Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

8

Giving Crash His Due

With the release of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time now less than a month away, I’ve been thinking about the series a fair bit. Among my thinkings about of the series, I realized I could have done it some better justice in recent years.

You see, in my annual video game awards, one of my awards is for the “Best Remake or Remaster.” For 2017 I went with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for said award, with Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy being the runner-up. And for 2019, I gave the award to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered, and I failed to even mention Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled in the category!

But the more I think about it, the more I think I could have done better for Crash. I mean, I don’t regret picking the winners I did. But when you consider the sheer effort that went into Crash Bandicoot’s recent remakes, I definitely could have done them better.

Considering Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy rebuilt the series’ beloved first three entries from the ground up, and Nitro-Fueled not only did the same for Crash Team Racing, but also remade Crash Nitro Kart within it and added a slew of new content and characters to boot, they definitely deserved more credit than I gave them.

Again, I don’t regret selecting Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Ni no Kuni Remastered for my Best Remake/Remaster award, since those are incredible games. But maybe I should have split the category in two? One for Remasters, and another for full-on remakes. Because while Mario Kart 8 saw some improvements with its Switch release, it was a more polished version of an already great game that had come out only three years prior. And Ni no Kuni was a remaster of my Game of the Year for 2013, so definitely a re-release worth visiting, but it didn’t really add anything substantially new to the game.

The fact that the Crash Bandicoot games were rebuilt from the ground-up is actually very impressive the more I think about it. And while, sure, the Crash trilogy may not be flawless platformers a la Mario, the second and third entries are still great games made even better with their remake, While the first Crash may not have aged particularly well, the N. Sane Trilogy version brings it a little closer to its superior sequels. And the more I think about it, the more I think Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled may be the most robust video game remake ever made. Sure, it’s a Mario Kart clone, but it’s one of the few Mario Kart clones that’s actually comparable to its inspiration, and the remake may just be the best kart racer that isn’t Mario Kart 8 (and yeah, I still hope to review Nitro-Fueled soon). I repeat, it remade a whole additional game within the remade game, and added new features. That’s impressive.

Perhaps going forward I’ll make two separate awards, one of remasters and one for full-blown remakes. So while I think Mario Kart 8 may be a better game than any one entry of the Crash trilogy, and I like Ni no Kuni more than Crash Team Racing, I may retroactively place Mario Kart 8 and Ni no Kuni in the Best Remaster category, and give Best Remake to The N. Sane Trilogy and Nitro-Fueled. In all honesty, if Crash Bandicoot 4 lives up to the hype, then the recent resurgence of Crash Bandicoot is probably the best reboot in video game history. And that’s largely because the remakes of the franchise’s early years were so darn impressive (and because they’re ignoring what came after and going straight for a new game now, effectively rebuilding the series itself in a way most reboots could only dream of).

So congratulations, Crash Bandicoot! Enjoy my retroactive appraisals!

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

In recent times, the battle royal genre has taken over the gaming scene. It started in 2017 with PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround (or “PUBG”), which briefly became the hottest thing in gaming, before that status was abruptly overtaken by fellow battle royal title Fortnite. It isn’t too difficult to see why the genre has caught on so quickly: Throwing masses of players into a single game, who then battle it out last man standing style, makes for a tense, competitive atmosphere, with a wave of victorious glory for whoever the lucky player is who stands tall in the end.

On the other hand, once you’ve played one “kill ’em all” type of game, you’ve pretty much got the gist of things. The genre is wildly popular, but no game within it has really done anything different with the premise. That is, until Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout showed up in August of 2020 to breath a colorful, lighthearted new life into the genre.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout takes inspiration from Japanese gameshows such as Takeshi’s Castle, and the western series influenced by those same Japanese gameshows, such as Wipeout. So while Fall Guys still follows the “last man standing” rule laid out by the genre, it provides a fresh, colorful, humorous spin on the gameplay.

