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FGC #569 Battletoads (2020)

There’s a moment about 75% of the way through Battletoads (2020) that… well, let’s let the GIF do the talkin’ here…

RAGE

That is Pimple, and, spoilers, he is freaking the heck out. He has been generally chill and mellow throughout this Battletoads adventure, but has now been pushed too far, and the following level is going to be Pimple rampaging like a toad built only for battle. Pimple, the reliable rock of the Battletoad trio, is well and truly done, and he is not going to take this lying down.

And this moment brilliantly features exactly how the creators of Battletoads (2020) fundamentally understand the Battletoads of 1991.

Let's motorOur favorite toads had an ultimately brief period of fame (or… close enough to fame) for approximately three years. We saw an NES game, a Gameboy game, a Super Nintendo game, an arcade game, and one vaguely memorable crossover. There was also a rigorous comic book promotion in there, and an animated series that arguably never saw the light of day (does direct to VHS pilot even count as real?). And was there any sort of unifying Battletoads mythos in all of this? Nope! The Battletoads were “real” people that were digitized into a virtual world, or they were “real” toad people from space, or they had that whole “Thing Ring do your thing” dealy going on with magical morphing. And there was some confusion within the original games if this was happening over and over again (apparently the Dark Queen really likes kidnapping), or if this was all some manner of Legend of Zelda “the same tale retold” situation, and Battlemaniacs was basically the “grown-up” telling of OG Battletoads. And the arcade version was clearly a version of Battletoads where we finally had the technology to let a toad fight a snake! Was that supposed to happen back in the NES days? Who knows!

So, if someone were asked to distill some consistency from three years’ worth of Battletoads mythos, would it be possible? The only thing that was constant across those games was that everyone in this universe had a general 90’s irreverent attitude, and, when the ‘toads punched stuff, sometimes their limbs changed. Across multiple games, mediums, and graphical capabilities, that was all we really had as concentrated Battletoads. They have attitude, and they morph their limbs.

And it is kind of amazing that that is exactly what is displayed in that above Pimple GIF. That is what is on display in the entirety of Battletoads 2020. Everyone in this universe has an irreverent attitude, and it is animated with a rubbery, lively style that is appropriate to heroes that have always been able to stretch and contort into whatever is going to be most visually interesting/proper for the moment. In the same way that Rash can transform into a battering ram on command (forward, forward+B), he can also morph into an office drone or spaceship pilot. The Battletoads are, fundamentally, just as adaptable as the Looney Tunes of yore, and they absolutely should exist in a game/universe wherein they are just as malleable.

My baby!In a world wherein the curators of Battletoads absolutely could have based an entire game on the “meme” of Battletoads, the idea that they are all “Turbo Tunnels and NES hard”, Battletoads 2020 wound up being true to a Battletoads franchise that is more than just its internet reputation. This is a triumph beyond measure, and my hats off to the writers, directors, and producers of Battletoads.

Also, while the designers of Battletoads are listening, I have one other thing to say about the 2020 game: it sucks. It sucks so bad.

The original, first level of the initial Battletoads game, Battletoads, is a beat ‘em up. Likely thanks to first impressions, many people (including myself) collectively refer to Battletoads as a beat ‘em up style game. Unfortunately, if you play past the first level (big “if”, because this is Battletoads, and you would be forgiven for losing to Giant Walker), you’ll find the second stage is practically a different game, complete with different rules. Similarly, the third stage, the infamous Turbo Tunnel, starts with a sprinkling of combat, and is then an entirely pacifist-friendly “battle” with stationary walls (you just happen to be going really, really fast). The next levels are (in order) a 2-D platforming/snowball fight, 3-D beat ‘em/surfing safari, and 2-D platforming (on snakes). In fact, once you clear Level 7 (of 12), you never see a 3-D beat ‘em up section again, and all combat is on a 2-D plane. In short (as I have documented in detail before) Battletoads is a beat ‘em up about as much as Mario Odyssey is with its occasional forays into t-rex-based carnage. We had one arcade game that seemed capable of staying on target, but every other Battletoads game cannot stick to a genre longer than the span of a level. When you’ve got Jimmy and Billy Lee piloting spaceships, you know something has gone terribly wrong…

