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3DS

Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker Review- The Anime Connection

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Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker Review- The Anime Connection

Devil Survivor 2: Season 2 is probably the best way to think of Record Breaker, in fact. The second campaign has more taxing, complex battles, but also more of the cast hanging out between fights, chatting and slowly learning to trust each other as the world falls apart all around them. No one character is particularly exciting or spectacularly written, but they're solid executions on the traditional anime cliches that the SMT series trades in, and the added wrinkle of only having a limited amount of time per in-game day to spend with them means you start thinking about budgeting your friendships. 

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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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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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Nintendo's E3 Lineup Previews

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Nintendo's E3 Lineup Previews

Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker:

Zooming out Captain Toad levels is a lot like playing Where's Waldo, if Waldo had the voice of a shrill, screaming grandmother.

Zooming out Captain Toad levels is a lot like playing Where's Waldo, if Waldo had the voice of a shrill, screaming grandmother.

The Captain Toad levels are the best part of Super Mario 3D World. Full stop.

If you don’t believe me, you either haven’t played 3D World, or that grating Toad voice Nintendo has been putting in games since 2001 made your head explode a lot faster than mine. For the former, the Captain Toad levels saw the titular explorer (first introduced as Mario’s weird schlemiel tagalong in Mario Galaxy) move around a 3D puzzle box level, hunting down green stars. The captain can’t jump use powerups, or even run very fast, but he can manipulate the camera a full 360 degrees, allowing levels to be trickier than they seem at first glance.

This is BASICALLY Gears of War. That cover would be waist high on anyone else.

This is BASICALLY Gears of War. That cover would be waist high on anyone else.

They were short, but generally really clever little puzzles. and the only complaint I ever had with them was that there weren’t more. Now that I have that though, I can’t help but be a little concerned. Don’t get me wrong, the puzzles are still tricky, and require some careful thought, as well as quick reflexes, but I have to wonder how much Captain Toad can justify an entire game. The demo I played had four levels, all pretty different from one another, including one where our intrepid explorer had to move from cover to cover to avoid a dragon spitting fire, while also moving forward to avoid the slowly rising lava lake. It’s not a terribly original level design, even for Nintendo, since it's pretty much exactly the Helmaroc King fight from Wind Waker, but Captain Toad’s specific limitations and goals gave it an interesting spin on a classic puzzle platformer challenge. If Nintendo can keep that kind of variety up across a few dozen levels, Captain Toad might finally escape his eternal sidekick role.

 

Mario Maker:

That hand isn't for show. It's in the game every time you edit a level and it's mildly unsettling.

That hand isn't for show. It's in the game every time you edit a level and it's mildly unsettling.

The first thing you have to know about Mario Maker though is that it really isn’t a game. It’s more of a toy, sort of in the vein of Mario Paint. However, unlike Mario Paint, fans have been making Mario level editors for years on the interest, at different, mostly questionable levels of legality, so what’s the deal here?

See? Maybe that's Miyamoto's hand? It would only make sense.

See? Maybe that's Miyamoto's hand? It would only make sense.

Assuming Mario Maker is a smaller, eShop title, and not a full retail release, the basis of Mario Maker is sound. Making your own Mario levels is a fun enough concept that dozens of half-baked fangames have been made to service the idea. The problem is how Nintendo plans to make Mario Maker worth a price tag. As it stands, Mario Maker feels pretty early on, it’s fairly light on features, and I’m assuming plenty more will be added as the game gets closer to release. For example, while the toolset let me put wings on any damn enemy I pleased, the red Koopas pictured in the official art weren't in the demo, leaving me dropping hundreds of winged green turtles to their doom.

Actually, it could be Reggie's hand. It is very well manicured.

Actually, it could be Reggie's hand. It is very well manicured.

The most intriguing feature the demo had was the ability to swap between Super Mario Bros. 1 graphics to New Super Mario Bros. U graphics on the fly. Nintendo has mentioned that they’re looking into adding more graphic overlays, and I think that’s where this game has a chance of really standing out. If tools from every 2d Mario platformer are available, with abilities from every game, we’d have a much deeper level editor than fans have ever made. Imagine switching to Mario 2 graphics and being able to plop down turnips for throwing around and setting up magic potions and portal doors, then erasing that level, and building one of those nightmare Kaizo Mario World death traps that require constant spin jumps over hungry piranha plants. Or assets themed around more obscure games like Donkey Kong ‘94, or even a Paper Mario visual filter. Mario Maker could be a really deep, fun toy that takes a look back at Mario’s platforming history by giving players the reigns. Emphasis on could. It could also be made obsolete by fan games before it’s even released. Here's hoping for a Hotel Mario skin at the very least.

 

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse:

Every single piece of art for this game is so cute it may actually kill me. LOOK AT HIS CUTE GLASSY EYES. LOOK UPON THEM AND DESPAIR.

Every single piece of art for this game is so cute it may actually kill me. LOOK AT HIS CUTE GLASSY EYES. LOOK UPON THEM AND DESPAIR.

Kirby’s Canvas Curse is the actual best Kirby game, but probably also one of the most overlooked. It came out at a weird transitionary period in the DS’s life. It was long enough after launch that every DS game wasn’t an exciting new tech demo, but before the system hit its popularity stride with stuff like Brain Age and Nintendogs. Not to mention that it was a touch based game about two months after touch was no longer a special feature. But, it was a really clever platformer that used the DS hardware better than pretty much any game before it, and was fun to boot.

I wish every screenshot of this game was a ,gif, it's sort of the only thing that would do it justice.

I wish every screenshot of this game was a ,gif, it's sort of the only thing that would do it justice.

Almost a decade later, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse becomes a long-awaited sequel by default, but there’s something off about it. It’s still fun, and the paint-line mechanic hasn’t been revisited since the original, but I just can’t understand why the game is on WiiU. Yes, it’s gorgeous. Screenshots don’t quite do it justice actually. The world is rendered in clay, giving the game a faux-stop motion feel.  It’s constantly moving but in tiny, imperfect ways. Kirby is never a perfect sphere, but invisible hands are constantly trying to remold him into one, like a child with a ball of plasticine. It’s some of the best, most creative use of HD I’ve ever seen, but it’s not necessary to the game. The aesthetic tries to justify its existence on WiiU, when it’s otherwise a much better fit for 3DS. It is the sequel to a DS game after all. One has to wonder if this game and Kirby’s Triple Deluxe, a more traditional platformer that would probably get more attention on a console, didn’t get swapped around or something at birth.

Yeah. If that doesn't win you over you're dead inside.

Yeah. If that doesn't win you over you're dead inside.

It's Yoshi! But yarn! It's cute!

It's Yoshi! But yarn! It's cute!

Yoshi’s Wooly World:

Yoshi is another WiiU game that tries to justify its existence through an aesthetic. Unlike Kirby though, its harder to fault it for that. I’m sure it’s coincidental, but considering the general “meh” Yoshi’s New Island received from players at large, stepping as far away as possible from the traditional Yoshi art style is probably a good idea.

No one man should have all that yarn.

No one man should have all that yarn.

Otherwise though, Woolly World is Yoshi as you know it. Considering it’s already the third direct Yoshi’s Island sequel in eight years, the ground before it is pretty well trodden. You eat enemies, turn them into eggs (yarn balls technically), bop more enemies with them to collect treasures. In a cross with Good Feel’s previous craft-based game, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yoshi doesn’t have a life bar, instead losing a chunk of collected treasure upon death. In multiplayer mode, dying also respawns you as a floating egg for your partner to pop, sort of like respawning in New Super Mario Bros.. It’s totally solid, but I’m still iffy on using Epic Yarn’s death system. While it does get rid of Baby Mario’s incessant whining, Yoshi’s Island’s difficulty was in collecting well hidden secrets like the red coins and flowers. Putting the emphasis instead on amassing as much treasure as possible feels like it’s missing the point, much like Yoshi’s New Island and Yoshi’s Island DS. Maybe we’ll just have to wait a little longer for a true Yoshi’s Island sequel after all.

 

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright:

Luke's the only one not getting in on the Objection action. That's because no one likes Luke. Sorry guy.

Luke's the only one not getting in on the Objection action. That's because no one likes Luke. Sorry guy.

Earlier this year, I got really existential about there being no more Professor Layton games. Of course, I knew then that Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney would be coming out in North America eventually, I just also knew that due to its long release delay it was going to feel like a pretty significant step back.

When the 3DS was announced, this was the game that made me perk up and get interested in the system. Two of my favourite DS adventure games come together to form a weird, violin accompanied Voltron? Where do I sign up? Playing it now though, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. The game doesn’t demo well, but in the half hour or so I played it, I watched Professor Layton explain what a puzzle was, using a non-interactive cutscene that lasted three or four eternities, and Phoenix and Maya bicker about how they’re bakers, not lawyers. I swear, they think they’re bakers until the first contradiction, and it lets them justify every first case cliche the series can throw at you. Explaining how to press witnesses? Check. Explaining what contradictions are? Check. Explaining how testimony works? Arghhhhh

Spoilers: Maya isn't in AA5, so seeing her again is a real treat for long time Ace Attorney fans.

Spoilers: Maya isn't in AA5, so seeing her again is a real treat for long time Ace Attorney fans.

I’m sure those things will pass, but I can’t help but feel the game is designed for newcomers to the Layton franchise from the Ace Attorney side, as well as newcomers to the Ace Attorney franchise from the Layton side. It’s tutorial city. Again, the demo I played was only an hour and a half or so into the game, and I’m sure it’ll pass, it just didn’t leave a great taste in my mouth. Also, since the game came out before Ace Attorney 5 in Japan, it lacks the option to skip text at any point, forcing you to sit through s l o w ,  s c r o l l i n g  d i a l o g. It’s a minor complaint, I know, but I’m a fast reader, and having that option in AA5 was a real blessing. Playing without it may get really frustrating for Ace Attorney veterans in the same camp as myself.

 

 

Hyrule Warriors:

Fans have determined that this Link is the "pretty Link", and I can only assume it's the scarf. Gotta be the scarf.

Fans have determined that this Link is the "pretty Link", and I can only assume it's the scarf. Gotta be the scarf.

The problem with writing about Hyrule Warriors is that it’s exactly what I expected of it. Not that that’s a terrible thing. Hyrule Warriors is a Zelda-inspired take on the Dynasty Warriors franchise, which at this point has teeth so long they qualify as tusks. If you’ve played any of those, you know what to expect here- giant hordes of enemies, punctuated with a few bigger, tougher foes, scattered across a map with various bases and control points. Kill scores of them and complete missions (mostly oriented around running to another point on the map and killing scores of them) and beat the level.

Some days, we just need to sit back and appreciate how great the Skyward Sword Lizalfos design is. It has a giant rock gauntlet Let that sink in.

Some days, we just need to sit back and appreciate how great the Skyward Sword Lizalfos design is. It has a giant rock gauntlet Let that sink in.

