Kirby

Making the Grade: E3 2018 Edition

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

As always, I’ve highlighted the franchises that have switched tiers, with a (+) for those that have been upgraded, and a (-) for the downgrades. As always, feel free to disagree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Lull

Nintendo took January off.

No, of course they didn’t. Not really. January of 2018, though, was the first month of the Switch’s life that came and went without a major Nintendo-published game release. It was a deserved month off, to be sure; 2017 was as gangbusters a year as any Nintendo has ever had, as the Switch debuted to boffo sales numbers and the software cranked out on a monthly basis by Nintendo’s first party madmen and their collaborators resulted in critical hit after critical hit.

Repeating in 2018 the success of their 2017, or replicating that near-constant wave of major first-party games, is almost impossible to anticipate. Those are expectations they will most likely never be able to keep. To be sure, even after January, the first bit of 2018 holds few major stops on the Hype Train, at least not from Nintendo’s publishing stable. There are some old reliables coming the first few months of the year, and a bunch of ports, but it is almost impossible to define the coming period of the year, a traditionally slower portion of the year for game publishers, as anything but Nintendo pumping the brakes for a minute.

In February, Nintendo is publishing ports of Platinum Games’ Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 from Wii U over to the Switch. I thought they were done with Wii U ports after Pokken Tournament DX. I was very, very wrong. Not that I have a problem with this. The Switch is already about a billion times more popular than the Wii U ever was, so moving some of the underplayed killer Wii U apps, such as Bayonetta 2, over to Switch is a great idea.

Moving on to March, we have the first original first party Nintendo title of 2018, Kirby Star Allies, a multi-player focused Kirby adventure. Also in March (at least in Japan; presumably the worldwide release date will be around the same time) comes the second port of the year: Hyrule Warriors Definitive Edition. I put more hours into the first Hyrule Warriors than anything else on Wii U aside from Splatoon, and I never picked up the 3DS port of the game, so you can bet your buttons I’ll be diving back into this.

With April comes the launch of the highly-anticipated Nintendo Labo, the cardboard-construction-kit-meets-video-games product that literally nobody saw coming. While they may want to keep April clear for a full-fledged “Month of Labo“, also keep in mind: Mario Tennis Aces is scheduled for release in the first few months of 2018, and April might be a good landing spot for it.

In May, the third Wii U port so far announced for 2018 hits the Switch in the form of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the most recent installment of the notoriously difficult platforming series, and the Wii U game that I most regretted missing… so I’m very cool with this re-release, pun un-intentional.

Then along comes June, and with it, E3… and we have no set release dates or windows for any Nintendo-produced titles beyond this point. Obviously, Nintendo will release several more first-party titles in 2018; we know for a fact that Yoshi, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, and Metroid Prime 4 are all in development, even if we don’t know whether or not they’ll hit this year. (Yoshi almost certainly will, and I’m betting it comes with Labo integration. Write that down.)

On a personal note? Most of my favorite Nintendo franchises released installments in 2017: Zelda, Splatoon, Super Mario, Mario Kart, and Metroid. The other big bullet I’m waiting for is Smash Bros., which will get here soon enough, of course, whether as a port of the Wii U game, as a new fifth installment in the series, or as… something else. Beyond that, I’m eager to hear about a new 2D Super Mario game, also a near sure-thing, and a new Nintendo-developed 2D Zelda would be nice. Lots of the games coming from Nintendo, though, are from IPs I’m less invested in. Fire Emblem and Pokemon are franchises I’ve tried dozens of times to enjoy, to no avail. I’m lukewarm on Kirby and Yoshi, and Labo looks very neat but I doubt it’s something I’ll put a whole lot of time into. (It’s not really made for me, after all.)

This bothers me little, though. DK: Tropical Freeze and Hyrule Warriors DE will keep me busy, along with Dark Souls Remastered, Mega Man 11, and the Mega Man X Legacy Collection… and ALSO along with Skyrim, which I’m still elbows deep in, and any number of other backlogged titles I’ve yet to get to (Steamworld Dig 2, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Celeste, etc., etc.) not to mention Splatoon 2.

Still, there’s no denying it: after a breakneck 2017, Nintendo has taken their foot off of the gas a little bit to start 2018. If we’re being fair, we have to admit: if this is a lull, it is a well-earned one.

Cover Story (1 of 2)

Ah, the music of our youth. Does anything stoke the fires of nostalgia quite like the melodies that charmed and blessed our younger, carefree days? You know, like the theme from Super Mario Bros. and stuff.

