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Donkey Kong 94

Donkey Kong is easily one of the most important games ever released.  It started Nintendo on its path to becoming a titan of the art and probably the most influential creative force in gaming history.  Not only that, it was the world’s introduction to the character that would become gaming’s most iconic symbol.  But this post isn’t about that game…… rather, it’s about a Game Boy classic that many might not know parades under the guise of the arcade masterpiece.

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Donkey Kong has principally had two eras of peak popularity.  The first, of course, came with the arcade series of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and (to a far lesser extent) Donkey Kong 3, and the second occurred toward the end of the Super Nintendo’s run when the Donkey Kong Country trilogy breathed new life into the sunsetting 16-bit machine.  But wedged in between these two series was a 1994 Game Boy title simply called “Donkey Kong,” that managed to completely reinvent the arcade classic just months before Donkey Kong Country would turn the character completely on his head.

Donkey Kong 94, as it’s usually called to distinguish it from the arcade version, starts off innocuously enough.  Mario must tackle the original 4 arcade levels in a quest to rescue his girlfriend Pauline from the clutches of the renegade primate.  But after Donkey Kong falls to his doom at the end of the fourth level and all would seem well for the reunited lovers, something completely off-script happens.  Donkey Kong doesn’t stay down, rather he springs back up, snatches Pauline, and makes a mad dash out of the construction zone that the arcade duel took place in.  At this point, the player is introduced to the first world map in the game, and an amazing new adventure begins to unfold.  

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In many ways, Donkey Kong 94 is a logical extension of its arcade forebear, but in other ways it sets out to create something deceptively fresh.  Rather than having levels that mostly see Mario travelling from left to right across a linear series of obstacles as happens in the Super Mario Bros. series, DK94 focuses on condensed platforming stages that are usually not much larger than a few screens.  This makes it similar in design to its namesake.  However, after the initial four throwback levels are completed, the game takes on a puzzle platforming twist.  The goal of each stage (aside from the boss battles) is to reach a key that needs to be carried back to a locked door which blocks Mario’s pursuit of the ill-tempered ape.  Often there is a bit of trickery involved in getting the key to the exit which is where the puzzle aspect comes in.  All-in-all, DK94 has a formula that is incredibly well-suited to portable gaming.  

In some ways, though, I feel like calling the game a puzzle-platformer is a bit misleading.  I feel that most games that carry that moniker are heavily skewed to puzzle solving, which is to say that they are really just puzzle games delivered via a side scrolling perspective.  But DK94 actually requires a relatively high degree of skill in navigating the obstacles in each environment.  An important new aspect is that Mario’s moveset has been expanded a bit, and he can do backflips and handstands that let him jump higher, but require deft reflexes and timing to pull off right.  Perfect execution of these moves is often critical to success.  I would say that the challenge of DK94 is split roughly 50/50 between puzzling and skill-based platforming.

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The “real” world setting of the first Donkey Kong game makes a return here, not the Mushroom Kingdom that would later become Mario’s home.  Many of the worlds resemble the current day, such as the first world which is a contemporary city that prominently features skyscrapers and modern architecture.  There is also an unusual world simply called “Airplane” that takes place on what I think is a large cargo plane.  There are no Toads or Goombas or the like to be seen.  Instead, a new set of enemies appears that is in-line with the new aesthetic, and there are some prominent baddies that return from the arcade games.  Furthermore, Princess Peach is entirely absent.  The leading lady is instead Pauline, Mario’s long forgotten first damsel-in-distress.  Meanwhile, Donkey Kong Jr. also makes a few mischievous appearances to thwart Mario’s progress.  A big part of the reason why I favor this game so much is because these characters and settings make it feel so distinct from the rest of Marioverse content.  

You know, I’ve always thought Donkey Kong was a cool arcade game, but it’s unfortunately short.  The coin-op machine had a mere 4 levels, and the NES port had even less than that (the cement factory level was cut) and doesn’t even loop back to the first level when you beat DK.  Consequently, I’ve always found it hard to be particularly passionate about that game.  It provides a fun time and is an iconic part of gaming history, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to return to it.  And that’s why DK94 is so special.  It takes that awesome original Donkey Kong game and explodes it into an epic new adventure.  It has enough familiar aspects to make a rightful claim to the Donkey Kong name, but adds enough of its own ideas to sustain itself for an amazing ~100 level quest.

And before going on, I would be remiss not to mention the excellent music.  If you want to listen to some bleep-bloops sing, DK94 definitely doesn’t disappoint.  Even to this day, these catchy tunes still get still get stuck in my head sometimes.  I’m particularly partial to the theme of the Desert world:  

If you’ve read my recent post on my Top 30 games, you may remember that DK94 was one of those that made it high on the list (which means it immediately comes to my mind as one of the greats).  I really love this game.  It’s probably my favorite Game Boy game, with the only other real contender being Super Mario Land 2.  I think DK94 has a slight edge, since SML2 is kind of an easy game, which makes it less replayable to me as an adult.  

Loathe as I am to admit it, I never actually beat DK94 as a kid.  I remember getting stuck in one particular level in the Iceberg world, although I can no longer remember exactly which level it was.  My problem really had to do with the fact that I couldn’t get the key to the door fast enough before the timer ran out.  This was an incredibly frustrating experience, since I loved the game so much as a youngster.  Later in high school, I found the game in a drawer and decided to give it another go.  I sailed through to the end this time, never encountering the same trouble I had before.  I couldn’t even figure out which specific level was the one I had issue with!

The game was made available on 3DS Virtual Console relatively early in Nintendo’s 3DS VC initiative, which I was extremely pleased with.  For the most part, I prefer to use Virtual Console to get into games I didn’t get a chance to play before, as opposed to rebuying games I’ve already had a go with, but DK94 is one of the few exceptions I’ve made.  I would, of course, highly recommend anyone interested in the game with a 3DS to check it out.  However, original Game Boy games on 3DS VC are all monochrome, and I think the coloration that you get when playing the cart on a GBC or GBA is fairly good.  So if you’re inclined toward “authentic” hardware, I would recommend grabbing a cart to play on a (backlit) GBA.

DK94 would get a worthy successor on the GBA, called Mario vs. Donkey Kong, which continued the puzzle-platforming formula.  Although it’s reasonably faithful to the original DK94, Mario vs. Donkey Kong would introduce the Mini-Marios, which were wind-up Mario toys that Mario must collect in each stage to help him out in the boss battles with DK, and these little creatures would become the central focus of the MvDK series in subsequent releases.  The first title to feature the Mini-Marios as the star of the show was Mario vs. Donkey Kong: March of the Minis, a Nintendo DS game that operated like Lemmings instead of a platformer.  Despite being a significant departure from its predecessors, March of the Minis was a pretty good game that made a lot of sense for the DS, as it was designed nicely around the DS’ touch controls.  

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Unfortunately, the series has basically stagnated since then.  The Lemmings-style gameplay has become the crux of almost all of the subsequent sequels.  There have been five games in total that have been released since the inception of the DS era which follow this formula.  The latest release was Mini-Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge, a free-to-play game that requires the player to own very specific amiibos to unlock packs of levels in the game.  Unfortunately, Nintendo has never really gone back to the puzzle-platforming design of DK94 and MvDK on the GBA.  However, the first release on 3DS, titled Minis on the Move, did shake things up a bit, introducing a new type of gameplay that is somewhat reminiscent of Pipe Dream, an old DOS game.  I really liked Minis on the Move in particular, and the Lemmings-style games have mostly been solid (albeit quite stale), but I do wish they would at least make an attempt to return to the old-school style of the series.  I have no idea what’s stopping them.

I honestly don’t think I can praise DK94 enough.  It’s a cart that I had a lot of good times with, and it left a lasting impression.  I wish I had more profound things to say about it, but I don’t, because really this is just pure and simple gaming bliss.  I think anyone who has any love for the old Game Boy should at some point in their life give this classic a go.  

