Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 47 ~Inside the Castle Walls~ (Super Mario 64)




Origin: Super Mario 64
Plays In: Peach's Castle
Status: Original Composition
Composed By: Koji Kondo

A new Nintendo console is coming in just over a week! How's everyone handling the suspense?

For me, the anticipation for a new Nintendo console is unlike anything else; of course, other company consoles have come and gone with some great hype periods as well, but there's just something magical about your favorite home team ready to unleash five-years worth of untold adventures, dreams and memories to the public. Nostalgia will be cultivated in young one as us grown-ups revel in the magic that's kept us coming again and again for the past thirty decades. With how much Nintendo is banking on the Switch to last and the ever-changing expectations of the game industry, perhaps we'll enjoy all those and more in a longer cycle.

One of my favorite gaming memories is the time I surely first laid eyes on a Nintendo 64...we were in a Blockbuster (remember those?), and I couldn't stop staring at the demo station in the corner.  It was playing Super Mario 64, and everything about it was a marvel: the new 3D graphics not found in my Super Mario World game at home, the way Mario hopped and swam about with precise ease, how the controller echoed to me that of Mario's gloved hands...everything about it was a mystifying magnet to six-year old me, one that screamed "play me!". It was then the seeds of my gaming passion were certainly born.;

Switch might not have a Mario 64 of its own; in fact, that it's launching with a Zelda game and a title introducing the system's controls (1-2 Switch) recalls more to that of the Wii, a system that captivated many because of how it played rather than the context and dynamics of the games themselves. Certainly, the Switch is set to sail a similar course: a system that captivates the public through one central gimmick. In this case, a hybrid that brings people together and encourages outdoor player is highly appealing.

And yet, I am always reminded of Super Mario 64 and its gardens and castle walls whenever a Nintendo system launches, no matter what the goals it sets for itself. The Wii's motion controls may've defined its respective generation, but Super Mario 64 changed everything on such fundamental levels that its heartbeat still lingers in every 3D title today. Even now, when we're about to be introduced to a Zelda designed to demolish everything we've associated with the series for the sake of a proper open-world experience, I can only think of how Super Mario 64 did the same for the purpose of revolutionizing gaming.

Well, that, and how it looks godly and it may very well be the game to finally surpass the N64 Zelda duo and A Link to the Past, but the point here is that while envisioning a new Super Mario 64-esque impact on the industry is near-impossible, I can't help but see its footsteps being followed here. Yes, Breath of the Wild was built as a Wii U game from the ground-up, but like Twilight Princess before it, it'll be largely associated with the new console. And that already renders it the most exciting Nintendo launch title in over a decade.

Next Friday will surely be something special.

Final Thoughts: Or, hey, maybe it's that Super Mario Odyssey is going back to the original 3D template for Mario? Easily the best thing to come out of last month's conference; I already can't wait to hop around for the heck of it!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask



Earlier, I praised The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time not merely for representing gameplay and design at its purest, but for instigating an evocative revolution that caught on with people. The dungeons were at their finest, the moments of character beating underneath the surface captured us, and there was no cure for getting the Lost Woods theme out of our heads. It's something that made the market demand a direct sequel; more perfection iterating upon perfection, you may say.

And yet as Nintendo would say it, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask upends the tea table in a matter that took everyone off-guard. Contextually, it's a sequel to Ocarina of Time -- it all begins with Link searching for his fairy companion Navi -- and yet everything barring asset reuse is as different as could possibly be. There are time limits circumvented only through your magical ocarina. Masks are equipped either for transforming purposes or to elicit response. It is fiendishly, grievously dark, openly playing with symbolism that'll zip over the non-attentive player.

It is not by any means accessible to the casual Zelda fan; indeed, while it's earned an adoring cult fanbase and sold moderately well, it never reached the legendary status of its N64 predecessor. Personally, I am of the opinion it is the very best Zelda has to offer, the approachable perfection of Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past be damned. It's not the first or last formula-changing Zelda, yet for a game developed only in a year's time, it achieves a level of successful ambition that puts the other efforts to shame. All Majora's Mask has to do is be the inverse of Ocarina of Time: whereas that game embraced a perfect duality of pacing and player-to-character connection, Majora's Mask is a compact challenge that bears its own enigmatic heart. 

Everything to do with this involves the Three-Day System. The land of Termina is under existential peril by the threat of a falling, sentient moon, and you only have three days to stop it. A task that would normally instill intense pressure, the good news is thanks to the Song of Time, the same three days can be repeated and again. Everything from clearing dungeons to NPC schedules are at the mercy of time, so your adventure must be planned accordingly. 

The very presence of a time limit, no matter what the context, should destroy the freedom-stitched fabric of Zelda, yet Majora's Mask renders it as natural as breathing. The only possible negative is the bulking exposition at the game's beginning, and even that's so damn interesting that you can't help but be swept up in its presentation. The Skull Kid's curse in turning Link into a Deku Scrub (represented by a nightmare sequence of him being swarmed by said species), the grinning, phantom-like enigma that is the Happy Mask Salesman, the soothing churning of the Clock Tower and, of course, the ever-looming threat that is the moon itself.


It's starting out as a Deku Scrub that first sends the message you've hit rock bottom. From the very moment Deku Link steps into Clock Town, he's greeted by a dog that'll bully him relentlessly. There's no reason given; everything from your snout-like protrusion to your stubby little legs pisses it off, and it'll make every attempt to make your life hell. That it's half your size signals no one will take you seriously, right down to the guards refusing to let you venture outside of Clock Town.

And yet even in spite of this difficulty/time time, the heart of freedom and exploring beats wildly here: not only is time essentially unlimited, but you'd have to purposefully wait for the moon to crash. That you're given options to even slow down time presents an effective level micromanagement alongside your adventures in Termina: for instance, do you have enough time to clear the Great Bay Temple with only one day remaining, or would that be time better left tackling the beaver race sidequest?

