Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of Bug Fables*

When the original Paper Mario was released on the Nintendo 64 in 2001, it was not only the last great game for the system (and it still holds up today), but also the N64’s one and only truly memorable role-playing game. But if the system could have only one great entry in the genre, it certainly had an excellent one. Serving as a spiritual successor to the SNES’s Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario was another terrific mergence of Super Mario elements and RPG traditions. Though it was simpler than Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario’s accessibility didn’t come at the expense of depth, as it provided an RPG adventure as grand as any. Its GameCube sequel, subtitled The Thousand-Year Door, was further testament that Mario and RPGs are a match made in heaven.

Though the Paper Mario series continues to this day, Thousand-Year Door was sadly the last time the series served as a spiritual continuation of Super Mario RPG. And that’s largely because it was the last time the series was actually an RPG. The series’ third entry, Super Paper Mario, strangely abandoned the genre, instead opting for a 2D platformer with some RPG elements and a big, RPG-style storyline, to mixed results. From there, turn-based battles would make a comeback to Paper Mario, but in a butchered, shallow form, stripped of their substance and meaning, with more emphasis being placed on paper aesthetics and gimmicks than any deep RPG gameplay. Paper Mario continues to this day, but as a husk of itself. The heart and soul of the series were left behind on the GameCube, leaving many fans yearning for the series to go back to its roots and deliver another Mario RPG classic.

Well, since Nintendo seems hellbent on not delivering such a thing (even the handheld Mario & Luigi RPG series lost its way once it set foot on the 3DS), indie developer MoonSprout Games decided to make their own Paper Mario: Bug Fables.

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is classic Paper Mario in all but names and faces. Rather than the iconic world of the Mushroom Kingdom, we have the insect world of Bugaria, in a future where insects have evolved to have human sentience. But aside from the change to a bug-themed setting and characters, everything else about Bug Fables is essentially the Paper Mario we’ve been waiting sixteen years for.

The battle system is virtually copied and pasted from the first two Paper Marios. And yes, the game adopts the flat characters amid 3D backgrounds that Paper Mario was known for (before it took the “paper” aspect far too literally). Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is indeed Paper Mario…but with bugs!

While that does mean the game isn’t the most original title out there, it’s a detail that’s easy to look past considering how starved the gaming landscape has been of a proper Paper Mario title for all these years.

As in Paper Mario, battles are a turn-based affair, where timing and button combinations take place during moves (“Action Commands”). If the player gets the timing or button combinations right, their moves are more effective, while the right button press at the right time during an enemy’s attack will reduce the damage taken to your characters. The player will also have to take note about how each of the characters and enemies function, as just like the Mario RPGs, certain actions can only be used on specific characters (grounded attacks can’t reach airborne foes, and things like that). One of the big reasons the Mario RPGs soared to such heights is their interactive battle systems, which added so much depth and timeless appeal to RPG norms, and Bug Fables is a reminder of why we miss classic Mario RPGs so much, and makes it all the more baffling how Nintendo can’t seem to grasp why people want it so badly.

“All three characters learn a few abilities that can be used outside of battle as well. For example: Leif can create ice platforms on bodies of water.”

If there is a big difference between Bug Fables and Paper Mario’s RPG systems, it’s that, while Paper Mario saw Mario joined by one of several “partner” characters during battles, Bug Fables has a set party of three characters, all of whom are present in every battle: Kabbu is a beetle who is the group’s tank, able to take and dish out more damage than the other two characters, but at the cost of having the most limited attack range (only being able to target the closest ground-based enemy, save for a few of his special moves). Vi is a little bee equipped with a “beemerang,” giving her the most versatile range and can also bring down airborne foes, but with the caveat of the smallest damage output. Lastly, Lief is a moth who possesses ice magic, with which he can let it go to attack any ground-based enemies and even those who burrow underground, but will still need Vi’s help for flying foes.

“You’ll meet all kinds of cute and charming characters in Bug Fables. This little guy is probably my favorite NPC.”

It’s the party dynamic that serves as Bug Fables’ biggest change to the Paper Mario formula. On one hand, it makes things a bit more streamlined without having to switch party members for different situations. And the small amount of main characters means you get to know them a bit more in regards to the story (Kabbu is overly apologetic and sensitive, Vi is sarcastic and anxious to become a famous hero alongside her team, and Leif has been in a long hibernation, and can’t remember his past). But on the other hand, part of the charm of Paper Mario was found in those partners, and knowing which one to have at your side at what time.

I think the simplicity of Paper Mario’s partners is perhaps better suited for the style of gameplay provided, but that’s not to say that anything is really lost from a gameplay standpoint in Bug Fables, but it does showcase a benefit an established franchise can have. Part of the joy of Paper Mario is how these familiar Mario enemies were now friendly characters (a Goomba, a Koopa Troopa, a Boo, etc.). Obviously, Bug Fables can’t go doing something similar, as it doesn’t have that history to tinker around and mess with. That’s not to say I hold this against Bug Fables, as that would be an unfair criticism. But I do think – in a time in which so many people insist new IPs automatically equate to originality and franchises are old hat by default – that this is an example of a creative benefit established franchises can have over other works, which is something that isn’t acknowledged enough.

