Wario: Master of Disguise Review

The mid-to-late 2000s saw a new boom period for Nintendo, thanks to the successes of the Wii and the Nintendo DS, which introduced new innovations to gameplay and brought a much broader appeal to the video game world. The downside to this, however, is that these new gameplay ideas – like the Wii’s motion controls and the DS touchscreen – took some time for some developers to get the hang of. As odd as it may sound in retrospect, considering it became Nintendo’s best-selling system of all-time, the Nintendo DS had a particularly rough start, with its first few months on the market being starved of a title that justified its touch-based bottom screen.

As history tells us, the Nintendo DS did eventually find its groove and held onto its momentum. But even after the DS became a success story, there was still the occasional title that harkened back to those early days of the handheld, with games that stumbled trying to understand the hardware.

Sadly, such was the case with Wario: Master of Disguise. Despite being released in 2007, Master of Disguise felt more akin to one of the rougher DS launch games than it did one of the system’s gems post-Kirby Canvas Curse.

The 2000s were very kind to Wario. Along with some well-received Wario Land sequels, the anti-Mario found a newfound success during this time through the introduction of the WarioWare series. Though Wario Land was on a break during 2007, Master of Disguise looked to fill in the gap with a new Wario platformer. Whether it was planned to be a follow-up to Wario Land or a third cog in the Wario machine, Master of Disguise unfortunately failed to live up to either. Though not an all-out bad effort, Master of Disguise was just plagued by too many rough edges for it to live up to Wario’s legacy.

Similar to the Wario Land series, Wario: Master of Disguise sees the mustachioed villain don different forms in order to access different locations of the game’s various levels. Unlike Wario Land, however, Wario doesn’t gain these forms via enemy attacks or power-ups, but by the player drawing different symbols to switch Wario into one of his many disguises.

Wario’s default form is “Thief Wario” which allows him to jump higher than the other forms. There’s also “Genius Wario,” which allows our anti-Mario to see invisible objects. “Cosmic Wario” can shoot enemies with a laser gun. “Arty Wario” can draw large blocks that serve as platforms and can be used to press buttons that Wario can’t reach. And so on and so forth.

I like the idea of a platformer that has what are essentially permanent power-ups that can be switch to at any time. The problem with Wario: Master of Disguise’s costumes is in its execution. The earlier disguises use simple enough shapes to draw, like circles and checkmarks, but the later disguises are a little trickier. It’s not that the symbols themselves are particularly complex, but they often require pinpoint accuracy and precision in order for the game to recognize them. This is made all the trickier when you consider that you have to draw these symbols directly on top of Wario, as the rest of the screen is used to perform each disguise’s special ability with the touch controls.

What of the DS’s buttons? They’re used to move Wario around, same as the D-Pad. As you could probably guess, it feels a bit awkward, especially since jumping is performed by pressing up on the D-Pad (or X, the top button of the DS’s face buttons), which only ever feels clunky in anything but fighting games.

It just doesn’t make much sense. You have all these buttons, but all they do is move Wario, which the D-Pad already does. I can understand some of the disguise abilities being used with the touch screen (such as Arty Wario’s ability), but the game would have flowed a lot smoother if just some of Wario’s moves were mapped to the buttons. In case you’re wondering, yes, even Wario’s traditional charge attack is performed by tapping the touchscreen (while in Thief Wario form).

I have to repeat that, between the small amount of available space to draw the symbols, and how unresponsive the touch controls can be, it all becomes a bit of a mess. You’ll perform abilities when you’re trying to change costumes, switch to a disguise different from the one you wanted, or just fail to do anything. A few of the abilities – or just switching costumes – utilizing touch controls would be fine, but Wario: Master of Disguise is far too reliant on them. And seeing as they aren’t all that refined, the touch controls become all the more troublesome.

Wario: Master of Disguise faces other unfortunate problems as well. Though  previous levels can be replayed after gaining new disguises, thus opening up more areas of said completed stages, the level design is so convoluted you may not be too enticed to do the backtracking. While each level can provide some fun platforming, and even feature their own distinct goals, the layout of the stages is often cryptic and confusing. It can get so bad that I found myself stuck for over an hour and a half on some levels, just because it was so vague as to what I was supposed to be doing.

