Category Archives: Opinions

My Top 5 Favorite Sonic Games

I’m an unusual Sonic the Hedgehog fan.  Although really, I guess that means I’m a normal Sonic fan at the same time.  Right around my high school years, I became absolutely hooked on the franchise.  The major appeal for me was the music, but I also love the universe itself.  Sure, it’s been overcomplicated and overhauled too many times over the years, but there’s just something lovable about it.

Sonic games vary in quality so much that two people liking all the same games is extremely rare.  But some things are consistent.  I like Sonic and his cast of friends.  The games’ worlds are always unique.  And the music is almost always spectacular.  In fact, without Crush 40, I probably wouldn’t have discovered my love of 80s metal.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are a lot of Sonic games I don’t like.  But there are a few that made a great impression on me, and I decided to talk about them!

5 – Sonic Rush

Few people seem to remember Sonic Rush for Nintendo DS.  I first picked it up for one reason: the soundtrack.  It’s composed by Hideki Naganuma, my favorite video game composer of all time, responsible for both Jet Set Radio soundtracks.  If you played those games, you could guess that Sonic Rush‘s soundtrack is eclectic, unique, and catchy as hell.

You’d be right.

In other news, the game was developed by Dimps, who make some pretty great 2D Sonic games.  It was also the first to use the boost mechanic, which carried over to most of the series’ major releases afterwards.  Blaze the Cat is a new character to the game — she has the ability to hover and rocket higher into the air.  Otherwise, her formula is pretty much the same as Sonic’s.  This is kind of a failing I guess, since the stage design is only slightly different for the two characters.

Thing is, Sonic Rush is really pretty fun.  For a DS game, its control is more solid than you might expect, and doing tricks on rails and in the air is a blast.   Sometimes the stages feel cheap, since they stretch across two screens by default.  They get pretty vertical, and some levels halt your progress until you defeat a gauntlet of enemies.  This kind of design drives me crazy, but it’s not a deal breaker.

In my humble view, Sonic Rush is the very best handheld game in the series.  Give it a swing.

4 – Sonic Colors

Fun fact, Colors was my first Sonic game ever.  And man, what a great entry point.  Critics complain that it’s not much of a Sonic game, and that’s fair.  The game is more generally about level exploration than speed, but it works as a more typical platformer.

The wisps add an incredible dynamic to the game.  The drill wisp lets you speed through earth and water, the laser wisp provides opportunities for crazy shortcuts, and others like the rocket wisp have levels design around them really well.  They worked so well that they were actually reused in more than one game afterwards, for better or worse.

Colors was a breath of fresh air for a series that many claimed was dead.  It was the debut of Roger Craig Smith as Sonic, and it took a somewhat Guardians of the Galaxy approach to its aesthetic.  It goes from lush vegetation to flashy amusement park at the drop of a hat, and its soundtrack is the perfect complement.  This game was the one that roped me into the franchise, and I can’t recommend it enough.

3 – Sonic Generations

Just when people thought Colors was an exception, Sega decided to go all-out for its 20th anniversary and make Sonic Generations.  Everybody was floored when they decided to compile the most iconic stages from Sonic’s history, and bring back classic Sonic himself to boot.

What we got was a pretty short game, but a great one.  The boost formula is the best it’s ever been, and the classic formula is reworked pretty faithfully.  Stages are beautifully remastered and remixed, with pretty neat minibosses.  It also has awesome features like buffs and custom music (which I love in any game).

The last couple bosses of the game are terrible, and not all of the levels feel like they fit the gameplay.  But I love this game particularly because of how much room there is to blaze through a level.  It even checks your time at every checkpoint.  The levels were built for speedrunning, which I assume is why it gives you so many lives.  I always have a blast playing this game, and to me it’s the standard for Sonic Team.

2 – Sonic Mania

I never dreamed Sonic Mania would be one of my favorite games in the series.  I have so many problems with the classic trilogy of Sonic games that fans seem to love.  Their design always strikes me as outdated, cheap, and contradictory.  But Sonic Mania, their eventual successor, is the classic game I’ve been waiting for.

I could go on and on about Mania.  Actually I already did, you can read it here.  The point is, this game not only optimizes an old formula, it puts that formula in a supremely creative game.  What drives it home is that it was basically made by highly talented fans of the franchise.  Honestly, I think they did the job better than Sonic Team ever could have.

Mania still has some god-awful insta-crush deaths and restrictive lives from the old games.  Also the true final boss is a drudge.  Nevertheless, it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had with a Sonic game on first playthrough.  It’s overflowing with love and care, so for now, it’s one of my favorites.

1 – Sonic Adventure 2

About 5 years ago, Sonic Adventure 2 was ported to seventh generation consoles.  That was when I first played SA2, and five years later, I don’t think it’s objectively very good.  The story and voice acting are awkward, and it only has about one and a half fun gameplay modes.  The speed stages are fun, and the hunting stages are kinda fun.  The mech stages are a drag.  All of the game is inconsistent and glitchy as hell.

I love it anyway.

SA2 just has an overtone that I think really works for the series.  It’s silly and over the top, but strangely moving in a way.  The plot of Shadow and Maria at its core is interesting for Shadow’s character, and a good doomsday picture of what might happen to Sonic if he were to risk it all and fail.  The story is goofy, but endearing somehow.

The gameplay is also some of my favorite in 3D — it’s linear, but well-paced, and it’s picky about rewarding good maneuvers.  Getting an A-rank is difficult, and I appreciate that.  Grinding is also viscerally fun to do, and I’m glad it was carried through the rest of the games.

And the soundtrack.  Never have I seen acid jazz, metal, and hip-hop synergize so well to create such a fantastic soundscape.  I could honestly listen to Pumpkin Hill on loop for a half-hour.  Everything in SA2 just comes together.  In a lot of ways, it’s a mess.  In others, it’s magical.  I prefer to see the magic in it.

