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.

 

3

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back Review

*Caution! This review contains spoilers for not only The Empire Strikes Back., but the entire original Star Wars trilogy. But seriously, if you don’t know the plot of Star Wars, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Of all the Star Wars films, none is more acclaimed or beloved than The Empire Strikes Back. While the original Star Wars (retroactively christened “A New Hope”) may have had the biggest cultural impact, it’s the immediate follow-up that many consider to be the heart and soul of the series.

At the time of its 1980 release, Empire was to be the sequel to the biggest film in history. Expectations were understandably high, and many wondered whether Star Wars could deliver the same magic in a second go around. It probably didn’t help ease concerns that series creator George Lucas stepped down from the director’s chair for this sequel, handing the reigns over to Irvin Kershner, who initially turned down the offer, believing a sequel could only be a rehash of the original.

Thankfully, Kershner was ultimately persuaded and, along with the creative direction of George Lucas and a more confident cast, The Empire Strikes Back exceeded all expectations. Not only was Empire widely deemed one of the few sequels at that point to match or surpass the original (something that’s a bit more commonplace today), but it’s still largely embraced as the best Star Wars film. And with good reason. The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film.

Fittingly set three years after A New Hope, Empire sees the heroic Rebellion finding a new base on the ice world of Hoth. Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) – obsessed with finding the Rebel who destroyed the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – has commanded the evil Galactic Empire to dispatch a series of probe droids to find the Rebels’ new base.

Luke is investigating one of these droids in the barren wastelands of Hoth, when he is attacked by a yeti-like creature called a Wampa ice beast. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is about to leave the Rebellion behind to pay off his debts to gangster Jabba the Hutt, but postpones those plans when he gets word that Luke hasn’t returned, and leaves on the back of a creature called a Tauntaun in search of his friend, risking death in the freezing cold.

Luke manages to escape the clutches of the Wampa, and before succumbing to hypothermia, sees the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), who instructs Luke to go to the swamp planet of Degobah to seek out Yoda, the Jedi Master who “taught Obi-Wan” the ways of the Force (let’s forget that the prequels forgot this little detail), and with whom Luke can finish his training and become the last hope of the Jedi Knights.

Han finds Luke in the nick of time, and the two are rescued by a search party the next morning. Unfortunately, a probe droid has found the Rebel base, and the Empire unleashes a large-scale attack on the base. Though the Rebels put up a valiant effort (in one of the most famous sci-fi battle scenes in film history), the Empire gets the upper hand, and the Rebels are forced to evacuate the planet.

Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca the Wookie (Peter Mayhew) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) all escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, but when the ship’s hyperdrive malfunctions, the ragtag group are forced to make some detours to evade the Empire, which will eventually take them to the Cloud City on the planet Bespin, which is under the command of Han’s old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker – with R2-D2 in tow – heads to Degobah in search of the mysterious Yoda.

It’s a simple story, but Empire greatly benefits from that simplicity in plot, because it allows the characters to take center stage. While the original Star Wars will always be delightful, it was (quite intentionally) a really simple hero’s journey. The characters were more archetypes than they were three-dimensional figures. The real joy of A New Hope was how the imagination of its created world presented that journey. By focusing its narrative on who the characters in this intergalactic fairy tale are, Empire gave this imaginative universe a newfound depth.

Luke Skywalker is no longer the whiny farm boy he was in A New Hope, and has matured into a renowned hero in the Rebellion. Princess Leia has similarly become more battle hardened. And most notably, Han Solo – while still the same roguish scoundrel in many ways – has become more selfless and heroic (take, for example, the aforementioned moment when Han could have wiped away his debt with Jabba the Hutt for good, but changes course to search for Luke without hesitation).

The returning heroes have grown more complex, and Empire does what any great sequel should by also changing up the character relationships. Luke is far removed from his companions (save R2-D2) for most of the film, which immediately changes the character interactions from those of the first film.

