Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee Review

Though the mainline Pokemon games have always been found on Nintendo’s handhelds, the fact that the Nintendo Switch combines the concepts of a home console and a handheld means that Pokemon will finally see a primary entry on a home console (while not betraying its handheld roots). This will happen when Pokemon Sword and Shield versions are released in late 2019, which will be over two and a half years after the Switch launched. To fill the gap, however, Nintendo and Game Freak released a title that would whet the appetite of hardcore fans, while also luring in the more casual crowd who got into the series through the mobile game, Pokemon Go. The result was 2018’s Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu and Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee, which weaves elements from Pokemon Go into the familiar adventure from the original generation of Pokemon.

“I hope they deliver their original motto. Don’t know why they ever changed it.”

To be more specific, the Pokemon: Let’s Go titles take after the original generation’s later “Yellow Version,” which adapted elements of the Pokemon anime into the game (like having Pikachu as your starting Pokemon, who would follow the player outside of a Pokeball, and Team Rocket being based off the characters Jessie and James from the show). As the names of the games imply, depending on which title you own, either Pikachu or Eevee will fill the role of your partner Pokemon. And just like Pokemon Yellow, Let’s Go takes place in the original Kanto region, with the same locations, gym leaders and Pokemon found in the first generation of games (with the exception of the new mythical Meltan and his evolved form, Melmetal, which are obtained via connecting with Pokemon Go).

So Pokemon: Let’s Go is something of a remake. But before you get too excited at the idea of replaying the original Pokemon generation made anew on Nintendo Switch, the addition of Pokemon Go elements makes Let’s Go feel more like “Pokemon lite” than a full-on remake.

“It’s a big, beautiful, old rock! Oh, the pioneers used to ride these babies for miles!”

On one hand, I totally understand the appeal here. As someone who still plays Pokemon Go somewhat regularly, I understand that the lighter, simpler approach of Go definitely has its strengths. And combining that with something closer to the ‘proper’ Pokemon games just makes sense. What better way to bridge fans of all kinds together and bring a new audience into the mainline Pokemon titles?

On the other hand, Pokemon: Let’s Go can often feel crudely stitched together between its two halves in execution. It’s neither as deep as the main Pokemon titles, nor is it as breezy as Pokemon Go. It’s a nice concept that works at times, though too often leaves you wanting to either play the proper entries or Pokemon Go instead.

Basically, capturing Pokemon is similar to Pokemon Go, skipping the battle aspect and just jumping straight into trying to catch the creatures. Just as is the case with Pokemon Go, you have to time your throws to get the Pokeball in the target surrounding the Pokemon for a better chance at catching it. Unlike Pokemon Go, this is done via motion controls, as the game is played with a single Joy-con. Admittedly, this can get a little finicky, but it’s certainly not nearly as bad as the motion control detractors would surely claim (motion controls are simply different, that doesn’t make them inherently bad, internet).

“Nickie can challenge me any day!”

Meanwhile, battling Pokemon trainers takes a more traditional approach, with the turn-based RPG battle system intact. Despite catching Pokemon no longer requiring the assistance of battling with your team of Pokemon, both catching new monsters and defeating trainers will net your current team with experience points. Additionally, if you catch multiple specimens of the same Pokemon in succession, you’ll nab additional rewards.

This combination Pokemon Go’s catching system and traditional trainer battles makes for a few issues, however. The most prominent of which being the awkward pace it gives the game. You’ll likely spend a decent amount of time willingly catching Pokemon, since it’s so quick and easy, but then head into a town and be faced with one battle after another that ends up feeling like a slog.

Another problem is that, like in Pokemon Go, you can lose several Pokeballs trying to catch even a single Pokemon. But unlike in Pokemon Go, where you can always get more Pokeballs (and other items) by spinning the Pokestops located just about everywhere in real life, you have to purchase your items in Pokemon: Let’s Go just as you do in the main games. So be prepared to burn through all the in-game currency you get for defeating every trainer in town as soon as you catch a handful of Pokemon and exhaust your inventory.

There’s nothing innately wrong with either of the game’s two halves, but they just never seem to mesh together in the way they should. That’s not to say that Pokemon: Let’s Go is bad – it definitely has its appeal – but it does feel like something of a missed opportunity.

“I’m king of the world!”

Pokemon: Let’s Go definitely provides some good fun from time to time, and even throws in some elements from newer Pokemon generations (like dressing up your character and Pikachu/Eevee, or hitching a ride on the back of your larger Pokemon). The graphics are smooth and the character designs charming, and it’s fun to hear the classic Pokemon tunes brought up to date. And for completionists, a host of post-game content gives the game some extra life.

There’s certainly an audience out there for Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee/Pikachu, and for some, it may actually serve as the bridge between Pokemon Go and ‘Pokemon proper’ that it intends to be. But the sum of Pokemon: Let’s Go is never as good as its individual parts. Let’s Go flip-flops between being too simple and too bloated, making for an awkward experience that, sadly, doesn’t quite click as well as it sounds like it would.

