Category Archives: Reviews

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp REVIEW

Mobile games annoy me constantly.  I’ve been burned by them repeatedly, particularly by the way they create a ceiling for their players that can only be broken with constant attention or with real money.  I shouldn’t be so put off by this, because they are generally available for free download.  The consistent problem is that without spending money, progression in most mobile games requires so much time and repetition that they cease to be enjoyable.

Nintendo is particularly fair about its design and business practices, but I was nevertheless worried about Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.  Fire Emblem Heroes was a great game, but it eventually got too big for its britches in by opinion.  The meta game grew so expansive and leveling so time-consuming that I couldn’t stick with it.  That’s the danger of creating a mobile game, and it’s a slippery slope to walk on.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came out in late November, and having spent more than 300 hours in New Leaf I knew I had to try it out.

Nintendo has executed the mobile formula more elegantly than ever with Pocket Camp.  The secret is that they chose the perfect gameplay style in Animal Crossing.   I wrote once before about how the games’ strength is escapism, and somehow they managed to preserve that in mobile.

Pocket Camp is new, and designed for smartphones, so I expected the experience to be streamlined.  Thankfully, it’s streamlined without removing the most pleasant moments.  As a campsite manager, the player’s minute-to-minute tasks include crafting new furniture for the campsite, exploring small areas around the campsite to gather fruit, fish, bugs, and other items, and talk to other campers.  These campers will give you advice and make requests in exchange for giving you resources or Bells.  You can also invite them back to your campsite, and they’ll visit once you decorate with certain items of furniture.

Befriending other villagers will contribute to your overall level.  Level increases let you craft new items of furniture or amenities for your campsite.  You can also increase your friendship level with each villager.  Eventually they will also give you specific rewards like clothing or pictures after you spend a long time interacting with them.  New villagers will show up all the time with new requests.  Meeting up with them and socializing doesn’t just level you up, it also makes room for new regulars around your campsite.  This entire system feels like a huge step forward for the series.  You could argue that having “levels” in Animal Crossing is counter to the point of these games, but having trackable gains in your relationship with each villager is strangely rewarding.

The crafting and material system is also gracefully done.  I like the fact that you don’t have to play the waiting game to get furniture for your house.  There is still a marketplace where you can purchase furniture with Bells alone, but being able to make it yourself is quicker and more enjoyable.  Some of it takes hours or even days to build, but the beauty of Animal Crossing is that you’re probably only going to play it for about an hour each day regardless, so waiting doesn’t feel like a big deal.  It’s completely different from other mobile games like Pokemon Shuffle with point systems that force you to wait a certain amount of time before you can play anymore.  When your items are ready to place, the game also makes it easy to arrange furniture.  It uses a drag-and-drop grid system from Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer that’s quick and easy to use, another great evolution for the series.

In my experience so far, the game is paced in a way that makes it feel just like normal Animal Crossing.  Microtransactions also play a reasonable role.  The player can purchase Leaf Tickets to accelerate crafting, buy crafting spaces, or buy access to Shovelstrike Quarry, where the player can go mining for rare jewelry to sell.  But Leaf Tickets aren’t necessary.  Time, patience, and playing  the game to its fullest can give the player a satisfying experience.  Leaf Tickets are more like a cosmetic plus, an accelerant.  There’s no such thing as “having an edge” in Animal Crossing, so paying to win isn’t an issue.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a great mobile game so far.  I think Nintendo may have found its perfect franchise for mobile.  It may prove too much of a battery hog, or it could create an artificial paywall given the time, but I think it’s a fundamentally good game.  It cuts out a lot of the fluff and restraints that I’ve run into with every other mobile game.  I recommend everybody check it out for now on iOS and Android.

Sonic Forces is 3D Sonic Done Weird

I got my hands on Sonic Forces a couple of days ago, and it was pretty eye-opening.  The excitement for this game had built up for a year before giving way to terror, as the game hadn’t seemed to progress beyond what we’d seen an entire year before release.  It released to average reviews, but I thought it looked pretty fun, and I was determined to keep thinking that until I’d at least played it.

I was desperate for Sonic Forces to be good, but for everything I like, it just can’t let me think of it that way.

Every time I see something in Forces i just enjoy, the game takes at least two steps back with the horrific flaws in its gameplay, its blatant lack of polish, lack of ingenuity in stage design, and abundance of pointless deaths.  So let’s break it down like a fraction.

The camera in this game is so zoomed out all the time that sometimes I couldn’t see where I was on-screen.  This is opposite to the problem I had with the original trilogy of Sonic games, but it’s still really rough not knowing where I am spatially.  The modern stages are the closest I’ve seen any Sonic game come to “hold boost to win.” In fact, you could beat the demo with one button, and the rest of the game is not as far off from that as you might hope.  Enemy placements are useless about 70% of the time because most of them are put there to be boosted through.  Even the best modern Sonic levels in the game consisted mostly of timing a series of 5-10 homing attacks or a few rail jumps precisely in 3D.  It also had 2.5D precise platforming sections, which I didn’t mind in other games, but they’re a nightmare in Forces because of its awful momentum.

The player’s momentum causes them to continually speed up when they don’t expect to.  You might be going for a running start for a jump, but then go 0 to 60 and lose all mid-air control.  This will usually result in death, frustration, or being stuck on a worse path through the level that somehow manages to be more boring than the stage already was.

