Month: June 2018

Making the Grade: E3 2018 Edition

This is the fifth installation of my “Making the Grade” series, a temperature-check all of Nintendo’s major franchises and where they stand in the current scheme of things. The idea was always that I’d go back and update this list whenever there was some sort of major shift or big event. This time around, video game Christmas has just passed: E3 has come and gone, and with it the big gaming news dump of the summer.

As always, 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.

If anything, a few of the Grade A franchises have had their places re-affirmed. Fire Emblem continues to get treated as a top franchise, with Three Houses being unveiled at E3, and Pokemon, Splatoon, and Smash Bros. have all enjoyed strong expressions of support from the Big N over the past few weeks. Even Metroid got some love in the form of fan-favorite series antagonist Ridley finally being inserted into Smash as a playable character. Nintendo’s core franchises remain healthy and robust.

Grade B: Animal CrossingDonkey KongKirbyMario spin-offs, (+) Star FoxXenobladeYoshi

Animal Crossing sits anxiously in Grade B, awaiting the Switch release announcement that will surely boost it into Grade A. The largely positive reception received by Mario Tennis Aces and the newly announced Super Mario Party have reaffirmed the place of the Mario spin-off titles as a B franchise, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Xenoblade, and Yoshi sit comfortably where they always do, and in perhaps the most miraculous comeback in recent gaming memory, the Star Fox team has recovered almost completely from the disastrous Star Fox Zero; their Switch-exclusive playable appearance in Ubisoft’s upcoming toys-to-life space shooter Starlink was among E3’s most exciting surprise reveals.

Grade C: (-) Luigi’s Mansion, (-) Mario & Luigi, (-) Paper MarioPikmin, Pokemon spin-offs, Wario games

I’ve downgraded Luigi’s Mansion, the Mario & Luigi games, and the Paper Mario franchises as much as a reaction to the reaffirmed strength of the other Grade B franchises as it is a criticism of the franchises themselves. It’s hard to argue that those three brands belong on the same level as Donkey Kong, Kirby, the Mario spin-offs, Xenoblade, etc., etc. Also, there’s no E3 bump for the Pokemon spin-off games as I’m characterizing Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee as “core” games and not spin-offs, a controversial opinion as these things go… but as these two games are remakes of the core Pokemon Yellow game, I think the “core” characterization fits them.

Grade D: (-) ARMSBoxBoy, Kid Icarus, (+) Mii Games, (+) Punch-Out!!

Not landing a spot on the Smash roster (yet) has really hurt the perception of ARMS as a long-term franchise. If ARMS never returns it will always be a question: did Nintendo accidentally push the franchise off of a cliff by releasing Splatoon 2 just a month after ARMS debuted? Conversely, the reveal that Smash Ultimate would include every fighter in franchise history helped keep Kid Icarus (Pit, Dark Pit, and Paluntena) in Grade D, while bumping up Punch-Out!! (Little Mac) and the Mii Games (Mii Fighters) from Grade E.

Grade E: Advance Wars, DillonF-ZeroMotherPushmo, Puzzle League, Rhythm HeavenNintenDogs, Pilotwings

Is Nintendo growing too reliant on its most successful IPs? Are they expecting the Grade A and Grade B games to carry the load? On the one hand, diehards would froth at the mouth over an announcement for a new F-Zero or Mother game, but neither franchise is a tentpole; releases from this Grade of games would have to be supplemented by a Grade A or B game, anyway… and even the B games are no promise. Nintendo tried to build a holiday season not too long ago around Star Fox Zero, and that was a disaster, to put it lightly. You can argue that coming off of the Wii U they HAD to bring out their big guns (and did; between Switch and 3DS we’ve seen new releases in each of the Grade A franchises over the past year and a half)… but when is it time to come back to the lesser known, less popular franchises? If people are upset over an upcoming holiday season centered around Pokemon and Smash, how would they react to the summer of Pilotwings?

Grade F: Brain AgeCodename S.T.E.A.M.Chibi-RoboCustom RoboExciteGolden SunThe Legendary Starfy, Remix series, Sin & PunishmentStarTropicsWave Race.

It’s just a wing and a prayer for these guys.

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Final Smash

What’s so interesting to me about the newly revealed Smash Bros. game is the title: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. First of all? I’m glad Nintendo has gone back to an exclamatory subtitle. Melee, Brawl, and Ultimate are a just lot more fun to say than the clinical Smash for Wii U & 3DS.

