I’m Done with Super Smash Bros.

I’m done with Super Smash Bros. That’s it, I’m done with it.

Recently, during the presentation of Sephiroth’s inclusion into Super Smash Bros., they also revealed a host of new Mii Fighter costumes based on Square characters. Most were based on additional Final Fantasy VII characters (because no other Final Fantasy exists, apparently), but then they just had to go and do it… They brought back the Geno Mii Fighter costume.

Yes, despite being the most consistently requested character to join the Super Smash Bros. roster for about two decades now (who hasn’t yet made it), Super Mario RPG’s Geno is once again relegated to a Mii costume. It’s disheartening, to say the least.

Now, Geno is also the character I personally have most wanted to join Super Smash Bros. for quite some time now. However, it isn’t simply Geno being denied as a playable character (again) that has lead to my decision of leaving Super Smash Bros. behind me (though it’s a notable part), but the fact that Geno’s Mii costume status really hits the nail on the head towards something I’ve felt for quite a while now: Super Smash Bros. simply isn’t Super Smash Bros. anymore.

What I mean by that is that Super Smash Bros., at its core, is a Nintendo fighting game. An excuse to bring Mario and Pokemon and Zelda and Metroid together, and provide fanservice to Nintendo’s history. That eventually grew into the broader history of video games once Solid Snake (and later Sonic the Hedgehog) were added to Super Smash Bros. Brawl. But the series still retained its (for lack of a better word) “Nintendo-ness.”

It was really cool at first, to see Super Smash Bros. open its doors to characters outside of Nintendo’s own. The possibilities it opened up seemed staggering. Unfortunately, as time has passed, it’s become increasingly clear that Super Smash Bros’ scope of video game history and fanservice has shrank considerably. What seemed like limitless possibilities has unraveled to become narrower and narrower.

It seems every other Nintendo character that’s added into the mix is another Fire Emblem character (who, if it weren’t for their name plate, I couldn’t differentiate from Marth if I tried). And now, the third party characters are becoming more and more of the same type of character.

I can accept Sephiroth. I understand he’s popular, and I’ll take him over Sora any day. But the fact that Sephiroth is now a character after there have been a few dozen other anime swordfighter characters kind of makes his inclusion mean nothing. He’s just another one on the pile.

Super Smash Bros. is losing its “Nintendo-ness” and basically becoming just another anime fighter, of which there is no shortage of on the market. I mean, seriously, how many anime-looking guys with swords does Super Smash Bros. really need? And it’s funny how people who (inexplicably) defend Sakurai’s every last decision like to use “but there are a lot of Mario and Pokemon characters” as a rebuttal. Yeah, but the Mario and Pokemon characters are at least unique (with maybe one exception apiece). And given that they’re the two biggest video game franchises – Nintendo or otherwise – of all time, I’d say they’ve earned as many characters as they can have.

I mean, where does Fire Emblem place on the Nintendo ladder? Like, the fourth wrung, maybe? I’m not saying it’s bad, but it certainly hasn’t earned having more characters represented in Super Smash Bros. than, oh, I don’t know, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA! It would be like if you went to Disneyland, and instead of Mickey Mouse, Frozen and Lion King characters they had Treasure Planet everywhere. Treasure Planet isn’t bad, but it isn’t one of Disney’s more remembered features. You’d be like “what the hell?”

I know people would think this is just personal bias speaking. But hey, I absolutely love Pikmin, but I don’t think it needs another character in Super Smash Bros. Its representation seems to fit where the series places in Nintendo’s history. This isn’t about personal favorites, it’s about how Super Smash Bros. – a series built around fanservice of video game history – has narrowed down its fanservice to a very specific niche, and isn’t even doing a good job at catering to said niche, considering the variety of Fire Emblem characters they could have as opposed to the ones they’ve chosen (most of which are basically “Marth again”).

Why should Shovel Knight, Bomberman, Goemon, Sans and Isaac – characters who could bring so much variety to both gameplay and in representing video game history – be relegated to Assist Trophies or Mii costumes, while seemingly any blue-haired swordsman from Fire Emblem can make it as playable characters by default? Again, Sakurai’s questionably loyal fanbase always point out “it’s a Japanese game, of course there are anime-looking characters.” But my complaint isn’t that these “anime” characters are there, it’s that it’s always the same type of character being multiplied over and over again these days. Video games, especially Japanese video games, are incredibly versatile and diverse. But you’d never know it if modern Super Smash Bros. additions are what you’re going by.

Seriously, what the hell does Final Fantasy VII have to do with Nintendo? I mean, geez, couldn’t they have at least added Tera or Kefka? Y’know, someone from a Final Fantasy game that was actually on a Nintendo console? But no, here’s more Final Fantasy VII, because that’s the Final Fantasy that appeals to the very specific anime crowd Super Smash Bros. is now catering to.

Look, I don’t dislike anime. I get people riding me all the time about it. In fact I DO like anime. Sometimes even love it. My all-time favorite movie, and probably my biggest creative inspiration, is Spirited Away which, last I checked, qualifies as an anime. I greatly enjoy One Piece, have fond memories of Cowboy Bebop, and so on and so forth. Anime character designs aren’t the problem. But when I can basically sum up the majority of newer Smash Bros. characters as “an anime swordsman” it gets more than a little repetitive.

Anime, like anything else, has good and bad. Notice I haven’t mentioned the Dragon Quest “Hero” character being in Super Smash Bros. Because while he/they are very prominently anime, Akira Toriyama’s character designs stand out. I can distinguish his designs from a crowd. I can’t really say the same about the Fire Emblem characters or Tetsuya Nomura’s Final Fantasy character designs. We’re getting to a point where it feels like these characters are coming off a conveyor belt.

So again, Super Smash Bros. seems to be abandoning its broad fanservice and tributes to video game history and instead is turning into, well, pretty much any other fighting game because of it.

Yeah, Banjo-Kazooie’s inclusion was a beautiful, beautiful thing. The irony is, despite now being owned by Microsoft, that’s the only DLC character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate thus far that actually feels like they belong in Super Smash Bros. (okay, I suppose Min-Min as well, but I think an ARMS character should have been added from the get-go, so her status as DLC still feels overdue).

It’s just not worth getting excited over a new Smash Bros. update anymore. I don’t find myself thinking “oh man, I wonder who the next character is going to be!” so much as “I wonder which anime swordfighter will be in next…” It no longer feels like the Nintendo fighter it once was. And wasn’t that the whole point of the series to begin with? With all due respect, if I want to play an anime-style fighting game, I’ll play pretty much any other fighting game. Again, it’s not these types of characters themselves that’s the problem, rather, that it seems like the series has a blatant favoritism for this type of character.

Why are the only fan requests making the roster these very specific types of anime-style characters? Why are so many potentially great additions shoehorned into Assist Trophy and Mii costume roles? It’s just not fun anymore. Maybe it is for fans of those anime-style games, and good for them. But it seems less and less diverse players are being considered when it comes to who gets listened to.

I remember how much fun it was waiting for Super Smash Bros. Brawl back in the day, checking its website regularly for updates, and being thrilled when they’d announce a King Dedede or a Diddy Kong or even an Ike (again, back then the series wasn’t oversaturated with such characters). Brawl seems retroactively looked as as the weakest entry in the Super Smash Bros. series (even though that distinction should belong to the N64 original), but damn, it knew how to make its character additions mean something.

Sure, Steve from Minecraft was a pleasant surprise (even if I don’t have any particular feelings towards Minecraft one way or another, seeing as I haven’t played it yet). But like Banjo, it feels like an isolated incident. Like “we’ll throw this crowd a bone as we prepare the next sword character.” I miss when every addition to Smash Bros. felt the way Banjo-Kazooie or Steve did. Looking forward to the next Smash Bros. character used to be a game in itself. Now, I basically have to look into what the newest Fire Emblem game is and I can guess who’s coming. And if not Fire Emblem, a character who looks like they were cut from the same clothe.

I love Super Smash Bros. More, I love what it is in concept. But that aforementioned “Nintendo-ness” just doesn’t feel present anymore. Even the story modes come across as kind of Kingdom Hearts-esque. I find myself – as a Nintendo fan – feeling left behind by the series. I mean, Sephiroth and Bayonetta can make the cut but not Dixie Kong? It feels so far removed from what Super Smash Bros. used to be at this point. I find that I just can’t get excited about it anymore. Yes, the series is still mechanically competent (I named Ultimate as my Game of the Year for 2018 because of its polished gameplay, though suffice to say I’ve been rethinking that decision for a while now), but its heart and soul feel different.

It’s not a hopeless situation. There are things the series could do to win me over again. But if it keeps going the way it’s going… *Shrug*

Maybe by the time Switch 2 comes out and Nintendo releases Super Smash Bros. 6 (or 7 or whatever, I still don’t know where the series stands with the 3DS/Wii U entries as different games), maybe then the series will go back to the versatility it once had. And maybe then the series will actually make Geno a playable character like fans have been asking for two decades now. But until then, I’m done with Super Smash Bros. I just can’t get excited about it anymore. Maybe some day I’ll make a revised “most wanted characters” list just for the giggles, but seeing as none of my most wanted characters are anime sword guys it’s not like they’d have a chance anyway.

