Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Excitebike 64

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Released on April, 30, 2000 by Nintendo, and developed by Left Field Productions, Excitebike 64 takes the classic NES motorcycle racer into the 64th dimension...third dimension...same difference.

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The Personal Story:
Excitebike for the NES was not my favorite childhood videogame. It is a fun game, and jumping the motorbike over hills is exciting, but I quickly grew bored due its repetitive gameplay and visuals. While other kids swore by Excitebike, I would take Mario, Ice Hockey, or Ducktales over that motorcycle racer any day. Thus, years later, when Excitebike 64 was announced, I did not run to the store to rip it off the shelf. However, this 64-bit Excitebike seemed to be receiving plaudits just as high as its 8-bit predecessor, and after a while, once Excitebike 64 hit the bargain bin, I put my $5 down.

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Graphics: What a difference 15 years makes. Excitebike 64 is a good looking game, suffering from none of the visual monotony of its predecessor (changing color schemes not withstanding). Textures are smooth and clear, bikes, bikers are finely detailed and animated, and colors are bright, vivid, and varied. Weather effects and smoke exhaust look excellent. The mix of indoor and outdoor courses looks great, despite a bit of draw-in, meaning if an object is far away, it pops into view when the rider approaches, as opposed to slowly growing larger as the rider gets closer. The draw-in is an alternative to distance fog (meaning, past a certain distance, all objects are shrouded in fog), and never distracts or affects gameplay. The outdoor backgrounds, generally consisting of mountainous or forested landscapes, look suitably majestic. Excitebike 64 never gives the impression of blazing speed, but it is fast enough. The game also features an optional high-resolution mode for those who own a Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak, and while this mode offers extremely heightened visuals when movement is static, it turns the racing experience into a slow, muddy trek, and is to be avoided.

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Sound: Motorcycle racing games from this era often feature bikes that unfortunately sound more like whining mosquitoes than powerful machines. Thankfully, Excitebike 64 gets the engine sounds just right, and makes gunning the bike constantly a temptation. Sounds of tires scraping on rocks, dirt, and whatever other turf the player comes across are spot on. The game features an announcer, but he is mainly limited to announcing what place each rider is in, and spouting the phrase "(the name of the character the player is using) gets a soil sample" anytime the rider falls off the bike, causing the player to want to give the announcer a "soil sample." Music, generally in the vein of 90's dance tunes, is serviceable and forgettable.  

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Gameplay: The meat of Excitebike 64's gameplay comes through Season Mode. In Season Mode, the player has the option to play through a tutorial in order learn the game's mechanics. While the controls are fairly intuitive, mastering cornering, jumps, and a judicious use of turbo (too much turbo, which is utilized by pressing the N64 controller's Z-trigger, and the bike stalls out), is an involving process, taking much time and experience. The player begins with access to the Novice Circuit and its Bronze, then Silver Round. Each round consists of five races, some indoor, some in the sprawling outdoors. The player must place first in the round to progress. Once this circuit is completed, the player is given access to Amateur Circuit, which is quite a bit more challenging. The same Bronze and Silver rounds must again be completed, now at this higher difficulty, and then the player is given access to the Gold Round. Once Gold Round is completed, Pro mode is unlocked, and here a line in the sand is drawn between the casual racing game fan, and the diehard. Pro mode features faster bikes, and opponents of much higher skill. At this point, memorizing the tracks and perfecting the game mechanics is not enough: the player must master navigating through and besting the other racers. Each track features six racers at a time, including the player. The game does not include any real life racers, and instead features six fictional male and female characters with varying attributes and skill. Some characters may sacrifice speed for control or vice versa, while some may be masters of jumping or cornering to the detriment of other skills. 

