Wario Land 4 Review

*Review based on Wario Land 4’s Wii U Virtual Console release*

Here’s an unpopular opinion: The original Game Boy hasn’t aged well. Sure, there are a few games from the original Game Boy that hold up decently (namely Game Boy Color exclusives), but for the most part, its games represent a time when the convenience of gaming on the go came at the expense of quality. The Game Boy Advance, however, marked a time when handheld games began to capture a more timeless quality. The GBA was the SNES to the Game Boy’s NES, with its predecessor feeling archaic (save for a  handful of titles) while it itself holds up so well, it doesn’t feel like a retro console at all.

Case in point: Wario Land. Wario Lands 2 and 3 on the original Game Boy were once hailed as some of the best handheld games of all time, and while they’re still decent to play, they’re getting on a bit. Wario Land 4, on Game Boy Advance, however, is still a worthwhile platformer today. Perhaps not an all-time great, but it’s certainly not disappointing to revisit.

Like its predecessors, Wario Land 4 is all about the greedy anti-Mario’s quest for treasure. This time, Wario is pillaging an ancient pyramid in the middle of a jungle, but gets trapped inside and has to find a way to escape, all while collecting as much treasure as possible, of course.

Wario retains his brutish strength from the past games, with his charging attack, ground pound and ability to pick up and throw enemies intact. Additionally, by holding the R button, Wario can run at such a great speed, that with enough momentum, his hard noggin can break through blocks that even his charge attack can’t budge. Similarly, if he ground pounds from a great enough height, he can also destroy these stronger blocks (there’s even one puzzle in the game that cleverly combines this with a teleporter, meaning that Wario was thinking with portals even before Portal).

The structure of the game takes a different approach from its predecessors, however. There’s a quick tutorial that shows you the ropes of the game (it’s actually one of the better tutorial levels I’ve seen, effectively condensing all the game’s elements to their bare basics, thus giving you insight to the entire adventure ahead). After that, the game features four worlds, which you can play in any order you see fit (and if you get stuck in one world, you can leave it and do another for the time being). The worlds themselves follow a more linear structure, however, with each featuring four stages and a boss fight at the end.

Stages work a bit differently here than they did in past Wario games (and most platformers in general, for that matter): Wario searches through the levels collecting treasures, but instead of a traditional goal found at the end of a stage, each level features a statue of a blue frog (why not?) that, when jumped on, activates a timer. With the time ticking down, Wario has to make his way back to the beginning of the stage, where a portal now waits to take Wario back to the hub. Naturally, Wario gets to keep every treasure he collects if he makes it back before time runs out.

While most of the jewels and coins scattered about add to Wario’s score, each level also contains three unique treasures: One is a bird with a key for a beak (again, why not?) which is needed to unlock the next level in that given world. Another treasure is a tablet separated in four pieces found in golden treasure chests, with all four pieces in all four stages needing to be found in order to open the boss door. Finally, a well-hidden music CD can be found and subsequently played in the sound room of the pyramid’s overworld.

While these items add some extra depth to the stages, it’s kind of a shame that – aside from the CDs – they’re required to complete the game. Had there been more non-story items, Wario Land 4 would have a fun staying power for completionists, instead of most return visits to levels being out of necessity for having missed a key or one of the four tablet pieces the first time around.

The levels themselves are well designed and creative. It’s fun to search through them for treasures, and they never feel so labyrinthian as to be confusing. The stages are also less bland than in the past few Wario Lands, with fun gimmicks added into the mix. One of my favorite stages is built around knocking over stacks of dominoes, then racing to the end of a room before the final domino falls and hits a switch that closes off a treasure.

Level design is always a make or break factor for platformers, and the clever structure and gimmicks of the stages of Wario Land 4 ascend it above its predecessors. There are, however, two notable elements that prevent Wario Land 4 from reaching its full potential.

The first such issue is that, while Wario retains his ability to gain special powers after being struck by certain enemy attacks (swelling up and floating like a balloon when stung by a bee, sliding across surfaces when frozen by an enemy, etc.), Wario is no longer invincible as he was in Wario Lands 2 and 3. In the past games Wario would gain such abilities from almost every foe (with the exceptions merely robbing Wario of coins), here you rarely know when an enemy attack will give Wario a power, and when it will just take health away. It unfortunately gives the game a gambling element that wasn’t present in the past.

The other issue is the process of fighting the bosses of each world. Not only do you have to find all of the aforementioned tablet pieces in each level just to face them, but every boss also features a time limit. If you take too long to defeat a boss, you’ll miss out on the opportunities to claim all of their treasure chests. That’s not so bad on its own, as before every boss fight, Wario has the opportunity to purchase special items (from what looks like Mr. Game & Watch), which are then used to damage the upcoming boss before the fight begins. Some items will do marginal damage, while others will nearly take out the boss on their own. That may sound like a cheat, but considering this is a Wario game, it’s actually a fitting element that compliments Wario’s character and humor.

None of that is a problem on its own. The whole boss process becomes an issue, however, by the simple fact that you can’t just purchase the boss items with the treasure Wario collects along his adventure. Instead, you purchase the items with special tokens. You get these tokens by spending your points/treasure to play one of three mini-games located before the boss fight of each world. You are then awarded tokens based on your performance in these mini-games. The problem is that acquiring these tokens can take a fair amount of time, and with how slowly Wario chips away at the bosses’ health on his own, you’re going to want to spend the extra tokens for the more powerful items to beat the bosses as quickly as possible. So if you want to claim every boss treasure and complete the game at one-hundred percent, you have to repeat the process all over again if you can’t beat the boss fast enough the first time around. Some might say that’s a fair price to pay since the game essentially gives you the ability to cheat, but buying these items is optional anyway. So why not just use your points to buy the tokens and skip the mini-games? It’s just a tedious process that seems counterproductive.

