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FGC #383 Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg

Here is the case for Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg:

Billy!

And here is the main reason anyone ever bought Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg:

Sonic!

And that starburst is no lie. Billy Hatcher is the creation of Sonic Team and its (then) head, Yuji Naka, the man widely credited with the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog.

But does that mean anything?

Sonic!Let’s start with Yuji Naka. To start, Yuji Naka is a programmer, not an artist or character designer, but it is that programming that is absolutely the reason we have Sonic the Hedgehog. Naka created one simple trick for animating hedgehogs: he developed an algorithm for rendering sprites on curves. And that’s huge! We absolutely take it for granted now, but the very concept of Sonic on a loop would be impossible without such coding. So, sure, Naka didn’t draw the first Sonic, nor did he design the hedgehog’s levels, but he was responsible for a part of Sonic that is so iconic, it is still a huge part of the blue blur today. You don’t see Mario doing loops, but it is practically synonymous with Sonic the Hedgehog.

And the rest of Yuji Naka and Sonic Team’s history seems to be based around similar breakthroughs.

I don’t need to write a history of Sonic the Hedgehog, as such a thing has been covered by minds much greater than mine. However, there is a dearth of information on the trajectory of Sonic Team. We all know about Sonic, CDs, and Knuckles, but let’s talk about the heroes that never met Eggman. Let’s revisit Ristar.

GRAB!Naka didn’t seem to have much to do with Ristar, but the basic concept for the adventure came from his pre-rolling ideas for Sonic the Hedgehog. The “original” Sonic (or at least one of them) was a bunny that would grab enemies with his extendable ears. This concept fell by the wayside when Sonic earned his speed and rolling (rabbits don’t roll, do they?), but was eventually revived for Ristar. And it was good! In a time of innumerable “mascots with attitude” (which only existed because of Sonic anyway), Ristar stood out not only for his memorable design, but also his fun “grab and fling” gameplay. Sure, we’d see something similar again with Mischief Makers, but it was almost wholly unique for the time (and still is). Ristar, like Sonic, rode a wave of a new and interesting gameplay mechanic, and could easily have been the hedgehog’s successor.

But Ristar premiered all of a few months before the release of the Sega Saturn, so that rising star got eclipsed by a planet, and was never seen again.

But Sonic Team still had Sonic, so they still had the ear of their parent company. That Saturn release brought new opportunities, and, with the innovation of an analogue controller, Nights Into Dreams made the scene.

And, boy, did that game ever suck.

FLY!Okay, I’m just salty because Nights is a terrible, terrible game, but many people saw the appeal of the action floating title. Once again, Sega took a new technology (the aforementioned analogue controller), and married it to some gameplay that had never been seen before. Naka (he’s back!) endeavored to make a game that was based on flight, but a more gentle flight, as opposed to the cape or raccoon-based actions of some other heroes. And, to Nights’ credit, that feeling absolutely comes through during the gameplay. Nights may have been phenomenally boring for anyone that was expecting another Mario 64, but, taken on its own terms, it’s a pleasant experience. Once again, Sonic Team used unique physics and development to create a singular game, this time complete with the rare human character that has the same kind of universal appeal as your more memorable mascots.

But the Saturn crashed and burned, so there was no new Sonic to be found there.

But speaking of burning, Sonic Team’s next big release was Burning Rangers, a sort of action/FPS-ish mash-up that focused on futuristic firefighters… uh… fighting fires. It’s what they do. At a time when Doom and Final Fantasy 7 alike were setting the world ablaze with complicated heroes and murder rates that put Robocop’s Detroit to shame, Burning Rangers was a semi-serious “anime game” that focused not on combating people or demons, but fires. And the future setting allowed for some interesting gameplay maneuvers, like jet boots (always appreciated) and a host of fire-retardant “weapons”. And the fires looked pretty cool, too! It’s still the Sega Saturn, but fire was a lot more believable here than on a number of contemporary systems. Go Burning Rangers, go! For inflammable justice!

Unfortunately, Burning Rangers had the dual problems of “not good enough (hit detection)” and “such small portions (of four levels)”, so it got flushed down the same toilet as the Saturn. Oh, and there wasn’t a memorable enough character in the whole ranger squad.

MICE!But the Dreamcast brought new opportunities, and a metric mickey-load of mice. ChuChu Rocket! was described as an action puzzle game, but that is completely wrong. ChuChu Rocket! is frenetic joy in mini, mousey form. Once again, Yuji Naka used the latest technology to create something that appeared to be graphically simple, but had a lot going on under the hood. At any given ChuChu moment, there may be hundreds (or at least a hundred) lil’ mice on the screen at a time. While we take such a thing for granted nowadays, that was an exciting new frontier in 1999. And the Dreamcast was capable of supporting this nonsense not only on the couch, but online as well. No small feat in the age of AOL. Or, actually, it meant a lot of small feet puttering around and attempting to avoid KapuKapus. And, can’t stress this enough, ChuChu Rocket! was one of the best multiplayer games of the era, and certainly the most unique.

