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FGC #548 Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

So shinyRecently(ish) on the ol’ World of Final Fantasy live stream, my compatriots, BEAT and fanboymaster, discussed the idea of a collectathon, and settled on the decision that the term “collectathon” is one that was designed by game reviewers who did not actually care for the genre in any conceivable way. The word itself speaks to the exhaustion that is caused by participating in a collectathon, and, more than likely, the term was coined after so many random games that required all kinds of esoteric methods to finally achieve some level of “game completion”. In short, according to my contemporaries, “collectathon” became a term to insult the genre it was describing.

However, I disagree (and I would have elaborated more on my position during the stream, but we had to get back to discussing episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force). For one thing, I used to date a woman who ran recreationally, and, to her, the idea of a marathon was actually a fun time. I, personally, am completely incapable of understanding such a feeling, but there are apparently people out there that that both enjoy what others see as a grueling gauntlet and have sex with me (wait… maybe there’s a connection there). But the idea of –thon being a watch word (suffix?) aside, there’s also the whole “collecta-“ part of the equation. And noting that a whole lot of collecting is going to be involved seems valid! Your biggest collectathons require amassing all kinds of crazy nonsense, and, in the same way that a shoot ‘em up contains a lot of shooting or a role playing game involves eating a whole lot of rolls, the noble collectathon is all about collecting. And, as collectathons progressed through the end of the 90s and into the current millennium, they certainly put more and more of an effort-based emphasis on collecting at the cost of boss fights, minigames, or other distractions from the primary goal of collecting. In short, according to this humble writer, the collectathon is well-served by its popular moniker.

And, besides, if you want to insult a collectathon, call it by the name that Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest so desperately deserves: a goddamn mindreading simulator.

This is funBefore I start actively swearing, let me state one thing plainly: Donkey Kong Country 2 is a good videogame. Hell, it’s one of the best on the Super Nintendo, and, considering its competition, that is very much saying something. It’s an action platformer that lives up to the pedigree of Mario or Sonic, but it is also its own animal with extremely unique, consistent physics. As would eventually be refined by the WiiU era, Donkey Kong Country has always had a very distinctive “feeling”; and, after its maiden voyage in Donkey Kong Country 1, DKC2 seemed to perfect that feeling for the Super Nintendo. And we got Dixie! A significant issue with DKC1 is that it never had a “raccoon tail” or similar option of having access to a character with a less precise, more forgiving jump (not like you can drag that flapping ostrich into every stage). DKC2 gave us Dixie Kong and her ponytail-copter that allowed for slower, but more easily-controlled jumps. And you’re going to need it, too, because absolutely every DKC2 level has its own discrete challenge, so not a single pixel is wasted on repeating or recycling level concepts over and over. In an age where every third platformer contained stages that were indistinguishable from each other (looking at you, Bubsy), you could never mistake one DKC2 stage for another. Yes, those briars might be familiar, but this time you’re using mobile barrels as opposed to flying a parrot. Or is this the stage with the spider? Maybe! Better play the level to find out.

But variety isn’t always a good thing, and that issue rears its ugly head when you get back to that collectathon aspect. The sad truth of Donkey Kong Country 2? It apparently expects you to be psychic.

SPLURTPreviously on this blog, I recognized Banjo & Kazooie as the perfect collectathon. Long article short, it is all about carefully explaining its challenges to the player, and then granting the player all the options available to say “so have at it”. There are ten jiggys in this world, you know there are only ten jiggys, so get to work, and when you’ve collected nine, know that that one place on the map with a weird squirrel is probably your final destination. Donkey Kong Country 2, also created by Banjo & Kazooie’s Rare, is obviously the ancestor of many of B&K’s indulgences (and we’re not just talking about the inexplicable, self-contained quiz show). Does every weird-ass animal in this universe have giant googly eyes? Yes. Speaking of animals, the buddies have now mostly been transformed from “power-ups” (ala Yoshi in Super Mario World) to required “transformations” that mean this stage is absolutely going to require the abilities of a springy snake. And, yes, so much more so than in Donkey Kong Country 1, collecting bits and baubles is a requirement if you want to see the whole of the game. Not only do you need to find Krem Coins in bonus areas if you want to complete all the levels, you also need banana coins to pay Kongs for the privilege of saving, and DK Coins so Cranky Kong can shut his fat gob for once in this damned franchise. Whereas bonus areas were simply bonuses in DKC1, now every last challenge must be conquered if you want to play the entirety of Donkey Kong Country 2.

And if you are looking for a little consistency in the “bonuses” of DKC2, you are cartwheeling up the wrong vine.

