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!

Replaying: Dark Souls III

In all the hustle and bustle of 2020, as I continue to procrastinate reviews for Animal Crossing and Paper Mario: The Disappointment King (what, isn’t that what it’s called?) – not to mention a few lingering reviews for 2019 games – I’ve decided to write about a different older game I’ve been replaying! That game, as I’m sure you’ve deduced from the title, is Dark souls III!

Come to think of it, I’ve had quite a Souls-heavy year in 2020. I replayed Dark Souls Remastered, beat Demon’s Souls for the first time, and completed Dark Souls II. Now that I’m replaying Dark Souls III, that’s all of the Souls games that actually have the word “Souls” in the title. Maybe I’ll bring it full circle and replay BloodbBorne before year’s end. BloodBorne is, for my money, the best Souls game.

That’s not a slight on any of the other Souls games, as Dark Souls is one of the best video games ever made, and honestly, I think Dark Souls III is just as good. Dark Souls II may be a fair bit behind its siblings, and unpopular opinion, but Demon’s Souls is considerably less enjoyable than all of its successors (hopefully the PS5 remake can make some adjustments to bring it up to speed with Dark Souls).

Anyway, Dark Souls III is the focus here. Like I said, I think it’s just as good as the first Dark Souls in many respects (in some ways better, in some not quite as good). I even named it my Game of the Year for 2016 here on this site! It’s easily one of my favorite games of the console generation, and of the 2010s decade (my best of the decade list won’t just be Dark Souls and Mario, but it will very much be Dark Souls and Mario).

What made Dark Souls III work so well – besides the series’ already winning formula and the return of director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who was absent for Dark Souls II – is that it feels like a smooth balance between Dark Souls and BloodBorne. The combat obviously mostly reflects the former, but it has a faster speed to it, closer to BloodBorne. It just feels right.

What mostly had me revisit Dark Souls III is that I never actually experienced its DLC, so I’m playing through the game again and seeing the DLC for the first time.

Last night I finished the first DLC, Ashes of Ariandel (which sounds like Arendelle, the kingdom of Disney’s Frozen, and is even a snowy landscape, which also features a girl with extremely long hair who loves to paint, similar to Rapunzel in Tangled. Now I want a Disney Souls-like). Per the usual, Dark Souls III continues the series’ consistently deep DLC content.

The Ashes of Ariandel campaign took a few hours to beat (I played alongside my brother, which makes things a little more manageable), and included a great, atmospheric setting (it is Dark Souls, after all), some cool (if maybe not series’ best) enemies, and some incredible boss fights. Mainly, the final boss of Ashes of Ariandel is now one of my favorites in the entire series. Definitely the hardest in Dark Souls III, and one of the hardest in any Souls game (I might only place it under some of the optional chalice dungeon bosses from BloodBorne. Specifically the Defiled Chalice Amygdala. Damn that guy!).

The DLC was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to delving into the second  DLC campaign, The Ringed City, soon. But revisiting Dark Souls III on the whole has been a joy. And I think, now that I’ve finally played through all of Dark Souls II and Demon’s Souls, I appreciate Dark Souls III all the more. While Dark Souls II is far from a bad game, it definitely had its share of questionable creative decisions, not to mention some forgettable locations. And Demon’s Souls, while again not bad per se, really lacks the polish of its successors, and shows its age. So Dark Souls III now feels like all the grander the achievement. A return to form for the Dark Souls trilogy that not only corrects course from the polarizing second installment, but also shows how far Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brainchild had come since Demon’s Souls. It, most appropriately, feels like a great crescendo of everything the series did up to that point.

Dark Souls, BloodBorne and (for some reason) Demon’s Souls seem to be the most beloved entries in the Souls series. The “proper trilogy” in most fans’ eyes. But if you ask me, Dark Souls III is far more deserving to sit alongside Dark Souls and BloodBorne as one of Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s finest achievements.

I can’t wait to play more.

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

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

The Origami Sting (Paper Mario: The Origami King Impressions)

“Somehow… Palpatine returned.”

