Nintendo Switch

The Quilling Fields

Right off the bat, I’ll explain that “The Quilling Fields” is a pun. The Killing Fields is an award-winning 1984 film, and a quill is a repurposed goose feather used for centuries as an ink-delivery instrument; the pun is meant to suggest that Splatoon 2, an arena-based shooter in which ink replaces bullets, features a great deal of aggressive confrontation.

I’ll admit: it’s a bit of a reach.

The pun is also not the point. The point is that Splatoon 2 is here and the first Splatfest (Splatoon‘s monthly competition event) has happened, and now that we’ve really had time to dive in we can start figuring out just how different Splatoon 2 is from its predecessor.

On the surface… well, it isn’t any different. The basics of Turf War, Splatoon‘s bread-and-butter, remains the same: two teams of four inklings splat it out over the course of three minutes to try and cover a map with their team’s color of ink. There’s also a solo campaign that plays very much like the solo campaign of the first game, a Ranked Battle that consists of three different modes, all returning from the original game, and then a horde mode, branded as the game-within-a-game of Salmon Run. Aside from Salmon Run, Splatoon 2 seems a whole lot like Splatoon, right down to the recycled weapons and gear you can buy for your inkling. In fact, the only real differences lie in special weapons (all new, no returning) and the maps (two reworked from the first game, and six new.)

So you start playing Splatoon 2‘s Turf War, and it feels like Splatoon. And you play, and you play, and you play some more, until finally, you realize… something’s different. You can’t put your finger on it, maybe, but… this game feels faster, more aggressive, more VIOLENT than Splatoon. Yes… yes, you’re quite sure of it. The problem is, you can’t figure out WHY.

And then you look at the maps.

So let’s do some compare and contrast. From Splatoon:

Urchin Underpass is a series of winding passageways and fences joined in the middle by a ravine filled with trees.

Walleye Warehouse is a long, narrow stage with secret side passages tucked away to the left and the right for flanking.

Arowana Mall is similar to Walleye Warehouse: long and narrow with side-passages and elevated walkways.

Saltspray Rig is a series of narrow walkways and lifts running south of a wide, open area at the top of the map.

Blackbelly Skatepark is a series of peaks and valleys with two large, rounded ends on either side.

Now let’s look at the Splatoon 2 maps:

The Reef is a square.

Starfish MainStage is a square.

Inkblot Art Academy is two squares very slightly overlaid with each other.

Sturgeon Shipyard is a rectangle.

Humpback Pump Track is a rectangle with a slight bubbling in the middle.

Musselforge Fitness sucks. Also, it’s a square with two little outcroppings.

You see the difference? Whereas Splatoon‘s maps were all sorts of crazy shapes and sizes, the initial launch maps of Splatoon 2 are, more and less, big and open square-ish shapes. In most of Splatoon‘s maps you could run and swim and hide in nooks and crannies that were tucked away all over; the common Splatoon mantra of, “You could play a whole game and never see an enemy,” actually applied. Splatoon 2‘s maps, though, are designed to push opposing teams together. On Splatoon 2‘s maps (and this may change as more DLC maps become available) there are very few places to hide, especially as compared to Splatoon.

The result of this? Splatoon 2 is a game that (though the actual movement physics of the player characters may not be any faster than in its predecessor) is played in arenas that encourage conflict and clashes with the enemy. A lot of the “you can run and hide” element of the original Splatoon is gone from Splatoon 2. Smaller, more open maps also means that the tide of battle can change very quickly; just because your team is losing a Turf War battle in Splatoon 2 with 10 seconds left in the match doesn’t mean you’ll still be losing when time runs out.

Another thing the Splatoon 2 map designs avoid are bottlenecks. In the first game, Arowana Mall and Saltspray Rig had natural lock points that got swarmed with inklings, and whichever team threw the most combatants at the bottleneck tended to win the match. Walleye Warehouse was one of my favorite Splatoon maps, and upon reflection I realize it’s because the entire stage was a bottleneck; with the proper load-out and enough ink coverage it was relatively easy to hold the line in Walleye Warehouse all by yourself.

A lack of natural in-stage bottlenecks has resulted in a terrain-based nerf of one of Splatoon‘s most popular weapon classes: the Charger. While I presume the Japanese game is still loaded with deadeye sniping (unlike Splatoon, which ran on international servers; Splatoon 2 runs on regional ones), Charger use has steeply declined, at least in the North American game. And lest you think this is all just coincidental, that I’m reading into these early maps too much, I’d like to direct your attention to the weapon that has skyrocketed in popularity: the Aerospray.

