Monthly Archives: December 2014

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, You Get Out What You Put In

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Despite what I’ve heard a lot of people saying, Treasure Tracker isn’t really all that much like it’s 3D World counterpart.  Superficially, they are similar in that they have much the same scope of very condensed-down, “toy box”-like level structures.  But Captain Toad in 3D World was much more of a rigid puzzle game, whereas I feel that Treasure Tracker is much more of an exploration game.  In 3D World, the goal of Captain Toad’s stages are to collect as many of the 5 accessible green stars as possible before a timer runs out.  The challenge presented is that Captain Toad is not capable of jumping, only falling, so the player must figure out a pathway through the level that will allow them to reach each star.  Treasure Tracker is more like standard Mario stage design.  The goal is merely to reach the exit of each level, which in this case is represented by a gold star.  To reach the gold star requires either some light puzzle solving, avoidance/combat of enemies, or technique-based “maneuvering” (platforming might not be the right word since you don’t jump) through the level.  Reaching the gold star is, in almost all stages, a pretty simple task that can be completed within the span of minutes.

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With that simplicity in mind, the uninitiated to Treasure Tracker may wonder why the game need exist at all, especially as a $40 retail release.  To answer that, there are two things which I think make Captain Toad worthwhile to me.  The first is the creativity put into each level.  As you would expect from the makers of Mario games (3D Mario games at least), each level tends to display its own unique, imaginative ideas, both in terms of aesthetics and gameplay mechanics, albeit cut down into smaller-scale spaces.  Since Mario Galaxy, I don’t know of anyone other than Nintendo who are capable of so completely capturing my sense of wonder on such a regular basis.  Second, and this is probably key, is that the secondary objectives of each Treasure Tracker level really make the game compelling to master.

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Each Treasure Tracker level hides away three diamonds, somewhat similar to the green stars of 3D World or the giant coins of New Super Mario Bros.  The collection of diamonds works as a sort of ancillary objective that will do way more to challenge and stimulate players than merely reaching the exit.  The diamonds are not completely superfluous to completing the game, as certain parts of the game are gated with a minimum diamond requirement that blocks further progression.  But exhaustive diamond collection is an unnecessary requirement to technically complete the game.  In addition, each level has a bonus objective.  Sometimes, this objective is fairly straightforward, such as collect a certain number of coins or find a hidden gold mushroom, but the simplicity of these goals can be deceptively challening.  Other times, the objective is more unique.  For instance, one level has Toad sneaking through a town of Shy Guys and gives the player the bonus task of never being spotted by these enemies.

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These side goals (diamonds and special objectives) are why I say that you get out of the game what you put into it.  In Treasure Tracker, it’s true because players merely trying to reach the end credits will miss out on the best aspects of the game.  Some criticize Nintendo for making such interesting gameplay features into optional side content, but I’ve come to feel that that attidue is the result of a harshly consumerist view of games as being merely products that are to be consumed as quickly as possible so that the player can move onto the next big release.

Back when I was a kid, “mastering” a game was a feat that everyone treasured and bragged about.  Nowadays, it feels like I hear people more wanting to have games that are incredibly “digestible,” so that they don’t have to spend a lot of time with them and can thus play more games.  Probably, it’s less a reflection of the times, rather a reflection of an adult’s view on gaming vs. a child’s.  Adults have plenty of money to buy the next big game coming out, while children don’t, so these nascent gamers focus instead on squeezing the most they can out of what they have.  This is why I think Minecraft is so enormously popular with young people today, as it has an incredible amount of replayability.  Meanwhile, I hear a fair few of the adult gamers I know complain about its lack of “direction.”

