Retrokick – Earthbound

It’s been a while since the last Retrokick. I know, almost two months since my last headlong collision with the saccharine walls of my childhood. Shocking. Discontented pensioners should be collecting at the end of my road, locked in hushed discussion about my sudden living in the moment, allowing only the occasional “Oh I know” and, “Absolutely appalling” to waft its way through my perpetually ajar window. But to tell you the truth, the switch-up’s quite…bracing, it turns out.

I was hit, however, by a particularly strong waft of blast-from-the-pastitude after rewatching Rob Reiner’s 1987 film Stand By Me. Dark, folkish, wayward with a discernible maturity, the King adaptation has always held amongst my top coming-of-age films. And despite Ape Inc’s Earthbound attracting most of its praise from its satirical nature, it’s very much a game that instilled that same juvenile precocity when I locked buttons with the 1994 RPG after it launched on Nintendo’s Virtual Console.

Earthbound might for me be an endearing, refreshingly witty JRPG, but it’s also incredibly relevant today. Gaming and self consciousness has attracted more in-depth discussion currently than has ever been, and the reflexivities of Metal Gear Solid, The Stanley Parable, Undertale and most recently Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, have had their hands in developing gaming not just as a form of entertainment, but one of creative expression.

And considering that all this has happened in very recent years  (Pony Island only having released two months ago), it’s rather innovative ( not to mention brave) of Ape Inc. to have produced a concept so fresh and challenging as Earthbound.

 

As the second in the now-cult-favourite Mother series, Earthbound‘s very inception could very easily have been canned. The Mother series was dreamt up by one of Japan’s top slogan writers, Shigesato Itoi, whose advertising line for Seibu Department Store remains one of most prominent in the Japanese advertising industry. As well as landing a voice acting role in My Neighbour Totoro, Itoi had co-written songs with the Oscar-wining Ryuichi Sakamoto and a collection of short stories with Haruki Murakami, who just so happened to be one of the country’s best loved contemporary writers.

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Actually, I don’t remember this self-proclaimed ‘photographic genius’ giving Ness the pictures. Did he just stalk a young gang of children, obsessively capturing their adventures?

Understandably, Nintendo eventually approached him in 1987 to write the slogan for one of its games. Itoi, however, agreed on the condition that they allow him to pitch his idea for his own video game: Mother. Despite his creative portfolio, however, Itoi was turned away by the company’s best known developer, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a high-profile games enthusiast, rather than an artistic prospective designer. It was only later that Itoi recovered his chances. Itoi was called back by Miyamoto, having been instructed by Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to inform the seminal sloganer (whom Yamauchi heavily respected) that his idea had been successful.

Mother’s success continued, too, selling nearly 500,000 copies in Japan. After a sequel was planned, Itoi set to work with Kirby’s HAL Laboratory, and suffered technical difficulties to say the very least. Earthbound was worked for four years, and after multiple developmental set-backs, the remarkable Satoru Iwata was brought in to lend his development expertise.
And of course, here Mother 2 is. It was finished, and released in Japan in 1994, a year later in the US as Earthbound. Of all things, the ambitious SNES title was advertised through the olfactory medium of the scratch-n-sniff.

Those cards of what can only be described as compressed death, that all too often laced the underside of your fingernails with eau de rotten egg, or something equally repulsive. It evoked curiosity, but together with slogans like “Earthbound. It’s like living inside your gym shoes” and “Earthbound. The first Role-Playing Game with BO”, adverts didn’t offer much in the way of enticement, even if the satire within the game’s description was markedly apparent. The game’s cheery art style wasn’t held highly in the States either, and along with its vague marketing campaign, Earthbound struck both as unfashionable and unpromising at the time. Quite ironic considering the huge success of the similarly styled Pokémon Red and Blue only two years later, with no graphical criticisms in sight.

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Earthbound‘s narrative strikes initially as a nod to the coming-of age film. Ness, the incurably inquisitive protagonist of this double-sided adventure is woken one night by a meteor landing, and obviously feels compelled to check it out. The id of the child. Upon discovering that the fallen chunk of rock now native to his back garden is rather the vessel of powerful spacebeing named Buzz Buzz (because of course he is), Ness learns that his idyllic 1960’s hometown is under invasion by intergalactic warlord, Giygas, who intends to enslave the Earth. What ensues is a shared quest between a psychic girl, a firearm-handy genius, a perpetually-frowning distant prince, and an incredibly determined young man, as they traverse various cities and civilisations to thwart Giygas and save the Earth. An average plot, but communicated with remarkable boldness and even bolder flair. A shame, considering its self-effacing marketing struck as little more than a cheap joke.

The quaintly tiled visuals might’ve been unimpressive for the SNES, but where the anterior Secret of Mana and Illusion of Gaia opted more for *proportionate character design, Earthbound’s visual predilections assume instead a decidedly Charlie Brown direction. As I guided my motley crew of children across Halloween-party ghost towns and strange cults lead by paintbrush-headed townsfolk, the knee-bobbing piano licks of Peanuts hummed reminiscently at the back of my mind.

