Pokémon Puzzle League Review

Panel de Pon, Nintendo’s reverse falling block puzzle game, is one of the finest products of the genre. Though the original Japanese game had a bit of an underwhelming lineup of characters, as they looked like generic Sailor Moon knockoffs. So, whenever bringing the game outside of Japan, Nintendo has given Panel de Pon (AKA the “Puzzle League” series) a number of facelifts using their more established (and more charming) characters. The SNES received Tetris Attack, which implemented characters, graphics and music from Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. And when Nintendo decided to release a Nintendo 64 version of the game in 2000, they chose Pokémon to fill the role. Pokémon was still white hot and at the height of its powers in 2000, so it was a fitting way to bring Panel de Pon to the N64. Thus, Pokémon Puzzle League was born! Interestingly, Nintendo chose to use characters, artwork and music specifically from the Pokémon anime, making Puzzle League one of the few Pokémon games to actually be based on the TV show.

The gameplay of the series is as it’s always been. Working as something of an inverted Tetris, the blocks don’t fall from the top of the screen but rise from the bottom. The blocks come in different colors (here representing different Pokémon types, with red being fire, blue being water, and so on), and players can swap two blocks horizontally to try to match them up with three or more blocks of the same color (either horizontally, vertically, or both) to clear the blocks. By chaining together combos, players can send ‘garbage blocks’ to each other, which create an additional obstacle that needs to be removed by matching more blocks adjacent to the garbage blocks. Should the blocks pile up to the top of the screen, it’s game over.

Like the best falling block puzzle games, the gameplay is really easy to explain, but difficult to master and incredibly fun. Pokémon Puzzle League even features additional modes that weren’t present in previous releases. Most notably, there’s a 3D version of the gameplay that takes advantage of the N64’s hardware.

In the 3D mode, the usual flat grid where the gameplay takes place is replaced with a cylinder, with players shuffling through the cylinder to give the gameplay something of a 360-degree perspective. It’s an interesting take on the series’ formula, though I do admit the gameplay of Pokémon Puzzle League is better suited on the 2D playing field, as the cylinder makes it hard to keep track of where things are, thus making it more difficult to strategize your moves.

Other, more traditional modes are present, such as a story mode (which sees Ash Ketchum battling through the original Gym Leaders, his friends and Team Rocket to become the Puzzle League Champion) or an ‘Endless Mode’ where players see how long they can keep the board from filling up as the blocks gradually start rising faster, trying to beat their high score along the way. And of course, there are multiplayer options, with players being able to choose one of fifteen different Pokémon Trainer characters, each one boasting three different Pokémon (which change the background graphics and soundbites, but have no effect on the gameplay itself. That may seem superfluous, but it’s a nice touch as it adds some extra Pokémon flair by being able to select different Pokémon with your trainer). Ash, of course, has Pikachu, Bulbasaur and Squirtle at his disposal.

Besides the characters from the Pokémon TV series, Pokémon Puzzle League also features instrumental remixes of songs from said series (specifically the album 2.B.A Master). I have to say this is an amazing addition to the game, as the dub of the Pokémon anime really went all out in the production of its songs back in the day (cheesy though the songs may be). While I normally try to avoid the “back in my day, everything was better” mentality of my generation, one thing I have to admit really was better back in my day were cartoon theme songs. These days, an American studio wouldn’t put that kind of effort into their own homegrown animated series, much less the dub of an anime. But in the late 90s, the sky was the limit! The music is a reminder that, back then, Pokémon basically ruled the world. My point being, it’s great to hear those early Pokémon songs in some capacity in an actual Pokémon game.

“The game even features a few brief cutscenes that features the original voice actors from the Pokémon dub. Boy, that takes me back.”

The core gameplay introduced in Panel de Pon remains some of the most fun and addictive in the entire falling block puzzle genre, and with the added Pokémon characters and music, it makes Pokémon Puzzle League a really easy game to revisit and get engrossed in. I do have to admit, I still find the Yoshi-centric makeover of Tetris Attack makes that game the definitive entry in the series, but Pokémon Puzzle League is probably a close second place, and a worthy successor. Seeing as the Tetris Attack version may not see a re-release (Nintendo didn’t go through the proper steps to use the Tetris name, creating a bit of a conundrum), Pokémon Puzzle League is probably the most accessible way for westerners to experience one of Nintendo’s unsung classics.

Plus, any game that features remixes of Viridian City and Double Trouble is an easy win.

8

Mario Strikers: Battle League Review

Mario Strikers: Battle League is the third installment in the soccer-like Mario Strikers series, and the first entry to be released in fifteen years! Suffice to say that fans of the series had their patience tested, with a follow-up to Mario Strikers Charged being one of the more requested Mario spinoffs of the past decade and a half. While fans’ pleas for a new entry may have been answered, it comes at the expense of depth, as Mario Strikers: Battle League – while fun – lacks the substance to make a more lasting impression.

The idea of the game is simple enough: like soccer, each round of Battle League sees two teams try to get a ball in their opponent’s goal while defending their own. The team that scores the most goals within the time limit wins the match. Each team consists of four characters, plus an NPC goalie. You can kick the ball, pass it to team members, tackle opponents, dodge, pick up and use items, and perform a ‘hyper strike’ once you’ve grabbed a special orb.

It’s a simple enough setup that makes the game easy to understand, though there are a few cumbersome elements present. Notably, it often gets difficult to keep track of which character you’re currently controlling amid all the chaos of a match. You have the option of automatically switching to whichever character has the ball (you still control whoever had it last if the enemy takes the ball) or being able to manually switch character at your own pace. Although the latter option sounds more ideal on paper, I find that I can’t get used to either option, as they both end up feeling awkward. For a game that otherwise is pretty simple to pick up and play, the clunky switching between characters is a huge drawback.

On the plus side, the gameplay is otherwise entertaining. True to the Mario sports titles of yesteryear, the “Mario-ness” adds a fun and chaotic twist to the sport of soccer. Not only can you perform the aforementioned tackle (which would be an illegal move in any real soccer match) but doing so gives the other team an item box, and vice versa. The items include your usual Mario fare like mushrooms that give you a speed boost, banana peels to trip opponents, green and red shells to knock opponents down (with red shells tracking the nearest target), Bob-bombs that send players flying, and power stars to make your current character invincible for a short time. And should you grab the special orb, each character has their own hyper strike that can be charged up with timed button presses (the more accurate the timing, the more likely it is to score a goal). Goals gained with hyper strikes are worth two points, but if the enemy tackles you while you’re trying to time your shot, you lose the opportunity for the special move altogether.

Elements like this are what make Mario Strikers: Battle League fun to play. Unfortunately, the game is so lacking in other areas that it makes Battle League a game that’s best played in quick bursts, as it quickly becomes repetitive.

An interesting addition to the game is that each team chooses their half of the stadium, choosing from a handful of different themed stadium inspired by the Mario series and its offshoots such as Bowser’s Castle, Luigi’s Mansion, and a jungle out of Donkey Kong Country. It’s an interesting idea, but one that doesn’t amount to much because not only are there only a small handful of choices, but they also have no effect on gameplay. It would be nice if the different stadiums had their own gimmicks and quirks to keep players on their toes. Instead, the only differenced I noticed is that a stadium with two different halves has original music, but if both teams choose the same stadium theme you get a remix of music from the game that inspired the stadium (as a big fan of video game music, it’s a nice touch. But it doesn’t really seem like enough to justify the setup).