The ultimate goal of the game is to claim treasures hidden in chests throughout the stages. Unfortunately, even that simple premise is made more complicated than it needs to be. Every time the player opens a treasure chest (by, you guessed it, tapping the touchscreen), they are thrown into a touch screen-based mini-game. These aren’t the fun and creative mini-games of WarioWare, either. Instead, you get generic mini-games that you could have played in any of the DS’s launch titles, such as panel flipping and line tracing. Should you lose the mini-game, the treasure chest threatens to damage Wario with bombs. But after the bombs explode, you can just try again anyway, so what’s the point of having the penalty at all?

Another issue with Master of Disguise – as odd as it sounds – is its story. Now, this is a Wario game, so of course the story is ludicrous nonsense. That would be par for the course on its own, but the game just spends way, way too much time with the story.

Basically, Wario is watching TV and sees a show about a master thief named Count Cannoli. Knowing he could do the thief’s job better, Wario builds a helmet that allows him to travel into the TV show, in order to show the thief how it’s done (raising the question as to why Wario doesn’t just patent his miracle technology to earn a fortune). Wario ends up stealing the thief’s magic wand (which allows Wario to transform into his various disguises), and both Wario and Count Cannoli engage in a competition to retrieve pieces of a “Wishstone” that, when completed, will grant them a wish.

Normally, I’d be fine with Wario having such an insane story as traveling inside a TV show and altering that show’s ‘reality.’ But again, Master of Disguise, perhaps more so than any other Wario game, emphasizes this story. Not only does this mean barrages of overly-lengthy, flow-breaking text bombard the player at almost every turn, but what should be a delightfully weird plot just ends up raising confusing questions. If this wishing stone exists within the TV show, would a potential wish made by Wario only become reality within the TV show? Or would it affect Wario in his reality as well? I know I shouldn’t be overthinking the plot in a Wario game, but with how much emphasis Master of Disguise gives its plot, and the aforementioned quirks in gameplay preventing it from distracting from said plot, it gets kind of head-scratching.

Wario: Master of Disguise has some merit. The concept of switching between permanent power-ups is a nice change of pace for platformers, and it’s kind of surprising Nintendo hasn’t revisited the idea. And the music is surprisingly good. But the insistence of the touch screen controls, which aren’t even reliable, really hinders the game. As does its convoluted level design and flow-breaking storyline.

Thankfully, 2007 also saw the release of WarioWare: Smooth Moves on Wii, with the next year also seeing Wario Land: Shake It! arrive on the same platform, so Wario still had his tried-and-true series to rely on and recover. But Wario: Master of Disguise is so mishandled in execution it may rank as the weakest outing from Nintendo’s garlic-munching anti-Mario to date.

 

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WarioWare Touched Review

*Review based on WarioWare Touched’s release on the Wii U Virtual Console*

WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgames was one of Nintendo’s unsung classics of the 2000s. WarioWare stripped the very nature of video games down to their bare minimum, leaving its many microgames as a platform for Nintendo to test out myriads of gameplay ideas. The concept of WarioWare was perhaps more fruitful than Nintendo initially realized, with the series’ formula allowing them to push the innovations of their hardware.

2005 saw two such WarioWare sequels. One of them, released on the GameBoy Advance (home of the original title in the series), was WarioWare Twisted, which had a built-in “gyro-sensor” that allowed for motion controls. The other was WarioWare Touched on the Nintendo DS, which utilized the handheld’s touchscreen and microphone features.

Admittedly, Twisted has aged far more gracefully, with its gameplay features still feeling unique today. That’s not to say that Touched has aged poorly, but because its (pardon the pun) ‘twist’ was that it utilized features that were standard on the DS, it’s kind of lost some of its individuality over time. The later WarioWare Smooth Moves on the Wii would similarly use its platform’s capabilities, but I feel that Smooth Moves managed to do so with considerably more creativity. Smooth Moves brought out the best it could from the Wii’s features, whereas Touched feels more like it’s falling in line with its platform’s standard.

