Farewell, Nintendo 3DS

After nine and a half years, Nintendo has officially discontinued the Nintendo 3DS. This isn’t too surprising by this point, as the 3DS has been kind of pushed to the sidelines since the Nintendo Switch launched, but it’s still kind of sad after having the 3D handheld around for nearly an entire decade.

Originally released in 2011, the Nintendo 3DS was the successor to Nintendo’s most popular system, the Nintendo DS. As such, the 3Ds included many of its predecessor’s features (two screens, the bottom screen having touch controls, etc), while also providing more powerful visuals and sound and, as the name implies, 3D effects for the top screen.

3D was all over the place in the early 2010s, most notably in movies, where 3D effects had seen a huge resurgence (often attributed to James Cameron’s Avatar, even though Pixar’s Up and several other movies beat it to the punch in early 2009. I guess people wanted to pretend Avatar had some kind of lasting impact to justify its box office numbers). While most 3D in movies at the time was a bit gimmicky, usually making for only one or two notable effects, the 3D visuals on the 3DS were actually pretty good. Sure, you had to hold the handheld a specific way to get the full effect, but you didn’t need any 3D glasses, and it actually looked pretty good. Some games – most notably Super Mario 3D Land, Pushmo, Kirby Triple Deluxe and Kirby: Planet Robobot – even took advantage of the effect for the sake of gameplay!

Still, as the 3D craze died down, so did Nintendo’s emphasis on the effect on the 3DS, with games featuring less and less actual 3D as time went on. Eventually, Nintendo even released the “Nintendo 2DS,” a variant of the handheld without the 3D visuals, which over time became the standard version of the system. As time went by, Nintendo and other developers began releasing more and more games that blatantly stated they didn’t use the 3D effects on the box!

While the namesake feature of the system may have run its course some time ago, the 3DS itself actually held strong for a good while. With a steady stream of great original titles like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, as well as terrific remakes like those of the N64 Zelda titles, as well as the best entries in the Mario & Luigi series throughout its lifecycle (though the less said of the 3DS’s original Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario titles, the better).

The Nintendo 3DS was a perfect companion for the original Wii in its last years, as well as the Wii U during its entire run. When the Nintendo Switch was released in 2017 and combined Nintendo’s home console and handheld efforts, it became clear that the 3DS was no longer a priority, but it still had a few good years left.

In the end, the Nintendo 3DS joins the ranks of the great Nintendo consoles, like the Super NES, Gameboy Advance, the original DS, the Wii and even the system that supplanted it, the Switch. With nine and a half years under its belt, the 3DS certainly has a lot to reflect on. A history and library that few gaming systems can match. Not bad for something that was initially ridiculed for being a gimmick.

I salute you, 3DS! Thanks for the memories.

Replaying: Super Mario 64

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is great (it was released on my birthday, ya know). I mean, it has it’s problems (a series of this caliber deserves grander presentation than a simple startup screen and brief descriptions of the games included), and the absence of Galaxy 2 really is inexcusable (had it been included, this would be the best video game compilation ever). But it’s still a compilation of two amazing classics and also Super Mario Sunshine, so I’m not about to complain too much.

Though Galaxy is easily the best game of the bunch, I decided to do things chronologically and started with Super Mario 64 first. Super Mario 64 is, from a historical and influential standpoint, one of the greatest videogames of all time (with Tetris and the original Super Mario Bros. perhaps being the only games to top it in those categories). Super Mario 64 is also one of the defining games of my life. Though I think there were better games before and better games since (Super Mario World is a far better game, for example), there are few games that are as ingrained in my mind as Super Mario 64. I played and replayed it so often as a kid, that even when it’s been years in between playthroughs, I can still recall where, when and how to collect (almost) every star and red coin. I know the stages inside and out, and can track down most everything in the game without giving it a second thought. Super Mario 64 is burned into my psyche.

Playing this classic again on the Switch reminds me what an integral part of gaming Super Mario 64 was (and still is). Yes, it’s definitely rough around the edges – with its camera being cumbersome and Mario sometimes feeling a little slippery to control – but creatively, it was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing, it still amazes.

I’m not sure if it’s ironic or poetic that gaming’s biggest icon of the 2D era was also the one that, in its first go around, got 3D gaming so right (okay, it’s poetic). Yes, some of its technical aspects have aged, and Super Mario 64 isn’t pretty to look at (though the HD sheen of the Switch version makes it look better than ever), but when you consider how 3D video games at the time were so unwieldy and broken that the concept was considered a fad doomed to die a sudden death, Mario’s transition into 3D was as flawless as anyone could have hoped for, perhaps more so.

Playing Super Mario 64 again today, it’s still a lot of fun, which is more than you can say for…pretty much every other early 3D game. Yes, its blemishes are more apparent to modern eyes (that damn camera), but it still feels like a delightful virtual playground whereas its contemporaries feel like taxing eyesores.

I do have to admit, it is a bit of a bummer that Nintendo opted to only optimize the game’s presentation and give it an HD makeover, as opposed to remaking it entirely. I mean, I get that new games are the priority, but surely Super Mario 64 is one of the games in Nintendo’s history that warrants a from the ground-up remake. I mean, Crash Bandicoot had it done, and as much as I love Crash Bandicoot, he’s certainly no Mario.