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Back on the topic of Treasure Tracker, in some ways, this side quest focus is merely a representative part of modern Nintendo game design.  They make the core game progression somewhat easy so that everyone can enjoy it while also making more difficult optional content that the hardcore can sink their teeth into.  Personally, I think they are quite good at this format, meaning they are better than most developers at making me want to complete the bonus stuff.  Nintendo puts a lot of creativity and thought into their side content.  For example, the special objectives in Treasure Tracker, even when they are as simple as having to collect a certain number of coins, usually require the player to think a bit outside of the box in really inventive ways.  Sometimes, that final batch of coins can be hidden in very clever places or may need the player to figure out a special trick to reach them.  These objectives aren’t merely a poorly designed, rote test of blunt skill, and, consequently,  Nintendo avoids the tedium that most developers tack onto their games, because they’re not treating the side content as merely an afterthought to the main line of progression.  Rather, the side content is an integral part of their philosophy of designing games that have compelling content for all possible players.

In a way, Treasure Tracker sort of reminds me of one of my all-time favorite games, Donkey Kong for the Game Boy.  Both games seem to share a similar philosophy of concentrating down gameplay design into quickly-attacked, reduced spaces.  In addition, it’s a bit unique as it’s not a full priced retail title, rather it seems to be a sort of side project for Nintendo EAD.  Nintendo is basically the only developer really supporting the Wii U right now, via both it’s own studios and partners such as Platinum Games.  I know a lot of people out there use the lack of third-party support to knock the Wii U, but really, the raison d’être of Nintendo consoles has been Nintendo’s own games since at least the N64.  I see the Wii U as more of a secondary console that justifies its existence simply because of the high quality and uniqueness of Nintendo software.  I don’t think I would buy, say, a Ubisoft console, simply because their offering don’t really stand out enough, in either quality or creativity.  The problem for the Wii U (and previous Nintendo consoles) is really that Nintendo is not a massive company and have difficulty in keeping a steady flow of releases for their platforms.  I think Treasure Tracker may represent the start of Nintendo’s solution to that issue, as we’re going to see more smaller side projects like this fill out the release calendar.  Kirby and the Rainbow Curse and Mario Maker fall into this category, I believe.  Hopefully, it will provide for some interesting new experimentation from the venerated developer.

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Top 5 Things on My Wishlist for the Next Round of Mario Kart 8 DLC

The release of Smash Bros. may have caused it to feel like a distant memory, but just a few weeks ago Mario Kart 8 received a pretty amazing DLC upgrade.  Although it included some additions to the character and kart roster that I felt were kind of lackluster, it did introduce 8 awesome new courses (and the tracks, of course, are the true stars of the Mario Kart series).  There is one final DLC pack announced for May (which seems like an oddly long time table to me) with little known about the next round of tracks that will be introduced, though the three new racers have been announced.  It’s a somewhat reasonable guess that at least one track will be Animal Crossing-themed, as Villager and Isabelle are announced crossover characters.  Since thinking about the future of Mario Kart always gets me excited, I’ve compiled a short list of things I’d think would be cool for the next round of tracks.

1) Wave Race

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The first round of DLC had F-Zero (Mute City) and Excitebike themed tracks, so it doesn’t seem far-fetched to me that Nintendo might prepare appearances of their other racing franchises.  I’ve always had a heavy fondness for Wave Race ever since the N64, but I also feel like it might not be the most appreciated of Nintendo’s series.  Even when compared to F-Zero, a series which hasn’t seen a proper release in a long while, it just doesn’t receive nearly the same level of attention.  I would like to see Nintendo give the series at least a respectful nod, as they did with the Mute City track.  Unfortunately, I think this is somewhat unlikely for a few reasons.  First, it’s a little challenging to create a Wave Race-based track in MK8, because you don’t really race on the water in MK8, rather you race under it.  Maybe they can set up the track so the hover wheels are triggered over water (sort of Jet Moto-style), but that leaves me to wonder then if the Mario Kart 8 engine is set up to handle the wave-physics that Wave Race is based around.  Also, the style of Wave Race is more grounded in reality than the fantastical and whimsical settings of MK8 and F-Zero.  Therefore, despite my enthusiasm for Wave Race, I’m conflicted as to whether the two series would really mesh well together.

