Thursday, January 11, 2018

Case Closed: Vol 65 Review (Hey Poor Player)



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

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

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






Saturday, January 6, 2018

Yoshi's Woolly World


In achieving borderline perfection in gameplay, sound design and possibly the most charming, captivating artstyle of the 16-bit generation, Yoshi's Island is easily one of the greatest games ever made, although you'd hardly know it from its successors. When considering Yoshi's Story's dubious quality and "made-for-kids" identity, the forgotten gimmicks of Yoshi Touch & Go, and how the awfully lethargic efforts by Artoon/Arzest are best not spoken about, it was more than a little frustrating Nintendo couldn't figure out how to forge a proper sequel.

Note the past tense: it's been over two years since Yoshi's Woolly World first graced our Wii Us courtesy of Kirby's Epic Yarn developer Good-Feel and I can still scarcely believe its success. Not that I didn't think it wouldn't be a worthy spiritual successor to their Kirby effort, of course, but that it actually achieves throwing distance within Yoshi's Island's glory is a testament to Good-Feel's talent as a developer. Yes, to say Yoshi's Woolly World is superior to Yoshi's Island would be silly, but it is the first Yoshi sequel to understand what it means to take that step: Yoshi's saddle does not need Baby Mario glued 24/7, but it does not need any babyish concessions ala Yoshi's Story to stand out as an individual entry. 

Instead, Woolly World uses a middle ground for the base: the solo-Yoshi controls of Yoshi's Story  combined with the progression and tropes of Yoshi's Island are enough to feel familiar, albeit naturally outfitted with a wool motif for the former. From there, Good-Feel's team lets their own imagination of wool and yarn stitch the way, and it's never not delightful: like Kirby before him, Yoshi's soft form experiments in transformation (his turning into a mallet for the Ground Pound) or merely adapts to the new aesthetics (yarn balls replace his trademark eggs, with effects ranging from weaving platforms to ricocheting off walls and slamming into enemies)


While there's certainly enough Yoshi's Island design tropes to echo the SNES classic -- be it blocks to bop yarn balls out of or hitting winged clouds to uncover secret stairs -- Woolly World remembers to stick to its own identity rather than leaning upon its originator. I think of Fluffin' Puffin' Babysittin', where the level's titular babies are utilized to forge woolly cloud passages, or Walk the Chomp to Unwind's horde of yarn Chomp Rocks to roll about as unwitting allies.

Spooky Scraps, Don't Get Spooked stands out as one stellar example, as I'm hesitant to liken it to any previous Yoshi level. The poor dinosaur shivers from fright as roving curtains give way to friend and foe: hoppable platforms existing only behind the veils' whims, and the true nightmarish forms of the otherwise cuddly Boo Guys. Thanks to a particularly moody piece by Tomoya Tomita, it's chilling in a way I'd never have expected from Yoshi.

There are other stunners in creative exercise throughout, but like Epic Yarn before it, much of Woolly World relies upon capturing the player with its aesthetical prowess. As you'd expect, the wool-defined world is absolutely delectable, with each landmark and character stitched with animated fullness and love. We witness this in the aerial realm of Wobble Mobile Jaunt, whereupon Yoshi must hop upon crib mobiles -- all celestial bodies plastered with trademark Mario grins -- and hollow rockets to a lullaby echoing that of a sleepy Sunday morning. Inducing a hypnosis akin to that of an infant's daydream, it is nothing but a pure joy to play.


Of course, this is not Epic Yarn, and with it not being restricted by vastly outdated hardware, Good-Feel's first HD title isn't afraid to play around with its new hardware. What comes immediately to mind are the dynamic camera angles: much of these are reserved for the boss fights, granting them an added sense of depth not found in Nintendo's other Wii U sidescrollers. I admit I wish they could've been used more for the actual levels, as they're never not the most thrilling of delights (particularly when they involve swinging about on curtains, something we'll touch upon later).

Given the light-hearted material, however, it's not something that always needs to impress, but merely amuse us with its whimsies. I've never elaborated on this before, but Shy Guys are perhaps my favorite enemy of the Mario-verse, owing to their childish antics and localizer Nate Bilhdorf's bizarre yowls serving as their "voice." While we sadly don't see the latter here, I remain endlessly entertained with their interactions with the player: we chuckle to ourselves when a stray yarn ball sticks to their now-useless spears, and gasp when we realize one Shy Guy resting within the foreground cleverly hides a Smiley Flower.


It's in here we realize the innate playfulness within Woolly World's design, and what better example for that than Yoshi's greatest asset: Poochy. Never before did I think much about the dino's loyal canine, but now I recognize him as undoubtedly the one thing cuter than Yoshi, be it fetching pick-ups in his mouth, his little dance upon Yoshi collecting said pick-ups, or the content whine upon being licked. He is also, as far as I know, the world's one-and-only lava-resistant dog. Regardless of whether the levels are compatible with him, I can never help but bring him with me for a ride; I'd feel guilty otherwise (he's just too pleasant!).



And let us not forget the unlockable costumes, although as much as I adore the in-game ones inspired by past Nintendo consoles (GameCube Yoshi!), it's the amiibo compability that steals the show. Needless to say, Good-Feel's art team went all out in translating the pre-DLC Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS cast (minus the Pokémon, while also including Toad and Splatoon's Inklings) into Yoshi's form, and the creativity on display is incredible. Be it recognizing tiny details such as Olimar's Pikmin represented via Yoshi's spikes (complete with googly eyes!), the purple rim of Ness's cap placed on the uppermost spike, or all the concessions made for the visually complicated characters (Palutena's shield rests upon Yoshi's saddle, and yes, Yoshi's cheeks serve as Ganondorf's sideburns), and it was enough for me to utilize all of them at least once so I could further analyze their designs. In this, replaying each level wasn't just an excuse to discover their secrets; with new costumes and a lovable dog, it was just another day out in the park.

