Thursday, April 27, 2017

Mario Kart 8

Look, let's be real here: the Wii U may have been a complete, utter sales bomb, but that did not stop it from possessing the highest concentration of quality Nintendo games since Super Nintendo. Pikmin 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rank among some of the greatest Nintendo games ever created, Splatoon and Super Mario Maker debuted to worldwide acclaim, and many would argue the likes of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Yoshi's Woolly World represent the pinnacle of their respective franchises.

Even Super Mario 3D World, my own reservations aside, isn't exempt from these accolades, what with the insane level of polish and love put into its design. However, this is the second instance in Nintendo history I can think of where a Mario spin-off surpassed mainline entries on a home console; just as how Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door eclipsed Super Mario Sunshine way back on GameCube, Mario Kart 8 speeds past 3D World, Super Mario Maker and New Super Mario Bros. U to become what I consider to be the finest Mario experience on Nintendo's ill-fated system.

On the contrary, this is not what my previous 8/10 review for the long-deceased Gaming Grunts would imply; there, I argued that as excellent as Mario Kart 8 was, it fell just short of being a racing masterpiece due to the obvious cut corners Nintendo took with the title. Let us make no mistake: said cut corners do limit Mario Kart 8's overall potential as a complete package, but a year's worth of DLC more than made up for it in the area that matters most: the actual racing.

I mean, forget Mario Kart; has there ever been such a wondrous relationship between course design and control? I'm not by any means a racing game connoisseur, yet I imagine many such fans would be hard-pressed to cite any viable contenders. Driving alone has never felt so smooth, and when combined with the awe-inspiring heights reached by the anti-gravity feature and the mechanics re/introduced from Mario Kart 7 (gliding and collectible coins), the game proves itself beyond the visual spectacle and continues to enthrall as a compelling racer. It's the perfect hook for those previously burnt-out on the franchise: come for the dazzling new concept, stay for just how great everything feels

"Feeling," of course, is just one element of gameplay; there's a lot going on in how the game operates: for example, the way tracks curve up the wall or into the skies is captivating, but it's just subtle enough to never distract the player and learns to fade from our concentration. Of course, the game is smart enough not to implement anti-gravity and the like in every track, lest we grow tired of visual gimmicks; after all, there's nothing wrong with a familiar, grounded test of racing skill (this is mainly the job of the Retro Cups, although as we'll discuss later, they're not afraid to reinvent the wheel).

Meanwhile, coins continue to layer a new form of strategy to preserve our top speed. Scattered across the tracks, these speed-boosting coins are enticingly placed so as to improve our racing game, be it curves instinctively requiring power-sliding or hanging just above an aerial shortcut. Mario Kart 8 not only trains us to follow the Super Mario Bros. rule in collecting coins, but builds upon it: we don't collect coins just because because they're shiny and gold, but in how they're vital to success. When losing coins upon getting smacked with a Red Shell or falling off Rainbow Road, we're driven to get them back. It turns Mario Kart's chaotic racing into a rhythmic process.

Combined with the  mix-and-match nature of kart customization (karts, wheels and gliders), and it goes without saying there's quite some depth in all the frenzy. Truth be told, while I do pay attention to kart statistics and the like, I'm more of a "get in there and race!" kinda guy, so the exact specifics between, say, Sponge Tires for Light and Heavy racers is lost on me; typically, I just fashion everything with Slick/Cyber Wheels thanks to their guaranteed sweet spot in speed/handling. I also confess that just like in Mario Kart Wii, I never quite got the hang of bikes; the inward drifting always felt off to me. Maybe when the Switch version rolls around this Friday...

But never mind that, as we still haven't discussed the courses themselves! Possibly the best Mario Kart tracks in series history, we're wowed from the get-go with how Mario Kart Stadium and Thwomp Ruins bookend the Mushroom Cup with their respective dizzying senses of height and flight. It's a thrill surpassed again and again by the likes of Toad Harbor and Cloudtop Cruise, and even well into the DLC tracks (namely Wild Woods and Dragon Driftway, although the latter focuses more on intense, close-knit loop-de-loops). As mentioned earlier, it's careful not to let anti-gravity be the only star; to my mind, this game's iteration of Bowser's Castle remains my favorite solely for the giant, lava-powered Bowser statue ready to crush anything invading its dual-track home. 

Retro courses are also stunning; whereas previous entries either provided 1:1 replicas or stripped-down versions for handhelds, here they're revamped in accordance to their respective roles. For example, the familiar Super Mario World-inspired fields of Donut Plains 3 doesn't require any anti-gravity to still be interesting, as a grounded, rough-n'-tumble race retains Mario Kart's roots and provides a nice breather from all the flashy new mechanics. Meanwhile, the completely reinvented likes of Ribbon Road (Mario Kart: Super Circuit) or Toad's Turnpike (Mario Kart 64) awe in just how much new there is; Toad's Turnpike is a particular stunner thanks to flying off cars and driving on walls. Even setting the aesthetics aside, it's almost a completely different course from the sleepy Nintendo 64 highway.

Mario Kart 8 was easily the best looking game on Wii U at the time of its release, and I'd actually argue that may still be the case. There's none of the low-res leftovers from Pikmin 3 or Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, nor the intrusive slowdowns and the like from Zelda: Breath of the Wild; Mario Kart 8, however, is consistent with its own look and performance (the infamous 59 FPS glitch aside, and I'll be rather honest in saying I've never noticed it), and is always so vivid, clean and just plain delightful to look at.

Look no further than the game's visual stunner: N64 Rainbow Road. A literal explosion of colors, what was originally a nebulous, dreamy raceway decorated with neon-lights is now granted a definite setting that plays into Mario Kart 8's festive atmosphere with fireworks and soaring trains. It must, however, also channel the dreamy nostalgia of the original: the music and the firework callbacks contribute to this, but it's impossible not to be absorbed into the hypnotic nightlights of the city below.

Hailing from an era where 3D World's speck of context and Paper Mario: Sticker Star's homogenization didn't spark our imaginations, it's delightful how there's a real sense of world to everything. The aforementioned reimagination of retro tracks is great enough, but take a look at the signs hinting at world lore: did you know Yoshi Wild Sanctuaries are a thing? According to N64 Yoshi Valley, they do. I never thought of Morton Koopa as being the manager type, so I'd like to see how Morton Construction operates. Maybe he's just the mascot? Even the spectators delight: I've  never entertained the thought of Gingerbread People dwelling in the world of Mario, but thanks to Sweet Sweet Canyon, I desire to see a mainline Mario game traverse through their realm. I sure hope they don't run into any, uh, "hunger" issues with what appear to be local Yoshis.

This isn't even going into the actual courses themselves; for example, did you ever stop to think about the familiar geography behind Cloudtop Cruise? And don't get distracted by the bonanza of references in Ribbon Road, as each segment follows a certain theme. Let us not forget the wondrous character animation, either; to tell the truth, I'm actually rather saddened the related memes came and went, because I engage with the highlight reels far more than I care to admit just to watch characters expressions (mainly how they slowwwwly turn their heads when they pass by each other). Angry Luigi is of the oft-cited king, but I'm more fond of Donkey Kong's totem-pole expressions and Toad's gleefully murderous joy. (And let us not forget the game's greatest item: Piranha Plant, who comes equipped with its own anti-gravity wheels)

(This is, by the way, the first non-arcade Mario Kart to feature crossover content in the form of Zelda/Animal Crossing characters and courses, alongside familiar locations from F-Zero and Excitebike. Seeing Link interact with the world of Mario is certainly a delightful absurdity, although the elusive context behind Mute City/Big Blue still makes me wonder how it all works. It's certainly more cartoonish than F-Zero, but just out of reach of Mario. Truly, I am gripped in the throes of deepest lore.)

If pressed, however, I would argue Mario Kart 8's greatest asset lies not in how it plays, but in how sounds. The combination of synth and live big-band performances provides the greatest aural Mario Kart experience ever made; be it freestyle brass or track transition, it's the ultimate key to the festive, jubilant atmosphere that complements Mario Kart like never before.

