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Reading Into the Past – June 1997



Nintendo N64 Magazine

Who’s ready for some more price drop news? I legitimately cannot fathom how often the Nintendo 64 dropped its price, region after region, in 1996 and ’97. I’ve mentioned the reporting on it in every one of these articles so far, and it must’ve been exhausting for early adopters to keep seeing this happen. Granted, the UK version should never have released in March at £250 when the Japanese and US versions were retailing for about £120 and even Germany’s was only costing the equivalent of £155.

Stingy parents like mine (rightfully) rejoiced as their future Christmas spending plummeted

Spurred on not by some kind of philanthropic, consumer-focused compassion, Nintendo were instead under pressure thanks to the rocketing PlayStation sales post-drop to £130, slashing the N64 down to £150 exactly two months – and 75,000 sold units – after release day. N64 Magazine were suitably miffed, but not as much as some of their readers. “I’ve never been as upset or disgusted in my life … in fact, my N64 nearly got thrown out of the window,” said one. “I have a sense of humour, but I don’t think wasting £100 is very funny,” lamented another. The magazine spoke to UK N64 distributor, THE Games, who claimed that the console’s sales levels had currently overtaken the PlayStation as a result, so good for Nintendo, I guess!

But you try telling that to the magazines back in 1997. All the talk in this month’s previews of Zelda 64, as it was still known at this point, is of the ‘cartridge version’ appearing at the end of ’97, with the ‘64DD version’ arriving some time in 1998. I’m really going to enjoy following the fallout to the 64DD as it shatters all these dreams. N64 asks, “Will Zelda 64DD merely be a set of new levels or a completely new game? Will it somehow make use of the DD’s much-vaunted customizing features and … will you need to have the cart version to even play the game?” Spoiler – the answer is D. None of the above.

Interesting to note that this screenshot I’m using to review old magazines includes this magazine… reviewing old magazines

Screenshots from this time also reveal cut enemies – NOM has pics of what they describe as the ‘Red Blobby Things’ that will never make it into the game. From the shots here it’s clear that Link was basically nearing his final design, but it’s interesting to note that all the shots are of adult Link, although NOM refers to him as ‘Old Link’ – so I can’t tell if that means they’re referring to the Link that is older, or they’re just being jovial with Ol’ Link. Ol’ Linky Loo. Ol’ Rinky Dink. And so on. There’s no mention of the time travel mechanics (or an ocarina) at this early stage, so it’s as unclear as it is intriguing.

The other big preview of the month is future classic, Goldeneye 007. N64 mentions how the game is feeling nice and modern with the, ahem, ground-breaking feature of ‘Bond being able to fire his various weapons up [and] down.’ I hope you were sitting down for that mind-blowing concept! N64 has a few screenshots, but it claims that ‘Nintendo have revealed that the game has changed beyond compare,’ with a fresh look to be revealed at E3 later in the year. It looks pretty close to the final version as far as I can tell, so I can’t think Nintendo was doing anything other than being hyperbolic here.

Scorelord’s Going Down!

In a break from all the news and reviews, it’s time for me to introduce a new feature I’ve decided to undertake to re-immerse myself further into the world of 1990’s Nintendo magazine fandom. Around this time, mags were always setting reader challenges and competitions, and NOM is the first one I’ve picked up on that front. They have some chump called the Scorelord, who sets three challenges for readers each month. Rather than just tell you how I got on, I’ve made a video showing my efforts, and we’ll both find out if I’m the king or not next time!

Fox… Stars in Both Magazines

The biggest game of the month, gracing both covers, is undoubtedly Star Fox 64 – still yet to be referred to as Lylat Wars in any capacity, leading me to think this was a severely last-minute adjustment in Europe. With its propensity for reviewing any and all import games as soon as possible, N64 Mag was the only one to actually give the game a rating this month (a whopping 94%), with NOM going for a preview instead, as they only reviewed UK/PAL releases fully.

