Friday, December 29, 2017

Worldly Weekend: Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (GBA)

Not even one game later, and we arrive at the embryonic stage of Kingdom Hearts' ultimate folly: "bridge" games released across multiple platforms. The Disney/Square-Enix saga was not to continue just through numbered mainline entries, but through what series director Tetsuya Nomura described as games that would "bridge" -- or rather, set the stage for -- said numbered entries together. Kooky executive antics and Nomura's own over-ambition would eventually drive this direction out of control, as evidenced by the fact it's been twelve years since Kingdom Hearts II first launched in Japan and we've only just recently received a tentative date for the long-awaited third entry.

But we'll get to that mess when it comes. Really, what I want to talk about is how undeserving Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories -- the first of these bridge games, which arrived on Game Boy Advance in 2004 -- is of this blame, for I daresay it is perhaps the very finest title under the Kingdom Hearts banner. Not because it possesses the very highest highs of the series -- although quite a few are present here -- but rather in how it is the most consistent: what we have here is a game that not only recognizes its purpose, but is aware of its limitations and tries its damnedest to work around them to provide one of the most compelling JRPGs on the platform.

Let us be frank: there is no way you can fully emulate the original Kingdom Hearts experience on Game Boy Advance. We could, as Chain of Memories proves, simply reduce it to the hack-and-slash many were addicted to on PS2, but Kingdom Hearts is not a 2D beat-'em-up in the vein of Final Fight. None of the depth in the absence of 3D environments would be present, and with the emphasis on "worlds" and whatnot, something would certainly feel missing.

In response, Nomura and developer Jupiter come up with an unexpected solution: cards, or rather, the use of cards in a real-time setting. Every action in battle -- be they Keyblade attacks, magic, items and summons -- utilizes a card from your deck, and every one is designated with a number. The higher the number, the less likely enemies will cancel your attack with a higher-level card of their own.

With all the options provided, there's a sustainable amount of depth to be worked around here. No longer can you just get by on button-mashing here; you have to think about the cards to use. Do you combine your cards to unleash a Sleight attack, or use 0 cards to instantly break through the enemy's defense? Whatever you do, don't go overboard with the latter: 0 cards may technically be the strongest, but they'll instantly falter at any higher number card.

Let it be known this is the only Kingdom Hearts game framing its battles within 2D (or, at the very least, operating within limited movement); while the advances in technology for DS and PSP render the reason why obvious, it's stellar how well Square and Jupiter accommodated the 2D plane. None of the camera hijinks that may've plagued the first game are present, as Keyblade swings, magic and summons are automatically directed towards your foes rather than manually aimed (supposing you're facing the right direction, of course, but that's not too much trouble) which is why everyone's favorite card tactic is to constantly summon Cloud from Final Fantasy VII and watch him wreck fools with the Buster Sword.

We could elaborate on how the limited space leads to tense face-offs, but Chain of Memories doesn't forget to apply it elsewhere. For instance, you can't just jam in all your cards in the deck at once: there's a numbered limit that grows whenever you level up, so you construct your burgeoning deck around that. All sorts of enticing cards are nabbed throughout, it's a meticulous process as you decide (in fact, you can forge up to three decks for specific situations such as boss fights, although I've only ever been able to main one).

Indeed, even the world map plays into it: each world creates rooms based on the map cards you possess, be it making your attack cards stronger, rendering the Heartless swarming  or asleep, or simply creating a save point. Even when considering how doors often require certain numbers or colors, this allows players to create their own sense of progression and planning; for instance, why not reward myself with a treasure room, or fight for it by having it guarded by Heartless? And even with the reduced number of things to *do* in the world, that doesn't mean it doesn't play into our habits: Moogle Points (currency for cards) and Health Points are hidden throughout each room, and often you'll find yourself dodging Heartless as you smash and jump upon every object in sight to lap up each and every one.


You may be thinking, "well, how does this whole card thing fit into the narrative?" Not particularly well; in fact, it's probably the most convoluted part of the story. It's never quite explained why Castle Oblivion, the mysterious memory-based fortress Sora and co. explore, has to function around cards, and that's not even getting around to the plot holes surround the theme of forgetting memories, mainly surrounding the illusory Disney worlds recalled from the first game (barring Tarzan, which was likely due to legal issues with the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate).

And yet even putting that aside, it's easily the best-written script in the entire series. Unlike the first game's awkward ratio of low-quality prose to fully-animated (albeit still clunky) cutscenes, that it's based entirety in text means there's no excuse to dump base dialogue upon us; in other words, every line of dialogue must be of the same quality. Given the innate interpretation of sprite animation means none of the aforementioned clunkiness impedes our critical eyes, and our engagement soars.

Regardless of any faults in Chain of Memories' "bridge game" identity, there's no denying its narrative strength as a mystery. With the stakes set within the foreboding halls of Castle Oblivion -- Sora and co.'s abilities are instantly forgotten the moment they step in, and gradually their memories as well -- and the claustrophobic tension becomes ever more palpable, with betrayal and manipulation at the hands of Organization XII (or, as they're initially localized here, "The Organization"). The black-hooded villains that further antagonize Sora throughout his later adventures, their presence in Chain of Memories remains their best appearance: they are clearly not a group united for one purpose, as their motives peel away to reveal conspiracies, treason and political struggles for power (Axel being by far the most interesting of the six members introduced, as his solitary agenda remains an enticing hook for Kingdom Hearts 2).

Does Chain of Memories make the same mistake of diminishing the Disney presence? Yes -- none of the illusion worlds further the plot in any capacity -- and yet despite that, it's the one entry where it properly balances that nebulous blend of Disney magic and brooding Final Fantasy philosophy the series so constantly strives to achieve. It may be they are the reprieve we need from the suffocating animosity that plagues Castle Oblivion, but even while illusion Peter Pan's still kind of a dick, that even his tale ends on childhood memories means they, too, tie into the themes of memories and recollection. (That, and well, I can't help but praise how Jiminy Cricket, the royal chronicler who typically languishes in the background, actually maintains his own presence)

It helps the character portraits for each cameo are expertly detailed, although I struggle saying that when the case of Winnie the Pooh's Rabbit exists: his ghastly expressions echoing that of a reanimated corpse have never ceased in spooking the hell out of me, and they're perhaps the worst of his physically-apparent morbid neurosis that Square-Enix cannot seem to part with.

Of course, Yoko Shimomura arrives to help things along. Much of the game consists of 16-bit reprises of the original game's Disney world themes, but what is new supplements the "mystery" theme impeccably well: the bells of Castle Oblivion continue to ring in my head, their dark and foreboding call threatening to swallow my conscious whole. Meanwhile, the game's teaser for Kingdom Hearts 2's Twilight Town gives our first introduction to Lazy Afternoons and Sinister Sundown: the former a perfect encapsulation of a long-gone youth, the latter exuding an ethereal nostalgia that reminds me of Donkey Kong Country's famous Aquatic Ambiance.

I must, however, hail my favorites as a pair that play within cutscenes. Naminé's theme is a piano lament that captures us in its wordless debut, the pitiable melancholy exuding through every key stroke. However, it's La Pace that truly tugs at my heartstrings -- music boxes never fail to elicit emotion from me, and here it often closes the book in a heartwarming manner, namely in my two favorite sequences: the endings for the Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh scenarios.

I should note Chain of Memories' technological achievements: that it compressed PS2-quality 3D cutscenes is is a stunner from the get go, but Simple and Clean, the localized Hikaru Utada song we first witnessed back on PS2 and hear here for the credits, sounds nearly as crisp here as it did on TV, and it never ceases to wow me. Whatever the wizardly involved, I just wish that same creativity was  into making the 100 Acre Wood an entertaining romp; in its deviation from the map card system, its assortment of unintuitive puzzles is never not frustrating).