Why Pokemon is a Cultural Phenomenon

Pokemon is so huge that it’s become a household name, even among people who have never played the games.  It’s a cultural phenomenon on par with Super Mario, even though far fewer people have played it.

This is in no small part because of the media marketing strategy that the series is known for.  There’s a lot of interesting research out there about its “media triangle,” that is, the games interface with the anime, which interfaces with the real-life trading card game.  Pokemon has boatloads of merchandise, spin-offs, and, yes, rip-offs inspired by it.

Pokemon logo
The logo for the Pokemon series. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

So, the games must all be masterpieces, right?

Well, yes and no.

Before I go on a tirade, I should talk about my experience with Pokemon as a franchise.  I’ve only ever really played one game: Pokemon X, released in 2013.  It was soon after I bought my Nintendo 3DS, and I found it more interesting looking than earlier games.  So I bought it soon after release, and I got into it.

Pokemon X and Y
Pokemon X and Y, the sixth generation of Pokemon games. (Photo: Honou via Flickr)

I really got into it.

Playing X, I suddenly understood all the positive things people have said about the series.  Picking your starter and growing with them through the entire game.  Meeting all the gym leaders and experiencing their different personalities.  Battling rivals and comparing your progress to theirs.  Discovering new Pokemon around every corner.  It was like being a little kid in a world of possibilities, and it reminded me of my days watching the anime and wishing I could be in that world.

In total, I played the game for over 330 hours.  I did everything from the Battle Chateau to legendary battles to shiny hunting (hatched a shiny Honedge, I was real proud).  I bought all the insanely expensive clothing.  Most importantly, I completed the Kalos Pokedex.  Through hours of grinding and trading, I obtained all 718 Pokemon in the game.  I literally “caught ’em all.”

All in all, I had a great time, and I remember the game fondly.  But as strange as it sounds, I hardly remember it as a great game.  I remember it more as a journey, and an experience.  My favorite part of that experience wasn’t battling, instead it was trading.  By the end of my time with it, I’d done dozens of trades and only about three actual battles.  The rest of it was in-game battles, and I was pretty overpowered by the end of the game so I never felt much of a sense of climax.

Now I know that the meat of the gameplay is battling, and boy is there a lot of meat there.  You have to consider type advantages, Choice Scarves, Stealth Rocks, and so on.  It’s so extremely complicated at high levels.  And I can’t deny that it’s intricately crafted, but personally, it’s not what drew me to the game.

Yet, I’m a huge Pokemon fan.  Half of my friends are huge fans of the series.  So what is it specifically about Pokemon that has such a universal draw?

The key lies in the famous slogan of the franchise.  “Gotta catch ’em all.”

My favorite part of Pokemon is not really the gameplay as much as the creatures themselves.  New ones are created with each new generation of games, and although I’ve only ever played the one game, I love seeing the new Pokemon and how their designs reflect the overall aesthetics of the game’s world.  As silly as some of the Pokemon are, each one is unique.  Even Smeargle, who is virtually useless is battle, is so lovable because of its strangeness and personality.  Sure, Pikachu is the iconic mascot, but I’d rather have a plush doll of Smeargle.

Ash and Pikachu from Pokemon
Ash and Pikachu from the long-running Pokemon anime series! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

That’s why I think the anime series is so brilliant as well.  Sure, as a long-time viewer I think it’s kind of lame that Ash is the eternally young main protagonist.  But it does now what it did well back at the turn of the century: it enriches the world of Pokemon.  In a lot of ways, it paints a cooler picture than what we see in the individual games.  All the characters, plotlines, and voice acting are campy and sometimes absurd, but because each episode usually focuses on specific Pokemon, it creates a memory for when the viewer finds them in a game, or on a trading card.

For example, I watched the anime a lot when I was little — most of it was the original Kanto series, but I vaguely remember seeing some of the episodes in the Johto region.  That’s why getting Totodile, Chikorita, and Cyndaquil had special value for me in Pokemon X.  I had memories of seeing them in action about ten years prior, and suddenly they were real again.

Pokemon GO
Pokemon GO was a global media sensation. (Photo: edowoo via Flickr)

This is what I’m talking about when I talk about the genius media presence of Pokemon.  It’s the perfect example of a game franchise that goes beyond games into popular culture.  Pokemon GO is another great example: it played less on being a game than being a cool social trend in the mobile age.  The appeal of each of the hundreds of monsters makes the fandom of Pokemon extremely compelling.  It’s why I still buy Pokemon toys after not playing it for years.  It’s why I hope that, even far into the future, Nintendo keeps finding ways to bring the fun and magic of Pokemon into the hearts of people across the world.

My Six Video Game Commandments

I was disappointed recently by a livestream from the team behind the upcoming Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.  Specifically, it showcased the game’s second currency.  In addition to Mirian, the game’s regular currency, there is also Gold.  Gold is used to purchase war chests and loot boxes for the chance of obtaining legendary items and gear.  So how do you obtain gold?  Through community challenges, reaching milestones in the game, and, of course, by paying real-life money.

That’s right, Shadow of War has micro-transactions.  Everyone’s favorite.

This makes me furious, because I wrote a post specifically on why I was excited for this game.  I can’t remember wanting a game so much in a long time.  Now, I’m not sure I can buy it, because I can’t support these practices.

People have covered this controversy pretty thoroughly already [insert], but Angry Joe’s coverage is what I want to focus on today.  If you watch this, hopefully you don’t mind cursing.

If you’re not familiar with Joe “AngryJoe” Vargas, he’s a video game and film reviewer on YouTube with subscribers in the millions.  His biggest claim to fame is tackling corporate scheming in games.  In an era where scheming is more common than ever, he tries to make sure people get their money’s worth from games.

I’ve always admired Joe for this, and he said something in the above video that intrigued me.  He proposed the idea of creating a list of “Gaming Commandments.”  These commandments would provide guidelines for what’s fair to consumers and creators in games.

Joe hasn’t even created his own list yet, but just for fun, I thought I’d take a crack at it.  I’ve been watching his show for years, and I think I could create a decent list based on his wisdom.  Especially for big budget releases.  These are my six standards of quality that just about every game should adhere to upon release so that consumers get what they deserve.

