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Aside from maybe the Touhou fandom, furries are perhaps the single most dedicated group of people on the Internet. It’s become so widespread at this point that trying to go through every single piece of art, music, animation, etc. ever produced within it would be an absurd feat. This isn’t even mentioning how high-quality a lot of it is; chances are, if you go to a furry artist, cough up the cash and ask for a big buff wolf [REDACTED] while [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], you’ll get exactly what you wanted and it’ll be even better than what you imagined. Naturally, with the fandom being as massive and devoted as it is, original video games would naturally emerge from it. Most of these are of the visual novel variety, all of varying tones and subject matter, and very rarely try to punch outside of their strike zone in terms of who they’re appealing to. However, that now appears to change with Tribal Hunter, Melonsoda Soft’s debut game which has just fattened up and ballooned its way out of early access.
With that expertly set up theme established in that last sentence, it’s time for me to answer the million-dollar question: is Tribal Hunter a fetish game? Yesn’t. There are definitely lots of aspects about the design that are specifically geared towards those interested in vore, weight gain, and inflation, and they’re all about as you’d expect from just that description. However, while a lot of content in the game is suggestive of those things, nothing is ever explicit, and outside of those suggestive elements, the game is about as tame as a Saturday morning cartoon. This is a game that refers to a butt as a “caboose” because “butt” is just far too crass, which makes the moments where the game will have a boss shake said caboose at the screen after eating the main character all the more humorous. All this being said, the game’s tone overall is light and playful, and outside of a couple moments where things get a little indulgent, someone could walk in on you playing this and not question a thing. So while the game does appeal to the developers’ fetishes a fair bit, it’s nothing that ever becomes the focus outside of the core gameplay mechanics of things becoming bigger or smaller.
That’s the gist of it: the game’s a Metroidvania with a heavy emphasis on platforming and brawler combat, with the main mechanic being that you can gradually change the size of the main character, Munch, at any given point. You start off as an extremely thin little gremlin, which will likely be your ideal way for traversing platforming challenges as your movement is fast and fluid. As you get larger, whether that be by consuming enemies, food pick-ups or any of the many varieties of slime, your movement is inhibited, but your punches hit harder and have much more range. That being said, you can’t eat too much or lose too much of your health, otherwise Munch is going to pop like a balloon and you’ll have to restart from your last checkpoint. Luckily, as this is a Metroidvania, you can increase your stats by way of many upgrades you’ll find along your journey. Strength, health and magic can all be upgraded by spending XP you get from felled enemies, and you can increase your stomach capacity by finding popper mushrooms, which are consumable items hidden across each of the stages. You’ll need to increase said stomach capacity because unlike other Metroidvanias, you don’t get any new weapons along the journey or anything like that; no, your main weapon is the sheer strength of your big meaty claws. Increasing your stomach capacity, and by extension increasing your damage output from punches and how much resistance you have to enemies force-feeding you, is vital in order to prepare yourself against the rising threats ahead of you.
Enemies are often placed in very large quantities within each section of an area, with unique ways of attacking you and different methods for taking them down. Some will attack in specific patterns you have to memorize, others will have weapons or armor they can use to get a temporary upper hand, some can just straight up consume you while proceeding to force-feed you with God knows what, and so on and so forth. This is coupled with the fact that enemies will often swarm you in groups and use their attacks all at the same time again and again, forcing you to deal with them as quick as you can manage. At first, this made me a bit worried, as I feared that the game would quickly devolve into button-mashing, but luckily there are a few things that keep the variety up. For one, your constantly-changing size and the fact that you have magic spells at your disposal means that your strategy from encounter to encounter can vary wildly depending on the situation. And for two, the level sections are large enough and designed in such a way that allows you to properly take a breather to heal up and/or do some more platforming. Said platforming is really good to boot; each area has its own unique stage gimmicks and distinct method of traversing through them, with plenty of little secrets to find, mini-games to play, shops to buy items and NPCs to talk to. It reminded me a lot of Cave Story in how it felt to traverse, and that coupled with the presentation even made me mentally draw comparisons to Drawn to Life. Once that particular neuron fired, I was on board to see the rest of the adventure through.
