Making the Grade: E3 2017 Edition

This is the third installation of my “Making the Grade” series, a temperature-check all of Nintendo’s major franchises and where they stand in the overall scheme of existence. The idea was always that I’d go back and update this list whenever there was some sort of major shift or big event… and as E3 2017 has just wrapped up, that certainly qualifies.

A couple of things have moved around the list as a result of Nintendo’s E3 showing… with one big mover you can probably already predict. As I did last time, I’ve highlighted the franchises that have switched tiers, with a (+) for those that have been upgraded, and a (-) for the downgrades. As always, feel free to disagree.

Grade A: Fire EmblemThe Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart, (+) Metroid, Pokemon,  Splatoon, Super MarioSuper Smash Bros.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages… she’s back. Samus Aran, first lady of gaming, returned to the spotlight this E3 in a big way. The logo-reveal for Metroid Prime 4 alone would have bumped Samus and her franchise up to grade “B”, but then, almost as an afterthought, Nintendo revealed a remastered version of Metroid II entitled Metroid: Samus Returns, coming this September for the 3DS. Samus and Metroid have retaken their rightful place amongst Nintendo’s elite franchises. No other movers into or out of the “A” grade, but some notes: if Super Mario and Pokemon could get higher than “A”, I’d put them there, and though there was still no mention of Smash Bros. for Switch, that’s a franchise that’s not going anywhere.

Grade B: Animal CrossingDonkey KongKirbyMario & LuigiPaper Mario, XenobladeYoshi, (+) Pikmin

I can’t recall if Hey, Pikmin! was announced pre or post Switch event, but as I look at the list today and note that in addition to Hey, Pikmin! Shigeru Miyamoto offhandedly mentioned that Pikmin 4 is in the works for Switch, the Pikmin bump to grade “B” seems appropriate. Reliable standbys Kirby and Yoshi both received new game announcements at E3, as did the 3DS Mario & Luigi series, which will get a remake/spin-off hybrid in Superstar Saga & Bowser’s Minions. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is still (Nintendo claims) going to make a Holiday 2017 debut, and Donkey Kong showed up in spirit in both the bizarrely fascinating Mario + Rabbids game being developed by Ubisoft and in Super Mario Odyssey as the namesake for the urban playground New Donk City.

Grade C: (+) ARMS(+) BoxBoy!(+) Mario spin-offs, Mii games, Pokemon spin-offs.

First off, I’m an idiot. I’ve never included BoxBoy! on this list. Developed by HAL Labs, the little Box-fellow even has his own amiibo. Granted, the BoxBoy! trilogy just ended, but since when did that stop Nintendo from milking a profitable franchise? Moving on: while Super Mario, Mario & Luigi, and Paper Mario are uniquely deep franchises of their own, the multitude of other Mario branded games Nintendo releases are harder to classify. I have, for the time being, combined Mario Party, Mario Sports (including Mario & Sonic at the Olympics), Mario v. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario, and Dr. Mario. For now, the newly minted (and buzzed about) Mario + Rabbids helps bump the Mario spin-offs up a tier. Pokken Tournament DX is ALMOST enough to push Pokemon spin-offs up to grade “B”, but the weight of all of those Mystery Dungeons still drags it down. I’m cheating a little with ARMS; one game does not a franchise make, but this one game is being received well enough to suggest ARMS is on its way to becoming a brand. Finally, I’ve re-branded Tomadachi Life and its ilk as Mii games; Mii’s themselves are in short supply these days, as Nintendo seems determined to move away from the Wii era. Still, Miitopia was recently revealed to be making its way west, so there’s still some life (and a lot of brand recognition) left in Nintendo’s cartoon avatars.

Grade D: Luigi’s MansionKid IcarusWario brand games, (+) Star Fox

Time heals all wounds. There’s been no game announced for Fox McCloud and crew, but to be fair, Star Fox is a franchise with a really solid cast of characters and enough of a fanbase to let it recover from the horribly received Star Fox Zero. Don’t expect Team Arwing to climb any higher than tier “D” without a new game, though. It’s that sort of name recognition that draws the line of demarcation between tiers “D” and “E”; the franchises in “D” haven’t received any more love than those in “E”, necessarily, but they star beloved characters that aren’t soon going to be forgotten.

Grade E: Advance Wars, (-) F-ZeroMother, (-) Punch-Out!!, (-) Pushmo, (-) Puzzle League, (-) Rhythm HeavenRemix series, NintenDogs, Pilotwings

I was bullish on F-Zero making an appearance at E3. I was wrong, and I’ve had to knock it down a tier as a result. Additionally, Puzzle League and Rhythm Heaven are on the fast train to nowhere; another six months to a year without a whisper and they’re both due to bottom out in tier “F”. Though a reliable space filler for awhile, it’s been 2 years, and if there’s never another Pushmo game will anybody even notice? Mother remains in grade “E” on the strength of its cult following alone; as a franchise that seems largely dead it should probably drop out to tier “F”. Most notably, Punch-Out!! receives a huge body blow in the growing popularity of ARMS, which could end up as a franchise replacement for the Punch-Out!! brand. If we see a new Punch-Out!! soon, expect it to be on 3DS, and as something other than the behind-the-boxer POV game we’re used to. That’s another hunch.

Grade F: Brain AgeCodename S.T.E.A.M.Chibi-RoboCustom RoboDillon’s Rolling WesternExciteGolden SunThe Legendary StarfySin & PunishmentStarTropicsWave Race.

You could argue that I shouldn’t even bother publishing grade “F”. These franchises are the definition of dead in the water. Pun intended, Wave Race.

 

 

(Featured Image Source: http://shubwubtub.deviantart.com/art/Minimalist-Metroid-Screwattack-Wallpaper-542023002)

Actively Retro

It’s been semi-scandalous ’round some parts that Nintendo has yet to reveal or talk about the future of its Virtual Console service for the Switch. Virtual Console, as anyone reading this blog probably knows, is the fancy brand name Nintendo came up with ten years ago for the downloadable emulated versions of classic games from their vast library, spanning 30+ years. Every Nintendo console aside from the Virtual Boy, the GameCube, the Wii U, and the 3DS has been represented in some form on the Virtual Console, which over time grew to include games from the early SEGA consoles and the NEC TurboGrafx 16. Virtual Console was a huge selling point in the history of the Wii, and slightly less of a selling point on the 3DS, and petered out on the Wii U by the end.. though, frankly, what didn’t?

