Something About Mario

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Down With DLC?

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

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

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

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

That’s the theory, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be careful what you wish for.

High NEScores

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

Remember Cheap Trick?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cover image original link.)

Triforce of Greatness

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

I hate to say, “I told you so,” but…

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

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

I’m sorry.

The World

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

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

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

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

The Physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breath of Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sooooo nice!

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

A Breath of Fresh Air

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time isn’t suddenly a garbage game just because Breath of the Wild has come along and reinvented the Zelda franchise. Good, we’ve agreed on that. Moving on.

Breath of the Wild is, as many others have pointed out, a masterpiece of game design. There’s a couple of things in BotW that put it over the top, I think: the immense open world, teeming with wild flora and fauna, the remarkable physics engine that drives most of Link’s special abilities, and the ability to climb literally anything and go literally anywhere on the map at any time. Breath of the Wild is what it is because the player can run in any random direction they choose and always find a living world with nary a barrier thrown down that can not be overcome. It’s a remarkable experience.

It is not, however, the only viable experience that the Zelda franchise can offer its fans going forward.

When people who’ve played Breath of the Wild say, “How can they possibly go back to the way Zelda was before?” my answer is, “Because the way Zelda was before was also pretty damn good.” Just because BotW tells players, “Here’s all of your items up front, now do anything you want in any order you want to do it,” doesn’t mean that every 3D Zelda from now on has to do the same, or even SHOULD do the same. Besides, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. This is the company who saw how much people loved The Legend of Zelda and responded by giving them the complete left turn that was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. A great, classic, Ocarina-style item-gate driven 3D Zelda is absolutely still a viable option for the franchise going forward… as well as some other style of game we probably haven’t even thought of because Nintendo hasn’t made it up yet.

That said.

Breath of the Wild changes, adds, and gets rid of a lot of smaller elements of past Zelda games that probably should NOT be walked back to the way they were before. Not core game design. The core Zelda game design has always been great. But there are other things around the fringes of that core design that were sorely in need of the upgrade that Breath of the Wild delivers. Let’s review.

  1. Remastered Z-Targeting – The bread and butter of 3D Zelda is the Z-targeting mechanic, so called because when it first debuted it was triggered by holding down the Z button of the N64 controller claw. Z-targeting is a lock-on system, and it’s what allows Link to freely circle around an individual enemy, rather than spinning and flailing about wildly while trying to score a hit. Breath of the Wild does not lose Z-targeting, but it does offer the first major refinement to the system since Ocarina of Time. In Breath of the Wild, when confronted with a pack of enemies, you can lock onto one but you’ll have to worry about the others coming at you from different directions. In most past 3D Zelda adventures that wasn’t the case; while you dealt with the Z-targeted foe the other enemies would patiently wait their turn to attack… which in hindsight seems pretty ridiculous, actually. Z-targeting also traditionally causes Link to raise his shield, which holds true in Breath of the Wild… the difference being in that this latest adventure, Link’s shield can be worn down and shattered, leaving him defenseless. Also, Z-targeting and defending with a shield adds an extra layer of defense/offense to combat. If perfectly timed, Link can now swing his shield to meet an enemy’s blow and knock them back with a “Perfect Parry”, throwing the world into bullet-time and giving Link an opening to really whale on his foe; he can do the same with a well-timed dodge, which triggers an opportunity to execute a “Flurry Rush” of rapid fire attacks. Prior to BotW, the deepest 3D Zelda combat system was found in Skyward Sword and its micro-focused Z-targeting system, with each individual targeted foe offering a unique motion puzzle that, when solved, would lead to their defeat. Breath of the Wild‘s Z-targeting takes that idea and runs away from it, opening up the system into a macro-focused world of varied incoming enemy attack vectors, breakable equipment, and multiple “solutions” to each combat puzzle.
  2. Collectibles Worth Collecting – This goes two ways. It refers both to what the game DOES ask you to collect, and what it DOESN’T. We’ll start with the latter: no longer does The Legend of Zelda ask you to accept that bottles and bigger quivers, wallets, and bomb bags are exciting items to obtain. In Breath of the Wild you can collect all the bugs and fairies your little heart desires (without a net, either!), you can carry as many rupees and arrows as you want from the word “go”, and bombs are infinite in supply. Breath of the Wild also recognizes that heart container pieces and rupees you’ll never use are lame prizes for solving puzzles and beating side quests, so the heart container upgrade system has been revamped and you actually have a reason to use rupees, spending them in generous amounts on crafting items, special arrows, and armor. Yes, that’s right: armor. Let’s talk weapons and armor, or the things that Breath of the Wild DOES ask you to collect. All of a sudden, The Legend of Zelda has a weapons system as deep and varied as an SNES-era Final Fantasy game. You can collect all sorts of upgradeable and color-customizable outfits and armor for Link to run around in, and swords, spears, axes, bows, boomerangs, magic wands, and shields come in dozens and dozens of sizes and shapes. One of the very rare criticisms of Breath of the Wild has been its breakable weapons system. I love the breakable weapons system, and not because it’s “realistic” or some such nonsense. I love the system because it means every weapon in every treasure chest is suddenly of vital importance, as you can no longer marry yourself to one “favorite” sword and stick with it. In Breath of the Wild, prizes matter again entirely because weapons and shields are breakable. In an adventure game that’s mostly about wandering and discovering, I’ll take that trade-off every day of the week.
  3. Voice Acting – In my recent play-through of the five earlier 3D Zelda games, I have to say it did get a little weird, particularly in the text-heavy Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, to have to read all of the plot exposition that had been disguised as character dialogue. So now that the mainline 3D end of the franchise has gone to fully voice-performed cut scenes, I don’t see how they can walk that back. An overhead Zelda on 2DS? Of course that would be a text-based adventure. The 3D home console franchise, though, can’t go backwards. It would really be off-putting. Two bones of contention: the first is that I’ve seen a lot, and I mean a LOT, of criticism of the actress voicing Princess Zelda in Breath of the Wild, and I tend to be of the mind that a lot, and I mean a LOT, of that criticism comes from the last Breath of the Wild trailer debuting in Japanese with English subtitles. “But the Japanese actress had so much EMOTION!” say British Zelda’s critics. Well, yes. Japanese acting traditions are rooted in melodrama, while much contemporary Western acting is rooted in the more subdued “Method”. Actress Patricia Summersett does a more than adequate job with, let’s admit it, not the greatest batch of dialogue in the world; it doesn’t help that most of her scenes are performed opposite a virtual silent film star. Which brings me to my second bone of contention, and it’s going to be a controversial one: in future Zelda installments, it’s long past time for Link to speak. He can’t be the only one walking around not saying anything in the cut scenes. It’s just weird.
  4. Link is Link – This is the first Zelda game, as far as I can remember, where you don’t get to name the main character. You don’t even start a file in the Switch version of the game; you just save the game under your Switch user ID. Nope, you can’t name your Hero of Legend “Poop” or “Earl” or “Jesus”. He’s Link. That’s it. That’s who he is. You can’t rename Mario and you can’t rename Samus Aran, so I don’t see why players should ever again have the option to pick a new name for Nintendo’s second biggest star.
  5. An Actual Overworld – I absolutely adore striking out across the sea in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. For my money that is still one of the most therapeutically lovely moments in all of gaming history. Still, even I recognize that Wind Waker‘s “vast ocean” was a relatively tiny series of gridded “rooms”, each with one individual island to its credit. Skyward Sword was even worse; the really boring sky led to three claustrophobic outdoor dungeons that in turn led to a series of indoor dungeons. Breath of the Wild‘s ridiculously vast Hyrule blows all of this out of the water, of course. Look: this is a franchise about adventure and exploration. How any future Zelda games lead Link (that’s his name!) through the progression of its story is irrelevant to this point. The story and dungeon progression can be laser-focused and hyper linear. Hyrule itself, though, can never again feature an overworld made of outdoor “rooms” connected through tiny entrances and exits. I’m not saying Link always has to be able to climb everywhere. In Breath of the Wild, he’s freaking Spider-Man, and that doesn’t always need to be the case. What I AM saying is that, from this day forth in the kingdom of Hyrule, if you can see it on the horizon you have to be able to reach it as it appears.

