Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “retro”

Master Blaster Zero for Switch and 3DS

I’ve played most of the most famous NES classics, but Master Blaster passed me by. Master Blaster Zero is a heavily altered remake, but the core mechanics of the original are essentially the same. It’s an interesting cultural artefact to be sure, but I can’t claim to have fallen in love with it. I think Mario, Mega Man and Castlevania remain the kings of the NES platformer for me.

The plot for Master Blaster Zero is incomprehensible guff. I think it’s post-apocalyptic and about mutants and stuff, but who cares? The original NES game was about a boy whose pet frog jumps down a hole and he uses a tank to rescue him. A frog does still go missing at the beginning of Blaster Master Zero, but it’s only the catalyst for a larger story. I’d prefer it to remain entirely frog focused personally as I quite like the goofiness of the original premise. Final rating for the story of Master Blaster Zero: all frog scenes 10/10, all non-frog scenes 0/10.

Master Blaster Zero can be split into two clear parts. The stronger half is a fairly straightforward platformer, as you manoeuvre the tank Sophia III through a series of caverns. There’s a lot of jumping and shooting, as well as some light Metroidvania elements, although this never becomes particularly extensive. It feels good and controls nicely, with some nifty abilities like hovering and climbing the walls, but it ends up feeling a little bit half baked. You can also leave the tank, where you’re incredibly weak and tiny. There are some interesting ideas at play when you leave the tank, but again, it never quite goes as far as it needs to.

The other half of the game begins when you leave the tank and enter a cavern, where the camera shifts to a top down, almost Zelda-esque perspective. In these you move through short dungeons, shooting enemies. You have variety of weapon types, from a simple blaster to a fast wave shot that shoots through walls. Every time you are hit you are bumped down a tier in the weapons. When you have the wave shot a lot of the game becomes ridiculously easy, with bosses going down in seconds. This is probably a good thing though as these sections aren’t that much fun. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the idea, but the execution left a bit to be desired for me. There are some cool ideas and variety, like some stealth focused sections (which work better than you might expect) but overall I| got tired of the core gameplay loop after a couple of hours, which isn’t great as the game isn’t particularly long to begin with.

That said, it does look nice, with the NES aesthetic updated very well and some genuinely imposing boss creatures. There are some scenes which are impressively cinematic and the soundtrack is pretty good too. Purely visually, Master Blaster Zero is a good case study in how to bring an NES aesthetic into 2017 but with enough tweaks to make it still feel modern.

All said, I wasn’t too impressed by Master Blaster Zero. I get why it’s so respected as it does a lot of interesting things, but it’s not about to break into my favourite NES games any time soon.

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Yooka-Laylee for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux and OS X

I still remember the day I got my N64. My mum was pretty strict when it came to game consoles; she didn’t approve at all and was pretty keen to keep controllers out of my hands. My dad was a big softy though and we went to go pick it up from Toys-R-Us for Christmas. This was the UK in the 1990s and the PS1 was culturally dominant in a way I think lots of people have forgotten, but I had eyes only for the N64. My best friend had one and we’d spent countless hours playing together, but one game had caught my eye above all others. Not Super Mario 64, not Ocarina of Time; Banjo-Kazooie. I obsessed over this game, collecting every Jiggy, every Note, every Jinjo. I’ll never forget the day Nintendo Official Magazine published the secret codes to unlock the enigmatic, but ultimately pointless, Ice Key and Special Eggs, ringing my best friend to share my discovery. I awaited Banjo-Tooie with a fervour, and even though with hindsight I can see that it’s a less tight and strong experience overall than the original, I still loved it to bits at the time. The point is, cut me and I bleed Banjo.

It’s 2017 now, and I’m not far from 20 years older than I was when I first played. Some things haven’t changed; I still have Grant Kirkhope’s Spiral Mountain theme etched into my skull and the childhood best friend was my best man, but one area that has changed is gaming. It’s not 1998 anymore. Yooka-Laylee’s reception was likely disappointing to Playtonic, formed largely by people who left Rare after not being able to handle anymore of Microsoft’s bullshit, who demonstrate clear passion for the collect-a-thon genre and a style of game that no longer exists. Yooka-Laylee is quite clearly a labour of love, which makes it all the sadder that it ultimately fails. Some have snapped back at the criticism of Yooka-Laylee by saying that it simply does what was promised, to recreate the gameplay, style and aesthetic of Banjo-Kazooie into 2017. Those criticising it are simply not the target audience.

Unfortunately, I think the issues with Yooka-Laylee run deeper than simply being a matter of personal taste and nostalgia. Banjo-Kazooie was a big, epic game, but it was very tightly designed. In terms of pure square footage, the levels really weren’t that big, but were packed to the rafters with stuff. There was a sense of wonder, as each world felt radically different to the others, offering unique style, gameplay and sweet, sweet Kirkhope music. Yooka-Laylee has fewer worlds than Banjo-Kazooie, only five overall, plus the hub world. This wouldn’t be a problem in of itself, but they’re also much bigger and, overall, have far less personality. There is probably more content in each world than in Banjo-Kazooie, each of which can be expanded, but it’s far less interesting to gather. Yooka-Laylee aims for Banjo-Kazooie, but it lands on Donkey Kong 64.

