Majora's Mask 3D: Memory Games

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Majora's Mask 3D: Memory Games

Sometimes, Majora’s Mask 3D feels like someone rearranged all the furniture in my house without telling me.

At one point, I was looking for the Stone Mask, which makes you invisible during stealth segments. It used to be in the game’s fourth area, about as far a humanly possible from the place where you actually need it most, a pirate fortress in the third. Once I had the appropriate tools, I started my hunt, knowing I’d memorized the mask’s original location from when I was ten.  After an hour of searching and doubting myself, I gave up and finished the stealth section without it. Of course, at that very moment I realized I’d been ignoring in-game tips and the mask was just sitting in front of my face, right at the beginning of the very stealth section it helps you circumvent. It’s a better choice, and one of the many fixes Majora’s Mask 3D makes that improve the overall game.

So whoever rearranged the furniture did a great job with the feng shui.

Admittedly, that's a pretty small moon, all things considered.

Admittedly, that's a pretty small moon, all things considered.

Majora’s Mask 3D is pretty much what it says on the box. It’s a remake of the 2001 Nintendo 64 game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Like a lot of Nintendo’s remakes though, it focuses less on presenting the game as it was, and more about how you remember it. Which is particularly interesting, because it was already a game focused on memory.

That moon's got great teeth though. A real brusher, that one.

That moon's got great teeth though. A real brusher, that one.

There’s this moment in Majora’s Mask, towards the end of the game’s signature three-day cycle, where the music in the hub town speeds up to an almost menacing degree. It’s this weird level of intertextuality that plays on your memories, like almost everything else in the game. The sped up music creates a sense of urgency on its own, considering there’s a massive, grinning moon hovering ominously overhead, but it’s also a pretty direct reference to the way the music in Mario speeds up when the timer is under 100 seconds. It’s not something a seasoned Zelda player would have encountered within that series, but anyone familiar with the medium has a pretty good understanding of what sped up music means, even if they aren’t looking at the clock.

Majora’s Mask is full of moments like that. Well, not exactly like that. There’s a lot more referencing other Zeldas (specifically 1998’s Ocarina of Time) than other series, but Majora’s Mask likes to wear its influences on its sleeve. Part of it is simple pragmatism, the game was made in just over a year and reuses dozens of assets from Ocarina, but part of it seems to come from the games’ obsession with memory, and the way we encounter it.

Majora's Mask 3D has a fixation on those terrifying, soul-piercing yellow eyes. It's pretty terrifying.

Majora's Mask 3D has a fixation on those terrifying, soul-piercing yellow eyes. It's pretty terrifying.

You don’t need to dig too deep to notice the obsession either. For one, the game revolves around a Groundhog Day-esque three day loop. At the end of the three days, the moon crashes into Termina, the strange mirror-darkly version of Hyrule, and our hero is forced to start from scratch. But he remembers things, or more specifically, you remember things. You remember how to beat bosses (which you don’t have to repeat, but it helps), how to finish sidequests, even the schedules of the folks around town. The game doesn’t make you remember that last thing, it notes schedules and sidequests on the bottom screen, but that information persists, even when you reset the clock. The player is always reminded of the nature of the world.

This guy's back story is that he stole a mask from his boss once, but his boss was a dog. Majora's Mask is GREAT.

This guy's back story is that he stole a mask from his boss once, but his boss was a dog. Majora's Mask is GREAT.

Meanwhile, the game is designed around three key masks that can change Link into some of Zelda’s famous species. He can be a miniature, forest-dwelling Deku Scrub, a massive, rock-eating Goron, or a Zora, a kind of fish-man with a sweet guitar. Each mask is obtained by finding a dying or dead member of the species, putting their soul to rest, and preserving their memory. The Goron is the spirit of a fallen warrior who everyone is surprised has come back to life to save his tribe, and the Zora is a new father out to save his eggs when he is killed by their captors. The Deku Scrub’s relationships are mostly the realm of fan theory, but the prevailing opinion is that he was killed suddenly by the game’s villain, the Skull Kid, and his father, a Deku Scrub you can race, is finally at peace with his son’s passing when he meets your Deku form.

All three have these distinct connections to preserving memory, even legacy in some cases. But they’re all forgotten. When the cycle ends, Link and the player are the only ones who remember. The game is fundamentally about preserving memories, and also throwing them away. If I had to hazard a guess, it’d be because it was the first game directed by current Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma, who was then a design assistant to series creator Shigeru Miyamoto. While I have my theories on how for him, Majora’s Mask was about deconstructing Zelda so he could better understand it, I think it’s a much safer bet that the whole obsession with memory and legacy stems from his concern at not making a game that lived up to the series’ standard.

So Aonuma draws upon these memorials to craft a game that simultaneously tells you to cherish and respect memory, while also focusing on the concept that it’s okay if everyone forgets. It’s this paradoxical game, and it’s never quite at ease with itself. Or at least, it didn’t used to be.

One of the changes is that the game's camera no longer makes this jerk a nightmare to fight. Still took me five tries though.

One of the changes is that the game's camera no longer makes this jerk a nightmare to fight. Still took me five tries though.