But it all paled in comparison to Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online. Naka simply produced this title, but it was another example of Sonic Team pushing technology to the limits. In this case, the online capabilities of the Dreamcast were extended to create arguably the first MMORPG on a console. And it was good! And fun! And full of hungry mags! And if it were released on a system that was actually popular, and during an era when high speed internet was standard (and not the exclusive domain of college students) it might have been one of the defining works of the genre. But, unfortunately, PSO seems to be remembered and recounted in the same breaths as Atari’s Adventure: it basically started a genre, and did it well, but by the time that genre was actually mainstream, the ancestor was all but forgotten. Sorry, PSO, at least we’ll always have old Penny Arcade strips to remind us of the good old days.

Samba de Amigo was also a Dreamcast title that utilized a brand new piece of technology. And that tech was… plastic maracas. Uh, for some reason, that failed to capture the zeitgeist of the nation.

EGG!And then, finally, we arrive at our “from the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog” title of the day, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. BHatGE was the first new Sonic Team IP to ever appear on a non-Sega system. Sonic Team had already gained some Gamecube experience with rereleases of the Sonic Adventure titles, and Billy Hatcher does feel like a natural evolution of the SA engine. But this is no mere Sonic clone! Even with a “spin dash” like egg rolling skill, nearly all of Billy’s moveset is all new… or at least all different. Rolling an egg and “using” the egg for acrobatic maneuvers sounds pretty straightforward (see any game where you push boulders or blocks), but it’s obvious that a lot of care and effort went into… egg physics? Is that a thing? What’s important is that “Billy” and “Billy with an egg” are arguably two totally different characters, and the utilization of both movesets (and protecting your egg whenever possible) is important to making progress.

So if you’re expecting Sonic out of Billy Hatcher, or any other non-Sonic Sonic Team game, you’re out of luck. Billy Hatcher is no more Sonic the Hedgehog than Ristar or Burning Rangers. But if you look at the history of Sonic Team’s other adventures, that’s exactly what should be expected. Sure, Sonic Team is known for their eponymous mascot, but they have an established history of using new technology and techniques to create new IPs and experiences. Granted, not a single one of them has moved on to anything but random crossover games, but it’s the thought that counts. After all, the world would be a lesser place without Nights or PSO, so keep on innovating, Sonic Team! And keep on rolling, Billy Hatcher!

FGC #383 Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg

  • System: Nintendo Gamecube. There was also a PC port in Europe, because… I have no idea.
  • Number of players: Multiplayer egg races are available, so four. Did you know that Billy has all sorts of friends that I absolutely cannot name right now? Maybe his girlfriend is named Roll? I might be thinking of some other hero, though.
  • GET OUTSonic Team Coda: Aside from Feel the Magic, it seems post-Billy Sonic Team has been exclusively sticking to established IPs, like Phantasy Star and Puyo Pop. However, the spirit of innovation seems to live on in the Sonic series, as it’s pretty obvious how Sonic Unleashed was an attempt at 3-D Ristar. Of course, most of this experimentation has not been remotely well received by the fanbase, so is it any wonder that Naka is moving on to squarer pastures?
  • So, did you beat it? Back in the day, I got really into Billy Hatcher, and unlocked/beat about 95% of the game. I exploded so many ravens, it was ridiculous. This was back when Mario 64-esque action games were completely my jam. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I no longer have the attention span to 100% most any game that includes physical challenges (JRPGs are easy, and can be 100%’ed while watching The Good Place), so I kind of miss my old standards for dedication when I see a completed (or thereabouts) Gamecube-era save.
  • Favorite Hatchling: You can gain the cooperation of a KapuKapu, and that is marvelous.
  • Connectivity: Oh, and this is one of those old Gamecube games that utilized the ability to send games to your Gameboy Advance through a link cable (and, in this title, hatching the proper egg). I never got to test out such features (as it would have interrupted my Pokémon Ruby/Metroid Fusion time), but it’s always nice to have portable options. And to be reminded the VMU ever existed…
  • Aborted History: This was released during the epoch when Nintendo seemed kind of skittish about referencing other systems when a Nintendo alternative was available.

    Sonic!

    Look, it’s Sonic the Hedgehog! From that one Gamecube game!

  • Did you know? There is a real life Billy Hatcher! He played major league baseball for a number of teams back in the 80’s/90’s. William Augustus Hatcher’s batting average was 264, had 54 home runs, and he even played for the Philadelphia Phillies at a time when I remotely paid attention to such a thing. I am absolutely sure he doesn’t see a dime of royalties, either.
  • Would I play again: Billy Hatcher is an interesting, enjoyable game. I’d be all about a Billy Hatcher 2, but I doubt I’ll ever play the original again. This is another Sonic Team forgotten gem (emerald?), but I think I like Sonic Team’s more memorable gems better.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Sega 3D Classics Collection for the 3DS! Guess we’re going to see Sonic again, but with a little more depth this time. Please look forward to it!