Lassie

Much of the humour in Earthbound stems from its observation of a world where kids appear to run the show. Not in a despotic, We Need to Talk About Kevin way, for adults certainly aren’t lacking, or much controlled. They just don’t care as much as we might expect them to. Against Earthbound‘s waggish crayon art style furthermore, it’s not just noticeable – it’s startlingly funny.

Your own mother tells you to ‘Go for it!’ as you embark on your adventure with no certainty of return, because she knows you’ll just defy her anyway – as is the instinctual impudence of any gamer. She also knows you’re playing a game, as does seemingly everyone in Eagleton, many of whom occasionally let the illusion of this Trumanesque world to slip every now and then, with its smarting jabs towards at the player and gaming traditions. Honesty is Earthbound‘s driving characteristic, and given reflexivity in gaming has only started to trend recently, you can imagine this drove quite the rift between the peculiar SNES title and…well, just about every JRPG going at the time.

And it wasn’t just a distinctive quality that made Earthbound notable. Whilst there was nothing quite like Earthbound at the time, its wryly literal humour and deceptively Utopic art style has since fed through into a plethora of other games, both within and beyond the realms of Nintendo. Majora’s Mask, Animal Crossing, Retro City Rampage are just a few titles that revelled afterwards in intentional kookiness, and there’s a little more than a mere taste of Earthbound in all of them. Heck, it even inspired South Park: The Stick of Truth. The game as a foundation for quirkier titles cannot be overlooked, and whilst the form is somewhat taken for granted nowadays, back in 1994, it was a huge risk for APE to take. I’m ultimately glad they took it. I bet Miyamoto is too.

Dungeon Dev

Beneath its smarting, referential tone and beguiling writing though, Earthbound is a relatively standard turn-based RPG. You can attack, defend and use consumables to regenerate health, as well as equip a variety of weapons in between enemy attacks. Levelling up and increasing character health and strength is noticeably easier than in other RPG’s, with experience points being awarded voluminously, even for reasonably straight-forward encounters.

I’ve never been one for turn-based combat, but battles with some of the weaker, yet more persistent enemies often felt unnecessarily drawn out. I found myself resorting to the ‘AUTO’ function after one too many Runaway Dog encounters, and since most opponents possess idiosyncacies and tendencies, this leaves combat feeling predictable, monotonous and occasionally mundane. The original’s lack of save points could also become frustrating; throw in as many quirkily-penned lines as you like, when you’re constantly oscillating between your next big location and finding a damned hotel to save your progress, gameplay can feel restricted by just how time-consuming this transpires to be.
Fortunately (or perhaps not, considering the power of first impressions), most of these instances occur early on, and gradually sputter out as the story develops.

Ruffini

Something I really did appreciate, as a veritable un-frequenter of turn-based bashing, however, was Earthbound’s neglect of random encounters. I’ve always felt interrupted at the prospect of random encounters in an RPG, so much so that Pokémon regrettably continues to be one of the most unnecessarily frustrating games I’ve ever played. But allowing enemies to be visible whilst exploring the battle ground aided Earthbound’s pacing unanimously, even including the option to outrun larger enemies should Ness’s health dip too low.

Another favourite quirk of mine is its constant mockery of the empowered player. Rub a possessed toadstool the wrong way and it might just muss up your control scheme, leaving Ness floundering freely into rocks, trees and all manner of townsfolk as you try earnestly to control him. And don’t worry, it’ll leave you just long enough to suss things out before inevitably re-muddling it all over again.

Earthbound never really lacks originality or character, it’s more the issue of design and technical issues clouding its kooky charms. Amongst the most beguiling is its soundtrack; a peppy, rosy-cheeked, shoulder-twitching, nostalgia-rousing chipset collection that often does as much to reference underlying themes as the words of its odd little folk.

Mini Barf

As I mentioned earlier, it does try its best to be honest with you. Beneath the boppy muzack symphony lies a darker, suspended set of notes; ones that escape every now and then to merely hint that there could be something deeper going on. Today, I’m oddly reminded of the static interruptions and bassy monotones of David Fincher’s Fight Club, although that particular dose of satire didn’t come till ’99.

But alas, playing Earthbound for any of these things alone is a little like watching JJ Abrams’ Super Eight just for the aliens. It’s the wider awarness that makes it. Not just within genre and archetype references, but of the communities that thrive within those genres and know those archetypes well. Earthbound still retains, for the most part (although the Toby Foxotrons, Foxlings, or whatever else they may or may not like to be referred to have since turned to enjoy the delights of Undertale’s influential Daddy), something of a cult status. As of this moment, it’s still incredibly niche, but given its recent release on Nintendo’s Virtual Console (and I have a sneaking suspicion the aforementioned skeleton-dating sim partially influenced that) and the increasing vocality around commentative video games, Earthbound could enjoy some- I think quite deserved – post-millenial praise.

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*considering the visual constraints of the SNES era and the technological advancement consoles and PC has seen since, it can be problematic to claim either game was particularly or remarkably proportionate, but we’ll keep the comparison here between SNES games to avoid any unwarranted or potentially violent eventualities.

