RIP Mr. Iwata

13 July 2015

satoru_iwata

Today is a sad day for all gamers and fans of Nintendo in particular. Last night Nintendo president Satoru Iwata passed away of a bile duct growth. He was 55 years old.

Normally I don’t comment on these sorts of issues. This website was always supposed to be a forum for my writing first and foremost and not a place for real world news but in many ways Mr. Iwata was such a huge source of inspiration to me over the years it would be callous of me to ignore it. The games he brought into my life were sources of inspiration to me at times when I had all but lost hope. They reminded me of the importance of fun and for that I will always be grateful.

Since becoming Nintendo’s president in 2002, Mr. Iwata helped to spearhead the Japanese company’s return to dominance within a video game industry which had all but forgotten the name Nintendo. His work and his games were a huge inspiration to me and his absence will sorely be missed.

Satoru-Iwata-Luigi-Nintendo-Direct-G3AR

During his life, Mr. Iwata spent most of his career working at Nintendo and HAL Laboratory. As a coder he had a huge role to play in classic titles such as EarthBound, Kirby, Balloon Trip and Smash Bros. As president of Nintendo, he oversaw the launch of the DS, a portable console which went on to sell over 150 million units worldwide and open up the gaming field to a wider audience for the first time.

The Nintendo Wii followed in 2006. At first the gaming industry was skeptical of the idea of motion control game-play, especially coming from a home console which seemed to eschew graphical fidelity in exchange for an innovative control method, but Iwata-san was quick to defend the idea.

“Making games look more photorealistic is not the only means of improving the game experience,” he said in 2005 at a game developers conference. “I know on this point I risk being misunderstood, so remember, I am a man who once programmed a baseball game with no baseball players. If anyone appreciates graphics, it’s me! But my point is that this is just one path to improved game. We need to find others. Improvement has more than one definition.

He was right. The Wii went on to sell over 100 million units during its lifetime, dominating the global market for almost half a decade and putting Nintendo back on the map.

iwata-isn-t-sold-on-cloud-gaming-1095464

Mr. Iwata was notable as a president for his unconventional way of thinking. Not only was he never afraid to clown around and have fun (as the pictures on his page should nicely demonstrate) but he was also extremely honorable in the way he handled his business. When, in 2013, Nintendo shareholders demanded that Iwata cut staff in order to make up for disappointing year-end results, Iwata bravely refused to do so.

“If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, employee morale will decrease,” Iwata told the shareholders that year. “I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world.” Nintendo cut no staff and instead Iwata-san personally took a 50% pay cut to apologize for the less-than-satisfactory sales results.

It was this approach that characterized Iwata’s time in charge of Nintendo. Was he a perfect CEO? No. As any gaming critic will tell you, a lot of Nintendo’s decisions over the years often appeared out of touch and misguided. But he was a good man and a good manager above all. He led by example and was never afraid to put his own neck on the line in order to help his beloved Nintendo. I can’t help but respect a man who worked so tireless all the way to the end of his life. I’m sure that Iwata-san knew for some time that he was suffering from this condition and that it would likely lead to his death, yet never once did he allow any weakness to show. He worked right up until the end, securing in the last few months of his life deals with mobile giant DeNA and Universal Studios theme parks which I am sure will have a huge impact on Nintendo’s fortunes for years to come.

He was a likeable man. He clearly loved video games and he adored the fact that he was working in a job where he could make them every day.

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

RIP Mr. Iwata. You left an indelible mark on all of gaming. You will be missed.

RIP you crazy Japanese man

RIP you beautifully crazy Japanese man

Special thanks to The Guardian for the quotes used in this article.


Game review: Captain Toad Treasure Tracker

8 May 2015

captain_toad_european_box_artSpin offs: they are everywhere these days.

On TV, you have hugely popular shows like Breaking Bad spinning off into Better Call Saul, or award-winning shows like Battlestar Galactica spinning off into the woefully awful and instantly cancelled Caprica. In literature, A Song of Ice and Fire begot the the less popular though equally good Dunk and Egg short stories, while the Harry Potter series has spun off into multiple side books such as Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them. In Movies, Star Wars has had so many spin offs by this point it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Almost without exception* these spins offs are rarely anywhere near as popular or iconic as the media that spawned them.

And so, too, is this the case with video games.

Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is a spin off from the extremely popular and award winning Super Mario 3D World. It’s essentially an entire game made up of the small Captain Toad levels found within its parent game. Each of the games 70 worlds is a compact maze-like structure which has you using your brain to track down hidden gems and collect the power star at the end.

The levels in Captain Toad are very small and compact

The levels in Captain Toad are very small and compact

Unlike uncle Mario, Captain Toad is unable to jump meaning he must rely on his puzzle solving wits to get through each level. This change, while sounding relatively minor on paper, has a huge impact on the way the game is structured and its levels designed. Gone are the time limits of the mainline Mario games. Gone are the hub worlds and sweeping 3D vistas. Instead the game focuses on very compact, localized challenges, each of which is over very quickly. It is not designed for long play sessions.

Even if this type of slow puzzle platforming isn’t your cup of tea, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer quality of level design on display here. This is a very well put together game. The way you manipulate the height of platforms or transform the stage in order to move around reminds me of something out of a Zelda game, only played out on a smaller and more easily manipulated scale. This is definitely a good thing.

The pink blocks in this level can be moved around using the Game pad's touch screen. This adds an extra level of interactivity not usually associated with a Mario game

The pink blocks in this level can be moved around using the Game pad’s touch screen. This adds an extra level of interactivity not usually associated with a Mario game

Not to mention it’s gorgeous. It’s like playing a Pixar movie.