Everything else is up in the air, though, people. Take a breather, Zelda team. You’ve earned it. And when you regroup, do what you do best: dream up some new version of Zelda nobody would ever expect, and make that. Just remember: no bottles.

I really hate bottles.

The Bard of Kyoto

SCENE V.i - A Graveyard

HAMLET & MIYAMOTO enter. HAMLET pulls the skull of WII U from
out of a freshly dug grave. HE lifts it to eye level and inspects it.

HAMLET
Alas, poor Wii U! I knew it, Miyamoto: a console
of infinite jest, of most excellent remakes: it hath
granted me escape a thousand times; and now, how
tortured in my new-enlightened mind it is! my lunch churns at
it. Here hung the GamePad I have used I know
not how oft. 

Directly to the skull of WII U...

HAMLET
Where be Splatoon now? Captain Toad? 
Star Fox? your smashes of Mario,
at the hands of a vengeful green uppercut? 
Not one now, to mock your great failing: no voice chat?
Now get you to my mother's chamber, and tell her, for she
still does not know, a Wii add-on you are not; 
make her believe that. 

To MIYAMOTO.

HAMLET
Prithee, Miyamoto, tell me one thing.

MIYAMOTO
What's that, my lord?

HAMLET
Dost thou think PlayStation 2 looked so decrepit i' the ground?

MIYAMOTO
E'en so.

HAMLET
And smelt so? pah!

MIYAMOTO
E'en so, my lord.

HAMLET
To what base uses games may return, Miyamoto! Why may
not history trace the noble dust of PlayStation 2,
till it be found clogging a commode?

MIYAMOTO
'Twere thinking it too seriously, to think about it.

HAMLET
No, faith, not a bit; just reflect for a moment,
and one moment more, and let it lead you, as thus:
PlayStation 2 died, PlayStation 2 was buried,
PlayStation 2 returneth into dust; the dust is as one,
a whole unto itself; as like to have been PlayStation 2
in life past as it were the Wii U.
Atari's E.T., dead and turn'd to trash,
is no lesser than dust or dust or dust,
one small speck worth no more than its other:
O, that this dust, which kept the world in awe,
Should serve the same fate as the Wii U's flaw!

Looks offstage; reacts.

HAMLET
But soft! but soft! aside: here comes the Switch.

HAMLET tosses aside WII U's skull. SWITCH enters, crosses L to R, exits. HAMLET & MIYAMOTO follow.

END SCENE