It should be no shock that both publications were in hyperbolic agreement over, let’s be honest, the last truly good Star Fox game. ‘Why Star Fox 64 is the best shooter ever,’ reads the headline in NOM, while N64 Mag signs off their review by describing it as ‘a showcase of the N64’s powers, and probably the world’s best shoot ‘em up.’ Praising the game’s cinematic stylings (even the bits it clearly ripped off from elsewhere), it seems that the lukewarm reception to Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire worked massively in Star Fox’s favour. If you out-Star Wars an actual Star Wars game, you’ve clearly done pretty well.

What’s always so interesting about reading these reviews is, not only their partisan rhetoric towards Nintendo above all else, but how they double down on that premise by defending the N64’s shortcomings whenever an example comes along to debunk criticism or back up an argument. N64 Mag poses the question of whether ‘Nintendo’s wily designers created Star Fox 64 … to win the carts vs CDs war once and for all.’ They scoff at CDs’ ability to deliver interactive movies and pre-rendered video footage by claiming ‘interactive movies turned out to be rubbish and pre-rendered video tends to be more annoying than evocative.’

Those bloody socks, he’s always running out of socks

Relating back to the game at hand, the verdict here is that ‘Star Fox 64 is more cinematic than any game I’ve ever played before – CD-based or otherwise – and there isn’t a single pre-rendered pixel in it.’ In another piece of laughably inaccurate predicting, NOM believes that Star Fox 64 is ‘the most incredible shoot-‘em-up you’re ever likely to see on a console system, until the next installment that is.’ I swear I’ll never get tired of waving my hindsight around.

Another review of note this month is Killer Instinct Gold, which highlights the more forgiving NOM style vs the ruthlessness of N64 Mag. Despite both publications not being all that hot on the game, it scored a really respectable 84% in the former, even though one of the reviewers states, ‘I’ve never really got on with Killer Instinct [and] the N64 update has done nothing to change my mind,’ while the final verdict calls it ‘not an essential purchase.’ N64 Mag was true-to-form, lamenting that, ‘nestled on the shelves between the … all-out travesty FIFA 64 and the fair-to-middlin’ Shadows of the Empire, KI Gold can hardly be said to shine out,’ and tossing it a score of 62%.  

Knowing Miyamoto, Knowing Youamoto

Lastly this month, Miyamoto-san was on hand to deliver more bonkers soundbites to highlight his unique vision of the games industry, as NOM reported on his participation on a discussion panel called ‘Game Dreams’ at the Tokyo Game Show. Some of the choicest quotes include; ‘last year I was shocked by the success of the Tamagochi because I’d had a similar idea that was actually in development.’ Suuuuure you did, Shigsy.

Another nugget of the great man’s wisdom (and let me just point out here – I adore the man. I have a tattoo of part of his signature on my arm, so I’m just having some fun with being smart in hindsight) is his vision of the future of gaming. ‘I would like to come up with a new type of game that doesn’t require you to sit in front of the television set,’ he begins, assumedly deciding that the Game Boy somehow counts as being in front of a television. ‘In comic books, I can use different layouts on every page. If I could use a similar technique for making new types of videogames, it could lead to some very exciting projects’.

Hah! A videogame trade show, remember those?

The comic book reference is a strange one. Couldn’t you say games like Super Mario 3D World have a ‘different layout’ on every level? The same could be said of Mario Galaxy too, so perhaps he’s done that already. The getting away from the TV idea has arguably cropped up now and again, to an extent, with Labo and Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, but those both arrived over 20 years after this quote, so unless I’m missing something, he needs to keep trying? If I’ve forgotten anything, let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you next time in July 1997.

Crotchety Englishman who spends hundreds of pounds on video game tattoos and Amiibo in equally wallet-crippling measure. Likes grammar a lot, but not as much as he likes heading out for a sesh of Bakamitai karaoke in Kamurocho. You can hear his dulcet tones on the A Winner Is You game club podcast right here on GoombaStomp!

