Sonic Boom is the most unbelievable game I have ever played, and I mean that in the very worst way possible.
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Before we kick off this month’s Built to Play theme on Virtual Reality, let’s take a trip through the frightful history of consumer-level VR game technology, shall we? Now hold my hand, count to three, click your heels, and strap a computer to your face, because it’s time to go!
While it isn’t technically virtual reality, the Master System’s 3D glasses are the first example I can find of a game developer using dedicated hardware to push immersion. Or, more accurately back then, the promise of immersion to sell dedicated hardware. To be fair to these guys, Master System 3D is in full colour, trading out red and blue lenses for rapidly moving shutters. That doesn't make it any less a waste of money.
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.
Cartoon mascot platformers were the genre of the mid ‘90s to early 2000s, but one day, they all suddenly disappeared, with onl a few stragglers carrying the torch into the HD era. Of course, with the death of the mascot platformer, many fan favourites were out of a job. Sonic and Mario are hanging in there, but characters like Gex, Banjo, and Kameo are still out there, looking for new work. Here are five forgotten mascots, who they were, and what they’re up to now.
Last Seen in: Bubsy 3D: Furbitten Planet- Atari Jaguar (1996)
Bubsy the Bobcat is best known for two things: his affinity for brain shatteringly awful puns, and Bubsy 3D, the shining symbol of why no one wants to go back to the early days of 3D platforming.
The first couple of Bubsy games are unremarkable, if strangely difficult. Bubsy is probably lesser known as the world’s only haemophiliac bobcat. In the first game, Bubsy only takes a single hit to kill, which is ridiculous for a platform game. Later games gave him some extra health, but by the time he wasn’t defeated by a sideways glance, he was in Bubsy 3D, and manoeuvred like a tank.
Bubsy 3D pretty much overshadows every other Bubsy game (and the terrible cartoon), but I don’t think anyone has ever complained about that before this very sentence. Bubsy’s SNES, Genesis and Jaguar aren’t absolute nightmares, though Hardcore Gaming 101 once referred to the leap from Bubsy 1 to Bubsy 2 as going from “’pile of junk’ to ‘’terribly mediocre.’”
Bubsy’s original creator, Mike Berlyn, didn’t work on the sequel, but made a triumphant return for Bubsy in: Fracture Furry tales. In a 2006 interview, he referred to the experience as “being like a re-animator. Bubsy was dead and buried. ”
For context, both games came out the same year, so it was a pretty short death. Of course, Berlyn’s reanimation was so bad anyway that Atari, the publisher of Furry Tales, suggested that Jaguar owners buy Rayman instead.
Where is he now?
Accolade, Bubsy’s owner, was bought by Infogrames in 1999, and is now technically part of Atari. Though they’d never admit it, Atari’s executives still have a plan for Bubsy. Deep in the basement of their secret development labs, a new Atari system is waiting to launch. The Atari Jaguar will be avenged by the Bobcat, the world’s first pun-powered electronics device.
Aero the Acro-Bat/Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel:
Last seen in: Aero the Acro-Bat 2- SNES/Genesis (1994)
Iguana Entertainment and Sunsoft’s greatest sin was not creating Aero the Acro-Bat, but being greedy.
Aero the Acro-Bat was a middling, if forgettable 1993 platformer for the Genesis and SNES. Aero was a bat with awful hair who worked as a circus acrobat. He did battle with an evil former clown, who wants to shut down Aero’s circus. Now, I’m of the opinion that all clowns are evil, and you don’t need to be an “ex-clown” to be villainous, but I’ll accept Iguana Entertainment’s optimistic world view. It was the 90’s after all.
Anyway, Aero beats up the clown and his sidekick, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, and saves his circus. And then everyone promptly forgot about the whole thing for about 6 months. Sunsoft then decided to adopt Aero as their company mascot, which meant they needed to raise his profile. Thus, the sequels were born.
In April 1994, Aero the Acro-Bat 2 was released, less than a year after the first. Also that month, Sunsoft put out a game starring Zero the Kamikaze squirrel, one of the first game’s antagonists. In November of that year, both games were ported to SNES. Within seven months, Sunsoft managed to totally saturate the market with Aero the Acro-Bat related games. They were oversupplying for a demand that didn’t exist.
Unfortunately, the Aero games aren’t that interesting otherwise. The villainous plot in Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel involves an evil (presumably French Canadian) lumberjack named Jacques le Sheets chopping down Zero’s forest home in order to print counterfeit money. Of course, the evil clown from the first game is behind it all, but the story really pulls at the heartstrings of Canadians who know what it’s like to be accosted by Quebec’s many evil lumberjacks. We suffer every single day.
Also, the evil plan in Aero 2 is called “Plan B”, which is some pretty heavy-handed political leanings for a game about a bat fighting a clown.
Where are they now?
Aero now lives on comfortably through some Game Boy Advance and Virtual Console releases. Zero on he other hand hasn’t been seen since 1994. There are rumours that he’s out there in the forests of Quebec, waiting for the day where he can finally take revenge on the flannel-adorned harbingers of his ruin. Soon, lumberjacks. Soon.
Last seen in: Conker: Live and Reloaded- Xbox (2005)
Conker might be mascot embodiment of whiplash. He first appeared in Diddy Kong Racing as a new, child-friendly mascot character from Rare. Is Banjo and Kazooie were for kids in middle school, Conker was for their younger siblings.
