Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game*

It can be strange how greatly things change in just a few short years. After the successful Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9 in 2013, the year 2015 saw fan investment in such crowdfunded games reach new heights. Three such games even broke crowdfunding records in quick succession that very year: Yooka-Laylee, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Shenmue 3.

But the enthusiasm was not too last. Later in 2015, Keiji Inafune, the man behind Mighty No. 9, decided to launch another video game Kickstarter campaign (despite the fact that Mighty No. 9 was still being continuously delayed), Red Ash: The Indelible Legend. With Mighty No. 9 still having trouble getting off the ground, the Red Ash Kickstarter went about as successfully as the Hindenburg. Not only did Red Ash tarnish the reputation of Kickstarter games, but when Mighty No. 9 was finally released in 2016 to a negative reception, the once-promising prospect of crowdfunded games was further dragged into the mud. The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the 2017 release of Yooka-Laylee, which ended up being a much more mixed bag than fans had hoped for the Banjo-Kazooie successor (though in all fairness, Yooka-Laylee was a much better game than Mighty No. 9, even if it failed to live up to its potential).

Now here we are in 2019, and Kickstarter games are now something of a punchline. After the mixed receptions of Mighty No. 9 and Yooka-Laylee, as well as several delays of its own, the enthusiasm for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night had died down considerably. Despite the flounders and flubs of previous Kickstarter games, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night lives up to the promises it made back in 2015, showing us that perhaps there is still something to the idea of crowdfunded video games.

“The enemy “Shovel Armor” is a blatant homage to Shovel Knight.”

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was always promised to be a spiritual sequel to Symphony of the Night style Castlevania entries (AKA the better half of Castlevania). Helmed by Koji Igarishi, the man largely responsible for Symphony of the Night as well as its excellent GBA and DS follow-ups, Bloodstained accomplishes what it set out to do. It is a worthy successor to the legendary Symphony of the Night, as well as Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, and a sequel to Igarishi’s Castlevania titles in all but name.

Players take on the role of Miriam, one of the two last ‘Shardbinders’ – people infused with demonic crystals that were used in sacrifices – and must infiltrate the castle Hellhold. Fittingly with a name like ‘Hellhold,’ the castle was summoned through hellish magic by Gebel, the other last Shardbinder, who is using the castle to bring demons into the world, as a means to take revenge on those who sacrificed the Shardbinders

There are a few other details to the plot, but honestly, it gets a little confusing and lost in the shuffle. But that’s okay, considering this is a spiritual sequel to the game that gave us dialogue such as “What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!” Is the story really the reason you’re going to play it?

“Hey! I know that guy!”

As you might expect, Hellhold serves as the location of the entire game (with the introductory segment taking place in the destroyed surrounding town and the ship Miriam arrives in). This is a Metroidvania through and through. And like the best games in the genre, you’ll gradually uncover more and more of Hellhold as Miriam learns new abilities, and be surprised and delighted every time you discover a previously unreachable area. The more of Hellhold you discover, the more you appreciate the genius of Bloodstained’s world design.

Miriam’s aforementioned status as a Shardbinder also finds its way into the gameplay. In what is essentially the “Tactical Soul System” from Aria of Sorrow, Miriam is able to absorb “shards” from enemies within the game. Nearly every enemy boasts its own shard, each of which will grant Miriam with new powers and abilities. Depending on the enemy type, you may have to farm them for a bit before you claim their shard, but the shards still shouldn’t be too hard to come by.

Shards come in different types, represented by colors: Conjure shards (Red) give Miriam a magic-consuming attack, Manipulative (Blue) give Miriam status/form-altering abilities, Directional (Purple) are able to be sent in different directions by the player, Passive (Yellow) – as their name implies – grant bonuses that are always active once equipped. Familiar shards (Green)  give Miriam a monster partner to aide her in battle, while Skill (clear) shards are claimed by defeating bosses or found hidden in the castle, and give Miriam new means to traverse said castle.

With the exception of the Skill Shards (which are always active, unless the player turns off their effects in the pause menu), the player can only equip one of each shard type at a time. The game’s most addictive side quest sees the player gathering materials so Miriam’s alchemist friend Johannes can level up the shards. Additionally, the more of a specific shard you have, the more powerful that shard’s ability will be. In addition, like in Symphony of the Night and its kin, Miriam can gain a wide range of different weapons – from swords and spears to firearms and shoes, to name a few – and can equip various armors with stats and effects of their own. Not only can Miriam level up and gain strength, but so too can the Familiars when aiding Miriam in battle.

“Yeah, you can customize Miriam quite a bit.”

Given the variety of weapons and shards, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game of immense variety. You may find a particular setup or two of shards that you prefer to use over all others for your first playthrough. But Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is worth repeated playthroughs just to experience it with different ability and weapon preferences.

Admittedly, the game has its share of technical issues, with slowdowns and frame rate drops being a lot more frequent than you’d care for (though I learned only after purchasing the game that the Switch version’s technical blips are more prominent than other versions, which Igarishi and company have been addressing little by little in updates). Granted, Bloodstained is a crowdfunded game, and thus didn’t have the same level of resources as most games these days, so a few technical issues are more forgivable here, but they do become a little bothersome at times.

If there’s any other ‘issue’ to address with Bloodstained, it’s probably just in that it doesn’t really do much that Igarishi’s Castlevania titles didn’t already do. Granted, the entire pitch for Bloodstained was that it was essentially a brand new Castlevania in a time when there are no new Castlevanias. So it’s certainly no disappointment, but while Bloodstained may exude profuse quality, it does lack in freshness. Again, that’s no unforgivable sin, considering its emulating some all-time greats. But should we ever get a Bloodstained sequel (and please, let’s), hopefully it can deliver a similarly excellent experience, while maybe adding a few more features that give it more of its own identity outside of Castlevania (one of Bloodstained’s original mechanics, which sees Miriam interact with certain environmental objects by means of the player manually guiding her hand, goes sorely underutilized).