You’ll also find that the playable roster seems a bit thin, with ten characters in the base game: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Rosalina, Wario and Waluigi. Developer Next Level Games is slowly adding additional characters in free updates, which is fine, but it is difficult to get very excited for an addition like Princess Daisy. It’s also kind of a shame that the ‘sidekick characters’ from the previous Mario Strikers games are no longer present, which takes out a whole element from the series’ gameplay. Battle League also seems to be a victim of Nintendo’s bizarre trend of recent years of not allowing characters from the broader Mario universe (other than Donkey Kong himself) to show up. For example, the goalies in the past Strikers games were Kremlings from Donkey Kong Country. Now they’re Boom Boom from Super Mario Bros. 3. It’s not as egregious as the limitations being forced onto games like Paper Mario, but it is unfortunate to see the Mario sports titles are also falling victim to this questionable trend.

Each character has their own stats, with Mario of course being well-rounded, Bowser is your go-to powerhouse, Toad is quick on his feet, etc. This time around, you can customize the characters further. By playing the game you unlock coins, which can be used to purchase new uniform pieces for each character, which increase different attributes (at the expense of others). It’s another fun little idea that may add a little bit of replay value to the package, but it can also feel like certain uniform combinations give players too much of an advantage. That’s doubly a shame considering that this game emphasizes multiplayer (maybe to a fault), so the players with all the uniforms are given a sometimes unfair advantage. Perhaps this is an instance where the uniforms should have just been cosmetic?

Where Battle League really seems to drop the ball is in its lack of variety when it comes to game modes, particularly single player options. Granted, the online is considerably smoother than most other Switch titles are, but basic matches and tournaments are pretty much your only options. And when it comes to single player, you have basic matches against the computer AI, or a small series of cups. Though both tournaments and cups ultimately just amount to a series of the same standard matches. One reason why Mario Kart endures is because – despite being a racer – it also includes its famous battle modes, which uses the same mechanics as the racing to create a very different experience. It would be nice if Mario Strikers could do something similar and provide some greater gameplay variety with a different mode or two. With the stadiums already providing nothing different between them in regard to gameplay, the lack of variety in play styles is all the more apparent.

On face value, Mario Strikers: Battle League is a lot of fun. It brings the same chaotic energy and fast-paced action that Mario and company often bring to their sport outings, but it’s also a game that’s sorely begging to be more. Perhaps with updates, Battle League will get the depth it so desperately needs. But it’s becoming a concern trend with Mario’s sports titles on the Switch how they keep needing multiple updates just to feel like a complete game. And with how long fans had to wait for Mario Strikers: Battle League to become a reality, it’s all the more a shame that it couldn’t buck that trend and become the new MVP of Mario sports.

6

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge Review

More so than most other licensed properties, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have gone hand-in-hand with video games. The Ninja Turtles rose to prominence throughout the 80s and early 90s, the same time video games were reaching new heights. Not to mention the colorful characters, fun personality and emphasis on action of the Ninja Turtles made them a perfect fit for the video game medium.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles starred in many games during their initial boom period, most notably the beat-em-ups made by Konami, such as Turtles in Time. Over the years, however, Ninja Turtles games have become less frequent, and the beat-em-up genre has largely become a thing of the past.

That’s why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is such a breath of fresh air in the current gaming landscape. Developed by Tribute Games and published by Dotemu, Shredder’s Revenge is a beautiful revitalization of the beat-em-up genre, and a return to form for Ninja Turtles games.

Shredder’s Revenge is classic beat-em-up action at its best. You could argue that the genre isn’t exactly deep (simply fight waves of enemies on each screen, make your way to the end of the stage, beat the boss, and repeat), but there’s always been something very satisfying and entertaining about the simplicity of the beat-em-up, especially when played with others. That is especially true here.

Up to six players can take on Shredder’s Revenge, with players able to choose between one of the four titular turtles (Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo), their rat sensei Master Splinter, news reporter April O’Neil, and unlockable character Casey Jones. Each character plays identically, but with different levels of speed, strength and reach between them. By keeping combos going long enough (or taunting), players can fill up a meter that, when full, allows them to perform a special attack. Perhaps best of all, the game allows players to drop in and out of multiplayer at any given time, even when playing online. It really is a game that would feel at home in an arcade.

Naturally, players revive each other with a slice of peperoni pizza.”

That’s not to say that Shredder’s Revenge is stuck in the past, as the game makes some notable attempts to bring some modernization to its genre. The stages will spawn more enemies depending on how many players are present, something beat-em-ups simply couldn’t do back in the day. And most notably, Shredder’s Revenge not only features a traditional arcade mode (in which players go through the game’s sixteen stages uninterrupted with limited continues and no saving), but also includes a story mode that features a world map, sidequests, and a levelling up system.

The world map is a great addition in that it allows players to replay stages in the story mode whenever they want. The levelling up system is also a welcome inclusion, with players levelling up each character (up to level 10) based on the number of enemies they defeat. As the characters level up, they gain new special moves or get more health, extra lives and additional special meters (up to three), with the third allowing players to go into ‘Radical Mode,’ which temporarily boosts the character’s strength considerably. On the downside, the sidequests feel a bit half-baked, and simply consist of finding character cameos on certain stages, and then finding objects pertaining to those characters on others. Not only are the characters and objects barely hidden, but the rewards for finishing the sidequests are just points to help level up whatever character you’re currently using a little quicker. While I appreciate the idea of trying to implement sidequests in a beat-em-up, it is unfortunate that Shredder’s Revenge’s optional objectives feel so shallow.

It should also be noted that the game can get repetitious pretty quickly. There’s an argument to be made that such repetition is par for the course for the genre, but with the attempts Shredder’s Revenge makes with trying to modernize the beat-em-up, it feels like a missed opportunity to not include a little more variety in the stages. There are a few courses where the players ride on hoverboards that are automatically scrolling, but they aren’t very different from the standard stages otherwise. Even just a couple of shoot-em-up stages or mini-games would have added some variety without detracting from the simple pleasures the game provides.

Repetitious though it may be, that will hardly matter when you’re playing with friends. Though playing online with players around the world means there’s a better alternative to playing alone (in which the fun can only go so far), playing Shredder’s Revenge with friends brings out the absolute best in the game. Things may get so chaotic with all the enemies and special moves happening on-screen that you may even temporarily lose track of your character. But it’s the best kind of chaotic fun.

Perhaps Shredder’s Revenge’s biggest triumph is how well it captures the spirit of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. More specifically, the original cartoon that debuted in 1987. Every character, enemy and boss appeared in the ’87 series at one point or another (including some deep cuts), and through the game’s colorful graphics and vibrant animations, it brings out the personalities of each character. From Michelangelo’s taunt of a goofy dance while shouting “party dude!” to Raphael’s more intense animations, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is just oozing with charm.