Regardless, I am aware stating Chain of Memories is the best Kingdom Hearts is an uncommon opinion. This is hardly new territory for me -- you're reading the ramblings of a man whose finest Pokémon memories lie within Ruby and Sapphire -- but it's never not astonishing to me how what's supposed to be an appetizer breaks free of its bounds and flourishes as an overly-solid title all on its own. That the further bridge games fluctuated in such quality or even relevance is a testament to its worth, one that I hope the mainline series will achieve and eventually maintain.

Oh, and one more observation: given Kingdom Hearts' collection of licenses, it is not uncommon to witness a list of their respective copyrights before the games start, but in the case of Chain of Memories, it has never made much sense to me why the Peter Pan characters are singled out. Unlike Tarzan, the property is under no legal entanglements that I am aware of, and it's even more odd Wendy is the lone absence from this citation. This is present even within the PS2 remake, and I have yet to decipher any reason why this is. Not that this matters in the slightest, but such is the life of us nitpicky game historians.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King Review (Hey Poor Player)

Question: was 4/5 too low? I come across as quite positive throughout the review, and I kept going back and forth on that and 4.5. I felt 4/5 was appropriate for a game of this caliber, but it just does so much right; actually, I'd say it's easily the best indie I've played all year.

Let me put it this way: if Zelda: A Link to the Past was your childhood jam, you'll love Blossom Tales. And you'll like it regardless. Play it!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

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

I procrastinated on this one a little longer than I would've liked. Do you think it turned out okay? Still not entirely satisfied with it, but it had to come out.

Regardless, the bike is amazing. A well-deserved GOTY for Nintendo!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Astra Lost In Space Vol. 1 Review (Hey Poor Player)

So stoked to finally discuss my love for this series! Astra Lost In Space is really one of those series that just keeps getting better as it goes on, so I hope you'll join me on the Astra's adventure.

Anyway, Worldly Weekend may or may not arrive this weekend, so keep your eyes peeled.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Promised Neverland Vol. 1 Review (Hey Poor Player)

My first manga review!!! I put my all into this, so be sure to give it a look. I consider The Promised Neverland an modern classic, so I highly recommend the actual manga, too.

Astra Lost in Space will be arriving tomorrow.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse

Ah, now there's the smile we know and love! As expected, Kirby's preciousness shines especially well through clay, and there is perhaps no better representative to bear it than Kirby and the Rainbow Curse: a claymation-based title matched only by Kirby's Epic Yarn in sheer cuteness. Even now, we must continue cherishing this pure countenance, for it is the last time Kirby bared this visage for an international audience.

Anywho, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is not only the one Wii U Kirby game, but is a sequel to 2005's Kirby: Canvas Curse, the one series entry notable for captivating non-fans. Hailed as Nintendo's first truly original concept for Nintendo DS, Canvas Curse remains the handheld's hallmark for touchscreen play: drawing rainbow strokes for Kirby to coast along played unlike anything else in the market, and combined with a techno soundtrack and mish-mash of abstract aesthetics so alien to Kirby, it's little wonder it succeeded as it did.

In contrast, it's not so surprising Rainbow Curse didn't meet the same acclaim: while the Wii U GamePad is a perfect fit for its gameplay (stylus and touchscreen, y'know) and its claymation aesthetic is every bit as ambitious, HAL's first HD game reverts to a more familiar presentation in bright colors and light-hearted tunes. With their B-team at the helm, the game itself hardly wowed like Canvas Curse a decade earlier, with fans deeming it either simply entertaining or writing it off as a disappointing budget effort.

On the opposite spectrum lies former employer Nintendojo and their perfect score, and while I cannot claim the same opinion, the Kirby connoisseur in me cannot help but come to Rainbow Curse's defense. Yes, it is no Canvas Curse, but it remains a solid title, a thoroughly pleasant little affair impossible not to be charmed by. 

I mean, by God, that artstyle! Do I ever wish there was a full behind-the-scenes documentary on the design process -- tantalizing as the conception, clay model shoots and how-to videos/features are, they are hardly enough to sate my thirst -- (bold, too, given that this was HAL Laboratory's first HD game). Set to a dreamy score by Shogo Sakai and series newcomer Megumi Ohara, and it's a game that feels as soft as clay itself.

The use of Green Greens -- a homely theme emblematic of the series' warmth -- as a recurring motif is what sells it, and I can think of no better example than the tutorial accompaniment, an especially lovely remix of harps and recorders echoing the reverie of a dreaming newborn. As soft as Hirokazu Ando's nostalgic arrangement for Kirby's Epic Yarn, the opening harp strings captivate us into an innocent world of clay, goading us alongside the actual tutorial.

Perhaps this is why the first world leaves an especially strong first impression: triumphantly emerging with a guitar-ridden theme, we're greeted by the familiar assemblage of posts and star spinners as all the slopes and Star Blocks pave the way for our new toy: Star Dash, a new mechanic obtained via star collecting and plows through a supercharged Kirby through crowds and debris alike. By the level's end, it becomes a playground prone to experimentation.

I say that in spite of the linear design permeating the game, and that's why I can't really get mad at it. True, we could do with more creativity in hidden paths and whatnot, but that's not what Canvas Curse was about, and it's not like Rainbow Curse doesn't do a good job of hiding collectables and supplementing Challenge Rooms. Balancing your use of Rainbow Ropes -- lest you run out of clay and fall -- is also just as meticulous as utilizing the DS game's paint, and much of Canvas Curse's old tricks in shielding Kirby from lasers and navigating around sawblades return.

Really, this is to say Rainbow Curse isn't afraid to get difficult -- narrow escapes from aerial battleships and touch-of-death skulls all the while juggling your ropes prove for some nasty encounters --  but the game remembers Canvas Curse's template being prime for environmental manipulation was when it was at its most interesting, and that's where you get winners such as guiding metallic spheres as switch-pressers or gate-opening keys (naturally, Kirby himself is subject to experimentation: a late-game level has him split in two, and the ensuing chaos of them bouncing into each other is as trying as it is endlessly entertaining).

Perhaps most controversial is how Kirby possesses no Copy Abilities to absorb and unleash, and relies only on rolling and dashing to plow through. This does lead to some oversights (more on that in a moment), but I also hold no objections to this: again, given this is their first HD project, I imagine this would've overburdened HAL's claymation process, undoubtedly a grueling endeavor. Conversely, Rainbow Curse must rely on level-specific transformations to impress: Missile Kirby is a particular highlight for the high-speed, high-stakes scenarios involved -- I'm particularly fond of how the climaxes involve drawing out escape routes -- all the while Tank and Submarine provide their respective blends of shmup gameplay (the latter using ropes to guide along missiles).

If there is any one true failure of Rainbow Curse, it surely lies within Challenge Mode, and that's where it fails to compensate for the absence of Copy Abilities. Prized in Canvas Curse for its tough-as-nails difficulty and unique, individualized challenges, Rainbow Curse takes a quantity-over-quality approach in supplying 48 variations of the aforementioned Challenge Rooms; needless to say, taking ten-second bonus games and stringing them together into sequential packages grows tiresome fast. They may live up to their name as a challenge, but that they never reach the same levels of creativity renders it a bust.

There are other quibbles dragging Rainbow Curse down: for example while the controls are generally fine, I could not for the life of me figure out how to operate the gondola rides. They're to be shifted via stylus from rope to rope as they amble along, and yet they just absolutely refuse to register the switch, often leaving poor Kirby to fall prey to bottomless pits and lava pools. Meanwhile, the final level is well-designed for what it is, but the low-key atmosphere (and general weirdness) doesn't accurately convey the tension of a final level. Perhaps the repeating bosses grow tiresome too, but I don't take much offense to that; after all, Canvas Curse did the same thing.

