Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Introducing My Latest Game Journalism Job: Hey Poor Player!


Hey, all! If you haven't following my Twitter, than you may be surprised to learn I'm a bit late in sharing this piece of news. Guess what site I'm working for now? An up-and-coming site by the name of Hey Poor Player!


Making a living off my writing has always been a dream of mine, and while that may not fully come true for some time, Hey Poor Player represents my first step into that dream. After a careful analysis of several sites, Hey Poor Player appealed to me the most as an up-and-coming site with a solid direction and a great look.

While I had the opportunity to pursue a similar financial venture at GameSkinny, certain factors and careful consideration compelled me to move on. But don't fret: I learned many great things about game journalism and the like while under the Journalist Training Program, and I aim to utilize all my teachings to not just further my career, but to contribute properly to Hey Poor Player

I've already written some news pieces for the site, but I plan to pen some opinion articles starting next week, so look forward to those!

Oh, and once again, I'll still be writing for Nintendojo, so please don't worry.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Wordly Weekend: Mega Man (NES)


I'm sorry, I know the hilarious travesty of Mega Man's American box art is probably the most infamous example of packaging in video game history, but Leave Luck to Heaven represents games with NA covers whenever possible, right down to the "Angry Kirby" nonsense. Even so, just look at the contemptible thing: the indistinguishable geography, the structural disaster that is the building on the left (what's with the stairs? The random stone well?), and last but certainly not least, the mess of proportions, colors and physicality that is Mega Man himself. It's the prime example of 80's game boxarts attempting to make their respective games look way more badass than they actually were, and with how Mega Man underperformed in sales, it backfired miserably here. For shame, Capcom!


Not that Japan wasn't guilty of the same practice, you understand, but its respective cover for Mega Man--I'm sorry, Rock Man--was far more in-line with the game's aesthetic: the plush, wide-eyed animation style commonly found in 80's anime. It's clear from the very moment one lays eyes on the select screen line-up of Robot Masters that this isn't a game meant to channel any sort of realism, but the more light-hearted antics of Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man.

Could it also be said that Mega Man matches the quality of those classics? Capcom's Mega Man games are only challenged by Konami's Castlevania in how they are the most celebrated NES action titles not associated with the Nintendo name, and that's being fairly generous considering Mega Man himself is a more recognizable 8-bit icon than Simon Belmont, what with his blinking doe eyes and squat one-inch stature. Yes, they are classics, although to what extent is debatable considering how much Capcom unabashedly milked the games (of the original series' ten entries, six are on NES).


Many agree the first three are the cream of the NES crop, and I'm included in their ranks. It's funny how all six games are homogenized around the same gameplay and aesthetics, yet it's those first three games that stick in everyone's memory. In this sense, the original we're reviewing today is a curious delight -- to my mind, it doesn't reach the heights of Mega Man 2 (the series masterpiece) or Mega Man 3 (the runner-up), yet it's such a genuinely strong first effort that I consider it a near-crime the former overshadowed its place in gaming history.

Forging the design that would soldier on in countless sequels and spin-offs, Mega Man revolves around six levels that culminate into their respective "Robot Master" bosses. Each is defined by a singular trait (Fire Man, for example, wielding the power of, well, fire) that also houses a weakness. as defeating any one Robot Master absorbs their power into Mega Man's own (which lets player experiment with Robot Master weaknesses). Each Robot Master can be tackled in any order, and once all are defeated, you head to the castle of dastardly Dr. Wily to halt his evil schemes.


Needless to say, it's a non-linear action take on rock-paper-scissors. As opposed to the physics-bound goofiness of Super Mario Bros., Mega Man relies on a level of strategy and planning not commonly found in action platformers. While thankfully this doesn't seep into the actual gameplay, it allows for nearly every run as divergent as you want it to be; for instance, do you proceed in the order of Robot Master weaknesses, or just go about any which route you wish?

As mentioned earlier, this level progression system hardly renders the original unique in retrospect, but its superiority lies in that very same retrospection. Yes, it lacks the fanciful features including Rush the robot dog and the Mega Buster and the like, but that it's forged only around three mechanics --Mega Man's arm cannon, the Robot Master abilities and good ol' fashioned jumping--ensures it's not bloated with unnecessarily flashy features, instead relying on pure grit to overcome its trials.


Which means that as fun as it is shoot things, it's also undeniably difficult. Like any other 8-bit action game, Mega Man is actively punishing in its damage-sponge robots, leaps of faith, touch of death hazards (watch out for spikes!) and grueling boss patterns. The Robot Masters in particular give Super Mario Bros. games a run for their money in that their toughness matches the rest of the level, and even memorizing their attack patterns and weaknesses won't ensure you'll make it out alive (as seen with the countless close shaves endured with Ice Man).