Whatever. As always, it’s the game that ultimately counts, not the look. And as stated, Super Mario 64 is still a great game, and its inventiveness for the medium as a whole can’t be understated. Super Mario 64 wasn’t simply “Super Mario World but in 3D” (an unpopular complaint I have against Ocarina of Time is that, structurally, it’s essentially A Link to the Past with a 3D makeover, with all the added hiccups that come with the N64). It reworked how platformers are structured. Sure, you still had linear goals, but you could go about them in different ways, and sometimes achieve a goal other than the intended one. And one thing Super Mario 64 did that I still don’t think many 3D games have done (even the 3D Mario titles, until Odyssey came around) is how it gave Mario moves and abilities that were made solely for the sake of taking advantage of 3D space, and how the game incorporates certain goals (stars) simply by utilizing these moves.

There are stars that simply require the player to master Mario’s wall jump in order to reach them, areas that can only be reached with Mario’s trickier to perform movements, and hell, Mario’s little breakdancing move seems to only exist because it could now that Mario was in a 3D environment. The player can almost sense that Miyamoto and company must have had an absolute blast making the game, and just had fun discovering what they could make Mario do with his added dimension.

“It’s strangely seldom mentioned how, in Super Mario 64, you’re actually controlling two characters. Mario himself, and the Lakitu holding the camera.”

This infectious sense of joy doesn’t just apply to the technical aspects of the game, however, but the creative ones as well. As much flak as I’ve been giving the game’s camera, how fun of an idea was it to make the in-universe reason for the camera being that Mario’s adventure is being recorded by a local news station (which, naturally, uses a Lakitu flying on a cloud as the cameraman, explaining away the controls for the camerawork)? Or what about the clock-themed world behaving differently based on where the clock hands are when you enter the stage? And to this day, a gaming moment from my early years that I can still recall clear as day was chasing after a rabbit in the lower levels of Peach’s Castle, and running into a wall that began rippling upon Mario’s contact with it, revealing yet another of the game’s levels just waiting to be explored. Up until that point in the game, the stages were all accessed via jumping into painting. So for just a basic wall to deceptively be the portal to one of the stages might still be the most beautifully mischievous detail in video games.

Suffice to say, I’m having a lot of fun revisiting Super Mario 64. Of course, there’s a lot of frustration as well, trying to wrangle around the camera, controlling the flying power-up, and Mario’s sometimes sporadic actions. Frustrations I don’t get when playing either of the Galaxy games or Odyssey (which, with all due respect to Super Mario 64, are all superior games), or even 3D World for that matter (which might also be a better game from a technical standpoint). But hey, Super Mario 64 was the first of its kind, for it to still be as fun and creative as it is today is probably more than anyone could have asked for.

The Mario series has had more “perfect games” under its belt than any one series (I might even argue it’s had more than most other prominent series put together). Super Mario 64 is not one of the perfect Mario games. But it still, to this day, is a one of a kind gaming experience. A video game wonderland that, while it may feel aged in a number of respects, still comes across as a timeless classic.

Mario Kart Tour Review

Mario’s foray into the mobile gaming market has been interesting, to say the least. The first mobile Mario game, Super Mario Run, was released in 2016 to a lukewarm reception. It’s hard to imagine how things could have gone wrong, it’s Mario! And considering how well Pokemon translated to phones in the form of Pokemon Go, it’s all the more baffling (this also has to be the one and only instance in history where Pokemon was more fun than Mario). But the thing about the Super Mario series is that it isn’t just one series. Where Mario platformers go, Mario Kart is sure to follow. And sure enough, 2019 saw the release of Mario Kart Tour, the mobile iteration of Nintendo’s system-selling kart racer, which proved to be a record-breaking success for Nintendo. While Mario Kart Tour successfully translates the series’ fun gameplay to mobile phones, the game’s seemingly never-ending paywalls end up putting a damper on the experience.

It’s almost surprising how well Mario Kart works on a mobile device: the characters move automatically, as opposed to holding a button like the rest of the series. Though the feeling of having less control is a bit of a bummer, it ultimately makes sense considering this is the Mario Kart you play on your phone. You steer your character with the touchscreen, and use weapons by tapping said screen (some items can be sent forward or backward by swiping in those directions). Because steering and items both use the same mechanics, there are times when you may unintentionally use your item before you mean to, but for the most part, it actually works really well.

The race tracks rotate, based on biweekly events, which introduce multiple cups (comprised of three races and a bonus challenge). Most of the stages are from Mario Kart’s past, and come in different forms (some versions are just as they were in their original games, while there see different tweaks and variants as well), but there are also some new tracks based on real-world locations.

While the gameplay is, for the most part, classic Mario Kart (save for the tracks feature two laps, as opposed to the series’ standard of three), the thing that separates Mario Kart Tour from its predecessors is its emphasis on earning points.

In Mario Kart Tour, almost every action you make will nab you some points, whether it’s performing a drift boost, hitting an opponent with an item, jumping over bumps, and of course what place you finish the race in (both for the first lap and the race as a whole). Your total points will then be added up after a race, with every race course providing five possible Grand Stars depending on how many points you get.

Additionally, your placement will also award points to your player profile. Every time you gain another one-hundred percent, you’ll gain a level. With each subsequent level, you are awarded more points for your placements in races (though bad placements can knock your profile down a few points).