Until Super Smash Bros. reclaims that “Nintendo-ness,” it’s kind of in a similar boat for me as Paper Mario at this point, in that I now get the same “if you’re going to outright give fans the middle finger, why should I care?” feeling from it. Nintendo killed Paper Mario by removing its depth, RPG elements and variety, and now they’ve done the same to Super Smash Bros. by turning a franchise that celebrates video game history into a franchise that panders more and more exclusively to a very specific audience. And if you don’t fit square-peg into that audience, you’re basically left in the cold.

Imagine if you and a group of friends exchanged gifts every year during the holidays. But then, all of a sudden, only one of those friends keeps getting all the gifts. Maybe another friend gets a little trinket or whatever on occasion, but only the one person is getting all the good stuff. That’s kind of what Super Smash Bros. feels like now. It stopped giving gifts to everyone, and decided to pick a favorite at the expense of everyone else.

The recent additions to Super Smash Bros. have left me wondering if I really care about Super Smash Bros. anymore. The reveal that Geno has been relegated to a Mii costume again made me come to a conclusion: I don’t.

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Mulan (2020) Review

One of Disney’s more polarized recent trends has been their stream of live-action remakes to their catalogue of animated classics. At first it wasn’t so bad (even if the movies themselves were), with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent being spaced by four calendar years, and both adaptations attempting to put their own spin on the material. But after a while, the sheer amount of these live-action remakes became excessive, and one has to wonder what exactly the point is of remaking movies that are largely considered timeless as is (other than capitalizing on today’s obsession with nostalgia, that is). Is remaking an animated film as a live-action one supposed to make it more legitimate? If that’s the mindset, that not only furthers the unwarranted and ignorant stigma that animated films are somehow not as good as their live-action counterparts, but also would seem self-defeatist on Disney’s part, given that their entire empire is built on their legacy of animated features. When 2019 saw no less than four such live-action remakes (well, the Lion King remake wasn’t actually live-action, but don’t tell that to Disney), suffice to say the live-action Disney remake well seemed drained.

Now, to be fair, not all of these remakes have been bad (I quite enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin), and I’ll take them over those horrible, straight-to-video sequels that tainted the legacies of Disney’s 90’s and early 2000’s output. Still, it can be hard to get too excited for these live-action remakes, no matter how hard Disney might try. And they’ve probably never tried harder with this strange sub-genre than with their 2020 adaptation of Mulan, based on Disney’s 1998 animated film (which, in tern, is based on “The Ballad of Mulan” from Chinese folklore).

From the get-go, Disney seemed to be going the extra mile and putting the extra effort into this particular adaptation, which was a pretty transparent means of trying to win over the Chinese box office, as China has become a major player in worldwide box office numbers over the last decade. Not only did the film encounter its share of controversies ahead of release, but due to the global pandemic of 2020, the film’s theatrical release – originally planned as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of the year – kept getting delayed, with it eventually skipping US theaters outright and heading straight to Disney+ (infamously costing an additional thirty dollars to watch during its first few months on the service). And when Mulan was finally released in China, it not only failed to be the international hit Disney was hoping for, but outright failed in the market Disney was banking on it to succeed in.

But is 2020’s Mulan really as bad as its lackluster performance suggests? Eh, not really. But it’s also not nearly as good as I’m sure Disney was hoping it’d be, either, given how much effort they put into its marketing. 2020’s Mulan is a resoundingly okay-ish film. That of course makes it inferior to the animated film it’s adapting, as that remains one of Disney’s best, but that’s probably expected by this point (I’d argue that only the Jungle Book remake is as good as the original full-stop, though my favorite song from Aladdin admittedly comes from the 2019 remake). But it also isn’t the worst live-action remake Disney has released in recent times.

The film, of course, tells the story of Mulan (Liu Yifei), a young woman in ancient China, who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the Chinese army in order to spare her ailing father (Tzi Ma), who was initially recruited after the Emperor decrees that one male of proper age from every available family must enlist. Mulan, now going under the name “Jun” in her guise as a man, is risking her life both on and off the battlefield. If her true identity is revealed, she will be killed by her own army.

Though the premise remains the same as its 1998 animated predecessor, Mulan makes more notable changes from the original than many of the other Disney remakes. On the plus side, I suppose differentiating itself from the animated film justifies its existence a bit more. On the downside, I think few fans of the original film will appreciate these changes.

Notably, there has been a major change to Mulan herself. Not in her personality or ambitions, but in her abilities, as this Mulan is capable of channeling her “Qi” to perform feats of superhuman agility! Basically, she’s been turned into a Jedi (and not even original trilogy Jedi, which at least would have made sense with its Eastern influence). This change is, well, it’s something…I guess. I don’t exactly understand the reason for the whole Qi aspect to Mulan, except for that it allows her to run up walls, momentarily float, and be able to kick a spear as if it were a bullet firing from a gun, which I guess is the kind of thing you might see in a Chinese action movie. It’s more pandering to the Chinese market, is what I’m getting at.

It just comes off as a bit cheesy, really. The supernatural elements of 2020’s Mulan just feels kind of shoehorned in, and it’s kind of weird how the animated Mulan was more bound by the laws of physics than her live-action counterpart. Also, Mulan has a younger sister in this adaptation named Xiu (Xana Tang), though she doesn’t really play a role in the story, so I’m not sure what the point of the addition is.

Fans of the ’98 film may also be disappointed to learn that Li Shang, Mulan’s commanding officer who became her love interest by the end of the original film, is not present. His role is taken over by two new characters: the stern Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and Chen (Yoson An), an ambitious soldier who fills the romantic interest role. The filmmakers claim the change was made because the idea of a commanding officer falling for one of his soldiers seemed “inappropriate,” but I have to wonder if they remembered the animated film very well, seeing as it was Mulan who was always crushing on Li Shang, and the latter didn’t fall for Mulan until the end of the movie and the war was over. Maybe I’m being too technical. Or maybe the filmmakers of the 2020 film are. Or maybe everyone is.

At least this remake still includes Ling, Yao and Chien-Po (Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang and Doua Moua), so there is some direct adaptation from the animated film here. It’s perhaps appropriate that this loudmouth trio also provide the most overt references to the 1998 film (“It doesn’t matter what she wears or what she looks like. It only matters what she cooks like!”). Though for reasons I don’t understand, the cute little cricket from the original movie has been changed into a human character named Cricket (Jun yu). So that’s a thing.

Even the villains have received an overhaul. Instead of an army of Huns, we have the Rouran. In place of the hulking Shan Yu from the animated film, we have a duo of primary villains: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the Rouran army, and Xianniang (Gong Li), a witch whose powerful Qi enables her to shapeshift. As much as I love the animated film, I don’t think anything is really lost with this change in villains. Shan Yu looked intimidating, but as a character he was pretty interchangeable with any of his high-ranking henchmen.

Now for the question most fans of the animated film had during the lead-up to the 2020 film: Is Mushu in the live-action Mulan?

The answer to that is, quite simply, no.

I understand this is a deal-breaker for a lot of fans, though I’m going to break a few hearts and say I can live with or without Mushu. I don’t dislike the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon from the original, but he was another transparent attempt at Disney trying to replicate the magic they concocted with Aladdin’s Genie. I think Mushu was a better attempt than some of his predecessors like Timon and Pumbaa or the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but after a while it kind of got tiring how the sidekick characters in Disney movies were purposefully designed to be more popular than the main characters.

Still, I suppose I can see where people are coming from with their longing for comic relief. While I detest the internet generation’s dismissal of anything that “takes themselves too seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s trying to tell), I also understand that taking one’s self seriously doesn’t mean you can’t also be funny and joyous. The Disney animated films understand this. But this Mulan seems so hellbent on being taken seriously (again, being a means to try and win over the Chinese market by removing an “American element” like Mushu), that it seems to shun the concepts of humor and joy. Even the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Po get limited screentime.

So Mushu isn’t in the movie, but he has something of a quasi-replacement in the form of a phoenix, Mulan’s family’s guardian. But the phoenix doesn’t talk or anything, so it’s not really a worthy character replacement and more like a visual element that vaguely plays the same role. Also, on a side note, this is the second time one of these live-action Disney remakes has replaced a dragon with a phoenix, with the first being 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Maleficent no longer turns into a dragon, she turns into a phoenix. Mushu isn’t allowed in the new Mulan, but a phoenix is. I don’t know what that’s about. Is a flaming bird that resurrects itself somehow more realistic than a fire-breathing lizard or serpentine spirit? But I digress.

Another issue with this Mulan is that, much like The Lion King remake, the film is a whole half-hour longer than the animated feature that inspired it, yet somehow its story feels more rushed. It’s perhaps a credit to the storytelling abilities of Disney’s animators that they can create 90 minute movies that still feel like they take their time to establish story and character. These live-action remakes feel like so many key elements just zoom on by, that by the end of things I’m left wondering how they made it to the two hour mark.

Okay, I’m sounding largely dismissive. But 2020’s Mulan isn’t a total bust: the acting is strong, and helps give the film the proper emotional weight. Visually speaking, 2020’s Mulan is also very pleasant to look at, with great costumes and sets (though I could do without some of the obvious green screen bits). This Mulan remake retains just enough Disney charm to keep it afloat. But “just enough” might be the key words here, and for these live-action remakes on the whole.

