93. Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong
Game Boy
1994

The original Donkey Kong is a great game. A classic game. A largely obsolete game. In 1994, thirteen years after putting Nintendo on the map, the game just didn’t hold up to modern design standards. Unless you are Steve Weibe, you probably wouldn’t want to play Donkey Kong for more than a quarter’s worth of time, which if you are as good a player as I am, means less than a minute.

And yet, it isn’t a bad game. I love playing pure, undiluted Donkey Kong. The design sure as hell doesn’t hold up, but watching that gorilla smash those girders, listening to the “sproing” sound that the game makes when you jump, the sense of accomplishment upon completing a stage feels as good today as it ever has.

Beyond the historical factor, there is something special in Donkey Kong, something that was, and is worth returning to, despite the antiquated gameplay. So Nintendo made a new Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. The trick was to capture the charm and appeal of Donkey Kong ‘81, while building the game from the ground up .

The premise is brilliant in its audacity: A “port” of Donkey Kong that starts with the original four stages from the 1981 arcade game and adds 97 more stages. That idea would be enough to make this game memorable, even if the gameplay ended up being forgettable. However, Donkey Kong ‘94 is one of those rare games that takes a very clever concept, and rather than filling in around that concept, builds upwards out of it.

What they made was a brilliant puzzle platformer full of original ideas, yet still feeling like a natural evolution of what was laid down in 1981. Does describing Donkey Kong as a “reflex-based puzzle platformer” sound right? That’s not how the game is remembered. In 1981 nobody knew what a platform game was. Donkey Kong nearly invented the concept. However, if you go back and decide retroactively, that Donkey Kong was, in fact, a puzzle platformer, you can see Donkey Kong ‘94 evolving out from that point.

This game feels like the latest in a contiguous line of Donkey Kong games, not the first true sequel in over a decade. It is as if a couple of links in evolutionary chain have been skipped. It would be like if Street Fighter II had been immediately followed by Marvel vs. Capcom 2. Of course, unlike that game, Donkey Kong ‘94 is not scary to newcomers.

The game throws a lot of wacky shit at you, but as the game starts, you are playing Donkey Kong. You already know how to play Donkey Kong. Even if you’ve never played Donkey Kong, you know how to play Donkey Kong. And playing Donkey Kong is a lot of fun, especially when that Donkey Kong has been subtly reworked to not be punishingly difficult.

And that’s the brilliant key to this game. The game starts out fun. The early, hold-your-hand simple early stages aren’t a slog they’re a blast. Every point up the rising complexity curve just feels tight and pleasantly frictive.
The alchemy in a good puzzle platformer is hard to get right. The puzzles have to live in dual sweet spots: Not only must they be not-too-easy-but-not-too-hard to solve, the must also be not-too-easy-but-not-to-hard to execute. The game has to keep throwing fresh new ideas at the player, without overwhelming him or her. Most tricky of all, completing the puzzles must have a fun element of frisson. The death of a puzzle platformer is the sensation of “I figured out how to solve the puzzle. I don’t want to have to go through the actual motions of sovling it.”

Donkey Kong ‘94 so deftly handles these design challenges, you wouldn’t think there were any challenges at all.  The game just feels natural, which is the mark of a great game.  Near as I can tell, this would stand as the puzzle platformer until the 2008 release of Braid.

Originally published at The Triangle. You can comment here or there.

93. Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong
Game Boy
1994

The original Donkey Kong is a great game. A classic game. A largely obsolete game. In 1994, thirteen years after putting Nintendo on the map, the game just didn’t hold up to modern design standards. Unless you are Steve Weibe, you probably wouldn’t want to play Donkey Kong for more than a quarter’s worth of time, which if you are as good a player as I am, means less than a minute.

And yet, it isn’t a bad game. I love playing pure, undiluted Donkey Kong. The design sure as hell doesn’t hold up, but watching that gorilla smash those girders, listening to the “sproing” sound that the game makes when you jump, the sense of accomplishment upon completing a stage feels as good today as it ever has.

Beyond the historical factor, there is something special in Donkey Kong, something that was, and is worth returning to, despite the antiquated gameplay. So Nintendo made a new Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. The trick was to capture the charm and appeal of Donkey Kong ’81, while building the game from the ground up .

The premise is brilliant in its audacity: A “port” of Donkey Kong that starts with the original four stages from the 1981 arcade game and adds 97 more stages. That idea would be enough to make this game memorable, even if the gameplay ended up being forgettable. However, Donkey Kong ’94 is one of those rare games that takes a very clever concept, and rather than filling in around that concept, builds upwards out of it.

