Counter Attack is a weekly feature here on Goomba Stomp in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news, the niggling issues plaguing the industry, important moments from gaming’s past, or whatever it is that’s annoying him this week. Today we’ll be ranking each conference from E3 2018 from worst to best, because what would E3 be without arbitrarily declaring which corporation did the best job of peddling their wares?
E3, like Christmas, comes but once a year. And E3, like Christmas, can be a bit of a mixed bag. You never know whether the surprise presents you’re opening are going to be a brand new remote controlled helicopter or another pair of novelty socks. Well, I suppose in that instance you would, unless for some reason your aunt put the same novelty socks she buys you every year in a massive box to throw you off the scent. Who knows? The point of this increasingly laboured analogy is that it’s the unknown that makes E3 so exciting, and it’s the failure to deliver on every single one of our ludicrous expectations that so frequently makes the expo so disappointing for many people. Expectations need to be tempered. Don’t go in expecting Half Life 3 and 4 to be announced back to back, and maybe you can appreciate what does get shown.
That said, 2018 was not a vintage year for E3. Perhaps we’ve just been spoiled in recent years, but this was for my money one of the dullest E3s in many a moon. It wasn’t a car crash by any means, and there were no conferences that came close to, say, Sony’s 2006 presser, and there were no awkward moments on par with Jamie Kennedy’s train-wreck presenting job. But there was certainly no runaway “winner” in terms of the conferences this year, with most being good and bad in different ways. Still, that’s not going to stop us from ranking them from worst to best for your reading pleasure. So let’s talk about how E3 2018 went down, who walked the walked, who talked the talk, and who officially won at trying to get you to buy video games.
Also, we won’t be covering the PC show here. I’m sure Microsoft Word looks great again this year, but I didn’t watch it. If you desperately need to know about Steam, and Minesweeper, and Powerpoint presentations, then we did a rundown and it’s right here.
On with the ranking.
#7 As Always, It’s EA’s Conference Bringing Up The Rear
Host Andrea Rene did her best to look excited while Electronic Arts paraded the usual array of sports games we see every year, but I wasn’t buying it. I knew she felt dead inside, just like I did watching it. I can’t think of any game that needs to be at E3 less than FIFA. You could do a social experiment where EA do an E3 and they don’t show FIFA, they don’t talk about FIFA, in fact, FIFA might as well be Lord Voldemort – it doesn’t even get mentioned by name on stage under threat of murder. And if this hypothetical, FIFA-less EA conference went down, I guarantee you that FIFA would sell exactly the same number of copies as it always does upon release.
FIFA, Madden, whatever that basketball thing was where the man was throwing the orange ball around – if you’re into them you’re into them and you’re going to buy them, you know you’re going to buy them, and some dude pretending to be having some sort of religious experience because he’s stood six feet away from the Champion’s League trophy isn’t going to change that fact one iota. And I’m not one of those cognac quaffing, french cigarette smoking snoots looking down their nose on sports games. I like FIFA. And, you know, wrestling games. And golf games but only the silly ones like Mario Golf. It’s just that these games simply don’t matter at E3 and only slow the proceedings down. Know your audience. Speaking of which, don’t bother showing off mobile games either.
Away from sports and mobile, EA shed a little light on Respawn’s Star Wars game during a weird and cringey interview with Vince Zampella, and surprise announced a sequel to Unravel, which is the game they published to try and convince gamers that they’re not as awful as everyone says. Then they came out on stage and apologised for being as awful as everyone says. Actually, it wasn’t so much an apology. It was like when Louis CK got fingered for the #MeToo thing, and he kinda acknowledged it was all true and he sucked as a person, but he didn’t quite throw himself on the mercy of the court. A nonpology, I think they called it. Battlefield II was a shitshow, and they’re trying to sort it out. And so it’s good that they’re acknowledging their shortcomings. But hey, here’s some micro-transactions for you in Anthem.
I’m finding hard it to get excited about Anthem, by the way. It reminds me of when Bungie took Halo – a series with rich lore and refined first person shooting – took the latter, ditched the former, and turned it into cold, clinical, lifeless, always online, money spinning grindathon Destiny. I played Destiny and enjoyed it in a boring sort of way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t accept what it was. Anthem looks like that, but built on the back of Mass Effect‘s festering corpse rather than Halo‘s. Hopefully, I’m wrong on that one, but either way, one pretty alright looking game wasn’t enough to save this conference from being a lame duck.
I honestly can’t remember a time when EA didn’t have the worst press conference at E3. They’re the undefeated, back to back world heavyweight champions of having the shittest presser on the biggest stage in gaming, and once again I find myself asking, why does EA even need a press conference? Seriously, why do you need a press conference, EA? If they ditched this conference and had Anthem on stage at Xbox or PlayStation it would probably help the game get over since more people would be watching, and I honestly don’t think it would hurt the sales of any of their other games at all. Give it up.