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Retrokick – Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped

Last time on Retrokick we delved into the game I turned to whenever I felt small. Now, ladies and gentlemen, we plough past the caffeinated synapses of my retentive memory bank to access a game I turned to when I was small. One of my first games, and certainly the title that ignited my – at times I’ll admit – questionable romanticism for third person platformers.

crash warp room 3
Oh yes. Oh yes. Here we are, my friends. Crash Bandicoot. Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped.
Crash Bandicoot is a name that has attained incredible prestige in the platforming world. Arguably the definitive Playstation mascot, the plucky orange goof represents Naughty Dog’s first venture into 3D platforming, and the candy-striped heart of nostalgia for many children of the 32-bit era.

Warped was the third installment in what would soon become – for better or worse – the extensive Crash series. The second Crash had been widely popular, selling over 800,000 copies by April 1998 in Japan alone, and Naughty Dog were given under 11 months to materialise a third.

Given the immense pressure the company were under, it’s a wonder how Naughty Dog managed to deliver a game that didn’t foreshadow the likes of Assassins Creed Unity, let alone a game as satisfying, challenging, intricate and drop-dead wacko as Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped turned out to be.

crash bandicoot 3 medieval

The escapade is set immediately after the events of Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back. After Clancy Brown’s incredible antagonist, Neo Cortex has his formidable ‘Cortex Vortex’ destroyed, it becomes thrillingly apparent that an evil far beyond the washed-up scientist’s feindish forces is on the horizon.

Unleashed is Uka Uka, a paranormal tyrant and incidental twin of the mask that granted temporary invincibility in Crash 2, Aku Aku. Although at the time, my infantile tongue merely conceived him as ‘Boogah Boogah’.

crash bandicoot aku aku

A name to which I remain fastidiously faithful.

Perhaps concordant with his gravelly register, Uka’s hella evil. Hella evil, and hell-bent on gathering powerful crystals to exploit and ultimately enslave the Earth. Unfortunately, as crystal-kind is scarce nowadays, Uka Uka wishes to travel through time to nab them from their original positions. With the enlisted help of Dr. Nefarious Tropy, a diabolical time-augmenter with Captain Hook charisma and a Time-Twisting Machine, the dastardly duo whorl through continuum vortexes, on the inexplicable hunt for those precious purple talismans.

crash bandicoot cortex begs

Naturally, as the eponymous Crash Bandicoot, it’s your job to stop them.

It’s a typical goodies-v-baddies setup; one that doesn’t differ heavily from the Crash 2 formula. But the fresh wickedness of Uka, Tropy and other such goons as Dingodile ensured that the world of the Bandicoot didn’t fall flat on campy humour, and character interactions were kept interesting. And it’s always fun to watch Cortex cowering in fear.

The visual choices Naughty Dog made with Crash 3 felt somewhat mute in comparison to Crash 2. The undefined flatness given to characters against the simplistic backdrop of a whirling vortex is especially apparent now, paling in comparison to the delightful angularities of Cortex’s bulbous noggin in the precursor.

crash bandicoot tiny vortex

Crash 3′s character animations look a little flat.

Crash 3′s amorphous character animations gnaw especially at the killer vocal performances given for Dingodile and Tiny Tiger, and the holographic presentation I’d found so characteristic in Cortex Strikes Back was sorely missed here.

Visual quality elsewhere is undeniable. Crash 3 sported colour schemes that felt marginally more dynamic, and oversaw the introduction of entirely new domains. A favourite remains the prehistoric levels, not just for their volcanic design, but its immense sense of character. The levels are riddled with familiar Cortexic minions that hide Apocalypse-Now-style in swamps and bogs in attempt to bag you up. Barriers of steaming magma test your reflexes as hulking cretaceous beasts chase you.

crash bandicoot cortex hologram

Crash 2’s holographic animations suited the style better.

 

Above all perhaps, was Crash’s  veer into Mario/Yoshi territory, with the addition of a mountable dinosaur friend to aid your prehistoric travails; something that came in particularly handy during time trial segments.

For the most part, Warped played like its predecessor. Crash could jump, use a spin attack, crouch and body-slam. Whilst the latter had always been the exploitable solution to hard-to-reach areas, Crash 3′s doltish bosses offered an alternative. After defeating each boss, powerups were received to super-charge one’s abilities, making level traversal a little more varied than Crash 2, and much more entertaining.

crash bandicoot baby t

Crash’s sister, Coco also took a more active role in Warped, appearing as the controllable character in many of the ‘bear-ride’ sections that’d been available in the previous game, only this time sporting a fiery orange Tiger Cub, called Pura. Whilst her appearance didn’t switch up level progression, it contributed nicely to the storyline, overseeing Warped as a collaborative effort between siblings against the formidable forces of Uka Uka. It certainly beat Coco’s pervasive teenish attitude previously.

