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Ranking the Zelda Games Part 2

images-223Part 2 of this ranking feature for the games in the Legend of Zelda series should be less controversial than Part 1. Hopefully that doesn’t make it boring because we are just about at that point with this list where I’m splitting hairs. It’s probably not really a spoiler to say that the top 2 Zelda games are not really in question, and I think for many, the order is mostly agreed upon. I also think the next two games on our list are pretty clearly inferior to what follows, though some of that does depend on what your appetite for retro gaming is (suffice to say, if you were born sometime after 1990 the order of the following games is probably different from mine). Let’s move along though to take a look at these prestigious games which made it deep into the top ten.

67651-legend_of_zelda_the_-_oracle_of_seasons_usa-68. Oracle of Seasons (Gameboy Color 2001) – The sister title to Oracle of Seasons, Oracle of Ages, has already appeared on this list. Seasons was to be the more action-oriented of the two titles, but it’s still a Zelda game and isn’t really lacking for puzzles. It’s a more balanced title that manages to challenge the mind just as well as one’s ability to wield an in-game sword. The gimmick here is obviously the seasons, as indicated by the title. Early on Link acquires the Rod of Seasons that he can use to change the season of the screen he is on. Each screen has a default setting that it will reset to once the player exits it. As far as gimmicks go, it isn’t too bad, but it is rather limited in terms of puzzle application. It’s often easy to see what needs to be done to reach a certain area or acquire a certain item and it’s mostly a matter of time when the player will acquire a dungeon item or open a new path to clear the way. It’s a fine entry in the Zelda series, but it’s lack of diversity and a missing ingredient or two keep it from being among the franchise’s best.


If Link doesn’t take care of business this creepy ass moon is going to kill everybody. 

7. Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64 2000) – Released two years after Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask has the distinction of being one of the few direct sequels in the Zelda series. It plays more like a companion piece than a full-fledged entry in the main canon, making it similar to the majority of the handhelds in that respect. And like the handhelds, it’s gameplay is driven by another gimmick, but this time the gimmick is pretty interesting. Majora’s Mask takes place over the course of three in-game days as the moon is on a collision course with earth thanks to the actions of the Skull Kid, who has stolen the magical artifact Majora’s Mask. As Link, the player sets out to acquire other powerful masks that enable Link to change form in order to progress further into the game. Using the Ocarina of Time, Link is able to continuously reset time to avoid disaster while keeping the items he’s obtained along the way. Essentially, this means that as the player you’re constantly in a race against the clock to advance the plot as far as possible before having to reset everything and do it again. It’s a clever idea, but it naturally overstays its welcome towards the end of the game. The game takes place in Termina, as opposed to Hyrule, necessitating a new, but less interesting, setting. And even though it’s in Termina, expect to encounter the same types of characters that Link did in Ocarina of Time. Thankfully, the game is shorter than its predecessor, otherwise the time-rewind function would really get old, but it still offers a pretty meaty experience. The game was remade and released on the 3DS in 2015, much like Ocarina of Time, and that edition is probably better than the original, but mostly just because it’s nicer to look at.


Link is able to get flat in this one and it’s a gimmick that actually works fairly well.