Make no mistake about it, though: Kirby and the Rainbow Curse's claymation is one heck of an eye-catcher. As appropriately plush as Kirby himself, much of it operates in that jerkily authentic movement one witnesses in the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas, be it the pulsating flowers decorating the landscape or Carpa fish climbing the underground waterfall. It, too, remembers the most tantalizing Kirby backgrounds aren't just the ones that make us sigh with wonder, but make us go, "how does that work?", hence why we're captivated from the very beginning when those stalk-sprouting houses beg us to take a peek inside.

Truth be told, I somewhat prefer Canvas Curse's fluctuation of abstraction if only it appeals more to the imagination, but I dare any one of you to watch the opening cutscene and tell me it is not a perfect fit for Kirby. Dream Land is as lush and scrumptious as Kirby Super Star and Kirby's Return to Dream Land before it, the adorable antics of Kirby, Waddle Dee and Elline the Paintbrush compelling us to pinch and squeeze everything in sight.

A reaction Rainbow Curse anticipates, hence the presence of figurine galleries and Elline's diary. However, the former's display of craftsmanship and easter eggs find themselves out-shown by the figurine descriptions, which detail the melancholic motivations behind each and every NPC. Yes, as soft and cuddly as Rainbow Curse may seem on the surface, it certainly has room for the broken hopes and dreams of Blados, Dethskullks and Drill Cottas everywhere. Thankfully, Elline's diary balances that gloominess out by ensuring every page will melt you into a puddle of gooey aww's.

And yet for all its successes in art, I can't bring myself to call it Rainbow Curse's glory; nay, again, it is Sakai and Ohara's soundtrack that deserves that honor. I say the following despite being terrible in differentiating musicians, and yet it's amazing how not only this is easily Sakai's finest work for the series since Air Ride, but that there's no evident drop in quality proves Ohara's worth as a Kirby composer.

The Blue Sky Palace world is one such example: Rainbow Across the Skies and The Wild Red Yonder perfectly portray the opposite level spectra of Kirby -- the former, echoing the feel-good, light-hearted innocence defining his world, making what's what's already a pleasant soar more soothing than it has any right to be; the latter trumpeting the grand exploit of Kirby fending off a nefarious clay airship.

The true score highlight, however, lies within the treasure trove of unlockable remixes from across series history. I'm not quite sure what otherwordly force compelled Sakai and Ohara to successfully juggle experimental takes on Kirby's Adventure's Forest Theme and Kirby Super Star's Rest Area, turning Yogurt Yard into even more of an infectious headbopper, and the awe-inspiring nostalgia of Milky Way Wishes, but the euphoric shudders one experiences when hearing the saxophone/guitar solos of Moonlight Capital is enough to claim Rainbow Curse's soundtrack may rival Kirby's Epic Yarn and Kirby's Return to Dream Land as being the finest of Kirby this past decade.

Of course, even if that all didn't exist, the unexpectedly groovy Haunted Ship theme would be enough. Perhaps the most tonally dissonant song in series history, my fascination grew so large I frequently played it at full blast in my college dorm. I regret nothing.

(By the way, I cannot be the only one that noticed this song bears an eerie resemblance to the My Neighbor Totoro theme. An innocent coincidence, I'm sure, and yet it's right there.)

In the end, yes, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse doesn't push the bar as Canvas Curse did for innovative entertainment, but it doesn't have to. In light of its shortcomings, what it does accomplish within the constraints of its ambitions is a success in itself.  For a budget title as gentle as this, I couldn't ask for more.


Monday, November 20, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

As this review's been nearly six years in the making, it's only fair I cut to the chase: I still intend to bury The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Admittedly, I embark on this task with some trepidation: it is not a game that is outright terrible, as I have implied in the past. This is not the so-called sorcery of the previously-discussed Zelda Cycle; a carefully-evaluated 100% run does reveal it is a professionally-designed title with your typical Nintendo polish and all that, and like Twilight Princess before it, there are some good moments I dare not wish to minimize.

That does not, unfortunately, dissuade me from believing Skyward Sword is possibly the most underwhelming output from Nintendo's own studios in their entire history of game development. This is not to say it is the worst -- Donkey Kong Jr. Math and Urban Champion have endured three decades of mud-slinging for a reason -- and this excludes second-party efforts and third-party collaborations (Metroid: Other M, being worse in every way that matters, would obviously be the runaway winner).

Nay, I talk about games strictly designed from The Big N itself, and this is also a hesitant claim when you consider the general quality imbalance of the Wii/DS era: fellow series entry The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for DS could match the very same claim, and the copy-and-paste composition of Animal Crossing: City Folk remains uncharacteristically lazy nine years later. And yet it's the non-existent impression of Skyward Sword that stings the most: it's a game that recognizes Zelda has grown stale, yet for all its ambition it not only fails to solve any growing pains but go against the very values the series cherished in the first place.

Gameplay-wise, most everything to do with this involves the overworld. See, Skyward Sword  presents a balance between two worlds: The Sky, where Link and the rest of civilization live, and the unexplored Surface. Whereas decent arguments exist for The Sky's purpose as a Hyrule Field-esque hub, I've yet to encounter anything remotely similar for The Surface, with its goal of "the entire world being a dungeon" falling short in its fatal flaw: the emphasis on level-based progression. Every region has a "zone" to clear, with all being centered around puzzles -- be they bombing bridges, rescuing woodland critters and using magic stones to revert time -- all the while dowsing for trinkets and finding your way to the region's specific dungeon.

In other words, the whole game is essentially a take on Twilight Princess's Twilight Realms, which need I remind you were never very popular in the first place. Because everything's designed as a puzzle, traversing the world becomes a tedious process as you'll find yourself repeating the same minor puzzles again and again: you'll swim through that flooded tree again, you'll be navigating those same minecarts again, and you'll have to climb that goddamn Eldin Volcano again and again. We could, of course, simply zip back up to the sky and dive back down again into another spot, but when considering a) the natural progression of the story and b) how obviously tiresome that is, it's not really much of an option. The game embrace the identity of being "dense" with these confined zones, but exploration yields little fun thanks to repetition, and barring perhaps the Lanaryu Desert the puzzles are hardly worth deviating from Zelda's open origins.

When considering how Skyward Swords segues these puzzles into the dungeons, it's a big problem, and it leaves an especially bad impression with the first two spelunkings. Both are entirely cookie-cutter, consisting of one floor each and failing to leave any sort of impression thanks to their brevity. The Earth Temple is an especial shocker, squandering its only solid concept (rolling on a boulder through lava) in largely restricting it to traveling purposes and making even the iconic boulder-chase a complete joke with low-key xylophone music.

From there, things are hit-or-miss: when it's slogging around and emphasizing dull puzzles, you get non-entity duds like Fire Sanctuary (which creates the unfortunate sideffect of two nearly identical-looking fire dungeons). When it actually taps into its imagination and continually ties in a compelling mechanic throughout the overworld (Timeshift Stones), you end up with winners like Lanaryu Mining Facility and the Sandship. It's an uneven balance that gradually wears away that familiar anticipation of a new dungeon, and only the Timeshift Stone dungeons stick out as being particularly successful. (For the former, I suspect since you're constantly venturing into caves/abandoned buildings beforehand -- all of which utilize the same mechanic --  as opposed to the first two dungeons, it's the one area that succeeds as the "overworld that feels like a dungeon" template).

I can't but wonder if this is partly in fault of a weak artstyle. Skyworld Sword's impressionist "painting" aesthetic is a concept that's nearly as eye-grabbing as The Wind Waker's cel-shading, but while it executes a presentation that's more colorful than Twilight Princess (which is good), but it makes numerous failings that prevent it from being especially distinctive (which is bad). This could just be 2011 speaking -- by then, Wii's SD presentation was more woefully outdated than ever -- and yet when considering the deliciously plush Kirby's Return to Dream Land was released just a month prior, I can't think of any other reason why inspired concepts like the Ancient Cistern --  a dungeon take on an ancient Buddhist fable -- don't leave any impression.