Bosses themselves were, again, multi-tiered, and although manouevres didn’t deviate much (if at all) from those adopted in the previous game, the time and attention to detail artists such as Charles Zembillas put into creating Cortex’s hybrid goons definitely shines through. From Tiny’s Tiger’s galumphing leaps and bounds, to N. Gin’s intergalactic mech suit, each boss wears its own idiosyncrasies on its sleeve; leaving you to veritably (and amusingly) exploit it.

crash bandicoot dingodile zembillas

Naughty Dog had originally intended Dingodile to breathe fire, but ultimately changed him to a flame-thrower-wieldy menace after Zembillas suggested it would make him more interesting [Artwork by Charles Zembillas]

Despite this, looking back at Warped with eyes jaded by recent, more complex attack patterns, it’s easy to claim Crash 3‘s bosses feel a little too simple. Whilst the frequency at which Dingodile attack does have its volume turned up with each tier, it’s easy to get the hang of, perhaps leaving a modern newcomer to the series feeling a little unchallenged.

 

This being said, though – even for design and writing alone – the brutish bodyguards of the Crash series are a whimsical treasure, and are varied enough never to become dull. So even if you’re finding N. Tropy a breeze, he’ll at least entertain you while you kick his time-oriented ass.

The notion of gems and secret warp rooms was, by the time Warped released, a well-recieved one. Indeed, with the third installment, Naughty Dog had significantly upped the ante when it came to hidden goodies, making Crash 3 strikingly more complex than its 1997 predecessor.

crash bandicoot polar

crash bandicoot pura

Not wishing to divide the room or anything here, but Polar or Pura?

 

It was much more common to access hidden pathways and brave notorious ‘death-paths’ in order to obtain every gem, with each level posing the dangling carrot of relics for beating it within a specified time-frame. Indeed, some time trials were so stringent that they required powerups to beat. With superdashing, superjumping and the occasional fruit bazooka at one’s disposal, time trials have represented one of the highlights of Warped for me, and if ever I needed a remedy for the bosses’ lack of challenge, obtaining each platinum relic provided the bittersweet tonic.

Naughty Dog also created three new engines to support new modes in the game. The motorbike was an acquired taste; taking a little more concentration to avoid swerving hazardously into bottomless pits or into hatefully slowing desert patches. The jet ski segments were also amongst the least enjoyable levels, with clumsy controls that made navigating tight corners difficult.

Rest assured, if you’re not bothered about gems or relics, these stages provide a delightful break from platforming antics, but the liberal control scheme here often meant doubling laboriously back after missing several crates, or spamming the restart function in order to beat the time trial. Consequently, I often found myself grimacing at the sight of another pirate ship.
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On a lighter (and quite literal) note, Crash 3: Warped maintains its status as one of my favourite video game soundtracks. Amidst a delightful assortment of catchy bass riffs, synthy crescendo and head-bopping percussion, composer Josh Mancell had always known how to rock a didgeridoo, and with the effervescent warblings of the xylophone to top it all off, the tunes of Crash 3 are tough to beat in a 90’s platformer.

In under a year, Naughty Dog had managed to deliver a Crash that lived up to its predecessor, bursting with emphatic character and wacky design, whilst maintaining the intricacies that were so popular amongst older audiences in Cortex Strikes Back. It’s a true feat to behold even now. Perhaps especially now; an era technical slip-ups, incompletion and game-imploding bugs.

crash bandicoot infant cortex and tropy

Through it all, Naughty Dog have remained consistently strong, proceeding to conquer such acclaimed series as Jak and Daxter, Uncharted and The Last of Us. Does Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped still hold up? Unquestionably, and arguably not just because this game was a huge part of my childhood. Overall, it delivered everything that a sequel should have been. Balancing familiarity with a deluge of new features, Warped was a romp that remains a pleasure to venture through in the beshadowed hours of Saturday morning.

And with the recent remasterings of Oddworld: New n’ Tasty, and both Ratchet and Clank and Uncharted 4 set to grip the Dualshock 4 later this year, would it be so naive to anticipate the return of the Bandicoot for his 20th birthday?

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Oh very good, Mr. Layden. Very good indeed. Just give me Crash at 60fps with at least one Clancy-Brown-Mr.-Krabs joke. Hold the microtransactions.

 

 

 

 

 

Retrokick – Monster Hunter Freedom Unite

Alas, Monster Hunter. The game I always turned to whenever I felt small. A world I didn’t necessarily topple into in order to feel massive because, if anything, its menagerie of formidable Wyverns and flatulent Conga habitually bludgeoned into virtually negative hit points. But what was so appealing about the Monster Hunter games was the assertion that one didn’t have to be massive in order to face smothering odds, and that brute force was a mere tool at the disposal of style and methodology.

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Monster Hunter Freedom Unite  was the hopeful enhanced edition of the prior action-rpg, Monster Hunter Freedom 2. The Western Monster Hunter games were ported from the second Monster Hunter for the PlayStation 2, which never reached outside of Japan. After a modest reception on larger consoles, Capcom decided to translate the franchise onto portable devices, and Freedom Unite received a Western PSP release in 2009.

And in a restricted sense, it worked. Very well, in fact. Freedom Unite was a veritable hit in Japan, with a million copies sold in the first day. Western reception, on the other hand, was, and continues to be, comparitively dry.

mhfu pokke What little story Freedom Unite possesses is simple. Lone, insipient hunter you are, your exploits in the snow-capped mountains fall short with the prompt arrival of the Tigrex, an enormous wyvern adorned with orange-blue stripes. After a brief battle segment you are rendered unconscious, awakening in the parochial village of Pokke. Weakened, but before the straightforward path unto Monster Hunter glory.