Get those lumberjacks!And Battletoads 2020 initially seems to lean on the beat ‘em up trappings of its forebears. As one might expect for the update of a nearly 30 year old franchise, Battletoads 2020 is a might more complicated than its ancestor. This is no longer a simple case of “punch/jump/dash”, there are now options for strong and quick attacks, charge attacks, and a few possibilities for using your toady tongue as a grappling hook. And you’ve got grappling options! Would you like to collect flies, swing your toad from the foreground to the background, or, ya know, grapple (ala Mike Haggar). It is obvious that, in the same way a lot of thought went into an animation style that seemed appropriate for Battletoads, a lot of consideration was given to creating a beat ‘em up system that not only was fun to play, but was also appropriate to our heroes. The presence of a blocking monster means you’ll be using the stylish charge moves that were previously reserved for “smash” combo finishers. The mobile “shooting” creatures will encourage jumping for a dodge, and then a new jumping attack. And tongue moves! We are featuring toads, people, let’s act like it and highlight the one thing toads are known for (aside from hopping and kissing princesses). That slurping sound should have been for more than health refills for Battletoads from the beginning!

Except… it all kind of… doesn’t feel right? Or work right? There is a lot in the beat ‘em up sections of Battletoads that feels almost wholly broken. For instance, health drains stupidly quickly, so a single punch from an opponent can drain a third of your HP. In a way, this makes sense, as a single player game allows the usage of all three of the Battletoads, so you effectively have triple the health you see on any one life bar, and a fallen Battletoad revives if you wait a whole 20 seconds. You are practically invincible! But it still feels bad to whiff a dodge and be mercilessly punished. And, speaking of which, you will be punished, because managing the Battletoads’ battlin’ is a lesson in humility. It is very difficult to find the exact timing on when any of your protagonists can exactly cancel a combo to perform a dodge, so practically any string of punches is a risk. And that is not a good look for a beat ‘em up, as it means a conservative player is likely to zoom around the screen, eternally dodging, and only throw a single punch for fear of starting an inescapable combo chain. And that works, but it also works to make each individual fight move at a Battlesnail’s pace. And if you feel like being more loose with your health, good luck refilling on available flies, as those previously mentioned tongue moves are mapped to surprisingly confusing controls, and you are a lot more likely to accidentally drag a dangerous enemy into your proximity than down a life powerup.

And if you are getting the impression that I did not enjoy the beat ‘em up portions of Battletoads, congratulations, you have reading comprehension. The beat ‘em up portions of Battletoads 2020 are the worst parts of Battletoads 2020.

So it works out that Battletoads has the same inability to focus on any one genre as its ancestors.

Here is a vague spoiler warning for those of you that want to experience the manic intensity of Battletoads in its natural, astonishing way. Stop reading if you want to experience this all on your own dime…

FGC #556 Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!

Tis the SeasonI have always been fond of Christmas, but I find my dear wife loves the holiday more than should be allowed. She’s not a religious woman by any means, but, given the current state of my electric bill, I can safely state that she worships our Christmas Tree with the same reverence that my grandmother paid to the reason for the season. And the Christmas specials! We have somehow watched a number of those suckers this year, because who doesn’t need to see some couple learn the true meaning of Christmas while falling in love and referencing other, more popular Christmas movies. Yes! This is trite and has been done over and over since Miracle on 34th Street! We get it! Stop lampshading it, Aubrey Plaza!

But, having been exposed to far too much Christmas, I am reminded that my favorite hobby is vaguely devoid of Christmas cheer. Mario doesn’t have a Christmas Special in his featured medium (sorry, Super Show, you’re not canon), and Link might be an elf all dressed in green, but the dude sticks to horses, and never reindeer. There are a variety of reasons for this potential blind spot in the world of gaming: not wanting to tie perennial games to a particular season, many of the most popular games coming from a culture that doesn’t put as much of an emphasis on Christmas, or even just a general aversion to figuring out who copyrighted Santa Claus this year. But, one way or another, the end result is that, while you might be able to fish a Christmas episode out of practically any sitcom you could ever name (Step by Step had at least two!), you won’t be seeing Mega Man fighting Candy Cane Man at any point in his last thirty years.

But the holidays have snuck into a few games here and there. So, in the interest of finding some Christmas cheer, let’s figure out how to spend The Twelve Days of Gaming Christmas.

