Replaying: Dark Souls Remastered

Seeing as we’ve entered a new decade, I – being the sappy, festive person that I am – decided to replay an old favorite as my first game played in the new decade. So naturally, I picked Super Mario World.

And then after that, I picked Dark Souls. That’s two all-time greats back-to-back. Not too shabby.

Yeah, I know. I’ve mentioned I still have some 2019 games to review so I should really get back to them. I don’t know, I just felt like playing a game for the enjoyment of it for a change, instead of putting the pressure on myself to review it. Yes, I will still get back to those remaining 2019 games, notably Pokemon Sword. But if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m finding myself struggling to get through Pokemon Sword. It’s actually inspired me to write a future piece about my overall opinion of the Pokemon series. I find that I love the IP, the concept, and the creatures of Pokemon. But I’ve kind of realized I’m not the biggest fan of the games themselves. Of all Nintendo’s franchises, Pokemon is the one that – ironically enough – just doesn’t evolve.

But that’s a discussion for another day. For now, we’re talking Dark Souls. Originally released in 2011 as a kind of spiritual successor to Demon Souls, Dark Souls would become one of the most beloved and acclaimed games of the 2010s. And frankly, it has very little in the ways of competition for the title of the most influential game of the 2010s. Seriously, how often do you hear terms like “Souls-like” these days? How many of its elements have you seen integrated into games of all different genres? As much as people want to pretend that Rockstar and Naughty Dog are the big influencers of gaming today, neither of those studios have seen their design philosophies reverberated into the works of others on such a deep level. Rockstar may have popularized open-worlds, and Naughty Dog has continued to make people think having a story equates to good storytelling, but Dark Souls has fundamentally transformed game design in ways akin to the grandaddies of the medium like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda.

When I originally reviewed Dark Souls Remastered, I awarded it a rare 10/10. While I don’t think awarding a game like Dark Souls with top honors is misplaced, I do admit I have (at least temporarily) lowered my score of it to a 9/10. Not because I think any less of it per se, but I might prefer Dark Souls 3 and (especially) Bloodborne in the ways of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s very specific series of games. It’s a case of “which giant is the biggest among giants.” Even Dark Souls 2, the supposed “black sheep” of the lot, is still a great game. This is a series which definitely feels like a 10/10 is warranted somewhere though, it’s just tough to say which one is the definitive installment.

The first Dark Souls still seems to be the most beloved overall (with Bloodborne being its closest competition). And it’s definitely a fair argument. There’s just so much about it, from its level design, monsters, intricate gameplay, countless atmospheric locations, and genuinely original lore that makes it all so memorable.

In fact, Dark Souls is a game so good that I bought the remastered version twice, the first time around on the PS4, and the second time on the Switch (because Switch has everything). With my current playthrough, I decided to take the Switch version for a whirl, though in retrospect maybe I should have gone back to the PS4 version first since I’m only one trophy away from platinuming the game…

Eh, another time. On the plus side of things, Dark Souls Remastered looks and plays just as well on Switch as it did on PS4. And the great thing about the Switch version of any game is, of course, that you can play it as a handheld. Sure, I usually play Switch docked as a console, but to have the option and ability to play something like Dark Souls as a handheld game is just wonderful. It’s such a huge advantage for Switch games, and I don’t think that detail about the console gets the recognition it deserves. Again, Dark Souls as a handheld title, with no compromise! I love the Switch.

Anywho, my current playthrough is reminding me why I love Dark Souls so much. You always hear people go on and on about the game’s legendary difficulty, and while it certainly is a steep challenge, there’s so much more to Dark Souls than its challenge. This is a game (and subsequently, series) that seems to have an intimate knowledge of game design. What at first seems simply like brutal difficulty is actually a lesson in patience and dedication. Approach Dark Souls as you would most other games, aiming immediately for action and to take out your enemies, and your haste is destined to fail.

When you die in Dark Souls, you lose all of your acquired souls (essentially experience points and currency rolled into one). But you’re given a chance to reclaim them. Learn from your mistakes, make it back to where you died, and succeed where you once failed, and you can reclaim your lost souls. It’s a terrific risk and reward mechanic that firmly asks the player to study every element of the game, as opposed to simply running in and killing stuff willy nilly.

Hidetaka Miyazaki’s 2019 title, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (another 2019 game I gotta get back to) was beloved by many, even receiving Game of the Year by a number of outlets. But that particular game has – so far – not clicked for me in the way the Dark Souls/Bloodborne games have. A large reason for this is that it removes the “reward” aspect of the aforementioned risk and reward scenario. In Sekiro, whatever experience you’ve accumulated is lost and gone for good immediately upon defeat. It’s a difficult game that seems to send the player into its challenges blindfolded, and then arrogantly punishes them for not being able to overcome said challenges the first time around. That’s not the case with Dark Souls. No matter how difficult Dark Souls gets, there’s always that semblance of hope that makes you want to persevere.

I’ve heard some people describe Dark Souls as being about “hopelessness,” and some even referring to its dark world as “nihilistic.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As grim and elegiac as the series (Bloodborne most definitely included) can be, Dark Souls is ultimately an incredibly hopeful experience. It may not be apparent at first, and surely the uninitiated will get angry a time or two at its seemingly unfair odds. But as you struggle, and endure, and pick yourself back up and carry on, you begin to realize what makes Dark Souls special.

Dark Souls isn’t simply a ‘hard game.’ It’s a work of art that teaches you the importance of even the smallest ray of hope in the face of hopelessness itself. The brooding, often-grotesque monstrosities of Dark Souls at first seem to mock you in defeat. But as you learn to press on, and learn from your experience, and know that with just a little extra effort you can conquer anything, you end up doing just that. And when you finally fell a particularly dastardly monster, the sheer joy and relief that washes over you as your foe vanishes into light is euphoric. And by the time you make it to New Game Plus, you are so wizened from your experience that you feel like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Superman, knowing every nook and cranny of the game while being able to topple foes that once seemed unbeatable.

