Donkey Kong Country (SNES) – Retro Game Reviews

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I played Donkey Kong Country a few times as a kid, but I never cared for it. The game was too hard for me then, and the art style didn’t appeal to me. (The bee enemies really scared me for some reason.) Revisiting it now, it still wouldn’t rank among my favorite platformers, but I have a lot more respect for it.

Before Donkey Kong Country, the DK franchise was effectively dead. Rareware effectively rebuilt the series from the ground up, changing the gameplay completely, adding what at the time were cutting edge graphics, and injecting some 90s attitude into the aging franchise.

From the opening cutscene, this game screams “This ain’t yo’ daddy’s Donkey Kong.” The original DK is relegated to the role of Cranky Kong, with a grown-up Donkey Kong Jr. taking center stage, surrounded by a cast of new characters. DKC is fully of personality, from Cranky’s hilarious insults right down to DK and Diddy’s idle animations.

For the most part, the art has aged really well. The early 3D reminds me a lot of claymation, and the enemies and backgrounds are nice and colorful. Obviously, everything is a bit pixelated, but that’s to be expected. The only model I really had a problem with was DK himself, who just looks like a brown blob a lot of time. Maybe that’s just me, but considering how DK was removed as main character from the sequels, perhaps someone at Rare shared my criticism.

Donkey Kong Country is famous for its tight controls, and while the game is challenging, it’s nowhere near as hard as I remembered. There’s still some trial and error, especially on the later levels, with enemies appearing without giving you time to react, but it never gets to the point where frustration ruined the experience or made me want to quit.

David Wise’s score is rightly lauded as one of the best soundtracks on SNES if not in the entire history of gaming. From upbeat tracks like “Jungle Groove” to the soothing “Aquatic Ambiance”, DKC shows the heights the SNES sound chip is capable of, and it’s worth playing for the music alone.

Another thing Donkey Kong Country is famous for is its hidden areas and bonus stages. I’ve never been the type of gamer that feels the need to find every secret, but if you are, DKC has a ton of replay value (which is good since the main game can be completed in only a couple of hours).

DKC isn’t without its problems though. The slippery controls in ice levels are atrocious. Ice levels are a bane to most gamers at the best of time, and given DKC’s difficulty, I’m sure they resulted in quite a few broken controllers back in the day. “Stop and Go Station” (where you have to hit barrels to stop invincible enemies from moving for a short time) and “Loopy Lights” (where the same mechanic is used to keep the stage lit up) are cool ideas in theory, but the barrels don’t last for a consistent length of time, making them needlessly frustrating.

By far the worst level in the game is “Torchlight Trouble”. This level is entirely dark, apart from a flashlight being held by a parrot (one of several animal companions in the game). The level itself isn’t bad, but every time you turn around, the parrot swings his flashlight, and the screen flashes completely white for a moment. It only took about ten seconds for this to start giving me a headache, though thankfully there are no other levels employing this gimmick.

It’s easy to see why Donkey Kong Country is favorite game for completionists and speedrunners. It’s a game that rewards repeated playthroughs and mastery of the controls. This has never been what I personally look for in a game and I’ll never be a DKC superfan, but I enjoyed my experience a lot more than I expected, and I could see myself revisiting it from time to time in the future.

Final Score: 4/5

Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (Game Boy) – Retro Game Reviews

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Now this is more like it! The first Super Mario Land was a bit disappointing, but Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins improves on it in every way. From the art and music to the level design and physics, everything’s been given a complete overhaul. At times, Land 1 felt more like a bootleg than a legit Mario game, but 6 Golden Coins manages to capture everything we love about the Mario formula while still being unique enough to stand out on its own.

The game features an overworld map similar to Super Mario World with six zones you can play in any order. Each zone has multiple levels ending with a boss battle to recover one of the eponymous golden coins. Each zone has a different theme ranging from Halloween to space to climbing up a giant Mario robot. There are also a few bonus levels, some of which can only be accessed by finding a hidden exit in certain levels.

The sprite art is massively improved over the first game. Mario and foes match their appearance in SMW and all the sprites are a lot bigger and more detailed. (I love the face Goombas make when you stomp on them.) Mario even gets a spacesuit in the Space Zone levels.

As a consequence of the bigger sprites on the Game Boy’s low resolution screen, you sometimes have to make leaps of faith where you can’t see where you’ll land, but these are pretty rare. For the most part, levels are designed with the Game Boy’s limitations in mind and, again, are a massive improvement over the first Land.

