Saturday, October 7, 2017

Star Fox 2 Review (Hey Poor Player)

This week just about killed me, so I wasn't able to go too in-depth in this review. Perhaps you can view this and The Beginner's Guide as two parts of a whole?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Super Nintendo Classic Review (Hey Poor Player)

Another thousand in a day. I think I'm getting better at this, but as I'm working the next two days, the Star Fox 2 one is gonna be a doozy.

Regardless, two down, one to go.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Star Fox 2 Beginner's Guide (Hey Poor Player)

That's the second time this year I've written an extroadinary amount of words (over 1700!) in one day for a Hey Poor Player article! Seeing as how I'll also be reviewing BOTH the SNES Classic and Star Fox 2 this week...well, it goes without saying Leave Luck to Heaven won't be seeing much action for a while.

By the way, this is the first guide in some time for the site. I was surprised to discover how much attention my Kirby: Planet Robobot guide for GameSkinny received after a year later, so I figured a game everyone's asking questions about would draw similar attention. Did I make the right call?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 54 ~The Great Cave Offensive: Crystal Field and Mystery Paradise~ (Kirby Super Star)

Origin: Kirby Super Star
Plays In: Crystal Field and Mystery Paradise areas of The Great Cave Offensive
Status: Arrangement
Composed by: Jun Ishikawa, Dan Miyakawa

The Super Nintendo Classic Edition is finally coming!!! In just two days, we'll be reliving twenty classics from Nintendo's greatest system, as well as the never-before released Star Fox 2! Has such a package ever blended the nostalgic and the new so perfectly? Needless to say, if you call yourself a Nintendo fan, you know you gotta get one.

But with so many incredible games featured, which one could I possibly play first? Those who know me could rule it down to two titles: EarthBound and Star Fox 2. Both are great guesses, but they aren't what I've decided upon. Humbling as it is to know EarthBound, the greatest game ever made, will be on it (let us have a moment of silence for our Japanese brothers and sisters), I know I probably won't be able to stop playing it and as I wish to play at least a little bit of every game just once, I may save it for last. I suppose that's fitting for the best game ever, yes?

Meanwhile, Star Fox 2 requires the completion of the first level in Star Fox, and while I did play the original to death over the summer in preparation, something about immediately pushing it aside in favor of the shiny unreleased sequel does I mean, I'll probably do that anyway, but I'd rather not start off my SNES Mini experience like that.

With those two out of the equation, the answer is clear: Kirby Super Star. My second favorite SNES title, the Spring Breeze and Dyna Blade sections are just compact enough in serving as a sizable introduction, so it's perfect! Not to mention, I actually haven't played it since Kirby's Dream Collection way back in 2012, so revisiting it after five years should bring quite the nostalgia trip! And, well, we all know how I feel about that game and nostalgia.

(By the way, the traffic for that specific review has been busy for about a year now. Wonder where it's coming from?)

Anyway...starting with Kirby Super Star does hold some great significance for me. For one thing, readers should know how I passionate I am about Nintendo's filters for their Virtual Console releases, and hardly any are as dismal as they are for Kirby Super Star. The emulations for Super Nintendo games are typically lauded for being squeaky-clean, but Kirby's best game was bizarrely slapped with a muted, darkened filter. What was once the system's brightest, most colorful game no longer held that title, and many new players exposed to it on VC and Kirby's Dream Collection were left none the wiser. With how much I prize the game's visuals, it's nothing less than a crying shame.

Now, that won't be the case. No filters exist on the SNES Classic Edition, and so Kirby Super Star will be as pristine as ever. With no barrier in the way, I can now calmly reflect on all the children who'll be exposed to that dreamy nostalgia, that heart-melting hypnosis as I once did.

More than that, though...there's something else I've mentioned once or twice before, and given the surprising lack of awareness around the subject, it's rather difficult to describe. Much as Kirby's Dream Collection captivated me otherwise back then, it was one of the sole oases in a year of suffering. Much of that is personal, but one big reason was the discovery many of the cartridge-based games I'd grown up with were contaminated with graphical glitches no amount of rubbing alcohol could solve. N64 polygons meshed together, pixel effects would distort in EarthBound and Super Mario RPG, and Kirby Super Star unleashed a nasty morphing white box in the corner whenever the beloved puffball would so much as move.

Needless to say, it was heartbreaking to see the childhood friends I thought I'd be with forever fall to the ravages of time, and it was a sobering lesson that nothing lasts forever. This is hardly a "me" thing: other cartridges and systems I've bought exhibited the same problems, and I've spotted identical glitches in YouTube videos, so I know it's only a matter of time before every cartridge of Kirby Super Star exhibits the exact symptoms. This is why I've been such a huge proponent of proper Nintendo emulation: with the gaming medium touching and shaping so many lives, it's vital we pay it back with the preservation it deserves.

And now, that preservation is alive and well on the SNES Classic Edition. Will my unit last forever? Probably not, but it doesn't matter: that its brand of emulation exists at all shows Nintendo is listening, and it'll likely be the standard moving forward. There are other boons for Kirby Super Star on the system -- given the obvious differences between physical and digital, I imagine the infamous clear data glitch won't present (if it wasn't already; I never went back to test that on Dream Collection) -- but knowing the game that defines magic for me will live on as intended for future generations is nothing less than a dream come true.

Final Thoughts: I can't believe the second BWM! installment of Kirby Super Star will end on the same note, but you know how I always keep talking about finding new things in that game? While looking for an embed video for this column, I read that the title screen theme for The Great Cave Offensive is actually an arrangement of Peanut Plain from Dyna Blade! HOW DO YOU KEEP DOING IT, KIRBY SUPER STAR?!?!?

Vaporum Review (Hey Poor Player)

This was a bit of a scary one to write: Vaporum isn't exactly a high-profile release, but it's still an entirely new IP, so it's unknown how the press and public will take to it until the embargo breaks and release occurs. Not that I would ever align my views to the general consensus, of course, but suppose I was the lone voice of dissent in a sea of 8s and 9s? That's certainly a bone-chilling thought.