It’s hope that got you there. Hope that Dark Souls beautifully, deceptively implants into you. So many video games these days are hellbent on proving the artistic merits of the medium by means of replicating cinema, but Dark Souls is one of those titles that becomes a work of art by fully embracing its nature as a video game. 

No other medium could instill hope in its audience in the same way Dark Souls does. Hopefully, its players will be able to take that message to heart, and let that same kind of hope help them in the real world as well.

Suffice to say, Dark Souls has earned its place as one of the best games of its decade.

Untitled Goose Game Review

Though video games have always been an art form, such a concept being embraced has only been around for a bit over a decade. Since the mid-2000s, many games have come along to attempt to “legitimize” the artistic merits of video games, usually by replicating Hollywood-style cinematic and storylines. Despite their best efforts, such “art games” are rarely the ones that showcase the unique artistic merits of video games. More often, it’s the titles that fully embrace their video game-ness that make for the best examples of ‘games as art.’ And that sometimes includes titles which are unabashedly silly, and want little more than to put a goofy grin on the player’s face.

The brilliantly titled Untitled Goose Game, by indie developer House House, is one such game. Though it may lack in depth and substance, Untitled Goose Game delivers a pure and simple gameplay experience that is consistently fun, and should get a good laugh out of even the most jaded player.

Joining the likes of recent indie titles like Donut County and The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game, Untitled Goose Game is all about the laughs, and even shares a similar, cartoony art direction as those games. Though with all due respect to both Donut County and Frog Detective, Untitled Goose Game is a bit more fleshed out as a game.

As the (un)title suggests, Untitled Goose Game is all about a goose. Now geese, as we all know, is nature’s jerk. Hostile, aggressive, and prone to obnoxious honking, the goose is one foul fowl. As such, the goal of Untitled Goose Game is quite simple: be a jerk.

Yes, that’s all there is to it. The game showcases a day in the life of the Goose, who has made a checklist of different means to mess with people throughout the day. It’s the player’s job to make sure the Goose checks off all of its nefarious deeds to ensure a productive day.

The game is separated into five segments, which can be viewed as ‘chapters’ or ‘levels,’ though the transition between them is seamless as part of a single game world. Each segment has its own checklist for the Goose to complete, with one item on each list requiring the Goose to collect various items. Once all but one of the items on a given checklist are complete, that segment’s final item unlocks, and upon completing that, the Goose gains entry to the next segment.

These tasks include but are not limited to: Honking just as a man is hammering a signpost into the ground so that he smashes his thumb, scaring a kid to run away and lock himself in a phone booth, moving a chair just as an old man is about to sit down so he falls on his rump, dropping a bucket on a man’s head, stealing a toy from a kid and placing it in a shop so the kid has to re-buy their own toy, and trapping someone in their own garage.

Each task is its own little joke. Though they aren’t difficult to pull off, the variety and humor found in each task give Untitled Goose Game a nice flow and a strong sense of personality.

Of course, the Goose must complete these tasks as sneakily as possible, because if someone sees the Goose coming, they will appropriately chase it away. Not that there’s any real penalty for getting caught. Untitled Goose Game is one of those titles that’s triumphantly easy. There’s no way for the player to truly lose, as getting caught will ultimately just slow the Goose down. Essentially, Untitled Goose Game is like a lighthearted, penalty-free Metal Gear Solid.

Untitled Goose Game also has a refreshingly minimalistic score. Composed entirely on piano, the music to the game is situational, and will be soft and serene or loud and fast depending on what the Goose is currently doing.

The game is consistently fun and funny throughout its runtime, with the game’s one major drawback being that said runtime is all too short. Granted, I’ll take a game that runs short and leaves me wanting more over a game that overstays its welcome by being obnoxiously long, but there does come a time when a game is so short it feels like it doesn’t quite reach its full potential. Sadly, Untitled Goose Game falls into this category. As fun and charming as it is, Untitled Goose Game’s “story” can be completed in about an hour and a half, and although additional checklists appear after the credits roll, they can be completed in about just as much time. Untitled Goose Game is a lot of fun while it lasts. Sadly, it doesn’t last for very long.

Though short, Untitled Goose Game is undoubtedly sweet. It’s a string of punchlines with the common thread being the everyday villainy of a Goose. Its gameplay is simple, but rewarding and entertaining. Every last task on the Goose’s to-do list should have you grinning from ear to ear.

Yeah, I’d call that art.

 

7

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch) Review

The Legend of Zelda is arguably the most beloved video game series of all time, and few of its entries are as cherished as Link’s Awakening. Though it was the fourth installment in The Legend of Zelda, it was the first to be released on a handheld console. One of the main reasons Link’s Awakening built such a strong reputation for itself was due to it retaining the series’ sense of depth and exploration, despite being released on the original Gameboy in 1993.

Keep in mind this was still a time when a series being translated to a handheld system meant the compromise of its quality (even Mario didn’t quite feel like Mario on the Gameboy). So the fact that Link’s Awakening still very much felt like The Legend of Zelda was a stunning achievement in itself in 1993.

“Bonus points for the hand-drawn, anime cutscenes.”

Link’s Awakening started development as a port of the Super NES classic, A Link to the Past, released one year prior. But somewhere along the line, it became its own beast. Though it couldn’t quite reach the same heights as its SNES predecessor, Link’s Awakening still managed to capture a good deal of its magic, and has certainly held up better than the NES Zelda titles. The title proved so popular that when Nintendo released the GameBoy Color in the late 90s, one of its biggest selling points was a re-release of Link’s Awakening in 1998.