The live arrangements are what steal the show: Mario Kart has always lent itself to a fun score that, true to its goal, never grows old, and while Mario Kart 8 certainly represents the best of that, its the aforementioned track transitions that still awe me. Not that Mario Kart hadn't applied music dynamics for progression before, but absolutely none of the previous efforts match the stunning euphoria that is Dolphin Shoals. What starts as a subdued, synthesized underwater theme transforms into a full-blown jazz session when the racers emerge from the depths, instilling an exhilarating, climatic thrill unlike anything else. I could credit the live performers for this little slice of Nirvana, but as the composer was behind Pikmin 3, all that goes to her.

Other songs like Mario Kart Stadium and Mount Wario play well within the Mario Kart-esque archetypes, yet I'm most blown away by the orchestral tracks; Thwomp Ruins and Wild Woods are unlike anything we've heard before in Mario Kart, introducing the likes of Celtic instruments and chorus to the series. They're a touch more active than the dreamier songs we've previously in Mario Kart, and it's a perfect fit for their respective enchanted environments and the "world" they create.

Of course, the retro remixes must be up to par. Rainbow Road 64 is once again the star, the familiar flute seguing us into a new festive jazz version (alongside the aforementioned aesthetic, this is why I consider it to be the game's *real* Rainbow Road). GBA Mario Circuit and Royal Raceway (Mario Kart 64) are great fun callbacks, and I actually happen to prefer the former and its new intro to the somewhat forgettable intro. Meanwhile, SNES Donut Plains 3 and its electric piano emulates its non-amibitous nature, choosing to instead kick back with acoustic and bass guitars.

That this is the first time Zelda and Animal Crossing have been treated to big band music--in the context of video games, anyway -- is a delightful bonus; just listen to how the Animal Crossing track alternates between all four seasonal versions! Can you say, GameCube theme? And as for the F-Zero themes...well, their godly arrangements speak for themselves.

To round things off quality-wise, Mario Kart 8 is perhaps Nintendo's one of Nintendo's finer online experiences although we must remember that Nintendo being what they are, Mario Kart 8 isn't without it's "Nintenisms" regarding online activity. The lack of friend invites is often cited as one, alongside having to exit games to switch characters and vehicles. Otherwise, the presence of friend rooms and tourneys are like Mario Kart 7 before it a great step above Nintendo's normally-passive online efforts; in particular, the flexibility offered in custom rules makes for even more intense races than playing solo, and I found myself turning to NeoGAF rooms rather than improving my VR score.  I do imagine, however, online traffic will decrease upon Mario Kart 8 Deluxe's release.

All this would be enough to dethrone Mario Kart DS as the series masterpiece, but alas, those dang cut corners are what get in the way. Case in point: the battle mode. Whereas previous iterations offered specialized arenas for duking it out, Mario Kart 8 simply opts for reusing the racing courses. While there can still be fun mined from it, having to brake and turn around in such confined spaces quickly grows repetitive, and the alternative option (simply lapping around the courses and attacking whoever passes by) makes one feel like on autopilot. They're simply not designed at all for balloon battles, and it makes for the weakest Battle Mode since 2003's Double Dash!!.

The common defense for this is "well, Battle Mode was never good, anyway." Yes, perhaps...for you, which does not represent the Mario Kart population that disagrees. Furthermore, it's simply a shocking detriment when considering just how polished rest of the game is. Even when considering the DLC, it's what contributed to the unfortunate "bare-bones" label, as there's not much else for the game to fall back upon. It's thoroughly a rushed afterthought, and it shows.

Said rushed quality is noticeable in other areas: while the addition of the dastardly Koopalings is fantastic (Iggy fan, here!), they don't leave a lot of room for other newcomers, and Nintendo didn't exactly tap into their imaginations when it came to rounding out rest of the roster (Pink Gold Peach? Seriously?). Meanwhile, the lack of Expert Time Trials means we're stuck with the default time trials, and outside of a couple DLC outliers, hardly any put up a decent challenge.

There are other missteps it makes on its own: the Coin item continues to be a mistake, as it punishes the winning player by leaving them defenseless, especially if they've already filled their coin meter.  200cc is a  delightful experiment courtesy of DLC, yet I can't help but feel certain tracks weren't designed with it in mind (*cough* Dragon Driftway *cough*). Also, obligatory "derp the gamepad only has a horn feature" complaint here, but I suppose it's best GamePad wackiness didn't end up interfering with the core game.

And despite all that, what a core game it is. Like Pikmin 3 before it, Mario Kart 8 is a delicious rush of feel-good magic akin to guzzling the finest of fruit juice. Even with my own preferences of Pikmin and Smash aside, this is perhaps the best-playing out of all of Nintendo's Wii U offerings: it's an insanely-polished feast that backs up its ambitions not only by being a pure joy to play, but what's possibly the funnest sense of atmosphere and flavor the company has ever produced.

And now, with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Switch ready to fix all of its flaws, we'll finally see its full potential ready to be unleashed upon the world. It's been a long three years; go take the crown, buddy.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 48 ~Grape Garden~ (Kirby's Adventure)

Origin: Kirby's Adventure
Plays In: Various levels in Grape Garden and Rainbow Resort
Status: Composition

Composed By: Hirokazu Ando, Jun Ishikawa

It's Kirby's 25th Anniversary!!! Well, in Japan, anyway, but it's not like we can't join the fun a little early.

Back in 2002, I couldn't get over what a coincidence it was that I'd gotten into Kirby not only on his tenth anniversary, but on the cusp of his upcoming popularity. The anime was coming out to America, a new game was releasing for Game Boy Advance, and best of all, a fall media blitz was scheduled to turn Kirby into the next Pikachu! How lucky I was, I thought, to join this fandom just as he was about to hit the big time.

As we all know, things didn't exactly pan out like that. The Kirby: Right Back At Ya! cartoon debuted to minor success (and was dubbed to dubious quality by 4Kids), the media "blitz" only amounted to a Wendy's fast-food toy promotional a year later, and Nintendo of America sorta forgot to tell consumers Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land was a remake of 1993's Kirby's Adventure. Woops.

And yet, that 10-year-old me realized it the summer before release made my connection to Kirby all the more personal. When I discovered Kirby's Adventure in the wintry depths of December 2001, it was stunning how it felt tailor-made just for me. Whereas Mario and Sonic's 2D adventures felt too difficult, Kirby hit a delicious sweet spot of never being too patronizing, but never being too tough.

To this day, while Kirby's never afraid to get difficult when it needs to be, the philosophy of "anyone can reach the ending" still beats at its core. Haven't you ever stopped to think how delightful it is how so many of our favorite game franchises are still around? The likes of Mario and Zelda being alive and well in 2002 may've been something I took for granted, but now we've passed their 30th anniversaries, and it's all thanks to just how much Nintendo nurtured and preserved their values from day one.

Aside from being irresistibly cute, it's that exact design philosophy for why Kirby is still around 25 years later. Somewhere out there, right now, there's a kid in awe how he can beat Triple Deluxe and Planet Robobot without any help from his parents or siblings. He and his friends all regularly gather to play Team Kirby Clash Deluxe and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U; naturally, his character of choice for the latter is Kirby.

But what he cherishes most isn't how fun they are; it's how every time he enters the first level of Nutty Noon in Kirby's Return to Dream Land, his heart swells at the Sky Waltz music and the sight of ribbon-like sky patterns floating across Dream Land. It's the same gooey euphoria he encountered in Kirby's Dream Collection, where the tinny chiptune songs of Kirby's Adventure, the hypnotic, beautiful backgrounds of Kirby Super Star and the Bubbly Clouds remix of the main menu swallowed him whole with love.

He has become a young romantic, cherishing not merely the fun mined from the series but from the magic that has set his heart and mind aflame. It's a secret he keeps close to his heart: a young child discovering the nostalgia he's heard whispers of. He can do nothing but sigh at the thought of mysterious island house from Kirby's Dream Land 3 and grin with joy at the Butter Building remix in Kirby 64's sky level.