Get 'em

FGC #381 Diddy Kong Racing

Let's race!Diddy Kong Racing had a fairly interesting and ridiculous development process. Almost immediately after the launch of the N64 (and the release of Killer Instinct Gold), Rare started in on their next game and first “original” N64 title (as KI Gold was basically an arcade port). This process started with “Wild Cartoon Kingdom”, which was basically a real-time strategy game (!) based on an executive’s trip to Disney World. Then, for reasons that are no doubt lost to time/whiskey, the RTS became a racing game, and mutated into Pro-Am 64, an RC-car based title. Then, a certain bear and bird got their big debut game delayed, so Rare/Nintendo needed a big mascot title to fill its upcoming holiday season. Pro-Am 64 was modified again, and, this time, “Cartoon Kingdom” returned with a number of furry animal pals in cars, planes, and hovercrafts. After a long and confusing road to creation, a certain monkey got slammed on the marquee, and Diddy Kong Racing was born.

But was it any good?

Wait, belay that question. I don’t mean “was the game any good?” Diddy Kong Racing was an interesting take on racing games (which, thanks to the technology of the late 90’s, was a genre that had seen about 7,000 titles in two years), as it combined the exploratory nature of action games like Mario 64 and the tight racing experience of Mario Kart. It wasn’t a very complicated or nuanced take on either of its two contributing gameplay styles, but it was certainly fun. While Mario Kart 64 might be the most fondly remembered racing title of the generation, there’s nothing wrong with being in second place in that race. Diddy Kong 64 was weird and experimental, but it was certainly good at being an amusing racing game with its own identity.

But it’s that identity that we’re here to investigate. DKR took a long road to production, but, somewhere in there, it was nearly a bunch of anonymous windup cars. Then, in an effort to be a “big name” title, it grabbed a kong, and turned all of its unknowns into what would hopefully be the next Mario Kart. Or do you want to tell me you ever considered the intelligence of your average koopa troopa before he started pelting you with red shells? Diddy Kong Racing was clearly intended as a way for Rare and Nintendo to promote a new stable of remarkable characters, but how did they do? We’ve got a couple of decades of hindsight here, so let’s answer this question once and for all: Are the stars of Diddy Kong racing any good?

Diddy Kong

Diddy!Diddy is the one known quantity for Diddy Kong Racing, which is probably why it’s, ya know, Diddy Kong Racing. After appearing in Mario Kart, Smash Bros, and every Donkey Kong title that doesn’t involve tinker toys, it’s hard to believe, but Diddy Kong was still a pretty new quantity back in 1997. Donkey Kong Country was only three years old, and it wasn’t like Diddy ever gained the same kind of traction as the upcoming Pikachu. He wasn’t even playable in Donkey Kong Country 3! However, as legend tells it, Donkey Kong was originally slated for this spot, but Rare suggested Diddy star for a little variety. Donkey already gets to hang out with Mario, why not promote the lil’ chimp with his own franchise? And, hey, DK could still swing by next time, anyway. What have you got to lose?

Well, seems that Rare and Nintendo made the right choice in this one, as Diddy really does fit his eponymous game pretty well. Donkey would have a tendency to overshadow the rest of this cast not only figuratively, but literally as well. DK is a big guy (ape)! Diddy’s presence allows for more “childlike” mascots, like… almost the entire cast, and that gives Diddy Kong Racing a different identity from its Mario-based cousin. Diddy Kong Racing doesn’t have to be for kids, but the “kiddy” characters and visuals give it a more whimsical feeling, and that’s important when you’ve got magical vehicles that change shape at the behest of a genie.

Verdict: Diddy Kong has been an excellent mascot for Nintendo for years, and he fits the game perfectly. Good job, Diddy!

Krunch

Get emAnd here’s our first dud.

Mario Kart has always been a pretty interesting title without its cast, but nobody would have ever played the thing if it featured a bunch of anonymous randos. See also: Smash Bros and the confusingly high number of Melee/Brawl clone games that are dropping within the year. Sure, the gameplay is great and fun and whatever, but, dude, I signed up to play as Samus Aran, not generic lady with a gun. But we take for granted that these games have these all-star casts. It’s likely impossible to figure out the chicken and egg of those franchises, but, at some point, somebody in Nintendo had to say, “Hey, let’s actually include all of our best characters. And Captain Falcon! That should get people’s attention!” Mario Kart could easily be Mario racing against seven goombas, but it is so much sweeter when Yoshi is in the mix.

Krunch Kremling is a Kremling, and the sad thing is that he could have been any Kremling. At this point, we’d already seen three Donkey Kong Country titles, and, in all of those games, Kremlings were the main antagonists. This means that there was already an entire army of kritters to choose from, yet Rare decided to go with a generic representation of the species. Sure, he’s got a cool motorcycle jacket, and I guess he gets bonus points for being a Kremling with the wherewithal to follow Diddy to a magical island, but he’s no Kaptain K. Rool. Don’t want your Bowser eclipsing the cast? Klubba would be a fine choice. Or Klobber! Or any Kremling that is at least recognizable, and not “just a crocodile”. Come on, Rare, you’re trying to build a brand here. Use the tools you have.

Verdict: It’s nice to see an established “race” represented in the game, and it’s always good to have an enemy-turned-ally, but Krunch is a disappointment in every other way.