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Game Reviews

Kena: Bridge of Spirits Marks A Beautiful New Beginning For Ember Lab

Kena: Bridge of Spirits will mark a beautiful new age for Ember Lab as the company will hopefully continue to pursue the interactive medium.



Kena: Bridge of Spirits Ember Lab Review PlayStation 5

Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review

Developer: Ember Lab | Publisher: Ember Lab | Genre: Action-Adventure | Platform: PlayStation 4/5, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed on: PlayStation 5

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culmination of everything Ember Lab has created thus far. After years of presenting masterful shorts, it is only natural that the post-production company’s first video game project would flourish in the same charm its commercials and fan films have boasted since their inception. Despite being their first leap into a different medium of entertainment, Kena: Bridge of Spirits shows that Ember Lab is still on top of its game. The company has intertwined its best efforts into a seamless world of light and darkness that may occasionally appear dated but is absolutely worth visiting.

A Long-Awaited Awakening

Taking place in a world shaped by the presence of forces beyond the living, Kena: Bridge of Spirits‘ narrative absorbs its style and grace from what Ember Lab already succeeded with. While the story may not always explore its loveable protagonist to a deep extent, saying that the storytelling lacks depth would be a disservice to its emotional moments. To keep the premise as simple as possible without going into detail, the titular Kena is a spirit guide who must help lost souls find their way to what lies beyond the land of the living by repelling their darknesses. Her world’s story initially may playoff as generic, yet it grows to be both moving and surprising. Where the game’s focus really lies is in its gameplay and visuals.

As the player explores a lush open world, they will solve puzzles, fight humanoid spirits, upgrade weapons, and go on a collectathon for a handful of rewarding items. For an independent game that lacks the budget of a triple-A experience, Kena: Bridge of Spirits puts its smaller and larger competitions to shame. From its action to its artistic composition, the title knocks it out of the park with so many of its core design aspects. There may be a handful of problems with the gameplay, but its stylization and animated wonderland make it a nearly perfect adventure. Everything intertwines in a fashionable matter that feels effective and never loses focus, but there is certainly a warranted coat of polish behind its many highs.

Image: Ember Lab

There is a lot to love about Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ gameplay, but it is unquestionably where all of its shortcomings come from — many of these issues actually tend to go hand-in-hand for the most part as they tie into the player’s growth. While platforming and puzzle-solving are always a blast no matter what point in the narrative the player is at there are some noticeably annoying flaws that could have been easily fixed with connected solutions. Fighting enemies is always exciting and the controls are buttery smooth, but early odd difficulty curves and shallow progression often seep through the grander aspects.

During the first third of the game, the combat can oftentimes feel as if the player has an overwhelming upper hand on their enemies. Most of the hostile forces can be mowed down in less than two or three hits with players’ beginner attacks. These generic enemies may lack any thoughtful weaknesses, but thankfully the later foes require much more attention to overcome. However, getting smarter does not necessarily mean that the player will get to employ more skills. Kena: Bridge of Spirits can quite literally be beaten with the unaltered moves and weapons the player receives at the start of the adventure.

Disappointingly, Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a promising arsenal of abilities that provides no real progression — not because they aren’t hard to earn but due to their lasting worth. With only one melee weapon, a long-ranged bow, bombs, and the ability to dash, the game leaves itself with a small number of upgrades for the player to unlock that do not contribute much. The vast majority of these moves feel rewarding to use, yet they come off as features that could have easily been implemented into the player’s base moveset. They never provide any true variety to the combat or even necessarily skills that are required to finish the game.

It’s not just the weapons that suffer from this problem. They may be fun to collect and utilize, but the Rot creatures present a large growing number that represents little progression in terms of combat and somehow puzzle-solving. Apart from droplets that allow the Rot to take a larger serpent-like form as the player recruits more of them, the number of these spirits to collect can feel a tad insignificant in the long term. Customizing their costumes and seeing how they interact with the world will always put a smile on the player’s face, but nonetheless, it is a shame how the gameplay underutilizes their long-term presence.