“Discovering new recipes with the game’s three chef characters is a fun side quest.”

Much like Paper Mario’s badges, Bug Fables features items called medals that, when equipped, provide a variety of different bonuses. Once the player levels up (which works as the whole trio leveling up at the same time, as opposed to each individual character), the player can select which attribute they want to increase: hit points (self-explanatory), TP (Teamwork Points, Bug Fables’s equivalent of traditional magic points or, more appropriately, the Mario RPGs’ Flower Points), or Medal Points, which allow you to equip more medals.

So Bug Fables functions very similarly to the Paper Mario titles that inspired it, but aside from the set three character party, the main difference between Paper Mario and Bug Fables is the difficulty. Bug Fables is a more difficult game than Paper Mario, and it can be made all the harder right off the bat, as a prominent NPC in the game’s opening grants you with the ‘Hard Mode’ medal which, naturally, makes the game more difficult when equipped (and it costs no medal points to equip, so the challenge is open to anyone who wants it). While the challenge is mostly fair, I do have to admit that – at least with the Hard Mode medal equipped – the difficulty can seem a bit inconsistent. I actually found some earlier segments to be harder than some of the later ones, and some mid-bosses were more challenging than the big bosses at the end of the same chapter.

In a time when fans’ pleas for a return to form for the Paper Mario franchise continue to fall on deaf ears on Nintendo’s end, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is something of a gift, and the next best thing we could ask for after a proper follow-up to The Thousand-Year Door. Some have already claimed Bug Fables to be better than the games that inspired it. Though I can’t agree with that sentiment, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is the best Paper Mario game to be made since those beloved first two entries. And that in itself is cause for celebration.

 

8

The Fourth of July 2020 Post!

Happy America, everybody!

I know, it’s probably hard to celebrate dang near anything this year with everything going on in the world. But finding reason to celebrate even in dark times helps stave off depression, and that’s a good thing!

To my fellow Americans, have a happy Independence Day! And to anyone not from the US of A, you have a happy day, too!

Apologies once more that updates to this site have slowed a bit. I’m really hoping to pick up the pace in the not-too-distant future. And I actually have a list of movie and video game reviews lined up that I hope to finish soon, that I’ve been procrastinating for way too long. Among these will be my review of Return of the Jedi, which will finish up my reviews of the original Star Wars trilogy. Also some reviews for some leftover 2019 games, as well as (finally) some for 2020 games. Hey, it’s been a rough year.

But enough about me, you all enjoy your fireworks and barbecues and all that. Happy 4th of July, everybody! Stay safe, and for goodness sake, wear a damn mask!

 

Per tradition, here’s that classic image of Captain America punching Hitler.

“Hell yeah!”

Puyo Puyo 2 Review

*Review based on Puyo Puyo 2’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service*

Puyo Puyo is one of the most popular falling block puzzle series in gaming history. So it can be a little strange to go back and see how skittish publishers were with releasing the series in the west. The original Puyo Puyo received a makeover with established gaming franchises on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo with Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche, respectively. Meanwhile, the second entry didn’t even get a western release on home consoles until it was made available on retro downloadable services like the Wii’s Virtual Console and, most recently, the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service.

The gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 should be familiar to anyone who’s played the series: multi-colored blobs fall from the top of the screen in clumps of two, which the player can move around and rotate. If you match up at least four blobs of the same color together, you will eliminate them from the screen. And if you plan and strategize the placements of the blobs well enough, you can connect more than four of them or even get a chain of eliminations one after the other, with both scenarios resulting in you sending marble-like ‘trash’ blocks to your opponent. The marbles will of course make get in your way, making it more difficult to connect the blobs. But if you can eliminate blobs adjacent to the marbles, you can remove them from your board. But should the blobs and marbles reach the top of the screen, it’s game over.

The adjustments to the core gameplay are minimal, with the biggest difference being that it takes bigger stacks of blobs and more chains of eliminations to send marbles to your opponent than the first game. The minimal changes aren’t really an issue though. Puzzle games are – along with platformers – the genre that represents gaming at its purest, and because of that, they never really lose any of their appeal no matter how much time passes. And Puyo Puyo, I must say, is one of the most fun and addicting of puzzle games.

The major differences here are that the game can be played with up to four players, which was a rarity in the Super Famicom days (it’s actually much easier to play the four-player modes in the Switch release than it was in Puyo Puyo 2’s day). Suffice to say, the more the merrier when it comes to falling-block puzzle mayhem. It should be noted, however, that the Switch release remains untranslated, so unless you can read Japanese, you’ll have to test out the game’s different options to figure out what’s what (there are some clues to the number of players per mode as indicated by the number of blobs next to each, but otherwise it’s a guessing game for sad sacks like me who can’t read Japanese).

