Gaming

Actively Retro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Parent’s Guide to the Nintendo Switch: A Dramatization

An important segment of the games-purchasing population is inhabited by the parental units whose children desperately want the latest in vid’ya games tech-naw-lawgee. This was the segment that common wisdom likes to tell us Nintendo reached with the Wii (“Oooo! Tennis!”) and whiffed on with the Wii U (“Didn’t I already buy this?”).

In the interest of enlightening those parents out there who may not be as hopelessly dopey as myself, I present, in the form of a dramatic dialogue, A Parent’s Guide to the Nintendo Switch.

Please hold all applause until the end.

*

PARENT: So I was on Facebook and my friend Dolores shared a video from Jimmy Fallon. I don’t usually click on Dolores’ Facebook posts because she is just so political and I just can’t, you know? But I think this one was about a new Nintendo, and my kids are going to want this for at least a few weeks until they get distracted by something else, so I figured I’d better find out what it is I may be tricked into buying this time.

ME: Yes, well, the video Dolores posted was about the new video game system being made by Nintendo, called the Switch.

PARENT: The Switch?

ME: The Nintendo Switch.

PARENT: And what is a Nintendo Switch?

ME: The Nintendo Switch is a multi-form video game console.

PARENT: … um…

ME: Don’t worry, I’ll explain. The Nintendo Switch system, itself, is a tablet, not unlike an iPad or Kindle Fire.

PARENT: Oh. I already have three of those.

ME: There’s more. The Switch tablet comes with two controllers attached to either side, so it can be played on-the-go like a handheld system.

PARENT: Like an iPhone?

ME: Like a GameBoy.

PARENT: Ooohhh…

ME: But the two controllers, which are called JoyCons —

PARENT: JoyCons?

ME: It’s a portmanteau of “joystick” and “controller”.

PARENT: Oh. Clever.

ME: Right? Anyway, the JoyCons can be detached from the side of the Switch and now TWO people can play a game, together, anywhere.

PARENT: Wait. One tablet, two controllers, two players?

ME: That’s right.

PARENT: I have two kids.

ME: How convenient. The Switch can also be placed into a box that you attach to your television, and suddenly the portable system becomes an at-home system.

PARENT: So is it a portable game or a TV game?

ME: It’s both.

PARENT: Huh. Well, what games are there for it? Mario and Zelda?

ME: Like, the originals?

PARENT: Right. From when we were kids.

ME: … yes, probably.

PARENT: For free?

ME: … I very much doubt that.

PARENT: Seems like they should be free.

ME: I get that, but —

PARENT: They’re so OLD.

ME: You and I are old! Should we be free? Are you and I worth nothing?!

PARENT: That’s a little different.

ME: IS IT?!

PARENT: Are you okay? You’re getting all red and blotchy.

ME: Yes. Yes, I’m sorry. I… I have ‘episodes’.

PARENT: Uh… sure. Does this Switch thing have Minecraft? My kids are gonna want Minecraft. I don’t get it, but they love it.

ME: Minecraft is coming for the Switch later this year.

PARENT: Okay. How about Skylanders?

ME: Skylanders will be there on day one.

PARENT: And Disney Infinity?

ME: Disney actually stopped making Infinity.

PARENT: Are you kidding me? You know how much money I spent on all those stupid little toys? Now I’ve got Queen Elsa underfoot all day and nobody ever plays the damn game anymore!

ME: Just FYI, Nintendo has its own brand of interactive toys called amiibo.

PARENT: A-what-o?

ME: Amiibo.

PARENT: And what do they do?

ME: Let’s move on. So the Switch is an all-in-one video game console, at-home and portable, that allows for one player, two players, and up to eight players in any configuration.

PARENT: Eight players? Wow. But I thought there were only two of those Joy-thingees?

ME: Yes, but you can buy extras.

PARENT: For how much?

ME: For some amount of money. The Switch itself comes out on March 3rd, for $299.99.

