Thursday, January 19, 2017

Earthbound


Released on June 5, 1995 by Nintendo, and developed by Ape and HAL Laboratory, Earthbound is an RPG featuring a 13-year old boy's and his friends' epic battle against the unimaginable evil of Giygas.

So does that mean, like, you are headed to Earth, or you are trapped by Earth, or the Earth is trapped? I'm so confused!

"Are you sure you don't want to get this instead?"
I remember this moment in Baton Rouge's now demolished Video Game Exchange (VGX) as if it just happened. I had visited with my two best buddies to find a used copy of Soul Caliber for my Dreamcast, George W Bush would be elected president just three months later, and I was soon to start my first semester of college.
"Get what?" I asked Daniel, the clerk at VGX. All these years later, I still remember his name.
"Someone just brought in this complete copy of Earthbound with the strategy guide and everything. I'm selling it for just $50. It's in almost perfect condition. This thing is going to be worth serious money someday. I already have my own copy."
I looked at the box, featuring a kid riding around in a goofy looking star. I remembered the magazine ads for this game from five years before, the weird "This Game Stinks" marketing tag, and the nasty scratch-n-sniffs that went with it. If you want people to associate good memories with your yet-to-be-released game, don't make their first connection to it an olfactory assault.
"Nah," I said. "I really want to get Soul Caliber."
Soul Caliber is an excellent game, one of the best fighting games of its generation. I bought my mint-condition used copy for $20. It goes for about $15 now. A complete copy of Earthbound...goes for significantly more than that.

Pictured: Me and my buddies headed to VGX. Not pictured: the pile of money I'm not currently rolling in.
Many years passed, and I never played Earthbound. While I cut my teeth on the Atari 2600, the Super Nintendo is my favorite system, and its RPG's my favorite games. You would think I would have played one of its most heralded role-playing games, but the truth of the matter is, upon its release, Earthbound's reputation was not what it is now. Earthbound originally came saddled with the afore-mentioned marketing campaign, a hefty price tag, and a majority of reviews that praised the game as "okay" at best.
But then, something strange happened. Years after its release, people started praising Earthbound. Daniel, the VGX guy, is some kind of crazed-but-accurate video-game prophet. Fansites for Earthbound suddenly sprang up everywhere. In the blink of an eye, publications that weren't so high on Earthbound were praising it as not just one of the best RPG's, but best games of its generation. Suddenly, I was faced with the prospect that one of the most well-regarded games in my favorite genre on my favorite system was a game I never even played. And thus, with a chip on my shoulder, and a seven-year old at my side, I finally entered the world of Earthbound.

Hey, "finally" is better than "never!"
The first thing any connoisseur of SNES RPG's will notice a couple of minutes into Earthbound is that Earthbound does not look as good as most top tier SNES RPG's...at least, it's the first thing I noticed. The graphics are extremely simple and childlike, with simple designs and animations for the characters, and very stripped-down artwork for the game's world. However, some later areas are a bit more graphically complex, and the game never skimps on color. Also, considering Earthbound's themes, and the emotions it explores, this graphical design may be a considered choice.

Nine times out of ten, I consider monkeys.
Themes aren't often the first thing one thinks of in regard to video games. As I began Earthbound, it certainly wasn't on my mind. The aesthetics of the game and its basic structure were the first elements to reveal themselves, and those helped form my first impression. "Wait, you can't even see your attacks on enemies? The graphics look like this? The battle system is this simple?"
WARNING: The following paragraph is entitled "RPG's for Dummies." If you already know what an RPG is, skip it, unless you are a completionist, which, paradoxically, means you are probably already well-aware of what an RPG is. I just want to warn that the upcoming paragraph (and even the one after) is as dry as a Mississippi county.
An RPG is a game where the protagonist (in Earthbound, Ness) generally meets new characters who may join him as a party; the party members then get into generally turn-based battles with foes; when/if those enemies are defeated, the party members gain experience points; when the party members gain enough experience points, they reach a new level where their stats, such as offense, defense, and hit points(a number which is depleted when a character takes damage) and magic points (in Earthbound, called PSI, and used for magic-based moves) are increased--this is called leveling up, and may also result in the respective party members learning new magic-based moves (for attack, healing, protection, etc.).

That thing to their left is called a "building."
Earthbound doesn't do anything to shake up the basic RPG gameplay formula, though it does add its quirks to the system. For instance, Earthbound contains a rolling hit-point counter. This means that when a character is hit, instead of the damage coming off in one chunk (let's say 100 hit points), it rolls down over a short period of time. If the player can win the fight or heal the respective character before the hit-point counter rolls down to take account of the damage, the damage isn't fully done. This comes in extremely handy when a character should be fatally wounded by a powerful attack, but the player has to react quickly in order to counter the damage. Another innovation is how the player initiates battle with the enemy. While several other 16-bit RPG's allow the player to choose when they want to battle an enemy (as opposed to random battles, where fights begin without the player's consent, as they are attacked by a foe that was before-then invisible), Earthbound also allows the player a chance to get a jump on the enemy. If Ness and his crew can sneak up behind a foe, they get to attack first. However, if the enemy gets the jump on them, the bad guys get the pre-emptive strike. If the fight begins head-on, the first attacks are more simultaneous. This is a cool little wrinkle. Also cool: the trippy, swirly, ever-changing backgrounds behind every one of the game's fights. They're really cool. These elements certainly stand out, but even after experiencing them, I still did not understand Earthbound's enduring appeal. After all, there are even some gameplay elements handled poorly, like the game's clunky inventory system, an annoying hassle which actually had me dreading discovering new items and having to figure out where to put them.

Have you ever just tried not being annoying?
I had heard several people brag about Earthbound's contemporary American setting as something that sets it apart.  The game's main protagonist, Ness, is presented as a Japanese stereotype (this game was made in Japan) of a typical small-town American boy, who loves baseball, his mom, and the family dog. A baseball bat-wielding 13-year old boy protagonist is certainly a major change for players used to a sword-swinging muscle-bound lead. Also, most of the game's early settings--featuring several small towns, a larger metropolis, a snowy countryside full of tourists, and a beach--are certainly not fantastical. The kids even go to the mall to shop, visit the library for information, and Ness can ride a bike when he's alone to travel faster. But this isn't just some game where you go around fighting bad guys and having adventures in a normal, modern world. Earthbound is weird.