Sonic Forces is a walking identity crisis.  It blends a bunch of Sonic’s mechanics from the past 10 years or so, without giving them much of a proper home in terms of level design.  Modern Sonic himself is meant to be somewhere between Colors and Unleashed in terms of control, but his boost feels less satisfying.  His double jump, which was great for air control in Colors, fails in Forces because of its unrefined momentum.  Boosting is now also tied to Wisp capsules from Colors, which return once again for no reason in greater numbers than ever before.  This hampered my sense of urgency, since most of the time these capsules were placed specifically where I needed to boost.  I always feel the need to go forward as fast as possible in modern stages, but the placement of red rings requires you to explore levels like in Colors, and so the game gives mixed messages.

The Avatar stages are similar, but I do enjoy those for the way they’re laid out.  Using different weapons unlocked through the game gives you access to different Wisps.  These Wisps give you access to different areas or shortcuts in each level, encouraging you to go back and experiment with different routes.  This could be a great feature, although sometimes these different paths overlapped in confusing ways, and it’s not always easy to tell which Wisps you’re allowed to use.  The Avatar’s weapons are often jittery, unsatisfying, and sometimes downright confusing (like the drill), and the inclusion of Wisps sometimes annoys me because the Wisps used to be very situational, but now work in such short bursts that I find myself having to constantly re-grab capsules to get the necessary items.  Avatars also have different abilities depending on speed.  For example, birds can double jump to get more height or distance.  But the same problems arise because Sonic Forces doesn’t give you adequate mid-air control or momentum.  Things like the double jump end up getting you killed or damaged about half the time.  Not to mention the fact that Avatar stages feel so linear and scripted that the game practically plays itself in places.

Speaking of the game playing itself, the classic Sonic levels in this game are some of the most unnecessary and poorly implemented stages I’ve seen since Big the Cat.  Forces ties in explicitly with Mania because they have the same maguffin, so Sonic Team decided to bring the little guy back for a second outing.  Despite being teased from day one, these levels feel like an afterthought.  Whenever classic stages try to be inventive, something about the physics or control hamper them once again to make them feel like a chore.  In the level Iron Fortress, I took over 10 minutes and a number of deaths because of a screen-scrolling segment that required defeating enemies on very small platforms using half-baked platforming physics, as well as hopping between giant spinning wheels that will literally drop you off the stage to your death if the invisible wall catches up.  This pattern of unnecessary frustration due to broken mechanics is common in the few classic Sonic stages, and I didn’t enjoy a single one, with the possible exception of Chemical Plant.

The sound design in Sonic Forces is odd and somewhat disappointing.  In some places the music is catchy and great, but in others like Classic Sonic’s, the music feels generic and low-effort, which doesn’t do much to cover up the gameplay.  And it’s sad, because soundtrack is something Sonic has always done well.  Sound effects don’t feel as punchy either.  I found myself really missing the satisfying thunderclap of Sonic’s boost.

I don’t really even want to mention the game’s story because it’s so blatantly stupid and the dialogue so insultingly bad that it clearly took no priority.  The only thing I will really criticize is the fact that with all these old characters brought back, and with all of the mission-oriented narratives behind the stages, and with all the cinematic QTEs (which totally need to be there), it would’ve been cool if the characters interacted with the stages.  For example, I would’ve liked a Sonic level where Silver was defeating enemies in the background the whole time, and then helped me get through a normally impassable part of the level.  This would’ve been a creative move.

All this being said, I actually didn’t hate playing Forces that much.

The better stages feel fun to go back and earn S-ranks on, and the game’s mission system gives you tons of new gear to customize your avatar.  While I admit most of it is really ridiculous, some of the equipment is pretty cool and I genuinely had fun decking out my “OC” with the new stuff I got.  The game gets a little better with replays, and some alternate paths make the levels feel deeper and more variable.  A few bosses also stood out as having decent design.  For example, I like some of the fights against Infinite because getting hit by his illusions puts you in a more dangerous situation temporarily, creating a nice push-and-pull.

The game is also drop-dead gorgeous, but this might be a potential short-fall itself.  Despite being the same length as GenerationsForces feels like half a game to me.

If I had to suggest some ways to fix Forces, I’d say its biggest downfall was ambition.  Instead of having 30 short, low-effort stages to accommodate Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, AND the player avatar, I would rather have seen a few longer stages with more focus given on one or two playstyles instead of having three.  It was like they introduced multiple playstyles to generate hype, but forgot to deliver on satisfying gameplay in the long run.

Developing ports for Xbox, PS4, Switch, and PC was also a huge ask.  I realize Sonic Team was put between a rock and hard place with the finicky fanbase, but anyone can distinguish between a polished game and an unpolished one, and I think a polished one would’ve fared better.  I think Sonic Team’s method of making modern games has is beginning to fail them.  Its standard of creating huge, detailed 3D backgrounds leads to some really beautiful stages, but gives way to linear gameplay that’s over in 2 minutes.  All that work is wasted on visuals that impress the player for a fleeting moment.

Sega needs to do something, somehow, to make sure that Sonic delivers on the meat of the gameplay.  If you’re going to give the player visual spectacle, it has to be worth it for the gameplay.  This is why Mania is one of the most highly-praised Sonic games of all time.  Granted, it worked with much, much simpler assets, but its simplistic formula gave it room to explore dozens of unusual mechanics.  It also made a smart, tactical use of rings either as a reward for a small mechanical challenge or as a way to indicate secrets or alternate paths.  I think most of us would rather have this than the Forces approach of giant, empty backgrounds and levels overstuffed with hundreds of pointless rings that make the player feel like a speck of dust floating around in a boring vacuum.