The First Day of Gaming Christmas: Donkey Kong Country 3

Gettin' it onDonkey Kong Country 3 pretty much inspired this article, so it may as well get top billing. And what does top billing mean in this case? That DKC3 sucks! Rare consistently came out with a Donkey Kong game for three Christmas seasons in a row, so it made a certain amount of sense that the franchise would pay tribute to the merriest of holidays. The only issue? It’s a “blink and you miss it” code that simply exchanges bananas/collectibles for ornaments and presents. And not even all bananas! Just the ones in bonus stages! Other than that, Kiddy Kong doesn’t even get a santa hat, and King K. Rool doesn’t wear so much as a red lab coat. Try harder, Rare!

The Second Day of Gaming Christmas: Diddy Kong Racing

… This is vaguely trying harder. Diddy Kong Racing is famously a game that was pushed out because Nintendo needed some kind of Christmas (season) cheer to goose the system that made the immeasurably incorrect decision to not be a FMV machine. In the absence of a certain bear’s premiere, something akin to Mario Kart was produced, and, likely due to the season that necessitated its existence, there is an entire level that seems vaguely Christmas themed. There is snow! And decorated trees! And… no actual mention of Christmas. Huh. Like in Donkey Kong Country 3, there is no concrete evidence that Christmas actually exists in the world of the Kongs, but it seems like there is certainly… uh… something going on here.

The Third Day of Gaming Christmas: Cave Story

Cave Story+, the Cave Story remake developed by Nicalis (let’s not get into that), features a few hidden bells and whistles. For one thing, Cave Story now has an agnostic approach to holidays, and will, according to the system’s internal clock, dress its heroes and villains appropriately for Halloween and Christmas. From December 24 (Christmas Eve) to January 6 (Epiphany), Quote is a reindeer, presents litter the labyrinths, and the Mimiga have to grab a snow shovel to dig out their driveways. Of course, like over in Donkey Kong Country, there’s no actual acknowledgement that all this Christmas cheer is happening, so it’s hard to determine if this race of sentient rabbits living on a floating island is actually expecting a visit from St. Nick.

The Fourth Day of Gaming Christmas: Clayfighter 63 1/3

Wack em smack emNow here’s a visit from St. Nick… and he’s gonna kill ya! Clayfighter has always had a super fighting snowman on the roster, but the third (or so) entry in the franchise went ahead and added Sumo Santa. Now, the exact lore of the Clayfighter universe has always been a little murky, so it’s hard to say if this is supposed to be the real Santa, or something more akin to a Toy Story-esque, animated-by-mutating-clay simulacrum of Santa that simply thinks he is Santa (and has built his own fake North Pole on a tropical island as a result). Regardless of origins, this is definitely Santa Claus, so it’s more of an affirmation of the holidays than the Kongs ever got.

The Fifth Day of Gaming Christmas: NBA Jam: On Fire Edition

It is not on fireWhat could be better than playing as Santa Claus? Playing as Santa Claus for free! In the age of miserly DLC (re: 2006-the rest of time), Santa Claus and an elf helper were released as a team as a free update to NBA Jam: On Fire Edition. And that’s pretty great! By Donner, it’s wholly in the spirit of not only the holiday, but also NBA Jam, a franchise that previously allowed Raiden, Will Smith, and Bill Clinton on the roster. The only thing holding this Santa appearance back from a higher spot is the unfortunate implication that this is, like every other mascot in the NBA, just a regular dude (with mad ups) in a Santa costume, and not the real McCoy. Yes, children, Hugo the gigantic blue/green hornet is not a real human-bee hybrid. There is no such thing. Sorry to ruin that for you.

The Sixth Day of Gaming Christmas: Secret of Mana

It's a secret to everybodyYes, please Santa, give me the weird stuff. Santa Claus is an actual character in the Secret of Mana world. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his reindeer, Rudolph. Santa once tried to steal a Mana Seed to grow a giant Christmas tree, but he became possessed by its power, and was transformed into a (literal, color-swapped) monster as a result. However, the Heroes of Mana helped Santa return to normal, and we all learned a valuable lesson about playing with someone else’s chestnuts. Except… uh… can we think about this for a minute? What holiday does Santa celebrate? Is it Christmas? Is there a Christ in the Mana world? Because there is definitely a Mana Goddess over there, as she has appeared and directly intervened in this world on multiple occasions. And she’s, like, tangible. Sometimes she’s your girlfriend! Is she in competition with a/the Christian God? Is Santa one of the last few believers in Christmas and, thus, Christ? In the name of Randi, what is going on here!?

