Monday, March 31, 2014

Hi There

How's it going?

So, we've had a bit of a slow start for 2014. The delays have been unfortunate, but deliberate: over the past five months or so I've been reflecting on what exactly Leave Luck to Heaven's purpose is to me. I've invested much time, labor, and love into its development, which has weathered through times of personal heartbreak and life-changing turbulence. 

When looking back over the past four years, we've come quite a ways, haven't we? Leave Luck to Heaven initially began as a writing platform for me to continually hone my craft, and the passion in my early entries are evident. I wrote various collections of articles--typically a thousand words each--revolving around individual games very near and dear to my heart, and I frequently posted impressions of the latest Nintendo releases. Those have since faded into disuse: I now only dedicate one post to each game, and I've regressed into reviewing older titles. While this has solved some problems regarding overworked time management and personal interest, it leaves new games neglected and other columns tend to languish. Leave Luck to Heaven, we can say, is still finding its voice.

And yet I feel I'm on the cusp of something. The level of writing ability between now and four years ago is night and day, and while this has caused some discomfort in reading my older work, I'm proud of how I've progressed. Yet if I want the blog to grow, it is necessary for me to follow a consistent dedication for an appropriate, realistic timetable. I cannot no longer accept a biweekly music column to be updated every few months, and I refuse to let my Kirby feature hog the spotlight for too long, and I'm rather sick of announcing new features that never come to fruition.

I want Leave Luck to Heaven to prosper through my own ambitions for writing, but I recognize this can only be managed through a reasonable workload in accordance to my time at college. Starting next month and for the next half year, I'll be initiating a regular monthly system for that strives to include two Kirby titles, the biweekly music column, and one game of my choosing. Further details are found in the bulletpoints below:
  • I aim to finish the Ten Years of Kirby column by September. Kirby: Triple Deluxe will also be added to the selection.
  • Just to speed things along, the overview of the Kirby of the Stars/Right Back at Ya! anime will be the final entry. This means April will focus on Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards and Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land.
  • Biweekly Music Wednesday! will continue...this Wednesday!
  • The games of my choosing will be both old and new. I desire not to review recent games until after I have nearly exhausted everything they have to offer and have thereafter reflected sufficiently on my experience, so reviews for Nintendo's latest titles likely won't arrive until some months after their release.
Let's have a great 2014!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ten Years of Kirby ~Reverie 6~ Kirby's Dream Land 3

Not even a week after Kirby Super Star's release in North America in September 1996, the Nintendo 64 launched with the revolution that was Super Mario 64. While not the first of its kind (that is, a 3-D game), it was certainly what turned people's eyes around to the endless possibilities of the new genres. No longer were developers shackled to the confines of two-dimensional space, as the awe-inspiring scope of Bob-omb Battlefield proved that game direction could be taken as far as the imagination allowed it. Companies quickly shifted gears in their development processes, whether it be direct knock-offs of Mario 64 or reconstructing obscure genres (such as Metal Gear Solid's take on stealth). Stragglers such as Klonoa and Mega Man attempted to prove 2-D gaming still had its place, but the public's captivation said otherwise.

With this in mind, it immediately strikes the retrospective game historian as being rather odd that Nintendo would continue bothering with the already-archaic 2D-focused Super Nintendo. Do not misinterpret me: I am not with any shortage of love for Nintendo's greatest home console, but why focus on an ancient console when your current one is struggling to gain a successful foothold? It's possible they assumed the two systems would be joint successes such as how the NES/SNES were previously, but with third-parties rapidly jumping ship to a more compatible contender (the disc-based Sony Playstation), it would seem rather obvious the N64 would need all the support it could get.

But as still remains the case today, debating the origins of Nintendo's infamous stubbornness will yield not answers but instead endless headaches, so we may as well accept and analyze the cards we were dealt. From a purely Japanese perspective, the aging Super Famicom was still quite healthy. Game distribution remained active through online (the expensive Satellaview add-on) and mail order (The Nintendo Power service; not to be confused with the American magazine of the same name), the most notable games including a Mario-themed Excitebike title, a Kirby spin-off, and a notoriously difficult Fire Emblem.