Take thatThere is one DK coin in every level. You can always find it in the level proper… except that one time a DK coin is hidden in a bonus stage. And the final “jump challenge” of every level is always a simple bonus for consumables… except when it is required for the DK coin in about three stages. You can count on bonus rooms to appear in pairs across the various levels, but don’t let your guard down after you’ve found one, because there are a handful of stages that contain three. And speaking of finding bonus areas, don’t worry, because there’s always a banana arrow or even just a single banana indicating that something might be up with this particular wall or area. Or there isn’t. Better nudge a carried barrel against every single vertical surface any time you see one available. Maybe you should backtrack with the barrel, too, because that works, too. Not often, of course, but every once in a while it’s mandatory. Oh! And you know how those thorny vines are always going to obliterate your kongs? Well there are a few false thorn walls, so you might want to smoosh up against deadly spikes just on the off chance it’s that one part where that’s the only way to find the DK coin. Don’t ask me which level they appear in, but they’re there, so you better give it a shot more often than not. Sorry if you lose a life!

And if this sounds completely absurd, congratulations, you’re paying attention. Donkey Kong Country 2 does not effectively (or at least consistently) convey to the player the parameters of its compulsory secrets. The best way to play Donkey Kong Country 2 is to apparently fall into every pit and eat every spike, Kong health be damned. Or use an emulator, and rewind every mistake. Or read a FAQ. Or the only viable option available in 1995: be a goddamned mind reader, and know exactly what Rare was thinking at all times.

Go DiddyA collectathon can be fun. Donkey Kong Country 2 is a fun game. But literally banging your head against every wall is not fun. Trying to figure out what the hell Rare happened to be thinking from level to level is not fun. Sometimes it is fun to find a particularly well-hidden secret, but, more often than not, the path to finding that secret is fraught with trial, error, and a whole lot of dead monkeys. And nobody wants to see that! We have so many laws against that!

Disparage not the noble collectathon, but please acknowledge the woes of the olden mindreading simulator. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest set Rare on the path of defining the collectathon, but, in its pupal form, the collectathon was responsible for more frustration than fun.

… Or at least it sold a lot of copies of Nintendo Power…

FGC #548 Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

  • System: Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, and now any Nintendo system that will support an emulator. Didn’t get loaned out to Xbox One’s Rare Replay, though.
  • Number of players: There are two Kongs on this adventure, so you may as well have two players.
  • Favorite Animal Buddy: Ignoring the snake that is the clear precursor to Spring Mario, I’m going to go with Squitter the Spider, because the ability to make your own platforms in a 16-bit platformer was a revelation back in the 90’s. Much like Kirby’s flight abilities or the P-Wing, this felt like breaking the whole game back in the day… even if the poor spider only appeared in a handful of levels. And the power-webs are a nice bonus, too.
  • Diddy on Top: Do you suppose Nintendo would allow this to happen in a modern release?

    WINNER!

    I kind of have to believe that Nintendo would let Diddy tie with Mario, not win, if something like this were tried today. Then again, maybe it only happened the first time because there is clearly an insult to Sonic and Earthworm Jim thrown in there.

  • Setting a tone: I have to say, it is downright impressive how the Kremling’s home island, the setting for DKC2, absolutely sucks. Give or take one vaguely malevolent amusement park, you can see why these lizards are constantly trying to conquer other realms, because sitting at home with the poisonous bogs, giant beehives, and castle overflowing with acid does not seem like a good time. Donkey Kong Country seems like a place I would like to stay, Crocodile Isle is… not going to get five stars on the ol’ vacation rankings.
  • An End: Find every last Krem Coin, and Donkey, Diddy, and Dixie will watch Crocodile Isle sink into the ocean, with K. Rool escaping on his pirate ship. Does this seem like a good idea, guys? To leave your mortal enemy homeless? That’s only going to lead to issues down the line, and you know it.
  • Goggle Bob Fact: This article is being published on my wedding day. This has nothing to do with anything, but I figure I’ll make a note of it.
  • It is hot in hereDid you know? Dixie Kong took some significant time off after Donkey Kong Country 3. She didn’t appear in Donkey Kong 64 (that was her sister, Tiny), but she did make it back in time for Donkey Konga and Jungle Climber. Now she seems to appear nearly every time we see Donkey, though, so it looks like her retirement was short lived.
  • Would I play again: I realize that this article makes it sound like Donkey Kong Country 2 is a bad game. But it’s not! I swear! It just has some horrible tendencies towards making my OCD flip out on every flat surface in every level. That hampers my ability to enjoy the game! But would I ever play it again? Yes, because this is some of the best platforming on the SNES. Like for another game, I just need to turn my brain off, and then we’ll be fine.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Garfield: Caught in the Act for Sega Genesis. Oh no! I hate Mondays, too! Please look forward to it!

Weeeeee
This counts as a minecart, right?

