Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD*

And now for something completely different.

That Monty Python quote may be a tad overused, but it’s certainly a fitting way to introduce Stranger’s Wrath, which has to be the odd man out of the Oddworld series, and I mean that in the best possible way.

After Munch’s Oddysee – the second installment in the originally planned five-part “quintology” of Oddworld titles – failed to meet its creators’ vision, in addition to having a disappointing reception from critics and fans alike, developer Oddworld Inhabitants hit the pause button on the Quintology and decided to make a whole new kind of Oddworld game. Unlike the previous “bonus game” in the series, Abe’s Exoddus, this new title wasn’t to be a more polished version of an established formula (though there was some talk of a Munch’s Exoddus back in the day), instead, this new Oddworld entry would be unlike anything that came before it. This game would end up being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, a title whose bold ambitions and deviations from series’ tradition paid off in spades.

Originally released on the Xbox in 2005, Stranger’s Wrath was, like Abe’s Exoddus before it, quietly one of the best titles on its console (and I’d argue it’s whole console generation). Stranger’s Wrath became a surprise critical hit and quickly gained cult classic status. Though poor sales numbers and falling outs with publishers saw Oddworld Inhabitants leave the video game industry for near of a decade shortly after the game’s release. It’s a crying shame. Though Oddworld has reemerged in recent times, you can’t help but wonder of all the possibilities the series missed out on during those silent years, especially after Stranger’s Wrath pulled away the curtain and proved Oddworld was a series that could go seemingly anywhere.

After having created unlikely heroes in both Abe and Munch – characters who were incapable of defending themselves but could find other ways to overcome enemies and obstacles – Oddworld Inhabitants decided to make their third protagonist a stark contrast to his predecessors: The titular “Stranger” of Stranger’s Wrath has a face like a lion, and arms like a gorilla (making him the first mammalian creature in Oddworld, unless the Fuzzles from Munch’s Oddysee count). To cap it off, he’s a badass bounty hunter carved from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Suffice to say, the Stranger is pretty far removed from Munch.

Although Stranger’s Wrath takes place on the same continent of Oddworld as the previous entries in the series, it’s in an area untouched by the industries of the Glukkons (the series’ usual antagonists), being largely underdeveloped and reminiscent of the wild west. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s ever been confirmed if Stranger’s Wrath takes place around the same timeframe as the other Oddworld games, or if its events occur sometime in Oddworld’s past.

You’ve probably deduced by now that Stranger’s Wrath is a western. As stated, the Stranger is a mysterious, no-nonsense bounty hunter, drifting from town to town bagging outlaws for precious Moolah (the currency of Oddworld). Though Stranger’s quest for cash isn’t all about greed, as he requires a hefty sum to pay for a life-saving operation, giving the character a vulnerability that makes this lion-gorilla more human.

It’s not just Stranger and his place in Oddworld that differentiates Stranger’s Wrath from the previous Oddworld titles, but it’s also very different as a game. Whereas Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were 2D puzzle-platformers, and Munch’s Oddysee attempted to translate that into 3D (while introducing several original ideas that, sadly, didn’t quite pan out), Stranger’s Wrath combines a first-person shooter with a third-person action-adventure.

Given the game’s time of release deep into the Xbox/PS2/GameCube generation – something of a creative dark age for gaming in which concepts like color were frowned upon for being “too kiddy” – the changes Stranger’s Wrath made to Oddworld may have damaged the series under less talented hands (need we remember how Jak & Daxter tried to be more “edgy and mature” with its sequels, which now just seems like laughable conformity in retrospect). Thankfully, the creativity of Oddworld Inhabitants is still at play here, and arguably at its best. Somehow, Stranger’s unlikely marriage of genres works seamlessly at the press of a button.

“The 2010 HD update still looks pretty impressive.”

If the Stranger has anything in common with Oddworld’s past heroes, it’s in his disdain for guns. Putting an Oddworld twist on the first-person shooter, Stranger is equipped with a crossbow over his right arm, which doesn’t shoot bolts or arrows at enemies, but the various little critters scattered about Oddworld, humorously referred to as “live ammunition.”

When in first-person mode, the player can equip two forms of ammo onto Stranger’s crossbow at a time (one on the left, one on the right). There are eight primary types of this live ammunition, giving players a lot of options and combinations as to how they want to tackle a situation: Zapflies are electrically-charged fireflies that can be shot in quick succession or be given a short time to charge up and do some real damage or knock out electrical devices. Chippunks are foul-mouthed little rodents who will lure an enemy away from a group with its insults (the bad guys can’t wait to step on them). Bolamites are spiders that wrap enemies in their webbing for a short time. Fuzzles – returning from Munch’s Oddysee – can be fired directly onto enemies or planted as a trap, and provide continuous damage with their ferocious bite. Thudslugs are heavy, beetle-like creatures that can knock an enemy out with one well-aimed shot. Stunks are like skunk versions of chippunks, leaving a terrible smell where they land, causing the bad guys to vomit and making them easy pickings for Stranger. Stingbees, which come in massive quantities, are fired like a machine gun. Finally, Boombats, as their name bluntly suggests, are bats that explode.

What Oddworld Inhabitants managed to successfully do with the live ammunition concept is create a variety of well-defined weapons that each have a distinct role, and will all come in handy at one point or another. Though different ammo types are better for certain situations, none of them ever come across as a pointless addition.

Bad guys are worth more Moolah if they’re captured alive, but there’s also nothing stopping Stranger from taking them out of the picture altogether. Some ammo types are better suited to incapacitating enemies (like Stunks or Bolamites), whereas others are more lethal (Stingbees, Boombats and Fuzzles). After an enemy is downed or killed, Stranger can use a vacuum like device on his crossbow to suck them up to collect the bounty (a mechanic I have to applaud. So many story-focused games are so concerned about something being “too video game-y” as to not fit in with their narrative, so it’s great to see games like Stranger’s Wrath not feel embarrassed to embrace a more convenient video game element to go with their story). Personally speaking, my favorite is the Chippunk/Stunks combo, luring in an enemy with the former then using the latter to capture said foe whilst they puke.

The boss outlaws are trickier, having both a health bar and a stamina meter. If you want to bag a boss alive, you have to find the best way to deplete their stamina, which is different depending on the boss. The only setback to this is it’s rarely apparent what a particular boss’s weakness is, and if you’re out of that particular ammo by the time you get to the boss, you don’t always have an opportunity to get more of that specific ammo during a boss. It isn’t a huge drawback, but it is a little bothersome to not know ahead of time if you’re trying to bag the boss alive for more Moolah.

Stranger finds more ammunition by coming across the nests of each respective creature, knocking them out and collecting them. The exception are the zapflies, of which Stranger has unlimited ammo. This might be my only critique with the live ammunition. While it makes sense from a gameplay perspective that Stranger needs one type of unlimited ammo so that he always has a means to collect more, I think the zapflies are a little too good to be the one that comes without limits. The other ammo types (other than Stingbees) are in short supply, with Stranger holding a max of about ten to fifteen shots apiece (though you can buy upgrades for more ammo). So it seems a little overpowered that the ammo you can charge up for a stronger shot is the one you can’t run out of.

The first-person aspect is only half of the equation, of course. Players can also swap to third-person to use melee attacks and run faster (with Stranger going beast-mode and running on all fours at top speed). Like the bosses, Stranger also has a stamina bar, which is used for the melee attacks and, interestingly, to heal. Instead of finding health around the place, the player simply needs to hold a button for Stranger to “shake off” the damage at the expense of stamina. That may sound like another overpowered element, but you’d be surprised how many times you can still manage to bite the bullet as you wait for your stamina to replenish during a gunfight.

Like Abe and Munch, Stranger can communicate with NPCs. Due to the game’s heavier focus on action, “gamespeak” has been streamlined to a single button, with Stranger simply asking what he needs to for information (or to remind the player what they’re supposed to be doing, if there’s no NPC present).

The structure of the game is simple enough. Go to the bounty store, accept a job, head out to find your target, take out his gang and eventually the boss himself (usually cumulating in a big shootout with the boss and his gang, or a more traditional boss fight). After you’ve exhausted a town of its outlaws, you move onto the next and do the same. Sometimes, you’ll even have an option as to which job you want to take at which time. And just before the formula might start to feel repetitious, the game throws a huge curveball at the player, and though the core gameplay remains intact, the structure changes drastically.

I won’t give away any spoilers, but you could say that Stranger’s Wrath is divided into three acts: Act one comprises of the first two towns and their bounties. The second act is the third town, where the game gets considerably bigger. And act three comprises of everything post-shift.

Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it should be noted that the twist the game takes has been a talking point ever since the game’s 2005 release. Some love it as an all-time great gaming twist that benefits the story of Stranger’s Wrath, while others feel the game becomes far more linear after the twist. While I can understand the complaints of the latter category, and may even personally prefer the more game-focused first two acts as opposed to the story-based third, I find myself siding more with the more positive outlook of the twist. So many games want to be everything (a trend that started in the generation of Stranger’s Wrath, which saw the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls, and has only become more extreme in the years since), but they end up lacking a definitive purpose. It’s refreshing to come across a title like Stranger’s Wrath that knows exactly what it wants to be, and executes it so well.

Though I will admit I have two issues with the game’s post-twist timeframe: the first is that (again, without spoiling anything), it becomes much easier to get a hold of more ammo, which takes away some of the uniqueness that hunting it down has in the earlier parts of the game. The second is that each of the Live Ammunition types (save the Zapflies) get an upgrade during this section. That may sound cool, but the issue I have is that I kind of like the functions of some of the un-upgraded ammo better, but once it gets the upgrade, you can’t switch it back. Given the direction the game goes, these changes make sense. But it would be nice to have the option to use the tools at play the same way you did up to that point.

Though it may be something of a shooter, I actually think the best game to compare Stranger’s Wrath to would be another beloved 2005 title: Shadow of the Colossus.

Like Colossus, Stranger is a story-driven game in which the game drives the story. Some may complain that these titles are “too linear” or that “they don’t have enough for the player to do other than the main objectives.” But to complain about such things is kind of missing the point of these types of games. While today, we have the dreaded “walking simulator” (first-person games with minimal gameplay in which the player simply walks through the story), Stranger, like Colossus, tells its story through a game. Perhaps it’s not quite on the same level of “a story only a video game could tell” as something like Undertale. But like Colossus, Stranger is the combination of gameplay and narrative done right.

It’s impressive how Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath both deviates away from the series’ past while also somehow managing to fit right in to their established world. The only returning creatures of Oddworld’s past are the aforementioned Fuzzles, and the doctor who plans to perform Stranger’s operation, who is a member of the Vykker species introduced in Munch’s Oddysee. There’s not so much as a mention of Mudokons, Glukkons or Sligs. The townsfolk are all featherless chicken people called Clakkers, while a tribe of natives, salamander-like creatures called Grubbs, also show up. Meanwhile, the outlaws Stranger hunts down are an assortment of goblins, dinosaurs and slugs (their specific species are still unnamed, though it’s pretty cool how the game utilizes a consistent batch of creature designs for a varied assortment of baddies). It’s the right kind of franchise reinvention, which of course makes the series’ extended absence after Stranger’s release all the more heartbreaking.

There are a couple of areas in which Stranger’s Wrath may show a bit of age. Namely, the jumping definitely feels very “mid-2000s action game” in that it feels a little slow and awkward. This can make some moments that implement a bit of platforming feel a bit less than ideal. It should also be noted that there are some technical issues with the game, particularly in the Steam release I played for this review (the achievements are notably buggy in this version, but I suppose that’s only an issue if you’re really into those kinds of things). There were also a few graphical errors during some in-game cinematics (I actually beat the game twice ahead of this review, and while most of these graphical hiccups only showed up in one playthrough or the other, one particularly funny moment happened during both).

I used an Xbox One controller for my playthroughs, and it has to be said that whatever the default controller settings are on Steam for Stranger’s Wrath are dumbfounding. I admit I was worried for a brief moment that maybe Stranger was always just a mess a to control, and the game itself didn’t live up to my memories of it. Thankfully, a quick internet search gave me the instructions I needed to reconfigure the control setup to feel more like it original release, putting my concerns to rest. Stranger’s Wrath has also been made available for the Playstation 3 and, most recently, Nintendo Switch. I’ve heard the PS3 version lacks the technical bugs of the Steam version, and I’m assuming the Switch version follows suite. So those might be more ideal ways to play Stranger’s Wrath today, but none of the bugs found in the Steam version interfere with gameplay in the way those of Munch’s Oddysee did. So if you reconfigure the control setup for the Steam version it’s still plenty playable.

And play it you should! Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, like Shadow of the Colossus, is one of those games that quietly received praise for its originality, but went under the radar in its initial release. Whereas Shadow of the Colossus eventually went from being recognized as a cult classic into an all-time great, Stranger’s Wrath has unfortunately never broken through that glass ceiling that Oddworld has sadly been under since day one. In a more perfect world, Stranger’s Wrath would have ascended right alongside Shadow of the Colossus. Here’s hoping that one of these re-releases will eventually see Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath takes its place on the pedestal it’s always deserved.

9

Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee Review

*Review based on the updated Steam release of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee*

The Oddworld series has had a turbulent development history. Originally envisioned as a five-part “Quintology,” the series quickly expanded to include “bonus games,” after the success of the first entry in the series, Abe’s Oddysee, lead to the development of an unplanned direct follow-up, Abe’s Exoddus. The second “proper” installment in the Quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, would then see a number of road bumps in its own development. Originally planned as a Playstation 2 exclusive, all the work developer Oddworld Inhabitants made for that version of Munch went out the window and had to be rebuilt from the ground up when the game transitioned to the Xbox. And with the pressure of releasing Munch’s Oddysee as a launch title for Microsoft’s then-new home console, many of the ideas and concepts series creator Lorne Lanning and company had for Munch had to be trimmed down, cut short, or removed entirely.

It should be no surprise that Munch’s Oddysee is widely accepted as the worst entry in the series by both fans and critics then. Even Lorne Lanning has publicly expressed his disappointment with the finished product on numerous occasions. Munch’s reception would shift Oddworld Inhabitants’ focus onto a bonus game once again, as the next Oddworld entry, Stranger’s Wrath, was created with the intention of separating itself from Munch’s Oddysee as much as possible.

That was the end of the line for Oddworld for a good while. The series would end up having more cancelled and unrealized games than it did actual releases. Squeek’s Oddysee, the planned third entry in the Quintology, was never released, nor were multiplayer title The Hand of Odd or the spiritual sequel to Stranger’s Wrath, The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot. It wasn’t until 2014 with the release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty – a remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee – that the series would return. At that point, Oddworld Inhabitants chose to reboot the series, using the remake as a launching pad to start things over. 2021 will see the release of SoulStorm, a “complete re-imagining” of Abe’s Exoddus which is now being reworked as the second installment of the Quintology, effectively making Munch’s Oddysee completely non-canon (Stranger has hopefully escaped this fate, given how little it had to do with the previous games anyway).

It probably didn’t help the game’s reputation when the four Oddworld titles were bundled together on Steam in 2010, with the port of Munch suffering from so many bugs and glitches that it continued to receive patches and updates all the way into 2016.

Playing Munch’s Oddysee today, twenty years after it debuted alongside the original XBox in 2001, its shortcomings have only been magnified. It’s a shame, because in terms of ideas, Munch’s Oddysee has no shortage of creativity. But it’s now more obvious than ever at how all these ideas were only partly realized. The sacrifices made in its development make Munch’s Oddysee feel like a series of missed opportunities and lost potential.

The titular Munch of the game is a Gabbit, an amphibious creature with a large head and a single leg. Actually, Munch is believed to be the very last Gabbit, as the species became popular hunting game for their eggs (considered a delicacy by the Glukkons, Oddworld’s dominant species of businessmen), and for their powerful lungs, which are compatible with most of Oddworld’s other species (with Glukkons being such heavy smokers, Gabbit lungs come in handy). Gabbits were also used for experimentations by Vykkers (who are under Glukkons but above most other creatures in the Oddworld pecking order, filling the roles of scientists and doctors).

Unfortunately for Munch, he ends up kidnapped by a couple of Vykkers, who perform a series of experiments on the poor Gabbit, installing a sonar device onto his head. Munch manages to escape the lab with the help of the Fuzzles – small, round creatures that look like fuzzy versions of those old chicken McNuggets characters – another popular subject of Vykker experimentation.

Meanwhile, original Oddworld hero Abe returns, being instructed by a being known as “The Almighty Raisin” to find the last Gabbit. With the help of Munch, Abe can rescue more of his enslaved Mudokon brothers. And with Abe’s help, Munch might just be able to track down the last known can of “Gabbiar” (Gabbit eggs), and save his species from extinction.