Was nostalgia really the right word? It had to be; after all, it was salvaging murky memories long lost. The forests of Spring Breeze recalled the mysterious, abandoned playhouse just around the corner from his cousin's house. Grape Garden's music and Rainbow Resort's setting reminding him of sleepy car rides when he was very young, where warm Christmas lights decorated the streets. The silent cheering of Kirby's Adventure's arenas unearthing the hazy, mute mornings as a 4-year-old when no one else was awake in the house. The credits of Milky Way Wishes recalling his just looking out the window and into the skies and clouds beyond.

"Did the kids who played this back in 1996 do this?", he wondered.

Yes, little boy. Yes they did.

But it wasn't just 1996, either.

So long as anyone can reach the ending, this gooey nostalgia will make Kirby live forever.

Final Thoughts: Actually, Grape Garden was one of the songs in the Kirby's Adventure medley at the Kirby 25th Anniversary Orchestra Concert. Augh, I need a CD release so bad it hurts!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spring Cleaning + Kirby Concert!

Hey all, sorry for the two-week absence; been juggling through several reviews/Hey Poor Player stuff as I've been perfecting the balance between my work/writing/reading/gaming schedules or what not. I'd like to think I've finally about to hit a sweet spot, but we'll see in the coming months.

In any case, I've finally been wrapping up the post tags for much of my earlier stuff. All that's left is for posts from the end of 2014 to mid-2015, and we should be good to go for that. I've also taken the liberty of updating my reviews with "score" tags, so you don't have to click all the way to the archives to discover my verdict.

Unfortunately, a lot of music videos and the like have been taken down over the past few years, I'm not sure when I'll have time to fix all that, but I am aware of the issue. Until then, please be patient.

(Funny story: in the process, one of my earlier E3 posts somehow got pushed up to being published today! Got fixed, but no idea how that happened!), how about that Kirby concert, eh? Truth be told, while most of the translation work was done by my friend at Source Gaming, I took the liberty of translating the above setlist as well as a couple other details. My Japanese skills are still growing, and I can't wait for them to become a reliable asset for Hey Poor Player!

And yes, I'm still biting at the bit for confirmation of a CD/DVD release! As mentioned in the article, the Fire Emblem and Zelda 20th anniversary shows got their own respective soundtracks, so I'm thinking it's likely Kirby will get its own!

In the meantime, a Japanese show-goer took the liberty of uploading the show setlist as according to the original versions of the songs. (To reiterate, these aren't the actual orchestrations) If you're like me and just can't wait until a CD release, I highly recommend checking it out.

Gotta say, that's an incredibly solid song list, although I'm saddened Rainbow Resort and Kirby's Epic Yarn didn't make the cut...

Anyway, I've been hard at work getting Leave Luck to Heaven active again by next week, so get ready for some serious review/Biweekly Music Wednesday time soon!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Snake Pass Review (Hey Poor Player)

I certainly wasn't expecting to play this so soon! Sudden review copies are funny like that. Just to reiterate, this is the PS4 version.

I'm not too sure if we'll get an in-depth review on Snake Pass here, as I think I covered pretty much everything necessary over at HPP. However, I'll admit this review did take longer than expected as I wasn't happy with my drafts throughout most of the process, so who knows!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Where Are The Switch Features? (Hey Poor Player)

What, you think March's been a dry month means I've just laying around playing Zelda on Switch?'d be right!

However, obviously my time with the platform renders it ripe for opinion articles, like my Hey Poor Player piece for the week. As I say in the article, I look forward not to features coming to Switch, but good executions of them. Is a filterless Virtual Console too much to ask, Nintendo?!?

...that said, what's up with that troll comment? Will console wars ever be over?

Friday, March 17, 2017

An Interview with Game Composer Tomoya Tomita (Hey Poor Player)

Article Here
Finally...FINALLY!!! After two months of drafting, asking, translating and waiting upon waiting for clearance, my interview with game composer Tomoya Tomita is finally up!!! I can't believe it!!

Again, I AM SO SORRY THIS TOOK SO LONG! To reiterate, this was not a case of my typical procrastination: it was on-track to arrive by the end of January when Tomita-san suddenly informed us he needed clearance from Nintendo, and unfortunately that was going to take some time. But now, it's finally here: my very first interview with a Nintendo developer! A former one, but who cares?!?

I can't be happier enough with his answers; in fact, I highly recommend you pay attention to his Kirby's Epic Yarn answers, as there's some never-before-seen info regarding the game's development! And by the way, a certain accepted fan theory regarding Smash Bros. and Wario may not be the case after all...

As stated in the interview, this would not have been possible without my translator buddy Masked Man (Matt). I already told you this on Twitter, but you are truly "the man."

And of course, to Tomita-san himself....ありがとうございます!!!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review (Hey Poor Player)

Look at the size of it! I had no intention of making this review Leave Luck to Heaven-sized, but somehow what was originally planned to be a 1500+ word review ended up being a 2000! Wowza. And I thought I was surprised when The Wind Waker achieved 3000+! (For comparison, both my Ocarina of Time/Majora's Mask reviews reached 2500/2400, respectively).

Of course, Breath of the Wild is a game that deserves no less. Finally, after seventeen years of waiting, another masterpiece has graced the Zelda name! (A Link Between Worlds did come awful close, though!) Naturally, you can expect an actual Leave Luck to Heaven review later this year; one that will undoubtedly be even bigger.

(Pikmin 3 is still Wii U's masterpiece, tho)

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Switch and Zelda Will Be Mine!

Finally, after years of waiting...The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild launches alongside Nintendo's latest console: the Switch! Given how perfect the game apparently is, it's a taaaad likely things may be slow here for this month, as I'll naturally be pouring time into everything our new Nintendo baby has to offer.

As for the 3D Zelda reviews...well, I made it to three out of the five games before the new title's launch. That's pretty impressive for my standards, eh? While Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword are still coming, we'll be "switching" the focus on two other relevant titles for this month to celebrate Switch's launch, one of which happens to be Zelda-related! Please look forward to them.

I'm also planning a number of Switch-related articles for Hey Poor Player,  as well as contributing to an upcoming HUGE feature on Nintendojo, so please look out for those as well!

Nintendo Switch, here I come!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

In retrospect, that the initial reception to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker -- once branded as "Celda" by embittered fans -- has all but evaporated is rather stunning. Witnessing the shift from the realistic Spaceworld 2000 demo into this brought upon much hellfire; I still remember several of my Zelda-loving friends hating the crap out of it and refusing to do anything with it (a promise that was eventually rescinded; personally, while I loved Majora's Mask and casually enjoyed Link's Awakening, I wasn't invested enough in Zelda to really care). While we could certainly chalk up the switch to poor foresight and communication on Nintendo's part, the shift into cartoonish cel-shaded graphics highlighted the number one complaint of the GameCube days: Nintendo was too childish, too alienating in their kid-oriented direction of Toon Links and the latest Mario game being dubbed Super Mario Sunshine.

Those days are now behind us, yet somehow in the fourteen-plus years since The Wind Waker's release, criticism remains intertwined with the game's identity. This isn't to say the game's not surrounded by a sizeable, adoring fanbase -- you'll find it commonly cited as a series favorite, in fact -- but it remained so dogged by harsh critique that would continue to split the fanbase not just in itself, but pave the road for future titles' division. It's too easy, perhaps too short, and the game's central mechanic of sailing took too long for many.

Most damnably of all, however, was the obvious evidence of it being rushed out to market: there are cut dungeons, abrupt sequences, and an infamous endgame fetch quest that amounts to nothing more than padding. One could even say said padding was the genesis for its plaguing future mainline entries, yet for as much as Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword would be inundated with handholding and bloat, neither possess this glaring, crippling flaw.