Again, that’s not to say that WarioWare Touched is a bad game by any means. It is WarioWare, after all. And if it doesn’t leave you with some kind of goofy grin on your face at one point or another, you may be dead inside. The issue is simply that Touched is the one entry in the WarioWare series that no longer stands out.

The basics of the series remain intact in WarioWare Touched: Players face gauntlets of seconds-long microgames, with each character in the game boasting their own such series of games. You only get four chances to slip-up before a game over, and the microgames pick up in speed after you have conquered a number of them (the tougher gauntlets naturally increase speed much sooner than the earlier challenges).

The difference here, of course, is that along with button presses, the microgames of Touched are mostly played with the touchscreen controls of the Nintendo DS (or Wii U Gamepad, if you’re playing the Virtual Console release), and some of the latter microgames even utilize the mic on the system for some delightful gameplay quirks.

WarioWare Touched can be a lot of fun at times, with the simplicity of the series’ gameplay being complimented by the DS’s hardware features. Whether you’re swiping, tapping, spinning, or tracing, Touched is a fun example of how the WarioWare series can be used to showcase gameplay ideas and utilize hardware.

On the downside, simply being WarioWare on the DS no longer really stands out for the series. Subsequent WarioWare titles have been released on the DS and 3DS, which boasted additional gameplay innovations on top of the DS’s touchscreen features. WarioWare D.I.Y allowed players to create their own microgames, and WarioWare Gold features most of Touched’s microgames, in addition to those from Mega Microgames and Twisted, plus a number of games of its own. So being the “DS WarioWare” no longer works in Touched’s favor, and hasn’t for quite some time now.

WarioWare is almost always going to a fun experience (Wii U’s Game & Wario being the exception), and the simplicity of the DS’s features has its charms. But it would be hard to recommend WarioWare Touched over a number of its sequels. There’s still good fun to be had with WarioWare Touched, but it’s short-lived, especially when you consider the great replay value the series is capable of.

 

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Sonic Rush Review

Sonic Rush

There has been no series in all of gaming that has fallen so far from grace than Sonic the Hedgehog. Once one of the most iconic video game characters who would often draw comparisons to Super Mario, Sonic has become little more than the butt of a joke. A lingering entity that – despite releasing a slew of games so bad that a single one of them would kill most franchises – survives solely due to his hopelessly loyal and increasingly bizarre fanbase.

With this said, Sonic has somehow, beyond all expectations, still provided a small handful of good games in between his many misses. Sonic Colors and Generations are often cited as the blue blur’s last quality titles, while the Sonic Advance games kept the spirit of the Genesis classics alive on the GameBoy Advance in a time when the hedgehog’s console outings were floundering. Somewhere in between Sonic Advance and Generations were the Sonic Rush titles on the Nintendo DS, which followed-up Advance’s take on making the old formula new again. Though the original Sonic Rush may show a bit of age, it’s still head and shoulders above what Sonic has been starring in lately.

Like the Sonics of old, Sonic Rush plays from a 2D perspective, though the characters are displayed with 3D models. Players can take control of either Sonic himself or Blaze the Cat, who was introduced here and comes from another dimension.

Players still run at super fast speeds through seven different zones, each consisting of two acts and a boss fight (which switch to 3D perspectives at times). While Blaze combats Sonic’s usual foe Dr. Eggman in order to obtain “Sol Emeralds” (her world’s equivalent of the Chaos Emeralds), Sonic faces off against Dr. Eggman Nega, who also hails from the parallel dimension.

Though both Sonic and Blaze tackle the same sets of levels, they go through them in a different order, and have slight differences in gameplay. Sonic is of course the faster of the two and has a homing attack, while Blaze can jump higher, can survive longer under water, and has a short glide. Both characters also play out different parts of the story, and completing both, as well as obtaining all the Chaos Emeralds, unlocks a final challenge.

The usual Sonic gameplay returns, with rings to collect, loops to run through, and various obstacles and enemies to overcome. The game makes great use of the DS’ two screens, with the levels being featured on both and the player crossing from the top screen to bottom and back again seamlessly.

