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.

Cool Invisibility in Multiplayer Games

A lot of the best, most creative game design nowadays is in multiplayer games.  Especially ones from the indie side of the street.  Multiplayer games are hard for me to talk about though, because the simpler they are, the better.  A good presentation, good maps, and good mechanics are all you need, and there isn’t always a lot to say.

AAA games have mostly left couch co-op behind, minus companies like Nintendo that have flagship franchises based on multiplayer.  Indie games have thankfully picked up the slack and then some.  What’s great is that lots of different games will take a certain theme or mechanic and use it in a bunch of fun ways.

I have a few games I wanna talk about.  Individually I don’t think I could have much to say, but together they have a lot to say.  They’re all amazing examples of using invisibility in games.

Hidden in Plain Sight came out a while ago, in 2011.  It’s not about “invisibility” per se, but the name of the game is blending in.  Players are pitted against one another and forced to kill each other in a room full of NPCs.  But they have to do so without knowing for sure where each other are.  That means balancing walking around like the NPCs while trying to figure out which ones are other human players.

The game is exceedingly simple, and looks like an obscure Dreamcast game, but it built up a pretty big cult following online.  It’s a great example of a game that builds tension in a room full of players.  The beauty of the game is in the challenge of splitting your attention between seeing others while remaining unseen.

I first played the game that inspired this post a week ago with some friends.  It’s Invisigun Heroes by Sombr Studios, a game inspired by Bomberman and TowerFall with a twist.  The players can move left, right, up, down, they can shoot projectiles, and use a special character-specific item.

The catch is, all the players are invisible.

They’re not invisible 100% of the time — using certain items (like Revealers) can uncover other players, and firing a shot reveals the player for a second.  Bumping into objects also causes them to flash for a split second, giving a vague idea of where the player is.  This is supremely interesting, because it demands absolute focus to try to outwit another player.  Every directional tap moves the character one grid-space of each map.  It’s possible to count your steps and still be aware of your lines of fire without giving away your position.  When it comes down to a one-on-one duel and no one is firing, the suspense builds to a head until each one makes a move.  To be honest, playing this game gets me more on-edge than playing any cover-based FPS in the world.

Invisigun Heroes would already be fun without invisibility.  It has great map design, cool powerups, and so on.  But using invisibility in the top-down shooter framework makes the perfect party game.  A long waiting game followed by a chaotic scrap where anyone can win makes every round exciting.

Invisigun isn’t even the first foray into the invisible shooter.  In 2014,  Samurai Punk published a game called Screencheat.  The concept came about at the Global Game Jam, where it was very well-received.  During the GoldenEye 007 days of the late 90s, one of the biggest sins was cheating by looking at another player’s screen during multiplayer.  Screenlooking.

(GET IT.  HE SAID THE THING.)

So Screencheat cranks it up a notch by making it impossible to see other players on your own screen.  Apart from stray particle effects, the only way to see another character is by looking at the arena from their point of view.  In a competition with three other people, this is absolute chaos.  The maps are also brilliantly littered with color-coding to make it easier to work out where everyone is.

Like I said, a lot of these games would be fun and quirky even without emphasizing stealth, but the fact that they do makes them much more compelling.  I feel like this is the miracle of indie development in the modern age — developers keep coming up with incredible ideas in the strangest places.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Game Design and News to Amuse!