What JRPGs should learn from Final Fantasy IV

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For anyone who has read my recently posted review of Dragon Ball Fusions, you’ll note that I closed out my piece with a little tangent about how I disliked modern JRPGs. I’m not sorry I wrote that, as I feel it helps one understand my frustrations with Fusions. The game does literally nothing to break the typical mold of JRPGs and it suffers for that.

One thing that seems to be misunderstood is my attitude towards the genre, as a whole. I don’t dislike every JRPG ever made, just most of them after Chrono Trigger. As a matter of fact, I’m going to now explain why Final Fantasy IV’s remake is one of the best examples of the genre and how Fusions and Bandai Namco could (and should) learn a thing or two from Square Enix’s past.

The opening of Final Fantasy IV immediately breaks the stereotypes of the genre. You aren’t playing some prophesized hero on a quest to save the world from an ancient evil; you’re a man who begins to question the morality of the orders he is being given. That insecurity leads to you being stripped of your position and sent on a tedious (and ultimately terrible) mission.

After falling from grace and hitting rock bottom, Cecil (the main character) vows to travel the world and help others in need. This goal thrusts him into an adventure that has a few twists and turns and introduces an incredible cast of characters along with some innovative and thrilling combat mechanics.

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With age, I’ve grown to understand why people enjoy turn based RPGs. Having that layer of strategy and tactics play out in a manner with which you are given limited control is an extra challenge on top of any difficulty selection (with which the remake of Final Fantasy IV offers two options). You can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy and any mistakes lead to emergent gameplay in the style of damage control. Failure to come back from the brink of death leads to a game over, but succeeding brings an incredible sense of accomplishment.

The thing is, most modern JRPGs do very little to distinguish each of their battles. Dragon Ball Fusions, as a matter of fact, is basically the same exact game for 90% of its playtime. You can approach every single battle with the same team of people and never even come close to losing. Some side quests offer up variety, but holding victory to different stipulations shouldn’t be relegated to optional content. A game should be challenging the player every step of the way.

Final Fantasy IV does exactly this. The default difficulty definitely makes things easy, but you are constantly faced with enemies that have weaknesses to different magic attacks or require you to play defense with certain characters. A lot of the bosses are resistant to magic or physical attacks and the rotation of your party members help switch up tactics without lecturing the player with dialog boxes.

Even the animations of the enemies can clue you in as to what needs to be done. One of the main bosses, Rubicante, will move his cape and that lets the player know physical attacks are now diminished in effectiveness. Of course, the only way to discover this is by trying things out, but the game gives players the freedom to learn these nuances on their own instead of throwing an utterly baffling amount of information at the player and then hiding important details in a “tips” menu.

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Then there is the active time battle system, which forces you to think on your feet. Sure, the characters won’t be moving on their own and everyone goes in a turn, but failing to select an option within a reasonable time limit will grant the enemy a chance to retaliate. You can’t just sit around and think forever, something that modern JRPGs have regressed back to.

One of the coolest additions to the remake (and even the PSP port) is the auto battle option. Grinding was worked into the design of older JRPGs because of the lack of technology powering them. Making a long and meaningful game on the NES was an arduous task without raising the difficulty. While removing grinding would have been preferable, having the auto battle for easier encounters removes a tremendous amount of tedium.

Let’s say you don’t gel with the combat or find it tedious; that can be understandable with the length of a lot of JRPGs. Final Fantasy IV’s story moves at such a brisk pace that I was able to complete in 20 hours while undertaking numerous side quests. I was never bored, I constantly felt the severity of the situation at hand and I had concern for the characters in my party. When certain events would strip me of some of my party members, I got legitimately sad.

Newer JRPGs don’t do this often. Most of the time, you have a group of people who never face any consequences. They don’t die, never get called away or come under ailment; they are basically terminators. Everything that happens in battle doesn’t matter, because they will always be there for you. I usually get pissed off because the party size is arbitrarily limited and I can’t use them all at once.

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Final Fantasy IV may be a bit too happy about shifting around the dynamic of your group, but at least you never feel like anyone is being wasted. This is also putting aside how some events in the plot permanently remove members from the game, even if they still exist in the story. I’d really hate falling in love with Tellah, for example.

Still, the constant drive to keep the plot moving and have you seeing new things is refreshing. A lot of big budget games, let alone JRPGs, pad the length of their runtimes with meaningless content to justify a higher price point. Reaching the finish line feels like busy work instead of having the game motivate you to complete it.