Except for this bridge.
From the meteorite that crashes into a hill next to Ness' house to begin the game, to the talking bee who informs Ness of his "chosen one" destiny, to a burping foe that is essentially a pile of vomit (and essentially any of the weird foes the party squares off against), Earthbound abounds with strangeness. Strange Ness. Huh...sorry. Anyway, Earthbound is weird. It places the four party members, who are on the verge of leaving childhood, into an abnormal, stressful situation they should not be able to handle. This leads directly into the game's themes.

Anti-commercialism and the death of the bourgeoise. 
Actually, I can frame Earthbound's themes by a comment from my 7-year old, as he watched me play through this game.
"Where is Ness' daddy, daddy?'
Ness' home is occupied by his mother, sister, and dog. He can call his dad from any of the many phones (including pay-phones!) throughout the game, in order to save his progress. While Ness' dad sometimes mentions coming home, he never makes a physical appearance in Earthbound. There are times during the game where Ness starts to struggle in battle. Sometimes, the message "Ness misses his mother" comes up when the player attempts to command Ness to attack. The player must then find a phone, so that Ness can call his mother for encouragement. Another party member, Jeff, has a work-focused father he hasn't seen in a decade. Jeff longs for his father's approval. Midway through the game, when he and Jeff are reunited, his father barely acknowledges him.

Almost as much as I long to run away and join the circus.
None of these elements are handled with a heavy-hand. They just are. That's what makes Earthbound special. It's the way that it eventually got to me and will stick with me forever: understated, yet incredibly powerfully emotion. There is a sense, that despite the sometimes steep difficulty level (some of the boss fights in this game kicked my butt), this game is for children. Earthbound seems designed to help prepare them for the difficulties and unpredictability of the real world. While the game is quite dark at moments (more on that later!), it features a certain gentleness, such as how enemies "return to normal" when they are defeated, and party members are rendered unconscious instead of dead. This is a slight cushion from the other horrors in the game, a check to make sure children aren't pushed too far, yet still witness the difficulties that life will bring. At the same time, the game evokes a certain nostalgia that will connect with adults. There is a certain psychological subtext of leaving childhood implicit throughout the game that becomes more explicit in its later portions, particularly when Ness alone has to make a very personal journey to prepare for the upcoming battle against Giygas.

Okay, "war" against Giygas.
"What even is Giygas?" my son asked of the game's primary antagonist.
Giygas is an incomprehensible, ancient, formless evil that corrupts everything near it, including adults, children, animals, and even entire towns. Ness must collect melodies from eight sanctuaries throughout the game in order to more fully connect himself to the Earth, and to know himself more deeply, so that he can defeat Giygas. This is all at once very nebulous, and yet very personal and emotional, as Ness experiences a very lucid memory of his childhood upon hearing each melody. Also, going back to the psychological subtext I mentioned above, there's a sanctuary location called "Milky Well"....

Which then inspired a strange desire in Ness to go to the beach to "scope out babes."
This all leads to what might be one of the most strangely emotional boss fights in RPG history, as Ness and his crew find themselves battling against a foe they can't understand, in a location they can't comprehend, by methods their minds can't make sense of, in a location as isolating and alienating as possible. The discovery of the actual means to defeat this final boss, when my son and I finally realized we were out of all other options, led me to tears, and I am glad my son was so engrossed in what was happening onscreen that he didn't look back and see his old man blubbering like an idiot.
Yes, Earthbound got me. The game I left on the shelf for so many years, with graphics that look hand-drawn by kids as old as the protagonists, still had the power to emotionally wreck me. This leads me to the final component of what makes this game so great.

"Is it me, the Annoying Reveler?"
Earthbound has a great soundtrack. The diversity of the music is excellent, and while the majority is lightweight, the latter, more emotional tracks are incredibly evocative. Even the airier tracks are quality, with my favorites utilizing reggae and dub. Other themes, like the one that plays at Ness' home, or the one that lilts by in the morning after a hotel stay (which recovers the party's hit and PSI points) are greatly comforting, which goes along with the game's "Mother" theme (the Earthbound series' actual Japanese title). At select moments, the soundtrack also samples bits from classic rock tracks (for example, check out the snippet of "All You Need Is Love" in "The Cave that Time Forgot"), which also creates a strange, subconscious nostalgia.
My son has an MP3 player full of his favorite video game music, including the Earthbound soundtrack, and he confided to me the other day that he was listening to some of the game's final battle music in his bed one night, got scared, and deleted it. Again, it's incredible how resonant this game is for something that looks like it does. Also, up to this point, nothing my son has seen in a film or video game has ever scared him (I mean, I'm not showing him The Exorcist or anything, but I'm not exactly sheltering him, either), but the climactic fight in Earthbound did. This is an affecting game, and one I already feel like I may play through again. My "favorite SNES RPG's" list just got a little longer.

Alright, dude, it's time for you to go.
A FINAL NOTE: Wait, how did you finally play this? you might be asking. I thought this game cost about a million dollars? It's true that it costs too much to buy an authentic Earthbound cartridge--but there are other options. Wii U owners can download the game for a low price on the Nintendo e-Store. If you don't have a Wii U, you could emulate Earthbound online for free, which, while not quite legal, is a lot cheaper than a million dollars, or even the price of a Wii U. Neither of these options, however, gives the authentic experience of playing Earthbound on a Super Nintendo console, with a Super Nintendo controller. Thankfully, you don't have to pay a million dollars for that experience, either. It is possible to find reprogrammed Earthbound cartridges for under $30 bucks. This is an emulated copy of the game placed in an authentic SNES cartridge, with full save capabilities, and zero glitches. It will work flawlessly on your SNES, and give the same experience as actually playing the same million-dollar original cartridge of Earthbound. While the legality of this is also nebulous, I'll leave it to the reader to decide their best option. Regardless of the player's choice, an Earthbound experience doesn't have to cost the price of a presidential assassination. Then again, if you can hunt down Daniel from the long-defunct VGX, maybe he will loan you his copy.