 

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Star Fox Zero: Flying Too Close to the Sun

Well hey, look it’s Star Fox!  Back in action again.  I had always thought he had been relegated to the pile of beloved Nintendo series that are likely to never see the light of day again.  But no, he’s back!  I’m a big fan of Star Fox 64 (and to a far lesser extent Star Fox Command), so I honestly had to give the game a go, even if the Star Fox series hasn’t had the best track record since its 64-bit glory days.

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Star Fox Zero is a sort of reimagining of Star Fox 64, which was already a sort of reimagining of the original Star Fox.  The story has essentially the same premise as 64 with starfighter pilot Fox McCloud leading the Star Fox team into battle against the forces of Andross, who has instigated all-out war in the Lylat System against the peaceful planet of Corneria.  The history of Fox’s father’s battle against Andross and the rivalry with Star Wolf team also feature prominently.  The levels are entirely new, although they mostly take place in familiar settings like the planets of Fortuna and Titania.  If you’ve ever played Star Fox or Star Fox 64, this game will feel familiar without necessarily feeling like a repeat of earlier adventures.

Star Fox has veered around a bit since the early popularity of the series, as Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault had a  heavy focus on on-foot combat and adventuring.  Star Fox Command for the DS dispensed with the on-foot action and focused solely on in-air combat, but the catch was it only had simple arena-style levels as opposed to the fast-paced, highly-detailed linear levels that most gamers seem to prefer from Star Fox 64.  Star Fox Zero sees the series attempting to return to basics with a roughly equal mix of the beloved linear “corridor-style” levels and the “arena-style” levels that the series refers to as all-range mode.

Star Fox Zero is squarely focused on vehicular combat, primarily in the series’ iconic starcraft, the arwing, however attention is also paid to a few other rides.  The landmaster tank makes a return from Star Fox 64, and the “walker” transformation from the cancelled Star Fox 2, in which the arwing transforms into a bipedal mech, is also strongly featured.  The fourth vehicle is a gyrocopter that moves more slowly and methodically than the other three vehicles.  I enjoyed the arwing, landmaster, and walker, although I felt the walker was underutilized.  These three actually control very similarly.  The right analog stick functions like the c-buttons did on the N64 controller, i.e., push up to boost, tap twice left or right to do a barrel roll, etc.  The gyrocopter, however, controls very differently with both sticks required for basic movement.  I must say I really did not enjoy flying the gyrocopter, it’s too slow and I felt the way the sticks were used was counterintuitive.  Perhaps more importantly, I just didn’t think combat was fun in the gyrocopter.

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Not a screenshot from the game…..

I’m afraid the biggest disappointment I had with Star Fox Zero was the level design.  The levels are generally pretty short and inelaborate, and I would argue they do not make good use of the fundamentals the game establishes.  What I mean by that is that I think SF0 under utilizes the ideas and gameplay concepts that it introduces.  For instance, there’s one segment where Fox needs to infiltrate the interior of a battlecruiser to disable its shields in the midst of a large space battle.  To do this, Fox lands on the enemy vessel and transforms into the walker to enter the starship through a hatch.  Inside, he fights a few enemies that are guarding a corridor with the shield computer he needs to hack at the end.  I could have imagined a much more intricate and involved sequence playing out inside the battlecruiser, but it’s really just a few simple enemies you need to kill on the inside and then you’re done.  There are many segments like this strewn across the game that could have been much more interesting than they were, but ultimately lack proper development.  The result makes the game feel low-budget in a way, as if they didn’t have enough funds to fully actualize their ideas for the game.

But despite the levels being rather short and very basic in design, I do think they did a good job in making most of them memorable and distinct.  Nintendo has a way of designing their games to have stages that are each infused with their own unique imaginative twist, and most missions of Star Fox Zero had some resonance with me.  And even though I felt like the stages often came quite short of living up to their potential, I did feel like I became fully engaged with the game.  Underneath all of its flaws is an exciting arcade action game that makes you feel like a hero caught up in a massive stellar conflict.  

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The most contentious aspects of Star Fox Zero come in how it implements the screen in the Wii U gamepad and that it uses the gyroscopes in the gamepad to augment the aim of the analog stick.  If you keep up with game reviews from mainstream sites, you’ll know that Star Fox Zero is being hammered on account of both of these features.  Let me give a short explanation for those unaware or for those still confused.  While playing the game, the television screen shows the “standard” Star Fox view with the camera behind the player’s vehicle.  Simultaneously, on the gamepad a view from the player’s cockpit is shown.  The idea is to use both the third-person view and cockpit view together.  The third person view gives the player a broader view of the obstacles and enemies in the environment, while the cockpit view has a more accurate targeting reticule and is useful for precision aiming.  

I think a lot of detractors get hung up here, because they find it hard to switch between looking at the TV screen and then having to pivot their head to look at the gamepad screen.  I honestly didn’t have much trouble with this.  I think the problem is they are try to shoot everything by looking at the gamepad while still using the TV for maneuvering, which causes them to have to constantly switch focus between the two screens.  In reality, I would say ~80% of the time it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the TV screen or the gamepad.  For instance, when facing large enemies or swarms of enemies, I think you can do just fine using the less accurate targeting reticule that is displayed on the TV screen.  You need the gamepad view in circumstances where accuracy is important or when you’re trying to shoot in a completely different direction than you’re flying.  So, for instance, if you’re trying to lead a very fast specific enemy (like one infamous wolf who will go unnamed), it’s best to use the cockpit view on the gamepad.  

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Meanwhile, in addition to using the left analog stick for aiming and controlling the trajectory of the vehicle, the player can also tilt and rotate to gamepad to move the targeting reticule.  Since human wrists are anatomically more capable of precise movements than thumbs, using these tilt controls grants the player a greater level of accuracy.  In addition, sometimes one needs to aim in a way different direction than the arwing is travelling.  For instance, in one landmaster level, there are these giant robot spider enemies who have weak points on their underbellies.  To hit these weak points, you drive the landmaster underneath the spiders and tilt the gamepad up to aim at their glowing bits and fire.  To aim directly upwards like this essentially requires fully pivoting the gamepad so that it is almost upside down above your face.  These sorts of situations that require the player to tilt the gamepad to such an extreme occur every now and then in the game.  I didn’t have such a problem with them, and, in some cases, I found them to add a clever twist to an enemy encounter.  But I’ve seen other reviewers and posters express dissatisfaction with needing to make such sweeping motions with the gamepad, and I guess I can understand where they’re coming from as it could be uncomfortable or awkward depending on your seating arrangement.

I’m a big fan of gyroscopic controls.  I find that they permit precise aiming that is close to what you would get using a mouse.  This is because mouse and tilt control make use of wrists as opposed to thumbs, and because there is a 1:1 correlation between player movement and action on-screen.  Not many companies use this feature, however.  Mostly, it’s just been Nintendo who most notoriously used tilt as the default aim option in Splatoon, but they’ve also incorporated this control scheme into the HD Zelda games for items like the bow and grappling hook.  The PS4 controller also possesses gyroscopes, but the only game I know that uses tilt to aim is Gravity Rush Remastered.  

Gyroscopic aiming, I think, works best as an augment to the traditional analog stick control scheme.  The analog stick works best for making broad, sweeping movements of the camera, while the gyros excel at finer, more precise movements that tweak the position of the targeting reticule.  Honestly, I haven’t really had any issues with this feature in Star Fox Zero or any other game for that matter.  I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to understanding why so many people seem to hate this control scheme.  I guess it’s just hard for some people to learn a new way of using the controller, especially when the standardized dual analog control method has become so ingrained in modern gaming.  Oddly enough, the situation reminds me of the early days of polygonal gaming when controls for 3D games hadn’t become so universalized, and every game seemed to have its own twist on how to handle movement in three-dimensional space.  Amusingly, I guess that’s suitable for Star Fox, which itself is an artifact of that early era.

