Replaying: Super Mario 64

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is great (it was released on my birthday, ya know). I mean, it has it’s problems (a series of this caliber deserves grander presentation than a simple startup screen and brief descriptions of the games included), and the absence of Galaxy 2 really is inexcusable (had it been included, this would be the best video game compilation ever). But it’s still a compilation of two amazing classics and also Super Mario Sunshine, so I’m not about to complain too much.

Though Galaxy is easily the best game of the bunch, I decided to do things chronologically and started with Super Mario 64 first. Super Mario 64 is, from a historical and influential standpoint, one of the greatest videogames of all time (with Tetris and the original Super Mario Bros. perhaps being the only games to top it in those categories). Super Mario 64 is also one of the defining games of my life. Though I think there were better games before and better games since (Super Mario World is a far better game, for example), there are few games that are as ingrained in my mind as Super Mario 64. I played and replayed it so often as a kid, that even when it’s been years in between playthroughs, I can still recall where, when and how to collect (almost) every star and red coin. I know the stages inside and out, and can track down most everything in the game without giving it a second thought. Super Mario 64 is burned into my psyche.

Playing this classic again on the Switch reminds me what an integral part of gaming Super Mario 64 was (and still is). Yes, it’s definitely rough around the edges – with its camera being cumbersome and Mario sometimes feeling a little slippery to control – but creatively, it was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing, it still amazes.

I’m not sure if it’s ironic or poetic that gaming’s biggest icon of the 2D era was also the one that, in its first go around, got 3D gaming so right (okay, it’s poetic). Yes, some of its technical aspects have aged, and Super Mario 64 isn’t pretty to look at (though the HD sheen of the Switch version makes it look better than ever), but when you consider how 3D video games at the time were so unwieldy and broken that the concept was considered a fad doomed to die a sudden death, Mario’s transition into 3D was as flawless as anyone could have hoped for, perhaps more so.

Playing Super Mario 64 again today, it’s still a lot of fun, which is more than you can say for…pretty much every other early 3D game. Yes, its blemishes are more apparent to modern eyes (that damn camera), but it still feels like a delightful virtual playground whereas its contemporaries feel like taxing eyesores.

I do have to admit, it is a bit of a bummer that Nintendo opted to only optimize the game’s presentation and give it an HD makeover, as opposed to remaking it entirely. I mean, I get that new games are the priority, but surely Super Mario 64 is one of the games in Nintendo’s history that warrants a from the ground-up remake. I mean, Crash Bandicoot had it done, and as much as I love Crash Bandicoot, he’s certainly no Mario.

Whatever. As always, it’s the game that ultimately counts, not the look. And as stated, Super Mario 64 is still a great game, and its inventiveness for the medium as a whole can’t be understated. Super Mario 64 wasn’t simply “Super Mario World but in 3D” (an unpopular complaint I have against Ocarina of Time is that, structurally, it’s essentially A Link to the Past with a 3D makeover, with all the added hiccups that come with the N64). It reworked how platformers are structured. Sure, you still had linear goals, but you could go about them in different ways, and sometimes achieve a goal other than the intended one. And one thing Super Mario 64 did that I still don’t think many 3D games have done (even the 3D Mario titles, until Odyssey came around) is how it gave Mario moves and abilities that were made solely for the sake of taking advantage of 3D space, and how the game incorporates certain goals (stars) simply by utilizing these moves.

There are stars that simply require the player to master Mario’s wall jump in order to reach them, areas that can only be reached with Mario’s trickier to perform movements, and hell, Mario’s little breakdancing move seems to only exist because it could now that Mario was in a 3D environment. The player can almost sense that Miyamoto and company must have had an absolute blast making the game, and just had fun discovering what they could make Mario do with his added dimension.

“It’s strangely seldom mentioned how, in Super Mario 64, you’re actually controlling two characters. Mario himself, and the Lakitu holding the camera.”

This infectious sense of joy doesn’t just apply to the technical aspects of the game, however, but the creative ones as well. As much flak as I’ve been giving the game’s camera, how fun of an idea was it to make the in-universe reason for the camera being that Mario’s adventure is being recorded by a local news station (which, naturally, uses a Lakitu flying on a cloud as the cameraman, explaining away the controls for the camerawork)? Or what about the clock-themed world behaving differently based on where the clock hands are when you enter the stage? And to this day, a gaming moment from my early years that I can still recall clear as day was chasing after a rabbit in the lower levels of Peach’s Castle, and running into a wall that began rippling upon Mario’s contact with it, revealing yet another of the game’s levels just waiting to be explored. Up until that point in the game, the stages were all accessed via jumping into painting. So for just a basic wall to deceptively be the portal to one of the stages might still be the most beautifully mischievous detail in video games.

Suffice to say, I’m having a lot of fun revisiting Super Mario 64. Of course, there’s a lot of frustration as well, trying to wrangle around the camera, controlling the flying power-up, and Mario’s sometimes sporadic actions. Frustrations I don’t get when playing either of the Galaxy games or Odyssey (which, with all due respect to Super Mario 64, are all superior games), or even 3D World for that matter (which might also be a better game from a technical standpoint). But hey, Super Mario 64 was the first of its kind, for it to still be as fun and creative as it is today is probably more than anyone could have asked for.

The Mario series has had more “perfect games” under its belt than any one series (I might even argue it’s had more than most other prominent series put together). Super Mario 64 is not one of the perfect Mario games. But it still, to this day, is a one of a kind gaming experience. A video game wonderland that, while it may feel aged in a number of respects, still comes across as a timeless classic.