“After watching Empire again for this review, I realized that the series really could have used more interactions between Han and C-3P0. It’s the funniest character relationship in the series.”

A romance begins to blossom between Han and Leia (which avoids falling into the cheesy realms of later Star Wars romances). Without his counterpart R2-D2 by his side, C-3P0 is left to annoy Han with his uptight paranoia, which leads to the funniest dynamic between characters in the entire Star Wars series (it’s a wonder why Han and C-3P0’s relationship doesn’t get more recognition). Even Chewbacca, who can only speak in roars, gets a bit more character to show, revealing more of his gentle giant nature as he cares for a damaged C-3P0.

“That’s good. Like that. Like that.”

Some new characters also add to the proceedings. Most notable of all is Yoda (performed and voiced by Frank Oz), the diminutive Jedi Master is probably the series’ most charming character, and most likely the best puppet character in movie history. Yoda’s wisdom gives the film much of its soul, and unlike subsequent appearances by the character, Yoda also provides some great comedy here.

Lando is another new character who adds more dimension to the world of Star Wars. Though many fans (unfairly) remember Lando for his eventual betrayal of Han Solo, they fail to remember his reasons for it. Lando is loyal to his friends, but given that his Cloud City has come under the occupation of the Empire, he isn’t left with much choice but to turn his friends in for fear of what would become of his people should he cross the Empire. In a series where good and evil are quite clearly defined, Lando provided a sense of gray morality to the proceedings.

“Awkwaaaaard.”

Unfortunately, not every new character introduced in Empire adds depth to the Star Wars universe. This is probably one of my most unpopular opinions, but the villainous bounty hunter Boba Fett feels like an entirely throwaway addition. I don’t necessarily dislike Boba Fett, but I feel he’s a character who never begins to reach his potential, something that would become a kind of trend with Star Wars villains. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ character, Boba Fett really doesn’t live up to his inspiration. Sure, he looks the part of a badass – with battle-weary armor and a mask that creates even more mystery than Vader’s – but he’s never really given the chance to do anything of note. Sure, he may be the bounty hunter cunning enough to track down Han, but that’s as far as the character goes. When push comes to shove, Boba Fett is never allowed to do anything to justify the character’s bafflingly immense popularity. On the flip-side of the coin is Imperial Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), a more understated villain who – despite his limited screen time – feels more like an integral foe.

“No flips. Just wisdom.”

Perhaps the most interesting “character” of all, however, is the Force itself. The Empire Strikes Back is the only Star Wars film to delve deeply into the philosophy of the Force and the Jedi (thanks in no small part to Yoda and Luke’s interactions). Because of this, there’s something more contemplative to the Star Wars universe presented in Empire. The Star Wars prequel and sequel trilogies would eventually turn the Force into little more than super powers, but in the original trilogy – and most especially Empire – the Force was something more meaningful. If A New Hope was the simple hero’s journey, and Return of the Jedi was the closure to the story, then The Empire Strikes Back is the entry that truly lets us know how the Star Wars universe works, what it’s all about, and what’s at stake.

This emphasis on the philosophy of the Force, as well as its added dimensions to the series’ key characters, is what makes The Empire Strikes Back the heart and soul of the Star Wars saga. What’s almost as impressive is how the film also distinguishes itself from its predecessor aesthetically.

I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision on the part of George Lucas and company, but setting the film’s first act in a frozen wasteland serves as an immediate contrast to the deserts of Tatooine from A New Hope. Then later we have the heavenly scenery of Cloud City and the murky swamps of Degobah, giving Empire the most varied locations of any Star Wars feature. Combine that with the amazing visual effects that still hold up forty years on, and the revolutionary puppetry of Yoda, and The Empire Strikes Back remains one of the most visually captivating films of all time.