 

5

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Yoshi’s Crafted World Review

Yoshi hasn’t had the best track record of Nintendo’s many iconic characters. Though his roles as Mario’s sidekick in Super Mario World and Super Mario Galaxy 2 were lauded, when it came to the cute dinosaur’s starring roles, things were a bit less consistent. He got off to a phenomenal start in Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario World 2, which was considered part of the official (albeit loose) Mario series canon. Yoshi’s Island took the foundations Mario created, and transformed them to make one of the best platformers of all time.

After that, however, Yoshi’s starring titles lost their luster. Yoshi’s Story – the N64 follow-up to Yoshi’s Island (that isn’t part of the main Mario series) – was one of the most shallow first-party games Nintendo has ever made. From there came uneventful spinoff titles like Yoshi’s Topsy Turvy and Yoshi’s Touch & Go (which weren’t bad, but didn’t have a whole lot of value). Finally, Nintendo decided to try to replicate Yoshi’s original success, creating quasi-sequels to Yoshi’s Island in the forms of Yoshi’s Island DS on Nintendo DS, and Yoshi’s New Island on 3DS. The results were mixed, with DS only replicating the original Yoshi’s Island on face value, and New Island failing to live up to the original in any way, shape or form. Perhaps Yoshi was just better suited as Mario’s stead?

But then, Nintendo seemed to find the right developer to get Yoshi back on track. Good-Feel, the studio that previously developed Wario Land: Shake It! and Kirby’s Epic Yarn, were tasked with creating a spiritual successor to the latter. But instead of returning to Kirby, Good-Feel developed Yoshi’s Woolly World for the Wii U, a title that combined the yarn aesthetics of the studio’s Kirby adventure with familiar gameplay elements of Yoshi’s Island.

Though the end result could never live up to the masterful Yoshi’s Island, Woolly World delivered the first Yoshi game that could be seen as a worthy follow-up to the SNES classic. And now, Good-Feel has made a return visit to Yoshi’s island with a follow-up to their previous outing in the form of Yoshi’s Crafted World. While the game itself isn’t radically different from its predecessor, Yoshi’s Crafted World still boasts the same undeniable charm, and is another example that Good-Feel are perhaps the best visual artists in the gaming medium.

As the title implies, the wool and yarn aesthetics of Woolly World have been replaced with an arts & crafts motif. While that may not seem as innately adorable (cardboard is objectively not as cute as yarn), Crafted World’s consistently creative visual charm will quickly win you over all the same.

In a time when I’ve stared at so many photorealistic humans in video games that I’m now more likely to shrug my shoulders at realistic graphics than be impressed with them, it takes a genuinely striking art direction to stand out. And Good-Feel is one of the few studios to continuously pull the feat off. Even more impressively, they often find ways to weave their visuals into the gameplay.

Though Yoshi boasts the same bag of tricks he has since Yoshi’s Island – like flutter jumps, ground pounds and the ability to eat enemies with his prehensile tongue which, of course, turns them into eggs which can then be thrown at various objects – the new arts & crafts geddup has changed things up a bit. Based on whatever material the surrounding environment is made from, Yoshi might throw an egg at a wall which then unfolds into a staircase, or he might sink into a pillowy floor.

“The boss fights are easy, but consistently creative.”

Admittedly, I don’t think there’s quite as many “gameplay merges with visuals” moments as Epic Yarn or Woolly World, but the creativity always shines through. Every last enemy, object and environment looks like it was made in arts & crafts. Ninja Shy Guys throw aluminum foil shurikens, Yoshi can toss magnets onto giant soda cans to create platforms, even the infamous first boss of Yoshi’s Island, Burt the Bashful, returns with a makeover in the form of Burt the Beach Ball.

Every last moment of Yoshi’s Crafted World catches the eye. Not only does it look great, but the clever ways in which the developers reimagined so many familiar faces and assets, and recreated them from different materials, never ceases to be charming. Yoshi’s Crafted World is a delight to look at from beginning to end.

There are a few new elements added to the classic Yoshi gameplay that don’t rely on the new visuals. Since Yoshi’s Island, Yoshi has collected Happy Flowers and Red Coins, and needed to complete a level at full health to clear a stage with one-hundred percent completion. And while that’s still true here, a few new layers have been added to Yoshi’s completionist traditions.

Though Yoshi’s hit points retain a twenty heart maximum, and each stage still hides twenty Red Coins, the number of Happy Flowers now differ between stages. Anywhere between three and nine Happy Flowers are hidden in a stage (either on their own, or requiring a certain action on Yoshi’s part to reveal them). Additionally, three more Happy Flowers are earned by claiming all of a stage’s Red Coins, getting to the exit with full health, and grabbing 100 regular coins (definitely the easiest of the lot). The extra emphasis on the Flowers is due to their newfound importance, as they are now needed to unlock different areas in the game, similar to Mario 64’s Power Stars or Banjo-Kazooie’s Jiggies.

“Poochy should have his own game.”

Even when the levels are done, they still aren’t done. After the first few stages are completed, new options become available to give the levels reasons for revisits. Characters on the overworked will ask Yoshi to collect a certain amount of a specific item located in a particular stage (you ‘collect’ these objects by throwing eggs at them, naturally). And even more noteworthy, completed stages unlock the option to play them in reverse, with the goal now being to find a certain number of Poochy pups and guide them to the stage’s exit (which is its former entrance).