I fully admit I had some good fun watching this version of Mulan. But you know what’s considerably more fun? Watching the animated original. But hey, it still beats the straight-to-video Mulan II. Let us speak no more of that.

5

Super Mario World and Super Nintendo Turn 30!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the original release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan, and along with it, Super Mario World.

With all the hullaballoo Nintendo is (understandably) making for the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., they’ve been strangely quiet about this moments anniversary. As far as I’m concerned, the Super NES is the most timeless console of all time. While the original NES has earned its place in video game history, playing it today, it does feel like a product of its time, save for a few exceptions (Mario, Mega Man, Kirby). Similarly, the Nintendo 64 pioneered and revolutionized 3D gaming. But testing new waters meant that not everything about the N64 has held up swimmingly, and again, with a few exceptions (Mario, Zelda, Banjo, Starfox and Kirby), the Nintendo 64 can also feel a bit like a relic.

The Super NES, on the other hand, hit that sweet spot. The culmination of everything game design had learned up to that point, polished and refined. The SNES continued classic gameplay and franchises, while introducing hosts of new ones, and made them all better than ever. And beyond all expectations, the classics of the SNES haven’t aged a day. It really did earn the monicker of “Super.”

More specifically, let’s talk about Super Mario World. The best video game launch title of all time, Super Mario World is at once synonymous with the Super Nintendo, and also one of the rare games whose reputation might just transcend its console (certainly no small feat, given the console in question). I mean, Super Mario World is just the definition of a classic. You don’t really think of the year of release or the era in question when it comes to Super Mario World. It’s simply a perennial classic that stands on its own.

Super Mario Bros. 3 may have perfected what Super Mario Bros. started, but Super Mario World somehow perfected that perfection. Brilliant level design, repayable levels, secret exits and hidden worlds, Super Mario World effectively created the difference between simply getting to the end of a game, and completing it 100%. You could also speedrun it and try to best it in as few levels as possible if you wanted. Basically, while NES titles and prior video games were all about high scores and finding the fastest way to get to the end, Super Mario World created the broader options of how you could complete a game. Both speed runners and completionists owe Super Mario World more than a little thanks.

And, of course, who could forget the introduction of Yoshi! Mario’s cute little dinosaur sidekick quickly became Nintendo’s second most popular character (sorry Luigi). Yoshi even starred in Super Mario World’s 1995 prequel, Yoshi’s Island, and went on to star in franchises of his own.

Like the Super Nintendo itself, Super Mario World felt like a refinement of of its predecessors, with Nintendo adding new and creative ideas around every corner. A classic in every sense of the word.

As an added bonus, November 21st also serves as the anniversaries of the original releases of Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2 (DKC3 misses the mark by one day). So you could rightfully call November 21st “Super Nintendo Day” (which I very much do). DKC was released on this day twenty-six years ago, while DKC2 celebrates its big twenty-fifth anniversary today. As an added bonus to said added bonus, Donkey Kong Country Returns was released on the Wii ten years ago today, to commemorate the sixteenth anniversary of the original DKC… How the hell is Donkey Kong Country Returns a decade old already?

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Happy Super Nintendo Day, everybody! And a very happy 30th to Super Mario World! Wahoo!

Super Mario Bros. 35 Review

Nintendo is (rightfully) going all out with their celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of Super Mario Bros. Between re-releases, compilations, and new games, Nintendo is showing a lot of love to their premiere franchise. Among these celebratory games is a new take on the perennial classic itself, Super Mario Bros.

Aptly titled Super Mario Bros. 35, the game is a battle royal-ified remix of the NES classic in a similar vein to what Tetris 99 did to the other most influential video game in history. Super Mario Bros. 35 drops the fitting number of thirty-five players into their own game of Super Mario Bros. But every player is only given a single life, so one wrong move and you’re out of the game. Being a battle royal, the aim is to outlast every other player and be the last Mario standing.

Sounds simple enough, but there are some fun twists added into the mix to keep things fresh, the most obvious being your ability to hinder other players. Your game is of course the most prominent on the screen, but you can see the other thirty-four players’ progress on smaller displays across the screen. You can manually target a specific player by highlighting their screen, or you can target those in a specific category like who has the most coins. Every time you defeat an enemy, that baddie is sent to the targeted player or players. This means that while the game may start out looking like a traditional game of Super Mario Bros., as it goes on you’ll start seeing hoards of enemies in places you wouldn’t expect. World 1-1 becomes a lot more terrifying when waves of Lakitu and Bloopers start invading.

The other big difference is that the levels are in a random order. Though you’ll start your first game in the traditional world 1-1 then move on to 1-2, it won’t take long before the stages start to come out of order and throw a curveball at your progress.It’s quite an unexpected challenge when you finish a stage from world 2 one minute, and then are immediately thrown into a stage from world 7. Once you’ve played a stage, it becomes unlocked to select ahead of time. Though I’m not exactly sure what selecting the stage does, since it seems I still start with 1-1 no matter what I select.

A more noticeable option you can head into battle with is the ability to select a power-up to start a game with (Super Mushroom, Fire Flower or Power Star). But doing so will cost you the coins you get from defeating other players in the game. For your first few games, starting with a power-up feels like a luxury. But it doesn’t take long for you to get so many coins that you can pretty much start with a power-up every time.

The coins you get from eliminating players are separate from the coins you get within the levels themselves though. The coins Mario physically grabs can be used to spin a power-up roulette wheel (20 coins per spin), which can give you one of the three aforementioned power-ups, as well as a POW block, which instantly wipes out every enemy on-screen.

As an added challenge, you’ll start every round with only 35 seconds on the clock (of course). More seconds are earned by defeating enemies, collecting power-ups and completing levels. Enemies will grant even more time if you manage to chain them together with jumps or a Power Star (the Fire Flower may be gloriously overpowered, but defeating consecutive enemies with it won’t build combos for more time, which is a nice compromise).

The game is a lot of fun, but it has some issues: As fun as it is, Super Mario Bros. 35 can get a bit repetitious. This is a game that’s at its best when played in a few short rounds, and doesn’t boast the “just one more game” appeal of other Nintendo multiplayer games or other recent battle royals like Fall Guys. That in itself isn’t too bad, but the game’s sheer insistence on having players replay world 1-1 and 1-2 gets a bit ridiculous. It often feels like entire games are comprised of those first two levels on repeat, with a third random level thrown in on occasion. I get that the first two levels of Super Mario Bros. are probably the two most recognizable levels in video game history, but that’s all the more reason I would like to see the other levels show up more frequently.

Another downside – and this is a baffling one – is Nintendo’s dumbfounding decision to make Super Mario Bros. 35 only available until March 31st, 2021. Super Mario 3D All-Stars, which was also released to commemorate Super Mario Bros’s 35th anniversary, will also be discontinued on that date, to the chagrin of many. But at least with 3D All-Stars I can kind of get it, since it’s a box set of old games. So I can at least see where Nintendo is coming from in releasing 3D All-Stars as a limited time “birthday gift” to the series. But why does Super Mario Bros. 35 have to just disappear after such a short time? I could understand if it were free until March 31st, but why is the entire game only playable until then? Unless that only applies to the game under its current “35” form, and after Mario’s 35th celebration the game adopts a different player count (Super Mario Bros. 99!). But that’s clearly little more than wishful thinking on my part. The sad truth is Super Mario Bros. 35 is a lot of fun, but it’s not here to stay.

Like Tetris 99, Super Mario Bros. 35 proves that you can teach an old game new tricks. And the marriage between all-time classics like Tetris and Super Mario Bros. with the most popular genre of today just makes so much sense. If only Super Mario Bros. 35 didn’t have an expiration date…

7

My Favorite Films and TV Shows of 2019

I am the most timely of people. What better time to name one’s favorite movies and TV shows of a year than November of the following year? Such timelines.

In all seriousness, sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to this. Between my early flip-flopping of making this list to getting distracted with other posts to, well, 2020 being what it is, a lot of the stuff I had planned for this site this year fell by the wayside (I plan to pick up the pieces, but the past several months have definitely done a number on my mental health, so apologies that it may take a little longer still).

Because I’ve delayed this list for so incredibly long, I’ve decided to do things a little differently this time around. Instead of writing an article about why one movie was my favorite of the year, or doing a proper top 10 list, I’m just going to list the movies and TV shows of 2019 that won me over the most, and write some explanation as to why they managed to do just that.

So without further ado, in no particular order, here – finally – is my list of favorite movies and TV shows from 2019.

Continue reading “My Favorite Films and TV Shows of 2019”

Hey Hey! It’s November!

Somehow… Palpatine returned.

And somehow… it’s November.

In a year that at once seems to simultaneously be zooming by and trudging through its own eternity, we are reaching the endgame of 2020. Here’s hoping 2021 will be merciful.

Thank the maker such a dreadful year is almost over, though I have to admit, not everything in 2020 has been bad. Just mostly bad. Very, very mostly.