I cannot speak for Japan on their opinion for what seemed to be a rather inconvenient method of acquiring games (although said inconvenience and the failure of Famicom Stories: The Forest of Beginnings to bear potential financial fruit may be satisfactory hints alone), but regardless it stands in rather stark contrast to the bare lineup of American SNES titles; in particular, the circumstances surrounding Kirby's Dream Land 3 stump me. This is not to slight the game's quality, but I absolutely cannot imagine this being released in the same year (1997) when the N64 set the standards for the home console shooter via the instant popularity of Goldeneye 007, when the Zelda faithful were salivating over every shred of detail surrounding the upcoming Ocarina of Time, and--most damningly of all--within the very same month where Diddy Kong Racing was set to break the then-world record of being the fastest selling game ever released. As expected, despite sharing the name of the popular Dream Land Game Boy games, the game was forgotten as quickly as it came.

 It's due to this obscurity (among several other factors I'll discuss shortly) that Dream Land 3 was branded as something of a "black sheep" within the Kirby family tree--not something I entirely agree with, mind you, but it's not so surprising as to why it received that unfortunate label. First and foremost: the "crayon" graphics, while certainly ambitious in its own right, instantly divided players in a manner akin to the much more infamous Yoshi's Story; in other words, one either adored Dream Land 3's unique charm or found it not only too childish but also rather alien to the previous Kirby aesthetics they had grown accustomed to. I can understand these opinions (though sadly I still struggle comprehending anyone who despises the similar Kirby's Epic Yarn), for the game is not without its problems but it is this very alien nature that draws me to it.


One reason why Kirby's Dream Land 3 struggles to maintain a positive public identity is that of its successful predecessor: Kirby Super Star. The mechanically ambitious 1996 title was designed around the ideal of constructing the grandest Kirby game yet on 16-bit hardware and had satisfied all its fans on that front, so to develop a title with a lesser focus on gameplay renders it rather off-putting to more than a few people. Given that I had played the two games within the relatively same time period at a young age (beyond their years of release, at that), I found no difficulty in separately enjoying the games on their own; in particular, the graphical direction of Dream Land 3 was more than enough to hook me. Now that I'm a young adult can see their differences, and my research of the series points to one very obvious culprit: the change of director.

As established within my Dream Land 2 editorial, Shinichi Shimomura is by no means a Masahiro Sakurai. How he got away with the bizarre juxtaposition of the two worst introductory worlds ever crafted within the 2D platforming genre and a gradual ascension into a near-masterpiece is beyond me, and during my venture within the Dream Collection I was dreading the same mistake would pervade his later two games. While Dream Land 3 isn't nearly as bad as its Game Boy brother in this regard, there is a definite tedium within its early stages that's obviously not present within Sakurai's Kirby titles. But if the SNES title truly has anything over Dream Land 2, it is its possession of the single ambition that matches Kirby Super Star:  its aesthetics.

Utilizing the very same SA-1 graphical chip that lent Super Star its graphical prowess, Dream Land 3 makes use of what's apparently dubbed "pseudo high-resolution", cleverly building upon the dithering effect (a graphical technique that pushes systems beyond primary color boundaries by "blending" opposing colors) normally reserved for Sega Genesis games. By blending adjacent pixels, the normally bright colors that populated Kirby's world are faded into a style that cleverly mimics a unique mixture of pastel drawings and sketchy scribbles. The detail-strewn backgrounds and exuberant character animations of Super Star are nowhere to be seen: everything is kept simple.

As much as I adore Super Star's explosion of colors and usage of CGI, there is no denying Dream Land 3 held the crown for being the most visually distinctive Kirby game for thirteen years. What amazes me most about the game is that it yet another juxtaposition: it pushes the Super Nintendo to its limits with a creative graphical process, but what is ultimately presented is something so purposely, deliberately soft that it looks as easy as a child's daydream. One may instantly think of the similarly pastel-driven nature of Yoshi's Island, but the two games only share similar backgrounds; the lively, animated spritework of Yoshi's Island are independent of the immaculate detail found in the background/foreground, while Dream Land 3 applies its blend of crayon and pastel to everything on the screen (aside from several of the pick-ups, which take on a simple 8-bit look). Dream Land 3's aesthetics have more in common with an infant's Winnie the Pooh blanket--subdued colors, traces of pastel, and character designs that instantly appeal on being "cute" as opposed to the more stocky, expression-driven characters of the past.

