Saturday, April 30, 2011

Level Up: Kirby's Dreamland and F-Zero

I feel like doing another two for one review, since it’s been a while since I did my last one. Here are two games I don’t have much to talk about, but are important since they introduce two now famous Nintendo characters: Kirby and Captain Falcon. I’ll start with Kirby’s first game since I’ve talked about him in the past. Here’s Kirby’s Dreamland for the Game Boy.

Kirby’s design came from a simple circle, which was a place holder sprite at the time. However, Masahiro Sakurai, Kirby’s credited creator, later liked the little sphere once they added a face, hands and feet, so they stuck with it. I have to mention that on the box art for Kirby’s Dreamland, he’s white. This is not only because the original Gameboy didn’t feature colors, but because there were arguments at the time over what colors he should be: pink, white or yellow. Obviously pink was eventually chosen.

The choice of keeping Kirby as a circle looks better with what Kirby does best: sucking. The main game mechanic is that you must inhale enemies and either swallow them whole, or spit them out at other enemies. It’s also worth mentioning that Kirby doesn’t have a copy ability yet: that would only be established in his next game. Though it seems odd now, I think it put more of an emphasis on the platforming, which I’m glad it did, because I think it’s just great.

The plot of the game is nothing too special, and it follows the typical game formula of “blank” has stolen/kidnapped “blank” and “blank” must retrieve it/them. Here, the blanks would be filled by “King Dedede”, “All the food in Dreamland” and “Kirby”. However, this still introduced a lot of characters that time and Nintendo would not let us forget, such as Fololo, Whispy Woods and even some minor baddies like Sir Kibble and the Poppy Bros.

The simplistic plot is well suited though since this game was designed for a younger audience. This is achieved not only with the basic story and easy to master game play, but also with the audio visuals. Everything looks fantastically cute (hard to believe with a star like Kirby, eh? Haha), and the music is just all around memorable, catchy, enjoyable and still remixed and used today in certain games.

Well, that’s pretty much it for Kirby’s first game, so now let’s move onto Captain Falcon’s. Here’s F-Zero for the Super Nintendo.

For those of you who don’t know, F-Zero is a racing game. It uses the Mode 7 system, which was used in a few SNES games (like the original Super Mario Kart and Pilotwings) when the game designers needed the illusion of a 3D environment (F-Zero might even be the first game to use this). But that’s only one of the ways this game impresses you with its graphics. It’s set in the future which allowed the designers to give a really neat look to everything, and the cars’ sprites are drawn with great quality. And it almost goes without saying that the game’s music is to the same standard. The sound track in this game is amazingly fun to race along to (the Big Blue theme is my personal favorite) and even the sound design is great, like when you pass another racer, you can actually hear that “swoosh” noise that it makes. You can tell that when it came to making this game, Nintendo really put a lot of effort into it.

I pretty much already described the game play with the short line “it’s a racing game”. It’s a racing game with some well-designed tracks, but still close to a basic racing game; press A to go forward, follow the track and you win if you’re in first. There is one thing I found interesting though: you have a health bar. If you hit the sides, other racers or mines too many times, your car will explode and be disqualified from the race. Luckily, there’s a pit area on each track where you can heal, so don’t worry too much. I find this changes what could have been a boring, but well made, racing game, into something kind of exciting.

So now you know where two Nintendo big shots got their start. Kirby’s Dreamland, though a little too easy now, really set the tone for where he would go and made a good base for the series. F-Zero however, shocks me that a series came out of it because I found nothing that fantastic about it, but it is still a very well made game. Both look fantastic and have soundtracks that still stand the test of time. And sure, I could talk more about little things in each game (like the speed boosts in F-Zero or Kirby’s floating ability) but I think you get the picture. I give Kirby’s Dreamland for the Game Boy 8 and F-Zero for the Super Nintendo 7.5 levels out of 10.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Level Up: Paper Mario

Really, what can I say this week but “Paper Mario” for the Nintendo 64. Let’s dive right into this.

Oddly enough, I’m going to start with the graphics this time, since its PAPER Mario. The look of the game is similar to a paper diorama in a box, with flat sprites in a 3D area (both of great visual quality). This is actually really well done, with the flat sides of the characters even visible when they turn. You can also tell the game developers, Intelligent Systems, had fun with this during moments like when Mario goes to sleep; he flies through the air and gently slips under the covers like a letter being slid under a door.

