Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii)

Note: While this isn't the original version of Twilight Princess, since the Wii version was the one released first and remains the only one I've played, this will serve as the "main" review of the game for this blog. Reviews for the GameCube version and the Wii U remaster are scheduled for the future.


Within the bowels of the The Legend of Zelda fandom lies a little theory known as the "Zelda Cycle," a belief pushed by those who cannot comprehend anyone not liking the newest Zelda game. The theory goes in how people will unreasonably lob hate against the latest Zelda title, comparing its mishaps to the impeccable heights of the previous entry despite that game suffering from the same treatment at release. No one quite knows why this cycle of people magically changing their minds  takes place -- it may have to do with overzealous keyboard warriors unable to discern they're reading different opinions from different people over time -- but regardless, it's a rather pervasive theory, right down to being referenced by Nintendo's top brass themselves in an Iwata Asks installment.

If my biting sarcasm wasn't telling enough, I think the Zelda Cycle is a load of bollocks. The idea that Zelda games are prone to hosting some sort of nebulous hivemind is nothing less than fanboy drivel, and that aforementioned Iwata Asks thing is one of the more notable examples of second-hand Nintendo embarrassment. True, we could make an exception for The Wind Waker, but only in the case that people cooled on the controversial graphics switch over time; much as I love it, the game received plenty of legitimate criticism upon release.

And yet, I can't help but admit I've never been able to nail my feelings on 2006's Twilight Princess, the series' best-selling game despite being one of its more divided entries. Bear in mind this opinion has never fluctuated wildly, but...well, I'll let the evolution of my 11-year thought process speak for itself:

Upon Completion in 2006: "Well, that was pretty good, I suppose."

A Year Later: "...you know, actually, that was kinda disappointing."

Upon Replaying it in 2009: "Hmm, actually, this is better than I remember it being."

Upon a 100% Completion Replay Last Year:
"Eh, it's good, I guess."

So perhaps there is some mystical force responsible for my lukewarm feelings towards Twilight Princess, but regardless, that they exist at all is something I admit with the heaviest of hearts: can you imagine anything more soul-crushing than the game responsible for the greatest reaction in E3 history causing such a divided reaction? This is, after all, the Zelda game practically every Western fan wanted: a realistic Zelda echoing Lord of the Rings aesthetics and a brooding story, and for it to miss the mark still makes me feel...neutral? It's hard to describe.


Let us make this clear: any notions of Twilight Princess being "bad" should be immediately dispelled -- there is a considerable amount of things I enjoy about it, in fact, and I will absolutely call them to attention -- yet there are undeniably bad things in it that not only undermine what should be a legitimately spectacular game into merely a good one, but are largely embryonic in what would devolve into Zelda's worst habits. Much of Twilight Princess' strongest moments are isolated, surrounded by a sea of deafening bloat that smothers any ambitions it so rightly deserves.

There's really no better place to start than at the game's beginning, and it's here I ask the reader what comes to mind regarding Zelda's great opening sequences. Undoubtedly, you have the rainstorm prelude in A Link to the Past, the dreamy mystery of Link's Awakening, the giddy experimentation in Breath of the Wild, and Kokiri Forest's snappy introduction in Ocarina of Time. Majora's Mask and The Wind Waker likely wouldn't rank among said openings, as those were when Zelda began elongating intros for the sake of context, yet even those could be defended on the grounds that they're neither patronizing nor pointless.

Twilight Princess's opening is, sadly, both of those things, choosing to crank up its own beginning by forcing you to spend three days inside a sleepy little village and experience all of its mundane routines. It should be reminded that out of those three days, the first two bear little to no importance in how they force poor Link into herding cows, cat-searching, fishing, rescuing baby cradles, testing your new slingshot or solving monkey kidnappings.

Admittedly, not all of these are terrible -- herding cows while riding Epona makes for an entertaining mini-game, at least -- but they are only brief, faint flashes of enjoyment in a never-ending swamp of boringness. The duality of the cat-searching/fishing strikes as an immediate down-point: you have to fish for a cat to send it home, see, but the game neglects to mention you have to do this twice, and I still recall begging that cat to eat the greengill I'd just caught. As dedicated readers should know, if I am not enjoying anything involving cats, you are undoubtedly doing something wrong. (On a related note, as we're discussing the Wii version, this particular segment is compounded by awful, unintuitive fishing controls I still can't get the hang of a decade later, although thankfully it's the only time the motion controls reach such a nadir)


Needless to say, the Ordon Village segment is hardly anything more than a convoluted mess of errands and fetch quests -- would you believe the cat fishing thing concludes a particularly tangled order of events just to obtain a slingshot? -- and yet it's amazing how much of that seeps into the rest of the game. Even when stuff finally happens on the third day --  mainly Link's transformation into a wolf and the introductions of Midna and Princess Zelda -- it insists you partake on tedious bug hunts and the like.

Consequently, Twilight Princess' padding suffocates not merely the pacing but dulls the impact from whaty are incredibly effective moments. Take the meeting with Faron, the very first Spirit of Light you encounter: a chilling choir greets the Faron Woods' freedom from twilight, the camera panning over Link's granting of the iconic green garb we fell in love with all those years ago. Finally, we're about to dive into the sword-swinging action we've been craving since 2004...only to be deflated shortly afterwards when we enter the Forest Temple, which holds the honor of simultaneously being the first and worst dungeon in the game, largely not due to being anything more than hunting down monkeys.

The first entry into Hyrule Field also stumbles. While the kingdom is several times bigger than it was in Ocarina of Time, it cannot hope to emulate that awe-inducing feeling we felt back in 1998, as the grand scope is shortly cut off by another bug hunt, which I neglected to give context to before. See, much of Hyrule is drowned in Twilight thanks to the Twilight King's invasion, and only through destroying the Shadow Insects within can you obtain enough Tears of Light to dispel the shadowy fog plaguing Hyrule. A decent enough context, but it's married to gameplay not suited for Zelda: they're tedious, tiresome scavenger hunts that go on and on, and while Skyward Sword was the first Zelda advertised as having level-based progression zones and whatnot, these segments are embryonic of an overtly linear, railroaded system that doesn't match with Zelda's exploration at all (the worst being by far the one for the Lanaryu region; perhaps it's just me, but I've never been able to make sense of the interconnected mazes of rivers and lakes, and I always get lost).

To summarize, it's all blatant, exhaustive padding that not only deters replays but undermines the introductions of their respective locations (and not just because they're all drowned within a boring aesthetic, but we'll get to that later) . I won't deny there are highlights -- the grim sheltering of the survivors of Kakariko Village in twilight is appropriately chilling, and the Goron sumo-wrestling bits, sabotaged as they are by all the backtracking, are joyfully absurd to watch and engage in, not the least in how they come out of nowhere -- but that even awesome moments like the Bridge of Eldin duel are clumsily inserted within all this backtracking is just all the more frustrating.



The point isn't to say Twilight Princess isn't utterly blameless outside of its padding -- we'll get to its other mishaps as we go along -- but the deluge of of tutorials and handholding and whatnot make it a lot harder to appreciate what it does do right. The swordplay, for one; while hardly a difficult game, I can think of few Zelda games on par with or surpass Twilight Princess in terms of quality sword control. There's a great heft to every slice, and that I say this despite the presence of Wii controls is something of a miracle. Not that I'm opposed to motion controls or anything, but a gyro-based control scheme from 2006 is hardly going to be as impressive in 2017, and make no mistake: it does feel a little clunky by today's standards (and the less we say about the "thank god I can turn this gimmicky shit off" in the form of Midna's cackling from the speakers, the happier I'll be), but the distinct pleasure of moving your arms around to initiate sword slicing and shielding is undeniable. Even the Navi pointer on-screen is surprisingly unobtrusive, and it too can be turned off.

Really, when you're not being bogged down by worthless drivel, Twilight Princess does feel great to play. Look no further than horseback riding: Twilight Princess's iteration of Epona remains the series highpoint, surpassing the acceptable clunkiness, Ocarina of Time and avoiding the surprising stiffness of Breath of the Wild. The controls are on point, the horse feeling substantially weighty and thrilling horseback sword battles abound. (I only just wish the Horse Call came far earlier than it did; as anyone who's played the game knows, relying on stray patches of Horse Grass to summon your horse is hardly ideal)

 
This also extends to the items, although the missteps are present here as well. Not because of any motion control mishaps, mind; if anything, I suspect the comparisons to Spider-Man via the Double Hookshots come from all the manual pointing and aiming. But as cool as new items like the Ball and Chain and the Spinner are, Twilight Princess makes the mistake of only utilizing them within their respective dungeons as opposed to rendering them as organic tools that continually complement the world around Link. Yes, there are quick puzzles decorating the overworld here and there, but they're more or less dumped after their respective dungeons.

But those dungeons! Those are where Twilight Princess is at its A-game. Forest Temple aside, much of the dungeons evoke the best of the organic Zelda dungeon design and "wow" moments, be they the gravity-defying magnetism of Goron Mines, the "oh, wait, this is a dungeon?" for a certain location in Snowpeak or the nostalgia-fueled setting behind the sixth dungeon. Most feel appropriately huge, and with how often these dungeons bank themselves on awe and surprise, it's wonderful how often it genuinely, honestly works.