What they made was a brilliant puzzle platformer full of original ideas, yet still feeling like a natural evolution of what was laid down in 1981. Does describing Donkey Kong as a “reflex-based puzzle platformer” sound right? That’s not how the game is remembered. In 1981 nobody knew what a platform game was. Donkey Kong nearly invented the concept. However, if you go back and decide retroactively, that Donkey Kong was, in fact, a puzzle platformer, you can see Donkey Kong ’94 evolving out from that point.

This game feels like the latest in a contiguous line of Donkey Kong games, not the first true sequel in over a decade. It is as if a couple of links in evolutionary chain have been skipped. It would be like if Street Fighter II had been immediately followed by Marvel vs. Capcom 2. Of course, unlike that game, Donkey Kong ’94 is not scary to newcomers.

The game throws a lot of wacky shit at you, but as the game starts, you are playing Donkey Kong. You already know how to play Donkey Kong. Even if you’ve never played Donkey Kong, you know how to play Donkey Kong. And playing Donkey Kong is a lot of fun, especially when that Donkey Kong has been subtly reworked to not be punishingly difficult.

And that’s the brilliant key to this game. The game starts out fun. The early, hold-your-hand simple early stages aren’t a slog they’re a blast. Every point up the rising complexity curve just feels tight and pleasantly frictive.
The alchemy in a good puzzle platformer is hard to get right. The puzzles have to live in dual sweet spots: Not only must they be not-too-easy-but-not-too-hard to solve, the must also be not-too-easy-but-not-to-hard to execute. The game has to keep throwing fresh new ideas at the player, without overwhelming him or her. Most tricky of all, completing the puzzles must have a fun element of frisson. The death of a puzzle platformer is the sensation of “I figured out how to solve the puzzle. I don’t want to have to go through the actual motions of sovling it.”

Donkey Kong ’94 so deftly handles these design challenges, you wouldn’t think there were any challenges at all. The game just feels natural, which is the mark of a great game. Near as I can tell, this would stand as the puzzle platformer until the 2008 release of Braid.

Superman: The Movie Part 4– California and Beyond the Infinite

Earlier this year I wrote a four part analysis of the film Superman: The Movie. Jackass that I am, I only posted the first three parts. Here, finally, is the final part.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4: California and Beyond the Infinite


In the wake of our hero’s debut, the staff of our major metropolitan newspaper has naturally taken an interest in what the hell is up with this as-of-yet unnamed flying guy in long johns. Lois is particularly determined to find out more about this man of mystery. When Lois get a note from “hopefully a friend” asking her to meet at eight at her place, she’s pretty sure she thinks she knows who the note is from.

That night, Superman shows up on her balcony and gives a flirtatious expository interview. It soon becomes painfully clear that badass reporter Lois is as smitten with Superman as Clark is smitten with she.

And what kind of man is Superman? He helps people. He has abilities that border on magic. He is a total square, but he is so utterly confident that he doesn’t come off as naïve. He acts as if he is in total control, but he is so warmly reassuring that he doesn’t seem like a jerk. He flirts with Lois. He pretends to be Clark Kent, which is a persona he has crafted, but a persona with the name that he was called during his upbringing. He can’t see through lead. And he never lies.

After the interview, which will appear in the Daily Planet under the flowery headline “I Spent The Night With Superman”, (as opposed to the more on-the-nose “Superman Reveals Weaknesses For Villains To Exploit”), there is the Flying Sequence.

Oh man, the Flying Sequence, you are so stupid and I love you so much for it. Superman takes Lois for a flight. He holds her hand, and she magically stays aloft. This is romantic. You can tell that this is romantic because as they wordlessly fly together, the love theme swells. They aren’t talking to each other, presumably due to the wind, so Lois is lost in her thoughts. Thoughts that we get to hear. It turns out that Lois Lane, the toughest reporter in the world, and the woman worthy of Superman’s love is thinking the worst poem ever:

Can you read my mind?
Do you know what it is that you do to me?
I don’t know who you are
Just a friend from another star.
Here I am like a kid out of school
Holding hands with a god,
I’m a fool.
Will you look at me,
Quivering,
Like a little girl, shivering
You can see right through me.
Can you read my mind?
Can you picture the things that I’m thinking of?
Wondering why you are
All the wonderful things you are.
You can fly!
You belong in the sky!
You and I
Could belong to each other.
If you need a friend,
I’m the one to fly to.
If you need to be loved,
Here I am.
Read my mind!!!!!!

And the best part of this is that the movie implies that maybe Superman CAN read her mind. Because he’s magic.