I think the Mania is important because despite being a fanmade project, it appealed to a massive audience.  It showed that even with a series as inconsistent as this one, charming visuals, tight level design, consistent gameplay tones, and good pacing win the day.  In a sense, the amount of tropes Mania abandoned gave it room to become something spectacular.  I’ve always admired Sonic as a series because even though it fails constantly, it insists on trying different things.  I still think it should do so, but it needs to be careful about what it invents and what it recycles.  Otherwise it turns out Sonic Forces, a game that tries to please everyone but doesn’t know how.

Super Mario Odyssey: 3D Mario Done Right

I wasn’t excited for Super Mario Odyssey until the day before it came out.  There are a lot of reasons.  Mario oversaturated the market so much in the late 00s that all my enthusiasm for the franchise disappeared.  I wanted a new 3D Mario because everyone else did, but when it actually rolled around, I never kept up with it.  When everyone started calling Odyssey the best in the series, I had to get my hands on it.   Soon, I started to see what everyone was raving about.

3D Mario never spoke to me much.  I grew up playing the All-Stars pack, like the original, Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3, and Mario World.  I also played New Super Mario Bros. Wii a lot.  I never played 64 or Sunshine.  The only one I finished was Galaxy, which is obviously much different but goes by a similar formula.  Up until now, people praised Galaxy as the best one, and…I didn’t see it.

Despite the opinions of my many friends who say Galaxy is one of their favorite games of all time, I don’t remember it very well.  I will admit, the presentation is absolutely gorgeous.  The musical score is fully orchestrated, tailored to each specific environment, and the background music changes depending on the player’s actions.  The cinematic thrill of flying through space between planetoids is magical.  A few actual gameplay moments that stood out are clever Wii pointer challenges, and a few tricky platforming challenges based around gravity.  I have to hand it to Galaxy, it achieved a lot with the limited resources of the Wii.

My problem is, the vast, open experience of Galaxy that everyone else remembers was lost on me.  I just remember a series of tasks in the same galaxies to get stars, and going into each world to do something specific, but never being quite sure what it was.  Power-ups opened up more of the world, but they were also mostly case-specific, and some only lasted a short time.  The result was that the game felt a lot more linear than it looked, and although the individual challenges were well-made, they were more compartmentalized.  I never felt as motivated to  complete the whole game as I thought I could.

But then along came Odyssey.  This game made huge waves, and for good reason.  Every inch shows off its immense polish and innovation.  More importantly, it also had that different structure that I was hoping for.  Instead of having lots of small galaxies with different themes, it has about a dozen “kingdoms” with tons of collectible moons and purple coins in each.  Everything is laid out at once, and most of the fun is finding every challenge in each overworld.  Many are in plain sight, some are extremely well-hidden.  There are so many small tasks that you find naturally, and it feels more like genuine exploration, a theme Nintendo also went for with Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Plus, exploring new worlds and buying new outfits gives you access to content in worlds you’ve already been to, thus adding replayability.

Movement in Odyssey is also a major step up — the dynamic movement that 3D Mario is known for gets a whole new upgrade with the addition of Mario’s hat, Cappy, who opens up the possibility for tons of shortcuts and growth in skill.  You can use Cappy to bounce, dive, and give yourself much more reach if you use the right moves.  Imagine something like the F.L.U.D.D in Super Mario Sunshine, but built more around specific timing than precise platforming.  That, and the added possession mechanic adds tons of depth by making you use different creatures to solve different scenarios and reach new areas.  These creatures serve the double purpose of being good obstacles and being fun to control when you need to.  Just about every object and enemy in the game is there for a reason, and I never felt the need to jump through hoops to do everything.

Compared to games like Galaxy and 3D World, I think Super Mario Odyssey achieves what every 3D Mario has been looking to do since the beginning.  It’s a series of uninhibited sandboxes that keep on giving, there for the player to enjoy at any time.  It’s also full of heart, with references to the best of the franchise hidden all over the place.  All of the other games excelled in their time, and were great games in their own right, but the world of wonder presented by Odyssey definitely struck a new chord with me.  As I make the journey to get all the moons and traverse its many challenges, I’m sure that all the quirky goodness Nintendo put in this little cartridge will last a very long time.

Cuphead: A Great Game That’s 1930s Hard

I wasn’t one of the people following Cuphead from the beginning.  My early memories were an impressive trailer and a constantly delayed release date.  I remember thinking it seemed impossible for such a small team to create something interactive that looked so aesthetically complex.  But they did that and more.  It wasn’t until the game came out that I heard its main selling point was extreme difficulty.  Interesting, right?

Cuphead VS. Pirates
Cuphead squaring off against pirates! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Difficult games have a strange place in my mind.  Like most things in game design, difficulty is a delicate balance.  Too much and the game feels unfair, almost lazy.  Too little and the experience isn’t rewarding, and the consumer doesn’t feel a sense of getting their money’s worth.  Some of the most revered games of all time are tough as nails, like Ninja GaidenSuper Meat Boy, or the properties of From Software like Dark Souls.  But difficulty is an art.  Make a game too hard, it’s no longer rewarding to play through.  Make it too time-consuming, a player is likely to give up early.  There are plenty of traps to fall into.

Cuphead had the twofold challenge of creating a visual tribute to rubber-hose, classic American animation and a challenging run-and-gun experience.  One that would create a unique imprint on the industry.

