Retro Review: ES IV: Oblivion (PC)

5 10 2009

Oblivion PC

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Original release date: 03/20/06

You are the unfortunate prisoner, sitting in your particular cell, wondering just how you got yourself into this troublesome predicament. Across the hall can be heard the snickers of a fellow inmate, hurling insults your way as the guard and his escorts approach. While waiting you calm your fidgeting by playfully moving some chains back and forth, all the while watching that ever approaching shadow. Yet, with each passing second you feel a sense that something is amiss, a wariness that easily tops your own current troubles. The guards reach your cell but rather than focus on you, they tell you to move aside. Confused, you look as the guards are accompanied by none other than the great Emperor himself. As you sit there in astonishment, you watch as the man, clothed in silk and gold, turns to you and mutters an incomparably powerful sentence.

”It’s you — the one from my dreams.”

With a vague explanation and little comprehension of what he means, a secret door suddenly opens, leading to a misty labyrinth, cleverly hidden behind a stone infrastructure. Suddenly you are fighting side by side with the guards of the Imperial City, warding off hordes of mysteriously clad assassins. In mere moments you find yourself separated from the group, as well as lost in thought. Where do I go from here? Oh, but so much more awaits you within the confines of the dark underground; multiple corridors that lead to lurking enemies; chests with your first set of items; an array of weaponry ranging from a simple bow to techniques delving in the mystic arts. These all leading up to an understanding of just who you really are and what your mission is in this crazy new world.

And this encompasses just the first hour of play.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion truly is one of those titles that only appear once in a blue moon; in a time where dry points are strewn about the gaming scene. Continuing the impressive mark that carries over from its predecessor Morrowind, the game strives to give you a world that doesn’t end until you want it to. Along the way you will take the time to notice the attention to detail apparent in every single corner of the land of Cyrodil. From the breathtakingly high mountains near Lylonadil to the snowy wastelands of Bravil, impressive visuals help provide an incentive to go exploring. Murky caverns, forgotten ruins, and hellish portals to far off dimensions, can all be found within several miles of each other, and show that this is one twisted world you’ll not soon forget.

What can be forgotten are some annoyances that I had some problems with in Morrowind. For one, in the previous version, there were times when I wish I could simply get to my destination immediately. Bethesda realized this and decided to provide an option for those of us who had seen enough of the landscape already. Fast travel is an option now, giving you the chance to instantly warp to any location on the map. This saves players a tremendous amount of time and helps you get those quests done, minus the sluggish walking from town to town. The feature is merely optional though and if you are the type that likes to take in the lush surroundings, far be it from anyone to stop you. Nevertheless, the game is all about choices, and Oblivion provides a wide array of character classes, each with their own unique combat approach and style.

Speaking of combat, Oblivion definitely made the biggest improvement in this department, allotting a wide array of possibilities no matter what you choose to be. Want to be a burly warrior, clad in full heavy armor, wielding every massive weapon in the book? Be sure to specialize strength and endurance then, focusing on the various weapon skills and of the course, the art of blocking. That’s right, warriors can now block using their respective weapon or shield, allowing for more intense duels; especially if it is between two melee based fighters.

Mages now have a tremendous amount of spells to choose from, ranging from the mind numbing powers of illusion to the offensive forces of fire and lightning, known as destruction. And props to the new hot-key system, which lets you assign any type of sword, bow, or spell to a single button push. This saving you from frustratingly pressing the menu button to switch tools during combat sessions. Yet, the most important aspect of the game comes down to picking the best character for the job. And depending on the decision you make, will affect just how well your protagonist will perform.

For instance, I play as the tiger race Khajit, with my skills applicable to the very cool field of thievery. Thanks to the agility and speed bonuses provided by my particular kind, techniques delving in: acrobatics, lock-pick, sneak, and security, help me take advantage of my class to its full potential. Just as in Morrowind you level by the amount of times you use your specific skills, rather than each opponent carrying a set amount of experience points. And while skills like acrobatics may feel broken, since jumping continues to raise its level, the other attributes help to balance it out.

Now perhaps you don’t want to be a fuzzy cat. Then why not take a pick from over ten other possible character models, each having their own unique background and character traits. From the beer swigging, axe wielding Nord to the intelligent and mysterious Dark Elf, each race provides a different experience, not only in combat or appearance, but in the way people will perceive you.

Taking a couple of pointers from the ill-fated Fable, the people in the world of Oblivion are among the most active non-player characters ever seen in a role-playing game. Try walking into the local inn for a drink, there the citizens of the town will welcome you; recognizing you by the origin you chose at the beginning of the game. You will also notice how they seem to go about their own predetermined schedule, sometimes even bumping into each other for a quick conversation. What is sometimes fun is sneaking up on some unsuspecting duo and eavesdropping what they are saying. This can lead to an understanding of the area you are in, any local missions to undertake, or perhaps just a quick laugh at the convoluted exchange of words that can sometimes take place.

Another thing that might have some people talking is the accomplishments that you put under your belt throughout your progression of the main storyline. As you travel from city to forest; riding over bridges and passing by desolate ruins and landmarks, you will begin to find the Oblivion gates. These nightmarish portals have appeared all throughout the world of Cyrodil, unleashing legions of imps, mutant lizards, and powerful beings known as the Daedra. Your primary objective will be to find these gates, enter them, eliminate the opposition inside, and deactivate the terminal which keeps these fiery gateways open. No matter how much you enjoy the dark storyline of Oblivion, there are times when you just need a break. Thankfully, the game provides a plethora of sub-quests and guilds to join, all which let you deepen the role of your hero further.