Now, here’s where things get a little more strategic. You can gain yet even more points based on your selection of character, kart and glider, depending on the level. The level bonuses for characters are multiple items (some characters will get two items per box on certain stages, while a select few will get three. Get lucky and score three of the same item to enter “Frenzy Mode,” which grants temporary invincibility in addition to non-stop usage of whatever triple item you got for a short time). The level bonuses for karts are the amount of points you get per action (bottom tier characters receive the base amount, middle tier receive one-hundred and fifty percent, and top tier characters get two-hundred percent). Meanwhile, the level bonuses for gliders award for points for combos (chaining different actions consecutively with little pause).

Each character, kart and glider provides an added element independent of the selected stage as well: Some characters might have items that are exclusive to a select few, while certain karts might give you added points for specific actions, and gliders may provide a higher chance to get rarer items.

Things go another step further still, as you can level up characters, karts and gliders, which will give them a greater number of starting points, giving you a notable head start if your aiming for certain point goals. The more Grand Stars you manage to collect by reaching different point goals, the more you can unlock in the game.

Here is where things get aggravating, however: you are only allowed to level up characters, karts and gliders a certain amount every day. After you’ve earned a set number of experience points, you have to wait twenty-four hours before you can gain more (this is in relation to the characters, karts and gliders, you can still gain points for your profile, albeit much slower after you’ve maxed everything else out for the day). The daily cap also applies to coins, as you are only allowed to collect 300 coins in the races each day (though you can at least get more coins by completing specific achievements, which can even grant extra Grand Stars).

Now, the thing that makes this so bad is – as you may have guessed – the fact that you can ditch the daily limit if you subscribe to the game’s “Gold Pass” which, yes, costs real-life money. I mean, okay, you expect some form of micro transactions in free to purchase mobile games. But a whole subscription fee?

What’s worse, Nintendo has hidden additional features behind this paywall. Want to have the highest speed of 200CC races? You have to subscribe! Want to unlock characters and karts faster? Buy Rubies that you can use to launch a canon that unlocks something without the need of coins!

It’s…uhhh, not cool. To say the least.

To be fair, the game has recently introduced “Event Tokens,” green coins that show up on the racetracks in the second week of an event that you can use to unlock select characters and items, bypassing spending real money (or even the standard coins) on said items. So that’s nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that the game has too many paywalls to begin with. Look, I get that a company has to make money, so I’m not going to claim Nintendo is committing some kind of act of evil by finding ways to make profit off of a game that, again, you can download for free. But there comes a point when it just becomes too much. And Mario Kart Tour reaches that point. I feel bombarded with how often the game advertises something I can unlock if I’m willing to reach into my pocket. There’s a fine line between “wanting to make money” and just being greedy.

It’s because of the blatant greed why I feel tempted to rate Mario Kart Tour on the lower half of my grading system. But I feel like that would be dishonest, because I admit I’ve had a lot of fun with the game. I’ve been logging on night after night to level up my favorite characters and try to gain those Grand Stars that seem just out of reach. The game looks, sounds and plays great, and feels a lot closer to its console counterparts than other mobile installments in popular franchises (it may not be a patch on Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but then again, what kart racer is?). I even hope the eventual Mario Kart 9 borrows some of its progression elements (not to the same excessive extent, of course. But it would be nice if Mario Kart could pull a rabbit from Crash Team Racing’s hat and allow players to unlock different character skins and the like by using a streamlined version of Tour’s leveling system. Hey, anything to prevent Pink Gold Peach from taking up a character slot). Mario Kart Tour is, for all intents and purposes, a terrific translation of Mario Kart onto mobile phones.

At least it is in regards to gameplay. But I’ve encountered panhandlers that don’t ask for my money as much as this game. It’s just a bit disheartening, really. Sure, Mario Kart on home consoles might be expensive, but at least once it’s purchased, you can play it and have fun until your heart’s content. But here you’re given a fun game, but are withheld from getting the most out of it unless you’re willing to dish out the dough.

The good news is what’s readily available in Mario Kart Tour is classic Mario Kart fun. Just be content with that and don’t fall for its trap.

6

Happy 35th Anniversary Super Mario Bros!

Today, September 13 2020, marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the original Super Mario Bros. in Japan.

Nintendo certainly hasn’t been shy in regards to the occasion, as they recently had an entire Nintendo Direct making announcements to celebrate Mario’s big 35th anniversary. Among these announcements was the reveal of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a compilation of Mario’s first three 3D platformers: Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy (why Super Mario Galaxy 2 isn’t included in the compilation is a baffling decision on Nintendo’s part. Unless it gets its own Switch release down the road).

“Nintendo right now be like…”

And wouldn’t you know it, 3D All-Stars releases in just five days (which also happens to be my birthday… yes, I will keep bringing that up).

It’s nice to see Nintendo show such respect to their premier series’ anniversary. But I wonder if they’ll also acknowledge that Mario, the character, as well as Donkey Kong, will be celebrating their 40th anniversary next year. I mean, I get that Super Mario Bros. was the game that started the Super Mario series, which is what we all think of when we think of Mario, and also lead to the creation of Nintendo’s other franchises. But 40 still seems like a noteworthy anniversary to celebrate, so hopefully Nintendo will remember that come 2021 and won’t be too “anniversary’d out” by that time.

Anyway, I tip my cap (which is adorned by my first initial) to you, Mario. Happy 35th anniversary to the most influential video game of all time.

So Much Mario Goodness!

Nintendo had a brand-spankin’ new Direct today, focused on the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. There were so many announcements, that I can’t even remember them all. So I’ll just leave said Nintendo Direct here.

