it vulnerable. But your bread and butter up/down strikes won't hurt it either. This is one of those Yoda "Unlearn what you have learned" type moments, I guess. Couldn't you throw that out a little earlier?

When you defeat the thunderbird you find some old friar guarding the Triforce. I guess he lives in the temple or something. He makes you fight a shadow version of yourself, which causes some immature chuckles because of where Link holds his sword when he gets hurt. When you put that into a silhouette, well. So you kill your clone, take the Triforce, wake up Zelda, and she makes out with you. For serious. That's the game. It's not as good as the first one, for sure, and a lot of the changes to the basic gameplay were the culprits for detracting from the enjoyment. But that said, the score ceiling for a game with medusa head style enemies isn't very high, and you might argue that Zelda II comes near it. It's almost the epitome of average gaming. So at least it's the best at something.

Bottom Line: 10/20

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shining in the Darkness

Do you like mazes? Do you ever sit down with a puzzle book and do the maze because it gets you your jollies? Do you like going out with friends to a corn maze or a hedge maze and finding your way through? Does it feel rewarding when the maze is finally solved? If you answered yes to any or all of the above, would you still enjoy mazes if they were filled with an infinite number of deadly monsters bent on hunting you down and murdering you?

Dozing.Well you're in luck! Welcome to Shining in the Darkness, a game that gives you precisely that. An old dude in a rocking chair will introduce you to the Kingdom of Thornwood, where you're the son of the King's most trusted knight, Mortred. Unfortunately, he's gone missing along with the king's daughter (please note: "king's daughter" is no more than a synonym for "princess"), and you are charged with finding them. Then some dark sorcerer shows up calling himself "Dark Sol" and cackling about he's the one responsible and he's trapped the king's daughter in the giant Labyrinth that is conveniently located in the kingdom but for some reason nobody recalls building or exploring. Mmkay.

Thornwood's straight creepy. There's a town near the castle with all your amenities, but it's populated by those creatures from the kid's show Arthur. Yeah, I don't know what kind of animal they're supposed to be either, but they're happy to sell you crappy weapons and armor. "Oh, you're on a royal mission to save the life of the heir of the kingdom? Well in that case for 100 gold pieces I'll give you this leather glove." Whoa whoa, nevermind that a leather glove is meaningless in the long run, and nevermind the price gouging for it. What concerns me is who this dude skinned to get it. I mean, if the shopkeeper is some sort of anthropomorphic mammal of indeterminate nature, doesn't it stand to reason that animals in this kingdom are capable of higher cognitive processes? What I'm getting at is that by selling me a leather glove he might as well be offering me my uncle's severed arm. I'll pass, man.

The town's layout gives me pause too. The game is entirely from a first-person perspective, which is fine. So in the town you choose which building to enter by turning in a panorama and selecting the given buildings that are encircling you. This doesn't seem like a problem except for two things. First, the screen pans far too slowly. I don't have all day. Second, who builds a town like that? Who puts up buildings to form a circle with nothing in the middle? I know who. Cultists. Cultists do that. The Kingdom of Thornwood is full of murderous animal cultists. Yeah, I said it.

Poisonpowder.All this without even setting foot in the Labyrinth! When you get in there you'll be ready to get out. I'm talking battles every 2-3 steps on average. It starts off innocently enough, with just slimes or oozes or whatever name you want to give the same stereotypical blob that opens virtually every RPG. But the monsters really ramp up to a frustrating degree as you move along. Not to mention the keys. See, the whole idea is that Dark Sol is on the top (fifth) floor of the complex, and you've got to work your way up to his sanctum. But it's not that simple; much of the maze on the ground level is blocked off by locked doors or similar obstacles. In exasperation you'll just return to the king ready to quit. Instead some adviser of his will start prattling about having to complete four ancient trials to move on, and the town will foist a couple other people on you to make a "party."

The embarrassing part is that each of these helpers, named Milo and Pyra, is more useful than your own character. By far. They both use a little something we in the video game world like to call "magic." You should check it out at some point. Lots of possibilities. Milo comes from the "Shrine" to whatever higher power he worships. The game never really commits. But it's got stained glass windows, so we're going to just assume it's Christianity. Though, I guess it's a fantasy world, so....Aslan. Milo is a priest of Aslan. Pyra though is an arrogant wizard skank (and also one of those wallaby-rat abominations from the town). This means Milo can heal and pray and stuff, and Pyra can burn and electrocute things. Your dude? He swings his sword. That's it. Solid.

Map screen.Now what comes as a really disappointing surprise is that each of the four trials you've got to do is another maze. They're like basement levels of the complex. So that means to "pass" all the trials you've got to actually explore and solve five mazes, each throwing enemies at you every few steps. And thanks to the whole "I may be king and I may own that place but I never bothered sending anyone to explore it" bit, you've got no map. None, that is, until Pyra reaches a certain level and spontaneously learns a spell that lets her see an overhead view of the maze level on which you're currently located. And thank goodness, because to that point I was having to scribble it on a sheet of paper as I went along. It's damn tedious drawing a new line every step to make sure your maze drawing is accurate.