There are a few differences, sure. Subweapons like bombs can be found on the map and equipped instead of the standard healing potions, and having individual hearts instead of an ambiguous health bar makes it a lot easier to know how much health you need to pick up to keep on trucking, but overall, this is Dynasty Warriors wearing a Zelda skin.

Original character White Sorceress Lana is here to fulfil your daily recommended dose of moe character design.

Original character White Sorceress Lana is here to fulfil your daily recommended dose of moe character design.

It’s a pretty skin though. Hyrule Warriors is among the prettier WiiU games, and the Skyward Sword-inspired battlefield the demo took place in looks like a massive step up even from the game’s initial trailers. And, speaking as a far-too-enthusiastic Zelda fan, the little touches thrown in are adorable. Midna’s “twilight wolves” have the same chunky dreadlocked mane that Wolf Link was rocking back in Twilight Princess, and one of Zelda’s alternate weapons is the Wind Waker, complete with requisite sound effects. There are a few spots where the shout outs go a little too far, like when Navi’s ever-grating “Hey, Listen!” plays over tutorial tooltips. It’s as if the developers knew that her catchphrase became memetic, but totally missed the part where it was the world’s most annoying sound.

It’s hard to write about this game without it just sounding a back-of-the-box feature list. Kill monsters! Zelda things! Dynasty Warriors was smart to move into more and more licensed titles, like their recent Fist of the North Star and One Piece-themed games, and Hyrule Warriors is no different from either. It’s classic, tried-and-tired Dynasty Warriors gameplay with a candy-coloured Zelda coating. That was totally enough to get me to buy One Piece: Pirate Warriors 2 last year, and depending on how much more content this game has we haven’t seen yet, it might manage to do it again.

Twilight Princess's Midna brings down Majora's Mask's moon as part of one of her supers, and that sentence is definitely a dream come true for someone. (That someone is me.)

Twilight Princess's Midna brings down Majora's Mask's moon as part of one of her supers, and that sentence is definitely a dream come true for someone. (That someone is me.)

Remember, for more previews of games like Bayonetta 2 and Project Giant Robot, check out our audio from Nintendo's preview event, coming soon!


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Super Smash Bros. WiiU/3DS Preview: Lookin' Good

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Super Smash Bros. WiiU/3DS Preview: Lookin' Good

Smash Bros. is a weird beast. On one hand, it’s an outsider game, part of Nintendo’s initiative to take genres they aren’t comfortable with and Nintendo-ize them. Smash Bros. is an action-platform-brawler, sure, but it’s also Nintendo’s more intuitive, easy to understand take on the fighting game genre (see also: Splatoon for shooters, Fire Emblem for RPGs, Luigi’s Mansion for point-and-click adventure games). On the other hand though, it’s the insider game, combining pretty much every Nintendo franchise that matters (and some that really, really don’t) into one fan-pandering package.

It's like Rock-Paper-Scissors. Mega Man beats Mario who bears Sonic who beats Mega Man until both are irrelevant.

It's like Rock-Paper-Scissors. Mega Man beats Mario who bears Sonic who beats Mega Man until both are irrelevant.

That fighting game part of the equation is really relevant these days, with the sudden surge of popularity Super Smash Bros Melee, the 2001 Gamecube incarnation of the series, has been seeing in the fighting game community. Nintendo, in response, made sure that Gamecube controllers, the Smash Bros. standard would be compatible with the WiiU game through some sort of Frankenstein's monster of a switching box. It takes up two USB ports, and I’m not really sure how. Then, they held a tournament, inviting the world’s top Smash Bros. players to show off the game in a livestreamed event in the Nokia Theatre. Nintendo is pinning all its WiiU hopes and dreams on Smash, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s consistently a multi-million seller, but unlike Mario Kart, its more popular older brother, it draws in a fairly stable crowd of Nintendo, and specifically, Smash Bros. diehards.

So, getting Super Smash Bros. for WiiU and 3DS (seriously, that's the full name) right is a Big Deal for Nintendo. Such a big deal that they’ve dedicated multiple Nintendo Directs to it, post daily updates on the games development to Miiverse, and commission original, usually super clever art every time a new character is revealed. Smash Bros. is an event game. It’s a once a generation game. But enough context, let’s talk video games.

Rush....Do you think love can bloom? Even on a battlefield?

Rush....Do you think love can bloom? Even on a battlefield?

To prepare for the demo, I played enough of Melee and Brawl to get a feel for the differences between the two games, and to remind myself exactly how they felt to move around in. I found that Melee was a lot slipperier than I remembered, while also being a very stiff game overall. Brawl, meanwhile, had a lot more traction on the ground, and moved more smoothly, but had a lot of floatiness and looseness in the air. Smash Bros. for WiiU feels tighter, in a good way though. Melee’s stiffness made hit and run tactics the order of the day giving defensive players really big opportunities, while Brawl’s floatiness made matches one long air battle, eventually culminating in a single strong ground hit for a kill. Overall, characters feel like they have less airtime now, as well as more responsive hits on the ground. The overall feel is snappier, tighter. Characters have real weight to them again, but not so much that they feel cumbersome to combo with.

K! O!

K! O!

For example, I got my hands on Punch Out’s Little Mac, one of the game’s newcomers. Mac is a boxer, not exactly skilled at air fighting. His jumps are low and heavy, and his off-screen recovery options either move straight up, or straight to the side, no precise recovery here. But, his ground game is unmatched. He’s lightning quick, hits like a tank, and most of his specials and smash attacks combo out of his jab attack. Mac also builds up a power meter as he takes and deals damage. Once it fills up, you get a single use, instant-KO uppercut. It comes out slow, but hitting it stops the action and zooms in on you crushing your opponents jaw with the might of a thousand elephants. It’s crazy satisfying. The rebalancing of the air and ground game still makes Mac a less viable character overall, Smash Bros. is an action-platformer after all, and what good is a platforming character who jumps like a turtle? But, more of the action takes place on the ground, and playing to your strengths (and the center of the stage) makes Mac a really solid, entertaining character to use.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Rosalina. The Mario Galaxy princess is light, and floats around pretty much like she’s right out of Brawl. Her shtick is that she has a Luma following her around, sort of like the Ice Climbers tandem system from previous games. Unlike Nana though, Rosalina is in full control of her Luma, and can use it to create devastating (and really cool looking) set ups and combos. In the time I used her, she seemed really tricky to get a hold of, but definitely showed potential for serious damage. Between the Luma and Little Mac’s power meter, it’s easy to see that Smash Bros. new direction isn’t so much about refining the engine and core feel of the game, as it has been before, but about refining the characters, and making each feel more unique.

Don't worry, Diddy always has it coming.

Don't worry, Diddy always has it coming.

Take a look at Mega Man. He doesn’t have his own special subsystem, but the way he operates is entirely different from the rest of the cast. His jab combo fires three pellets (and only three, just like NES sprite restrictions demand), and each of his moves are individual, distinct hits, often with charge up time, poor recovery, or slow start-up. Mega Man doesn’t combo. At all. But, just like he does in his games, he has a ton of options available to him. The (ironically sort of useless) Metal Blade can go off in any direction, the Leaf Shield lets you run right through projectiles, Hard Knuckle demolishes any enemy beneath you, Air Shooter lets you chase enemies right off top of the screen in an aerial battle. Mega Man has an option for any situation, and they hit hard. Mega Man requires you to understand the game and predict your opponents, not react, then pick the right tool for any job. No other character plays like that.

Yeah, but where's all the sports tape?

Yeah, but where's all the sports tape?

Even older characters have gotten tweaks. Pikachu’s thunder attack is no longer nearly as useful, and his “breakdancing” down-smash has a bit of a vortex applied to it, letting him suck enemies into his whirling death tail. Overall, it forces Pikachu players to play more aggressively, having to rely far less on well placed thunders to carry enemies off screen for them. Meanwhile, perennial bottom-tier bench sitter Link has a stronger downwards stab in the air, as well as far batter range on his boomerang. Maybe it’s not enough to take him out of the D-List, but he certainly feels more viable.

I could look at 100 screenshots of Sonic eating it and never get bored.

I could look at 100 screenshots of Sonic eating it and never get bored.

It all makes Smash Bros. feel much more like what I think it was intended to be. A collection of Nintendo's unique characters, each recognizable because they play just like they’re supposed to in their original games. They’re more different than they ever were before. It diversifies the gameplay in a way that Smash Bros. hasn’t tried since the very first game. Greninja plays hit and run like a melee character, Wii Fit Trainer is floatier, but hits hard and plays a strong fundamentals game. The Villager is unpredictable, much like Mr. Game and Watch, but with a heavier focus on set ups and traps. It’s the first Smash Bros. game where I feel like I really need to sit down and learn some of the characters, and that’s a really good thing. It’s making me very excited to clean up with Little Mac in Super Smash Bros for WiiU and 3DS.

Boy, it really needs a better name.


Sidebar: Smash Bros for 3DS Update-

It does actually look this nice up close. Zoomed out? Not so much.

It does actually look this nice up close. Zoomed out? Not so much.

Did you hear? Smash Bros. is also on 3DS this time around!Presumably because the WiiU isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, and a 3DS version is a pretty sure sales bet for a good few million copies. But handheld fighters are never the best idea. Sure, they can function, but it often comes at a serious cost. Either the engine suffers, or the controls aren’t right, or frames get dropped. 3DS Smash Bros. is a pretty unique case in that it is literally the exact same game as it’s console big brother. Sure, it has a different set of stages and a few special modes, but it uses the same characters, the same assets (scaled down significantly for the smaller screen) and the same engine. It plays identically, smooth as silk. I’ll take the thick black outlines over dropped frames any day of the week.

The game’s big draw right now is the Smash Run mode, which lets up to four players run around a floating island dungeon for five minutes, killing various Nintendo enemies for power ups. These power ups then get applied for a set of multiplayer matches once the time limit is up. The mode is entertaining, but playing against CPUs really only hammered across the fact that Smash Bros. is built on local multiplayer. The controls work (the timing for smash attacks feels a little more lenient on the handheld), and the screen size isn’t really an issue. Online multiplayer is solid enough on 3DS, but it’ll never replace the local, punch-your-friend-in-the-shoulder-for-using-a-cheap-move multiplayer that made the series so popular. This game needs tons and tons of single player content, but I have to imagine all of that will find its way to the WiiU version anyway, considering it comes out a few months later. No matter what Smash 3DS does, it’s always going to be the inferior version, and that’s not a great place to start from.

Not the 3DS version, but do appreciate the RESOLUTION on those hula hoops. You won't find hula hoops like that on any other console. Those are proprietary hoops. First party hoops.

Not the 3DS version, but do appreciate the RESOLUTION on those hula hoops. You won't find hula hoops like that on any other console. Those are proprietary hoops. First party hoops.