After Superman drops her off on her balcony and makes his exit, he quickly pulls a switcheroo so that it appears that Clark has been ringing Lois’ doorbell for some time, waiting for Lois to answer so he can take her out on the date that he had set with his note. I find this bit fascinating. The note is from Clark, who is infatuated with Lois. But Clark is really Superman, and he knows that Lois is infatuated with Superman. So Superman knows that Lois will think that the note came from him, not Clark, so he shows up at eight… but after Superman leaves he returns as Clark so that he, as Clark can continue to pursue Lois, despite knowingly becoming his own unbeatable competition as Superman. Since Superman is the “real” identity and “Clark” is the mask, why does he pursue Lois as Clark? Does he want Lois to fall for Clark? Is the ineffectual pursuit merely part of the disguise? Or could it be he is confused about whether he is the man or the Kryptonian?

There is a real blurring between Clark and Superman in this film. Ostensibly, he is only maintaining the two identities because Holobrando said he had to, but there is more to Clark than a simple disguise. Clark loves his human mother. He is a professional writer with a distinctive voice. He tries to get the girl. He is more than just a pair of glasses.

When Lois leaves the room to get her coat, Clark straightens his posture, takes off his glasses and deepens his voice. “Lois, there’s something I have to tell you”, he says before rethinking, and slipping back into disguise. Clearly, this scene exists to show off how good Reeve is at playing two roles, but that scene also elegantly depicts a man confused about just who he is.

From this point forward things sort of jangle toward the film’s climax. The mythic pacing falls apart and I suspect at this point in the film they ran out of either money or time. Or maybe the problem lies in the weak antagonist. At any rate, Lex, Otis, and Miss Teschmacher reprogram two nuclear missiles. The first attempt is botched, but they manage to point the second one at the weak point of the San Andreas fault. Luthor also figures out that Kryptonite exists and will kill Superman. Lois and Jimmy fly out to California to investigate Luthor’s scheme.

Once all that pipe is laid, Luthor lures Superman into his super-cool secret base, just so that he can outsmart the most powerful man in the world. Superman is on the east coast, and has no inkling of what Luthor is about to do. Luthor could just DO IT. But he is compelled to show what he is about to do to someone that will be utterly repelled by his behavior.

Superman is aghast. “Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks?” he asks, “By planning the death of innocent people?”

“No,” Luthor replies, by causing the death of innocent people.” Luthor is so pleased with himself. It isn’t the murder, or the riches, or even the planning that Lex craves. He gets his satisfaction from the gloating.

He explains that there are two missiles and that one is heading toward California, while the other has been fired at Hackensack, New Jersey, and I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I’ve seen this movie maybe a dozen times in my life, it was only on this most recent viewing that I figured out that the extra Jersey rocket was the result of Otis’ earlier bungling. I had always thought that it was intentional, so that Superman would fail no matter what. That’s the sort of thing Lex would do.

Lex then tricks Superman into exposing himself to a glowing green rock, which instantly weakens our hero. This is Kryptonite. Luthor has fashioned a giant Kryptonite necklace, which he wraps around the reeling body of Superman, then he tosses Superman into a makeshift pool. He leaves Superman to drown without watching because he’s old school like that. Fortunately for Supes, Miss Teschmacher has family in Hackensack, so she agrees to save Superman, but only after he makes a promise to save New Jersey before California.

This is a great conflict to put before Superman. There is only time to get to one missile. One of those missiles is going to hit a planetary weak point, causing most of California, including his only two friends, to fall into the ocean, while the other missile is only going to kill one small city. The choice should be clear. However, he made a promise, and so Superman chooses abstract virtue over both utilitarianism and love. Right then and there, in that choice, Superman has committed himself to the path of the divine. No human would have ever made that choice.

He pays for his morality. After saving Jersey, he does manage to minimize the damage to California, diving deep into the planet to manually repair the fault line. But he is too late to save Lois. She dies. Superman has failed. Once again, for all his power, there are limits to what he can do.

Superman freaks the fuck out.

Superman screams with inhuman rage. Then he decides to fly so hard that he will make time go backwards. To be clear: he won’t fly backwards through time, but instead he will fly so fast that he will reverse the orbit of the planet, and make time itself run backwards.

As he attempts to do so, the magic disembodied head of Jor-El appears in the sky, warning Superman that interference in human history is forbidden, which when they mentioned earlier in the film, I thought it meant Superman wasn’t supposed to get involved in politics or do things like cure cancer with his mind, apparently Jor-El actually meant that it is forbidden to change the very course of time itself, which it now seems is something Kryptonians can do when they live on Earth.

Superman blows off his father and saves the woman he loves. In the end it is his human love that elevates him to transcend Earthly limitations and achieve the power of God.

I don’t know if that ending works. I mean, on the one hand, it is total bullshit that he gets free do-overs and suffers no consequences for the choices that he makes. It cheapens the narrative’s overall stakes. But thematically this ending does tie the whole thing together and makes a solid statement about who the filmmakers consider Superman to be.