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Star Fox Zero is an ugly game.  There, I said it.  While the Wii U doesn’t exactly possess bleeding edge graphics technology, both Platinum Games and especially Nintendo have shown that they can get really impressive looking results out of it.  Star Fox, on the other hand, is quite crude in its visuals.  Every object in the game is made of a shockingly low number of polygons draped with very simple texture work.  The game appears bereft of any modern lighting, shading, or particle effects.  At its very best, the game looks merely acceptable at times.  Meanwhile, there are some times where the game is a downright muddy eyesore that would be unsightly for even a PS2 game.  I believe Nintendo wants us to believe these simplistic visuals are meant to be an homage to the N64 era, but I think more than likely they are a result of the game’s approach to using the Wii U gamepad.  

As discussed above, the gamepad displays a cockpit view that is completely different from what’s shown on the TV screen.  That means that the Wii U is actually doing double-time.  It is rendering two completely different images of a 3D world.  The vast majority of Wii U games don’t render two separate 3D images for the TV and the gamepad.  They either render one image of the game and display it on both screens (like Smash Bros.), or they render one 3D image of the game and then something simple like a map or inventory screen for the gamepad (Zelda HD remakes).  It’s almost certainly quite taxing for the Wii U to render two separate 3D images concurrently.  The only other game I know of that does this is Nintendo Land, which also has rather underwhelming visuals.  Furthermore, Star Fox Zero runs at a mostly stable 60 frames per second.  So while the game looks very modest, it’s likely pushing the Wii U to its limits.

Ultimately, Star Fox Zero is an incredibly ambitious game, and it suffers for it.  I have to wonder in the end if these features were really worth it.  I’ll reiterate that I like what they’ve set up here.  But, the graphics clearly suffer greatly in service of a two screen experience.  There’s some clear advantages to the approach they’ve taken.  I think gyro aim is a good addition to the Star Fox formula, as it allows for a game that is faster-paced and more precise than what I think would be achievable with purely analog stick aiming.  But, I’m not sure if the cockpit view was really needed.  Like I discussed above, I have a feeling that 80% of the time it doesn’t really matter if the player is focused on the TV screen or the gamepad.  And most of the utility of the cockpit view would be eliminated simply by placing a more accurate reticule on the TV screen.  I think getting rid of the technical hurdle of the cockpit view would have allowed them to build a game with much more elaborate levels and greater visual appeal, especially seeing as it is a point of consternation for many.

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I guess, in my head, I have this image of what a modernized Star Fox should be.  I imagine these colossal space battles with laser beams whizzing by, bright fiery explosions ripping through the hulls of battle cruisers, swarms of enemy fighters scrambling about, and all kinds of debris chaotically being hurled about the battlezone.  I imagine these bombastic action sequences like Fox escaping bases and starships on self-destruct as fire cuts loose all around.  I imagine futuristic cityscapes being torn asunder by the mayhem of an invading alien force.  But, this game does not live up to the lofty heights my imagination vividly conjures up for Star Fox.  Rather, Star Fox Zero’s primitive graphics and short and concise missions only very crudely simulate these things.  That said, this is a very fun arcade action game, and if you’re able to accept its status quo-defying implementation of the gamepad, I think most Star Fox fans will enjoy it.  I can say without hesitation that I had a ton of fun with the game, even if it is tinged with disappointed………..

But, I simply don’t think I can recommend the game to anyone on the fence who doesn’t have a hardcore love for Star Fox, certainly not at full price.  I would only recommend a game unqualified when I feel there is a fairly high probably that most people will enjoy it, and in the case of Star Fox Zero, there are too many easy justifications for disliking it.  These are principally the game’s brevity, its low budget feel, and the fact that the gamepad implementation has shown itself to not be for everyone.  And please understand how painful these words of warning are for me to write, simply because I am so conflicted about this game, and that I want to see Star Fox succeed and become a series that lives up to the potential that I believe it has.

As an addendum, the retail release of Star Fox Zero comes packaged with another game called Star Fox Guard.  This is a tower defense game that grew out of a Wii U tech demo that Nintendo showed off some years back.  I haven’t torn into this game yet, so I can’t yet comment on its quality.  But because some people might be curious, I will say that I am impressed that the games are packaged together in a cardboard box that has two proper Wii U cases on the inside (one for each game).  The Wii U cases each have a disc for their respective games, so no having to deal with download codes for the e-shop.  I’m very pleased that Nintendo decided to have physical copies of each of these games, when it would have been easy neglect a physical version of Star Fox Guard.

Game Boy Advance Turns 15

March 21 marked the 15th anniversary of the Game Boy Advance’s first release in Japan.  To me, it always felt like the first true successor to the long-running and super popular Game Boy handheld, a machine that was over a decade its senior, since Game Boy Color was kind of a half-step.  GBA was an amazing system for pixelated gaming that came out at a time when consoles simply weren’t doing these kinds of games at all.  It was in that time between 32-bit 2D games like Symphony of the Night and Mischief Makers and the indie games, like Braid and Super Meat Boy, that would later revive the scene on consoles.

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Considering the long lifespan of the GB, the GBA was surprisingly short-lived.  The Nintendo DS launched roughly 3 years after the GBA and would take off in an enormous way about a year later.  This means that the GBA only had, at best, four really good years of releases.  Nonetheless, I’ve always been amazed by the huge number of incredible titles that came out during its short life.  I think you can probably divide GBA’s best into two groups, original titles and SNES ports.  There were a lot of SNES ports for the GBA, but for me this worked out well, since I never owned a SNES and got to experience a lot of great games that I missed out on.  But I also don’t think you can understate GBA’s original games.  I’m going to outline some of my favorites here.

If you’ve read my blog before, you might remember that I’m a huge fan of Mario RPGs, and it all began with Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga.  That game was a ton of fun and felt like a breath of fresh air among the other RPGs that were coming out at the time.  Considering how serious and convoluted Japanese-style RPGs can be at times, the goofball sense of humor of Superstar Saga really made it endearing to me.  I think I liked it for the same reason I liked the old Pokemon games.  They’re both just fun adventures that don’t really try to be so heavy.  I also really enjoyed the turn-based battle system which incorporates minigames into the attacks and defensive moves.  Often in RPGs, I think the battles against the ordinary minions can get stale pretty quickly, but Mario and Luigi’s battle system managed to make them more engaging and stimulating.

Fire Emblem has been running in Japan since the Famicom days and, from my understanding, is the originator of the console-style strategy RPG.  But for those of us in the West, the GBA gave us our first taste with both Fire Emblem (which was actually a sequel) and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones.  My interest in the series began with Sacred Stones.  The notorious permadeath mechanics made for a strategy game that was more intense than anything else I had ever played.  If one of your characters dies in battle, that’s it.  They’re gone for the rest of the game, unless you restart the mission and succeed in keeping them alive.  And since the missions can be fairly lengthy, I think Sacred Stones was the GBA game I’ve sunk the most time into as a result of having to restart so many times.  I leave no man behind.  These Fire Emblem games also had some *excellent* sprite animations (see below).  Along with Advance Wars, Fire Emblem made the GBA a surprisingly good scene for strategy games.

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Fire Emblem Sprite Work

Symphony of the Night created a breakthrough combination of Castlevania, RPG elements, and a Metroid influenced map.  It was a great thing that they decided to continue the formula with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, especially considering that the Castlevania console games they were putting out at the time weren’t so hot.  It’s good that Symphony of the Night wasn’t just a blip in gaming history, and that the GBA (and later DS) was able to provide a home for these games.  Circle of the Moon was probably the best game available at the US GBA launch, although it’s infamous for its dark color scheme that really didn’t appear so well on the dim side lit screen of the first GBA model.  Ultimately, though, easily the best Castlevania on the machine was Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, which takes the interesting step of setting the game in the near future after the final defeat of Dracula.  It also has one of the most surprising (and difficult to discover) secret endings that I’ve ever seen, although it comes at the price of a rather boring and lackluster normal ending.

Metroid had a long absence after Super Metroid, but it seemed like out of nowhere there was a sudden resurgence of the series with the announcement of both Metroid Fusion for GBA and Metroid Prime for Gamecube.  I know Metroid Fusion isn’t as good as Super Metroid, but I think it deserves more credit than it gets.  Metroid Zero Mission, which is a remake of the first game, is also quite good.  Too bad there was never a DS or 3DS followup to these games (Prime Hunters doesn’t count).

