Clockwork Aquario Review

Clockwork Aquario is something of a unearthed treasure in the video game world. Originally created in 1992 as an arcade title by the now-defunct Westone (creators of the Wonder Boy series) and to be published by Sega, Clockwork Aquario ultimately went unreleased. In 2017, Strictly Limited Games acquired the rights to the game from Sega. But some of the game’s code had been lost over time, so Strictly Limited Games teamed up with ININ Games to help fill in the gaps. After a few more delays, Clockwork Aquario FINALLY saw release on Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 at the tail end of 2021, nearly thirty years after the game was originally created (claiming the record for longest development time in video game history in the process).

On the plus side, it’s nice to know that such a game has actually been released after seemingly being lost to time. On the down side, the story behind Clockwork Aquario is more interesting than the game itself. Clockwork Aquario provides some fun, arcade-style platforming, but it’s short lived and lacks substance. It’s an entertaining novelty, if maybe not the arcade classic you may have hoped for, given its unique development history.

Clockwork Aquario is an action-platformer in which players can choose from three different playable characters: a boy named Huck Rondo, a girl named Elle Moon, and a robot named Gush. While all three characters have their own animations and sound bites, they all play identically. The goal of the game is simply to make it to the end of each level, defeat the boss, and ultimately defeat the evil Dr. Hangyo (an anthropomorphic fish, of all things) from taking over the world.

“Clockwork Aquario follows the Secret of Mana rule of a boy character, a girl character, and a non-human character.”

The stages are short and straightforward. There’s a time limit on each stage, but I’ve not had it run out on me yet. Each character can either jump on an enemy or slap them, with one hit stunning the enemy, and the second hit defeating them. What’s fun and different about Clockwork Aquario is that once an enemy is stunned, you can lift them up over your head and throw them at other enemies. It’s reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Treasure titles like Mischief Makers or Dynamite Headdy in that respect. Also similar to Treasure titles are the big, ridiculous boss fights, all of which involve Dr. Hangyo piloting a crazy, animal-shaped robot.

Although the core gameplay is fun, there are some annoying aspects to it. Namely, there are numerous segments where enemies pop out of nowhere as soon as you’re on top of them, to the extent that it feels like you have to take a hit to move on. That would be an issue even if you had a health bar, but it’s all the worse since your character can only take two hits before you lose a life. Another issue is that it takes way too long to gain a single extra life. By defeating enemies and getting points, as well as picking up gems the enemies occasionally drop, you slowly build up a meter towards collecting a 1-up. But you’ll often lose all your lives and an extra continue before you fill the bar up, so it feels like the reward isn’t worth it. It’s also annoying that you can’t pause the game once you start. I get that this was originally made as an arcade title, but come on. It ended up released on home consoles. Surely they could have added the ability to pause.

You’ll also find that the game is incredibly short, even by arcade standards. Clockwork Aquario contains only five levels, each of which can be breezed through long before the clock runs out. The game features different difficulty settings, but the only real difference is that the harder difficulties give you less continues (seeing as this is an arcade game released on home consoles, you can’t keep giving the game quarters for more chances). There’s also a ‘training mode’ but that’s little more than playing the first two levels with unlimited tries (which is really weird now that I type it out). You’ll also probably feel that, unless you have a second player with you, there’s not a whole lot of replay value here.

If there are two areas where Clockwork Aquario shines, it’s in the visuals and music. The graphics, character animations and backgrounds have a fun, retro anime vibe. It all looks so smooth and colorful! Clockwork Aquario looks like a suped-up Sega Genesis title. The music is similarly enjoyable. So much so that the game even includes its soundtrack in the main menu (both as the tracks appear in game as well as remixes). Clockwork Aquario is very fun to look at and listen to. Unfortunately these aesthetic pleasures don’t translate to the menus, which are pretty basic and mostly just text.

Clockwork Aquario is decently fun while it lasts, but I do think you need two players to get the best out of it (there’s even an extra mini-game in between the third and fourth stages only when playing with two people). Given the game’s unique history, you do kind of wish there were more to it. But it’s still a fun, novel experience. And worth checking out as an odd little piece of gaming history.

6

Nintendo Wii Turns Fiftiin!

It’s time to feel old yet again! Because the Nintendo Wii turns 15 years old today!

That’s right, somehow, it’s been a full fifteen years since Nintendo’s innovative, wacky-named little ivory box first hit North American stores, on November 19th 2006 (it would be released in other regions in the following weeks into early December 2006).

Before I go on, let me just say that no video game console makes me feel older than the Wii does. Now, I was born in 1989 and had older brothers, so I was born into the days of the NES, and grew up on the SNES, Sega Genesis and (a little later) the Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. But I suppose because I was just a little kid when those consoles were released, I can readily accept that they are now considered things like “retro” and “old school.” Though I was a bit older when the Playstation 2, Xbox and GameCube hit, those consoles were more about powerful technology and refining what came before (to varying degrees of success), so again, I can accept the retro moniker.

But the Wii was, in my eyes, the first console in a long time that really felt like it was breaking new ground with its ideas. The N64 pioneered 3D gaming (and upped the number of players from two to four), but I reiterate that I was still just a kid when that was released, so it would have seemed like magic no matter what. The Wii though… by that point, I could really appreciate what the Wii was bringing to the table. A console built around motion controls, aimed at everyone (the NES and, to a lesser extent, the SNES, were also geared towards “everyone.” But the Wii took that concept to a new level). It really felt like something new, and really lived up to its (admittedly generic) codename of “Revolution.”

So now that this innovative console that exuded such newness is fifteen years old, I really feel like a dinosaur.

I’ll never forget that first time I picked up a Wii remote, simply navigating the Wii home menu gave a huge rush of “whoa” over me. And playing Wii Sports for the first time? I don’t even think I need to explain how joyous that was. It really did bring back that ‘magic’ I felt from my childhood days whenever a new console was released (specifically, it felt very much like Christmas 1996 felt, when Santa had left a Nintendo 64 for my family).