Still, let’s try to look at the positives: Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Dr. Robotnik was fun. Onward was another jewel in Pixar’s crown. Crash Bandicoot 4 was a great return to form for its series. The new season of the Mandalorian is off to a good start. And Animal Crossing: New Horizons exists.

See, not all has been bad in 2020.

Anyways, my apologies that October was such a slow month here at the Dojo. In fact, in terms of the number of posts I made, October 2020 had the fewest posts (four) for a single month in this site’s nearly six-year history. Though in all fairness, three of those four were decently lengthy, relatively speaking. Apologies also go to me once again failing to write a proper Halloween post this year (though I did do something for the occasion by finally writing my review of Luigi’s Mansion 3. And it only took a year to the day of its release!). I’ve been meaning to make revised versions of my past Halloween-based top five lists (particularly “Top 5 Video Game Skeletons” because why the hell did I include Scorpion on there when I hate Mortal Kombat?). Hopefully next October I (and everyone else) will be feeling more Halloween-y.

2020 has been hard on everyone, and I’m no exception. October had me feeling pretty low, so I wasn’t feeling particularly creative and needed something of a break. But I’m feeling somewhat better now and I have more than a few things in store in the coming months.

It felt great to finally knock that Luigi’s Mansion 3 review off of my to do list, so I’ll hopefully get around to my other oft-delayed reviews soon, such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Paper Mario: The Origami King *Groan* and Return of the Jedi. Additionally, with the end of the year approaching, I should be doing my “Best of 2020” awards in the not-too-distant future. Talking of which, yes, I actually do plan on writing something of a Favorite Films of 2019 list sometime soon (because what better time to name your favorite things of a certain year than November of the following year?). Because it’s taking me so long to get around to it, and due to my general indecisiveness on the subject, I may just make a shortlist of favorites as opposed to a top 10 countdown or something.

But that’s not all, folks!

Something I’ve wanted to do since the tail-end of 2019 was to make some “Best of the Decade (2010s)” lists. And yeah, I get it, I’ll be at least a year late in writing such things after everyone else. But I guess I’ll just emphasize “Best of the 2010s” in their titles as opposed to “Best of the Decade.”I don’t know how many such lists I’ll make, but I at least want to make one for my favorite films, video games, and video game soundtracks of the 2010s. Maybe more, but it’s already taken this long so we’ll have to wait and see.

I should also be reaching two big milestones with this site soon, as I’m approaching my 400th video game review and, well before that, my 1000th total blog on this site! Well, it will probably be more like my 1,005th or 1,006th, but I removed a small handful of the posts from this site’s early days (they were crap), so they don’t count. You could call it quality control, though I don’t know if anything I write would suggest any semblance of quality. So yeah, my 1,000th blog will be happening in not too long. Who knows, depending on how productive November and December are for this site, I may combine my 1,000th post with this year’s Christmas Special (that’s not a promise though).

Coinciding with said 1,000th blog, I plan to make some changes to the site as well. What those changes entail entirely, I don’t know yet. I don’t think I’ll be revising my rating system again or anything, but I may revise some of my past reviews. Going to try to stop with the flip-flopping, go over everything and make them more definitive. I mean, WordPress itself has recently changed (you can tell I still haven’t gotten the hang of things with the size and placements of pictures and gifs in my recent posts), so why don’t I? Not that WordPress’s changes have influenced this decision, that’s all on the “1,000 blogs seems like a good place for a fresh start” thing.

Anyway, if you, for whatever reason, get some kind of jolly from my writing, I hope you look forward to that stuff. And I promise I didn’t just write this post due to my lack of content in October and as a thinly-veiled means to get closer to the aforementioned 1,000th post with some filler.

Have a good November. Stay safe, and wear a mask!

Luigi’s Mansion 3 Review

When Luigi’s Mansion was released as a GameCube launch title in 2001, it was an interesting little oddity in the Mario franchise. A small excursion starring the lesser Mario brother taking on a house full of spooks and specters in Ghostbusters-like fashion. It was fun and unique, but short-lived. And for over a decade it seemed that Luigi’s Mansion was to remain a one and done affair. It was surprising then, that a sequel was released on the Nintendo 3DS almost twelve years later. Though it lacked the atmosphere of the GameCube original, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon proved that the concept of Luigi doing his best Peter Venkmen impression still had a lot to offer. It may have taken the timeframe between an original Pixar movie and its sequel, but Dark Moon turned the once isolated Luigi’s Mansion experience into a viable franchise of its own (it even spawned an arcade spin-off).

Developed by Canadian studio Next Level Games (who also made Dark Moon, as well as the Mario Strikers games and the Wii installment of Punch-Out!!), the bluntly titled Luigi’s Mansion 3 was released on the Nintendo Switch on Halloween of 2019. Taking the best bits of the GameCube original and the 3DS sequel, Luigi’s Mansion 3 proved to be the best entry in the series yet by some margin.

Though the game still houses the word “mansion” in the title, the action this time around actually takes place inside of a hotel. This high-rise hotel, The Last Resort, is the vacation spot for not only Luigi, but also Mario, Princess Peach, and a group of Toads. Because Mario and the gang are never allowed a proper vacation, the whole thing ends up being a rouse. During the first night of their supposed vacation, Luigi awakes in the middle of the night to find that Mario, Peach and the Toads have gone missing, and the seemingly luxurious hotel has transformed into a dilapidated, nightmarish tower filled with ghouls. It turns out the hotel’s owner, Hellen Gravely, is actually a ghost, working under Luigi’s recurring foe, King Boo. King Boo has successfully captured Mario, Peach and the Toads and trapped them in portraits, and almost does the same to Luigi, before the younger Mario brother makes an escape (perhaps King Boo should try capturing Luigi first next time… and maybe he and Bowser should work together, because King Boo seems pretty adept at capturing Mario, so together they could get a lot done).

Luigi soon finds that his mentor in ghost-catching, Professor E. Gadd, has also been captured by King Boo, and is in the hotel. Luigi finds an extra ghost-catching device left by Gadd, and soon uses it to rescue the mad scientist. From then on, Gadd takes refuge in his ‘ghost-proof’ bunker, and provides Luigi with different gadgets and abilities along the way (including “Gooigi” Luigi’s gelatinous doppelgänger) in the quest to save Mario, Peach, the Toads, and to put an end to King Boo and Hellen Gravely’s plans.

Being a Mario game that isn’t one of its RPGs of yesteryear, the plot of Luigi’s Mansion 3 is of course simple stuff. But the action becomes something truly memorable by how much personality and character shines through. Luigi’s Mansion 3 is one of the most vibrantly-animated video games ever made. The game is bursting at the seams with charm and humor, particularly physical comedy, with Luigi’s Mansion 3 being on a level of its own in that category.

Not only has Luigi’s anxious, trepidatiously-heroic personality never been more on display, but other characters, and even enemies, are filled with exaggerated movements and expressions (Next Level Games, perhaps realizing that Professor E. Gadd had never previously been seen walking more than a few feet, gave him a decidedly hilarious running animation). While Mario games have often had fluid character animations, they’ve never been so innately humorous as they are here, with Luigi’s Mansion 3 evoking Loony Tunes at times.

The gameplay is an utter delight. The basics are still the same as they’ve always been for the series: stun ghosts with a flashlight, catch them in your vacuum, dwindle down their hit points until they finally get sucked up. The Dark Light from the second game returns, and is used to find/solidify invisible and spectral objects, as well as release your friends (and coins) from portraits. But there have been a few fun little quirks added to the proceedings: the Poltergust vacuum can now let out a burst to keep large groups of enemies at bay, should Luigi find himself overwhelmed. Luigi can now slam ghosts that are caught in the vortex of the vacuum, which depletes larger chunks of their health with each slam. The Poltergeist can now also fire a plunger, which sticks to objects for Luigi to pull and drag them.

The biggest gameplay addition is the inclusion of Gooigi, who works as a second playable character. Once Gooigi is obtained, the player can switch between Luigi and his gooey clone by the press of a button (or a second player can join in to take on the role of Gooigi for some fun co-op). Gooigi mostly controls identical to Luigi, but has some pros and cons unique to him. Being the slime-like creature he is, Gooigi can sink into drains, squeeze into narrow spaces, walk passed spikes, and pass through cages like Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean. On the downside, Gooigi cannot move in bodies of water or come into contact with fire, or else he dissolves and retreats back into Luigi’s Poltergust.

Although on their own, these additions may seem small, when you put them all together, they really add a lot to the classic Luigi’s Mansion gameplay. In particular, the puzzles that require both Luigi and Gooigi to step into action really bring out the game’s creativity.

One of my complaints with Dark Moon was its mission-based structure. The first Luigi’s Mansion had a unique atmosphere and sense of place for a game set in the Mario universe. It may not have been truly frightening, but the titular mansion of the original game felt like like a set place and, relative to the series, was appropriately eerie. Dark Moon removed that atmosphere in favor of a mission-based structure, which made the experience feel fragmented and episodic. The first game felt like you were scouring a haunted mansion. The second game simply felt like levels in a video game.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 finds a nice compromise between the two. The Last Resort houses 17 floors, each with a different theme or motif. Because things no longer begin and end with a set mission, you have more freedom to explore and go at your own pace, like the first game. But with every floor featuring a different theme, Luigi’s Mansion 3 has a stronger sense of variety, closer to the second game.

