Donkey Kong Land

Donkey Kong Land

In the year 1994, the Twycross, England-based developer Rare put the finishing touches on Donkey Kong Country. Their game saw its release that autumn, and it quickly became one of the SNES’s bestselling titles. While the company had success developing games for the NES, Donkey Kong County was what put them on the map for many an enthusiast thanks in part to their close collaboration with Nintendo and the eye-catching presentation courtesy of the then-state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics workstations they employed.

However, as Rare co-founders Tim and Chris Stamper helmed the development of Donkey Kong Country, a second team formed to create another game starring the title ape. Nintendo’s Game Boy was released in 1989 and had become the single most successful handheld console to date. Realizing the potential of the handheld device, this second team sought to create a game for that platform. Created with the same Silicon Graphics workstations and Advanced Computer Modeling technique they utilized to develop Donkey Kong Country, this game was completed in the summer of 1995.

Named Donkey Kong Land, the game received fairly positive reviews with many critics praising its graphical presentation. It was eventually awarded the title of “Best Game Boy Game of 1995” by both Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro. Having moved more than three-million units, Donkey Kong Land ensured that Rare had a bestselling game in both the home console and handheld markets. With a high standard to live up to, how does Donkey Kong Land compare to its 16-bit counterpart?

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country was a tremendous success for the British developer Rare upon its 1994 release, capturing much media attention due to its advanced graphics and solid gameplay. While many developers would use the commercial success of a game for the grounds of making a sequel, Rare co-founder Tim Stamper sought to do so shortly after the release of their breakout hit. The employees behind the creation of Donkey Kong Country were satisfied with the final product, but had plenty of ideas remaining for another installment. Mr. Stamper found himself in the director’s chair once again with colleague Brendan Gunn returning as the lead designer. Though well-received, veteran gamers considered Donkey Kong Country too easy, so this sequel was to be significantly more challenging.

Utilizing the Silicon Graphics and Advanced Computer Modelling technology they used to take prerendered images, model them as three-dimensional objects, and transform them into two-dimensional sprites, they began their work. In a move that shocked fans, Diddy Kong, the original game’s deuteragonist, was to be the sequel’s protagonist. Artist and producer Steve Mayles stated that the team’s youth gave him the courage to disregard the risk they would have doubtlessly taken by pushing the title character out of the spotlight.

Development of this game, entitled Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, proceeded smoothly, and saw its release roughly one year after the debut of the original. Like its predecessor, Donkey Kong Country 2 was highly acclaimed, with critics praising both the gameplay and the graphics. It cannot be denied that Rare supplanting the title character with one of their own creation was quite the daring gambit. To everyone’s surprise, it paid off, for Donkey Kong Country eventually became the sixth-best selling game on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Was it truly able to deliver an experience worthy of being a follow-up to the acclaimed original?

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Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

February of 1986 marked the release of the Famicom Disk System. A periphery unit for Nintendo’s highly successful Famicom console, the Famicom Disk System was capable of reading ​3 ½-inch floppy disks. Not only did the disks boast superior storage capabilities to contemporary ROM cartridges, but the peripheral also added a new high-fidelity sound channel. These features allowed for the creation of games previously thought impossible. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid saw their debut on the Famicom Disk System. Between their open-ended design and the ability to save the player’s progress without the use of passwords, both games successfully broke the mold for console gaming.

Nintendo wished to release these games internationally following the console’s successful debut in North America in 1985, but plans to export the peripheral were eventually scrapped. It also wouldn’t be long before the pioneering periphery was rendered obsolete. In the years since the Famicom’s debut, Nintendo had vastly improved the semiconductor technology of their cartridges. Among other things, this allowed developers to embed a battery in the Famicom cartridges. Any cartridge with these batteries could record a player’s progress – a mainstay feature of Famicom Disk games. Because there was no reason to continue developing games on an increasingly outdated format, Nintendo deemed it necessary to convert many of the titles that originally debuted on the Famicom Disk System to cartridges. Needing a programmer to port the Famicom Disk System games to a standard ROM format, the company hired a man by the name of Toru Narihiro. He and his auxiliary program called themselves Intelligent Systems, working with Nintendo’s premier research and development branch led by Gunpei Yokoi to see these conversions through.