Aside from those elements though, Wario Land 4 remains a winner in most respects. Wario himself controls better than ever, with his every action feeling far smoother than in past games. The level design finds some fun and creative ways to mix up the formula. The game still looks great with its colorful graphics and vibrant animations, and the soundtrack stands tall above its predecessors, meaning that collecting those CDs is worth the effort.

It may not be among the best games on the Game Boy Advance, but Wario Land 4 is another testament that the GBA is when handheld gaming truly made it.

 

7

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Replaying: Super Mario 3D World

The Super Mario Maker 2 trailer that launched back in February not only got me hyped for the upcoming Switch title, but its addition of the Super Mario 3D World play style had me feeling nostalgic for the 2013 Wii U platformer. And seeing as I previously stated I wanted to start replaying games more and writing more gaming articles besides reviews, now seemed as good a time as any to revisit Super Mario 3D World. Besides, after trudging through the overly-long and tedious Kingdom Hearts 3, and its mishandling of franchises I like, I needed to play something more fun, rewarding, charming, and that did justice to a franchise I like. Thus, replaying Super Mario 3D World was a no-brainer (it sure would be great if they could make a Disney game this good).

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: No, Super Mario 3D World is not as good as the Super Mario Galaxy titles that preceded it, nor is it as good as Super Mario Odyssey that followed. But considering the Galaxy duo and Odyssey are among the greatest games ever created, not being as good as them pretty much refers to most games that aren’t them. On its own merits, however, Super Mario 3D World is still one of the most consistently fun and creative games of the 2010s.

Yeah, it seems like I praise Mario games a lot. But while not every Mario game is good (New Super Mario Bros. 2 and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, both released a year prior to 3D World, were creatively empty and flat-out boring, respectively), I will say that Super Mario is the only series in which a game as great as 3D World could be considered one of its smaller achievements. It may not have the revolutionary factor of Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario 64, nor is it as great as the trio mentioned in the above paragraph or games like Super Mario World. And yet, it’s hard to find much fault in Super Mario 3D World other than “it’s not as good as some other Mario games.” The Legend of Zelda is probably the only other series that can boast equal quality, though maybe not quite at the same level of consistency (and maybe Dark Souls/Bloodborne, but that has far fewer entries).

“One level combines a shadow aesthetic with the gameplay quirk of carrying around a hungry Piranha Plant.”

What makes Super Mario 3D World so good? It all boils down to the two qualities that best define a good game: great gameplay, and a terrific sense of creativity. 3D World may not be the most innovative Mario game, but the gameplay and design is as polished as any of the heroic plumber’s entries, and each stage is a showcase of one playful idea after another. It’s the kind of game where the simple act of controlling your character is a joy (which is actually pretty rare, though seemingly less so with this series).

Many fans were at first disappointed with Super Mario 3D World’s initial E3 reveal, as it followed in the footsteps of the 2011 3DS title, Super Mario 3D Land. This raised fans’ eyebrows for two reasons: The first was that 3D Land was a solid game, but not a particularly standout one which, again, given the pedigree of the Mario series, is tantamount to a massive disappointment. The other reason is that, like 3D Land, 3D World seemed to be aiming more for the feel of a 2D Mario entry than a 3D one with its linear level design, with most fans protesting that the 3D Mario titles were losing their distinct identity due to the ludicrous sales of the New Super Mario Bros. side scrolling series.

While I admit I too at the time had some doubts about seeing a “proper” follow-up to 64, Sunshine, and the Galaxy duo (we would eventually get just that with Odyssey), I was hardly disappointed with what 3D World promised. After all, we were ‘only’ three years removed from Galaxy 2 at the time (most “proper” 3D Marios had much longer gaps in between releases), so it didn’t really feel like the necessary time for another Mario title of that scale. Secondly, while the New Super Mario Bros. games were competently fun, they never really felt like the worthy continuations of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World that they wanted to be. 3D Land introduced the style and feeling of 2D Marios into the world of 3D Marios (linear stages with clear end goals, time limits, etc.) and felt like a step in the right direction. But again, didn’t quite hit the mark.

Super Mario 3D World, however, quickly reveals itself as the worthy successor to games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and World that we had been waiting for, despite being a 3D title. It took the foundations of 3D Land, and combined it with the sense of invention and polish that we expect from Mario’s best titles (which, again, was lacking from New Super Mario Bros. and 3D Land). The Galaxy games had refined what 64 started, so it was cool to get something that felt like a fitting continuation to the Mario games that predated 64 (now if only the Mario RPGs could get a worthy follow-up).

There are so many things that make Super Mario 3D World work so well: the level design is a constant delight, with each stage presenting something new, and always fun. The power-ups – from perennial favorites the Fire Flower and Tanooki Leaf, 3D Land’s Boomerang Suit, and 3D World’s own Double Cherry (which duplicates your character) and the surprisingly powerful and versatile Cat Suit – are all a joy, and add so much to the gameplay (the Cat Suit, in particular, has to join the ranks of Mario’s best power-ups). And you get to play as not only Mario, but Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad as well, each coming with their abilities from Super Mario Bros. 2 (Luigi jumps highest, Peach floats, and Toad is fastest, with Mario being well-rounded). And of course you can unlock Rosalina, who comes equipped with the spin attack from Super Mario Galaxy. It’s a Mario platformer where you get to play as Rosalina! That alone makes it a winner (Rosalina is best girl).

Oh yeah, I almost forgot that Super Mario 3D World is also the only four-player entry in the 3D Mario canon. And unlike many games that add co-op multiplayer to a traditionally single-player formula, the level design of Super Mario 3D World compliments playing alone or with friends.

“The Koopa/Blob/Clown/Monster.”