And finally, as I admitted in my recent Twilight Princess post, I began the Zelda series with Wind Waker, so I never played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when it came out on SNES.  But I was introduced to the game by the GBA version and was blown away.  The world of Hyrule is huge and the quest is absolutely epic for a 16-bit game.  Yet despite the grandiose scale, I find it still has a “pick up and play” quality, because the start of the game gets you almost straight into the action without being bogged down by a lot of exposition.  I still find myself starting this game up maybe once every other year or so, a thing I only do for a few other retro titles.

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The GBA had a huge library, and of course these are only a few highlights for the system.  If anyone else has something they’d like to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

 

Hotel Dusk designers unveil new game.

Hotel Dusk was one of my favorite Nintendo DS games.  Anyone who’s played the game may be able to tell that from the Kyle Hyde avatar I use here.  It is generally regarded as the best game released by Cing, a developer best known for a string of visual novel-type adventure games released on Nintendo platforms which included most prominently Hotel Dusk and Another Code (aka Trace Memory).  Unfortunately, I don’t think Cing ever really found commercial success, and their doors were closed in 2010.

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Hotel Dusk tells the story of Kyle Hyde, a detective in search of his long missing partner, Brian Bradley, and whose investigation leads him to check in to the decaying Hotel Dusk outside of Los Angeles.  The game is exclusively set in the rundown hotel, and its guests and staff serve as the cast of characters.  In some ways, Hotel Dusk can be thought of like a more serious, more story-focused Professor Layton game.  Kyle spends his time exploring the hotel, secretly searching for clues, while also engaging the other guests in conversation.  As the night wears on, Kyle increasingly begins to realize that, although the guests are strangers to one another, they all have profoundly interconnected histories and fates.  Often, Kyle encounters brainteaser-like puzzles that must be solved to progress the story, but it is not nearly as puzzle-focused as the Layton games.

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Kyle Hyde of Hotel Dusk

A sequel to Kyle Hyde’s story was later released in Japan and Europe, and I’ve regrettably never played it.  Cing would go bankrupt shortly after release, and that would be that.  Recently though, former Cing talent have resurfaced with a new game slated for the Japanese 3DS eshop entitled (here goes) Chase-: Unsolved Cases Investigation Division – Distant Memories.  This new title promises to be a mystery novel game in the same vain of Hotel Dusk.  Unfortunately, nothing’s been announced yet in the way of localization, and the game is currently Japan-only.

Chase’s main character also looks a bit familiar:

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Am I crazy or does he look like a Japanese version of Kyle Hyde?

The stories that Cing told always felt very idiosyncratic and unique to me.  Both fate and the weight of the past play heavy roles, both as themes and actors, in their tales.  I’m very much hoping we’ll see an English localization of the game down the road, but I’m afraid I have no certainty that we will.  But …. it does make me feel like Kyle Hyde looking to reunite with his old friend from the past.

 

Twilight Princess HD Impressions

It is a strange thing to admit considering how long I’ve been gaming, but the first Legend of Zelda game I ever touched was Wind Waker on the Gamecube.  The second, naturally, was Twilight Princess, also on the Gamecube.  (I’ve never actually played the Wii version, and I’m afraid I often forget it exists.)  Those two games provide an interesting jumping on point for the series, since, as a pair, they’ve become an interesting dichotomy in many gamers’ opinions.  Wind Waker has ascended in the mindset of many due to its cel-shaded art style which was unconventional for the series.  Meanwhile, Twilight Princess is usually contrasted as a weak game that was overly reliant on the formula established by Ocarina of Time.  

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Personally, I’ve always been a big defender of Twilight Princess.  In some ways, it’s easy for me to be one.  I didn’t play Ocarina of Time until the 3DS version, so of course I never really felt like Twilight Princess was a retread of the OoT formula.  And I didn’t have to bother with the motion controls since I played the Gamecube version.  And while I understand the complaint that Twilight Princess has a lot of filler content, Wind Waker isn’t innocent of that flaw either, considering the slow speed of the boat and the late game Triforce hunt that bogged down the original version.

But I don’t want to be overly critical of Wind Waker in my defense of Twilight Princess.  And to be fair, it’s been a long time since I played TP anyway.  While I usually shy away from HD re-releases of games I’ve already played, as I get older, I strangely find myself becoming a sucker for Nintendo content.  I’m now a few hours into Twilight Princess HD just released for the Wii U.  I’ve just completed the first dungeon, the Forest Temple.  And so far at least, I’m enjoying the game as I did back in the Gamecube days.

Twilight Princess is a really beautiful game.  It doesn’t get often complimented as such, because it’s usually compared to its visually charismatic cel-shaded predecessor.  But playing through the first few hours of the HD version, I’m beginning to realize that Twilight Princess has an artistic flair that is highly underrated.  The world of Hyrule presented in this iteration has a strong fairytale-like quality that reminds me of ‘80s fantasy movies like The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal.  The world is covered in dark natural colors, principally greens and browns, that are punctuated by more exotic artificial pigments like violet, jet black, and neon.  And while the Great Sea in Wind Waker served as breathtaking overworld, the dungeons in that game were often incredibly drab and flat. I don’t think the cel-shading served the interior environments as well as it did the outdoor presentation.  Meanwhile, I think the dungeons in Twilight Princess have more character as a result of the interior surfaces actually having textures.  However, one major thing I think Wind Waker has to its credit is that the cel-shading hid the edges of the polygons better.  Twilight Princess very much does feel like a world made up of polygons, with edges conspicuous on many naturally-occurring objects that shouldn’t have them, like rock formations and trees.  

One negative that I’m noticing so far is that the lock-on system in TP is incredibly finicky.  There’s been plenty of times I’ve hit the lock-on button when an enemy was right in front of me only to have nothing happen.  It seems to me that you have to be fairly close to an enemy to get the lock-on to register it.  I don’t seem to remember this being a problem in Wind Waker HD.  Maybe it was a problem in the original TP, but I should think that an HD release like this would have some fine tuning applied to it like Wind Waker HD had.

One final thing I’d like to mention is that the amiibo that comes with the game is actually an excellent figure.  I’m no amiibo super-collector.  I have an 8-bit Mario and a Donkey Kong sitting on my desk that were both gifts, and a Dr. Mario that I bought for myself because Dr. Mario is cool.  But I do have a feel of what quality to expect from them.  The Wolf Link amiibo that comes with Twilight Princess HD is by far the most intricately detailed amiibo I’ve ever seen, both in figure and coloration.  It deftly models Midna sitting atop wolf Link standing on a sloped white rock formation.  The are a good many little details captured on the figure including the golden insignia on wolf Link’s forehead, the ornate grooves on Midna’s mask, the lines of fur on Link, and the broken chain above his paw.  I hesitate to say it, but I actually kind of wish the in-game models of these two looked more like the amiibo.  Of all the amiibos I’ve seen, this is definitely my favorite.

I’m looking forward to playing more of Twilight Princess HD to see how the whole thing pans out, and if my defense of the game for all these years was worthwhile.  So this won’t be the end of my thoughts on the game, and I’ll do a more thorough write-up once I’m finished with my playthrough.

Turnip Time: Super Mario Bros. 2

Super Mario Maker has gone a long way to revitalize my passion for classic Mario.  Not that I ever really lost any love for those titles, but Mario Maker has really helped me reconnect with why I treasure those games as much as I do.  Of course, Mario Maker’s level editor has one glaring omission from the classic Mario cannon:  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Turnip Version).  SMB2 is the odd-man out of classic Mario, as it is actually a Mario reskin of the Famicom Disk System game, Doki Doki Panic.  The “real” SMB2 never made it to the NES as Nintendo of America considered it too hard for the American market.  (It’s also just a lackluster game, but more on that later.)  But even though we now look at SMB2 as an anomaly in the classic lineup, for those of us who were gaming at the time, the world of Mario was still very new and weird to us all, so the unusual setting of SMB2, the dream world of Subcon, didn’t feel all that unusual given the context of the series.  It also wasn’t all that unusual for sequels of NES games to be radically different from their predecessors, which means I don’t think I ever personally thought of it any less for being such a unique game amongst its brethren.