And somehow… Nintendo made something as wonderful as Paper Mario not fun anymore.

Yes, I hate to admit it, but Paper Mario: The Origami King is little more than validation for my (and everyone else’s) skepticisms. Just like Sticker Star, just like Color Splash, Origami King is a gimmicky endeavor that continues the series’ awkward mixture of being utterly shallow and overly thought out at the same time.

Yes, there are good moments, but those are found solely in the exploratory elements (finding lost Toads, combing for all the secret items in an area, etc.). But once you begin the battle system, it all goes to hell.

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems once again decided the original Paper Mario formula – a simplified RPG system that retained depth and strategy based on individual enemies and Mario’s moves – is too complex. So instead of an RPG battle system with action commands, they went the much “simpler” route of starting battles off with a bizarre ring system, where you have to solve the puzzle that is the enemy layout in order to align them in such a way as to make your moves more effective, all within a short time limit.

Thankfully, your moves are no longer completely consumable like in Sticker Star or Color Splash, but aside from Mario’s standard boots and hammer, you do have to keep buying weapons repeatedly since they break after a while (because weapons breaking is all the rage in games these days for some reason). The fights themselves are already tedious, made all the more so because you don’t even gain experience points or anything of the sort after a battle, so there’s no leveling up. All you get for completing battles are coins (with more rewarded for how well you line up enemies, taking no damage, and so on). And what do you need coins for? To buy more weapons!

Good lord, what incentive is the player supposed to have in regards to these battles? Fight battles to get coins to buy weapons to use in battles to get coins to buy weapons… Geez! What’s the point?!

As purposeless as the regular battles are, they pale, pale in comparison to the boss fights. Good heavens, the boss battles of Origami King are bad. Just straight-up bad. How bad? Bad enough that – every time the game starts to win me over with it’s exploration and adventure elements – the boss fights make me not even want bother with that, because I know it will all culminate with a tedious, obnoxious, boring as all hell boss fight. They make me not care.

“Bosses will repeatedly change up the formula of battles, without letting the player know how that change effects things until they make a mistake. Yay, that’s always fun, right?”

What makes the boss fights so bad? Well, on top of following the general format of the already pointless battles, the bosses will add additional puzzle elements to the fights that are more cumbersome than clever. More often than not, figuring out how to solve these puzzles requires blatant trial-and-error, as opposed to problem solving skills. The game leaves the boss strategies unexplained until you try the obvious and fail while doing it. And if you don’t follow these fights exactly as the game wants you, the bosses will just heal and the whole thing starts over.

I hate this. I flat-out hate this. It’s not fun. Not at all. I thought Color Splash’s boss fights were annoying with how they were literally unbeatable unless you used specific items at specific times, but I’ll take Color Splash’s boss fights over Origami King’s any day.

Of course, another downward spiral that Origami King obnoxiously indulges in is its lack of character (both figuratively and literally). Though the game has its charms, it follows the bizarre trait the series has been cursed with from Sticker Star onwards of not having any original characters. Every Toad is simply named “X-Toad” (that is, when they even have “names.”).  And the first “partner” character who joins Mario is a Bob-omb named (wait for it)… Bob-omb!

Does this Bob-omb have any defining character traits or features? No, it’s a Bob-omb, plain and simple. And he jokes about once having a friend who was also named Bob-omb (Haha! Get it? They’re all named Bob-omb!). Well, at least you actually get partners in this one, which is more than you can say for Sticker Star and Color Splash, right?

But wait, do you even get partners here? The Bob-omb joins you in battle very infrequently (he conveniently chooses to stay outside dungeons to take naps), and when he can be bothered to help Mario out, he automatically attacks with a single move (which is simply bumping into an enemy), and half the time he trips while doing it, making it a complete waste.

“Get it? His name is Bob-omb, and he IS a Bob-omb! It’s totally a clever gag and not a side effect of creative limitation or anything.”