1995 Nintendo/Ape/HAL Labaratory

Graphics: 6.5.0/10.0

Sound: 9.5/10.0

Gameplay: 9.0/10.0

Lasting Value: 9.0/10.0


Overall: 9.0/10.0

Monday, October 31, 2016

Jurassic Park 16-Bit Showdown



If there's a film event that joined Generation X'ers and Millennials together in the early 90's, it's Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Psyche, it's Jurassic Park. Displaying never-been-seen special effects, utilized by famed director Steven Spielberg to maximum effect, Jurassic Park contained a wow-factor just as great for jaded teens and 20-somethings as it did for (likely terrified) kids. Best-of-all, the film led many to Michael Crichton's source material, an incredibly fun book of the same title. Both are set on Crichton's fictional Isla Nublar, an island off the cost of Costa Rica, where an eccentric billionaire has used DNA technology to create a theme park featuring real-life dinosaurs. The dinosaurs break loose, and the humans become their modern-age prey, and/or Kleenexes. While the film contains numerous iconic set-pieces, the book somehow features a multitude more. With the film's famous, world-building aesthetic (the movie itself even features a gift shop!), coupled with the film's and book's action and varied geographic locations, the Jurassic Park world was ripe for video game interpretation. Thankfully, game developers didn't disappoint.
Jurassic Park came right in the middle of home console video game's 16-bit generation, with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (or SNES) and Sega Genesis vying for power. The war between these two consoles meant a wealth of video game goodness for 90's gamers, including SIX! 16-bit Jurassic Park titles. And while Dr. Grant, the film's protagonist, may have been a mild-mannered paleontologist, he stars in the majority of these games as John Rambo's more violent step-brother. Here's a head-to-head look at all six Jurassic Park 16-bit games in order of their respective release dates, followed by a final ranking list.
Welcome to Jurassic Park...16-Bit Showdown.


Jurassic Park, Sega Genesis August 26, 1993

The first 16-bit Jurassic Park game to market was the Sega Genesis version. An unbiased playthrough now confirms how it came to market so early--the game feels rushed. JP SG (You're hearing it referred by that here first!) is a 2-D platformer/shooter, featuring seven fairly short levels. The controls are very stiff, with timing sometimes seeming off between button-pushing and on-screen action, and abundant graphical slowdown sometimes causing the game to stutter and jumps to become more difficult. Speaking of jumps, the game developers (Blue Sky Software) seemed to realize their game was not going to take long for an average player to complete, and added several unfair elements to the gameplay--or possibly, they didn't fully understand how to design a game--but I prefer to assume the latter. To quote page 22 from the game's own instruction manual, "You can't always see your next foothold. If you must jump blind, go for the middle distance." This is a game that features bottomless pits at the bottom of most levels, and player damage seemingly anytime their character falls from a height of more than two feet. This game has no excuse to make the player jump blind. Trial-and-error jumping certainly stretches out the playing time (because you'll keep dying), but it also isn't a fair gameplay mechanic. Of course, a blind-jump would be forgivable if it only happened once, but it occurs throughout the entirety of the game--it's almost JP SG's genre. Then there are the "low-roof" jumps, where the player has to somehow, with the game's faulty controls, jump to a platform directly about their current standing place--hit your head on the roof, and it's down to the bottomless pit again. It's like ET for Atari, though thankfully, instead of tapping on the controller forever, you just die...er, your avatar just dies. However, with all that said, Jurassic Park for the Genesis has charm in spades, which is why it still kindles fond memories in 90's videogame players that burn just a little bit, but are still fond anyway. First of all, the graphics look great, with detailed backgrounds, trademark Genesis shadow and light work (to mask the system's limited color palette), and nice, digitized-looking animation for the dinosaurs and Dr. Grant. The way Dr. Grant moves just looks...cool. Like I said, charming. Also, the music is a classic Genesis score, with Sam Powell employing the system's trademarked bass-and-beat-heavy sound, but adding in a surprising amount of atmosphere, particularly a noirish tone in the Power Station stage.  So, firing off tranquilizers at dinosaurs is enjoyable when the graphics, sound, and controls all hit together (and when they don't, outside of the slowdown, it is always the controls' fault). Also, the developers did have one good idea to extend gameplay: adding the carnivorous, swift-yet-heavily toothed-and-clawed velociraptor as a playable character. Bounding around as a six-foot reptilian tank with razor-sharp teeth and claws, and a vertical that could clear your neighborhood Denny's, is a blast. Though the raptor only gets to romp through five of Dr. Grant's seven stages, one of which is about six jumps long, and is not immune to also having to make blind leaps, the option to choose it extends and diversifies gameplay. In the end, the first released Jurassic Park 16-bit game is good for some nostalgia and production values, and it's cool to have two very different characters to choose from, but it just doesn't play that great. If only the developers could have taken some extra time to iron out the kinks...and add a couple extra levels. I mean, they've been extinct for 65-million years, what's another two months?

Graphics: 8.5/10
Sound: 8.5/10
Gameplay: 6.0/10
Lasting Value: 5.5/10
Overall (Not an Average): 6.3/10.0




 