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It’s unfortunate that SMB2 was left out of Super Mario Maker, but actually fairly understandable.  Not being a “true” Mario game, the mechanics of SMB2 deviate significantly from the rest of the series.  In SMB1, 3, and World, Mario interacts with the world primarily by stomping on things and bumping/breaking things with his head as he jumps.  Jumping on enemies/objects to attack/break them ended up becoming a fairly standard mechanic in the platforming genre.  But SMB2 is fairly unique in that it is a game that is about picking up and throwing things.  The levels are filled with environmental objects to grab and toss, like buried vegetables, mushroom blocks, and keys, and the majority of enemies can be snatched up and used as projectile weapons against their allies.  While it doesn’t seem like a radical idea, I’ve racked my brain trying to think of platformers that use this mechanic, but while I can think of a lot of games where jumping on enemies is used as an attack (Sonic, Crash Bandicoot), the only platforming series I can think where tossing enemies and objects is a central mechanic is Donkey Kong 94 (and its sequel Mario vs. Donkey Kong) and arguably the Wario Land games.

What I really admire about SMB2 is how well it expands upon the adventure aspect of the original SMB.  While I enjoy a good challenging platformer, the thing I like most about the classic Mario games is the sense of wonder and discovery that comes with exploring the levels.  While SMB is a game about going forward from one edge of the screen to the other without turning back, the levels in SMB2 are about travelling up, down, left, right, inside, and out.  I think my favorite level is World 3-1 which begins at the base of a waterfall that the player must travel upward through.  At the top, the player must knock an enemy off a flying carpet which can then be ridden farther upward into the clouds.  The game even begins with a long straight fall down through darkness that lands in the world of Subcon.  These new degrees of freedom give the world of SMB2 a liveliness that didn’t quite exist in its predecessor.

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Beyond just level structure, there’s tons of imagination in SMB2.  The world of Subcon is filled with strange and unusual creatures and features.  A number of recurring Nintendo characters made their first appearance in this game including shy guys, sniffits, bob-ombs, and pokeys.  Easily the most memorable baddie in the game is Phanto, the relentless flying mask that pursues the player as they carry the cursed keys that are required to open the many locked doors that stand in their way.  Being chased by that nightmare abomination is probably one of the most tense memories that a lot of gamers have from their early years.  And the landscapes and artifacts of the dream realm are almost completely peculiar and unique to this world’s creative vision.  Mario and crew journey across the backs of whales in an icy ocean, jump into TARDIS-like vases that are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside,  and of course buried in the ground there are the iconic red potions that create doors to the shadowy subspace where power-ups are hidden.

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On my recent playthrough of SMB2, I was actually pretty amazed at how unique and memorable each level was.  It’s been many years since I’ve played the game, but most of the levels were immediately recognizable to me.  I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about original SMB.  Outside of 1-1 and 1-2 (which I’ve played thousands of times), the stages of the original SMB just sort of blur together to me.  I remember specific types of stages, like the underwater worlds, flying fish bridges, tree tops, etc., but I don’t really remember the fine details of specific levels that well.  SMB2 has much more individually distinct stages to explore.  In addition to the aforementioned waterfall level, I’m a big fan of the level that is styled after Pitfall with caves that are visible beneath the character’s feet, and the ice level where the character must cross an ocean on the backs of a pod of water-spouting whales.  

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It’s also cool that the game allows the player to choose between Mario, Luigi, Toad, or the Princess at the beginning of each level.  No other classic Mario game really offers that.  At best, you can choose to play as Luigi (and usually only if you’re Player 2).  The four characters also control differently, and many consider Mario to be the least interesting character.  I think most people are like me and consider the Princess their favorite as she can float horizontally for a short moment during her jump.  To me, SMB2 is really a Princess Toadstool game.  I know the people who market games often have cynical attitudes toward the willingness of male youths to play as female characters, but all my friends at the time preferred the Princess.  I also know that many really like Luigi since he has the highest jump, although his movement is slippery and a bit harder to control.  I’ve never bothered much with Mario or Toad honestly.  Mario is supposed to be the well-rounded character, but he ends up being kind of boring.  Toad is slow and can…..ummm…. dig up plants really quickly???  

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Of course, there is that other SMB2 out there, the Japanese version that is known as The Lost Levels over here.  The Lost Levels was first released as a part of Super Mario All-Stars in the US, but I’ve only ever played the English localized 8-bit version available on the North American 3DS eshop.  After playing that version, I’m incredibly glad that game never made it to the NES.  I’ve found it to be such a joyless game, and I think it probably would have dampened my excitement for Mario back then.  

The Lost Levels focuses less on expanding the adventure aspect of Mario and more on greatly increasing its challenge.  The game was admittedly advertised on the box as being for advanced players, and while the original Super Mario Bros. could be quite difficult in later levels, The Lost Levels is much harder.  And not a fun kind of hard like Super Meat Boy or Mega Man 9, The Lost Levels has a difficulty that is more focused on just trying to screw the player.  Remember how amazing it was to discover the warp zone at the end of World 1-2????  Well, The Lost Levels has parts where the player can get trapped in reverse warp zones that send them back to worlds they’ve already beat. The Lost Levels is far from an insurmountable challenge, but in obsessively trying to beat down the player, it strips out all the wonder and thrills that were found in the original.  That’s not to say that fiendishly difficult levels don’t have a place in Mario games, but I think the best way they’ve been incorporated is as optional secret content like they were in Super Mario World.  An entire game that is nothing but those kinds of levels just loses its charm very quickly.

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Ultimately, despite it’s rationalizable exclusion from Super Mario Maker, I don’t think SMB2 is a particularly underappreciated game on Nintendo’s behalf.  It was the first game they remade in the Super Mario Advance series, as SMB1 and Lost Levels had already been remade in Super Mario Deluxe.  And certain aspects from the game have made their way into the “true” Mario games, such as pokeys and bob-ombs, although the most iconic enemy, the shy guy, has only been featured in spin-offs like Yoshi’s Island.  But I do hold out some hope that we might get some SMB2 love in Mario Maker.  After Nintendo’s excellent continuing support of games like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, I would like to think that it might not be impossible that an SMB2 tileset could arrive in the form of DLC.  I personally wouldn’t even really have any objections to paying for a piece of content like that.

 

December Update: Pokemon Picross and Nintendo Badge Arcade

 

Honestly, I’m a fiend for Picross.  Picross DS was a major time suck in my life many years ago.  I’ve actually considered a lot whether that game was an unhealthy obsession.  I would turn on the game expecting to kill maybe ~10-15 minutes solving one or two puzzles, but I would get caught in a loop where after beating a puzzle, I would think to myself “just one more!”  Suddenly, entire hours of my afternoon would disappear, and I would wonder how I let the time go.  The term “addictive” gameplay is often considered a positive remark toward a game, but sometimes I’m not so sure it should be.  After Picross DS, I tried to attack the sequels with a little more moderation.  Picross 3D came out when I was busy writing my dissertation, and I went “Nope! Not touching that!” out of fear that it would be too much of a distraction.  I have played the first Picross e game released on 3DS, however.

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For those unfamiliar with the Picross series, the games are collections of a type of logic puzzle called nonograms.  Nonograms are kind of like crosswords or sudoku in that they were originally printed puzzles found in things like newspapers and booklets.  The game is played on a square grid where the numbers attached to each column and row are used to deduce which squares of the grid should be filled in by the player.  The idea is that, when all the correct square spaces are filled in, they should form a crude picture.  There’s something about nonogram puzzles that make them more suited for video game form than its counterparts like sudoku, and that’s something Nintendo realized a long time ago as the Picross series started on Game Boy in 1995.