I actually found this to be kind of passive-aggressive on Nintendo/Intelligent System’s part. It’s like they’re saying “Oh, fans liked the old Paper Marios and want partners back? Okay, we’ll give them partners, but there’ll be nothing that stands out about them, they’ll automatically attack with the most basic move, which won’t even work half the time, and they’ll only join Mario in battle on occasion! Lol!” It’s like the game is literally making fun of the classic Paper Marios.

I have to ask: who is this game made for? It presents itself as being more approachable to kids than past entries, but its battle system is more convoluted than ever. I can’t imagine kids would have very much patience for it. It wants to be a puzzle adventure game, but felt the need to incorporate a turn-based battle system that slows the puzzle/adventure down considerably. It includes said RPG-style battle system, despite its utter disdain for anything resembling an RPG. And it certainly isn’t made for Paper Mario fans, as it continues to gut everything that once made the series so great.

I know I probably sound like an entitled fan. And I’m sorry for that. But Paper Mario is a bizarre, unique case where it seems like its developers actively refuse to listen to criticisms, and blatantly ignore fans’ wishes. They continue to work on a series by making games that feel like they want nothing to do with that series. It is a baffling disconnect if ever there were one in gaming.

I’m about halfway through Paper Mario: The Origami King, and I would love to review it. Normally, I like to beat a game before reviewing it, but to be honest, I’m not sure I want to push myself through the whole game. Would it be wrong to review a game without defeating its final boss? That might be the only way I can review it, because honestly getting through the game’s story is feeling more like a chore as I go on.

I know some people would balk at me to have an open mind. But I did go into Origami King with an open mind, the same way I did Sticker Star and Color Splash. In the case of Color Splash, I actually ended up having some fun and being charmed by it, despite its many flaws. But Origami King is feeling more Sticker Star than Color Splash to me. It’s tedious, monotonous, gimmicky, the battle system is pointless, the characters lack personality and charm, and those boss fights are just… NOPE!

I want to review Origami King properly, I really do. But do I have to beat it? Do I really have to? I feel like I’m deep enough in the game already to give a more detailed analysis of it (not that it would require delving very deep in this case). I feel like beating the final boss would just be a formality at this point.

You know what the worst part of all this is? I am not only a fan of Super Mario, but I have a particular fondness for Mario RPGs. That’s why – no matter how far previous Paper Marios may have fallen – I still gave subsequent entries their fair shot, simply because Paper Mario is part of that Mario RPG lineage. I felt obligated to give any game with Paper Mario in the title a go. Not even Sticker Star derailed that hope in me for the next entry. But Origami King has been such a disheartening experience, that I don’t even want to get my hopes up that the next Paper Mario will even be good, let alone go back to what made the series so special to begin with. Origami King has crushed my enthusiasm for the series, and that’s not something that happens to me lightly.

At least we have Bug Fables now…

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

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of Bug Fables*

When the original Paper Mario was released on the Nintendo 64 in 2001, it was not only the last great game for the system (and it still holds up today), but also the N64’s one and only truly memorable role-playing game. But if the system could have only one great entry in the genre, it certainly had an excellent one. Serving as a spiritual successor to the SNES’s Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario was another terrific mergence of Super Mario elements and RPG traditions. Though it was simpler than Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario’s accessibility didn’t come at the expense of depth, as it provided an RPG adventure as grand as any. Its GameCube sequel, subtitled The Thousand-Year Door, was further testament that Mario and RPGs are a match made in heaven.

Though the Paper Mario series continues to this day, Thousand-Year Door was sadly the last time the series served as a spiritual continuation of Super Mario RPG. And that’s largely because it was the last time the series was actually an RPG. The series’ third entry, Super Paper Mario, strangely abandoned the genre, instead opting for a 2D platformer with some RPG elements and a big, RPG-style storyline, to mixed results. From there, turn-based battles would make a comeback to Paper Mario, but in a butchered, shallow form, stripped of their substance and meaning, with more emphasis being placed on paper aesthetics and gimmicks than any deep RPG gameplay. Paper Mario continues to this day, but as a husk of itself. The heart and soul of the series were left behind on the GameCube, leaving many fans yearning for the series to go back to its roots and deliver another Mario RPG classic.