PARENT: Oof. Three hundred.

ME: It’ll be a great Christmas present.

PARENT: Oh, so you just assume I’m Christian? That I celebrate the Christian holidays? You don’t know me.

ME: I made you up.

PARENT:

ME:

PARENT:

ME:

PARENT: How about sports games?

ME: Two of the big ones are coming this year for the Switch. NBA2K and FIFA.

PARENT: Oh, good, FIFA. My kid is crazy about soccer. Soccer and Minecraft. I don’t know what happened.

ME: What’s his favorite soccer team?

PARENT: Her. HER favorite soccer team. You know, I’d think you’d be better informed about the made-up backstory of your own fictional creation.

ME: Sorry. What’s HER favorite soccer team?

PARENT: She doesn’t have one. Nobody actually WATCHES soccer. They just play it as a kid and forget it exists once they hit puberty.

ME: I should warn you: FIFA for the Switch is rumored to be based more on the XBox 360 version than it is on the forthcoming XBox One or PlayStation  4 versions.

PARENT: What does that mean?

ME: It might not be quite as powerful as those two versions.

PARENT: My kid plays FIFA on my Kindle and on an old BlackBerry I found on the sidewalk. I’m sure your Switch FIFA will be fine.

ME: So what have you learned so far?

PARENT: Well… the Nintendo Switch is an at-home and on-the-go video game that both my kids can play together in the car.

ME: Yes! Yes!

PARENT: It’ll cost me three-hundred… does that come with a game?

ME: … uh…

PARENT: No game. So with a game it’ll cost closer to four-hundred. Not great, but not awful. What are the biggest games? Grand Theft Auto and Call of Battle?

ME: Actually, to be honest, a lot of those big games don’t come to many Nintendo consoles. We’ll see, but I’m not going to bet on it. The biggest games will be a new Zelda, a new Mario, and a new Splatoon.

PARENT: What’s Splatoon?

ME: It’s a game. It’s not important. I’m partial to it, but… no, it’s not important. A new Mario and a new Zelda.

PARENT: So the big violent games my thirty-four year old brother loves might not be on the Switch.

ME: No.

PARENT: Is he going to snort derisively when I mention the Switch to him?

ME: And then he’ll come over to play Mario Kart, yes.

PARENT: I do like Mario Kart… but I don’t know…

ME: Look: the Switch is a TV system you can take in the car. Both of your kids can play it together, even in portable mode, and you won’t have to buy them separate DS machines or new tablets, and you won’t have to give them your phone to play on, and there’s no way they can make ‘accidental’ in-app purchases because there won’t be any, and the big games on it are Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda and Sonic the Hedgehog instead of Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War, and it still has Minecraft and FIFA and NBA2K. It’s a family-friendly at-home console, portable console, and mobile gaming device, all in one.

PARENT: Mobile? Does it make — ?

ME: No it does not make phone calls! But at some point it’ll probably play Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja.

PARENT: I love Fruit Ninja! Sold!

ME: I can’t believe Fruit Ninja is what tipped this.

PARENT: I likes what I likes.

*

Aaaaaand… scene! I hope you, gentle parent, now have a better idea as to what, exactly, the Nintendo Switch is. And if you still don’t? Just watch this. Oh, just watch it. It’s only, like, three minutes long. And you’ll get to see what Splatoon is!

I’m partial.

P.S. – Once you’ve watched that, watch this adorable video about Switch’s parental control options. It’ll warm your soul.

Making the Grade

The strength of Nintendo’s various IPs goes up and down like the stock market: a few evergreens remain always-powerful while some former stalwarts plummet and new faces take their place. Every once in awhile I like to survey the landscape and try and figure out where the various players fit on the IP totem pole and now, on the eve of the Switch, it seems like as good a time as any to do that again. In the following list I’ve categorized Nintendo’s franchises from Grade A to Grade F, and within the grades themselves some franchises are given an additional green (+) or red (-)(+) indicates an upward trend for that franchise, while (-) indicates… the opposite. Let’s just say “the opposite”.

