Sunday, February 18, 2018

My Hero Academia Vol. 11 Review (Hey Poor Player)

Yes, your eyes aren't fooling you: this is the first time I've ever provided TWO REVIEWS in the same day! Praise be my hard work!

Regardless, I understand this might be a bit inconvenient for my first My Hero Academia review, but it's absolutely impossible to discuss the events within this volume without diving into spoiler territory, so heed caution!

Worldly Weekend: Dragon Quest II (Dragon Warrior II) (NES)

It's really hard for me to look at the above cover. While hardly problematic in itself, something about this localized box art for Dragon Quest II -- Dragon Warrior II in the States -- irks me more than the one for the first, which is mighty odd considering they both subscribe to the 80's style of realistic medieval fantasy. Could it be the exaggerated chest for the Princess of Moonbrooke, or that at this point I'm far, far too accustomed to Akira Toriyama's signature artwork for the series?

Ah, yes, that's more like it. And the answer is apparent as well: as much as the NES Dragon Warrior covers attempt to present the games as no-nonsense affairs, the goofy enemies obviously suggest a more tongue-in-cheek affair, and thus it's insanely difficult imagining the American art having any agency in our imaginations. Naturally, Toriyama's art is the way to go, so let us not tarry upon such incongruities.

Anyway, Dragon Quest II is often cited alongside the original as being the two Dragon Quest classics that aged the most: while there are some notable upgrades from the archaic original (no more stairs button!), it's still mired in antiquated methods of progression bound to frustrate modern players, be they relying on vague hints from Elizabethan-speaking villagers or searching every last inch of a tiny shrine to locate a legendary trinket. Meanwhile, like most other NES RPGs, party members are guaranteed to miss attacks should their selected foe already be felled, and yes, NPCs still tend to block the inns and shops in their never-ending quest to waste our time.

Of course, improvements are improvements, and we shall begin with those. For one thing, Dragon Quest II is once again subject to localized upgrades as Dragon Warrior II, and while we hardly witness anything gameplay-related like the original (barring battery saves, as opposed to the Japanese password system), that they forged an entirely new title screen and extended opening scene is still mighty impressive for NES; both are very cinematic efforts, a manner of visual storytelling entirely absent from the first entry, and while sadly the latter doesn't extend itself as such throughout the rest of the game, that we witness Moonbrooke's actual fall makes for a compelling start.

Not that Dragon Quest II is particularly story-intensive, but it doesn't need to: the world speaks for itself. The growth in size can't even be compared to the original -- a point eventually illustrated in its inclusion of a world within a world (the context I shall not spoil, although it makes for some brilliant continuity) -- and that's not even getting into the terrain variety provided by a massive sea populated with regions and isolated islands. There's even a touch of musical storytelling, where the overworld BGM changes when you gain a full party.

Needless to say, Dragon Quest II doesn't feel nearly as confined or linear as the original. Yes, there's still a ton of grinding to do, but it no longer feels like the only thing you're compelled to do, and so there's much more incentive for exploration and engaging in non-linearity. True, the reliance on townspeople hints and pixel hunts may render it a tad overwhelming, but the pacing resembles actual progression as opposed to a circular grindfest, so it doesn't grow nearly as repetitive.

It's best to describe Dragon Quest II's upgrades as imbalance of positives and negatives; for instance, take the game's overall QOL. Say you're stuck in a monster-filled tower with low HP, but you don't have the MP to cast Outside, so how do you escape? The solution is ingenious and delightfully cartoonish: you simply jump off! Meanwhile, the inventory system is as outdated as ever: you can only carry one of each item, and there's precious little space in your party members' inventories.

Speaking of parties, Dragon Quest II is not a solitary affair like the original, as the protagonist's cousins join his quest to form a team. The results aren't perfect: both join at level 1 and so are easy pickings for higher-leveled monsters, and the Prince of Cannock's limited weapon range renders him all but useless by the end, but it doesn't necessarily detract from the gameplay in itself. As parties are a core feature for every subsequent sequel, it's only natural the first game including it has some growing pains, so I welcome it regardless (I also shan't spoil how the Princess of Moonbrooke joins the party, although every online summary for the game renders that practically impossible to avoid; shame, given how clever it is).

I imagine, however, it's those pratfalls that led to citations claiming Dragon Quest II is the most difficult of the series. As I'm still only midway through Dragon Quest III, I can hardly vouch for such a claim, but I can see it panning out: with only two useful party members, the inequality in combat becomes painfully obvious, with the final Rhone region being particularly arduous in having the Prince of Midenhall doing all the heavy-lifting against Green Dragons, Bullwongs and King Orcs (that, and the one-two-three punch of three different areas to traverse, although thankfully the brief overworld section includes a healing/saving shrine). And that's not even getting into the final boss and his Healall spell, which...well, the spell's name speaks for itself. Really, the point is it's hard, but not necessarily for the right reasons (as in, they're design oversights more so than a well-balanced rise into difficulty).

