Super Mario Galaxy 2 Turns 10!

“Behold, my (new) Super Mario Galaxy 2 poster! I’m building up quite the video game poster wall.”

May 23rd of 2020 marks the ten year anniversary of the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii in the US (which is where it was released first, so I guess I could have just said Galaxy 2 is ten years old, without having to specify which region it was released…).

That’s right, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a decade old now.

Wow, the anniversaries of both Super Mario RPG and Galaxy 2 are separated by a mere ten days? May is a hell of a month for our man Mario. We should rename the month “May-rio” in honor of this. We should totally do that.

Anyway, this is a big anniversary in gaming, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 puts up a major case to being the best video game of all time! Yes, it’s that good. The first Super Mario Galaxy already felt like a perfect game, but Galaxy 2 was somehow even better than perfect. It’s advanced perfect!

How good is Super Mario Galaxy 2? Well, back in 2015, on the game’s fifth anniversary, I gave it a 10/10 review! The first 10/10 I ever dished out to anything on this site! You can read my review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 here (and boy, do I feel old now).

Happy anniversary, Super Mario Galaxy 2!

First Thoughts on Paper Mario: The Origami King

Yesterday, we celebrated the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG (in the US). A mere day later, Nintendo announced a title that further sullies Super Mario RPG’s legacy!

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. But the first trailer of the newest installment of Paper Mario, The Origami King, raises more concerns than it does build hype for the game.

Here is Nintendo’s announcement trailer.

Okay, so the game doesn’t look terrible: Bowser being folded into a square and Peach being brainwashed and joining a cult by means of origami look like they can make for a fun plot, there’s actually variety with the NPC characters (not everyone is the basic, red-spotted, blue-vested Toad this time! Yay!), and the paper aesthetic looks as charming as ever.

But that last one is also kind of the problem… Why does Nintendo insist on making the Paper Mario series about the paper aesthetics instead of using it as a backdrop for unique RPG adventures?

Granted, we only get an ever-so brief glimpse of the battle system here, and from what I can tell, they’ve exorcised the demons of stickers and cards from the proceedings. But it still looks like it’s following a similar path as Sticker Star and Color Splash. Which is something that no one wanted.

I hate to sound like an entitled fan, but when we’re talking about Paper Mario, you always hear the same thing from everyone: “can we get a new Paper Mario that’s an RPG like the first two?” And every time a new one is announced, Nintendo seems completely ignorant to what people want.

While I don’t mind Nintendo putting more emphasis on the paper aesthetics   of the series, the problem is that’s what the series has become all about. No one fell in love with the original Paper Mario or its sequel because Mario was made out of paper, they loved it because it was a damn good RPG that – while maybe not quite Super Mario RPG – did a great job at keeping its predecessor’s spirit alive.

After the first two acclaimed Paper Mario titles, the third entry, Super Paper Mario, was a steep departure. It abandoned turn-based battles and partner characters for a platformer with RPG elements. It was different and not as good, but at least it was – at the time – a one-off thing. We could understand and appreciate that it was experimental and trying something different for the series. It may not have always worked, but hey, Nintendo learned their lessons from Zelda II and Super Mario Sunshine, so maybe that meant the series would get back to the RPG style gameplay we were all craving.

And that was the plan… at first. Early screenshots and materials of a 3DS Paper Mario title gave fans glimpses of partner characters, and a return to the turn-based battle system. But then, somewhere in development, Nintendo decided to change course, and instead we got the stinker that was Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Sure, turn-based battles were back, but with the glaring caveat that every last one of Mario’s abilities used consumable “sticker” items, and your only rewards for battles were either A) more stickers, or B) coins… for buying more stickers… This made this new battle system not only a tedious chore, but also inexcusably pointless.

Fast forward to the Wii U, and when Paper Mario: Color Splash was announced, and served as a direct follow-up to Sticker Star’s gameplay, it was close to insulting. Although Color Splash was an improvement over Sticker Star, it was still a pretty shallow experience that suffered many of its predecessor’s drawbacks (namely the aforementioned pointlessness of its battle system). By this point, it was pretty clear that Nintendo had no intention on giving people the Paper Mario they actually want.

But times have changed in the Switch generation for the Big N. Breath of the Wild did what Zelda should have done a long time ago and said “screw you” to Ocarina of Time’s shackling influence on the series. Super Mario Odyssey brought back the more open style of Super Mario 64 back into the 3D Mario canon (not that there was any problem with the more linear Super Mario 3D World, but hey, they still listened to what people wanted). Perhaps most notably, the Switch finally brought back the third-party support Nintendo had been lacking ever since the Nintendo 64.

