Perhaps one of the greatest movements in the history of the game industry is the rise of indie development in the late 2000’s. With the advent of widespread digital distribution, increase in instructional content available on the internet, and the introduction of affordable game development software suites, such as the Unity or Unreal engines, game development opened up to be available to the general public, and not just those lucky few who managed to get hired at an established studio. Likewise, said established studios were freed from the need to secure funding from large publishing companies to keep their doors open via crowd funding services such as Kickstarter or the topically named Indie-Go-Go.
Join Scott, Ryan, Glen, and Nathan Blake of Nathan Blake Games on an adventure through the backwoods of Hyrule as the crew plays a table-top R.P.G. inspired by The Legend of Zelda.
In this inaugural episode, our heroes learn that the town that they’re passing through is in trouble: the river that’s vital to their lumber trade is drying up. They then band together to discover the cause and begin preparations for the journey ahead.
Trouse: Nathan Blake
Timeless Journey Sam Dillard OverClocked ReMix (http://ocremix.org)
Heart Home and Hearth Rebeca Tripp OverClocked ReMix (http://ocremix.org)
The Guru The OC Jazz Collective OverClocked ReMix (http://ocremix.org)
At least where I live, that is. Not that I mind: I like watching rain fall, and rain brings with it flowers. And with flowers come bees.
My history with Buck Bumble is much like that of my experience with Bomberman Hero: I rented way back in the 90’s and it always stuck with me. Unlike Bomberman Hero, however, I never even got close to beating it. Heck, having played it again recently, I’m not sure I ever even got past the tutorial.
Buck Bumble is a third-person shooter published by Ubisoft and developed by the now defunct Argonaut Games. Hold up, Argonaut Games? Yes, the company that helped develop the Super Nintendo’s Super FX Chip and the first Star Fox game. Strange, I heard that after Nintendo turned down their proposal for a 3D Yoshi game—which would eventually become Croc: Legend of the Gobbos—they had a grudge against the Big N and only released their games on every other system. Well, if that rumor is true, it apparently only applied to the Croc games, because they not only made Buck Bumble for the N64, but went on to develop several other games that were released for Nintendo platforms: Bionicle Matoran Adventure for the G.B.A., I-Ninja for the GameCube, and… Catwoman: The Game… Hm…
Wait, where was I? Ah right, Buck Bumble! As with Bomberman Hero, I stumbled across Bumble in a used game store—possibly the exact same one—for a mere ten bucks. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity to see if this game was worth remembering. Read more Buck BumbleThat Was a Thing ›
I’ve been a fan of the Sonic franchise for almost my entire life. Over the years, I’ve seen Sonic’s ups, downs, and all-arounds, either first-hand or from a safe distance. The franchise’s difficulties with maintaining relevance in the modern day have produced an incredible amount of debate as to what works and what doesn’t work for Sonic games. Fans have argued over every aspect of the series: game mechanics, storytelling, character redesigns, and so on.
One particularly controversial figure in the Sonic series is Shadow the Hedgehog. Shadow is simultaneously a fan-favorite character, often ranking in the top five in popularity polls, and a symbol of everything wrong with the series post Dreamcast era, with many fans citing him as an egregiously clichéd “bad Sonic”.
So is Shadow a bad character? Is he just a cheap and cliched “anti-Sonic” or does he bring something of his own to the series? Let’s take a closer look are the Sonic franchise’s resident antihero to find out.
While I will admit there are many legitimate issues one can take with Shadow’s characterization (convoluted, self-contradicting back-story; inconsistent characterization; the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog, etc.), when it comes to the question of whether or not Shadow is a walking cliché, I think the issue isn’t as open and shut as many like to make it out to be. Read more How Cliched is Shadow the Hedgehog? ›
With my recent completion of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I am proud to say I’ve finally gotten all caught up on WayForward’s Shantae series. From the first game via the 3DS Virtual Console, to ½ Genie Hero on the Switch, I’ve played every game in the series all the way through (not counting bonus modes for the half genie’s latest title that is). Those of you who’ve seen my review of ½ Genie Hero know I greatly enjoyed that game, as I do the rest of the series, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take issue with some elements of the games’ design. Read more Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse and Shantae: ½ Genie HeroSpit Shine ›
Have I ever mentioned I love a good mystery? Maybe it started with my childhood affection for Encyclopedia Brown books, or perhaps even earlier with my adoration of Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. Whatever the case may be, my fondness for sleuthing didn’t really take hold until I got into the Ace Attorney series. The sorts of bizarre and colorful lateral-thinking puzzles that lie at the core of the many murder mysteries throughout the series clicked with me instantly. So it’s no wonder that when I read in the now defunct Nintendo Power magazine that Shu Takumi, the creator of the Ace Attorney series, was making a new game about an amnesiac ghost trying to solve his own murder, I was immediately intrigued. Read more Ghost TrickThat Was a Thing ›
We’ve all been there. Maybe you just entered a new shrine in Breath of the Wild or you got enough moons to go to the next kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey. Whatever game it is, you press the confirm button, eager to see what’s next, only to be met with a mostly blank screen and the words:
Slumping back in your seat (assuming you’re not playing at a rooftop party and sitting on the parapet), you glare intently at the message, brow furrowed. After a long and agonizing five seconds, you can’t help but wonder, “what on earth is taking so long?”
WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Custom Robo (A.K.A. Custom Robo Battle Revolution).
It seems that no list of “Best Under-Rated Gamecube Games” is complete without some mention of the ‘Cube’s cult-classic robot gladiator simulator, Custom Robo. It’s so common for fans of Nintendo’s sixth generation console to lament the game’s lack of mainstream success, that it makes me question how a game so widely praised could have under-performed in first place. I mean, it seems everyone who owned a Gamecube recommends it. Of course, I’m not going to discourage people from lauding it: it truly is a (not terribly well-hidden) gem.
Custom Robo isn’t just one of my favorite games on the ‘Cube because of its intense action or strategic depth, however. It’s also the first game to get me to actively contemplate the implications of the events of its story. Read more The Ethics of Custom Robo ›
We’ve all heard the saying, “everyone’s a critic.” It’s true, just about anyone can tell you when something’s bad; some can even tell you why it’s bad, but for some strange reason, very few ever take the time to determine how to take something bad, terrible, or simply unpolished and make it shine. Welcome to Spit Shine, a new blog series where I attempt to do just that: find the flaws in games that are good, bad, or anywhere in between and spitball ways to fix those issues while building upon what already works. In short, I’ll be refining games, not redesigning them from the ground up.
I’ve mentioned it before, but here in the last year or two I’ve started frequenting used game stores. I’m not entirely sure why, but there’s something about stumbling across an old classic or hidden gem that I never got to experience when it first came out that I find immensely satisfying. And let’s not forget the warm and fuzzy feeling of getting said games for a good price!
One such game is Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe, an ultra-stylish, side-scrolling beat-em-up for the GameCube. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I think it was probably for the best that I waited until I was an adult to play it. It’s fobbing hard! That said, it’s an enjoyable kind of hard: it gives you a myriad of over-powered abilities but only hints at the best way to use any of them. It takes almost the entire game to figure out how and when to use each of your powers, which makes you feel all the more accomplished once you do. This game’s a good example of being tough but fair…except when it comes to the boss battles, those just plain suck. Read more Botched BattleViewtiful Joe ›
I used to believe that graphic adventure games were bimodal when it came to quality. Either they were good or they were bad, with the line between the two so fine that there wasn’t room for any middle ground. Now that I’ve played The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle: Episode 1, I may need to rethink my hypothesis.
The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle is a point-and-click styled adventure game starring the eponymous Mr. Fiddle and his one-eyed man-servant, Gavin. Mechanically, the game is quite sound, sticking to the tried and true formula of exploring environments, grabbing everything that isn’t nailed-down, and then using said items to advance further. That said, it doesn’t add much of its own to the mix. Normally, this would be a problem, but this style of adventure game has always banked more on plot and puzzles than unique mechanics, so I’m willing to give it a pass.
Speaking of which, the game thankfully avoids the typical pitfall of “moon logic” puzzles that is all too common in the genre: every puzzle has a creative but entirely logical solution. Moreover, the game is quite good at dropping hints without ever feeling like it’s spoon-feeding you the answer.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag. The art style has a nice mid-90’s Nickelodeon vibe to it and does a good job of setting the tone. Unfortunately, between the muted palette for backgrounds and every other environment being the dull and lifeless streets of Victorian London, the environments quickly start to feel repetitive.
Of course, the main draw of these sorts of games is the story. Our adventure begins with a suspicious letter asking our protagonist to assist with a personal matter for a shady, but wealthy, individual. Mrs. Fiddle, however, doesn’t approve and instead tasks our heroes with taking her dog to the groomer, but then they get their bag mixed up with that of a stranger on the street, and somehow the whole thing spirals into a hunt for a serial killer…
If that attempt at a summary didn’t tip you off, the story is a tad unfocused. Several plot threads are introduced very early on and then immediately shunted off to the side to make room for the next one. Now, this can actually work quite well with a mystery plot, as what originally seemed like completely unrelated occurrences are slowly woven together into a tapestry of intrigue. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens here. Instead, Bertram and Gavin wander the streets of London, happen across an item on their to-do list (entirely by accident), decide they really have nothing better to do, and then move on to the next scene to repeat the process with little rhyme or reason.
Unfortunately, pacing isn’t even the writing’s biggest weakness. The concept of an English gentleman and his stalwart man-servant going on an adventure in London immediately evoked the image of one of my all-time favorite literary works, P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series. The thought of a similar duo starring in a point-and-click adventure game sounded like a smashing idea.
Unfortunately, Jeeves and Wooster they are not. Simply put, neither the protagonist or his sidekick are particularly interesting. There’s little in terms of discernible characterization for either of them and what little is there is just plain uninspired. Bertram is a globe-trotting explorer, and an amateur sleuth, and an inventor. In short, he’s not just a gentleman adventurer, he’s every gentleman adventurer…and that’s it. He’s not particularly smart or stupid, he’s not a lovable loser a la Guybrush Threepwood, he’s not a likable jerk, he’s just a gentleman adventurer. His sidekick, Gavin, is even less interesting, only offering advice in the form of proverbs from his homeland.
That’s not to say that there aren’t interesting characters in this game; there are several. The problem is they’re in and out of the story so quickly, they never really get much time to shine.