Could it perhaps be too difficult? Some Robot Master weaknesses aren't very apparent, so the game has to rely on certain context clues within the levels; for example, Cut Man is weak to Guts Man's Super Arm, used to pick up heavy blocks littered across the former's stage and boss room. There is some decent balance across the board, my favorite example being how anyone can memorize Ice Man's disappearing rock platforms with some careful observation.


It falls apart in other places; the game's non-linearity comes to a halt with Elec Man, who hides the vital Magnet Beam necessary for Wily's Castle. This tool can only be uncovered with the aforementioned Super Arm, and this only becomes apparent more than halfway through the level. Mega Man simply isn't the game for this kind of foreshadowing, and with the Magnet Beam being the only way to fully circumvent certain obstacles (such as Ice Man's flying Foot Holders, which by themselves are a tad too random in their placement and tend to frustrate with their mid-air laser blasting), it's a problem.

By and large though, there's hardly any missteps in foe placement and the like; in fact, the game takes steps for the player to navigate around the stage's intricacies. Take the spiky Gabyoalls (try saying that three times fast!), which patrol about on platforms and attempt to shove off Mega Man when he intrudes upon their territory. They rank among the game's most annoying enemies, but they're momentarily paralyzed by a single shot, so they're easily neutralized.

And if you have the Rolling Cutter, all the better: they're destroyed immediately. The fun of Mega Man lies in its replayability and figuring out how the game works. While the Elec Man/Magnet Beam thing limits the potential for experimentation, it's impressive how many quirks and enemy weaknesses can be perceived and utilized through the Robot Master powers. This is further perfected in Mega Man 2 and 3, but that the first title can be this experimental in spite of its flaws is worth noting.

All the better that it's so pleasing to look at. As mentioned previously, the graphics are overtly clean with a bright aesthetic. It's as much of a sci-fi adventure as it is the home of a Saturday Morning Cartoon; not too goofy, but with enough light-heartedness to win anyone over with the likes of doe-eyed blue robots and flying robot penguins.



Hammering this balance down is the wondrous music by Manami Matsumae, which is the perfect complement for such a world. Level themes dip into either motif in accordance to not merely the Robot Masters involved, but the overall motif for their respective stages. With the Cut Man Stage often being the first stage players tackle, it's only natural its theme would thrust us into action. Like the majority of the soundtrack, it's 8-bit catchiness at its finest.



On the other side of the spectrum lies the Elec Man Stage music. Apparently designed with electricity in mind, it's another song that accompanies not the character, but of the level itself. The stage is constructed vertically, with tricky ladders, vigilant Gabyoalls and electric currents seeking to knock you down. The ensuing frustration is only natural, so an upbeat theme is necessary for encouragement.



None of which we find in Wily's Castle. For the record, this is not the beloved action masterpiece found in Mega Man 2, and yet I consider this a distinctive runner-up. Ominous and foreboding, it compels us further down Wily's lair and overcome his traps one by one. Only the Guts Man Stage rivals this theme in their apprehension, which are executed not with darkness but a building degree of menace.

Any and all praising of Mega Man's sound design typically revolves around the music--and deservedly so!--but there is one sound effect I must elaborate upon. Every time Mega Man lands after a jump, a distinguished "plink!" noise always greets his impact. It is absolutely, unabashedly sci-fi; the one detail that defines Mega Man's character as a robot. That we, as the players, are the ones initiating the sound further links us into the game, and furthermore its world. Being a recurring theme throughout the series, I can't help but imagine it as the primary source of Mega Man nostalgia.

Mega Man is not a clumsy, forgotten progenitor, but is instead the treasured 8-bit example of how to initiate a long-running series. It stumbles into traps common of the era, but they're never anything fatal; not anything to the extent of  Capcom dragged the series into tedium, anyway. It's an overtly-solid action game that entertains with its creative non-linearity and thrills with its engaging Wily Castle set pieces/big boss sequences, all foreshadowing what was to come with its famous sequel.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney — Spirit of Justice (3DS)



Wow, my first review for Nintendojo! About time, you may say, but this represents another milestone for me; you see, this was my very first review provided by a review copy! Or should I say review code? Again, wow!

To clarify, I've had plenty of chances to nab review codes via Nintendojo, but most of them were for indie games that never caught my eye. However, being a big fan of Phoenix Wright and the gang, I couldn't help but leap at the opportunity to nab the latest Ace Attorney.

What was interesting about reviewing this game was how it let me peek into the journalism review process: for example, I'm the type of gamer that wants to leave no stone unturned, but with a deadline hanging over me, that wasn't a possibility. Ace Attorney games aren't the most content-filled games out there, but they're quite wordy, so I questioned and pressed characters only when necessary, and I had to rely on the hint system numerous times (once I tried my best to figure things out, naturally!). And as cool as it was to play the game before it came out in NA, playing it so much fooled myself into thinking numerous times it was already out!