“Boy, doesn’t this just personify Luigi’s placement compared to Mario? Mario’s key collectibles include stars, suns and moons. Luigi collects… elevator buttons.”

Each floor houses its own collection of special treasures to find, as well as Boos to catch. The game is progressed by defeating a floor’s boss and acquiring the elevator button they’re holding, which then allows you to go to the matching floor of that button (though they aren’t always in sequential order, which is a nice little touch).

The boss fights are a lot of fun. While the first two Luigi’s Mansion games could admittedly get a bit repetitious, the boss fights alone in Luigi’s Mansion 3 bring out so many fun ideas out of the series’ gameplay that you’ll always be wondering what’s around the next corner. And while the boss ghosts may not capture the same (relative) scariness of the Portrait Ghosts from the first game (thus resulting in not quite the same unique atmosphere of the GameCube title), they are a definite step-up from Dark Moon, which had no Portrait Ghost equivalent.

Players who just want to complete the story can do just that, but for completionists, you can always backtrack and hunt down every last treasure from every last floor of the hotel. And if that’s not enough, Luigi’s Mansion 3 even features multiplayer!

Luigi’s Mansion 3 not only houses a series of local multiplayer mini-game modes, but also builds on the “Scarescraper” online mode introduced in Dark Moon. This cooperative online mode sees up to eight players (four as different colored Luigis, and four as their corresponding Gooigis) brave the Scarecraper by completing one randomly-generated floor to move on to the next (up to ten floors). Most floors will ask players to exercise them of all their ghosts, while others will task players with collecting a certain amount of treasure, having everyone gather in a specific room, or finding lost Toads and escorting them to a teleporter. When all floors are completed, the Luigi-centric team then comes face-to-face with a boss fight in the form of Boolossus.

Scarescraper is a simple multiplayer mode in concept, but insanely addictive in execution. As the clock keeps ticking and you desperately try to find the last ghost/Toad/lump of cash, it becomes a hectic scramble that requires real teamwork to overcome. And while Nintendo’s lack of voice chat is usually a hindrance, this is one instance where the feature isn’t exactly missed. If a player gets caught in a trap and requires another player to rescue them (as getting yourself out of a trap takes considerably longer and exhausts the time limit), they press a few buttons to alert the other players of their whereabouts, hoping their team can get rescue them in time. Again, a lack of voice chat is normally a big problem with Nintendo multiplayer games, but here, it may have made things too easy. It’s difficult to describe, but the Scarescraper is somehow more fun by forcing teams to work together while giving them minimal tools to do so.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 isn’t perfect: the controls can take a little getting used to (especially if you’re not playing with the classic controller), I feel like there could have been some additional incentives for completionists other than a few (often easy to find) treasures and Boos, and there are a few annoying puzzles here and there (sadly, the movie-themed floor, perhaps my favorite in the game, possibly contains the most cryptic puzzles). And while the idea of a multiplayer-exclusive boss fight in the Scarescraper is really cool, it’s kind of a bummer that it’s always the same boss fight (just a couple more would have added a lot).

All things considered, however, Luigi’s Mansion 3 is an extremely fun experience that is always at the ready to throw something unexpected at the player. There’s something new seemingly around every corner, some of which might truly catch you by surprise (which is why I haven’t gone into too much detail on what the different floors of the hotel have in store). And it does so with some of the most exuberant and hilarious animation in the history of video games.

8

Macbat 64: Journey of a Nice Chap Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch release*

 

Macbat 64: Journey of a Nice Chap is – as you may have guessed from the title – a nostalgic love letter to the Nintendo 64 era, primarily the games made by Rare for the console (because let’s face it, outside of Mario and Zelda, the N64 was the Rareware machine). Originally released via Steam in 2017 and ported to the Nintendo Switch (its most fitting platform) in 2020, indie developer Siactro does a great job at recreating the visual look of the N64, and a “pretty good” job at capturing the idea of Rare’s games for the console. The initial nostalgic glee is short-lived, however, as Macbat 64 is so bitesized that it feels more like a prototype used to pitch a more complete game to a publisher, as opposed to the final game itself.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with short games. I have often said I’ll take a great short game over a needlessly long one any day. But there’s a difference between a game that’s simply short but feels fulfilled (like Portal), and a game that feels short because its recourses could only take the developers’ vision so far. As you may have guessed, Macbat 64 falls into the latter category. It provides some fun and charm, but not any more than you might find in a tech demo.

The game is mostly inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, though it does try its hand at some variety and features a Diddy Kong Racing-esque stage, and even a 2D level that deviates from the Rare motif and seems inspired by Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.

 

Siactro’s heart is definitely in the right place, and its nice to see them try to implement a variety of N64 inspirations. The problem is that all of Macbat’s ideas are only realized in their most marginal forms. Despite the Banjo-Kazooie inspiration, there’s no hub world or anything of the sort connecting the stages. You simply select the stages (in sequential order) on the title screen. And each of the game’s stages can be completed in less than five minutes. I maybe completed the whole game in about forty-five or fifty minutes.

Players naturally take control of Macbat, a monocle-wearing bat whose only actions are walking and jumping (he can jump several times in a row thanks to his wings, but tires out after reaching a certain height, possibly another nod to Kirby 64). Every stage – with the exception of the Diddy Kong Racing one – simply features Macbat accomplishing a series of tasks, which usually involve him collecting five coins to purchase a special item from an NPC, or four balloons to send a particular object floating away.

“Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope has a fun little cameo as the voice of a monkey.”

Macbat is recruited on an adventure by a pirate parrot (who probably would have made for a better choice as the player character, if we’re being honest), who set out to save their world’s water supply, as the “Water Factory” has stopped working. So you travel across different levels collecting different objects, and are ultimately rewarded with one of the Water Factory’s keys at the end of a stage. It’s silly nonsense, but the characters lack the personality of their inspirations to liven things up.

Again, Macbat 64 is a game of honest and respectable ambitions, but those ambitions are too barebones and barely realized to amount to much. The initial smirk you may get from the visuals and music from each new level quickly melt away as the level is completed before you realize it. On the bright side, the game only costs two bucks on the Nintendo Eshop, so you can’t exactly say you were shortchanged.

 

If a college student made this same kind of game to showcase their abilities and ideas as to pitch them to a studio, I’d see a lot of promise here in Macbat 64. But as a final product, it feels more like an empty promise.

3

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time Review

Crash Bandicoot’s recent resurgence has to be the best reboot in video game history (one could argue that title belongs to Sonic Mania, but that wonderful game was followed-up by the dreadful Sonic Forces mere months later, somewhat negating the goodwill Mania created). There have been a few great video game franchise revivals over the years – such as when Retro Studios picked up the Donkey Kong Country mantle – but they were revived continuations. As far as hitting a complete reset button goes, Crash Bandicoot went from a washed-up mascot to once again becoming a viable franchise as if we were back in its heyday.

The original “unofficial” mascot of the Playstation brand has had a slow burn of a build-up to his first brand-new game in over a decade. Back in his absent years, Playstation 4 commercials featured background cameos and references to the face of Sony’s early days in the gaming market. In 2016, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End featured a segment where series’ hero Nathan Drake played a stage from the very first Crash Bandicoot on his Sony Playstation in a fun meta moment (the Uncharted series being created by Naughty Dog, the original creators of Crash Bandicoot…back when they actually made video games). This lead into 2017’s release of Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy, a compilation of Naughty Dog’s original trio of Crash Bandicoot titles recreated from the ground-up for the PS4. Though the games showed some aging in certain areas (namely some tricky perspectives, these were released in 3D gaming’s infancy after all), the N. Sane Trilogy proved that fun itself never ages, and showed that there was still an audience for the franchise. Then in 2019, Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled (a remake of Naughty Dog’s final Crash game, one of the few kart racers that is held in a similar regard to Mario’s) was released, and pushed the boundaries for what to expect in a video game remake.

Now seemed like the appropriate time to finally pull the trigger on a brand-new Crash Bandicoot game. And that’s exactly what happened when Toys For Bob announced they were making Crash Bandicoot 4, fittingly subtitled It’s About Time, which released at the beginning of October 2020.

That “4” in the title is important, as it’s the game’s way of telling players outright that this is a continuation of the original trilogy, ignoring the games that were released post-PSOne/pre-N. Sane Trilogy.

I remember way back when I played Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex (the “first fourth” Crash Bandicoot title) it was obvious that the magic just wasn’t there. It certainly wasn’t the worst platformer you could find at the time, but it was uneventful enough that from that point on, I had kind of forgotten how much I enjoyed Crash Bandicoot back in its heyday. Unlike something like Super Mario, which has proven timeless, it seemed Crash had his time in the sun, and it was over. The series was destined to be a fond memory of the past.

The N. Sane Trilogy was more than just a nostalgia-fueled remake (though it was that too), but a launching pad to start the series over, which continued with the Crash Team Racing remake. Now, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time successfully follows-up this relaunch in such a way that it makes you forget everything that happened to the series after the PSOne era. And in the end, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time proves to be the best game in the series.

