Sunday, June 21, 2015

3DS eShop Review: Dr. Mario Miracle Cure

Ever since Nintendo began offering downloadable titles, Dr. Mario has become a fixture of their various digital services.  Dr. Mario Online RX, an infectiously charming update of the classic puzzle game with several unique modes and online play, helped launch WiiWare in 2008.  Just one year later, a stripped down version called Dr. Mario Express, which contained only the standard single player puzzle mode and the ability to play against a CPU opponent, helped get the DSi's DSiWare service up and running in 2009.  Though he was a little late to the party, Dr. Luigi wrapped up the Year of Luigi celebrations on New Year's Eve of 2013 by bringing an updated version of Online RX to the Wii U's eShop that featured a new mode which used chaotic and cumbersome L-shaped pills.

Now, at last, Dr. Mario has come to the 3DS eShop in Dr. Mario Miracle Cure, and he's brought his brother with him!  Of course, Dr. Mario Express and the original GameBoy version of Dr. Mario also remain available on the eShop, but Dr. Mario Miracle Cure does plenty to justify its existence and provide a significantly more full-featured experience than it's handheld predecessors.

The game features three distinct ways to play.  Dr. Mario mode is the classic puzzle game we've been playing since 1990.  Colored capsules are thrown into a pill bottle, where they slowly drop to the bottom similar to Tetris.  Matching four like-colored pieces will the clear them from play.  The board is littered with viruses, and the goal is to clear them all out by matching them up in the colored chains and clearing them away.  Getting rid of all the viruses completes the level.  Not much has changed here since the NES days, though leftover garbage pieces now drop to the bottom of the play field much faster than in past iterations and in this version you can also still reverse the colors of a pill that doesn't have enough room to rotate.  It's a nice little change, as it means you can still change how a pill will land even if you don't have room to spin it around, but if you've trained your muscle memory on iterations that didn't allow this, such as Dr. Mario Express, it'll probably cause you to make a few mistakes, as you scramble to tuck a pill away into a certain space only to flip the colors accidentally once it's in there.

Dr. Luigi mode makes it's handheld debut.  This mode follows the same rules as the classic game, but instead of tossing in single capsules, Luigi chucks L-shaped pill pairs into play.   This can make clearing viruses pretty easy in early stages, but it does result in a lot of extra clutter on the play field.  In later stages, when the colors of the capsules get more jumbled, this mode gets super difficult and perhaps a little too frustrating for its own good.  It's novel, but much less fun than the standard game.

Finally, Virus Buster comes back home to the handheld.  Originally introduced in the Brain Age series for the DS, this touch-screen based mode offers a more relaxed variant on the classic game, played by holding the system sideways.  It still follows the same basic rules as Dr. Mario mode, but the touch controls do introduce some neat new mechanics, such as being able to drag leftover pill pieces to other parts of the board after clearing a match, that give this mode its own distinct flavor.  Given its origins as part of the Brain Age series, it's perfectly suited for play on the 3DS, and is a fantastic addition to the package, as it feels much more at home on the handheld than it does on the Wii or Wii U.


Also new to this game are the titular Miracle Cures.  These power-ups can be used in both Dr. Mario and Dr. Luigi mode, and they serve as fun little ways to mix up the gameplay a bit.  A test tube next to the play field fills up as you play, and once it's full, the doctors Mario will toss a Miracle Cure into play. Effects range from clearing all capsules or viruses of a certain color, to destroying everything within a small radius around where the powerup lands, to clearing an entire horizontal or vertical line of all viruses and capsules.  When playing in multiplayer, Miracle Cures can also hinder the other player by reversing their controls, causing pills to drop faster, or preventing pills from being rotated.  Miracle Cures can also be disabled, if you would prefer to play by classic rules.

Miracle Cures don't change up the original Dr. Mario mode a whole lot, other than making it a little more action-oriented.  However, they dramatically improve Dr. Luigi mode.  As that mode is inherently more difficult and cluttered, with lots of extra pill pieces crowding the play field, the powerups serve as a perfect antidote to keep the game fun.  It's supremely satisfying to feel like you're stuck in a game over situation only to get the perfect powerup to clear the board and give you a chance to make a comeback.  Miracles Cures were the missing ingredient needed to truly make Dr. Luigi mode shine, and you'll never want to play it without them again.