This isn't entirely fair to its technical accomplishments --  the draw distance has a neat effect where the background renders colored dots so emblematic of impressionism --  but I'm stricken far more by its technical failures; case in point, what's up with the trees? That screenshot you see above was from the Skyward Sword's initial E3 2010 presentation, and I remain stunned at how representative it is of the final game. If N64 graphical techniques were necessary to maintain the impressionist look, then I'm not sure if it was worth the effort.

This even extends to the character design: while the human characters are generally fine (check out the animated merchants that populate Skyloft's Bazaar), the enemy design -- particularly the bosses -- continually undermine any sense of danger, be they ridiculously simplified to the point of comedy (Tentalus, who could very well be the gargantuan lovechild of Mike and Celia from Monsters Inc.), come across as mid-boss material (Moldarach) or just look really dumb (any and all Bokoblin variations). It's very hard to take most of them seriously regardless of any inspired concepts going on (which, honestly, isn't many: Tentalus is perhaps host to the series' most obvious weakpoint), with only Koloktos and the final boss succeeding in engaging design (the latter less so, if only in that I was so demoralized from everything prior).

The Imprisoned is by far the biggest offender on both an aesthetic/gameplay front, being an  incarnation of evil that is a giant goofy worm who you must slay by slicing his toes and engage in three incredibly repetitive boss fights. On top of all the malfunctioning camera angles, the infuriating stomp-induced shockwaves and that it generally takes forever to kill, it's simply not fun. While defenders have pointed to clever uses of the air draft to take it down quickly, that just further highlights what a waste of time it is, as I really do not want to run around like that three times.

Nor do I care for Skyward Sword's directive as an "origin story". Let it be reminded that with Ocarina of Time being the original "first" game chronologically, there are naturally going to be retcons, and Skyward Sword is in no short supply of those (and while we're mentioning the N64 masterpiece, let us also note the frustration of this being the fourth consecutive 3D Zelda title contextually riding on its coattails). Even with that in mind, it falls into the all-too-common prequel traps of explaining/retconning things we already knew (how the Triforce came to be), introducing things that don't end up having much relevance (mentions of an ancient kingdom) and perhaps even undermining things we already knew (we already knew why Ganondorf became the way he did, and this eternal curse deal arguably trivializes The Wind Waker's poignant monologue).

Much of this can be distilled into one problem: Skyward Sword's story really likes baiting the player, and it is never not the most frustrating thing. I can't fault this direction entirely given the world set-up (Skyloft, the floating island where Link, Zelda and the rest of the humans reside, is the only organized civilization in the world, whereas The Surface is mainly un-colonized wilderness), but this means there's not lot of meat to chew on besides the main plot points; consequently, it ends up feeling unusually thin. Take, for instance, the ancient kingdom we learn about in the opening and eventually excavate within the aforementioned Lanaryu Desert. The introduction of a fourth Goddess immediately grabs our attention, the Timeshift Stones imply this was once an area of much greenery, and the monkey-esque robots reanimating to life present an adorably bittersweet intrigue.

And then...that's it. We don't learn anything about how this technology came to be, or the shift in biomes, or really much about this ancient civilization at all. There are tantalizing hints, yes, but that's all they remain, and that it always happens with the most interesting details is never not frustrating (right down to the sudden namedrop, build-up, and the irrelevant introduction of the "Temple of Time" in the same location. Granted, there is another location that eagle-eyed fans should recognize as being said area, yet not only does that feed into the same problem, that an overhead shot from the ending implies it's supposed to be something else strikes as a shocking oversight)

Even on its merits as a standalone tale it's frustrating, which mainly boils down to its character utilization. Let's put it this way: I enjoy most of the characters at their base level, but care not for how the story ultimately handles them. For instance, Skyward Sword's iteration of Zelda remains the most adorable yet, and the budding romance between her and Link does work and all that, but I care not for how the plot requires her to continually bait the hero. Yes, this is done purposefully, and admittedly it does pay off with a heartfelt scene, but it does not scrub the frustration of just how little context is shared about The Surface, and without substantial sidemeat to chew on it never comes off as anything but barebones (particularly when considering how previous 3D Zeldas laid the major stakes by the second act; here, Zelda literally just goes "take this harp kthx bye").

Meanwhile, the villain Ghirahim is deliciously evil with all his gruesome dramatics, and yet...did anyone else notice he doesn't do much of anything? Yes, he does summon boss monsters to torment poor Link, but it's not until the very end that he succeeds at any of his dastardly deeds, and consequently he just comes across as a bumbling lackey. Compare him to the similarly vain Yuga of 2013's A Link Between Worlds, and I yearn for what could have been.

Only two exceptions exist for this self-set rule, and it's never not fascinating how they lie at entirely opposite ends of this spectrum. On the good end, you have Groose's transition from the local bully to being a genuine, good-natured hero by the tale's end. That he's a constant force throughout the story (and has the best lines) is what makes this work, and also makes me yearn of how this could've been accomplished with the other characters.

On the other end lies Skyward Sword's greatest sin in Fi, who I can confidently claim is one of the worst characters in Nintendo history. A robotic soul dwelling within what will become the Master Sword, Fi's presentation as an analytic servant would be logical for such a character's initiation, but that she stays that way throughout the entire story is nothing but wasted potential. Adding insult to injury is the teeth-gnashing "goodbye" sequence, a scene so lazily rote that it screams of writers forgetting they had to flesh out an actual character until the last minute.

Far, far worse, however, are her infamous analyses, serving the worst case of handholding within the entirety of Zelda. Fans are quick to dismiss these by pointing out "well, Midna did it more in Twilight Princess" or "well, there were those power-up explanations in Link's Awakening," and while these are worth observing, they hardly match how patronizing Fi is in pointing out the obvious. Below are paraphrased examples I collected from my replay:

"Master, I am detecting new enemies ahead even though you can see one standing five feet in front of you. Did you also know you press Z to target an enemy, then Down to call me even though I told you already?"

"Master, I know you just started the game, but I wanted to tell you your Shield Durability is low even though I told you that the last time you played."

"Master, I think this door is important, which you can tell because it needs the Boss Key."

"A report, Master: I can no longer detect Zelda's aura even though she obviously left in a big climatic cutscene just moments ago."

"Master, I can confirm you lost the trial. I am now going to tell you the rules again even though you already know."

"Master, this strange mark appeared when you played the harp. I can confirm it reacted to your performance, which should be obvious to anyone with eyes."

"Master, your new bow's elasticity can propel arrows through the air allowing you to hit targets from afar, which everyone not just familiar with bows but with Zelda games in general should know. Also, I'm going to tell you exactly where to fire it right now."

Common is the Zelda sidekick who points out information you just heard, but none match the aggravating matter-of-fact tone treating the player as a baby, offending both fans and newcomers alike. This isn't even the worst offender, which would be her initiating a godawful chime reminder to change your Wii Remote batteries. Yet another defense arrives that you have to initiate the verbal warning from Fi, but hell no I'm not going to wait out the ten seconds for the sound to go away.

Worse still is how handholding grows beyond Fi, with item description reminders reducing Skyward Sword to a slog every every single time you start up the game, Yes, the game has the decency to not do the same thing with hearts and rupees again, but the Amber Relic you've picked up 40 times before is never spared. After enduring "You got a blue rupee!" five years earlier in Twilight Princess, it's especially tone-deaf.

So can we say anything nice? As mentioned before, there are some things I don't want to entirely bury, although those are mired in themselves. For instance, I can never make up my mind about the motion controls -- Skyward Sword's use of Wii Motion Plus for swordplay certainly made sense, although it can't escape being a product of its time. While it's hardly the only Wii Motion Plus title with the required initiation of setting down the Wii Remote and letting it calibrate every time the game begins, it settles further into "deflating slog" territory thanks to that ritual.