Mario Kart Tour Review

Mario’s foray into the mobile gaming market has been interesting, to say the least. The first mobile Mario game, Super Mario Run, was released in 2016 to a lukewarm reception. It’s hard to imagine how things could have gone wrong, it’s Mario! And considering how well Pokemon translated to phones in the form of Pokemon Go, it’s all the more baffling (this also has to be the one and only instance in history where Pokemon was more fun than Mario). But the thing about the Super Mario series is that it isn’t just one series. Where Mario platformers go, Mario Kart is sure to follow. And sure enough, 2019 saw the release of Mario Kart Tour, the mobile iteration of Nintendo’s system-selling kart racer, which proved to be a record-breaking success for Nintendo. While Mario Kart Tour successfully translates the series’ fun gameplay to mobile phones, the game’s seemingly never-ending paywalls end up putting a damper on the experience.

It’s almost surprising how well Mario Kart works on a mobile device: the characters move automatically, as opposed to holding a button like the rest of the series. Though the feeling of having less control is a bit of a bummer, it ultimately makes sense considering this is the Mario Kart you play on your phone. You steer your character with the touchscreen, and use weapons by tapping said screen (some items can be sent forward or backward by swiping in those directions). Because steering and items both use the same mechanics, there are times when you may unintentionally use your item before you mean to, but for the most part, it actually works really well.

The race tracks rotate, based on biweekly events, which introduce multiple cups (comprised of three races and a bonus challenge). Most of the stages are from Mario Kart’s past, and come in different forms (some versions are just as they were in their original games, while there see different tweaks and variants as well), but there are also some new tracks based on real-world locations.

While the gameplay is, for the most part, classic Mario Kart (save for the tracks feature two laps, as opposed to the series’ standard of three), the thing that separates Mario Kart Tour from its predecessors is its emphasis on earning points.

In Mario Kart Tour, almost every action you make will nab you some points, whether it’s performing a drift boost, hitting an opponent with an item, jumping over bumps, and of course what place you finish the race in (both for the first lap and the race as a whole). Your total points will then be added up after a race, with every race course providing five possible Grand Stars depending on how many points you get.

Additionally, your placement will also award points to your player profile. Every time you gain another one-hundred percent, you’ll gain a level. With each subsequent level, you are awarded more points for your placements in races (though bad placements can knock your profile down a few points).

Now, here’s where things get a little more strategic. You can gain yet even more points based on your selection of character, kart and glider, depending on the level. The level bonuses for characters are multiple items (some characters will get two items per box on certain stages, while a select few will get three. Get lucky and score three of the same item to enter “Frenzy Mode,” which grants temporary invincibility in addition to non-stop usage of whatever triple item you got for a short time). The level bonuses for karts are the amount of points you get per action (bottom tier characters receive the base amount, middle tier receive one-hundred and fifty percent, and top tier characters get two-hundred percent). Meanwhile, the level bonuses for gliders award for points for combos (chaining different actions consecutively with little pause).

Each character, kart and glider provides an added element independent of the selected stage as well: Some characters might have items that are exclusive to a select few, while certain karts might give you added points for specific actions, and gliders may provide a higher chance to get rarer items.

Things go another step further still, as you can level up characters, karts and gliders, which will give them a greater number of starting points, giving you a notable head start if your aiming for certain point goals. The more Grand Stars you manage to collect by reaching different point goals, the more you can unlock in the game.

Here is where things get aggravating, however: you are only allowed to level up characters, karts and gliders a certain amount every day. After you’ve earned a set number of experience points, you have to wait twenty-four hours before you can gain more (this is in relation to the characters, karts and gliders, you can still gain points for your profile, albeit much slower after you’ve maxed everything else out for the day). The daily cap also applies to coins, as you are only allowed to collect 300 coins in the races each day (though you can at least get more coins by completing specific achievements, which can even grant extra Grand Stars).

Now, the thing that makes this so bad is – as you may have guessed – the fact that you can ditch the daily limit if you subscribe to the game’s “Gold Pass” which, yes, costs real-life money. I mean, okay, you expect some form of micro transactions in free to purchase mobile games. But a whole subscription fee?

What’s worse, Nintendo has hidden additional features behind this paywall. Want to have the highest speed of 200CC races? You have to subscribe! Want to unlock characters and karts faster? Buy Rubies that you can use to launch a canon that unlocks something without the need of coins!

It’s…uhhh, not cool. To say the least.

To be fair, the game has recently introduced “Event Tokens,” green coins that show up on the racetracks in the second week of an event that you can use to unlock select characters and items, bypassing spending real money (or even the standard coins) on said items. So that’s nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that the game has too many paywalls to begin with. Look, I get that a company has to make money, so I’m not going to claim Nintendo is committing some kind of act of evil by finding ways to make profit off of a game that, again, you can download for free. But there comes a point when it just becomes too much. And Mario Kart Tour reaches that point. I feel bombarded with how often the game advertises something I can unlock if I’m willing to reach into my pocket. There’s a fine line between “wanting to make money” and just being greedy.

It’s because of the blatant greed why I feel tempted to rate Mario Kart Tour on the lower half of my grading system. But I feel like that would be dishonest, because I admit I’ve had a lot of fun with the game. I’ve been logging on night after night to level up my favorite characters and try to gain those Grand Stars that seem just out of reach. The game looks, sounds and plays great, and feels a lot closer to its console counterparts than other mobile installments in popular franchises (it may not be a patch on Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but then again, what kart racer is?). I even hope the eventual Mario Kart 9 borrows some of its progression elements (not to the same excessive extent, of course. But it would be nice if Mario Kart could pull a rabbit from Crash Team Racing’s hat and allow players to unlock different character skins and the like by using a streamlined version of Tour’s leveling system. Hey, anything to prevent Pink Gold Peach from taking up a character slot). Mario Kart Tour is, for all intents and purposes, a terrific translation of Mario Kart onto mobile phones.