His solo N64 game was delayed however, when the Game Boy Color game, Conker’s Pocket Tales came out and received mostly mixed reception for being yet another cutesy platformer. The N64 game was in development at the time, and was hewing too close to the Banjo and Kazooie games for Rare’s comfort. So, they pulled a 180.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day feels more like an Adult Swim cartoon than a game concept. Conker is an alcoholic squirrel who was kidnapped on his way home after a night of binge drinking. On his way back home, he deals with a quadripalegic weasel, Nazi teddy bears, an operatic mass of feces, and by the end, a xenomorph that crashes the game.
By the end of the game, Conker is pleading with the programmers to bring his dead girlfriend back to life (she was killed by a weasel mafia boss), and monologueing about how you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Finally, he drinks his sorrows away in the bar where the game began.
Strangely enough, even though Nintendo had a very close working relationship with Rare at the time, they didn’t publish it, probably because it’s pretty much the exact opposite of the family friendly image Nintendo likes to keep. Of course, that didn’t stop them from telling Rare to change a few things in the game. Specifically, Nintendo asked for Pokémon to be removed from some of the game’s cutscenes, and the removal of a joke making fun of the KKK.
That’s right kids, Nazi teddy bears, binge-drinking squirrels, and a quadriplegic named “Kriplesac” is a-okay, but making fun of the KKK is just too much.
Where is he now?
Conker’s Bad Fur Day got a remake for Xbox in 2005, but Microsoft decided to get stricter than Nintendo with the censorship, which drove most of its fans away. There was a sequel in the works, but it was cancelled when Microsoft bought Rare from Nintendo. Conker is mostly forgotten by Rare today, now that they’re all Kinect sports games and Xbox avatars all the time, but sources tell me you can still hear opera singing coming from a bathroom stall on the third floor that no one’s used in almost a decade.
Last seen in: Wild Woody- Sega CD (1995)
As the story goes, in 1995 Sega was looking for a competitor for Nintendo’s newest success, Donkey Kong Country. They wanted a game that could show off the Sega CD’s superior processing power, as well as have 3D graphics to rival what Rare was pulling off on the SNES. That same day, Sega’s executives were approached by the Number 2 Pencil Association of America, who wanted to make a game that would get kids excited about traditional pencils again, and leave gel pens and mechanical pencils behind.
Okay, that last part is a lie, but it’s the only reasonable explanation for why Sega would make a mascot platformer starring a pencil, of all things.
Wild Woody almost seems like he was designed to end up in the unfortunate mascot graveyard. For one, he has the world’s worst name. Wild Woody is catchier than Peter Pencil, but Peter Pencil also isn’t a euphemism for uncontrollable erections. Next comes the part where he’s a wacky, ‘tude-ified pencil. A PENCIL. I don’t think it’s the first case of a non-animal cartoon mascot character, but Wild Woody is definitely the first tool-based mascot platformer.
Worth mentioning are the prerendered 3D cutscenes, which, while more elaborate than Donkey Kong Country, are somehow orders of magnitude uglier than even Bubsy 3D. Trying to figure out what you’re looking at in the cutscenes is almost as challenging as moving Woody with the game’s stiff controls.
Woody still has the mascot-standard smirk, wild expression, and white gloves, but he also has an eraser on his butt which he uses to “rub out” enemies, according to the manual.
I’m starting to think Sega had an internal competition to see who could cram as many penis jokes as possible into one terrible game.
Where is he now?
Wild Woody has been (rightfully) forgotten by Sega, but one employee hasn’t let the torch burn out. Sonic, who still hates Woody for trying to take his place as Sega’s lovable mascot with ‘tude, made sure Woody was transferred over to the art department of Sega USA. Woody is being slowly whittled away, forced to draw pictures of Sonic until the day he dies.
Blinx the Time Sweeper:
Last Seen in: Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space- Xbox (2004)
Poor, poor Blinx. He suffered a fate far worse than being an anthropomorphized cat stuffed into a dorky turtleneck/hoodie combo and steel-toed boots polished to a mirror sheen. You see, Blinx was supposed to be the original Xbox’s mascot.
That’s right, that adorable, Mountain-Dew-green eyed face was to launch a thousand consoles. Probably more, if Microsoft had anything to say about it. Unfortunately, people were sick and tired of mascot platformers by then, no matter how forward thinking the time manipulation mechanics were (no seriously, it’s like a crappier Braid before Braid existed).
Blinx is a Time Sweeper, an employee of the Time Factory, a facility that creates, distributes and maintains time. Which raises a lot of questions. Why are cats in charge of manufacturing time? Also, if Blinx’s job is to produce and maintain time, why are his powers represented by the buttons on your remote control? I think a more accurate title would be Blinx the VCR Sweeper, who is really good at setting the clock on it. He knows which buttons to hit, trust me, it’s nuts.
Anyway, a bunch of pigs mess up time in a certain dimension, so the Time Factory stop giving them time, freezing them in place But then Blinx gets a call from a local princess, and decides he has to save her; even though his job description is being a time janitor, not macking on human princess from other dimensions.
Basically, Blinx is horrible at his job, so the clunky controls and weird difficulty his games are known for are an early example of ludonarrative integration.
And you thought I couldn’t be pretentious about a cartoon cat wearing goggles.
Where is he now?
Surprisingly, Blinx is still at Microsoft. His developer Artoon was absorbed into AQ Interactive, and Microsoft was only too happy to offer him a job at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Blinx is now sweeping the halls of the Xbox division, hoping one day they’ll make him into an avatar costume, or better yet, a gritty reboot.