The Video Game Critic's
Spring Game Review Special
Klonoa (Bandai 2008)|
System: Wii (and others)
This game is the embodiment of Spring with its lush green grass, flowery paths, cascading streams, and breezy music. Klonoa's simple platform gameplay and cheerful graphics harken back to the 16-bit era. While playing this game I experienced flashbacks of Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis, 1991), Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse (Genesis, 1990), Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1994), and Pandemonium! (PS1, 1996). The Dreamcast-quality visuals are smooth and the water looks inviting. You guide our furry hero through windmills, tree houses, caves, castles, and forests. Some areas let you ride on mine carts or careen down waterslides. Klonoa's imaginative stages are rendered in 3D but played in 2D, delivering the best of both worlds. The pathways tend to intertwine, often giving you a glimpse of areas to come. The simple control scheme is limited to grabbing and jumping - no motion controls to contend with. Jumping is a bit touchy, but your ability to hover momentarily allows for some margin for error. What makes Klonoa unique is how you manipulate chubby, bouncy enemies to perform basic actions. Whether you're vaulting off of one to perform a double-jump, or throwing one to clear an obstacle, you'll find a number of creative uses for these guys. Conquering each stage isn't particularly hard, but collecting the elusive puzzle pieces gives the game some replay value. Frequent checkpoints appear in the form of alarm clocks and you can save your progress between stages. Klonoa's second-grade dialogue can get a little tedious, but you can hit the minus button to skip it. This is a relatively easy adventure, but even seasoned gamers will appreciate Klonoa's old-school gameplay and innocent charm.
Spina the Bee (IntelligentVision 2012)|
System: Intellivision (and others)
Here's yet another lost Intellivision title that is only now seeing the light of day. Spina the Bee (originally entitled "Zzzz!") exudes the spirit of Spring with colorful flowers and pollination theme. I don't think I've ever seen a game like this before. You control a nicely animated bee on a side-scrolling screen of large flowers. Hey - that looks like a real bee! The screen scrolls slowly but constantly, and you need to keep up. By hovering over a flower you extract pollen, causing it to change color. Carefully navigate so you don't touch the green leaves or stems, as they will cost you points. Spina's detailed graphics feature many varieties of flowers including dangerous Venus Flytraps. Advanced levels add dragonflies, spiders, and raindrops into the mix. I like the way raindrops splash on the flowers. The game's background "music" features buzzing sounds played at different octaves, and the theme song sounds like it's being sung by a chorus of bees. You can't knock the audio and video, but the control is another story. Your bee is pretty agile at the start of each level, but quickly becomes weighed down with pollen. It starts to become a chore just to keep your bee aloft, and applying constant pressure to the controller will kill
your thumb! Between stages you're presented with a nice honeycomb screen showing your score breakdown as well as the high score. Spina the Bee comes up short in the fun department, but it's still a good-looking and interesting addition to any collection.
Viva Pinata (Microsoft 2006)|
System: Xbox 360 (and others)
Viva Pinata is Microsoft's effort to reach the younger demographic, and it's not bad. Modeled somewhat after the Sim City games, the idea is to cultivate a small plot of land in order to attract a diverse assortment of cute creatures. These creatures are pinata versions of real animals, with names like Syrupent (snake), Sparrowmint (bird), Bunnycomb (rabbit), Mousemallow (mouse), and Squizzel (squirrel). You explore your "garden" with a circular cursor, and there's always something to do. You'll clear away rocks and debris, purchase items, grow plants, construct habitats, and interact with the creatures. Once you've fulfilled the "romance" requirements of a certain species, they will begin to procreate. The imaginative pinata animations are crafted with care, and it's slightly heartbreaking when they die of sickness or are hunted down. Your garden tends to get a little cluttered over time, but new ground gradually becomes accessible. I really like the changing weather conditions, and it's neat how the time of day affects animal behavior. The worms and birds tend to get up early, and foxes and bats are active at night. Viva Pinata's flower-shaped menus are structured logically enough, but the interface could be better. There are too many layers of menus, and too many prompts. Also, I couldn't determine the practical value of actions like "mailing" pinatas or assigning names to them. Helpful characters wearing Indian Doctor masks are gradually introduced to sell you goods, heal sick pinatas, or perform other services. These increase your options exponentially, but after a while it feels like the game is being crushed under its own weight. Viva Pinata is rarely exciting, but it's constantly introducing new creatures and items. As long as you keep experimenting, you'll always see something new, and the possibilities are endless. But while I found the game engaging from the start, my interest waned over time. Despite my continued success, maintaining the garden has a lot of repetitive tasks that can feel like chores over time. I really wish I didn't have to direct pinatas towards their mates or food sources, and the maze-like minigames are tiresome. I can appreciate the style of the game and its ageless appeal, but Viva Pinata doesn't have that addictive quality needed to put a game like this over the top.