Regardless of whom the player selects, they are going to have to deal with the other five racers, and this is where the game's enjoyability becomes quite divisive. In Pro Mode, the other racers live to knock each other off their bikes. This is done by tapping an opponent's front tire with one's back tire. In Pro mode, the other racers are lecherous masters of this method, and the player may find they are getting many more "soil samples" than they'd like. Adding to this frustrating element are random other bikers (in addition to the six competitors), who just happen to be using the course for some unstated reason--perhaps in homage to the computer controlled racers of the 8-bit Excitebike who aren't actually racing the player, but only serve to get in the way...and they definitely get in the way. 
However, if the player does quickly grow tired of these frustrations, Excitebike 64 offers a multitude of other gameplay options. There are the requisite Exhibition and Time Trial modes, as well as the old Nintendo 64 staple, multiplayer. The multiplayer allows friends to race, as well, and thankfully, this split-screen action runs at close to the same speed as the single-player. The true jewels of Excitebike 64, though, are found in the Special Tracks. These courses include, among many others, a capture-the-flag like game set in a vast desert, a near impossible climbing challenge to the top of an incredibly steep mountain, and a full-version of the original 8-bit Excitebike, itself. These Special Tracks are earned by completing portions of Season Mode, and are actually a great incentive to remain persistent in toppling the more difficult circuits. Some of these Special Tracks can also be played in a multiplayer mode, as well, which is an added treat. The game also features a create-a-track mode, similar to the one found in the classic NES incarnation. While the track-editor is restrictive in the size and environment of the track being created (only indoor tracks can be made), this mode is a blast, featuring intuitive design mechanics and enough options to stretch the imagination of most track makers

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Lasting Value: While mastering the subtleties of Excitebike's mechanics takes time, the player, depending on their dedication to the genre, will either hit the point where they are thrilled at the increased difficulty, or want to give their Excitebike 64 cartridge a soil sample. For the latter, the aforementioned Special Tracks do stretch out the gameplay hours quite a bit. For those who truly love racing the same track a hundred times until they taste the sweet nectar of victory, or for those who are simply gifted at mastering racing games, the Season Mode's enjoyability will stretch on quite longer, Afterward, those players get to enjoy the Special Tracks, as well. Overall, Left Field Studios certainly gave their best attempt to make Excitebike 64 feel as full an experience as possible.  

Colorful, well-detailed and animated, and beautiful, Excitebike 64 is easy on the eyes, even if it doesn't run as fast as lightning.

Music and Sound
Motorcycles sound like the real deal, and sound effects are good, but the announcer is repetitive, and the music is bland and forgettable.

Complex, yet intuitive racing on the lower difficulties yields to frustration on the harder, but at that point, the game's wildly varied special modes pick up the slack.

Lasting Value
So many modes of play and special bonuses to unlock, it's a wonder Left Field fit them all onto the cartridge.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015


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Released on January 26, 2001 by Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe, Castlevania takes the classic platform jumping, vampire-whipping action of its 2D-Castlevania predecessors into the third dimension, as two distinct protagonists fight to prevent yet another attempt at world domination by Count Dracula.

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The Personal Story:
I've one memory of the original Castlevania trilogy for the NES: they were very, very difficult. I made little progress through my friends' copies. By the time the SNES rolled around, I was a more skilled gamer, and I was able to get quite far through Castlevania IV, though I didn't beat it until college. When the Nintendo 64 trotted out its 3D take on Castlevania, I was too wrapped up in Zelda, Banjo, and EA's Beetle Adventure Racing to give it a shot. Most egregiously, I even gave time to the hated Playstation's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, one of the greatest games of all time, beating it twice. "Castlevania 64," as gamers branded it, actually received decent reviews upon its release, with the caveat that it was not as good as the closely released Symphony of the Night. Castlevania 64 only achieved a negative reputation years later, due to the rampant meme culture of the early '10's, which valued cheap, easy laughs over actual facts and evidence. Those very memes clashed so harshly with my memories of the game's initial reviews that I finally decided to play through the game, and at last form a Castlevania opinion of my own.