Jurassic Park, Super Nintendo, October 1, 1993

Ocean Software's SNES Jurassic Park game, released several months later, is a bit more ambitious. Instead of side-scrolling ,the game goes for an isometric, top-down view when the player, as Dr. Grant once again, ventures across the park, and a first-person perspective when Dr. Grant enters a building. The isometric graphics are solid, resembling The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and create a convincing Isla Nublar. The 3D graphics, while primitive now, were cutting-edge for a console, and a rare-feat at the time (and even include green-tinted night-vision sections!).  The excellent usage of these perspectives makes for a far more immersive experience, made even better by the game's best feature: the Jonathan Dunn-composed music. Full disclosure: Jurassic Park for Super Nintendo features one of my all time favorite video game soundtracks. It is completely unique, bouncy and energetic outside, dark and tense inside, but always atmospheric and enveloping. The sound quality is so high for a 16-bit game (music, done on an in-house audio board, is often the best feature of Ocean-developed Super Nintendo software), it seems like it is coming from a CD. The brooding track that plays when the player ventures near the ocean would be a standout on any modern games score. I can't praise this games audio component highly enough, including the excellent, Dolby Surround-enhanced sound effects (dinosaur noises everywhere!), and periodic digitized speech, including a game-opening "Welcome to Jurassic Park" that magically transports the player (or at least this player) to Michael Crichton's fictional island. The gameplay is fun, but doesn't quite measure up to the production values. While the controls are fantastic outside, and at the least, competent inside, the game suffers from two major flaws: it gives little direction to what the player is supposed to do, and it gives no opportunity for the player to turn off the SNES until Jurassic Park has been completed. There are no ways to save, and no passwords. The player has to figure out what to do, completing various tasks around the island, as well as find 18 raptor eggs, before the game is completed. Shortly after this game was released, I spent several days playing, dying and getting many game overs attempting to figure out what to do. This culminated in an all day session, where I reached the end of the game, only to realize I had only found 17 raptor eggs. There was one hidden egg I could not find, and when I finally gave up and turned off the SNES, I didn't play the game again for another five years, this time with detailed notes, including the location of that stupid final egg. The game is fun to play through, though, with enough weapons to keep things interesting (you get to use the same ones inside and outside), and a good layout when you know what you are doing--plus, it is fun to explore, and the game mostly rewards exploration, except when you discover the T-Rex. Overall, with any kind of save system and a slightly longer challenge (the game can be beaten in under two hours once you've mastered it), this game would be an absolute classic, even with the nebulous goals, but as it is, it is only pretty good.

Graphics: 8.5/10
Sound:10.0/10
Gameplay: 7.0/10
Lasting Value: 7.0/10
Overall (Not an Average): 7.5/10.0







Jurassic Park, Sega CD December 17, 1993

Here's the real oddball of the bunch. Jurassic Park for the Sega CD (a Sega Genesis add-on...which could play CD games) conforms to none of the gameplay norms of the other 16-bit Jurassic Park games. Everybody loves a rebel (except that guy who kept yelling at James Dean in that movie), but unfortunately, Jurassic Park for Sega CD is the worst of these six games.This plastic disc contains an early 90's first-person, PC point-and-click adventure game, except its on a 16-bit add-on console. The player, not Grant this time, but some nondescript scientist, is choppered onto Isla Nublar shortly after the events of the first game, and placed in what is essentially a wrap-around, okay-looking 2D hand-drawn panorama of the Jurassic Park beach, to give the illusion of a 3D-environment. There are roughly 30 of these panoramic screens, representing the entirety of the park, that the player will travel to and through, as they search for and incubate eggs from seven different dinosaur species. Each panorama is connected by an FMV "travel-video" of either filmed footage of driving through representative terrain (i.e. a jungle), CGI steps or tunnels, or a quick hand-drawn montage to represent movement. These are...pretty low-res and grainy. To start, the island is bereft of people, and the game does a good job of creating a feeling of isolation. However, actually progressing in the game can be quite a chore. Often, the player has to look around to see if the environment contains a grabable object. If so, they can add it to their, thankfully, limit-free inventory. Then the player must figure out where to use it. The problem is, most actions must be incredibly precise to progress, and it is easy to do what one is supposed to actually do, not get the desired result, and assume that the solution attempted was incorrect. For example, a certain moment in the game presents an overturned jeep next to an angry looking triceratops (dinosaur animation with the environments isn't incredible, but gets the job done). If the player honks the jeep horn, the triceratops rams the jeep...then kills the player. I should probably mention: this is a point-and-click adventure where the player can frequently die. But back to the puzzle. If the player honks the horn a second time, at just the right moment, an object flies out of the car that the player must pick up...but then, the player must honk the horn again at just the right time, or they will again get gored to death. If the second honk isn't timed perfectly, at an arbitrary moment, it's a horn through the gut. The action must be partaken again to retrieve yet another loosed item, and then the player must high tail it out of there before they might possibly get gored again.  I understand that a Jurassic Park with harmless dinosaurs doesn't really make sense, but with that the case, the puzzles should be more intuitive, and less temperamental and timing based. Speaking of timing, and making matters worse, the player has a twelve-hour time-limit to complete the game. While the timer unfolds in real-time when the player is exploring a screen, it automatically drains many minutes any time the player travels to another screen--thus exploration is almost discouraged.  There are also a few point-and-click shooting segments (with non-lethal weapons) against dinosaurs and some late-comer malevolent humans that are incredibly cheesy(all 16-bit JP games from here on out will feature human villains, who are attempting to steal the park's dinosaurs...don't worry, though, the dinosaurs are still not your friends). Speaking of cheesy, Spencer Nilsen, creator of the groundbreakingly atmospheric soundtracks for the Ecco the Dolphin Sega CD games, lends a strangely uneven score to the game. While many moments are simply soundtracked by well-done island sound-effects (also, the player's own varied, terrified death screams are a hilarious game highlight), some moments are punctuated by music. Instead of a cohesive sound design for Jurassic Park, Nilsen seems to be employing the "Hey, what sounds does this keyboard have?" technique. For some reason, this time he is really fond of whistles. For better-or-worse, it's 90's through-and-through. Thankfully, though, this game isn't a complete drag. Information kiosks are scattered around the island featuring videos of real-life paleontologist, Robert T Bakker, talking about dinosaurs. This is undeniably cool (and educational!). Also, the odd puzzle really does satisfy, particularly a mean-spirited one involving a frog. The game's hub area, the movie's famous visitor's center, is fun to explore, featuring a computer where the player can save their game (and receive amusing update messages from a mainland scientist(if this review had been written in 1993, "a cute mainland scientist")), and also houses the incubator where eggs must be placed to complete the game. A couple of park employees from the film have visit-able offices, as well, which definitely sweetens the experience. It's those extremely dorky ties to the film that make the game worth playing. Otherwise, it's a forgettable, highly uneven experience.