Some important notes: that stock market comparison was not an accident. This list is an attempt to gauge the current state of Nintendo’s various franchises, not what they once were or what they might someday become. Also, I didn’t include games that will likely (hopefully) become franchises (Captain Toad) or games that maybe bend too far the rules of what a “franchise” is (Hyrule Warriors, Super Mario Maker). If I excluded a franchise that belongs here let me know in the comments and I’ll let you know why, even if the reason is, “Uh… I forgot about that one.”

Here we go.

(EDIT 11/21/16: I’ve added the Wii brand series, the Remix series, Dillon’s Rolling WesternMario vs. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario, and the Pokemon spin-off games. I’ve upgraded and edited the commentary on the Wario brand of games, and I’ve added an extra line of commentary on Brain Age.)

Grade A: The Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart, Pokemon, (+) Splatoon, Super Mario, Super Smash Bros.

Zelda and Mario have been here since the beginning, of course, and the Pokemon franchise only strengthened its legendary status with this summer’s smash hit Pokemon Go! Meanwhile, Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, two franchises that seemed ridiculous when initially birthed, have become stalwart brands, two of the biggest releases of any Nintendo console’s life cycle. The real surprise might be Splatoon‘s placement up this high in the food chain after only one release under the franchise banner. It was a legitimate phenomenon, though, particularly in Japan, and the place of prominence given to it in the Switch reveal trailer shows how much faith Nintendo has in this new IP. We’ll see in the coming year if Splatoon can stay hot, but all signs point to the ink-based shooter franchise quickly earning evergreen Grade A status.

Grade B: (+) Animal Crossing, Donkey Kong, (+) Fire Emblem, Kirby, (-) Mario & Luigi, (-) Paper Mario, Yoshi

Nintendo does love themselves some Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem, two franchises that would have been Grade B on merit alone but receive the upwardly mobile B+ moniker because of their place in Nintendo’s mobile gaming strategy. Donkey KongKirby, and Yoshi are stalwarts of the B*Team, of course, and Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi usually are… but recent entries for both franchises have failed to live up to the standards set by earlier generation predecessors, and one or two more “just okay” showings could easily knock either property down a grade. Nintendo can’t well afford that, truthfully, because further down the list some Grade B regulars have seen their stock plummet thanks to dismal recent outings.

Grade C: (+) Luigi’s Mansion, (-) Pikmin, Tomodachi Life, Pokemon spin-offs.

It’s here in the third tier where Nintendo needs to be careful. Too many Grade C averages have dropped recently, leaving the company woefully unfortified after they run out of A and B franchise games to deliver. I’m even being overly generous here, calling Tomodachi Life a “franchise” largely because it’s an extension of the Mii brand (and arguably part of the same “series” as Miitomo, Nintendo’s social networking mobile app.) Luigi’s Mansion has some surprising juice after a very well-received 3DS outing, and as for Pikmin… well, Nintendo really wants us all to love Pikmin as much as they love Pikmin, but if series sales are any indication it doesn’t seem like we do. The next Pikmin will eschew the overhead RTS elements for a more action-oriented 2D perspective. If Pikmin: The Side Scroller doesn’t hit the mark, it’s easy to see that series spiraling into a freefall. Finally, the Pokemon spin-off titles have the benefit of the Pokemon brand going for them, but are often less than impressive. For every Pokemon Snap or Pokken Tournament, there are about ten Pokemon Mystery Dungeons.