Of particular joy for me is the complete freedom you have over the in-game camera. Gone are the forced camera angles or over-the-shoulder perspectives of other 3D platformers. In this game, the camera points exactly where you want it, whenever you want it, which is a huge help in tracking down some of the trickier gem stones. However, one thing to note is that for some inexplicable reason Nintendo decided to map the camera controls to the game pad’s internal gyroscope, a feature which sadly can’t be deactivated. This can lead to unfortunate moments mid-game where you suddenly die simply because you shifted your grip on the controller slightly and the game interpreted this as you wanting to move the camera.

To say it’s frustrating when this happens is an understatement.

Some of the levels are extremely creative: like this one based on a pinball machine

Some of the levels are extremely creative: like this one based on the inside of a pinball machine

The levels are a bit on the short side, however there is a strong incentive to replay them. Not only are there three hidden gems located inside each level, but there is also an extra bonus challenge which only becomes visible once you’ve play through a level once (although it can still be completed prior to this point). For added challenge, the game is compatible with the Toad Amiibo from the Mario Party line. Tapping the Toad Amiibo to the game pad unlocks a special mode which tasks you with tracking down an 8-bit Toad hidden within each level. For those who enjoy replaying their games, this one certainly gives you a reason to come back for more.

Some of my favourite levels are the ones where you need to toss turnips at enemies from the back of an out of control mine kart

Some of my favourite levels are the ones where you need to toss turnips at enemies from the back of an out of control mine kart

Just like in any good Mario spin off, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is packed full of items and power ups to help you in your quest. Returning from 3D World is the double cherry, which allows Toad to split off into multiple copies of himself. Also returning from Super Mario Bros. 2 are turnips, which can be plucked from the ground and thrown at enemies to kill them. There are also pick axes, complete with Donkey Kong arcade sound effects, which allow you to smash through blocks standing in your way to access other parts of the level. It’s a lot of fun.

Captain Toad for Smash!

Captain Toad for Smash!

On the other side of the coin, however, is the elephant in the room. The game is very short. Don’t let the glowing praise above fool you: this is a budget title and a spin off and it plays exactly like one would expect from both of these. A dedicated gamer could complete this game in less than 10 hours. There are only two bosses in the whole game and most of the post-game content, although plentiful, is made up of remixed versions of levels found within the main game. Couple this with the rehashed music and assets liberally stolen from Super Mario 3D World and you can see why the game was so stealthily launched by Nintendo over Christmas without any sort of fanfare and one of the softest launch dates I’ve ever seen for a mainline retail release.

Overall – C

cIt’s no secret by now that the Wii U is a struggling console. Nintendo lacks the third party support needed for regular game releases and this has lead to  droughts in the console’s software lineup over the last 2 years. Nintendo has clearly found it hard to make up for that software shortage on its own and so games like Captain Toad Treasure Tracker are developed: cheap and easy to produce budget titles that artificially plump out the release schedule during the vital Christmas months.

It’s not that the game feels rushed exactly (this is Nintendo we are talking about, after all, and there’s a reason they are so renowned in the industry for the polish they put into their games) but it does feel uninspired.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, this game is a spin off and it feels like one. Playing this game for longer than a few minutes just makes me wish I were playing Super Mario 3D World instead. After all, that game is clearly the superior one. And hey, it has Captain Toad levels included in it for free!

If you haven’t bought Super Mario 3D World yet, go get it now. Afterwards, if you are still hungry for more, then – and only then – consider giving Captain Toad a whirl. He might be “Ready for adventure!” but ready for Nintendo AAA treatment he is not.

* That exception being the hit comedy Frazier which was a far better written and more impactful series than its parent show Cheers ever was.


Game reviews: Lego City Undercover

24 April 2015

lego_city_undercover_boxartLego games are everywhere these days. It seems as though not a single movie release has gone by in recent memory without the talented folks over at TT games immediately parodying it in brick form. There are yearly releases on everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter, There’s even a new Toys to Life concept due out this year which looks to further cash in on the seemingly inexhaustible well of popularity that is the whole Skylanders / Disney Infinity thing.

Believe it or not but by the third anniversary of the Wii U’s launch (November this year) there will be 9 distinct Lego games available for the system. That’s a bigger chunk of the console’s library than there are games with Mario in the title (7). Hell it single handedly accounts for most of the third party software coming to the Wii U this year (a fact which says more about the death of games coming to the Wii U than it does about the quality of Lego games I feel).

Whichever way you chose to cut it, suffice to say that TT games have a winning formula on their hands with this Lego series. And they know it.

A game so formulaic it practicly builds itself

A game so formulaic it practically builds itself?

So here we have Lego City Undercover: an exclusive game made for a console which is crying out for original third party content. A big, well crafted 40+ hour game on a console derided for how much shovelware and minigame collections it has. A game that uses the Wii U game pad to its full, when so many games are lambasted for failing to do so. It’s like grand theft auto for kids, the marketing spiel goes so I though why the hell not? I’ve never played a GTA game before, let’s see what this entry-level version of one has to offer.

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised.

At its core, the game play of Lego City Undercover can be summed up thusly. You are a cop who, in his whimsical and occasionally absurd hunt to track down arch-nemesis Rex Fury, must go undercover within the dark criminal underbelly of Lego City. Along the way, he collects new costumes which in turn grant him specific abilities he can use on the fly. The fireman costume, for example, allows you to break down doors, put out fires (duh) and rescue cats with help of a pocket-sized fish. The farmer costume allows you to make plants sprout into climbable platforms, glide slowly through the air suspended from a chicken and fire pigs out of cannons (no really). And so on. There are 8 costumes in total and you will need to use them all in various combination in order to progress through the game.