Then there's some revelation that Dark Sol was actually one of the king's advisers at the beginning and it's supposed to be all shock-worthy and stuff. Whatever. I just want to finish these mazes. I guess it's good that Shining in the Darkness managed to do away with some RPG battle failings from older games. For example, if you tell two people to attack the same enemy, and the first one kills the enemy, your second character will actually attack someone else. I know, right? Someone finally caught on. Monsters are also divided into groups, which are somewhat randomly sized. A group of enemies might be two or it might be five, but either way when you tell your characters to attack, you attack the group and not the individual. This sometimes can create a minor amount of frustration by not eliminating certain individuals in the order you'd want, but there actually aren't any major hiccups with the system. For one, groups can only be composed of the same type of monster. So while you might have to fight a group of slimes at the same time as a group of slugs, you'll never have a group composed of both slimes and slugs together. Secondly, there's a bit of AI going on wherein your characters will attempt to maximize their damage by not using stronger attacks to kill weaker enemies, and so forth. It's actually very well done, which allows you to focus less on how to battle and more on what the various species of dumb creatures you'll be slaying are.

Sméagol.There are two types of monsters in this game: those with generic names, and those with names that are bad puns. The former includes such writing gems as "Zombie," "Minotaur," "Ghost," or even "Brikeye" (which, yes, is a brick with an eye in the middle). The latter is comprised of things like "Centaurion" (a centaur in classical Roman armor), "Lancerot" (an undead knight), or "Battle Oxe" (a half-man half-ox wielding a giant battle axe). Hardy-freaking-har, game.

It's not enough though for the monsters to have weird names. They've also got to do weird things. I'm talking statues coming to life and "exhaling a blast of freezing breath" that wipes out your entire party in one go. I'm talking necromancers "howling for help," which when you hear it sounds like an obese cat doped up on catnip and coke, and being answered by monsters literally called "Meat Zombies." I'm talking about when it says "Tommyhawk 2 is flexing its muscles!" Hell if I know. Even the cursor to select your target is an upside-down male symbol. If this game is some type of message in support of feminism, I've got to admit it went right over my head. If you've got an agenda, maybe next time start by creating a plot that doesn't revolve around another princess getting kidnapped, okay?

Stormcrow.Consider for a moment the question of what happens when your party is on the verge of death. There's a tavern in town with the typical "rest for a night and somehow you'll recover the quarts of blood you lost yesterday" thing going on, and you can save in that shrine, but how does that help you from inside the Labyrinth? Answer: It doesn't. You've got to leave the mazes every single time you want to save or rest. And you've got to then retread the parts of the maze you've already explored to get back to where you were. This is infuriating at times, which is why you'll be thrilled when a familiar wizard decked in gray shows up to give you an item that lets you create checkpoints on every floor of the complex as you ascend. Even still, you'll be going back to town and therefore redoing entire maze floors repeatedly. Doesn't help that the inventory is largely against you.

Each of your characters has eight inventory slots, though at any given time four of each of these will be taken up by equipped armor and weapons. This means each person has four "usable" slots of inventory, though keys and other necessary items to progress through the mazes will also take up space. Realistically you'll have four or five free spots of inventory total among all your characters, so space is really at a premium. It's not at all uncommon to be full on space, particularly as you find better items you don't want to ditch. So let's say a character dies and happened to be holding the item that allows you to return to town to heal up and restart. You go to use the item and aren't allowed. Why? Because that guy is dead, that's why. Don't worry yourself over the fact that you've got two perfectly healthy people (or one healthy person and one half-animal abomination) who could just pick the item up out of the bag and use it. We don't deal in common sense, here; did you forget this is a video game?

And God forbid you try to use the "Miracle Herb." It's an item that claims to revive a slain character, but it doesn't actually work. Ever. You're treated to text stating "But nothing happened!" every single time. It's a dirty lie is what it is. But the chumps in town will buy it off you for 6000 gold, so feel free to pass the scam around. And don't be surprised, the townies are pretty idiotic. I once had two identical swords. I sold them to the blacksmith one at a time. Know what he says when I hand him the second one? "I've never seen anything like this before!" Dude, I sold you that exact same sword not five seconds ago.