Simply put, the Wii brought “magic” back to gaming.

I know that’d be considered a controversial statement on my part, because the Wii certainly had its detractors. Yes, the Wii tended to favor the “casual” crowd. But I always failed to see why that was considered a bad thing (other than typical gamer ignorance). It was merely a different thing.

Others derided it as being gimmicky with its motion controls – and while in the cases of less competent games that was true – I don’t see why building gameplay around motion controls is any more gimmicky than, say, a game being built around its cinematics for a more movie-like experience. Again, these are just differences.

I have to admit the Wii did end up having a lot of shovelware, but that always comes with the territory of being the most popular console on the market. The PS2 had its share of filler as well. Even the SNES had bad games. But the Wii was the one where people conveniently seemed to ignore the good while spotlighting the negatives. Point being the Wii had its faults, but it also had strengths that it seems people only recently started remembering.

After all, along with being one of the rare post-90s consoles that actually felt like something different and new, it also played a huge role in video games becoming the mainstream pastime they are today. Remember it or not, but before the Wii, video games were still largely seen as an exclusively “nerdy” endeavor. The Wii helped normalize gaming into something that people – any people – just did.

“The Wii also gave us the gift of Miis, simplified avatars you could make in the image of yourself, celebrities, fictional characters, or just straight-up abominations.”

On top of that, the Wii also created easy access to retro gaming via the Virtual Console! Before the Wii came along, retro gaming was an expensive collector’s hobby. But the Virtual Console allowed players to revisit (or discover for the first time) games from the NES, SNES, N64 and Sega Genesis, later also adding the TurboGrafx-16, Commodore 64, Neo Geo, Sega Master System and even arcade titles! Combine that with the fact the Wii could play GameCube games, and the Wii had – hands down – the best back catalogue ever. It was the first modern (at the time) console with a retro library, and I’ll go ahead and say it hasn’t been bettered. Even Nintendo themselves haven’t been able to replicate it (on the Wii, you just downloaded the games you wanted, and they went to the first available window on the home channel. Now we have Switch online, where you have to go to a separate screen for each available console, and trudge through all the filler Nintendo keeps adding to find the game you want to play. I just want my favorite retro games on the home screen again!).

“My (probably) favorite video game ever, Super Mario RPG, was celebrated as the 250th Virtual Console game in North America. Its release on the Wii also marked the first time the game was released in Europe.”

Of course, we can’t forget the great games to come out of the Wii itself. I already mentioned Wii Sports, which is the one everyone and their grandmother played. And then around a year after the Wii and Wii Sports were released, the console saw another game that brought back that aforementioned ‘magic.’

“Video game perfection.”

Yes, the Wii would see a number of great games, but it was Super Mario Galaxy that stood out from the pack and became one of the most acclaimed games of all time. It also marked something of a resurgence for Nintendo’s beloved series, after Mario’s humbler critical and commercial success post-Super Mario 64. Notably, it was also the first Mario game to be scored by a full orchestra, which just kicks all of the ass. Despite a few hiccups here and there, the exceedingly high standards Galaxy set for the Super Mario series (and its music) have remained largely intact, with games such as 3D World and Odyssey carrying the torch. It should be noted that the only Wii game that managed to be better than Galaxy was (what else?) Super Mario Galaxy 2.

“The Wii also resurrected Punch-Out!! after a fifteen year absence… and now it’s been absent in the twelve years since the game’s 2009 release.”

The Wii may not have always came out guns ablazing, but when it brought its A-game, it really was a console unlike any other that had been seen before. And with due respect, perhaps unlike any that’s been seen since.

It’s hard to believe it’s been fifteen years since Nintendo changed the game with that little white box and that controller that looked like a TV remote (and let’s not forget that blue light that would creepily turn itself on in the middle of the night). Nintendo has fully embraced bringing back the NES, SNES and N64 in multiple forms. Maybe now that the Wii is fifteen, they’ll find a way to bring the Wii back to modern audiences. I wouldn’t mind a retro mini-console version of the Wii myself. And I know someone else who’d camp out to get one…

Happy fifteenth birthday, Nintendo Wii!

Xbox Turns 20!

“The first Xbox console… not to be confused with Xbox One.”

It’s time to feel old, because today is the twentieth anniversary of the original Xbox console and, by extension, the entire Xbox brand!

Released in North America on November 15th 2001, Microsoft’s Xbox was the first major console created by a North American company since the Atari Jaguar (remember that thing?). At the time, many people wondered how the Xbox would fare against the competition. Industry mainstay Nintendo was releasing the GameCube around the same time, and Sony’s white hot Playstation 2 had been out for a year by that point.

Thankfully, at least one game ensured the Xbox would be a major player in the video game world.

Yes, the Xbox had plenty of great games (my personal favorite being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath), but it was Halo that proved, right out of the gate, that Xbox was a force to be reckoned with, and that it was here to stay.

Though Xbox couldn’t match the sales numbers of the Playstation 2, it left an indelible mark in video games, even popularizing online multiplayer on home consoles with (what else?) Halo 2.

In twenty years, we’ve gone from the original Xbox to the excellent Xbox 360 to the Xbox One to the oddly-named Xbox Series X/Series S (not to be confused with the Xbox One remodels called Xbox One S and Xbox One X…which people have confused it for so why did they call it that?!). Over those two decades, Xbox has provided countless memories of fun and excitement to players the world over. The Xbox legacy has provided so much joy to people, that we can all forgive the fact that its original controller was basically a brick with buttons on it. Seriously, why was that thing so huge?!

Happy twentieth birthday, Xbox!

Pikmin Turns 20!

Today, October 26th 2021, marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Pikmin in Japan!

Yes, somehow, it’s been two full decades since players were introduced to the multi-colored half-plant/half-animal aliens known as Pikmin, and the brave Captain Olimar, the hero of the series.

