Tetris

How Nintendo Tells Their Stories (and Sometimes Doesn’t.)

I’m realizing that I spend a lot of time talking about stories in games and how games tell stories. I’m a writer with an MFA in Creative Writing, so I suppose it stands to reason that this is the sort of thing I’d spend too much time thinking about. Part of the universal appeal of Nintendo and their games, I’d argue, is the LACK of narrative in the stories their games tell. Gameplay is universal, after all. I’ll perhaps get some angry disagreement from people reading this, but the truth is that the amount of story Nintendo puts into their games is minimal compared to what other developers, specifically Western developers, put into their games. Not only that, but the style of storytelling in Nintendo IPs tends to differ from franchise to franchise. Here’s a brief analysis of the various styles of storytelling adopted by some of Nintendo’s major franchises. (Note: I specifically say “analysis” as opposed to “overview” because there are some questions regarding the narrative nature of a few of these franchises, questions Nintendo doesn’t seem in a great hurry to clarify.)

Super Mario – Either Princess Peach gets kidnapped, like, once a week, or the scenario suggested by Super Mario Bros. 3 is true: the Mario games are performances, and the characters are all actors putting on a show for the player. Super Mario Bros. 3 is framed as a play, with a curtain rising on the title screen and falling after the game’s credits roll, not to mention platforms through the whole game being bolted in place and the various background structures casting flat shadows like two dimensional set pieces. Each level ends with Mario (or Luigi) running offstage into the darkened wings, for goodness sake. So the Mario cast is simply play-acting these adventures for us, and in their time off they like to get together and race go-karts, or play baseball, or maybe pile in a car and play a board game.

The Legend of Zelda – Around the time of Skyward Sword, Nintendo released a bat-poop crazy official Legend of Zelda timeline, seemingly to please the fans who had desperately been trying to figure it out on their own. In order to force contradictory games together, Nintendo split the Zelda timeline in three places, leading to three alternate realities where the events of different games could take place (and apparently, very quietly, they reunited the timelines last month by officially inserting Breath of the Wild at the very end of all three.) While certain games do seem to refer to past or future games, there’s an argument that people need to pay more attention to the word “legend” in the franchise’s title. Legends are passed down from generation to generation, changing and evolving over time. The base story of the Zelda franchise is almost always the same: a struggle for balance between three triangular shards of an all-powerful artifact, each with a designated bearer in the form of a boy dressed in green named Link, a princess of the royal family of Hyrule named Zelda, and a thief/sorcerer/pig-monster named either Ganon or Ganondorf. These elements remain fairly constant, but it’s the DETAILS in the telling that change over time. The games in the Legend of Zelda series are telling the same story over and over, more or less. They are representative of the multi-generational retelling of the prevailing legend of the Kingdom of Hyrule.

Metroid – Of the “big three” Nintendo IPs, the Metroid franchise has the most traditionally linear storyline. (It also has far fewer games to juggle than the Mario and Zelda franchises, to be fair.) Though not released in chronological order, each title in the main Metroid series fits neatly into a place, with the first two games in the franchise, Metroid and Metroid 2: Return of Samus each receiving remakes later in life that massaged their stories to better fit into the now-established franchise lore. Not only that, but the two volume Metroid manga that establishes the origin of series protagonist Samus Aran is largely seen as canonical, and slots right in at the front of the chronological list. (You can see the Metroid timeline order here.)

Pokemon – Again: this is not my area of expertise, but the mainline Pokemon games all seem to take place on one world map inspired by the Japanese islands, with each game taking place in a particular region; the nation of Japan is, of course, similarly divided into regions. Every game tells a similar story, more or less: that of a young Pokemon trainer trying to collect every type of Pokemon in their region. The ultimate Pokemon dream game is the game that will unite that world’s regions into one massive Pokemon adventure… or at least that’s what I’ve heard. This just isn’t my jam, yo.

Animal Crossing – All Animal Crossing games tell the same story: the tale of a town’s struggle to get out from under the oppressive thumb of their miserly raccoon landlord.