Well, since Nintendo seems hellbent on not delivering such a thing (even the handheld Mario & Luigi RPG series lost its way once it set foot on the 3DS), indie developer MoonSprout Games decided to make their own Paper Mario: Bug Fables.

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is classic Paper Mario in all but names and faces. Rather than the iconic world of the Mushroom Kingdom, we have the insect world of Bugaria, in a future where insects have evolved to have human sentience. But aside from the change to a bug-themed setting and characters, everything else about Bug Fables is essentially the Paper Mario we’ve been waiting sixteen years for.

The battle system is virtually copied and pasted from the first two Paper Marios. And yes, the game adopts the flat characters amid 3D backgrounds that Paper Mario was known for (before it took the “paper” aspect far too literally). Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is indeed Paper Mario…but with bugs!

While that does mean the game isn’t the most original title out there, it’s a detail that’s easy to look past considering how starved the gaming landscape has been of a proper Paper Mario title for all these years.

As in Paper Mario, battles are a turn-based affair, where timing and button combinations take place during moves (“Action Commands”). If the player gets the timing or button combinations right, their moves are more effective, while the right button press at the right time during an enemy’s attack will reduce the damage taken to your characters. The player will also have to take note about how each of the characters and enemies function, as just like the Mario RPGs, certain actions can only be used on specific characters (grounded attacks can’t reach airborne foes, and things like that). One of the big reasons the Mario RPGs soared to such heights is their interactive battle systems, which added so much depth and timeless appeal to RPG norms, and Bug Fables is a reminder of why we miss classic Mario RPGs so much, and makes it all the more baffling how Nintendo can’t seem to grasp why people want it so badly.

“All three characters learn a few abilities that can be used outside of battle as well. For example: Leif can create ice platforms on bodies of water.”

If there is a big difference between Bug Fables and Paper Mario’s RPG systems, it’s that, while Paper Mario saw Mario joined by one of several “partner” characters during battles, Bug Fables has a set party of three characters, all of whom are present in every battle: Kabbu is a beetle who is the group’s tank, able to take and dish out more damage than the other two characters, but at the cost of having the most limited attack range (only being able to target the closest ground-based enemy, save for a few of his special moves). Vi is a little bee equipped with a “beemerang,” giving her the most versatile range and can also bring down airborne foes, but with the caveat of the smallest damage output. Lastly, Lief is a moth who possesses ice magic, with which he can let it go to attack any ground-based enemies and even those who burrow underground, but will still need Vi’s help for flying foes.

“You’ll meet all kinds of cute and charming characters in Bug Fables. This little guy is probably my favorite NPC.”

It’s the party dynamic that serves as Bug Fables’ biggest change to the Paper Mario formula. On one hand, it makes things a bit more streamlined without having to switch party members for different situations. And the small amount of main characters means you get to know them a bit more in regards to the story (Kabbu is overly apologetic and sensitive, Vi is sarcastic and anxious to become a famous hero alongside her team, and Leif has been in a long hibernation, and can’t remember his past). But on the other hand, part of the charm of Paper Mario was found in those partners, and knowing which one to have at your side at what time.

I think the simplicity of Paper Mario’s partners is perhaps better suited for the style of gameplay provided, but that’s not to say that anything is really lost from a gameplay standpoint in Bug Fables, but it does showcase a benefit an established franchise can have. Part of the joy of Paper Mario is how these familiar Mario enemies were now friendly characters (a Goomba, a Koopa Troopa, a Boo, etc.). Obviously, Bug Fables can’t go doing something similar, as it doesn’t have that history to tinker around and mess with. That’s not to say I hold this against Bug Fables, as that would be an unfair criticism. But I do think – in a time in which so many people insist new IPs automatically equate to originality and franchises are old hat by default – that this is an example of a creative benefit established franchises can have over other works, which is something that isn’t acknowledged enough.

“Discovering new recipes with the game’s three chef characters is a fun side quest.”