If there’s any downside to Super Mario 3D World, it’s that the boss fights are an utter cakewalk. Yeah yeah, people claim Mario bosses tend to be easy, but the series often finds ways to make the boss battles feel creative, which makes it easy to look past a lack of difficulty. But aside from the final fight against Bowser and two other recurring bosses (a monarch snake and a Koopa/Blob/Clown/Monster), the boss fights of 3D World feel tacked on and rushed (Boom Boom should never serve as a world boss). But aside from the underwhelming boss battles, just about everything else about Super Mario 3D World is a constant barrage of fun and inspiration.

“Six years later, and the game still looks great!”

Along with gameplay and creativity, Super Mario 3D World also boasts what I consider to be the third key ingredient to a great game: a fantastic musical score. Again, the music may not quite be on Galaxy or Odyssey’s level, but 3D World still provides one of the most memorable scores in the Mario canon. Even the sound effects of the game seem to reinforce the game’s “fun at all costs” mentality.

Under my original “.5” scoring system, I awarded Super Mario 3D World a 9.0 out of 10. But now, under my current whole number system, I’ve flip-flopped between an 8 and a 9 (flip-flopping more than perhaps any other game). Unlike other games where I’ve been indecisive with its score, it’s my ‘heart’ that rates the game lower and my ‘mind’ that rates it higher. In terms of ‘heart,’ I can say I don’t feel quite as strongly for 3D World as some other games I would rate highly. After all, I gave both Red Dead Redemption 2 and 2018’s God of War a score of 8/10, as I’m trying to make that the exceptional score that most games would strive for. In that sense, 3D World makes sense with that score. But in terms of ‘mind,’ I would say that Super Mario 3D World doesn’t really have many notable faults. Aside from the boss fights and “not being as good as other Mario games,” there’s really not much to gripe about with Super Mario 3D World. As great as Red Dead 2 and God of War are – and yes, they are undeniably ‘bigger’ games than 3D World – they also have more notable flaws than Mario’s Wii U outing. Super Mario 3D World doesn’t feature an obnoxiously sidetracked trip to Guarma, for example. So I’m still undecided on which score to settle on.

As of this writing, I’ve beaten the “main game” of my current playthrough of Super Mario 3D World, and am currently playing through the post-game secret worlds. And after recently playing through lengthy games (including the aforementioned tediousness of Kingdom Hearts 3), revisiting Super Mario 3D World is exactly what I needed. Its constant sense of fun and invention, combined with its polished execution makes Super Mario 3D World an easy game to pick up and play, and a delight to revisit again and again.

Super Mario 3D World may not be the most groundbreaking Mario game, but it’s an undeniable blast from start to finish. And while my favorite Wii U game will always be Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Super Mario 3D World is just about the only Wii U game left that hasn’t either been ported to the Nintendo Switch, or have an improved sequel for Nintendo’s hybrid console (even Super Mario Maker, once believed to be the justification of the Wii U’s gamepad, is getting a Switch sequel). So along with the Virtual Console, Super Mario 3D World is basically the reason to keep your Wii U at the ready… at least until it gets ported to the Switch.

Is Super Mario 3D World worth a replay? Oh, hell yeah!

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Review

Mario Kart 8 was not only the best-selling game on the Wii U, and one of the system’s best titles, it was the best Mario Kart to date. It abandoned the luck-based nature of Mario Kart Wii, and gave it a sense of polish like the series had never seen before. There was, however, one glaring flaw with Mario Kart 8.

Despite all the improvements MK8 made to the core racing mechanics of the series, it somehow managed to butcher the series’ beloved Battle Mode of all things. Gone were the arenas where players did battle. Instead, players had to pop each other’s balloons while wandering around the racetracks, hoping that they could manage to even find one of the other players.

Thankfully, it seems Nintendo realized they made more than a little bit of an oopsie with Mario Kart 8’s Battle Mode, and decided to revamp it entirely for the game’s relaunch on the Nintendo Switch. By taking an already exceptional game, rectifying its one great flaw, and sprinkling in several other small changes, Nintendo has ensured that Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is as essential to the Switch as its original incarnation was to the Wii U.

This being a re-release, the core mechanics of the experience are nearly identical to what they were in the original Mario Kart 8. The racing is as tight and intricate as it was back in 2014. You still get boosts for drifting and for performing stunts, the racetracks still posses anti-gravity sections, and the items are still more balanced than in previous entries in the series.

There are, however, a few subtle changes that improve the already smooth experience. You can now drift longer for even greater boosts (represented by pink sparks flying from your wheels), and the infamous “fire hopping” trick (which gave an advantage to those who could pull it off) has been removed, making the racing all the more balanced.

Perhaps the most noticeable change in gameplay is that you can now hold two items at once, a returning feature from the GameCube’s Mario Kart: Double Dash!!. You can even find double item boxes, to immediately gain two items at once.

These may all sound like small changes, but you’d be surprised just how much they change things up. This is particularly true for the double items, which make getting and maintaining first place a greater challenge than before.

There are other changes present as well: Beginning players can now enable “Smart Steering,” which prevents your kart from falling off track (though this feature disables the pink sparks, and makes certain shortcuts harder to reach, should they require you to jump from one track to another). You can now change characters and karts in between online matches, instead of going back to the online lobby in order to do so. Additionally, the randomization of items seems to have been tweaked, with speed-boosting Mushrooms – while still the most common item – no longer feeling annoyingly frequent, while more useful items aren’t quite as rare, though not common enough to ruin the game’s balance.

We even get two items returning from older entries in the series: Super Mario Kart’s Super Feather allows players to jump over obstacles, and Mario Kart 64’s Boo turns players ethereal, making them impervious to enemy items, while also stealing an item from a random opponent.

To top it all off, the game includes every character from the Wii U version, including the DLC originals like Link from The Legend of Zelda, Villager and Isabelle from Animal Crossing, Tanooki Mario, and Dry Bowser, as well as five brand-new characters: King Boo, Dry Bones, Bowser Jr. and the boy and girl Inklings from Splatoon.

