Nintendo 3DS

Making the Grade: 9/13/17 Nintendo Direct Edition

It seems as though E3 just happened, but the next major Nintendo Direct in the Switch era was broadcast two days ago. Lots of the big surprises coming out of this Direct actually involved 3rd party games (I’m looking in your direction, Doom and Wolfenstein); a lot of the coverage dedicated to Nintendo IPs was expanding on information we already knew, and as a lot of this direct focused on 2017 games I think it’s best to wait and pass judgement on what franchises may and may not appear in 2018 and beyond. Still, a few pieces of information came out about Nintendo IPs that could move the needle on our power rankings in one direction or the other, so let’s take a glance.

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.

Tier A: Fire EmblemThe Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart,  Metroid, Pokemon,  Splatoon, Super MarioSuper Smash Bros.

No moves here into or out of Tier A. I write this on the day a new Metroid game debuts, while Super Mario Odyssey featured heavily in this direct and looks poised to actually give Breath of the Wild a run for its Game of the Year money. Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon were featured in the Direct, as well as Fire Emblem Warriors and the upcoming Zelda amiibo. No mention of Mario Kart or Smash; the former wasn’t anticipated and the latter, now matter how badly people are disappointed whenever it’s left out of a Direct, isn’t about to fall out of Tier A anytime soon.

Tier B: Animal CrossingDonkey KongKirbyMario & Luigi(+) Mario spin-offsPaper Mario, XenobladeYoshi, Pikmin

Our first bump of the Direct comes here with the Mario spin-off games moving up to Tier B. Mario Party: The Top 100 for the 3DS was announced, and it sounds like the best idea for a Mario Party they’ve had for a very long time: the top 100 games from all 10 console Mario Party games in one collection. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, featured in the Direct, looks amazing, but it’s too deep of an RPG (and too limited in its overall appeal) to crack Tier A, I think. The Mario & Luigi series also got a mention in the form of the upcoming remake/enhancement, Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, and Kirby, in true Kirby fashion, has two games coming: Kirby Star Allies on the Switch, and Kirby Battle Royale on 3DS. The rest of Tier B did not appear, yet remain comfortably where they are.

Tier C: ARMS, Mii games, Pokemon spin-offs.

ARMS DLC got a brief mention in the Direct, but I’m overall not sure how I feel about this IP as a franchise moving forward. The conventional wisdom is, and I agree with this, that ARMS‘ early success (and it IS a very fun game) was undercut by Splatoon 2 coming out just weeks afterwards. I agree: I like ARMS, but I LOVE Splatoon, and I haven’t touched ARMS since Splatoon 2 and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle came out. So ARMS remains in Tier C, for now. Let’s see if Spring Man ends up in Smash 5, or if another ARMS title hits 3DS or something. We’ll see.

Grade D: (-) BoxBoy!Kid Icarus,  Luigi’s Mansion(+) Punch-Out!!Wario brand games, Star Fox

Two movers here. After debuting on the last version of the list (because I forgot to add it earlier, #SheepishGrin) BoxBoy! immediately drops a tier. I take Hal Laboratories seriously when they say the BoxBoy! saga finished with the third game in the trilogy. Punch-Out!! gets a weird bump here; the original arcade version of Punch-Out!! made a cameo in the Direct, as an assumed part of the new Arcade Archives coming to Switch, and as perhaps the most intriguing title to be teased as included in that collection. Punch-Out!! is such a tricky brand to grade. An evergreen IP with only three home console games to its credit, the best of which was the original, released over 30 years ago and starring a real-life boxer as the game’s end boss in a license that no longer exists and an association Nintendo no longer wishes to make. (Mike Tyson, if you are unaware, has been in and out of jail on a rape/sexual assault conviction since he appeared in 8-bit form on the NES.) Punch-Out!!, though, is still a fairly beloved brand, and any mention of it in a Direct is sure to garner even a little bit of buzz.

Grade E: Advance Wars, F-ZeroMotherPushmo, Puzzle League, Rhythm HeavenRemix series, NintenDogs, Pilotwings 

Just as with Metroid at E3, if Mother or F-Zero or Advance Wars ever show up in a Direct, they’ll get an instant tier upgrade to C or B. This was not the Direct where that happened, though, so loyal fans of those franchises will keep waiting.