One that somehow flew over me when I first played it; it is a video game I have much reverence for, as The Wind Waker was the entry responsible for finally captivating me into the world of Zelda. It's one of my childhood favorites, in fact, taking the No. 4 spot in my "Holy Nintendo Five" alongside the likes of EarthBound, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Mario 64 and Kirby Super Star. For a child awakened to nostalgia, it was everything I looked for in a game: a vibrant world possessing that ever-so-rare euphoric warmth in its beauty, setting the imagination aflame of universes beyond our own. So gripping was its atmosphere that I envisioned myself as an explorer who seeped through dimensions, canvassing the musty depths of temples and seas alike.

These days, it's a little different. The Wind Waker is still something I'm very fond of, but time has rendered its flaws unavoidable; being such an ambitious project, those black marks of clumsy, shore-horned segments and stripped elements are only all the more apparent. And yet as I had once done on Nintendojo, even now I'm compelled to defend most of those same flaws. Yes, it is a game that misses opportunities and doesn't build upon them, but I adore so much of what it tries to do that I cannot help but raise an objection to those, well, objections.

Take the game's central context and mechanic: sailing on the wide open sea. The Wind Waker takes place in The Great Sea, divided into island-dotted sectors with all sorts of treasures, secrets and locals waiting for you. Grand as that may seem, many claim it to be a tedious exercise: even with the later aid of warping, sailing from one island to another takes an awful lot of time, and it's been accused of  exploiting that for padding purposes via fetch quests. I, for one, cannot get enough of it; you could point to certain stretches of emptiness, but witnessing the game's various weather patterns and hearing The King of Red Lions' soft rocking within silent nights provides a soothing catharsis not found anywhere else in Zelda; as a matter of fact, I've yet to spot any other vehicular transport emulate this level of calm anywhere else.

Much of this has to do with how it perfectly fits into the exploratory heart of Zelda. The gradual process of a distant speck morphing into an island isn't just met with anticipation; it's perhaps the first moment Zelda had an open world-esque inkling of "you can go there." Indeed, The Wind Waker was perhaps the most "open" 3D Zelda in this closing pre-Breath of the Wild era: you won't be choosing dungeons in any which order, but it's not too long until The Great Sea is yours to explore. And perhaps it's not so empty after all: the careful player will notice, for instance, that the treasure-filled Light Circles only appear in certain sectors at night.

Not that The Great Sea doesn't forget to include some thrills; even when you're being chased by carnivorous Gyorgs and the helicopter-sounding Peahats, haven't you ever decided to just climb up that watchtower and knock over some Bokoblins? For all its aforementioned catharsis, the adrenaline of combating maritime monsters and bombing enemy battleships within the confines of your tiny boat is just as satisfying (not the least of which are the Big Octos, one of my many water-based phobias in youth).

Which reminds me: the combat has also been derided for undeveloped concepts (you can pick up enemy weapons like spears and longswords, but there's not much to do with them) or overtly-lenient shortcuts (A-button parries against Darknuts, otherwise known as "press A-to-win!"). While there's certainly a case for the former, it's enough for me that I've always found hilarity in the juxtaposition between Toon Link and the oversized weapons, while the latter looks especially cool and has great feedback in control/weight. That they don't detract from the combat in itself is a blessing.

Not exactly the best defense, I know, but to this day, The Wind Waker still possesses my favorite sense of Zelda sword-slicing: a punchy, rhythmical force of impact that conveys not the distinct sword slices of the past two 3D Zeldas, but whaling an enemy in a manner not entirely unlike boxing. It feels wonderful to execute, heightened by "strike" beats in the accompanying music. This isn't even factoring in the other weapons: I can't be the only one who's unable to resist constantly bashing in Moblin heads with a boomerang, right?

I ask that because it's one one of the many, many reasons why the visuals remain The Wind Waker's finest achievement. As mentioned earlier, you'll barely find a trace of graphics complaints to be found, and that's because The Wind Waker's cel-shaded aesthetic is the definition of timeless: fourteen years later, you can hardly spot any limitations found in the animation, texture-work and graphics involved. It is a cartoon truly come to life, with the obvious Asian influences granting it a foreign mystique and enchantment not completely unlike Capcom's Okami.

It goes without saying it still has the has the most beautiful setpieces in all of Zelda, and while Breath of the Wild seems poised to dethrone it in this area, I can't imagine my breath ever ceasing to stop at some of The Wind Waker's best cases of art direction. Is there anything more beautiful on the GameCube than the Fairy Fountains, with their azure colors, nautical-based formations and luminescent walls providing the game's most soothing, jaw-dropping locale? Even the Great Fairies themselves are a mystifying visual treat; no longer are we treated to screeching, scantily-clad nymphs, but graceful multi-limbed deities comprised of petals and spiral cut paper.

When compounded upon by the chorus-filled heaven that is the Fairy Fountain theme -- said chorus being enough to render it the very best version of that classic theme -- they amount to nothing less than spellbinding scenery with an irresistible pull. Not one visit comes to mind where I hadn't just sat there and watched the crowd of ever-rising sprites ascend into the ether, and they're certainly not the only location with such a hypnosis.

So great are The Wind Waker's visuals that I'd even claim they come to aid anytime the gameplay may be lacking; some rag on the dungeons, for instance, for being too linear. The best Zelda dungeons provide an organic flavor of continually traversing across their depths, so perhaps there's a point there. But why should I care when the setpieces involved express the other very best factor of dungeons: making me feel like I'm really there? All five of the game's dungeons excel at this: even now, I cannot help but be pulled in by the chilling, shadowy haze of the Earth Temple or the crowds of spores and writhing, squirming plants in the Forbidden Woods.

The last three -- Tower of the Gods, Earth Temple and Wind Temple -- are probably the best in how appropriately huge they feel: intertwined with the plot, the trio must invoke a grand, majestic aura to convey themselves as appropriately sacred. The Tower of the Gods is my particular favorite, its holographic rainbow bridges and rising water levels expressing a prestigious air echoed by its placement in the game's plot: its ascendance from the ocean after centuries' worth of sleep provokes a musty, ancient feel.

Again, the music is imperative: Tower of the Gods with its powerful chorus is easily the best dungeon theme, but the Wind Temple evokes the more common usage of atmospheric sound: Pikmin-esque instruments introduce the temple (perhaps the biggest hint that Hajime Wakai, one of the game's four composers, was behind this song?) as they segue into a lone, melancholic guitar, perhaps reflecting the solitary slumber of the moss-filled temple itself.

Naturally, The Wind Waker wants to show all this off with clever manipulations of the camera. Bosses have never been this huge before in Zelda, for example, which gives ample excuse to draw the camera out during each and every battle. Every instance is meant to emphasize Toon Link's relative tininess to everything around him, be it the massive jaws of the sand serpent Molgera or the vast ocean surrounding each of the three Triangle Isles. It's a powerful effect adjusted to one's liking via C-stick, and even now, I can't help but be absorbed by how huge everything is.

And as expected for a game passing itself as a cartoon, the animation is wonderful; the dynamic expressions of Toon Link are commonly cited, but I'm especially taken with the game's horde of enemies. Watching the Moblin's antics (light their arses on fire!) or the armorless, weaponless Darknuts make do with their fists or stray Moblin spear lying around is greatly entertaining, and I've made it a hobby of mine to experiment with Toon Link's various weapons to gauge their reactions. Case in point: smacking Miniblins off the Forsaken Fortress's upper reaches with the Skull Hammer, as watching their puny little bodies launch into a watery grave is not unlike the awe of a soaring golf ball.

It's a good thing the character animation succeeds in its goals, as the story -- perhaps tied with Majora's Mask as being the strongest within Zelda's history -- wouldn't nearly be as good without them. Taking place as something of an alternate sequel to Ocarina of Time, its setting up of a mystery within an entirely new setting --- The Great Sea -- provides a fascinating juxtaposition: we desire to learn the fate of familiar kingdom we learn about in the intro -- a gripping sequence depicted in hieroglyph-esque woodblock prints -- but we're having too much fun with the new world's pirates and bird people and wood spirits for our curiosity to linger too long.