However, it doesn't seem too many reviews are coming out for the game, and so despite my low score, I can't help but feel a little bad for the's loaded with flaws, but the passion involved certainly deserves at least one look.

I wonder if dungeon crawlers aren't for me? I did enjoy the original Pokemon Mystery Dungeon on Game Boy Advance, so I suppose it's not completely out of the question...

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Kirby: Triple Deluxe

My friends, as you all certainly learned back in 2014, we lost the Angry Kirby war. What you see above is not just the cover for American audiences, but for worldwide consumers; sadly, this includes Kirby's native homeland of Japan. Whether it be HAL's belief that this was the best way to show off the new Hypernova power or them being sick of adjusting the cover nearly every time Kirby leaves his Eastern shores, it proves he's not safe even in his home country. While the above cover is hardly among the worst Angry Kirby offenders -- that it's at least designed from the ground up renders it not nearly as awkward-- what it represents proves it won't be going away anytime soon.

Let it be reminded that Angry Kirby is an aesthetic paradox at odds with the presentation and spirit of Kirby, yet I can't think of any case more true than Kirby: Triple Deluxe,  which is such a downright pleasant game that very nearly reaches the heights of Epic Yarn, Dream Land 3 and Rainbow Curse. This is not an exaggeration; every time we start the game, the main menu greets us with an assortment of blue skies, vines hosting collectible keychains of old Kirby sprites dangling accordingly to the 3DS's gyroscope, and a mandolin-accompanied arrangement of the gentle Save Hut theme from Kirby Super Star. Coaxing us into that warm, heart-gooey nostalgia that traps us into reverie, we're immediately at home.

More than that, though, what comes to mind is the opening cinematic; to be specific, the first half. Here, we witness a day in the life of Kirby within a Kirby Super Star-inspired landscape, be it coasting the sunset seas on a Warpstar, napping under shade after a snack, or simply drifting along the endless skies of Dream Land. It is absolutely, undeniably pleasant; impossible to watch without breaking out into the warmest of smiles (in my case, if only for the fact that these were the very same scenarios I'd imagined Kirby's daily life would be as a young boy).

That should promise nothing but good things, yet how does the actual game fare? Let's get the obvious out of the way in admitting this is, more or less, Kirby's Return to Dream Land squeezed into 3DS software. This is not surprising in the least: the Wii game provided the perfect template to not merely match Kirby's 90's prowess but to perhaps even surpass, and maintaining that quality requires continuing that direction. Triple Deluxe emulates this model to much success, albeit at the risk of familiarity that undercuts its strengths.

Most of the game's Copy Abilities, for instance, return. The 3DS ergonomics serve them well, although they arrive with reduced movesets. This isn't inherently a terrible thing: 3DS limitations were likely the culprit, and it's not like their flexibility was drastically reduced in functionality; Beam Kirby, for instance, can no longer repeatedly Whip in the air, but that has little bearing on its status as an especially well-rounded ability.

Meanwhile, the new Copy Abilities vary in quality. Beetle and Archer feel wonderfully natural and excel in their respective uses: Beetle's aerial prowess and snaring horn provide a compelling alternative to Sword, whereas Archer's animations -- ever wanted to see Kirby crawling about in camouflage? -- perhaps render it the best of his long-range abilities. At the same time, Circus takes an interesting turn in being slightly less intuitive, what with the arcs of the fire hoop jumps and all. Perhaps owed to the unpredictability of its clownish theme, that doesn't make its moves any less fun to watch or unleash, what with burning anti-air batons and exploding balloon animals in the shape of series icons.

The Bell ability is, alas, the one stinker: aside from feeling arbitrarily chosen, the moveset feels as cobbled together as its concept, and its slow range of attacks -- coupled with their general inability to link together cohesively -- don't render it very much fun at all.

Things get a bit more nebulous with with Kirby's Hypernova ability, Triple Deluxe's central feature. At the very least, we can't dismiss it for not making sense! Kirby did, after all, start off not with copying foes but with sucking things up; why not build upon that with a swirling tornado of death? In putting Kirby's deadly suction on the spotlight, we find ourselves at a grimly amusing parallel to the aforementioned sugary sweetness; indeed, trees and trains fall prey to his path of destruction, but we're helpless in watching those poor, poor Waddle Dees hang on in vain for dear life before they disappear into the abyss of Kirby's stomach.

They are hardly alone in the marshmallow's rampage -- I think of the slithering, pulsating giant eels as their slimy brown lengthiness gets slurped up, and boy did that just sound wrong -- but it is terrifying all the same. Once again, it is the series' innate adorableness that prevents it from being a horror title, but man, does it come close to violating that cuteness. More than any other Kirby game, we ask ourselves a question that will never be answered: just where does all that stuff go? Perhaps it's best that remains a mystery, as the real answer may be even more terrifying...
And yet, I can't but feel it's not as engaging as Return to Dream Land's Super Abilities, or even Planet Robobot's later utilization of mechs. Yes, it is fun to watch -- not the least of which is owed to a hysterical showdown climax between Kirby and the final boss -- but it's not as much fun as it is to play. Perish the thought that it is boring -- the game remembers to incorporate mid-boss fights and puzzles and the like alongside it, my favorite involving building a family of snowmen -- but even despite its presentation, it never feels quite as involved or thrilling. Even now, I struggle in pointing out why; perhaps it's that it's -- more less -- repeating the "super awesome ability destroys everything in sight" from Return to Dream Land, as opposed to creating something totally original like Planet Robobot.

