Becoming Cranky With Age

When Donkey Kong Country was released in 1994, I was eight years old and had never heard of the character Donkey Kong before.  Reading about the game, I learned of the original arcade game that introduced both DK and Mario to the world through the grumblings of Cranky Kong.  The old man ranting about how that newfangled Super Nintendo was stopping people from appreciating retro games was certainly not someone I could relate to on any level.  I was clearly one of the “whippersnappers” he was talking about, aside from early 90s commercials that my accelerated nostalgia gland was yearning for I didn’t have any understanding of longing for a bygone era.

 

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Back when a 2D SNES platformer somehow counted as fancy 3D.

 

 

Well, things have certainly changed since then.  While I was angry at fifth-generation systems for trying to push aside SNES less than a year after Donkey Kong Country was released, it wasn’t until Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze’s release, almost 20 years later, when I had a revelation: I could relate to Cranky Kong.  While the mass market was turning on Nintendo and Tropical Freeze was being treated as a niche, too hard to be entertaining game by many in the gaming media, it was easy to identify with the jaded old ape who complained about kids these days not appreciating gameplay.  It was more people roughly my age not appreciating gameplay, but still.

But it didn’t stop with the Donkey Kong Country series, and I was in fact inspired to write this article because of a different 90s series that recently reentered the spotlight, one with quite a few parallels to the DKC games, despite initially being the mascot for a competing platform.  That’s right, I’m talking about Dark Souls.  Or as it used to be known, Crash Bandicoot.  If you aren’t sure why I would joke about two series with nothing in common being the same, you are a luckier person than I am.  The first three Crash Bandicoot games were recently given complete graphical remakes and released as a trilogy for the PlayStation 4, and the original Crash has somehow gone from a harder than average platformer to a brutal exercise in extreme difficulty, and that exercise has in turn somehow been trademarked under the Dark Souls label.  Crash has become Dark Souls, according to an infamous review, and so many people have overreacted to its difficulty that I can’t tell which memes about this topic are mocking the claim and which sincerely believe it.

 

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This is either Crash or Dark Souls, lost the file label so I can’t tell which.

 

This is where I’d yell at those kids to get off my lawn, but I’m afraid they’ll slip and get hurt, leading to claims that my lawn has become a minefield (the Dark Souls of battlegrounds).  That, and like I said, this really isn’t about kids.  Maybe kids are mocking Bandicootborne for being an impossible to play relic while chatting in Minecraft or comparing fidget spinners, I don’t really know, but the people I’m some combination of amused and annoyed by are self-proclaimed old-school gamers that are around my age.  the people desperately trying to pinpoint the slightest physics changes in Crash N. Sane Trilogy to justify claims that it “became” Dark Souls.  The ones talking about how NST proves how much more hardcore gaming was back in the day.  The people who insist they were great at the games back on PS1 but now can’t reach the first boss in the PS4 version.  This isn’t about age, of gamers or games.

So what is it that’s making me cranky then?  It’s how people treat difficulty in games, both older and modern ones.  There’s the obvious target of people who can’t stand any difficulty in games and resent games that don’t play exactly how they expect because of that, but they’re not the only annoying group.  The people who go on about how games are so easy now and those damn kids could never beat games with REAL difficulty are just as misguided and irritating.  I got every trophy in all three Crash N. Sane Trilogy games in a week, while plenty of people online were complaining about not being able to simply get past an early level in the first game.  Does this mean all those people are scrubs I should mock and tell to git gud?  No, and not just because that would make me an asshole.

 

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I also beat this game in a week! With 100% completion! In one life! Without leaving the chair my character model is fused to!

 

There is obviously truth to the idea that playing platformers for around 25 years is going to make games like the three in the N. Sane Trilogy much easier for me than for gamers who grew up playing Halo and Call of Duty without ever touching a platformer.  But that doesn’t automatically make me more skilled as a gamer or make the platformers harder, the difficulty they present and skills they require are simply different.  Newer games aren’t easier, they’re simply challenging in different ways.  Yes, you can see the ending of pretty much any modern game if you blast through the story missions on the easiest setting, but trying to 100% them on the hardest setting is just as difficult as doing everything in classic games.  And struggling in a genre they have no experience with isn’t a sign that someone is a stupid kid who can’t compare to the “real” gamers of the 90s.  There are elements in genres I don’t play much that frustrate me and probably wouldn’t if I had grown up playing them, I doubt many people are experts at every single genre.  If younger gamers don’t understand platformers, or any other genre you loved as a child, the solution is more new games in that genre being released, not mocking people for being born later than you were.

 

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I haven’t actually beaten this game, the WRPG elements aren’t something I grew up with and they just piss me off. Assuming I labeled this correctly and didn’t accidentally post a picture of Crash again, anyway.

 

And now to tie things back into why I’m cranky.  The way people on both sides of the Crash: New Souls Trilogy issue are acting annoys me.  The people who can’t beat the Crash games and decide that the games are to blame because their lack of auto-platforming is outdated are obviously going to incur my wrath, but I’m probably more annoyed at the people in my demographic using this whole thing as an excuse for elitism.  Yes, supposedly professional reviewers marking old-school genres down because the reviewer is just bad at them deserve mockery, but don’t take it out on entire generations of games or people (like participation trophies, the kids get blamed for things adults are doing because they assume it’s what kids want).  I understand Cranky’s point of view now; but shockingly, the comic relief character from a platformer doesn’t present a robust philosophy ready to be adopted in real life.  I want those damn kids off my lawn, but I also want the adults patting themselves on the back for how much better they played on lawns to shut up and get over themselves.

Top 5 Games That Mastered Remaking

With the announcement of Metroid: Samus Returns and the recently released Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, remakes have been on my mind recently.  Now there’s quite a bit of a scale in terms of how much effort goes into video game remakes.  Sometimes you get simple remasters that basically just polish the textures so the game looks good in HD.  Sometimes the graphics are completely redone, maybe a few gameplay polishes.  And sometimes you get the holy grail, a game that takes the story, settings, and basic gameplay of an old game and makes what can basically be considered a new game.  These are my strong preference for video game remakes, but as you might expect from the amount of effort involved, they are the rarest type.  But these do exist, and so I’m going to listing my top five remakes that truly mastered the art of… re-ing.  But before we get to that, let’s look at some great game that I feel went just a little too far in their new features and have “condemned” themselves to be new games:

Punch-Out!! (2009)

Punch-Out!! on NES is a great game.  Super Punch-Out!! on SNES is better.  But Punch-Out!! on Wii annihilates the rest of the series.  With the same name as the NES game (and one of the arcade games) and almost every fighter from it, Punch-Out!! is almost a remake, but every fighter is changed so much (and almost a third of them weren’t in the NES game) that it feels more like a Mario game that uses the same level themes than a remake.

Mortal Kombat (2011)

I loved Mortal Kombat when I was a kid in the 90s, but it was more the violence taboo, dark fantasy tone, and seemingly endless secrets that intrigued me than the gameplay.  So the 2011 Mortal Kombat installment that brought back almost every character from the first three MK games (the nostalgia and image peak) and retold their stories, but this time with great gameplay, was pretty freaking fantasic.  However, it’s not really a remake, instead being a weird, nonsensical, but very entertaining in-universe reboot that continues the series’ story by changing the first three games.

Star Fox 64

Star Fox 64 has an essentially identical story to the first game, but aside from that (and the fact that doing a remake as the second installment in a franchise, only four years after the original was released would be really weird) it changes as much as any other direct sequel.  Star Fox 64 is an amazing game that aged very well for a fifth-gen game, but I don’t think it can really be called a remake.

Ys: The Oath in Felghana

I haven’t played this game (make a PS4 version, damn it!), but I’ve been assured it is a vast improvement over its basis, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, and that it has the same essential story and is now considered canon in the series.  Having played both Ys III and Ys Origin (which has the same gameplay style as Oath in Felghana), however, I can’t really consider this a true remake when the basic gameplay genre has been changed so dramatically.  But I’m sure it’s a great game, and again, want a convenient version for myself released.