Point being, Nintendo seemed to be listening in recent years. And earlier this year, amid reports that Nintendo wanted to celebrate Super Mario Bros’ 35th anniversary in a big way in 2020 that supposedly includes an HD compilation of the previous 3D Mario titles, rumors also circulated about a Paper Mario title that would return to the style of the N64 original and The Thousand-Year Door.

Admittedly, while I could imagine the compilation being a reality, I took the rumor of a new, traditional Paper Mario as a “I’ll believe it when I see it” kind of thing. I would have loved if my skepticisms were proven wrong. Sadly, this trailer for Paper Mario: The Origami King has only made me let out those skepticisms in a sigh of disappointment.

I mean, I just don’t get it. It’s not like Nintendo’s fanbase keeps quiet about these things. And while fans can of course go overboard at times, I don’t think wanting a beloved series to go back to its roots, which we haven’t seen in sixteen years now – especially when general consensus points that said series has only gone downhill ever since it changed things up – is asking too much.

People want a new Mario RPG. An actual RPG. With a proper battle system, level-progression, teammates with different abilities, a story, the whole Mario RPG shebang. Why does Nintendo seem incapable of grasping this concept? Because it’s not just Paper Mario, but the Mario & Luigi series, the “other half” of Super Mario RPG’s branching legacy, has also stripped away the depth of its mechanics and battle system with its 3DS entries.

I seriously, honestly, sincerely just don’t get it. Super Mario RPG remains one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, and the first two Paper Mario titles have had a similar appeal. None of the Paper Mario games since Thousand-Year Door have received the same level of reception and devotion than the earlier Mario RPGs (the ones that actually were RPGs) had. So what the hell is possessing Nintendo to go down the “hey! Look at all the papery stuff!” well at the expense of making a deep Mario RPG? It’s a “creative” decision that outright boggles the mind.

 

Of course, it wouldn’t be the only time Nintendo completely ignored what people actually wanted and instead delivered something absolutely no one asked for.

At the very least, if this is the direction Nintendo is going to insist on traveling in regards to Paper Mario (and Mario & Luigi), can we get a brand-new Mario RPG game as well? Just…something!

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars remains one of Nintendo’s best games. It has been starved of a direct sequel for twenty-four years now. But at least in years past, we had Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi to play a similar role. Now, we don’t even have that.

Nintendo has acknowledged Super Mario RPG’s beloved status by giving it notable re-releases on the Wii Virtual Console (where they made a point of it being the 250th game added to the service), the Wii U Virtual Console (where it was the last SNES game added), and including it as one of the games on the SNES Classic Edition. But when it comes to continuing that great game’s legacy, Nintendo seems to have a bizarre aversion to it. And don’t tell me that it’s Square-Enix’s fault, because while they may be holding Mallow and Geno hostage, Nintendo used to make great Mario RPGs of their own as proven with Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi.

But now, those days seem like a distant memory. It’s all the stranger when you think of where Nintendo is right now. Not just commercially, but creatively. The Mario series, in particular, has been in something of a second (and extended) golden age ever since Galaxy was released in 2007. Between Galaxy, its sequel, 3D World, the Super Mario Maker titles, Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario Odyssey, the overall Super Mario series has arguably never been more consistent, or more acclaimed.

Yet it’s the Mario RPGs that have been left out of this renaissance. The last truly great Mario RPG was Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story in 2009. Since then, the sub-genre of Marios has become increasingly more shallow, has removed most of their identity (no more original characters allowed! Only basic Toads!), and have even become obnoxiously wordy (the Mario RPGs of old were genuinely hilarious. The newer Paper Mario titles desperately want us to think they’re hilarious).

Again, I’m not trying to write off Paper Mario: The Origami King completely as a game itself. It could end up being really good when taken by its own merits (and we don’t have to wait very long to find out, as the game is being released quite suddenly on July 17th of this year). But why does it seem like Nintendo is incapable of hearing what fans want from this series? No one loved Paper Mario “because Paper,” but that seems to be what Nintendo believes, despite the never-ending requests and criticisms that claim otherwise.

Why does Paper Mario always have to be a sacrificial lamb for experimentations? Why isn’t Mario & Luigi allowed to have its own identity anymore? Why can’t Super Mario RPG’s legacy be allowed to continue?

Super Mario RPG Turns 24!

“Behold, my Super Mario RPG poster! Fittingly next to the poster of my other favorite SNES game, DKC2, and one of my other favorite Mario games, Galaxy 2. I need to squeeze Super Mario World and Odyssey in there somehow…”

Today, May 13th of 2020, marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG’s release in the US (it was released in Japan two months prior, in March of 1996, and wouldn’t be released in Europe until its 2008 release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, which at the time was a record for longest delay between region releases for a single title).

