Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Star Fox 64 3D is a lot of fun, but not for $40.

I have to say, playing Star Fox 64 3D gave me one of the biggest moments of complete shock that I've experienced in a video game in a long time. But before I get into that, some background; this was my first time ever playing Star Fox 64, and after Ocarina of Time was brought over to the 3DS very successfully, it seemed that there was no better time to give this classic N64 title a shot as well. Sure enough, Star Fox 64 has been brought over to the 3DS with flying colors. The game makes great use of the 3D effect, the graphics have been given a major revamp, the action's fun, and the (traditional) controls work very well. All the markings of a great game, but then, after literally 1 hour and 57 minutes of playtime, I got the end credits; now, that bummed me out.

It's an interesting point of discussion; this is of course a remake of an older title, and an older title which was very well-received. With the graphical updates, the 3D, the new gyro controls (though do yourself a favor and switch these off) and a lack of a true Star Fox game since Namco dropped the ball with Star Fox Assault back on the Gamecube, Nintendo probably felt little reason to add more to this remake, but the question is, should they have? I have to say that despite how much I enjoyed the game, hitting the end credits so quickly put a big dent in my overall experience, and I just can't get past that. I'm definitely falling on the "game's not worth a buy at a full price" side of the fence here.

Now, to be fair, there's more to do after you watch the ending, as Star Fox 64 is a very score-driven game and there are multiple paths and other levels to access, but still, you're looking at under 5 hours of playtime here and I just can't justify that for a $40 price point in this day and age.

That said, there are some things I definitely have to commend here that might add some value to this purchase. As a showcase for the 3DS' 3D capabilities, Star Fox 64 is pretty fantastic. With enemy aircraft flying the skies, with all the bullets constantly soaring by the screen, with the game's fast speeds and hectic action, this feels like it was born to to play in 3D and it does this very well. You can opt to use the system's tilt controls for steering but I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone would use this option, as this removes your eyes from the screen and messes with the 3D effect, and given how great this game's 3D presentation is, I'd stick with that over the gyro controls, but you have a choice, which is nice. The standard controls work well and the game runs pretty fluidly for the most part, with the exception of some framerate drops here and there, and the voice acting's still awful, which I guess gives the game a little bit of extra charm. If you've never played Star Fox 64 before then this is a great way to get to experience it...

...but why didn't they add more to this? If they knew they were going to remake a very short game, why not add new levels, why not add online to the multiplayer, why not fix the pop-up, why not do *something* to justify this game's $40 price point?

Verdict: This really should have been an entirely new Star Fox game, which would have been a real treat. Still, for those of us who haven't played the original, this is great fun and a fine showcase for the 3DS, well, while it lasts. It's a short game, one that I just can't say is worth the money. If you don't mind a game that's this short, feel free to change my score to an 8/10, because what's here is great, there's just not enough of it. At least, for my tastes.


Presentation: The classically bad voice actors and lip sync have been left in place, for better or worse. Menus are slick and the story gets you from one level to the next. Makes great use of the 3D.

Graphics: Maybe not the best-looking 3DS game and some pop-up definitely shows, but there are some beautiful moments and overall this is a great update visually over the N64 game.

Gameplay: A lot of fun, great controls, intense action, great old school gameplay re-packaged for a modern audience.

Sound: Nintendo fans will have no trouble recognizing these tunes.

Value: Under 2 hours to reach the end credits, 5 hours of gameplay here at most if you want to reach additional levels via branching paths and harder difficulty settings. But still, short, and lack of online's incredibly weak.

Overall: 6.5/10, though 8/10 if you can nab it for under $20.

Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Blog Post: Have to say, Activision deserves some credit for Skylanders.

Anyone remember Spyro the Dragon back on the Playstation? A counterpart to the linear and straightforward Crash Bandicoot, Spyro leaned more heavily on the exploration and collection elements that Nintendo 64 platformers specialized in. Though I have to say that I never got into Spyro personally, I many of my friends loved the games and they were all well-regarded in the critical community.