The only real issue with Puyo Puyo 2 is the difficulty in its single-player mode. Puyo Puyo is often cited for its difficulty, going back to the Mean Bean Machine days. But the series usually at least gradually gets more difficult as you go. The difficulty of Puyo Puyo 2’s single player mode, on the other hand, feels all over the place. You’ll fight your way through several “levels,” each one comprised of multiple opponents, but the challenge of each individual opponent varies wildly. I’ve beaten the single-player mode a few times now, and there will be certain opponents early on that take me several attempts to conquer, followed up by easier opposition for the next few rounds before I run headfirst into another wall of difficulty.

Unfortunately, I’m not perceptive enough to notice if the easier and harder challenges were consistent with the character who served as my opponent (though I think that might be the case). Whether there is or isn’t that consistency almost doesn’t matter, because the order you face your opponents is done via a roulette wheel (the player can stop the wheel when they choose, but until you’ve chipped away and eliminated the opposition of each round, you’re not likely to land on the baddie you want to face). So again, the game doesn’t so much get progressively more difficult, as much as it is sometimes easy, and sometimes frustratingly hard.

“The fish with human limbs might be my favorite character.”

That’s not a deal breaker, however. And suffice to say that the core gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 is as fun as ever. Plus, with the crisp 16-bit graphics, cute character designs, and catchy soundtrack, Puyo Puyo 2 is yet another puzzler that’s pleasing to the senses. Bring a few friends over to enjoy Puyo Puyo 2 to its fullest. But if you wish to enjoy the game alone, that works too. Just be prepared for a seemingly random difficulty curve.

 

7

Movie Awards 2020: Best Streaming Series

Ah, here we are in the tail-end of June 2020, and I’m only just getting back to my awards for 2019 movies… Look, it’s been a rough year for all of us, okay!

Anyway, with the advent of streaming services, the line between movies and television series has become thinner and thinner, with the streaming format allowing shows the gateway to tell stories much closer to their big screen kin than they could on the weekly schedule of television (admittedly, shows such as Twin Peaks and Arrested Development used a more cinematic  structure, but they were ahead of their time). Because of this – and also because I haven’t started talking about TV/streaming series in the same capacity as I do movies and video games just yet – I decided to lump an award for “Best Streaming Series” in with my movie awards this time around. I may even make this a Wizard Dojo tradition. Who knows?

At any rate, I’m not sure if there’ll be any other individual movie awards from me this year after this, and I may just do my top 10 favorite films of 2019 countdown, seeing as it’s taking me an eternity already. So I hope you enjoy this.

 

Winner: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

It seems the streaming series that caught everyone’s attention in 2019 was Disney+’s The Mandalorian. While that show is great (and probably the only piece of Star Wars media that’s genuinely liked these days), it wasn’t the best streaming series of the year. That honor goes to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance which, for my money, is the best cinematic fantasy epic since Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings for the big screen (I know some people would bring up Game of Thrones, but…no.).

Serving as a prequel to Jim Henson’s imaginative (if maybe unfocused) 1982 film The Dark Crystal, Age of Resistance far surpasses the original work, and gives Jim Henson’s world of Thra a story that’s worthy of its imaginative world.

Age of Resistance sets the gears in motion for the events of the movie, but not in such a way that would make it a chain of fan service events making callbacks to the original feature. This series tells a compelling story of its own, with its own cast of characters, as well as a few returning faces from the 1982 film. That these characters all happen to be puppets and costumes quickly becomes an afterthought as you get swept away in Age of Resistance’s unique fantasy world and rich storytelling.

Rumblings of a second season continue, though nothing official has been confirmed yet. Then again, it took the creators of the series years to complete the first season, so hopefully a potential second season is just a matter of time. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if the series eventually remade the events of the 1982 film as one of its seasons. This series is what Jim Henson’s passion project was always meant to be.

If a possible second season is as good as the first, it will be more than worth whatever the wait may be.

 

Runner-up: Stranger Things 3

Runner-up: The Mandalorian

Some Video Game Stuff I’m Excited About

Lots of big video game announcements recently. Along with all that recent Pokemon news (highlighted by the Pokemon Snap sequel we’ve waited over two decades for), yesterday brought some cool gaming news.

First off, we had the announcement of the first new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character from the six-character “Fighter Pass 2.” It’s Min Min from Nintendo’s ARMs!

