Thursday, December 24, 2020

Top Ten Winter-Themed Mario Kart Tracks

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through SPC, 

Not a creature was stirring, save for little ol' me. 

A new article is here on the front page with care,

Hoping that viewers will stop by and give it a stare.

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone! It's almost customary for SuperPhillip Central to provide some kind of winter-themed video game list around this time of the year, so let's do that again. This time, though, let's be a little more specific with a look at one of SPC's favorite racing franchises, Mario Kart. The series is renowned for being incredibly accessible to almost all types of players, and its assortment of tracks are seldom dull and ordinarily exciting. 

This top ten list is themed after the latter, those exciting tracks, though those that have a winter theme. We are in a new season here in North America, the winter season, and with Christmas quickly approaching, there's no better way to celebrate both Mario Kart and the holiday season than with a list featuring SPC's favorite winter-based Mario Kart tracks! Let's get to the countdown!

10) Sherbet Land - Mario Kart 64 (N64)

We begin this countdown of winter-based Mario Kart tracks with the first fully 3D entry in the series, Mario Kart 64 and its Sherbet Land track. It was a tough challenge to leave one of the two snow and winter-themed Mario Kart 64 tracks off of this list, but ultimately, Frappe Snowland was the victim. No offense to that track or its fans, as I really enjoy that one, too. Regardless, Sherbet Land in Mario Kart 64 sees Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom crew visit a massive lake-like track, similar to Vanilla Lake from Super Mario Kart. There's cracks in the ice that can be leaped over with proper timing and speed, and the closer to the center of the lake you are when you leap, the more seconds you can shave off your time--though it's also riskier. Penguins surround the lake, sliding around back and forth, and also calling a column-filled cavernous corridor their home. Racers would do well to not bump into one as they waddle around each icy pillar in the cave. Sherbet Land would return in Mario Kart Wii as a retro track, and it allowed players like myself to appreciate this icy race course once again.

9) Rosalina's Ice World - Mario Kart 7 (3DS)

Whether in its Mario Kart 7 original form or more notably in its Mario Kart Tour glow-up, Rosalina's Ice World is a track full of hazards and slippery goodness to enjoy. From the start of the track you can see planets in the sky. This particular track has a cold, lonely feel to it, even with the penguin town full of igloos and other homes halfway through it. One can stay on the top of the ice for a slippery ride, or opt to travel underwater and sea the aquatic life underneath, such as the aforementioned penguins. The home stretch features a cavern of icicles, stalagmites, and more, all leading back into the open outside air where the finish line greets racers. I wasn't originally too keen on Rosalina's Ice World, especially as a Mario Kart 7 Special Cup track, but I eventually warmed up to it. Its Mario Kart Tour version is more enticing, so that might be a cause for my turnaround in opinion.

8) Ice Ice Outpost - Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (NSW), Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

As you'll see from this list, Mario Kart 8 and its Deluxe edition have no shortage of excellent tracks to choose from. Of course, when a game has 48 tracks, it sort of makes sense! Regardless, one of the then-new tracks featured in one of the two DLC packs of the Wii U original Mario Kart 8 and included wholesale as part of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is Ice Ice Outpost. This is a unique track located at an arctic outpost surrounded by icebergs, ships, and ocean. The uniqueness of the track comes from how almost the entire track is made up of two paths that cross over one another multiple times. There are plenty of points where you can change paths, and even some dangerous shortcut possibilities to take in the process. Then, there's the enjoyable anti-gravity to engage with, making for one race that seldom lacks challenge and fierce competition!

7) DK Pass - Mario Kart DS (DS)

The lone track example from the Nintendo DS's "cleverly" titled Mario Kart DS, DK Pass is a ride through the snowy mountainside pass filled with snow, snowmen, and racers to overcome. DK Pass features a multitude of twists and turns, some without railing to save you in case you monkey around too much, and hazards to avoid. The most notable of which are the gigantic rolling snowballs that can clobber unassuming racers like a bowling ball knocking down pins. Sometimes you're going against the path of snowballs, like on the ride up the pass, while on the ride down, you're driving with them. Either way, it's a precarious place to be! DK Pass is especially enjoyable in Mario Kart 7 for how in the first two laps the race is covered with a blanket of fog, but by the third, the sun pierces through the clouds and fog, dissipating both, and reveals a clearer and brighter view of this rocky and rowdy winter-based track.