Banjo

BANJO!Banjo is a star in waiting. If you’re curious about the timeline here, the entire reason Diddy Kong Racing is Diddy Kong Racing is because Nintendo/Rare needed a mascot game for Christmas, and the original intended title created to fill that slot was Banjo-Kazooie. So, effectively, if it weren’t for Banjo Bear being slow to the starting line, we wouldn’t be looking at Diddy Kong Racing at all, and I might be posting about Uniracers 2 or something. For this reason alone, Banjo should be celebrated as the savior of DKR Island.

And, even if it was Banjo’s lack of haste to be blamed for DKR, it was still a great idea to include Banjo on the roster. This is the proverbial “passing of the torch” from one mascot to another. Donkey begat Diddy, and now Diddy shall beget Banjo. And it worked! Banjo was a success, and, even with a measly three games under his belt, Banjo still holds enough cultural clout to warrant his own Mighty Number 9. And the games weren’t bad, either! Everybody wins! Let’s hear it for Banjo!

Verdict: Way to go, bear! You may have yet to discover your companion bird, but you’re going places.

Tiptup

TipsyNow here’s a guy who is such a loser, nobody can even remember his origins.

Tiptup did technically premier in Diddy Kong Racing. And, let’s face it, he’s basically a joke. He’s a turtle in a race. There are entire fables about why that is a terrible idea! But Tiptup didn’t stop at Diddy Kong Racing, he waddled on to appear in Banjo-Kazooie as a support character with his own choir. And then he became (or already was) a dad in Banjo-Tooie. And I’m pretty sure he at least made a cameo in that other Banjo game. And he was originally intended to be a friend of Banjo in the scrapped Project Dream game that would eventually morph into the “real” Banjo franchise. In short, Tiptup is indisputably a part of the Banjo universe.

But, when Diddy Kong Racing was eventually rereleased for the Nintendo DS, Tiptup was still there on the roster. This might seem natural, but Banjo and Conker were both dropped from that title, because Rare had long since abandoned Nintendo for softer pastures, and “their” property wasn’t going to see any extra eyeballs.

But Tiptup was still there, abandoned by his friends.

And considering “The Tiptup Case” isn’t a part of Nintendo legislative history, it doesn’t look like his owners thought he was anyone important either.

Sorry, Tiptup, you’re so forgettable, your own creators don’t give a damn about you.

Verdict: Don’t worry, I won’t forget about you… uh… turtle… guy?

Timber

Is he supposed to be a lumberjack?Diddy is the visiting celebrity, Banjo is the next generation in waiting, and poor Timber the Tiger is the intended protagonist of the piece. Diddy Kong Racing does have a plot, and it’s that the nefarious Wizpig swooped in and cursed the inhabitants of this happy little island while Timber’s parents were off, I don’t know, getting high in a van by the river or something. Timber is still home alone, and it’s up to him to de-curse the island with the help of his whacky friends. … No wonder he requested a chimp for assistance. This kid is doomed.

Unfortunately, DKR was built for players that could choose any character for any level at any time. And that’s great! A large adventure like DKR would be terrible if it locked you into one racer for every last challenge. Unfortunately, that means that any focus on Timber is completely lost, and most people only know Timber is the intended protagonist from the instruction manual (and even that was likely forsaken for that piece of cardboard that explains the controls). Combine this with the fact that Timber didn’t even make it to the cover of his own game on the DS rerelease (but there’s Tiptup!), and Timber pretty much fails in his protagonist role. Sorry, Timber, you’re another forgotten casualty of the franchise.

Verdict: Timber didn’t even have the star power to sneak back into a Banjo title. Guess his parents aren’t letting him out of their sight for a good long while.

Drumstick

BAGAWNow here’s a plot hero! Drumstick is supposedly the Obi Wan Chicken of DKR, and he’s the first to challenge Wizpig to a race for the island. He loses immediately, and is transformed into a frog for his troubles. Whoops. Drumstick spends the majority of the story as a frog with a rooster comb, but, should you rescue the majority of the island anyway, you’ll be able to release the curse on Drumstick, and thus the chicken man will be yours.

And that’s awesome! Unlocking characters started to become a means unto itself at the start of the millennium, but there was still a little mystique to earning a rooster dude through sheer effort back in 1997. And, what’s more, with the “legend” of Drumstick being the greatest racer on the island, you, the player, felt like the greatest racer around when you finally de-frogged the guy. And heroes transforming into frogs was all the rage back in the 90s! Just ask that marshmallow kid!

Verdict: Drumstick winds up being the one racer that actually seems related to the plot, so he’s a bit more memorable than the rest of these nerds. Too bad someone decided his ideal design would be “rejected KFC mascot”, though.

Pipsy

SqueakyYou know it’s a 90’s game when there’s “that one girl”. The lone female of the DKR species is Pipsy the Mouse, and, to her credit, she’s one of the best racers in the game. Sure, that might be a subjective statement in most any kart racing game, but Pipsy is a damn beast, and her handling is second to none. But, other than that, Pipsy has absolutely no defining features beyond her gender. There’s a reason we never saw Pipsy’s Big Adventure.