#6 Square Enix’s Best Quality Was Brevity
Square Enix’s conference bests EA’s only – and I mean only – because it was half as long. This was a massive waste of time, and anybody who actually sat and watched it all should legally be able to send an invoice to Square Enix to get a monetary settlement for that time back.
The problem here – and again, I find myself asking, does Square Enix even need a conference for this? – is that they had absolutely nothing to announce, and so it seemed like they were having the press conference because someone had accidentally booked it and they didn’t have the heart to say no to turning up. It was like they remembered on the morning that they had to show something, so they got an office junior to just group a bunch of their old trailers together using Microsoft Movie Maker while the rest of the studio went out for Cosmopolitans. It was a bunch of trailers that we’d already seen – some at other conferences at the same E3 – and precious little in terms of new information.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks fine but we’d already seen it. There’s some sort of Final Fantasy XIV and Monster Hunter crossover happening. Final Fantasy VII Remake is just a thing that we now talk about in the same way that we talk about leprechauns and other mythical shit that nobody has laid eyes on but a few nutters swear actually exists. Just Cause is still going after the somewhat botched launch of Just Cause 3, and this time there’s storms and stuff so that looks pretty cool, but again, we’d already seen the trailer.
Kingdom Hearts III has a release date, but until the game is actually physically in my hand, and I’ve opened the box to make sure that there’s not just an IOU inside I won’t believe it’s coming out in January 2019. Also, the Kingdom Hearts III trailer was awful. I thought the sound was just boinked when the trailer was shown the first time at the Microsoft conference, but no, apparently it was designed that way. Also the Gummi Ship is back so I guess that’s something to look forward to. You can’t always sell the sarcasm in prose, so I’m just going to have to spell it out that I fucking hate the Gummi Ship in Kingdom Hearts. And I had no idea who like three quarters of the people were in the trailer. I know that’s my own fault for not playing the 7,000 Kingdom Hearts spin-off games, but I tried one of them once and it was properly shit. Imagine how Xbox One players feel. I felt for sure Square Enix would announce the first two Kingdom Hearts games would be coming to Xbox, but they didn’t. Good luck starting with III. It’ll be like trying to learn Japanese by listening to Mr. Roboto by Styx over and over again for forty hours.
#5 Nintendo’s Near Future Looks Bleak
This Nintendo Direct – which isn’t a conference, but then if they’re going to show it at E3, why not include it? – was not one for the ages, but if you’re a big Smash Bros. fan then you’ll at least get a kick out of all the stuff they showed off for the latest Nintendo beat ’em up.
First, the non-Smash stuff.
Okay, that’s over with.
Only kidding. But seriously, if you don’t like Smash you’re kinda fucked on Switch this year. Mario Party is coming, and it looks like it makes quite novel use of the Switch itself. That’s fine if you like party games, and you have loads of cool friends who all like to hang out and play Switch together instead of drinking themselves into a blackout at parties like normal people, but it’s in the October big game slot, which is disappointing for anyone hoping for a robust single player experience this year.
There’s DLC coming for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which is great if you’re still interested in Xenoblade Chronicles. Daemon x Machina is a new Switch game that looks a bit like Zone of the Enders, not because it’s about mech suits blowing each other up but because it looks like a PS2 game. Fortnite is on Switch now, but the most exciting thing about this announcement was that it has its own voice chat system that doesn’t use Nintendo’s fucking dreadful mobile phone app, so maybe other games will follow suit going forward and one day we’ll look back on the app and laugh, like we do with those telephones that you had to manually dial, penny farthing bicycles, and motion controls.
Speaking of motion controls, we got another look at the answer to the question that nobody asked, Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu! and the other one. All jokes aside, the games do look lovely graphically, and perhaps they’ll be fun to play, and revisiting the Kanto region in glorious, beautiful HD is an alluring prospect, but I’d be lying to you if I said that Pokemon‘s first appearance on Switch doesn’t look like a bit of a damp squid to me. I don’t see how replacing the combat of more traditional Pokemon games with an arm waving mechanic like it’s 2007 is really going to make for an entertaining game, but I’m ready to be proven wrong because I love me a Pokemon. Maybe I’ll buy it and get an arm workout. Oh, and by the way, including Mew as an exclusive Pokemon for buying that stupid Pokeball version of Let’s Go! is a dick move. It’s the sort of thing that we’d be up in arms about if it was EA or Activision, but it’s Nintendo so I’m sure we’ll find some way to twist it into a positive.