“What exactly is supposed to be reassuring about that sentence?”

Still, that seems like nitpicking, because what Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night does right, it does right in spades. This is very much the Symphony of the Night-worthy Castlevania follow-up that Igarishi promised to fans in his initial Kickstarter pitch. It’s an incredibly fun experience brimming with depth and variety, and a captivating successor to one of gaming’s richest lineages.

The idea of Kickstarter-funded video games may have lost a lot of its luster in the four years since the initial announcement of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. But with the final product living up to its lofty expectations, Koji Igarishi’s latest adventure should remind the video game world why we loved the prospect of crowdfunded games to begin with.

 

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Musings of the Dojo: Dora the Explorer Vs. Quentin Tarantino

*Welcome to Musings of the Dojo! Here, I plan to reflect on certain things I’ve recently talked about here at the Dojo. Perhaps this will become a recurring here on my site. Or maybe I’ll completely forget about it after this one time…*

 

 

For those following my site, you’ve probably noticed that among my recent movie reviews are Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer. In my reviews, I graded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a 5/10, but gave Dora a 7/10. Could this possibly imply that I actually thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than a Quentin Tarantino film?

I’m not implying anything, let me say it outright: I thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. And I don’t feel bad even in the slightest for saying that.

I don’t say this for the sake of contrarianism. Lord knows there are few things I distaste more than contrarians. And the world of independent internet critics has more than enough of those anyway (newsflash: conforming to non-conformity is still conformity). I say this as a Quentin Tarantino fan, I didn’t care for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s not a horrible movie (again, I rated it 5/10. For me, it’s when things get to 3/10 and lower when they’re in the “avoid at all costs” range), but it does feel like a product of complacency on Tarantino’s part.

Quentin Tarantino isn’t a stranger to rewriting history with his films, as he did just that ten years ago with Inglourious Basterds. So for Tarantino to make a movie in which the Manson murders are undone, and instead the members of the Charles Manson cult who carried out the murder of Sharon Tate are the ones who end up dead by means of a stuntman, his dog, and a flamethrower, just makes sense for the famed director. And the ending in which this rewriting of history takes place is the best part of the film. There’s something bizarrely wonderful about Tarantino using his trademark style and gratuitous violence to rectify a historical tragedy. The problem I have with Hollywood is that Tarantino seemed to have come up with a great ending, but couldn’t think of a path for the rest of the movie to take to justifiably earn that ending.

Tarantino spends too much of the film either indulging in some of his tropes (such as a disjointed narrative, with the stories of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters stories really having nothing to do with Sharon Tate), while staving off others (the director’s stylistic violence really only shows up at the end of the film). But the different storylines never mesh together in any seamless or meaningful way. Again, there’s something that feels complacent about it, like Tarantino was so confident in the ending and in his style that the actual story at hand, and how to tie everything together, were such afterthoughts that he forgot about them altogether.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m just ragging on Tarantino. Again, I’m a fan of his, I’d place him on my list of top 10 filmmakers. And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a total bust. It has moments that showcase the director’s brilliance. But that’s just the thing, it’s only in moments of Hollywood that we get glimpses of what Tarantino is really capable of. As a whole, however, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just never comes together. It’s too fragmented – both in story and tone – for its own good.

Meanwhile, Dora and the Lost City of Gold – while perhaps not a great movie – was nonetheless better than it seemed to have any right to be. Yes, it’s a kids’ movie, and a bit silly. But it was a well made silly kids’ movie. It was fun, funny, didn’t feel like it talked down to its young audience, nor was it ashamed of its source material. And I feel it had a nice message for kids about being comfortable with who you are, even if you may be on the socially awkward side.

Essentially, I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold did a better job at being a Dora the Explorer movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did at being a Tarantino film. Yes, I understand this is comparing apples to oranges, so why bother doing it?

Simple, because I think as far as professional film critics, and even most self-proclaimed cinephiles go, this very idea would be considered some kind of blasphemy. Critics and film buffs too often like to put themselves on a pedestal for their perceived superior intellect to the average moviegoer, and their supposed open-mindedness. But frankly, they could definitely benefit from branching out a bit. As much as they like to brag themselves up, critics and film buffs too often have a very narrow view of what constitutes a good movie, and have a very strict ruleset placed on themselves that makes their often arrogant attitudes that much more unfounded.

Basically, any such critic or cinephile would scoff or outright belittle my stance that I found a Dora the Explorer movie to have more merit than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, because that would go against their definition of what’s good, and would defy their rules. Thinking a Tarantino film failed to deliver while thinking a silly kids’ movie was effective would probably be enough for many critics – both professional and independent – to grab their torches and pitchforks and form a mob against me (or anyone who shares similar opinions).

Now, I certainly hope I don’t sound like I’m patting myself on the back. There are many instances where I agree with critics and film buffs (again, I usually think Tarantino is quite good). The last thing I want to do is put myself on a a pedestal similar to the people I’m commenting on. I’m merely trying to state that I think there’s a problem within the world of cinema that, like these critics and cinephiles, seems shackled to a very specific idea of how to appreciate movies. Just look at most critics’ lists of best films of any given year, and you’ll notice the same types of movies – usually those that pander directly to critics – dominate pretty much all of them. Sure, you might see a mainstream movie and an animated feature thrown in for the “audience cred” every so often, but such selections usually come across as mere tokens (especially seeing as so few critics would ever seem to consider placing such films on the upper half of their lists).

I really think this close-mindedness of “serious” film critics and fans has become a major problem. If you need some damning evidence, the Academy Awards nearly created a “Best Popular Film” category, as a means to throw a bone to the common moviegoer, only to retract the concept of the award soon thereafter, as it was basically an admittance to their insistence that only “their movies” are worthy of Best Picture.