However, in Freedom Unite, the line between ‘straightforward’ and ‘easy’ has never been more stark.

A large part of what there is to love about Freedom Unite lies in its stunning visuals. Expansive maps are comprised of craggy mountaintops, tropical jungles and punishing desert territory, all of which are home to highly specialised – and highly lethal – monsters.

mhfu cephadrome

Your timely rendezvous with the notorious Tigrex opens up an unforgiving world of hulking, fanged gorrillas, subterranean manta-worms and paralysing super-wasps. The tally of things that can kill you in Freedom Unite is vast, and its diversity has come to be a hallmark of the Monster Hunter series.

Ventures are punctuated with smaller, peace-loving beings too, however – and from the passive mammoth creatures, the Popo, to the nippy anthropomorphic Felyne race, the prehistoric world of Freedom Unite breathes with every alcove. And it’s truly beautiful – however ambiguous and terrifying – to behold.

The village of Pokke constitutes your base of operations for your monster hunting antics; a place where you can buy armour, farm and stock up on provisions for the treacherous path ahead. Whilst the purpose of the village is more administrative than anything else, the atmosphere of Pokke is one of rustic cosiness; a warm, welcoming lull after hours of beastly galavanting.

You can also have a pig. With a crown.
mhfu pig

Freedom Unite possessed a combat system that has since been refined by the Souls games, boasting gargantuan foes with equally dessimating attacks. Weapons are extravagant but equally taxing to handle, making calculating one’s moves imperative, as one ill-timed roll or wonky swing could very well send you reeling into the cold clutches of oblivion, lending greatly to the game’s challenge level.

It’s also remarkably satisfying to watch your character prancing about Pokke with all the vaulting vigor of an incredibly pent-up Freudian.

Whilst, in retrospect, there are similarities between Capcom and From Software’s creations, Freedom Unite still achieves a very personal uncertainty as to what waits around the next corner, and with the looming prospect of randomly spawning beasts over unrelated missions, the sense of danger remains as fresh today as it did then. As a result, Freedom Unite‘s world – six years on – still appears very much alive.

The life of Freedom Unite extends beyond the single player experience, and its online play system is often the reason some return to the game. The PlayStation Ad Hoc Party function allowed four PSP and PS3 owners to team up and brave true titans of beasts, which, considering the tough single player tussles, amounted to a more balanced and deeply involving battle experience. Admittedly, Ad Hoc practice is relatively thin nowadays, but Monster Hunter’s capacity for camaraderie endures to this day, surfacing in the more recent 3DS titles.

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This being said, the series is a gem with some very distinct blemishes. Freedom Unite is certainly no exception, with clunky combat manoevres and esoteric gameplay explanations overlooking some of the game’s truly beautiful aspects.

Capcom’s inefficacy at explaining the game to newcomers has filtered into the series’ overall reception, which has only hindered its reputation. Battle tutorials take the form of exhaustive dialogue segments, which, especially when so adamantly placed at the beginning of the game, makes Freedom Unite difficult to really jump into. The interface is particularly elusive, designating a weighty ‘start up time’ to Freedom Unite to merely learn its navigation. Rest assured, Freedom Unite isn’t a game you can play in your lunch break.

Combat movements are slow, leaving the player vulnerable to hits against large groups of enemies. Healing said hits are no picnic either, and last a positive age, requiring the player to distance themselves from the action in order to heal and evade failure, which isnt’ always easy when there’s a litter of raving Giaprey on your behind.

The champion ailment in Freedom Unite, however, is its wonky camera controls. The camera is unintuitive and lacks precision; often requiring manual adjustment via the D-pad’s left and right. This unnecessarily complicates combat situations, and strikes as particularly archaic with retrospect.

mhfu giadome

Freedom Unite takes a risk-reward decision with quests, but it doesn’t always serve the game well. Particularly bountiful quests will eventually ask the player to pay in-game ‘Z’ currency to progress, which can prove harsh on beginners. Each time you fall in battle, your pay is docked, which found me continually out-of-pocket before unlocking the next set of adventures. Previous quests must then be re-done or useful crafting items sold, again touching on that prehistoric sense of the nomadic, but proving incredibly repetitive in the process.

The lasting mundanity in a game with such epic moments is unfortunate, and seems to have affected the series overall. Monster Hunter sustains a reputation for heavy grinding and steep learning curves – something that perpetuates the series’ still rather niche audience.
But as I always say, there’s more to life than a good old grind. I’ve said it at least twice, anyway.

mhfu beach

Freedom Unite’s glorious soundtracks remains one of my favourite things about the game. An orchestral treasure, Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack offers a score of epics to tap into the soul of the hunter. Each boss revels in its own operatic theme, scopic hikes are mellifluously resonant, and many humorous inflections are taken to brighten the mood. There is a distinct sense of majesty exuding Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack, and alongside its towering behemouths and lush landscapes – it’s certainly a game that sounds as good as it looks.

