There's two ways to look at Donkey Kong Country 3: A decent yet underrated send off to DKC that released too late and whose reputation was tarnished by the boom of 3D gaming, or a piece of crap garbage game that replaces Donkey Kong with a baby. A baby!!
Me? I like to think the truth is uh, somewhere in the middle.
While this is wild speculation, the impression I get from Double Trouble is that much of the talent from the last two games vacated before this project began to get to work on titles for the Nintendo 64. The formula is intact, this feels like a proper Donkey Kong Country on its surface, but the level design is so much more flat, gimmicks don't land nearly as well and are often irritating, and outside of a mostly unnecessary but kinda cool overworld, there's not a whole lot that feels like it's pushing these games forward in a positive way. It would not surprise me if this was a Mega Man 5 situation where everyone shrugged and asked "well, what the hell do you do after Diddy's Kong Quest?"
You put a hideous baby in the game, apparently. I don't like babies! I think they're gross! I gag when I see baby-related paraphernalia, I don't want to play as one. Every time I see a baby I think "Ugh. Baby." Babies vomit and crap all over themselves, they cannot forge for food, their skulls are soft, they are not the protagonists of video games! You might protect a baby in a game, but they aren't the stars of their own adventure, you don't put them on the front of a box!!
It's also a little weird that there's three Donkey Kong Country games for the SNES and you only play as DK in the first one, right?
Even the presentation is off. There's this uncanny quality to a lot of the sprites, the music feels very uninspired, and the setting lacks a lot of the charm and uniqueness of the previous games. Yet despite all my misgivings, I don't think Double Trouble is a bad game, so much as it's just mediocre. Diddy's Kong Quest was a tough act to follow, especially for a game coming out on the very tail end of the SNES' lifecycle and during a holiday season where it had to compete with games like Mario 64. I've heard people talk about this game in extremely negative ways, and like, if they played Mario 64 before this - or worse, were expecting Mario 64 for Christmas and got fucking Dixie Kong's Double Trouble instead - I honestly can't say I'd blame them for harboring some long-standing resentment for it. I'd be pretty disappointed, too.

Well, I didn't commit any crimes to play this one, but it's pretty good!
Not that Diddy's Kong Quest isn't worth breaking into any homes for, but I didn't play this one back in the day, so I don't quite have the same level of freakish reverence for it. In fact, I don't think I knew anyone who had a copy. This released in late 1995, and while it sold quite well, everyone on my block was a bit pre-occupied with the PlayStation, which released only a few months prior. We were all piling into one kid's house to play Destruction Derby and suck down secondhand smoke, we didn't have to time for any Kong's quest.
It's a shame, though, because I'm sure I would've loved this just as much as the original had I played it in 95. After all, it is largely the same game with a few tweaks and refinements. I did not bother at all in my review for Donkey Kong Country to talk about how these games play, and that's mostly because I assume everyone here has touched one at least once. And if you haven't... the hell are you doing? Reach out and touch Kong.

Xenosaga Episode I is not often talked about, and I suspect I've finally cracked the reason why there's so little discussion around Monolith Soft's 2002 debut: it's really god damn boring. Oh my god it's so boring.
I'm sure someone can write a tome about Xenosaga's Jungian themes and heavily Judeo-Christian influenced narrative, but I just don't care. Not only do I lack the intelligence or wit to accomplish such a task, but any amount that I may have has now been thoroughly sucked from my head after enduring 30 hours of this game. At least I think it's been 30 hours. Two hours in and the game's clock jumped to eight hours, which is about how many it felt like I was playing for, and then late in the game the timer jumped down to 17 hours, so I really have no idea how much time I've spent playing Xenosaga, which is a nightmare unto itself. In any case, had you walked in on me in the last two weeks you would've found me slumped over in my chair, eyes glassy and mouth agape as characters drone on and on about how robots don't have human rights. It got so bad I played Jet Force Gemini to revitalize myself. Weatherby's been having a bad time, man!