Despite the original Star Wars picture having perhaps the most recognizable soundtrack in film history, this is another area in which Empire outshines its predecessor. John Williams outdid himself with his compositions here, with new tracks like Yoda’s Theme bringing new levels of emotion to the series. Perhaps most notably, it can be surprising to remember that The Imperial March was first heard here and not in the original film. It’s hard to imagine Star Wars without The Imperial March, because it’s become so strongly associated with not only Star Wars, the Empire and Darth Vader, but villainy in popular culture as a whole (remember when the classic episodes of The Simpsons used to segue into a Mr. Burns scene with the tune?). It might just be the most iconic musical addition a sequel has ever made.

The action scenes are as memorable as ever. The battle on Hoth – with those wonderfully impractical AT-ATs, is as iconic as the Death Star battle of the first film. And Luke Skywalker’s final confrontation with Darth Vader – which crescendos with that most famous of plot twists (so famous, in fact, that it’s hard to consider it a twist by this point) – sets an epic high for the swashbuckling of the series (even if I may be in the minority who thinks the rematch in Return of the Jedi is even better).

Miraculously, The Empire Strikes Back is also the Star Wars feature that has been the least affected by retroactive special effects. Whether this was due to George Lucas understanding the high regard Empire is held in, or by sheer happy coincidence, I can’t say, but The Empire Strikes Back has only seen minimal added effects throughout the years. There may be a few shots here and there that feature a tweak or two, but very few that stick out like a sore thumb.

The two notable changes didn’t even occur in the 1997 Special Editions (which began Lucas’s obsession with re-editing Han’s shootout with Greedo in A New Hope, and added that obnoxious musical number to Jedi), but in the 2004 DVD release.

The first of these alterations is somewhat understandable. When Empire was first released, Lucas was still unsure of who or what the Emperor was. So when Vader contacts his master in the film, the original version saw the Emperor’s holographic appearance as somewhat experimental and indecisive. So as time passed and Return of the Jedi had firmly established Ian McDiarmid’s interpretation of the character, the re-edits added McDiarmid to the scene. That’s fair and understandable, though I wish the newer version’s hologram of the Emperor weren’t so visually prominent (it’s pointlessly giant), as it kind of takes away the mystery surrounding the Emperor, which takes a little something away from his introduction in Return of the Jedi (similar to what happened to Jabba the Hutt with A New Hope’s re-edit, though this isn’t as bad, considering Vader’s interactions with the Emperor still give the character a sense of presence and mystique). I think keeping the Emperor’s hologram at a distance and slightly obscured (as it was in the original cut) would keep some of that mystery alive for new viewers.

The second such edit is less forgivable. Having Jango Fett’s actor from Attack of the Clones re-dub Boba Fett’s dialogue to keep continuity with how the prequels retconned Boba Fett to be a clone of his “father” just comes across as silly, and feels forced.

Still, none of the changes in Empire have the same kind of negative effect as those made to A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. It was the best Star Wars upon its original 1980 release, and it’s been the least tweaked and tainted since, essentially securing its sacrosanct status.

From its epic battles to its character-driven narrative, The Empire Strikes Back took Star Wars to all new heights. Heights which, sadly, the series never achieved again (Return of the Jedi is still an exceptional threequel, but has perhaps more content than it could juggle). Empire is Star Wars matured, while not losing its childlike sense of wonder. It’s darker without feeling edgy. And it’s deeper without losing the fun. As impactful and influential as A New Hope was (and is), it was but the learner. Now, The Empire Strikes Back is the master.

Impressive.

Most impressive.

 

9

Happy Star Wars Day 2020!

 

Happy Star Wars Day, everyone! Hope you’re enjoying binging Star Wars content on Disney+ as we’re all stuck inside our abodes.

I am currently trying to finish my review of The Empire Strikes Back as I write this now. So, to further celebrate Star Wars Day, why not read my past Star Wars movie reviews? I mean, you’re stuck inside, so why not?

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Star Wars: Episode IV – A new Hope

 

May the Fourth be with you, always!