Thankfully, there are other things here and there that aren't affected by such processes; for instance, the music is again helmed by Koichi Sugiyama, whose dubious political beliefs rain more than a little on our enjoyment, but regardless, his score must be discussed. Given its emphasis on a party as opposed to the solitary journey of the original Dragon Quest, it's only natural it takes on a more upbeat tone. We witness this first in the playful Menu theme, greeting us with such jubilant joy that practically begs us to join in on the fun, which is reason alone for me to suspect this particular tune serves as fierce nostalgia for old-timer fans.

There are other great songs; if I must pick a favorite, it's surely the Shrine theme and how it echoes an ancient lullaby passed down through time, and I was never not hypnotized whenever I came across their isolated refuges. However, it's the contrast between the two overworld themes that interests me most: I personally prefer the original for better representing the more "active" theme of this game's score, yet there's no denying the party version complements that "musical storytelling" theme I mentioned earlier: the regal-esque feel doesn't feel as adventurous, yet it does instill a sense of completion that accompanies the rest of your journey. Attributing musical subjectivity to the aforementioned "highs and lows" thing feels off even if I think other RPGs did shifting overworld themes better (Tales of the Abyss's three overworld themes, for one, although maybe it's also not fair to compare more modern instrumentation with chiptunes), but it's interesting in the way they complement each other.

The 8-bit graphics are more or less unchanged, so I'll focus instead on a certain visual discovery that took me completely off-guard: the Sorcerer enemies. Upon my first encounter, I instantly felt a twinge of recognition, and it wasn't until I ran into them a couple more times I knew what I was seeing: Dragon Ball! My days of ritually scanning the background characters in Toriyama's manga masterpiece had paid off, and as it turns out, there's other Dragon Quest monsters who competed in the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai (there's actually another combatant who bears the same bat symbol as the Sorcerer, so I liked imagining they were a gang partaking in the tournament). As the relevant chapters came out not even two months later, I suppose Toriyama wanted to pay tribute to a game he loved playing!

To summarize, Dragon Quest II is a game that takes enough steps to be better and more relevant than its primitive progenitor, but there's enough missteps pegging it firmly within the typical frustrations of an 8-bit RPG. I'm not particularly disappointed by this -- if anything, I give it props for not falling into the all-too-common 8-bit era trap of revamping itself into an entirely different genre as a sequel, which is enough to grant it a "great" rating from me -- but much as I enjoyed it, it's difficult to recommend it to anyone other than patient gaming historians. Perhaps the remakes iron out the kinks down the road? As I won't be playing those for quite some time, I take my greatest pleasure in knowing the best is yet to come.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Monday, February 12, 2018

One Piece Vol. 85 Review

Waaaaaay back when I first started this blog, I mentioned I may deviate from games to talk about how much I love One Piece, and now I finally can! Of course, I reviewed One Piece: Unlimited World Red a few years back, but that's not quite the same.

Anyway, expect The Promised Neverland and My Hero Academia this week. I'm also planning to review Hiromu Arakawa's Silver Spoon at this month's end; so excited that's finally coming here!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Donkey Kong Country

I don't typically touch upon my Asperger's in these reviews, but there's a certain memory regarding Donkey Kong Country that must be shared. By far the most prominent of my preschooler-age quirks were my made-up words: nonsense given purpose only to the mind of a self-absorbed child. Often taking the form of onomatopoeia, one such word -- "BWAH BWAH!" -- was born from the powerful opening visual of Donkey Kong barreling through his tree house's front door and slamming into the ground below. A ritual was born every time I replayed that level, that same guttural erupting from my throat in very same shrill ferocity of Baby Animal from Muppet Babies.

The point being, the visual prominence of Donkey Kong Country inspired people to the point of babbling nonsense at the sight of its pre-rendered 3D visuals, myself included. And why shouldn't they, when it was not only the Super Nintendo's greatest technical marvel but groundbreaking enough to ensure the 16-bit market wasn't done just yet. Of course, there are those who believe Donkey Kong Country's only claim to fame was its graphics and not its actual gameplay, which is often perceived as inferior to the likes of Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island.

Myself, I view it in the same vein as the original Sonic the Hedgehog: technically impressive with a solid foundation, albeit not nearly as superb as its successors (Donkey Kong Country 2, as well as its Wii/Wii U scions). But let us not commit ourselves to knocking it down already: yes, it doesn't hold a candle Mario's multi-tiered design, but that doesn't mean Donkey Kong Country's fast-paced approach in smashing enemies and barreling through levels isn't without merit.

We witness this firsthand in the aforementioned opening level, which begins with the rocket start of Donkey Kong blasting through his front door. That tells us all we need to know about the game: it will be loud. It will be flashy. It will be exciting. And it certainly delivers on all three fronts: we rescue Diddy Kong from a barrel, throw other barrels and discover they can tumble along the ground and plow through crowds of Gnawty beavers and Kremling crocodiles, and hitch a ride upon Rambi the Rhinoceros and marvel at how he bulldozes enemies and crashes through hidden bonus rooms.