Most of the humor consists of [insert clip of Bertram saying “terrible puns”] and poorly-executed, pop-culture references, but the few times it does stray away out of its comfort zone, it’s actually pretty decent. Like I said before, many of the odd folk the protagonists encounter during their adventure are entertaining and I’m always a sucker for the “the solution to one problem comes back to bite you later” gag.
Oh, and this happened. [Show picture of two Bertrams] This isn’t the only graphical glitch I encountered either.
So in summary, The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle: Episode 1 is a mechanically solid point-and-click adventure game that features good puzzles, so-so writing, and distracting glitches. All of these factors balance out to lead to a completely average, perhaps even mediocre, game, which for a game of this genre is an odd sort of accomplishment. That said, I would say that the asking price of $5.00 is completely fair.
I give The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle: Episode 1 a shrug.
As I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, Nintendo has partnered with Illumination Entertainment to produce an animated movie staring everybody’s favorite Italian-American-who-looks-like-a-Mexican plumber, Mario. Of course, given how well the Big N’s last film deal turned out, many fans are understandably anxious about Mario’s return to the big screen. Personally, I don’t think we have to worry about it turning out like 1993’s live-action bomb: that film was plagued with a very troubled production and an obscene number of rewrites that ultimately eroded the quality of the end product. I even wrote an article about the original—and much more faithful—screen play over a year ago.
Several months ago while at a used game store, my older brother found and bought a copy of Minority Report: Everybody Runs for the GameCube, the licensed tie-in game for the 2002 film, Minority Report. His rationale was that he thought it’d be good for a laugh. Then we more or less forgot about it until a few weeks ago. My two brothers and I were hanging out one evening when Kyle, the aforementioned eldest, suggested we play the game and pass around the controller. Not having anything better to do, we shruggingly agreed. I have to admit, my brother was right: the game is absolutely hilarious in all the wrong ways. Read more Minority Report: Everybody RunsA Masterpiece of Ludo-Narrative Dissonance ›
A few months ago, I decided to pick up an Arcade Archives title, Garou: Mark of the Wolves. I was feeling that fighting game itch, and eight bucks didn’t seem like that much scratch. Moreover, I’d never indulged in any of SNK’s classic fighting catalog, so I figured—if nothing else—it’d be an educational experience. So how is it? Arcade Perfect!
And that’s the problem.
For those of you who’re too young to remember when arcades were a big deal—which, come to think of it, largely applies to me as well—”arcade perfect” was a marketing buzzword used to describe home-console ports of arcade games. It meant that nothing was compromised (graphics, music, sound, and so on) when porting the game to consoles. See, arcade machines tended to be a bit beefier than home-consoles, as they weren’t just entertainment but also a business investment for store owners.As to be expected, the term has largely fallen out of use due to the declining relevance of arcades, but still gets thrown around from time to time, especially in arcade compilations like the upcoming Street Fighter collection.
“Arcade perfect” was a marketing buzzword that meant that nothing was compromised when porting the game to consoles.
Ultimately, my biggest gripe with Garou: Mark of the Wolves isn’t a design issue, it’s that the version on the eShop is literally just the arcade version running on an emulator. While there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, it does mean it’s missing many of the features that have been standard in home-ports since before the arcade version was even released. Honestly, it makes me question whether “arcade perfect” is really that good of a benchmark.
First of all, the game doesn’t have a training mode. The only single player content is arcade mode, meaning you have to learn the ins and outs of this game’s mechanics as the computer is mugging you for your (virtual) quarters. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game was a simple, straightforward one-on-one fighting game like Street Fighter 2, but that’s not the case. Garou was released in 1999, meaning it subscribes to the Street Fighter 3 school of design: master the incredibly precise timing of the parries and cancels or be content seeing your opponent’s win quote for the seventeenth time.
The game doesn’t have a training mode: you have to learn the game’s mechanics as the computer is mugging you for your virtual quarters.
Along the same lines is the lack of a proper move list. Granted, the emulator’s menu has a move list for each character, but each combatant only gets a limited amount of space, meaning that isn’t enough space for every move. If you want to know all of a character’s techniques, you’ll need to look up the commands online.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Of course, I’m looking at this from a modern perspective; what were home-ports like back in 1999? Well, while arcade versions usually had better hardware, the home version gave the developers the opportunity to fine-tune the game and add additional content. New characters weren’t uncommon, and it was standard practice to remix/remaster the soundtrack for the home version: Virtua Fighter 2, the Tekken series, and Garou: Mark of the Wolvesitself all had superior sounding music in their respective home-console versions.
Maybe I’m taking the term a bit too literally, but the more I think about, the more I think “arcade perfect” is a pretty flimsy accomplishment. I by no means regret buying Garou: Mark of the Wolves, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Arcade Archive series, but no matter how good the games or their emulation is, staying 100% true to the originals can leave a game lacking. Ultimately, what’s perfect for the arcades isn’t perfect for the home experience.
Let’s talk about Bomberman. Introduced in 1983, the Bomberman series has established itself as one of the iconic franchises of gaming, and for good reason. Nearly every system under the sun has at least one entry in the franchise. Moreover, the series has garnered a reputation for its simple, fast-paced, top-down puzzle gameplay and is best known for its frantic multiplayer mayhem.