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy- This is the End, Top-Hatted Friend

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy- This is the End, Top-Hatted Friend

It's not often game franchises get to die with dignity. Guitar Hero didn't get to die until Activision bled it dry and killed the entire plastic- instrument genre with it. Final Fantasy, once a bastion of quality in a sea of ho-hum RPGs, is something like fourteen-and-a-half tortured installments deep into a series whose glory days are long past. It took the combined threat of three mostly-lame games to kill the Mana series, only for it to rise again as a free-to-play mobile game. So when Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy was announced as the last Professor Layton game, I took notice. A series I love was about to end on its own terms, and I was ready to hate. There was no way this wasn’t a last ditch attempt by Level 5 to avoid driving Layton into the ground.

Turns out they were just proving that he could still soar, one last time.

They're just as happy to hear that as you are, trust me.

They're just as happy to hear that as you are, trust me.

Layton 7, or: How I learned to Start Worrying about Mobile Spinoffs

Layton 7, or: How I learned to Start Worrying about Mobile Spinoffs

For those new to the Layton series, there have been six games, as well as a mobile spin-off over the last seven years, starting with Professor Layton and the Mysterious Village in 2007. They’re pretty simple affairs, point-and-click adventure games in the classic Lucasarts style, but stuffed to bursting with logic puzzles. Every character in the world is ready to drop some creative math problems on you, just you wait. Azran Legacy is the sixth Layton game, the end to a trilogy of prequels that take place before the first game, and purportedly the end of the series. To be fair, this isn’t actually the last game, technically speaking. Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney is miraculously coming to western shores next month, but that came out before Azran Legacy in its native Japan. Also, there’s Layton 7, but that looks like some sort of mobile-based farmville knockoff for now, not the top-hatted puzzler I know and love. Azran Legacy is the end of the Professor Layton  series as we know it though.

As you’d expect, when you make six games in seven years, there’s not a lot of room for innovation. The formula hasn’t really changed much since 2007. In fact, longtime fans might start the story thinking they’re suffering from a bout of deja-vu. Professor Layton and his entourage (earnest apprentice Luke and butt-kicking assistant Emmy) receive a letter from a fellow archaeology professor who’s uncovered a “living mummy”. From there, they go on an adventure wherein they save the world, mostly through solving ludicrous mysteries and finding out exactly how many sheep an absent minded farmer has.

Hint: D doesn't have any tokens, so he'd really appreciate if he could bum one off you. He's good for it though.

Hint: D doesn't have any tokens, so he'd really appreciate if he could bum one off you. He's good for it though.

Speaking of mysteries, Layton is renowned for its insane eleventh hour plot twists and Azran Legacy does not disappoint. The writers are in top form on this one, with not one, not two, but six bonkers Layton-signature plot twists for each of their main mysteries. For those keeping track at home, Professor Layton once resolved a plot by explaining everyone was high on mine gas the whole time.

So why six mysteries? Well, in what sounds like a design choice made while desperately trying to understand what appeals to westerners,  Azran Legacy is an open world game. After a few hours, Layton and company have their choice of five areas to explore, each hiding an Azran Egg, the magical macguffins you’ve been sent to find. You can tackle these areas in any order you like, or hop between them at your leisure with the fast travel provided by your airship. It sounds sort of pointless, but it manages to solve two of the series’ biggest issues in one fell swoop. First, it takes away the one massive area you navigate throughout the game. One of my biggest complaints with the last game, Miracle Mask, was that by the end of the game you were spending 5 minutes just trying to get around its enormous city. Having a handful of smaller areas lets each be tighter, more navigable, and cuts backtracking almost entirely out of the equation.

San Grio, a gorgeous crossbreed of Venice and the Spanish riviera, is obsessed with eggs. Eggs as far the eye can see. Eggs.

San Grio, a gorgeous crossbreed of Venice and the Spanish riviera, is obsessed with eggs. Eggs as far the eye can see. Eggs.

I can't imagine there are many master thieves who also happen to be obsessed with math, Maybe in Gotham city?

I can't imagine there are many master thieves who also happen to be obsessed with math, Maybe in Gotham city?

The other bonus is more themed puzzles. Part of Layton’s charm has always been theming its puzzles around the areas you play them in. Card and gambling puzzles in the casino, boat puzzles by the lake, that sort of thing. Each area is a different part of the world, so Spanish riviera-style San Grio is going have significantly different puzzles than Torrido’s take on Texas. It’s cute and fixes the issue that it was often hard to tell if you were getting any better at certain puzzle types in previous games. Segmenting puzzles like that gives a real sense of progression, where you’ll find three puzzles of the same type in one area, not scattered around the world so far from each other you forget how to solve them. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to solve them all, since Azran Legacy keeps up the series tradition of stuffing the game with something like 200 puzzles, plus free daily downloadable puzzles for the next year. This one's going to last you a while.

Those puzzles, by the way, are pretty much spectacular. The puzzlemasters at Level 5 have really outdone themselves here, with clever, challenging puzzles that rarely overstay their welcome. Also, there seem to be less math-focused puzzles, which is a welcome boon to my number-numb brain. If brain teasers and logic puzzles don’t set your heart afire, Azran Legacy isn’t going to win you over, there’s nothing new here. After six of these games though, you’d expect them to really nail puzzle design, and Azran Legacy  doesn't live down expectations. There’s not one gimmick puzzle focused on closing the 3DS lid, or blowing into the microphone, or viewing something in 3D in the whole game. They’ve cut out the more irrelevant minigames from Miracle Mask, like horse racing, and top-down dungeon crawling. No puzzle type gets more than three or four uses, and even those permutations get real clever. There’s a puzzle about seals balancing balls that can really throw you for a loop the last time it pops up. The game isn’t necessarily innovating, but it is refining. It’s polishing bone.

Why doesn't every game look like Professor Layton? Right, we can't have nice things.

Why doesn't every game look like Professor Layton? Right, we can't have nice things.

As usual, the art is beautiful, with that unique Triplets of Belleville meets ligne claire style that no one seems to be able to replicate. They also managed to knock 3D effects out of the park on this one, if that’s your bag. Some of the areas, like the waterfall in Phong Gi, the jungle area, look absolutely incredible with the 3D slider on. I often found myself poking around environments, then turning on 3D just to see how they looked. Also up to par is the dialogue, which remains charming and well written, if occasionally poorly voice acted. Characters from pretty much every game in the series pop their heads in to say goodbye here, so long time fans will get a nostalgic kick out of seeing old Inspector Chelmey bumbling around the world again, though some cameos don’t really serve any purpose.

"Quack."

"Quack."

There are moments when Azran Legacy shines even brighter though. Moments when you realize how special it all is. At one point, Layton and Luke take it upon themselves to make a tribal chieftain laugh, so the professor puts on a duck bill, and in a lavishly animated cutscene, belts out a deadpan “quack”. Then, for the next few minutes of game time, Layton is still wearing the duck bill on his model. They not only prioritized a full anime cutscene for a one-off gag, they also made sure to model the prop for the game proper. It’s ridiculous and silly, but altogether charming in a refreshing way. Layton cares so little about being a “mass market appeal” game. You solve all your problems with puzzles, you talk to squirrels about their day, you never even harm a fly. The graphics are a PlayStation 1-style mix of 2D and 3D that work because of how gorgeous the cel-shaded art style is. Layton makes no overtures to capture the Call of Duty aesthetic everyone is going for these days, nor does it care about courting the Candy Crush players who everyone’s after. It knows that it’s all coming to an end, but since it gets to end on its own terms, it isn’t changing a thing about itself for anyone.

Remember kids, never except candy from strangers. Unless they offer you a puzzle first, then you know they're okay.

Remember kids, never except candy from strangers. Unless they offer you a puzzle first, then you know they're okay.

Other than the parade of cast members from games gone by though, it was often easy to forget that its the last Layton game, because it never really made a big deal of it. While it wraps up the lingering plot threads of the previous two games (as well as brings the movie into canon), and ties it all together with a suitably epic finale, it doesn’t really require you to know any of that. It could be a standalone game if it really wanted to. Maybe because it has to directly lead into the first game in the series, it never lingers too long on a melancholy note. Azran Legacy doesn’t really seem to mind dying very much. It doesn’t relish it by any means, but it feels like the designers took a special sort of dignity in getting to go out on a high note, and they don’t waste it on pointless call backs.

After six games, there’s not much left to do, and Azran Legacy refines the Layton formula down to the bone. There’s no fat left here anymore. There are no flaws left to fix. It’s unapologetic in its finality, almost as if to say “this is it, this is perfect Layton, and if you don’t like it now, then you never will.” And, it basically is the perfect Professor Layton game. It’s not quite my favourite, Unwound Future’s plot twist is hard to beat, and I could listen to its puzzle duel music all day, but Azran Legacy is better than any of its predecessors in almost every conceivable way. The puzzles are spectacular, the world is finally manageable, the script is wonderfully charming, and even though the art style already made the polygonal jump perfectly in Miracle Mask, Azran Legacy ups the ante with incredible 3D effects and beautiful backdrops. It’s not going to convert any haters, but Azran Legacy is perfect, pure, Professor Layton. No frills, no gimmicks. I can’t think of a more fitting send off for a true gentleman.

This is the end, top-hatted friend. This is the end, my gentleman friend, this is the end.

This is the end, top-hatted friend. This is the end, my gentleman friend, this is the end.

VERDICT: Thumbs up!

(Built to Play uses a simple, binary rating system. These aren't product reviews, but we do want to tell you where to best spend your time and money. So, if something is worth your time, it gets a thumbs up, if not, thumbs down.)

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds- R-R-R-REMIX

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds- R-R-R-REMIX

For years, most conversations about Zelda games have been dominated by talk about the Zelda formula: a set of structural rules that the games have slavishly stuck to since 1991’s A Link to the Past. A Link Between Worlds promised early on that it was going to change all that. In Japan, it’s called A Link to the Past 2. It’s making a pretty clear statement that this is the next step for Zelda.

Well, two steps forward and one step back, but you know- a step nonetheless.

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Let’s start with the steps forward, since the rest doesn’t quite make sense without them. Pre-release info has made a big deal of the game’s item rental system. Instead of getting each item in its own dungeon, Link instead has access to almost every major item after the first dungeon. A shopkeeper sets up in Link’s bedroom and lets him rent bombs, the bow, a boomerang, a whole stable of Zelda staples. You keep these items until you die, unless you buy them for a high price, but purchased items can also be upgraded though a surprisingly deep and enjoyable side quest. If you play smart though, you could probably get through the entire game on just one rental. The loss of items and rupee requirement to getting them back adds some actual tension to boss fights, since death leads to more than just losing your last five minutes.

Seriously, this is breaking and entering, and also extortion. I should be beating up THIS guy.

Seriously, this is breaking and entering, and also extortion. I should be beating up THIS guy.