(Surprisingly, the only miss is Kirby; while adapting such a simple shape to Yoshi's doubtlessly proved difficult, the ubiquitous pink is hardly familiar at all even when factoring in the blushing cheeks and red shoes. What a shock given Good-Feel's experience with him!)

Speaking of Kirby, an old friend by the name of Tomoya Tomita returns to again lull us into sweet reverie. Not that the ever-present Kazumi Totaka shouldn't be given credit for doing the same via the adorable main theme -- the airy playfulness of Yarn Yoshi Takes Shape! instantly shoots it to the very top of his Yoshi efforts -- but that is his one and only contribution, leaving Tomita-san and his guitar-based approach to pick up the slack.

As mentioned when I spoke with Tomita-san, I describe Woolly World's soundtrack as being akin to a hayride, and what better example than Knitty-Knotty Windmill Hill? First introduced within a sleepy countryside, those carefree summer days instantly come to mind thanks to this soft combination of slide guitars and pianos, as I can just feel that crinkling straw as I nestle lazily in-between my family. Easily the most pleasant song in the game, Tomita-san's emphasis on country is hardly ever stronger than here. (coincidentally, this also plays in the aforementioned Wobble Mobile Jaunt, which is the key for its dreaminess)

It's also fascinating listening to how Tomita-san alternates in sticking to Yoshi's playful roots while stretching his boundaries. When accounting the familiar, you have head-boppingly infectious tunes in Bounceabout Woods and Yoshi and Cookies -- both insanely adorable themes that instantly gel with Yoshi's character -- to the screeching rock guitars of Lava Scarves and Red Hot Blarggs. To say the least, it is entirely unexpected when they greet our ears, but that it remembers to be more measured than your average F-Zero GX song somehow renders it perfectly acceptable within the world of Yoshi.


If forced to choose whether the active or gentle songs are stronger, the former wins on account of one single song: the Special Course theme. Operating on an uptempo, it is a fanciful dream meant for spectacle, not the least of which is a a thrilling curtain-filled rollercoaster navigated through jumps and clinging. Each and every last of those Special Courses will challenge even the most labored of players, but not once do they induce anger, and it's here we realize Woolly World's de-emphasis on lives plays into the music: not once does this rapturous tune ever stop in its highlighting our child-like glee in swinging about through starry auroras and dashing along bead-covered spouts, and that is how I found myself saying, "this is why I play video games."

Yoshi's Woolly World is not without missteps -- a little too many secrets rely on poking about and solving obscure puzzles rather than tapping into the same imagination applied for everything else. The presence of 8-bit "patches" are compelling visual treats in conception, but confuse in their purpose given their identical functions to their regular counterparts. And like Epic Yarn before it, something about the final boss never feels terribly climatic or all that satisfying to overcome.

But that's all rendered irrelevant in what it accomplishes: after twenty years of waiting, we finally, finally have a top-notch Yoshi that does justice not just to one of Nintendo's greatest mascots, but to successfully capitalize upon one of the finest games ever made. For the very final game released under Satoru Iwata's tenure, that's not just the greatest honor it can hope for; it's one of hope for Nintendo's future. 


I must make one final note: the co-op play is perhaps Nintendo's finest since New Super Mario Bros. Wii. While two players must work together, it's not long before friendly fire devolves it into anarchic slapstick, be it smacking Yoshis off ledges via Egg Toss and slurping/spitting Yoshis into poor Poochy. It's definitely a "you have to be there" thing, as there's something about the "SLAP!" sound effect that cracks me up every time I hear it. New Super Mario Bros. U may have the platforming wizardry and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze the spectacle and awe, but it is that loving warmth, its euphoric achievement, and little things like this that renders Yoshi's Woolly World my very favorite for Wii U.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy New Year!

For better or for worse, the turbulence of 2017 has paved the way for a very uncertain 2018. Such is the life of a left-wing American, but I suppose my blog isn't suitable for airing such grievances (let's just leave it at climate change and social media's reluctance to tackle discrimination/harassment -- hi, Twitter -- being objectively terrible things).

Anywho, with the year opening with two days off I wanted to wrap up another review, but a December cold decide to infect me again, so now that's uncertain. Regardless, I guess now would be a good time to say pretty much all those minor review updates I mentioned in November have been completed (check out my fear of Sonic the Hedgehog's drowning music!). You'll also notice most of my 2010-2013 reviews feature a disclaimer noting they're obsolete, although having recently filed a review schedule, I wouldn't expectment replacements for all of 'em until maybe next year.

Oh, and expect three Hey Poor Player reviews this month, too: a manga volume and two games. The former may be my first review copy, and one of the two games is an import! Can I successfully juggle all that with the blog? We'll have to find out.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Worldly Weekend: Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (GBA)


Not even one game later, and we arrive at the embryonic stage of Kingdom Hearts' ultimate folly: "bridge" games released across multiple platforms. The Disney/Square-Enix saga was not to continue just through numbered mainline entries, but through what series director Tetsuya Nomura described as games that would "bridge" -- or rather, set the stage for -- said numbered entries together. Kooky executive antics and Nomura's own over-ambition would eventually drive this direction out of control, as evidenced by the fact it's been twelve years since Kingdom Hearts II first launched in Japan and we've only just recently received a tentative date for the long-awaited third entry.

But we'll get to that mess when it comes. Really, what I want to talk about is how undeserving Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories -- the first of these bridge games, which arrived on Game Boy Advance in 2004 -- is of this blame, for I daresay it is perhaps the very finest title under the Kingdom Hearts banner. Not because it possesses the very highest highs of the series -- although quite a few are present here -- but rather in how it is the most consistent: what we have here is a game that not only recognizes its purpose, but is aware of its limitations and tries its damnedest to work around them to provide one of the most compelling JRPGs on the platform.