Combined with my temporary bookseller position at the local college, and I had an exhaustive week and a half playing Spirit of Justice. Those who've read my Gaming Grunts reviews should notice they were quite smaller than my output here, and the same applies here; there were numerous subjects I did want to go in-depth on, but obviously the overall landscape for published game reviews discourages that.

My point being, the process hammers in why I stick to opinion articles and the like on Nintendojo and GameSkinny: there's far too much time soaked up by it, and it doesn't allow me to elaborate as much as I want to. I think a split balance is the most fair in this situation, yes? And hey, I'm already gearing up to get reviews going this week, so look forward to it!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Where 3DS Can Go From Here (Nintendojo)




My first Nintendojo article in some time! I'd been meaning to juggle my output for the site alongside my GameSkinny coverage, but outside of some news reports it never came to be...

Regardless, the recent 3DS Direct did have me wondering on how much longer the handheld would hold out for, and that's where this article came from. I really do mean it at the end when I say I don't want it to go away...my favorite handheld system of all time!

(Speaking of the 3DS Direct, it turns out I made a prophetic prediction on Pikmin for Nintendo 3DS just over a month earlier! See the comments for more info.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 40 ~Have a Nice Talk~ (Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story)



OriginMario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story
Plays In: Various scenes
Status: Original Composition
Composed by: Yoko Shimomura

One of the joys of the Mario & Luigi games--and while I'm at it, Super Mario RPG--is affirming how much Yoko Shimomura gets the Mario universe. Her use of xylophones and the like don't just perfectly complement their respective games' playful, comedic nature: they bear the as Koji Kondo's original source material.

Bowser's Inside Story remains the pinnacle of the series, so it's no surprise its soundtrack remains Mario & Luigi's finest. Above is what's perhaps my favorite selection from the franchise: Have a Nice Talk, which is one of many names it's gone through no other apparent source but YouTube (aside from the fact that it's my personal favorite, we'll stick with that one for convenience). Often reserved for Bowser's overworld portions of the game, the Koopa overlord encounters  a number of curious characters to this tune, not the least of which is Broque Monsieur and his horde of Blitties.



While short in length, this is probably my favorite Mario and Luigi song for more personal reasons. Back when Bowser's Inside Story landed in my hands during Christmas 2009, my life was in the dumps. My senior high school year was a bust in both social interaction and IEP management, my inability to speak up with my feelings set the course for a rather nasty online fallout, and the truth behind my disappearing video games would unravel an unspeakable betrayal...

My only solace, my one escape from the cruel world around me, was latest Mario & Luigi game and its antics.The return of Fawful meant NOA Treehouse's script-writing was at its finest, and the presence of Bowser --always the bratty showstopper in nearly every Mario RPG--was the icing on the cake. To this day, it still remains one of my favorite Nintendo localizations.

But it was Yoko Shimomura's score that captivated me most. From the treacherous winds of Cavi Cape to the funky Bowser's Insides rendition of Plack Beach, the music never failed to lift my spirits in the worst of times, even if it was only momentarily. Have a Nice Talk in particular was the most earwormy of the lot, and I was always turned to its respective YouTube uploads whenever I was sour. It was if  it was saying "we know things with your brother are tough again, but Mario, Luigi and Bowser are still here to make you laugh, so please don't feel lonely."

To be fair, it took me a long time to believe that; overall, it took three different files in all to play through the game in its entirety, and it was soon only after my brother's death that I found the courage to complete it. It wasn't necessarily done in his memory, but rather as a means to once again escape from the pain (that fall's revisit of Mario Kart DS was far more relevant in regards to Michael). To my surprise, there was a finality to it all; for instance, I found the music's quality and message to be completely unfiltered, and not once were they ebbed away by imminent sadness.

It's undeniable that game music forges a strong, emotional people with gamers, but it never ceases to amaze me that even the tiniest of jingles resonate such evocative nostalgia. Much as people praise the final boss theme, the simple NPC conversation theme still remains my favorite. Not simply because it helped me through a dark time, but because now even now, I still have a future. Because even now, even when my social life is still in the gutter...

I'm still laughing.

Final Thoughts: Man, I can't wait to replay this next year!!

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Lesson in Patience



Wh..what is that?



It couldn't possibly be..!



It is! My very own Famicom. Wow.

Easily my most expensive purchase at Otakon (about $99, plus tax), obtaining the Japanese NES has been a goal of mine for a while. As an aspiring Nintendo archivist, it's a dream of mine to obtain every piece of Nintendo hardware and software out there, and what better place to start than the original home console that started it all? Having studied Japanese over the past year, I was also eager to put my studies to the test.