Graphics: 6.5/10
Sound: 7.0/10
Gameplay: 5.5/10
Lasting Value: 5.5/10
Overall (Not an Average): 6.0/10.0







Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition, Sega Genesis, September 5, 1994

Jurassic Park returned to the Sega Genesis barely a year after the original, with Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition. It's clear after playing this game for a few minutes that BlueSky Software wanted to right some of the wrongs of the original game. The first game's biggest issue, it's tight and inconsistent controls, have been remedied for Rampage Edition. Dr. Grant and the Raptor, who both return here selectable at the start, control smoothly. It's actually a joy to move them around levels now. Gone are the blind jumps of the original, as well as the jump damage. The player generally never has to jump blind, and on the rare occasion that they do, doesn't have to worry about falling to oblivion, or cracking open their skull. The game is still a side-scrolling platformer/shooter with some moments of normal-paced level exploration, but more than anything, Rampage Edition is a chase game. The Aviary Stage sees Grant running from a marauding Pterodactyl that can bring him to the start of the Stage, the Cargo Ship Stage sees Grant climbing up to escape floodwaters, the Savanna Stage puts Grant on the back of a Gallimimus (a lightning-quick, ostrich-like dinosaur) in an attempt to outrun dive-bombing helicopters and vicious raptors, the Rapids Stage sees him taking a boat down rapids and waterfalls (way more fun and playable than the original's Boat Stage) as rival boaters and dinosaurs give chase, and the Final Stage sees Grant try to make it down the river and off the island before the jaws of his old buddy, T-Rex, can clamp over his head. Thankfully, this time around, Dr. Grant has more than just a bunch of puny tranquilizer weapons at his disposal. Now Grant wields as diverse a mix as shotguns, machine guns, a flame-thrower (complete with a corresponding crispy-critter death animation for foes), an all-powerful electrical ray (complete with an x-ray-to-dust death animation for foes(and lending this game the now-defunct "MA-13" rating), among several others. The raptor gets to have more fun now, too, with an upgraded jump attack, and a chance to "Raptor Rage." A "Raptor Rage" occurs when the raptor finds and eats several boxes of lysine (scattered around each level), whereupon the screen tints red, and the raptor becomes invincible, killing most foes by simply touching them. This allows the raptor to tear through stages with Sonic-esque speed, which greatly utilizes the Genesis' faster-processing power. The graphics stand out, as well, featuring a black outline around each character this time (which is a divisive choice, but one I don't believe lowers the graphical quality below the first game), the previously mentioned death-animations, and even a Grant pistol-twirling animation when he is idle. This is certainly a more 90's "extreme" and fun game, and the blinking and salivating raptor on the game's startup menu, backed by an opening heavy-metal-esque musical theme attests to this (though strangely, Sam Powell's music this go-round is a little more minimalistic than before, though still driving and quite good). However, the game's menu screen also attests to this game's great flaw. Players will immediately notice that there is no "Password" option like there was in the first Jurassic Park Genesis game. This seems like a huge problem, until the reason for it becomes clear--Rampage Edition only features six levels. If you know what you are doing, you can beat this game in fifteen minutes. Less if you're the raptor, as it only gets five levels, which are all basically identical to Grant's first five levels. Because of  this, Rampage Edition feels like a great demo, and not a complete game. The game also offers the player a chance to collect items, but those items serve no purpose whatsoever in the game. The short play-time and item dead-end lead me to believe that once again, BlueSky (perhaps due to Sega's command) rushed their game to market. They had time to remedy the first game's flaws, but not enough time to actually craft a full-game around these better game mechanics. The result is a fun, but short-to-the-point-of-disposable romp.

Graphics: 8.5/10
Sound: 8.5/10
Gameplay: 7.2/10
Lasting Value: 4.0/10
Overall (Not an Average): 6.5/10.0







Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues, Super Nintendo, January 1995