Mystery Blogger Award

Seeing as I’ve been twice nominated for this now (by Red Metal of Extra Life Reviews and Matt from NintendoBound), it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these blog award things, and the fact that I was slow to update my site in April, I figured I’d write my response to this Mystery Blogger Award now. So thanks to those who nominated me! Now let’s just get on with it and answer those questions.


 

1 -What is the most unusual work you have experienced?

 

Well, that’s an incredibly broad question, when one considers the use of the word “work” could mean a work in any medium. I don’t think I can compare certain things with others, so I don’t know if I can name one definitive work that ‘out-unusuals’ them all. There are a few I could choose.

BUT, for the sake of answering these questions, I will give my answer in the form of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and – subsequently – Twin Peaks: The Return.

Now, I’m probably about 90% sure that Twin Peaks is my favorite television series of all time (though there are a few other contenders). It is a delightfully weird show.

However, as weird as the show’s initial (and tragically short) two season, thirty episode run was, the subsequent materials that came after are much weirder.

The prequel film (yeah, a lot of people forget Twin Peaks had a movie), Fire Walk with Me, is a wild, trippy venture, one that triples down on the show’s darker elements, which (sadly) comes at the expense of the series’ more lighthearted and humorous bits (the series is widely known for changing tone and even genre on the fly). The film, which I won’t delve into detail because it would spoil both it and the series, not only magnifies the show’s strangeness, but it’s also the kind of follow-up where you really would have to have seen every episode of the original series to even begin to understand things.

As such, the film – unlike the beloved series – was alienating when it was released in the mid-90s (it only found any real success in Japan). It has garnered more praise over the years, and I myself like the movie well enough. But it is downright bizarre, and if someone saw it without having an intimate knowledge of the series, I can imagine Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me might come across like some kind of fever dream. Hell, it might come across as such even if you’re a fan of the series.

That leads me to 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return (or simply the third season of Twin Peaks). Appropriately picking up twenty-five years after the original series ended (something which the final episode of the show’s original run eerily predicted), The Return is an eighteen episode madhouse where both everything and nothing at all happens. While the original series slowly chipped away to reveal supernatural elements, The Return dives headfirst into fantasy, science fiction and horror right out of the gate.

“In Fire Walk with Me, David Bowie portrayed the character of Phillip Jeffries. He was set to reprise the role for The Return, but sadly passed away before filming. David Lynch worked around this by… turning the Phillip Jeffries character into a talking, inter-dimensional tea kettle that spouts bubbles of smoke…”

That’s not a bad thing, of course. But because this is a David Lynch creation, The Return utilizes these genres to their strangest, and leaves many details largely unexplained. Twin Peaks: The Return received universal praise from critics, but had a more polarizing reception from fans.

While I ultimately enjoyed The Return, I think my feelings toward it lie somewhere in between the two sides of the argument. I do appreciate the many risks it takes, and it does avoid the nostalgia problem of today by denying its narrative of repeating beloved moments for the sake of fan service, but there are aspects to it that are downright frustrating. Effectively turning the main character, Dale Cooper, into a magic savant may lead to many entertaining moments, the idea does feel a bit dragged out after a while. But perhaps the most frustratingly bizarre aspect of The Return is how it utilizes the characters of the Horne family: Ben, his brother Jerry, and Ben’s daughter Audrey.

Despite being arguably the most memorable characters from the original series, The Return seems largely disinterested in doing anything with the Hornes: Ben is stuck behind a desk the entire season, Jerry spends several episodes panicked about something terrible he may or may not have seen while high, and Audrey – who doesn’t even show up until over halfway through The Return – spends what little screen time she has arguing with her bizarre husband, before dancing in one of the seasons’ many musical moments, and ultimately “waking up(???)” in a mysterious white room, which goes unexplained.

Again, this is an eighteen episode season of hour-long episodes, and that’s what David Lynch came up with for the series’ best characters. What’s worse, is the story they come up with for what Audrey’s life was like between the original run and The Return basically puts her through hell, and then to not give her story any semblance of closure feels unnecessarily cruel.