New to the series is the ability to walk into the foreground and background. Sadly, you don’t get too many scenarios that utilize this mechanic to its fullest, but there are still a few instances where puzzles and objects have to be completed or obtained by paying close attention to all of your surroundings. Unfortunately, aiming eggs at the background of foreground can sometimes be a bit finicky.

Another gameplay addition comes in the form of score attack stages, which take a break from the collecting-focused nature of the rest of the game and emphasize a certain gimmick that requires a high score. Example include destroying objects with a giant Yoshi robot, jumping through hoops, popping balloons, and my personal favorite, a rail-shooter stage where you throw eggs at targets while aboard a train that reminds me of the Toy Story Mania ride at Disneyland.

Unfortunately, one change from Wooly World that isn’t for the better comes in the form of ‘costumes,’ which replace the wool item from the previous game. In Wooly World, finding wool would unlock a different Yoshi, which could be simple color alterations, or possess wacky patterns modeled after other Nintendo characters (with Amiibo being used to unlock a number of the specific character Yoshis). It was pointless, but fun.

Here in Crafted World, however, the only Yoshi’s available are there from the start of the game (with player’s choosing which Yoshi they want to play as for the rest of the adventure). So instead of different Yoshis, you simply unlock new costumes for Yoshi, which will take the first hit from an enemy like a shield, meaning maintaining your hearts is marginally easier.

That sounds fine and all, and admittedly the costumes come in a fun variety of everyday items (such as coffee creamer cups or tuna cans). Despite being more practical, however, the costumes just aren’t as fun or enticing to collect. Even the number of Amiibo that can be used for the game has been greatly reduced, meaning that not only do the costumes have less variety than the wool from the previous game, but it also lacks the personality and references as well.

“I keep dreaming’! Dreaming’ ’bout my Dream Gem!”

Another fun little twist to Crafted World is that its overworld takes several branching paths, with players often able to select which areas to explore whenever they see fit. The story involves Baby Bowser and Kamek trying to steal five magic gems from the Yoshis, and inadvertently spreading them across the island during the kerfuffle. As you might have guessed, a boss holds each gem, but the game doesn’t necessarily have only five worlds. Instead, Yoshi’s Crafted World features a myriad of mini-worlds (two or three stages apiece), that connect to different paths, with the big bosses waiting at the end of each path. There still is a set destination for the fifth gem, so it’s not completely open, but by shrinking the sizes of the worlds, we get to have a variety of different themes found in any given path, as opposed to the usual “fire world, ice world, desert” nature of platformers.

If there’s one element of the game that’s a bit of a mixed bag, it’s the music. That’s not to say the music is bad – it’s cutesy, playful sound fits the game quite nicely – but it lacks variety. Even a number of later stages in the game, which have drastically different themes from those at the start of the game, still use many of the same tunes. Again, the music that is present is charming, but it kind of detracts from the experience when the music stays in the same place the whole way through.

Yoshi’s Crafted World is admittedly not quite the same breath of fresh air that Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Yoshi’s Woolly World were upon their releases, but it carries on their legacy proudly, and is every bit as smile-inducing as its predecessors. Good-Feel has an uncanny ability at visual craftsmanship in gaming, and Yoshi’s Crafted World is another testament to those abilities. The gameplay makes for a light and relaxing good time, while the visuals will keep you glued to your screen in awe from the moment your selected Yoshi departs on their adventure to the time the credits roll.

 

7

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

With a name like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Switch’s edition to Nintendo’s massively-successful crossover fighter certainly gave itself a lot to live up to. Somewhat miraculously, Ultimate manages to pull that very feat off, delivering what is undoubtedly the best entry in the long-running series to date. Bursting at the seams with content and fine-tuning the series’ gameplay, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its lofty expectations, even if a lackluster adventure mode and a thin (and inconsistent) lineup of new fighters means it doesn’t quite surpass them.

Super Smash Bros. really doesn’t need an introduction at this point. The franchise has become one of Nintendo’s biggest sellers thanks to its engrossing gameplay, which combines elements of traditional fighting games with Mario Kart-esque party elements, all while incorporating sumo style rules that make it unique unto itself.

By ‘sumo style’ rules, I of course refer to Super Smash Bros’ key mechanic of sending opponents off the screen – similar to sumos throwing each other out of the ring – in order to defeat them, as opposed to depleting a health bar as in most fighters. Though with that said, the ‘Stamina mode’ first introduced to the series in Melee, in which players do deplete each other’s health, returns as one of Ultimate’s primary game modes, no longer relegated to a kind of bonus mode as in the past.

That seemingly small change is indicative of the very nature of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. This is the Super Smash Bros. that attempts to legitimize every play style for the series, and to appease every type of Smash fan. And for the most part, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate wildly succeeds in doing just that.

If you’re a serious Smash player, you can remove items and play on flat stages a la Final Destination or small stages with minimal platforms in the vein of the classic Battlefield stage, with no match-altering Final Smashes included. Players who want chaotic fun can have all items active, Final Smashes turned on, and enable every last, crazy stage hazard and gimmick. Or, if you’re somewhere in between, you can play on the standard stages with the gimmicks turned off, only allow Final Smashes by means of building up a power meter during battle, and only enable the occasional Pokeball and Assist Trophy in regards to items.