The Aerospray was known in Splatoon as THE go-to painting gun. It featured an incredible rate of fire and ink coverage, but individual shots were weak and the gun’s range was roughly 33% shorter than that of the comparable N-Zap. I used the Aerospray more than 50% of the time in Splatoon, and decided to use a more aggressive weapon when I started up on Splatoon 2. Given my hours and hours and hours and hours of experience with the Aerospray, I was in a unique position to realize that opposing Splatoon 2 players were splatting me with it from well further out than the Aerospray should allow. That, I realized upon retreating to the test range, is because the Aerospray now has a reach equivalent to that of the N-Zap, and the Sploosh-o-Matic, a weapon that had practically zero range in Splatoon, now has range equivalent to that of the first game’s Aerospray, at nearly double the attack power. And while I’m nowhere near as well-versed in the Sloshers and the Ink Brushes as I am the Aerospray, I would swear that the range on those weapons has been boosted as well.

Between the increase in range for these guns and the maps purposely designed to promote team-vs.-team conflict, I think it’s pretty clear that the Splatoon 2 development group decided to push a greater emphasis on combat than was done in Splatoon. Splatoon, though, wasn’t exactly a conflict-free game, so if you bump that up the Splatoon 2 experience becomes that much faster, that much more frenzied, and (although inklings immediately respawn upon being splatted) that much more lethal.

Hence: the Quilling Fields.

Okay, it doesn’t work.

Featured Image source: https://www.imore.com/how-get-started-playing-splatoon-2-handy-tips-and-tricks-beginners

NintendOnly

“You can’t be a Nintendo-only gamer!” cries the Internet chorus. “There aren’t enough games! Think of everything you’ll miss out on!”

That’s what it’s like, even in Nintendo-focused forums and fan pages. It has become accepted fact in the Western video game world: Nintendo’s console is the supplementary console, the secondary system, the one you buy to sit alongside your PlayStation 4 Pro or your Xbox One X, which as an acronym spells out XBOX, and who thought Microsoft was going to take branding cues from the Nintendo 3DS family of systems?

Yes, your Wii and your Wii U, and now your Switch… those are the back-ups to the power box upon which you play the REAL games, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and Gears of War and Halo and Final Fantasy and Uncharted and Fallout and…

It should be noted: I’m not criticizing that approach, just as I’m not criticizing any of the above games. How can I criticize those games when I’ve only played a handful of hours of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, a few minutes of Call of Duty, no Final Fantasy game beyond IX, and no Uncharted, Halo, Fallout, or Gears of War games at all?

Right at this moment you are very likely beside yourself with shock and horror. “HOW?!” you say. “HOW do you call yourself a video game fan if you’ve barely played ANY of those classic, great games?!”

I suppose that’s a fair point. My response to that, and it’s well-practiced, is to point out: I’m not really a video game fan. I’m a Nintendo fan.

Blasphemy.

It’s not that I DISLIKE non-Nintendo titles. If someone handed me a PS4 or XB1, I’d take it and I’d certainly play SOME games on them. I’ve done some Steam games, actually, mostly the Portal series, finishing the first game and getting about halfway through the second (which I love and need to get back to.) It’s just… look. Nintendo has a house style: bright and colorful games, mechanics over story, easy to learn but tough to master, roots set firmly in an arcade experience, all-ages appeal. I also prefer the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars to the D.C. Expanded Universe films, my favorite book series are Harry Potter and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I prefer Batman: The Animated Series to the Dark Knight films, and I think glossy finish > matte finish. So given the limits placed on my video game hobby due to time and money, and seeing as how neither Sony or Microsoft have access to Zelda games, I’m forced to choose one console per generation. We already know how that story ends.

Historically, the issue with this Nintendo-solo approach has been the games. Or, better put, the LACK of games. The Wii U year one lineup was… how best to put this? Ah, that’s right… it was a disaster, so far as video game launch lineups go. Wii U launched in November of 2012 with 34 games… in theory. In practice, only a handful of those were worth playing, and only two of them (New Super Mario Bros. Wii U and Nintendoland) were developed by Nintendo. And then the NEXT major Nintendo release? Pikmin 3, in August of 2013.

Holy geez.

So being a Nintendo-only gamer in the early days of the Wii U? Yes, that was painful. The second-half flurry of great games for the platform came too little, too late. Being a Nintendo-only gamer in the age of the Switch, though? Better than describe it, let’s just take a look at what’s currently available for the Switch, and what’s coming out over the rest of its first year.