Commandment 1: New Releases Should Provide At Least 1 to 2.5 Meaningful Hours For Each Dollar Paid

I’m taking a risk by including some kind of concrete ratio of time to money, because not all games fall under one umbrella.  Companies have varying amounts of resources, and some games are meant to deliver shorter, more refined experiences.

What I’ve noticed across the board, however, is that even with games like Shovel KnightSuper Meat Boy, and Mark of the Ninja, I felt like I got my money’s worth.  The games around around 10 to 15 dollars, and were so deep that I got at least 30 hours out of each.

Compare this to some licensed games that expect you to pay 30 or 40 dollars for 10 hours of gameplay at the most.  This is called being cheated out of your money.  If a game is fairly short, it should be challenging, deep, and/or interesting enough to make you play it more than once to get the full experience.

Commandment 2: Consumers Should Not Be Made to Pay For Raw Graphical Quality

This one overlaps with the first commandment a little bit.  Some games justify steep price tags by being graphical and visual knockouts.  Take the 2015 remake of Star Wars Battlefront, for example (this one’s gonna come up a few times).   It’s the most faithful recreation of the original Star Wars trilogy ever to be made in a game engine.

The problem is, there are often balancing and longevity issues surrounding all the eye candy.  If a game’s worth is defined by the explosions in its animated cutscenes or how convincing your character looks holding a gun, then priorities are probably in the wrong order.

Commandment 3: Micro-transactions Should Not Affect Paid Singleplayer Games

This commandment was actually the impetus for the list.  Shadow of War is running into this problem right now.  It’s a singleplayer game with a multiplayer component that interfaces with the singleplayer experience.  That multiplayer component allows players to spend money and accelerate the process of obtaining resources.

And this is after players paid $60 dollars U.S. retail for the game itself.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in the virtue of earning one’s place at the top in paid multiplayer games.  Micro-transactions have been getting in the way of that.  They work better in a free-to-play model, where you can spend money to build yourself up, or invest time to do so.  Paywalls are still a problem, but at least no one is punished for playing the game.

DLC and cosmetic purchases are also fine, as long as they’re priced appropriately.  They enhance an experience without necessarily breaking it, and they allow a game to stay relevant.  For example, Elder Scrolls DLC consistently charges the player an appropriate amount of money for the amount of game they get in return.

Micro-transactions are a whole different ballgame.  In big-budget releases, they are almost always a way of siphoning money from people who just wanted a focused, complete game.  Things get especially bad in games like Assassin’s Creed Unity where the player can go into a menu and buy more treasure chests to open.  It adds artificial value without real substance.  It needs to stop.

Commandment 4: No One Should Pay Full Price for Half a Game

I mentioned a moment ago that DLC is great when it’s reasonably priced.  Guess what happens when it isn’t?  Ask Electronic Arts.

EA has a bad habit of charging people money for perfectly extraneous things.  Like the Call of Duty games they release year after year that only seem to decrease in quality.  But another horror story from Battlefront saw them charge for a DLC Season Pass that was, on average, about the same price as the game itself.  This might have been understandable, except the game at launch was bare bones.

What we ended up with was people paying twice market value over several months to get a reasonably complete but mediocre game.

Other games like Killzone and Destiny have used poor DLC models that left players feeling scammed.  Here are some examples of really good and really bad DLC.

Nintendo got this right with Splatoon in a simple way: don’t make people pay.  The game got free new weapons and maps over a period of about 6 months, and the full game proved worth it.  It also didn’t split the player base into people who did and didn’t purchase the content.

DLC is a double-edged sword.  It’s important to give players valuable content if it’s not included in the game.  Otherwise we’re left nostalgic for the days of cheat codes.

Commandment 5: Paying Money / Pre-Ordering to Tip the Scales in Multiplayer Should Be Off-Limits

This commandment is an offshoot of the third, but I’m specifically talking about player advantage.  Multiplayer games often entice players to spend extra money by offering better gear faster.  This method has some problems, like how randomized rewards lead to wasted money and frustration.

The worst offense, however, is when a game offers a head-start for pre-ordering the game.

Not only does this prioritize 1) people who have money to spend on pre-order copies, and 2) people who are able to get to these copies first, but it asks people to take a leap of faith and assume that the game they’re pre-ordering is going to be good.  That guarantee never exists, especially not before release.  On the surface, pre-ordering seems like a harmless gesture to reward brand loyalty, but it’s now usually pegged as making a deal with the devil.

At the very least, pre-order bonuses or special bundles should involve fun, cosmetic additions.  They should never, ever give players an edge in the game itself.  Don’t be EA, who sells the best pistol in Star Wars Battlefront 2015 for 10 dollars so that people can pay to kill 25 opponents for every death.

Commandment 6: Games Should Refine Their Core Software Functions Before Launching

A big problem in the modern age of games is when companies don’t polish their games enough before release.  I’m not saying all games must be bug-free.  Most open-world games would be impossible to get free of bugs.  But if you have a game on Steam that runs online or on PC hardware, it’s really important that it works.

So many games crash at random times and have to be reset.  Too many connections are dropped in online games.  Splatoon has this problem even now, two years after release.  This is why so many companies have paid subscriptions for online play.  It means better servers and more reliable connections.

Crashing is simply a matter of rigorous testing and making sure the game runs properly.  If this is a recurring problem, it has to be minimized before release, even if it means delaying the game.  I’m sure most people will be happy to wait for a game that doesn’t glitch or crash on them.  Patching helps this process after launch, but too many games have been declared dead on arrival because they don’t work right.

Conclusion

I hope this tirade has been helpful to you readers out there.  It’s a far cry from what I normally write, but I felt the need to write it.  I’ve seen too many games get more money than they deserve by complicating their money-making schemes.  What we, as consumers, end up with is a market full of cutting-edge games that pull wool over our eyes.