The player characters are charming, bean-shaped creatures called Fall Guys, who bounce and stumble over themselves for both fun and frustration (think something akin to Octodad’s purposefully wonky controls, but not nearly as extreme). As odd as this may sound, I have to hand it to the developers, as they really nailed the physics of what I imagine wobbly bean-people would feel like.

Up to sixty players are thrown into an “episode” of Fall Guys, which comprises of a series of games, each one eliminating more and more players, until one final game will pit the last handful of players against each other to declare the winner of the episode.

Simplicity is key here, with the Fall Guys only having three basic actions (aside from moving): jumping, diving and grabbing. Like any great game, Fall Guys figures out how to bring the most out of such simplicity through its game design. It takes these very basic character controls and manages to produce a fleshed-out game from them.

Most of the games – true to their inspirations – are races across obstacle courses, with a set number of players allowed to cross the finish line. Once the player limit has reached the finish, those who didn’t make the cut are eliminated from the episode. Other games involve players timing their jumps to avoid being knocked off-stage by rotating beams, trying to claim and hold onto a raccoon tail until the timer runs out, dodging moving walls that will push you into slime, and maneuvering across spinning platforms while trying not to fall off.

Essentially, Fall Guys feels like Mario Party mini-games turned into a battle royal. A number of the games even feel like the bonus stages of the 3D Mario games. Suffice to say, most of them are a lot of fun.

Perhaps the exceptions are a some of the team-based games. It can be disheartening to blaze through three or four games on your own, only to have questionable teammates stop your progress dead in its tracks. And some of the tail-grabbing mini-games are a bit finicky (with opponents seemingly able to snatch my tail in a split second from several feet away, while I’ll be right on top of them, holding R2 for dear life, to no success. My friends insist it’s a latency issue, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating).

Still, even the less fun games included in Fall Guys still provide a good time. And when it does get frustrating, it’s the “good kind of frustrating,” like Mario Party. Though if Mario Party can be maddening with four players, imagine playing similar mini-games with fifty-nine other people! The games don’t always feel fair, but Fall Guys isn’t basing success and defeat on player skill alone, with luck, circumstance and other players all having a role in the outcome.

Whether you win or lose, however, you’ll still get something of a reward for your efforts (provided you don’t quit out before being eliminated, which is definitely a nice touch). Your performance will award you with in-game currency called “Kudos,” as well as Fame, which is essentially experience points. You can grow up to level 40 in any given ‘season’ within the game, with each level providing a different prize. You can additionally buy prizes with your Kudos, which include customizable colors and patterns, as well as costumes, taunts and victory poses for your Fall Guy. Additionally, every time you manage to win an entire episode (easier said than done, let me tell you), you are awarded a crown, with crowns being used to unlock the rarest customizable items.

If there’s any real downside to Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, it’s that it doesn’t have the widest variety of mini-games at play. And with most episodes lasting about four or five games (though, depending on how many people are eliminated in certain games, it can be as few as three or as many as six games), you’ll get the hang of every available game rather quickly. On the plus side, future seasons of Fall Guys promise additional mini-games, as well as rotating existing ones, to keep things fresh. So depending on how much future seasons add to the proceedings, Fall Guys could get better and better.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is infectiously fun, and wildly addictive (it’s one of those “just one more game” type of games). Combined with its cute character designs and overall charming attitude, Fall Guys is some of the most pure fun I’ve had in a video game in years. It essentially combines the battle royal template with 3D platforming, making for the freshest product of the genre since PUBG kickstarted it.

Fall Guys may have a few wrinkles to iron out, but if things keep up for it the way they are, I think the world may have a new most popular game.

 

8

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.

SuperMash Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version.*

SuperMash is a perfect example of a game that has a good concept, but squanders that concept in execution. The idea is simple: take two classic video game genres, and put them together with random results. A simple concept, but one that has promise. Combining a platformer with an RPG? Hot dog!

Sadly, the results SuperMash leaves the player with don’t even begin to realize the potential of any of the genres they represent. And the initial delight you might have with your first game or two rapidly dissipates as you realize how shallow and clunky these combinations become.

