How’d It Age #9 – Banjo-Tooie

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Originally Released On: N64
  • Platform: Xbox 360

When I pulled this one off my random list I realized that I don’t think I’d ever played it. I played the original for sure, and I definitely played Donkey Kong 64, but this one missed me for some reason. Going back and playing these kinds of games given the progression of the platformer genre is always interesting, and this one is definitely not an exception. However, I do think it’s showing its age at this point for a few specific reasons.

Within the context of 3D platformer games, it’s important to remember when this one came out. With it coming out at the tail end of 2000, it came out a little bit after some big hitters in the Crash Bandicoot triology and the first two Spyro games on PlayStation and the first Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast. However, it was also closely followed only a year later by the first Jak and Daxter and Sonic Adventure 2, and two years ahead of Super Mario Sunshine, Ratchet & Clank, and the first Sly Cooper title. Sitting where it is you can see it as a bit of a transition title where it showed off possibly the peak of what its hardware set was capable of. However, the 2001-2002 titles definitely show where Banjo was limited.

The first thing that really stands out is the act of traversing hrough the world. It feels absolutely glacial compared to modern games. It’s not even that it feels bad because it has plenty of weight and appropriate momentum. It just feels like there’s so much downtime going from important spot to spot. The games that came out immediately after it just had such better pace to their movement that really showed a generational leap in the act of traversal.

Jak leaned into a traditional collectathon platformer setup, but was just faster. You could rip through environments in a hurry collecting things at a high pace. Part of it was that the environments in Jak were just more visually crowded thanks to the hardware jump. However, they were also more vertical and more compact, so going to collect things had less down time. Sly Cooper on the other hand had larger levels, but encouraged the player to rapidly move in the shadows so more often than not the player wasn’t slowed down by interactions with NPCs. Ratchet and Clank had the slower movement but fed the gameplay with weapons to make moment to moment gameplay more impactful. Those three all took advantage of the better hardware to make different kinds of platformer gameplay that to me all have aged better than Banjo by simply having the player always be engaged in something.

The second thing that stood out to me was how much the game causes the player to spend time retraversing for small rewards. Obviously retraversing due to upgrades isn’t something I inherently dislike since I love Metroidvania titles. However, retraversal in those games often unlocks large swaths of new territory to run through. Retraversal here is because of small reasons that don’t necessarily feel rewarding. Talking to a mole to learn how to ground pound in a different way than your base ground pound just so you can break rocks to get jiggys feels like it’s just slowing your progress to make the game longer. Finding a magic spot that requires you to find and wander around as Mumbo Jumbo that simply causes a door to open feels like it’s significantly longer than necessary just to make the game longer. It’s all just low-reward ways to push progression that take longer than feels necessary.

Ultimately, newer games have really smoothed out things like this to increase game pace. The Mario games have always had individual stars be impactful. However, Mario Odyssey went inherently collectathon and smoothed things out by making sure the required powers were always incredibly nearby, reducing the need to run around. Ratchet & Clank literally just let you carry and swap everything at any time. Games like A Hat in Time kept some of the open nature of Banjo while reducing clutter to make the experience more streamlined. Even at the time, series like Spyro were compartmentalizing collecting into smaller more varied worlds that were less focused on powers and more focused on fun environmental interactions. These games have all resulted in better aging gameplay than the slow pace of Banjo.

All that said, it’s not like this game has aged to a place where it’s unplayable. It’s still a game that’s pretty easy to fall into. You can easily pop this in, play for an hour or two, and make meaningful progress. Playing at that pace – where you kind of come back to the game periodically – fits this game much better than treating it as a front to back experience. I think that’s the big distinction between Banjo and more modern experiences. This feels like a Sunday afternoon title, where modern games feel like they’re built as better continuous play experiences. I don’t think that’s all that accidental, and I think that’s ultimately a symptom of the industry’s growth out of the arcade. I think you can generally follow games from the NES to roughly the start of the PS2 era and see each generation moving further away from standalone or quick play experiences to something that can be played over longer continuous sessions. Games simply got better at being interesting for a continuous time, rather than being interesting in short bursts.

If this one does interest you, absolutely play the Xbox version. It’s on game pass, on the 360, on the Xbox One, on the Series consoles and it has a bunch of important improvements. Get it as part of Rare Replay and you’re going to have even more fun games to play alongside it. Framerate and resolution are the obvious boosts, but playing on something other than the N64 controller is a huge improvement on its own. Make this one your non-serious gap filler and you’re going to be in good shape.

Game Ramblings #182 – Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne HD Remaster

More Info from Atlus

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Windows, Switch
  • Originally On: PS2

Normally this would probably be a How’d It Age, but honestly I don’t really want to talk about the game here – at least not specifically. The game under normal circumstances would have ramblings specifically matching my shelving of Shin Megami Tensei V. What I am instead going to talk about is specifically the Merciful DLC that they added to the remaster and why it’s the best thing that Atlus may have done for their core JRPG gameplay in years.

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At its core Merciful is an easy mode, and it definitely is easy. However, it can be turned on and off at will, so I generally ended up using it for making the trash grind more mindless. Trash has never been difficult per-se in SMT. Once you learn the weaknesses of the enemies in the general area, it’s butter. Being on easy just meant that I could concentrate on the story and bosses. However, easy mode also came with three numbers I want to focus on:

  • Encounter rate – Approx 1/2
  • Experience – Approx 4x

However, the most important one is 18:36. That was my time to completion, +/- a bit of untracked time to deaths.