Hygiene.In order to get the cell key to save the princess you've got to kill the dark knight, Mortred. If you're anything like me, you reacted to this by going "Okay? So?" Lemme lay a refresher on you: scroll up to the second paragraph of this review. Mortred's your dad. Whoooooaahooo yeah! That's a sick plot twist isn't it?! Except that by this point in the review you probably completely forgot who "Mortred" was, and you probably never really cared in the first place. Let me tell you something: it's no different in the actual game. I was actually surprised when I came across the princess in her jail cell because I forgot I was looking for her. I'd forgotten everything other than the understanding that there was some dude with a really lame name I needed to kill. But moreover, I just wanted to get through the mazes. The maze is supposed to be the means to the end, but the nature of the game is such that if you don't quit playing after the first two hours, finishing the maze becomes the end in itself. Plot be damned.

I think here it's also worth noting that one of those horse-faced rodent people from town, named "Edward," was an ass to me the whole game. He kept saying something about bringing him "Dai," and I didn't know what in the world he was talking about. At the end of the game, this Dai showed up in the tavern complaining about how tough it was to escape the dungeon on an injured ankle. So let me make this clear: the plot in Shining in the Darkness is so forgettable that there was an entire character I could have rescued and neglected to for the entire game, with no ill consequence. Unless deeply desiring to grind up Edward for my glue counts as an ill consequence, that is.

If you like doing mazes, and especially if you like doing the same mazes over and over with continuous interruptions, you've hit the jackpot with Shining in the Darkness. If that doesn't sound too appealing, don't fret. On rare occasions within the mazes you'll come out onto a balcony, and it plays some sweet balcony music. It's like elevator music, only you're in the open air, and you're walking, and you're not actually going up or down, and it sounds completely different. Worth the price of admission alone? You be the judge.

Bottom Line: 13/20

Friday, February 11, 2011

Donkey Kong Land

It's a fairly common practice to take a popular game and make a portable version of it. There's a Game Boy version of Mega Man, Tetris, and really any number of other titles from home consoles that developers figured could earn them a few extra bucks by way of a watered-down re-release. But as Nintendo had showed already with Super Mario Land, they wanted to push things a little further by offering watered-down new games on their handheld instead. And so, after the big success of the reviving of the Donkey Kong brand through Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo followed up with Donkey Kong Land, named even in the spirit of that mediocre Mario game.

The trick with this one that didn't exist for Super Mario Land was that they wanted a strong tie-in quality with the Super Nintendo game. When Super Mario Land came out, multiple Mario games were hits worldwide. They just needed to attach his name and that was that. But there were no Donkey Kong games in ages excepting the most recent 16-bit effort here. And so the core of the game remained the same for Donkey Kong Land, to the point where you could mistake it for a pure port if you weren't paying attention.

The plot, believe it or not, is that Cranky Kong (the original Donkey Kong from the 80s games, bear in mind) got pissed that Donkey Kong Country was successful and that its star characters were popular. A-freaking-men, Cranky. So Cranky claims that the game was only a hit because of the fancy graphics and sound, and that the gameplay was crap. Dude. Get out of my head. So he convinces King K. Rool to go steal all the bananas again to force Donkey and Diddy to recover them, this time on a system with bad sound, low graphical capability, and no color. He then expects the game to be a disaster to prove his point about how Donkey Kong Country sucked.

Cranky Kong is my hero.

Now credit where credit's due before I go any further: despite the system's limitations, the audio in Donkey Kong Land is still pretty good. The soundtrack remains inspired, so you won't be tempted to mute the Game Boy in anger or anything as you go. And for what it's worth, the barrel blasting stuff that was so atrocious at times in Donkey Kong Country is noticeably improved here. There are a couple spots that can lead to frustration, but nothing like the level you'd experience on the SNES. And, mercifully, this time around we're spared the levels revolving around being in the dark. Maybe they figured with no color it would be impossible to navigate anything meaningfully in such a stage. Or maybe they just came to their senses and realized the whole concept was idiotic. Either way, gamers profit.

The list of positive changes pretty much ends there, sadly. There's one particular change worth mentioning though that doesn't really improve or detract from the game experience. It's that saving can be done after any level instead of having to hunt down Donkey Kong's sleazy girlfriend whenever you want some good old fashioned data backup. But there's a catch to it, naturally. In order to save after the completion of a level, you've got to collect the K-O-N-G letters in the stage. If you fail to finish with all four, you'll get credit for beating the level, but will be unable to save. And with no save point actually on the map, this forces you to be extra vigilant in each stage just so you don't run out of lives and lose all your progress.

And believe me, your progress is most definitely at risk in Donkey Kong Land. Death is lurking everywhere for you, including especially places where it has no business hanging around. I get that the graphics aren't going to be great and I don't really even care that the game can't feature more than various shades of puke-green. What I can't accept is the overall fuzzy quality of the entire endeavor. Consider for a moment how small that Game Boy screen actually is. Think about the general distance you've got to have your eyes from it in order to really see what you need to in a standard game on the system. Whatever that is for you, you've got to get twice as close to make anything out in this one, and that's pretty lousy for a first-party franchise title.