6) DK Summit - Mario Kart Wii (Wii)

Another DK-based winter-themed track, DK Summit comes from Mario Kart Wii, and this game in the series introduced the ability to trick off ramps and other elevation changes to get a speed boost. What makes DK Summit so much fun is that it gives ample opportunity to try out this new mechanic, and does so with great generosity! Almost immediately after the starting line, you're rocketed through the air to the top of the summit through a large barrel cannon. Then, you're only recourse is a windy and equally wild ride down the slopes, avoiding chasms, players, and other dangers as you trick off slopes, halfpipes, and more. It's riveting to say the least, and makes for one seriously enjoyable track to go "ape" on!

5) Vancouver Velocity - Mario Kart Tour (iOS, AND)

Let's move to Mario Kart's premier mobile outing with a game that I have certainly warmed up to since my rather scathing review back near its launch. It's Mario Kart Tour, and despite my myriad issues with the game, there are several bright spots, and one of them is the amazing track design on display. The new city-based courses based on real life locations offer a taste of the real world in Mario Kart, though of course with a Mushroom Kingdom spin! Vancouver of Canada is one of such cities, and Vancouver Velocity is a stellar track from the game. However, this time around the snow and ice are merely for aesthetics as you never really interact with them in the actual race from the bright neon lights of the city, where the starting line begins, to the trek through the surrounding forests across thin bridges and then a windy road of wooden planks. It's a gorgeous track with a great deal of challenge to come in first on.

4) Sherbet Land - Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (GCN)

It wouldn't be a Mario Kart list with mentioning the unique experiment in the series, Mario Kart: Double Dash. Whether playing the GameCube original version of Sherbet Land (not to be confused with the previously listed Nintendo 64 track of the same name), or diving (literally at times) into the track's retro revival in Mario Kart 8, Sherbet Land is a slippery ride through a Shy Guy skating rink and then a crystal cavern, out to a curvy patch of road surrounded by thick snowbanks, and finally weaving through a giant patch of ice where Freezies from Mario Bros. make their homes. It's a particularly festive track with Christmas lights flashing around, and the song played only amplifies this feeling.

3) Merry Mountain - Mario Kart Tour (iOS, AND)

Why, hello there again, Mario Kart Tour! Speaking of feeling particularly festive, we move on to a track that is the newest and most recent of the bunch on this list. It's so satisfying of a track that it arrives at the number three spot on this list! It's Mario Kart Tour's Merry Mountain, a wholly original track that first appeared in the Winter Tour this year in the game. Nothing else rivals the festive feel of this track, whether you're starting out in the Christmas village where the start/finish line is, weaving through the windy paths, either taking the ground path or the more elevated wooden plank path to reach the top of the mountain. At the top, you of course have nowhere to go but down, offering plenty of opportunities to trick off ramps, collect coins being tossed out by a Toad-driven sleigh in the sky, and making your way back down to the finish. It's a delightfully fun track, and the only caveat here is that you have to play Mario Kart Tour to experience it!

2) Animal Crossing (Winter) - Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (NSW), Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

If there was one track that especially gives off a comfy and cozy feeling it's the Animal Crossing track, specifically the winter variant of it. This track is notable for, like Animal Crossing, having four seasons to it, and one track variant attached to each. With the winter version, you get a warm feeling even in the coldest season of them all. The town is lit up and decorated with Christmas lights, snow blankets all, and the nighttime sky illuminates the ground to make for an especially lovely looking place. It's homey and remarkable to look at, but it's also a great deal of fun to race on, too, whether you're in town or riding along the beach with stars in the sky and snow on the ground. This is all the while animal villagers cheer you on to [hopefully] victory. It also doesn't hurt that Animal Crossing is one of my favorite Nintendo franchises, either, so that might sway my opinion on this pick... a little.