Now, twenty-one years after its GameBoy Color release, Link’s Awakening has been remade from the ground up for the Nintendo Switch, in what is undoubtedly the definitive version of the beloved title.

It’s a match made in heaven, really. Link’s Awakening played a pivotal role in Nintendo’s earlier years in handheld gaming, being one of the few games on the original GameBoy that most would agree felt as big as a home console title. And with the Nintendo Switch being a hybrid of a home console and a handheld, few Nintendo classics would be so fitting for a Switch remake.

2019’s Link’s Awakening is a beautiful recreation of the 1993 GameBoy classic. Taking on a toy aesthetic, this Switch version features character models that resemble Gashapon figures, and environments that look like dioramas. The art direction is oozing with charm, making it baffling how some sections of the Zelda fandom cried foul when the visuals were first revealed (you’d think Zelda fans would have learned their lesson by this point). The art style, combined with the HD sheen of the Nintendo Switch, make Link’s Awakening look right at home in 2019. There are admittedly a few frame rate drops here and there, but nothing too bad.

“Oh no not the bees! AAAAHHHH! They’re in my eyes! They’re in my eyes! AAHHH!”

On the gameplay side of things, Link’s Awakening on Switch features the same timeless gameplay to be expected from 2D Zelda titles post-A Link to the Past. Link is every bit as fun to control as ever. But there are even a few modernized improvements made to Link’s Awakening where needed, the most prominent of which being that Link’s sword, shield and upgrades are permanently equipped once gained. This is something of a godsend, as the limitations of the original GameBoy’s hardware meant players had to constantly be switching out Link’s items and abilities. But with the Switch’s extra buttons, Link is easily able to keep hold of his standard items and abilities, as well as equip two ‘special items’ gained from dungeons at any given time.

Perhaps the only questionable decision with this modernization is that the Roc’s Feather item, which allows Link to jump, isn’t among the permanent abilities, and still has to be equipped like the other special items. This is questionable because, with how fundamentally useful the ability to jump is, you’ll almost always have Roc’s Feather taking up one of your two item slots. The Pegasus Boots – which allow Link to dash at great speed – become automatically linked to a specific button without needing to be equipped. Roc’s Feather probably could have used the same treatment, seeing as I found myself with it equipped for almost my entire playthrough.

“All the monsters say I’m pretty fly, for a Slime Eye!”

Other changes made to the game include more collectibles to give the side quests some extra heft. The total Heart Pieces to be found in the game has increased from the mere twelve found in the original GameBoy version to thirty-two, while the Secret Seashells have gone from twenty-six to a whomping fifty that can be collected. Though simple, searching for the Heart Pieces and Seashells prove to be fun diversions to the main quest.

Perhaps the biggest brand new addition to Link’s Awakening is the inclusion of a dungeon editor. Before you get too excited, it has to be said that the dungeon editor is incredibly limited.

“Most of your edited dungeons follow a preset layout, but eventually you can unlock the ability to piece them together with more freedom.”

By visiting Dampé, players can edit their own dungeons by utilizing chambers collected from the dungeons the player has completed throughout the game (the main quest retains its eight dungeons, and the optional “Color Dungeon” from the GameBoy Color release makes a return). On the plus side, putting a dungeon together from pre-existing rooms and making it all make sense has a fun puzzle element to it. On the downside, the player doesn’t have the ability to edit anything about the chambers themselves. The player can’t place doors, decide what enemies to litter about or what walls can be destroyed with bombs, or even choose what rewards await in treasure chests (if your dungeon ends up having a certain number of locked doors, the chests will at first provide the number of keys required to unlock them all, then have a random amount of Rupees, with the final chest opened always containing the boss key).

Again, the dungeon editor can be fun in its own right, but don’t get your hopes up that it’s the Zelda equivalent of Super Mario Maker (though here’s hoping its presence is something of a test run for just that).

“Dude, I forgot this game had a walrus in it! 10/10.”

Aside from being a standout game on a handheld platform in the early 90s, another reason Link’s Awakening holds such a fond place for many is that it’s quite possibly the weirdest Zelda title. Taking inspiration from Twin Peaks, Link’s Awakening sees Link stranded on Koholint Island, where he must collect the eight Instruments of the Sirens in order to awaken “The Wind Fish” (who is actually a whale) – the island’s deity – who is in a deep slumber inside of an egg on top of a mountain (as whales do), if he ever wants to escape the island.

Not only is the story delightfully weird (and being one of the earliest games in the series, it’s also refreshingly absent of that convoluted “Zelda timeline” nonsense), but Link’s Awakening is also a ‘weird’ entry in that it features many elements from the Super Mario series (as well as a Kirby cameo).

“He does exist!”

While Mario and Zelda have always referenced each other – seeing as they’re the two series most strongly associated with the Nintendo name, and both originally spawned from Shigeru Miyamoto’s mind – Link’s Awakening took things to another level by directly featuring enemies and characters from the Mushroom Kingdom and a profuse amount of side-scrolling sections that pay homage to Mario’s early adventures. Many fans were worried that – much like the Superstar Saga remake on 3DS was absent of a certain cameo found in its original GameBoy Advance version – that the Mario elements would be removed or downplayed in this Switch remake. Thankfully, not only are the Mario cameos and references in full force (complete with the first 3D appearance of Super Mario Bros. 2’s Wart), but Nintendo even doubled down on them with a new side quest focused on collecting Mario figurines. There’s just something about the Mario series that makes the presence of its characters add a little more fun to any game. 