As far as I’m concerned, Super Mario RPG is one of Nintendo’s finest achievements, and has steadily remained an all-time favorite of mine for these twenty-four years. If you ask me, it’s still the best damn RPG ever.

Sadly, despite being one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, it’s one of the very few that never received a direct sequel (it did inspire the wonderful Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series, but none of them quite recaptured the same magic as the originator). And it’s basically the only Mario game to not have its characters or world elements carry over to subsequent games (save for a cameo or two). But that hasn’t stopped fans (myself most assuredly included) from hoping and begging Nintendo and Square to bring back this beloved game either through a sequel or simply resurrecting its characters for new titles.

Seriously Nintendo, just put Geno in Super Smash Bros. already. We’ve only been asking for it for twenty years! I don’t mean an insulting, slap-to-the-face Mii costume. The actual character as a playable fighter. You can’t stop adding those Fire Emblem swordsmen that no one asked for. Why not add another character people have actually wanted and asked for for years?

 

Anyway, happy anniversary to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars! A Legend indeed.

I reviewed Super Mario RPG as my special 300th video game review. You can read my 10/10 review here.

SuperMash Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version.*

SuperMash is a perfect example of a game that has a good concept, but squanders that concept in execution. The idea is simple: take two classic video game genres, and put them together with random results. A simple concept, but one that has promise. Combining a platformer with an RPG? Hot dog!

Sadly, the results SuperMash leaves the player with don’t even begin to realize the potential of any of the genres they represent. And the initial delight you might have with your first game or two rapidly dissipates as you realize how shallow and clunky these combinations become.

Now, to be fair, SuperMash does inform the player from the get-go that the “fun” of the game is seeing the randomized results of these combinations more than the actual gameplay of them, and emphasizes that the results are intended to feel like “something that was programmed by a computer, and not people.” That might fly if the games produced were ironic and funny, like Goat Simulator or Octodad. But they just end up feeling like half-assed attempts at representing classic game genres. They’re not enjoyable in either the genuine or ironic senses of the word.

“The Solid Snake parody character is named “Mongoose.” Gee, I wonder how long it took them to come up with that name?”

The setup is simple enough, the game provides six genres to work with (which seems like fewer than there should be): Platformer, Adventure, RPG, Shoot-em-up, Stealth and Metroidvania (called “Metrovania” here, for obvious legal reasons). How in the world falling-block puzzlers, racing and beat-em-ups didn’t make the cut, I don’t know.

The first genre you pick makes up the brunt of the game, while the second will add elements of that genre to the first. And yes, you can even combine the same genre with itself, which you would at least hope would provide more structurally cohesive games, but sadly they don’t.

“It’s baffling how adamantly SuperMash seems to think adding cuboid characters with cat ears equates to having platformer elements…”

What immediately becomes apparent is the lack of substance with the merging of the two genres. The first one I attempted was a “Platformer + Shoot-em-up,” which resulted in a very basic platformer in which the character could also shoot. While combining those two genres should bring something like Gunstar Heroes to mind, literally all it was was a bare bones platformer where the character just so happened to be able to shoot things. Some of the enemies were things like fighter jets, I suppose, but all that accomplished was making the game feel like something out of Action 52 with random-ass enemies and sprites. What’s worse, the platforming wasn’t even any good, and featured several areas that required blind leaps of faith.

“Oh boy, enemies spawning from the top of the screen, and I can only shoot downward. Makes a lot of sense.”

I gave it the benefit of a doubt, and thought maybe I just got a bad result. But then I tried the reverse combination (putting shoot-em-up in the primary slot and platformer in the secondary), and the result was even more nonsensical. Sure, it looked like a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up, and featured a cute, platformer-esque character (who was already very similar to the character from the first game, revealing SuperMash’s limited assets), and the character could potentially jump on enemies and higher areas (key word there being “potentially.” You try to jump on a bad guy that moves in an erratic pattern while the screen scrolls upward). But this game suffered an even worse fate because, despite the screen constantly moving upwards, and enemies spawning from the top of the screen, my character could only fire projectiles downward. As you can imagine, it wasn’t fun.

I tried several other combinations: Platformer and RPG (which resulted in another stale platformer that broke up the gameplay with random encounters. Because random encounters are certainly the aspect of old RPGs that needed to be revisited), Stealth and Adventure, Adventure and Shoot-em-up, “Metrovania” and Shoot-em-up, Metrovania and platformer (how do you mess that up?)… But no matter what I picked, the results were basically the same. Half-baked attempts at the primary selected genre that just so happened to feature an item or enemy that looks like it was vaguely inspired by something from the secondary genre.