Bomberman Hero is a single-player, third-person, action platformer. Developed and published by the now defunct Hudson Soft, the game was released for the N64 in 1998. As with any departure from formula, fans are split on whether or not this game is any good. So why the out-of-left field platformer game? Well, as it turns out, Bomberman Hero was originally planned to be a Bonk game.
As with any departure from formula, fans are split on whether or not this game is any good.
You know, Bonk the Caveman? Anyone? No? Well, now you see why they decided to go with Bomberman instead. Point is, the Bonk series were platformers, so this game’s a platformer.
I rented this game several times as a kid, and I remember having mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I greatly appreciated the fact that—unlike Bomberman 64—I could jump freely, a hang-up I developed from my mostly platformer diet at the time. On the other hand, I remember the game feeling cryptic, alien, and everything in the game’s environments feeling just a bit off. It was both fascinating and a little off-putting.
I actually made it pretty far in, though, which was unusual for me back then as I usually stuck to the first few levels of games. Unfortunately, I never could quite beat it, getting stuck on the boss of the penultimate world. I never forgot about it, though. For whatever reason, this game stuck around in the back of my mind since my childhood. Then, just a few months ago, I stumbled across it in my town’s GameXchange for a mere ten dollars.
Ten bucks for closure? Heck yeah!
The story begins with Princess Millian and her robot companion, Pibot, escaping their home world, Primus Star. The Garaden Empire, who have recently invaded Primus Star, are hot on their heels. Turns out the princess has stolen a data disk that contains information on…something important, I’m sure, and the empire wants it back. She gets captured, but before that gives Pibot the disk and instructs him to seek the aid of Bomberman.
So it’s basically Star Wars. Yeah, I take issue with this. Not so much that their referencing something popular, or even outright copying it in places. It’s just that everyone parodies Star Wars. Basing a plot on Star Wars isn’t just plagiarism, it’s clichéd plagiarism! In the end, I suppose it’s ultimately harmless. No one’s going to play this game for its story anyway, and besides, who doesn’t love Star Wars?
Basing a plot on Star Wars isn’t just plagiarism, it’s clichéd plagiarism!
Where was I? Oh right. Pibot’s ship crash lands, leading Bomberman to go investigate and learn about the Garaden Empire’s activities. From there, Bomberman and Pibot travel from planet to planet trying to rescue Princess Millian, only for her to be whisked away by the empire at the last second. Rinse and repeat a la Super Mario Bros.
In regards to models and textures, the game is on par with most games of the era, and the simplistic nature of Bomberman’s design works well with the graphical limitations. The environments convey the intended mood quite well for the most part, but rarely have much in terms of personality.
The real issues are technical. The game’s frame-rate dips often, especially when there’s multiple explosions on screen, which, considering this is Bomberman we’re talking about, is often. Pop-in is also a noticeable issue for levels set along the Z-axis. Such levels aren’t terribly common, however, as most of the level design is either horizontal or vertical.
The music is a whole other story. The soundtrack, composed by longtime Bomberman series composer Jun Chikuma, is probably my favorite part of this game! The drum and bass inspired soundtrack gives this game a very distinct musical identity. Moreover, the otherworldly sound of BombermanHero‘s music fits perfectly with the game’s many alien worlds and bizarre environments. My only complaint is the song selection itself is pretty slim, and of the few songs some get used way more often than others. I really hope you like the song “Redial” because you’re going to be hearing that one a lot (also, I can’t be friends with you if you don’t).
The soundtrack is probably my favorite part of this game!
Between the soundtrack and the bizarre enemy designs, my initial impression that this game was weird was spot on. I’m surprised, too. Usually when I remember a game feeling surreal or mysterious, it’s just a product of my youthful imagination and inexperience; once I revisit it as an adult, it loses that mystique and intrigue. Nope, this game definitely retains that “fever dream” flavor after all these years.
As stated before, Bomberman Hero is a third-person 3D platformer. Bomberman can run, jump, throw bombs, drop bombs, and kick bombs. It took awhile for me to get used to Bomberman’s controls: he not only moved faster than I expected, but felt very heavy. In retrospect, it’s not that Bomberman carries much weight, it’s that he has weight to begin with. Yep, Bomberman has just a little inertia when he moves, which actually feels really good when you get the hang of it. By the end of the game, I was using Bomberman’s momentum to do cool stuff like jump in one direction while chucking bombs in another.
Another unexpected but welcome aspect of the game is its level design. Instead of huge sprawling sandboxes for the player to navigate, the stages are typically linear and fairly constrained, being concise and usually only requiring the player to move in one direction: forward, up, right, etc. Again, I think this works well. Each stage is bite sized and rarely overstays its welcome.
That is until you reach a vehicle stage. Bomberman Hero features four vehicles-like pieces of equipment for Bomberman to use: a jet-pack, a submarine, a helicopter, and an underutilized snowboard. While I like the helicopter alright, I don’t think too highly of the rest. They just feel awkward and a little out of place. To make things worse, the B button no longer attacks and is instead used to maneuver each vehicle in some way, which tripped me up on numerous occasions. While I can appreciate the variety they offer, these segments were a chore compared to the core gameplay.