Some people were disappointed when Nintendo announced early that the first character of the new batch would be from ARMs, but personally, I think it’s overdue! Why wasn’t an ARMs character added into the game to begin with? It seems like an obvious way to promote ARMs, and it would bring something new to Super Smash Bros. It’s like how Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS decided not to make the Inklings a DLC character. It seems like adding characters from newer Nintendo IPs into Super Smash Bros. would be an easy way to help build prestige for them, so it’s weird how Nintendo is repeatedly late in pulling the trigger on them. And yet, they add new Fire Emblem characters before the game said character appears in has even been released. I don’t get it.

At the very least, I suppose some good came from the delay. Had they added an ARMs character from the get-go, they probably would have gone with Spring Man, since he’s – by default of being the most basic representation of the game’s concept – the de facto “main character” in most peoples’ eyes. But since he was made into an Assist Trophy, we ended up getting Min Min instead, and she’s a far more fun character.

Not only does Min Min look like a fun and unique addition to Super Smash Bros., and represents a game that really should have been represented when Ultimate launched, but also puts an end to the whole “Spirits deconfirm characters” nonsense the internet loved to spew out. Min Min, you see, was one of the countless “spirits” in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which basically means she was a power-up you could use in certain modes represented by a stock promotional image of the character.

For too long, people have been deadset on the idea that a character appearing as a spirit in Ultimate means they have no chance of being made into a playable character. Well, now that nonsense can stop. Now the possibilities for future characters are nearly limitless. There’s hope for Geno and Dixie Kong yet.

Another source of gaming news that broke yesterday was the official announcement and reveal trailer of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Although the game’s title and box art leaked a couple of days ahead of time, it’s cool to have the official announcement. And the trailer’s pretty cool (despite the questionable song choice). See?

The character redesigns naturally have some gamers complaining, but I don’t mind them for the most part (Dr. Cortex looks a little odd). But the game looks like a lot of fun. Also, I love how they’re making the game Crash Bandicoot 4, following up the 2017 remake compilation Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy. I appreciate that they’re ignoring everything from the series post-PSOne era.

Of course, the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy was created by Naughty Dog, back in the 90s, and I hold the unpopular opinion that the studio was at their best when they were making the series. The more “serious” the studio has become, the more they just feel like they’re giving themselves a pat on the back. Crash Bandicoot 4 is being developed by Toys 4 Bob, but it actually looks like a more worthwhile continuation to something Naughty Dog started than a certain other recently released Naughty Dog sequel made by Naughty Dog themselves…

Interestingly, Crash Bandicoot 4 is planned for release this year on October 2nd. So it looks like I’ll be getting at least one more PS4 game by the year’s end.

Yeah, this isn’t much of a post. Just some recent video game announcements I’m excited for. Been slow at updating this site lately, so, this is something I guess… More “real” content soon. Sorry.

Artemis Fowl Review

There’s a word for movies like Artemis Fowl, and that word is… “bad.”

Based on the series of books from the 2000s – a time chock full of novels about kids thrust into otherworldly adventures in the wake of Harry Potter – Artemis Fowl was released on Disney+ in June 2020, and became just the latest in a long line of live-action fantasy/sci-fi movies from Disney that ends up failing in execution.

I never read any of the Artemis Fowl books, so I can’t make any direct comparison to the source material. But general consensus seems to be that the film strays far from the books, which I think it’s safe to assume means the books are much better than this mess of a movie.

The story here is that Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw), son of filthy rich antique collector Artemis Fowl I (Colin Farrell), is a super genius. He even cloned a goat at age ten (why the film feels the need to point this out, I don’t know. Especially since the film fails at making the obvious gag of having the cloned goat be Artemis’s family pet). One day, Artemis’s father goes missing, and news breaks out that reveals the elder Fowl to be a world-class criminal mastermind, with many of his collected antiques and fortune being the product of several high profile heists.

“The faces I made when watching this movie.”

Oh, and also there’s an underground fairy world where Elves, Dwarves and Goblins live in secret. But Artemis’s father knew of this fairy world and stole several magic artifacts from their world so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands or something. And it turns out his kidnapper is a wanted fugitive in the fairy world, though this villain’s motives are some of the most vaguely defined I can recall in a movie.

I suppose that’s par for the course here, considering Artemis Fowl is barely defined himself. Despite being the film’s hero, his only real defining trait is his obnoxious arrogance (is it asking too much to see a humble genius in a movie for once?). Also his butler Dom (Nonso Anozie) doubles as a bodyguard. Also also, said butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) is Artemis’s best friend, but the film forgets about her for such long stretches of time that, on the rare occasion she does show up, the audience would be forgiven for not remembering she was ever a part of the proceedings. Then there’s an Elf girl named Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), whom Artemis ends up taking hostage in exchange for the Elves to procure some magic artifact that the bad guy wants so he can trade it for his father’s freedom.