The world of cinema would do itself a lot of good if those with voices in the medium would shed a good deal of their pretensions and lighten up a bit. Someone like me shouldn’t have to feel hesitant to state that they enjoyed a Dora the Explorer movie more than a Tarantino film. But that’s exactly the kind of atmosphere that critics and cinephiles have created around the movie world. You can’t be considered a serious lover of cinema unless you fall in line. And that’s a problem.

Okay, now I’m really getting sidetracked. I was initially just writing this as a means to express my preference to Dora and the Lost City of Gold over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But I repeat that I was hesitant to do so, because of the stigma it might put on me, my site, and my overall views of movies by the aforementioned “serious” film buffs. Granted, I don’t exactly have a large following (to put it lightly), so it’s not as if I expected backlash per se. Just that it’s kind of sad that you could pretty much picture the exact reaction a more pretentious movie type would have should they read that someone actually thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold was a better movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Simply put, I think the movie world would benefit if, instead of adhering to a very, very specific idea of what constitutes good films, the more critical side of cinema followed the open-mindedness they like to preach, and judge films based on how successfully they accomplishes what they set out to do.

Of course we’re all going to have our preferences (and I am no exception), but critics and “serious” movie fans too often seem to surrender to some kind of hive mind with their preferences (“independent movie = automatically good.” “The more popular a movie, the dumber it must be.”). Again, we all have our preferences, but it’s important to bring individuality into critiquing. Movie buffs and critics frequently seem to lump things together with preconceived notions, instead of viewing a film for its individual merit.  And again, their preferences don’t even seem to be based on their own individuality, but a preconceived idea of what they’re supposed to like.

I again have to stretch that I am, in no way, shape or form, promoting contrarianism. Disliking things for the reasons that they are popular or acclaimed is every bit as toxic as critics’ “follow the leader” method I’m talking about. I stress that my point is critiquing any form of art should come from a place of individualism, both of one’s self and of the work you’re critiquing. You don’t want to cave into some preconceived hive mind, but you also have to be able to appreciate things even if they don’t fall squarely into your preferences. You, as an individual, should be critiquing things based on their merits as an individual work.

The cinephiles and critics expect Quentin Tarantino to make great movies, so surely Once Upon a Time in Hollywood must be a masterpiece. It was decided ahead of time. But a Dora the Explorer movie sounds like a stupid idea for the kiddies. Even though the latter did defy expectations and received a surprisingly warm reception, it of course is only allowed to go so far. And claiming it could possibly, under any circumstance, be better than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly going too far.

Well, as a Tarantino fan, I expected a good movie out of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Instead I ended up bored and anxious with it, like Milhouse waiting for Itchy and Scratchy to get to the fireworks factory. Meanwhile, I didn’t’t have expectations for Dora, but I ended up having fun.

In short, I thought Dora the Explorer kicked Quentin Tarantino’s ass. And I don’t feel bad about it.

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold Review

Nobody ever likes to be wrong. Especially in this day and age of the internet, when we can anonymously spout our views as condescendingly as possible, we don’t want to end up with egg on our face later.

But, y’know, being wrong can be a blessing at times. Case in point: I thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold – a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer – looked like the stupidest movie ever based on its initial trailer. But lo and behold, it’s actually a good movie. I don’t say that ironically, either.

In my defense, what kind of expectations was I supposed to have about a live-action Dora the Explorer movie? That first trailer really didn’t do it any favors, either. It looked like a watered down Tomb Raider (it in itself a watered down version of a watered down Indiana Jones) that just used the Dora the Explorer franchise to draw in a younger crowd. But when the second trailer presented that “Can you say ‘delicioso?'” gag – in which a young Dora talks to the audience like in the series, only for Dora’s parents to look around dumbfounded as to who their daughter was talking to – it got my attention. Then when the film was released and began getting a warm reception, I thought I’d give Dora and the Lost City of Gold a look. I’m glad I did, because it is actually an entertaining and often very funny movie.

The movie begins by explaining away how the edutainment/kid-friendly series can be translated into a live-action film. As it turns out, the reason why Dora had so many adventures with animals in the jungle and other exotic locations during her childhood is because she’s homeschooled by her parents, who are professors traveling the world. Dora’s anthropomorphic backpack and map were simply products of her imagination, and her sidekick Boots is just a wild monkey that Dora liked to dress up. Humorously, Swiper – the mildly antagonistic fox from the series – isn’t explained away as part of Dora’s childhood imagination, but is indeed an actual talking, mask-wearing fox (comically voiced in the film by Benicio del Toro). The fact that certain aspects of the series are given explanation, but Swiper is as real as Dora and her parents, sets the mood for the silly nature of the movie ahead.

The majority of the film takes place a decade after Dora had her many adventures. Now 16-years old, Dora (Isabela Moner) is still traversing jungles, making discoveries, and yes, still talking to the audience (which she does via live-streaming in her teenage years, though the film still finds plenty of humor in the idea of Dora talking to the audience and breaking the fourth wall). But Dora’s parents, father Cole (Michael Peña) and mother Elena (Eva Longoria) think it’s time Dora took a break from dangerous jungle life, and to finally socialize with people her age. Dora is more than a little bummed, especially because her parents have deciphered the location of the legendary city of gold, Parapata.

Dora is sent to Los Angeles to stay with family and live a normal high schooler’s life. She is reunited with her cousin, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) who has grown up to be a jaded teenager who’s embarrassed by his cousin’s highly optimistic and adventurous personality. I find this humorous just by the nature of it. Diego was the star of the spinoff series to Dora the Explorer, “Go, Diego, Go!,” so he was expendable in the sense that the film has no qualms with turning him into a stereotypical teenager, while Dora remains her happy-go-lucky, children’s television character self.