Because it's not

Because it’s not based on just one movie franchise like some of the other Lego games, Lego City Undercover has license to reference everything from Mission Impossible to Shawshank Redemption. The game is packed full of amusing one-liners and movie in jokes. Like Barry Smith (pictured here): 24 hour plumber and kung fu guru, who is clearly a send up of Morpheus from the Matrix

The Wii U game pad is used mainly as a map, but at certain points during your investigation you will be asked to hold it up in front of the TV and use it as a scanner to locate hidden items and spot criminals. It’s the perfect sort of game pad implementation: simple but effective. It serves a useful function but if you chose to ignore it the game can still be easily beaten without it.

The game pad is well used in this game

The game pad is used well in this game

Now it should be stressed that Lego City itself is huge. There is so much to see and do in the open world section of the game, it’s almost overwhelming. The bulk of your time playing, however, will be spent working through the game’s story missions on the hunt for Rex Fury. There are 15 missions in total, none of which are particularly difficult but all of which present you with simple puzzles to solve. There is combat and death, yes, but for the most part the challenge arrises from puzzling out where to go next and how best to use the abilities you’ve earned to gain to the next area.

Playing through just the main story missions will take you around 20 hours. However, once you finish the game you’ll be surprised to see that your completion percentage is barely more than 20%. That’s because there is an insane amount of content in this game. Every inch of the gigantic city is littered with secrets and collectables. There are so many hidden characters and items dotted around the city waiting for you to stumble upon them that you will easily spend upwards of 100 hours finding them all if 100% completion is your thing.

There are hundreds of characters and vehicles to unlock in this game. It’s slightly overwhelming

However, if I can level one complaint against the game it’s this: a lot of the item hunting feels like busy work. Yes there are a lot of things to do in this game but there’s relatively little impetus to do those things. It’s true that you can have fun just wondering around the city, just like in any open world game, but the fun of exploration soon wears off into a dull frustration that you’ve been exploring the same city district for two hours and you’ve only got a single hidden character to show for it. The same handful of missions repeat over and over again. Arrest a gang of hoodlums, stop a stolen vehicle, steal a vehicle yourself, race a vehicle, capture an alien and so on… Over and over again.

Its a minor nitpick, sure. After all, I would rather a game have too much content than too little but for people who are keen on 100% completing the games they play, like myself, you’ll quickly find that the humour and sheer fun of the first few hours of play quickly gives way to boredom.

It's child-friendly puzzle solving. Challenging, but never frustrating

It’s child-friendly puzzle solving. Challenging, but never frustrating

Also an issue are the insanely long loading times in this game. As previously mentioned, Lego City is a big place and this shows when booting the game up. One minute load screens are common in this game, which is both extremely frustrating and also unacceptable in this day and age.

Minor niggles asside, however, Lego City Undercover is a good game. The game is challenging, but by no means hard. The music is simple but appropriate. The presentation clean and colourful. It’s nothing to wow you but then again what more can you expect from a game based around Lego bricks? There are a few glitches here and there, like falling out of bounds or getting stuck somewhere I shouldn’t be but that’s pretty normal for any open world game and at least this one has the decency to be charming about it when it happens.

You will have a lot of fun trying to collect everything in the game

The game takes you to some pretty unusual locations

Overall: B

bOverall Lego City Undercover is exactly the sort of game that it needs to be: a giant open world sandbox that you can play any way you want to. The story is fun, its gameplay is simple and overall it does everything with a lot of style and aplomb.

I don’t know if this sort of experience is typical of a Lego game, but if it is I can see why this formula has become such a successful one for TT games. Its as well constructed as the bricks of its namesake. If you’re looking for a funny, enjoyable distraction you can’t go far wrong.


Game reviews: Mario Kart 8

23 February 2015

mario_kart_8_box_artHere’s a question for you: what is the best-selling Nintendo franchise of all time?

Most likely your first thought was Mario. Who, after all, doesn’t remember the impact made by games like Mario Bros. 3 or Mario 64 when they first launched on an unsuspecting industry? They changed game design on a fundamental level, serving as a textbook for how create platformers for years to come.

Or perhaps your first thought was the Legend of Zelda. You remembered that almost every game in that series has been critically acclaimed, and that the Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask frequently appear in the top 10 games of all time. Any series with so many plaudits must have sold by the bucket, right?

What if I were to tell you that the correct answer is none of the above? The last three home console Mario games – Super Mario Galaxy (12.22m), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (7.41m), and Super Mario 3D World (3.79m) – sold well but hardly well enough to shock the industry. The last three Legend of Zelda games – Twilight Princess (8.58m), Skyward Sword (3.67m) and Windwaker HD (1.22m) – faired even worse .

In fact, you might be surprised to hear that the most recent Mario Kart game, Mario Kart Wii, sold almost as many copies as all of the above games combined. A staggering 35.11m units worldwide and the game wasn’t even considered that good.

Chart reproduced from Polygon.com

Chart reproduced from Polygon.com

When you look at things like this, you can see there are few priorities higher for Nintendo than Mario Kart. It is their golden goose. It’s that fun party game everyone knows about even if they’ve never play a game in their life. Its launch on the 3DS is partially credited with saving that system from an early death. The series appears six times in the Guinness Book of Records, with the original Super Mario Kart number 1 on the list of top 50 console games based on initial impact and lasting legacy. Simply put, see the words “Mario Kart” written on a game and you know that Nintendo have brought their A-game.

Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

From the moment you pop this game into your Wii U, you know exactly what you’ll be getting. This is a Mario Kart game plain and simple, and it comes with all the crazy mayhem and item throwing shenanigans we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Race around 32 fun, impossible courses as popular Nintendo mascots. Use crazy powerups to gain the upper hand. Try to come in first place. You can race alone or with friends both locally and online. There’s a single player time-trial mode to improve your scores and a Mario Kart TV mode where you can view other people’s races from all over the world. Throw in a battle mode and a bunch of DLC and you have yourself a winning formula for success.

