An Odyssey That Will Take Your Breath Away

Ever since those six seconds of footage in the Switch reveal trailer, I was incredibly hyped for Super Mario Odyssey (and endlessly gloated about how “Super Mario Switch” was a real game and not a tech demo as Nintendo tried to claim). I’ve wanted to write an article entirely dedicated to it for a while now, but ended up waiting until my second playthrough so that I could have maximum clarity on my feelings for it. It’s not like I could have had a review of it ready for launch day. Of course, after waiting this long and having already said that it lived up to my hype in the most anticipated games of 2018 article, I can’t just spend a few thousand words raving about it. I need a hook for this article. And during my second playthrough, it came to me. Last year there were two extraordinarily well-received games released in my two favorite game series, both of which weren’t my first choice for the series’ direction. And while I loved one of these games, the other left me very conflicted. These games are, of course, Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Why did two games that seemed so similar in basic concept, both in series I adore, turn out so differently for me? Well, that’s what this article will attempt to answer.

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Spoilers: Mario wins this time.

Let’s start with Breath of the Wild, since as always, I like getting the negative out of the way first. Now despite me labeling this “the negative,” I’d like to clarify that I absolutely do not think BotW is a bad game. Putting all fears and associations aside, I’d have to say the Breath of the Wild is my pick for the second-best game of 2017, and that was a very, very good year. If it had actually made either its 2015 or 2016 release targets, it would have deserved to be my game of the year. There are things BotW does better than any other game I’ve played, the absolutely massive open world is better and more intricately designed than I would have thought something that big could ever be. Being able to climb almost any surface and safely jump/glide from any height in a game of this scale feels incredible and earns the game the “open air” label Nintendo gave it. Tricks with game mechanics that you should logically be able to do almost always worked, even when they wouldn’t in most games. The rune powers are used to great effect in the many, many, many micro-dungeons, and the game is gigantic. It took me over 100 hours to do everything in the game I felt was worth doing.

So why am I conflicted? There are two major issues. One is that for everything the game did better than I thought possible, there was a design choice I hated and felt almost betrayed by the inclusion of. Breakable weapons are the biggest factor, I really, really hate excessive resource management. How the game can give you infinite quickly regenerating bombs, but no truly permanent melee weapon boggles my mind, and it added a constant, unnecessary level of stress. This made the somewhat clunky menu worse, since you are forced to constantly switch weapons. Climbing was much slower than it needed to be and rain disabling it was ridiculous. It felt like there was a civil war going on during the game’s development over whether to make quality of life the goal or the mortal enemy, and neither side decisively won.

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Why why why why why WHY!?

My other issue is a more subjective one, or at least it counting as a negative is. Even with all the problems I mentioned above, Breath of the Wild is probably the best open world game I have ever played. But that isn’t what it should be, or at least not the only thing. It is a Zelda game, and as a Zelda game it fell short in many areas. I don’t want 50 different equippable weapons that have nearly identical functions, I want 10 unique items used in countless ways for puzzles and combat. Breath of the Wild only had five or so things that felt like genuine Zelda items. I want full dungeons, 120 tiny ones is a nice bonus, but it isn’t worth the five “real” ones being so short and de-emphasized. I don’t want to worry about collectables and stats and weapon durability, Zelda should be about level design. I should never dread having to explore a new town or area because I’m already overwhelmed. Breath of the Wild is clearly an exceptional game, but I feel it is noticeably lacking as a Zelda game, and games of that type are much rarer than the open world games BotW takes inspiration from. Until the next Zelda is announced and fixes my major issues, there is a cloud of fear hanging over this exceptional game.

I realize that my opinion is not a divine proclamation, and clearly many people really, really liked having such a non-linear and exploration-focused Zelda. I know that pleasing every fan every time is an impossible request, but I feel Breath of the Wild went too far in one direction. I’m not asking for every Zelda to be 90% dungeon style gameplay like Skyward Sword, but there has to be a compromise, right? Could a game find a balance where even if it wasn’t my very first choice, it left me feeling fully satisfied and secure about the franchise’s future, while still giving people with different priorities than me what they wanted? Is that even possible?

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Mario can do anything.

Yep, it absolutely is. Super Mario Odyssey is the first sandbox-style Mario game since 2002, as opposed to the linear platformers that are my preference. At its official reveal during the Switch’s formal debut, the trailer made it clear that the game would be far more focused on exploration than the recent 3D Mario platformers. While this somewhat disappointed me, it wasn’t like I didn’t enjoy the previous sandbox Mario games, and there was no indication that Mario’s ability to jump could break. I decided to have faith in the game, even with my conflicted response to Breath of the Wild when it was finally released. I eagerly awaited seeing more of Super Mario Odyssey, and counted the days until E3 when we were certain to get one of Mario’s signature greatly improved second trailers.