The general assumption is that Virtual Console is going to eventually show up on the Switch, and that may be the case… but it may not. Nintendo just recently announced more details about their online service, launching in 2018, and as part of that service select Nintendo classics will be made available to subscribers, all with added online functionality. These “Classic” games are not technically part of Virtual Console; VC has always been straight emulations of game code, with some very few exceptions (the Virtual Console version of Duck Hunt, for example, needed to be reworked; the game as programmed worked only on old CRT televisions.)

The longer we go without hearing about the Virtual Console, the more dubious I am that it’s ever going to show up. I don’t believe Nintendo will every stop trying to make money off of its enormous library of past hits, but I wonder if they feel they’ve carried the a’la carte method of charging $5 for Super Mario Bros. 2, again, as far as it can go.

Irregardless of what happens with the VC, one of the fascinating early trends of the Switch is just how anachronistic this brand new style of gaming platform is. In a time where gaming is a global, online experience, and companies like SONY are running towards isolated VR experiences, Nintendo’s Switch doubles-down on the one thing nobody else offers: console-quality local multiplayer on-the-go. Nintendo is betting that people still like playing games together on the same screen in the same room, and so far that bet appears to be paying off. It’s a new-idea system offering a throwback experience, and it works.

An inadvertent (or maybe conscious) side effect of this is that the Switch lends itself to a throwback experience, and the indie developers who are fleshing out the early days of the Switch library between major Nintendo releases have cooked up some decidedly throwback pieces of software to go with it. The result: even with the Virtual Console nowhere to be found, the Switch feels like a paean to the golden era of gaming.

Consider some of the early Switch titles: right on launch day, if you managed to look past Breath of the Wild for a few minutes, you’d see Fast RMX, an ode to F-Zero if every there’d been one, I Am Setsuna, a Secret of Mana-esque RPG from Square/Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory, the Shovel Knight trilogy of games AKA the best NES games never made, and Bomberman, of all things. The old-skool hits went right on rolling thanks to Hamster Corporation, who have been drip-feeding us ports of classic Neo-Geo games since week 2 of Switch’s lifespan; Metal Slug and King of Fighters are just two of the all-time greats that have found new life on Switch.

Further on we saw the release of Graceful Explosion Machine, which plays a lot like an R-Type/Stinger homage, a Wonder Boy Master System remake, freaking Tetris, the NBA Jam/NBA Street reminiscent NBA Playgrounds, and, of course, Street Fighter 2. Mix in with that all-time classic franchises Mario Kart and Minecraft, and then glance down the road and see a new 16-bit style Sonic game, a cover version of 2D Castlevania games going by the name of Bloodstained, the Nintendo-hard 8-bit-ish platform 1,001 Spikes, and the critically acclaimed love song to Metroid, Axiom Verge.

The list grows, and will continue to grow. Retro gaming is not a new trend, of course, and the Switch is far from the only place where you can get your retro fix. There is a perfect storm going on with the Switch, though: a brand-new console pushed out the door arguably two or three quarters too soon (Wii U was dead and Nintendo wasn’t about to put Breath of the Wild on a kaput system) from a company still trying to rebuild trust with AAA 3rd party developers has led to Nintendo adopting a strategy of finding quality indie developers who came of age on the NES and SNES and are making cheaper games reminiscent of the ones they loved when they started gaming.

E3 is next week. Front and center will be Nintendo’s own retro showcase, the Mario 64-inspired Super Mario Odyssey. It remains to be seen, however, if the Virtual Console will finally make its Switch debut on the E3 stage. Even if it doesn’t, and you find yourself hankering for a retro gaming fix? Don’t worry; the Switch has got you covered.

It would also be nice to hear what Retro is up to.

Something About Mario

For a blog that’s entirely about Nintendo, I’ve written shockingly few things about Mario.

I’ve written posts exclusively on Metroid, Splatoon, Smash Bros., about a million about The Legend of Zelda… but I’ve not yet written a post that’s exclusively about Nintendo’s flagship franchise, or its universe of characters and spin-offs, and I’m not entirely sure why.

I like Mario games fine, and the original Super Mario Bros. was the siren song that taunted me from afar before I could finally call the NES my own. I’ve written in this space more than once about how Super Mario Bros. 2 (U.S.) is probably my favorite game in the franchise, not to mention one of my favorite NES games of all-time. Things get a little bit cloudier after that. Super Mario Bros. 3 is an all-time great game, but I don’t have the same fond memories of it that I have of SMB 2… and honestly, I think SMB 2 might be a better-looking game; it certainly has a more consistent color palette. Same with Super Mario World and Mario 64: great games, but they both take a backseat in my memory to contemporaries of their respective eras. A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Mega Man X, Super Mario Kart, and Final Fantasy 3 (yes, I’m using the SNES numbering) were my most-beloved games of the Super Nintendo era, and Ocarina of Time was my one true love on the Nintendo 64. Sure, I GOT all of the stars in Mario 64, but it felt more like a grind and less like an adventure.

It’s hard to keep up with all of Mario’s adventures. I’ve never even played Super Mario Sunshine, I didn’t touch New Super Mario Bros. until I got a 3DS (for A Link Between Worlds, of course), and the series’ Super Mario Land installments on the Game Boy are forgettable (and eventually started starring Wario, Mario Land 2‘s antagonist). There’s Mario Party, Mario and Luigi, Paper Mario, Mario Galaxy, Mario 3D… and coming soon, Super Mario Odyssey, a spiritual successor to Super Mario 64 as much as it seems to be anything else.