But I guess I’m starting to sound like I’m reviewing the season. There’ll be a day for that. But I’m pretty sure, even from my vague descriptions, you can tell that both Fire Walk with Me and The Return take what was already a weird and unusual series, and took it into absolutely insane levels of absurdity.

So yeah. That’s my answer for now.

 

2- What is the best work you have experienced that no one seems to know about?

 

Well, again, I find this to be a hard question to answer. Maybe back in the early 2000s, I could have listed several video games I played that I only later found out were these obscure gems. But in this day and age of the all-encompassing internet, I’m sure plenty of people know about many of these obscure works I once experienced, even if I’m sure only a handful of people who have heard of them have ever experienced them firsthand. I hate to say it, but I may have to properly answer this at a later time, as I’m having trouble of thinking of something I have enjoyed that “no one seems to know about.” Or maybe it’s so obscure that I forgot I know of it?

Sorry. I’ll answer this as soon as I can.

 

3- If you could go back in time and go to the premiere of one classic film, which one would you choose?

Well, the only movie premiere I’ve ever been to was Rango, so there’s no shortage of options to choose from. I’m tempted to go with the easy answers and just pick one of my favorite films released in my lifetime, such as Spirited Away or Disney’s Frozen.

But for the sake of not creating a time paradox in my own movie life, let’s go with something from before I was born. The obvious choice then would be Star Wars (or “A New Hope”)  in 1977, followed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

But I’m going to go into the not-too-distant past from before my time, to 1988, the year before I was born, and pick Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That movie is a visual miracle even by today’s standards, and given the unanimous praise it received in its day, the way it revolutionized visual effects and revitalized the animation industry, that would be a wild ride to witness firsthand.

“Also, Jessica Rabbit.”

 

4- If you decided to write fiction, which genre would you choose?

Finally! An easy question to answer!

As I’ve stated in the past, I do have a particularly active imagination, and would love to create my own video games some day. As such, it should come as no surprise that my genre of choice would be fantasy. Or I guess I could say it is fantasy, seeing as I’ve always enjoyed creating worlds, characters and stories since I was a wee tyke up to the current day. So it’s more or less a question of how to “officially” make and release such things, since I’ve technically been doing it my whole life.

Why fantasy? Easy, because – much like animation – it’s a gateway into any and every genre. It knows no limits. It can be as real or as fantastic as you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be swords and sorcery, and can really be any kind of story.

With all due respect to science-fiction, fantasy is its superior, as even sci-fi has its limitations. Science fiction might have to resort to explaining its elements, and sometimes those explanations can make things goofier. Fantasy, existing purely in the imagination, doesn’t need to explain itself to anyone. And that’s badass.

 

5-What is the most disappointingly predictable plot twist you have experienced?

 

Apologies to Matt From NintendoBound, but honest to goodness, my answer is identical to his. It’s Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. The movie is directed and acted well enough, but I remember from the moment the plot officially kicked in, I figured out exactly where it was ending up. I kind of hate to say that, for fear it might make me sound like one of those snarky CinemaSins/Honest Trailers clowns who basically worship themselves for finding flaws in movies. But I’m not trying to find fault in a movie with big names like Scorsese and DiCaprio attached, it was just such an easy twist to figure out.

Runner-up goes to recent history with Knives Out, which spent so much time trying to throw viewers off the scent of one particular character, that I couldn’t help but think “when’s the movie going to reveal that character as the culprit?”

 

6- What do you consider to be the strangest title for a work?

I’m going to avoid the easy answer by exempting every B-horror movie from the list of possible answers.