I mean, I’m not one to brag, but I’ve single-handedly taken down hundreds of ruthless bandits in my travels. I’ve become the champion of the Arena in the Imperial City, where hundreds of spectators cheer my name as I enter and leave each event. Whether it be taking down a team of high elf archers or slaughtering a legion of trolls, the outcome is the same. Oh, and it would be foolish if I didn’t point out that I have among the highest honors in the thieves guild. Nothing like quietly breaking into a poor sap’s house late in the night and making off with the many goods strewn about their shelves and chests all ninja style. I guess I could tribute my success to the fact that I have the eyes of the tiger, allowing me to see into the darkness and help spot those deadly pit and needle traps. Though that’s not to say there aren’t more career choices out there. The fighters guild and mages guild have made their return from the original, along with a series of hidden clubs and cults that make the before mentioned ones feel like a walk through the daisies.

If there is one thing that has gotten on my nerves though, as I’ve slowly taken my time with Oblivion, it would be the sometimes exploitable AI. And there is no other class that experiences this flaw as much as the thief. For example, picture sneaking in through the front door of a item store at three in the morning; your shadow silently blending in with the night. Your confidence is then broken as the owner of the store comes downstairs and notices your actions. Que the following silly resultant of my carelessness:

Disgruntled store clerk: “Hey! What are you doing here? Get out before I call the guards!”

[There is a slight pause, but then I notice he’s not doing anything but glaring at me. So, I go over to talk to him.]

Disgruntled store clerk: “Welcome, I have the finest goods in all of Cyrodil!”

Jin the Khajit: “…”

Quite the punishment for getting caught eh? A small threat and a chance to sell some supplies and I was off gallivanting in the night again. Luckily, the guards of the game aren’t so stupid and will be sure to throw you in jail if you truly piss them off. This of course leads to more difficult encounters later on when you start dealing with craftier people, both human and alien alike.

So, say you are stuck on a difficult boss engagement, where he continues to bind your attacks and slide pass your feeble defenses. Perhaps you should go level up? Unfortunately, that’s pointless because the challenge of the game scales with your level. Ah, there is the solution, go into the options menu and slide the toggle down to easy. It’s alright, it’s only for this fight and then you can slide it back up again afterward. Probably the first role-playing game in years that allows you to alter the difficulty while you play, Oblivion definitely opens up some possibilities for the casual gamer. Personally I don’t care for it because it breaks down any wall that a player would have to improve themselves to go through. It would be like asking someone not to use their book on a take home test. The urge to cross that impassable rift is sometimes a little too overwhelming.

Nevertheless, there is always the option of keeping the difficulty at maximum for you hardcore players. On a somewhat similar note, the best relief for that built up tension, brought about by fluent challenges, can be found in the harmless field of sight-seeing. Weather effects that change as you journey from point to point, a time system that affects the sky and the schedules of the people, and fluid character motions all bring together a treat for the eyes; that is even furthered along if you happen to own a top of the line system. Oblivion is definitely one of the more graphic intense titles to come along in a while and will require a moderate system just to run it on an average setting. Those running it on a lower end computer will also notice the occasional dip in frame-rate and some lock-ups as well. So, keep in mind that you get what you pay for when it comes to the PC version. You get better visuals than the 360 version, but it all depends on how much you are willing to spend. Ah, the old double-edged sword.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion takes the best qualities of an MMORPG and action-RPG and fuses them together to form something special. The improved battle system, brilliant story-line, and sheer depth of the visuals help bring everything together, even better than its predecessor had. However, the PC version suffers from some performance problems that can really only be cured by having a nice system. Adding that to some other detriments is what brings me to give this version of the game a point less than I’d want to. When everything is said and done though, there is just too much to like about Oblivion, and those that get into all it has to offer will enjoy well over 60 hours of playtime.

In the end whatever system you decide to buy the game for is entirely up to you. It all depends on whether or not you think it’s the right time. The 360 and PSIII versions are superior, thus I would recommend them over the PC version.

Verdict 8/10 (PC) and 9/10 (Xbox 360 and PS3)





Retro Review: Animal Crossing

8 05 2009

ac

Animal Crossing (Nintendo Gamecube)

Original release date: 09/15/02

You are a loner; one who is moving to a mysterious land for no apparent reason whatsoever. You have nothing with you, no one to accompany you, and no past to speak of. While daydreaming of what awaits you at your upcoming destination, a mild mannered creature sits in the booth in front of you. Curious at where this poor creature could be heading to, the cat named Rover, asks where you are heading. You adequately reply that you are moving, but have no home to look forward to when you get there. Shocked by the poor fool’s response, he offers to lend you a favor in the means of a job. A little inspired, you look forward to a bizarre land that may offer something unique and intriguing, something that you have never experienced before.

Welcome to the world of Animal Crossing.

It is definitely a strange title that only the people of Nintendo could bring to America. It is also as far away from a “real” life simulation as possible, despite the fact that it plays like one. Borrowing from similar genre-related titles such as Harvest Moon, this game puts you in the shoes of someone just trying to make a living. Your mission is to get situated into a new house of your choosing, get a job going, and keep the money flowing. Things do not start off easy for you though, as you come in as a homeless bum. However, help does arrive in the form of a raccoon. Yes, the odd little mammal named Tom Nook starts you off with a job to get you situated. As with other titles in the genre, patience is required to play a game like this, so do not expect action right off the bat. There is much to do, and even more time to do it, which brings around a plethora of angles in which to approach this game.

Interactivity abounds, in ways that you will both love and despise. Unlike past simulations with their own time management system, Animal Crossing does not have a stop-and-go style. This game has a real time clock; which means that if it is 12:00 AM on October 12, 2006, then that is the time on both sides of the coin. It is ever flowing, and you will see other town members going about their day, doing their own thing. Though it is fun to stalk your computerized friends for hours on end, there is a slight problem to this design. Say you have a daytime job and can only get on at night. Well, you will find that most of your village pals are asleep and unable to help you put that money in your pocket. It can be frustrating, especially if you had a set task to do for that day. So, to sum it up in a simple phrase . . . you need to have a lot of free time to play Animal Crossing.

