Monday, 19 February 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Game Boy Advance

Next in my continuing no-particular-order quest through the loft, I come across my Game Boy Advance. Released in 2001, the follow-up to one of the best-selling consoles of all time was underwhelming at first. It was borne of the same design goals as its predecessor – a durable, modestly specced, non-backlit handheld with decent battery life. The horizontal orientation was more comfortable in the hands, and the wider screen seemed like an upgrade even without a backlight, though anything less than perfect ambient light conditions resulted in a very squinty time. The performance was certainly a massive upgrade from Game Boy Color, providing visuals broadly on a par with Super Nintendo, although with caveats, primarily in audio and screen resolution. And although it gained shoulder buttons, it lacked the SNES’ four face buttons, which seemed a baffling omission. In 2001 – with PS2-fever gripping the world and retro-fetishism in its infancy – more was more. More buttons, more polys, more power! GBA was, frankly, a disappointment. Remember, Sega’s Nomad had given us a portable Mega Drive in 1995. Yes, it was overpriced and had terrible battery life (two factors that would consistently see Nintendo triumph in the handheld arena), but it was 2001 and you could barely see this new Game Boy’s screen!

However, being able to play the entire GB back catalogue was a massive boon, and the inevitable redesign – the clamshell SP – provided a backlight and also protected the screen in your pocket. I got an SP a couple of years back and it’s beautiful. The second and final revision, the Game Boy Micro, is still an object of desire today, although by all accounts it’s simply too small to play comfortably for any length of time. Maaan is it purdy, though.

But enough of this hardware nonsense – on to the games! Remember, these are the titles that make the system worth owning for me. I haven’t played everything and I don’t like everything.

WarioWare, Inc.: Minigame Mania (or Mega Microgame$ in the US) – Nintendo R&D1
I played this on the 3DS after it was gifted to me in the twenty-game Ambassador Program, Nintendo’s make-good to early adopters after a significant price drop early in the system’s life. What is there to say other than it’s possibly the best entry in this irreverent series. The ‘small-bursts’ microgames feel right at home on the portable.
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Metroid: Zero Mission – Nintendo R&D1
Okay, so this is technically a remake of Metroid for NES, but one that transforms the original from a barebones progenitor of Super Metroid into something that applies all the lessons learned from that offspring and also the GBA’s own Metroid Fusion. This iteration looks, sounds and feels so much better, and it adds new post-game levels. Remakes are tricky to pull off, and so often details inherent to the experience are lost in translation. The original can be tough to return to thirty years on and, of course, it’s still there for the purists. But for everyone else, this is the way to experience Samus’ first trip to Zebes.
Also available on: Wii U VC

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – Intelligent Systems
Another game I played on 3DS, this one got me into the Fire Emblem series. GBA had some splendid tactics games, but this one... is the one I played. Being totally honest, the story details escape me now. There was some conflict, some people fought, I won. What I do remember is many hours of strategy and satisfaction after hard-resetting my way through every mistake until I had, as far as the game file was concerned, a perfect, unblemished record of zero dead party members. No-one dies on my watch. A fantastic SRPG on a system blessed with many.
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
In an effort to plug some gaps in my knowledge, I got this on a double cartridge with its predecessor, Harmony of Dissonance. Never managed to go back to that one because this game distils the best of Castlevania into a perfect, portable whole. Music, level design, characters, weapons, progression – they’re all up there with the series’ best, and the graphics work incredibly well, too. Playing on a TV via Virtual Console, the GameCube’s Game Boy Player or whatever trickery one cares to employ, the colour palette looks completely differently and you can see where the developers turned the saturation up to 11 in order to make the game readable on the GBA’s murky little screen. The consideration and execution on display here makes it the best Castlevania I’ve played. I’ll get to Symphony of the Night one of these days (Switch port, please) but it’s got its work cut out to beat this.
Also available on: Wii U VC

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap – Capcom, Flagship
Once again, the Ambassador Program gifted me a game that I had missed. Demonstrating that other developers were perfecting Nintendo’s formulas, Minish Cap delivers a beautiful, self-contained adventure that doesn’t outstay its welcome. While it doesn’t stray far from the established template, Ezlo (the eponymous Minish cap which allows Link to shrink) and the tiny Picori are memorable additions to Zelda’s roster of races and characters. It was also the first game outside The Wind Waker to use Toon Link (as he would later be christened in Smash Bros.)
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Honourable mentions:

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 – This isometric handheld interpretation of the celebrated Playstation original defies all convention and expectation and is actually great.

Sonic Advance – it’s a Sonic game from the 2000s that isn’t shite. It’s good! Shocker.