Forging Large Hearts and Lovely Souls

During Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ hands-on previews, a lot of users compared the game to titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Pikmin, and God Of War. However, the clear inspiration for the game comes from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and its iconic fan film that Ember Lab helmed. Majora’s Mask — Terrible Fate was a spectacle that further skyrocketed the company to fame. Everything that short succeeded on in terms of both visuals and narrative — along with Ember Lab’s other projects for that matter — was carried over magnificently to Kena: Bridge of Spirits artistic direction.

Image: Ember Lab

While the gameplay has its faults, it’s no shocker that Ember Lab’s title would thrive most from its breathtaking visuals, cinematic direction, and audio design. Kena: Bridge of Spirits stands as not only one of the best-looking and sounding PlayStation 4 and 5 titles ever released, but one of the finest in the gaming industry overall. The gameplay may be refined, but the lush world Kena: Bridge of Spirits holds is one of the digital realm’s most beautiful landscapes to ever release on any platform.

On top of gorgeous environments, clean character models, and atmospheric effects, Kena: Bridge of Spirits truthfully thrives in visuals because of its animations. Whether you are watching cutscenes or walking around the world, there are always movements to sit back and admire. The game’s cast and environments never remain still–everything is highly expressive and constantly moving. Not a single spec of Kena’s palpable land feels as if it were forgotten or designed to simply act as something for the player to pass by. This sentiment especially shows itself with the Rot species.

Whereas the Rot may be criticized for their overarching gameplay purpose, it is impossible to deny the fact that they are beautifully animated. The spirits never feel as if they are glued on to Kena or their surrounding environments. They are constantly expressive and characterized by their movements and interactions with the world itself. The Rot are regularly interacting with their surroundings as they jump between locations and engage with structures in unique ways. Kena’s world already feels organic and lively thanks to its therapeutic atmosphere, but the Rot adds another layer of spirit to the game.

Of course, having a visual spectacle in an Ember Lab project means that the audio design was bound to be a knockout too. Kena’s score composed by Jason Gallaty and Dewa Putu Berata is remedial to the soul. It is bursting through the seams with heart and proper articulation as it helps further enhance the player’s immersion with environments and cinematics. On top of fantastical orchestrations and well-pieced sound design, the game boasts an excellent voice cast breathing into its many characters. Berata’s daughter, Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti, ended up voicing Kena herself, and you would think she is a veteran of the industry, but this is her first gig. Larassanti does a spectacular job, as does the rest of her fellow actors. All the performances together are just another factor that helps keep players invested.

The only disappointing aspects coming from the look of the game comes from the transitions between gameplay and cinematics. The cutscenes were clearly designed with a moviemaking mindset and sadly do not accommodate for performance mode on PlayStation 5. Rather than adjusting to the smoother sixty-frames look, the pre-rendered cinematics stick to half that rate. They still look unbelievable, but it can feel weird instantly jumping between the two — however, this problem is only for those using performance mode. The brief loading screens that equate to literal seconds do not ruin the fluidity of the presentation either, but hopefully in the future Ember Labs will be able to iron out this nitpick in whatever they choose to pursue next.

A Bridge Between Works

Kena: Bridge of Spirits Ember Lab Review PlayStation 5
Image: Ember Lab

In the coming days, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is going to be compared to the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks for its visuals. Its gameplay will be explained by critics and the public by corresponding it with numerous popular franchises. Ultimately, though, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culminated work of Ember Lab’s extraordinary history in the entertainment industry. With ten years in the visual effects department, hours of experience filming at real sets, and a whole lot of inspiration from video games at the core of their spirit, the success of Ember Lab’s first independent title was inevitable. Kena: Bridge of Spirits will mark a beautiful new age for Ember Lab as the company will hopefully continue to pursue its latest shining endeavors in gaming. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a beautiful work of art, and Ember Lab has just gotten started.

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A Descent into Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill 2 Soundtrack



Silent Hill 2 Soundtrack Review

The Music of Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 is something else.