The ways in which you can customize matches are boundless. This really is the Super Smash Bros. that can appeal to any Nintendo fan. At least in terms of the core gameplay, that is.

If there is one glaring downside with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it’s with the game’s adventure mode. Dubbed ‘World of Light,’ Ultimate’s adventure mode is mind-numbingly tedious, and simply not worth the time and effort it takes to see it to the end.

In World of Light, players initially take control of Kirby, the only survivor of a Thanos-style mass extinction, as they progress through one battle after another, unlocking the other characters and collecting ‘Spirits,’ which are won after defeating opponents in possession of said Spirits.

These Spirits are a new feature in Ultimate, replacing the series’ long-standing trophy collectibles. It’s ultimately an unfair trade. While the trophies of Smash’s past featured unique character models and gave some insights into Nintendo (and gaming) history, the Spirits are merely presented as stock promotional art from past games, and provide statistical bonuses to your characters when equipped. Spirits can grant boosts to attributes like strength or speed, or provide you with a special ability (such as starting fights with a particular item, or being resistant to certain types of attacks).

This may sound interesting in concept, but it kind of goes against the very nature of Super Smash Bros. This is a fighting series all about learning the different play styles of the various characters. So if you have Spirits activated in the standard game, it makes things more about who has the best Spirits equipped, as opposed to who played the best in any given round.

Suffice to say the Spirits find all of their appeal in the single player World of Light mode. Though even then, the game often mishandles their usage. Pulling a page out of Paper Marios Sticker Star and Color Splash, there are a number of battles in World of Light in which it is necessary to have specific Spirits equipped in order to win. If the Spirits gave you advantages in these situations, that’d be fine. But on more than one occasion you will come across a battle in which victory is impossible unless you have a specific Spirit equipped.

Another issue with World of Light is that it’s just too long for its own good. It features an unnecessary amount of branching paths, alternate routes, and  overall battles. And when it finally looks like you’re done with it, World of Light pulls a Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins on the player and extends the adventure by rather lazy means. To detract from the experience even further, World of Light is exclusively played by a single player. Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s adventure mode, Subspace Emissary, was far from a winner, but at least I could play that with a friend.

Not to mention Subspace Emissary served as a fast means of unlocking every character. But World of Light just drags on and on, with the lonesome tedium making you seek one of the many other means of unlocking the characters (thankfully, there are no shortage of options when it comes to expanding the roster). The fact that World of Light actually makes me long for Subspace Emissary could be a sign that maybe Super Smash Bros. is better off without an adventure mode at all.

Of course, the adventure mode is just a small part of the overall package, and every other mode included in the game delivers in spades: Classic Mode is more fun than ever, and includes unique challenges for every last fighter. Tournaments are easier to set up than ever before. New Squad Strikes have players selecting teams of characters and eliminating them one by one. Smashdown sees players cycle through the entire roster one at a time, with previously selected characters getting locked out after use. The variety never ceases to impress.

On the concept of variety, the biggest selling point of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that every playable character from the franchise’s history is present. If they were playable in a past Super Smash Bros. title, they’re playable here. So those of you who missed Solid Snake for being omitted from Super Smash Bros. on Wii U/3DS, he’s back. Young Link and Toon Link can now face off against one another. Pichu makes his return after seventeen years (they can’t all be winners). The DLC characters from Wii U/3DS return. Even the good ol’ Ice Climbers have found their way back to the series, after technical limitations on the 3DS prevented their appearance in the last installments. And yes, we even get a handful of new characters joining the fray, meaning that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has all of the character variety of each and every one of its predecessors put together and then some.

“You’re the man now, Croc!”

Speaking of the new characters, that’s where things can be a bit inconsistent when it comes to selections. Ridley and King K. Rool feel like the most meaningful newcomers, given that they’ve been in high demand from fans since Melee. Splatoon’s Inklings also make sense as they represent one of Nintendo’s contemporary success stories. And Simon Belmont feels long overdue in the third-party character department (seriously, besides Mega Man, what other third-party character even compares to Castlevania’s early history with Nintendo?).

The remaining newcomers, however, are a bit of a mixed bag. Isabelle from Animal Crossing – though a welcome addition in her own right – doesn’t exactly come across as a character fans were dying to see join the series. Incineroar feels like he could have been any randomly selected Pokemon. And the downloadable Piranha Plant just feels like a big middle finger to the fans who have been requesting their favorite characters for years. That’s not to say that these characters detract from the gameplay by any means. But for a series so grounded in fanservice, some of these character selections feel misguided.

“Evil kings from classic series are the coolest!”

Perhaps with more newcomers the more disappointing entries wouldn’t stick out so much. But with most of the emphasis going towards bringing back every past character, you kind of wish that the smaller quantity of newcomers would have translated to a consistent quality. And that’s unfortunately not always the case.

Some fans may also lament that clone characters – now officially referred to as “echo fighters” – are still present, but at least now they’re categorized appropriately, and not treated as though they’re full-on additions to the franchise.

“The colors, Duke! The colors!”

Still, it’s hard to complain too much when Ultimate boasts seventy unique characters (with more on the way via DLC. Here’s hoping some favorites make the cut). There’s simply never a shortage of characters to choose from, and all of them bring their own sense of fun to the gameplay (with the possible exceptions of the excessive amount of sword fighters from Fire Emblem, who often feel interchangeable even when they aren’t clones).