At least it is in regards to gameplay. But I’ve encountered panhandlers that don’t ask for my money as much as this game. It’s just a bit disheartening, really. Sure, Mario Kart on home consoles might be expensive, but at least once it’s purchased, you can play it and have fun until your heart’s content. But here you’re given a fun game, but are withheld from getting the most out of it unless you’re willing to dish out the dough.

The good news is what’s readily available in Mario Kart Tour is classic Mario Kart fun. Just be content with that and don’t fall for its trap.

6

Happy 35th Anniversary Super Mario Bros!

Today, September 13 2020, marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the original Super Mario Bros. in Japan.

Nintendo certainly hasn’t been shy in regards to the occasion, as they recently had an entire Nintendo Direct making announcements to celebrate Mario’s big 35th anniversary. Among these announcements was the reveal of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a compilation of Mario’s first three 3D platformers: Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy (why Super Mario Galaxy 2 isn’t included in the compilation is a baffling decision on Nintendo’s part. Unless it gets its own Switch release down the road).

“Nintendo right now be like…”

And wouldn’t you know it, 3D All-Stars releases in just five days (which also happens to be my birthday… yes, I will keep bringing that up).

It’s nice to see Nintendo show such respect to their premier series’ anniversary. But I wonder if they’ll also acknowledge that Mario, the character, as well as Donkey Kong, will be celebrating their 40th anniversary next year. I mean, I get that Super Mario Bros. was the game that started the Super Mario series, which is what we all think of when we think of Mario, and also lead to the creation of Nintendo’s other franchises. But 40 still seems like a noteworthy anniversary to celebrate, so hopefully Nintendo will remember that come 2021 and won’t be too “anniversary’d out” by that time.

Anyway, I tip my cap (which is adorned by my first initial) to you, Mario. Happy 35th anniversary to the most influential video game of all time.

Giving Crash His Due

With the release of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time now less than a month away, I’ve been thinking about the series a fair bit. Among my thinkings about of the series, I realized I could have done it some better justice in recent years.

You see, in my annual video game awards, one of my awards is for the “Best Remake or Remaster.” For 2017 I went with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for said award, with Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy being the runner-up. And for 2019, I gave the award to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered, and I failed to even mention Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled in the category!

But the more I think about it, the more I think I could have done better for Crash. I mean, I don’t regret picking the winners I did. But when you consider the sheer effort that went into Crash Bandicoot’s recent remakes, I definitely could have done them better.

Considering Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy rebuilt the series’ beloved first three entries from the ground up, and Nitro-Fueled not only did the same for Crash Team Racing, but also remade Crash Nitro Kart within it and added a slew of new content and characters to boot, they definitely deserved more credit than I gave them.

Again, I don’t regret selecting Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Ni no Kuni Remastered for my Best Remake/Remaster award, since those are incredible games. But maybe I should have split the category in two? One for Remasters, and another for full-on remakes. Because while Mario Kart 8 saw some improvements with its Switch release, it was a more polished version of an already great game that had come out only three years prior. And Ni no Kuni was a remaster of my Game of the Year for 2013, so definitely a re-release worth visiting, but it didn’t really add anything substantially new to the game.

The fact that the Crash Bandicoot games were rebuilt from the ground-up is actually very impressive the more I think about it. And while, sure, the Crash trilogy may not be flawless platformers a la Mario, the second and third entries are still great games made even better with their remake, While the first Crash may not have aged particularly well, the N. Sane Trilogy version brings it a little closer to its superior sequels. And the more I think about it, the more I think Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled may be the most robust video game remake ever made. Sure, it’s a Mario Kart clone, but it’s one of the few Mario Kart clones that’s actually comparable to its inspiration, and the remake may just be the best kart racer that isn’t Mario Kart 8 (and yeah, I still hope to review Nitro-Fueled soon). I repeat, it remade a whole additional game within the remade game, and added new features. That’s impressive.

Perhaps going forward I’ll make two separate awards, one of remasters and one for full-blown remakes. So while I think Mario Kart 8 may be a better game than any one entry of the Crash trilogy, and I like Ni no Kuni more than Crash Team Racing, I may retroactively place Mario Kart 8 and Ni no Kuni in the Best Remaster category, and give Best Remake to The N. Sane Trilogy and Nitro-Fueled. In all honesty, if Crash Bandicoot 4 lives up to the hype, then the recent resurgence of Crash Bandicoot is probably the best reboot in video game history. And that’s largely because the remakes of the franchise’s early years were so darn impressive (and because they’re ignoring what came after and going straight for a new game now, effectively rebuilding the series itself in a way most reboots could only dream of).

So congratulations, Crash Bandicoot! Enjoy my retroactive appraisals!

Replaying: Dark Souls III

In all the hustle and bustle of 2020, as I continue to procrastinate reviews for Animal Crossing and Paper Mario: The Disappointment King (what, isn’t that what it’s called?) – not to mention a few lingering reviews for 2019 games – I’ve decided to write about a different older game I’ve been replaying! That game, as I’m sure you’ve deduced from the title, is Dark souls III!

Come to think of it, I’ve had quite a Souls-heavy year in 2020. I replayed Dark Souls Remastered, beat Demon’s Souls for the first time, and completed Dark Souls II. Now that I’m replaying Dark Souls III, that’s all of the Souls games that actually have the word “Souls” in the title. Maybe I’ll bring it full circle and replay BloodbBorne before year’s end. BloodBorne is, for my money, the best Souls game.

That’s not a slight on any of the other Souls games, as Dark Souls is one of the best video games ever made, and honestly, I think Dark Souls III is just as good. Dark Souls II may be a fair bit behind its siblings, and unpopular opinion, but Demon’s Souls is considerably less enjoyable than all of its successors (hopefully the PS5 remake can make some adjustments to bring it up to speed with Dark Souls).