Pikmin was the brainchild of none other than Shigeru Miyamoto himself, the creator of Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong (in addition to less prominent series Star Fox and F-Zero). Although it’s never achieved the same level of success as Mario or Zelda, Pikmin certainly shares in their spirit, with Miyamoto’s signature “fun at all costs” philosophy present throughout.

The original Pikmin was released October 26th 2001 on the Nintendo GameCube (it barely missed the console’s launch both in Japan and stateside), and saw Captain Olimar utilize three Pikmin types: fast and fire-resistant Red Pikmin; Yellow Pikmin, who could be thrown higher and (strangely) were the only Pikmin who could throw bombs; and aquatic Blue Pikmin, who have since become a staple as the last Pikmin type the player meets in each game. With the help of the Pikmin, Captain Olimar had to recover the 30 pieces of his rocket ship within a 30 day in-game time limit, before his air supply ran out (so its story is kind of like a more serious Toejam & Earl, a game which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary on the 15th, by the way).

Pikmin was a big deal because, at the time, it was the first big new franchise Nintendo had made in some years (the N64 era was mostly about bringing Nintendo’s established franchises into the third dimension). And of course, the fact that Miyamoto was its creator certainly helped. Not to mention its unique gameplay, which combined elements of puzzle, action and real-time strategy into one innovative package.

Three years later, Pikmin 2 was released, also on the GameCube. This entry introduced Louie, the Luigi to Olimar’s Mario, as a second playable character. Pikmin 2 also brought in new Purple Pikmin, who had ten times the strength of other Pikmin types, and White Pikmin, who were not only resistant to poison, but would poison whatever creatures managed to eat them. The story here was that the company Olimar and Louie work for is in debt, and the Pikmin planet just so happens to house treasures that are quite valuable on Olimar’s home planet of Hocotate.

Although Pikmin 2 still utilized a day/night cycle like the first game, it no longer had a time limit for the adventure. Additionally, the player could traverse underground dungeons for the game’s best treasures and boss fights, which ignored the clock altogether until the player returned to the surface.

Oh, and Pikmin 2’s claymation promotional art? Sublime.

Both GameCube titles would later be re-released on the Nintendo Wii with newly implemented motion controls, which some felt improved the games. But outside of those re-releases, the Pikmin series would lay dormant for nine years after Pikmin 2.

Finally, in 2013, Pikmin 3 was released on the Wii U. Though the Wii U would end up being a financial failure for Nintendo, it had a strong selection of first-party titles, and Pikmin 3 was one of the best of the lot.

Pikmin 3 introduced three new characters: Alph, Brittany and Charlie, who came to the Pikmin planet in search of fruit seeds to regrow their planet’s food supply. Though they hailed from a different planet than Olimar, they would encounter the returning Pikmin hero (and Louie) during the adventure. And while the Purple and White Pikmin were sadly sidelined to one of the game’s secondary modes, two new Pikmin types were introduced: Rock Pikmin, who could break through objects the other Pikmin could not in addition to delivering a kind of sucker punch to enemies when thrown; and Winged Pikmin, who could fly, giving the player a whole new way to explore the world.

Pikmin 3’s omissions of some of Pikmin 2’s features was met with criticisms (besides the largely reduced presence of the purple and white Pikmin, the game also left behind the dungeons from its predecessor), but it also received strong praise as the most approachable Pikmin title, a sentiment I would have to agree with.

Like many other Wii U titles, Pikmin 3 was eventually brought over to the Nintendo Switch as Pikmin 3 Deluxe in 2020, featuring new modes that brought back Olimar into a playable role.

Besides that re-release, the only Pikmin game since Pikmin 3 was Hey Pikmin! on the Nintendo 3DS, which was like a side-scrolling spinoff game. Hey Pikmin! had a lukewarm reception, probably in no small part to the fact that Pikmin games are so infrequent that fans really just want another proper Pikmin game.

Sadly, we’re still waiting for a full-on Pikmin 4. It’s been eight years since Pikmin 3 was originally released (geez, already?!), meaning that the wait between Pikmins 3 and 4 will match the time gap between Pikmins 2 and 3 in just a number of months… Hopefully Nintendo can at least give us an update on Pikmin 4’s in the not-too-distant future. More Pikmin could only ever be a very good thing.

I guess I should correct myself, as there now is another Pikmin spinoff game, as Niantic – the creators of Pokemon Go – have just given a ‘soft release’ to their new mobile game Pikmin Bloom today, to commemorate the series’ twentieth anniversary. I still play Pokemon Go to this day, so I’ll have to give Pikmin Bloom a go myself!

We may all still be waiting ever so patiently for Pikmin 4, but for a series of surprisingly few entries, Pikmin really has carved a strong legacy for itself in the twenty years since it debuted as that quirky new GameCube game “from the creator of Mario and Zelda.”

“I still have that Pikmin promotional booklet from Nintendo Power!”

Happy twentieth, Pikmin!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES) Review

In the late 80s and well into the 90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ruled the world. Although it started as a comic book by the recently defunct Mirage Studios, it became a pop culture phenomenon with the 1987 cartoon series. TMNT would go on to become one of those rare franchises that hasn’t really lost its popularity in the years since that early booming period, with several movies and subsequent comic books and cartoons that continue to this day. And of course, we can’t forget the many video games to star the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Although the Turtles are most associated with the beat-em-up genre in the world of gaming, they’ve appeared in a number of other genres as well. Strangely, even though the peak years of Turtlemania coincided with the fighting game boom of the early 90s, the Turtles only starred in one such fighting game during that timeframe: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters by Konami.

I suppose you could say the Turtles starred in three fighting games of the time, seeing as Tournament Fighters saw releases on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in 1993, and weirdly made its way to the NES afterwards in 1994, with each version having notable differences from one another (with most praising the SNES version as the best of the lot, because of course it was). Although the pairing of TMNT and fighting games seems like such an obvious success, Tournament Fighters doesn’t seem nearly as remembered as some of the other Turtles games of the time.