Naturally, Dora is a bit socially awkward, and quickly becomes the butt of jokes of the students around the school. She inadvertently makes a ‘frenemy’ in the form of the school’s know-it-all, Sammy (Madeleine Madden), and befriends Randy (Nicholas Coombe), the punching bag of the school bullies.

One thing I really liked about Dora and the Lost City of Gold is that it never feels the need to go down the “makeover” story arc in order for Dora to learn to accept herself. A lot of family movies have a “be true to yourself” message, but usually only get there by the end, with the hero (usually heroine in this scenario) needing to at first change themselves before they realize that doing so for the sake of others isn’t worth it.

Here, Diego tells Dora that her optimistic attitude, nerdy disposition, and childlike enthusiasm make her a target for the rest of the school. But Dora – rather than coming to some realization of the nature of the people around her and deciding to go the aforementioned “makeover” route – simply responds that she knows what people are saying behind her back, and that they’re laughing at her. She just doesn’t care because she can only be who she is. There’s something really refreshing about Dora’s confidence, and how a kids’ movie has a main character who is awkward and may not fit in, but who also doesn’t care about that and is comfortable in their own skin.

After adjusting to school life for a time, Dora suddenly loses contact with her parents just as they were getting close to finding the city of Parapata. Dora soon finds out why when – during a school field trip – she, along with Diego, Sammy and Randy, end up captured by treasure hunting mercenaries and wind up in Peru.

It turns out Dora’s parents have gone missing, and the mercenaries are looking for them in hopes of claiming Parapata’s treasures. The mercenaries now hope Dora can track her parents so they can find the lost city, before an old friend of Dora’s parents named Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), rescues Dora and her friends from the mercenaries’ clutches. It then becomes a race between Dora and her companions against the mercenaries – who have recruited none other than Swiper – to find Dora’s parents and uncover the secret of Parapata.

You probably want to laugh when you read such a synopsis, what with Dora taking on mercenaries and going on an Indiana Jones style adventure to a lost city. But Dora and the Lost City of Gold wants to laugh right alongside you. The film is very self-aware and often tongue-in-cheek, but not in a way that feels insulting to its source material. Yes, this is very much a kids’ movie, but it’s one that seems to be made for both young children who are being introduced to Dora the Explorer, and for the adults and teenagers who grew up watching Dora the Explorer. This is a movie that seems fueled by the very same ‘young children’s television logic’ of the series, but presents it with a coy wink and smile to the older audience. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, with said fish-out-of-water just so happening to be Dora the Explorer.

In that regard, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is actually a very smart movie. It’s easy to imagine in this day and age that a movie could have the gimmicky premise of a children’s TV character adjusting to the ‘real’ world (though in most cases these days, they would probably aim for a ‘hard R’ rating with such a concept, because Hollywood still hasn’t realized that taking cute things and making them “edgy and raunchy” is the most overplayed joke ever). But because this film actually uses an existing children’s franchise – and one as popular as Dora the Explorer no less – for such a premise, it melts away the ‘gimmicky’ aspect of it, and in turn the film is both a parody and loving homage to its source material. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is all the more entertaining for it.

I will happily admit to laughing out loud numerous times during the movie. It’s silly and fun, and in a way that doesn’t talk down to young audiences. Sure, the film may have a little more bathroom humor than I’d like, but I’m also not part of the film’s primary demographic. So if children think it’s funny, then job well done.

With that said, the film does find ways to make even that bathroom humor work within the context of Dora the Explorer. When one of Dora’s friends has to “go number two” in the middle of the jungle, the punchline isn’t so much the bathroom situation itself, so much as Dora’s attempt to make it “less awkward” by singing a song about digging a hole for her friend to use as a toilet. As you might expect, the song doesn’t exactly make Dora’s friend feel more comfortable about the situation. It’s obviously not high-brow humor, but I admit I laughed.

Admittedly, not everything in the film works. The special effects of the film – particularly the CGI used to bring Boots and Swiper to life – definitely look outdated. I get this isn’t a movie with an Avengers-level budget, but it’s always a bit of a shame how kids’ movies get shortchanged with such things, as if they don’t deserve the extra effort. Another issue is that the film’s third act might teeter a little too much into Indiana Jones territory, with booby traps and ‘jungle puzzles’ perhaps taking a little too much center stage over the humor and overall “Dora the Explorer-ness” that gives the film as a whole its charm.

I suppose some audiences might also get annoyed with how little Dora’s companions seem to contribute to the adventure. But I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold actually justifies having a main character who seems to be the only useful member of their group for two reasons: The first reason is based in the film’s logic. As the movie points out, Dora grew up in the jungle, while her friends have believed high school was as harsh as their lives could get, and have just been thrust into the jungle. So Dora, most appropriately, is serving an educational role for her team.

The other reason is more thematic. In the world of high school, Dora is a socially awkward misfit because of her adventurous attitude and profuse friendliness. But once everyone is in the jungle, the same things that Dora is mocked for in high school end up showing their many merits. While the film might at first seem like it’s laughing at Dora for her precocious nature and social naiveté, it doesn’t take too long to realize the film is actually saying that Dora’s spirit and enthusiasm – even with its basis in children’s television logic – is more genuine than the ‘real’ people of high school.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold may have a few hiccups here and there, but it’s also – beyond all expectation – a much better film than you’d think it has any right to be. It’s consistently funny and entertaining in a way that should satisfy children, their parents, and those who grew up watching Dora the Explorer and shows of its ilk. It’s humorous while also being respectful to both its target audience and source material. Special mention also has to go to Isabela Moner’s performance as Dora, which captures both the essence of the television character, while also bringing out the charisma and humor needed to make such a character work in a movie.

While Dora and the Lost City of Gold may not exactly boast the educational merits of the TV series it’s based on, I think it still has an important lesson to teach youngsters. Be nice to those who are socially awkward, and if you happen to be among them, take pride in who you are. Because if you and your friends end up lost in a jungle, we all know who everyone is going to have to rely on.