Now are there any examples of modern JRPGs I enjoy? Sure, quite a few. I’ve always been into Kingdom Hearts, but that is possibly the best example of mixing wonder and joy together with two gigantic corporations collaborating. Having Disney’s dream filled worlds collide with the battle systems of Final Fantasy is so crazy and extreme that it balances out into fun. The combat also reminds me a lot of Diablo, in some bizarre manner.

Xenoblade Chronicles is also one of my favorite Wii titles, even if that deviates incredibly from the typical JRPG mold. It borrows heavily from World of Warcraft or even Final Fantasy XII, but it has an ever expanding world that is densely populated with believable characters. Maybe the sidequests are totally pointless, but the game doesn’t offer harsh punishments for failure to save or prepare; you’re allowed to make some mistakes and keep going.

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Tales of Vesperia was a game I bought on a whim after conversing with an old friend. He was a huge fan of the series and I loved the presentation aspect, but it left me feeling indifferent. The combat is pretty awesome, almost mimicking Street Fighter with combos and special moves, but the characters and elongated plot don’t do the game favors. Instead of being concise and giving the player forward momentum, the game has a tremendous amount of detours for characters to doubt themselves, almost once an hour. It really drags at the end.

Lost Odyssey is also great, but it suffers from the limitations of the Xbox 360. Being one of the first “next-gen” RPGs, the game utilizes the Unreal engine to push HD graphics. That requires a lot of disc spinning, so the load times are absolutely horrendous. Random battles take about 20-25 seconds to load and most of the game is waiting around for things to start. The combat is great and the story is incredibly deep, but even it falters with Disc three being worthless. Why are children so hard to write?

For the rest of my experiences with games, I just see the same kind of crap. Infinite Undiscovery was a borderline embarrassing waste of potential and Final Fantasy XIII is the worst example of that particular series. The newer Star Ocean titles also play things incredibly save and do nothing to push their settings; they just expect space to be awe-inspiring by itself.

That loss of wonder and excitement is what makes something like Dragon Ball Fusions feel so disappointing. It may not be a bad game and has some pretty complex battle mechanics, but it doesn’t really respect the players time and input. The game tasks you with suffering through the same encounters and plot points until it ends and gives you nothing in return.

Maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here, but I just want my playtime to feel like it mattered. I know that is getting caught up in an arbitrary definition, but older games usually put more of an emphasis on world building and player involvement. I just want to see that return to JRPGs, instead of the influx of bloated games with little originality.

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Does Doom Still Matter?

No name speaks more of a quintessential first-person shooter than Doom. Doom was the catalyst for a cacophony of violent games in the 90’s that eventually led to the ESRB being founded to regulate game content. Not only that, it popularized a genre of gaming that had yet to break out into the mainstream.

While the initial sequel, Doom II, was actually better than the first game, developer iD Software has yet to make a game that follows up on the legacy set forth by Doom. Maybe it’s a mixture of nostalgia and genre evolution that keeps holding them back, but for some reason, Doom cannot be topped.

In a few months, the confusingly titled Doom reboot will be launching. Taking inspiration from a mod for the original game, Doom looks to up the violence and make the game as fast paced as it’s forefather. The big question on my mind is; Does Doom still matter?

Obviously one cannot debate the importance of the original title. It was one of the first 3D games with an arsenal of weapons and motley crue of enemies that was unparalleled for the time. It had revolutionary online play and extensive modding tools that allowed fans to make their own creations.

I have no idea what I’m looking at.

It also had some incredible graphics, a rocking soundtrack and some genuinely outstanding level design (that still holds up). Make no mistake; Doom was the real deal. My first encounter with it was in 4th grade. An old friend introduced me to it on the playground with the instruction manual.

I didn’t have a Windows PC, so I actually had my parents run out and buy a Mac compatible Windows 95 launcher just so I could try this game. While I did eventually get it running, it was missing some features and would often crash.

My fascination with the game didn’t stop until we eventually did get a true Windows computer. That was my very first computer, actually; a Packard Bell with a 3 gb hard drive. Those were much simpler times.

Regardless, Doom was almost a taboo for how it “corrupted” the innocence of gaming. Parents were sickened at the depiction of “violence” the game had and it’s demonic villains. I guess killing hellspawn is evil, even if it saves the Earth.

News outlets were shocked at how you could mangle police officers (I still, to this day, want to know what game they played). Activist groups wanted the game removed from store shelves. The world was coming to an end and it was all because of this little game.

This is just the second level of the game.

Needless to say, the controversy was overblown and gaming continued to evolve. We now have more grotesque displays of violence in games and sexuality is even becoming a common occurrence. Gaming is a pop-culture staple that is slowly becoming less niche by the day.