I try to be selective with my game purchases, and on my Switch I’ve already put 285 hours into an amazing Zelda game, I’ve still got to get into the Specter Knight campaign of Shovel Knight, I’ve played 30 hours of ARMS, I’ve barely touched Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Snake Pass, I’ve put a good chunk of time into NBA Playgrounds and about 40 hours into Minecraft, I’ve almost beaten Cave Story +, and now… now I’ve got Splatoon 2. I’ve already written extensively about my love affair with Splatoon, and I’m happy to inform you that after just a few hours of gameplay, I’m confident Splatoon 2 will bring me more of the same joy.

And that’s just the games that have already been released. Coming shortly: Mario x Rabbids, Fire Emblem Warriors, Steamworld Dig 2, Axiom Verge: Multiverse Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, NBA 2K18, WWE 2K18, Sonic Mania, Sonic Forces, FIFA ’18, Pokken Tournament DX (which I completely forgot about until just now when I was double-checking the Switch release schedule), LEGO Worlds, Stardew Valley, Rayman Legends: Definitive Edition, Overcooked, Rocket League, and not to mention freaking Skyrim and Super Mario Odyssey. And, oh yeah, somewhere in there I’m going to have to find time to play a new 2D Metroid game on my 2DS.

All of that listed above? That’s just a partial list of the stuff that’s coming out in 2017. That’s right: all of that is coming out BY THE END OF THIS YEAR. Also: IT’S ALL PORTABLE.

If your counter-argument is that the Switch is “less powerful” than the XB1 or PS4… well, you’re right, in terms of tech specs. Is it a “less powerful” experience, though? The Switch has only been on the market since March, and by December it will have in its library two Mario games, a Zelda game, Splatoon and ARMS, Mario Kart and Pokken, two of the biggest games of all time in Skyrim and Minecraft, three of the most important sports games on the market in FIFA, WWE 2K and NBA 2K, and a slew of new and classic indies. Up top I didn’t even mention some great games that have already come out that I’ve yet to purchase, like Fast RMX and Shantae: Half-Genie Hero.

So if you like to hop on Twitter and all-caps inform your followers that the Switch has “NO GAMES,” I can only ask… what in the world are you talking about? Perhaps it doesn’t have the games YOU want to play, but don’t worry; there’s at least two other quality options on the market for you to choose from if you want to play GTA and Call of Duty. The Switch, though, is not the Wii U (in spite of my last piece, in which I argued that the Switch kind of IS the Wii U. I’m mercurial like that.) The Wii U’s year-one lineup was horrendous. The Switch’s year-one lineup is the stuff dreams are made of.

So, yeah: I’m a Nintendo-only gamer. A generation ago, it was mostly because I liked Nintendo games more than anything else on the market. That’s still true. Now, though, there’s a secondary reason: we’re only five months into its lifespan, and the Switch already has a stack of amazing games on it that I want to play.

I mean, c’mon: a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One on top of everything the Switch is already offering? Just how much time and money do you think I have?

Never Assume

“Now, Cookie, you know what happens when you assume.”

Cookie rolled her eyes. Her mom’s favorite saying. “Yeah, I know. You make an ass of you and me.”

“No,” began Race, “You… wait.” He thought about it. “Wow, that’s a whole lot better than what I was going to say. Can I use that?”

*

That is an excerpt from my book, The Unlikely Adventures of Race & Cookie McCloud: Vol. 1, available now on Amazon (plug, plug.) I’ve been rolling out that bad joke about assumptions for years, first in my initial 2009 Race McCloud play and then carried over into the novel. I think about that joke a lot when discussing Nintendo with others on the Internet. In real life, also, but mostly on the Internet.

You see, people on the Internet… and full disclosure, I’m not exempting myself from this… people on the Internet like to make assumptions. And if there’s one thing we have repeatedly learned about Nintendo over the years, it is this: assume nothing.

One of my other favorite phrases to roll out when discussing Nintendo is simply, “Nintendo gon’ Nintendo.” This and “assume nothing” are saying basically the same thing: Nintendo is going to do what they want, when they want, no matter what industry logic (or just plain old everyday logic) suggests they SHOULD do. Sometimes when Nintendo Nintendos it works out. Sometimes it does not. For a microcosm of this, look no further than, or course, Breath of the Wild, which takes many of the assumptions about what a 3D Zelda game must be (large dungeons, linear progression, hearts and rupees galore) and throws them away. Nintendo could have gotten away with making another awesome version of Ocarina of Time. They instead did something different for the sake of doing something different… and for the sake of making something better.