The Banjo games were never known for complex plots, but you still had a clear motivation. Banjo’s sister has been kidnapped by an evil witch who wants to make herself young again. In Yooka-Laylee the villain is Capital B, an evil businessman who creates a machine to absorb all the books in the world, to horde knowledge to then sell back. He steals the pages from a magical book in the possession of chameleon Yooka and bat Laylee, so the two set forth into his lair to get the pages back. The writing is still good, funny and silly and irreverent and oh-so-very British, as it was in Banjo. An element I really liked is that the whole game can be interpreted as a dig at Microsoft, with constant jokes at the expense of corporations and capitalism. A boss clearly modelled on Microsoft’s Kinect was particularly genius, as perhaps nothing symbolises how far Rare has fallen, or was dragged, than that useless bit of nonsense. Whilst I like the idea of Capital B, he ultimately feels like less of an engaging presence than Gruntilda, whose constant taunting and rhymes during the original game is pretty much iconic.

Although the level design is lacking, most of the core mechanics themselves are really solid. Yooka simply feels fun to control, running at a good speed and with tight platforming. Similarly to the talon trot of the Banjo games, Yooka can roll up into a ball and be ridden by Laylee for extra speed and to climb slopes, with controls that feel tight and responsive. Many people have knocked the camera, but I can’t say I ever had any major issues with it. The sheer joy of movement that 3D platformers really need is present here, even if what is layered on top of these mechanics feels lacklustre.

Yooka-Laylee has moments of greatness and charm but it is lacking something. The writing, music and strong core mechanics of Banjo are there, but the level design, variety and, ultimately, heart are not. This is clearly a labour of love and I’d like to see Playtonic have another shot; I think there’s a solid foundation here to build upon, but I’m as diehard a Banjo-Kazooie fan as you could imagine and Yooka-Laylee fell flat for me.

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Shovel Knight for Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Every so often I think I’m bored of 2D platformers, until I play the next amazing one. It’s weird that the act of moving left to right and jumping, the most classic of gameplay actions, can be made to feel fresh in so many different ways. Although Shovel Knight evokes an NES aesthetic, it isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia, being an exceedingly fun and challenging game in its own right.

Shovel Knight instantly separates itself from its NES inspirations by actually having a rather nice little story. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were friends (or maybe more) who adventured together before a journey to the Tower of Fate sees Shield Knight possessed by a mysterious amulet and sealed inside the tower. Grieving for his lost love, Shovel Knight quits adventuring. In his absence, a malevolent Enchantress rises and brings evil to the land. Upon hearing that the Tower of Fate has been unsealed, Shovel Knight sets forth to rescue Shield Knight, but finds his way blocked by eight Knights loyal to the Enchantress; The Order of No Quarter.

The story line is light, but is pretty much a perfect example of how a little bit of added context can help to elevate an experience. There’s just enough to make me care about what happens to Shovel Knight, but not too much that it gets in the way of the gameplay. This is a lesson that I’d like to see companies like Nintendo learn; I have to say, I much prefer Shovel Knight’s approach to story over the not-really-bothering approach we see in most other 2D platformers.

Shovel Knight gets the basics very right, with tight and responsive controls and a surprising amount of flexibility for playstyle. You fight using your trusty shovel and can also pogo on foes, DuckTales style. It’s the genius level and enemy design that truly sets this game apart. Every single level adds some interesting new mechanic or twist on expectation with some fantastic boss fights to cap off each one. I’m generally not a fan of boss fights in platformers, but Shovel Knight’s combat feels better than any other 2D platformer I can recall. There’s a lot of room for experimenting with different play styles, with a load of extra tools which can be unlocked. All of them are useful in their own way and allow you to approach many challenges in a variety of different ways, building replay value through strong mechanics rather than just a simple NG+ (although there is one of those too). Shovel Knight just feels good to play, which is the strong foundation on which all the other stuff is built.

There’s a fair but more going on in Shovel Knight than just the main stages; there are a handful of optional boss fights as well as two villages where you can purchase upgrades to things like your health, magic and armour. These are all bought with treasure, which can be found scattered liberally throughout the levels. The treasure hunting aspect is built closely into the level design, with all levels containing secret, challenging areas where extra treasure can be gained. The only punishment for death is losing some of your treasure, which appears floating where you died so you can pick it up again, Dark Souls style. Again, Shovel Knight shows an underlying canniness in it’s design; in many games the currency can feel awkwardly separate from what you’re actually doing, but there’s an immediacy to the reward of collecting treasure which other games lack. To be honest, if the treasure was gained by killing enemies and was called EXP we’d be calling this an RPG. Powering up Shovel Knight is satisfying and provides an immediate noticeable boost and can make taking unwise risks for more treasure irresistibly tempting.

I thought I was done with the pixel art thing, but I guess not because Shovel Knight is beautiful. The world and enemies are bursting with character, using the retro style to create something which feels new and fresh. The music is great too, with a lovely chiptune soundtrack. Shovel Knight does well what a lot of other people have done badly and proves that, even if the aesthetic could be described as retro, the experience can still look, sound and feel fresh.

Shovel Knight is a tight, challenging little platformer that is so much more than mere nostalgia. It succeeds in pretty much every goal it sets for itself. In an industry groaning under the weight of quirky indie platformers, Shovel Knight stands apart.

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