So what can a new Doom game in 2016 bring to the table? Does Doom need to be more than a simple throwback? Are fans ever going to be impressed with what gets released? I’m not sure I can answer all of those questions.

The easiest to tackle would be the intention of a new Doom. Not every piece of media needs to have a deeper message or mean something more to it’s medium. On occasion, a good, mindless, violent trip through excess and escapism is precisely what a person needs.

A rough day at work can be capped off with a good, meaty rocket launcher explosion of your best friend (in game form, of course…). The cathartic quality that Doom always exhibits can’t be understated; to this day, I still fire explosives in games and expect splash damage.

The original Doom wasn’t made with the purpose of reinventing the wheel. The developers saw a thing they liked, a new way to do it and set off to make it the best product possible. The main reason Doom succeeded so much was because of it’s business model; a freeware version of the first episode was available for free through mail order and the internet (if one was lucky enough to own a modem in 1994).

That gaming had not seen anything like Doom was merely a coincidence. Most game makers, artists and musicians don’t set out to specifically enhance their art form; they tend to fall on an idea they all love and furnish it into something unique.

How could you not be in love with this?

Will fans accept a new Doom? Well, initial reaction says yes. Fans reportedly cheered at the unveiling during Quakecon 2014. No one but those attendees got to see the footage of the game and everyone was claiming it was going “back to basics”. I guess they were on board.

Then a year went by without much information leaking. No one was talking about the game and people hadn’t seen what the gameplay was going to be like. Eventually at E3, a trailer was released that showcased footage to the general public. Now fans were skeptical.

The “official” box art actually typifies everything wrong with the industry in 2016. The colors are muted, limited and saturated. The main character is faceless, staring at the ground and “gruff”. The font takes up more space than anything else and shows nothing of what the game is.

It just reeks of a cash grab. That is completely disregarding the actual quality of the game, but it seems that Bethesda only commissioned a reboot of Doom because reboots are the new, hot thing. Movie franchises are increasingly doing reboots and even Tomb Raider, another gaming institution, had a successful reimagining.

Look how many shits she gives.

Fans never seem to be pleased with anything. Gunning for that crowd will usually end in disaster. Still, whom else are you going to market a reboot of Doom to in 2016? Falling back on the legacy of your series will do nothing for newer gamers.

Which brings us to the final question; What can a new Doom bring to the table in 2016? As I mentioned above, the main source of inspiration seems to be a mod for the original Doom called Brutal Doom.

One of the creators of the original game, John Romero, was quoted as saying, “The only thing I think about now is.. what if… when we released Doom, we actually released Brutal Doom?” (laughs). We would have destroyed the gaming industry, I think. Brutal Doom is hilarious.”

I’m guessing that was all Bethesda needed to hear to fast track progress on a Doom reboot. A lot of the animations for weapons look like they were taken from the mod. The gore factor seems to have been clearly inspired by the mod. Sadly, the mod seems to be faster paced.

Without taking that into account, though, what else could Doom do? Shooters have become a stagnant genre in recent years. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare seemed to be the last big shakeup to the genre in terms of evolution. It’s online, RPG-lite system of unlocks caused a plethora of copycats that still haven’t gone away in nearly 10 years.

Level design has also remained the same…

Call of Duty is also responsible for popularizing the down sight aiming that basically every shooter uses today. Along with Resident Evil 4 redefining third person combat, action gaming hasn’t truly changed since 2005. The industry is falling back on old ideas and past successes to keep their inflated budgets and massive paychecks going.

While Doom may not have started out with the intent of reinventing gaming, it’s launch was special. It was a fundamental shift from being marketed as a toy for children into becoming a hobby that anyone could enjoy. It expanded the horizons of what software could do.

Doom in 2016 just looks like the same boring stuff we’ve seen for decades. I’ve never taken Doom as a serious, scary, horrific trek through a nightmare. Doom has always been a goofy, colorful, fun filled time for me. How can you look at the original graphics and not feel happy?

Even the defining features of this reboot, it’s gore filled executions, was done in Gears of War. You would be forgiven for mistaking Doom as a first-person sequel to that series; the art style is practically the same.

So, does Doom still matter? For cultural reverence, I’d say yes. As far as being an exciting, landmark event; hell no. There is nothing that Doom can do to become interesting again, apart from a complete shift in tone and setting (which would then defeat the purpose).

What film producers, game developers and artists need to realize is that certain things take off because of their time frame. Doom was a massive hit because nothing else was like it in 1994. In 2016, we’ve seen so many things emulate Doom that gamers just don’t care.