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

Maybe next time, guys. But probably not.

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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)

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.

Majora-ly Conflicted

Do you like fetch quests, backtracking, and rehashed resources? If so, have I got the Zelda game for you!

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the 6th installment in the Zelda series, is well-regarded as one of the many high points in the franchise’s history, appearing on many Top 10 and Top 5 Zelda lists, earning praise for its dark, apocalyptic story and spins on the formula established in Ocarina of Time.

I recently returned to Majora’s Mask for the first time since its initial release for the Nintendo 64 back in 2000. I finally played through the remade Majora’s Mask 3D for the Nintendo 3DS, and my experience left me of two minds. Truth told, my memory of playing Majora’s Mask was fuzzy, nowhere near as prevalent as my memory of the landmark Ocarina of Time. And while Majora’s Mask was a technological step up from Ocarina (back in the day it required the N64’s RAM expansion pack due to updates to the Ocarina engine) and the game played with some very advanced themes and complex world design, Majora’s Mask is nevertheless a fundamentally flawed game… though one peppered with greatness. Let’s ping-pong back and forth between the bad and the good, shall we?

The Bad: A Three Day Cycle

The central design element of Majora’s Mask is its three-day cycle. The game takes place in the land of Termina, where three days after Link’s mysterious arrival an extinction-level event is going to occur; namely, the land’s ghastly, grinning moon is being pulled from orbit by the Majora’s Mask-wearing Skull Kid (the weird guy in the woods in Ocarina of Time who challenged Link to a flute-off). At the end of the first three days of the game, Link confronts Skull Kid only to find he’s not powerful enough to defeat him yet. So, using his Ocarina of Time, Link turns the clock back three days, returning to the moment he arrived in Termina and giving himself another three day window in which to figure out how to defeat Skull Kid.

The three day cycle is well-implemented, and it’s initially fun to watch Termina’s inhabitants move through their final three days exactly the same each and every time you travel back to Day One. Although the trip back resets the world, Link has many markers that stay consistent: he loses all of his exhaustible items in his inventory but the rest remain, as well as all of the hearts he’s acquired and the various masks he’s obtained (more on them in a bit). Still, the world resetting leads to unavoidable repetition. You will find yourself tackling the game’s four dungeons more than once, and if you don’t clear a dungeon within the constraints of the three day cycle? Sorry, you have to start all over; hope you like finding keys and fighting mini-bosses again. Not only that, but defeating the various dungeon bosses results in environmental changes in the overworld that are necessary in order to clear many of the game’s multitude of side quests, and you’ll find yourself trekking back to the swamp dungeon or mountain dungeon more than once after clearing them in order to re-battle the boss so you can re-decontaminate the swamp or bring about spring, again. Thankfully…

The Good: Boss Battles

Majora’s Mask has some of the best boss battles in the entire franchise, and the remake for the Nintendo 3DS only improves upon them via both mechanical and aesthetic upgrades. Each of the four dungeon bosses now share a graphical commonality that connects them in the game’s narrative: do enough damage to them and you will expose a giant Eye of Majora which must be defeated in order to finish the job. Each fight makes use of one of the transformative masks Link acquires through the game, masks that turn him into a wooden Deku Scrub, a rock-eating Goron, a speed swimming Zora, and a stomping giant. Each form has their own unique fighting style and their respective bosses have been designed to be susceptible to the move-set of the mask, resulting in end-of-dungeon clashes that demand strategies unique from the standard Zelda combat system of guard, hack, arrow, slash. The mechanical bull at the end of the second dungeon, Goht, is a Top 5 Zelda boss battle, requiring you to roll at high speed alongside him as a Goron and cannonball into him off of ramps. The dungeon bosses are so great, it’s a shame that…

The Bad: The Final Boss

… the final battle against the cursed Majora’s Mask itself is so anti-climactic.