Okay, with those out of the way, let’s get to the actual list!  Five games that push the remake envelope to its max without breaking it.  Not much else to say, here we go:

#5.  Ducktales Remastered

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Everyone loves the NES Ducktales game, but I’m just going to come out and say that several parts of it aged badly.  The control for the signature pogo cane is stiff, the hit detection is noticeably off, and the game is really, really short.  Well in 2013 we got a fantastic remake that may not be perfect, but fixed all of the aforementioned issues and of course was promptly condemned for not matching the deified memories people had of the NES game.  Well screw that, Ducktales Remastered is vastly superior to the original.  In addition to things technology’s march made possible (gorgeous art and animation that looks just like the show, full voice acting), the game greatly expands every level from the NES game and adds two completely new ones, making for an experience that could almost pass for Ducktales 3.  With the Ducktales cartoon’s reboot about to launch (which I’m expecting to also greatly outshine the original, the previews have done a very good job of showing the Gravity Falls influence), now is a great time to play through this game.  It’s a fitting last hurrah for the 80s Ducktales as a whole, in addition to being a great remake.

#4. Ratchet and Clank (2016)

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Straddling the line between remake and reboot, I decided to place this game on the remake side because I’m always going to place gameplay first, and no matter how much the story of the original Ratchet and Clank was changed in Ratchet and Clank 2016, it’s obvious that the original game was still the near exclusive focus.  The advancements in control and quality of life that the later games made are intact, but the levels are almost all from the original.  But like all the remakes on this list, they aren’t just graphically upgraded copies, they’re new levels using the settings and elements of the original.  Ratchet and Clank 2016 does a great job expanding the classic levels it covers and makes them feel every bit as good as new levels would.  While having less levels is a somewhat painful tradeoff and prevents this game from placing higher on the list, R&C2016 is still a polished and satisfying action platformer that can serve as a great introduction to the series for 13 year olds who weren’t alive when the original game was released and are now making you feel old.  Let’s hope we get the Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal remakes that everyone wants, and that they’re as good as this one

#3. Mega Man Powered Up

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This game is criminally underappreciated.  Unlike Maverick Hunter X, which made minimal gameplay additions and was based on a game that aged too well to really need a remake, Mega Man Powered Up takes the very first Mega Man game and adds an absurd amount of content.  You get a ton of new playable characters, a level editor, and brand new chibi-style 2.5D graphics that can be placed over an exact gameplay replica of the original game.  But the crown jewel of this game is the “New Style” mode with brand new levels based on the themes and gameplay elements of the original, in addition to two brand new bosses with their own original levels.  This game just offers everything.  Want the original game with new graphics?  You’ve got it.  Want a better game based on it?  It’s there.  Want to play as Roll or a robot master?  Go ahead.  Impossible to please?  Then make your own damn level, you can even do that.  Mega Man Powered Up needs to be rescued from its relative obscurity, it’s a must have for every Mega Man fan.

#2. Resident Evil (2002)

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One of the most positively regarded video game remakes of all time, the GameCube Resident Evil (or REmake, as it’s commonly known) took the 1996 original, which had already aged pretty badly by 2002, and turned it into one of the best games to use the classic Resident Evil formula.  The flow of the game was shaken up, the puzzles were redesigned, new enemies and areas were added, the controls were updated, a colossal amount of secrets were added, the dialogue and voice acting were made competent, and the graphics were completely redone and looked truly amazing, they still hold up today, even without the long-postponed HD remaster.  This set the standard for video game remakes, and every re-release of a Resident Evil game since has been met with wishes that another Resident Evil game would get the kind of monumental remake that the original did.  While the lack of information has made it hard to remember, we do have the mythical REmake 2 announced, hopefully we can once again get something on the level of this, the runner-up master of remaking.

#1.  Metroid: Zero Mission

Metroid Zero Mission

I debated on the order to place the previous games in, trying to decide how much weight to give how much of an improvement over the original game each remake was versus how much I enjoyed the game personally.  Thankfully, Metroid: Zero Mission excels in both areas.  The original Metroid is enormously influential, but it did not age well at all, and the lack of features and quality of life improvements that Super Metroid standardized is glaring.  Metroid: Zero Mission merges the original game with Super Metroid, adding new abilities, areas, bosses, and story elements to make something that functions as both a new entry in the Metroid series, and a replacement for the poorly-aged original.  While the game is a bit short (despite all the expansions, the aimless wandering and cheap deaths really made the NES Metroid feel longer than it was), the gameplay is just as fun and satisfying as the legendary Super Metroid.  Zero Mission is everything a remake should strive to be, the best possible outcome.  After 13 years of wishing for Metroid II to get the same treatment, we’re just months away from that finally happening, and now seems like the time to recognize both Metroid: Zero Mission and the potential of remakes in general.  If more remakes had the effort and care given to Zero Mission, the world would be a better place and the galaxy would be at peace.

So there you have it, my picks for the top five games that show the full potential of video game remakes.  I’m not saying there’s no place for remasters that simply add some modern quality of life features to a classic game, but I consider games like these five to be the holy grail of video game remakes.  There are plenty of classic but questionably aged games that could benefit from full blown remakes, hopefully we’ll get many more remakes like these five games that mastered remaking.

BeiN True to Yourself: How Nintendo Wins

I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a while now, and with E3 having just happened, I think I can finally get started now.  As my past articles may give some ultra-subtle foreshadowing of, I am quite happy with how the Switch has been received so far.  After at least four years of almost unrelenting negativity towards Nintendo’s console division, someone finally flipped a switch and turned the light back on.  The Switch has recreated the phenomenon of the original Wii’s launch, an even more impressive feat considering it launched in March instead of November.  With Nintendo seeming to have finally fulfilled their longstanding goal of a launch year without droughts and an incredible E3 that featured a healthy mix of 2017, early 2018, and far away but ultra-exciting games, Switch’s future looks very bright.  So with Nintendo’s four most recent consoles alternating between explosive success and market failure (no, you having nostalgia for GameCube doesn’t mean it sold well, it was closer to Wii U in sales than it was to Nintendo 64, and that didn’t even win its generation), is there any way to make sense of this pattern?

Well, let’s look at the goal behind the four consoles in the most general terms.  The GameCube and Wii U had a focus on attaining something that Nintendo’s competition had in the previous generation that they lacked (disc based software and HD graphics, respectively) and bringing Nintendo back to getting the biggest third-party games and controlling the traditional gaming demographic again.  Both systems also suffered from something of an identity crisis, having drawbacks that stopped them from achieving true parity with their competitors (GCN’s smaller disc space and Wii U’s limited power compared to competing systems) and having stylistic features that conflicted with the goal of winning over the competitor’s fanbase (GameCube’s general “kiddy” image, Wii U’s tablet inspired controller).  After showing a lot of promise at launch, both systems quickly fell behind in market share and third-party support, becoming solid but niche systems you bought for Nintendo’s games.

 

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And look how well pandering to EA worked out.

 

Now let’s look at Wii and Switch.  They actually don’t seem to have fixed the problems I mentioned above, you could even argue they got worse.  Was Wii any less “kiddy” than GameCube?  Is Switch a powerhouse that obliterates or at least matches PlayStation 4 and would be giving PS5 a run for its money if the generations hadn’t gotten completely de-synced?  Did/will either one get all the AAA third party multi-plats that PlayStation/Xbox/PC share?  The answer to all those questions is no.  So why did things work out for these systems, but not their predecessors?

Because Nintendo didn’t half-try to be something they weren’t, they embraced what made them different and turned those weaknesses into strengths.  They flipped things around and succeeded at things their competitors weren’t even trying.  The Wii may have been at least as “kiddy” as GameCube, but it appealed to middle aged parents and senior citizens just as easily, it genuinely was for all ages.  The Switch may be only marginally more powerful than Wii U, but take it out of its dock and it’s a technological marvel as a portable system.  Nintendo solved their problems in ways that their competitors never would have attempted, and unlike trying to copy the other systems, this approach has been rewarded.

 

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Mocking its name just made it stronger.

 

Of course, that doesn’t mean GameCube and Wii U didn’t contribute anything to Nintendo’s future.  Remember GameCube’s bizarre controller layout and various gimmick controllers (bongos, the Game Boy Advance)?  I’m sure you remember Wii U’s attempt to get people excited to play games on the controller’s screen.  Neither of these features caught on, but Wii and Switch managed to evolve these ideas into a functional, wildly popular form.  The Wii had a new way of controlling games that got a huge amount of mainstream attention, and it being included with every system allowed it to thrive.  Wii U’s ability to stream games to its controller at a limited range turned into Switch being a true hybrid that allows you to take complete console games anywhere you want.  Instead of giving up on these ideas, Nintendo believed in them and turned them into something hugely successful.

 

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Its heart was in the right place, it just needed a few tweaks.

