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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

The last time I got fundamentally lost in a video game, like, I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going-I’m-pretty-sure-we’ve-circled-this-one-tree-five-times-already lost, was in Shadow of the Colossus. I was following the light beam from my magical sword to the next Colossus when I hit a wall. More literally, it was the side of a mountain. Then, I turned to try and find a path around the mountain, got distracted by a lizard scampering across a plain, and by the time I caught the lizard, I had no goddamn clue where I was.

The mountain wasn’t rendering anymore, so there went my landmark. SOTC has a map, but I wouldn’t call it detailed, so using that was out the window. My mad dash for sweet lizard meat found me standing on the edge of the world, looking over at some seagulls flying over the ocean. I didn’t catch the lizard, and for a few minutes, I was pretty sure I wasn’t even going to find a Colossus out there. The edge of the world is a lonely place, after all. Of course, I quickly remembered I could pull out my magical sword again and follow its light back to the mountain, but for a brief, shining moment, I was totally lost. And no matter how big open worlds get, it’s never happened since.

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

I don’t actually play a ton of open world games. I often find the lack of direction frustrating, and I’m more likely to finish something that gives me motivation on a regular basis, not just whenever I happen to be in the right mood to push myself along the critical path. That’s mostly just a symptom of the kinds of games that use open world design though. Traditionally, open world design meets sandbox-style gameplay and they go hand-in-hand forever into the night, but that’s not necessarily a given. You can have a sandbox without an open world, just take a look at Animal Crossing or SimCity’s sandbox mode, and you can have an open world without a sandbox, like in Shadow of the Colossus or Dark Souls.  The latter is uncommon, the former barely exists, and the combination of the two is pretty much every game in existence right now. Grand Theft Auto is the progenitor of the open world sandbox genre, sure, but Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs, and all manner of dog-and-non-dog-related games occupy that same ever growing category.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

But clever open-world design can actually add a lot to more traditional, directed genres. Recently, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds applied the open world concept to the entrenched and unchanging Zelda formula to pretty interesting results. By giving players access to every tool in Link’s arsenal from the beginning of the game, the traditional dungeon design had to be rethought and refocused on the player’s potentially wider tool belt. Additionally, being able to leave a tricky dungeon to go try another was a welcome change from having to bash my head against the impenetrable wall known as “Zelda logic”. Dark Souls takes a step further, giving players a huge open world and absolutely no tools with which to work off of, but works in that same action-RPG context.

Dark Souls as the glowing exception to the rule though, these worlds tend to be sterile. Link Between Worlds uses the same overworld map from Link to the Past, a 23 year old game. Wind Waker, another Zelda game with a relatively open world, is content to situate its Great Sea on a grid, only letting each square contain one island. The recent Tomb Raider reboot lets you travel around an open world, but then railroads you down action set-pieces that block off exploration. Maybe you’ll go back to an earlier area later to pick up a few trinkets and collectibles. You probably won’t though.

You definitely won’t get lost.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls are, in some small sense, bastions of an older kind of game design. Of building a huge world and refusing give players direction in exploring it. SOTC leads you to the next colossus fight with its magic glowing sword, but you’re sure to miss the helpful stat-boosting lizards and birds along the way. Of course, they aren’t necessary, and most people’s major complaint about SOTC is the lack of things to do in its huge world. It’s a fair one too, considering that the enormous map is entirely empty outside of the next colossus you have to fight. But that’s what makes the world so appealing to me. It’s not a terribly well designed world in the gameplay sense, there’s nothing really funnelling you towards the colossi or any interesting challenges outside of them, and the arenas where you fight the colossi are pretty barren for the most part. But aesthetically and atmospherically, it’s second pretty much only to Dark Souls in setting a mood for a living, breathing world. Though, in SOTC’s case, it’s much more of a dead, barren world.