The rest of the show was dedicated to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which looks like the Wii U game with a few tweaks and more fighters, but then what does that matter since they did a stellar job with Smash on Wii U? How much you enjoyed this segment will likely depend on how much you love Smash Bros., but I suspect that even the most dedicated members of the Nintendo Defence Force will concede that this went on for too long. Did we really need to get into the minutia of practically every character in the game, the stages, and the special attacks? Having every Smash fighter ever in one game is rad and all, but seriously, by the end, after listing fighter after fighter after fighter after fighter, it was like that time Chris Jericho read out his list of 1,004 wrestling holds on WCW Nitro. Trim it down, man.
The biggest takeaway from this Nintendo Direct was that 2018 does not look like a fantastic year for Switch. It’s only year two so that’s not exactly unheard of for a console, but after coming out of the blocks with Zelda and Mario in the first year the console was on the market, anyone hoping for Nintendo to keep up that momentum is surely disappointed by what was shown here. There was nary a mention of Metroid Prime 4, nothing about classics coming to Switch, and no update on the roundly mocked online service coming later in the year. This was Smash, Smash, Smash, and if you don’t like Smash, then I hope you’ve got another console under your television to tide you over.
#4 Bethesda Made The Best Of A Bad Job
Bethesda had a hard job to do and I think they mostly pulled it off, but it was far from perfect. Fallout 76 is a tough sell to a lot of people. Taking a traditionally single player, story driven role playing game series and then trying to convince fans of that series that they should play an always online, multiplayer survival game set in the same universe is not easy. I know, because I’m one of those fans and I was sick in my mouth when I heard the words, “online multiplayer.” Bethesda wisely knew that many of their fans would be up in arms about the direction they’re taking with Fallout 76, and so they addressed the elephant in the room head on, trying to put across exactly what they were going for. While I wouldn’t say this was entirely successful – I can’t say I’m exactly champing at the bit to get blown up and then teabagged by WombRaider69 when I could be questing on my own – but I think they did the best they could with what they have.
The rest of their conference was a mixed bag. Andrew WK turned up for some reason, which I’d usually have no issue with but it was all a bit weird as nobody really knew what was going on, and the crowd didn’t look like they were in the party mood. That whole thing felt like it had time travelled from an E3 ten years ago when celebrity cameos and random gigs were a thing that people thought was a good idea for E3. On the plus side, Rage 2 looked like it might be fun, getting the Watch Dogs 2 treatment of taking a drab shooter and giving it loads of attitude. We’ll see how that pans out. While we’re on, Pete Hines made a great joke about Rage 2 having been announced by “our friends at Walmart” referencing the infamous pre-E3 leak that spoiled a number of surprises, so that was nice.
I was pretty excited to see a teaser for the next Doom game, Doom Eternal, and while this was little more than an announcement of an announcement – more to come at Quakecon, apparently – it was still a welcome surprise. Wolfenstein is getting a spin-off set in the ’80s which sounds right up my street. I just hope I can listen to I Ran by A Flock of Seagulls while I kick Nazis in the ‘nads. They also spent time talking about mobile games – sigh – announcing that Fallout Shelter is coming to PS4 and Switch, but weirdly they didn’t say Xbox One. I’m not sure if that was a slip of the tongue, or if for some reason Xbox isn’t getting it. They’ve made a mobile Elder Scrolls, too, so if you weren’t already totally pissed off with them spending time making an online Fallout instead of the Fallout you want, this probably put the icing on the cake.
Bethesda finished their conference by winning the 2018 Metroid Prime 4 Award, given to studios who are so concerned that they don’t have enough to show off during their E3 conference that they cobble together a four second video to announce that one day that thing you really want might actually happen, despite having nothing to show for it yet.
Bethesda went for a double whammy here, first announcing a game called Starfield – replete with video of space, and something moving through space, and then a screen that said “Starfield” on it. Woah. Then came The Elder Scrolls VI – the first trailer for the much anticipated next game in the RPG series showed some hills, and you could see a bit of sky, and maybe a mountain, and then the words “Elder Scrolls VI” popped up on screen. Not so much as a fucking subtitle for the Elder Scrolls. I tell you, it takes some fucking balls to finish your E3 conference by announcing two games before the consoles that you’ll be playing them on have even been announced, so I suppose we should at least be impressed, in a way. We’ll have to rename the award for next year. Jesus.
#3 Ubisoft Is Kinda Getting Good At Conference Thing
Historically, Ubisoft has probably had more cringe on stage than any other publisher at E3. It’s not that they make bad games, it’s just that for some reason they generally fail to highlight the positives of their upcoming video games in a way that doesn’t make me want to staple my own eyelids shut out of embarrassment. The last couple of years have been heading in the right direction, but their conferences always tend to get bogged down in unnecessary details, dragging on for too long, and dampening the mood as a result. While there was still some of that this year, for the most part it was well paced, and what they showed off looked good.