Kolibri (Sega 1996)|
System: Sega 32X (and others)
For a game that promised to be so unique and original, Kolibri is awfully tame. It's a hummingbird shooter
for Pete's sake! Employing the innocent "Ecco the Dolphin" formula, Kolibri offers beautiful scenery and relaxing music but little else. The colorful layered backdrops resemble oil paintings, and the melodic soundtrack is heavy on the harps and flutes. Kolibri makes good use of the 32X color palette, but otherwise this might as well have been a Genesis title. In most stages your hummingbird can fly in all directions while eradicating harmful insects or collecting rings. Your objective is never explicitly stated however, so you'll need to figure it out for yourself. Likewise, there are no numbers or indicators of any kind on the screen. Perhaps Sega didn't want to obscure their lovely artwork, but it would be nice to have a score, or at least know how much health you have! Most enemies are small insects like bees, although you'll also encounter some amazing yellow-striped snakes. That toad might look friendly enough, but if you get too close he'll swallow you in an instant! Over the course of the game your bird will venture through forests, caves, and an ancient temple. If the game's scale is consistent, wouldn't this "ancient temple" be the size of a shoe box
?? Sega, you are so
busted! The simple early stages are moderately enjoyable, but later you'll need to perform tedious tasks like moving objects and flying against the wind
(joy!). Kolibri is armed with a wide selection of weapons including burning rings, heat-seeking lasers, and pea-shots that explode into fireworks. But while these weapons may look
great, they are seriously weak
considering every foe can sustain numerous hits. In fact, some creatures appear completely unfazed. Floating bubbles house weapons and health, but their tiny icons are hard to discern. Each stage is introduced with a password, and the odd stage titles include "Deep Seeding", "Dark Cavity", "Penetration", "Eruption", and last but not least - "New Infection". Yeah, these programmers were some really lonely guys!
Kolibri is only mildly fun with one player, and the two-player co-op is completely worthless. My friends hated
this game, even calling it a "piece of [expletive]". Maybe so, but there aren't many original games like Kolibri for the 32X, and if you have a soft spot for the Ecco series, your reaction might be a little less visceral.
Dig Dug (Atari 1987)|
System: Atari 7800 (and others)
This is a great version of one of the more timeless arcade classics. The star of Dug Dug is a little astronaut-looking guy with an air pump. As he tunnels under the ground, he can defeat his adversaries (including fire-breathing dragons) by pumping them until they pop, or score the big points by dropping boulders on their heads. The biggest thrill is to time your boulder drops to take out multiple baddies at a time. And don't underestimate the value of those bonus vegetables in the center of the screen. Never has eggplant been pursued with such zeal! As is the case with so many well-designed video games, the risk versus reward ratio is perfectly balanced. The characters in this Atari 7800 edition look similar to the arcade (maybe slightly chunkier), and the memorable "banjo" music is perfectly reproduced. The vibrant colors stand in stark contrast from the washed-out look of so many other 7800 games. It's a shame the game doesn't take advantage of all the screen's real estate, instead being "cropped" on both sides. This makes the playing field feel slightly cramped, leaving the player with little room for error. The game offers a generous number of lives (five to begin), but the difficulty level is high. The pace of the game is faster than the arcade, with creatures that are very aggressive from the start. Your score is not
displayed when your game ends, so be sure to catch a glimpse before the screen goes black. Dig Dug on the Atari 7800 can't quite measure up to the arcade, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun.