There’s so much more to a Metro(id)vania or an RPG than the items that come with them. And simply adding a cute-looking character doesn’t give a game elements of a platformer. But that seems to be the extent at which SuperMash combines these genres together. These are as shallow of genre-crossovers as you can get.

What’s worse, the games you play will provide randomly-selected “glitches,” which come in the forms of random buffs and nerfs. For example, one of the “glitches” I experienced was random encounters becoming more frequent in a platformer if I took too long to collect any coins (and by “too long” I mean about ten seconds, if that. I’m not kidding). Another one saw certain enemies in my Stealth-Adventure become needlessly strong. I’d go through several enemies easily and then one enemy would show up – indistinguishable from the others – that took forever to kill. How are these “glitches” supposed to make the game more fun? They’re just cumbersome, and you can’t turn them off.

If you’re wondering what the goals of these randomly-generated games are, well, you’ll find out the full list of possible goals within minutes. Every game you produce is finished by either finding a particular NPC, defeating a certain number of a particular enemy, or collecting certain items within a time limit. That’s it. That’s all of them. Not exactly a deep pool of content.

To make matters even worse, in between games, there are entirely unnecessary segments where you play as some dude in a video game store. There’s some kind of plot line here with attempted emotion, but who cares? All I know is not only are these sections completely pointless, but the character you play as while you aimlessly walk around this incredibly limited space is just annoying. The developers could have done something clever and meta like having a platforming mascot character, an RPG heroine and a space marine from a shooter game team up for the characters, to play off the motif of genres clashing together. Instead, you play as some dude who looks manufactured to appeal to Millennials (but in a most ineffective way). He looks like one of those irritating animated avatars that  YouTubers use to represent themselves in their video thumbnails (you know, the kind that are always standing with their arms crossed because it’s an easy pose to draw, and are always accompanying some annoying video explaining why some popular game or movie sucks because the YouTuber in question so desperately wants attention). He’s annoying in a way that reminds me of Lester the Unlikely, but this guy might be even worse, seeing as Lester was intentionally a dweeb, but I think SuperMash legitimately thinks its hero is cool.

Don’t believe me? Just check out his obnoxious walking animation.

Geez, I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to punch a video game character so badly.

“This Adventure/Shoot-em-up “hybrid” featured homing missiles as an item in a Zelda-esque setup. Wow, such a deep joining together of genres!”

Simply put, SuperMash is a game that has a neat concept, but one that could have, and should have been polished into something way better.  The genres available are not only limited, but they seem to just barely have any semblance of an understanding of what these genres are. The combinations (or “Mashes” as the game so dearly wants us to call them) have no substance, and never feel like a proper coming together on any meaningful level. The glitches are a needless concept that make already tedious games all the more tedious. Combine that (or “Mash” that) with the fact that the games provided simply aren’t good – and not even in an ironic sense – and the utterly pointless in-between segments, and SuperMash is little more than a neat concept being butchered in execution.

 

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Thoughts on Super Mario Maker 2’s World Builder

To follow up on my last post, Super Mario Maker 2’s final major update has been out for a few days now, and I’ve given the new “World Maker” feature a little bit of a whirl. I haven’t uploaded anything, but I’ve been tinkering with the tools a bit, and playing other people’s worlds.

First and foremost, the ability to make your own worlds is, simply put, amazing in and of itself. With that said, however, the World Maker’s status as a last addition to the game, as opposed to a key ingredient from the start, is evidenced by a few unfortunate limitations.

Again, I stress that the World Maker feature is a welcome addition just by being what it is. I’ve seen some people complain that the world maps are limited to the Super Mario World visual style, but I don’t see anything wrong with that, seeing as Super Mario World is one of those games that just looks timeless.

Super Mario World is a good point of reference, however, because the big issue I have with the World Maker feature – fun as it is – is that its status as a late addition to the game means it lacks a key feature that made Super Mario World so great.

The problem is that, for a year now, the player created stages of Super Mario Maker 2 have been made in a vacuum. Each one its own entity, not part of a greater whole. But the World Maker feature requires players to fill their world maps with courses they have already uploaded to the game’s servers, and doesn’t include any new features to accommodate the transition.

Sure, some clever players will find ways to fill a world with levels all featuring similar gameplay themes, but there’s some things that are completely outside of the player’s ability.

One of Super Mario World’s best contributions to the Mario series (and gaming as a whole) was how the world map was, itself, a level of sorts. Some stages had multiple exits that lead to different branching paths, and you could replay stages to find different exits and pathways.