With that said, there are some convenient positives about this time clock. Holidays and special events like Christmas and Halloween all occur on their respective dates. That way you will be able to do all the special events of the game without forgetting the day you can play them. However, that leads you to a new thought, ”Lets see, go out with my blind date to the Halloween party, or stay home and get that cool looking jack-o-lantern.” Well, unless you are really desperate for companionship, park yourself in your room and get that rare collectors item, just don’t tell anyone.

Speaking of which, the town members themselves make the game what it truly is. They each have their own personalities, and depending on how you act toward them, will affect the way they act toward you. One such way of earning their trust is doing errands for them. You will find yourself running from house to house trying to return game boys, pieces of clothing, or missing pieces of furniture. At times you will even swear that you are some sort of vassal to these slave drivers. Anyway, while it does not sound very intriguing, it is surprisingly engaging, pulling you in closer to the virtual community. As you make friends you will get letters and sometimes invitations to special events. If you act like a jerk to them they will not talk to you and probably ignore you most of the time. So, basically how you act will affect the flow of the game, for better or for worse. From the thought of a large community, you must be thinking about the implementation of a marriage system. Well, unfortunately since you are a human surrounded by talking animals, there is none. Despite this, the town system is effective in the fact that it is constantly interactive, providing a much more enjoyable experience.

As you are playing along, you will no doubt be aware of the simple control scheme going on. Also, the main menu gives you a chance to play around with a varied amount of options. You have your pack; where you can carry and hold a certain number of items. There is also the wallet, which displays how many bells (money) you currently have on you. However, it is the interchangeable character model system that turns out to be the most interesting of the features. Using the menu you can switch your sexy outfits, choose different tools, and select different items to give or drop. Now if you are familiar with Harvest Moon 64, then you will be glad to know that you control the main character just like that. No quibbles or distorted camera motions to speak of either, which provides a major sigh of relief, as it is usually the antagonist in this genre.

Yet another option Animal Crossing sports is the handheld to console connectivity. Connecting the Game Boy Advance with the Gamecube, you can make design patterns on your clothes, unlock special items, and even access a new island. The most thrilling element though is the town song variance system. You can keep the lively little default theme or even create your own town song. Feeling particularly demiurgic, I put together a version of “Saria’s Song” from the Ocarina of Time. Ah, you got to love it. And even if your’ inventive spirit is a little doused; there are plenty of catchy songs the game provides, that you can use to make your own customizable theme. There is so much to do here, and the sheer amount of secrets the game hides is immeasurable.

Suddenly feeling a bit nostalgic?

Well be sure to check out the many classic NES titles hidden within. Games like Balloon Fighter, Tennis, and Pinball have made great transitions over to the cube and are a great break from a long day of errand running. You, of course, have to earn them by finding them in special shops and events. There are a lot more available old school games than the ones listed, and all of them provide more of that delicious, old-school experience. Well, if anything it prevents the couch potatoes from having to switch systems.

The visuals of the game are dated, seeing as this was originally a 64 bit title; easily noticeable due to the simple environment, blocky displays, and occasional blurry textures. Alternatively, the sprites are cute, and the backgrounds blend well with this style, but they just do not take advantage of the system’s graphical texturing. Going a little more into character models, there is plenty of expressionism to be found, and the emotions of the characters are very light hearted and funny. If a character is sad, he or she will frown, and there will be a little rain cloud above their head. If you make them happy, they will laugh, and little “Ha Ha Ha” symbols will circle around their body. It is just the simple humor and rambunctious critters that increase the charm and provide a flipside view from the norm.

Improvement definitely occurs in the audio department. Character discussions involve familiar mumble tones, as the text displays what they are really saying. The sound effects of the game themselves are right on as well. Throwing random items in the lake and banging an axe against a tree all sound like they should. Musically present are some traditional chimes and, of course, the changeable town song that pops in here and there when you enter a certain area. As said earlier, there are plenty of great tunes that come along later in the game, so good things come to those who wait.

Repetition occurs in all sims and it will come early to some folks, which is my only small irk. One such example would be the flow of the game. Since this game is in real time, it can definitely be hard to get certain items or meet particular people. There is also only so many times that you will want to fish, do odd jobs, and search for that one unobtainable treasure. Neighbors will also often bug you with familiar tasks again and again; providing frustrating moments that will make you wish you were the only person living there. Though the traditional reoccurring style of simulations may turn off some folks, there is still some hope. Using unique codes corresponding to certain items, you can trade these sequences with people from the Internet. By doing this you can snag that obscure trinket or hidden piece of furniture you have been wanting for so long, motivating you to continue along.

At the end of the day, you are exhausted and ready to crash, knowing you have another engaging day ahead of you. It is bizarre Japanese style simulating at its finest, and provides enough twists and turns to keep the “Average Joe” comfortable for a while. There just happens to be something in simulations that puts you in the shoes of your character, more so than most role-playing titles do. Take that unique character creation and put it in an ever moving land, and you have something remarkable. This distinct world is ever moving, and it is this factor that can make or break it for those full time workers. Nevertheless, time is always progressing, and even if you are constantly occupied in life, your virtual world awaits you on the other side.

Verdict – 8/10





Retro Review: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

5 05 2009

zeldamm

Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64)

Original release date: 10/25/2000

You’ve got a plan that could never go wrong. Taking a long vacation away from the world you just fought so hard for is what the doctor ordered. Exuberantly, you get on your steed and ride into the horizon. Yet darkness always waits unsuspectingly for the great Hero of Time, no matter the circumstance. Trekking slowly into an enchanting realm within a lush forest, you seem to detect something, but pay it no mind. There are ethereal spirits and wisps fluttering about the night sky creating an unsettling feeling, as if this is no ordinary place. You are finally coming toward your destination when your horse suddenly rears, sending you flying. An eerie creature grabs your belongings and rushes off ahead, leaving you in the dust. Taking heed, you quickly rush off toward the demon to confront him. However, things don’t go over so well when you finally corner him. In an unspeakable manner of sorcery you are suddenly thrown into a vision reverting you into a pitiful Deku scrub.

