Metroid

Making the Grade: E3 2017 Edition

This is the third installation of my “Making the Grade” series, a temperature-check all of Nintendo’s major franchises and where they stand in the overall scheme of existence. The idea was always that I’d go back and update this list whenever there was some sort of major shift or big event… and as E3 2017 has just wrapped up, that certainly qualifies.

A couple of things have moved around the list as a result of Nintendo’s E3 showing… with one big mover you can probably already predict. As I did last time, I’ve highlighted the franchises that have switched tiers, with a (+) for those that have been upgraded, and a (-) for the downgrades. As always, feel free to disagree.

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

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages… she’s back. Samus Aran, first lady of gaming, returned to the spotlight this E3 in a big way. The logo-reveal for Metroid Prime 4 alone would have bumped Samus and her franchise up to grade “B”, but then, almost as an afterthought, Nintendo revealed a remastered version of Metroid II entitled Metroid: Samus Returns, coming this September for the 3DS. Samus and Metroid have retaken their rightful place amongst Nintendo’s elite franchises. No other movers into or out of the “A” grade, but some notes: if Super Mario and Pokemon could get higher than “A”, I’d put them there, and though there was still no mention of Smash Bros. for Switch, that’s a franchise that’s not going anywhere.

Grade B: Animal CrossingDonkey KongKirbyMario & LuigiPaper Mario, XenobladeYoshi, (+) Pikmin

I can’t recall if Hey, Pikmin! was announced pre or post Switch event, but as I look at the list today and note that in addition to Hey, Pikmin! Shigeru Miyamoto offhandedly mentioned that Pikmin 4 is in the works for Switch, the Pikmin bump to grade “B” seems appropriate. Reliable standbys Kirby and Yoshi both received new game announcements at E3, as did the 3DS Mario & Luigi series, which will get a remake/spin-off hybrid in Superstar Saga & Bowser’s Minions. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is still (Nintendo claims) going to make a Holiday 2017 debut, and Donkey Kong showed up in spirit in both the bizarrely fascinating Mario + Rabbids game being developed by Ubisoft and in Super Mario Odyssey as the namesake for the urban playground New Donk City.

Grade C: (+) ARMS(+) BoxBoy!(+) Mario spin-offs, Mii games, Pokemon spin-offs.

First off, I’m an idiot. I’ve never included BoxBoy! on this list. Developed by HAL Labs, the little Box-fellow even has his own amiibo. Granted, the BoxBoy! trilogy just ended, but since when did that stop Nintendo from milking a profitable franchise? Moving on: while Super Mario, Mario & Luigi, and Paper Mario are uniquely deep franchises of their own, the multitude of other Mario branded games Nintendo releases are harder to classify. I have, for the time being, combined Mario Party, Mario Sports (including Mario & Sonic at the Olympics), Mario v. Donkey Kong/Mini Mario, and Dr. Mario. For now, the newly minted (and buzzed about) Mario + Rabbids helps bump the Mario spin-offs up a tier. Pokken Tournament DX is ALMOST enough to push Pokemon spin-offs up to grade “B”, but the weight of all of those Mystery Dungeons still drags it down. I’m cheating a little with ARMS; one game does not a franchise make, but this one game is being received well enough to suggest ARMS is on its way to becoming a brand. Finally, I’ve re-branded Tomadachi Life and its ilk as Mii games; Mii’s themselves are in short supply these days, as Nintendo seems determined to move away from the Wii era. Still, Miitopia was recently revealed to be making its way west, so there’s still some life (and a lot of brand recognition) left in Nintendo’s cartoon avatars.

Grade D: Luigi’s MansionKid IcarusWario brand games, (+) Star Fox

Time heals all wounds. There’s been no game announced for Fox McCloud and crew, but to be fair, Star Fox is a franchise with a really solid cast of characters and enough of a fanbase to let it recover from the horribly received Star Fox Zero. Don’t expect Team Arwing to climb any higher than tier “D” without a new game, though. It’s that sort of name recognition that draws the line of demarcation between tiers “D” and “E”; the franchises in “D” haven’t received any more love than those in “E”, necessarily, but they star beloved characters that aren’t soon going to be forgotten.

Grade E: Advance Wars, (-) F-ZeroMother, (-) Punch-Out!!, (-) Pushmo, (-) Puzzle League, (-) Rhythm HeavenRemix series, NintenDogs, Pilotwings

I was bullish on F-Zero making an appearance at E3. I was wrong, and I’ve had to knock it down a tier as a result. Additionally, Puzzle League and Rhythm Heaven are on the fast train to nowhere; another six months to a year without a whisper and they’re both due to bottom out in tier “F”. Though a reliable space filler for awhile, it’s been 2 years, and if there’s never another Pushmo game will anybody even notice? Mother remains in grade “E” on the strength of its cult following alone; as a franchise that seems largely dead it should probably drop out to tier “F”. Most notably, Punch-Out!! receives a huge body blow in the growing popularity of ARMS, which could end up as a franchise replacement for the Punch-Out!! brand. If we see a new Punch-Out!! soon, expect it to be on 3DS, and as something other than the behind-the-boxer POV game we’re used to. That’s another hunch.

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

You could argue that I shouldn’t even bother publishing grade “F”. These franchises are the definition of dead in the water. Pun intended, Wave Race.

 

 

(Featured Image Source: http://shubwubtub.deviantart.com/art/Minimalist-Metroid-Screwattack-Wallpaper-542023002)

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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.)

The Metroid Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*All sales figures courtesy of VGChartz.com.