If you’re like me, and if you’re reading this you probably are, the music of your youth was as much Zelda as Madonna, as much Star Fox as Starship, as much Earthbound as Nirvana (think about it.) So now, with access to unlimited music thanks to my brand-spanking new Spotify account, I’ve continued on with one of my longest-running musical obsessions: finding dope-ass cover tunes of my favorite Nintendo theme songs.

I’ve recently put together a new Spotify playlist, which is perhaps the single most boring thing anyone could ever tell another human being. I don’t care, though. It’s my blog and I’m going to write about it.

… it’s a playlist of essential Nintendo franchise themes arranged chronologically in the order of each individual series’ debut, each represented by as representative a cover track as I could find in Spotify’s archives.

So boring.

1.) Tina Guo, “Super Mario Bros.”, Game On –

Tina Guo is a Chinese-American cellist. Classically trained, internationally known, and currently signed to the SONY Classical label, she is one of the more traditional recording artists represented on this list… and she’s going to come back a couple of times, as the arrangements on her tracks, by composer and frequent Hans Zimmer arranger Steve Mazzaro, are second-to-none, to say nothing of Ms. Guo’s exquisite artistry with a bow in her hands. Koji Kondo’s legendary tracks for Super Mario Bros. are notoriously difficult to cover: they don’t really lend themselves to rock interpretation, nor to full orchestral accompaniment. While I’ve always felt the SMB music is best covered by jazz quartet, Ms. Guo’s medley finds a happy marriage between classical and rock, not surprising given her proficiency with the electric cello. The medley covers the original game’s “Ground Theme”, “Underground Theme”, and “Game Over” theme, with “Bob-Omb Battlefield” from Mario 64 thrown in for good measure. Many Super Mario medleys leave much to be desired. This one is easily one of the best ones out there.

2.) Tina Guo, “The Legend of Zelda”, Game On

It may seem sacrilege to include a Zelda representative track that ISN’T from Symphony of the Goddesses, but in looking for a single radio-length track that really encompasses the core of the franchise, Ms. Guo’s Zelda medley is, again, my preferred choice. Perfectly blending the classical and rock aesthetic, this track covers the Legend of Zelda “Main Theme”, the first game’s “Underworld Theme”, “Fairy Fountain”, and “Gerudo Desert”. Truthfully, I may have personally chosen “Dragon Roost Island” or “Ballad of the Goddess” instead of “Gerudo Desert” in orchestration, but “Gerudo” is a fantastic track and it’s tough to criticize its inclusion here.

3.) VomitroN, “Metroid: (1 of 2)”, NESessary Evil

This is where we start to tread into more familiar video game cover music territory: hard metal covers. VomitroN is, to quote, “an experimental heavy metal band hailing from Nebulon V, specializing in kicking faces and melting asses.” So, you know… they’re a metal band. Amongst their offerings are two CDs-worth of long-form video game cover tracks, orchestrations that capture each featured game’s entire sonic footprint in one or two fully-realized suites. My choice of “Metroid: (1 of 2)” as my Metroid representative on this playlist is controversial inasmuch as it includes covers of music ONLY from the original Metroid, and NOT anything from the acclaimed Super Metroid or Metroid Prime scores. That original game’s soundtrack, though, with its one action cue of “Brinstar” surrounded by discordant musical desolation, is what best captures the aural essence of the franchise’s identity, IMHO, and the best and most polished medley of tracks from Metroid are present in this first half of VomitroN’s Metroid suite.

4.) Nestalgica, “Punch Out!!: Match Theme”, Feed. Play. Sleep. Repeat.

One of the most prolific artists of the “video game cover tunes” genre, Nestalgica is legit just, like, one dude from Sweden… but he’s been actively covering Nintendo tracks since 2006. He’s a granddaddy of the art form and a must-listen Nintendo rock guitarist (in a world just chock full of Nintendo rock guitarists; was that sarcasm? Not even I can tell.) The Punch Out!! music, sparse though it is, is fantastic, and surprisingly not covered as often as one might think. Nestalgica’s arrangement touches all the essentials required in a cover of the Punch-Out!! fight music: the pre-match fanfare, the match music itself, the knock-down danger music, and the victory flourish. No training music, but hey… nothing’s perfect. (Of course he covered the training music in a separate track. Are you kidding? The man’s a legend.)

5.) Tina Guo, “Tetris”, Game On

Look: Nintendo at least PUBLISHED Tetris. Going through Nintendo’s musical history, I’d feel something was amiss if I omitted the game synonymous with the Game Boy… or at least, the game that WAS synonymous with the Game Boy until another soon-to-be-mentioned franchise began. This is a reimagining of the track referred to as “A-Type” in the game, which itself is actually an adaptation of the 19th century Russian folk song “Korobeiniki“, which tells the story of the love affair between a young peddler and a peasant girl. Ms. Guo’s reinterpretation of “Korobeinki” gives the tune, in its brief four minutes plus of running time, the narrative heft of the original story upon which it was based, turning the soundtrack to the greatest selling video game of all time into a symphonic movement that would feel at home as a cut from the landmark Russian symphony, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter & the Wolf.