Play undead. Good boy,

Play undead. Good boy,

Huge expanses of nothing, ruins that serve no purpose, every little bit of SOTC’s map tells a little story about the world, or is at the very least fascinating to look at. That doesn’t make it a super fun game for everyone by any means, but the world enamours me. It makes me want to get lost. Dark Souls’ Lordran hits me in a similar way. It’s much tighter and livelier than SOTC’s barren wasteland, but it has the same sort of lore-revealing efficiency in its world design, with the added bonus of constantly teaching you how to play while forcing you into battle. Fighting the dogs in the tight corridors of the thieves’ down beneath the Undead Burg teaches you about how easy it is to stab them as they leap at you, which is a skill you’ll find comes in very handy during the Capra Demon boss fight, where two attack dogs stunlock you before the demon slams his axe down on your head.

To go back to Zelda for a second, the worlds remind me a lot of Zelda 1. Of course, Zelda 1 suffers from a lot of the same problems that SOTC and Dark Souls do. The open world often lacks direction, you’ll sometimes find yourself with a lack of things to do, and you cane stumble into areas far beyond what you can handle. But they’re also scary, lonely worlds at times, without much in the way of a home base or safe zone. Mind you, SOTC doesn’t have any enemies anywhere, but the world is enormous and labyrinthine for non-gameplay reasons. It feels threatening in a way that a world designed around constant combat just can’t. It feels dead, and that’s not “right”. You never feel at home. Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls may be the centre of the world, but it’s definitely not safe, and Zelda 1 starts on a non-descript square at the bottom of the map with no location-significance whatsoever.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

There’s a sort of focus to building a world like that. An open world that isn’t meant to lead you down one path or let you do anything you want. Go anywhere, but do only a few things. It doesn’t sound like a very good selling point, and that’s probably why we don’t see too many games like that, but in my experience, it lets the world speak for itself, with atmosphere and character all its own.It makes for something very different from having the world be defined by dozens of minigames and pointless encounters created to pad the experience.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

Big worlds are so often full of junk that isn’t, well, interesting. I enjoy Saint’s Row IV, but its rows of cloned skyscrapers are punctuated with, for the most part, variations on minigames I got bored of halfway through my first time playing them. And the bigger a world is, the less likely it is to have constant unique elements. Everything has to serve some player purpose, and the purpose is usually to keep them engaged and entertained from a gameplay perspective. At least SOTC’s emptiness serves the purpose of being negative space for the colossus fights, that’s something unique.

I don’t want to get lost in Liberty City, I don’t want to get lost in Skyrim. In fact, there’s no way I can get lost in them. There’s something around every corner, every nook and cranny has purpose. That outcropping with the seagulls doesn’t really serve a purpose, and there’s something realer about that. Or at the very least, something a little more magical.

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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

Linearity is a bad word.

When it comes to games, linearity is one of those dreaded concepts no one dares say aloud, for fear of angering the internet. It's not the worst concept though. That terrible title probably belongs to "free-to-play", or maybe "full reactive eyes entertainment”. In fact, if you just go back a few years, linearity wasn't the hot buzzword everyone loved to hate, it wasn't even talked about. Certain games were set aside as being open world games, because linearity was the standard. Now, the script's been flipped. The last major AAA release I can think of that didn't feature an open world was Call of Duty: Ghosts, and its single-player campaign is by no means the "point" of that game.

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Meanwhile, every multi-million dollar series worth its salt features an open world, each one claiming to be bigger, open-er, and world-ier than the last. Assassin's Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Knight, and of course Grand Theft Auto V lead the charge, coming from a relatively long line of open world predecessors, but even brand new IPs, like Watch Dogs and Sunset Overdrive are launching as big, open world games. Not that we're seeing much in the way of new IPs these days. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is taking the Metal Gear series into an open world for the first time, and the recent Tomb Raider reboot combined its spectacular Uncharted impression with its best shot at placing Lara in an open world that didn't really matter.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Open worlds are basically the MSG of game mechanics. You just add a little, and it makes everything seem to taste better. Or, the way publishers see it, adding an open world is a guarantee that your game will sell better than if it didn't. Because open worlds sell, you see.