All the ports – The GBA received some excellent versions of both NES and SNES games which, while somewhat compromised by the small screen, gave many players (myself included) access to these games for the first time (I never had a SNES). I haven’t included these on the main list because the definitive versions exist elsewhere, but the ports of Link to the Past (complete with multiplayer game Four Swords) and the confusingly labelled Super Mario series, including Super Mario Advance (actually a remake of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Super Mario Bros. USA in Japan), Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 and Super Mario Bros. 3: Super Mario Advance 4 are excellent portable renditions of those classics.

The One(s) That Got Away:

Mother 3 – After playing Earthbound on Wii U VC, I immediately started searching Etsy for repro cartridges containing the English fan-translation of this unlocalised sequel. Lucas has an amiibo for-crying-out-loud! Rumour has it that an official localisation exists. I’m really hoping it’ll appear on Switch at some point.

Advance Wars – I think I played this once but I certainly didn’t get far. Everyone says it’s tip-top and it’s made by the same team as Fire Emblem.

Metroid Fusion – I’ve got it on 3DS but never got round to going beyond the first 10 minutes. It’s on the list. Said to be linear but still a strong entry.

The Pokemons – I played the original Red & Blue, and that was it. By all accounts, the series is still pretty good but I could never summon enthusiasm beyond the first 151. I think I’d very much enjoy FireRed and/or LeafGreen, though.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Wii U - PLUS! a most personal video game history

Back in the olden days choosing your video game console meant taking sides: Nintendo vs. Sega, Sony vs. Nintendo, Microsoft vs. Sony. As long as consoles have existed, we’ve had console wars. The reason? Shit’s expensive for a 10-year old! The general affordability of the Wii, and Wii Sports’ appeal to many parents, made the seventh console generation the first where ‘normal’ folks considered having more than one current console in the house. Before that, kids usually relied on a combination of birthday, Christmas, and odd-job money to get new hardware under the telly, and your choice led to tribalism in the playground.

A Brief History of Mine
That's over  £60,000 in 2018 money!
I began with a Mega Drive. Technically I inherited it from my dad who had bought it in 1991 with Castle of Illusion and Sword of Vermillion. The former was a wonderful Mickey Mouse platformer with impressive animation and sound; the latter was a stodgy RPG that boasted on-cart saves on the box and which I always wished had been Golden Axe instead. Soon after, Sonic arrived and that was that - I was a Sega boy. I had a friend with a Master System which I sampled a few games on. I specifically remember Back to the Future 2 being awful and Sonic being weird after ‘my’ version. My step-brother also had a NES which I have fond memories of. But the Mega Drive was mine.

It wasn’t until ’97 that I moved on to an N64. My transition to Nintendo wasn’t really a defection – Sega were killing their userbase with expensive (and therefore, unobtainable) add-ons like the Mega CD and the 32X, and the Saturn didn’t really figure in the equation in the UK. I recall seeing shots of Virtua Racing and DOOM on 32X, but by the time I had enough dollar, they were long gone. GoldenEye had dropped. Friends had PlayStations with Die Hard Trilogy and Twisted Metal, which were fun, but they didn’t have Facility˃Licence to Kill˃Slappers-only! Wipeout looked slick, but it was no Mario Kart 64. I became a Nintendo kid. N64 Magazine kept me up-to-date with all the news and I felt like I was in a club. Happy days.

GameCube came along and was a no-brainer – it had STAR WARS. I got the console, Rogue Squadron II… and no memory card. That hurt for a good month or two. Video games fell off the radar as the opposite sex properly registered on it, until the second year of university when Mario Kart: Double Dash became an evening fixture in our house. I caught up with Resident Evil 4 and games returned to the fold with the DS and, of all things, Animal Crossing: Wild World.

Christmas 2006 was all about Wii Sports. When Bioshock released for 360 I decided to supplement the Wii with a mean Xbox 360 Elite while waiting for the new Banjo-Kazooie sequel. There I discovered Xbox Live, CoD4 and the wonders of online gaming. Everything looked so pretty! Nostalgia also drove me to eBay a NES and catch up with Shenmue on Dreamcast.

Once again games took a back seat for a while and I sold the 360, but the 3DS drew me back with the remastered Ocarina of Time. I inherited a PS3 with a busted disc drive which allowed me to catch up with some exclusives via digital download. After eBaying The Beatles Rock Band kit for 25 quid, I got into guitar rhythm games years after the bubble burst, and after discovering that Steam had pretty much eliminated the headaches from PC gaming (hey - I'm a delicate console flowerchild), I started hoarding Humble Bundles on my aging desktop. I got a Wii U a couple of years after launch and flirted briefly with a Retron5 before selling it off to make room for a Switch.

Ah, I forgot one! I got a PS2 several years back so I could play ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, although that's all I've used it for.