Yoshi's Island: Super Mario World 2 (Nintendo 1995)|
System: Super Nintendo (and others)
I was expecting more of the same ol' Super Mario action from this one, but Yoshi's Island feels very unique. Apparently gamers really
enjoyed riding on Yoshi's back in the previous Super Mario game, because that's all you do in this one! This time however Yoshi carries a baby in search of its twin. The first thing you'll notice about Yoshi's Island is its innovative graphic style. The simple clean lines and solid colors of the first Super Mario World give way to visuals that appear to have been rendered with crayons and magic markers! It looks strange at first, but it ultimately gives the game its distinctive personality. Many enemies resemble kids in Halloween masks, although you'll also encounter the familiar Super Mario mainstays. Yoshi's Island introduces some cool new moves, including the ability to "manufacture" and throw eggs at targets, and stomp the ground to break through weak areas. Special power-ups give Yoshi the ability to morph into a vehicle
including a helicopter, train, tank, or sub. Yoshi's Island has a huge number of levels, not to mention bonus challenges and mini-games. Up to three people can save progress to one cartridge. I was apprehensive about Yoshi's Island at first, but it won me over in a big way. It may look like a kiddie game, but there's no age limit to fun.
Bases Loaded (Jaleco 1988)|
System: NES (and others)
In addition to being a terrific baseball game, Bases Loaded reinvigorated my interest in consoles in the late 1980's when I was more interested in home computers. I had stopped by my friend Tuan's house, and when I walked into his bedroom he was playing this game against my friend Bobby. Bases Loaded may have lacked the sharp graphics and sophisticated controls of a computer game, but I was captivated by its clean visuals, smooth animation, and intuitive gameplay. Innovative for its time, Bases Loaded helped popularize the realistic "behind the pitcher" camera angle, and its fast-paced gameplay has held up well over the years. You can pitch and swing with precision, but fielding is tricky because there's no diving and the fielders move like snails. The game is loaded with memorable moments, and its quirks actually make it more endearing. When pitching a ball way
outside, it's hilarious to see the catcher's disembodied mitt float away
from the catcher's body. Upon striking out, batters walk back to the dugout dejected with the bat on their shoulders. Pitchers can't seem to resist intercepting balls thrown from third base to first. Relief pitchers drive themselves
to the mound, leaving me to wonder who is returning that little cart? And just look how wide
that mound is! But the ultimate highlight of Bases Loaded is how you can initiate a brawl by hitting a batter in the face
! That feature should be standard in all
baseball games. Bases Loaded's background music plays non-stop, which would be irritating if it wasn't so freakin' good
! Fielders sound like they're squealing as they throw the ball, but the clear synthesized umpire voices sound great. Bases Loaded lacks a major league license, which may explain why my favorite player is "Paste" from the New Jersey team. With so many overly-complex baseball games on the market today, it sure feels good to get "back to the basics" with a classic like this.
Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle (Coleco 1982)|
System: Colecovision (and others)
The first time I played Smurf I admired its graphics yet couldn't quite grasp its controls. It wasn't until I learned the proper jumping technique that I could enjoy the game as it was intended. Rescue In Gargamel's Castle features multi-colored characters and lush scenery. The flowery meadows, white picket fences, and wooded backdrops look absolutely gorgeous
. In some screens you can even see Gargamel's castle looming in the distance! Complementing the ample eye candy is a lively, harmonized musical score. The bass-heavy "echo" effects in the cave screens are also noteworthy. The controls however leave much to be desired. Overcoming many hazards requires performing long jumps by stopping momentarily, hopping straight up, then pushing the joystick up again
just as you land. It's not the least bit intuitive, but it's critical if you want to make any progress. Would it have killed the programmer to use one of the two unused buttons
for this function? I mean, really! Making matters worse is the unforgiving nature of the game. Simply touching
a tuft of grass
will cause your Smurf to instantly keel over! But despite glaring flaws that would doom a lesser game, Smurf still manages to be entertaining and addictive - probably because it's so tough! The obstacles seem to be randomized so you can't simply memorize the screens. The ability to "duck" from bats and birds was novel for its time, but in later stages those things behave like homing missiles
! Smurf is half idiotic and half brilliant. When all is said and done, it's about a wash. Even so, die-hard Smurf fans can safely bump the grade up by a letter.
Hot Shots Golf Fore! (Sony 2004)|
System: Playstation 2 (and others)
Since 1998, Hot Shots has really been the premiere golf video game series. It's often imitated but rarely matched in terms of pure entertainment value. Sporting the same three-press swing meter used in golf games of the early 90's, Hot Shots is easy to play and appealing even to non-sports fans. One critic who writes for a popular game magazine suggested it's time for Hot Shots to adopt the "analog swing" used by so many other modern golf games, but that guy needs to shut the hell up!
Hot Shot's old-fashioned swing meter is what makes this game so great, and this latest edition is unmatched in terms of playability and addictiveness. The courses sport lush green fairways, rolling hills, brilliant water effects, and attractive but unobtrusive scenery. The grass is so detailed that you can see individual blades. In the Hot Shots tradition, the golfers are wacky caricatures of people from all walks of life. In the past I've had issues with these goofy characters, but Fore features such a wide selection that it's not hard to find one that you like. Unfortunately,all but two golfers and one course are locked
when you first turn the game on. I was also disappointed to see that some of the courses were repeats
from Hot Shots 3. Still, there are some nice new features. Pressing the swing button with just the "right" amount of force rewards you with a better shot, which is the first reasonable use I've seen of the PS2 controller's analog "face" buttons. Some of the caddy characters are very funny, particularly the Sean Connery impersonator with a penchant for show tunes. As usual, the close-ups of putts are fantastic, sometimes placing the camera inside
of the cup! You'll win prizes as you progress through the game, and detailed records are kept on best rounds, longest shots, etc. Hot Shots is now online compatible, and a miniature golf mode is also included. But the best thing about Hot Shots Fore is that its time-tested gameplay has remained intact. This is a safe bet for casual gamers and serious golf fans alike.
Worm Whomper (Activision 1983)|
System: Intellivision (and others)
There aren't many rapid-fire shooters for the Intellivision, but Worm Whomper fits the bill. Somewhat inspired by Centipede, you defend yourself against an army of insects who approach from the right side of the screen. Your free-roaming farmer is armed with a spray gun, and it's cool how you can hold down the fire button for rapid-fire. A second button lets you throw "plough balls" to clear out obstacles. At first I was intrigued by the fast action of Worm Whomper. There tends to be a lot of moving objects on the screen, and the worms look appropriately slimey as they slink around. Unfortunately, the challenge just isn't there. You have to play through endless, lengthy waves before the game starts to get interesting, and by then my thumb was killing
me. That's too bad, because Worm Whomper could have been the intense arcade shooter the Intellivision really needed.