In the interest of giving Nintendo’s mascot some face time, here’s a rundown of some of my favorite games starring the mustachioed plumber. Be mindful: this is by no means a comprehensive list. I’ve played the snot out of the Legend of Zelda and Metroid series, but my history with Mario is a little more hit-and-miss. Here’s some of the hits, in absolutely no particular order:

  • Super Mario Bros. 2 (U.S.)Doki Doki Panic. That’s the name SMB2 had in Japan. It was a licensed game based on a game show or cartoon or something. I don’t know; I don’t feel like looking it up right now. I also preferred playing as Luigi over Mario. This might have been a bad place to start this list. I really liked throwing vegetables into the giant dream-frog’s mouth.
  • Super Mario Bros. – It was unlike anything I’d ever seen on a home video game console, and it was an absolute industry changer. This is the last time the Mario game on any Nintendo console would be a better game than the Zelda game on the same console; that’s right, I’m going to call Super Mario Bros. a better game than either Zelda 1 or Zelda 2. Ditto in regards to the previous entry.
  • Donkey Kong. Jr. – I know Mario was the bad guy. But there was something addictive about scurrying up and down vines to rescue the big ape from the evil Jumpman’s clutches. He might have graduated to the Mario moniker by then…
  • Donkey Kong ’94 – The Game Boy sequel to Donkey Kong is easily one of the top 2 or 3 games on that system. This is where Mario first learned techniques that would carry him through the later years of his mainline franchise games: head stands, back flips, triple jumps, etc.
  • New Super Mario Bros. 2 – The New Super Mario series gets a bad rap for being generic, but I really dig it. It polished up and standardized traditional Super Mario gameplay, and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. NSMB2 is one of the ones that’s really frowned upon, but the return of the raccoon leaf and the emphasis on coin rushing won me over. Also: that golden fire flower is the best power-up in any Mario game ever. Full stop.
  • Super Mario Kart – The first wasn’t the best, but it was my favorite. Mario Kart 8 is clearly the best. Still: look at that Mode 7!
  • Super Mario 3D World – Bright, colorful, inventive, and featuring the playable cast of Super Mario Bros. 2 in a 2.5D game world based on traditional Super Mario mechanics. For awhile there I professed that this was the BEST of the 3D Mario games, but it isn’t. That honor goes to…
  • Super Mario Galaxy – Yeah, this game is mind-bendingly fantastic. Three-hundred and sixty degree platforming through space that, somehow, isn’t hard to control. Proof that the Wii wasn’t ENTIRELY a repository of mini-games and shovelware. (See also: Mario Galaxy 2, Skyward Sword, Xenoblade Chronicles.)
  • Paper Mario – I dismissed this franchise until weeks before I got rid of my Wii U. I didn’t get to finish this N64 titles before trading Wii U away for Switch, but now I’ve got my fingers crossed for an HD re-release of The Thousand Year Door.
  • Super Mario Run – Legit might be my favorite 2D Mario game. Parkour Mario FTW!
  • Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon – Well, Mario’s in the END of the game.

Now here’s a few Super Mario games I DON’T really care for!

  • Super Mario ’64 – Revolutionary. Overrated. Almost unplayable in 2017.
  • Super Mario Land 2 – Slow and boring. No feather in Mario’s cap. (That’s a pun because Mario wears a feather in his cap when he gets a fire flower because you couldn’t see him change colors on the Game Boy screen. Also: rabbit ears.)
  • Super Mario Land – Well, it gets points for weirdness. In the Mario franchise, that’s saying something.
  • Super Mario 3D Land – Its level design almost requires you to turn up the 3D slider on the 3DS, a feature that Nintendo started running away from a year after the 3DS first launched.
  • Super Mario Sunshine – I’ve never actually played this for more than 10 minutes, so I really should have left it off this list.
  • Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island – That crying… it still wakes me up at night sometimes, drenched in a cold sweat.
  • Mario Kart: Super Circuit – The one major misfire in the stellar Mario Kart brand.
  • Super Mario Maker – It’s great. It really is. It’s easily the best game creation suite ever released for any platform. But it needs a better sharing system, a better method through which to find levels others have uploaded, and creators need to be given the ability to make their own full worlds. For me, playing individual levels got old, fast.

E3 2017 is just days away, and the one thing we know for sure is that Mario’s going to be front and center. This year is the coming-out party for his big holiday release, Super Mario Odyssey, just as last year’s E3 was all about Link, Zelda, and Breath of the Wild. SMO might not be the same seismic revolution Breath of the Wild was (it would be almost impossible) but here’s hoping it’s a hit, and not a miss.

I’m pretty confident… but then again, I was once pretty confident that I really liked Super Mario Land 2, and I ended up being pretty wrong about that.

You Down With DLC?

“I wish Nintendo would just MODERNIZE already!” This has been a common lament amongst gamers since perhaps the GameCube or even N64 era, and usually when uttered, it is meant to suggest that Nintendo should build more powerful consoles, or court more “Triple A” third-party software makers, or play to a more “mature” audience of gamer, or build a more robust online experience, etc., etc.

Well, in recent years, Nintendo has certainly begun to modernize… although not, perhaps, in the ways their detractors have been asking for. There are two trends that define the “modernization” of gaming in the 21st century, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody, in this case “modernization” is equatable to “monetization.” After all, for-profit companies most often evolve when there is obvious money to be made.

The two trends are closely related; both involve paying more money to add extra content to a game you already own. Micro-transactions define the mobile gaming market, and as Nintendo learned recently, micro-transactions are the sort of model that market demands. Super Mario Run, priced at a single-pay premium price tag of $9.99, has not made anywhere near the same amount of profit for the company as Fire Emblem Warriors, a free-to-play game that features micro-transactions, and this is in spite of Super Mario Run being the more popular download, ten times over.

The other trend, more associated with the console and PC gaming markets, is downloadable content, or DLC. DLC refers to additional content that is made available for popular (or unpopular) full-priced games… although unlike micro-transactions, which often charge small amounts for items necessary for gameplay, DLC is sold as “extra” material: it costs more than the standard micro-transaction, but is a luxury item that isn’t “required” to enjoy what was intended to be the full game.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Game companies are often criticized for including amongst DLC the sort of content that, ten or fifteen years ago, would have been released as part of the game proper. A good recent example is Star Wars: Battlefront, an online multi-player Star Wars-themed arena shooter that, while widely well-reviewed, hid half of its content behind DLC paywalls that cost almost as much as the primary game did on its own. Gamers are a prickly sort, but one can hardly fault them for being annoyed when they drop $60 on a game only to find that what they’ve purchased is arguably half a product.