First released in 2002 by Konami (developed by Team Silent) for PlayStation 2 as a follow-up, not sequel, to the original Silent Hill (released in 1999 for PS1), it has since remained a crucial cornerstone in gaming history.

For those who embrace it, connect with it, it becomes an emotional endeavor, accomplishing a level of involvement and investment with the player that I have hardly, if ever, seen in the form of a video game.

You play as James, a troubled man drawn to the mysterious town of Silent Hill at the bequest of his, apparently, dead spouse. What follows is a downward spiral into the inner demons of the body, mind and soul, as Silent Hill comes alive as an amalgamated reflection of the torment James and the townsfolk that he meets have to live with.

In Silent Hill 2, the audio is as integral a part of the whole setup as anything else that contributes to its existence. Composer Akira Yamaoka is often credited as one of the three to four key people behind the creation and formation of the game, holding a status within the development team that is often not granted to a music composer.

The entirety of the soundtrack for Silent Hill 2 can be described as an intentional cacophony of bittersweet melodies, with hip hop beats laid over the darkest, most intimate, yearnings, and harrowing human-like-yet-synthetic sounds staggering out slowly from within the mostly silent environments of the game’s world.

The dark ambient aspects of the score are so simplistic but full of unnerving raw emotions.

While it would be expected for an atmospheric horror game of the time to perhaps include ambient sounds of howling winds and rustling trees, zombies or similar creatures going “uhhgghhh”, and other such things, Yamaoka’s compositions instead sputter radio noise, distorted electric strings and heavy drums that contain themselves within their own reverberations.

Yamaoka himself talks about this in the “making of” documentary, stating that he didn’t want to create the typical, scary sounds done in games like Resident Evil.

Keeping to its ambient nature, aspects of the score blend in with the environments of the game itself, merging the music played for you, the player, with the Otherworld screaming around James. But, in between these instances is often silence, scored with just the sounds of footsteps and faint environmental noises. Without these moments, the score would most likely lose all of its punch.

Considering the personal nature of James’s struggle within the context of the story, and his role in the creation of his own individual Otherworld, this ambiguity of the score plays directly into the narrative.

Also, it all sounds downright scary. That’s important.

Slower moments in the soundtrack, usually those that play in “safe” areas where enemies can’t reach you or in reflective cutscenes that divulge upon James’s thoughts, are pensive, which is in deep contrast with the balls-to-the-wall insanity that happens in the Otherworld. Here, we have somewhat relaxing, downtempo beats that resemble something more out of DJ Shadow’s catalog, or a song on a lo-fi chill playlist, which are popular these days.

Yamaoka counts Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Angelo Badalamenti (most popular for his work on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks) as two of his influences, and the chaotic rush of violent sounds that are then followed by melancholic and reflective plateaus seem to, perhaps, combine the best of those influences.

I’m not sure if Yamaoka heard or was in any way inspired by Maurice Jarre’s score for Jacob’s Ladder (the 1990 movie directed by Adrian Lyne served as perhaps the main inspiration behind the visuals and general ideas behind Silent Hill), as it too has the same qualities Yamaoka brings forth.

Unfortunately, Silent Hill 2’s full soundtrack has never been officially released, with the CD releases only containing thirty tracks, most of which are the more traditionally structured pieces.

While these tracks are crucial in bringing together the overall feeling of certain aspects of the game, on their own they simply cannot convey the complete mindset of the game’s experience.

A release that includes every single ambient or other soundtrack-related tracks is not common or even heard of; in the case of Silent Hill 2, however, these oft-disregarded pieces of “mood setting” music are perhaps more crucial to the identity of the game than they are for most other games.

Instead, to listen to the entire score of Silent Hill 2, one has to depend on dedicated fans such as “firebrandx”, who compiled the entire true score into an ultimate edition (tracks from which I featured within this article), and “TokyoBrando“, who has painstakingly compiled 108 or so tracks that amount to 3 hours and 40 minutes or so worth of material to YouTube.