Alas, but I've already hit a snag. While the Otakon vendor was kind enough to include the required power adapter/AV cable, I'd forgotten the Famicom requires certain channel frequencies to display the game on American televisions...all of which aren't available on the only CRT in the house! Agh!

To make matters worse...well, take a look below.


What? Is that a crack?!? And is the red casing loose? Was I sold a faulty Famicom?!? Bring me the one responsible, now!

...actually, I'm pretty sure it was an accident on my part. While carrying it around in a bag at the convention, the console's weight was too much and it ripped through, slamming onto the floor with a loud CLACK! Naturally, I was scared, but a quick inspection showed nothing wrong...so I shoved it in my backpack.

"Well, why didn't you put it in your backpack in the first place," you may ask. Well, a while back I learned that filling backpacks with game cases isn't a swell idea, as they get punctured with holes and the like, so I guess that fear spread to any and all valuable game merch. Anyway, it wasn't until I got home that I noticed the crack, and the casing was actually a lot looser; in fact, you actually see the wires inside. Thankfully, I shifted it around the above plug's casing insert, and it's currently as you see it now.

The question is...does it work? In my inspection and testing, I've noticed the Famicom has two flaws in comparison to the NES, bhe first one being there is no LED light to signal whether it's off or on. I was frequently shifting through channels to see whether or not it'd come on, but due to the lack of an LED, I had no idea whether or not it was actually, well, on.



The other flaw? Well, both of the console's controllers are hooked to the console, meaning you can't replace them. When considering my bad luck, take a closer look at my two controllers and guess which one is Player One.


Why, the scratched-up one with the rough surface, of course! Boy, am I screwed.

Scuffs, scratches and cracks are the shame of any collector, and it seems I'm inexorably drawn to such blemishes. My game cases keep getting punctures, my Nendoroid stands break with little to no hope of replacement, my cats like knocking down my One Piece statues...as I'm clumsy by nature, it weighs heavily on me, and I beat myself up for it constantly.

In regards to the actual games, it's an even tougher subject. It's not like they're making anymore Famicoms, y'know? Forget the possibility of wasted money: a broken Famicom would mean one less functioning legend in the world that someone else could've enjoyed...and yet, don't all physical products break down eventually? Just ask my SNES and N64 cartrdiges: in a phenomenon that, to my surprise, has yet to be cataloged over the internet, they're riddled with graphical glitches from meshed-together 3D polygons to a morphing white square in the corner of Kirby Super Star. If it sounds confusing, I'm honestly just as much at a loss as you are. Regardless, it's a very cynical outlook, especially when considering Nintendo's Virtual Console filters.

It extends outside my hobbies, too. I frequently miss cues to do chores around the house,, I speak too fast when I don't mean to...it's something I can't escape. Just another trait of being an Aspie, I suppose.

I do wonder if it's a sign not to rush into things too fast? Maybe my Japanese just isn't ready yet, and I lack a steady job, so I need to discipline myself and save money. Furthermore, my computer is quite outdated, and I'm starting to lack space for display and archive purposes: as I'm branching out to study books for future writing endeavors, I lack a proper bookcase to store them all in, as well as a table and containers for future statues, Nendoroids. and the like. Should I hold off on that all until I move out into my dream home?

Probably, but I wonder how long I'll be able to hold out. The Otakon vendor I purchased the Famicom from happens to be based in New York City, and I just so happen to be heading down down there this November for my birthday, so maybe they can help me with my Famicom (and provide some more info on hooking it up).

Regardless, what's most important is that I further work on pushing myself forward with my writing and Leave Luck to Heaven's future. If it takes broken products and a lesson in patience to express that, so be it.

Oh, and on a semi-related note: the Detective Conan figure I also purchased got a weird scuff on his hat, too.


why does this keep happening to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee



Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Checking In/Apologies

First off, my goodness, I hadn't recognized it'd been three weeks since the last post! Long story short, I've been scrambling for a new job while vacaying, juggling my GameSkinny output and writing out the next Kirby Reverie; in the midst of it all, August somehow sped-up in the blink of an eye. Sorry about that!

I would've had Biweekly Music Wednesday! up today, but I unexpectedly picked up a new job as of yesterday and was, naturally, busy with that today. The next song's already been decided upon so I'll be working on that first thing next Wednesday morning.