Because the levels of Super Mario Maker have – since the 2015 original – been made as their own entities, they will always ultimately have one exit. Yes, some players get really creative and create different pathways through their stage, but they’ll always ultimately end up at the same goal. And while players can create branching pathways on their world maps in Super Mario Maker 2’s new update, it’s very limited in how you can go about doing that. What’s more, you can’t replay levels you’ve beaten in someone’s created world, so despite the Super Mario World aesthetic, it plays in the more linear fashion of Super Mario Bros. 3.

Now, I’m not going to complain too much, because I figured this would be the case, given the World Maker being a late addition to Super Mario Maker 2. But I’m writing this because, should there ever be a Super Mario Maker 3, I think Nintendo could add so many features to World Maker so that player’s creations feel like their own full-blown Mario games (no matter how short), as opposed to a series of seemingly unrelated levels strung together.

The Super Mario Maker titles are among Nintendo’s best ideas, but there’s no doubt they have their limitations. What better way to justify a third entry than for Nintendo to take their gloves off, and expand what they’ve managed to achieve in this sub-series over the past five years in such a way that players can make grand Mario adventures?

With World Maker now established, Nintendo could emphasize it in a potential third game, allowing players to more fluidly create and link similar stages. Perhaps they can include the option to have multiple exits, make the stages replayable, create branching paths out of said different exits to allow for bigger, more versatile world maps. And it could give Nintendo the ability to add more options for secrets and collectible items to the game (as opposed to leaving players to pretend like those multi-value coins are worth the effort), as a means of giving players an added depth to their worlds. Perhaps a certain number of a particular collectible is required to open a new path, or a secret level?

The new World Maker feature in Super Mario Maker 2 is great in its own right. But if the future gives us a third Mario Maker, one that can prioritize World Maker as opposed to making it a late addition, it could really take this series to a whole new level. Or world, as it were.

Super Mario Maker 2’s Final Major Update Looks Amazing!

First of all, sorry I’ve been a bit slow as of late. I’ll try to pick up the pace with updates.

But wow, Nintendo dropped a bombshell today. Super Mario Maker 2 will be getting its final “major” update, and boy howdy, does it look amazing. It’s adding so much, I may have to re-review the game when all is said and done. The best part? It will be released in just two days!

In the words of Levar Burton on Reading Rainbow: “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Here is Nintendo’s trailer for the oodles of new content for Super Mario Maker 2.

Mmm-mmm! Now that’s what I call an update. More new features and power-ups, added bosses in the form of Koopalings, Mario Bros. 2 elements, new enemies, and best of all, the ability to create your own world and – essentially – your own Mario game!

Suffice to say, my reaction to watching the trailer was something like this…

 

I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo probably wanted to spread these updates out, but due to the global situation, decided to go all in with one spectacular update. And boy howdy, they delivered.

There’s been a lot of rumors going around that Nintendo has big plans for Super Mario Bros’s 35th anniversary this year. And this massive update seems to be an indicator that there might be something to those rumors. Now let’s hope that the rumor of a new, traditional Paper Mario game is true. Not to mention that compilation of 3D Mario remasters. Wasn’t there also word of an enhanced port of Super Mario 3D World as well?

Boy, I’m getting ahead of myself… One thing at a time. Fingers crossed for that future Mario goodness. But for now, let’s bask in the glory of the fact that we can make our own Mario worlds!

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review

Dark Souls II is something of the black sheep of the Souls series. Given the standard laid forth by the original Dark Souls, it was always going to be a tough act to follow. In addition to not achieving the same impact as its predecessor, Dark Souls II is also noted for being the only entry in the series not directed by series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, who merely took on a producing role this time around. Dark Souls II would be directed by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura  (as such, it’s also the only entry in the series to not feature Miyazaki’s signature character, Patches, who even found his way into Bloodborne).

It probably didn’t help Dark Souls II that it didn’t get a whole lot of time to build its own legacy. Dark Souls II was the first in a line of three “Souls” entries released in as many years. While there was a three year gap between Dark Souls and this sequel, Bloodborne was released the year after Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III capped off the series the year after that. Bloodborne is widely considered the best follow-up to Dark Souls, and has a setting distinct from the Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds of the rest of the series, while Dark Souls III felt like the proper culmination of all previous entries. Dark Souls II, by comparison, got a little lost in the shuffle, with less identity of its own to make it stand out.

When Dark Souls II was first released in 2014, it was the highly anticipated follow-up to one of the biggest hits of the decade. But because of the aforementioned reasons – as well as a couple of questionable design choices – Dark Souls II has gained that reputation as the black sheep of the franchise.

But being the black sheep is really a relative term in instances like this. Despite its drawbacks (and yes, it does fall short of its predecessor, successor, and Bloodborne), Dark Souls II is still an excellent game that retains the series’ quality. And for my money, it’s still a much better game than Demon’s Souls.