Unfortunately, my grievances with this game’s design don’t stop at the vehicle stages. This game is very fond of “gotchas”. There are plenty of traps that only seem to exist to stick it to first time players, such as missiles that launch out of destroyed crates. Of course, traps aren’t a problem for cautious players who take their time to look before they leap.
There are plenty of traps that only seem to exist to stick it to first time players.
The real problem is it’s not always possible to look before you leap. The game’s camera mostly stays in a fixed position relative to Bomberman: angle and distance. Because the player’s view is so constrained, seeing what’s to the left or right or above and below is difficult. Remember how I mentioned most levels aren’t set along the Z-axis? That’s great if you want to hide the technical limitations of the game’s engine, but it leads to several situations where enemies can fire at the player before he can even see them. The game does offer some very limited camera controls: the player can rotate the camera by pressing the up, left, and right C buttons…but only while standing still. Seriously, why not just have the camera stay angled the way the player tells it to be until told otherwise?
While we’re on the subject of the game’s camera, boss battles are the one time the camera doesn’t stay in a fixed position. To the game’s credit, it tries to always keep Bomberman and the boss in the frame; the key word here is tries. For whatever reason, the camera is rather lethargic, not wanting to exceed a certain speed of rotation. That said, it works most of the time, with the constant motion only being a little disorientating. When it does screw up, however, you’ll be fighting the camera more than the boss.
At times, you’ll be fighting the camera more than the bosses.
So after traversing four planets, Bomberman finally catches up with Princess Millian. She asks Bomberman to return the disk that he apparently obtained from Pibot and was carrying this whole time. Bomberman obliges only to find out the Millian he’s talking to isn’t the real Millian and you totally saw that coming didn’t you? Well, the bad guys take the disk and use it to revive their leader, Bagular…whoever that is. Cue one more world, a boss rush, and kicking Bagular’s butt. The game ends with the princess giving Bomberman a medal and a “thank you” kiss while Pibot expresses envy.
Well that was underwhelming…If I didn’t know any better, I’d say there was some sort of secret, unlockable, true ending…
Wait, there is? Okay, now we’re talking! What do I have to do? Find all of the collectible bonus items…and get a perfect score on every level of the game?
In all seriousness, it’s only worth your time if you really like the game and have the time to 100% it. The true ending amounts to nothing but a non-sequiter plot twist that extends the game by a scant three levels, one of which is a…jetpack stage. While the ending cinematic for beating the true final boss is slightly cooler, it doesn’t add anything to the overall narrative.
In the end, Bomberman Hero is great platformer that feels distinct from its contemporaries. The game’s by no means perfect, but most of the issues it has were more the result of the time it was made than poor design choices on the developers’ part, most notably the camera. Aside from the vehicle stages, the game feels very focused, with its tight controls and concise level design. In my debatably humble opinion, this is a game that deserves a spot in any N64 collector’s library.
I’m really glad I shelled out those ten dollars: finally having closure on this bizarre blast from my past is more than enough bang for my buck.
Super Mario Odyssey is out and—surprise, surprise—it’s good. As expected, Mario’s as athletic as ever, with a myriad of moves and abilities that not only elevate his already impressive jumping skills but greatly extend his lateral movement options, as well. One of my personal favorites is Mario’s new ability that allows him to curl up into a ball and roll along the ground like some sort of armadillo or hedgehog or something. It’s like some sort of…spinning dash!
Wait a second…Great Gunpei’s Ghost! Super Mario Odyssey is the best 3D Sonic game ever!
Between the rolling technique and how Mario can preserve his speed through precise platforming, there are portions of Super Mario Odyssey that feel like the classic, momentum-based 2D Sonic gameplay in three dimensions. This is especially noticeable in timed segments such as the Koopa free-running missions where obtaining and maintaining Mario’s forward momentum by achieving fluidity of motion is essential. Much like classic Sonic, Super Mario Odyssey has a great sense of flow, which is something most 3D Mario titles can’t really boast.
There are portions of Super Mario Odyssey that feel like the classic, momentum-based 2D Sonic gameplay in three dimensions.
What is Momentum?
Okay, so before we can understand how Super Mario Odyssey achieves such an excellent sense of flow, we need to know what momentum is. In physics, momentum is the product of an object’s velocity and mass. In terms of video games, this means games that feature momentum-based mechanics have a few elements:
The protagonist has mass.
Mass implies the character has inertia.
Inertia implies the character does not instantly accelerate and the character does not instantly decelerate. Moreover, the greater an object’s momentum, the more difficult it is to alter its course.
Some games that exhibit these traits:
Asteroids: One of the earliest examples of momentum-based mechanics. The player’s ship does not accelerate instantly, but gradually, and continues to move even after the player has stopped using the ship’s thrusters. Moreover, altering the path of the ship requires substantial effort at high speeds.
Super Mario Bros.: Mario accelerates quickly, but not instantaneously. He either jogs to a stop if he is running too fast or skids to a halt when trying to change direction.
Sonic the Hedgehog: Sonic carries a lot of inertia. He accelerates slowly and must either skid to a halt or let his momentum slowly peter out.