The good news is that there's something AWESOME I picked up the other week at Otakon that I'd like to show off, so to make up for my absence, I'll be discussing that this Friday with...a rather sobering lesson regarding it. Look forward to it!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 39 ~Deeper into Ness' Subconscious~ (EarthBound)



Origin: EarthBound
Plays In: Magicant
Status: Original Composition
Composed by: Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu Tanaka

When I used the term "Starmen.net hippies" in my EarthBound review, I wondered just how accurate that term was. Believe it or not, a self-described hippie did wander onto the forums during my initial time there back in 2002. He stumbled upon the General Discussion one day and seemed genuinely confused as to where he ended up: he always wanted to shift discussions towards his herbs and continually his identity as a hippie (was he perhaps attracted due to EarthBound's beloved New Age Retro Hippie?). The forum archives don't contain his antics, but he lasted for maybe a week or two, declaring his moving onto a site/forum dedicated to hippiedom.

Today's internet population would deem him as some sort of bizarre troll, but when you're ten years old and attempting to fit in with an older crowd, anything on the internet can, and will, seem real.

Did my brief anecdote come across as vague? During my English Major studies at college, I once read in a book about how autobiographers and memoirists are often confronted with gaps in their memory, and one writer shared a childhood story where she highlighted corrections to faulty memory: a new name here, a made-up exchange of dialogue there, and so on. It sounds shady, but it's mainly done to reflect the themes and morals of the story involved. So long as it's not overdone or performed with malicious intent, what matters is that your story touches your readers the same way it did to you.

I could have filled in such gaps if I wanted to, but that it's one of many fractured memories is so fascinating to me. Childhood recollections are funny like that: you remember clear as day when Spongebob Squarepants and the Nintendo 64 arrived in your life, yet entities like Rugrats and Dragon Ball Z were either always there or just suddenly pop in, like a new chapter in a book. I can't get over it.


My early experiences on online message boards are especially funny in how fondly I look upon them despite them ranking among the more embarrassing moments in my life. I raised my Nintendo fanboy banner high, could hardly formulate sentences, and often abused all-caps, emoticons and exclamation points; in other words, I was your typical noob. I knew I was out of my element, but this was something you'd never encounter in the schoolyard; it was an organic, ever-expanding world with people well beyond my years, both literally and figuratively. (And there were jerks, too, but you can never escape those.)

As mentioned in my aforementioned review, Starmen.net was electrifying in spite of all this. My topics were frequently locked and my attempts at humor often fell flat, but I was still part of a loving cult that worshiped a forgotten masterpiece. Maybe others felt I was another annoying kid, but I was just proud to have left a mark. I signed the Mother 3 petition that had 30,000 signatures and was sent to Nintendo and Mr. Itoi, even if my comment was awkwardly-phrased ("I just got interested in this game yesterday!!"). I participated in the Apple of Enlightenment comic contests with embarrassing garbage (really, guess which one is mine). Some of my entries for both that and the Flukes section were so terrible that they never made it through.

I remember some of these vividly; others, not so much.

The original Starmen.net still exists, functioning much as it did in the internet yesteryear...except for two relevant sections: the links and the forums. Most, if not all, of the former are dead and the forums don't lead to the archives I posted earlier (and as said earlier, not every post and topic are archived). I guess I could visit the old links via archive.org if I wanted to, bless that site's heart, but that they're dead and gone forever in the public eye sends me on a mournful nostalgia trip.

I still remember the likes of GeoCities and Tripod, which hosted sprite comics like Mega Mario World Comix and Third Attempt. I remember scanning Google for troves upon troves of Dragon Ball Z pictures, notably a bunch that were hosted on a site with "otaku" in the URL. I remember Pupkin, the webcomic with nebulous quality and how a high school honors student wrote to the artist not to stop the strip. I remember how the official Pikmin site had some sort of online game involving teams. I remember when the likes of Neglected Mario Characters, That's My Sonic! and Homestar Runner were relevant and not swamped with poker ads, cheating/abuse scandals or simply left to languish. I remember being sent a Yoshi fangame over PM on the VGF forum, and the game was credited to someone named Will. I remember the fanfiction on SmashBoards, where Creative Minds was secretly the best board and I made friends with people I still know today

And so long as I remember...they're still alive.

Final Thoughts: I want to spend the rest of the night remembering.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ten Years of Kirby ~Reverie 15~ Kirby Mass Attack


2011, where--No. NO. NOOOOOOOO. Oh, real funny NOA; way to build me up and knock me down with a dreadful one-two Angry Kirby combo. I mean, good god, this is easily the worst offender yet; just look at Kirby's uncharacteristic expression. I'd say this is one of this rare instances where the Japanese cover probably wouldn't gel with Western shelves, yet Europe seemed to deal just fine with it. Granted, they also got Freshly Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, so I suppose us Yanks have to deal with our violence-appealing culture and Kirby's attempts at the DreamWorks eyebrow.