Complimenting the game’s visuals is a terrific soundtrack that similarly captures the spirit of the Ninja Turtles, without simply aping all the same tunes from the show. The soundtrack was composed by Tee Lopes – who also did the excellent soundtrack to Sonic Mania – and also includes some vocal tracks from artists like the Wu-Tang Clan! It’s one of the catchiest, coolest and best video game soundtracks this year.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge works as both a revival of beat-em-ups and of Ninja Turtles video games. Some of its potential with modernizing the genre feels missed, and there’s only so much the game has to offer when going solo. But when playing multiplayer, especially with friends, Shredder’s Revenge provides an exceptionally fun throwback to the golden age of a genre and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cowabunga!

7

Chocobo GP Review

When Super Mario Kart was released in 1992, it was more than simply a spinoff of Nintendo’s most prolific series, and ended up being one of the most influential games of all time in itself. Not only did it usher in a new style of multiplayer/party games, but it singlehandedly created its own sub-genre, the “kart racer.” It seems like every cartoony/mascot character under the sun has had a go at trying to replicate Mario Kart, though very few of Mario Kart’s imitators could really stack up to the real thing, with Diddy Kong Racing and Crash Team Racing probably being the two examples that have carved a legacy of their own in the genre. That’s not to say that all of the imitators have missed the mark, however. The Sonic and All-Stars Racing duo were solid additions, and I personally have some very fond memories of more esoteric entries like Bomberman Fantasy Race and Chocobo Racing on the Playstation.

Chocobo Racing was, of course, an offshoot of Final Fantasy, placing various characters from that franchise in a more cartoony setting apropos to the kart racer genre. Being released in 1999 – a time when Final Fantasy found a new popularity on the Playstation – you would think that Chocobo Racing would have made a little more of a splash than it did. But, like many Mario Kart clones, it came and went. A 3DS sequel was originally planned more than a decade later, but joined Mega Man Legends 3 as one of those notorious early 3DS cancellations. That was that, it seemed. Never did I imagine Square would ever actually follow through with a sequel to Chocobo Racing.

It was a pleasant surprise then, when Square announced that they were, in fact, finally making a sequel to Chocobo Racing during a Nintendo Direct in 2021. Chocobo GP is that sequel, released exclusively on the Nintendo Switch twenty-three years after the original. Though the final game is a bit of a bittersweet pill to swallow. On one hand Chocobo GP is a fun, nostalgic kart racer (and it’s just nice to see Square remember something other than Final Fantasy VII or Kingdom Hearts for once). But on the other hand, Chocobo GP was plagued by a number of bugs at launch, and features a series of other shortcomings that prevent it from being the game it could have been, not least of which being its love affair with microtransactions.

I feel like the gameplay of the kart racer needs very little explaining at this point, but to summarize: Chocobo GP sees players select a number of characters either from or inspired by the Final Fantasy series (and the spinoff ‘Chocobo’ series). Players compete in races and can collect power-ups to help themselves or hinder other racers in order to get first place. Again, this is a genre that has played closely to the rules Mario Kart established for it, but Chocobo Racing did add a little Final Fantasy twist to the proceeding in that the power-ups – referred to as “Magicite” in Chocobo GP – can be stacked up to create more powerful versions of itself (admittedly, Diddy Kong Racing beat it to that punch). Additionally, each character also has their own special move, which can be activated after filling a meter by performing speed-boosting drifts.

The core gameplay is enjoyable, and the game controls well. There is a big complaint to be made, however, with how debilitating getting hit by even a single item is. In Mario Kart, you expect to get hit by an item or two during a race, but you can recover from it pretty quickly. In Chocobo GP, getting hit once stops your character dead in their tracks, and it takes a good few seconds before the player can even move again. Similarly, don’t expect the speedy recovery provided by Lakitu in Mario Kart if you fall off a track in Chocobo GP. Here, if you fall off stage, the guy who saves the player slowly picks them up (backwards), takes time to turn them around, and then places them back on stage. These may sound like small complaints, but with the very nature of the genre, it becomes pretty aggravating when basic elements like these take so much time. It’s less chaotic fun and more frustrating.

As for the characters themselves, they have their ups and downs. In Chocobo Racing, most the characters were the basic Final Fantasy archetypes (Chocobo, Moogle, White Mage, etc.), with only a few specific characters from the franchise’s history. That’s also true here, only now even the archetypal characters have names (except for Chocobo himself).

Along with the titular bird, there’s also a girl Chocobo named Camilla, her father (aptly named ‘Camilla’s Pa’), and a Fat Chocobo named Clair. There are also two Moogle characters, one named Atla, and a helmet wearing Moogle named Racing Hero X. I guess with characters like these, Chocobo GP is leaning more into the Chocobo series, as opposed to simply using the general Final Fantasy creatures and enemies. That’s okay, though I don’t really see the point in having so many similar characters.

There are plenty of others, however, like a Behemoth named Ben, and a White Mage named Shirma. For more specific Final Fantasy characters, there’s Terra, the heroine from Final Fantasy VI, in her Esper form. And we also have Vivi and Steiner from Final Fantasy IX. Those are all welcome additions that, again, differ from what Square’s selective memory can usually be bothered to remember. But, if you just have to have Cloud and Squall in your game, they’re unlockable “seasonal” characters, who can alternatively be purchased individually.

The character selection is a bit of a mixed bag, but then again, Mario Kart 8 gave us Pink Gold Peach, so at least Chocobo GP is willing to search its franchise’s history for characters, instead of repainting a series mainstay and calling it a new addition.

Less forgivable is the fact that Chocobo GP only features eight racetracks. For the record, that’s less tracks than Chocobo Racing, which had ten. Granted, Chocobo GP features alternate versions to certain courses, but they basically just rearrange a couple of the obstacles. The tracks here aren’t particularly memorable, either, which makes their short supply all the more crippling. Some may argue that Square can add more courses with updates, but the fact of the matter is the base game needed more tracks. I would have been fine if the developers spent less time on all the unlockable trinkets, and a little more time creating extra courses.

Chocobo GP features a small variety of modes, the best of which being an online tournament up to 64 players. There are also versus modes, time attacks and custom races. There’s even a story mode, though that too is a mixed bag.

The story mode is essentially just races interspersed with cinematics. There’s no hub world to traverse or anything. The cinematics themselves are little more than basic animations of the characters being plastered in front a static background, complete with text boxes and questionable voice acting. While these cinematics do have some humorous moments (particularly when it comes to the characters pointing out Camilla’s Pa’s ridiculous name), they ultimately drag on way too long. The story mode itself seems strangely padded out, despite its simple setup of “pick a race and watch a cinematic.” The story mode should ultimately be looked at as a means of unlocking most of the characters, and little more.

On the plus side of things, the game’s bright, cartoony visuals look great, and they’re matched by a fun, bouncy soundtrack (I enjoy Chocobo GP’s vocal theme song, even if the lyrics are little more than saying the characters’ names).

Unfortunately, Chocobo GP ran into some bigger issues at launch, including some egregious bugs. During separate play sessions, I encountered tournaments that wouldn’t load subsequent rounds and often got hit by items that didn’t appear on-screen. Most ridiculously, I rightfully came in third place during one race, which randomly continued another lap after it should have ended, and then it counted me as coming in last place. Not every race I played was such a disaster, but these glitches and bugs were bad and frequent enough to sour the experience. At the very least, the game is receiving updates and patches to fix these technical issues, but you never want to launch a game in such an unpolished state.

