Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Super Everything 64

So if you preorder Nuts & Bolts, you get the original Banjo-Kazooie on XBLA for free, two weeks early. I definitely want the original but I'm not sure yet if I want the new one. It looks good (not literally: the art design and next-gen sheen make me vomit blood from my eyeballs), but it also brings back disturbing memories of the terrifying nuclear holocaust Rare perpetrated on the world of 3D platforming with Donkey Kong 64. Is it coincidence that the genre has been in freefall since? I don't think so. Anyway, it's a question of risking £30 for a potential profit of £10. Well, not profit, but you know what I mean. It's like the bloody Prisoner's Dilemma. I'm seriously considering formulating the situation as a game theory problem and leaving the decision up to maths.

The main qualm I have about Nuts & Bolts is that it's not a "traditional" 3D platformer. This is a vague term, so I'll define it: any game you can tell apart from Super Mario 64 at ten paces isn't one. Yes, I'm a fundamentalist on this. Like any sane person, I tend to think that any given game can be improved tenfold by making it more like Super Mario 64. I'm barely even joking here. I'd probably have liked GTA IV if it had had bob-ombs.

Unfortunately this principle also applies to other Mario games, which is why Sunshine and Galaxy were various levels of disappointing to me. Let's take a moment to remind ourselves of the differences. In Super Mario Sunshine you go into a level, get shown a star in a cinematic, and go get it. The end. In Super Mario 64 you get a single-sentence hint and are unceremoniously dumped into a dazzling non-linear playground (where any number of stars are also available to you) and left to get on with it. And that's if you manage to even find a level in the first place, what with them being hidden behind walls and in mirrors and so on. Sunshine's approach is fun; 64's is effortlessly magical.

So basically I entered the Mario universe with the game that's least like any of the others, and now I'm in love with a series that doesn't exist. I guess I wasn't the only person to be disappointed by Sunshine - actually this little quirk of mine probably aided my enjoyment of the game by initially masking all its other shortcomings - but admitting to not liking Galaxy is essentially Nintendo heresy. As it should be. I did like Galaxy. I just didn't like it as much as 64 and, more depressingly, I saw it as a sign that the series was set on a different course to the one I wanted it to follow. Marry Galaxy's level of invention and beauty to 64's structure and intricate genius and you've got got the best game in the world, although since 64 itself is already more or less the best game in the world this might be asking for too much.

It wasn't as if the find-the-stars-yourself-damnit approach was a creative dead end, as SM64 spawned a number of clones. Most notable is Banjo-Kazooie itself, of course, and it'll be interesting to see how my second playthrough of that goes (the first time I played it, I hadn't yet played SM64, although I've since completed it half a dozen times). There was also a rather splendid effort from Ubisoft called Rocket: Robot On Wheels where you drove a little unicycle robot around a theme park and had all sorts of fun with a quite advanced physics engine. It was like Half-Life 2 meets, er, Super Mario 64. Like I told you, it works with any game. (Allegedly SM64 was even the inspiration for Goldeneye's mission structure.)

In the field of nontraditional platformers there's Mirror's Edge, which looks better and better every time I see it, and then there's always stuff like Tomb Raider, obviously. Supposedly both games are moving away from linearity and towards finding your own route through the level, which is definitely a step forwards if you ask me. Although with Tomb Raider I still wish they'd get rid of the combat. And put in collectable stars, and maybe a race against a giant penguin. They're already got dinosaurs in it, although if you went up to one and asked for 100 lives it'd probably bite your implausibly large breasts off. Still, you can't blame them for trying. (The developers. Not the breasts.)

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