Being an adult now (really), ‘console wars’ seem preposterous. Long ago I reached the conclusion that you need only four or five great exclusives to make hardware worth owning (and keeping.) For example, the maligned Wii U was an easy buy for me – it offered a completely different experience from Sony and Microsoft’s consoles and it easily hit my Rule of 4 or 5. Recently I’ve been contemplating packing the old girl up in her box and storing her away. I’ll miss her quirks: the swooping curtains of the internet browser; my Mii juggling or playing Rock Paper Scissors while he waits; the way our Miis drop onto the screen at start-up. The original Wii remains lodged snugly in my BESTÅ TV cabinet, just in case the urge takes me for a little Rock Band (the DLC wouldn’t migrate so I never did the system transfer.) The Wii U and accompanying GamePad, though, are more cumbersome and I could do with the space. I considered the games I can’t play on anything else and something occurred to me – with Switch steadily stripping its predecessor of exclusives, is this the first Nintendo console to be truly worthless if you own the company’s other hardware? Should I sell rather than store it? Does it still have those meagre four or five exclusives?

I reckon there’s just enough to justify its space in the loft, if not under the TV. With this in mind, I’m going to post my personal four or five essentials here and, in future posts, those for every other console I’ve got stored away. These are the (mostly) exclusive games that make the platforms worth having. Obviously, with all the ports and remasters coming out, many games are now available on different platforms or services. Which is great! – finally I don’t need to scour eBay or use a PC to play Earthbound. Availability on modern platforms may factor into my choices for ‘The 4 or 5’ but you often can’t beat playing a game with the controller it was designed for, limitations and all.

Let’s start with Wii U, then – the ‘stepping-stone’ console sacrificed so Switch could prosper.

dartmonkey's Rule of 4 or 5: Wii U
Firstly, let’s eliminate titles that would have, until recently, been on this list: Mario Kart 8, Bayonetta 2 and Splatoon. I’m being harsh with that last one. It’s a great but nobody’s going to be digging their Wii U out of storage while Splatoon 2 is sitting on their Switch. Plus, once the frequent updates have stopped, the sequel will have most of the original’s maps anyway. The excellent retro-styled Squid Jump minigame has yet to make the transfer though… hmm, perhaps I’m being hasty!

Super Mario 3D World – Nintendo EAD Tokyo
With Odyssey doing the business on Switch, it’s less likely this will make an appearance, although the four-player antics could translate well, minus the touchscreen aides and mic-blowing puzzle elements. It took me almost the entire playthrough to really appreciate 3D World – the movement and level design feel built around 45° angles. This felt natural on the smaller 3DS in 3D Land, but restrictive here on the big screen after the 360° freedom of Galaxy. However, taken in context as a stepping-stone between 2D and 3D games, it’s a jolly experience, probably enhanced in multi-player, though I played alone :sadface: It also has some of the happiest box art in history, the perfect antidote to the greys and browns of EVERY OTHER PLATFORM’S GAMES of the period. And it gave us Cat Mario.

Affordable Space Adventures – KnapNok Games
One of the few games that relies on asymmetric gameplay to the point where a Switch port would be practically impossible. This is the definition of a gem. Humour punctuates the careful resource management as your spluttering tourist craft navigates the underground chasms of a mysterious planet. Really excellent, with a lovely Miiverse-dependent ending forever lost to the bits and bytes of technological progress :,-(

Nintendo Land – Nintendo EAD
It’s no Wii Sports but it does introduce asymmetric gameplay in some interesting ways. Unfortunately, the potential here wasn’t meaningfully explored in future games and we are left with this charming bag of allsorts. Nods to famous franchises probably frustrated rather than delighted fanboys, but there is plenty of multiplayer fun to be had. And the aforementioned asymmetric gameplay means we can be sure this won’t be coming to Switch.

"WOTS THIS SHITE WHERES METROID & F-ZERO U FFS?!?!?!111" – The Internet, November 2012

New Super Mario Bros. U – Nintendo EAD
The second best-selling game on the platform after Mario Kart 8. I got into this late and it’s a cracker. The art design is a little haphazard – foreshadowing Odyssey (as discussed HERE) to a certain extent, you can tell the designers were throwing things at the wall in an effort to avoid the standard FIRE/WATER/ICE/SAND themes. There are some cool one-off stages and ideas. Ultimately, it’s a really great 2D Mario and you can only play it (for now) on Wii U. And it’s got a Super Luigi remix which is really hard so I didn’t bother.

Mario Maker – Nintendo EAD
Okay, so there’s a borked 3DS version too, but Wii U is the only place you can currently get the real, full-fat Mario Maker. Give it six months and a Deluxe version will make it to Switch with slopes and a Game Boy filter. Unlike Nintendo Land, the only other game to make a genuine case for the GamePad, this could easily make the transition – you simply create your levels with the touchscreen in handheld mode and dock the console to share them on the TV. Until then you must use Wii U to create and publish your own Mario levels. I mean, of course it’s essential.