Pokemon Picross introduces its own wrinkle into the series.  The puzzles form pictures of pokemon monster and upon completion that pokemon becomes a part of the player’s collection.  Collected pokemon can then be added to the player’s “party” and can be used to help solve other puzzles with their hint abilities.  These abilities include , for instance, revealing the correct squares for a given column or auto correcting a mistake made by the player.  As far as I can tell,  use of the abilities is entirely optional.  Hardcore players who want to tackle the game with pure logic need not use their pokemon.  The monsters are differentiated by which ability they can use as well as the number of times the ability can be used during a given puzzle and the length of the subsequent cooldown timer.

This game is advertised by Nintendo as “free to start,” and features an in-game currency called picrites and an energy meter which depletes as squares are filled in so that each time the player fills in a square (correctly or incorrectly) the meter goes down by 1.  The meter will slowly recharge over a period of a few hours, meaning that if you run out of energy in the middle of a puzzle, you’re going to have to give up on it.  Mercifully, each puzzle says upfront the minimum amount of energy required to reach the solution assuming the player makes no mistakes.  Picrites can be spent to refill the meter with no wait or upgrade its length.

Picrites are really how Nintendo intends to make money off the game.  The puzzles are divided into stages called “areas,” and after beating the puzzles in a given area, the player must spend a fairly hefty amount of picrites to unlock the next one.  The player will receive a few hundred picrites for completing the tutorials, but afterwards earning picrites in-game slows to a trickle.  A small amount of picrites can be earned once each puzzle by completing certain special objectives such as solving it within a certain time limit.  There’s also a daily challenge that can be completed once per day for a small amount of picrites.

Unfortunately, I think most players will hit a wall at around area 5 where they will need to buy picrites to progress, because the trickle they’ll receive from the normal levels and daily challenges just aren’t enough.  Mercifully though, there’s a spending limit on how many picrites you can buy which is about $30.  After you spend that amount, it is my understanding you’ll be able to withdraw unlimited picrites for free from the shop.  

For as much of a fiend as I am for Picross, I don’t think I’m going to go much farther with Pokemon Picross.  I don’t really know if the Pokemon hook really creates a meaningful enhancement to the game, and there are several Picross e games available on the eshop for much less than $30.  And like I said, in the past I’ve had a bit of an unhealthy fixation with Picross, and I find it somewhat of a mercy that Nintendo created such a convoluted paywall as it deters my temptation.  Nonetheless, if you like Pokemon and are curious about Picross, I would at least give the game a shot as it’s free-to-start.  I will also say that there does appear to be a ton of content here as there are a total of 31 areas that have about 5-10 puzzles each plus various types of special puzzles, so I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who ends up spending money on the game.

In contrast to Pokemon Picross, Nintendo Badge Arcade is a game I feel like one can enjoy pretty easily if they choose not to spend any money or perhaps only a few dollars.  Badge Arcade allows 3DS owners to win virtual “badges” for their systems, which are icons of various Nintendo properties that can be used to decorate the 3DS home screen.  These badges are won via 2D crane games (sort of like UFO Catchers) where the goal is to get the badges to fall into pits at the bottom of the screen.  The player scrolls a pincer across the top of the screen that is used to grab onto badges, but it’s not necessary to actually grab anything with them pincer, you just merely need to get the badges to fall into the bottom of the screen.  So, for instance, if the badges are stacked on a slope, grabbing one of the badges at the base of the slope can cause a chain reaction that lets the others slide off.

The game is free-to-play with it costing $1 for the player to get five tries.  However, each day you get five free tries on the “practice” catcher.  You don’t get to keep the badges you win during practice, but if you do well enough you can win free plays on the real catchers.  I can pretty reliably get at least one free play a day, often two or three.

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The badges that are available to win are changed out every few days and are often sprites or artwork from popular games like Mario Maker, Mario Kart, Kirby, Zelda, Animal Crossing, etc.  I appreciate that they also have had badges from lesser known Nintendo series like Pushmo and Box Boy.  My favorite badges have so far been the 8-bit sprites from various NES games that they put up to promote NES Remix.  The weirdest badges I’ve seen were a set of pixelated tropical birds that, as far as I could tell, had nothing to do with any Nintendo franchise.

Weird as it is, I really enjoy this game.  It’s something I usually spend a few minutes playing each day (really as much as I can do with the free plays).  I’ve only actually bothered to spend a few bucks on it to get all of the Super Mario Bros. 2 badges that were a part of the aforementioned NES Remix promotion.  Otherwise, I just try to get as many badges as I can with the free plays.  There’s very little pressure to spend any money.

November Update: Fallout 4, Tri Force Heroes, and Blue Stinger

Now that we’re out of Daylight Savings, the days have become way too short.  I only have about an hour of sunlight available when I come home from work, and the darkness and the chilling weather have sapped my desire to go out.  The plus side is that I find myself having a lot more time for gaming!  And that’s way better than basking in sunlight and physical activity, right??  Anyway, here’s what I’ve been up to lately……

Fallout 4

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I’ve been playing Fallout 4!  But chances are if you’re reading a gaming blog, you have been too, judging by the rest of the attention I’ve seen this game get on WordPress.  I just started it last Saturday morning on PC.  I’ve been playing for ~15 hours, but I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface.  

So far, I’ve only had one serious bug to contend with, but I was able to fix that pretty easily after some snooping on the Steam forums.  When I started the game, I experienced some pretty severe stuttering whenever I moved the camera.  It actually started to make me motion sick, which never happens to me in games.  I found out that if I ran the game in windowed mode as opposed to fullscreen, the issue went away completely.  I now run the game in a *borderless window* that takes up the full resolution of my monitor…..i.e. exactly the same thing as full screen…. and it is a silky smooth experience for me.  What an absurd fix to an absurd problem.

Otherwise, I haven’t encountered any serious bugs.  I’ve clipped through a door into an area that I don’t think I was meant to go into, and I’ve seen things like a radscorpion freeze mid-animation when popping up out of the ground.  All these bugs are just the goofy kind.  I fortunately haven’t encountered anything game breaking, yet.

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I’ve heard some people say this game looks just like Fallout 3 on a technical level, which I find utterly absurd.  I think we’ve reached a point where many people are forgetting what 360/PS3 games actually looked like.  But I will say, it’s not the most visually impressive game of the last year or so, but it’s nowhere near Fallout 3-level visuals.  

Tri Force Heroes

A lot of people were very down on this game when it launched, but since this hasn’t been a particularly good year for 3DS releases, I decided to pick it up so I would have something to play on the handheld.  I was actually quite surprised.  With all the negativity surrounding the game, I was impressed that I took to the game as quickly as I did.

For those that don’t know, Tri Force Heroes is a 3-player co-op top-down Zelda game.  And by 3-player co-op, I mean 3 player co-op.  Notice the game is called Tri Force with a space.  It’s not possible to play with only two players.  If a member of your trio drops out mid-game, then both of the remaining players are kicked back to the game’s matchmaking lobby.  It’s possible to play it single-player, but in this mode the player has to swap control between the 3 characters.  The ones the player isn’t in control of have no AI whatsoever and just stand in place.  I only messed around a little bit with the single player mode and felt that it was rather tedious, so I stuck with online co-op.

This strict 3 player requirement makes sense in light of the game’s heavy puzzle emphasis.  The game is divided into 8 worlds (of course) and each world is divided into 4 levels.  At the start of a level, the players must each pick up one of the three items (i.e., boomerang, grappling hook, etc.) that are needed to complete the level.  Each player can only carry one item, and teamwork is required to solve the many puzzles that fill each level.  If there were only 2 players giving it a go, then the most of the puzzles would be unsolvable.  I was actually a bit surprised that they went for such a heavy emphasis on puzzles, when they could have went the easy route and made it a combat-focused game that wouldn’t have required as much teamwork.

This is where I thought the magic of the game really shined through.  Right off the bat, I was having a great time figuring out how to work with my team to use our items to progress.  I got a really glowing feeling each time everything finally clicked between us, and we worked out how each of our items figured into the obstacle at hand..  I’m surprised so many other people whose thoughts I’ve read on the game didn’t feel the same way.