Familiarity, then, is the cause, even as we cannot pick a bone with the level design as well. Generally on the same level as the Wii predecessor, Kirby: Triple Deluxe recognizes it cannot merely rely on the Hypernova's flashiness to captivate us, and so it resorts to an obvious solution. Like Super Mario 3D Land before it, Triple Deluxe remembers it is on a console designed around depth perception, and so 3D it shall be. Not 3D in capturing our eyes with screen-protruding effects found in the system's earlier hits of 3D Land and Star Fox 64 3D, but in proving its worth as a game.

The ensuing results in one of the more playful level design within Kirby, with Warp Stars transporting our hero from foreground to foreground, deadly pillars swerving in and out of the background to crush our hero, and 3D Laser Bars and Helmet Cannons decimating distant enemies. Not that Triple Deluxe doesn't take the opportunity to have fun with our eyes -- I think of the mechanical hands pressing poor Kirby against the screen, or the ghastly tricks found in Lollipop Land's haunted mansion -- and even that prove just how much fun the developers had in discovering this new concept. Even the 3DS gyroscope join in on the fun, partaking in puzzles that have you tilting water bowls and aiming missiles. 

Bosses, too, take advantage of this 3D in stunning ways. The game's very first boss in Flowery Woods instantly comes to mind, whose foreground/background switching antics and giant swerving vines render it the series' best variation of the "evil giant tree" fight until maybe Planet Robobot's two years later. Other bosses provide compelling set-pieces -- Triple Deluxe is also host to the best Kracko fight in the series, and a certain callback to Canvas Curse pulls all the stops in 3D trickery -- but that the first boss makes such an impression promises nothing but good things.

So with all these highs, what is there to critique, then? Let us not make the same mistake as IGN and blame it on easy difficulty; as every Kirby fan knows, it's not getting to the ending that's the challenge, but finding and accomplishing everything there is to offer. The game hits all the right notes for Kirby, so it hardly seems fair to cite familiarity to knock down something so cozy.

Regardless, familiarity there is, and I can't help but notice just how much it feels like Return to Dream Land right down to the music. Not that, of course, because it is boring; really, it's just that Hirokazu Ando and Jun Ishikawa bring yet another A-level effort to the series that's only marred by a couple misfires. Naturally, the good stuff is enough to ignore the bad stuff: this Floral Fields theme is too adorable for words, and I can't quite think of anything else in the series that matches the mischievous darkness of Mysterious Trap.

True to the pleasantness I was discussing earlier, the game just excels at that, my favorite being the nostalgically chill keychain theme, which I could probably listen to for hours in-game were it not for a certain mishap I'll detail in a moment. Tilting the World -- the puzzle theme -- is similarily airy, as are the gorgeous callbacks to Kirby Super Star's Peanut Plains or the Helper to Hero rest area (kudos to subtly including the heart-melting Dream Collection music for those who missed it).

Discussing Triple Deluxe's OST cannot possibly exclude the climax, which maybe the very best sequence of endgame music in all of Kirby. Moonlight Capital and Beautiful Prison both accompanying the very last levels with critical, heart-pounding urgency, the reprise of the Masked Dedede theme coupled with the tough and steady Revenge of the Enemy for King Dedede's possession, and the ever-morphing range of themes for the final boss, not the least of which is the series' very first vocal theme in the form of Moonstruck Blossom. Eerie and tragic, it stands as the most memorable of Queen Sectonia's musical assemble despite not concluding her battle, as not since 02's Theme way back in Kirby 64: The Crystal Shard was there a final boss theme this powerful.

Like Return to Dream Land, however, there is the occasional miss: I suspect the ultimate key in deciphering Hypernova's underwhelming-ness lies in its accompanying theme, which is a little too cute and doesn't provide enough oomph. I'm also not fond of how both the menu theme and the chill keychain theme fall prey to one of my gaming pet peeves: "celebrating" the player's completion by replacing the default menu theme with a more upbeat theme (in their respective cases, a direct rip of the "celebration" theme from Return to Dream Land and a guitar version of the Hypernova theme that appears late-game. The latter is interesting in despite my criticism of the original version, the superiority of this arrangement doesn't void the fact it's wildly unfitting for what's supposed to be a reflective segment, and that I would never hear the original song again left me rather salty). 

But let us stop nitpicking, for Triple Deluxe brings an incredibly solid pair of sub-games, with Kirby Fighters being possibly the best in series history. Playing as a miniature Smash Bros. of sorts, Kirbys sporting various Copy Abilities get together and wallop each other in familiar locations, be they King Dedede's boxing ring (as it appeared in Kirby Super Star Ultra) or the birch trees of Dream Land 3, all the while familiar items from Kirby Air Ride and even Kirby's Dream Land join the frenzy.

As you'd expect, it's amazingly fun, and it's all certainly owed to HAL Laboratory being the progenitors of Smash. What they remember is to give Kirby Fighters its own identity: we can certainly trace the usage of movement, items, and chaos to the famous crossover series, yes, but there's none of the blast zones that define Smash's gameplay. Stages are kept insular, with the focus on beating the tar outta each other as opposed to a king-of-the-hill model.

We could cite some of the balancing design in the Copy Abilities' transition, but really, it's how the player-tailored concessions also echoing Smash that render it a winner. The variety in stage design ensures not every battlefield are realms of chaos, as the neutral, three-platform plains of Flower Field offer a nice cool-down from the hammer robots of Kirby 64's factory. Meanwhile, the Ghost Kirby mechanic, which grants players a second chance after being felled, not only recalls the "never forget the beginner" philosophies of Kirby and Smash, but instills hysterical madcap play as Ghost players chase after alive ones to revive themselves. Best of all? They can be turned off, so Kirby Fighters is truly a mode that can be tailor-made for anyone.

Really, it's the first sub-game I recall having this much content, paving the way for Dedede Drum Dash complementing with a lighter experience. A more single-player affair, this rhythm-based drum game is accordingly designed as a challenge, as evidenced by how I've yet to Platinum all the songs. Despite the emphasis on drums, much of the music channels that ever-cuddly Kirby cuteness through recorder arrangements, infuriating us all the more as we stumble into spiky Gordos or fall down a pit. It's little wonder both games eventually received downloadable expansion!