 

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A Very September Update

Don’t worry folks, while this may be a ‘filler update’ in many ways, I still actually have some stuff to say this time around. Plus, with how slow of a month August was for the Dojo, I wanted to ensure I at least wrote something within the first few days of September. To help build momentum for the coming weeks…or something.

To be more explanatory, I actually have some reviews lined up for September. In terms of video games, I’m hoping to review Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, and Wario Land: Shake It! (continuing my 2019 trend of one Wario game review per month). I may even do more than that. But those seem the most likely to happen within this month.

I also have some movie reviews planned. Some newer movies, some older movies. I may also review both ‘Chapters’ of Stephen King’s It if I get around to seeing Chapter 2 soon enough. But stay tuned for those movie reviews, including one recent movie I can’t believe I actually ended up liking…and quite a bit, I might add.

And yes, I do have some long-promised top 10 lists waiting in the near future, as well as some television series reviews. I will try to do one or two (at least) of the former within September (here’s hoping I can follow through), though I don’t want to promise when exactly the TV reviews will be. I will say though, that my first TV series review will be for the first season of Stranger Things, with the subsequent seasons hopefully following soon after. On that note, I’m also in the middle of watching another Netflix original, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and will review that when I can as well. You might remember that I reviewed the original Dark Crystal movie not too long ago, and gave it a score of 5/10. I praised its imagination, practical effects, and unique mythology, but felt it didn’t quite stick the landing as a movie due to the flat, empty main characters. I ended my review with this.

“As of this writing, Netflix will soon release a prequel series to The Dark Crystal. Here’s hoping that said series finally brings out a story and characters worthy of the imagination Jim Henson littered Thra with.”

And I have to say, having watched six episodes (out of ten) so far of the Netflix series, I honestly think that The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance does just that. It’s a genuinely gripping fantasy series. I love the world of the original movie, but not the original movie (if that makes sense). But I think this series has done a great job at creating a story worthy of Jim Henson’s passion project. I’m actually quite surprised how much I’m enjoying it (a lot of surprises for me lately, it seems).

On an entirely unrelated note… Banjo-Kazooie were released in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate today! An absolute dream come true!

Naturally, I’ve been having a ball beating up Fire Emblem and Kid Icarus characters as Banjo-Kazooie as I get to learn the bear/bird duo’s moves (which are more or less how I always imagined… more or less). It’s great to see Banjo-Kazooie in Smash.

In more underwhelming Smash Bros. news, Terry Bogart from Fatal Fury has been revealed as the fourth DLC character in the five-character Fighter Pass. That’s about as exciting as getting no new character at all, really. Yeah, yeah, some people really like Fatal Fury. But come on, adding characters from a fighting game (that isn’t Street Fighter) into a fighting game just seems boring.

In other, better Smash Bros. news, it’s been revealed that there will be more DLC characters coming after these initial five. And thank goodness for that. Aside from Banjo-Kazooie, the DLC characters so far haven’t exactly set the world on fire (yeah, Joker from Persona 5 was cool, but considering he was only a year old character with no ties to Nintendo at the time, it wasn’t the same as, say, a character that fans have been begging years for finally making the cut). So glad to hear we have more than one hope to make up for Terry Bogard.

So please, Sakurai. Just give us Geno. We have Ridley, we have K. Rool, and we have Banjo. Geno is the only character left the series has sorely needed.

But we’ll probably just get Heihachi, right?

 

Anyway, thanks for reading this (assuming you read this). It makes writing these kinds of posts not a waste of time. Now I hope you enjoy the bevy of ‘real’ content and updates I have planned very soon…

WarioWare Touched Review

*Review based on WarioWare Touched’s release on the Wii U Virtual Console*

WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgames was one of Nintendo’s unsung classics of the 2000s. WarioWare stripped the very nature of video games down to their bare minimum, leaving its many microgames as a platform for Nintendo to test out myriads of gameplay ideas. The concept of WarioWare was perhaps more fruitful than Nintendo initially realized, with the series’ formula allowing them to push the innovations of their hardware.

2005 saw two such WarioWare sequels. One of them, released on the GameBoy Advance (home of the original title in the series), was WarioWare Twisted, which had a built-in “gyro-sensor” that allowed for motion controls. The other was WarioWare Touched on the Nintendo DS, which utilized the handheld’s touchscreen and microphone features.

Admittedly, Twisted has aged far more gracefully, with its gameplay features still feeling unique today. That’s not to say that Touched has aged poorly, but because its (pardon the pun) ‘twist’ was that it utilized features that were standard on the DS, it’s kind of lost some of its individuality over time. The later WarioWare Smooth Moves on the Wii would similarly use its platform’s capabilities, but I feel that Smooth Moves managed to do so with considerably more creativity. Smooth Moves brought out the best it could from the Wii’s features, whereas Touched feels more like it’s falling in line with its platform’s standard.

Again, that’s not to say that WarioWare Touched is a bad game by any means. It is WarioWare, after all. And if it doesn’t leave you with some kind of goofy grin on your face at one point or another, you may be dead inside. The issue is simply that Touched is the one entry in the WarioWare series that no longer stands out.

The basics of the series remain intact in WarioWare Touched: Players face gauntlets of seconds-long microgames, with each character in the game boasting their own such series of games. You only get four chances to slip-up before a game over, and the microgames pick up in speed after you have conquered a number of them (the tougher gauntlets naturally increase speed much sooner than the earlier challenges).

The difference here, of course, is that along with button presses, the microgames of Touched are mostly played with the touchscreen controls of the Nintendo DS (or Wii U Gamepad, if you’re playing the Virtual Console release), and some of the latter microgames even utilize the mic on the system for some delightful gameplay quirks.