This is not to downplay the cuteness found in Kirby's first four years, but those games (save Super Star) were no different than the deformed, ambiguous 8-bit sprites of yesteryear. With Dream Land 3 arriving in an era where an abundance of detail left little imagination to the player, there is a very obvious aesthetic direction into the realm of overt cuteness that was never present before in the series -- forget the artstyle, just look at the beadiness of Rick the Hamster's eyes (or any character, really) or the lovey-dovey nature of Kirby and Chuchu's parasol cruise! Of course, Dream Land 3's irrelevance rendered any irritation vastly inferior to the vast disappointment met with Yoshi's Story -- another ill-fated cutesy platformer that came out not long afterwards--but I still imagine some frustration with the game was met with older audiences (even I confess to having my limits: I object to the name "Love-Love Stick", granted to the weapon Kirby wields to battle the final boss. I mean, seriously?)

Any qualms with cuteness are, however, ultimately nitpicks, for I find Dream Land 3 to be quite a charming looker. The backgrounds in particular I find interesting: a good chunk of  'em are no more detailed than the settings found in toddlers' picture books, but others get away with some surprising artistic choices, such as exclusively using watercolors to depict the molten-rock laden underground... the pale birch trees resting near a shore. I've always associated these trees with something akin to sickly depression--peeling bark, y'know--and yet their presence within Dream Land 3 feels completely natural thanks to the similarly light pastel.

Indeed, the aquatic Ripple Fields world is host to some of Dream Land 3's strongest designs: including the aforementioned birch trees, the game presents more foreign locales with realistic lakesides and islands dotting the distance. It's the closest the series has ever traversed outside the boundaries of fantasy, providing a taste of something more akin to Donkey Kong Country 3 than anything in a bubbly children's game. The only representatives of the imagination are a stunning ocean-scenic temple home to cascading waterfalls--the veteran Nintendo fan can't help but ponder how such a concept could work in Zelda--and a pair of muffin-shaped islands surrounded by puffy clouds. As powerful as the temple level is solely on the grounds that its design has yet to be mimicked in future titles, the puffy islands remain my personal favorite background piece solely due an incredibly minor detail of absolutely no significance to the game itself, and yet my nostalgia for it is fierce.

Check out that house. Players have witnessed a similar detail in Kirby Super Star, but that ended up being the location of the heavily abridged Castle Lololo. Here? We never get a chance to drop in, and yet my young imagination was held captive by it. Who lives there? Why did they choose to live in the middle of an ocean? Was it a homage to Muten-Roshi's island in Dragon Ball? It is only a speck in the distance, yet it is the only drop of character placed within Dream Land 3's background props. Super Star's backgrounds were so luscious and beautiful that I immediately dove into the reverie they produced, yet here I contemplated and imagined. It bears for me the same enticing mystery of Super Mario Sunshine's book, one where I can have an eternity to craft an answer; an answer that I can continue to compose and revise much as I please.

So while the background don't get quite as CGI-intensive as Super Star, there are still some impressive effects going on with the foreground. Nothing that usually affects the actual game (unfortunate, but we'll get to that particular problem later), but still nice to look at. By far the most impressive is the forest level at the end of Grass Land, where the tree bushes transparently cover the level.

Complementing the muted graphics is an equally muted sound direction. I state the word "muted" with some difficulty, as the soundtrack frequently shifts between soft lullabies and hyper-frantic marathons, yet I can't help but notice just how soft the sound effects are. The explosions and rumbles that proliferated throughout Super Star are now relegated to simple pops and snaps, further reducing the frantic nature found before. The Shotzo cannons that frequently plague players are the best example of this; it's not like their barrage of cannonballs detonated with fury before, and yet it's suddenly so distinct when they audibly fire with all the force of a pebble dropping to the ground. The way Dream Land 3 commits to this soft nature--sound and graphics and even the impact of Kirby and co.'s attacks--is no doubt the reason why the game is so divisive, yet you cannot deny its dedication to remain that way throughout. My personal take? It's not perfect--I care not for the cheerier songs of the soundtrack--but I love the overall execution.

This unusually soft sound direction is why I've always been awed by the powerful roar that accompanies the game's level select screen, which presents Kirby's home planet Pop Star in the reaches of space. It's something that should be completely at odds for the setting: like everything else in Dream Land 3, the pastel-inspired stars would be more at home with glow in the dark stars decorating a baby's ceiling (the limited movement also calls to mind that of crib mobiles) than the eternally cold abyss of space. I've actually always been a little creeped out by how the game can instantaneously traverse on the boundaries of darkness--whether it be this sound or the theme of the final level--before going back its kid-friendly them as if nothing happened (going back to the final boss again: did I mention the boss in question spills and attacks with a red substance that's alluded to being blood? Yeah.)