At the same time, it does work for what it is. I'm of the opinion it sets the learning curve a little too high (enemies like Bokoblins rely too much on sudden feints, and the training dummies in Skyloft's dojo don't prep you for that) and the 1:1 movement does render Link's movements a little unnatural, but it's the one of the sole oases of successful experimentation: when it's focused on analyzing holes in enemy postures; it is interesting; when it highlights quick n' dirty exploits (Lizafols and the Jenga-esque Beamos) it feels natural and dare I say thrilling.

Other maneuvers feel more clunky: bomb-bowling takes getting used to, swimming is an exercise I'd rather not partake in again, and playing the harp is akin to torture, but the rest are harmless. If there is any argument hailing Skyward Sword's motion controls as a success, they must begin with the Beetle, a flying gadget that yields countless experimentation, be it grabbing faraway items or chasing down frightened Bokoblins. If only the same could be the same for the other new items: Gust Bellows and Mogma Mitts are just lamer versions of The Minish Cap equipment.

Then there's the music, which... look, I really don't want to slam Skyward Sword's music, what with a) Hajime Wakai and Mahito Yokota leading the way and b) it being the first orchestral Zelda. There are effective MIDI songs, mind -- Skyloft is a particular standout, perfectly channeling that wistful nostalgia of "home sweet home" -- but like both Mario Galaxys before it, the orchestral songs are the runway highlight. While I could cite the stirring boss themes (which, in the cases of problematic boss design, elevate their encounters to the perilous threats they aim to be), The Sky theme is easily the best to my mind: unlike the Comet Observatory and Starship Mario, this hub accompaniment barrels out of the gate as a grand, rousing tune echoing the vast reaches of the sky, gradually evolving via percussion.

 And yet, just like Twilight Princess, I can hardly bear to remember much anything else. At first glance, one may blame Skyward Sword largely restricting its orchestral compositions to the boss fights/cutscenes -- when considering how the Mario Galaxy titles frequently switched between orchestra/MIDI, it's certainly an easy target -- and yet, would that really have salvaged tracks as pedestrian as this? Again, there are effective MIDI songs when considering the ethereal likes of  Bamboo Island and Fi's Theme, and yet even those remain locked in isolated instances -- when it comes to song accompanying the bulk of gameplay, most are far too subdued to leave any lasting impression (the battle theme is representative of this problem: it's literally just tribal percussion, ).

The only exception that comes to mind is the Lanaryu Mining Facility theme, which drives one to insanity no less than five seconds in. I'm not quite sure what that tortuous leading instrument is (a xylophone?), but I'm in no rush to get reacquainted with it; hell, even just finding the link nearly gave me a migraine. Regardless, it too is emblematic of undermining what is a compelling example of game design (the other being Fi's constant interruptions threatening The Sandship's pacing, which is otherwise the game's best dungeon).

Which is why if I must champion any part of Skyward Sword, Skyloft is the only acceptable choice. It is perhaps the most compelling Zelda civilization since Majora's Mask's Clock Town, complete with gut-busting sidequests (namely one involving a very expensive chandelier, which preys upon our destructive gaming habits), easter eggs (ever wanted to spy on an old man in the bath? Here you go.) and an opening tutorial that isn't nearly as painful as Twilight Princess's, remembering to world-build with its skybound concept (Not that it's not annoying: hope you like catching pets and moving boxes).

But Skyloft is an aerial oasis in a sea of mediocrity. As a whole, Skyward Sword is the culmination of frustrating design choices that plagued the series since Twilight Princess -- be it handholding, sluggish padding (swimming for music notes?!?), and un-Zelda level design --  that aggressively reduce any ambitions to the point of feeling not just tone-deaf, not completely at odds with what the series is about, but completely, utterly ordinary. And as a title meant to celebrate the series' 25th anniversary, I can hardly think of anything more disappointing.

Friday, November 17, 2017

On Leave Luck to Heaven's Future, Twitter, and Hey Poor Player

Hello. Given the lack of reviews and whatnot for Leave Luck to Heaven, it's time I shared my upcoming plans for the blog, so you'd better sit down.

While much of the recent drama has come and past, the blog has fallen to the wayside as Hey Poor Player and my real-life job have taken priority. This has induced some heavy guilt upon me, although it's hardly a new feeling: for years now, I've struggled to maintain a consistent output, all the while deadlines were missed and numerous announced projects and plans never came to be. This isn't the first time I've had this discussion, either, so for readers who have been frustrated with my droughts and broken promises, all I can say is that I truly am sorry.

Over the past several months, I've done some deep introspection over my writing habits and came to realize my evolution with writing: you know how waaaay back when I first started, I felt it necessary to write numerous posts just for one game? As Leave Luck to Heaven started out as an experimental platform, I felt that direction was necessary to establish my unique, but I came to recognize a year later that was far too excessive and time-consuming. Since then, my singular reviews have gradually evolved not just beyond syntax and grammatical improvements: reviews are no longer book-sized, and I've since done away with embedding game music via YouTube.

Upon reflecting on all that, I've come to the conclusion that if I truly desire a consistent schedule, then I'll have to make concessions with my key writing habit -- that is to say, review sizes will now be firmly within 1500-2000 word territory. Having spent the past two months trying to get my next Nintendo review out, it's become evident I can no longer sustain this gargantuan model anymore. Hammering this point is how I have way too many games lined up for review, and I cannot afford to write 3000+ word essays for them all.

At the same time, though, I understand it's my wordy prose that's a huge appeal of Leave Luck to Heaven, and so I'd like to reiterate this is not to say extra-meaty reviews are gone for good. I may be willing to stretch to 2500+ words for certain games, but I'll probably only reserve that for games I deem especially worthy of such deep analysis (off the top of my head, only The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and most of the Super Smash Bros. games come to mind). I'd like to also mention that 2000 words won't be a strict limit; if a review just happens to surpass that with 2150 or so, then, well, that happens.

Regardless, a monthly four Nintendo/two Worldly Weekend review model is still my goal, and adjustments are already being made to accommodate this process: games will no longer be subject to 100% completion before reviewing, for instance, so as to quicken the process for review (bear in mind this was only applied for Nintendo games).  Meanwhile, I must also announce Biweekly Music Wednesday! will be going on hiatus until I maintain an acceptable review output. While disappointing, that column has admittedly been interfering with said output, so I'll definitely bring it back once things are steady.

In the meantime, I'd also like to announce my final decision regarding Twitter. After much going back-and-forth on the matter, I've decided to remain on the platform. While not an easy decision, like the rest of social media Twitter is simply far too intertwined with interaction and my profession to simply chuck away, so barring any public statements condoning the racists/bigots on the platform, it looks like I'm here to stay. However, in exchange, I will certainly be active in voicing my displeasure with said bigotry, and I'd like to call upon you to do the same.

Finally, I'd like to announce an exciting development with Hey Poor Player: starting next month, I will be reviewing manga! Those who follow the site have noticed we've covered movies and Netflix shows and the like, and as a huge consumer of manga, I figured that wouldn't be a stranger to the lineup! Having read manga for thirteen years, it's only natural I'd want to discuss my second favorite medium. We're still working out the details, but I'm aiming for two reviews per month, and I'll be beginning with the first volumes for Astra Lost in Space and The Promised Neverland, both fantastic series I've been following on Viz's Shonen Jump subscription. I've already been studying manga reviews, so needless to say, I'm quite excited!

Anyway, that's all I have to share. My next review is finally wrapping up, so I may be seeing you shortly. "Till then!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Cat Quest Review (Hey Poor Player)

What, you didn't think I was gonna play this?!? Hardly one of my longer reviews, but perhaps the short length complements the game?

Anyway, please stay tuned for an important post tomorrow detailing Leave Luck to Heaven's immediate future, as well as my decision regarding Twitter. Also, some fun news regarding Hey Poor Player!

On Mario Odyssey's Photo Mode And Its Expression of Freedom (Hey Poor Player)


A bit late posting this up, but here's something I wrote about Super Mario Odyssey's wondrous Photo Mode? Why did I use such a dreary-looking pic for the header? Only one way to find out!