Using the experience he gained working alongside Mr. Yokoi’s team, Mr. Narihiro and his team switched gears, and began programming games of their own. The first title he programmed was Famicom Wars – a turn-based strategy game that proved to be a hit upon its 1988 release. The game’s development attracted the attention of one of Mr. Narihiro’s colleagues – one Shouzou Kaga. As a budding scenario writer, Mr. Kaga sought to take the strategic elements present in Famicom Wars and combine them with the story, characters, and world of a role-playing game. With this project, Mr. Kaga wished to create a scenario that allowed players to care about the characters. At the time, he observed that role-playing games had strong stories, but rather scant casts. Meanwhile, he felt tactical games had the exact opposite problem, having large casts, but weak stories. Therefore, he decided to provide a solution to this odd discrepancy with his game.

In its earliest advertisements, the game was dubbed Honō no Monshō (Emblem of Fire). By the time the game saw its release in April of 1990, Honō no Monshō was rendered in English – the full title being Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. When the game was released, Mr. Kaga noted that it received extensive criticism from Japanese publications. Despite the team’s efforts to avoid emphasizing stats and numerical data, critics found the gameplay too difficult to understand. Exacerbated by its simplistic presentation, and it would appear that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was a failed experiment.

Mr. Kaga and his team saw Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light not as a commercial product, but as a dōjin project made on a whim. A dōjin project is a work intended to attract a group of people sharing the same interests. As many such projects are self-published, they are typically below the quality one would expect from a professional company, although many such artists use them as a springboard to bigger and better things. Because of this, it seemed only fitting that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would gain a new lease on life when one notable journalist devoted a column in Famitsu magazine to the game. Coupled with positive word of mouth, the game saw its sales increase significantly after two months’ worth of flat numbers. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would thus not enter the annals of gaming history as a failed experiment, but rather a sleeper hit.

As a possible consequence of its experimental nature, the game was not released internationally. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2001 with the release of Nintendo’s mascot fighting game Super Smash Bros. Melee that international fans even knew of the franchise’s existence. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would be remade twice with the latter version being released internationally. However, it wouldn’t be until 2020 when the game in its original form finally saw an official release outside of Japan, being offered for a limited time on the Nintendo Switch. In the end, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was a game that ran the risk of becoming an obscure footnote. What did those fans see in it that critics couldn’t?

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New Super Mario Bros. U

Introduction

Bringing the familiar, side-scrolling gameplay back to the console scene after a nineteen-year sabbatical, New Super Mario Bros. Wii proved a tremendous hit upon its 2009 release. The new, four-player gameplay was especially well-received, finally allowing series creator Shigeru Miyamoto to implement an idea he had conceived as early as the 1980s. In response to this development, Nintendo was inspired to make sequels. The first of which was New Super Mario Bros. 2. Released in 2012 for the 3DS, it sold itself as a sequel to the original New Super Mario Bros. It was a commercial success, though detractors accused Nintendo of resting their laurels due to the sheer amount of recycled assets.

However, another sequel was being developed at the same time for the Wii’s successor: the Wii U. It didn’t exactly start out this way; the game had the tentative title New Super Mario Bros. Mii, which would allow players to use custom-made avatars in addition to the famous plumber. It was featured at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) of 2011 in a series of technical demonstrations showcasing the Wii U’s capabilities. After its warm reception, Mr. Miyamoto announced that the game would be released as a launch title alongside the Wii U under the name New Super Mario Bros. U. And so, later in the same year as the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2, the Wii U was launched. New Super Mario Bros. U was well-received, with many critics believing it to a step in the right direction compared to its direct predecessor. As the fourth entry in the New Super Mario Bros. subseries, does New Super Mario Bros. U successfully recapture the essence of the franchise’s pioneering side-scrolling installments?

