Sunday, August 28, 2011

Twelve Months, Sixty Dollars and a GameBoy Advance: August

DK: King of Swing

You reach a point where you feel like you know a little something about video games, about their history, and about the general world that they exist in.  You know all about things like the Konami code, you know about the easter egg screen in Adventure, and you can rattle off the names of all of the robot bosses in the Mega Man franchise in chronological order by game.  When it comes the the mainstream stuff, you feel like very little can surprise you.  Then, you are wandering around your local second hand and WHAMMO! there is it: DK: King of Swing.  I honestly felt like I knew about all of the games in the Donkey Kong franchise, even stuff like Donkey Kong Jr. Math, but here was a game bearing the beloved DK trademark, that was completely foreign to me.  Socrates, you humble me yet again.
 So what is this bizarre little oddity tucked away in the GBA library and how is it that I had not heard of it?  $5 would easily reveal the answer.  As non-traditional as it can be, DK KoS is a platforming game that lives up to its name in every possible way.  Those evil Kremlings are at it again and Donkey Kong (Jr) must pursue the dastardly reptiles through various worlds to put an end to their machinations.  But not by running and jumping and rolling into things as he normally would, no in DK KoS you navigate the entire game by swinging.  You see this jungle is peppered with little pegs and DK must use his powerful arms to propel himself across perilous chasm, over deadly spikes, and past ferocious enemies if he is to complete his quest.  That's right the entire game is played by swinging DK around on these pegs.

It sounds odd I agree, but after about 5 minutes of playing, the charm of this game takes over and you get totally in to it.  Everything else from the world of Donkey Kong Country is there: launcher barrels, bananas, bouncy tires, those horrid horrid bees, even secret coins, bonus levels, and the familiar tunes!  The theming is right in line with everything you love from the SNES Donkey Kong games.  Only the style of the game play has changed.  Each level is made up of 5 chapters (and you can usually pick from two) and then a final boss fight that grants access to the next level.  Due to the unconventional control scheme and game play, the boss fights are very fresh and inventive and avoid repetition that one might suspect in a game that strays from the norm.

When I say unconventional control scheme, I mean it.  The entire game is played using nearly only the left and right shoulder buttons.  With these you control which hand DK grabs the peg with and therefore which directions he swings.  Press both and he will jump straight up.  Hold both and charge for a powered jump that can also take out most enemies.  The A and B buttons are used only for power ups to either regain lost hit points or give you a temporary invincibility with which you can take out the toughest enemies or jump extra high.  That's it.  It might take a while to get used to this non-traditional control set-up (early on I nicknamed the game Donkey Kong Hand Cramps), but once you adjust, you will be swinging through the levels in no time.

That is not to say DK:KoS is not without its challenge.  While the game is on the shorter side, it is not a breeze.  Getting a handle on the controls takes time, and then mastering the skills to clear each level will ask for patience and practice and LOTS of bananas.  And of course this would not be a DK game without secrets, and there are plenty.  At the time of writing this my file is a little over 50% and I am going back to look for more secrets.  It is nuts how easy the earlier levels are, even the ones that gave me fits, after playing the more advanced levels, but the good news is, the fun doesn't really diminish, and for me that is the true strength of the SNES Donkey Kong Country games.  DK: King of Swing carries on that tradition in a most peculiar way on the GBA and is WELL worth the measly $5 I paid for it.  If you see it, pick it up!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a GBA: July

Sword of Mana
from Squaresoft


If you like a good RPG with solid game play, plenty of depth and a LOT of story, you can do no better than Sword of Mana for the GBA.  I kid you not.  For $5 this game is an absolute steal.  I am not a big Secret of Mana fan (I know, gasp all you like), and when I saw this game in the case at Must Have Movies and More (they changed their name, don't look at me like that) I was curious, but not hopeful.  Word of mouth had confirmed my fears and said that the game wasn't very good.  So I hesitated.  For 6 months, I looked at this game in the case and passed.  I passed it up for winners like A Sound of Thunder.  I was an idiot.