 

The big news here is the confirmation of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, and a battle royal version of the original Super Mario Bros. There’s also that augmented reality Mario Kart thing. That looks interesting.

I think it’s safe to say this Mario-focused Direct left me feeling like this…

Anyway, I am beyond excited for Super Mario 3D All-Stars! I mean, two of the greatest video games of all time – and also Super Mario Sunshine – all in HD and whatnot? Sounds great! Though I am greatly saddened (and baffled) by the omission of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is arguably the best video game ever made. They didn’t even show Galaxy 2 in the Mario retrospective video at the end of the Direct! What’s up with that, Nintendo?!

Oh, and perhaps best of all (for me, anyway), Super Mario 3D All-Stars releases on my birthday, September 18th! Oh, Nintendo, you do care!

Super Mario 3D World being re-released on Switch was also expected, but nice to have confirmed. What wasn’t expected is it comes included with some kind of new game called “Bowser’s Fury” (getting the Mario & Luigi 3DS remake treatment with that “+” in the title). Unfortunately, from what very little they showed, it looks like you still play as Mario and friends in Bowser’s Fury, which is fine, and only unfortunate for me personally who is baffled that Bowser has yet to get his own game after 35 years. Notably, the Switch version of 3D World will have online multiplayer, and Nintendo promises to reveal additional new elements between now and its February 2021 release (I’m guessing some kind of new stages).

Also, I like the idea of that battle royal-ed version of Super Mario Bros. Reminds me of Tetris 99, but with Super Mario Bros. So that’s both of the two most influential video games in history getting the battle royal treatment. Nice.

Suffice to say, I’m really excited for all this Mario news. Now hopefully we’ll get a re-release of the first two Paper Marios (AKA the good ones) and some kind of Super Mario RPG remake and/or sequel. And Geno in Super Smash Bros. Let me dream.

But c’mon, where is Galaxy 2? #JusticeForSuperMarioGalaxy2

Sonic and the Black Knight Review

Sonic and the Black Knight is the 2009, Wii-exclusive semi-sequel to Sonic and the Secret Rings, which together comprise the “Sonic Storybook series.” Whereas Secret Rings took the famous blue hedgehog to the world of Arabian Nights, Black Knight transports Sonic to the world of King Arthur. Though Sonic and the Black Knight is a considerable improvement over Secret Rings (not that that’s saying much), the fact that this ‘storybook’ sub-series was ended after two installments is probably an indication that it didn’t exactly turn the series into a winning formula.

The scenario is basically the same here as it was in Secret Rings: Sonic is transported to another world, in this case the aforementioned King Arthur stories (which are more legend than storybook, but who’s keeping track?). Sonic is summoned by a wizard named Merlina (Merlin’s a girl here because why not?). An evil sword has possessed King Arthur himself, who has now become the infamous Black Knight, and is turning the kingdom to chaos. With the hero of her world now its big villain, Merlina summons a hero from another world to save the day, and that hero just so happens to be Sonic.

So the story is basically the same, but I like the added detail that Sonic just happened to be the hero who was summoned, and that it could have potentially been someone else, as opposed to Secret Rings which had the oddly-specific prophesy of a blue hedgehog being required to save the storybook world. And I like that Sonic is just saving the storybook world here, no “the bad guy will eventually try to escape into Sonic’s world” nonsense.

In regards to gameplay, Sonic and the Black Knight utilizes a similar setup to its predecessor, but with some much-appreciated improvements. For starters, Sonic no longer runs forward automatically. Though the levels are still comprised of long, linear tracks that seem to allow an inconsistent freedom of movement (it’s almost like Sonic is better suited to 2D or something), the fact that the player actually has to move Sonic this time around is already a plus. In addition, jumping works by simply hitting the corresponding button (the ‘A’ button this time around, as Black Knight uses the Wii remote and nunchuck combo). No more holding the button to get Sonic to stop, and releasing it for him to take to the air. You push the button, and Sonic jumps. Beautiful.

The big difference here is that Sonic now wields a sword! Hey, it could be worse, they could have given a Sonic character a gun and had them say minor swears like “damn” in an attempt to be edgy. But I digress.

The sword is used by swinging the Wii remote, though the motion of the player’s movement isn’t matched by Sonic, making it closer to Twilight Princess’s swordplay than Skyward Sword’s admittedly underrated motion controls (though comparing Sonic and the Black Knight to Twilight Princess at all is being exceptionally generous on my part). The sword doesn’t add a whole lot of newness to the traditional 3D Sonic gameplay, but it’s decent. Certainly better than whatever Secret Rings was doing with the start-stop homing attacks.

Most stages see Sonic simply going from point A to point B, but some levels feature more unique objectives, like defeating a certain number of enemies or rescuing a certain amount of captured civilians before you reach the goal. These add a marginal amount of variety, but nothing really substantial. The one objective I really did not like, however, involves Sonic having to give some of his rings to the aforementioned civilians. You have to get Sonic so close just to talk to them, and then you have to press one, two or three buttons that appear on-screen, all in a split second. It’s not too bad, but usually these missions have only just barely enough opportunities to give away your rings that, if you fail even one, you’re probably going to fail the mission. It also doesn’t help that the game fails to tell you about how this “mini-game” works (the description I gave above is more than the game feels the need to explain). So when the first time I gave someone rings I needed to press the A button, I assumed that’s all there was to it. So when I instinctively pressed the A button several other times and failed to give the civilian my rings, I was baffled why it didn’t work. Again, it’s not overly difficult or cryptic, but if you’re going to make a mini-game out of something so simple, maybe you should communicate that with the player? Just a thought.