And no one cares about this.

Naming your game Doom and expecting it to sell is just naive. You would be better set creating a new IP and shifting focus away from the nostalgia laden masses. It’s fine to claim the game is a spiritual successor to Doom, but to drag the actual legacy into the dirt is shameful.

Then again, come May, I may be eating these words. The game could be good. Whose to say?

Series I Love – Super Mario Bros

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One cold, snowy day in 1992, my father decided to let me and my sister try out his NES. My mother had gotten the console as a first Christmas gift for my father and he liked to hide it away so we kids wouldn’t break it. Little did I realize, but his choice to let us touch that console would change my future.

I remember him going behind the television and fiddling with the coaxial cable. We had the RF/switch for our NES, so connecting it was as easy as pulling teeth (almost literally). After that, he switched the television to channel 4, dialed the nob and we were set.

Well, not just yet. The console didn’t display properly, so he had to remove the cartridge and blow into it. I never thought to question why at such a young age. I just took all of these steps as gospel. After “cleaning” the cartridge, my father put it back into the NES and we were golden.

He gave me the controller and tried to explain how Super Mario Bros. worked. I was 4 years old at the time, so needless to say, his words went completely over me. I saw the bright colors and a funny looking guy and proceeded to press some buttons. He walked to the right and the screen moved, so I just assumed that was it.

I walked into the first thing I saw. I can’t tell you what I was thinking, but I clearly had no perception of what an enemy was. My father then took the controller away from me, assuming I was an idiot (not in reality, I just got sad). I cried a bit, but I didn’t give up. I was entranced with this game.

24 years later, I’m still fond of Super Mario Bros. The fat, little, Italian plumber and I have basically grown up together. I’ve played all of the main Mario titles and a majority of the spin-offs. Seeing his face and hearing his voice is like comfort food to me.

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Some of the happiest memories I have are from Super Mario Bros. 3.My sister and I would trade turns for hours on end. The game seemed so incredibly massive and creative. Each world had something different about its design and the ability to store power-ups made challenging areas less painful.

Not only was the design more refined than previous entries, but having Luigi tag along and help progress just felt right. The original game basically mimicked an arcade machine by having each player make individual progress. Super Mario Bros. 3 felt like the first time cooperation was put into a game.

A few years after first picking up a controller, the Nintendo 64 was unleashed on the world. Being 8 years old at the time, I was completely floored. I couldn’t believe that we were moving into the third dimension so fast.

Nintendo was always the king of promo videos (their adds for Donkey Kong Country and StarFox 64 are ingrained in my mind), so I remember watching the Toys’R’Us video for Super Mario 64 about 100 times. I hung on every word the developers were mentioning. Mario was becoming more like a stuntman and a fighter. His moveset was expanding.

Not only his repertoire of attacks, but the world he was traversing was growing. Levels were becoming more vertically inclined. Mario could wall jump, ground pound and long jump; he felt like the crazy kid that I was. I was always loaded with energy, so I used to pretend I was Mario and jump around my backyard.

The wait for Christmas in 1996 was excruciating. Since I already figured out Santa wasn’t real, I knew my mother had the console in her bedroom. She hid that thing better than a drug lord dumps a corpse. I never even caught a glimpse of the box, despite her concealing it for 3 months.

When I did eventually get my hands on Super Mario 64, I felt like my life had changed. I was mesmerized by what I was playing. I couldn’t get my head around how such a game was made, let alone conceived. It felt like my world and video games were becoming one.

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The last time I felt such a way about Mario was with the release of Super Mario Galaxy. I wasn’t too big on Sunshine, but I played it and New Super Mario Bros. I had begun to gravitate more towards the spin-off games like Paper Mario and Mario Tennis, yet I had a feeling that Nintendo was slowly running out of ideas.

Super Mario Galaxy came out during my sophomore year of college. I went to school in Florida, away from my home in Connecticut and my Nintendo Wii, so I felt the sting of disappointment. I had to wait months to even try out the game, so I felt a bit empty. It didn’t help that my friends at school were jerks; I couldn’t seek comfort in the guy who had been with me my whole life.

There was a glimmer of hope, though! An online friend of mine who lived in Florida had just bought the game. He was willing to pick me up and have me stay the weekend. I was ecstatic. Not only did I get to hang out with one of my best friends, but I would finally get my hands on Super Mario Galaxy.

The opening cutscene that set up the story of Rosalina and the Lumas brought me to tears. It felt like Nintendo realized how cherished and special their mascot was. It was like they recognized the power this juggernaut of gaming had over the imagination.