Anyone who says the Three-Day System deters exploration has missed the point entirely: the inner workings and activities of Clock Town --nay, the entirety of Termina and its inhabitants-- is the exploration. Character schedules are intertwined, encouraging you to uncover every facet of their lives. Your successes and failures will have consequences; ones you can simply erase through time travel, but their effects ranging from both intriguing ("oh, wow, I can do that?") to the depressing (which we'll showcase later) display the organic constitution that is the world of Majora's Mask.

An organic world, mind, that expands twofold through the use of masks. It enthralls on both levels of gameplay and engagement: once his curse is lifted, Link can transform into a Deku Scrub, a Goron or Zora, utilizing their innate abilities (Gorons' super-strength/high-speed rolling or Zoras' supreme swimming) all the while. It works not merely as fanservice (who hasn't wanted to play as a jolly, rolly-polly Goron?) but as a unique mechanic that actually works; in particular, Zora Link is easily the highest example of 3D swimming in the N64/PS generation, with not a trace of clunky control in his dolphin-esque movements (just feel that jump!).


Being at the forefront of Majora's Mask, it's only natural they, too, embrace the game's thematic duality. Putting aside how the transformable masks takes on the past life of a departed soul (which is an incredible tragedy in itself, particularly when you're conversing with friends and family of the deceased), even the collectible masks echo their use in Ocarina of Time; you come for their intended uses--be they the Great Fairy Mask attracting fairies or the Kamaro Mask's hypnotizing dance--and stay for the reactions they draw from people, not the least of which is the surprise found in the dastardly Gorman Brothers. Dishonest milk thieves who prey upon the neighboring Romani Ranch, all it takes for their nastiness to collapse is the presence of a certain weeping mask. Moments like this can be stumbled completely on accident, compelling us to endlessly experiment. Could even the Bomb Mask elicit an emotional response? Probably not, and you're crazy for putting it on, but you can't help but try.

Which reminds me: it's Zelda not just at its most organic; it is poignantly gripping, more than any other entry. Compare to how Ocarina of Time handled its subtler themes: it didn't beat us over the head with character development, leaving it up to us to fill in the blanks regarding the tragedies of Mido and the carpenter family. Majora's Mask does this too, but only as a tantalizing sprinkle (and the occasional side-dish) upon effective character sequences that I cannot praise enough, be it the famous Anju/Kafei marriage or the faux courage of the Swordmaster, whose crumbling facade in the final hour has always spooked me.

These sobering episodes chill us right down to the bone; just look at the mayor's meeting, whose participants take all-too-real positions: the carpenters, denouncing the obvious threat looming above for the sake of monetary gain; the soldiers, who instantly perceived the danger and recommend immediate evacuation; the mayor, the one in power who's too cowardly to take action (or could it be he has something else on his mind? His son's been missing, after all...). Naturally, the aforementioned masks are vital in these events;  did you know you can actually break up that meeting with a certain mask?

Even without masks, however, the NPCs are evocative on their own. The events at Romani's Ranch --whereupon aliens make their annual visit to abduct cattle--are another perfect example; this time, however, we witness Majora's Mask delivering a raw penalty in guilt. Romani, a young girl and the ranch's only denizen who realizes what's going on, recruits Link in fending off the ghastly extra-terrestrials. Succeed, and you earn a bottle of health-restoring milk. Fail, and you get this.


Caught up in the abduction, a brainwashed Romani spends the remainder of the days either aimlessly walking about the ranch or struggling to remember her identity. Her older sister, Cremia, weeps in the barn, regretting she never believed what she dismissed as an overactive imagination. It's a level of despair almost never before heard of in a Nintendo game, all because you didn't try hard enough.

Or is it because you didn't try at all? Since the game's default schedule is absolute, this happens every time you have to focus on other matters and ignore the quest. Through guilt and failure, Majora's Mask forces you to care to fully complete the game, lest you want broken families and ruined engagements to populate Termina. Even after you solve their woes, time travel will reset their trials and tribulations into motion; knowing that I have to move on breaks my heart (and that's not even getting into even if you succeed, and how the sisters prepare for the moon falling, which...well, I'll let you find out for yourself).

I mentioned earlier about the game's open-employment of symbolism, which is up there with Mother 3 as being Nintendo's finest in thematic storytelling. Anyone can pick up the relationship between time and the abundance of children at the game's center, but is it really coincidence that the shape of Majora's Mask itself provides an empty black heart on the back? And that's not even mentioning the moon itself: a grinning visage of death whose insides belie a stunning truth...

Even within the actual gameplay does the symbolism permeate the entire experience. Not once do you ever escape the countenance of the moon. The bone-chilling scream Link unleashes every time he equips an enchanted mask calls into question the relationship between host and soul; one perhaps answered within the haunting song-based gimmick of Stone Tower Temple, the game's best dungeon. 





Not that any of Majora's Mask's themes would be half as effective without Koji Kondo's music. Taking the helm for the majority of the soundtrack, his absolute finest contribution lies in what may arguably be the game's theme: the Song of Healing. Premiering early on as the haunting, ethereal Clock Tower theme and thereon appearing in piano/ocarina motifs, the Song of Healing is a chilling piece accompanying even the most noble of Link's deeds not merely as a gloomy framework, but to represent the souls at peace.



I say Song of Healing is "arguably" the main theme since while I'd personally say it's more in-tune with the story, Clock Town is one you'll hear more often. While the melody is retained throughout the three days, the song shifts accordingly to each of their respective moods: bustling denial, sober melancholy and fragile, rapid uneasiness. Above is my favorite of the three: the second day, albeit not accompanied by the pitter-patter backdrop of rain.





While the game's theme for Termina's four main provinces echoes the world's melancholy--it's also worth noting Majora's Mask is the one 3D Zelda with the distinction of possessing the classic Zelda overworld theme--I've always been taken by the music for specific locations. In particular, half of what makes the Astral Observatory and the Stone Tower Temple two of Zelda's most evocative set-pieces have to do with their themes; the former the heavenly illumination of an elderly man's youthful neverland, the latter an eerie mix of chanting, tribal percussion and flutes forging the tower's bewitching identity. 