Pikmin (Nintendo 2001)|
System: GameCube (and others)
People who complain about the lack of originality of video games owe it to themselves to give Pikmin a try. Best described as a cross between Lemmings and Warcraft, Pikmin is brimming with all of the originality and charm you'd expect from a Nintendo original. Fun and addictive, it combines the simple controls of a console game with real-time strategy elements usually found on a PC. You control a little spaceman who's crashed into a planet and is attempting to locate 30 parts of his ship. By enlisting the help of small leaf-shaped creatures called Pikmin, you gradually retrieve the pieces and reconstruct your ship. The crux of the game involves raising groups of Pikmin and using them to retrieve objects. These little guys are cute and endearing, and their special abilities are indicated by their color. You can make the Pikmin perform several tasks in parallel, and they can even defeat monsters when unleashed in large numbers. The game showcases the Gamecube's power by letting you command up to 100 of these creatures at a time. Pikmin strikes a nice balance of action and puzzle-solving. The camera is sometimes an issue, but it doesn't dampen the fun. Once you get drawn into its little virtual world, you actually start empathizing for the little Pikmin. I truly felt guilty whenever I left a few behind at the end of a day, knowing they would be eaten by nocturnal carnivores. This game will appeal to both men and women of all ages. Although its gameplay wears thin over time, Pikmin will fascinate for hours on end.
Realsports Baseball (Atari 1983)|
System: Atari 5200 (and others)
This is, without a doubt, my favorite classic baseball game
. It may not have all the features of Intellivision's World Championship baseball, but it beats that game hands-down with superior graphics, awesome control, and impressive voice synthesis. Realsports Baseball gives you uniformed players, a sharp-looking diamond, and a stadium complete with a homerun fence -- and a crowd. There's even a scoreboard that displays the complete line score. The pitching controls are outstanding! You can choose between nine pitches, and even control the ball in flight. Thanks to the helpful shadow, each pitch is visually distinctive. The batting controls are also innovative, taking full advantage of the unique Atari 5200 joystick design. You swing by sliding the joystick left to right, and can even control the height of your cut. Fielding takes a while to get used to, but the computer is surprisingly adept at choosing the appropriate fielder. The whole baseball experience is captured in this game, complete with tagging up, hit and runs, squeeze plays, no wind-up pitches, base stealing, and throwing errors! Thanks to some nifty voice synthesis, an umpire calls strikes, balls, and outs. The menu screen allows you to fully configure the number of players, difficulty, and number of innings. No game is perfect, and waiting for the teams to leave the field between innings gets old after a while. But when it comes to classic baseball, Atari 5200 Realsports is second to none!
Stakes Winner (Saurus 1996)|
System: Neo Geo (and others)
I may not be a big horse racing fan, but I consider the triple crown to be one of the welcome signs of Spring. Most horse racing games tend to be overly complex or gambling-oriented, so Stakes Winner's simple arcade format is refreshing. The horses are cartoonish but the tracks are green and lush. You view the action from a raised side angle as if you were sitting in the grand stand. Conditions are usually bright and sunny, but sometimes they can be overcast or rainy. The controls are somewhat mysterious. You tap A to gallop at a steady pace and hit B to use your whip and pick up the pace. You can tap the stick forward twice to bump a horse ahead of you out of the way. It's possible to tap backwards to slow down, but I have no idea why anyone would want to do that. The races are pretty chaotic as the horses tend to crowd each other, and frankly it's hard to tell if your button tapping is having any impact at all. A close-up of your horses' face indicates his energy level, and apparently much of the strategy lies in pacing your horse correctly. The collision detection is a little fishy around the rail, so be careful not to get caught up on it. Your best shot at victory is to grab that cheap speed boost icon (wings) that often appears in the final stretch. Placing in the top three advances you to the next race, and each contest is unique in terms of track length and shape. Triumphant music and colorful victory screens do a great job of conveying the pomp and circumstance of the sport. Stakes Winner is a real conundrum of a game. I could never fully grasp the controls or strategy, yet I never get tired of trying to figure it out.