Time has been kind to Majora’s Mask. Returning to it after a decade, I found that it’s a surprisingly forward thinking game. In fact, it reminds me a lot more of open world RPGs like Skyrim than it does its immediate predecessor, Ocarina of Time. The world is centralized with a busy hub town you have to return to constantly. Each part of the world is a spoke off of that hub, leading to a full quest on the critical path and sidequests the mess around with in your off-time. The three day cycle lends itself to prioritizing individual side quests whenever you pick up the game, making it really easy to just do a five minute sidequest for some cash, 30 minutes for a mask, or even an hour or two for a full dungeon.

You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?

You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?

The quest structure is linear, but modular enough that players can tackle sidequests at any point, and approach the game at their own pace. In fact, Majora’s Mask’s legacy as the “weird Zelda” is probably what makes it feel so fresh. Instead of looking back to Link to the Past, like every Zelda ever has, it looked forward, and cribbed from early open world games like Mario 64 to design something that’s more modern than pretty much any Zelda game aside from 2013’s A Link Between Worlds. Majora’s Mask 3D is a game that felt strange and out of place in 2001, but in 2015, it just feels right.

And yet, there are still problems. The sidequests that require standing around and waiting for something to happen are still nightmares, albeit shorter ones. Buying maps for every area you enter gets really annoying every time you forget to pick up rupees at the bank, and any puzzle that requires deft swimming was designed by a madman with a four dimensional brain and split second reaction times. But otherwise, the game is as you remember it, just not necessarily how I remember it.

Remember not to look directly at the apocalypse.

Remember not to look directly at the apocalypse.

Majora’s Mask was my first console Zelda. I didn’t own an N64, but I played at a friend’s house, and I occasionally rented one. The game terrified me, not only because of the deeply upsetting moon and strange, otherworldly aesthetic, but because I was afraid of the concept that I couldn’t save everyone in its world. Every time I reset the clock, that was another hundred Terminians wiped from the face of history. The game is dark, and part of it comes from that same obsession with memory. It wants you to remember. It asks you not to forget, from both a mechanical and a narrative standpoint. And thus, you remember failure. You remember each reset, and the people you couldn’t help on that cycle.

The game also never gets into how Link's final transformation into the Fierce Deity can look like something straight out of deviantart and still be unironically cool.

The game also never gets into how Link's final transformation into the Fierce Deity can look like something straight out of deviantart and still be unironically cool.

My memories of what Zelda was like to me then are hazy, but playing Majora’s Mask 3D crystallized them. It made me confront them in ways that rattled my brain and forced me to rethink the game, and my relationship with my own memories. If Majora’s Mask is a game about memory, then Majora’s Mask 3D is a game about legacy. It’s about what you do with those memories once they’re all jumbled up and rearranged the way we want to remember them. It turns out, what you do is fix your old mistakes, as if they never happened.

There’s a part of Majora’s Mask 3D where you impersonate a fish-woman’s boyfriend and play her a song she remembers from her childhood. She sings the song, and never question the fact that her boyfriend suddenly wears a green skirt and occasionally turns into a little elf boy.

The game never really settles the fact that you’re deceiving her, and how wrong that is, but that scene really taps into what’s so great and just a little uncomfortable about Majora’s Mask 3D. Our memory is deceitful sometimes. We remember things better than they are, and we rewrite history to make that so. But sometimes, it’s good to hold on to that nice memory, no matter how dark it seems in the moment. Majora’s Mask 3D rewrites history by recasting the obtuse original into a modern classic forgotten by time, and you know what?

That’s exactly how it should be remembered.



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Super Smash Bros. for 3DS Review- The Waiting Game

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Super Smash Bros. for 3DS Review- The Waiting Game

Smash Bros for 3DS is an appetizer, and it's a damn good one, but that's all it's ever going to be. It's an amuse-bouche, a way to tide yourself over for the entree. There's about two months until its big brother comes out, and for those two months, if you need your Smash Bros. fix, there's very little to complain about with the 3DS version. But, know that if you're that kind of person, you're almost certainly going to be buying a better version of it when it comes out. 

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Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Review- Punch Pals

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Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Review- Punch Pals

Smash Bros. for Wii U is easily my favourite game in the series, hands down. There was a moment when I was playing with friends, after six players were whittled down to two fighters with one life each We were an entire minute away from each other on Palutena’s Temple, this massive, almost over designed beast of a stage, so big it’s often hard to see yourself on it. We drew closer to each other, me flinging arrows from Pit’s bow, him dashing between floating platforms with Ike’s quick draw attack, until we met up on opposite ends of the bridge that connects the stage’s two halves. Our two anime champions stood off, both of us waiting for the other to make his move. My palms were sweating. I don’t know what he was planning, but I was expecting another quick draw, which I would counter with a deadly dashing uppercut, then follow him up into the air for an easy kill. Unless he countered, in which case I’d get flung a short distance and use my guardian orbitars to block a follow up hit. Then we’d be back to the anime Mexican standoff.

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Touching is Good: Physicality in Games

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Touching is Good: Physicality in Games

When I was young, one of the coolest board games I never got to play was Mouse Trap. There was something semi-mystical about the game of building something. To this day, I don’t quite understand how the game works (I’m pretty clear on the part where you build a mouse trap so elaborate it’d make Rube Goldberg indecent, I just don’t get what happens next) but whenever I think about it, I imagine the weight of the pieces in my hands, the feeling of things snapping together for some greater purpose. I loved Lego, but Lego didn’t have a goal. Lego told stories, sure, but it wasn’t a game. Lego had a magical ability to draw my imagination out of me when it was in my hands, but Mouse Trap, a game I never played and only ever saw in commercials starring multicolored mice and overacting children, captured me.