The “Scholar of the First Sin” edition of Dark Souls II was released on the PS4 and Xbox One in 2015, and featured improved visuals and some minor tweaks, and also included all of the downloadable content from its original release.

If Dark Souls II has any immediate drawback, it’s that it’s a little tepid when it comes to branching out of its predecessor’s shadow and constructing its own identity. Now, given that the first Dark Souls is one of the best games ever made, that’s not a horrible thing. But suffice to say that Dark Souls II is the safest entry in the series, creatively speaking.

The gameplay retains the depth and intricacy the series is known for. You create a character whose play style becomes more and more customizable as the game goes on. You can equip weapons, armor and shields, as well as gain magic abilities (which come in the form of sorceries, miracles, pyromancies and hexes). You fight your way through incredibly difficult lands and dungeons – where many foes can fell you in a single hit – and search for those heavenly bonfires for those blessed moments of reprieve.

That’s not to say that Dark Souls II doesn’t feature any tricks of its own. One feature – unique to the series – is that each area has a finite number of enemy respawns. True to its predecessor, igniting a bonfire may serve as a checkpoint and a means to recover health, spells, and your ever-trusty Estus Flask, but doing so will also respawn every enemy in the area surrounding said bonfire. Unlike its predecessor, or either of its successors, however, is that if you slay particular enemies enough times and keep using the local bonfire, these enemies will eventually cease to spawn for the remainder of the playthrough.

It’s an interesting concept, admittedly. And if you’re having too much trouble with a particular area or enemy, it gives you something of a cheat in that you can keep chipping away at such troublesome moments until the source of said troubles just disappears entirely and is cleared out of your path.

However, this concept of finite enemy respawns comes with a few caveats. Notably, if a certain type of enemy holds particular items or materials you’re looking for, you only have so many chances to try to farm said items during any given playthrough. And should you choose to use the aforementioned method of exhausting certain enemy spawns  to make progression a bit smoother, be prepared for a large amount of tedium.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that the developers assumed many players would go the route of slowly extinguishing enemies, because there seems to be way more foes in any given area than in any other entry in the series. That’s not innately a bad thing, but it becomes an issue when some places within the game feel like they’re just tossing in hordes of enemies willy nilly.

“This place may look heavenly, but with the sheer excess of sorcerer enemies and monsters that pop out of the water, it’s probably closer to Hell.”

By that I mean one of the strengths of the first Dark Souls (and Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) is the sense of staging. The games not only feature excellent level and enemy designs that add to the gameplay, but the placement of those enemies in those areas really add to the gameplay. There’s a brilliant sense of staging that few games can match. But in Dark Souls II, there are more than a few areas where it feels like there’s no cohesive structure in the enemy placements, and that it simply bombards the player with as many enemies as humanly possible as it assumes said player will gradually exhaust the spawning of these enemies.

For those who would like to farm items and souls (the series’ combination of experience points and currency), you can start the enemy spawn cycle of a given area over again by using a rare item called a Bonfire Ascetic, but even that comes with the drawback of upping the difficulty of the area (for example, using an Ascetic during your first playthrough will up that area’s difficulty to that of New Game Plus, with each additional use upping it further to the difficulty of the next playthrough). And doing so can’t be reversed for that character. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

The finite enemy respawns are a mixed bag, then. But at least I understand why FromSoftware experimented with the idea. Less understandable is that Dark Souls II saw fit to resurrect Demon’s Souls’s punishment for defeat by lowering your maximum health with each death!

Like the other games in the series, the player’s acquired souls are dropped upon death, but they have a chance to reclaim them, if they learned from past mistakes and make it back to the spot they died. But die again before reclaiming them and those souls are gone for good. This element is fine, as it has always been a key part of the series, and one that proved influential to video games as a whole. But lowering the player’s maximum health upon every defeat is a component of Demon’s Souls that never needed to be brought back. It just feels like the game is punishing the player for its own difficulty.

You can undo this effect with a particular item (the “Human Effigy” this time around), but this item is much rarer that the “Humanity” item of Dark Souls, and chances are you’ll run out of them faster than you can get more, until maybe your third playthrough. So you’ll be spending a good portion of the game with only a fragment of your full health. The game would already be more than difficult enough without this feature.

I’m probably sounding a bit negative by this point, but these are the major issues with Dark Souls II that prevent it from being on the same level as its immediate predecessor and its successors. With these negatives out of the way, however, it should be emphasized that, when Dark Souls II hits the right notes, it’s exceptional.