After the third title in the series, Spyro: Year of the Dragon, series developer Insomniac went on ultimately to create Ratchet and Clank, and, eventually, the Resistance series, while Spyro was left in the hands of a variety of different studios. All of whom, it's widely agreed upon, failed to re-capture the quality and the magic of Insomniac's Spyro titles.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is notable in that it's not even trying to appeal to old Spyro fans; instead, it's focusing almost entirely on little kids of the Bakugan and Beyblade generation. These kids (and their parents) are used to "collecting stuff," just as my generation loved collecting our Pokemon cards, and Skylanders is likely to make Activision boatloads of money. Simply put, to unlock new playable characters in the game, you actually have to go out and buy their toys, (30 in all) place them on the Portal of Power, and watch the game bring them to life. The game itself plays it safe, with simple combat mechanics and un-adventurous game design. The point of Skylanders is to jump into battle with your new action figures (and with your friends) and the game looks to deliver on that front.

In a mark of complete genius, it doesn't even matter which system you're playing on. All of your character's progress, stat boosts, power-ups, experiences, etc. are saved to each toy, which can then be taken to any Portal of Power, even if it's on a different system, be loaded into it, and boom, you're enjoying co-op with your friend. It's platform-agnostic multiplayer play and actually a pretty great idea.

In an unusual move, Skylanders was developed with the Wii as its primary console, (at one point it was planned to be a Wii exclusive, likely before Activision saw the $$$ potential) with the ports to other systems being handled by different studios. The graphics look great for a Wii game, film composer Hans Zimmer is doing the music, the story was written by two of the Toy Story scribes, and the characters and their toys are of course cool-looking enough that kids will love them and will definitely want to buy as many as possible. Will it matter to them that developer, Toys for Bob's previous releases include "blah" games like as Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and 102 Dalmations: Puppies to the Rescue?

In a sense, with the near death of 3D platforming, it's pretty depressing to see such a beloved genre come to this. Skylanders is a calculated release, to be sure; a product of pure market research and a grab for the cash from a young, lucrative demographic. Looking around at the industry press and seeing and the reactions from long-time gamers, it's impossible to deny the complete and total indifference among them for Skylanders. I have to say, though, that little kids are going to love this game; I would have, if I were a little kid, and apparently Activision's spending tons of money to get its appeal out there to them.

I guess if there's any hope for this, it's that these kids will grow up to demand more (and better) 3D platformers, but that's probably just wishful thinking on my part. Either way, I have to say, in an age when beloved (non-Nintendo) gaming franchises are failing to find an audience in today's market, Activision deserves props for getting kids who weren't even alive when this franchise was in its heyday to once again care about it. Even if their interest has nothing whatsoever to do with Spyro himself.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: Ocarina of Time 3DS proves to be a fun game for a first-timer like myself.

Back in the late 90s, the video game industry reached a major paradigm shift; we saw the evolution from 2D to 3D, and developers at Nintendo, Sega, as well as countless others were faced with the unenviable task of bringing their beloved classic franchises into the 3D gaming landscape. There were success stories and failures from these undertakings, but one series whose 3D rebirth was seen as a resounding success was the Legend of Zelda. Ocarina of Time received rave reviews and countless perfect scores upon its release on the N64, and the game has been heralded ever since as a classic.

I had missed out on most of this, having owned an N64 but using it mainly for multiplayer purposes, most of my single player gaming at the time taking place on the Dreamcast. Ocarina had spent a small amount of time in my N64 system but it wasn't a game I had ever managed to get far in. Years later I checked out the Gamecube Zelda game, Wind Waker, which I loved. Twilight Princess, its followup, not so much. Playing Ocarina of Time though was something I had been wanting to do for quite a while, and after giving it a shot on the Wii's Virtual Console and hating the experience (the controls, whose buttons obviously didn't match the N64 buttons the game was telling me to use, were difficult to get the hang of, the menu system felt clunky and totally unintuitive, the graphics, while impressive for their time, felt muddy, etc) I decided that, with the 3DS getting its price drop, there was no better time to check the game out.

Now that you know my history with the Zelda series, I'll jump right in with my review of Ocarina of Time 3D, a game that's not simply a port of the N64 original but a remake with a complete visual overhaul, a far-improved interface with an easier-to-use menu system, better controls, and of course, the 3D capabilities offered by the handheld. Though Ocarina of Time has aged in ways that this remake doesn't do a whole lot to address, it's an enjoyable game and one I'm glad I finally got to experience.