Not every level is that thrilling, of course, but it's within that first stage we learn most everything about how Donkey Kong Country works; in particular, how it operates on a rhythmical flow. Mario has a rhythm, of course, but not in the rush we find bopping upon a duo of Kremlings to reach a tree host to a DK Balloon, a satisfying maneuver that automatically instructs us that's how we discover out-of-sight secrets. Other innate interactive cues can be observed: the trio of Gnawtys placed after Rambi's crate are easy pickings for the rhino and prove his prowess, whereas the hidden barrel underneath the final "G" letter (collectible letters that spell out "KONG") after the bonus room hint at another potential source for collectibles.

In other words, Donkey Kong Country is a calculated joyride once mastered. We learn in this interview with lead designer Gregg Mayles this isn't a happy accident: elements such as swinging ropes first appear swaying towards DK and Diddy, so the practiced player can latch on the instant they emerge. We witness this further in Barrel Blast Canyon, where the floating barrel cannons require a level of timed efficiency that, once grasped, lead to a dazzling display of brisk velocity. And let us not forget the famous mine cart sequences: a single mistimed jump can spell doom for the lax player.

Even when the game tones down on the thrills does it never let up on the tension, with the four underwater levels serving as a prime example: DK and Diddy's movements are reduced, and unless we scout the help of Engaurde the swordfish, we can only simply dodge whatever nautical foes come our way. With the help of what's quite possibly the Super Nintendo's greatest musical feat, they're strangely cathartic affairs, but we'll get to that momentarily.

Really, what we must first confess is that for all its deliberate thrills, Donkey Kong Country never stops feeling, well, basic. Dominant as the animal buddies may be, the overall gameplay doesn't feel particularly "featured": DK and Diddy mostly operate the same outside of the latter's inability to fell large foes, and even when the level design offers twists in its underwater and minecart levels, it often neglects the nuance players discovered years earlier in Super Mario World's hidden pathways and Sonic the Hedgehog's alluring Chaos Emeralds. We have the collectible KONG letters, yes, but those just provide extra lives rather than unlockables, and outside of the bonus rooms, there's not much to each level other than completion.

Granted, we see hints of flexibility within the design -- most of the first level can skipped entirely by hopping across trees, for instance -- but instances of variety are few and far between, and that it's just focused on being a tight platformer is what cements the game's "freshman-effort" identity. There are other niggles: levels typically end without any fanfare, most bosses are repeats,  and many of the secret bonus rooms needed to 100% (or should I say 101%?) are rather obtuse -- yes, hiding a bonus room within a bonus room is clever, but it's hard to appreciate after the frustration of scanning levels up-and-down.

And of course, as it typically is with 90's and CGI, not even the character designs are safe: while admittedly I take great pleasure in knowing there's a character named "Funky Kong" living among the Kongs of DK Island, it's here we're also first introduced to Candy Kong, whose grotesque sexualization has never provided for anything resembling decent character design, with her debut appearance being unmatched in its eye-bleeding foulness. And the less we speak about Manky Kong -- the Eldritch-abomination orangutans that populate Orang-utan Gang and antagonize our heroes -- the happier I'll be (a link to their Mario Wiki page should suffice).

None of these are even the worst visual offender, though: that would be Squawks the parrot's assistance in Torchlight Trouble, where the green fowl's torchlight unleashes a hideous flash that blinds players' eyes every time it so much as turns around. Thankfully toned down for its official emulated releases, it makes for the only case Nintendo's infamous "filter" adjustments are based on any actual merits on safety, and I'll happily accept it this one time.

Make no mistake, though: Donkey Kong Country's pre-rendered graphics are otherwise the star of the show. Some may say they haven't aged as well as simple sprite design, but as much as certain character designs contribute to that argument, it's hard to argue with the overall look: in placid contrast to the game's brisk gameplay, the lush realism is both inviting and melancholic, be it the host of abandoned tree house villages, dreary caves, and dimly-lit mines.

Not that Donkey Kong Country doesn't provide bright locations -- look no further than the jungle and forest levels -- but or a tongue-in-cheek adventure about apes and monkeys rescuing their bananas from evil crocodiles, it is nothing less than thematic dissonance; however, for the revival of Nintendo's first gaming star, such ambition is to be expected, and what ensures Donkey Kong Country achieves that goal is the presence of composer David "God" Wise. Not that we should dismiss the efforts of his co-workers -- Eveline Fischer's Simian Segue is one of my all-time favorite map themes -- but as Mr. Wise largely takes the helm and is responsible for some of the best music in SNES history, he deserves the spotlight.