Let us be frank: there is no way you can fully emulate the original Kingdom Hearts experience on Game Boy Advance. We could, as Chain of Memories proves, simply reduce it to the hack-and-slash many were addicted to on PS2, but Kingdom Hearts is not a 2D beat-'em-up in the vein of Final Fight. None of the depth in the absence of 3D environments would be present, and with the emphasis on "worlds" and whatnot, something would certainly feel missing.


In response, Nomura and developer Jupiter come up with an unexpected solution: cards, or rather, the use of cards in a real-time setting. Every action in battle -- be they Keyblade attacks, magic, items and summons -- utilizes a card from your deck, and every one is designated with a number. The higher the number, the less likely enemies will cancel your attack with a higher-level card of their own.

With all the options provided, there's a sustainable amount of depth to be worked around here. No longer can you just get by on button-mashing here; you have to think about the cards to use. Do you combine your cards to unleash a Sleight attack, or use 0 cards to instantly break through the enemy's defense? Whatever you do, don't go overboard with the latter: 0 cards may technically be the strongest, but they'll instantly falter at any higher number card.

Let it be known this is the only Kingdom Hearts game framing its battles within 2D (or, at the very least, operating within limited movement); while the advances in technology for DS and PSP render the reason why obvious, it's stellar how well Square and Jupiter accommodated the 2D plane. None of the camera hijinks that may've plagued the first game are present, as Keyblade swings, magic and summons are automatically directed towards your foes rather than manually aimed (supposing you're facing the right direction, of course, but that's not too much trouble) which is why everyone's favorite card tactic is to constantly summon Cloud from Final Fantasy VII and watch him wreck fools with the Buster Sword.

We could elaborate on how the limited space leads to tense face-offs, but Chain of Memories doesn't forget to apply it elsewhere. For instance, you can't just jam in all your cards in the deck at once: there's a numbered limit that grows whenever you level up, so you construct your burgeoning deck around that. All sorts of enticing cards are nabbed throughout, it's a meticulous process as you decide (in fact, you can forge up to three decks for specific situations such as boss fights, although I've only ever been able to main one).

Indeed, even the world map plays into it: each world creates rooms based on the map cards you possess, be it making your attack cards stronger, rendering the Heartless swarming  or asleep, or simply creating a save point. Even when considering how doors often require certain numbers or colors, this allows players to create their own sense of progression and planning; for instance, why not reward myself with a treasure room, or fight for it by having it guarded by Heartless? And even with the reduced number of things to *do* in the world, that doesn't mean it doesn't play into our habits: Moogle Points (currency for cards) and Health Points are hidden throughout each room, and often you'll find yourself dodging Heartless as you smash and jump upon every object in sight to lap up each and every one.

 

You may be thinking, "well, how does this whole card thing fit into the narrative?" Not particularly well; in fact, it's probably the most convoluted part of the story. It's never quite explained why Castle Oblivion, the mysterious memory-based fortress Sora and co. explore, has to function around cards, and that's not even getting around to the plot holes surround the theme of forgetting memories, mainly surrounding the illusory Disney worlds recalled from the first game (barring Tarzan, which was likely due to legal issues with the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate).

And yet even putting that aside, it's easily the best-written script in the entire series. Unlike the first game's awkward ratio of low-quality prose to fully-animated (albeit still clunky) cutscenes, that it's based entirety in text means there's no excuse to dump base dialogue upon us; in other words, every line of dialogue must be of the same quality. Given the innate interpretation of sprite animation means none of the aforementioned clunkiness impedes our critical eyes, and our engagement soars.

Regardless of any faults in Chain of Memories' "bridge game" identity, there's no denying its narrative strength as a mystery. With the stakes set within the foreboding halls of Castle Oblivion -- Sora and co.'s abilities are instantly forgotten the moment they step in, and gradually their memories as well -- and the claustrophobic tension becomes ever more palpable, with betrayal and manipulation at the hands of Organization XII (or, as they're initially localized here, "The Organization"). The black-hooded villains that further antagonize Sora throughout his later adventures, their presence in Chain of Memories remains their best appearance: they are clearly not a group united for one purpose, as their motives peel away to reveal conspiracies, treason and political struggles for power (Axel being by far the most interesting of the six members introduced, as his solitary agenda remains an enticing hook for Kingdom Hearts 2).

Does Chain of Memories make the same mistake of diminishing the Disney presence? Yes -- none of the illusion worlds further the plot in any capacity -- and yet despite that, it's the one entry where it properly balances that nebulous blend of Disney magic and brooding Final Fantasy philosophy the series so constantly strives to achieve. It may be they are the reprieve we need from the suffocating animosity that plagues Castle Oblivion, but even while illusion Peter Pan's still kind of a dick, that even his tale ends on childhood memories means they, too, tie into the themes of memories and recollection. (That, and well, I can't help but praise how Jiminy Cricket, the royal chronicler who typically languishes in the background, actually maintains his own presence)

It helps the character portraits for each cameo are expertly detailed, although I struggle saying that when the case of Winnie the Pooh's Rabbit exists: his ghastly expressions echoing that of a reanimated corpse have never ceased in spooking the hell out of me, and they're perhaps the worst of his physically-apparent morbid neurosis that Square-Enix cannot seem to part with.



Of course, Yoko Shimomura arrives to help things along. Much of the game consists of 16-bit reprises of the original game's Disney world themes, but what is new supplements the "mystery" theme impeccably well: the bells of Castle Oblivion continue to ring in my head, their dark and foreboding call threatening to swallow my conscious whole. Meanwhile, the game's teaser for Kingdom Hearts 2's Twilight Town gives our first introduction to Lazy Afternoons and Sinister Sundown: the former a perfect encapsulation of a long-gone youth, the latter exuding an ethereal nostalgia that reminds me of Donkey Kong Country's famous Aquatic Ambiance.