Jun Ishikawa takes the helm once again for the soundtrack, though shifts the music style in accordance to traditional Kirby flair and the unprecedented soft aesthetic. Often Ishikawa appeals to the latter to some level of success -- the stronger emphasis on softer, relaxing tones leaves little room for the catchy hyperactivity of the past (as opposed to the balance found in earlier titles), but the soundtrack here emphasis a different sort of pleasantness hardly echoed before in Kirby. The softer themes found in, for example, Adventure's Rainbow Resort and Dream Land 2's Cloudy Park were deliberately majestic in their heart-soothing melodies that they were bound to make an impact on the player, yet Ishikawa takes a different route with Dream Land 3.

The theme of Dream Land 3's opening level--which you could label as the main theme of the game--is optimal for explaining this. While there are clear inspirations from Dream Land's Green Greens theme, (particularly the beginning), it's more lax than the typical cheery flair of Kirby. A good chunk of Dream Land 3's songs produce a more atmospheric quality that fit rather well within its aesthetic brand of watercolors and pastel. Atmospheric game music typically suffers from the unfortunate side-effect of being readily forgotten soon after playing (looking at you, Skyrim); make no mistake, while Dream Land 3 has the same issue, there are some standouts within its soundtracks. This particular song has always been one of my favorites, calling to mind a child merrily running through a wide, open field of dandelions.

I've also always been fond of this Ripple Field theme which, you guessed it, plays in the level starring the aforementioned house. It possesses a sense of urgency not unlike the island portion of Super Star's Revenge of Meta Knight, yet I further appreciate its echo to Dream Land's Float Islands's permeated nostalgia. However, I associate this song less with Dream Land's gooey warmness and more with a fleeting reminiscence: chasing for a hint of memory down the beach, something to jar the memory. Searching, finding for answers to a life-changing mystery. The house, maybe?

With this emphasis on softness through both graphics and music, the series' trademark sense of hyperactivity is lost to a more deliberate tranquility. I take no issue with this languidness by itself; indeed, I adore the graphics and I like the music well enough, and I appreciate what they set out to do. It can't be said that any other platformer in its age exuded this much pleasantness--however alien, yet perfectly natural to the world of Kirby--and the way it instills peace into the player is to be commended.

The problem here is the effect on gameplay. 

Back when I reviewed Kirby's Epic Yarn upon its release over three years ago, I described it as something of a "relaxation simulator", as the game's alluring yarn-inspired visuals send the player into a blissful, nostalgic state. If that sounds familiar, it's because Dream Land 3 works the same way; unfortunately, it is only to a considerably lesser degree. Given the premises involved with Epic Yarn (Kirby's transformation into yarn, the technological advancements relative to the time of its release (gorgeous felt effects) and what was expected of the series (Kirby's transformations), the Wii game had to innovate with foreground to prove its new aesthetic would provide a compelling game experience. Dream Land 3 isn’t required to do so and takes little risk to expand on its own identity, which admittedly would be fine if it didn't result in weaker platforming.

In fact, it can actually get downright lazy. The perfect example is found at the first level of Cloudy Park; take a gander at that screenshot above and note the barren, vastly uninteresting landscape and boring background that composes its beginning. It remains sterile throughout, only bothering to add in pointless dips in the landscape and a wholly uninteresting outdoor tunnel sequence. What makes it even worse is the level waits until the very end to utilize the world's "sky" theme (the transparency of the clouds in the picture above shift into solid versions, obscuring Kirby's location from the player), rendering the level a rather bad first impression for the new world.

So yes, it does have the same stage design problems as Dream Land 2, but doesn't start out as being nearly as brain dead. Unlike that game's gradual ascension into quality, Dream Land 3 suffers from uneven level design throughout and never lands on a consistent state until the late-game Iceberg world (which is great). We can be thankful it also never reaches a consistency of tedium, but for as much as the game commits to simplicity, one can't help but wish Dream Land 3 pushed the admirable effort found in its graphics fully across the board.

Unlike its Game Boy predecessor, however, I am quicker to forgive Dream Land 3 not entirely on the basis of its glorious art, but for expanding upon what was fun in the previous title: the partner system. Rick, Coo, and Kine all return to grant Kirby their power-siphoning prowess, complete with the same repertoire of powers found in Dream Land 2 that, while limited in number (particular when, again, compared to Super Star), are a blast to use. While they're still a blast to use, they find themselves outshone by three more newcomers: Nago the Cat, Pitch the Bird, and Chuchu the...Octopus? Squid? Blob?