The game also features a kind of item system, where certain items will grant different bonuses when equipped. Like in Secret Rings, you can gain experience points after a stage, though here they are called “Identification Points” and are used to identify items you find within the stages (different items will cost different amounts of IP to “identify”). Once identified, you can equip the items by visiting the blacksmith (Tails) in between stages. It’s admittedly another improvement over Secret Rings, but like that game’s leveling system, it still feels like a missed opportunity to be something more.

Most of the bosses here are Sonic characters reworked into different knights of King Arthur (specifically Knuckles, Shadow and Blaze. I take it Robotnik didn’t want to be a part of another storybook entry). It’s here where the game really slips up. These boss fights are easy in a really bizarre way. Now, there’s nothing wrong with easy boss fights, but what we have here is a special case. You basically commence in a duel with the other Sonic characters, but it seems like there’s no real strategy to them. Knuckles and Shadow both kicked my ass, but I still managed to beat them both on my first try without any real timing or strategy with my swings. Blaze was a slightly more fleshed out fight, but nothing to write home about.

The “final” boss is King Arthur himself (and I put final in quotation marks because this is one of those games that pretends to have post-game content by simply putting the staff credits after a boss partway through the main story, as opposed to actually feeling like there’s more to do once the story is done). This fight is different, and is the one point of the game that’s frustratingly difficult. You chase King Arthur, who is mounted on a horse (in fact he’s on horseback even in cutscenes. Sega couldn’t afford to make a second character model for him I guess).

You have to catch up with King Arthur, despite the fact that Sonic is supposed to be able to run at the speed of sound (at least give me a reason why this horse is faster than Sonic. Even something like “it’s not Sonic’s world so he can’t use his powers to their fullest” would suffice). Once you slash one of the king’s projectiles back at him, you’ll get the energy needed to catch up to him. Once you do, you’re supposed to counter his slashes with slashes of your own, but that’s way easier said than done, because the timing is so quick and precise it makes the aforementioned ring-giving mini-game feel like a Metal Gear Solid cinematic. I kid you not, I had to redo this fight so many times that the next day my arm was sore from swinging it like a madman.

On the plus sides, Sonic and the Black Knight, like its predecessor, is a great looking Wii game that still looks great. It has that cheesy but somehow infectious music that 3D Sonic games are known for. And this game is mercifully shorter than Sonic and the Secret Rings. I completed Black Knight within two play sessions on the same day (or at least completed up to King Arthur, I saw those end credits and figured that was good enough for me to duck out).

Sonic and the Black Knight suffers from many of the same issues as Secret Rings, but just not as badly. Thankfully, the fact that the player actually controls Sonic this time around, and the fact that jumping works so simply make it a far more playable experience. It’s nothing special, and the years since have made it even less so. Perhaps there was some potential in this “Sonic Storybook” idea if it were allowed to continue, but it seems like Sega has long-since abandoned the concept. Though perhaps that’s for the best. After all, when the simple act of pressing A to jump can be considered a vast improvement, it doesn’t exactly say a whole lot for the series.

 

4

Sonic and the Secret Rings Review

The 2000s were not kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. After the discontinuation of the Dreamcast and the transition to a third-party, Sega seemed to try one experiment after another to try and make Sonic work in 3D. Among these experiments was a unique entry in the series for the Nintendo Wii that saw Sonic transported to the storybook world of Arabian Nights. Released for Nintendo’s motion-controlled sensation in 2007, Sonic and the Secret Rings was the result of Sega being unable to port the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog title to Nintendo’s graphically weaker system (Nintendo dodged a bullet there). So they made a Wii exclusive in the Sonic series instead, one that would naturally take advantage of the Wii’s unique hardware.

The Wii got a lot of flack for its trademark motion controls, and while much of that was unwarranted (Nintendo consistently made it work for their own games), there was still that litter of third-party titles that almost seemed to force the motion controls into their gameplay, without having any idea of how to do it. And since we’re talking about a 3D Sonic game that isn’t Sonic Generations, well, I think you know where this is going.

As mentioned, Sonic and the Secret Rings sees Sonic transported to the world of Arabian Nights. A friendly genie named Shahra transports Sonic to the storybook world, as an evil genie named Erazor Djinn is conquering the world of the book, and if he gains control of the seven Secret Rings, he will become powerful enough to leave the book and conquer Sonic’s world. So Shahra has recruited Sonic – as an oddly specific prophecy foretells of a blue hedgehog from another world saving her own – to stop Erazor Djinn.

It’s an unspectacular plot, but the thing that always makes me scratch my head with plots like this is how they always emphasize that the villain of the ‘fictional world within the world’ plans to conquer the outside world in order for the hero to jump into action. Sure, it’s a storybook, but within the context of the game’s story, the people of the book are living beings, so why does Sonic’s world need to be in peril for him to take part? The only time this detail made any sense was with the Wario series, since Wario is supposed to be a greedy jerk only looking out for himself. But isn’t Sonic supposed to be heroic? So if these storybook characters are real within the game’s story, adding the additional threat to the hero’s world always seems weird to me.