What’s weird is that the majority of the film takes place in and around the Fowls’ mansion. Some early scenes deviate away to show us the underground fairy world, but once the important magic characters come to the surface, the movie is almost entirely centered around a single location. That in itself isn’t a terrible thing, but doesn’t this seem like the wrong kind of movie to do that with? Here’s a movie telling us that there’s a whole other world beneath the Earth, but almost all the action takes place at one building. Artemis Fowl kind of reminds me of Glass in that regard, a movie begging to stretch its legs but feels shackled to one confined space.

Among the film’s few highlights are the presence of Dame Judi Dench as the Elf commander Julius Root, and Josh Gad as an oversized Dwarf named Mulch Diggums. But both actors are wasted in this movie, and for some reason both of their characters tend to speak in gravely whispers (something which Gad’s character even makes a joke about). I did enjoy the joke about David Bowie being from the fairy world, though.

One of the biggest issues with Artemis Fowl is its overall structure and pacing. The best way I can describe Artemis Fowl is that it’s a movie that plays out like a clip show episode of a sitcom (where a half baked plot would segue into various clips of past episodes), but there’s not even a half baked story holding the clips together here, and the clips in question just exist in a vacuum so they just kind of happen. So we have a series of things being thrown at the screen that are only connected by the characters… characters that we never get to know anything about because the movie is already throwing something else at us before anything about them can be established.

Sadly, you can’t even say the film is salvaged on a visual level. Because, despite being visual effects heavy picture, Artemis Fowl is an ugly movie.

“Okay…what am I looking at, here?”

I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it seems whenever Disney attempts to make live-action fantasy or sci-fi epics, the results always blow up in Disney’s face. The only movie in this sub-category of Disney that I enjoyed in recent memory was Tomorrow Land, and even that had the same unappealing aesthetic as the rest of them (and was a notorious box office bomb). I don’t know how to explain it, but whenever Disney tries their hand at live-action fantasy or sci-fi, it just looks wrong.

The CG in Artemis Fowl looks well behind the times, with a rampaging troll looking especially 2001-esque. And the aesthetics as a whole just never look convincing. Artemis Fowl is aiming for something like Harry Potter, but looks more akin to The Santa Clause 2. The Elves look like they wear Party City versions of the Green Goblin’s costume from Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, Josh Gad’s character looks like he’s cosplaying in a homemade Hagrid costume, and the villain has their face shrouded in a hood, but brings to mind a Power Rangers villain of the week more so than Emperor Palpatine. At its best times, Artemis Fowl looks garish. At its worst, it’s just unpleasant to look at.

With the way the movie wraps up, you know Disney had hopes this would lead to a series of sequels and they’d have another money-making franchise on their hands. But Artemis Fowl ends up being a cinematic cacophony: it’s nonsensically structured, the characters are paper thin, all of its events just kind of stumble over each other, its a visual effects heavy movie that fails to deliver any memorable visual effects, and the crossover between criminal mastermind espionage and traditional fantasy never once meshes, instead feeling like two unrelated entities just collided headfirst into each other. So in the end, Artemis Fowl is an origin story that is destined to lead nowhere, making the film as a whole one of its own random clips pulled from a nonexistent show.

They may have spelled it differently, but “foul” is right.

 

2

Finally! There’s a New Pokemon Snap! And it’s Called New Pokemon Snap!

During today’s Pokemon presentation, there was one announcement that stood out above all the others… the long-requested sequel to the Nintendo 64’s Pokemon Snap is finally a reality! Here is the announcement trailer.

 

This makes me so happy. As someone who doesn’t have the most glowing feelings towards the mainline Pokemon games, this is the kind of Pokemon-related news I can truly get excited for.

I, like many others, have waited for over two decades for a Pokemon Snap sequel. It seemed like something that made so much sense for the Wii, Wii U, or 3DS, and mysteriously passed those systems by. But the Switch has been a special case for Nintendo, having the same commercial appeal as the Wii while also delivering heavily on what longtime fans have been asking for. And now this twenty-years in the waiting Pokemon Snap sequel is the latest in the Nintendo Switch’s lineup.

Sure, there are some people who don’t think the original Pokemon Snap has held up too well (it is a Nintendo 64 game, after all). That’s a fair argument, considering the N64 game only featured sixty-odd something of the original 151 Pokemon who existed at the time, and its levels were too brief to justify only having seven of them. But in concept, Pokemon Snap was always such a winning idea. It’s Pokemon, but you catch them on camera instead of in Pokeballs! Traveling on rail-based stages, seeking the best photo opportunities for the Pokemon you pass by, it’s a charming idea that always had so much potential. It’s a mystery it took this long for its developers to realize they could expand on the concept.

Finally, a Pokemon game I can be genuinely excited for. Now, if we could just get that Super Mario RPG sequel we’ve been waiting on…

Brawl Brothers Review

*Review based on Brawl Brothers’ release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Brawl Brothers, released on the SNES in 1993 by Jaleco, is a side scrolling beat-em-up game, and the second installment in the Rushing Beat series. Curiously, it’s noted as being the only SNES game to feature both its western and Japanese releases on the same cartridge (the Japanese version being accessible via a cheat code). Other than that little piece of trivia, however, Brawl Brothers doesn’t provide a whole lot to write home about.