To clarify: the battle is only anti-climactic if you’ve found every mask in the game and exchanged them for the Fierce Deity mask, a mask that turns Link into a literal god, a towering, tattooed superhero who can shoot lasers from his sword. I’ve never actually fought Majora’s Mask as plain old Link, so perhaps Link vs. Majora’s Mask is a battle worthy of a Zelda endgame. But as the Fierce Deity? The fight is over in just several button-spamming seconds. And most players had that Fierce Deity mask, because one of the best parts of the game was…

The Good: The Masks

… collecting all of the masks. In a franchise where far too many treasure chests are chock full of nearly useless rupees and Heart Container pieces, Majora’s Mask features the best collectibles in all of Zelda: 24 unique masks, each of which Link can wear, and each of which carry their own unique ability or effect. Some just trigger new branches of dialogue trees, but aside from the fully transformative Deku, Goron, and Zora disguises, a handful of the masks carry with them such near-game breaking uses as: making Link invisible to enemies, acting as a detector and magnet for the collectible Stray Fairies in each dungeon, or doubling Link’s running speed. Yes, the speed-granting Bunny Hood meant most players fought their way through Majora’s Mask with a hero who almost always wore cute bunny ears, but those bunny ears were vitally important, because…

The Bad: Fetch Quests

… you’ll find yourself running all over and around Termina, as a good 50% of Majora’s gameplay is focused on the side quests and errands Link runs for the people of Termina. And, look: if you’re someone who loves the part of Zelda games where you interact with all the weirdo Hylians, bully for you. You’re gonna love this game. That just happens to be my LEAST favorite part of the franchise, and I admittedly found those sections of Majora’s Mask to be in-Termina-ble. (Heh-heh.) Fortunately, the character interactions outside of the combat portion of Majora’s Mask are strengthened by…

The Good: The Story

… the game’s cataclysmic tale of loss and acceptance. The entire game works as a metaphor for death and the grief process. It’s almost Braid-like (pre-Braid), interacting with the citizenry of a world on the brink of destruction. Some of the strongest atmosphere in the Zelda franchise is built into the story of Majora’s Mask: the pastoral pleasantness of Termina on Day One turns dreary with Day Two’s rains and then positively foreboding as the sky turns blood red and the horror-movie grimace of the moon looms down on Day Three. Even the music of Termina’s capital, Clocktown, changes over the course of the three days from chippy and busy to atonal and frenetic. Same tune, different urgency. Hey, the apocalypse makes for some good fiction; always has, always will. Unfortunately…

The Bad: The Story

… this is not Link’s story. He is a stranger in a strange land, an observer as much as anything else to Termina’s tale, and he is in a constant loop of solving other people’s problems. Storytelling 101: make sure your audience is invested in the journey of the hero. In Majora’s Mask, though, Link really has no real personal journey or story arc. He only wants to get back to Hyrule so he can continue searching for his lost fairy, Navi, and the only way he can do that is by jostling awake the possessed Skull Kid… and even THAT storyline is barely worth engaging with. But: if the story isn’t about the hero and is instead about the world around him, then at least…

The Good: The World

… the world is a fun place to explore. Termina is more compact than Ocarina‘s Hyrule, but it’s teeming with life. The enemies in Termina Field and its surrounding provinces are more varied than in Ocarina‘s Hyrule Field, and there are separate, populated enclaves of Gorons, Zoras, Dekus, and the undead that are well-conceived and well-written. Termina is, thankfully, an interesting place to visit. Unfortunately…

The Bad: Rehashed Game Elements

… if you’ve played Ocarina of Time (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?) you may feel as though you’ve been there before. Majora’s Mask was quick-developed in a very un-Nintendo style. It served as an experiment by the Big N to see if they could turn out new games in their favorite franchises in short order, using elements designed for earlier games. So the citizenry of Termina look suspiciously (read: exactly) like the citizenry or Hyrule, for the most part, and the same could be said of many of the enemies you find in Termina’s underworld and overworld alike. Still, the dungeon designs are all-new and mostly great, and tweaks to the gameplay, namely the mask transformations and time travel, go a long way to differentiate Majora’s from Ocarina, graphical similarities aside. Which means, as you’d expect…

The Good: It’s Still Zelda

Majora’s Mask is still a more than representative entry into maybe the most storied franchise in gaming history. There is too much good in Majora’s for even its most hardened critic (me, likely) to call it a bad game; a game that spins-off lots of what worked in the all-time classic Ocarina of Time must be doing something right, after all. So even though I found myself going back and forth between annoyed and elated as I played through Majora’s Mask for the second (and probably last) time in my life, if you’ve never played it before you probably should.