Could this be a nightmare?

Luckily, one of the two fairies that was traveling with the odd sorcerer is now left behind with you. Wanting to be reunited with her brother and the dark being again, she joins up with you for the moment, giving helpful advice along the way. Finally, after you make your way back to town, you confront a jolly man who seems to be a mask collector. He is determined to transform you to your former self as long as you retrieve a particular mask for him. By his description, it is the same mask worn by the very monster that put the curse on you. As you begin your quest to return to normal, you notice the moon, but it has a terrifying face. A strange premonition comes over you, and through hints and clues, you find out that the star will crash into the planet in three short days — better get moving.

Putting you in a dire situation in a dark new world is what one would think of as a positive addition to the Zelda line. Majora’s Mask is really the first title in the series to go down a separate path, rather than the tiresome “rescue the princess” charade. So, in an astute sense, it is the story of this game that drives it along. However, it is the supposed sequel to the timeless classic, Ocarina of Time. How on earth can you bounce back from such an enormous hit? Of course the idea seemed simple enough. Put Link in a completely different world and situation but keep the main elements of the original Nintendo 64 classic in tact. While it all sounds well and good, one cannot shake the sense of mediocrity emanating from the overall design. Majora’s Mask certainly tries to be innovative, but takes on the curse of trying to do too much at once.

On a positive note, the battle system from Ocarina of Time is used again in this installment. With the lock-on targeting system in place, combat has never felt more in depth. The fluid movement and simple controls coincide with an excellent camera that brings everything into an incomparable unison. But, one cannot help but feel a pre-emptive sense of déjà-vu throughout the progression from area to area. What makes matters worse is the fact that this new land feels much smaller than Hyrule, and the people that inhabit it are nearly identical to the citizens of such. Even though there are new towns and different environments to progress through, it is safe to assume that Nintendo overused the copy and paste button a bit too much.

This assumption is made apparent again as you journey through lands inhabiting previously seen races. The rocky Gorons, plant-like Deku, and enchanting water humanoids known as the Zora make their appearance again and it makes you wonder — are these the only beings in existence? What makes you forget about these troublesome rehashes is the fact that you can actually play as them. With the arrival of each new mask, the fundamentals of play from the original seem to slowly vanish, bringing a somewhat fresh element to the table. All in all, there are four temples in the game with intriguing puzzles and platform situations that help contribute to the use of these masks. At times you may have to transform into a Goron to roll over that narrow hill, engage the Deku scrub’s helicopter technique to cross a canyon, or use the boomerang fin trait of the Zora to hit a far-off switch. The classic puzzles that have become a staple in the Zelda series are all here, and the timing of them in each dungeon brings together a feeling of balance.

The other half of the proverbial pie for this series has always been exploration. From the early days on the NES to the fairly recent release of Wind Waker, sighting new territories and searching through every nook and cranny has always been part of the series’ tradition. However, as much you may want to explore this unique world, your concentration will always be distracted by one controversial detriment. This being, the falling moon and the time system deriving from it. Why, oh why do you add something like this into an adventure title that just begs to be seen? Maybe it would be easily ignorable to some, but that constant pressure of being rushed really speeds up the play, and shortens the value much more than it could have been.

That’s not to say there aren’t options available to deal with this nuisance though. Using your ocarina, you can slow and speed up time, or play unique songs which help contribute to puzzle solving. The essence of the clock moves in a similar fashion to games like the Harvest Moon series. Meaning a couple minutes in the real world is an hour or two in game, adding up to maybe five or six hours before the third day strikes. Learning how to control the clock at the right moment is interesting, but with one slip you can end up wasting a lot of time just trying not to lose your belongings. This correlates the save system to the balance of time, and you will need to revert to the first day to save . . . every single time. In the process you lose minor items such as arrows, rupees, and bombs, in addition to the people you met in that particular run forgetting your face. Also, certain events will only happen at particular moments, meaning you may have to wait prolonging periods of time, in boredom, until the situation eventually occurs. Yet, if there is a saving grace to this variation of ups and downs, it would have to be the boss fights.

From the enormous mechanical beast Goht to the maniacal sword toting shaman Odalwa, the confrontations do not disappoint. In fact, ignoring the simple enemies and ongoing ticking of the clock is key if you desire to get to these epic clashes. Each antagonist has their own style of combat and the masks play an integral role in finding unique ways to damage them. Think of Ocarina of Time‘s bosses but with more strategy involved and much more concentration required on your part. The bosses are even replay-able after you conquer them, which is an option its predecessor could have benefited with.

The music truly mirrors what is happening on screen, and definitely keeps you entranced throughout. Brand new ocarina tunes can be heard echoing alongside the classic Zelda theme, which was disappointingly absent from Ocarina of Time. The slow, melodramatic notes that play within the various temples will keep you on your feet, while a new remix of the Kakariko Village theme helps liven the consistent visits to Clock Town. Sound effects remain the same as the game’s predecessor; with sword slashes, bomb explosions, and deku nut flashes all sounding like they normally would. There isn’t any voice acting and the inclusion of a few more fresh ocarina songs would have been nice, but overall the audio certainly doesn’t falter.

Another impressive feature that Majora’s Mask has going for it is the ability to update your weapons. While you may remain a kid throughout the whole duration of the game, it is the sword upgrades that make up for this. And the missions behind their creations help bring about the only sense of challenge that coincides with the time rush. So it may just be worth it to continue progressing along, no matter how much you may dislike the new game-play system.