 

Now this section is a bit of a leftover from one of the earlier incarnations of this article, but since I’ve compared Wii and Switch so much, I think it’s worth addressing.  Some may ask if we really want Switch to turn into another Wii.  Was its success actually good for gamers?

Yes, it absolutely was!

It’s time to get over the delusion that Wii was nothing but Nintendo lazily making mini-game compilations and third parties badly copying the aforementioned mini-game compilations.  Yes, the Wii ___ series and shovelware that all market leaders attract existed, but you could and can ignore them, and there is a diamond mine hidden under them.  Nintendo made some of their best games on the Wii, and I don’t just mean the Super Mario Galaxies and Xenoblade.  Punch-Out, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, Wario Land Shake-It, Metroid Prime 3, Sin and Punishment 2, Pandora’s Tower, games you should give a genuine chance like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo absolutely did not just focus on gimmicky mini-game compilations during the Wii’s lifespan.

But the lack of attention those games get is nothing compared to the third-party hidden gems on Wii.  Zack and Wiki, Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands, Muramasa, Madworld, No More Heroes 2, Dead Space Extraction, A Boy and His Blob, Rabbids Go Home, Sonic Colors, Epic Mickey, Lost in Shadow, Red Steel 2, Trauma Team, House of the Dead Overkill, Goldeneye 007, Medal of Honor Heroes 2, Boom Blox Bash Party, Rodea: The Sky Soldier, there are so many third party Wii games that may not have been super hyped AAA budget games but were the type of quality mid-ware that people thought died in the seventh generation.  Switch turning out like Wii would indeed be a good thing, and fortunately, there are already signs of its portable ability bringing back some of those mid-ware style games.

 

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Have you played this game? Do you know what it is? This is Trauma Team, just one of the many underappreciated Wii games.

 

So in conclusion, I think the moral here is pretty obvious.  Nintendo systems with one syllable names do better, end of story.  In seriousness, I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo does a lot better when they focus on their strengths instead of trying to attain the strengths of others.  Directly competing on their competitor’s turf doesn’t work, and with the console generations being out of sync between companies now it is barely measurable (I defy you to find a way to compare Switch and PS4’s success that doesn’t require waiting 5+ years to judge).  While it would be nice for Nintendo to achieve the third-party dominance they had with the NES and SNES, I don’t think it’s practical right now and both Nintendo and their fans will have a better time if they focus on what worked for Wii and Switch instead of trying to bring SNES back with one fell swoop.  Wait a second, if you pronounce them “Ness” and “Sness”, those systems are also one syllable… that IS the key!

Rising Fun: Dawn for Japanese Games

The second half of the 80s and entirety of the 90s were a golden age for Japanese games.  From the moment Super Mario Bros. revived the American console industry, Japanese games absolutely dominated consoles.  While there were some exceptions, the vast, vast majority of good console games came from Japan during the third, fourth, and fifth generations.  Even the most prominent exceptions were made by western developers that were working with Japanese companies: Naughty Dog, Insomniac, and of course Rare.  Things started to change in the sixth generation, games like Halo, Grand Theft Auto 3, and the rising Tony Hawk series were critical and commercial successes, something very few western console games had achieved before that point.  Japanese games were probably still bigger or at least equal at that point, but it definitely wasn’t the absurd level of domination they previously held.  This was, of course, a good thing: there’s no reason for one country to dominate the way Japan did at one point.

 

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And thus Japan conquered console gaming overnight.

 

In the seventh and eighth generations, however, things started to become unbalanced in the other direction.  Several Japanese companies went into slumps at the same time, while western mega-publishers increased their dominance.  This led to an attitude in the 2010s that Japan was becoming irrelevant to the gaming industry.  I was not happy about this, but it would be fair to ask why when I was fine with how things were in the 90s.  Well, I have a few reasons.  For one, there was a fair amount of nationalistic gloating, treating this as “revenge” and calling the Japanese gaming industry a failure for not being able to match the combined output of two continents.  There’s also the fact that the fading Japanese companies had made so many great games in the past, and losing something is a lot more painful than never having it to begin with.  And while this may be too subjective and in the moment to use as a reason, I would much rather have 90s Capcom, Konami, and Squaresoft as the dominant publishers instead of companies like EA, Ubisoft, and Activision.  I’m not saying we need to go back to Japanese dominance, but all game producing regions making great games is the optimal situation and always will be.  I just want Japanese games to make a comeback for their own sake.

 

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Market Combat Evolving.

 

That seems to be what’s happening.  After many years of turmoil, Japanese-developed games are making a substantial comeback in 2017, in both the released and upcoming categories.  This year we’ve already seen Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, Nier Automata, Nioh, and Persona 5; quality releases that have mostly seen a good deal of commercial success and attention from the gaming community.  Looking ahead, we have Sonic Forces, Tekken 7, Tokyo Xanadu, Ys VIII, and Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite as some promising 2017 releases.   Compared to the past few years, this is a huge upturn in quality Japanese games.

Going beyond a simple games list, many of these games represent once mighty Japanese publishers and developers showing signs of recovering from their slumps.  Capcom finally made a Resident Evil that was well received, Team Ninja made their first well liked game in who knows how long with Nioh, Sega has two promising Sonic games coming out this year (although one is technically by western developers) – there are decades that would kill for that amount – and Square Enix has brought an underrated series into mainstream success while giving Platinum a chance to shine simultaneously with Nier: Automata.  Series that never had a huge western presence, such as Persona, Ys, Yakuza, and the aforementioned Nier/Drakengard also seem to be getting more attention than they previously did, which is great for the Japanese gaming industry.  The light of dawn may be starting to break through the cynicism that has clouded the concept of Japanese games in recent years.

 

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Looks like JRPGs don’t have cooties anymore.

 

There are two major Japanese publishers I consciously avoided mentioning up until this point.  One of them is a hugely conspicuous absence considering who is writing this article.  Why have I waited until now to say anything about Nintendo?  Because I like building things up before playing my strongest card.  Nintendo is in their own league among developers, and I’m don’t mean because they’re my favorite, their situation as the primary developer for their systems puts them in a very different position than the third parties I’ve covered.  Nintendo has always been prominent as a software publisher, even during the Wii U days their games sold millions with absurdly high attach rates that annihilated the best selling games of other systems with a low userbase.  However, Nintendo’s health is often measured by their console’s sales, and that has certainly not been going well in recent years.

Then it was like someone simply flipped a Switch.  Seeing what happened when they tried to copy their competitors with the Wii U, the Nintendo Switch is showing all indications that it recaptured the lightning bottled by the original Wii.  With the system selling out every shipment it makes almost instantly (and this is in March and April) and a non-pack in game managing to attain an unprecedented over 100% attach rate in at least one region, we have plenty of reason to believe that Nintendo’s console division is back on track.  And they’re definitely contributing to Japanese games making a resurgence in 2017.  This year we have or are scheduled to get The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, ARMS, Splatoon 2, Xenoblade 2, Fire Emblem Warriors and the game that means so much to me it was my most anticipated game of 2017 based on a six second “tech demo”, Super Mario Odyssey.  Breath of the Wild, the only one released so far, is one of the highest rated games of all time and would single handedly make this a better year for Japanese game reception than some of the last few.  Nintendo is back, and they’re ready to lead the charge in the Japanese game resurgence.

 

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Mario is back, and he’s not alone.

 

And what was that other company I avoided mentioning?  Well, it’s one that’s pretty easy to ignore, if the bitterness doesn’t get you, at least.  Konami, tormentor of employees, bane of Kojima, the Japanese EA.  No other Japanese publisher fell as far as Konami, but even with them, there is a glimmer of light this year.  Super Bomberman R is one of the more prominent Switch launch games that isn’t Zelda, and has been selling amazingly well for such a niche game.  Konami has publicly announced plans to revive more dormant franchises, as opposed to fleeing video games to make pachinko machines.  The slightest bit of hope for Konami is a miraculous step forward at this point.

 

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This game existing at all is a frigging miracle.

 

So, with the games released and announced in 2017, I think it’s safe to say that the sun is rising again for Japanese games.  Again, I’m not asking for western console games to go back to their dark age.  While I generally prefer Japanese design philosophy, western developers (many of whom grew up with games from Japan’s golden age) are perfectly capable of using it, and both sides can learn things from the other’s games.  Gamers benefit from as many developers as possible making great games, no matter what region they’re from.  With E3 fast approaching, we will hopefully soon have even more games to look forward to from Japanese developers and proof that the revival trend will continue in 2018 and beyond.