Fire EmblemFire Emblem games follow a similarly sort of weird rule of connection as, say, the Final Fantasy games: they all carry thematic and mechanical similarities, they all seem to take place in different unrelated worlds and kingdoms, but heroes from the different games seem to cross over from time to time into the worlds of other games. This is really a reminder not to take this stuff to seriously, y’all. They’re just games. (Note: some franchise fans will argue for a connected timeline that branches off into various epochs and eras, but honestly, what’s the point? See also: Xenoblade Chronicles.)

Donkey Kong Country – The chapters-long epic poem recounting the adventures of a bunch of monkeys as they try to reclaim their bananas.

Kirby – Who gives a <expletive deleted>?

Star Fox – The ongoing storyline of the Star Fox franchise seems to be: how many times can we reboot the storyline of the Star Fox franchise? And one time, with dinosaurs.

Splatoon – Yo, the Splatoon backstory is actually pretty messed up. I’m not getting too deep into it; it’s like some creepy-pasta Slenderman stuff. It involves human extinction, unchecked evolution, and a race war. Kotaku has more to say on it here.

Smash Bros. – It’s either the tale of children’s Nintendo toys coming to life to do battle (Smash 64), a multi-universe character hopping crossover (Smash Bros. Brawl: The Subspace Emissary), or the never-ending mission of a small group of gamers to keep the Gamecube controller relevant.

Dr. Mario – What am I even doing with my life?

Tetris – Let’s just wait for the three film trilogy to really shore up the story arc here.

Pikmin – Tiny plant monsters and… uh… astronauts collecting giant fruit… you know what? It turns out the lesson of this entire article is to just shut up and enjoy your games. Not everything needs to be connected, you know? Cripes. (The Pixar Theory is a bunch of malarkey, too.)

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Some GOATs

I’ve started playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the Nintendo Switch. As this is Skyrim‘s first appearance on a Nintendo platform, this is my first time playing Skyrim. I don’t know if you guys have heard, but Skyrim is an amazing game. Holy shnikes.

I’m going to be writing a lot more about Skyrim in future posts. I’m only twenty hours into my first-ever playthrough (maybe more; time moves differently in Skyrim) and I’m already planning for not just my NEXT playthrough, but for my next THREE playthroughs.

Playing Skyrim has gotten me thinking on the topic of Greatest Games of All-Time. Is Skyrim on the list of Greatest Games of All-Time? Is Skyrim the greatest RPG of all time? Can anyone objectively make the case one way or the other for such a claim?

No. No they cannot. So I’m going to do it subjectively, instead, across a bunch of different genres and platforms. A note: this is not a definitive list of games. Mostly these are games I’ve played, so lots of Nintendo games appear on this list… though I’ll willingly put a game I never played on this list if I think it’s the definitively the greatest game in its genre. I should point out, though, that this is also not a definitive list of genres. In fact, I’m more than admitting to making up some of my own genres. And finally: if a genre seems to be missing, I either didn’t think of it or, more likely, don’t have a strong feeling on any one specific game being the GOAT in that particular genre. And finally finally: I’m painting with a very broad brush.

So don’t take this too seriously. Lord knows I didn’t. (Also: this may not be serious, BUT IT’S RIGHT. <– don’t take that seriously, either.)

The Obvious GOATs

Simulation: The Sims – I’ve never played The Sims. I was always afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. Still: it’s the only choice in this category, obviously.

MMORPG: World of Warcraft – I’ve never played World of Warcraft. I was always afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. Still: it’s the only choice in this category, obviously.

2D Puzzle: Tetris – How many puzzle games since the Russian industry-buster are just riffs on Tetris, anyway?

Sandbox: Minecraft – There doesn’t even need to be a conversation here. There is no competition. Next question.

Fighting: Street Fighter 2 – I was going to do two separate fighting game categories, 2D and 3D. But Street Fighter 2, in all of its forms, is the single greatest fighting game of all time. This pains me to say as one who personally prefers Smash Bros. as a franchise. But it’s the truth. In the fighting genre, there’s Street Fighter 2, and then there’s everything else.

The Not-As-Obvious GOATs

3D Platforming Game: Super Mario Odyssey – Yes, I know it’s brand new. It doesn’t meant that it’s NOT the greatest 3D platformer of all time. I’m of the mind that 3D Mario platformers stand alone as the nominees in this category, and the broadly applicable “Cap”-ture mechanic of Super Mario Odyssey (which results in dozens of platforming styles being included in one game), not to mention the giant playground of each level and the 999 hidden moons to find, puts SMO above Galaxy and 64.