I played Xenosaga way back in 2002, and only a few bits and pieces have lingered in my memory. I recall the initial attack by the Gnosis, protagonist Shion, Ziggy, MOMO, all the incredibly uncomfortable panty shots MOMO gets, and of course, KOS-MOS. More vaguely, I recalled Xenosaga failing to truly capture me and being kind of a pain in the ass to play, but presenting some pretty out there ideas that may be worth checking in on, especially now that the (Xeno)saga is complete. Or at least as complete as it will ever be. While it's probably common knowledge, I'd be remiss not to mention creator Tetsuya Takahashi's original vision for a pentalogy. After pitching this idea to Square - who was evidently as uninterested as I am - Takahashi founded Monolith Soft and has been chasing after his grand JRPG space opera ever since. I'm glad he's finally succeeded with Xenoblade, but with Xenosaga concluding two games shy with Episode III, it's hard not to look on it as being in some way compromised. In fact, this was partly the impetus behind checking it out again. Something something "auteur theory." I was confident that regardless of Xenosaga's failures, it would at least be interesting. It was not. I am a ham sandwich piloting the body of a man.
Opening your epic space drama on two hours of flatly written characters going about their day jobs is a bold choice. Some might say this is all meticulously paced, but generally you want to get your audience to care about someone or something within the opening minutes of your story. There's nothing to grab onto here.
After a brief tutorial and a long stretch of cutscenes, your ship, The Woglinde, is attacked by an alien species known as the Gnosis. Finally, some action. Right?
No! Wrong! Shion has no weapons and KOS-MOS is on the other side of the ship, meaning the first real gameplay sequence is instead spent actively avoiding combat. When you do link up with KOS-MOS and gain the ability to fight the Gnosis, you spend maybe 15 minutes fending off their attack before getting hit with another forty-minute cutscene. You're then given control of Ziggy, a cyborg who really just wants to die, making him the most relatable member of the cast. Ziggy is very powerful and his strength and ferocity in battle is made a point of by several characters, but when the game finally hands you the keys, you're explicitly told to avoid combat and sneak around enemies. It takes like, six hours before Xenosaga allows you to play it like a proper JRPG, and for the first half of the game the rhythm is this back-and-forth of excessively long cinematics bookended by brief gameplay sequences. I've never played a JRPG so adamant about having me not engage with it.
Combat is also extremely easy despite an over-indulgence for systems. It may initially seem complex, but I promise you that you can beat half this game by brainlessly tapping the triangle button, and I know this because I finished at least one dungeon with my phone in front of my face doing exactly that. I eventually hit a boss that started giving me some trouble, the first real roadblock of the game, and a learning moment that clued me in to the fact that I had been ignoring an entire system the whole time. Probably not a great sign if the player can beat half your game without buying any spells or banking skill points into attributes. Again, the game could help the player internalize what it taught in the first hour had it not spent several more forcing you to not interact with those very same mechanics. The lack of incentivization is compounded by arbitrary difficulty spikes in the later half of the game, but hey, this does result in a handful of bosses that actually require you to think, and at that point any amount of stimulation is appreciated.
Likewise, the story does eventually find some interesting directions to push itself in, and characters start to become more relatable, but by this point the plot is bringing up things that have totally left my mind due to being so uninvested for such a long time. Everyone is just saying "ooh-dooo" now like that's supposed to mean something, but the first ten hours of the plot caused me to experience brain death, so it's just nothing to me. The most exciting parts of the story were whenever some crazy set piece was popping off (which does begin to occur more regularly) or when a character experiences a very personal and human moment that requires little plot investment to find captivating.
The best example I can give is the main antagonist, Albedo, ripping his whole entire head off and just casually growing another one. That's exciting, that's cool as hell, and the game explains why he's able to do this but I don't care at all about that. KOS-MOS' mysterious origins are elaborated on in fits and bursts, yet still kept intentionally vague to the point that it's hard to commit any beat to memory, yet when she risks her life at the end of the game to save the rest of the party, Shion's distress at losing her creation is palpable. That it takes this long for the game to make me feel anything and for it to still lack enough of my interest to fully understand what is happening isn't great and makes me feel like I mostly wasted my time. I feel similar things about Metal Gear Solid 4. All the droning exposition drags the experience to a crawl, and then suddenly there's a monkey in a diaper smashing an entire can of coke, and it's like someone stuck smelling salts under my nose.
The strong emphasis on cutscenes is also hampered by some of the pitfalls of early 2000s graphical rendering. Similar to Dragon Ball Z: Budokai, Xenosaga exists within this era where anime-style characters were being rendered in this pseudo-realistic fashion, giving everyone this distinctly doll-like quality. The way characters smack their rigid, outstretched fingers against keyboards to pantomime typing, the lack of proper lip syncing, and the wooden line delivery of the English cast makes much of Xenosaga's cutscenes play out like a low-energy marionette show.
