Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ten Years of Kirby ~Reverie 13~ Kirby Super Star Ultra



2008, otherwise known as the absolute worst time to be a Nintendo fan. The honeymoon period with the Wii had long since evaporated, fans already grown tired of motion controls and not at all accepting of Nintendo's "casual" focus. Third-parties, shell-shocked by the Wii's overnight success, quickly pumped out low budget mini-game collections and Wii Sports knock-offs. Dozens upon dozens of these cash-ins overflowed Wii store shelves, and were soon granted the not-too-kind, but all-too-fitting name of "shovelware".

Consequently, 2008 brought with it insanely-high expectations. Nintendo's overall scheduling looked bleak, but the hype for Sakurai's latest, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, had reached stratospheric levels. For the majority of 2007, the former Kirby director maintained the Smash Bros. DOJO!!, a daily blog dedicated to trickling out tantalizing info about the upcoming sequel to the insanely popular Melee. It proved to be the one of the most successful marketing campaigns in gaming history, sparking massive discussion threads, in-depth analyses and character wishlists across message boards and gaming outlets everywhere. After two painful delays, the beloved Nintendo crossover was set to embrace us in euphoric, nostalgic bliss...


But it was not to be, as the arrival of Brawl brought about the biggest fandom split in Nintendo history. Competitive Smash players who participated in Melee tournaments bemoaned the absence of advanced mechanics, and proceeded to vilify the game (and, in many instances, those who played it) with a vengeance not seen since the cel-shaded unveil of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Those who only played Smash as a party game and were completely alien to concepts like wavedashing were torn: did they defend the game on its own non-competitive merits, or did they contribute to the noise by complaining about those very elements?

Super Smash Bros., once a franchise wholly synonymous with the words "party," "nostalgia," and "celebration" was now tarnished by bitter flame wars and toxic fandom factions. Masahiro Sakurai, a famous former Nintendo developer, was now reviled by many as  not merely one who supposedly spat in the face of competitive Smash fans, but as a sellout who pandered entirely to Nintendo's new audience. Amid all the chaos, it was a burgeoning accusation that grew beyond Sakurai, for the absolute worst was yet to come.

Enter E3 2008. The mass disappointment from Brawl and Mario Kart Wii shifted all eyes towards what Nintendo had lined up for the unknown future. All hopes were crushed in face of a show entirely dedicated to products solely for the aforementioned casual market. What should've been an exciting announcement for the Wii Motion Plus accessory was obscured by a patronizing PR woman going gaga over virtual dog frisbee, while the disastrous, ear-offending Wii Music performance was chosen as the show's closer (guest-starring Ravi Drums!). The closest thing "core" gamers could latch onto was the latest Animal Crossing, which later proved to be nothing more than a mere port of the DS iteration.

Pandemonium erupted. Fans everywhere cried that Nintendo abandoned them in favor of soccer moms and retirees that ate up Wii Sports pack-ins and Wii Fit Balance Boards. Much as Nintendo denied this notion, the damage was already done. While the Wii continued to break sales records across the globe, the anti-core stigma would surround both the console and Nintendo for the rest of the generation. Some fans immediately forsook their Nintendo love, selling their Wiis and moving on to greener Xbox/PlayStation pastures. Others simply gritted their teeth at Nintendo's newfound love for the casual audience, waiting not-so-patiently for the next Mario and Zelda. So occupied fans were with this "Wii has no games" stigma that many hadn't noticed third-parties finally figured out how to make good Wii games, but hardly a soul was around to purchase them (excluding the occasional outliers like Boom Blox and de Blob).

As fans cried helplessly at the advent of an empty Christmas season, a familiar figure stopped by crisp September morning and said "Hey, you guys wanna come back and dream with me for a while?" At the sound of his voice, fans remembered: a year ago, a remake of one of the greatest Nintendo sidescrollers ever made was announced for the DS. As they rose to follow, the clouds outside their window echoed a time long-since obscured by cynicism. The sky was even the same shade of blue.


Could the nostalgic euphoria they've been searching for finally be found in Kirby Super Star Ultra? Maybe some hadn't noticed, but a close look at the game's box art revealed something: it was the first time Kirby smiled on American shelves in over seven years.

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When revisiting Kirby Super Star Ultra last year, I shocked to realize my experience with the game matched exactly that of Nightmare in Dream Land. Both games weren't perfect, but any flaws were immediately obscured (let alone noticed) by the euphoria of "ohmygodohmygodohmygod THEY REMADE THE BEST KIRBY GAME AND IT'S SOOOO GOOOOD". But when the hype wears off, the remakes and the originals constantly strive for supremacy -- just when the remake trumps it's predecessor in one area, it drops the ball on something else in mere seconds.

It's absolutely eerie how Super Star Ultra mirrors Nightmare in Dream Land in certain aspects of this, but there's one big difference between the two remakes; namely, while Sakurai helmed the Kirby's Adventure remake, he had absolutely no involvement with this particular title. Indeed, he's not even listed in the credits.

A cause for concern, perhaps. We know little of Sakurai's design process for Super Star, but as mentioned long ago, it's the debuting title for his famous design philosophy: a cohesive, filled-to-the-brim presentation chock-full of options, knick-knacks and absurd, yet wonderfully addictive gameplay concepts. It's a model he continued to follow all the way up through his last HAL title (Kirby Air Ride), and even today one can turn to the latest Smash games and Kid Icarus: Uprising for delectably recent examples.

Without Sakurai, it was perfectly natural to be concerned if HAL could recapture the magic of the most beloved Kirby title, especially when considering their output by 2008. Yes, Canvas Curse was a near-masterpiece that captured even non-Kirby fans, but only because it was an oddball deviant from the standard formula. Squeak Squad and The Amazing Mirror were outsourced to ex-Capcom devs, and even under HAL's supervision they were greeted with a less-than-stellar reception. This isn't even mentioning how HAL's attempt to forge a Kirby Super Star successor--that is, the game that would eventually become Kirby's Return to Dream Land--was currently languishing in the depths of development hell.