Said presentation is super charming and endearing. If I had to explain what it’s like, I’d say it’s in a middle-ground between gay kemono art, Nintendo DS pixel art, and old fan games of days gone by. Pretty much every single character design is super adorable in its own way, all with really cute and expressive details to even simple things like idle animations. You could show me art of almost any character from this game, and I would be able to pinpoint it exactly back to this game because of how memorable the designs are. The game overall is super bright and colorful, with lots of different themes for areas while still keeping the general aesthetic consistent, and each area containing lots of tiny details that add to the personality of the game as a whole. The music, likewise, lies on an almost perfect upward trajectory, where each song is better than the last. It starts out already pretty good, with playful sample usage and restrained use of leitmotif, and then with each succeeding song, the compositions just get better and better until hitting a crescendo of awesome themes, especially for the last few bosses. This is all coupled with a story that matches that same playfulness, with that Saturday morning cartoon feel I mentioned earlier. The stakes are never too high, all the friendly characters are incredibly cheerful, the villains are super over-the-top and goofy, and the game will occasionally have cutscenes to just let the characters do something charming or quirky, which more often than not managed to get a chuckle out of me.
There are a couple of issues worth noting, the biggest of which being the difficulty. It’s got that usual problem of indie games where the game will be a relatively cozy ride for the most part, but near the end suddenly spike up and aspire to a Soulsian Touhou level of challenge that feels really out of place. My personal experience with this was the penultimate boss, where I reached it and realized I was far too underleveled to even survive for longer than a few seconds. That caused me to have to grind to get more XP, and grinding in any context is always quite the pace killer for me personally. I eventually got enough to take them down proper, only to see that that was just the first phase, and there was still more to deal with. Once that phase killed me, usually quickly because I would get caught in the insta-kill attack it adds, I would have to do the entire first phase again, cutscenes and all. The game overall, while being very polished for the most part, sometimes lacks it in very bizarre ways. Boss cutscenes are unskippable as mentioned before, sound effects can sometimes be way too loud or way too quiet, and I clipped through level geometry more than once, one time skipping past an entire boss because of it.
That being said, those issues still shouldn’t deter you away from playing Tribal Hunter if you’re at all interested in it. It’s just a really solid indie Metroidvania with a ton of charm and a main mechanic that stands out as legitimately unique in the genre, which could have only come about thanks to a complete lack of shame on the behalf of the developers. If you’re one of those people that’s hesitant to play it because it’s perceived as “the fatfur game”, don’t be; everything about the design ensures that this is a fun game first, and furry bait second, though that doesn’t make the furry bait part a bad thing in the slightest. Really, so what if the game includes a bunch of characters’ bellies getting extremely large? You can just enjoy the game, and probably not get some new fetishes out of it… emphasis on probably.
I’ve dropped off of Nintendo games for a while at this point. I have Yuzu and Ryujinx, but mainly only really use them to play weird indie stuff that shows up on the eShop, and don’t even give the first-party stuff a cursory glance. Barring any scummy behavior on the business side of things, there aren’t a lot of games from Nintendo being made as of late that catch my interest or look particularly interesting at all. Despite this, recently my boyfriend suggested that I play Super Mario Sunshine on a whim, and I naturally agreed, while also realizing that out of all the mainline Mario games, Super Mario Sunshine was the only one I hadn’t played yet. Seeing that I’ve got more college classes starting soon, and the game’s twentieth anniversary is fast approaching, it just seemed right to see it through. After playing through it with no nostalgia for it whatsoever, it made me remember what I used to love about Nintendo not too long ago, even though the experience maybe wasn’t the most ideal at points.