Now, to be fair, SuperMash does inform the player from the get-go that the “fun” of the game is seeing the randomized results of these combinations more than the actual gameplay of them, and emphasizes that the results are intended to feel like “something that was programmed by a computer, and not people.” That might fly if the games produced were ironic and funny, like Goat Simulator or Octodad. But they just end up feeling like half-assed attempts at representing classic game genres. They’re not enjoyable in either the genuine or ironic senses of the word.

“The Solid Snake parody character is named “Mongoose.” Gee, I wonder how long it took them to come up with that name?”

The setup is simple enough, the game provides six genres to work with (which seems like fewer than there should be): Platformer, Adventure, RPG, Shoot-em-up, Stealth and Metroidvania (called “Metrovania” here, for obvious legal reasons). How in the world falling-block puzzlers, racing and beat-em-ups didn’t make the cut, I don’t know.

The first genre you pick makes up the brunt of the game, while the second will add elements of that genre to the first. And yes, you can even combine the same genre with itself, which you would at least hope would provide more structurally cohesive games, but sadly they don’t.

“It’s baffling how adamantly SuperMash seems to think adding cuboid characters with cat ears equates to having platformer elements…”

What immediately becomes apparent is the lack of substance with the merging of the two genres. The first one I attempted was a “Platformer + Shoot-em-up,” which resulted in a very basic platformer in which the character could also shoot. While combining those two genres should bring something like Gunstar Heroes to mind, literally all it was was a bare bones platformer where the character just so happened to be able to shoot things. Some of the enemies were things like fighter jets, I suppose, but all that accomplished was making the game feel like something out of Action 52 with random-ass enemies and sprites. What’s worse, the platforming wasn’t even any good, and featured several areas that required blind leaps of faith.

“Oh boy, enemies spawning from the top of the screen, and I can only shoot downward. Makes a lot of sense.”

I gave it the benefit of a doubt, and thought maybe I just got a bad result. But then I tried the reverse combination (putting shoot-em-up in the primary slot and platformer in the secondary), and the result was even more nonsensical. Sure, it looked like a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up, and featured a cute, platformer-esque character (who was already very similar to the character from the first game, revealing SuperMash’s limited assets), and the character could potentially jump on enemies and higher areas (key word there being “potentially.” You try to jump on a bad guy that moves in an erratic pattern while the screen scrolls upward). But this game suffered an even worse fate because, despite the screen constantly moving upwards, and enemies spawning from the top of the screen, my character could only fire projectiles downward. As you can imagine, it wasn’t fun.

I tried several other combinations: Platformer and RPG (which resulted in another stale platformer that broke up the gameplay with random encounters. Because random encounters are certainly the aspect of old RPGs that needed to be revisited), Stealth and Adventure, Adventure and Shoot-em-up, “Metrovania” and Shoot-em-up, Metrovania and platformer (how do you mess that up?)… But no matter what I picked, the results were basically the same. Half-baked attempts at the primary selected genre that just so happened to feature an item or enemy that looks like it was vaguely inspired by something from the secondary genre.

There’s so much more to a Metro(id)vania or an RPG than the items that come with them. And simply adding a cute-looking character doesn’t give a game elements of a platformer. But that seems to be the extent at which SuperMash combines these genres together. These are as shallow of genre-crossovers as you can get.

What’s worse, the games you play will provide randomly-selected “glitches,” which come in the forms of random buffs and nerfs. For example, one of the “glitches” I experienced was random encounters becoming more frequent in a platformer if I took too long to collect any coins (and by “too long” I mean about ten seconds, if that. I’m not kidding). Another one saw certain enemies in my Stealth-Adventure become needlessly strong. I’d go through several enemies easily and then one enemy would show up – indistinguishable from the others – that took forever to kill. How are these “glitches” supposed to make the game more fun? They’re just cumbersome, and you can’t turn them off.