(By the way, anyone else notice Dedede's eyes They're spread a little too far apart, giving him this rather stern look that reminds one of Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show. It's a shame since Triple Deluxe generally nails the fluffy aesthetic of Kirby, but at least he finally gets his own Meta Knightmare-esque mode!)

In summary, Kirby: Triple Deluxe is a game that comes this close to achieving the upper-most echelons of Kirby, yet falls just short in familiarity. Whether or not this was inevitable I can't say: the Return to Dream Land engine may be the perfect model to build upon, but it takes more than 3D hijinks and content-filled sub-games to forge an absolute, individual identity. Difficult as it is to describe, for all its efforts in differentiating itself, it somehow feels a little too comfortable in coasting on Return to Dream Land's success.

But does it matter? Nay, any nitpicks don't rebuff the fact this is an incredibly solid entry, one that's just so damn pleasant to bask in all its sweetness. Sure, maybe the keychain theme shift is upsetting, but what's to stop me from starting another file and collect all but one? It's there, cast under a hypnotic lullaby where  I'm slowly rotating their shapes and slowly swaying them about via gyroscope, that I remember why I play Kirby in the first place.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 53 ~Now or Never!~ (Splatoon)

Origin: Splatoon
Plays In: Last minute of a Turf War match
Status: Original Composition
Composed By:
Toru Minegishi

A new Nintendo Direct is upon us!! In less than three hours, we'll be basking in the afterglow of newly-announced Nintendo games, all contained in a 45-minute package. We'll certainly see that "multiplayer action" 3DS Kirby game, and Super Mario Odyssey is confirmed for an appearance, but that's hardly a fraction of what's to come. Will we see more of the Kirby and Yoshi Switch games? Is Retro Studios' next game finally around the corner? Is this possible mistake a hint towards Super Smash Bros. for Switch, something I should've put behind me some time ago? Oh, the suspense is too much!

Much in the same way E3 is Christmas for video game fans, we Nintendo fans feel the same about these mouth-watering Nintendo Directs. Announced out of the blue and typically with only two days to spare, our minds race at the possibilities of what's to come. Sure, there's been a disappointing Direct here and there, but how packed this holiday season and even early 2018 are, there's little reason this Direct will leave us with frowns.

Naturally, there's little else to do besides mentally clock down the time. Or work. Or take a walk. Or write a blog post about what it's like to clock down the time while comparing it to an adrenaline-packed Splatoon song. Yes, it's all about Splatoon 2 now, but I don't think that game's countdown theme holds a candle to the original: just feel the pressure coursing through your veins the moment that guitar kicks in.

They say the more you grow older, the more reserved you become when you anticipate things. This is true, but I've come to realize this is only a facade. I remain a starry-eyed kid it comes to new trailers of Mario, Kirby and Smash Bros., I count down the days for the next trip to NYC, and I never thinking about when I'll next get to see my niece and nephew. The Miyamoto quote underneath this blog's title rings true more than ever: I'm just a big kid eager to rip open my next Christmas present.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course; after all, us video game folk are a highly-excitable bunch, so I'm hardly alone in my hype. My anticipation just proves my love for video games remains strong after nearly twenty years, and with my counting down the days until Metroid: Samus Returns (two days!) and the SNES Classic Edition (sixteen days!), the thrill of waiting, hyping and eventual bliss will remain a never-ending cycle.

Final Thoughts: Oh, and naturally I'll be covering the multiple announcements on Hey Poor Player. As the probably of eye-catching announcements is high, I may take the opportunity to discuss them here!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Coming Soon: Worldy Weekend Pages!

Hey, all! With Sonic the Hedgehog, Worldly Weekend has finally reached its tenth installment, and with that goal comes some changes. Those who frequent The Archives may've noticed Worldly Weekend -- as in, all the non-Nintendo reviews -- doesn't have its own dedicated section/page, instead being laid out with a simple list of reviews. Obviously, I can't keep that going forever, so I've decided it's finally time to divide it into its own pages!

This will work much like the pages for my Nintendo reviews in that they'll separated via System, Chronology, and Series. The first two will operate identically to the Nintendo version, although with how many one-off games there are out there, I can't just separate, say, J-Stars Victory Vs+ underneath its own series logo, so I'll be coming up with ways to divide such games for the Series section.

(Oh, wait, Nintendo has many titles like that too, don't they? I'll think of something for that when the times comes...)

In any case, you can expect the new pages to arrive throughout the week. Watch this space for further updates!

September 2nd Update: All finished! Busy week, so it took a little longer than I expected. Enjoy!

Wordly Weekend: Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)

Imagine, if you will, blast processing. Not that any sane individual would be able to define what exactly it meant -- for the uninformed, it was a tacky marketing buzzword to describe the speedy processing of Sega Genesis -- but doesn't it just sound cool as all hell? To the young consumers of the 16-bit era, it was a nebulous term that exuded an impressionable coolness, undoubtedly due to how it rolled off the tongue and was an easy referral to why the Genesis' graphics were so good. Or how its games were so fast. Or whatever.

Naturally, the poster boy for this gimmick would also match said coolness; hence Sonic the Hedgehog, featuring a cocky animal mascot of the same name, an acidic blend of colors and backgrounds and, most of all, an emphasis on speed. Billed as the fastest thing alive, Sonic the Hedgehog was designed to surpass Super Mario through lightning-fast running, setting the portly plumber's meticulous platforming to shame via eye-catching movement. On a surface level, the concept is, in retrospect, something only designed to impress a 90's audience through the 90's philosophy of "too cool for school" appeal to kids through eye-bleeding use of 90's aesthetics and character design.