FGC #530 Little Nemo: The Dream Master

Let's get dreamyLittle Nemo: The Dream Master is an excellent NES Capcom title. It doesn’t always get the same accolades as Mega Man or Ducktales, but it is worthy of its Capcom pedigree. Did you know that this game basically pioneered Kirby’s copy ability well before the advent of the little puff ball? Or that the presence of the keys makes this the rare NES collectathon that encourages combing large, lush stages? LN:TDM has a few issues here and there, but it is a game where you can trade your normal skills for the jumps of a frog, the punches of a gorilla, or the stickiness (?) of a lizard. That counts for a lot when you are on the same system as some comparatively primitive adventures. Little Nemo feels like the prequel to a SNES game that could have been absolutely amazing, but, as it is, it is simply a NES title that pushes the boundaries of what was possible in 1990.

But we’re not going to talk about that today.

We’re going to talk about the worst, scariest level in a Capcom title.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s look at House of Toys.

House 'o Toys

Right from the start, it is obvious that something is wrong with this level. Every other stage begins with some whimsical creature, like Flip the Chain Smoking Frog Monster, introducing the basic concept for the area. “Oh, Nemo, use your candy to feed moles for some reason,” they say. Or, “Oh, look, this is your house, a thing I shouldn’t have to tell you, but here we are, guess we’re going to provide clumsy exposition now.” What are you told by your creature-greeter at House of Toys? Nothing. There is not a friendly face to be found. There isn’t even the illusion of narration or an explanation for your current predicament. You are at the House of Toys now. Expecting a warm welcome? No. House of Toys is all you will ever know.

And speaking of friendlies, let’s take a quick look at the best part of Little Nemo: The Dream Master. As was mentioned, Little Nemo is a fairly revolutionary title for the way it utilized animal friends as powerups. This was not another NES title that had “one size fits all” powerups like a spread beam or muscle serum, this was a game that constantly presented new challenges and puzzles, and the only solution to these puzzles was to get the help of an animal buddy. If you needed to reach a high area, you befriended a frog. If you had to climb even higher, you might gain the assistance of a bee. And levels with particular trials, like the prerequisite underwater stage, featured singular encounters with friendly animals adapted only to those areas. Basically, every new stage is interesting not only because of the geography or enemies available, but also the promise of new and interesting animals with exciting new abilities.

You will die hereAnd what particular powerups and/or animals appear in House of Toys? None. Nada. Zilch. There is not a single animal companion in the third level. There isn’t a hidden guerilla, sneaky lizard, or even a hermit crab to be found. You will not find a single ally anywhere in House of Toys. Not only is this lonely, but it also means Little Nemo will be stuck with his little life bar and its extremely limited durability. And as far as offense goes, there is no mouse hammer or hornet stinger to help Nemo this time, so the absolute best Nemo can hope for is ineffectually tossing candy like some manner of rogue oompa loompa. Do toys care about candy? Not so much. Nemo’s lifespan is going to be drastically shortened in his solitude.

And if you think House of Toys is going to go easy on Nemo because he’s completely, wretchedly alone, you’ve got another thing coming. And that “another thing” is “a constant assault of airborne opponents”. The main “monsters” of House of Toys are flying threats in the form of toy airplanes and floating, bombing balloons. In both cases, you are dealing with foes that appear above Nemo… and that’s not great for a little dude that can only toss candy horizontally forward. Not that your candy is going to do any good, though! At best, Nemo can only stun a foe on a good day, and when the screen is constantly scrolling forward, a motionless enemy is just as deadly as a mobile one.

And, yes, this is the only automatic, horizontally scrolling stage in the game. Yes, that is going to get you killed via squishing against any number of blocks. Thanks for asking!

A little pokeyBut wait, there’s more! It is not enough that you are being literally dive-bombed by an army of toys, there have to be a host of traps across the stage, too. It starts simple enough with some crashing crate-looking things, where the worst you have to worry about is mistaking the perfectly flat “enemy” platforms for something you can actually jump on without taking damage. Can more traps be equipped with “do not touch” signs? The encroaching spikes throughout the stage don’t need warning signs, though. Everyone knows anything slightly pointy is incurable poison to every last NES hero, so it’s no wonder that you’ll expectantly steer Nemo away from those prickly pals. But good luck with that! The hit detection on the spikes is atrocious, and nudging Nemo in the general direction of anything triangular will result in instant death. Since this kind of sloppy mapping only appears in this stage, it may be a side effect of the auto-scrolling. Or House of Toys was just designed by masochists! There could be any number of explanations for why every goddamn thing is trying to kill Nemo for a solid few minutes.

And then the stage itself starts trying to eat you:

WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING!?

That’s not great, either.

And if this all seems like a terrible idea for a level, also consider that House of Toys eschews one of the most important parts of Little Nemo: The Dream Master. The majority of stages in LN:TDM require Nemo to find keys scattered about the level. This leads to exploration and experimentation, and seems to be the essence of Nemo’s appeal. Since House of Toys relies on an autoscroll that absolutely precludes the ability to backtrack at all, there are no keys to “find” across the level. Exploration is dropped for an endless parade of death traps, and that is the complete opposite of the rest of the game’s style. And, hey, because no one had a good idea on how to incorporate the keys that are the point of other levels, there’s a cache of keys right there at the end. That’s right! The designers of LN:TDM didn’t have a clue on how to integrate the gameplay they themselves had established. It’s a bizarre reminder that the rest of Nemo’s quest isn’t this horrible!