If you’re wondering what the goals of these randomly-generated games are, well, you’ll find out the full list of possible goals within minutes. Every game you produce is finished by either finding a particular NPC, defeating a certain number of a particular enemy, or collecting certain items within a time limit. That’s it. That’s all of them. Not exactly a deep pool of content.

To make matters even worse, in between games, there are entirely unnecessary segments where you play as some dude in a video game store. There’s some kind of plot line here with attempted emotion, but who cares? All I know is not only are these sections completely pointless, but the character you play as while you aimlessly walk around this incredibly limited space is just annoying. The developers could have done something clever and meta like having a platforming mascot character, an RPG heroine and a space marine from a shooter game team up for the characters, to play off the motif of genres clashing together. Instead, you play as some dude who looks manufactured to appeal to Millennials (but in a most ineffective way). He looks like one of those irritating animated avatars that  YouTubers use to represent themselves in their video thumbnails (you know, the kind that are always standing with their arms crossed because it’s an easy pose to draw, and are always accompanying some annoying video explaining why some popular game or movie sucks because the YouTuber in question so desperately wants attention). He’s annoying in a way that reminds me of Lester the Unlikely, but this guy might be even worse, seeing as Lester was intentionally a dweeb, but I think SuperMash legitimately thinks its hero is cool.

Don’t believe me? Just check out his obnoxious walking animation.

Geez, I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to punch a video game character so badly.

“This Adventure/Shoot-em-up “hybrid” featured homing missiles as an item in a Zelda-esque setup. Wow, such a deep joining together of genres!”

Simply put, SuperMash is a game that has a neat concept, but one that could have, and should have been polished into something way better.  The genres available are not only limited, but they seem to just barely have any semblance of an understanding of what these genres are. The combinations (or “Mashes” as the game so dearly wants us to call them) have no substance, and never feel like a proper coming together on any meaningful level. The glitches are a needless concept that make already tedious games all the more tedious. Combine that (or “Mash” that) with the fact that the games provided simply aren’t good – and not even in an ironic sense – and the utterly pointless in-between segments, and SuperMash is little more than a neat concept being butchered in execution.

 

3

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review

Dark Souls II is something of the black sheep of the Souls series. Given the standard laid forth by the original Dark Souls, it was always going to be a tough act to follow. In addition to not achieving the same impact as its predecessor, Dark Souls II is also noted for being the only entry in the series not directed by series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, who merely took on a producing role this time around. Dark Souls II would be directed by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura  (as such, it’s also the only entry in the series to not feature Miyazaki’s signature character, Patches, who even found his way into Bloodborne).

It probably didn’t help Dark Souls II that it didn’t get a whole lot of time to build its own legacy. Dark Souls II was the first in a line of three “Souls” entries released in as many years. While there was a three year gap between Dark Souls and this sequel, Bloodborne was released the year after Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III capped off the series the year after that. Bloodborne is widely considered the best follow-up to Dark Souls, and has a setting distinct from the Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds of the rest of the series, while Dark Souls III felt like the proper culmination of all previous entries. Dark Souls II, by comparison, got a little lost in the shuffle, with less identity of its own to make it stand out.

When Dark Souls II was first released in 2014, it was the highly anticipated follow-up to one of the biggest hits of the decade. But because of the aforementioned reasons – as well as a couple of questionable design choices – Dark Souls II has gained that reputation as the black sheep of the franchise.

But being the black sheep is really a relative term in instances like this. Despite its drawbacks (and yes, it does fall short of its predecessor, successor, and Bloodborne), Dark Souls II is still an excellent game that retains the series’ quality. And for my money, it’s still a much better game than Demon’s Souls.

The “Scholar of the First Sin” edition of Dark Souls II was released on the PS4 and Xbox One in 2015, and featured improved visuals and some minor tweaks, and also included all of the downloadable content from its original release.

If Dark Souls II has any immediate drawback, it’s that it’s a little tepid when it comes to branching out of its predecessor’s shadow and constructing its own identity. Now, given that the first Dark Souls is one of the best games ever made, that’s not a horrible thing. But suffice to say that Dark Souls II is the safest entry in the series, creatively speaking.