Munch’s Oddysee obviously continues the series’ environmental themes, but it’s pretty apparent early on that much of the story didn’t make it into the final game, with a number of plot elements feeling rushed or forgotten. The plot also gets a little silly later on, with Abe and Munch trying to make a particularly “lazy and incompetent Glukkon” wealthy, so that Abe can use his telepathy on said Glukkon to win the Gabbit eggs at an auction (why Abe and Munch can’t just sneak into the auction and possess whoever happened to win it is a detail that maybe needed some explanation).

It seems Munch’s Oddysee fully embraces the more comical and cartoonish aspects of Oddworld, which isn’t a bad thing in an of itself, but it’s a bit sad to see the series’ darker and more gruesome elements disappear, as it’s that combination of grimness and cartoonish antics that help make Oddworld feel so unique. Even the environments look brighter and more colorful than in Abe’s solo outings.

Whereas the “Abe” titles were 2D puzzle-platformers, Munch’s Oddysee took things into the 3D platformer route. Perhaps the shift to 3D was another hurdle for Oddworld Inhabitants (aside from Nintendo with Super Mario 64, can you name a developer who got 3D right in their first go?), though credit where it’s due, Munch’s Oddysee had some innovative ideas for the genre that still feel unique all these years later.

Notably, both Abe and Munch are distinct characters not just in appearance, but in gameplay as well. Abe can move faster and jump higher on land, but is unable to swim. Meanwhile, Munch may be slower by default, but he can find wheelchairs to move faster, and is a capable swimmer to boot. Abe can once again possess enemies, while Munch – using the sonar device in his head – can hack into machines to control them. Abe still communicates with his fellow Mudokons, with the native Mudokons becoming soldiers that can go into battle in place of the defenseless Abe, and can even be upgraded to have melee and ranged weapons (giving the game a light RTS twist). Munch, meanwhile, can free Fuzzles from their cages, and can similarly command the vicious creatures against enemies.

I love all of the gameplay ideas in concept. Sadly, none of them feel like they reach their full potential. What’s even worse is that, despite being Munch’s game, he definitely feels like he gets the short end of the stick between the playable duo.

Due to the shift in 3D, Abe’s chanting now works differently here, requiring the use of “Spooce Shrubs” to produce a telepathic light, which the player then controls until it finds an enemy or runs out of time (you can use up to 10 Spooce to make the light last longer). Not only is the Spooce found everywhere, but Abe can instantly regrow a shrub after picking it up, which Munch can’t do. And even though there are still moments that prevent Abe from chanting, there are far more opportunities for him to possess enemies than there are for Munch to hack into machines, which only happens on a few occasions. There are even more than a few moments where you can cheese your way through a stage by using Abe’s possession abilities to clear an area of its foes, instead of working through the level the way I think it was intended given the layout (I can’t help but feel Oddworld Inhabitants intended to include the drones that prevent Abe’s chanting in these segments, but just forgot to include them).

There are also more levels that include Mudokon soldiers than Fuzzles, and as stated, you can upgrade the Mudokons (once again using Spooce), but the Fuzzles lack variety or advancements. The Fuzzles also have trouble keeping up with Munch when he’s on his wheelchair, nor can they follow him into the water, effectively making his soldiers much less useful than Abe’s, on top of already being less interesting.

It’s things like this that make Munch feel underdeveloped from a gameplay standpoint. He’s a cute little fella (well, as cute as anything in Oddworld could possibly be, anyway), but I feel like Oddworld Inhabitants could have done the character better had they settled on one idea for him, like his preference for water. If Munch had some kind of aquatic soldiers and had water-based puzzles to solve, his gameplay would probably feel a lot more fleshed out. The developers should have leaned into the idea of Munch’s amphibian nature, instead of throwing in the sonar device and hacking and Fuzzles. Munch is a Jack of all trades, but a master of none, whereas Abe’s gameplay is more concrete (albeit his jumping feels pretty awkward this time around). As a result, Munch feels like the sidekick of his own game.

Of course, the concept of “too many ideas and not knowing what to do with them” kind of sums up Munch’s Oddysee as a whole. Abe’s Exoddus also had a rushed development, but because Oddworld Inhabitants knew what it was (a bigger, better sequel to Abe’s Oddysee), the end result was fantastic. Munch’s Oddysee feels like Lorne Lanning and company had a lot of ideas for the game, but didn’t settle on any one of them by the time development was pressured into meeting the XBox’s launch.

I can’t help but feel the way to go for Munch’s Oddysee was to build on the “3D platformer meets RTS” aspect (with Abe on land and Munch in water). The game just isn’t nearly as interesting in the levels that are absent of the Mudokon and Fuzzle soldiers. It tries to implement puzzles like in Abe’s titles, but these puzzles quickly become repetitious. One notably lackluster stage is literally just Abe doing some platforming to reach switches to open doors so Munch can pass through repeatedly. Another requires Abe to possess a “Big Bro Slig” to take out the other Slig soldiers in the stage, without informing the player that the Sligs in this particular stage respawn numerous times, and you have to exhaust their respawns in order to make things safe for Abe and Munch. That’s just tedious and cryptic.

There are other examples of shortcuts and cut corners taken: Paramites and Scrabs reappear for one level apiece, but they feel like token appearances this time around, instead of part of Oddworld’s unique setting (they even act identical in this game, further devaluing their appearance). Even the stages and their progression feel unfinished, with levels ending simply by having Abe and Munch stand on pads with their faces on them, which takes players directly into a loading screen and then immediately throwing them into the next stage (I have nothing against linear structures in games, but surely a world map at the very least would make the game feel far less fragmented).

Despite the years of fixes and patches the PC version of Munch’s Oddysee went through, I still experienced some notable bugs during my playthrough for this review. Three in particular stood out: the camera in the game is already more than a little messy, but when it was meant to focus on a particular object for a key moment in a stage (like unlocking a door after solving a puzzle), it would seemingly lose all control before only kind of focusing on the intended object. The second involved possessing enemies, as the ball of light that Abe conjures when he chants would sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) only move when jumping. Finally, the most confusing bug involved the run button. Normally Abe and Munch just walk when using the control stick, and you need to hold a button to make them run. But in some stages, it was the opposite, and the characters ran by default, and walked when I held the run button.

Whether or not bugs such as those were present in the original Xbox release, I can’t remember. Either Munch’s Oddysee was always a much more technically flawed game than I remembered, or the PC port is still a mess after years of fixes. Either way, it doesn’t help the game’s reputation as the low point in the Oddworld series.

I love Oddworld. It’s one of gaming’s most unique settings, as interesting as its creatures are ugly. And it delved into deeper lore and worldbuilding long before that became commonplace in popular culture. But it’s also a series whose creative ambitions have often been out of reach for what its developers could realistically achieve (and what its publishers were willing to do). That’s evidenced by the unfinished nature of the original Quintology, and the numerous cancelled games besides. But it’s perhaps epitomized through Munch’s Oddysee, a game chock-full of brilliant concepts that end up haphazardly realized.

4

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus*

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more grateful for the save feature in a video game than I am for that of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. The original Oddworld title, 1997’s Abe’s Oddysee, is a unique puzzle-platforming experience whose gameplay and imagination stand the test of time. But it’s also hard as all Hell, and only saves your progress at widely spread out checkpoints, making its trial-and-error moments needlessly time consuming as you inch closer and closer to victory with every attempt, but have to start a sequence all over again whenever Abe gets shot, chopped up, flattened or blown to smithereens.

Thank Odd then, that Abe’s Exoddus, the unplanned 1998 sequel, implemented a quick save feature. You can now pause the game, and either save your progress on any screen (resuming your progress from that point when you restart the game), or you can quick save at literally any time to respawn in that exact spot when you die. And should you be a jackass and quicksave right before an impending death (something my younger self enjoyed doing a little too much), you can select the “restart path” option to go back to a checkpoint. To cap off this streamlining of saving, when you load your game, your most recent save file will always be on the top of the pile, in contrast to the first game listing them in alphabetical order by area (with the areas being listed as abbreviations, which could make things tricky).

This alone makes Abe’s Exoddus a vast improvement over Oddysee. But the improvements don’t stop there. Exoddus is a much bigger game than its predecessor, with just about every element of Oddysee being expanded upon in fun and meaningful ways.

It’s something of a shock then, when you gain the knowledge the game was entirely developed – from planning stages to release – in a relatively short nine months. After Abe’s Oddysee – the first installment in the planned five-part Oddworld Quintology -became a surprise hit, developer Oddworld Inhabitants was pressured into making a sequel to meet the next holiday season. With a short timeframe to make a new game, Oddworld Inhabitants held back on the second Quintology entry (Munch’s Oddysee), and decided to make a direct sequel to Abe’s Oddysey which could use the same assets and thus shortening development time to meet their deadline.