Thankfully, there is hope that things will improve.  EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II is ditching a lot of broken mechanics and DLC season passes in favor of more content.  If it turns out good, we’ll know that our voices matter.

Meanwhile, if we’re trying to determine whether a game stands on its own two feet, I think this is a good start.

Star Fox Needs A Real Identity, Here’s Why

Star Fox is one of the biggest tragedies in gaming to me.  I can’t believe a series so charming, original, and out-right cool is so rarely done right.

The series follows ace pilot and anthropomorphic fox, Fox McCloud, leader of the space combat team “Star Fox.”  His friends, Peppy Hare, Falco Lombardi, and Slippy Toad, back him up.  Under the command of General Pepper, they serve as peacekeepers in the Lylat System.  Their enemies include the parallel team of mercenaries Star Wolf, and the evil galactic conqueror Andross.

Star Fox has broken ground since the 90s, but has since fallen from grace.  The games struggle to find a common identity, and that’s what I hope to figure out.

Star Fox 64 Sets the Perfect Tone

It sounds great.

Star Fox 64 is the major example of how to execute the idea behind the series.  The soundtrack is a masterful blend of sci-fi, space opera, and 80s action overtones, similar to what you’d hear in Top Gun.  The N64’s sound chip had distinctive horn and synth channels that complemented the soundtrack perfectly.  The puppet-like 3D models of the N64 look somewhat silly, but they come closest to echoing the game’s artistic influences.

The same thing goes for the voice acting.  Star Fox 64 was the first fully voice-acted Nintendo game, and it contributed massively to the game’s character.  The actors’ delivery is consistently campy, but it became iconic as well.  One-liners like, “Hey Einstein!  I’m on your side!” or “Do a barrel roll!” are so self-aware that they bring the player firmly into the game they’re playing, and make them laugh at the silliness of it all.

Star Fox 64 3D
Star Fox 64 3D art, from the reboot of the N64 version. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)
It looks great.

Shigeru Miyamoto said that one of his biggest influences for creating Star Fox was Thunderbirds, one of his childhood shows.  It was a futuristic kids’ show made entirely with puppets and practical models.  The aesthetic of Star Fox is a play on the usual perception of puppets as the kind of juvenile medium to tell stories about woodland creatures, and also a tribute to the cheesy action serial style of Thunderbirds.  By combining these two styles, Star Fox flips them both on their heads and makes something that surpasses them.

Star Fox 64 also has some great tropes from other media.  If it wasn’t already clear, the series is also similar to Star Wars.  The game has several homages to the films, like the medal ceremony at the end, and the voice of Fox McCloud’s father in his head at the climactic moment that echoes Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi.  Even the way the members of Star Fox communicate with each other reminds me of X-Wing pilots.  The idea of playing with multiple vehicles also seems to reference not only Thunderbirds but things like Gundam and Power Rangers.

It is great.

All style aside, the game also plays remarkable well.  The levels are full of well-placed enemies, and secret hidden paths that lead to tougher challenges.  The fun of Star Fox is learning how to get the full experience.  It reminds me of what I said about Crash Bandicoot: the game makes a lot out a little.

The sense of camaraderie within the Star Fox team is also great.  Your teammates help clear out enemies and give you hints as long as you keep them safe.  They have distinct names, faces, and personalities too, and that makes me feel attached to them as a player.

How Nintendo Did Star Fox Dirty

Nintendo is no stranger to leaving cool and promising series behind for lack of sales, but Star Fox actually suffers something worse.  It’s now Nintendo’s testing ground for gimmicks and fads.

And when I say a testing ground, I unfortunately mean that a lot of the tests fail.  This excellent video by HeavyEyed explains what I mean, but I’ll lay it out myself as well.

In the early days, it wasn’t like this.  The very first Star Fox was essentially the first fully polygonal shooter, and Star Fox 64 was the first ever game with rumble.  This made it the first game to give physical feedback to the player, a revolutionary move.

But then we got Star Fox Adventures.

Adventures Threw Everything Off

Star Fox Adventures is a 3D Legend of Zelda clone that overhauled a Rareware game with a Star Fox skin.  The game was uninspired, poorly designed, and completely abandoned everything that made the other games stand out.  Instead of a ragtag space shooter, we got a game about fighting lizards on a dinosaur planet.

Star Fox Assault art
Star Fox Assault artwork. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

After this divergence we got Star Fox: Assault, which was decidedly a step in the right direction.  The problem is, it sacrificed a lot of its dog-fighting action roots in favor of third person shooter combat.  Maybe not terrible, but certainly a far cry from where the series started.

Star Fox Command went even further down the rabbit hole by heavily integrating turn-based tactics.  Again, this came at the price of good aerial combat.  The game also had a branching story that bordered on fanfiction, which added insult to injury.

Star Fox Zero was a Near Miss

Then, along came Star Fox Zero, and I had my money at the ready.  Everything about the game was promising at first.  Miyamoto talked about how he was planning to create the best example of Wii U GamePad integration on the system.  It brought back the original cast of characters, and the old presentation.  What could go wrong?

Star Fox Zero
Promo art for Star Fox Zero! (Photo: BagoGames)

Well, Zero delivered on a lot of fronts, but missed out on something important: good controls.  The game required its players to split attention between two screens: the TV and the GamePad screen, both of which are essential.  The TV lets the player maneuver, while the GamePad lets them aim properly.  What it feels like is playing two different games at once and failing at both.  This is the same kind of problem I had with The World Ends With You, although that’s one for much later.

To make matters worse, the story and levels are mostly a copy of Star Fox 64 with a little Assault mixed in.  Secret-hunting and multiple paths are there, but less robust.  So playing Zero essentially amounts to playing a worse version of 64.

The Problem and How to Fix It

If you thought Sonic the Hedgehog has trouble trying to create consistent gameplay, Star Fox blows it out of the water.  It’s basically a series with no idea what to do next.  It either experiments with ideas that don’t fit, or lives in the shadow of its one great installment.