Anyway, Dark Souls III is the focus here. Like I said, I think it’s just as good as the first Dark Souls in many respects (in some ways better, in some not quite as good). I even named it my Game of the Year for 2016 here on this site! It’s easily one of my favorite games of the console generation, and of the 2010s decade (my best of the decade list won’t just be Dark Souls and Mario, but it will very much be Dark Souls and Mario).

What made Dark Souls III work so well – besides the series’ already winning formula and the return of director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who was absent for Dark Souls II – is that it feels like a smooth balance between Dark Souls and BloodBorne. The combat obviously mostly reflects the former, but it has a faster speed to it, closer to BloodBorne. It just feels right.

What mostly had me revisit Dark Souls III is that I never actually experienced its DLC, so I’m playing through the game again and seeing the DLC for the first time.

Last night I finished the first DLC, Ashes of Ariandel (which sounds like Arendelle, the kingdom of Disney’s Frozen, and is even a snowy landscape, which also features a girl with extremely long hair who loves to paint, similar to Rapunzel in Tangled. Now I want a Disney Souls-like). Per the usual, Dark Souls III continues the series’ consistently deep DLC content.

The Ashes of Ariandel campaign took a few hours to beat (I played alongside my brother, which makes things a little more manageable), and included a great, atmospheric setting (it is Dark Souls, after all), some cool (if maybe not series’ best) enemies, and some incredible boss fights. Mainly, the final boss of Ashes of Ariandel is now one of my favorites in the entire series. Definitely the hardest in Dark Souls III, and one of the hardest in any Souls game (I might only place it under some of the optional chalice dungeon bosses from BloodBorne. Specifically the Defiled Chalice Amygdala. Damn that guy!).

The DLC was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to delving into the second  DLC campaign, The Ringed City, soon. But revisiting Dark Souls III on the whole has been a joy. And I think, now that I’ve finally played through all of Dark Souls II and Demon’s Souls, I appreciate Dark Souls III all the more. While Dark Souls II is far from a bad game, it definitely had its share of questionable creative decisions, not to mention some forgettable locations. And Demon’s Souls, while again not bad per se, really lacks the polish of its successors, and shows its age. So Dark Souls III now feels like all the grander the achievement. A return to form for the Dark Souls trilogy that not only corrects course from the polarizing second installment, but also shows how far Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brainchild had come since Demon’s Souls. It, most appropriately, feels like a great crescendo of everything the series did up to that point.

Dark Souls, BloodBorne and (for some reason) Demon’s Souls seem to be the most beloved entries in the Souls series. The “proper trilogy” in most fans’ eyes. But if you ask me, Dark Souls III is far more deserving to sit alongside Dark Souls and BloodBorne as one of Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s finest achievements.

I can’t wait to play more.

So Much Mario Goodness!

Nintendo had a brand-spankin’ new Direct today, focused on the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. There were so many announcements, that I can’t even remember them all. So I’ll just leave said Nintendo Direct here.

 

The big news here is the confirmation of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, and a battle royal version of the original Super Mario Bros. There’s also that augmented reality Mario Kart thing. That looks interesting.

I think it’s safe to say this Mario-focused Direct left me feeling like this…

Anyway, I am beyond excited for Super Mario 3D All-Stars! I mean, two of the greatest video games of all time – and also Super Mario Sunshine – all in HD and whatnot? Sounds great! Though I am greatly saddened (and baffled) by the omission of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is arguably the best video game ever made. They didn’t even show Galaxy 2 in the Mario retrospective video at the end of the Direct! What’s up with that, Nintendo?!

Oh, and perhaps best of all (for me, anyway), Super Mario 3D All-Stars releases on my birthday, September 18th! Oh, Nintendo, you do care!

Super Mario 3D World being re-released on Switch was also expected, but nice to have confirmed. What wasn’t expected is it comes included with some kind of new game called “Bowser’s Fury” (getting the Mario & Luigi 3DS remake treatment with that “+” in the title). Unfortunately, from what very little they showed, it looks like you still play as Mario and friends in Bowser’s Fury, which is fine, and only unfortunate for me personally who is baffled that Bowser has yet to get his own game after 35 years. Notably, the Switch version of 3D World will have online multiplayer, and Nintendo promises to reveal additional new elements between now and its February 2021 release (I’m guessing some kind of new stages).

Also, I like the idea of that battle royal-ed version of Super Mario Bros. Reminds me of Tetris 99, but with Super Mario Bros. So that’s both of the two most influential video games in history getting the battle royal treatment. Nice.

Suffice to say, I’m really excited for all this Mario news. Now hopefully we’ll get a re-release of the first two Paper Marios (AKA the good ones) and some kind of Super Mario RPG remake and/or sequel. And Geno in Super Smash Bros. Let me dream.

But c’mon, where is Galaxy 2? #JusticeForSuperMarioGalaxy2

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

In recent times, the battle royal genre has taken over the gaming scene. It started in 2017 with PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround (or “PUBG”), which briefly became the hottest thing in gaming, before that status was abruptly overtaken by fellow battle royal title Fortnite. It isn’t too difficult to see why the genre has caught on so quickly: Throwing masses of players into a single game, who then battle it out last man standing style, makes for a tense, competitive atmosphere, with a wave of victorious glory for whoever the lucky player is who stands tall in the end.

On the other hand, once you’ve played one “kill ’em all” type of game, you’ve pretty much got the gist of things. The genre is wildly popular, but no game within it has really done anything different with the premise. That is, until Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout showed up in August of 2020 to breath a colorful, lighthearted new life into the genre.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout takes inspiration from Japanese gameshows such as Takeshi’s Castle, and the western series influenced by those same Japanese gameshows, such as Wipeout. So while Fall Guys still follows the “last man standing” rule laid out by the genre, it provides a fresh, colorful, humorous spin on the gameplay.