And why wouldn't they? Video games are, at their core, about interacting with a world and having agency over it. A big open world that doesn't lead your anywhere by the nose is pretty close to the ultimate expression of that concept. Some people see video games' endpoint as the holodeck from Star Trek, a fully immersive, totally realistic simulation of whatever you want to experience. They aren't terribly far off, at least if the progression of open world games is anything to work off of. Add a health bar and a wanted meter, and Picard is basically playing Grand Theft Auto: XXVII.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

But there's another school of thought here, the idea that games are a focused exploration of a specific set of concepts and mechanics, that they shouldn't try to be everything, because you'll never perfect that. Games didn't start as trying to replicate the holodeck experience. At first they were trying to replicate ping-pong, to be fair, but then we got into focused looks at more fantastical mechanics. Mario let you jump twice your own height, and asked you to figure out how to best control that. Mega Man put you through a gauntlet of mazes and traps, then asked you to learn from the environment and figure out how to best use the tools you'd acquired from bosses. Even Adventure wasn't trying to simulate something so much as it was trying to help you learn that dragons could look like ducks too.

BARF

BARF

But, in order to properly explore those mechanics, those games had to be linear. Directed. Focused. It wasn't a technical limitation either, considering that River City Ransom came out in 1989. To be fair, RCR was a pretty small, simple take on the open world concept, but it does show that the idea not only existed, but was possible, even in the early days of game design. But, RCR was big and spread thin. There wasn't a ton of complexity to it, most of the fun was had in seeing how the open world and mechanics could be abused. It introduced the world, or at least the few people who had played it at the time, to emergent gameplay, which would go on to become one of open world design's strongest selling points.

The point is, games were linear for a long time for a reason, and it wasn't technology. A linear, heavily directed experience is the best way to show players how to best take advantage of deeper mechanics, the easiest way to adjust the difficulty curve, and the easiest way to tell a story. Look at Ocarina of Time's Shadow Link battle. Link enters an empty room with an island in the middle. You walk over to the island, nothing's there, but you see a door on the other side of the room. You check out the door and it's locked, so you turn back the way you came and suddenly Shadow Link is waiting on the island. It's a simple experience, but distinctly affecting, and one of the most memorable parts of that game. Obviously it's just a tiny moment in one room, but it works as a microcosm of Ocarina of Time's design philosophy as a whole:

Make the player think they have agency.

Nothing to see here...

Nothing to see here...

The best linear design is all about illusion- tricking the player into assuming they have choices over how events transpire. In the locked room, Link can go anywhere, but reaching the other door will trigger the encounter. So the developers put the island in the middle of the room, giving the player an extra stop on their journey, a point of interest that delays the inevitable. You have a choice of stopping at the island, but you have to go to the locked door, no choices there. Of course, you don't really choose to go to the island either, since it was put there specifically so you'd notice it and go there first. It's a magic trick of game design, perfect direction that wouldn't be possible in a nonlinear experience. Ocarina of Time does it the whole way through. Hyrule Field opens up to four or five areas, but you can only get so far into each before having to turn around due to missing equipment. You can choose to hit up the Zora river before Death Mountain, you just won't get very far. In the end, Death Mountain has to come first.

It's a great way to tell a story, and a great way to prey on player expectations and surprise them. Of course, open world mechanics do worm themselves in everywhere, because more choice is actually a pretty good selling point. If games really are power fantasies, then choice is what makes us feel powerful. The more choices, the more power, and the more those choices affect the world  the better they become.

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Of course, when you get to a situation like Telltale's The Walking Dead games, which feature choices with real consequences to them, most of the power is stripped away. Power doesn't react well to real consequences, it just wants immediate gratification. If I choose to ramp this car over a bridge, I want to see a sweet jump and maybe an explosion at the end, not get a ticket and file paperwork for the damages I caused.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Which is why everything is open world now. Power fantasies are not only in right now, they've defined games for a very long time. It may suck for some, but it is true. All those big, AAA open world titles I mentioned up top are all power fantasies. The bigger a world is, the more thinly spread it is as well. Choices don't really have consequences in an open world because they can't. The whole world can't shift so easily, that would require a massive amount of assets that most developers just don't have. It's why Mass Effect's and Infamous's moral choice choice systems are all smoke, mirrors and fluff, and why Telltale's the Walking Dead is such a small, linear experience. An open world is better suited to power fantasy, because it inspires choice without consequence, while a linear experience is better used when trying to tell a cohesive story.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