But I digress. Anyway, 2011 brought the first of many problems that would plague Nintendo over the next half-decade: how to properly promote their new hardware. In this instance, the 3DS's March release was diluted by the annual iterations of the DS and DSi; unfortunately, this meant consumers couldn't tell it was actually a brand new console (that, and why would parents buy a new handheld when their kids received a DSi XL the previous Christmas?). Combined with how it was clearly rushed for launch--mainly with the weak launch line-up alongside the unavailability of the eShop--and the impending threat of mobile gaming, it was a rough start for the successor of the world's greatest-selling handheld.

Cue the following summer, which brought more confusing announcements in the form of Wii U and what is perhaps the quickest turnaround apology in video game history. Apologizing profusely for the 3DS's slow sales, president Satoru Iwata announced a price-cut that would not only halve his salary, but would offer twenty free downloadable games from NES and GBA libraries for those who had already bought the handheld. Alas, it would prove not to be the last of Iwata's miscalculations, and one thing was coming clear: Nintendo's dominance over the casual market was starting to wane.

Let it be known that while 3DS is undoubtedly yours truly's favorite handheld console of all time, the DS was in no rush to be replaced in early 2011. Pokémon Black and White was released just before the successor's release in all territories, and our favorite pink puffball wasn't ready to make the jump, either. The DS had served him quite well, and while HAL suggested otherwise, perhaps he felt it owed the handheld one last hurrah.

The ensuing title, Kirby Mass Attack, is something of an anomaly. It was the first mainline Kirby game to completely abandon the series' trademark Copy Ability in favor of an entirely new mechanic, one that transforms the game into something hardly resembling Kirby at all. We can trace elements of more offbeat entries like Epic Yarn and Canvas Curse back to the source material, but Mass Attack operates on a completely different scale barring its 2D gameplay. This, along with how more eyes were on Wii's Kirby's Return to Dream Land--which would release only a month later in most territories--led to Mass Attack having a muted launch...or did it?

As we'll learn in the next Reverie, fall 2011 was a jam-packed season for games, with The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim leading the pack. However, just like 2002's miraculous one-two Metroid revival, two back-to-back Kirby games somehow survived unscathed with a million copies under their respective belts. The new era of Kirby kickstarted by Super Star Ultra was about to transform again, and it would take one final push from this experimental title to launch it.

---
 
If you're not familiar with Kirby Mass Attack, you've probably guessed that the related horde of Kirbys running around is why the game functions so differently. After being split into ten bodies by the nefarious Necrodeus, only one escapes his wrath to stumble upon the star-shaped embodiment of the original Kirby's heart. The heart is what the player controls via stylus, as the Kirbys--who grow in number by collecting food--follow wherever it goes.

Needless to say, it's an innately adorable concept that gels perfectly with the cuddly-cute image of Kirby. The enigma of Kirby's sweetness cancelling out its basely horrifying concept--a pink blob swallowing everything in sight--is channeled properly here, as the ten Kirbys rampage about in their efforts to put themselves back together. Its execution brims with ideas, hardly any of them having much to do with Kirby's original concepts. Mechanics like the Copy Ability and Kirby's infinite floatiness were designed primarily to help anyone reach the goal, and with those stripped away, there's no crutch for beginners to rely on. It takes raw skill to overcome its trials.


The implications are clear in that Kirby Mass Attack is the hardest game in series history. We've had rough patches in outliers like Kirby's Dream Land 2, but none have demanded such constant focus and demand as managing up to ten separate Kirbys at once. Even the generous compensations it makes for the series' intended audience aren't easy hurdles; for instance, take the way it handles damage/revival. Each Kirby can take two hits before it floats up to the afterlife, but a carefully-aimed Kirby fling via touch screen will send the soul crashing down to earth fully revived.

A fair enough trade, but not one that's guaranteed. As the game progresses, the Kirbys will be inundated with projectiles, enemy hordes and moving screens of death to the extent where it's nearly impossible to multitask. That's not a mark on the game; after all, it's the only way the game can raise the stakes. Mass Attack is not overtly difficult by itself, but I can certainly imagine a child struggling with the concept far more than the likes of Kirby's Adventure or Kirby's Epic Yarn, and it's in an entirely different league should you aim for 100% completion. This should go against the very grain of the series--and as explained with the difficulty, it does--but it's actually quite fascinating to witness how far HAL's willing to stretch the series' goals and conventions via such an oddball concept.

Let us not mince words: much like the days of Shinichi Shimomura, Mass Attack is a B-Team effort made by HAL's B-Team. Unlike Mr. Shimomura's works, however, I struggle in pinpointing any specific design flaws in Mass Attack. I mean, I guess I could, but most of its drawbacks result from the more overt shortcomings of its producers than anything else. I say this with no offense whatsoever; I'm more than willing to be lenient with an experimental Kirby (I mean, it's hardly the first), and that I cannot pick apart specific flaws as a functioning game speaks to Mass Attack's quality.