As the three original partners still retain their Game Boy abilities, the Super Nintendo-powered feats of Kirby's new friends provide far more attractive choices. Rather than simply exuding Copy Abilities from their bodies, the newer trio instantly appeal on their colorful takes on old favorites, whether it be joyful playness(Kirby and Chuchu merry-go-round in an upside-down spinning parasol), comedic (Nago repeatedly slams the shit out of Stone Kirby, a personal favorite of mine despite its short range), or just plain cool (Kirby manually guides an electrified Pitch via remote control).

Dream Land 3 is also host to its own unique Copy Ability: Clean, in which Kirby sweeps up foes with a broom. Much like Parasol, its tongue-in-cheek nature makes for some great laughs, as used by itself or through Kirby's partners when they're mercilessly slaughtering Waddle Dees. Particular standouts include Nago (who utilizes Kirby as a washing rag and slides on the ground), Kine (who turns Kirby into a plunger just because), and Chuchu (who rides on Kirby transformed into a magic broom).

The only faulty newcomer in Kirby's camaderie is the CPU/2P-controlled counterpart Gooey, who I still struggle to make sense of. The character is a visually endearing counterpart to Kirby--what with the dopey countenance on his doughy round shape, yet I care not for the gameplay execution; single-player wise, anyway. He's useful for 2P play since he can mimic Kirby's Copy Abilities, but as a summoned CPU, he's an inconvenient burden that divides half of Kirby's health. This would be a fair trade-off if he wasn't constantly gobbling up everything in Kirby's path (thus stealing any potential Copy Abilities you'd want to obtain), and he can't even utilize Copy Abilities when in the control of the CPU. He was better left in Dream Land 2's bag.
Yet I still occasionally summon him for kicks, regardless. Part of why Dream Land 3's aesthetic ultimately charms me despite its mistakes is that I find the uncanny jolliness of its cast--whether it's the aforementioned merry-go-round parasol of Kirby/Chuchu and pretty much anything related to Nago or Kine--rather hysterical when contrasted to the game's bleaker scenery. Dream Land 3 can toss avalanches or giants boulders at me and I simply just don't give a shit about the danger presented because I'm waddling away inside the intestines of a fish while taking the form of a plunger.

Indeed, many of the powers granted to Kirby and pals never reach the heights of flashiness found in Super Star, but that's okay. Dream Land 3's slower pace works very well to the advantage of its graphical/sound themes in framing the game as an epic adventure but something more like a walk in the park. A dash along the beach. A trip to the sky. Another lazy Sunday afternoon. It's languid, but it's a soothing sort of languid that echoes the faint nostalgia within the deeper recesses of your brain. For me, I'm reminded of the blank, silent observations during my adventures in the outdoors, or the one family walk I had some fifteen years back.

It's why I'm so fond of the game's sub-quest regarding the collectible Heart Stars, which involve solving stage-specific tasks such as reuniting a toad family, retrieving a juggler's blocks, and helping an angel find her wings. The results are genuinely charming in the same manner of Zelda: The Minish Cap's Kinstones in establishing a connection during a chance encounter with a familiar face (Nintendo cameos such as running into Samus from Metroid) or expanding upon the game's cast (Rick the Hamster has a girlfriend?). Even from a pure gameplay perspective they can actually get rather difficult, and Dream Land 3 is at its strongest when the levels revolve around them. A personal favorite involves a cameo of the NES R.O.B peripheral, where you have to search and assemble its parts within a pyramid that's host to backgrounds straight out of Earthbound's battle sequences. You could always just ignore them, I suppose, but then you get the Bad Ending and those always make you feel guilty.

By itself, Dream Land 3 is merely an interesting experiment that's sole ambition revolves around its aesthetics, which even on their own accord have succeeded in turning off a fair number of Kirby fans. Much like Dream Land 2, I cannot ignore the flaws that could potentially break an earnest game, yet I cannot bring myself to take them too seriously. Whatever laziness it produces within its own aspiration is overriden by just how damn pleasant it is to play and even witness, and I am unable to resist its unique brand of watercolor placidity. An objective evaluation could settle for it being just another good Kirby romp, yet I'll admit my own bias in what it sets out to do elevates my opinion to Dream Land 3 achieving the barest minimum of greatness.