This is the sort of JRPG that has the potential to taint someone on the entire genre. I've sure we all met someone at one point or another who swears all JRPGs are too slow and too long and too convoluted, and Xenosaga Episode I is the exact kind of game capable of giving that impression. It does not bode well that Episode II is considered "the worst one," and to be honest, I don't think even I have the constitution to stick through it just to see Space Jesus. I'm going to try, but it's a flimsy promise.
I didn't intend to write a literal essay on everything I don't like about this game. I swear I'm trying not to do that anymore, I've been making an honest attempt to keep things within about three paragraphs, but I spent 30 or 40 hours putting up with this game. Am I not entitled to a rant and a stiff drink?

This is a true story.
I was about 7-years-old when Donkey Kong Country came out. It looked insane, and more than any other game for the system, it was the one that left me the most jealous of SNES kids. I needed to play it, but the only one I knew who had a copy was a boy on my block who I didn't get along with. I tried to suck up to him, but he knew I had a Genesis. He saw through my deception.
One day while riding my bike, I saw him run out of his garage to go over to a friend's house. With the garage door still open, I saw a golden opportunity... And so I snuck into his home and made my way to his bedroom, popped in Donkey Kong Country, and started playing. From the hallway, I could hear his mother approach, asking him a question that I cannot recall, clearly assuming her kid decided to stay indoors. As she turned the corner and peered into his room, she saw me on his bed playing the Super Nintendo. I'll never forget how loud she screamed as she chased me around his house and out into the street.
Just me doin' a little B&E because I love Donkey Kong Country so much.

Think I could get Lilith's number?
Going to go out on a limb and say developer Wiznwar really liked Demon's Crush, because this sure looks like a send up to Demon's Crush. Even the name is about as close as you could get without being litigious, like how 1/6 scale figure bootleggers will rename licensed characters. This is clearly The Green Goblin from the Raimi Spider-Man movies, but please, if you would just refer to him as The Fiend.
Demon's Tilt is set up in an interesting way with its very long, very vertical table, which is divided into three tiers with their own demons and unique set of "rituals." These rituals are required to make progress, but mostly amount to the typical pinball stuff of hitting x number of bumpers or getting the ball up a certain ramp. Where the game really shines is in its presentation. The sprite art is excellent and the soundtrack is extremely invocative of the Yamaha YM2612. However, I can image some people finding this game to be a tad unreadable with how far back the camera is and how many effects are popping off. Without tweaking some settings, you might find it a little too easy to lose track of your ball, although zooming in and adding a trailing effect does help tremendously.
Unlike Flipnic and Akira Psycho Ball, there is no progression between tables. You just get the one, and that's fine. Each tier offers enough to keep the game exciting, and while I may not find myself sitting down and committing serious time to playing this thing, it is perfect if you want to kill an hour or so on a lazy afternoon. Just be careful about what order you complete rituals, it is possible to summon an actual pinball demon. He refuses to leave my home, he's already consumed a whole entire priest, and he's set up a Black Night 3000 table in my bedroom and plays it all hours of the night. Flames and spiders poured from his mandibles as he told me in a dead tongue that I'll be cast into Pinball Hell and damned to play Shaq Attack until my fingers whittle to bone, I hate him!!

A fun mental hack I sometimes like to employ while playing a bad game is to pick up an even more miserable game so that it encourages me to clean my damn plate. In the case of Jet Force Gemini, its most positive quality is that it's making me want to get back to Xenosaga. This is great for my disposition and makes me very pleasant to be around.
I bought this. I worked a job, got a paycheck, parlayed that into a purchase of a genuine cartridge which has sat on my shelf for the last four years, a monument to my wastefulness. Every now and then I catch it out of the corner of my eye and think "oh god, why? You played this once or twice at Greg's house when you were twelve." Greg liked to bully me in public and act friendly in private, but after revisiting Jet Force Gemini, I'm not so sure about that. You don't make a friend play this game with you, that's something you do to an enemy.
It is downright tragic that the team responsible for Blast Corps worked on this game. Lead engineer Paul Mountain was previously credited on Diddy Kong Racing, so like, there's a pedigree here. And yet, we've gone from two of Rare's best entries in their Nintendo 64 catalog to arguably their worst. Despite all this talent and innumerable inspirations, Jet Force Gemini is a bare, basic third person shooter with light search-action elements and one of the worst control schemes of the generation. The insistence on vertical design results in a need to aim freely, which you might note is a little difficult to do on a controller that has only one analog stick. The solution is to force the player to stop dead in their tracks and hold down the right bumper to enter into a manual aim mode, similar to GoldenEye 64. At least in that game it was optional, but Jet Force Gemini is designed around this feature, and it just doesn't work.