“The playable roster admittedly looks like the bargain aisle equivalent of Street Fighter characters.”

Let’s get one thing straight, I really like beat-em-up games. Their simple, straightforward, arcade-style gameplay makes them among the purest “video game-y” of video game genres, alongside the likes of platformers and puzzle games (albeit beat-em-ups don’t have the same depth of those genres). Walking from one side of the screen to the next, punching bad guys to a pulp along the way, is so simple and satisfying, particularly when multiple players are involved. But if not done right, beat-em-ups risk falling into monotony. Unfortunately, Brawl Brothers is one such beat-em-up.

The main issue with the game is that the hit detection feels way off. You repeatedly mash the attack button on an enemy, hoping that you’re aligned at just the right pixel to land your punches. You just walk into enemies to grab them for throwing attacks, but sometimes the enemies grab you instead, an issue that could have been easily avoided if you used a separate button to grab enemies instead of walking into them.

While Brawl Brothers provides a versatile (for the time) roster of five characters, each with their own special moves, another major issue with the game is that using these special moves drains your health bar. I’m guessing this was done to prevent players from constantly spamming the special moves, but surely there was a better way to go about that? Why not build up a separate meter with the more hits you land on enemies or how many of them you defeat, and once said meter is full, you can use your special move? That sounds like a better option than draining a huge chunk of your own health amidst an onslaught of enemies to prevent them from…draining a huge chunk of your health.

Perhaps the most aggravating issue with Brawl Brothers, however, are the maze levels. This is first present in the game’s sewer stage, with the player potentially cycling through the same screens non-stop unless they know which doors to take on which screen. The big problems is the game gives no indicator this is the case, so naturally, I followed the rules up until that point, going to the end of the stage expecting to move on, only to start doing the same thing over and over again. I had to look online to figure out what I was doing wrong, only to find out about the maze element. If you know the pattern, it’s not too difficult. But if the game is going to abruptly change the rules on the player, it would be nice if there were some kind of hint about that happening. Again, even if the answer isn’t too cryptic, having to learn that answer via the web for a game released in 1993 is kind of annoying.

Believe it or not, but the Japanese version of the game doesn’t include the maze elements, with those stages still following the more straightforward approach. Why the western release decided throwing in cryptic maze-like stages into the mix without any indication of such was a good idea, I’ll never know. Thankfully, as previously mentioned, the Japanese version is readily available on the western cartridge (and that’s still true for the Nintendo Switch release). Repeatedly pressing B, A, X and Y (in that order) on the ‘Jaleco’ screen will appear to glitch things up, indicating you can now enter codes. From the glitchy screen press start, hit down three times, and press start again, and you’ll be in the options menu for the Japanese version of the game. Simply continue from there and voila!

Look at me, giving away a cheat code in a review. But this is a rare exception, because the lack of the maze stages makes the Japanese version of the game so much better. Granted, the hit detection is still off, and the special moves still drain health, but at least it fixes one of Brawl Brothers’s most glaring issues. Plus, one of the characters can hit enemies in the groin in the Japanese version!

Other than that, there’s really not much difference between versions, but the removal of mazes alone makes the Japanese version the preferred method of play.

Still, even with the marginal improvements of the Japanese version of the game, Brawl Brothers still feels like one of the more dated beat-em-ups. The graphics are great (that’s Super Nintendo for you), and the music is catchy. And fans of the genre might still have a fun enough time. But no doubt there are plenty of other, better beat-em-up options out there.

 

4

Super Earth Defense Force Review

*Review based on Super Earth Defense Force’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Originally developed by Jaleco for arcades in 1991, Earth Defense Force made its way to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System the very next year, with the appropriate “Super” added to the title. Super Earth Defense Force is a simple side scrolling rail-shooter that provides competent enough fun, but features some questionable creative decisions that hold it back.

The player takes control of a space fighter, which is accompanied by two satellite fighters. At the start of each stage, players can select which weapons the satellite fighters have, with eight possible options. But you should always pick the “homing” option.

This is the game’s first big creative misstep. The homing attack is so overpowered and so much more useful than the other seven options that it makes them close to pointless. I’m not talking about the good kind of overpowered which simply makes the character feel more powerful, like the cape in Super Mario World or the Crissaegrim from Symphony of the Night. This is the bad kind of overpowered, as in “did anyone test this to properly compare these weapons?” Though the game sees the player automatically traveling to the right side of the screen, enemies don’t just spawn ahead of, but behind, above, and below as well. As such, the homing attack is the only one that can reliably hit these enemies. And in some instances (even on the first level), there are numerous enemies descending from the top of the screen that are difficult to avoid unless you destroy some of them, but you can’t hit them unless you – as you might have guessed – picked the homing attack. There’s no reason for you not to pick it.