Consider, if you will, the definition of the word “ultimate”. In the modern vernacular we tend to use the word “ultimate” interchangeably with “best.” This is not incorrect. Language, after all, is alive, ever-evolving. If a society of people recognize a word to carry a meaning it did not initially carry when it was adopted into the lexicon, than guess what? The word now has that new meaning. Language is not a science, irrefutable and factual. It is an art, a sculpture being ever remolded by humankind.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is fitting. Even before having played it, this IS, perhaps, the definitive & best game in the Smash Bros. franchise. Every character who has ever appeared in a Smash game is in Ultimate, something Nintendo trollfully revealed halfway through a character reel that was supposed to introduce a few of the returning characters and ended up introducing over 60.

The initial definition of “ultimate,” however, is not “best” or “definitive.” The initial definition of “ultimate,” is “final.”

It’s a silly assertion. Smash is one of Nintendo’s marquee franchises; why on Earth would it stop? Still, it can’t help but seem they’re rolling out every fighter to ever participate in the Smash Bros. tournament to allow them a final bow of sorts. Consider, also, the nature of modern video games and how early Ultimate is being released into the Switch’s life cycle. Nintendo has said they anticipate supporting the Switch for up to a decade, and here we are welcoming Smash Bros. in Year 2 of that life cycle.

Smash is different from a Zelda or Mario game. It’s what I call a never-ender: a game whose appeal lies not in the completion of a set of goals, but simply in the act of playing. Look at Melee; it’s still played competitively. Look at Skyrim; it’s 7 years old and people are still pouring hours into it. If Switch lasts a decade, Nintendo will have to start answering questions around Year 4 or 5 about where the next 3D Zelda is. Not so with Smash. Why on Earth would any developer with a clue sequelize a game like Smash onto the same platform upon which an earlier version already exists? The core Smash Bros. experience has remained the same since Melee, which polished the franchise guidelines established by Smash 64. This is a game that can, in the modern age of digital gaming, be upgraded and tweaked and freshened with patches and added content for the entirety of the Switch’s lifespan.

This also brings to mind the silly Internet debate over whether Smash for Switch was going to be a new game or “just a port” of Smash for Wii U. First off? I don’t care. I would have been happy with Super Smash Bros. Melee DX. But port, sequel… what’s the difference with a game like Smash? The game has been fundamentally the same in every iteration. That’s what people want. Imagine if Nintendo introduced a “new” Smash with a new rule-set for matches? People would lose their goddamn minds and immediately demand the return of “classic” Smash.

As it turns out, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a new game while somehow being a port at the same time, a port of the whole damn franchise. Also, we can assume Nintendo plans to remain in business beyond the Switch. To think Ultimate is going to be the actual last Smash Bros. game is silly. The “ultimate” in the title, the “final,” may therefore refer to something more human. Masahiro Sakurai has been the director of every Smash Bros. game to date, from Smash 64 to Ultimate. He has grown a ridiculous idea into one of gaming’s Crown Jewels, a massive celebration of the medium’s most important developer. I don’t pretend to follow the behind-the-scenes aspects of the video game business closely, but the buzzing that Sakurai-san is tired of the franchise has been around since Smash for Wii U/3DS was in development. It’s one of the reasons Smash for Switch was such a surprise to everyone when it was teased in a recent Nintendo Direct: it was widely assumed Sakurai-san either needed a longer break from developing a Smash game, or that Nintendo needed more time to convince him to come back for one more go.That Ultimate seems to borrow heavily from Smash for Wii U could be no accident: Sakurai-san, perhaps, saw the opportunity to expand an excellent game that was not widely played (remember, Wii U was an el bomb-o), leading to this hybrid port/new game that is Ultimate.

So perhaps this “Final” Smash is not the franchise’s final iteration. Perhaps, instead, this is Sakurai-san’s final go-around with Smash, his magnum opus that takes the best of the four prior Smash games and mixes them into a stew alongside a bunch of tasty new element. Maybe, perhaps, the grand bow being taken by every fighter to ever participate in the Super Smash Bros. series of games is not a curtain call for the franchise, but for its guiding visionary. Perhaps this is the ultimate curtain call for Masahiro Sakurai himself. Or maybe I’m reading way too much into this and in this case “ultimate” really does just mean “best.” Anyway, I main Luigi, hashtag-green-missile-for-life.

We’re in the Endgame Now

That’s a quote from Avengers: Infinity War. Did you see it? It’s dope. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is my number one non-Nintendo thing these days. Earlier holders of that title include, but are not limited to, Ghostbusters, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, and the Harry Potter books.