WarioWare Touched can be a lot of fun at times, with the simplicity of the series’ gameplay being complimented by the DS’s hardware features. Whether you’re swiping, tapping, spinning, or tracing, Touched is a fun example of how the WarioWare series can be used to showcase gameplay ideas and utilize hardware.

On the downside, simply being WarioWare on the DS no longer really stands out for the series. Subsequent WarioWare titles have been released on the DS and 3DS, which boasted additional gameplay innovations on top of the DS’s touchscreen features. WarioWare D.I.Y allowed players to create their own microgames, and WarioWare Gold features most of Touched’s microgames, in addition to those from Mega Microgames and Twisted, plus a number of games of its own. So being the “DS WarioWare” no longer works in Touched’s favor, and hasn’t for quite some time now.

WarioWare is almost always going to a fun experience (Wii U’s Game & Wario being the exception), and the simplicity of the DS’s features has its charms. But it would be hard to recommend WarioWare Touched over a number of its sequels. There’s still good fun to be had with WarioWare Touched, but it’s short-lived, especially when you consider the great replay value the series is capable of.

 

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Super Mario Maker 2 Review

Nintendo’s Wii U console gets a lot of flack. Some of its criticisms are just (it was a commercial failure for the big N, a fact that was magnified by its status as a bridge between two golden ages for Nintendo), but the Wii U played an important role in Nintendo’s big picture. An argument could be made that the Switch – and the success that has come with it – is a combination of the refinement of the ideas the Wii U got right (surely the Wii U Gamepad opened the door for the Switch’s handheld capabilities), and the results of learning from the Wii U’s mistakes.

The Wii U’s lack of third-party support was among its biggest missteps, but one of the system’s highlights was that it featured some of Nintendo’s best first-party output. It really isn’t a shock that much of the Wii U’s legacy in first-party titles has been given a second chance at life on the Nintendo Switch, whether through enhanced ports (such as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze), or sequels that build on the ideas of the Wii U originals (such as Splatoon 2). The latest entry in the latter category is Super Mario Maker 2, the sequel to one of the Wii U’s few undeniable success stories.

In 2015, Super Mario Maker gave players of all experiences and skill levels the opportunity to try their hand at game design. Though it had a few unfortunate limitations, and certainly wasn’t the first game-creation game, Super Mario Maker was a new highlight for the genre. By making the level creation process as accessible and deep as the gameplay the Super Mario series is known for (and featuring said gameplay to boot), Super Mario Maker was fun and addictive in a way that no other game-making title had been before.

Super Mario Maker 2 takes that same accessibility and depth of the original, while making a few appreciated adjustments and bringing in some meaningful new additions. As such, Super Mario Maker 2 is not only an improvement over its predecessor, but a treasure trove of Super Mario levels that’s ever-expanding. One that should both entice players to test their own creativity in level design, and jump at the chance to see the creativity of other players from around the world.

Though it must be said that there are still a few lingering limitations to certain features of the game. So while Super Mario Maker 2 may be unlimited Mario fun on one hand, these limitations do prevent this sequel from reaching its full potential, and can make certain aspects feel more like the content of an expansion pack than a grand follow-up.

Still, even with limitations, Super Mario Maker remains one of Nintendo’s best ideas. The Mario series has an uncanny ability to make concepts more fun just with its presence, and that’s true even of game-creation tools. Take LittleBigPlanet, for example. While that series has also allowed players to create their own levels and express wild levels of creativity, it loses a great deal of its appeal once you try to play said levels. Gravity works against Sackboy, rendering the platforming awkward and clunky. Mario, however, has long-since mastered gravity for the betterment of gameplay. So while Super Mario Maker 2 may still have room to expand its creation tools, the tried-and-true gameplay and physics of the Mario series guarantee that Super Mario Maker 2 still boasts near-infinite replay value.

“3D World finally gives me reason to make levels outside of the Super Mario World style.”

Like its predecessor, Super Mario Maker 2 allows you to create your own Mario stages in the styles of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U. The most obvious addition to Mario Maker 2 is that it includes a new game style with which to build your stages: Super Mario 3D World.

While Super Mario 3D World was played with a 3D perspective, it did feel like the proper continuation of the legacy of Mario’s 2D adventures (certainly more so than the New Super Mario Bros. games ever did). In Mario Maker 2, the 3D World style is presented as a 2D side scroller, like the other present styles, which in a way makes it tantamount to the first new type of Mario side-scroller since the original NSMB game hit the Nintendo DS back in 2006.

As in the first Super Mario Maker, each different game style not only alters the aesthetics of your stage, but also come with the appropriate physics and mechanics of their respective games, with small changes here and there (each style boasts one power-up unique to their original game, Super Mario World and NSMBU feature Yoshis, while the NES styles have Kuribo’s Shoe in his place, etc.). While the four returning styles can be swapped in and out while editing a level to see which style it plays best in, 3D World is listed under its own, separate category. This is due to 3D World having “enough differences” in its features that the other styles can’t replicate. On one hand there are some notable differences in 3D World, so I can kind of understand this. At the same time, it is kind of a bummer that certain features don’t carry over to the 3D World style.

Once again, all your created levels utilize different course ‘themes,’ based on the world themes of Mario games past. The six themes from the first Mario Maker return: Ground, Underground, Water, Ghost House, Airship and Castle. Super Mario Maker 2 adds four new course themes to the proceedings: Desert, Snow, Forest and Sky.

“Why are Super Mario World aesthetics still so beautiful and eye-catching?”

These new themes add variety to the aesthetics of the game (with new compositions by none other than the original Mario maestro, Koji Kondo, for level themes that are new to particular game styles), but an even bigger addition to these course themes brings even greater variety to the experience: Night themes.