As always, it’s a masterclass of game design.

Graphically there is nothing that can compete with this game on the Wii U

Graphically there is nothing that can compete with this game on the Wii U

Graphically there is almost nothing on the Wii U that compares with this game. 720p, 60 frames per second (actually 59 with the 60th frame being a duplicate of the 59th, but who really cares about a single frame?), which doesn’t drop even even while playing online. The game is slick and responsive with tight controls and fluid mechanics. It’s a real feat of programming and an absolute blast to play.

And THAT MUSIC!!! My God. Best OST ever.

The new anti-gravity mechanic leads to some very creative course design

The new anti-gravity mechanic leads to some very creative course design

Like many  Mario Karts, this one has a new gimmick to go along with all the shiny new visuals and in this case that gimmick is anti-gravity. For the first time in Mario Kart history, you can race your karts up walls and along ceilings. Tracks twist and turn in the most unbelievable ways. At various points in the game you’ll find yourself driving vertically up a waterfall, or on the underside of a giant mobius strip. You’ll find yourself driving along the ceiling of a haunted house or down through the twisting tunnels of a sewer. Simply put, nothing is off limits, leading to some of the most imaginative and fun course designs yet seen in a Mario Kart. Personal course highlights include Mute City, a homage to the F-Zero franchise, and Wario Mountain, a rare one-track race that has you racing from the very top to the very bottom of a slalom-style ski course.

Also unique to this version of Mario Kart is its heavy emphasis on DLC and integration with the new Amiibo range of toys. The DLC is fairly priced with $11.99 netting you 16 new courses and 6 new characters, essentially boosting the size of the game by 50% for less than one third of its price. This is in addition to other regular updates, more controller options than you can count and fully integrated off TV play. As I said before, Nintendo always brings their A-game with Mario Kart and if there’s a box that can be ticked on a list of Wii U features, you can be sure this game will be doing its best to tick it.

With Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, Nintendo is proving they know how to do DLC right

With Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, Nintendo is proving they know how to do DLC right

Of course there are always going to be downsides to any game and Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

The AI in this game is bad. No, worse than bad. It’s broken. Mario Kart has always been known for its cheap rubber banding but Mario Kart 8 takes it to ridiculous levels. No matter how well you are racing, no matter what short cuts you take or exploits you pull off, you will always find the number two racer breathing down your neck while the rest of the pack follow just a couple of seconds behind. Conversely, if you happen to race badly you’re only ever a couple of stars or a rocket power up away from being back in the race. I get the idea: Nintendo want to make sure this game is accessible to everyone, newcomers and old hands alike, but there comes a point when it’s too much.

And that's not to even mention how broken some of the power ups in this game are

And that’s without even mentioning how broken some of the power ups in this game are

The hallmark of a challenging game is one that’s hard but fair. Fail and you know it was your fault. Succeed and you know it was because of you mastering the game’s mechanics. It’s like with Hyrule Warriors which I reviewed last week. The more you practice, the better you get at that game and that simple fact encourages you to keep coming back for more.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with Mario Kart 8. The challenge is high, yes, but it’s been made artificially so. Random items. Random events. Rubber banding. Cheating AI. Unfair item distribution. If you’re in last place, the game does its best to put you back into the race. If you’re in first place, the game does its utmost to drop you back into the pack. Apparently Nintendo thinks this makes for a better game. It doesn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times I was cruising to victory in first place, driving perfectly, taking each corner with boosted perfection and using all the shortcuts I knew. I should have been cruising to victory. Instead I end up being hit by a lightning bolt on the final lap. Then a blooper and two red shells in the space of five seconds. You end up coming 7th because the RNG gods decided to gift a rocket to the guy who finished 6th. It’s complete BS and it leads to nothing but frustration.

Some moments in this game are controller-breakingly frustrating. Friendships will be lost and your living room may be in danger. You have been warned

Some moments in this game are controller-breakingly frustrating. Friendships will be lost. Your very living room may be in danger. You have been warned

The great thing about Mario Kart has always been how accessible it is. A complete novice can pick the game up, race and have fun in just a couple of minutes. However, this accessibility is a double-edged sword that limits Mario Kart as a competitive racer. There’s a reason no fanatical community has ever built up around Mario Kart like it has around Smash Bros. The game wants experienced racers to fail just as much as it wants novices to succeed. In this way everyone becomes average and the winning or losing of the game falls entirely down to the will of an RNG.

That’s not fun. It’s dice rolling.

RNG: the game

He’s 12th now but don’t worry he’ll get a rocket soon

And that’s not even to mention my biggest gripe with this game. For all its mastery and beauty, the game is simply too safe. Mario Kart’s formula is so tried and tested by this point it’s creaking at the edges. It’s such a cash cow for Nintendo that it’s almost as though they’re afraid to tinker with the formula for fear of breaking it.

Remember Diddy Kong racing? Remember its story line and boss battles? Remember Crack Nitro Kart with its track editor? Remember ModNation Racer with its customizable vehicles and characters? Playing Mario Kart these days feels like listening to a symphony by Mozart. You know that it’s beautiful and that it couldn’t have been better constructed, and yet you can’t help but get bored by it. It’s years behind the times.

Mario Kart’s formula is so ingrained in our minds by this point the games practically program themselves. But familiarity breads contempt and Nintendo really needs to try mixing up the formula soon or I doubt I will be buying the next Mario Kart as eagerly as I did this one (even though it did come with a free game. Another A-game publicity stunt from Nintendo).

Overall – B

bI so wanted to love this game. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hyped for a Mario Kart as I was for this one. Sad to say the end result is not what I was hoping for. ‘Limited’ is the word I would use for this, along with ‘safe’ and ‘frustrating’. I honestly think I had more fun with Mario Kart Wii than 8 and that’s a sad thing to say considering how hated Wii is by the community.