As it happens, Majora's Mask is the first Nintendo game featuring mainstay composer Toru Minegishi. While his involvement is minimal, his works are anything but when considering they're all battle themes. Out of his contributions, I'm quite fond of the mid-boss theme: an urgent, tension-filled frenzy most effective when Skull Kid hastens the Moon's falling ("What'll I do?!? What'll I do?!?").



Let us not dismiss Kondo's status as being the star, however, for his attempt at doomsday would have to be the soundtrack's most haunting. Spectral and imminent as it may be, not even the above embedded video does it justice: hearing it accompanied by the constant rumbles of earthquakes, the intensifying chimes of clock tower bell --which echo across Termina no matter where you are-- and the neon glow of the afflicted sky instill a deathly, awe-inspiring power I've yet to see replicated anywhere else.

Which goes for much anything Majora's Mask does; seventeen years later, only perhaps Sony's Shadow of the Colossus has matched it in infusing such a grim blend of reality and guilt within the player's motivations. Not that Majora's Mask doesn't embrace Zelda's offbeat humor -- be it the debut of fairy-wannabe manchild Tingle or the hand that lives in the Stock Pot Inn's toilet -- but even such twisted humor goes hand-in-hand with that pressing imminence of darkness that renders it Zelda's most warped adventure (only 2006's Twilight Princess attempts to take that title, and that has more to do with its relatively-grimy color scheme).

And yet somehow it's perhaps its most replayable one. I suspect this has to do with, again, how flexible the Three-Day System is. There is urgency, yes, but not a constraining one forcing players to complete the game. By having us relive those three days again and again, tackling them any which way we want, that wonderful sense of discovery isn't just retained from Ocarina of Time; that game's own organic anatomy is perfected into a seemingly infinite state, be they the aforementioned mask reactions or simply marveling at how the Ocarina of Time transforms into a fishbone guitar via Zora Link.

It doesn't matter you're not Adult Link or that the game has a paltry four dungeons: it's a game we return to again and again because we want to explore this dark dimension, want to discover that one reaction, that one character moment that escaped us the first time. Or the second, and even the third. Majora's Mask entire system is a risk built not to capitalize on its famous N64 predecessor, but instead an attempt to craft a living, breathing video game that thoroughly pays off in capturing our attention.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask transcends the medium in that once-a-generation experience like EarthBound and Shadow of the Colossus before and after it. It is not merely Zelda's best game, Nintendo 64's finest, or even one of Nintendo's most outstanding: it is one of the greatest games ever created, and while perhaps the likes of Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past and even the original Zelda may enjoy that accolade more -- however deservedly in themselves -- none of them grip our hearts as both player and guest as they do here.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Worldly Weekend: Final Fantasy (NES)


Have you ever stopped to think about the name Final Fantasy? It's something so highly prestigious that the game would have to be as grand as the name implies--and make no mistake; for its time, it certainly was--but it hardly makes a lick of sense when regarding the actual context. The answer lies within its development: as developer Square was in the throes of near-bankruptcy, creator Hironobu Sakaguchi wanted a title that would not only close the book on the company, but on the seemingly-inevitable end of his game-making career.

As history would have it, that wasn't the case. Final Fantasy has since gone on to produce over 15 beloved titles (not to mention countless spin-offs and ports/remakes) and became the worldwide representation--perhaps even standard--for the Japanese RPG. The "Gil" currency, the famous victory fanfare and the Chocobo/Moogle mascots have become synonymous with the genre, and continue to be associated with the series to this day.

However, not all of the them debut in the series' first game, which is often cited alongside the original Dragon Quest as kickstarting JRPGs. There is a distinct difference between the two games, however: Dragon Quest is, more or less, a grindfest for its entire duration. Final Fantasy is not.

That's not to say there isn't any level-grinding within Square's debut RPG, but there's more of a leniency in its pacing. Over a year had passed since Dragon Quest, so it only makes sense they'd arrange for the necessary improvements. The interface is simpler and less clunky; no "stairs" button in sight. There's an active, ongoing story-arc that, while not deep, breaks free of the "save the princess!" model. Western RPG tropes are brought in to enhance the battle system, such as enemy weaknesses (fire beats ice, duh)


The end result is a game still approachable today. You will grind, but there's enough player conveniences and innovations to keep thing interesting. JRPG conventions like overworld vehicles got their start here, but they weren't just 80's visual stunners; the thrilling swiftness of the Airship is just as much of a marvel as it is an effective tool for speedy progress.

Yet what's perhaps most impressive is the Class System. As opposed to the Final Fantasy games of today, you create your four-man party out of six different classes (Warrior, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage and Black Mage), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. White Mages don't really engage in physical combat, for instance, but are invaluable for any team thanks to their healing magic.

It's a wonderful, flexible system that ensures no two playthroughs will be the same: that there's over 60 spells to master ensures a deep, flexible variety within each party member's moveset. Citing a personal example, I initially thought I made a mistake in choosing a Thief class as my 2nd physical class(Warrior was my first, main choice), as he died quickly and possessed the strength of a mewling kitten. It wasn't until his eventual promoted to a full-blown Ninja that his usefulness was discovered: not only could he actually deal damage, but Black Magic was now at his disposal, so he'd be able to back up my Black Mage.


Moreover, it's just fresh, which is saying a lot for a game that came out in 1987. Having been acquainted with set parties in JRPGs for such a long time, it's amazing to me a game celebrating its 30th anniversary can deliver such a customization experience. Right from the beginning, Final Fantasy encourages you to forge your adventures rather than the one explicitly set by the developers, and I find it rather special that uniqueness has only grown over the years.

The class system alone should render it accessible to most, but Final Fantasy's unusual magic system is what often drives today's players away. As opposed to the multi-digit Magic Points commonly found today, spells are deducted by a single-digit "charge" system. This renders their use in dungeons and the like incredibly precious; the only method of restoration are overworld-exclusive tents, so the balance between offense and defense is vital.