Visuals: Surrounded by a roster of mostly underwhelming titles, Ocarina of Time 3D is a game that truly demonstrates the capabilities of Nintendo's new handheld. The world's vibrant and colorful, the characters of Link and Zelda look, in my opinion, the best they've ever looked, (yes, including Twilight Princess) the bosses especially look awesome, the non-player characters have entertaining appearances...and overall, it's hard not to be impressed by just how great this looks. It's hard to tell that it originated from the Nintendo 64, with that system's often-muddy textures replaced by visuals that can best be described as "sharp." The wide variety of locales to explore all carry with them a unique look and the 3D adds a great amount of depth to the visuals that make things really pop. Cutscenes, especially with the 3D on, look excellent; always impressively cinematic for N64 cutscenes, this remake allows them to really shine. There's some slowdown during a couple of the more hectic boss fights and a few traces of enemies or objects popping in, but aside from that, I have no complaints about Ocarina of Time 3D's visual presentation.

Gameplay: After your "wake up in the village" tutorial that has since become standard in the Zelda series, you're free to explore a map that feels, well, almost tiny today, but back on the N64 I can imagine gamers' jaws dropping at the sight of it. This is a game that encourages exploration at every turn. When you're in Castle Town you can enter shops to play mini-games, you can complete sidequests to collect heart pieces and more powerful weapons, you can increase the amount of money you carry, and all sorts of stuff. Following the main quest takes you through a couple of towns and a series of dungeons as you work to thwart the evil Gannondorf. The dungeons can present a challenge but they're rarely too tedious due to their often incredibly well-thought out design. They're created around a central room, so dying during a dungeon or having to save your progress and quit (both of which keep your progress but start you at the entrance) isn't nearly as big a pain as it became in future Zelda games, especially Twilight Princess and its maze-like dungeons, where wandering back to where you left off was an ordeal. The 3DS version also has another advantage; you can simply close your system to put it in sleep mode, and can continue the game from exactly that point next time you open it up, which, as you can imagine, comes in handy. The bosses are generally fun, with no two feeling exactly alike, though you won't find them to be as impressive as in the more modern Zelda games.

Ocarina of Time has a cool time travel aspect that plays a large role in both the game's story and in its gameplay. At a certain point during this adventure, Link becomes an adult, and Adult Link uses different weapons than Childhood Link, and his world has some key differences from the one he left behind. The game also makes great use of the ocarina in its title, and it proves to be one of the cooler Zelda game "devices" that you get to use. The world you get to explore is charming, with a couple of surprisingly busy towns (surprising due to this being an N64 game, not exactly surprising by today's standards) and some locations, like Zora's Domain, that prove to be incredibly memorable. During the 31 hours it took me to complete this game's main quest (with a small amount of sidequesting) I really felt like I had seen and experienced so much, which is the markings of an epic adventure.

My issues with this game are shared, to an extent, with the issues I had with Twilight Princess, mainly, its emphasis on dungeons. Ocarina of Time is a dungeon-heavy experience, with you going essentially from one dungeon to another. Though you do have an endless opportunity to explore the game's world, the vast majority of your main quest is spent in dungeons. The story itself, which can be both charming and interesting at times, begins to feel like little more than a checklist to get you from one dungeon to another as the game goes on. This is the opposite of a Zelda game like Wind Waker, whose out-of-dungeon world was its main attraction and received the most play time. OOT resembles Twilight Princess in the sense that the dungeons are what you'll spend most of your time doing. The key difference between the two games is that Ocarina of Time's dungeons are actually pretty fun for the most part, (well, maybe not Jabu-Jabu's belly) whereas Twilight Princess' made me want to pull my hair out. Still, I can't help but find myself wishing in games like this that the world outside played just as big a role as the inside of the dungeons. There's certainly lots to do in Ocarina of Time, but as far as the main story goes, it's a dungeon crawl.