Oh, and then Superman takes Lex and Otis to jail. The end.

92. Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters
Game Boy
1991

Hey, I’m writing these again!  And I’ve moved on to Game Boy games!  The first game of this bold new era is Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, the sequel to the subtitleless Kid Icarus.

I feel that a big part of the fun of the 2600-360 project is the authenticity of playing old games on old systems with old controllers. So even though there are five different video game systems that can play Game Boy games not counting illegal clones or emulation, I loaded my game pak into a real, honest to goodness green/greener/greener still/greenest, bricky original Game Boy as God* intended.

What I discovered is that Myths and Monsters is a game about a green smudgy blob who jumps around other green smudgy blobs and occasionally dies.  I had learned a shocking twenty-year-old truth:  The Game Boy does not have a good screen.  At all.

So, feeling fairly defeated, I pop the cart into my Game Boy Player.  Do y’all know about the Game Boy Player?  It is an add-on drive that you stick onto your Game Cube, that allows you to play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games on your television.  Like other iterations of the Game Boy, it does some clever colorization tricks, so that a game’s sprites are still a limited four-shade palette, but a different four-shade palette than the background.

I knew Game Boy games look great on a Game Boy Player, but immediately switching from the one to the other provided me with a shocking contrast.  This graphical upgrade made such a huge difference that it drastically changed my opinion of this game.  On the Game Boy, Kid Icarus 2 was no fun at all.  It was a chore trying to muddle through it.  Playing it on a tv, being able to clearly see the graphics makes for an entirely different game, one that is far from what the game’s creators envisioned, but wholly better.

Actually, when divorced from the Game Boy’s crappy lcd screen and played colorized on a television set, I actually find Myths and Monsters to be a more solid game than its NES big brother.  The Game Boy’s rather severe limitations demanded a stripped-down gameplay experience, and much like the plan of a proper supervillain, Kid Icarus 2 is sheer elegance in its simplicity.  That may seem like an odd thing to say about a platforming shooter/rpg hybrid adapted from the engine of a much better game, rejiggered for the needs of a handheld, and then shunted out of the handheld space, resized and recolored for the big screen, but it is nonetheless true.  The controls are tight, the design is varied and smart without being overambitious.  This is a badass little game, the kind that hasn’t been made in many a year.

But the Eggplant Wizards are total bullshit.  Fuck those guys.


*Gunpei Yokoi

Originally published at The Triangle. You can comment here or there.

92. Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters
Game Boy
1991

Hey, I’m writing these again! And I’ve moved on to Game Boy games! The first game of this bold new era is Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, the sequel to the subtitleless Kid Icarus.

I feel that a big part of the fun of the 2600-360 project is the authenticity of playing old games on old systems with old controllers. So even though there are five different video game systems that can play Game Boy games not counting illegal clones or emulation, I loaded my game pak into a real, honest to goodness green/greener/greener still/greenest, bricky original Game Boy as God* intended.

What I discovered is that Myths and Monsters is a game about a green smudgy blob who jumps around other green smudgy blobs and occasionally dies. I had learned a shocking twenty-year-old truth: The Game Boy does not have a good screen. At all.

So, feeling fairly defeated, I pop the cart into my Game Boy Player. Do y’all know about the Game Boy Player? It is an add-on drive that you stick onto your Game Cube, that allows you to play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games on your television. Like other iterations of the Game Boy, it does some clever colorization tricks, so that a game’s sprites are still a limited four-shade palette, but a different four-shade palette than the background.

I knew Game Boy games look great on a Game Boy Player, but immediately switching from the one to the other provided me with a shocking contrast. This graphical upgrade made such a huge difference that it drastically changed my opinion of this game. On the Game Boy, Kid Icarus 2 was no fun at all. It was a chore trying to muddle through it. Playing it on a tv, being able to clearly see the graphics makes for an entirely different game, one that is far from what the game’s creators envisioned, but wholly better.

Actually, when divorced from the Game Boy’s crappy lcd screen and played colorized on a television set, I actually find Myths and Monsters to be a more solid game than its NES big brother. The Game Boy’s rather severe limitations demanded a stripped-down gameplay experience, and much like the plan of a proper supervillain, Kid Icarus 2 is sheer elegance in its simplicity. That may seem like an odd thing to say about a platforming shooter/rpg hybrid adapted from the engine of a much better game, rejiggered for the needs of a handheld, and then shunted out of the handheld space, resized and recolored for the big screen, but it is nonetheless true. The controls are tight, the design is varied and smart without being overambitious. This is a badass little game, the kind that hasn’t been made in many a year.

But the Eggplant Wizards are total bullshit. Fuck those guys.


*Gunpei Yokoi