In case I didn't hammer it in enough, Sonic the Hedgehog is something that should be a 90's product that, upon remembrance, induces only the most chilling of shudders (think Bubsy the Bobcat). And yet, it worked; in fact, it still works. Let us set aside the irony of Sonic's horrid fall from grace in 3D and focus instead on his glorious Genesis era: what the original Sonic games remember is not to use the thrill of speed as gimmick, but instead rewarding the player through how they utilize Sonic's running. The better your align platforming skills with your control of speed, the more rings you'll nab and Special Stages you'll find and loop-de-loops to run through to keep your momentum going.

There are those who believe all three -- or four, if you count Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles as separate entities -- of Sonic's original Genesis adventures rank among some of the best 2D platformers ever made. Myself, while I'm quick to place the latter three on that podium, I'm hesitant to include the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Yes, it's certainly the most iconic -- only Sonic the Hedgehog 2 might rival it in that area --- but I wouldn't say it possesses the same highs as its successors. It's just simply a solid platformer; a pretty great start that, while being the inception of a beloved series, would soon be eclipsed by its far superior sequels.

Not that it's not understandable why some think that way. Let us not chalk it up to nostalgia and instead get to the most obvious reason: Green Hill Zone, serving as both the opening and best part of the game. All three acts serve as genuinely incredible tutorials to what would eventually become the DNA of Sonic: split paths. Very rarely is Sonic ever played the same way, as the better your platforming/dashing skills are, you'll generally gravitate towards the upper echelons of every level, where rewards and goodies await you. The poorer you are, however -- be it mistimed jumps or falling prey to collapsible ground -- you sink lower and lower, and momentum halts just like that.

To complement this, all of Green Hill Zone's acts feel appropriately huge: there's springs and bonus monitors hidden within palm trees and rocks, breakable walls to plow through, and extra life monitors tantalizingly placed on towering shuttle loops, Other levels do this too, of course, but hardly any instill the same "how do I do that?" curiosity as, say, reaching that monitor on the shuttle loop. You stop, go back, and carefully scan the landscape beforehand to discover the path on top. (If possible, anyway; the famous Spin Dash move would debut in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, so you'll need to get enough momentum through Sonic's running to pass back through the shuttle loop, and that's only if the level design allows it. If not, better luck next time!)

Through your success, maybe you realize it makes for a shortcut, and that's when the genius of Sonic the Hedgehog reveals itself: you'll naturally want to do better through all the teases Green Hill Zone laces throughout the acts, or to avoid the momentum-killing bottom floors to maintain a consistent pace, or to maintain enough rings so we can enter the Special Zones. Practice becomes inevitable through the miracle of a one-button set-up, and so it feels measurably disciplined and comfortable to play.
And then you get to Marble Zone, and things slow down a little. Not that it's bad; the puzzle-solving on display is well-made for what it is, but its plodding nature is ill-suited for Green Hill Zone's multi-tiered design to translate over, and it's quick to deflate the speedy high we just had. It meanders off to do its own, and again, it's hardly bad, but it's that Green Hill Zone was just so interesting that it can hardly compare to its level of depth.

Needless to say, Sega and Sonic Team were still figuring out what made Sonic work, but they hadn't quite nailed what made it work best. For example, the later Starlight and Scrap Brain zones are perhaps the levels closest to matching Green Hill Zone's magic, but overtly gimmicky stages like Spring Yard Zone's barrage of springs and bumpers and Labryinth Zone's mazes meander off to do their own thing. Again, not bad, but their respective gimmicks feel forced, and Starlight and Scrap Brain arrival towards the game's end means we're stuck with "just fine" levels for some time.

The boss encounters with Dr. Robotnik -- or "Eggman," as he would eventually become known -- are also uneven in quality. The ball-and-chain duel in Green Hill Zone is deceptively simple--well, okay, it is simple, but far too often does it fool cocky players into thinking they won't get hit by the slow arc of Robotnik's wrecking ball, and so we must implement a certain timing to fell the mad doctor. Meanwhile, concluding the game is him basically playing hide-and-seek in pistons, and while the "no ring" concept does provide a decent challenge, it's not at all what you'd expect from a final boss fight

This incongruity extends even to the Special Zones, which marry a tedious, frustrating exercise to collect Chaos Emeralds (tilting Sonic about in an ever-rotating maze, wha?) to...enchantingly bizarre backgrounds. Like, I don't even have the words to describe what's going on above, as screenshots fail to capture the hallucinogenic sight of polygonal birds turning into fishes turning into birds. That this would not be the most bizarre sight in Sonic perhaps implies there's something unwell with the folks at Sonic Team, but let's not dwell on the future just yet; after all, it's not like they're soul-crushing betrayals to the kid-friendly values of SoniOKAY I'LL STOP

Anyway, that brings me to my next point: much as the next games' use of color would stand the test of time, Sonic the Hedgehog does...not. Again, Green Hill Zone is exempt thanks to its luscious use of greens and blues, but they begin to rely too much on acidic purples and yellows and it all begins to mesh together into a rather oudated look. Only Starlight Zone with its twinkly black nightline sky feels like a reprieve, and outside of a couple backgrounds flirting with the "industrial city" look, even then most of them don't feel particularly inspired.

Make no mistake, though: much as the colors try to convince otherwise, Sonic the Hedgehog's still impressive to look at. The use of parallax scrolling is really what makes the speed come to life: both the foreground and the backgrounds move accordingly, but it remembers to highlight the former to properly emulate Sonic buzzing by; in turn, this allows the latter's scope to flourish in slowly (but not to slowly) move along to emphasize that, yes, you're only exploring just one portion of the world you're in, and it feels that much bigger.

Ask anyone what they remember the most from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, however, and the answer will likely be the music. Masato Nakamura, an emerging musician at the time, designed its tunes for the goal of humming along to (alongside more cinematic reasons, but we'll just focus on that aspect), and it works in spades. Green Hill Zone is the most iconic Sonic theme for a reason, its lighthearted infectiousness rendering impossible not to listen to without getting nostalgic.

