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Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 28 June 2012 08:44 (A review of Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos)

When it comes to video games, I try to be subjective. While I won't shy away from praising a solid title in conversation, I'm usually able to offer up some criticism to go along with the good. Impartial as one thinks they can be, there are some games even I can't help but fawn over. Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is one of those titles.

So what's so special about The Dark Sword of Chaos or Ninja Gaiden in general? As wishy-washy as such an explanation may seem, a lot of Ninja Gaiden's charms have to do with what the games accomplished during their era. The games may have been legendary for their high level of difficulty, but the real reason Ninja Gaiden was able to distinguish itself from the crowd was a novel feature that was dubbed "Tecmo Theater." A form of storytelling that's been incorporated into nearly every game today, "Tecmo Theater" was a primitive take on the quintessential cut scene. As primitive as these "cut scenes" are, they're incredibly powerful in propelling the game's refreshingly adult-oriented narrative forward.

It's this "mature nature" that the Dark Sword of Chaos and the original take to the bank. Characters are stabbed, shot and killed, not just "defeated" like a typical Nintendo game, and the life-and-death struggle that plays out sets a mood that few games (of the time) could match. There is perhaps no greater example of this than the game's opening scene. Point blank, I can't be the only one who gets chills as Asthar scrolls across the screen declaring his allegiance to the forces of evil. It's easily one of the most defining moments I've experienced in a video game and I'm sure I'm not alone.

In regards to gameplay, the most common comparison people make in regards to Ninja Gaiden is old-school Castlevania. The comparison is apt on the most basic level given the game's set-up and look, but is ultimately misleading since Ryu controls a lot differently - and a lot more fluidly - than a typical Belmont. New power-ups like the shadow doubles, coupled with the ability to scale all objects fit seamlessly into the mechanics and give the player an immense edge when employed correctly. Still, some will be at odds with the knock-back received from enemy attacks. The game pulls no punches when it comes to punishing the player for miscalculations, the result usually being the loss of a life. Cruel as it may seem, the test of a good player is using this hitch to your advantage.

The game's remaining elements go long way in forging an unforgettable adventure as well. Sonically, the game’s a tour-de-force that easily matches or surpasses its predecessor, enhancing the action on the screen to an absurd level. One will also find the scrolling/animated backgrounds are a nice upgrade from the static backdrops used in the first game. Simply put, name something and The Dark Sword of Chaos has improved upon it; name something that was fine the first time around and The Dark Sword of Chaos has left it alone.

In the end, games - and sequels - don't get much better than Ninja Gaiden II. Cliche as it sounds, Tecmo created something more than a mere game here; they created an experience. Do yourself a favor and partake of something that transcends an era, something that is greater than its whole.

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Imaginaerum review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 28 June 2012 05:32 (A review of Imaginaerum)

When it comes to me and music, things have been in a major state of upheaval the last few years. Gone are the days where I could pick up the latest release from a given band and enjoy it without reservation. Yet it’s uncanny how many of these bands – most of them hailing from the European school of heavy metal – have fallen by the wayside; how many of them can be summed up with a small handful of selections from some very large catalogs. I’ll admit that cutting through the musical clutter accumulated over the last decade has been kind of nice, but a part of me misses the days when a lot more of this stuff was still viable.

Be that as it may, regret is only natural when one is parting ways with something that was a large part of who you were. Moving on is never easy, even when you don’t know you are, but then the situation is hardly one-dimensional. As much as I pine for the days when this stuff suited me more, I also miss the days when I could listen to a new album and not have it come off as an aimless mass of instrumentation. Yet if every album since Sonata Arctica’s Unia has taught me anything it’s that the likelihood of this not happening is next to nil. It’s only after a dozen or so listens that the proceeding finally comes together.

So what does all of this have to do with Imaginaerum? Well, pretty much everything because despite how much clout the Nightwish name brings with it Imaginaerum – and Nightwish’s material – isn't immune to such decay. Okay, I’ll admit I’m always in the mood for a “Deep Silent Complete” or a rousing “Ghost Love Score” but the simple truth is I can leave ninety-nine percent of the band’s Turunen era material to the ages at this point. Additionally, the second part of the conundrum explained above proved true as well: Imaginaerum initially coming off as a potluck of ideas and ambitions that initially seemed displeasing.