The core gameplay is as fun and deep as ever, and the world design remains exquisite. The boss fights are still epic encounters, though perhaps a bit less memorable than other entries in the series due to a relative lack of variety (a good portion of the bosses are giant suits of armor with swords). There are secrets and hidden areas around every corner, instilling a strong sense of exploration into the player. And while I may have noted the cumbersome nature of the areas packed with excessive enemies, there are still places in the game that are the opposite, and evoke the series’ usual design strengths.

There are a few other tweaks made to the Dark Souls formula. Like in Demon’s Souls, the player doesn’t level up at any given bonfire, but instead has to speak with a particular NPC (the “Emerald Herald” in this case, who resides in the game’s hub of Majula). Some might say having to go to a specific spot to level up isn’t as accessible as its predecessor’s method, but given that you have the ability to warp to any previously visited bonfire from the get-go this time around, it’s not a problem.

Some may also not be too keen on the way the Estus Flask upgrades in Dark Souls II. Rather than Dark Souls 1’s process of boosting the individual bonfires to give you more uses of the Estus Flask, you now have to find two different rare items that, when burned at a bonfire, increase the number of uses of the Estus Flask itself (to a maximum of 12) and increase how much health each usage heals. But I don’t find it to be any worse than its predecessor’s method, just different.

As usual, Dark Souls II looks and sounds great. Although the Scholar of the First Sin edition doesn’t look as pretty as its sequels that were made from the ground up for PS4 and Xbox One, its art direction and visual aesthetics have held up nicely. And, when coupled with its sweeping musical score and the series’ untouchable sound design, it all really gives the game a strong sense of atmosphere.

On the subject of atmosphere, Dark Souls II follows series’ tradition of having the majority of its story and world building told through the level design, item descriptions, and passing NPC dialogue. The story and world here are still interesting (and tell of how the kingdom of Drangleic fell to ruin), but it is a little odd that its story and setting seem far removed from that of the first game. This would be emphasized all the more later on when Dark Souls III felt like a closer follow-up to the first Dark Souls, while only giving the world, characters and elements of Dark Souls II a few passing references. So if Dark Souls II weren’t already seen as the black sheep of the series by fans, it seems its sequel would canonically magnify this labelling.

That’s a bit of a shame. While Dark Souls II undoubtedly falls short of the two Dark Souls entries it’s sandwiched between (and Bloodborne. Can’t forget Bloodborne), it’s still a great game that expands on the world of the series.

Dark Souls II’s faults may be few, but they are certainly more noticeable than those of its sister titles. Only in a series of this pedigree could a game as good as Dark Souls II be considered its “black sheep.” If taken by its own merits, Dark Souls II is close to triumphant. It’s only when one remembers what came before and what came after that its blemishes really start to show.

 

8

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the Perfect Game for these Times

Like virtually everyone else, it seems, I am fully onboard the Animal Crossing bandwagon right now. Admittedly, this isn’t the first time. I obsessed over the original Animal Crossing on GameCube back in the day, as well as Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS (the Nintendo DS and Wii entries were also nice, but didn’t connect with me in the same way).

But there’s something unique about the timing of New Horizons that makes it all the more special. Something that I don’t believe I’ve ever really seen with a video game release.

It’s timely. But timely in a way that couldn’t be planned.

We often talk about movies with timely messages and themes (elements that can also be translated to games). That’s great and everything, but it’s usually intentional, with surrounding world events often inspiring or influencing the direction the creators take with their work.

But Animal Crossing – a video game series all about every day life and normalcy – comes at a time when such mundane affairs now seem like rare gifts.

As we’re all stuck in our homes during this COVID-19 pandemic, longing for the return of normal life; when we can go shopping, hang out with friends, go to movie theaters, and just do anything outside of our homes, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is giving us that sense of normalcy through escapism.

Even under normal circumstances, Animal Crossing: New Horizons would be a great addition to the series, as it adds enough new content and depth to the proceedings to make such a simple series feel engrossing all over again. But the fact that it has been released now, during this topsy-turvy time, makes it feel like something really special.

While Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always planned to be Nintendo’s big release for the first quarter of 2020, no one could have predicted that it would end up meaning a whole lot more than simply being a big seller. But with the world feeling more and more upside-down by the day, Animal Crossing: New Horizons feels like a rare treasure. I can’t remember the last time any work – let alone a video game – felt so timely, so unintentionally.

As we’re all stuck in our houses, wishing to go back to jobs and school (admit it, you miss them), longing to hang out with friends, and just continue our usual routines, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has given us the opportunity to bring a little normalcy back into our lives during an incredibly abnormal time. It’s not just a fun game, but Animal Crossing’s simple premise of a Nintendo-ized version of real life has never felt more welcome, or more blissful.