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Critical Hits: Repetition, Bravely Default, and Repetition

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Critical Hits: Repetition, Bravely Default, and Repetition

Repetition is educational. We learn when we have something drilled into us until it becomes reflex. I know how to step when I block low with my forearm. I don't necessarily remember the pattern, but my body moves the way I was taught years ago. Formula is comforting, and slight variations upon a theme is essentially the structure chart for serialized fiction. Repetition is one of the most important concepts to both the natural world and entertainment. It's a key part of poetry, the scientific process, math, psychology, fiction, and, well, everything really.

So if repetition is truth, is Bravely Default the truest game ever made?

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Split/Screen: Sharing a Screen and Intimacy In Multiplayer

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Split/Screen: Sharing a Screen and Intimacy In Multiplayer

Some Japanese arcade machines don't have controls for a second player. Instead, they get two cabinets to be networked together. Sometimes, the two machines are right next to each other, sometimes they're across, so you can't see your opponent but you always know where they are. Sometimes, as was the case with the Japanese machines in the arcade I went to a few times in high school, they were scattered among the giant lineup of cabinets, so you had no idea who was playing with you. It added this palpable sense of loneliness to whatever game you were playing, since any opponent was essentially a CPU. There was no face to them, no name, just a series of strategies and inputs that was trying to defeat you.
 

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Op-Ed: Chess is Great, But We Can Fix It

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Op-Ed: Chess is Great, But We Can Fix It

Everyone should play Chess.

Seriously, everyone. Young, old, smart, dumb, men, women, anyone who identifies as something more fluid than that. Every single human being (and most transhumanist constructs) should be playing Chess right now if they have any interest at all in games. Chess is the ur game. Chess is the beating ancient heart at the centre of game design. It’s like a giant pictograph on the wall of the crumbling temple of game design that pushes it forward and brings back to its beginning. Whether it takes conscious inspiration, or it’s intended to be a response to games that unconsciously draw from the tenets of Chess, every game owes its existence to the original. But that also means Chess is old, and by its nature, a little behind the times. I think Chess can be better, Chess can be more powerful, but first, we all have to play it.

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Preview: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U- Tell Me if You've Heard This One Before...

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Preview: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U- Tell Me if You've Heard This One Before...

As a series, Smash Bros. was founded on the principle that fighting games could do with being a little less complex. To that end, director Masahiro Sakurai added two extra players and simplified inputs. If you want to take mechanics and design as symbolism (and I always do) it's a pretty clear statement that Smash Bros. is a game designed for anyone and everyone to play. No one should be sitting on the sidelines, because anyone can pick it up.

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My Multiplayer Story - How Street Fighter Made Me a Better Person

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My Multiplayer Story - How Street Fighter Made Me a Better Person

When we were growing up, my brother and I would fight a lot.

I've heard that's pretty natural actually, but when we were younger it always drove me crazy. Not because we weren't close, I didn't really care about that, but because my parents would always demand we be nicer to each other. Well, specifically, they yelled at me that I was too mean to him. I figured they were playing favourites, but looking back, we were very close in age, had similar interests, plus, we were little kids with awful tempers- we were bound to butt heads.

We would hit each other, a lot. I was bigger and stronger, but not by much. There's about two year's difference between us, so whenever I got a little bigger and tougher, he'd just have to wait a few months and eventually we'd be on the same playing field again. 

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The Primer- Multiplayer Madness

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The Primer- Multiplayer Madness

In case you don't remember the halcyon days of plastic instrument parties, Rock Band is a fairly simple rhythm game made interesting by the fact that you play it with plastic versions of guitars, drums and keyboards. The conceit was that you and your friends were the titular Rock Band, and your basement was a stage.

The game itself is pretty irrelevant at that point. Sure, if you're better at timing your button presses you'll get a better score and the song will sound better, but you're not really noticing any of that once you reach a certain threshold of quality, you forget all that. You're on stage, you're playing the song. You are, for a brief shining second, role-playing as a rock band. That roleplay element is something that most video games can't really get us to participate in.

 

 

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Op-Ed: The Thing About the Holodeck...

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Op-Ed: The Thing About the Holodeck...

The thing about the holodeck is that it's not a game anymore.

All spaceships will have patriotically red white and blue-themed control consoles. It's only American.

All spaceships will have patriotically red white and blue-themed control consoles. It's only American.

It's the elephant in the room whenever people talk about VR, but in order to really get into what it means, let's go back a couple decades, to early on in gaming's modern history. It's 1979, and Atari is releasing Asteroids. The cabinet is pretty similar to its contemporaries'- the monitor is recessed into the unit, with walls on either side to block off the sights and sounds of the arcade around you. The control panel is designed to look like the controls of an imaginary spaceship. It's not just a facsimile of the ship's cockpit, designed to be a cute amusement. It's deliberately put together to make you focus in on the game and immerse yourself. Even from what is ostensibly the beginning of modern interactive media, the desire for immersion is present. Games aren't necessarily where the idea of virtual reality was invented- Pygmalion's Spectacles, a short story from 1935 was the first science fiction story to theorize on the subject- but they certainly awakened something in people. Video games held (and still do, to a certain extent) held promises of entire virtual worlds waiting to be escaped to.

