Wii U

NintendOnly

“You can’t be a Nintendo-only gamer!” cries the Internet chorus. “There aren’t enough games! Think of everything you’ll miss out on!”

That’s what it’s like, even in Nintendo-focused forums and fan pages. It has become accepted fact in the Western video game world: Nintendo’s console is the supplementary console, the secondary system, the one you buy to sit alongside your PlayStation 4 Pro or your Xbox One X, which as an acronym spells out XBOX, and who thought Microsoft was going to take branding cues from the Nintendo 3DS family of systems?

Yes, your Wii and your Wii U, and now your Switch… those are the back-ups to the power box upon which you play the REAL games, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and Gears of War and Halo and Final Fantasy and Uncharted and Fallout and…

It should be noted: I’m not criticizing that approach, just as I’m not criticizing any of the above games. How can I criticize those games when I’ve only played a handful of hours of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, a few minutes of Call of Duty, no Final Fantasy game beyond IX, and no Uncharted, Halo, Fallout, or Gears of War games at all?

Right at this moment you are very likely beside yourself with shock and horror. “HOW?!” you say. “HOW do you call yourself a video game fan if you’ve barely played ANY of those classic, great games?!”

I suppose that’s a fair point. My response to that, and it’s well-practiced, is to point out: I’m not really a video game fan. I’m a Nintendo fan.

Blasphemy.

It’s not that I DISLIKE non-Nintendo titles. If someone handed me a PS4 or XB1, I’d take it and I’d certainly play SOME games on them. I’ve done some Steam games, actually, mostly the Portal series, finishing the first game and getting about halfway through the second (which I love and need to get back to.) It’s just… look. Nintendo has a house style: bright and colorful games, mechanics over story, easy to learn but tough to master, roots set firmly in an arcade experience, all-ages appeal. I also prefer the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars to the D.C. Expanded Universe films, my favorite book series are Harry Potter and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I prefer Batman: The Animated Series to the Dark Knight films, and I think glossy finish > matte finish. So given the limits placed on my video game hobby due to time and money, and seeing as how neither Sony or Microsoft have access to Zelda games, I’m forced to choose one console per generation. We already know how that story ends.

Historically, the issue with this Nintendo-solo approach has been the games. Or, better put, the LACK of games. The Wii U year one lineup was… how best to put this? Ah, that’s right… it was a disaster, so far as video game launch lineups go. Wii U launched in November of 2012 with 34 games… in theory. In practice, only a handful of those were worth playing, and only two of them (New Super Mario Bros. Wii U and Nintendoland) were developed by Nintendo. And then the NEXT major Nintendo release? Pikmin 3, in August of 2013.

Holy geez.

So being a Nintendo-only gamer in the early days of the Wii U? Yes, that was painful. The second-half flurry of great games for the platform came too little, too late. Being a Nintendo-only gamer in the age of the Switch, though? Better than describe it, let’s just take a look at what’s currently available for the Switch, and what’s coming out over the rest of its first year.

I try to be selective with my game purchases, and on my Switch I’ve already put 285 hours into an amazing Zelda game, I’ve still got to get into the Specter Knight campaign of Shovel Knight, I’ve played 30 hours of ARMS, I’ve barely touched Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Snake Pass, I’ve put a good chunk of time into NBA Playgrounds and about 40 hours into Minecraft, I’ve almost beaten Cave Story +, and now… now I’ve got Splatoon 2. I’ve already written extensively about my love affair with Splatoon, and I’m happy to inform you that after just a few hours of gameplay, I’m confident Splatoon 2 will bring me more of the same joy.

And that’s just the games that have already been released. Coming shortly: Mario x Rabbids, Fire Emblem Warriors, Steamworld Dig 2, Axiom Verge: Multiverse Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, NBA 2K18, WWE 2K18, Sonic Mania, Sonic Forces, FIFA ’18, Pokken Tournament DX (which I completely forgot about until just now when I was double-checking the Switch release schedule), LEGO Worlds, Stardew Valley, Rayman Legends: Definitive Edition, Overcooked, Rocket League, and not to mention freaking Skyrim and Super Mario Odyssey. And, oh yeah, somewhere in there I’m going to have to find time to play a new 2D Metroid game on my 2DS.

All of that listed above? That’s just a partial list of the stuff that’s coming out in 2017. That’s right: all of that is coming out BY THE END OF THIS YEAR. Also: IT’S ALL PORTABLE.