The game retains some elements introduced in the Sonic Advance sequels, such as a grading system after a player finishes each act in a zone. Players are graded by how quickly they beat a level as well as their performance.

Another additional feature is the “Tension Gauge,” which players can fill up by defeating enemies and performing tricks in midair. Filling the gauge allows players to perform greater boosts of speed, which take out enemies with ease and allow you to finish the level faster, thus increasing your grade.

Sonic RushSonic gets an additional bonus with the Tension Gauge, however. When playing as Sonic, the player can grab onto various metal orbs found throughout the levels. If you have enough of the Tension Gauge filled up, Sonic can boost while holding these orbs to teleport to the special stages, where he can find the Chaos Emeralds.

The special stages work like those from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, with Sonic moving through a tubular track in a 3D perspective to collect rings and avoid traps. The special stages are played exclusively on the bottom screen and make good use of the touch controls. Using the stylus to control Sonic in the special stages may sound gimmicky, but it actually works, with Sonic moving alongside the stylus’ movement smoothly.

While the special stages can be fun (if difficult), it’s a shame that they’re exclusive to Sonic. Blaze just comes across the Sol Emeralds as part of her story, but the player actually has to work harder and delve deeper to find the Chaos Emeralds for Sonic. It makes Blaze’s introduction feel more superfluous than it would already be, considering she’s around the 300th unnecessary animal character added to the series. Why add the second character if they don’t have as much to do as the series regular?

Another problem arises in the levels themselves. Most of the stages are easy enough, but there are a number of areas where the stages actually work against the idea of going fast. Some people criticize the Sonic series for having moments that pretty much play themselves, but that wasn’t really true of the Genesis games, which had a good balance of fast-paced action and more strategic moments that let the player know when to slow down. That balance isn’t found here, and you’ll often find yourself simply zipping through a stage, collecting every ring and defeating every enemy with little to no effort, and suddenly falling into a bottomless pit. The level structure is certainly better than what Sonic is seeing today, but Sonic Rush has too many cheap moments that have the player moving fast, and then seemingly punishing them for doing so.

While the levels are mostly easy outside of those cheap moments, the game takes an unnecessary leap in difficulty with the boss fights. I’m not exaggerating when I say I got two game overs on the first boss alone. Despite most of the boss’ patterns being easy to predict, one of his moves sweeps Sonic off-stage if you fail to leap over it (sometimes repeatedly and at increased speed), effectively killing you in one hit. And that’s just the first boss! Granted, the easy level/difficult boss ratio isn’t as grossly imbalanced as it would be in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2, but the fact that it’s there at all is a pain.

The decade since Sonic Rush’s original release has exposed some great flaws and inconsistencies with the game. But at the very least, its heart was in the right place. While so many modern Sonic games feel like the last thing they want to be is a Sonic game, Sonic Rush recreates much of the charm the series was built on. Though it’s flawed, Sonic Rush may leave you wondering why Sega seems incapable of making more games like this. With some extra polish and dedication, Sega could take this formula and rightfully revive the Sonic franchise.

 

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Kirby: Squeak Squad Review

Squeak Squad

Kirby has one of the most varied libraries of games in the entire Nintendo canon. Kirby games often follow their usual platforming formula, or do something completely different. Kirby’s unique combination of familiarity and freshness is perhaps surpassed solely by Mario in the realms of longstanding gaming franchises. Though Kirby remained absent from home consoles from 2001 through 2009, he was still right at home on Nintendo’s handheld systems. The Nintendo DS was a particularly noteworthy showcase of the two sides of the Kirby series. 2005 saw the release of Kirby’s Canvas Curse, which utilized the DS’ touch screen in innovative ways, becoming one of Kirby’s most unique adventures and arguably the first great game on the handheld. Fast-forward one year later, and Kirby returned to the Nintendo DS in the far more traditional Kirby: Squeak Squad.