The Elements of Gameplay

In my previous article, I dissected the meaning behind several essentially identical terms used to judge games, terms that I hate.  I condensed them under the label of “soul,” and argued that if a game actually had a soul, it would be its gameplay.  I realized that just labeling the real important part of a game as gameplay could sound kind of like the copout I accused the term soul of being.  What exactly is gameplay, anyway?  Well, I’ve actually given that quite a bit of thought, and pinpointed five clearly defined (if often subjective in terms of quality) parts of a game that combine to form that seemingly sacred concept of gameplay.  I’ll be going over each one, so let’s start putting together this Megazord known as gameplay!

Control

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Let’s start with something simple, but vital to every game, arguably the primary thing that defines something as a video game.  Control is one of those things where it being good means you never think about it.  You’re not thinking about the controls when you’re steering an airborne Mario past obstacles or circle strafing demons as Doomguy, but if those games had bad controls you sure as hell would be.  Control is the link between the game and the player, good control adds more to immersion than all the graphical touches and flavor text in the world.  Bad control, on the other hand, will haunt a game no matter how much it excels at the other elements of gameplay.  Control sets the tone for a game: some of the other elements have to be designed entirely around the controls.  One game’s perfect control could ruin a different game, and that could easily go both ways.  Control is the vehicle that the other elements of gameplay ride in, and if it crashes, the entire game goes up in smoke.

Content

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You’re playing a modern retail game that does everything perfectly.  You’re completely absorbed by the gameplay, the first two hours made you fall in love and you can’t wait to see what’s next… CREDITS!?  I think we’ve all felt the painful sucker punch of an unexpected credits sequence.  No matter how a good a game is, er, was, if your $60 purchase ends after two hours it’s probably going to lower your opinion of the experience.  Content is probably the most objective element of gameplay: the amount of levels, missions, secrets, etc. in a game can’t be changed by someone’s opinion.  The objective nature of both what content is and how much an individual game has makes this a simple but important factor when it comes to gameplay.  While content doesn’t really affect the core gameplay experience directly, the truth is quantity does matter to some extent, and I think how long you get to enjoy a game is pretty important.  I mean, what are you going to do after you finish a game, just start it over again?  Wait, maybe you will…

Replay

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I debated on whether to combine this element with the above.  It was tricky because while content and replay serve a nearly identical function, the abundance of one often leads to the lack of the other.  These two elements are the only ones on the list that can almost totally replace each other.  Replay value is the other side of content’s coin.  Content is how much you get out of a game before the credits roll, replay value is whether you want to go back and play the game again after that happens.  The line can blur at times, what does going back to earlier levels for a better rank, with the option to do it before or after you beat the game, count as?  What about looking for secrets needed to unlock the real final level/ending after you saw the first ending?  How the hell do you define when a multiplayer game is being replayed?  Replay can also have a purer form, however.  A truly great game will be fun to play again and again even if you’ve seen everything in it.  If you feel compelled to go back to a completed game again and again over the years, it has truly achieved great replay value.  Replay value is what makes a game immortal, how can it not be part of a game’s soul?

Challenge

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If Content and Replay can make up for each other, Challenge completely inverts that and must fight with itself to reach the correct balance.  A game being too easy makes it boring and pointless.  A game being too hard makes it frustrating and stressful.  To have great gameplay, a game has to use the spice known as difficulty and the sweetener known as mercy in just the right amounts, creating just the right amount of Challenge.  Checkpoints should be placed thoughtfully, difficulty spikes and breathers have to show up at the right times, puzzles have to take effort to solve without throwing the player into a pit of despair that only looking up the solution can rescue them from.  The game must somehow appeal to players of different skill and experience levels in the same package.  A game’s difficulty level may not be the most subjective quality about it, but whether it’s the RIGHT difficulty level is going to cause fistfights.  This is where Challenge versus cheapness comes into play, and games should make sure they only rely on challenge, no matter how many people online define cheapness as “any challenge above my personal skill level.”  If you thread the needle just right, however, you’ll contribute something to gameplay that adds a dimension to the experience which other artistic mediums can’t compare with.

Design

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And now we arrive at what I personally consider to be the most important part of gameplay.  I was originally going to call this element Level Design, but in addition to preferring that every element was one word, there are a few genres where that name wouldn’t fit.  Level design is mostly a cosmetic feature in genres like fighting games or Tetris-style puzzle games, after all.  In the end, there are a lot of terms you could use for this element depending on the genre.  Level design, fighting engine, competitive balance, course layout, it goes on.  At its core, this element is a game’s unique and personal layout, the thing that makes an individual game that specific individual game.  You could mess with the other elements in a game and it would be a variant or fragment of the same game, but Design makes it a new game. All of the other elements are intimately connected with design in every aspect.  The most subjective element when it comes to quality by far, Design is truly the core of the soul, the thing that defines the individual.  Whether it’s designing the level, placing enemies, balancing combat, thinking up puzzles, or deciding how far to go with realism, Design is the most important part of gameplay and by extension the most important part of game.

By Your Powers Combined

So there we have it, the five parts of a game that I believe make up that ideal known as gameplay.  Whether you want to think in terms of Power Rangers/Captain Planet/Avatar/My Little Pony or whatever, they have been assembled and Gameplay, the soul of a game, has been formed.  So, if you ever want to argue with someone bashing your favorite game for lacking “soul,” you can use gameplay as a counterargument, and you can use these elements to define gameplay.  Maybe I’ll write something about the anti-elements at some point, but for now I’ve said all I want to.  See you next time, and remember that gameplay puts the soul in console, wait, gameplay is the only consoulation for… no, don’t be con-souled about the soul of… never mind, just go.

 

Striking at the Soul

Over the years I’ve come across many terms that I hate seeing applied to games.  Soul.  Magic.  Heart.  Charm.  Spark.  So it looks like it’s time to do another list, all of these terms deserve to be categorically addressed so I can explain exactly why they are not valid ways to judge games.  Let’s get right to it: time for the intimidating task of dissecting five different concepts in one article.  Let’s get started!

Magic

What it means:  Magic, when applied to games, is a catch-all term for an indescribable feeling you get from a game.  Something you can’t describe, but you just KNOW it when you see it.  Something that supercedes any part of a game you can actually give a supportable opinion on.  Magic is different from the other terms because, because…

Wait…

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All of them are the same freaking thing! 

Yep, the list was a fake-out.  These (and probably many more) terms are all functionally identical, and it’s that concept that I want to argue against, in all of its guises.  There are two main things that the various terms (I’m just going to use soul for the rest of this article) are actually describing, and neither are good reasons for judging a game.  Let’s get to the real dissection!

Aesthetics

You know how some people judge games on their technical or budget merits?  How many polygons there are, how much wide open empty space the draw distance can show at once, how expensive the voice actors were?  Well people who care about a game’s soul would never do that.  Why?  Because it’s not petty ENOUGH!  It’s the little things that make a game great: little touches in the background, the exact right amount of comedic quirk in the dialogue, whether it’s a sequel or not.  Judging a game by the graphics as a whole makes you shallow, but judging it by dissecting minor details of the graphics makes you deep.  Maybe an 8-bit art style could have potentially passed your metric for the game having enough “soul” in its look, but you’re still judging a game for how it looks, and no euphemism is going to change that.

 

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This is what letting games be judged by soul gets us.

 

Why would anyone believe in this double standard?  I’m not convinced that many genuinely do.  The fact is, saying a game is bad because of its graphics is going to make a lot of people disregard your opinion, which in my magical and soulful special spark of an opinion is justified.  As someone who still regularly plays games from earlier console generations, defends Nintendo for focusing on gameplay over writing and story in many of their series, and gets very annoyed by being told my systems of choice are inferior to the “master race” because the graphics aren’t as good, I obviously don’t approve of judging games by their graphics.  So I don’t like it when people ostensibly on my side do the exact same thing but insist that it’s actually about “soul.”  If you care about aesthetics to the point where a game not meeting your expectations in them can ruin the experience for you, I’ll have a much easier time agreeing to disagree if you don’t use vague and frustrating terms to hide it.  But maybe it isn’t really the artistic merit that the game is really being judged on, quite often it’s really…

Nostalgia

Yep, it’s come to this, the big N.  No, not Nintendo… well, a lot of the time they are the ones this is being used against, but that’s not the point.  It’s not a coincidence that sequels and recent games are so much more likely to be derided for having an insufficient quantity of soul.  Nostalgia is a powerful force.  I’m not going to claim to be immune to it: in fact I’m hyper-sensitive to it and develop it much faster than most people (I’m listening to a song that brings back memories of 2014 as I type this sentence).  I’ve certainly replayed many games that in no way merit ever being touched again because they gave me nostalgia, I’m still looking for my floppy disc of Dino: Lost in Bedrock just because it’s a different version than the one you can find online.