2D Action-Adventure: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the PastZelda games set the standard for the action-adventuring genre, and A Link to the Past set the Zelda template that would be followed for twenty years, both in 2D and in 3D. Some revisionist historians will tell you Link’s Awakening or Minish Cap are superior games, but those people would be wrong. Shout-out to Super Metroid, which almost took this spot instead.

3D Action-Adventure: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Is it the size of the world? Is it the gorgeous art design? Is it the mobility of this game’s version of Link? Is it the dirt bike? Well, yes. All of these things help… but what truly places Breath of the Wild in this spot over, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn or Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider or any number of amazing games, is the physics system. Stop time and power up environmental objects with kinetic energy, or swing metallic objects with magnetic powers and use them to conduct electricity, or pay attention to the curvature of the hill you’re on to suss out which direction your bomb will roll in, or use ice blocks to change the path of a falling boulder or lift up a rusted old gate. Breath of the Wild asks you to think about and then manipulate the amazing world around you in ways heretofore unseen in the action-adventure genre, and if the way YOU’VE chosen to interact with your environment is not the way Nintendo’s developers meant for you to interact with the environment? Well, that’s okay, because the game is DESIGNED that way. The developers created puzzles with specific solutions, while at the same time handing players the environment manipulating abilities they’d need to shortcut those solutions. People have been saying Breath of the Wild forever changes how we’ll play open world games, but it seems more likely that it will forever change how we interact with puzzles and obstacles in open world games, closed world games, and every game world in between.

3D Puzzle: Portal 2 – Name a true 3D puzzle game that’s better than Portal 2. I’ll wait. Fine, yes, specifically, this is probably an action-puzzle game, or a puzzle-platformer. But it would top those categories, too, so I’m just going to roll them all together under the “3D puzzle” label and crown Portal 2 the champ.

JRPG: Final Fantasy VI – There’ll be a lot of 16 bit SNES bias in this list. The SNES is still probably my favorite console of all time. But the quintessential JRPG series is Final Fantasy, and the most JRPG-y of the Final Fantasy games are the 16 bit SNES games: IV, V, and VI. IV gives you set characters with set jobs. Cecil is a Dark Knight who becomes a Paladin; Rosa is a White Mage who becomes a White Wizard; Rydia is a Black Mage/Summoner, and that’s that. I enjoy that approach. V implemented the best version of the famed FF Job System, which allowed you to assign jobs to your four template characters as you saw fit. FF VI managed to do both at once: your characters had job specific actions and abilities, but could also learn skills across the spectrum of FF jobs via magicite equip. Sabin, for example, is a martial artist… but if equipped with the right magicite shards, he can also become a White Mage. It’s an extra level of JRPG-y planning (do you grant your 14 playable characters abilities that match their innate abilities, or do you try and turn them into jack-of-all-trade characters) that FFVI does better than any JRPG before or since.

Western RPG: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Here’s something that happened in my first ten hours playing Skyrim: I returned to Riverwood, the first small town I’d encountered in the game as an escaped prisoner, to do some smithing and shopping. I stepped out of the trader’s shop only to hear a familiar roar and screech: the town was being attacked by a dragon. After heroically slaying the dragon, I realized that the two NPC’s who had given me shelter back when I’d first come to town, the blacksmith and his wife, had been killed in the battle; their daughter, a little girl, another NPC, was fully aware that she was now an orphan. It then became one of my in-game goals to save up enough money to buy a house and adopt this little girl whose parents had died because I wasn’t clean enough in my kill.

This was not a planned event. It is not part of an in-game quest. It is just a thing that happened.

That’s Skyrim.