Dr. Mario and Dr. Luigi can both be played in versus mode, either against other players or CPU opponents.  Online play is even supported, and it's smooth and lag free.  Dr. Mario mode and Dr. Luigi mode can both be played online, with or without Miracle Cures activated.  Virus Buster mode features a rather nifty co-op mode as well, in which two players work together to clear the board of viruses.  The game also supports download play, so only one player needs to own it for local multiplayer sessions. It's a surprisingly robust suite of multiplayer options, considering that Dr. Mario Express didn't even support multiplayer.

Finally, there's the Miracle Cure Laboratory, which presents around fifty preset challenges to clear.  Acting something like a mission mode, these challenges serve up specific conditions in Dr. Mario or Dr. Luigi mode for you to clear, and even throw in a few versus matches to mix things up.  All in all, Dr. Mario Miracle Cure presents a large and diverse selection of ways to play, both alone and with others, and could easily be the definitive version of the classic puzzle game.

Unfortunately, that's not quite the case in practice.  While tons of content is included, there are almost as many puzzling exclusions.  The Miracle Cure Laboratory mode is fun, but there's no ranking system for the missions.  Once you clear them, you're done with them.  There's no incentive to play them again to improve your score, and no real reason to revisit the mode once you've finished every level, which won't take much more than an hour.  Online play is excellent, but it can only be played against random matches, and not against friends.  Flash mode is no longer a versus mode option.  When playing the classic game modes, the game uses level-based progression.  However, when Miracle Cures are turned on, the game switches to an endless mode, with more viruses progressively added to play until you get a game over.  Strangely, it's not possible to play endless mode without Miracle Cures activated, nor it is possible to use them for the more tradition level-based gameplay.  Some modes still let you play beyond Level 20, but others don't anymore for no apparent reason.

The presentation of the game also feels a little slapdash.  Most of the sounds and visuals are pulled directly from Dr. Luigi, which works well enough.  However, Dr. Mario's character model looks a little rough, with some strange animations and a disconcertingly dead facial expression.  The game's menus are cluttered and use a bizarre mixture of button and touch based navigation that makes them a little tricky to get through at times.  The game doesn't even have a title screen, launching directly to the main menu, which is also the only part of the game to support the 3DS's 3D effects.  The viruses no longer make any squirming noises as you clear them from play, making the game sound a little empty.  The congratulatory intermissions that used to play after clearing certain levels no longer appear, and you can no longer choose what music you want to hear while playing.  The game simply cycles between two different tracks for each mode, all pulled directly from previous games, with no option to turn off the music either.

As a result, Dr. Mario Miracle Cure feels a little haphazard and unpolished.  It boasts tons of gameplay, but it's rough presentation and inexplicable lack of certain modes and options gives off the impression that it was put together and released rather hastily, with some content being left out for no obvious reason.  That's a shame, too, as all the potential is here for Miracle Cure to be the most full-featured and fleshed out version of Dr. Mario ever released.

As is, it's still the definitive handheld version of Dr. Mario.  It absolutely trounces Dr. Mario Express and the original GameBoy game when it comes to the amount of content and modes included, especially with so many multiplayer modes to choose from.  Virus Buster is best when played on a handheld, and the mission mode is fun while it lasts.  However, the lackluster presentation and removal of many features means that it still doesn't shine quite as brightly as Dr. Mario Online RX or Dr. Luigi.  If you want the most polished and well made version of the game, stick with the home console titles.  However, if you want classic pill-based puzzle action on the go, Dr. Mario Miracle Cure is the game to get.

Dr. Mario Miracle Cure can be purchased for $8.99 on the Nintendo 3DS eShop.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Toy Review: Mega Toothless Alpha Edition

Toothless, the titular dragon of Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon series, is one of the most memorable and appealing animated characters ever to grace the silver screen.  Both adorable and ferocious, Toothless can win over just about any audience member.  Such a visually interesting character is one no doubt many a fan would like to display in all his glory on their shelf.  Unfortunately, most toys of Toothless are rather off-model and leave a lot to be desired.  Until now, that is.  The enormous 23" Mega Toothless Alpha Edition figure, from Spin Master, finally captures a representation of the famous Night Fury that fans have been itching for.

The first thing you'll notice about Mega Toothless is that, well, he's huge!  At 23" long, Mega Toothless comes packed in an enormous box.  Fortunatley, it's relatively easy to get Toothless out of his packaging, which you'll certainly want to do so you can appreciate how impressively detailed he is!