As we've long since known, there's no cause for concern, since this remake is the best Kirby game since the original Super Star itself. That it's freakin' Super Star grants it an unfair advantage rhaps, but that it holds the title at all confirms the soul of the SNES original is alive and well on the DS. And that's no small feat: to successfully retrain what made the original--beloved by many as the single greatest Kirby game--all the while respectfully building upon where Sakurai left off speaks volumes about HAL's success.

So with that in mind, where DO we start? Reviewing the classic subgames' transition? The new games built upon those old games, gleefully expanding a product that advertised itself as being multiple games in one? How the orchestra-styled music sounds now? What the new music sounds like? How the wireless local multiplayer holds up?

Whether or not it still makes me dream?

The graphics it is, then. Whereas Adventure's 8-bit aesthetic had to be reinterpreted for the Game Boy Advance, Super Star's plush, delectable sprites provide a perfect base for this remake to build itself upon. While the conversion's not perfect, we're given a great first impression through three steps. Remember: the top shot's the original, while the remake's the bottom one.




The opening that stole our hearts back in 1996--a gorgeous combination of pre-rendered models and the Mode 7 graphics--has now been reimagined into a fully 3D-animated sequence. In fact, all the sprite-based cutscenes from the original are now portrayed in 3D thanks to the ActImagine Video Codec. While a tad grainy, Ultra's initial display wows us with a far more picturesque display, complete with landmarks and scenery ripped straight from Super Star's backgrounds. Accompanied by the familiar bombastic opening score, we're already mired deep in nostalgia.




Kirby no longer dons his festive Beam hat for the title screen logo, but he's still smiling, so that's okay. The CGI title hasn't aged gracefully, so we're given a much more lush version via spritework. Note the new file select: Japanese fans and Kirby fanatics like me are treated to buttons made of Paulownia wood, which was the motif for Kirby Super Star's Japanese box art (as anyone who's read the Kirby's Dream Collection booklet knows, Japan uses Paulownia wood to store valuables). The portraits still echo the last sub-game you played, but Kirby's neutral, faded expressions portray a stunning nostalgic contrast to his leftward expressive countenances. When accompanied by the ever-soothing Save Hut music, its sentimental essence is multiplied twicefold.



The beloved cork board selection screen returns! It's not completely identical; namely, Kirby's antics aren't plastered all over the titles anymore, as HAL had to make room for all the new games. Whether it's better or not is up to preference, but that they chose to retain the cork board aesthetic is a great sign that HAL understood the project. Besides, I find the yellow border a much better complement than the original: an overly crassy green reminiscent of 90's Nickelodeon slime. A nostalgic slime, but still slime nonetheless.

So the stage is set for a perfect remake, right? Well, not so fast. Let's observe the actual game through comparison:



Like Nightmare in Dream Land before it, Super Star Ultra makes a wonderful first impression in its first level. The background has been completely renovated, echoing the original scenery with familiar stars and stripes of all sorts. Meanwhile, the foreground has been spruced up with such lavish detail that the original looks quite bare by comparison. Finally, the sprites aren't quite as plush as they were on the SNES; rather, they're upgrades from the Nightmare in Dream Land sprites used over the game's respective decade. For instance, a comparison between Kirby himself from both remakes reveals that he still has the same beady, heart-melting look.

Also note the wonderful use of the HUD. While practically gutted and squashed in Nightmare in Dream Land for the tiny GBA screen, the DS's two screens know not the meaning of "limits", for HAL took the liberty to decorate the HUD for every substantial sub-game. All are wonderfully detailed, and quite a few of these expertly utilize the touchscreen (namely Milky Way Wishes, which provides instant access to all Copy Abilities).

 

Gosh, I could just talk all day about how beautiful Spring Breeze is now. Just look at Float Islands' transformation: stars are now all the rage in the tropics, with large, multi-colored stars decorating everything from the sea, shells, and even the islands themselves. This is how you reimagine a level: by breathing new life with a visual motif common to the series, we already feel right at home. I wonder if they glow in the dark.

Then Dynablade happens, and, well...see for yourself.



Yes, the distant lakes of of Peanut Plains has been nonsensically wiped in favor of a neverending blue, adorned with tacky spirals and amateur CGI ovals. Oh, wait, those are supposed to be clouds? Sorry, I was too distracted by how aesthetically dissonant this particular background is from the rest of the game. Quite possibly the worst background, it pops infrequently throughout the level and is just a nasty affront to my eyes.


It improves with just the next screen over, yet another incongruity arises. That awesome star cloud balloon is exactly what I'm looking for, yet the scenery just below is obscured by the level's foreground, presenting a jarring confliction. While I do so enjoy learning about Dream Land's breathtaking weather patterns, its beautiful landmarks are not to be neglected, either. For shame, HAL!

It goes without saying that, yes, Super Star Ultra can be just as aesthetically dissonant as Nightmare in Dream Land before it. In particular, Dynablade and The Great Cave Offensive are the biggest offenders, the latter making the unforgivable sin of replacing the starry skies of the minecart rides with a generic cave background, zapping any and all magic out of them. Yes, it's a setting that makes sense, and it does echo the star theme through the stone formations, but Kirby games are not bound to geographical logic. These moments of magical incongruence were among the most stunning of the original game's locales, and to change into something so painfully generic comes across as surprisingly tone-deaf.


Of course, being a back-and-forth battle, it's home to some beautiful stuff as well. Do look at how the renovated the save hut interiors: construction only stopped halfway through, yet we're given a stunning panoramic view of the velvet jungle. Super Star's providing of a window gave us a peek into the forbidden, yet here we're invited to sit on the precipice and absorb the surrounding. I still wonder which one I like more.


And it's not like Dynablade doesn't do this, either. I mean, was anyone else compelled to bounce on those striped growths decorating the outside of Marshmallow Castle? The funnest of Kirby backgrounds lend themselves to deepest lore, which in this case involves Dream Landers bouncing about on said growths instead of attending mandated castle balls. If there's any reason to be jealous of Dream Land's idyllic lifestyle, let it be that.