Anyways, with first impressions pretty much shot to hell, the first thing that really stuck me about Imaginaerum was how the ethnic flair heard in tracks like “I Want My Tears Back” was more or less “borrowed” from the concluding tracks of Dark Passion Play. Actually, saying it was borrowed is putting I how I viewed it nicely – it really felt like it was ripped-off. I know that sounds silly, not allowing a band to emulate something it quote unquote cultivated, but given the sense of pride Nightwish puts into each album and making each one a unique entity this hardly seemed like something one would have to deal with given the four year period between releases.

The backwards step that was aside, Imaginaerum battled back ever so slowly. The first single (“Storytime”) was pretty much a no-brainer of a creation, a solid tune that holds no real surprises and doesn't ask to much of the listener. As for the remainder of the album its acceptance teetered on whether or not I could get past not having any context to chew on given the increase of film score influences. There’s obviously a story going on with these tracks and given that it’s kind of hard to see this release as an “album” (in the traditional sense) and not a soundtrack – at least at first. With such an obstacle way, it really falls on tracks like “Arabesque” and the instrumental parts of other tracks to break down the wall and forge a connection with the listener as items like the blues influenced “Love, Slow, Love” and seemingly congested “Ghost River” can’t really change perceptions on a dime.

Still, as for when the album turned the corner between chaotic mess and melodic marvel am still unsure. All I know is that the tracks that seemed to get lampooned for their brief moments of lyrical “oddballness” turned out to be the best tracks. I love when Anette says “the bride will love you, cook you, eat you!” in “Scaretale” and as silly as it sounds out of context saying “an old man gets naked and dances with a model doll in his attic” actually makes sense within the second half of “Song of Myself.” These tracks are ironically targeted for criticism by listeners for other reasons as well but those are the things that make them stand out. Yes, one can say Anette’s voice is stretched thin by the vocal approach used in “Scaretale;” yes, about half of “Song of Myself” is more of a monologue than an actual song but then I wouldn’t change these tracks for anything.

After discovering that the album’s highest higher where what some considered its lowest lows everything else started falling into place. I neither craved that context I was looking for earlier nor did I mind the elements I perceived to be “stolen” from Dark Passion Play. The delectable burn of a track like “Slow, Love, Slow” became more than apparent and finally the last domino to fall was the stubborn “Ghost River,” sounding nowhere near as awkward as it initially did.

So, in the end, the story ends with sunshine and rainbows despite its glum beginnings. At the outset of this review I broke down the trouble I had with this album and genre in general, but there’s another problem that it and Nightwish face that’s all about perception and specifically deals with the fans. What’s the problem? That when a new Nightwish album comes out a large portion of the people reviewing it act like the previous albums mean squat. I get it, you’re excited - especially given the long wait for this one but (and this is going to sound hypocritical coming from someone’s that’s become disinterested in the band’s older material) this isn't the musical equivalent of the Madden video game. The latest “version” (or in this case “album”) doesn't make the last one completely obsolete. In other words, as good as Imaginaerum is, it doesn't make Dark Passion Play any less important and I shouldn't have to explain why that is so. So for the sake of everything that is good and holy, do not call Dark Passion Play Imaginaerum's “practice run.” That’s complete and utter crap and it doesn't give a great album – and what it represents – it’s due.

My ill feelings for some of the dribble some fans and reviewers write aside, Imaginaerum proves I’m not willing to give up on the genre – or Nightwish - just yet. As annoying as it’s become to have and “dig” for the enjoyment a given album can bring, I can safely say the end result is more satisfying because of it. Additionally, like the slight change in style Sonata Arctica debuted on Unia, the switch from Tarja to Anette was a change I didn't know I wanted until I was presented with it and “got it.” Thankfully, for all intensive purposes, I still “get it.”