With that out of the way, I guess I’d select the animated short film The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. It was a pretty good short, from what I remember of it. But that title…

 

7- Where in a theater do you prefer to sit

Normally, as close to the center as possible. Middle seat of the middle-ist row. However, I may surprise some people by saying this, but when it comes to animated films, I honestly don’t mind sitting in the front row one bit. It really absorbs you in the visuals of animation. To paraphrase what the late Roger Ebert said for both Finding Nemo and Ponyo, “this is one of those rare films where I want to sit in the very front row, and drown in it.”

 

8- Do you have any graphic novel/manga series you’re currently following?

Sadly no. My time outside of life’s impositions is usually dedicated to working on my passions of drawing, writing and (as mentioned above) creating my own (for lack of a better word) “things.” And trying to learn game development, of course. Naturally, my creative passions include video games and movies, so those are what I tend to gravitate towards with my free time. While I like graphic novels and manga, I just simply don’t have the same passion for them that I do movies and video games. I loved the comic book series “Bone” by Jeff Smith growing up, and the entire series has been available as a single graphic novel for quite some time now, so I’ll probably pick that up eventually. And I wouldn’t mind a new graphic novel or manga in theory. But whenever I’m not dealing with life, trying to create “things,” or writing on this site, I’m watching movies or playing video games. So it’s difficult for me to make the time for comics, sadly.

 

9- When it comes to reviewing films, which do you feel are more effective – traditional, written reviews or video essays?

Well, for me personally, I think it obviously has to be written reviews. I have been wanting for years now to do some form of videos centering on video games or movies, but my Social Phobia and general awkwardness continues to push that back. Written reviews are more welcoming to people like me.

On the whole though, I don’t think either method is necessarily more effective than the other, and just depends on the individual.

One thing is for sure though, the “YouTube method” of video reviews – lambasting pretty much everything whilst promoting oneself – has to go. It’s obnoxious, and is only damaging the creative industries. I remember reading – if I remember correctly – that the Russo Brothers wanted to make Captain America and the Winter Soldier “Honest Trailers proof.” If creators are seriously trying to cater to the judgement of self-promoting internet types, then creativity is truly dead.

Film criticism should try to instill and reflect creativity, similar to movies themselves, but obviously in a different way. YouTubers and their ilk just seem to try to find faults in the littlest details to put down real creators and stroke their own egos. It’s toxic.

So while I don’t think either the written word or video essays are more ideal than the other, I guess the former has provided a bit more respectable examples in this day and age of “everything sucks so like, share and subscribe to me!”

10- What aspect of old school game design do you wish would make a comeback?

As obvious as this may sound, modern games could learn the valuable lesson of putting gameplay above all else from their ancestors.

It’s actually kind of sad how many games emphasize their stories and cinematics over the actual game. It’s not just the games themselves, but gamers have bought into it hook, line and sinker. It’s irritating hearing people say things like “the things I look for in a game are good story and characters.” Tetris has no story, and is still a masterpiece decades later. Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls emphasized story, and were always crap.

Now, that’s not to say that I have an issue with video games with stories, but the gaming community seems to blindly follow the idea that “having a story = a good story.” Sorry, but The Last of Us is cliche-riddled and self-important, and Kingdom Hearts is incoherent gobbledygook.

Nintendo’s naysayers insist there’s some kind of “Nintendo bias” as to why the Big N tends to produce many critically acclaimed titles. But there’s no such conspiracy at play, and in fact Nintendo getting top marks are probably the only consistently trustworthy examples of video game critics dishing out rave reviews because Nintendo’s philosophy has always been to put gameplay at the heart and center of things. Not every game Nintendo makes is great, but it really shouldn’t be such a surprise that Nintendo produces so many critical darlings in the video game world considering they  put the actual game first. The only conspiracy here is provided by those suggesting  Nintendo is at the center of some conspiracy (all while review-bombing Nintendo games on Metacritic, of course).

Again, you hear Nintendo’s critics accuse Nintendo of being in the past, but they’re only in the past in their philosophy of games being about gameplay. And in actuality, that’s a notion from the past that’s forward-thinking. Other areas of the gaming world, in a desperate attempt to be “legitimized” decided to make video games more like movies. And in doing so, video games devolved in a number of ways.