I must, however, hail my favorites as a pair that play within cutscenes. Naminé's theme is a piano lament that captures us in its wordless debut, the pitiable melancholy exuding through every key stroke. However, it's La Pace that truly tugs at my heartstrings -- music boxes never fail to elicit emotion from me, and here it often closes the book in a heartwarming manner, namely in my two favorite sequences: the endings for the Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh scenarios.

I should note Chain of Memories' technological achievements: that it compressed PS2-quality 3D cutscenes is is a stunner from the get go, but Simple and Clean, the localized Hikaru Utada song we first witnessed back on PS2 and hear here for the credits, sounds nearly as crisp here as it did on TV, and it never ceases to wow me. Whatever the wizardly involved, I just wish that same creativity was  into making the 100 Acre Wood an entertaining romp; in its deviation from the map card system, its assortment of unintuitive puzzles is never not frustrating).

Regardless, I am aware stating Chain of Memories is the best Kingdom Hearts is an uncommon opinion. This is hardly new territory for me -- you're reading the ramblings of a man whose finest Pokémon memories lie within Ruby and Sapphire -- but it's never not astonishing to me how what's supposed to be an appetizer breaks free of its bounds and flourishes as an overly-solid title all on its own. That the further bridge games fluctuated in such quality or even relevance is a testament to its worth, one that I hope the mainline series will achieve and eventually maintain.


Oh, and one more observation: given Kingdom Hearts' collection of licenses, it is not uncommon to witness a list of their respective copyrights before the games start, but in the case of Chain of Memories, it has never made much sense to me why the Peter Pan characters are singled out. Unlike Tarzan, the property is under no legal entanglements that I am aware of, and it's even more odd Wendy is the lone absence from this citation. This is present even within the PS2 remake, and I have yet to decipher any reason why this is. Not that this matters in the slightest, but such is the life of us nitpicky game historians.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King Review (Hey Poor Player)



Question: was 4/5 too low? I come across as quite positive throughout the review, and I kept going back and forth on that and 4.5. I felt 4/5 was appropriate for a game of this caliber, but it just does so much right; actually, I'd say it's easily the best indie I've played all year.

Let me put it this way: if Zelda: A Link to the Past was your childhood jam, you'll love Blossom Tales. And you'll like it regardless. Play it!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: The Champions' Ballad Review



I procrastinated on this one a little longer than I would've liked. Do you think it turned out okay? Still not entirely satisfied with it, but it had to come out.

Regardless, the bike is amazing. A well-deserved GOTY for Nintendo!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Astra Lost In Space Vol. 1 Review (Hey Poor Player)



So stoked to finally discuss my love for this series! Astra Lost In Space is really one of those series that just keeps getting better as it goes on, so I hope you'll join me on the Astra's adventure.

Anyway, Worldly Weekend may or may not arrive this weekend, so keep your eyes peeled.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Promised Neverland Vol. 1 Review (Hey Poor Player)



My first manga review!!! I put my all into this, so be sure to give it a look. I consider The Promised Neverland an modern classic, so I highly recommend the actual manga, too.

Astra Lost in Space will be arriving tomorrow.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse


Ah, now there's the smile we know and love! As expected, Kirby's preciousness shines especially well through clay, and there is perhaps no better representative to bear it than Kirby and the Rainbow Curse: a claymation-based title matched only by Kirby's Epic Yarn in sheer cuteness. Even now, we must continue cherishing this pure countenance, for it is the last time Kirby bared this visage for an international audience.

Anywho, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is not only the one Wii U Kirby game, but is a sequel to 2005's Kirby: Canvas Curse, the one series entry notable for captivating non-fans. Hailed as Nintendo's first truly original concept for Nintendo DS, Canvas Curse remains the handheld's hallmark for touchscreen play: drawing rainbow strokes for Kirby to coast along played unlike anything else in the market, and combined with a techno soundtrack and mish-mash of abstract aesthetics so alien to Kirby, it's little wonder it succeeded as it did.

In contrast, it's not so surprising Rainbow Curse didn't meet the same acclaim: while the Wii U GamePad is a perfect fit for its gameplay (stylus and touchscreen, y'know) and its claymation aesthetic is every bit as ambitious, HAL's first HD game reverts to a more familiar presentation in bright colors and light-hearted tunes. With their B-team at the helm, the game itself hardly wowed like Canvas Curse a decade earlier, with fans deeming it either simply entertaining or writing it off as a disappointing budget effort.

On the opposite spectrum lies former employer Nintendojo and their perfect score, and while I cannot claim the same opinion, the Kirby connoisseur in me cannot help but come to Rainbow Curse's defense. Yes, it is no Canvas Curse, but it remains a solid title, a thoroughly pleasant little affair impossible not to be charmed by. 


I mean, by God, that artstyle! Do I ever wish there was a full behind-the-scenes documentary on the design process -- tantalizing as the conception, clay model shoots and how-to videos/features are, they are hardly enough to sate my thirst -- (bold, too, given that this was HAL Laboratory's first HD game). Set to a dreamy score by Shogo Sakai and series newcomer Megumi Ohara, and it's a game that feels as soft as clay itself.

The use of Green Greens -- a homely theme emblematic of the series' warmth -- as a recurring motif is what sells it, and I can think of no better example than the tutorial accompaniment, an especially lovely remix of harps and recorders echoing the reverie of a dreaming newborn. As soft as Hirokazu Ando's nostalgic arrangement for Kirby's Epic Yarn, the opening harp strings captivate us into an innocent world of clay, goading us alongside the actual tutorial.