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New Super Mario Bros. 2

Nintendo’s successor to the Game Boy Advance, the DS, proved to be a tremendous hit when it launched in 2004. It revolutionized the medium by introducing touch controls. Nintendo’s effort was not without precedent, but they were arguably the first to implement them competently. By the end of its lifespan, the DS sold more than 150-million units worldwide. Even with Sony, which had dominated the console market after launching their PlayStation product line, Nintendo continued to rule the handheld scene. As the decade came to a close, people began to speculate as to how Nintendo could follow up the DS. The press wouldn’t have to wait long before Nintendo officially announced their newest handheld system: the 3DS. This console would be capable of displaying stereoscopic three-dimensional effects without the need for special glasses or any other accessory.

Naturally, as Nintendo had created some of the longest-running, beloved franchises in the medium’s history, fans eagerly anticipated new entries to debut on the console. The release of Super Mario 64 in 1996 caused a minor divide among fans. While highly regarded, certain fans longed for Nintendo to create another side-scrolling installment. For those who wanted the series to revisit its roots had their wishes granted in the form of New Super Mario Bros., which was released on the DS. Those who hoped for these kinds of games to return to consoles were similarly delighted in 2009 when New Super Mario Bros. Wii was released for the eponymous console.

With the release of the 3DS, both factions were pleased when Shigeru Miyamoto revealed two Mario games in development for the 3DS. One, taking advantage of the new technology, would be in three dimensions while the other was to retain the sidescrolling gameplay of the New Super Mario Bros. subseries. The former saw its release in 2011 – the same year as the 3DS’s launch – under the name Super Mario 3D Land. Shortly thereafter, the president of Nintendo at the time, Satoru Iwata, formally announced this sidescrolling installment’s name: New Super Mario Bros. 2. The game was released worldwide in the summer of 2012 whereupon it became the first retail 3DS title to make itself available as a digital download. The game was fairly well-received, though it didn’t seem to generate as much enthusiasm as its two predecessors. As the third game in the subseries, does New Super Mario Bros. 2 bring anything new to the table?

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Pokémon Black 2 and White 2

Although they didn’t move quite as many units as the preceding set of games, the Black and White versions of Pokémon were the basis of yet another success story for the juggernaut franchise. Their scenario was especially praised for its sophisticated story beats, with many considering it the spiritual successor to Shigesato Itoi’s lauded 2006 effort, Mother 3. Having sold millions of copies, that there would be a follow-up to these games was a foregone conclusion. Indeed, previous generations had a standalone version to complement the initial two games. With the versions being called Black and White, many fans anticipated that a “Grey” version was just around the corner. However, the development team felt such a choice clashed with the theme of contrasting opposites that ran throughout the original games. Therefore, in defiance of enthusiasts’ expectations, the successors to Black and White were to be direct sequels: Black 2 and White 2. With many considering the fifth generation the series’ shining moment, the idea of returning to Unova for a second adventure was highly appealing.

Feeling satisfied with how Black and White turned out, director Junichi Masuda handed the reins to Takao Unno for this project, though the former remained to help produce the games. Because these games were to heavily draw resources from the set directly preceding them, the development process went without incident. Black 2 and White 2 saw its domestic debut in June of 2012 before being released the following October in North America, Australia, and Europe. Although these games were well-received overall, the critical enthusiasm didn’t match that of their predecessors. This reflected in sales figures as well with a little under eight-million copies sold by March of 2013. Could there be something about these games not reflected by the numbers?

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New Super Mario Bros.

When Nintendo launched their handheld, dual-screened DS console in 2004, it quickly became a hot commodity. To showcase the machine’s technical capabilities, one of the system’s launch titles was a remake of Super Mario 64. Its debut in 1996 permanently changed the landscape of the medium, being the first successful, fully three-dimensional platforming game. However, there was the unspoken caveat that experiences like Super Mario 64 could only ever be experienced from the comfort of one’s home. The idea of being able to bring a game that advanced on vacation was thought of as rather ludicrous in 1996, yet just eight years later, such a reality came to pass. In fact, this remake, Super Mario 64 DS, looked better in many ways than the original version. Coupled with minigames that took full advantage of the system’s signature touch screen, and the DS was able to sell by the millions.