Unfortunately, the game’s bosses aren’t quite up to snuff for the most part, but 2D Zelda games aren’t really combat-focused games, they’re about the puzzles. LBW adds two tools to Link’s repertoire in that regard. The first is his newfound ability to merge into walls. It basically amounts to being able to sidle along any wall, but it does make a bigger deal than you’d expect it to. Finding secrets hidden around walls you didn't expect to be able to traverse is very satisfying. Like how Portal managed to teach me to “think with portals”, I eventually started looking at every wall and trying to figure out if something was hidden around the other side.

The other new trick is the addition of height to dungeon layouts. Rendering the game in polygons let the designers go hog wild with multi-layer dungeons, height puzzles and just overall deeper, more interesting puzzle design. A third axis really does help for making puzzles more than “light two torches, chest appears.” Of course, that puzzle still shows up, but it disappears early on to make way for sand manipulation, ice-seesaws and other more interesting mechanics.

Those springs are awfully happy for things that stepped on a lot.

Those springs are awfully happy for things that stepped on a lot.

The trade-off for height, however, is the fact that everything looks sort of ugly. LttP has a very unique look, with muted colours and simple shading used to create the illusion of detail where there was none. It’s not a mind-blowing effect, but when you look at a random screenshot of LttP, you instantly know what game it’s from. LBW tries to replicate that effect, but it comes off looking cheap. Characters don’t quite have the same pop, even if they do look ostensibly identical, and in some areas, everything just comes out looking like RPG Maker clip art. It’s not good.

And unfortunately, it invites comparison, because both Hyrule and its mirror counterpart Lowrule (this game’s version of the traditional Zelda Dark World) are ripped straight out of LttP. It’s an almost pixel for pixel recreation, with some slight changes here and there. If you’ve played LttP, you’ve been to this Hyrule before. From the field of pillars near Link’s house to Thieves’ Town, everything is more or less how you remember it, but rendered in plasticky polygons. Like the graphics, it feels cheap, especially from a team that’s proven they can do better many times before.

They chopped down that tree in the last 22 years. Pogress!

They chopped down that tree in the last 22 years. Pogress!

Lowrule's Princess Hilda is rocking that gothic-upside-down-zelda-without-a-hint-of-irony look that's so chic in her kingdom these days.

Lowrule's Princess Hilda is rocking that gothic-upside-down-zelda-without-a-hint-of-irony look that's so chic in her kingdom these days.

But, in another step forward, the world is totally open. Since every item is accessible to you from close to the start, the world is completely traversable, save for a few areas that need optional items you’ll get from exploring to open up. All this means you can tackle most of the dungeons in whatever order you please. After the first dungeon, you tackle one of two dungeons before the other, and after those, seven more dungeons open up to be explored in any order. I even found myself getting halfway through one dungeon, finding myself stuck, and then warping out to check out another one. The game’s pace is totally up to you. You can explore for hours before setting foot in a dungeon, or you can take them on one after another in rapid succession, ignoring side quests. It’s perfectly suited for a handheld game and a welcome relief from Twilight Princess’ slow build up between dungeons, and Skyward’s Sword’s movie-length tutorial sequence.

All the non-linearity, clever puzzles and occasional multiple solutions led me to feel something I haven’t felt from a Zelda game in a while: accomplished. It’s satisfying to get somewhere you feel like you shouldn’t be yet, and still triumphing through smart play. Dungeons don’t ramp up in difficulty but focus on more and more devious puzzles for the item they focus on.  It’s just unfortunate that such a huge step forward had to be coupled alongside such a massive step back.  Reusing the overworld really hurts the game more than I expected it to. Every dungeon occupies the same spot on the map; the insides are just different, same with every house, cave and lake. Exploration is promoted, and while there are new secrets to discover, I can’t help but feel I’ve done all this before.

For all my hatred for the polygonal graphics, the 2D wall paintings look fantastic. A+ to that part of the art team.

For all my hatred for the polygonal graphics, the 2D wall paintings look fantastic. A+ to that part of the art team.

It’s funny, “I’ve done this all before” is probably the number one complaint about Zelda games since 1998’s Ocarina of Time. Every game since LttP has just recreated its structure with slight modifications. Finally, there’s a game that actually shakes up the formula, but it feels same-y for a completely different reason, and it still holds it back.

There were moments when LBW reminded me of expertly game mods. Like Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Project M, or Half Life’s Counter Strike, LBW radically changes certain things about the game it originated from and freshens up that experience, but it’s still being built on that foundation, and you can’t change the underpinnings.

The changes it does make are great. The game is fantastically fun, doesn’t hold your hand and is clever throughout. But all of that is at odds with the reused overworld and cheap-looking graphics. It’s one of those odd games that does so much right, but fails to seal the deal the way it should. If only the game sprung for a new overworld, to really reward the exploration it encourages with something new and exciting, it would be the best Zelda game in years. And if you've never played or aren't super familiar with LttP, it might be. But for the Zelda diehard, it seems to be comfortable simply being good, never quite escaping the shadow of its predecessor.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Platform: 3DS

Developer: Nintendo EAD & Monolith Soft

Publisher: Nintendo

You know, I've never actually seen Link and Wall painting Link in the same place at the same time....

You know, I've never actually seen Link and Wall painting Link in the same place at the same time....

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Pokemon X and Y- Tipping Point

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Pokemon X and Y- Tipping Point

Pokémon X and Y add a fascinating new feature to the series. It’s a game changing idea, one that totally changes the way I perceive the world that the game presents. It’s not the full 3D battles with a dynamic camera, it’s not the brand new fairy type, it’s not the ability to fully customize your trainer, it’s not even the fact that Pokémon names can be up to ten letters now, allowing me to nickname my Gyarados “Skullkraken”, as God and President Obama intended. 

No, the game changing feature is tipping: the ability to tip buskers, waters, and any number of NPCs who offer you small services.

Stay with me here, I promise it’ll start making sense in a moment.

Xerneas-Official-Illustration_300dpi.jpg

Occasionally in Pokémon X and Y, you’ll come across a wandering minster who will offer to sing you a song, or you enter a café and a waiter seats you. Maybe you just asked a maid to assist you in sending out a battle request, or found a poor Pokémon with a sign around its neck saying it needs money for a trim. After interacting with them, the game will ask if you’d like to top them, in denominations of either 100 pokédollars, 500 pokédollars, or 1000 pokédollars. Assuming that’s equivalent to Yen, we’re looking at a $1 tip, a $5 tip, or a $10 tip.

Here’s the kicker though, tipping doesn’t do anything.

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It doesn’t increase your stats, no one mentions it, and all that happens is that you’re out a couple of bucks for what would have otherwise been a free service. It’s weird in a videogame context. Mechanically speaking, videogames tend not to have wasted parts. Everything means something, otherwise a developer spent hours slaving away on something players would find pointless, when they could otherwise spend their time working on things that would enhance the game in general. There are exceptions to the rule, but even those tend to prove it, in a way. Open world games like Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row have plenty of “pointless” areas, but they exist to enhance the open world. An area that isn’t used in a quest line has purpose if it’s there to create the feeling that the world is more real.

So, because everything in a game has purpose, the savvy gamer has been trained to expect results from almost everything in the game world. Thus, the first time I tipped, I expected some invisible generosity stat to tick upwards until it hit max and I got a free Pikachu wearing a party hat or something. Instead, I didn’t get thanks, no one ever mentioned it again, and according to the internet, the game doesn’t even track it. It literally does nothing.

So why have I been tipping every single NPC who asks?

It started pretty simply. I was expecting something to come of it. I thought tipping would increase my catch rate, or EV rate, or somehow influence an obscure stat with a byzantine equation drawing from my average tip amount combined with my tipping frequency. Then, I realized it wasn’t doing anything, and I didn’t’ tip a maid after asking her to send out a battle request for me.

And then she sassed me.

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That’s right, a wall of dots. Her unvoice-acted silence was deafening, so much so that I spoke to her again, and gave her a tip that time. And then I continued giving everyone else tips, because I felt guilty that a fake person was angry because I didn’t give them fake money for their fake service.

It’s ridiculous, but hear me out. I think it changed the entire game for me. One of my biggest problems with Pokémon has always been its lack of a cohesive world. To flesh out the things going on in this world and contextualize them as events happening in a fictional world with rules, I had to turn to other sources, like the cartoon and comics. I wrote an entire essay going into detail exclusively about the Pokémon world’s system of governance, just because I felt like it was one of the few things the game explained just enough as to make it seem insane.

Obviously Pokémon has always had bigger problems. Balance issues crop up every few games, and the fact that, at its core, we’ve been playing the same game since 1998, are also problems, but as someone who’s always been way too into Pokémon, and far too interested in world building, the cohesive world thing has always pissed me off.

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I always wanted to know how people operated in this world. Do they eat Pokémon? Is all work centered on Pokémon? Are there Pokémon rights advocates? Why are they both slaves and celebrities?  Do people have jobs? Is the Pokémon Center subsidized by the Pokémon League? And so on. The tipping thing was the first moment that a Pokémon world felt real to me without any extra material in years. It was the first time my imagination was truly piqued.

It was something pointless, something I do out of kindness and social convention in real life, but served no real purpose in this videogame. It made me poke around more and start talking to more NPCs, seeing if they needed tips, just so they could make their rent that week. It didn’t fill in any gaps, it just started making me ask more questions.

World building is usually about presenting both a question and an answer to your audience. Even in something like Harry Potter, Rowling presents a question, how do Wizards get to school without being seen? And then she answers it by having an invisible train platform. Of course, she wisely doesn’t answer the question in full. A savvy reader asks if there are other invisible platforms, or invisible airport terminals, who built the platform, when? And the smart world builder leaves it at that. Those answers aren’t necessary to have a realized world, but the leaving some less important questions to be pondered by the reader makes for a richer world, personalized to them.

Pokémon gave its incomplete answers, but the world lacked the fidelity to inspire the kind of questions world building needs. Sure, Red and Blue tell me that the Pokémon League is in charge of pseudo-government affairs, but since the world is so abstracted, I don’t really think about that too hard, at least not until years later when I stop and really consider that problem.

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Tipping in X and Y asks me a strange question. Do I give these people my hard earned pokédollars? It also asks and answers simpler questions, like how money is treated in this world for people who don’t need to buy pokeballs and hyper potions every day. But the most important question is if I’m going to tip. The answer is yes, because I’m interacting with them in a way that makes the world less abstract. I’m contributing to this weird economy, an undefined social construct. Something I don’t quite understand, but makes this fake world move.

When writers and artists build worlds, one of their greatest tools are those aforementioned empty spaces. Those areas on a map that don’t’ serve any purpose but to make you feel like this is a vast world where not all your questions are answered. A world where things can be wasted and answers aren’t offered around every corner. But when it comes to an interactive world? Nothing is greater than convincing me to contribute to a system I don’t quite understand, to make me interact with these digital mannequins as if they were real people.