Perhaps that’s due in part to the game’s selection of playable characters, many of whom would still be considered deep cuts to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aficionados even today. The SNES version contains ten playable characters, but only half of them would be very familiar to Turtles fans. Four of those are obviously the Ninja Turtles themselves: Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo. The other familiar face is their archnemesis, the Shredder (though he is bizarrely labeled as “Cyber Shredder” in the game).

The remaining characters are varying degrees of niche. There’s Armaggon, a shark-like mutant; Wingnut is a humanoid bat; and the oddly-named War is a purple triceratops-like creature who is not in fact a member of the Triceratons (triceratops-like aliens from the franchise). These three characters all originated from the Archie Comics TMNT series, which I emphasize is separate from the original Mirage Studios comics. Of the lot, only Wingnut appeared in the 1987 cartoon, though Armaggon would eventually show up in the 2012 series. And then we have Chrome Dome, a robot character who appeared in a few episodes of the original series. But the last character is the real odd-duck of the lot.

The final playable character is Aska (which really should be spelled “Asuka”), a ninja woman who made her first and only appearance in the TMNT franchise in this game (meaning we have at least one more deep cut character the newer cartoons can resurrect). Apparently, Aska was intended to be the character Mitsu from the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, to which she bears a strong resemblance (though the video game character is a little ‘bouncier’ in certain areas). But due to that film’s poor reception from fans, the character was hastily tweaked to the Aska seen here.

So if you were hoping for fan favorites like Master Splinter, Casey Jones, Bebop and Rocksteady, Krang, or frequent crossover character Miyamoto Usagi, you’re out of luck. Splinter is kidnapped in the game’s story mode, and Bebop and Rocksteady are background characters on one of the stages. So the character selections may have been off-putting to fans at the time. Seeing as this was around the height of Turtlemania, fans were probably hoping to see more of their favorites in the game. Though perhaps the more obscure selections make the game more interesting in retrospect.

Anyway, aside from the lack of fan favorites, Tournament Fighters has a lot to offer TMNT fans, and is a solid fighter in its own right.

The game features three different modes: Tournament, Versus and Story. Tournament is your expected arcade-style mode, where you pick any of the ten characters, and go through a series of fights. You have unlimited continues, and can switch characters if you lose. Versus allows players to fight matches at their own leisure, and can be played with two players (making it the game’s real main event, and what will keep you coming back if you have other players available). Story is similar to the Tournament mode, but fittingly features more cutscenes and dialogue boxes. You can only play as the Ninja Turtles themselves in this mode, with the order of opponents differing depending on which turtle you select, and you only get three continues here.

The story is that the Shredder has been defeated and is no longer in New York City (though he’s still an opponent, so maybe “Cyber Shredder” is like a robot or something?). But the Foot Clan returns under the leadership of Karai (marking the character’s first appearance outside of the Mirage comics, further playing into the game’s love of lesser-known TMNT characters). Seeking revenge for Shredder’s defeat, the Foot Clan kidnaps Splinter and April O’Neil to goad the turtles into combat. It’s a fighting game plot.

Additionally, players can go to the option menu to alter the difficulty of the game, and even choose a setting that speeds up the gameplay. The Tournament and Story modes end earlier on easier settings (Tournament ends against the non-playable Rat King, and Story against Cyber Shredder, with players only facing Karai herself on more difficult settings). But the easier settings will probably be more enjoyable for most players, since it seems like Tournament Fighters is one of those retro fighting games where the AI opponents can seemingly break the rules of the game on harder settings.

This is the game’s most annoying drawback. I admit I’m not the best player of fighting games, particularly against other people. But I usually enjoy trying out the more difficult settings in the single-player modes. Though some of the older fighting games can get ridiculous on higher difficulty settings. They don’t simply get harder, but the computer AI seems to be able to do things the human player can’t, and unfortunately Tournament Fighters is one of those games. The AI opponents spam moves faster than you can react to them, and on several occasion when I knocked my opponent down and approached them to follow up, they somehow managed to grapple me before they even stood back up! It’s cheap little things like that that make this one of the fighting games where I just don’t want to bother with the harder settings.

I suppose the higher difficulties are only there for those who want them, however. The easier settings will provide some good fun while they last. Though the game’s lasting appeal will of course be its two-player versus mode.

The gameplay itself is tight and intricate, and actually feels on par with Street Fighter II. Each character has two punch/weapon attacks and two kicks (a weak and strong variation) mapped out to the four buttons on the SNES controller. There are familiar button combos and a good variety of moves for each character. Additionally, continuously attacking an opponent will fill up a green meter under your health bar. If you can fill up the bar completely, you can unleash a powerful special move by pressing both of the stronger attack buttons. Sure, by today’s standards, Tournament Fighters may feel a little slow. But for its time, this is as good and fleshed-out as fighting mechanics got. It’s still a fun game to play.

To top it all off, the game looks great. Although maybe not as colorful as the more famous Turtles in Time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters features the kind of detailed, fluidly animated character sprites you would expect from the SNES. The sound is maybe a bit less consistent (Rat King sounds kind of like Sylvester Stallone), but it does what it needs to.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighter may not be the most remembered Turtles game, but it has perhaps held up the best out of those released during the early days of Turtlemania. It clearly took more than a little inspiration from Street Fighter II, and I’m actually surprised how well it compares to the influential fighter.

If you still have a Super Nintendo at the ready, Tournament Fighter is a fun time. And if you have a friend over, it should be a great time.

7

Thoughts on Today’s Nintendo Direct (9/23/2021)

Nintendo had a new Direct today, which maybe not-so coincidentally happens to be the 132nd anniversary of the founding of the company (happy 132nd birthday, Nintendo!). It was certainly an improvement over their E3 Direct this year (not a very high hurdle to jump, but I meant it as a compliment). There were numerous big announcements, so let me talk about the ones that caught my attention.

First thing’s first, Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games are coming to Nintendo Switch as part of an upgraded Switch Online. That’s cool, and with the NES and SNES already a part of it, it just feels more complete now. All the classics together again for the first time since the Wii (I know many people would hate me for not including Atari consoles as part of “the classics,” but let’s not pretend like those hold up). A lot of the obvious games will be included at one point or another, like Super Mario 64, the N64 Zelda titles, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, etc. But then they (briefly) showed something that really caught my eye…

“Buh Gawd King!”