Nintendo’s the constant, though. (Nintendo and the New York Mets, but one of those two things does not bring me endless torment and pain, and the other is a baseball team that plays in Queens, NY.) Like many gamers, I find myself sometimes feeling buried under the sheer volume of games in my library that I’ve started and not completed. Every once in awhile, though, a watershed event comes along that lights a fire under my behind to tie up the loose ends on some of these things. With Nintendo’s E3 presentation just a week away, and the expected influx of new announcements to begin trickling in over the next few months, I find myself at one of those, “I’d better get moving with the endgame,” moments. This isn’t as final as the last one I experienced: I knew I’d be trading in my Wii U for a Switch so as the Switch launch drew near I tore through Wii U games at a breakneck pace.

Truthfully, by the ripe old age of 39, I’ve been playing games for long enough that the single player campaign of any game isn’t going to cost me too much in terms of time commitment. What really trips me up are the never-enders; in particular, Splatoon on the Wii U and Splatoon 2 on the Switch. Still, I’m making an effort to pull myself away from inking and splatting online competitors in order to close the book on some of my first-year story-driven Switch purchases. (Interesting side note: I feel no such compulsion to finish Splatoon 2‘s single-player campaign. Despite enjoying the campaign of the first game, the campaign in the second just hasn’t grabbed me, even though it’s very much more of the same.)

I’ve already put a good-sized dent in my pile. I’ve gotten the main campaigns of Celeste, Steamworld Dig 2, Super Mario Odyssey, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild out of the way, for starters. I’ve still a ways to go, though. Here’s some of the stuff in my, “Finish this before Thanos snaps his fingers,” pile.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze – This isn’t a great place to start. I just got it, and already I’m about halfway through. It’s a tremendous platformer, one of the best I’ve ever played, and even the tacked on “Funky Mode,” the so-called “Easy Mode,” only serves to make the game less frustrating, not actually easy. I skipped this on Wii U, and I’m glad I did, as this game looks and feels gorgeous in handheld mode on the Switch.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle – This is a great game. I just take really, really, really long breaks between worlds. If I remember correctly, I’m up to the fourth and final world in the campaign. I’m not a big partaker of the active battle strategy games, but if Mario + Rabbids and Codename S.T.E.A.M. are indications of what that genre has to offer I should really look into more of them. What’s the best platform for X-Com, anyway?

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment – I played about five minutes of Plague of Shadows and said, “Pass.” Plague Knight doesn’t control in any way I find enjoyable. I’ve played five minutes of Specter of Torment and found the opposite to be true about the high-flying Specter Knight. Now I just have to get back to it one of these days…

Minecraft – I know you CAN beat the Ender Dragon and essentially “beat” Minecraft, but as it turns out I don’t have anywhere near the amount of patience it takes to work my way there. Maybe if I find myself stranded on a desert island someday with nothing but a Switch, Minecraft, and a power supply… but even then, I’ll probably just try to recreate  Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule from memory in Creative Mode.

Skyrim – Skyrim is addictive. It’s also repetitive: a lot of the missions, a LOT of the missions, require you to wander through a linear labyrinth hacking the heads off of cannon fodder until you reach a final boss that’ll kick your ass unless you spam healing spells and potions. It’s still a wonderful game, as I’ve previously documented, and even after I finish the main quest line (which I will) I can see myself going back and doing side quests for years. You know, like everyone else was doing five years ago.

Golf Story – I’m torn on Golf Story, one of the Switch’s early indie critical darlings. Don’t get me wrong: it has oodles and oodles of charm and personality. Still, the lite RPG elements haven’t hooked me quite as much as the simple 16-bit golf has. In short? I’m hot on the golf, but lukewarm on the story.

Stardew Valley – I know; you don’t really FINISH Stardew Valley, you just reach benchmarks. I’ve played a little more than one in-game year, finished the mines, and married off my character. It’s utterly charming and I’ve put a lot of time into it, and yet… chore simulators just don’t hold me long-term. Still, building your farm and tending your crops is oddly satisfying. I think I’m on the verge of becoming a homebody introvert hermit: I have little or no use for the townsfolk now I’ve taken a bride and I plan to leave my property as little as digital humanly possible. Can I add a beard to my character model?

Obviously, I don’t NEED to finish any of these games before the new batch of big Switch games come along. The old school gamer in me disagrees, though. Games have moved into online social experiments and competitions first and foremost, and it’s a wonderful evolution, frankly. It’s been embedded in my soul, though: games tell stories. They have beginnings, middles, and endings. Reaching the endgame is still a big deal to me.

I’m old, you know?