Friday, November 6, 2009

'Darkwing Duck' Review

Any child of the 1990s who grew up wide-eyed on Saturday morning and after-school cartoons was presented a veritable feast of quality programming from which to choose, especially of the action variety: DuckTales, TaleSpin, Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers, ReBoot, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gargoyles, Spider-Man, Batman: The Animated Series were but a few across the spectrum. No matter what the preference, a child was bound to find his or her taste for thrilling adventure satisfied by many a cartoon romp, all of which watered the stems of our blissfully imaginative, youthful minds. Darkwing Duck was a concurrent, equally popular addition to the aforementioned animation buffet, one which spawned nearly as many episodes as its big brother, DuckTales. Mild-mannered Drake Mallard by day, Darkwing Duck by night, the vigilante hero and his buffoonish yet lovable pilot Launchpad McQuack cruised the city of St. Canard together, fending off the villainous, slimy forces of F.O.W.L. run amok throughout the streets, always saving the day in true-blue superhero fashion and with a healthy smattering of delightfully cheesy one-liners and catch phrases. It would only make sense, given their official Disney license, that Capcom would be the developer to tackle a video game inspired by the show since they enjoyed rousing success with such NES ventures as the two DuckTales titles, TaleSpin, both Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers games and to a lesser extent Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, The Little Mermaid, and the ever-infamous Mickey Mousecapade (which, to be fair, was developed by Hudson Soft and published by Capcom in North America). The 8-bit/16-bit eras were an uncommonly fruitful period of time for quality television and movie crossovers to the video game realm and no one proved that trend truer than Capcom at their apex.

The game opens in uncommon silence briefly before a very familiar refrain is shouted by our hero from the precipice of a moon-bathed peak, a portion of which Darkwing echoes upon his cocky level entrances. Just seconds later the title screen whisks the gamer on their way with a brisk 8-bit rendition of the famous main theme, Darkwing blazing through the anonymous roads of St. Canard on his trusty motorcycle, the Ratcatcher and taking to the skies above St. Canard in his duck-billed airship, the Thunderquack. The only story treatment the player gets is an opening call to action from S.H.U.S.H. director J. Gander Hooter (an odd treat to see in such giant sprite form), who asks Darkwing to heed the cry of the city and bring the forces of F.O.W.L. to justice once and for all. The setup is lucid and to the point; all it need be.

In traditional Capcom fashion, the gameplay itself is rock solid. Based on an altered Mega Man 5 engine, the game plays quite familiarly and though the overarching physics of movement are a bit less lenient than most Capcom action platformers, it all plays smoothly. The jumping never feels truncated, the hit detection is completely precise, and the level design feels comfortably suited to the game's physics. The one oddity is that unlike Mega Man who can run and shoot simultaneously, our hero Darkwing seems constrained by the singular importance of firing his gas gun since you can either move or shoot but never simultaneously. Capcom compensated for this gameplay nuance by allowing Darkwing the ability to duck and fire and even pull his cape in front of him (with a simple press of the up button) to deflect most enemy fire. Your basic gas gun bullet can be supplemented with one of three additional power-ups, each requiring a specific amount of "gas" ammo, canisters of which can be collected as you progress through levels. Heavy gas fires an arcing shot which, when it hits the ground, splits into two bullets that travel along the ground in either direction; it's serviceable for low-lying enemies yet your regular crouching shot is normally just as effective, if not more so. The second option is Lightning gas, which shoots two diagonal bolts; effective on a couple select bosses but bears little use for the majority of stage gameplay. Lastly, there is Arrow gas, which shoots a plunger-tipped arrow that not only incurs massive damage to enemies but doubles as a platform, usable to reach a few secret areas and make some of the trickier jumps in the game a bit more manageable. Generally, the weapon is too slow and costly to be considered practical for more than its platform functionality, though it can have its uses against some of the game's tougher enemies and bosses. It's a shame these additional weapon options amount to such marginal usefulness over the course of the game, particularly considering Capcom's penchant for providing quality secondary weaponry in their action titles. Furthermore, the Ratcatcher never plays a part in actual gameplay, sadly, though it could have been a great way to bring further authenticity to the game and provide a change of pace with some challenging cycle levels.