Consider how much we've refined secondary analog movement in games over the last two decades. It's practically an extension of your own body, something you're likely not considerate of until it doesn't work. It's just expected that when you tap the stick in a direction you want to look, the camera smoothly moves into position. In Jet Force Gemini, the camera is a foe who you must engage in mortal combat every time fifty fucking flying enemies swarm onto the screen to pelt you with rockets. It is constantly fighting you, so eager to spring back to the center of the screen with twice as much tension than you're able to push against it. Almost every open area has multiple sniper perches or groups of flying enemies, necessitating constant engagement with manual aiming, and it feels awful. Jump is on up-C, by the way. A and B cycle your weapons up and down, but A is also confirm, so sometimes you just swap guns when you're trying to open a crate because you're not perfectly aligned. So, that all sucks, too.
To quote Mr. Mountain about the way this control scheme was designed around the Nintendo 64's unique limitations: "The solution we ended with is a beautiful thing. It feels very old-school to me; difficult, unforgiving, but ultimately precise."
Was there a gas leak in Rare's office?
I think CRTs help tremendously with the readability of Nintendo 64 games, but Jet Force Gemini is so muddy that it looks incomprehensible regardless of your display. Dog vomit looking game, just a swirl of greens and browns and yellows and enemies that mesh almost so perfectly against these soupy backdrops as to be camouflaged. You also have to keep an eye out for Tribals to save-- or blow up, if you'd like. As far as I can tell, there's no penalty to murdering them, which I like to do because this game has turned me into a loathsome creature. This drabness permeates into the story, which is treated with more self-seriousness than your typical Rare game, what with its depictions of things like firing squads. That's not to say you won't get some motherfucker named Gimlet rollin' up on you going "ho ho, I lost me pants~!" but even that classic Rare humour feels restrained when it does pop up.
About two hours in, I looked up the completion time on How Long to Beat and saw that an average playthrough is roughly 15 hours, so I knew I wasn't going to beat this thing without a Gameshark, and wouldn't you know it, mine is incompatible. Thank Christ. I see no reason to let Greg's abuse continue to influence me well into adulthood, so I'm putting this one back on the shelf where I will occasionally glare at it, perhaps even picking it up and muttering some curse words to it from time to time. If you ask me, that's the best way to enjoy Jet Force Gemini.
Stinky game. Don't play.

4.5/5 if you turn into a Tex Avery wolf and hit yourself in the head with a huge mallet every time you see some 32-bit titties bounce. 3/5 for everyone else.
This is my first Shantae game and it seems like a decent enough place to start. Real easy to get into, not a whole lot going on mechanically but has some interesting ideas. Caught somewhere between a proper search-action game and Monster World IV. The elephant and mermaid transformations feel underbaked compared to the monkey (which is adorable and fun to use), and I wish the dungeons had their own aesthetic theming. However, I think if the later games make good on the promise of Risky's Revenge, I'll have a great time with them.

If a monkey flew a plane for real, that would be the most fucked up thing ever.
Kart racers have come a long way, but the landscape in 1997 was largely colored by two Mario Karts and at least a dozen derivatives. Skunny Kart and BC Racers weren't lighting the world on fire, and even Mario Kart 64's main distinction was that it was in 3D now. And then Rare came along and was like "what if we put planes in a kart racer" and everyone cheered, and then they asked "what if there was boats, too?" and everyone screamed "No! NO! That's TOO FAR!!" but they did it anyway.
Diddy Kong Racing's unique features may not turn heads today, but this game was kind of wild in 97. Every established convention of the genre was played around with and pushed forward in some way. Why have a stock list of tracks to run through when you could have a whole hub world where exploration is key to progression? Why not have a story, additional battle modes, and boss fights? Why limit yourself to a kart when you can take to the skies or bounce off everything haphazardly in a hovercraft that makes you want to hold Diddy under water until the life leaves his eyes? boat
Similar to Goldeneye 64, Diddy Kong Racing benefitted from having a small team that was willing to design whatever they thought was fun rather than sticking to a rigid design doc. After all, this started as a real-time strategy game before undergoing a long metamorphosis into what it is today. I love diving into the development history of Rare games, especially during the Nintendo 64 era, because regardless of how their games turned out (god knows I have a lot of mixed feelings on them), the path they took from concept to release is always fascinating. In the case of Diddy Kong Racing, I think their unique approach to designing games paid off in some big ways, but it's not a perfect experience by any means. The balance is way off, and a few missions (especially boss fights) are unnecessarily brutal. Even as an adult who is more seasoned with kart racers, I found myself really bashing my head against a few parts of this game.