Honourable Mentions (not currently available on Switch): Pikmin 3 (though I prefer its predecessors), the HD Zeldas, Yoshi’s Woolly World (also available on 3DS), Splatoon (see above) and Miiverse.

One thing to note is that, although the black sheep of the family, Wii U also gives access to more first party software than any other Nintendo console. In the hypothetical one-Nintendo-console-or-you-die! predicament, Wii U would have a very strong case. Contained within its glossy belly you have access to the Virtual Console libraries of NES, SNES, Game Boy Advance, N64 and DS. It also runs the entire Wii library and you have two GameCube Zeldas in HD, and it’ll even run GameCube ISOs with a little modest homebrew tweaking thanks to the Wii backwards compatibility – remember, it was just two GameCubes duct-taped together ;-) Then you have a plethora of Switch titles that originated here, including Breath of the Wild, plus the exclusives mentioned above. It also played host to a bafflingly large number of fantastic indie titles – I guess residual nostalgic affection for Nintendo fuelled most of these releases because sales can’t have been stellar. It’s one hell of a catalogue.

So, a toast to you, sir! You and that imaginary person whose only Nintendo console is the Wii U. Now get in the loft.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Wish You Were Here... part 4

Scrambling around Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made me think again of vacationing in game worlds, so I thought I’d revisit the topic...

Several years on, it’s interesting to reread my thoughts on the direction of Zelda and the open world genre. I’ve visited some fantastic places in the interim and Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is one hell of a playground. In part 3 I speculated how incredible it would be to blow away the fog of the Ocarina overworld map and explore the connective tissue – Breath of the Wild does exactly that, and does so with a spectacular level of polish. The trademark jank of open worlds has been buffed out entirely. Of course, it’s a video game and certain actions and objects are necessarily abstracted and streamlined (the rattling 1-2-3-POW! of the cooking animation, for example, is pure cartoon, and who knows where my glider goes when I’m not airborne) but it absolutely nails that exploratory feeling you get in a real natural landscape. It’s not perfect but every design decision forces you to interact with its incredible toybox in an environment tailored towards fun, exploration and experimentation. There are no corridors between civilisations – Hyrule Field is the game now and that buzz you felt the first time you left Kokiri Forest in Ocarina of Time now lasts for a hundred hours or more. The gating is gone, replaced by a natural geography crafted so impeccably that the design feels invisible. But it’s there, in every hill, every nook, cave, pond, puddle, tree, dune, bay and vista. It’s tough to find a spot that hasn’t been meticulously positioned and aligned for maximum effect, yet each place feels perfectly natural. Those tidy compartmentalised zones from previous iterations – the areas that used to be locked until you retrieved the Phantom Doohickey from the preceding area dungeon – now push into one another organically and you are tasked with the adventure of exploring that connective tissue, much as I wished in those old articles. One measure of the game’s success is the number of times I’ve been outdoors in the past few months and gone to grab my scope to scout the best jumping point or realised where I was standing would be the perfect place to glide across the valley and sprint up to an outcrop the other side. I spy obvious Korok hiding places in real hills. The game world seeps into real life.

While it has refined the sandbox experience to the Nth degree, BOTW wears many influences. Beyond its debt to Bethesda, it also draws on its own history. The original Legend of Zelda is a noted touchstone, but the weather system from The Wind Waker is felt here too. The elements in this world fluctuate constantly. That feeling I mentioned in part 1 of the tempestuous seas stirring your spirit is found here too as you gallop across windswept meadows, escape the shadow of a cloud or scramble up a slippery rock face as raindrops start falling. The majesty of the setting also reiterates another point I made regarding the music. Breath of the Wild features a restrained, delicate score lacking the bombast of previous games because, crucially, it is not needed. Indeed, a rousing overworld theme would soon pall in a game where 95% of the (long) game is the overworld. It’s huge, and you can see it all. There are no compartments and the epic fanfare previously employed to augment them becomes redundant. The world speaks for itself.

Other worlds Breath of the Wild brings to mind include Thatgamecompany’s Flower (all that flowing grass and fauna, and now out on iOS!) and the previously mentioned Shadow of the Colossus (another huge, contiguous world.) As well as polish, it’s the detail in BotW that imbues character and gives the game its unique flavour. Little things like:
- the simple, stark black and white loading screen with its Divine Beasts bomping beside the tooltip.
- the way the UI box fade-bounces onscreen.
- the way Link gorges food, one hand after another as you pummel the A button to regain health.
- his red cheeks and visible breath in the freezing mountains.
- the idle animations of the monster masks that mirror their respective enemies.
the way Link stubs his toe while opening a chest if he’s not wearing boots.
- the death scream that accompanies those little red Xs that appear where you died as you replay and retrace your steps in Hero’s Path mode.