A game review for Switch will also be up on Hey Poor Player today, so look forward to that, too.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Checking In + Review Updates

Look at me, I'm a mess! I said tomorrow and I ended up posting this four days later. Unfortunately, I had some bad allergies and been lacking stamina, so we'll chalk it up to that and move on.

As far as good news goes, my cousin's wife is now cancer-free and on the road to recovery, although we did have an unexpected bump when we had to put down my dog not even two days before her operation. We've been prepared since he'd been growing deaf all year, but it's not like you can predict a stroke, sadly. I've been going through some drama lately, haven't I?

As far as the blog goes, I'd like to announce that I'll be going back to certain reviews and making grammatical/spelling updates. Most changes (and there won't be many) will be minuscule alterations, although my Sonic the Hedgehog review will include something I can't believe I forgot to mention. This is why review notes are important!

Speaking of reviews, I've been making strides in my review schedules and balancing that with personal game time. I'd rather go into detail in case it falls through (again..), but if it goes well, I may share some insight on the process!

Anyway, I'll be seeing y'all soon.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Fire Emblem Warriors Review (Hey Poor Player)

Woops! I was so distracted by the drama from last week that I forgot to put this up here! In case you didn't know, I think it's been up for nearly a week now, ahaha.

Anyway, I'll be providing a quick update tomorrow, so stay tuned for that.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Regarding This Month's Drought and My Social Media Presence

Hey, all. Things have been quite slow this October, and when also factoring in some recent Twitter comments of mine about leaving the platform, I figure I should clue y'all in on what's going on.

First and foremost, I desperately wish this drought could be explained by it being a really busy work month (although it certainly has been that), but I'm afraid that's not the case. Earlier this month, my cousin's wife was diagnosed with an especially rare form of the paraganglioma, a cancer that's already rare in itself. While we've since approached this situation with optimism -- this isn't the first time a close family member had a brush with cancer -- as I'm extremely close with the family in question, it's naturally still on my mind 24/7, and we won't know the cancer's severity until the operation on Halloween. As two (very) young children are involved, needless to say it's a scary time.

Not to mention...honestly, it's already been an overloaded month as it is. Never mind all the hours of work, I took an insane amount of workload for Hey Poor Player earlier this month (three feature articles in three straight days), and I've been working beyond my limits to raise awareness for the site and match my monthly post quota. Furthermore, my next review...well, I won't spoil it for those waiting, but it's been a long time coming and given the massive size involved, it's been a huge stress factor as well.

In short, things may stay Hey Poor Player-only for a little while until I get my scheduling/life in order. It's a huge bummer personally since I finally set a proper set-up in penning my reviews and whatnot, but the extra workload has prevented me from carrying it out. Regardless, I hope you understand.

There's also the issue of Twitter; for the uninitiated, I have expressed a desire to drop the platform entirely. Over the past year, I have felt immense guilt associating myself with a site that, thanks to piss-poor moderation, has allowed the likes of racists, Neo-Nazis, misogynists and harassers on their platform, and I could no longer in good conscience tolerate their presence. It's immensely useful tool for sharing my work, yes, but would I be any better than those who value ad revenue over their users' safety?

However, a certain...incident threw a monkey wrench in my plans. NeoGAF, a forum I frequented for four years, underwent chaotic anarchy following sexual assault allegations against the owner, and I, like many others, did not wish any more association with the site. The exodus was immensely disheartening for everyone involved, and Twitter was the only reliable tool we had to stay in touch with old friends. In many ways, there was truly nothing like NeoGAF, it being one of the final gaming bastions of progressive ideology and a zero-tolerance policy towards any any of the alt-right rhetoric that's plagued our medium for the past several years.

Thankfully, since then we've made a smooth transition towards spiritual successor ResetEra, and while I personally couldn't be happier with how that's turned out, I'm still a little shaken by what happened. NeoGAF was set to be my one and only social internet connection once I left Twitter, and with that suddenly ripped from the equation, I'd be left with nothing else. Again, ResetEra's shaping up to be a worthy replacement, but that whole incident forced me to reconsider all my internet-related plan, and so that's why I'll be giving Twitter one last shot to redeem itself while being more proactive in calling out the filth plaguing the platform. This may, however, change depending on any further scandals with the service, so please bear that in mind.

Anyway, that's about it. I'll probably be spending the next week sorting this all out. Reset assured, Leave Luck to Heaven has some big plans in the future.

 In the meantime, it's time for me to Do the Odyssey. See ya soon!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Fire Emblem Warriors Beginner's Guide (Hey Poor Player)

This one's already caught up to my Star Fox 2 guide in views: over 700! Looks like you'll be seeing more guides from me in the future!

Only problem is...what would the next suitable game be? Super Mario Odyssey (COMING TOMORROW!!!) should be as accessible as any other Mario game, Skyrim's six years old, and I'm getting Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for Christmas...will I have to wait until Kirby Battle Royale?!?

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Star Fox 2 Review (Hey Poor Player)

This week just about killed me, so I wasn't able to go too in-depth in this review. Perhaps you can view this and The Beginner's Guide as two parts of a whole?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Super Nintendo Classic Review (Hey Poor Player)

Another thousand in a day. I think I'm getting better at this, but as I'm working the next two days, the Star Fox 2 one is gonna be a doozy.

Regardless, two down, one to go.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Star Fox 2 Beginner's Guide (Hey Poor Player)

That's the second time this year I've written an extroadinary amount of words (over 1700!) in one day for a Hey Poor Player article! Seeing as how I'll also be reviewing BOTH the SNES Classic and Star Fox 2 this week...well, it goes without saying Leave Luck to Heaven won't be seeing much action for a while.

By the way, this is the first guide in some time for the site. I was surprised to discover how much attention my Kirby: Planet Robobot guide for GameSkinny received after a year later, so I figured a game everyone's asking questions about would draw similar attention. Did I make the right call?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 54 ~The Great Cave Offensive: Crystal Field and Mystery Paradise~ (Kirby Super Star)

Origin: Kirby Super Star
Plays In: Crystal Field and Mystery Paradise areas of The Great Cave Offensive
Status: Arrangement
Composed by: Jun Ishikawa, Dan Miyakawa

The Super Nintendo Classic Edition is finally coming!!! In just two days, we'll be reliving twenty classics from Nintendo's greatest system, as well as the never-before released Star Fox 2! Has such a package ever blended the nostalgic and the new so perfectly? Needless to say, if you call yourself a Nintendo fan, you know you gotta get one.

But with so many incredible games featured, which one could I possibly play first? Those who know me could rule it down to two titles: EarthBound and Star Fox 2. Both are great guesses, but they aren't what I've decided upon. Humbling as it is to know EarthBound, the greatest game ever made, will be on it (let us have a moment of silence for our Japanese brothers and sisters), I know I probably won't be able to stop playing it and as I wish to play at least a little bit of every game just once, I may save it for last. I suppose that's fitting for the best game ever, yes?

Meanwhile, Star Fox 2 requires the completion of the first level in Star Fox, and while I did play the original to death over the summer in preparation, something about immediately pushing it aside in favor of the shiny unreleased sequel does I mean, I'll probably do that anyway, but I'd rather not start off my SNES Mini experience like that.

With those two out of the equation, the answer is clear: Kirby Super Star. My second favorite SNES title, the Spring Breeze and Dyna Blade sections are just compact enough in serving as a sizable introduction, so it's perfect! Not to mention, I actually haven't played it since Kirby's Dream Collection way back in 2012, so revisiting it after five years should bring quite the nostalgia trip! And, well, we all know how I feel about that game and nostalgia.

(By the way, the traffic for that specific review has been busy for about a year now. Wonder where it's coming from?)