Final Fantasy Adventure Review

*Review based on Final Fantasy Adventure’s release on Nintendo Switch as part of the Collection of Mana*

Originally released on the GameBoy in 1991 as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan, and later released in the west as Final Fantasy Adventure (US) and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest (Europe), this Final Fantasy spinoff would eventually spawn the Mana series of games, dropping the Final Fantasy name entirely.

It was with the second entry in the series, Seiken Densetsu 2 – more widely known as Secret of Mana – that the series would really come into its own (and, in my opinion, established itself as Final Fantasy’s better). But the seeds of greatness were planted here in Final Fantasy Adventure on the GameBoy. Though the GameBoy’s limitations do mean that this original entry in the Mana series hasn’t aged particularly well, its ambitions for the time and hardware are nothing short of commendable.

Some fans bemoan the Mana series for its lighter emphasis on story in comparison to Final Fantasy, but seeing as these are video games, I feel that gameplay is the far more important feature. And in that regard, the Mana games stand tall over Final Fantasy with ease. Take the story out of the old Final Fantasy titles, and they are, admittedly, the ‘vanilla’ of RPGs. But by implementing Final Fantasy’s RPG mechanics into gameplay inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, the Mana series feels more distinct and refined as a game. Though, as stated, that mostly applies to the second and third entries of the series, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure attempted such a feat on the original GameBoy as early as 1991 is an impressive feat in and of itself.

Unlike later entries in the series, the player only directly controls one hero character, though a second, non-playable character will join them from time to time. The layout of the world and control is reminiscent of the original Zelda on NES. With the top down perspective, similar gameplay, world and dungeons. But your character also gains experience points, levels up, gains new weapons, and can improve different stats as the player sees fit, as in Final Fantasy.

In concept, Final Fantasy Adventure had a lot going for it. Remember, this was five years before Pokemon was released in Japan, and two years before Link’s Awakening. To have an adventure of this scale on the GameBoy was unheard of. At the time, it’s easy to see why Final Fantasy Adventure would have been considered a classic. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy Adventure aims higher than the GameBoy would ultimately allow, and its lofty ambitions feel restrained by the limitations of its hardware.

For example, it’s often difficult to tell when you’re being hit by an enemy. Your hit points are displayed on-screen via a number, but it’s easy to lose track of it during gameplay. Your character doesn’t react to getting hit by an enemy, like in Zelda, so amidst all the chaos of combat you may not realize when you’re low of health until its too late. At least it’s clear when you’re hitting enemies, so it’s not abhorrent in the same vein as Hydlide, but it definitely doesn’t help the game stand the test of time.

“Okay, I can see where I am. But where am I supposed to be going?!”

Then there’s the simple matter of the game being way too cryptic. The map screen itself is confusing, with the world map being presented as a squared grid, with the player’s current location being represent by a blinking square, and the towns being represented by houses. Other than those markers, you have no clue where anything is. And with how vague the NPCs are with their advice, you’re often left scratching your head as to where to go next. Even if someone gives you something of an idea of a location, you have no idea where it is because the map is just non-specific squares.

Unfortunately, this grows to become a pretty big issue. There are just too many segments in the game where you’re left wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do. And while the core gameplay is decently fun, it goes without saying that Secret of Man – being a Super Nintendo title – more than perfected the formula.

That’s not to say all is bad in Final Fantasy Adventure, however. As a huge bonus, you can save your game at any point during gameplay. How a GameBoy title achieved this while RPGs on the PS2 still demanded players to find specific save points is both a testament to how the Mana series tended to look towards the future, and indicative of how the RPG genre on the whole took a while to move forward. And the soundtrack to Final Fantasy Adventure is one of the few GameBoy soundtracks that still sounds great even by modern standards (that main theme is just lovely).

Final Fantasy Adventure is simply too grand of a journey for the GameBoy to handle. For its day, Final Fantasy Adventure was quite an impressive feat. Unfortunately, like so many titles released on the original GameBoy, timeless appeal ultimately wasn’t one of its strong suits. Still, I suppose when most GameBoy games felt like they compromised so much quality for the sake of accessibility, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure’s biggest drawback is being too ambitious to be properly realized on the GameBoy is a testament to what it did manage to achieve.

 

5

2020 Video Game Awards

Here you can find all of my 2020 video game awards (celebrating the best of 2019) in one convenient place.

First, the Introduction

And the awards themselves.

Best Sound

Best Music

Best Visuals

Biggest Surprise

Best Remake/Re-release

Best Content

Best Gameplay

Best Indie Game

Best Multiplayer

Best Handheld Game

Best Platform

And of course, Game of the Year.