Momentum as a Resource
In platformers like Mario and Sonic, the majority of the game’s challenge comes from executing precise acrobatics to navigate through the game’s various stages and their respective perils. Not only does the inclusion of momentum-based mechanics give the characters a satisfying sense of weight, but it adds an extra element of challenge. Because the character doesn’t move at top speed right away, building enough momentum to cross large gaps, find secrets, and ultimately complete the stage is an integral part of the game’s challenge.
So basically, in games that utilize momentum and inertia as mechanics, momentum is not only useful, but also—to some extent—scarce. This essentially makes it another kind of resource to be managed, much like health, ammo, or money. If you don’t mind the forced metaphor (all for the sake of a really cool, if not somewhat pretentious sounding, title), momentum is the currency of movement in Mario, Sonic, and similar games.
Essentially, momentum is another kind of resource to be managed.
Running with the fiscal metaphor, the value of this currency is different depending on the game: in Mario games, for instance, momentum is less critical in most situations than it is in Sonic games. That’s not to mention Sonic’s slightly slower acceleration and worse traction means manipulating his momentum takes more effort without the aid of outside forces or Sonic’s signature spin-dash—producing a greater scarcity of the desired momentum. This means that the plumber’s economy of motion has a higher saturation of momentum that has less demand than the hedgehog’s momentum, thus Mario’s momentum is generally less valuable by comparison.
With all of that out of the way, I can start unpacking what I meant by Mario Odyssey’s sense of flow. Flow—for the sake of this discussion, at least—means the smooth transition from one state of motion to another. Flow is important to games, even those that don’t heavily utilize momentum-based mechanics, though not in the way you’d think. People typically like flow, so when the player character takes damage, their flow is interrupted. This brief moment in which the player loses control and their character’s momentum suddenly shifts subconsciously communicates to the player that they’ve made a mistake.
Flow is the smooth transition from one state of motion to another.
This is why it’s typically not advisable to interrupt the game’s flow for something positive. Mario is a bit odd about this as many games do pause momentarily when the player snags a power-up, but the fact that the player’s momentum isn’t lost and instead continues a half second later may have something to do with why it’s not typically seen as an issue. But that’s really a minor nit-pick compared to the plumber’s more egregious violation of these principles: most notably the star-spin from Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel. Mario’s momentum completely stops as he lifts a short distance upward, leaving him with little ability to steer himself. This is awkward when combined with normal jumps, but it completely breaks any sort of flow when Mario is using a technique like the long jump. Mario goes from flying forward to barely having any lateral movement what-so-ever; it feels like running head-first into a wall, to be honest.
Super Mario Odyssey does away with this in two ways. First of all, Mario doesn’t lose much—if any—forward momentum when throwing Cappy. Secondly, Mario can immediately launch himself forward with his jumping dive maneuver. Between these two factors, it’s possible for a skilled player to utilize Cappy as jump-assistance without losing his forward momentum. As mentioned in this article’s introduction, this is used to great effect in the game’s timed missions and Koopa races, where Mario has to build up speed using the rolling maneuver and then hold onto to it through precise platforming and clever use of his aerial repertoire.
While Mario Odyssey is by no means a perfect game, the controls and Mario’s own acrobatic aptitude are spot on. In true Mario fashion, the mere act of moving is fun, especially when you get into a good rhythm and can bound across the game’s colorful locales uninterrupted. It’s also interesting to see Mario take a page from Sonic’s playbook and adopt a rolling maneuver that allows him to travel faster than he can on foot at the cost of control. Hopefully someone at Sega is paying attention, because that’s an idea worth stealing back!
P.S. In case you’re wondering, this is the actual greatest 3D Sonic game ever.
Note: The following article contains spoilers for Sonic Mania. For those interested in Sonic Mania, I highly recommend waiting until you complete zone 2, act 2 before reading further.
Sonic Mania is amazing. But you probably already know that, either from experiencing it first-hand or from the mounds of praise heaped upon it by the general public. It quickly became my favorite entry into the franchise when I picked it up for myself a few months ago. It’s the “back to basics” game Sega has been promising—but ultimately failing—to deliver for nearly a decade now. Heck, this game is so good, it can even include one of the most egregiously wrong design choices I’ve ever seen and make it one of the most charming set-pieces of the entire game.
And no, that’s not hyperbole, one of the game’s most memorable moments is flat out stupid by conventional game design standards. What moment am I referring to? The Chemical Plant Zone Robotnik fight.
Why It Should be Horrible
The boss of Zone 2 isn’t a boss in the traditional sense; instead, it’s a game of Puyo-Puyo Pop. That’s right, instead of fighting some wacky contraption, Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles faces Dr. Robotnik in a lethal game of Puyo-Puyo. No instructions, no fore-shadowing, just dropped into a game and expected to win.
From a design standpoint, this looks like a bad idea on paper. As mentioned before, the player is given no instructions. Puyo Pop isn’t exactly the hardest game to understand, but the game assumes the player already knows how to play. There’s no pop-up for controls, no instructions on how to clear Puyos from the screen, nothing. If the player is familiar with drop-puzzles like Tetris or Dr. Mario, they may be able to intuit some objectives from the conventions of the format: namely matching colors.