It also means NPCs are no longer there for my benefit. Where before they existed only to talk about how much they love Pokémon, or point me in the direction of the next route, now they have an expectation that I give them something in return. NPCs feel just a little more real by opening that door. It’s a small thing, but world building is done in increments like that. Small touches of fidelity in the world do a lot, from the winding alleys in the game’s equivalent of Paris, to the NPC who mentions that cafes exist so people can debate views and opinions, like they did around the time of the French Revolution. It all adds up to a more fully realized, detailed world, and one that I explore with a real sense of wonder. I haven’t felt that way since I was a child playing Blue, and I’m so glad to be back in that world of imagination.

So that’s why I tip every time. Part of it is guilt, sure, but part of it is a sort of gratitude. Thanking these NPCs for inspiring my imagination for the first time since I was a kid. Also, I’m still kind of hoping it makes it easier to find shiny Pokémon somehow. Just a little, at least.

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The 2DS is Not an April Fool’s Joke: It’s a Really Smart Move

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The 2DS is Not an April Fool’s Joke: It’s a Really Smart Move

Over the years, I’ve learned it’s impossible to predict Nintendo, and that’s why you can never count them out. When the 3DS was dying, no one could have seen the massive price cut and ambassador program that gave the system the second wind it needed to become a serious threat that went on to essentially kill the Vita. But somehow, even though I expect to be surprised by then every time, Nintendo always manages to do something completely insane that no one could ever see coming.

This week, it was the 2DS.

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If you haven’t heard of it by now, the 2DS is Nintendo’s new 3DS iteration. It’s a kid-focused handheld that strips out the glassesless 3D feature and the clamshell design in exchange for a lower price and increased durability. Which is to say it looks like it was made by Tonka and it costs $119.99, about $40 cheaper than the standard 3DS.

According to Nintendo, it also boasts slightly increased battery life, a bigger stylus with a dock on the side of the system (where it should have always been), and a sleep mode switch that replaces closing the 3DS clamshell to activate sleep mode. Additonally, the two screens are actually one large touchscreen separated by the casing, with the top screen covered to prevent people from touching it.

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It’s a smart move from Nintendo. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence around the internet and from Gamestop employees about parents holding off on the 3DS out of worry that it’ll ruin their children’s eyes. The 3DS (and every 3DS game) even has to have a little notice on it, warning that children under 7 probably shouldn’t play games in 3D, lest their corneas rocket out of their eye sockets or something. So it assuages that worry for parents.

The new design also gets rid of the 3DS’s flimsy hinge. I’m not one to jump around and move a lot while playing a handheld game, but I’ve had the 3DS top screen shift around when the bus takes a sharp turn, or the subway gets a little bumpy, I can’t imagine how bad it must be for a kid, who’s probably going to get a little hyperactive with their new toy. The brick-like design, with the covered top screen and thick top makes the 2DS look like a safer proposition for parents afraid their kids will break their $160 toy on day one.

Now, it’s not all sunshine and roses for the 2DS. Its existence and branding aren’t exactly the best thing in the world for Nintendo. The name is one thing. We all know it’s ridiculous sounding, but it’s also too clever by half. Sure its sort of a cut little pun, similar to the 3DS, but think back to when that system launched. I can remember Gamestop employees frustrated trying to explain the difference between the regular DS and the 3DS to confused parents. They weren’t frustrated because the parents were misinformed; they were frustrated because it’s sort of hard to explain why a DSi can’t play 3DS games when their names are so close.

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And that’s the kicker. Nintendo painted themselves into a corner with the name. Of course they wanted to name it something similar to the DS, the DS sold tens of millions. But now consumers don’t get the difference. The same thing happened to the WiiU.  WiiU doesn’t sound like a sequel to the Wii, it sounds like an expansion, like the Wii MotionPlus, or the Wii Speak. Even Sony has the sense to just number them.

You now have three 3DS systems on the market, alongside the DS, which is still selling pretty decently. The DS can’t play 3DS games, but the 2DS can. But the 3DS and 3DS XL play all the games that the 2DS can, only with the option to play them in 3D. And the 3DS XL has bigger screens, which don’t actually change the experience. And depending o the DS you get it also has a slot at the bottom for Game Boy Advance games from a decade ago.

Do you see where it gets confusing?

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Not to mention the fact that the lack of 3D splinters the market. There really aren’t very many 3DS games that have a heavy focus on the 3D features, but games like Super Mario 3D Land, the best selling game on the system, have levels that can get pretty difficult if you have the 3D turned off. If the 2DS takes off, we’re less likely to see games that utilize the 3D, since anyone who has a 2DS won’t be able to play. Of course, I can’t remember the last time I turned on the 3D, so it’s no great loss to me, but it certainly got a lot trickier for a developer with an interesting idea for a 3D game to get the greenlight.

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But make no mistake. The 2DS will take off. It’s launching on October 12th, the same day as Pokémon X and Y, in blue and red colours that scream “bundle with Pokémon” to me. It’s targeted at young children, who are going to want Pokémon this holiday season, and is launching with a system that addresses parental concerns while also getting pretty close to very parent friendly $100. It’s an almost guaranteed formula for sales.

Nintendo is going to have an uphill battle explaining what the 2DS is to parents, and explaining why it’s different than the 3DS, but with enough signage, I think they can overcome that hurdle.

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There’s a more interesting nugget hidden amongst the 2DS debate though. It only has one screen, and it’s shaped shockingly like a tablet. You’d need to be living under a rock to miss all the news stories about kids getting into tablets at younger and younger ages, and becoming incredibly well informed about their devices. Nintendo wants a piece of that action, and they want it bad. Kids are mostly using tablets to play games, and Nintendo can offer something app developers can’t: Pokémon and Mario.

I doubt the 2DS is ever going to steal the iPad’s thunder, but between it and the Wii U game pad, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next Nintendo handheld doesn’t launch with tablet and clamshell options. One intended for kids, one marketed to older gamers. Nintendo might pretend they aren’t afraid of Apple, but the 2DS marks the start of a serious effort to take tablet gaming back into Nintendo’s hands. After all, the Game Boy was basically a brick with a screen, and what is that if not the tablet of the late ‘80s?

 

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Mario and Luigi: Dream Team- Put the Kids to Bed

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Mario and Luigi: Dream Team- Put the Kids to Bed

About 20 hours into Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, the game stopped me to teach me how to use a skill I’ve been using since the beginning of the game. Then, it added a minor wrinkle to this ability, and stopped to teach me how to use that. Then, in the next room, it stopped me to talk about it one more time. This was 20 hours in, very close to the end of the game. I almost threw my 3DS across the room when in the very next room, the game stopped to teach me how to use this ability AGAIN.

Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is not a bad game In fact, half of it is an excellent game. The other half of it is one of the most infuriating RPGs I’ve ever had the displeasure of sitting back and reading. Dream Team is not a half bad game; it’s a half good one.

Even in Luigi's dreams, Mario is the one in charge.

Even in Luigi's dreams, Mario is the one in charge.

Dream Team is the fourth Mario game in the Mario and Luigi series of RPGs, one of two series spun out of Squaresoft’s Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars. The Paper Mario series plays a little more like a Mario game, with a sidescrolling perspective in the overworld, and a very minor use of stats. The Mario and Luigi games are slightly more traditional in their RPG-ness, other than the fact that, like Mario RPG and Paper Mario, the game uses properly timed button presses during attacks to make them stronger. It’s a fantastic marriage of Mario’s action game roots to an RPG battle system, and turns the usual slog through turn-based battles into an exciting game of reading enemy tells, finding the timing to counterattack, and then perfecting the timing on your own attacks.

This part of Dream Team, the combat half of the game, is spectacular. The game is loaded with plenty of interesting, challenging enemy attack patterns to learn, and boss fights start becoming a serious challenge pretty quickly. I found myself dying on bosses multiple times, just because they get so tricky. Fortunately, dying lets you just restart the current battle instead of having to go back to the title screen, which makes the challenge fun rather than brutally frustrating.

Mario's helmet must me made of steel if it protects him from a dozen Luigis falling on him ever time he jumps.

Mario's helmet must me made of steel if it protects him from a dozen Luigis falling on him ever time he jumps.

The frustrating part of the game is everything else. From the presentation to the dialog to the puzzles to the overworld, nothing else about this game works the way you’d hope it should. While the game has gorgeous spritework (I found myself obsessing over the tiny animation details, like Mario adjusting his cap after landing from a particularly high jump in battle), that level of detail isn’t matched by the music. There’s only one battle theme, one boss theme, and one tune for each area, and you hear them a lot. It gets incredibly grating very quickly.

You can’t turn to the dialog to keep you entertained though, because while the localization staff tried their hardest to pump the exposition-laden script full of jokes, they just couldn’t keep up with amount of chattiness in this game. Characters rarely talk for a long period of time, but they do take a page out of Final Fantasy 13’s book and give you some exposition before making you walk across the room for another five minutes of their lecture on the history of this island you don’t care about.

Those characters are sprites! Incredibly detailed sprites that look 3D! It's crazy!

Those characters are sprites! Incredibly detailed sprites that look 3D! It's crazy!

I don’t think there’s a single room where the game doesn’t wrest control of the camera away from you to highlight the solution to that room’s puzzle, and then has one of your two Navi-like companions pop out to wonder if what the camera just focused in on is the solution to a puzzle. And then when you solve this puzzle in 30 seconds because the answer was spelled out for you, they will fly out of Mario’s back pocket again to comment on how that WAS the solution and boy they’re sure proud you figured out that brain-buster.

It’s a toothless exercise in going through the motions, exacerbated by the fact that it never just shuts the hell up and lets you enjoy the combat. Other than backtracking, there are no 10 minutes of playtime in this game that go uninterrupted by some NPC who will heavy-handedly reveal the solution to a puzzle, give you some exposition, then maybe manage to crack one cute joke.

Maybe the constant exposition is why Luigi's able to fall asleep so easily?

Maybe the constant exposition is why Luigi's able to fall asleep so easily?

The localization staff deserves some real recognition for managing to punch up this script as much as they did. They tried to make as many jokes as they possibly could, but the sheer amount of text in this game must have overwhelmed them. It’s a real shame, because the game’s predecessor, 2010’s Bowser’s Inside Story, managed to have a consistently punchy script all the way through. Mario and Luigi only had one tagalong “helper” to chat up tutorials, Bowser rampaged through exposition because he just wanted to break stuff, and the game’s villain, Fawful, spouted incomprehensible gibberish most of the time. It was great.

Boswer’s Inside Story had the same structure as Dream Team too, with half the game taking place in a sidescrolling, platformer-lite world, and the other taking place in a more traditional, top down overworld. In this game however, instead of Mario and Luigi spelunking inside Bowser’s internal organs for the sidescrolling portions, Mario delves into the dreams of his ever-forgotten younger brother. In these dream worlds, Mario fights alone, with Luigi’s many dream selves acting as afterimages that power up his attacks. The battles also let you move up and down or face left and right with the circle pad when dodging certain attacks, which adds an appreciated level of extra depth to the combat.