However, by the mid-2000s, the Mario franchise had a strange relationship with Nintendo’s handheld consoles. While mainline games had sparse releases on Nintendo’s home console, only having one entry per generation starting with Super Mario World, Super Mario Land: 6 Golden Coins would be the final installment of the 1990s to feature the side-scrolling gameplay that made the series famous in the first place. While the Game Boy Advance seemed like a prime opportunity to allow the Mario series to revisit its roots, its representation was limited to remakes and spinoffs. The Super Mario Advance series in particular was solely composed of ports. Discounting a few new extra stages being offered within these ports, it seemed as though the Mario franchise had truly moved on from its pioneering installments.

This changed shortly after the launch of the DS when Nintendo announced a new project by the name of New Super Mario Bros. As its title and teaser screenshots suggested, this game was to recapture the spirit of the series’ side-scrolling installments – albeit with a three-dimensional twist, using character models from Super Mario 64 DS. The game eventually saw its initial debut overseas in North America in May of 2006 before being released ten days later domestically. It then launched in Australia and Europe the following June. Just like the title it was named after, New Super Mario Bros. quickly became one of the best-selling games of all time, moving over thirty-million copies worldwide. Critics and fans alike had nothing but praise for the game, citing it as one of the console’s highlights. Did New Super Mario Bros. successfully recapture the aspects that allowed its predecessors to remain all-time classics?

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Pokémon Black and White

By the time the fourth generation of Pokémon debuted with the Diamond and Pearl versions, Game Freak’s signature franchise gained a new lease on life. Though no longer the pop cultural juggernaut it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, gaming enthusiasts stopped dismissing the series as a fad from a bygone era, accepting it as a cornerstone of the medium. With Diamond and Pearl outselling the set of games that came before, Nintendo realized the series’ popularity hadn’t waned. In response to the fans’ enthusiasm, they began work on a sequel following the release of HeartGold and SoulSilver – remakes of the second-generation titles.

The fifth-generation games were officially announced in January of 2010. A spokesperson from the Pokémon Company stated that the new set of games were to debut later in the year for the Nintendo DS. Junichi Masuda, who directed Diamond and Pearl, said that several aspects would be revamped for the next generation. In April, the company’s official website was updated with the titles of these versions: Black and White. With the naming convention for the series electing to incorporate valuable metals and gemstones, Black and White sounded incredibly plain. Nonetheless, fans were excited to see what the series now had to offer. His ultimate goal with this project was to appeal to both newcomers and those who had not played the series in quite some time.

Pokémon Black and White were released domestically in September of 2010. International fans wouldn’t have to wait too long, for the games were released in Europe, North America, and Australia in March of 2011. Although the series had little trouble finding an audience, it wasn’t always a critical favorite. The first-generation games were outright dismissed as mediocre efforts by domestic critics, and while subsequent sets would fare slightly better, the fans took it upon themselves to keep the franchise afloat. That all changed when Black and White became the first set of games to garner a rare perfect score from Famitsu magazine. It fared just as well internationally with many critics feeling it to have been the single greatest generation in the franchise’s history thus far. These sentiments were reflected by the enthusiasts; throughout the remainder of the decade, the games sold over fifteen-million copies. Did Black and White move the franchise forward during its second wind?

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Pilotwings 64

Having been released within a month of the Super Famicom’s domestic launch, Pilotwings went on to become one of the console’s most beloved titles. Very rarely did one ever see anyone make a serious attempt at three-dimensional gameplay in 1990. Although Pilotwings lacked a true sense of depth, that the team led by producer Shigeru Miyamoto was willing to experiment allowed it to have a rightful place in history. Because it was such a widespread, mainstream success, many developers began to see 3D as the way of the future.