Majora’s Mask is truly a double-edged sword. The dark and overshadowing theme mixed with excellent boss fights and great battle mechanics bring the short-lived experience alive. Yet, the menacing time system and abundantly reused character models bring down the charm a bit. If you have never played Ocarina of Time, then by all means play this one first. The similarities may get to long time fans of the Legend of Zelda, but newcomers will not be affected by this in any way. And while it may lack polish and seem like a rushed effort at times, it is the mere point that it is a quality Zelda title that drives the force behind a confident recommendation.

Verdict – 7/10





Retro Review: Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

5 05 2009

zeldamm

Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64)

Original release date: 10/25/2000

You’ve got a plan that could never go wrong. Taking a long vacation away from the world you just fought so hard for is what the doctor ordered. Exuberantly, you get on your steed and ride into the horizon. Yet darkness always waits unsuspectingly for the great Hero of Time, no matter the circumstance. Trekking slowly into an enchanting realm within a lush forest, you seem to detect something, but pay it no mind. There are ethereal spirits and wisps fluttering about the night sky creating an unsettling feeling, as if this is no ordinary place. You are finally coming toward your destination when your horse suddenly rears, sending you flying. An eerie creature grabs your belongings and rushes off ahead, leaving you in the dust. Taking heed, you quickly rush off toward the demon to confront him. However, things don’t go over so well when you finally corner him. In an unspeakable manner of sorcery you are suddenly thrown into a vision reverting you into a pitiful Deku scrub.

Could this be a nightmare?

Luckily, one of the two fairies that was traveling with the odd sorcerer is now left behind with you. Wanting to be reunited with her brother and the dark being again, she joins up with you for the moment, giving helpful advice along the way. Finally, after you make your way back to town, you confront a jolly man who seems to be a mask collector. He is determined to transform you to your former self as long as you retrieve a particular mask for him. By his description, it is the same mask worn by the very monster that put the curse on you. As you begin your quest to return to normal, you notice the moon, but it has a terrifying face. A strange premonition comes over you, and through hints and clues, you find out that the star will crash into the planet in three short days — better get moving.

Putting you in a dire situation in a dark new world is what one would think of as a positive addition to the Zelda line. Majora’s Mask is really the first title in the series to go down a separate path, rather than the tiresome “rescue the princess” charade. So, in an astute sense, it is the story of this game that drives it along. However, it is the supposed sequel to the timeless classic, Ocarina of Time. How on earth can you bounce back from such an enormous hit? Of course the idea seemed simple enough. Put Link in a completely different world and situation but keep the main elements of the original Nintendo 64 classic in tact. While it all sounds well and good, one cannot shake the sense of mediocrity emanating from the overall design. Majora’s Mask certainly tries to be innovative, but takes on the curse of trying to do too much at once.

On a positive note, the battle system from Ocarina of Time is used again in this installment. With the lock-on targeting system in place, combat has never felt more in depth. The fluid movement and simple controls coincide with an excellent camera that brings everything into an incomparable unison. But, one cannot help but feel a pre-emptive sense of déjà-vu throughout the progression from area to area. What makes matters worse is the fact that this new land feels much smaller than Hyrule, and the people that inhabit it are nearly identical to the citizens of such. Even though there are new towns and different environments to progress through, it is safe to assume that Nintendo overused the copy and paste button a bit too much.

This assumption is made apparent again as you journey through lands inhabiting previously seen races. The rocky Gorons, plant-like Deku, and enchanting water humanoids known as the Zora make their appearance again and it makes you wonder — are these the only beings in existence? What makes you forget about these troublesome rehashes is the fact that you can actually play as them. With the arrival of each new mask, the fundamentals of play from the original seem to slowly vanish, bringing a somewhat fresh element to the table. All in all, there are four temples in the game with intriguing puzzles and platform situations that help contribute to the use of these masks. At times you may have to transform into a Goron to roll over that narrow hill, engage the Deku scrub’s helicopter technique to cross a canyon, or use the boomerang fin trait of the Zora to hit a far-off switch. The classic puzzles that have become a staple in the Zelda series are all here, and the timing of them in each dungeon brings together a feeling of balance.

The other half of the proverbial pie for this series has always been exploration. From the early days on the NES to the fairly recent release of Wind Waker, sighting new territories and searching through every nook and cranny has always been part of the series’ tradition. However, as much you may want to explore this unique world, your concentration will always be distracted by one controversial detriment. This being, the falling moon and the time system deriving from it. Why, oh why do you add something like this into an adventure title that just begs to be seen? Maybe it would be easily ignorable to some, but that constant pressure of being rushed really speeds up the play, and shortens the value much more than it could have been.

That’s not to say there aren’t options available to deal with this nuisance though. Using your ocarina, you can slow and speed up time, or play unique songs which help contribute to puzzle solving. The essence of the clock moves in a similar fashion to games like the Harvest Moon series. Meaning a couple minutes in the real world is an hour or two in game, adding up to maybe five or six hours before the third day strikes. Learning how to control the clock at the right moment is interesting, but with one slip you can end up wasting a lot of time just trying not to lose your belongings. This correlates the save system to the balance of time, and you will need to revert to the first day to save . . . every single time. In the process you lose minor items such as arrows, rupees, and bombs, in addition to the people you met in that particular run forgetting your face. Also, certain events will only happen at particular moments, meaning you may have to wait prolonging periods of time, in boredom, until the situation eventually occurs. Yet, if there is a saving grace to this variation of ups and downs, it would have to be the boss fights.

From the enormous mechanical beast Goht to the maniacal sword toting shaman Odalwa, the confrontations do not disappoint. In fact, ignoring the simple enemies and ongoing ticking of the clock is key if you desire to get to these epic clashes. Each antagonist has their own style of combat and the masks play an integral role in finding unique ways to damage them. Think of Ocarina of Time‘s bosses but with more strategy involved and much more concentration required on your part. The bosses are even replay-able after you conquer them, which is an option its predecessor could have benefited with.