After all, it’s still The Legend of Zelda.

NES, Wii U, & Everything In-Between: Ranking Nintendo’s Consoles

* Originally published on 8bitchimp.com.

A couple of ground rules:

  1. I’m only ranking consoles from the NES to the Wii U on. Yes, Nintendo is a 125 year-old company, and yes, they made the Game & Watch systems prior to the NES (or Famicom, for you Japanese readers), but for all intents and purposes the NES is the console they rose to fame with and the console that jump-started the modern video game industry. But more on that later. And I’m stopping at Wii U because… that’s the last thing they put out.
  1. Nintendo is very good at what they do, and (almost) every console they’ve ever released has had for it at least a handful of great games. So if your favorite system is ranked lower than you’d like, it’s not that it’s a bad system. It’s that it’s not as good as the ones above it.
  1. I’m not counting iterations, of which Nintendo’s portable consoles in particular had plenty. Example: for our purposes today, the Nintendo 3DS encompasses the 3DS XL, the 2DS, and the New 3DS. The exception to this rule is the Game Boy Color, which was not necessarily just a fresh coat of paint on the Game Boy, but a brand new system complete with exclusive-for-it software.
  1. I’ve owned most of these systems and I’ve played all of them, in their day and not as after-the-fact as museum pieces. Yes, I’ve even got hands-on experience with our first entry:

12.) Virtual Boy

Year of Release: 1995 – Best Games: Not Applicable

The Virtual Boy is the one absolute bona-fide disaster Nintendo has ever released. A pair of VR goggles attached to a tripod that demanded the user hunch over and cramp their back to play, displaying games in eyeball-splitting blood red and black. Why this ever made it out the door as a commercial product, nobody will ever know. So complete was Virtual Boy’s failure, that it anecdotally forced the retirement from Nintendo of creator Gunpei Yokoi, the producer of such legendary Nintendo titles as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Metroid, and Kid Icarus, not to mention the mind behind their aforementioned Game & Watch handheld devices. Years later it was suggested that Virtual Boy was pushed too quickly out the door so that Nintendo could devote more resources to the development of the N64, but rather they had canned the product than rushed it to market. The Virtual Boy is the type of device that sinks companies; fortunately, Nintendo quickly realized what they had done and quietly swept the Virtual Boy under the carpet just a few months after its release.

11.) Game Boy Color

Year of Release: 1998 – Best Games: Zelda: The Oracle Duology; Shantae; Pokemon Silver & Gold

Game Boy Color was the follow-up to the wildly successful Game Boy and an attempt to compete with other color consoles of the day, but it was in retrospect a strange little device with a very short lifespan. (Though technically it was on the market until 2003, the Game Boy Advance shipped in 2001, effectively making the era of GBC only 3 years long.) The GBC library is falsely inflated, as the device was able to play the entirety of the massive Game Boy library. Games made specifically to take advantage of the GBC hardware, though, were few and far between, and while it features a pair of secondary Zelda games as well as a pair of Pokemon titles, there arguably isn’t a true classic in the system’s entire exclusive repertoire.

10.) Wii

Year of Release: 2006 – Best Games: Wii Sports; Super Mario Galaxy; Zelda: Skyward Sword

The Wii, though a staggering commercial success, arguably did more harm than good to the Nintendo brand by the end of its lifespan. (Side note: Nintendo still sells the Wii Mini in stores. It still moves units.) The Wii was a fascinating thing, tall and thin and pristine white, with a weird remote control motion controller. Families gathered to marvel at the simple, undeniable fun of Wii Sports, not then realizing that this pack-in game-slash-tech demo would arguably be the pinnacle of the console’s achievements. Woefully underpowered hardware as compared to the competing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms put the final nail in the coffin of Nintendo’s relationship with 3rd party developers, whose games just couldn’t chug along on the antiquated Wii framework. The much-vaunted waggle controls proved to be virtually useless for anything but the most casual of mini-games, which led to an avalanche of awful shovel-ware as well the sort of game that no longer lives on consoles but in the mobile space, and the biggest sin of all was that the Wii offered lackluster versions of many of Nintendo’s major franchises. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mario Kart Wii, Metroid: Other M, Zeldas: Twilight Princess (really a GameCube title ported to the Wii) and Skyward Sword… these titles are often considered among the weakest of their respective franchises. The only escapee was Mario, whose New Super Mario Bros. Wii and especially Super Mario Galaxy were bright spots in what ended up being a very dark time for Nintendo fans.

