Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jazz Jackrabbit 2 Review

     One of my original goals with this blog was to make a good review of what is quite possibly my favorite game of all time: Jazz Jackrabbit 2. Now, long-time readers may have seen my ill-fated review of the game that I wrote as the first post on the site. I have since incised that particular piece of rotting-flesh-like writing in an attempt to lessen the shame and disgust (seriously, it was a pretty awful review, though I knew it would be from the start), and have decided that it's time to take another crack at it. This is the result.

     Jazz Jackrabbit 2 is the 1998 sequel to Jazz Jackrabbit. Made for the PC, it was created by Gathering of Developers, Orange Games, and Epic Games (Epic Megagames at the time).

     This has always been a really hard post for me to write. For one thing, this is like the first actually good video game I ever played. I've been playing it for a long, long time, and I've loved it all the way through. So, there's a lot of personal bias and nostalgia seeped in for me. But it's not just those things that make it difficult to review; it's that Jazz Jackrabbit 2 (henceforth JJ2) is a hard game to talk about, period. I mean, how are you even supposed to talk about platformers in the first place? Sure, I know every level by heart, but I'm not exactly capable of explaining why jumping on ledges is so great. Nor is it really like I can praise the game for its story; I mean, you play as a green (or red, depending on whether you choose Jazz or his brother Spaz) rabbit that shoots turtles, lizards, and fencing frogs that dress in Victorian era clothes. Not exactly the deepest of game material. Every single one of the four or five times I've tried to write this review, the words just don't come, in a way I've never had happen with any of my other posts. Because of this, I've had to start questioning myself. Why do I love this game so much? I know it's not just nostalgia; that has done little for my enjoyment of other games that I will refrain from mentioning. So, what I plan to do is to take a long, hard look at just why it is I love this game, and hopefully somewhere along the way you'll learn why you should too.

     Or so I say, but when you get down to the heart of the matter, my main reason is just that I find it a ridiculous amount of fun. The controls are super tight, it has fantastic game environments, the level design is engaging, and it provides a great challenge without ever getting "platformer" *cough*andbythatImeanMegamanZero*cough* difficult. Hmm. . .actually, okay. Let's work from there.

     Let's talk about the difficulty first. I wouldn't describe JJ2 as an especially punishing game. Insta-death exists nowhere throughout the game's five multi-level episodes; you have five hearts, and each time you get hit one (and only one) gets taken away. But the thing is, JJ2 is still a hard game. Actually, let me rephrase that. JJ2 isn't a hard game to finish, it's a hard to to beat. Sure, you can struggle through to the end, falling into dozens of traps, dying a bunch of times, and never being able to take out that one enemy before they can hit you. You will, technically speaking, have beaten the game. But will you have really won? You completed the game, sure, but you still fell for the tricks in the level design, you still got hit by those cleverly placed enemies because you were just rushing through without thinking. That's what I mean when I say this game is hard, but not punishing. And that, I think, is one of the coolest things about this game; it's constantly pushing and encouraging you to do better. You feel a real urge to improve, because the game is basically saying, "Look. You're good. But you could be even better." Forget all the common gimmicks of replayability like slightly changed endings (not naming names here) or playing a "different kind of character," or even the old-school incentive of getting a higher score; this is the kind of thing that's gonna make me come back to a game. I mean, there's nothing wrong with those other methods, and I think that any kind of support for replayability is cool. But actually improving at the game, enhancing my skills, learning? That's what makes me come back to it even today, even after the 50th-whatever playthrough. I guess another way to put it is that this isn't a game that requires skill (well, not extreme skill, a la Castlevania), but one that rewards it.

     Okay great, since I'm working backwords anyways, let's talk about the level design. The level design in JJ2 is pretty great; it's clever, engaging, and rewards you for trying things. Rather than talking about it purely conceptually, though, let's look at some examples.

     Example one: the first level of the second episode, you spawn in and you take a few steps right and bam, here's this new enemy type you've never seen before.

     All right, so you've got this fencing frog dude (?). New enemy type, never seen him before, and he's just standing there. So, you *could* just charge headlong into him and get gored, or you could jump and shoot him in the air. Being the smart person that you are, you obviously choose the jump & shoot option, right?

     Not only does he dodge you, but he's suddenly much closer to you than before.

Fool me once. . .
     Now, as you can see, there's still plenty of distance between you and the frog man. You're in no immediate danger, so it's not like the game is punishing you for not knowing how certain enemies react before you possibly could. It's giving you a chance to approach this enemy the right way now. You think to yourself, "So, if jumping and shooting doesn't work, there must be some other way of beating him. . ." Well, the only other attack you have besides your gun is butt-stomping, which is basically like that thing you do in Kirby where you turn into a rock and drop straight down (yeah, really revealing how low my gamer power levels are right now). So you go and try that and BAM:

     Okay, so you jump (you know, unlike all those other platform games) to get above them and then you butt-stomp. There you go, that's how you defeat those enemies. Now you know for the next time. (As an added bonus, the game let's you take advantage of the knowledge you gained from your "mistake" - that shooting at them makes them move - to take out that other frog on the ledge). Or, you could just try to blitz through the level and shoot at the frog again without thinking, and he jumps at and attacks you and you lose a heart. You can't say the game didn't warn you, though.

     Another great thing about the level design is that it employs a lot of misdirection. Take this example from the very next level, for instance.