Yes, Banjo-Kazooie is coming to Nintendo Switch, making it the first time since its original release that Banjo-Kazooie is on a Nintendo console (where it really belongs, if we’re being perfectly honest). It was a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of announcement, which is odd, seeing as it’s actually a pretty big deal given the whole history of the series (and developer Rare) with Nintendo and then Microsoft and everything. Could this mean a new Banjo-Kazooie game is in the cards? Probably not. But it gives some semblance of hope for a future for the series. Plus, Banjo-Kazooie (and the other N64 games) on the go? Sounds great!

Before we move on to more games, let’s take a moment to talk about something else that was discussed during the Direct: the upcoming Super Mario animated movie!

While the fact that the film is being made by Illumination has me a bit skeptical (their movies tend to be perfectly content with being “adequate”), I would be lying if I said I weren’t interested. Particularly after this Direct, when Shigeru Miyamoto himself announced the cast!

Chris Pratt wouldn’t have been my first choice for Mario, but I can totally imagine it now after the announcement. I admit I’m a bit disappointed that Seth Rogen is voicing Donkey Kong. But Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach and Jack Black as Bowser? Hot diggity dog! I mean, I always imagined Brad Garrett as Bowser (he was great as Krang in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows), but Jack Black is a more than worthy substitute.

Also, Cranky Kong is in the movie.

Also also, Foreman Spike is in the movie. Now THAT is the kind of deep cut I was hoping for from this Mario movie. The kind of deep cut Super Smash Bros. USED to do, but would never do these days.

Speaking of Super Smash Bros., the last DLC fighter for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate wasn’t announced during this Direct, but will be announced in October. I’m kind of glad they didn’t reveal them here. It’s probably just going to be another anime guy with a sword or another vanilla fighting game character. They’ll likely be a character who has little to nothing to do with Nintendo’s history anyway, so why sully this Direct with another inevitable disappointment from Super Smash Bros?

Anyway, back to the good stuff. Next year will see the release of Chocobo Racing GP, a Switch exclusive sequel (or maybe remake) of a semi-obscure Mario Kart-style racing game from the Playstation One.

I. Loved. This.

I have many fond memories of Chocobo Racing back in the PSOne days (hard to say how well it would hold up, since I haven’t played it in such a long time, but for its day I had a lot of fun with it). Never would I have thought Square-Enix would actually make a sequel to it after all this time. I’m happy they are. Especially since Nintendo seems to keep forgetting to make Mario Kart 9, a kart racer like this is all the more welcome. So happy to see Square-Enix remember something other than Final Fantasy VII for once.

And finally, the big news (for me, anyway) was the announcement of Kirby and the Forgotten Land. The first fully 3D Kirby game!

Good gracious, that trailer. It started off quiet, showing off an abandoned civilization. Typical video game stuff, but with an added colorfulness not usually seen in “abandoned civilization” scenarios. Then we cut to Kirby waking up on a beach. “Oh cool! A new Kirby game!” I thought. Kirby’s always reliable in producing quality games, though he is a Nintendo mainstay so it wasn’t the most shocking revelation.

But then… it happened.

The camera zoomed out behind Kirby. “No, it can’t be…” I thought, before Kirby started moving around freely in this new environment! It’s a Kirby 3D platformer! Good heavens, it’s a Kirby 3D platformer!

Do you know how long I’ve waited for a 3D platformer starring Kirby? Way too long! To pull back the curtain on the depths of my nerdhood, I’ve sometimes thought about what kind of games I would make in various existing franchises, and one of my recurring ideas has always been a 3D Kirby platformer. And now it’s actually happening. I actually got a little misty-eyed in the trailer.

But what am I telling you for? Just watch it yourself!

Now, to be fair, 2D platformers have a much better track record than 3D ones (3D Mario games are amazing, but they haven’t had any real competition since the days of Banjo-Kazooie). But the potential has always been there. And in this day and age, when Rare hasn’t been present in the genre for well over a decade, Mario’s 3D platformers (sublime though they may be) are really the only ones out there. Oh, you can bring up Ratchet & Clank all you want, but that series is far more an action-adventure game than a platformer (just because it has cartoony characters doesn’t mean it’s a platformer). So we need 3D platformers now more than ever. There’s never been anything wrong with 2D Kirby games (literally, there’s never been a bad one), but I’m happy to see the series branch out with a full-fledged 3D platformer after all this time.

There were plenty of other things discussed in the Nintendo Direct, such as a long-awaited update to Animal Crossing: New Horizons (yes please), and a new trailer for Bayonetta 3 (which closed out the Direct for some reason. I personally would have ended it with Kirby, which has a much richer history and – I’m just going to say it – is a much better, less button-mashy series). But if you just want the news that came out of the Direct, you can read that elsewhere. I’m just giving my thoughts on my favorite bits of the presentation. So hopefully you enjoyed reading my thoughts on this Nintendo Direct.

Jack Black is Bowser.

Ten Years of Dark Souls

Today, September 22nd 2021, marks the ten-year anniversary of the original release of Dark Souls in Japan. So not only is September 22nd the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but I guess you could call it Dark Souls Day as well.

Yes, somehow it’s been ten full years since Dark Souls first captured our imaginations (and made us smash our controllers) with its intricate gameplay, epic boss fights and unique dark fantasy world. It would end up being (unquestionably) the most influential video game of the last decade, with many imitators in the “Souls-like” genre (none of which are a patch on the real deal) being made in its wake, and games in just about every other genre adopting many of its elements and mechanics.

Okay, so technically Demon’s Souls started the series. Though while Demon’s Souls may be a classic in its own right, I think it’s safe to say it was with 2011’s Dark Souls that the series really took off and conquered the video game world.