Although the writing may not necessarily be anything to write home about, the Twin Peaks influence definitely shines through in some wacky dialogue and the overall strangeness of the adventure, an influence which I like to think has carried over to subsequent entries in the Zelda series, given its often bizarre characters. That weirdness started here, and perhaps (sadly) hasn’t been outdone by subsequent Zeldas.

“Hi there! Face here! Bur bur BUR!”

Now I have to make a confession, I was never the biggest fan of Link’s Awakening back in the day. It was certainly a considerable improvement over the NES Zelda games, and I loved that aforementioned weirdness of it all, but for one reason or another, it never quite clicked with me in the same way A Link to the Past and some later Zeldas did.

That’s all changed with this Switch remake, which has won me over to Link’s Awakening so strongly, that I would probably now rank it among my favorite Zelda games. The adventure is long and deep enough to feel rewarding, but short enough as to not overstay its welcome. To think that this game was originally a GameBoy title is somewhat baffling. Sure, it’s still on the “smaller” side of the Zelda series, but it was so big back in its own day that Link’s Awakening still feels like a meaty addition to any Switch library.

I’m not sure whether this remake has simply opened my eyes to Link’s Awakening’s full merits, or if its changes and additions have made the game that much better (again, that art style!). Maybe a bit of both.

Whatever the case, Link’s Awakening  on Switch is an ideal video game remake and, quite fittingly, something of a dream come true.

 

8

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game*

It can be strange how greatly things change in just a few short years. After the successful Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9 in 2013, the year 2015 saw fan investment in such crowdfunded games reach new heights. Three such games even broke crowdfunding records in quick succession that very year: Yooka-Laylee, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Shenmue 3.

But the enthusiasm was not too last. Later in 2015, Keiji Inafune, the man behind Mighty No. 9, decided to launch another video game Kickstarter campaign (despite the fact that Mighty No. 9 was still being continuously delayed), Red Ash: The Indelible Legend. With Mighty No. 9 still having trouble getting off the ground, the Red Ash Kickstarter went about as successfully as the Hindenburg. Not only did Red Ash tarnish the reputation of Kickstarter games, but when Mighty No. 9 was finally released in 2016 to a negative reception, the once-promising prospect of crowdfunded games was further dragged into the mud. The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the 2017 release of Yooka-Laylee, which ended up being a much more mixed bag than fans had hoped for the Banjo-Kazooie successor (though in all fairness, Yooka-Laylee was a much better game than Mighty No. 9, even if it failed to live up to its potential).

Now here we are in 2019, and Kickstarter games are now something of a punchline. After the mixed receptions of Mighty No. 9 and Yooka-Laylee, as well as several delays of its own, the enthusiasm for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night had died down considerably. Despite the flounders and flubs of previous Kickstarter games, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night lives up to the promises it made back in 2015, showing us that perhaps there is still something to the idea of crowdfunded video games.

“The enemy “Shovel Armor” is a blatant homage to Shovel Knight.”

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was always promised to be a spiritual sequel to Symphony of the Night style Castlevania entries (AKA the better half of Castlevania). Helmed by Koji Igarishi, the man largely responsible for Symphony of the Night as well as its excellent GBA and DS follow-ups, Bloodstained accomplishes what it set out to do. It is a worthy successor to the legendary Symphony of the Night, as well as Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, and a sequel to Igarishi’s Castlevania titles in all but name.

Players take on the role of Miriam, one of the two last ‘Shardbinders’ – people infused with demonic crystals that were used in sacrifices – and must infiltrate the castle Hellhold. Fittingly with a name like ‘Hellhold,’ the castle was summoned through hellish magic by Gebel, the other last Shardbinder, who is using the castle to bring demons into the world, as a means to take revenge on those who sacrificed the Shardbinders

There are a few other details to the plot, but honestly, it gets a little confusing and lost in the shuffle. But that’s okay, considering this is a spiritual sequel to the game that gave us dialogue such as “What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!” Is the story really the reason you’re going to play it?

“Hey! I know that guy!”

As you might expect, Hellhold serves as the location of the entire game (with the introductory segment taking place in the destroyed surrounding town and the ship Miriam arrives in). This is a Metroidvania through and through. And like the best games in the genre, you’ll gradually uncover more and more of Hellhold as Miriam learns new abilities, and be surprised and delighted every time you discover a previously unreachable area. The more of Hellhold you discover, the more you appreciate the genius of Bloodstained’s world design.

Miriam’s aforementioned status as a Shardbinder also finds its way into the gameplay. In what is essentially the “Tactical Soul System” from Aria of Sorrow, Miriam is able to absorb “shards” from enemies within the game. Nearly every enemy boasts its own shard, each of which will grant Miriam with new powers and abilities. Depending on the enemy type, you may have to farm them for a bit before you claim their shard, but the shards still shouldn’t be too hard to come by.

Shards come in different types, represented by colors: Conjure shards (Red) give Miriam a magic-consuming attack, Manipulative (Blue) give Miriam status/form-altering abilities, Directional (Purple) are able to be sent in different directions by the player, Passive (Yellow) – as their name implies – grant bonuses that are always active once equipped. Familiar shards (Green)  give Miriam a monster partner to aide her in battle, while Skill (clear) shards are claimed by defeating bosses or found hidden in the castle, and give Miriam new means to traverse said castle.

With the exception of the Skill Shards (which are always active, unless the player turns off their effects in the pause menu), the player can only equip one of each shard type at a time. The game’s most addictive side quest sees the player gathering materials so Miriam’s alchemist friend Johannes can level up the shards. Additionally, the more of a specific shard you have, the more powerful that shard’s ability will be. In addition, like in Symphony of the Night and its kin, Miriam can gain a wide range of different weapons – from swords and spears to firearms and shoes, to name a few – and can equip various armors with stats and effects of their own. Not only can Miriam level up and gain strength, but so too can the Familiars when aiding Miriam in battle.