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Judging by How Long to Beat, I shaved on average about 30 hours or about 60% of the average run. To me, that sits about where these games should be. These should never be 50 hour games with a ton of useless trash fights, because that isn’t the fun part of the game. They should be relatively quick and fast leveling so you can crank through a bunch of different party setups and summon as many demons as possible and have them be immediately powerful and useful.

One of the biggest problems I had when I shelved SMT5 was that it was taking me 25-30 fights to get a single level. It was such an absurd level of grind that it sucked all of the fun out of what is an inherently very good turn-based combat system. In merciful mode, I was getting levels every 5 or 6 battles, if not quicker. It was such an incredible change to the flow of the game that it makes me want this XP rate in standard difficulty.

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The other part that I really noticed was improved was the overall dungeon flow, thanks to an overall reduction in trips back to town. In SMT4 it always felt like a slog getting further in a dungeon. You’d slowly make your way through a dungeon getting stronger, generally getting to a point where you could comfortably make it one save point further before needing to teleport back. Frankly, the Persona subseries is the same way in that regard. It’s just such a time sink having to retread the same ground over and over purely because there’s so much combat and the XP rate is so slow. On Merciful though? I could get through dungeons in one go without losing all my items, so I was able to be prepared to go back up to normal for boss fights.

I get why this might come across as a negative change, and honestly I don’t necessarily disagree. I guess where I fall with this is that I want the overall dungeon mechanic to change. Rather than mid-dungeon save points being a way to get back to town, I would rather they be permanent fast travel points across the board. Allow players to continue their progress at any point where they get to a safe spot, reducing overall retread churn and increasing the pace of play as a positive. Combine this with the increased XP rate to really tighten up the game as a whole.

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The Shin Megami Tensei series is the perfect example of a JRPG that is long for the sake of being long, and it’s one of the few series that hasn’t really adapted to a tighter modern gameplay loop. Merciful mode may not be exactly the solution, but I think there’s ideas here they can pull from. These games have never had the pure content amount to support being a 50 hour experience and cranking through this one in sub-20 proves that to me. This is a series that would benefit from keeping its difficulty but modernizing to be a faster experience, because even this little experimental DLC feels like such a huge improvement. Combine the quick XP rate and reduced encounter rate with a better overall travel system to reduce retread, and I think SMT6 could feel surprisingly modern without having to lose its soul.

Game Ramblings #181 – Bomb Rush Cyberfunk

More Info from Team Reptile

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: Windows, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series

I’m not really sure whether I liked this game. Fundamentally I guess I do, in so much as it’s a carbon copy of Jet Set Radio. However, it’s one thing to pay homage to a series that’s been ignored and another thing entirely to outright copy the formula and not actually change much about it. It’s then even more egregious that it pushes one of the worst features of the original series to the front, much to the game’s detriment. So I guess, this is a strange one.

This is a game made to satisfy a very particular niche – people who wanted a sequel to Jet Set Radio. In that regard, I guess I’m that person. That series is basically the only reason that I bought the Dreamcast and the original Xbox. What is in place here satisfies that very need. It’s got the visual style down precisely, feeling retro without being kitschy. It’s got the strange mix of inline skating (or BMX or skateboard) and platforming that somehow works despite the jank. It’s got an unbelievably good soundtrack. All of the good of the original game is there. On the good side, the camera is definitely improved in a lot of cases, which makes the overall flow of the game much better.

However, that also comes with all of the bad still generally being there. The platforming is still imprecise in ways that can feel unpredictable, particularly in spots where your camera is changing quickly. For example, going off a quarterpipe has a really smooth camera to follow the direction of movement, but jumping hard snaps the camera in your new direction of movement. It’s both somewhat unpredictable in direction and totally disorienting. There’s still points of vague collision where you’ll bonk off a rail instead of capturing it, which can make longer trick chains pretty inconsistent to pull off. Tricks are there, but there’s no skill to the timing of them and there’s very few of them, so it’s just generally button spam when scoring is in place.

The worst part is that they took the bad combat and cop mechanics and somehow made it more present. On the combat side, it’s still just button spam to attack. Ya you can boost for more damage, and it’s effective. Ya you can do jump attacks and what not. However, it’s all just garbage combat with bad shot avoidance and very little indication of the damage state of the enemies. This would probably be fine if combat was restricted to story segments, but the cops are always there. The second you lay your first tag in general traversal, you have cops after you. Nearly every tag after that brings it up in threat. This is compounded by the fact that every time you increase threat you get stuck in a cutscene. That you see every time you hit that threat. That you keep hitting because you keep dropping threat. It’s miserable. You can drop threat by changing outfits, but the spots to change are often out of the way and can’t be immediately reused. It’s a bad version of the GTA star system in a game with bad combat that you’re always going to be activating. It’s baffling.

As a dev it’s not that I don’t have sympathy for this being such a carbon copy. The Jet Set series has had some internet cache as a series that deserves a sequel, so I totally get the reason that an indie team would go for something that has high likelihood for sales. That provides a ton of potential for stability for a small team. However, I guess I also think that if you’re going to do that you should be providing an experience that is….less blatant? There’s so many things that could have been improved here over the original. Combat could have been better. Collision could have been better. The police system is miserable and should have been better. It just feels like a missed opportunity. Ya, totally take the core gameplay that is there but at least respect the fact that games have improved a lot in 20 years.

Which I guess brings us to the point where I think you’d expect me to say not to play this game, but I can’t. It’s frustrating as hell that this is a game that wasn’t modernized, but it’s still fun. Despite the problems this proves that the Jet Set series has legs to it. This may not be a modernization of the formula, but it at least provides more to the formula, so from that perspective I guess I totally recommend the game. However, do go into it with the knowledge that you’re playing a game that for better or worse did not try to improve upon where it’s coming from.