Fortunately, there’s just enough that’s good in this game for me to give it a recommendation. Great track layouts, fun anti-gravity mechanic, beautiful visuals and a frankly phenominal soundtrack combine to make this a good game to wile away a few hours with friends. It’s a fun game – it’s a Mario Kart game – and you’ll have a lot of fun playing it.

I’m just not sure how long you’ll be playing it for.


Game review: Hyrule Warriors

16 February 2015

the_legend_of_zelda_hyrule_warriors_5_rawReviewing a game is always a delicate matter. On the one hand you strive to review things objectively. You analyze why a game is or isn’t good in relation to the rest of the industry. You look at the game in terms of graphical fidelity and smooth frame rates, the quality of its textures and the realism of its AI. When a game gets these things right, you praise it even if you don’t particularly like it.

It’s in this way that I find myself able to heap praise on a game like Bayonetta 2 or Super Smash Bros, even though I don’t actually enjoy playing either very much. I can recognize that they are well made examples of their genre and I’m sure a lot of people will get hours of fun out of them.

This is what being a reviewer means.

Bayonetta 2: a phenominal game, but not for me

Bayonetta 2: a phenomenal game, but not for me

But then there is the other extreme: games which you find yourself enjoying despite all their flaws.

These games are glitchy, buggy messes of hasty coding and poor optimization. These games have frame rates that dip more often than nachos at a house party and load times less reliable than most bus schedules. These games freeze on you or downright crash your system. Your inner critic looks at these things and despairs: “These aren’t Serious Games! This is generic shlock; the Michael Bay of video games! Give it a mediocre score and let’s move on…”

And yet, whenever you find yourself with a few hours free, it’s this later example that your find yourself returning to time after time.

Tell me: as a reviewer, which of the above scenarios deserves the higher score? Is it the game you can appreciate like a fine wine? Or the one you guzzle down like cheap lager?

It’s a question I never really considered until playing Hyrule Warriors.

Hyrule Warriors is something of a break-out experiment from Nintendo. As a fusion between Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise and Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors series, the game has you thrown into large-scale battles in which you are a one-man army pitted against a literally endless hoard of enemies. The aim of the game is to capture keeps (areas of enemy territory) which once under your control will spawn more allies for your side. Once you’ve got a certain percentage of the field under your control, the enemy HQ will open up allowing you to take on the enemy commander for the mission in one-on-one combat.

The boss fights are some of the best moments in the game, although they do get repetitive after a while

The boss fights are some of the best moments in the game, although they do get repetitive after a while

This style of game is nothing new. Koei Tecmo has been churning out games just like this one for well over a decade now, and Hyrule Warriors (apparently) is just an average example of that series reskinned with Zelda characters. Critics of the game will tell you that it’s a mindless button masher. They will say that the missions are extremely repetitive, that there’s a lot of grinding and very bad AI. They will point out the stuttering frame rates and the graphical glitches and they will give it a mediocre score of 7 out of 10.

Like this.

Which is just further evidence as to why you should never buy a game based solely on its review score.

You can accuse this game of being a reskinned Dynasty Warriors game all you like, but Link and co have never looked better than they do in this game

You can accuse this game of being a re-skinned Dynasty Warriors game all you like, but Link and co have never looked better than they do in this game

Confession time: I love Hyrule Warriors. I can’t stop playing it. I’ve been playing it since it came out in September and I’m still nowhere near done with it. I’ve sunk over 100 hours into the game so far, played it at the expense of much higher-profile game releases like Super Smash Bros. (for which I’ve only played 10 hours) and Captain Toad Treasure Tracker (which I’ve yet to play at all). I’ve bought all the DLC for it. I’ve purchased the strategy guide. I’ve made Excel files with lists of the objectives I still need to complete and the order of how I will do it. I even bought a Link Amiibo just so I could unlock one of the game’s weapons.

There is so much DLC in this game it borders on the absurd

There is so much DLC in this game it borders on the absurd (in a good way, of course)

In fact, I’m so addicted to this game that when my hard drive recently corrupted on me and wiped out my save file containing over 100 hours of progress, even that didn’t stop me playing. I was devastated, sure. But then I remembered how much of those 100 hours I had wasted getting to grips with the game’s mechanics. I was much better at the game now, I knew. It would only take me perhaps half that time to regain all that progress…

And so the next thing I knew, I was re-downloading the DLC once again (this time directly onto my Wii U to avoid any future hard drive issues) and starting it all again from scratch. 100 hours of progress lost… and I continued to play the game.

That, right there, is something I can honestly say I have never done in my entire history of gaming. Sure, there are games that I’ve done multiple playthroughs for but they always tend to be smaller and more episodic in scope like Super Mario 3D World, in which a new playthrough just involves revisiting your favourite levels again as if they were new. To lose so much progress from such a monster of a game and yet refuse to give up made me realize something very important:

Despite all of this game’s many flaws, it is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite game on the Wii U.

Game of the year. I'm not even ashamed to admit it

Game of the year. I’m not even ashamed to admit it

So what is it that keeps me coming back to this game? The content. There is a ridiculous amount of content in this game. It took The Completionist over 200 hours to get everything in just the base game alone and since then there have been three extra download packs which have more than tripled the game’s content overall.

Because of this staggering amount of content you are literally never without something to do. You are constantly working towards something, be it unlocking a new weapon or grinding out an achievement. It’s this constant feeling of incremental progress that keeps you coming back for more and keeps you pushing on for just one more level, just one more map square until the next thing you know it’s 3.00am and you have work the next day…

Unlocking all the game's weapons and content is one of the best things about it

Unlocking all the weapons and content is one of the best things about the game

At its core, the game is very simple. All moves in the game are controlled with the use of just two buttons — a normal attack and a strong attack — in varying combinations. As a result it’s an extremely easy game to pick up and learn the basics for but like all good game systems there is a lot of depth to master.