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Graphics: Castlevania 64 is one of the most graphically uneven games for the Nintendo 64. Textures are often blurry and muddy, sometimes resulting in walls, floors, or objects which are not so easy on the eyes. For a major studio game released halfway through the Nintendo 64's life-cycle (taking the perspective that the Nintendo 64 is not, in fact, immortal), this is unforgivable. On the other hand, character-animation is superb and life-like, from the crack of the player's whip, to the terrifyingly swift movement of one of the game's creepy "crawler" vampires, to the lumbering gait of Castlevania's enormous bosses. Castlevania's architecture and environments are well and sometimes stunningly designed, though they are at times blanketed by the aforementioned fuzzy textures. Real-time lighting is simplistic, but there, from lightning strike illumination, to the shine of a torch on clothing, to a red-tinted lava pit. Graphical slowdown does at times occur, particularly in levels featuring a large amount of moving objects (The Tower of Execution, for example), and sometimes inexplicably. The game also makes use of distance fog, not at the rate of say, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, and sometimes for atmospheric effect, but still, it's there. Castlevania's graphics essentially include every issue from the laundry list of common Nintendo 64 graphical complaints, but the game also contains enough eye-pleasing moments to offset them. Overall, as far as Nintendo 64 graphics go, Castlevania runs slightly ahead of the middle of the pack.

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Sound: Castlevania tricks players into thinking they've got their hands on a fully voice-acted game. The opening introduction is well-read by a narrator, the protagonist speaks, and then there isn't any voice-acting for the rest of the game--all of the remaining dialogue is text-based.  However, Castlevania's sound effects are vast and top notch, from thunder, wind, and rain, to the crack of weapons, to boots on stairs, to the satisfying, echoed death-screams of disintegrating vampires. Music is well done, with Castlevania implementing ambient sound at select moments for atmosphere, but mostly relying on a fitting, if unmemorable score throughout. Every level has its own distinct musical theme, but Castlevania's aural highlight comes during the game's opening menu, featuring a real, mournful violin, which leads into a gorgeous, moving orchestral piece. In a lovely touch, perhaps inspired by the Nintendo 64's recently released, but tonally opposite, Banjo Kazooie, the menu is animated to have a main character (in this case, the mysterious Malus) performing this music. While the rest of Castlevania's soundtrack is solid, it never comes close to the heights of this opening piece.  

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Gameplay: From the menu, the player can select Easy or Difficult mode, and has a choice of beginning the game with either young witch, Carrie Fernandez, or heir to the vampire-slaying Belmont clan, Reinhardt Schneider. There is no option to switch characters once the journey to the top of Dracula's castle has begun. The chief difference in the two characters lies in their method of attack. The diminutive Carrie casts spheres of energy akin to heat-seeking missiles. She is an asset when fighting slow moving foes, as the player can simply run away or around the enemy, cast Carrie's spells, and watch them seek enemies, then explode on contact. However, against swift-moving foes, Carrie's energy balls become a liability, unable to hit enemies unless they are cast from an extremely short distance. Schneider, on the other hand, uses the classic Castlevania bullwhip (though unfortunately, it isn't as elastic as Castlevania IV's series standout whip). This allows Schneider to be quite deadly at close range, though he has to jump and swing to hit taller or floating enemies. The spell and whip can be powered up twice per level, but lose your life, or save and turn the game off, and the power-ups are lost. Both characters have a short-range weapon, Carrie bladed rings, Schneider a dagger, both similar in function and power.  The duo also have access to the four classic Castlevania projectile weapons, the cheap but weak throwing knife, the stationary holy water, the high-powered but costly throwing cross, and the well-balanced throwing axe. Only one of these four weapons may be stocked at any specific time. Cost is mentioned because each projectile weapon toss uses a certain amount of red jewels, which are collected throughout the game.  Combat is fun, with each attack button well-mapped on the Nintendo 64 controller. The game's wily camera can be an issue, though this is partially remedied by a rudimentary enemy targeting system, accessed by the shoulder button. While this enemy lock-on isn't as advanced as the one in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (where it was not only originated, but perfected),which was released on the Nintendo 64 two months before Castlevania, it is appreciated. There's 
far more to Castlevania than combat, though, which brings up Castlevania's greatest asset: it's unpredictability. 
Castlevania's opening level pits the player against a boss within the first three minutes, provides a lot of open space to battle limitless enemies, and features just a bit of platform jumping. The second level features far more platforming, which is both exhilarating and frustrating. The frustration comes from the game's stubborn camera. Often, the player can finagle the camera into an agreeable position before jumps, but the process, generally consisting of toggling around with the targeting shoulder button and one of the yellow "c-buttons" can be quite tedious. The controls are also a bit finicky when it comes to jumping. The player will fall to their death many times early on, before realizing just how Castlevania wishes for them to handle the controller. However, once the player adjusts to these issues, there's a lot of old-school platforming challenge to be enjoyed--this is, after all, a Castlevania game. Castlevania's third stage is one of its most varied, as the player finds themselves in a Villa inside the castle grounds. At this point, the game introduces several non-playable characters, who deepen Castlevania's story, add emotional stakes, and give the game a bit more of a fully-realized world. This stage also contains Castlevania 64's standout moment, as the player is stalked through a hedge maze by a chainsaw-welding Frankenstein's monster and his two enormous hounds of hell. This terrifying segment adds a psychological, survival horror element to the game, as these enemies can be momentarily disabled, but not killed. The chase continues until the player either escapes or dies. Over the next seven stages, Castlevania is similarly unpredictable, bouncing between pure action or platforming stages, combinations of the two, boss fights at seemingly any moment, and simplistic puzzles, These puzzles are few, and are often confined to figuring out a password through clues found throughout a stage. The game's ten levels may also suddenly feature an on-rails segment, a carry a bomb and if you get hit or jump you die segment, or a surprise cage match in a booby-trapped room segment, among others.With all this variation, though, Castlevania's game-play experience is surprisingly short