“Yeah, you can customize Miriam quite a bit.”

Given the variety of weapons and shards, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game of immense variety. You may find a particular setup or two of shards that you prefer to use over all others for your first playthrough. But Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is worth repeated playthroughs just to experience it with different ability and weapon preferences.

Admittedly, the game has its share of technical issues, with slowdowns and frame rate drops being a lot more frequent than you’d care for (though I learned only after purchasing the game that the Switch version’s technical blips are more prominent than other versions, which Igarishi and company have been addressing little by little in updates). Granted, Bloodstained is a crowdfunded game, and thus didn’t have the same level of resources as most games these days, so a few technical issues are more forgivable here, but they do become a little bothersome at times.

If there’s any other ‘issue’ to address with Bloodstained, it’s probably just in that it doesn’t really do much that Igarishi’s Castlevania titles didn’t already do. Granted, the entire pitch for Bloodstained was that it was essentially a brand new Castlevania in a time when there are no new Castlevanias. So it’s certainly no disappointment, but while Bloodstained may exude profuse quality, it does lack in freshness. Again, that’s no unforgivable sin, considering its emulating some all-time greats. But should we ever get a Bloodstained sequel (and please, let’s), hopefully it can deliver a similarly excellent experience, while maybe adding a few more features that give it more of its own identity outside of Castlevania (one of Bloodstained’s original mechanics, which sees Miriam interact with certain environmental objects by means of the player manually guiding her hand, goes sorely underutilized).

“What exactly is supposed to be reassuring about that sentence?”

Still, that seems like nitpicking, because what Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night does right, it does right in spades. This is very much the Symphony of the Night-worthy Castlevania follow-up that Igarishi promised to fans in his initial Kickstarter pitch. It’s an incredibly fun experience brimming with depth and variety, and a captivating successor to one of gaming’s richest lineages.

The idea of Kickstarter-funded video games may have lost a lot of its luster in the four years since the initial announcement of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. But with the final product living up to its lofty expectations, Koji Igarishi’s latest adventure should remind the video game world why we loved the prospect of crowdfunded games to begin with.

 

8

Super Mario Maker 2 Review

Nintendo’s Wii U console gets a lot of flack. Some of its criticisms are just (it was a commercial failure for the big N, a fact that was magnified by its status as a bridge between two golden ages for Nintendo), but the Wii U played an important role in Nintendo’s big picture. An argument could be made that the Switch – and the success that has come with it – is a combination of the refinement of the ideas the Wii U got right (surely the Wii U Gamepad opened the door for the Switch’s handheld capabilities), and the results of learning from the Wii U’s mistakes.

The Wii U’s lack of third-party support was among its biggest missteps, but one of the system’s highlights was that it featured some of Nintendo’s best first-party output. It really isn’t a shock that much of the Wii U’s legacy in first-party titles has been given a second chance at life on the Nintendo Switch, whether through enhanced ports (such as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze), or sequels that build on the ideas of the Wii U originals (such as Splatoon 2). The latest entry in the latter category is Super Mario Maker 2, the sequel to one of the Wii U’s few undeniable success stories.

In 2015, Super Mario Maker gave players of all experiences and skill levels the opportunity to try their hand at game design. Though it had a few unfortunate limitations, and certainly wasn’t the first game-creation game, Super Mario Maker was a new highlight for the genre. By making the level creation process as accessible and deep as the gameplay the Super Mario series is known for (and featuring said gameplay to boot), Super Mario Maker was fun and addictive in a way that no other game-making title had been before.

Super Mario Maker 2 takes that same accessibility and depth of the original, while making a few appreciated adjustments and bringing in some meaningful new additions. As such, Super Mario Maker 2 is not only an improvement over its predecessor, but a treasure trove of Super Mario levels that’s ever-expanding. One that should both entice players to test their own creativity in level design, and jump at the chance to see the creativity of other players from around the world.

Though it must be said that there are still a few lingering limitations to certain features of the game. So while Super Mario Maker 2 may be unlimited Mario fun on one hand, these limitations do prevent this sequel from reaching its full potential, and can make certain aspects feel more like the content of an expansion pack than a grand follow-up.

Still, even with limitations, Super Mario Maker remains one of Nintendo’s best ideas. The Mario series has an uncanny ability to make concepts more fun just with its presence, and that’s true even of game-creation tools. Take LittleBigPlanet, for example. While that series has also allowed players to create their own levels and express wild levels of creativity, it loses a great deal of its appeal once you try to play said levels. Gravity works against Sackboy, rendering the platforming awkward and clunky. Mario, however, has long-since mastered gravity for the betterment of gameplay. So while Super Mario Maker 2 may still have room to expand its creation tools, the tried-and-true gameplay and physics of the Mario series guarantee that Super Mario Maker 2 still boasts near-infinite replay value.

“3D World finally gives me reason to make levels outside of the Super Mario World style.”

Like its predecessor, Super Mario Maker 2 allows you to create your own Mario stages in the styles of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U. The most obvious addition to Mario Maker 2 is that it includes a new game style with which to build your stages: Super Mario 3D World.

While Super Mario 3D World was played with a 3D perspective, it did feel like the proper continuation of the legacy of Mario’s 2D adventures (certainly more so than the New Super Mario Bros. games ever did). In Mario Maker 2, the 3D World style is presented as a 2D side scroller, like the other present styles, which in a way makes it tantamount to the first new type of Mario side-scroller since the original NSMB game hit the Nintendo DS back in 2006.

