Nintendo

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?

The Nintendo SWiitch (That’s Not a Typo)

It was hailed as the end of an era. The reveal of Nintendo’s top-secret next console, codenamed NX, a hybrid system that was one of the worst-kept secrets in video games, was going to end the age of the Wii, the one that began in a blaze of glory as the Wii became a “must have” item, and ended as smoldering ash as the Wii U became a “what’s that” item.

Into this world came the Switch, with the promise of a new Legend of Zelda and Splatoon and 3D Super Mario, and Skyrim and NBA 2K and Minecraft, all in year one, all great news for Nintendo platform loyalists starved for new (or at least remastered) content, all now playable on the go. Oh, along with these no-brainers came a few choice reminders that, you know, Nintendo will always Nintendo. For example: at the Switch reveal conference, live-streamed around the world from Japan, an event that many expected to be a fresh new start and a clean slate… but which Nintendo used to announce not one, but TWO games that seemed as though they were designed for the motion controlled Wii: the ice cube simulator 1-2-Switch and the Plastic-Man fighter ARMS. 1-2-Switch was indulged and largely ignored, and while I still think there’s a place for it on college campuses this fall (drunken wizard fights, anyone?) it certainly isn’t something anyone would point to as a hit, and it just as certainly should have been a system pack-in, not a full-priced separate launch title.

A few months later, ARMS came along, a motion control weirdo springy-armed boxing game in which the motion controls are optional. That previous sentence describes both an evolution of and a reaction to the similarly motion-controlled games for the Wii. From the Wii era Nintendo seems to have learned that people like to decide for themselves whether or not they want to use motion controls in any particular game. Just as it is in ARMS, the motion controls in Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe are completely optional. The evolution lies in the technology: the original Wiimote tracked motion through a combination of accelerometer (which detects velocity) and infrared technology (which detects location). The Joy-Con, aside from containing technology eleven years newer than that which inhabited the Wiimote, is equipped with an accelerometer and a gyroscope (which accurately measures location). Fair point: the Wii MotionPlus add-on accessory for the Wiimote contained a gyroscope as well, but nothing beats having the tools baked into the console from the world “go”.

The difference, then, between ARMS and a lot of the Wii-era games? The motion controls in ARMS are remarkably precise, and the game is not prisoner of the “waggle controls” that plagued so many Wii titles, that feeling that you’re flailing about blindly and have only rudimentary control over your on-screen avatar’s movements. On the Wii itself it was Skyward Sword that came closest to fulfilling the initial promise of what that system would be, but it’s ARMS, a game for a console meant to move Nintendo past their Wii/Wii U days, that feels like the near-perfect execution of what Nintendo had hoped Wii games would be all along.

The comparison between the Wii U and the Switch is obvious, of course; both consoles come with a tablet-like touchscreen. Unlike the Wii U, though, the Switch is not a second-screen device. But, as many of the Wii U’s critics noted during that console’s “heyday” (a term I use with the utmost looseness), the best use of the Wii U’s Gamepad was not as a second screen (with a few select exceptions). It was best used for off-TV play, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Wii U ends up looking an awful lot like a prototype version of the Nintendo Switch. The off-TV experience on Switch is better in every way, of course, with a true HD screen and a capacitive touchscreen in place of the Wii U’s resistive touchscreen… not to mention the Switch’s take-anywhere-ableness, as opposed to the Wii U Gamepad’s reluctance to function at distances greater than ten feet from the base unit.

I put this comparison together just the other night while playing Splatoon 2. I do a lot of my gaming at night; I’m a night owl and my wife is a morning person, so after she and the kids go to bed is when I get a lot of my Switch on. This means I’m less likely to play the Switch in TV mode (she’s also a light sleeper), so about 95% of my Breath of the Wild play-through was in handheld mode. Handheld mode, though, is not ideal for Splatoon 2, especially since I absolutely can not play Splatoon without motion controls. So after a few hours of uncomfortable handheld gaming, I decided to put the Switch in tabletop mode and grab my pro controller… except the pro controller was all the way across the room, so I instead went with split Joy-Con play.

It was a revelation.

I’ll try to describe the experience, but if you’re playing Splatoon 2 (and why wouldn’t you be?) you should really try this out for yourself. The left Joy-Con is primarily for directional input and morphing into squid form, and the right Joy-Con, which is the Joy-Con from which Splatoon 2 reads gyroscopic input, is used for aiming and firing your weapon. The precision aiming I was able to pull of with the right Joy-Con was a substantial improvement over anything I was able to pull off with the Wii U Gamepad over the course of the 300+ hours I put into Splatoon, and a gazillion times better than trying to aim while waving the Switch around in handheld mode. I was fighting off entire teams of Inklings by myself, and then I switched over to the Splat Charger and started popping squids like nobody’s business.

That’s when I realized that the Switch does not mark the end of the Wii era. Rather, it is the culmination of what the Wii and the Wii U promised but didn’t deliver: HD off-screen, truly portable play with pinpoint motion controls. The Switch’s success will rely on Nintendo’s ability to keep their new flagship awash in a steady stream of games more than it will anything else, but one other thing worth noting is that they have been preparing this console for a very long time. Ten years of in-the-wild market research, probably closer to fifteen years of development, have come together to bring us the natural offspring of both the Wii and the Wii U: the Nintendo Switch. For Nintendo’s sake, given the explosive success of the Wii and the implosive failure of the Wii U, let’s hope the Switch (or the SWiitch) takes after mom, and not dad.

Yes, of COURSE the Wii is the mom. Geez.

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)

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.

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.)