Perhaps this is why the first world leaves an especially strong first impression: triumphantly emerging with a guitar-ridden theme, we're greeted by the familiar assemblage of posts and star spinners as all the slopes and Star Blocks pave the way for our new toy: Star Dash, a new mechanic obtained via star collecting and plows through a supercharged Kirby through crowds and debris alike. By the level's end, it becomes a playground prone to experimentation.

I say that in spite of the linear design permeating the game, and that's why I can't really get mad at it. True, we could do with more creativity in hidden paths and whatnot, but that's not what Canvas Curse was about, and it's not like Rainbow Curse doesn't do a good job of hiding collectables and supplementing Challenge Rooms. Balancing your use of Rainbow Ropes -- lest you run out of clay and fall -- is also just as meticulous as utilizing the DS game's paint, and much of Canvas Curse's old tricks in shielding Kirby from lasers and navigating around sawblades return.

Really, this is to say Rainbow Curse isn't afraid to get difficult -- narrow escapes from aerial battleships and touch-of-death skulls all the while juggling your ropes prove for some nasty encounters --  but the game remembers Canvas Curse's template being prime for environmental manipulation was when it was at its most interesting, and that's where you get winners such as guiding metallic spheres as switch-pressers or gate-opening keys (naturally, Kirby himself is subject to experimentation: a late-game level has him split in two, and the ensuing chaos of them bouncing into each other is as trying as it is endlessly entertaining).


Perhaps most controversial is how Kirby possesses no Copy Abilities to absorb and unleash, and relies only on rolling and dashing to plow through. This does lead to some oversights (more on that in a moment), but I also hold no objections to this: again, given this is their first HD project, I imagine this would've overburdened HAL's claymation process, undoubtedly a grueling endeavor. Conversely, Rainbow Curse must rely on level-specific transformations to impress: Missile Kirby is a particular highlight for the high-speed, high-stakes scenarios involved -- I'm particularly fond of how the climaxes involve drawing out escape routes -- all the while Tank and Submarine provide their respective blends of shmup gameplay (the latter using ropes to guide along missiles).

If there is any one true failure of Rainbow Curse, it surely lies within Challenge Mode, and that's where it fails to compensate for the absence of Copy Abilities. Prized in Canvas Curse for its tough-as-nails difficulty and unique, individualized challenges, Rainbow Curse takes a quantity-over-quality approach in supplying 48 variations of the aforementioned Challenge Rooms; needless to say, taking ten-second bonus games and stringing them together into sequential packages grows tiresome fast. They may live up to their name as a challenge, but that they never reach the same levels of creativity renders it a bust.

There are other quibbles dragging Rainbow Curse down: for example while the controls are generally fine, I could not for the life of me figure out how to operate the gondola rides. They're to be shifted via stylus from rope to rope as they amble along, and yet they just absolutely refuse to register the switch, often leaving poor Kirby to fall prey to bottomless pits and lava pools. Meanwhile, the final level is well-designed for what it is, but the low-key atmosphere (and general weirdness) doesn't accurately convey the tension of a final level. Perhaps the repeating bosses grow tiresome too, but I don't take much offense to that; after all, Canvas Curse did the same thing.

Make no mistake about it, though: Kirby and the Rainbow Curse's claymation is one heck of an eye-catcher. As appropriately plush as Kirby himself, much of it operates in that jerkily authentic movement one witnesses in the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas, be it the pulsating flowers decorating the landscape or Carpa fish climbing the underground waterfall. It, too, remembers the most tantalizing Kirby backgrounds aren't just the ones that make us sigh with wonder, but make us go, "how does that work?", hence why we're captivated from the very beginning when those stalk-sprouting houses beg us to take a peek inside.

Truth be told, I somewhat prefer Canvas Curse's fluctuation of abstraction if only it appeals more to the imagination, but I dare any one of you to watch the opening cutscene and tell me it is not a perfect fit for Kirby. Dream Land is as lush and scrumptious as Kirby Super Star and Kirby's Return to Dream Land before it, the adorable antics of Kirby, Waddle Dee and Elline the Paintbrush compelling us to pinch and squeeze everything in sight.

A reaction Rainbow Curse anticipates, hence the presence of figurine galleries and Elline's diary. However, the former's display of craftsmanship and easter eggs find themselves out-shown by the figurine descriptions, which detail the melancholic motivations behind each and every NPC. Yes, as soft and cuddly as Rainbow Curse may seem on the surface, it certainly has room for the broken hopes and dreams of Blados, Dethskullks and Drill Cottas everywhere. Thankfully, Elline's diary balances that gloominess out by ensuring every page will melt you into a puddle of gooey aww's.



And yet for all its successes in art, I can't bring myself to call it Rainbow Curse's glory; nay, again, it is Sakai and Ohara's soundtrack that deserves that honor. I say the following despite being terrible in differentiating musicians, and yet it's amazing how not only this is easily Sakai's finest work for the series since Air Ride, but that there's no evident drop in quality proves Ohara's worth as a Kirby composer.

The Blue Sky Palace world is one such example: Rainbow Across the Skies and The Wild Red Yonder perfectly portray the opposite level spectra of Kirby -- the former, echoing the feel-good, light-hearted innocence defining his world, making what's what's already a pleasant soar more soothing than it has any right to be; the latter trumpeting the grand exploit of Kirby fending off a nefarious clay airship.