One example from the sandy depths of Arbiter's Grounds readily comes to mind. Hailing from my first playthrough, I was navigating a room impeded by falling chandeliers, with one particular road obstructed by a chain-activated candelabrum. Pulling the chain to raise it up, I quickly dashed across the bridge before it fell down, but it was too late: I yelped as the rickety structure came crashing down...yet I wasn't dead. Spotting a small indent on the floor, I deduced that since it was too quick otherwise, the entire point was to let it fall around me. A more observant player might've figured that out ahead of time, but I can hardly recall any other puzzle that so quickly shifted fear into an "aha!" moment.

In terms of general engrossment, however, Lakebed Temple and City in the Sky are the obvious highlights, what with how they engage the player in gradually shifting their geography through waterslides and falling towers. All are initiated through the Clawshot, which have Link zipping across both dungeons and instill a true "hands-on" sense of satisfaction in altering your surroundings. And let us not forget their thrilling boss fights of giant eels and armored dragons, which have you riding for dear life within deep watery grottos and treacherous rainy skies.

It's a shame Twilight Princess only shines in segmented locations, too, as I do like what this iteration of Hyrule is trying to do. Yes, it is rather empty, but let us not dismiss its more inspired concepts; namely, the labyrinths. Interconnected throughout Hyrule, these mazes are blindingly dark, haunted by Skulltulas and endless pits, and only through careful use of your lantern will you successfully navigate their depths. It's the one element of the overworld that comes across as an organic component, and I'd certainly would've liked to experience more challenging terrain akin to those.

And yet, I can't help but notice just how lame the civilizations are. I'm not going to sit here and pretend the likes of Goron City or Dragon Roost Island accurately depicted lived-in cities, but surely they were better than the one-room circles that house the Gorons and Zoras! This game's iterations of Kakariko Village and Hyrule Castle Town might provide better arguments here, but the former remains its most dismal iteration to date: a boring, dusty canyon town that, context aside, is utterly lifeless.


 There lies the source of Twilight Princess's sluggishness. I cannot claim it is entirely full of ugly sights -- the towering emptiness of Morpheel's lair after its' defeat, for one, or the gloomy melancholy of the Lost Woods -- but so much of the game's aesthetic lies within dull, washed out colors that often settle for hues of brown, and it's never very enthralling to look at. While it's understandable that bold colors wouldn't be emphasized within a realistic-driven title -- it's not as if Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask were particularly colorful, either --- it's hard to get caught up visually when so much of it looks this inert, and I figure this is why the Twilight Realms feel as sluggish as they do.

The character designs also suffer in their attempt to carry over Zelda-esque figures. Consider how we've had some goofy-looking designs in the past (with occasional missteps; look no further than the portly women NPCs in Ocarina of Time), but they generally served the purposes of their respective artstyles; namely, Tingle in Majora's Mask and the snot-filled Zill in The Wind Waker. Twilight Princess forgets that if you just carry this on within a realistic direction without a hint of irony, you're going to have some real grotesque-looking figures.This isn't to say there aren't some inspired concepts -- that the Goron Elders house steaming miniature volcanoes on their backs is too cool -- but it's not that uncommon encountering characters which look like this:


or run across critters that I cannot imagine were created as anything but the most eye-burning of nightmare fuel, as evidenced by Link's expression at meeting Ooccoo.


Really, it's hard not to see where one's distaste with the artstyle would hail from. It wouldn't be until Breath of the Wild that Nintendo would find a nice middle ground between colorful fantasy and grounded character design, but alas, that took some eleven years...

Even the music is only memorable in fragmented occasions, and it kinds of breaks my heart to say that. Toru Minegishi heads the soundtrack with Asuka Ohta -- and the legendary Koji Kondo supervising -- and when they do nail it, they nail it: the utter despair of Midna's Theme/Midna's Lament, the chilling power of the Light Spirit theme, and the heartpounding finale of the Final Boss theme. (I'd also cite the sheer adventure of the Hyrule Field theme, but as evidenced by the Wii U remaster and Super Smash Bros. Brawl's rip, it was obviously constrained by system limitations)

But they're surrounded by songs that don't evoke much of anything. I have earlier praised atmospheric songs in Zelda, but the problem with Twilight Princess it focuses too much on that particular direction and not many of the songs stick to memory. One can see this in, say, the dungeons: the previous Zelda games interchangeably used atmospheric and songs with a stronger melody to create a stunning ear-grabbing blend of ambience. Compare the haunting hypnosis of Ocarina of Time's Forest Temple to Twilight Princess's iteration and note which one absorbs you more. Only City in the Sky matches this quality very late into the game, and it's disappointing nothing else even so much as echoes this quality.

It's all enough to make one walk away from Twilight Princess not feeling much of anything, even when considering all the good things it accomplishes. Running around in the wolf form is cool, for instance, and I like the attacks involved with it, but that so much of it is associated with the boring Twilight Realms renders it "eh". Even the story falls into this trap, as what should otherwise be a strong tale is imbalanced through the strength of its characters. I enjoy seeing Colin grow via his admiration for Link, for instance, but I struggle in recalling the names and personalities of the Resistance members. The yetis are adorably hilarious and absolutely make the fifth dungeon, but I care not for the Zora prince Ralis and his grief, which can be chalked up to his precious little screen time.


In particular, I can't help but note the balance between the two Twili. Anyone can agree Midna is a fiercely engaging sidekick to the extent one could even say she's the true protagonist of this Zelda, yet I cannot help but feel Zant is wasted as a villain. Unlike many, I'm actually rather fond of the personality shift in his last appearance, but only in concept; juxtaposed with the calm ruthlessness displayed beforehand, it's far too abrupt and I've never been convinced it was a facade all along. Had there been some effective foreshadowing beforehand, I'd likely think differently. (That he gets sidelined by a certain other villain is also unfortunate, but I'm already too deep in spoiler territory as it is)

There are other things I enjoy in isolation. Naturally, I enjoy the emphasis on cats being Hyrule's animal of choice this time around, and take great amusement in one particular sidequest involving a wild west showdown. Despite what I mentioned previously about the realistic style not meshing with more absurd Zelda character designs, Malo -- the shrewd toddler who discovers the joys of capitalism --  is the one delightful exception, and I can't help but notice how he expertly dodges sword swings should the player swing their sword in his vicinity. Seeing as how he opens his own market empire (complete with theme song!), perhaps he's the true villain of this tale. 

More than anything, however, Twilight Princess feels tired. While not without merit, even underneath all its successes lies a tired familiarity, a fatigue that makes one go "I've done this before." When married to bloated padding, dismal aesthetics and handholding and all, it culminates into this bizarre paradox of being too much Zelda and yet not very much like Zelda all. It certainly looks like Zelda, what with Link and Princess Zelda and the first three dungeons being forest, fire and water, and even before we groan at the same tired twists and formulas, the actual look for it is as tiring to watch as being reminded you've picked up a blue rupee every time you start up the game. Sad to say, any ambitions it has are quashed underneath this crushing misdirection, one that would come to erroneously define the next few years of Zelda.


Friday, August 18, 2017

5 Game Characters We Saw Ourselves In (Hey Poor Player)


Article Here

While this article includes five entries from five separate writers, I happen to be the first one featured, so you don't have to wait to read mine. But the entire thing's worth reading!

Luke fon Fabre -- the protagonist of Tales of the Abyss -- was my instant go-to choice for this collaboration. While he certainly doesn't have autism, he does reflect a certain frustration I've dealt with in my life due to that condition, and I've always wanted to write about that. Perhaps I'm biased in saying he's the most realized Tales protagonist? Regardless, for anyone who's wanted me to get in-depth regarding my Asperger's, I'd recommend reading this.

(By the way, I'm not the one who selected that picture; that was the editor. While it's from the anime adaption, it's certainly a clever choice when considering the subject matter!)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 52 ~N市L街A~ (Xenoblade Chronicles: X)



Origin: Xenoblade Chronicles: X
Plays In: New Los Angeles at night
Status: Original Composition
Composed By:
Hiroyuki Sawano

I intended to begin this installment with a question, yet now that I've actually sat down to listen to our song for today, it's now that I realize the night theme for New Los Angeles -- the central hub for Wii U's Xenoblade Chronicles: X -- really is annoying. Just notice how the head-ache inducing nausea begins instantly, as an obnoxious chain of "YEAH! UH! UH YEAH! UH! UH! UH!" never ceases in their assault on our eardrums. 

And yet, for over the past half-year since I began playing the game, I can't recall a single instance where such an effect happened as I strolled down the nighttime streets of New Los Angeles. In other words, hearing it in-game was perfectly fine, yet I can't stand listening to it by itself. How odd!

I'm sure any aural experts out there could give a rational explanation for this phenomenon, but really, the undermined point I wanted to bring up was how it's not too uncommon for me to scratch my head at certain kind of flaw cited in video games; namely, the ones that annoy or frustrate people. A rather broad category, I know,  yet whenever I hear complaints regarding Zelda: Breath of the Wild's weapon durability/voice acting or Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U's stage design, I can never not sit there asking myself what the problem is.