Verdict: If you’re going to have a cartoon mouse mascot, you have to go big. Pipsy did not.

Bumper

The goggles!And here’s Bumper the Badger. As far as anyone can tell, he was intended as the “big and friendly” archetype in this lineup. He’s… big… and… uh… friendly. That’s all we got here. Nothing much to… Wait a minute. Is he wearing goggles? He is! Bumper the Badger is wearing goggles! That should be praised! Bumper knows what’s up! He has his furry paw on the pulse of fashion! Way to go, Bumper! We need more rockin’ Badgers!

Verdict: I assume the great, unwashed masses could not see the inherent value of the goggles, so Bumper wound up another critter in the loser column.

Conker

Conks!Conker is a squirrel in a t-shirt. Nobody is ever going to toss a game to this nobody.

Verdict: Welp, that’s everybody. We’ve got more losers than anything, so it certainly seems that Diddy Kong Racing irresponsibly squandered its mascot powers, and never went anywhere with these also-rans. Hey, you can’t always win the gold.

FGC #381 Diddy Kong Racing

  • System: Nintendo 64 initially, and then a rerelease on Nintendo DS, the system where N64 games went to retire.
  • Number of players: It’s four players, right? It’s a N64 game, so that’s my best guess.
  • Hey, what about T.T. the Clock? That is an imaginary character, and you clearly just made him up.
  • Dirty Cheater: Not unlike Goldeneye, there are a number of cheats “built in” to the game. Some of the cheats impact the random battle items that are earned during races, which is a feature Mario Kart players have been begging for forever. There’s also a cheat that is titled “TOXICOFFENDER”, which turns all balloons green. That is delightful.
  • Raj!Favorite Boss: Wizpig is the Wizard Pig should win on sheer chutzpah alone (when life gives you pork, become a wizard!), but I’m going to choose Bubble the Octopus as my favorite semi-malevolent opponent. He was an angry octopus boss before Mario and squid kids made it mandatory.
  • Did you know? Pipsy is supposedly based on a character from a canceled project named Astro Mouse. The titular Astro Mouse is male, has a space helmet, and seems to have a healthy amount of 90’s ‘tude. He could be the origin of Pipsy, but, seriously, how many different ways can you render a mouse?
  • Would I play again: Maybe, once, for the nostalgia. I’m not playing the game “for real” ever again, but trying out a track or two every once in a while wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dragon Ball FighterZ! Or maybe I just want to play another DBZ game. DBS game? Whatever! What’s important is that Goku is coming to town. Please look forward to it!

FGC #351 Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

Hashi no kahbi!Nintendo’s worst videogame system proves one simple truth: you can be yourself, or you can be something else, but you can’t be both.

The Nintendo 64 was Nintendo’s third console system. The Nintendo Entertainment System was synonymous with videogames, brought the entire industry back from the brink, and managed to turn Nintendo into an uncontested juggernaut of the industry. The Super Nintendo had to deal with the upstart Sega Genesis, but it was still home to some of the best games of the era, and a number of releases that, even to this day, unequivocally are the greatest hits of the medium. The Nintendo 64, though… the N64 got problems. It started with a rocky, anemic launch. It bled third-party support almost instantly. It never hosted a worthwhile JRPG when that genre defined the epoch. Its final first-party game was a scaled-up Gameboy title (I’ll save you some googling, it was Dr. Mario). There were some great games for the N64, but Ocarina of Time had to share shelf space with Turok: Rage Wars. The N64 made it hard to be a Nintendo fan.

But let’s take a step back and consider what being a “Nintendo fan” really meant at the time. We take it for granted nowadays, but the very concept of a “console war” didn’t seem to exist before the 16-bit era. The Atari didn’t seem to have any significant competitors, and the NES was videogames for the 80s. It wasn’t until the Sega Genesis decided it needed a chunk of that market share that the flames of “us vs. them” had to be fanned. Did you ever read Nintendo Power from that time? Or Sega Visions? What were already basically propaganda magazines decided to go all in on the most important battle of our time (hedgehogs vs. plumbers), and every other month you’d get new information on how blast processing isn’t even a real thing, riding a dinosaur is for babies, or the essential truth that so much as demoing a second videogame console is infidelity of the highest order. You cannot serve two masters, little gamer, and you should inflict this vital fact upon everyone on the playground.

ROCKYSo, by the time we hit the Playstation vs. N64 years, don’t worry, Nintendo Power, we got this. We know those vipers at Sony are trying to eat our lunch again with their Final Fantasies and Mega Mans and other franchises we used to enjoy on Nintendo systems, and we’ll defend you! We’re forever in debt to the Mushroom Kingdom, Hyrule, and Castlevania. Wait… they got a new Castlevania? And the N64 just has some dork with a chainsaw? Dude. Dude. Look, guys, I’ll keep playing Pokémon, but, uh, I gotta get going. Tekken is waiting, and it’s got a panda fighting a dinosaur.