Series creator (and voice actor for basically every character) Lorne Lanning made no secret of what a nightmare he thought this rushed development process was, and how it burned out the development team. Though that’s an understandable reaction from the game’s creators given the circumstances, they should at least take solace in knowing that their efforts paid off. Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus was not only an improvement over Oddysee is pretty much every way, but was also one of the best games to be released on the original Playstation console. And due to the adjustments and additions it made to the formula, it has stood the test of time a lot stronger than its predecessor.

The game begins immediately after the events of the first game. Abe, the Mudokon savior who rescued his fellow slaves from becoming minced meat from Rupture Farms, has a vision from long-dead Mudokon spirits (humorously named “the Three Weirdos” in the game). The Weirdos inform Abe that sacred Mudokon burial grounds are being disturbed, and the bones of their ancestors are being dug up by unknowing Mudokon slaves (their eyes have been sown shut, so they don’t know what they’re digging) under the SoulStorm Brewery corporation (Mudokon bones being the secret ingredient for the brew).

So Abe sets out with a few friends to liberate more Mudokon slaves and save the sanctity of their dead. That’s easier said than done, however, as the destruction of Rupture Farms has made Abe public enemy number one to the Glukkons, whose many corporations are now under heavier security.

Although Abe’s Exoddus uses the same engine and assets as the first game, pretty much everything has been given more depth and variety. While the first game had ninety-nine Mudokon slaves to rescue, Exoddus expands that number to three-hundred. The player can still use the “gamespeak” feature to communicate with these Mudokons, but now Abe has more things to say, and certain Mudokons will require different interactions.

Along with the “hello,” “follow me” and “wait” commands from the first game, Abe can also say “sorry,” “stop it,” “work” and even slap a Mudokon in the face. Sorry is used to apologize to depressed and angry Mudokons, while stop it is used if they are bickering amongst each other. Work is used to have them help out when a problem requires multiple sets of hands (like multiple switches needing to be pulled in unison to open a door), and to have them resume their duties when a Slig guard passes by, to avoid suspicion. Finally, the slap is used on Mudokons who have been exposed to laughing gas, and are recklessly running around in need of a good slapping. There are also the aforementioned blind Mudokons, who rely solely on Abe’s voice and can’t follow the character himself, making for some notably tricky moments.

Best of all, however, is the “All of ya” command. In Abe’s Oddysee, many moments could grow tedious if they included multiple Mudokons, as you would have to talk to each one individually, and often have to repeat a process as many times as there were Mudokons in the area. But with the All of Ya command, you simply get the attention of every Mudokon on screen. Like the new save features, it’s the best kind of streamlining.

Of course, Abe still has his chanting, which is not only used to open portals to free slaves, but also allows Abe to telepathically control enemies. In Oddysee, Abe could only control Sligs, using them to infiltrate enemy lines and utilize their fire power, since Abe himself can’t attack. in Exoddus, there are also flying Sligs that can be controlled, which come in handy as the traditional Sligs can’t jump. Wild Paramites and Scrabs can also be controlled by Abe this time around, and it’s clever how the game utilizes their established behaviors from the first game for the sake of gameplay (Paramites attack in packs, so you can communicate with others when they’re under your control, whereas Scrabs are extremely territorial, and will fight each other on site). Later in the game, Abe can even possess Glukkons! Though the Glukkons aren’t built for fighting (under their suits they walk with their long arms, like Sebulba from The Phantom Menace), Sligs will do whatever they say without hesitation or suspicion. And of course, Glukkons can access important areas that no one else can, due to their high standing in Oddworld.

Perhaps strangest of all, however, is that Abe has the ability to possess his own farts. Yes, Abe could fart in the first game, but more as a pointless joke (and the occasional game of “Simon Says” which utilized the voice commands). But here, Abe’s flatulence have more utilitarian use in gameplay. If Abe comes across a SoulStorm Brew vending machine, he can have a drink which will fuel his next fart. If Abe farts after drinking a brew, said fart will explode where it stands within a few short seconds. But if Abe chants within that time, he can possess the fart, and use it to find enemies, bombs or drones (which prevent chanting and possession) and blow them up with it. Admittedly, it’s a little weird within the context of the story that Abe would drink the brew (though I suppose it’s a “using their own weapon against them for the greater good” kind of thing), but the fart control does give Abe a fitting means to attack without taking away the puzzle-solving strategy.

Like its predecessor, there are still a number of moments in Abe’s Exoddus where it really feels like the developers packed on the trial-and-error with some of the puzzles, and there are some secret areas with hidden Mudokons that you can miss (in my review of Abe’s Oddysee, I complained that there are a couple of hidden areas hiding behind large, obstructive objects in the foreground, but there’s at least one such secret in Exoddus that’s hiding behind a barely obstructive object in the foreground, which is probably even more annoying). But these elements aren’t nearly as frustrating as they were in the first game due to the aforementioned save feature. You can literally save after each individual step of a puzzle if you want (the quicksave is instantaneous to boot), and if you miss a secret, you can more easily load a previous save file to find it (though if you’re going for 100% completion, I recommend having a guide or walkthrough handy, because you wouldn’t want to undo too much of your progress just to backtrack to one secret). So even though some of Oddysee’s drawbacks are still present, they are much more tolerable this time around thanks to the improved saving.

Video games are an art form, I don’t know why that’s ever in dispute. But video games are at their strongest artistically when they embrace their game-ness. The first two Oddworld titles may be the most overt example of this. Oddworld was one of the earlier example of a video game pushing the narrative merits of the medium (with its environmental and sociopolitical themes). While Abe’s Exoddus may have come about due to commercial demand as opposed to Oddysee’s more inspired creation, the sequel is by far the superior work because it’s a better game. I think there’s a lesson a lot of today’s developers could learn there.

8

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee*

In 1997, an odd little game arrived on the Sony Playstation by the name of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Developed by the aptly-named studio Oddworld Inhabitants, Abe’s Oddysee was planned to be the first installment in the five-part Oddworld Quintology (yes, Pentology is the proper term for a five-part series, but quintology just sounds better, I suppose). The game was a surprising critical success, and even performed commercially well. Though additional Oddworld games would follow, only the second installment in the quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, was produced (the other two Oddworld titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath, were considered “bonus” games that built on Oddworld’s mythology). Oddworld Inhabitants had notorious relationships with publishers, and eventually left the gaming scene for close to a decade, before they returned with a remake of Abe’s Oddysee titled “New N’ Tasty” in 2014, to start the series over.

The Oddworld Quintology may be continuing anew, but it’s a shame the original vision of the series never came to light, because Abe’s Oddysee certainly got things off to a great start. In many ways, Abe’s Oddysee was ahead of its time, with gameplay that still feels unique to this day, and an equally unique world to go with it. Though it has to be said that the experience of playing Abe’s Oddysee today is hampered a fair bit by a steep difficulty curve (including some outright cheap moments that go against what the game instills in the player early on), which is made all the more difficult by a convoluted save feature.

The story is set on the titular planet Oddworld, and the game does a pretty terrific job at giving the player a good insight into its world with very little exposition. Rupture Farms is the biggest meat processing plant on Oddworld, and slaughters the creatures of the planet with reckless abandon (“We used to make Meech Munchies… until the Meeches were through”). In Oddworld, certain species are born into different social classes, and Rupture Farms is no exception: at the top of the pecking order are Glukkons, suit-wearing, cigar-smoking businessmen. Sligs are miserable creatures that are born to be the hired guns for the Glukkons. And at the bottom of the totem pole are the Mudokons – humanoid creatures that looks like a cross between Gollum and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the 90’s movies – who have become slaves to the Glukkons’ many corporations.

Abe is one such Mudokon working for Rupture Farms, notable for being more blueish-gray than the Mudokons’ usual green coloring. Late one night when waxing the floors, Abe passes by the boardroom, and curiosity gets the best of him. He listens in on a board meeting, where the Glukkons are discussing Rupture Farms’ decreasing sales. The Paramites and Scrabs – Rupture Farms’ most popular meat sources – are starting to turn up thin. But CEO Mullock has a “great” idea for a new product: Mudokon pops, which are little more than Mudokon heads stabbed on a stick (at least in the US version. International versions of the game censor it as a popsicle shaped like a Mudokon head, which lessens the impact). Horrified at the fate the Gluckons have planned for him and his fellow Mudokons, Abe hopes to escape from Rupture Farms, and free as many slaves as he can (for gameplay purposes, there are 99 in the game to rescue).