Think of art as a machine. Books, games, movies, music, it's all a bunch of machines that are static, unmoving until we interact with them in some way. Specifically, imagination is the fuel, the force that turns their gears and makes the worlds they want to create pop out at us. Some machines, like books, need more imagination to draw the worlds out of them. Some, like movies, have more engaging visuals and sounds that build the world with very little imagination necessary. Not to say that these mediums are more or less creative than the other, but in order to get the most out of a book's world, you really do have to work your imagination harder than you would with a film. Games though, are a bit unique as an "art machine", they occupy both the high and low ends of that spectrum. Like a movie, all the visuals and sounds present the world to you automatically, without much need for the fuel of imagination to make it reveal itself. But like a book, the more imagination you pour in, the more detailed and deeper that world becomes.

Project Holodeck used motion tracking cameras with the Oculus Rift to try to simulate a Holodeck-like enviroment.

Project Holodeck used motion tracking cameras with the Oculus Rift to try to simulate a Holodeck-like enviroment.

Unlike a film, games allow you to poke around the world and discover things, to use your imagination to flesh out what is left unexplained. Sure, you can put more thought into a movie than just what it presents on the surface, but that doesn't build a deeper world so much as deepens your understanding of one already there. So games rely on that imagination to breathe as much as they don't. It's a weird thing to say, but if you've stuck with me this far, your reward is that we're finally getting back to that Holodeck thing.  See, the promise of the holodeck is an amped-up version of the promise of today's VR. It's absolute and total immersion. It's pure simulation. You aren't controlling Gordon Freeman, you ARE Gordon Freeman. Star Trek presents the Holodeck as a near-perfect simulation. The goal of its programs are that the user is never able to discern that it's not reality. In fact, that's the only real difference between the Holodeck and the Oculus Rift. The Rift, due to technological limitations, can't create a visual environment of the resolution it would take to be thoroughly convincing without using a headset. But above that, the Holodeck also has the benefit of impossibly (for now at least) clever computers.

Project Holodeck became Survios, which is developing a full-body motion tracking unit that eliminates the need for too much camera tracking. The trade-off is that for now, you look insane wearing it.

Project Holodeck became Survios, which is developing a full-body motion tracking unit that eliminates the need for too much camera tracking. The trade-off is that for now, you look insane wearing it.

The Holodeck is smart. Smarter than any computer that's out there right now. On a dime, it's able to react to anything its user does, within the confines of the simulation programmed into it. It uses Star Trek's fictional replication and force field technologies to create physical objects for the user to interact with as if they were real. In that sense, the Holodeck is not a virtual reality, but a virtually-made reality, rather than the realities made virtual that we experience via the Oculus Rift. The first writer to theorize about a holodeck-like system was Ray Bradbury, in his 1950 short story The Veldt. There, the playroom in a family's new automated home has the ability to generate any object or environment that its occupants imagine. Without going into the story itself too much, it's interesting that Bradbury, the first person to write about the concept, already singled out the virtual-reality space as a "playroom". Even from the very moment it was theorized, the Holodeck was always, at its very best, an entertainment space despite its boundless possibilities.

Wesley, pictures here either pondering old sci-fi, or generally being a twat. Hard to say.

Wesley, pictures here either pondering old sci-fi, or generally being a twat. Hard to say.

A virtual reality room that can be programmed to have little-to-no consequence would be unimaginably influential on entertainment sure, but imagine what it would in other places. On-site job training, practice for surgery, driving lessons, education, sex work- it'd be just as revolutionary outside of the entertainment world as it would be in it. So what's this obsession with entertainment, and games specifically? It's possible that because games have, for the last few decades, been the entertainment medium most closely linked with technology, but I have another theory, and it comes back to all that "art machine" nonsense I wrote up a few paragraphs ago. If games are a machine of potential then the more of yourself you put in, the more you get out of them. Now imagine if you had to put all of yourself into the experience every time. Imagine being plopped down in a world you can see and touch and affect in ways that become more detailed the more imagination you put in. All of a sudden, it's not about putting more imagination into a world to get more out of it, it's a very tactile exchange of using more imagination to explore the world in an even deeper way. You touch an object, and all of a sudden it's real, as opposed to finding that object and thinking of what it would be like if it were.

Microsoft's RoomAlive might be our first step into a functioning Holodeck, but the fact that it isn't means we have a long way to go before we get to Holonovels.

So why isn't it a game then? Well, because there aren't really mechanics. The way Star Trek presents Holodeck simulations (and I apologize if i'm not 100% accurate, I'm not the biggest Star Trek guy and like many non-fans, I'm drawing off of my generally osmosed pop culture knowledge) is as just that, simulations. Sure, they're simulations of what it would be like to be in a scenario, much like games are, but games can't react in every single way. You could definitely play games in a holodeck scenario- if I'm not mistaken, there's a scene where Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton play cards with Data, but its express purpose is always a form of interactive entertainment that lacks the abstractions of game mechanics. When you die, you die, there are no health meters, no quests, and, well, no "goal". Games are often defined by that whole goal thing. They have a defined loss state. We've discussed this before, but it's interesting to think how VR is probably the space for all the stuff currently roped into games that defy a lot of the traditional definitions of games. Those games focused on creating immersive worlds to pour ourselves into, worlds designed around the player as an explorer poking around, they're the perfect fit for the eventual virtual veldt of Bradbury's imagination. Microsoft is showing off how they can use projectors in tandem with Kinect to display a game all around the room you're in. But it's not a reality. You're looking over an army marching across your coffee table. It's a virtually made reality, but not a reality you can only access virtually.