The Seventh Day of Gaming Christmas: Batman: Arkham Origins

I AM THE NIGHTLet’s focus on something more plausible: it’s not easy being Batman: Arkham Origins. This is the forgotten middle child of the Arkham franchise; it is not the stellar premiere, the exhilarating Gargoyles fanfic, nor the one with the goddamned bat-tank. It wasn’t even developed by Rocksteady, so there are a number of people that don’t even consider B:AO a “real” Arkham title. But, try as they might, surly fans can’t take the most important thing away from Batman: Christmas. Batman may or may not be a strict Christian (all of that punching doesn’t seem very Jesus-y), but Christmas certainly exists in his world (actually, Batman has literally teamed up with an angel on occasion, so it’s factually true that capital-G God exists in the DC Universe), and this adventure takes place on Christmas Eve. And, granted, the setting might just be there to be a backdrop to explain why a blizzard has blocked off any not-coded sections of Gotham, but still! It is your favorite superhero opposite your favorite holiday (No, not Groot on Arbor Day). Like Twisted Metal or Parasite Eve before it, Batman: Arkham Origins effectively uses the Christmas setting for some holiday hijinks, so it’s more jolly than your average “here’s a Santa now” game.

The Eighth Day of Gaming Christmas: Home Alone

Like a certain flying mammal-themed hero, Kevin McCallister must repel criminals opposite a Christmas backdrop. And, while Batman only has a game or two that involves Christmas (I think the Sega CD version sneaks some Holidaze in there), every Home Alone game is Christmas themed. Did you know the Sega Genesis version involved filling up the Wet Bandit’s “pain meters”? Or that the SNES version was all about hording as much wealth as possible? Or that the NES version was absolutely awful? But regardless of platform, it’s always Christmas for Kevin, so Home Alone is indisputably a Christmas game. Granted, it is just because it is based on a Christmas movie, but we’ll ignore that technicality for the sake of the children.

The Ninth Day of Gaming Christmas: Elite Beat Agents

AGENTS ARE GOElite Beat Agents is not a Christmas game. However, it does include one level, A Christmas Gift, that features You’re the Inspiration, a song originally performed by Chicago. The premise of the stage is that young child Lucy Stevens (whom it is noted wants to marry someone like her dad) loses her father to an accident, and the Elite Beat Agents sing to inspire a little girl and her mother to reconcile in the face of a Christmas where daddy is never going to be home ever again. Or maybe he comes back as a ghost? And that’s the true spirit of Christmas? Whatever. What’s important is that if you fail this level, you simultaneously ruin Christmas, a seven-year-old’s day, and the entire afterlife of some bear-purchasing phantasm. So be extra careful with that stylus.

The Tenth Day of Gaming Christmas: Persona 4

WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING HEREI will admit that I have on occasion claimed to be an expert in Japanese culture. This is predominantly because I play a lot of videogames and watch a lot of anime, so I understand that Japanese people routinely ride their giant robots to please their fathers, transform into magical costumes to repel the Negaverse, and occasionally consume mushrooms to grow large. I have also learned much from the Persona franchise, which simulates the life of your typical Japanese high school boy and his ever expanding harm of classmates, teachers, and any random woman that happens to cross his path. And, most of all, I have learned that Christmas is apparently not a religious holiday in Japan, but a romantic one. You’re supposed to spend it with your sweetie! And deny any and all sexual autonomy of your mate, if at all possible! And maybe that’s why you go to jail on Christmas in Persona 5! … Maybe! In conclusion, Japan has a very rich and varied culture.

The Eleventh Day of Gaming Christmas: Holiday Lemmings

Here they goIt’s Lemmings, but everything is Christmas themed. Everything. This ain’t some Donkey Kong Country nonsense, this is Lemmings, but every lemming gets a Santa outfit, every song is Jingle Bells, and every level is celebrating an extremely White Christmas. Given there were multiple Holiday Lemmings releases over the years, this was probably as close as we could ever get to some annual holiday cheer from a popular gaming franchise back in the 90’s. Unfortunately, the Lemmings seem to have fallen off a cliff since the end of the 20th Century, so these Christmas capers have been lost to the ages. Should old Lemmings be forgot, and never brought to DOS, though, we still have the most prominent “Christmas Special” in gaming…