The Wind Waker is different from the previous two games in that strikes a mid-road: the themes and character moments involved aren't nearly as raw, but they ain't exactly subtle. The aforementioned "mystery" introduces a wealth of gravity and import to this new realm, yet even moments like Prince Komali's one-sided affection for Medli echo its biting themes of loss and moving on; in that respect, watching series villain Ganondorf earn his first touch of character is a thing of beauty, and remains the most tantalizing moment of humanization in Zelda history. As a grown man who's watched his cherished childhood slip away, it identifies with me more with each passing year.

So much of what makes this new setting so foreign is in the score: helmed by a four-man team (Kenta Negata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi and Koji Kondo in his first supervisory role), The Wind Waker brims with Celtic-influences and instruments, namely in the very first song we hear. Best described as the game's main theme, the playful Irish arrangement that is the Title Theme is reverberated throughout The Wind Waker as not just a clever recurring motif, but in tone: we find its whimsy shared in other compelling themes as well (namely the castanet-filled Dragon Roost Island). Personaly, I've always thought of it as a fairy-tale opening.

But it's not Zelda without the adventurous backdrops, which we find in the wonderful ocean theme. Both intrepid and marvelous, The Great Sea encapsulates the very essence of "adventure" in its entire duration, never failing to inspire the swelling need for discovery and the unknown. Everything from climbing Bokoblin watchtowers to watching seagulls fly alongside The King of Red Lions is heightened by this one song.

The Wind Waker is notable for being the first Zelda to establish unique theme for each boss, and while they are spectacular (Molgera and Helmaroc King being the standouts), the recurring mini-boss theme remains my favorite. Making a triumphant first impression through its chiming of bells, the way this valor is carried through the light-hearted whimsy of whistles is nothing less than infectious.

I should highlight one more positive while we're on the subject of sound: the conduction of the Wind Waker itself. I could elaborate on how much I cherish the game's sound effects, but it is one of the most ethereal moments of sound in Zelda, as even simply standing there graces our ears with a celestial air. This isn't even getting into the ascending chimes of the three conduction times, all accompanied by stunning choirs. The baton may not be as functionally deep as the Ocarina, but the sound reverie is enough to render it my favorite Zelda instrument.

All this and more is enough to propel The Wind Waker into the upper echelons of Zelda...but alas, for all its ambitions, it misses the very top. Everything to do with this relates to its rushed status: this is something not immediately apparent, but by end of the game's first act (roughly by the third dungeon), it becomes undeniably evident this ambitious title did not fully achieve its vision. Such a failure is not uncommon in the industry, but when it sinks to levels of wasting the player's time, it becomes a major detriment.

Case in point: the cut dungeons. After the game's opening stages, the story makes a point of collecting three magical pearls after completing the early dungeons. The first two are acquired in this matter without a hitch, but after a protracted dash to nab Nayru's Pearl, it's suddenly handed to you by the water spirit Jabun. The aforementioned Nintendojo article does have a defense for this -- that the "water" dungeon role may've been filled by the Tower of the Gods, which immediately follows -- but there's just no getting around how abrupt the Jabun sequence is.

One can't also help but wonder if the "mini-dungeons" -- Fire Mountain and Ice-Ring Isle, used to obtain certain equipment -- were the two cut dungeons, and yet they're so short even the term "mini-dungeon" does them a disservice (aside from a cool secret in the latter). This isn't to say they're terrible in themselves -- they actually fit relatively seamlessly into the progression -- but one also cannot help but imagine if these dungeons were tied into the game's mid-game twist: one I shall not spoil for those who have yet to plunder The Wind Waker's depths, but it's a gripping possibility that would've opened up the game's already massive world two-fold.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the Triforce Hunt: a blatant case of padding that would set the example for bloated, uneventful events that would later plague the series. This is the one area my article faltered in defending, as it not only abruptly shoehorns itself into the narrative but its repetitive lazy cycle speaks for itself: you sail all over The Great Sea to find a Triforce Chart, hand it over to Tingle to translate for hundreds of rupees, and then go off to recover the Triforce piece. 

This is a process repeated seven times, and to make matters worse, it gets thoroughly openly lazy. Practically every one of them jams in enemy brawls, homogenizing even its rare inspirations into an endless, tiring cascade of swordplay. Take the chart involving the Ghost Ship: it's a perfect concept for a game set on the high seas, with the set-up involving an elaborate quest to obtain an ocean villa, discover a zombie-infested basement within and acquire the bewitched Ghost Ship Chart. All riveting stuff, especially when the ship itself greets itself in the night, its demonic chanting  alerting us to its presence...only to end up being yet another enemy horde.

While The Wind Waker is not as shockingly amateurish as its Mario GameCube contemporary (Super Mario Sunshine) in compensating for rushed development, its failure stings a bit more in that it's this close to achieving masterwork status...only to slip up in Nintendo's drive to meet the Japanese holiday season. It is a game I still fervently defend and regard as superior to the mediocre 3D efforts over the next decade, but that simple fact undermines not just any arguments I push forward, but a rare betrayal to Nintendo's values and work ethic regarding development.

To my mind, I can imagine a Wind Waker that stands up with the very best of Zelda. It is absolutely a visual masterpiece, one that will certainly be held up as one of the finest applications of aesthetics found in a Nintendo game. But I cannot claim the same as an actual game; visuals will only get you so far, after all, and between the likes of its lack of unique mini-bosses and the undeveloped enemy weapon system and once again doing the "Ganon's Tower is a hodgepodge of previous dungeon concepts" endgame shtick, there's the sense it's just not trying hard enough. By itself, it's a betrayal to its graphical ambitions; as a Zelda game, it's perhaps the most disappointing thing of all.

And yet to me, it doesn't really matter. Do I still lament The Wind Waker doesn't achieve its dreams? On some days. Do I lament we never got the planned sequel? Definitely, and that's because I love so much of what it earnestly tries to accomplish that it still sets a reputable bar. It's an even rarer example of a game where I don't care it has flaws, I don't care it makes missteps; above all, its infatuating sense of catharsis is enough to lull me into sweet, sweet rapture, one where another world is active and awake.

Even now, that is still everything I'm looking for. The Wind Waker is not the best Zelda, but it is the Zelda that still speaks to me the most as an adult with its brilliant themes and meaty exploration; to my inner child with whimsy nostalgia and a warm, beating heart. For that alone, it remains my favorite Zelda.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 47 ~Inside the Castle Walls~ (Super Mario 64)

Origin: Super Mario 64
Plays In: Peach's Castle
Status: Original Composition
Composed By: Koji Kondo

A new Nintendo console is coming in just over a week! How's everyone handling the suspense?

For me, the anticipation for a new Nintendo console is unlike anything else; of course, other company consoles have come and gone with some great hype periods as well, but there's just something magical about your favorite home team ready to unleash five-years worth of untold adventures, dreams and memories to the public. Nostalgia will be cultivated in young one as us grown-ups revel in the magic that's kept us coming again and again for the past thirty decades. With how much Nintendo is banking on the Switch to last and the ever-changing expectations of the game industry, perhaps we'll enjoy all those and more in a longer cycle.

One of my favorite gaming memories is the time I surely first laid eyes on a Nintendo 64...we were in a Blockbuster (remember those?), and I couldn't stop staring at the demo station in the corner.  It was playing Super Mario 64, and everything about it was a marvel: the new 3D graphics not found in my Super Mario World game at home, the way Mario hopped and swam about with precise ease, how the controller echoed to me that of Mario's gloved hands...everything about it was a mystifying magnet to six-year old me, one that screamed "play me!". It was then the seeds of my gaming passion were certainly born.;

Switch might not have a Mario 64 of its own; in fact, that it's launching with a Zelda game and a title introducing the system's controls (1-2 Switch) recalls more to that of the Wii, a system that captivated many because of how it played rather than the context and dynamics of the games themselves. Certainly, the Switch is set to sail a similar course: a system that captivates the public through one central gimmick. In this case, a hybrid that brings people together and encourages outdoor player is highly appealing.