Beyond Good and Evil 2 is one of those games that seems to have been hanging around for years, and having seen some bits and pieces of it I do have to question the logic in making a sequel to a cult classic that looks nothing like said classic. It’ll probably wind up Ubified to the point that it bears no resemblance to the original and becomes just another Ubisoft open world, per centage on maps, tower climbing, collectathon, but at least most of what Ubisoft makes is at least quasi-entertaining, so there’s hope for it even if it likely won’t be what fans want.
They spent too long talking about Trials. We all know how Trials works at this point. You ride bikes over impossible courses, fall off, and everyone laughs. Or at least that’s how I play Trials. Badly. A 30 second trailer would have been enough to sell this. We got a peek at Skull and Bones, which just looks like the piratey bits from Assassin’s Creed IV, but since they were the only thing I liked about Assassin’s Creed IV, and the entire series for that matter, I’m marginally more interested in this than I ought to be. Pirates are awesome, we all know that, and since Sea of Thieves seems to have been about as popular as the clap since launching earlier in the year, maybe this’ll be the pirate ’em up we need.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sadly doesn’t feature an ancient assassin with a magical hat that can possess people, and is actually just another Assassin’s Creed game set in Greece. It’s nice to see we’re back to getting annual Assassin’s Creed games after that lengthy one year hiatus. The Division 2 looks pretty good if you like online multiplayer shooters, which of course, I don’t. There’s also The Crew 2 just in case you want to take the standard Ubisoft open world formula in car form. Oh, and they’ve got an upcoming space shooter called Starlink, and if you buy it on Switch you get Fox McCloud as a bonus character which is rad. If you squint your eyes it’ll be like you’re playing the Star Fox game you wish Nintendo had given us instead of that motion controlled abortion on Wii U.
I can’t say that I was personally thrilled about much of what Ubisoft showed off, but their conference was punchy with little in the way of down time or awkwardness, they did a good job of selling everything, and they actually had some stuff to show off which made a pleasant change from most of the other pressers on this list so far.
#2 Sony Had The Best And Worst Conference Of 2018
Honestly, you couldn’t make this up. Sony had wisely announced prior to E3 that rather than having a traditional conference they’d be taking a deeper look at four of their biggest upcoming games, almost certainly because they knew they didn’t have much to show off and they wanted to avoid upsetting their fanbase who now expect every conference to be more explosive than a Bond movie after the superlative pressers in 2015 and 2016. So what they actually did was build a tent to look like the interior of a church – which we later found out was in reference to a location in The Last of Us Part II, but was very confusing at first – and then after showing off ten minutes of the next Naughty Dog game, had a fifteen minute intermission while they moved everybody to the next location for the rest of the show. They had a presenter stalling for time while the audience was on the move, and the whole thing was bizarre, and incredibly awkward.
I’m writing this out now, and it only happened a day ago, and I’m still not convinced I’m not making the whole thing up as part of some sort of acid flashback. Did this actually happen? Have I finally lost my fucking marbles? Answers on a postcard please.
If we were ranking conferences based on the first twenty minutes alone, Sony’s would be the worst since 2006. It was so poorly conceived that you can’t even comprehend how whoever came up with the idea wasn’t immediately popped into a cannon and fired directly into the sea by Sony top brass. Who has fifteen minutes of a conference, then takes a little break, then carries on with the conference? Absolute madness. But as it happens we don’t rank conferences based on the first third alone – we look at the bigger picture – and once the show got going again business really picked up.
First of all, The Last of Us Part II looks incredible. The production values of the game are insane, the animations look to be some of the best ever seen in a video game, and it managed to be sugary sweet and violent as all hell in the space of about four seconds. If you’re not a fan of Naughty Dog’s brand of video game storytelling then it doesn’t look like the next episode of The Last of Us will change that, but for everyone else this is definitely one to watch. After the fantastic The Last of Us gameplay demo we went into the aforementioned studio switcheroo, and the next ten minutes or so were completely bamboozling. Eventually, after wasting our time for long enough, they showed us a trailer for the next Call of Duty, and they announced that Black Ops III would be free on PS Plus immediately. Fair play.
If they’d filled up the time while the audience moved studios with trailers then whole thing would have worked, or you know, just don’t move an entire studio full of people for no fucking reason. But they didn’t, so here we are. Once things finally got moving again we got our first proper look at Ghost of Tsushima, an open world action game set in ancient Japan, and it was a graphical stunner. There were a couple of janky animations, and I feel like it would have looked a little cooler if everyone spoke in Japanese and they subtitled the whole thing, but it certainly looks like one to watch. We finally saw the remake of Resident Evil 2, due for release in January, and the next game from Remedy, Control, which looked interesting, but was mainly notable because Remedy had been acting as a second party developer for Microsoft for years prior to this announcement.