9.) Nintendo 64 – Year of Release: 1996

Best Games: Super Mario 64; Zelda: Ocarina of Time; GoldenEye 007

Now, hold on a second: I know. The N64 had a collection of genre-busting, industry-redefining, amazing games. Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, and GoldenEye 007 are some of the best games ever, and Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Star Fox 64, and Mario Kart 64 were all great second-tier games for the system. So while the N64 featured more great games than the Wii, like that console the N64 was a long-term nightmare that the company is still feeling today. So what’d they do wrong? First of all, the N64 was designed to play one game: Super Mario 64. Anybody who owned it knows that arguably half of its line-up was composed of Mario 64 knock-offs that were nowhere near as good as that masterpiece, and the difficulty of programming any other sort of game for it was the first wedge driven between exterior developers and Nintendo. Secondly, Nintendo made N64 a cartridge-based system, ignoring the CD-ROM that was becoming the industry standard. The miniscule memory offered by carts led many developers to jump ship, most notably Square (now Square-Enix). How different would today’s gaming landscape be if Square’s Final Fantasy 7 had been a Nintendo-platform exclusive instead of a PS1 game? Sony may never have gotten a foot in the console door, and the PlayStation brand may have been one-and-done. Instead, the PS1 sold three times more units than the N64, Nintendo lost its place on top of the games industry, and Sony dominates today’s marketplace while Nintendo is struggling to play catch-up.

8.) Game Boy Advance

Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Metroid Fusion; Zelda: The Minish Cap; Advance Wars

The Game Boy Advance represents the last great hurrah of sprite-based gaming, and truth told it’s lower on this list than I’d personally like. Two great 2D Metroid titles, the first Amerian Fire Emblem games, Advance Wars, a revitalized Castlevania franchise, well-received entries in the Mario Kart and Zelda series, the required Pokemon games… the GBA moreso than the Game Boy Color was a worthy successor to the original Game Boy. The GBA was also the console where Nintendo really grabbed hold of the “let’s repackage our past for profit” idea, a gimmick that the company arguably grew to over-rely on as the console’s lifespan grew. The GBA’s library is riddled with remakes and rereleases, many of which were in fact sub-par to the original games being remade. In fact, the GBA is the only major Nintendo console to not feature an original Super Mario game, only re-packaged versions of older ones. In hindsight, how is that even possible?

7.) Nintendo DS

Year of Release: 2004 – Best Games: New Super Mario Bros.; Brain Age; Pokemon Diamond & Pearl

The Nintendo DS was the company’s top selling console of all time, and the second-highest selling console ever, beaten out by the PlayStation 2 by the slimmest of margins. Why was it such a hit? The DS signified the moment when Nintendo began to transition to the company they are today, a company willing to think outside the box and market some very non-game-y things to demographics beyond the usual young males (who had begun flocking to Sony and Microsoft). It gave us the Brain Age franchise, the Professor Layton franchise, WarioWare, Nintendogs, a new Animal Crossing, scads of strategy games that made great use of the stylus controls, a potpourri of JRPGs, and Picross. The device also was a haven for rediscovering old-style games in new franchise entries: a brand-new 2D Super Mario Bros., a fresh spin on Tetris, an old-school top-down Grand Theft Auto, a continuation of the excellent Castlevania side-scrollers that debuted on the GBA, top-down stylus-controlled Zelda games, some of the best Pokemon titles in that franchise’s history, and the list goes on with something for everyone. Still, the DS era was, in a way, a tech demo for what would become the 3DS era, and the still-raw polygons of a lot of DS games have not aged well. Additionally, a lot of those quirky, everyone-can-play titles ended up not having the franchise staying power to make them perennial favorites. In the moment, though, nobody cared. All that mattered was that the Nintendo DS was fun, and it certainly was that.