The true score highlight, however, lies within the treasure trove of unlockable remixes from across series history. I'm not quite sure what otherwordly force compelled Sakai and Ohara to successfully juggle experimental takes on Kirby's Adventure's Forest Theme and Kirby Super Star's Rest Area, turning Yogurt Yard into even more of an infectious headbopper, and the awe-inspiring nostalgia of Milky Way Wishes, but the euphoric shudders one experiences when hearing the saxophone/guitar solos of Moonlight Capital is enough to claim Rainbow Curse's soundtrack may rival Kirby's Epic Yarn and Kirby's Return to Dream Land as being the finest of Kirby this past decade.

Of course, even if that all didn't exist, the unexpectedly groovy Haunted Ship theme would be enough. Perhaps the most tonally dissonant song in series history, my fascination grew so large I frequently played it at full blast in my college dorm. I regret nothing.

(By the way, I cannot be the only one that noticed this song bears an eerie resemblance to the My Neighbor Totoro theme. An innocent coincidence, I'm sure, and yet it's right there.)

In the end, yes, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse doesn't push the bar as Canvas Curse did for innovative entertainment, but it doesn't have to. In light of its shortcomings, what it does accomplish within the constraints of its ambitions is a success in itself.  For a budget title as gentle as this, I couldn't ask for more.

 

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword


As this review's been nearly six years in the making, it's only fair I cut to the chase: I still intend to bury The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Admittedly, I embark on this task with some trepidation: it is not a game that is outright terrible, as I have implied in the past. This is not the so-called sorcery of the previously-discussed Zelda Cycle; a carefully-evaluated 100% run does reveal it is a professionally-designed title with your typical Nintendo polish and all that, and like Twilight Princess before it, there are some good moments I dare not wish to minimize.

That does not, unfortunately, dissuade me from believing Skyward Sword is possibly the most underwhelming output from Nintendo's own studios in their entire history of game development. This is not to say it is the worst -- Donkey Kong Jr. Math and Urban Champion have endured three decades of mud-slinging for a reason -- and this excludes second-party efforts and third-party collaborations (Metroid: Other M, being worse in every way that matters, would obviously be the runaway winner).

Nay, I talk about games strictly designed from The Big N itself, and this is also a hesitant claim when you consider the general quality imbalance of the Wii/DS era: fellow series entry The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for DS could match the very same claim, and the copy-and-paste composition of Animal Crossing: City Folk remains uncharacteristically lazy nine years later. And yet it's the non-existent impression of Skyward Sword that stings the most: it's a game that recognizes Zelda has grown stale, yet for all its ambition it not only fails to solve any growing pains but go against the very values the series cherished in the first place.



Gameplay-wise, most everything to do with this involves the overworld. See, Skyward Sword  presents a balance between two worlds: The Sky, where Link and the rest of civilization live, and the unexplored Surface. Whereas decent arguments exist for The Sky's purpose as a Hyrule Field-esque hub, I've yet to encounter anything remotely similar for The Surface, with its goal of "the entire world being a dungeon" falling short in its fatal flaw: the emphasis on level-based progression. Every region has a "zone" to clear, with all being centered around puzzles -- be they bombing bridges, rescuing woodland critters and using magic stones to revert time -- all the while dowsing for trinkets and finding your way to the region's specific dungeon.

In other words, the whole game is essentially a take on Twilight Princess's Twilight Realms, which need I remind you were never very popular in the first place. Because everything's designed as a puzzle, traversing the world becomes a tedious process as you'll find yourself repeating the same minor puzzles again and again: you'll swim through that flooded tree again, you'll be navigating those same minecarts again, and you'll have to climb that goddamn Eldin Volcano again and again. We could, of course, simply zip back up to the sky and dive back down again into another spot, but when considering a) the natural progression of the story and b) how obviously tiresome that is, it's not really much of an option. The game embrace the identity of being "dense" with these confined zones, but exploration yields little fun thanks to repetition, and barring perhaps the Lanaryu Desert the puzzles are hardly worth deviating from Zelda's open origins.

When considering how Skyward Swords segues these puzzles into the dungeons, it's a big problem, and it leaves an especially bad impression with the first two spelunkings. Both are entirely cookie-cutter, consisting of one floor each and failing to leave any sort of impression thanks to their brevity. The Earth Temple is an especial shocker, squandering its only solid concept (rolling on a boulder through lava) in largely restricting it to traveling purposes and making even the iconic boulder-chase a complete joke with low-key xylophone music.

From there, things are hit-or-miss: when it's slogging around and emphasizing dull puzzles, you get non-entity duds like Fire Sanctuary (which creates the unfortunate sideffect of two nearly identical-looking fire dungeons). When it actually taps into its imagination and continually ties in a compelling mechanic throughout the overworld (Timeshift Stones), you end up with winners like Lanaryu Mining Facility and the Sandship. It's an uneven balance that gradually wears away that familiar anticipation of a new dungeon, and only the Timeshift Stone dungeons stick out as being particularly successful. (For the former, I suspect since you're constantly venturing into caves/abandoned buildings beforehand -- all of which utilize the same mechanic --  as opposed to the first two dungeons, it's the one area that succeeds as the "overworld that feels like a dungeon" template).

I can't but wonder if this is partly in fault of a weak artstyle. Skyworld Sword's impressionist "painting" aesthetic is a concept that's nearly as eye-grabbing as The Wind Waker's cel-shading, but while it executes a presentation that's more colorful than Twilight Princess (which is good), but it makes numerous failings that prevent it from being especially distinctive (which is bad). This could just be 2011 speaking -- by then, Wii's SD presentation was more woefully outdated than ever -- and yet when considering the deliciously plush Kirby's Return to Dream Land was released just a month prior, I can't think of any other reason why inspired concepts like the Ancient Cistern --  a dungeon take on an ancient Buddhist fable -- don't leave any impression.


