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”.
Warning: The following blog contains spoilers for both Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Other M.
A while back, I made a cryptic remark along the lines of, “it’s almost as if Other M was an attempt to rewrite Fusion in hopes of removing the latter from the series continuity.” While the announcement of two new Metroid games at E3 back in June was exciting—and certainly bodes well for the franchise—I can’t help but think something’s off about the whole thing. This is just a hypothesis, but I think Nintendo really did try to retcon Metroid Fusion!
But why would the Big N try to remove Fusion from the series continuity? Well, first let me just point out that the Metroid series is rather unique among Nintendo’s repertoire in that it actually observes continuity. Unlike other series that either only present plots that span a few games before moving on to another setting (such as Fire Emblem) or are designed “gameplay-first” with timelines being a mere afterthought (e.g. Zelda), the events of each Metroid game are closely tied to those of the games previous to it. So unlike other series, plot developments have consequences moving forward.
The events of each Metroid game are closely tied to those of the games previous to it.
This makes Fusion problematic for a company that’s rather fond of maintaining status quo. Metroid Fusion shakes up the series in a couple ways. Firstly, it ditches the heroine’s iconic appearance, potentially disrupting the franchise’s branding. Samus now sports a rubbery, blue suit instead of her iconic orange, metal suit and pilots a spindly, purple spacecraft instead of her more rounded, orange ship. Moreover, Fusion ends with her still using this equipment. Even when she regains her powers from SA-X, Samus is still wearing the fusion suit, now just with an orange color palette.
Of course, this isn’t that big of a deal, as redesigns are reversible or even welcome at times (I’m looking at you Breath of the Wild). No, the biggest problem is what the game does to the continuing Metroid storyline. Metroid Fusion ends with Samus directly defying the Galactic Federation. She not only destroys their metroid breeding program, but foils their attempts to weaponize the X-parasites. By the end of the game, she’s most likely angered some very powerful people. I think it’s safe to say that after Fusion, Samus is a wanted criminal.
Metroid Fusion has far reaching consequences for the series, fundamentally changing the relationships between the Metroid universe’s various factions and thus the types of stories that can be told. This presents an intimidating challenge, as these new stories would require the writers to accept that they can’t rely on the plot conventions of previous games. Furthermore, shifting the focus to combating a corrupt industrial-military complex instead of the unilaterally evil space pirates may radically alter the tone of the series, potentially alienating fans.
I’ve already gone on at length about how Other M is essentially a retelling of Fusion, but let’s look at one of the ways the two are different: the ending. As mentioned, Fusion ends with Sammy triumphantly thwarting the federation’s misguided efforts to weaponize the lifeforms of SR-388. Other M ends on a much more somber note; after Ms. Aran and co. manage to defeat the malevolent (and possibly “just misunderstood”) A.I. controlling the bottle ship, the federation arrives and starts sweeping up. Samus is allowed to go freely, but knows that the federation will take whatever data it can find and continue to research bio-weapons. It has a very different “you can’t beat the system” kind of feel to it.
Other M‘s ending has a very different “you can’t beat the system” kind of feel to it.
Other M‘s ending is much more open ended: Samus isn’t implied to be an enemy of the state, thus allowing her to take more jobs from the federation. This means that if Other M replaced Fusion, Nintendo could easily continue with the typical Metroid plot structure of taking assignments from the federation, which in turn means future games need not revolve around governmental conspiracies.
This brings us to the present day. Nintendo has just released a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus and Metroid Prime 4 is on the horizon…somewhere. Notice anything strange about that? One’s a remake and the other is a continuation of the Prime series. For those of you who don’t know, the Metroid Prime games take place between the events of Metroid and Metroid II. That means they’re technically prequels and don’t continue the story. Fusion is the last entry on the Metroid timeline; there hasn’t been an actual continuation of the overarching narrative in fifteen years! I think it’s safe to say Nintendo either isn’t interested in continuing the story, or just doesn’t know how.
There hasn’t been a continuation of the overarching narrative in fifteen years!
See You Next Mission?
In a weird way, I’m actually glad Other M received so much criticism. If it had been a resounding success, Fusion may have been quietly removed from the series’s continuity. While I’m positive that Nintendo feels like they’ve painted themselves into a corner, I think Fusion sets up a fascinating and fresh new direction for the franchise’s story. Yeah, it’d have a different tone from the games before, but I think the acclaim Fusion got for incorporating horror elements proves that the series is capable of tonal evolution. Unfortunately, with things as they are, I’m losing hope we’ll ever see a proper Metroid 5…
If you’re old enough to remember printed game manuals, you’ve probably heard gamers joke about how superfluous they were. Ever since the mid 90’s, games have featured in-game tutorials and, even then, most people are smart enough to figure out the basics just by fiddling with the controller for a few seconds. They were utterly redundant. And yet, just about everyone admits that the first thing they did when they bought a new game as a kid was read those blasted booklets cover to cover. I know I did.
Nowadays, print manuals have been phased out in favor of in-game tutorials and digital guides accessible with a few, quick button presses. But just because something’s extinct doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying. Let’s take a look at how game manuals evolved over the years.
I’ll be limiting this examination to one mainline Mario title per console generation: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy 2. Why? Because contrary to popular belief I actually have a life, and to do this properly is way more work than even I’m willing to put out.
The most noticeable difference between manuals at first glance is their physical construction. The original Super Mario Bros.‘s manual is approximately 5.2×4 inches, which is considerably smaller the manuals of later generations, which all average to roughly 4.6×7 inches. Of course, size differences pale in comparison to the actual printing. With the exception of the cover and the gold Nintendo Seal of Approval on the first page, Super Mario Bros.‘s manual is entirely in black and white. Later generations would feature full color print for their manuals. Moreover, much more thought was given to how the pages were laid out, with sentences no longer being split between pages and more organic placement of text and illustrations. The last item of note is Super Mario Galaxy 2‘s manual is written in three languages: English, French, and Spanish. As to be expected, this tripled the booklet’s thickness.
Back in the day, the only way to know a game’s plot often times was reading it in the game’s manual. Even after games started to become self-contained by providing opening cinematics, manuals continued to provide brief summaries of the game’s premise.
As to be expected, the plot summary of the first Super Mario Bros. is short and to the point. It describes what happens, without going into much detail as to how or why. Moreover, we don’t get to see things from any character’s point of view. Because of this, the narration has a sense of detachment from the plight of the hero, giving the plot summary a matter-of-fact tone. In short, it’s not so much a story as it is a plot.
In short, it’s not so much a story as it is a plot.
By contrast, Super Mario World‘s story uses a limited third-person narrative, presenting the story from Mario and Luigi’s perspective. The characters are presented as, well, characters: they’re given motives, emotions, and even dialog. Moreover, the story is actually presented as a narrative, with events playing out in sequence. Interestingly, the story (in the North American manual, at least), makes reference to the events of Super Mario Bros. 3, indicating that SMB3 is canonical despite Miyamoto stating it was all a stage-play…
Super Mario 64 continues the increased focus on narrative, notably by spending two whole pages on story! The story starts with a dose of self-awareness by asking, “Is there no end to the constant feuding between Mario and Bowser?” Afterward, the plot is told entirely from Mario’s perspective, with frequent interjections from the man himself. These quips from Mario are actually a bit jarring for anyone used to Mario’s modern portrayal, as they actually communicate some personality. It seems at this point Nintendo wasn’t afraid to let Mario be his own character instead of a stand-in for the player. Other than that, the story unfolds much like Super Mario World’s, which is to say a narrative instead of a plot. Interestingly, Mario 64 and Super Mario World‘s stories both include some overlap with what the player would see during gameplay.
It seems at this point Nintendo wasn’t afraid to let Mario be his own character instead of a stand-in for the player.
Super Mario Sunshine‘s story section is somewhere between the style of Super Mario Bros. and its super Nintendo and N64 predecessors, mostly leaning toward the former. While it attempts to convey the story with the sense of drama of Super Mario World and Mario 64, it only describes things in broad strokes. Like Super Mario Bros., there’s no focus on characters, instead favoring a description of events from an outside perspective. I assume this is in part due to the inclusion of cutscenes in the game itself. Since this was the first Mario game to be almost entirely self-contained when it came to plot, Nintendo probably thought it would be redundant to put information in the manual that the player would receive in-game.
Lastly, Super Mario Galaxy 2 somehow manages to beat even Super Mario Bros. in brevity. It doesn’t even set up the story’s conflict. All we learn from it is that Mario’s been invited to the castle and meets a Luma along the way. That’s it. The Prologue page actually devotes more space to character bios than story, which—given the game’s focus on gameplay over any semblance of plot—is probably appropriate.
Controls and Gameplay
The most important part of a game, and thereby the most important part of a game manual, is the gameplay. Gameplay and controls vary from game to game, even within the same franchise. As such, these sections are going to differ quite a bit on the granular level. Seeing as this is an examination of the evolution of game manuals and not the Mario series, I’m going to look at the big picture: what’s emphasized and how those instructions are written.
So right off the bat, I noticed something peculiar about the way pre-2000’s manuals were written. Often times when explaining controls or specific actions, the manuals often phrase actions in terms of Mario and not the player. For example, when listing the uses for the A-button, the Super Mario World manual says it “Makes Mario jump,” instead of, say, “Makes you jump.” Sunshine and Galaxy 2‘s manuals instead phrase controls and player actions in terms of the player, using terms like “when you touch an enemy” and so on.
This is interesting as conveys the idea that—despite the player controlling him—Mario is his own separate entity, with the player simply giving him instructions rather than Mario being an extension of the player. That said, I would be remiss to not mention that the pre-2000’s manuals were inconsistent in this trend, often alternating between describing actions as being performed in third-person (i.e. Mario) and second-person (i.e. the player). Also interesting is that while Mario Galaxy 2‘s manual exclusively describes the actions Mario can perform in second-person, actions that Yoshi can perform are exclusively third-person, indicating that the player isn’t the character he’s controlling, he is Mario.
This conveys the idea that—despite the player controlling him—Mario is his own separate entity.
Older games take a very different approach to describing gameplay. Both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World go into great detail about everything: defeating enemies, items, kicking shells, using the weird pink ramps in Mario World, everything. Super Mario 64‘s manual spends most of its pages explaining analog movement, items, and how to progress through the game, with basic concepts like stomping on enemies being mostly glossed over. Sunshine‘s gameplay section is almost exclusively about all of the different moves and actions Mario can perform, only briefly touching on game progression or items. Lastly, while the Galaxy 2 manual mostly lists moves, it does go into more detail when explaining the mechanics of recurrent items and stage features like checkpoint flags than the previous 3D games.
Personally, seeing how ideas and perspectives have changed over the last 30+ years is fascinating. We’ve seen Nintendo promote Mario as a character, only to make a 180 and make him a simple stand-in for the player. Then there’s getting to see what they thought was important for each game: back when Mario was first introduced, stomping on enemies, kicking shells, and so forth were new ideas, and the manuals tried to explain everything they could. Later games trusted that the player was familiar enough with the series—or video games in general—to figure out how to use their abilities and instead focused on the basic controls and the game’s new ideas, such as Mario 64‘s analog movement.
Unfortunately, this is where the story ends; Nintendo phased out print manuals during the Wii U era in favor of digital manuals, and now with the Switch, we don’t even have those. It’s a shame really, because, as I’ve just shown, even if you don’t need a manual to play a game or understand its plot, you can still learn from it.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is huge. Not just in terms of the scale and scope of the world it presents to players, but also in terms of its reception in the gaming industry. It’s received numerous perfect scores from critics and the Switch version of the game has reportedly sold more copies than the Switch itself. It’s a big flipping deal, and yet…I couldn’t throw myself into it. In the first episode of The TBCast, I stated that—while I thoroughly enjoyed this game—it didn’t even rank in my top three Zelda games. While I aired several of my grievances with the game’s design in that discussion (some of which will be making an encore appearance here), I never got around to going into detail on my biggest complaint about how the game was structured. But before I can explain what that hang-up is, we need to discuss a concept important to game design and narrative media in general.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the interest curve! An interest curve is a graphical representation of the excitement and engagement the audience of a work experiences throughout the duration of said work. The peaks of the curve represent moments of high excitement and intrigue, while the lows represent the story’s slower, quieter moments. While lows sound like they should be avoided, an optimal curve actually alternates between highs and lows, never staying in one or the other too long. The reason for this is that human beings (who are most game developers’ primary demographic) tend to get acclimated to things pretty quickly. Even action can get boring or even tiresome if there’s too much of it.
That’s not to say that interest shouldn’t slowly increase over time. The base level of interest—that is to say, how far down the graph dips—should increase as a game progresses. If the graph dips down further at the end than it did at the beginning, then the game feels like it screeches to a halt, thus killing the player’s sense of progression (*cough* Triforce pieces *cough*). Finally, the story shouldn’t end on the climax, but instead include a gentle falling action to give the player a sense of closure—commonly known as the denouement (pronounced day-noo-Maw…it’s French). Without a denouement, a story’s ending feels abrupt and rushed.
If you’ve ever heard a reviewer talk about a game having a good “gameplay cycle”, he or she is referring to this concept—most likely without even realizing it!
So what’s all this have to do with Breath of the Wild? Well, my primary issue is its interest curve looks something like this:
Oh gosh, this is a mess…After a great introduction, everything just sort of flatlines. Now to be fair, this is based on my personal experience with the game, but even when the order of events are swapped around, I think this pattern basically holds true. The game’s overall arc seems to just maintain a complacent constant; there’s very little escalation, evolution, or extrapolation of the ideas the game presents. This ultimately leads to the game feeling repetitive.
The game’s overall arc seems to just maintain a complacent constant…
So what happened? What are some ways that Breath of the Wild hamstrings its overarching interest curve? What could they have done better? Let’s take a look, shall we?
The Main Quests
The easiest way to create a good cycle of engagement is to carefully craft a brilliant narrative and guide the player through it in a thoughtfully paced linear sequence…the whole point of Breath of the Wild is to not do that. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. My favorite Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: a Link Between Worlds, was at the time of its release notable for being very open-ended. And that game had me hooked the whole time! So clearly, a carefully guided plot isn’t necessary.
That said, there are some notable differences between the the overarching structure of BotW and ALBW. For starters, A Link Between Worlds keeps the series’s usual two-part structure: in this particular instance the first half taking place in the light world, then after a plot twist the second half takes place in the dark world. This means that while the story doesn’t advance much throughout the halves of A Link Between Worlds individually, the events that link both halves of the game still give it the opportunity to raise the stakes of the game’s narrative thus raising the interest curve’s baseline mid-game. This compromise allows the player to pick how he wants to complete his adventure, while simultaneously ensuring the narrative escalates in a natural fashion.
Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, doesn’t follow this two-act structure. Instead, it features a main quest primarily consisting of two parts: awakening the Divine Beasts and the search for Link’s lost memories. Let’s start with the Divine Beasts. The Divine Beast quest is fairly modular, what with each part technically being optional. This means each segment aims to have a similar level of challenge and importance to the overall plot, consequently flattening the interest curve. While A Link Between Worlds‘ dungeons faced a similar issue, as stated before, having a discernible half-way point lets the game escalate the challenge and perceived stakes between the first half and the second making for a more engaging narrative, something Breath of the Wild‘s structure doesn’t.
Another trick A Link Between Worlds used to keep players from noticing the fairly steady baseline engagement throughout each act was the number of dungeons to complete. The concept of an interest curve is scalable, meaning it can apply to a level or chapter as well as a complete work. To this end, dungeons act as climaxes for the (for lack of a better term) chapters of the game they appear in. With several dungeons, the player is constantly experiencing the rising and falling action of finding a dungeon, completing the requirements to gain entry, and then clearing the dungeon and slaying its boss. So long as this cycle isn’t repeated too many times, this cycle sustains the player’s interest until he completes all of the dungeons and moves on to the next plot arc of the game. The problem is that the dungeons in Breath of the Wild are both short and very few and far between. This means that this part of the game is either over too quickly, or these local engagement highs are very spread out (as they were when I played the game).
The concept of an interest curve is scalable. To this end, dungeons act as climaxes for the chapters of the game they appear in.
Compounding with these issues are how the memory quest is presented. If the player follows the early quests in the manner the game suggests, he’ll quickly wind up with both the Divine Beast quest and the lost memory quest at the same time. They’re both very lengthy and the benefit of the latter is never really made clear (Spoiler: it changes the game’s ending and little else). This makes it hard for the player to prioritize which one to attempt first. I think the developers wanted players to search for memories intermittently (which is how I completed it), but this makes both quests feel very disjointed, unfocused, and the memory quest far less consequential to the overall experience. Honestly, I think the memory quest should’ve been saved until after the player completed all of the Divine Beast quests: by that point, the player would already be very familiar with Hyrule’s landmarks, making for a shorter quest that required the player to apply their knowledge, instead of one where they wander around looking for the N.P.C. that tells them where to look. It also would provide a makeshift second act, which would give the player a better sense of progression, pace, and momentum.
Okay, on a macro scale, the game only manages to provide a complacent sense of pace, but the interest curve is a scalable model, right? So, how does it fair on a more granular level. Well…it is admittedly better moment to moment, but even then there are times where it outright shoots itself in the foot. Some of the moments of the game that should be exciting, epic, or climatic were memorable precisely because of how underwhelming they were when they play out.
Case in point, the Master Sword: in all prior Zelda games in which the “blade of evil’s bane” appears, getting the darn thing was a major plot point and consequently required some effort on the player’s part. As a result, it’s a big moment. In Breath of the Wild, the only real challenge is figuring out how to get to it. The game does provide some cutscenes upon discovering it and after obtaining it to try to hype it up, which is a good start, but the method in which the player does obtain it feels tacked on, like the quest was an afterthought.
Previously, the player had to collect some items that represented the three virtues of the Triforce—power, wisdom, and courage—to prove their worth, but in this game all they have to do get enough hearts to pull the sword out of its pedestal without dying (it drains hearts to attempt). For any player that is actively looking for shrines, that’s something that’s going to happen in normal gameplay regardless. This means the quest for the Master Sword could be over as soon as the player finds where it’s hidden. This makes the quest’s pacing lopsided and its conclusion anticlimactic, especially for players used to the way previous games devote large portions of their respective stories to acquiring the Master Sword. Instead of an epic moment of triumph that’s built up to, it’s something on the player’s laundry list to be checked back on periodically. “Am I strong enough? No? ‘Kay, see ya after another four shrines!”
To make matters worse, there are three shrines dedicated to said virtues hidden throughout Hyrule. Why didn’t the game include those in the quest to get the Master Sword? I’d guess it probably had something to do with time constraints, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to provide a memorable and unique quest to the player. How much cooler would it be to have to scour the land to find the shrines and overcome a unique trial for each shrine related to the its respective attribute? Now I know some of you are probably saying, “but it’s a callback to the first Zelda,” to which I say, “so?” If the callback is really that important, they simply could’ve just done both methods.
Speaking of weapons, weapon durability also brings with it problems. While I admit finding new types of weapons is exciting, finding weapons themselves gets boring, especially in the game’s second half. One of the exciting aspects of finding a new weapon or item in previous Zelda titles was the understanding that Link was now innately more powerful. He had a new ability that made him more capable in combat or exploration that opened up new possibilities for the rest of the game. Not so in Breath of the Wild. That excitement quickly fades as the player realizes that the shiny new weapon he found will eventually break. In essence, weapons are just temporary power-ups like mushrooms or fire-flowers in Mario. Consequentially, players ultimately have less attachment to—and thereby less investment in—weapons than they would if weapons didn’t degrade.
In essence, weapons are just temporary power-ups like mushrooms or fire-flowers in Mario.
As a point of comparison, let’s examine clothing. Unlike weapons, clothing doesn’t break. This immediately makes clothing a more interesting item as it stays with the player as long a he wishes to keep it in his inventory. More over, it can be upgraded. This adds an element of mystery and intrigue to clothing as certain items gain additional bonuses when upgraded to a certain point. As a result, receiving clothing is exciting and immediately gets the player invested.
Now, I understand why the developers made weapons break. As several critics and apologists have already pointed out, having weapons be fragile forces the player to experiment with different weapon types and thus learn to be versatile in his fighting style. Again, I think a compromise would be fairly easy. Simply let the player find (after much effort) weapons that don’t break. Unlike other weapons, however, they would start off weak and need to be upgraded to be viable against the game’s stronger opponents. Even then these unbreakable weapons would only be upgradable to the point of straddling medium and upper tier, meaning if the player wanted to deal serious damage or utilize special effects (like elemental damage) he would have to stick to breakable weapons. See, that would at least make some of the weapons worth a darn!
I’d like to end this section with the ending. Don’t worry, I’m not going into specifics…because I don’t have to! If you’ve ever beaten a Zelda game before, I don’t think I can spoil this ending. It hits all of the beats, except—unlike other Zelda titles—it adds almost nothing of its own to the mix, making it feel more like the skeletal framework of a standard Zelda ending. It’s lackluster, boring, and predictable. It’s a real shame too, because pacing issues aside, this is otherwise one of the best written Zelda titles to date.
If you’ve ever beaten a Zelda game before, I don’t think I can spoil this ending.
Yet another way to keep the player engaged is to provide variety. As stated before, humans get acclimated to stimulus very quickly, so anything monotonous quickly loses people’s interest. To this end, Breath of the Wild features a huge world full of varied environments and unique landmarks…but then completely gives up when it comes enemies and shrines.
Three of the game’s main enemy types—bokoblins, moblins, and lizalfos—are basically all just variations of the same template. Moreover, each region just reuses variations from the same small pool of enemy types. While combat isn’t the main draw of the game, the fact that a hoard of monsters on one corner of the map looks and acts almost identical to a hoard of monsters on the complete opposite side of the world-space makes engagements incredibly boring and repetitive. Heck, even all of the dungeon bosses are basically palette swaps of each other! What makes this especially strange is that there is a lot of variety from region to region when it comes to flora and fauna. What gives, Nintendo? You clearly were able to populate each region with unique creatures. Why not extend that creativity to the enemy design?
Then there’s the shrines: they all look and SOUND THE SAME! *Ahem* Excuse me. If you’re an O.C.P.D. completion-nut like yours truly, you will get sick of the foggy blue corridors and slow, ponderous music of the shrines. If you complete all the shrines, you will have heard that stupid shrine theme at least 120 times! That’s not to say there isn’t variety in the puzzles; oh no, the shrine puzzles are great. But would it kill them to come up with more than one shrine aesthetic? Maybe have puzzle shrines and combat shrines differentiated by their visual and audio design. Or perhaps have the shrines’ interiors vary from region to region, showing that even though they were all built by the Sheikah, each regions’ sense of aesthetics subtly influenced the shrines’ construction (that’s just good world building).
The Consequences of Heroism
Now that I’ve ticked off all of the Zelda fanboys, undoubtedly invoking the wrath of their Yiga assassins, let me talk about something Breath of the Wild did right—at least part of the time. Something that I love seeing, especially in open-world games, is the game’s world responding to my actions. A while back, I praised the first Battalion Wars for making me feel like my actions had a direct impact on the game’s progression. This is a concept I like to call “letting the player happen to the world.”
In most games, the player is an entity that reacts to the game’s environments (i.e. “the world happening to the player”). This is fine for level-based action games, but in narrative-heavy adventures or open-world games, this tends to make the player’s actions feel inconsequential—like everything is basically just meaningless busy-work. While I still think Breath of the Wild has room for improvement in this regard, it does at least actively contextualize many of the player’s actions.
I want to happen to the world, not let the world happen to me.
First, there’s the Divine Beasts themselves. After clearing an area’s dungeon, not only does the disaster afflicting the area cease in typical Zelda fashion, but the Divine Beast become visible for miles around. Next is the fact that the items and enemies scale in proportion to how far the player is in the game. These both give the game a much needed sense of progression. That said, I wouldn’t say either is anything mind blowing. Because the effects of the Divine Beasts are almost entirely localized, finishing a dungeon only really effects the region it’s found in. It would be far more interesting to see characters start to wander around more and more as Link made Hyrule safer to travel. For instance, wouldn’t it be cool if a Rito merchant showed up in Hateno Village after finishing the Rito dungeon? If they threw in a line about him feeling more at ease traveling now that the Divine Beast was no longer rampaging, it would go a long way toward giving the player a sense that his actions actually matter.
A great example of what I’m talking about would be the Yiga Assassins. At one point in the Divine Beast quests, the player has to infiltrate the Yiga H.Q. Not only is this section a great set-piece on its own merits, but it triggers a change in the Yiga’s behavior. After defeating their master, Kohga (one of the best characters and certainly the best boss in the game), the Yiga assassins go from passively waiting for Link to stumble into ambushes to actively hunting him down in an attempt to get revenge. While I’m sure many players found the constant random ninja attacks annoying, the fact that a specific action I took had a logical effect on the way a certain class of foe behaved absolutely delighted me!
A Game of Little Moments
To Breath of the Wild‘s credit, it does a much better job of creating and maintaining a healthy interest curve on a more granular level. Individual quests, shrines, and subplots are well structured when viewed on their own, leading me to my conclusion that Breath of the Wild is a game of little moments. Despite the grandeur advertised, the game’s best moments come in small packages: the little references, the ways it rewards out of the box thinking, the clever quest design, surprisingly mature writing, etc.
That said, it still fails to feel like it grows or evolves. From my experience, this is actually a pretty common issue with open-world games. While the individual components work well, they don’t come together in a cohesive fashion. That said, compared to the other (admittedly few) open-world games I’ve played, Breath of the Wild really is a cut above the rest. I don’t mean to convince anyone that this game isn’t good. Heck, I’ll say it just to be clear: go play it if you haven’t already. It’s worth your time. But I fear all of the critical praise and 10/10’s may gloss over the obvious (to me, at least) issues that need to be addressed in future games. As I see it, the series is standing on a precipice: from here it can either take off soaring or tumble into another rut.
Howdy, crew! Welcome back to That Was a Thing, where I take a look at strange and obscure pantendo games and paraphernalia!
The Wii: when it’s key feature, motion control, was first revealed, the first two uses that went through everyone’s mind were sword and gun. Not missing a beat for once, game developers were quick to cater to the public’s sociopathic expectations. Many of the Wii’s early titles utilized the Wiimote’s pointer to aim projectile weapons and its motion detection to swing melee weapons, and the results were undeniably mixed. One such game was Ubisoft’s Red Steel.
The game was fairly standard fair: girlfriend kidnapped by yakuza, go to Japan and shoot them, yada, yada, yada. What separated it from other first-person shooters was its motion-controlled swordplay. At various points in the game, the hero would have to fight in one-on-one katana duels. Long story short, it just didn’t work. Unfortunately, the Wiimote’s I.R. sensor and accelerometer simply weren’t enough to emulate the one-to-one precision players expected.
Which is why Nintendo invented the Wii MotionPlus! And this is where Red Steel 2 comes in. When Ubisoft saw the gyroscope add-on, they knew they had everything they needed to set things right. I seem to recall a lot of hype surrounding this game before it came out; retailers even offered preorder bonuses. I first heard about the game from the now defunct Nintendo Power magazine, and was immediately intrigued. This game was dripping with style and—just as important—it didn’t have anything to do with the first game, so I could jump in without missing anything. However, I wouldn’t get around to playing it until I got an extended trial of the late Blockbuster Video’s online rental service, and decided it was time I a gave it a shot.
Nu-Western Post-Cyberpunk Japanimé
Let’s start at the beginning. The game opens with our hero waking up on the outskirts of town. As he slowly comes to, he notices his hands are tied. Tracing the rope, he quickly realizes he’s not just tied up, he’s tied to the back of one of his assailant’s motorcycles. Just woke up, and this day’s already turning out to be a drag.
And this is how we’re introduced to the game: a gloriously over-the-top, first-person cutscene in which the hero is dragged into town, crashes the bike, and dusts himself off like he does this every day. While it admittedly takes a few minutes to get to gameplay, this intro nails the tone of the game and what players can expect right off the bat! You’re the toughest, badest son of a gun on the planet and you can bet your stetson every pinhead fool-enough to take a shot at you is going to make you prove it!
The intro nails the tone of the game and what players can expect right off the bat!
In fact, I’d say this game runs on distilled, unadulterated cool, and not in a “trying too hard” kind of way either. Even when parts of it seem hokey—or downright silly—the game presents its set-pieces with such confidence and commitment that the player really has no choice but to just go with it. While other games try to convince you they’re awesome, Red Steel 2 just leans in close, stares you right in the eye, and in a low, gravelly voice tells you it’s awesome.