My magic wandBut! There is something of a vindication for this shift in gameplay within Little Nemo: The Dream Master. The final levels introduce an assault on the Nightmare King’s lair, and the key conceit is dropped for something that is more action-based. This shift is welcome, as it creates a more dramatic finale for Nemo: the adventure is no longer about having fun in Dream Land, it is now a no holds barred battle against an invading monarch. That’s cool! But is House of Toys an effective preview of later challenges? Well, it might be if it equipped Nemo with the powerful Morningstar (pictured in use versus a penguin) that makes those last levels actually survivable. And, oh yeah, if this didn’t happen five levels before the finale. This is Level 3! They’re aping the challenges of the final levels before you’ve even mastered the basics! That’s lunacy!

House of Toys is a black mark on an otherwise amazing NES title. It eschews everything unique about the game, and drops a straightforward action level into the middle of whimsical, exploration-based stages. And then it kills Nemo quickly and frequently. For one stage, Nemo’s pleasant dream becomes a nightmare, and I’m unlikely to forgive House of Toys for this transgression anytime soon.

Toys are supposed to be fun, dammit!

FGC #530 Little Nemo: The Dream Master

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System. Like the Disney Afternoon Collection, the fact that this game is associated with a license outside of Capcom’s usual oeuvre means it never saw direct sequels or rereleases. And, unlike the Disney Afternoon Collection, it’s unlikely it will be rescued by a craptillion dollar company. C’est la vie.
  • Number of players: This Nemo dreams alone.
  • Another explanation: There is a rarely seen Little Nemo arcade game from Capcom, too. It’s pretty similar to the Willow arcade game, and it’s a sort of “action beat ‘em up” that occupies the space between Mega Man and Final Fight. And its first stage is familiar…

    To the arcade!

    Was the ill-advised House of Toys an aborted attempt the capture the same gameplay as the arcade title? Or is it a simple matter of reusing the same iconography of the attendant movie? The world may never know.

  • Favorite Animal Buddy: It’s bee. If it’s an NES game, and you can fly with a particular ability, I’m going to choose that buddy every time. It doesn’t hurt that this hornet can also visit spikey death upon its enemies, too. That lizard can barely walk, but the bee is just an unending parade of destruction.
  • What’s in a name? Little Nemo: The Dream Master is based on the movie Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, which is based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland which itself was a spin-off of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In Japan, the game is called Pajama Hero Nemo. … Whatever works.
  • Goggle Bob Fact #1: This was one of the few videogames I owned as a child (well, “few” compared to how many I have now). As a result, I played it a lot… with the stage select code. I’m pretty sure I skipped Level 3 every time. Go figure.
  • The city in the skyGoggle Bob Fact #2: This is one of the few videogames I have owned that I eventually tossed in the garbage. No, gentle reader, this was not because House of Toys drove me to hitherto unknown levels of destruction; it was simply because of the cat. Or a cat. Some cat (or other animal of like size) puked all over my Little Nemo cartridge, and no one in the house wanted to clean or even touch what was possibly the most gross hunk of plastic in the house. Luckily, this was years after the NES was relevant, but it still hurts to know that my “original” copy of Little Nemo was lost to an explosion of Whiskas.
  • Did you know? People are aware that Flip, the frog-thing that greets you at the start of the first level, continually has a cigar in the movie (and arcade game), but had his smoking censored for the NES edition. However, you might not know that the Guerilla buddy is supposed to have a big, fat stogey, too. This explains why that hairy ape is continually making ducklips through the whole adventure.
  • Would I play again? This is a beloved piece of my childhood that seems lost to the ages. I might not fire up my NES for another go, but it would be really great if someone could make a new Nemo game. I’d buy that on day one. Hint hint, Pie for Breakfast Studios.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 for the Nintendo Gameboy. Is Mario even in that game? Why does he get billing at all? Wario is the best! And please look forward to his adventures!

Check out that tongue

FGC #529 Banjo-Kazooie

knock knockIt is 2020, and Banjo-Kazooie is still one of the best 3-D platformers of all time.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: I have no affection for Banjo and Kazooie. I hit puberty right around when Banjo was making the scene, and that resulted in some lingering issues regarding the goofy bear. Actually, to be clear, I officially became a teenager a couple of years earlier (right about in time for me to focus on other things in polygonal graphics), and that meant I was well and truly over it by the time the Nintendo 64 was hitting its stride. Did I still play videogames? Of course. But did I only play videogames for mature, highly sophisticated teenagers such as myself? Indubitably. Excuse me, Rare & Nintendo, I only have time for developed JRPGs right now. Did you see that tactics game insult God during the intro? I don’t think this fuzzy creature is going to offer me a similar experience.

