A single afternoon with Nintendo 64 illustrates the highs and lows of video games today - and how little difference there is left between the good and the bad.
Two new versions of old games - Hexen and Starfox 64 - show off opposite ends of the gaming spectrum. But more than anything else, they highlight how narrow that spectrum has become as designers push new hardware to new limits.
Both games look wonderful.
Although Hexen loses quite a bit of screen resolution in the jump from PC to game box, it's still a smooth, fast ride through some spooky terrain. Nice graphic touches such as the moody dropping of tree leaves survived the transition.
Starfox 64 delivers the kind of elegant imagery that the original 16-bit version could only hint at. Giant asteroids melt into view and bad guys gracefully appear out of the mist as lasers fire every which way across the screen.
Both games play smoothly.
For those accustomed to playing Hexen with a PC keyboard, the N64 controller takes a little getting used to. But once mastered, it offers tight control in tough situations. It responds as it should when it should and the configuration is as intuitive as it gets.
Starfox 64's controls also take a little practice to master, but that's largely because the game offers a wide range of action from barrel rolls to somersaults. Fox's Arwing darts around the screen with astonishing grace. Add to this the vibrations from Nintendo's Rumble Pak peripheral and the action gets even better. As goofy as it sounds, the Rumble Pak actually makes play more enjoyable. After a few games, it feels odd not to have the unit attached.
Both games boast multi-player mode.
Anyone who's ever played any of the Doom-style games in multi-player mode knows that this is really the only way to play them. Hexen offers a split-screen mode for up to four players. It's not as fun as network or modem play because the images are so small.
The same goes for Starfox 64. Because the environments are so large and the ships so speedy, it can be tough to find opponents in challenge mode. Plus, the split screen tends to be distracting.
Neither game is original.
Hexen was born on the PC. Starfox was born on the Super Nintendo. These versions have been dressed up and revamped, but much of what zips across the screen is a prettier version of what came before. Hexen, in particular, offers little on Nintendo 64 that it lacked on the PC. For my money, I'd still rather play it on my PC. Starfox 64 goes way beyond what most PCs can do, but it's still a pretty basic shooter at heart.
Technically great, neither game in the end conquers any new territory in terms of play or style. Sure, the Rumble Pak is neat, but it's an increment. And that's the problem with games right now: They look and play better than anything before, but most still leave players feeling a little empty.
Like a cake with too much frosting, they're tasty at first, but not very satisfying in the long run.
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