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CYBERCULTURE | Gamer's Corner

Nintendo Titles Are Rarely Super

July 20, 1998|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My big beef with Nintendo 64 has long been the dearth of titles appealing to players old enough to see a PG-13 movie without a parent. Despite notable exceptions like "Goldeneye 007" and "Super Mario 64," Nintendo and its licensed developers have focused--too heavily, in my mind--on games that simply retread tired genres like racing or fighting with slick new graphics.

That may appeal to the youngest end of the market, but a premium rig like Nintendo 64 should host the best possible games and maybe even break a few rules in the process. Yet in the two years since the platform was born in the Big Bang of "Super Mario 64," the offerings have been consistently inconsistent.

Young or not, anyone shelling out $60 for a video game deserves the best.

Normally at this point in a platform's development, players should expect to see some significant maturation--the way subsequent generations of games for Sony PlayStation exploit more of the system's power. Granted, Nintendo 64 debuted at a high level with "Super Mario 64," but the quality curve of its library--particularly its third-party titles--has not climbed appreciably or consistently since then.

The current crop of new Nintendo 64 cartridges illustrates the point. Games like "Banjo-Kazooie," "Chopper Attack," "Mortal Kombat 4" and "Wetrix" highlight the best and worst of Nintendo 64.

This mixed bag of summer releases bridges genres. That's good. And although it may not appear to, it also crosses age groups. Again, good. Some, like "Banjo-Kazooie," offer hope that Nintendo 64 can continue to lure gamers with imaginative titles. But others, like "Mortal Kombat 4," only confirm that soulless, market-driven sequels continue to contaminate shelves.

At first glance, "Banjo-Kazooie" looks like yet another Mario knockoff--a beautifully detailed adventure through interlocking, three-dimensional worlds starring a good-natured honey bear named Banjo and a smart-alecky gull named Kazooie instead of a chubby plumber named Mario.

Yes, the plots are the same. In "Super Mario 64," lizard Bowser kidnaps Mario's girlfriend, Princess Toadstool, forcing the plumber to embark on a series of adventures through wild lands. In "Banjo-Kazooie," the witch Gruntilda kidnaps Banjo's little sister, Tooty, forcing the bear and his buddy Kazooie to embark on a series of adventures through wild lands.

*

End of similarity. The worlds in "Banjo-Kazooie" put "Mario's" to shame. Players wander through some of the happiest environments ever to grace a monitor. With names like Bubblegloop Swamp, Treasure Trove Cove and Freezeezy Park, the worlds of "Banjo-Kazooie" sound decidedly childish. Yes, kids should love the game, but older gamers shouldn't turn up their noses.

Each world crawls with bad guys and players must navigate Banjo and Kazooie through some treacherous terrain to find all of the hidden puzzle pieces that slowly open new worlds to explore. It's tough.

Unfortunately, sometimes it's tougher than necessary because the level of control is not what it should be. When trying to navigate, for instance, Banjo's movements are sometimes too exaggerated. That makes even routine jumps take longer than they should. Also annoying is the banter between Kazooie and various creatures along the way. Because voice compression takes up valuable space on the cartridge, game makers opted instead for text boxes that slow down play.

Overall, though, Rare's development team has worked out many of the kinks that tend to plague 3-D gaming. Camera angles are easily switchable, and terrain only rarely blocks critical action from view. Too bad all--or even half--the games for Nintendo 64 don't show this level of detail and care.

The bulk run along the line of "Chopper Attack," a predictable flight shooter that hits the basics but not much more. Graphically, "Chopper Attack" is everything players expect from a Nintendo 64 game: Enemies fade in and out of view, terrain builds seamlessly, and dozens of objects move simultaneously on the screen.

Graphics aside, the game feels empty. All players have to do is fly around and blow up enemy tanks and trucks and bunkers and, well, they blow up everything in sight. Each kill racks up money, teaching kids that human life does indeed have value. Money can then be used to buy even better weapons with which to scorch, maim or dismember the opposition.

A good flight shooter demands more than just an itchy trigger finger. With the complicated terrain in "Chopper Attack," players ought to be asked to navigate and fly as well as shoot. Instead, it's impossible to smash into a hillside. Not very realistic.

For too much realism, "Mortal Kombat 4" offers all the nauseating violence that has made this franchise among the most popular in the video game world. Although it seems as though there have been more than three prior "Mortal Kombat" titles, many have been cynically repackaged spinoffs rather than proper sequels.

Not that the difference is all that apparent.

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