Worst of all, however, are Chocobo GP’s paywalls. Mario Kart Tour could get ridiculous with its paywalls as well, but at least in that case, the game itself is free. But Chocobo GP is a fully priced retail game that still has the nerve to demand its players pay more money to unlock characters, karts, and in-game currency. You can unlock all the seasonal rewards by playing and levelling up, but Square made sure the process was as long and tedious as possible to make such progress (I almost wonder if the lack of courses was deliberate, to create more monotony so players would cave in faster).

Square has said they will make the levelling up process more accessible in upcoming seasons, but it kind of feels like the damage is done. Especially when one considers the in-game currency (mythril) has an expiration date when earned by player experience but doesn’t expire when purchased. Classy.

Unlike a lot of people, I am not one who believes simply wanting to make money from one’s product is a bad thing. However, the sheer insistence of Chocobo GP’s paywalls would be greedy even for a free-to-play game. For a fully priced game to demand so much from players’ wallets is pretty lowdown (especially for a game marketed towards kids).

Ultimately, this is what dampens what should have been a fun sequel to an oft-forgotten game from yesteryear. I think there is a fun game in Chocobo GP, but Square chose to bury it under its own monetization model. And I think the game’s other shortcomings are a direct result of this. Imagine if Square had enough faith in the game to sell itself, then maybe more development time could have been used polishing the game instead of spent thinking of new ways to charge players.

Chocobo GP should have been a delightful throwback right out the gate. You can still have some good fun while playing it. It’s just a shame you have to turn a blind eye to so much in order to do so.

Here’s hoping a potential Bomberman Fantasy Race sequel doesn’t suffer the same fate.

5

Nintendo Switch Turns 5!

Believe it or not, the Nintendo Switch was released five years ago today.

On March 3rd 2017, the Nintendo Switch was released worldwide, alongside The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. If you can believe it, at the time, many wondered if the Switch would prove to be a success, given the commercial failure of its predecessor, the Wii U. As we know now, the concerns were misplaced, as the Switch has proven to be a massive success in the gaming world. To be more specific, it recently surpassed the Wii to become Nintendo’s best-selling home console ever (and is behind only the Nintendo DS and Game Boy as Nintendo’s best-selling hardware). Not too shabby.

It shouldn’t be too hard to see why the Switch has been such a success. The idea of being able to play console games on the go is simple, but really makes a world of difference. Nintendo has released some of their all-time best games on the system (even re-releasing the Wii U’s best titles to give them a proper audience). And for the first time since the SNES, Nintendo has had some prominent, strong third-party support. I’d argue that the Switch had the best first year of any console in 2017( into 2018), and has only occasionally let up since.

Something to note on this fifth Switch anniversary is that there’s been no word yet on what the Switch’s successor could possibly be. That’s interesting because most Nintendo consoles (any console, really) usually has about a five-year timespan before its follow-up is released. The SNES, N64 and GameCube were all on store shelves for five years when their successors joined them. While the NES and Wii lasted six years apiece, we all knew what the next console in line would be around the five-year mark. Unfortunately for Wii U, that console lasted just over four years before the Switch came knocking. So normally a Nintendo console would be heading off into the sunset right about now (though I suppose the NES and SNES technically lasted a number of years after their successors were on the market). But the Switch doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Nintendo and Game Freak announced a new Pokemon game just the other day for crying out loud!

That may bum some people out, if all they want is better graphics. But I’m kind of relieved the Switch seems to be sticking around for a while. I don’t want them to make a new console just to make it. I’m kind of tired of having to start over with a new console when the current ones still feel like they have plenty left to give.

Who knows how long the Nintendo Switch will ultimately last, but if its first five years are anything to go by, the Switch’s future should be a whole lot of fun.

Happy five year anniversary, Nintendo Switch!

Pac-Man 99 Review

With the battle royale genre taking the video game world by storm over the past few years, a recent trend has been remaking classic video games in the style of this genre. At the heart of this trend is developer Arika, who teamed up with Nintendo to create Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35, the latter of which was pointlessly discontinued after only a few months. Shortly after Super Mario Bros. 35’s cancellation, Arika announced that they were teaming up with Bandai Namco to give Pac-Man the battle royale treatment with Pac-Man 99 for the Nintendo Switch. And much like Arika’s previous efforts, Pac-Man 99 is a fun and addicting spin on one of the classics of the medium.

As its name implies, Pac-Man 99 takes a page from Tetris 99’s book, and sees ninety-nine players compete against each other in a game of Pac-Man all trying to outlast each other, with the last player standing being the winner.

Pac-Man still moves around the board eating ‘Pac-Dots’ and avoiding the ghosts (Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde). There are still the big ‘Power Pellets’ in the corners of the board, which temporarily supercharge Pac-Man and allow him to turn the tables and eat the ghosts! So the basic gameplay is as it always was, but there are some fun changes that come with the battle royale makeover.

Now, whenever Pac-Man eats a ghost, that creates a “Jammer Pac-Man” for other players. Jammer Pac-Men are basically white Pac-Man outlines that slow players down. The more Jammer Pac-Men you send to other players, the slower they’ll get, making them easy pickings for the ghosts, thus eliminating them from the competition. Of course, this also means other players are constantly sending Jammer Pac-Men your way as well. But you can eliminate all of the current Jammers at once by eating a Power Pellet.

Another addition are the groups of tiny “Sleeping Ghosts” on both sides of the board. When collected, these Sleeping Ghosts then trail behind the nearest proper ghost to create a ‘Ghost Train.’ The benefit to this is that, once the ghosts become edible with a Power Pellet, each ghost in the Ghost Train creates its own Jammer, thus bombarding your opponents.

Once a certain amount of the Pac-Dots on the board are eaten (I believe it’s half of them), a fruit appears at the center of the board which resets all of the Pac-Dots, Power Pellets and Sleeping Ghosts once Pac-Man eats it.

Also of note is how the game changes as it goes. Not only do Pac-Man and the ghosts move faster as a match goes on, but the Jammer Pac-Men will behave differently in different stages of a match. In the earlier portion of a game, the Jammers will stay in place, and will slow Pac-Man if he moves through them. Later, the Jammers start chasing Pac-Man. And the late-game introduces red Jammer Pac-Men, who may move slower than the others, but will eliminate Pac-Man just as the ghosts do. And Power Pellets merely freeze the red Jammers in place temporarily. Only getting the fruit will eliminate the red Jammers from the board.

These are all fun twists to the Pac-Man formula that make for a thrilling multiplayer competition. But there are some additional elements that add another level of strategy, though they could be better explained and presented. These are the power-ups and the targeting options.

The power-ups are added bonuses the player can equip at any time, that are activated once Pac-Man eats a Power Pellet. The power-up options are Speed, Stronger, Train and Standard. Speed – true to its name – will double Pac-Man’s movement speed for the duration of a Power Pellet, with the caveat that you’ll send less Jammers to other players. Stronger creates more Jammers per ghost that you eat, but reduces the length of the Power Pellets’ effects. Train adds more ghosts to the Ghost Trains, but also brings a Jammer to your own board for every extra ghost. Standard won’t give Pac-Man any bonuses outside of what Power Pellets usually do, but also doesn’t have a downside.