We saw Nioh 2, and the least awful trailer for Kingdom Hearts III of the expo, before seeing a little of Death Stranding – which we saw no gameplay of beyond Normas Reedus walking about, so we still have no idea what the game actually is – and then more footage of Spider-Man which still looks like a superhero game worthy of filling Arkham’s shoes.
Sony has easily the strongest first, second, and third party line-up of games coming in the near future, but the needlessly complicated conference format nearly derailed their messaging here. Yes, try something different if you like, but this was a misfire, and it only managed to avoid descending into farce because the games looked so strong. Perplexing and exhilarating in almost equal measure, Sony managed the seemingly impossible task of having both the best and worst conference of E3 2018, all rolled into one.
#1 Microsoft’s Brisk Conference Looked To The Future
Microsoft had the only legitimately good conference of E3 2018 as far as I’m concerned, but that itself comes with a bunch of caveats that we’ll get to later. First, the good stuff.
Microsoft’s conference was quick and almost perfectly paced. It was, in many ways, like Sony’s 2016 presser which is for my money one of the best we’ve ever seen at E3. It was trailer after trailer after trailer after trailer, with very little in the way of developers waffling on awkwardly, and no celebrity cameos or bizarre transitions. There were no obvious toilet breaks, like how we used to get fifteen minutes of Call of Duty every year, and they didn’t even waste our time by bringing a car out on stage for the inevitable yearly Forza announcement.
Halo Infinite started the show, but so little was shown that it wasn’t clear if this was an actual proper Halo game or some sort of spin-off. It’s apparently a sequel to Halo 5, but I’m guessing it’s way off given how little we actually saw. There was a Life Is Strange spin-off, Devil May Cry 5, and Dying Light 2, as well as the obligitory Forza announcement, and an update on Sea of Thieves. There was five minutes spent talking about Gamepass which was the only real downer of the conference as their big announcement – that games will now install faster – felt like something that should probably be announced in a blog post rather than on stage. I’m sure they all worked real hard on it, but Xbox One’s garbage install times probably don’t need to be highlighted at all at this point. We saw Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and thankfully, they didn’t pretend it’s an exclusive this time around. In fact, they didn’t do their usual trick of pretending loads of games are exclusives when they’re really not, so that was a refreshing change.
Towards the end of the presser, Phil Spencer announced that Microsoft has acquired five new first party studios including Ninja Theory. Now, short term, that’s not helping, but if you think this generation isn’t already a bust for Microsoft then I don’t know what to tell you. It’s over. It’s now about damage control with Microsoft in a holding pattern until Xbox Two arrives, and they’ll be hoping not to repeat the same mistakes they made this gen. This announcement was huge in indicating that they’re on the right course, and so while it might not have been as exciting as the games being shown off it was way more important. Microsoft desperately needs to improve their first party output so there’s a reason to pick up an Xbox over a PlayStation, and Phil Spencer knows it. They can’t just keep recycling Halo, Gears, and Forza forever.
While the studios they’ve thrown money at might not look like world beaters at the minute, remember this: when Sony bought Naughty Dog they were famous for Crash Bandicoot, and spent their first few years as a Sony first party studio making Jak & Daxter games. After years of cultivation, they’re now hands down the best studio in the industry, responsible for huge critical successes like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, The Last of Us, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Guerrilla spent years making drab first person shooter series, Killzone, before ultimately creating one of the best games this generation, Horizon Zero Dawn. And Sucker Punch – famous for the Sly Cooper series, before transitioning to inFAMOUS – are now making open-world samurai ’em up Ghost of Tsushima. Given time, room to experiment, and the right leadership, this could be a huge deal for Microsoft, and is easily the best thing they’ve done this generation. Except maybe killing Kinect.
At the end of the show, they announced a Gears / Funko Pop collaboration which felt a little bit like that time Square Enix announced the Final Fantasy VII port for PS4 on stage at PlayStation Experience. Fortunately they redeemed themselves by quickly announcing a PC Gears game that looks like XCOM, and then Gears of War 5 which, horrendous macho bullshit dialogue aside, looks very much like the Gears game fans are after. When Phil Spencer hit the stage to thank everyone for turning up, the lights cut out mid-sentence and in an incredibly cool just-one-more-thing moment, we saw a trailer for Cyberpunk 2077. It was a fantastic finish to a strong conference.
If there’s a downside to all of this, and of course there is because the attentive among you will recall I mentioned caveats earlier, it’s that all of the most exciting games that Microsoft showed off here are on PS4. And that’s the difference between the strong PlayStation conferences of yore and this one. Halo and Gears aren’t the exciting properties they once were, and all of the third party games that are coming are on PS4, so while this was a good conference, it wasn’t necessarily a great advert for the Xbox One. If you don’t like Halo, Gears, or Forza and you already own a PS4, there was very little here that would probably convince you to buy an Xbox One, and it’s been that way since the start of the generation.