This isn't entirely fair to its technical accomplishments --  the draw distance has a neat effect where the background renders colored dots so emblematic of impressionism --  but I'm stricken far more by its technical failures; case in point, what's up with the trees? That screenshot you see above was from the Skyward Sword's initial E3 2010 presentation, and I remain stunned at how representative it is of the final game. If N64 graphical techniques were necessary to maintain the impressionist look, then I'm not sure if it was worth the effort.



This even extends to the character design: while the human characters are generally fine (check out the animated merchants that populate Skyloft's Bazaar), the enemy design -- particularly the bosses -- continually undermine any sense of danger, be they ridiculously simplified to the point of comedy (Tentalus, who could very well be the gargantuan lovechild of Mike and Celia from Monsters Inc.), come across as mid-boss material (Moldarach) or just look really dumb (any and all Bokoblin variations). It's very hard to take most of them seriously regardless of any inspired concepts going on (which, honestly, isn't many: Tentalus is perhaps host to the series' most obvious weakpoint), with only Koloktos and the final boss succeeding in engaging design (the latter less so, if only in that I was so demoralized from everything prior).

The Imprisoned is by far the biggest offender on both an aesthetic/gameplay front, being an  incarnation of evil that is a giant goofy worm who you must slay by slicing his toes and engage in three incredibly repetitive boss fights. On top of all the malfunctioning camera angles, the infuriating stomp-induced shockwaves and that it generally takes forever to kill, it's simply not fun. While defenders have pointed to clever uses of the air draft to take it down quickly, that just further highlights what a waste of time it is, as I really do not want to run around like that three times.

Nor do I care for Skyward Sword's directive as an "origin story". Let it be reminded that with Ocarina of Time being the original "first" game chronologically, there are naturally going to be retcons, and Skyward Sword is in no short supply of those (and while we're mentioning the N64 masterpiece, let us also note the frustration of this being the fourth consecutive 3D Zelda title contextually riding on its coattails). Even with that in mind, it falls into the all-too-common prequel traps of explaining/retconning things we already knew (how the Triforce came to be), introducing things that don't end up having much relevance (mentions of an ancient kingdom) and perhaps even undermining things we already knew (we already knew why Ganondorf became the way he did, and this eternal curse deal arguably trivializes The Wind Waker's poignant monologue).

Much of this can be distilled into one problem: Skyward Sword's story really likes baiting the player, and it is never not the most frustrating thing. I can't fault this direction entirely given the world set-up (Skyloft, the floating island where Link, Zelda and the rest of the humans reside, is the only organized civilization in the world, whereas The Surface is mainly un-colonized wilderness), but this means there's not lot of meat to chew on besides the main plot points; consequently, it ends up feeling unusually thin. Take, for instance, the ancient kingdom we learn about in the opening and eventually excavate within the aforementioned Lanaryu Desert. The introduction of a fourth Goddess immediately grabs our attention, the Timeshift Stones imply this was once an area of much greenery, and the monkey-esque robots reanimating to life present an adorably bittersweet intrigue.

And then...that's it. We don't learn anything about how this technology came to be, or the shift in biomes, or really much about this ancient civilization at all. There are tantalizing hints, yes, but that's all they remain, and that it always happens with the most interesting details is never not frustrating (right down to the sudden namedrop, build-up, and the irrelevant introduction of the "Temple of Time" in the same location. Granted, there is another location that eagle-eyed fans should recognize as being said area, yet not only does that feed into the same problem, that an overhead shot from the ending implies it's supposed to be something else strikes as a shocking oversight)


Even on its merits as a standalone tale it's frustrating, which mainly boils down to its character utilization. Let's put it this way: I enjoy most of the characters at their base level, but care not for how the story ultimately handles them. For instance, Skyward Sword's iteration of Zelda remains the most adorable yet, and the budding romance between her and Link does work and all that, but I care not for how the plot requires her to continually bait the hero. Yes, this is done purposefully, and admittedly it does pay off with a heartfelt scene, but it does not scrub the frustration of just how little context is shared about The Surface, and without substantial sidemeat to chew on it never comes off as anything but barebones (particularly when considering how previous 3D Zeldas laid the major stakes by the second act; here, Zelda literally just goes "take this harp kthx bye").

Meanwhile, the villain Ghirahim is deliciously evil with all his gruesome dramatics, and yet...did anyone else notice he doesn't do much of anything? Yes, he does summon boss monsters to torment poor Link, but it's not until the very end that he succeeds at any of his dastardly deeds, and consequently he just comes across as a bumbling lackey. Compare him to the similarly vain Yuga of 2013's A Link Between Worlds, and I yearn for what could have been.

Only two exceptions exist for this self-set rule, and it's never not fascinating how they lie at entirely opposite ends of this spectrum. On the good end, you have Groose's transition from the local bully to being a genuine, good-natured hero by the tale's end. That he's a constant force throughout the story (and has the best lines) is what makes this work, and also makes me yearn of how this could've been accomplished with the other characters.


On the other end lies Skyward Sword's greatest sin in Fi, who I can confidently claim is one of the worst characters in Nintendo history. A robotic soul dwelling within what will become the Master Sword, Fi's presentation as an analytic servant would be logical for such a character's initiation, but that she stays that way throughout the entire story is nothing but wasted potential. Adding insult to injury is the teeth-gnashing "goodbye" sequence, a scene so lazily rote that it screams of writers forgetting they had to flesh out an actual character until the last minute.

Far, far worse, however, are her infamous analyses, serving the worst case of handholding within the entirety of Zelda. Fans are quick to dismiss these by pointing out "well, Midna did it more in Twilight Princess" or "well, there were those power-up explanations in Link's Awakening," and while these are worth observing, they hardly match how patronizing Fi is in pointing out the obvious. Below are paraphrased examples I collected from my replay:

"Master, I am detecting new enemies ahead even though you can see one standing five feet in front of you. Did you also know you press Z to target an enemy, then Down to call me even though I told you already?"