On that note, let’s take a moment to talk about this game’s aesthetics. This game is a chocolate-and-peanutbutter-esque mashup of the wild west and samurai flicks, with the occasional dusting of cyberpunk. The game takes place some unspecified amount of time in the future in a dystopian Nevada. The environments you explore are a strange blend of old-west, feudal Japan, and run-down, futuristic towns. It’s not at all uncommon to see Cracker Barrel-esque country stores with tanukis on their signs right next to radio towers and hovering attack drones. Moreover, the plethora of destructible crates, trash bags, boxes, and barrels gives the environments a cluttered, grungy feel that reinforces the gritty tone of the game.
The game makes use of a heavily stylized visual design. While the Japanese influences on the plot and setting may lead some to call it anime-inspired at first glance, it really has more in common with comic books: bold lines, fairly realistic body proportions, and a deliberate visual roughness that complements the game’s visceral combat and tale of ambition and revenge. As to be expected with a western, the color palette includes a lot of earthy tones: browns, oranges, and sandy yellows. Fortunately, Red Steel 2 manages to avoid the pitfall of making all of its environments dingy brown, with several areas including—if not primarily consisting of—cool blues, grays, and greens. Clearly, the art team put a lot thought into making each area visually distinct from one another, as every stage either has a unique theme or makes use of color to distinguish itself. That said, all the themes are variations of cowboy, samurai, or industrial, so while each level is aesthetically distinct from one another, the constraints of the game’s themes do start to wear thin toward its conclusion.
Clearly, the art team put a lot thought into making each area visually distinct from one another.
While we’re on the topic of environments, one of my biggest complaints with the game’s visuals is that some of them don’t age very well. Between the murky textures and low-res models, a lot of the environments in this game don’t look very good close up. Fortunately, you’ll probably be too busy hacking-up dudes (who themselves look fine) or searching for loot to pay too much attention to such things.
Cutscenes are another weak point. To be fair, most cutscenes in this game are okay, but the ones that trigger when talking to one of the hero’s allies are just painful. These usually consist of a stationary camera shot with one lone character pacing back and forth while talking. And it is so boring. In the end, while I love the visual design, I suspect the artists weren’t given enough time or resources to fully realize it.
So what exactly is the story? You play as the last surviving member of the Kusagari clan, an outcast banished by the elders for…well, the game never actually says. There was a short “animated comic” online that serves as a prequel to the events of the game. You can still find it, but I wouldn’t bother, it’ll just leave you even more confused. The only revelation I got from it is that the hero is wearing a blue shirt under his signature duster.
Confusing backstories aside, the story really isn’t that complicated. First, you get your sword back from a gang leader, then you find out the real villain wants to make more swords like yours because it has special qualities. Along the way, you compile a cadre of companions. Truth be told, they’re exactly who you’d expect to find in this sort of game: the sword smith/kenjutsu sensei; the old, stubborn sheriff; the hacker girl; and the guy who’s going to double-cross you. The plot’s pretty cookie-cutter when you look at it separate from the game’s unique setting, but I’d argue that’s not really the point; this is an action game. So how is the action?
Hack and Shoot
Red Steel 2 is a first-person action game. I say “action game” instead of shooter because, well, this isn’t really a first-person shooter. Sure, you play from a first-person perspective and you shoot things, but once you get a sword, the guns take a backseat. No, at its core Red Steel 2 is a brawler with some F.P.S. trappings.
At it’s core Red Steel 2 is a brawler with some F.P.S. trappings.
During combat, players can freely switch between swinging a sword and shooting thugs with one of four guns. As to be expected, swinging the sword is accomplished by swinging the Wiimote and guns are fire using the B-trigger. Sword slashes are individual attacks in a specific direction instead of 100% one-to-one movements, making each swing a discrete action, much like a button press. While it may sound like a cop-out, this system actually works really well: this system discourages flailing and instead encourages you to make deliberate, decisive strikes, which ultimately gives each hit you land more impact.
This game also showers you special abilities. Each one has its purpose, and figuring out how to combine them seamlessly is immensely satisfying. It also helps that most of them are very easy to perform. All special abilities are simply one swing direction and button combination, and because of the aforementioned motion registering method, the game has very little difficulty figuring out what it is you want to do.
Gun fighting isn’t nearly as intricate. Simply point and pull the trigger. That’s not to say it isn’t fun; getting to smoothly switch between the two fighting styles is a blast. It gets even better once you start unlocking special attacks for your firearms and—of course—more guns. You start with just a revolver, but eventually get a sawed-off shotgun, a Tommy-gun, and finally a rifle. Of all the guns, the only one I don’t really like is the rifle: by the time you get it, it just doesn’t feel necessary. That’s not to say I never found a use for it, just that it doesn’t really stand-out.
Fighting is the most fun when you manage to get into a rhythm. Most fights aren’t terribly difficult, so the fun comes from trying to establish a sense of flow. Fights just look awesome in this game, with animations carrying a great sense of impact and frequent visual effects, like slow-motion, punctuating dodges, parries, and finishing blows. This means that once you get that flow, the fights almost look choreographed, especially if you make a conscious effort to make use of your diverse moveset. All of this is enhanced by the game’s first-person view. Because you experience gameplay entirely through the hero’s heterochromatic eyes, you never get to see what exactly it is the hero’s doing, letting your imagination run wild filling in the blanks.
But visceral acts of violence are only what you’ll be doing about half of the time. A good deal of the game is quietly exploring the levels looking for fights, money, or optional objectives. And I have to say, these quiet moments are what give this game its phenomenal pacing. Much like in Metroid Prime, F.E.A.R., or Half-Life, these exploration segments help to break up the action and give the player some breathing room, not to mention a chance to wind down between battles. These brief interludes never feel out of place, however. Walking the abandoned streets creates a rising sense of tension which makes you anticipate the next fight all the more, especially since your opponents tend to come out of nowhere.
Walking the abandoned streets creates a rising sense of tension which makes you anticipate the next fight all the more.
An odd quirk of these exploration segments is the occasional motion-based prompt. Every now and then, you’ll come across a combination safe or a dial that you’ll have to turn with the Wii remote. It’s never very challenging as you either need to tilt the remote at the appropriate angle and hold it there, in the case of dials, or press the A button to activate the tumblers, in the case of the safe. While it seemed perfectly natural when the Wii and the MotionPlus were still fairly recent, nowadays I can’t help but think it dates the game. Not necessarily in a bad way, mind you, but it certainly screams “Wii.”
Then there’s the upgrades, and—oh golly—are there a lot of them! You can upgrade your sword, your special abilities, your guns, the ammo for your guns, your coat, and even your hat! This is where money comes into play. You’ll come across a lot of cash, be it from completing missions, using special attacks to finish foes, finding secret collectibles, or just plain lying around. I can only assume part of what makes dystopian Nevada dystopian is inflation, ’cause you’ll find money flipping everywhere. And even then you’ll still have to go out of your way to get all of the upgrades available to you. Honestly, while I appreciate the effort, I can’t help but think the dev-team went a little overboard. While not being able to get everything in one run does encourage thinking about how you upgrade the Last Kusagari, it can be frustrating to obsessive types like myself, as this game doesn’t feature a “new game plus” option. Then again, maybe it’s for the best. Since enemies aren’t that strong to begin with, upgrading your weapons means they go down even quicker, thus revealing the tragic irony of this game: one-shotting an opponent is the ultimate buzzkill.
Riding into the Sunset
Red Steel 2 is a rip-roaring good time. From it’s sense of style to its fluid gameplay, the game knows what it wants to be. I think it succeeds partially because it’s so focused on nailing the core concept. That said, it is a bit of a one-trick pony. If you don’t like old-school, run-and-gun shooters or hack-and-slash games, then there is absolutely nothing here for you. It’s a great trick, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but the whole game is the same basic exploration and combat loop all throughout. It’s also not without some flaws. Aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, the ending is pretty weak, the “challenge mode” is just a mission select with a tacked on scoring system, and there’s no post-game content or completion bonuses to add replay value. But I guess that—aside from the ending—all of those complaints just reinforce the notion that this game is about doing one thing and doing it well. This is—in my opinion—one of the best action games on the Wii and an excellent exhibition of what the system’s motion controls could do to enhance gameplay.
Here’s hoping there’ll be a Red Steel 3 on the Switch!
The Wii was an awesome console. I admit that I was skeptical at first, but as with the DS, I eventually grew to love it and its amazing library. What made it even better, however, was the inclusion of the Virtual Console service, which let me revisit old favorites and experience classics I had missed out on the first time around. There was just one problem: it required a broadband internet connection.
I received my Wii shortly after moving to rural Oklahoma. Just so some of you don’t get the wrong idea about the OK great state of Oklahoma, high-speed internet is fairly common in towns, even back in 2006. That said, my family decided to move into a house about ten to twelve miles outside of town, which was out of the range of service of every broadband I.S.P. in the region. Heck, until just a couple of years ago, my folks were still on dial-up!
This made purchasing Virtual Console games an absolute pain. I would have to disconnect my Wii, place it in a bag, and (assuming my destination didn’t already have a TV I could use) lug a television with me, then haul everything somewhere I was allowed to use the WiFi or hook up a L.A.N. adapter, make my purchase, and then reverse the whole process when it was time to leave. Bear in mind this was back in 2006-2007 when flat-screen TVs weren’t ubiquitous, which is to say all I had access to was a bulky C.R.T. TV.
And yes, I actually did do this.
I didn’t like doing it this way: it was exhausting and tedious. Fortunately, I come from a long line of engineers, so coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems comes naturally for me. When my family got a new Dodge Caravan with a built-in DVD player and screen, I saw an opportunity to optimize.
The mini-van had standard component cable ports, so getting the Wii to interface with the screen wasn’t a problem. What was a problem, however, was powering the Wii. Most automobiles don’t have standard two-pronged AC power-outlets, which meant I had to find an apparatus to let me plug my Wii into the car’s 12-volt socket. After a little trouble finding the right keywords to get Amazon’s search algorithm to cooperate, I managed to get one for a decent price.
Now that I had all of the hardware, all I needed was a WiFi connection. Fortunately, E.C.U., the local university, has free campus-wide WiFi; even better, it isn’t password protected. All I had to do was drive the family van into town—usually late in the afternoon or evening once all of the parking spaces had opened up—boot up the Wii, connect it to the university’s WiFi, and download the game I wanted.
Sadly, by the time I formulated this plan and had everything I needed, the Wii’s life cycle was about halfway through, and I had bought most of games I really wanted. Come to think of it, the only games I bought this way were Super Street Fighter II and Secret of Mana.
Regardless, my adventures in wardriving make for a good story and fond memories.
It all started with a bright light and a girl’s voice calling my name; beckoning me to open my eyes. The voice sounded like that of a noble woman, with that soft, breathy accent that the inbred stratum of Hyrulian society thinks sounds sophisticated for whatever reason. Questions regarding what kind of person the voice belonged to quickly evaporated once I opened my eyes, however. Upon awakening, I found myself alone in a dark, empty room.
…in my underwear.
Yeah, one of those days…
Still quite groggy, I attempted to take in my surroundings. As stated before, the room was dark, lit only by faintly glowing decorations on the walls and furnishings. Speaking of furnishings, the only objects were the trough in which I was laying and a glowing orange pedestal. It didn’t take me long to realize where I was. A dark room with a trough for people to float in? Clearly some sort of sensory deprivation tank, which would mean this is probably some sort of new-age spa. That would also explain the voice and weird visions; I was in the tank for too long and started hallucinating.
Confident in my deductions, I placed my bare feet on rough stone floor. Trying not to think about when the last time the floor was cleaned, I staggered over to the pedestal for a closer look. The top of the object was comprised of two concentric dials adorned with glowing, interconnected patterns. On my arrival, the center dial began to spin and shortly afterward produced some sort of rectangular device. Before I could even question why any sane person would create such a needlessly elaborate charging dock for their Hy-Pad™, the voice from before spoke up, this time explaining that the device was a “Sheikah-Slate” and imploring me to take it.
Sheikah-Slate…now where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, I pretty sure it’s that open-source alternative to the Hy-Pad™ everyone was talking about awhile back.
Anyway, after taking the tablet, a nearby door opened up. Peering through the opening, I saw crates, barrels, and two ornate stone chests. I stumbled through the door and up to one of the chests. Inside were a pair of well-worn pants and boots. Glad to finally have some clothes, I put them on only to find they weren’t my size. The other chest contained a shirt, also too small for me. I don’t know which bothered me more, the fact that someone misplaced my clothes or that they thought the shirt needed its own chest despite there clearly being enough space left in the other one.
I debated whether being clothed really out-weighed looking like a hipster, but I eventually rationalized that it was only until I could explain the mix-up to the spa’s receptionist.
At the end of the hall was another pedestal. Again, the feminine voice began dictating instructions. I really don’t like it when the voices in my head start getting bossy. Lacking any other options, however, I did as I was told and held the tablet up to the pedestal, thus opening yet another door. As I shielded my eyes from the light pouring in, the voice in my head told me I was “the light that must shine on Hyrule.”
I briefly contemplated whether the voice was trying to persuade me to start a cult before realizing that despite being out of the sensory deprivation tank for a while now, I was still hearing voices in my head. Yeah…definitely one of those days…
Despite the broken stairs, I managed to clamber my way towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of finding myself in a reception area—like I expected—I was outside overlooking a forest. A quick scan of the area revealed three things: 1) I didn’t know where I was, 2) there was a creepy old hobo staring at me off to my right, and 3) I still had no clue where my clothes where. While I had reservations about approaching the hobo (or any hobo for that matter), there was no one else to ask for directions. I made my way downhill, making sure to pick up a tree branch along the way—just in case.
After a brief trek, I reached the vagrant’s camp. Ignoring the unpleasant aromatic mix of wood smoke and hobo, I politely asked the bum who he was and where we were. He deflected the first question, simply saying he was just “an old fool” (no arguments there). He was much more forthcoming when answering the second, stating that we were on the Great Plateau, that this was the birthplace of Hyrule, and something about an abandoned temple. My eyes rolled so hard I started getting dizzy: if this place was so important, why have I never heard of it? Regardless, I figured that the temple, abandoned or not, must have something that could tell me where I was.
Along the way, I was once again accosted by sound of a girl’s voice, this time goading me to find a place marked on my Sheikah-Slate. Despite my better judgment, I checked the map app to find that the previous user had indeed marked a nearby position. The sensory deprivation theory was starting to lose credibility…
I did my best to ignore the encroaching existential crisis that comes with frequent hallucinations as I made my way over to the temple. The surrounding ruins were littered with strange statues that looked a little like octoroks. Some sort of modern art installation? Whatever they were supposed to represent, it just looked tacky…which—knowing artists these days—may have been the point.