2) Pilotwings

Pilotwings, although not a racing series, I think could actually work a little bit better with MK8 than Wave Race.  I’ve no experience with the SNES game, but I thought the N64 game has always been a bit underappreciated.  I also really like the breezy, high-flying, flat-shaded aesthetic of Pilotwings Resort and the Pilotwings-stage in Smash Bros, which I think could make for a visually stunning MK course, similar to what they did with Excitebike.  I’ve always felt the Mario Kart 7-inherited parachute mechanic is lacking in substance and really just serves to extend the scale of the courses.  Perhaps a track with multiple parachute segments that utilize PIlotwings elements could prove fun?  I’m thinking things like boost rings and bullseye targets in the landing areas that provide some sort of benefit if hit.

3) Mushroom City

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One of the most interesting tracks from Double Dash, I’m a bit surprised Mushroom City hasn’t already made a reappearance in Mario Kart.  In addition to the heavy traffic, Mushroom City’s main draw is its convoluted layout, allowing players access to diverging paths and junctions as they race through the city.  Actually, a new city-themed track made from the ground up for Mario Kart 8 might be more interesting.  The improved hardware could allow for an even more sophisticated and maze-like city, and randomized traffic patterns could provide impetus for players to switch up the paths they take through the thoroughfares.

4) World 4 – Giant Land

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I’ve always thought World 4 from Super Mario Bros. 3 could make for an interesting track.  I’m imagining a track where players have to focus on avoiding the giant-sized versions of common Mario enemies such as koopas, goombas, piranha plants, Sledge Bros., etc.  Also, perhaps there could be some sort of mechanic where racers could go through some sort of doorway/gateway (kind of like in the original World 4) and become big themselves.  The giant-sized racers would have an advantage in that they could trample smaller racers, but the smaller racers would have an advantage in that they could access certain shortcuts that the giant racers wouldn’t be able to fit through.  A cool idea I think, although maybe a little gimmicky.

5) Kirby’s Air Ride

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Oh goodness no….just kidding…….just kidding….

5) Wario Colosseum

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I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one.  I include it purely out of how much I enjoy it.  The XXL-sized Double Dash track was a favorite of mine, and I’d like to see it make a comeback.

All in all, regardless of what we see appear in the final content package, this first round of DLC gives me faith that Nintendo will deliver quality.  The only track I think I distinctly dislike is Excitebike.  The simplistic oval Excitebike track seems like a low hanging fruit for the development team that Nintendo dressed up in nostalgia to avoid complaints.   I seem to be against the grain of popular opinion, though, since it always seems to get a lot of votes online.

Utmost Spookiest Games: P.T.

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The late months of 2014 have actually been pretty good for new horror releases,  with the release schedule managing to count Alien Isolation, The Evil Within, Five Nights at Freddy’s (both 1 and 2), etc.  But one release stands out in particular as something that took everyone by complete surprise, and that is PS4 downloadable game P.T.  Although it’s release was marked with little indication as to it’s true nature, by now most gamers have come to know that it is actually a sort of “proof of concept” vehicle for a new Silent Hill game being developed by Kojima Productions with creative collaboration from Guillermo del Toro.  The letters P.T. stand for “playable teaser.”  This comes across as odd to me since we’ve had “playable teasers” in the form of demos for longer than we’ve actually had internet video trailers for games.  I guess it’s title is the result of Hideo Kojima having a flair for theatrical new conceptual terminology (see transfarring).  In addition, the end of P.T. reveals that this new Silent Hill will be called Silent Hills, so I imagine he now also has another new personality quirk in the form of an addiction to superfluous pluralization after MGSV: Ground Zeroes.

P.T. is a haunted house experience.  I’m going to try to refrain from mentioning late-game specifics and speak in only generalities, as I abhor spoiling games that I’m recommending.  From a first person view, you find yourself waking up in a dark, empty, concrete room.  A lone door stands before you, and as you pass through it, you find yourself in a well light hallway of a common American house.  You pass a radio alarm clock in the hallway which appears perpetually stuck at one minute before midnight.  A grim news report about a recent murder plays on the radio.  The house appears abandoned, but empty bottles and trash lay upon the floor indicating that at some point the residence was occupied by vagrants who eventually decided to vacate.  The hall makes a 90° turn at the corner of the house and you travel through the foyer.  You check the front door, but its locked.  You continue onward and reach a door at the end of the hall which is open.  You pass through only to find yourself coming out of the door at the other end of the hall at which you started.