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Divinity review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 28 June 2012 05:23 (A review of Divinity)

In previous reviews, I've often referred to Divinity as Altaria's weakest album. It turns out I was wrong. After purchasing 2007’s "Divine Invitation" and listening to the selections from Divinity on it, I realized this album had a lot more to offer (e.g. Stain on the Switchblade) than I remembered five plus years ago. I can't even begin to understand how songs like "Try to Remember," "Prophet of Pestilence," "Unchain the Rain," "Darkened Highlight" and "Final Warning" failed to catch my ear back then. Even better, once I got the full album I found those songs where just the tip of the iceberg when "Discovery," "Falling Again," and "Divine" revealed themselves as the album's impressive core. "Divine" really deserves a nod for being a title track that's a bit more unusual than most.

Still, but what puts Divinity above and beyond its predecessor and successor is the fact it feels like a concise whole. The dark, grungy sound of the guitar works in tandem with the lighthearted synthesizers to create an intriguing mix. As expected, there are a few small hiccups along the way: "Will to Live" is the weakest cut with its tongue-in-check message and "Stain on the Switchblade" is an out-of-place anomaly which is nowhere as appealing as it was years ago. Additionally, "Haven" tries to wedge a ballad like number in an experience that doesn't really need one, but these problems are easy to overlook when the rest of the album works as well as it does.

Divinity also finds strength in its lyrics. There’s a general power metal cliche here and there, but the writing is simply more streamlined than it was on Invitation or the 2006 follow-up The Fallen Empire. In other words, you won't find those awkward, lyrical fragments here or at least to the same degree.

While I may not be a fan of the past coming back and biting me in the... nether regions, Divinity proves there can be pleasant surprises to uncover in one's past. It's a downer it took me so long to truly discover what was here, but it's another solid album I'm more than happy to add to my collection.

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Invitation review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 28 June 2012 05:15 (A review of Invitation)

I have to admit, the only reason I ever checked out Altaria was because of guitarists Emppu Vuorinen (Nightwish) and Jani Liimatainen (ex-Sonata Arctica). It may seem crappy to check out band based upon a few of it's members but hey, the powers that be want you to focus on that - that notice on the front cover is no sticker, it's actually on the front cover! To some it may seem like I'm angry about that; I'm not, but I think it's fair to warn others while these musicians play the guitars on Invitation, that's all they do. None of the material here was written by Vuorinen or Liimatainen but rather Tony Smedjebacka (drums) and Marko Pukkila (bass) who make up the core of the band and who listeners should be passing judgment on.

That said, Tony and Marko's music on Invitation is an odd creature. Sure, it's drenched with all the typical Euro-styled flavorings, but there's a lot more to consider before one forges an opinion on the album. In general, the music is the better half of the deal and so is the first half of the album. Unfortunately, things start off kind of rough with "Unicorn." "Unicorn" is a great song (and a personal favorite) but only if you track down the 2002 demo - otherwise it's overstuffed and overproduced. Demos exist for some of the other songs as well (which can be found on the 2007 compilation "Divine Invitation") but don't surpass their final versions to such a degree.

The handicapped "Unicorn" is followed up with solid offerings like "History of Times to Come," "Wrath of a Warchild" and the excellent "Ravenwing." As content as I am to take those tracks to the bank, the remainder of the album is a bit more vulnerable. The lyrical content of "Fire & Ice" is so cringe-worthy I can honestly imagine it being something I'd find on an old 45 in my attic (and I'm not old enough to have 45's in my attic) while others like "Emerald Eye" feel unfinished. This puts pressure on "Immortal Disorder," "Kingdom of the Night" and "Here I Am" to make up lost ground, something they're incapable of, at least at first. It's only after the listener completely immerses themselves in the album that these tracks surrender their tasty charms.

As if it needs to be said, I've accepted Altaria's "Invitation," but should you? That's no easy question. While I could sit here and try and make excuses as to why you should give this a chance, I can't. Why? As explained above, I'm not totally content with the music as Invitation presents it; I had to supplement it with 2007's Divine Invitation to get everything I wanted. When you have to go through that much trouble to get what you're looking for, any kind of plea is dead on arrival. So, if anything, the best advice I can give is to tread carefully, at least until you reach 2004's Divinity.