There’s an obvious environmental, sociopolitical element to the game. But what Oddworld managed to do to great effect is expressing these themes without ever feeling self-righteous. It has a good balance of imagination and humor to go along with the political aspects (one button even allows Abe to fart, just because), which prevents the game from feeling too pretentious or in love with itself. There are far more story-heavy games made today (whether artsy indie titles or AAA games that think emulating movies equates to art) that get such praise for their narratives upon their initial release, only to be laughed at as egotistical hot air in hindsight. When you make the comparison to Oddworld, such games end up with even more egg on their face.

In terms of gameplay, Abe’s Oddysey is a puzzle-platformer. Abe is no fighter, and if one Slig catches him he’s toast in a second’s time. But Abe has some tricks up his sleeve: he can sneak and hide in shadows, roll into small spaces and, crucially, he can chant to telepathically possess Sligs.

The chant is also used to open portals to free your fellow Mudokons, but it’s only one of several voice commands Abe can make. Abe can also communicate with Mudokons with “hello!” “follow me!” and “wait” (as well as the aforementioned fart, which makes both Mudokons and Sligs giggle). This is important because, once puzzles are solved and the dangers are gone, Abe will have to guide Mudokons to the nearest portal. This “gamespeak” was truly innovative in its day, though there’s an unfortunate caveat in that Abe can only guide one Mudokon at a time, which makes certain moments with multiple Mudokons more than a little tedious (it should be no surprise that Abe’s Exoddus, as well as the remake, fixed this and allowed Abe to communicate with groups).

Another issue with the game is when the focus becomes more action-based (mostly in the middle section of the adventure, when Abe is often chased by wild Paramites and Scrabs). Abe controls well enough, but he controls well for the slow paced nature of the majority of the game. When things get hectic, and Abe needs to run, jump and roll in quick succession without missing a beat, it just feels off. Abe just isn’t made with the same kind of precision as characters like Mario or Sonic, but these chase sequences often play out as if he does, which makes them feel clunky.

There are additional problems when it comes to rescuing Mudokons. The process itself is simple enough (make sure it’s safe, guide them to a portal, chant to open said portal), but there are several hidden Mudokons that -should you miss them – you don’t get a second chance to rescue. And some of them are hidden in really esoteric places (gee, I never would have thought that there was a hidden room I could climb down to behind the large, obstructing object in the foreground, because why would I?). What’s all the weirder is that the majority of these secret rooms and hidden Mudokons are in the earlier portions of the game, whereas things are more out in the open later on. So these missable Mudokons feel like one big beginner’s trap. You probably wouldn’t think of how you find some of these secret areas until later in the game, long after you’ve missed your chance to rescue the poor souls. I’m not sure if this was intended to incite replay value (with the knowledge you have by the end of the game you can redo the beginning and get everything), but it feels like a cheap means to achieve it.

There are a number of other beginner’s traps in regards to the puzzles. While some of the puzzle solving is clever and leads to genuine “aha!” moments, there are more than a few where the game will feel like it’s throwing one cheap death after another on the player, prolonging certain sections by forcing the player to make only a little more progress with every try. Trial-and-error isn’t unforgiveable in video games, but it certainly isn’t ideal. And sometimes, Abe’s Oddysee just takes things way too far. It’s one thing if the trial-and-error is the result of my own mistakes, but how am I supposed to just know when dropping down a hole will put me right in a Slig’s line of fire, or when I casually stroll to the next screen just to be greeted by a hungry Slog (it’s like a Slig’s dog) two feet in front of me?

Granted, you have unlimited lives, so you can keep trying a section as many times as you need to get it right. But the game can be really stingy with the checkpoints, meaning that sometimes you’ll have to replay decently large sections multiple times over just because of one tricky little detail (what’s worse, if there are secret rooms and Mudokons within that timeframe, you’ll have to rescue them again every time until you reach the next checkpoint). I’m all for a good challenge, but when difficulty teeters into tedium, a game loses me.

On the subject of checkpoints, the save feature is the game’s single biggest drawback. A game this demandingly difficult should at the very least apply checkpoints liberally. Not only are these checkpoints in short supply, but the game actually does have a manual save option in the pause menu, but it still only saves at the checkpoints! I’m guessing this means the checkpoints themselves only save your progress when you die, but not when you quit playing the game, whereas the save option ensures you can reload the game from that checkpoint the next time you play? But then why separate the two? Either just have the checkpoints save the game, or let me save my progress on whatever screen I need to!

To further convolute things, when loading a saved file, the checkpoints are listed in alphabetical order, which isn’t how they appear in the game itself (it’s easy to find the levels themselves, but the checkpoints of the levels are often out of numerical order, which gets confusing). Goodness, why do I have to jump through so many hoops just to save and load my game?

By now things are sounding largely negative, but these drawbacks have merely been magnified with age. I still feel like there’s enough good to make Abe’s Oddysee a worthwhile gaming experience.

The gameplay is unique and fun, especially when you get to possess a Slig and infiltrate the enemy (sometimes there are drones that prevent Abe from chanting to possess a Slig, giving you another obstacle to overcome by finding a way to destroy the drone or luring a Slig away from it). The graphics, while aged, give the game a distinctly dark (sometimes gruesome) atmosphere, as does the music. Abe’s Oddysee was years ahead of its time in regards to merging gameplay and story. But perhaps best of all is Oddworld itself, one of the all-time great video game worlds. So much about the game is dedicated to its worldbuilding, and the world it builds is really unlike any other in the medium.

Better things laid ahead for Oddworld (the two “bonus” titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath were the best entries, oddly enough), and with the series set to continue in 2021 from where the remake left off, better things may still be in its future. And while going back to where it all started may be rough around the edges, it’s still sure to leave an impression.

6

The 2020 Christmas Special/6th Anniversary Celebration

Whoa whoa! Hold up… It’s Christmas already?!

Yes, in this wild, crazy year that at once felt like it was moving at light speed and a snail’s pace all at the same time, we have finally fought our way to the jolliest of days. Thank goodness this miserable year is almost over, here’s to a happy, healthy 2021.

And with that…

Merry Christmas!

Happy Hanukkah!

Happy Kwanza!

Happy Festivus!

Merry Decemberween!

Happy Rusev Day!

Happy holidays to everyone! Whatever you celebrate, I hope you have a great one!

December the twenty-fifth is always a means to celebrate the things that are important in life: family, friends, peace on Earth, goodwill to men, curmudgeons like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch learning to not be jerks, and jolly fat guys breaking into houses via chimneys to eat cookies and deliver Playstations.

Ever since 2014, Christmas Day has also been a means to celebrate this site! That’s right, paisanos, Wizard Dojo launched on Christmas Day of 2014. Makes it easy to remember.

So let us now take the time to celebrate this festive season, and by extension my wonderful, wonderful website, with a good dose of nonsense. Is there any better way to celebrate something?

Now let’s get this party started old school, yo!

Continue reading “The 2020 Christmas Special/6th Anniversary Celebration”

I’m Done with Super Smash Bros.

I’m done with Super Smash Bros. That’s it, I’m done with it.

Recently, during the presentation of Sephiroth’s inclusion into Super Smash Bros., they also revealed a host of new Mii Fighter costumes based on Square characters. Most were based on additional Final Fantasy VII characters (because no other Final Fantasy exists, apparently), but then they just had to go and do it… They brought back the Geno Mii Fighter costume.

Yes, despite being the most consistently requested character to join the Super Smash Bros. roster for about two decades now (who hasn’t yet made it), Super Mario RPG’s Geno is once again relegated to a Mii costume. It’s disheartening, to say the least.

Now, Geno is also the character I personally have most wanted to join Super Smash Bros. for quite some time now. However, it isn’t simply Geno being denied as a playable character (again) that has lead to my decision of leaving Super Smash Bros. behind me (though it’s a notable part), but the fact that Geno’s Mii costume status really hits the nail on the head towards something I’ve felt for quite a while now: Super Smash Bros. simply isn’t Super Smash Bros. anymore.

What I mean by that is that Super Smash Bros., at its core, is a Nintendo fighting game. An excuse to bring Mario and Pokemon and Zelda and Metroid together, and provide fanservice to Nintendo’s history. That eventually grew into the broader history of video games once Solid Snake (and later Sonic the Hedgehog) were added to Super Smash Bros. Brawl. But the series still retained its (for lack of a better word) “Nintendo-ness.”