Grade D: Kid Icarus, (-) Mario Party, (+) Mario Sports, Mario vs. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario(-) Metroid, Punch-Out!!, PicrossPushmo, Puzzle LeagueRhythm Heaven, Wario brand games, (-) Xenoblade Chronicles

Given Kid Icarus‘ pedigree (early NES pillar, cartoon immortalization, Smash-brawler status) you might think there have been more than three games in the franchise, but you’d be wrong. The three “P”‘s of puzzle games (Picross, Pushmo, and Puzzle League) are easy to make and sell cheap. They’ll never carry a sales month but there’ll be more of them. While Mario Party: Star Rush was recently DOA (critically speaking), the upcoming Mario Sports Superstars looks like an early winner and could revitalize the closest thing Nintendo has to a sports brand. Punch-Out!! and Rhythm Heaven have the benefit of being fan favorites even though new games in each series are few and far between, and while high hopes were had for the Xenoblade Chronicles series developing into a legitimate RPG franchise (it still might) the Wii U’s Xenoblade Chronicles X just didn’t move the needle as much as it needed to. The Wario brand is a strange one: different titles in all different styles of gameplay, from platforming to mini-games to microgames. It’s a safe bet there’s another Wario game is in our future, but there’s no telling what sort of game it will be (and a good chance it’ll be for mobile devices.) Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a franchise that seems to multiply like lemmings, is prolific and steady but just sort of… there. Finally, we reach Metroid. Hoo-boy. There isn’t a more criminally mishandled franchise in Nintendo’s stable over the past few years than Metroid. A once-upon-a-time Grade A stalwart, Metroid would leap back up into at least Grade B with just one great new Prime or Super or Fusion or Zero Mission. But Samus is reeling from the back-to-back body blows of Other M and Federation Force, and though her fans are loyal one more stinker could kill the franchise for a good long while.

Grade E: Advance Wars, F-Zero, Mother, (-) Remix series, Nintendogs, Pilotwings, (-) Star Fox

The big news here is Star Fox. Star Fox Zero was a disaster in both sales and reception, and arguably the last great new Star Fox game came way back on the Nintendo 64. I’m betting we won’t be seeing Fox and friends for quite some time. Nintendogs and Pilotwings are two generally liked brands that could always be percolating, ready to hop up a grade with one solid new release, but the golden trio of Advance Wars, F-Zero, and Mother are so beloved, it seems impossible they’ll ever drop lower than Grade E no matter how long Nintendo waits to revisit their worlds. As for the Remix series, it really looked like that was going to become a longterm thing, but instead of following up the NES Remix games with the logical SNES Remix, Nintendo just sort of… stopped.

Grade F: Brain Age, Codename S.T.E.A.M., (-) Chibi-Robo, Custom Robo, Dillon’s Rolling WesternDr. Mario, Excite, Golden Sun, The Legendary Starfy, Sin & Punishment, (+) StarTropics, Wave Race, Wii series.

A tale of two games: at E3 2014, Nintendo announced two new IPs, Codename S.T.E.A.M. and Splatoon. While Splatoon looks like a major pillar of the company’s strategy going forward, we’ve probably already seen the epic conclusion of the Codename S.T.E.A.M. “franchise”. Not even an exclusive amiibo pack-in could save the last (take that as you will) Chibi-Robo game. There is zero buzz coming from either Nintendo or their fans for the Brain Age, Custom Robo, Dillon’s Rolling Western, ExciteGolden Sun, Legendary Starfy, or Sin & Punishment franchises (although Brain Age in particular seems like a natural to make the jump to mobile), which is not necessarily the case with Dr. Mario (which will always be a candidate for revival cuz Mario), Wave Race (beloved by fans and rumored to be making its way to the Switch), and StarTropics (which didn’t need to be included on the NES Classic, but was!) Finally, there’s the conundrum of the Wii series of games: Wii Sports is an all-time classic title that could return conceivably as Switch Sports, but Nintendo is done with the Wii brand, including the Wii branded games. I don’t think we’ll see a new Wii Play or Wii Fit anytime soon.

That’s it. That’s my rundown. My takeaway here comes out of that third tier, Grade C. If Nintendo can’t rebuild that tier of games to a place of consistently quality software and get brands like Mario Party, Kid Icarus, or Punch-Out!! up there, they are going to have to work long and hard to re-kindle their third-party relationships and hope to fill out the Grade C stable of Switch games from outside developers. I mean, it would be nice if everything they developed could be graded “A”, but the reality is this: not every game can be The Legend of Zelda. (Even though Metroid pretty much should be.)