Still, well done to Microsoft for seriously upping their game, and delivering a quality press conference that entertained from start to finish and gave us plenty to look forward to in the future. Perhaps next year everyone else could arse themselves to turn up and do the same.
Feel free to leave a comment about this week’s Counter Attack in the comments section below. Which conference did you like best from E3 2018? If you want more from Counter Attack then perhaps check out E3’s Ten Most Embarrassing Moments, or The Rise and Fall of SEGA.
‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still As Difficult, Demanding And Amazing To This Day
Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later
Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!
What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.
What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.
But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.
It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.
Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.
The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!
– Ricky D
‘Aria of Sorrow’: The Symphony of the Night Sequel Castlevania Needed
Castlevania’s run from 1986 to 1997 is downright legendary. While there are a few duds sprinkled throughout the series’ first decade (Simon’s Quest, The Adventure, Dracula X), this is the same franchise that produced Super Castlevania IV, Rondo of Blood, and Bloodlines over the course of three years– three of the greatest action platformers of all time. 1997 saw Castlevania reach what was arguably its highest point when, unprompted and with no real need to do so, Symphony of the Night pulled off such an expert reinvention that it ended up creating a new genre altogether. With 11 years of goodwill to bank on, Castlevania’s future would never look as bright again– and unfortunately for good reason.
Following the revolutionary success of Symphony of the Night, Castlevania almost immediately fumbled as a franchise. 1997 closed out not with Symphony of the Night, but the ferociously underwhelming Legends, a Game Boy title that took a cleaver to the franchise’s lore and massacred it. The Nintendo 64 would see the release of Castlevania in 1999, arguably the worst transition from 2D to 3D on the N64, followed by a moderately improved but still mediocre re-release that same year, Legacy of Darkness. By 2000, Castlevania had entered the 21st Century at its lowest point, with Symphony of the Night silently in the background, untouched.
As if to signal a return to form, however, 2001 saw Konami release two fairly noteworthy titles: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance and Castlevania Chronicles for the PlayStation. Where the latter was a remake of the first game, Circle of the Moon marked the series’ first attempt at producing a mechanical sequel to Symphony of the Night. Utilizing the Metroidvania format SotN popularised, Circle of the Moon was met with near universal acclaim at release due to its difficulty curve, tight platforming, and a gameplay loop catered towards old school fans.
Which alone is enough to make Circle of the Moon less a Symphony sequel, and more a Castlevania stuck between the Classicvania and Metroidvania model. It’s a good title for what it is, but Circle of the Moon is so fundamentally different from Symphony of the Night that series producer Koji Igarashi overcorrected when re-taking the reins for 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance, a game that– while good– shamelessly apes everything it can from SotN in an attempt to win over audiences. Juste Belmont looks like Alucard, there’s a variation of the Inverted Castle twist, and the game was designed with the explicit purpose of capitalizing on Symphony of the Night.
To Konami’s credit, the series had regained its legitimacy between both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, but neither game captured Symphony’s inventiveness. CotM deserves some slack for generally doing its own thing and remaining the most unique Metroidvania in the series to date, but Harmony of Dissonance plays itself too safe, ultimately just winding up a worse version of Symphony of the Night. Not just that, there was the matter of the series’ story. 19 games in and past the turn of the century, the story couldn’t stay in the background anymore. Legends, Legacy of Darkness, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all tried to tell a compelling story and they all faltered along the way.
Castlevania wasn’t in need of reinvention in 2003, but refinement. The series was good, not great, and every new release was only shining a spotlight on how good Symphony of the Night was, not on how its successors were following it up. It only makes sense, though. How is a franchise meant to follow-up a game like Symphony of the Night? How can Castlevania even be discussed anymore without mention of what is unquestionably one of the greatest video games of all time? It seemed as though the franchise was suffering for no reason at all, but there’s actually a fairly simple answer as to why the series struggled between 1997 and 2003: the lack of the dream team.
Castlevania often shuffled around its development teams, but Symphony of the Night managed to land a team that in retrospect is on-par with the likes of Chrono Trigger’s legendary development team. Alongside Koji Igarashi– who at the time was assistant director, a programmer, and the scenario writer– Michiru Yamane composed her second soundtrack for the series following Bloodlines, and Ayami Kojima made her debut as a character designer, solidifying the franchise’s gothic aesthetic for good. Unfortunately, the three wouldn’t all intersect again for some time, leaving the Castlevania games to come without the essential players who made Symphony of the Night what it was.
Igarashi and Kojima would work together again on both Chronicles & Harmony of Dissonance, but Yamane’s other work kept her from Castlevania between 1997 & 2003, and none of them would work on Legends, Legacy of Darkness, or Circle of the Moon. The nature of the industry meant there was no guarantee the three would work on the same project again, but now Castlevania’s lead producer, Koji Igarashi had pull to hire Yamane as the lead composer of his next Castlevania game. Ready to address Harmony of the Night’s criticisms, Koji Igarashi set the stage for the game that would breathe new life into Castlevania– Aria of Sorrow.