Targeting options refer to who you want to be sending your Jammer Pac-Men to, and can also be changed at any point. The targeting options are categorized as Random, Knockout, Hunter, and Counter. Random, of course, will simply target a random set of players. Knockout will target players who are on the verge of being eliminated. Hunter will go after the players who have eliminated the most competition already. Finally, Counter will target anyone who is currently targeting you.

It is possible to target individual players, but this is only plausibly done when played in the Switch’s handheld mode, where you just tap that player’s screen on the touchscreen. When played in docked mode, you have to press the ‘L’ or ‘R’ buttons to manually go through each player to find the one you want. But with 98 other players, that’s simply unreasonable, especially in a game that gets as chaotic as this.

As much fun as Pac-Man 99 is, I have to admit the implementation of the power-ups and targeting options could have been done better. Pac-Man himself is controlled by the D-pad, while the buttons change the power-ups, and the right joystick switches the target options. I suppose that’s fine, but if I’m going to be honest, as the game goes on and gets faster and faster, I tend to forget those options are even there. It doesn’t help that the HUD for these options are greatly obscured by all the other players’ screens. Tetris 99 also did something like this, but Pac-Man 99 has so many added visual effects (which look nice on their own) that the displays for the power-ups and targeting options are just drown out. It just makes things all the more chaotic and I lose track of the action.

Another problem is that the game fails to properly explain what the power-ups and targeting options do. There are no in-game options detailing them, and the effects aren’t immediately apparent during gameplay. Although the names gave me a general idea, I actually had to look them up online to know what they did.

A simple instructions section on the main menu and a clearer display would really benefit these aspects. Otherwise Pac-Man 99 is a very fun twist on a timeless classic. It’s highly competitive, and you’ll find yourself even competing with yourself to see if you can rank higher than you did the time before. You’ll find you catch on to the new mechanics pretty quickly, but will play game after game trying to master them. It’s one of those “just one more game” kind of video games.

Pac-Man 99 doesn’t reinvent the Pac-Man formula or the battle royale genre, but like Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35 before it, Pac-Man 99 proves that battle royales and classic games are a match made in heaven.

7

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon Review

A while back, my older brother referred to Shovel Knight as the “Mario of Indie games.” That’s a pretty accurate description of Yacht Club Games’ shovel-wielding hero. His impact on Indie games, timeless appeal, and penchant for cameos in other games does bring to mind what Nintendo’s famed plumber has done for the mainstream. Though perhaps the comparison between Shovel Knight and Super Mario has never been more prominent than it is with Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, which removes Shovel Knight from his action-platforming norms into the world of falling block puzzle games. Just as Mario seems capable of transitioning into any genre and making it his own (whether it be RPG, sports or party games), Shovel Knight has now done something similar with Pocket Dungeon, one of the most original and engaging puzzle games in years.

Co-developed by Yacht Club Games and Vine and released at the tail end of 2021, Pocket Dungeon doesn’t just place Shovel Knight in a puzzle game, but the action elements of his titular series as well.

The game works as such: enemies and blocks fall from the top of the screen to the bottom, moving slowly over time as well as whenever Shovel Knight (or whatever playable character) moves. The game ends if the screen fills up completely, but you can also play a rouge-like mode that additionally can end if the player loses all their hit points. By bumping into an enemy, the player damages them. But the enemy also damages the player with every hit, with the exception the final blow. If multiple copies of the same enemy (or block) are adjacent to each other, then defeating them will give the player a chain, awarding them with more gems, which are used to purchase items as well as giving the player a high score. And don’t worry, potions also fall from the top of the screen to heal your hit points.

A certain number of enemies need to be defeated before the exit door of a stage appears, at which point the player can exit right away and move on to the next stage, or try to defeat every remaining enemy and block to claim an additional bonus. A boss fight shows up at the end of every third stage, with a secret boss waiting at the end of the game if you’ve managed to perform a specific set of tasks.

Also included in the stages are keys, treasure chests, shops and bonus areas. The keys naturally open the chests to reveal power-ups (which may give the player a boost in damage, a shield to block a few hits, or other such limited use items). The blue chests lead to the shop (going inside pauses the stage until you leave). Here you can purchase upgrades that give the player bonuses that, unlike the aforementioned items, last throughout the current playthrough (such as additional hit points or immunity to electric attacks, things of that nature). The bonus areas may ask the player to remove all enemies and objects within a small room, with bonus gems and items awarded if you succeed, or just provide the player with free keys and items. Of course, should you get a game over, you lose all your items and upgrades, and return to camp to start over from the beginning (though you can unlock the ability to go directly to later stages, but at the disadvantage of not having the bonuses you might otherwise have when you reach that point).

As it is, the game would already be a blast. It’s so full of variety in enemies and stage-specific obstacles, not to mention the switching around of items and upgrades at the shop every playthrough, that Pocket Dungeon successfully merges an action game with a falling block puzzler. But then the game goes above and beyond by including different playable characters, each with their own abilities that change up the game all the more.

Some characters you unlock by progressing through the story, while others are the boss characters that you unlock after defeating them (each boss stage has a number of potential bosses, so you never know who you’re going to get). Most of the characters are returning from the original Shovel Knight and its expansions, though a few new characters show up as well.

Plague Knight poisons the enemies he attacks, meaning they take an additional hit of damage after a second (other characters can purchase an upgrade that does the same for them which, yes, stacks when used by Plague Knight). Tinker Knight is unique in that he collects metal from the blocks. He is lower on hit points, but with enough metal he can gain a mechanical suit that gives him extra strength (but also explodes when the metal is used up, so be careful). Shield Knight can generate shields by defeating chains of enemies. The bigger the chain, the more hits her shield can block. New character Scrap Knight can pick up an enemy or object and move them somewhere else. My personal favorite is Mole Knight, who can dig underground to switch positions with something else on the board, giving the player all kinds of ways to move around and create chains.

With Shovel Knight alone, the game would be great and full of variety. With these additional characters (plus a number of others I didn’t mention), you can easily get engrossed in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon just by trying out every character and seeing how they change up the formula.

Even the enemies have their own quirks. Skeletons hit the player for extra damage, while knights put up a shield after your first strike, leaving you to attack them from a different position. Magician-like enemies will teleport once they’re down to their last hit point, while meddlesome yetis will freeze any other enemy or object (or the player) and scatter them across the board. It’s very impressive how much variety Vine and Yacht Club Games managed to squeeze into Pocket Dungeon.

I will admit, the game’s unique merging of genres may take some getting used to. And even when you’re accustomed to it, it can get so chaotic you still might not be able to keep track of your hit points or other things. But once you get the hang of it, Pocket Dungeon is incredibly fun (and only occasionally frustrating). It’s also a little bit of a bummer that the game currently lacks online multiplayer options, which will be added at a later date. Though I suppose this is a rare instance in which the game is so good as it is, I can forgive it if it wasn’t quite complete right out the gate.

In the spirit of Shovel Knight, Pocket Dungeon has great, colorful sprites (who look a little more SNES than the NES-inspired original game), and an awesome soundtrack that features remixes of the original Shovel Knight themes as well as some new stuff that’s just as catchy.