It was really cool at first, to see Super Smash Bros. open its doors to characters outside of Nintendo’s own. The possibilities it opened up seemed staggering. Unfortunately, as time has passed, it’s become increasingly clear that Super Smash Bros’ scope of video game history and fanservice has shrank considerably. What seemed like limitless possibilities has unraveled to become narrower and narrower.

It seems every other Nintendo character that’s added into the mix is another Fire Emblem character (who, if it weren’t for their name plate, I couldn’t differentiate from Marth if I tried). And now, the third party characters are becoming more and more of the same type of character.

I can accept Sephiroth. I understand he’s popular, and I’ll take him over Sora any day. But the fact that Sephiroth is now a character after there have been a few dozen other anime swordfighter characters kind of makes his inclusion mean nothing. He’s just another one on the pile.

Super Smash Bros. is losing its “Nintendo-ness” and basically becoming just another anime fighter, of which there is no shortage of on the market. I mean, seriously, how many anime-looking guys with swords does Super Smash Bros. really need? And it’s funny how people who (inexplicably) defend Sakurai’s every last decision like to use “but there are a lot of Mario and Pokemon characters” as a rebuttal. Yeah, but the Mario and Pokemon characters are at least unique (with maybe one exception apiece). And given that they’re the two biggest video game franchises – Nintendo or otherwise – of all time, I’d say they’ve earned as many characters as they can have.

I mean, where does Fire Emblem place on the Nintendo ladder? Like, the fourth wrung, maybe? I’m not saying it’s bad, but it certainly hasn’t earned having more characters represented in Super Smash Bros. than, oh, I don’t know, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA! It would be like if you went to Disneyland, and instead of Mickey Mouse, Frozen and Lion King characters they had Treasure Planet everywhere. Treasure Planet isn’t bad, but it isn’t one of Disney’s more remembered features. You’d be like “what the hell?”

I know people would think this is just personal bias speaking. But hey, I absolutely love Pikmin, but I don’t think it needs another character in Super Smash Bros. Its representation seems to fit where the series places in Nintendo’s history. This isn’t about personal favorites, it’s about how Super Smash Bros. – a series built around fanservice of video game history – has narrowed down its fanservice to a very specific niche, and isn’t even doing a good job at catering to said niche, considering the variety of Fire Emblem characters they could have as opposed to the ones they’ve chosen (most of which are basically “Marth again”).

Why should Shovel Knight, Bomberman, Goemon, Sans and Isaac – characters who could bring so much variety to both gameplay and in representing video game history – be relegated to Assist Trophies or Mii costumes, while seemingly any blue-haired swordsman from Fire Emblem can make it as playable characters by default? Again, Sakurai’s questionably loyal fanbase always point out “it’s a Japanese game, of course there are anime-looking characters.” But my complaint isn’t that these “anime” characters are there, it’s that it’s always the same type of character being multiplied over and over again these days. Video games, especially Japanese video games, are incredibly versatile and diverse. But you’d never know it if modern Super Smash Bros. additions are what you’re going by.

Seriously, what the hell does Final Fantasy VII have to do with Nintendo? I mean, geez, couldn’t they have at least added Tera or Kefka? Y’know, someone from a Final Fantasy game that was actually on a Nintendo console? But no, here’s more Final Fantasy VII, because that’s the Final Fantasy that appeals to the very specific anime crowd Super Smash Bros. is now catering to.

Look, I don’t dislike anime. I get people riding me all the time about it. In fact I DO like anime. Sometimes even love it. My all-time favorite movie, and probably my biggest creative inspiration, is Spirited Away which, last I checked, qualifies as an anime. I greatly enjoy One Piece, have fond memories of Cowboy Bebop, and so on and so forth. Anime character designs aren’t the problem. But when I can basically sum up the majority of newer Smash Bros. characters as “an anime swordsman” it gets more than a little repetitive.

Anime, like anything else, has good and bad. Notice I haven’t mentioned the Dragon Quest “Hero” character being in Super Smash Bros. Because while he/they are very prominently anime, Akira Toriyama’s character designs stand out. I can distinguish his designs from a crowd. I can’t really say the same about the Fire Emblem characters or Tetsuya Nomura’s Final Fantasy character designs. We’re getting to a point where it feels like these characters are coming off a conveyor belt.

So again, Super Smash Bros. seems to be abandoning its broad fanservice and tributes to video game history and instead is turning into, well, pretty much any other fighting game because of it.

Yeah, Banjo-Kazooie’s inclusion was a beautiful, beautiful thing. The irony is, despite now being owned by Microsoft, that’s the only DLC character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate thus far that actually feels like they belong in Super Smash Bros. (okay, I suppose Min-Min as well, but I think an ARMS character should have been added from the get-go, so her status as DLC still feels overdue).

It’s just not worth getting excited over a new Smash Bros. update anymore. I don’t find myself thinking “oh man, I wonder who the next character is going to be!” so much as “I wonder which anime swordfighter will be in next…” It no longer feels like the Nintendo fighter it once was. And wasn’t that the whole point of the series to begin with? With all due respect, if I want to play an anime-style fighting game, I’ll play pretty much any other fighting game. Again, it’s not these types of characters themselves that’s the problem, rather, that it seems like the series has a blatant favoritism for this type of character.

Why are the only fan requests making the roster these very specific types of anime-style characters? Why are so many potentially great additions shoehorned into Assist Trophy and Mii costume roles? It’s just not fun anymore. Maybe it is for fans of those anime-style games, and good for them. But it seems less and less diverse players are being considered when it comes to who gets listened to.

I remember how much fun it was waiting for Super Smash Bros. Brawl back in the day, checking its website regularly for updates, and being thrilled when they’d announce a King Dedede or a Diddy Kong or even an Ike (again, back then the series wasn’t oversaturated with such characters). Brawl seems retroactively looked as as the weakest entry in the Super Smash Bros. series (even though that distinction should belong to the N64 original), but damn, it knew how to make its character additions mean something.

Sure, Steve from Minecraft was a pleasant surprise (even if I don’t have any particular feelings towards Minecraft one way or another, seeing as I haven’t played it yet). But like Banjo, it feels like an isolated incident. Like “we’ll throw this crowd a bone as we prepare the next sword character.” I miss when every addition to Smash Bros. felt the way Banjo-Kazooie or Steve did. Looking forward to the next Smash Bros. character used to be a game in itself. Now, I basically have to look into what the newest Fire Emblem game is and I can guess who’s coming. And if not Fire Emblem, a character who looks like they were cut from the same clothe.

I love Super Smash Bros. More, I love what it is in concept. But that aforementioned “Nintendo-ness” just doesn’t feel present anymore. Even the story modes come across as kind of Kingdom Hearts-esque. I find myself – as a Nintendo fan – feeling left behind by the series. I mean, Sephiroth and Bayonetta can make the cut but not Dixie Kong? It feels so far removed from what Super Smash Bros. used to be at this point. I find that I just can’t get excited about it anymore. Yes, the series is still mechanically competent (I named Ultimate as my Game of the Year for 2018 because of its polished gameplay, though suffice to say I’ve been rethinking that decision for a while now), but its heart and soul feel different.

It’s not a hopeless situation. There are things the series could do to win me over again. But if it keeps going the way it’s going… *Shrug*

Maybe by the time Switch 2 comes out and Nintendo releases Super Smash Bros. 6 (or 7 or whatever, I still don’t know where the series stands with the 3DS/Wii U entries as different games), maybe then the series will go back to the versatility it once had. And maybe then the series will actually make Geno a playable character like fans have been asking for two decades now. But until then, I’m done with Super Smash Bros. I just can’t get excited about it anymore. Maybe some day I’ll make a revised “most wanted characters” list just for the giggles, but seeing as none of my most wanted characters are anime sword guys it’s not like they’d have a chance anyway.

Until Super Smash Bros. reclaims that “Nintendo-ness,” it’s kind of in a similar boat for me as Paper Mario at this point, in that I now get the same “if you’re going to outright give fans the middle finger, why should I care?” feeling from it. Nintendo killed Paper Mario by removing its depth, RPG elements and variety, and now they’ve done the same to Super Smash Bros. by turning a franchise that celebrates video game history into a franchise that panders more and more exclusively to a very specific audience. And if you don’t fit square-peg into that audience, you’re basically left in the cold.

Imagine if you and a group of friends exchanged gifts every year during the holidays. But then, all of a sudden, only one of those friends keeps getting all the gifts. Maybe another friend gets a little trinket or whatever on occasion, but only the one person is getting all the good stuff. That’s kind of what Super Smash Bros. feels like now. It stopped giving gifts to everyone, and decided to pick a favorite at the expense of everyone else.