1) Mount Wario - Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (NSW), Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

Not just my favorite winter-themed Mario Kart track, but one of my favorite tracks in any Mario Kart period, Mount Wario, which debuted in Mario Kart 8, is unlike any other track on this list. Rather than being three laps it's divided up into three parts, as racers start at the top of the titular mountain, dropping in from the back of an airplane and drive all the way down to the base. Along the way are slippery slopes, a river running through a cavern, a dam, a dangerous section filled with trees to weave through, and the final section, a segment made up of ski jumps and moguls to traverse as you make your way to the finish line where your adoring public awaits to cheer you on. The entire race is like an adventure, one pulse-pounding thrill ride that like a great ride at an amusement park, one that you'll want to immediately go on again after completing it. This is how the best Mario Kart tracks make me feel, and Mount Wario is one of the tops in this department, and tops this list of winter-themed Mario Kart tracks.

Honorable Mentions: Frappe Snowland - Mario Kart 64, Snow Land - Mario Kart: Super Circuit (GBA)

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Sonic 3D Blast (GEN, SAT, PC) Retro Review

As we approach Christmas, the holiday season, and the SuperPhillip Central Best of 2020 Awards (beginning this Sunday night), let's go back in time for a Super Sonic 3D Blast from the past! It's retro review time, and this time we're checking out Sonic 3D Blast! Here is the SPC review.

A 3D blast from the past

If you're versed at all, whether well or not, with gaming, you're probably aware of the nineties where then-console titan Sega was in a retail and marketing war with Nintendo. The two butted heads considerably throughout the decade. It's no wonder why the two publishers took inspiration from each other, and in many ways, gaming fans of that era were the real winners in the end. 

Following the massive success of the Super Nintendo and Rareware's pre-rendered 3D modeled platformer Donkey Kong Country, Sega, too, didn't want to be the left in the digital dust. They partnered with a British studio, Traveller's Tales, now most known for their mega-hit literal blockbuster LEGO games, to create a unique platformer starring their main mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. That game would be known by the world as Sonic 3D Blast.

Sonic 3D Blast served as a slower paced platformer compared to past console entries, but by no means was that a foreign concept to the Blue Blur. On the Game Gear he starred in Sonic Labyrinth, which was as slow as it was dull (in my opinion, at least, but that's a review for another day). In fact, alongside Nintendo and Rare's Donkey Kong Country, Sega and Traveler's Tales were inspired by Sonic Labyrinth in the design of Sonic 3D Blast. 

Whereas Sonic Labyrinth was clunky and rather boring, Sonic 3D Blast brings with it a higher level of energy. Don't get me wrong--it's still a leisurely romp with a slow, methodical pace, but not to the point of tedium like Labyrinth was. Sonic 3D Blast, like Sonic Labyrinth, features an isometric camera and 3D worlds, though these are much more detailed and interesting than Labyrinth. 

Sonic's mission, if you choose to accept it: recover Flickies from defeated Badniks and deposit them in the goal ring.

The goal of most acts in Sonic 3D Blast is to defeat five enemies, which Dr. Robotnik has trapped colorful bird creatures known as Flickies inside. Beating the badniks results in freeing the Flicky stuck inside, and once grabbed by Sonic, thus circles around him. When Sonic takes damage or a Flicky is in range of a hazard, the Flickies surrounding Sonic scurry away, much like Sonic's rings when the hedgehog gets hit. Flickies will then bounce around near the location Sonic was damaged, and our prideful protagonist will need to recover them. This is easier said than done, as different Flicky types have different movement patterns. Some scurry about on the ground while others bounce back and forth. When you're damaged on a wide area of hazards, like a lava or spike pit, it's quite possible to pick up Flickies lost only to get hit again, thus causing the Flickies to run away once more. It's a cycle of annoyance that can quickly irritate.