As far as the overall likeness goes, Mega Toothless is spot on.  He looks almost identical to the Night Fury we all know and love.  Though he's definetly still a toy, and made out relatively cheap feeling hollow plastic, the sculpt is still impressively detailed, largely because of the size of the figure.  At 23" long, Mega Toothless really lives up to his name!  Toothless's entire body has a very nice scaly texture all over it, and his saddle and rigging are carefully sculpted into the figure.  A leather strap that should connect the harness across Toothless's belly is strangely absent, but it's a minor flaw, as you'd never see it when the figure is standing upright, anyway.

Toothless's head-sculpt in particular is what really sets this figure above all other toys of Toothless thus far.  The likeness is absolutely spot-on, with Toothless depicted with a relatively neutral facial expression.  While a lot of figures of Toothless end up depicting him looking rather walleyed, Mega Toothless has great eye focus.  The head can actually rotate, this figure's only point of articulation, allowing you to tilt Toothless's head at various angles to give the dragon a more curious or inquisitive demeanor.  It allows a mostly static figure to be remarkably expressive.

The rest of the figure, though not articulated at all, is still very well crafted.  Toothless's bowing position was no doubt chosen to boost his overall length as a selling point, but it looks very playful and in-character.  It's notable that Mega Toothless is one of, if not the only Toothless toy currently available to depict the dragon's wings folded at his sides.  It makes sense to have fully extended wings on smaller action figures, as kids will likely want to make Toothless fly through the air.  However, Mega Toothless is so large he's really better suited to being a display piece, so it's nice to have his wings folded in a more natural position.  As mentioned previously, his saddle and rigging are all very nicely detailed, even if the paint application is a little basic.  It's clean and effective, at least.

Flaws are few and far between with this figure.  Toothless is just about perfect for what he is.  As mentioned before, his harness is missing a strap, but it's a minor loss.  His wings have been shortened a fair amount from how they appear in the films, but as they're folded at his sides, it's not particularly noticeable.   Toothless's spines are shown apart and glowing blue, hence the "Alpha Edition" subtitle attached to the figure.  Given that Toothless is otherwise shown in a fairly calm pose, the blue spines do seem a touch out of place, but they do add a nice bit of color to a primarily monochromatic figure.  The skull on the tail fin is only visible on the top, while it appears on both sides in the film.  All that said, any issues I have with Mega Toothless are minor nitpicks.  There are no glaring flaws with his design. 

Until now, the best Toothless toy on the market has been a relatively scarce plush toy.  It's great to finally have a figure that is such a close representation of the character we see on screen.   Unfortunately, Mega Toothless is also very uncommon to track down.  Near as I can tell, his retail price is around $25 to $30, but his scarcity tends to skew his price a bit higher.  He's certainly not worth the inflated prices often seen on Ebay, but for the right price, this is the definitive version of everyone's favorite Night Fury.  Though not the best choice for playtime, given his size and limited articulation, he's a must-have for fans looking for a good display piece.  He's not easy to track down, but it's worth the effort!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Film Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

These days, everything gets a sequel.  If a film makes enough money to convince the studio they can make profit with another one, another one will be made regardless of whether the narrative of the original demands it.  But, once in a while, a film will come along that practically feels like it needs another movie.

How To Train Your Dragon was one of those films.  Though it told a fairly complete tale, HTTYD also introduced audiences to a rich world that we all wanted to see more of.  After spending the first film bonding with them, everyone wanted to go on more adventures with Hiccup and Toothless.  If ever there was a Dreamworks film that seemed to justify getting the full franchise treatment, How To Train Your Dragon was it.

And it got it.  And now, four years, several short films, two television seasons, one holiday special, and one arena spectacular later, How To Train Your Dragon 2 has finally arrived.

Prior to the film's release, HTTYD2 director Dean DeBlois compared the sequel to The Empire Strikes Back.  That's a fairly bold claim, considering how highly regarded Empire is among film fans.  However, it's an apt comparison, as the tonal shift between the original HTTYD and its sequel is quite similar.  HTTYD2 tells a darker and more adult story than the original.  The characters are older, and they deal with more serious issues than what was seen in the first film.  As a result, HTTYD2 has been criticized for losing some of the charm of the original film and, while I don't disagree, I feel like that was a deliberate choice.  The Empire Strikes Back told a more mature and less linear story than A New Hope, but as a result it wasn't quite as fun and straight-forward as it's predecessor, and the same is true here.

HTTYD2 is largely successful in going to a darker place than the original while still feeling like the same world, but it does lack the strong emotional throughline that helped make the original so captivating.  The core of How To Train Your Dragon was watching Hiccup and Toothless bond with each other and become an unstoppable team.  Without a similar core guiding its narrative, HTTYD2 struggles a bit to get its plot settled for the first act of the film.  Fortunately, once all the cards are in play and the plot really gets moving, HTTYD2 is able to reach a place just as emotionally strong as the first film, even if it takes a while to get there.