On the downside of things, the only unlockable character is Gold Mario, who is merely an alternate color for Metal Mario, who already seemed like an unnecessary character to begin with. Mario Kart 8 had a mixed bag of characters as it was, with every timeless video game icon like Mario, Bowser and Donkey Kong being countered with a throwaway addition like Baby Daisy and the creative low that is Pink Gold Peach. The five brand new characters do bring a bit more proper franchise representation to the game, but the more lackluster characters still sour the roster a little.

Of course, the big news here is the Battle Mode, which has been brought back to its former glory, and features five different gameplay styles.

Naturally, there’s the traditional Balloon Battle, where players fight in an arena and try to eliminate the other players’ balloons by using items. Then there’s Bob-omb Blast, which is essentially just Balloon Battle, but where every item is replaced with Bob-ombs, making for pure chaos. Coin Runners sees players trying to hold onto the most coins by the time the clock runs out, with players losing coins every time a weapon strikes them.

One of my personal favorites is Shine Thief, a returning mode from Double Dash!! that sees every player fighting for a single Shine Sprite. Whoever can hold the Shine Sprite for a count of twenty is the winner. As you can imagine, holding the Shine Sprite makes you the target of every other player, and though reclaiming the Shine Sprite will continue your counter from where it left off (until it reaches five or below), getting it back after losing it is easier said than done. The hectic action of Shine Thief is matched only by Renegade Roundup, a brand-new Battle Mode that is divided into teams. One team takes the role of “The Authorities,” identified by the Piranha Plants with police sirens attached to their karts, while the others are the “Renegades.” The goal of the Authorities is to capture all of the renegades via the Piranha Plant, while the Renegades simply try to survive within the allotted time. This may sound like it heavily favors the Authorities team, but the Renegades can free their captured teammates by driving into a switch, making things much more competitive.

Having a proper Battle Mode rectifies the one big mistake Mario Kart 8 made the first time around, and the fact that it comes in five variants makes it feel like Nintendo went out of their way to make up for its omission in the game’s original release. Battle Mode gives a great alternative to the racing, and all five versions of it are extremely fun.

If there’s any disappointment to be had with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, it’s simply that there are no new racetracks added to the game (not counting the battle arenas). Yes, the track design in Mario Kart 8 is the best in the series, and the fact that Deluxe comes with all the original’s DLC tracks out of the box means there’s no shortage of variety. But considering how Nintendo went above and beyond the call of duty for the Battle Mode, you can’t help but wish they’d have done the same for the core racing by including a new cup or two.

Even with the lack of new racetracks, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has in store. Mario Kart 8 already had great gameplay, and more polish than any entry in the series before it. But now the few kinks that were present have been ironed out, making it the smoothest and most polished kart racer around.

You also couldn’t ask for much better in terms of presentation. Mario Kart 8 was always a gorgeous game. Though it’s hard to tell if the graphics have been improved at all, that’s just a testament to how stunning the game always looked. Its colorful characters and locales, fun and varied art direction, and sharp graphics come together to make a game that looks simply stunning, and whose visuals perhaps don’t get the attention they deserve. It’s an outright beautiful game to look at, and the orchestrated soundtrack is just as pleasing to the ears.

Combine all of this with the more streamlined tweaks, and an online mode that is sure to keep you coming back for more, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe proves to be one of the finest of multiplayer games. Mario Kart 8 was already the closest thing the series had to a definitive entry, and now as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, it undoubtedly belongs on any list of the best Nintendo games.

 

9

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version*

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a beautiful contradiction. It is at once the grandest adventure Nintendo has ever made, and their most minimalistic. It defies the established conventions of the Zelda series, while simultaneously celebrating the franchise’s legacy. It’s Nintendo’s first foray into the open-world genre, and yet it’s the best game said genre has ever produced. In short, Breath of the Wild is nothing short of a masterpiece, and the new standard for the Zelda franchise.

When Nintendo claimed they were making this newest Zelda title an open-world experience, it was all too easy to assume Nintendo had done something they rarely choose to do, and caved in and conformed with more contemporary gaming conventions. Nintendo is usually known for going by the beat of their own drum, but it seemed Nintendo had finally opted to do what everyone else was doing. Though titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim earned their place in gaming history, the open-world genre has been teetering on overexposure for years now. Did we really need Nintendo to throw their hat in this ring?

As it turns out, Nintendo was still doing their own thing in regards to Breath of the Wild, as it redefines the very definition of open-world gaming in a way that makes the genre truly live up to its name.

Breath of the Wild begins with Link, the series’ iconic protagonist, awaking from a hundred-year slumber. His memories of his past are wiped clean by this mysterious sleep, and he is only awakened by the distant sound of a woman’s voice.

Link follows the echoing voice, which leads him out of his rejuvenating chamber, and grants him the Sheikah Slate, a mysterious tablet that becomes an invaluable tool in the upcoming adventure.

Link soon learns that, during his slumber, the evil Ganon has been sealed away within Hyrule Castle by Princess Zelda, with the princess having trapped herself within the castle to hold Ganon at bay.

Ganon – now more of a physical, evil presence than a man or monster – will soon break free from his century-long prison to wreak havoc on the world. Should Ganon break free, it would spell certain doom for Zelda and all of Hyrule.

It’s a simple enough plot, but it plays to the game’s benefit because – as is the case with the gameplay itself – it employs both a grand scope and a sense of minimalism, with the details of the plot being unfolded piece by piece only if the player seeks them out. The story has a certain sense of mystery about it, and searching for the pieces of the story to rekindle Link’s memories gives it a sense of personal intrigue.

The truth is, you are able to go straight to battle Ganon as soon as Link awakes from his slumber if you choose, as ill-advised as that may be. The way the adventure unfolds is left entirely to the player, making Breath of the Wild the most open-world of open-world games.