Each character’s Final Smash has also been altered this time around, as they take on a more cinematic approach. Unfortunately, while the Final Smashes look more impressive than ever, their infrequent interactivity makes them less fun than in previous installments. This was probably done for the sake of balance, which is admirable. Though chances are, if you have Final Smashes active, you aren’t exactly aiming for a balanced, competitive bout.

The stages also adhere to Ultimate’s “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality. Although there are a few omissions, the majority of stage’s from past Super Smash Bros. titles make a return (unfortunately, Brawl’s Electroplankton-inspired stage is bafflingly among them). There are only four brand-new stages in the base game: Odyssey and Breath of the Wild themed levels for Mario and Zelda, and courses based on newly-represented series Splatoon and Castlevania. That may not sound like a whole lot of newness, but more stages are planned to be added along with the DLC characters. Besides, with the returning courses, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate includes over one-hundred different locations to do battle. And as stated, every last stage comes in three different versions (standard, Battlefield, and Final Destination), so you’re not very likely to get bored from repetition.

For those who don’t always have someone at the ready for some couch multiplayer, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also expands the series’ online capabilities. Creating online matches has been streamlined by means of creating arenas, where players can set the rules as they see fit. You can even search for specific rulesets if you want to join an arena that’s more to your play style (though admittedly, the search engine needs some work). It’s now much, much easier to set up or join an online match and play with or against Smash players from around the world.

Sadly, the online functionality still isn’t perfect. Though lag is considerably less frequent than in Brawl or Wii U/3DS, it’s still present more often than you’d like. It isn’t limited to worldwide matches, either. I’ve encountered some slowdowns in games against my friends. Again, the lag isn’t so common as to detract from the overall experience, but considering that in five years’ time I’ve never encountered any lag issues in Mario Kart 8 (whether on Wii U or Switch), you have to wonder how and why Nintendo can’t replicate that level of online functionality with their other multiplayer franchises.

Other quibbles with the online mode include some minor (but no less irritating) design quirks, such as leaving your place in cue for the next fight in an arena just to change your character’s color (let alone change your character). Or why entering the spectator stands also removes you from cue (why the cue and spectator stands aren’t one and the same is anyone’s guess). Again, these are all just minor annoyances, but you have to wonder why they’re there at all.

Of course, it must be emphasized that, with the exception of the World of Light adventure mode, all of the complaints to be had with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are minor grievances in the big picture. The series’ signature gameplay has never felt so polished, the content has never felt this endless, and with every last character in franchise history present, Super Smash Bros. has never felt this complete.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is also a technical showcase of the Switch’s capabilities. Though it retains a similar overall look to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS and Brawl, the graphics are much sharper and more refined. The level of background detail in the stages themselves – often so small you’d never see them in the heat of battle – is a testament to the abilities of the artists behind the game. The character animations are similarly impressive, especially those with unique characteristics (such as DK’s eyes bulging out of his head when hit, Donkey Kong Country-style; or Wario’s manic, sporadic movements).

Complimenting these visuals is a soundtrack that represents an unrivaled array of video game music, featured in both their original and new remixed forms in addition to many remixes from past Super Smash Bros. installments. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s quite as many new pieces of music added into the fray as Brawl and Wii U/3DS brought to the table, but it’s hard to complain too much when the music is this terrific. Not to mention the soundtrack to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is inarguably the biggest library of classic video game themes ever compacted into a single game.

On the whole, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is an absolute winner. Its overall sense of newness may not be as prominent as the past few entries, but its inclusion of the best elements of every past installment, along with each and every last one of their characters, makes this the definitive entry in the long-running Super Smash Bros. series to date. With the exception of its egregious adventure mode, everything about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is exploding with fun. With so many characters, stages, modes, and options, the content included in the package is seemingly bottomless, leading to an unparalleled replay value.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is not only the best game in the series, it’s one of the greatest multiplayer games ever made.

 

9

Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version*

Despite being one of the more fondly remembered games on the Sega Genesis, Toejam & Earl has had a rough time in the sequel department. Beloved for its originality and off-beat humor, Toejam & Earl saw its titular duo of funky aliens take part in an exploration-based adventure. In search of ten missing pieces of their crashed rocket ship, Toejam (the red one with the eyestalks) and Earl (the one who looks like a proto-Patrick Star) traversed a series of randomly generated levels, avoiding annoying humans, throwing tomatoes, and opening presents to get power-ups along the way. While just about everything else on the Genesis was trying to replicate Sonic’s sense of ‘cool,’ Toejam & Earl’s wacky originality stood out.

That’s why it stung a little when its sequel, Toejam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (also on Genesis), was a simple 2D platformer in a time when such games were commonplace. Though it was decently remembered in its own right, Panic on Funkotron’s lack of originality made it fall by the wayside. It would be another decade before the duo would return in Toejam & Earl: Mission to Earth on the original Xbox. And while the series’ sole 3D entry attempted to recreate the gameplay of the original game, its mixed reception – combined with the very different tastes of gamers in the early 2000s – meant that Toejam and Earl once again faded into obscurity.