To cite some non-specific examples, many of these complaints revolve around waiting (Rainbow Ride's carpets in Super Mario 64, or sailing in Zelda: The Wind Waker), what's perceived to be obtrusive (the stage bosses in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U), and interruptions of the gameplay (the helper companions in 3D Zelda games, handholding and all). I can't deny some of these ruffle my feathers -- I can't stand the flood of tutorials in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story and Dream Team -- but I'm just not easily annoyed by it. Perhaps I just have higher tolerance to this sort of thing?

As far as "annoying sound" goes, only this execrable theme from Zelda: Skyward Sword comes to mind. This even extends to other pieces of media; for instance, having recently rewatched the Star Wars prequel trilogy, I can't claim to hate everyone's favorite punching bag Jar Jar Binks, indecipherable accent and all. Perhaps it's just too easy, or maybe it's my twisted sadism knowing something that doesn't annoy me is ear-destroying sacrilege to others, so I've been practicing my impersonation of him. (On a related note, the child version of Anakin Skywalker strikes me as a much more offensive problem in The Phantom Menace, but that's neither here nor there)

What's interesting here is that going into Xenoblade Chronicles: X, I knew I was going to have problems: the character design -- particularly the faces -- felt uninspired at best, none of the music I'd heard had stuck with me, and I feared the silent avatar would diminish the infectious camaraderie found in the first game. My fears came half-true: while the character design and mute avatar have been blemishes on an otherwise great experience, I've been quite mixed on the music: it's another one of those "some tracks are better than others" games, and I'm not crazy about the vocal tracks blaring over the dialogue (although I hear this is an issue exclusive to the English version).

And yet, I can't bring myself to really hate the soundtrack or anything. Not even this theme, which is so offensive to me through my computer speakers, is perfectly okay within the context of gameplay. Sometimes my inferiority complex emerges through situations like this: does my Asperger's prevent me from experiencing the same problems everyone else does? Over the past several years, I've encountered criticisms on NeoGAF and the like over beloved games I've cherished since childhood, little problems that've been under my nose this whole time, and I always ask myself how I never noticed them before. Does that make me fit to be a game journalist? A blog reviewer?

Yet in turn, I wonder how many Xenoblade Chronicles: X players reading this desperately wish they were in my shoes? Think about it: how awesome would it be not to get headaches from this infamous theme? One that deterred them from playing, even? Jealous as I may be of people I perceive to be sharper than I, they may be jealous of my disregarding elements for a game they desperately wished to love.


Just like every form of media, each of us come out of every game we play with a different set of positives and negatives. Such variety is good, I think, even when I'm still trying to figure out why Final Destination's three-second flash in Smash for Wii U makes people unable to see their perfectly visible fighters. Actually, maybe not. Except for when it does.

Yeah, that works.


Final Thoughts:
I really do worry about whenever I get around to, well, getting the game's soundtrack, though. I can't imagine listening to this via headphones.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Hey! Pikmin Review (Hey Poor Player)



I had faith in Arzest all along they'd be able to redeem themselves with this Pikmin spin-off, and I was right! Needless to say, I think I loved Hey! Pikmin more than most reviewers did. At the very least, it and Pikmin 3's Mission Mode should keep me entertained until Pikmin 4 arrives, so I can't ask for more.

...man, if Pikmin 4 takes forever again, though...

Monday, July 31, 2017

Splatoon


I feel as if I've been confessing my inexperience with certain genres a little too much recently, but regardless, I can't say I particularly care for shooters. It's not because I'm squeamish or don't even find them fun, but they feel, more than anything, absolutely tired. The assembly-line identity of Call of Duty and its ilk certainly contribute to that, but that's not even getting how many frame themselves within wars, zombies or alien invasions. The claim that they're creatively bankrupt feels a little unfair when considering recent hits like Overwatch, but it cannot be stressed enough that a) I am really goddamn sick of zombies and b) I wish that maybe shooters would step out of their comfort zone a little.

Perhaps this is why for the past two years I have been absolutely taken with Nintendo's own attempt in Splatoon, which as the game itself would say is absolutely "fresh" in every way that matters. That I'm "taken" with it probably won't last much longer, seeing as how Splatoon 2 came out just the other day, but it's not hard to see how it made such a splash: while turf war and paintball games and the like have been around for some time, none reach the inspired heights of Splatoon's "kids who turn into squids" concept, married to a 90's-inspired dwelling in downtown Shibuya where the kids ("Inklings") splatter each other with Nickelodeon-esque ink, follow idols and dress themselves in "fresh" clothing.


It's a concept as fascinating to watch as it is to play: a game of Splatoon's imagination must put imagery to work, and you have Inklings utilizing not merely toy guns and rifles but paint rollers, brushes and buckets to spreading their color-coded ink around, all the while swimming through said ink as a squid. Through repeated experimentation of each and every weapon, you'll eventually find your own niche in best serving your team, be it full-frontal assault (Splattershot), vantage points (Chargers) or clean-up duty (Rollers).

Let it be reminded that this is not a game about killing the other player: yes, Inklings can be "splatted" through weapons and whatnot, but this is first and foremost a game focusing on inking as much territory as possible. You ink walls to climb up via squid form, you'll scrub over as much enemy ink as possible to lessen their territorial foothold and you'll definitely find yourself cleaning up the home base your team forgot to ink at the start.

This isn't to dismiss splatting as an afterthought: it's an inevitable consequence in every match, and the thrill of surprise attacks are not to be forgotten. But it's this emphasis on turf control that grant Splatoon some advantages; image-wise, ink renders Splatoon the least cynical shooting game on the market. Not that a game about kids and squids who look as if they popped right of a Nicktoon would feature the same grittiness as Halo, but for a world so conceptually different, it's automatically relatable in its context: adolescents engaging in their favorite past-time.

From a gameplay standpoint, it's the best possible hook Splatoon could ask for. Toss any controller at the player new to Call of Duty, and it's all too likely they'll fumble with the HUD, controls and aiming before they get a hang of it. Give them a GamePad for Splatoon, and the premise is immediately understood: drench everything in sight with ink and you'll help your team win. It's a concept as approachable to the weathered octogenarian as it is to the fledgling preschooler.



Really, it's amazing how fun it is just to ink things. Being the point of the game, of course, you're compelled to ink every dry surface and opposing ink in sight, even if it places you at a tactical advantage, and you often find yourself asking such questions like, "do I go after that crowd of uncovered patches to bolster our lead, or clean up the messy warfare going on at the center?" Perhaps this is why Rollers are my weapon of choice: they're designed not for battle (fun as it is to squish enemy Inklings from behind!), but to clean-up whatever territory our team missed, and so Rollers are often left to their own devices.

It helps the stage list is generally quite solid. While there are some obviously better than others--the likes of Walleye Warehouse and Arowana Mall have never thrilled me too much--I've grown to recognize it's difficult to forge a top five list considering how many I enjoy. I could elaborate on a number of favorites, but Saltspray Rig is an obvious highlight, with its king-of-the-hill set-up prime for Sprinkler weapons and heated splatting. Meanwhile, Moray Towers displays the variety in arena design, with both towering, vertical home bases opposing the other in a defensive showdown.

That Splatoon is Nintendo's first primarily-online game makes it all the more a wonder it works as well as it does. As we'll discuss momentarily, the absence of voice chat was a misstep, and yet I can't find myself getting too mad at that: again, Splatoon's visual intuition is key here, as all it takes is one look at your map to see where your services are best needed: either back up your teammates in a heated turf war, or go scrub up some empty turf.


Going off-track for a moment, said map is what helps make Splatoon a winner; after three years of trying to figure out what do with the damn GamePad, Splatoon finally makes Nintendo's first--albeit far too late--case of a game designed around the screen-equipped controller. While a traditionally-controlled Splatoon available if you want it --the option of turning off gyro controls is present--I can't possibly imagine going without without said gyro controls, which are super precise and undoubtedly faster in their aiming. In a game designed around marking turf, such innate movement and accuracy is vital to whipping about in the fastest manner possible, rendering the gyro essential for anyone desiring to play the game at a competitive level. While it wouldn't be until Super Mario Maker that the screen itself would prove essential, the conveniences found in Splatoon make us what wonder what Wii U could've been like had Nintendo actually focused on the GamePad concept in the system's earlier years.

Of course, Nintendo and online being what they are, basic fundamental mistakes are made that no one else would make; for starters, what's up with not being able to switch weapons between matches? What should be a common-sense feature is absent, and needless to say, it's quite frustrating having to leave a room just to switch Rollers. The absence of voice chat at least got something of an explanation, and while Nintendo's desire to create a family-friendly environment for young players is understandable, that it's the player's choice renders it irrelevant; that, too, is simply far too viable in a team shooter like this. And the less said about matchmaking with friends, the happier I'll be.

At the same time, the way Nintendo emphasized the game's online community is to be commended. The Miiverse posts hovering above the Inklings wandering about Inkopolis were naturally prime for memes, and I can't help but imagine it mirrors the contextual interests of the Inklings themselves. The Splatfests, themed contests in which players choose between two sides like Pokémon Red vs Pokémon Blue, were also immensely interesting in how each region (America/Japan/Europe) had exclusive contests specifically tailored towards each country's native interests, going as far to license  from non-gaming properties  (to provide an American example, having once been the world's biggest Spongebob Squarepants fan, it made me immensely happy they not only hosted a "Spongebob vs Patrick" contest to capitalize upon the game's nautical theme, but the localization team made the effort to include the show's best quote, as seen below.)