Even more than that, it's how Nakamura gets Sonic even when Sega was figuring the game out themselves. Marble Zone may be too slow for Sonic, but that doesn't stop Nakamura from applying an equally slow theme that complements it perfectly, urging the player ever onward with its steady beat. Meanwhile, a level as flashy and jumpy as Spring Yard Zone must demand an addictive earworm that I find the need to clap to even though I'm holding a controller.

Yet as successful as he was in designing climatic themes for the game in the boss theme or Scrap Brain Zone, it's the latter that establishes Sonic's identity as a light-hearted affair. As "cool" as Sonic is, edginess and sassy characters will hardly do in an attempt to defeat Mario, so it must remain a cheery adventure at heart through presentation. Scrap Brain Zone's theme echoes this in its alternation between opening with a foreboding mechanical beat and concluding with a heroically upbeat groove, as if to say "you're almost there! You can do it!"

In the end, did Sonic beat Mario? As far the first game goes, no, but it didn't need to: it laid the groundwork for sequels that could very well make that case, with most any missteps quickly recognized and cast aside. And that counts for a hell of a lot.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii)

Note: While this isn't the original version of Twilight Princess, since the Wii version was the one released first and remains the only one I've played, this will serve as the "main" review of the game for this blog. Reviews for the GameCube version and the Wii U remaster are scheduled for the future.

Within the bowels of the The Legend of Zelda fandom lies a little theory known as the "Zelda Cycle," a belief pushed by those who cannot comprehend anyone not liking the newest Zelda game. The theory goes in how people will unreasonably lob hate against the latest Zelda title, comparing its mishaps to the impeccable heights of the previous entry despite that game suffering from the same treatment at release. No one quite knows why this cycle of people magically changing their minds  takes place -- it may have to do with overzealous keyboard warriors unable to discern they're reading different opinions from different people over time -- but regardless, it's a rather pervasive theory, right down to being referenced by Nintendo's top brass themselves in an Iwata Asks installment.

If my biting sarcasm wasn't telling enough, I think the Zelda Cycle is a load of bollocks. The idea that Zelda games are prone to hosting some sort of nebulous hivemind is nothing less than fanboy drivel, and that aforementioned Iwata Asks thing is one of the more notable examples of second-hand Nintendo embarrassment. True, we could make an exception for The Wind Waker, but only in the case that people cooled on the controversial graphics switch over time; much as I love it, the game received plenty of legitimate criticism upon release.

And yet, I can't help but admit I've never been able to nail my feelings on 2006's Twilight Princess, the series' best-selling game despite being one of its more divided entries. Bear in mind this opinion has never fluctuated wildly, but...well, I'll let the evolution of my 11-year thought process speak for itself:

Upon Completion in 2006: "Well, that was pretty good, I suppose."

A Year Later: " know, actually, that was kinda disappointing."

Upon Replaying it in 2009: "Hmm, actually, this is better than I remember it being."

Upon a 100% Completion Replay Last Year:
"Eh, it's good, I guess."

So perhaps there is some mystical force responsible for my lukewarm feelings towards Twilight Princess, but regardless, that they exist at all is something I admit with the heaviest of hearts: can you imagine anything more soul-crushing than the game responsible for the greatest reaction in E3 history causing such a divided reaction? This is, after all, the Zelda game practically every Western fan wanted: a realistic Zelda echoing Lord of the Rings aesthetics and a brooding story, and for it to miss the mark still makes me feel...neutral? It's hard to describe.

Let us make this clear: any notions of Twilight Princess being "bad" should be immediately dispelled -- there is a considerable amount of things I enjoy about it, in fact, and I will absolutely call them to attention -- yet there are undeniably bad things in it that not only undermine what should be a legitimately spectacular game into merely a good one, but are largely embryonic in what would devolve into Zelda's worst habits. Much of Twilight Princess' strongest moments are isolated, surrounded by a sea of deafening bloat that smothers any ambitions it so rightly deserves.

There's really no better place to start than at the game's beginning, and it's here I ask the reader what comes to mind regarding Zelda's great opening sequences. Undoubtedly, you have the rainstorm prelude in A Link to the Past, the dreamy mystery of Link's Awakening, the giddy experimentation in Breath of the Wild, and Kokiri Forest's snappy introduction in Ocarina of Time. Majora's Mask and The Wind Waker likely wouldn't rank among said openings, as those were when Zelda began elongating intros for the sake of context, yet even those could be defended on the grounds that they're neither patronizing nor pointless.

Twilight Princess's opening is, sadly, both of those things, choosing to crank up its own beginning by forcing you to spend three days inside a sleepy little village and experience all of its mundane routines. It should be reminded that out of those three days, the first two bear little to no importance in how they force poor Link into herding cows, cat-searching, fishing, rescuing baby cradles, testing your new slingshot or solving monkey kidnappings.

Admittedly, not all of these are terrible -- herding cows while riding Epona makes for an entertaining mini-game, at least -- but they are only brief, faint flashes of enjoyment in a never-ending swamp of boringness. The duality of the cat-searching/fishing strikes as an immediate down-point: you have to fish for a cat to send it home, see, but the game neglects to mention you have to do this twice, and I still recall begging that cat to eat the greengill I'd just caught. As dedicated readers should know, if I am not enjoying anything involving cats, you are undoubtedly doing something wrong. (On a related note, as we're discussing the Wii version, this particular segment is compounded by awful, unintuitive fishing controls I still can't get the hang of a decade later, although thankfully it's the only time the motion controls reach such a nadir)

Needless to say, the Ordon Village segment is hardly anything more than a convoluted mess of errands and fetch quests -- would you believe the cat fishing thing concludes a particularly tangled order of events just to obtain a slingshot? -- and yet it's amazing how much of that seeps into the rest of the game. Even when stuff finally happens on the third day --  mainly Link's transformation into a wolf and the introductions of Midna and Princess Zelda -- it insists you partake on tedious bug hunts and the like.