Ugh, gross Luigi, use a giant dream tornado tissue.

Ugh, gross Luigi, use a giant dream tornado tissue.

But again, the combat is great. If it weren’t for the fact that playing as Bowser in the previous game was so fun, Dream Team would have the best combat in the series. It’s the constant hand holding and exposition that drives me up a wall. It almost feels like a reaction to last year’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which refused to hold your hand so much that it never even hinted at the solutions to the increasingly obtuse puzzles. Sticker Star hated holding your hand; it wanted nothing to do with it. Dream Team loves your hand, and wants to hold it so tight and never let go. It wants to take your hand and lead it to this item box, which it will make you stand under and show you how the A button makes you jump, 25 hours into the game.

I can understand tutorials in games, they aren’t a big deal most of the time. Ten hours into Dream Team, I thought I was finally seeing the end of them. That’s a long time for a game, but the combat was so good that I was willing to accept it. And then they didn’t stop. They never stopped. Ever. Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is a half good game. The combat is the good half, everything else is the bad half. It’s a testament to how great the combat is that I want to recommend the game at all, but unless you’re jonesing for a new Mario and Luigi fix, I don’t know if anyone can make it past the constant hand-holding, exposition and tutorials. If you need to play it though, do yourself a favour and maybe do something else when everyone’s talking, you won’t miss much.

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Shin Megami Tensei IV- Mikado is About to E-X-P-L-O-D-E

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Shin Megami Tensei IV- Mikado is About to E-X-P-L-O-D-E

Between Akira, Godzilla, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the Shin Megami Tensei games, Tokyo can’t quite seem to catch a break in Japanese media. Like seeing the broken Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, the ruins of post-apocalypse Tokyo are a symbol that the world can never be the same. It’s also inevitable. If it’s Japanese and the world is being destroyed, Tokyo is going to be destroyed; gruesomely, and often with a strong message about nuclear weapons.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is the fouth (or fifth, depending who you ask) in a series of games that delight in destroying Tokyo, only to rebuild it and destroy it again for the next instalment in the franchise. But this time, the game doesn’t being in Tokyo pre or post-apocalypse. Instead it begins in the pastoral Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a feudal nation divided into castes that has no ties to Tokyo, Japan, or any nation on earth, really. People speak in a dialect that can only be described as Shakespearean, the knights are called Samurai (pronounced SAW-moo-rai, which only gets more infuriating as the game goes on), and demons spill out of a hole in the ground known as Naraku.

Okay, so maybe there’s a bit of Japan in there.

Come on, it's not  that   surprising.

Come on, it's not that  surprising.

Your character is made a Samurai at the beginning of the game, and given a gauntlet they can use to negotiate with the demons in Naraku and summon them in battle. It’s almost like Pokémon, except the demons are far more disposable. Once they’ve learned all their skills, the game recommends you fuse two or more together into a stronger demon, which inherits its “parents” attacks. The more varied a demon’s skills, the more useful they are in combat, which focuses around the series trademark Press Turn system.

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Every character in the party is given one turn, hitting an enemy’s elemental weakness or landing a critical hit grants them an extra turn. However, hitting an enemy with an element that they nullify, reflect or drain costs you extra turns. This is true for enemies too, which means having a party with plenty of resistances keeps enemies from overwhelming you with their bonus turns. A new feature added to the system for SMT4 is smirking. When a character gains a bonus turn or nullifies an opponent’s, they have a chance to smirk, which gives them incredible stat boosts, and makes all attacks miss them until they get their next turn. It can totally turn the tide of a battle, but of course, enemies can smirk too, and they never waste it on a useless attack.

In true SMT and Atlus tradition, this makes the game very, very hard. You will be dying a lot. However, unlike most SMT games, you’re given to option to save anywhere, as well as difficulty settings, and the opportunity to pay your way back from death. Whenever you die, you’re sent to Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, who offers to let you revive for a fee, payable in either Macca, the in-game currency, or Play Coins, the 3DS’s system level pedometer reward.

Burroughs, the AI that inhabits your demon summong gauntlet, never fails to warn you about upcoming boss fights.

Burroughs, the AI that inhabits your demon summong gauntlet, never fails to warn you about upcoming boss fights.

Unfortunately, this happens EVERY time you die, with no way to opt out, meaning whenever you die, you have to go through a few dialog choices telling Charon you don’t want to pay, then confirm that you don’t want to pay, and then finally you get a game over screen that sends you back to the main menu. The game warns you when a boss is coming; you’re never thrown into the fray without a chance to save. It feels like the game was designed with save points, and then hastily retrofitted to let you save anywhere, without anyone realizing that it made the whole revival system moot and frustrating.

But back to the Tokyo thing. 

Explore Shibuya in style, a hoodie, toque and backpack make for great defense against demons!

Explore Shibuya in style, a hoodie, toque and backpack make for great defense against demons!

As the game progreses, you eventually find yourself in Tokyo, but only after a few hours of digging deeper and deeper into Naraku. About six hours of the game take place exclusively in the menu-driven Mikado. Dungeons like Naraku and a nearby forest are explored in a third person perspective, much like Shin Megami Tensei 3, or the more popular Persona spin-off games, but in Mikado, getting to those places is as simple as selecting them from a menu. No world map, no exploration, no getting lost.

In Tokyo however, you explore a top down world map with buildings you can enter to explore in third person. The map is massive, complicated, and is sometimes best navigated with an actual map of Tokyo in hand, but it’s also littered with treasures and demons to negotiate onto your side. The stark dichotomy isn’t lost on anyone who’s played an SMT game before, it’s a reference to the game’s other constant, the alignment system.

Chaos...

Chaos...

In a page torn straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons instruction manual, players in SMT make choices that determine their alignment with either Chaos or Law. Law traditionally represents angels, dogma, peace and the status quo. Chaos is associated with demons, and revolves around individuality, revolution and the tenet that might makes right. The rigid structure of Mikado is law. The player can never get lost and can only be hurt if they put themselves in harm’s way, but can also never explore, never see anything that Mikado doesn’t explicitly want you to see. Tokyo is chaos. The apocalypse has left factions warring for control of the destroyed city, with the weak having no place in the ensuing ruins, but the player is free to go wherever they please, even if it means they’ll get horribly lost.

Some players might find that they enjoy Mikado’s structure and simplicity. Some players might want that status quo to be shaken up and prefer the constant danger of Tokyo to the ignorance of Mikado. But for players who find both to be too extreme, there’s a middle ground to the two alignments, one that often represents the “good” endings of the SMT games; neutral. Neutral is associated with humans, balance, rationality, and the ability to make a change. Of course, there’s no good or evil, but historically speaking, the canon endings of SMT games are usually the neutral ones. SMT4 ingeniously ties the games very structure into this message Extremism on either side isn't right, but both sides have a point, there can be a balance, there should be a balance, and you, the player, should strive to find it.

and Law

and Law

It’s incredibly clever game design and would make the game absolutely perfect, if not for one minor problem: it leads to a game with two problematic halves making an even more problematic whole. Mikado is too linear, too rigid, but Tokyo is too open, too chaotic. Of course, neither is “bad”, just like the alignments, but neither works if you ignore the other half. And while that dovetails with the game’s message perfectly, it also means you have to warp between Mikado and Tokyo a lot, which is less than ideal. Like the revival system, it feels like an excellent idea that’s just executed incorrectly, if not poorly.

The connections between Mikado and Tokyo run deeper than just gameplay and story integration. There’s a story that underlies the whole thing, but it never overstays its welcome, characters are never terribly chatty, and cutscenes rarely interrupt the flow of battles and exploration. It’s an interesting supernatural/sci-fi mystery that stays intriguing the whole way through. But, there’s no way to skip cutscenes or dialog. You can fast forward through it, which works well enough, but when you’ve died on one boss five times, and you’ve just spent all the extra time either going through Charon’s dialog or just exiting to the home menus and restarting the software, those extra minutes of fast-forwarded dialog really add up. 

In terms of pure gameplay, battles are addictive, and it never stops being fun to suss out enemy weaknesses and exploit them. But Tokyo can occasionally be a pain to explore, and Mikado often feels too boring and pointless. Tying those gameplay elements into the narrative and themes of the game is brilliant and deserves to be commended, I just can’t help but feel it could have been done with some more elegance. 

Shin Megami Tensei IV is, fittingly, a game of dualities. It wants to be hard in an old school way, and forces you to strategize carefully and thoughtfully in battle. But it also wants to be friendly and modern, offering you the ability to save anywhere and revive upon death. It wants to be chaotic and unpredictable, but also wants to get you right to the action when necessary. It wants to be a linear, story-driven game, but it also wants to give you plenty of choices, both in dialog and in gameplay. It wants to be both Chaos and Law at once, and asks you to find your own balance between the two extremes. Unfortunately, sometimes it just can’t find the balance necessary to make itself a flawless game.

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Preview: Nintendo's E3 Lineup

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Preview: Nintendo's E3 Lineup

For those of us unable to head down to Los Angeles for E3, Nintendo provided a (significantly less smoggy) venue in Toronto to play the Wii U and 3DS demos from the E3 show floor. The games were mostly titles coming out between now and the end of the fall, but there were some notable absences in the lineup. Nintendo's roaming Best Buy demos included Mario Kart 8, which was notably absent from Nintendo's previews, but we soldiered on nonetheless. Here are Nintendo's upcoming Summer and Fall Wii U and 3DS games.

 

Super Mario 3D World:

Platform: Wii U                                                                                                      Release date: December 2013

Platform: Wii U                                                                                                    

Release date: December 2013

The thing that strikes me most about Super Mario 3D World isn’t so much its lack of innovation as how good it is at hiding clever design. The Mario team has always liked to play it coy with level design, never doing anything too huge, instead preferring to let levels speak for themselves, without any major set pieces. As such, the new items and mechanics in Mario 3D World do end up feeling a little underwhelming, but that might not be the worst thing in the world.

The cat suit, which lets Mario and company don a fursuit (and will certainly inspire some frightening cosplay) gives them the ability to climb up walls and do pouncing attacks. The pouncing didn’t come into pay too much in the levels that were on demo, but the wall climbing definitely let players who weren’t quite up to platforming cheat their way up certain walls. Wall climbing is a little tricky, but the ability to bubble up and wait for someone to finish the area for you, like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, should appease some less skilled players.

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The other new mechanic the demo showed off was the Mario series’ iconic green pipes repainted to be transparent. It feels a little disingenuous to call this a mechanic, considering it mostly seems like an aesthetic change, but it does allow for some neat little pipe mazes that will probably be explored much further in post-game worlds.