The gameplay retains the depth and intricacy the series is known for. You create a character whose play style becomes more and more customizable as the game goes on. You can equip weapons, armor and shields, as well as gain magic abilities (which come in the form of sorceries, miracles, pyromancies and hexes). You fight your way through incredibly difficult lands and dungeons – where many foes can fell you in a single hit – and search for those heavenly bonfires for those blessed moments of reprieve.

That’s not to say that Dark Souls II doesn’t feature any tricks of its own. One feature – unique to the series – is that each area has a finite number of enemy respawns. True to its predecessor, igniting a bonfire may serve as a checkpoint and a means to recover health, spells, and your ever-trusty Estus Flask, but doing so will also respawn every enemy in the area surrounding said bonfire. Unlike its predecessor, or either of its successors, however, is that if you slay particular enemies enough times and keep using the local bonfire, these enemies will eventually cease to spawn for the remainder of the playthrough.

It’s an interesting concept, admittedly. And if you’re having too much trouble with a particular area or enemy, it gives you something of a cheat in that you can keep chipping away at such troublesome moments until the source of said troubles just disappears entirely and is cleared out of your path.

However, this concept of finite enemy respawns comes with a few caveats. Notably, if a certain type of enemy holds particular items or materials you’re looking for, you only have so many chances to try to farm said items during any given playthrough. And should you choose to use the aforementioned method of exhausting certain enemy spawns  to make progression a bit smoother, be prepared for a large amount of tedium.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that the developers assumed many players would go the route of slowly extinguishing enemies, because there seems to be way more foes in any given area than in any other entry in the series. That’s not innately a bad thing, but it becomes an issue when some places within the game feel like they’re just tossing in hordes of enemies willy nilly.

“This place may look heavenly, but with the sheer excess of sorcerer enemies and monsters that pop out of the water, it’s probably closer to Hell.”

By that I mean one of the strengths of the first Dark Souls (and Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) is the sense of staging. The games not only feature excellent level and enemy designs that add to the gameplay, but the placement of those enemies in those areas really add to the gameplay. There’s a brilliant sense of staging that few games can match. But in Dark Souls II, there are more than a few areas where it feels like there’s no cohesive structure in the enemy placements, and that it simply bombards the player with as many enemies as humanly possible as it assumes said player will gradually exhaust the spawning of these enemies.

For those who would like to farm items and souls (the series’ combination of experience points and currency), you can start the enemy spawn cycle of a given area over again by using a rare item called a Bonfire Ascetic, but even that comes with the drawback of upping the difficulty of the area (for example, using an Ascetic during your first playthrough will up that area’s difficulty to that of New Game Plus, with each additional use upping it further to the difficulty of the next playthrough). And doing so can’t be reversed for that character. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

The finite enemy respawns are a mixed bag, then. But at least I understand why FromSoftware experimented with the idea. Less understandable is that Dark Souls II saw fit to resurrect Demon’s Souls’s punishment for defeat by lowering your maximum health with each death!

Like the other games in the series, the player’s acquired souls are dropped upon death, but they have a chance to reclaim them, if they learned from past mistakes and make it back to the spot they died. But die again before reclaiming them and those souls are gone for good. This element is fine, as it has always been a key part of the series, and one that proved influential to video games as a whole. But lowering the player’s maximum health upon every defeat is a component of Demon’s Souls that never needed to be brought back. It just feels like the game is punishing the player for its own difficulty.

You can undo this effect with a particular item (the “Human Effigy” this time around), but this item is much rarer that the “Humanity” item of Dark Souls, and chances are you’ll run out of them faster than you can get more, until maybe your third playthrough. So you’ll be spending a good portion of the game with only a fragment of your full health. The game would already be more than difficult enough without this feature.

I’m probably sounding a bit negative by this point, but these are the major issues with Dark Souls II that prevent it from being on the same level as its immediate predecessor and its successors. With these negatives out of the way, however, it should be emphasized that, when Dark Souls II hits the right notes, it’s exceptional.