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The Ultimate Sin review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 28 June 2012 01:03 (A review of The Ultimate Sin)

In the world of music there are several things I don't understand. At the top of the list lies Ozzy Osbourne and that business manager wife of his. Ozzy has shown more disrespect towards his back catalog of music than any other musician I can think of in order to save a few measly dollars. While this won't stop me from enjoying the tracks and albums I like, the stories behind re-recording parts of classic albums like Blizzard of Ozz are just ugly. Just as ugly is almost acting as if The Ultimate Sin and "Shot in the Dark" never existed in the first place.

Now don't get me wrong, The Ultimate Sin is far from a five star album. Like a lot of people, my main concern was obtaining a copy of Shot in the Dark on a CD since you can't find it on any other album. With that mission accomplished, I thought the story was over. Far from it. Needless to say I was surprised how the rest of the album managed to sneak up on me, from the Cold War inspired "Thank God for the Bomb" to welcoming beat of "Secret Loser" there is much more to be discovered here. In fact, "Secret Loser" pretty much sums up the situation this album is in considering it was passed up for re-release and re-mastering in 2002.

One can only wonder why such a worthy pit stop would be deleted from Osbourne's catalog. Most people - myself included at one point - erroneously thought The Ultimate Sin was shelved because of a royalties dispute between Osborune and Phil Soussan. This doesn't seem to be the case since the last legal dispute between the two was settled back in the 1990's. So what's the deal? Hopefully, with Ozzy's back catalog being re-released again this album with get another look by the big wigs that ultimately make the decisions. Maybe they'll make the right choice this time and restore this discarded piece of history. Still, I'm not counting on it.

Anyway, as was said before, I can't give The Ultimate Sin a ten out of ten. The album is enjoyable and gives according to how much the listener is willing to put into it but it's still not a top of the line release. Such truths aside, the album definitely deserves much more credit than it seems to receive from its creator and can easily find a place in any music lover’s collection.

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Infinity Divine review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 28 June 2012 12:58 (A review of Infinity Divine)

Known for their Stargate-inspired progressive metal, Norway’s Pagan’s Mind first came to my attention with their 2003 release Celestial Entrance. In being one of earliest albums that fueled my interest in European heavy metal, I was interested in finding out where the band had been prior musically. Enter Infinity Divine, the band’s 2000 debut that was released on a small, independent record label. Could Infinity Divine challenge or match the mature sound of its predecessor?

In the simplest sense no. The quality of the material presented on Infinity Divine can’t quite match the slick, streamlined attack heard on Celestial Entrance. Cut and dry as such a decree may seem this is hardly the end of the story. What holds Infinity Divine back? The first hurdle has already been referred to – it’s underdeveloped. This doesn’t mean the songs aren’t built around solid ideas, but for music that fits into the subdivision known as progressive metal, the instrument wizardry you'd expect just isn’t there. Adding to this conundrum is the fact the album seems to misconstrue the definition of progressive. Songs are long yet they shouldn’t be. A track like “Caught in a Dream” clocks in at nearly nine minutes but there is only enough material within it for a four a five minute piece at most, leading to the overuse of choruses and verses. Quite honestly, I can’t imagine how these tracks got out of the studio in the gluttonous form they currently hold. This doesn’t make the album bad per say, but someone had to notice these songs were overextended and the musical version of a muffin top.

As it turns out, someone did. Four years after its initial release, Pagan’s Mind would give Infinity Divine give a significant facelift. Unfortunately, while the songs were trimmed down and remastered, Pagan’s Mind would go a bit too far in their restoration efforts. Where the previously mentioned improvements were no-brainers, re-recording the vocals would prove rather pointless and somewhat detrimental in that listeners were probably use to the inflection key lines had back in the 2000 recording. I can’t say this totally botches the 2004 re-issue of Infinity Divine, but it does make it less attractive and more-or-less disallows it to pull ahead of the original as does nuking “Moonlight Pact” out of existence for a King Diamond cover. The re-recorded version of “Embracing Fear” helps make up for it, but in the end which version the listener is more likely to enjoy is a toss-up.