In the end, however, that the tug-of-war between the two games' backgrounds  is rather...disappointing. Nightmare in Dream Land's dive into realistic fantasy was an experiment so fascinating that any flubs were mostly forgiven, yet I struggle to do the same here. Perhaps it's because Super Star Ultra's overall aesthetic hues closer to the source material that I feel such discomfort, and it's a shame it struck some of the more memorable setpieces. I mean, the aforementioned stars of the minecart ride...you just...you just can't toss that!


And that's a shame, because Super Star Ultra nails the aesthetics for just everything else. For starters, the animation is GREAT. Not to diminish the quality of Super Star's spritework, but there's so many little touches that simply eclipse the original. Kirby himself is a standout -- there's many new flourishes to his Copy Abilities,


I could nitpick if I wanted to; for instance, the position Kirby's partners relax themselves on Warp Stars are woefully uninspired compared to their original efforts (Poppy Bros. Jr being the most unfortunate casualty), yet it's when things actually move that I'm able to forgive any slight transgressions. Above is another favorite: yes, Parasol Waddle Dee indeed gained weight for his reprisal. Just look at how flabby he is whenever he, er, waddles about.

Anyway, if the actual levels couldn't perfectly replicate/build upon Super Star's aesthetic, there's another area that does: the aforementioned CGI cutscenes. Whereas Super Star utilized spritework, Ultra's 3D animation brings the plushness of the original to life in a way not seen since Super Smash Bros. Melee's Green Greens stage. The familiar hills and landmarks are there! The grass is checkered! I want to squeeze everything in sight!

I mentioned their grainy quality. This isn't so bad; after all, other DS games featuring similar animations had the same problem too (see the Professor Layton games), so I won't rag on changing the impossible. What does matter is that they respect the choreography of the original and they're charming as ever, my favorite in the whole game being Dedede plodding through the desert in a slump, slowly joined by his Waddle Dee comrades as they venture into the sunset.

But we have tarried enough on graphics: onto how the game actually plays! Any background quirks aside, it's not hyperbole when I say the older sub-games function, more or less, exactly as you remember them. You might find a tweak here or there in the level design, but nothing to the level of Butter Building's reconstruction in Nightmare in Dream Land. Kirby's attack on Meta Knight's Halberd, for instance, is structurally identical in everything from his first assault, him playing catch-up on the islands, and discovering Mace Knight's hidden horde of Maxim Tomatos.

Needless to say, this is a good thing. A game of Kirby Super Star's length would've admittedly been too short by 2008's standards, but since this remake includes several new adventures, no overt changes to the sub-games were necessary. One could even say the pacing has improved: maybe the original ended too quickly, but here we have a thoroughly meaty package big enough to fill a month's play.                                                                  
          

But that doesn't mean they don't throw surprises every now and then. New music pieces tend to accompany classic boss moments, such as Revenge of Meta Knight's Heavy Lobster. The rapid, repetitive percussion grants a new sense of urgency for the battle, undoubtedly a nod to the sub-game's ticking time limit. That it's a recurring boss fight means we can look forward to it again and again.


And here we have a self-reference within a self-reference. As evidenced by the title, this song is reserved for some of the game's bigger bosses (Dynablade and Wham Bam Rock), yet that it accompanies the former is what's interesting. Why, it's the arrangement of the Kirby Air Ride song when Dynablade wreaked havic in City Trial, which in itself was a remix of Kirby's Dream Land's Castle Lololo from the anime adaption! Needless to say, it works wonders both as a reference and by itself.


But how well did they retain the original music? Quite well for the most part, although there is a change in the sound team: Jun Ishikawa returns for arrangement, but the elusive Dan Miyakawa was replaced by sereis mainstay Hirokazu Ando. On the simple side of the spectrum, Green Greens nearly perfects the SNES sound library here. Many similar songs within the remake receive the same treatment, so while you may be able to carefully discern an instrumental difference here and there, they sound largely the same.


On the more bombastic side, we can hear signs of struggle. The weaker instruments used for Marx's Theme are obvious, but that it still succeeds in sounding like a grand nightmare is commendable. Where Ultra really flounders are the more booming, orchestral songs found in The Great Cave Offensive and Revenge of Meta Knight, as seen below.


It's really evident in these two pieces in particular, and while I imagine they tried just as hard as Yasunori Mitsuda did in retaining Chrono Trigger's sound for its respective port, it's clear some compensation had to be made. Thankfully, such examples are few and far between. While some tracks lose their bombastic quality, the majority of it sounds, more or less, like it did on the SNES. Another largely successful feat.

From here on, changes are more murky. The treasures of The Great Cave Offensive have shifted around to include newer Nintendo and Kirby references, yet they trim down the fun Weather Heart theme that concluded every area. The lovable Beginner's Show tutorials return, yet there's no interactivity. Whether or not these are for the better boils down to personal opinion, for most of these changes have their ups and downs.

Only one other alteration comes out as objectively better: the revamped translation. With a new localization team, any of the dry sentences or flat-out mistranslations that afflicted the original are nowhere to be seen. The sinister peanut gallery in Revenge of Meta Knight are more balanced in their respective qualities of campiness (namely Meta Knight, who's far more reserved), and no longer are the motives of a certain jester so poorly translated.

So with all these changes that'd only matter to eagle-eyed (and eared!) players like me, what's left is the main draw of the remake: the new modes. Reserved for the last stretch of the game, these sub-games have a lot to live up to. For one thing, they have to flow properly with the rest of the original material. The new level and boss design have to come across as though they were built by Sakurai's team, and the new music simply cannot be phoned in. Again, not easy.


HAL's solution is simpler than you expect: ape some classic moments of the original sub-games, build upon them, and then crank up the difficulty. Not nearly lazy as it sounds, what's amazing about these new sub-games is how despite having their roots within what the original game offered, they somehow manage bring their own originality to the fold.

Take Revenge of the King: at it's core, it's basically, a tougher Spring Breeze. Dream Land's Extra Mode this isn't, but speak of the devil, all the forgotten foes that plagued you there make their terrifying comeback (along with the return of a certain boss, complete with gender confirmation!). With the level design fleshing itself out by retaining more of the source material, one could make the compelling argument that this is what the original Spring Breeze should've been like.