Still, when done right (i.e. as bonus content to expand and extend an all-in-the-box experience) DLC can be remarkably satisfying. The Wii U/3DS generation marked the first time Nintendo really dove head-first into the world of DLC, and results have ranged from incredibly well-executed to… not as well-executed. Let’s take a look:

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – We’ll start here, because where else is there to start? BotW‘s $20 season pass is coming in three individual portions: a Purchase Bonus, and Packs 1 and 2. The Purchase Bonus, already released, causes three treasure chests to appear on the Great Plateau, one of which includes a red Nintendo Switch t-shirt for Link to wear. Pack 1, recently detailed, includes more than had initially been anticipated: two full sets of armor, two helmets, a mask to help locate the game’s 900 Korok Seeds, a map tracking add-on that allows the player to chart where they have been in Hyrule over 100 hours of gameplay, a new “Cave of Trials” style challenge, a new Hard Mode, and a Travel Medallion with which warp points can be laid down anywhere in Hyrule. Pack 2, details forthcoming, is the big one: it will include an entirely new dungeon, new story content, and “more”. But…

Is it worth it? Definitely. Seeing as how Breath of the Wild contains an easy 200 hours of gameplay out of the box, and for $20 you’ll get a new dungeon, more story, more challenge modes, and armor based on Tingle (TINGLE!)… this DLC is something most anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild will happily pay for.

Mario Kart 8Mario Kart 8 launched on Wii U with 30 playable characters, 8 full race circuits of 4 tracks apiece, online play, a (poorly received) battle mode, and a plethora of kart parts. Already, that’s as full an experience as the Mario Kart franchise has ever offered. The DLC for the game, available in two packs at $8 apiece (both packs can be purchased in a single season pass for $12) adds a total of 4 new cups (including tracks based on Animal Crossing, The Legend of Zelda, Excitebike, and F-Zero), 6 new racers, 8 new karts, and different color skins for Yoshi and Shy Guy. Again, though…

Is it worth it? Well, it was. At first glance, $16 – $12 for add-on content seems a little pricey, but the amount of content added on more than justified the price tag for most players. However, the release of the Nintendo Switch has seen a new version of the game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, hit shelves, and this Deluxe game includes all of the previous DLC rolled into the point-of-sale purchase price. If you laid money down for the MK8 Wii U DLC fairly recently, you may feel a little taken at this point. Still, judged on its own merits, MK8 provides a perfect how-to guide for any software company looking to add DLC content to their own games.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U & 3DS Smash Bros. launched with fifty-one characters in-the-box, a crap-ton of stages (official measurement), multiple modes, full-roster amiibo support, two online modes, and a partridge in a pear tree. The DLC that followed was certainly adding on to a full and robust experience… but the pricing was a bit more suspect than that for, say, MK8. First of all, the Smash Bros. DLC releases are haphazardly structured, with no consistent pricing models, separate prices for Wii U, 3DS, and Wii U + 3DS packs, and a bunch of content that nobody really wanted, i.e. Mii Fighter Costumes. Overall, seven new fighters were released as Smash 4 DLC, three of which were repackaged from old entries in the series and 4 of which were completely new entrants into the Smash franchise. Of the seven, Cloud Strife, Bayonetta, and Ryu were clearly the must-buys, and each came packaged with a brand new stage. Five standalone stages were also made available, but of the five only one, based on Super Mario Maker, was original and the rest were retro (and one of those retro stages wasn’t available for the 3DS version of the game.) All of these characters and stages and costumes were released at random times, and the pricing was all over the place. For the sake of analysis, let’s look at the last two bundles released: the all-character bundle, priced at $35, and the all-stages bundle, priced at $11 on Wii U and $8.50 on 3DS (the 3DS bundle, remember, contains one fewer stage.)

Is it worth it? For the full set? Probably not. Cloud, Bayonetta, and Ryu, which admittedly are three badass additions to the franchise, are available individually for one console for a total of $18 and for both consoles at a total of $21, but I’m not sure the rest of the content is worth an extra $25 or so. Smash Bros. 4 is overloaded with stuff to begin with; paying almost the price of another whole game on Wii U and more than the price of a whole game on 3DS is pretty steep for a handful of new -ish characters and a couple of new stages.

Hyrule Warriors – This Legend of Zelda/Dynasty Warriors mash-up game was far more successful than it had any business being, honestly, but as I’ve often cited: it was my second favorite Wii U game, after Splatoon. The in-box release already has a ton of content, and the DLC packs add a bunch more… but similar to Smash Bros., the pricing and packaging can get confusing, particularly once you factor in what is and what isn’t available from Hyrule Warriors Legends, the 3DS port/spin-off version of the game. Of the initial three packs, each priced at $7.99, the Master Quest Pack might be the best value, as it includes five additional expansion chapters to the main story and unlocks Epona as a weapon for Link. The other two packs include combinations of new characters (Tingle, Young Link, and Midna) and new Adventure Maps, the grid-by-grid task-based mode of the game that you either love to grind or give up on early. There’s also a $2.99 Boss Challenge mode that provides costumes and a boss rush challenge, and (best of all) a “Play as Ganon” mode. Not Ganondorf. Ganon. Huge pig-monster Ganon. Later packs released allow players to purchase the added Hyrule Warriors Legends characters (Toon Link, Linkle, etc.) but not any of the added map content from that 3DS game… which has its OWN DLC, packaged and structured very similarly to the packages from the Wii U version.

Is it worth it? It depends. Character and costume skins for a button masher like Hyrule Warriors only go so far; the game is a blast, but to be fair, there isn’t a huge amount of difference in how each character plays. Personally, I bought all three of the initial packs but never did pull the trigger on the $12.99 package with all the Legends characters. What the packs really offered, content-wise, were the new Adventure Maps. If you dig Adventure Mode, then the packs are definitely worth the price. If you didn’t (I didn’t), selectivity is called for.