If your counter-argument is that the Switch is “less powerful” than the XB1 or PS4… well, you’re right, in terms of tech specs. Is it a “less powerful” experience, though? The Switch has only been on the market since March, and by December it will have in its library two Mario games, a Zelda game, Splatoon and ARMS, Mario Kart and Pokken, two of the biggest games of all time in Skyrim and Minecraft, three of the most important sports games on the market in FIFA, WWE 2K and NBA 2K, and a slew of new and classic indies. Up top I didn’t even mention some great games that have already come out that I’ve yet to purchase, like Fast RMX and Shantae: Half-Genie Hero.

So if you like to hop on Twitter and all-caps inform your followers that the Switch has “NO GAMES,” I can only ask… what in the world are you talking about? Perhaps it doesn’t have the games YOU want to play, but don’t worry; there’s at least two other quality options on the market for you to choose from if you want to play GTA and Call of Duty. The Switch, though, is not the Wii U (in spite of my last piece, in which I argued that the Switch kind of IS the Wii U. I’m mercurial like that.) The Wii U’s year-one lineup was horrendous. The Switch’s year-one lineup is the stuff dreams are made of.

So, yeah: I’m a Nintendo-only gamer. A generation ago, it was mostly because I liked Nintendo games more than anything else on the market. That’s still true. Now, though, there’s a secondary reason: we’re only five months into its lifespan, and the Switch already has a stack of amazing games on it that I want to play.

I mean, c’mon: a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One on top of everything the Switch is already offering? Just how much time and money do you think I have?

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The Nintendo SWiitch (That’s Not a Typo)

It was hailed as the end of an era. The reveal of Nintendo’s top-secret next console, codenamed NX, a hybrid system that was one of the worst-kept secrets in video games, was going to end the age of the Wii, the one that began in a blaze of glory as the Wii became a “must have” item, and ended as smoldering ash as the Wii U became a “what’s that” item.

Into this world came the Switch, with the promise of a new Legend of Zelda and Splatoon and 3D Super Mario, and Skyrim and NBA 2K and Minecraft, all in year one, all great news for Nintendo platform loyalists starved for new (or at least remastered) content, all now playable on the go. Oh, along with these no-brainers came a few choice reminders that, you know, Nintendo will always Nintendo. For example: at the Switch reveal conference, live-streamed around the world from Japan, an event that many expected to be a fresh new start and a clean slate… but which Nintendo used to announce not one, but TWO games that seemed as though they were designed for the motion controlled Wii: the ice cube simulator 1-2-Switch and the Plastic-Man fighter ARMS. 1-2-Switch was indulged and largely ignored, and while I still think there’s a place for it on college campuses this fall (drunken wizard fights, anyone?) it certainly isn’t something anyone would point to as a hit, and it just as certainly should have been a system pack-in, not a full-priced separate launch title.

A few months later, ARMS came along, a motion control weirdo springy-armed boxing game in which the motion controls are optional. That previous sentence describes both an evolution of and a reaction to the similarly motion-controlled games for the Wii. From the Wii era Nintendo seems to have learned that people like to decide for themselves whether or not they want to use motion controls in any particular game. Just as it is in ARMS, the motion controls in Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe are completely optional. The evolution lies in the technology: the original Wiimote tracked motion through a combination of accelerometer (which detects velocity) and infrared technology (which detects location). The Joy-Con, aside from containing technology eleven years newer than that which inhabited the Wiimote, is equipped with an accelerometer and a gyroscope (which accurately measures location). Fair point: the Wii MotionPlus add-on accessory for the Wiimote contained a gyroscope as well, but nothing beats having the tools baked into the console from the world “go”.

The difference, then, between ARMS and a lot of the Wii-era games? The motion controls in ARMS are remarkably precise, and the game is not prisoner of the “waggle controls” that plagued so many Wii titles, that feeling that you’re flailing about blindly and have only rudimentary control over your on-screen avatar’s movements. On the Wii itself it was Skyward Sword that came closest to fulfilling the initial promise of what that system would be, but it’s ARMS, a game for a console meant to move Nintendo past their Wii/Wii U days, that feels like the near-perfect execution of what Nintendo had hoped Wii games would be all along.

The comparison between the Wii U and the Switch is obvious, of course; both consoles come with a tablet-like touchscreen. Unlike the Wii U, though, the Switch is not a second-screen device. But, as many of the Wii U’s critics noted during that console’s “heyday” (a term I use with the utmost looseness), the best use of the Wii U’s Gamepad was not as a second screen (with a few select exceptions). It was best used for off-TV play, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Wii U ends up looking an awful lot like a prototype version of the Nintendo Switch. The off-TV experience on Switch is better in every way, of course, with a true HD screen and a capacitive touchscreen in place of the Wii U’s resistive touchscreen… not to mention the Switch’s take-anywhere-ableness, as opposed to the Wii U Gamepad’s reluctance to function at distances greater than ten feet from the base unit.