As in the first Super Mario Maker, each different game style not only alters the aesthetics of your stage, but also come with the appropriate physics and mechanics of their respective games, with small changes here and there (each style boasts one power-up unique to their original game, Super Mario World and NSMBU feature Yoshis, while the NES styles have Kuribo’s Shoe in his place, etc.). While the four returning styles can be swapped in and out while editing a level to see which style it plays best in, 3D World is listed under its own, separate category. This is due to 3D World having “enough differences” in its features that the other styles can’t replicate. On one hand there are some notable differences in 3D World, so I can kind of understand this. At the same time, it is kind of a bummer that certain features don’t carry over to the 3D World style.

Once again, all your created levels utilize different course ‘themes,’ based on the world themes of Mario games past. The six themes from the first Mario Maker return: Ground, Underground, Water, Ghost House, Airship and Castle. Super Mario Maker 2 adds four new course themes to the proceedings: Desert, Snow, Forest and Sky.

“Why are Super Mario World aesthetics still so beautiful and eye-catching?”

These new themes add variety to the aesthetics of the game (with new compositions by none other than the original Mario maestro, Koji Kondo, for level themes that are new to particular game styles), but an even bigger addition to these course themes brings even greater variety to the experience: Night themes.

All ten of the course themes now feature an alternate ‘Nighttime’ mode, effectively doubling the total course themes. The Nighttime versions bring out new gameplay mechanics and shifts to their respective level themes. Playing a night-themed ground level, for example, will see Super Mushrooms turn into deadly Poison Mushrooms, which will give chase to the player. Nighttime ghost houses will see the majority of the screen covered in black, with a spotlight shining on Mario and select objects and enemies, giving an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere to the ghost stages. Castle stages will mysteriously gain water-like attributes, with Mario and enemies swimming through the air as if they were submerged in a water level. Perhaps most interestingly, the underground stages will flip upside down when exposed to nighttime, flipping Mario’s controls around as well.

The night versions of the course themes are among Super Mario Maker 2’s best new features. Along with the major – often bizarre – tweaks they bring to the gameplay, they also make smaller changes to enemies and objects as well, enticing players to try out everything they can in each night theme to see how they work.

Like in the first Mario Maker, you can actually implement two course themes in a stage, one for the ‘main’ portion of the stage (which houses the start and goal), and a ‘sub’ portion of the stage that Mario can access via warp pipe. You can make a stage that consists of a daytime ground level in one portion, and a nighttime castle in the other, again adding to the game’s staggering variety. As an added bonus, the sub-areas of stages can now be made into ‘vertical’ courses, which opens up all the more possibilities, including vertical scrolling sections (though it is both strange and unfortunate that only sub-areas can receive the vertical treatment).

While most of the 3D World style’s differences from the other represented games are justified, one of the disappointing drawbacks to the new game style is that the nighttime features don’t transfer over to 3D World. Even if 3D World couldn’t share all the features of the returning game styles, you can’t help but feel that the night themes – given the twists they bring to gameplay – should have found a way to be carried over.

As always, players can delve into countless stages made by players around the world at any time. Super Mario Maker 2 features a much more refined search engine than the first game, making it much easier to find the types of stages you’re looking for. It’s still not quite perfect (you can still only search for levels and players by codes, as opposed to names), but it’s an inarguable improvement over its predecessor’s search methods.

The 100 Mario Challenge mode from the first Super Mario Maker has been replaced with the Endless Mario Challenge. While the first game’s equivalent had Mario complete a set number of levels under specific difficulties (with a maximum of 100 lives to do so, no matter the difficulty setting), the sequel’s new mode will literally keep the player-created levels coming until the player gets a game over. For the ‘easy’ and ‘normal’ settings, you may find yourself picking up enough extra lives that you can keep going with seemingly no end in sight (you are still limited to 100 lives, and can only obtain three extra lives per stage like in the 100 Mario Challenge from the first game, but in the easy and normal settings you’ll find yourself blazing through a number of levels before dying once, so you often get extra lives faster than you lose them). The ‘expert’ and ‘super expert’ difficulties, however, will really put you to the test. The latter setting, in particular, will probably cost a great deal of your lives just to complete the first stage, whatever it may be.

“No matter how many levels I conquered, I could never rank any higher than the 60s on the leaderboards…”

I prefer this new Endless Mario mode to the 100 Mario mode of the first game. Though on the downside, your only rewards for completing many stages are costume pieces for your Mii avatar. You can also find yourself placing on worldwide leaderboards (different boards for each difficulty setting), though the downside to leaderboards in any game is that there are always those crazy players who can put an ungodly amount of time into the game, meaning that more reasonable players can only get so far, with the leaderboards having a much lower ceiling for them.

I only bring this up because the first game had the delightful rewards of character costumes for the Super Mario Bros. game style, which not only disguised Mario as the sprite of various other characters (from fellow Nintendo icons like Link and Pikachu to third-party characters like Mega Man and Sonic to even non-game characters like Shaun the Sheep) but each disguise brought their own sound effects and music cues to the proceedings.

The character costumes are not present in Super Mario Maker 2. The reasoning for this is that Super Mario Maker 2 doesn’t feature Amiibo support in any capacity, and since Amiibo could be used to instantly unlock coinciding character costumes in the first game, the feature has been dropped.

It does admittedly feel like a weak reason. After all, you could unlock all the Amiibo costumes (plus the additional ones) by completing the 100 Mario Challenge repeatedly, so it’s not like the costumes were only available to rabid Amiibo collectors. Even if the Amiibo support were getting dropped, it seems weird that the character costumes had to be removed entirely as well.