Around then is when I started to notice figures in the distance. They didn’t look like Hylians, or even round-eared folk (I forget the polite term for them). I really didn’t care to find out what it was, deciding it best to not draw too much attention to myself. Despite my best efforts, however, I came face-to-face with one of the creatures at the top of a stairway leading up to the temple. A bokoblin…I couldn’t help but chuckle at my own paranoia as I brought an axe down on it’s head. You know you’re on-edge when even bokoblins spook you. Still, as pathetic as they are, the place being overrun with the little blighters wasn’t very reassuring.
Not much remained of the temple on ground-level. No doubt those filthy bokoblins looted this place until there was nothing of worth left. I quickly formulated a new plan: climb to the roof and look for any towns, settlements, or even familiar landmarks. After a perilous climb, I managed to reach the temple’s steeple. I quickly surveyed the surrounding countryside. That’s when I saw it on the other side of a field: a cabin!
I hastily scrambled down the temple ruins and booked it across the field. A short time later, I arrived at the cabin, peered in, and found it…completely empty. Upon further investigation I realized this must be where Old Fool was squatting (why would I expect anything else?). Running out of ideas, I decided to just pick a direction and hope I found a town or something.
It wasn’t long before I nearly walked off a cliff. Turns out Old Fool wasn’t kidding about this being a “great plateau”. There’s no way I’ll be able to climb my way off this goddess forsaken rock.
Disheartened, I decided to investigate the point on the map. Hallucination Girl did seem to know how to open those doors, and it’s not like I had anything else to do, plus the Slate’s previous user wouldn’t have marked that spot no for reason, right? I followed the map until I reached an alcove with yet another garish glowing pedestal. I knew the drill.
Apparently not, because instead of opening a door, I somehow got a tower to spring from under my feet. No, you read that right, a whole tower. After I managed to peel myself off the floor and calm myself down by reciting a mantra of disjointed curses, I noticed my Sheikah-Slate had downloaded map data for the plateau. That’s handy, I guess.
That’s when I heard her—I mean it—again. Honestly, I don’t know what it tried to convince me to do this time, as I was a little distracted by the image of the shadowy form of a pig engulfing a distant castle. I think the parts of my brain responsible for auditory hallucinations and visual ones are competing for my attention.
Climbing down was difficult. Who ever the idiot that designed the tower was, he apparently didn’t believe in ladders or stairs. I had to jump between platforms jutting from the sides of the tower. Also, I was distracted by that whole “I’m probably crazy” thing. I really wanted to write-off what I just saw as the result of a head injury, but given the frequency, persistence, and increasing vividness of my delusions—not to mention the fact I woke up in a spa and/or psychiatric ward with no memory of how I got there—I couldn’t rule out the possibility of some sort of long term psychological condition. Either way, I should probably find a doctor when I get out of here.
Once at the bottom, Old Fool arrived via some sort of miniature hang-glider. He asked me if anything happened while I was up there. Still mad about earlier, I refused to speak. He then asked if I heard a voice, which he insisted he could tell happened from the way I acted at the top of the tower. Yeah right, like his blurry, semi-sober hobo eyes could make out anything from where he was sitting. I refused to acknowledge his lucky guess or answer any of his other questions.
After he realized his prodding wasn’t going to get me to open up about my psychosis, he decided to change the subject. “I assume you caught sight of that atrocity enshrouding the castle,” he said turning his gaze to the castle and gesturing with his walking-stick. I felt like I had been kicked in the chest. How did he know about that? Could that thing be real? I quickly came to my senses; surely there was a simpler answer. Maybe he was just another hallucination, perhaps he’s somehow been gaslighting me this whole time, or he could just have gotten a hold of my medical records and decided to mess with me. I tried my best not to let on and humored him.
After some talk about a great calamity—y’know, typical doomsday-cult stuff—he offered me his glider in exchange for whatever treasure I found in a nearby shrine. Eager for an easy way off the plateau, I agreed. The outside of the shrine looked much like the tower and spa, with weird coral-like carvings on its walls. I cautiously used my tablet to unlock the front door and proceeded down the elevator.
Once inside, I was greeted by a prerecorded message welcoming me to some sort of trial. Seeing yet another glowing pedestal, I reflexively walked up to it and placed my Slate on it. My Pavlovian conditioning was rewarded with a free app for my Sheikah-Slate. While I don’t care for how they invasively installed software on my device without so much as asking, I have to admit it’s a cool app. It lets me pick up metal objects from a distance. I wonder why they’d just give this away; maybe it’s still in beta? Either way, I shouldn’t overuse it: probably drains the battery like nothing else.
After that, I explored the testing area they provided looking for anything else of value. There isn’t much else worth mentioning except whoever was here last forgot to turn off one of the security robots. Regardless, I effortlessly made my way to the end of the obstacle course and listened as a hologram offered me a congratulatory message and something called a “spirit-orb”. No clue what that was about.
Shortly after I exited the shrine, Old Fool swooped in on his glider to check-in on me. Despite our agreement, and my frequent, tactful reminders, he decided to hold onto the glider. Now he says I need to loot all of the shrines on the Great Plateau. I’m really starting to hate that guy…
So it looks like I’m going to be stuck here for awhile. It’s getting late: I’ll continue in the morning. In the meantime, I’ve decided to keep this journal as a record of my time stranded on the Great Plateau. I can probably adapt it into a best selling book once I get out of here. And if I don’t make it, at least whoever finds this will know:
Don’t trust the old man.
About the Author: Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming. He’s currently studying to get his master’s degree in computer science from Oklahoma State University. He’s too busy playing Breath of the Wild to come up with a witty, self-deprecating fact about himself.
This last June, Kirby: Planet Robobot was released state-side, quickly receiving praise from critics and fans alike. Needless to say—being the avid Kirby fan that I am—I jumped on it six months after the fact because I wanted to complete Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam first. What? Grad school doesn’t leave me with much time to spend on getting through my backlog, okay? Regardless, I’d say, without hesitation, that this is the best of the “modern-style” Kirby games that started with Return to Dreamland. Great music, enough of a plot to keep things interesting, lots of fan-service, and a gimmick that actually meshes with the core gameplay instead of being an intrusive pace-killer. And as with any Kirby game, it features new powers! And they…kind of suck, to be honest.
And as with any Kirby game, Planet Robobot features new powers! And they kind of suck, to be honest.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten the requisite suck pun out of the way, let’s talk powers. Kirby’s copy abilities were first introduced in Kirby’s Adventure, released in 1993 for the Famicom and NES. These abilities gave Kirby a single attack that imitated the ability of an enemy character. The concept remained much the same until Kirby Super Star in 1996 when most—but not all—copy abilities were given a variety of techniques the pink protagonist could perform based on what button combination the player inputted. Some abilities have traditionally had very few individual attacks, while others let the player revel in a vast array of possibilities. For the most part, entries in the franchise have followed one of the two aforementioned schemes, with the Super Star style being more prevalent as well as what the recent titles use.
So, let’s examine how the evolution of this system effects powers individually and each game’s gameplay as a whole.
Number of Attacks
As stated before, the number of available moves in each ability’s repertoire has increased from the copy mechanic’s introduction. In Kirby’s Adventure, each power only had one attack (though one could argue backdrop and U.F.O. are exceptions). This allowed players to easily pick their favorites and avoid those they didn’t like. This also, unfortunately, meant that powers easily got stale and that few, if any, abilities stood out as particularly fun. Strangely, I’d argue that the game made it work; since no one power (or at the least, commonly available one) stood out as “the fun one” the player wasn’t inclined to become attached to what he currently had, meaning he would be more willing to part with it, making for more dynamic gameplay.
Kirby Super Star changed this by assigning multiple attacks to most copy abilities. This drastically changed the dynamic as now each power became far less situational. Copy abilities on average had somewhere between four and seven attacks and a list of them was conveniently provided on the pause screen. I must commend the designers, as most of the abilities are fun to use with only a handful of duds. That said, the expanded move set does mean players are going to find some abilities more fun than others, meaning they’ll be less willing to part with them which ultimately discourages the varied gameplay Kirby’s Adventure had.
Then there’s the current generation of Kirby games. For brevity’s sake, I’m only going discuss the current gen powers featured in Kirby: Planet Robobot (and probablytotally not because I’m too lazy to switch cartridges on my 3DS or boot up my Wii). The number of moves for this new set of powers typically weighs in around eight to eleven, with a few of the attacks being variations of or similar in function to others. This produces a state of decision paralysis when trying to learn the new abilities, especially when two attacks are similar. For the majority of new abilities, I would look at the move list and think to myself, “surely there’s a proper time or context for this attack.” Unfortunately, there often isn’t, at least not that I can see. Notably, most of the older abilities are similar to their previous iterations, if not completely untouched. In my opinion, this makes the classics more approachable gameplay-wise as most of them are easier to learn with attacks that have a clear and easily understood purpose. The one new copy ability in the game I genuinely liked, ESP, happened to be the one with the simplest move set.
Copy Ability Versatility and Variety
So what does having a wide array of moves do for Kirby’s copy abilities? In short, more moves theoretically increases the versatility of the ability. If one move allows Kirby to easily dispatch a foe in front of him and another move defeats opponents above him, the player is equipped to handle two different scenarios. There are two main factors in determining a copy ability’s versatility: range and what I like to call “angle of attack”, with the presence of a defensive ability making for a third factor of nominal importance.
There are two main factors in determining a copy ability’s versatility: range and what I like to call “angle of attack”.
Range is self-explanatory; it’s simply how far the attack reaches. Short range attacks require Kirby to be near his target to be effective; long range allows Kirby to rain cute death upon his foes from a safe distance. Simple. Angle of attack isn’t much more complicated. Heck, I’ve already given an example of it in the previous paragraph. It simply determines where the opponent has to be for the attack to hit him. In the context of Kirby, there four basic angles of attack: upwards, sideways, downwards, and radius attacks—the last of which refers to attacks that strike in all directions (they’re common enough to warrant their own classification). Of the two, angle of attack has the most influence over an abilities versatility.
As I’m sure you’ve already figured out, the copy abilities in Kirby’s Adventure provide only one angle of attack of set range. High-jump attacks opponents above Kirby at close-range (though Kirby covers a long distance in the process), while spark attacks enemies within a short radius of Kirby. Kirby Super Star expands the role of most copy powers, allowing Kirby to make use of multiple angles of attack with a single ability. That said, most powers are still limited in range or angle of attack, requiring the player to plan around his ability’s limitations or find one more suited for the situation at hand. For the ones that do provide good coverage of all angles, they are usually rare or have some sort of drawback, like yo-yo’s long attack animations.
Here’s where my second issue with more recent copy abilities comes into play: they’re too well rounded. Most of the new abilities include attacks for every angle and often times multiple ranges too. Lacking weaknesses actually makes them less fun, not necessarily because it makes the game too easy (it’s Kirby; it’s always easy) but because they all feel very samey. Even some of the older powers have received similar revisions, like the unnecessary addition of an upward attack to the stone ability’s move list. Admittedly, this is a rather technical complaint and probably doesn’t apply to everyone.
Lacking weaknesses actually makes copy abilities less fun.
Refinement is a Subtractive Process
Despite most of its new powers not being particularly interesting, Planet Robobot actually does adhere to the limited copy ability design that I’m advocating, specifically the robobot powers. Each robobot copy ability has a very limited moveset, and as a result, each one feels unique. And just so it’s clear that I’m not being a nostalgia-blind curmudgeon, I like most the ideas for each ability (leaf and archer were long overdue), and I think if Hal streamlined the abilities so that they fulfilled a unique niche, instead of every niche, they would have some real winners.
For those familiar with my previous work, these points probably sound quite similar to my second article, The Streamlined Turnabout. While feature-rich games and mechanics are great (especially from a marketing perspective), continually adding ideas runs the risk of producing bloat. Much like cutting and polishing a diamond to make it shine, video games can greatly benefit from the occasional trim.
About the Author: Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming. He is currently studying for his masters in Computer Science at Oklahoma State University. His first Kirby game was Kirby 64, which led to a lot of confusion when trying to figure out how to make combo abilities in Kirby Super Star.
Welcome to That Was a Thing! A new series in which I discuss my favorite weird, obscure, or simply underrated pantendo games and media. Think of it as the evil twin to Simeon’s Nintendo Experience series. In this inaugural installment, I’m going to look at one of my favorite—not to mention one of the only—real-time strategy Nintendo series out there: Battalion Wars.
The Battalion Wars duology was a spin-off of the Nintendo Wars franchise and originally had the working title of Advanced Wars: Under Fire. Unlike the other Nintendo Wars games, however, Battalion Wars wasn’t developed by Nintendo or Intelligent Systems, but a British company: Kuju Entertainment. The first game was released for the GameCube on September 19, 2005 and its sequel debuted on the Wii on October 29, two years later.
The Battalion Wars games are a combination real-time strategy and third-person shooter. Like most R.T.S. games, players are tasked with completing objectives with the units provided for the mission—riflemen, tanks, bombers, etc. Needless to say, each unit type had its own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities and the majority of the strategy revolves around knowing where and when to deploy each unit. The unique selling point of this game is that the player directly controls one of the units the whole time, with the ability to freely switch between units as needed. Think of it as being sort of like Pikmin but with guns…and tanks.
Both games are set in a fictional world filled with global super-powers just itching to find a use for their massive armies. Seeing as the series was developed in England, each of the games’ fictional nations are comically stereotypical counterparts to real-life countries. The United States is represented by the gung-ho Western Frontier, the Tundran Territories are an odd combination of Tsarist/Soviet Russia, likewise Xylvania combines Imperial Germany with Nazi Germany, the Solar Empire is a futuristic tropical Japan, and the Anglo Isles—first introduced in the second game—mirrors the Anglo Isles…I mean the United Kingdom…seriously, they weren’t even trying to be subtle with that one.
As to be expected, each of these nations employ an eccentric and colorful cadre of commanders. Each mission has the player receiving orders from one of their faction’s commanding officers while the enemy commander emotes and responds according to the events of the game. While they don’t offer any special gameplay bonuses like the commanders of the Advance Wars series, the commanders’ typically blasé attitude toward warfare and nonchalant dialogue helps keep the tone light. I would say the only commander that I personally didn’t care for was Empress Lei Qo of the Solar Empire—who left so little of an impression on me, I had to look up her name just to write the previous sentence.