Freedom Unite is a rewarding game, but only when studied extensively. The stringent control scheme and haphazard camera controls make the combat significantly more difficult, and possibly contributed to the game’s poor Western sales. This being said, Freedom Unite proffers a level of immersion uncommon for a PSP title, and its hefty challenge has gathered something of a cult following.
mhfu tigrex

In the wake of Freedom Unite and its predecessors, further entries have built upon the world of the hunter, and with the fourth installment proving more accessible than any other in the series, the Monster Hunter following is timidly – very timidly –  expanding, albeit on an explicitly Nintendian platform. It does, however, mean that there’s not a huge amount of reason to return to Freedom Unite, as later installments have proven a little more forgiving, navigable and visually pleasing.

But you can have a pig. That’s the take home message here. With a crown.

Retrokick – Rayman 2: The Great Escape

Like it’s 1999. A time of trying to pronounce ‘millenium’ with all the verbal dexterity of a slug. A time of Toy Story 2 and tamagotchis, accompanied by the creeping sense of dread that we’d better get out of our torn jeans and sideways caps before Justin Bieber came along in his double-drop-crotch whateveryoucallits. But more importantly, a time when Ubisoft was two isolate words.

ubi soft

As has been well-observed, a platformer without some array of cartoon chums and dastardly foes – in the NINETIES, no less – was a rare and seldom-visited notion. Rayman 2‘s robo-pirates are certainly no exception, and lend to a creativity that stands out as a hallmark of the series in general. These cybernetic buffoons have broken the heart of the world, would you believe it, enslaving all of fairykind in the process. Darkened prisons line the halls, penetrated by the immanent whimperings of the captured fae; an assurance that this Rayman sequel can be grim, as well as chucklesome. This havoc is overseen by the inimical Admiral Razorbeard, whom I’m only really mentioning because of his resemblance to Count Duckula. And because he’s the main antagonist. But mostly…
count duckularayman admiral razorbeard

                         …I love Count Duckula.

Rayman himself was introduced to the world four years prior to The Great Escape as a laid back, almost lazy protagonist, whose first venture beyond the comfy confines of his hammock was bespoken by a blasé thumbs-up. It was all cool. He’d get to it. But a nautical cell is far from home, and the ambivalent fate of the fairy kingdom seems to have perked the limbless sprite up a bit.

Good thing too, as Rayman 2: The Great Escape proffers a fast-paced jaunt through woodsy glades, molten sanctuaries and underwater caverns, collecting magical essences known as lums, in search of the four archaic masks of Polokus, in order to awaken the spirit of the world and end the tyranny of Razorbeard. The game was originally released for PC, Dreamcast, N64 and PlayStation, but I’ll be drawing almost exclusively from the N64 and PS1 versions.

rayman prototyperayman graphics

Given that Rayman 2: The Great Escape was a sequel, the game was originally intended to follow in the footsteps of the sidescrolling original. Despite 2D concept art being released, the idea was later scrapped for a fully fledged 3D platformer. Ubi Soft even made a brief nod to this occurrence by including a prototype of the Rayman 2 sidescroller in the PS1 version of the game, unlockable upon collection of 90% or more of the 800 yellow lums. The 3D layout suited the protagonist’s frisky disposition, and really allowed the discernible concepts and quirks of its quietly received predecessor to shine.

The abandonment of the original layout proved to be a widely acclaimed choice, too. Rayman 2 on the N64 was a graphical marvel, trumping those of most other available N64 titles. Visuals were smooth, attaining a depth that knocked Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong out of the park; a feat that really embellished the game’s zany cast, and with very few hitches. The PS1 port is  noticeably feebler in comparison; an expected infirmity given the PlayStation’s visual constraints, with no ‘Expansion Pak’ to boost the resolution. Despite its slightly dimned visuals, however, Rayman 2 still holds up on the PlayStation; offering a distinctively rustic, celtic-inspired environment that appeals as much to me now as it did my miniature self.

rayman fairy glade

The controls are simple and certainly intuitive. Whilst jumping and attacking were typical of the genre, The Great Escape took a leaf out of Ocarina of Time’s book by allowing Rayman to lock-on to nearby enemies, making both combat and manoeuvre easier. Movement feels smoother with the PS1’s Dualshock, but goes sadly underappreciated in terms of control scheme. The PlayStation port is riddled with faulty camera angles that frequently obstruct the player’s view, rendering navigation of some of the more agile levels frustrating. Whilst the Dualshock’s right stick was mapped to offer a more cumbersome alternative to the already existent attack button, using it to integrate a more dextrous camera control would’ve been the wiser choice.

In contrast to the collect-a-thon trend that appeared to have surfaced in other popular 3D platformers, Rayman 2‘s gameplay was almost explicitly linear. Levels existed upon a visible timeline, to be completed in chronological order, but remained accessible  to return to, should you wish to complete the game 100%. This approach contributed heavily to the pacing of the game, allowing action to build towards the occasional boss fight as the difficulty raised steadily.