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This forms the first “loop” in P.T., as pretty much the entire game takes place along this stretch of hallway.  You continually loop from the final door to the first door, but the catch being that with each iteration the house becomes increasingly surreal and demented.  Disturbing supernatural events play out before you, and you have no choice but to continue on through the recursion.  Eventually you reach a point where you must solve a cryptic puzzle in each loop to progress to the next stage of events.

I stated in the first post of this series that the reason for this undertaking was to compel me to finish games in my backlog, but it has actually become more about me trying to explore ideas I’ve had for a while about horror games.  Namely that the Resident Evil archetype people use to judge the “scare factor” of a horror game is actually a very poor way of analyzing such games.  I’ve found that a lot of hardcore horror gamers get stuck up on requiring a game to have tension via limited ammo, limited save ability, restrictive combat, restrictive camera viewpoints, etc. before they consider it to be a good horror game.  As I discussed with Fatal Frame and The Last Door, I don’t consider these things very important, rather I place a particular emphasis on atmosphere and bewilderment.  I find that expecting limited ammo to provide for a scary experience is equivalent to horror movie directors who lean heavily on the use of profuse gore and desecration of the human body to produce scares, because they have no understanding of how to create true atmosphere and suspense.

P.T. is an excellent example of my philosophy.  There is no combat in P.T., and there is no real danger either.  It is possible to be, in a fashion, “attacked” in this game, but it results in merely a minor setback.  Regardless of the lack of threat to player progress, P.T. is still an excellently gripping experience which manages to feel very threatening.  The progressively unsettlingly nature of the hallway was joyfully terrorizing to me.  A key element of creating good atmosphere is striking deep into a player’s imagination, which is achieved, and expertly so, by P.T. through a display of the creator’s own imagination to pique the player’s curiosity with images, ideas, and experiences that are fascinatingly unexpected and off-balancing in their uniqueness.

I think part of the reason some people cling so strongly to the old-fashioned survival horror tropes of limited ammo and clunky controls is because they provide a relatively easy to fall back on, objective, and semi-quantitative criteria for evaluating the “horror” that a game possesses.  The reality is that horror (like humor) is something that is naturally qualitative and to a fair degree subjective which leaves arguments about the relative scariness of a game to become more muddled, arbitrary, and less decisive.  It is not possible to merely say, “A game has X and Y aspects and therefore it is scary!”  Even, of course, my arguments about atmosphere being key are somewhat tied to this fallacy, as the feel of atmosphere is incredibly subjective.  The best we can ever really do when trying to explain why a game is scary is to point to specific aspects of a game and try to explain why they had such an impact on us personally.  I do believe, though, that the old-fashioned ideas about horror games are quickly dying, as the burgeoning indie gaming sphere has become the prime curators of this genre.  As indie developers are often less compelled to color within the lines, we are seeing a number of horror games such as Outlast, Amnesia, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Home which are eschewing the mold that was established all the way back on the PSX with Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

Back on the topic of P.T., I was actually somewhat surprised to find out that it is merely a sort of “proof-of-concept” for a new Silent Hill game, as it will not appear as a level in the final Silent Hill game.  As a proof, it works mostly to show the competency of the developers at creating an exciting piece of horror.  This is a bit important taken in the light of the post-Team Silent games which have mostly not been of especially high quality.  P.T. also portends radical changes for the structure of Silent Hill with it’s first person viewpoint and focus on combat-free exploration and puzzle solving.  I don’t know if these aspects will be preserved in the final game or not, but it leaves me conflicted.  On the one hand, I think its good to shake things up for a series when they become stale and weary (and Silent Hill definitely falls into this category).  On the other hand, I think its fairly important for a series to maintain a unique identity.  I realize this may appear to be a bit of cognitive dissonance considering I’ve railed against the standard survival horror structure in this post.  But its not that I hate old-fashioned survival horror games like Silent Hill 2, its just that I don’t think they should be the exclusive path horror games should follow.  Nonetheless, I think exciting things are very much lingering in the future of Silent Hills and the genre as a whole.

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