Viewing entries tagged
Mario Kart

Split/Screen: Sharing a Screen and Intimacy In Multiplayer

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Split/Screen: Sharing a Screen and Intimacy In Multiplayer

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

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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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Mario Kart 8- Back on Track

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Mario Kart 8- Back on Track

Everyone's favourite Mario Kart is the one they spent the most time with. Among my peers (ie. jaded 20-somethings) that's usually Mario Kart 64. That actually probably holds to people about a decade older than me as well, considering they would have played it in college, but you're probably going to find some Super Mario Kart fans in those numbers, especially when you skew older. Younger fans might love Double Dash, DS or Wii. Nobody loves Super Circuit, because Super Circuit was a crime. The point is, the difference between Mario Karts is often so minute that it all comes down to personal preference. But, that also means when a game personally drives you crazy, it becomes a serious object of ire. All this comes down to an anecdote: the last time I played a Mario Kart game was 2008, when I fell asleep playing Mario Kart Wii.

There are a lot of babies in this game. That isn't the disappointing bit, it just really bears mentioning. If you hate babies. You monster.

There are a lot of babies in this game. That isn't the disappointing bit, it just really bears mentioning. If you hate babies. You monster.

That's not even a joke. My friend and I dozed off during an online race. The tracks were wide enough to drive five trucks though, side by side, and still leave legroom, while the karts moved so slow the finish line seemed an interminable distance away. You never actually saw other racers on the course, everyone had enough room to breathe that no turn was ever too tricky, no one was ever having too much fun. It went too far in the classic Mario Kart balance of fairness vs fun. In the interest of fairness, the racers in the back have a higher chance of getting items that could turn the tide of a race. In the interest of fun, good, disciplined racing should still be able to win the day. Of course, it wasn't, and combined with the series' traditional rubber banding AI, Mario Kart Wii was an unfun, boring mess of a racer. I swore of Mario Kart, and stayed away for six years, until it was time to do this review. Instead, I played other arcade-style racers, like Split/Second, and Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed.

So take it to heart when I say that Mario Kart 8 is a spectacular racer, it's just inside of a disappointing package.

Planes, trains and auto-mobiles and just kidding about the trains part.

Planes, trains and auto-mobiles and just kidding about the trains part.

 In case you've missed it over the last 22 years, Mario Kart is a series of games that puts Mario and his pals (along with some of his more amicable enemies) in go-karts and motorcycles to race each other across cartoon environments lifted from their adventures. But, in a Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races style twist, they can pick up items and weapons along the track to use against other racers. This time around, the karts have been upgraded to have anti-gravity features, which gives them a sort of F-Zero-in-slow-motion twist on certain stretches of the tracks. 

Anti-Grav adds a sweet "Anime Future Blue" glow to your tires.

Anti-Grav adds a sweet "Anime Future Blue" glow to your tires.

It sounds like a cheap trick on paper, but it really works in practice. In anti-grav mode, bumping into other vehicles gives you a speed boost, which is great on straightaways, but can kill you on a turn. In what has to be a response to MK Wii, 8 features significantly narrower courses, meaning bumping into other racers (the whole point of a go-kart) becomes a significant part of the strategy. On the ground, it mostly just punts them off the road and on to the acceleration-killing grass. But in anti-grav mode, racers can take the calculated risk to slam into opponents on turns, and send them flying off of the track entirely. Of course, this means they themselves then have to survive the turn with the speed boost, a mechanic largely borrowed from Mario Kart's faster but forgotten older brother, F-Zero. In that game, hitting other cars can slam them off course, but drains your energy bar, which acts as both your health as well as fuel for your boosts. It's the biggest change from previous games, and it's a welcome change of pace from the regular racing mechanics, but it's not exactly earth shattering innovation.

The other major change 8 brings to the table is HD graphics, which, while not a gameplay shift, are undoubtedly impressive. Nintendo continues to be one of the few companies to use HD to its fullest potential, with bright colours and eye-popping designs. I found myself wishing for a way to just view the tracks without a race going on, so I could appreciate how much design effort went into things that usually whiz by during a race. But, at the same time, it's hard to claim like it's a genuine step up for the series. It doesn't impact gameplay, other than making split-screen a teensy-tiny bit easier to read on smaller screens, and the general crowd for HD graphics is looking for photo realism, not a perfect cartoon. But that's neither here nor there, it's undeniable that the game looks incredible.