           

And that final level! Unleashing a boss gauntlet full of cameos and peppering dialogue between Dedede and his Waddle Dee cohort, Revenge of the King  tops it off with what's easily the greatest fight against the penguin king. I'll dare not spoil the details here, but it's accompanied by an incredible battle track. Beginning with a touch of Melee's Fountain of Dreams, King Dedede's Theme has never been this deadly and frantic before.


But why stop at taking inspiration from Super Star when you could take a page from a fellow remake? Meta Knightmare Ultra once again has players in control of Meta Knight, yet what we have here is far more robust than Nightmare in Dream Land's respective mode. While Meta Knight must once again traverse the levels and sub-games Kirby already cleared, this time he's aided by a meter that accumulates points the more he slices up enemies. Fill up the meter, and options such as calling upon his knights or unleashing Mach Tornados become available. I'm still not quite sure why he decides to take down his own flying battleship, but it's best not to ponder on the context of Kirby games.

               

There is more I'd like to discuss. There's three new score-based minigames that blow the originals (Megaton Punch and Samurai Kirby) out of the water in replayability. There's two new Arena modes, not the least of which puts the helpers born from Kirby's Copy Abilities in the spotlight as playable characters. It's accompanied by what's probably the best new Kirby song of the '00s: a solemn arrangement of Kirby 64's Ripple Star map theme that now captures a sleepy autumn afternoon. Like Fountain of Dreams before it, it takes what was originally a fast-paced track (although in this case, not nearly as innocuous) and transforms it into something entirely, somberly new.

But once again, I dare not speak more. For the lows Ultra may occasionally have in restoring the games of old, the highs hit the same magical highs. All the proof you need is a new era of Kirby followed its template, right down to the plush aesthetics and multi-fledged Copy Abilities. Any flaws can be forgiven, for the heartbeat of Super Star successfully revived itself in the modern age, and so Kirby Super Star Ultra joins the ranks of Pokemon Soul Silver/Heart Gold and Super Mario All-Stars as the finest remakes Nintendo has under its repertoire.

Which reminds me: the first time I played it, I found a hidden path in Dynablade's Candy Mountain level, just under the waterfall. It was there in the original, but I never stopped to think about that peculiar arrow formation of food until that September evening. When replaying through for the blog, I discovered you can actually share food in mid-air. Both are minor details, but I never knew about them before. And I'll continue to discover more every time I sit down and play.


The magic is alive and well. I wonder how many kids over the past decade have looked out their window.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Wonderful 101 (Gaming Grunts Review Repost)

Note: This review was originally published on September 14th, 2014 for Gaming Grunts, which went under some time ago. Having recently salvaged most of my articles on there, I've decided to give them a new home here for archival purposes. Please bear in mind they differ in structure from this blog's reviews, and be sure to join me at the end for a bonus reflection!


From the wonderful folks who brought you modern classic action games such as Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta, Platinum Games dishes out alien-pounding combat a hundredfold with The Wonderful 101. Released last fall, The Wonderful 101’s creative twists on the action genre and costumed antics have earned it a comfortable cult-status within the gaming community. While the game’s overtly complicated learning curve is infamous for turning off players, those who take patience and effort in learning the game will be rewarded with a surprisingly deep combo system and endless replay value.

Story

The third Geathjerk invasion is upon us!  Even Earth’s advanced technology is no match for the alien might…except for their secret weapon: the Centinel Suits! Costumes designed to amplify the body strength of the wielder, these suits are granted to one hundred brave souls whose faces are forever masked and whose tombs are forever unknown. They are the Wonderful 100, who combine together to Unite Morph against their alien foes! But who is the 101st Wonderful One? Ah, that’s you.
Inspired by the Japanese Super Sentai (more familiar to western audiences as the Power Rangers), The Wonderful 101’s superhero shenanigans feel right at home with the Saturday morning cartoons of old. While it’s not afraid to dip into darker themes and risqué imagery (Hi, Wonder Pink), its delightfully tongue-in-cheek nature and parody-inspired dialogue are joyously fun throughout.

Gameplay

Like many other action games of its breed, The Wonderful 101 rewards players based on the application of combos and time/dodge efficiency. Players control a crowd of Wonderful Ones under the direct leadership of any selectable Wonderful One, and through drawing a shape via GamePad can switch to any Unite Form as they feel is appropriate. Through combining a number of Wonderful Ones together (a process known as the aforementioned Unite Morph), they can form such powers including Unite Hand (a magma-colored fist that deals immense damage and is easy to combo with), Unite Sword (its broad strokes being designed for enemy crowd control), and Unite Bomb (unleashes a force-field that slows down enemy movement).

When applied properly, the numerous Unite Morphs unlock a level of depth unlike any other. So long as the Unite Gauge is not emptied through repeated use, Unite Morphs can be switched in an instant while pummeling enemies, and be utilized for all sorts of combos. As peripheral Unite Morphs can be bought at the Wonder-Mart and certain Unite Morphs being useful for situational purposes (such as Unite Whip removing dangerous spikes off of enemies), there’s virtually an endless amount of experimentation to be had.

Graphics

The Wonderful 101 looks great. True to its color-coded superhero origins, everything from the glossy character models to the jelly-esque Unite Morphs instantly pop to the eye and feels right at home with the aforementioned kids’ cartoon motif. The location aesthetics are also particularly impressive, as they bear much resemblance to the set pieces for your childhood action figures. While the actual character models are low-poly, this is understandable due to what is undoubtedly a graphically labor-intensive game. Nothing but praise here.

Sound



A bombastic music score and hilarious voice acting compose The Wonderful 101’s sound, complete with its own cheesy opening theme song (“Go, go team! Demolish those fiends! Toss ‘em in a garbage can~”). The score is appropriately invigorating within both the game’s feats-of-wonder context and pumping the player up; in particular, any song associated with the boss climaxes is absolutely guaranteed to get your adrenaline rushing (seriously, listen to the above video if you don’t believe me). While the music can successfully switch tones in a heartbeat (guest composer Norihiko Hibino–known for Metal Gear Solid 3–contributes well in this area), it’s the sounds of triumph and battle that will stick with players the most.