The music truly mirrors what is happening on screen, and definitely keeps you entranced throughout. Brand new ocarina tunes can be heard echoing alongside the classic Zelda theme, which was disappointingly absent from Ocarina of Time. The slow, melodramatic notes that play within the various temples will keep you on your feet, while a new remix of the Kakariko Village theme helps liven the consistent visits to Clock Town. Sound effects remain the same as the game’s predecessor; with sword slashes, bomb explosions, and deku nut flashes all sounding like they normally would. There isn’t any voice acting and the inclusion of a few more fresh ocarina songs would have been nice, but overall the audio certainly doesn’t falter.

Another impressive feature that Majora’s Mask has going for it is the ability to update your weapons. While you may remain a kid throughout the whole duration of the game, it is the sword upgrades that make up for this. And the missions behind their creations help bring about the only sense of challenge that coincides with the time rush. So it may just be worth it to continue progressing along, no matter how much you may dislike the new game-play system.

Majora’s Mask is truly a double-edged sword. The dark and overshadowing theme mixed with excellent boss fights and great battle mechanics bring the short-lived experience alive. Yet, the menacing time system and abundantly reused character models bring down the charm a bit. If you have never played Ocarina of Time, then by all means play this one first. The similarities may get to long time fans of the Legend of Zelda, but newcomers will not be affected by this in any way. And while it may lack polish and seem like a rushed effort at times, it is the mere point that it is a quality Zelda title that drives the force behind a confident recommendation.

Verdict – 7/10





Retro Review: Time Pilot

4 05 2009

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Time Pilot (Xbox Live Arcade)

Original release date – 08/30/06

In the far-off future of 2001, the earth is under constant turmoil. As some of us may or may not remember, five years ago, an invasion of UFO’s nearly annihilated all of earth. Hordes of unidentifiable aliens cycled around the planet amongst the hundreds of asteroids that somehow magnetized near the atmosphere. How the hell did this happen? One can’t be too sure. However, hope arrived in the form of a technologically advanced jet fighter, equipped with a time traveling device that made the Delorian look like a 19th century carburetor. With this, the fighter was able to clear out the tyrannical forces that occupied each decade, leading up to the final confrontation right above our heads.

The year is 1982.

Ah, it truly was an epic battle that people will remember for ages and ages to come. Wait, it never happened? Oh that’s right, yet another stereotypical prediction made by the geniuses of the eighties. Back in the good old days it seemed that everyone thought the year 2000 would bring about so much. Kids would hover around the television, watching “The Jetsons” until the early hours of the morning, awaiting the day the flying car and moving sidewalks would suddenly appear in reality. Unfortunately, those days never came, and aside from computers, cable TV, and annoying Indie music, not much has really changed. And the same can be said for the latest addition to the XBLA library, Time Pilot.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since Time Pilot remains as one of the best retro shooters of all time. Taking different elements from games like Asteroid and Galaga, Konami was able to form an eloquent shooter with plenty of fresh features. The game was fairly obscure, but those that found a machine in their local arcade knew just how great the game was. 360 degrees of motion, adequate difficulty, and a unique presentation awaited the challenger, with plenty of memorable moments to be had along the way.

The premise of Time Pilot is pretty simple. You control a jet that stays centered on a vertically oriented screen. The title sports five levels, taking you from the early nineties through the dawn of the 21st century, where you will be confronting different aerial adversaries along the way. From the biplanes of 1910 to the missile-filled helicopters of the disco era, there are plenty of things to decimate, with lives and achievements waiting for the best of the best. Your objective in each of these levels will be to destroy as much as possible until the requirement is met. Afterward, a boss will appear, but to be honest, they feel more like mini-bosses. Most of the early missions are extremely easy, and half of the time, you will finish a level without even knowing it.

This could all be attributed to your jet’s rate of fire, which allows you to spray out three shots per action. Also, the game makes the most of the joystick. The ship doesn’t just point in eight directions, but actually takes the time to turn completely around when instructed to. This gives you a wide range of motion to fire, similar to the circle shooting game-play featured in Geometry Wars. Hit detection is a bit off at certain times, with some shots going through certain enemies, but as a whole, the game feels almost exactly like the arcade original.

My personal favorite part of the game is the UFO which emerges from the hectic background of 2001 to rain hellfire on your ship, all the while sending countless minions in to suicide-ram your ass into oblivion. Time Pilot’s boss encounters may be incredibly simple in premise, but the moment one appears on the screen changes everything for the better. Frantically trying to keep those last few lives in check while dozens of missiles and lasers light up the blackness of space around you, truly molds quite the dynamic moment. And those who played the game back in the eighties will be glad to know that the charm is still there.

Probably the most admirable change implemented into Time Pilot would be the audio and visual updates. When you first fire up the game you will notice the title is displayed in the classic setting. Changing that option to advanced will open more detailed ship designs, cloud layers, and add several new musical tracks as well. The game really looks good with better graphics, lessening the age of the title by quite a few years. Hey, why play a 1982 game when you can play a 1987 game, am I right?

One last thing to note is the extra couple of online features that Xbox Live included into the mix. Alongside a two-player alternating mode through the story mode, you can also get online to compete against another pilot. Unfortunately, no head-to-head combat is available, and the key way to win each round is by getting a better score than your opponent; which is obtained by alternating turns battling the AI. It is disappointing that there wasn’t more added to this mode, but it is to be expected for an arcade port. Also, the game is surprisingly lag-free, which is a sigh of relief after playing the mess that is Street Fighter II’ Hyper Fighting.

No matter what the future holds, one thing is for certain: Time Pilot is worth the 400 point purchase. Whether it is to quell that curious nostalgia or to acquire all 200 achievement points the game has to offer, Time Pilot emerges as one of the best titles on XBLA. The single player is over relatively quick, but the frantic premise will pull you in again and again, proceeding not to let go until you vaporize every last alien bastard. So get your head in the game and shoot stuff soldier. We wouldn’t want a repeat of 2001 now would we?