It’s understandable that Squeak Squad was met with a more lukewarm reception. After Canvas Curse marked a creative departure for the series, Squeak Squad felt incredibly safe. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it remains a fun game in its own right.

Squeak Squad looks and plays a lot like the GBA entries in the series, but with even cleaner sprites due to the more advanced hardware. The characters are cute and well animated, and the gameplay remains simple, smooth and fun.

Kirby still goes through levels, eating enemies to copy their abilities. He still jumps, flies and slides. But Squeak Squad did introduce a somewhat intriguing addition in the form of bubbled powers and items.

When Kirby grabs a bubbled-item, he stores it in his tummy (displayed on the lower screen as an alternate dimension). You can store up to five items at a time, and many of which, including powers, can be combined by using the touch screen.

Don’t get too excited though. The ability to mix powers isn’t nearly as creative as it could have been. Kirby 64 remains the only title in the series where you could truly combine powers. In Squeak Squad, combining one power with another usually just results in a random roulette wheel to get another power. The only two powers that can be properly combined are Sword, which can be merged with Fire, Ice, and Spark, and Bomb, which can also be paired with Ice and Spark.

Though the ability to store powers for later comes in handy, you can’t help but feel that it was a hugely missed opportunity for the series to bring back Kirby 64’s mechanics and do something new with them.

Squeak SquadSqueak Squad does include some new powers though, most of which are pretty cool, but have yet to show up again in later entries. Some of the new abilities include Ghost, which allows Kirby to possess enemies, Animal, which gives Kirby sharp claws to dig through dirt and attack enemies,  Metal, which turns Kirby into an invincible metal form at the expense of speed and jumping height, and Bubble, which may be the most useful power in the game as it turns enemies into bubble powers.

Additionally, the Magic power from Amazing Mirror has been tweaked to become a proper power. With merging powers serving as a randomized roulette wheel, Magic Kirby can now attack with throwing cards, doves, and jack-in-the-boxes from a magic top hat. There are over twenty powers in the game in total, so there’s a good amount of variety in that department.

The story of the game is that Kirby had a strawberry shortcake stollen from him. He initially believes King Dedede to be the culprit, but his cake has actually been stolen by a gang of mouse-like bandits called the Squeak Squad. The Squeaks have bigger schemes brewing, but all Kirby wants is his cake, and he’ll take out the entire Squeak Squad in order to get it back.

The plot is probably the silliest in the entire series, but it’s not too important anyway. Still, when Kirby is usually out trying to save his planet, the whole cake rescue mission thing is kind of underwhelming.

Squeak SquadLevel progression in Squeak Squad is incredibly straightforward. There are eight worlds total, each consisting of five required level, a boss fight, and a secret level. Kirby goes from one level to the next, beats the boss, and moves on to the next world in line. Considering how flexible level progression has been even in early Kirby titles, the point A to point B approach feels like a little step back for the series.

The levels themselves are pretty quick, but fun. Most won’t take much longer than two or three minutes to complete, if that. There has been some depth added to them through the use of treasure chests, which return from Kirby and the Amazing Mirror.

Each level has one to three treasure chests, many of which require a specific power to find them. When Kirby claims a chest, they are stored in his tummy along with any bubbled items (and yes, the chests count among the five maximum items you can store. So pick what items you want to keep wisely). Upon completing a level, the chests are opened and reveal the items inside, which range from spray paints to change Kirby’s color, music to listen to on the sound test, keys to unlock the aforementioned secret levels, and heart pieces, which work similarly to those in Zelda and increase Kirby’s maximum health when you find enough of them, to name just a few of the prizes.

While the treasure chests add some depth to the levels, most are pretty easy to find, and don’t extend the game’s replayability very much. You might be able to complete the entire game and find every chest in about two hours or so. There are a trio of mini-games which can be played in multiplayer if you’re playing the original DS version, but the multiplayer option is absent in the Virtual Console release. Still, they only add so much to the package.

If you simply want a quick dose of traditional Kirby goodness, then Squeak Squad is still a thoroughly enjoyable game. But if you’re familiar with the series, you’ll know that Kirby can do better, whether as a platformer or something else entirely.

 

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