Well, that's not quite it, but nice try?

Well, that's not quite it, but nice try?

Does it really matter that it's not a game anymore? No, not really. Our definition expands and gets broader all the time. But all the people designing games around mechanics and goals are going to be left in the dust when the holodeck takes over and makes environmental design and storytelling king. Nothing we know about traditional game design will carry over, to the point where “videogames” and “holdeck games” might just be two totally dissimilar mediums. The Gone Homes, the Dear Esthers of the world, those are the beginnings of the "holonovel", those are the games that are taking us into gaming's potential future, and I for one welcome our virtually-crafted overlords.

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Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review- Mass Destruction

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Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review- Mass Destruction

Ultimax is a great arena to cut your teeth in, but there’s no master here to show you the ropes. That’s not really a complain about Ultimax specifically, it’s something all fighting games need to work on, but it feels like this game, with its cross-genre appeal and a story mode that’s ripe for teaching and guaranteed to be played by beginners, would be the perfect place for a real tutorial. Ultimax is a great game for fighting game fans and people who want to put in the effort to learn the game. It’s not a compromise, and anyone who’s only in it for the Persona elements is in for a nasty ultra suplex.

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The Circle of Sakurai or: The Irrelevant Relevance of Super Smash Bros.

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The Circle of Sakurai or: The Irrelevant Relevance of Super Smash Bros.

Masahiro Sakurai directed his first game at the age of 22. It was 1992's Kirby's Dream Land, and if you'll pardon the pretension this early in an article, it was the first postmodern platformer. It was a platforming game where the platforms were meaningless. The protagonist could soar over levels, never having to interact with enemies outside of bosses. It drew explicit attention to the fact that it was a platformer (which may as well be called "jumpers" honestly) where the challenge didn't lay in the jumping. In fact, at least with Dream Land, the challenge didn't really lay anywhere. Kirby didn't hop on enemies, he swallowed them from a fairly safe distance, and if a certain area was too tough, he could float on above them, laughing all the way.

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Destiny Review- No Escape

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Destiny Review- No Escape

Ten hours into playing Destiny I knew it wasn't a great game. The world exuded blandness. The story was nonsensical, told to me by half-asleep robot. And I kept having this feeling that I was repeating myself. The same levels. The same enemies. The same environments. I'm now twenty hours in and I have to say, the constant sense of deja vu has yet to stop me from playing. Destiny is a fundamentally mean game.  You grind missions after mission because you're compelled to, not because you have any desire to explore the game's world.

Destiny is an always online shooter made by Bungie, published by Activision, and is a terrible game I can't stop playing. This surprises even me because I don't play many shooters and I don't like this one. The game is structured like a multiplayer online game. It has long battles that require multiple people to join in, like in Activision's other cash-cow franchise, World of Warcraft. Enemies drop weapons and armor, and you gain new abilities the more you play, again like in WoW. But none of it matters.

Those long fights or "Strikes" are a means to dump loads of ammo into a giant rotating eye that won't die, even after a five minute hailstorm of bullets. Each new piece of armor is at best a marginal improvement over the last, a simple numbers game of deducing whether 99 defense + 34 strength is better than 100 defense + 21 discipline. And yet, let me tell you, within six hours of you reading this review, I will be playing Destiny.

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Reviews From a VR Future

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Reviews From a VR Future

This VR theme month has really got us here at Built to Play thinking about the future. We were promised hovercars and cool robots by now, and the future has yet to deliver. But, in a mystifying coincidence, while we were sitting around complaining about our lame present, we got a missive from the future through one of the many pneumatic tubes set up in the recording booth. It told of a terrifying but wondrous future, mostly similar to our own, but where virtual reality technology had taken over video games, ushering in the anaglyphic age of gaming. As part of the time capsule, we also got a set of reviews set to go up the week of September 22nd, 2034. We’re pretty sure we can’t break embargo on games that don’t exist yet, and stable time loops are for wussies, so we’re gonna post them today. Unfortunately, as we have no photos of these future games, you'll have to make due to terrifying Google search results and atrocious artist's representations.

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Preview: The Xbox One Holiday Lineup

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Preview: The Xbox One Holiday Lineup

Alien: Isolation:

There's our girl.

There's our girl.

The first thing I asked the Sgea rep demoing Alien: Isolation was when the demo content took place in the game proper. He told me it’s more of a vertical slice, indicative of the game’s overall feel, but not necessarily any one part.

People who remember 2013’s license nightmare Aliens: Colonial Marines know why this was deeply concerning to me. Colonial Marines was nothing but vertical slices, and when it came time for the game to be released, the final product was so different, it sparked lawsuits. So even though the next paragraph is going to begin with what’ll sound like a bit of hyperbole, know that I’m still very, very apprehensive about this game.

This spooky guy didn't show up during my demo, but one can only assume he's gonna be Xenomorph chow my the end of the game.

This spooky guy didn't show up during my demo, but one can only assume he's gonna be Xenomorph chow my the end of the game.