The player characters are charming, bean-shaped creatures called Fall Guys, who bounce and stumble over themselves for both fun and frustration (think something akin to Octodad’s purposefully wonky controls, but not nearly as extreme). As odd as this may sound, I have to hand it to the developers, as they really nailed the physics of what I imagine wobbly bean-people would feel like.

Up to sixty players are thrown into an “episode” of Fall Guys, which comprises of a series of games, each one eliminating more and more players, until one final game will pit the last handful of players against each other to declare the winner of the episode.

Simplicity is key here, with the Fall Guys only having three basic actions (aside from moving): jumping, diving and grabbing. Like any great game, Fall Guys figures out how to bring the most out of such simplicity through its game design. It takes these very basic character controls and manages to produce a fleshed-out game from them.

Most of the games – true to their inspirations – are races across obstacle courses, with a set number of players allowed to cross the finish line. Once the player limit has reached the finish, those who didn’t make the cut are eliminated from the episode. Other games involve players timing their jumps to avoid being knocked off-stage by rotating beams, trying to claim and hold onto a raccoon tail until the timer runs out, dodging moving walls that will push you into slime, and maneuvering across spinning platforms while trying not to fall off.

Essentially, Fall Guys feels like Mario Party mini-games turned into a battle royal. A number of the games even feel like the bonus stages of the 3D Mario games. Suffice to say, most of them are a lot of fun.

Perhaps the exceptions are a some of the team-based games. It can be disheartening to blaze through three or four games on your own, only to have questionable teammates stop your progress dead in its tracks. And some of the tail-grabbing mini-games are a bit finicky (with opponents seemingly able to snatch my tail in a split second from several feet away, while I’ll be right on top of them, holding R2 for dear life, to no success. My friends insist it’s a latency issue, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating).

Still, even the less fun games included in Fall Guys still provide a good time. And when it does get frustrating, it’s the “good kind of frustrating,” like Mario Party. Though if Mario Party can be maddening with four players, imagine playing similar mini-games with fifty-nine other people! The games don’t always feel fair, but Fall Guys isn’t basing success and defeat on player skill alone, with luck, circumstance and other players all having a role in the outcome.

Whether you win or lose, however, you’ll still get something of a reward for your efforts (provided you don’t quit out before being eliminated, which is definitely a nice touch). Your performance will award you with in-game currency called “Kudos,” as well as Fame, which is essentially experience points. You can grow up to level 40 in any given ‘season’ within the game, with each level providing a different prize. You can additionally buy prizes with your Kudos, which include customizable colors and patterns, as well as costumes, taunts and victory poses for your Fall Guy. Additionally, every time you manage to win an entire episode (easier said than done, let me tell you), you are awarded a crown, with crowns being used to unlock the rarest customizable items.

If there’s any real downside to Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, it’s that it doesn’t have the widest variety of mini-games at play. And with most episodes lasting about four or five games (though, depending on how many people are eliminated in certain games, it can be as few as three or as many as six games), you’ll get the hang of every available game rather quickly. On the plus side, future seasons of Fall Guys promise additional mini-games, as well as rotating existing ones, to keep things fresh. So depending on how much future seasons add to the proceedings, Fall Guys could get better and better.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is infectiously fun, and wildly addictive (it’s one of those “just one more game” type of games). Combined with its cute character designs and overall charming attitude, Fall Guys is some of the most pure fun I’ve had in a video game in years. It essentially combines the battle royal template with 3D platforming, making for the freshest product of the genre since PUBG kickstarted it.

Fall Guys may have a few wrinkles to iron out, but if things keep up for it the way they are, I think the world may have a new most popular game.

 

8

The Origami Sting (Paper Mario: The Origami King Impressions)

“Somehow… Palpatine returned.”

And somehow… Nintendo made something as wonderful as Paper Mario not fun anymore.

Yes, I hate to admit it, but Paper Mario: The Origami King is little more than validation for my (and everyone else’s) skepticisms. Just like Sticker Star, just like Color Splash, Origami King is a gimmicky endeavor that continues the series’ awkward mixture of being utterly shallow and overly thought out at the same time.

Yes, there are good moments, but those are found solely in the exploratory elements (finding lost Toads, combing for all the secret items in an area, etc.). But once you begin the battle system, it all goes to hell.

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems once again decided the original Paper Mario formula – a simplified RPG system that retained depth and strategy based on individual enemies and Mario’s moves – is too complex. So instead of an RPG battle system with action commands, they went the much “simpler” route of starting battles off with a bizarre ring system, where you have to solve the puzzle that is the enemy layout in order to align them in such a way as to make your moves more effective, all within a short time limit.

Thankfully, your moves are no longer completely consumable like in Sticker Star or Color Splash, but aside from Mario’s standard boots and hammer, you do have to keep buying weapons repeatedly since they break after a while (because weapons breaking is all the rage in games these days for some reason). The fights themselves are already tedious, made all the more so because you don’t even gain experience points or anything of the sort after a battle, so there’s no leveling up. All you get for completing battles are coins (with more rewarded for how well you line up enemies, taking no damage, and so on). And what do you need coins for? To buy more weapons!

Good lord, what incentive is the player supposed to have in regards to these battles? Fight battles to get coins to buy weapons to use in battles to get coins to buy weapons… Geez! What’s the point?!

As purposeless as the regular battles are, they pale, pale in comparison to the boss fights. Good heavens, the boss battles of Origami King are bad. Just straight-up bad. How bad? Bad enough that – every time the game starts to win me over with it’s exploration and adventure elements – the boss fights make me not even want bother with that, because I know it will all culminate with a tedious, obnoxious, boring as all hell boss fight. They make me not care.