Given the various misgivings above, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to the two versions of Infinity Divine, I cast my ballot for the original. Both recordings have their own flaws, but as silly as it sounds the vocals end up being the deciding factor and overshadows the positive effect the various edits have on the album. Additionally, while I can’t imagine passing up tracks like “Caught in a Dream,” “Angels Serenity,” “King's Quest” and “Twilight Arise,” Infinity Divine has a heck of a time stacking up against anything that follows it. That’s forgivable given it’s a debut album, but this ultimately puts it in league of its own – a situation that’s not exactly favorable. Given the original pressing is somewhat difficult to locate these days I can only recommend the album to those with an interest in the band or those willing to take a gamble.

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Doom (Score) review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 28 June 2012 12:01 (A review of Doom (Score))

As inauspicious as it may seem for the beginning of a review, I'm probably the last person who should be commenting on a film score. Crazy as it seems, out of all the movies I've seen in my life the only soundtrack I have really identified with (and have purchased despite it's hefty price tag) is Mark Mancina's work on Twister. It's true that Twister is the kind of movie that's so bad it's good but I tend to be more drawn towards things (music) that use film scores as an influence - a great example being the work of outfits like Nightwish whose latest projects contain pieces that are aligned with the scope and scale of you'd expect to hear from a motion picture soundtrack than a band. I can't say those albums were immediately accessible to me as a listener because of that (in fact it took a while for 2011's Imaginaerum to rub off on me) but they were truly rewarding once the connection was made.

Given that, it probably shouldn't come as a shocker to those reading that the score to another movie most consider another Hollywood "crapfest" would eventually grab my attention. Still, in all seriousness, I don't think Doom is that bad of a movie. Okay, so in being the adaptation of a video game people's expectations going in where probably already pretty low, but even as far a video game movies go it seemed to be one of the better efforts out there to me - this despite being the huge fan of the games that I am. I understand wanting to keep as much of the game in there as possible but a lot of the fans out there didn't seem willing to give director Andrzej Bartkowiak an inch of leeway when it came to the story which was fine enough for the kind of film Doom ended up being.

Those who enjoy Doom for what it is - an innocent little "guilty pleasure" that's far from being a true piece of "art" - may have taken notice of the soundtrack composed by Clint Mansell. The reason that Mansell's music ended up appealing to me is two-fold: the first being that it's moments of hard rock more or less pay tribute to the music of Bobby Prince who composed the music for the two original PC games. As an avid fan of video game music I can't even begin to describe how influential Prince's tunes were in relation to my past and current interest in the genre/hobby and I've gone as far as to track down the rare and obscure release of Doom Music, the only official record of his contribution to the PC phenomenon. As I listen to this score there's little doubt in my mind that Mansell had to have knowledge of Prince's work even though there's definitely a bit more of a Hollywood vibe to his work.

The second reason I became attracted to Mansell's work on Doom is the "C24" theme which is ironically the first track of album. Yeah, it's borderline crazy how a forty-three second piece of music got it's hooks in me (and I'll be honest it's really not the greatest thing since sliced bread) but it's how it coincides with a handful of scenes in the movie that blows me away. Equally as impressive are "Semper Fi" and "Go To Hell" which play during the movie's climatic battle scene. I can easily envision the battle playing out in head listening to these and unlike some of the earlier tracks they are not stuck in neutral when separated from their given context. This is pretty much the only reason the score and film scores in general don't score higher with me.

The soundtrack ends with "You Know What You Are?" by the Nine Inch Nails. Anyone that has ever played through the first level of the fourth episode of The Ultimate Doom should get why this is such a big deal. The track definitely fits the credits sequence as seen in the movie but it kind of ironic that this track is the only reason the album is stuck with parental advisory. Really, there are more f-bombs in some of Green Day's earlier CDs and they don't pack one. Then again, I don't think kids are clamoring to add foul-mouthed film scores to their collections, are they?

