Nintendo 3DS

Making the Grade: 9/13/17 Nintendo Direct Edition

It seems as though E3 just happened, but the next major Nintendo Direct in the Switch era was broadcast two days ago. Lots of the big surprises coming out of this Direct actually involved 3rd party games (I’m looking in your direction, Doom and Wolfenstein); a lot of the coverage dedicated to Nintendo IPs was expanding on information we already knew, and as a lot of this direct focused on 2017 games I think it’s best to wait and pass judgement on what franchises may and may not appear in 2018 and beyond. Still, a few pieces of information came out about Nintendo IPs that could move the needle on our power rankings in one direction or the other, so let’s take a glance.

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.

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

No moves here into or out of Tier A. I write this on the day a new Metroid game debuts, while Super Mario Odyssey featured heavily in this direct and looks poised to actually give Breath of the Wild a run for its Game of the Year money. Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon were featured in the Direct, as well as Fire Emblem Warriors and the upcoming Zelda amiibo. No mention of Mario Kart or Smash; the former wasn’t anticipated and the latter, now matter how badly people are disappointed whenever it’s left out of a Direct, isn’t about to fall out of Tier A anytime soon.

Tier B: Animal CrossingDonkey KongKirbyMario & Luigi(+) Mario spin-offsPaper Mario, XenobladeYoshi, Pikmin

Our first bump of the Direct comes here with the Mario spin-off games moving up to Tier B. Mario Party: The Top 100 for the 3DS was announced, and it sounds like the best idea for a Mario Party they’ve had for a very long time: the top 100 games from all 10 console Mario Party games in one collection. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, featured in the Direct, looks amazing, but it’s too deep of an RPG (and too limited in its overall appeal) to crack Tier A, I think. The Mario & Luigi series also got a mention in the form of the upcoming remake/enhancement, Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, and Kirby, in true Kirby fashion, has two games coming: Kirby Star Allies on the Switch, and Kirby Battle Royale on 3DS. The rest of Tier B did not appear, yet remain comfortably where they are.

Tier C: ARMS, Mii games, Pokemon spin-offs.

ARMS DLC got a brief mention in the Direct, but I’m overall not sure how I feel about this IP as a franchise moving forward. The conventional wisdom is, and I agree with this, that ARMS‘ early success (and it IS a very fun game) was undercut by Splatoon 2 coming out just weeks afterwards. I agree: I like ARMS, but I LOVE Splatoon, and I haven’t touched ARMS since Splatoon 2 and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle came out. So ARMS remains in Tier C, for now. Let’s see if Spring Man ends up in Smash 5, or if another ARMS title hits 3DS or something. We’ll see.

Grade D: (-) BoxBoy!Kid Icarus,  Luigi’s Mansion(+) Punch-Out!!Wario brand games, Star Fox

Two movers here. After debuting on the last version of the list (because I forgot to add it earlier, #SheepishGrin) BoxBoy! immediately drops a tier. I take Hal Laboratories seriously when they say the BoxBoy! saga finished with the third game in the trilogy. Punch-Out!! gets a weird bump here; the original arcade version of Punch-Out!! made a cameo in the Direct, as an assumed part of the new Arcade Archives coming to Switch, and as perhaps the most intriguing title to be teased as included in that collection. Punch-Out!! is such a tricky brand to grade. An evergreen IP with only three home console games to its credit, the best of which was the original, released over 30 years ago and starring a real-life boxer as the game’s end boss in a license that no longer exists and an association Nintendo no longer wishes to make. (Mike Tyson, if you are unaware, has been in and out of jail on a rape/sexual assault conviction since he appeared in 8-bit form on the NES.) Punch-Out!!, though, is still a fairly beloved brand, and any mention of it in a Direct is sure to garner even a little bit of buzz.

Grade E: Advance Wars, F-ZeroMotherPushmo, Puzzle League, Rhythm HeavenRemix series, NintenDogs, Pilotwings 

Just as with Metroid at E3, if Mother or F-Zero or Advance Wars ever show up in a Direct, they’ll get an instant tier upgrade to C or B. This was not the Direct where that happened, though, so loyal fans of those franchises will keep waiting.

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

Maybe next time, guys. But probably not.

Advertisements

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.