The Zelda of Legend

Many ages ago (30 years) in a faraway kingdom (Japan) an imaginative young lad (Shigeru Miyamoto) dreamed of taking the world on a magnificent adventure full of swashbuckling, monsters, and discovery. Through a lot of hard work and surely a little luck, his dream came true (virtually speaking) and was given a name: The Legend of Zelda.

When the original Zelda was released in 1986 for the NES and the Famicom, it was a game inspired by (as the common story goes) Miyamoto-san’s childhood in rural Japan and the hours he spent exploring the countryside. With The Legend of Zelda, he hoped to recreate that sense of directionless exploration by creating a game in which one could get lost in the wilderness of Hyrule (the franchise’s ever-evolving magical kingdom) and through trial and error eventually work out where to go next and how to get there. This concept, the “open world”, was uncommon in game design of the 1980’s, when most games were structured as linear obstacle courses with clear starting and ending points.

The extent to which The Legend of Zelda could truly encompass a vast world of endless exploration was limited by the technological limitations of 1986. Its “go anywhere, do anything” world was actually limited to a series of individual screens that made up an 8×16 rectangular grid, a size that in retrospect sounds far smaller than the game ever felt (a credit to its design.) For its day, Zelda was massive. But as a true “lost in the wild” experience… well, it did the best that it could.

The Legend of Zelda gave birth to one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. On any new Nintendo console, the mainline Zelda entry is among the most anticipated games. The immediate predecessor to The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, started a trend that would end up as a franchise signature: in the parlance of gamers, progressing through Zelda games became a march forward through a series of item gates. An item gate, for those who may not know, is a point in a game’s design that the player can not progress past without first acquiring a particular in-game item. Over the years, the in-game Zelda landscapes have grown cluttered with obstacles: boulders, plants, sheer cliffs, etc. These obstacles are most often overcome by an item found in one of the game’s dungeons (bombs, a bow and arrow, a grappling hook… whatever) and once the obstacle is bypassed the path to another dungeon lies open. Anyone who tries to explore beyond that next dungeon is blocked off by ANOTHER obstacle for which ANOTHER item is required. It’s a way to guide the player’s experience, and a design trick used to make game worlds that are narrow in design seem wide open.

There have been Zelda games that at least partially bucked this system of controlled player progression. There was the original, of course, where a only few of the first eight dungeons had an item gate and the final ninth dungeon required first that you defeat every other dungeon. You could, however, tackle several of the harder dungeons as soon as the game began, and good luck to you if you the first thing you do in The Legend of Zelda is tackle the sixth dungeon: the Dragon. The next partially open-world Zelda experience didn’t come until years later in The Wind Waker for the GameCube, where every section of the game’s vast ocean has an island, and as soon as the player finds a sailboat they’re free to explore any island they choose. The islands, though, often possess their own item gates, and progression through the game’s goals is strictly linear. A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS was perhaps the biggest departure from the item-gated nature of the series since the original Zelda, as every item in the game can be rented from a store early on, and the game’s dungeons can be tackled in any order. Each dungeon, though, still requires a particular item to defeat it, and signposts outside of the dungeon direct the player towards the necessary item.

More often that not, though, Zelda games hew closely to the item gate method of game design. The most recent title in the 3D Zelda series was Skyward Sword, a game where series protagonist Link spends much of his time soaring through the sky on the back of a giant bird. It’s ironic, then, that a game about flight may be the most linear of Zelda titles. Skyward Sword features no Overworld map as most Zelda games do, and instead is a rigidly structured progression through the areas immediately outside of dungeons and then the dungeons themselves.

So it was that promise of the original The Legend of Zelda went for decades unfulfilled: the goal of creating a true go-anywhere-do-anything adventure game had been usurped by a strict adherence to guiding a player’s progression through a game’s primary quest.