Verdict – 8/10





Retro Review: Mario vs. Donkey Kong

3 05 2009

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Mario vs. Donkey Kong (Game Boy Advance)

Original release date: 05/24/04

Simple platformers have not withstood the test of time in today’s rampant world of cinema crammed role-playing games, competitive shooters, and batty innovative puzzlers. Once in a while the need to revisit a past series and style of play is vital to set a sense of equilibrium and to not forget what came first. Series such as the classic Donkey Kong for example, and his long time but inconsistent rival, Mario. Based on a remake of the 1994 version of Donkey Kong for the Game Boy, Mario vs. Donkey Kong is an attempt to recreate the traditional part platform, part puzzle classic, but fails doing just that. Adding too many new elements that have appeared in each icon’s own titles leave it a bit more unbalanced than it probably had originally planned. I guess you can have too much of a good thing.

Yet, I could not help but enjoy the quaint charm and memorable sounds that popped up now and then. Who doesn’t love that crazy hammer music from the original? Even the bizarre storyline managed to make me laugh on some occasions.

Pity this isn’t a comic flick.

Now picture if you will Donkey Kong sitting in his house minding his own business. Eating bananas and channel surfing like the couch potato that he is. When he manages to catch a gander on the Home Shopping Network about the new thing in town –- Mario dolls. When did Mario become such a publicist? Blotting out the fact that he and Mario are enemies, old Donkey Kong begins frenzying around his house in excitement over this new fad. He bursts out of the jungle and into the city where he steals every one of them from the factory. Mario finds out about this and is generally pissed because he knows this cannot be good for business. Thus commences your journey of cat and mouse through six worlds with eight stages in each one; overcoming traps, picking up items, and praying the stupid ape doesn’t break your damn toys.

The game-play is relatively simple to say the least. Make your way across traps and hazards while strutting those jumping skills to pick up items and solve puzzles along the way. The majority of which will have you flipping switches in the right order, picking up keys, and dodging the occasional enemy or threat. Rinse and repeat for the first six stages of each world and you will end up at stage seven, which involves leading the Mario dolls you secured into a box. This is where the game picks up a bit as the dolls break very easily, so multi-tasking staying alive, keeping each one safe, and solving every dubiety will become essential. Once you have that task quickly taken care of, Donkey Kong will come out of the shadows for a little revenge. Unfortunately the fights usually last no more than 5 minutes as it usually plays out like this: pick up item, throw item in his general direction, dodge his attacks, ad nauseam.

Props though for the notable implementation of a pseudo-3D graphical style and control setup — because of this addition Mario has a lot of moves beyond the normal walk and jump from his early titles. Back-flips, multiple jump combos, tight rope walking, and handstands are all added to his arsenal and each technique serves a different purpose whether it be for offensive or defensive purposes. So, flip up to the peak of that high structure to flip the switch, then handstand to avoid the falling barrels threatening to bust your head open.

Though the capital reason Mario vs. Donkey Kong fails to rise above its genre counterparts lies within its execution. The innovative approach brought on to complicate for the better is overshadowed by the general premise. To put it bluntly, the game is over too fast and the difficulty does not pick up in time to save it. Though the first few worlds will fly by and feel fresh and unique, this all starts to tumble by around World 4. Attempting to mask the repetition is shifting background visuals and music from stage to stage, but it still cannot hide the fact it is merely recycling content. After a couple hours pulling on that twenty-fourth lever and swiping that thirty-second key will just become pointless. Despite the numerous shortcomings, the game will reward you on how well your collective efforts payed off, if you manage to sustain the interest.

Alongside the basic collection items mentioned so far is the oh so original addition of stars. Nintendo just cannot seem to put out a Mario game without these things can they? They are sort of like the holy grail in each stage as stuffing enough of them in your pocket will help you unlock an expert mode which adds a slightly noticeable difference in difficulty. However, the game is honestly not worth another run through after the first completion and even then everything rounds out at about 10 hours tops. If you are a score freak like I used to be back in the arcades then the addition of that system may keep you on your feet a bit longer. Though one has to wonder the reason to hold a record if no one is there to challenge you.

Ah, solitude.

You never seem to realize how much you dislike a series till its best is thrown at you and still manages to disappoint. A plethora of ideas were all obviously strewn about, but the inability to realize the potential was the leading handicap going into this one. I personally never cared for the original Donkey Kong and twenty some odd years later it isn’t faring any better. Even the inclusion of Luigi and a co-operative feature might have given this mediocre title some life. Figures every time the green plumber is really needed he is nowhere to be found.

Conclusion? Mario vs. Donkey Kong is a short, flawed package with infrequent redeemable factors. Perhaps resurrected classics really have no place in the ever changing realm of gaming anymore.

Only time will tell.

Verdict – 4/10





Retro Review: Wario World

28 04 2009

Now, for a while my retro reviews have been for solid games.  Today, I look at a game that didn’t quite measure up to that standard.  Oh, what am I talking about, it sucked.  Bask in the negativity as we delve into Wario World of the Gamecube.

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Wario World (Nintendo Gamecube)

Original release date: 06/23/03

Alas, there is someone who has always been in Mario’s glorious shadow and it is not his brother. No my friends, that spot belongs to the plumber’s unfortunate and obese rival, Wario. From the early days of his ventures on the Game Boy to his release on the Gamecube, the tubby gangster has always been a part of an incredibly simple and linear based game-play style. One such example would be the immortality that he possesses through most of his titles. However, Wario World ditches the “live forever” aspect, but in turn takes in another attribute; that all too familiar feeling of just plain sucking. It is quite a shame because I really wanted to like this game, but it let me down in every way imaginable.