The funny thing is, right from the get-go it feels distinctly different from the standard Mario fare in many ways. On their way to take a vacation to Isle Delfino, Mario, Peach and Toadsworth land on the island to find that the airstrip appears to have been vandalized with some sort of paint-like goop, and being the good-natured Nintendo protagonist guy that he is, Mario equips a device called FLUDD and promptly cleans the mess up. Afterwards, Mario is suddenly arrested by the Piantas, the main residents of Isle Delfino, and found guilty of vandalizing the entire island with the goop, along with stealing the Shine Sprites that keep the island bright and sunny. Mario spends the game charged with both cleaning up the island and getting the Shine Sprites back, all while dealing with an impersonator of Mario called Shadow Mario that’s truly responsible for the crimes and is the one making sure that Peach fills her being kidnapped quota for the time being. It’s one of many aspects of this game that make it feel odd in contrast to the usual Mario setup, and that’s apparent even through just the way it’s presented. Every level has many Piantas and Nokis that can be talked to and usually have some funny and/or weird thing to say, the game has FMV cutscenes connecting one bit of the story to the next, and it has actual voice acting (which is terrible, but also doesn’t even show up in the game that much, so it balances out, I think?). As stated, it feels incredibly different, but it’s a welcome change, especially with how it contributes to what the game sets out to do setting-wise.
More than any other Mario game, and really most Nintendo series, the mission with this game appears to be to make the world feel like an actual lived-in place. Of course, this game was leading off from Super Mario 64, and that game felt very purely platformer-ish, if that makes sense. The basic SGI workstation textures, the fact that most levels are just floating above an endless void; it all feels very abstract and minimalist, which works in its context of being an introductory game to free 3D movement. Super Mario Sunshine kicks that abstraction out the window in favor of focusing on making Isle Delfino almost feel like it could be an actual resort destination, with the old-fashioned Nintendo whimsicality spicing things up. Every location is based on somewhere you would find on such a vacation, such as small towns, harbors, theme parks and hotels, along with more natural locations like beachsides and waterfalls also showing up from time to time. No matter where you look, there’s palm trees, scenic vistas and some of the most lovingly-crafted ocean water in a video game, which looks tantalizingly drinkable. This is coupled with some of the more outlandish NPC and enemy designs in the series, with the enemies specifically putting some wacky spins on classic baddies in an art style that doesn’t look too dissimilar to what’s been found of Shigeru Miyamoto’s hand-drawn doodles. It feels both familiar and entirely new, a foray away from “level themes” and into an entire world to explore, in a way that invokes the difference between Super Mario World and its NES predecessors, especially in the music. A lot of it is variations on a single motif played in different contexts depending on the area, just like how it was in World complete with the added flavor of stuff like steel drums and calypso rhythms. The entire game tries to be to 64 what World was to the NES games, and I’d say presentation-wise, it gets there and then some.
But then about the gameplay… what about the gameplay? It’s a 3D Mario game. Jump around with no less than ten variations of a single jump, complete objectives within a jungle gym-like space, collect shiny object, and repeat. I don’t know what I could say that doesn’t sound like a repeat of every single description of a Mario game ever, it just is. I will admit, I was playing this right after playing Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, and going right from a small-moveset 3D platformer to a large-moveset 3D platformer made me have a bit of a moment trying to adjust to all the subtly different ways you can make a character jump, though I eventually managed. Obviously the most unique addition to Sunshine is FLUDD, a hose-jetpack hybrid thing that Mario almost always has on him during the game. It starts off with two modes: the default one, where you simply spray water in front of you, and the hover nozzle, which as the name suggests, lets you hover for a brief period of time. Spraying water in front of you doesn’t really have that much practical application outside of when you’re required to use it, be it cleaning up the goop on the ground, stunning specific enemies or aiming water at specific targets. You can move around quickly by spraying water and diving in quick succession, but there’s not a lot of areas where you can actually do so and not bump into a wall. There are two unlockable modes, the rocket nozzle and turbo nozzle, but both are even more situational and really only serve as a means to either find small alternate paths within levels or have specially-built challenges for them. The one you’ll likely get the most use out of is the hover nozzle, acting as this game’s replacement for the long jump. At any time, using the hover nozzle will allow Mario to… well, hover for a short amount of time, and unlike the long jump, will allow you to land exactly where you want easier. This can be awesome when paired with the spin jump, making its return from Super Mario World but functioning rather differently. The spin jump itself goes much higher than a standard jump, but normally is much harder to steer than a standard jump. However, using the hover nozzle allows you to reposition yourself to roughly where you want after a spin jump, thus canceling out the slow steering of the spin jump. It became quite the spectacle to make an otherwise huge section of platforming easy with a well-timed spin jump and a hover blast sending Mario flying across stages and only one hit point worse for wear… almost too easy. I know 3D Mario games are known for having their levels be navigable in a variety of ways that can skip entire sections, but sometimes, I almost felt like I was skipping too much.