Much like Paper Mario’s badges, Bug Fables features items called medals that, when equipped, provide a variety of different bonuses. Once the player levels up (which works as the whole trio leveling up at the same time, as opposed to each individual character), the player can select which attribute they want to increase: hit points (self-explanatory), TP (Teamwork Points, Bug Fables’s equivalent of traditional magic points or, more appropriately, the Mario RPGs’ Flower Points), or Medal Points, which allow you to equip more medals.

So Bug Fables functions very similarly to the Paper Mario titles that inspired it, but aside from the set three character party, the main difference between Paper Mario and Bug Fables is the difficulty. Bug Fables is a more difficult game than Paper Mario, and it can be made all the harder right off the bat, as a prominent NPC in the game’s opening grants you with the ‘Hard Mode’ medal which, naturally, makes the game more difficult when equipped (and it costs no medal points to equip, so the challenge is open to anyone who wants it). While the challenge is mostly fair, I do have to admit that – at least with the Hard Mode medal equipped – the difficulty can seem a bit inconsistent. I actually found some earlier segments to be harder than some of the later ones, and some mid-bosses were more challenging than the big bosses at the end of the same chapter.

In a time when fans’ pleas for a return to form for the Paper Mario franchise continue to fall on deaf ears on Nintendo’s end, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is something of a gift, and the next best thing we could ask for after a proper follow-up to The Thousand-Year Door. Some have already claimed Bug Fables to be better than the games that inspired it. Though I can’t agree with that sentiment, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is the best Paper Mario game to be made since those beloved first two entries. And that in itself is cause for celebration.

 

8

Puyo Puyo 2 Review

*Review based on Puyo Puyo 2’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service*

Puyo Puyo is one of the most popular falling block puzzle series in gaming history. So it can be a little strange to go back and see how skittish publishers were with releasing the series in the west. The original Puyo Puyo received a makeover with established gaming franchises on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo with Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche, respectively. Meanwhile, the second entry didn’t even get a western release on home consoles until it was made available on retro downloadable services like the Wii’s Virtual Console and, most recently, the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service.

The gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 should be familiar to anyone who’s played the series: multi-colored blobs fall from the top of the screen in clumps of two, which the player can move around and rotate. If you match up at least four blobs of the same color together, you will eliminate them from the screen. And if you plan and strategize the placements of the blobs well enough, you can connect more than four of them or even get a chain of eliminations one after the other, with both scenarios resulting in you sending marble-like ‘trash’ blocks to your opponent. The marbles will of course make get in your way, making it more difficult to connect the blobs. But if you can eliminate blobs adjacent to the marbles, you can remove them from your board. But should the blobs and marbles reach the top of the screen, it’s game over.

The adjustments to the core gameplay are minimal, with the biggest difference being that it takes bigger stacks of blobs and more chains of eliminations to send marbles to your opponent than the first game. The minimal changes aren’t really an issue though. Puzzle games are – along with platformers – the genre that represents gaming at its purest, and because of that, they never really lose any of their appeal no matter how much time passes. And Puyo Puyo, I must say, is one of the most fun and addicting of puzzle games.

The major differences here are that the game can be played with up to four players, which was a rarity in the Super Famicom days (it’s actually much easier to play the four-player modes in the Switch release than it was in Puyo Puyo 2’s day). Suffice to say, the more the merrier when it comes to falling-block puzzle mayhem. It should be noted, however, that the Switch release remains untranslated, so unless you can read Japanese, you’ll have to test out the game’s different options to figure out what’s what (there are some clues to the number of players per mode as indicated by the number of blobs next to each, but otherwise it’s a guessing game for sad sacks like me who can’t read Japanese).

The only real issue with Puyo Puyo 2 is the difficulty in its single-player mode. Puyo Puyo is often cited for its difficulty, going back to the Mean Bean Machine days. But the series usually at least gradually gets more difficult as you go. The difficulty of Puyo Puyo 2’s single player mode, on the other hand, feels all over the place. You’ll fight your way through several “levels,” each one comprised of multiple opponents, but the challenge of each individual opponent varies wildly. I’ve beaten the single-player mode a few times now, and there will be certain opponents early on that take me several attempts to conquer, followed up by easier opposition for the next few rounds before I run headfirst into another wall of difficulty.