It’s a shame that bosses themselves are rather weedy, in this way. The levels themselves are easily the most challenging part of the game (excluding dealing with erratic camera angles), and to end them with a behemouth that can be annihilated in three short rotations feels a little unfulfilling. Nevertheless, The Great Escape’s ingenuity permeates each boss battle, with its own folkish design and amusing introduction. And despite the flimsiness of some foes, there is still much fun to be had.

rayman jano

The PS1’s memory issues prove to extend beyond mere polygonal truncation, however. Players of the N64 port may be struck by just how much of the game is missing on the PlayStation, with some more memorable moments scrapped. There is an instance – on the N64 – in which the player gains control of a pirate’s ship; a brief, yet notable eccentricity that is missed in the PS1 version, and something that slightly interrupts the otherwise tremendously paced story.

But that isn’t to say the PS1 version is devoid of its own additions. In fact, one of the most noticeable differences between N64 and PS1 versions is character dialogue. Rayman 2′s blithe assortment of kooky characters was fully voiced in European languages on the PS1, whilst the N64 comprised exchanges in amusing gobbledygook. Whilst there’s something noble about giving a character a more relateable voice, the PS1’s voice acting feels a little forced, and the garbled voices are better suited to the world’s caricatured atmosphere and amusing character animations.

rayman teensies

The Great Escape on the N64 offers an eclectic soundtrack, ranging from casual, rocky riffs to the tribal bongoings of a mystic jungle. Again, the soundtrack has been pruned considerably for the PS1 port, resulting in a less varied, but still fairly ambient collection of melodies. In both ports, though, the game suffers from a painfully narrow selection of character sound effects. The odd grunt, groan or exclamatory yelp can’t often go amiss in a 3D platformer, and those in Rayman 2 feel like they’ve merely been slapped on for convenience. Rayman’s asthmatic breathiness whilst running isn’t all that imperative, and becomes a source of mild irritation beyond the first few levels.

This being said, some sound effects do lend useful indicators within the gameplay. For example, one level oversees the rescue and escortment of Globox – a lovable, frog-like goof – from the clutches of the tyrannical robot-pirates. Without the caricatured teeth-chattering of Globox, I’d have probably had to backtrack through the level to find him. Nevertheless, considering the game’s reliance upon wacky humour, a greater scope of vocalisations could have benefitted Rayman 2‘s inviting sense of character.

rayman baby globoxes

Yes, Rayman. I know you’re out of breath. Yes, Rayman. I know cardio’s not your thing.

Rayman 2: The Great Escape is a well-paced platformer that displays amusing, yet mysterious magical flair. The game’s creativity is undeniable, with an exaggerated cast that swings between the comically contemptible and the lovably doltish; all reinforced by an impressive visual depth that enriched the concepts of the original Rayman. Rayman 2‘s legacy suffers from the dissention porting can often create, but aside from comparitive disagreements, both PS1 and N64 releases offer an unmistakeable whimsical edge that can be both dark and entertaining.  Rayman’s chronicles betwixt the, still quite active, fairy realm might have sprung from timorous beginnings, but The Great Escape was where the limbless Ubisoft mascot began to really revel in all his audacious pluck.

Retrokick – Spyro the Dragon

The review starts in the second paragraph. I like a bit of a waffle, don’tcha know.

My return to Oddworld seems to have rekindled my appreciation for the unknown in gaming. Before the striking pervasivity of the Internet, progression in games was all down to you. And your delightful cousin, if he felt impelled to watch. I remember a time of button-pressing for no other reason than curiosity; searching every corner exhaustively because there just had to be one alcove that concealed a reward. It wasn’t even so much what lay in wait for me to discover, but the mere fact that I (or we, as the case often was back in the shared-console era), had sussed it out. Hidden gems are something of a rarity with contemporary games; perhaps, in part, a reaction to the wide popularity of Let’s Plays and video walkthroughs. I’m not knocking them; they can be entertaining, interesting. But I can’t stopper the feeling when watching footage of a game I have yet to play, that I’m somewhat killing the thrill.
In light of this rumination, I’ve turned the focus of this Retrokick to a game that exercised this curiosity; nurtured it in those early Saturday hours between the cessation of The Hoobs and my parents’ bleary-eyed confusion as to why on God’s green Earth I was up at such a time.

hoobs hubba hubba

I knew Mr. House from New Vegas reminded me of someone…

Spyro the Dragon was Insomniac Games’ first platformer, but it wasn’t its first game; a title that belonged to first-person-shooter, Disruptor. Offering simple first-person-shooter mechanics and psychokinetic powers, Disruptor wasn’t condemned, but reviews seemed reluctant to yield anything more than that it was ‘alright for a DOOM clone’. Poor sales and even near bankruptcy had evidently left a sour taste in Insomniac’s mouth, as its second project proved a far cry from zapping cyborgs in militarised barracks.

