Games 5/5/09: Donkey Kong Jungle Beat: New Play Control, Velvet Assassin, Banjo-Tooie (XBLA)

Donkey Kong Jungle Beat: New Play Control
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

Nintendo’s first two entrants in its “New Play Control” series, which repackages Gamecube games with Wii-friendly controls and sells them like new for $30, weren’t particularly inspired choices.

At first glance, its third selection doesn’t seem any better. “Donkey Kong Jungle Beat” was one of Nintendo’s most ingenious Gamecube games precisely because of how it controlled — using a plastic bongo controller to play what otherwise was a pretty traditional 2D sidescrolling action game — and the notion that the Wii’s controllers could match, much less enhance, that experience is laughable. That this iteration doesn’t even allow support for the bongos, which still work on the Wii via the system’s Gamecube controller ports, almost seems petty. Why not give players the option if they have the means and are willing to buy this version over a used Gamecube copy that runs just fine on the Wii? It makes no sense.

But to complain solely about what “Beat” doesn’t do is to slight the many wonderful things it does do with or without the gimmicky bongo controls. Leaning on the joystick to move Donkey Kong left and right is an entirely different sensation than banging on the drums was, but the traditional approach also allows “Beat” to step out of the gimmick’s shadow and stand on its own as yet another terrific sidescroller from the house that Mario, Luigi, Samus and Kirby built.

“Beat” doesn’t disappoint at all in this regard, either. Each level is divided into three parts, and the general object is the collect as many bananas in the first two parts (which play like traditional sidescrolling levels) and expend as few of them as possible in the boss fight that comprises part three. The bananas form the basis of your health bar in the boss fight, which might take shape as a boxing match with another ape or a battle of wits that incorporates tactics learned in the preceding two parts.

As usual, it comes down to how diverse these levels and showdowns are. And in true Nintendo style, “Beat” goes buck wild, harnessing those basic controls through a barrage of ever-changing obstacles, enemies and sequences that have you swinging, bouncing and riding other animals through all manner of danger. Collecting bananas sounds like a chore on paper, but Nintendo integrates it into the action so seamlessly that it never even feels like a focus, much less a burden.

As for the new controls, they’re a mix of traditional button controls and motion gestures that at least mimic the Gamecube’s more frantic drumming demands. They’re nothing special, and in no way an enhancement, but they work. That the game is a trip to play with two so starkly different configurations speaks to how good it is on its own merits.

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Velvet Assassin
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Replay Studios/Southpeak Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, intense violence, use of drugs)

Provided you have your wits about you, “Velvet Assassin” — which loosely takes its inspiration from the heroic efforts of World War II Allied Forces secret agent Violette Szabo — is a game with small issues that only occasionally prove troublesome to the overall experience. That’s saying something, because if there’s a kind of game that really can’t afford to get sloppy, it’s a stealth action game that, like this one, penalizes you hard for your own lack of self-discipline.

“Assassin’s” issues run the gamut. The framerate sporadically swims in choppy waters, which can be a problem when you’re taking measured steps behind an enemy soldier to remain both undetected and ready to strike. The third-person perspective also leaves the game prone to instances of the environment obscuring your character — an obvious problem when you’re trying to calculate the perfect hiding spot in a cramped room with multiple armed soldiers. “Assassin” offers precious little in the way of firepower, and a few shots is all any given soldier needs to finish you off, so positioning isn’t exactly a trivial matter.

The severity of other aggravations, including a lagging menu system and a puzzling inability to use downed enemies’ weapons, will vary from user to user.

But the most alarming of “Assassin’s” problems is its very rare but inarguable tendency to just not cooperate. Once in a while, you’ll be positioned perfectly for a takedown, and the button to finish the job won’t register, giving your would-be victim ample time to turn around, see you and punish you before you have a chance to react. Other times, an enemy that shouldn’t be able to spot you does anyway, and if he alerts any other enemies in the same area, you’re pretty much up a creek. Considering the arguable infrequency of checkpoints in certain stretches, catching one of these hiccups at the wrong time can kill any desire to continue.

Again, though, these instances prove infrequent most of the way through, and “Assassin” mostly weathers its deficiencies to emerge, overall, as a pretty good addition to a genre in desperate need of fresh blood. It also shines some light on an unheralded chapter in World War II history — no easy feat given the bounty of WWII games already in existence. “Assassin’s” actual storyline, told in flashbacks, lies on the muddy side, but the point nonetheless is made.

Just make sure your play is never as sloppy as the game’s execution sometimes is. Enter a later mission with low ammo or low health, and there might be no saving you. Fortunately, “Assassin” allows you to load up an older checkpoint if you want to redo a stretch of the game without starting the whole thing over.

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Banjo-Tooie
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $15

It came as a very pleasant surprise to see how well the 1998 Nintendo 64 classic “Banjo-Kazooie” had aged in its 2008 transition to Xbox Live Arcade. The 2000 sequel “Banjo-Tooie” can’t possibly take anyone by the same level of surprise, but that’s where the bad news ends. Like its predecessor, “Tooie” is a 3D platforming wonderland, albeit one centered around collecting 100 of this and 10 of that. But “Tooie” also demonstrates what separated a Rare collect-a-thon from other like-minded platformers of the day. The levels — right down to the hub levels that glue the game together — are ingeniously designed, each containing a mix of story-focused objectives, integrated mini-game challenges and discoverable rewards that come from exploring the environments at your own pace. “Tooie” was a massive game by N64 standards, and it’s a gargantuan experience by Xbox Live Arcade’s standards, offering more hours of gameplay than many $60 games can muster. The $15 price tag is probably $5 more than most would like to pay for a slightly enhanced port of an eight-plus-year-old game, but given how well the game holds up — and given how badly the Xbox platform could use games of this sort — “Tooie’s” return on investment is undeniable.