What Star Fox needs is to work off of its 64 formula, optimize it, and set it against a completely different backdrop.  Different planets, different levels, different story, and possibly new characters would be ideal.  Going back to basics was a smart move by Nintendo.  The problem is, they never went past the basics.

No Innovation Without Representation

Having a formula doesn’t mean the series can’t try new things.  I wouldn’t ditch the original formula completely, because I think it works.  If it were me, though, I would add in some ground combat sequences myself.

For example, in Star Wars Battlefront II, there’s a Space Assault mode.  The object of the mode is to destroy as many enemy ships and freighters as possible.  One of my favorite things to do is infiltrate an enemy ship and sabotage it on foot from the inside.  This might be an interesting way to give players options for secrets and defeating bosses.  Just as long as it doesn’t make it most of the game the way Assault did.  It might even be interesting to give the player a way to temporarily hijack ships mid-air.

Nintendo has plenty of room to commit to a major Star Fox game without having it be a remake or a re-skin.  I sincerely hope that the mixed reception of most Star Fox games makes them stop bringing the games back.  It’s probably one of the most brilliant concepts they’ve ever had, and no other game has managed to imitate its fun, intense style.

The thing is, Nintendo will never make the series sell if it keeps throwing in gimmicks without refining them properly.

I want to see Star Fox return to its old-fashioned charm and unique gameplay, without sacrificing the wondrous possibilities on the table.  A good Star Fox game makes me feel more like I’m in Star Wars than an actual Star Wars game would.  That’s saying something, and Nintendo shouldn’t waste the opportunity to make it great.  Here’s hoping we get some space fox on the Switch.

YouTube Spotlight: Mark Brown

It’s been a while since I did any kind of creator spotlight, and I feel that it’s high time.  My last spotlight was on the wonderful Arin Hanson, AKA Egoraptor.  Recently I’ve been discovering a lot of new game design channels on YouTube.  So now that I’m finding more to talk about all the time, I figure I’d better start for real.  This week, we’re talking about a huge inspiration for me, Mark Brown.

Mark is the creator of Game Maker’s Toolkit, an instructional series on level design, game mechanics, and generally what makes certain games special.  In particular, he has a series called Boss Keys about dungeon design in The Legend of Zelda series.  He compares this design across installments, and sheds light on each game’s personality.

Mark’s videos are generally around 10-15 minutes long, which is impressive given how beautifully produced and edited they are.  They aren’t comedic, but are far from boring.  I think this is partially because Mark has a way of digging up really interesting bits of information.  For example, he found an instance where Takashi Tezuka referred to Link’s Awakening as like a “parody of Zelda.”

Like a true game design expert, he takes a lot of interest in the mentality and process of making games.  I particularly love this approach, because it focuses on more than just the end product.  What particularly impresses me about Mark is his way of analyzing games without bias.  He never loses his cool, and always provides clear insights.  I often see him start with a direct question, and answer it in full by the end of the video.  If Neil DeGrasse Tyson were to make a series about game design, you would get Mark Brown.

If I had to make a couple recommendations, I’d watch his video on Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, his video on the “little dotted line” in open-world games, and “What Makes Good AI?”  All three are a great showcase of his style and analysis.

Mark’s uploads are quite regular, with a new video showing up roughly 2-3 weeks apart.  And what I really love is that his videos are a mixed bag — every video shows you something completely different than the week before.  One week you see his video on Shovel Knight and nostalgia, and then a video on Deus Ex‘s open world soon after.  This kind of broad variety is something I strive for in my own writing.

If anyone out there is teaching a class on general game design principles, or just finds the topic interesting, Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit is a must.  If you want to support the show, become a patron on the GMTK Patreon.  You can also follow him on Twitter @britishgaming.  Finally, here’s his full list of videos!

My Thoughts on E3 2017

Critics and online personalities have been saying 2017 is shaping up to be the best year for video games in decades.  E3, the biggest event in gaming, had a lot riding on it.  I went in with few expectations.  E3 is often hit-or-miss, and commentators will usually talk about it in terms of who “wins.”

I’ve fallen victim to this mindset in the past couple years, but I don’t really think it’s healthy.  I wrote posts for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo separately.  But I’ve realized that E3 is an expo, not a competition.  Sure, one company or one game might generate more hype than others.  But the real winners are us, the video game community.  We’re the ones who get to play the great games.  So instead of breaking this E3 down by company, I’m just gonna talk about everything I’m excited for!  And there is a lot of exciting stuff happening.

METROID

Let me kick off with the return of Metroid.  I went convinced that Nintendo could rock the E3 boat in two ways: porting Super Smash Bros. to Nintendo Switch, or bringing back Metroid.  Smash is going to wait, but Metroid is back in full force.  And although I’m not a huge series fan, I’m now a believer.  Metroid Prime is now in development for Nintendo Switch, and Metroid: Samus Returns is coming to 3DS on SEPTEMBER 15th.  Now that this series is back, I’m gonna do all I can to support it.

MARIO ODYSSEY and MARIO x RABBIDS: KINGDOM BATTLE

Although Mario games are consistently good, I usually don’t get excited about the franchise.  I was burnt out when Odyssey was announced, and Mario x Rabbids sounded too weird to be real.  Come E3 though, both games really impressed me.  Mario x Rabbids is a fun spin on the XCOM style, and it has the great Grant Kirkhope coming through as composer.

Meanwhile, Mario Odyssey looks expansive, innovative, and fun.  It’s the ultimate Mario playground, and a return to the best 3D Mario formula.   I’m definitely going to give it a play at launch.  All in all, a great showing for the franchise.

YOSHI AND KIRBY IN 2018

Like with Mario, I tend to sleep on the Yoshi and Kirby games, but their planned releases in 2018 are promising.  Kirby on Switch promises to bring back cool franchise mechanics and Yoshi looks clever as ever.  Now I just hope for a revival of Kirby’s Air Ride.

POKEMON

We didn’t see much from the Pokemon Company at E3, but what was announced is the development of a main-series Pokemon game for Nintendo Switch.  This is a huge development.  We got no further details, but Pokemon for Switch is a win in itself.