The design of the characters are also really well pulled off, with most of the cast staying true to the Super Mario Brothers 3 or Super Mario World looks, with little tweaks here and there to both compensate for the game’s unique look, and the modernization of the series. There’s also this more cartoonish twist added to the mix: most people seem to have shrunk, but now have bigger heads with dot eyes and no legs, just feet. This further cements the look of the game making it really unique, leading to turning it into a series.

The game starts off like most Mario adventures; Peach sends a letter to Mario asking him to come over with the hinted promise of cake. However, once Mario gets there, Bowser lifts Peach’s castle into the sky from underneath by using his castle. Bowser confronts Mario with a “I’ve been beaten before, but this time it’s different” speech before engaging him in battle. But, despite breathing fire, Bowser wasn’t just full of a hot air *rim shot*; he’s stolen the Star Rod, a magical object from the Kirby games- er, I mean Star Heaven that grants Bowser almost any wish he wants (there must be limits though, or else why wouldn’t he just wish to kill Mario or have Peach fall in love with him?). He uses the Star Rod to easily pummel Mario then toss him out the window. While unconscious on the ground, Mario is visited by the astral projections of the Star Spirits. They tell him that he needs to free them if he stands any chance of beating Bowser, but they’re each guarded by 7 different powerful minions. This causes Mario to venture from the standard fortress, to haunted forests, to jungle areas and even above the clouds and heavens. (I always love variety in locations.)

The story is pretty good. It has that classic element of Mario saving Peach, but with added twists to the nostalgia, namely Bowser learning from his past mistakes and actually getting a huge upper hand in this case. It gives the game a fantasy overtone, which, when mixed with the cartoon atmosphere the game already had, makes for an all-around enjoyable feel.

Now it’s the time to talk about the game play, and this being a turn based battle combat RPG, I could start off by talking about the battle system. But I would much rather not talk about it at all. This isn’t because I don’t like the battle system; as a matter of fact, I think it’s clever how you can’t jump or use your hammer on some enemies. No, the reason I don’t want to talk about it is because I think it has little impact on the game. Unlike some RPGs like Pokemon, Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy, I never found grinding or strength to be the main aspect of this game. In reality, the battle system is pretty much the only thing preventing this from being one of those puzzle solving mystery games. You go around towns, dungeons and other similar areas to talk the right people, solve small riddles and make events happen to get to your goal. THAT is the main aspect of the game, and it is done so smoothly and feels so natural that it wouldn’t surprise me if people think the battle system is the main attraction; it is necessary at some points and, unlike the puzzles, the game makes you aware of them. But even your partners, who say they’re there to fight with you, are more useful in the puzzle solving aspect with their unique skills, and let’s not forget peach’s parts, which are probably the most intriguing and never involve fighting.

The maps and level layout attribute a lot to the great puzzles in the game. There are some places where there is so much to explore that it’s exciting to go down a new pipe. And don’t forget about the side-quests, which there is no lack of in Paper Mario. Unlike some games though, these never over power the main story line, and there’s a variety of things to do with some of the tasks quite similar to the main adventure jobs, so they should never get on your nerves.

Paper Mario is, first and foremost, a very charming game. It sucks you in with its “personality” (for lack of a better term) quickly set with its unique look. The gameplay then gets you hooked with a whole world to figure out, explore and save. Plus; it’s Mario, I don’t think I need to explain more than that. Though I do have my complaints, like Paper Mario’s slow walking speed or that it takes a bit for the game to actually get started, I still think this is one of the must own titles for the N64, or at the very least, should be played on the Wii Virtual Console. I give Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 9.5 levels out of 10.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Level Up: Disney's Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse

In December of 1901, a man named Walt Disney was born, who would go on to become co-founder of the Walt Disney Company. Originally a cartoon studio, this company would go on to create and showcase many stories that we still enjoy to this day (as a matter of fact, I’ve already reviewed some games based on their products, such as Aladdin and Darkwing Duck). However, one of the original ideas from Disney himself would become their most widely known creation: Mickey Mouse. Ever since appearing in the 1928 short “Steam boat willy”, this mouse has managed to enter hearts and homes across the world; through animated shorts, full length movies, TV shows and, of course, video games. Today I’m here to talk to you about a popular Super Nintendo game called Disney’s Magical Quest. Oh, and if you’re asking why I provided all of this information for a character you should already know about that doesn’t affect the game at all, the answer is “because it sounds better than just going *Capcom time* again”. Here’s Disney’s Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse for the SNES.