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright/Conquest Fire Emblem, more than any other franchise, seems to be Nintendo’s go-to for DLC. For the Fates trilogy, the companion games of Birthright and Conquest each offer access to Revelations, the 3rd game of the saga, at a price of $19.99. Additionally, two separate map packs can be purchased in either of the two introductory games. Map Pack 1 contains eleven new maps and costs $18; Map Pack 2 contains six new maps and costs $8.

Is it worth it? You should ask a Fire Emblem fan; try as I might, I just can’t get into the franchise. Let’s go pack by pack, though: Revelations is a full Fire Emblem game for half the price, so yeah, that’s worth it. Map Pack 1 offers eleven maps for $18, and Pack 2 offers six for $8. I’m not sure why the maps in Pack 1 are valued so much more highly than those in Pack 2, but Pack 2 is clearly an easier purchase to justify than Pack 1. But, look, if you love Fire Emblem, you’re probably laying out $40 for Birthright or Conquest, $20 apiece for the opening act you DIDN’T buy AND Revelations… geez, just how much Fire Emblem do you need? Whatever; you’ve already paid $80. May as well pay $26 more.

This isn’t all the DLC Nintendo has offered to date, but it is a fairly representative example. Their dabbling in modernization has been a mixed bag: Mario Kart 8 and Breath of the Wild are the two that in price and content are must-purchases, while the rest of the offerings have their hits and their misses. Up next? Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia for 3DS, which offers a full season pass of DLC that costs more than the actual game itself. That’s right: more than the game itself. Finally, a sign that Nintendo, for better or worse, is starting to catch up to the rest of the industry.

Be careful what you wish for.

High NEScores

Nostalgia is big business in music. It’s why the Rolling Stones can still sell out stadiums, why “Beatles Cover Band” is a profitable occupation, and it’s why Cheap Trick is still on tour.

Remember Cheap Trick?

Music sticks with us as we grow older, and a song from our youth is one of the few forces in the universe that can, ever so briefly, turn back the hands of time and make us feel young again.

Now: I didn’t really like pop music as a kid. It wasn’t a hipster thing; I just didn’t have much taste. On the other hand, I’ve seen The Symphony of the Goddesses at Madison Square Garden and scored a production I directed of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with remixes of old Final Fantasy tunes hand-picked off of OC Remix. Why did I do those things?

Because old-skool 8-bit NES soundtracks were fresh as hell. Here’s the ten best.

10. Blaster Master (Composer: Naoki Kodaka) – If you played Blaster Master as a kid, and you drive, you’ve either hummed the opening warm-up riff that accompanied Sophia 3rd’s initial blast-off into Level 1 while turning your car’s ignition key, or you’re lying. Sunsoft games back in the day were known for having tricked out soundtracks, and Blaster Master had the best of them. The first half of the game had stronger music than the second half, it’s true… but since the game was freaking impossible (SHUT UP IT WAS) that’s all anyone ever heard, so it worked out.

9. Super Mario Bros. (Composer: Koji Kondo– Millions of thirty and forty-somethings around the world can hum every single piece of music from Super Mario Bros., and not just because Nintendo has re-released the game on pretty much every console they’ve made since. Crafted by legendary in-house composer Koji Kondo, the score to Super Mario Bros. might well be the perfect video game score: catchy and loopable without being annoying (except maybe the castle levels), and better in MIDI form than when played by a full orchestra (although a jazz trio can do wonders with it.) Why so low on this list, then? Maybe it’s repetition; I’ve heard it so often over the years it just doesn’t seem special anymore. Probably, though, because it’s so utilitarian: it’s more practical than it is beautiful. Still, why every 2D Mario game doesn’t use the original 1-1 music for its opening level is beyond me.

8. Punch-Out!! (Composers: Yukio Kaneoka, Akito NakatsukaKenji Yamamoto) – Recently on Nintendo Voice Chat, IGN’s excellent Nintendo podcast, in a discussion about (what else) Breath of the Wild, the show’s hosts mentioned a moment in the game’s wonderful score they particularly enjoyed: when the player defeats a Stone Talus, the mini-boss’ battle theme quickly shifts into a victory motif that incorporates the explosion of the enemy into the score itself. The crew on NVC rightly pointed out that this is no mean feat to accomplish. What they didn’t mention is that it’s a trick that appeared prominently in a Nintendo-published title thirty years earlier: Punch-Out!! Punch-Out!!‘s score is simple: a title theme, a fight theme, a jogging theme, and other bits of incidental music. They’re all great ditties in their own right, but when the game’s hero, Little Mac, gets knocked down by one of his towering opponents, the game’s soundtrack shifts seamlessly into a distress-inducing knockout theme, and by the way, it does the same with a much more hopeful piece of music when Mac knocks down one of said opponents. Punch-Out!!: beating Breath of the Wild to the punch by three decades.

7. Mother (Composers: Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu Tanaka) – Here are the genres of music you can find represented on the 8-bit soundtrack of the RPG classic Mother: Rockabilly, Jazz, Gothic, Gothic Funk, New Age, Metal, Industrial, Orchestral, Electronica, Bubblegum, Pop, Alt-Rock, Avant-garde, Japanese traditional, Blues, Medieval, Easy-listening contemporary, Ethereal, Ambient, Novelty, R&B, and Baroque. Here, just listen to all of them.

6. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (Composer: Akito Nakatsuka)The Legend of Zelda introduced the Zelda series main theme, composed by Koji Kondo, and it is one of the most iconic and enduring pieces of video game music ever written. That first game also included one or two other tunes that were mostly forgettable; its dungeon theme, though iconic in its own right, is one of the most grating pieces of video game music ever created. But Zelda 2, the much-reviled red headed stepchild of the Legend of Zelda franchise, has a score that begins with a warbling, ethereal title tune and transitions into an overworld track inspired by the franchise’s main theme. Along the course of your adventure you’ll be introduced to the excellent pieces of original music that accompany overworld combat, spelunking, town visits, and the game’s final dungeon. Best of all, in the game’s first six palaces, the player is treated to the track that eventually became everyone’s favorite Smash Bros song. Zelda 2 may not have been a better game than The Legend of Zelda… okay, it definitely wasn’t… but in terms of music, the sequel has it all over its older brother.

5. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (Composers: Kenichi Matsubara, Satoe Terashima, Kouji Murata) – We could arguably put the whole Castlevania series on this list, but as great as “Vampire Killer” from Castlevania and “Beginning” from Castlevania 3 are, the all-around strongest score in the franchise’s early days is from the most all-around inscrutable game of the entire series, the you-can’t-beat-this-without-a-guide-but-go-ahead-and-keep-trying Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. One of the first major adventure games to introduce a day-to-night enemy cycle, Simon’s Quest had two distinct overworld themes based on time of day and enemy toughness: “Bloody Tears” and “Monster Dance”. The best track in the game, for my money, is “Dwelling of Doom“, the tune that plays in each of the game’s dungeons. So while you may not… okay, will not… be able to beat Simon’s Quest without a walkthrough, at least it’ll sound terrific underneath your screams of frustrated rage.

4. Mega Man 2 (Composer: Takashi Tateishi) – There’s 50 games under the Mega Man brand, so it’s kind of a shame that the best game in the entire franchise was the second one. What IS nice is that the series’ best game has one of the NES’ best scores. Mega Man 2 opens with a musical preamble and scroll up a building to a helmet-less Mega Man, followed by a transition into the game’s driving title theme, a bit of cinematic flair that is dirt simple by today’s video game industry standards but that in 1989 blew my twelve year-old mind. The eight robot master stages and the boss fight theme are all also standouts of MIDI, but the real bookend to the excellent opening track is “Dr. Wily’s Castle“, the first of two tracks that are used as the background music for, well, Dr. Wily’s castle. If you’re interested, at least twenty hard guitar covers of that one are on iTunes right this second. Enjoy!

3. Final Fantasy (Composer: Nobuo Uematsu) – If there’s a video game composer whose legend rivals that of Koji Kondo, it is doubtlessly Nobuo Uematsu, the man behind three decades of music for the granddaddy of all RPG series: Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy was the 8-bit swords and sorcery game of J.R.R. Tolkien’s or George R.R. Martin’s dreams, and the score includes multiple compositions and themes that would become evergreen editions to the Final Fantasy franchise. Fantastic mood-setting fantasy music accompanies overworld travel, combat, dungeon crawling, and town visits, but the game’s soundtrack truly makes its mark in the piece that would become synonymous with Final Fantasy itself. (Not the “Chocobo Theme”; those giant chickens didn’t show up until Final Fantasy II.) The greatest high fantasy game to grace the NES does not open with a fanfare and crash of thunder, but with the crystalline and meditative “Prelude“, an almost reverential piece of music that belies the grandeur and scope of the adventure it precedes.

2. Double Dragon (Composer: Kazunaka Yamane) – This might be cheating. Double Dragon was an arcade hit that was then ported over to seemingly every home video game console of the day, and then continued being ported to the video game consoles of every other day. Point being, the score to Double Dragon is arguably not a NES score. Like the game itself, the music for the arcade was re-orchestrated (so far as MIDI files can be re-orchestrated) to fit the technical specifications of the NES. But… Double Dragon‘s soundtrack is one knockout blow after another (heh heh), the perfect beat-’em-up, chopsocky, 1980’s B-grade Kung Fu movie soundtrack. Faux-“Oriental” motifs mix with wailing synthetic guitar riffs in what might be the single must crunchable video game soundtrack you can shred on with your hair metal tribute band. I don’t know if I’ve used any of those terms properly, but check this out if you want an example of just how righteous the Double Dragon soundtrack can be.

1. Metroid (Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka) – If it were somehow possible to convert claustrophobia, depression, and loneliness into musical notes, the resulting composition would probably sound a lot like the Metroid soundtrack. While until this point in popular culture sci-fi adventure came packaged alongside pulsing electronica, Star Wars-style orchestral accompaniment, or the ominous humming of the 1950’s take on the genre, Metroid (partially due to technical limitations) took a different approach: using music to constantly remind players that they were lost deep within the caverns of an alien world and likely would not get out alive. The game greeted players with a discordant, droning title theme interspersed with high-pitched alien-sounding chimes, and opened up with the one up-tempo action cue it would offer. That track, “Brinstar”, was a fake-out, for the further the player guided heroine Samus Aran into the depths of Zebes, the grimmer and more hopeless the soundtrack became. Even the tune that greeted Samus in the chambers that hid weapons upgrade seemed to be singing, “You. Will. Soon. Die… This. Will. Not. Help. Much.” You know what? Here’s the entire Metroid soundtrack. You can have a listen, but be sure to have your therapist on speed dial.

0. Silver Surfer (Composer: Tim Follin, Geoff Follin) – I’mma credit my man Johnny Womack of the pop culture/video game/pro rasslin’ podcast Happy Hour with Johnny & the Duce for reminding me of this gem. The thing about Silver Surfer is that it’s not a particularly bad game. It’s just not a particular good one, either. It’s completely forgettable, not to mention balls-out impossible. But. BUT. Listen to this soundtrack. It’s well known among the small circles who know such things that the soundtrack to Silver Surfer for the NES is apeshit banana-pants. Although it is admittedly on the short side, music this good shouldn’t be doomed to live alongside a game this mediocre. I mean, could the NES even MAKE sounds like this? Was that a thing it could do? Maybe Silver Surfer was so “meh” because they used all of the game’s memory to record the unbelievable epicness that is its soundtrack for all of history to enjoy.

Or maybe Silver Surfer is a terrible character who doesn’t deserve a game better than this. Still, seriously: listen to this soundtrack, and prepare to have your face melted.

(Cover image original link.)

Triforce of Greatness

A few months back, I posted an essay suggesting that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was well positioned to be the Zelda game we’d always been promised.

I hate to say, “I told you so,” but…

Okay, in fairness, it’s not like I was the only person on the Internet making that prediction. Breath of the Wild, though, has now been out in the wild for a month, and if you trust the very broad consensus, it is a game that ranks somewhere between “excellent” and “all-time masterpiece”. It is also arguably the best of the 3D Zeldas to date, although it is such a departure from the rest of the 3D franchise that it’s difficult to make a comparison between it and, say, Ocarina of Time.