One's mileage will vary; personally, I adored it for the different sort of challenge it brought. Old JRPGs often involve being trapped in dungeons and the like, so this brings a different level of challenge in choosing your battles. There's always the option of running away, of course, but the frustrating JRPG penalty for escape failure (free damage courtesy of monsters!) is a constant, lurking risk, so you'll only want to pick that as a last resort.

Needless to say, Final Fantasy is pretty hard, but that doesn't mean it's not fun. The battle system itself mostly works; whereas Dragon Quest relied on imagination, Final Fantasy displays your party and all their spell-casting glory. This is especially vital since it highlights your chosen party members, so their eventual transformation when promoted feels like much more of an accomplishment. It's even great to see Square taking advantage regarding attention to detail, as your weapon visually changes every time you switch equipment. Like every other pre-SNES RPG, unfortunately, it does fall into the archaic lack of auto-target (as in, you'll miss an attack if the enemy's already defeated, as opposed to simply switching targets).

There are other flaws common in 80's JRPGS. For all the improvements upon Dragon Quest, Square didn't take the time to adjust NPC antics and not have them block doors and counters. An endearing flaw, yes, but not all a practical one. And yes, you will receive vague directions and be at the mercy of townspeople hints, so don't feel guilty about using an online guide like I did.



There are, however, no flaws in the score. Series composer Nobuo Uematsu made his big break as an industry icon thanks to Final Fantasy, and know we're in for something special when the 8-bit harp introduces the famous Prelude opening. Soon to grace the prologues of future Final Fantasy titles, it instills a deep mystique that successfully frames the games as the otherworldly fantasies they're intended be.



Meanwhile, the Overworld Theme takes on not a somber tune, but of an upbeat one emphasizing adventure. Fitting quite well within the familiarly cheesy 8-bit range of the NES, as grand as the aforementioned "somber" themes we'd see in later Final Fantasy titles are, I find this sort of brightness to be far more welcoming. You could argue it may undermine its' serious attempt to tell a story, but let us not pretend it is a deep story by any measure; what matters it motivates us to keep going in the face of random encounters, rather than discouraging us by feeling isolated and alone (which in itself would betray the concept of a multi-man party).



Not that any "undermining" takes place considering the presence of the battle theme; while also an exercise of activity, it's a more serious one that expertly remembers the 8-bit rule of being infectiously catchy. It instantly recalls the wickedness of the fiends and monsters we slay not merely in appearance, but their rage-inducing usage of Paralysis.

I've had the pleasure of completing three NES RPGs over the past two years (EarthBound Beginnings, Dragon Quest, and this), and out of that trio, Final Fantasy is probably the best. This is especially shocking to me given my intense love for the EarthBound (Mother) franchise, yet Final Fantasy is perhaps the best realized JRPG of the 80's. There's no awkward skips in the scenario nor an overt emphasis on endless grinding; it is competently paced, living up to every one of its grand ambitions alongside a rigid difficulty set to be tackled any which way by the player.

It's the class system that keeps it alive thirty years later. I know it's not the last Final Fantasy to use them, but there's a distinct appeal in the first entry employing such depth in its design. And with the number of remakes and ports out there, I have plenty of excuses to take another go and shake up my selection. Final Fantasy is the rare NES game that matches up to Nintendo's own efforts like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid not merely in quality, but in successfully still channeling that engaging sense of hugeness, an even rarer 80's value I cherish as evidence of fine craftsmanship. It is not the complete masterpiece I imagine its SNES and PS1 successors are claimed to be, but such an accomplishment renders it a timeless classic all the same.



Friday, February 10, 2017

Fire Emblem Heroes Review (Hey Poor Player)



I really do mean what I said in the beginning here; as a matter of fact, during the Fire Emblem Direct from the other week, all I could think about was how I couldn't be happier about how things turned around for Nintendo's beloved SRPG series. Before Awakening, it always mystified me how a series with a dozen entries and a cast of hundreds flew under the radar for over twenty years, and now we get to see what it's like for it to hit the mainstream!

If only the same could happen to F-Zero...but I suppose some game franchises come and go. How great it is that Fire Emblem avoided that same fate! I think it's actually entered my Top Ten favorite Nintendo series at this point, haha.

Personally, I'm really hoping we see something like a remake subseries come forward. Gaiden being re-imagined as Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a great start, but we could finally fill in the gaping hole left by the unlocalized SNES/GBA titles! Many other fans are seeing this as an inevitability, so let's hope we're right!


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 46 ~Menu~ (WarioWare, Inc.: Mega MicroGames!)



Origin: WarioWare, Inc.: Mega MicroGames!
Plays In: Menu
Status: Original Composition
Composed By: Ryoji Yoshitomi

Video games are often cited as a method of escape: be it stress, tragedy or dysfunctional families, we depend on our favorite hobby to smother our woes. Even if it's only temporary, anything from a ten-minute foray into Super Mario Bros. to being absorbed for hours by our Animal Crossing village may be the only daily relief for troubled lives.

Yet how often is it games give something back to us? In today's example, it's not as if I was going through anything difficult when WarioWare, Inc: Mega MicroGames! reached my grubby 5th Grade hands, but I remember it most fondly as a game that spoke with me. This is hardly unique to WarioWare--just observe the troves upon troves of preschooler computer games where characters speak directly with toddlers--yet somehow Wario and his new crowd of game developers constantly engaged with me and made me one of the gang through one common thread: random, dumb humor.

My childhood secret of nostalgia was always kept clutched to my chest, yet I always outspoken with my favorite area of comedy. I constantly devised stories and characters representing the most demented products of my mind, be it sentient spoons or zombie men crimelords who feasted on the flesh of cereal character mascots. The sacred "Game in the Basement" action figure rituals with my and my friend Matt involved Pepsi Seal murder mysteries and Kung Fu Beanie Babies (among other vastly inappropriate adventures I won't be sharing here). Invader Zim, Ed, Edd n' Eddy and Courage the Cowardly Dog all embraced these themes and were three of my favorite cartoons growing up. It was one of primary reasons why EarthBound, gaming's masterpiece, meant to so much me.