Would posting the entirety of Jump Up, Super Star!’s lyrics be excessive padding? Yeah, probably. But suffice to say, Super Mario Odyssey’s E3 2017 trailer was one of the best video game trailers I have ever seen. The game’s main new feature was revealed, Mario’s ability to possess enemies and objects ranging from goombas to a hyper-realistic T-rex that I’ve dubbed “Yoshi Senior”. And seeing extended gameplay demonstrations revealed that the non-linear levels were full of small sections containing classic style linear Mario platforming. My hype skyrocketed, I felt a sense of wonderful anticipation for a game that I hadn’t felt in years.

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And this isn’t even Yoshi’s final form!

I won’t go into too much detail about how fantastic Super Mario Odyssey is, there are plenty of reviews that will do that for me and you’ve had months to experience it for yourself. A colossal amount of content, constant variety with new things to possess in each level, 50+ mini-stages that play in my preferred Mario format, creative and beautiful settings with a huge amount of aesthetic variety, a staggering amount of things you can do with Mario’s partner Cappy even without possessing anything, and of course Mario’s signature perfect control and exceptional level design. But what I want to really praise Super Mario Odyssey for in this article is how it managed to balance two styles of Mario game and please everyone (well, every sane person).

Super Mario Odyssey has fully explorable levels, with secrets literally everywhere (they actually put in invisible coins to let you know when you had reached an area that didn’t have a moon hidden somewhere in it). Mastering the jumping system gives you an incredible amount of freedom and makes exploring every corner of every level enjoyable. A fast travel system and levels that put more of an emphasis on being deep than being sprawling means you never feel like you’re wasting time walking to a different area. The many forms Mario must take to find every Power Moon means your generous jumping abilities don’t make platforming challenges trivial. Levels have story missions that make them play out like the linear 3D Mario games, before opening up the entire level for exploration. And your reward for exploration may be a linear platforming mini-level. Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t feel lacking regardless of whether your prefer linear or sandbox style platformers.

Now despite this, Super Mario Odyssey isn’t my favorite Mario game and wouldn’t have been my very first choice. But that leads to another thing it does much better than Breath of the Wild. While Breath of the Wild’s decisions have me holding my breath for the next Zelda to address my issues and assure me that the series hasn’t been harmed in the long term, Super Mario Odyssey does the opposite and fills me with hope. Mario games often come in pairs, and with how successful SMO was, I’m expecting the next 3D Mario to essentially be Odyssey 2. Now Super Mario Galaxy 3 would probably be my preference if I was given the choice, but… there’s a possibility. The second Mario game in a pair is usually better, and if Super Mario Odyssey 2 is a better game and improves in the right ways, it just may manage to make a Mario formula I like better than the SMG games. Maybe if we cut down the number of worlds but made the linear platforming areas you found longer, long enough to pass for Super Mario 3D Land stages, we could actually have a hybrid that I like better than the linear Mario formula. It’s not guaranteed, but I never would have even contemplated it before Super Mario Odyssey. A game giving me that kind of hope, having that kind of potential, is something truly special, and a sign of just how masterfully designed Super Mario Odyssey is.

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Mario has the whole world open to him.

So, despite how similar Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild seem in many ways, they also gave me an almost opposite reaction. Again, I’m not saying BotW is a bad game, in fact with a few changes (full dungeons in exchange for the map being Skyrim sized instead of double Skyrim sized, no more breakable weapons) a direct sequel could be one of my favorite Zeldas. The game was great and could provide a great foundation, but there is also a risk of there being long term damage. Super Mario Odyssey, however, is both an exceptional game and something that made me optimistic and excited about the influence it could have on my favorite gaming series of all time, and that’s something that truly deserves to be described as taking my breath away.

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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!

Retrospective: The Legend of Zelda – Part I

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Welcome to the first in a sporadic series of retrospectives I’m planning on doing. Considering that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild releases today, it seems only fitting that I start with the Zelda franchise. This is, by no means, a complete look back on the entire series. While I do plan a follow-up in the future to round out the remainder of the series, as of right now I’ve only played through many but not all of the Zelda games. In addition to the ones listed below, I’ve also managed to play Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds. So, given the fact that I’ve played what could potentially be considered the first half of the Zelda franchise – a bit less, honestly – I figured I might as well cover my thoughts on the franchise’s early days in honor of its latest release. Continue reading