“Bosses will repeatedly change up the formula of battles, without letting the player know how that change effects things until they make a mistake. Yay, that’s always fun, right?”

What makes the boss fights so bad? Well, on top of following the general format of the already pointless battles, the bosses will add additional puzzle elements to the fights that are more cumbersome than clever. More often than not, figuring out how to solve these puzzles requires blatant trial-and-error, as opposed to problem solving skills. The game leaves the boss strategies unexplained until you try the obvious and fail while doing it. And if you don’t follow these fights exactly as the game wants you, the bosses will just heal and the whole thing starts over.

I hate this. I flat-out hate this. It’s not fun. Not at all. I thought Color Splash’s boss fights were annoying with how they were literally unbeatable unless you used specific items at specific times, but I’ll take Color Splash’s boss fights over Origami King’s any day.

Of course, another downward spiral that Origami King obnoxiously indulges in is its lack of character (both figuratively and literally). Though the game has its charms, it follows the bizarre trait the series has been cursed with from Sticker Star onwards of not having any original characters. Every Toad is simply named “X-Toad” (that is, when they even have “names.”).  And the first “partner” character who joins Mario is a Bob-omb named (wait for it)… Bob-omb!

Does this Bob-omb have any defining character traits or features? No, it’s a Bob-omb, plain and simple. And he jokes about once having a friend who was also named Bob-omb (Haha! Get it? They’re all named Bob-omb!). Well, at least you actually get partners in this one, which is more than you can say for Sticker Star and Color Splash, right?

But wait, do you even get partners here? The Bob-omb joins you in battle very infrequently (he conveniently chooses to stay outside dungeons to take naps), and when he can be bothered to help Mario out, he automatically attacks with a single move (which is simply bumping into an enemy), and half the time he trips while doing it, making it a complete waste.

“Get it? His name is Bob-omb, and he IS a Bob-omb! It’s totally a clever gag and not a side effect of creative limitation or anything.”

I actually found this to be kind of passive-aggressive on Nintendo/Intelligent System’s part. It’s like they’re saying “Oh, fans liked the old Paper Marios and want partners back? Okay, we’ll give them partners, but there’ll be nothing that stands out about them, they’ll automatically attack with the most basic move, which won’t even work half the time, and they’ll only join Mario in battle on occasion! Lol!” It’s like the game is literally making fun of the classic Paper Marios.

I have to ask: who is this game made for? It presents itself as being more approachable to kids than past entries, but its battle system is more convoluted than ever. I can’t imagine kids would have very much patience for it. It wants to be a puzzle adventure game, but felt the need to incorporate a turn-based battle system that slows the puzzle/adventure down considerably. It includes said RPG-style battle system, despite its utter disdain for anything resembling an RPG. And it certainly isn’t made for Paper Mario fans, as it continues to gut everything that once made the series so great.

I know I probably sound like an entitled fan. And I’m sorry for that. But Paper Mario is a bizarre, unique case where it seems like its developers actively refuse to listen to criticisms, and blatantly ignore fans’ wishes. They continue to work on a series by making games that feel like they want nothing to do with that series. It is a baffling disconnect if ever there were one in gaming.

I’m about halfway through Paper Mario: The Origami King, and I would love to review it. Normally, I like to beat a game before reviewing it, but to be honest, I’m not sure I want to push myself through the whole game. Would it be wrong to review a game without defeating its final boss? That might be the only way I can review it, because honestly getting through the game’s story is feeling more like a chore as I go on.

I know some people would balk at me to have an open mind. But I did go into Origami King with an open mind, the same way I did Sticker Star and Color Splash. In the case of Color Splash, I actually ended up having some fun and being charmed by it, despite its many flaws. But Origami King is feeling more Sticker Star than Color Splash to me. It’s tedious, monotonous, gimmicky, the battle system is pointless, the characters lack personality and charm, and those boss fights are just… NOPE!

I want to review Origami King properly, I really do. But do I have to beat it? Do I really have to? I feel like I’m deep enough in the game already to give a more detailed analysis of it (not that it would require delving very deep in this case). I feel like beating the final boss would just be a formality at this point.

You know what the worst part of all this is? I am not only a fan of Super Mario, but I have a particular fondness for Mario RPGs. That’s why – no matter how far previous Paper Marios may have fallen – I still gave subsequent entries their fair shot, simply because Paper Mario is part of that Mario RPG lineage. I felt obligated to give any game with Paper Mario in the title a go. Not even Sticker Star derailed that hope in me for the next entry. But Origami King has been such a disheartening experience, that I don’t even want to get my hopes up that the next Paper Mario will even be good, let alone go back to what made the series so special to begin with. Origami King has crushed my enthusiasm for the series, and that’s not something that happens to me lightly.

At least we have Bug Fables now…

Sonic and the Black Knight Review

Sonic and the Black Knight is the 2009, Wii-exclusive semi-sequel to Sonic and the Secret Rings, which together comprise the “Sonic Storybook series.” Whereas Secret Rings took the famous blue hedgehog to the world of Arabian Nights, Black Knight transports Sonic to the world of King Arthur. Though Sonic and the Black Knight is a considerable improvement over Secret Rings (not that that’s saying much), the fact that this ‘storybook’ sub-series was ended after two installments is probably an indication that it didn’t exactly turn the series into a winning formula.

The scenario is basically the same here as it was in Secret Rings: Sonic is transported to another world, in this case the aforementioned King Arthur stories (which are more legend than storybook, but who’s keeping track?). Sonic is summoned by a wizard named Merlina (Merlin’s a girl here because why not?). An evil sword has possessed King Arthur himself, who has now become the infamous Black Knight, and is turning the kingdom to chaos. With the hero of her world now its big villain, Merlina summons a hero from another world to save the day, and that hero just so happens to be Sonic.