However, this is one of several games I played with my grandpa, and that means it's left an indelible mark on me. Its faults may be apparent, but my score should make it just as clear that I have a lot of affection for this one regardless. Is it nostalgic bias? Sure. And hey, when it really comes down to which kart racer I'm willing to aggressively go to bat for, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed takes a lot from Diddy Kong Racing's book and really runs with it. Far better game. It has Danica Patrick. Who does Diddy Kong Racing have? Banjo. I wanna punt that bozo into a volcano.

I was once told I was "the Blue Spheres guy," whatever the hell that means. Not that I don't value the recognition of my deep and unwavering love for Get Blue Spheres, the best special stage in the classic Sonic the Hedgehog series. Thankfully, Sega knew little freaks like me would want to play more than the meager 14 levels found across the entirety of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, so some genius at Sonic Team devised a way for Sonic & Knuckles to look at the ROM header of games locked onto it and generate new Blue Spheres levels based on what it finds. You know what that means?
Now, imagine being a kid in 1994, frequently using the level select cheat in Sonic 3 & Knuckles to play the special stages for fun. One day you pop in Sonic the Hedgehog thinking, I don't know, maybe it'll finally put Knuckles in the game this time, because you're 7-years-old and dumber than a brick. Of course it doesn't, but as you mash the buttons on the controller out of frustration, you happen to tap A+B+C simultaneously, unlocking the full Blue Sphere experience. I felt like I had broken out of the Matrix.
The way this all operates is pretty smart. As mentioned, Sonic & Knuckles looks at the ROM header of attached games, and based on the numerical value of the header, different prefab parts of a Blue Sphere stage are assembled. In total, there's 134,217,728 possible combinations, and when playing with Sonic the Hedgehog locked on, the player can freely edit the values of a header located on the bottom of the screen to play through them all (or they can be played sequentially.) So, how do you "beat" Blue Sphere? Conventional wisdom would say you have to clear over a hundred million levels, but that's just not feasible, so instead I locked on every single Genesis cart I own and beat the resulting levels. I feel like this is good enough to mark it as complete, but it should be a federal crime to log this game as "mastered" if you don't play and perfect all 134,217,728 levels. As the resident "blue sphere guy" I should be deputized and given the authority to ban people who fail to comply.
As a mode, Blue Spheres is unsurprisingly my favorite among the classic Sonic special stages. These were always designed as technical set pieces, more concerned with showing off than creating something particularly fun to play, but Sonic Team finished strong with this one. Each level is its own puzzle to figure out, and in the case of the "stand alone" game, the interlocking nature of each stage's prefabricated parts heightens the level of problem-solving involved due to how confounding some of the resulting layouts can be. I find this to be pretty engaging, though some presets seem to be more common than others, and when you have a stack of 26 games to go through, you'll probably start to see some levels with a few too many repeating parts.
Not that this totally kills my enjoyment, of course, as I can always use my increasing familiarity with certain stage elements as an excuse to begin perfecting runs. I think it was a really smart move to put this additional layer of ring collecting on top of grabbing blue spheres, as it challenges the player to consider how to collect every ring before ending the stage early, and getting a "perfect" provides a means of marking the player's skill that prior special stages did not.
None of this would work if the player felt like they lacked control over Sonic, and any dip in performance that resulted in colliding with a dreaded red sphere would make the whole thing come crashing down. Thankfully, Sonic Team was able to push beyond the choppy nature of Sonic 2's halfpipes and awful performance of Sonic CD's UFO hunts, and though it runs at a compromised 30fps, Blue Spheres is at least consistent and predictable. I also love the theme music. Probably one of my favorite tracks in the entire series, and I am endlessly amused by it being reused from SegaSonic Bros, (not that this series is any stranger to recycling music.) Some of my earliest memories are of my parents on the cusp of divorce arguing in the next room, and me cranking the volume up while playing Blue Spheres so the music would drown them out.
Thank you for being part of my childhood, Blue Spheres!