This adherence, it seems, has now been thrown out the window.

The Legend of Zelda for Wii U was first announced over two years ago, presented to the public during the annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) convention by series producer Eiji Aonuma as the first Zelda in a long time that was designed to directly reflect the nature of the original game. It wasn’t clear just how much of the original Zelda‘s spirit would make up this new game’s DNA until this past week, when The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild received its full E3 coming out party. Gamers were treated to a glimpse of a massive open 3D world with biomes and if-you-can-see-it-you-can-reach-it landmarks off on the horizon. It is the first Zelda game since who-knows-how-long, probably since the original, where the player turns on the game, guides Link out of the cave he wakes up in after Rip Van Winkling it for 100 years, chooses a direction, and just… goes.

The path is undefined. The world is untamed. The frontier is unending. It is (or at least it has been presented as) a game that truly is about exploring a vast world, getting lost, and finding your own way. As Link, the player forages for food, finds clothing to survive in random weather, and stumbles across enemy encampments, all while exploring a Hyrule that has befallen some tragedy and is now a landscape peppered with ruins, a desolate place that seems as lost as the player is meant to become. It is a watercolor world of limitless possibilities devoid of visible boundaries. It has taken 30 years, but finally the game that Miyamoto-san dreamed of creating in the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System is on the cusp of arriving.

We have heard for years the story of Zelda‘s inspiration, and the tale of a young Miyamoto-san getting lost in the Japanese wilderness is, if you will, the legend of Zelda. Now, after three decades, the promise made by the original Legend of Zelda of a vast open wilderness where anything can happen anywhere and at any time… finally, that promise is on the cusp of being realized.

Finally, the legend has come true.

 

Legends of Cannon Fodder: Phanto

“Legends of Cannon Fodder” is an ongoing series of articles that sing the praises of non-boss enemies (no mini-bosses, either!) who are nevertheless memorable foes that provide engaging conflicts. Which makes them the opposite of cannon fodder, I suppose… but I like the name so I’m sticking with it.

It is dark in the pharaoh’s tomb. You step into the secret chamber hidden beneath a clay pot and find what you are looking for: a key. You reach towards the key, but hesitate. Hanging about the pot are three red-and-white masks, featureless save a sinister, demonic smile. You shake your head: your imagination is simply getting the better of you. But when you bend over and pick up the key, the chamber shakes. One of the masks begins to vibrate, and then… it looks at you. With a cackle, it dive-bombs towards you; you just barely manage to duck in time. The race is on. Your blood pumping, you leap out of the jar and scurry once more through the depths of the tomb, the grinning monster on your heels, screaming towards you again and again from all directions as you search frantically for the locked door that will take the key and end this nightmare…

That is what we call a dramatization, but I’mma be honest with you: that’s what it felt like every time 11 year-old me had to pick up a key in Super Mario Bros. 2. I’ve written about SMB2 before, and it is very possibly the game I have spent the most total hours playing over the course of my life. Over all of those hours, nothing was so stressful as finding a locked door, searching for and picking up the key to that door, and then running back to the door while dodging the red and white hellspawn the SMB2 instruction manual called Phanto.

Gaming obstacles, by design, are conquerable. Video games are supposed to feed the gratification centers in our brains with little *Pings!* each time we get past that which stands between we, the gamer, and our goal: save the princess, save the kingdom, destroy the giant bubble-spewing toad man… whatever. A game’s protagonist goes through a miniature dramatic arc with each goomba they stomp or moblin they skewer: conflict, resolution, repeat; conflict, resolution, repeat; etc., etc.

Phanto, though, is different. He is the direct descendent of Evil Otto, the “Time’s UP!” smiley face of doom that came hunting for a taking-too-long-to-destroy-all-the-robots Player One in the Atari-age classic Berzerk! Like Otto, Phanto’s smile is the harbinger of unstoppable doom. If most video game enemies are antagonists to be conquered, Phanto is one to be endured and escaped. He’s not Darth Vader, he’s the twister from Twister (only with a better backstory.)