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Lasting Value: Castlevania does not include any sort of multi-player mode. Its ten stages can be bested by an experienced gamer in five or six hours, though the average player may take up to ten. After that, one has the opportunity to play through the game with the second character. The two characters' paths are similar, but each can access three stages and one boss the other cannot. The distinct differences in Carrie's and Reinardt's attack styles, as well as these six different levels, which are among the game's best, make playing through Castlevania with each character essential. However, doing this still only results in about 15 hours playing time, maximum. Castlevania does offer those who take down its normal difficulty mode a "hard mode," but this setting is only for the die-hard fan, as most players will find the 15 hours of frustrating fun they have spent in this 64-bit, 3-dimensional Transylvania to be enough.  

Contains plenty of blurry, ugly textures, but environments look okay, overall. Character animation is stellar. Slowdown abounds, but doesn't break the game.
Music and Sound
Good early voice-work, but disappears completely past the game's five-minute mark. Excellent sound-effects, and a solid, workman-like score.
Surprisingly varied. with a good balance of challenging platforming, fun supernatural combat, and survival horror, though the camera-system often gets in the way.
Lasting Value
No multi-player, and the single-player adventure, despite two different character paths, doesn't last terribly long, though Castlevania feels to end when it should.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Paper Mario

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Released on February 5, 2001 by Nintendo, and developed by Intelligent Systems, Paper Mario is an RPG featuring the adventures of the titular plumber, as he once again attempts to rescue Princess Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser.
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The Personal Story:
Despite spending most of my childhood in the 1980's, Super Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo is the first RPG I ever played. I asked for the then new release as a Christmas gift because I saw it in a Nintendo Power and thought the top-down graphics looked incredible. However, I received a great shock during that Christmas of 1996 morning, as I attempted to jump on Super Mario RPG's first bad guy, and was taken to another screen and tossed into a turn-based battle. After my initial confusion, I was hooked, beat Super Mario RPG, and immediately played any Role Playing Game I could lay my hands on, peaking at Chrono Trigger, my favorite game to this day...then I picked up a NIntendo 64. Unfortunately, the 64 is not known as an RPG wonderland. Long after the Nintendo 64 had left store shelves, I went back and realized that a small handful of very special RPG's were indeed released for the system, but during my initial Nintendo 64 run, I had played none of them. In fact, by the time 2001 had rolled around, and the Nintendo 64, on its absolute last legs, was finally ready to offer up the 64-bit sequel to Super Mario RPG, I had moved on to my Sega Dreamcast, and when Dreamcast went defunct (RIP Dreamcast), jumped to the Gamecube. That sequel, Paper Mario, stayed far off my radar, until the day I pulled out my Nintendo 64 from storage and realized that it is the greatest video game system of all time, and that it features a massive ocean of games whose surface I had barely rippled. Paper Mario's chance had finally come.  