The Twelfth Day of Gaming Christmas: Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams

Nighty nightIt is impossible to relay the significance of Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams to modern audiences. You know Mario 64? The game the defined the Nintendo 64, and changed gaming forever? Well, imagine if, after the success of that, someone decided to release Mario 64 again, but it was only Bob-Omb Battlefield, and Mario had a new hat, but only when the internal clock hit a certain date. And, somehow, fans fixated hard on this barely new content, and regarded the whole thing as an entirely new game, because Mario made a passing mention of already collecting 120 stars or something. Well, NiGHTS was the Sega Saturn’s attempt to be Mario 64, and Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams is its bizarre, complimentary spinoff. It has a story! It has karaoke! It has Sonic the Hedgehog in 3-D for the first time ever! And it’s all completely dependent on the time of year, so if you want to see Santa, you better play on Christmas. It is also a scarce commodity, releasing only for the generally ignored Sega Saturn, and a Playstation 2 Sega Age re-release that changed a few things. Other than that, if you want to see NiGHTS as jolly as possible, you’re stuck, and you better hope Sega All-Stars Racing came up with some holiday DLC.

So Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams simply must be the most Christmas game there ever could be. It only truly works one day a year, is extremely limited, and is inexplicably the hottest item of the holiday season, despite being, ya know, friggin’ NiGHTS. Videogames as a whole may not have as many Christmas specials as other mediums, but there are at least a dozen or so games that mostly acknowledge Christmas exists.

Merry bananamas, Donkey Kong. Merry bananamas, everybody.

FGC #556 Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!

  • System: Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, Wii, Wii U, and now Switch. You can find this Christmas cheer on an overwhelming number of Nintendo systems.
  • Number of players: That weird kind of Donkey Kong 2-player that nobody likes.
  • Let's have funPort-o-Call: The Gameboy Advance version made a number of changes, including redesigning the Brother Bears, adding a whole world and boss, and giving Cranky an actual place to shine (or something like that) in his own dojo. It’s kind of a shame the “basic” SNES version is the one that is rereleased over and over again.
  • Maybe actually talk about the game for a second: I like Donkey Kong Country 3 more than Donkey Kong Country 2. There. I said it. DKC3 is all over the place with a pile of half-baked gimmicks and techniques that last for maybe one stage, tops. And it’s disorienting! One random stage in the middle of the second world is a race? Comes out of nowhere, and is never seen again. But, that said, it seems like most of the bonus areas and their attendant challenges are at least related to the stage du jour, whereas DKC2 has that same kind of short attention span, but completely randomizes where what is a “challenge” is placed throughout the game. Or, put another way, I’m still salty about fake thorn vines in DKC2. All that said, all the DKC games are a fun time, but I might have had the least frustration with DKC3.
  • Favorite Kong: This game is so totally designed for Kiddy Kong that Dixie feels almost entirely perfunctory. I think I counted on one paw the number of times her float jump was useful, whereas Kiddy’s general roll and momentum was nearly always the answer (when you haven’t been transformed into another animal).
  • The Places You’ll Go: I always appreciated the interactive map/overworld of Donkey Kong Country 3. It might be a pain in the ass to have to steer your Kongs into a non-descript beach just to find a Banana Bird, but this does feel like the evolution of a “map world” first introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3. I always wanted to go exploring in those games, particularly with an ape-built helicopter.
  • It's snowyFavorite Boss: Belcha is a giant barrel that attempts to crowd the Kongs off the stage. He’s just like Crocomire, though less slimy (and less likely to become a skeleton). Possibly because he is so familiar, Belcha has always been my favorite, even if he is fought in the infinitely boring “mill” background.
  • Did you know? The official story for this game is that Donkey and Diddy were kidnapped during their fishing trip. I’m not certain “Donkey Kong fishing” has ever been seen before or since in the Donkey Kong franchise, but I am interested in seeing Link and DK team up to fish against Animal Crossing Villager and Byleth. Noctis can judge!
  • Would I play again: I like this Double Trouble, so I’ll probably play it again in… oh… Let’s say another five years.

What’s next? We’re going to toss some Kingdom Hearts nonsense in here, and then, a week from today, you’ll be able to read my annual year in review. Oh boy! My opinions on things! Please look forward to it!