Consequently, Twilight Princess' padding suffocates not merely the pacing but dulls the impact from whaty are incredibly effective moments. Take the meeting with Faron, the very first Spirit of Light you encounter: a chilling choir greets the Faron Woods' freedom from twilight, the camera panning over Link's granting of the iconic green garb we fell in love with all those years ago. Finally, we're about to dive into the sword-swinging action we've been craving since 2004...only to be deflated shortly afterwards when we enter the Forest Temple, which holds the honor of simultaneously being the first and worst dungeon in the game, largely not due to being anything more than hunting down monkeys.

The first entry into Hyrule Field also stumbles. While the kingdom is several times bigger than it was in Ocarina of Time, it cannot hope to emulate that awe-inducing feeling we felt back in 1998, as the grand scope is shortly cut off by another bug hunt, which I neglected to give context to before. See, much of Hyrule is drowned in Twilight thanks to the Twilight King's invasion, and only through destroying the Shadow Insects within can you obtain enough Tears of Light to dispel the shadowy fog plaguing Hyrule. A decent enough context, but it's married to gameplay not suited for Zelda: they're tedious, tiresome scavenger hunts that go on and on, and while Skyward Sword was the first Zelda advertised as having level-based progression zones and whatnot, these segments are embryonic of an overtly linear, railroaded system that doesn't match with Zelda's exploration at all (the worst being by far the one for the Lanaryu region; perhaps it's just me, but I've never been able to make sense of the interconnected mazes of rivers and lakes, and I always get lost).

To summarize, it's all blatant, exhaustive padding that not only deters replays but undermines the introductions of their respective locations (and not just because they're all drowned within a boring aesthetic, but we'll get to that later) . I won't deny there are highlights -- the grim sheltering of the survivors of Kakariko Village in twilight is appropriately chilling, and the Goron sumo-wrestling bits, sabotaged as they are by all the backtracking, are joyfully absurd to watch and engage in, not the least in how they come out of nowhere -- but that even awesome moments like the Bridge of Eldin duel are clumsily inserted within all this backtracking is just all the more frustrating.

The point isn't to say Twilight Princess isn't utterly blameless outside of its padding -- we'll get to its other mishaps as we go along -- but the deluge of of tutorials and handholding and whatnot make it a lot harder to appreciate what it does do right. The swordplay, for one; while hardly a difficult game, I can think of few Zelda games on par with or surpass Twilight Princess in terms of quality sword control. There's a great heft to every slice, and that I say this despite the presence of Wii controls is something of a miracle. Not that I'm opposed to motion controls or anything, but a gyro-based control scheme from 2006 is hardly going to be as impressive in 2017, and make no mistake: it does feel a little clunky by today's standards (and the less we say about the "thank god I can turn this gimmicky shit off" in the form of Midna's cackling from the speakers, the happier I'll be), but the distinct pleasure of moving your arms around to initiate sword slicing and shielding is undeniable. Even the Navi pointer on-screen is surprisingly unobtrusive, and it too can be turned off.

Really, when you're not being bogged down by worthless drivel, Twilight Princess does feel great to play. Look no further than horseback riding: Twilight Princess's iteration of Epona remains the series highpoint, surpassing the acceptable clunkiness, Ocarina of Time and avoiding the surprising stiffness of Breath of the Wild. The controls are on point, the horse feeling substantially weighty and thrilling horseback sword battles abound. (I only just wish the Horse Call came far earlier than it did; as anyone who's played the game knows, relying on stray patches of Horse Grass to summon your horse is hardly ideal)

This also extends to the items, although the missteps are present here as well. Not because of any motion control mishaps, mind; if anything, I suspect the comparisons to Spider-Man via the Double Hookshots come from all the manual pointing and aiming. But as cool as new items like the Ball and Chain and the Spinner are, Twilight Princess makes the mistake of only utilizing them within their respective dungeons as opposed to rendering them as organic tools that continually complement the world around Link. Yes, there are quick puzzles decorating the overworld here and there, but they're more or less dumped after their respective dungeons.

But those dungeons! Those are where Twilight Princess is at its A-game. Forest Temple aside, much of the dungeons evoke the best of the organic Zelda dungeon design and "wow" moments, be they the gravity-defying magnetism of Goron Mines, the "oh, wait, this is a dungeon?" for a certain location in Snowpeak or the nostalgia-fueled setting behind the sixth dungeon. Most feel appropriately huge, and with how often these dungeons bank themselves on awe and surprise, it's wonderful how often it genuinely, honestly works.

One example from the sandy depths of Arbiter's Grounds readily comes to mind. Hailing from my first playthrough, I was navigating a room impeded by falling chandeliers, with one particular road obstructed by a chain-activated candelabrum. Pulling the chain to raise it up, I quickly dashed across the bridge before it fell down, but it was too late: I yelped as the rickety structure came crashing down...yet I wasn't dead. Spotting a small indent on the floor, I deduced that since it was too quick otherwise, the entire point was to let it fall around me. A more observant player might've figured that out ahead of time, but I can hardly recall any other puzzle that so quickly shifted fear into an "aha!" moment.

In terms of general engrossment, however, Lakebed Temple and City in the Sky are the obvious highlights, what with how they engage the player in gradually shifting their geography through waterslides and falling towers. All are initiated through the Clawshot, which have Link zipping across both dungeons and instill a true "hands-on" sense of satisfaction in altering your surroundings. And let us not forget their thrilling boss fights of giant eels and armored dragons, which have you riding for dear life within deep watery grottos and treacherous rainy skies.