Of note, there is one apparent giveaway that this game was made with the young North American audience specifically in mind (it never received a Japanese Famicom debut, after all): the difficulty. Even though Darkwing takes just four hits before dying, health packs are never in short supply and the game remains relatively easy over the course of its sadly short seven level span (which you can choose your path through, Mega Man style). Any seasoned action-platformer veteran will undoubtedly see little more than a couple Game Over screens on their first complete run of the game and those returning to play it again may well end up with a surplus of twenty odd lives in reserve. This isn't to say such ease hampers the enjoyability factor of the game; just that it's not something any gamer should pick up for a determined challenge. It is a game comfortable enough with itself to know that despite its polish, it does indeed lack the panache of platformers featuring better variety. The Japanese development team made sure to keep the game full of action-packed platforming fun from beginning to end and the difficulty has a tender enough curve to provide for some tricky moments later on that do truly satisfy. The full experience remains a definite treat and is an hour of gaming well-spent, even if its staying power has essentially limited itself to the obscure speed run and childhood nostalgia trip.

The graphic design of the game isn't anything particularly outstanding in and of itself but has definitely stood the test of time competently. The overall art lacks the brilliance in color most Capcom platformers thrived on (the Disney and Mega Man titles in particular), preferring a chromatic approach accurate to the cartoon: deep purples, mineral blues, mild golds, eggy shades of white, steel grays, and sunset reds are the most prevalent colors on display, though such areas as the sewer, urban streets, and Steal Beak's floating fortress make use of several others. The city of St. Canard is superbly represented as levels never repeat one another (a general hallmark of Capcom's sharp level design capabilities) and visual highlights include the high wire levels showing off the city's skyscrapers and famous Audubon Bay Bridge in style. Across the breadth of levels, you'll encounter enemies which are mostly drawn straight from the cartoon series (though many are noticeably patterned after Mega Man-styled baddies; the caped F.O.W.L. soldiers act very much like Sniper Joe's, for instance) and each boss encounter is not only a welcome trip down memory lane (albeit there is one, Wolf Duck, who was created exclusively for the NES game) but generally a bit more involved than the average action-platformer boss battle; most push a bit more platforming emphasis in conjunction with the traditional gunning. Darkwing Duck's ending is, however, disappointing and unnecessarily short though at least earns a familiar chortle. Perhaps the intent was to "expand" on the story more in the NES sequel, which was in development for an unknown -though undoubtedly short- amount of time but never finished.

The sound effect design for the game is unfortunately sub-par, featuring a collection of lazily-produced dialogue bips and fairly dull action pops. There are a set of wheel-based wire transports that have a particularly jarring, shrill sound and the overlying sound structure simply lacks the punch of similar early 90s Capcom titles. It won't be particularly noticeable to any but sound junkies but it's little more than " just there" the majority of the time. On the bright side, Junko Tamiya composed what would unfortunately be her final score for Capcom on Darkwing Duck, though it is certainly a fitting tribute to the same woman who gave us the rousingly nostalgic 8-bit melodies from such classics as Bionic Commando, Strider, 1943, Little Nemo: The Dream Master, and even the enigmatic, Japan-only NES survival horror RPG, Sweet Home. Tamiya-san makes sly integration of the original Darkwing Duck theme throughout and keeps the overarching style of the tunes heavily steeped in the jaunty spirit of the main theme itself whilst infusing plenty of her own driving, rhythmic synthesis into the mix. The music's memorability certainly isn't on par with many of Junko's former works and can't really hold a candle against the whimsical nostalgia of the NES DuckTales and Mega Man tunes but it definitely gets the job done and is still quite catchy at its best. You'll find yourself humming along with the tunes constantly throughout the gameplay experience and may even catch a couple of the tunes floating in your head for the next fortnight or so.

Sadly, "the terror that flaps in the night" did not exactly have a long run in the video game realm. A slightly stripped down version of the NES title was released on the original Game Boy and Darkwing Duck, developed by Interactive Designs, was marketed on the TurboGrafx-16. The latter bore little to no gameplay resemblance to the Capcom NES/GB releases and has gone basically unknown in the light of being released on not only a less popular console but on the same year as its NES competition; those who have played it do not have many positive remarks with which to award it, criticizing its banal level designs and lazy programming. Unsurprisingly, Capcom got it right, yet its a shame they never got a second chance to expand the franchise as they were allowed to do with both DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers.