Really, I guess what I'm trying to say is...well, let's just start with the gameplay. Naturally, the first question that arises from such a concept is that "Is it hard to control?". Not at all, and considering the disorderly Kirby horde I'm actually surprised the touch controls register so smoothly. Most, if not all, of the Kirbys were felled due to my error as a player, not from any misguided controls or slacking AI. They quickly react to the stylus and loyally follow the star wherever it goes.
 
That, and it's great fun. Copy Abilities may be sitting out again, but who cares when you have an army of Kirbys ready to swarm and piledrive everything in sight? Be it meticulously aiming for airborne enemies or simply swarming helpless Beanbons, Mass Attack operates with such vigorous, calculated chaos that could very well be the side-scrolling lovechild of Kirby and Pikmin. (In fact, I'd even say for fans of the latter like me, it leaves us wondering how a 2D Pikmin would operate...)

Adjectives like "meticulous" are interesting here since they provide such an intriguing contrast to Kirby's core. Make no mistake: this is just as much of a sugar-rush as the rest of the series, but that it's underscored by constant micromanagement provides not just a gripping challenge, but a different level of engagement we've never seen before from Kirby. For instance, levels are gated according to the number of Kirbys you possess, so letting KO'd Kirbys go or passing by food is not an option.

Furthermore, the concept demands objective-based level design, and Mass Attack delivers. As mentioned previously, where Mass Attack does succeed is its progressive ascension. Simply observe how the game is bookended: the opening levels have the Kirbys working together to pull out giant radishes to scrambling around an alien spaceship for blueprints of their extraterrestrial vehicle by the game's end. The latter concept is particularly inspired by how open-ended it is: you don't have to get all the blueprints if you don't want to, but you'll hardly have enough manpower for the inspired shoot-em'-up section at the end (not to mention your chances for earning medals).


Generally, Kirby Mass Attack is at its best when it foregoes sidescrolling conventions and does its own thing. Just take my favorite level courtesy of Sandy Canyon: 2-5, where the Kirbys ride in the Balloon Bobbleship--a basket hung by a plethora of balloons--as they dodge incoming spiky Gordos who threaten to pop the balloons. The vessel is sensitive to movement, as while it's steered from left to right by guiding the Kirby crowd from one side to the other, the rickety movement can send any one of them flying off without notice. It's exciting, heartpounding, and challenging all in one.

It's not that the instances of semi-regular sidescrolling greatly pale in comparison or anything, but the problem is that there's an awful lot of it. Levels tend to go on far longer than they should, and unless they break convention like the aforementioned UFO level, the game gets a little long in the tooth. This is especially troubling considering Mass Attack's abnormally large level-to-world ratio: each typically features 11 stages, and with only four worlds to venture--with a final one that's essentially a boss rush--the presentation of a confined, yet bloated context paves the way for some troubling flaws.



As already mentioned, the game does succeed in building upon ideas as it goes: Dedede Resort is a boon of mini-games and some great ice-related levels, and I dare not spoil the rest of Volcano Valley's surprises. No, Mass Attack's issues lie in how they're all framed. The "B-team" qualities are never stronger than they are in the accompanying visuals and sound, which rank among the lowest in the Kirby canon. They're hardly enough to cripple the game on its own terms, mind, but that they're this forgettable is a betrayal to the game's wondrous concept.


Case in point: the backgrounds. It's worth reminding 2D Kirby games have blended sprites and CGI in their backgrounds for a decade prior to Mass Attack. Here, the entirety of Mass Attack is sprite-based, with not a speck of pre-rendered models to be found. I can only imagine this was done in regards to the game's overabundance of sprites, hence the relative lack of detail.

The problem is that Mass Attack's world is that for all its color, it's uniformly boring. Whereas the likes of Nightmare in Dream Land, Squeak Squad and Super Star Ultra had their occasional misstep in aesthetic stinkers, nearly every one of Mass Attack's backgrounds lies in a safe model I have no use for. This is not the plush, dreamy reveries we've come to love from Kirby, but rather generic stock fantasy that you'd maybe spot on a Easter Bunny chocolate wrapper.


About the only inspired setpieces lie in the Dedede Resort, home to fun imagery consisting of pineapple islands and puzzle-piece domes. Not pictured are the Dedede-shaped funhouses, which always delight in their signalling of an upcoming mini-game (and further displaying the narcissistic ego of everyone's favorite royal penguin).