Instead of calling attention to itself as a successor to Symphony of the Night– something the game admittedly could’ve gotten away with given its production team– Aria of Sorrow does everything it can to assert its individuality asap. Soma Cruz has seemingly no connection to the Belmonts or Dracula, Dracula’s Castle is now inside of an eclipse, and the timeline is no longer rooted in history with the story set in 2035. This is all information conveyed in the opening title crawl, but less than a full minute into gameplay and audiences are already introduced to the Soul mechanic, a system which allows Soma to absorb enemy Souls in order to use their techniques. From there, it’s on the onus of the player to explore.
For such an all encompassing opening, Aria actually kicks off with little fanfare. Symphony of the Night, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all open with spectacle, but Aria of Sorrow keeps itself subdued, understanding that while Symphony’s spectacle was indeed an important part of its identity, it’s the gameplay that ultimately won audiences over. Aria of Sorrow wastes no time in presenting its defining Soul mechanic, making it the very first concept players will fully understand: kill enemies to get Souls, use Souls to kill enemies. It’s a simple gameplay loop, but it keeps Aria of Sorrow’s blood pumping long after the credits roll.
With Soul drops determined by RNG, no two playthroughs will be the same. Such an approach might bother those looking to 100% the game, but it’s exactly this reason why Aria of Sorrow remains so enjoyable to replay. With over 100 Souls available for use, Soma can accomplish far more than any other Castlevania protagonist. Soma can equip three Souls in total at any given moment: one Bullet Soul, Aria’s sub-weapons; one Guardian Soul, skills that can be triggered with R; and one Enchanted Soul, passive abilities that don’t need to be activated. Soma also has access to Ability Souls, inherent techniques that he can activate & deactivate ala Alucard’s skills from Symphony.
While the Soul system is more than enough to freshen up the series’ core combat, Aria of Sorrow ditches whips and goes back to the Alucard method of collecting multiple different weapons. Between Souls and Soma’s generous arsenal of weaponry, all play styles are accommodated. Normal Mode is also more forgiving than usual, with Hard Mode better designed for series veterans. This isn’t ideal since most will play Normal and miss out on Hard Mode altogether, but it’s an approach that– in theory– does accommodate fans old and new alike. Aria of Sorrow has an almost overwhelming amount of content, but that’s exactly why it’s so accessible. There’s a weapon, Soul, or difficulty for everyone.
Engaging combat mechanics mean very little without the proper level design, however. Where Harmony of Dissonance comfortably followed a “bigger is better” mentality to its castle’s design, Aria of Sorrow shows a considerable amount of restraint. There is no second castle to unlock– what you see is what you get. Areas are more interconnected than usual, ensuring that fewer areas end up in dead ends, and the castle’s settings are visually grounded for the most part. Aria indulges in chaotic visuals and level design for the final area, but the castle leading up to the finale is unusually comprehensible. As far as navigation goes, this is the best castle in the series.
Of course, the high quality castle only makes sense when one remembers that it’s Ayami Kojima’s art style that serves as Aria of Sorrow’s base. Moody and gothic, Kojima’s self-taught style has an earthy quality that easily tips into the fantastical, an aesthetic that fits Castlevania perfectly. Michiru Yamane’s score seemingly builds off of Kojima’s art, following the lead with less catchy and more atmospheric tracks on a whole. This doesn’t mean Aria of Sorrow isn’t bursting with amazing songs– one only needs to listen to Heart of Fire to understand that– rather, it’s Aria’s way of keeping a mature, sorrowful tone throughout.
And Aria of Sorrow is indeed more mature than previous Castlevania titles when it comes to story. Where both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance played their stories straight, Aria of Sorrow features a decent amount of subtext to bolster its already incredibly intriguing plot. Aria doesn’t just take place in the future, it takes place in a future where Dracula has been killed for good. No Dracula means that a new villain can rise up in the form of Graham Jones, and while he’s not that compelling, he ends up representing everything Dracula claims to despise in humanity. Graham is a hateful coward who thinks too highly of himself, and too little of others. A miserable little pile of secrets.
That said, while it’s always beneficial to keep characters who fill similar roles antithetical to one another, Graham’s personality is more layered than that. He may be the main antagonist, but he’s no Dracula. Literally. The main plot of Aria of Sorrow concerns itself with who Dracula has reincarnated into. It’s obviously Soma, a fact the series no longer tries to hide, but Aria of Sorrow very cleverly gets around this by doubling down on Graham’s evilness. He’s blatantly evil from his first interaction with Soma, but that’s exactly what keeps players from guessing the Dracula twist their first playthrough.