The very foundations of the Zelda series have been rearranged. No longer does Link need to go from one dungeon to the next, grabbing specific items in each dungeon to solve its puzzles, and be rewarded with a Heart Container and a story item upon felling its boss. Those elements are still there – the dungeons, the items, the puzzles, the Heart Containers, and so forth – but Nintendo has completely overhauled how they all fit together.

Link now relies on the myriad of weapons he finds along his journey, or picks up from defeated foes, instead of simply finding a new toy in each subsequent dungeon. Even the iconic Master Sword is an optional component of Link’s arsenal. There are no mandatory weapons, only what you can find.

The weapons can break upon repeated usage, leaving the player to take to battle more strategically than ever before. But certain enemy types may favor particular weapons, and certain regions may be more keen on particular elemental items than others, leaving the player to learn the best places to acquire their favorite weapons.

Similarly, the more puzzle-oriented items in Link’s inventory have found a new life, as they are simply abilities provided by the Sheikah Slate, and are all acquired within the game’s introductory segment.

Bombs – which now come in round and cuboid shapes, leaving players to contemplate the physics involved with the item and environment – are now magically produced through the Sheikah Slate, so there’s no need to stock up on them or to be teased with the traditional bomb flowers early on. The Shiekah Slate can also produce icy platforms in bodies of water, manipulate metallic objects like a magnet, and temporarily freeze objects in time, allowing Link to strike with a bevy of hits. Later on, the Sheikah Slate even gets a camera function, allowing you to take photos of the people and creatures of Hyrule to fill up an encyclopedia.

A Link Between Worlds gave players the opportunity to buy any of Link’s items from the get-go, but Breath of the Wild takes that idea a step further by turning Link’s most unique items into different abilities provided by a single starting item. It streamlines the Zelda experience for the better, simply by condensing Link’s abilities, which are used in various ways, as opposed to many tools that have singular functions.

Link can no longer find hearts hidden in grass or clay pots for health. Instead, Breath of the Wild is given a survival element, as Link has to find and craft his own means of healing within the game’s world.

You can hunt animals for meat, find various plants around the world, and collect monster parts from fallen foes. Though eating some of these items as they are can restore a little health, cooking items together can create meals which can not only recover a large amount of health, but also provide temporary bonuses, such as extra hearts or stamina, stronger resistance to heat or the cold, or boosts in defense or attack, among others.

This gives the Zelda series a whole new layer of depth and challenge. Now players have to take notice of the environment and its elements (you don’t want to be wearing metal armor during a thunderstorm), and will have to make stronger preparations before heading into enemy territory.

When your journey first begins, Link may seem pitifully weak, with only three hearts, a small bit of stamina, and barely enough space to carry weapons and shields. This is where Breath of the Wild once again changes up the Zelda formula.

Though Heart Containers are still found by conquering the story-focused dungeons, Link no longer has to search for four Heart Pieces to increase his maximum health. Instead, players can travel Hyrule seeking out Shrines.

Shrines are either found lying around Hyrule, or materialize after finishing a sidequest or meeting a certain requirement. The shrines work like smaller dungeons, usually consisting of a handful of rooms, each containing their own puzzles and hidden treasures. The puzzles involved in the shrines are one of the game’s greatest highlights, as most can be tackled in different ways depending on the player’s thinking. The creativity and brevity of the shrine puzzles really bring to mind the various chambers of the Portal games, and I’d even say their consistent brilliance makes Breath of the Wild arguably the closest thing we have to Portal 3.

Once the shrines are completed, Link is awarded with a Spirit Orb. Every four Spirit Orbs Link obtains can be traded to goddess statues for greater maximum health or stamina, giving a whole new life to one of Zelda’s most recurring traditions. Stamina is used for running, climbing, swimming and gliding, thus making increasing your maximum stamina a worthwhile alternative to giving Link more health.

Similarly, there are Korok seeds that can be found by finding the many playful Koroks, who are hiding all over the place. Koroks may have you do something like lifting a rock at the top of a mountain or shooting flying targets from a certain standing point to make them appear. The Koroks will reward you with the seeds for finding them, and the seeds can be traded to a particularly large Korok for extra space in your inventory.

Finding things like a new shrine or a Korok hiding place (among other things) help fill Hyrule with things to do. This is a great thing, because the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is absolutely massive, but that size wouldn’t mean anything if there were no substance to it. Thankfully, Nintendo really thought about how to keep things fun and exciting at every turn, so no matter what pace you choose to tackle the adventure, there’s always something to be accomplished, and a strong sense of discovery to be had.

Speaking of the size of the game’s world, it would have been easy for the simple act of traveling around it to become a chore in less capable hands. Thankfully, Breath of the Wild’s developers have streamlined the ways Link can get around Hyrule, meaning that traveling never becomes tedious.

Link can climb virtually any surface in Hyrule, and a paraglider gained early in the adventure means you can climb one mountain and glide to the next, if you so desire. The only surfaces Link can’t climb are found in the aforementioned shrines. Otherwise, player’s can find many clever ways for Link to get from one point to the next.

Additionally, Link can fast travel by teleporting to discovered shrines, as well as Towers (which unlock more pieces of the map when successfully ascended). So if you need to get to the other side of Hyrule in a hurry, you can simply bring up the map screen to teleport there, provided you’ve discovered a means to do so.

Unfortunately, this all brings me to one of Breath of the Wild’s few disappointing elements. Along Link’s adventures, Link can find wild horses, which can be tamed and registered to stables for later use. As you might expect, horses can move faster on foot than Link, but they might be stopped in their tracks by a large rock or tree, whereas Link can simply climb over it. It makes sense, certainly. But because Link is already a more versatile traveller, I rarely went through the trouble of taming horses, even if they are faster on foot. It’s ultimately a small quibble, but I do wish I had more incentive to claim a new steed.