Beat ‘Em Up: TMNT: Turtles in Time – I’m disproportionately fond of mindless beat ’em ups, but I’ve got some standards: 1.) They need to be fun. 2.) They can’t be impossible. 3.) They need dope moves. 4.) The soundtrack needs to wail. 5.) They’ve got to move quickly. River City Ransom is great, but has too many RPG elements and asks you to think too much. Double Dragon is a classic, but chugs along a little bit too slowly. Lots of the mid-90’s arcade brawlers are awesome, (The Simpsons, X-Men, etc.) but are designed to suck down quarters at a ridiculous pace. Turtles in Time is a 90’s arcade brawler designed for home consoles. It’s fun, it’s fast, it isn’t overly difficult, and the soundtrack is the TMNT theme remixed over and over (which might sound tedious, but is actually amazing.)

Level Builder: Super Mario Maker – The competition here isn’t stiff, save for one other game. Lots of level-builders are overcomplicated and hold a high barrier to entrance; Disney Infinity, for example, and though I’ve not played it I’ve heard the same about LittleBigPlanet. Super Mario Maker has the benefit of existing on the Wii U, crazily enough: an HD console with a stylus + touchscreen interface, perfect for a level builder. Mario Maker is built around a drag-and-drop graphical interface that speaks the language of the most popular gaming series of all time. It’s a near-universally appealing combination that lowers the barrier of entry to practically non-existent. And though the Wii U is far less ubiquitous than the Nintendo 3DS, the Wii U version of Mario Maker is obviously the superior version. Nintendo’s decision to leave online sharing out of the 3DS version of the game is one of the most terrible ideas they’ve ever had. It’s, like, Virtual Boy-bad. So why isn’t this in the “obvious” list? Because of one game that almost tops Mario Maker, and that game… is Lode Runner. Anyone who played it and built levels for it on IBM-compatible PC’s back in the early 80’s understands why.

Point-and-Click/Graphical Adventure: Sam & Max Hit the Road – There are lots of more famous LucasArts graphical adventure games. Day of the Tentacle, Fate of Atlantis, and Grim Fandango might all be better known, but Sam & Max Hit the Road holds the distinction of being a beautifully illustrated, brilliantly written, and legitimately great point-and-click adventure game… that is fully aware of how ridiculous point-and-click adventure games are. Besides: King’s Quest is the runner up in this category before any of those other aforementioned titles.

Star Wars: Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader – This is the only IP to get its own category, and rightfully so. There’ve been so many Star Wars game of such varying quality. Knights of the Old Republic could have taken this spot, of course, as could have Super Return of the Jedi or X-Wing. But few games drop you into the Star Wars saga quite like the arcade action of this early GameCube title, and it’s the game that initially sold me on the GameCube, to boot.

First-Person Action-Adventure: Metroid Prime – I’m cheating a little by including this on a list that already includes 3D Action-Adventure, but I wanted to give the perfection that is Metroid Prime its due, and yes, Metroid Prime IS better than either of its sequels.

Classic Arcade: Ms. Pac-Man – Are you a Pac-Man person, or a Space Invader person? The correct answer is, “a Pac-Man person,” and Ms. Pac-Man and its multiple maze styles is far-and-away the best game of the entire Pac-Man franchise.

Arena Shooter: Splatoon 2 – Shut up, yes it is.

Strategy: Codename S.T.E.A.M. – #SorryNotSorry

The Too-Close-To-Call GOATs

2D Platforming: Super Mario World or New Super Mario Bros. 2Super Mario World is the obvious overall better experience… BUT New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the quintessential classic Super Mario experience: a 2D platformer that speaks the clearly established rules of the Super Mario universe (Mario World riffed on those rules quite a bit) that includes the key extra elements that have since defined the franchise, including fireballs, raccoon flight, Star Coin collection, and wall-jumping. Mario World is a unique, exciting experience, but New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a perfect distillation of everything that makes the franchise work. It’s not groundbreaking in the least (and therefore sometimes comes across as slightly boring) but it’s the Super Mario formula polished to an immaculate shine.

Racing: Mario Kart 8 or FORZA – I suppose I could have done two categories: arcade racing and sim racing. But I’m splitting the difference because although I don’t have a lot of experience with FORZA, the little bit I’ve played has been revelatory: it’s easily the best simulation franchise out there, as far as I’m concerned. Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, is the greatest game in the greatest arcade racing franchise of all time. Essentially, I don’t know enough about sim racing to do a whole separate category for it, but I wanted to acknowledge FORZA‘s greatness.