So I didn’t play Banjo-Kazooie in its prime. Despite loving Mario 64, I had moved on to other genres by the time one was supposed to be collecting collectathons, so BK was dropped as easily as DK (he’s the leader of the bunch). And, as I eventually became a poor college student during this time, I didn’t wind up snagging the game in any capacity until the Gamecube had conquered the gaming continent (or at least the Nintendo island). Then I was able to pick up N64 games by the bucketful, as they had dropped in value from “hundreds of hours of fun should cost nearly a hundred dollars” to “you can have a new game, but you have to buy one less taco”. So Banjo-Kazooie was purchased with other titles that I had deigned too “kiddy” at the time (see also: Paper Mario). I played it for about a week, collected what I could, beat the bulk of the game, and then moved on to other adventures. There were new, better games out, and why should I waste my time on something so obviously past its prime? Just look at Eternal Darkness! Need I be more fair? Aim for something more in the same genre? Well, I recall jumping directly from BK to Mario Sunshine. “Now this is a modern platformer!” I exclaimed to an empty room while dropping bear ‘n bird forever…

And who knew that nearly 20 years later, I’d be writing an article about how Banjo-Kazooie kicks Mario Sunshine’s soggy ass?

Here we goWait, heck, I feel like I have to elaborate on my own opinions again. I like 3-D Mario titles. Hell, I consider all of them to be some of the best videogames out there. I’ve spoken of it before, but the feeling of controlling Mario is unparalleled. There is nothing like perfectly leaping over obstacles to grab another star, shine, or moon. I like Mario Sunshine. It is probably the Nintendo Gamecube title I revisit the most, and that’s saying a lot when you consider how many smashing brothers reside in that system. 3-D Mario games are still the gold standard for moving and “playing” in a 3-D space.

And, to be clear, Banjo is no Mario. This bear might have the somersault jump, and something approximating Mario’s 3-D triple leap, but the similarities end there. Beyond that, Banjo’s moveset is a bit stiff. It’s not bad! It’s actually pretty great compared to some of the turds that appeared in the 3-D space in the late 90’s. But there are a lot of… little things that hold Banjo back in his first adventure. Shooting requires stopping and ducking, which is immediately frustrating when a witch is lobbing fireballs. Switching to Kazooie’s footwork is fun for climbing hills, but it’s another move that requires you stop and swap. And why are we even talking about a bird walking when she can be flying? Banjo’s Kazooie-aided float jump is pretty fun, but actual flight can be a bear. Landing and/or determining your exact location relative to the ground is difficult when you’re anywhere past about six feet off terra firma, and dive-bombing your opponents is nearly impossible to properly aim (and, half the time, you add injury to insult by losing health if you miss). Maybe it’s the familiarity, maybe it’s the focused design, but, somehow, Mario feels effortless to control, while Banjo is stuck in a number of situations where his abilities are lacking thanks to a combination of controls and camera. It should not take any more than a second to power-poop an egg into a hole!

Don't look at meBut judging Banjo-Kazooie as merely a platformer does it a disservice. Yes, Banjo doesn’t control as well as Mario. Mario wins that match every time, against every opponent. But Banjo-Kazooie does beat Mario in its own, chosen field: Banjo-Kazooie is a better collectathon than Mario 64. What’s more, Mario, from Yoshi’s Island to Odyssey, has never beaten Banjo-Kazooie at its own game.

Banjo-Kazooie is every bit the collectathon your parents warned you about (“Stay away from that bad boy, and don’t waste time grabbing everything in a collectathon!”). Every one of the nine worlds in BK contain no less than 100 music notes, 10 jiggies, 5 jinjos (required to obtain one jiggy), 2 honeycombs (health), and any number of silver skulls, eggs, and feathers of all colors. And, like many collectathons, every last bauble and collectible is simultaneously optional and mandatory: you need to nab a certain percentage of everything previously listed, but you don’t need every last item if you stocked up on some in an earlier level. Regardless of required amounts, though, this does mean there is a lot to find in every level, which is always a blessing and a curse. It is fun to find a new jiggy, but it is also a pain when you’ve got nine out of ten and… where did that last one go again? Was I supposed to beat some manner of giant crab, or explore the depths of the ocean? It’s… somewhere around here… Right?

