Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 41 ~Rainbow Road~ (Mario Kart 64)

OriginMario Kart 64
Plays In: Rainbow Road
Status: Original Composition
Composed by: Kenta Nagata

In the past, I've used the following imagery to describe early nostalgia:

"I remember the starry luminous skies of the Rainbow Resort in Kirby's Adventure eliciting memories of when I was very young, strapped in the car's backseat as I stared in silent wonder at the luminous neon lights passing by."

While used to describe the ending levels in Kirby's Adventure, the imagery of cars and neon lights just as easily bring to mind Rainbow Road from any one Mario Kart. When it comes to my own nostalgia for that series, there's no other choice but  Mario Kart 64, the very first game I ever asked for at the age of 6. 
And I'm certainly not alone in my fond memories of the game; in particular, Mario Kart 64's Rainbow Road iteration elicits similar sentimentality to that aforementioned imagery: neon imagery of the game's roster up in the night sky, an endless guardrail of stars, that soothing music....

But can nostalgia speak for a game's actual quality? Diving deeper into Mario Kart 64 discussions will uncover many who feel that particular Rainbow Road far too long and boring; in fact, it often goes hand-in-hand with criticism of the game not aging too well. Even today, I wonder if that's true: whenever I'd briefly return to my first Mario Kart, it'd always feel so clunky and unfamiliar relative to the newer titles.

That should be decided through a Leave Luck to Heaven review, you may say, but there's another point I'd like to discuss for today: haven't you ever wanted to replay your favorite old games with the same exact sense of wonder you felt as a child?  It's tough to admit, but there's certainly been many times I've prepped my game sessions like that, and they were often abandoned in misery; for example, for the longest time I had difficulty replaying Super Mario 64 because I would never relive that wonderful sense of discovery.

Knowing that I would never relive my childhood years was one of the most difficult realizations I've ever had to endure. In itself, that is not wrong: you have to grow up to recognize and tackle the trials and tribulations around not just yourself, but of the world. But do we recognize that burden when we're just entering our teenage years, when our bodies undergo changes and we grow fickle over every little thing? Perhaps, but that only validates our fears and declining perspective of the world.

"That's how nostalgia gets to you. You're reminded of a familiar fragrance or feeling that perfectly mirrors how you felt during a certain period of your youth, and you desperately try in vain to contain it. You attempt to revel in it to make the feeling last a lifetime, and you think of everything that happened to you to contain it, whether it was your favorite cartoon or video game and all the friends you had. It's a several month, perhaps year-long experience all packed in a few seconds, and then it's gone."

Like it or not, cynicism takes over us as we grow older. It's why we grow so excited when A Link to the Past sequel is being made for 3DS, or grow misty-eyed at video game orchestras or when Super Smash Bros. arranges beloved EarthBound and Mega Man tunes, or simply stare in awe when Mario Kart 8 reimagines a fan-favorite course with an explosion of color. To us, it's as if developers are saying "we remember how you feel, too," and hold our halcyon-day memories to the highest regard.

In turn, their nostalgia introduced to a new generation, and the cycle continues.

Mario Kart 64 is the furthest form of nostalgia as it the most mysterious. 
It was a time where I thought the N64 controller was loosely based off of Mario's gloves, where the 3D models on the character select screen felt larger than life and that half-finished wall painting of Mario down in the basement, which my mother never finished. How much of that can be replicated? Not much, unless I want to stare at unfinished paintings in the filthy, dirty backside of the basement.

Point is, we can never replicate exactly how we felt when first playing a game, as they'd require outside influences to be replicated again and again (that, and do I really want my mother to make incomplete paintings of Mario?) Maybe Mario Kart 64 isn't all that hot now, but having replayed Super Mario 64 over three times in the past three years, it's stunning to me how that game holds up today despite its rudimentary nature. 

Take the old in with the new, and forge on. Criticize the new and the new, and accept their quality as they are. As a writer, it is my duty to record such experiences.

Final Thoughts: No, really, how does Mario Kart 64 hold up? Hmm...maybe it's time for a Mario Kart retrospective.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Introducing My Latest Game Journalism Job: Hey Poor Player!

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Wordly Weekend: Mega Man (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Where 3DS Can Go From Here (Nintendojo)

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

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

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