Huge props to Platinum Games’ localization team for the over-the-top voice casting, which perfectly captures the game’s campy nature. Anything involving accents is hilarious, none the least of which are Wonder Green’s French-laden dialogue and Wonder White’s faux Japanese-American dialect. Other highlights include the lead Wonder Red (who has a tendency to overexplain. A lot.), Wonder Blue’s “dude-bro” speak, and antagonist Prince Vorkken waxing poetics over his not-so-tragic (?) past.

Challenge and Difficulty

The one rule in approaching The Wonderful 101 is this: it takes time to learn, and the game’s one glaring flaw is that it does not give newcomers much to start with. As fun as the game’s concept is, initial playtime with the game is undeniably daunting with the mass-control of a crowd of characters and the workings of the various Unite Morphs. While action games should not hold the player’s hand in executing combos, that key concepts being left unexplained such as support morphs for dodging/blocking are left unlocked for in-game purchase or as to why the game inexplicably switches leaders in-between Unite Morph transitions  is just simply baffling. Seeing as to how quick, non-intrusive tutorials were peppered about in Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta, it’s a shame that Wonderful 101 just leaves its explanations to quick window pop-ups.

In spite of this flaw, players shouldn’t lose hope. The appeal of the game’s immense combo depth is enough of a reason to keep going, and by itself the game is appropriately challenging even after everything begins to click. While something resembling an actually helpful tutorial would’ve been much appreciated, this flaw does not bring down what is ultimately a fantastic, full-fledged action game.

Replay Value

Much in the same vein as Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta, the first playthrough of The Wonderful 101 can be thought of as a tutorial that rewards patience, dedication and learning. You’re constantly having your head handed to you from dumb mistakes and are frequently rewarded with the lowest of performance grades (appropriately dubbed here as “consolation prize”), but you continue to persevere. By your second playthrough, you’ve figured out the inner workings of the Unite Morphs and this come prepared for what lies ahead, beaming as your terrible old scores are replaced with shiny golden trophies.

Platinum Games claims The Wonderful 101 contains two times as much content as their previous titles, and a quick skim of the secrets, galleries and challenges presented proves that claim. Collectibles such as figures, lore files, and even extra team members are  hidden throughout the game’s many missions, and treats and secret missions require some extensive combing. With the Bottle Cap reward system yielding unlockable characters and morphs through numerous difficult challenges, players who find themselves enarmored enough with the game’s mechanics will undoubtedly spend countless hours perfecting their combo potential.

Pros

  • Utilizing Unite Morphes is incredibly satisfying.
  • Bright use of aesthetics.
  • Overtly familiar “action-show cartoon” style is refreshing and fun.
  • Bombastic score is a blast
  • The voice-acting!
  • Limitless replay value.

Cons

  • Learning curve is more complicated than it should be.
  • Unexplained mechanics induce frustration.

Summary

While it's a shame the overwhelming controls and concepts tend to scare away newcomers, those who stick with The Wonderful 101 will discover a game of immense depth, undeniable charm and good ol' alien bashing. There's no denying it's oddball nature, but just like any other action game, getting combos to regularly click into place induces joyous rushes of dominance like no other, and the overly tongue-in-cheek tone is a blast to watch and engage in. If you're willing to overcome some inevitable frustration, this overlooked classic is worth your time.

9/10
Reflection: I think now I'd give the score just a tad below nine. It's still a wonderful game (pun intended!), but those learning curve flub-ups are pretty bad. Everything else rocks, though.

Not much else to say except that I don't think any blog review for The Wonderful 101 will be coming in some time. I was steadily aiming for 100% last time I was playing, and I'll probably be juggling that between the two Bayonetta games. It's on the backburner, but do forget about it until the time comes.
Oh, and for those waiting for the Kirby Super Star Ultra review...it'll be coming TOMORROW!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Wishes and Expectations for Pikmin 4 (Nintendojo)


I am so excited for this game! Can you really believe it's apparently almost finished?!? Not after nine years of waiting, Mr. Miyamoto...

Regardless, I don't even care if it's on Wii U or NX, I just want to play it! Now that it's built from the ground-up on a HD console, I salivate at the thought of how this game will be. Just how corpulent will the Purple Pikmin be this time?

Pikmin 3 (Gaming Grunts Review Repost)

Note: This review was originally published on July 31st, 2014 for Gaming Grunts, which went under some time ago. Having recently salvaged most of my articles on there, I've decided to give them a new home here for archival purposes. Please bear in mind they differ in structure from this blog's reviews, and be sure to join me at the end for a bonus reflection!


Following years of delays, console hopping and developmental conflicts, Pikmin 3 finally arrived on the Wii U nine years after the Gamecube’s Pikmin 2. Once again starring the adventures of adorable plant creatures under the command of interplanetary spacefarers, Pikmin 3 is a brilliant mixture of strategy and exploration that enfolds in a world with all the terror of the wild, yet holds as much intrigue as the hidden expanses of your backyard. Released almost exactly a year ago in a sea of high-quality Nintendo sequels, Pikmin 3 lives up to its potential through an endlessly flexible campaign and addictive sub-modes.

Story

Disaster has stricken the planet of Koppai. Food supplies have all been depleted, and numerous universal scans by space probes for planetary cultivation prove to be fruitless….until a ray of hope is found on a planet light years away: Planet PNF-404. Koppai sends a three-man team–the famed Captain Charlie, the botanist Brittany, and the engineer Alph—to harvest fruit seeds from PNF-404, but upon reaching the planet, their ship suffers a mysterious crash landing and the three crew members are left separated. What is their fate? What caused the crash? What are these mysterious carrot-shaped creatures that follow their every move, and who’s leaving these cryptic data files across the planet’s surface?

Graphics

Continuing to prove Pikmin is home to Nintendo’s greatest sense of visual artistry, Pikmin 3’s greatest strength lies in bringing its world to life through lush visuals and amazing creature design. The game is just straight up beautiful to look at, such as the green expanses of the Garden of Hope or the wet sleekness of rainy days. As most of the characters are just under a foot tall (the three protagonists and Pikmin not being any bigger than a quarter), much of the wildlife encounters are imposing through outstanding animation work or detail, whether they be anteater-inspired Bulborbs or the bee troop movements formed under their harp-plucking queen.