Still, I suppose simply playing through an endless supply of Mario levels is reward enough in its own right. Not every stage you come across will be a winner, of course (many stages are only categorized as ‘easy’ because their creators left them empty, and many are considered ‘super expert’ simply because their creators filled them with clutter or troll the player with unfair traps that only said creator would be aware of). But when you come across a stage in which its creator’s creativity shines through, it makes it all worth it.

Another very welcome gameplay addition comes in the form of Clear Conditions which, as their name implies, are objectives you can set for your stages which must be completed in order to finish a stage. You can make goals like collecting every coin (or simply a set number of them) in a stage, defeating all of a specific enemy, or reaching the goal while in one of Mario’s many forms (Fire Mario, Cape Mario, Cat Mario, etc.). You can even set goals such as reaching the end of a stage without taking any damage, or not touching the ground after jumping in the air (this particular goal requires some crafty level design in order to implement it).

The Clear Conditions can really help in making less linear stages, and certainly help with making features like boss sections and bonus stages. But there are a few unfortunate caveats to the Clear Conditions. Players are unable to place checkpoints in stages with Clear Conditions, and while you may be able to specify certain objectives (like defeating X-amount of Dry Bones), you can’t make more broad objectives (like defeating every last foe on the stage). Another questionable design choice is that, no matter the Clear Condition, the end goal will remain inaccessible until that condition is met. That’s fine for levels where the objective can have the player backtrack to meet said requirements (“oops, I missed x-enemy, better go back”), but in stages where you can fail the objective outright (“I landed on the ground after taking to the air”) you have to manually restart the stage, as the goal will be impossible to reach. It may be a nitpick, but it would be nice if levels such as those would simply register as Mario losing a life and starting over once the objective is failed. Similarly, it would be nice to have an option for a stage to end as soon as a boss is defeated, instead of felling said boss simply resulting in the goal becoming available.

“This must be the George Lucas Special Edition…”

Super Mario Maker 2 also introduces a proper story mode into the mix. Through the Odyssey-esque hub in story mode, players select different stages in the form of “jobs” in order to earn coins to repair Princess Peach’s castle. Unlike the Endless Mario Challenge, the stages in story mode are made by Nintendo themselves, making Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode the closest thing we’ve had to a  new Mario side scroller since New Super Mario Bros. U launched alongside the Wii U in 2012. Even after you’ve finished the ‘story’ aspect of story mode, there are still additional jobs to be done, and even a few unlockables (like the brand new “Builder Mario” power-up for the 3D World style, and Super Mario Land’s ‘super ball’ power-up in the Super Mario Bros. style).

As fun as the story mode is, one aspect that left me greatly disappointed in it is that numerous Clear Conditions that appear in story mode are unavailable for your created levels. I took my time to beat the story mode before I delved into making my own stages, and had an abundance of ideas inspired by what I was playing in story mode.

Notably, I had all kinds of ideas built around the escort mission concept where you rescue Toads and guide them to the end of the level. The condition of clearing a stage while holding a large rock also got my creative juices flowing (unlike other objects Mario can carry, said rock weighed the plumber down, leading the player to get creative as to how to get the rock to the goal while also performing Mario’s platforming acrobatics).

Unfortunately, once I started making my own levels, I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to implement these Clear Conditions, only to find out that they weren’t even an option. It was a bummer, to say the least. Perhaps Nintendo can implement the story mode Clear Conditions into the level editor through an update or DLC down the road. But even if we do get them later (and hopefully we do), it still stings to be teased with these features before having the ability to use them in our own created levels.

While Super Mario Maker 2 introduces numerous additions to single player modes, it also introduces multiplayer into the Mario Maker fold. Two players can work together on a single Switch console in the level editor in what is ultimately a well-meaning but overly chaotic addition. But more notably is that Super Mario Maker 2 includes competitive and co-operative multiplayer modes, where up to four players from around the world can help/hinder each other in player-created levels.

In the multiplayer modes, players take control of Mario, Luigi, Toad and Toadette (why Princess Peach is absent is beyond me). Unlike many Mario games featuring different playable characters, all four heroes play identically in Super Mario Maker 2. That makes sense, seeing as many levels could effectively be ‘broken’ if their creators forgot to consider Luigi’s high jumps and such. The identical play styles of the characters are excusable, but I do kind of hope Nintendo adds a few more character options down the road (again, why isn’t Peach a playable character? And let’s throw Rosalina in there for good measure).

Unfortunately, you may encounter lag issues more often than you’d like during online play, which can really be a detriment in a fast-paced platforming stage. Some people will balk at the very notion of a Nintendo game with smooth online capabilities, but I have to point out that Nintendo has accomplished it in the past with the Mario Kart series (to this day, I have yet to experience any notable lag issues with Mario Kart 8 on either the Wii U or Switch). The fact that Nintendo has accomplished consistently smooth online elsewhere does kind of make it more aggravating when they release an otherwise promising and fun online experience hampered by frequent slowdowns.

Along with big changes such as Super Mario 3D World, the new level and nighttime themes, story mode and multiplayer, Super Mario Maker 2 houses a seemingly countless number of smaller additions. Classic Mario features make their way to the Mario Maker experience for the first time (such as snake blocks, rising and falling water/lava, the Angry Sun, and the long-requested slopes).

There are also new mechanics introduced in Super Mario Maker 2 which haven’t been seen elsewhere in the series before: swinging claws can fling Mario or grab and drop enemies like a crane game. Red and blue on/off switches that coincide with similarly colored blocks make for unique platforming and puzzles. ‘Twisters’- balls of wind (with eyes, of course) – produce mini-tornadoes that can launch Mario and enemies upward. There are so many features both new and returning in Super Mario Maker 2, that the game is like the ultimate toolkit for learning video game level design for players of all ages.