 

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This has great nostalgia for me, do I have claws for claiming cat puns and terrible controls are soulful?

 

So having nostalgia is fine, enjoying things just because of nostalgia is fine.  But you have to be aware of what you’re doing, and more important, don’t judge new games on how much they appeal to your nostalgia!  If you want to pick up a game because it’s pandering to your nostalgia just right, go for it, but don’t judge newer games as a whole because they don’t accomplish the impossible task of giving you the same nostalgic feeling a game you played in elementary school does.  It is not the game lacking soul that makes it feel less magical than the 20-year-old previous installment did, it’s the fact that you were 20 years younger back then.  Not understanding your nostalgia cravings is just going to lead to disappointment and despair, and bashing every new game in a franchise because of that makes you annoying, okay? So stop it.

So what would it be?

So if games actually did have souls, what would the soul be?  What is the core of a game, the element that really makes it special?  If you took away all the extras and aesthetics, what would be left to define the pure essence of a game?  How long am I going to insult your intelligence by building this up when it’s blatantly obvious that I’m going to say the answer is gameplay?

 

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The gameplay in this is more soul than you’d find in any pixel art walking simulator.

 

Yes, if we were to say games actually have a soul, it would clearly be gameplay.  In addition to being the most important part of a game, gameplay ultimately leads to the things that are wrongfully called the soul of a game.  A game being good in the first place will be a major contribution to how much nostalgia it eventually produces, right?  And the positive associations a game gives you thanks to its gameplay are what lead to the little aesthetic touches and quirks that people mistake for soul.  If Bubsy was a platforming masterpiece, I firmly believe Bubsy’s annoying puns would be iconic and loved in a somewhat ironic way like the dialogue in Star Fox 64 and Resident Evil 4.

So that’s my rant for the day.  Week, months, whatever I procrastinated it to.  I hope I’ve made some points about what a game should and shouldn’t be judged by, or at least gotten people to find better terms for what they use to judge games.  A thought occurred to me as I was writing this, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that I was using gameplay as just as much of a vague catch-all in this article as the terms I railed against.  Going into detail about what I consider gameplay, though, would take up an entire article of its own… so that’s what I’m going to give it.  Stay tuned!

 

Respect the Unexpected

Sometimes when you look back on a game after the fact, you realize it wasn’t as good as you made yourself believe when you first got it, or you realize it was actually a lot better than you gave it credit for.  Those games aren’t the focus of this list.  This list is for games that instantly changed my strong preconceived notions as soon as I played them.  It can either be a game I went into with hype that was instantly deflated, or a game that I expected to hate or at least be indifferent towards that I ended up liking.  I have three examples for both types, and I’ll be alternating between negative and positive.  Since I always like ending on a positive, I’ll let the negative examples start the pattern.  Let’s get started!

Mega Man X6

What I Expected

I really, really love the Mega Man X series.  I would consider the first three games to be my favorite trilogy in all of gaming, and the original Mega Man X is one of my favorite games of all time.  The first four X games are my four favorite Mega Man games of any type, and Mega Man X5 is a step down but still a great game that I have played through dozens of times.  So, it should go without saying that I had very high expectations going into Mega Man X6, it looked like just a level pack for MMX5, but I was fine with that.  Two console MMX games in the same year seemed too good to be true, but really, what could go wrong?

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What Actually Happened

I’m still not sure what the hell happened with Mega Man X6.  MMX6 isn’t a lazy level pack, that would be so much better than what we got.  No, X6 is a train wreck that seems to go out of its way to make as many stupid, frustrating level design choices as possible.  Levels range from the same tedious and frustrating mid-boss fought four times in a row to nightmarish extended dashes to safety as a one hit kill ceiling tries to crush you.  Bosses are just as bad.  Even the story is terrible.  I beat X5, X8, and even the infamous X7 on the day I bought them.  I didn’t force myself to beat X6 until over six months later.  I could tell something was wrong right away, and to this day I don’t understand what happened.  This isn’t the result of greed and laziness, it’s a calculated attempt to twist one of the best gameplay systems there is into a horrible parody of itself.

Doom (1993)

What I Expected

I am a console gamer, I have been ever since I stopped being forced to subsist on Hi-Tech PC games, and I always will be.  So, Doom being a PC originating series that only got inferior console ports for most of its existence put up quite barrier to me getting into it.  I wasn’t all that into first person shooters to begin with, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much, a mid-90s western PC series didn’t sound like it was going to offer much.  I tried the famously arcade like and over the top Serious Sam games via their console compilation, and enjoyed them.  I decided that it was worth trying the Doom compilation, three games and several expansion packs for around $10 made the risk exceptionally low, so why not?  But I wasn’t expecting that much out of it, especially the original Doom and its very direct sequel.

doom

What Actually Happened

Damn you realism, damn you real guns and human enemies, and damn you every mid-90s magazine dismissing all FPSes as worthless “Doom clones.”  I love old style FPSes.  The varied weapons, the enemies with attacks you can directly dodge, the fast movement and lack of reloading, the creative level design, Doom is everything I wanted in the genre but didn’t know until I played it.  The modern console remasters of Doom and its sequel have everything the PC versions did, and I love them.  Doom and its level pack like sequel are probably my favorite western developed games of the 20th century, and easily my favorite PC originating games of all time.  By extremely good fortune, I got into the series just a bit over a year from the phenomenal DOOM 2016, which I have raved about at length in previous articles.  Doom expanded my horizons in a wonderful way.

Twisted Metal (2012)

What I Expected

I was fascinated by Twisted Metal 2 years before I owned a PlayStation, the characters and concept were very interesting to me and I read all I could about it in game magazines.  My instincts correctly blocked any interest in Twisted Metal 3 and 4, but I eventually got to play TM2 and I liked the gameplay just as much as the characters and concept.  Twisted Metal Black rekindled my interest, even though I once again didn’t have the system it was on when the game was released.  I eventually got it and loved it even more than Twisted Metal 2.  Then the series just disappeared, despite the acclaimed revival.  There was nothing but a decent PSP game for a decade, but then hope came, another reboot of the series.  Not having stories for each car was a big negative, but maybe the unified story mode could make up for it, and the important part was getting more of that signature gameplay, with online I could use!

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What Actually Happened

989 rose from the grave and cursed Twisted Metal 2012.  That’s my best guess, anyway.  For one thing, the “real story mode” was actually just three traditional driver stories (previous games had 4-5 times as many, for reference) glued together, ranging from decent to an idiotic pun ending.  But that’s not the worst part.  The controls were extremely slippery and mocked me by putting in the classic style that I wanted to use but making it unplayable with a small change (Human biology trivia: we only have two thumbs.  Do not demand we use both analog sticks and face buttons at the same time).  And the “story” mode put in absolutely atrocious and mandatory checkpoint race missions that the controls made into pure torture.  Assuming this doesn’t kill the series, the next reboot needs to be much, much, MUCH better.

Knack

What I Expected

Knack has been a running joke ever since it was announced alongside the PlayStation 4.  A generic PS1/2-era platformer with a character getting bigger gimmick, this was what Sony chose to showcase their new console!?  Sony giving digital copies away with PS4s and not bothering to tell the people who bought the systems just made the game more of a laughing stock.  While I didn’t think the game looked horrible, it seemed like it focused on mindless combat with minimal platforming.  I had little desire to play it unless I could find it for really cheap, and even then it would mainly be so I could make fun of it while streaming it.  Well, the game was $5 on a PSN Flash Sale, so I jumped on it.  While in my Skype group chat I started the stream, ready to laugh at the infamous Knack.