I'mma gonna ween.

I'mma gonna ween.

Similarly, the music is great. Nintendo keeps wheeling out the same live jazz band they seem to be using for every Mario branded game lately, but I'm not complaining. Just like Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Super Mario 3D World, this return to Mario's ragtime/big band musical roots sounds spectacular. A few of the retro tracks from previous games have a slightly more rocking take on the source music, but overall there's a lot of brass next to those electric guitars. The Electrodrome course music specifically is a standout no-brass track, with a really rad techno beat that fits the Shy Guy rave going on in the background.

But while those parts of the presentation seem fantastically high budget, everything else feels like corner cutting. After two weeks of playing the game, I can't find an options menu anywhere. Not that there's anything I necessarily want to change, but it's odd that there's no option to tweak volume or display settings. Similarly, it's odd that the traditional post-grand prix ceremony animation is gone. Instead, it's been replaced by a rotating graphic of the trophy you won, and a list of who placed where. It's not a big deal, especially considering most people tend to skip those, but again, it's a weird tiny corner to cut that leave the game feeling a little cheap at times. Compared to other kart racers, like the criminally underappreciated Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, the single player portions of the game are lacking. Mario Kart has never really had a robust single player mode, but even a small mission mode would have been something. It looks strange that Mario Kart, the premiere kart racing series, and Nintendo's current great hope for the WiiU has a totally bare bones single player when compared to Sega All-Stars, a game that is by no accounts a top budget title, but has an hours long career mode. Admittedly, that career mode gets bogged down with boring missions that get far too difficult on higher levels, but it's something.

Rejoice, for Toad Turnpike is back, and that means you're going to get flattened by a Wario-branded truck.

Rejoice, for Toad Turnpike is back, and that means you're going to get flattened by a Wario-branded truck.

Having not played Mario Kart 7, the kart customization features are new to me, and they're a welcome level of complexity, but again, it's nothing that hasn't been done before. Similarly, the return of coins from Super Mario Kart is a nice strategic addition, but mostly just highlights how the series is just borrowing from its past to keep itself moving now. In that vein, pretty much every retro course brought back from the earlier games is spectacular, including the three best Mario Kart 64 tracks (Yoshi Valley, Toad Turnpike, and Rainbow Road). In fact, the only standout dud is Moo Moo Meadows, a course lifted almost directly from MK Wii, and less said about that the better. New tracks are similarly great, aside from super simple ones like the basic Mario Kart Stadium. One of my favourites is Mount Wario, which has no laps, instead featuring a three part race to the bottom of the mountain, with completely different challenges in each leg of the race. Nothing really stands out as bad when you're in the races.

It's all the stuff that happens outside the races that irks me. The main menu is as barebones as it gets, with options for single player, multiplayer, online, and Youtube uploads. When I was looking for players online and I couldn't find any, the game wouldn't let me quit searching without shutting off the console. Battle mode has been killed without remorse, changed from fast-paced arena battles to slow plodding circuits around massive tracks, desperately looking for another racer to fight. it all comes together to feel like a game that had a limited budget, and poured it all into what the designers felt mattered. I don't think they were wrong, but it certainly leaves the game as a whole feeling a little lacking when compared to its predecessors and contemporaries.

There is an art department at Nintendo dedicated exclusively to making Mario's denim overalls look juuuuust right.

There is an art department at Nintendo dedicated exclusively to making Mario's denim overalls look juuuuust right.

But again, there's no denying that  Mario Kart 8 is a spectacular game, it's just a worrying package. It's the best console Mario Kart game in more than a decade, but it still feels lacking when compared to the previous games. It's bare-bones outside of races, where it's lavish and fun and Mario Kart at its very best. Mario Kart 8 is gorgeous, with tightly designed courses, frantic gameplay, and a spectacular soundtrack you'll never hear over people shouting at Baby Daisy for lapping you AGAIN. But the death of battle mode and the low-budget presentation set a bad precedent. Mario Kart DS was the spectacular return to form before the dreadful Mario Kart Wii. Mario Kart is totally worth it again, but how long will it last this time?

Then again, I’m doing time trials while I edit this review, so maybe we don’t have to worry about that just yet.

It's called a road, it's called the Rainbow Road....

It's called a road, it's called the Rainbow Road....

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 in this medium we cherish. So, if something is worth your time, it gets a thumbs up, if not, thumbs down.)

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