6.) Game Boy

Year of Release: 1989 – Best Games: Tetris; Pokemon Red & Blue; Donkey Kong; did we mention Tetris?

Yes, it had a puke-green and grey screen. Yes, too much of its library was poor ports of NES titles. Yes, the thing was an awkward-to-hold grey brick. But the Game Boy moved almost 120 million units in a day when numbers like that for a video game console were unheard of, and the-little-LCD-screen-that-could is immortalized for a handful of monumental achievements. First, it essentially made portable gaming a thing, showing the industry that cheap plastic Tiger Electronic toys were no longer acceptable gaming platforms. It featured as one of its best games the only true sequel to the original Donkey Kong. It’s lifespan saw surprisingly deep entries into the Super Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Final Fantasy series, games that largely still hold up today. And last but not least, the Game Boy is responsible for unleashing two of gaming’s largest-ever phenomenons upon the world: Tetris, the brick-twisting sensation of a pack-in game that drove device sales through the stratosphere, and then, of course, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue, games that launched an international craze and gave the Game Boy its second wind.

5.) Wii U

Year of Release: 2012 – Best Games: Super Mario 3D World; Mario Kart 8; Super Smash Bros. for Wii U; Splatoon; Super Mario Maker; Zeldas: Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD Remakes

Nintendo’s current-gen console, the Wii U, gets a bad rap, and in some ways it deserves it. In terms of computing power it, like its predecessor the Wii, lags behind the field. It has is virtually zero AAA 3rd party support in its software library, a few notable exceptions aside. Its primary feature, the Wii U Gamepad, in spite of finally proving necessary for a hit game (the 2D level-builder Super Mario Maker), is still best utilized for off-screen play and Netflix. But… the games. The best Mario Kart ever, the best Smash Bros. ever, the best 3D Super Mario ever, the best Pikmin ever, definitive HD versions of Zelda: Wind Waker and Zelda: Twilight Princess, surprise hits Hyrule Warriors and Captain Toad, an exciting new IP in the ink-splattered Splatoon, adorable Yoshi and Kirby games, a hit 2D Super Mario game alongside a 2D DLC spin-off starring Luigi, a best-in-show exclusive action title in Bayonetta 2, the LEGO exclusive Lego City Undercover, two Arkham games, two Assassin’s Creed games, indie darlings Shovel Knight and Guacamelee… the list goes on. There have been missteps, to be sure; Star Fox Zero certainly has its major detractors, and the overall Wii U experience has had its flaws, particularly in the realm of marketing and branding. Those flaws, though, do not change the facts, and the fact is this: Wii U may feature the most consistently excellent line-up in Nintendo’s console history.

4.) GameCube

Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Zelda: Wind Waker; Metroid Prime; Super Smash Bros. MeleeRogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader

It’s easy to look at the modest-selling GameCube as a bit of a failure, as it went head-to-head with (and made barely a dent against) the best-selling video game console of all time: the Playstation 2. But what GameCube had were games, and masterpiece after masterpiece found its way onto the console. Even in a generation where the Mario game was weird (Super Mario Sunshine) and the Star Fox game was weirder (Star Fox Adventures), the GameCube still featured an embarrassment of riches in incredible software. Zelda: Wind Waker is arguably the best game in the entire franchise. Super Smash Bros. Melee the same, and it still is the game of choice for serious Smashers. Star Wars: Rogue Leader is in the conversation for the best Star Wars game of all time; Resident Evil 4 is considered by many to be the high point in that storied franchise’s entire run. The Pikmin series debuted on the GameCube, as did Animal Crossing. And lest we forget Metroid Prime, possibly the best 2D to 3D franchise conversion ever, even in a universe were Super Mario 64 and Zelda: The Ocarina of Time exist. GameCube was the underrated purple box with the library of must-play games that, if you haven’t, you still must play today.