2D Action Platformer: Mega Man 2 0r Mega Man X or Ducktales or The Magical Quest Starring Micky Mouse or Aladdin (SNES) or… – Such a huge library of great games exist in this genre, and Capcom was the undisputed master of the form back in its heyday, as illustrated that my entire “can’t decide” list is made up of Capcom titles.

First-Person Shooter – See, my favorite FPS ever is the original Star Wars: Dark Forces, but even the guy who keeps insisting Codename S.T.E.A.M. is a top-ten all-time game isn’t silly enough to think Dark Forces is the best FPS of all-time.

Cover Story (1 of 2)

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

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

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

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

So boring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.) Tina Guo, “Tetris”, Game On

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

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

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

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

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

(You thought I was kidding?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nintendo Takes Manhattan

On a chilly Saturday morning in New York City, my nine year-old daughter Gabby and I hopped onto an uptown D train, got off at Macy’s/Herald’s Square, doubled back two blocks down the Avenue of the Americas, and lined up to await entry into a *secret location* in Midtown Manhattan. Once we were inside we slipped off of the line and checked in at an impromptu front desk. We were greeted warmly, as if meeting old friends, and were handed our press pass and ushered directly into a life size pinball machine built from childlike wonder and balled-up happiness: the Nintendo Switch NYC coming-out party.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m gonna overwrite the crap out of this thing. You’ve been warned.

This is where I’d normally say something like, “Where to begin?” but for this one I know where I want to begin: with people. More specifically, I want to begin with the numerous Nintendo Brand Ambassadors who were on hand to guide the morning’s attendees through the Switch experience. These red-shirted Doctors of Switchology (I warned you) were energetic, enthusiastic, and knowledgable about the product, and they were all eager to talk Nintendo and compare war stories. “When I was a kid my mom used to unplug the controller and tell me I was playing,” and, “I just started Wind Waker with my son,” and, “Sonic Mania took me back to my teenage years,” and, “I’ve put, like, 400 hours into the first Splatoon“… these are all things that various Brand Ambassadors shared with my daughter and I that went well beyond how to hold a JoyCon. “Remember, Tails can’t die, and he can fly,” one Brand Ambassador reminded my daughter as she struggled to keep up with my Sonic in Sonic Mania. (I could have maybe slowed down a little.) The positivity of the Ambassadors spilled over to the  already excited attendees, and soon every demo booth and line for Zelda was filled with strangers enjoying the company of other strangers in a way that simply doesn’t happen in New York City.

The event was spread out over two huge reception rooms within the bowels (see: second floor) of the aforementioned *secret location* and they were decked out in full-on Nintendo regalia, a giant Nintendo video arcade stretched from wall to wall and twice over. There was a DJ spinning records, an interactive stage show with an emcee, a photo booth (take your picture with Mario and his new googly-eyed hat!), free prizes for the kids at every turn (my daughter’s swag haul is the stuff of legend), food on an outside balcony that nobody was bothering with because we only had three hours to be in attendance and… well, there were games. Oh… the games.

It’s my understanding, and it’s late so I don’t feel like looking it up to make sure so let’s just go with this, but it’s my understanding that this Switch Reveal Event is going to tour cities across North America. If so, and if you plan to attend when it hits your neck of the woods, let me give you a heads up: don’t go expecting to learn more about the Switch’s online interactivity, or the the Switch’s user interface, or the Switch’s account system, or anything beyond, “Here is how you play this game that will appear on the Nintendo Switch.” Because “here is how you play this game that will appear on the Nintendo Switch” is pretty much what this tour is entirely about. The games, mostly all demo builds, are booted up and ready to go, waiting alongside a friendly Brand Ambassador or two or three or four or… there were a lot of Brand Ambassadors, okay? Anyway, a friendly Brand Ambassador will walk you through getting ready to play, telling you which way to hold the JoyCon or give you a brief tutorial on controls… and then, you play. That’s what this event is. It’s not about tech specs or business models or branding. It is three solid hours of play.

In the spirt of that, I’m going to skip past all of my impressions of the Switch console itself and spend the rest of this post talking about the games. I’m going to assume, gentle reader, that you already have some working knowledge of the Nintendo Switch. If not, here you go: the Nintendo Switch is a tablet gaming console that docks into a cradle and allows you to play games on the go or at home on your TV. It has two controllers, called JoyCons, that slide and lock onto the side of the tablet but can also be removed and used in a number of different configurations to interact with the game software. The JoyCons are small, but mighty.