All the characters from the first film return, and it's fun to see how everyone has changed in the five years between films.  Hiccup and his father Stoick remain firmly in the spotlight, though most of the supporting cast, including Hiccup's girlfriend Astrid, are largely kept around only to provide comic relief between the more serious and tense moments of the film.  As with the first movie, however, the real star of the movie isn't any of the human cast but rather Toothless, Hiccup's trusty Night Fury.  Able to switch between acting like a playful puppy dog and a ferocious beast at will, Toothless remains one of the most appealing and entertaining characters to ever appear in a computer animated film.  The handful of new characters all fit fairly seamlessly into the world, though the villain, while extremely menacing, also lacks depth.

The original How To Train Your Dragon was already an impressive visual spectacle, but HTTYD2 absolutely blows it out of the water.  The level of detail has been cranked up way above anything that was done in the first film, and many of the new locations are incredible in their scope and design.  The animation for the human characters is startlingly lifelike at times, and even the large complex dragons move in believable ways without ever looking stiff or mechanical.  This is easily one of the best looking and most polished animated films ever released.

Also returning from the first film is composer John Powell.  The darker tone of the movie demands a darker score, and Powell delivers on that promise perfectly, with brooding new character themes and haunting choir accompaniment employed frequently.  There's still plenty of high-energy score to accompany the battle scenes, however, and even some swashbuckling pirate music thrown in for good measure.  Overall though, the score still retains the Celtic-influenced sound of the original.  Familiar themes from the first film's score are expertly and frequently woven into the score, providing a strong sense of continuity between the two films.  The score finds a perfect balance of keeping things familiar while also introducing plenty of new material.

Ultimately, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a successful sequel.  Does it outdo the original?  No.  But it is a fantastic continuation of the world established in the first film, and aging the characters five years allows the film to go in a more serious and mature direction than the original could.  Toothless remains as lovable as ever, and there's still plenty of fancy flying sequences and exciting action-packed battles to enjoy.  Though it probably won't ever reach the same revered status that The Empire Strikes Back has achieved, How To Train You Dragon 2 does serve as an excellent second act to the series, and is easily one of Dreamwork's best films.  I eagerly anticipate seeing what adventures await Hiccup and Toothless next!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Frisch Ranks the Mario Kart Games!

Mario Kart 8 is right around the corner, and boy does it look impressive!  HD visuals, impressive tracks, beautifully reimagined retro tracks, and all sorts of interesting bells and whistles thrown in.  In light of Mario Kart 8's impending release, I thought now would be the perfect time to look back at the previous games in the series.  So today I'm listing all seven of the previous Mario Kart games in order from my least favorite to my favorite.  On top of that, I'm also identifying my favorite track in each game, just for kicks.  So, let's-a go, shall we?

7.  Mario Kart Wii - Dry Dry Ruins

I really don't like Mario Kart Wii.  The game is a mess.  More than any other entry in the series, Mario Kart Wii really has the feel of a game that was simply phoned in.  It doesn't do anything terribly new or exciting, it reuses assets from Double Dash all over the place, and the item balance is incredibly poor.  Getting hit with a lightning bolt, blue shell, and POW block all at once at the end of lap 3 is one of the most infuriating experiences I have ever had playing a Mario Kart game.  And don't get me started on the thunder cloud.  The whole game gives off the impression of being hastily put together just to get a Mario Kart game out on the Wii.  Given how excited I was for its release beforehand, it was very disappointing to discover that Mario Kart Wii simply wasn't that much fun to play.
That said, Mario Kart Wii does have some excellent tracks sprinkled in between all the mediocrity.  Wario's Gold Mine, Maple Treeway, and Rainbow Road all come to mind.  But in my opinion, the best of the best is Dry Dry Ruins.  I've always had sort of a fondness for desert tracks in the Mario Kart series, mostly because they always seem to have very memorable music.  Dry Dry Ruins takes what Dry Dry Desert did in Double Dash and takes it all up a notch.  Hearing the music change inside the tomb to become all spooky sounding was definitely the coolest moment about this otherwise unpleasant entry in the series.