Spoiler alert, they did it.

Cuphead is overflowing (pun intended) with personality.  Its simple story references over-the-top calamity of shows like Pop-Eye or Tom and Jerry.  The animation is suitably perfect — there are no awkward gaps where it was left out, and everything set piece is full of life.   And the off-beat aesthetic is…just beautiful.  Our two heroes, Cuphead and Mugman, are adorable twists on Mickey Mouse, and even though everything wants to kill you, the personality of all the bosses and enemies is enough to make you laugh every time.  Lobsters doing the backstroke, a giant cigar, the queen of a colony of overwrought bees…this is the kind of stuff you see in this game.  And it’s as good as it sounds.

The gameplay has just the right amount of depth.  By collecting coins throughout each level, you can unlock new abilities and weapon types.  Different loadouts are better for different situations, making the player experiment to give themselves an advantage.  Some bosses are easier with an extra hit point, some are easier with an invisible air dash.  Some might be easier with slow, charged shots that do more damage.  The designers thought hard about this, and it paid off.

It also has a very clever parrying mechanic, where every pink object can be bounced off of by hitting jump while in the air.  Most bosses require you to  use it in some way, either to avoid an attack or move about the battle arena.  Individual levels also have you use it to avoid enemies or platform through.  It’s a simple but elegant way for the designers to give themselves more options.  Just like how some levels give you a “pacifist” rank for not killing any enemies, adding another fascinating challenge.

Cuphead builds intricate situations rife with unique challenges, none copied from each other.  Some bosses involve managing three simultaneous attack patterns, threading the needle out of ever-complicating attacks, and completing tasks in a certain order under pressure.  Conquering each new beast is always satisfying, which is the core of the game’s character.

It’s still relentlessly difficult, but I rarely felt like it was wasting my time.  Very few challenges involve random chance, and fighting a boss over and over again leads to improvement.  You will fail quite a lot playing this game, and some levels feel a little bit too long.  Although Cuphead‘s not for the faint of heart, it’s an excellent experience for those who love a challenge.

And if you don’t love a challenge, play it for the soundtrack and pretty backgrounds.

Sonic Mania: The Second Coming of Sonic

The early Sonic the Hedgehog games are not my cup of tea.  I wrote about this last year.  I’m the exception, though. Sonic 1, 2, 3, and CD mean a lot, to a lot of people, and although I think their design is rough and dated, I respect them for how they make people feel.  I never expected Sonic Mania to give me that feeling.

After Sonic Boom, Sega decided to pull out all the stops, and make 2017 Sonic’s year no matter what.  The plan was to hit the gaming world with a double whammy of back-to-basics gameplay and the most popular cutting-edge gameplay in the series.  For the summer they would release Sonic Mania, and for holiday they’d release Sonic Forces.  Forces is meant to be a mixture of Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors, while Mania is meant to be a love letter for the longtime fans of the series.

After the reveal at the beginning of the year, I was excited Sonic Forces.  Granted, I still don’t know  at the time of writing this if Forces is any good.  The formula is just what I’m used to.  Mania looked creative and all, but I didn’t trust it.  Sonic 4 was mediocre, and I never really enjoyed any of the Sonic games before the Dreamcast Era.  I figured Mania would just come and go as a nostalgic cash-in by a desperate company.

I was severely wrong.

As soon as it came out, Mania became the best-rated Sonic game in years, even beyond the redemption of the series around 2010.  I took the scores with a grain of salt, since people seem to enjoy the classic formula more than I do.  Then I learned something very interesting.  I learned that Mania is, from a developer perspective, a fan project.  It was developed by Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, and Christian Whitehead, who spearheaded several mobile ports of classic games in the series.  It’s a labor of love and creativity, and its execution is magnificent.

Source: Sonic the Hedgehog via YouTube

The fact that Sonic Mania was developed by experienced but young fans made it fresh, but it also led to some fantastic refinement of an old formula.  Almost every complaint I had about the early games is fixed in Mania.  For example, my favorite addition is the new Drop Dash ability, which allows Sonic to spin dash directly out of a jump.  This makes the pace of each level faster, and makes it easier to gain momentum quickly.  The best part, though, is it eliminates the need to come to a complete standstill before spin dashing.  This especially helps with sloped terrain like the kind you see in Green Hill Zone.

The game just feels like a better fulfillment of the series’s original intention: a sense of thrill and speed.  Instead of using speed like a carrot on a stick (like the originals) or sticking the player with deadly road blocks when they try to go fast, Mania lets you get through a level at a good pace and isn’t harsh about imperfection.  This philosophy reminds me, in concept, of Sonic Generations, where getting through a level was relatively easy, but the fun challenge was being efficient.  It also lets you go back and do levels over again to explore.  Even if you narrowly miss a shortcut, you can go back to it and experiment with different paths.  It just takes longer.  All in all, I find this better than making the rest of the level a pain just because of a failed maneuver.

Mania doesn’t use nostalgia as a crutch.

Every level in Mania is a joy to experience, and the selection is a mixture of old and new stages.  Old stages are laid out in a complex but balanced way, and feel much better with Sonic’s improved mobility and tighter controls.

Meanwhile, the new stages give me faith that there are still ideas the series hasn’t tried yet.  My favorite is probably Press Garden Zone, where you bounce off of zooming newspapers and platform across printing blocks in a giant greenhouse before sliding through a forest of cherry trees in winter.  The new mechanics are different and well-used, while the old ones are given new life.  Ziplines in Green Hill are a surprise, but a welcome one.