Soma being Dracula is the cherry on top of Aria of Sorrow, that last little detail that makes everything just right– not just in the game, but in the context of the series. Fast-forwarding far into the future, Aria of Sorrow establishes Dracula’s demise, a grand battle that took place in 1999, and the last Belmont– Julius– the man who killed Dracula for good, but lost his memory in the process. Aria doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to Soma either, making him succumb before the end of the game and even featuring an alternate ending where he embraces his demonic powers, leaving Julius to kill Dracula yet again.
Although Soma has a clear love interest in Mina Hakuba, it’s the relationship between Soma and Julius that ties the story together. Aria is just as much a character study of Dracula through Soma as it is a celebration of the ultimate struggle between the Belmont clan and the Count. The roles have been flipped this time around, with Julius serving as the penultimate battle in one of the best (& hardest) boss fights in the franchise. As he’s not the main character, Julius is also allowed greater depth than the average Belmont. When he appears, it’s because the story calls for it and his scenes are never wasted.
They’re always used as a means to either flesh out the game’s backstory, or build up to the confrontation between Soma and Julius. The two build a slight bond over the course of the game, one that turns into genuine respect by the time the two men are fighting to the death. It’s easy to overlook the substance in Julius’ interactions since he’s only in six scenes (including the bad ending), but they all slowly chip away at the man underneath– his history, his connection to Dracula, and what it means to be a Belmont. Which in itself is important, as it gives audiences an opportunity to see a Belmont in his element from not only an outsider’s perspective, but Dracula’s.
Soma’s relationship with Julius may be what best contextualizes Aria of Sorrow’s role in the franchise, but this isn’t to say that the supporting players don’t contribute. Hammer and Yoko Belnades are both on the flat side, but Mina and Genya Arikado do some heavy narrative lifting. Mina evokes images of Dracula’s wife, Lisa, who was first introduced in Symphony of the Night. Their dialogue shows how deeply they care for one another, and Soma’s Dracula-related insecurities end up tainting their dynamic at the end of the game, cutting Soma off from his only source of genuine affection and love. Not just that, Mina proves that Dracula could have adjusted to a normal life had mankind not killed Lisa.
Then there’s Genya Arikado, a man so blatantly Alucard that the word “Alucard” doesn’t need to appear in the script a single time for fans to make the connection– which it doesn’t. Aria of Sorrow features the main character from Symphony of the Night in an incredibly important and relevant capacity, and he neither looks like he did in Symphony of the Night or directly acknowledges his identity. Frankly, it’s the only tasteful way to use Alucard in a post-Symphony of the Night context. His character has evolved with time, and seeing him in a supportive capacity only makes sense given the events of his own game. His presence helps draw in a sense of finality alongside Mina and Julius.
These three characters thematically represent the main fixtures of Dracula’s life: Mina, the love that ties Dracula to humanity; Genya, the son who in spite of his father’s evil, loves him enough to ensure he can truly rest; and Julius, the final descendant of the Belmont clan and perhaps the strongest man alive. At the center of it all is Soma Cruz, the reincarnation of Dracula. Aria of Sorrow feels like the end of everything Castlevania represents. More games would follow, and Aria would even see a direct sequel in Dawn, but what makes Aria such a worthy successor to Symphony of the Night is that it wasn’t afraid to do something new and bold with Castlevania. Most of this boldness stems from the gameplay, but the story presents itself as a thematic end for Castlevania if nothing else. Dracula and the Belmonts may finally put their feud to rest.
Or not. As previously mentioned, Aria of Sorrow features an ending where Soma goes full-Dracula. It’s morbid and cuts off right before Julius begins his fight with the dark lord, but it only makes sense. Aria doesn’t shy away from Dracula’s nastier aspects, and that means allowing Soma to be corrupted. Castlevania was always about the eternal struggle between Dracula and the Belmonts, so it’s only fair an ending offer a scenario where the cycle simply repeats. Regardless of which ending players find most appropriate, Michiru Yamane’s use of Bloody Tears in the track Epilogue makes one thing clear: Aria marks a new chapter for Castlevania.
When all is said and done, Aria of Sorrow doesn’t even feel like a sequel to Symphony of the Night. Aria goes beyond wanting to replicate the greats and instead chooses to be great in its own right. The end product is the end result of the series living in Symphony’s shadow for years. Koji Igarashi went beyond parroting himself, and instead entered production prepared to take Castlevania to the next level with a tried and true team. But even in sharing the same core members as Symphony, Aria never feels like anything but its own distinct game– a mature goodbye to Count Dracula, the Belmont legacy, and everything that happened inbetween. Aria of Sorrow might not have had the same cultural impact of Symphony of the Night, but it’s exemplary of Castlevania at its best.
Awesome Mixtape: Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019
Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5
It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.
Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune
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