What if Weatherby was Locked in the Time Chamber with Budokai 2 and Betrayed? Full Review (4:23:38)
I think Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 2 gets a bad rap. Sure, in the pantheon of Dragon Ball Z fighting games, it shouldn't be your first, fifth, or even tenth choice, but at the time this was a notable improvement over the first Budokai, which you'll note I gave a 2/5 which means it's BAD! Since I am the foremost authority on Dragon Ball (I've spent over a thousand dollars on SH Figuarts and I have held my VizBig collected editions more than I have a woman), you'll just have to trust my assessment here. I've been in the lab mixing brightly colored chemical compounds in beakers and flasks to prove scientifically that Budokai 2 is an underrated gem, and I'm finally prepared to share with you the fruits of my research: deadly mustard gas!
oh FUCK oh NO!!
Budokai 2 is really just more of the first game with a few extra flourishes to improve the experience. The most effective way to win any match is still throwing out the ol' P-P-P-P-E combo, or initiating a series of kicks such that the enemy will always collide with your heel the second they get up. Budokai is not the thinkin' man's fighting game series, it never was, though the inclusion of rock/paper/scissors guessing games and Mario Party analog twirling on certain attacks do attempt to make fighting more engaging, albeit on a superficial level.
Speaking of Mario Party, I've got to talk about "Dragon World." The choice to move away from a linear story mode to something fashioned after a party game is definitely an interesting one, and I think it mostly pays off here, even if it's a tad underbaked. This might sound crazy coming from someone who is so often repelled by the Mario Party series, but it's not like Frieza can get the "Most Happenin'" Dragon Ball because he stole all of your Senzu beans. This isn't a luck-based system, it's a game of skill!
Again, this is not a particularly robust mode. You mostly move Goku and a couple other character tokens around on a board picking fights with Saiba Men and more powerful characters with registered trademarks next to their name, occasionally veering off to grab power-ups. The story pushes away from the same tired, truncated retelling of Dragon Ball Z's narrative, remixing elements in order to accommodate Dragon World's unique style of play. Majin Frieza and Majin Cell are not canon, but they are present here to offer a bit more variety, and I appreciate that. I do think Dragon World would've been better served by having some mini-games on the board, perhaps some point-control elements, or anything else to shake things up, but it does work as a good proof-of-concept for a Dragon Ball party game we never got. All I'm saying is, if it were up to me I'd have it so Garlic Jr. occasionally drops in to syphon a portion of everyone's Ki and then redistribute it based on the results of an entirely rigged mini game, but hey, these things often aren't perfect the first time around.
While I may not agree with the assessment that this is "the worst one," it's also not a game that I'd recommend unless you're as much of a Dragon Ball mark as I am. In which case, it's also only really worth checking out for the novelty of Dragon World. Budokai 3 is the best entry in the series by far, and when it really comes down to which Budokai you play, it's a no brainer. Still, despite its shortcomings I find it hard to have a bad time with Budokai 2.

I had a friend in middle school name Gary. Or maybe it was George. Gir... Giraldo? It was some kinda G name. We bonded over Battlebots and for a while we tried to build one of our own, which was just an RC car we stuck a really long nail to that we found near some train tracks. Gabe was also obsessed with Dark Cloud, Level-5's debut game and a cult classic for the PlayStation 2 that otherwise would've totally passed me by were it not for long afternoons of watching him crawl through dungeons after test driving Naildoser.
This review is dedicated to Naildoser, who sadly perished when Grant's mom backed over it with her car.
The last time I saw Dark Cloud being played was like, 2003, so I'd entirely forgotten what kind of game this is outside of vaguely knowing it to be an RPG. Going in with fresh eyes left me open to a number of surprises, like protagonist Toan giving a magic item to a stray cat that turns it into a very young looking girl that hugs his leg and calls him "master," and whatever the hell this is. This game might've been made by perverts. It was also made by a team that clearly took a few ideas from Actraiser. Dark Cloud is a hybrid action-RPG/city sim, wherein you scour procedurally generated dungeons for missing homesteads, residents, and items to restore a broken world. However, unlike Actraiser, the balance is way off and Dark Cloud fails to establish a satisfying rhythm between these two disparate gameplay types.
Neither dungeon crawling nor city building have any real depth. As mentioned, dungeons use procedural generation, meaning they're all random combinations of the same open spaces and hallways with aesthetics and enemies changing between locations. It reminds me a lot of Persona 4, and much like Persona 4, Dark Cloud artificially limits the amount of time you spend in a dungeon. Rather than doing so by making MP a precious resource, it instead employs some of the worst weapon degradation I've ever encountered in a video game. I'm talking two combos being enough to snap your +3 Sun Sword like a twig even after applying endurance buffs. It is insane, and I'd go so far as to say it's ill-advised to dive into a dungeon without half your inventory being composed entirely of repair powders. Toan just coming out of these dungeons covered in a thick layer of gold dust and a wild look in his eyes. Maybe I'm a bit biased here, because I think weapon degradation is an inherently awful mechanic that I've never found additive to the experience of playing a game. No follow up to that statement.