The third-person perspective really is what makes gameplay stand out. Giving orders from the perspective of one of your men while returning fire yourself really makes you feel like you’re an actual part of the conflict, instead of some ghostly observer calling the shots. When your battalion’s under fire, you’re under fire, and having to make tactical decisions in the midst of the chaos of the battlefield can create some really tense moments. Then there are the times when you spot some enemies in the distance or look at the map and have to plan your next move. I’m not sure I can properly express the feeling I would get as my men crowded around me, expectantly waiting for me to formulate a plan of attack.
If quality gameplay wasn’t enough, these games are also overflowing with personality. The games’ humor and cartoonish visuals give the series a lighthearted tone; these aren’t games out to deliver a ham-fisted “war is bad” message but instead revel in the innocent—and perhaps naive—feeling of playing with toy army men. Despite having the depth of a Saturday morning cartoon, almost every character is likable in some way—with my personal favorites being Tsar Gorgi, Kaiser Vlad, and Col. Austin—and I genuinely wanted to know what happened to them next. Each faction’s units are instantly recognizable, and their designs convey a lot of personality, not just for the unit itself, but for the faction it belongs to.
Giving orders from the perspective of one of your men while returning fire yourself really makes you feel like you’re an actual part of the conflict.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, take a closer look at the first game.
I first heard of Battalion Wars from the now defunct Nintendo Power Magazine. That’s not to say I immediately took an interest in it, however. I wouldn’t pay it much mind until my younger brother returned from the now defunct Hasting’s Entertainment with a used copy of the game. Shortly after he inevitably lost interest in it, I took a crack at it and fell for it harder than Tsar Gorgi off a bridge (too soon?).
The game places the player in command of the forces of the Western Frontier—with some exceptions in the form of unlockable bonus missions. The story begins during an uneasy truce between the Western Frontier and their longstanding enemies, the Tundran Territories. War breaks out when Western Frontier troops find a Tundran spy on the Frontier side of the border. As the plot continues, the Tundrans ally themselves with the Xylvanians, the Xylvanians betray the Tundrans, an old man is thrown off a bridge, I think there was a zombie-ghost legion at some point…you get the picture.
While it won’t win any awards, the story has a great sense of progression to it. Plot-wise, mission objectives often tie into something you did in a previous stage. If you saved a spy, you can bet his intel is what will point you toward your next target. The fort you defend in one mission is essential to launching a counter attack in the next and so forth. It’s a small detail, but having your actions contextualized like that goes a long way toward making your input feel meaningful.
While it won’t win any awards, the story has a great sense of progression to it.
While we’re talking about writing, I need to discuss the most important character: the grunts. Throughout the game, the troops under your command are constantly responding to your orders, quipping at the enemy, talking among themselves, or commenting on the situation at hand…and it is freaking adorable! Okay, I know that sounds like it’d get annoying after awhile, but the troops have so many lines that I would sometimes still be discovering new ones on my fourth or fifth play-through of particular missions.
On to the atmosphere: the visual style is a strange blend of cute, chibi soldiers and vehicles and a muted color palette that gives the environments an oddly grim and gritty feel. This, in conjunction with a great soundtrack that wouldn’t sound out of place in an old WW2 movie, produces a unique atmosphere in which the tone is never too heavy or oppressive but the player is still fully aware that—no matter how cute the enemy’s tanks are—this is still war.
The game isn’t without faults, however. The A.I. for units under the player’s control is a little slow on the uptake, to the point of seemingly lacking a self preservation instinct at times. I found any mission where I had to fight enemy aircraft especially aggravating, as anti-air vets tend to not take initiative, resulting in massive losses from even brief lapses in focus. I didn’t care much for missions where the game expects me to command planes and ground forces at the some time, either. For whatever reason, when given the wait command, planes continuously fly in a straight line instead of staying in proximity to where they were when the order was given. This required me to constantly check back on them to make sure they weren’t about to fly over enemy anti-air embankments.
Battalion Wars 2
Battalion Wars 2 starts its story off 200 years in the past by showing the player the final conflict between the Solar Empire and Old Xylvania at the end of the “Lightning Wars”. Bottom line is that the S.E. nukes O.X.’s H.Q. with an orbital death ray and then—fearing that the weapon is too much power for anyone to wield—chucks the controller (a staff) into a glacial ravine…what could possibly go wrong?
Back in present day, it’s been 2 years since the events of B.W. 1 and the nations of the world are at peace…until the Anglo Isles preemptively attack the Solar Empire based on rumors that they are harboring some sort of super weapon. The plot jumps between flashbacks and modern day from there with each campaign focusing on a different faction: a conflict between the Western Frontier and Tundra, the Anglo Islands staving off the Solar Empire’s retaliation, one where the player controls Old Xylvania’s forces, and finally Tundra’s attempts to prevent Xylvania from finding the staff.
The plot sounds a lot more complicated, but it really isn’t. I assume the 200-year-old-artifact-of-doom plot was meant to make the story feel bigger than the last game’s. Unfortunately, I’m not very fond of epics; I much prefer down-to-earth plots as I think they tend to have better focus and require the author to actually make me care about something specific like people or places. Fortunately, most of the characters are still quite likable, including most of the new ones.
Sadly, the narrative’s constantly changing point of view leaves the story unfocused and absolutely kills that sense of progression the first game had. You only play as any one faction for at most five missions (usually less). Between less emphasis being placed on the player’s actions between missions and the fact the player constantly switches sides, that feeling from the first game of being a single commander fighting in a series of much larger conflicts is completely gone.
Did I mention the volume on the player’s soldiers has also been dramatically reduced? They still speak, and I’m sure it’s still adorable, but I for the life of me can’t hear what they’re saying.
The narrative’s constantly changing point of view leaves the story unfocused and absolutely kills that sense of progression the first game had.
Moving on to the visual design of this game: many of the units received redesigns, especially the Tundran Territories’ infantry, most of which I think are improvements. The same can’t be said for Brigadier Betty: her look, not to mention her distinctive voice and a good deal of her peppy can-do attitude, are gone, making this iteration rather bland and forgettable. Speaking of bland, the game’s color palette is much more colorful which, while fitting well with the cartoonish style, demolishes the unique atmosphere of the B.W. 1 and stands out less by comparison.
Okay, so maybe the aesthetics and narrative aren’t on par with the original, but this game fixes many of its predecessor’s failings when it comes to gameplay. The A.I. is much more proactive: there were many times I would be ordering my units to attack a tank or some entrenched enemy infantry and would be surprised by the wreckage of an enemy gunship I didn’t notice suddenly crashing nearby. Oh, and planes finally fly in circles when put on standby!
The motion controls also make targeting enemies and issuing commands a snap. The only place where they really feel out of place is when controlling aircraft, as pointing the Wii remote up or down controls altitude. This feels awkward, especially if the player is trying to target a ground based unit, partially due to the game not making the change in altitude immediately obvious.
The game’s missions do feel a bit more repetitive than before. BWii’s missions follow a pretty predictable formula: defend a location then go on the assault or go on the assault and then defend the capture point. That said, BWii doesn’t have any missions that drag on too long or feel unfair—which the first game was occasionally guilty of, so I guess it more or less balances out.
The game’s missions do feel a bit more repetitive than before. That said, BWii doesn’t have any missions that drag on too long or feel unfair—which the first game was occasionally guilty of.
Of course, Battalion Wars 2 also brought new gameplay elements to the table: naval units and buildings. Naval units basically feel like tanks and artillery, but much more sluggish. That said, the game does a great job of conveying their weight and scale, and their long range means naval missions don’t feel too drawn out. Unfortunately, missions in which the player has to command both land and sea units tend to feel disjointed and tedious, due the two unit types’ inability to travel together and the player not being able to use the “All Units” button to regroup their units without messing up their positioning.
Buildings are a solid addition. Players can’t select their position, instead having to secure predetermined locations. Once under the player’s control, buildings will periodically replace fallen units corresponding to the type of building (e.g. aircraft for airfields). These help take the edge off, as the player doesn’t have to worry about losing essential personnel. That said, the fact that units have to run all the way to the players position, which can be on the other side of the map, means the player can’t rely on reinforcements too much.
Despite all of the flak I just gave Battalion Wars 2, I do think it’s the better game. While I think Battalion Wars has more personality, it can also be much more tiring—and sometimes frustrating—to play. Of course, neither is particularly hard to come by, and they’re both worth your time.
Sadly, Nintendo never commissioned Kuju to make a Battalion Wars 3. I think it’s blend of action and strategy would’ve been a great fit for the Wii U, and the Wii U gamepad would’ve been a great help in micromanaging units, something that neither game made easy. Nintendo still seems to have a fondness for cartoony wars games if the recent 3DS game Tank Heroes is anything to go by, so I haven’t completely given up hope. If the rumors of GameCube games coming to the Switch’s Virtual Console are true, I’d happily double dip on Battalion Wars…and not just because of how utterly unreliable old GameCube memory cards are.
About the Author
Glen Straughn is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming. He is currently studying to receive his masters in computer science from Oklahoma State University. He has gotten an S rank on every mission in BWii, and even managed to get an S on the final mission on his first successful play-through…completely by accident.
Nintendo is known for many things: innovation, quality, terrible third party relations, etc. Throughout the years, the company has cultivated a reputation as highly creative, exacting master artisans. It’s one of the many reasons they’re so beloved by fans around the world. They don’t just make games, they make worlds and characters that are instantly recognizable and overflowing with personality. Creativity is a fundamental part of their identity as a company.
However, in recent years they’ve garnered a reputation among some as a bunch of corporate stiffs who keep churning out the same-old-same-old that they’ve always been, like Activision with Call of Duty, Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed, or Capcom with…well take your pick. So what’s different? What makes the Nintendo titles of today “corporate cash-ins” instead of visionary, artistic masterpieces? If I had to give my two rupees on the subject, I’d say the issue isn’t that the games are bad or mechanically unsound, it’s that they lack personality.
So what even is personality? What makes it so important? What happens when a game doesn’t have it? Let’s take a look, shall we?
What I Mean by Personality
What is personality? Well, typically the word refers to the psychological concept of a collection of behavioral traits that determine how one sets priorities and reacts to different situations. Seeing as I’m writing about video games, however, that definition isn’t really of much use. For the sake of this article, I’ll just define it as the interplay between a game’s aesthetic choices (visual design, music, story, etc.) and its gameplay that give each game its identity.
Huh…that’s pretty vague, isn’t it? Maybe a visual aid is in order; consider the following image:
Clearly, these are all Mario games, but because each one has a unique visual style, even people unfamiliar with the franchise can easily tell that each one is a different game (Okay, technically you can get them all on one cartridge, but that’s beside the point). Furthermore, those who’ve played the games will tell you that despite each game staying true to the Mario formula, each game has its own unique mechanics and gameplay quirks that makes the gameplay feel different. That’s basically what I’m getting at when I say personality: a game’s unique look, sound, and feel. It’s why the first Paper Mario is cute and colorful while it’s sequel, The Thousand Year Door, is wry and occasionally dark, or how the claustrophobic corridors and eerie music give the Metroid series its trademark sense of isolation and unease, and so forth.
That’s basically what I’m getting at when I say personality: a game’s unique look, sound, and feel.
For the Want of an Identity
What happens when you have a mechanically airtight game that lacks the personality to set itself apart? You get the New Super Mario Bros. series.
When New Super Mario Bros. first came out on the DS, its deliberately vanilla presentation was—I dare say—welcome, considering it had been roughly fifteen years since Mario’s last new 2D outing. The aesthetic was familiar but modernized, making it a great choice for a game meant to be just that: a throwback with modern graphics and design sensibilities that epitomized what it meant to be “Mario”.
So what’s the problem? Nintendo made three nearly identical sequels, that’s what. Make no mistake, each game is excellent in its own right, but they’re all so ridiculously similar in terms of their visuals, gameplay, level themes, and music that they’re practically the same game! The New Super Mario Bros. series is proof that too much of a good thing is entirely possible. I honestly believe that if Nintendo had taken the time to give each game its own unique style—visually, setting-wise, musically, or otherwise—each game would be fondly remembered as classics, but because each game used the same “New” style, each one was more forgettable than the last. Ironically, between this and the lukewarm reception of Yoshi’s New Island, the word new has become Nintendo fan jargon for “safe” and “uninspired”.
The New Super Mario Bros. series is proof that too much of a good thing is entirely possible.
Making Okay Games Great
Alright, so an otherwise great game can lose its appeal without personality, but let’s be real for a moment, a game riddled with questionable design can’t really catch on just because of its personality, right? As proof of the contrary—and possibly of me secretly having a death wish—I present the 1995 cult-classic, EarthBound.
Are you still reading? Okay, good.
If I had to summarize the gameplay of EarthBound in one word, I would say it’s serviceable. As R.P.G.s go, there are certainly more streamlined experiences on the Super Nintendo. In terms of core gameplay, EarthBound is very traditional. There are some minor mechanics which distinguish the game, but they honestly don’t affect the overall experience that often.
On top of that, EarthBound features some questionable design. EarthBound‘s interface is archaic, even for the time it was made. Simple actions like talking to people or investigating an object (which are separate actions) take multiple button presses with the default controls. Admittedly, there is a way to automatically do all of that in a single press, but if you didn’t read the manual or hear about it from someone else, you’d never know it’s there, likely because it’s unintuitively mapped to the L-trigger. Aside from that, inventory management is downright tedious, with actions like trading items between party members—or just buying and selling for that matter—taking many more windows, confirmations, and button presses than needed.
EarthBound‘s interface is archaic, even for the time it was made.
The game also has some difficulties with difficulty. Simply put, the game’s difficulty curve is as wild as its enemy designs. The beginning is particularly rough, with grinding being a must. Things do get easier once the other party members start showing up (several hours in), but the game loves to throw curveballs at the player.
And yet, the game is heralded as a masterpiece, and for good reason! Ask any EarthBound fan what makes the game so great, and I guarantee you they’ll mention the game’s quirky atmosphere long before they talk about the mechanics. EarthBound is full of humor, thought provoking themes, and obscene amounts of heart. In a fitting twist, EarthBound defies the usual mantra of “gameplay first” and sells itself almost entirely on its personality. If the game was just another fantasy epic about orphans saving the world from the physical manifestation of darkness—or whatever—I highly doubt anyone would remember it. Personality is what elevates EarthBound above its mechanics and earns it the title of classic.