That’s when Super Mario Sunshine started to pull out some of the rather dastardly tricks up its sleeve. I’ll say right now that by the end of the game, I had sixty-four out of the one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites in the game, going and collecting all the mandatory ones while also going for extra ones if I happened to stumble across them in my travels. When they work, the missions to get the Shine Sprites are very fun; they’re full of inventive platforming and neat objectives that can sometimes be very creative within the context of the stage you’re in. When they don’t work… hoo boy. To start with, some of the missions can be surprisingly cryptic with what exactly you have to do, with the objective either being unclear or misleading. There’s one mission in Noki Bay where you’re pointed to some ruins and told to explore them to find the boss fight of that mission. After spending an obscene amount of time running around and collecting more blue coins than I ever needed, it turned out I needed to go to a completely different part of the level and make my way up the cliffside to get to where the boss actually was. Another level in Sirena Beach had me wandering aimlessly wondering what I was supposed to do, but it turned out I had to look for an inconspicuous leak in the hotel bathroom and clip through the ceiling to get to the rest of the freaking level. Never with any other Mario game was I forced to look up a guide this much. And the jank… holy crap, the jank. Super Mario Sunshine had a notably rushed development compared to other mainline Mario games, and when it shows, it really shows. Bosses will sometimes get stuck in loops where you can’t attack for way longer than usual, gimmicks such as rideable Bloopers or boats have strange control and collision properties that more often than not result in your death, Mario himself can sometimes be flung out of control by unwieldy stage hazards, and this is all on top of lots of copy-pasted objectives and some freakish obsession the game has with red coins.
This all comes to a head in the game’s “secret stages”. At points, Mario will have FLUDD stolen away from him by Shadow Mario, and is teleported to some cosmic plane of non-existence where linear platforming challenges aimlessly float within a psychedelic sphere of train doodles and 8-bit Mario sprites, almost like prototype concepts for Super Mario Galaxy stages. I found these stages fine for the most part, they were harmless enough additions even though they kind of broke away from the established theming of the game. When they got frustrating, though, that frustration was of the infuriating kind. No, I’m not talking about the chucksters, or the pachinko stage, or the poison river; those were annoying, yes, but I must have gotten incredibly lucky, because I didn’t struggle for too long with those. The infuriating part I’m talking about was the eternal battle between Mario and the ever-dreaded rotating platforms. In this game, there appears to be some sort of binary state between platform and slope, which for most of the stages, is very easy to distinguish between and not really worth thinking about. In these secret stages, though, where certain platforms will rotate at a set speed, this binary completely falls apart, and Mario becomes a regular Schrödinger’s cat as he either makes it through completely safe or goes plummeting to his doom with no way to control the outcome. The people I was playing this game with on Discord looked on with a mix of amusement and horror as I got stuck on “The Hotel Lobby’s Secret” for a good three hours because of one single rotating platform near the end really favoring the “Mario plummeting to his doom” side of the platform-slope binary.
There’s been a lot of complaining in the back half of this review, which probably slants this review more negative, but I want to clarify that none of these issues were ever enough to make me want to stop playing or abandon the game entirely. If I were going for one-hundred percent, I might be singing a different tune (and incidentally, I think the developers intentionally made the one-hundred percent completion reward underwhelming to discourage people from going after it), but I rarely go for one-hundred percent completion in most games anyway. Like I said, playing through this game reminded me of why I liked Nintendo in the first place; they were laid-back, they were weird, they weren’t afraid to try new ideas even if they made little sense to anyone but themselves. Not all this game’s experiments pan out, but ultimately, the point of experimenting is to take a risk and see if it produces something worthwhile, and for the most part it does. At the end of the day, Super Mario Sunshine is just simply a fun game, complete with a distinct setting that makes it feel uniquely its own compared to other entries in the series. It’s definitely a bit smelly compared to other mainline Mario games, but at least it smells like coconuts and ocean waves.