While I'm at it, Splatoon possesses one of my favorite Treehouse localizations in recent memory. Naturally it's filled to the brim with squid puns and the like, but while the design of Splatoon's characters alone would capture our attention--the shy anemone-adorned hat shop owner bossed around by a demand clownfish host being the highlight-- the dialogue is what instantly renders them memorable, be it the stone-cold sass of Marie or how the final boss--a DJ octopus--literally screams "I'mma remix your face!" Much as that one is cited as the best, however, my personal vote goes to "Please to understand,"uttered grammatically-confused jellyfish owner of Jelly Fresh in a reference to the late Satoru Iwata's favorite phrase. 

Let us not forget the ingenuity found in the game's clothing: hats, shirts and shoes all provide bonuses unlocked through gradually playing battles and earning points, so players are encouraged to purchase all sorts of clothing and mix 'em up to suit their Turf War preferences. We could harp on about endless styles of eye-catching fashion, but what's undeniably the coolest thing abut it is how Nintendo invented all these brands behind every single article of clothing, all of with their own emphasis on a different bonus; Inkline's assembly of outdoor gear, for instance, focuses on Defense Up buffs

A similar route is taking with the "bands" behind the game's music, although those are elaborated upon within the official soundtrack and whatnot. Nay, what's more important is so much of Splatoon's character is expressed in sound, courtesy of Toru Minegishi and Shiho Fujii in what is absolutely the highlight of the former's long career at Nintendo. Guitars, chiptunes, synth and fictional vocals all come together to perfectly encapsulate the competitive drive of youth, complemented by a dash of tropical reggae.


It can't be emphasized enough how earwormy Splatoon's music is: much of this is thanks to the aforementioned made-up vocals, composed of the Inklings' nebulous language. Just compare and contrast the two following battle themes -- Splattack! (the game's main theme) and Kraken Up -- and note how they immediately become ingrained in memory. Both take different approaches in their guitar/vocal qualities: you have the former, which takes a steady, yet not too languid, method in complementing the turf war, never being too overt in its rhythm but keeping it afloat to linger; the latter, which takes an immediate "gung-ho!" plunge in its vocal opening, in turn casting an instant drive to go out here and splat about. 

Those two represent perhaps the best of the guitar/vocal mixes, although the chiptune songs must also be praised: aside from deliberate homages in Super Mario Maker and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (which, coincidentally, all hail from the same release period), I can't begin to recall such active use of chiptune in modern Nintendo history, and it works wonderfully; I'm particularly fond of Shellfie, the most frantic of the bunch that draws synth and vocals. But let us also not forget Now or Never!, the one-minute frenzy that concludes each and every match with an adrenaline-pumping beat, one that either draws one last stand in the face of overwhelming odds or confidence in maintaining a crushing lead.

I could continue to harp on about my love of the score -- I also dig the mesmerizing minalism of Inkopolis Square -- but really, my point is that everything surrounding Splatoon's core gameplay and much of its presentation is generally pretty perfect, and that's why I continue to wish the rest of the game was up to snuff.  There is a single-player campaign, for instance, involving an underground war against the dastardly Octolings. It's tongue-in-cheek and fun and all that, and yet I could never shake the impression it was little more than a tutorial for the main game, with hardly any of it being recalled to memory. Others feel differently, most commonly referring to the final boss fight as a masterpiece; myself, other than the show-stopping vocal finale theme, I thought it was just fine. (Instead, I would point to the main attraction as the collectible Sunken Scrolls, which detail the origins and lore of Splatoon's world; being a cat lover, it goes without saying the origin of Judd, the corpulent kitty referee, made me unironically well up).


Meanwhile, I would describe Splatoon's presentation as, in a word, snappy, but I use that term with some hesitation. Let us not downplay how Inkopolis is just compact enough for player convenience and to remain interesting in itself, or the quick-jump interface with the touch screen, but there are other things that are not so "convenient". Case in point: the Squid Sisters' obligatory stage announcements that arrive every time the game boots up, and have remained unskippable in the two years since launch. Truth be told, while I have not only grown accustomed to these messages but even look forward to them much as one would for a pre-game show, I cannot help but sympathize with those who'd instead choose to skip it and discover the stage list for themselves. Splatoon is convenient, yes, but only within the confines of the rules it sets for itself, even if they are against the interests of the player.

The most unfortunate detail is that, alas, Splatoon has an expiration date: as it's primarily online, it'll go down one day, and its core appeal as a product will cease. Even more than that, with Miiverse likely to shut down soon, it seems those delightful user posts will be going away too, and soon Splatoon will rendered a silenced online experience 'till the day of its death. There is an offline multiplayer mode, but the whole balloon thing is hardly in the same league as the main online game; needless to say, preservation of the game seems unlikely, and I'll certainly mourn its passing.

But until that day arrives, and even afterwards, let us bask in how Nintendo has reinvented the wheel with the world's most popular gaming genre with Splatoon. This is, by all accounts, not merely the most addictive game on Wii U (only Super Smash Bros. for Wii U provides a close tie), but the most fascinating concept to arrive from Nintendo since the GameCube era, and that such an uncynical idea continues to successfully penetrate the gaming sphere is nothing less than remarkable. It is, quite simply, ink-redible.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Kirby Concert Available For Streaming on NicoNico (Limited Time!) (Hey Poor Player)


It's been two days and I still can't get over it: I watched a Kirby concert!! I may not have been there, but thanks to the benevolence of NicoNico, I got see an incredible livestream I keep watching again and again.

In particular, that part with Kirby on-stage, the entire hall singing Happy Birthday to him, him begging for cake ("ke-ki!") is just...just too cute for words! Ah, for that alone, I demand a DVD release! A CD would be just fine, too; it's not that I don't expect one, but this moment must be immortalized for all time.

If I had to pick three of the best suites, they would be ones for Kirby's Adventure, Air Ride and Triple Deluxe. While I was sad Rainbow Resort didn't make the cut for the Kirby's Adventure medley, Grape Garden took its place as the gentle lullaby quite wonderfully, and the whole suite was just as sugary sweet and nostalgic as the original game! Meanwhile, Air Ride and Triple Deluxe were delightfully bombastic, and it was delightful to witness Shogo Sakai conducting the former! (By the way, I bungled my Japanese when I reached out to him on Twitter afterwards, ahaha. Thankfully, he was quite polite about it!)

Needless to say, you must watch this! Immediately! Now! If you can't, then join me and the rest of the NicoNico commentators on hoping for a CD!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Super Mario 64


Dear reader, should you be the gaming type--and I'm assuming you are, considering you're reading a video game blog-- let me ask you this: if you could, would you take on the impossible task of playing a game forever? Personally, there would be far too many earthly pleasures to give up for such a venture: while the luxuries of drinking Welch's White Grape Juice and stroking cats could simply be delivered to me, the simple pleasures of taking afternoon walks, watching cat videos and reading weathered One Piece and Eyeshield 21 volumes would simply be too much to give up.

And yet, a number of games pop readily to mind. I remain endlessly entertained by Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, for example, and I've yet to grow bored of Splatoon even on the eve of its sequel. I've never tired of the cathartic seas found in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and my fascination with Bubble Bobble on my beloved NES Classic Mini hasn't ceased. I've lost count of how many times I've completed Star Fox 64 and Tales of Symphonia; in fact, I'm at the tailend of a playthrough for the latter right now.


All fine choices, but I wonder how they'd stack up to Super Mario 64, a game that is second nature to me. It is a game that invites me in the moment I see Mario's big goofy face pop up, ready to be stretched by the glove cursor. The moment I hear Koji Kondo's woodwind composition for the file select, I'm instantly drowning in nostalgia. When Peach's courtyard opens up to me, I'm already lost in a whirlwind of jumping, worlds locked away by magic paintings, and soaring across the sky with my Wing Cap.

Needless to say, I love Super Mario 64, the game not just responsible for bringing Mario to 3D but reinventing the gaming landscape as we knew it. It is not the first to do everything it does, but it is the first to do everything it does well: Mario's sense of control is pitch-perfect and yields endless experimentation, all complemented by how most of its environments subscribe to a wondrous sandbox philosophy. Even the oft-criticized camera was something of a marvel: for all the hyperbole critics spout in "fighting the camera" (which I must confess has never happened to me), there was nothing quite like panning the camera around Mario to soak in the world around you.

However, let us admit what perhaps the more nostalgic players won't: Super Mario 64 is a flawed masterpiece. A masterpiece that will continue to inspire video games for generations to come, but one that carries wear and tear by virtue of its own status. As admitted by even its own developers, Super Mario 64 is very much an experimental title in which Nintendo was still figuring out 3D design, and that's why more than a decent portion comes across as rudimentary, be it the easy-peasy boss design or some of its elementary objectives ("stomp on the Chain Chomp's post three times!")