Anyway, while I can't really recommend Doom's score to film score buffs because I imagine they're looking for something a little more high-brow, I do recommend this one to people that aren't typically fans of the genre. I can't say Mansell's music really avoids all the issues I have with film scores - there are still moments where I'm not totally engaged in what I'm listing to - but it has managed to bridge the gap a lot more than most scores out there. It's hardly the start of a new interest but it certainly something different than the norm as far as my music collection goes.

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Into the Silence review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 27 June 2012 10:07 (A review of Into the Silence)

Like many of the bands I was introduced to during the height of my interest in the European heavy metal scene, Sethian's an outfit I ran across because of their link to Nightwish. Just as guitarists Emppu Vuorinen and Jani Liimatainen introduced me to Altaria in 2003, drummer Jukka Nevalainen would introduce me to Sethian's "Into the Silence." However, unlike Altaria, Sethian has become a one-shot deal since many of its members are involved with other projects. As disappointing as that may seem, it may be for the best. But why? The answer lies within the album's various ins-and-outs.

The first problem the album encounters is while each track has something to offer, there really isn't a song that begs to be the opener. "Nothing Is True" is a fine tune, but the opening riff can't fill the bill. This is mostly due to the fact "Too Far Gone" and "Magdalene" open in near-identical fashion, systematically paring down the variety. This is an area Into the Silence isn't too comfortable with, at least at first. As instrumental as it is for an album to forge an identity within the first tracks, the first five tracks find the band getting a bit too comfortable with their sound. I can't fault great tracks like "Dream Domain" and "Love Under Will" with any individual sins, but they're simply part of a larger pattern that's a bit too predictable.

Thankfully, the sixth track "Purity of Sorrow" and its follow-up "Dead Reckoning" topples this monopoly even though they aren't as immediately accessible. It quickly becomes apparent how important tracks such as these are and how top heavy the album would be without them. The remainder the album is a bit more balanced when it comes to juggling the two types of tracks although it's hard to take the closers "Call of the Wild" and "Into the Silence" over the stilted speed of "Blood Calling" or the haunting presence in "Heavens May Fall."

Into the Silence's final strengths and weakness revolve around Tapio Wilska's vocals and lyrics. If the morose direction of the cover art didn't clue you in, Into the Silence is built upon a rather somber soundscape. This isn't the kind of album one listens to when they're in a super good mood, but when they're a little down and out. As penetrating as Wilska's voice can be when tackling the darker topics touched upon here, I don't think I'd want another album of comparable material. Some things can be built upon to make a brand and some things stand better as a solitary experience. Into the Silence is something that falls in the later category despite how enjoyable it can be.

Anyway, negatives aside I'm glad I picked up and brushed off Into the Silence out of the vast backlog of music I've heard throughout the years. It's not the kind of album that's always going to fit the moment but it definitely hits the spot when its melancholy melodies mirror your own.

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Donkey Kong Country review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 27 June 2012 08:29 (A review of Donkey Kong Country)

Memories are a funny thing. Unlike the vast majority of games that have come and gone over the years, Donkey Kong Country is a game that I can unmistakably remember my first encounter with. It was dark night when my friend's mother dropped us, a bunch of grade school kids, off at the local Junior High School for movie night. As for what flicks played that night or which friends I was with I can't remember, but what I can remember is the movies were preceded by a promotional VHS tape the school had received from Nintendo.

Okay, so no one actually played Donkey Kong Country that night, but it goes without saying we were all insanely impressed with what we saw on that video. The funny this is, as much as I clamored for the game's release, I never actually owned Donkey Kong Country during my childhood. I know I borrowed a copy and completed it, but it wasn't until Donkey Kong Country 3 came out that I would actually possess a Donkey Kong Country title of my own. What's even more ironic was the second game was my favorite. Still, as limited as one was purchase wise before the days of the internet or having their own income, Donkey Kong Country was a game you just knew was great, even years after its release and your last play through.

Unfortunately, just agreeing with a statement out of the fact it's shared by the masses doesn't mean it holds true for you. As cruel as the passing of time can be for products, it's especially true of memories. Anyway, about a year ago I picked up a Donkey Kong Country cart at a local game store with all the intent in the world to play it. Plans are great, but that's all they are - plans. It wasn't until Donkey Kong Country Returns came out for the Wii in 2010 that I got the bug to play though it again with my buddies talking about the new one. While I could honestly care less about the Wii or the reboot itself, I could only wonder if the original could live up to those engraved memories. It just had to right? All those people with fondness for the moniker just couldn't be wrong!