Most of this, as you may expect, went over the heads of my peers. Not that they didn't watch Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, but seeing as how my brand of humor circuitry isn't exactly the norm, it was difficult to find others who shared my passion of blood-sucking monkeys (it would eventually lead to an eventual outcasting due to the belief I was "retarded," but that was a ways off). This is echoed even in my adult life: I'm the guy whose favorite episodes of South Park adopt the "bludgeon one stupid joke repeatedly" model (Terrence and Philip in Not Without My Anus, Jakovasaurs, Crippled Summer, etc.), which were never very popular.

When considering all that, it saddens me quite deeply WarioWare's presence has practically dropped off the face of the earth. That it had to die with Game and Wario--a project that betrays the very core of the series--is especially heartbreaking; I'd take flawed entries in the vein of Smooth Moves and D.I.Y to keep the blood pumping, and it's all because like EarthBound and Animal Crossing before it, it understood me. It knew I'd shake my head in amusement at warped Nintendo references, grin at a falling nail yell "HYAAAAAAAH!!!" in-between a poor man's fingers, and laugh at watching a beautiful anime woman shed tears after retreating a loogie up her nose.

It was Nintendo's modern embracing of random humor, and now it's gone. All I have left are the entries that spoke to me in elementary/middle school; in fact, it'd be inaccurate to label it "modern". WarioWare's now yet another childhood dream: one I can return to any time, because it came true.

Whenever I hear this song, I say to myself, "I've come home." And just think: it was Wario of all characters who made me feel welcome. How peculiar!

Final Thoughts: Naturally, I was thrilled when this received not one but two arrangements in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Yoshitomi-san himself returned to do a medley, but Keigo Ozaki's version is actually one of my favorite arrangements from the game.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Checking In + Tomita Interview Update

Finally, after seven years, The Legend of Zelda gets reviewed on Leave Luck to Heaven!! Considering the number of years, what an amazing coincidence that it's Ocarina of Time.

After more than three years, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is nearly upon us, and it's looking primed to set a revolution on par with the N64 classic. To celebrate, I'm planning on reviewing every major 3D Zelda before its March 3rd release! Will I make it?!? Well...my previous track record says no, but I've been feeling mighty inspired this new year, and I've already begun planning out Majora's Mask. The remaining four games all vary in opinion, so they'll be must-reads for any Zelda fan.

Oh, and I'm certain you're all wondering what's going on with the Tomoya Tomita interview, so I'll give an update. Most of it is complete barring a couple questions, but Tomita-san wanted to clear it with Nintendo as of late last week and we're still waiting on that (seeing as how he had to take down his music remasters on YouTube, it only makes sense he's suddenly wary). In the meantime, you can check out another interview he had with Video Game Music Online, where he goes into his time at Konami.

Just to reiterate, however, my interview for Hey Poor Player will focus exclusively on his works for Nintendo, which includes the likes of Kirby's Epic Yarn, Yoshi's Woolly World and Wario Land: Shake It!. I cannot begin to emphasize how interesting and humble his answers are, and it's a huge honor speaking with him. The moment it's all ready, I'll share it here!!

See you soon!

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time


Has there been any Nintendo game, nay, any video game as critically acclaimed as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? As beloved, as revered, as worshiped? The likes of Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man may have deeper permeation in popular culture, and it can be argued other 3D Nintendo masterworks like Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime have long since usurped its throne, but Ocarina of Time's reverence is just a tad more special: that being, it hails from a period where the once-stunning transition from 2D-to-3D is now as dazzling as a two-week old moldy sandwich.


Make no mistake: Ocarina of Time is not infallible to the aging process -- even Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto believes it looks rather rough now -- but I dare any one of you to tell me its opening title screen still doesn't possess that awe-inspiring calm of late '98. The clomping of Epona's horsesteps greeting Hyrule Field's sunrise, the game's title slowly materializing into focus, the accompanied piano/flute rendition of the NES Zelda's Fairy Flute fanfare introducing Link's much-awaited transition into 3D are all still a feat of attention-grabbing magic in everything from camera direction, music and the sense of grandeur involved.

Let us dispel any doubts; nearly twenty (twenty!) years later, Ocarina of Time remains a stellar high-point for video games, for Nintendo's library, and, in the relevant constrains of this review, within its legendary source series. The extent of its perfection remains debatable; to my mind, it is surpassed by both its offbeat, poignant sequel Majora's Mask and SNES predecessor A Link to the Past, but Ocarina of Time surpasses its brethren in what perhaps matters most in any action-adventure game: rock-solid pacing.



Whereas future Zelda games got too caught up in constantly spoon-feeding context and mechanics, Ocarina of Time doesn't spare a moment in capturing our attention: we're introduced to a boy without a fairy, nightmares of runaway princesses and evil horsemen, prophecies of destiny, and a wondrous bird's-eye view cruise through the skies of the enchanted Kokiri Forest.

This is all done in less than five minutes. Yes, there is a quest ready to be started, but there's no overbearing NPCs or dumb mini-games stopping you from exploring the enchanted forest at your leisure. Haven't you ever noticed how the Lost Woods is just sitting at the back, begging to be explored? What about marveling at how you can chop up signs every which way? Okay, there's no point to that, but what's wrong with a little mayhem? Regardless, the way it's set up, you're actually encouraged to explore; you wouldn't be able to nab the Kokiri Sword and Shield, otherwise.

Right from the beginning, Ocarina of Time gives just enough breathing room to familiarize ourselves with the world, all the while taking care not to distract us with pointless trivialities. There's not the thrilling, if not slightly weary dungeon rush of A Link to the Past, nor the bloated in-between-dungeon antics of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword; the game is supported by relevant setpieces to ease into the mechanics without being overbearing or coming across as pointless padding. Just look at how it's even sly enough to include mini-dungeons along the way; be it the Ice Cavern or the haunted well beneath Kakariko Village, we're continually discovering fascinating facets of Hyrule.