6.) Kirby’s Dream Band, “Fever (From Dr. Mario)”, Singles

Hailing from San Diego, CA, Kirby’s Dream Band’s “About” section on all of their social media pages simply reads, “Pink Rock”. Unsurprisingly, they cover a lot of Kirby tracks. Surprisingly, they cover a lot of other games, too. “Fever” is a neat little bop with a dope bassline and electronic accents, and the Kirby’s Dream Band spin on it carries all that through while throwing a driving percussion and rock guitars into the mix. It is irrepressibly hummable.

7.) Mariachi Gallos de Mexico, “Fire Emblem”, Mi Lindo Son je Jalisco

I was all set to use a version of “Together We Ride” for the Fire Emblem entry, until I stumbled upon this. The Mariachi Serenaders of Mexico (my best translation attempt) have, for some reason, included on their eighth studio album of traditional Mexican mariachi music… this amazing cover of the main Fire Emblem theme, mariachi style, right down to the throaty brass and the delicate plucking of guitar strings. It is bizarre and random; not in that the fine people of Mexico can’t enjoy Fire Emblem as much as anyone else, but inasmuch as this is the ONLY video game track the Mariachi Gallos have covered over 50+ recorded songs, and the ONLY track listing in English on any of their 8 albums. Why is it here? Did someone lose a bet? Who cares? Mariachi music is magnificent, and so is this cover.

(You thought I was kidding?)

8.) Nestalgica, “Mute City”, … and Nostalgia For All

There are a lot of “Mute City” tracks floating around out there on the Internet, so for F-Zero‘s entry we turn to the tried-and-true guitar licks of Netsalgica. There’s nothing fancy going on here; “Mute City” as it appears on the Super Nintendo is a rock track done via midi file, anyway, so Nestalgica’s cover of it has only to bring this wooden boy to life. Mission accomplished.

9.) Rare Candy, “Kirby’s Dreamland – Sand Canyon 2, Green Greens”, Bomber Blue/Gallant Green

What I like best about this Kirby cover from Chicago-based rockers Rare Candy is the combination of whimsy and adrenaline. Whimsy is in no short supply in the Kirby franchise, and what Rare Candy has done here is laid down a no-nonsense rock bedrock for the “Green Greens” melody line, itself hammered out on baby piano, to bounce along to. The resulting concoction is frenetically sweet and as cute as a tornado, as good a musical metaphor for Kirby himself as you’ll ever find.

10.) The OneUps, “Title Screen” (Mario Paint)”, Volume 2

The Beatles of the video game cover genre, the OneUps have been at this for a long time; since 2002, to be precise. Their discography goes 7 studio albums deep, and perusing the group’s musical evolution is well worth the time and effort for any gaming music aficionado. I know that Mario Paint isn’t really a FRANCHISE, per se, but the sparse little ditty from the game’s title screen is one that has stuck with me for years, and it’s no surprise that the one cover of it worth listening to comes from the OneUps, a band with an eclectic repertoire that includes a cover of the Mii Channel music, a sax-centric swing on “Koopa Beach” from Mario Kart, and a Super Mario Bros. 2 gangsta rap. If you’re interested in taking a sharp left turn and veering away from traditional gaming covers, the OneUps are your band.

11.) Joshua Morse, “ROYGBIV”, Arcade Attack!

It’s the music from Rainbow Road (don’t ask me which one; they all blend together to my ear.) Of COURSE it’s done up in electronica! Mr. Morse’s Arcade Attack! is published through GameChops, a publisher of EDM-inspired video game cover albums that seems the natural evolution of genre granddaddy site OCRemix. A composer and coder by day, Mr. Morse takes Mario Kart‘s most iconic track and places it pacifier-and-glow-stick-deep into a rave, right where it belongs. If ever music sounded like a multi-colored strobe light w/laser side FX, it’s this track right here.

And that is part one of our list… divided into two parts because, otherwise, it might be TL;DR for ME, and I wrote it. Tune in next time, when we’ll go on to franchises such as Pokemon, Star Fox, and… SPLATOON!

Yeah, like I was going to do a Nintendo music list and leave off Splatoon. You’re lucky I’m not adding Codename S.T.E.A.M.

(I checked. Nobody’s covered it. Sad face.)