I put this comparison together just the other night while playing Splatoon 2. I do a lot of my gaming at night; I’m a night owl and my wife is a morning person, so after she and the kids go to bed is when I get a lot of my Switch on. This means I’m less likely to play the Switch in TV mode (she’s also a light sleeper), so about 95% of my Breath of the Wild play-through was in handheld mode. Handheld mode, though, is not ideal for Splatoon 2, especially since I absolutely can not play Splatoon without motion controls. So after a few hours of uncomfortable handheld gaming, I decided to put the Switch in tabletop mode and grab my pro controller… except the pro controller was all the way across the room, so I instead went with split Joy-Con play.

It was a revelation.

I’ll try to describe the experience, but if you’re playing Splatoon 2 (and why wouldn’t you be?) you should really try this out for yourself. The left Joy-Con is primarily for directional input and morphing into squid form, and the right Joy-Con, which is the Joy-Con from which Splatoon 2 reads gyroscopic input, is used for aiming and firing your weapon. The precision aiming I was able to pull of with the right Joy-Con was a substantial improvement over anything I was able to pull off with the Wii U Gamepad over the course of the 300+ hours I put into Splatoon, and a gazillion times better than trying to aim while waving the Switch around in handheld mode. I was fighting off entire teams of Inklings by myself, and then I switched over to the Splat Charger and started popping squids like nobody’s business.

That’s when I realized that the Switch does not mark the end of the Wii era. Rather, it is the culmination of what the Wii and the Wii U promised but didn’t deliver: HD off-screen, truly portable play with pinpoint motion controls. The Switch’s success will rely on Nintendo’s ability to keep their new flagship awash in a steady stream of games more than it will anything else, but one other thing worth noting is that they have been preparing this console for a very long time. Ten years of in-the-wild market research, probably closer to fifteen years of development, have come together to bring us the natural offspring of both the Wii and the Wii U: the Nintendo Switch. For Nintendo’s sake, given the explosive success of the Wii and the implosive failure of the Wii U, let’s hope the Switch (or the SWiitch) takes after mom, and not dad.

Yes, of COURSE the Wii is the mom. Geez.

Never Assume

“Now, Cookie, you know what happens when you assume.”

Cookie rolled her eyes. Her mom’s favorite saying. “Yeah, I know. You make an ass of you and me.”

“No,” began Race, “You… wait.” He thought about it. “Wow, that’s a whole lot better than what I was going to say. Can I use that?”

*

That is an excerpt from my book, The Unlikely Adventures of Race & Cookie McCloud: Vol. 1, available now on Amazon (plug, plug.) I’ve been rolling out that bad joke about assumptions for years, first in my initial 2009 Race McCloud play and then carried over into the novel. I think about that joke a lot when discussing Nintendo with others on the Internet. In real life, also, but mostly on the Internet.

You see, people on the Internet… and full disclosure, I’m not exempting myself from this… people on the Internet like to make assumptions. And if there’s one thing we have repeatedly learned about Nintendo over the years, it is this: assume nothing.

One of my other favorite phrases to roll out when discussing Nintendo is simply, “Nintendo gon’ Nintendo.” This and “assume nothing” are saying basically the same thing: Nintendo is going to do what they want, when they want, no matter what industry logic (or just plain old everyday logic) suggests they SHOULD do. Sometimes when Nintendo Nintendos it works out. Sometimes it does not. For a microcosm of this, look no further than, or course, Breath of the Wild, which takes many of the assumptions about what a 3D Zelda game must be (large dungeons, linear progression, hearts and rupees galore) and throws them away. Nintendo could have gotten away with making another awesome version of Ocarina of Time. They instead did something different for the sake of doing something different… and for the sake of making something better.