When considering that, it's all the more a miracle it ended up being as amazing as it did. Mario 64's success lies in its new identity as a "sandbox" platformer: whereas Mario's previous 2D efforts involved timed jumping exercises and acrobactics, here we explore as according to the whims of our objectives and curiosities. Older fans of 2D Mario take issue with this direction in that it strays too far from their strict platforming philosophy, instead taking on an exploratory approach. While true, I cannot disagree more in it being a problem: the leap to 3D must require a different--if not still familiar-- avenue of play to stand out, and what better way to complement Mario's superb jumping skills than big, wide environments to hop around in?


And what better place to emphasize this than the very beginning? Yes, the courtyard of Princess Peach's Castle is something discussed in every Mario 64 review, but it simply must be analyzed. Everything when starting a new game changes the world of Mario henceforth: The princess introduces a letter via voiceover, her signature as "Peach" subtly bidding farewell to her North American name hitherto ("Toadstool"). A Lakitu holding a camera--our fourth-wall proxy as the game's own "camera"--soars around the castle's courtyard in glorious 3D. Finally, Mario emerges from his Warp Pipe, and is left to his own devices.

There's no time limit urging you forward, no enemies to squash. After a brief text box introducing the controls, you're left to soak in your surroundings. Experimentation is inevitable: you can jump, double jump, triple jump anywhere. You can climb those trees. You can swim in the moat. You examine the gated cannon, confused at its purpose. If you're particularly ambitious, maybe you'll try to jump and reach the top of the castle. By today's standards, it may seem dry and featureless, but the range and natural flexibility of Mario's moveset begs you to test everything in sight. What seems like a waste of time is somehow rendered a most imperative, fulfilling prologue.

Note the transition into the awe-inducing scope of Bob-omb Battlefield. The mountain in the distance beckons you; as it should, considering it's home to the Big Bob-omb boss. This is where every Mario 64 adventure begins: the game's progression system, which gates the doors of Peach's Castle behind a numbered Power Star limit, rewards said stars by tackling each world's set of missions, be it defeating bosses or collecting coins. They can be grabbed in any order, but only after the Big Bob-omb.

It is a bold shift from the previous Mario rule of play; barring the secret exits of Super Mario World, much of Mario's platforming antics urged towards the goal in one direction. Here, while the mountain does beckon you, the world's immense scope captivates just as the courtyard did minutes ago. Ask yourself: the first time you went here, did you stay on the path to the mountain, with its giant Chain-Chomp and tilting bridges and all, or did you walk off so you could punch that Goomba? I'll bet it's the latter, and Mario 64 continues to come to life via experimentation. For example, did you ever figure out how jump-kicking a Bob-omb from behind makes it explode? Ever try throwing a Bob-omb at the Chain Chomp to see what happens? What happens when you run around those wood pillars?


Nearly every world adheres to this philosophy: Shifting Sand Land, with its big pyramid, scalable pillars and fascinating enemies (perhaps tools?) in the form of Fly Guys, Crazed Crates and Tox Boxes (a favorite of Miyamoto's); Cool, Cool Mountain, decorated with slides, hidden teleportation and red herrings in the form of baby penguins; Hazy Maze Cave, home to intertwined passages and a playful sea monster; Wet-Dry World, constructed with water level-changing switches and an eerie Playskool-esque town, and Tick-Tock Clock, which employs a genius time-related gimmick to adjusting the difficulty for any one player's needs.

Needless to say, their uniquely distinct takes on the sandbox all fascinate, although not all are successes: Lethal Lava World always felt a tad haphazard to me, and the straightforward design of Dire, Dire Docks simply doesn't adhere to the type of game Mario 64 is. Only two misses in fifteen worlds is a mighty fine feat, however, and I'll defend every other one to the death. Rainbow Ride, for example, is another commonly-cited "bad" level due to the length of its carpet rides, but I ask its critics this: did you ever stop to turn around at the beginning? Like me, I bet you'll have your mind blown.

It's impossible for me to elaborate on more than one level without making this essay impossibly long, so let's go back to Bob-omb Battlefield for my next point: as you progress through the game, more each and every world becomes populated with new toys. Some of these serve obvious purposes: cannons, for example, gradually become available and must be shot out of to reach certain Stars. Others are more nebulous in their purpose, but are immediately understood upon function: maybe you'll find jumping on a Koopa will lodge it from its shell, and jumping on that reveals that, yes, you can ride it up that slope or all the up the mountain.


And then there's the Wing Cap, one of three available power-ups induced via cap. Introduced in a stunning special stage where Mario flies around the sky for Red Coins, its appearance in Bob-omb Battlefield leads to unparalleled highs: jumping three times to initiate flight doesn't score much air, but when combined from a cannon launch, we're sky-bound, zipping and soaring across the world. There's no time limit crippling our flight, no urgent objective forcing us to do it this way or that way: we're just having a good time.

It's here the true genius of Mario 64 unveils itself: you don't have to do the primary objective to have fun. Cynical critics dismiss these activities as pointless, but it was Shigeru Miyamoto's own wish for us to bask in this pointlessness: it compels us to keep trying different things, to strive us to do better in how we play the game. It asks us how far we could carry Big Bob-omb down the mountain, or grab all the coins in every level, or even if we can jump to the floating island with the Koopa shell. The open-ended design leads not just to intentional wonders like stumbling upon stars by accident; the game takes on new lives unforeseen by its own developer (as proof, here's a whole website dedicated just to the coin thing!).

So much of this has to do with how amazing Mario feels; by far Mario 64's greatest achievement are its physics, which render Mario a kinetic virtual action figure operable via triple jumps, wall jumps, long jumps, side jumps, dive jumps, and somersaults. As mentioned in the above developer interview, the physics don't necessarily follow our own laws, but the parameters within follow its own complex, yet accessible, rules that they feel real; in that, I'd perhaps argue I've never felt a game as precise in control as this one.


The "sandbox" direction of the game comes to life here: the physics and movesets provided are what develop our addiction in how are snappy and responsive they are, for it is they that convince us anything is possible to achieve. To the developers' own admission, they included more moves than necessary: you don't really need the slide kicks and sweepkicks, but they're so fun to pull you can't help but experiment.

Being the first successfully-crafted 3D game of its kind, however, predictably led to many unforeseen glitches, but these hardly negatively impact the game; in fact, they have only prolonged its longevity. You have the sequence-breaking trickery of the Backwards Long Jump, for one, and how it rockets across stairways to plow through locked doors. Meanwhile, the crafty player who carefully inspects the level design may recognize certain walls and ceilings possess fragile seams to slip through, and it is there they discover they can swim underneath Whomp's Fortress or Cool, Cool Mountain, or the shortcut in jumping through the stairwell of Peach's Castle.

(Actually, through the use of a GameShark device, I found one of my own: you know the spooky merry-go-round in Big Boo's Haunt? I discovered an unused steel paneling underneath it! Not that I discovered the way to get there without a cheat device, but hey, I don't know anyone else who bragged about finding it before 2004).

How impressive it is the pioneer of 3D gaming can grant such invention to the player! Yes, some of may be owed to programming oversights, but that they only serve the game's purpose renders it a sign of how strong the game's design and physics systems are. A poorly-designed 3D game initiates the frustrating tedium of falling through walls; the masterwork that is Super Mario 64 uses its missteps to let us bend the game's reality. Perhaps you could say I love these physics so much that you could plant Mario and these physics in any game --or really, any sort of 3D environment-- and I could spend the entire day just experimenting on what I can do (And if you really to delve into the love people have for the physics, check out this mind-bending TAS-evaluation of Mario 64 and its utilization of parallel universes).

But let us not forget the traps Mario 64 falls into within its own design philosophies. I mentioned before how rudimentary Mario 64 can sometimes come across in its gameplay elements, and the most obvious example is what I like to call "oddjob Stars," which typically don't involve much platforming or exploration at all but instead have Mario performing brief, menial tasks, be it riding itty-bitty lifts and elevators or solving some trivial, five-second puzzle (not that there aren't good puzzles, but there's a big difference in quality between Tiny-Huge Island's ambiguous "five secrets" and Big Boo's Haunt's "punch the five library books!".) Actually. this is actually a big reason why I've never been crazy about Lethal Lava Land: barring the volcano adventures, much of its stars can be earned in maybe thirty seconds, with two being nearly identical in knocking the horned Bullies into lava.


It's a good thing, then, that Mario 64 is so open; you don't even have to get these stars if you don't want to. Remember that you can grab any star in any order, and with only 70 stars necessary to complete the game, these oddjob stars are easily skipped. "But what about completionists," you may ask, and even then Mario 64's flexibility offers other solutions; just grab them alongside the 100 Coin Star, since those won't boot you out of the level. For every flaw presented, Mario 64 is flexible enough to provide a comeback, and that's how it seems so endless.

And if this is an endless game, then it's only fitting it'll pleasure our ears. Let us not forget this is the first officially-published Nintendo product to provide Mario's voice courtesy of Charles Martinet. The gruffness of Bob Hoskins or Captain Lou Albano he ain't, Mario is is now a jolly, affable fellow whose cries of "Mammia mia!" immediately grow on you. In a move wisely upheld over twenty years later, Mario hardly speaks in full sentences, instead relying on grunts and quick catchphrases, letting our own fun echo through his ecstatic yells (A shame the same can't be said for Leslie Swan's bookending role as Peach: while her introductory letter is fine, her actual, on-screen presence at the ending sorta proves the notion you shouldn't just grab people around the office to do voiceover).