6.  Super Mario Kart - Rainbow Road

Given that I first became familiar with Mario Kart thought Mario Kart 64, I've always had a hard time going back to Super Mario KartMario Kart 64 really cemented the formula of what Mario Kart is for me, so playing an older game that operates with a number of different rules and mechanics always throws me off.  On top of that, all the tracks are so small and basic that few really stand out in my mind.
The exception is, of course, Rainbow Road.  Crazy music, great visuals, and a ridiculously steep difficulty curve easily makes Rainbow Road the standout track of Super Mario Kart.  I doubt many would argue that point!  Ultimately, though, Super Mario Kart is just a little too unfamiliar and antiquated for me to find it all that enjoyable.

5.  Mario Kart 7 - Neo Bowser City

Mario Kart 7, much like Mario Kart Wii, doesn't quite feel like a finished game.  It feels like it was rushed to market and, considering the drought of games the 3DS was experiencing at the time, it almost certainly was.  Modes and options from other games are missing.  Tracks largely feel a little empty.  But the game is still very enjoyable because what is here is very solid.  While Mario Kart Wii felt like a big jumbled mess, Mario Kart 7 still feels like a polished and complete, albeit rather lean, experience.  Instead of cutting corners across the board, it feels like Nintendo instead tried to create a scaled-down but more refined package overall compared to Mario Kart Wii.
There aren't a lot of major stand-out tracks in Mario Kart 7, but the one that always jumps out in my mind is Neo Bowser City.  It's a very unique track in that it's a Bowser themed track that isn't a castle.  The futuristic setting also sets it apart from the other city themed tracks the series has seen over the years.  But the main thing that makes it my favorite track are the various callbacks to Toad's Turnpike sprinkled throughout.  In fact, all of Mario Kart 7 shared a surprising amount of continuity with Mario Kart 64, which is an easy way to get on my good side!

4.  Mario Kart Super Circuit - Sunset Wilds

There was a time when I could easily tell you that Mario Kart Super Circuit was my favorite Mario Kart game.  First off, it's the first game in the series I ever personally owned, so it's the first one I ever seriously spent a lot of time playing.  It also blended enough elements of Mario Kart 64 into the Super Mario Kart formula to create a much better overall experience.  Plus, being developed by Intelligent Systems, the goofy sense of humor of the Paper Mario series is felt strongly in this game, delivering a very upbeat and cartoony experience overall.
Super Circuit had a ridiculously strong track lineup considering the technical limitations of the system.  Memorable themeing, interesting track gimmicks, and scenery that changed as the race progressed.  Sunset Wilds is the ultimate example of all of these things.  It's a wild west themed track, which is a theme rarely explored in the series.  Shy Guys could burst out of teepees and latch onto your kart, which was both hilarious and actually did screw up your kart's speed and handling until you shook them off.  The course was also surprisingly dynamic, as the sunset progressed further on each lap, with lap three taking place at night.  Sunset Wilds is a very unique track that perfectly demonstrates just how clever and inventive Super Circuit could be.

3.  Mario Kart DS - Figure 8 Circuit

From a purely objective standpoint, Mario Kart DS is probably the best in the series.  It features an incredibly solid selection of tracks and characters.  Controls are perfect and the items are very nicely balanced, keeping things hectic without becoming frustrating.  It has the largest and most diverse selection of game modes and features ever seen in the series, including a number of options that are unique to this game only.  It was the first game to feature online play.  It was polished.  It was impressive.  It did absolutely everything right, and is one of the best games ever released for the Nintendo DS.
Figure 8 Circuit might seem like kind of an odd choice for my favorite track from a game with so many excellent tracks in it.  It's just the standard introductory course, after all, which don't tend to be all that exciting.   Honestly, the main reason it's my favorite course is because of how frequently seen it was prior to the game's release.  I was majorly exciting for Mario Kart DS before it came out.  Some might even say obsessed.  I watched the footage of Figure 8 Circuit over and over in anticipation of it's release.  When the game finally launched and I finally got to play it for myself, it was extremely exciting to actually race on Figure 8 Circuit instead of just watching a video of it.  And, fortunately, Mario Kart DS as a whole was more than good enough to live up to the hype!

