Version tested: Wii
As Ho Chi Minh said to Jane Fonda, have we got a bumper batch of VC fun for you this week! Not only do you get reviews of this week's latest uploads - Diddy Kong's Quest and Mario & Yoshi - we're also going back in time to start bringing you up to date on all the Virtual Console releases we've missed between Kristan's initial launch round-up and this throbbing new weekly column. New reviews of new old games and new reviews of old old games? Sweet potatoes! Don't say we never give you anything.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
- Platform: SNES
- Wii Points: 800
Never let it be said that the chaps at Rare were afraid of a little cliché. This sequel to The Game That Saved The SNES sets out its stall using one of the oldest plot contrivances in the business - the lead character from the first game (that would be Donkey Kong) has been kidnapped by the main villain of the piece (that would be K. Rool) and the task of rescuing them falls to characters previously relegated to supporting roles in the series (that would be Diddy Kong and his sister, Dixie). They must be guided through this quest by joypad-wielding human in the real world (that would be You).
So before you can say "brand extension" the family Kong are off on another barrel-throwing, rhino-riding, banana-grabbing adventure, with the requisite array of animalistic foes standing between them and DK Sr. Easily despatched with the traditional head bonk, advancement through the game's numerous stages and sub-levels becomes more a matter of timing than real exploration and as you can always return to the simple early stages to stock up on lives and bananas, nobody need feel intimidated by some of the later levels.
That's not to say that - as Miyamoto once grouched - the gameplay is mediocre. It's big, bouncy and a hell of a lot of fun. It's just...not terribly imaginative. The same could be said of the original Donkey Kong Country, that beneath the impressively animated graphics lay a slightly vanilla platforming experience, with all the expected genre tropes duly ticked off without ever breaking new ground. As this sequel merely serves up more of the same - and only a dedicated Donkey Kong nerd would claim that the thin spread of "new" features represent any real evolution of the series - it's not entirely clear why its been chosen over the vast number of more deserving SNES titles for another shot in the Virtual Console spotlight. Titles like the sorely underrated Unirally. Hint hint.
So it's rather a weird one to rate. As a game in its own right it's every bit as polished and funky as its predecessor, and undeniably fun to bounce through, while as a sequel it defers its lack of ambition using the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" defence. This is hard to argue against in this case, but unless you absolutely adore the Donkey Kong Country series and simply have to own every entry, there are certainly more interesting ways to spend your 800 points.
Mario & Yoshi
- Platform: NES
- Wii Points: 500
The attempts to jam the marketable Mario cast into generic puzzle games has resulted in some unusual, and largely forgettable, titles over the years. Following hot on the lukewarm heels of Dr Mario, this was yet another Tetris riff in which slowly descending patterns of objects must be lined up and removed before they fill the screen.
The key difference here is that rather than controlling the tumbling shapes, you control Mario (or Luigi) at the bottom of the screen, and can swap columns over, hopefully moving the right lines under the right shapes at the right time. In another minor twist on the formula, you're no longer trying to match like with like. Now you have to try and place as many different Mario monsters between the bottom and top halves of a Yoshi egg. The more monsters, the larger the Yoshi that hatches.
It's not a bad concept, and the two player mode is considerably more entertaining than solo play, but it's all just a little bit too fiddly and too reliant on the randomly assigned egg pieces to ever really feel like a coherent challenge where skill or tactics can really make a difference. The Mario connection is as tenuous as it sounds, and it simply lacks the simple complexity of Tetris needed to hook you. While the VC would benefit from more puzzle games, it'd be nice if they could be chosen based on quality rather than the prominence of a certain hairy plumber.
- Platform: N64
- Wii Points: 1000
While it's perfectly reasonable to argue that Nintendo has always relied rather too heavily on its roster of oft-delayed first party properties to prop up its hardware launches, and that the N64 suffered when compared to the PlayStation in that its line-up seemingly consisted of jazzed up sequels to SNES hits, there's no denying that the games in question still make for some sweet, sweet gaming.
StarFox 64, retitled as the rather uninspiring Lylat Wars for European markets because of a pre-existing C64 game, is a pretty typical example of this update mentality. It's pretty much the same as the beloved SNES game, but with tweaks, nips and tucks in the areas that matter. The aim is still the same - fly through a series of linear or free-roaming areas, shoot down as many enemies as you can and blow up the boss at the end - but the experience is bigger, beefier, more cinematic.
Assisting you, as always, are your anthropomorphic wingmen (wingbeasts?) who jabber away at you and sporadically call for help. Fail to blast the enemies on their tail and they retire from the fray, leaving you without their help on the following stage. As they can actually prove useful - Slippy, for instance, scans boss enemies for weaknesses - they act as more than just additional guns. Their frequent chatter - now delivered in full speech - is amusing and fun, and reacts intelligently to what you're actually doing. In typical Nintendo style, it's all very immersive and polished.