The game was also thoroughly in love with Super Mario Bros. 3, something I attribute to Galaxy being the third 3D Mario game. I was sold; this felt like what I had been missing all those years. Platformers never really died down, but no one had made as creative and joyful a game as Nintendo did with Super Mario 64.

Galaxy pushed the limits of what could be done with 3D level design. It even utilized the Wii Remote in a method that didn’t feel so gimmicky. It had some challenge, an unlockable character (in the form of rising star, Luigi) and a truly incredible soundtrack.

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Since that day, Mario has been in some mediocre games and a few truly amazing ones. Nintendo just loves banking on nostalgia, a design philosophy that may potentially hold them back. When Nintendo EAD Tokyo is given the reigns, Mario is unlike anything else. The other teams kind of phone it in.

If the Mario series truly were to end, I wouldn’t mind capping it off with Super Mario Maker. Having the tools to create a brand new Mario adventure in my hands is something my younger self would have killed for. To have the kind of vibrancy and joy that my 8 year old self had would be overwhelming.

I’ve grown a bit cynical over the years, but Mario has always been there to bring the happiness back. He still has a zest for jumping and bouncing, even if his “love”, Princess Peach, is an airhead. How many times can one person really be captured?

Regardless, Nintendo isn’t going to let their mascot bow out. I won’t turn away from him, either. Until I can no longer physically hold a controller, Mario will always be a part of my life. To remove him would be like asking me to kill my childhood.

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Here’s to another 30 years!

Series I Love – The Legend of Zelda

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When I was younger, picking which games I wanted to play was simple. I was a pretty damn spoiled kid, so I usually saw something in the store and my mother bought it. While she objected to some things, she typically got me anything my heart desired.

Walking into our local Toys’R’Us one evening in 1998, I happened upon a flyer for an upcoming game called Zelda. My reading comprehension wasn’t as astute as now, so I didn’t even catch the subtitle underneath. To me, the golden sheen and shield crest were enough to hook my interest.

Over the next few months, I played my N64 as usual and kept my obsession with Goldeneye 007 going. At such a tender age, nearly any game would get its hooks into me and engulf my imagination. I kept thinking back to that sword and shield and wondering what dangers awaited me.

As the release date drew closer, Nintendo began their marketing campaign on TV and in movie theaters. I distinctly remember sitting in the theaters and seeing the “WHILST THOU SUCK?” advertisement. It put a fire in my eyes and made me determined to prove those ads wrong.

A night or two before the games release, I heard from a GameStop employee that the cartridge for Ocarina of Time was going to be gold. My little mind was blown. I couldn’t let this thing escape me. I needed to have this game in my collection. It felt like a rite of passage.

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After getting home with the game, I couldn’t wait to play it. I nearly ripped the box apart with excitement, but I saved my enthusiasm for the journey. I didn’t want to sully the experience by destroying its case.

As soon as the first chords of the theme played, I was in love. The game felt legendary even without its namesake. For 10 year old me, this was the most important game of my life. It was almost as if I became an adult as I stepped in Link’s boots and set off to save the land of Hyrule.

I had never played anything like it at that point in my life. My childhood was full of video games, but the 90’s were dominated by platformers and beat-em-ups. Fighting games were a big deal after Street Fighter, but not many besides that and Mortal Kombat stuck around.

Something like Zelda encompassed all of the exploration I loved from Mario with puzzle solving and dungeon diving. It was literally being placed into darkness with some tools and being told to figure it out. You had no guide and your worth was measured in accomplishing the mind benders in front of you.

I don’t remember how long it took my younger self to finish the N64 classic; I do know that I nearly missed the bus ride to school one morning since I was nearing the end and refused to skip the cutscene. My mother also nearly fell asleep listening to Zelda’s lullaby after a long night at work.

That same year, Nintendo had a double whammy for young me. A colorized version of the first portable Zelda title, Link’s Awakening, was released for the Gameboy Color. I always brought the device with me to school for recess and the bus rides, so clearly I had to have this other Zelda title.

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When I’d leave home for the bus stop, I’d pack Link’s Awakening with me. From one to the other, my adventures with Link never ended. I’d sketch doodles of Link tackling foes, exploring ruins and finding treasure. I would fantasize about being in those dank caverns and surmounting the colossal beasts.

Since those games, The Legend of Zelda has become my favorite series. I’ve beaten each game in the series more than once (save for a couple of them) and I even get excited hearing about re-releases of past games. It’s strange to be excited for an HD version of a game you’ve finished 3 times and still own.