Perhaps the best thing about Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is that it’s one of those games that reminds me why we love video games to begin with. It’s a few simple concepts filled with creative ideas, that all come together through great gameplay to create a fun game. One of the best of 2021.

Like the original Shovel Knight, Pocket Dungeon trims the fat of modern gaming to remind us how great a pure video game experience can be.

It’s-a him, Shovel Knight!

8

Mario Party Superstars Review

2021 may not have been the biggest year for Nintendo in recent memory, but the Nintendo Switch did come out swinging with a few titles fans had waited many years for: Pokemon Snap finally received a sequel after twenty-two years in the form of New Pokemon Snap. The patience of Metroid fans was rewarded with the brand new 2D entry they’d been waiting nineteen years for in Metroid Dread. And last but not least, Mario Party finally listened to its fans and returned back to glorious basics with Mario Party Superstars, which is essentially a greatest hits collection of Mario Party’s golden years.

To be fair, 2018’s Super Mario Party was already a huge step in the right direction, ditching most of the more cumbersome gimmicks of the past several entries in favor of the more straightforward “board game and mini-games” setup of the earlier entries. But Super still had some issues that held it back, with unmemorable board designs, motion controls that weren’t always reliable, an inability to play in the Switch’s handheld mode and – bizarrely – the game didn’t get online features until nearly three years after release. And as cool as it was to have a wide variety of characters who each had their own dice, said dice weren’t always balanced.

Mario Party Superstars has left most of Super’s quirks behind, instead opting for a love letter to Mario Party’s earliest (and greatest) installments, making it the best entry in the series since the beloved Nintendo 64 years.

Mario Party Superstars utilizes five game boards, each returning from the first three entries from the Nintendo 64 era, as well as 100 mini-games from throughout each of the numbered entries in the series’ history (meaning Mario Parties 1 through 10, omitting the handheld entries and Super Mario Party).

The rules are back to basics: each player takes a turn moving across the board. Blue spaces give coins, red spaces take coins, with various Event Spaces interspersed in between, and item shops that let you use your coins to buy items to help yourself or hinder others. If you pass Toadette, you can spend 20 coins for a Star, with the winner being the player with the most Stars by the time the game ends. And as a final curveball, there are a few endgame bonuses that award last minute stars, which can turn the tide of the game at the very last second.

It’s the same Mario Party formula you remember, at the height of its powers. Some may lament that Mario Party Superstars doesn’t do anything really new for the series, but after so many years of needless gimmicks and superfluous additions, getting back to the core of what made the series fun to begin with is what fans have been begging for for years.

Superstars features ten playable characters: the original six Mario Party characters of Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Yoshi, Donkey Kong and Wario, as well as the two additional characters from Mario Party 3, Princess Daisy and Waluigi. To round things off are the welcome inclusion of Rosalina, and the more questionable inclusion of Birdo. Every character plays identically this time around (no character-specific dice), so it’s really just about picking your favorite.

The five aforementioned boards include Yoshi’s Tropical Island and Peach’s Birthday Cake from the first Mario Party, Space Land and Horror Land from Mario Party 2, and Woody Woods from Mario Party 3. Each board contains most of their original gimmicks (Woody Woods has paths that change between turns, while Horror Land switches from day to night, and Yoshi’s Tropical Island sees Toadette and Bowser swap between two islands when players land on a green Event Space). Some of the boards have seen alterations to be more up to date (the boards from Mario Party 1 now include item shops, whereas the items didn’t initially appear until the second game). It’s actually a great selection of boards, but it’s a shame that it’s limited to only five. The original Mario Party had eight boards total, and Mario Parties 2 and 3 made six boards the series’ standard. So even one extra board really would have made a difference here (particularly an extra board from Mario Party 3 to even out the playing field).

As for the 100 mini-games, it’s a mostly solid selection of the best mini-games from Mario Parties 1 through 10. You’ve got fan favorites like Bumper Balls, Hot Rope Jump and Eatsa Pizza, as well as less popular but equally great selections like Honeycomb Havoc, Cheep Cheep Chase and Dungeon Duos. Even the lesser known mini-games selected are still mostly good.

There are, however, a few questionable mini-game choices. And even a few selections from the N64 games prove that even Mario Party’s best entries had a few stinkers.

First thing’s first, very few of the 1 vs. 3 mini-games are any fun. While stacking three players against one already seems unfair in concept, there are a couple of decent mini-games in the category that prove it can work (such as Tube It or Lose It, which feels pretty balanced for either the single player or the team). But for the most part, the 1 vs. 3 mini-games feel like they heavily favor one side or the other. There was never any reason why Tug o’ War shouldn’t have been a 2 vs. 2 mini-game, as the solo player almost never wins against the three-person team. Meanwhile, games like Archer-rival feel like they overcompensate the single player by giving the team players almost no chance to win. Then there’s Piranha Pursuit – arguably the worst mini-game out of all 100 – in which the three-person team doesn’t seem to actually do anything. With very few exceptions, the 1 vs. 3 mini-games just aren’t fun, and you hate to see them pop-up at the end of a turn.

Then there are mini-games in which it feels like the players have little input on the outcome. I can forgive Bowser’s Big Blast (in which players push switches and hope it doesn’t blow them up), since that one at least has a nice sense of tension. But then you have games like Trap Ease Artist – which sees players simply drop cages and hope their’s fell over more Goombas than the other players’ cages – where you just kind of hope the Goombas can be bothered to head in your direction (which they often don’t). Granted, Mario Party games have always favored luck over skill, and are more about having a good time with friends than they are deep gameplay. But because the mini-games are (usually) more interactive than the board game portion, it is kind of annoying when the luck-based nature of it all falls onto the mini-games themselves.

Finally, despite there being 100 mini-games in Mario Party Superstars, it seems like I encounter the same small subset of mini-games all the time, with only a few switching things up in every game. I don’t know why they would make some mini-games so much less common than others, but I all too frequently find myself wishing I could see a wider variety of the mini-games.

Going back to the game’s luck-based nature, if you’re someone who has taken issue with the series for this aspect in the past, then Mario Party Superstars isn’t going to win you over. Because that sense of luck is as prevalent as ever. Players can randomly find hidden blocks that can award them with extra coins or even a free Star out of nowhere. You could be thinking up a strategy for multiple turns, only for someone to land on an Event Space and immediately halt whatever you were planning. Then there’s the dreaded Chance Time Space, which sees players spin a few roulette wheels. Chance Time can be harmless (like one player giving three coins to another), but it can also completely upend the game in an instant. Things like these can be frustrating, but again, it’s all part of the fun of Mario Party. We all take video games a bit too seriously these days. Not every game needs to be some deep, intricate experience that requires constant practice just so you can master a single combo or whatever. Mario Party has always just been about having a good time with friends, and part of that includes watching everything descend into chaos. With that said, Chance Time can go to Hell.

“Oh come on!”