Given that the series lost its identity after Silent Hill 2, meandering in mediocre scares and unimaginative canonical mishaps (not to mention things like the god-awful PS3 “remaster” of this very game), it’s fitting that it’s the fans who would work to preserve what once was.

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Great Moments in Gaming: Silent Hill 2, Angela Orosco and the Stairs of Fire

This final meeting in Silent Hill 2 is about giving in to our worst impulses, and the tragic inability to save someone from themselves.



Silent Hill 2 retrospective

Looking Back at the Most Devastating Moment of Silent Hill 2

Great Moments in Gaming is a column wherein we look back at some of the great gaming moments that have made a significant impact on our view of this medium and how we have come to understand it. Today, we’re looking back at a tense, troubling stand-off between James and Angela in Silent Hill 2

The Silent Hill series has long been known for its disturbing imagery and psychological knack for terrorizing us with our own worst imaginings. However, it is also known for the many tortured souls which are drawn to the titular town, and how it forces them to pay for their sins.

This is the impetus behind Silent Hill 2. James Sunderland murdered his sick wife. Angela Orosco murdered her abusive father. Both escaped justice, and it is for this reason that the town of Silent Hill calls to them. As James, you meet the troubled Angela several times over the course of your journey, and each time she seems to have descended further into her own personal abyss.

After James finds out the truth about the town, and why he was forced to return there, he meets the suicidal Angela one final time. Suddenly, apropos of nothing, James opens a door in the Lakeview Hotel and goes from a dusty, dilapidated haze to a sudden roar of flames and smoke.

Silent Hill 2 Angela touches James

Image: Konami

There he sees Angela again. She seems to have resigned herself at last to carry out her suicide, and while James tries to talk her out of it, he soon grows resigned to let her go as well. Broken and disillusioned by the revelations he has been forced to accept about himself, and his own selfish nature, he lacks the strength to talk her down this time.

“It’s hot as hell in here,” he says at last, having nothing left to offer. To this Angela drops the most troubling line in all of Silent Hill 2. “You see it too? For me, it’s always like this.” The revelation that this is how Silent Hill has looked to Angela all this time, as opposed to the empty, foggy town you’ve been seeing, is a jaw dropper in its own right, but the connotations beneath the line are what really dig their fingernails into your psyche.

As a survivor of years of sexual abuse from her father, Angela has suffered for so long that she’s barely able to hold on to her sanity. With the murder of her father still weighing on her, the blame of her mother still tormenting her and the town of Silent Hill forcing her to face her trauma and her sins head on, Angela’s version of hell is truly a horrific place. The above line refers to how she, as a survivor of sexual abuse and trauma, is forced to live in her devastating reality all the time. Even as those around her walk in and out of her private hell, she is unable to leave it.

This is the moment in Silent Hill 2 when she is finally giving up, giving in and letting go of this horrible life. As she walks off into the flames, James is forced to watch, knowing he lacks the courage and compassion to save her. James isn’t even sure he can save himself anymore. And so he watches, as Angela climbs the stairs to her demise, disappearing forever into the flames that have threatened to consume her for so long.

It’s a devastating scene, and maybe the most emotionally evocative moment of the whole franchise. Set to the heart-wrenching “Theme of Laura“, James and Angela’s final meeting is about giving in to our worst impulses, and the tragic inability to save someone from themselves.

Silent Hill 2

Image: Konami

Silent Hill has always been about this sort of thing. Tormented fathers, grieving mothers, impetuous daughters, and sinful sons. However, no creature in the series storied past has been as damned or as tortured as Angela Orosco of Silent Hill 2, and as James watches her walk into those flames, we are left with a feeling so raw and empty that the smoke begins to fill our hearts as well.

All these years later, I can still see those flames and smell that smoke. I’ve never forgotten Silent Hill 2’s Angela, and like Aerith Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII and Sarah Miller in The Last of Us, she lives on even in her death, filling players with horrible regret and transcendent sorrow for the girl we just couldn’t save, no matter how hard we tried.

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