I also rally enjoyed watching the Pokken Tournament DX Invitational.  I know virtually everyone hates Pokken, but I have something of an affection for it.  I’ll probably be picking it up on Switch.

SPIDER-MAN by INSOMNIAC

I’ve always been a massive fan of Spider-Man games.  I played both PS1 games, all three Sam Raimi movie games, and spinoffs like Friend or Foe and Ultimate Spider-Man.  With the recent movie reboot, we got a couple of incredibly lazy games along with them.  Thankfully, at E3 2017, Insomniac Games showed off their new palate-cleansing Spider-Man game.

This game looks incredible.  Despite my distaste for quick-time events, it includes them gracefully and cinematically.  Combat looks complex and engaging.  The world of Manhattan looks vast and varied.  Most of all, navigating the world by swinging looks like an homage to Spider-Man 2 on PS2, the best of the bunch.  I can’t wait for this game to come out.

STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II

The first Star Wars Battlefront by DICE and published by EA was one of my worst disappointments.  Battlefront was one of my favorite games as a kid, and I always wanted a revival.  Sadly, although the revival was aesthetically beautiful, it turned out to be a bore.  And a money scam.

BUT, if the new sequel turns out like it looks so far, it will be a huge turnaround.  It has a story mode, an improved class system, more heroes, and generally more content.  Furthermore, DLC will be free so as not to divide the player base.  This game has my attention, so hopefully it doesn’t disappoint.

MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF WAR

This sequel to Shadow of Mordor has actually been around for a few months, but I’ve been on the hype train since the beginning.  I wrote a post about this hype train a few weeks ago.  For E3, we’re getting new story content, new characters, and a look at some of the new mechanics.

Combat looks more intense and brutal.  Cinematic scenarios and conquest missions are coming through in full force.  And the plotline of Talion is coming to a head as he confronts the Dark Lord Sauron.  I honestly can’t remember wanting a game this much.

MISCELLANEOUS COOL STUFF

There was a lot of other stuff at E3 that looked neat to me, so I want to mention it.  Fire Emblem Warriors is an idea I had years ago, and to see it in action is thrilling.  I like that it has character switch and strategic mechanics.  Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a big point of love for me, and what I saw at E3 looks like a beautiful successor to the first game.

Days Gone looks like it’ll be the most interesting zombie game since The Last of Us.  Uncharted: Lost Legacy will be an interesting game, especially thanks to its two female main characters.  God of War is finally on deck, and it looks much less over-the-top than its predecessors, which I enjoy.  Bethesda’s VR shenanigans, like Fallout 4 in full VR, looks like an exciting step forward.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus seems like a ridiculous, Nazi-killing extravaganza and I can’t wait.  Anthem looks like a fun, huge multiplayer experience that will hopefully deliver. The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti, Super Lucky’s Tale, and Cuphead are bringing back fun, quirky platforming adventures.  Assassin’s Creed: Origins actually has me really pumped because I’m a fan of the franchise and I like the new mechanics.  Although I’ve sadly never played the first game, Ori and the Will of the Wisps looks like a great sequel and it’s stunning in 4K.  Sonic Forces didn’t get a lot of new info, but we saw a team-up of four legendary villains, which should be cool.  Lastly, Crackdown 3, The Darwin Experiment, Dragon Ball Fighter Z are games I know nothing about, but they look sick.

So that’s where I stand on E3 2017.  Reactions are all over the map, but I’m honestly coming away from it feeling excited.  A major plus is the fact that most of these games are coming out this year, so 2017 should be a great year for games after all.

What I’d Like to See in Smash Bros. for Switch

Boy, it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to talk about Smash Bros.  It’s just like coming home again.

The last patch to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U / 3DS was released about two years ago now.  Since then, there’s been no new developments to the series.  But with E3 2017 approaching rapidly, the rumor mill has been grinding out speculation about a port of Smash 4 to the Nintendo Switch.

I’d actually say this rumor is pretty likely.  Ignoring the supposed “leaks,” I think it would be a shrewd decision by Nintendo to port Smash Bros. to Switch.  Mario Kart 8 DX was a huge success, after all.  It might even be a way for them to address complaints that fans had about the original game before development ceased.

Now here we have a prime environment for people to sound off on what they think a possible port will or should have as an expansion.  I’m enjoying seeing people’s ideas so I’m going to put in my two cents.  Not all of these ideas are realistic, but I want to talk about them as a Smash fan.

FIRST, I’ll start with little things.  These are small, easy changes that I would like to see.  For example, I’d like to be able to toggle hazards on and off.  This would make stages like Lylat Cruise competitively viable and would provide more options for people who want a fair fight.  Hazards can be fun, but having them turned off would be nice and would add a lot of variety.

I also think some balancing tweaks are necessary.  I’m sure this is a tired message by now, but Bayonetta needs to be toned down in strength.  We’ve seen Bayonetta banned from certain tournaments because of her overwhelming array of tools.  Fixing this issue would help appease players.

Adding in more music would also be ideal, and this isn’t particularly hard to do.  In modding, I’ve added in tons of tracks by injecting .nus3bank files.  If I had to make an unrealistic music request, though, I’d like a revamped music system.  I’d like to see a pool of music tracks that you can add to any stage.  I wanna be able to play the Delfino Plaza theme on Smashville, for example.  I’m big on custom music in games, so this is a personal want.

MOVING ON, I want to talk about more complicated but still realistic changes.  If there were a port, I would expect 3DS stages remastered in HD.  We might even see a couple new stages as well.  I certainly think we might see Smash Run from 3DS brought into HD alongside Smash Tour.

New characters are a possibility.  If we get any, it will be very few.  One or two maybe.  Creating new characters with full movesets is a big task, but it would also pay big dividends for Nintendo.  Only time will tell.  But since I’m here, I’ll pick a pool of ideal characters.  I’d like to see Spring Man/Ribbon Girl from Arms, Inklings from Splatoon, or Simon Belmont from Castlevania.  Also, you might remember an article I wrote in my awkward phase about why Shovel Knight might get into Smash.  So he’s at the top of my list by default.

