Thursday, January 3, 2013

Game Review: Jet Force Gemini

Jet Force Gemini
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Rare
  • Release: Nintendo 64, 1999
  • Genre: 3D Action
  • Players: 1-4
  • Save: Battery, 6 file
You guys all know of the video game developer Rare, right? These guys date back to the gaming computers of the 1980s, but their heyday of 1994-2001 was one of the most-loved periods of not just their history, but gaming in general. As a "second-party" developer for Nintendo, they gave us classics like Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, Goldeneye, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, and Conker's Bad Fur Day. And then... they got bought out by Microsoft, bound to their XBox and later XBox 360, and they haven't been the same since. As far as I'm concerned, their mediocrity since then was merely coincidental, but I'm not here to talk about that. I'm here to talk about one of the games that came out of their golden age, but slipped through the cracks of public consciousness. ...Actually, I've already done that, so let's do it again! Here's Jet Force Gemini.

JFG is, in story terms, a space opera, starring a young man Juno, his sister Vela, and their dog Lupus. (Shut up, House.) Yes, I said a dog. Who wears his guns strapped to his back. How can you not love that? A distress call takes them to the forest planet Endor Goldwood, which has been besieged by an army of insect-like alien Drones, led behind the scenes by the aptly-named Mizar. (Like "miser", get it?) Upon landing, they encounter a shaman named... Jeff, who represents his bear-like race called the Ewoks Tribals, and pleads for their rescue. And how will our troika manage that? By blowing [noun] up.
Lupus, with back-mounted gun and secret upgrade.
The structure is laid out a little something like this. You start out with only Juno as a playable character. Mid-way through his story, you rescue Vela, and mid-way through her story, you find Lupus. Each character is restricted to a path of four levels each until they all meet at Mizar's Palace. Beat the boss here, and then the game really opens up. Not only do each of the characters get to travel to all the unlocked planets, but they also get a secret upgrade (read: a jetpack) to explore places they couldn't before. But there's a reason for this: at this stage in the game, you're tasked with not one, but two collection quests. First, Mizar has sent an asteroid at Earth (Michael Bay says hi), so you have to collect parts to repair an old spaceship in the hopes of intercepting it. Second, in order to get one of these pieces, you have to explore all the levels and rescue all the Tribals within. The trick is not only finding them, but keeping them alive; Tribals can be killed by your fire and the enemies' fire alike. True, dead Tribals do come back if you retry the level, so you can never truly fail this task, but it just kinda weighs heavily on your conscience, ya know?

JFG is, in gameplay terms, a third-person shooter. Despite being an early example of the genre, the only older example I can think of being Mega Man Legends (P.S. Legends 3 is still not a thing. Yet.), JFG boasts a few features which make the experience nothing short of fun. While it's true that most shooter games work best with two Control Sticks, they found a way to compensate for this. An alternate "advanced" control scheme moves the jump and duck functions from A/B to C-Up/C-Down, but by holding R to aim, you can move around by pressing the C-buttons. Moving whilst aiming? What sorcery is this!? Seriously, if you've played older shooters on the N64, the learning curve should come naturally.

The arsenal of weapons you can pick up on your journey is a tad heavily-focused on explosives. For example, there are two rocket launchers, both with a twist: the Homing Missile launcher, and the Tri-Rocket Launcher. More bizarre items include thrown weapons like the multi-explosion Cluster Bombs, the homing and retrievable Shurikens, and... Fish Food. However, most of your work will be done with the Machine Gun, which is fully-automatic but inaccurate. Early on in the game, you can also rescue the flying robot named... Floyd. Quite a bunch of anticlimactic names we've got here. But anyway, Floyd can play bonus flying missions -- hard-as-nails ones at tha,t due to the tight time limits and low-friction physics -- and a second player can join in a campaign, controlling his laser guns. If you're thinking of the "1 1/2-player" co-op of Super Mario Galaxy, you've got the idea.
Maybe the Shocker's not the best idea for a boss fight...
By mixing elements from shooters and fantasy platformers alike, with that light touch of British humour that Rare has provided in their other mascot-led titles, Jet Force Gemini is one of the most unique titles to grace the Nintendo 64. It's true that the frame rate frequently goes on the chopping block, despite -- or rather because of -- the many coloured dynamic lighting effects, and the movement physics are a bit on the slippery side. And I may have been spoiled by modern shooters in this regard, but I'm a bit bugged by the targeting reticle resetting to the centre of the screen, especially since the N64's Control Stick is stiffer than others. But for a game which lasts 8 to 10 hours, you're sure to make everlasting memories and have great fun throughout the whole thing.

+ Original characters, environments, and weapons.
+ Smooth controls, especially with the "Advanced" setup.
+ An ambitious graphics engine with lots of pretty lighting effects.

- Too much of an emphasis on collection quests, especially near the end.
- The ambitious graphics engine tends to chug quite a bit.

Control: 4 Tribals out of 5
Design: 4 Tribals out of 5
Graphics: 4 Tribals out of 5
Audio: 4 Tribals out of 5
Value: 4 Tribals out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

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