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 remark I made, this time 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 crisp 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-’…