In addition to the standard super mushrooms and fire flowers, SML2 introduces a new carrot power-up which causes Mario to sprout bunny ears he can use to hover around the level. As Bunny Mario, Mario loses the spin jump move he can use as Big Mario/Fire Mario (which works the same as in SMW), but it’s still really overpowered since you can just float over most of the obstacles in a lot of stages. I can see why Bunny Mario has never returned in later games, but it’s still pretty fun.

Koopa shells can be kicked along the ground like in standard Mario games, and the bomb turtles from the first game have been spun off into a new enemy. These are used very sparingly and you’re always given enough room to maneuver, so they aren’t the headache they were in SML1.

Several other enemies return from SML1 (including the final boss Tatanga who acts as the boss for Space Zone) and a lot of new enemies are introduced too. However, they are all depicted in the standard Mario art style, so they don’t feel too out of place, even when Mario is fighting haunted umbrellas or the Three Little Pigs. (Yes, Mario fights the Three Little Pigs.) Most of the enemies haven’t returned since, but 6 Golden Coins marks the first appearance of series staple Wario who acts as the main villain.

SML2 is one of the easier Mario games, but not so easy that it isn’t fun. Most of the levels can be beaten on your first try and the game is very generous with extra lives. (I had over 20 when I finished the game.) There are a few boss battles that can be tricky, and the final level can be pretty tough since it has to be completed all in one go. (Of course, if you’re emulating, you can just use save states.)

The final battle with Wario is a highlight of the game. It takes place in three stages with Wario using the fire flower and carrot power-ups for the latter two stages. It’s a pretty neat gimmick to have Mario’s own abilities used against him and I’d love to see Nintendo do something like this again. At the very least, it’d be nice to see Wario as the villain in a mainline Mario game again.

Super Mario Land: 6 Golden Coins isn’t just a great portable Mario game; it’s a great Mario game period and one of the best games in the Game Boy library. It’s pretty incredibly just how much they managed to pack in. Even today it stands as one of the best entries in the Mario series, so if you’re a fan of the franchise and you skipped this one, that’s a mistake you’ll want to correct.

Final Rating: 4.5/5

Super Mario Land (Game Boy) – Retro Game Reviews

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Super Mario Land is a notable entry in the Mario series for several reasons. It’s the first Mario game on a handheld console, the first game to feature Princess Daisy, and the first Mario game made without the involvement of Shigeru Miyamoto. This last fact definitely shows as Land breaks with the standard Mario formula in many way.

The basics are the same: stomp on enemies, collect coins and get mushrooms and fire flowers for an extra hit point, but there is a lot of weird stuff I never expected to see in a Mario game. Let’s start with the enemies. In addition to your standard, Mario foes like Goombas, Koopas and Piranha Plants, you also fight sphinxes, aliens whose heads fly off, Easter Island statues, hopping Chinese vampires and giant fists that come out of pipes.

And instead of Koopas curling into their shell when you hit them and letting you launch them at other enemies, in this game when you hit them they turn into bombs that quickly explode. This makes Koopas really annoying because sometimes the only way to avoid the explosion is to hop back to the previous platform you were on and wait a couple seconds for them blow themselves up. Maybe they couldn’t get the standard Koopa shells to work on the Game Boy hardware, but this is really poor substitution that just slows the game down.

Invincibility stars work the same as they do in other Mario games, but instead of the normal invincibility music, for some odd reason, it plays the Can-Can instead.

The level design isn’t up to the normal Mario standards either. A lot of levels will repeat segments with slightly different enemy placement, and you need to progress a lot more slowly since enemies will sometimes pop on screen without giving you enough time to react.  Land is still one of the better platformers on the Game Boy but don’t expect the same level of quality you get from a mainline Mario game.

There are four worlds in total with three levels each, and the last level in both even number worlds is a shoot-em-up. Having shoot-em-up stages in a Mario game is weird enough, but having the final level and final boss being a shoot-em-up is just baffling. To quote the Angry Video Game Nerd, what were they thinking?

If you’re a Mario fan and you’ve never played Super Mario Land before, it’s definitely worth picking up. It might not be on the same level design-wise as other Mario games (in a lot of ways it feels more like a bootleg than a real Mario game), but it is still a decent platformer experience that will keep you entertained for the hour or so it takes to complete.

Final Rating: 3.5/5

Balloon Kid (Game Boy) – Retro Game Reviews

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Everyone remembers Balloon Fight on the NES, but most people have completely forgotten its Game Boy sequel Balloon Kid, which is a real shame because it’s definitely a gem. You play as Alice who must travel through eight stages to rescue her brother Jim.