6. A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo 3DS 2013) – The next three games on this list I consider pretty fluid. I could have ordered them in any way and it probably would have pleased me, and that’s because they’re all great, but are just missing a little something which keeps them out of the top three. For number six, I’m going with the most recent game in the main series, A Link Between Worlds. Like Majora’s Mask and The Adventure of Link, A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to another game in the series. In this case, that game is the SNES classic A Link to the Past. If you’re a Zelda fan, then you know that makes this the only game in the series to be a sequel of a game that already has a sequel. That’s because Link’s Awakening also takes place after A Link to the Past. I have no idea how this one relates to Link’s Awakening, but since the plot of that game is basically a dream I suppose it doesn’t matter. A Link Between Worlds is both helped and hindered by its predecessor. It borrows heavily from A Link to the Past, and if you’re going to borrow heavily from a game it might as well be one of the greatest ever made. It’s main difference is in the item system. Instead of entering dungeons and uncovering a new item, they’re all made available early from a merchant to rent. The idea seems to be that the player would be exchanging items here and there with the merchant, but since they’re not very expensive and rupees are never that hard to come by in a Zelda game, most gamers probably rented them all at once fairly early in the adventure. So while the game does rightly attempt to change things up a bit, it’s mostly for naught. There’s another parallel world for Link to enter, Lorule (get it?), which is very reminiscent of the Dark World from the first game. Link also has the new ability to become a painting on the wall to access normally inaccessible areas. As far as Zelda gimmicks go, this one is solid as it’s not overly intrusive and does lend itself fairly well to puzzle solving. The game is a joy to play and it’s only major flaw is the difficulty. This is the only Zelda title I’ve ever played start to finish where I didn’t die once. I don’t need it to be as hard as The Adventure of Link, but I would like some challenge. There’s also really no point in the game’s progression that will tempt you to reach for a strategy guide or wiki, making it feel like a light, breezy, Zelda adventure.


The color palette in this one is so earthy. Everything looks dusty/dirty. It reminds me of Resident Evil, believe it or not.

5. Twilight Princess (Nintendo Wii/Gamecube 2006) – During the press tour for Wind Waker, Nintendo assured those gamers irritated with the design choices made for that game that a more traditional, mature looking Zelda game was in development and would be released in the same console life cycle. As such, Twilight Princess feels like Nintendo’s reaction to the backlash they received for Toon Link. The game is visually dark and strikes a somber tone. Zelda herself is portrayed as a sad and somewhat tragic figure and the Twilight Princess hinted at by the game’s title is even more so. Link is his usual stoic self, but even he seems to sport a permanent scowl on his face and the moments where he appears to experience any semblance of joy are few and far between. Twilight Princess was developed on the Gamecube, but first released as a Wii launch title with some motion controls tacked on. They’re not overly intrusive, but only the aiming mechanic offered by the Wii-mote would be considered an improvement over a traditional control scheme. As such, most seem to consider the Gamecube version superior. The game largely plays like the previous 3D titles with the game’s Z-targeting combat system once again limiting Link to only one-on-one encounters. With Ocarina of Time, that went almost unnoticed at the time, but by now it was an obvious limitation of the Zelda style. Of course, the main difference between Twilight Princess and other Zelda titles is Wolf Link. When Link enters the Twilight Realm (yet another dark, parallel world to Hyrule) he takes the form of a wolf. As a wolf, Link can track enemies with his potent sniffer and tap into some twilight powers to kill Shadows. He is accompanied by Midna, a sort of cat like being that doubles as this game’s version of Navi. She’s just as intrusive, but I found her less annoying for the simple reason that she has a personality. And she’s not nearly as bad as that wretched sidekick in Skyward Sword. Twilight Princess is an appropriately grand adventure and another quality entry in the Zelda series. It’s main failing, aside from wolf Link being surprisingly uninteresting to play as, is that it feels far too familiar. Twilight Princess is to Ocarina of Time what The Force Awakens is to Star Wars. It’s very similar to Ocarina, almost to the point of deja vu. It even has a fishing hole with mostly the same challenges and goals of the one from Ocarina. It has a lot of the same themes for its temples, most of the same items, and so on. Had it come before Ocarina of Time, it’s possible it would be considered the better of the two, depending on how much you like or dislike the wolf and the Twilight Realm.


Bosses were a lot smaller back then.