The player has three hit points, and four total lives. The only way to heal is by completing a stage, and there is no way to gain extra lives. Additionally, the stages feature no checkpoints, so every defeat will send you back to the start of the current stage. This all makes sense for an arcade game, where no doubt additional coins would allow for more continues. But it’s a shame that Earth Defense Force’s transition to the Super NES didn’t consider the differences in arcade and console gaming. With no way to heal or continue past your four initial lives, it makes the game an entirely trial and error approach. You’ll make more and more progress every time you play and figure out which enemies spawn at which point, but only after learning from being defeated by surprise attacks time and again. That might make sense for an arcade game, but on the SNES, the occasional healing item or extra life would be appreciated.

In the case of extra lives, Super Earth Defense Force even provides an apt opportunity for such things. As you defeat enemies, you’ll gain experience points. Once your experience bar fills up completely, you’ll gain a level, which will upgrade your weapons (preferably your homing weapons). On the plus side, you’ll keep your accumulated level and experience points even after you lose a life. On the downside, this would have been a primed opportunity to also give the player an extra life, giving them more time to utilize and appreciate their upgraded weapons.

As it is, the game’s trial and error approach will see you gradually gain a level, die, then make more progress through the current stage with your upgraded weapons. With only four chances to make it through the whole game, the experience becomes little more than a memorization game.

Super Earth Defense Force isn’t a bad game. The gameplay is simple and fun, the graphics are nice, and the music is catchy enough. But Super Earth Defense Force isn’t really special in any particular way, which means it can’t really make up for its increasingly tedious sense of trial and error. Playing on Nintendo Switch makes it a bit more tolerable, given the save states provided, but such things weren’t in Jaleco’s mind when developing Super Earth Defense Force back in the day. Even the game’s attempt at variety is undone, thanks to one weapon option being as objectively right as you can get in this kind of scenario.

 

5

My Complicated Relationship with Pokemon

I love Pokemon. I really do.

I love its ever-increasing bestiary of cute and cool creatures, I have a nostalgic love for the TV series, I love the success the franchise has found, I love it as an IP and franchise. I just love the very concept of Pokemon. But recently, I’ve come to a realization…

I don’t like the Pokemon games themselves.

I know, that sounds contradictory, considering the Pokemon video games are the origins of the series and, as such, the actual heart and soul of the franchise. But no matter how hard I’ve tried, I find it difficult to get invested in the Pokemon games.

Okay, so I have many a fond memory of Pokemon Red and Blue, and Gold and Silver. I also fondly look back at the Diamond and Pearl generation. I even love some of the spinoffs, with Pokemon Snap in particular – while maybe not a finely aged game – being one I’ve long wished would receive a sequel. Of course, the Pokemon game I’ve easily invested the most time into is… Pokemon Go.

That might sum up my stance on the series, that my most played entry in all of Pokemon is the cellphone game that “isn’t a real Pokemon game.” But hey, Pokemon Go makes for a nice secondary activity when going on walks, so it’s found its way into my daily activity. It may not boast the complexity of the “real” Pokemon games, but it keeps finding ways for me to revisit it pretty regularly, if even just for a few minutes at a time.

The “core” Pokemon games, however, have consistently failed to grab me in the same way. I don’t think they’re bad games outright, but I do feel that – while the character designs of the Pokemon may continue to show inspiration – the games themselves are creatively lazy. That becomes all the more glaring when you remember this is a Nintendo franchise, and Nintendo is a label that usually indicates an inventive spirit (whether they sink or swim usually depends on execution).

Despite being a series that has an emphasis on the evolutions of its titular creatures, Pokemon is – quite ironically – Nintendo’s most un-evolving series. Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda have been around longer, and yet, they continue to create experiences that feel fresh and new to this day. There is a clear distinction between one Mario or Zelda game and the next. But with the exception of the graphical updates and additional creatures, Pokemon still feels like the same experience it was back in 1998 (or 1996 in Japan).

Some might highlight Pokemon’s status as a “second-party” series, and not one made by Nintendo themselves. But just because it isn’t literally made by Nintendo doesn’t mean its developers couldn’t learn a thing or two from Nintendo’s other prominent properties (after all, the Kirby series may not have reached the same heights as Mario or Zelda, but it still shows a similar creative spirit, even as a second-party franchise).

Yes, there have been marginal tweaks to the Pokemon games here and there, and the hardcore Pokemon enthusiast would no doubt point out some obscure difference in the game’s “meta scene” from past installments. But there’s nothing that actually makes the games feel or play differently than they always did.