I have quite the… intense obsession with Crash Bandicoot, let’s just say. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back was the first video game I ever played and still remains as one of my all-time favorites, I’ve completed many of the games multiple times over, and I even have an old promotional Crash poster signed by Andy Gavin himself. Needless to say, I have a lot of love for all those games, the original ones developed by Naughty Dog specifically, so it’s very weird that I haven’t given Jak and Daxter that much time. I had always heard it was very similar to Crash, and in middle school I had the HD collection of all three games, but aside from giving all those games the equivalent of a taste test, completing Jak and Daxter just wasn’t high on my priority list for whatever reason. Maybe Jak 2 and 3 just left a bad taste in my mouth back then, which I’ll get to later, but the recent OpenGOAL project inspired me to finally go back and play the original game to see what I was missing. Wouldn’t you know it, it managed to hook me almost instantly, and for what many people would probably consider a stupid reason. Simply put, it is Crash Bandicoot. Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is one of the Naughty Dog-developed Crash games, in its scrunkly-spinning, wood-breaking, linear 3D platforming glory, with enough key differences to separate it from its PS1 predecessors (or I guess precursors, in this case).
The plot and characters are obviously the main separating factor at play here. You play as the combination of Jak, a mute elf boy with the usual platformer prerequisite high athletic ability, and Daxter, a loudmouthed ottsel (otter and weasel) that serves to offer occasional quips and commentary as he tags along with Jak. At the beginning of the game, it’s shown that Daxter and Jak were traveling around a place they shouldn’t have, with Daxter accidentally falling into a vat of dark eco and transforming into said ottsel. Obviously distraught at this, he and Jak are sent on a quest by the old sage Samos to find someone that can change him back to normal, while also facing the ever-looming threat of Gol and Maia, two younger sages that want to harness the power of dark eco for their own gain. It’s a very thin plot, with it mainly serving as an excuse to have a grand platforming adventure to collect a bunch of things, but it’s not like platformers and especially collectathons really need much more than that. The setting is really interesting, what with it being a fantasy world with an implied high-tech past that has long been gone, and when the plot does show up, it’s usually to have some pretty funny exchanges in dialogue between villagers of the places you’re visiting, all of which are insanely well-animated and varied given how early on this game came out in the PS2’s life.
Which brings us to the subject that the game looks freaking gorgeous almost all the way through. I mentioned I was playing the new PC port, but having seen the original PS2 version and the PS3 HD collection, I can safely say they all look pretty much the same save for the higher resolution. Every area is so bright and vibrant, with tons of colorful details popping out of every corner as you explore all these vast landscapes. Expansive sixth-gen-y beachsides, little explorable villages, mysterious jungles and caves and even lost underwater cities are among just some of the areas you’ll find on your journey, each with its own distinct color palette and unique landmarks while still feeling cohesive with one another. Every area is given this distinct sense of mystique to them by way of this tribal-ish aesthetic, with everything from the characters to the buildings to even collectibles looking as though they could have been designs in some cult classic comic book. Granted, I vibe with jungle and tribal aesthetics in general, but the way the game presents that is definitely one of the most immersive. Walking around any of the areas is a treat just to soak in the atmosphere that they all bring, getting lost in all these different locales as the combination of detailed lighting, texture and animation work washes over you. The music is a help in this too, with lots of ambient soundscapes, soft-timbre melodies and rhythmic but not intrusive drum patterns humming away, making that feeling of otherworldliness even more potent. If I did have to nitpick, it’s that while the animation work is spectacular, the actual character models themselves don’t always look that great, with some of the expressions and faces especially looking extremely odd and distorted. It’s an early PS2 game, so I can excuse it for the most part, and it’s not like you’re going to be seeing the character models particularly close up a lot of the time anyway considering the open world aspect.