There. Now you know about the Switch. If you’re still confused about what it is, don’t worry: that’ll be covered in my next post. On to the games!

Just Dance – I’m going to do this chronologically, and the first game we played was Just Dance. Well, I didn’t play Just Dance. My daughter played Just Dance. She said it was fun. It looked just like every other Just Dance to me. The song she danced to was a popular one that I don’t know the name to because I’m a 38 year old dad. That’s a lie; the reason I don’t know the name to the popular Just Dance song is because the first three CDs I ever bought as a teenager were the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas, the soundtrack to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and a score compilation of the original Star Wars trilogy. Also, two Brand Ambassadors dressed to dance danced along with Gabby so she wouldn’t feel like she was dancing alone and everyone was staring at her, which was a nice touch.

Sonic Mania – We were strolling over to Splatoon 2 when a Brand Ambassador at the nearby Sonic Mania station called out to us and asked if we wanted to play. So we sat down, mostly because I thought she was doomed to spend the entire day watching people blow past her to get to Splatoon and I felt bad for her, but as it turns out Sonic Mania is pretty fun. It’s every inch a shiny new version of a 16 bit Genesis era Sonic game, with a new drop dash mechanic that lets Sonic drop straight to the ground out of a jump and immediately speed off. I remembered as I played that the Sonic franchise has never really been better than it was during the Mega Drive/Genesis age, and the Green Hill Zone level of Mania we ran through showed a course that was tight and well designed (better designed than many in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, for sure). We ran, we jumped, we grabbed rings, we fought a boss… it controls like an evolved version of 16 bit Sonic, thanks largely in part to the momentum-generating mechanics of the drop dash. Sonic Mania isn’t an immediate buy for me, but it’s something I’ll pick up when the price drops in the coming months.

Splatoon 2Splatoon is the game Gabby and I both love, and Splatoon 2 is the one game we played that brought us back to the booth for a second go later in the day. And look: it’s Splatoon. The core mechanic of Turf War remains unchanged, which has led some of the snarkier corners of the Internet to snipe, “Well, it’s REALLY just Splatoon 1.5.” Is that so, Twitter? Is Super Mario Bros. 3 really just Super Mario Bros. Redux? Because the core gameplay of SMB3 is exactly the gameplay of SMB1, improved upon and refined and added to. So it is with Splatoon and Splatoon 2. In the single-map Turf War preview we played, it was clear that Splatoon 2 has a bunch of tweaks that heavily impact the strategy and combat, not mention a fresh coat of paint (pun intended.) The new Charger and the new Roller both carry game-changing alterations (chargers can now hold their charge while you swim and rollers fling out a vertical line of ink when you swing them while leaping), and new weapons like the Splat Dualies introduce all new mechanics, like a forward roll. And the new specials are banana-pants bonkers. There are homing missiles that lock on to your enemies and blow them to splatareens, a F.L.U.D.D.-like jet pack attack, a fire-hose style spray of ink, and a Superman punch that sends your inkling flying high into the air before landing and smashing their fist into the ground, sending an ink-wave out to splat flat the surrounding opponents. Plus: a new one player campaign, a new spectator mode, and who knows what else. It DOES feel better with the Pro Controller than with the JoyCons, so when Splatoon 2 hits is probably when players should invest in the Pro, as well. Splatoon 2, though, is my own personal killer app for the Switch.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – We were late adopters of MK8. We just got it this past October and maybe now we should have waited, but what can you do? We played MK8 while seated on a mock up of an airplane (Gabby grabbed the window seat) with the Switch in tabletop mode and using the JoyCons. I’ll write more about the JoyCons in a later post, but here’s the rundown: though small, they are comfortable, by and large… though MK8 was the one game where I felt a little cramped with them. We didn’t play MK8 with the JoyCons in their sleeves, though, and when we did use the sleeves there was definitely a little more size to grip onto. As for MK8 itself, we played a Grand Prix race and a Battle Mode match. Grand Prix felt great, and it was the best Gabby had ever played on 100cc, which impressed me until the MK8 Brand Ambassador told me that MK8 Deluxe comes with an optional “assisted driving” mode that was active on all the demos, a mode for younger gamers (and lazy older ones, I suppose) that would help keep them on the road. The JoyCons simultaneously enabled motion and button control, which I thought would be annoying but turned out, like in Splatoon, to be really useful: I steered with buttons and used the motion control for smaller tweaks. This was also our first experience playing on the Switch screen itself, and it is a super-sharp, bright image. I’m not going to throw numbers and schematics at you because I’m bad with numbers and schematics, but I’ll put it like this: the Switch screen is HD enough to satisfy all but the most grumpy of grumpasauruses. Also: Battle Mode is back, folks, and it is as glorious as you remember.