Some things still bother me.  The system of lives is still unfair, especially because you can still die instantly by getting caught between two objects.  The 1-up system and Game Overs that send you to the start of a time-consuming zone get tiresome, especially near the end.  Bad apples are bad apples.

But I never imagined myself getting so much enjoyment from this kind of Sonic game.  I have no great love for the games that inspired it, nor do I need it.  Sonic Mania oozes care, effort, talent, and love from every pore, a perfect expression of Sega’s recent change in attitude.  It’s the kind of thing that happens when we trust talented people to create products of genuine merit.

In short, play Sonic Mania.  It’s a joy, and I think it marks the beginning of a new era for this company.

Animal Crossing is Life Done Better

I play video games a lot.  I love games that are complex and compelling.  The Legend of ZeldaSkyrim, and Super Smash Bros. rank among my favorite games ever.  Anything that has action, rich worlds, and intriguing mechanics usually wins my heart.  But the one game I’ve played more than any other game, for over 330 hours, is Animal Crossing.  Specifically, New Leaf for Nintendo 3DS.

This should make no sense whatsoever.  I barely understand it.  How does an action nut with no nostalgia for Animal Crossing fall so head over heels for it?

Animal Crossing logo
The logo for the Animal Crossing series

The truth is, I didn’t fall for it right away.  It took some time.  Animal Crossing is actually a pretty tough nut to crack.  Every game in the series starts with you moving into a new town and buying a new house.  Actually, you basically start off with a tent.  Your mortgage is managed by Tom Nook, the enterprising capitalist Tanooki.  The only way to improve your house is by spending thousands of Bells (the game’s currency, kind of like yen) to pay off your debt.

Already this sounds like a drag, right?

The thing is, the world works differently in this game.  There’s no deadline to pay off your mortgage.  You do whatever you want to, for however long you want, and pay off your debt whenever you can.  So how do you make money?  You can sell furniture, bugs, and fish you catch.  Sometimes you just find money under rocks (wishful thinking).  Sometimes you get it for some other random reason.

On paper, this sounds easy, and maybe even boring.  The whole game consists of talking to your fellow villagers, doing odd jobs, planting trees, flowers, and structures in your town, decorating your house, and collecting things.  Isn’t there any challenge or spice to make this game more complicated?  Well…yes and no.

New Leaf gameplay
Animal Crossing: New Leaf gameplay.

Animal Crossing games are not hard.  Instead, they’re meant to keep you there for the long haul.  That’s where the magic happens.

There’s no time constraint on paying hundreds of thousands in debt, but it takes a while to make that much money.  This also means it takes a long time to get the biggest house and furnish the nerd paradise you always dreamed of.  Animal Crossing sucks you in and keep you coming back, day after day.

Interested in catching every fish, bug, and/or sea creature?  You’d better be prepared to stick around all four seasons of the year and keep coming back every day.  But don’t worry, it’ll give you the chance to celebrate Toy Day, Carnival, and the Harvest Festival with your animal friends.  (Yeah, this game has holidays, and they’re super fun.)

Like creating custom designs for your clothing and town flag?  You can become a pixel artist and create clothing from whatever video game, show, or crevice in the depths of your brain that you want.

Want to cultivate every color of flower in the game?  Well, to get the elusive blue rose, you’re going to have to buy daily fertilizer from the most upgraded convenience store and learn the genetic layout of red roses like Gregor Mendel is your damn patron saint.

Gregor Mendel
I just felt the need to include Gregor Mendel here. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Animal Crossing is only as hard and time-consuming as you want it to be, and at first glance, there’s no reason to do any of this stuff I’ve mentioned.  It all sounds humdrum and boring, like a poor recreation of real life.  But the whole reason this game was made was in order to serve as a second life, one that’s better than reality.

The series’ creator, Katsuya Eguchi, wanted to make the game because of a sense of loneliness he felt from being 300 miles away from his home in Chiba.  Therefore, he wanted to make a game that provided a sense of “family, friendship, and community” for all its players.

True to form, my perception of Animal Crossing is a simulation of the perfect life in a perfect town.  There are challenges, problems, and room for improvement in every town, but everybody trusts each other and wants everybody else to succeed.  Bad blood has no place in Animal Crossing world.  In a world that’s often stifling, cruel, and selfish, these games provide a true escape.  They are the ultimate source of “me” time.  It’s probably why I played New Leaf for an hour every day for almost a year.

Also, the music is just…sublime.

I should mention that these games are not perfect.  Eventually you start to run out of room to put things.  Having your villagers suggest nickname changes or say the same things gets old, and the illusion begins to wear thin as always.

But before that happens, you’re going to spend days’ worth of happy times doing…whatever you want, and that’s why Animal Crossing is different from any other game in the world.  It showed that escapism and fun in video games doesn’t need to be high fantasy or intense action.  It can just be a place where you feel like you belong.   Your very own utopia in a box.

Think I’ll pay mine a visit.

My Journey with The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask has been on my radar screen for years.  The game is the quick-turnaround sequel to smash hit The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time from 1998.  It takes place after child Link rides off into the sunset to look for his companion, Navi.

Majora's Mask 3D logo
The title logo for The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While riding through the forest, Link encounters the Skull Kid, a normally kind and whimsical forest imp.  But something is different.  The Skull Kid is wearing a disturbing mask inhabited by the dark spirit of Majora.  This power is too much for Skull Kid, who torments Link and turns him into a lowly Deku Scrub.