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Graphics: Instead of simply doing a more graphically-advanced version of Super Mario RPG's isometric perspective (3-D graphics from a 3/4 top-down perspective), Paper Mario tries its hand at something a bit different. The "paper" in the title is literal, and Mario, along with the rest of the game's characters and much of its world, are designed to look made of it. The effect is convincing and beautiful, like an old television cartoon. Paper Mario spins much humor from Mario's papery properties--send Mario off for a nap to recharge, and he wafts down into bed exactly like a flat sheet of paper in the wind. The game is full of clever visual moments, but they aren't the only feather in Paper Mario's graphical cap. Colors are so pleasingly bright and varied, one may wish that the developers of today's grey and blue-toned games would take some notes. Boss design is extremely fun, with many of the game's major villains reminiscent of something from a 1970's General Mills cereal box. The animations are all top-notch, as well, and the game is only is spared visual perfection by a few ugly drawn and over-pixelated background objects.

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Sound: During the late 90's...and to this day, Nintendo has faced accusations that their games are too cute. They have often subverted these accusations by making the best games of all time, with incredibly high production values. With that said, several aspects of Paper Mario's audio design are too cute. The sound effects are varied and well done, but they tip-toe that cutesy line between perfect and unbearable, and just barely manage not to fall into the latter. Paper Mario features no recorded speech, and all conversations and dialogue are conveyed via text. While text-only isn't out of the ordinary for an RPG of this era, the Nintendo 64 could have easily handled some speech. The lack of even a simple "It's a me, Mario," in the game's opening menu, especially coming nearly five years after Super Mario 64, is particularly strange.  In regard to music, Paper Mario's can be quite good, and in the latter portions, great, but it at points suffers from a few moments of...tossed in dog barking noises and low-quality midi-samples. These missteps seem out of place on such a high profile game, released during the Nintendo 64's final year as Nintendo's flagship console. Thankfully, these lousy moments in the soundtrack are the exception, not the rule. Most musical pieces for villages are suitably relaxing, the game's battle music is fun and energetic, and most of the score late in the game, as Mario ventures into icy, and then starry terrain is legitimately excellent. The theme for the Crystal Palace, Paper Mario's pen-ultimate dungeon, is a particular standout, and a Nintendo 64 highlight. 

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Gameplay: Super Mario RPG and most 90's RPG games allowed the player the control the protagonist, in this case Mario, and two other party members in combat against foes. Paper Mario only allows Mario to take one friend into battle. This at first seems like a detriment and an over-simplification, yet it leads to surprisingly deep strategizing in both character selection, and which fighting commands the player selects. Over the course of the game, Mario takes on eight different party members, all who stick around to the end, but as mentioned, only one at a time can join him in the fray. The eight characters are incredibly diverse and well-designed, each bringing something legitimately different to the table. Bombette the Bom-omb, for instance, features the strongest attacks, but if Mario goes into battle against a group of foes, not bound by the rule of two, by the way, and several of those foes float or fly, the ground-bound Bombette can do little against them. Thankfully, the player can switch members mid-fight, but they must spend a turn doing so. In this case, the player could switch to the winged Paratroopa, Parakarry, who can make short work of airborne foes. The choice of character also effects Paper Mario's non-flight gameplay. Mario may come to a damaged wall, and need Bombette to blow it out of the way, or he may come to a ledge and need Parakarry to take him across to the other side. All eight party members have their own unique properties in this way, and the game is designed so that all eight are indispensable. Thankfully, in non-combat gameplay, the party member can be changed with the touch of the button. 