1, 2, Switch – Along with Arms and SnipperClips, this is the game I most wanted to play. I love Zelda, Mario Kart, and Splatoon, but I know what they are. 1, 2, Switch is something entirely different: a video game where you are encouraged to NOT look at the screen. You begin to understand 1, 2, Switch after you play it; this is Nintendo’s answer to Cards Against Humanity. It’s WarioWare, but in real life. It’s a party game that you can see turning raucous and boozy, and it could be huge at parties after the kids go to bed, or in college dorms. Nintendo presented the experience smartly, placing each game station in individual glass booths with groups of four players and two Brand Ambassadors. It simulated the group environment that the game works best in, and really illustrated 1, 2, Switch‘s particular appeal. It was also the best demonstration of the JoyCon’s HD rumble feature on the show floor. We played three games: the Old West shootout (not bad), the cow milking game (a little weird, but fun), and a game that asked you to count the number of little metal balls rolling around in your JoyCon, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t actually feel like there were a bunch of little metal balls rolling around inside the JoyCon. I don’t think 1, 2, Switch should have been a pack-in (it’s a more complete experience than Wii Sports) but pricing it at $50 is going to be prohibitive to turning it into the buzz worthy party hit that it should be. $30 is the sweet spot, IMO, and hopefully we see a drop in the MSRP before launch day, because even after all my talk about this really being great as a grown-up party game, here’s where I tell you: this was my nine year old’s favorite game of the day. So yeah… I’m going to be buying 1, 2, Switch.

Arms Arms is Othello. No, not the play; the board game. Like the old tagline for Othello, Arms is easy to learn but difficult to master, and by the way? It was my favorite experience of the day. This spiritual successor to Punch-Out!! is the Wii game of Nintendo’s dreams, two generations later. The JoyCons improve upon the motion control of the Wii Motion Plus controllers, and fit far more comfortably in your balled-up fist than the Wiimote ever did. Plus, there’s two of them. The on-screen instructions for Arms are fantastic; I can get behind any game that tells me: “PUNCH to punch!” Your punches really react to the direction in which you swing your fist, and you quickly see that advanced play is going to involve severely curling and twisting your punches as you throw them. It is simple to get your character to walk, dash, block, grab, and throw, and each character I played with had different jump mechanics: Ribbon Girl has a triple jump, and the girl in the yellow mech can hover off the ground for short periods. You can swap out your boxing gloves between every round, not just between every match, and you get access to such variations as propeller fists, boomerang fists, shotgun fists, and I’m sure many, many more. We played on two arenas: the first was a boxing ring surrounded by trampolines, and the second was a large, wide outdoor staircase that forces you to fight upwards or downwards relative to your position. Arms also has options for traditional controls but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to use them, so one of the downsides to the game is that local multiplayer will basically require a second expensive set of JoyCons, which is a sadly prohibitive approach. Much like 1, 2, Switch, lots of opinion-minded folks have suggested Arms should be a pack-in. I can actually agree with that, and here’s why: there would be no better way for Nintendo to sell extra JoyCons to people than to drop Arms in their arms.

Splatoon 2 (Again) – We went from Arms to a second round of Splatoon 2, this time using the tablet. The tablet was just as pretty for Splatoon as we had found it to be for Mario Kart, but oddly enough I had a problem with the tablet that I hadn’t had with the Pro Controller: as you may be aware, the right analog stick on the Switch is below the face buttons, as opposed to the Wii U GamePad, where the stick is above the face buttons. While playing on the tablet I keep reaching up to nudge the camera, only to find nothing there. NBD; I’ll get used to it. It’s still Splatoon, which means it’s still the best thing ever EVER I SAID.