There are countless flourishes like these that work to cohere the game into a unique whole. There’s no real defining moment here, it’s just 100+ hours of exploration. It’s not without flaws. With all the obvious care that has gone into fashioning this kingdom, it is disappointing to run up against invisible barriers on some edges of the map. The text ‘You can’t go any further’ begs the response “Er… why?” And, as always, beating Ganon returns your save file to the point just before the battle so, again, you are denied the pleasure of enjoying your success. A couple of years back I finally played Earthbound on Virtual Console and was overjoyed when I found that it DOES let you explore the world post-victory. All the characters have different dialogue. Earthbound is well over 20 years old!! Why is this not the norm yet?!

My holiday in Portugal, not Hyrule.
Overall, smart choices vastly outweigh the negatives. As with previous games, the map is withheld until you’ve had the chance to explore yourself. But even when you manage to scale the area tower, you’re not then deluged with waypoints and objectives. You must explore to find them, and such is the design of the terrain that you’ll find yourself waylaid en-route to your destination by an intriguing cluster of trees or enemy camp just begging to be investigated. It has been noted how this contradicts the Ubisoft open world approach, which opts instead for the laundry list of objective markers to be drudgingly ticked off. I played Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag to completion a couple of years ago and it gave a thrilling rendition of Wind Waker’s sailing. Having never played a Ubi-verse game, I was content to sail the ocean, ticking off those treasure chests on my map while my crew sang shanties. Man, those blue skies and sunsets! The actual assassinating got old pretty quickly, but the world was (and still is) undeniably appealing. But will I ever go back? After Breath of the Wild, it’s hard to imagine. What I can imagine is hundreds of employees at Ubisoft Montreal/Singapore/Saturn sat with their Switches, furiously updating a group Google doc, analysing every square metre of the world. Bethesda's Skyrim also came to Switch at the end of 2017 (I’ve played little else except Nintendo’s latest console this past year) but, as convenient as it would be to have on-the-go, I think BotW has probably spoiled me for it. I’ll just have to wait until the next Zelda, whatever that will be. My money’s on open world again, but with a Dark World version to travel to. Ooooo!

Assassin's Creed: Black FlagLike Wind Waker plus shanties, minus the Octo-Monsters.

Moving on from Hyrule, Yoshi’s Woolly World had me diving again into the textile world of Epic Yarn, this time in HD. I still prefer Kirby’s game, but Woolly World was a thoroughly lovely, patchwork place to go. Playtonic did a great job recapturing the spirit of Banjo-Kazooie in Yooka-Laylee, and I’m savouring my playthrough on Switch. The levels are beautiful, if a little overwrought and less easily-readable when compared to Banjo. For example, Tribalstack Tropics’ walls are constructed from stone blocks. With care, I am able to scale many of them. They seem to lead nowhere and exist purely to provide visual detail in an HD environment. Which is fine, but it confuses the player as to the objectives and the possibilities in the space, and invariably leads to disappointment. ‘Can I climb that wall? Ah, yes, if I’m careful! But am I supposed to climb it? Well, maybe, but there’s nothing here, so I guess not?’ Questions like these create stress and tension as opposed to, say, Breath of the Wild where the questions regarding the environment go like this: ‘Is there something special about that artfully positioned group of trees over there?’ Answer: ‘Yes.’ In fact, the answer to almost every question in BotW is ‘Yes.’ Can I glide over to tha… Yes. What about using fire arr… Yes. And if the… Yes. The thing is, ‘No’ isn’t necessarily a bad answer, but the answer should be clear. Right now, the answer to too many of the questions in Yooka is ‘Er, maybe? Not sure.’ Still, Y-L has buckets of charm and is made by a small team that I’ve got buckets of time for. And it’s got the Grant Kirkhope tunes!

Looks nice from here. No quills to collect, though. Not sure I should be here, but I managed it so... well done me?

Last year Sonic Mania had me revisiting various zones from the classic games, plus some great new ones, all HD-ed and lovely. It was fantastic to see Sega finally give Sonic to the right team (or teams: in this case, Christian Whitehead, PagodaWest Games and Headcannon.) Lizardcube’s remake/remaster of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap on Master System also showcased the possibilities when ports/updates are handled by people who not only give a shit, but also know their shit. At the touch of a button you are able to paint over the original visuals (presented authentically with various optional filters, though in 16:9) with some truly beautiful hand-drawn animation. Another button toggles between the original soundtrack and a new orchestral arrangement. I spent so much time swiping between the old and new, examining the various choices and admiring the art, and I was very glad to have the opportunity to explore a world I would almost certainly never have gotten to otherwise.