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 #539 Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II

Cold IronWe live in an age of science and reason. We have knowledge of vaccines, microbes, and the periodic table of elements. But it took us a long time to get to this point. For hundreds of years, our understanding of the universe was much more limited, and our thoughts on how the world worked were based on simple, rudimentary building blocks of the universe. Obviously, I am talking about the four elements of nature: fire, wind, water, and earth.

But… why?

It’s interesting to consider how many different cultures and regions settled on the same basic group of elements. The basis of Western thinking in Ancient Greece had ironed out the four elements before Aristotle, but it was that king of philosophers that further outlined important bits of the lore (“science!”), such as “fire is hot and dry while water is cold and wet”. That’s why that dude got so many statues! But this isn’t a matter of everyone on Earth running with some Grecian ideas, Babylonia had gods that were personified as the “cosmic” elements sea, earth, sky, and wind. In India, the theoretical start of both Hinduism and Buddhism referenced a similar elemental quartet that occasionally included a fifth (space/zero/”spirit”) buddy. Buddhism even went as far as creating four elements of abstracts to properly parallel the more concrete elements of nature. It seems like the odd man out of the usual ancient “four elements” is China, which decided to forsake “wind” for “wood”, and also toss “metal” into the mix to create a perfect little pentagram of strengths and weaknesses. Fire melts metal, metal chops wood, wood is super effective against ground types. Of course, even western thinking would adopt metal in time, as it wound up as part of alchemy, which would greatly influence modern scientific thinking, as alchemy essentially pioneered concepts like different states of matter.

WooshBut who cares about the science of the elements? What has really persisted to this day has been the continual existence of “four elements” in pop culture. What was your first introduction to the elements? Was it Final Fantasy’s four crystals? Star Trek: The Next Generation’s S07e16: Thine Own Self? Avatar: The Last Air Bender? Artus Wolffort’s 1641 painting? Whatever was your first, know that this is not going away for future generations. Disney’s Frozen 2 was released sometime back when movie theaters were viable, and it led up to the reveal that there is a magical cave in a magical land that contains four elemental crystals. And Elsa is the missing fifth element (the element of merchandising). The four elements is a trope that is literally older than the written word, and it seems like it is going to be an element of our storytelling for generations to come.

But it’s difficult to determine exactly why the elements are so enduring. Yes, there is simplicity to the elements, but are they as much a part of modern life as they were back in the day? Absolutely not. I can’t remember the last time I had to give a damn about soil. Is that even still around? Or is it about the simplicity of “systems” that arise from the elements? Everybody can understand water beats fire, but that only really explains the presence of elements in videogames. Games are important (he wrote on the videogame blog), but they are not responsible for late 20th century Bruce Willis box office smashes. What’s the modern appeal of the elements? Why are they so persistent across media? Why are we eternally damned to ponder the effectiveness of “wind”?

Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II has the answer: the four elements are terrifying.

I have no ideaWizards and Warrios was a pretty… passable NES title, and W&W2 is… well, I can’t in good conscious say Ironsword is at all a good game. It’s not a bad game, but it was also one of my childhood NES titles (I assume my grandmother was distracted by Fabio on the cover, and bought it for me without a second thought), and, like its sequel, it is a very… broken game. There are some great ideas here! Every stage follows a basic three act rhythm (please the local animal king, find the wizard-bane spell, murder the wizard) with two distinct areas, effectively creating a large, ten stage world. That’s pretty great for the era! Also significant for the time is a bevy of bulky, expressive sprites. And Kuros actually graphically upgrades as he tempers his gear, so you go from being some dork with bug eyes and a butter knife to a heavily armored murder machine by the time you are tackling Ice-Fire Mountain.

But the drawbacks of Ironsword are significant. For one thing, this game has been in existence for 31 years, and our top scientists still haven’t discovered how you’re supposed to attack monsters without suffering damage. There is probably some intended suitable technique for ramming Kuros’s sword into the nearest demon creature, but, unless you’re using magic (available only at the tail end of every level), you’re probably going to take some hits just attempting to clear out the local creatures. And then there’s the platforming that involves an awful lot of inclines that shove Kuros every which way but up. Are you just missing a jump? Or is your hero weirdly magnetizing to surfaces that are trying to kill him? Who knows! And don’t even get me started on the economy of small keys, and how there are far more treasure chests than there are keys, and how you’re apparently going to be stuck grinding gold because you blew your inventory on opening the wrong chest. Random isn’t fun, Ste Pickford, and it never was!