After working on such an ambitious first Jurassic Park game for the SNES, Ocean software decided to make something decidedly more simple for the second: Contra in Jurassic Park. You read that correctly. Instead of a combined isometric and 3D shooter/exploration game, the little-known Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues is a supremely difficult 2D run-and-gun/platformer, ala Contra. While the game doesn't feature the graphical insanity of Contra III, it looks very solid, with some nice detail, atmospheric fog, some cool lighting effects, and a fully animated opening cutscene. The real star of this game, though, is the sound. The aforementioned cutscene features minutes of actor-recorded speech, virtually unheard of in a SNES (or Sega Genesis) game. The Dolby Surround-enhanced raptor-squeals and weapons-blasts are great, but once again the game standout is its soundtrack. Jonathan Dunn, the excellent composer of the first game, stepped down this time, with Dean Evans taking soundtrack duties. However, instead of a drop-off, Evans comes up with something that is possibly better than Dunn's work for the original. Befitting the The Chaos Continues' militaristic nature, Evan's compositions are bombastic, symphonic, percussion-led tracks that again sound CD quality. The atmosphere is so thick, you  can cut it with a raptor claw, especially in the darker, more mysterious tracks, with "Dark Jungle" a particular standout among any music composed for any video game, ever. The gameplay doesn't quite match the outstanding music, but the Jurassic Park 2 is still quite fun. Either one or two players can take part in their choice of six missions, in any order they choose. After each mission is completed, the player must tackle an emergency follow-up (which is timed, and follows a story-order, meaning the order doesn't change, regardless of what level the player chooses), plus an additional final stage for each difficulty level, meaning fifteen total levels for the hardest difficulty. Levels generally consist of shooting everything in the way, man (a rival genetics company is causing havoc...erm, chaos on the island) and dinosaur. The dinosaurs, except for raptors, must be taken down with a non-lethal weapon, while human foes must be taken down with lethal ones (dino-tranqs don't effect them). Raptors can thankfully be subdued by any means necessary (and here they're meaner than ever). Ammo is sparse, and there is a dino count at the top of the screen that announces the amount of the great reptiles (minus raptors) currently living on the island. Use a lethal weapon on one, and the count goes down. Take it down too low, and it's game over. Thankfully, the count rises as you play (because dinosaurs are like bunnies), so there is some forgiveness in that aspect of the game, but otherwise, The Chaos Continues gives no quarter. A handful of bullets or dino-bites mean death, and death means starting a level at the beginning. Once the game's small handful of continues is exhausted, it's game over. There is no way to save progress. There are no passwords. Like the first SNES game, once you get a game over, you lose all your progress, and get to start from zero. Death doesn't come so easy (outside of getting T-Rex'd) in the first game, though. Here, death is constant, until the player has mastered the game. Thankfully....
I would generally never suggest this, but Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues demands it:
At the level select screen, enter: L, L, L, R, R, R, L, L, R, R, L, R, L, L, R, R, L, L, L, R, R, R.
Boom. Infinite continues. Just like Contra. Or sort of. You'll still have to start the level from scratch every time you die...but you won't lose your game progress. This cheat is vital to enjoying Jurassic Park 2. It allows you to fully explore what The Chaos Continues has to offer, but it doesn't make the actual gameplay easier. You'll still have to become a hardened pro to get through any of these stages. I will unabashedly say that I beat the game this way on the easiest difficulty, after many hours, but afterward, when trying the hardest difficulty with no cheating, I tore through the levels like a master. This is one of the few games where cheating actually makes you better at the game later on when you don't cheat. And the gameplay is so fun, cerebral in the way strategy is involved in weapon selection and ammo consumption (though a selectable standard weaker lethal weapon and a weaker non-lethal weapon, respectively, never run out of ammo, and should be leaned upon when possible), nice and crazy when guns are blazing against raptors and mercenary commandos. And finally, Contra for the SNES has myriad bosses scattered across each level-Jurassic Park 2 has a T-Rex, choppers, and a Schwarzenegger-wannabe with a flame-thrower. While there isn't near the enemy variation of Contra, the game's bad guys are quite serviceable. The "regular" flamethrower stormtrooper is particularly nighmarish, as he can kill Dr. Grant in just a couple of seconds. These guys are almost always in the most inconvenient spot for Grant to deal with, too, requiring lots of strategy and experience to take down efficiently. My rambling is showing my sweet spot for this game. Like the first Jurassic Park for SNES, The Chaos Continues would be a heralded classic if it featured any type of save system (and also if one otherwise awesome level did not contain an unfairly unclear objective). As it is, though, this unfairly obscure Jurassic Park sequel is still nearly great...and even a bit better than the first game.

Graphics: 8.0/10
Sound: 10.0/10
Gameplay: 7.5/10
Lasting Value: 7.5/10
Overall (Not an Average): 7.8/10.0

 




The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Sega Genesis, September 16, 1997

Few people know that a second Jurassic Park game was released for the Super Nintendo. Even less know that a THIRD game was released for the Sega Genesis. The Lost World, having little to do with the Jurassic Park sequel it takes its name from, is one of the last games ever released for the Sega Genesis, first available in stores two years after the release of the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn, and a few weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of the Nintendo 64's release. Because it was released so late in the Sega Genesis life-cycle (less than two years before the Sega Dreamcast was released!), The Lost World is a little known oddity, which is a shame, as it may just be the best Jurassic Park game every released, 16-bit or not. Eschewing the 2-D side-scrolling platformer action of the previous Genesis Jurassic Park titles, The Lost World takes up the overhead, isometric view of the first Jurassic Park game for SNES. While The Lost World doesn't feature the SNES game's first-person interior perspective, it does feature four pseudo-3D, "Mode-7"-style boss fights that are quite technically impressive for a 16-bit system, and particularly the Sega Genesis. While the isometric graphics aren't quite as strong as their SNES counterpart's, featuring far less color variation (a whole lot of green and brown), they are still pretty easy on the eyes. Likewise, while the sound quality isn't up to the SNES games' standards, the score and sound effects are still quite good. Taking full advantage of the Genesis "drum n' bass" favoring sound capabilities, The Lost World's soundtrack sounds like a lost Daft Punk album--its only flaw is that the entire score is maybe seven tracks long, though none ever get old. Also, while the sound effects aren't up to the Dolby Surround quality of the SNES games, they are still quite nice, particularly the booming blast of the shotgun. But while the SNES games hold a technological advantage over The Lost World, The Lost World holds several distinct strengths over the SNES games. Those SNES Jurassic Parks feature far more complex and longer-lasting gameplay than the first two Genesis ones, but the first SNES game features plenty of objectives that are never really spelled out, and have to be intuited by the player. The second SNES game divides itself into many missions that can be completed in any order, and most give a very clear briefing of what must be accomplished, but neither game gives the player any sort of game-saving option, and no password to pick up where the player has left off. This means the player must undertake many long-hour single-sitting sessions before the game can be completed...which can lead to much frustration. The Lost World features four stages with multiple missions (adding up to nineteen total). Each stage's missions can be completed in any order, outside of the boss battle, which is naturally always last. These missions come in a variety of forms, from searching caves to collect items, to marching across the landscape to destroy enemy encampments (like several of its predecessors, The Lost World features both dinosaur and human antagonists), to herding dinosaurs into cages, to driving away from an angry T-Rex. With such a diverse group of missions with optional completion paths, the lack of some type of saving feature would be brutal. Thankfully, this isn't an issue. The Lost World features a lovely password system, offering a password for any level completion combination when a level is completed. No matter what order the player completes missions, there is a corresponding password to pick up at that point of progress. For once, it feels like the game developers have some empathy for the players.  This means The Lost World is truly the only pick-up-and-play game of this bunch that still takes an actual time commitment to complete (about ten hours or so on single-player mode). As a bonus, when certain missions are completed, "just-for-fun" passwords are given, unlocking bonus modes and features. Speaking of modes, this game features multiplayer co-operative and versus modes. It's an actual full-game experience! Of course, none of this would be worth anything if the game wasn't fun to play--but thankfully, it is! Though The Lost World leans on film nostalgia less than any previous Jurassic Park game, it might just be the most enjoyable to experience. While it may take the player a moment to get used to the lack of a jump button, the nameless mercenary protagonist is a breeze to control (and he can move in any direction!). Weapon selection is vast and fun, and the option to control an SUV and hovercraft at certain points in the game is extremely cool. The pseudo-3D boss fights feature some great, arcade style shooting action, and can be breathlessly paced. While the main game action sometimes features some graphical slowdown when too many enemies and objects are on screen, this doesn't detract from the overall gameplay experience. Also, as a final sort of bonus, Appaloosa Interactive (same company that made Ecco: Defender of the Future for the Dreamcast) does not appear to have rushed this game. The Lost World contains many special touches, like the dinosaur and human antagonists fighting each other if the player stays out of the way. But best of all, unlike Rampage Edition, The Lost World's special items actually hold a purpose. Scattered thoughout each level are Jurassic Park tokens. Every time the player collects six, a crate is airdropped to that very spot, containing armor, ammo, and an extra life. It's a small, but great touch. So while The Lost World is harder to find than the other Jurassic Park games, with just a handful of copies appearing on EBay, its barely known existence keeps its price low, and it deserves a spot in any 16-bit or Jurassic Park fan's collection. It's a true hidden gem.