There they remained for another seventeen years. But after a successful Kickstarter campaign from series creator Greg Johnson, and some back-and-forth between publishers over the past couple of years, Toejam and Earl made their long awaited comeback in March of 2019 in the form of Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, bringing the gameplay from the original 1991 game along for the ride.

For fans of the series, there may be a wee bit of a double-edged sword in this regard. Back in the Groove is both a wonderful return for the series, and a refreshingly silly joy in today’s overly serious gaming landscape. But if you’re a fan of the original Toejam & Earl, Back in the Groove can feel more like a remake than a full-on sequel.

That’s not a terrible thing, of course. Not when Toejam & Earl still feels unique twenty-eight years on. But it does put Back in the Groove in a strange state of being unique among other games, but derivative of itself.

“A chunk of snowy land floating in outer space. Y’know… Earth!”

Just as in the original game, Toejam and Earl have crash landed on Earth, and must recover their ship’s ten missing pieces in order to head back home to planet Funkotron. As a bit of a joke, this time around the aliens borrowed their friend’s ship (because they didn’t want to risk crashing their own ship again, naturally). Otherwise, it’s basically the same plot.

Another difference is that, this time around, there are nine different playable characters, six of which are playable from the start: Toejam and Earl (obviously), in addition to the same duo with their classic designs (aptly named Classic Toejam and Classic Earl), as well as Toejam’s ladyfriend Lewanda, and Mission to Earth’s Latisha. Though it should be noted that the differences between characters are purely cosmetic.

“Gotta love the elevator cutscenes and their “Rocko’s Modern Life” backgrounds.”

Otherwise, the gameplay largely echoes the original game: You travel across different landscapes, looking for the elevator that leads to the next stage. Levels that feature a rocket piece are marked upon entry, meaning to beat the game, you have to track the piece down before heading for the elevator. Be careful, as you can fall off a stage and back to the previous one, leading to a tedious trip back up.

Toejam and Earl (and the rest) are normally defenseless against persistent earthlings. But our heroes can gain weapons and power-ups (such as the aforementioned tomatoes) by finding and opening presents. What’s inside of each present is at first a mystery to the player, until you pay a wiseman (an old man in a carrot costume, naturally) to identify them for you, with each type of present remaining identified for the rest of the current playthrough. Additionally, by opening presents and uncovering more areas of the map on each stage will give you experience points. Once enough experience points have been gathered, you can ask the wiseman to level you up.

“My name’s Poochie D and I rock the telly! I’m half-Joe Camel and a third Fonzarelli!”

While the leveling up feature was present in the original game, it was mostly just to see the joke of the next level’s title, here in Back in the Groove, each level will grant you a bonus such as improved speed or the capacity to carry more presents. It’s a nice touch of RPG character progression that makes the leveling system actually worthwhile this time around (don’t worry, the joke names for each rank are still present). The only issue with it is that the bonuses are received via roulette wheel, meaning the randomness prevents you from building your character how you want.

That random element is of course present in other areas as well. Though the items in each different present will be consistent during the same playthrough, the items and presents will swap with every new playthrough. That’s fine. But less tolerable is when a level spawns a second, fake elevator, which will take you back to the previous stage (though you do have a small window of time to exit the elevator before its door closes, saving you the tedium). Certain random elements such as that probably won’t sit well with some players.

The one random element the series does best, of course, are the randomly generated stages. When the original Toejam & Earl hit the Genesis in 1991, it was rare among games at the time for being different with every playthrough. While the goal of collecting ten ship pieces may have always been the same, each stage provided a new challenge, and oftentimes you never knew when another ship piece would show up.

That’s still true here, but with an unfortunate caveat: you have to unlock the randomly generated playthrough option. Before you can play Back in the Groove the way it was meant to be played, you have to give a pre-set adventure a go. Granted, this was probably done to ease newcomers in, but it would be nice if Toejam & Earl veterans had the option to play with the randomly generated stages from the get-go.

“Also the game is executive produced by Macaulay Culkin.”

Ultimately, these aren’t major complaints. As stated, Toejam & Earl remains a pretty unique game, so Back in the Groove’s overt reminiscence of it isn’t a deal-breaker. Nor is the act of unlocking the random stage layout (albeit it is a little bummer). The gameplay is still fun, with the game being at its best with its multiplayer co-op mode (another feature from the surprisingly forward-thinking original, but now with the modern benefits of playing with up to four players online). The graphics are vibrant and cartoonish, with a kind of “90s Nicktoon” appeal. And true to the nature of the funky rapping aliens, the music is as cool and funky as ever.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, however, is its utter charm. In the modern gaming world where AAA and Indie titles alike feel like they’re made more to earn awards from critics than to entertain, Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is refreshingly silly and innocent. Spend a few hours as Toejam or Earl (or one of the other characters) as you run from teens pre-occupied on their cellphones, throw tomatoes at evil dentists, seek refuge with Ghandi, roll a D20 with a group of nerds, and jam out with some alien buddies, and you’re bound to have a smile on your face.

 

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Tetris 99 Review

Tetris really is the eternal video game. No matter how gaming evolves and advances, no matter how quickly it makes progress, Tetris remains one of the medium’s few constants. While many critically-acclaimed titles prove to lose their luster in the long term, Tetris will always be one of gaming’s quintessential titles.