The core gameplay is as fun and deep as ever, and the world design remains exquisite. The boss fights are still epic encounters, though perhaps a bit less memorable than other entries in the series due to a relative lack of variety (a good portion of the bosses are giant suits of armor with swords). There are secrets and hidden areas around every corner, instilling a strong sense of exploration into the player. And while I may have noted the cumbersome nature of the areas packed with excessive enemies, there are still places in the game that are the opposite, and evoke the series’ usual design strengths.

There are a few other tweaks made to the Dark Souls formula. Like in Demon’s Souls, the player doesn’t level up at any given bonfire, but instead has to speak with a particular NPC (the “Emerald Herald” in this case, who resides in the game’s hub of Majula). Some might say having to go to a specific spot to level up isn’t as accessible as its predecessor’s method, but given that you have the ability to warp to any previously visited bonfire from the get-go this time around, it’s not a problem.

Some may also not be too keen on the way the Estus Flask upgrades in Dark Souls II. Rather than Dark Souls 1’s process of boosting the individual bonfires to give you more uses of the Estus Flask, you now have to find two different rare items that, when burned at a bonfire, increase the number of uses of the Estus Flask itself (to a maximum of 12) and increase how much health each usage heals. But I don’t find it to be any worse than its predecessor’s method, just different.

As usual, Dark Souls II looks and sounds great. Although the Scholar of the First Sin edition doesn’t look as pretty as its sequels that were made from the ground up for PS4 and Xbox One, its art direction and visual aesthetics have held up nicely. And, when coupled with its sweeping musical score and the series’ untouchable sound design, it all really gives the game a strong sense of atmosphere.

On the subject of atmosphere, Dark Souls II follows series’ tradition of having the majority of its story and world building told through the level design, item descriptions, and passing NPC dialogue. The story and world here are still interesting (and tell of how the kingdom of Drangleic fell to ruin), but it is a little odd that its story and setting seem far removed from that of the first game. This would be emphasized all the more later on when Dark Souls III felt like a closer follow-up to the first Dark Souls, while only giving the world, characters and elements of Dark Souls II a few passing references. So if Dark Souls II weren’t already seen as the black sheep of the series by fans, it seems its sequel would canonically magnify this labelling.

That’s a bit of a shame. While Dark Souls II undoubtedly falls short of the two Dark Souls entries it’s sandwiched between (and Bloodborne. Can’t forget Bloodborne), it’s still a great game that expands on the world of the series.

Dark Souls II’s faults may be few, but they are certainly more noticeable than those of its sister titles. Only in a series of this pedigree could a game as good as Dark Souls II be considered its “black sheep.” If taken by its own merits, Dark Souls II is close to triumphant. It’s only when one remembers what came before and what came after that its blemishes really start to show.

 

8

Top 5 Video Games of 2019 (Game of the Year)

And now, here we are, the big one. Game of the Year!

2019 was a pretty strong year for video games. Not quite as strong as 2018 or 2017, admittedly, but it had its share of highlights.

Let’s skip the fanfare and get right to the meat of things. These are my top 5 video games of 2019!

 


Continue reading “Top 5 Video Games of 2019 (Game of the Year)”

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Multiplayer

Multiplayer has never been more important nor prominent in video games than it is today. With the internet connecting players from around the world, more and more developers are putting an emphasis on multiplayer.

Sometimes, we wish to play video games to take us on epic adventures, but other times, we only want to connect with friends (or random strangers) and have some fun.

2019 may not have been the strongest year for multiplayer titles, but it still provided some good ones. Strangely, my favorite of the lot wasn’t originally from 2019 at all…

 

Winner: Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled

Back in its day, Crash Team Racing was – along with Diddy Kong Racing – hailed as one of the only Mario Kart clones to actually be as good as Mario Kart (considering the most recent Mario Kart at the time was Mario Kart 64, there’s an argument to be made that, in that era, CTR was actually the better racer). Though Mario has since unquestionably wrested that crown – due in no small part to the exceptional Mario Kart 8 – the remake of Crash Team Racing still proves to be one of the best mascot racers not called Mario.