The game starts with Mickey, his friends Goofy and Donald, and his dog Pluto having a good old game of catch. However, things take a dark and unexpected turn as Goofy… throws the ball a bit too hard. Pluto runs after it, but leaves Mickey too far behind. Goofy says he’ll find Mickey’s dog for him, but being smart enough to second guess the abilities of a man named “Goofy”, Mickey decides to look for himself, while Donald stays behind and does nothing I guess. Mickey soon meets up with a Wizard, who informs our anthropomorphic hero that the evil emperor Pete has kidnapped Pluto because… umm… *Drawn Together: “For no particular reason”. In this way the plot sort of reminds me of a Disney short called “The Mad Doctor”, something they throw back to a lot apparently. As a matter of fact (*spoiler alarm* slight spoiler here) this game even has the same ending. Back to the subject: the Wizard agrees to help Mickey by placing blocks he can use across the land, guiding him along the way and even providing a few power up. Will Mickey be able to save his pet with the Wizard’s help? Will he be able to stop the emperor’s terror across the land? While I’m holding the controller, I say he will.

As I’ve already mentioned, Mickey will be given more power-ups and skills as you play through the game. To start off, his only abilities are jumping and grabbing things. You can grab stunned enemies and other object, but most of the time, it’ll be the wizards block you’ll be grabbing, which you can not only use to hit enemies, but will often contain hearts and coins. However, after the first level, the wizard gives Mickey a turban, which gives Mickey the ability to shoot a magic beam of some kind from his hat. Mickey later finds a fire fighter’s outfit, which gives him a hose, and lederhosen, so he can use a grappling hook. But the main game play element doesn’t rely so much in each individual skills, but in his costume changes. It’s all about knowing what situation they’re useful in (don’t worry, it’s often pretty easy to figure out).

The graphics are pretty good, and really showcase what the SNES is capable of doing. Things look detailed, vibrant and the characters’ faces even clearly show different expression. However, things look a bit too small to me, as if they wanted to make Mickey bigger, but were told they couldn’t. And although the expressions look good when they change, Mickey just has a creepily frozen smile most of the time.

Where this game does shine though is, typically for Capcom, in the music. For lack of a better term, the music in most levels is, well, magical. The first level has a magnificent fanfare to start our hero’s adventure. The quality follows through the entirety of the game, invoking the appropriate emotion on each level, whether it is the anxiety of being in a different area or the excitement of adventure.

So that’s Disney’s Magical Quest in a nut shell: another great game by Capcom. It has great platforming with a game play element that, though has been used before, is done very well in this game. It feels like an amazing journey and captures the wonder of an original Mickey Mouse tale, and the great visuals and fantastic music only contribute to that. I wasn’t blown away by it though, but like Darkwing Duck, it’s the type of game I enjoy just picking up on occasion and playing all the way through. I give Disney’s Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse for the Super Nintendo 8.5 levels out of 10.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Atop the Level Up: Freedom Force #1

Welcome to atop the Level Up, where bad video game based comics burn.

Do you guys remember about a little over a year ago, when I reviewed the game Freedom Force for my birthday? It was a part RPG, part RTS computer game heavily based on comic books. It featured superheroes that were quite comparable to real ones already on shelves across comic book stores everywhere, but were original creations for the game. Naturally, sometime around the time the sequel would be released, someone decided that releasing an actual comic based on the game would be good promotional material, and so a 6 comic miniseries was published. Well, this could be alright, I mean, it’s already heavily comic book inspired so the transition should be pretty easy. Oh wait; it’s published by Image Comics… *sigh* Let’s just dig into Freedom Force number 1.

*Theme song mashup plays*

The cover, for me, is made even worse by the fact that this is the first issue: the true first impression (other then the game) hoping to catch the reader’s attention so he keeps on reading and maybe play the game as is the case with licensed comics like this… but it’s just bad. The characters are all crowded and are in a general “leaping pose” towards the bad guy smooshed at the bottom left corner. Each hero though seems to be looking in a different direction and I think El Diablo’s neck snapped out of place. I also assume that they were going for the look of X-men number one (Magneto defending himself, the other’s attacking, etc…) but it just fails due to the oddly placed characters.

We open the comic to Frank Stiles sitting on park ben- Wait, this is the Domain Empire. Really? You couldn’t follow the game for ONE PAGE? Well, technically, this is chronologically what happened first, so I won’t bash the comic too much for. But one thing I did notice within the first few pages is the odd spacing of the panels (and you know its really weird when you notice it this much). You know how in some comics, the panel locations change, sometime over lap, take interesting shapes, have colors between the panels, etc…? Well this is very… formatted: the panels are always square or rectangular, there’s always the same amount of space between them and it’s always white on the page. Seems cheap to me, especially since this is image comics and not an indie producer.