Another issue I have with Ocarina of Time is its sometimes lack of explanation for what it wants you to do. Games today often avoid this, letting you know at least a general idea of where you're next supposed to go. Ocarina of Time does this to a certain extent, but in other instances, it's guilty of expecting you to figure out what to do on your own, which isn't easy when there's so many optional tasks to undertake at any given moment, making it hard to tell the difference between the two. When I first began playing I found myself wandering aimlessly through a maze in the game's opening village, believing that this was where I was supposed to go. In reality, that was for much later in the game. At another point, you're supposed to get inside the belly of a giant creature with no explanation whatsoever on how to do this; you have to go back to collect a certain object and bring it back to him, but good luck finding that one out without checking a walkthrough. Acquiring required items like the fire arrows and the lens of truth similarly involves backtracking to areas you've been already but with no guidance from the game as to what these areas are or even that you need these items, until you find yourself partway through a dungeon and realize that you can't progress without them. And don't even get me started on the sleeping guy and the chicken egg.

The game's map attempts to guide you in the right direction by highlighting certain areas but doesn't always do such a great job of it, and Navi, the helper you're given, has no personality and offers such useless advice that it's at times unintentionally hilarious. Exclusive to the 3DS version, Navi now tells you after a certain amount of time that she's tired and that you "should maybe consider taking a break," which comes across as unnecessary. Does Nintendo really think that we can't tell when we're tired? The 3DS version also offers you hint videos for bosses if it sees you dying, or also in select areas of the game, you can view video hints of how to solve certain puzzles. These additions I imagine can be helpful for casual gamers or those new to this type of game, but OOT 3D does such a poor job of letting you know about them that I wouldn't be surprised if most people miss these features entirely.

These flaws aside, though, Ocarina of Time's a fun game, one that I almost always found myself eager to turn on. I wish it wasn't as dungeon-heavy as it is, and I wish some effort was made to make it a bit more helpful in case you got stuck, but all in all, it's easy to see why this captivated so many people back on the N64. The dungeon progression's like clockwork, and even today there's some shockingly clever game design to be experienced in them.

Sound: Some repeating tracks aside, Ocarina of Time sports a great soundtrack that never fails to set the mood. Zora's Domain has a relaxing song that perfectly captures its mood, the world map theme's appropriately epic, the towns have music that fit their atmosphere, and the dungeons feature foreboding and dark tunes without going overboard with them. Cutscene music's also good, particularly during the game's ending, and the sound effects are as great as they always are in Zelda, especially at night.


Verdict: Ocarina of Time's a game that has held up pretty well despite its age. Its aspects that may have made it difficult for new gamers to jump in before (dated graphics and menus, N64 controls) are fixed in this version, making Ocarina of Time 3D the definitive version of the title for those who haven't yet experienced it. Some aspects show their age, most notably in the way it tells you what to do, and its dungeon-heavy nature isn't my favorite, but all in all, this is a true epic and an important game in the industry's history. If you're entirely new to the Zelda series I'd still recommend checking out Wind Waker first (my personal favorite so far) but for Zelda fans who have yet to experience this adventure, the time has never been better.

Presentation: Story gets the job done without doing a whole lot more. This is certainly not the strongest Zelda game story-wise, though certain moments, especially the game's ending, have the capability to tug at the heartstrings. Cutscenes look great, especially in 3D. Menu interface is vastly improved and makes all the difference. Game makes great use of the touch screen.

Graphics: Beautiful game that sheds its N64 roots almost entirely. A true showcase of the 3DS' capabilities and a sign that 3D can be used for more than just a gimmick. Some slowdown.

Gameplay: This is the game that all future Zelda games would be based on, and it was absolutely revolutionary for its time. Today, it shows its age in some areas and features a little too big a focus on dungeons for my liking. Still, the world's got plenty to offer and the dungeons are often fun and showcase some very smart design. Fun game.

Audio: Great soundtrack despite the short length of many of its songs. Nice use of sound effects.

Replay Value: You unlock the Master Quest when you beat it (though it should have been available from the start for the many who have already played OOT in one form or another) and the game itself has the potential to take you tons of time if you try to do everything.

Overall: 7.5/10(Final thought: I liked it much better than Twilight Princess, but nowhere near as much as Wind Waker. Have never played Majora's Mask.) (Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale.)