Unlike so many games from the late 2000s/early 2010s, Dark Souls has aged beautifully, and its impact and influence has remained intact in a way that’s usually reserved for Nintendo’s best titles. I mean, who the hell talks about Bioshock anymore? Good riddance, I say.

Ah, but Dark Souls. It really is one of the medium’s modern classics. Although now that it’s ten-years old, do we take out the “modern” and simply categorize it as a “classic?”

At any rate, that’s what Dark Souls is, a classic! Its sequels and follow-ups are also stellar (though BloodBorne is probably the only one whose reputation matches the original). The series was a dominating force in gaming in the 2010s, and it seems its influence will continue well beyond that.

Series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s next game, Elden Ring, is one of the most anticipated games on the horizon. But it certainly has a lot to live up to if it hopes to have the same impact as its 2011 predecessor. A hell of an act to follow.

Happy tenth anniversary, Dark Souls!

“Ah, dang it!”

Dr. Mario (NES) Review

These days, we kind of take for granted the Mario games that don’t fit into the “main” Super Mario series. Unless it’s the next big 3D Mario adventure, we tend to refer to the games as “spin-offs” and don’t hold them in the same light as the “proper” Mario games.

The thing is, Mario was always Nintendo’s renaissance man. Shigeru Miyamoto designed the character with the intent that he could be thrown into any type of game, in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and (most specifically) Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s not as though Mario was created with a definitive story and some big universe of characters already planned out ahead of time. Mario appeared in a number of games before Princess Peach, Bowser and the entire Mushroom Kingdom came into existence in Super Mario Bros. That was Mario’s breakout role, sure, but it wasn’t exactly where he got his start. Although it makes sense that Super Mario Bros. would become the basis of what we all consider to be “main” Mario games, as time has gone on it seems people have diminished the allure of the “other” Mario games as an unfortunate side effect of this.

That wasn’t the case back in 1990, when Mario could suddenly don a lab coat and head mirror, call himself a doctor, and star in a falling block puzzle game, and it would still create an iconic game in its own right.

Dr. Mario was the first such puzzle game in the Mario franchise, which would slowly become its own series, and open the door for puzzle games starring other Mario franchise characters like Yoshi’s Cookie and Wario’s Woods. While some of these later puzzle games were improvements, and subsequent Dr. Mario sequels (such as the underrated Nintendo 64 entry) built on the formula, the original NES release is still a charming and addictive puzzle game.

The goal of Dr. Mario is to eliminate a screen of all of its viruses. These viruses come in three colors: red, blue and yellow. You eliminate these viruses by matching them up with vitamins of corresponding colors. But there are a few twists to keep things interesting.

The first thing to note is that the vitamins have two halves, which can be different colors, so you’ll want to pay extra attention when the viruses are close together. You have to match four objects of the same color in order to eliminate a virus. Each half of a vitamin counts as one object, and a virus counts as another. So you could potentially have three viruses of the same color stacked on top of each other, meaning you’d only have to put one similarly colored half of a vitamin on top of them to eliminate them. You can even eliminate the viruses by placing the vitamins against them horizontally, but it’s much less common.

Additionally, if the vitamins involved in an elimination feature halves of different colors, those halves will remain and fall straight down until they either land on a virus or the bottom of the screen. This gives you an added level of strategy for any nearby viruses, but it also risks filling up the screen with piles of vitamins. If the vitamins stack up to the top of the screen and Mario can’t throw any more, you lose the round.

It’s a nice twist on the Tetris formula, one that remains fun even today. Better still, the game features a two-player competitive mode, where each player aims to eliminate their screen of viruses before the other. And despite the technical limitations of the game (even by NES standards) it makes the best with what it has. The graphics are cute and fun (I especially like how part of the screen is a microscope held up to the viruses, just so you can see them dancing around in all their glory), and the game’s two selectable music tracks, Chill and Fever, are infectiously catchy, and are all too easy to listen to on repeat as you play round after round.

Unfortunately, if you don’t have a second player at the ready to tackle the aforementioned two-player mode, Dr. Mario’s gameplay can only go so far. The lack of any additional modes really stands out in retrospect, and the fact that – unlike Tetris – each round has a set goal to reach means beating your own high score is kind of an afterthought.

Dr. Mario is still fun, no doubt. But it isn’t particularly deep. It’s at its best when two players are onboard, and even in that area it’s been bettered (Dr. Mario 64 turned the formula into a four-player party game. And now I really wish Nintendo would re-release that game or make a proper sequel to further add to the proceedings).

Its limitations are certainly more apparent today, but Dr. Mario is still worth playing. Perhaps more importantly, it represents a time when gamers were a bit wiser, and could accept Mario in any role and not question the merit in its potential.

6

Super Nintendo Turns 30 (in North America)!

Yeah, I know. I already wrote a thing about the Super Nintendo’s 30th anniversary based on its original Japanese release. But we’re talking about a video game console so good, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about it again.

Today, August 23rd 2021, marks the 30th anniversary of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s release in North America. This also means it’s the 30th anniversary of Super Mario World’s release in North America, which I’ll happily say is still the best launch game ever made.

There are a few classic video game consoles from yesteryear: the original NES had perhaps a bigger impact than any other, and was the video game console of the 80s. The Nintendo 64 pioneered 3D gaming. The Sony Playstation, as well as the Sega Genesis, Saturn and Dreamcast, also opened new doors to gaming. But it’s the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that’s the timeless masterpiece of a video game console.

With all due respect to the aforementioned consoles, they have aged in one way or another (well, maybe not the Genesis, but its library wasn’t as deep as the SNES’). That’s not to say that they don’t have their share of timeless games, because they do. But when revisiting those consoles, it is apparent that they came from specific points in the past (as much as I love the N64, and perhaps sometimes I’m too harsh on it, it can sometimes be painfully obvious that it was experimenting with 3D gaming). But the SNES is the one that still stands tall even when compared to today’s consoles. It was that perfect moment in gaming history when developers had mastered the craft of everything that came before. And while it is a good thing that gaming entered new territories afterwards, suffice to say that entering the third-dimension kind of started things over. And in some ways, games still have yet to catch up to where they were (the SNES never had things like microtransactions get in the way of more honest game design, after all).