Another highlight of the game are its more traditional story dungeons, which are only traditional in the sense that they are part of the main story, involve puzzles and enemies, and end with a boss. Otherwise, they greatly deviate from the series’ norm.

The dungeons are wonderfully creative, and come in the form of giant, animal-like constructs that would make the Power Rangers jealous. You usually have to go through a mini-adventure just getting to the dungeons through one of the lands of Hyrule’s different races (Gorons, Zoras, Rito and Gerudo), then you have a miniature showdown with the dungeon itself before making your way inside. Once inside, you’ll notice that the dungeons are as open-ended as anything else in the game, as they each contain five terminals which must be activated, but can be activated in whatever order the player chooses.

The best aspect of the dungeons is that, rather than a straightforward layout, the player can actually manipulate them from the inside. Rearranging the positioning of the dungeons and changing the perspective of their puzzles is a beautifully realized bit of creativity, and helps elevate the dungeon design as some of the finest in the series, despite their relative short length.

If there’s any complaint to be had with the dungeons (and I’m grasping at straws here), it’s that – despite the wonderfully varied locations they are found in and the creativity of their level design – the insides of the dungeons are all aesthetically identical, and their bosses also share similar appearances with each other.

Though that’s a non-issue in the long run, as the art direction and graphics, as a whole, are quite stunning. Aside from the Wii U re-releases of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, this is the first true Zelda game presented in HD, and it looks absolutely beautiful. The environments are relatively realistic in appearance, and the game is so detailed that you can even see the differences in weather between different lands in the distance. The characters are cel-shaded a la Wind Waker or Skyward Sword, which adds to the game’s visual charms, and serves as a unique contrast with the environments.

There even seems to be something of a Studio Ghibli inspiration emanating from the art direction. Ancient robots (called Guardians) are strangely reminiscent of those found in Castle in the Sky, while many of the environments might remind one of Princess Mononoke. Even the walking dungeons may bring Howl’s Moving Castle to mind. Breath of the Wild feels as much like a Studio Ghibli game as Ni no Kuni, and it only adds to the game’s appeal.

Breath of the Wild is equally pleasing to the ears, with a beautifully minimalistic soundtrack that also seems evocative of the soundtracks to Studio Ghibli films. I’ve seen a number of comments disregarding the soundtrack as not sounding “Zelda enough,” but I find it to be a perfect fit for the nature of the game, with its gentle piano melodies and ambient tunes bringing the game world to life.

Similarly, the game features some exquisite sound effects. The different armors and weapons, as well as Link’s interactions with different environments, all have their own sounds, which helps add to the atmosphere and life of the world in a way not dissimilar to Dark Souls.

Perhaps more notable is that Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda game to feature voice acting during its major cutscenes. Though Link is his usual, silent self and Ganon’s status as an evil substance means that two pieces of the franchise’s trifecta remain voiceless, Zelda, along with various other characters, have speaking roles. The voice acting may not go down as some of the best in gaming, but it’s solid and works when it needs to.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild fine tunes the gameplay and combat first introduced in Ocarina of Time, and similarly perfects the explorative elements of Wind Waker. In the process, it also throws in a little bit of Skyrim, Dark Souls, Portal, Uncharted, Shadow of the Colossus and Studio Ghibli. The end result creates an exhilarating and unforgettable adventure that allows players to tackle it however they choose (I put more than 30 hours into it before I attempted the first story dungeon). Its execution is so well done that Breath of the Wild should rank along the likes of Super Mario World, A Link to the Past and the Super Mario Galaxy titles as one of Nintendo’s finest achievements.

Despite all of its inspirations, Breath of the Wild is still very much the Zelda experience we all know and love. In fact, it may just be the best of the legendary lot.

 

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Freedom Planet Review

*This review originally appeared on Miketendo64.com*

Freedom Planet

Freedom Planet is a love letter to the glory days of Sonic the Hedgehog. In fact, it started development as a Sonic fan game, until its developers at GalaxyTrail decided to create their own IP out of their love of the 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog classics. The end results are a satisfying platformer that could even be called the best Sonic game of recent memory, even if it doesn’t boast the titular hedgehog.

From the get-go, the Sonic influence is obvious. The game adopts the 16-bit visuals of the Sega Genesis, and no doubt its musical score echoes inspiration from Sega’s heyday (not just in Sonic, but a Nights Into Dreams influence can be heard from time to time as well).

The base game includes two playable characters: Lilac is a suspiciously hedgehog-esque dragon who has powerful kicks and hair whips, as well as the ability to “dragon dash” using stored up energy, and a helicopter spin to add a little boost to her jumps. Carol is a wildcat who isn’t quite as strong as Lilac, but has quicker clawing attacks, can wall jump, leap between specially marked platforms, and can use the aforementioned energy for a rapid kicking combo.

Post-release add-ons for the PC releases have added additional playable characters – including Milla the dog, the game’s tritagonist – though the Wii U version has yet to receive these updates.

Either way, having two characters from the get-go gives players a little bit of diversity in its campaign, as Lilac and Carol battle armies of robots to save their planet from the evil Lord Brevon.

This simple story is perhaps the biggest differentiation between Freedom Planet and the 16-bit Sonics that inspired it. If you play the game in Adventure Mode, each level is introduced and concluded with a series of cinematics, complete with voice acting.

I have to say, for having 16-bit limitations, the cinematics are actually quite impressive, though they can at times become a bit too lengthy, which is probably what inspired GalaxyTrail to also include Classic Mode, where players jump directly into the levels without all the cinematics.

Freedom PlanetOn one hand, I feel the game is definitely meant to be played with the story intact, and something feels a little off when playing it without them. But on the other hand, I’m not too big of a fan of some of the characters (like Milla, whose cuteness is forced to the point of obnoxiousness, or Torque, an alien ally who often wears a duck beak for some reason), whom I feel are a little on the pandering side, and again, some of the cinematics drag on and on. In the end, I suppose it’s all down to personal preference.