Oh well, Sonic games aren’t known for quality storytelling, anyway. And all the change of setting really accomplishes is casting Sonic regulars as characters from Arabian Nights (Tails becomes Ali Baba, Knuckles is Sinbad, etc.). The important thing is how well does the game play?

Sadly, the answer is not very well…at all.

The game is controlled with the Wii remote held on its side, with Sonic himself running automatically, as if this were an on-rails game. Admittedly, putting Sonic in such a game isn’t the worst idea that’s been thrown at the famous blue hedgehog, but in execution Sonic and the Secret Rings continuously stumbles.

One of the main problems is jumping. Being a platforming action game, that is no small complaint. Pressing the Wii remote’s ‘1’ button doesn’t simply jump, but brings Sonic to a dead stop to charge up a jump, with Sonic only taking to the air when the button is released. In order to attack, Sonic has to be in midair, and the player must thrust the Wii remote forward once a target locks onto an enemy. And remember, all this while Sonic is automatically running forward. Suffice to say it feels really awkward.

Worse still is when Sonic comes to a dead end, and has to defeat a mid-boss or a horde of enemies to progress. In such instances, Sonic will run into the end of the road, with the player having to tilt the Wii remote backwards in order for Sonic to move back in return (which is easier said than done as Sonic seems to get glued to the wall) and even if you manage to get Sonic to move the way you want him to, the camera will still stubbornly stay in place. This quickly becomes a source of aggravation, to the point that you have to wonder if anyone at Sega bothered to test the game before releasing the finished product.

The controls are, simply put, an unmitigated disaster.

Sonic and the Secret Rings tries its hand at implementing RPG elements, with Sonic gaining experience points upon completion of a stage. Once Sonic gets enough experience points, he levels up, and Sonic can learn new abilities once he levels up or completes certain stages. It’s a fun idea in theory, but Sega even manages to drop the ball here.

Before beginning a stage, the player can select one of four customizable rings. As you level up, you can equip more abilities to a ring. The problem though, is why do you need more than one ring? If each ring had a limit to how many abilities you can equip to it, then it would make sense why you’d have to choose wisely at which ring to use at which time. But since all the rings level up with Sonic, and he can keep stacking one ability after another within the same ring, why do you even have to choose between the different rings?

Yet another issue with the game is its lack of communication with the player. For example, in one of the tutorials, the game wanted me to do a starting boost (thrusting the Wii remote forward during an opening countdown, similar to a racing game). I kept doing it exactly as the game told me, to no success. Eventually I had to look online and found out that the starting boost is an ability that needs to be equipped first! That’s kind of an important detail to leave out. Maybe inform the player that they need to unlock and equip this ability next time? Or maybe don’t let the player select that tutorial until they have the ability equipped? If something’s a part of an available tutorial, the player is going to assume they already have access to what they need for that tutorial.

If there are any redeeming qualities to Sonic and the Secret Rings, it’s in the aesthetics. Though the Wii was less graphically powerful than its contemporaries, Sonic and the Secret Rings was one of the rare Wii games that looked great in its day, without needing the caveat of “for a Wii game” to be added to the end of such a statement. And it still looks impressive, all things considered. The music is pretty good as well, though the game’s insistence on featuring its vocal theme song Seven Rings in Hand during every segment between stages is maybe a bit much.

In its day, Sonic and the Secret Rings was considered an ‘average’ outing for the Blue Blur. Though the years since its release have unraveled Sonic and the Secret Rings’s highlights and magnified its many shortcomings. The game largely feels like it plays itself, and when the player does have control, it feels so awkward and clunky it barely feels like you’re controlling it at all. To hammer things home, the very same year saw Mario star in an all-time great in Super Mario Galaxy on the very same platform. 2007, it seems, reflected the overall trajectory of Nintendo and Sega’s mascots.

 

3

Some Video Game Stuff I’m Excited About

Lots of big video game announcements recently. Along with all that recent Pokemon news (highlighted by the Pokemon Snap sequel we’ve waited over two decades for), yesterday brought some cool gaming news.

First off, we had the announcement of the first new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character from the six-character “Fighter Pass 2.” It’s Min Min from Nintendo’s ARMs!

Some people were disappointed when Nintendo announced early that the first character of the new batch would be from ARMs, but personally, I think it’s overdue! Why wasn’t an ARMs character added into the game to begin with? It seems like an obvious way to promote ARMs, and it would bring something new to Super Smash Bros. It’s like how Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS decided not to make the Inklings a DLC character. It seems like adding characters from newer Nintendo IPs into Super Smash Bros. would be an easy way to help build prestige for them, so it’s weird how Nintendo is repeatedly late in pulling the trigger on them. And yet, they add new Fire Emblem characters before the game said character appears in has even been released. I don’t get it.

At the very least, I suppose some good came from the delay. Had they added an ARMs character from the get-go, they probably would have gone with Spring Man, since he’s – by default of being the most basic representation of the game’s concept – the de facto “main character” in most peoples’ eyes. But since he was made into an Assist Trophy, we ended up getting Min Min instead, and she’s a far more fun character.

Not only does Min Min look like a fun and unique addition to Super Smash Bros., and represents a game that really should have been represented when Ultimate launched, but also puts an end to the whole “Spirits deconfirm characters” nonsense the internet loved to spew out. Min Min, you see, was one of the countless “spirits” in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which basically means she was a power-up you could use in certain modes represented by a stock promotional image of the character.