Alien: Isolation is probably the best Alien game ever made. It might even be up there as one of the best survival horror games ever made. The demo threw me into a limited zone, and presented a few tools up front. I had some flares, some scrap metal, and a flamethrower, which me handler was careful to call a “tool”, not a weapon. Unlke more classic survival horror experiences, Isolation doesn’t really hand you much in the way of weaponary, and why would it? Guns are pretty much useless against the Xenomorph. In fact, everything feels useless agaisnt the Xenomorph. It’s massive, towering over my character, and walks with a lumbering thump-thump. It’s genuinely horrifying, and with only one enemy throughout the entire game, it more than makes up for the pretty much guaranteed lack of jump scares.

Even the motion tracker itself looks gloriously crappy.

Even the motion tracker itself looks gloriously crappy.

It took me four tries to get anywhere in the demo. I had to be cautious and stealthy, checking my motion tracker whenever I found a safe hiding spot, and then finding out the alien was right behind me. The sound of it approaching was enough to get my knees shaking, and the subtle cutaway when it catches you is probably a thousand times spookier than any gore-shot could have been. The Xenomorph runs around unscripted too, doing whatever its AI feels like, so there’s no way to rely on rote memorization. It’s all about your skill at tracking, avoiding, and using the incredibly limited toolset availble to you. The game also looks incredibly faithful to the movie, replicating that 70s low-fi si-fi look with pretty stellar results. At the beginning of my demo, I got a tutorial video on how to use the motion tracker, which looked like the worn-out VHS tapes I saw in elementary school. Apparently, the dev team rendered the video in game, recorded it to a VHS tape, scratched it up, then put it back into the game. That’s dedication.

But, no matter how great Isolation is in, well, isolation, it remains to be seen how the full game will turn out. After the Colonial Marines disaster, it never hurts to be trepidatious, especially when dealing with a seven-and-a-half foot tall two-mouthed monstrosity.


Assassin’s Creed: Unity-

Bros before Templars, or something.

Bros before Templars, or something.

I am a cantankerous fart when it comes to the Assassin’s Creed series. I’ve tried them again and again, but they’re never what I want out of a game that promises the experience of being an assassin. At best, they’re sort of bland trips through beautifully realized historical locales. At worst, they’re Assassin’s Creed 3. My problem always sort of comes down to the games increasing focus on open-world action. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is sort of the platonic ideal of that kind of game in a lot of ways. The focus is on fast paced, fluid action, and sailing the high seas looking for more people to shoot and stab. While that works for most people, evidently, I’ve always wanted a more stealthy experience from the Assassin’s Creed games. They always promise sneaky alternatives to action, but remaining hidden is usually so difficult and frustrating that it just doesn’t feel worth it.

Assassinate people through windows! In a church! At the barbeque! After school! After lunch! Any where is good for assassination!

Assassinate people through windows! In a church! At the barbeque! After school! After lunch! Any where is good for assassination!

In my hands-off demo of Assassin’s Creed Unity, Arno was spotted exactly once, and was able to silently get away regardless. It was impressive, but it was basically all due to one little improvement, the crouch button. The assassin’s guild has finally learned the art of getting low to the ground and wearing darker clothes, making it actually feasible to sneak by guards! Arno can also take cover, peek around cover, and even do third-person-shooter style cover-to-cover transitions. It’s something of a late revelation for the Assassin’s Creed series, considering Metal Gear was doing it more than a decade ago, but it’s by no means unwelcome. Adding stealth options that actually seem to work is a big, big deal for the Assassin’s Creed games, which have been catering to the action-focused players since Assassin’s Creed 2.

Next-gen consoles can render those crowds of thousands, but they're only there so you can kill 'em dead.

Next-gen consoles can render those crowds of thousands, but they're only there so you can kill 'em dead.

The game is also kind of insultingly pretty. It seems a bit cartoonier in style than previous entries, specifically when it comes to the blood. The Ubisoft rep who was demoing the game says the gore wasn’t specifically turned up, but the “improved” blood splatters and gore are definitely noticeable, and made me a little uncomfortable. At one point, Arno ducks into a confessional, and the camera zooms in as he stabs his wrist-blades into his targets eyes. It’s brutal, and just a little gross. Otherwise, the environments are beautifully realized, the crowds are enormous and give the world a much better sense of scope, and NPCs react accordingly. At one point, a man on patrol in Notre Dame cathedral was distracted by a cat long enough for Arno to kill him, and dump him into a nearby hay bale. But, this was all hands off. It remains to be seen exactly how well all this will work when it isn’t being demoed by a member of the dev team. For now though, Assassin’s Creed Unity looks like a stealth game I genuinely want to play, which is shocking.


Fable Legends:

That "four heroes walking into the middle distance" motif is real strong on this holiday's marketing materials.

That "four heroes walking into the middle distance" motif is real strong on this holiday's marketing materials.

At E3 Fable Legends looked both kind of generic, and far too good to be true. One one hand, it seemed like a weird offshoot of the Fable games, without any of their sense of scope and grandeur. On the other, the super seamless five player multiplayer, with one player serving as the villain and four working together as a band of heroes looked almost impossible. After going a few rounds with it, Fable Legends showed its true colours- it's actually two genuinely cool, interesting games.

No pictures of my trusty pal Inga, so have Glory wrecking stuff with fireballs.

No pictures of my trusty pal Inga, so have Glory wrecking stuff with fireballs.