Like in the original Balloon Fight, you have two balloons that can be popped by enemies, but instead of the Joust-style combat of the original, Balloon Kid is a platformer where the only goal is to avoid enemies make it to the end of the stage as the screen slowly scrolls right-to-left. Most enemies will only damage you if they make contact with your balloons, but if Alice bumps into them, she’ll bounce around the screen and any contact with fire or electric sparks is instant death. Alice can also let go of her balloons by pressing B (which is required to get through some tight space) and reinflate her balloons by repeatedly tapping down on the d-pad.

The physics in Balloon Kid are top-notch. When you launch from the ground, your momentum is preserved, so a standing jump will leave you hovering and a running jump sends you flying across the screen. You can adjust your height and momentum by tapping the A button to cause Alice to flap her arms. Alice has the perfect amount of weight to her and despite the small Game Boy screen, you’re always given enough room to dodge enemies. The game never feels unfair, and every time I died I was eager to give the next challenge another go.

The game is very generous with checkpoints, which I was very grateful for since the later stages in the game can be very tricky. If you’re emulating, I recommend using an infinite lives code your first time through. The last level is full of instant deaths and had me burning through dozens of lives in certain segments.

Each even numbered stage ends in a boss fight where Alice has to drop from her balloons onto the boss’ head. None of them are very difficult but they do add some nice variety to the gameplay. There’s a portal to a bonus stage in each level where you need to collect balloons being released from pipes before they reach the top of the screen. They’re honestly pretty boring and you’re better off just skipping them.

In addition to the main game, there is also a two-player mode based on Balloon Fight that can be played via link cable and Balloon Trip returns from the original game where the only goal is to go as far as you can without bumping into any sparks.

Balloon Kid isn’t a groundbreaking game in any way, but it’s a lot of fun and what it does, it does incredibly well. The main game can be completed in about half an hour, so if you’ve never played this forgotten Nintendo classic, give it a playthrough some time.

Final Rating: 4/5 – Great

Kirby’s Dream Land (Game Boy) – Retro Game Reviews

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Who doesn’t love Kirby? The adorable pink puffball (or badass pink puffball with angry eyebrows if you live in the U.S.) is one of Nintendo’s most iconic characters and the star of some of the best games in Nintendo’s library. And it all started with 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land for the original Game Boy.  Unfortunately, despite its historical significance, Kirby’s first outing just isn’t very good.

Most people knows that Kirby’s signature copy ability wasn’t introduced until his second game Kirby’s Adventure (which completely holds up and is one of the NES’s best games) but my biggest gripe with Dream Land is the controls. Kirby feels really floaty even when just walking, and his slow movement can be a bit of a headache during certain boss battles. Unlike later Kirby games where Kirby floats up by repeatedly tapping the jump button, Kirby instead floats by pressing up on the d-pad which can be annoying since the same key is used for entering doorways. The game itself isn’t difficult but what challenge there is comes much more from the controls than anything else.

Nintendo designed Kirby’s Dream Land as an introductory game for people new to the platforming genre and it shows. The level design is very basic, and apart from the controls, none of the levels are too difficult. Occasionally, enemies will appear from off-screen without giving Kirby enough time to react, but given the limited real estate of the Game Boy screen, it’s forgivable. There are five stages total, each of which can be completed in about five minutes, with the final stage being a boss rush before fighting King Dedede. Hard mode can be activated by pressing A + Up + Select on the title screen but the only difference is that enemies are replaced with stronger counterparts.

The pixel art in the game is a real highlight. Despite limitations of the Game Boy, the developers managed to pack a lot of personality into Kirby and his world. The title screens before each level feature a cute little animation staring Kirby, and like in later games, Kirby splits into three and does a victory dance when you finish a level. We also see the introduction some of Kirby’s most iconic foes – Waddle Dees and Doos, Whispy Woods, Kracko, and everyone’s favorite penguin monarch – and it goes to show the strength of the art that none of these character have receive any major design revisions when adapted for more powerful system. The sound presentation is really good too, with many of the songs becoming staples for the series.

Kirby’s Dream Land certainly isn’t a bad game, but there’s nothing done here that isn’t done much better in later Kirby games. If you’re a fan of the series, Dream Land is worth the half hour it takes to complete, but if you’re new to the series, I recommend starting with Kirby’s Adventure or one of Kirby’s more recent outings.

Final Rating: 3.5/5 – Good