Tetris 99 – the completely free Nintendo Switch exclusive – is just another example of Tetris’s uncanny ability to adapt to any gaming landscape. As the battle royal genre has quickly come to prominence thanks to PlayerUnkown’s BattleGround and Fortnite Battle Royal, Tetris 99 throws the classic puzzler’s hat into this ring. Somewhat poetically, the simplicity of Tetris translates so easily into the battle royal genre that it’s currently the best product of the genre on the market.

To put it simply, Tetris 99 is exactly what it says it is: Tetris with ninety-nine players. Simply start up a game, and soon enough you’ll be paired with ninety-eight other players from across the globe, experiencing the classic Tetris gameplay as you aim to be the last player standing.

The core gameplay remains as it always has: the flawless combination of different shaped ‘Tetrominos” fall from the top of the screen, with the player needing to fit them into rows, thus eliminating them, earning points, and preventing them from reaching the top of the screen. Like in most competitive Tetris titles, clearing rows will also send “garbage blocks” to your opposition. Garbage blocks rise from the bottom of the screen, and bring the player closer to defeat.

Of course, with ninety-nine players, things can get chaotic really quickly. Players control the Tetrominos on their board with the D-pad, while they target other players using the joysticks to aim at any of the other players on screen. The chaos begins once players start getting eliminated, and their are fewer and fewer targets on the board. As you may have guessed, this means that multiple players will soon start to target the same opponent. And if you happen to be that opponent, you can kiss your hopes of victory goodbye.

Admittedly – perhaps due to the battle royal genre still being in its infancy – the translation of Tetris to the genre isn’t quite perfect. Given that there are ninety-eight miniature boards representing the other players on the screen, it’s hard to make out the details of what they’re doing, which means you’re mostly targeting other players at our random or, at its worst, forgetting to change targets at all and just let the cursor move on its own as players are eliminated. Of course, compared to the bugs, glitches, and technical issues that still plague PUBG and Fortnite, the sometimes rough translation of Tetris 99 isn’t so bad.

The sometimes confusing interface prevents Tetris 99 from reaching its full potential, but it’s still the most easily accessible and fun battle royal title yet. It takes one of gaming’s greatest classics and uses it to help polish up a contemporary genre. And as a free download, there’s absolutely no reason why every Switch owner shouldn’t have it in their library.

Plus, come on, it’s Tetris.

 

7

Donut County Review

Donut County is an indie game by Ben Esposito. Released in 2018, Donut County was one of the pleasant surprises of the year, and can be described as something along the lines of an inverse Katamari Damacy. While Katamari saw players bundle up as many objects (and people) imaginable to create one giant mass, Donut County sees players take control of a hole in the ground to engulf everything (and everyone) in sight.

“Sometimes the gameplay takes a break and sees the characters texting each other. You can select the duck button to send a quack to the person on the other end. Just because.”

Taking place in the titular county, the primary characters of the game are employees at the local donut shop; Mira, a human, and her boss, BK the raccoon. Whether or not this shop sells actual donuts is up for debate, as most of their business (unbeknownst to Mira at first) is that BK uses a cell phone app to deliver “donuts” to customers…except that these donuts are actually holes in the ground the slowly increase in size as they swallow more objects, and have ultimately been trapping people underground along with their homes and all of their stuff.

The majority of the game is told in flashbacks, as Mira and BK have been sucked down a hole themselves. The other residents of Donut County recount the events of how they got sucked underground, and their stories are then played out as the game’s stages. All the while, the residents of Donut County try to help BK come to the realization that what he did was wrong (he simply wanted to build up points with the app to purchase a drone). It’s a delightfully bonkers game that really does feel like a little love letter to Katamari Damacy.

As stated, the player doesn’t control any characters, but the hole in the ground. The hole always starts out small, and increases in size with the more objects it swallows. You’ll begin stages sending pebbles and flowers down the hole, and gradually work your way to larger objects, before the hole becomes so large it can overtake houses. It all sounds simple – and truth be told it is – but it’s a whole lot of fun and will keep a smile on your face.

Donut County does find ways to keep the concept fresh, with puzzle elements introduced early on, which continue to grow as the game progresses. For example, an early stage sees the player guide the hole to swallow a campfire, which results in smoke emanating from the hole, with the player then guiding the hole under a hot air balloon so the smoke can help it lift off. And later on in the game, BK purchases a “catapult attachment” to the hole, which can launch specific items out of the hole. You can catapult these objects to knock down out of reach items, which may be necessary to increase the size of the hole. Donut County takes its simplistic concept, and finds fun and inventive new ways to utilize it throughout.

The entire campaign of Donut County should take roughly two hours. So it’s a very short game, which isn’t a bad thing (give me a compact but complete game over an overly long one filled with padding any day). The downside, however, is that there’s not too much incentive for replay value other than to complete the ‘Trashopedia” (the collection of objects you’ve sent down holes, with each item having its own humorous description), but chances are you’ll already have the Trashopedia nearly complete after your first playthrough anyway.

There may not be a whole lot of content to make up for the short campaign, but everything that is present in Donut County – simple though it may be – is undeniably charming and fun. Similar to Portal or (you guessed it) Katamari Damacy, Donut County introduces an innovative gameplay concept, and presents it in so many playful ways it will continuously pique players’ interest to see what’s around the next corner.