Unfortunately, I’m not perceptive enough to notice if the easier and harder challenges were consistent with the character who served as my opponent (though I think that might be the case). Whether there is or isn’t that consistency almost doesn’t matter, because the order you face your opponents is done via a roulette wheel (the player can stop the wheel when they choose, but until you’ve chipped away and eliminated the opposition of each round, you’re not likely to land on the baddie you want to face). So again, the game doesn’t so much get progressively more difficult, as much as it is sometimes easy, and sometimes frustratingly hard.

“The fish with human limbs might be my favorite character.”

That’s not a deal breaker, however. And suffice to say that the core gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 is as fun as ever. Plus, with the crisp 16-bit graphics, cute character designs, and catchy soundtrack, Puyo Puyo 2 is yet another puzzler that’s pleasing to the senses. Bring a few friends over to enjoy Puyo Puyo 2 to its fullest. But if you wish to enjoy the game alone, that works too. Just be prepared for a seemingly random difficulty curve.

 

7

Brawl Brothers Review

*Review based on Brawl Brothers’ release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Brawl Brothers, released on the SNES in 1993 by Jaleco, is a side scrolling beat-em-up game, and the second installment in the Rushing Beat series. Curiously, it’s noted as being the only SNES game to feature both its western and Japanese releases on the same cartridge (the Japanese version being accessible via a cheat code). Other than that little piece of trivia, however, Brawl Brothers doesn’t provide a whole lot to write home about.

“The playable roster admittedly looks like the bargain aisle equivalent of Street Fighter characters.”

Let’s get one thing straight, I really like beat-em-up games. Their simple, straightforward, arcade-style gameplay makes them among the purest “video game-y” of video game genres, alongside the likes of platformers and puzzle games (albeit beat-em-ups don’t have the same depth of those genres). Walking from one side of the screen to the next, punching bad guys to a pulp along the way, is so simple and satisfying, particularly when multiple players are involved. But if not done right, beat-em-ups risk falling into monotony. Unfortunately, Brawl Brothers is one such beat-em-up.

The main issue with the game is that the hit detection feels way off. You repeatedly mash the attack button on an enemy, hoping that you’re aligned at just the right pixel to land your punches. You just walk into enemies to grab them for throwing attacks, but sometimes the enemies grab you instead, an issue that could have been easily avoided if you used a separate button to grab enemies instead of walking into them.

While Brawl Brothers provides a versatile (for the time) roster of five characters, each with their own special moves, another major issue with the game is that using these special moves drains your health bar. I’m guessing this was done to prevent players from constantly spamming the special moves, but surely there was a better way to go about that? Why not build up a separate meter with the more hits you land on enemies or how many of them you defeat, and once said meter is full, you can use your special move? That sounds like a better option than draining a huge chunk of your own health amidst an onslaught of enemies to prevent them from…draining a huge chunk of your health.

Perhaps the most aggravating issue with Brawl Brothers, however, are the maze levels. This is first present in the game’s sewer stage, with the player potentially cycling through the same screens non-stop unless they know which doors to take on which screen. The big problems is the game gives no indicator this is the case, so naturally, I followed the rules up until that point, going to the end of the stage expecting to move on, only to start doing the same thing over and over again. I had to look online to figure out what I was doing wrong, only to find out about the maze element. If you know the pattern, it’s not too difficult. But if the game is going to abruptly change the rules on the player, it would be nice if there were some kind of hint about that happening. Again, even if the answer isn’t too cryptic, having to learn that answer via the web for a game released in 1993 is kind of annoying.

Believe it or not, but the Japanese version of the game doesn’t include the maze elements, with those stages still following the more straightforward approach. Why the western release decided throwing in cryptic maze-like stages into the mix without any indication of such was a good idea, I’ll never know. Thankfully, as previously mentioned, the Japanese version is readily available on the western cartridge (and that’s still true for the Nintendo Switch release). Repeatedly pressing B, A, X and Y (in that order) on the ‘Jaleco’ screen will appear to glitch things up, indicating you can now enter codes. From the glitchy screen press start, hit down three times, and press start again, and you’ll be in the options menu for the Japanese version of the game. Simply continue from there and voila!