As I’ve stated prior, Nintendo’s struggled with getting personality right in their games of late. Some franchises—like Mario—are suffering from overexposure while others from Nintendo over-simplifying them in an attempt to be more accessible—thus removing the fun quirks that made them stand out in the first place. Fortunately, many of the Big N’s recent titles show that they haven’t completely lost their creative mojo: the urban, 90’s kid aesthetic of Splatoon, the jazzy sound and Geisel-esque environments of Super Mario 3D World, and the beautiful Ghibli styled world of the up-coming Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, to name a few.
Next to gameplay, personality is the most important aspect of a game. Even if a game has great mechanics, it will quickly be forgotten if it doesn’t have the charm and appeal to leave a lasting impression. Likewise, a game with a lot of character can convince players to look past many of its flaws and hold it as a classic. And while Nintendo sometimes screws up and turns out games that don’t feel like they had much heart put into them, let’s be honest: there’s something about Nintendo that makes us willing to look past such missteps.
About the Author: Glen Straughn is a life-long Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired to pursue a career in computer programming. Currently, he is studying to get his masters in Computer Science at Oklahoma State University. He’s an INTJ on the Meyers-Briggs personality spectrum, which in fiction is the personality most often associated with evil geniuses like Professor Moriarty.
Confession time, boys and girls! I like the Super Mario Bros. Movie. There, I said it! I admit, it’s probably just residual nostalgia from the many times I watched it as a kid, seeing as how the movie is a horrendous adaptation of the games (which was no less obvious to four-year-old me as it is today). Even then, I think when judged on its own merits, the movie has a sort of cheesy charm: it’s a film made in the early 90s trying so hard to be a mid-to-late 80s styled action-adventure thriller. In my opinion, it works in a weird, probably unintentional way. Regardless, the film has become infamous among gamers, who deride it for—among other things—not being much like the games on which it’s, ahem, “based.”
The film has become infamous among gamers, who deride it for not being much like the games on which it’s “based.”
However, this was not always the case. The movie had a long and troubled production, mostly due to differing opinions on which direction the film should take. The end result? Many, many rewrites. Most versions of the script are more or less in the vein of the final product, a sci-fi action-adventure sort of a thing. However, there is one major exception: the first draft. Indeed, the first draft was not a sci-fi action-adventure sort of a thing, but instead a comical romp through a bizarre fantasy world. More to the point, it also included many more nods to the series on which it was, ahem, “based.” So, does accuracy to the source material make this version of the movie better? Let’s find out! Uh, I mean, “let’s-a go!”
I’m pretty sure that’s what the cool kids are saying these days…
Seeing as how it’s doubtful the average gamer knows about the many rewrites this movie went through, much less bothered to read the original script, I think it’d be a good idea to briefly go over the plot detailed in the aforementioned first script. The movie follows a pretty clear three-act structure, with the first act taking place in Brooklyn, the second in the Mushroom Kingdom, and the third being comprised of the climax and denouement, as one would expect.
Act 1: Brooklyn
The story begins much like the finished movie does: a dark and stormy night, a robed figure, an infant, and some sort of mystical artifact, in this case, a jewel encrusted locket shaped like a mushroom. In this story, however, the nun that answers the door fails to notice the locket, and it consequentially slips out of the basket and into a nearby storm drain. After leaving the child on the door step of a church, the robed figure—in this version an old man—tries to beat a hasty retreat but is blocked by the shadowy figure of the story’s villain, King Koopa. Koopa threatens the man with unimaginable suffering, and the frail old man—being quite old and frail—dies of fright.
Twenty-something years later in modern-day, early 90s Brooklyn, Mario and Luigi are doing what plumbers do: fixing pipes. Or, at least, Mario is, Luigi is daydreaming about the love of his life, a girl that works at a nearby flower shop. Mario, having been hurt by love some unspecified amount of time ago, abrasively attempts to dissuade Luigi from pursuing a relationship.
Quick aside: for maximum enjoyment, I recommend envisioning Mario being played by Bob Hoskins—like he was in the final version of the film—and Luigi being depicted by Danny Wells like he was in the Super Mario Bros. Super Show.
Anyway, Mario and Luigi aren’t exactly in the best shape financially. Mario is deep in debt to a loanshark named “Big Eddie” (pro tip: never loan money from anyone whose name starts with “big”). Further adding to their problems are the differences between each brother: Mario is all business—which is understandable given his circumstances—while Luigi is compulsively generous and prone to messing up while on the job, resulting in more work for Mario. Case in point, after leaving to fetch some tools he left in the van, Mario returns to find that Luigi has turned the pipe they were working on into something akin to a modern art piece.
Later, after fixing the pipe, Luigi heads down to the flower shop to confess his love to Hildy. Wait, Hildy? Why Hildy? I mean, at least Daisy was an established character in Mario canon (albeit an incredibly obscure one back when the movie came out). Whatever, Dai—Hildy is rebuffing the advances of some sleazy dude named Vinnie. Apparently the two went out on a date sometime ago, and Dai—Hildy gave him a black eye. Luigi enters the shop just after Hildy convinces him to leave via argumentum ad tubulum irrigandum. After wussing out of telling Hildy how he feels, an argument breaks out between Hildy and her employer: Hildy put top dollar flowers in a budget wedding bouquet because weddings should be special or something. Afterward, Luigi and Hildy make lunch plans for the next day.
So to summarize, Mario is gruff and cynical, Luigi is warm and whimsical, and Hildy is tough but sweet.
Later that night, after having dinner with his brother (and some arguing), Luigi heads out on the fire escape to look at the city lights. He starts daydreaming (nightdreaming?) about being with Hildy. His happy thoughts are soon interrupted by that most inconsiderate of bugbears, foreshadowing. He imagines Hildy being stolen away by a reptilian claw and then himself holding the locket from opening. He then wakes up in bed, which leads me to question how much of the previous scene even happened. Did Mario and Luigi even have dinner, or was that part a dream too?
The next day, Luigi bumps into some of Big Eddie’s goons. They start hassling him until Mario steps in. Mario assures Eddie and his thugs he’s got a job lined up and he’ll be able to pay them soon. Mario then heads to the City Engineer’s office. Unfortunately, the City Engineer won’t even look at Mario’s proposal for the unspecified project until Mario pays a bribe. Mario, of course, refuses to stoop to bribery. After a debate on business ethics, the meeting inevitably concludes with the defenestration of the City Engineer’s golf bag.
Afterward, Luigi is telling some of the neighborhood children a story about a fisherman who outwitted a wrathful genie by daring him to enter a bottle. Mario, already having a bad day, dismisses the tale. Luigi attempts to cheer his brother up by telling Mario he found them a (pro bono) job fixing a leak in the basement of the church from the opening. During the job, they accidentally break open a sewer pipe, out of which comes the locket. Luigi immediately recognizes it as the one from his dream, and Mario immediately recognizes it as his ticket out of debt.
The next day, an unusual fellow tells Hildy he’s a detective working for her parents, and they would like to meet her. Previously believing herself to be an orphan, Hildy readily agrees. Meanwhile, Mario meets with Big Eddie to pay off his debt using the locket. Unfortunately, Luigi switched the locket with a rock when Mario wasn’t looking, which Big Eddie doesn’t find amusing. Back in the flower shop, Luigi shows up for his lunch date only to catch the Hildy right before she leaves with the strange man. Quickly realizing something’s amiss, Luigi chases after their cab in the Mario Bros.’s van. Mario, trying to escape Big Eddie’s goons, tries to escape to the van and after a brief chase only barely manages to hop in the back. Luigi chases the cab to an alley and continues his pursuit on foot. Mario follows him and they enter an abandoned diner with a large pipe jutting from the floor in the kitchen. They enter the pipe and are quickly whisked away.
Act 2: The Mushroom Kingdom
They exit on the other side of the pipe in…well, the movie never specifies, but we’ll just say the Mushroom Kingdom. After a brief scuffle over the locket and an encounter with some Piranha Plants, the brothers start wandering about, trying to determine where they are. They eventually stumble across Toad, who’s attached to a metronome-like deathtrap. They free him and he decides to tag along.
I should mention that this depiction of Toad is more or less the same as his portrayal in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but with a little less chutzpa in the face of danger. I’ll leave it to you to decide just how annoying that sounds.
The brothers eventually catch up to Hildy and the strange man, who then changes form to reveal himself to be none other than King Koopa (why can’t they ever just call him Bowser?). Luigi rushes off to save her, and—having no plan or weapons—gets himself and Mario captured. King Koopa leaves with Princess Hildy (she’s apparently a princess now) in tow while Mario and Luigi are to be executed via ballista. They just barely manage to show their executioners—who happen to be of a bearded human-like race known as “Yeelahs”—the locket before the trigger is pulled. Upon seeing the locket, the Yeelah proclaim the Mario Bros. the heroes of prophecy (is it just me, or are prophesies more common in movies than the Bible?). They then direct the trio to a nearby village to meet a wizard.
They meet the wizard, Woltan, and after some convincing, he sends them on a quest to the Pit of No Return to retrieve his wand. Meanwhile, Toad sends a message stating the brothers are still alive to Koopa via rocket-powered carrier turtle. Woltan gives Luigi three silver coins and sends the three on their way. As Mario’s complaining about never wanting to go on any quest, Luigi gives a beggar the three silver coins and receives a magic bean in return.
Meanwhile at Koopa’s castle, Koopa elaborates that he needs Princess Hildy to willingly marry him so that he can get his claws on the Crown of Invincibility. After briefly and awkwardly attempting to use charm and wit to persuade her, he defaults to love-potion laced chocolates, because apparently, it’s consensual when she’s under the effects of a love potion. The script cuts back to the progression of this plot point several times, presumably to provide a sense of urgency, but I’m not going to bother.
After camping out for the night, the Mario Bros. (and Toad) eventually stumble across a group of “toadstoolians” (i.e. Toads) working as slaves for King Koopa. This is followed by a chase scene in which the Mario Bros. have to run from the Hammer Bros., who’ve been sent to assassinate them. After escaping the Hammer Bros. and some more of Koopa’s minions, they find an egg in the woods which hatches into a “brontosaurus-like” creature. It’s actually a Yoshi, but is never referred to as such. It imprints on Mario, who shoos it away. After some more hiking, they (finally) come to the cave’s entrance. They enter, navigate some traps: including Thwomps and a strangely out-of-place Bob-omb, and enter a treasure chamber where the wand is. While in the treasure chamber, Luigi finds a jar of mushroom powder, and Toad takes a red leaf.
Outside, they’re greeted by Koopa and his minions. Koopa shoves Luigi and Toad off the ledge at the edge of the cave, sending them plummeting to their doom. Fortunately for our heroes, Luigi and Toad have the raccoon-leaf from earlier and use it to land safely. Mario, thinking his brother is dead, swears vengeance on Koopa as the Yoshi from earlier comes to his rescue. After the two escape from Koopa’s troops, Mario says goodbye to the Yoshi as it goes to be with its real mother.
Act 3: Koopa’s Castle
On his way to Koopa’s castle, Mario comes across the beggar Luigi got the magic bean from. The beggar reveals himself to be Woltan. Mario returns the wand and they head off to defeat Koopa. Koopa’s chief wizard, Beedleman, senses that Woltan has regained his powers and summons a storm to slow them down. As the storm brews, Mario takes cover, but Woltan tells him that there is nothing to fear because his magic is strong enough to protect them from the storm. Immediately afterward he’s vaporized by a bolt of lightning (Okay, I got to admit that’s pretty funny). Anyway, Mario continues onward, alone.
Mario arrives at Koopa’s castle and rushes in. Luigi and Toad, who escaped the caves by sprouting the magic bean from earlier into a vine they could climb, see him run in but are too far away to call out to him. Inside, Mario finds the place unexpectedly deserted. He seeks out Hildy, following her cries for help. He follows the voice only to find that (all together now) it’s a trap! After delivering the famous “the princess is in another castle” line (which is probably the most clever allusion to the games in the whole movie), Mario is taken away in chains. Fortunately, his captivity is brief as Luigi rescues him en route to the dungeon of Koopa’s real castle.
Now reunited, the brothers sneak into Koopa’s castle. The duo knock out some guards, steal their uniforms, and inadvertently stumble into King Koopa’s bachelor’s party. The king mistakes them for jesters and demands a song. After improvising a tune, the brothers sneak off to find Hildy. Upon finding her, they are shocked to find that the once sweet Hildy has been transformed into a “grotesque wench” (way too much makeup, long claw-like fingernails, etc.) by the chocolates. Hildy only barely recognizes Luigi before the guards barge in and take the Mario Bros. to the dungeon.
In the dungeon, our two heroes await their fate: in the morning the floor—which is made of ice—will melt and they will plunge into a pool of man-eating fish. Without anything better to do, Luigi resorts to having a real-talk with Mario. Turns out, the only reason Luigi still lives with Mario is because he promised their mother that he would look after Mario, because all Mario cared about was money and work.
The next morning, the ice begins to crack, Toad finally decides to check and see what’s taking our heroes so long, and Koopa’s wedding begins. Just as the remaining ice becomes too small to support both Mario Bros., Toad shows up. He manages to trick the dungeon’s guard into eating a poison mushroom, thereby straight up murdering him, and then rushes to the brothers aid.
Mario and company barge into the wedding. Unfortunately, Koopa is able to finish the ceremony while the protagonists are busy fighting through the guards. Just after Hildy says “I do,” Luigi breaks the spell on her via the mushroom powder he obtained in the Cave of No Return. Now the rightful-ish ruler of the kingdom, Koopa takes the crown and uses its power to begin turning Luigi to stone. Mario hefts Luigi’s petrified body and attempts to escape with Toad and Hildy. Just before his petrification completes, Luigi reminds Mario of the story of the genie and the fisherman.
As they escape, there’s a largely pointless confrontation with a pair of chain-chomps and a rather cool implementation of roto-disks. Eventually, the group is chased into an underground chamber…full of magma. Duh.