Sword of Mana is an incredible RPG that follows the adventures of a pair of youths whose fates are inexorably intertwined with the Mana Tree.  A great evil is trying to bend the power of Mana to its own dark purposes and it is the destiny of these two adventurers to prevent that from happening.  It's an old story, but it's tried and true.  When your adventure begins you may select from either the male or female character and your story will unfold accordingly.  Right off the bat, this means you get two games for the price of one.  I selected the girl story because I'm like that.  As the game unfolds you do normal RPG stuff, traveling from town to town and battling various enemies.  The battles are real time action battles, not turn based, which is kind of nice.  Turn based battling can be tedious if not properly executed.  As your adventure progresses you'll build experience and obtain different weapons.  You'll also befriend mana spirits that will enable you to use different kinds of magic based on the weapon you are wielding. 
It's all fairly standard RPG stuff, but it is a lot of fun.  There is also a surprising amount of depth in unexpected places.  Around the world, you can find different materials with which you can forge and temper your weapons and armor to improve them and give them different elemental properties.  You can also grow and harvest special fruits and vegetables that will change your weapons' attributes.  Exploring the powers and abilities of each weapon and mana spirit makes the normal grinding associated with RPG's much more enjoyable. There is plenty of fun to be had just toying around with this aspect of the game.
I will warn you, however, Sword of Mana is very story heavy.  There are sections of the game where you will spend upwards of 15 minutes just pressing A to advance the plot.  While this isn't terrible, there are a couple of places where you spend this time, enter a boss fight, lose and then have to repeat the button pressing to get back to the battle.  A save point would be nice after long swaths of story like that.  If you are into story-driven RPG's, then I can imagine no better game for you.  I did my best to follow the plot along, but it is very dense and I get the sense you cannot casually observe and get the full story.

Overall, Sword of Mana is an incredible steal for only $5.  There are easily 40 hours of game play here(80 if you play both stories) and pretty much every bit of it is engaging and fun. The story runs a bit long in parts, but this game has the good feel of a Square product (you know, pre-FFX) and promises to be a good time for RPG fans.  If you see this game for $5 like I did, do not pass it up, like I almost did!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Girl on Girl Games: Lovely Lisa

I'll admit it: I usually come down on the side opposite staunch feminism, because I feel the extreme view robs femininity of its inherent value in favor of masculine attributes. I celebrate the things about womanhood that enrich our lives and, in turn, the world. I like skirts, nail polish, and sewing. I generally do all the cooking here in the Electric Frankfurter kitchen. But, I also salute the strides made by women throughout history that have made it possible for me to also enjoy things beyond that sphere--like job opportunities, generalized education and birth control.

I think I usually give "girl games" more of a pass because I know there are bigger battles out there. If a girl likes a Barbie doll, what's the harm? Barbie has had all kinds of careers and drives a Corvette. She's had lots of wedding dresses, but somehow, she's never settled down. Barbie is practically an independent woman. 

Then, there's Lovely Lisa. No game, not even Chronotrigger, has so successfully pulled off time-traveling in such a thorough way.

Lisa appears to be a doll, but a thirty-five second internet search only revealed other dolls and a few porn websites, so I'm forced to assume this doll doesn't exist in this country. She, and her doll-like family are here to help young girls, ages 5 and under, learn to be nice young ladies. That's not my choice of words: it's the game's own parlance.

Lisa's world is represented as a town. From the town, you may access Lisa's home to perform household chores, the "career center" to try out "fun jobs", or the "charm school", where you can learn ladylike talents. Other options from this screen allow you to buy or design outfits for Lisa with points earned in the other activities.

 First, home. Lisa's mom looks a little tired to me, like perhaps she's been downing a lot of little yellow pills while running for the shelter of her "mother's little helper." And who could blame her? She's been busy, what with having six children under the age of 6, buying them all matching outfits with ribbons and bows. Dad seems like a nice guy, though; a little young for the father of a large family, but what the heck? I'm sure he can afford it.

From here, Lisa can choose various household tasks that are appropriate for a girl to do. When she helps mom, she can do the laundry, the cooking, or the shopping! Helping out with her younger siblings yields cleaning and babysitting chores--and finally, helping Dad allows her to build furniture. This is Dad's only possible chore.