Rayman (Ubi Soft 1995)|
System: Jaguar (and others)
It's hard to find fault with this excellent 2D platformer. Rayman is a cartoon character whose hands and feet are not connected by arms or legs (they just float). It sounds odd, but it gives him a unique look and allows for some interesting animations. The game combines the slow, deliberate gameplay of Super Mario Brothers with the lush colorful graphics of a Sonic the Hedgehog game. The animations are incredibly smooth and often humorous. Rayman starts off like a simple platform jumper, but as he gains new abilities like punch, hanging from ledges, or flying like the helicopter, the challenges become more complex and intense. Rayman has its share of innovations too. Your shooting fist works like a boomerang. You can instantly grow huge flowers to help you reach high ledges. Huge pieces of fruit grow on trees, and you can use them to clear your path or float across water. Besides collecting items, you'll free caged creatures and face huge bosses. The collision detection is very forgiving, but sometimes you can't see the ledge you need to jump to. The lush stages are works of art, bursting with color and teeming with life. Likewise, the music is upbeat and fun. Like Super Mario Brothers, there's a map screen that allows you to choose your stage and revisit old ones, and you can save your place between stages. The stage designs can be frustrating, but I found this version easier than the Saturn edition. Fun and highly replayable, Rayman is easily one of the better Jaguar titles.
Toejam and Earl (Sega 1991)|
System: Genesis (and others)
When I first reviewed Toejam and Earl, I gave it a pretty mediocre grade, but after taking some grief from the game's legion of devoted fans, I decided to give it a second chance. It took a few hours, but gradually Toejam and Earl did indeed grow on me. In case you've never experienced this unique title, it's a relatively slow-paced, collect-the-items experience with cheesy graphics and a really juvenile sense of humor. Toejam and Earl are two rapping space aliens searching for the ten pieces of their crashed space ship. The funky hip-hop theme is evident by their sneakers, chains, funky walks, and bass-heavy music. As one or two players roam the nondescript planet surfaces, you collect helpful (and not-so-helpful) items wrapped as presents. Examples include high-top shoes that let you sprint, a slingshot that launches tomatoes, a pogo stick, or an inner tube that lets you float in water. You'll encounter strange characters like a jetpack-wearing Santa, a woman with a screaming kid in a shopping cart, a sexy hula girl, and a guy dressed up as a carrot. These inject some humor and break up the monotony of your aimless wandering. The planet surfaces are randomly generated, but they all tend to look the same. The planet is actually composed of several planes, and it's quite easy to fall from a high one to a lower one, which is really aggravating. What I found compelling about the game is the challenge of locating all the pieces. To do so, you'll need to do a lot of exploring and use your items strategically. Toejam and Earl is time consuming and you can't save your place, so make sure you have a few hours set aside before you begin your quest. The two-player mode splits the screen so each player has his own view, and this was quite novel for 1991. The music is probably the highlight of the game. These funky tunes don't sound like much as first, but they gradually get under your skin. There's even a "Jam Out" mode where you insert samples into a mini music video, and it's surprisingly fun. The game also features some nice psychedelic effects, including a hypnotic elevator sequence. Toejam and Earl is one of those games whose sum is greater than its parts. It's not the most exciting adventure, but if you give it a chance, it might just win you over
Centipede (Atarisoft 1983)|
System: Colecovision (and others)
Centipede is indisputably one of the greatest shooters of all time, and this version is outstanding. Strangely enough, Atari seemed to make the best versions of its games for other
consoles. The cannon, bugs, and mushrooms objects are extra large, and the animation is silky smooth. Using Colecovision's Roller Controller (trackball) is a pleasure, giving you lightning-fast movement and pinpoint accuracy. The action is relentlessly fun and incredibly addictive. Even women tend to gravitate towards this game - probably due to their disdain for bugs! The huge, hideous spider is a bit slower here than in other versions, but he also tends to linger near the bottom of the screen -- preventing you from getting a good shot at him. The scorpion shows up early and often, and at 1000 points, he's always worth taking a shot at. By poisoning the mushrooms, he indirectly leads to most of your deaths. Centipede has three skills levels and comes with my highest recommendation.