Even the dreaded Zelda 2 I’ve managed to complete twice. When playing it, I find the game amazing. For that matter, during any of the Zelda games, I’m awestruck. How Nintendo manages to craft such a varied world with intricate puzzles and hidden treasures is just awesome to me.

The mixture of thought provoking puzzle design and grandiose combat scenarios with a classic tale of good versus evil just keeps me coming back. I dig all of the variations the series has seen. Wind Waker is my favorite and I love bringing a friend along in Four Swords Adventures. The more recent Triforce Heroes is a solid co-op puzzle game and Skyward Sword made me a believer of motion controls.

Honestly, there isn’t a title in the series I truly dislike. I may complain about the issues that Twilight Princess has wit pacing or how superfluous most of Skyward Sword is, but I can’t get enough of those worlds. They are filled to the brim with interesting content.

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More importantly, they make me feel like my actions matter. I know that gaming has always placed your character as a hero, but those exploits weren’t as personal until The Legend of Zelda came along. With Zelda 2, Link was now directly helping people with their requests.

Running menial tasks shouldn’t be that gratifying, but I’ve always been drawn to the side quests in Zelda. Fishing for hours to get a stupid scale or holding onto a chicken and floating down to Earth is utterly captivating to me. That each activity rewards the player with something useful also makes those tasks feel less tedious.

I also just plain love exploring. Hyrule has had such a rich landscape, but even the extra worlds of Termina and Koholint are filled with nooks and crannies to delve into. As much as I may associate puzzles with Zelda, spelunking is a big part of the formula.

I’m not opposed to change and I do wish that some of the tropes would be put to rest, but I’m always eager and ready for a new Zelda title. Each one is like stepping into an actual legend. That I get to be the hero who overcomes adverse odds is just icing on the cake.

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Here’s to the future of Zelda.

Yearning For The Past

Nintendo has made a habit of banking on nostalgia. For the past few years, nearly every single one of their games is firmly rooted in the past. Mario has been refining Super Mario Bros 3 since the New series launched on Wii and Super Smash Bros. is basically a celebration of everything old.

Yoshi’s Woolly World is, essentially, a touched up version of the classic Yoshi’s Island on SNES. Instead of falling head over heals, though, I find myself indifferent. Every chance I get to play the game, I end up bored after 8 levels.

That isn’t to say the game is bad; far from it, actually. It’s a well crafted and hyper polished adventure, but it lacks creativity. It lacks soul; there is no passion and the game coasts along at a lethargic pace.

Is that a bad thing? Honestly, I cannot answer that. For some, the deliberate speed of the game is what makes it enjoyable. My sister finds the game very captivating, despite being easy for her. She loves that nothing is thrown at the player that requires dexterity or mastery of the game mechanics.

As for me, I only seem to find entertainment in the graphics. The game is a sight to behold. Nintendo have truly gotten a grasp on HD graphics and I’m curious to see what the NX might bring to the table. That doesn’t dismiss how humdrum Woolly World is.

It sure is nice looking, though.

All of the cool concepts you remember from Island are in this game, minus Baby Mario. While a lot of people would call that a plus, it’s a huge detractor in my book. Baby Mario was annoying, sure, but he served a purpose; it gave you a goal.

You didn’t want Baby Mario crying because it would drive you up the wall. With him not being a factor, you tend to recklessly fly through the game with no concern for death. Yoshi changes from cautious guardian to senseless traveler.

It really doesn’t help that each boss encounter is phoned in. I haven’t seen a collection of enemies so meaningless in some time, but not a single boss battle in Woolly World is even remotely interesting. They all follow the well established 3-hit formula to a tee. Even the bosses with a cool theme (a shy guy frozen in ice) end up being boring slogs.

Mostly, I end up feeling sad. If I don’t like a game, I tend to get angry and a little rash, but Woolly World just makes me depressed. I want to enjoy it’s cute exterior and finely tuned mechanics, but I can’t sustain interest.

Level 5-6, titled “Up Shuttlethread Pass“, is what really brought this full circle. It’s theme song is immediately nostalgic and evocative while being entirely new. It sounds almost like it is being played on an old phonograph player; I basically picture the entire scene in black and white.

It makes me yearn for my youth. I remember powering up Yoshi’s Island for the first time in 1st grade, sitting in front of my 27-inch RCA CRT and being blown away at how different the game was from Super Mario World.

What was with SNES and sports themed enemies?

There once was a time when Nintendo was willing to take risks with their franchises. Nintendo EAD could have easily churned out another average Mario game and called it a day, but they decided to focus on his new sidekick.