Well, those people aren't wrong, but they aren't right either.

As warm and fuzzy as the title screen made me feel, a peculiar feeling came over me once I got to the game itself. At first I thought it was run-of-the-mill boredom, but after some more time with the game it became clear that wasn't the case. There was something that just felt off, an abstract element I couldn't pinpoint. The game still looked great, the game still sounded great (oh my, do these games sound great!) but it just wasn't doing it for me. Was it the fact there is less to collect here than in the sequels? Or the fact the bonus areas aren't as streamlined as they are in the sequels? Maybe the fact Donkey and Diddy seem a bit more limited as a team than Diddy and Dixie? I know for a fact I missed the ability to have the characters climb on one another shoulders for teammate tosses. Whatever the reason (the last one seems the most likely) something was limiting the appeal the gameplay previously had.

As I progressed through the game, this feeling did ease up a bit. I'm a sucker for an awesome level like Oil Drum Alley regardless of what year it is, but the boss fights are another story. One of Donkey Kong Country's worst kept secrets is the fact the bosses are total pushovers. I kept telling myself this was okay, that the final, climatic encounter with K.Rool would make up for it. Not quite. While it is certainly the most engaging battle of the game, when you take down the kingpin of the Kremlings (who are still cool to this day) on your first try after ten plus years of being away, you realize that such patience is far from deserved. The cinematic nature of the cute and clever ending helps comb over such a problem, but it's far from the dead-on sense of accomplishment one gets from Star Fox's ending.

In spite of all of this, Donkey Kong Country is still worth any gamer's time. While it's easy to buy into crowd and simply say it's been unscathed by time, this is a case where I'd rather be honest and not give into any nostalgia based illusions (as important as illusions of any kind are). Do the sequels hold up better? I hope so, but then that's a whole other story, again based on memories and little else. I'll have to get back to you on those ;)

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Duke Nukem Total Meltdown review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 27 June 2012 08:21 (A review of Duke Nukem Total Meltdown)

In this world, there are few things as comforting as a familiar old saying. From classics like “a penny saved is a penny earned” to “the original was better” there is nothing that makes one feel more at ease when life proves these ideas true time and time again. Except when it doesn’t. I can’t even begin to count the times where the line “it’s better to burn out than fade away” has become the utter bane of a band or video game series that’s outlived its usefulness. Still, when it comes to video games, there may be an even more abhorrent saying: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Seriously, what could be flattering about a competitor leeching off the success of another developer’s product? Such distain aside, one of the greatest examples of such thievery has to revolve around id Software’s Doom and the arrival of what were eventually dubbed as “Doom clones.” As quickly as it started, generic takes on id’s spectacular space shooter popped up from every corner of the world, everyone and their mother vying for a piece of the action. Many of these games didn’t deserve a sliver of the praise that was paid towards the original, but there was one game that made a name for itself: Duke Nukem 3D.

As a child of the genre, Duke Nukem 3D didn't rewrite the book on first person shooters. While the engine behind the game offered some basic enhancements over its forbearers, the real driving force behind Duke’s success was savvy marketing. It isn’t hard to believe that Duke Nukem owed more to its raunchy sense of humor than any other element. So, as with any successful product, it was only natural that the game would see life on the current consoles of the time, one of the most notable being the PlayStation version. Unfortunately, as famous as Duke’s antics were, Total Meltdown wouldn’t become known for the right reasons. So what is Total Meltdown known for? Total Meltdown is one of the worst ports of Duke Nukem 3D in existence. Still, dramatics aside, is the experience salvageable? Yes and no.