4. The Legend of Zelda (NES 1986) – Just outside of the top three is the one that started it all. It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t experience this one in 1986 just how different an experience it was from other games. It’s a game design so perfect that it remains largely unchanged thirty years later. It’s rather incredible just how playable this game still is, and just how much fun it remains to be. It’s main difference from the modern games is mostly just how cryptic it is. It’s pretty clear where the game wants to send you in virtually every other Zelda game except this one. Here you’re just dropped into the fray and told to go beat the game. There’s a few hints along the way, if you happen to uncover them, and if you read the instruction booklet you get a few more, but that’s it. Word of mouth, and eventually Nintendo Power, was the way to beat this game back in the day as there was always a friend with an older brother, cousin, or cousin’s cousin that knew how to get into Level 6 or whatever. The game manages to be cryptic without being unfairly so, for the most part. There is one part where you have to find a specific bush and use a specific item on it that is pretty ridiculous, but it’s not on Simon’s Quest level. The combat is generally the same as the top-down Zelda titles that followed, but harder because all of the other enemies seem to be able to move much faster than Link. Some of the boss fights are so well constructed that Nintendo has returned to them over and over again. Really, if you grew up with one of the later Zelda titles being your gateway to the series then you owe it to yourself to go back and give this one a try. Once you get past the crude visuals and accustomed to how the game handles you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it quite a bit. The game is readily available as a downloadable title on basically every modern Nintendo device and will also be included with the NES Mini this fall. I’m obviously ranking this one somewhat on a scale to place it so high and affording it some deference for how important it is to the franchise and gaming as a whole, but I also genuinely love the game. I’ve returned to it over the years more than once, which is something I haven’t done for every game I’ve ranked behind this one (but something I have done for the ones ahead of it) which is a testament to its quality and its longevity. It’s really one of the greatest of all time.


The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

images-194One of the greatest games of all time has to be The Legend of Zelda:  A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo.  Following the misstep that was Zelda II:  The Adventure of Link, Nintendo put out what I consider the true sequel to the original Zelda.  A Link to the Past took the gameplay model established in the original game and expanded upon it tenfold.  A parallel world, new items and power-ups, a much better and more powerful gameplay engine.  Simply put, A Link to the Past was Zelda perfected and no title in the franchise has exceeded it, though some have come close.  As is the case with most Zelda games, A Link to the Past did not have a direct sequel (unless you count Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy) and subsequent games in the franchise basically function as a retelling of the Zelda legend.  That is, until now, with the release of A Link Between Worlds last fall for the 3DS.  Creating a direct sequel now for A Link to the Past could be viewed as an immense challenge on the part of Nintendo, or a sign that the company is running out of ideas and looking to cash-in on a classic game.  As far as I’m concerned, an all new Zelda title for the 3DS is a good thing regardless of what ties it has to other games, but I won’t deny it tickled me to go back to the Hyrule I knew over twenty years ago.

As best as I can tell, A Link Between Worlds takes place generations after the events of A Link to the Past.  The map layout is the same though and fans of the old game should feel right at home in this one.  Plot wise, it’s basically tried and true Zelda:  an evil wizard kidnaps the princess and wreaks havoc across the land and only Link can reunite the three components of the triforce and save the day.  Replacing the dark world from the first game is Lorule, an alternate Hyrule that uses a similar color palette to the familiar dark world but is broken apart with large chasms sealing off routes.  The game is quite pleasing to the eyes without being a graphical powerhouse.  Character and enemy designs from A Link to the Past are recreated here with more detail and more color.  The soundtrack is upbeat containing many familiar tunes as well as some new compositions.  It often suits the setting exceptionally well, and rarely ever does a Zelda soundtrack disappoint.

Link's newest ability allows him to become a painting on a wall and move around on it.

Link’s newest ability allows him to become a painting on a wall and move around on it.

A Link Between Worlds not only looks familiar, but also plays familiar.  Link obtains most of the items from the first game with really only one or two new ones playing any kind of significant role.  Link is controlled with the circle pad this time around instead of a directional pad, which is to be expected and functions fine, though I did find it challenging to be precise with projectile weapons, something I don’t remember being a problem in A Link to the Past.  There’s some emphasis placed on the early dungeons to show multiple levels at once for Link to traverse, presumably to take advantage of the 3D, but is mostly abandoned quickly.  I did not play the game in 3D, but I suppose it’s fine for those who like it.  As one can probably deduce from that statement, there are no 3D-specific puzzles in this game such as the ones found in Super Mario 3D Land that force the player to switch on the function, which is fine by me.