So the story is basically the same, but I like the added detail that Sonic just happened to be the hero who was summoned, and that it could have potentially been someone else, as opposed to Secret Rings which had the oddly-specific prophesy of a blue hedgehog being required to save the storybook world. And I like that Sonic is just saving the storybook world here, no “the bad guy will eventually try to escape into Sonic’s world” nonsense.

In regards to gameplay, Sonic and the Black Knight utilizes a similar setup to its predecessor, but with some much-appreciated improvements. For starters, Sonic no longer runs forward automatically. Though the levels are still comprised of long, linear tracks that seem to allow an inconsistent freedom of movement (it’s almost like Sonic is better suited to 2D or something), the fact that the player actually has to move Sonic this time around is already a plus. In addition, jumping works by simply hitting the corresponding button (the ‘A’ button this time around, as Black Knight uses the Wii remote and nunchuck combo). No more holding the button to get Sonic to stop, and releasing it for him to take to the air. You push the button, and Sonic jumps. Beautiful.

The big difference here is that Sonic now wields a sword! Hey, it could be worse, they could have given a Sonic character a gun and had them say minor swears like “damn” in an attempt to be edgy. But I digress.

The sword is used by swinging the Wii remote, though the motion of the player’s movement isn’t matched by Sonic, making it closer to Twilight Princess’s swordplay than Skyward Sword’s admittedly underrated motion controls (though comparing Sonic and the Black Knight to Twilight Princess at all is being exceptionally generous on my part). The sword doesn’t add a whole lot of newness to the traditional 3D Sonic gameplay, but it’s decent. Certainly better than whatever Secret Rings was doing with the start-stop homing attacks.

Most stages see Sonic simply going from point A to point B, but some levels feature more unique objectives, like defeating a certain number of enemies or rescuing a certain amount of captured civilians before you reach the goal. These add a marginal amount of variety, but nothing really substantial. The one objective I really did not like, however, involves Sonic having to give some of his rings to the aforementioned civilians. You have to get Sonic so close just to talk to them, and then you have to press one, two or three buttons that appear on-screen, all in a split second. It’s not too bad, but usually these missions have only just barely enough opportunities to give away your rings that, if you fail even one, you’re probably going to fail the mission. It also doesn’t help that the game fails to tell you about how this “mini-game” works (the description I gave above is more than the game feels the need to explain). So when the first time I gave someone rings I needed to press the A button, I assumed that’s all there was to it. So when I instinctively pressed the A button several other times and failed to give the civilian my rings, I was baffled why it didn’t work. Again, it’s not overly difficult or cryptic, but if you’re going to make a mini-game out of something so simple, maybe you should communicate that with the player? Just a thought.

The game also features a kind of item system, where certain items will grant different bonuses when equipped. Like in Secret Rings, you can gain experience points after a stage, though here they are called “Identification Points” and are used to identify items you find within the stages (different items will cost different amounts of IP to “identify”). Once identified, you can equip the items by visiting the blacksmith (Tails) in between stages. It’s admittedly another improvement over Secret Rings, but like that game’s leveling system, it still feels like a missed opportunity to be something more.

Most of the bosses here are Sonic characters reworked into different knights of King Arthur (specifically Knuckles, Shadow and Blaze. I take it Robotnik didn’t want to be a part of another storybook entry). It’s here where the game really slips up. These boss fights are easy in a really bizarre way. Now, there’s nothing wrong with easy boss fights, but what we have here is a special case. You basically commence in a duel with the other Sonic characters, but it seems like there’s no real strategy to them. Knuckles and Shadow both kicked my ass, but I still managed to beat them both on my first try without any real timing or strategy with my swings. Blaze was a slightly more fleshed out fight, but nothing to write home about.

The “final” boss is King Arthur himself (and I put final in quotation marks because this is one of those games that pretends to have post-game content by simply putting the staff credits after a boss partway through the main story, as opposed to actually feeling like there’s more to do once the story is done). This fight is different, and is the one point of the game that’s frustratingly difficult. You chase King Arthur, who is mounted on a horse (in fact he’s on horseback even in cutscenes. Sega couldn’t afford to make a second character model for him I guess).

You have to catch up with King Arthur, despite the fact that Sonic is supposed to be able to run at the speed of sound (at least give me a reason why this horse is faster than Sonic. Even something like “it’s not Sonic’s world so he can’t use his powers to their fullest” would suffice). Once you slash one of the king’s projectiles back at him, you’ll get the energy needed to catch up to him. Once you do, you’re supposed to counter his slashes with slashes of your own, but that’s way easier said than done, because the timing is so quick and precise it makes the aforementioned ring-giving mini-game feel like a Metal Gear Solid cinematic. I kid you not, I had to redo this fight so many times that the next day my arm was sore from swinging it like a madman.

On the plus sides, Sonic and the Black Knight, like its predecessor, is a great looking Wii game that still looks great. It has that cheesy but somehow infectious music that 3D Sonic games are known for. And this game is mercifully shorter than Sonic and the Secret Rings. I completed Black Knight within two play sessions on the same day (or at least completed up to King Arthur, I saw those end credits and figured that was good enough for me to duck out).

Sonic and the Black Knight suffers from many of the same issues as Secret Rings, but just not as badly. Thankfully, the fact that the player actually controls Sonic this time around, and the fact that jumping works so simply make it a far more playable experience. It’s nothing special, and the years since have made it even less so. Perhaps there was some potential in this “Sonic Storybook” idea if it were allowed to continue, but it seems like Sega has long-since abandoned the concept. Though perhaps that’s for the best. After all, when the simple act of pressing A to jump can be considered a vast improvement, it doesn’t exactly say a whole lot for the series.