The recent additions to Super Smash Bros. have left me wondering if I really care about Super Smash Bros. anymore. The reveal that Geno has been relegated to a Mii costume again made me come to a conclusion: I don’t.

Mulan (2020) Review

One of Disney’s more polarized recent trends has been their stream of live-action remakes to their catalogue of animated classics. At first it wasn’t so bad (even if the movies themselves were), with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent being spaced by four calendar years, and both adaptations attempting to put their own spin on the material. But after a while, the sheer amount of these live-action remakes became excessive, and one has to wonder what exactly the point is of remaking movies that are largely considered timeless as is (other than capitalizing on today’s obsession with nostalgia, that is). Is remaking an animated film as a live-action one supposed to make it more legitimate? If that’s the mindset, that not only furthers the unwarranted and ignorant stigma that animated films are somehow not as good as their live-action counterparts, but also would seem self-defeatist on Disney’s part, given that their entire empire is built on their legacy of animated features. When 2019 saw no less than four such live-action remakes (well, the Lion King remake wasn’t actually live-action, but don’t tell that to Disney), suffice to say the live-action Disney remake well seemed drained.

Now, to be fair, not all of these remakes have been bad (I quite enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin), and I’ll take them over those horrible, straight-to-video sequels that tainted the legacies of Disney’s 90’s and early 2000’s output. Still, it can be hard to get too excited for these live-action remakes, no matter how hard Disney might try. And they’ve probably never tried harder with this strange sub-genre than with their 2020 adaptation of Mulan, based on Disney’s 1998 animated film (which, in tern, is based on “The Ballad of Mulan” from Chinese folklore).

From the get-go, Disney seemed to be going the extra mile and putting the extra effort into this particular adaptation, which was a pretty transparent means of trying to win over the Chinese box office, as China has become a major player in worldwide box office numbers over the last decade. Not only did the film encounter its share of controversies ahead of release, but due to the global pandemic of 2020, the film’s theatrical release – originally planned as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of the year – kept getting delayed, with it eventually skipping US theaters outright and heading straight to Disney+ (infamously costing an additional thirty dollars to watch during its first few months on the service). And when Mulan was finally released in China, it not only failed to be the international hit Disney was hoping for, but outright failed in the market Disney was banking on it to succeed in.

But is 2020’s Mulan really as bad as its lackluster performance suggests? Eh, not really. But it’s also not nearly as good as I’m sure Disney was hoping it’d be, either, given how much effort they put into its marketing. 2020’s Mulan is a resoundingly okay-ish film. That of course makes it inferior to the animated film it’s adapting, as that remains one of Disney’s best, but that’s probably expected by this point (I’d argue that only the Jungle Book remake is as good as the original full-stop, though my favorite song from Aladdin admittedly comes from the 2019 remake). But it also isn’t the worst live-action remake Disney has released in recent times.

The film, of course, tells the story of Mulan (Liu Yifei), a young woman in ancient China, who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the Chinese army in order to spare her ailing father (Tzi Ma), who was initially recruited after the Emperor decrees that one male of proper age from every available family must enlist. Mulan, now going under the name “Jun” in her guise as a man, is risking her life both on and off the battlefield. If her true identity is revealed, she will be killed by her own army.

Though the premise remains the same as its 1998 animated predecessor, Mulan makes more notable changes from the original than many of the other Disney remakes. On the plus side, I suppose differentiating itself from the animated film justifies its existence a bit more. On the downside, I think few fans of the original film will appreciate these changes.

Notably, there has been a major change to Mulan herself. Not in her personality or ambitions, but in her abilities, as this Mulan is capable of channeling her “Qi” to perform feats of superhuman agility! Basically, she’s been turned into a Jedi (and not even original trilogy Jedi, which at least would have made sense with its Eastern influence). This change is, well, it’s something…I guess. I don’t exactly understand the reason for the whole Qi aspect to Mulan, except for that it allows her to run up walls, momentarily float, and be able to kick a spear as if it were a bullet firing from a gun, which I guess is the kind of thing you might see in a Chinese action movie. It’s more pandering to the Chinese market, is what I’m getting at.

It just comes off as a bit cheesy, really. The supernatural elements of 2020’s Mulan just feels kind of shoehorned in, and it’s kind of weird how the animated Mulan was more bound by the laws of physics than her live-action counterpart. Also, Mulan has a younger sister in this adaptation named Xiu (Xana Tang), though she doesn’t really play a role in the story, so I’m not sure what the point of the addition is.

Fans of the ’98 film may also be disappointed to learn that Li Shang, Mulan’s commanding officer who became her love interest by the end of the original film, is not present. His role is taken over by two new characters: the stern Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and Chen (Yoson An), an ambitious soldier who fills the romantic interest role. The filmmakers claim the change was made because the idea of a commanding officer falling for one of his soldiers seemed “inappropriate,” but I have to wonder if they remembered the animated film very well, seeing as it was Mulan who was always crushing on Li Shang, and the latter didn’t fall for Mulan until the end of the movie and the war was over. Maybe I’m being too technical. Or maybe the filmmakers of the 2020 film are. Or maybe everyone is.

At least this remake still includes Ling, Yao and Chien-Po (Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang and Doua Moua), so there is some direct adaptation from the animated film here. It’s perhaps appropriate that this loudmouth trio also provide the most overt references to the 1998 film (“It doesn’t matter what she wears or what she looks like. It only matters what she cooks like!”). Though for reasons I don’t understand, the cute little cricket from the original movie has been changed into a human character named Cricket (Jun yu). So that’s a thing.

Even the villains have received an overhaul. Instead of an army of Huns, we have the Rouran. In place of the hulking Shan Yu from the animated film, we have a duo of primary villains: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the Rouran army, and Xianniang (Gong Li), a witch whose powerful Qi enables her to shapeshift. As much as I love the animated film, I don’t think anything is really lost with this change in villains. Shan Yu looked intimidating, but as a character he was pretty interchangeable with any of his high-ranking henchmen.

Now for the question most fans of the animated film had during the lead-up to the 2020 film: Is Mushu in the live-action Mulan?

The answer to that is, quite simply, no.

I understand this is a deal-breaker for a lot of fans, though I’m going to break a few hearts and say I can live with or without Mushu. I don’t dislike the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon from the original, but he was another transparent attempt at Disney trying to replicate the magic they concocted with Aladdin’s Genie. I think Mushu was a better attempt than some of his predecessors like Timon and Pumbaa or the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but after a while it kind of got tiring how the sidekick characters in Disney movies were purposefully designed to be more popular than the main characters.

Still, I suppose I can see where people are coming from with their longing for comic relief. While I detest the internet generation’s dismissal of anything that “takes themselves too seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s trying to tell), I also understand that taking one’s self seriously doesn’t mean you can’t also be funny and joyous. The Disney animated films understand this. But this Mulan seems so hellbent on being taken seriously (again, being a means to try and win over the Chinese market by removing an “American element” like Mushu), that it seems to shun the concepts of humor and joy. Even the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Po get limited screentime.

So Mushu isn’t in the movie, but he has something of a quasi-replacement in the form of a phoenix, Mulan’s family’s guardian. But the phoenix doesn’t talk or anything, so it’s not really a worthy character replacement and more like a visual element that vaguely plays the same role. Also, on a side note, this is the second time one of these live-action Disney remakes has replaced a dragon with a phoenix, with the first being 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Maleficent no longer turns into a dragon, she turns into a phoenix. Mushu isn’t allowed in the new Mulan, but a phoenix is. I don’t know what that’s about. Is a flaming bird that resurrects itself somehow more realistic than a fire-breathing lizard or serpentine spirit? But I digress.

Another issue with this Mulan is that, much like The Lion King remake, the film is a whole half-hour longer than the animated feature that inspired it, yet somehow its story feels more rushed. It’s perhaps a credit to the storytelling abilities of Disney’s animators that they can create 90 minute movies that still feel like they take their time to establish story and character. These live-action remakes feel like so many key elements just zoom on by, that by the end of things I’m left wondering how they made it to the two hour mark.

Okay, I’m sounding largely dismissive. But 2020’s Mulan isn’t a total bust: the acting is strong, and helps give the film the proper emotional weight. Visually speaking, 2020’s Mulan is also very pleasant to look at, with great costumes and sets (though I could do without some of the obvious green screen bits). This Mulan remake retains just enough Disney charm to keep it afloat. But “just enough” might be the key words here, and for these live-action remakes on the whole.