Graphics: 8.0/10
Sound: 8.0/10
Gameplay: 9.0/10
Lasting Value: 8.5/10
Overall (Not an Average): 8.5/10.0



This was an outrageously fun way to spend a month. I should note here, I do not publish a review until I complete the game(s) I am reviewing. These write-ups take into account the full games, start-to-end. I've put many hours of play-time into each of these to inform my opinions.  Honestly, if I factor in my personal bias, my favorite game here is The Chaos Continues. It sets off a special dopamine nostalgia release in my brain--I love the music, how it feels to control...really everything about it, despite its considerable flaws. However, remaining objective, The Chaos Continues is not quite the best of these games. Here's how I rank all six, objectively, following the scores listed above:

1. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Sega Genesis, 1997)
2. Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues (Super Nintendo, 1995)
3. Jurassic Park (Super Nintendo, 1993)
4. Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition (Sega Genesis, 1994)
5. Jurassic Park (Sega Genesis, 1993)
6. Jurassic Park (Sega CD, 1993)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island



Marketing works. Nintendo put Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island.on the cover of their October 1995 issue of Nintendo Power, I  bought the issue from the grocery store, and then I pleaded with my parents to give me the game, with its iconic box-art, for my birthday. I loved Yoshi's Island before the opening cinema had even finished, and I played through it and explored its every corner (videogames were my girlfriend, and we did not have a chaste relationship) over those next few months.


Pictured above: truth in advertising. Also, nothing beats a SNES waterfall.

In college, when I bought back all the Super Nintendo games I sold to buy my Nintendo 64, I put Yoshi's Island high on the list. When that second copy ceased to save properly, losing a 95% completed file in the process, I didn't hesitate to purchase the game again. I've played through Super Mario World 2 over those three copies more times than I can remember, and I've enjoyed each time more than the last.

Van Gogh could have painted this game...maybe that's why Yoshi doesn't have ears.

The excellent graphics certainly help. Legendary producer, Shigeru Miyamoto, finding himself surrounded by an industry more and more dedicated to three dimensional graphics, decided to go in a different direction with Yoshi's Island. Instead of following the 3-D train, Miyamoto selected a unique hand-drawn and colored aesthetic that gives the game a timeless appearance to this day ("this day" being whatever day you are reading this). Through this style, each level bursts with color and movement. Enemies and bosses are charmingly designed, drawn, and animated, and Yoshi and Baby Mario are cute without being cloying.
Further accentuating Yoshi's Islands uniqueness, Miyamoto decided to make the game just a little bit trippy. For instance, the opening menu screen receives a psychedelic swirl every few seconds.

Aw, this looks nice.


Woah,..I uh...I think somebody spiked the punch.

Also, there's a level called "Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy...and if Yoshi touches a "Fuzzy"...he gets dizzy.
Actually, Miyamoto decided to make this game a lot bit trippy.

Don't touch those guys Yoshi, I got a bad feeling about...


You just had to touch them, didn't you? Hey everybody, I think Yoshi's gonna hurl!

To sum it up, Miyamoto's visionary touch has insured that nothing has looked like this game before or since. Even the spin-off Yoshi series itself has struggled, with fabric and yarn, to create something that looks as original as this. Yoshi's Island does flirt with pseudo 3D at points, like the pause screen, or the (again, no other word suffices) charming opening cinema, almost like the developers are saying, "We could look like Donkey Kong Country if we wanted, but instead we chose this." By the way, I love Donkey Kong Country.

In other words, Tuesday.

The graphics aren't the only thing that makes Super Mario World 2 stand out, and Miyamoto isn't the only legend to have left his mark on Yoshi's Island. Koji Kondo, the guy who composed the themes for Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and along with John Williams, the majority of American kids' born in the 70's and 80's childhoods, was tasked by Nintendo to create Yoshi's Island's music. Kondo does what he's done his entire career, and creates a remarkably memorable soundtrack that never gets old. While the game doesn't sport myriad themes, each one is so good, there is not irritation when it is repeated. For instance, the same music plays any time Yoshi and Baby Mario find themselves in a cave. The player will welcome it every time. At least, I know I do.

Miyamoto can apparently work mushrooms into anything. I want some pizza.

The sound effects are also golden, and often hilarious, like the silly grunt Yoshi makes when he tries to keep himself in the air after a jump, or the gasps for air monkeys make after you've thwarted their attacks and knocked them into water (Serves you right, monkeys).
However, while graphics and sound give Yoshi's Island charm and an edge over its past, present, and future 2D platformer competitors, its gameplay puts it into rare territory.

Pictured above, sporting a tear because it will never catch up: Yoshi's Island's competitors.

Everything in this game is perfect.
I hate hyperbole, but in twenty-plus years, I have yet to find a flaw in Yoshi's Island. The relegation of Mario to a supporting role in his own game, quite the controversy in 1995, pays off dividends. A prequel to all previous Mario games, Super Mario World 2 puts Yoshi in the central role. As seen in the aforementioned opening cinema, the Babies Mario and Luigi are separated, and Luigi kidnapped by the evil sorceress Kamek, as the duo were being delivered by stork to their parents. Kamek, it turns out, is also a nanny, and has foreseen that the Mario brothers will one day wreak havoc on Bowser, her young charge (and future series arch-villain). Meanwhile, Mario tumbles from the sky to...you guessed it, Yoshi's Island. Yoshi and his multi-colored kindred decide to help Mario rescue his brother, Luigi, but as they journey to Baby Bowser's castle, Kamek's minions are on their trail.