Why, though, is it so fantastic? Seems an obvious question, I suppose, but there is a three-pronged reason for Breath of the Wild‘s elevation to mythic status, a Triforce of reasons, if you will!

I’m sorry.

The World

The most obvious key to Breath of the Wild‘s greatness is the world into which the player, as Link, is set free to roam about. The wilderness of Hyrule is vast and untamed, with biomes ranging from desert to mountain to wetland to grassland to forest to marine to just name it, all of it teeming with wildlife that can be hunted and cooked and fed and in many cases mounted as a steed (though you can’t pet any of the animals, probably the single most disappointing thing in the game.)

It’s not just the size of the open world that matters, though; it’s how you use it. In order to get from Point A to Point B, C, D, and all the way to Z, Link can run, jump, climb, glide, ride, swim, and as the game progresses, practically fly. Pre-release, Nintendo consistently referred to BotW not as an “open world” game but as an “open-air” game, which at the time seemed an ostentatious, “we just have to be different!” Nintendo sort of thing to do, but after over 100 hours spent exploring Hyrule at all of its many elevations, it’s clear that open-air is the perfect description for how Link, Champion Knight, traverses the terrain in which he finds himself.

BotW‘s Hyrule is also, perhaps, the first time Hyrule has felt like a genuine fantasy realm that is as populous as it is dangerous. As amazing as the game’s anime-inspired art style treats trees, grass, and fire, the towns and villages of Hyrule are aesthetically inspired pockets of urban planning, not to mention numerous enough to finally make Hyrule feel like a kingdom of note. The roads of Hyrule are well-traveled by NPC merchants and would-be explorers, and one of the more satisfying things in the whole of the game is charging on horseback towards a group of poor Hylians being besieged out on the road by Bokoblins, leaping off of your horse into bullet-time, and picking off their assailants before your feet hit the ground.

Not only is the world functional and aesthetically pleasing, though, but it tells the game’s story and sets the mood as well as any cut scene or flashback or piece of dialogue you’ll come across. For all of the life and movement bursting out of its seams, this version of Hyrule is battered and near-broken, pockmarked with scarred battlefields, burnt-out towns and homesteads, and littered with the petrified corpses left behind by the machines of the kingdom’s destruction. The citizens of Hyrule have resumed life as normally as possible after calamity, but you are warned many, many times by NPCs: stick to the roads, stay away from central Hyrule, run away from the Guardians, and whatever you do, don’t go near Hyrule Castle, where evil still visibly stirs. Breath of the Wild presents to the player an open world of breathtaking beauty juxtaposed against the scars of tragedy. It’s one thing for a publisher to develop a game world that is so vastly open. It’s something else entirely to craft one that, simply through form and design, is also so vastly emotional.

The Physics

The most common non-dog-petting related criticisms of Breath of the Wild are targeted towards the game’s dungeons. Here’s a spoiler: there aren’t really any dungeons, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead of tackling a Forest Temple or a Water Temple or a Fire Temple etc., etc., Link must approach and enter four gigantic “Divine Beasts”, ancient animal-shaped machines that had been built to help fight the Calamity Ganon, but have since been corrupted by that malevolent entity and are now terrorizing the four non-Hylian races of Hyrule: the water-dwelling Zoras, the stone-eating Gorons, the feathered flying Rito, and the desert-dwelling Gerudo. The interior of the beasts are smaller than most traditional dungeons and almost devoid of enemies. Instead, they present the player with a series of physics-based puzzles to solve… not dissimilar to the puzzles of traditional Zelda games, while at the same time COMPLETELY dissimilar to the puzzles of traditional Zelda games.

How so? Here’s how: in most Zelda games you are presented with an obstacle to overcome that has a solution that acts as a triggering method. Figure out the solution by shooting the thing with the thing or putting the thing on the thing or lighting the thing on fire. As soon as you do the thing you’re supposed to do… POOF! The puzzle is solved, the Zelda mystery jingle plays, and the player moves on to the next room.

In Breath of the Wild, almost all of the puzzles with which the player is presented have a beginning and an end… and however the player manages to connect the dots from one to the other is just fine. There is no specific solution… there may be a PREFERRED solution, but unlike past Zelda puzzles, if you find a work-around to the PREFERRED solution… well, so be it. The game isn’t going to stop you. I can best describe it like this: in all prior 3D Zelda games, you would NEVER have been allowed to fit a square peg in a round hole, but in BotW, if you can cram that peg in there, the game will shrug its shoulder and say, “Yeah, that counts.”

This is all facilitated by Breath of the Wild‘s ridiculously deep and realistic physics engine. A game’s physics engine, to put it in the most lay of layman’s terms, is the code that dictates how virtual objects within the game’s virtual world interact with each other and with the virtual world itself. By the rules of Breath of the Wild’s engine, fire burns almost everything and gets blown around by the random wind patterns (random, although terrain dictates weather in certain instances), metal objects, be they swords or rocks or giant blocks, conduct electricity and can be drawn to magnets, bombs roll down hills along the lines of topographic curvature, etc., etc. In place of items like a hook shot or digging claws, at the beginning of the game Link is gifted the Sheikah Slate, a sort of ancient, mystical iPad, and it becomes the tool with which he bends the physics of Hyrule to his whims. Need a giant magnet? The Sheikah Slate has an app for that. Want to stop time for a particular object? There’s an app for that. Need a bomb? There’s an app for that, too.

In fact, almost all of Link’s toolset in Breath of the Wild is dedicated to manipulating the world around him through physics, and it’s not just the Sheikah Slate. Example: when you stumble across specialty arrows, not as prizes but just as, you know, workaday items, the inclination of the longtime Zelda player will be to think, “Cool, stronger arrows.” Which they are, but they’re more than that. They are also tools whereby the player can instantly introduce fire, ice, or electricity to the surrounding environment in an attempt to manipulate the world… and if none of that works, you get a fourth arrow type that just blows shit up. (But don’t try to use fire arrows in the rain, and for the love of God don’t pull out bomb arrows inside the heat of Death Mountain.)