Multiple amazing-looking games have passed me by over the past few years, many of which are now getting ports to Switch (though I’m still hoping for Firewatch and The Witness.) I managed to catch PS3 swansong The Last of Us which presented some stunningly detailed post-apocalyptic locales from Boston to Salt Lake City. The sheer amount of stuff in that game is incredible. The number of unique assets in those buildings (and Naughty Dog’s other games, so I hear) is huge… though it’s all a bit dull. I know, I know – I shouldn’t discriminate against games that don’t have blue skies – but I’m left marvelling at the technical spectacle and scope without any desire whatsoever to return. I may give the sequel a whirl – it’ll come to Switch, right? 😉 I also tried Red Dead Redemption but couldn't get past the clumsy GTA IV controls. Looked nice, though. Maybe this year's sequel will convert me. Another sure-thing for Switch (Hey, if DOOM and Wolfenstein 2 can make it, anything can!)

The absolute antidote to all that brown-and-greyness is Super Mario Odyssey, a game which throws the kitchen sink at the paintbox and produces a crazy, crazy video game. It goes like this: Mario goes on holiday (well, a working holiday.) Bowser’s plot to kidnap and marry Peach provides the loosest of motivations for Mario to journey across an Earth-like planet chasing maniacal wedding planners as they steal the nuptial essentials (flowers from the greenhouse level, dinner from the food kingdom, bridal dress from the… erm, water world?) Each separate environment is presented in a travel brochure style on the pause screen, with Mario cast as the tourist studying the map and ticking off the local highlights before he departs on the giant hat ship belonging to his new mate, Cappy. Who’s a hat.

I mean, yes. Fine. As previously noted, we don’t play Mario for the narrative, but rather where it takes us, and this narrative takes us to places both wonderful and strange. Of course, Mario has gone travelling before. Super Mario Sunshine saw him visit the beautiful Isle Delfino and a seaside aesthetic permeated that bright, colourful game. Odyssey is certainly colourful, too. And monochrome. And bright. And dark. In fact, it’s everything, often at the same time. Odyssey mashes cultures, styles and environments on a whim. The art design is all over the place. Tin-can comedy cog-robots? Check. Vaguely PS3-level realistic humans from a swinging NY-esque city governed by Pauline, Mario’s original damsel-in-distress from Donkey Kong? Check. Roly-poly snow bears? Sure. Anthropomorphic talking cutlery? Obviously. Realistic T-Rex with a moustache? Done. Yoshi? Natch.
It goes on. And upon completion, all these haphazard characters meet-up in each other’s kingdoms and just party and hang out. There is something glorious about the abandon of it; the anything-goes variety; the inclusion of any good idea. But read that carefully – any good idea. The only way this works is by the mechanical mastery on show – quality makes it coherent. The ability to capture any character (and the occasional object) that isn’t wearing a hat – and the watertight application of that mechanic – makes the crazy world a joy to leap around in. And that’s on top of the trusty Mario moveset we’ve been using since 1995. People gave Rare a hard time when they threw googley eyes on any old thing and called it character design, but damnit, at least those eyes were consistent! The only consistency here is quality. And it’s enough. Whether clambering up a volcano to cook a stew, or facing off against a Dark Souls-worthy dragon while dressed in a clown suit, or… well, you get the idea. I cannot think of another developer with the audacity and the chops to throw all these mismatching elements at the wall, showcase every disparate feature with a mock travelogue presentation… and make it all gel seamlessly. 97 on Metacritic. I haven’t even mentioned the showtune homage to Mario’s very beginnings in New Donk City. You’ve heard the song already, but the moment itself brings a tear to the eye. I’d recommend making the trip. And dat Steam Gardens music!

God knows where Mario goes next. I wrote before that the ‘final frontier’ was his last refuge in the Galaxy games – he had no more worlds left to conquer. But that was when he was resident of the Mushroom Kingdom and its adjoining territories. I underestimated him; it now seems he can skip through the multiverse at will – anything, anybody, anywhere is fair game. Variety is the spice of life, they say. It’s certainly a hell of a journey. One might even say an ‘odyss-’…


Tuesday, 17 October 2017

It was 20 years ago... Looking back at N64 Magazine Issue 8

It's time to look back on the olden days with Worldy BlokeTM ...