Naturally, series composer Koji Kondo must be at the top of his game for his N64 debut. Whereas his later efforts in Star Fox 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time may've suffered from low-quality samples here and there, there's not a speck of that to be found here; look no further than the infectiously bouncy Main Theme that plays for Bob-omb Battlefield and other field-esque areas (Believe it or not, I never noticed it was the game's leitmotif--as in, it echoes through the winter and slide themes--until maybe eight years ago!)

Meanwhile, even if the water levels aren't among the game's strongest, the music may certainly grant the illusion that they are. Dire, Dire Docks is one of the great underwater Nintendo themes, recognizing that an exploratory game requires a slow, meditative accompaniment. It's little wonder this beautiful composition is often cited as players' association with nostalgia, although the aforementioned File Select theme may be a serious contender: both do have a knack for absorbing us into sweet, sweet childhood reverie.

Of course, we do hear reprises here and there: the infamous Starman theme from the first Super Mario Bros. is rearranged much the same way it was in Yoshi's Island the year prior, granting a soaring motif that wonderfully expresses flight. Meanwhile, the famous Underground Theme remixed for Hazy-Maze Cave/Wet-Dry World is perhaps my favorite iteration of all, if only for the eerie, aural segue that plays as you delve deeper into their respective areas: it channels a level of unsettling loneliness and mystery never before--and hereafter-- expressed in Mario, one I remain fascinated by in its expression of dismal hopelessness.

This same bleakness is echoed within Bowser's Road which perhaps rivals Super Mario World's Castle Theme as the best of the evil king's lair themes. By far the darkest these themes have ever gone, its disheartening percussion conveys the linear natures of the level, shuffling Mario ahead to his inevitable confrontation with Bowser. Given how the game's spooky, hypnotizing skyboxes are at their most prominent here, the song alone feels massive enough to swallow the poor plumber whole.

The aforementioned flaws of Super Mario 64 still exist: the localization feels more than a little unnatural ("Oh, Bowser is so wicked!" cries Princess Peach in a written message), the emptiness of Peach's Castle does require some suspension of disbelief, and the usage of the Vanish Cap fits squarely into the rudimentary oddjob Stars I mentioned earlier. I imagine there are other things that slip my mind.

But none of these matter: the realization that Mario 64 becomes a blank slate we can wash off again and again, to keep trying more and more to mine whatever else we can of something so ancient is a glorious testament to Nintendo's design ethic. Future open-ended endeavors in Pikmin 3, Star Fox 64 and Zelda: Breath of the Wild may have surpassed what Mario 64 began, but I can hardly think of any other Nintendo game that breaks free of its own objective and takes on a new life in juggling sandbox play, glitches and speedruns; in a way, Mario 64 become a way of life, a state of being that continually evolves through time.


Even now, I still can't stop stretching Mario's 3D face into abominable proportions at the game's opening screen; to tell the truth, I only found out the other year you can freeze the animations, thus heightening the absurdity. Revelations like this make me keep asking: how far can this game go? Does this mean Luigi will ever be found in the game? Probably not, but I still can't help but try until the end of time.


Unless, of course, my phobia for the eel in Jolly Roger Bay sparks up again. Zoinks!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 51 ~Main Theme~ (Star Fox)




Origin: Star Fox
Plays In: Credits
Status: Original Composition
Composed By: Hajime Hirasawa

The SNES Classic Edition -- it's been two weeks since its announcement, and it's all I've been able to think about. It's the first time Star Fox and Yoshi's Island will be officially available via emulated form. I've been checking the listings on Amazon and Best Buy every day in scant hopes I'll be able to pre-order. Thoughts and prayers are sent out to the universe every day that we'll see these games unfiltered, just like the glorious NES Classic Mini before it. (My kingdom to have a bright, unglitched Kirby Super Star!) An equal amount of thoughts and prayers sent out in hopes I'll secure one.

Most of all, I think about how we will witness the very first release, to my memory of a cancelled game in Nintendo history: Star Fox 2.


Needless to say, I'm psyched. I mentioned this in the above article, but while prototype ROMs have leaked online since way back, it's been confirmed by Dylan Cuthbert himself that it's not the final game. Finally, after twenty-two years, the completed vision he, Katsuya Eguchi, Takaya Imamura and the rest of the staff will be shared with the world, be it the never-before-seen planet Eladard or the first real appearance of Star Wolf and the Arwing Walker mech.

What's most exciting about this is that Star Fox 2 is a Super Nintendo game. Think about that: we're going to see an unseen, completed title from Nintendo's Golden Era all these years later! What better era for a game lost to time to hail from! Too cool.

Some may say the original Star Fox hasn't aged well, but I personally can't disagree more. Sure, I agree Star Fox 64's score-attack design lends to more depth, but look past the original's dated look and you'll discover an incredibly competent shoot-'em-up; in fact, maybe you'll realize the basic polygonal design lends it a unique immersion all on its own.

And that's not even getting into the soundtrack, which is basically my main point for this article: Hajime Hirasawa created one of the SNES's greatest soundtracks in Star Fox, with the likes of Corneria, Sector Y and the Main Theme --the song featured in this installment-- impeccably blending rock and orchestral together into aural gold. Sadly, however, he didn't return for Star Fox 2, and instead Kozue Imakawa (The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening) and Yumiko Kanki (F-Zero) picked up where he left off.

Thanks to the leaked ROM, songs have been uploaded on YouTube and such, and taking a quick look reveals they're solid efforts. However, I can't help but shake the feeling they won't surpass Hirasawa's efforts. Such is the power of nostalgia, you may see, but to my mind Star Fox hosts one of the very best SNES soundtracks, and on a console as amazing as Super Nintendo, that's already a very hard distinction to make.

Therefore, the only logical answer to is to approach Star Fox 2 on its own merits; naturally, we'll all end up deciding which game is better, but there's surely strengths to it that the original cannot measure to. In the end, not only will Star Fox 2 likely bring some quality to what's an infamously imbalanced franchise, but it is confirmation Nintendo is still interested in continuing the series. I'm looking forward to it!

Final Thoughts: By the way, I really do wonder if Faye and Miyu, the two lost female characters, will make their way into future Star Fox entries now that Star Fox 2 is coming? I'd rather see them than Krystal, that's for sure.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

ARMS Review (Hey Poor Player)



ARMS is pretty neat, although its flaws are more evident than Nintendo's other recent debuts. We'll see how Nintendo's future support improves the game, but as it stands, it's still worthwhile.

As far as other blog-related stuff goes...since I had most of my week off from work, I did want to use it to write out a review I've wanted to do since forever, but this article and other priorities overtook it; actually, I still haven't even done my E3 impressions yet! At this rate, that may not become a reality... I'll give it my all this weekend!

Oh, and I've been neglecting to update my game journalism section in The Archives, haven't I? I'll get right on that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Metroid Prime 4 and Metroid: Samus Returns: What They Mean (Hey Poor Player)



This took longer than I expected! I had a crazy busy weekend, and I was only able to squeeze out this just last night...oh well.

Anyway, this contains pretty much all my thoughts on the Metroid games announced at E3. I'll go in-depth into everything else this weekend instead, but before that, you can expect a Hey Poor Player review this week!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 50 ~Main Tunnel~ (Metroid II: Return of Samus)



Origin: Metroid II: Return of Samus
Plays In: Main Tunnel
Status: Original Composition
Composed By: Ryoji Yoshitomi

Where do I even begin with this E3? The pseudo-3D sequel to Yoshi's Woolly World? The "best-of" approach to the new Kirby Switch game? The remake of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga that comes packed with a hilarious sidestory? The genuine, infectious passion behind Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, which is as unpredictable as the concept itself? The DLC for Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I desire to play this very instant? The explosion of ideas, presentation and joy that is Super Mario Odyssey, which I believe without a doubt will be GOTY?

Well, I think my selection for today speaks for itself. Out of all the wonderful announcements and previews from yesterday, there was nothing more exciting, blissful and cathartic than the news of not one, but TWO new Metroid titles: Metroid Prime 4 and Metroid: Samus Returns. As a fan of the original Prime trilogy, I let out something resembling an inhuman scream of joy upon the announcement for the former, so that should tell you how excited I am for that.

But more than that, has anyone else picked up on how much this mirrors Metroid's previous hiatus? Think about it: both Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion --home console and handheld games, respectively-- were announced in roughly the same time period many years after the last installment, Super Metroid. Now, we have yet another home console and handheld Metroid duo announced, one again, some time after the last main installment, Metroid: Other M. Kooky, right?

Except there's one, big difference between the two situations: Super Metroid is regarded even today as an all-time masterpiece, whereas Metroid: Other M is perceived as the game that killed the series. The vitriolic reaction to last year's Federation Force spin-off only cemented that unfortunate -- perhaps even certain -- perception, and all seemed lost for the Metroid faithful.