If there’s one feature I wish could be polished up a bit though, it would be boss fights. Bowser and Boom Boom appear in all game styles (though Bowser takes on his ‘Meowser’ form in 3D World), with Bowser Jr. being available in the returning game styles, and Pom Pom also appearing in 3D World. It’s not exactly a wide range of boss options, and while each boss behaves differently in each game style they’re present in, it would be nice if each style had different sets of behaviors you had the option to select from when placing them in your levels.

I’ve noticed many levels that have gotten creative with their takes on boss fights, and while that’s great to see, I do wish Nintendo could give players easier access to creating more unique bosses. Players shouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops just to make a boss that isn’t Boom Boom. Maybe Nintendo could implement the ability to ‘bossify’ enemies? Make any enemy bigger, change their color, select how many hit points they have, things like that.

Again, you can use Clear Conditions to make a boss fight in theory, but even that has limitations. You may be able to add a single Magikoopa to a stage, for example, give him a Super Mushroom to make him supersized, and make his defeat required in order to finish the stage. But you can still take out said giant Magikoopa with a single fireball. So it’s not much of a boss fight, really.

Still, no matter how many limitations may hold back certain areas of Super Mario Maker 2, there is no doubt that – on the whole – Super Mario Maker 2 is the new benchmark for game-creation games. The returning features, along with the armies-worth of new ones, make Super Mario Maker 2 a bottomless toy box that opens the floodgates for endless Mario fun.

There may still be some work to be done to the editing tools if we want to see the perfect Mario creation game, but the fact that Super Mario Maker 2 provides a refinement and expansion of what its predecessor started – allowing players from all over the world to exercise their creativity through its level editor – means the game boasts perhaps an unmatched level of playability.

 

8

My First Super Mario Maker 2 Levels

First of all, a thousand apologies that my updates have been so slow as of late. We’re almost halfway through August, and I’ve only written a single review so far this month (for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). For that matter, I’ve been pretty infrequent with the updates all Summer. Again, a thousand apologies. Here’s hoping that, in the months ahead, I can pick the pace back up. Who knows, September is the month that features my birthday. Maybe I’ll crank out a bunch of meaningful posts in September as a gift to myself.

To make up for some lost time, here’s something…that isn’t just another dreadful filler post!

So here’s the codes for my first bath of created levels in Super Mario Maker 2! Admittedly, I’ve only made a handful of courses so far, as most of my hours in Super Mario Maker 2 have been dedicated to the Endless Mario Challenge. But hopefully I’ll get to making even more stages, and I’ll be sure to continue posting their codes here on my site.

So if you have a Switch, and Mario Maker 2…play my levels!


 

MKM-DYR-GYF

“High Tide Wine River”

For this stage, I utilized the Super Mario World aesthetics, and built it around two new gameplay mechanics introduced in Super Mario Maker 2: The On/Off switches, and using the Dry Bones shell as a boat.

I used the forest theme, with the nighttime element to change the rising water into deadly poison. Because said poison is purple – and as a nod to Super Mario RPG – I added the “Wine River” bit to the title. And the “High Tide” portion of said title is both in reference to the fact that the poison rises, and a little nod to the ‘High Tide Ride’ stage from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

To top it off, the stage features that soothing music/sound effect throughout. So even if you find the stage difficult (though it’s only categorized in the “normal” difficulty range), hopefully the calming music will help make things seem not so bad.

 

KM9-8QR-P8G

“Chuck E. Skipsqueak’s”

This stage uses the Super Mario 3D World style (I assume most my stages will be either SMW or 3D World), using the airship theme.

As you may have guessed from the name, the stage is something of an homage to the arcades of Chuck E. Cheese’s. More specifically, it’s a tribute to the classic “Whack-A-Mole” games you often find there (and basically any arcade).

Yes, I am aware I could have used any of the other game styles and used Monty Moles to more accurately replicate the game, but the 3D World style is the only one that includes the new Construction Mario power-up, which uses a hammer. On top of that, the Skipsqueaks come in a spiney variety, which can’t simply be jumped on to be defeated. Thus, by removing the ability to use Mario’s jump as an attack, and requiring the use of a hammer, I feel it better captured the feel of a Whack-A-Mole game.


Those are the only ‘real’ levels I’ve made so far (I’ve made one other stage, but it’s more of a joke and I’m not sure if I’ll keep it, hence why I haven’t discussed it here). Hopefully you enjoy these levels, and hopefully I’ll be making plenty more Super Mario Maker 2 stages soon.

Talking of Super Mario Maker 2, I hope to have my review of the game up soon, as well as my review of the recent Lion King remake. So you see, I still have reviews and other such “real” posts in the pipeline.

Take care!

Banjo-Kazooie Are in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Oh. My. Shatner.

They did it. They finally did it!

During Nintendo’s E3 Direct, it was revealed that Banjo-Kazooie will be joining the Super Smash Bros. roster sometime this Fall, complete with music by Grant Kirkhope and a Spiral Mountain stage.

Oh yeah, the Dragon Quest “Hero” was announced for a Summer release as well. But he’s not Banjo-Kazooie so he kind of got overshadowed.

This is… This is amazing! For years I (and so many others) have wanted, and hoped, and dreamed that this could be a possibility. Now our patience has paid off, and this dream has become a reality.

With the exception of Super Mario RPG’s Geno, I don’t think there’s another character left who has been so strongly requested for so long as Banjo-Kazooie. And now, after all this time, the bear and bird tandem finally join their rightful place among the Super Smash Bros. roster.

Now if we could just get Geno…

Here is the Banjo-Kazooie reveal trailer (admittedly, it is a little bit of a bummer it’s mostly a tweaked version of King K. Rool’s trailer, but I’m not about to let that dash any of my excitement).