Also, I fortunately didn’t encounter as many troll players as I feared.  I encountered one player who immediately began picking me and the other player up and would throw us off cliffs.  I disconnected from that quickly.  Fortunately, he started trolling us right away at the beginning of the level.  If he had waited until we were deeper into the level to show his true colors, he would have wasted a lot more of my time, because when you disconnect from a game, you have to start the whole level over again (and these levels can take ~30 minutes to beat sometimes).  There was one other player who I think might have been a troll, but I couldn’t say for certain.  If he was, he was impressively subtle.  He kept walking off ledges into pits, which is a problem since all players share the same life bar.  But he would only walk into a pit when he had “plausible deniability”.  He wouldn’t just walk off at random times.  For instance, when a moving platform was coming, he would *always* walk off the ledge toward it just a moment too early or too late.  And he did this *a lot*.  I eventually decided that no one could be this bad at the game and disconnected since the team was down to one heart and on our last life anyway.

Regrettably, the magic of the game didn’t last.  I was really enjoying Tri Force Heroes for the first five worlds, but the final three are really hard.  At a certain point, it became more tedious than joyful.  The levels are fairly time consuming, and if your team loses all four lives they’ve been granted, then the entire level must be redone from square one.  Considering the difficulty of the final stretch of the game, it ended up becoming a very repetitive affair for me, as I had to give several levels multiple attempts.  I honestly don’t think such repetition suits the game considering it causes the player to have to grind on the same puzzles they’ve already solved in previous attempts.

I don’t think I’ll ever really beat Tri Force Heroes, unfortunately.  After several attempts with multiple teams, I only managed to reach the final boss once in the final level.  And I didn’t even get to fight the boss because a connection error popped up almost as soon as the fight started.  As you can imagine, I was quite frustrated.  I soldiered on afterwards, but none of my subsequent teams even got close to the boss.  Eventually, I relented to my annoyance with the whole thing, and I’ve put the game away.  It’s been quite a disappointment in light of the blast I was having during the first half of the game.

Blue Stinger

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Some of you who read my blog regularly may remember that I bought a Dreamcast over the summer.  For my run of horror games that I played over October, I wanted to include a Dreamcast title and decided on playing a somewhat obscure game called Blue Stinger.  Actually, I had wanted to play Ill Bleed, but that game was way too expensive on ebay.  I decided on Blue Stinger instead, as it’s by the same producer and I vaguely recall reading about it around the the time of the Dreamcast’s launch.

Long story short, I didn’t make a post about Blue Stinger since I found that it wasn’t much of a horror game.  I’ve found out that some people categorize it as such, but others don’t, and I find myself agreeing more with the latter group.  The enemies certainly look like something out of a survival horror title, but that’s as far as it goes.  There is no real atmosphere to this game, as I’m not sure if it’s even supposed to be a scary.  The game’s environments are rather brightly colored and punctuated by this very jaunty and orchestral background music.

Anyway, I only bring this up on the off-chance someone who reads this may have played the game.  I’m not sure if I’m going to play much further than I have already (about an hour in), and I wanted to know if the game is worth completing.


Well, that’s all I have to discuss for now.  Thanks everybody for reading.

Guys, Guys. Super Mario Maker. Seriously.

This happens to me too often with Nintendo games:  I know I’m going to like their new games, but I completely underestimate how much I get hooked by them.  Captain Toad, Splatoon, and now the latest example, Super Mario Maker.  I’ve been completely surprised by how much fun I’ve had making levels.  I had reservations initially because, with a series that’s gone on this long, what could users really create for Mario that Nintendo hasn’t done already.  I was wrong, of course.  Designing levels has been one of those things where it causes the time to melt away without me noticing.  While in the level creator, I find there’s just this domino effect in my imagination where new ideas to try are constantly just coming together.  While creating, I’ve yet to reach a point where I’m stumped as to what to add next.  I seem to always find an idea I want to experiment with next.

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Consequently, as coming up with new plans for a level is rather natural, the challenge of designing a level really lies in executing those ideas in a smooth and fun way.  One of the things that really helps out while building levels is that you can seamlessly transition from editing the level to playing the level.  The smooth, load time-free transition from editing to play testing makes fine tuning a level or experimenting with an idea very accommodating and painless.  I’m not going to pretend like my levels are super well-designed masterpieces, but this aspect of the level designer means that they’re much tightly-crafted and less messy than they could have been.

For those who don’t know, there are four tile sets available in the editor: Super Mario Bros. 1 and 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U.  Furthermore, you can make levels in specific environments, such as underwater, ghost houses, airships, Bowser castles, etc.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA version) is left out probably because it is mechanically a major divergence from the other games (as it is based around picking up and throwing enemies rather than stomping them).  But there are doors you can place in a level that strongly resemble the doors to subspace in SMB2, so it is represented in a very token way.  

SMM8

I think, of all the tile sets, I find the best looking to be the SMB3 levels.  It may just be my own bias toward this game as my favorite of classic SMB, but the SMB3 pixel art just looks very crisp and sharp in HD.  The SMW visuals are a little busy, I think (although they look very good when playing on the gamepad).  Meanwhile, SMB1 looks a little bit off in HD.  I’m not sure why, but I think it might be because all of the sprites cast shadows on the background.  On the other hand, wall jumping is probably my favorite thing to do in a platforming game.  In Mario Maker, wall jumping is only possible in NSMBU levels (as that mechanic doesn’t exist in older games), so I tend to find myself wanting to design levels in that tile set more than the others.

With all that said, I do have one major complaint with the game.  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to set mid-level checkpoints.  This makes long, elaborate, and challenging levels a little more tedious than they should be, since any time you die you have to repeat the early parts of the level.  As I prefer to make levels that are on the tricky side, I find myself preferring to make them on the short side so they don’t wear too much on the player’s patience.  

Here are my levels so far:

SMM3

Crawling Caverns:  D553-0000-002A-057B

This level seems to have been my most popular so far.  It’s an underground level in NSMBU style, and wall jumping is required to succeed.  In addition, I experimented around with the idea of needing to use giant enemies, such as giant turtle (shells), to clear the way forward.


SMM3

Land Meets Sea:  27CE-0000-0030-E71F

The theme for this level is a normal ground level beset by a lot of traditionally underwater enemies, include flying bloopers (giant and normal size), cheep cheeps shot from cannons, and spiny balls.  As a tip, the player should try to move briskly through this level, or otherwise the screen can pile up with enemies from the cannons at certain points and make it a lot harder than it was meant to be.


SMM7

Hydroelectric:  FE51-0000-0044-A244

This underwater level started off as an attempt to create a tribute to the hydroelectric dam level from the TMNT NES game.  I don’t know if you would realize that from the final level design, but it definitely has a “don’t touch the walls” aspect to it.  I originally wanted to make this in the SMB3 style and use the electric jellyfish in that tile set as the walls, but the result was something that was a bit of a visual overload.  Instead, I used the SMB tile set and spiky balls as the walls instead.


SMM1

Hope you like wall jumping!:  C9AB-0000-004D-5CF4

A NSMBU castle level.  This one was meant to be heavily focused on wall jumping, because as I’ve mentioned, I love wall jumping.  It’s not a masterpiece or anything, but it’s actually probably my favorite I’ve created so far, and it taught me a lot about what Mario is capable of doing under NSMBU rules.  


SMM5

Under, Through, Around, and Over:  1C4B-0000-0027-43EA

This is the first level I designed.  I decided it was fitting to begin with the original SMB.  Ultimately, I think I was trying to be a little too clever with this one, and the result is something that is a little on the messy side.              


The year 2015 marks SMB’s 30th Anniversary, and initially I was a bit concerned that Nintendo wasn’t doing anything special for it.  There was a lot of concern about Super Mario Maker when it was first announced, because Nintendo has historically not been great at doing online systems, and a game like this needs a good online system for users to trade levels.  Last year there was even some confusion coming from Nintendo as to whether gamers would even be able to share levels online or not!  Thus, the end result of Mario Maker has actually been something much more incredible than many other people or myself thought it would be and has been a great way to commemorate Mario’s 30th.