The true heart of Zelda--an open, personal garden to do whatever one wishes--beats harder here than any 3D Zelda hitherto thanks to its organic sense of discovery. Who hasn't messed around with playing the titular Ocarina? Experimented with masks from the Happy Mask Shop? Leapt off ledges and rooftops with Cuccoos to see where you'll land? Placed bombs in the most inconspicuous of places to find hidden caverns? Rolled into trees to see if a Gold Skulltula would fall out? Caught bugs in bottles and planted them anywhere just to see what would happen? Hyrule Field and its fellow provinces are designed not merely for exploration, but also of enticing experimentation (all of which expands two-fold with the game's second-act twist of time travel, but we'll get into that later).



Part of why this is so effective is the seamless camerawork: taking lessons from Super Mario 64's foray into 3D paved the way for Zelda's own transition, as simply flailing your sword about in third-person would be woefully awkward without some careful camera precision. In response, Z-targeting was devised to simultaneously shift the camera behind Link and any one targeted enemy. That it extends to beyond battle--NPCs, landmarks and even signs are applicable--awes in its simplistic intuitiveness; there are no barriers in engaging with the game's world, as you can efficiently "point" to any interactive target while still on the move. It's little wonder such a mechanic was carried over to future Zelda titles, even now.

There are many other elements I could cite, but any discussion of Ocarina of Time simply isn't complete without its immaculate dungeon design. Current series directer Eiji Aonuma made his Zelda debut in their design, yet you'd hardly be able to tell they were the work of a newcomer. The best Zelda dungeons enthrall not merely in their beautiful set-pieces or the creativity involved, but in how they echo organic quality of the overworld: by constantly traversing and retracing our steps within their depths and trying new things, we become as engaged as an actual explorer delving into ruins long lost.



This is best seen in the dungeons traversed as Adult Link; not that the Young Link dungeons aren't anything to sneeze at, but the adult ones are just on another level entirely. We're greeted one by one by what's probably the best series of dungeons in Zelda history, be it the Fire Temple's acrophobia-inducing catwalks or the Spirit Temple's excellent duality of Young/Adult Link segments. Even the oft-criticized Water Temple is a thing of beauty. Yes, there's lots of water-raising switches and Iron Boots to be equipped, but it's all a matter of patience as opposed to any actual flaws (that being the occasional obscure cue for progression, such as a certain pit). That it's Zelda's most mind-bending dungeon is a good thing: it demands our full concentration even when dealing with the game's trickiest bosses: Dark Link's mirroring movements within his ghostly, ethereal battleground and the twisting trickery of the water demon Morpha.


And yet even it hardly matches the euphoria of the Forest Temple: an abandoned mansion haunted by Poes and Stalfos. The Forest Temple represents the other side of the Zelda dungeon spectrum not in its game design --a ghost-hunting expedition, which is fantastic-- but that our senses are captivated from the moment we step in. It is hauntingly, mesmerizingly beautiful, with the outdoor gardens and vine-covered walls all tantalizing details leaving us wanting to know everything behind this unusual dungeon. Even from a technical perspective it still stuns, it being host to not one but two "how did they do that?" feats of music in twisting hallways and bosses galloping through paintings. It being the best dungeon in the game is not its highest honor; it is Zelda's finest without question.



The accompanying BGM is really what cinches it. From the very first wood-rattling, we're compelled to soak in every detail, right down to the Wallmasters preying upon Link's shadow. Its alternations between soothing flutes and ghostly vocals render it game music at its most hypnotic, successfully seeping us into the actual Forest Temple itself. Considering that Ocarina of Time is home to the best dungeon music in the series, it only makes sense the best temple has the best theme. (It's so good that I had no choice but to embed the 10-hour version I found on YouTube. Listen to it, dang you!)



Ah, speaking of music, Ocarina of Time just so happened to be Koji Kondo's last solo work for the company. While he'd gradually gravitate towards a supervisory role, Ocarina of Time is a near-flawless send-off to his solo career. The game may occasionally suffer from weak instrumentation, but you'd hardly know it from the aforementioned title theme: a gentle mix of piano and flutes slowly greets latest adventure with the upmost importance.






Just as the actual intro itself, the music wastes no time in captivating us. Kokiri Forest is perhaps one of the most nostalgic songs in Nintendo history; it embodies child-like wonder, as it should for an enchanted forest of eternal children and fairies. Its counterpart, Lost Woods, is rivaled only by the Song of Storms as the game's catchiest song. Its close proximity to Kokiri Forest demands a childish, mischievous innocence that's echoed in the woods themselves, be it the presence of dancing Skull Kids or the skitterish, cowardly Deku Scrubs.





Limited as it may be now, the expanded repertoire of the N64 sound systems provides technically-impressive arrangements. Ocarina of Time Hyrule Field is notable for being the first dynamic-shifting song in Nintendo history: the song shifts accordingly to context, be it for enemy encounters or during sunset, so it's an excellent replacement for the main theme (which, in what is perhaps one of the game's few oversights, is strangely absent). Meanwhile, Temple of Time still wows in how it sounds like an actual Gregorian choir. True to the events that unfold within its hallowed hall, such a glorious sound renders it as holy as an actual church.



Gerudo Valley, a fan-favorite, instantly sweeps us off our feet with Spanish-flavored guitars and clapping percussion; both are standouts, but the latter is especially notable for continually carrying both string and brass to craft a wild, perilous sense of danger. The canyons and deserts of the valley are hardly desolate, so it's vital the song conveys an active emotion.