The first game is the heroes side. They play an action RPG where each of them has a primary weapon, three health potions, four special powers, and a recharging mana bar that they draw from. I played as Inga, a tank class character, who had a slow sword swing, a big shield, and various abilities that improved her teammates survivability. Along for the ride were Shroud, a sniper, Leech, the necromancer, and Glory, the mage. The developers mentioned that so far, there are eight characters, with more in development, and the plan is that any team of heroes can be viable. The character picking feels a little bit like a MOBA, as each has a very specific role to play on any team they take part in. Otherwise though, characters level up and keep those levels, getting stronger over time and holding on to different weapons and items that players find in the single player campaign.

You know, they call 'em archers but you never see them arch.

You know, they call 'em archers but you never see them arch.

The villain player though is playing a totally different game., sort of a cross between an RTS and a board game. In each arena (distinct areas of each level) the villain can place enemies from a palette of four monsters per arena, activate traps, and direct monster attacks. At one point, the villain player used a monster to lure me past a gate, then sealed it behind me, leaving my slow tank to deal with a swarm of monsters, and the rest of my party without a reliable damage sponge. Before every arena, the villain has about a minute of prep time, but most of their action goes on as the heroes advance through the areas, reacting in realtime to the weaknesses and strengths of the other players.

It’s unbelievably fluid, and part of that may have had to do with the fact that it was running on five networked machines, but god damn if it wasn’t impressive. The game doesn’t currently have a five player local option, which could be a problem moving forward, but apparently Lionhead is looking into smartglass support for the villain player. Otherwise though, so long as the game actually runs this smoothly in its final form (which is a while away, a beta is happening in October), Fable Legends is shaping up to be one of the more interesting multiplayer experiences on next-gen consoles.


Mortal Kombat X:

Yeah, that's Mortal Kombat alright.

Yeah, that's Mortal Kombat alright.

X14, the media event wher I got a chance to play these games, was set up on two floors. More mature titles, like Assassin’s Creed and the Evil Within were on the basement floor, while family friendlier titles like Minecraft and Forza were on the first floor. I told you that because Cassie Cage, one of the new characters, has an attack where she punches her opponents in the nuts so hard their gentials explode.

Mortal Kombat was on the first floor.

Kotal Kahn is a new Mortal Kombat Kharacter, who Kicks and Kracks with the best of the top Kombatants.

Kotal Kahn is a new Mortal Kombat Kharacter, who Kicks and Kracks with the best of the top Kombatants.

Gameplay-wise, the big change is the introduction of a character variation system, which gives each character a choice between three different specializations. For example new character D’vorah, an insect-woman, had variations that added venom to her attacks, or gave her extra control over her bee swarm. Each variation changes the physical appearance of the character, letting competitive players know what they’re up against without any surprises. The other gameplay twist is taken from the MK team’s previous game, Injustice: Gods Among Us, which allowed fighters to interact with various objects and people in the environment. For example, on the market stage, the Warner Bros. PR rep playing the game with me picked up an old lady in the middle of her shopping and tossed her right into my face.

Mortal Kombats tone is a beautiful thing. It’s completely unserious, completely goofy. Where Assassin’s Creed’s cartoonish goriness was mildly upsetting, Mortal Kombat’s was almost jovial. This is a game where the aforementioned Cassie Cage (daughter of series mainstays Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage, by the way) can kneecap her opponents, shoot them through the head, pull out some gum, chew it, stick it over the bullet hole, and watch as a blood soaked bubble pops out. The goofy goriness refreshingly unserious, which is strange to say in an industry where increased gore is meant to be a mark of maturity.


Ori and the Blind Forest:

Dang, that's pretty.

Dang, that's pretty.

Do you remember the action/platformer indie game trend of 2008ish? Moon studios does. In fact, their debut game, Ori and the Blind forest feels like it could have been ripped right out of that post-Braid period of indie game design. It’s actually kind of refreshing, considering so many indie games are following the current rougelike trend. In terms of platform mechanics, there’s a little bit of lag to Ori’s movement, a little bit of floatiness to his jumps, giving it a very similar feel to Rayman: Origins. Ori also shares that game’s focus on gorgeous 2D art. Like Rayman, it’s only meant to look hand drawn, but in motion, moves a lot more fluidly with less frames. It’s not janky looking by any means, but it’s likely what contributes to the floatiness of the gameplay.

Ori also borrows liberally from Metroidvania-style games, with areas that are only accessible by levelling up Ori’s various attacking, jumping and running abilities. The whole game takes place on one interconnected map screen, and the plan is for loading to be seamless, with all progress impediments being completely organic, rather than Metroid’s trademark locked doors. It’s a big promise, but as far as the demo goes, it seems feasible. Unfortunately, there isn’t very much that distinguishes Ori mechanically. It mostly seems like a method of conveyance for this gorgeous art, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s probably not the indie game that’ll put the Xbox One on the map.

Sunset Overdrive:

I really hope that gun actually fire bullets shaped like the word "Blamm!"

I really hope that gun actually fire bullets shaped like the word "Blamm!"

Sunset Overdrive is Sonic the Hedgehog but with guns.

But also it’s nothing like that one game that already did that.

See? Grinding! Just like everyone's favourite the Hedgehog.

See? Grinding! Just like everyone's favourite the Hedgehog.