There are numerous routes through the stages, with the game shunting you down certain paths if it thinks you're doing badly or need to be challenged, while you can also make the decision yourself, or choose to replay the previous stage (at the cost of a life) if you lost too many wingbeasts. Men. Whatever. There are also two new vehicles added to the mix, in the shape of the Landmaster tank and Blue Marine sub. These only come into use a few times in the whole game, but their appearances are well-timed so that they come just as the incessant high-flying is starting to become repetitive.
Multiplayer comes in the form of four-player deathmatch fun, and if you do well in the single player game you can unlock the Landmaster tank and even on-foot characters for these sociable romps.
The controls were obviously designed to showcase the triple-pronged trident of the original N64 controller, so those using the Wii Classic Controller may face frustration unless you have a GameCube pad handy. Equally, some may find the rather slippery early analogue control takes some getting used to, especially as the game becomes less and less forgiving, forcing you to save team members or dodge obstacles with scant seconds to react. It's also a shame that VC titles still don't vibrate, as this was the first N64 title to make use of the Rumble Pak.
But these are really just silly niggles from a spoiled modern perspective, and shouldn't detract from the fact that this is a wonderfully constructed cartoon space saga with plenty of replay value. Definitely worth the full thousand points asking price.
- Platform: NES
- Wii Points: 500
So there's this round, pink hero, right? And he sucks his enemies into his mouth, and can either spit them out as a projectile or swallow them to absorb their abilities. Round. Pink. Spit. Swallow. Yes, Kirby is, as my dear old Nana would say, nothing but Percy Filth.
He's also one of Nintendo's most undervalued mascots, often sidelined in gimmicky spin-offs and puzzle games, and last seen in 2003's Kirby's Air Ride on the GameCube. This NES offering, his second game, is arguably still his best - a streamlined and thoughtfully staged platform game that makes good use of his power-copying ability to keep things varied.
It owes a very obvious debt to Super Mario Bros, both in its blocky aesthetic and level design, but Kirby's balloony body means that play requires a very different mindset. Able to inflate himself and fly over obstacles and enemies, progress comes from identifying and mastering the different talents you can steal from the bad guys rather than simply scrambling for the end of the level in the fastest time.
With seven worlds, plus sundry bosses and bonus sections, it's not the biggest game in the world, but there does come a point where the experience flatlines and you suspect you've seen all the game has to offer. Despite this, Kirby's first and only NES outing is undeniably charming and, with its parallax scrolling and colourful characters, really showcases just how much juice developer's were squeezing from the tiny system towards the end of its life. If cute and quirky platforming tickles your biscuits, this is a fine way to spend 500 points.
- Platform: SNES
- Wii Points: 800
Justifiably remembered as one of the strangest games ever to grace a home format, ActRaiser is an endearingly awkward genre mish-mash in which you play as God himself. OK, Nintendo's "no controversy" policy meant that a few names got changed so the protagonists were no longer God and Satan, but it's hard to disguise the theological strangeness of a game in which the Almighty travels to Earth to smite centaurs, monkeys and wasps with his gigantic sword, before a helpful cherub hovers over tiny towns and cities, shooting down monsters with a bow and arrow.
It's utterly bizarre, both in concept and execution, veering between hack and slash platforming, Populous-style strategy and religious simulation with an audacity that could only come from Japan. This means it's also a rather lumpy gaming experience, with the platforming stages marred by stiff control, while the broader strategic elements are hampered by the need to constantly shoot monsters (keeping your followers safe and building up your Holy power) while navigating a rather opaque menu system.
For those with the willpower needed to penetrate the fog of weird that surrounds the game, it soon reveals itself as a surprisingly compelling and one that rewards your perseverance with a commendably complex story that also acts as an allegorical meditation on the nature of faith in a secular world. Oh yeah.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
- Platform: SNES
- Wii Points: 800
Never playing A Link to the Past is like never listening to Sergeant Pepper, or never seeing Star Wars. It's just one of those things that you simply have to do if you're serious about gaming, both as entertainment and as a creative medium.
While the later 3D outings would bring greater depth and nuance to Link's journeys in Hyrule, there's still nothing that crystallises the appeal of the top-down quest genre like the bright, colourful and utterly immersive sprawl of forests, caves, dungeons and castles laid out before you here. ChronoTrigger may have delivered a grander story, but there's beauty in Zelda's simplicity and it's an attraction that has withstood the march of time with consummate ease - this is still superlative game design, on every level.
Looking back at it now, it's almost groaning with cliché, but that's just because every RPG adventure since has stolen from it so blatantly. If you are one of those poor souls to have never tasted the sweetest SNES fruit then don't be fooled into thinking this is a generic dungeon grind. This is the game that defined the genre, and for just 800 points there's no excuse not to grab this piece of history.
- Platform: Megadrive
- Points: 800
Making a splash back in 1995, Comix Zone makes good use of its "artist sucked into his own comic strip" concept. Nimbly leaping from panel to panel, punching enemies through page borders and even tearing strips out of the scenery to turn into paper airplane projectiles, the game has a lot of fun monkeying around with the visual possibilities of its cartoon world.