Anyways, the plot is basically the same as in the video game: Lord Dominion only has Earth left to conquer to be the ruler of the entire universe, so he decides to have some fun with this last planet and give Energy X to only the most corrupt humans. *Thus the powerpuff girls were born* Energy X, not chemical X. Anyways, an underling calling himself the Mentor decides to fight against Lord Dominion by taking the Energy X and giving it to heroic individuals. However, a blast to the cargo of his ship randomly distributes the Energy X, leaving it all in the hands of luck. We see one of the cans open up and hit a statue with its energy, with Frank Stiles nearby.

The awesome bit of narrative exposition from the game is missing, so instead we have Frank clumsily mention his own name in his thought bubble along with how he noticed O’Connor, an accused spy who worked with him on the Manhattan project (that’s important by the way). Frank spies on O’Connor talking with another individual, but trips. O’Connor then takes out a gun and shoots him… before he hits the ground. Seriously, you never see Frank hit the ground, nor is there a “thud” sound made. Plus there are 5 word balloons before the shot. Man, either they talk fast and O’Connor is a great shot, or Frank Stiles is full of helium.

Also, get this; the panel where O’Connor fires his gun implies that Frank was shot point blank in the eye, with the image of his glasses centimeters away from the barrel and the glass shattering. However, next panel we see that he has actually shot in the heart several feet away. Smooth. Frank Stiles then notices the statue of the Minute Man and how it’s glowing, so he- wait, when we first saw Frank sitting on the bench, he was pretty far from the statue, and moved away from it to spy on O’Connor. Plus, we saw the park was crowded earlier, was there no one there to help the old bleeding guy, so much so that he crossed a bridge to go to a glowing statue? And that’s another thing; no one else noticed the glowing statue and decided to touch it? We see playful kids chasing birds earlier; they didn’t think to go any closer? Apparently it was an interesting bird… “Hey Cindy look, the Minute Man statue is glowing again” “That’s nothing, the fountain talks on tuesdays!” The game didn’t have any of these problems because we don’t see the statue or any other people before Frank is shot.

Anyways, Frank touches the statue which transforms him into a Super hero. “Energy flowing into my body! Chanding me, making me younger… Stronger! Feels like I could lift a thousand pounds!” And yes ladies and gentlemen, that is the only explanation we get for his powers: he is super strong. However, we don’t see this in the comic: he never lifts a car or anything (which did in the game), he just knocks out a few guys and jump from ruff to ruff, so new readers could just as easily assume that he was just regenerated and is in a decent shape, if it weren’t for that “thousand pounds” line. Good thing he didn’t say “I feel as fit as a horse” or else the readers would assume his ability would be running fast and eating carrots.

We cut to three days later. This is one of the few changes from the game that I approve of: in the game, Minute Man was in the park fully in costume right after transforming. This gives him three days to make his costume, test his abilities and track O’Connor. Why we don’t see any of this is anyone’s guess, but it means fewer pages, so I’m not complaining. Also, we get no indication that the man in costume is Frank Stiles except that they have the same walking stick. Was there really no room for a narration box with the “dawning a costume” line from the game?

Anyways, Minute Man shakes down O’Connor to get information about the person he was meeting with; Sukhov, who he believes is… uh… very suspicious and Russian and in 1960’s America that was enough. Minute Man sneaks onto the warehouse grounds, but we have Mentor in the shadows expositing how it’s a trap. *General Akbar* How they knew how Minute Man was coming is anybody’s guess though. Minute Man confronts Sukhov, which he recognizes… by his hat? (seriously, earlier his face was always in the shadows) Sukhov then calls out a group of thugs to gang up on Minute Man.

Now seems like a good time to talk about the artwork in this comic. I bring it up now because Sukhov’s face changes between panels. In the first one he seems fine, like a regular human being, but on the next panel he looks like a corps, with skin so loose it’s hanging off his face and veins all over it. Later on, he has another face: that of a deranged homeless person. By the way, this isn’t my only problem with the art in this comic: generally, if a panel was in a cut scene in the game, it looks fine, but whenever the story calls for a pose that wasn’t directly seen in the game, the art is a little… off. I don’t have enough time to point out all of them, but I will talk about Minute Man’s wobbly hat: each time you see it, it seems slanted or rotated oddly or in some chases change shape and size all together. Maybe it’s a side effect to the energy X : “I have the ability to compact cars with my hands: but my one weakness is my inability to balance my hat… truly I have been cursed…” According to the inside cover, the artist’s name is Tom Scioli. I looked up his stuff online and he seems to be inspired by the Jack Kirby style, so I can understand why they would give him this task, but he just did a poor job with this project.