Special attention should be paid to the all-important fruit, as the rich texture work and detailed models are a feast for the eyes. They look so good, in fact, that it is not uncommon for one to get hungry after a play session. When the juice is extracted at the end of each day, I find myself wanting to drink white grape.

The only downside is the game’s Wii origins are evident throughout, as some poor land textures and low-poly models can detract from the experience. While it’s mostly only noticeable when using the in-game camera, it’s a shame to see Nintendo’s lack of experience with HD holding them back. Regardless of the occasional rough patch, Pikmin 3 is quite possibly Nintendo’s most beautiful game to date.

Gameplay

On the surface, Pikmin 3 plays identically to the first two games. The game is divided into 15-minute “days” for the player to accomplish various tasks, whether it be collecting fruit, creating bridges, or eliminating dangerous wildlife.
Under the command of the three protagonists, the Pikmin are united into an army for these tasks and are divided into the classic trio of Reds (strong fighters who are resistant to fire), Yellows (light and immune to electricity), and Blues (swimmers who can survive any body of water). Joining the gang are Rock Pikmin (strong troops who slam into wildlife and obstacles of all sorts) and Winged Pikmin (flying Pikmin who excel at aerial combat and can traverse over any terrain). While Pikmin 2’s Purple and White Pikmin are sadly relegated to the Mission Mode, these two new Pikmin are far more interesting in their environmental and puzzle interactions.
While Pikmin 3 takes inspiration from both of the first two games, it harkens back to the original in that there’s an overall time limit to the campaign. As opposed to just being set to thirty days, Pikmin 3 counts down the days depending on the amount of juice siphoned from the collectible fruit strewn around the surface (so, for example, five containers of juice equals five days left). Each day subtracts a can of juice for the team to drink, and with many of the fruits guarded by dangerous beasts, there’s an innumerable amount of ways to tackle the campaign.
And that’s where the beauty of this game’s depth lies: through a player-manipulated time limit, you can choose to play any way you please. Do you have enough juice to spend a day or two propagating more Pikmin? If you choose to do a speedrun playthrough, you’d have to do so simultaneously along the main tasks, but then what type of speedrun should you pursue? Should you see how fast you can collect all the fruit, or just see how quickly you can beat the game? If so, how do you split up the captains this time?
For those of us who want to get up close and personal with the diminutive Pikmin world, the game features an in-game camera to snap pictures. Whether it’s zoomed in or zoomed out, players can upload their snapshots up on the Miiverse social network.

Despite the issues with up-close textures and the like, the good definitely outweighs the bad here. Everything from lighting effects (check out the flame pits in caverns) to spots optimal for panoramic scenery are at their best with this POV, and there are a number of fun easter eggs to discover and share (such as mysterious wall etchings). The juxtaposition of such beautiful scenery alongside an uninhabited alien world really shines here.
Pikmin 3 offers numerous ways to play in regards to controls. Anyone familiar with the Wii ports for the first two Pikmin games should feel right at home with the Wii Remote +Nunchuck combo, although of course the game supports the Wii U Gamepad. Thanks to a recent update, you can now repeatedly flick the screen with the stylus to sling Pikmin (as per the Pikmin Adventure minigame in Nintendo Land).
While the new gesture is appreciated, the regular Gamepad interface is the optimal choice for control. Aside from being easier on the hands, having the entire map at your disposal works wonders in planning out strategies and feels completely natural. At the very least, it’s the key to getting the best scores in Mission Mode.

Music and Sound

Gentle and soft, Pikmin 3’s soundtrack is the definition of atmospheric. From the jingles of Distant Tundra to the haunting chimes of cavern sections, just about every musical piece absorbs the player into Pikmin 3’s alien world. Garden of Hope stands out as a particularly dreamy melody, perfectly complimenting the dawn of a new morning with the plucks of banjo strings.

The sound effects are no slouch, either. The Pikmin are as adorably expressive as ever, and your heart will sink at theirs upon drowning and being munched upon by hungry monsters. In particular, the Rock Pikmin display an amusing incongruity via sound: their sole purpose is for destruction, as tossing them at obstacles and enemies leads to shattered glass and terrified cries from battered creatures…yet their landing on the ground is greeted with the thud of a pebble.

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Mission Mode

Think getting all the fruit in the main game is tough? Try getting Platinum Medals in the highly addictive, yet excruciatingly difficult Mission Mode, which is divided into three sub-modes consisting of 36 missions in all (including DLC): collecting treasure, defeating enemies, and boss battles. Confined to time limits, these missions grade the player with various medals (from bronze to platinum) depending on how much the player had accomplished before the whistle blows.

Clearing every one of these missions to perfection requires a serious time investment, as just like the main campaign every map is designed to be completed however the player wishes. For example,some monsters will take time to bring down, so how many Pikmin should be divided into simultaneous tasks such building bridges and collecting fruit? You can compare your score to the worldwide online leaderboard to see how far along you’ve improved, so if you’re feeling particularly competitive and are wondering why you’re some 5000 points behind, get ready for some serious planning and brainstorming.

Bingo Battle

Rounding out Pikmin 3’s features is the multiplayer Bingo Battle mode. Two players are tasked with collecting objects and felled creatures that are displayed on a bingo-esque grid, and whoever nabs four in a row becomes the winner. Each of the ten battlefields will become a battleground as the opposing armies’ Pikmin wage war to steal each other’s prizes through direct combat, summoning falling giant boulders, or fend off attacks from wildlife. It’s the sort of devilish setup that leads to hilarious co-play, and would be absolutely perfect if it had online play.

Pikmin 3 is yet another victim of Nintendo’s misguided, narrow focus on couch multiplayer for the Wii U (as opposed to just having both it and online multiplayer). While Pikmin 3 might be a tad more forgivable due to potential technical difficulties (If we’re to trust Nintendo’s word, around 200 Pikmin running around at once could strain connections), that the developers see it as no big loss is a shame. This is something I could see myself playing every weekend if I was given the option.