The jumping is also really sticky. I'm not sure of what better word I can use as a descriptor here, but clearly "sticky" isn't the adjective of choice for a platformer, which is by nature a jumping game. I guess the apes just feel weighty somehow, or like they drop in ways you don't think they really should every time you jump. It's almost as hard to describe as it is to jump in this game. See what I did there? It's especially noticeable when jumping from something other than the ground - say ropes for instance. While some of the bad levels from Country are gone, the good ones (mine cart stages, I'm looking at you) have disappeared as well. Instead we get giant pirate ships that don't really make any design sense (they are surely not seaworthy, at the very least), the gameplay of which entails jumping from mast rope to mast rope while snakes spawn out of the woodwork to slither toward your hands. Get that business out of here, guys. No need for it.

Speaking of...ugh. Just ugh. Country's water stages suffered from two major faults. The first was a substantial overpopulation of enemies you couldn't hurt, making navigation a nightmare. The second was that they were water levels. Donkey Kong Land fixed the first fault, but retained the second (and arguably more egregious), while adding two more of its own. The first is that the water in this game has crazy stupid inertia. I know that water is by its very nature wet at all times, but that doesn't mean a single tap of the A button ought to launch you across the screen uncontrollably. And the second insidious fault? That damn nautilus is out for monkey flesh and will not stop until it gets some. It only appears in one level, but bloody hell. That stage is even called "Nautilus Chase" and revolves around a bunch of these things just hunting you down as you fight bad swim control through an underwater maze. Keep in mind that you've got to grab the KONG letters too if you want to save afterward, and that detours will almost certainly get you ingested. What is wrong with game designers?! Why does this most basic of mistakes continue to plague me? WHY?! And you know what? They took the swordfish out of this game, so now when you're down in that watery soup of death, you've got no help. Fan-freaking-tastic.

One of the game's four bosses is in the water too, just to rub it in a little more. He's pretty easy though, which can be said really for all the bosses. The hardest part of each fight, as with most of the game in general, is just seeing what the heck is going on and making sense of it in the first place. Once you do that, you're golden. It doesn't help then when you're already struggling to make sense of stuff visually that the game's manual straight up lies to you. There's a stage the manual calls "Balloon Barrage" and another called "Construction Site Fight." Well, the former has no balloons and the latter doesn't take place in a construction site. In fact, each level matches with the opposite name, which means they didn't even proofread the instruction booklet that came with the cartridge. There's a real positive sign.

Even with most of the bells and whistles removed, I still got gripes with these levels. Jumping onto floating oil drums that spontaneously combust and then self-extinguish in front of infinitely tall skyscrapers? If you ever wanted to perform such an act, Donkey Kong Land is the game for you. Hanging from a rope and blind jumping off it to a platform that may or may not be there but could very well kill you either way? Heck yeah, we got that too. Or maybe you want a stage where you have to roll a tire around as a portable bouncing tool only to get it stuck and have to go back and redo the whole thing because the design doesn't allow for mistakes. You're covered with Donkey Kong Land.

They've got bonus areas, but they're pretty lame and virtually all the same. As you go you'll collect big coins. When you enter a bonus area it'll display the number of coins you've collected to that point on the screen, and an auto-rotating barrel will move back and forth at the top of the screen. You've got to step on a switch on the screen and the barrel will shoot one of your coins. If you grab it, you get an extra life. This is totally inane. Think about it - you get the 1-up for getting the coin. But you can only collect the coin if you already had it and stuck it in a barrel to shoot it at yourself. Why do you need to do this? Is that coin-launching barrel somehow supercharging that stuff with soul energy or something? Or am I once again just trying to assign meaning to something to avoid the mental hernia all the nonsense would bring me?

I guess what I'm really trying to say to you is this: get used to this screen. You will be seeing plenty of it. All. The. Time. Donkey Kong Country had its rough spots but it's got nothing on the difficulty of its neglected little cousin. I wish I could promise a feeling of satisfaction and/or a rewarding ending for when and if you finally do complete it, but I can't. You'll get neither. Maybe a feeling of gratitude and relief that you don't have to keep playing it, but honestly you can have that at any time by simply not playing this game at all in the first place. Just trust me on this one, please. Don't make me have reviewed this in vain.

Ultimately you've got to figure Cranky was right to this point. Donkey Kong games are just garbage. And yet again I find myself with a score that's better than the review would indicate. Again it's mostly thanks to the soundtrack, and the fact that I did hate life a little less throughout this game than Country, for whatever that's worth. But seriously guys, if you liked the SNES game, you probably won't get a kick out of its Game Boy "sequel" - too much has changed. And if, like me, you didn't care much for the SNES original, you won't get a kick out of this game - too much is still wrong. So take this score with a grain of salt, and on the lookout for bees. Those bastards hide in plain sight I tell ya.

Bottom Line: 11/20