But the real nugget of great design in Mario 3D World doesn’t come from these new things, it comes from what they took from Super Mario Bros. 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Having four players on screen at once in a 3D level should be overwhelming and claustrophobic, and making them all different should make it feel unbalanced, but somehow, it all clicks together perfectly.

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Levels are designed with just enough space to the four players can check out different paths better suited to their abilities, and working together often led to greater rewards. It feels like a natural step from the “everyone plays the same” mentality that held back New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s multiplayer, and allows for much more dynamic interesting levels.

While 3D World hasn’t bowled me over like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 64 did, I know it’s a fun game with clever concepts tucked away in it, but every Mario game is. 3D World comes off as underwhelming, and doesn’t talk a big game, but you have to wonder where the Mario game that does is hiding. 

 

Pikmin 3: 

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: August 4,2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: August 4,2013

Pikmin has been suspiciously absent from Nintendo’s releases since 2004, and this decade in the making sequel has quite a lot to prove, especially considering it’s been delayed so much. For the most part though, Pikmin 3 is an unassuming game that doesn’t seem like it recognizes that burden, it just wants to be fun.

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Compared to playing the game with a wiimote and nunchuck, the control scheme on the gamepad is cumbersome and unbelievably inaccurate, which sort of betrays the fact that the game was originally designed for Wii. I found the best way to play the game was with the wiimote for aiming, and the gamepad in front of me to use as a map when I got lost. It’s kind of clunky and doesn’t really sell you on the idea of the gamepad working so well in conjunction with other devices, but the map is unnecessary, and the game is so rock solid that it doesn’t matter.

You play an astronaut sent to drain the resources of a faraway planet to bring back to his troubled home planet. In order to do this, you pluck Pikmin, tiny little flower-like creatures with different powers from the ground to do your bidding. Red Pikmin withstand fire, blue Pikmin can swim, the new rock Pikmin do more damage when thrown, etcetera. The whole thing is Nintendo’s take on the real time strategy genre, and offers a relaxing stroll through a dangerous planet littered with horrible death monsters just waiting to send your little Pikmin’s souls up to Pikmin heaven.

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The mode that really got me was the new competitive Bingo Battle mode. Pikmin 2 had some co-op functionality, but it was nowhere near as fun as this. Each player receives a bingo card of items they need to pick up, and the first to fill a row wins. Naturally, this means you both race for items, but players start messing with each other by stealing items from out of their Pikmin’s hands, or sniping an item they don’t need because they see their opponent needed it to win. Pikmin 2’s competitive multiplayer boiled down to a pretty basic and kind of boring capture the flag mode, but Bingo Battle’s balance of scavenger hunting and screwing with opponents made it one of the more interesting multiplayer experiences I’ve had in a while.

 

The Legend of Zelda:  The Wind Waker HD:

 

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: October 2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: October 2013

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Wind Waker HD is exactly what it says on the tin, an HD remake of the first Gamecube entry in the Zelda series. It’s very pretty, with a new, slightly more shaded art style that brings to mind studio Ghibli movies like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, but is still rooted in the original game’s highly controversial cel-shaded style. It’s the same cartoony game, and from what Nintendo has been showing, it’s literally that. The mostly unused Tingle Tuner Game Boy Advance minigame has been replaced with a message in a bottle system that connects the game to Miiverse, the Wii U’s social network, and Nintendo has gone on record saying that the two dungeons cut from Wind Waker will not be restored for the HD remake. It’s a classic, and one of my favourite Zelda games ever, but Wind Waker HD isn’t really blowing my mind yet, and it might not need to, but itdefinitely won't be doing it anytime soon.

 

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze:

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: November 2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: November 2013

Retro’s sequel to their 2010 Donkey Kong Country revival is, not shockingly, an almost identical game. I was never a huge DKC fan, but one of the reasons I dropped out of that franchise pretty quick was the almost indistinguishable sequels. The flat, point-A to point-B level design was fixed for the 2010 reboot, but seeing a game that’s almost identical to its predecessor, three years after it came out, is a bit disheartening.

The game is solid, built on the same engine with sharp controls and great graphics, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve been here before, gathered these same bananas, beat up these same barrels. Maybe by distaste for the Country series in general is colouring my enjoyment of the game, but I did have a bit of fun while playing it, it just felt hollow. With this game coming out so close to the 3DS port of the original game, I can only hope Retro and Nintendo start showing off some unique stuff, because even the promise of Dixie Kong and her Tails-like helicopter ponytail isn’t really giving me much hope for this reboot’s chances of not falling into the trap that pushed DKC 2 and 3 into irrelevance.

 

Wii Party U: 

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: October, 2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: October, 2013

Wii Party U holds an interesting place in the Wii U’s line up. It’s the third first party minigame collection for  the console in less than a year, and one really has to wonder if that means Nintendo doesn’t have any ideas for full games that use the gamepad in interesting ways, but can think of all kind of neat, 5-15 minute applications for the device.

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The game’s regular multiplayer mode plays a lot like Mario Party, with four players rolling virtual dice to move spaces on a board, playing minigames between turns. The minigames themselves though are a little different from the standard Mario Party fare. The minigames Nintendo was showing off in this demo were slightly more akin to parlour games; icebreaker type stuff. I got to play a take on the iOS hit Draw Something, where every player was given 15 seconds to draw, with one player given a slightly different prompt from the rest. The drawings went up on the TV and players had to vote on which they thought was the different prompt.

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Another game I saw being played involved one player getting a prompt from the gamepad to make a specific face. For example, “Make a face as if you just told a really funny joke.” The player makes the face, the gamepad takes a picture, and the other players vote between four options as to what the face was. With more than 80 games in the collection, there are probably more than a few traditional, Mario Party-style minigames, but the focus on these games that could be played without a gamepad but are slightly enhanced by the technology is telling.

The games were fun, and I can see them being a hit at parties, but maybe only once or twice. Like most icebreaker games, once everyone’s comfortable around each other, they really don’t serve much of a purpose beyond giving everyone something to do, which might be achieved better by a game like Nintendo Land, which everyone with a Wii U already has.

 

The Wonderful 101: 

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: September 15, 2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: September 15, 2013

The Wonderful 101 is far and away the most interesting Nintendo has up their sleeve for Wii U. The new Platinum Games title takes cues from Pikmin, Viewtiful Joe, classic superhero serials and Japanese super sentai aesthetics and mixes them all into one frenetic, frantic action game mess.

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You play as a group of superheroes (the titular 101, natch), with the ability to combine together and morph into various forms. The demo started off with the ability to change into a giant fist, a sword, a whip, a pistol, and a hand glider. To change forms, you draw the shape of your transformation on the gamepad’s touch screen, or with the right analog stick. For example, to change into a sword, you draw a straight line. Depending on how long the line you draw is, the longer your sword gets, but there are only so many heroes you can use to make the weapon. It creates a really interesting risk/reward balance between looking down to draw on the touch screen and looking up at the TV screen to avoid attacks from enemies. Drawing with the right stick negates a bit of the danger of looking down to draw, but is less accurate than drawing with the touch screen, and you’re more likely to mess up what you meant to draw.  There’s no perfect way to play, and it keeps the pace of the game frantic and exciting, which is part of what makes the game impossible to understand from trailers.

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What really struck me about the game were the small details. As you run through a level you collect new heroes, and some have special cutaways that give you some data on their secret identity. The TV screen shows their name, secret identity, place of origin, super power, and some other details, while the gamepad screen shows their superhero ID along with their personal logo. It’s a cute little touch that really adds to the charming, pulpy atmosphere of The Wonderful 101, and I really can’t wait to see more of stuff like that.

 

Also, one of the heroes I collected had a toilet bowl for a head, which basically makes it the best game I’ve ever played.

 

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: 

Platform: 3DS  Release Date: November 2013

Platform: 3DS

Release Date: November 2013

A common complaint against Nintendo recently has been that they rely too strongly on their old franchises and don’t innovate on those original concepts. I bring this up because Link Between World’s overworld (at least the tiny fraction of it that Nintendo allowed me to explore during the demo) is an almost pixel-perfect recreation of the overworld from 1991’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

The fact that the demo only let me explore a few screens of the map before hitting a wall of unbreakable rocks bodes well for the rest of the world being significantly different, and the whole “between worlds” thing in the subtitle all but confirms that there will be some other worlds Link will be exploring. But even with the brand new dungeon the demo let me explore, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen and done all of this before.

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The dungeon was focused on Link to the Past’s standard coloured block puzzles, where hitting a switch would raise one colour of blocks and lower another. The new magic bar subweapon system makes it impossible to get yourself stuck on these puzzles like you could in the original game. All subweapons draw from a purple bar in the corner of the screen. Charging an arrow or hammer strike will use more magic, but create a more powerful attack, and the bar slowly recharges over time. It’s an elegant system, and makes the game fast and fluid. But even with the added speed and surprisingly intuitive and fun merge mechanic -where Link flattens himself onto a wall and walks along as a 2D structure- I can’t help but feel like I’ve been to this Hyrule before. Hopefully we’ll see some more interesting, unique environments from this game soon.

 

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team: 

Platform: 3DS  Release Date: August 11, 2013

Platform: 3DS

Release Date: August 11, 2013

What you might not glean from Mario and Luigi Dream Team’s trailers is that the characters are drawn in 2D. What you probably will glean is that this game is very, very weird, even by the standards of the off-the-wall wackiness of the Mario and Luigi series.

When in the “real” world, Mario and Luigi explore Pi’illo island just like they did the Mushroom Kingdom in previous games. The overworld is top-down, with each brother being controlled with either the A or B buttons, with various abilities remapped to the buttons when the R button is pressed. In battle, the game is a turn-based RPG with actions commands, similar to the Paper Mario games. For example, hitting A after a jump allows Mario and Luigi to jump in the air again and bop the opponent one more time. The game also maintains the series traditional Bros. moves, special attacks that have the brothers Mario working in tandem to kick shells, toss fireballs, and surf on each other to deliver powerful finishing blows.

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However, in a feature new to Dream Team, Mario can step into the dreams of his long-suffering younger brother, and experience some of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen in a Nintendo game. The dream world is a side scrolling environment, similar to Mario and Luigi’s levels in the previous game in the series, Bowser’s Inside Story. When in Luigi’s dreams, players use the touch screen to mess with Luigi, causing him to do….things in his dreams. For example, pulling on Luigi’s moustache causes him to possess vines in the dream world, which Mario can then use to swing across chasms. Like I said: weird.

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In dream world battles, Luigi merges into Mario, and gives him access to thousands of Luigi clones that copy his moves. Jumping on enemies with Mario causes dozens of Luigis to fall down on them as well. The bros. moves are in turn replaced by Luiginary attacks, where Mario does things like crowd surf on hundreds of Luigis as he tries to stack them up in a perfect pile by ordering them to jump at once onto another army of Luigis before ordering them to all fall down on the opponent in a torrent of green. Additionally, when dodging attacks in dream battles, Mario can move up and down and turn left or right, adding some appreciated depth to combat.