Just think of the library of classics the SNES had: Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Yoshi’s Island, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Super Mario Kart, Kirby Super Star, Kirby’s Dream Land 3, EarthBound, the first three Mega Man X games, Mega Man 7, Tetris Attack, the Street Fighter 2 ports, Secret of Mana, and more still!

There were just so many classics on the console, and they remain every bit as fun today as they were then (exception being Star Fox. In a bit of role reversal, it’s the N64 installment in that series that has proven timeless). You also had your lesser known gems (Demon’s Crest), and stronger third-party support than any Nintendo console until the Switch (although the Wii actually had stronger third-party support than it gets credit for).

A classic lineup of games unlike any that has been seen before or since, the Super Nintendo is truly one of the greats. It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty years since the system made its way stateside (I was just a baby at the time!). But you wouldn’t know it by playing the many classics it produced.

Happy 30th anniversary (again), Super Nintendo!

Super Smash Bros. Has Lost Its Heart

I hate to admit it, but I kind of hate what Super Smash Bros. has become.

I know, I’ve complained a lot about Super Smash Bros. in the past. But I finally think I best understand where my disillusionment with the series lies. In the past, I’ve not-entirely joked about my disdain for the overabundance of “anime sword guys” in the series, and I stand by those complaints in that their execution lacks variety. But that’s ultimately only a critique. My real issue with the series is actually much deeper than that.

Super Smash Bros. simply isn’t the same series it once was. By that, I mean that it no longer feels like the “Nintendo fighter” that it used to be. In its earlier entries, Super Smash Bros. was all about Nintendo’s history, pitting the company’s many characters against each other in bouts that were one part 2D fighter, one part Mario Kart, and one part sumo wrestling. The series was as much a love letter to Nintendo history as much as it was a combination of a party game and a fighter.

That “Nintendo-ness” has been lost to the series in more recent entries: There are no longer trophies that give brief glimpses to the deeper nooks and crannies of Nintendo’s back catalogue. The once simple arcade-style single player modes are replaced with overblown “story” modes with cinematics that look more like something out of Kingdom Hearts than Super Smash Bros. And while the series used to pluck Nintendo characters like Ness or the Ice Climbers out of obscurity, these days we instead just get more and more third-party characters who have less and less to do with Nintendo. The franchise now feels like it’s more about the hype than the history, with each subsequent third-party addition getting a more over-produced reveal trailer than the last.

“Ugh. Barf.”

I know, by now you’re probably ready to jump down my throat for being a Nintendo fanboy. But this isn’t a case of “X company is better than Y,” it’s a simple matter of a series forgetting what it once was. Super Smash Bros. is bigger than ever, but it’s kind of lost sight of its original purpose as it expanded.

I miss the humbler days of Super Smash Bros. Back when the inclusion of someone like King Dedede was considered a big deal, because he was a classic Nintendo character. Nowadays Super Smash Bros. just seems like it’s trying to get bigger and bigger, gluttonously trying to snag as many of the biggest names from other people’s games as it can get.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the idea of third-party characters being included in Super Smash Bros. But I do think the series has gone too far in this direction, and needs to take a few steps back in this department. Back in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (the first entry to introduce characters from outside of Nintendo) they made it a point to keep the third-party characters to a minimum (it had two). Now, they just can’t stop adding them. It’s kind of polluted the whole point of the series.

It isn’t just the number of third-party characters that’s diluted the Nintendo aspect of Super Smash Bros. on its own, but who they’re selecting. I liked the idea Sakurai and company had going into Brawl, that the third-party characters had to have some history with Nintendo (which makes the fact that Solid Snake was the first such character added a little odd, since his presence on Nintendo consoles wasn’t too expansive). I think maybe, going forward, the series should look back and double-down on that notion, and the third-party characters should at least have strong ties to Nintendo’s own history. Mega Man and Simon Belmont make all the sense in the world. When you think of third-party games in Nintendo’s early years, that’s immediately who you’d think of. Banjo-Kazooie also makes perfect sense, given that Rare was probably the most beloved and prolific second-party Nintendo ever had (they basically carried the N64).

“This is stupid.”

Those characters’ series all played a key role in Nintendo’s history, so they still feel like they fit into the proceedings. They may not have been made by Nintendo themselves, but their association with the Big N is so strong they feel right at home in Super Smash Bros. The same can’t really be said about Final Fantasy VII, Fatal Fury, Persona, Tekken or Minecraft. That’s not to say anything against those games (well, maybe Final Fantasy VII), and some of them have appeared on Nintendo consoles at one point or another. But you can’t really make an argument that they are as much a part of Nintendo’s history as Mega Man or Castlevania.

Now I know people will really want to thrash me, and accuse me of being “salty” that my favorite character didn’t make it or whatever. Lord knows the Sakurai Defense Force grab their torches and pitchforks and spread their toxicity whenever someone shows the smallest modicum of disappointment in the series. I personally don’t find it unreasonable if someone is disappointed in a game about fanservice when said game fails to deliver on that fanservice. But that’s besides the point. The point is that Super Smash Bros. now just feels like a big hype machine, a shallow commercial more focused on the promotion of other people’s games and the production values of its own trailers than it is about, you know, Nintendo characters fighting.

I’ve heard some people claim that Super Smash Bros. “isn’t about Nintendo history anymore” as a means of defending the series. But that’s exactly the problem! There used to be a spirit of playfulness and inventiveness to the series, a trait shared by other Nintendo staples like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. And that just isn’t present anymore. The heart and soul of Super Smash Bros. has all but disappeared as it becomes more and more about shallow, meaningless hype.

“Dear God, why?!”