In turn, the entire dynamic of the game changed. No longer was everything based on physicality and secrets; Yoshi had the ability to stock ammo and explore his world without a time limit.

Not wanting to entirely ditch power-ups, Nintendo created a whole new way to experience Mario’s various abilities; transformations. Yoshi was able to become a helicopter and a mole and see a completely unique aspect of the levels.

In addition to that, there were also puzzles involving rolling blocks, hidden coins, soft dirt platforms and fuzzy seeds that intoxicated Yoshi (somehow). It was unlike any game ever released at that point. It’s art style was also wonderfully realized and brought to life with imaginative music.

For a child 7 years old, it was fundamentally like looking into a new world. It grabbed me with it’s cartoony style and kept me hooked with it’s innovation. It expanded my mind to different gameplay; I now didn’t expect the same thing from Mario with each iteration.

Sadly, it seems Nintendo never fully realized what made Yoshi’s Island so special. Each new game has tried mixing up the visual style instead of expanding the mechanics. The closest we’ve ever gotten to a truly progressive sequel was Yoshi’s Island DS. That game worked because it kept the original foundation and tinkered with some changes.

The game feels weird on Wii U. I can’t understand the screens side by side.

Every other title, from the disappointing Yoshi’s Story right up to Yoshi’s New Island, have gone backwards in terms of progression. Instead of trying to find a new way for Yoshi to interact with his surroundings, Nintendo has relied on gimmicks. In New Island, Yoshi has giant eggs; in Woolly World, everything is made of yarn, etc.

Maybe the whole problem with the Yoshi series is that our youth keeps reminding us of how great the idea can be. When given something so different and so well done, it’s hard to ever repeat that success.

Mario has maintained popularity over the years for being so boldly different with each game, up until the New series started coming along. Now, Nintendo could only inject new life into the franchise by handing it over to the players (Super Mario Maker is awesome).

Could Yoshi be saved by the same gamble? I don’t believe so. Yoshi’s Island felt handcrafted and thought-out; not a single level repeats a mechanic to the same extent. Each new element may come out of nowhere, but doesn’t appear out of place stacked next to Yoshi’s repertoire of moves. Level design wasn’t the only aspect that made Yoshi’s Island, unlike how a Mario game can function solely from it’s arenas.

Whatever the cause, I just cannot enjoy Yoshi’s Woolly World. I may love my amiibos to death, but the game doesn’t do anything for me. Well, it does make me sad, but that’s not the best thing to say about a game.

Nintendo Preview: E3 Comes Home

E3 has increasingly become less relevant to the common gamer. The show was fantastic when the general public was allowed to attend, but now times are different. While gamers appreciate that journalists write back about their experiences, nothing beats getting hands-on time with a game.

Nintendo wanted to be different this year. Not only did it not hold a press conference, but it partnered with Best Buy to give the regular old gamers a taste of the E3 goodness. While my state isn’t exactly a sprawling metropolis, I still had to wait two hours in line to get my hands on these demos.

I can say this Nintendo experience is the closest I’ve been to an E3-like crowd. The people were friendly and genuinely excited to see Super Mario 3D World. We all cheered when someone succeeded and cried when others failed. It was fantastic.

This also gave me an opportunity to shed some of the doubt I saw from the Nintendo Direct stream. While I knew I’d be getting Mario regardless (stupid blind Nintendo fanboyism) when I wasn’t very optimistic from the videos.

Well, since this is a preview, why don’t I explain what I played?

Super Mario 3D World

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While I can’t claim this is the 3D Mario game we were all dreaming of, 3D World is very fun. The co-op is frustrating, but I suppose that is to be expected. The bubble mechanic from the New Super Mario Bros. games makes an appearance and you can now pop it yourself, so I guess co-op could be easier.

I didn’t get to use the Gamepad at the demo booth, but the Wii Remote controls were decent. Running in a 3D space with a D-pad sucks, but everything is smooth. There isn’t any mandatory pointer action, either. Just running and jumping with a flick acting as a spin-attack.

Getting another game with Peach is fantastic to me. It was also adorable to see a five-year-old come up and practically beg for Peach.  All the characters handle like their Super Mario Bros. 2 counterparts. Luigi and Peach are the obvious choices as they can float. 3D World is a lot faster than the 3DS game, so anyone who thought that game was sluggish won’t have the same complaint this time.

The level I got to play (6-3) had the map converge to one point where the four players had to enter a clear tube. This tube sends you straight forward and around some bends, of which you can control by holding up, down, left or right. The players needed to cooperate to get some keys and unlock a box to proceed. This felt almost like a mini Zelda puzzle and it was fun to see the platforming not be solely running and jumping.