What I think would be more doable is additional character skin packs as DLC.  For example, Nintendo could take the Injustice route and add new character skins to characters with established movesets, but with different voice packs.  For example, Shadow over Sonic or Young Link over Toon Link.  This might be a fun way to represent more characters.

Lastly, for my competitive Smash fans, I hope the game comes along with some kind of controller adapter so that people can use GameCube controllers or whatever controller they prefer.

The Wii U and 3DS versions of Smash Bros. sitting next to a GameCube Controller.
(Photo: FaruSantos via Flickr)

FINALLY, we get to the fun part.  Time for my completely unrealistic asks.  If any of these were to happen, they would likely be the only additions to the port.  First, any kind of narrative-driven Adventure Mode comparable to Subspace Emissary from Brawl.  That would be incredible.  Considering the caliber of character trailers we’ve seen and all the awesome newcomers, this would be a system seller for sure.  The problem is, Subspace Emissary was such a huge task that it was like developing a game within a game.  Anything of that magnitude might kill Sakurai.  Still, I’d love it as a fan.

Something else that will never happen is, if Nintendo wants to please everyone at once, they could incorporate some kind of mod support. So that fans can make whatever changes they want to Smash.  As I said, Nintendo likes to keep this kind of thing in their own hands so this is just a dream.

At this point I should reiterate that this rumor is still just that: a rumor.  A port of Smash Bros. might not happen soon, or at all.  But my favorite part about the Smash community is speculation.  It’s been a year or two since I’ve had that, and with so many possibilities on the horizon for Nintendo, that fun community aspect is coming back.  So we’ll see what happens.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get to switch into HD Smash in the near future.

Why I’m Hyped for Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

Not too long ago, Monolith announced a sequel I’ve been waiting a long time for.  A few years back they made Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.  It’s an open-world adventure game that takes place in the Lord of the Rings universe.  It tells the story of Talion, a ranger of Gondor who guards Mordor.  After the death of his family, he swears revenge against the Evil One who caused their deaths.

After becoming fused with Celebrimbor, the craftsman of the One Ring, Talion becomes part man, part ghost, his sole purpose in life to wage war on Sauron.  Shadow of Mordor saw the player take him on a journey to destabilize and take control of Sauron’s army.

Talion possessing a Caragor
Talion possessing a Caragor in Shadow of Mordor. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

I was a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings movie games as a kid, and Shadow of Mordor proved to be an incredible series return to gaming.  It was smooth, challenging, and had collectibles galore.  As I played through the game further, I grew measurably stronger thanks to the deep progression system.  The game pitted me against an army of thousands, but my wits and skills made me a one-man army.  This kind of power was something I never felt in similar games like Assassin’s Creed.  It’s exactly the kind of feeling I always wanted from a Lord of the Rings game.

Talion on the plains of Mordor
Talion on the plains of Mordor. (Photo: Stefans02 via Flickr)

The mechanic in Shadow of Mordor that caught everyone’s eye was its Nemesis system.  When fighting through Sauron’s army, there was a clear hierarchy of orc commanders.  If one commander fell, another took his place, a new one with a unique set of skills.  As orcs in higher ranks died, those in the lower ranks climbed to take their place.  Some would even return after dying, battle-scarred, and remember Talion.

In this way, Shadow of Mordor created a system of player-generated narratives.  As one particular orc became stronger, killing him became all the more satisfying.  Same went for orcs who kept coming back from the dead.  No two players ever played Shadow of Mordor the same way.  You might wonder, is it possible to improve on this system?

Somehow, Monolith has found a way.  For the game’s sequel, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Monolith is doubling down on the Nemesis system.  The narrative aspect is even stronger, as in a set scenario, enemies can come back from death or the player can nearly die, only to have his commanders intervene and save the day.  The player therefore forms personal relationships not only with enemies, but with allies.

Orc generals also have a lot more character, with personalized forts for the player to attack.  Whereas Shadow of Mordor was a contained, Assassin’s Creed style of experience, Shadow of War scales the conflict up to include lots more territory.  Talion is much more powerful, but he faces a larger threat to compensate.  This will mean more strategy, more interesting battle scenarios, and all-out war.

A rainy overlook in the cliffs of Mordor
A rainy overlook in the cliffs of Mordor. (Photo: Stefans02 via Flickr)

I can’t say for sure if Shadow of War will deliver on the initial wave of hype.  I feel pretty sure that it’ll land near the top, even if it doesn’t hit its target.  If it does hit the target, though, it will be my dream as a Lord of the Rings fan.  It will be the experience of making war on Sauron himself, and an incredible merging of action and strategy games.  Monolith hit it out of the park with Shadow of Mordor, and with Shadow of War coming out in August, I’m more excited than ever.

Movies, Video Games, and Bridging Different Media

Video games have a sad-but-true record of mixing terribly with the movies.  Even those that manage to be entertaining are objectively pretty bad.  There’s a lot of people who want to see their favorite games treated with the cinematic majesty of film.  So far, there isn’t much hope.

EA has recently announced that wants to give Call of Duty not only its own movie, but its own cinematic universe.  This made my blood boil a little bit.  Admittedly I hate CoD, so that’s a big part of it.  But more importantly, this is a perfect example of why video game movies shoot themselves in the foot before they have a chance.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one to cover this topic.  The Game Theorists (whom I love dearly) made a video a while back that does a great job laying out the obstacles that game spinoff movies face.

TL;DR, one of the big faults of video game movies has to do with active involvement vs. passive involvement.  Cutting out the in-between experiences that normally rope the player in makes a normally engrossing story feel tame.  Admittedly, though, I have seen good examples of game universes making the leap to TV and film.  One such example, ironically, is the TV show Sonic Boom.  I say ironically because critics and fans severely panned the actual games that tied in with the show.  But that didn’t stop OuiDo! Productions from making a good show.  I’ll lay out the number of smart things this show does, but I can summarize the bulk of this manifesto in one word: caring.