The game’s USP, and by extension what most people will bring up when you mention Jak and Daxter, is that the game has no loading times between levels. Every single area is interconnected, so you could theoretically walk from the very starting area all the way to the final boss arena if you really wanted to. The funny thing is, it’s not really an open world per se, but if anything, it’s far better for it. What I mean by that is that a lot of open world games will have about five percent of the game actually designed with the remaining ninety-five percent being huge expanses of absolutely nothing. This game is far smarter than that, as it simply recontextualizes the very linear platforming challenges from Crash in a different way so that it feels more open and cohesive. The central village hubs are essentially the warp rooms of this game, but unlike those, it isn’t separated geologically, and you do a fair bit of platforming within them to reach the levels. Once you do, the levels do have a fair bit more branching paths and open areas than a Crash game ever did, but are still designed in such a way so that you can go in, be able to find most of the collectibles through a string of very logically laid out pathways, and be lead naturally back around to the start of the area. Not to mention, ideas that would have required a whole separate gimmick or stage in a Crash game, such as riding vehicles or power-ups, are now able to be rolled in as part of these larger levels, such as with the zoomer and the different temporary eco buffs. These different alterations are incredibly clever ways of taking pre-established ideas and re-appropriating them in a way that makes them feel new.
I don’t want to give off the impression that Jak and Daxter is completely devoid of new ideas, though, because it really isn’t. Jak does play extremely similar to Crash, spin move and everything, but there have been lots of small alterations to make traversing the more open areas that much more fun. For example, when spinning after a jump, Jak will gain just a tiny bit more height on top of the jump height, thus making it so any platforms that might have otherwise been just out-of-reach a non-issue. There’s also now a roll move, separate from the slide-like punch in that it acts as both a way to quickly traverse long pathways and also find creative ways to cross large gaps, while also being just stiff enough so that it can’t be abused to skip whole entire areas, at least not consistently. Vehicle segments have also have seen upgrades; the aforementioned zoomer controls almost exactly like the jet ski in Crash 3, but now has a dedicated hop button, which both makes it feel nicer and also allows the areas with it to be more varied. These changes in movement, combined with a fair bit of design choices that more modern platformers have stuck to such as infinite lives, make Jak a very comfortable and breezy experience the whole way through; it never gets as punishingly hard as any of the Crash games could get. Even when I had some certified platformer moments™ like going through a whole vertical challenge and falling at the last moment back to the ground below, it was never too much of an ask to give it another try due to the forgiving checkpoint and life systems, as well as Jak just being fun to control. That’s not to say that the Crash games were wrong for not having these aspects, as those have a lot of design elements there that work within those games’ set boundaries, I’m just trying to articulate how elements from those games were edited and updated for the context of this game.
To think, those elements could have been worked on further, were it not for Naughty Dog misstepping so hard after this game that they broke both their ankles permanently. Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy has an already great basis that built off the Crash games and could have been further expanded upon into something truly astounding, but Naughty Dog themselves have seemed to treat it like their old shame ever since. First the sequels went the way of the grimdark and turned into mediocre GTA clones with extremely repetitive driving and gun-focused mission-based gameplay, and they gave up on stylized games entirely when they went to work on Uncharted and later The Last of Us, which is like the world’s best steak chef willingly deciding to make McDonald’s burgers the rest of his life. The thing is, I don’t even see why it even had to be this way. They could have just grit their teeth, held on throughout the years and continued iterating on the colorful platforming they were best at, with Jak sequels that actually make sense and possibly new platformer series after that. By now they could have made something that not only rivals modern 3D platforming efforts, but possibly be something even better than Crash 2, to date still my favorite Naughty Dog game. Perhaps one could say that even the Crash games were sticking to trends of their era, but I think those games and this game are proof that they are able to twist those trends in unique and technically impressive ways, instead of just following them as if getting dragged along by their broken ankles.