Hey, get out of my face, Kamek's minion. By the way, I met your blue brother earlier. I didn't care much for him, either.

In the wrong hands, this story would be cheesy, sentimental drivel, but in Miyamoto's sure grip, Yoshi and Baby Mario's journey is a blast for players of all ages. My son, surely hardened by the all-invasive media of the 2010's, enjoyed playing through this game with me just as much as I enjoyed playing through it as a teenager and an adult. This is due to the flawless implementation of Miyamoto's gameplay ideas.
While Yoshi can jump on non-spiky foes, just as Mario did in game's past, he can also eat them and turn them into an egg, which he can throw at more powerful foes, or use as a tool. The aiming of Yoshi's egg-tossing can be learned by even a novice in only a few seconds, and mastered quickly by more experienced gamers. Yoshi can also hover just a bit after a jump by a re-tap of the jump button, and he can then hover again indefinitely, but just a bit lower each time. Yoshi can also also stomp foes and through brittle floors when the player presses "down" after jumping. At certain points, Yoshi can even transform into a helicopter, car, or train.


Why is the screen going all gold and groovy? Why am I even asking at this point?


I can fly! I can fly! Move, you dumb birds!

At select moments, Baby Mario can also set out on his own, with the ability to run on walls and ceilings, and to dispatch foes with a single touch. Oh, and you also get a few chances throughout the game to ride on a giant, overeager dog named "Poochy."


Mario's a blur on two legs, but he can't change his own diapers...wait, who does change his diapers?

These advancements create what seem to be limitless opportunities in gameplay invention, Over Yoshi's Island's six distinct worlds featuring a combined 48 stages (plus six challenging bonus levels!), the player can never predict what's coming next, but, befitting one of the greatest games of all time, on the fifth play through, when they have Yoshi's island memorized, the game isn't any less fun.
Expanding the gameplay, Yoshi can collect five sunflowers, 20 generally-disguised-as-gold red coins, and 30 stars throughout each level. He then receives a final collection score after reaching the end-stage goal,and  jumping through a hoop that gives him the random opportunity to play a bonus game (chances increased the more flowers he collects). To better illustrate what I just typed:


Hoop.


Score.


Bonus game...er, challenge.


Aaaand...I lost.

These collectible items extend gameplay, as a decent player can get through the game well enough, but will be pushed to their limits trying to snag a 100% on each level. Of course, "because it's fun" is a good enough excuse to go back and pick up everything, but the game rewards the stalwart player with a bonus level for each world completed at 100%. These six bonus levels are quite a bit harder than the game's original 48 stages, providing a greater challenge for the hardcore gamer.


And a rare opportunity to berate the usually reliable "Poochy."

Along with the bonus level, the player also receives a bonus challenge that they can play as many times and at any time that they want (each world features a different challenge) . Lives and items can then be built up to better take on further 100% expeditions. Oh yes, I almost forget to mention, there are usable items in this game, such as melons that allow Yoshi to spit seeds, ice and fire. He can pick these up in levels, usually ones involving those danged monkeys, but he can also access ones he's accumulated in bonus challenges from the pause menu.

Yep, Miyamoto and his crew even made the 3D "PAUSE" letters trippy.

Perhaps Yoshi's Island's greatest innovation is how it does away with the basic Mario "get hit, get smaller, get hit again, die" life meter. In Super Mario World 2, each level equips Yoshi with a ten-second star-timer. If Yoshi is hit by an enemy, Baby Mario floats off his back. If Yoshi can't fetch Mario in those ten seconds, he is carried off by Kamek's minions.

Come on guys, wait a second.


Jerks...

If he does rescue Mario, the star-timer gradually builds back to ten. Yoshi has the opportunity to collect stars throughout each level, building the timer up to thirty. Of course, there is great incentive in not getting hit, so that Yoshi has 30/30 stars when the level is completed, to get a 100 % total score. Also, the sound of an astray Mario's crying ensures that the player will want to retrieve him as quickly as possible. Of course, falling into a bottomless pit, or landing on spikes will always result in death, regardless of star-timer count.
Like all Mario games, 100 regular coins collected equals an extra life, as well as nabbing a rare balloon or bad-guy with "ONE UP" plastered on them.
The cherry on top of all this goodness is Yoshi's Island's unique character. The game is filled to the brim with it. From the visually resplendent, often comical bossfights...


Hey, that guy doesn't look so bad.


Wait, Kamek, why are you sprinkling psychedelic fairy juice everywhere?


Now I think I'm gonna hurl...an egg at this guy.

To the exuberantly animated world map and the way a Yoshi tosses Mario to the awaiting Yoshi at the next level.


This looks like a job for Gold Yoshi.

To the fact that every single level has its own title.


Spelunking like my daddy.

To the joy of finding all of the game's delightful secret areas.


Hey Yoshi, if you could be bothered, I think there's some secret dragonflies to chill with up there.


Rolling with the homies...er, dragonflies. Also, Bob Ross, these clouds are for you.

To a one-off segment 2/3 of the way through an otherwise typical level, where Yoshi suddenly dons skis to tear his way down a gargantuan mountainside...which doubles as one of my favorite moments in gaming history.


Pictured above...one of my favorite moments in gaming history.

To the little chatterboxes who offer game tips.


Hey, chatterbox, why aren't I wearing any clothes?

To these Shy Guys who are going out of their way to try to kill me.


Thanks a lot, Shy Guys.


Need to get me a Yoshi flag.

I love this game.


Did I mention it's got colors?

1995 Nintendo/Nintendo EAD

Graphics: 10.0/10.0

Sound: 10.0/10.0

Gameplay: 10.0/10.0

Lasting Value: 10.0/10.0