Majora-ly Conflicted

Do you like fetch quests, backtracking, and rehashed resources? If so, have I got the Zelda game for you!

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the 6th installment in the Zelda series, is well-regarded as one of the many high points in the franchise’s history, appearing on many Top 10 and Top 5 Zelda lists, earning praise for its dark, apocalyptic story and spins on the formula established in Ocarina of Time.

I recently returned to Majora’s Mask for the first time since its initial release for the Nintendo 64 back in 2000. I finally played through the remade Majora’s Mask 3D for the Nintendo 3DS, and my experience left me of two minds. Truth told, my memory of playing Majora’s Mask was fuzzy, nowhere near as prevalent as my memory of the landmark Ocarina of Time. And while Majora’s Mask was a technological step up from Ocarina (back in the day it required the N64’s RAM expansion pack due to updates to the Ocarina engine) and the game played with some very advanced themes and complex world design, Majora’s Mask is nevertheless a fundamentally flawed game… though one peppered with greatness. Let’s ping-pong back and forth between the bad and the good, shall we?

The Bad: A Three Day Cycle

The central design element of Majora’s Mask is its three-day cycle. The game takes place in the land of Termina, where three days after Link’s mysterious arrival an extinction-level event is going to occur; namely, the land’s ghastly, grinning moon is being pulled from orbit by the Majora’s Mask-wearing Skull Kid (the weird guy in the woods in Ocarina of Time who challenged Link to a flute-off). At the end of the first three days of the game, Link confronts Skull Kid only to find he’s not powerful enough to defeat him yet. So, using his Ocarina of Time, Link turns the clock back three days, returning to the moment he arrived in Termina and giving himself another three day window in which to figure out how to defeat Skull Kid.

The three day cycle is well-implemented, and it’s initially fun to watch Termina’s inhabitants move through their final three days exactly the same each and every time you travel back to Day One. Although the trip back resets the world, Link has many markers that stay consistent: he loses all of his exhaustible items in his inventory but the rest remain, as well as all of the hearts he’s acquired and the various masks he’s obtained (more on them in a bit). Still, the world resetting leads to unavoidable repetition. You will find yourself tackling the game’s four dungeons more than once, and if you don’t clear a dungeon within the constraints of the three day cycle? Sorry, you have to start all over; hope you like finding keys and fighting mini-bosses again. Not only that, but defeating the various dungeon bosses results in environmental changes in the overworld that are necessary in order to clear many of the game’s multitude of side quests, and you’ll find yourself trekking back to the swamp dungeon or mountain dungeon more than once after clearing them in order to re-battle the boss so you can re-decontaminate the swamp or bring about spring, again. Thankfully…

The Good: Boss Battles

Majora’s Mask has some of the best boss battles in the entire franchise, and the remake for the Nintendo 3DS only improves upon them via both mechanical and aesthetic upgrades. Each of the four dungeon bosses now share a graphical commonality that connects them in the game’s narrative: do enough damage to them and you will expose a giant Eye of Majora which must be defeated in order to finish the job. Each fight makes use of one of the transformative masks Link acquires through the game, masks that turn him into a wooden Deku Scrub, a rock-eating Goron, a speed swimming Zora, and a stomping giant. Each form has their own unique fighting style and their respective bosses have been designed to be susceptible to the move-set of the mask, resulting in end-of-dungeon clashes that demand strategies unique from the standard Zelda combat system of guard, hack, arrow, slash. The mechanical bull at the end of the second dungeon, Goht, is a Top 5 Zelda boss battle, requiring you to roll at high speed alongside him as a Goron and cannonball into him off of ramps. The dungeon bosses are so great, it’s a shame that…

The Bad: The Final Boss

… the final battle against the cursed Majora’s Mask itself is so anti-climactic.