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What Actually Happened

My thoughts upon starting the game were that the controls were actually very good.  Combat was pretty solid, much better than I was expecting and actually a significant challenge on hard mode.  Good enemy variety.  Wow, the levels are really long, and there are a ton of worlds.  I thought, “Maybe people were too harsh on this game, or maybe it all goes to repetitive hell soon”.  It didn’t.  The levels and enemies stayed varied throughout the game, the platforming wasn’t too frequent but there was enough to add variety to the combat.  The combat was fast paced and reminded me of classic beat-em-ups, specifically Turtles in Time for some reason (my favorite game in the genre).  Knack… Knack is a hidden gem.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a very solid game that definitely kicks the crap out of PS4’s other 2013 and 2014 exclusives.  I’m genuinely anticipating Knack 2, which looks like a significant improvement on what turned out to be a solid foundation.  Give this game a chance: the fact that it’s getting a sequel is a miracle.

Grand Theft Auto III

What I Expected

If you’ve been following my articles, you probably saw this coming a mile away.  But if you haven’t, this is probably a pretty big surprise.  The first two negative example games are hated by most people, but not Grand Theft Auto 3.  This is considered one of the most influential games of all time, it basically started a genre and just look at how much you can do!  Being under 17 and having just recently convinced my parents to let me play M rated games when GTA3 came out in 2001, I decided not to push my luck and ignored it while everyone raved about it.  Years later, I finally picked up the game, my first GTA.  Having heard everyone rave about this game for years and intrigued by the length and scale of the game, I had pretty high hopes when I started.  What could possibly go wrong?

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What Actually Happened

Did you realize that I was referencing Bubsy there?  Now don’t worry, I’m not going to be a hyperbolic hater and say Grand Theft Auto 3 is comparable to Bubsy 3D in quality.

…But it is about as good as the original Bubsy.  Now before you tear into me and I retaliate with my story about how I missed out on a genre I really enjoy for years because everyone insisted GTA was the pinnacle of it (the first good GTA game is Saints Row 2), let me go over everything GTA3 does wrong.  Horrific aiming system, absurdly harsh penalty for dying that means you basically have to load your save every time that happens (and save points are NOT frequent), having to drive back to the start of missions every time you want to try again, needing to track down hidden packages that could be absolutely anywhere in the entire game if you want to mitigate that penalty for dying, this open world game from 2001 not having a freaking MAP.  Trying to actually play this game for any purpose besides mindless chaos is a nightmare, and the game still makes said chaos a pain in the ass to accomplish.  The consequences for dying or being arrested being so harsh goes completely against the “freedom” this game supposedly gave players.  And while future GTAs would fix some of the problems from this game, several gigantic ones stayed around until Grand Theft Auto V in 2013, the first game in the series I actually like.  And it would have been so easy to fix these problems (the HD remaster of San Andreas fixes enough to make it enjoyable), but no one seemed to care about them in any way until Grand Theft Auto IV’s fan backlash.  Sorry, but I think GTA3 is a genuinely bad game and probably the most overrated of all time.

Tetris Attack

What I Expected

Puzzle games seemed inherently boring to me when I was new to gaming.  Doing nothing in a game but rearranging blocks seemed completely pointless.  I was aware of Tetris because everyone on the planet is, but I had no desire to play it, similar games, or games that I would later discover only had its name slapped on them for a marketing gimmick (you know, we’d probably have this game on Virtual Console if it was called Yoshi’s Puzzle League).  I never would have chosen to play Tetris Attack, but Blockbuster had a promotion where renting it came with a free other game rental of your choice, so there was no reason not to rent it.  And since I had the cart, why not give it a quick chance?  But aside from the Yoshi’s Island setting, I wasn’t expecting to really enjoy anything in the game, it would probably be a more colorful Wordtris.

tetrisattack

What Actually Happened

Literally the second I started playing I loved it.  I could go on about why Tetris Attack is the best puzzle game of all time, going into how the mechanics fix a massive flaw inherent to almost every other competitive puzzle game, but that wasn’t what I was thinking when I played the game the first time.  The intuitive and addictive base gameplay is what drew me in when I thought I hated puzzle games.  The competitive mode gave things a fighting game feel that I loved.  There was just something so inherently satisfying about the game, I don’t remember exactly what I identified it as on that day over 20 years ago, but I know my love was instantaneous.  My horizons were expanded that day, and Tetris Attack has remained one of my favorite games on my favorite system without ever wavering.  That moment where a game connects with you instantly and against all your expectations is something that can’t be fully recreated at both my age where I have played so many games, and in the age we live in where you can easily watch videos and read all you want about every game before you play it.  There’s a magic in my first encounter with Tetris Attack that I will always remember.

So, there you have it, six games that flipped my perception of them upside down within the first play session.  Aside from my personal reminiscing, the takeaway from this article I want everyone to have is that you can’t really know what a game is like until you play it.  Even with games where my expectations weren’t so radically shattered, nothing except ruining the game by watching a full playthrough can really let you know what a game is like before you play it.  Always be prepared going into a game, it might be a tragic disappointment, but it could also be a magical moment or great surprise that you never saw coming.

 

How Wii Will Remember U

As I write this, Wii U owners and critics are preparing for a dramatic switch.  I don’t mean the console, I mean a switch in how the system is viewed.  Wii U did not sell very well, it was the underdog for almost all of its life.  This led to excessive and vicious trolling at every opportunity: people bashing it for lacking games while the “real” eighth gen systems subsisted on very slightly polished PS3 games, redefinition of what 3D meant to bash Nintendo, and of course predictions of its imminent death.  And what happens when it actually dies?  Worship.  When’s the last time you saw Dreamcast or GameCube or Neo Geo Pocket Color bashed for their poor sales?  Wii U is destined to be a revered cult favorite, and will surely be Nintendo’s last “real” console according to trolls at some point.  So, as we look back at its life, let’s do it both ways.  Every system has good and bad parts, so let’s look at Wii U from both perspectives.  I always get the bad out of the way first, and it came first chronologically anyway, so let’s begin with:

The “Wii U is Still Alive” Perspective

Wii U was a spectacular failure.  The very first we ever saw of it was a horrible trailer that made it look like it was just a controller accessory for the original Wii.  The tablet like controller never caught on with the mass market, and even Nintendo was quick to pretend it didn’t exist.  Retail games dried up almost instantly.  Nintendo went right from their best-selling console to their worst, everything about the Wii U was a disaster.

After launch day, the system suffered a terrible drought that lasted nine entire months.  Nintendo delayed their “launch window” games and the most we got from third parties were multi-plat games that were often missing features.  Despite bragging about all the third parties supporting them at the system’s reveal and re-reveal (where it was just possible to tell it was a new console), third parties were quick to abandon the Wii U.  Late or inferior PS360 ports were the extent of the support from major western publishers, and even those dried up to almost nothing within a year.  Major publishers and developers openly mocked the system and no efforts were made by anyone to give it games that were only on eighth generation systems.  Third party support became worse than it had ever been.

Nintendo’s games should have been the saving grace, but they refused to give gamers what they wanted.  We got a 2D Mario at launch, a linear 3D Mario, a freaking Donkey Kong game instead of Metroid, and some squid game.  Paper Mario Color Splash was a slap in the face to every former fan of the Paper Mario series, and Nintendo constantly let 3DS steal Wii U’s exclusives.  Nintendo had clearly given up on the system by 2015 and forced it to do a death march until they finally released a new console.  Everything about the system was a mistake and it would be in the best interest of Nintendo and gamers everywhere to just forget that this failure ever happened.

The “Wii U is Dead” Perspective

The Wii U was a fantastic system subjected to some of the greatest injustices in gaming history.  The system had some of Nintendo’s best games and incredible potential that could have easily made it a bigger success than the original Wii if anyone had given it a chance.  The Wii U Pad can do everything you could possibly want out of a controller and simple quality of life improvements provided by the touchscreen could have given it the edge over other systems in nearly any multi-plat.  Wii U didn’t fail, we failed the Wii U.

The supposedly terrible drought was the result of the system having a launch that was too good, over 30 games were available at launch and if you were depending on Wii U for your console needs there was enough to last you until Pikmin 3 in August 2013.  That’s right, the “great drought” lasted nine months, as opposed to around two years for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, which had terrible launches to boot.  And remember PS4 getting praised for playing used games, and Xbox One for adding limited backwards compatibility long after release?  Guess what system fully supported used games and had full backwards compatibility from the start?  Wii U was the victim of a hypocritical and vicious media, plain and simple.