Insomniac Games is coming hot off the heels of last year’s tepidly reviewed Fuse, their first multiplatform title. Sunset Overdrive meanwhile, is their first Xbox exclusive game, and the attitude is an interesting cross between the classic Insomniac cartooniness and Microsoft’s focus on “mature” content. The game opens with your personally designed character (mine was a buff red haired girl with a fantastic goatee) cursing up a storm as they flee from mutant energy drink addicts and learn how to grind on rails and building ledges. That’s where the sonic comparisons come in. on the ground, your character is a sitting duck. You’re not very quick, but the mutants are fast and come at you in droves. While grinding though, you get both the high and speed advantage, along with a better look at the lay of the land. Your advantage is the mobility that the rails offer you, and it makes for a faster, more visually dynamic shooter.

Explosions! Orange! Blue! Soda! Tongues! Firmly in cheeks! But not in a ditry way!

Explosions! Orange! Blue! Soda! Tongues! Firmly in cheeks! But not in a ditry way!

The problem mostly comes in when your weapon variety starts to show up. I had a flaming  gential-themed shotgun, a disc gun that fired vinyl records, and a massive hand cannon called the Dirty Harry. None of these guns really favoured the high speed, far away combat style that the grind-rails encouraged. The shotgun worked great for enemies nearby, and the hand cannon was perfect when I slowed myself down and focused on enemies, but otherwise, the disc gun’s bouncing records was the only weapon that worked at the high speeds the game wanted me to move at. Presumably as the game opens up, you’ll get more weapons that suit how you want to fight, but the game pushes you very hard in a particular direction. The other problem I see is the game’s open world, which sort of renders that high-speed mobile combat moot. Specific challenges designed around your mobility in certain areas can be really interesting, but a big, open world might just allow the developers to create more generalized challenges that can be dropped in anywhere on the map. For now, Sunset Overdrive’s overall goofiness, and highly mobile combat style has me a lot more interested in it than I’d initially thought, but that open world is particularly worrying, and very much not in Insomniac’s wheelhouse.


The Evil Within:

That lanterns is almost certainly going to burn through his pants. Give him some toasty buns.

That lanterns is almost certainly going to burn through his pants. Give him some toasty buns.

Hoods are so last year for "spooky apparition", don't you know that?

Hoods are so last year for "spooky apparition", don't you know that?

Did you play Resident Evil 4? If you didn’t, it’s something of a classic. Shinji Mikami reimagined of the survival horror genre when it desperately needed some fresh air, and created one of the first modern third person shooters to boot, RE4 is pretty rightfully considered to be one of the best games of its time, and it holds up surprisingly well. The Evil Within is Shinji Mikami’s return to the genre he revolutionized twice, and it’s sort of lacking in the revolution department. Without Mikami, Resident Evil has become a far more action- oriented franchise than ever before, and indie games have taken the survival horror genre in a more atmospheric, less actiony direction.The Evil Within is a very anti-climactic return to that Resident Evil 4 middle ground. The protagonist even has Leon Kennedy’s trademark constipated shuffle.

Ammo’s in tight supply, the “haunted” can come back from the dead if you don’t burn their corpses with a match, and the demo took place in a spooky mansion. The potential for jump scares and death traps is pretty much infinite. At one point, I walked down a hallway, and triggered a rope that dragged me into a closet full of spinning blades. I tried shooting at the blades to jam them, but of course, the game didn’t exactly highlight the tiny blinking light I was meant to shoot at until after I died. And then I lost about 20 minutes of progress. Retracing my steps was an exercise in memorization. Turn around, shoot that zombie. Stop, kick open door, defuse bomb, grab safe dial, go down hall, activate trap, shoot trap. The sheer scriptedness of everything renders the horror moot. The terrifying atmosphere of modern survival horror has left Mikami’s take on the genre feeling more like a particularly goofy haunted house.

In a more positive take, having to burn enemy corpses is an interesting mechanic. Your character only has so many matches available to him (one has to wonder why he doesn’t just carry a lighter) and any enemy whose head you don’t completely blow off has a chance of coming back. I could see that becoming a real great way of building dread, but then again, after dying once or twice, it wouldn’t be too hard for a player to figure out which bodies to burn and which to leave. Especially when compared to Alien: Isolation, The Evil Within seems like a survival horror throwback, and not necessarily in a good way.


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The Next Reality- What Works With VR?

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The Next Reality- What Works With VR?

For years, virtual reality was nothing but a twinkle in the eye of the goofiest of cyberpunk-tinged games industry futures. But now, with the advent of technology like the Oculus Rift, and the Samsung Gear VR, virtual reality is just a few steps away from your eyeballs at any moment. Of course, that means the temptation to make those headset-wearing VR dreams come true is stronger than ever, and here at Built to Play, we’d like to crush those dreams. Not every game is good for VR! In fact, most games aren’t! But some work really well- like, genre redefining well.

Virtual reality displays are- and have always been - peripheral to the overall game experience. Generally speaking, games that are made for VR displays are incunabular in nature. They ape the current format of games rather than create something that requires VR to function properly.

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The Primer: The History of VR

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The Primer: The History of VR

Before we kick off this month’s Built to Play theme on Virtual Reality, let’s take a trip through the frightful history of consumer-level VR game technology, shall we? Now hold my hand, count to three, click your heels, and strap a computer to your face, because it’s time to go!

While it isn’t technically virtual reality, the Master System’s 3D glasses are the first example I can find of a game developer using dedicated hardware to push immersion. Or, more accurately back then, the promise of immersion to sell dedicated hardware. To be fair to these guys, Master System 3D is in full colour, trading out red and blue lenses for rapidly moving shutters. That doesn't make it any less a waste of money. 

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