The makings of a classic action-platformer are certainly all here and yet the ingredients don't particularly manage to congeal into the kind of fully-formed, fine-tuned experience that made its sister series DuckTales games so memorable and timeless. The slightly pacified difficulty, staggered linearity and by the books nature of the game make it feel like it was an unfortunate product of being placed behind significantly stronger platformers and might have fared better were it released a couple years before its time (barring, of course, the fact that the cartoon series itself didn't begin until late 1991). Against an arsenal of fellow Capcom-developed, superior platformers, Darkwing Duck simply never finds a truly unique, innovative way with which to stand out amongst the crowd. However, it is still a welcome piece of gaming and cartoon culture nostalgia; one well worth the time investment to play, even if many gamers will be left hungering for bigger and better platformers to "get dangerous" with in the end.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

'Super Mario World' Review

By 1990, Nintendo was flying high on the P-Wings of seven unbelievably successful years worldwide with the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a phenomenon of the rising video gaming console market, one which debatably secured a positive future for what had been a fairly fragile early existence of home console gaming. The big question at the time was, how on earth could Nintendo possibly match -much less exceed- expectations with a new 16-bit console? Even on their terms, the NES was a force to be reckoned with; any attempt at generating a brand new console was bound to be met with grand curiosity and suspicion. The NES's popularity showed no signs of slowing down, as its monetary successes into almost the mid-90s proved (games were produced for the system until late 1994). Thus, Nintendo must have known what a momentous task they held in their hands in the creation of a new, improved console; one which was to be released still three years before the NES had its final game produced. Needless to say, Nintendo not only met expectations but exceeded even the most inflated hype with the truly Super Nintendo.

Super Mario World launched with two other games upon the console's North American market debut, August 13, 1991, but has certainly gone on to be the most memorable and well-beloved of the trio (Pilotwings has developed a sleeper cult following and F-Zero, while greatly admired, is no Mario). It currently stands as the SNES's all-time bestselling game, 20 million copies strong; the absolutely explosive sales success Super Mario Bros. 3 enjoyed on the NES secured a 16-bit Mario platformer as a shoe-in for gigantic monetary gains, regardless of the end quality of the game itself. Nintendo loved (and still loves) its fans though and certainly put all their heart into the development of Super Mario World to ensure that the game was not merely an extension of the rock-solid gameplay from the first three games but a gaming force to be reckoned with in its own right; a unique, momentous adventure in and of itself. Enough history, however; let's get into the technical details of the game itself.

Graphically, the game pushed no ground for the system (not surprising, considering the infancy of the hardware), yet did precisely what it needed to do: look appealingly... Mario. Maturing from the evolving stylism of the NES games, Super Mario World expanded in palette to accommodate more vibrant colors (rich greens, foggy greys, soft blues/purples, and liquid reds) along with the well-established minimalistic background art direction the series was already known for in the NES era. Multiple background layers allowed for true parallax scrolling techniques and sprite scaling for a select few special effects (most notably, the boss deaths). Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, in conjunction with the Super FX chip, would go on to intensely push the SNES's hardware and exploit just about every palette color and special effect possible on the system, demonstrating Nintendo's penchant for truly showing off all sides of their hardware's personality from beginning to end; yet it is the original World's simplicity of style that makes it not only uniquely Mario but almost effortlessly timeless.