Let me explain in the context of Sonic Boom – what I see is a combination of knowing source material and applying proper standards for the medium.  OuiDo! was tasked with making a cartoon based on modern Sonic games, and so they did what you’d reasonably expect – they emulated the relationships between their main characters as demonstrated in the games.

They then used these relationships to create smart and entertaining scenarios.  Every joke in this show feels well thought out.  I never felt like the writers phoned it in.  The dialogue isn’t just funny, it also makes sense considering existing content.  It’s full of instances of “oh, of course Sonic would say this,” or “of course Amy would do that,” without being blatantly predictable.  Basically, it’s a decent cartoon regardless of association, but it’s great for those who are fans of the series already.

Sonic Boom
Poster for the Sonic Boom TV show! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

This rule applies to just about any medium outside of games.  Respect for the source material is just as important in adapting games as adapting anything.  But then the issue arises of the transition specifically from games, an interactive medium, to passive media like movies.  In a way, games are a hard experience to compete with.  Even narrative-driven games are different from movies, because they lack the immersive quality of games.  But that’s not to say a video game movie can’t have value — it just needs to strike a critical balance.

On one hand, it’s important to remain true to any given series, and give loyal fans something familiar.  On the other, though there has to be a certain level of separation between, say, game and film.  A retreading of what the game has already done is going to bore fans and leave potential fans uninterested.  They might as well play the game instead.  One of the worst offenders is the new Ratchet & Clank tie-in movie.  Not only does it pull cutscenes directly from the remake, it fails to level up from cutscene writing to animated movie writing.  Again, money was the whole motivation for the project, and no caring went into it.  That’s a shame considering the fact that Ratchet & Clank has huge potential as an animated movie.

Although this statement may draw some criticism, I thought the 2006 movie Final Fantasy: Advent Children did this fairly well.  Sure, it’s a silly movie.   But its different art style and story compared to the source sets it apart, even as it maintains the personalities and narrative throughline of the original game.  It even treats the viewer to fluid action scenes that the game was missing.  After watching that movie, the game honestly became more appealing to me.

Final Fantasy Advent Children promotional art
Final Fantasy Advent Children promotional art. (Photo: p50310p via Flickr)

 

Plenty of video game movies might be great with just a dose of creative professionalism.  But another major component of this process, I think, is to consult the fans constantly.  Take things like art, details, concepts, even teaser trailers and put them out there to see what people think.  Generally, fans will know when a movie has strayed too far from the game they love, and even people who aren’t fans can probably pick up on the difference.  If nothing else, involving the fans will build brand loyalty, and it will likely result in a better movie.

Ultimately, I think even though making a movie or show out of a game is tough, it’s far from impossible.  In fact, as game narratives have evolved, I think movies and games overlap much better than they did even just a few years ago.  It’s all a matter of caring.  Of all the failed attempts at making visual entertainment out of video games, I get the sense that few of them really try.  In fact, some made them specifically as part of scams.  Making a full cinematic universe out of Call of Duty is not the way to do it.  Instead, companies should treat their movies as professional projects, and look to their loyal fans for input.  If done right, this can make the series stronger than ever before.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild Thoughts

I’m way late to the party for “early impressions” on Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  This bugs me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been excited to talk about this game for a long time.  Of course, it had to come out when my college midterms were in full force.  And then I came down with a fever.

Nevertheless, life…uh…finds a way.  I’ve played this game for quite a few hours now.  Breath of the Wild is like a game from the 1980s but still chock-full of modern design aspects.  So far the story has very little bearing on the experience, but that’s not to say it’s a bad story.  The voice acting is top-notch, and I like the fact that it’s an extension of another story.  You start knowing that you were once a great hero.   Starting from the literal bottom of the food chain feels more interesting that way.

That’s something I love and hate about this game — when I say you start at the bottom of the food chain, I really mean it.  You start with no clothes and a tree branch as your only weapon.  Granted, this changes pretty fast as you start completing shrines to gain Sheikah slate abilities and gathering materials to use and sell.  It doesn’t change the fact that you’re constantly working with very limited resources.  BotW is as much a survival game as an adventure game.  Every fight is more than a challenge, it’s an investment of resources.  You almost always come away breaking some weapons and losing some health, which means you have to eat some food to recover.  Everything from the Hylian Shield to the Master Sword can break in a fight (although they either regenerate or can be re-bought)

Enemy encounters are extremely stressful, until you obtain mostly indestructible items (which I personally haven’t yet).  Exploration, on the other hand, is an absolute joy.  You can climb anything given you find the right ledges and use jumps properly.  Then using the paraglider, you can convert huge vertical distance into huge horizontal distance.  Granted, you don’t want to go venturing into the furthest territories of Hyrule too early in the game.  Otherwise you’ll get destroyed, same as in the very first Legend of Zelda.

The cooking system is fantastically detailed and useful, although I should mention that the only way to combine ingredients to cook meals and elixirs is using a cooking pot, which can only be found in towns and certain encampments.  As I said, these are the only way to restore health.  You have to take advantage of the time when you’re able to use a pot.

This is just another of many extreme changes to the Zelda formula that Breath of the Wild creates.  Overall, do I like these changes?  I’m not sure.  Some are incredible — the amount of mobility you have in this gorgeous world is masterful.  But the fact that there’s so little you can rely on is a blessing and a curse.  A lot of times you’ll curse the game for being unfair.  The next minute, you’ll value the fact that you worked hard for your success.  Zelda has now shown that it doesn’t have to be the kind of game that delivers you an experience, and that’s important after Skyward Sword.  Then I go back and play a focused game like Twilight Princess.  And I kind of find myself missing that style.

My feelings on this game will probably change as I get further into it.  I will acknowledge that Breath of the Wild is masterful, just as the  reviewers are saying.  But it’s going to have to do even better to be my favorite Zelda.