The puzzles Link is tasked with solving throughout his journey, whether they be  out in the Overworld, inside of the Divine Beasts, or within the one-hundred and twenty mini-shrines peppered around Hyrule, almost entirely revolve around the theme of, “You have the tools to alter the world; figure out a way to use them.” A boulder rolling towards you? Use Cryonis to form an ice block in its path, or Magnesis to lift it out of the way, or Stasis to stop it in its tracks. Not every solution will work for every puzzle, but the game doesn’t care if you execute its preferred solution or not. I have ham-fisted my way through more than one puzzle, jamming my way in between moving walls instead of figuring out how to stop them, or launching glowing orbs across a shrine instead of carrying them through the presented obstacle course, hitting their mark on the fly and essentially scoring a hole-in-one, a low-percentage play that couldn’t possibly have been what I was “supposed” to do.

There are already videos on YouTube of people “breaking” Breath of the Wild, solving shrine puzzles in increasingly bizarre ways, and I understand why those YouTubers think that’s what they’re doing. Gamers have been conditioned to think of environmental obstacles in video games in a linear fashion: a specific puzzle is cracked open by a specific solution, and the developers attempt, when they test their game, to make sure they’ve plugged any other way through a puzzle that industrious, resourceful players might find. How, though, can you “break” a puzzle that was designed to allow you to solve it however you like? Puzzles in Breath of the Wild feels as though Nintendo’s play testers found the holes in the solution of each, the alternate paths that players might trick their way through… and then did nothing. They did absolutely nothing. Have you found a “backdoor” solution to a Shrine? I’m not going to say that BotW‘s design team put it there on purpose, but I’m pretty sure they knew they were giving you all of the tools you would need in order to find that backdoor. It’s an awfully brave thing, when you think about it: “Here’s the physics of our game world. Here’s a series of tricks by which you can bend the physics of the game world as you see fit. Do what you will.”

Also, the Divine Beasts don’t come together and form a giant ancient Sheikah mech, and that REALLY feels like a missed opportunity.

The Fighting

Early on, I thought that Breath of the Wild‘s combat system wouldn’t prove to be as good as Skyward Sword‘s. I was wrong. It’s better, which is obviously where I was going with this. Shame on you for not catching on.

I’ve come to realize that Breath of the Wild‘s combat system is my favorite in any game ever. Not just my favorite in a Zelda game. My previous favorite combat system belonged to the Arkham games; the combat flow of that franchise presented what was for my money the best pre-BotW take on 3D melee combat. I often wondered why every other 3D action game just didn’t ape the Arkham system.

Breath of the Wild has set a new standard, though. In Arkham games, enemies mill and scramble around you and have clear Spidey-sense tells for when they’re going to attack; countering is a button press. In Breath of the Wild, when a group of enemies spot you they charge and they fan out, attempting to flank you. They all have attack tells, but they’re subtle and it’s up to you to react to them. If you react well, you’re rewarded with a slow-motion bullet time window within which to really unleash hell. Enemies react to each other’s presence as well as to yours; larger enemies will routinely pick up smaller enemies and hurl them at you. In fact, the depths of YouTube has already given us footage of perhaps the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in a video game: a Guardian going toe-to-toe with a Stone Talus. It’s like a kaiju fight out of Pacific Rim.

When you first emerge from the Resurrection Shrine you feel like a newborn kitten with two left thumbs, vulnerable and clumsy, easy prey for a Bokoblin with a stick or a fairly aggressive Chuchu. Put in the time and practice, though, and soon enough you’ll come across a pack of Lizalfos and, while fighting them, realize that you must actually be playing an Arkham game as you have basically become Batman: dive bombing into the middle of the scrum, knocking one enemy back with a club, quick-switching to a bow and head-shotting another, locking onto a third and dodging it’s attack, triggering a flurry rush, calling your horse to you mid-fight to charge on through and pound over that guy you just knocked down… the variety of ways with which you can dispatch a specific enemy or group of enemies are almost to many to count.

And if you come across an enemy that’s stronger than you are, the game lets you know about it. Loudly.

3D combat on a 2D presentation display will always be imperfect; true depth-of-field is nonexistent on a 2D display, after all. But Breath of the Wild‘s combat is dynamic, dramatic, deep, and engaging. Lynels, Wizzrobes, Octoroks, Lizalfos… all of them ask different strategies of you, and all of them can be felled in different ways. Plus: do you like boss-type fights? That’s great, because you’ll run into those CONSTANTLY while just wandering around in the world, and how you tackle them depends largely on the biome the fight takes place in and the tools at your disposal. Say “Hi!” to Molduga for me! 

That, then, is the real trick of Breath of the Wild‘s combat system, and of its physics engine, and of its world: choice. You choose how to strike down the enemies, you choose how to solve puzzles, and you can choose how to traverse Hyrule. In the end, the reason Breath of the Wild succeeds is because it so definitively and aggressively gives players the one thing they really want from open world games: the right to choose. Choose your path, choose your weapon, choose your own adventure.

Just, when you’re choosing adventures? Be sure you choose this one. This game, man. This game. 

The Breath of Music

Sung to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music:

Raindrops all over and whiskers on Moblins
Warm pots of mushrooms; headshotting Bokoblins
Listening to a big parakeet sing
These are a few of my favorite things

Getting Epona by scanning amiibo
Starting huge fires like some kind of pyro
Fighting off Guardians with ancient bling
These are a few of my favorite things

When I see a
Disguised Yiga
Hiding in plain sight
I pull out shock arrows; fry them to the marrow
And that makes me feel just right

Shooting a scale off a strange neon dragon
Swooning and fawning for dreamy Prince Sidon
Dying my tunics with Hylian greens
These are a few of my favorite things

Finding a mem'ry and watching the flashback
Buying from Beedle, that big weirdo pack-rat
Saving the daughters of dead ghostly kings
These are a few of my favorite things

When I stop time
Use magnesis
Or make blocks of ice
I realize my Sheikah slate was once Wii U
But now it's the Swiiiiitch... the portable Swiiiiitch... yes it's on Swiiiiiitch...

Sooooo nice!

(Featured image source: http://tigrestoku.deviantart.com/art/Kass-649288348)