Strangely, despite the fact that it proved successful, it didn’t inspire any sequels immediately. Because of its simplistic gameplay, Pilotwings is thought of as an elaborate technical demonstration for the Super NES. It wasn’t that the developers weren’t interested in creating a sequel – they simply explored what Pilotwings accomplished using different properties. Whether it was using the console’s Mode 7 feature to supplement their presentation or adding action elements to the general gameplay and calling it Star Fox, the influence Pilotwings had on the medium could be felt for the duration of the console generation despite not being as prolific as Nintendo’s other successes. Therefore, with Pilotwings having demonstrated what the Super NES was capable of, it seemed only natural that Nintendo would wait until they were ready to make another strong impression to finally create a sequel.

In the mid-1990s, Nintendo was working on their newest console: the Nintendo 64. While the Super NES merely faked the perception of depth by creatively rotating and scaling scanlines, the Nintendo 64 was going to be the genuine article. With one of the most advanced graphics processers of its day, they would redefine the rules of the medium once more in the form of the launch title Super Mario 64. As Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Yoshiaki Koizumi directed its creation, Nintendo turned their attention to a company based in Addison, Texas called Paradigm Entertainment.

Founded in 1990, the company primarily focused on creating products specifically for graphics developers. This included military training simulations for pilots and ship captains. Their diverse clientele included the United States Department of Defense, NASA, Lockheed Martin Boeing, and the Walt Disney Company. With their endorsement of 3D graphics and virtual reality, Nintendo couldn’t have picked a better company to help co-develop the Nintendo 64’s iteration of Pilotwings. Led by Genyo Takeda and Makoto Wada of Nintendo, the two companies began developing the game in earnest in 1995. As Mr. Miyamoto was co-directing Super Mario 64 at the time, his role ended up being far more removed than his production work for the original Pilotwings, though he still oversaw the project from Japan.

Paradigm had developed simulators for military vehicles and aircraft, yet never created a video game. As such, the first hurdle the company had to overcome involved combating old habits. From the beginning, they had to choose between creating what amounted to an arcade game on a home console or a simulation. Rather than placing an emphasis on physics during development, they opted to create something that had a balance between realism and fun. While Paradigm worked on its graphical presentation, Nintendo was in charge of the game design. Using a naming convention that would become typical for the platform, the game was entitled Pilotwings 64. It would be one of the thirteen Nintendo 64 games showcased during the Shoshinkai event in November of 1995 – during which time, the console was dubbed the Ultra 64. The game debuted domestically alongside the retitled Nintendo 64 in June of 1996. It would launch with the console as it made its international debut the following September and March as well. Was Pilotwings 64 able to truly demonstrate the Nintendo 64’s potential?

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Kirby’s Adventure

Kirby’s Dream Land was one of HAL Laboratory’s greatest successes when it launched on the Game Boy in 1992. It proceeded to sell over one-million copies over the next few years. Despite this, the game drew a fair bit of criticism. Veteran gamers in particular were critical of its short length and lack of difficulty. Even gamers of a middling skill level could blaze through the experience in the course of an afternoon. Nonetheless, its stellar commercial performance all but ensured a sequel would be made. Series creator Masahiro Sakurai found himself in the director’s chair once more, and his team was determined to expand upon the gameplay established by his inaugural title.

In order to successfully implement the myriad ideas they had for this new game, HAL Laboratory turned their attention to Nintendo’s home console. However, despite the Super Famicom, or Super NES as it was known internationally, having been released two years prior to the debut of Kirby’s Dream Land, the team decided the next game would debut on its predecessor – the Famicom. The game was named Kirby of the Stars: The Story of the Fountain of Dreams and saw its domestic release in March of 1993. It then debuted internationally in North America and Europe later in the same year retitled Kirby’s Adventure. By 1993, the fourth console generation was in full swing. It was a period of console gaming defined by the fierce rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. This did not prevent Kirby’s Adventure from becoming a bestseller. Unlike Kirby’s Dream Land, the game was a hit with critics as well. Retrospectives have since deemed it the NES’s swansong. In the midst of a battle that placed a great emphasis on presentation and technical prowess, how, exactly, did Kirby’s Adventure win over its predecessor’s detractors?

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