The game is frantic too. Not in the same way as Super Smash Bros., which is a game that just loves throwing as much as it can at the screen in the hopes that you’ll interpret the ensuring chaos as ‘fun’, but in a far more controlled way. You are continually bombarded throughout the missions with new objectives and messages from your allies. You find yourself constantly re-prioritizing your objectives. Do you push on and take that keep or hold back and defend your own? Do you head over to the other side of the map to rescue your ally, or just ignore him in the hopes that pushing on will indirectly save him?

It’s frenetic. It’s intense. And most importantly, it’s fun.

This is the first time Zelda fans have been able to play as some classic characters such as Darunia here. And it's great

This is the first time Zelda fans have been able to play as some classic characters such as Darunia here and it’s just as awesome as you almost imagined it would be

If this is what all the Dynasty Warriors games are like then I can’t believe I’ve missed out on them for so long. Damn the critics for not appreciating this sort of game more and damn me for listening to them.

Overall – A

aThe critics are right in everything they’ve said about this game. It is mediocre in a lot of ways. It lacks online play, its frame rate is questionable and glitches (like the one I mentioned above in which my entire save data for the game was wiped out) are not unheard of. And it’s true that the Wii U isn’t exactly short of this sort of combo-heavy hack’n’slash adventure style game right now. There’s the aforementioned Bayonetta 2 (and its prequel, launched at the same time), Darksiders II, and the Wonderful 101 released by Platinum last year. All of those games do many things which are better than Hyrule Warriors. All of them push their respective genres in new, interesting directions. Any reviewer worth their salt would give them all higher scores than Hyrule Warriors…

And yet not one of those games is sitting inside my Wii U right now. Not one of those games has had me playing it for over 150 hours. Not one of them excites me inside my gamer soul like this one does. Better on paper they might be but in my heart there is only Hyrule Warriors.

AND THAT MUSIC! My God it’s incredible.

If the point of a game is to give you a good time, to provide some mindless entertainment and wile away a couple of hours then Hyrule Warriors is without a doubt my game of the year and biggest surprise of 2014. It gets an A on sheer effort, fan service and content alone.

If, however, the point of a game is to be well made and interesting, like a sterile tech demo designed to please PC elitists, then this game is mediocre at best and should probably be avoided.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my Wii U is calling to me…


Game review: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

24 May 2014

DKCTFIt’s all too easy with any game – especially one that’s a sequel – to fall into the trap of focusing on what isn’t there rather than on what is. So it was for me with Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, the latest release from Retro studios.

I was a huge fan of the Donkey Kong games on the SNES. Rare’s mid-90s masterpieces will always remain in my memory some of the greatest 2D platformers of all time (especially the second one, Diddy’s Kong Quest). Now suddenly, it’s 20 years later and here’s some company from Texas trying to cash in on my nostalgia for those childhood games by releasing a game that looks almost exactly the same. (It should be noted that I never played Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii so I have no point of comparison there).

So straight away, I’m looking for faults. Why can’t I control the kongs separately and switch between them at will like I could in the old games? Why can’t I hold ‘y’ to dash? Why doesn’t Dixie fly properly anymore and why, instead, is Diddy Kong the one flying around? Where are all the hero coins you used to collect – those things were bad ass! Where are all the animal friends? Sure, Rambi the rhino and Squawks the parrot are in it but where’s Enguarde and Expresso? Or for that matter, where’s Squitter, AKA the most awesome spider to ever appear in a computer game?

More importantly, why isn’t this game called Metroid Prime 4?

Squitter

Ah Squitter… You will be missed.

But when I finally shut the hell up about it and just started playing the game, I started to appreciate it for what it is rather than what it isn’t.

And what this game is, is a fantastic, solid platformer that takes 2D gaming right back to its roots. Its controls are tight. Its level design is fantastic. In terms of graphics, it’s on par with Rayman Legends. In terms of its music and the welcome return of original Donkey Kong Country veteran composer David Wise, it’s almost on the same level as Super Mario 3D World – and believe me, that’s some bloody high praise right there.

So then, what’s this game actually about? Well, it’s a side-scrolling 2D platformer with monkeys. That alone should tell you if you’re interested in buying it or not. You run from left to right. You jump on enemies to defeat them. There are platforms to jump over, ropes to swing on and barrels to jump into and get launched across the stage. Collect bananas for extra lives and search for hidden puzzle pieces in each level for 100% completion. There’s no time limit, so on one hand you have a lot of  time to explore and seek out everything the level has to offer. On the other hand, there’s always a lot going on on screen and so large chunks of the game revolve around twitch reaction times and the kind of intense muscle memory shenanigans that leaves you punching the air with triumph when you finally get the rhythm down. To be honest, any description I could give of this game makes it sound like so many other generic 2D sidescrollers. But its in the details where Donkey Kong shines.

There's no denying that this is one beautiful game. Check out the texture on that fur! It moves and everything!

There’s no denying that this is one beautiful game. Check out the HD textures on that fur! It moves in real time and everything!

One of the best things about the game is how it mixes up the level design in some really creative ways. No two levels look or feel the same to play and this stops it getting boring as you constantly push yourself to try ‘just one more level’. Some levels have you blasting across the stage on the back of an out-of-control rocket barrel. Others have you riding on a mine cart or on the back of Rambi the rhino. One of my favourite levels has you swimming past this giant octopus who hangs around in the background trying to catch you. Throughout the level, you’re swimming through this sunken wreck of a ship and it’s like an extremely tense game of cat and mouse as he breaks through parts of the scenery and tries to grope around with his tentacles to grab you. Very tense stuff and wonderfully creative to boot.

boss610

The bosses are some of the toughest, most creative and enjoyable of any game I’ve played in a long time

There’s no denying it’s a hard game too – you will die a lot just trying to complete it normally, let alone obtaining 100% of the items along the way. Probably the highest praise I can give to the game, however, is that it never feels cheap with its deaths. Every time you die you feel as though it could have been avoided and it’s this feature that drives you to ‘do better next time’ that stubbornly keeps you coming back into the wee hours.