After falling down a tree trunk, seemingly into another world, Link finds the Happy Mask Salesman.  The Happy Mask Salesman was the original owner of the mask, and after teaching Link a song that turns him back the normal, he charges him with getting the Mask back.  Link finds himself in the land of Termina, consisting of Clock Town, The Great Bay, Snowhead, the Southern Swamp, and Ikana Valley.  The reason it’s called Termina is because the Skull Kid has set the moon itself on a collision course with the world, about to destroy everything and everyone in three days’ time.

Just as the world is about to end, Link discovers that he can play the Song of Time to return to his first moment in Termina.  In doing so, everything that has occurred over the three days is effectively reset.  However, not everything is undone.  In Groundhog Day fashion, the player must constantly re-live the same period of time in different ways to put an end to the Skull Kid’s madness.

Link on horseback
Link riding off into the fog.

When Majora’s Mask came out for Nintendo 3DS in 2015, I went out and bought it right away.  I never played past the first dungeon.  Frankly, I didn’t understand how the game worked at first, even after playing it for a few hours.  I finally found out that you can learn songs to skip ahead in time and slow it down to half-speed.  At this point I finally found some momentum.

I decided in summer of 2017 that I just wanted to finish the game.  But the meat of Majora’s Mask is its side quests.  There are only four “dungeons” in the game.  These dungeons are creative, complex, and unique.  The only non-essential chests in each dungeon house Stray Fairies, which you trade for Great Fairy upgrades.  They’re an example of quality over quantity, and I found them brilliant.  But they’re meant to be few and far between.  The rest of the game involves doing things for other people in Termina, which is a point  I’ll explore a little later.

Just about every quest in the game yields rupees, heart pieces (which increase life) or masks.  Masks are basically tokens of gratitude with different properties for the wearer.  Soon enough I found myself finishing a lot of quests.  They were so creative and interesting that they were almost irresistible.  Plus, the Bombers, a club of kids in Clock Town, clue you in to Rumored Events that point you in the right direction.

My collection finally grew to the point where I decided to go for 100% completion.  This meant collecting every Piece of Heart, every Mask, every item, and completing every quest.  I wrote an article about completionism, but I rarely do it myself.  I’d never done this kind of thing with a Zelda game before, not even Twilight Princess.  It meant a lot of attempts at long side quests, and a lot of skipping around different times.  Ultimately, despite how grueling it was at times, I did it.  I finished The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask with everything done.

I got quite emotional watching the ending of the game.  It took me back to when I was about seven years old playing Zelda with my family.  There’s something special about the story of Majora’s Mask that makes it one of the best in the series, and now I feel like I finally understand why,

At the most basic level, Majora’s Mask is about the soul.  It’s about healing wounds, old and new.  It’s about hope, and picking people up when they’re down.  The game barely has a villain.  Skull Kid may have been possessed by a chaotic spirit, but he was by no means a villain.  He was only angry because he was lonely.  His whimsy made him an outsider, and his guardian friends, the Giants, had to leave him behind out of duty.

The conflict of Majora’s Mask lies in the tragedy of those with no one to rely upon.  Writ large, this is the player’s motivation for whatever they do in the game.  There are no quests that ultimately involve screwing over unsuspecting people.  Those in need are there for the player to help.  In part, that’s why I decided to complete every quest in the game.

Link and Skull Kid
A carving of Link and the Skull Kid.

To be honest, I sometimes identify with the plight of Skull Kid.  Every so often I have a bad day when, in spite of my knowledge and better judgement, I feel alone.  Sometimes my interests and personality make me feel like an outsider, and as such, I try not to take my friendships for granted.  My greatest fear is being alone, and my friends and family, whether they know it or not, help remind me that I’m not.

This is exactly the role that the player fills in Majora’s Mask: a friend.  To Skull Kid, to Anju and Kafei, to Cremia…everyone.  By completing this game 100%, I felt like I was doing everything in my power to help.  I didn’t have to, but I did it because that’s what friends do.

Playing through Majora’s Mask was a unique experience.  I didn’t go into much depth about the gameplay in this article.  Perhaps I’ll do so in the future.  But when I have such a personal experience with a game, I feel the need to talk about it.  I could talk about specific mechanics all day, but the central goal of game design is to create a certain feeling.  What this game made me feel was extraordinary, and I see now why it’s regarded as a masterpiece.

Reviewing Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

A couple weeks ago I talked about Metal Gear Solid for PS1 and some of the unique qualities of Kojima’s design.  After finishing Metal Gear Solid 2 for the first time this week, I want to talk about the changes from the first game to the second, Sequelitis-style.  Some I really enjoyed, others bothered me a little.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
The Metal Gear Solid 2 logo! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Metal Gear Solid 2 starts with a prologue that takes place on a tanker. Solid Snake (assisted by his whimsical engineer friend Hal “Otacon” Emmerich) infiltrates the tanker to look for evidence of a new model of Metal Gear.  Following the Shadow Moses Incident of the first game, the two are working covertly to remove Metal Gear mobile nuclear artillery units entirely from the world’s military stage.  Without spoiling the game extensively, the Metal Gear RAY is stolen and Snake is presumed dead.