3.) Nintendo 3DS

Year of Release: 2011 – Best Games: Fire Emblem: Awakening; Super Mario 3D Land; Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

For the quintessential Nintendo experience, it’s hard to do better than 3DS, which is home to great 2D and 3D titles in both the Mario and Zelda franchises, a port of the best of the Star Fox franchise, a this-shouldn’t-be-real entry in the Smash Bros. franchise, four 3D Pokemon titles, the quintessential Fire Emblem game, three more Fire Emblem games, a great Final Fantasy game that isn’t a Final Fantasy game (Bravely Default), Mario Kart greatness, the first new Kid Icarus in forever, backwards compatibility with the massive Nintendo DS line-up, old-school homage Shovel Knight, and then there’s best game available on the device: Luigi’s Mansion 2. (Okay, maybe that’s just my opinion.) As icing on the cake, all the company’s greatest hits from the NES, Game Boy, and Game Boy Color era are available for the system’s Virtual Console, and the SNES era is also well-represented on the “New” model. The Nintendo 3DS feels very much like a culmination of everything the company has been working towards for thirty years, folded together into one neat little package that is the must-buy current-market Nintendo system for any and all fans of gaming.

2.) Nintendo Entertainment System

Year of Release: 1986 – Best Games: Too numerous to mention.

Without the NES, video games as we know them wouldn’t have happened. Let’s be clear about that. The industry was dead as a doornail when Nintendo’s premier gaming box hit living rooms, killed by the excesses of Atari and by the dismissal of the art form as just another dumb kid’s fad. Then the NES arrived, and re-wrote history. Oh, sure, it’s possible some other company would have been able to succeed in the same way in the same time in the same space, given the opportunity. Others, though, tried and failed, and it was up to Nintendo to dig gaming up out of its grave and drag it down the road. Besides, can you possibly imagine anyone else launching hit franchise after hit franchise at the rate Nintendo and its licensees did during the NES heyday? Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Punch-Out!!, Contra, Kid Icarus, Fire Emblem and Mother (well, in Japan, anyway)… all of these classic gaming franchises began on the NES. Many, though, would not be perfected until…

1.) Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Year of Release: 1991 – Best Games: … almost all of them?

The Super Nintendo took the formula established by the NES made it… well, super: bigger, brighter, more colorful, faster, and better designed. Almost all of the major franchises that started life on the NES found a similar home on the SNES, and it would be one of the last times in Nintendo console history could that be said. The holy trilogy of Nintendo gaming was represented with a triumvirate of all time great games; Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid are still considered three of the greatest games of all time, and may by themselves represent the quintessential Nintendo experience. Add to the mix new high-polished entries into such great series as Castlevania, Contra, Mega Man, Punch Out!!, and Final Fantasy, throw in the dueling fighting phenomenons Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, and then factor in the debut titles of even more fantastic Nintendo franchises (Star Fox, F-Zero, Donkey Kong Country, and Mario Kart spring immediately to mind), and what you have is the console of Nintendo’s golden era, the symbol of a time when they dominated the marketplace creatively, technologically, and economically. The Super Nintendo and its library of games are must-play for any fan of the medium, games that perfected the NES properties that saved an industry, and games that still hold up today, twenty-plus years later.

The Metroid Dilemma

I’ll start with this: Super Metroid is one of my all-time favorite games. It’s part of the “Trifecta of Perfection” from the SNES days along with Super Mario World and A Link to the Past. I’m not alone in my opinion. Metroid is a fan-favorite Nintendo franchise, and a big part of the appeal of the original game came from the sparse nature of its world and soundtrack, both held back by the hardware limitations of the original NES. It was a sprawling open-world adventure before that was even a thing.

Mario and Link and Samus Aran: they were the original Nintendo Big 3. Samus, though, has arguably since been overtaken in Nintendo’s hierarchy of characters by the likes of Pikachu and Kirby, two later-era Nintendo megastars whose franchises get new titles far more frequently than does that of Metroid‘s femme fatale. The last Metroid game was the poorly-received Metroid: Other M for the Wii in 2010. Prior to that, in 2009, the remastered Metroid Prime Trilogy was released for the Wii, but the last really well-regarded Metroid title in new release was Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, also for the Wii… in 2007. That’s right, almost a full ten years ago.