City building is also very rudimentary, and largely amounts to slotting specific items and townspeople into set buildings, then plopping them down on the map and speaking to their respective residents for a reward. You can fulfill additional requests, all of which relate to the proximity of their building to certain landmarks, but this is all optional and the game can be a bit finicky about registering whether these requests are satisfied. That's pretty much it, though. There's no method of taxation to increase your party's funds, no resource management, and extremely few townspeople are story or progression relevant. In fact, most barely have any dialog at all. This is fine for the most part, but I would have appreciated it if the game found new ways to make you consider how you're laying out your villages or populated them with more interesting characters.
The worst part about Dark Cloud is that none of these systems ever evolve. It is mechanically unwavering, shallow yet constant. New party members barely change how you actually play, and they all have zero plot significance or even dialog after joining you. Despite initially gelling with how quaint Dark Cloud is, it quickly became a chore. Like, great, I need to get five layers of the sunken ship done tonight. Maybe if I knock that out fast enough I can watch a show or cook a meal. Aw shit, my +5 Magic Hammer broke in two and I lost an hour of progress, I guess I'm eating out tonight, not enough time to make myself a meal.
On some level this makes sense. That level is Level-5 (HhhhhaaaaaaHA!) because this was their first game, and I have to assume they only had so much to work with. Dark Cloud feels like a vertical slice that happens to run 30 hours. There's good ideas, but all of them lack substance. Hell, there's virtually no plot to speak of outside of the first and last hour of the game. I have faith that Dark Cloud 2 resolves a lot of my issues as it seems to be better received, but I'm going to need a pretty big break before I get to it. Need to play something a bit more engaging, like uhhh... Xenosaga Episode 1.
I'm gonna go lay down behind Garrett's mom's car.

Begging developers of NES styled action-platformers to put checkpoints in their levels. It's ok to do it, I promise you it's not illegal.
I think there is this prevailing sentiment in some circles that any game fashioned after a 8 or 16-bit classic is inherently good and worthy of praise. I've seen it as far back as Pier Solar and even more recently with the (also WaterMelon published) Paprium. While I don't share the same rapid-fire acceptance of these sorts of games, I am consistently intrigued by them, and it doesn't take much convincing to get me to try one. Unlike those games, Oniken - a Joymasher developed send up to Ninja Gaiden - is not so slavishly dedicated to being able to run on the hardware it is ostensibly made for, but holy hell is it faithful in terms of design.
That's not to say it's this merciless, ultra-difficult game with enemies flooding the screen haphazardly, but there is a strong expectation placed on the player to learn level layouts and enemy patterns through rote memorization. You'll probably be replaying levels almost in their entirety once you hit level 4, and most of my deaths came from being under-prepared for boss encounters than outright dying to stage hazards. This is all very typical of this sort of game, and if anything Oniken is a little too by-the-numbers. Outside of the obvious aesthetic nods to Fist of the North Star, there's not a whole lot here to give it its own identity. Vice: Project D.O.O.M. came out in 1991 and feels more ambitious.
Some of the later levels also drag, and dying to a boss will send you all the way back to the start of the stage. I love Castlevania so this shouldn't really annoy me as much as it does, but the difference here is that Oniken fails to create a satisfying loop, and so it starts to feel like you're just having your time wasted. Once you get the hang of a level, it feels good enough, but by that point my sense of satisfaction from overcoming the odds was diminished by how irritated I was having to redo the same long barrier-filled corridor or lengthy conveyor belt sequence. Many of the bosses are designed around you having less health than necessary to tank them, so their patterns aren't particularly challenging, and I just feel that with the length of some of these levels, Oniken might've been better off with a few checkpoints and some more thoughtful boss encounters.
It's still a perfectly fine game, I just wasn't all that impressed with it. Decent enough given how cheap it is, not a bad way to fill a couple hours on a Sunday morning, but I wouldn't say you should rush out and get this thing ASAP. I finished its six levels and... wait a second, there's a seventh level? Ah damnit...

The true Wave Race is when you hotwire an ice cream truck by the boardwalk and crash it in a sandbank after a low-speed chase with the Santa Monica PD, only to shake them a few hours later after stealing someone's jet ski and taking to sea. I can't see the shore anymore, in all directions is an endless expanse of blue. If the cops think they can wait me out back on land, they've got another thing coming. I can stay here forever under the providence of the Pacific, whose gentle waves provide me an endless bounty. You can pick a crab up and bite into it like an apple out here.