Anyway...starting with Kirby Super Star does hold some great significance for me. For one thing, readers should know how I passionate I am about Nintendo's filters for their Virtual Console releases, and hardly any are as dismal as they are for Kirby Super Star. The emulations for Super Nintendo games are typically lauded for being squeaky-clean, but Kirby's best game was bizarrely slapped with a muted, darkened filter. What was once the system's brightest, most colorful game no longer held that title, and many new players exposed to it on VC and Kirby's Dream Collection were left none the wiser. With how much I prize the game's visuals, it's nothing less than a crying shame.

Now, that won't be the case. No filters exist on the SNES Classic Edition, and so Kirby Super Star will be as pristine as ever. With no barrier in the way, I can now calmly reflect on all the children who'll be exposed to that dreamy nostalgia, that heart-melting hypnosis as I once did.

More than that, though...there's something else I've mentioned once or twice before, and given the surprising lack of awareness around the subject, it's rather difficult to describe. Much as Kirby's Dream Collection captivated me otherwise back then, it was one of the sole oases in a year of suffering. Much of that is personal, but one big reason was the discovery many of the cartridge-based games I'd grown up with were contaminated with graphical glitches no amount of rubbing alcohol could solve. N64 polygons meshed together, pixel effects would distort in EarthBound and Super Mario RPG, and Kirby Super Star unleashed a nasty morphing white box in the corner whenever the beloved puffball would so much as move.

Needless to say, it was heartbreaking to see the childhood friends I thought I'd be with forever fall to the ravages of time, and it was a sobering lesson that nothing lasts forever. This is hardly a "me" thing: other cartridges and systems I've bought exhibited the same problems, and I've spotted identical glitches in YouTube videos, so I know it's only a matter of time before every cartridge of Kirby Super Star exhibits the exact symptoms. This is why I've been such a huge proponent of proper Nintendo emulation: with the gaming medium touching and shaping so many lives, it's vital we pay it back with the preservation it deserves.

And now, that preservation is alive and well on the SNES Classic Edition. Will my unit last forever? Probably not, but it doesn't matter: that its brand of emulation exists at all shows Nintendo is listening, and it'll likely be the standard moving forward. There are other boons for Kirby Super Star on the system -- given the obvious differences between physical and digital, I imagine the infamous clear data glitch won't present (if it wasn't already; I never went back to test that on Dream Collection) -- but knowing the game that defines magic for me will live on as intended for future generations is nothing less than a dream come true.

Final Thoughts: I can't believe the second BWM! installment of Kirby Super Star will end on the same note, but you know how I always keep talking about finding new things in that game? While looking for an embed video for this column, I read that the title screen theme for The Great Cave Offensive is actually an arrangement of Peanut Plain from Dyna Blade! HOW DO YOU KEEP DOING IT, KIRBY SUPER STAR?!?!?

Vaporum Review (Hey Poor Player)

This was a bit of a scary one to write: Vaporum isn't exactly a high-profile release, but it's still an entirely new IP, so it's unknown how the press and public will take to it until the embargo breaks and release occurs. Not that I would ever align my views to the general consensus, of course, but suppose I was the lone voice of dissent in a sea of 8s and 9s? That's certainly a bone-chilling thought.

However, it doesn't seem too many reviews are coming out for the game, and so despite my low score, I can't help but feel a little bad for the's loaded with flaws, but the passion involved certainly deserves at least one look.

I wonder if dungeon crawlers aren't for me? I did enjoy the original Pokemon Mystery Dungeon on Game Boy Advance, so I suppose it's not completely out of the question...

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Kirby: Triple Deluxe

My friends, as you all certainly learned back in 2014, we lost the Angry Kirby war. What you see above is not just the cover for American audiences, but for worldwide consumers; sadly, this includes Kirby's native homeland of Japan. Whether it be HAL's belief that this was the best way to show off the new Hypernova power or them being sick of adjusting the cover nearly every time Kirby leaves his Eastern shores, it proves he's not safe even in his home country. While the above cover is hardly among the worst Angry Kirby offenders -- that it's at least designed from the ground up renders it not nearly as awkward-- what it represents proves it won't be going away anytime soon.

Let it be reminded that Angry Kirby is an aesthetic paradox at odds with the presentation and spirit of Kirby, yet I can't think of any case more true than Kirby: Triple Deluxe,  which is such a downright pleasant game that very nearly reaches the heights of Epic Yarn, Dream Land 3 and Rainbow Curse. This is not an exaggeration; every time we start the game, the main menu greets us with an assortment of blue skies, vines hosting collectible keychains of old Kirby sprites dangling accordingly to the 3DS's gyroscope, and a mandolin-accompanied arrangement of the gentle Save Hut theme from Kirby Super Star. Coaxing us into that warm, heart-gooey nostalgia that traps us into reverie, we're immediately at home.

More than that, though, what comes to mind is the opening cinematic; to be specific, the first half. Here, we witness a day in the life of Kirby within a Kirby Super Star-inspired landscape, be it coasting the sunset seas on a Warpstar, napping under shade after a snack, or simply drifting along the endless skies of Dream Land. It is absolutely, undeniably pleasant; impossible to watch without breaking out into the warmest of smiles (in my case, if only for the fact that these were the very same scenarios I'd imagined Kirby's daily life would be as a young boy).

That should promise nothing but good things, yet how does the actual game fare? Let's get the obvious out of the way in admitting this is, more or less, Kirby's Return to Dream Land squeezed into 3DS software. This is not surprising in the least: the Wii game provided the perfect template to not merely match Kirby's 90's prowess but to perhaps even surpass, and maintaining that quality requires continuing that direction. Triple Deluxe emulates this model to much success, albeit at the risk of familiarity that undercuts its strengths.

Most of the game's Copy Abilities, for instance, return. The 3DS ergonomics serve them well, although they arrive with reduced movesets. This isn't inherently a terrible thing: 3DS limitations were likely the culprit, and it's not like their flexibility was drastically reduced in functionality; Beam Kirby, for instance, can no longer repeatedly Whip in the air, but that has little bearing on its status as an especially well-rounded ability.

Meanwhile, the new Copy Abilities vary in quality. Beetle and Archer feel wonderfully natural and excel in their respective uses: Beetle's aerial prowess and snaring horn provide a compelling alternative to Sword, whereas Archer's animations -- ever wanted to see Kirby crawling about in camouflage? -- perhaps render it the best of his long-range abilities. At the same time, Circus takes an interesting turn in being slightly less intuitive, what with the arcs of the fire hoop jumps and all. Perhaps owed to the unpredictability of its clownish theme, that doesn't make its moves any less fun to watch or unleash, what with burning anti-air batons and exploding balloon animals in the shape of series icons.

The Bell ability is, alas, the one stinker: aside from feeling arbitrarily chosen, the moveset feels as cobbled together as its concept, and its slow range of attacks -- coupled with their general inability to link together cohesively -- don't render it very much fun at all.

Things get a bit more nebulous with with Kirby's Hypernova ability, Triple Deluxe's central feature. At the very least, we can't dismiss it for not making sense! Kirby did, after all, start off not with copying foes but with sucking things up; why not build upon that with a swirling tornado of death? In putting Kirby's deadly suction on the spotlight, we find ourselves at a grimly amusing parallel to the aforementioned sugary sweetness; indeed, trees and trains fall prey to his path of destruction, but we're helpless in watching those poor, poor Waddle Dees hang on in vain for dear life before they disappear into the abyss of Kirby's stomach.

They are hardly alone in the marshmallow's rampage -- I think of the slithering, pulsating giant eels as their slimy brown lengthiness gets slurped up, and boy did that just sound wrong -- but it is terrifying all the same. Once again, it is the series' innate adorableness that prevents it from being a horror title, but man, does it come close to violating that cuteness. More than any other Kirby game, we ask ourselves a question that will never be answered: just where does all that stuff go? Perhaps it's best that remains a mystery, as the real answer may be even more terrifying...
And yet, I can't but feel it's not as engaging as Return to Dream Land's Super Abilities, or even Planet Robobot's later utilization of mechs. Yes, it is fun to watch -- not the least of which is owed to a hysterical showdown climax between Kirby and the final boss -- but it's not as much fun as it is to play. Perish the thought that it is boring -- the game remembers to incorporate mid-boss fights and puzzles and the like alongside it, my favorite involving building a family of snowmen -- but even despite its presentation, it never feels quite as involved or thrilling. Even now, I struggle in pointing out why; perhaps it's that it's -- more less -- repeating the "super awesome ability destroys everything in sight" from Return to Dream Land, as opposed to creating something totally original like Planet Robobot.