Look at me, giving away a cheat code in a review. But this is a rare exception, because the lack of the maze stages makes the Japanese version of the game so much better. Granted, the hit detection is still off, and the special moves still drain health, but at least it fixes one of Brawl Brothers’s most glaring issues. Plus, one of the characters can hit enemies in the groin in the Japanese version!

Other than that, there’s really not much difference between versions, but the removal of mazes alone makes the Japanese version the preferred method of play.

Still, even with the marginal improvements of the Japanese version of the game, Brawl Brothers still feels like one of the more dated beat-em-ups. The graphics are great (that’s Super Nintendo for you), and the music is catchy. And fans of the genre might still have a fun enough time. But no doubt there are plenty of other, better beat-em-up options out there.

 

4

Super Earth Defense Force Review

*Review based on Super Earth Defense Force’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Originally developed by Jaleco for arcades in 1991, Earth Defense Force made its way to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System the very next year, with the appropriate “Super” added to the title. Super Earth Defense Force is a simple side scrolling rail-shooter that provides competent enough fun, but features some questionable creative decisions that hold it back.

The player takes control of a space fighter, which is accompanied by two satellite fighters. At the start of each stage, players can select which weapons the satellite fighters have, with eight possible options. But you should always pick the “homing” option.

This is the game’s first big creative misstep. The homing attack is so overpowered and so much more useful than the other seven options that it makes them close to pointless. I’m not talking about the good kind of overpowered which simply makes the character feel more powerful, like the cape in Super Mario World or the Crissaegrim from Symphony of the Night. This is the bad kind of overpowered, as in “did anyone test this to properly compare these weapons?” Though the game sees the player automatically traveling to the right side of the screen, enemies don’t just spawn ahead of, but behind, above, and below as well. As such, the homing attack is the only one that can reliably hit these enemies. And in some instances (even on the first level), there are numerous enemies descending from the top of the screen that are difficult to avoid unless you destroy some of them, but you can’t hit them unless you – as you might have guessed – picked the homing attack. There’s no reason for you not to pick it.

The player has three hit points, and four total lives. The only way to heal is by completing a stage, and there is no way to gain extra lives. Additionally, the stages feature no checkpoints, so every defeat will send you back to the start of the current stage. This all makes sense for an arcade game, where no doubt additional coins would allow for more continues. But it’s a shame that Earth Defense Force’s transition to the Super NES didn’t consider the differences in arcade and console gaming. With no way to heal or continue past your four initial lives, it makes the game an entirely trial and error approach. You’ll make more and more progress every time you play and figure out which enemies spawn at which point, but only after learning from being defeated by surprise attacks time and again. That might make sense for an arcade game, but on the SNES, the occasional healing item or extra life would be appreciated.

In the case of extra lives, Super Earth Defense Force even provides an apt opportunity for such things. As you defeat enemies, you’ll gain experience points. Once your experience bar fills up completely, you’ll gain a level, which will upgrade your weapons (preferably your homing weapons). On the plus side, you’ll keep your accumulated level and experience points even after you lose a life. On the downside, this would have been a primed opportunity to also give the player an extra life, giving them more time to utilize and appreciate their upgraded weapons.

As it is, the game’s trial and error approach will see you gradually gain a level, die, then make more progress through the current stage with your upgraded weapons. With only four chances to make it through the whole game, the experience becomes little more than a memorization game.

Super Earth Defense Force isn’t a bad game. The gameplay is simple and fun, the graphics are nice, and the music is catchy enough. But Super Earth Defense Force isn’t really special in any particular way, which means it can’t really make up for its increasingly tedious sense of trial and error. Playing on Nintendo Switch makes it a bit more tolerable, given the save states provided, but such things weren’t in Jaleco’s mind when developing Super Earth Defense Force back in the day. Even the game’s attempt at variety is undone, thanks to one weapon option being as objectively right as you can get in this kind of scenario.

 

5