Speaking of non-combat gameplay, the more adventure and platform-based sections of the game are a joy to play. As in most RPG's, Mario goes to a town, that town has problems, the problems are centered around a dungeon-like area, and Mario must enter the dungeon and defeat the bad guys to solve them. Once the bad guys are beaten, Mario moves on to the next town. Thankfully, Intelligent Design has added far more layers to this familiar design. Before dungeon-diving, Mario may have to go on a quest to find some missing Yoshi kids, save some Koopas from some irritating fuzzies, or even solve a (humorous) murder mystery. Many of these pre-dungeon quests are a blast, and even some of the dungeons may suddenly get derailed into a fun sidetrack. This keeps the game unpredictable and far from boring. As far as plot goes, there's some stuff about magical stars and a rod of invincibility, and Bowser doing a bunch of naughty stuff and kidnapping the Princess again, along with her entire castle this time. Thankfully, this well-worn tale is spun in an extremely humorous fashion, with the text-based dialogue crackling, and the aforementioned visual humor moving the plot along, as well. 
Paper Mario's most major wrinkle, however, is that Mario is not always the main protagonist. To subvert the usual Mario plot, the game shifts from Mario's perspective after every dungeon is beaten, to that of Princess Peach. While Peach may be exiled in her stolen castle, which is hovering high above the Mushroom Kingdom, she is not just lying around, waiting to be rescued. As Peach, the player will take on such diverse tasks as spying, theft, and baking a cake, all which in turn further Mario in his quest to reach her. These mini-quests with Peach are a great change of pace, and give an already diverse game an embarrassment of gameplay riches.
The heart of the game, though, as is true for most RPG's, is in the battles. As mentioned, the two-party system adds several strategy wrinkles. Mario can choose between using physical attacks (utilizing his feet and his battle hammer), the most powerful of which deplete his flower (magic) bar, or using an item (to heal, up his attack or defense power, or to attack). He can also choose to use one of the star moves he has learned, which deplete the corresponding star bar. The amount of star moves available to Mario grow in number respective to the star spirits he rescues. More minimally, the sidekick the player has chosen can spend it's turn either attacking, switching to another member, or running away. The player can choose whether Mario or the sidekick moves first. However, the sidekick cannot use an item or star moves. Only Mario can. This is where, again, strategy comes heavily into play.   
Finally, the player must also strategize how they want to level up Mario and friends. Experience points are earned for every battle won, unless the foe defeated is considerably weaker than Mario. Once a player collects 100 experience points, they can choose to either increase their available hitpoints (amount of damage they can sustain in battle without dying), increase their flower points (which are used to enact magic moves), or badge points. Throughout the game, the player collects special badges that lend Mario and friends special privileges. Only a certain amount of badges can be used at once, in conjunction with however many badge points the player has earned...again, strategy. Some of these badges are quite hard to find. 

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Lasting Value: If the reader of this review has not picked up on the subtext to this point,  it should be said bluntly: for a game that on the surface seems cute and childish, Paper Mario is surprisingly complex. As the first-time player learns the nuances of the fight system early in the game, they will often die in battle. When these nuances are mastered, the player may never lose another life, except perhaps to one of the game's latter bosses. Getting to those bosses and through Paper Mario's massive world takes quite a while, though, and the player will burn nearly 30 to get to the final boss. Beyond that are extra items to collect, and side-quests, not key to conquering the game, that can extend Paper Mario's playing time even longer. This is no short quest. 

The paper-style graphics are a lot of fun and easy on the eyes, coupled with great character design, especially the bosses, and a visually arresting color palette.
Music and Sound
No voice, despite coming so late in the 64's run, but decent, if stereotypically Nintendo sound-effects, along with a good score, slightly marred by some low-quality midi samples.
Deceptively-deep turn-based battles, juxtaposed with some enjoyable, yet simple platforming and puzzle-solving, and a lovely, breezy sense of humor.
Lasting Value
Around 30-hours of non-stop entertainment, and that's without finishing all of the side-quests.