I had my Phanto avoidance skills down to an art. I don’t know if I was an overly anxious kid or what, but I didn’t want to see him, ever. He only showed up when you were actually carrying they key, so I, as I’m sure everyone else did, repeatedly picked up the key and threw the key, picked up the key and threw the key, pick up, throw, pick up, throw… all the way to the locked door, a move which keeps Phanto zipping on-screen and quickly off-screen, on-screen and off-screen, a poorly rehearsed actor who keeps jumping his cue. Forget the bomb-throwing mouse or the cross dressing bird. Phanto was my nemesis, my Sub-Con nightmare.*

But can you blame me? Trying to figure out which of the masks hanging around the key is going to come to life, the shaking awakening, the swooping, the face stuck halfway between clown and demon… I haven’t played Super Mario Bros. 2 in years, but the next time I do, I can guarantee I’ll be right back to my Phanto dodging ways.

And loving every second of it.

* That’s a pun, cuz Super Mario Bros. 2 was all a dream. Remember? Remember? And Sub-Con was the name of the dream world you were saving. Remember? I’ve ruined it.

Final Fantasy Disease: A Modern-Day Plague

In a recent interview with 4Gamer, Hajime Tabata, director of the upcoming Final Fantasy XV for PlayStation 4, introduced the concept of what he refers to as “Final Fantasy disease.” He says, “It refers to people… who can’t imagine anything other than their own view of Final Fantasy.”

He was, largely, talking to those within Square-Enix, the company that produces the (Final Fantasy series) who can’t imagine a Final Fantasy game that isn’t what they personally imagine a Final Fantasy game should be. It’s a term, though, that can be readily applied to series fans, as well. (It can be applied to fans of anything, really, but let’s stick to Final Fantasy.) And reading Tabata-san’s definition of the disease, it’s easy for me to self-diagnosis: I have it.

Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II and III (U.S. numbering), Final Fantasy Adventure, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, The Final Fantasy Legend… I was a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series on the NES, Game Boy, and SNES, back when I actually had the time and patience to sink into an epic RPG. What I imagine Final Fantasy to be (super-deformed sword and sorcery characters performing specific skills within a job system, in a story that usually has something to do with crystals and lets you ride around on the ostrich-chickens called chocobos and an airship) has led me to often refer to Final Fantasy IX, considered a series throwback game at the time of its release for the original PlayStation, as the last TRUE Final Fantasy game… at least until the Bravely Default series began on the 3DS.

Reading Tabata-san’s interview and quotes, though, I may have to rethink my stance: series do have to modernize, after all, and the original Final Fantasy formula probably isn’t in-depth enough to appeal to today’s RPG player. So, with no preparation of any sort, I’m going to watch some YouTube videos of gameplay from the Final Fantasy series proper beyond IX and decide, based on just that footage and without playing any of the games at all for even a little bit, if each of these games truly IS a true Final Fantasy game, using a True Final Fantasy Rating scale of 1-5, where 5 is “Super True and 1 is “What the FF is this?”

I might also read some Wikipedia entries.

Final Fantasy X – An extreme sports star is summoned to the future to throw basketballs at monsters. Experience points are replace by something called “sphere grids”, there’s no world map or job system, and the game progresses in a largely linear fashion. Still, there’s chocobos and airships and summons, a menu-based swords-and-sorcery combat system, not to mention awkwardly localized dialogue. True Final Fantasy rating: 4

Final Fantasy XI – An MMORPG that focuses more on individual missions than an overarching story. Players all prep themselves with dozens of spells before running up to and hacking at a monster en-masse, creating a disorganized scrum of chaos where it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on. Sure, it includes chocobos, airships, and has a job system, but why Final Fantasy decided to become World of Warcraft is anyone’s guess. True Final Fantasy Rating: 2