Over the years, some of the various assumptions I’ve heard regarding Nintendo have included:

  • “Nintendo will never go mobile.” – You can forgive this assumption; prior to Super Mario Run, Nintendo-published games have never appeared on a non-Nintendo platform.
  • “Nintendo’s going to produce a cheaper version of the Wii U without a GamePad.” – Lower-end versions of Nintendo hardware aren’t ubiquitous, but they’re not uncommon. Either way, the Wii U never got a compact makeover, and its price never came down.
  • “They’ve GOT to announce Metroid now, right?” – Everyone assumed this before every E3 until 2017’s, when everyone assumed it wasn’t going to happen and when it, of course, happened. Twice!
  • “Nintendo’s done with motion controls.” – They led the Switch reveal event with 1, 2, Switch and ARMS, two games that heavily feature motion controls.
  • “Look at Splatoon. A game like that HAS to have built-in voice chat.” – Splatoon did not have built-in voice chat.
  • “Sonic will never be in Smash.” – He’s been in two of them.
  • “The NX is going to have to be a AAA power box. They can’t afford another Wii U.” – The NX turned out to be the Switch, and instead of going high-power, Nintendo went high-concept form factor… which seems to be working.
  • “The Switch is going to replace the 3DS.” – Maybe. There’s 3DS games announced through 2018, though, and they’re about to release yet another new model in the 3DS “family” of systems: the New Nintendo 2DS XL.
  • “Nintendo is dead.” – Not just yet.

Two of the current assumptions making the rounds to which I respond with a big ol’ “don’t assume” are the following: first, that the Virtual Console is definitely coming to Switch. To specify: by “Virtual Console” I refer to the specific brand of digital product through which Nintendo sells emulated versions of their old games, a la carte, via their current-gen consoles. We already know that the Classic Games Selection, a select number of earlier Nintendo and Super Nintendo games that have been updated to include online play, will be available to anyone who is paying for Nintendo’s online service when that launches in early 2018. What Nintendo has not yet said, and seems to be actively avoiding saying, is that the Virtual Console will be available on the Switch. The assumption I’ve encountered is: “Of COURSE the Virtual Console will come. Nintendo wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to charge you again for Zelda II.” To which I reply, that logic isn’t unsound, but… never assume. I’ll believe Virtual Console is coming to the Switch when Nintendo announces Virtual Console is coming to the Switch, and not a second sooner.

The other assumption I’ve heard is in regards to Super Mario Maker and Smash for Wii U/3DS. “Both games are definitely coming to the Switch,” I’ve been told. I have a theory: Wii U games that are available on the 3DS, which is still an actively supported console, will not receive ports to the Switch. Oh, Switch will definitely have a Smash Bros. game. I just think that, if we were going to get Smash 4 Switch, we’d have heard about it already. Super Mario Maker, I think, might be viewed by Nintendo as a two-screen game, and I’d honestly agree with that assessment. Plus: how do you sequelize Super Mario Maker? You can’t add Super Mario 2 U.S. to it; that’s a completely different game from the rest of the Super Mario franchise, a game with completely different mechanics. Adding that to the Mario Maker creation suite isn’t as simple as flipping a skin. Also, the one advantage that a pressure-based touchscreen, such as the one on the Wii U, has over a capacitive touchscreen, such as the one on the Switch, is how more precise stylus work is when using the pressure screen. Frankly, I have no desire to build Super Mario levels with just my finger.

Let’s say, though, Nintendo finds an acceptable workaround for the lack of the Switch’s second screen, and finds an input method for a Switch-based Maker game that they’re comfortable with. In that case, given Nintendo’s usual aversion to doing the same thing twice, I still find it much more likely that instead of focusing on the “Super Mario” portion of the title they’d focus on the “Maker” portion of the title, leading to a whole slew of Maker-games: Metroid Maker, Zelda Maker, Ice Climber Maker… that sort of thing.

Think of it: wouldn’t that be cool? A Nintendo IP Maker franchise. Of course, all of this is nothing more than an assumption on my part, and…

… well. We all know what happens when we do that.

P.S. (All except for Race McCloud, I guess. Funny side note… I’ve always wondered just what it was he was about to say before Cookie corrected him. No, I don’t know; he’s never told me.

Yes, that IS how that works. No, I’m NOT crazy.)

 

 

 

 

(Not much, anyway.)

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)

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.

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.

Triforce of Greatness

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

I hate to say, “I told you so,” but…

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

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

I’m sorry.

The World

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

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

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

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

The Physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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