Though its single player modes can leave a lot to be desired (there is seriously no reason for the time trials in a game like this to be that precise!),  Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is all too easy to get sucked into when it comes to its multiplayer. With great track designs, a constantly expanding roster of characters, character skins, and karts, and a bevy of different modes of play, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is like a gift that keeps on giving.

Not bad for a remake of a game from the PS1 era.

 

Runner-up: Luigi’s Mansion 3

 

Past Winners

2014: Mario Kart 8 (Online) and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (local)

2015: Splatoon

2016: Overwatch

2017: For Honor* (Online) and ARMS (Local)

2018: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

 

*Retroactively awarded

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Indie Game

Now more than ever, Indie games are as vital to the gaming world as any other release. No longer relegated to being the pretentious, artsy corner of the gaming landscape, Indie titles now showcase all the variety and fun that their bigger budget counterparts do. Gaming is all the better for it.

Admittedly, 2019 wasn’t the best year for Indie games, and notable fell short of the string of strong years that predated it. Still, the little guys still managed to put up a good fight, and provided what I guess can best be described as my most “unique” selection for Best Indie Game of the year so far…

 

Winner: Untitled Goose Game

While Untitled Goose Game may lack the depth of some of my previous winners in this category, it makes up for it with its undeniable charm and sense of humor.

This breezy, wonderfully casual experience sees players take on the role of the Goose, who is out to have a productive day and completing his daily checklist of chores. Because he’s a goose, that means these chores are comprised of different ways to be a jerk to unsuspecting people.

Taking inspiration from Super Mario 64, Untitled Goose Game has the player tackling miniature areas (the game’s levels) and completing that area’s tasks as they see fit. Only instead of collecting stars like good ol’ Mario, the Goose’s only goal is to mess with the humans around them. Whether it’s moving a chair just as an old man is about to sit down, scaring a kid to lock himself in a phone booth, or stealing some dude’s flip-flops, the Goose’s tasks are always fun and funny.

It may not be the next Shovel Knight or Undertale, but not every Indie game has to be a classic like those games to be enjoyed. Sometimes, the good, simple fun of video games is all you need. And if Untitled Goose Game doesn’t put a smile on your face, you must have a heart of stone.

 

Runner-up: Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove

 

Past Winners

2014: Shovel Knight*

2015: Undertale

2016: Stardew Valley

2017: Hollow Knight**

2018: Celeste

 

*This particular award wasn’t given for 2014, but upon  reflection, Shovel Knight was the clear winner that year.

**I originally awarded Cuphead with the honor, but upon further consideration, Hollow Knight is probably the more deserving of the two.

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Gameplay

Gameplay is the lifeblood of video games. I mean, just think about what video games would be like without gameplay. They’d be really awkward movies, I guess.

Even if all else fails in a game, it’s the gameplay that can ultimately save it. Gameplay is the connection between developer and player that separates the medium from all others. It is of the utmost importance to game design.

Winner: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Okay, so Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn’t going to get any awards for originality in gameplay, as it is virtually a spiritual recreation of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with a little Aria of Sorrow thrown in for good measure. To Bloodstained’s benefit, however, Symphony of the Night remains one of the best games ever made, and Aria of Sorrow comes a bit closer to SotN’s quality than many admit.

Basically, we have a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Though many other Kickstarter-funded spiritual sequels came and went, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was the one that went all out and recreated the intricate gameplay and sharp level design of the game that inspired it.

Yeah, it might be “more” of the SotN-style Castlevania gameplay, but in a gaming landscape that’s grossly starved of such gaming greatness, Bloodstained is something of a godsend.

 

Runner-up: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair

 

Past Winners

2014: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

2015: Bloodborne*

2016: Dark Souls 3*

2017: Super Mario Odyssey

2018: Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4)

 

*Retroactively awarded after further consideration.