Top 3 Tribute to the Nintendo DS

Oh look at that, I’m finally crossing the 50 post threshold!  I knew I was close, but I didn’t realize how close until I happened to glance at my stats page.  Seems like an occasion for which I should do something special.  So this post is going to be a tribute to my favorite games on the Nintendo DS, a handheld with which I had a lot of great times.

DS Lite

The Nintendo DS is the machine that (perhaps to everyone’s surprise) kicked off a second golden age for Nintendo.  When the two-screen handheld was announced, I think the new device was met with near universal bafflement.  The GBA was still very young (especially when compared to the extensive lifespan of the GB/GBC family), and it was also fairly commercially successful.  No one knew what to make of a new Nintendo handheld launching in that context.  Nintendo also promised it wasn’t a replacement for the GBA (the infamous “third pillar”), which seemed to indicate that the company itself wasn’t particularly confident in the DS either.

It took some time for the DS to take-off in popularity to become the titan it’s remembered as.  The original Nintendo DS model wasn’t the most attractive hardware, and it didn’t have many compelling games either for the first year or so. But around the time of the DS Lite redesign and the release of Mario Kart, the platform really exploded.  Not just in sales and popularity, but developers also came to grips with the unique creative potential of the DS’s features to create a rush of great new games.  There was a period there where a hardcore gamer could probably be content only playing new DS releases.  There were so many acclaimed and unique games released in this boom period like Ace Attorney, Ouendan, Hotel Dusk, The World Ends with You, and Kirby: Canvas Curse.  And Nintendo became ascendant again in the eyes of a lot of gamers who had strayed to the Playstation juggernaut.

As for me, I was a huge enthusiast of the Nintendo DS platform.  The little machine accompanied me through some tough years, at a time when I really needed something that would allow me an escape.  And even with all the time I’ve put into the DS and it’s library now being legacy titles only, there’s still so many games that I want to check out.  Particularly a lot of late in life games like Picross 3D, Aliens: Infestation, Kirby Mass Attack, Dragon Quest VI, and Monster Tale.  But among the many games I have played, the following three I would rank as my most favored:

Mario Kart DS

Mario_Kart_DS

Some consider Mario Kart DS to be the first major hit for the platform.  Not only was it an excellent excuse to to jump in with the recently released DS Lite, but it was also the flagship game for the DS’s online gaming capabilities.  To be honest, I usually don’t enjoy the handheld Mario Kart games so much.  I was left deeply apathetic after playing both Super Circuit and MK7.  I think the reason why I’m indifferent to the portable skein of the series is that, to me, Mario Kart is best enjoyed playing against friends and family in the same room.  It’s one of the last great bastions of local multiplayer.  And Mario Kart is the only video game series I know that *everyone* enjoys playing, committed gamer or not.  I mean, you can play these handheld entries locally, but that requires everyone have a DS handy, which is a condition that is exceedingly rare to find.  (I will say I finally got into online Mario Kart in a big way with MK8.)

All that said, I surprisingly did really enjoy MKDS.  I think it was because the tracks were so imaginative.  For Mario fans, the themes they chose were really fun and great throwbacks, like the desert with the fire snakes, the SMB3 airship complete with Rocky Wrenches, and Luigi’s Mansion.  Compare this to Double Dash, the previous title in the series, which I thought had really boring ideas for tracks (what does a cruise ship have to do with Mario?).  Also, this was the title that introduced the retro circuits, meaning that the track count went from 16 to 32.  All that said, I think this game just may be the most influential of its series, introducing a number of features and ideas the would carry over for all Mario Kart releases that would come afterward.

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

Mario_&_Luigi_3_NA_Cover

I’ve often mentioned on this blog that I’m a huge fan of Mario RPG in all its many forms, and Mario & Luigi is probably my favorite of the three series.  And within a group of series that are known for having a fair few titles with incredibly high quality, I think Bowser’s Inside Story is one of the best ones.  Maybe not as good as Thousand Year Door, but probably the best of the Mario & Luigi’s, at least.

I give the game this high credit due mainly to the presence of two characters, Bowser and Lord Fawful.  Bowser becomes a playable protagonist in this game and is on a parallel quest to that of the mustachioed brothers, so a lot of time is spent focused on his character.  And this version of Bowser is a ton of fun.  You know, there’s been many different approaches to Bowser’s personality over the lengthy history of Mario, from the bestial King Koopa of SMB to the doting dad of Sunshine and to the megalomaniac of Galaxy, and his personality in this game is more in-line with the comedic tone of this particular series, where he’s depicted as an arrogant yet buffoonish alpha male jock.  Which makes the highly intelligent and cunningly vicious Fawful an excellent foil to the dopey Koopa boss.  If you don’t know Fawful, he was originally a henchman from the first M&L who managed to outshine the main villain in most gamers’ eyes.  In Bowser’s Inside Story, he gets his time in the spotlight as the primary antagonist, and his devious schemes don’t just subvert Bowser, but utterly humiliate him.  That is to say, Fawful is the ultimate Bowser troll.

Beyond Fawful and Bowser’s interactions, there’s a ton of great story moments in this game.  M&L has a sense of playfulness, whimsy, and humor that you just don’t find in the standard platforming games that are laser-focused on highly-polished run-and-jump gameplay.  And the battle system is a a lot of fun as is usual for M&L.  I’ve always enjoyed the reflex-based aspects that Mario RPG injects into its battle system.  It goes a long way to keeping me engaged and preventing combat from starting to feel like a grind.  And the ending is also one of my favorite game endings where we finally see Bowser get his just desserts.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

Ghost Trick

If I had bothered to rank this list, I can without a doubt say that Ghost Trick would come up as number one.  I honestly think that the DS’s excellent adventure games, like Hotel Dusk, Ace Attorney, Layton, and Ghost Trick, will be the most fondly remembered aspect of the platform, and Ghost Trick is easily on the top of this heap.  Ghost Trick was the next project for director Shu Takumi after he led the enormously well-received Ace Attorney series.  The game stars a recently-murdered amnesiac ghost who attempts to solve the mysterious circumstances of his demise.  While the setup is fairly simple and rather cliche, the story that follows is actually fairly complex and original, with many twists and turns that I honestly didn’t expect.  Furthermore, it is a story with a lot of heart, and I really felt for the characters and the struggles they went through.  Despite all the convoluted supernatural weirdness that envelopes the plot, the characters felt very real and human to me.

Despite its lineage, Ghost Trick actually strays fairly far from the template of the simple visual novels that chronicle Phoenix’s adventures.  Gameplay is greatly different.  As opposed to the dialogue-based gameplay of Phoenix Wright, the story in Ghost Trick plays out in cutscenes mostly independent of the player’s input.  The gameplay portion is centered instead on Sessile’s time-warping ghost power.  Many people die during the course of the story, and Sessile has the power to rewind time to just moments before their death.  This allows him to try to change the course of events that led to their untimely demise with the goal of preserving their lives.  Saving them is not just for the sake of charity, but often because these people are leads in the mystery of Sessile’s murder.  These time-bending rescues are accomplished by poltergeist-ing numerous objects to influence the characters and the sequence of actions that occur in the vicinity of the murder/accident victim.  Consequently, it is more of a puzzle game than Ace Attorney, and the ways in which the game ultimately expects the player to utilize this simple ghostly possession mechanic actually get very inventive.  There are many “a-ha” moments to be found here.

The art is another major difference between Ghost Trick and its predecessor.  Ace Attorney makes use of very simple graphics with still character portraits and backgrounds.  But Ghost Trick presents its world from a cross-sectional perspective (like a sidescroller), and the sprite work in this game is *amazing*, especially when it comes to animations.  Character movements are impressively fluid, complexly-detailed, and full of whimsical personality.  Just take a look at Inspector Cabanela below.  I may even be willing to go out on a limb and say Ghost Trick has the best sprite work of any game I’ve ever played.

Cabanela_dance
All-in-all, Ghost Trick is an amazing experience.  For a platform that had so many endearing and heartfelt games, I think this one ranks at the top and is a must-play for enthusiasts and newcomers to the platform alike.

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