(As an aside, Ocarina of Time is host to one of the very few instances of post-release music alterations in Nintendo history. The Fire Temple was initially host to a chilling choir prayer containing Islamic chants, whereas future versions and ports removed said chanting and altered the melody to include a MIDI choir. Both are superb, but I think of the original Muslim chant as being more distinguished since it's so unlike anything Nintendo's ever done. It reaches a level of eerie darkness that Zelda has never tackled since, and it still reverberates at the back of my mind whenever I'm reading of history's dark moments).

Indeed, there are many things we can praise Ocarina of Time for...but is there really nothing we can critique? Perfect as its fans claim it to be, that still hasn't stopped many harsher players--or dare I say, non-fans!--from airing their grievances. It is the rushed nature of Ganon's Castle, they may say, or the Water Temple's fiasco of Iron Boots, which eludes me as much as complaints directed towards The Wind Waker's sailing. These aren't within my own gripes, yet if I were to give as spotlight on any one flaw, it would be most anything regarding text.

This isn't necessarily a dig against its script/scenario as more as how they're framed. For one thing, character dialogue is infrequent in its display speed, and it's never pleasant whenever the game churns out text to a slow, unskippable crawl. What's initially a minor quibble gradually becomes compounded with some mind-boggling decisions, and it can make for a frustrating, non-intuitive ordeal. Even when the game allows you to skip dialogue, it tends to warp instantly to end of what the character has to say as opposed to that particular text-box, so information can be accidentally skipped.


There are other niggles, like having "No" being the default option for Kaepora Gaebora's "Would you like to hear that again?" and Navi, Link's accompanying fairy, occasionally interrupting movement to blather about objectives and incoming danger. Ocarina of Time is relatively free of hand-holding otherwise, but it's in those two characters the embryos of chatterbox NPCs and helpers--soon to plague future Zelda games--are born.

Yet perhaps the deepest flaw of all lies in how Ocarina of Time is host to one of the weaker localizations released by NOA Treehouse. This isn't to say it's bad, but while there is some unique flair such as the Great Deku Tree's "ye olde" English dialect and the script is evocative when it needs to be (more on that later), there's a lot of rather plain, dry dialogue ("I should go to Lake Hylia! Many things float down the river and end up there!) and I actually cite this as the most aged aspect about the game. Characters even sometimes go OOC (Kaepora Gaebora, again: "Hoo hoo! Wait up, buddy!") and render the game more childish than it actually is.

But not even that can't smother the player's connection to Link. In the past, both Miyamoto and Aonuma have discussed how Ocarina of Time isn't necessarily "epic" in itself; rather, that feeling derives from the player's sense of accomplishment. Every puzzle we solve, every dungeon we master, every boss we overcome ingrains into us within our quest to save Hyrule.



Any video game can do this, you may say, and you'd be right. But yet again, Ocarina of Time is a step ahead: it doesn't endlessly chuck monsters and caverns to make us feel epic, thanks to its use of time travel, our actions as Link and those of other characters produce a blank, yet fatal period of history. Take Hyrule Castle Town: as Young Link, it was a bustling capital rich with activity and life. After a seven-year slumber, we are shocked at the changes wrought by Ganondorf's reign: pitch-black skies, crumbling ruins, withered trees and a population not of Hylians, but moaning hordes of ReDead zombies. Before, the town's existence was simply something we took for granted; now, its devastated state instills one goal: "I have to do something".

The game doesn't need to hammer us in the head with the characters' grief. My absolute favorite example is the Kokiri bully Mido, who obstructs and antagonizes Link at the game's beginning. Seven years later, we're provided not just with a stunning size difference--being a Kokiri, Mido is blessed with eternal youth--but a change of heart. Unable to recognize Link, he begs him to pass on a message: "Hey, you. If you see him somewhere, please let him know...[about Saria]. And also...I'm sorry for being mean to him. Tell him that, too."


Nothing more is needed. We're left to wonder how he spent seven years of regret and loss, of how much he missed someone he pretended to hate. Other characters such as the carpenter's son evoke similar emotions, as do locations like the aforementioned Castle Town. We're left to fill in the blanks of everything just out of reach, be it the legacy of the Forest Temple to the dying soldier found within the Castle Town's alleys.

It's an indescribable power that extends even beyond narrative. Hopping down into a cavern only to come face-to-face with a treasure chest we opened seven years ago. A nighttime ride on Epona in Lon Lon Ranch to the echoing, nostalgic tune of Malon's singing. In terms of Zelda, it's an intimate poignancy surpassed only by Majora's Mask and perhaps even Link's Awakening; a high bar most games can only dream of reaching.  


Any issues regarding text and the occasional Eldritch Abomination found in the NPCs do not prevent the revolution brought on by Ocarina of Time. Majora's Mask would soon arrive to upend its successes by transcending the medium of gaming itself, but Zelda's first foray into 3D may very well still be sitting on its throne via duality: it is gaming at its most pure, but also evocative and alive. Even now, through time, we grow up with it.


(Also, it introduced Gorons, which are the best Zelda race because I said so. So chubby!)

Monday, January 16, 2017

No New Tracks for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Hey Poor Player)



Everyone's been down on Nintendo's Switch Presentation in one way or another, be it the pricing, the launch line-up confusion, the bumbling live translator or the news shared above (my own brief, conflicted thoughts were shared on a Nintendojo Roundtable). I suspect the influx of rumors lining up the weeks before the presentation had a hand in this: there were reports of several enhanced Wii U ports for fan-favorite titles, the bizarrely enticing Mario/Raving Rabbids crossover, and, of course, the ever-eternal localization of Mother 3. While undoubtedly more will be revealed this E3, I imagine most--including myself--got caught up in the hype and expected a bigger blowout than what we received.

Don't get me wrong: I think there's many valid complaints over went down this past Friday, but I can't help but blame myself for being disappointed in this regard. It's not like what was shown wasn't very cool, be it the unexpected surprise of Xenoblade 2 and the mouth-watering give-it-to-me-now goodness of Super Mario Odyssey. In the case of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe not having new tracks, I imagine that a) Nintendo didn't want spend too much resources on improving an older title and b) they thought 48 tracks was enough, and, well, I can't exactly blame them. While I would've loved to have seen a Splatoon track, I'm just happy we're seeing a revamped Battle Mode (and hey, no one ever denied anything about DLC!)