There are few things in gaming as satisfying as the combination of fun, original gameplay and a unique, quirky charm. Donut County is a terrific example of just that.

 

7

Inside Review

Playdead became one of the premiere indie gaming studios upon the release of their first game, Limbo in 2010. A monochromatic platformer, Limbo was a stylistic little adventure that spanned about an hour of playtime. Though the atmosphere garnered Limbo immense praise, I was in the minority of people who found Limbo’s gameplay far too shallow to make it worth the praise. Six years later, Playdead released their second title, Inside, a spiritual successor to Limbo which garnered even more critical praise than its predecessor. While Inside does suffer many of the same faults that plagued Limbo, even I have to admit it’s a step in the right direction for Playdead.

Like Limbo before it, Inside is a side-scrolling platformer with puzzle elements. Though it is visually distinct from its predecessor, abandoning the 2D silhouettes of Limbo in favor of 3D character models that have more color, but are often masked in shadows. It’s a more varied aesthetic than Limbo, and it, combined with its minimalistic music and ambient sounds, gives Inside a greater sense of atmosphere than its predecessor.

The player controls an unnamed boy, who has recently escaped from a mysterious government/scientific facility. The agents/researchers of this facility are on the prowl for the escapee, so the boy must elude them at all costs. All while solving puzzles and obstacles in order to completely escape from the facility’s reach.

The boy only has basic actions, such as running, jumping, pushing and pulling objects, swimming and climbing. Immediately, the game sounds like a retread of its Limbo, but Inside rises head and shoulders above its predecessor with two simple improvements: better level design, and better puzzle design.

While one of my biggest complaints with Limbo was how the puzzles were too simple (push this, pull that, and go right), Inside has learned from its predecessor to make puzzles that require a bit more thinking and exploration. Yes, it still uses the same game mechanics, but they feel far more creatively utilized this time around. While Limbo’s puzzles often felt spelled out for the player, Inside’s will actually give you a sense of “eureka” every now and again.

Among the game’s best puzzles are those that see the boy take control of the many, zombie-like victims of the facility. At various points in the game, the boy can attach psychic helmets to his head, which allows him to animate the seemingly lifeless bodies lying about the facility. These ‘bodies’ can help the boy reach new heights, rip open doors and gates, push and pull heavy objects, and operate machinery. In some of Inside’s best moments, the boy can lead a body to an additional helmet, thus the boy controls a body controlling more bodies. This element alone gives the game a much deeper gameplay element than its predecessor, and comes across like a dark and dreary version of Pikmin.

There are other key elements that make Inside a vast improvement over Limbo. Namely, that the puzzles and obstacles of the game keep building upon themselves, and each “chapter” of the game continues to introduce new types of puzzles to solve, and obstacles to overcome. There are underwater sections where the boy pilots a submarine, and in a section that feels inspired by similar stages from Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze, the boy has to continuously hide behind objects to survive being blasted away by deadly shockwaves. The shockwaves have a timed pattern, so the player has to make sure to time everything just right to make sure they have enough time to make it behind the next object. And, without giving too much away, Inside’s finale becomes something of a grotesque version of Katamari Damacy.

In essence, Inside is pretty much a superior version of Limbo in pretty much every regard. Though it does still stumble in a few of the same areas as Playdead’s original title. Like Limbo before it, Inside is a very short game, though it has added an additional hour or two to the proceedings. That isn’t a bad thing in of itself (short games are a refreshing change of pace in this day and age), but there isn’t a whole lot of replay value to the game to make up for the brief campaign. There are hidden orbs to be found that – once all of them have been deactivated – will result in an alternate ending. But that’s about it. Perhaps more alternate secrets and endings could have extended the lifespan of Inside. Those who are engrossed in the game’s atmosphere and vague narrative may seek out the alternate ending, but everyone else may find the roughly three hour journey to be enough as it is.

Unfortunately, some of its predecessor’s control issues have sneaked their way over as well. Though it feels a little more polished, the boy of Inside often suffers from the similarly finicky physics and controls. The jumping still has that LittleBigPlanet-esque sense of imprecision, which makes some platforming feel more annoying than it should.

Similar to Limbo, it seems a few sections of Inside require a trial-and-error approach, forcing you to die in order to solve problems bits at a time with each respawn before figuring them out. This isn’t too big of a deal, since you  regenerate at the start of the current puzzle/problem, but it still makes some obstacles feel cheaper than others.

However, I can’t stress enough how much of an improvement Inside is over Limbo. Even these complaints, while still present, aren’t nearly as bad as they were in Inside’s predecessor. Limbo often felt hampered by its issues, as though Playdead’s confidence in their game’s atmosphere and visuals lead to some complacency when it came to their puzzle and stage design. With Inside, the game feels creative and well constructed enough that whatever issues it does have feel more like inconveniences in an otherwise exceptional effort.

It’s much easy to see how Inside garnered its praise than it is to see what all the hubbub was with Limbo. Pretty much everything about Playdead’s debut effort has been substantially bettered with their second go. Those who loved Limbo lavished Inside with even more profuse praise. And even someone like me, who considers Limbo to be an empty game, can consider Inside to be something of the “good version” of Playdead’s work thus far. Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

7