Where A Link Between Worlds looks to separate itself from other Zelda titles is with the merge ability Link acquires early in the game.  Merge allows Link to become a painting and move along walls.  He can go behind some objects this way or slip through cracks and around corners, as well as apply the power in other creative ways.  It did take me some getting used to, but overall I found it to be an enjoyable addition to the game and one of the better gimmicks to be featured in a Zelda game.  Utilizing the power is easy, but it does take some time to get one’s brain trained in a way to make use of it.  There were a few times I was stumped on how to reach a treasure chest or other location only to realize the solution was pretty obvious once my mind caught up and applied the merge ability correctly.  Aside from that, most of the other challenges and puzzles should feel familiar to Zelda veterans as they’ll know when to use the hookshot or drop a bomb.

Veterans of A Link to the Past should feel right at home here.

Veterans of A Link to the Past should feel right at home here.

The setup for A Link Between Worlds is basically identical to A Link to the Past.  The game starts off in Hyrule with Link having to make his way through three early dungeons before a confrontation at Hyrule Castle opens up a path to Lorule.  Link is able to traverse worlds via fissures that appear in walls and various structures that require him to merge with the surface and slide in.  As these fissures are found, they’ll appear on the map permanently and some areas are only reachable by exploiting them.  Surprisingly, only one dungeon requires the player to bounce between worlds which is something I thought would be exploited further.

The other heavily advertised feature of A Link Between Worlds is the non-linear nature of the game’s dungeons.  Once the player reaches Lorule, they can conquer the dungeons in any order they wish (save for one, which requires an item obtained from beating another) before heading off to Lorule Castle for the final battle.  This feature is enabled by having all of the traditional Zelda items available to Link from the get-go.  Very early in the game, a merchant by the name of Ravio opens up shop in Link’s house.  Here Link can rent any item for a small fee and hang onto it until he falls in battle.  Link can rent as many items as are available, so if the player enters a dungeon that requires the ice rod, for example, the player can simply go rent it if he hasn’t already.  Most players, myself included, will probably rent every item right away and risk having to rent them all again should a game over screen rear its ugly head.  Making the game non-linear in this way is kind of fun, but does lessen the reward for getting through a dungeon.  Each one still has something for the player to find, but not really on the same level as the usual.  It would have been nice if Nintendo added more items to the game for players to find to make-up for this, but oh well.

Many of the game's bosses feel familiar too.

Many of the game’s bosses feel familiar too.

A Link Between Worlds has one other distinguishing feature when compared with its predecessor:  it’s exceptionally easy.  Aside from Zelda II, no Zelda title really has a reputation for being a hard game, but most of them are challenging and have at least one dungeon that sends gamers running to the nearest FAQ.  A Link Between Worlds contains no such dungeons and most Zelda veterans will never see a game over screen when playing it.  I do not consider myself an exceptional gamer, but I did not die once while playing this game.  In addition to that, I had no trouble finding every heart piece, each of the lost maimais (little squid-crab hybrids hidden around Hyrule and Lorule), or toppling the game’s gauntlet scenario twice.  The dungeon puzzles are clever at times, but aren’t likely to leave gamers stumped for any significant length of time.  As for the enemies, I think many are made easier this time around because just about all of them can be taken down with the sword.  Even some enemies from A Link to the Past, such as those statues with a central eye, that required a certain item to fell can be taken down with the sword.  It’s also the type of game that starts off harder than it finishes, mostly because adding hearts remedies any challenging enemies or bosses weak.  Most of the bosses also are retreads of past ones, so there’s less trial and error.  Also making every item available at the start contributes to an easier game.  All of them consume stamina when used, which regenerates over a short period of time, so players can spam the powerful fire rod if they so desire and most enemies are susceptible to the freezing powers of the boomerang and hookshot (and if they aren’t, there’s the ice rod).