While it appears Wii U will come and go without every being graced by the Metroid franchise, the latest game in the series is due out this August on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s a multiplayer shooter game called Metroid Prime: Federation Force, far from the traditional isolated adventure style of gameplay the franchise is known for, and let’s just say Metroid fans are… less than enthused. Calls for its cancellation, petitions against it, accusations of ruined childhoods… you know, all the usual responses when superfans unite against a product. Never mind that Federation Force is being produced by Kensuke Tanabe, who produced every other installment of the much-beloved Metroid Prime series. Never mind that Tanabe-san has been quoted repeatedly as saying this is the Metroid game he’s been wanting to make for awhile. Never mind that the developers behind the title are the generally well-regarded Next Level Games (who made one of my favorite 3DS games, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon). Fans are aghast: this is NOT the Metroid game for which they’ve been clamoring.

And they have a point. While new Zelda and Mario and Kirby games, spin-offs or otherwise, seem to pop up every year, Metroid is the tree from which the fruit is rarely offered. Nine years between proper installments of a cornerstone franchise (remember, nobody counts Other M as a “proper” installment) is a long time. So what’s the problem, Nintendo? Why are you hating so hard on Metroid?

The answer is probably easier than you’d think: Metroid games are big, sprawling, graphically demanding adventure titles that take time, resources, and money to make, and the truth of the matter is they just don’t sell that well. The best selling Metroid of all time is Metroid Prime, which moved approximately 2.82 million units*, making it and the original Metroid the only games in the series to break 2 million units sold. 2 million units is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but what does it say that the three series entries released on the Wii (Other M, Metroid Prime 3, and Metroid Prime Trilogy) cleared 1.63, 1.11, and .65 million units, respectively, on a console that sold over 100 million units? That is a woeful attach rate (the percentage of owners of an individual console who own a particular piece of software for said console.)

Now compare this to a few other Nintendo big-money franchises. The Legend of Zelda series saw only one game in its entire franchise history come in below 3 million units moved: Four Swords, which only moved about .65 million units. The next lowest series sales figure was Skyward Sword at 3.31 million units, and most Zelda titles have averaged between 4 and 8 million units moved.

Then there’s Super Mario Kart, a franchise that at its worst moved 5.47 million units (Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the GBA) and at its best moved a whopping 32.01 million units (Mario Kart Wii). Do you WANT to talk about Pokemon, which moves 10 million units per game without even trying? Or Super Mario Bros., well over 200 million sales and climbing?

So why is Metroid the weak link? Why hasn’t it struck the same chord as so many of Nintendo’s venerable IPs? At the very least, Super Metroid, Metroid: Zero Mission, and Metroid Prime could arguably be on the list of anyone’s all time greatest games; hell, the series has even spawned its own genre, the Metroidvania, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania used to describe a game that apes both series’ format of back-and-forth dungeon crawling in search of items to overcome obstacles and allow further progression.

Maybe Metroid just isn’t popular enough in Japan. Maybe it’s too weird, its face-masked hero to impersonal, its titular creatures to creepy. Maybe it’s too daunting for the neophyte gamer. After all, Metroid on the NES offered no map through its maze of corridors and no save functionality a’la The Legend of Zelda; perhaps this curtailed the series catching fire like Link’s original open world adventure (which featured both maps and game saving) or like Mario’s much simpler NES pack-in offer.

Whatever the reason, when you factor in the struggling (and poorly trending) sales of the Metroid franchise, you start to realize the dilemma that Nintendo is in. While Metroid games are flagship titles demanded by the company’s hardest-core fans, the line seem to be drawn there, as sales figures indicate there are very few crossover gamers playing Metroid. So it makes sense, almost, that the company would be trying something new with Metroid Prime: Federation Force, turning this entry into the franchise into a multiplayer shooter/adventure title with bite-sized micro-stages. This is, of course, the antithesis of what Metroid has always been, so while the vociferous overreaction to the MP:FF reveal two E3’s ago was (and remains) silly, it’s going to be interesting to see if the game can, on the very popular Nintendo 3DS console, hit some respectable sales figures. If no, then Nintendo will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with some new tactic as they continue in their attempts to solve the Metroid dilemma.

*All sales figures courtesy of VGChartz.com.