All ten of the course themes now feature an alternate ‘Nighttime’ mode, effectively doubling the total course themes. The Nighttime versions bring out new gameplay mechanics and shifts to their respective level themes. Playing a night-themed ground level, for example, will see Super Mushrooms turn into deadly Poison Mushrooms, which will give chase to the player. Nighttime ghost houses will see the majority of the screen covered in black, with a spotlight shining on Mario and select objects and enemies, giving an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere to the ghost stages. Castle stages will mysteriously gain water-like attributes, with Mario and enemies swimming through the air as if they were submerged in a water level. Perhaps most interestingly, the underground stages will flip upside down when exposed to nighttime, flipping Mario’s controls around as well.

The night versions of the course themes are among Super Mario Maker 2’s best new features. Along with the major – often bizarre – tweaks they bring to the gameplay, they also make smaller changes to enemies and objects as well, enticing players to try out everything they can in each night theme to see how they work.

Like in the first Mario Maker, you can actually implement two course themes in a stage, one for the ‘main’ portion of the stage (which houses the start and goal), and a ‘sub’ portion of the stage that Mario can access via warp pipe. You can make a stage that consists of a daytime ground level in one portion, and a nighttime castle in the other, again adding to the game’s staggering variety. As an added bonus, the sub-areas of stages can now be made into ‘vertical’ courses, which opens up all the more possibilities, including vertical scrolling sections (though it is both strange and unfortunate that only sub-areas can receive the vertical treatment).

While most of the 3D World style’s differences from the other represented games are justified, one of the disappointing drawbacks to the new game style is that the nighttime features don’t transfer over to 3D World. Even if 3D World couldn’t share all the features of the returning game styles, you can’t help but feel that the night themes – given the twists they bring to gameplay – should have found a way to be carried over.

As always, players can delve into countless stages made by players around the world at any time. Super Mario Maker 2 features a much more refined search engine than the first game, making it much easier to find the types of stages you’re looking for. It’s still not quite perfect (you can still only search for levels and players by codes, as opposed to names), but it’s an inarguable improvement over its predecessor’s search methods.

The 100 Mario Challenge mode from the first Super Mario Maker has been replaced with the Endless Mario Challenge. While the first game’s equivalent had Mario complete a set number of levels under specific difficulties (with a maximum of 100 lives to do so, no matter the difficulty setting), the sequel’s new mode will literally keep the player-created levels coming until the player gets a game over. For the ‘easy’ and ‘normal’ settings, you may find yourself picking up enough extra lives that you can keep going with seemingly no end in sight (you are still limited to 100 lives, and can only obtain three extra lives per stage like in the 100 Mario Challenge from the first game, but in the easy and normal settings you’ll find yourself blazing through a number of levels before dying once, so you often get extra lives faster than you lose them). The ‘expert’ and ‘super expert’ difficulties, however, will really put you to the test. The latter setting, in particular, will probably cost a great deal of your lives just to complete the first stage, whatever it may be.

“No matter how many levels I conquered, I could never rank any higher than the 60s on the leaderboards…”

I prefer this new Endless Mario mode to the 100 Mario mode of the first game. Though on the downside, your only rewards for completing many stages are costume pieces for your Mii avatar. You can also find yourself placing on worldwide leaderboards (different boards for each difficulty setting), though the downside to leaderboards in any game is that there are always those crazy players who can put an ungodly amount of time into the game, meaning that more reasonable players can only get so far, with the leaderboards having a much lower ceiling for them.

I only bring this up because the first game had the delightful rewards of character costumes for the Super Mario Bros. game style, which not only disguised Mario as the sprite of various other characters (from fellow Nintendo icons like Link and Pikachu to third-party characters like Mega Man and Sonic to even non-game characters like Shaun the Sheep) but each disguise brought their own sound effects and music cues to the proceedings.

The character costumes are not present in Super Mario Maker 2. The reasoning for this is that Super Mario Maker 2 doesn’t feature Amiibo support in any capacity, and since Amiibo could be used to instantly unlock coinciding character costumes in the first game, the feature has been dropped.

It does admittedly feel like a weak reason. After all, you could unlock all the Amiibo costumes (plus the additional ones) by completing the 100 Mario Challenge repeatedly, so it’s not like the costumes were only available to rabid Amiibo collectors. Even if the Amiibo support were getting dropped, it seems weird that the character costumes had to be removed entirely as well.

Still, I suppose simply playing through an endless supply of Mario levels is reward enough in its own right. Not every stage you come across will be a winner, of course (many stages are only categorized as ‘easy’ because their creators left them empty, and many are considered ‘super expert’ simply because their creators filled them with clutter or troll the player with unfair traps that only said creator would be aware of). But when you come across a stage in which its creator’s creativity shines through, it makes it all worth it.

Another very welcome gameplay addition comes in the form of Clear Conditions which, as their name implies, are objectives you can set for your stages which must be completed in order to finish a stage. You can make goals like collecting every coin (or simply a set number of them) in a stage, defeating all of a specific enemy, or reaching the goal while in one of Mario’s many forms (Fire Mario, Cape Mario, Cat Mario, etc.). You can even set goals such as reaching the end of a stage without taking any damage, or not touching the ground after jumping in the air (this particular goal requires some crafty level design in order to implement it).

The Clear Conditions can really help in making less linear stages, and certainly help with making features like boss sections and bonus stages. But there are a few unfortunate caveats to the Clear Conditions. Players are unable to place checkpoints in stages with Clear Conditions, and while you may be able to specify certain objectives (like defeating X-amount of Dry Bones), you can’t make more broad objectives (like defeating every last foe on the stage). Another questionable design choice is that, no matter the Clear Condition, the end goal will remain inaccessible until that condition is met. That’s fine for levels where the objective can have the player backtrack to meet said requirements (“oops, I missed x-enemy, better go back”), but in stages where you can fail the objective outright (“I landed on the ground after taking to the air”) you have to manually restart the stage, as the goal will be impossible to reach. It may be a nitpick, but it would be nice if levels such as those would simply register as Mario losing a life and starting over once the objective is failed. Similarly, it would be nice to have an option for a stage to end as soon as a boss is defeated, instead of felling said boss simply resulting in the goal becoming available.