It’s not just storylines, though (and again, those can work, if designers remember they’re making games with stories instead of stories with a game attached). But it seems developers are always obsessed with trying to show off their production budget, whether through unnecessary detail or blatant padding to add to a game’s total runtime (two things Red Dead Redemption 2 – a game I mostly loved – is very guilty of. I can’t imagine how many hours I could have saved if I didn’t have to watch Arthur Morgan meticulously pick up every last object on the ground and Rockstar made it more “video game-y” and let the player just walk over items). Hell, it’s because of the fact that developers no longer see games as being games why we now have vile concepts like “games as a service.” Hope you like micro transactions!

So yeah, if video games could remember what old school games knew (and what Nintendo and select others still know) – that video games are games first – they’d be much better off.

 

11- What aspect of old school game design are you glad went away?

Despite my above statements, old video games weren’t perfect. Far from it, in fact. While Mario, Mega Man and Tetris are timeless, I might argue that the NES is one of Nintendo’s weakest consoles in retrospect, since it housed many games that showcase the archaic elements of gaming’s early days.

Those who grew up in the 1980s and 90s need only watch a few episodes of The Angry Video Game Nerd to remember “oh yeah, the NES had a lot of crap.” Notably, the publisher LJN was an infamous example of early gaming not caring about the quality of their products.

“While video games are MOSTLY subjective, games like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure were so unpolished and untested, that they can only be described as “objectively bad.””

Gaming’s old school years saw countless titles that were rushed out the gate, featuring things like mechanics that don’t work as they should and insanely cryptic elements that no one would logically figure out, and were often flat-out unfinished.

Even some of yesteryear’s classics, like the original Legend of Zelda and Metroid titles, haven’t aged well due to their overly cryptic nature (though they were infinitely better than many other games of their time). It’s really no surprise why Super Mario was the series at the time. Its ideas were so forward thinking for the medium, that most Mario games are still fun even by today’s standards.

Other games weren’t so wise, however. And while the 16-bit generation marked a vast improvement – to the point that a number of its titles still rank among history’s best games – even it wasn’t immune to “old video game jank.” Even the SNES housed the dreadful Lester the Unlikely and the unplayable Batman Forever.

Now, modern gaming isn’t without its untested messes (one of the most infamously unfinished games of all time, Ride to Hell: Retribution, was somehow released on the PS3 and Xbox 360). But there is a bit of a precedent now. And if developers and publishers hacked up the same kind of hairballs that LJN and their ilk did back in the day, they’d vanish without a trace after their first attempt. No one would be allowed to get away with that kind of track record in this day and age.

Bad games will always exist, but they’re a rarer beast now. With video game critiquing becoming more prominent, as well as the medium becoming mainstream and leaving its infancy some time ago, publishers and developers can no longer hide from the discerning eye. Quality control is a thing now, and wasn’t back in day.

 

……..Also, turbo controllers. Let those things rot in Hell.


 

Thank you for reading my responses. Hopefully you at least kind of enjoyed at least something I said. Thanks again to Red Metal from Extra Life Reviews and Matt from NintendoBound for the nominations.

I have to apologize, but I’m going to have to break tradition this time around, because I have no one to nominate, and thus, have no questions to ask at this time. Much like comic books and manga, I don’t really spend a whole lot of time reading other blogs (the only two I still read with regularity are the two that nominated me). I used to read a lot more when I first launched this site, but both due to an increasingly busy schedule, and the sad fact that my blog has outlived a number of those I used to read, I’m not quite as well-versed in blogs as I once was. Hopefully I can find/rediscover some good ones in the near future (especially seeing as we’re all trapped in our houses at the moment). But I really don’t have anyone to nominate at this time.

Thanks for reading! See you soon with my review of The Empire Strikes Back… hopefully…

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.

 

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