In another substitution from Bowser’s Inside Story, the Luigi clones can also merge together in a Godzilla-sized Luigi to giant boss battles that play very similarly to the giant Bowser fights from the previous game.

All this, combined with the dreamy, muted colour palette and the strange cross between 2D characters and 3D environments, this is almost certainly the most surreal thing Nintendo has put out in America. The year of Luigi is turning out to be a strange one indeed.

 

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Animal Crossing: The Cure for my AAA Doldrums

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Animal Crossing: The Cure for my AAA Doldrums

A few weeks ago, I thought about buying The Last of Us on launch day. Usually, when I think about buying a game, there’s not a lot of decision process. If it’s something that interests me, I dive right in if I have the money. If I’m not interested, then there’s no sale. But for some reason, even though I knew that The Last of Us is a game I’d probably enjoy, and was a game I was following for a while, I was so throughouly disinterested in buying it.

Probably because I’d been playing so much Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the fourth game in Nintendo’s life simulator series. You play a customizable villager who has moved to a town populated entirely by talking animals and just sort of live your life. You make money by fishing, or catching bugs, or cultivating and selling rare fruit and you use the money to build public works projects for your town or furniture for you home. Of course, first you have to pay off the obscene mortgages places upon you by local extortionist and racoon, Tom Nook. 

 

"Why is (Animal Crossing) making me want to stay away from big budget, AAA gaming, at least for the rest of the summer?" 

 

Yes, it's a cartoonish looking children's game, but maybe that's what it takes to show the flaws of this industry.

Yes, it's a cartoonish looking children's game, but maybe that's what it takes to show the flaws of this industry.

It’s not like this game fills any of the same niches that AAA games do for me. It’s a strange beast, a social game divorced of social game mechanics and simple connectivity. But it has the same constant goals and generally passive atmosphere of the traditional social game. One wouldn’t be entirely remiss to call it an expanded Farmville, but with rocks that spit out money to check every day instead of crops. So why is it driving me away from gaming’s latest darling, why is it making me want to stay away from big budget, AAA gaming, at least for the rest of the summer?

There are a few reasons. First, and this point can’t be understated, Animal Crossing might be one of the most progressive games on the market. Now, saying that makes me very sad, because it’s a game from Nintendo, a company who recently patched out same sex marriage in one of their other life simulator games, Tomodachi Collection. Japan is not known for gender equality or race equality, or progressive views in general, but somehow, Animal Crossing manages to be more progressive than any FPS I’ve played in years. 

 #dealwithit

 #dealwithit

Men can wear dresses and skirts, girls can wear pants, gender isn’t a binary in Animal Crossing; it’s unbelievable, unprecedentedly fluid. I can only really think of games like Saint’s Row and Second Life that allow you to present your character in a similar way. Haircuts of either gender are available to any character, and multiple characters comment on how boys can wear makeup and how you look damn fine in whatever you choose to wear.

People smarter than me have already discussed at length Animal Crossing’s core customization flaw, the fact that there’s no race option. The fact that you character defaults to white is made even more ridiculous by the fact that the system-level Mii creator allows various skin tones. The only way to change skin colour in Animal Crossing is to leave the game for a few hours in the summer and “tan”. The terminology is frustrating. Where gender isn’t binary, race is default. You are white, unless you want to go out of your way to be not white. Two steps forward and one step back is the name of the game here, but that one step still puts Animal Crossing five steps ahead of the AAA competition, where deviations from the norm are cast aside and either made fun of or exploited.

For example, Mass Effect treats same-sex romance options as dalliances for the most part, with only the relationship between a female Shepard and Liara considered to be as valid as the “straight” options, and mostly because they’re two women and thus hot. Male Shepard and his single same-sex romance option, Steve Cortez, don’t even get to have on screen intercourse, likely because Electronic Arts felt that their audience wouldn’t want to be party to something like that. And Mass Effect is considered to be an otherwise fairly progressive game, with women and men treated equally in-universe, and homosexuality is considered to be completely normal. 

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Do you see where I’m coming from? It’s so refreshing to me to see a game that treats gender with such equality and rationality. Sure, Animal Crossing doesn’t have any same-sex options, but it’s not that kind of game. Animal Crossing is devoid of sexuality, likely because it’s an “all ages” title. But it isn’t devoid of emotion, with characters of either gender expressing their love for you, regardless of your gender. It’s not a huge step forward. But compared to where the rest of the industry is, this unassuming children’s game about living with talking animals is the single most progressive (non-indie) game on the market. And it’s hard to dive right back in to the exclusionary, occasionally bigoted culture of AAA gaming after experiencing that.

According to Nintendo's statistics, Animal Crossing New Leaf is primarily played by women. 

According to Nintendo's statistics, Animal Crossing New Leaf is primarily played by women. 

Not to mention the fact that your character becomes the mayor of the game, the most powerful figure in the town, regardless of gender. Animal Crossing is a power fantasy, but it’s decidedly not a traditional white male one. As a straight, white male, I’m sick of being told that violence (often against people who are not straight white males) is power, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for people who aren’t like me, the people who have even more of a reason to be offended by this, the people who feel excluded when games tell them that in order to have power, they must be like the people who came up with this power fantasy. I miss pleasant games. Games that want to be taken at their own pace, games that don’t want me to run and shoot every brown person I see while my player character refers to them as “faggots”. Games that don’t exclude you simply because you don’t “fit”.

AAA gaming is in a rut. Naughty Dog had to fight to get protagonist Ellie on the cover of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth isn’t even ON the front cover. The Last of Us might not even be the best example of a game that falls into the standard pitfalls of AAA gaming, but it's just the catalyst of all this for me. The culture around these games is pushing away anyone who isn’t a straight, white male, and excluding anyone who doesn’t want to take part in these power fantasies of violence and, well, exclusion. And not every AAA game is like that. Tomb Raider is, from all accounts, fairly respectable towards protagonist Lara Croft. Saint’s Row let’s you play as a woman and play with gender distinctions. But these are exceptions, exceptions that often have to make sacrifices to sell well. And I’m just so tired of it.

Just a regular day in Animal Crossing, boys, girls, and gender ambiguous ducks working together.

Just a regular day in Animal Crossing, boys, girls, and gender ambiguous ducks working together.

Let me tell you this fun fact about Animal Crossing before you stop reading this and comment about how gay I am for hating on Call of Duty and Battlefield and Guns of Shooting 69. Animal Crossing lets you run by holding the B button. That’s not a big deal. It’s been a feature in games since Super Mario Bros. in 1985. But running is almost always a bad idea. It destroys flowers that beautify your town and chases away the fish and bugs that make you your profits. Not only that, but it tramples your town’s grass, which only grows back at a very slow rate, and not at all during the winter and fall.

 

 

"Why would the game even let you choose something so negative?"

 

So why would you ever run? It’s a universally bad choice. Why would the game even let you choose something so negative? Because that’s what Animal Crossing is about. Choosing to take the game slowly, to stop and smell the roses, to experience this tiny little world at its own pace. Animal Crossing knows that eventually you’ll get bored with it. Six months in you’ll stop visiting the town, it'll be infested by weeds and all flower life will wither away. It knows that one day it as a world will die. And so it wants you to appreciate it for every thing it is. It wants you to slow down and take a look deep inside of it. It wants you to see that there are flaws with race customization; it wants you to see how it’s barely removed from Farmville and many other time sink social games. It wants you to see it for all of its flaws, because it knows that above all else you’ll see the most important thing.  

You’ll see that Animal Crossing might not be perfect. It might not get all of its progressiveness right, but it wants to. You'll see that Animal Crossing is one of the most well intentioned games you’ll ever play, and that’s something not even the biggest budget can buy.

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Nintendo E3 Roundup: Megaman, Cat Mario, and Ennui

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Nintendo E3 Roundup: Megaman, Cat Mario, and Ennui

Nintendo came into E3 with good news and bad news. In good news, 3DS sales have picked up significantly since last year, and the handheld is no longer treading water. In bad news, the WiiU isn't exactly lighting the world on fire, in fact, it's only barely outselling Sony's bastard stepchild, the Vita. But with promises of price cuts, Smash Bros. and Mario games, can Nintendo turn the sinking WiiU ship around?

Nintendo went for a lower key presentation this year, sticking to the Nintendo Direct livestream format that's served them so well for the last little while. And it makes sense, after all, nothing they could show off would be as impressive as Sony's show last night, why go big when you know you can't win?

Nintendo started off by talking up the new Pokemon games, X and Y. They showed off a new Fairy type which will be applied to some new Pokemon, as well as a handful of old favorites, like Marill and Jigglypuff. They also showed a new mode for the game, Pokemon Amitie, which lets you interact with your Pokemon in a Nintendogs-like fashion. 

The next big game on the docket was Mario 3D World . In the vein of their New Super Mario Bros. titles the game features multiplayer for up to four players in levels that resemble the level design of stages from last year's Super Mario 3D Land.  Nintendo touted the fact that Princess Peach was playable again in a main Mario game, the first time since Super Mario Bros. 2 on the NES. Also, Mario got in a cat suit and climbed up the flagpole at the end of the level. It was pretty neat.

Mario Kart 8 was then shown, and looked very similar to Mario Kart 7, but this time with hovercars. After a quick WiiU eShop sizzle reel, Nintendo talked up Wind Waker HD,  which will have some minor improvements over the original, including a speed-up function for sailing.

Retro Studio's Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze  was next up, with some quick gameplay shown off before Nintendo revealed another CG teaser for Bayonetta 2. Iwata seemed very excited about Bayonetta's "major makeover," which mostly included shorter hair. After aproximately 30 seconds of gameplay footage, Nintendo moved along to another Platinum game, The Wonderful 101, which launches in September. 

Nintendo gave us a quick look at X , the spiritual sequel to Xenoblade , also developed by Monolith Soft. The new trailer featured giant transforming robots which fought dinosaurs in RPG combat. 

Finally, Nintendo played themselved out with the first trailer for the new Super Smash Bros.. The trailer showed off both the 3DS and Wii U versions of the game. The handheld game looked more cartoony than it's console sibling, but the big news were the two new characters. Well, one of them. First was the player character from Animal Crossing , who fights with various tools from the game. The second new character was Megaman. In the trailer, he swapped between weapons from various Megaman games as a remix of Wily's theme from Megaman 2  played. The trailer ended off with Megaman battling a still-forming Yellow Devil, a recurring character from his series.

All in all, it was a bit of a plain event. Nintendo just focused on the games, which kept it brief and to the point, but you really do get a sense that need something more to push the Wii U. If last year's E3 events are anything to go by, Nintendo has some more announcements in store for the weeks to come, but for now, they aren't going to be leaving E3 with any trophies. 

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