It's why linear shouldn't be a bad word either. Linearity lets you focus on mechanics and refine them to perfection, lets you get players caught up in a focused narrative, lets you construct a difficulty curve that makes sense. Opening up the world and letting the player mess around as they choose throws those things out of balance. Which isn't to say open worlds are bad. They aren't just mindless power fantasies, they can only be huge worlds to explore, or have rich histories to discover, like Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus, or Wind Waker.

So, no, linearity isn't a bad word. Neither is open world. Instead of thinking of them as positive and negative concepts, maybe we should start thinking of the two like we do writing perspectives. A novel can be written in first person or third person, with an omniscient narrator, or an unreliable one. They're different tools, with different uses, and each one is best suited to a different kind of job.

Except for the free to play tool, that tool broke years ago, no way we're going to fix it now.

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....


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Open Worlds- An Introduction

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Open Worlds- An Introduction

We play games in an ever growing world. I mean that literally, in the sense that there are more people playing video games now than ever before, but also in the sense that worlds we play games in are growing. Expanding to ever greater horizons. 

Sometimes, it's because they do incredible new things, shattering our perceptions of what games can be and how they can play. Those are the special games, the one's we'll remember in years, even decades. Often times though, games will go for a more obvious solution to the innovation problem- they get bigger.

Last year, Metal Gear Solid was announced as going open world, so were Mirror's Edge, The Witcher, even Zelda went open world with Link Between Worlds. Every new AAA game announced that isn't a first person shooter is probably either an open world game, or features some open world mechanics. Open worlds are pretty much where it's at these days. Yet, we don't often see a ton of innovation on that concept. Grand Theft Auto is the same core game that it's been since GTA III, Assasin's Creed's solution to improving its open world was to make it bigger and pull a Wind Waker by taking you to the seas. Our worlds are getting bigger, but not necessarily better in any tangible way. 

Meanwhile, games in the indie space don't tackle the open world nearly as much as their AAA counterparts. Is it a resource thing? Do they not want to follow the trends set forth by the mainstream industry? Retro City Rampage, an NES-styled take on Grand Theft Auto gameplay took years to make, and didn't really set the world on fire. Even Minecraft, which is technically open world, isn't really played for that aspect. The upcoming No Man's Sky looks absolutely fascinating, but, like Minecraft, it's open world is procedurally generated, making it a pretty different take on the norm. Is that the future of open worlds? Co-opting rogue-like tropes and appealing them to a wider audience?

In a nutshell, what is the future of open worlds? Are they the most stagnant genre in our medium of murder simulators? Or are they, like their name implies, open to changes that we can't even imagine yet? 

Let's get lost. 

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Preview: Nintendo's E3 Lineup

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Preview: Nintendo's E3 Lineup

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

 

Super Mario 3D World:

Platform: Wii U                                                                                                      Release date: December 2013

Platform: Wii U                                                                                                    

Release date: December 2013

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

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

mario3.jpg

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

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

mario2.jpg

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

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

 

Pikmin 3: 

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: August 4,2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: August 4,2013

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

pikmin3.jpg

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

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

pikmin2.jpg

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

 

The Legend of Zelda:  The Wind Waker HD:

 

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: October 2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: October 2013

ww1.jpg

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

 

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze:

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: November 2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: November 2013

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

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

 

Wii Party U: 

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: October, 2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: October, 2013

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

party3.jpg

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

party4.jpg

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

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

 

The Wonderful 101: 

Platform: Wii U  Release Date: September 15, 2013

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: September 15, 2013

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

wonderful2.jpg

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

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

 

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

 

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: 

Platform: 3DS  Release Date: November 2013

Platform: 3DS

Release Date: November 2013

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

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

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

 

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team: 

Platform: 3DS  Release Date: August 11, 2013

Platform: 3DS

Release Date: August 11, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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