Our heroes attempt to cross a rickety rope bridge when Koopa finally catches up to them. Mario directs the others to take Luigi and get to safety. Koopa, at first, tries to use illusions to defeat Mario. When that doesn’t work, he uses his magic to pull Mario toward him and deliver a powerful uppercut. Mario is sent flying and only barely manages to grab onto the bridge. With his opponent now dangling precariously above a pool of magma, Koopa approaches to deliver the coup de grace. Just before Koopa cuts the rope Mario is hanging on, Mario remembers the story of the fisherman and the genie. Mario says that even though he may be small, he’ll always be bigger than Koopa. Koopa, of course, uses the crown’s power to grow. Mario continues to egg him on but Koopa becomes wise to Mario’s ploy and begins levitating to avoid destroying the bridge with his weight. That wasn’t Mario’s plan, however: Mario tells King Koopa that his shoe is untied and Koopa reflexively looks down, thus causing the crown that is now many times too small to fit on his head to slip off. Koopa plummets into the magma and everyone (including his former henchmen) rejoice. But suddenly, a giant flaming head emerges from the fire. Mario does the only logical thing in this situation and…tells Koopa that it’s over and he just needs to give it a rest? With one last furious roar, Koopa takes Mario’s advice and finally dies.
Woltan reappears and reveals that he was actually the former king of the Mushroom Kingdom all along. Later, in the field of pipes that will take our heroes home, the King gives a speech congratulating the Mario Bros. and Toad and presents them with medals. He then gives Hildy permission to return to Brooklyn so she can be with Luigi, stating that he will simply remarry and produce another heir to the throne. That’s a…surprisingly practical way of resolving that plot issue. Anyway, after saying their goodbyes, Mario, Luigi, and Hildy all return to Brooklyn.
Three months later, the trio are eating dinner at an Italian restaurant. Hildy and Luigi are now married, and Mario is finally out of debt. The newly-wed couple ask Mario if he’s seeing anyone. Just as he starts to explain—while he’s very happy for them—he’s not interested in a relationship for himself, he spies an attractive woman sitting by herself who happens to resemble a bit character who I didn’t bother mentioning before now because she only exists for the sake of this one call back. We see Mario walk up to her and start a conversation through the front window of the restaurant as the camera begins to pull back, revealing the Mario Bros. van whose side now reads “Super Mario Bros.: Ace Plumbers.”
Analysis and Review
So, this story is obviously more faithful to the source material, therefore it’s clearly better, right? Eehhhh…
Okay, first things first, movies are a collaborative effort: they are the end product of many people’s input and passion. For that reason, it’s hard to judge a hypothetical film solely on a script alone. Many factors can influence the quality of a movie: direction, acting, editing, the list goes on and on. So for this reason, I’m judging this assuming the performers never miss a beat, the director has some actual talent, and no scenes were cut for length. With that in mind…
Let’s start with the positives. Some of the jokes are actually really funny. I like that this script has a rather dark sense of humor in places, like having Woltan vaporized with little warning or fanfare. Some of the one-liners are fairly clever (though most are a little cheesy) and—if properly acted and edited—the slapstick could potentially be almost on par with something like Looney Toons or the good seasons of SpongeBob. Over all, many of the jokes have potential, and they do a good job of establishing a wry, yet light-hearted tone.
Over all, many of the jokes have potential, and they do a good job of establishing a wry, yet light-hearted tone.
I also like the dynamic between Mario and Luigi. Having Mario resent Luigi for no reason other than the latter is a responsibility the former never asked for may not be the most original idea, but I think it was a very interesting direction and made for a surprisingly deep and psychological take on the characters. Also, let’s not forget the reveal near the end in which Luigi admits to having similar feelings regarding Mario, which I thought was a good pay off for their character arcs.
Lastly, I liked that they made an effort to make the movie’s world resemble the games’. The thought of seeing a live action Super Mario Bros. that more closely resembles the games is enough to make me salivate.
Now the bad, few of the other characters other than Mario and Luigi get much character development. With the possible exception of Toad, none of the side characters really change or grow throughout the course of the story. Hildy remains tough but sweet, Woltan’s only change is that we discover he’s really the king, and Koopa’s not fleshed out much as a villain. This last one’s particularly infuriating because Koopa at one point mentions how his father had everything taken from him and his family was reduced to living in abject poverty. Taken by whom? King Woltan? That moment raised so many questions: questions I was very much looking forward to having answered, and they never mentioned it ever again! Easily the most aggravating thing in this script!
Next were some miscellaneous issues. Firstly, you probably noticed there were quite a few scenes that I only mentioned in passing. Well, that’s because a lot of scenes don’t really add much to the story and were effectively padding. Next, the story doesn’t quite know who its protagonist is. I know of two basic ways of determining who’s the story’s hero: “who drives the plot?” and “who undergoes the most character development?” For most of the film, Luigi’s driving the plot, but Mario undergoes most of the character development, but toward the end the movie changes gears and has Mario do both. I don’t think this is too big of a deal, seeing this is the Super Mario Bros. movie, and thus the writers may have just figured both brothers should share the spotlight, but even then it came across as a tad unfocused. Lastly, the movie shows its age in some of the worst ways possible: parts of it are painfully cheesy and cliché-ridden. It’s very clearly a product of the 90s.
A lot of scenes don’t really add much to the story.
Now for the Reznor in the room: the efforts to reference the games are often times distracting. I know that doesn’t sound right, so hear me out. The script makes an effort to reference the games, but it’s incredibly inconsistent in how it does so. I’m not against there being new ideas—especially considering this script was written in ’91 and there was a lot less material to go off of—but there are missed opportunities all over the place. For example, they never call the Mushroom Kingdom the Mushroom Kingdom, or Hildy “Princess Toadstool”—even as a title. Also, why have the majority of Koopa’s army be comprised of Yeelahs instead just having Yeelahs be the conquered peasants (I’m not anti-Yeelah, but give me my gosh-darn Koopa Troopas!)?
Because of this, the movie’s references feel kind of half-hearted: like they only included them out of necessity. Heck, some come across as completely shoe-horned, like the bob-omb in the Pit of No Return or the Chain-Chomps in Koopa’s castle: both come completely out of nowhere and add very little to the plot. While reading this, I got the impression there were times where the writers stopped and said, “wait, weren’t we writing a Super Mario Bros. movie? Oh crud! Quick, put in a character from the games.”
This may sound really weird, but I think the movie we got is easier for me to judge on its own merits than this one because it doesn’t try as hard to connect itself to the games, meaning I have to overcome less bias to accept it as its own thing. Because the first draft includes so many references to my favorite video game franchise of all time, I want it to be even more faithful.
Because the first draft includes so many references to my favorite video game franchise of all time, I want it to be even more faithful.
In its current state? It’s okay. I don’t think it would’ve been as controversial as the version that made it to theaters, though. It would probably be seen much the same way as Street Fighter: The Movie is. Either way, it’s nothing spectacular. I do think with some revisions, some trimming, a good director, and talented actors, it could be quite good. I liked most of the stuff in Brooklyn, and I think the climax works pretty well, but the second act drags and is lacking in the Mario charm I expect.
All in all, while it may be fun to speculate, I don’t think we’d be much better off with this version of the movie. But hey, Nintendo’s said they’re going to start licensing the movie rights to their franchises, so maybe a good Super Mario Bros. movie isn’t that far down the road.
About the author: Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming; so much so that he is currently studying to get his masters in computer science. He also likes the Street Fighter movie for much the same reasons he likes The Super Mario Bros. Movie, cementing the fact he has questionable taste in films.
Let’s face it, we’ve all thought that at one point or another. Usually it doesn’t go any further than wishful thinking, though. Sure, some of us might doodle concept art or gameplay ideas in a notebook, a few might even learn to program, but even for those with all of the skills there’s another, more tangible hurdle: the tools. Game development isn’t free and procuring a software development kit (SDK or devkit for short) is often a costly proposition. For those of you not familiar with the game development process, a devkit is a collection of specialized software and hardware used to make and test games. They’re quite expensive: the Wii’s devkit cost around $5000, which at the time was rather cheap compared to the XBox 360’s and PS3’s $20,000 price tag. Now, those of you who are used to making do with free software—like me—are probably thinking, “do I really need all of those fancy tools?”
Homebrew is the process of making software for a system without the original development kit or system distributor’s blessing (more commonly known as a “license”). The term originated among beer aficionados for beer brewed by an individual instead of a commercial brewing house, but now is used in many hobbies—including video games—to refer to unofficial/amateur produced content. Homebrewering shouldn’t be confused with modding or ROM hacking: homebrewing is concerned with making new content for a system, while modding and ROM hacking only intend to change or manipulate an existing game (sometimes to the point where it’s arguably a different game made from the parts of the original).
Homebrew is the process of making software for a system without the original development kit…
What’s Homebrew Like?
Homebrew provides a surprisingly diverse selection of content. There’s homebrew for almost all Nintendo systems, though the type of content varies greatly from system to system. Older systems mostly focus on games, while newer ones–from about the Wii onward–have homebrew for everything from games to system utilities. Let’s take a quick look at some examples.
Just as “all toasters toast toast [sic]” Nintendo homebrewers homebrew games…duh. Sadly, most of the homebrew games I found in my research are simple, forgettable diversions much like the flash games of the early days of the internet. It’s not that surprising, considering game development on any level is an intricate and time consumptive process. That isn’t to say that all homebrewers lack diligence and ambition. There are still many quality original titles. Notice that I said original titles; a large number of homebrew game projects are simply ports, usually of games whose creators have released the source code to the general public. In fact, the Wii alone has ports of P.C. classics such as Tyrian, Quake, and Jazz Jackrabbit.
I’m not going to try to enumerate every homebrew project released for a Nintendo system, but for the sake of being thorough, there are some that warrant mention. First up is Blade Buster,a Famicom shoot-em-upnotable for its screen filling boss sprites (on an 8-bit console mind you), an insane number of sprites on the screen at a time, and unique time-attack styled gameplay. Next for the Super Nintendo is N-Warp Daisakusen, a game that allows eight—yes, eight—players to compete in a free-for-all brawl. Lastly, I want to mention a puzzle game for the DS named Negative Space which has the player drawing paths to guide two opposite colored blobs to their respective goal flags. The catch? They can only travel through the other’s color, meaning every path you draw for one is an obstacle to the other.
After games, the most common type of homebrew is emulators. I’m not exactly sure why when emulators are already so prolific on P.C. Maybe people make them because they like the challenge of getting an emulator to function on the constraints of a game console. Maybe it’s to prove that more fully featured emulation is possible on Nintendo systems. Maybe people just think it’s funny to play Playstation games on their Wii. Whatever the reason, most of Nintendo’s modern systems have a multitude of homebrewed emulators available on them.
Obviously, many of the homebrewed emulators available online for Nintendo consoles are for older Nintendo systems. As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, however, the homebrewed emulator scene isn’t exclusively concerned with Nintendo systems. On the just Wii alone there are emulators for Sega Genesis/Mega-Drive, Sega Saturn, Playstation 1, CalecoVision, Commodore 64, Atari Lynx, and many, many, many, many, many more. Also, there’s a Super Nintendo emulator that runs on the original 3DS (I knew it!).
Whatever the reason, most of Nintendo’s modern systems have a multitude of homebrewed emulators available on them.
Not all homebrew projects are game related. Some are just the sort of software you’d find on any computer: music players, web browsers, etc. One such program of note is an art program called Colors! Which was originally developed as homebrew for the DS but has since gotten an official release on multiple systems, including the 3DS eshop. Then there’s software that changes system behaviors. For example, the 3DS has an application that removes the cap on the number of play coins a player can receive in a day. More impressive is a Wii hack that let’s the user change the region of the console—y’know, to play region locked games.
Where there’s hardware, there’s Linux. Much like the speed of light or the certainty of death and taxes, it’s one of the constants of our universe. Seriously, any system that’s powerful enough to run Linux sooner or later will. There’s Linux for the GameCube, Linux on the 3DS, Linux for the Wii, a distro is in development for the N64, there’s a version for the DS; heck, even the GameBoy Advance has…Unix?
Any system that’s powerful enough to run Linux sooner or later will.
Cool! Let me try!
For those of you who don’t know, I happen to be a programmer, so when I write an article that gives me the opportunity to talk about programming, I’m going to talk about programming. If you think programming is some kind of voodoo (which it isn’t: it’s sorcery), you may want to skip this part.
Still here? Great! Believe it or not, if you’re already comfortable with programming it’s almost as simple as picking the system you want to develop for and a few Google searches. While homebrewing isn’t exactly the go-to past-time among bored nerds, there are several online guides and communities dedicated to the craft: forums, YouTube videos, blogs, and wikis galore! Heck, there’s an entire freebook on WikiBooks about Super Nintendo programming.
Even though you’re not going to be using The Man’s toolkit, you can’t exactly make a game with just your imagination and wishful thinking (trust me, I’ve tried). You will need software to compile the code you write and, if you’re developing for one of Nintendo’s more recent systems, an API library to interface with the system (getting controller input and such). You’ll also want an emulator. Fortunately, all of these tools can be easily acquired on the internet for free.
There are several online guides and communities dedicated to the craft: forums, YouTube videos, blogs, and wikis galore!
As for the coding itself, it’s mostly the same as regular programming. For example, I—out of curiosity—browsed through a tutorial on GameBoy Advance homebrewing and was quite relieved (and just a little surprised) to find that the code was hardly distinguishable from any other program written in C. There are certainly nuances to keep in mind—like in the case of the GBA, some memory addresses are reserved for the screen’s RGB values, tracking whether buttons are pressed, and so on. You may also need to go without some modern conveniences (hope you like compiling your code from command-line!). But by-and-large, anyone who’s sufficiently experienced with C and/or C++ should be fine.
Unless you’re developing for an 8 or 16-bit system. In that case I hope you really like 65c816 Assembly!
We Haven’t Even Touched the Red Pill
Instead of starting on a proper summation, I’d like to cover my backside real quick and stress that despite this being the longest article I’ve written for Two Button Crew to date, I have only given the barest of overviews of the subject. I encourage you to look further into this, either as someone interested in finding new games to play or someone hoping to make such games. More over, there’s a lot I omitted for length, like how some retail games have been pulled from store shelves because of homebrewers.
Having said all that, it’s a shame homebrew isn’t more popular. I understand why, though: if someone’s going to go to all the trouble to make a game, why make it for a dead system? And if it’s for a modern system, why make a game that they can’t license and sell? But, hey, who knows? Many Nintendo fans have grown up and started making games of their own. As time goes on and more fans get old enough to take an interest in game development, maybe some of them will try to make a few for the systems they played on as kids. Wouldn’t that be something, a flood of new old games?
About the Author:
Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming; so much so that he is now studying to get a masters in computer science. He doesn’t understand that the average person isn’t interested in programming and won’t shut up about how awesome it is.