Spyro the Dragon overlooks five dreamlike lands, all having existed harmoniusly since time in memoriam. But, as we’re all likely aware by now, harmony makes for incalculably drab storytelling. So when the Artisan realm gives a less-than-stellar description of Gnasty Gnorc, a hulk-like brute who lives in a separate dimension (with apparent access to a live feed), and on a prime TV News Report no less, dragons far and wide are magically encased in crystal as Gnasty rains hell down upon the dragons’ domain. Subsequently, our sprightly soon to be PlayStation mascot, Spyro, takes it upon himself to save dragonkind and defeat Gnasty and his gnorc army, whilst casually pencilling in time to recover all the lost treasure in the process.

Despite its trite storyline, Spyro furnished an otherwise typical platforming control scheme with a few dragonesque eccentricities. As Spyro you could charge enemies with your horns, breathe fire and glide elegantly between the many podiums in each world, rendering world exploration (and the subsequent recovery of the gems) smooth and enjoyable, with the ability to change the camera angle to avoid cumbersome pitfalls. The HUD was integrated into the animation, too; a zippy dragonfly named Sparx dictates your health status by ranging from bright yellow to sickly green; a lively contributor to a distinctive world.

spyro gliding

And ‘distinctive’ appears to be exactly what Insomniac was aiming for, especially in the aftermath of an unsuccessful DOOM clone. Spyro the Dragon was, at its release, a feat of graphical triumph for the PlayStation. There were games around at the time that evoked a similar style to Spyro, but, with the exception of Crash Bandicoot 2, their polygon potential up until this point were comparitively flat:

croc graphics
Inhumanly ‘pointy’:

tomb raider the polygons

Or just….purposeless:

bubsy 3d

Although, let’s face it, lack of purpose is probably the best part of Bubsy 3D.

But Spyro’s visuals enticed with a smoother, more rounded design with few (if any) polygon glitches in sight; something that suited the game’s open layout and exploration elements, and contributed significantly to the way 3D platformers for the original PlayStation were received.
The game’s vibrant palette, on the other hand, isn’t always easy on the eyes. Admittedly, I’d be lying if I said Spyro’s Saturday-morning-toon vibe wasn’t beguiling, but it’s a little too candied to bear for very long, and I would’ve appreciated some darker textures to offset the convolution of bedazzled colour.

spyro the adventure begins

As does my desire for aspirin.

As you adventure through the five mystic realms, you’ll encounter numerous gateways to others within each. Now, the game market is positively dappled with the concept of the open world, but during the era of PS1 3D platforming, most titles were explicitly linear. The world of Spyro surrounds the player from the off, and leaves them to choose their own order of play; something that lends greatly to the game’s lax pace. Whilst the gameplay can’t be deemed truly ‘open world’, the environments are certainly expansive, and exploring the nooks and crannies of each in pursuit of paintbox gems makes for one of the game’s real (and enduring) strengths.

The various quirks of each boss are inventive and amusing, but are pretty unremarkable once the level is over. Indeed, I was often disappointed by just how easy it was to galvanise these big baddies, and found myself anticipating flying levels as the only stages in the game that evoke a real sense of thrill. Even considering Spyro’s leisurely pace and priority of collection over combat, bosses could have benefitted from an increase in challenge level as the final obstacle between you, and that delicious 100% achievement.

Moreover, Spyro happens to be one of the most repetitive games I’ve ever played. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there’s not much else to Spyro other than collecting jewels, and it’s enjoyable because of that. When the repitition transcends into overly fomulaic character design, however, the lines between integrity and tedium begin to blur.

spyro dragon1spyro dragon2

It’s more apparent today that the elder dragons are tinted reskins of the same few designs, and their voice acting is limited. It’s a shame, given the stout sense of character amassed by the game’s art style, as it lends no excitement to the prospect of liberating a new statue. Rescued dragons offer stale hints the player has likely already worked out, and the disarming cockiness that surfaces within the writing for Spyro himself simply isn’t supported by Carlos Alazraqui’s frankly diffident vocal performance. Although Spyro‘s focus is directed more towards the gameplay (and these problems were somewhat smoothed over in the sequels), looking back at the game from the narrative-heavy perch of Uncharted and Ratchet and Clank, Spyro the Dragon’s storyline and sense of character doesn’t quite hold up.

The rambunctious exploits of our young dragon hums along to a, mostly, progressive-rock theme, employed by the talents of former The Police drummer, Stewart Copeland. Music contributes to the zealous optimism of the game’s protagonist, but sadly, does little else. Indeed, after a while of recycled riffs and the same old rhythm, the soundtrack begins to grate a little, and the fact that there’s a timpani in there does little to placate.

Timpani aside, however, Spyro possesses some of the wackiest sound effects I’ve ever experienced in a video game. From the jaw harp twang of assaulted gnorcs, to the bizarre quacking of butterfly digestion (yes, Sparx is an adorable, monstrous, butterfly killer), the sounds of the Spyro jungle have me tickled every time I play.

spyro toasty

Whilst I’m a fan of games that test your limits and force you to adapt, Spyro the Dragon’s steady pace stokes an adventurous spirit that doesn’t punish you for taking your time. Although the game’s vocal performances feel outdated and out of joint with its exuberant visuals, the sense of achievement following completion remains, whilst its relaxed atmosphere and hidden recesses still make for a worthwhile nostalgia-trip.