Over the years, some of the various assumptions I’ve heard regarding Nintendo have included:

  • “Nintendo will never go mobile.” – You can forgive this assumption; prior to Super Mario Run, Nintendo-published games have never appeared on a non-Nintendo platform.
  • “Nintendo’s going to produce a cheaper version of the Wii U without a GamePad.” – Lower-end versions of Nintendo hardware aren’t ubiquitous, but they’re not uncommon. Either way, the Wii U never got a compact makeover, and its price never came down.
  • “They’ve GOT to announce Metroid now, right?” – Everyone assumed this before every E3 until 2017’s, when everyone assumed it wasn’t going to happen and when it, of course, happened. Twice!
  • “Nintendo’s done with motion controls.” – They led the Switch reveal event with 1, 2, Switch and ARMS, two games that heavily feature motion controls.
  • “Look at Splatoon. A game like that HAS to have built-in voice chat.” – Splatoon did not have built-in voice chat.
  • “Sonic will never be in Smash.” – He’s been in two of them.
  • “The NX is going to have to be a AAA power box. They can’t afford another Wii U.” – The NX turned out to be the Switch, and instead of going high-power, Nintendo went high-concept form factor… which seems to be working.
  • “The Switch is going to replace the 3DS.” – Maybe. There’s 3DS games announced through 2018, though, and they’re about to release yet another new model in the 3DS “family” of systems: the New Nintendo 2DS XL.
  • “Nintendo is dead.” – Not just yet.

Two of the current assumptions making the rounds to which I respond with a big ol’ “don’t assume” are the following: first, that the Virtual Console is definitely coming to Switch. To specify: by “Virtual Console” I refer to the specific brand of digital product through which Nintendo sells emulated versions of their old games, a la carte, via their current-gen consoles. We already know that the Classic Games Selection, a select number of earlier Nintendo and Super Nintendo games that have been updated to include online play, will be available to anyone who is paying for Nintendo’s online service when that launches in early 2018. What Nintendo has not yet said, and seems to be actively avoiding saying, is that the Virtual Console will be available on the Switch. The assumption I’ve encountered is: “Of COURSE the Virtual Console will come. Nintendo wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to charge you again for Zelda II.” To which I reply, that logic isn’t unsound, but… never assume. I’ll believe Virtual Console is coming to the Switch when Nintendo announces Virtual Console is coming to the Switch, and not a second sooner.

The other assumption I’ve heard is in regards to Super Mario Maker and Smash for Wii U/3DS. “Both games are definitely coming to the Switch,” I’ve been told. I have a theory: Wii U games that are available on the 3DS, which is still an actively supported console, will not receive ports to the Switch. Oh, Switch will definitely have a Smash Bros. game. I just think that, if we were going to get Smash 4 Switch, we’d have heard about it already. Super Mario Maker, I think, might be viewed by Nintendo as a two-screen game, and I’d honestly agree with that assessment. Plus: how do you sequelize Super Mario Maker? You can’t add Super Mario 2 U.S. to it; that’s a completely different game from the rest of the Super Mario franchise, a game with completely different mechanics. Adding that to the Mario Maker creation suite isn’t as simple as flipping a skin. Also, the one advantage that a pressure-based touchscreen, such as the one on the Wii U, has over a capacitive touchscreen, such as the one on the Switch, is how more precise stylus work is when using the pressure screen. Frankly, I have no desire to build Super Mario levels with just my finger.

Let’s say, though, Nintendo finds an acceptable workaround for the lack of the Switch’s second screen, and finds an input method for a Switch-based Maker game that they’re comfortable with. In that case, given Nintendo’s usual aversion to doing the same thing twice, I still find it much more likely that instead of focusing on the “Super Mario” portion of the title they’d focus on the “Maker” portion of the title, leading to a whole slew of Maker-games: Metroid Maker, Zelda Maker, Ice Climber Maker… that sort of thing.

Think of it: wouldn’t that be cool? A Nintendo IP Maker franchise. Of course, all of this is nothing more than an assumption on my part, and…

… well. We all know what happens when we do that.

P.S. (All except for Race McCloud, I guess. Funny side note… I’ve always wondered just what it was he was about to say before Cookie corrected him. No, I don’t know; he’s never told me.

Yes, that IS how that works. No, I’m NOT crazy.)

 

 

 

 

(Not much, anyway.)

EDIT: The 3D Zelda Games: A Definitive Ranking

A few months back I wrote a post giving the absolute complete and definitive ranking of the 3D games in the Legend of Zelda franchise… unless you disagree with me, in which case, you know, it’s just games. Like what you like. I graded the games out of eight categories: Presentation, Combat, Pacing, Narrative, Overworld, Dungeons, Dungeon Masters, Side Quests, and Final Battle; top marks in a category resulted in a grade of (+5) and bottom marks a grade of (+1).

One problem: I did the list pre-Breath of the Wild. So the breakdown back then looked like this:

Which give us a ranking of:

So now let’s factor Breath of the Wild into the rankings and see what happens, shall we? Here we go: 3D Zelda rankings, the abridged edition.