In a land of gluttony and greed, poor Wario has lost his fortune due to a curse from a horrible black gem. The gem’s power has turned all of his gold into monsters and expelled him from his kingdom. It is up to this man, clad in purple and yellow, to simply take out the opposition, destroy the essence of the gem, and reclaim all of his treasure. From this generic aspect of story-telling, we are eventually lead to the main view of the game, which ends up being another platform-based collect-a-thon. Now, in your mind, picture the collective themes of Super Mario Sunshine, but factor in many more incredibly boring item themes and an inescapable repetitive nature. What made other percentage-based platform games a success was the free roaming exploration, which is unfortunately absent in Wario World. For encompassing this strange land is a set of 3D environments in a linear 2D side-scrolling fashion.

As soon as you begin the game, you will notice four worlds, with only one being accessible at the beginning. Within each of these worlds are three stages, each with their own treasures, puzzles, and bosses. Your main objective in each stage is to collect treasure, after treasure, after treasure, along the way having to fight incredibly stupid AI, and going through a series of mind-numbingly easy puzzle sequences. From tedious platform hoping to hitting switches a couple feet away from their resultant, it is quite obvious what age group Nintendo was aiming at. The difficulty of the game hardly ever improves and some of the later tasks could best be described as time consuming. Primarily because a large chunk of what you are collecting in this game is absolutely pointless and only goes toward getting a perfect score (which you will never have the desire to complete anyway.)

I can say one thing though; originality among adversaries was never a primary objective for the developers. In each level you will usually come across about two or three enemies and they are among the most intelligent devoid creatures I have ever seen. For example, in the first stage there are these small dinosaurs that will try to attack you by slashing. I ran up to and stood in front of this creature for a few seconds and then walked behind him. And to my astonishment, he was still winding up his fist for an attack in the direction I was previously standing. The enemies also appear extremely calcium deficient, as the majority will usually take one or two quick slugs each to drop.

The repetitiveness, however, comes from the usage of identical enemies in later levels. That’s right they are the same enemies with the same traits, but in order to make them seem different, they gave them each a graphic change. In world one, we have the slow witted lizard-like “magons,” and one level later the generically named “clowns.” Point is, they move exactly at the same rate, have the same attack patterns, and are taken down in the same amount of hits. You will go through the game constantly confronting characters who are practically the exact same thing as previous level foes and sadly there are very few of them.

Being plump has to have some advantages, eh? Well, old Wario certainly knows how to throw his weight around, as you have a couple of various moves to implement upon your dim-witted challengers. Using the B button will allow you to throw a couple of quick punches, while holding it will let you do a linebacker style charge. Meanwhile, the shoulder buttons will prove useful in ass-slamming your foes into the dirt. Moving Wario himself around is relatively simple and he controls well for the most part from stage to stage. The only thing that throws a wrench in the whole system is the previously mentioned 2D game-play in a 3D environment. You will constantly find yourself jumping incorrectly off cliffs and ledges and running right past your enemies. The loose controls and unmovable camera angles will definitely grate on your nerves after a while. To make matters worse, the unrelenting challenge of keeping the power of your Gamecube turned on, with this game in it, is the only difficulty to speak of.

Sad I know.

As said before, treasure hunting would be a lot of fun, if this world was expansive. Unfortunately with everything moving in a side scrolling environment, it is just a matter of time before you run into everything. Small sprites, regular treasure, coins (which you can use to buy lives and continues), and lastly red gems, sum up the available loot. Earning said gems will force you to take on “puzzle challenge” stages, which could have been something unique. Yet they pale in comparison to the challenge levels in similar platformers and require no more than the IQ of a hair dryer to complete. One mission actually required me to pull a lever and then jump up just three platforms to reach the item. Others required simple timing of hoping over slow moving obstacles. The sad thing is that even if you fail there is no consequence, but to jump back down and try again.

With the lack of effort put into the enemies, obstacles, and puzzles, the boss confrontations have to be worthwhile right? Well, yes and no. I did find the boss fights to be somewhat entertaining, but their premise is shallow as expected. After the first few attack exchanges you will know their pattern and proceed to wail on them, while confidently laughing at your full set of hearts.

To complement the rushed game-play, Nintendo decided to humor everyone with outdated visuals as well. Everything looks very bland and the textures on objects like bridges and trees look extremely muddy. The character designs are very generic and as said before are merely cosmetic to hide similar enemy patterns throughout levels. Hell, it looks as if they just copied and pasted character models and environments, did a color change, and called it something else. Practically every puzzle level looks the same and the majority of obstacles such as the spike-balls are used over extensively. All of this barely compares though to the look of the individual world entry levels in the main lobby. Notice the adequately cardboard cutout shaped design of the backgrounds and how they resonate in front of the motionless sky.

As terrible as this sounds, it is the very sound itself that remains one of the few positive features to Wario World. The game is filled with some catchy beats and the same thing applies to the boss music samples, however, both are short and repeat quite a bit too soon. The puzzle level samples are repetitive as well and offer nothing special to the already empty table. To top it off, Wario is terribly annoying and his fake Italian accent is enough to make you want to pull that little white plug out of your television’s audio socket.

Beneath all of the trash there is one feature included that is quite interesting and that is the Game Boy Advance compatibility. If you have an SP on hand, you can connect it with the system in order to transfer a sampling of WarioWare Inc. to it. The fun little mini-games here are humorous and interesting, but you are better off just picking up the full version. Quite sad when the only credible factor in a game comes from something that has nothing to do with it.

At the end of the day Wario World is as an empty serving that leaves you with nothing but high cholesterol. The most this game encompasses is about ten hours and that is if you can stomach the first few stages. With the simplistic graphics, repetitive game-play, and bogus challenge, it is obvious that the game was intended for young audiences. However, I would not recommend this pile of garbage to even the smallest adolescent out there. It is a shame that Wario’s first outing in his own advanced console game was such a poor one, resulting in being nothing more than a dusty old box in the corner of my drawer.

Verdict – 2/10