Speaking of playing with friends, that’s where Mario Party is at its best. Having a full group of players in the same room would be ideal, but thankfully, if you can’t get a group of your friends together, you can play any mode of Mario Party Superstars online. So if you and your friends have the time you can do a full board game or just compete in a series of mini-games on Mini-Game Mountain. And if you’re concerned about Nintendo’s continued lack of online communication, Mario Party Superstars has a fun way to work around that. Players are given different “Stickers” they can use to convey very basic message (things like “Congrats” or “Bad Luck…”), each one coming with its own image of a different character. Nintendo has utilized something similar in other games, but it’s much more effective here, given the nature of how Mario Party works.

Since Mario Party loses much of its appeal when playing solo against computers, it’s also great that you can still play the online modes even without people on your friends list, which makes Superstars perhaps the most readily repayable Mario Party entry. And with few exceptions, I’ve had mostly very smooth online games. Maybe not as smooth as Mario Kart, but certainly more consistent than most other online Nintendo games. The online mode is where I’ve spent the majority of my playtime in Mario Party Superstars, but it isn’t without its drawbacks.

When playing online, the board games are automatically set at fifteen turns. I can actually understand this, seeing as the games in Mario Party are already pretty long, and who knows how long some random person from the other side of the world will take just to roll their dice. So even though part of me wishes you could vote for the number of turns in an online game, I understand this. What I don’t understand is that, when playing an online match without friends, the endgame rewards are completely random.

As mentioned, just before a game ends, players are awarded additional Stars at the last minute. When playing locally or with friends, you can choose to have the traditional endgame rewards from the N64 era (one for whoever won the most mini-games, one for whoever had the most coins during the game, and one for whoever landed on the most Event Spaces), or you can choose to have random rewards, or no rewards at all. Personally, I prefer going with the N64 rewards, since the mini-game and coin stars are something you can potentially aim for. But when you play an online match without friends, the endgame rewards are automatically on the random setting, so you don’t even know what they are until they’re awarded at the end (it’s like how Dumbledore randomly awards points to Gryffindor at the last minute, despite the hard work of the other Hogwarts houses). Not only does this mean you can’t actively try to earn these awards, but some of the bonuses don’t even make sense, like an award that goes to whoever landed on the most Bowser Spaces or whoever moved the least on the game board. Why are those things to be rewarded?

“Geez, we got Bowser Sanders over here…”

At first I thought maybe the actions of the players during the game dictated the random rewards (maybe if someone landed on a notable amount of Bowser Spaces, that would activate the Bowser award). But that’s not even the case, since I’ve done at least two online matches where they announced the Bowser Award when no one landed on a Bowser Space, so no one even got the Star. So why even have it?

The random endgame bonuses were one of my big gripes with Super Mario Party, so it’s unfortunate to see them return, especially in the online matches when you can’t change them.

Another issue I have is how the boards maybe have too many item shops, item spaces, Koopa Banks and (in terms of the Mario Party 2 and 3 boards) stage gimmicks that slow the player down. All these things on their own are fun additions that add to the game, but each board has perhaps too many of them, which not only makes rounds go much longer than they otherwise would, but also makes these elements feel less special with how frequently you come across them. It seems like only the first round of any given game can ever go uninterrupted.

These may sound like a lot of complaints, but they ultimately aren’t party poopers. Because for all the frustration and tedium they may cause, Mario Party Superstars is the best entry in the series since Mario Party 3. By removing all the fluff the series added over the years and going back to basics, choosing boards from the N64 titles and plucking mini-games from throughout the series’ history, Mario Party Superstars feels like both a return to form and a love letter to the series at the same time. Superstars even plays up the nostalgia in fun ways, with the main menu being an exact recreation of that of the first Mario Party.

“The title screen will be based on the last board you played, an element from the original Mario Party that I had forgotten about until my second time booting up Superstars. Nice touch!”

To top it all off, Mario Party Superstars is very easy on the eyes and ears. Though the character models don’t look any newer than they did in Super Mario Party, the old school boards recreated on the Nintendo Switch look stunning (Peach’s Birthday Cake looks especially lovely, and really makes me hungry). You can even switch between the original musical scores or modernized remakes. Mario Party may never have had as strong of soundtracks as other Mario games, but it was always appropriately fun and bouncy. And it’s never sounded better than it does here.

Mario Party Superstars is like a dream come true for Mario Party fans. It could have used an extra board, not all of the mini-games represent the series’ best, and it’s as frustrating as ever. But it’s also the same Mario Party we all fondly look back on and have been begging to return to, despite its faults. How much fun you have during a game may be a bit circumstantial, but few things in gaming are as joyous as getting your friends together for a round of Mario Party, and watching how everything unfolds.

Now if only Nintendo could do the same for Paper Mario…

7

Clockwork Aquario Review

Clockwork Aquario is something of a unearthed treasure in the video game world. Originally created in 1992 as an arcade title by the now-defunct Westone (creators of the Wonder Boy series) and to be published by Sega, Clockwork Aquario ultimately went unreleased. In 2017, Strictly Limited Games acquired the rights to the game from Sega. But some of the game’s code had been lost over time, so Strictly Limited Games teamed up with ININ Games to help fill in the gaps. After a few more delays, Clockwork Aquario FINALLY saw release on Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 at the tail end of 2021, nearly thirty years after the game was originally created (claiming the record for longest development time in video game history in the process).

On the plus side, it’s nice to know that such a game has actually been released after seemingly being lost to time. On the down side, the story behind Clockwork Aquario is more interesting than the game itself. Clockwork Aquario provides some fun, arcade-style platforming, but it’s short lived and lacks substance. It’s an entertaining novelty, if maybe not the arcade classic you may have hoped for, given its unique development history.

Clockwork Aquario is an action-platformer in which players can choose from three different playable characters: a boy named Huck Rondo, a girl named Elle Moon, and a robot named Gush. While all three characters have their own animations and sound bites, they all play identically. The goal of the game is simply to make it to the end of each level, defeat the boss, and ultimately defeat the evil Dr. Hangyo (an anthropomorphic fish, of all things) from taking over the world.

“Clockwork Aquario follows the Secret of Mana rule of a boy character, a girl character, and a non-human character.”

The stages are short and straightforward. There’s a time limit on each stage, but I’ve not had it run out on me yet. Each character can either jump on an enemy or slap them, with one hit stunning the enemy, and the second hit defeating them. What’s fun and different about Clockwork Aquario is that once an enemy is stunned, you can lift them up over your head and throw them at other enemies. It’s reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Treasure titles like Mischief Makers or Dynamite Headdy in that respect. Also similar to Treasure titles are the big, ridiculous boss fights, all of which involve Dr. Hangyo piloting a crazy, animal-shaped robot.

Although the core gameplay is fun, there are some annoying aspects to it. Namely, there are numerous segments where enemies pop out of nowhere as soon as you’re on top of them, to the extent that it feels like you have to take a hit to move on. That would be an issue even if you had a health bar, but it’s all the worse since your character can only take two hits before you lose a life. Another issue is that it takes way too long to gain a single extra life. By defeating enemies and getting points, as well as picking up gems the enemies occasionally drop, you slowly build up a meter towards collecting a 1-up. But you’ll often lose all your lives and an extra continue before you fill the bar up, so it feels like the reward isn’t worth it. It’s also annoying that you can’t pause the game once you start. I get that this was originally made as an arcade title, but come on. It ended up released on home consoles. Surely they could have added the ability to pause.