Think back to the original Super Smash Bros. No one knew who this Ness kid was. You could almost hear the collective “What the hell is EarthBound?” of everyone who played it. Then there’s the reveal trailer for Super Smash Bros. Melee, which introduced Princess Peach, Bowser and Zelda to the series, then turned around and also reminded fans of the existence of the Ice Climbers! Even when Brawl introduced Solid Snake to the series (whose reveal seems as tame as a kitten compared to what we have now), it did so only after bringing in Wario, Meta Knight, Zero Suit Samus and a freshly-resurrected Pit from Kid Icarus.

These were all eclectic combinations of classic Nintendo faces, as well as some that inspired players to look deeper into Nintendo’s history (or elicited delightful surprise to the people who were aware of the more obscure characters ahead of time). Sure, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate brought in longtime requests Ridley and King K. Rool, and that was amazing. But then it all gets kind of diluted when the focus quickly shifts to a revolving door of third-party characters. There’s been so many third-party characters added through the game’s DLC, that Ridley and K. Rool’s welcome inclusions feel like they’ve been drowned.

Some people would say that they’re running out of Nintendo characters to use. Like hell they are! Series like Advance Wars and Golden Sun still go unrepresented, despite demand from fans (but those fans are naturally just supposed to shut up “because SepHiRoth!!1!”). There are characters like Stanley the Bugman or Muddy Mole that they could pluck from history. Hell, Takamaru from The Mysterious Murasame Castle has been considered for inclusion into Super Smash Bros. in the past, but was rejected for “not being as recognized as other Nintendo characters.” Since when was recognizability a factor? Good thing Ness and Pit made it in when they did, I guess.

Point being, there’s no shortage of Nintendo history that can still be drawn upon to be included as playable characters in Super Smash Bros. It’s just that Nintendo and Sakurai and whoever else choose to focus on the big names they can get elsewhere. It was fun for a while, but by this point, it’s kind of robbed Super Smash Bros. of what made it special to begin with.

The fans who want to see these characters from Nintendo’s past often seem to get bullied online by Super Smash Bros’ strangely zealous defenders, since those characters “don’t have a chance” to make it. Funny, because in the Super Smash Bros. of old, those are exactly the kind of characters who would make it. Resurrecting characters from the obscure corners of Nintendo’s history is the most “Super Smash Bros.” thing imaginable. Or at least it was back when the series was actually about Nintendo characters (it may be worth pointing out that learning the reason for Takamaru’s exclusion was what brought me to the realization of what’s wrong with Super Smash Bros’ current mentality).

It isn’t just the characters though, but the gameplay of Super Smash Bros. itself seems to care less and less about the items, the stage gimmicks, and all the Mario Kart-esque party elements that separated Super Smash Bros. from other fighters in the first place. I think the competitive gaming scene has had a negative influence on the Super Smash Bros. series (I would argue competitive gaming has had a negative impact on a lot of other series as well, but let’s stick to Super Smash Bros. for now). I don’t have a problem with people who want to play Super Smash Bros. as a competitive game (I myself often played the series on flat stages with little to no items). But let’s be real here: Super Smash Bros. was never a hardcore fighter. While it’s admittedly a good thing that the series has had more of a focus on character balance in recent entries, that’s one of the few positives, as much of the series’ appeal has been abandoned as it caters more and more to the competitive crowd.

Take, for example, the WarioWare stage. In Brawl, if you were playing on the WarioWare stage with AI opponents, and one of the stage’s “micro-games” showed up – asking the combatants to play along with its goofy instructions – the AI would follow those instructions, because it was like WarioWare. That was the appeal unique to that level. That was the kind of playfulness the series used to have. In Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, however, if you do the same thing, the AI opponent will ignore the WarioWare rules and just keep fighting because hardcore fighter!

Where’s the charm? Where’s the personality?

They’ve been lost, unfortunately. Lost to Super Smash Bros’ insistence on being taken seriously as a competitive fighter, and its even more egregious ambitions of being a hype machine.

It’s almost like Super Smash Bros. has had a direct opposite trajectory as Paper Mario in regards to the changes the series has made over time, but both have been damaging to their respective series’ heart: Paper Mario continues to strip away its depth to the point of being an empty shell of its former self, while Super Smash Bros. just keeps adding bells and whistles to the point that it’s lost its identity as Nintendo’s take on the fighter.

Again, some people claim that Super Smash Bros. is now something more than it once was, as it now encompasses video games as a whole. I’d argue that it’s become too much, and that less would actually be more at this point. Give me the smaller, more creative Super Smash Bros. over its garish, Esports-pandering current self any day.

Some even argue that Super Smash Bros. is bigger than “just Nintendo” at this point, but does it really have to be?

Personally, once the DLC characters for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are good and done with, I hope Nintendo, Sakurai and everyone else involved take a good, hard look at the series. After Ultimate, I’d love to see the next installment go back to its roots. Yes, that means cutting a lot of the fat which yes, means cutting back on characters like Cloud, Sephiroth, Joker, Terry, Steve and Kazuya. Will that disappoint some people? Sure. But hey, at least those characters had their time in the sun. Besides, their fans seemed to relish in rubbing the disappointment of other people in their faces, so I can’t say I’d feel too bad for them.

“I miss THIS.”

Let’s have the next Super Smash Bros. include the original N64 cast, and those of Melee and Brawl as well, but maybe be a little more selective of the characters from subsequent entries. Characters like Mega Man, Simon Belmont and Banjo-Kazooie can stay. But let’s really try to keep it to a minimum with the third-party choices. A few new characters who actually have meaningful ties to Nintendo’s history can join in as well, whether they be recognizable or not. Let’s maybe have a few fun modes and mini-games instead of trying to concoct this big, epic storyline that couldn’t be more out of place in this series. And let’s stop pretending that Super Smash Bros. should be some big ESports franchise, and bring back the playfulness and emphasis on fun of the earlier entries.

Super Smash Bros. would do well for itself to go back to basics. To self-reflect and realize it doesn’t have to be the hulking monstrosity it’s become. Just let it be Nintendo’s fun take on the fighter genre again. Maybe then it can reclaim its heart and soul, instead of just being the empty embodiment of hype.