That both 2D and 3D Metroid are returning after such a slump, however, proves one thing: Nintendo still believes there is a future for the franchise. The Metroid games remain some of the finest adventures the company has ever produced, with one of the most passionate fanbases I've ever witnessed. The lack of games in-between Other M and Federation Force prove that Nintendo was, indeed, burned by the former's reception, but it was that very same passion that made them give the series a second chance: we criticized those two games not just because they weren't what we wanted, but because we love the series so much and know the Metroid teams at Nintendo could do a better job.

And what better way to show goodwill by revitalizing the series with Metroid Prime sequel and a 2D remake? Metroid: Samus Returns is particularly fascinating; it's no secret Nintendo's older games for NES and Game Boy are difficult for newer fans to appreciate, with their high difficulty and ugly graphics. Having played through Metroid II: Return of Samus once on 3DS, I can certainly see why Metroid fans of today could be put off: just like the NES game, it's very easy to get lost, and the monochrome graphics aren't very pleasing. A remake with 3D graphics is the perfect decision, especially when you're bringing back a beloved franchise!

Question is, how much will the music be improved? Readers unfamiliar with the game will undoubtedly recognize how amazing the game's Main Tunnel theme is, but the rest of Metroid II's music is rather...underwhelming, to say the least. Much of it is just bleepy, bloopy ambience as opposed to that one theme's strong melody, and it grates on the nerves rather quickly. I know I was deflated when I realized that was the case; that tunnel music is just so damn cool!

Thankfully, signs indicate we're in for an audio treat.  For starters, Nintendo certainly seems proud of the game's music, as they're offering a 25-song soundtrack with the game's Special Edition. While watching the game on Nintendo's Treehouse, I also noticed several sound effects and even a music track (Magmoor Caverns) lifted directly from Metroid Prime; does this mean Kenji Yamamoto is helming the game's music?

Regardless, I know I'm ready for a new age of Metroid. And needless to say, I'm hardly alone.

Final Thoughts: Oh, that reminds me: I'll be discussing my thoughts on Nintendo's E3 this weekend, alongside a new Hey Poor Player article on this very subject! Look forward to it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Worldly Weekend: Kingdom Hearts (PS2)

Note: Please excuse the imbalance of quality for screenshots here; for whatever reason, viable screenshots of earlier PS2 game are especially hard to find. 


Dear readers not familiar with Kingdom Hearts, I implore you to look, just look, at the cover above. Yes, that is Goofy and Donald Duck of Disney fame chilling in the moody, moonlit sky alongside three anime teenagers. Their normally-cheery faces are now solemn, decorated with such wistful melancholy that does away with their kid-friendly personas, evoking an aura of maturity never before displayed to the public eye.

Needless to say, Kingdom Hearts was one of the most bizarre debuts of the PS2/GC/Xbox era, and yet somehow it ended up being one of the most beloved. A collaboration between Disney and famed RPG developer Squaresoft (now Square-Enix), the 2002 action-RPG's outlandish concept of pitting Disney icons and zipper-laden, key-wielding adolescents against Disney villains in command of heart-harvesting shadows--a tale bookended by Hikaru Utada pop songs, mind--is so uniquely ludicrous that it demands your attention. But why?

My theory? By framing itself as a "darker" take on Disney, Kingdom Hearts ropes in the nostalgic RPG player who once associated with their films in early youth. I am no exception to this: the game was responsible for restarting my fervent following in Disney animation, the soundtrack never left my CD player and I clocked out the "Hours Played" stat in the course of a year. Since then, my association with Kingdom Hearts has floundered over the years: it birthed as an obsession that required a near-intervention, followed by a burning hate that wanted nothing more to do with the series, and am now settled as a casual fan who partakes in it like the finest of junk food.

And yet throughout all three phases, it's never ceased in fascinating me. While presented with the prestige of a typical Square title, what's stunning about the original Kingdom Hearts is despite being in possession of highs unique to the series, it consists of a shockingly embarrassing balance between being a professional AAA product and sloppy, freshman-effort design. This imbalance provides an ever-shifting sense of quality, from irredeemably awful lapses in gameplay (most anything involving the Gummi Ship) to moments that achieve the masterpiece status it desperately wants to be (Yoko Shimomura's score, tied with Super Mario RPG as her absolute finest work).

Needless to say, these flaws undermine any pretentious ambitions Kingdom Hearts prides itself on accomplishing, right down to the menu trailer being accompanied by an orchestrated Utada cover. However, they don't necessarily undermine that it's fun to play; actually, just playing it reveals a pretty great game underneath all its flubs. At its core, Kingdom Hearts is a competent work that's in a constant tug-and-pull to prove its own worth: where one element fails, something else is almost guaranteed to instantly pick it up.

What better place to start than the world design? In that case, the Alice in Wonderland segment is absolutely the finest example; like, what's going on with the Queen's Castle courtroom? Are technical limitations are what's behind it literally being shaped like a box, or are the castle and its courtyard being painted on a wall a stylistic choice much like her painted roses? I mean, I'd have to guess it's the former, considering it didn't look anything like that in the movie. And that's hardly the end of it: what's behind the Mad Hatter and the March Hare pantomiming from a painting? Last I checked, they were alive and well, yet their ghastly 2D expressions are needlessly confusing and creepy.

Needless to say, it's something of a contextual mess even by the standards of the source material, and yet gameplay-wise, it is absolutely deep. Echoing the absurdity of the 1951 classic, characters grow in size, furniture pops out of walls, and even falling down that hole can reverse all sense of direction. Likely the first world players will encounter, it's impressive just how much there is to uncover within such a relatively confined area, especially when considering the gradual acquisition of new abilities (can you say, gliding?).

 One of the aforementioned unique highs of the original Kingdom Hearts is a vital touch the sequels sadly dropped: coming to life via interaction. The individual Disney worlds aren't merely levels to be cleared, but can poked around to one's pleasure. There's a veritable amount of little touches, be it Jane's camp experiments in Tarzan's Deep Jungle, the 1:1 recreation of Winnie the Pooh's house in the 100 Acre Wood, or the gift-granting clocks of Peter Pan's Big Ben. Make no mistake: the weird de-emphasis on NPCs outside the films' casts has the eerie side-effect of portraying the worlds as deserted Disney theme parks (a problem that'll only continue to grow, as we'll eventually learn in later entries), but in terms of gameplay, they never feel more alive than here.

It goes to show just much love Square put into the worlds, even if the actual platforming is a little clunky. Yes, jumping and poking around nooks and crannies is pretty fun, but not so much when you're forced into most other alternate means of movement, be it swimming or climbing. Some are better than others: as expected, soaring over Captain Hook's Ship and around Big Ben is a blast, whereas the stiff vine-swinging in Deep Jungle do all but fail to undermine the density of Tarzan's home. In this regard, The Little Mermaid's Atlantica ends up the game's one true stinker; no, it's not the commonly-cited swimming controls that are the problem, but rather that it's an in-navigable mess that not even the wall-carved trident markers can solve.

Combat, too, presents an interesting juxtaposition of quality: there's the magic, for one, and how it ranges from the absolutely vital (Cure and Aero) to the absolutely useless (summons, which barring Tinker Bell are either too gimmicky or too weak to be worthwhile). Meanwhile, the aforementioned clunky platforming can't help but intrude upon some of the game's flashier boss setpieces -- namely, the second phases for Jafar and The Nightmare Before Christmas's Oogie Boogie -- and they're never not especially tedious.

It's good thing, then, the physical side of things remain the very best the series has to offer. While Sora's antics with the Keyblade are hardly as flashy as in later entries, the relatively grounded combat grant such weight to every strike, and it's not long until addiction sets in. In enduring through such grit, one will discover everything from the MP feedback to countering for tech points lends to a deep combat system. (And that's not even mentioning the scenic boss fights that do work: the second phase against Ursula the Sea Witch -- a heart-pounding torrent of rampaging thunder and currents -- is by far the game's most thrilling, demanding a constant influx of dodging and healing/defensive spells as you constantly fight against the currents)

And compounding upon that is just how well the animation's held up. Hailing from the early age of the six generation of games, it's amazing how Square nailed the look and feel of Disney, especially when they had be paired with their own Final Fantasy-esque designs. (Or even just straight-out cameos, like when Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife participates in the Hercules scenario) The Disney characters are appropriately fleshy and colorful, whereas the original settings of the ever-nocturnal Traverse Town and the dreamy, stained-glass abyss Sora visits at the game's beginning appeal to our inner nostalgia. (But we'll get into how that works later.)


The Nightmare Before Christmas segment and the Heartless creatures stand out as the visual highlights, albeit for different reasons. The former is obviously the one exception to the "fleshy and colorful" rule above, instead adhering to the film's blend of grimly whimsy. Between its tasks of bringing claymation characters to life, fitting Sora, Donald and Goofy with appropriately spooky outfits (Goofy's claws and screw-to-head lobotomy being the star attraction) and recreating the grimy landscapes from the original film, it's a visual feast that's unique all to its own, even within a premise as bizarre as this. Meanwhile, the Heartless' animal-like animation is a wonder to watch as they fidget about and stalk your party, all the while flailing around with every hit from your Keyblade.

Which is all the more shocking that this is mostly within the confines of gameplay; when actually watching Kingdom Hearts try to tell a story with its cutscenes, it's more than a little technically inept. I mean, what's with the awkward three-second pauses between character dialogue? The clunky transitions between voiced and text sequences, the latter of which gives the scriptwriters an excuse to fill them with base-level prose? The even clunkier shifts between animated faces and pixel mouths, which just...well, look at poor Peter Pan below to see what I mean.