And Nintendo noticed. Before the N64 was even released, it became clear that CD based systems were finally going to be the wave of the future (after a rocky bump in the road compliments of INXS), and the cartridge was to quickly go the way of Caveman Games. But Nintendo didn’t like the looks of load times, so we were forced to read the phrase “expensive cartridges” for the next five years. And then the Nintendo 64 launched with dopey Mario and frivolous Pilotwings. Wrong! We needed more big boy games for big boys, so we quickly received Cruisin’ USA, Mortal Kombat Trilogy, and Killer Instinct. Ah, yes, that’s the stuff. Mature games for a mature gaming community. And 2-D games are out of style, so we need all 3-D, all the time. It worked for Mario, so how about we get Donkey Kong into the 3rd dimension. And keep churning out those violent fighting games and grown-up shooters. It’s what the people want!

RAINBOW RIDEIt’s clear what happened here: Nintendo had a solid vision for the future of their console… and then “course corrected” to please the masses ten minutes before the system even launched. The controller with camera buttons and an analog stick wound up chasing the system that could be operated with one hand (say what you will about JRPGs, but they only require all of two buttons), and all those polygons decided to stumble over full motion video instead. What developers remained on the N64 were scrambling to match the cinematic experiences available on the Playstation, and the whole library became a mess of neither fish nor fowl nonsense. Look, I love Jet Force Gemini as much as the next guy, but you have to admit that, even that late in the N64’s lifespan, it comes off as pretty patchwork.

Which is a shame, because first party Nintendo games that followed the “Nintendo way” from the start are pretty amazing. Mario 64 feels like a natural progression of the franchise, and Ocarina of Time is right there with it. Mario Kart 64 refined (SNES) Mario Kart into solid gold, and Star Fox 64 truly used the new technology to turn a bunch of random shapes into a thrilling story of fox versus wolf. And Donkey Kong 64 isn’t responsible for any homicides (as far as we know)! And then we’ve got Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

Kirby 64 is a 2-D platforming game not unlike many other Kirby adventures. It’s (incredibly disappointingly) much slower and less frantic than Kirby Super Star, but it is right about at normal Dreamland speed. Basically, if you liked any Kirby game featuring helpful hamsters, this adventure is about what you’d expect. There are doodads to acquire (a staple of both the N64 and slower Kirby titles), but, by and large, this is a very straightforward platformer. Move from left to right, occasionally climb a ladder, and have a ball utilizing Kirby’s eclectic moveset. Maybe you’ll eat a hedgehog? That’ll show those Sega dorks.

And, side note? This game is beautiful.

WeeeeeOkay, granted, it’s Playstation/N64 style beautiful, but it is still beautiful nonetheless. The pastels of Pop Star really pop, and everything moves just right. In spite of Kirby’s N64 Smash model, Kirby is actually spherical, and not a pile of edged polygons. Special effects from special powers may seem basic, but in the same manner that a Kirby Krackle can sell a comic book (uhhh… different Kirby), Kirby makes self-immolation look perfect across every system. Everything combines wonderfully, and, without a doubt, this is a game that is undeniably a gorgeous experience.

And this stands in stark contrast to every other N64 game.

N64 games are terrible looking. They contain some of the worst draw distances and fog warnings outside of H.P. Lovecraft. Their protagonists almost always look like they were carved out of some particularly unpleasant rocks by a partially blind sculptor (who maybe is missing a few fingers). Nobody ever moves right. Let’s face it, Majora’s Mask was a success because it identified that every last character populating N64 Hyrule was horrifying. And this happened to third and first party games alike: in an effort to ape the most popular games of the day, polygons and Vaseline were smeared everywhere, and suddenly our greatest heroes started resembling Tobor: The Refrigerator That Walks Like a Man.

Let's chillBut here’s Kirby, just doing the thing he’s always done. There is no attempt to force 3-D gameplay. There is no byzantine story mode. There is no desire to go full angry eyes. It’s just Kirby, a character that premiered on a system without so much as the possibility of color, scaled up to modern technology. It’s fun. It’s pretty. And it’s one of the best games on the N64.

And game reviewers of the time derided the game for being “too kiddy” and “a throwback”. One of the best games on the system, but “too easy”. It generally got great scores, but the expression “no Goldeneye” was thrown around a bit.

So… uh… I guess maybe don’t be yourself? Let’s stick to the blocky bitmaps. Gotta be popular.