Anyways, as the group of thugs are ready to attack minute man, Mentor (now in a human shape) comes out and uses a mind suppression move on all of them, so they are easily taken out. While the two heroes are distracted, Sukhov tries to get away, but Minute man fires a minute missile at him (a move he learns in the game that is never really explained). But then suddenly… boom? I don’t quite know what happened. In the video game, Sukhov was near liquid nitrogen containers when Minute man missed and hit the containers instead, causing an explosion to freeze Sukhov (who Mentor says was previously exposed to Energy X). In the comic, he seems to step on the canister of Energy X, causing the explosion, which makes the minute missile detail pointless (I suggest this, because the missile is clearly right behind Sukhov and on track the panel before the explosion). Whatever. Sukhov is then frozen solid, but Mentor confirms he’s been exposed to the energy and is not dead. Suddenly, the ice shakes and Sukhov bursts out, now calling himself Nuclear Winter. “So it is TRUE what they say—revenge is a dish best served cold!” “I would have broken out of the ice sooner, but I needed to think of that line. WAIT, break the ice, why didn’t I go with that? Man, how does Arnold do it?” He proceeds to freeze our two heroes.

The next page shows a hero named El Diablo flying above the city when he hears the explosion. He flies down and sees the two frozen heroes and proceeds to unfreeze them. Question: WHERE DID NUCLEAR WINTER GO? Since El Diablo heard the explosion, and immediately rushed down, he should still be there. We also didn’t get any narrative text saying time has passed and Nuclear Winter should have seen some sort of light in the sky coming towards him (since El Diablo makes a half circle when he hears something). Putting that aside; MAN, what is with the pacing of this comic? Here’s what happened in the 4 last pages: Minute Man meets up with Mentor, Sukhov is frozen in an explosion but turns into Nuclear Winter and freezes our heroes instead but El Diablo unfreezes them and joins the team. Seriously, there is no time for tension to build; we get two new heroes and a main villain in the span of 4 pages, which originally in the game, happened on THREE different levels!

Man, we’re only a little half way through the comic and already I’m sick of saying “It’s different in the game”, along with the comic in general…

So, Minute Man, El Diablo and Mentor follow Nuclear Winter’s frozen path of destruction to an aircraft carrier (which isn’t heavily guarded like in the game) where they discover Man-Bot (which isn’t where they found him either; are they trying for a quota or something here?). And Yes, this ANOTHER new team mate that joins up. He says that he was following Nuclear Winter when he was frozen and he heard that they have a nuclear missile. This is enough to give El Diablo a stroke since he then makes the weirdest looking face in the comic; one half of his face has his eye wide open and mouth closed, with the other side doing it the other way around. I know this is an audio podcast and it was stupid of me to review a visual medium for this, but you try striking that face. … Go ahead… Feel pretty stupid, don’t you? This is of course followed directly with the second stupidest picture in the book (still, that’s saying something): a close up of Mentor’s face in a trance expression looking at his hand. “We have to stop Nuclear Winter from destroy- WHOA, have human hands always had THIS many lines on them?”

So the four find Nuclear Winter on the pier, but while loading the missile, the chain breaks, giving our heroes to chance to stop his plan. Mentor single handedly takes care of all FOUR guards (where’s the army he had in the game), while Man-Bot and El Diablo rush to pummel Nuclear Winter. Before a final knockout blow, Nuclear Winter arms the bomb. Luckily, Minute Man once worked on the Manhattan project (which is an important detail I emphasized more than the comic did) and knows how to work the bomb. He then shouts “GOT IT!” with his hands in the air, just as the cops and blues brothers arrive. *Music from blues brother’s plays for a few bars* (Seriously, the dudes in suits look like them). Minute Man tells an officer they’re calling themselves the Freedom Force before everyone shouts out “FOR FREEDOM” together.

End of the comic right? Nope. We have one of those pages where the editor or a character normally answers viewer questions. … Except this is the first issue, so there are none, and this is the demand for people to send in questions. “The deadline for this issue is only 7 days away and we’re crunching to get everything ready so it can print” NO! REALLY? YOU RUSHED SOMETHING HERE?

This comic sucks! The things changed from the game are not only pointless, but create plot holes the game didn’t have. The pacing of the whole thing is far too rushed; people are added with no introduction, big events and details are only glazed upon and tension never has the chance to build. And finally the artwork is sub-par to say the very least. Not only do I think that no one except hard core fans of the game would have read another issue, but it also shames me to think that someone might have passed on the game because of this dribble. Just play the game and stay away from this comic. *slams comic down violently*