The gameplay remains stellar, however, with clever level designs that contain multiple pathways a la 16-bit Sonic, with new mechanics added throughout the adventure to keep it all fresh.

There are minor tweaks to the Sonic formula at play, however. Instead of rings that work as a health system and a means to gain extra lives, Lilac and Carol collect red leaves, with every two red leaves refilling one of their hit points. Meanwhile, blue crystals need to be gathered in quantities of 200 in order to gain an extra life.

Freedom PlanetIf there’s one big drawback to Freedom Planet, it’s that it boasts a rather glaring inconsistency in the difficulty between the levels and boss fights. The levels themselves can be easy or reasonably challenging, but even some of the game’s early bosses are on the frustratingly difficult side of things. It’s one thing if a hard game has hard bosses, or if the boss fights gradually become more difficult. But I can’t help but feel there’s no real transition in the boss difficulty. The levels themselves gradually stack up the difficulty, but the boss fights are difficult from the offset.

The complaints are ultimately minor, however. Freedom Planet itself is a whole lot of fun, and feels like a Genesis classic that never was. It’s lightning-fast platforming and smart level design stand favorably alongside Sonic’s most fondly-remembered adventures, it’s fluidly animated with surprisingly strong production values, and its soundtrack – like any great 16-bit title – is a thing of utterly infectious beauty.

Sonic may have lost a step or two over the years, but Freedom Planet is a reminder that the foundations Sonic built were timeless and, of course, way passed cool.

 

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Nintendo Wii Turns 10!

Wii

Time to feel old, everyone! The original Nintendo Wii was released in North America ten years ago today. Yep, it was November 19th 2006 that the gaming landscape was changed forever, as Satoru Iwata’s home console brainchild was released, and changed perceptions of what it means to be a gamer.

The Wii opened the door for audiences who previously seemed as far removed from gaming stereotypes as possible. No longer were video games just a “geek” pastime, but a hobby for just about everyone, from small children to grandparents and everything in between. It not only changed the direction of Nintendo, but even Sony and Microsoft took note, and if the popularity of mobile games is any indication, the Wii’s impact is still being felt.

Sure, the console had more than its share of shovelware (but then again, so did the PS2, not that anyone seems to bring that up). And the Wii has long-since received flak from undeservedly self-important nerds who deride the console and its motion controls for not pandering to them. But the Wii was a genuine game-changer, and had its fair share of classics (many of which, I would argue, hold up a lot better than the beloved Nintendo 64).

The Wii became a massive success for Nintendo, and even featured some of the most acclaimed games in history (notably the Mario Galaxy titles). Sadly, it’s successor, the Wii U -despite featuring a number of brilliant games – could not replicate the Wii’s success, and is Nintendo’s least-selling home console to date, as well as being unfairly berated on the internet (once again, it’s probably a better console than the N64, or even the GameCube, but I guess it doesn’t have blinding nostalgia on its side).

Perhaps because of the Wii U’s less-than-stellar sales, Nintendo is now dropping the Wii name from its next console, the Nintendo Switch (am I the only one who sees the missed opportunity for it to be named “SWiitch?”). But no doubt the Wii brand left a huge impact on not only Nintendo, but the world of gaming as a whole.

Here’s to the original Wii, and the brand it created. Happy ten years, you wonderful, ivory box you!

Paper Mario: Color Splash Review

Color Splash

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars began the concept of transforming the world of Super Mario into an RPG series. Though Super Mario RPG never got a proper sequel, its legacy was continued by two series: the handheld Mario & Luigi titles, and Paper Mario. Both series were great in their own right, but it was Paper Mario that felt closer in spirit to Super Mario RPG.

Despite the Mario RPGs being among Nintendo’s best titles – up there with Zelda, Donkey Kong, and the Mario platformers – Nintendo, for reasons that will never make sense, decided to opt out of the Mario RPGs as time went by.

The last two Mario & Luigi titles have basically stripped away the depth in story, characters and gameplay from the first three titles, but Paper Mario has been altered all the more. Super Paper Mario took away the turn-based battles in favor of platforming with RPG elements, though it retained the strong storytelling of the previous Paper Mario entries.

It was Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS however, that remains one of Nintendo’s biggest blunders. Sticker Star brought back turn-based battles, but replaced the RPG elements with collectible stickers, a gimmick that quickly grew tired and even made battles predominantly pointless, since your only reward for winning battles were more stickers and coins…for buying more stickers. Not to mention the game removed virtually every story and character aspect of its predecessors, leaving it soulless on both a narrative and gameplay standpoint.

Sticker Star was greatly disliked by longtime fans of the series, and when Paper Mario: Color Splash was first revealed and looked to be replicating Sticker Star’s style, it seemed doomed from the start. But does Color Splash fix the many problems of Sticker Star? Or does it fall just as flat?

To put it simply, if Sticker Star broke the Paper Mario series, Color Splash does a pretty good job at fixing it. But even if you repair something after its been broken, it’s never going to look quite as good as it once did.

Paper Mario: Color Splash does adopt much of Sticker Star’s formula. Battles still use consumable actions (here presented as cards), and Mario still doesn’t gain levels, nor is he joined by any memorable partners that can aid him in battle (though his adventure is joined by a sentient paint bucket named Huey, who is a far more charming and funny character than Sticker Star’s Kirsti ever was).

There is a bonus this time around in the form of paint. Mario must paint his cards in battle to fully power them up, and also paint areas of the environment that have been drained of their color using the paint hammer. The inclusion of paint benefits the battle system by the addition of Hammer Scraps, collectible items that are rewarded after battle. Hammer Scraps more or less work like experience points, and when enough are collected, the maximum amount of paint Mario has at his disposal increases. This difference alone prevents the battles from feeling pointless, as they did in Sticker Star, though it sadly cannot change the tediousness of the battles themselves.