It happens every time a new generation of “proper” Pokemon games are announced. I always tell myself “This is it. This is going to be the Pokemon generation that draws me back into the series in the same way it did in its booming early years.” And every time, without fail, the games end up trying my patience with their outdated structure and repetitive gameplay. I want to love these Pokemon games. I really do. But they feel so complacent. So sure of their success (guess I can’t argue there) that they don’t feel the need to invent or reinvent anything about themselves. Every time I play a new Pokemon entry, there’s a huge sense of “been there, done that” about the whole thing.

Sure, Pokemon games may be “bigger” than they were back in the day, given all the advancements to hardware that have occurred over the years. But every new Pokemon game feels bigger than the last for all the wrong reasons. It’s the same exact experience, but bloated and dragged out.

For example, Pokemon Sword and Shield, the most recent installments of the main series, looked so promising from a distance: A mainline Pokemon game that can take advantage of being on a home console? Hot dog! Think of the possibilities!

In execution, however, Pokemon Sword (the version I purchased) feels like it simply redrew the same old Pokemon blueprint, but just drew it on a much bigger sheet. It feels ridiculously padded. I’m talking Uncharted 3 cruise ship chapters/Red Dead Redemption 2’s unnecessary trip to Guarma levels of padded!

It’s one thing if, in an RPG, I willingly sidetrack myself with secondary objectives or farming enemies (even in Pokemon Diamond, I took the time to level up a Machamp to the max). But every new Pokemon game feels like it forces me to do more and more things in between going from point A to point B. Most of which feel needless.

Going back to my point in Pokemon Sword, the entire introduction segment felt like I had to do two dozen objectives before I was even allowed to begin heading towards the first gym (although I admit it wasn’t as ungodly long as the introduction of Pokemon Sun and Moon). Not to mention that every last character has to rant on and on about the mechanics of the series which everyone and their grandmother is familiar with by this point (okay, I get it. New fans are going to be introduced with each new entry. But for a series this popular, can they at least have an option for veteran players to ignore the never-ending walls of text that explain the basics of the series? At the very least, can they give the ability to shorten the dialogue?)

When I eventually managed to slog my way through the first gym (with my starting Pokemon already feeling ridiculously overpowered), the path to the second gym was actually pretty short. With a sigh of relief, I thought “okay, so it just had a slow beginning, but now I can just zoom through the story if I want.” Seeing as most Pokemon fans seem to insist the real fun begins after the “story” aspect of the game is complete, I didn’t feel the need to drag the story out. But then what happens as soon as I approach the door to the second gym? I read a sign telling me that I can’t go inside the second gym until I go do some other pointless task first! That’s some Skyward Sword levels of tedium!

It was in that moment when I turned the game off and, as of this writing, I haven’t played Pokemon Sword since. I feel a little bad saying that. Again, I don’t think the Pokemon formula is bad, just one that needs to add some actual change and depth to it, instead of just dragging out the same old same old and calling it new.

want to go back to Pokemon Sword. I would like to beat the story and review it here on this site. But every time I think about going back to play it, I remember how bland and tedious the experience was, and I feel like I just don’t want to bother and put in that kind of time.

“It’s a good thing the characters are still so cute.”

Think about that for a second. This is a series with hundreds of charming creatures throwing lightning and water at each other. In concept, that is so much fun! But in execution, it feels like an absolute chore to get through. It would be one thing if Pokemon Sword were the first experience I had like this with the series, but the truth is it’s happened with pretty much every entry post-Gold and Silver, and it has been happening earlier and earlier within each subsequent entry (again, I at least took the time to max out a Pokemon in Diamond and Pearl, but now I just feel like throwing my hands in the air after the first gym).

So many people are still so obsessed and engrossed with all things Pokemon. I so desperately would like to be among them, and to get the same joy out of the Pokemon games that they do. I may love the concept of the series itself and its creatures. The old episodes of the TV series – and especially the original theme song – give me a uniquely strong sense of nostalgia (as in, it doesn’t just remind me of my childhood, but emotionally takes me back to it, even if the series isn’t what I would call great television). I still play Pokemon Go and long for a Pokemon Snap sequel. And yet, I just can’t bring myself to enjoy the mainline Pokemon video games.

I want to like them. I try to like them. But time and time again, the Pokemon games leave me feeling disappointed with their padded, outdated structures, and their ironic refusal to evolve.

It’s weird, because the video games are the origin and the core of the Pokemon franchise. But it’s the one aspect of the series that continuously leaves me cold. Imagine if someone liked the Star Wars TV shows and video games, but didn’t like any of the Star Wars movies (even the good ones). That’s what my relationship with Pokemon is like.

Maybe one day I’ll work up the patience to finish Pokemon Sword, but I’ve said that about other Pokemon titles in the past, and a new entry would be released before I ever got around to revisiting the previous one.

I love Pokemon. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring myself to love the Pokemon games. If I could somehow bottle up the feeling the franchise itself gives me, and sprinkle it onto the games, I would. Sadly, the nature of Pokemon itself may speak to my inner child, but the games have continued to bring out the curmudgeonly old man in me.