If only the gameplay were equally innovative, it'd be a lot easier to recommend. Unfortunately, strip away the post-modern presentation and you've got a very pretty - but pretty boring - beat-em-up. It's from the one-button school of fight mashing, with your flurries of attack only modified by jumping or crouching. You can also scoop up items to use - including your pet rat - but it's nowhere near enough to distract you from the swiftly monotonous action.
Comix Zone is also one of those games that are stupidly difficult. Stupid because there's no real reason or logic behind its unforgiving approach. No matter how attracted you are to the admittedly cool presentation, the game tries its hardest to turn you off with its crude level design and steep difficulty spikes. You only get one life and, once that's gone, it's time to start over. Get past the first stage and you're given a second chance, but by that point the damage is already done. The fun has curled up and died. It doesn't help that the comic panel gimmick hinders as much as it helps - you're never quite sure if a hole in the ground will lead to the panels below or just kill you stone dead, as it does at the end of the first level. Over and over and over again.
Much like the gaudy early 90s comic books that inspired it, beneath Comix Zone's self-consciously dynamic exterior lurks something rather tedious - more Rob Liefeld than Jack Kirby.
- Platform: Megadrive
- Wii Points: 800
It makes perfect sense in theory. Sonic spins around. So do pinballs. Put them together, and surely Sonic Spinball must deliver the best of both worlds? Somewhat inevitably, what you actually get is a curious hybrid creation that fails as both platform adventure and pinball simulation.
Based around yet another quest for Chaos Emeralds, this time you have to collect them by ricocheting the spinning hedgehog into secret areas, bouncing off bad guys and triggering switches to open new locations. The whole idea was already done much better in the proper Sonic titles, and by removing the surrounding gameplay the result feels less of a game by comparison.
Even the controls are muddled by the half-and-half approach. The flippers, assigned to the A and B buttons, can whack Sonic up into the depths of the table, but you can also exert some control over him as he spins. Not enough to make enough difference that the feature becomes useful, but it's ample to ruin what little pinball purity remains in the clunky game engine.
Everything suffers from the old Megadrive PAL problem, and the game's sluggish frame rate isn't helped by the presence of some gruesome slowdown whenever things threaten to get hectic. Which, sadly, they never really do. Clumsy in the extreme, chalk this one up alongside all the other failed attempts to crowbar Sonic into ill-fitting spin-off titles. The Sonic obsessed among you might squeeze some amusement from its obscure oddity factor, but it's certainly not worth the 800 point asking price.
The Story of Thor
- Platform: Megadrive
- Wii Points: 800
While the Nordic title may lead you, quite understandably, to expect something involving big blond beards and enormous hammers, this sorely undervalued adventure actually involves an Aladdin-style hero called Ali, and takes place in a rather enticing Arabian Nights milieu. Originally released under the more appropriate title of Beyond Oasis, presumably the name was changed because we Europeans were expected to be more into big blond beards than turbans and scimitars.
Whatever its nomenclature, it's worthy of your attention. Viewed in the same top-down style as all the great 16-bit RPGs you have heard of, the first thing you notice is the animation. Story of Thor looks fantastic, even today. There's a Disney-esque fluidity to the movement of the characters, while the locations combine to form a solid and inviting cartoon world. The music is especially deserving of praise, coming as it does from Yuzo Koshiro, whose ability to wring epic themes from the Megadrive's six-track sound chip also helped add thematic weight to ActRaiser. Sweepingly orchestral, and carefully synchronised with the action, Story of Thor is a real treat for the ears.
Only some occasionally clunky collision detection during combat holds Ali's adventure back from the status of lost legend, but for those with a taste for large scale melodramatic Japanese RPG bombast this is an essential download.
- Platform: TurboGrafx 16
- Wii Points: 600
Two weeks ago, I lavished no small amount of praise on the unlikely shoulders of Wonder Boy in Monster World (http://www.eurogamer.net/article.php?article_id=76031) and mentioned that it was the last official Wonder Boy title, apart from a later game that dropped the Wonder Boy brand and swapped the lead character for a girl. This, dear reader, is that game.
Despite the graphical switcharoo, it's immediately identifiable as a Wonder Boy game. The Fisher Price swordplay, the large heads and generally cute and chunky environments - it's all still here, and still winningly lovely. The big difference here is that your lead character (clad in a crown and blue skirt at the start) begins the game at the end of Wonder Boy II. After a brief battle through a castle, you face a boss dragon which is easily despatched since you're suspiciously levelled-up for the start of the game. Sure enough, this is a mere prologue and the dragon's demise turns you into a fire-breathing lizard. It's all very Symphony of the Night, although Dragon's Curse predates Konami's epic platformer by over eight years.
Over the course of the game you accrue the usual arsenal of bigger swords, better magic attacks and stronger armour, but you also gain the ability to transform into different animals with which to explore the largely free-roaming interconnected game world. As a mouse, for instance, you can squeeze into small places and even climb up walls. As an eagle, you can fly but must avoid water. Again, it's hard to avoid the Castlevania comparison, and if you consider this a bright and breezy kid-friendly version of that vampiric classic then you'll have a good idea of what to expect. Solid fun.