“This must be the George Lucas Special Edition…”

Super Mario Maker 2 also introduces a proper story mode into the mix. Through the Odyssey-esque hub in story mode, players select different stages in the form of “jobs” in order to earn coins to repair Princess Peach’s castle. Unlike the Endless Mario Challenge, the stages in story mode are made by Nintendo themselves, making Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode the closest thing we’ve had to a  new Mario side scroller since New Super Mario Bros. U launched alongside the Wii U in 2012. Even after you’ve finished the ‘story’ aspect of story mode, there are still additional jobs to be done, and even a few unlockables (like the brand new “Builder Mario” power-up for the 3D World style, and Super Mario Land’s ‘super ball’ power-up in the Super Mario Bros. style).

As fun as the story mode is, one aspect that left me greatly disappointed in it is that numerous Clear Conditions that appear in story mode are unavailable for your created levels. I took my time to beat the story mode before I delved into making my own stages, and had an abundance of ideas inspired by what I was playing in story mode.

Notably, I had all kinds of ideas built around the escort mission concept where you rescue Toads and guide them to the end of the level. The condition of clearing a stage while holding a large rock also got my creative juices flowing (unlike other objects Mario can carry, said rock weighed the plumber down, leading the player to get creative as to how to get the rock to the goal while also performing Mario’s platforming acrobatics).

Unfortunately, once I started making my own levels, I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to implement these Clear Conditions, only to find out that they weren’t even an option. It was a bummer, to say the least. Perhaps Nintendo can implement the story mode Clear Conditions into the level editor through an update or DLC down the road. But even if we do get them later (and hopefully we do), it still stings to be teased with these features before having the ability to use them in our own created levels.

While Super Mario Maker 2 introduces numerous additions to single player modes, it also introduces multiplayer into the Mario Maker fold. Two players can work together on a single Switch console in the level editor in what is ultimately a well-meaning but overly chaotic addition. But more notably is that Super Mario Maker 2 includes competitive and co-operative multiplayer modes, where up to four players from around the world can help/hinder each other in player-created levels.

In the multiplayer modes, players take control of Mario, Luigi, Toad and Toadette (why Princess Peach is absent is beyond me). Unlike many Mario games featuring different playable characters, all four heroes play identically in Super Mario Maker 2. That makes sense, seeing as many levels could effectively be ‘broken’ if their creators forgot to consider Luigi’s high jumps and such. The identical play styles of the characters are excusable, but I do kind of hope Nintendo adds a few more character options down the road (again, why isn’t Peach a playable character? And let’s throw Rosalina in there for good measure).

Unfortunately, you may encounter lag issues more often than you’d like during online play, which can really be a detriment in a fast-paced platforming stage. Some people will balk at the very notion of a Nintendo game with smooth online capabilities, but I have to point out that Nintendo has accomplished it in the past with the Mario Kart series (to this day, I have yet to experience any notable lag issues with Mario Kart 8 on either the Wii U or Switch). The fact that Nintendo has accomplished consistently smooth online elsewhere does kind of make it more aggravating when they release an otherwise promising and fun online experience hampered by frequent slowdowns.

Along with big changes such as Super Mario 3D World, the new level and nighttime themes, story mode and multiplayer, Super Mario Maker 2 houses a seemingly countless number of smaller additions. Classic Mario features make their way to the Mario Maker experience for the first time (such as snake blocks, rising and falling water/lava, the Angry Sun, and the long-requested slopes).

There are also new mechanics introduced in Super Mario Maker 2 which haven’t been seen elsewhere in the series before: swinging claws can fling Mario or grab and drop enemies like a crane game. Red and blue on/off switches that coincide with similarly colored blocks make for unique platforming and puzzles. ‘Twisters’- balls of wind (with eyes, of course) – produce mini-tornadoes that can launch Mario and enemies upward. There are so many features both new and returning in Super Mario Maker 2, that the game is like the ultimate toolkit for learning video game level design for players of all ages.

If there’s one feature I wish could be polished up a bit though, it would be boss fights. Bowser and Boom Boom appear in all game styles (though Bowser takes on his ‘Meowser’ form in 3D World), with Bowser Jr. being available in the returning game styles, and Pom Pom also appearing in 3D World. It’s not exactly a wide range of boss options, and while each boss behaves differently in each game style they’re present in, it would be nice if each style had different sets of behaviors you had the option to select from when placing them in your levels.

I’ve noticed many levels that have gotten creative with their takes on boss fights, and while that’s great to see, I do wish Nintendo could give players easier access to creating more unique bosses. Players shouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops just to make a boss that isn’t Boom Boom. Maybe Nintendo could implement the ability to ‘bossify’ enemies? Make any enemy bigger, change their color, select how many hit points they have, things like that.

Again, you can use Clear Conditions to make a boss fight in theory, but even that has limitations. You may be able to add a single Magikoopa to a stage, for example, give him a Super Mushroom to make him supersized, and make his defeat required in order to finish the stage. But you can still take out said giant Magikoopa with a single fireball. So it’s not much of a boss fight, really.

Still, no matter how many limitations may hold back certain areas of Super Mario Maker 2, there is no doubt that – on the whole – Super Mario Maker 2 is the new benchmark for game-creation games. The returning features, along with the armies-worth of new ones, make Super Mario Maker 2 a bottomless toy box that opens the floodgates for endless Mario fun.

There may still be some work to be done to the editing tools if we want to see the perfect Mario creation game, but the fact that Super Mario Maker 2 provides a refinement and expansion of what its predecessor started – allowing players from all over the world to exercise their creativity through its level editor – means the game boasts perhaps an unmatched level of playability.

 

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