This leaves me plenty of time to talk about Wave Race 64, a beloved Nintendo 64 classic and certifiable Summah game. This was one of the first titles to hit the 64, and it's a damn impressive one. Think about going from 2D games to something like this, where the crashing waves bop your jet ski around and influence the physicality of every race. This was a pretty big jump, and a very important one in the paradigm shift from 2D to 3D, and while it may not look or feel as impressive today, I think the water effects still exude that Silicon Graphics charm. There's something about old water effects in games that I find very appealing, the GameCube has some great examples of this too, particularly with Super Mario Sunshine.
The controls are also very intuitive, and for much of the same reason Mario 64's were. Although Nintendo wasn't the first to market with a 3D machine, they were still setting the standard for how they played. Their early games in particular feel very thoughtfully designed, crafted around the unique form factor of their controller and kept as simple as possible to make it easier for kids to jump right in and have fun. The analog stick never feels like a hindrance, even after decades of refining how 3D games play, and you can just as easily slip into a game of Wave Race 64 today as you could in 1996, making it a perfect cart to pluck off the shelf when you want to cool off during a hot Summah day-
uh wait, that sounds like an engine, hold on
one of ya'll can help me make bail, right? i hit what i hope was a manatee on the way out here so i think it's going to be expensive

The perfect Summah game. There's no stakes, no struggle, just you and the open skies and the rolling blue waves. The kind of game you throw on during a hot Summah month, basking in the buzz of your CRT in your tank top and shorts, AC roarin', window open so the whole world can see how you live, no shame in your soul because you've given yourself over to the Summah Vibes. Why does this grown man own so many toys? Hey pal, you're lookin' through my window into my home, maybe you should get yourself a tangerine push-up and a copy of Pilotwings 64 and learn to live a little.
Wait, what do you mean rent is due? Nah man, rent is like, a Spring or a Wintah concept. Rent's not real when you're havin' a Summah! Comin' to collect is a violation of Summah Law. What do you mean Summah Law doesn't exist? Are you trying to tell me, as I roll my bare toes through a kiddie pool full of sand that I've brought into my living room, that you're going to evict me and take my deposit? Take my Summah?
ah shit, i'm in trouble. can i crash at your place for a few nights? i'll bring Pilotwings 64 and we can have ourselves a little Summah, just you and me. i know i promised not to do this again but i have nowhere to go please don't hang up plea

I got Sonic in my pocket. Shrunk him down, been feeding him grains of rice and water from a thimble.
It's 1999 and Dimps is given their first 2D Sonic assignment, and what do they come up with? An 8-bit game released for the Neo Geo Pocket Color that remixes Sonic the Hedgehog 2 levels with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles music. It almost feels like a ROM hack or a practical joke, because it's just so weird. And yet, it kinda works?
Naturally, Sonic Pocket Adventure suffers from some of the same problems as the Game Gear games. The screen crunch is still pretty bad and level designs are dumbed down, but it makes up for these shortcomings by providing a good sense of speed and spectacle. Yeah, you might not feel particularly inclined to explore, but levels do have a good sense of flow, and it's impressive to see how well the Sonic 2 special stages are carried over here. It's a sort of half-step between the original 8-bit titles and the 16-bit classics, not quite what you'd want from a 2D Sonic but a definite improvement from the Master System days.
I kind of miss this period in the late 90's and early 2000s where other companies were (again) trying to break into the handheld market. Much of this era was defined by the tastes of Japanese consumers, which meant you got a lot of strange, varied devices with shells that played to the unique aesthetic of the early aughts, which is to say they looked a bit over-designed and gaudy in a way that was wonderfully charming. And then the Gizmondo came along like an out-of-control Ferrari Enzo and fucked it all up.
There have been others since who have tried to take some of Nintendo's marketshare, but as time goes on these wouldbe competitors are offering devices that all feel very homogenized - especially as performance starts to intersect with home consoles - resulting in handhelds that are far less unique and lacking in the sort of personality characteristic of those in the early 2000s. What I'm saying is, you can't just emulate Sonic Pocket Adventure on your Steamdeck and get the same experience. You'll think you have experienced it, but you'll be cheated. It's such a sadness that you think you've played Sonic Pocket Adventure on your fucking Steamdeck. Get real.