The lazy, entitled, and viciously unprofessional actions by third parties were in no way the system’s fault.  Did Nintendo tell Ubisoft to traumatize everyone with the original Red Steel, leading to Zombi U’s disappointing sales?  No, and they didn’t tell them to sabotage poor Rayman Legends in response to that just to make sure Wii U didn’t even have it as a timed exclusive.  Did they tell companies to leave DLC out of the Wii U versions of multi-plats, setting up a vicious cycle where they couldn’t sell?  Did they personally summon whatever demon was running EA and provoke it into every act of blatant sabotage or immature public shot at the Wii U?  Third parties never gave the system a chance, Nintendo’s big mistake was giving THEM a chance.

Now as for Nintendo’s own games, they made some of their best games ever.  We got two fantastic Mario games lacking nothing but nostalgia rebranded as “soul.”  Mario Kart and Smash Bros. were leagues better than their Wii counterparts.  Star Fox, Pikmin, and an absolutely phenomenal Yoshi platformer made their returns.  Splatoon showed Nintendo can still make a great and popular new IP whenever the mood strikes them.  Nintendo made alliances with third parties to get great exclusives like Bayonetta 2, The Wonderful 101, Pokken Tournament, and Hyrule Warriors.  Super Mario Maker made the longstanding dream of gamers come true, and Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is one of the best platformers of all time.  Even the mini-game compilation at launch was bursting with content and far deeper gameplay than you would expect.  Nintendo not catering to the exact whims of jaded gamers (who would doubtlessly have changed their demands as soon as they got them) doesn’t mean they didn’t bring their A game.

My Actual Thoughts

So, to conclude, what do I think of the Wii U and its life when I’m not purposefully being blindly positive or negative?  Well, I’m not going to deny that some mistakes were made, there’s no way to deny that the console sales were indeed pretty much a disaster.  I’m not going to absolve Nintendo of all responsibility for what went wrong, but double standards on the part of third parties and the gaming community definitely share some blame for what went wrong.  Nintendo misjudging how long it would take to get the hang of HD development was a big factor in the initial drought, and they should have made Wii U being a new system clearer.  Third parties abandoning it after their late, often inferior ports didn’t sell a huge amount, though, is something that really happened and it is not at all fair to blame Nintendo for that.  The things PS4/X1 got praised for that Wii U had ignored probably weren’t the result of malicious intent, but it was unfortunate timing that Nintendo wasn’t responsible for.

Nintendo really did make some of their best games on the system, even if they had clearly changed their focus to the Switch late in the Wii U’s life, the things I said about games in the positivity section are pretty much how I really feel.  New Super Mario Bros. U, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, and Yoshi’s Wooly World are exceptional games that people unfairly dismissed because they were 2D.  The collaborations with third parties for exclusives were a great idea and were usually successful (assuming anyone remembers Devil’s Third, that was the obvious exception).  Wii U’s amazing attach rate for first party games shows that Nintendo was still making great games and that people still like them.  However, third party was clearly lacking (and not just in big budget games like the hidden gem filled Wii) and Nintendo’s learning period for HD game design limited the quantity a bit.  While there were some great indie games, Wii U really could have used the mid-ware style retail releases that gave Wii so many overlooked but great games.  Thankfully, the portable/console dual nature of the Switch shows signs of bringing those back.

Appropriately enough, I’d rank the Wii U solidly in the middle as far as Nintendo systems go.  It didn’t match its predecessor or the legendary SNES, but it could easily compete with Nintendo’s other systems.  Definitely a quality over quantity system, a couple of dozen great exclusives that definitely justify its purchase, but aren’t going to push it to the top of the Nintendo heap.  I’m not sad to see the negativity that dominated the Wii U’s lifespan go, I’m more than ready for a Switch.  The system itself, though, has a solid lineup of great games that I would strongly recommend collecting before their inevitable price inflation.  In the future, when the negativity of the era has been washed away by time and the nostalgia filter, I think Wii’ll have many fond memories of U.

 

But Is It Bart?

 

One of Professor Icepick’s many series that never got off the ground was called “But Is It Art?”, in which he looked at games universally considered bad through the light of a critic desperate to interpret the game as high art that was far too profound to have good gameplay.  I believe a similar concept was used in nearly every review of Gone Home.  So, I will be bringing this series back with my own installment, and since I got my 15 minutes of internet fame from the Dead Bart creepypasta, the only logical choice is to twist more Simpsons media into something unrecognizable.  But this time, the horror comes from the source material, not my interpretation.  It’s time to analyze Bart’s Nightmare, a poorly designed, frustrating mess that probably doesn’t even crack the list of top five worst Simpsons games, which is horrifying.  But maybe we were looking at it wrong, we should have been asking: “But is it art?”

Bart’s Nightmare is the story of Bart Simpson, face of ‘90s animation until everyone realized Homer was funnier, falling asleep the night before a big homework assignment is due.  Bart has one of those hub-based nightmares we all have in which he must collect the pages of his homework from several terrible gameplay styles.  Right away we see this game’s brilliance, the sheer courage of the developers.  Given the task of making what was already just another brick in the wall of terrible Simpsons games, they doubtlessly viewed this game as nothing but an unpleasant homework assignment.  This naked honesty is something few developers would ever be willing to put in their game.  Bart Simpson, underachiever and allegedly proud of it, was the perfect metaphor for Simpsons games.  On the surface the publishers were proud of their money-making crap, but just as Bart is troubled in his sleep at the thought of more failure, the developers are trying to express their inner pain at being forced into this situation.  The bad gameplay is the best way they can make the player emphasize with them.

As mentioned, Bart’s Nightmare is hub-based.  Now most games using this format would make a hub that had its own architecture, ideally its own satisfying and creative level, or at least something where you had some sort of control over which level you went to and when.  But this is Bart’s Nightmare, a logical and enjoyable hub world would be the epitome of ludonarrative dissonance.  Instead, Bart’s Nightmare has an endlessly looping sidewalk filled with enemies that are either so easy to avoid they may as well not exist, or that take full advantage of Bart’s terrible jump that is completely unsuited for the ¾ perspective.  To enter the levels, Bart must find a piece of paper blowing across the ground.  The appearance of these are random, and the game even lets you walk either left or right, just to give you the illusion of control.  Is choosing between two options when you have absolutely no way of knowing which is correct really a choice?  Bart’s Nightmare poses that question, and like all great art, stops there instead of answering it.

And then we get to the levels themselves.  There are five levels, and eight homework pages that Bart must collect.  Three of the levels have two parts, each giving you a homework page (in another brilliant metaphor for the randomness of nightmares, whether you have to go back to the hub world or can just continue to part two of a stage after getting the first page of homework is inconsistent between the multi-part levels).  This means two of the levels are just a single part, and these are the two most tolerable levels.  The purple door leads to a mindless but short and painless level taking place in Bart’s bloodstream, while the blue door leads to a Bartman themed segment that would almost be an enjoyable shooter if you weren’t cursed with a slingshot that shoots pellets with a wilting arc that makes hitting enemies a chore.  If every part of the game was like these segments, it might just make it into the elite class of slightly above average 16-bit licensed games.  Alas, the best parts of the game are the shortest.  The message here is clear, the fun parts of life are fleeting.  The Simpsons episode “A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again” examined this same theme nearly 20 years after Bart’s Nightmare, the game is such a profound work of art that it was miles ahead of its source material.

Now let’s look at the larger levels.  The yellow door leads to an Itchy and Scratchy themed beat-em-up.  I already mentioned that the platformer style obstacles in the hub world didn’t work thanks to the ¾ perspective iconic to beat-em-ups, so the stage set in that genre must work, right?  If Bart’s Nightmare were made by incompetent developers, sure.  But this game is true art, and the developers put the effort into making sure that the collision detection in the beat-‘em-up stages was still terrible.  Making the controls only work in one of those levels would be laziness, but making it work in NEITHER is brilliance.  You tediously fight through attacks by both Itchy and Scratchy, ensuring there is a max of two enemies on screen at a time.  The only weapon with decent hit detection is a pan that you get early on, you are given the opportunity to pick up seemingly better weapons later, but trying to line up a hit will most likely get you killed.  The game is teaching you the dangers of temptation, which anyone who bought a Simpsons console game in the 1990s clearly needs a lesson in.  Brilliant.

The green door leads to Bartzilla.  The first segment of this level has you as a gigantic reptilian Bart who must somehow defend himself from constant assaults by smaller and faster enemies, while your hitbox takes up a huge chunk of the screen.  You are in the position of a video game boss: this segment is clearly meant to teach empathy, showing you how little fun being the boss in a game would be.  If you somehow get past this segment, you are forced to climb a skyscraper as a shrunken Bartzilla.  Everything is reversed from the previous part of the level.  You’re small, have one almost useless attack, and instead of auto-scrolling you are constantly knocked back whenever you take damage.  Both sides of the coin cause pain and frustration, just like the choice the developers had between losing their job and making a terrible Simpsons game.  More empathy, Bart’s Nightmare is a fantastic teacher.