Pros

· Superbly flexible single-player
· Addictive mission mode
· The in-game camera opens up more of the game’s world than you think.
· Incredible atmosphere thanks to art and sound direction.
· Character design is a joy to witness.
· Bingo Battle!

Cons

· Occasional low-res graphical work
· No online multiplayer

Summary

Pikmin 3 is in almost every way worth the wait. The campaign is a perfect middle ground between time restrictions and freedom, and is just flexible enough to encourage multiple playthroughs. The sound and graphical work are some of Nintendo’s best, and Mission Mode will have you coming back again and again. Regardless of any blemishes, this is the best game you can play on the Wii U today.

10/10

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Reflection: Still the Wii U's masterpiece! Just started my fourth playthrough recently and I can't wait to see how I'll tackle it next. Perhaps I should share some of my Miiverse pic uploads?

As for the blog review, the Pikmin series is due very soon, and I can't wait to elaborate on one of my favorite Nintendo series. I like to think I'm still on the money with this review, so I wonder how I'll go forward with it...

Monday, January 18, 2016

Mario Kart 8 (Gaming Grunts Review Repost)

Note: This review was originally published on July 14th, 2014 for Gaming Grunts, which went under some time ago. Having recently salvaged most of my articles on there, I've decided to give them a new home here for archival purposes. Please bear in mind they differ in structure from this blog's reviews, and be sure to join me at the end for a bonus reflection!



Mario Kart 8 races onto the Wii U with a stunningly beautiful HD presentation and creative innovations on the series gameplay. As much as gamers harp on the cheapness of the dreaded Blue Shell, they can’t resist the call of Mario and company to burn rubber and toss banana peels willy-nilly. Despite inheriting some major shortcomings that have plagued the past couple entries, Mario Kart 8 is able to stand on its own as a fantastic party game and solo racer.

Racing

In this latest iteration of Mario Kart, the Mushroom Kingdom has apparently been hard at work inventing anti-gravity technology entirely for the sole purpose of racing. The result: Mario Kart now ushers in a dynamic new form of racing. Courses new and old seamlessly transit from ground-level driving to thrilling twenty-story loops, providing stunning views regardless of whether you’re racing up waterfalls or over department store walls.

Breathing new life into the series, this new mechanic helps supply one of the best course rosters in Mario Kart history. The starting Mario Kart Stadium wows off the bat with its gigantic loop, while Mount Wario throws karters into a three-part race down a gravity-defying snowy mountain. Meanwhile, fan favorites such as Toad’s Turnpike (Mario Kart 64) and Tick-Tock Clock (Mario Kart DS) undergo both mechanical and visual overhauls to blend in with Mario Kart 8’s gravity and flight (the former does so with flying colors, as the sleepy highway is now transformed into a flurry of aerial-based shortcuts).

Graphics

Running at a buttery-smooth 60 FPS, Mario Kart has never looked better. Mario Kart 8 is undoubtedly the best-looking game on the Wii U, with every character, kart, course, and background detail of every sort polished to an unbelievable sheen. The character animation alone is bursting with personality, with fans (including yours truly) constantly combing through replays to capture moments of characters scowling or smirking sinisterly at each other (infamously leading to the“Death-Stare Luigi”).

However, the courses and background details are ultimately the true star of Mario Kart 8’s aesthetics. The raving Koopas and Shy Guys that populate the Electrodome provide a hilarious backdrop to the course, and we learn from the colorful ad banners that products like the “Burnin’ DK” sports drink are popular among racegoers. However, Mario Kart 8’s art direction truly shines best in how it revives retro courses into the age of HD; in particular, the way Mario Kart 64’s Rainbow Road bursts with fireworks, floating golden trains, and the bustling city nightlife below is a nostalgic feast for the eyes.

Karts & Characters

Returning from Mario Kart 7 is the deep kart customization system, where players will continue to experiment situating characters into which combination of karts, wheels and gliders suit them best. As these are obtained through the coins littered on racetracks, the player is enticed to keep playing again and again to collect all the parts (particularly since coins gradually increase top speed by themselves). The endless amount of experimentation will continue to be a huge replay factor for those fully engrossed into the core racing system.

If only the character roster wasn’t such a mixed bag. While the playable introduction of the dastardly Koopalings is quite welcome thanks to their fun personalities (Iggy fan, here!), the inclusion of all seven leaves little room for anyone else to join alongside the usual roster. This wouldn’t really be a problem if they put some actual thought into the last few spots, yet the inclusion of Baby Rosalina and Pink Gold Peach not only come across as tepidly uninspired but render the roster as both somewhat homogenized and lazy in numerous ways (such as it being composed of 1/6 babies).

Weapons

Just like its course variety, Mario Kart 8 brings along a selection of deadly gadgets. Old favorites like the Red Shells, Lightning Bolts and Bob-ombs return alongside new weapons, none the least of which is the potted Piranha Plant. Equipped with its own set of anti-gravity wheels and an eagerness to snap up everyone and everything on the track (including the cows of Moo Moo Meadows), the feisty venus fly trap is a perfect example of Mario Kart 8’s degree of polish.

Alas, while the new Super Horn does a wonderful job of repelling Blue Shells, other items don’t contribute a good deal to proper balance. The wonky flight direction of the Boomerang makes it rather unreliable, and the defensive uselessness of the Coin leaves one to wonder if they should’ve stuck to the tracks.

Replays & Mario Kart TV

As mentioned before, replays can be analyzed, configured and saved after every race. While not unique to Mario Kart 8, the game’s attention to detail is what makes it special. Witnessing the snubby gleefulness of Toad’s smile as he speeds ahead of his opponents or Donkey Kong’s terrifying totem pole-esque expressions never gets old regardless of whether it’s on fast-forward or emphasized through slow-mo. While more options regarding camera angles and the like would be appreciated, what’s available here provides enough tools to craft hilarious replays.

And through the Mario Kart TV feature, these replays can not only be uploaded to Youtube but streamed through the online-enabled broadcast system for everyone to watch and comment (the latter via the spontaneous messages of Miiverse, which are guaranteed to add to the hilarity).