Difficulty issues aside, A Link Between Worlds is an enjoyable Zelda title that I was sad to see end.  It’s about as long as most handheld Zelda titles.  Playing at a very deliberate pace and obtaining all items, chests, and so on, the game lasted exactly 20 hours and 2 minutes for me according to the logs on my 3DS.  It was a fairly swift 20 hours with most of the game’s dungeons lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to a half hour at most.  A lot of my time was spent roaming Hyrule and Lorule and at least an hour was spent on the Octorok baseball mini-game.  Once the game is finished a harder hero mode becomes available.  I haven’t tried it, but apparently the only difference between that and the regular game is that enemies do more damage, which should help to make the game at least a little more challenging.  If Nintendo set out to eclipse A Link to the Past then it came up short, and from that perspective A Link Between Worlds is a disappointment.  As a Zelda game though, it’s great entertainment and something all 3DS owners should pick up.

Ranking the Mario Games – Part 2

It’s part two of The Nostalgia Spot’s look at Super Mario games.  In this section, a couple of under-appreciated titles and a few too recent to benefit from the effects of nostalgia, but I’ll try not to hold that against them.  Part one can be found here.

10.  Super Mario Bros. 2/Super Mario USA (1988, Nintendo Entertainment System)

Mario throws vegetables now.  Accept it!

Mario throws vegetables now. Accept it!

The American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 has always been the black sheep of the Mario family.  It was pretty weird going from the original Super Mario Bros. to this game.  There were no fire flowers, no goombas, no koopas, no Bowser or green warp pipes.  In their place were shy guys, flying carpets, vases, an egg-shooting bird-dinosaur thing, and Wart. By now, most people know that Super Mario Bros. 2 was so odd compared to the first game because it actually wasn’t a Mario game.  Originally released as Doki Doki Panic in Japan, Nintendo re-skinned the characters and added a few Mario-type items to the game for the American audience after Nintendo of America rejected the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2.  What most people didn’t know at the time, and what many still don’t realize, is that this Super Mario Bros. 2 is actually the REAL Super Mario Bros. 2!  The game that would be released as Doki Doki Panic in Japan actually started off as Super Mario Bros. 2.  Mario’s daddy, Shigeru Miyamoto, wanted to really change things up for the sequel with more characters and an emphasis on vertically scrolling levels.  A prototype was developed by Kensuke Tanabe, but when the project became too ambitious Nintendo basically got cold feet so they put the brakes on it and went the safe route for the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2.  Not wanting to waste the foundation of the game, it was re-dressed for release as Doki Doki Panic.  By the time Nintendo of America was clamoring for a different sequel, Nintendo’s development techniques had improved enough to the point that it was comfortable going full speed ahead with this iteration of Super Mario Bros. 2.  It was so successful that it would be released in Japan later as Super Mario USA, and today it’s pretty much considered the preferred Super Mario Bros. 2 in all territories.  Even knowing that, it’s still a weird game and a lot of the sprites created for Doki Doki Panic were left in which is why there’s no familiar Mario enemies.  Instead of jumping on enemies to destroy them, Mario can stand on top of them and lift them up and hurl them as projectiles or do the same with vegetables.  The jumping and platforming is just as good as ever, and the soundtrack is beyond catchy.  The game looks nice, and the additions of Luigi, Toad, and Princess Toadstool as playable characters added variety.  One thing Miyamoto really wanted to get into the game was simultaneous co-op, but that would end up needing another 20 years for refinement.  Super Mario Bros. 2 is often overshadowed by the game that followed it, but it was an improvement on the original, albeit unconventional.  It’s odd take on the Super Mario franchise is what makes it endearing decades later.

9.  Super Mario Sunshine (2002, Gamecube)

Being a plumber is a stinky job.

Being a plumber is a stinky job.