FGC #351 Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

  • System: N64. It also resurfaced on the Wii and WiiU, but I want to say it wasn’t on the super awesome Kirby collection released at the end of the Wii’s lifespan. … It was? Dammit! I turned on my N64 for nothing!
  • Number of players: One for the main gameplay, four for the inevitable minigame sections. Which reminds me…
  • What may have been: Early screenshots of this title seemed to indicate that it would have been four players, with Dedede, Waddle Dee, and Adeleine (the painter dude) filling the other playable slots. This would have been very consistent with N64’s emphasis on four player titles, and an excellent “upgrade” from the two player modes of Kirby Super Star. Alas, it was not to be, and was likely lost with the 64DD. And then we wouldn’t see a similar four player Kirby experience for eleven years.
  • Away we goFavorite Power: All this talk of Pretty Soldier Kirby and I didn’t even mention the main hook for the title: combining powers. Mix cutter and fire to build a flaming sword! Ice and needle to make a deadly snowflake! And rock and spark to make a… lightbulb? Whatever. What’s important is that bomb plus needle will transform Kirby into an invincible Gordo monster, and that’s been a dream since Kirby’s first adventure. Show those jerks who’s the spikiest, Kirby!
  • So, did you beat it? This is one of the rare N64 games that I didn’t finish while the system was fresh (because, admittedly, I was playing those more “mature” JRPGs at the time), but 100%’ed well past its initial release. It’s that good! Or Kirby is that good! Or I have OCD! It’s one of those!
  • Turn the lights off: You ever notice that Kirby seems to see a release toward the end of the system’s lifespan? Kirby 3, Kirby 64, and even Kirby’s Dream Collection were all practically the last boats out of their respective systems. Weird. Anyway, look forward to Kirby Battle Royale for the 3DS!
  • Did you know? The familiar “Kirby dance” does not appear at any point in this game, as worlds end with Kirby waving to the screen instead of dancing. Maybe he just noticed the player, and got self conscious?
  • Would I play again: It’s on the short list of N64 games I enjoy playing, so that’s a yes. I… I think all the rest are all Nintendo games, too. What a weird little system.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bloody Roar 3 for the Playstation 2! Roar! And… Blood! Please look forward to it!

We've got a runner

FGC #341 Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

It says Super Mario World right thereI would enjoy Yoshi’s Island a lot more if I were at all capable of enjoying Yoshi’s Island.

Back when I was Wee Goggle Bob, Christmas was pretty much the only time I ever saw a new videogame (save birthdays, of course, but my birthday is way the hell over in April). I had no disposable income (or… income), but I did have well-meaning parents and grandparents, so every holiday would see at least one game. And, by about 1995, my family had determined that videogames were the only hunks of plastic capable of bringing me joy, so I basically became the boy who got everything he ever wanted. In one Christmas haul (combining gifts from all relatives, I want to be clear that no one member of my family was Scrooge McDuck) I received Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong Country 2, Earthworm Jim 2, Secret of Evermore, Tetris Attack (I was excited about this… for some reason), and today’s featured title, Yoshi’s Island. It was an embarrassment of riches… only slightly offset by the fact that I had pneumonia and thought I would die at any given moment. Oh, hey, my family took pity on me, just got that. Errm… anyway… once I felt better, I had what was probably the best continuous run of gaming in my life, as playing the best games of 1995 one after another was some manner of nerdvana. Even now, I’m kind of jealous of my past self: can you imagine completing Chrono Trigger, and then immediately moving on to a fresh, new Donkey Kong Country 2? Ah, to imagine there was once such unmitigated joy in my life.

And, to be absolutely clear, all of the Christmas ’95 games I played over and over again. I rescued Princess Whatshername (aka cow). I tossed every hero coin at Cranky Kong. I practically memorized every stupid movie reference in Secret of Evermore. This also means that I scored 100 on every stage in Yoshi’s Island, played through each extra level, and I think I even managed to memorize some of the match card setups for the bonus games. I mean, I didn’t get a Yoshi’s Island tattoo (only Chrono Trigger gained that honor) but I did play the game often enough that the main themes are permanently etched into my mental jukebox. I played Yoshi’s Island a lot, and, even with other great games available, I was inordinately pleased with the insane amount of “stuff to do” on Yoshi’s lil’ island.

But now… Now I look at this…

It's a secret to everybody

And all I see is a threat.

Yoshi’s Island is the first “collectathon” Mario game. Despite what Advance remakes may tell you (wait… do people even remember the Advance versions anymore?), Mario was previously all about the running and jumping, and did not give the tiniest flip about hidden Yoshi eggs or eight red coins. And this was right and good! Mario started his rescuing career in the arcades, and “arcade experiences” aren’t about exploring vast virtual worlds, they’re about getting to the end of the stage as quickly as possible so you can impress that one kid with the greasy hair who probably comes from circumstances but gets really excited whenever you make it to the flagpole. That kid isn’t going to wait around and watch for you to score some damn hidden flower thingy!

Squishy!Actually, perhaps that’s The Illusion of Mario (perfect name for Super Mario RPG 2). There have always been secrets in Mario games. There have always been warp zones, negative zones (hey, an accidental secret is still a secret), hidden mushroom houses, alternate exits, and whatever the hell you had to do to turn a hammer bros into a magical ship o’ coins. The very first stage of Super Mario Bros. hid an invisible 1-up mushroom, and the next level dared you to break the boundaries of the world itself. Mario has always had plenty of bonus skeletons in his closet, from Super Mario Land to Super Mario World.

But Super Mario World 2 changed one important thing: it made the secrets mandatory. Yes, you can complete any given stage in Yoshi’s Island without touching a single red coin or flower, but, whether your explore every nook and cranny or dash like a mad dinosaur, you’re going to be judged at the end of the level. You can beat the game as an unaware lizard, but it also means being scored at a sad, sad 34 on every other stage. That’s not a passing grade! That’s barely even a valid number!