Ignoring the gimmicks of later entries, Crash Bandicoot 4 utilizes the same kind of platforming mechanics and stage design of the original trilogy (though the game was built from the ground-up, and doesn’t utilize any assets from the N. Sane Trilogy). It’s a 3D platformer, but it plays more like a 2D one. Crash Bandicoot (or his sister Coco, who is playable in any of Crash’s stages from the get-go) run, jump and spin across linear levels, with the camera usually following behind them (though there are also sections with a straight-up 2D perspective, as well as the series’ “chase” levels, which sees the player character running towards the screen). Along the way, they break crates (think Donkey Kong’s barrels) and collect Wumpa Fruits (akin to Mario’s coins or DK’s bananas).

While I have to admit there are times when the perspective can be a bit tricky, leading to some unfair deaths, for the most part, Crash Bandicoot 4 is an utter delight to play. Yes, those occasional trickier perspectives prove that Crash’s formula isn’t as timeless as that of Mario, but Crash Bandicoot 4 is proof that fun gameplay and strong level design make up for any shortcomings.

That isn’t to say that this is merely the same old Crash Bandicoot with new levels, as Crash Bandicoot 4 makes quite a few meaningful additions and adjustments to the proceedings. The most immediate during gameplay being that Crash/Coco’s shadow is made more prominent, with a targeting reticle around it, which may sound like a small detail, but it greatly benefits Crash Bandicoot’s unique perspectives of 3D platforming.

Another change occurs before you even start the game, with players able to choose between “Retro” and “Modern” play styles. Retro plays things true to Crash’s history, utilizing extra lives and game overs (which will send the player back to the beginning of the current level, no matter their progress), and also means collecting one-hundred Wumpa Fruits results in an additional life. Modern mode does away with lives, meaning you’ll always be revived at the most recent checkpoint no matter how many times you die. Wumpa Fruits still have a purpose however, as collecting 40, 60 and 80 percent of a stage’s Wumpa will reward the player with gems (more on that in a minute). If you select one play style but find yourself wishing you’d picked the other, you can switch between Retro and Modern mode at any time in between stages, so thankfully your file isn’t locked onto a set play style.

Between the two, I recommend starting out with the Modern mode, because Crash Bandicoot 4 certainly lives up to the series’ infamous difficulty. In fact, I dare say it’s the most difficult Crash Bandicoot title since the original (though thankfully, it’s much better designed than the first game). But if you just need that classic Crash challenge, the Retro mode is always there. It’s actually a very nice addition to have an option like this.

Another new element comes in the form of N. Verted mode, which is essentially mirror mode – with the stages flipped in reverse – with the fun added bonus of each world’s N. Verted levels boasting a different art style: One world is in black and white, with Crash and Coco’s spins adding color to the world, while another takes on the aesthetics of a comic book, to the point that sound effects appear as on-screen words like “Pow!” and “Bam!” in the tradition of 1960’s Batman. Sadly, because each art style is confined to their respective world, the N. Verted mode doesn’t quite match up to the similar “Tonic” features from 2019’s Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, but it’s still a fun twist that makes the traditional mirror mode a lot more worthwhile.

 

A more gameplay-focused addition comes in the form of the Quantum Masks, four spiritual voodoo masks who represent time and space, who serve as new power-ups during certain points in the game. One mask allows the player to phase certain objects in and out of existence (you could say these objects can be placed in categories A and B, with the B objects being ethereal when A is active, and vice versa). This alone feels like a wonderful addition to a platformer, and makes for some of the game’s most creative challenges. A second mask utilizes dark matter to give Crash and Coco a superpowered perpetual spin attack. This is admittedly a bit hard to learn, as it makes the controls feel oddly floaty and restrained at the same time, but it also adds some extra variety to the game. The third mask allows the player to slow down time for a few seconds, with Crash/Coco being the only thing that still moves at normal speed. This power leads to some especially interesting obstacles (and even allows Crash to touch the series’ dreaded Nitro crates without instantly exploding). Finally, the last mask changes gravity, allowing Crash and Coco to flip upside-down and walk on ceilings, for a little Super Mario Galaxy-esque level design.

“Slowing down time to jump across falling platforms of ice is the best kind of stressful.”

Each mask feels like a welcome addition (even if the second mask’s spinning ability feels like the developers ran out of time/space-themed ideas), and they really change up the gameplay in some truly inventive ways. Some might be disappointed at how situational the masks are (as soon as their section is done, the masks are removed automatically), but honestly, with the way the level structure works in Crash Bandicoot, I don’t really think they could have been implemented any other way.

My favorite new addition, however, are the stages that center around different characters. While Crash and Coco are the default playable characters in the main stages, three additional characters become playable in the forms of Crash’s archenemy Dr. Neo Cortex, Dingodile, the half-dingo half-crocodile mutant who served as a boss in Crash Bandicoot Warped, and an alternate universe version of Tawna, Crash’s girlfriend from he first game.

“I admit I’m not a fan of Tawna’s new hairstyle. The whole “bright colored hair spiked to one side” has been done to death in video games.”

Tawna plays closest to Crash and Coco, albeit with an additional “hook shot” weapon that allows her to grab and latch onto things at a distance. Cortex is fittingly the most different, coming equipped with a blaster that can transform enemies into platforms (one blast for a solid platform, two blasts for a bouncy, gelatinous platform, with a third blast reverting the enemy to its standard self, if things need readjusting). Though Cortex lacks the double jump of the bandicoots, he instead has rocket boots that allow him to dash forward in a short burst which, when combined with the enemies-to-platforms mechanic, really gives Cortex’s stages a strong puzzle element. My favorite has to be Dingodile, however. Already the series’ most outrageous character just by being what he is, Dingodile not only attacks with his tail, but also has a vacuum gun that sucks up crates by the dozens, can throw TNT crates at enemies and objects, and gives him a little hover/double jump combo (akin to Dixie Kong in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze).

There is an unfortunate caveat to these characters’ stages though. While their introductory stages are entirely their own, all of their subsequent levels are only theirs up until a point, at which case it switches over to Crash/Coco, turning into one of their prior stages with small tweaks.

You see, during the main stages, you’ll occasional come across an event that leaves Crash or Coco scratching their head (like an explosion taking out a group of enemies before you can even approach them). The Tawna, Cortex and Dingodile stages present the story from their point of view, and how their actions lead into the aforementioned “head-scratching” moments, which then segue into that previous stage from that moment, with a few changes to crate and enemy placement to mix things up.

While this is a fun twist at first, and equally fun to see how the other characters’ actions play into things, after a while you begin to really want the other characters to just have levels of their own. It’s a bit disappointing when a Dingodile level really starts to get going, only to abruptly end and switch over to something you already played as Crash. Maybe the game will get some DLC that can expand on the other characters, or perhaps we’ll eventually get a Crash Bandicoot 5 to do just that. But as of now, playing as the side characters in Crash Bandicoot 4 feels like a great new addition that’s only partly realized.

If, by now, you’re curious how all of this comes together – what with the bandicoots, alternate universe characters, evil scientists and dingo-crocodile hybrids – there actually is a story here. In fact, though it may not be a particularly story-heavy game, Crash Bandicoot 4 probably has the most elaborate plot in the series.

Though this is a direct sequel to Crash Bandicoot Warped, Crash Bandicoot 4 is appropriately set twenty-two years after its predecessor (if you’re wondering why none of the characters are older, it’s because it’s Crash Bandicoot – a series largely inspired by Loony Tunes and Animaniacs – I don’t think they’re aiming for realism here). Dr. Cortex, along with the evil voodoo spirit Uka-Uka and the time traveling villain Dr. Nefarious Tropy (N. Tropy), have been trapped in a pocket dimension between time and space for all these years. After countless attempts to escape (on Uka-Uka and N. Tropy’s part, they remark that Cortex has done nothing but whine for the entirety of their banishment), Uka-Uka finally manages to tear a hole in space and time. Though the effort costs Uka-Uka all his energy, sending him into a deep slumber (and writing him out of the picture rather unceremoniously, I have to admit), it allows Dr. Cortex and Dr. N. Tropy to escape, with the latter building a space station that can replicate the tear in space and time created by Uka-Uka to reach other dimensions in a plot to conquer the multiverse. Dr. Cortex, becoming something of N. Tropy’s assistant, in turn recruits his own former assistants Dr. N. Brio and Dr. N. Gin to build an army to help out with their plot.

N. Tropy’s tampering with time and space results in the Quantum Masks reappearing, an event which catches the attention of Aku-Aku (Uka-Uka’s benevolent older brother, and something like Crash’s Obi-Wan Kenobi). So Aku-Aku sets Crash out on an adventure to awaken and unite the Quantum Masks in order to put an end to N. Tropy’s plot and bring balance back to the multiverse.

It’s a simple plot, but one that I appreciate for changing up the series’ formula in a few ways, most notably by promoting N. Tropy to the role of primary antagonist. He was always my favorite Crash Bandicoot villain, and I always found it weird how he was introduced in Warped as one third of the main villain trifecta (along with Uka-Uka and the returning Cortex), but then was taken out midway through the game. And then when The Wrath of Cortex reduced his role to a stage obstacle, suffice to say it seemed like the character had missed potential. So it’s pretty cool to see the series continue after all these years and not simply bring back the Crash vs. Cortex formula (though that’s still here too), but effectively redeem N. Tropy and make him a better villain than ever.