Much of Wise's output shifts between atmospheric templates and steady action pieces, as we respectively witness within Cave Dweller Concert and Mine Cart Madness, but both elements are present within the first level theme: DK Island Swing, which has gone on to represent the series. Beginning with a stable percussion so as not to drown out the opening crash and Diddy's cries for help, the ensuing sound of nature let us soak in DK's world before launching a groovy beat that masterfully segues into a melancholic wail echoing the sunset closing the level. Said melancholy doesn't really kick into gear until the second level -- a rainy test of vine-swinging survival-- and the all-encompassing dirge is nothing less than incredible: it is sorrowful, dismal as the stormy struggle and sober in echoing nature's edict of "survival of the fittest."

The point is, Wise's music doesn't just illustrate the illusion the levels are bigger than they actually are: they reflect an actual world operating behind-the-scenes, and so perhaps his soundtrack is the true secret behind why we were so fascinated with the graphics. The aforementioned Cave Dweller Concert stuns for similar reasons: a series of erratic percussion, a steady string of water drips, and a mournful flute make for the game's most creeping, chilling piece of atmosphere, in particular, that raw, mournful cry that closes out the song incites a level of despair I've never encountered in any Nintendo game since, and I dread in envisioning what could accompany such a frightful lament. (Eveline Fischer's Northern Hemispheres also deserves a shout-out here: the wintry expanses of Gorilla Glacier become a desperate bid for survival in its final act, suggesting a sudden blizzard threatening to entomb our simian heroes in an icy grave).

With a soundtrack this good, one would think picking its best song would be an impossible task, and yet there's not a moment's waste in making my choice: Aquatic Ambiance. Long has it been known that even in the face of water levels' rocky reputation for floaty controls and aggravating hazards can they be depended upon for the very loveliest of gaming music, and even when considering Nintendo's storied collection that includes the likes of Dire, Dire Docks and Crashed Frigate Orpheon, I can think of no better aural prize than David Wise's greatest masterpiece. The way its breathtaking soundscape and wistful moodiness simulate an immersion as deep as an actual sea is nothing less than magic, never failing to stimulate a hypnotic trance of one floating lazily through the currents. It is perhaps the very first piece of game music I ever took notice of, and as it is one I always turn to in memory of my brother, there is perhaps no better choice.

When contrasting how amazing Wise's soundtrack is alongside the thrilling yet basic platforming, we can ask the question: is Donkey Kong Country more than the sum of its parts? Perhaps, but if anything, I find it astounding what should be a by-the-books platformer is elevated through effective use of visuals, let alone successfully juggle such forlorn beauty alongside the tongue-in-cheek wisdom of Cranky Kong and a boss level named "Necky's Nuts". That in itself is a sign of fine craftsmanship, one that, even today, makes me go "BWAH BWAH!" every time I start playing.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Introducing a New Feature: Tier Lists!

Hello, all! If you'll look below this post, you'll see the first entry for a new feature I've been wanting to do for quite some time now! As it happens, I've always enjoyed ranking things, and I've always thought it would be fun if I presented gaming-related lists and whatnot to the world. We've seen this before in my Top 15 Mario Kart 8 Tracks list, but how about, say, a ranked list of Nintendo 64 games, or what's my personal pecking order for The Legend of Zelda?

To satisfy that craving, I now introduce Leave Luck to Heaven's very first Tier List, featuring a subject we're all intimately familiar with: Kirby! Now that all the mainline games have finally been reviewed, I thought I'd celebrate by finally presenting my personal rankings for the series. Naturally, it follows the blog's score system, so you shouldn't have a hard time following it. As mentioned within its respective post, these lists are also subject to change over time, but I'll let you know whenever that happens.

Regardless, more are to come, although my plan is to split between plentiful franchises (which will also include certain series featured within Worldly Weekend)  and Nintendo consoles (which will exclusively focused on Nintendo-developed/published games). To clarify on "plentiful," while you'll be certainly be seeing lists based on Zelda, Mario and even Final Fantasy, you shouldn't expect one for Super Smash Bros., as there's only fives game and they'd only rank at Really Great at worst.

Furthermore, you won't have to wait until I've reviewed, say, every Mario or SNES game until their respective lists come out; I haven't fully planned this out yet, but I'm thinking I'd only wait until I've reviewed maybe half of their libraries and gradually fill them in afterwards. Consequently, they may feel incomplete, but I suppose it'd be fun to watch them evolve over time, eh?

Unfortunately, the introduction of Tier Lists comes at an expense: after putting more thought into it, I've realized it's probably very unlikely Biweekly Music Wednesday! will be returning. With everything I have to juggle including this blog, Hey Poor Player, and other personal endeavors, it frankly obstructed much of my output and I'd be unable to maintain it without making serious concessions to my lifestyle, which I simply can't afford for a blog column.

I know it's disappointing news; personally, I'll miss injecting a different sense of game-related discussion every couple of weeks, but I've come to recognize more infrequent projects like this will be more suitable for the blog moving forward. As I ask you to please understand this development, you can also expect to witness appropriate changes to its placement within The Archives alongside Tier Lists and a much-needed Game Journalism upgrade.

Anyway, expect this week to be a meaty one regarding reviews for both Leave Luck to Heaven and Hey Poor Player, so stay tuned!