But let’s assume you decide to play along with Yoshi’s Island’s little scoring scheme. Let’s say you realize that Yoshi has the most robust movement scheme ever in a 2-D Mario game (egg tossing, butt stomping, repeated flutter jumping, and that’s all before you get into the vehicle morphs and Super Baby), and that it’s only natural the good people at Nintendo would fill SQUISH!every stage to the brim with stuff for our favorite steed to do. So you want to be the best you can be, and you try in every level. You go for the gold, do your best, but still miss a coin or star here and there. A 97? 99? That’s a pretty great score! Don’t forget to stomp every last piece of dirt! You’re doing swell!

And it doesn’t mean shit.

Yoshi’s Island demands perfection. If you score a flawless 100 on a stage, that’s great! If you “achieve” anything else, sorry, you may as well have not tried at all. And, don’t worry, this isn’t just a matter of looking at a strategy guide and mapping out the best route to red coins, you’ve got a few “random” factors, like…

  • Flying shyguys (Flyguys?) with red coins that will scroll off the stage forever
  • Flashing Eggs that may be lost before they’re ever used
  • The slightest tap from any enemy near a goal post will reduce your star count
  • Ditto on giant bosses that live to ruin your stars
  • Invisible Red Switch hidden areas
  • Auto scrolling stages
  • Auto scrolling stages and Flyguys
  • Those goddamn Bandit enemies

GET IT!?Fall victim to any one of these pitfalls, and, sorry, the only solution is suicide (in the game! Don’t do anything rash!) or restarting the level from scratch. And Yoshi’s Island does not feature short levels, oh no, these things are easily three times the length of any given SMB stage. And if you manage to surmount your previous trials and tribulations, but miss somewhere that didn’t trip you up the first time, don’t worry, you still have to repeat the stage, because perfection is mandatory for that all-important 100.

But don’t worry. You don’t have to get a 100. You don’t have to get a 100 at all. All imperfection means is that you’ll play less game, have less fun, and leave portions of Yoshi’s Island completely unfinished. You’re okay with that, right?

Well, I’m not. Shocking but true: I absolutely can’t deal with anything less than perfection in Yoshi’s Island. I know I’ve found these red coins before. I know I’ve beaten Tap Tap without taking a hit. I know I can discover that Poochy ain’t stupid on my own, so why the hell haven’t I gotten a hundred on this damn fuzzy stage yet!? Oh, there was a jump plate hidden in the sky? That makes perfect sense.

Get Biz-aySo, unlike practically every other Mario game (give or take a few stressful blue coins), I find myself incapable of enjoying Yoshi’s Island. I know, conceptually, that I can avoid the coins. I know I can just boot up that beloved SNES cartridge and play all the levels I want. I know there’s probably a 100% unlocked ROM floating out there somewhere that would alleviate all my woes. I know, somewhere deep down, there’s that enjoyable experience from twenty years ago lurking somewhere around Yoshi’s Island. But now, in my mind, it’s buried beneath a pathological need to acquire flowers and avoid the unshaven. Thus, Yoshi’s Island becomes less “a way to unwind” and more “work”. Work isn’t fun. Work is stressful, and that’s Yoshi’s Island to me.

Yoshi’s Island, the best, most fun game that I absolutely cannot enjoy.

FGC #341 Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

  • System: Super Nintendo. Do we count the Gameboy Advance version, too? No. No Super FX Chip, no sale.
  • What about the SNES Classic? Oh, that too. Yes, I did use the SNES Classic as the perfect excuse to test Yoshi’s Island. Or the other way around? Something like that.
  • Number of players: This was the first Super Mario Bros. title to be only one player. Now a Super Mario Bros. game that is multiplayer is a friggen event, and nobody is expecting Mario and Luigi co-op in New Donk City. I blame Yoshi. Again.
  • ZOOOMFavorite Level: World 2-Special is a rollercoaster ride of red switches that can, incidentally, be completed in all of a minute. It also still manages to contain all the mandatory Yoshi’s Island doodads. This is the game I want to play.
  • Unsolved Mysteries: Who is Huffin Puffin, the chubby bird in party pants, and what is his deal? Why is it okay to steal his (her?) children? Why are said children natural boomerangs? What is the origin of those pants? Now I’m stressed out all over again!
  • Just play the gig, man: I already said that this music was burned into my brain, but I’d like to note that, when I’m in “creepy” situations, I naturally whistle the intro to the final Bowser battle. Bum bum bum buuuum bah bump. Bum bum bum buuuuum bah duuu~uump.
  • Did you know? There are some extremely minor and seemingly superfluous changes to the various icons (oh yeah, I miss having a real map screen, too!) across international versions, but you have to appreciate that they properly colored the SNES buttons purple (as opposed to Super Famicom rainbow) for the US controls button.
  • Would I play again: Probably not. I acknowledge this game is good. I also acknowledge that I hate playing this good game. Sorry.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Taiko Drum Master for the Playstation 2! It’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to beat this game. Ha ha ha. Mercy. Please look forward to it!

OH MY!