Sure, the plot is nothing too fancy, and there’s a couple of elements that could use more fleshing out (particularly when it comes to N. Brio, who – given the rebooted nature of the game – was last seen turning over a new leaf in Crash Bandicoot 2. He even addresses Crash and Coco as his friends in this game, but is still working for Cortex, so I don’t know what that’s about). But it’s a fun little story that manages to find a way to hit a reset button on everything post-Warped while also paying tribute to the series’ entire history, even the less savory years.

On the downside, despite the inter dimensional nature of the plot, the actual levels seem more focused on the time travel aspect (a concept which Warped already tackled). There is a Mad Max-style world early on, and then a later world which I won’t spoil also plays off the different dimension theme, but most seem built around different places in different time periods. There’s a pirate world, ancient Japan world, and a dinosaur world. All cool themes, sure, but they don’t really come across as different dimensions. Hell, even the snow world (one of my favorites in the game) is referred to as “The 11th Dimension.” Again, snow and ice are always a great theme, but what’s “11th Dimension” about it?

There is another aspect to the game that sees things continue even after the main plot is resolved which I have mixed feelings about. This “epilogue” section can feel like an alternate idea Toys for Bob had pitched for the story of the game, and ended up tacking it on in addition to the main story just because they still wanted to use it in some capacity. On the other hand, it’s not like this is a serious game where such a story addition would come across as pointless bloat. When your franchise is as innately silly as Crash Bandicoot, you can kind of get away with these things.

I suppose these are all quibbles. I can’t imagine the story and themes are the main reasons someone would play a Crash Bandicoot game. The game succeeds where it really counts, gameplay. Crash Bandicoot 4 really does feel like the true continuation to Crash Bandicoot Warped I had nearly forgotten I’d waited twenty-two years for. It’s the classic Crash Bandicoot gameplay made fresh and new.

If you’re a completionist, Crash Bandicoot 4 also happened to be one of the deepest games I’ve played in that regard in quite some time. If you just want to complete the story, you can do that, but if you really want to get everything out of the game, you’ll stick with it long, long after the story is done.

The time trials from Warped reappear. After completing a stage, you can replay it and grab a clock at the start to begin that stage’s time trial. Breaking certain crates will award you precious seconds of time, and you can earn different relics (sapphire, gold and platinum) depending on how fast you complete a level.

In addition, every stage houses six gems. Three of which, as mentioned earlier, are earned by the amount of Wumpa Fruit you collect. A fourth gem is earned in the series’ traditional way of breaking every single crate in the level, while another is simply found hidden somewhere within the stage. The final gem is the hardest, and requires the player to only die three or less times on a stage to claim it (don’t worry, you can always start a stage over if need be). And yes, the N. Verted versions of the stages have six gems of their own (including the hidden gem in the level being in a different spot than its standard version).

The gems are used to unlock new character skins for Crash and Coco, which are a fun cosmetic change, but admittedly they may not be the strongest incentive for those who aren’t already completionists to replay the stages. And like the N. Verted visual styles, each character skin is locked onto a specific stage (get X amount of that level’s gem to unlock that skin) which can make collecting some of the skins a bit tedious. Unlocking the costumes by using the gems as currency may have been a more desirable way to go for some players.

If this weren’t enough already, some stages even house an item called a Flashback Tape, a floating VHS that you can only collect if you haven’t died up to that point. Each Flashback Tape unlocks its own bonus stage (accessible on the world map), which takes the player back to the days when Cortex was experimenting on Crash. The Flashback levels are particularly tough gauntlets that task the player with breaking every crate, which becomes much trickier than it sounds.

We’re still not done, believe it or not. Because if you’re a really hardcore Crash Bandicoot fan, there’s one last challenge the game has in store: N. Sanely Perfect Relics. As you may have guessed from their name, these are awarded for performing a perfect run on a level, meaning destroying every crate in a stage without dying. In a game that’s already pretty darned difficult, this is quite the steep challenge.

Of course, all these things are only there if you want to tackle them. They give Crash Bandicoot 4 a stronger sense of replay value than I’ve seen in some years. I often find myself dedicating an entire play session just to claiming a new gem or two.

“The game even includes a polar bear-riding stage a la Crash Bandicoot 2. This makes me so happy.”

This is all on top of an already great platformer filled with variety in gameplay, complemented by catchy music and the series’ oddly-satisfying sound effects. The occasional cheap death due to difficult perspectives and the unrealized potential of the additional playable characters are the game’s bigger drawbacks (because more Dingodile can only ever be a good thing), but they still don’t prevent Crash Bandicoot 4 from being one of the best platformers of recent years.

The N. Sane Trilogy may have brought Crash Bandicoot back. But Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time makes it feel like the series never left.

Crash’s comeback has certainly been the best in gaming I can remember. Now if only something similar could happen to Halo, Final Fantasy, Paper Mario and Sonic… again.

 

8

Super Mario Sunshine: The Mario That Should Have Been More

I was originally just going to write one of my “Replaying” articles in relation to Super Mario Sunshine, which I am currently replaying via Super Mario 3D All-Stars (which came out on my birthday, something I may have mentioned once or twice). But as I’ve been playing it, I feel I have more to say than about Sunshine than what my “Replaying” features usually entail. The more I thought about it, the more I think something closer to my recent write-up on Howl’s Moving Castle is more apropos. So here we are.

Look, first thing’s first, Super Mario Sunshine is not a bad game. In fact, if this is the weakest 3D Mario offering, than Mario has done well for himself, because Sunshine is still a very fun game in a lot of ways. But with the possible exception of Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS, Sunshine is undoubtedly the weakest 3D Mario game by a mile, and possibly the weakest “main entry” in the whole series (unless we’re counting the Super Mario Land and New Super Mario Bros. titles as part of the main series of Mario games).  And it could have, and should have, been so much more.

Now, in more recent years, Super Mario Sunshine is talked about in a more positive light than in years past. Though it’s surely no coincidence that Sunshine’s newfound reverence should occur around the same time those who were young tykes during the game’s 2002 release are now old enough to reflect on Sunshine with rose-tinted nostalgia goggles.

I have seen a number of YouTubers and people on social media try to defend Sunshine to the death, but again, it’s probably no coincidence that all of its defenders are of a certain age. Yes, I myself have nostalgia for Super Mario Sunshine, and I repeat that it isn’t a bad game. But playing Sunshine today, it would be incredibly difficult to put forth a credible argument that it’s one of the better Mario games once the nostalgia glasses come off.

Travel back to the 2000s, and some of the backlash against Sunshine may have been excessive (the gaming community has a bad habit of only working in absolutes), but it wasn’t entirely unfounded. Super Mario Sunshine is a good game, but not good enough for a series that’s usually associated with greatness.

Think about it this way: Up until Sunshine’s release in 2002, every “proper” entry in the Mario series was considered an all-time great in the medium (unless, again, you counted the Super Mario Land titles, though Nintendo themselves has only seemed to retroactively include them in the canon in more recent years). Super Mario Bros. was the biggest game of all time when it was released in 1985, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World were released in the early 90s, and are still considered some of the best games ever made even today. The same goes for Yoshi’s Island, albeit to a humbler degree. And of course, Super Mario 64 revolutionized gaming from that point onward. Even Super Mario Bros. 2, which is now often labeled the “black sheep” of the series, only really earned the monicker in hindsight, after its status as a reworked Doki Doki Panic became more common knowledge. But Super Mario Bros. 2 was still better than most other NES games, and it’s still fun today, and not a whole lot of NES titles can boast that.

Point being, the Super Mario series had (rightfully) earned a reputation unlike any other in video games (Zelda comes the closest, but back then Zelda games were much less common, though I still think Mario would ultimately win out when taking things into consideration in modern times). Yes, Mario still has a peerless pedigree in video games, but at that point, the series was undefeated. Its record unblemished.

Super Mario Sunshine became the series’ blemish.

Sure, Super Mario Sunshine received some strong review scores upon release, but that may have been a case of the hype getting to the reviewers (this was the successor to the legendary Super Mario 64, after all). It didn’t take too long for fans and critics alike to realize Sunshine didn’t quite have the same magic as its predecessors (something similar would happen with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword over nine years later, and lord knows it’s happened with most western AAA releases over the years).

At the time, most of Sunshine’s detractors pointed at the F.L.U.D.D., Mario’s new waterpack, as the gimmicky reason why the game wasn’t up to the series’ standards. Though I think that’s unfair, as F.L.U.D.D. was actually a fun idea, one that still feels unique not just for the series, but platformers in general. It even added to some of the acrobatic moves carried over from Super Mario 64. Seriously, a platformer centered around water is still a pretty great idea.

Others lamented the lack of variety in the environments, with the entire game being centered around a single, tropical island theme. Sunshine’s contemporary defenders argue that this gives the game’s setting, Isle Delfino, a stronger sense of place than the environments of other Mario games, often pointing out how you can see one level in the distance while playing in another. I find myself somewhere in the middle of this. I like the little details such as how Isle Delfino is presented as one connected world, but considering the variety of different places Mario visited even back on the NES, it does make things feel pretty stagnant in Super Mario Sunshine by comparison.