And yet, I am always reminded of Super Mario 64 and its gardens and castle walls whenever a Nintendo system launches, no matter what the goals it sets for itself. The Wii's motion controls may've defined its respective generation, but Super Mario 64 changed everything on such fundamental levels that its heartbeat still lingers in every 3D title today. Even now, when we're about to be introduced to a Zelda designed to demolish everything we've associated with the series for the sake of a proper open-world experience, I can only think of how Super Mario 64 did the same for the purpose of revolutionizing gaming.

Well, that, and how it looks godly and it may very well be the game to finally surpass the N64 Zelda duo and A Link to the Past, but the point here is that while envisioning a new Super Mario 64-esque impact on the industry is near-impossible, I can't help but see its footsteps being followed here. Yes, Breath of the Wild was built as a Wii U game from the ground-up, but like Twilight Princess before it, it'll be largely associated with the new console. And that already renders it the most exciting Nintendo launch title in over a decade.

Next Friday will surely be something special.

Final Thoughts: Or, hey, maybe it's that Super Mario Odyssey is going back to the original 3D template for Mario? Easily the best thing to come out of last month's conference; I already can't wait to hop around for the heck of it!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

Earlier, I praised The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time not merely for representing gameplay and design at its purest, but for instigating an evocative revolution that caught on with people. The dungeons were at their finest, the moments of character beating underneath the surface captured us, and there was no cure for getting the Lost Woods theme out of our heads. It's something that made the market demand a direct sequel; more perfection iterating upon perfection, you may say.

And yet as Nintendo would say it, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask upends the tea table in a matter that took everyone off-guard. Contextually, it's a sequel to Ocarina of Time -- it all begins with Link searching for his fairy companion Navi -- and yet everything barring asset reuse is as different as could possibly be. There are time limits circumvented only through your magical ocarina. Masks are equipped either for transforming purposes or to elicit response. It is fiendishly, grievously dark, openly playing with symbolism that'll zip over the non-attentive player.

It is not by any means accessible to the casual Zelda fan; indeed, while it's earned an adoring cult fanbase and sold moderately well, it never reached the legendary status of its N64 predecessor. Personally, I am of the opinion it is the very best Zelda has to offer, the approachable perfection of Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past be damned. It's not the first or last formula-changing Zelda, yet for a game developed only in a year's time, it achieves a level of successful ambition that puts the other efforts to shame. All Majora's Mask has to do is be the inverse of Ocarina of Time: whereas that game embraced a perfect duality of pacing and player-to-character connection, Majora's Mask is a compact challenge that bears its own enigmatic heart. 

Everything to do with this involves the Three-Day System. The land of Termina is under existential peril by the threat of a falling, sentient moon, and you only have three days to stop it. A task that would normally instill intense pressure, the good news is thanks to the Song of Time, the same three days can be repeated and again. Everything from clearing dungeons to NPC schedules are at the mercy of time, so your adventure must be planned accordingly. 

The very presence of a time limit, no matter what the context, should destroy the freedom-stitched fabric of Zelda, yet Majora's Mask renders it as natural as breathing. The only possible negative is the bulking exposition at the game's beginning, and even that's so damn interesting that you can't help but be swept up in its presentation. The Skull Kid's curse in turning Link into a Deku Scrub (represented by a nightmare sequence of him being swarmed by said species), the grinning, phantom-like enigma that is the Happy Mask Salesman, the soothing churning of the Clock Tower and, of course, the ever-looming threat that is the moon itself.

It's starting out as a Deku Scrub that first sends the message you've hit rock bottom. From the very moment Deku Link steps into Clock Town, he's greeted by a dog that'll bully him relentlessly. There's no reason given; everything from your snout-like protrusion to your stubby little legs pisses it off, and it'll make every attempt to make your life hell. That it's half your size signals no one will take you seriously, right down to the guards refusing to let you venture outside of Clock Town.

And yet even in spite of this difficulty/time time, the heart of freedom and exploring beats wildly here: not only is time essentially unlimited, but you'd have to purposefully wait for the moon to crash. That you're given options to even slow down time presents an effective level micromanagement alongside your adventures in Termina: for instance, do you have enough time to clear the Great Bay Temple with only one day remaining, or would that be time better left tackling the beaver race sidequest?

Anyone who says the Three-Day System deters exploration has missed the point entirely: the inner workings and activities of Clock Town --nay, the entirety of Termina and its inhabitants-- is the exploration. Character schedules are intertwined, encouraging you to uncover every facet of their lives. Your successes and failures will have consequences; ones you can simply erase through time travel, but their effects ranging from both intriguing ("oh, wow, I can do that?") to the depressing (which we'll showcase later) display the organic constitution that is the world of Majora's Mask.

An organic world, mind, that expands twofold through the use of masks. It enthralls on both levels of gameplay and engagement: once his curse is lifted, Link can transform into a Deku Scrub, a Goron or Zora, utilizing their innate abilities (Gorons' super-strength/high-speed rolling or Zoras' supreme swimming) all the while. It works not merely as fanservice (who hasn't wanted to play as a jolly, rolly-polly Goron?) but as a unique mechanic that actually works; in particular, Zora Link is easily the highest example of 3D swimming in the N64/PS generation, with not a trace of clunky control in his dolphin-esque movements (just feel that jump!).

Being at the forefront of Majora's Mask, it's only natural they, too, embrace the game's thematic duality. Putting aside how the transformable masks takes on the past life of a departed soul (which is an incredible tragedy in itself, particularly when you're conversing with friends and family of the deceased), even the collectible masks echo their use in Ocarina of Time; you come for their intended uses--be they the Great Fairy Mask attracting fairies or the Kamaro Mask's hypnotizing dance--and stay for the reactions they draw from people, not the least of which is the surprise found in the dastardly Gorman Brothers. Dishonest milk thieves who prey upon the neighboring Romani Ranch, all it takes for their nastiness to collapse is the presence of a certain weeping mask. Moments like this can be stumbled completely on accident, compelling us to endlessly experiment. Could even the Bomb Mask elicit an emotional response? Probably not, and you're crazy for putting it on, but you can't help but try.

Which reminds me: it's Zelda not just at its most organic; it is poignantly gripping, more than any other entry. Compare to how Ocarina of Time handled its subtler themes: it didn't beat us over the head with character development, leaving it up to us to fill in the blanks regarding the tragedies of Mido and the carpenter family. Majora's Mask does this too, but only as a tantalizing sprinkle (and the occasional side-dish) upon effective character sequences that I cannot praise enough, be it the famous Anju/Kafei marriage or the faux courage of the Swordmaster, whose crumbling facade in the final hour has always spooked me.

These sobering episodes chill us right down to the bone; just look at the mayor's meeting, whose participants take all-too-real positions: the carpenters, denouncing the obvious threat looming above for the sake of monetary gain; the soldiers, who instantly perceived the danger and recommend immediate evacuation; the mayor, the one in power who's too cowardly to take action (or could it be he has something else on his mind? His son's been missing, after all...). Naturally, the aforementioned masks are vital in these events;  did you know you can actually break up that meeting with a certain mask?

Even without masks, however, the NPCs are evocative on their own. The events at Romani's Ranch --whereupon aliens make their annual visit to abduct cattle--are another perfect example; this time, however, we witness Majora's Mask delivering a raw penalty in guilt. Romani, a young girl and the ranch's only denizen who realizes what's going on, recruits Link in fending off the ghastly extra-terrestrials. Succeed, and you earn a bottle of health-restoring milk. Fail, and you get this.

Caught up in the abduction, a brainwashed Romani spends the remainder of the days either aimlessly walking about the ranch or struggling to remember her identity. Her older sister, Cremia, weeps in the barn, regretting she never believed what she dismissed as an overactive imagination. It's a level of despair almost never before heard of in a Nintendo game, all because you didn't try hard enough.