Final Fantasy XII – A solo-player adventure with a very Final Fantasy story about warring kingdoms and magic-driven technology and the magical element known as magicite and airships. Gone is the franchise’s turn-based battle system, replaced by a faster in-real-time, right-in-the-overworld, AI-controls-whoever-you’re-not system… a necessity of series modernization, I suppose, but not the Final Fantasy I know and love, and which also means that the battle music and the victory anthem are no more. No job system, but you can obtain licenses to perform certain tasks. If this were a Zelda game, a fishing license would no doubt be among the most coveted. True Final Fantasy Rating: 3

Final Fantasy XIII Final Fantasy plots generally draw from one of two story templates: Global Nuclear War or Tale of Two Cities; Final Fantasy XIII‘s story draws from the latter. Enemies again appear on the world map and can be avoided, but contact with them sends you to a battle screen where an Active Time Battle plays out. Eidolons are summoned and the player draws skills from a limited version of the classic job system. The leveling up is done through some form of crystal management, and crystals are always a good look for Final Fantasy. True Final Fantasy Rating: 4

Final Fantasy XIV – Did the world really need the Final Fantasy version of EverQuest? True Final Fantasy Rating: 1

I’m not going to include Final Fantasy XV on the list as it has yet to be released, but gameplay details are already plentiful and it seems a lot more like Final Fantasy XII than it does Final Fantasy XIII. Only with a car.

So, all right, Final Fantasy IX WASN’T the last “true” Final Fantasy game. X and XIII also fit the bill, or at least come close. Although, honestly? If you want to play the last TRUE true Final Fantasy, you’re going to have to choose between Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III (U.S. numbering).

Final Fantasy disease: there is no cure.

 

Fantasy Smash Bros.

In fantasy sports, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry, couch potatoes divvy up the best players across a particular pro league, distributing them across a make-believe league of (usually) 8 to 12 teams, creating a league full of nothing but all-stars and almost all-stars, for the most part.

What if we applied that structure to Smash Bros.?

Consider this, if you will, an addendum or appendix to the previous post, an exercise in wish fulfillment. Taking away licensing rights and copyright protection and all that jazz, if a games company were able to publish a mascot brawler featuring only the 20 greatest characters across all of video game history, what would that roster look like

Perhaps something like this:

(Editor’s Note: Before we begin, we should explain that in this space a great gaming character is one that is A. in a great game, B. easily recognizable, and C. has personality. Personality goes a long way.)

  1. Mario – Obviously.
  2. Pac-Man – Obviously.
  3. Donkey Kong – Some may dispute his placement at 3rd. Ignore the number, though; wherever he lands, he makes the list.
  4. Pikachu – The face of a global phenomenon.
  5. Lara Croft – Her arrival announced to the world that gaming had grown up… or that it had at least hit puberty.
  6. Red – The original Angry Bird heralded in the transition of mobile into a legitimate gaming platform. (Yes, it is.)
  7. Steve – One hundred million Minecraft players can’t all be wrong.
  8. Sonic the Hedgehog – The only remaining remnant of Sega’s once mighty empire.
  9. Link – The Legend of Zelda‘s silent hero.
  10. Master Chief – Halo‘s silent hero.
  11. Scorpion – Get over here!
  12. Ryu – Hadoken!
  13. Ash Ketchum – There’s 100 other Pokemon that could be listed; instead, here’s the guy who caught them all.
  14. Cloud Strife – Final Fantasy VII‘s silent hero.
  15. Solid Snake – The template for any worthwhile Metal Gear protagonist, clone or not, is Solid Snake.
  16. Luigi – Yes, he rides in on his brother’s coattails. But what impressive coattails they are.
  17. Samus Aran – She should probably be higher than this.
  18. Q-Bert – @!#?@!
  19. Gordon Freeman – Half-Life‘s silent hero.
  20. Spyro the Dragon – His namesake game made him famous; Skylanders made him infamous.

The assumption, of course, is that you disagree.