Whoa! Watch out for those spikes, Sonic!

Regardless, after nabbing five Flickies, Sonic's objective is to find a floating horizontal gold ring upon which he can hang off of while depositing the Flickies inside. This either opens up a new portion of level or sees the act being completed. Acts generally have at least two segments where you need to recover and deposit five Flickies after defeating five enemies. To lessen the burden of losing Flickies upon taking damage, Sonic can deposit his newfound feathered friends early, and then go back to find the others still around the level, though this will result in a lesser Flicky point bonus at the end of the level. Still, I will take less points if that means less frustration from having to run around like a Flicky with its head cut off to recover both lost rings and lost Flickies from getting hit.

Just like the Paul Simon song, Sonic's slip-slidin' away.
(Yes, I'm old, so this musical reference might go over many of SPC's younger readers' heads.)

With its isometric view, Sonic 3D Blast can be a bit of a challenge to properly line up leaps on platforms (this is a big issue in zones like Rusty Ruin and Panic Puppet), as well as hits on foes. This is especially so with every Robotnik encounter during every zone's third act. These battles showcase how poor hit detection and how much of an enemy the camera perspective can truly become. With Dr. Robotnik, so many parts of his machinery can damage you, and the zone to attack him is seemingly so small. It results in a lot of rings lost, and perhaps lives, too, as you bang your head against the figurative wall to battle and beat his mechanical monstrosities and robotic creations. 

If there's one positive about Dr. Robotnik, it's that he is surely persistent!

As always, collecting rings is Sonic's lifeline and serves as his health bar. As long as he has one ring in his collection when taking damage, he'll be alright. Rings disappear quite quickly upon taking damage, as they bounce away and Sonic gets into a mad dash to collect them again. So it makes boss battles where there are limited quantities of rings available to Sonic all the more challenging, as previously mentioned, getting hit in these encounters is far too common and possible.

However, rings aren't only used for Sonic's health and wellbeing--they're also used to enter special stages to acquire Chaos Emeralds. Hidden and not-so-hidden in each playable act are Knuckles and Tails, and if you have at least 50 rings, you can enter the special stage. Depending on the version, you either run along a bridge, collecting rings while dodging mines (Sega Genesis), or in the more interesting and challenging special stage version on PC and Sega Saturn, you run along a halfpipe, avoiding mines while also collecting rings, Sonic 2-style. Upon collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds and beating the main game, you unlock the final level, a boss rush of sorts against Robotnik's most menacing mechanical creation. If you successfully complete that, you earn a level select, including all special stages to replay at your leisure.

Dodge spiked balls while nabbing rings to satisfy the ring thresholds of each special stage.

Sonic 3D Blast is rather good looking on the Genesis, which the screenshots of this review come from, but on the PC and Sega Saturn, it's of course even better. There's more detail in environments, there's unique animations and cutscenes, such as Knuckles or Tails personally delivering Sonic to each special stage location and dropping him in, and it's just overall a nicer presentation package. This goes into the music, too. While the Genesis version has remarkably catchy tunes, for me they're vastly outrivaled by Richard Jacques' marvelous compositions that deliver delightfully impressive themes. Upbeat when appropriate and epic and sensational when needed. 

Uh... you might want to move out of the way, Sonic.

If you're looking for a lengthy game, you won't find it with Sonic 3D Blast. It's a rather breezy adventure, clocking in at around 3-4 hours, if you're skilled enough and don't encounter too many annoyances from spotty hit detection from boss battles or confusing camera angles due to the less than adequate perspective. Still, there is plenty of fun to be had, even if Sonic the Hedgehog doesn't reach as high of speeds as most, even the Blue Blur himself, are accustomed to. Released on plenty of platforms and in many collections, Sonic 3D Blast isn't too difficult to track down, and if you can play it, I encourage you to do so and experience this unique Sonic adventure.

[SPC Says: C+]