Luckily, the game is more than generous with its lives. You get an extra life for collecting 100 bananas. Additionally, you get an extra life for picking up puzzle pieces from the bonus stages, of which there are several in each level. You can get an extra life at the end of each stage, extra lives for jumping on eight enemies in a row and extra lives sometimes just by finding them floating around the level itself. If that’s not enough, you can even buy extra lives at the in-game shop (using in-game currency), meaning you’re unlikely to ever see a game over screen in single player mode no matter how terrible at platforming you might be. That is definitely a good thing.

It’s mathematically proven: a high level of difficulty + an incentive to keep playing + a buttery smooth learning curve which yields definite improvements over time = platforming greatness.

The rocket barrel levels: not for the faint of heart

The rocket barrel levels are certainly not for the faint of heart

Note, however, that I said ‘in single player mode’ there because sadly it’s in single player mode where this game shines. There is a co-op mode included in the game but, sad to say, it’s probably the only negative about the whole experience. I love that Retro bothered to include it – having each player controlling a different kong really does add something new to the series which it should definitely continue with in the future – but Mario 3D World this ain’t. For one thing, the camera always seems to be too zoomed in too close meaning it’s all too easy to run ahead and leave the other player behind to die. Also, in a game as frantic and reaction based as this one – where there are often split-second reactions needed in order to jump across a bridge before it crumbles away or grab a vine before it swings past you – you’re going to get in each other’s way a lot. Not to mention that playing co-op means you’re both going to burn through lives at a frightening rate as, unlike in NSMBU, you’re stuck with sharing the same pool of lives and often (in the case of the mine cart levels for example) a single death will always result in two lives lost.

Co-op is a cool edition... but it could have been a lot better

Co-op is a cool edition… but it could have been a lot better

Overall – B+

bOverall, this is a great game and definitely worthy of your time and money. There are, admittedly, better platformers on the Wii U, but there are also many which are worse so if platforming is your thing (as it is mine), then this is a great game to add to your library.

The sad truth, however, is that Donkey Kong Country is far from being the only 2D sidescroller available on the Wii U right now and it’s this attempt to compete within a ridiculously over-saturated niche market which I feel will ultimately be its undoing. The public are indifferent towards it and critics seem confused by it. This is one game that you can almost guarantee will be going straight to the bargain bins in the next six months.

This is a shame because Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze deserves to do well. It’s well-crafted, tuned to perfection with nary a bug or glitch to be found all game. It plays just like the games you remember from your childhood, somehow combining fun and difficulty in a way that so few games seem to manage these days. There’s no doubt it will have you both grinning from ear to ear and tearing your hair out in frustration all at the same time and if that’s not the mark of a great game, I don’t know what is. Just make sure you play it in single player mode only.


Game review: Darksiders II

27 February 2014

darksiders_2_wii_u_box_artAs you can probably tell from the sorts of games I rate highly, I’ve never been one to shy away from a game just because it looks childish.

Quite the opposite in fact. I’m a strong believer in the idea that if you take any two games from the same console generation, you’ll often find that it’s the one with the more child-friendly graphics that has better stood the test of time.

Mario 64? Dated but functional. Goldeneye 64? A blocky mess. On the Gamecube, there were two Zelda games released: the cartoony Windwaker and the more realistic Twilight Princess. Despite the fact that the Windwaker was widely criticised at the time of its release for looking so ‘kiddy’, it says a lot about the timelessness of its graphics that it’s this game, rather than the more realistic Twilight Princess, which received an HD makeover last year. A makeover, I might add, that most people said wasn’t needed.

fdge

Games like this will always look good

In fact, there’s so much evidence that good graphics don’t equal a good game that it kind of boggles my mind that developers continue to plough as much money as they do into making their graphics so bleeding edge. Massive draw distances, 1080p textures and millions of polygons seems to be the raison d’etre of developers these days. Go onto any gaming forum and you’ll find literally hundreds of people arguing for hours over the tiniest difference in graphical fidelity rather than, you know, talking about which game is actually the most fun to play.

Maybe it’s the Nintendo upbringing in me, or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve spent the last six years playing exclusively on a Wii, but I can’t help but wonder why developers even bother, especially when the result of such high budget graphical spending is little more than a glitchy, buggy mess of a game, with a frame rate that regularly drops into the single digits, screen tearing all over the place and a disturbing tendency to crash my entire console at least once an hour, requiring a hard reset of the system.

That’s a description of Darksiders II by the way. Suffice to say, I don’t think we’ll be looking back on this game in 10 years time and marveling at its beauty. To be honest, I doubt most people will even remember it exists.

darksiders_ii

Beautiful, yes. But watch it in action and you’ll quickly lose your love for it

A launch title for the Wii U and one of the last releases from THQ before its untimely shutdown last year, Darksiders II is an example of a studio playing it safe. “It’s the next best thing to Zelda!” some random forum member told me a few months ago in a conversation which convinced me to give the game a try. “If you can’t wait for the next installment of Zelda, why not give it a go?” And yes, I have to admit that both games share a lot of similarities. Both have dungeons to explore, for example. Both have giant bosses to kill, items to collect and puzzles to solve.