For too long, people have been deadset on the idea that a character appearing as a spirit in Ultimate means they have no chance of being made into a playable character. Well, now that nonsense can stop. Now the possibilities for future characters are nearly limitless. There’s hope for Geno and Dixie Kong yet.

Another source of gaming news that broke yesterday was the official announcement and reveal trailer of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Although the game’s title and box art leaked a couple of days ahead of time, it’s cool to have the official announcement. And the trailer’s pretty cool (despite the questionable song choice). See?

The character redesigns naturally have some gamers complaining, but I don’t mind them for the most part (Dr. Cortex looks a little odd). But the game looks like a lot of fun. Also, I love how they’re making the game Crash Bandicoot 4, following up the 2017 remake compilation Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy. I appreciate that they’re ignoring everything from the series post-PSOne era.

Of course, the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy was created by Naughty Dog, back in the 90s, and I hold the unpopular opinion that the studio was at their best when they were making the series. The more “serious” the studio has become, the more they just feel like they’re giving themselves a pat on the back. Crash Bandicoot 4 is being developed by Toys 4 Bob, but it actually looks like a more worthwhile continuation to something Naughty Dog started than a certain other recently released Naughty Dog sequel made by Naughty Dog themselves…

Interestingly, Crash Bandicoot 4 is planned for release this year on October 2nd. So it looks like I’ll be getting at least one more PS4 game by the year’s end.

Yeah, this isn’t much of a post. Just some recent video game announcements I’m excited for. Been slow at updating this site lately, so, this is something I guess… More “real” content soon. Sorry.

Finally! There’s a New Pokemon Snap! And it’s Called New Pokemon Snap!

During today’s Pokemon presentation, there was one announcement that stood out above all the others… the long-requested sequel to the Nintendo 64’s Pokemon Snap is finally a reality! Here is the announcement trailer.

 

This makes me so happy. As someone who doesn’t have the most glowing feelings towards the mainline Pokemon games, this is the kind of Pokemon-related news I can truly get excited for.

I, like many others, have waited for over two decades for a Pokemon Snap sequel. It seemed like something that made so much sense for the Wii, Wii U, or 3DS, and mysteriously passed those systems by. But the Switch has been a special case for Nintendo, having the same commercial appeal as the Wii while also delivering heavily on what longtime fans have been asking for. And now this twenty-years in the waiting Pokemon Snap sequel is the latest in the Nintendo Switch’s lineup.

Sure, there are some people who don’t think the original Pokemon Snap has held up too well (it is a Nintendo 64 game, after all). That’s a fair argument, considering the N64 game only featured sixty-odd something of the original 151 Pokemon who existed at the time, and its levels were too brief to justify only having seven of them. But in concept, Pokemon Snap was always such a winning idea. It’s Pokemon, but you catch them on camera instead of in Pokeballs! Traveling on rail-based stages, seeking the best photo opportunities for the Pokemon you pass by, it’s a charming idea that always had so much potential. It’s a mystery it took this long for its developers to realize they could expand on the concept.

Finally, a Pokemon game I can be genuinely excited for. Now, if we could just get that Super Mario RPG sequel we’ve been waiting on…

My Complicated Relationship with Pokemon

I love Pokemon. I really do.

I love its ever-increasing bestiary of cute and cool creatures, I have a nostalgic love for the TV series, I love the success the franchise has found, I love it as an IP and franchise. I just love the very concept of Pokemon. But recently, I’ve come to a realization…

I don’t like the Pokemon games themselves.

I know, that sounds contradictory, considering the Pokemon video games are the origins of the series and, as such, the actual heart and soul of the franchise. But no matter how hard I’ve tried, I find it difficult to get invested in the Pokemon games.

Okay, so I have many a fond memory of Pokemon Red and Blue, and Gold and Silver. I also fondly look back at the Diamond and Pearl generation. I even love some of the spinoffs, with Pokemon Snap in particular – while maybe not a finely aged game – being one I’ve long wished would receive a sequel. Of course, the Pokemon game I’ve easily invested the most time into is… Pokemon Go.

That might sum up my stance on the series, that my most played entry in all of Pokemon is the cellphone game that “isn’t a real Pokemon game.” But hey, Pokemon Go makes for a nice secondary activity when going on walks, so it’s found its way into my daily activity. It may not boast the complexity of the “real” Pokemon games, but it keeps finding ways for me to revisit it pretty regularly, if even just for a few minutes at a time.

The “core” Pokemon games, however, have consistently failed to grab me in the same way. I don’t think they’re bad games outright, but I do feel that – while the character designs of the Pokemon may continue to show inspiration – the games themselves are creatively lazy. That becomes all the more glaring when you remember this is a Nintendo franchise, and Nintendo is a label that usually indicates an inventive spirit (whether they sink or swim usually depends on execution).

Despite being a series that has an emphasis on the evolutions of its titular creatures, Pokemon is – quite ironically – Nintendo’s most un-evolving series. Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda have been around longer, and yet, they continue to create experiences that feel fresh and new to this day. There is a clear distinction between one Mario or Zelda game and the next. But with the exception of the graphical updates and additional creatures, Pokemon still feels like the same experience it was back in 1998 (or 1996 in Japan).

Some might highlight Pokemon’s status as a “second-party” series, and not one made by Nintendo themselves. But just because it isn’t literally made by Nintendo doesn’t mean its developers couldn’t learn a thing or two from Nintendo’s other prominent properties (after all, the Kirby series may not have reached the same heights as Mario or Zelda, but it still shows a similar creative spirit, even as a second-party franchise).