But that is exactly where Banjo-Kazooie excels. By clearly defining the number of essential collectibles for every area, a simple checklist is immediately generated. By limiting the size of levels to something that can be easily traversed in minutes, you’re never stuck in an area that is far too large to explore for that final music note. By transparently outlining “extras” in an area with the assistance of a friendly mole, you always know if there is still a new move or ability to find. And when every world gives you a clear goal and a constrained play area, you wind up not having to sweat the small stuff. Found eight jiggies, have a general idea on the locations of those last two, but haven’t completed their associated challenges yet? Great! Now you can caper around the area at will, and all you have to worry about is eventually returning to those last few pieces of gold. When you know the parameters of every world’s challenges, you can have fun within those borders. No need to obsessively press A next to every nook, cranny, and NPC to hope for the best…

WeeeeeeAnd this is a lesson Mario never seems to learn. Mario 64 vacillated between “you can earn every star immediately” and “you must complete challenge A before moving on to challenge B” from level to level. Mario Sunshine decided to focus on sequential challenges, and wound up making each “world” more of a “level” in the process (and aggravatingly tossed unaccountable blue coins all over the place in the process). The Super Mario Galaxy games focused even further on making “courses” as opposed to “exploration worlds”, and would once again hide a collectible or two around a level, but never a consistent amount. Mario Odyssey finally returned to the exploration of Marios gone by… but every area suddenly contained an unruly number of moons. Would this mundane block randomly grant you a moon? Or do you have to defeat a mighty boss to get the same reward? How about jump roping for thousands of hours? All the collectibles were equal in value, but violently varied in their collection methods. And, since that “final moon” for the level could be found through something as routine as throwing a hat at an unexceptional frog (basically how I spend my Tuesdays anyway), a player without a distinct guide was forced to try every goddamn thing in every world about six times. Hey, sorry to bother you again, but maybe you are the one skeleton dude that will hand over that final moon…

Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t have this problem. Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t have autoscrolling levels, flying shyguys hording red coins, or areas that require six kinds of backtracking. Every one of its nine worlds is very honest about its challenges and collectibles, and, if you’re getting lost, there’s probably a googly-eyed toilet around that will shout some clues at you. There are no situations where you will have to repeat an entire area just for one last jiggy, and (by my count) there is only one possible challenge Nice placethat requires a powerup out of sequence with the rest of the game’s flow (that would be the running shoes in the ice stage, for the curious). Everything else is straightforward to a fault, and you’re every bit as capable of immediately finding everything in the first world as you are at the finale. Banjo-Kazooie is designed in such a way to help a player understand the rhythm of its worlds very quickly, and then, once that is accomplished, gently guide play from one challenge to the next.

Banjo-Kazooie is an expertly planned collectathon that wholly avoids the greatest pitfalls of the genre. That makes it one of the best 3-D platformers ever committed to cartridge. It is, to this day, a smashing success.

FGC #529 Banjo-Kazooie

  • System: N64 to begin, and then it migrated over to the Xbox 360. It’s currently available on Xbox One, too, as part of the Rare Replay collection. This is ideal, as N64 games make my eyes bleed.
  • Number of Players: This is one of the few “Nintendo” N64 games that didn’t at least try to use all four controller ports. So one player here.
  • Reused Game: As I have stated before, I generally do not delete old save files from used games if I can help it. This is because I have brain problems, and treat save files like precious children. So, speaking of children, here’s what the previous owner of my copy of Banjo-Kazooie was up to…

    33 hours, and they didn’t even beat the game. Tell me your secrets, N64 cartridge! Did someone just like running around in circles for hours? That’s perfectly okay! Just tell me what happened!

  • Port-o-Call: Okay, I might insult the graphics of the N64 on a routine basis (I think it goes back to that teenage angst thing mentioned earlier), but the controls of Banjo-Kazooie really were made for the N64 controller, so playing it on the original hardware at least once adds a little context to how the whole “using a gold feather” thing made sense on at least one console. That said, definitely play the Xbox360 version, because at least that unlocks new features for other Banjo-based games.
  • Are you talking about the Stop ‘N’ Swop Eggs and the Ice Key? Yes. Please don’t get me started on Nintendo Power lying to me yet again. I’m still grumbling about Crash Man.
  • This is the worstHey, Mario 64 called, it wants its everything back: There was a lot of discourse in the 90’s that Banjo-Kazooie wholesale ripped off Mario 64. There’s a desert level full of pyramids and flying, a huge castle filled with secrets and portraits, and, perhaps most damning of all, an entire ice level themed around an impossibly large snowman. And, while these are all great points, it’s important to note that Banjo-Kazooie is 100% its own adventure. How can you tell? Well, you don’t see oversized cartoon eyes on Mario 64’s ridiculous eel, do you? Check. Mate.
  • Favorite Level: Tick Tock Woods actually disproves my thesis, as you are repeatedly returning to the same area with slightly different changes, and then have to explore the whole area all over again. It’s like a dry run for Donkey Kong 64! That said, it’s the exception that proves the rule, and I enjoy even the slightest scraps of time travel, so I’m down. Also, it contains the only worthwhile magical transformation in the game, so I’ll take it.
  • Everybody Talks: If I’ve got one complaint about Banjo-Kazooie, it’s that absolutely every damn thing has something to say, and 90% of that dialogue is awful. I don’t need a shark explaining that he is trying to eat me, Rare, he’s a shark. And the whole Gruntilda thing could be fun from a “she’s a scary/gross Halloween witch” perspective, but the entirety of her interactions with the world boil down to “she’s fat”. Over and over again. Same joke. She’s fat, and nobody likes her because she’s fat. And it’s wonderful to see that joke continued into the most recent Banjo adventure…
  • The goggles do nothing: And they insult people for wearing goggles!