SnipperClips – Holy hell, this game is adorable and awesome, and at $20 it’s going to be a STUPID huge value. In SnipperClips, you and up to four players control anthropomorphized pieces of construction paper, and you must work together to solve puzzles. Sometimes you have to cut snips of paper off of each other in order to fit yourselves into the dotted outlines of various shapes, sometimes you have to get a basketball up and over into a hoop, and sometimes you have to carry a giant pencil across the screen and turn it onto its side to get it into a giant pencil sharpener. It’s such a Nintendo game in that, even as I describe it I KNOW you’re not going to really understand it until you get your hands on it, and then it’ll seem as obvious and instinctual as any game you’ve ever played. SnipperClips is clearly designed to be played with the Switch tablet in tabletop mode and the JoyCons in hand. If you’ve ever been to a leadership or group building conference and done one of those group activities where you and your team had to, like, build the tallest free standing structure in the room with nothing but newspapers and Scotch tape, you know what it feels like to play SnipperClips… except nobody’s going to expect you to exhibit personal growth and share your feelings with the room after you’re done. So SnipperClips is better than those conferences.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Playing Zelda was the most boring experience of the day. SOUND THE ALARM! SOUND THE ALARM! SOUND THE — no, no, calm down. Look back on the rest of the listed games. Most of them offer experiences that can be played from beginning to end in a five or ten minute gaming session. Splatoon, MK8, Arms, etc… even the Sonic Mania demo gave players two whole levels to complete. Zelda, on the other hand, is a hundred hour game. Hundred hour games don’t exactly demo well over twenty minutes. Plus, the Switch Zelda demo build was the same as the Wii U Zelda demo build from E3. Players were only given twenty minutes to play, and you started in the Shrine of Blue Goo That Link Wakes Up In. So, you know, I got to run around on the Great Plateau, cut down some trees, hunt a boar, fight some Bokoblins… and that was pretty much it. Look: my rabid excitement for Breath of the Wild hasn’t diminished, and neither should yours. It feels like you’re playing a painting, the controls are sharp, and the menus are intuitive and clean. But I’ve seen enough of the Great Plateau. I need a quest. Twenty minutes of the same Zelda area I’ve been watching since June is just not enough to satisfy at this point. Thankfully, we only have a month and a half left to wait. Shut off the alarm and do a happy dance.

Puyo Puyo Tetris – With our time at Switchland NYC coming to a close, I asked Gabby if there was anything else she wanted to play, hoping I’d be able to sneak in a round of Bomberman or Ultra Street Fighter 2. Instead, Gabby said she wanted to play Tetris.

Tetris.

TETRIS.

So we sat down and played some Tetris, and I remembered: hey, Tetris was a worldwide phenomenon because it’s a pretty great game, and Puyo Puyo Tetris, which mashes up Tetris with the “match three” puzzle game Puyo Puyo, only reaffirms that. Two player battle mode is still a blast after all these years and the JoyCons go great with the game. It’s a bright, candy-colored, old-school good time with a new-school sheen, and HD displays were born to hold multiple Tetris boards at one time. There’s not much more I can say about it because, you know… it’s Tetris. It’s great for what it is, but it’s not like you can turn it into some long sci-fi adventure with a super compelling story. (Tetris: The Movie, coming soon to a multiplex near you. This is not a joke. It’s supposed to be a trilogy. Still not joking.)

That, then, drew the day to a close. So along with the rest of the super satisfied public, my daughter and I headed towards the exits, endured the super-friendly gauntlet of Brand Ambassadors offering us cookies and pins as we left, got our coats, said our thank-yous to our host, and headed back out into the NYC chill. As we walked, the sun seemed just a little bit brighter and the air a little bit warmer, and it was all because Gabby and I both knew: the crazy-fun Nintendo Switch experience we had just had was only a month and a half away from being introduced into our own home.

Either that, or because it was three hours later into the day. That could also be the reason why it was brighter and warmer on the streets of New York.