Seven months in, it's evident that Nintendo have scored a hit with Switch. Consolidating their software teams onto one platform, coupled with their experience from the Wii U-era, seems to be paying off. The standard post-launch drought was alleviated somewhat by Breath of the Wild’s open-form gameplay, and a slow but steady flow of first-party titles has appeared every month since. Now we’ve reached a point where each week brings a deluge of indie hits and quality ports, and with Super Mario Odyssey ready for release at the end of the month, manufacturing enough units to meet demand over the holiday season seems to be the company’s biggest challenge. A nice problem to have.

One-score and zero years ago in Euroland, Nintendo was seven months into another console – the N64. And I was starting to read the best video game magazine ever printed – the imaginatively titled N64 Magazine. I actually started with issue 12, but ordered issue 8 from the back of the mag. Having recently been reunited with my collection after 15 years in my parents' loft, I realised the two decade anniversary and decided to chronicle it here as an excuse to reread some old issues. And it holds up! It’s fascinating to look back and see the adverts, the expectations and how the writers negotiated the drought of software that arguably characterised the console. Lacking the digital distribution that now allows smaller studios to put out software, the expense of cartridges versus the cheap CD alternatives offered on PlayStation widened the lead Sony had built by launching over a year earlier. The N64 offered quality to its dedicated fans, but couldn’t compete against the sheer wealth of software put out on PlayStation (under 400 titles compared to Sony’s 2,500-odd.)

We also see a pre-Trump use of the adverb ‘bigly’.
Looking back on issue 8, Lylat Wars (Starfox 64's EU guise) is the cover star. It also features in the accompanying Gentleman Space Adventurer Quarterly poster magazine, featuring a Lylat system map and tips delivered in the style of a WW2-era, spiffing, tea-sipping gentleman Brit (splendid show, old chap – let’s get back to base for broth and medals). The headline review showcases what was special about the magazine. It’s impeccably laid out with plenty of screenshots and a variety of typefaces and colours. There is info in sidebars, breakout boxes, captions and tiny asterisked gags. While it’s obvious the writers were contending with a lack of software (something which made their focus on import games all the more intriguing to UK readers), they squeezed every last drop of content (*shudder*) from the games they had and presented it in an entertaining, non-patronising way. They make reference to the dire state of PAL conversions at the time (see 'THEY HATE YOU' sidebar) and bemoan the ‘teeth-grinding’ name change from Starfox 64 ("How would you feel if, without your permission, someone changed your name by deed pole to Millicent? Or Adolf? Or Earwax?"), which had its own import review in issue 3.

Elsewhere, the PAL version of Multi Racing Championship faces off against US version of Top Gear Rally (Top Gear wins, 86% - 71%) and…that’s it for PAL reviews! The post-launch lull pushed the team to be ever more inventive with their features. The Import Arena section helps flesh out the magazine, so we get reviews of Baku Bomberman ("Briefly diverting, but a genuine disappointment for Bomberman’s most devoted fans." – 50%), J-League Dynamite Soccer ("To start with this is about as much fun as a pulled hamstring. But after a while you’ll plod through it and maybe even enjoy it. A bit." – 66%), Konami’s Jikkyou World Soccer 3 ("Slightly inferior to PAL ISS 64 but still a breathtaking football game." – 91%) and the US version of Mischief Makers ("The banality of this [game’s] sagacity, when juxtaposed with the outright bonkersness of the game in general, serves only to heighten the lighthearted surrealism that abounds (Eh? – Ed), which, in our book, is a Very Good Thing." – 90%). There’s a massive tips section featuring Mario Kart 64 and Blast Corps. The Future Look section details San Francisco Rush, Nagano Winter Olympics and Earthworm Jim 3D, while the less screenshot intensive Coming Soon section jokes about the tardiness of upcoming 3D platformers and also looks at Zelda 64 ("Rumours abound that the Pointy-Eared One literally ‘grows up’ during the course of the game.")

In the news, Planet 64 reports Nintendo’s profits are soaring on the back of Pocket Monsters and cheaper games are coming thanks to a modest reduction in the cost of manufacturing N64 carts ($6). Elsewhere in the mag there’s Reader Tips, and the I’m The Best section pits readers against each other, competing for time/score supremacy in various games. Club 64 is the letters section and also contains the So Tell Me This… questions section – example: "My friend thinks the N64 can play SNES games. Could you tell him this is total rubbish so he can see it with his own eyes? – Robert’s friend: you’re a clot. Of course the N64 can’t play SNES games. Blimey." Topics run the gamut, from release dates and import tech queries to cooking tips. Sue Overton, ‘N64 Magazine’s culinary advisor’ (and presumably significant-other to Art Editor, Wil Overton) provides jam tart advice ("Pre-baking the pastry by five minutes before adding the jam is a useful tip if you’ve got the time.")

The letters section showcased the back-and-forth banter that gave the magazine that member-of-the-club feel. Even if your whole letter didn’t make it in, you still might crop up in the Bonus Letters section and get a badge.