I fully admit I had some good fun watching this version of Mulan. But you know what’s considerably more fun? Watching the animated original. But hey, it still beats the straight-to-video Mulan II. Let us speak no more of that.

5

Super Mario World and Super Nintendo Turn 30!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the original release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan, and along with it, Super Mario World.

With all the hullaballoo Nintendo is (understandably) making for the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., they’ve been strangely quiet about this moments anniversary. As far as I’m concerned, the Super NES is the most timeless console of all time. While the original NES has earned its place in video game history, playing it today, it does feel like a product of its time, save for a few exceptions (Mario, Mega Man, Kirby). Similarly, the Nintendo 64 pioneered and revolutionized 3D gaming. But testing new waters meant that not everything about the N64 has held up swimmingly, and again, with a few exceptions (Mario, Zelda, Banjo, Starfox and Kirby), the Nintendo 64 can also feel a bit like a relic.

The Super NES, on the other hand, hit that sweet spot. The culmination of everything game design had learned up to that point, polished and refined. The SNES continued classic gameplay and franchises, while introducing hosts of new ones, and made them all better than ever. And beyond all expectations, the classics of the SNES haven’t aged a day. It really did earn the monicker of “Super.”

More specifically, let’s talk about Super Mario World. The best video game launch title of all time, Super Mario World is at once synonymous with the Super Nintendo, and also one of the rare games whose reputation might just transcend its console (certainly no small feat, given the console in question). I mean, Super Mario World is just the definition of a classic. You don’t really think of the year of release or the era in question when it comes to Super Mario World. It’s simply a perennial classic that stands on its own.

Super Mario Bros. 3 may have perfected what Super Mario Bros. started, but Super Mario World somehow perfected that perfection. Brilliant level design, repayable levels, secret exits and hidden worlds, Super Mario World effectively created the difference between simply getting to the end of a game, and completing it 100%. You could also speedrun it and try to best it in as few levels as possible if you wanted. Basically, while NES titles and prior video games were all about high scores and finding the fastest way to get to the end, Super Mario World created the broader options of how you could complete a game. Both speed runners and completionists owe Super Mario World more than a little thanks.

And, of course, who could forget the introduction of Yoshi! Mario’s cute little dinosaur sidekick quickly became Nintendo’s second most popular character (sorry Luigi). Yoshi even starred in Super Mario World’s 1995 prequel, Yoshi’s Island, and went on to star in franchises of his own.

Like the Super Nintendo itself, Super Mario World felt like a refinement of of its predecessors, with Nintendo adding new and creative ideas around every corner. A classic in every sense of the word.

As an added bonus, November 21st also serves as the anniversaries of the original releases of Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2 (DKC3 misses the mark by one day). So you could rightfully call November 21st “Super Nintendo Day” (which I very much do). DKC was released on this day twenty-six years ago, while DKC2 celebrates its big twenty-fifth anniversary today. As an added bonus to said added bonus, Donkey Kong Country Returns was released on the Wii ten years ago today, to commemorate the sixteenth anniversary of the original DKC… How the hell is Donkey Kong Country Returns a decade old already?

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Happy Super Nintendo Day, everybody! And a very happy 30th to Super Mario World! Wahoo!

Super Mario Bros. 35 Review

Nintendo is (rightfully) going all out with their celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of Super Mario Bros. Between re-releases, compilations, and new games, Nintendo is showing a lot of love to their premiere franchise. Among these celebratory games is a new take on the perennial classic itself, Super Mario Bros.

Aptly titled Super Mario Bros. 35, the game is a battle royal-ified remix of the NES classic in a similar vein to what Tetris 99 did to the other most influential video game in history. Super Mario Bros. 35 drops the fitting number of thirty-five players into their own game of Super Mario Bros. But every player is only given a single life, so one wrong move and you’re out of the game. Being a battle royal, the aim is to outlast every other player and be the last Mario standing.

Sounds simple enough, but there are some fun twists added into the mix to keep things fresh, the most obvious being your ability to hinder other players. Your game is of course the most prominent on the screen, but you can see the other thirty-four players’ progress on smaller displays across the screen. You can manually target a specific player by highlighting their screen, or you can target those in a specific category like who has the most coins. Every time you defeat an enemy, that baddie is sent to the targeted player or players. This means that while the game may start out looking like a traditional game of Super Mario Bros., as it goes on you’ll start seeing hoards of enemies in places you wouldn’t expect. World 1-1 becomes a lot more terrifying when waves of Lakitu and Bloopers start invading.

The other big difference is that the levels are in a random order. Though you’ll start your first game in the traditional world 1-1 then move on to 1-2, it won’t take long before the stages start to come out of order and throw a curveball at your progress.It’s quite an unexpected challenge when you finish a stage from world 2 one minute, and then are immediately thrown into a stage from world 7. Once you’ve played a stage, it becomes unlocked to select ahead of time. Though I’m not exactly sure what selecting the stage does, since it seems I still start with 1-1 no matter what I select.

A more noticeable option you can head into battle with is the ability to select a power-up to start a game with (Super Mushroom, Fire Flower or Power Star). But doing so will cost you the coins you get from defeating other players in the game. For your first few games, starting with a power-up feels like a luxury. But it doesn’t take long for you to get so many coins that you can pretty much start with a power-up every time.

The coins you get from eliminating players are separate from the coins you get within the levels themselves though. The coins Mario physically grabs can be used to spin a power-up roulette wheel (20 coins per spin), which can give you one of the three aforementioned power-ups, as well as a POW block, which instantly wipes out every enemy on-screen.

As an added challenge, you’ll start every round with only 35 seconds on the clock (of course). More seconds are earned by defeating enemies, collecting power-ups and completing levels. Enemies will grant even more time if you manage to chain them together with jumps or a Power Star (the Fire Flower may be gloriously overpowered, but defeating consecutive enemies with it won’t build combos for more time, which is a nice compromise).

The game is a lot of fun, but it has some issues: As fun as it is, Super Mario Bros. 35 can get a bit repetitious. This is a game that’s at its best when played in a few short rounds, and doesn’t boast the “just one more game” appeal of other Nintendo multiplayer games or other recent battle royals like Fall Guys. That in itself isn’t too bad, but the game’s sheer insistence on having players replay world 1-1 and 1-2 gets a bit ridiculous. It often feels like entire games are comprised of those first two levels on repeat, with a third random level thrown in on occasion. I get that the first two levels of Super Mario Bros. are probably the two most recognizable levels in video game history, but that’s all the more reason I would like to see the other levels show up more frequently.

Another downside – and this is a baffling one – is Nintendo’s dumbfounding decision to make Super Mario Bros. 35 only available until March 31st, 2021. Super Mario 3D All-Stars, which was also released to commemorate Super Mario Bros’s 35th anniversary, will also be discontinued on that date, to the chagrin of many. But at least with 3D All-Stars I can kind of get it, since it’s a box set of old games. So I can at least see where Nintendo is coming from in releasing 3D All-Stars as a limited time “birthday gift” to the series. But why does Super Mario Bros. 35 have to just disappear after such a short time? I could understand if it were free until March 31st, but why is the entire game only playable until then? Unless that only applies to the game under its current “35” form, and after Mario’s 35th celebration the game adopts a different player count (Super Mario Bros. 99!). But that’s clearly little more than wishful thinking on my part. The sad truth is Super Mario Bros. 35 is a lot of fun, but it’s not here to stay.

Like Tetris 99, Super Mario Bros. 35 proves that you can teach an old game new tricks. And the marriage between all-time classics like Tetris and Super Mario Bros. with the most popular genre of today just makes so much sense. If only Super Mario Bros. 35 didn’t have an expiration date…

7

My Favorite Films and TV Shows of 2019

I am the most timely of people. What better time to name one’s favorite movies and TV shows of a year than November of the following year? Such timelines.

In all seriousness, sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to this. Between my early flip-flopping of making this list to getting distracted with other posts to, well, 2020 being what it is, a lot of the stuff I had planned for this site this year fell by the wayside (I plan to pick up the pieces, but the past several months have definitely done a number on my mental health, so apologies that it may take a little longer still).

Because I’ve delayed this list for so incredibly long, I’ve decided to do things a little differently this time around. Instead of writing an article about why one movie was my favorite of the year, or doing a proper top 10 list, I’m just going to list the movies and TV shows of 2019 that won me over the most, and write some explanation as to why they managed to do just that.

So without further ado, in no particular order, here – finally – is my list of favorite movies and TV shows from 2019.

Continue reading “My Favorite Films and TV Shows of 2019”