The Kirby Tier List

After years and years of gushing about how much I love Kirby, it's only natural I pit the games together to compile thoughts on which is better than which, and so I present to you Leave Luck to Heaven's very first Tier List; in other words, a list ranking the Kirby games. All games are ranked according to this  accompanied by links to their respective reviews and brief blurbs detailing their majesty (or un-majesty, but in the case of Kirby, that's few and far between).

Do note, however, this list is subject to change over time, with the first update scheduled in March when I review Kirby: Star Allies for Hey Poor Player. I'm planning to embark on a 100% run of the Kirby series over the next year or so, so expect the first changes within that time -- the Great/Good categories are especially shaky, so you may see certain titles shift about.

Please also bear in mind the reviews for Kirby's Dream Land and Kirby's Dream Land 2 do not reflect my current writing standards, so expect updated versions in the future. Finally, spin-offs (Kirby Air Ride) and compilations (Kirby's Dream Collection) are not included; this is strictly for the mainline games, although the two remakes are included.

To review a better understanding of Leave Luck to Heaven's scoring system, please visit this page.

Masterpiece (10/10)


Kirby Super Star (SNES, 1996) / Kirby Super Star Ultra (DS, 2008): The highest ranking is decided at a tie, but when both titles are some of the greatest co-op side-scrolling experiences gaming has to offer, why complain? Later Kirby titles may surpass it in length, challenge and even gameplay, but Kirby Super Star's series of vignettes remains his freshest, grandest, and just the most magical all these years later, with Kirby Super Star Ultra building upon that in one of Nintendo's greatest remakes.

 Kirby's Adventure (NES, 1993): Most hail Super Mario Bros. 3 as NES's Holy Grail, but I know it's not just bias that I instead elect HAL Laboratory's swan song. It's not just the platform's greatest technical accomplishment but its most sugary-sweet, befriending even the most fledgling of players frustrated by Mario and Sonic. Yes, even they can reach the ending, and Kirby's Adventure is never not having the funnest time ensuring they do so.

Near-Masterpiece (9/10)

 Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii, 2010): Good-Feel's bending of the series rules doesn't operate anything like the typical Kirby sugar rush, but it doesn't need to: in its heart lies the very same "anyone can reach the ending" philosophy that was the genesis for the series, a theme echoed by how soft and inviting Epic Yarn is. Accompanied by the series' most inspired set-pieces and a wonderfully pleasant score by Tomoya Tomita, Epic Yarn's habits of apartment-building and swinging on fabric trees transcend Kirby to become a sort of unique relaxation simulator I've yet to see matched anywhere else.

 Kirby's Return to Dream Land (Wii, 2011): Kirby Super Star Ultra may've set the gears in motion, but Kirby's Return to Dream Land, HAL's first original home console effort in over a decade, proved HAL still had it in them to craft a Super Star/Adventure-level title. True to its American name, what's old is new again in a sea of Kirby's Adventure-inspired level design, much-needed Copy Abilities updates, and the embracing of series lore. Combined with the success of what's new (Super Abilities!), and you have what's responsible for the current Golden Age of Kirby.

Kirby: Planet Robobot (3DS, 2016): It's only natural the game featuring mechs is Kirby's most bombastic yet, what with Copy Ability-imbued Robobots with a touch of pseudo-3D experimentation. That the Robobots are a constant, organic force within the level design displays HAL's evolution of technical craft, right down to what's easily the most showstopping climax in Kirby history. Did I mention it's really hard to 100%?

Kirby: Canvas Curse
(DS, 2005): Often hailed as the first genuine proof of concept for DS, Canvas Curse was the first time the gaming public/media really took notice of Kirby, and it's hard not to see why: the exclusive focus on touch control brought forth an entirely new breed of platforming that was both engaging and difficult, and coupled with ever-shifting abstractness in art and the techno arrangements, it's unlike anything else Kirby has to offer.

Really Great (8.5/10)

Kirby: Triple Deluxe (3DS, 2014): Over-familiarity with Return to Dream Land and the relative inadequacy of the Supernova ability render Triple Deluxe a tad weaker than its Golden Age counterparts, but the 3D-effect emphasis leads to some truly inventive design alongside a strong score and nostalgic aesthetic. It also helps Kirby Fighters and the keychains remain the strongest sub-game/collectibles, respectively.

Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land (GBA, 2002): This Kirby's Adventure remake fights a constant tug-and-pull battle of superiority over the original it doesn't always win, but for any failures in graphical adaption and awkward parallax scrolling replacements, the loving  heart of NES's best game remains as approachable as ever (It also began the unfortunate "Angry Kirby" trend, but, well, that's not the game's fault)

Great (8/10)

Kirby's Dream Land (GB, 1992): Don't let the brevity of Masahiro Sakurai's directorial debut fool you: tight, professional design lends to replayability book-ended by insurance in the form of what's probably still the series's toughest Extra Mode. Hard to believe Kirby began without his trademark Copy Ability, but that you walk away more satisfied than its meatier sequels proves less can be more in this Anyone's First Platformer.

Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (N64, 2000): Shinichi Shimomura's final Kirby game remains his strongest not merely in that it doesn't lean too heavily upon Kirby's "made for beginners" directive (although it's still a tad slow), but that the addictive experimentation is multi-layered in everything from combining Copy Abilities to discovering what holding a Bronto Burt above Kirby will accomplish. Still in possession of one of the series' best soundtracks, too.

Kirby: Mass Attack (DS, 2011): Perhaps even more alien than Epic Yarn is what's easily HAL's most bizarre concept for the series: rampaging the lands with up to ten Kirbys Any disappointments in the lack of a memorable score or uneven level pacing don't undermine the joy of piledriving, tackling even hot-air balloon maneuvering via mob in what's easily Kirby's most difficult game. May I also cite the veritable collection of sub-games?

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse (Wii U, 2015): It's no Canvas Curse, and the phoned-in Challenge Mode still stings, but this claymation-themed entry is so pleasant we almost don't care it's a budget title. Despite the absence of Copy Abilities, the level design is still inspired enough to carry it through, and the collectibles in models and Elline's diary are perhaps Kirby at its most adorable (and cynical, if we count the former's descriptions).

Good (7/10)

Kirby's Dream Land 3 (SNES, 1997): Dream Land 3's mesh of pastel, crayon scribbles, and watercolors are an unbelievably perfect fit for Kirby (and SNES's final visual stunner), but the static level design fails to take advantage of it. Thankfully, the animal buddies' Copy Abilities and the challenging Heart Stars keep us engaged until the very end.

Kirby's Dream Land 2 (GB, 1995): A shockingly poor introduction via the first two worlds threaten to undermine what's generally a solid platformer, and that the following worlds ramp up in intensity -- right down to one of the most satisfying climaxes in Kirby history -- make us wonder if they tried too hard to hook beginners. Still, those two worlds don't last for very long, so the rest of the game still shines through.

Kirby and the Amazing Mirror (GBA, 2004): The first of Flagship's collaborations with HAL provides an interesting concept in placing Kirby within Metroidvania, and while there's enough highs to warrant such a venture, it remains clumsy: it fails to properly disclose its progression system, the Four Kirby AI is too poor to rely upon, and Kirby's Copy Abilities are either too inconvenient or too gimmicky to function within a Metroidvania environment. Still worth a play, but more polish was needed.

Okay (6/10)

Kirby: Squeak Squad (DS, 2006): If there was any evidence Flagship was the wrong developer for Kirby, this was certainly it. While hardly deserving of scorn, Squeak Squad tries far too hard in appealing to beginners and it shows within the uninspired level design. The recycled soundtrack and lame touch-screen function further cement its half-baked identity.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Kirby Battle Royale Review (Hey Poor Player)

As expected, I wounded up enjoying the latest Kirby spin-off more than the critics did. It's Kirby Air Ride all over again!

Anyway, a new feature will debut early next month, the first entry of which will involve Kirby. This won't be a weekly feature or anything, but it's something I've wanted to do for some time now, so keep an eye out!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Kirby: Planet Robobot

I don't even know what else to say; I'm spent. Admittedly, I do find some enjoyment in the thought of Kirby adopting a "DESTROY THEM ALL!" glee within his shiny new mecha, but a smiling Angry Kirby brings horrid memories of 2011's Mass Attack, and that cover is never a pleasant thing to remember. Besides, why harp on it when Nintendo/HAL have just put the brakes on their terrible plans for homogenization and came to their senses with this joyous cover for Star Allies? Sure, maybe Angry Kirby will be back to his old tricks someday, but his cynical countenance has been repelled, and that is good enough cause for celebration.

And what better way to commend this occasion by talking about how great Kirby: Planet Robobot is? Actually, calling Planet Robobot "great" is doing it a disservice, for I daresay this is one of the finest Kirby adventures hitherto. None of the familiarity found in the otherwise excellent Triple Deluxe or even Return to Dream Land is present, which is all the more shocking considering this is the third consecutive Kirby sharing the same engine. After situating themselves on the 3DS via Triple Deluxe, HAL wisely took the next step by evolving the series in both gameplay and technical craft, resulting in a title just as ambitious as Return to Dream Land.

In other words, Planet Robobot fires on all cylinders from the very beginning, and that's mostly thanks to the Robobot Armor. Leftover mechs from a mechanical fleet's takeover of Popstar, Kirby's new rides imbue Copy Abilities and morph accordingly into radical transformations: Cutter equips massive sawblades, Bomb spawns miniature explosive robots, Mike produces amplified speakers, and Wheel upgrades into Kirby's own personal fortified motorbike.