    The goggles!

    But I guess it gets better.

    They do nothing!

    Partial credit.

  • Did you know? Diddy Kong and Donkey Kong are not disguised as a basic chimp and guerrilla lurking in the first world. Those are totally different characters, and, if you want Banjo and Diddy to interact, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
  • Would I play again: Probably! I was impressed by how Banjo-Kazooie fares compared even to its own direct sequels, and I’ll probably give Banjo another go in the future. It’s fun collecting things when a game is designed around placating my OCD, and not just running it into overdrive.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Little Nemo: The Dream Master for the NES! Yes, that’s right, it’s inexplicable bee transformation week here at Gogglebob.com! Please look forward to it!

Bee yourself

FGC #512 Crystal Castles

Draw that mazeCrystal Castles is a 1983 arcade title that invented videogames. Doesn’t that seem important? Doesn’t that seem like a reason Crystal Castles should be remembered as more than a Wikipedia article titled “Crystal Castles (video game)”? Crystal Castles defined gaming, and you’ve got to sort through a disambiguation page to even find it? Bah!

Don’t believe me? Here’s a partial list of how Crystal Castles was a might more important than some yellow hockey puck that clearly had a better publicist.

There are 37 levels, and that’s it!

What is even happeningRemember playing Donkey Kong? Pac-Man? Space Invaders? Remember beating those games? Yes? Liar! You may have dropped DK from the highest tower, or witnessed the birth of Pac Jr. in Ms. Pac-Man, but you can’t beat those early arcade hits. Why? Because they literally never end. They’re programmed to loop forever and ever. This was a deliberate move, as this was back in the day that the longer a game went on, the more quarters it could suck from unsuspecting pockets. Who would ever want to play a videogame they had already finished?

Well, the designers for Crystal Castles decided that maybe a videogame should, ya know, end. Crystal Castles has a level structure that should be very familiar to modern audiences: there are nine “worlds”, and each “world” contains four “stages”. Difficulty progresses as you climb higher in the worlds, and every fourth stage features a sort of quasi-boss when Berthilda the Witch stalks the land.

And if that sounds like the exact structure of Super Mario Bros, congratulations, you understand why Bentley Bear should be just as popular as Mario. … Okay, that might be a stretch, but Berthilda should at least be allowed to come to Bowser’s kart races.

There’s an actual ending!

This is the endIf there are a limited number of stages, there has to be a finale, right? Something to find at the end of the rainbow to confirm you’re worthy of that pot of gold? Well, after clearing 36 stages, there’s the END level, a simple stage that seems to be an outright reward for making it to the furthest possible point in Bentley Bear’s world. Clear this (surprisingly) easy denouement and you’ll be rewarded with a special message broadcast directly from the black void of the arcade cabinet.

I give up : you win
You must be a video whiz

Oh man. I’m a video whiz? Screw modern day achievements and trophies, I just want to be a video whiz! It’s not enough that the other guys at the arcade know I’m on the high score table, now the fourth wall is broken, and Crystal Castles itself knows that I’m the goddamn best there is. This simple message makes it all worth it!

There are secrets to find!

Enjoy your eggsBut if the game ends with the declaration that the player is a whiz, then why would said player ever play the game again? Points? Bragging Rights? No, of course not, the greatest design secret is secrets. There are secrets to find in Crystal Castles, and you have no way of knowing how many there are. Some are straightforward, like jumping in secret locations to find extra lives or a warp between stages. And those might be ideal for speed runners and alike, but they’re not on the same level as secrets that are completely meaningless. And bonus points if the secrets are meaningless and sound like playground rumors. Jump in one particular spot in the first level a hundred times (!), and you’ll see the words ATARI appear over and over in the following stage. Mysterious letters will appear if you jump in a precise location on level 5-4. Why would Franz X. Lanzinger, creator of Crystal Castles, flash the initials FXL across the screen? It’s a secret to everybody. But you’re going to keep playing Crystal Castles to discover all those secrets! Hey, is that castle shaped like the initials at the top of the high score table? Is there anything else like that? Maybe you should try jumping around that nondescript corner over there. You might find something cool!

There are Unique Monsters (with unique weaknesses)!

The monsters!But then again, assuming you’re going to see the finale of Crystal Castles at all is a bit of a stretch. Crystal Castles takes a lot of practice, as, like many modern games, you need to “learn” the game before you can make any headway. Sure, you might be able to conquer a level or two with your first few quarters, but you’re going to hit a brick wall about as soon as the later stages ramp up the difficulty. You might not have to face the Bed of Chaos, but attempting to round up all the gems (yes, Bentley Bear collects gems, not edible dots like his gluttonous contemporaries) quickly becomes perilous when nefarious crystal balls are rolling around at Mach speed. This world gets more and more dangerous as the castles grow in complexity, so seeing one of gaming’s first endings is unlikely for a novice player.