You’ll also find that the game is incredibly short, even by arcade standards. Clockwork Aquario contains only five levels, each of which can be breezed through long before the clock runs out. The game features different difficulty settings, but the only real difference is that the harder difficulties give you less continues (seeing as this is an arcade game released on home consoles, you can’t keep giving the game quarters for more chances). There’s also a ‘training mode’ but that’s little more than playing the first two levels with unlimited tries (which is really weird now that I type it out). You’ll also probably feel that, unless you have a second player with you, there’s not a whole lot of replay value here.

If there are two areas where Clockwork Aquario shines, it’s in the visuals and music. The graphics, character animations and backgrounds have a fun, retro anime vibe. It all looks so smooth and colorful! Clockwork Aquario looks like a suped-up Sega Genesis title. The music is similarly enjoyable. So much so that the game even includes its soundtrack in the main menu (both as the tracks appear in game as well as remixes). Clockwork Aquario is very fun to look at and listen to. Unfortunately these aesthetic pleasures don’t translate to the menus, which are pretty basic and mostly just text.

Clockwork Aquario is decently fun while it lasts, but I do think you need two players to get the best out of it (there’s even an extra mini-game in between the third and fourth stages only when playing with two people). Given the game’s unique history, you do kind of wish there were more to it. But it’s still a fun, novel experience. And worth checking out as an odd little piece of gaming history.

6

Thoughts on Today’s Nintendo Direct (9/23/2021)

Nintendo had a new Direct today, which maybe not-so coincidentally happens to be the 132nd anniversary of the founding of the company (happy 132nd birthday, Nintendo!). It was certainly an improvement over their E3 Direct this year (not a very high hurdle to jump, but I meant it as a compliment). There were numerous big announcements, so let me talk about the ones that caught my attention.

First thing’s first, Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games are coming to Nintendo Switch as part of an upgraded Switch Online. That’s cool, and with the NES and SNES already a part of it, it just feels more complete now. All the classics together again for the first time since the Wii (I know many people would hate me for not including Atari consoles as part of “the classics,” but let’s not pretend like those hold up). A lot of the obvious games will be included at one point or another, like Super Mario 64, the N64 Zelda titles, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, etc. But then they (briefly) showed something that really caught my eye…

“Buh Gawd King!”

Yes, Banjo-Kazooie is coming to Nintendo Switch, making it the first time since its original release that Banjo-Kazooie is on a Nintendo console (where it really belongs, if we’re being perfectly honest). It was a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of announcement, which is odd, seeing as it’s actually a pretty big deal given the whole history of the series (and developer Rare) with Nintendo and then Microsoft and everything. Could this mean a new Banjo-Kazooie game is in the cards? Probably not. But it gives some semblance of hope for a future for the series. Plus, Banjo-Kazooie (and the other N64 games) on the go? Sounds great!

Before we move on to more games, let’s take a moment to talk about something else that was discussed during the Direct: the upcoming Super Mario animated movie!

While the fact that the film is being made by Illumination has me a bit skeptical (their movies tend to be perfectly content with being “adequate”), I would be lying if I said I weren’t interested. Particularly after this Direct, when Shigeru Miyamoto himself announced the cast!

Chris Pratt wouldn’t have been my first choice for Mario, but I can totally imagine it now after the announcement. I admit I’m a bit disappointed that Seth Rogen is voicing Donkey Kong. But Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach and Jack Black as Bowser? Hot diggity dog! I mean, I always imagined Brad Garrett as Bowser (he was great as Krang in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows), but Jack Black is a more than worthy substitute.

Also, Cranky Kong is in the movie.

Also also, Foreman Spike is in the movie. Now THAT is the kind of deep cut I was hoping for from this Mario movie. The kind of deep cut Super Smash Bros. USED to do, but would never do these days.

Speaking of Super Smash Bros., the last DLC fighter for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate wasn’t announced during this Direct, but will be announced in October. I’m kind of glad they didn’t reveal them here. It’s probably just going to be another anime guy with a sword or another vanilla fighting game character. They’ll likely be a character who has little to nothing to do with Nintendo’s history anyway, so why sully this Direct with another inevitable disappointment from Super Smash Bros?

Anyway, back to the good stuff. Next year will see the release of Chocobo Racing GP, a Switch exclusive sequel (or maybe remake) of a semi-obscure Mario Kart-style racing game from the Playstation One.

I. Loved. This.

I have many fond memories of Chocobo Racing back in the PSOne days (hard to say how well it would hold up, since I haven’t played it in such a long time, but for its day I had a lot of fun with it). Never would I have thought Square-Enix would actually make a sequel to it after all this time. I’m happy they are. Especially since Nintendo seems to keep forgetting to make Mario Kart 9, a kart racer like this is all the more welcome. So happy to see Square-Enix remember something other than Final Fantasy VII for once.

And finally, the big news (for me, anyway) was the announcement of Kirby and the Forgotten Land. The first fully 3D Kirby game!

Good gracious, that trailer. It started off quiet, showing off an abandoned civilization. Typical video game stuff, but with an added colorfulness not usually seen in “abandoned civilization” scenarios. Then we cut to Kirby waking up on a beach. “Oh cool! A new Kirby game!” I thought. Kirby’s always reliable in producing quality games, though he is a Nintendo mainstay so it wasn’t the most shocking revelation.

But then… it happened.

The camera zoomed out behind Kirby. “No, it can’t be…” I thought, before Kirby started moving around freely in this new environment! It’s a Kirby 3D platformer! Good heavens, it’s a Kirby 3D platformer!

Do you know how long I’ve waited for a 3D platformer starring Kirby? Way too long! To pull back the curtain on the depths of my nerdhood, I’ve sometimes thought about what kind of games I would make in various existing franchises, and one of my recurring ideas has always been a 3D Kirby platformer. And now it’s actually happening. I actually got a little misty-eyed in the trailer.

But what am I telling you for? Just watch it yourself!

Now, to be fair, 2D platformers have a much better track record than 3D ones (3D Mario games are amazing, but they haven’t had any real competition since the days of Banjo-Kazooie). But the potential has always been there. And in this day and age, when Rare hasn’t been present in the genre for well over a decade, Mario’s 3D platformers (sublime though they may be) are really the only ones out there. Oh, you can bring up Ratchet & Clank all you want, but that series is far more an action-adventure game than a platformer (just because it has cartoony characters doesn’t mean it’s a platformer). So we need 3D platformers now more than ever. There’s never been anything wrong with 2D Kirby games (literally, there’s never been a bad one), but I’m happy to see the series branch out with a full-fledged 3D platformer after all this time.

There were plenty of other things discussed in the Nintendo Direct, such as a long-awaited update to Animal Crossing: New Horizons (yes please), and a new trailer for Bayonetta 3 (which closed out the Direct for some reason. I personally would have ended it with Kirby, which has a much richer history and – I’m just going to say it – is a much better, less button-mashy series). But if you just want the news that came out of the Direct, you can read that elsewhere. I’m just giving my thoughts on my favorite bits of the presentation. So hopefully you enjoyed reading my thoughts on this Nintendo Direct.

Jack Black is Bowser.