2.  Mario Kart Double Dash!! - Wario Colosseum

Even though Mario Kart DS improved upon Double Dash in numerous ways, I still prefer Double Dash.  Why?  Because, save for maybe the upcoming Mario Kart 8, it's the only Mario Kart game that feels "big."  What do I mean by that?  It's the only game that really feels like it was trying to push the series as far as it possibly could at the time that it came out.  It put two characters in each kart.  It added special items.  It introduced tons of characters beyond the standard eight the series had seen at that point.  There were multiple karts to choose from.  The tracks were huge and detailed.  The graphics were colorful and lively.  Battle mode had been expanded beyond just balloon battle.  Even the way Mario proudly proclaimed "Let's-a go!" on the menu felt new and exciting.  This game was a massive leap forward from what had been done before, in a way that probably won't ever happen again, and it wasn't afraid to show off a little!
As such, Double Dash has what is arguably the single greatest track line-up of the entire series thus far.  Every single course was memorable and well designed, with bright colorful graphics, interesting track layouts, and all sorts of unique gimmicks.  And I think most folks agree that the best of the best is Wario Colosseum.  So enormous that it only comprises of two laps instead of three, Wario Colosseum was and still is a spectacle to behold.  Featuring a roller coaster ride through a crazy metal obstacle course, Wario Colosseum was and still is one of the most frantic and unique tracks ever to be featured in a Mario Kart game.  I'm very disappointed it wasn't chosen to return in Mario Kart 8...

1.  Mario Kart 64 - Toad's Turnpike

If you read my list of my top 5 favorite Mario spin-off games, this should come as no surprise to you.  Despite being bettered in many ways by Double Dash and DS, Mario Kart 64 is still my favorite game in the series.  It is Mario Kart in its purest form.  Eight classic characters all driving the classic pipe frame kart.  Sixteen classic courses all accompanied by the best music in the series.  All the basic mechanics that still define the series to this day were largely introduced in Mario Kart 64.  The battle mode of Mario Kart 64 is the stuff of legends, with fans of the series still waiting for a new game that can recapture the magic of Mario Kart 64 multiplayer.  The whole game had a certain arcade-like quality to it that has never been replicated.  It's the quintessential Mario Kart experience.
In a game full of classic courses, Toad's Turnpike stands out the most.  Though essentially just a figure 8 shaped track, not unlike Figure 8 Circuit in Mario Kart DS, Toad's Turnpike was incredibly memorable because it took place on an actual working highway, complete with other traffic!  This is an idea that has since come back in most of the subsequent entries of the series, but it was absolutely insanity the first time it happened.  Dodging semi trucks and darting between cars was one of the most exciting moments in Mario Kart 64.  Coupled with the cool sunset atmosphere and great music, Toad's Turnpike is still one of the most iconic and enjoyable tracks in the Mario Kart series.

Well, folks, that's that!  All seven Mario Kart games ranked and my favorite courses from each described.  How will Mario Kart 8 stack up to the rest of the series when it comes out?  Early signs look promising that it'll do quite well!  Fortunately, we don't have to wait long to find out!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Wii U Review: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

Donkey Kong Country Returns was a great comeback for the big ape, reintroducing lots of classic elements from the original SNES games while also introducing more new elements to the series than all the New Super Mario Bros. games combined did for the Mario franchise.  It positioned DK as the "hardcore" Nintendo character.  It was the game you played if you wanted a challenge.  After the great success of DKCR on the Wii, and later on the 3DS, it's no surprise that Nintendo and Retro Studios would be eager to return to DK's country once again.  The result is Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze for the Wii U.

As a sequel, Tropical Freeze is the real deal.  Not simply content to present more of the same, Tropical Freeze takes everything up a notch from its predecessor.  New graphics, new villains, new locations, new characters.  Veteran composer Dave Wise returns to the series with a brilliant new soundtrack that is far less reliant on remixes than the last game.  Even tiny details, like Donkey Kong's various grunts and yells he makes, are all new and not just recycled from previous games.  Every facet of the game has been updated or improved in some way and it goes a long way toward making Tropical Freeze feel like a brand new experience, and not just more of the same.  In an era when Nintendo sequels often feel nearly indistinguishable from their forerunners, it's great to see a sequel go all out to actually get players excited about coming back to the world of Donkey Kong Country again.

The basic gameplay remains largely the same as Returns.  DK still controls as well as ever, with his requisite collection of moves in tact.  He can still run, jump, roll, cling onto vines and grass, carry and throw items, and pound the ground.  Also back is the control scheme as the 3DS version of the game, which means it's buttons all the way again if you hated having to waggle to roll.  Also gone this time around is the bizarre blowing mechanic from the last game.  In its place is a new pulling mechanic that allows DK to grab onto handles in the ground and pull them out.  The results of pulling out one of these handles can be as simple as causing a banana to pop out of the ground or as complex as making an entire set-piece fall into place.  It's a good replacement for blowing that makes a lot more sense than stopping to have DK blow on dandelions every few feet.