To clarify: the battle is only anti-climactic if you’ve found every mask in the game and exchanged them for the Fierce Deity mask, a mask that turns Link into a literal god, a towering, tattooed superhero who can shoot lasers from his sword. I’ve never actually fought Majora’s Mask as plain old Link, so perhaps Link vs. Majora’s Mask is a battle worthy of a Zelda endgame. But as the Fierce Deity? The fight is over in just several button-spamming seconds. And most players had that Fierce Deity mask, because one of the best parts of the game was…

The Good: The Masks

… collecting all of the masks. In a franchise where far too many treasure chests are chock full of nearly useless rupees and Heart Container pieces, Majora’s Mask features the best collectibles in all of Zelda: 24 unique masks, each of which Link can wear, and each of which carry their own unique ability or effect. Some just trigger new branches of dialogue trees, but aside from the fully transformative Deku, Goron, and Zora disguises, a handful of the masks carry with them such near-game breaking uses as: making Link invisible to enemies, acting as a detector and magnet for the collectible Stray Fairies in each dungeon, or doubling Link’s running speed. Yes, the speed-granting Bunny Hood meant most players fought their way through Majora’s Mask with a hero who almost always wore cute bunny ears, but those bunny ears were vitally important, because…

The Bad: Fetch Quests

… you’ll find yourself running all over and around Termina, as a good 50% of Majora’s gameplay is focused on the side quests and errands Link runs for the people of Termina. And, look: if you’re someone who loves the part of Zelda games where you interact with all the weirdo Hylians, bully for you. You’re gonna love this game. That just happens to be my LEAST favorite part of the franchise, and I admittedly found those sections of Majora’s Mask to be in-Termina-ble. (Heh-heh.) Fortunately, the character interactions outside of the combat portion of Majora’s Mask are strengthened by…

The Good: The Story

… the game’s cataclysmic tale of loss and acceptance. The entire game works as a metaphor for death and the grief process. It’s almost Braid-like (pre-Braid), interacting with the citizenry of a world on the brink of destruction. Some of the strongest atmosphere in the Zelda franchise is built into the story of Majora’s Mask: the pastoral pleasantness of Termina on Day One turns dreary with Day Two’s rains and then positively foreboding as the sky turns blood red and the horror-movie grimace of the moon looms down on Day Three. Even the music of Termina’s capital, Clocktown, changes over the course of the three days from chippy and busy to atonal and frenetic. Same tune, different urgency. Hey, the apocalypse makes for some good fiction; always has, always will. Unfortunately…

The Bad: The Story

… this is not Link’s story. He is a stranger in a strange land, an observer as much as anything else to Termina’s tale, and he is in a constant loop of solving other people’s problems. Storytelling 101: make sure your audience is invested in the journey of the hero. In Majora’s Mask, though, Link really has no real personal journey or story arc. He only wants to get back to Hyrule so he can continue searching for his lost fairy, Navi, and the only way he can do that is by jostling awake the possessed Skull Kid… and even THAT storyline is barely worth engaging with. But: if the story isn’t about the hero and is instead about the world around him, then at least…

The Good: The World

… the world is a fun place to explore. Termina is more compact than Ocarina‘s Hyrule, but it’s teeming with life. The enemies in Termina Field and its surrounding provinces are more varied than in Ocarina‘s Hyrule Field, and there are separate, populated enclaves of Gorons, Zoras, Dekus, and the undead that are well-conceived and well-written. Termina is, thankfully, an interesting place to visit. Unfortunately…

The Bad: Rehashed Game Elements

… if you’ve played Ocarina of Time (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?) you may feel as though you’ve been there before. Majora’s Mask was quick-developed in a very un-Nintendo style. It served as an experiment by the Big N to see if they could turn out new games in their favorite franchises in short order, using elements designed for earlier games. So the citizenry of Termina look suspiciously (read: exactly) like the citizenry or Hyrule, for the most part, and the same could be said of many of the enemies you find in Termina’s underworld and overworld alike. Still, the dungeon designs are all-new and mostly great, and tweaks to the gameplay, namely the mask transformations and time travel, go a long way to differentiate Majora’s from Ocarina, graphical similarities aside. Which means, as you’d expect…

The Good: It’s Still Zelda

Majora’s Mask is still a more than representative entry into maybe the most storied franchise in gaming history. There is too much good in Majora’s for even its most hardened critic (me, likely) to call it a bad game; a game that spins-off lots of what worked in the all-time classic Ocarina of Time must be doing something right, after all. So even though I found myself going back and forth between annoyed and elated as I played through Majora’s Mask for the second (and probably last) time in my life, if you’ve never played it before you probably should.

After all, it’s still The Legend of Zelda.