Yes, there have been marginal tweaks to the Pokemon games here and there, and the hardcore Pokemon enthusiast would no doubt point out some obscure difference in the game’s “meta scene” from past installments. But there’s nothing that actually makes the games feel or play differently than they always did.

It happens every time a new generation of “proper” Pokemon games are announced. I always tell myself “This is it. This is going to be the Pokemon generation that draws me back into the series in the same way it did in its booming early years.” And every time, without fail, the games end up trying my patience with their outdated structure and repetitive gameplay. I want to love these Pokemon games. I really do. But they feel so complacent. So sure of their success (guess I can’t argue there) that they don’t feel the need to invent or reinvent anything about themselves. Every time I play a new Pokemon entry, there’s a huge sense of “been there, done that” about the whole thing.

Sure, Pokemon games may be “bigger” than they were back in the day, given all the advancements to hardware that have occurred over the years. But every new Pokemon game feels bigger than the last for all the wrong reasons. It’s the same exact experience, but bloated and dragged out.

For example, Pokemon Sword and Shield, the most recent installments of the main series, looked so promising from a distance: A mainline Pokemon game that can take advantage of being on a home console? Hot dog! Think of the possibilities!

In execution, however, Pokemon Sword (the version I purchased) feels like it simply redrew the same old Pokemon blueprint, but just drew it on a much bigger sheet. It feels ridiculously padded. I’m talking Uncharted 3 cruise ship chapters/Red Dead Redemption 2’s unnecessary trip to Guarma levels of padded!

It’s one thing if, in an RPG, I willingly sidetrack myself with secondary objectives or farming enemies (even in Pokemon Diamond, I took the time to level up a Machamp to the max). But every new Pokemon game feels like it forces me to do more and more things in between going from point A to point B. Most of which feel needless.

Going back to my point in Pokemon Sword, the entire introduction segment felt like I had to do two dozen objectives before I was even allowed to begin heading towards the first gym (although I admit it wasn’t as ungodly long as the introduction of Pokemon Sun and Moon). Not to mention that every last character has to rant on and on about the mechanics of the series which everyone and their grandmother is familiar with by this point (okay, I get it. New fans are going to be introduced with each new entry. But for a series this popular, can they at least have an option for veteran players to ignore the never-ending walls of text that explain the basics of the series? At the very least, can they give the ability to shorten the dialogue?)

When I eventually managed to slog my way through the first gym (with my starting Pokemon already feeling ridiculously overpowered), the path to the second gym was actually pretty short. With a sigh of relief, I thought “okay, so it just had a slow beginning, but now I can just zoom through the story if I want.” Seeing as most Pokemon fans seem to insist the real fun begins after the “story” aspect of the game is complete, I didn’t feel the need to drag the story out. But then what happens as soon as I approach the door to the second gym? I read a sign telling me that I can’t go inside the second gym until I go do some other pointless task first! That’s some Skyward Sword levels of tedium!

It was in that moment when I turned the game off and, as of this writing, I haven’t played Pokemon Sword since. I feel a little bad saying that. Again, I don’t think the Pokemon formula is bad, just one that needs to add some actual change and depth to it, instead of just dragging out the same old same old and calling it new.

want to go back to Pokemon Sword. I would like to beat the story and review it here on this site. But every time I think about going back to play it, I remember how bland and tedious the experience was, and I feel like I just don’t want to bother and put in that kind of time.

“It’s a good thing the characters are still so cute.”

Think about that for a second. This is a series with hundreds of charming creatures throwing lightning and water at each other. In concept, that is so much fun! But in execution, it feels like an absolute chore to get through. It would be one thing if Pokemon Sword were the first experience I had like this with the series, but the truth is it’s happened with pretty much every entry post-Gold and Silver, and it has been happening earlier and earlier within each subsequent entry (again, I at least took the time to max out a Pokemon in Diamond and Pearl, but now I just feel like throwing my hands in the air after the first gym).

So many people are still so obsessed and engrossed with all things Pokemon. I so desperately would like to be among them, and to get the same joy out of the Pokemon games that they do. I may love the concept of the series itself and its creatures. The old episodes of the TV series – and especially the original theme song – give me a uniquely strong sense of nostalgia (as in, it doesn’t just remind me of my childhood, but emotionally takes me back to it, even if the series isn’t what I would call great television). I still play Pokemon Go and long for a Pokemon Snap sequel. And yet, I just can’t bring myself to enjoy the mainline Pokemon video games.

I want to like them. I try to like them. But time and time again, the Pokemon games leave me feeling disappointed with their padded, outdated structures, and their ironic refusal to evolve.

It’s weird, because the video games are the origin and the core of the Pokemon franchise. But it’s the one aspect of the series that continuously leaves me cold. Imagine if someone liked the Star Wars TV shows and video games, but didn’t like any of the Star Wars movies (even the good ones). That’s what my relationship with Pokemon is like.

Maybe one day I’ll work up the patience to finish Pokemon Sword, but I’ve said that about other Pokemon titles in the past, and a new entry would be released before I ever got around to revisiting the previous one.

I love Pokemon. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring myself to love the Pokemon games. If I could somehow bottle up the feeling the franchise itself gives me, and sprinkle it onto the games, I would. Sadly, the nature of Pokemon itself may speak to my inner child, but the games have continued to bring out the curmudgeonly old man in me.