Fast forward two years later: a new Snake sneaks onto an oil rig called the Big Shell, where the President of the United States and a number of hostages are being ransomed for 30 billion dollars by a force consisting of Russian soldiers and elite terrorist group Dead Cell.  Dead Cell happens to be led by Solidus, the long-lost brother of Solid and Liquid Snake.  This new Snake, soon re-named Raiden, is the only one who can save the President and prevent the threat of a nuclear attack.  What follows is a story of regret, free will, conspiracy, and legacy, all wrapped up in stealthy espionage…and the return of a legend.

I want to first give full credit to this story, because it blew me away.  I actually teared up at more than one moment near the end, and it was an incredible coincidence that I finished it the day before Independence Day.  It just kept coming with twist after twist that constantly raised the stakes and changed the way I viewed characters.  Although a lot of people hate the protagonist, Raiden, I thought he was an excellent character.  Kojima included him as a younger complement to Snake after a young girl sent him a letter about how she couldn’t really relate to Snake.  As a younger guy, I honestly took to playing as Raiden, especially after I learned his deep, tragic backstory that parallels Snake’s.

But what I think was a real strong point of Raiden’s inclusion is Kojima’s wish to develop Snake from a third person perspective.  This is why I suggest playing through MGS1 first, because experiencing Shadow Moses firsthand provides excellent context for this game.  Snake is initially a myth to rookie Raiden, and the way he interfaces with the player’s story definitely makes him seem like one.  When you’re finally fighting alongside Snake by the end, the realization of how far you’ve come as Raiden is priceless.Playing through MGS1 also makes the interaction between old faces more meaningful.  For example, the evolution of Snake and Otacon’s relationship from mutual assets behind enemy lines to best friends is quite moving.  It made me feel great for following the long thread of MGS.

The game also has some good fun with the fourth wall.  Some of it’s used for humor, but it’s also used for some freaky psychological tricks near the end.  I won’t spoil it, of course, but you won’t know whether to laugh or panic.  The harmony of humor and seriousness is still alive and well after the first game.

Story is only half the battle, of course.  And Metal Gear is known for some fantastic, unique gameplay.  Compared to the first game, though, I have some gripes about Metal Gear Solid 2.  Visually, Sons of Liberty is obviously an upgrade.  All the characters and animations are more expressive, and the effects of rain and light are excellent.  The player also has far more options for dealing with situations.  The M9 lets you put guards to sleep, and you can hold up guards for items.  Fire extinguishers can provide smoke screens.  A box on a certain conveyor belt can do wonders.  Have a camera or drone in your way?  Just shoot it out.  The options are overwhelming.

And that’s a problem for me.  Maybe I’m just bad at the game, but I feel like I wasn’t made aware of simple solutions.  I thought the less forgiving rules of the first game still applied.  For example, there was an instance near the end of Metal Gear Solid where the only way up a stairwell was by using chaff grenades to disable camera nests.  There was no way to shoot out cameras.

Metal Gear Solid 2, meanwhile, lets you shoot out cameras by precisely hitting their sensors.  I didn’t realize this until about halfway through, because I never needed to shoot out a camera until then.  I also thought chaff was the only way to get past drones.  Then I realized in the last two hours that you can just shoot them with your pistol.  Could’ve saved me a lot of time falling from a railing to my death.

Speaking of which, there’s a lot of falling to your death in this game.  Metal Gear Solid 2 happens entirely at sea, so falling into the water is a legitimate hazard.  The amount of times I’ve had a section of bridge permanently fall out from under me is just a little bit annoying.  The last thing that bothers me is how persistent the enemies are.  I played through the game on normal difficulty, since I’m not quite a newcomer.

I found myself spotted constantly, and once an enemy calls reinforcements, it means one of two things.  You’re overwhelmed and killed, or you have to hide and wait around three minutes for the reinforcements to clear out.  It doesn’t help that disabled enemies don’t report their status, and so a party comes to investigate the situation.  Again, I found out later that you can shoot out enemy radios.  I would’ve liked to know that.

I will, however, give credit to Hideo Kojima for coming up with all of these details within the game.  Heck, his marriage was in crisis because he was working so hard on Metal Gear Solid 2, according to the exclusive “Making Of” that came out with the PAL release.  I just would have liked to know about more of my options up front as a player. That doesn’t take away from the immense polish of this game. And, combined with the incredibly powerful story, this is a game that everybody should experience for themselves.

Is it better than the first one? Is it worse? It’s hard to say. I think the first one worked very well within its own framework.  Both suffer from a lot of backtracking, and I found the first game more fun and interesting to navigate.  However, the second one expanded on legacy of the first one almost perfectly. I would say play them both in a row, and simply enjoy.  Together, they create a spectacular experience that I was happy to play through.

Metal Gear Solid and Designing Outside the Box

People have said a lot about game designer and film buff Hideo Kojima.  General consensus is that he’s one of the best game makers alive.  I took this fact for granted for a long time, but never actually played a Kojima game.  In 2017 I finally played through Metal Gear Solid, a game many consider to be Kojima’s greatest work.  Now I know that the rumors are ALL true.

As I played through the first Metal Gear Solid on PS1, I saw the transformation of the interactive medium into something closer to a focused experience as opposed to pure entertainment.

Metal Gear Solid PS1
The logo for the first Metal Gear Solid game on PS1! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

That’s not to say I had a bad time playing through this game.  It was far from perfect, sure.  I became seriously frustrated with some of the combat controls and the last two boss battles.  But I can understand that this was the first attempt at a formula that  improved with every new installment.  What stood out was the game’s self-awareness, and how it made me really think about my surroundings.