Color SplashThere’s no beating around the bush, making all of the actions in battle consumable items is simply bad game design. Sure, the game throws cards and coins at you all the time, so you’re rarely going to run out of actions, but you may easily run out of the cards you need for a given enemy or situation. You’re constantly scrambling to get the right cards, or going out of your way to get enough coins to buy them by the bulk, just so you’re sure to have enough to make your way through a specific section.

To further complicate things, the process of using these cards in battle is just as tedious as anything. You have to cycle through your cards on the Gamepad (which are always categorized, left to right, from oldest to newest), then set up the cards you want to use, tap the chosen cards to paint them, select the “done painting” option, and then finish things off with an entirely unnecessary “flick” motion to send the cards from the Gamepad to the TV. Then, and only then, can you perform the usual action commands in battle. The process can grow old fast, and you may find yourself avoiding enemies just so you don’t have to keep going through it.

Another huge downside to battles is that Mario will automatically attack the on-screen enemies in a set sequence from left to right. This not only removes so much potential strategy in battles, but also means that, should you defeat some enemies too soon, Mario could end up screwing things up (like jumping on a spiked enemy) and the player can’t do anything about it.

Finally, “Things” make a return from Sticker Star, being 3D objects that can be turned into super powerful cards for use in and out of battle. Each Thing includes a hilarious in-battle animation (like a breakdancing piggybank or a tornado-like washing machine), and make for fun special attacks. The problem with Things arrises during boss battles. Every boss in the game must have a specific Thing used against them in order to defeat them. It is mandatory that you have a specific Thing with you during each boss, so that you can use them at the right moment. If you don’t have the right Thing, the bosses are, quite literally, impossible.

Color SplashIf this worked like Mega Man, and specific Things were merely particularly effective against certain bosses, it could be really fun and clever. Instead, you have bosses that are only beatable with specific items. There’s no strategy involved. If you know what Thing you need, you basically have victory guaranteed. It’s yet another display of blatantly bad game design.

Thankfully, this is where most of the complaining stops, because the aspects of Paper Mario: Color Splash that are enjoyable are very much enjoyable.

For starters, there’s a much greater emphasis on story and character than there was in Sticker Star (of course, any story and character at all would be much more than Sticker Star, but it’s intended as a compliment).

The plot is simple enough, with Mario and Peach traveling to Prism Island – a land renowned for its vibrant colors – after they receive a Toad drained of its color in the mail, sent from the island to the Mushroom Kingdom. Once they arrive at Prism Island, Mario and Peach find that the place is being drained of its color by an army of Shy Guys. Naturally, Bowser is up to his old tricks again, and it’s up to Mario, and his new paint bucket partner Huey, to restore color to the island and rescue the Paint Stars.

Color SplashSo the plot itself is nothing grand like Super Mario RPG or the first two Paper Marios, but Color Splash does liven things up with terrific writing and the series’ trademark humor.

Color Splash is one of the funniest games I’ve played in a long time. Whether it’s the visual gags that make great use of the paper motif, or the constant zingers the characters are spouting, Color Splash actually elicited a good number of laughs out of me throughout my playthrough.

Yeah, no kidding. I miss unique Toads.
Yeah, no kidding. I miss unique Toads.

On the downside of things, Color Splash continues Nintendo’s bizarre recent trend of making every NPC a generic Toad, with their only differing features being the colors of their spots and vests. I honestly can’t grasp why Nintendo thinks having every NPC looking like the standard Toad is more charming than the variety of characters found in past Paper Marios. It just takes away personality from the game.

This lack of variety also shows up in the enemies, who are relegated to simply being returning foes from Mario’s platforming ventures. Even the aforementioned bosses are restricted to the Koopalings. I seriously don’t understand Nintendo’s refusal to add new enemies to the Mario RPG series anymore.

On a lighter note, another highlight has to be Color Splash’s aesthetics. The game is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with Nintendo bringing the paper craft visuals of the series to life like never before. There are so many little details all over the place that make the environments pop. You can definitely tell the developers were having a great time thinking of ways to recreate Mario’s world out of handcrafted materials. It’s an absolutely beautiful game to look at, and it’s full of visual surprises.

Arguably even better than the visuals is the musical score. Color Splash follows in the tradition of the Galaxy series and 3D World of integrating a full band orchestra into the Mario series, and just as in past efforts, it pays off beautifully. Color Splash’s soundtrack is often (and appropriately) colorful and lively, but it ends up showcasing a wide variety of styles and tunes. It’s one of the best Mario soundtracks of the last few years.

Much of this review may sound a bit negative, but rest assured, the good ultimately outweighs the bad. Nintendo’s stubbornness may have never been quite as pronounced as it is here, with the continuing of Sticker Star’s infamous template. But the fact that Color Splash can take such a flawed blueprint and turn it into a very fun experience is also one of the biggest testaments to Nintendo’s mastery of the craft.

I very much love most of Paper Mario: color Splash: It looks stunning, sounds great, it’s often hilarious, always charming, and is full of fun little gameplay surprises. But the flaws that are present are a bit too prominent, and you may find that Color Splash is at its best in stages that work as their own, self-contained little narratives, and place the battle system to the side. Still, a tedious battle system is better than the pointless one of Sticker Star, and the stories, characters and writing that are present here help give the game an identity that was lacking not only in Sticker Star, but the past few Mario & Luigi titles as well.

Paper Mario: Color Splash may not bring back the glory the Mario RPGs once showcased so profusely, but its creativity and charm are so endearing that you can’t help but feel it’s getting things back on track.

But seriously, can we please just get a proper Mario RPG again? Please?!

 

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