Wait. . .it can't be this simple. . .
     There's pretty clearly a 1UP right there. However, you can also see there's an entrance into the wall above it. Now, every wall opening you've seen so far has been full of coins, gems, and other helpful secrets, so you naturally want to check this one out. Furthermore, you've played enough of the game to know that you probably won't be able to jump high enough to get out of that pit with the 1UP in it. The most educated choice, then, is to check out what's inside the wall first. So you do, you find some gems, and you promptly fall down on the other side of the wall, unable to go back. And that, of course, is when you see the spring on the other side that would have allowed you to get out of the pit. The idea here is pretty much the same it was for frog guy; approach things with some thought (in this case, crouch down before you jump so that the screen moves down and you can see the spring), or just rush in without thinking and get slapped on the wrist. The misdirection isn't all about making you approach things awkwardly, though, and a perfect example is this section from the second Medievo stage:

     So, see those nasty looking spikes? They hurt you (no, they don't instantly kill you, they just hurt you), so you don't want to touch them. The seemingly best approach is of course to jump on those swinging spheres on the chains (well, they aren't swinging here because it's not video, but they are in the game - use your imagination) and hop from one to the other. That's really hard to do and it's super easy to fall off or miss a jump, end up on the spikes, and have that much less health for the boss. There's a smarter way to do it, though. When you were back up on the ledge above, you could see that the spikes aren't that wide. In fact, they're short enough for you to just jump over with a single double jump. That's a heck of a lot easier and less dangerous than trying to jump onto swinging platforms.

     It's things like this that make the level design so engaging. You can just rush through or take the obvious approach, but there's usually a better way. You can figure out how to overcome the challenges in the level design, as opposed to simply enacting them. And if you do, the game rewards you. Whether it's finding secrets or defeating enemies, actually planning out some kind of approach will almost always be reciprocated by the level design.

     As a bit of a subset of level design, let's talk about that next thing on my list, the game environments. A perfect example:

     Look at this. I mean, just LOOK at this. The background is like a stereo player full of fourth wall humor (the episode is called Fast Forward, the stereos have the same branding as the studio that made the game, and the equalizer settings are on "Jazz"), but let's go beyond that. THE BACKGROUND IS A GIANT STEREO PLAYER! HOW DOES THAT EVEN WORK?! And then the enemies you're fighting are sparking, floating eyeballs (which is totally freaky when you're a kid, by the way) and there are parts where you become a pinball and there are these air chute tube things that suck you in and take you to a different part of the level and this is the soundtrack for the level and, and. . .*stops for breath* See, this is weird. It's ridiculous, it's crazy. But most importantly, it's unique. It's memorable. When you start to think about how different it really is, where you are and how it works spatially (for instance, how big are those stereos, and how far away are you from the background, in terms of depth? Think about it), it starts to form a world. An outlandish, unique world you never thought you could imagine, but one you'll always remember.

     But maybe this seems silly to you. Maybe you're saying, "Are you kidding me? The level with giant fourth-wall breaking stereos in the background makes a world? I think you've been having a little too much 'Tube Electric' if you know what I mean, Sato-San." And hey, maybe you're right, but let's see if this next example doesn't convince you first.

     So, there are three layers in this background; the "shore" for the lava, the horned dinosaur skeletons, and the hellish gates in the far back that look like the skulls' mouths. Each of those moves a little bit as you do to keep them in perspective based on where you are. What that does is give you an actual feeling of depth, which in turn makes this almost a "3D" environment. That's cool and all, but think about what this means in terms of what I'm trying to prove to you. This environment has depth, it has dimension. You really feel like this hellish lava pit is massive, bigger than what you're seeing here; you get the illusion of being in a much larger world (there's that word again) than you actually are, because you're actually seeing things in pseudo-physical relation to each other.

     Why is this all important? Well, each world has different tileset, different background songs, usually different (and exclusive - that is, they only appear in that world) enemies, and just overall unique atmospheres. Each level is really cool to explore, but more importantly, it's always really satisfying and exciting when you beat a world because you get new everything. It also makes the worlds that much more satisfying as you're playing them, since you know you're never going to see them again in that playthrough. All in all, the game environments being so unique helps add a real sense of progression to the game. Like I said, every time you advance and start something new it's really exciting, so you have a lot of motivation to see what's next. Just a nice little touch.

     I'll won't bother writing a whole section on the controls, since this post is well past a thousand words and I don't want to bore you with technical details. Suffice to say, I personally find them flawless, the keyboard commands are fully customizable, and after you spend enough time playing you have total command of movement, which is a lot of fun.

     Let me wrap up with a few short words. I love this game, but I won't say it's deep or complex or anything like that. See, those kinds of things aren't really Jazz Jackrabbit 2's strength. No, this game thrives on the unbridled fun of the gameplay. It controls really well, has clever level design, and gives you a really satisfying sense of progression, both in terms of the game itself and your skill at it. It's not frustratingly hard, but it does provide a challenge and it's always pushing you to try harder. At its worst, JJ2 is still a fantastic platformer with awesome music (I could spend hours gushing about the soundtrack, but no one wants that so I won't) and engrossing gameplay, and at its best, it's a transcendent gem that lets you escape to a fantastic world of frogs in Mad Hatter outfits, bees wearing fighter pilot masks, and what appears to be some sort of stereo-encased limbo world. With that, I hope you have an idea now of why I love this game so much.

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