 

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Sonic and the Secret Rings Review

The 2000s were not kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. After the discontinuation of the Dreamcast and the transition to a third-party, Sega seemed to try one experiment after another to try and make Sonic work in 3D. Among these experiments was a unique entry in the series for the Nintendo Wii that saw Sonic transported to the storybook world of Arabian Nights. Released for Nintendo’s motion-controlled sensation in 2007, Sonic and the Secret Rings was the result of Sega being unable to port the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog title to Nintendo’s graphically weaker system (Nintendo dodged a bullet there). So they made a Wii exclusive in the Sonic series instead, one that would naturally take advantage of the Wii’s unique hardware.

The Wii got a lot of flack for its trademark motion controls, and while much of that was unwarranted (Nintendo consistently made it work for their own games), there was still that litter of third-party titles that almost seemed to force the motion controls into their gameplay, without having any idea of how to do it. And since we’re talking about a 3D Sonic game that isn’t Sonic Generations, well, I think you know where this is going.

As mentioned, Sonic and the Secret Rings sees Sonic transported to the world of Arabian Nights. A friendly genie named Shahra transports Sonic to the storybook world, as an evil genie named Erazor Djinn is conquering the world of the book, and if he gains control of the seven Secret Rings, he will become powerful enough to leave the book and conquer Sonic’s world. So Shahra has recruited Sonic – as an oddly specific prophecy foretells of a blue hedgehog from another world saving her own – to stop Erazor Djinn.

It’s an unspectacular plot, but the thing that always makes me scratch my head with plots like this is how they always emphasize that the villain of the ‘fictional world within the world’ plans to conquer the outside world in order for the hero to jump into action. Sure, it’s a storybook, but within the context of the game’s story, the people of the book are living beings, so why does Sonic’s world need to be in peril for him to take part? The only time this detail made any sense was with the Wario series, since Wario is supposed to be a greedy jerk only looking out for himself. But isn’t Sonic supposed to be heroic? So if these storybook characters are real within the game’s story, adding the additional threat to the hero’s world always seems weird to me.

Oh well, Sonic games aren’t known for quality storytelling, anyway. And all the change of setting really accomplishes is casting Sonic regulars as characters from Arabian Nights (Tails becomes Ali Baba, Knuckles is Sinbad, etc.). The important thing is how well does the game play?

Sadly, the answer is not very well…at all.

The game is controlled with the Wii remote held on its side, with Sonic himself running automatically, as if this were an on-rails game. Admittedly, putting Sonic in such a game isn’t the worst idea that’s been thrown at the famous blue hedgehog, but in execution Sonic and the Secret Rings continuously stumbles.

One of the main problems is jumping. Being a platforming action game, that is no small complaint. Pressing the Wii remote’s ‘1’ button doesn’t simply jump, but brings Sonic to a dead stop to charge up a jump, with Sonic only taking to the air when the button is released. In order to attack, Sonic has to be in midair, and the player must thrust the Wii remote forward once a target locks onto an enemy. And remember, all this while Sonic is automatically running forward. Suffice to say it feels really awkward.

Worse still is when Sonic comes to a dead end, and has to defeat a mid-boss or a horde of enemies to progress. In such instances, Sonic will run into the end of the road, with the player having to tilt the Wii remote backwards in order for Sonic to move back in return (which is easier said than done as Sonic seems to get glued to the wall) and even if you manage to get Sonic to move the way you want him to, the camera will still stubbornly stay in place. This quickly becomes a source of aggravation, to the point that you have to wonder if anyone at Sega bothered to test the game before releasing the finished product.

The controls are, simply put, an unmitigated disaster.

Sonic and the Secret Rings tries its hand at implementing RPG elements, with Sonic gaining experience points upon completion of a stage. Once Sonic gets enough experience points, he levels up, and Sonic can learn new abilities once he levels up or completes certain stages. It’s a fun idea in theory, but Sega even manages to drop the ball here.

Before beginning a stage, the player can select one of four customizable rings. As you level up, you can equip more abilities to a ring. The problem though, is why do you need more than one ring? If each ring had a limit to how many abilities you can equip to it, then it would make sense why you’d have to choose wisely at which ring to use at which time. But since all the rings level up with Sonic, and he can keep stacking one ability after another within the same ring, why do you even have to choose between the different rings?

Yet another issue with the game is its lack of communication with the player. For example, in one of the tutorials, the game wanted me to do a starting boost (thrusting the Wii remote forward during an opening countdown, similar to a racing game). I kept doing it exactly as the game told me, to no success. Eventually I had to look online and found out that the starting boost is an ability that needs to be equipped first! That’s kind of an important detail to leave out. Maybe inform the player that they need to unlock and equip this ability next time? Or maybe don’t let the player select that tutorial until they have the ability equipped? If something’s a part of an available tutorial, the player is going to assume they already have access to what they need for that tutorial.

If there are any redeeming qualities to Sonic and the Secret Rings, it’s in the aesthetics. Though the Wii was less graphically powerful than its contemporaries, Sonic and the Secret Rings was one of the rare Wii games that looked great in its day, without needing the caveat of “for a Wii game” to be added to the end of such a statement. And it still looks impressive, all things considered. The music is pretty good as well, though the game’s insistence on featuring its vocal theme song Seven Rings in Hand during every segment between stages is maybe a bit much.

In its day, Sonic and the Secret Rings was considered an ‘average’ outing for the Blue Blur. Though the years since its release have unraveled Sonic and the Secret Rings’s highlights and magnified its many shortcomings. The game largely feels like it plays itself, and when the player does have control, it feels so awkward and clunky it barely feels like you’re controlling it at all. To hammer things home, the very same year saw Mario star in an all-time great in Super Mario Galaxy on the very same platform. 2007, it seems, reflected the overall trajectory of Nintendo and Sega’s mascots.

 

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