That leads into the more pressing issue: genre shift. While switching between gameplay styles isn’t uncommon in video games, especially more recent Sonic titles, typically levels that dip into different gameplay formats only switch to genres of a similar nature. For instance, many side-scrolling platformer games include one or two levels that switch over to being a side-scrolling shoot-em-up. This is typically considered acceptable because the two gameplay styles have many similarities. Most notably, both are action games, meaning the skills needed to master them are almost identical. These skills include things like quick-reflexes, spacial awareness to assess threats and their proximity to the player, and prioritization of risks and rewards (such as power-ups).
Where switching gameplay styles gets frustrating is when the new style has little or nothing to do with the concepts of the core gameplay style. A pertinent example of such a gameplay switch is the fishing segments of Sonic Adventure. While many people speak fondly of the game those segments’ mechanics were based off of, Sega Bass Fishing, most people object to the inclusion of such mechanics in an action platformer. That’s not to say juxtaposed gameplay styles can’t be paired successfully, but that contrast typically has to be one of the game’s core principles with everything else designed around it (e.g. DS cult classic Henry Hatsworth).
Where switching gameplay styles gets frustrating is when the new style has little or nothing to do with the concepts of the core gameplay style.
Now compare that to Puyo-Puyo Pop. Being good at Puyo-Puyo requires players to plan on the fly. The player has to decide how to stack and group puyos in real-time to set up combos and react to his opponent’s attempts to interfere. I don’t have the background in Puyo-Puyo to know what exactly goes into high level play, but I can tell you it’s a very different game than Sonic the Hedgehog. This means that the player is expected to use an entirely different skill-set from what the game has been training him to use up until this point. Moreover, this is the only place in the game—outside of an unlockable bonus Puyo-Puyo mode, that is—that the player is asked to exercise these skills.
Why It’s Awesome
So why does this moment work? There’s several factors at play here. First is the design of Puyo-Puyo Pop itself. First of all, Puyo Pop is a fairly easy game to learn: the computer is playing it along-side the player. If the player doesn’t understand how color matching works, he can just observe the computer match groups of four or more puyos of a single color.
Secondly, this battle is pretty easy. So long as the player keeps the board mostly clear, Dr. Robotnik’s incompetence will do the rest of the work sooner or later. Putting the battle so early in the game was actually a smart move: the encounter’s low difficulty allows the player to get used to the new gameplay style while still fitting the game’s expected difficulty curve.
Third, Puyo Pop is good. Many times when a game dips into a different style, the auxiliary gameplay style is under-developed. The majority of the developers’ time and effort (hopefully) goes toward the core gameplay, meaning mini-games don’t get the time and polish needed to fully flesh-out the concept. The Puyo-Puyo battle gets around this by implementing an already established idea. This way the Mania team didn’t have to haphazardly slap together a new gameplay concept, instead they just had to copy something they knew works.
Many times when a game dips into a different style, the peripheral gameplay style is under-developed.
Now that I’ve gotten the minor stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the two biggest reasons this works. I’m sure many of you are grinding your teeth by now with how I keep referring to this moment as “Puyo Pop”. Chemical Plant Zone’s Robotnik fight is actually a callback to the Sega Geneisis/Mega Drive classic Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (which was technically just a reskin of a Puyo-Pop game, but whatever). This attention to detail and acknowledgment of the Sonic series’ history is a huge part of what makes this bizarre set-piece work. Who in their right mind would anticipate such an obscure reference?
Companies like Sega and Nintendo often reference their past works, but they tend to stick to callbacks that are easy for fans to recognize. Even when a reference is to something more obscure, it’s out of the way and can be easily ignored. Most designers would stick some puyos/beans in the background and call it good. The Mania team, however, decided to put that callback front and center by making it a part of gameplay. If the reference is half of the reason this moment works, the sheer audacity that the designers would even attempt it is the other half. The element of surprise and the obscene amount of creative whimsy this moment embodies is more than enough to make up for any of its “bad” game design.
If the reference is half of the reason this moment works, the sheer audacity that the designers would even attempt it is the other half.
The combination of good implementation, recognizability, and surprise factor all come together to make this one of my favorite game set-pieces in recent memory. While I love analyzing what works and what doesn’t work in games, it’s important not to get too entrenched in sticking to “good” game design. There’s a delight in encountering the unexpected that is all too often ignored in favor of “safe” design practices. Formula is good, but too much results in a game being formulaic.
Ah, pixel art…Nothing says “video games” quite like a 32×32 pixel sprite. Retro sprites are a fascinating art form: unlike many other mediums, the conventions of pixel art were born of technical limitations, not creative freedom. While the nuances of the medium are often lost on modern developers, who see the limitations as an excuse to churn out overly simplistic animations, classic games would often feature impressively detailed animation frames. To this day, even single frames of these animations are downright iconic and instantly recognizable to fans around the world, something that few other animated works can boast!
Pop quiz! Which of the following are 8-bit images?
Believe it or not, only the second one from the right is 8-bit. “B-but, but the NES and the Gameboy were both 8-bit systems!” you say. Yes, well, maybe it’s time we actually examine what exactly “8-bit” means.
In Computer Imagery
Let’s start with what bits mean for pictures. There are two basic ways of composing pictures: color channels and indexing. In a picture that uses color channels, each color is represented by a mixture of primary colors with each primary color composing one of the image’s color channels. These colors are red, green, blue, and sometimes an additional “alpha” channel that represents opacity (i.e. how much you can’t see through it). Every pixel in the image is a combination of these channels.