Music

Mario Kart 8 is backed by an incredible big-band soundtrack, much of which was recorded live like last fall’s Super Mario 3D World. It’s all very infectious and is host to a wide range of instruments, such as the electric piano for Donut Plains 3 and the leading saxophone in N64 Rainbow Road. Almost every live piece is just as bouncy and fun as the last and you can tell the music team had a great time with the recording sessions.

In fact, the composers had so much fun with it, they even made the soundtrack coincide with the progress of certain courses! The watery Dolphins Shoals stands out as starting out with a simple synthesized track until racers pop out of the ocean and it explodes into a jazzy saxophone session. Even if I’m losing, it never fails to relieve any and all tension.

Modes

So the racing plays and controls wonderfully, the visuals are sharp, and we’re graced with probably the best Mario Kart soundtrack yet. While these are great tools to craft the best Mario Kart yet, it’s lacking in one vital area: a sufficient amount of modes and options to keep players coming. Nintendo placed a huge emphasis on developing the core racing as opposed to broadening the game with various modes, and it shows.

Take the game’s version of the Battle Mode, where instead of duking it out in specially-made arenas, players are restricted to battling on the regular racing courses. I actually find this a rather neat novelty, yet I still ask “why not both?” Retaining both versions and expanding them in ways beyond Balloon Battle (such as Coin Runners) would have provided a meatier experience, and with many fans scorning the new mode and sticking to racing, it can leave a bare-bones impression of Mario Kart 8. Single-player modes like Mission Mode would also have been welcome, but as Mario Kart’s appeal primarily lies in multiplayer, Battle Mode is a bigger cause for concern.

Thankfully, the online mode picks up some of battle mode’s slack. While it’s not perfect—connection issues are a constant annoyance and voice chat is restricted to friend lobbies only—there’s a multitude of options to enjoy such as private user tournaments and select item matches alongside friends. Frantic Mode’s emphasis on Lightning Bolts and Blue Shells is aggravatingly crazy, just as it should be.


Summary

Do not misunderstand me: by itself, Mario Kart 8 is a great racer with some fantastic production values and exciting spins on a twenty year old formula. While it’s a shame to see Nintendo’s inexperience with HD forces them to continue cutting corners, the game provides enough excitement as it is and seeing the company embrace online play is much appreciated. Mario Kart 8 falls just short of being a racing masterpiece, but that shouldn’t stop you from picking it up.

Pros

  • Excellent sense of handling and speed
  • Course design is unmatched
  • The best HD Nintendo job yet
  • Wonderful, jazzy soundtrack
  • Replay feature
  • Polish, polish everywhere
  • Robust online features

Cons

  • Online features have connection issues
  • Battle mode isn’t fleshed out well enough
  • More modes would’ve been appreciated
  • Some wonky items
  • Questionable character roster decisions

8/10

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Reflection: Behold my first game journalism review! How does it hold up?

I think an eight was a fair score upon the game's arrival, but the DLC content would definitely bump it up to a nine. Yes, I still think how they handled Battle Mode was a shame, but the core racing's so strong that I've grown not to mind. Maybe one day we'll see an HD Mario Kart with a level of quality content matching that of Mario Kart DS; for now, I just need to play this one more!
As for a Leave Luck to Heaven review...while I've been planning to dive into the Mario Kart series, there are other series in the works that take priority. At the very least, I imagine 8 would show up first.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Revival of Gaming Grunts Reviews! (Mostly)

Hello, all! A question: might you be familiar with the Internet Archive, home of the Wayback Machine? In case you don't know, it's a wonderful site that archives webpages, even if they've long since shut down. Anyway, I was using it last week to rediscover some beloved sites lost to time when a thought occurred to me: what if Gaming Grunts, that dead site I happened to intern for, was up on there? And if it was...would my reviews be as well?

To my delight, they were! My debut Mario Kart 8 review! Me reminiscing on WarioWare! Me shaking my head at the mediocrity that was Tales of Xillia 2! Truth be told, the closure of Gaming Grunts had me worried since it left a gaping hole in my resume, but now I have proof it existed. Joy!

Unfortunately, it's not all good news, as one review wasn't archived; namely, my exhaustive Pokémon Symphonic Legends review that was at least twice as long as the rest of the articles I wrote on there. Yeah, of course it had to be that one. I'm just as bummed as you are, so feel free to join me in uselessly clicking on this Facebook link about the article (the opening of it's right there! It's so close, yet so far).

Anyway, why am I telling you this? See, I finally figured out how to go around writing my next review, but it probably won't be ready until maybe a week's time. In the meantime, I figured it would be fun to revisit my old reviews and give them a safe home. As a bonus, I'll throw in a brief reflection on the articles as well as confirmation/disconfirmation on whether each respective piece will receive a deluxe, full-sized blog review from yours truly. There's about eight or so in all, so this week will be quite plentiful.

And what do you know, there'll also be Nintendojo article this week. Do stay tuned!

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Best Virtual Console Games of 2015 (Nintendojo)



                                                                         Article Here

EarthBound Beginnings was robbed, I tell you! ROBBED!

Well, okay, not quite. Sure, the digital release of Metroid Prime Trilogy wasn't quite as groundbreaking, but when it comes down to quality, it's no small feat topping those titles. Additionally, it's not easy tracking down the original Wii copy. It's a fair win.
Quite a few N64 games made the list, too. I've been getting nostalgic for that system lately...if only my old cartridges weren't contaminated with graphical glitches, and if only Nintendo stopped applying that nasty dark filter to their VC games. Please take care of your games, everyone!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Greetings from 2016!

Hello, everyone. How's the New Year treating you?

While I can't promise anything, I can say that the next review has been making decent progress. It's my goal to start out 2016 with a bang, so I hope to exceed my own expectations! Another year of discovering famous game franchises...I can't wait!

In the meantime, Nintendojo has been sharing the best of 2015's articles, and three of mine made the cut. Why not go back and revisit?

What Could Have Been With Nintendo Land

Super Mario Maker: How I Learned to Embrace Happy Accidents

In Loving Memory of Satoru Iwata (Careful, apparently I made some people cry again)

By the way, Nintendojo will be hosting its 2015 awards this week, and I've volunteered to write up the Virtual Console segment. Look forward to it!