At the very least, I still think more Wii U ports are happening; it only makes sense Nintendo wants certain active, big-name Wii U titles to get more exposure. (And besides, why else are the amiibo for Cloud, Corrin and Bayonetta taking so long?) Smash and Mario Maker are obvious, but I can't help but entertain the thought of a Hyrule Warriors port that combines content from both versions, and I think it's about time Pokken Tournament got some of that arcade-onlky goodness.

Really, I'm left with one important question: will Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, as well as any following Wii U ports, inherit save data from their previous versions? I'd hate to have to say goodbye to my battle data from Smash 4, for instance, so Mario Kart will be a litmus test for what's to come.

...that reminds me: I know I said I wouldn't be discussing my review schedule anymore, but to drive up excitement for the fresh new year, I'd like to share a taste of what's to come. I'm planning reviews for certain Wii U titles before their accompanying Switch releases hit stores, so you can expect me to discuss Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon right when Deluxe and Splatoon 2 hit. Any following Wii U ports will likely get the same treatment, so stay tuned for those.

Oh, and remember when I said a famous Nintendo franchise will get its Leave Luck to Heaven debut? Expect that to start very soon...word has it a big blowout's coming to celebrate a certain launch title.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 45 ~Knitty Knotty Windmill Hill~ (Yoshi's Woolly World)



Origin
: Yoshi's Woolly World
Plays In: Knitty Knotty Windmill Hill/Wobbly Mobile Jaunt
Status: Original Composition
Composed By: Tomoya Tomita

It only makes sense this installment of Biweekly Music Wednesday! would feature a song by Tomita-san, right? I figured it should be a song from a series I haven't visited much.

Much of the music in Yoshi's Woolly World evokes to me an image of summer hayrides, like the ones you may've had as a child. Some songs render these rides a bit bumpier than others, but this one is certainly more gentle. I can picture it now: infants snoozing in their mothers' arms, children excitedly pointing out the sights and sounds, and parents echoing their fascination without a care in the world.

Being that they're by the same composer, it's no surprise Yoshi's Woolly World instills much of the same calm present in Kirby's Epic Yarn, yet there's undeniably more of an active feel going on in the soundtrack. That shouldn't be a surprise: Epic Yarn does not employ death or game overs, while Woolly World is more punishing as an action game thanks to Yoshi's health bar.

Not that the levels this song plays in (Knitty Knotty Windmill Hill and Wobbly Mobile Jaunt) are particularly tough--that honor goes to the game's Special Courses--but there's certainly some activity going on within. It helps that their respective set-pieces are among some of the game's best; particularly with Wobbly Mobile Jaunt's sky-bound spaceships and celestial bodies.

There's many reasons why Yoshi's Woolly World is the best Yoshi game since Yoshi's Island debuted back in 1995, and the music is probably one of the best reasons why. No longer are there homogenized scores accompanying the entire game or boring, sleepy tunes that could never dream of surpassing Koji Kondo's '95 masterpiece; it's a score that echoes the whimsicality and wonder present in each and every stage.

Knitty Knotty Windmill Hill is one of my favorites for this very reason: the likes of silky windmills and yarn rockets are nostalgic symbols in themselves, and so the song must bring that nostalgia to life. This was a quality previously stitched into the heart of Epic Yarn, and so it's no surprise Tomita-san succeeds with flying colors.

There are other songs that instill the aforementioned "hayride" quality, but I think this song is particularly representative of that theme. Is it a coincidence it's named after a structure one might spot on such ventures? Hmm.

Final Thoughts: You can definitely bet this will pop up in my interview with Tomita-san! 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

EXCLUSIVE: Upcoming Interview with a Nintendo Game Composer!!!

I've finally made it. Even now, a day after it was finalized, it's all so surreal.

Today, I am absolutely beyond thrilled to announce I will be hosting MY VERY FIRST INTERVIEW with an individual who's worked on Nintendo games! And not just any individual; it's someone who's composed music for over seven Nintendo games. That interviewee happens to be....


Mr. Tomoya Tomita!!! Over the past decade, Tomita-san wrote music for games such as Kirby's Epic Yarn, Yoshi's Woolly World, Wario Land: Shake It! and even certain StreetPass titles! (Mii Force, Battleground Z, Slot Car Rivals and Market Crashers) It will be happening this week, with translation help courtesy of my buddy Masked Man, who you may remember as chiming in for my Nintendojo localization article last year.

Mr. Tomita had recently announced on his YouTube Channel that he was going freelance from Good-Feel/Nintendo and was currently taking requests. While obviously referring to music, an idea sprang to mind:...would he agree to an e-mail interview? I spent days agonizing over what to say before finally sending it, and I woke up Saturday to him saying yes!

Needless to say, I'm just...stunned this is happening. I'm interviewing an ex-Nintendo composer! The guy who wrote the music for Kirby's Epic Yarn, one of my favorite gaming soundtracks, is going to discuss his work with ME! And he's thrilled to do so! Wow!


And here I thought Leave Luck to Heaven eventually leading me to working in game journalism was mindblowing. Like many a Nintendo fan, I've fantasized meeting and talking with countless names and faces from the company and its branches, but that it's actually happening is...it's a feeling that can't be put into words. My dream is coming true.

The best part? Readers familiar with my blog know how descriptive I can get with my articles, and Tomita-san has agreed to answer all of my many questions regarding his works. His history at Good-Feel and his three works for Nintendo home consoles will take the spotlight, although I'm currently considering whether or not I'll be asking a couple questions regarding Mii Force. And just to be clear, this will be hosted on Hey Poor Player.

I'll be wrapping up my questions tomorrow, so hopefully afterwards the three of us can get started ASAP. I absolutely cannot wait for this to happen, for this to be shared, and for this to lead to many more opportunities to come! See you soon!