A directory of every reviewed game has two sections: UK and Import games. After seven months, the UK section had just 15 titles. The Import section contained a further 21, but it illustrates that Nintendo had form with software supply long before the Wii U’s drip-feed scheduling. Of those 15 PAL games, Super Mario 64 (predictably) takes the highest score with 96%, with Turok, Mario Kart 64, Wave Race 64, ISS 64, Blast Corps and Pilotwings 64 all joining the Star Game club (85%+). The only absolute turkeys are FIFA 64 and Mortal Kombat Trilogy, coming in at 39% and 34% respectively.

The text in the Directory explanation box in no way offers commentary
on working conditions at Future Publishing in the late ‘90s
The whole magazine is dense and colourful and beautifully presented. It takes its cues from Super Play, the magazine from which it evolved when the N64 launched, which itself looked to Japanese publications for inspiration. It’s still a pleasure to read through, to see the care and attention which went into these 100 pages and to recall poring over every last detail before 24/7 internet coverage arrived.

It's easy to forget that dodgy PAL conversions were still an issue in the fifth console generation.


I'll be looking back at other issues over the coming months whenever I see a particularly juicy 20th anniversary or awesome cover. Can't wait to get to @Kosmikat's great work on those Double Game Guides. Top drawer.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

A Place Both Wonderful and Strange

With the new season of Twin Peaks premiering a few weeks back, I sent fellow fan @jonkristinsson a Lego Digital Designer model I made last year of the 'Red Room' after seeing some amazing Lego renders he had produced.

It made me realise there would never be a better time to polish the model and submit it to Lego Ideas, the online peer-approval process that has resulted in the official Lego Ghostbusters and Back to the Future sets. So I went about refining it and actually ordering the pieces to build it. I also downloaded some software allowing me to render some better images myself - nothing as good as Jón's, but better than a screengrab from LDD.

So, after many hours of rendering a few images (my CPU is OLD) and writing a brief summary of the set, I submitted my proposal...
And today I received an email saying it wasn't approved :(

As detailed in their comments, "unfortunately...the brand or licensed property your project refers to contains content or themes that we find inappropriate for a potential LEGO product.I suppose that's reasonable - there's plenty of sex, drugs, murder and violence in Twin Peaks - but it's still disappointing.

So rather than completely waste all those hours of rendering, I thought I'd put them and the photos up here along with the text from the proposal:

My proposal is the 'Red Room' from the TV series Twin Peaks. It is a surreal, purgatorial waiting area where FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper finds himself trapped for 25 years.
It will be recognisable to fans and newbies alike -  the room has become iconic since it was first seen 27 years ago. It's visually striking and has been referenced and parodied in all sorts of media, from The Simpsons to Scooby Doo.
Model Info
I built this model first using LEGO Digital Designer (LDD) before ordering the bricks to test it. The set uses 536 bricks with a 32x32 stud base (although in an unusual 'diamond' formation due to the zig-zag floor pattern.) I've tried to make it as small and affordable as possible while keeping a good balance of detail and scale. It uses mostly common bricks and provides a fun and varied challenge for builders of all ages/skill levels. The furniture is attached to studded tiles.
Note: The real-life model in the photos shows some variations from the rendered images - I am waiting for more parts to arrive! I'll update the page when it's finished.
The set includes four minifigures: the coffee-loving Special Agent Dale Cooper, the Man From Another Place, Laura Palmer and the Venus de Medici statue. All of the characters (except the statue) would have reversible heads with white-eyed angry faces representing their malevolent doppelgangers.
I have used easily available parts but these could be exchanged for more detailed versions - I couldn't find a torso with dress detailing for Laura and The Man From Another Place should really be wearing a red shirt and black shoes!
Possible Alterations
  • The brick count might be reduced by redesigning the red curtains with fewer pieces (however, the non-uniformity of the curtain is intended to replicate how the real fabric hangs.)
  • The six plates used as the centre of the base could be replaced with one 16x16 plate (I couldn't source one for my prototype model) which would reduce the brick count and also improve structural integrity.
  • Other minifigures could be included or substituted - Mike (the One-Armed Man) or the Giant might be good. Additional decorative flourishes are possible (for example, adding other elements associated with Twin Peaks such as a cherry pie, a fine coffee mug, an owl, Cooper's dictophone, a Douglas fir tree, a log, etc) but I have included only the essential pieces relevant to this room.
I hope you like it! Thanks for your consideration and support :)


On the bright side, I'm very happy with the model, and the new season of the series is cracking. Utterly impenetrable, I'd imagine, if you haven't seen the original two seasons and the film Fire Walk With Me, but delightful for longtime fans who have been waiting so long. Every episode is something to chew on and savour.

*thumbs up*