I saved the best for last, the orange door leads to the Temple of Maggie.  As a child, this was the only segment I couldn’t beat, and I still have never legitimately beaten it (even with save states, it is incredibly frustrating).  The confusing tile puzzles and absurd leap in logic needed to survive (scrolling the camera ahead somehow triggers traps), combined with the extremely unforgiving lives system (you start with one life, and falling or a temple trap will instantly end it, going for the extra lives will just make the puzzle harder and likely get you killed), ensures that you will spend much more time wandering the barren wasteland that is the hub world looking for the increasingly rare paper that will take you back to the level doors.  The message that life is mostly tedium interspersed with brief false hope and frustration is one that anyone who plays the game will keep with them forever.

Whether you somehow finish the game or finally die in the hub world after the tedium induced fatigue overpowers the frequent extra hitpoint powerups, you will be greeted with Bart waking up and getting the grade for his homework assignment.  Even getting all the pages won’t guarantee the highest grade, there is a point system in the game.  Putting a point system in a game with so many different gameplay styles, as well as an endless hub world, is absolutely nonsensical but makes perfect sense as dream logic.  The ending and game over screen have no difference other than the grade Bart gets on his homework, which is something the character wouldn’t care about.  A meaningless end to a meaningless quest, anyone who has ever accomplished something in a dream will be able to relate.  There is no reward, no happiness, no sense of accomplishments.  There is only Bart’s Nightmare.

Okay, breaking character, what do I really think of Bart’s Nightmare?  Well, I think my “praise” got that through pretty clearly.  Mini-game levels ranging from below average to atrocious, one of the worst hubworld systems I have ever seen in a game, there is nothing redeeming about the game other than the fact that many Simpsons games managed to be even worse.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of But Is It Art?, there will likely be more to come because I want to get SOMETHING out of playing games like this.  See you next time!

Lots of Red, No White but Blue

Hello. This is Dari.  I am starting a new series called “Dari-Isms.”  This is going to try to explain the inner machinations of my mind, which apparently a lot of people don’t understand.  Most of these are going to be about gaming, but I may throw some other opinion pieces in, if people want to hear them. Today I’m gonna talk about some of my favorite and least favorite Capcom “mascots” of yesteryear. I am mainly going to talk about Ryu and Ken (of Street Fighter) and Zero and Megaman X (of Megaman X).

Let’s start with Ryu. Ryu is the mascot and the face of Street Fighter. He is most likely the first person anyone thinks of when they think of fighting games in general, not just Street Fighter. This is one of the reasons I hate him. He’s a very boring character. And his moveset, while copied and done better by most of the other characters that share his moveset, is also quite plain. Ryu himself usually moves like an old man with bad arthritis. He’s so stiff; I wonder how he even fights with any sort of speed! (i.e. crossover games like Marvel vs Capcom.) His Hadoken attack is usually very slow, but powerful. His Shoryuken is again, slow but powerful, and invincible on startup depending on the game, but again, it’s very stiff and can easily be stuffed or even just plain dodged, because it’s easily telegraphed. Ryu’s story is just plain sad. He’s a nomad from Japan who doesn’t have a family who just wanders around trying to get stronger, fight strong opponents and fight the ‘Satsui no Hado’ which can (and has depending on the game/timeline) overtake him and turn him evil, like another one of his counterparts, Akuma. But that’s another story for another time. Ryu is a terrible character. I understand he’s the “entry character” and he’s the base for everyone to learn off, but I feel like they’ve added so many more interesting characters that can take his place, that Ryu really would have, and should have faded into the background. He can still be the face of the series, but he can just be that. He doesn’t need half the popularity he has. He needs to sit down somewhere and stay there for a while. Now, again, he doesn’t need to sit out of a game where Street Fighter characters are prominent, but I mean he needs something to make him interesting.

In contrast, let’s talk about Ken Masters. Ken Masters originally started as the Player 2 alternative for Ryu. But he’s grown so much more since then. Ever since Street Fighter 2, he’s grown so much since being Ryu’s copy. He has fire in his shoryukens, which differentiates him from boring old, stiff Ryu. Also it seems like Ken has more mobility than Ryu ever will. It’s possibly because he’s younger than him.  Ken, I feel focuses more on his kicks than his counterpart. He also seems to have evolved more than his sparring partner. He has a shinryuken attack (in some games and media) that has him doing a strong shoryuken attack covered in a pillar of fire. Ryu cannot do this as far as what’s been shown. Ken also has a shin shoryuken which can hit for 2 or 3 times with his fire shoryuken. Ryu only does it once, but while there’s a lot of power behind it, it’s not as flexible or unique as Ken’s. Ken’s story is also fairly interesting. He has a family, a wife and a son. Some people would say that someone with a family shouldn’t be fighting, but he makes money this way and he also keeps up with his buddy Ryu, and keeps him relevant. So it’s fine. Ken is also an American. He met Ryu while at a tournament. They became friends and sparring partners under Gouken. Ken fights for his family and to be stronger in general. See how much better Ken is than Ryu? This is why I like Ken more than Ryu. They may have started as clones of each other but Ken Masters evolved more as a character than Ryu probably ever will.

Time to switch gears and move on to the two robots. I’ll start with Zero.  Zero is the bane of the Megaman X series in my eyes. He is supposedly the only creation of Megaman X that Keiji Inafune made. He wanted him in the beginning of the Megaman X series to be the star, but Capcom told him no. He decided to make him the star anyway. He had to save Megaman X in every game. If he wasn’t trying to save him, X himself was trying to rebuild him because he felt like he needed his friend back to save the world. I find this demoralizing to X and it made him seem like he was trying to steal the main character’s thunder. I find this extremely rude. Zero was so prominent in the grand scheme of things, that Megaman X was an unlockable character in his own game over him! Megaman X8 was the last game in the series. The Character who has been most prominent of the few times that Megaman X was represented was Zero. X appeared in the Project X Zone games, but those games weren’t as popular. Zero was in Tatsunoko vs Capcom, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and a few other games. Megaman Zero even got his own very successful series of its own right, even using X as a boss. I find that demeaning but Capcom did what they wanted so I cannot fault them for what gave them a bunch of money in the end, even if they wouldn’t give X a chance.  I feel like Zero was made to steal the thunder of X and make him obsolete in comparison. They succeeded a bit too well. There are some fans who still care about X and remember who he is. These people are the only people who keep X’s spirit alive. And thanks to that X finally appears in a popular game again, Marvel vs Capcom Infinite. The rumors say that X will be very prominent in the story and he was the first character shown, aside Ryu. My personal opinion is that Zero shouldn’t appear in this and let X have his own shine, as he’s never allowed him to do so in his own series besides then. All Zero did was take over someone else’s series, kill it and then get his own series to succeed, to leave the character he stepped on in the dust.

Finally, we’ll talk about X. Megaman X is the Megaman who took over for Megaman Classic in his own series. X is a really good character that’s underestimated. He’s very powerful, yet he also wants peace. Gamers don’t like this aspect of him, even if Megaman Classic had the same attitude, and he was praised for it. Megaman was sadly overshadowed for Zero. And Zero went out of his way to kill his character and his series. Megaman X was a good character, but most people didn’t like him over his counterpart. He had powerful armors and he was great when he did battle. I feel like X needs more recognition and respect. He was unlockable in one of his own games where his name was still prominent in the title! He is a Megaman and he seems to be either bad luck or a curse upon anything he’s been in recently. I still enjoy Megaman X over Zero because he’s the underdog and even though he’s the main character, some people don’t acknowledge him, or will give him its due respect.

In summation, I like Ken Masters because he’s a great evolution of what was literally a palette swap of Ryu, who is a boring nomad who’s trying to control his evil. I enjoy X because he’s disrespected even though he’s the main character. I hate Zero because he stole the show from Megaman X and killed the entire series to spite X. He also apparently took over the entire representation of the series for some odd reason.  Not to say I hate all second fiddles to Capcom games, Protoman was good because he knew his place. He was a second fiddle to Megaman Classic,  but he didn’t outshine his Megaman, and he was still popular in the long run. I wish Zero could have taken this precedent, but sadly he didn’t.