But that’s where the similarities end. For where a game like Zelda asks you to step back and analyse your enemies before exploiting their weaknesses, Darksiders II plays like a side-scrolling beat ’em up. Button mashing is the order of business here and dear God is there a lot of it. Literally every button on the Gamepad is used at some point during combat — often in combination with one another and usually to a specific animation-based rhythm. Battles in this game are less about picking your moment than they are trying to remember the correct button combination to activate your special ability.

It gets tedious very quickly and it doesn’t help matters that the game is damned hard. Not so hard that you’re not going to make progress, of course — there are checkpoints all over the place and the game kindly gives you unlimited continues — but hard enough that you’re going to find yourself dying with frustrating frequency and, usually, it’ll be because you forgot how to activate your health potion during the heat of the battle or because you didn’t quite press the right combination of buttons at the exact moment you should have.

Maybe it’s just me and my years of Zelda training but I don’t find that sort of combat fun. It’s certainly not intuitive. There is a steep learning curve involved in this game and even after spending more than 50 hours on the game, I still don’t feel as though I’ve mastered it.

Alright so it’s L2+B for the spin attack, right? Or is it X, X+Y? Oh damn it, I’m dead again

Alright so it’s L2+B for the spin attack, right? Or is it X, X+Y? Oh damn it, I’m dead again

Also different to Zelda is the weapon system. Defeated enemies periodically drop weapons and armour on the ground, which you can swap out instantly for the one you’re currently using. The Gamepad is used to great effect here, as you can instantly switch things around in real-time. Some weapons have the ability to level up, too, giving a nice feeling of choice and progression to proceedings. I particularly like how any change you make to your weapons or armour is reflected on Death’s character model.

However, this system is not without its drawbacks. The problem is that these weapon drops happen with such unrelenting frequency that you quickly find yourself with a maxed out inventory and multiple copies of identical weapons. You find yourself having to drop old weapons on the ground to make room for new ones and it all just makes me wonder (again, this might be the Zelda training in me) why didn’t the designers just give us one example of each type of weapon and then have the enemies drop items which allow us to upgrade them?

The ‘hero’ Death. Not exactly the easiest character to relate to

The ‘hero’ Death. Not exactly the easiest character to relate to

So what about the plot, then? You play as Death — one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse — on his desperate quest to clear his brother War’s name following the events of the first game. Straight away I have to confess that I’ve never played the first game (I’ve always been a one console per generation gamer and my console of choice for the last generation was the Wii) so I’ll freely admit that maybe, if I had played the first game, I might be able to understand more of what’s actually going on in the story.

Because right now, I have to say, I don’t understand any of it.

The way Death goes about clearing his brother’s name has to be one of the most convoluted and nonsensical things I’ve ever seen in a game. It turns out that in order to clear his brother’s name, Death needs to get to a place called the Tree of Life. Unfortunately for him, the road there is blocked by an evil miasma called Corruption. Alright you think, I’ll just have to destroy it then. Right? Well, no. The only way to destroy this Corruption is to first raise one of the giant constructs built thousands of years ago by the Makers and the only way to do that is to first divert a river and then blow up a volcano in order to light the forge that the Makers used to create the Constructs. You’re ten hours into the game before you even reach the bloody Tree of Life and when you finally get there, you’re not in the least bit surprised to find yet another complication immediately thrown in your path that sends you off on another five-hour button mash of a side quest.

It’s just one fetch quest after another with endless combat in between. Find something for someone — make progress. Find something else for someone else — make a bit more progress. There is zero emotional investment in anything that’s happening and, for a game with such a reliance on cut scenes and voice acting, that’s a pretty bad thing.

You certainly won’t run out of things to do in this game. Too bad most of those things are tedious

You certainly won’t run out of things to do in this game. Too bad most of those things are tedious

So what does this game have going for it, I hear you cry? Well, it’s a big game for one thing — much bigger than a typical Zelda game — and there are oodles of dungeons to explore and collectables to find along the way. If you’re the type of gamer who likes going for achievements, you’re going to have a great time here as there seems to be no end to it all.

The bosses are also fantastic. Suffice to say that there’s no such thing as an easy enemy in this game and this applies doubly so for bosses. Bosses truly feel like the leviathans that they are. They fill up the entire screen and are genuinely difficult to take down. Some of the game’s best moments are boss fights where you take on enemies hundreds of times your own size only to grind them into the dust. Its satisfying and it looks cool. They stay with you a long time afterwards.

I also really liked the exploration element to the game. Death runs and jumps around the scenery with a kind of parkour acrobatic grace that outshines Link on almost every level. The puzzles might not be on the same level of complexity as Zelda’s, but there are certainly a lot of them and they are always satisfying to solve.

I just wish there was more of these things and less of the button mashing. I just wish the designers had spent more time on making the plot good, even if it meant making the game shorter, than padding it out with stupid fetch quests that benefit no one. I just wish the graphic designers had spent more time ironing out all the bugs and glitches instead of cramming in all those beautiful HD textures.

With another few months of development, I feel there could have been something really good here. Sadly, in its current state, the words ‘generic’ and ‘lacklustre’ are the first that spring to mind.

Overall – D

urlDarksiders II does a lot of things right: the atmosphere, the graphics and the huge open world are better than almost anything else you’ll find right now on the Wii U. It’s a huge game and, let me tell you, seeing it all running in full HD after six years of playing nothing but Wii games… that was a mind blowing first few hours right there.

But once all the dust has settled and the plot gets underway, you realise that most of the game is made up of little more than mindless button mashing and pointless fetch quests, through a world made up of some of the most glaring graphical glitches I’ve ever seen.

It’s pretty forgettable and it gets samey very quickly. Its few stand out moments are painfully marred by all the flaws in between and, sadly, it’s just not very fun when you get right down to it. Ultimately the game feels like exactly what it is: the swan song of a dying studio rushing to meet a deadline before its doors were closed forever.