The number of bits dedicated to each pixel is known as the image’s color depth. As you may know, bits are binary digits, hence the name (binary digit). Because of this, every sequence of bits can represent 2n values (where n is the number of bits used). That means an image with a color depth of three—which is to say one bit per channel—can have two shades of red (fully black and fully red), two shades of green, and two shades of blue, which combine for a total of eight (23) colors. In today’s day and age, most images either have a color depth of 24 for plain R.G.B. or 32 for R.G.B.A., dedicating eight bits (one byte) to each color channel. That means R.G.B. images these days can contain up to 16,777,216 colors. Any more than a byte per color channel results in diminishing returns.
The number of bits dedicated to each pixel is known as the image’s color depth.
As you can imagine, three bytes per pixel adds up quickly on a console that only has 2 kilobytes of video R.A.M. While it’s easy to forget in this age where most computers typically have four to sixteen gigabytes of R.A.M. and terabytes of storage, space—both memory and long-term storage—was a valuable commodity back in the 80’s and 90’s. That’s where color indexing comes into play. Instead of storing color values per pixel, indexed images have a set of color values stored in a lookup table (i.e. the palette) with each pixel being represented by a single number that refers back to a position in the lookup table. For instance, if the color in position 5 of the table is red, then every pixel with the value 5 will be displayed as red. While this would limit the number of colors in an 8-bit image to 256, that’s 256 out of any of the thousands or millions of 16-bit or 24-bit colors available.
So, knowing this, where does this leave the NES’s graphics? An NES sprite consists of four colors, three visible and one transparent. That makes NES sprites 2-bit sprites. Don’t look at me like that, it’s the truth!
Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, “well, just because the sprites are only 2-bit doesn’t mean NES graphics aren’t 8-bit. The NES could produce way more than four colors at a time!” Okay, while we’re stretching terms a bit (or more accurately, crumpling them up and chucking them into the fireplace), I’ll be generous. The NES used the YpbPr palette, which consisted of 64 colors. So if we were to hypothetically classify the NES’s graphics in regards to the total number of colors available, that would mean the NES has 6-bit graphics. To add insult to injury, only 54 of the colors are useful, as many of them are identical shades of black. That said, the NES did include an additional three tinting bits (one for each primary color). While this increases the theoretical number of colors to 432, the tint is applied globally, meaning all sprites and tiles on screen were tinted at the same time. So, in actuality, it really just had 8 sets of 54 colors. What are we at now, 9-bits?
What Does 8-Bit Really Mean Then?
So why is it we call sprites from the NES “8-bit” when they’re actually 2/6/9-bit? Simple, they were from games released on an 8-bit console. Of course, that begs the question: “what’s it mean when we say a console is 8-bit?” The number of bits ascribed to a console refers to its central processing unit. The NES used a Ricoh 2A03 processor (or its counterpart the 2A07, used in P.A.L. consoles), which is an 8-bit processor.
So what’s makes an 8-bit processor an 8-bit processor? When someone says a processor is “X-bits”, they are referring to the processor’s word size. In computer science, the term word refers to the standard computational unit of a machine. That means an 8-bit processor has a word that’s eight bits long, which in turn means that the C.P.U. processes eight bits in one operation.
My System Has More Bits Than Yours!
Just how important is a system’s word size? These days, manufacturers don’t even mention their consoles’ word size, but back in the 80’s and 90’s, it was a major part of a platform’s marketing. The logic was if a system had a 16-bit C.P.U., it could process twice as much data as a console that only had an 8-bit C.P.U., right? Unfortunately, the reality isn’t that simple.
While technically a 16-bit C.P.U. processes twice as much data bit-wise as an 8-bit C.P.U. per calculation, we need to keep in mind what that data is actually representing. Consider the following binary numbers:
Both the 8-bit value and the 16-bit value equal 25, with each representing the contents of one word for an 8-bit and a 16-bit system, respectively. Notice how they appear identical save for the number of leading zeros? Words can be thought of like boxes: if the number placed inside is smaller than the box, then the excess space is filled with packing peanuts… or, zeros. This way, the processor doesn’t have to worry about how long the number’s binary representation is and instead just performs whatever calculations are needed on the entire word. All of that is to say that unless the calculation in question requires numbers that exceed the maximum value that can be represented with the number of bits in the system’s C.P.U., there isn’t actually any speed boost.
That said, when the largest number you can handle at one time is 255, those extra-bits really do make a difference, so maybe the 8-bit and 16-bit divide isn’t the best example.
In the end, the reason we call sprites from NES games “8-bit” isn’t because the graphics themselves are 8-bit, but because of a sort of linguistic cross-contamination. The systems of the 80’s and 90’s were advertised by exploiting consumer ignorance to turn technical terms into marketing buzzwords, resulting in the systems having much of their identity tied to these terms. Because of that, anything associated with the consoles from that era is going to be collectively referred to by the one unifying descriptor available: 8, 16, 32, or even 64-bit. In the end, it’s ultimately harmless; these terms have an understood meaning and are thus perfectly descriptive in the context in which they’re used. Really, the only real confusion this causes is that I’m somehow okay with it; normally I’m the type go on a long rant whenever anyone says “Ethernet cable” when they really mean “Cat-5”.