This game is not huge or lengthy.  It consists of only a few major areas, and I beat it in around 10 hours.  It just makes you know each area inside and out — returning to early areas later on in the game will lead you to secret items to help with the mission.  Some areas even have stipulations like getting into no confrontations at all, an interesting twist.  Most of all, I love unorthodox solutions like using cigarette smoke to uncover laser grids.  This kind of thing gives a game so much character.

Snake and Meryl
Concept art of Solid Snake and Meryl. (Photo: xploitme via Flickr)

And that’s what I think makes Metal Gear Solid unique and brilliant.  In a time when games were desperate simply to be a fun escape and keep the player playing, Hideo Kojima was staunchly unafraid to create his own vision.  Just as it is personal to him, it becomes personal for the player.

I particularly remember a sequence in the middle of the game where Snake is tortured with high-voltage electricity.  You, the player, have two options.  You can submit to the torture, which yields a worse ending, or you can undertake the intense button-mashing challenge of surviving the torture long enough to escape.  Each path yields a different ending to the game and different items to start the next playthrough.

This challenge made me, with no one else in the room, say out loud, “Kojima, you brilliant bastard.”  Here he presents us with a challenge that tests our mental and physical resolve.  He pits us against an evil captor and daring us to quit.  The consequences of our decision are substantial, and we can’t take them back.  In this way, Kojima found a way to put the player directly into the story.  Kojima went on record saying he thinks games and film will eventually merge.  It’s not surprising that he breaks traditional rules of game narrative.

Another instance earlier in the game makes you look at the back of the physical case that the game comes in to find the frequency you need to progress.  It’s an absurd solution, and it’s a one-time solution. But it makes you think outside the box and be creative.

I think the Psycho Mantis boss is one of the greatest in video game history for the same reason.  In his posturing, Mantis reads your data and vibrates your control to make it look like he’s really in your head.  Fighting him requires you to switch your controller into another controller port so that he can’t read your movements.  You need to crawl along the floor to dodge his attacks.  Optional night vision goggles are the only way to see through his cloaking device.  This battle has so many layers, not all of them necessary, but making a fight easier through a creative approach is much more satisfying than following an obvious pattern.

I think as far as legacy goes, Hideo Kojima and his team paved the way for modern visionary developers like Jonathan Blow and even Toby Fox.  They make games that are inspired.  They never needed to be made, but they convey messages and feelings that struck a serious chord.  Kojima showed us the power of something unique to video games — a direct connection between the game’s world and the person experiencing it.  He creates films with a million different protagonists at once.  That’s why I want to play every Metal Gear Solid I can get my hands on.  And with Death Stranding from Kojima Productions on the horizon, the gaming world might be flipped on its head once again.

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is Incredible

I’ve always believed Shovel Knight is the best thing ever to come out of Kickstarter in 2014.  Now, 3 years later, I have to give props to Yacht Club Games. They’ve been generous enough to give Shovel Knight buyers ALL of the game’s expansions for free.  The first game, now dubbed Shovel of Hope, was inspired.  The next installment, Plague of Shadows, was ambitious and creative.  But the newest game, Specter of Torment, is a masterwork that I can only describe as …elegant.

Specter of Torment logo
The logo for Specter of Torment!

As a prequel to Shovel of Hope, Specter shows us the story behind fan favorite Specter Knight, in addition to answering questions like Shield Knight’s disappearance.  Story-wise, it takes an unusually dark, poignant approach that I really enjoyed.

Specter Knight reflecting
Specter Knight looking wistfully at his locket.

But just as Plague of Shadows tweaked the original level design to suit a new gameplay style, Specter made even more changes and managed to be even more graceful.  The core gameplay involves scythe dashing (used against enemies and certain set pieces) and short-distance wall-climbing, both new mechanics.  Yacht Club’s specialty has always been designing good gameplay around specific mechanics.  Their stage design is not only consistently clever, but challenging, particularly in Specter.

Specter Knight skating
Specter Knight skating around on rails!

For example, an early level challenges the player to use a stationary series of hanging lanterns as dash targets to cross an open pit and reach the end.  Early on this task takes getting used to, but by the time you reach Propeller Knight’s stage, the same challenge is given to you with moving targets.  By the time you reach the Tower of Fate, you have to be able combine air dashing with climbing to reach the top.  There are plenty of times when the game acts in a way you don’t want and kills you, sure.  But you can overcome it with practice, and the controls work amazingly well overall.

Specter Knight Dash
Lantern dashing in Specter of Torment!

What impresses me most about Specter of Torment, though, is its streamlining and refinement.  Most importantly, every new item you get comes with a very brief tutorial.  This naturally teaches you all the item’s uses, a genius move.  You obtain these items by finding Red Skulls, with a total of 100 (a nice round number) spread across 9 levels and the hub castle.  The hub castle is also where you reach every level, conveniently replacing the overworld.  There you can find every seller and challenge, as well as my personal favorite, the Cold Shoulder, which allows you to cross your arms defiantly at any point in the game.

Specter Knight Castle
The castle hub in Specter of Torment.

There’s so many more tidbits about this game I just love.  I will admit that it’s fairly short, but it’s the best expansion I’ve played for a game.  Basically, if you haven’t played Specter of Torment, do it now.  This is the series at its very best, and a master class in platformer design that oozes personality.

10/10 IGN.  GameInformer.  Go home.