"Master, I know you just started the game, but I wanted to tell you your Shield Durability is low even though I told you that the last time you played."

"Master, I think this door is important, which you can tell because it needs the Boss Key."

"A report, Master: I can no longer detect Zelda's aura even though she obviously left in a big climatic cutscene just moments ago."

"Master, I can confirm you lost the trial. I am now going to tell you the rules again even though you already know."

"Master, this strange mark appeared when you played the harp. I can confirm it reacted to your performance, which should be obvious to anyone with eyes."

"Master, your new bow's elasticity can propel arrows through the air allowing you to hit targets from afar, which everyone not just familiar with bows but with Zelda games in general should know. Also, I'm going to tell you exactly where to fire it right now."


Common is the Zelda sidekick who points out information you just heard, but none match the aggravating matter-of-fact tone treating the player as a baby, offending both fans and newcomers alike. This isn't even the worst offender, which would be her initiating a godawful chime reminder to change your Wii Remote batteries. Yet another defense arrives that you have to initiate the verbal warning from Fi, but hell no I'm not going to wait out the ten seconds for the sound to go away.

Worse still is how handholding grows beyond Fi, with item description reminders reducing Skyward Sword to a slog every every single time you start up the game, Yes, the game has the decency to not do the same thing with hearts and rupees again, but the Amber Relic you've picked up 40 times before is never spared. After enduring "You got a blue rupee!" five years earlier in Twilight Princess, it's especially tone-deaf.

So can we say anything nice? As mentioned before, there are some things I don't want to entirely bury, although those are mired in themselves. For instance, I can never make up my mind about the motion controls -- Skyward Sword's use of Wii Motion Plus for swordplay certainly made sense, although it can't escape being a product of its time. While it's hardly the only Wii Motion Plus title with the required initiation of setting down the Wii Remote and letting it calibrate every time the game begins, it settles further into "deflating slog" territory thanks to that ritual.

At the same time, it does work for what it is. I'm of the opinion it sets the learning curve a little too high (enemies like Bokoblins rely too much on sudden feints, and the training dummies in Skyloft's dojo don't prep you for that) and the 1:1 movement does render Link's movements a little unnatural, but it's the one of the sole oases of successful experimentation: when it's focused on analyzing holes in enemy postures; it is interesting; when it highlights quick n' dirty exploits (Lizafols and the Jenga-esque Beamos) it feels natural and dare I say thrilling.

Other maneuvers feel more clunky: bomb-bowling takes getting used to, swimming is an exercise I'd rather not partake in again, and playing the harp is akin to torture, but the rest are harmless. If there is any argument hailing Skyward Sword's motion controls as a success, they must begin with the Beetle, a flying gadget that yields countless experimentation, be it grabbing faraway items or chasing down frightened Bokoblins. If only the same could be the same for the other new items: Gust Bellows and Mogma Mitts are just lamer versions of The Minish Cap equipment.

Then there's the music, which... look, I really don't want to slam Skyward Sword's music, what with a) Hajime Wakai and Mahito Yokota leading the way and b) it being the first orchestral Zelda. There are effective MIDI songs, mind -- Skyloft is a particular standout, perfectly channeling that wistful nostalgia of "home sweet home" -- but like both Mario Galaxys before it, the orchestral songs are the runway highlight. While I could cite the stirring boss themes (which, in the cases of problematic boss design, elevate their encounters to the perilous threats they aim to be), The Sky theme is easily the best to my mind: unlike the Comet Observatory and Starship Mario, this hub accompaniment barrels out of the gate as a grand, rousing tune echoing the vast reaches of the sky, gradually evolving via percussion.


 And yet, just like Twilight Princess, I can hardly bear to remember much anything else. At first glance, one may blame Skyward Sword largely restricting its orchestral compositions to the boss fights/cutscenes -- when considering how the Mario Galaxy titles frequently switched between orchestra/MIDI, it's certainly an easy target -- and yet, would that really have salvaged tracks as pedestrian as this? Again, there are effective MIDI songs when considering the ethereal likes of  Bamboo Island and Fi's Theme, and yet even those remain locked in isolated instances -- when it comes to song accompanying the bulk of gameplay, most are far too subdued to leave any lasting impression (the battle theme is representative of this problem: it's literally just tribal percussion, ).

The only exception that comes to mind is the Lanaryu Mining Facility theme, which drives one to insanity no less than five seconds in. I'm not quite sure what that tortuous leading instrument is (a xylophone?), but I'm in no rush to get reacquainted with it; hell, even just finding the link nearly gave me a migraine. Regardless, it too is emblematic of undermining what is a compelling example of game design (the other being Fi's constant interruptions threatening The Sandship's pacing, which is otherwise the game's best dungeon).

Which is why if I must champion any part of Skyward Sword, Skyloft is the only acceptable choice. It is perhaps the most compelling Zelda civilization since Majora's Mask's Clock Town, complete with gut-busting sidequests (namely one involving a very expensive chandelier, which preys upon our destructive gaming habits), easter eggs (ever wanted to spy on an old man in the bath? Here you go.) and an opening tutorial that isn't nearly as painful as Twilight Princess's, remembering to world-build with its skybound concept (Not that it's not annoying: hope you like catching pets and moving boxes).

But Skyloft is an aerial oasis in a sea of mediocrity. As a whole, Skyward Sword is the culmination of frustrating design choices that plagued the series since Twilight Princess -- be it handholding, sluggish padding (swimming for music notes?!?), and un-Zelda level design --  that aggressively reduce any ambitions to the point of feeling not just tone-deaf, not completely at odds with what the series is about, but completely, utterly ordinary. And as a title meant to celebrate the series' 25th anniversary, I can hardly think of anything more disappointing.