It goes without saying they're massively fun to unleash, be it plowing through crowds of mechanized Dream Landers or wrecking the massive hazards (giant 8-balls!) that impede Kirby's path, but that's Unlike Return to Dream Land's Super Abilities and Triple Deluxe's Hypernova, the Robobots are constant forces in nearly every level as opposed to being reserved for the climax. No longer are we required to stop and witness the majesty of Kirby's newfound superpowers, either: as Kirby must obviously ride them, his robotic rampages actively engage both the players and the actual levels themselves.

Not that Super Abilities weren't immensely fun, either, but this means the levels continually incorporate Robobots within their actual design: we use them in everything from solving puzzles, engaging in shmup sections, and taking on mini-bosses echoing the grandeur of a Platinum Studios game, and it's never not thrilling. We witnessed Triple Deluxe tackle unique end-of-level mini-bosses as well, but I can't think of anything that was more exciting than the early-game Gigavolt fight, a giant robot flailing its springy arms about as you systemically unscrew its appendages. The Robobots aren't just exciting; they feel natural and organic.

Naturally, this sets the stage for experimentation -- we observe, for instance, the lead-ups to the lab levels involve a dynamic camera we haven't seen since Kirby 64, wrapping about their stairwells to successfully craft tension before reaching the labs' depths. Meanwhile, certain bosses shift the camera about to present pseudo-3D planes, also borrowing from Kirby 64 bosses (albeit pulling more creative tricks -- much as Whispy Woods reinvented his traditional battle there, the two iterations of Clanky Woods awes as much as Triple Deluxe's Flowery Woods in their early-game spectacle). When considering the presence of the Blowout Blast mini-game, it's clear HAL is inching ever-towards the idea of a 3D Kirby. We've been accustomed to Kirby's 2D-only adventures for so long that such an idea seemed like sacrilege, yet HAL's teases are growing ever more enticing...

Meanwhile, collectable stickers -- be they recycled Kirby artwork, crayon-scribbled characters, or even Kanji -- can be adorned upon Robobots. This is yet another evolution from Triple Deluxe, albeit yet in a "wow I never knew I wanted this" kinda way -- yes, chilling to the ever-swaying keychains was a hypnotic endeavor, but did we ever think to take them with us? While sadly the resolution of the 3DS screen obscures their presence a bit, it's still a delightful little touch; personally, I think Kirby would like to draw on the Robobots, so that's why I always went for the scribbles.

Copy Abilities are also largely winners this round. Jet and Mirror return for the first time since Kirby Super Star, and while Mirror more or less feels the same (which is welcome!), there's something about Jet that feels far more intuitive. Easily one of the wonkier abilities in Super Star, its movements feel snappier and more precise, be it the repeatable midair Jet Headbutts or the somersault spectacle of Rocket Dive. While not supplied with all sorts of new tricks in the vein of Stone or Needle, it's always humbling to witness an ancient ability upgraded for more convenient use.

As for new abilities, considering my affinity with EarthBound, it's only natural I jump into ESP first.  As the main combos revolve around teleportation and a PK Flash-inspired projectile, it's something that takes time in getting used to (particularly in gauging your teleportation distance), so it's not the most handy Copy Ability for just plowing through. When you just want to wreak havoc, however, you feel like a God as you zap about with your newfound psychic powers, particularly in dodging and countering with PK Insight's massive energy outburst. Given that it's the only new ability that has a Robobot form, it's clearly meant to be the highlight of the three, and is easily the funnest once you get the hang of it.

As expected, Doctor is adorable with its head mirror and glasses, and its inspired duality of the physical (clipboard attack!) and personalized tactics (Science Lab, which can unleash various effects) made me come back to it again and again.  Meanwhile, Poison is the easiest to use, yet it's disappointing a number of moves are directly lifted from Return to Dream Land's Water, a Copy Ability cut from the 3DS games. Thankfully there's enough moves to differentiate it -- I enjoy the poison puddles that mini-bosses are so susceptible to -- but I wish it stood out more on its own.

But even if the new copy abilities aren't the most impressive bit about Planet Robobot, the Robobot abilities can certainly make that case, which brings me to the endgame: what begins as a mouth-dropping set-piece of fanservice jet-starts what is by far the most gripping, heart-pounding final boss in all of Kirby. I dare not spoil any of its callbacks or cinematics involved, so I can only claim it is everything Kirby and the Amazing Mirror's half-baked finale desired to be: framing the gameplay in a way that not only plays well, but fuels the narrative context in what may very well be the 3DS's finest technical showpiece.

Enjoy that final boss while you can, though: 100% completion is another matter, for I daresay Planet Robobot is only surpassed by Mass Attack in difficulty for that matter. Searching for all the stickers is no small feat, and I actually can't recall if I ever found the elusive HAL rooms containing the exclusive Smash ability. Still, even those are a cakewalk relative to the wrath of The True Arena: in itself, this may very well be the most difficult endeavor in Kirby history, as never before have spacing, dodging, when to attack have been more cutthroat. It is hair-raisingly difficult, right down to the surprise 1-hit KO of the final encounter, unleashing a never-before-seen string of swears from yours truly. So demoralizing was my experience that I had to write a guide to spare others of my fate, and that it actually aided players gives me great joy.