Familiarity, then, is the cause, even as we cannot pick a bone with the level design as well. Generally on the same level as the Wii predecessor, Kirby: Triple Deluxe recognizes it cannot merely rely on the Hypernova's flashiness to captivate us, and so it resorts to an obvious solution. Like Super Mario 3D Land before it, Triple Deluxe remembers it is on a console designed around depth perception, and so 3D it shall be. Not 3D in capturing our eyes with screen-protruding effects found in the system's earlier hits of 3D Land and Star Fox 64 3D, but in proving its worth as a game.

The ensuing results in one of the more playful level design within Kirby, with Warp Stars transporting our hero from foreground to foreground, deadly pillars swerving in and out of the background to crush our hero, and 3D Laser Bars and Helmet Cannons decimating distant enemies. Not that Triple Deluxe doesn't take the opportunity to have fun with our eyes -- I think of the mechanical hands pressing poor Kirby against the screen, or the ghastly tricks found in Lollipop Land's haunted mansion -- and even that prove just how much fun the developers had in discovering this new concept. Even the 3DS gyroscope join in on the fun, partaking in puzzles that have you tilting water bowls and aiming missiles. 

Bosses, too, take advantage of this 3D in stunning ways. The game's very first boss in Flowery Woods instantly comes to mind, whose foreground/background switching antics and giant swerving vines render it the series' best variation of the "evil giant tree" fight until maybe Planet Robobot's two years later. Other bosses provide compelling set-pieces -- Triple Deluxe is also host to the best Kracko fight in the series, and a certain callback to Canvas Curse pulls all the stops in 3D trickery -- but that the first boss makes such an impression promises nothing but good things.

So with all these highs, what is there to critique, then? Let us not make the same mistake as IGN and blame it on easy difficulty; as every Kirby fan knows, it's not getting to the ending that's the challenge, but finding and accomplishing everything there is to offer. The game hits all the right notes for Kirby, so it hardly seems fair to cite familiarity to knock down something so cozy.

Regardless, familiarity there is, and I can't help but notice just how much it feels like Return to Dream Land right down to the music. Not that, of course, because it is boring; really, it's just that Hirokazu Ando and Jun Ishikawa bring yet another A-level effort to the series that's only marred by a couple misfires. Naturally, the good stuff is enough to ignore the bad stuff: this Floral Fields theme is too adorable for words, and I can't quite think of anything else in the series that matches the mischievous darkness of Mysterious Trap.

True to the pleasantness I was discussing earlier, the game just excels at that, my favorite being the nostalgically chill keychain theme, which I could probably listen to for hours in-game were it not for a certain mishap I'll detail in a moment. Tilting the World -- the puzzle theme -- is similarily airy, as are the gorgeous callbacks to Kirby Super Star's Peanut Plains or the Helper to Hero rest area (kudos to subtly including the heart-melting Dream Collection music for those who missed it).

Discussing Triple Deluxe's OST cannot possibly exclude the climax, which maybe the very best sequence of endgame music in all of Kirby. Moonlight Capital and Beautiful Prison both accompanying the very last levels with critical, heart-pounding urgency, the reprise of the Masked Dedede theme coupled with the tough and steady Revenge of the Enemy for King Dedede's possession, and the ever-morphing range of themes for the final boss, not the least of which is the series' very first vocal theme in the form of Moonstruck Blossom. Eerie and tragic, it stands as the most memorable of Queen Sectonia's musical assemble despite not concluding her battle, as not since 02's Theme way back in Kirby 64: The Crystal Shard was there a final boss theme this powerful.

Like Return to Dream Land, however, there is the occasional miss: I suspect the ultimate key in deciphering Hypernova's underwhelming-ness lies in its accompanying theme, which is a little too cute and doesn't provide enough oomph. I'm also not fond of how both the menu theme and the chill keychain theme fall prey to one of my gaming pet peeves: "celebrating" the player's completion by replacing the default menu theme with a more upbeat theme (in their respective cases, a direct rip of the "celebration" theme from Return to Dream Land and a guitar version of the Hypernova theme that appears late-game. The latter is interesting in despite my criticism of the original version, the superiority of this arrangement doesn't void the fact it's wildly unfitting for what's supposed to be a reflective segment, and that I would never hear the original song again left me rather salty). 

But let us stop nitpicking, for Triple Deluxe brings an incredibly solid pair of sub-games, with Kirby Fighters being possibly the best in series history. Playing as a miniature Smash Bros. of sorts, Kirbys sporting various Copy Abilities get together and wallop each other in familiar locations, be they King Dedede's boxing ring (as it appeared in Kirby Super Star Ultra) or the birch trees of Dream Land 3, all the while familiar items from Kirby Air Ride and even Kirby's Dream Land join the frenzy.

As you'd expect, it's amazingly fun, and it's all certainly owed to HAL Laboratory being the progenitors of Smash. What they remember is to give Kirby Fighters its own identity: we can certainly trace the usage of movement, items, and chaos to the famous crossover series, yes, but there's none of the blast zones that define Smash's gameplay. Stages are kept insular, with the focus on beating the tar outta each other as opposed to a king-of-the-hill model.

We could cite some of the balancing design in the Copy Abilities' transition, but really, it's how the player-tailored concessions also echoing Smash that render it a winner. The variety in stage design ensures not every battlefield are realms of chaos, as the neutral, three-platform plains of Flower Field offer a nice cool-down from the hammer robots of Kirby 64's factory. Meanwhile, the Ghost Kirby mechanic, which grants players a second chance after being felled, not only recalls the "never forget the beginner" philosophies of Kirby and Smash, but instills hysterical madcap play as Ghost players chase after alive ones to revive themselves. Best of all? They can be turned off, so Kirby Fighters is truly a mode that can be tailor-made for anyone.

Really, it's the first sub-game I recall having this much content, paving the way for Dedede Drum Dash complementing with a lighter experience. A more single-player affair, this rhythm-based drum game is accordingly designed as a challenge, as evidenced by how I've yet to Platinum all the songs. Despite the emphasis on drums, much of the music channels that ever-cuddly Kirby cuteness through recorder arrangements, infuriating us all the more as we stumble into spiky Gordos or fall down a pit. It's little wonder both games eventually received downloadable expansion!

(By the way, anyone else notice Dedede's eyes They're spread a little too far apart, giving him this rather stern look that reminds one of Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show. It's a shame since Triple Deluxe generally nails the fluffy aesthetic of Kirby, but at least he finally gets his own Meta Knightmare-esque mode!)

In summary, Kirby: Triple Deluxe is a game that comes this close to achieving the upper-most echelons of Kirby, yet falls just short in familiarity. Whether or not this was inevitable I can't say: the Return to Dream Land engine may be the perfect model to build upon, but it takes more than 3D hijinks and content-filled sub-games to forge an absolute, individual identity. Difficult as it is to describe, for all its efforts in differentiating itself, it somehow feels a little too comfortable in coasting on Return to Dream Land's success.

But does it matter? Nay, any nitpicks don't rebuff the fact this is an incredibly solid entry, one that's just so damn pleasant to bask in all its sweetness. Sure, maybe the keychain theme shift is upsetting, but what's to stop me from starting another file and collect all but one? It's there, cast under a hypnotic lullaby where  I'm slowly rotating their shapes and slowly swaying them about via gyroscope, that I remember why I play Kirby in the first place.