What really brings Sunshine a peg below other Mario entries is simply that it lacks the polish the series is known for. Mario games tend to be timeless, with the forward thinking creativity in their design making them outlive the hardware generations they’re released in. It really should be no surprise why Mario was such a big hit in the 1980s. Again, compare the series’ 8-bit outings with virtually any other NES title. The Mario games are still fun. The others…kind of show their age. Some may wish the Mario series had more focus on stories and stronger world-building, and while such additions certainly would be admirable, if we’re looking at things from a pure video game standpoint, the Mario series is practically untouchable.

At least, it usually is. Sunshine does admittedly try its hand (relatively) harder in regards to story than the other non-RPG Mario games – something its modern defenders love about it – but such elements really can’t make up for Sunshine’s shortcomings as a video game.

“The bonus stages have more traditional Mario platforming. It’s no surprise these sections are often considered the game’s highlight.”

The GameCube was the first time a Nintendo console would be released without a Mario game beside it (Luigi’s Mansion made it to the GameCube’s launch, and may feature Mario characters, but calling it a “Mario game” wouldn’t feel accurate, and not just because the lesser Mario brother had the starring role). It may be because of this that Sunshine can feel like it was rushed out of the gate, with Nintendo hoping to release it as soon as possible to help lift up the GameCube. But more development time would have done Super Mario Sunshine a lot of good.

I already mentioned the game’s lack of variety in setting, but the real bummer is how these limitations are seen in the game’s ideas. Once again, one of the things about Mario games that gets the most praise is their willingness to introduce new ideas at every turn, and retiring these ideas before any of them can overstay their welcome. These ideas may not always be winners (even Super Mario 64 stumbled in some areas, and it wasn’t until Galaxy that the series reclaimed the full power of its bombastic imagination it had during its 2D heyday). But the effort that goes into these ideas to tinker and toy with the gameplay of Mario’s world are always appreciated.

“This section in the game’s fourth stage combines Super Mario World’s cage-climbing with the F.L.U.D.D. mechanics. It’s actually really fun and creative. The game could have used more of this.”

That’s why it’s so disappointing when Super Mario Sunshine can’t seem to stop throwing Red Coin missions at the player. Yes, Super Mario 64 featured  fetch quests for eight red coins as well, but these missions were limited to one per level, and a few bonus stages. But Sunshine revels in them. Each level has about two red coin missions in Super Mario Sunshine, but actually feature more than advertised, considering many of the game’s ‘secret Shine Sprites’ are earned by re-entering bonus areas within the stages, and collecting the red coins that are found within them upon a second visit.

You might think “that isn’t that bad.” And perhaps on its own it wouldn’t be. But when you consider every stage also houses an obligatory “chase Shadow Mario” mission in order to progress the story, things start to feel repetitious really fast. Super Mario 64 may have had one red coin mission per level, but Sunshine’s stages feel like they’re comprised of a series of the same missions for the most part.

The best moments of the game are the Shine Sprites that are built around obstacles within the level, such as the aforementioned bonus areas (where Mario is temporarily robbed of F.L.U.D.D.) and some fun obstacle courses in the main stages themselves. But they’re in the minority, with Sunshine all too often falling back on the same few tricks.

This is all the more glaring by the fact that Sunshine features considerably less levels than Super Mario 64 had. 64 had fifteen proper stages (plus bonus levels and three Bowser stages), while Sunshine only boasts seven proper levels. Some might bring up the “quality over quantity” argument, but that’s just the thing. 64 filled its larger library of levels with more ideas, while Sunshine has fewer stages that repeat a small handful of ideas over and over. So 64 has Sunshine beat in both quality and quantity, and it was released six years prior…on weaker hardware… during the pioneering days of 3D gaming.

Sadly, this feels like a side effect of Nintendo trying to get Sunshine on the market as soon as possible. Who knows how many more levels could have been added, and what could have been added to the existing levels, had Sunshine been given more time in development.

Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. Sunshine, clearly hoping to replicate Super Mario 64, features one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites to collect, just as Super Mario 64 housed one-hundred and twenty Power Stars. If the red coins and Shadow Mario missions weren’t padding enough, than the blue coins really feel like they’re just filling out a quota.

Super Mario Sunshine has two-hundred and forty blue coins to find across the game. Unlike Super Mario 64, where blue coins were simply worth five regular coins (an easier means to claim a level’s “100 coins” star), the blue coins of Sunshine are their own separate collectible. Now, this could have made for a great side quest, with players unlocking new features and secrets whenever they reach a certain milestone of collected blue coins. Instead, the blue coins are simply traded to acquire… more Shine Sprites.

It’s ten blue coins for one Shine Sprite which, if you do the math, means a good chunk of twenty-four of the game’s one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites are simply acquired by trading in blue coins in the game’s hub world. This is where it really feels like the development team had to cut corners. The search for the blue coins could have made for an intriguing side quest, if it provided some unique rewards (say, for example, if the rewards included things like F.L.U.D.D. being able to store more water, Mario getting extra health, you unlock new colors of Yoshis, things like that). But by making the blue coins simply a means to collect all the Shine Sprites, it just comes across as padding. Both the main quest for Shine Sprites, and what could have been a promising secondary endeavor with the blue coins, feel unfulfilled by smooshing them together.

I wish I could say that’s the end of it. Sadly, Sunshine has some more cut corners in the gameplay itself. As I said, Mario games usually hold up really well because they’re much more polished than their contemporaries, but that simply isn’t true of Sunshine. Some fans like to claim that Super Mario Sunshine is the hardest 3D Mario game. It’s not, but if it were, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Case in point, there’s a Shine Sprite in the game’s second stage, Rico Harbor, that sees Mario surfing on a Blooper to collect eight red coins (of course). Once you’re on the Blooper, you can’t get off the Blooper. Once you collect the eight red coins, you freeze while you watch the Shine Sprite animation, only to revert back to full speed in a split second, which really throws you off. And to collect the Shine Sprite, you have to land on it dead center while riding the Blooper, but if you bump into any walls on the Blooper, you die!

Here’s a montage of videos I took on my Switch to show you why, when you put these things together, it makes for an aggravating time.

To this I have to say… did no one at Nintendo think this one through? Or test it? This is the kind of sloppy design you would find in poorly-aged NES games. To think that a Mario title would be guilty of something so clunky seems unheard of. But here we are.

It’s not an isolated incident, either. Yet another mission in Rico Harbor (which is otherwise an aesthetically pleasing level), “Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure” is a chore. In Sunshine, Yoshis will hatch from their eggs by bringing them their desired fruit. In Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure, the Yoshi egg in question will always want a durian. In order to get a durian, you have to get on some rooftops to reach the switches on top of two giant fruit dispensers. Pound on the switches and a fruit comes out. But it’s a random fruit, with the durian only showing up some of the time. So you have to jump between the fruit dispensers pounding the upright switch over and over, hoping that a durian shows up. If one does show up, there’s a good chance it will fall down the nearby ledge. And of course the durian is the one fruit Mario can’t simply pick up (he probably doesn’t want his gloves to smell of durian stank), so if it falls it’s almost impossible to get it back where it needs to be to get it to Yoshi, meaning you have to get back on top of the fruit dispensers and start over.

Once you manage to kick/squirt the durian over to Yoshi, you have to ride the dinosaur through something of an obstacle course. Sounds promising, but again, it feels untested. Yoshi has to spit juice at jumping fish to create platforms (as one does), then ride said platforms to more stagnant ones that are part of the level. But if you shoot the fish at the wrong time, the platform won’t be in the right spot. You either can’t reach that platform or won’t be able to reach the place it carries you to, and the fish don’t respawn until the platform moves its full distance. Not to mention Yoshi only lasts for a limited time in this game. And if you fall off the platforms, you’ll land in water which dissolves Yoshi meaning you have to start the entire process over again!

Suffice to say, Sunshine feels like its difficulty can stem from all the wrong places.

That’s before we even get into the game’s inconsistent animations (notice how Shadow Mario makes a flipping sound even when he doesn’t perform his flipping animation), or the arduous task of keeping track of your blue coins (you can go to a screen that tells you how many you’ve collected in a level, but it doesn’t tell you how many are in a level or which ones you’ve already claimed).

“On the other hand, Sunshine is the only Mario game that has a boss that’s a Stephen King reference. That’s pretty cool.”

Again, I have to stress that Super Mario Sunshine is a good game. But it’s a good game in a series of great ones. It provides fun gameplay and some memorable moments, but whether because of a rushed schedule or lack of creative passion, Sunshine just doesn’t have the Mario magic.

Imagine what could have been, had Sunshine been given more time to be polished. Perhaps it would be talked about in the same regard as 64 and Galaxy are today, instead of being “that one Mario game” that only fans of the right age conveniently seem to herald.

Super Mario Sunshine would be the first time a “proper” Mario game would fail to deliver a defining title in its era. A fun and enjoyable experience, to be sure. But to all those revisionists who insist Super Mario Sunshine is one of Mario’s greatest adventures… No, it really isn’t.