The game's ninety-six levels truly encapsulate what makes the Mario platforming style so successful and enjoyable: each one is bite-size (snuffing out replay exasperation), many of them have multiple endings to seek out (for the treasure hunters and completionists), and the difficulty of each moves ever upward but smoothly, fluidly; the appeal of challenges range from beginner to platforming veteran. Each world of levels has a distinct look for its area on the world map (forests, caves, hills, mountains, castles, haunted houses and a sunken ship are amongst the unique visual portions of the world) and each present their own challenges; whether it's learning how to take on new enemies (be it simply killing them, dodging them, or marking their deaths to your advantage), using reflexes to run a gauntlet of traps, or testing jumping skills on the varied platforming runs, the game always keeps the player on his toes and fully engrossed in the fast-paced adventure. The resulting overall balance is spot-on and helps make replaying the game a joy. Of course, none of this would be possible without great controls and smoothness of gameplay motion; fortunately, Super Mario World has both in spades; it knows how well-built it is. The forward-motion, slide-stop physics of Mario are kept intact from the original NES installments, making moving, jumping, swimming and flying feel as natural and comfortable as ever. Controls are sharp, responsive, keeping the action moving and the player in complete control of his own achievements or failures. The most important aspect of any platformer's controls (be they stiff and domineering like Castlevania, adaptable and square like Mega Man or controllably floaty like Super Mario Bros.) is that they suit the needs and difficulty of an individual game's level layouts and enemy patterns. Super Mario World adapts everything about the first three NES games and simply sizes them up to 16-bit sprite proportions, leaving the overall execution near-flawless.

The standard growth mushroom and fire flower are staple Mario items which return here (sadly, the Frog suit, Raccoon suit, Tanooki suit, and Kuribo shoe are missing this time around), along with a couple all-new inclusions: the feather (which transforms you into a caped plumber ready to take to the skies) and the lovable dinosaur Yoshi (whose cuteness is secondary only to his usefulness as a sidekick: an insatiable appetite for berries, Goombas, and Koopa Troopas coming in quite handy throughout; not to mention his willingness to sacrifice himself for Mario to make a tricky jump) being the particular brand new inclusions to the series as a whole. It's not much, but it never feels like too little either; all power-ups are usable with variety and continuity. The game lets you save your progress frequently and the availability of one-ups (via green mushrooms, collecting a hundred coins, or killing enough enemies sequentially) ensures that the game rarely feels cheap in its more difficult sections. Also, for the completionist, there are eight hidden special levels, guaranteed to push even the most hardened Mario veterans to the limits of their own skills and anger management.

Veteran Nintendo composer Koji Kondo provided his sixteenth video game score for Super Mario World and the music continues Kondo-san's penchant for writing catchy melodies that are not only enjoyable to listen to throughout the course of the entire game but become indelibly etched into the player's mind for good. Kondo actually relies on a technique that he rarely implemented throughout his career, particularly on Mario games: motivic repetition. Almost every single tune in the game is a straight-up variation on the title theme. While it has never been unusual for Kondo to revisit prior themes, never have I heard his music rely so heavily on straight up one-theme derivation. This is not harsh critique though, as each variation is memorable in and of itself, lending themselves quite suitably to the game's subdued, spirited quirkiness. The soundtrack is certainly not the high point of Kondo's compositions for the Mario series, but the man did set an amazingly high bar for himself upon achieving the musical greatness of Super Mario Bros. 3 just two years prior and has gone on to some equally amazing work recently with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. One cannot assert that the man has ever really lost his touch, unless we're talking about Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask; two hiccups in an otherwise terrific compositional career. That is, however, criticism best saved for a later date. Super Mario World's overlying sound structure is indicative of the usual polish and quality for which Nintendo is well known; classic Mario bleeps and bloops updated brilliantly into the 16-bit audio medium, never a bother to the ears.

Super Mario World is a true gamers game and marked yet another wild success in the franchise for Nintendo. Fans were happy to see the return of many familiar foes with 16-bit facelifts along with some fresh new baddies fans have certainly grown to love stomping under Mario's hardened shoes, always on his way once again to defeat Bowser and save his beloved Princess, who is in yet another castle. It is hard to believe Nintendo has been able to crank out one great Mario platforming title after another, with virtually no drop in quality (Sunshine being the lone exception). And while I personally prefer Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (a game which showcases Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka's game design talents at their peak), the greatness of the Mario series since simply would not exist without the tried-and-true quality of this, the original Super Mario World. I can vividly recall standing in line at the Wal-Mart demo SNES machines all those years ago, waiting to get a chance to play this incredible new 16-bit experience for just a few minutes, only to stand aside afterwards, watching more Mushroom Kingdom madness unfold on the boxy television as the next kid took his turn at the controller. It takes me back to a time when the gaming world wasn't judged by how high polygon counts could climb, but on the gorgeous simplicity of foundational gameplay and pixel-by-pixel art.