Or is it because you didn't try at all? Since the game's default schedule is absolute, this happens every time you have to focus on other matters and ignore the quest. Through guilt and failure, Majora's Mask forces you to care to fully complete the game, lest you want broken families and ruined engagements to populate Termina. Even after you solve their woes, time travel will reset their trials and tribulations into motion; knowing that I have to move on breaks my heart (and that's not even getting into even if you succeed, and how the sisters prepare for the moon falling, which...well, I'll let you find out for yourself).

I mentioned earlier about the game's open-employment of symbolism, which is up there with Mother 3 as being Nintendo's finest in thematic storytelling. Anyone can pick up the relationship between time and the abundance of children at the game's center, but is it really coincidence that the shape of Majora's Mask itself provides an empty black heart on the back? And that's not even mentioning the moon itself: a grinning visage of death whose insides belie a stunning truth...

Even within the actual gameplay does the symbolism permeate the entire experience. Not once do you ever escape the countenance of the moon. The bone-chilling scream Link unleashes every time he equips an enchanted mask calls into question the relationship between host and soul; one perhaps answered within the haunting song-based gimmick of Stone Tower Temple, the game's best dungeon. 

Not that any of Majora's Mask's themes would be half as effective without Koji Kondo's music. Taking the helm for the majority of the soundtrack, his absolute finest contribution lies in what may arguably be the game's theme: the Song of Healing. Premiering early on as the haunting, ethereal Clock Tower theme and thereon appearing in piano/ocarina motifs, the Song of Healing is a chilling piece accompanying even the most noble of Link's deeds not merely as a gloomy framework, but to represent the souls at peace.

I say Song of Healing is "arguably" the main theme since while I'd personally say it's more in-tune with the story, Clock Town is one you'll hear more often. While the melody is retained throughout the three days, the song shifts accordingly to each of their respective moods: bustling denial, sober melancholy and fragile, rapid uneasiness. Above is my favorite of the three: the second day, albeit not accompanied by the pitter-patter backdrop of rain.

While the game's theme for Termina's four main provinces echoes the world's melancholy--it's also worth noting Majora's Mask is the one 3D Zelda with the distinction of possessing the classic Zelda overworld theme--I've always been taken by the music for specific locations. In particular, half of what makes the Astral Observatory and the Stone Tower Temple two of Zelda's most evocative set-pieces have to do with their themes; the former the heavenly illumination of an elderly man's youthful neverland, the latter an eerie mix of chanting, tribal percussion and flutes forging the tower's bewitching identity. 

As it happens, Majora's Mask is the first Nintendo game featuring mainstay composer Toru Minegishi. While his involvement is minimal, his works are anything but when considering they're all battle themes. Out of his contributions, I'm quite fond of the mid-boss theme: an urgent, tension-filled frenzy most effective when Skull Kid hastens the Moon's falling ("What'll I do?!? What'll I do?!?").

Let us not dismiss Kondo's status as being the star, however, for his attempt at doomsday would have to be the soundtrack's most haunting. Spectral and imminent as it may be, not even the above embedded video does it justice: hearing it accompanied by the constant rumbles of earthquakes, the intensifying chimes of clock tower bell --which echo across Termina no matter where you are-- and the neon glow of the afflicted sky instill a deathly, awe-inspiring power I've yet to see replicated anywhere else.

Which goes for much anything Majora's Mask does; seventeen years later, only perhaps Sony's Shadow of the Colossus has matched it in infusing such a grim blend of reality and guilt within the player's motivations. Not that Majora's Mask doesn't embrace Zelda's offbeat humor -- be it the debut of fairy-wannabe manchild Tingle or the hand that lives in the Stock Pot Inn's toilet -- but even such twisted humor goes hand-in-hand with that pressing imminence of darkness that renders it Zelda's most warped adventure (only 2006's Twilight Princess attempts to take that title, and that has more to do with its relatively-grimy color scheme).

And yet somehow it's perhaps its most replayable one. I suspect this has to do with, again, how flexible the Three-Day System is. There is urgency, yes, but not a constraining one forcing players to complete the game. By having us relive those three days again and again, tackling them any which way we want, that wonderful sense of discovery isn't just retained from Ocarina of Time; that game's own organic anatomy is perfected into a seemingly infinite state, be they the aforementioned mask reactions or simply marveling at how the Ocarina of Time transforms into a fishbone guitar via Zora Link.

It doesn't matter you're not Adult Link or that the game has a paltry four dungeons: it's a game we return to again and again because we want to explore this dark dimension, want to discover that one reaction, that one character moment that escaped us the first time. Or the second, and even the third. Majora's Mask entire system is a risk built not to capitalize on its famous N64 predecessor, but instead an attempt to craft a living, breathing video game that thoroughly pays off in capturing our attention.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask transcends the medium in that once-a-generation experience like EarthBound and Shadow of the Colossus before and after it. It is not merely Zelda's best game, Nintendo 64's finest, or even one of Nintendo's most outstanding: it is one of the greatest games ever created, and while perhaps the likes of Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past and even the original Zelda may enjoy that accolade more -- however deservedly in themselves -- none of them grip our hearts as both player and guest as they do here.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Worldly Weekend: Final Fantasy (NES)

Have you ever stopped to think about the name Final Fantasy? It's something so highly prestigious that the game would have to be as grand as the name implies--and make no mistake; for its time, it certainly was--but it hardly makes a lick of sense when regarding the actual context. The answer lies within its development: as developer Square was in the throes of near-bankruptcy, creator Hironobu Sakaguchi wanted a title that would not only close the book on the company, but on the seemingly-inevitable end of his game-making career.

As history would have it, that wasn't the case. Final Fantasy has since gone on to produce over 15 beloved titles (not to mention countless spin-offs and ports/remakes) and became the worldwide representation--perhaps even standard--for the Japanese RPG. The "Gil" currency, the famous victory fanfare and the Chocobo/Moogle mascots have become synonymous with the genre, and continue to be associated with the series to this day.

However, not all of the them debut in the series' first game, which is often cited alongside the original Dragon Quest as kickstarting JRPGs. There is a distinct difference between the two games, however: Dragon Quest is, more or less, a grindfest for its entire duration. Final Fantasy is not.

That's not to say there isn't any level-grinding within Square's debut RPG, but there's more of a leniency in its pacing. Over a year had passed since Dragon Quest, so it only makes sense they'd arrange for the necessary improvements. The interface is simpler and less clunky; no "stairs" button in sight. There's an active, ongoing story-arc that, while not deep, breaks free of the "save the princess!" model. Western RPG tropes are brought in to enhance the battle system, such as enemy weaknesses (fire beats ice, duh)

The end result is a game still approachable today. You will grind, but there's enough player conveniences and innovations to keep thing interesting. JRPG conventions like overworld vehicles got their start here, but they weren't just 80's visual stunners; the thrilling swiftness of the Airship is just as much of a marvel as it is an effective tool for speedy progress.

Yet what's perhaps most impressive is the Class System. As opposed to the Final Fantasy games of today, you create your four-man party out of six different classes (Warrior, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage and Black Mage), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. White Mages don't really engage in physical combat, for instance, but are invaluable for any team thanks to their healing magic.

It's a wonderful, flexible system that ensures no two playthroughs will be the same: that there's over 60 spells to master ensures a deep, flexible variety within each party member's moveset. Citing a personal example, I initially thought I made a mistake in choosing a Thief class as my 2nd physical class(Warrior was my first, main choice), as he died quickly and possessed the strength of a mewling kitten. It wasn't until his eventual promoted to a full-blown Ninja that his usefulness was discovered: not only could he actually deal damage, but Black Magic was now at his disposal, so he'd be able to back up my Black Mage.

Moreover, it's just fresh, which is saying a lot for a game that came out in 1987. Having been acquainted with set parties in JRPGs for such a long time, it's amazing to me a game celebrating its 30th anniversary can deliver such a customization experience. Right from the beginning, Final Fantasy encourages you to forge your adventures rather than the one explicitly set by the developers, and I find it rather special that uniqueness has only grown over the years.