Presentation: Breath of the Wild is gorgeous, lush and green, and subject to whorls of changing weather and neon pseudo-tech. The cel-shaded cartoon presentation of The Wind Waker HD is distinct, clean, bright, and consistent. The impressionist water colors of Skyward Sword will enter this conversation if that game gets its own HD facelift. Until then, though, in a showdown between two gorgeous HD games: the textures in Breath of the Wild sometimes flatten out up close and there are notable frame rate drops in heavily wooded areas, whereas The Wind Waker HD‘s presentation is almost a hundred percent seamless. The Wind Waker for the win. Breath of the Wild: (+5).

Combat: The combat is the one grade on the scale that has trended upwards throughout the entire series, and Breath of the Wild doesn’t break that streak. I’ve talked before about the brilliance of BotW‘s combat systems: wide open macro-fights with flanking enemies, getting your butt handed to you by Lynels and Guardians, fluid on-horse combat… here, the (+6) goes to Breath of the Wild.

Pacing: This is a no-brainer, because Breath of the Wild allows you to choose your own pace, and there’s no better pacing than the speed you can set yourself. You can face Ganon within the first hour of gameplay, or you can dump 200 hours into Hyrule before charging into the castle. Breath of the Wild, (+6).

Narrative: Breath of the Wild tells a great story of a 100 year-old calamity, both through the terrain and architecture of Hyrule and in cinematic cut scenes. But it’s still a story told largely in flashbacks, a narrative no-no. Again: you can defeat Ganon within the game’s first hour. Ultimately, the story of Breath of the Wild, though compelling, is arguably inconsequential. Compared to the rich origin story of Skyward Sword and the template Zelda tale laid out by Ocarina of Time, Breath of the Wild gets (+4).

Overworld: C’mon. (+6) for Breath of the Wild.

Dungeons: This is where things get interesting. Breath of the Wild features, in place of traditional Zelda dungeons, four Divine Beasts, constructions Link must venture into and take control of. I appreciate what the Zelda team was trying here, and the Beasts each present a short external battle as Link works with a partner to gain entrance, followed by an internal series of puzzles for Link to solve as he attempts to gain access to the Beast’s control panel. Still, the Beasts are smaller spaces than traditional Zelda dungeons, they’re built almost exclusively around Link’s array of physics-based Sheikah Slate abilities, and are largely combat-free. Simply put, they just aren’t dungeons. Not even the final journey into the massive Hyrule Castle can keep Breath of the Wild from taking the (+1) here.

Dungeon Masters: The Zelda series features some of the most memorable level boss battles in gaming history, but Breath of the Wild‘s four Divine Beasts are each effectively “possessed” by neon-colored portions of Calamity Ganon’s essence. These aren’t bad battles, per se, but they are pretty forgettable. Not one of them would break into my list of top ten 3D Zelda boss battles. Breath of the Wild, (+1).

Side Quests: Majora’s Mask still contains the creme de la creme of Zelda side quests; helping the citizens of Termina fight aliens and fall in love is easily the best part of that game. Breath of the Wild‘s series of citizen-based side quests are basic, and on their own wouldn’t score high marks. However, when you factor into the equation the amazing collection of Shrines to conquer, the diverse sets of armor to find and upgrade, all of the flora and fauna to chronicle in your Pokedex… er, Hyrule Compendium, and 900 Korok seeds to find…. Breath of the Wild, (+5).

Final Boss: The battle against Calamity Ganon is amazingly cinematic and beautiful. It is not, however, terribly difficult, especially if you’ve put 200+ hours into the game and approach Ganon with a full rucksack of five-star meals. The final conflict also suffers from the absence of Ganondorf. In the lore of BotW Ganondorf has forsaken his humanity and is now and for always in his demon form of Ganon… which is cool and all, but it means he’s not terribly talkative. Overall, the final battles of Twilight Princess, The Wind Waker, and Ocarina of Time offer higher drama and greater challenge. Calamity Ganon earns a (+3).

So now that we’ve added Breath of the Wild to the discussion, we get a breakdown of this:

And the final ranking shakes out like this:

  1. Breath of the Wild: +37
  2. The Wind Waker: +36
  3. Twilight Princess: +33
  4. Ocarina of Time; Skyward Sword: +30
  5. Majora’s Mask: +23

Breath of the Wild ends up on top of the list, and the rest of the games remain in the order they were in with the sole exception of Ocarina of Time and Skyward Sword now being tied at 4th.

All-in-all, this was pretty anti-climactic.

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.

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)