I must also call attention to the world map, which has never made an ounce of sense to me. For the uninitiated, Pop Star is supposed to be yellow, as stars typically are in children's properties; here, it's blue. I can only assume they're emphasizing the ocean surrounding the Popopo Islands, but it's rendered all the more bizarre since you witness Pop Star in all its yellow brightness during the ending.

For the record, I can't say I attribute Mass Attack's aesthetic issues entirely within its sprite-based confines; after all, the sprite animation works just fine (just watch the idle Kirbys!) with plush characters that easily fit within the world of Kirby. It's really more the art style that disappoints, as its limited detail cannot pick up the slack of the low world count. The game tries to subvert this by cramming numerous environmental tropes within each one, but even the likes of haunted graveyards and icy caverns beg the question if they didn't deserve worlds of their own.

Then there's the matter of music, which does break my heat a little. Look, let's be absolutely reasonable here: Shogo Sakai is not, in any way, a B-level composer, as attested by his work on Mother 3 (his masterpiece), Kirby Air Ride and the Smash Bros. series. Unfortunately, his first solitary Kirby work in Mass Attack is up there with his Squeak Squad collaboration as the weakest of his Nintendo output. While thankfully there's not a trace of GBA recycling to be found, the soundtrack's something of a mystifying mixed bag.


Which is all the more disappointing when considering how the game's main themes initially promise great things. Kirby Collecting is a joyously bombastic mix of percussion and vocals that greets the player at the title screen, instantly guaranteeing earworm hell over the ensuing week. The in-game variation, Meadow Breeze, carries the title's momentum with a lighter tone, as banjos and accordions come together to encapsulate the game's active energy.

An energy that, sadly, isn't consistently carried throughout the soundtrack. It's not so much terrible as it is  forgettable; so forgettable, in fact, I struggle in highlighting any one weak track over the rest (and I have the game's Sound Player right in front of me!). It comes across as Sakai recognizing the concept calls for overtly-peppy, vigorous tracks that rouse the player into action, but fears of treading too much on that line in the event of carbo-loaded burnout.




This isn't to say there aren't such tracks in Mass Attack's repertoire, and as expected, they're the soundtrack's standouts. There are excellent Kirby Air Ride cameos, for one, but we must not lose focus of what's actually new. Snowy Zone and Ruins Ahead, the former as featured above, are genuinely spirited representations of their respective environments, and Fetching Fruit is undeniably the driving force of what makes its respective sections so fun.

The problem here lies in balance. Such fun bombast is far too few and between, and when that a) directly correlates with the theme behind the game and b) is drowned by tracks that don't stir much emotion at all (let alone evocative of Kirby), that's something of a shame.

But let us not be too harsh on Mass Attack. Any failures in visuals or sound cannot override its solid foundation in gameplay, and I ultimately forgive its missteps thanks to its one upholding of a certain Kirby creed:  it remembers that Kirby games must be stuffed full of content; specifically, the mini-games. Mass Attack presents no less than six of the little buggers, and even then I pause at labeling them all as "little".


To the point, the volume of function and eye candy found in the likes of Kirby Brawlball (Kirby's second take at a pinball venture), Strato Patrol EOS (a multi-pronged shoot-em'-up) and Kirby Quest (a pseudo-RPG filled to the brim with fanservice) are particularly impressive. Much like how Kirby Triple Deluxe's sub-games would go on to be eShop purchases, it's very easy to see these three games polished up for digital release, and that's not even getting into how the latter two expertly weave the main game's ten Kirbys mechanic into their own domain.

This is not to sweep the other three mini-games under the rug; as a matter of fact, I appreciate Kirby Curtain Call's hilarious efforts to screw over the player (think about it: why does it have peaches mingling with the crowd?) as well as Field Frenzy's difficulty options offering a compelling crutch for its simple concept. It's an incredibly well-rounded selection of extras, enough to possibly render it the strongest mini-game collection in Kirby history.

No small feat for an experimental Kirby title, you understand, and perhaps that's where my forgiveness with Mass Attack's flubs stand. This is not a Kirby game that paves the way for the series' future, but is instead yet another attempt to see how far the series' elasticity can stretch. Some elements do not pick up the slack in doing so (the visuals and music), but everything else from the execution and creativity of its main campaign, its wonderful selection of mini-games and time-wasters and being the first and only Kirby game with an achievement system render it not only a success, but as one of the last great DS titles.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Interview with Josh Bone-Christian, Co-Director of Mother to Earth (GameSkinny)


My very first gaming interview! Wow.

As you all know, I'm incredibly passionate about the EarthBound (Mother) series, so I put my all into this interview. Hard to believe we have not one but TWO EarthBound-related documentaries coming up, even if they're centered around different games!

At any rate, it's a super fun and fascinating read about Mother to Earth's background, so I highly suggest checking it out!