Leap of faithBut there is one thing Ironsword gets absolutely right: Malkil is a bastard. Malkil was the ultimate boss and source of Kuros’s misery in the original Wizards and Warriors, but he was blown into non-corporeal bits at the end of that adventure. But you can’t keep a bad wizard down, so Malkil somehow extended his life force to possess the four elements. Now Malkil is an angry cloud in the air, some manner of giant block of ice in a river, sentient lava in a volcano, and a particularly pissed off rock deep in the Earth. These are all huge bosses (particularly by NES standards), and Kuros has to acquire distinct spells just to stand a remote chance against these corrupted elements. And, assuming Kuros can pull that off (possibly with the help of a Game Genie), then the final battle becomes a fight between Kuros and all four of the elements high above a mountaintop. Kuros has obtained the titular Ironsword (fifth element?) at this point, but Malkil is zooming around as four separate elemental ghosts (or… something), so saving the day is locked behind one of the most annoying battles of 1989. If you win, the four animal kings will thank you, but if you lose, you’re in good company, because that final fight is rough.

And that’s exactly the way the four elements should be.

Aang is allowed to preach balance, and Pokémon is allowed to claim there is always a strength for every weakness. But the sad truth of the matter is that humanity sucks in comparison to all-powerful nature. We build homes. We make cities. We claim to have conquered this wild world, but when the world decides to really get wild, we’re doomed. Let’s review those four elements again, shall we? Water brings floods, and, thanks to the general greed of humanity, much of our land is slated to be submerged beneath the waves. Wind is the domain of hurricanes, and, if you’ve never had a tree fall on your home/car/grandma, congratulations, you’re not currently in a month’s long negotiation with your insurance agency. Earth occasionally quakes, and the slightest rumble is going to really wreck up your gundam collection. And fire, theoretically the most manageable of all natural disasters (it’s not like it can literally zap us from the heavens or something), is occasionally spurned by the revelation of gender, and can thus burn into coasts to cinders. And this is all before when elements decide to work together, building the impressive fire tornado of our worst nightmares. In short, the elements are terrifying, Wooshand if you need evidence of this, there are good odds you literally don’t have to do more than peak your head out your window (“Yes, grandma, I can hear you, but I’m writing an article right now, and the lawyers say I’m not supposed to move that branch until after the settlement. I’ll bring some noodles out to you later, okay?”).

So thank you, Ironsword, for reminding us why the four elements are still relevant today. It’s not about balance. It’s not about magical crystals in a princess’s magical cave. It’s about fear. It’s about terror. It’s about the fact that if even a single element decided to turn against humanity (with or without the assistance of an evil wizard), it’s going to be a bad time. In the face of a tidal wave or raging fire, we are little more than a jumpy dude wielding a pointy stick. In our world, there is no spell of Earth’s bane, and we are wholly at the mercy of the four elements.

Thanks, Kuros, for reminding us all that we are nothing next to the four elements of the Earth.

FGC #539 Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II

  • It's hot in hereSystem: Nintendo Entertainment System, and then never again. The Rare Replay passed this warrior by.
  • Number of players: Kuros stalks the land alone.
  • Best Magic Spell: The Asp’s Tongue spell is apparently a magical spell that allows the heroic Kuros to rob a shopkeeper. Look, whatever it takes to get a dude to toss meat in the air for a solid minute.
  • Like writing your name in the sand: This game does not have a battery backup. This means that you are welcome to put your name in the high score table all you want, but it’s never going to last past a power off. However, this is one of the ol’ password-based NES titles, so you can “save” your progress in that aggravating manner. Try to remember which character in the password determines your life count!
  • What’s in a name? “Malkil” is a portmanteau of “kill” and “mal”, which is the Latin prefix for “bad”. But Malkil is just his last name, his full name is Angry Murder Malkil.
  • Did you know? Kuros can acquire extra points by finding “The Relics of Sindarin” hidden in each level. These relics include a book, ring, gauntlet, and a cross. “Sindarin” is the Elven-Tongue from the Lord of the Rings. So the implication of the Sindarin Cross is obvious: Elves believed in Jesus.
  • Would I play again: I hate this game. I will not be accepting questions about that at this time.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Avenging Spirit! That spirit gonna get his revenge! Please look forward to it!

Kaching