When you place a block down in Mario Maker, the music sings "block" to the tune of the level music. When you use an Amiibo costume, the death noises change to match the game the character is from. Sometimes, when you hit a mushroom, Mario turns into a terrifying, lanky monstrosity officially named "Weird Mario". Mario Maker is, at its heart, a tool for making Mario levels. But beyond that, it's a wonderful tribute to the weirdness and creativity that's always been inherent to the series. Maybe it doesn't feel big enough to be the 30th anniversary celebration game, but in a way, that in itself feels oddly appropriate.
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I found myself a lot more affected by Satoru Iwata's death than I thought I'd be.
Earlier that night, before I heard the news, a friend of mine joked that people I'd met but didn't have any personal affection for might as well have died, and I'd feel nothing, because I didn't consider them part of my life. He wasn't wrong. Just a few hours later, after hearing about Iwata's death, I was told about a few deaths of people related to people I knew. Not that any of them were close to me, but beyond the general pang of sadness you feel when you hear about loss, it didn't really affect me. Iwata's death affected me. Honestly, it fucked me up a little.
Years ago, Nintendo used to hold a show called Space World. It was a sort of Nintendo-only counterpart to Tokyo Game Show, which they didn't (and still don't) attend, where they'd announce new games and consoles, and put them out for the public to play. It had very little to do with space as a concept, but its makes for a very convenient segue into the fact that Nintendo has a crazy shared universe you never knew about, and it all takes place in space. Also, it's all perfectly reasonable and requires no insane leaps in fan fiction logic.
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.
As a series, Smash Bros. was founded on the principle that fighting games could do with being a little less complex. To that end, director Masahiro Sakurai added two extra players and simplified inputs. If you want to take mechanics and design as symbolism (and I always do) it's a pretty clear statement that Smash Bros. is a game designed for anyone and everyone to play. No one should be sitting on the sidelines, because anyone can pick it up.
Masahiro Sakurai directed his first game at the age of 22. It was 1992's Kirby's Dream Land, and if you'll pardon the pretension this early in an article, it was the first postmodern platformer. It was a platforming game where the platforms were meaningless. The protagonist could soar over levels, never having to interact with enemies outside of bosses. It drew explicit attention to the fact that it was a platformer (which may as well be called "jumpers" honestly) where the challenge didn't lay in the jumping. In fact, at least with Dream Land, the challenge didn't really lay anywhere. Kirby didn't hop on enemies, he swallowed them from a fairly safe distance, and if a certain area was too tough, he could float on above them, laughing all the way.
Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Remember, for more previews of games like Bayonetta 2 and Project Giant Robot, check out our audio from Nintendo's preview event, coming soon!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-
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.
Nintendo's digital event this year was probably the most interesting one it's had in a while as it announced a few new games and franchises. Plus, the company now seems keen to mock itself with Robot Chicken segments, references to the Luigi Death Stare and Reggie officially saying the word "ass." This is despite ever tightening restrictions on its public relations officials.
Among the games that attracted attention, a new Zelda, a new Star Fox and a new Yoshi's Island all got top billing. The two new franchises are a surprising departure for Nintendo, as again, it reaches into absurdity to create intruiging premises.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
[The Primer is a new monthly feature meant to tie in with our monthly theme question. Every month, we’ll put together a short list of games related to the theme question that we think are worth your time. Hopefully, you will too.]
“What is a video game” is a pretty big question. It’s open ended, and has a lot of answers. So we want to give a little bit of a reference point. Some games you can anchor yourself to as we think about why we define games, and what those definitions mean. Some of them are rooted in “gaminess” while some are about expanding what you might consider to be a game. Either way, here a few games you might want to check out.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf:
Animal Crossing is one of the first games that comes to mind when people talk about open-ended game experiences. It’s technically open world, in that no part of your tiny town is blocked off from you, and it never pushes any goals on to you. But unlike most open world games, there’s no clear “end” to Animal Crossing. There’s no win or lose condition that ends the game, or any clear-cut way to progress. If you decide progressing means getting all of the villager pictures, that’s your prerogative, the game doesn’t mind at all.