The imbalance of quality here is honestly distressing when considering the highs it reaches; just look at the very first launch of Donald and Goofy's Gummi Ship: the comedic timing, animation and mannerisms all perfectly match that Disney touch, with animatronic gloves plopping a hapless Goofy and a not-too-happy Donald inside their vessel and capping off with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it lift-off. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Terk -- the Rosie O'Donnell gorilla from Tarzan -- dropping a Gummi piece as if she pooped it out, or how it just plain gives up when, due to plot reasons, Donald and Goofy momentarily break away from Sora in a shockingly abrupt, hurried scene that's supposed to be presented as if it's a difficult choice, but it just makes them look like total assholes. (This isn't even getting into how often they just stand there in reaction-demanding developments, a betrayal of their typically-animated hi-jinks)

Which reminds me: there's also the actual story itself, which...look, I like what it's trying to do. I enjoy partaking in abridged versions of Disney films or the occasional original take, carefully being fitted into its inventions of Heartless and missing friends. I enjoy the absurdity of Disney characters participating in this bizarre new mythos, be it the likes of Donald Duck serving as my mage, Aladdin and Peter Pan joining my party with their unique blend of skills and spells, and waging spectacular boss fights against Maleficent and Captain Hook. What I do not enjoy, however, is watching their respective stories be stumbled not only by clunky cutscenes but to a stumbling script that's clearly not all there. Read the following exchange between the protagonist, Sora, and the mysterious cloaked man he encounters early on and spot where it trips up.

Sora: "Wh-who's there?"
Cloaked Man: "I've come to see the door to this world."
Sora: "Huh?"
Cloaked Man: "This world has been connected."
Sora: "Wh-what are you talking about?"
Cloaked Man: "Tied to the darkness...soon to be completely eclipsed."
Sora: "Well, whoever you are, stop freaking me out like this. Huh? Wh-where did you come from?"

Did you just catch how Sora practically asks him the same question twice, the second instance echoing the first as if he's meeting him for the first time? There is nothing in between each instance to warrant this, and it's woefully clumsy. There are other such instances littered here and there throughout the script, and even if we could chalk one or two of them up to inevitable lapses in localization, that can hardly excuse what happens above.

Let us praise Kingdom Hearts' story for one thing: it doesn't disappear up its own asshole like the convoluted mess the series evolved into, as the lore and heartwarming themes involved present just the right amount of intrigue. The problem, however, is that it fails on various levels of thematic purpose, be they relying on messages far too sugary-sweet for the story it's trying to tell ("Believe in yourself!"), don't really make sense ("With Donald and Goofy at my side, I can do anything! Even though I just beat Hercules by myself."), or really, really don't make any sense (the events surrounding a certain magical door at the end, but we'll get into that when I cover Kingdom Hearts 2).


Really, I could nitpick the cutscenes all day, be it how The Little Mermaid's Flounder is only gifted with one line, or how the opening of the Pinocchio segment hinges entirely on an optional scene players are all too likely to miss, but at least the voice-acting props up any illusions of them actually working. Being such an ambitious project, Disney wasn't about to let the voicework go to waste, and so a special effort was made to nab as many of the original actors possible, right down to Kathryn Beaumont reprising her 1950's roles as Alice and Wendy. Naturally, voicealikes are provided for anyone who's dead or unavailable for whatever reason, and they generally do a fine job, although I confess that I maybe, kinda, sorta prefer Dan "Homer Simpson" Castellenta's take on Aladdin's Genie than Robin Williams. Heresy, I know.

When considering Disney's pull, it's only natural the celebrity voices -- namely for the main cast -- are the star of the show. You have the child stars for the protagonists (Haley Joel Osment, David Gallagher and Hayden Panettiere), and while I'm unnerved by Panettiere's hideous giggling, I remain impressed at how natural they sound even within the unnatural script. The same also applies to Billy Zane's role as the villain, all the more reason why I'm saddened he never signed on for the sequels. The celebrity reach even stretches out to the Final Fantasy cameos, and I'm actually surprised at how spot-on they are.

Well, almost. Celebrity castings being what they are, the Kingdom Hearts series has been plagued with some nasty miscasts, and the original is perhaps the most egregious in this regard. For starters, I'm not quite sure why Tate Donovan couldn't reprise his role as Hercules, and I'm less certain as to why they decided to cast Sean Astin instead, and I'm even less sure why he's channeling Josh Keaton's teenage take on the character when he's supposed to be doing the adult version. Needless to say, it's immensely distracting, and it's actually the one time I'm glad a character has such few lines. Meanwhile, you have...uh, NSYNC singer Lance Bass as Final Fantasy boss cameo Sephiroth, which is vile, vomit-inducing sacrilege to anyone even remotely familiar with those nouns. Even putting the mediocre performance aside, it's just...Christ, really?

That alone should cement the game's status as a rough product, yet believe it or not, there is one thing absolutely, undeniably perfect about Kingdom Hearts, and that is Yoko Shimomura. Her familiar selections of violins, xylophones, pianos and the like are the glue that keeps it together, and I fail to think of any game composer more suited to channeling the numerous venues of Disney nostalgia than her, be they the wistful, misty reflections on our youth or the warmth that envelops our hearts when we remember that one summer night watching Pinnochio.

I mean, is it possible not to stop and listen to Dearly Beloved play on any one Kingdom Hearts title screen? It's what I'll always point to as the series' real theme in representing what the series wants to be: the crossroads between childhood and adolescence, whereupon we realize our youth will inevitably shape who we become in the future. No matter how much Hikaru Utada's works frame the games' presentation, this one piano piece is Kingdom Hearts, to my mind. (Complete with the accompanying ocean waves)


But the real magic of Shimomura's score lies within how it picks up where the game slacks off; as in, anything that should be objectively garbage is rendered tolerable by virtue of the music alone. Case in point: the Gummi Ship shooting sequences, which exists only to serve its context (each world lies separate in space, so you use it to travel in-between) and nothing more. Operating with the grace of a 1996 PlayStation shoot-'em-up, they're slow, plodding, clunky, ugly and just downright not fun. In a lesser game, they would be emblematic of its quality; in Kingdom Hearts, they are an insult to its very ambition.

And then I hear this, and suddenly all is forgiven, because I'm right there at my first trip to Disney World as a wee lad. Yes, the Gummi Ship still sucks, but I don't mind that it sucks; indeed, what should be aggressively terrible is smothered by nostalgia, and now it's something merely tolerable that also happens to have amazing music. Meanwhile, clunky boss fights? No problem, because the likes of Destiny's Force, Shrouding Dark Cloud, and The Deep End all render them the huge battles they should be, particularly with how Destiny's Force recalls the towering nightmares of Disney villains we had in our youth.

It's all the better when it's not covering for a weak link, thereby building upon what already works with impeccable music. In terms of representing the aforementioned nostalgic venues of Disney, Traverse Town and Treasured Memories are the perfect candidates: the former a nightly stroll through our warmest memories, the latter not only accompanying one of the game's only successful cutscenes (I imagine it's no coincidence it's silent) but in itself touching upon we've lost to the sands of time: friends, homes and playthings gone by in the blink of an eye.

It should come as no surprise how well Shimomura expresses Disney within their respective scenarios as well, although I'm most intrigued whenever she chooses to take on an actual song from the source material. Her takes on Winnie the Pooh and even the Mickey Mouse Club March are perhaps the funnest, but my favorite lies in her arrangement for This is Halloween, wherein just like the world itself applies just the right amount of mischievous darkness to be the game's catchiest song.

As you may've figured out, I probably could up talking about the music forever, so I'll cap it off with one final note: what really makes Kingdom Hearts seem as "big" as it does is how well it pulls off choirs or big orchestral pieces, be it the chanting of Dive into the Heart -Destati- accompanying Sora's introspective, nebulous dream at the beginning or the grand Scherzo di Notte complementing the battles of Hollow Bastion.



The former is especially important as that "dream" sequence is the one and only moment that successfully conveying that aforementioned purpose of Kingdom Hearts. There's no voicework, instead silently linking Sora to the player through our choices, our hopes and dreams deciding the game's difficulty and progression. All this happens upon stained-glass podiums of Snow White and Beauty and the Beast within the lonely abyss, presenting an air of mystique that frames our judgements and preferences through youth as sacred as our memories of Disney.

Which leads me to my final point of Kingdom Hearts: when you're playing it, it's mostly fine. When you're watching it or even just really thinking about it (like, say, that moment you realize Neverland features everything from Hook's Pirate Ship to London and yet not the actual Neverland itself), you're practically dying of second-hand embarrassment. And yet I keep returning to it time and time again, as if its goal of speaking so deeply to me is actually working.

Kingdom Hearts is an obvious freshmen effort, but for as much as it stumbles, it's an awfully sincere one that I don't have the heart to write off. When considering the ambitions it reaches, I consider it something of an accident that it's rendered as humble as it is, and that's why I always approach not as the genesis of an epic, but as an individualized, unique tale. I mean, can I really get mad at a game that has Winnie the Pooh in it?