But Bentley Bear is not without options for defending himself. Bentley doesn’t have a punch, fireballs, or some catch-all “power pellet”, but every one of his opponents has a weakness, and knowing what’s super effective is what is going to take you to the top of the league. Evil Trees are vile pursuers, but they will pause if they’re leapt over (which, yeah, if I was a mobile tree, I’d be stunned by someone vaulting over my branches). The Gem Eaters are monstrous beasts that devour your beloved gems, but they can be taken off the board entirely if Bentley tackles them while they’re eating. And even Berthilda the Witch, Bentley’s greatest rival (… that mostly just putters around in a square and doesn’t bother anybody but please don’t think too hard about that), is weak to Bentley if he grabs a magical hat, thus proving the dichotomy of prey becoming predator when a proper weapon changes hands. Bentley is going to get every last gem, and he’s going to do it because he lives in a world where every rock can meet some paper.

There’s inherent Tension!

THE BEES!But not all of Bentley’s obstacles are surmountable. Bentley is a bear, so, of course, his ultimate rival is a swarm of bees. Apparently the bees have been pursuing Bentley his entire life(citation needed), and they are always a step or two behind him. Thus, if Bentley spends more than approximately twenty seconds in any one place, the swarm will descend upon him, and it’s bye bye bear boy. What can Bentley do? He doesn’t have many options other than to collect all of the gems as quickly as possible, and move on to the next wing of the castle as soon as that familiar buzzing starts. Was Crystal Castles the inspiration for later titles that feature continually hunting monsters like Resident Evil 3 or Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within? We have no way of knowing, but I am currently accepting any and all art of Bentley Bear hanging out with Jill Valentine. I think they would be friends.

There’s this Dancing Skeleton!

Dance, my pretty

Skeletons are as videogames as health-restoring apple pie. It is good Crystal Castles identified this fact before Simon Belmont started his eternal quest of skele-cide.

But does Crystal Castles get remembered for anything?

The short answer is no. Crystal Castles was an Atari game, and, much like many of the pre-Mario mascots out there, Bentley was forgotten by the time the likes of Mega Man and Vic Viper flew into town. Like Pitfall Harry or that duck from Adventure, Bentley defined gaming for the future, but was completely forsaken for more marketable heroes. Now he’s doomed to fill out the background of parties and let other stars shine in the foreground.

Also dance

Bless you, Crystal Castles, and thank you for establishing the standards of gaming.

FGC #512 Crystal Castles

  • System: All sorts of ancient systems, like various Ataris, BBC Micro, and the Apple II, but then nothing else for a long time. It often pops up on modern Atari compilations, though, so the Atari 2600 version is on the Playstation 4 with its arcade counterpart, and the 2600 version is available on the Evercade.
  • Number of players: Two, but alternating. You have to share this bear.
  • So pleasantWhich Version: The home, Atari version of Crystal Castles isn’t as faithful as Dig Dug. The good news is that all the nuance of the arcade version is there (with interesting mazes and unique enemies and all that), but there is a dearth of gems about the titular castles, and that changes the whole game. The arcade version basically asks you to walk everywhere to obtain every gem, whereas the Atari version is more about aiming for those distinct gems that are randomly scattered about. It leads to a lot more precise steering of your favorite bear, and feels extremely separate from the OG version. That said, it’s still a fun time, so give it a shot.
  • So is Bentley Bear the most important bear in all of gaming? No. That would be Kuma from Tekken, but thank you for asking. Freddy Fazbear would be right up there if he were an actual bear.
  • One Dirty Trick: In the later levels, Bentley’s favorite powerup, the wizard’s hat, bounces all over the stage. Now, I’m not going to claim that Nintendo stole this concept for the eventual, similarly invincibility-inducing Starman, but Bentley’s headwear does bounce around in a pretty familiar manner.
  • Further Monsters: The warp zone areas seem to be mostly populated by ghost creatures. This is some fun narrative framing for “you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be” when cutting across the castle’s shortcuts. Environmental storytelling!
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I really thought this was Mr. Do. When Random ROB chose Mr. Do some time back, I legitimately thought to myself “Oh, that arcade game with the trackball and the castles.” I was mistaken. Sorry, pre-Nintendo mascot creatures.
  • Did you know? The band Crystal Castles nabbed their name from a line from the old She-Ra cartoon, so they have absolutely nothing to do with this videogame. Forget I brought it up.
  • Would I play again: This game is history! Ancient history! And I’m no time traveler, so I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this Age of Atari any time soon.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Willow for the Nintendo Entertainment System! You are drunk, ROB, and when you are drunk, you forget that I am in charge! So let’s go steal a baby! Please look forward to it!