Just like before, DK has a real sense of weight to him that makes him very satisfying to control.  You really do feel like you're controlling a powerful beast as you make DK lumber around the levels and cause the screen the shake when he pounds on things.  The downside to this sense of weight is, of course, that DK is heavy and drops like a rock into pits if you miss your jumps.  To help combat that, DK can find barrels to toss that cause a buddy to jump on his back for a little assistance and some extra health.  This time around, DK even has his choice of three unique sidekicks.  Diddy Kong returns, working exactly as he did in the last game, with a jetpack that provides a little extra hang time and distance in the air.  Dixie Kong is similar to Diddy, but her helicopter hair allows DK to gain a little extra height as well as distance after jumping, similar to Yoshi's famous flutter jump.  Finally, Cranky Kong joins the fray as well.  Cranky doesn't bestow DK with any extra airtime, but he can pogo bounce with his cane, Scrooge McDuck style, to get a little extra jump height and traverse on hazardous surfaces.

Tropical Freeze largely allows the player to choose which sidekick Kong they want to use at any given time, which is nice.  Buddy barrels are also distributed a bit more liberally around the game than they were in Returns, which means it's a little bit easier to get your partner back if you git hit a couple times and lose them.  For the most part, the levels are never designed to favor one Kong over any other, but when there is a particular character the game intends for you to use, it does a pretty good job of providing clues without just sticking a "Cranky" sign on the ground, or whatever.  That said, if you're the sort who has to collect all the secrets in each level, it can be a little aggravating to find a secret area that is inaccessible because you don't have the right sidekick with you. 

It's also worth noting that Diddy Kong is rendered almost worthless by the inclusion of Dixie, as her added jump height pretty much renders Diddy's horizontal boost obsolete.  There's never a good reason to use Diddy over Dixie, so you'll probably never use him again after the first level forces you to.  Two-player co-op mode returns, as expected, with player one using DK and the second player controlling one of the three other Kongs.  Just like the last game, however, the level of precision required to navigate the difficult level design means that Tropical Freeze is best experienced alone.

The level design of Tropical Freeze should feel pretty familiar to players familiar with Returns.  Once again there is a strong emphasis on each level having some sort of distinct set-piece to call its own, ensuring that every single level throughout the game is unique and memorable.  The usual set of K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces remain strewn about for thorough players to collect.  That being said, the level design this time around doesn't feel quite as inspired as it did before.  It could simply be a matter of familiarity.  Returns constantly surprised players with dynamic levels that changed or crumbled as you played through them.  Tropical Freeze ups the ante on that front, with a lot of levels changing dramatically as you progress through them, often resulting in very little solid ground to stand on.  That said, the wow-factor isn't quite as high since you go in expecting such spectacles this time.  Additionally, the sense of flow and precision of Returns doesn't feel quite as present and perfected in Tropical Freeze.

It's a minor complaint, though, as Tropical Freeze is still a lot of fun to play.  It may not be quite as impressive as before, but the amount of variety on display here is still pretty staggering.  No two levels feel quite the same.  Mine cart levels and rocket barrel levels are also used much more sparingly, addressing one of my biggest problems with the last game.  Swimming returns for Tropical Freeze, after being ditched for Returns.  It's about as fun as swimming ever is in a 2D platformer.  Which is to say, not that fun.  But it's not too aggravating either, and the swimming levels are invariably accompanied by beautiful music.  Boss battles are also noticeably more involved than the last game, too.  They teeter on the edge of being frustrating, as they all feature multiple phases that must be replayed if you die late in the fight.  However, all the bosses are inventive and memorable, and they are just fun enough to be worth the moments of irritation that come with them.

The level of difficulty has definitely not been toned down for Tropical Freeze, but the oft-criticized Super Guide does not return to patronize players with it's white-flag-waving pig.  Instead, a lot of the difficulty-softening items from DCKR3D's "New Mode" return, giving players numerous ways to make getting through levels and beating bosses a little easier.  Players can take barrels with them into levels to ensure they've got the partner they want.  They can also give themselves an extra heart of health, use a balloon item to save themselves from falling into a pit, and more.  This is a welcome change because, while the ability to make the game a little more forgiving is possible by stocking up on items in the shop, it's entirely up to the player to decide if they want to do so.  The game doesn't hold your hand at all.  Tropical Freeze is as easy or as difficult if you want to make it.