The graphics were very solid. The colors popped and the subtle textures on Mario’s and Luigi’s jeans looked nice. Nothing was too realistic, but the colors were so rich that it just appeared glorious. The camera was a bit wonky, though. There are no controls to change it, either.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

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This was the game I was the most looking forward to. I love Donkey Kong Country Returns and thought it was one of the best platformers ever made. I guess striking lightning twice just wasn’t bound to happen.

I’m not sure if it was the graphics that did it, but nothing seemed entirely different. Obviously using the gamepad to control your characters is much nicer than the Wii Remote and waggle, but this game is eerily similar to the Wii game.

The animations are very smooth, though, and the game feels spot on. It runs smoothly and never drops in framerate. Your actions have immediate response and you can carry a few enemies, which leads to improved barrels to attack. Nothing screams HD, though, and I think this was a missed opportunity to sell the system on power.

You now have six hits until you die (other than in co-op where it is three per player). The Nintendo rep said he believes this to be a deliberate change in the game to make it slightly easier. I know the 3DS version had this as an option, so I think he may be confused.

The Nintendo rep did confirm to me that the game would have Wii U Pro Controller support along with the gamepad and Wii Remote control schemes. He wasn’t able to tell me if online co-op was available, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

Mario Kart 8

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While I’ve enjoyed the Mario Kart series at different points in my life, the last two games did nothing for me. Mario Kart Wii is my second least favorite in the series and Mario Kart 7 is barely any better. I figured Nintendo had no gimmicks or creativity left for this series. It was also surprising when Sega nailed it with the Sonic racing games, making me question what could even come next.

Well, Mario Kart 8 plays very nicely. The gamepad can be tilted for steering or swapped on the fly to classic-style controls. There is also Wii U Pro Controller and Wii Remote schemes, so you never have to settle for any decided style of play.

The level designs are also very eye-catching. The zero-G sections look mindblowing with their bending of reality. The game flips upside down and you can ride on walls, all while tossing your weapons wherever you see fit.

Split-screen is also still an option and it works wonderfully in HD. Nintendo hasn’t packed the screen with a useless HUD or cluttered it with too many particle effects. The boxes are huge and offer plenty of real estate for players to see the action.

The graphics also run at an amazing 60 frames-per-second. This is on top of visual detail that looks like a storybook. I am genuinely surprised at how great-looking the game is and how well that translates to speed.

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD

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My dream come true. I could honestly write that and that would be enough. Still, I will explain a bit.

In terms of game feel, nothing has changed. This plays pretty much like the GameCube version. The camera is a little weird, Link is very quick and the swordplay looks fantastic. The big draw is how the graphics have morphed and they look stunning.

The textures look even more cartoony than before. Link’s face is epic to behold in full HD. The particle effects mesmerize me now, almost to the point of distraction. The smoke clouds and dirt effects are beyond belief. I have no idea how Nintendo worked this kind of magic.

For some reason, though, I feel like the framerate is slower. I even mentioned this to the Nintendo rep, but he kept saying that it was running at 60 fps. I just don’t believe that. The game doesn’t have any laggy inputs, but it does appear to move slower.

The extra Wii U features didn’t really have time to shine in the demo. I noticed that the gamepad screen acts exactly like Ocarina of Time 3D did, so that is very awesome. Inventory is quick and easy to access and you can keep a constant map on the gamepad at all times.

As far was extra content goes, the Nintendo rep told me that everything is essentially the same. No new dungeons are going to be added and no dialog or music will be changed. You just get faster sailing and Miiverse integration directly in the game.

I couldn’t get the Nintendo Rep to confirm if Wii U Pro controller support was available or not. He just said that the demo only allowed for the gamepad, so I’m not sure what that could mean when the final build arrives.

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I love that Nintendo wasn’t content with just throwing up some videos online and expecting the general public to eat them up. Quite honestly, not getting hands-on time with Super Mario 3D World would have nearly dissuaded me from getting the game. This Best Buy experience was a wise decision for the Big N.

It also gave a poor guy like me a chance to feel like I was at E3. I’m always a bit jealous of the journalists who get to play these games and experience the glitz and glamour of the E3 floor. While Best Buy certainly isn’t as big, the Nintendo Experience was definitely very loud.

I urge anyone who is excited from this to get to Best Buy this Saturday. The store will be hosting the event from 1-5 PM. You can get a Luigi hat and flag for participating, too! Nothing beats free swag and early access.