Thankfully, the rest of the modes aren't as burdening, although not without their own trials. Meta Knightmare Returns comes back as the "what if?" take on the main adventure --  a form of nebulous canon I've adored since its Nightmare in Dream Land debut -- and is home to much of the The True Arena's more aggravating bosses. Perhaps most impressive is how HAL took careful care in applying Meta Knight in what's originally a Robobot-focused campaign: puzzles being skipped or activated via a swing of his sword are nothing new, but that bosses are retooled and that he can still unleash similarly satisfying destruction via his Meta Point abilities perhaps renders it his most successful conquest yet.

Meanwhile, Kirby 3D Rumble ditches the 3D experimentation and alright plops Kirby in 3D as he Star-Spits across isometric environments (which perhaps echoes this cancelled version of what would eventually become Return to Dream Land). While not easy to 100%, its emphasis on combos instill an addictive desire to perfectly plow enemies with Blaster Bullets. Its relative brevity is all too bittersweet, but thankfully Kirby's Blowout Blast is a downloadable thing that exists.

It's only Team Kirby Clash, a take on Japan's beloved Monster Hunter, that may not be so difficult at all, and that's okay: whereas 3D Rumble has to prove its miniature worth through dedicated practice, the meatier of the two focuses on empowering the player through level-ups. Dividing Kirbys into four roles (Sword Hero, Hammer Lord, Doctor Healmore, and Beam Mage), it emphasizes progression through mission-taking: more Kirbys join your party upon reaching levels, and earlier missions. can be replayed for EXP. Obtaining Level 10's ultimate level of strength means the replay value is low, but that's the job of 3D Rumble; here, it's reaching the end of the journey (and, well, there's nothing stopping you from making another file to replay it, or you can just purchase Team Kirby Clash Deluxe, which still keeps me busy even today).

And now we come to the soundtrack, which lies within an...interesting predicament. It's not that series Jun Ishikawa or Hirokazu Ando lost their spark or anything, and yet, despite having recently obtained the official soundtrack, I have difficulty recalling too much of it. I suspect in their complementing Planet Robobot's central machine theme via techno and chiptunes and all sorts of "mechanical" sounds, it all kinda blurs together and consequently, it's difficult to mentally sift through individual tracks as standing out. (Canvas Curse took a similar approach as well, but I imagine that game's emphasis on remixes made it easier to remember)

It's a damned shame, too, because what we do have here is nearly just as excellent as Return to Dream Land and Triple Deluxe prior. The subdued adrenaline of the Robobot Armor theme successfully serves as a rousing introduction to its destructive debut (although I'm more fond of the guitar version that plays in the final battle), whereas the various takes on techno and whatnot forge new ground for Kirby: White Office March ominously treads within the inner recesses of Haltmann Company HQ, whereas familiar Kirby themes are retooled for the laboratory levels (the Float Islands remix being by far the best, echoing a desperate pursuit I can't say I've ever encountered in Kirby).

Of course, this is Kirby, so Ando and Ishikawa are careful in channeling Kirby's innocent and playful nature throughout. This is most evident in Lovely Yellow Va-Va-Vrooms, an actively gentle little theme accompanying a city constructed of juice cartons (with sippy straws as their chimpanzees) and Waddle Dees driving about. Meanwhile, the soothing Underwater Quarter accompanies some what's perhaps Planet Robobot's most stunning setpiece in underwater cities and chandeliers resting alongside glass bottle landmarks.

The Haltmann Company Theme -- the in-game main theme for the intergalactic company threatening to take over Pop Star -- is probably Planet Robobot's most well-known song in that it's Kirby's first vocal theme -- although as it's mostly synthesized gibberish, perhaps "sing-along" would be a more fitting take. Regardless, the presence of lyrics such as "Pay and ergonomic seating, give us favors such as these!" give me great joy, and I can't help but wonder if we'll be seeing more such songs for the future.

And that we even ask that is Planet Robobot's greatest strength: any missteps in homogenized music or level pacing don't discourage its identity as not a quick n' dirty title meant to capatalize upon the closing years of 3DS, but one that legitimately pushes Kirby forward in organic level design, technical achievement (seriously, look at the CGI below; Kirby looks like vinyl!), and even world. On top of that, it's the outright funnest title I played in 2016, and as far as Kirby goes, I can't ask for anything more than that.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Case Closed: Vol 65 Review (Hey Poor Player)

My first manga review copy! Yes, VIZ was gracious enough to allow me digital review copies for their volumes, so this is the first of many to come!

Anyway, I've been following Conan's adventures for over thirteen years now, so I guess it's only fitting I start reviewing it! Finally, I'll get to share my love of Case Closed after so long! (FUNimation ceasing the anime dub still stings)

...oh yeah, I'll have to catalog these manga reviews in my Archive pages, don't I? I'll think of something for that. Anyway, expect three manga reviews next month.