Note From the Author: The game discussed in this article, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Duel Destinies, has been rated M for Mature (ages 17+) by the ESRB for the following: violence, blood, suggestive themes, and language. That said, this article focuses only on the game’s mechanics and should be appropriate for all audiences. Please use care and caution when deciding what games are right for you and your family.
I typically don’t play story-heavy games during the school year: they take a long time to beat and all of that pesky suspense and intrigue makes them hard to pull myself away from. So when summer rolled around earlier this year, I decided it was high time I got around to playing a game I’ve been meaning to tackle ever since it came out way back in 2013, Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies.
After slogging through other plot-driven games in the past solely out of pride (I beat games, not the other way around), I figured that I—a busy adult with things to do—simply had grown out of those types of games. As such, I went in to Dual Destinies with fairly low expectations.
It didn’t take me long to remember one crucial piece of information: I like the Ace Attorney series…a lot. This game is no different. While not the strongest entry in the franchise (clumsy writing in places, too much hand-holding, and not nearly enough Trucy Wright), Dual Destinies still managed to impress me, especially where I least expected it: the game mechanics.
The Ace Attorney series is no stranger to introducing new gameplay mechanics and gimmicks, but until Dual Destinies, I honestly can’t think of a game in the franchise that took existing elements and trimmed the fat. Overall, the game has the best pacing and flow of the entire series, which is why I think it’s the perfect candidate for a case study on how to streamline gameplay mechanics. Court is now in session!
Dual Destinies managed to impress me, especially where I least expected it: the game mechanics.
Opening Statement: The Investigation Phase
Cases in the Ace Attorney franchise are generally split into two distinct parts: investigations and court sessions. For anyone not familiar with the franchise, defense attorneys in the Ace Attorney universe are two parts lawyer and one part private investigator. They question witnesses, search for clues, and sneak evidence out of crime scenes when the cops aren’t looking, all to prove their client’s innocence. This portion of the job is represented in gameplay with what’s known as the investigation phase and plays much like a traditional adventure game in the vein of the Monkey Island series or Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. These segments of the game are often the longest, and fittingly, most of the trimming the game does is in these portions.
Defense attorneys in the Ace Attorney universe are two parts lawyer and one part private investigator.
Exhibit A: The Search Command
Like many adventure games, players in Ace Attorney games must search the environment to find items they can use, in this case evidence to prove their client’s innocence. The examine command brings up a cursor that the player can then use to click on objects in the environment to investigate them. Now, not everything the player sees in an area is going to be evidence (Phoenix’s office plant, Mr. Charlie, for instance), and when clicked these objects, instead of advancing the plot, will just trigger some flavor text wherein the protagonist and his plucky sidekick humorously palaver on about the object in question (#TeamStepLadder).
Now, in games prior to Dual Destinies, every location was searchable, even if there wasn’t any evidence there (I’m looking at you Wright & CO. Law Offices). This meant players were expected to search every area. Just because a murder occurred in, say, a public park doesn’t mean the player won’t end up searching an abandoned doctors office for clues on the whereabouts of the true killer’s lost shoes.
In games prior to Dual Destinies, every location was searchable, even if there wasn’t any evidence there.
Dual Destinies improves on this feature in several ways. First, the game limits use of the examine command strictly to crime scenes. This means that there’s only ever one searchable location for the player to worry about at a time, unlike previous games that let the player switch between searching multiple areas, each of which could change depending on event flags. More over, the game now has the courtesy to inform players when they’ve found everything they need, which too often wasn’t clear in previous titles. Lastly, Dual Destinies introduced the ever so subtle—but oh-so-useful—addition of having the cursor take the shape of a check mark if the object being highlighted by the player has already been investigated. Considering that many of the conversations triggered when clicking on something could be quite long, even with fast forwarding, this U.I. feature is something longtime fans can appreciate.
And to top it all of, despite the newly imposed restrictions there’s still plenty of that sweet, sweet flavor text.
Exhibit B: The Travel Menu
Locations in the Ace Attorney series are normally static, disconnected, one-screen “rooms” that the player travels between via selection from a menu. It’s about as utilitarian as it gets, and yet Dual Destinies still managed to smooth out the rough edges. See, for whatever reason, previous games in the franchise had a four option limit on the travel menu, meaning the player could only travel to four other locations from any given area. The way the developers got around this—quite frankly arbitrary—limit was to have each area have its own list of destinations. So, for example, if the player wanted to go from the detention center to the crime scene, they may have to travel to back to Wright’s Office, then to the front door of the building the body was found in, and then to the actual crime scene.
Of course, a sleek, afigimatiko-dynamic game like Dual Destinies isn’t about to put the player through all that for something as simple as getting from point A to point B! Enter the magic that is “scrolling”! With this space-aged technique, players now have the uncanny ability to pick any location from anywhere in the game simply by “scrolling” between options! (Restrictions may apply in accordance to plot demands.)
Exhibit C: The Notebook
Anyone who’s played an old-school adventure game can tell you that the worst thing that’s guaranteed to happen to the player at some point is getting stuck without any clear directions. This is why many modern games of all genres keep an objectives list or provide a character who the player can ask for advice at any time. Unfortunately, until Dual Destinies the Ace Attorney games fell into the old adventure game trap of not always giving the player clear directions on what to do next. To make matters worse, N.P.C.s had an annoying tendency to just up and disappear until the player triggered the right event flag. This led to the player constantly going back and forth after every event to see which N.P.C.s had returned to their post and who had new dialog options.
Dual Destinies introduced an extra section to the court record (basically the player’s inventory screen) for notes—which in this case is more of a checklist than a place for the player to jot down information. Any time the player isn’t sure what to do next, they can just open the court record, hit the notes tab, and be on their way. Admittedly, Dual Destinies’ plot is structured in such a way that the player rarely needs extra input, especially once you factor in the previously listed enhancements, but the handful of times I did need it, I greatly appreciated the fact that I could just hit a few buttons and continue the game instead of wandering around in circles for ten minutes.
Any time the player isn’t sure what to do next, they can just open the court record, hit the notebook tab, and be on their way.
What I hope to get across is how seemingly small changes eventually add up. Small U.I. improvements can help better communicate information to the player, which leads to less time spent on tasks that slow progression. Moreover, limiting when a player can perform certain actions—like investigating their environment—can keep them from getting side-tracked or lost. In Dual Destinies’ case, the end result is the first Ace Attorney game that didn’t have me at a complete loss for what to do next at any point. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, it’s not necessarily the best game in the series (my personal favorite is Apollo Justice), but I will say right here and now that it’s the best structured and paced, all because the developers weren’t afraid to make some compromises regarding many of the accepted, long-standing conventions of the series. I’ll miss you, dear glut of humorous flavor text, but I can’t deny the game’s pacing is better off without you.
About the author:
Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan and has been an Ace Attorney enthusiast ever since he first played Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney back in 2008. His love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming and is currently studying to get a masters in computer science. Despite his name and choice of professions, he is in no way related to Glen Elg.
WARNING:The following blog post contains spoilers for Metroid: Other Mand Metroid Fusion.
It’s tough being a Metroid fan. After a promising start, the series goes on hiatus for nearly a decade. Then after a resurgence and several great additions to the franchise, Metroid: Other M comes out and sends everyone into a tizzy. Cue another hiatus, and then after years of waiting, Nintendo finally announces a new entry into the series…and everyone loses it all over again. I don’t particularly like controversies, they have an odd propensity to throw gentlemanly discourse out the window and reduce (presumably) otherwise intelligent individuals to their embarrassingly base, vitriolic nature. That said, there is an issue regarding Metroid: Other M that seems to have slipped through the cracks, and with the aesthetically controversial Metriod Prime: Federation Force releasing this August, I think now would be a good time to get it off my chest and discuss what I think Metroid: Other M‘s real flaw is.
People have criticized Other M for a variety of things: potentially sexist undertones, awkward non-analog controls, Samus’s emotionless voice acting, etc. I, however, either didn’t notice or didn’t mind most of the commonly cited issues when I first played the game. No, there was something else. Something I couldn’t ignore. Something that kept scratching at the back of my mind in the same annoying fashion a house cat lazily paws at its sleeping owner’s face. Something that is never brought up when discussing the game’s flaws. Something that kept running through my moderately attractive head every time I played the game: I’ve seen this before.
To put it bluntly, Metroid: Other M is a rehash of Metroid Fusion.
No seriously, there are just too many similarities. Oddly enough, despite all of the discussion the game has (shine) sparked, no one ever discusses the Goyagma in the room and mentions how suspiciously similar the two games are, even when they’re listing reasons they don’t think the game is good. The only time I’ve seen it brought up was a forum post made shortly after the game was released, and that was quickly dismissed by the site’s other members. So let’s switch to our scan visors and take a closer look.
Both games are set shortly after the masterpiece that is Super Metroid. The similarities between settings are more than chronological, however.
In Fusion, the game starts with our girl Sammy escorting a team of xeno-biologists on a mission to survey the metroid home-world, SR-388. After mercilessly blasting a hornoad that could’ve made for a valuable specimen, the creature reveals itself to be an X-parasite in disguise. Samus is infected, hospitalized, and eventually saved by a vaccine made from a DNA sample from the now dead last metroid. Deciding not to question the medical team’s severe misuse of the term vaccine, Samus immediately gets back to work and heads out on her next mission: to investigate a distress signal coming from the BSL (Biological Space Laboratories) Research Station.
The BSL Research Station is a space station-based research facility designed with the study of alien lifeforms in mind. It is equipped with top-of-the-line containment facilities that recreate the environments of the creatures that live in them. Each of these areas are referred to as sectors, are numbered one through six, and recreate a different biome (SR-388, jungle, desert/volcanic, aquatic, ice, and nocturnal).
Other M opens with Samus in a Federation quarantine bay being attended to by Federation medics after her harrowing escape at the end of Super Metroid. After a dry internal monologue and debriefing, Samus is off on her own to…I don’t know, hunt bounties? Anyway, she picks up a “baby’s cry” distress signal and—being the mercenary bounty-hunter that she is—goes to assist with no promise of financial compensation what-so-ever.
Upon arriving at the source of the transmission, Samus finds herself at the Bottle Ship. The Bottle Ship is a space station-based research facility designed with the study of alien lifeforms in mind. It is equipped with top-of-the-line containment facilities that recreate the environments of the creatures that live in them. Each of these areas are referred to as sectors, are numbered one through three, and recreate a different biome (jungle, volcanic, and ice). Sound familiar?
[They are] equipped with top-of-the-line containment facilities that recreate the environments of the creatures that live in them. Each of these areas are referred to as sectors, are numbered […], and recreate a different biome.
To top it all off, even the chamber from which the sectors are accessed are the same: a large room situated below the crew quarters and command center with color coordinated elevators.
Both games also have similar antagonists. Anyone who’s played Fusion can tell you about the paranoia inducing terror that is SA-X. Heck, I still sometimes have nightmares about it. For readers who don’t know, SA-X is the X-Parasite’s mimicry of Samus: it has all of her powers, her knowledge, and—most of all—her suit. Throughout the game, it wanders the BSL, constantly attempting to sabotage Samus’s mission. It destroys machinery, doorways, it even tries to induce a meltdown in the station’s reactor. While the being makes a few onscreen appearances, it usually sticks to the shadows. Throughout the game, SA-X is a threat that seems to be around every corner, just out of sight.
Other M has a similar enemy: the Deleter. The Deleter is a mysterious entity that operates in the shadows. He/she/it constantly attempts to thwart Samus and her allies’ efforts to get to the bottom of what went down on the Bottle Ship by sabotaging equipment, jamming communications, and even systematically eliminating Adam Malkovich’s soldiers one-by-one. Trying to identify and stop the Deleter is one of the major plot elements of the game, much like stopping SA-X is in Fusion.
But Other M doesn’t just have similar antagonists to Fusion, it even goes so far as to copy one of Fusion‘s most iconic bosses: Nightmare. Nightmare is a large, gravity-warping bio-weapon that gave Samus the gravity suit in Fusion. Its battle is one of the longest and most difficult in the game, and as to be expected the fight occurs near the end of the game. The boss returns in Other M, and just like in Fusion is fought near the end of the game. The only real difference is that Fusion bothers to build it up as a major threat, while Other M just shoe horns it into the game.
And then there’s Ridley…who’s in almost every game, so he isn’t worth mentioning. Moving on!
Yet another of the similarities between Fusion and Other M is Adam and his role. In Fusion, Samus’s new ship comes with an on board A.I. that she nicknames Adam after a former commanding officer. Adam is Samus’s guide throughout the game, offering objectives and providing suit upgrades. Adam is eventually revealed to be an uploaded personality and is—in fact—the real (artificially simulated) Adam Malkovich. The real (not artificially-simulated) Adam appears in Other M. In that game he points out objectives to Samus and authorizes use of her various suit features, similar to in Fusion.
The two games also both depict him as potentially untrustworthy. Fusion shows that Adam, and the Federation at large, have a hidden agenda that they’re keeping a secret from Samus. This can also be said of Other M, though it is more ambiguously framed. Adam clearly knows more about the situation at hand than Samus, which is a major source of tension in the game’s story. Other M even goes so far as to depict Adam as a candidate for the true identity of the Deleter. All of this conspiracy mumbo-jumbo leads to my final point…
Surprise! It’s Full of Metroids!
Both game’s have a secret, hidden sector. It’s full of metroids. The Federation is cloning them. They want to use them as bio-weapons. The secret part of the space station is jettisoned into space. Samus fights an adult metroid.
Despite what my very critical overview may suggest, I rather enjoyed Metroid: Other M. It certainly had a number of problems, but the end product still had tight controls, good gameplay, and great production values; overall an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, as a prequel to Fusion, it’s an abysmal mess that introduces many, many plot-holes. I’d go so far to say it serves as a cautionary tale of how not to do a prequel. All of the similarities make Samus’s reaction to the events of Fusion completely unbelievable. She acts like it’s her first time stumbling across a secret metroid cloning project, or dealing with an enigmatic saboteur, or fighting Nightmare! It’s almost as if Other M was an attempt to rewrite Fusion in hopes of removing the latter from the series continuity like a lab full of metroids from a space-station. But I’ll admit, that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s not like the Big N is some sort of large, secretive collective that would conspire to do something like repeatedly clone Metroids to further their own ends, right?
Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose first foray into the Metroid Franchise was Metroid Fusion. His love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming and is currently studying to get a masters in computer science. And yes, he really does sometimes have nightmares about SA-X.