It's a shame Twilight Princess only shines in segmented locations, too, as I do like what this iteration of Hyrule is trying to do. Yes, it is rather empty, but let us not dismiss its more inspired concepts; namely, the labyrinths. Interconnected throughout Hyrule, these mazes are blindingly dark, haunted by Skulltulas and endless pits, and only through careful use of your lantern will you successfully navigate their depths. It's the one element of the overworld that comes across as an organic component, and I'd certainly would've liked to experience more challenging terrain akin to those.

And yet, I can't help but notice just how lame the civilizations are. I'm not going to sit here and pretend the likes of Goron City or Dragon Roost Island accurately depicted lived-in cities, but surely they were better than the one-room circles that house the Gorons and Zoras! This game's iterations of Kakariko Village and Hyrule Castle Town might provide better arguments here, but the former remains its most dismal iteration to date: a boring, dusty canyon town that, context aside, is utterly lifeless.

 There lies the source of Twilight Princess's sluggishness. I cannot claim it is entirely full of ugly sights -- the towering emptiness of Morpheel's lair after its' defeat, for one, or the gloomy melancholy of the Lost Woods -- but so much of the game's aesthetic lies within dull, washed out colors that often settle for hues of brown, and it's never very enthralling to look at. While it's understandable that bold colors wouldn't be emphasized within a realistic-driven title -- it's not as if Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask were particularly colorful, either --- it's hard to get caught up visually when so much of it looks this inert, and I figure this is why the Twilight Realms feel as sluggish as they do.

The character designs also suffer in their attempt to carry over Zelda-esque figures. Consider how we've had some goofy-looking designs in the past (with occasional missteps; look no further than the portly women NPCs in Ocarina of Time), but they generally served the purposes of their respective artstyles; namely, Tingle in Majora's Mask and the snot-filled Zill in The Wind Waker. Twilight Princess forgets that if you just carry this on within a realistic direction without a hint of irony, you're going to have some real grotesque-looking figures.This isn't to say there aren't some inspired concepts -- that the Goron Elders house steaming miniature volcanoes on their backs is too cool -- but it's not that uncommon encountering characters which look like this:

or run across critters that I cannot imagine were created as anything but the most eye-burning of nightmare fuel, as evidenced by Link's expression at meeting Ooccoo.

Really, it's hard not to see where one's distaste with the artstyle would hail from. It wouldn't be until Breath of the Wild that Nintendo would find a nice middle ground between colorful fantasy and grounded character design, but alas, that took some eleven years...

Even the music is only memorable in fragmented occasions, and it kinds of breaks my heart to say that. Toru Minegishi heads the soundtrack with Asuka Ohta -- and the legendary Koji Kondo supervising -- and when they do nail it, they nail it: the utter despair of Midna's Theme/Midna's Lament, the chilling power of the Light Spirit theme, and the heartpounding finale of the Final Boss theme. (I'd also cite the sheer adventure of the Hyrule Field theme, but as evidenced by the Wii U remaster and Super Smash Bros. Brawl's rip, it was obviously constrained by system limitations)

But they're surrounded by songs that don't evoke much of anything. I have earlier praised atmospheric songs in Zelda, but the problem with Twilight Princess it focuses too much on that particular direction and not many of the songs stick to memory. One can see this in, say, the dungeons: the previous Zelda games interchangeably used atmospheric and songs with a stronger melody to create a stunning ear-grabbing blend of ambience. Compare the haunting hypnosis of Ocarina of Time's Forest Temple to Twilight Princess's iteration and note which one absorbs you more. Only City in the Sky matches this quality very late into the game, and it's disappointing nothing else even so much as echoes this quality.

It's all enough to make one walk away from Twilight Princess not feeling much of anything, even when considering all the good things it accomplishes. Running around in the wolf form is cool, for instance, and I like the attacks involved with it, but that so much of it is associated with the boring Twilight Realms renders it "eh". Even the story falls into this trap, as what should otherwise be a strong tale is imbalanced through the strength of its characters. I enjoy seeing Colin grow via his admiration for Link, for instance, but I struggle in recalling the names and personalities of the Resistance members. The yetis are adorably hilarious and absolutely make the fifth dungeon, but I care not for the Zora prince Ralis and his grief, which can be chalked up to his precious little screen time.

In particular, I can't help but note the balance between the two Twili. Anyone can agree Midna is a fiercely engaging sidekick to the extent one could even say she's the true protagonist of this Zelda, yet I cannot help but feel Zant is wasted as a villain. Unlike many, I'm actually rather fond of the personality shift in his last appearance, but only in concept; juxtaposed with the calm ruthlessness displayed beforehand, it's far too abrupt and I've never been convinced it was a facade all along. Had there been some effective foreshadowing beforehand, I'd likely think differently. (That he gets sidelined by a certain other villain is also unfortunate, but I'm already too deep in spoiler territory as it is)

There are other things I enjoy in isolation. Naturally, I enjoy the emphasis on cats being Hyrule's animal of choice this time around, and take great amusement in one particular sidequest involving a wild west showdown. Despite what I mentioned previously about the realistic style not meshing with more absurd Zelda character designs, Malo -- the shrewd toddler who discovers the joys of capitalism --  is the one delightful exception, and I can't help but notice how he expertly dodges sword swings should the player swing their sword in his vicinity. Seeing as how he opens his own market empire (complete with theme song!), perhaps he's the true villain of this tale. 

More than anything, however, Twilight Princess feels tired. While not without merit, even underneath all its successes lies a tired familiarity, a fatigue that makes one go "I've done this before." When married to bloated padding, dismal aesthetics and handholding and all, it culminates into this bizarre paradox of being too much Zelda and yet not very much like Zelda all. It certainly looks like Zelda, what with Link and Princess Zelda and the first three dungeons being forest, fire and water, and even before we groan at the same tired twists and formulas, the actual look for it is as tiring to watch as being reminded you've picked up a blue rupee every time you start up the game. Sad to say, any ambitions it has are quashed underneath this crushing misdirection, one that would come to erroneously define the next few years of Zelda.