While most would think the low-res graphics and sagging frame rate would be the most likely place to start when tackling the problems present in Total Meltdown, what’s even more pressing are the controls. As expected, there’s an immense amount of pain to be experienced in trading down from the keyboard and mouse to a controller. In an attempt to accommodate players the best it can, Meltdown offers up three different configurations, although in hindsight it’s more like two. Layouts “Nukem1” and “Nukem2” are essentially the same since they turn a maneuver like circle strafing into an impossible art. The third option, “Doomed,” corrects this problem by getting the strafe commands off the square/x d-pad combination and back on the shoulder buttons where they belong. The raw part of the deal is this ends up complicating the aiming controls even further, making enemies like RPV’s and automated turrets difficult to deal with. In other words, there’s no quick-fix when it comes to the controls; in order to gain better access to one thing you’ll always have to give up quick access to something else.

Disappointing as the control issues are, there's also the conflict between Duke’s weaponry and the alien scum they’re used against. When it comes to weapons in general, the game seems to have the bases covered: you have a rapid-fire pistol, a shotgun, a machine gun, a grenade launcher and more. Clear cut as the weapon selection appears to be, trouble sets in ever so slightly. The first ill-omen is the low capacities on the shotgun and grenade launcher; fifty and two hundred rounds for these weapons never feels like enough, especially when one considers how often they're used. Complicating things even further are the enemies and inability of certain guns to suppress return fire. When dealing with an enemy like an Enforcer, the game usually wants the player to retaliate with a be-all end-all solution like the grenade launcher; the problem is that these encounters usually take place at close range, nullifying any rational use of the launcher and allowing the ensuing volley of gunfire to put a big dent in one's health.

The game somewhat bounces back with its level design. It never ceases to amaze me how excellent the maps are in these early 2.5D shooters. Total Meltdown's no exception, but one has to ask themselves if the sacrifices made to keep these layouts intact were worth it, especially when one considers the fact the PlayStation version of Doom made all kinds of edits to it's levels and still offered up an enjoyable experience. As nice as the new wrinkles the Build engine brings to the fold are, these improvements often kneel the before the problems they create. Jumping through tripwires in a first person viewpoint is an exercise in trial and error until the player “feels out” Duke’s dimensions and crush hazards are another area where survival seems completely random, making them the most cumbersome obstacles in the game. Its flawed elements like these and the shrinky-dink/mouse parts that’ll make one appreciate the ability to (ever so slowly) save their game on the fly.

Terrible as these experiences may be, perhaps the most disappointing aspect about Total Meltdown - and Duke Nukem 3D in general – is how the game’s defining sense of humor fails to save it. I can see how this was the controversial, edgy kind of game hormonal teens hid away from their parents, but in world where yesterday’s sex and violence is nothing to what's currently available, it’s comes off as a cheap prefix to a experience that has enough going for it. To put it another way, while one could see the hellish depictions in Doom being used for shock value, they were necessary in drawing the player into the game’s simple narrative. This fails to be the case with Duke’s babes and toilet humor. I’m sure I’d have a completely different viewpoint had I played the game in it’s prime, but I didn't so there's little chance of this element ever becoming anything more than window dressing.

In wrapping up what this take on Duke Nukem 3D has to offer, there’s one last connection to discuss. That connection? That Total Meltdown is the PlayStation equivalent of SNES Doom. Sure, the game may look a lot better, but with both games doing everything in their power to retain their original level structure its an apt comparison. Another, perhaps more striking similarity is that both ports offer up enhanced soundtracks that take advantage of their respective console’s sound capabilities. As much as I liked Robert Prince’s tunes in the PC version of Doom, I liked them even more after the Super Nintendo’s sound processor was put behind them. The same holds true here, Prince and Lee Jackson’s tunes receiving an impressive upgrade by Mark Knight. Music easily comes off as Total Meltdown’s best element yet it does little to aid the experience when placed side by side with the game's shortcomings.

As a game, it’s not hard to see why Total Meltdown has acquired its title as a lousy port of Duke Nukem 3D. Aardvark may deserve some credit for shoehorning the game onto the console as well as they did, but after experiencing what lies within most won’t feel so generous, especially if they’ve partook of what the PlayStation version of Doom has to offer. That said, the one thing that should be kept in mind is even though Total Meltdown resources are strained, it’s still a reflection of the original - warts and all.

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