From a visual standpoint, Tropical Freeze is a wonder to behold.  The level of visual detail has been cranked way up over Returns, which was already no slouch in the graphics department.  Levels are lush, detailed, and lively, with multiple layers of background details and all sorts of little touches here and there to add visual interest.  The world themes are pretty diverse in Tropical Freeze.  There's still the requisite jungle and cavern type levels, but there are also levels based on locations like Sweden and the African savanna.  Each world is unique and beautiful.  It also must be said that, as Nintendo was keen to point out, DK does have actual fur in this game and it really is quite impressive.  It's not just a static texture or anything like that.  It actually moves and reacts to what DK is doing.  It's a small thing, but its testament to the level of polish Retro Studios has bestowed on Tropical Freeze.  Visually, it's pretty much flawless.  This is the best looking game available for the Wii U right now.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a great sequel.  It does all the things you want a sequel to do.  It provides more of the fantastic gameplay and style from Donkey Kong Country Returns, but not at the expense of pushing the series forward and trying new things.  The visuals and music are greatly improved, and the new playable sidekicks are a lot of fun.  Numerous tweaks and improvements have been made to the formula based on the criticisms leveled at Returns.  That said, even with all the improvements, the slightly less impressive level design makes me hesitate to call Tropical Freeze a better game than Returns.  At the very least, fans of the original game who want a new experience will not be disappointed.  And, if you're a Wii U owner looking for a showpiece game to demonstrate what the console can really do, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a great choice.  It might not quite reach the level of perfection that Returns did regarding level design, but it's leaps and bounds ahead of it's predecessor in virtually every other way.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Film Review: "The LEGO Movie"

The LEGO Movie is one of the most chaotic, surreal, hilarious, and unexpectedly heartfelt animated films I have ever seen.  Thoroughly making the most of nearly every facet of the history of the Danish building blocks on which it is based, The LEGO Movie stuffs every frame of its fast-paced plot full of in-jokes, gags, and blink-and-you'll-miss-it references for LEGO aficionados of all ages.  But there's much more to it than that, as it also manages to tell a surprisingly sweet and intelligent story in the midst of its anarchic antics.

The first thing you'll notice about The LEGO Movie is how visually stunning it is.  Though almost entirely animated in CG, the film deliberately tries to evoke the look of a stop-motion animated film created with actual LEGOs. All of the characters are restricted to movements that real LEGO minifigures are capable of performing.  Arms and legs never bend.  Facial expressions and other assorted details are all designed to look like decals that have been swapped out between frames.  Imperfections of the plastic pieces glint in the light.  Characters and objects show fingerprints on them to suggest that they have been posed by animators.  And everything (and I do mean everything) is built out of LEGO bricks.  Characters, roads, clouds, smoke, water.  Everything.

In that sense, The LEGO Movie is one of the most photo-realistic animated films ever created because everything you see in the film is brilliantly rendered to look as if it really was constructed out of real LEGOs and animated frame by frame.  By using CG, however, the filmmakers were able to create a visual spectacle far more complex and elaborate than stop-motion would have ever allowed.  Fanatical in its attention to detail, The LEGO Movie is so visually dense it's almost overwhelming.

But, of course, all the creative visuals in the world can't save a film with a lousy story.  Fortunately, The LEGO Movie has that covered, too.  Make no mistake; this film is not merely a glorified advertisement for the obligatory construction sets and video games that accompany it.  Rather, it is a celebration of childhood, creativity, individuality, and fun.  The plot is, for the most part, a relatively basic and straight-forward story, but also one that's packed with far more heart and cleverness than the film's over-the-top antics would suggest.  I dare not spoil any details in this review, for fear of robbing anyone the chance to discover all of The LEGO Movie's wonderful surprises for themselves.

What I can say is that this is a film that everyone should see.  The filmmakers wisely took the cross-generation appeal of LEGOs to heart when crafting the film and the result is a movie that is on par with the Toy Story series in its ability to speak on more than one level.  Rather than feeling like an advertisement for LEGO, it uses said source material as the foundation for a witty and inventive narrative.  Every second of this film is packed to brim with humor.  Slapstick comedy will have the kids in stitches, but there's also plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor and dozens of clever pop-culture references that LEGO history buffs will go crazy for. 

But, at its core, The LEGO Movie delivers an honest and heartfelt story about creativity and the child in all of us that anyone can appreciate.  It's crazy, surreal, frantic, intelligent, emotional, and...yeah, I'll say it...awesome.  If you only see one movie based on a popular toy this year, make sure it's The LEGO Movie.  It's really something special.