Like most sandbox games, Animal Crossing asks you to make your own fun, for the most part. But unlike the Grand Theft Autos and Saint’s Rows of the world, there are no missions, no bosses, no clear ways of measuring your progress in the world. You don’t get better, you don’t get further, you just continue existing in your tiny village. It’s distinctly un-gamey. Nintendo actually coined a term to describe Animal Crossing and its ilk: “non-game”. At the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference keynote, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata called titles like Brain Age and Nintendogs non-games because of their lack of “a winner, or even a real conclusion.” And even though Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the newest entry to the series, adds dozens of new tasks to do in your town, the core of the game remains the same. Choose how you want to measure your progression, or don’t. Just hang out for a while, no one’s going to stop you.
Johann Sebastian Joust:
Including JS Joust on this list is double cheating, in that it’s neither a video game, nor is it even available to purchase as of writing. It’s played with PlayStation Move controllers linked to a computer playing selections from Bach’s concertos at different speeds. When the song is slow, the controller is very sensitive to slight movements, but when the music gets faster, you can move around more. The goal is to force the opponent to move their controller too much, causing the light on top to turn off.
But it’s not a “video game”, mostly because it doesn’t really have a “video” component. It may be played with game controllers, but even the developers, Die Gute Fabrik, call it a “no-graphics, digitally-enabled playground game.” It’s a game in the purest sense. Simple rules with clear winners and losers, and entirely free-form outside of that. Nothing in the rules says you can’t throw your shoes at other people, for example. JS Joust might not be a video game, but it does open the floor for discussion of more “digitally-enhanced” games, which, when you think about augmented reality games becoming more and more popular on iOS and Android devices, might soon become a much more crowded field than ever before.
Noby Noby Boy:
Noby Noby Boy is...weird. It comes from the mind of Keita Takahashi, the creator of the cult-hit Katamari Damacy, which might explain some of its oddness. You play as Boy, a snake-like creature that gets longer as it eats things using either of his two mouths One’s on his face, one’s on his butt. And that’s pretty much it. You eat everyone and everything on a map, and grow longer and longer and longer, until Boy becomes an enormous, unwieldy snake monster, incapable of moving without bumping into one of his own colourful segments.
Oh, there is one thing though. Boy gets bigger so he can give his length to Girl, a much larger snake monster hanging out on top of planet Earth. As she grows longer, she can reach other planets, unlocking more content for Boy to explore. Since Boy can’t do it alone, every single Noby Noby Boy player in the world contributes to Girl’s growth, and also reaps the rewards when she reaches a new planet. There are no personal goals, nor is there really any win or loss, like a traditional game, but there’s definitely progression, in a strange, totally impersonal way, where rewards are global, rather than individual. Noby Noby Boy isn’t an MMO, but hundreds of players were, for a time, all contributing to the same goal, without much of an end in sight. It’s strange, but it’s hard not to like a game where you can eat your own butt.
WarioWare, inc.: Mega Microgame$:
If Animal Crossing is Nintendo’s poster-child for non-games, then WarioWare is the exact opposite. Playing WarioWare is basically playing “video games” in their purest form. Simple, five second affairs, with only one button, a directional pad, and a single command. Beat one, move on to the next. One second you’re shooting ducks in Duck Hunt, the next you’re being asked to choose the “praise” option from a menu. WarioWare takes for granted the idea that the player is experienced enough with the grammar of games that they’re able to figure out what do with one word and limited input.
When the game presents you with a top down view of a girl with a gardening can and a plant, then commands you to “water!”, someone familiar with games would understand immediately that the top-down view means the girl is controlled with the d-pad, and the plant, as the only other sprite on screen is the target. WarioWare puts you through the ringer of platformers, RPGs, shooters, matching games, every kind of genre that’s playable in 5 seconds with one button and directional controls. It’s pure video game.
At the same time, the games are incredibly short, and packed together tightly. While they constantly reference video games and gaming history, some people would hesitate to call them “video games” on their own. They’re microgames, sure, but they’re also distillations of video game in the simplest sense of the word. Like a reduction of the medium, they get rid of anything not explicitly required for a video game. Separated into its base elements, it’s a series of incredibly simple tasks without much in the way of reward other than more microgames, but taken as a gestalt, WarioWare throws game after game at you, asking you to use your familiarity with various genres and gaming history to keep on your toes. If nothing else, WarioWare is the gamiest game that’s ever gamed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Developer: Nintendo EAD & Monolith Soft
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.