The class system alone should render it accessible to most, but Final Fantasy's unusual magic system is what often drives today's players away. As opposed to the multi-digit Magic Points commonly found today, spells are deducted by a single-digit "charge" system. This renders their use in dungeons and the like incredibly precious; the only method of restoration are overworld-exclusive tents, so the balance between offense and defense is vital.

One's mileage will vary; personally, I adored it for the different sort of challenge it brought. Old JRPGs often involve being trapped in dungeons and the like, so this brings a different level of challenge in choosing your battles. There's always the option of running away, of course, but the frustrating JRPG penalty for escape failure (free damage courtesy of monsters!) is a constant, lurking risk, so you'll only want to pick that as a last resort.

Needless to say, Final Fantasy is pretty hard, but that doesn't mean it's not fun. The battle system itself mostly works; whereas Dragon Quest relied on imagination, Final Fantasy displays your party and all their spell-casting glory. This is especially vital since it highlights your chosen party members, so their eventual transformation when promoted feels like much more of an accomplishment. It's even great to see Square taking advantage regarding attention to detail, as your weapon visually changes every time you switch equipment. Like every other pre-SNES RPG, unfortunately, it does fall into the archaic lack of auto-target (as in, you'll miss an attack if the enemy's already defeated, as opposed to simply switching targets).

There are other flaws common in 80's JRPGS. For all the improvements upon Dragon Quest, Square didn't take the time to adjust NPC antics and not have them block doors and counters. An endearing flaw, yes, but not all a practical one. And yes, you will receive vague directions and be at the mercy of townspeople hints, so don't feel guilty about using an online guide like I did.

There are, however, no flaws in the score. Series composer Nobuo Uematsu made his big break as an industry icon thanks to Final Fantasy, and know we're in for something special when the 8-bit harp introduces the famous Prelude opening. Soon to grace the prologues of future Final Fantasy titles, it instills a deep mystique that successfully frames the games as the otherworldly fantasies they're intended be.

Meanwhile, the Overworld Theme takes on not a somber tune, but of an upbeat one emphasizing adventure. Fitting quite well within the familiarly cheesy 8-bit range of the NES, as grand as the aforementioned "somber" themes we'd see in later Final Fantasy titles are, I find this sort of brightness to be far more welcoming. You could argue it may undermine its' serious attempt to tell a story, but let us not pretend it is a deep story by any measure; what matters it motivates us to keep going in the face of random encounters, rather than discouraging us by feeling isolated and alone (which in itself would betray the concept of a multi-man party).

Not that any "undermining" takes place considering the presence of the battle theme; while also an exercise of activity, it's a more serious one that expertly remembers the 8-bit rule of being infectiously catchy. It instantly recalls the wickedness of the fiends and monsters we slay not merely in appearance, but their rage-inducing usage of Paralysis.

I've had the pleasure of completing three NES RPGs over the past two years (EarthBound Beginnings, Dragon Quest, and this), and out of that trio, Final Fantasy is probably the best. This is especially shocking to me given my intense love for the EarthBound (Mother) franchise, yet Final Fantasy is perhaps the best realized JRPG of the 80's. There's no awkward skips in the scenario nor an overt emphasis on endless grinding; it is competently paced, living up to every one of its grand ambitions alongside a rigid difficulty set to be tackled any which way by the player.

It's the class system that keeps it alive thirty years later. I know it's not the last Final Fantasy to use them, but there's a distinct appeal in the first entry employing such depth in its design. And with the number of remakes and ports out there, I have plenty of excuses to take another go and shake up my selection. Final Fantasy is the rare NES game that matches up to Nintendo's own efforts like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid not merely in quality, but in successfully still channeling that engaging sense of hugeness, an even rarer 80's value I cherish as evidence of fine craftsmanship. It is not the complete masterpiece I imagine its SNES and PS1 successors are claimed to be, but such an accomplishment renders it a timeless classic all the same.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Fire Emblem Heroes Review (Hey Poor Player)

I really do mean what I said in the beginning here; as a matter of fact, during the Fire Emblem Direct from the other week, all I could think about was how I couldn't be happier about how things turned around for Nintendo's beloved SRPG series. Before Awakening, it always mystified me how a series with a dozen entries and a cast of hundreds flew under the radar for over twenty years, and now we get to see what it's like for it to hit the mainstream!

If only the same could happen to F-Zero...but I suppose some game franchises come and go. How great it is that Fire Emblem avoided that same fate! I think it's actually entered my Top Ten favorite Nintendo series at this point, haha.

Personally, I'm really hoping we see something like a remake subseries come forward. Gaiden being re-imagined as Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a great start, but we could finally fill in the gaping hole left by the unlocalized SNES/GBA titles! Many other fans are seeing this as an inevitability, so let's hope we're right!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 46 ~Menu~ (WarioWare, Inc.: Mega MicroGames!)

Origin: WarioWare, Inc.: Mega MicroGames!
Plays In: Menu
Status: Original Composition
Composed By: Ryoji Yoshitomi

Video games are often cited as a method of escape: be it stress, tragedy or dysfunctional families, we depend on our favorite hobby to smother our woes. Even if it's only temporary, anything from a ten-minute foray into Super Mario Bros. to being absorbed for hours by our Animal Crossing village may be the only daily relief for troubled lives.

Yet how often is it games give something back to us? In today's example, it's not as if I was going through anything difficult when WarioWare, Inc: Mega MicroGames! reached my grubby 5th Grade hands, but I remember it most fondly as a game that spoke with me. This is hardly unique to WarioWare--just observe the troves upon troves of preschooler computer games where characters speak directly with toddlers--yet somehow Wario and his new crowd of game developers constantly engaged with me and made me one of the gang through one common thread: random, dumb humor.

My childhood secret of nostalgia was always kept clutched to my chest, yet I always outspoken with my favorite area of comedy. I constantly devised stories and characters representing the most demented products of my mind, be it sentient spoons or zombie men crimelords who feasted on the flesh of cereal character mascots. The sacred "Game in the Basement" action figure rituals with my and my friend Matt involved Pepsi Seal murder mysteries and Kung Fu Beanie Babies (among other vastly inappropriate adventures I won't be sharing here). Invader Zim, Ed, Edd n' Eddy and Courage the Cowardly Dog all embraced these themes and were three of my favorite cartoons growing up. It was one of primary reasons why EarthBound, gaming's masterpiece, meant to so much me.

Most of this, as you may expect, went over the heads of my peers. Not that they didn't watch Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, but seeing as how my brand of humor circuitry isn't exactly the norm, it was difficult to find others who shared my passion of blood-sucking monkeys (it would eventually lead to an eventual outcasting due to the belief I was "retarded," but that was a ways off). This is echoed even in my adult life: I'm the guy whose favorite episodes of South Park adopt the "bludgeon one stupid joke repeatedly" model (Terrence and Philip in Not Without My Anus, Jakovasaurs, Crippled Summer, etc.), which were never very popular.

When considering all that, it saddens me quite deeply WarioWare's presence has practically dropped off the face of the earth. That it had to die with Game and Wario--a project that betrays the very core of the series--is especially heartbreaking; I'd take flawed entries in the vein of Smooth Moves and D.I.Y to keep the blood pumping, and it's all because like EarthBound and Animal Crossing before it, it understood me. It knew I'd shake my head in amusement at warped Nintendo references, grin at a falling nail yell "HYAAAAAAAH!!!" in-between a poor man's fingers, and laugh at watching a beautiful anime woman shed tears after retreating a loogie up her nose.

It was Nintendo's modern embracing of random humor, and now it's gone. All I have left are the entries that spoke to me in elementary/middle school; in fact, it'd be inaccurate to label it "modern". WarioWare's now yet another childhood dream: one I can return to any time, because it came true.

Whenever I hear this song, I say to myself, "I've come home." And just think: it was Wario of all characters who made me feel welcome. How peculiar!

Final Thoughts: Naturally, I was thrilled when this received not one but two arrangements in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Yoshitomi-san himself returned to do a medley, but Keigo Ozaki's version is actually one of my favorite arrangements from the game.