I must confess, part of my placing Super Mario Sunshine immediately after Super Mario Bros. 2 is because it just seems so appropriate.  The games are both great examples of their genre, but both find themselves some-what unloved among the other Mario titles.  Super Mario Sunshine was a late arrival on the Gamecube, late in the sense that it wasn’t there for the system’s launch.  Mario had been a fixture at every Nintendo system launch of any consequence before, so gamers kind of just assumed he’d always be there.  With the Gamecube, Luigi got to bat lead-off for a change with his first solo outing leaving Mario to arrive a year later.  Super Mario Sunshine is the sequel to Super Mario 64 and just the second 3D Mario title in the span of six years.  1996-2002 was kind of a dry spell for Mario, but Super Mario Sunshine is another superb outing for the venerable plumber.  Unfortunately, Nintendo saw fit to saddle Mario with FLUDD, a water-powered jetpack type of thing that dominates a lot of the gameplay.  FLUDD really wasn’t well-received by Mario fans (though reviewers seemed to enjoy it) even though it was a rather fine gameplay addition for the most part.  With such an established star as Mario though, fans are often resistant to change.  Super Mario Sunshine brought back a lot of the platforming elements of prior games with an emphasis on level exploration.  It was well conceived, and using FLUDD as a means of propelling Mario along works quite well.  It’s the more mundane actions that become tiresome, such as needing to spray the environment clean incessantly.  As the player, you’ll do a lot of just standing around spraying water.  There’s also the need to replenish the water supply that’s not much fun.  Yoshi did make his return in Sunshine, and Bowser Jr. his official debut.  Super Mario Sunshine is a game that’s likely better than most people remember, and is absolutely still worth checking out.

8.  New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009, Nintendo Wii)

New power-ups and co-op play; it's all you really need to know about New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

New power-ups and co-op play; it’s all you really need to know about New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

New Super Mario Bros. brought the plumbers back to 2D in a way that was commercially very successful, though creatively felt more like a straight nostalgia trip and little else.  Which was fine, but I’m not sure what people expected of the franchise going forward, or if it even would be a true franchise.  New Super Mario Bros. Wii arrived three years later and for a home console this time, the Nintendo Wii.  This is where the franchise really started to leave it’s mark, with more interesting power-ups and better level design.  For the first time a Mario game was also able to be played cooperatively with up to four players all at once.  This was something Nintendo wanted to do as early as Super Mario Bros. 2, but the technology just wasn’t there.  To be fair, it’s not New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s strongest point as only two players of equal skill will be able to find much enjoyment in co-op.  Otherwise, it feels more like Sonic the Hedgehog 2 with one player controlling the action and the other frantically trying to keep up.  The level design for the Wii game is much better though, after being mostly forgettable on the DS.  The added power-ups of the propeller suit and ice flower/penguin suit also add to the experience.  The propeller suit especially is one of the more fun power-ups to come along in a Mario game.  With a flick of the wrist, the propeller on the player’s head spins sending Mario ever higher on the screen and allowing for a slow descent.  Yoshi, again, is back but is limited only to certain stages which is kind of disappointing.  The challenge is a bit better than the DS title, though it’s still a pretty easy game for Mario veterans.  The final showdown with Bowser is both memorable and, if you’re aiming to collect all of the star coins, pretty tricky as well.  The reintroduction of the Koopalings is also a welcome development after the many repetitive boss battles in the first game.  New Super Mario Bros. Wii is another fun 2D Mario game, though it falls short of being a truly remarkable.

7.  New Super Mario Bros. U (2012, Nintendo Wii U)

For the first time ever, Mario is in HD but the end result won't knock your socks off.

For the first time ever, Mario is in HD but the end result won’t knock your socks off.

It should be considered a good thing that the most recent entry in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise is the best.  Though that does kind of ignore the fact that the edition released just a few months prior to New Super Mario Bros. U is the worst in the series.  The console editions are the stronger games, and they’ve apparently had a little more love during their development cycles.  New Super Mario Bros. U also has the distinction of being the first original Mario title to debut alongside new hardware since Super Mario 64 back in 1996.  Unfortunately for the Wii U, while New Super Mario Bros. U is a good and enjoyable title it’s not the system-seller that Super Mario 64 was.  Sales of the Wii U have been putrid, to put it nicely, so a lot of people still haven’t played this one.  Admittedly, when I first played it last year I was feeling a little fatigue after just recently finishing New Super Mario Bros. 2 and it took me awhile to actually play through this one.  That’s not the game’s fault, though I suppose it is a short-coming for the title that, despite being in HD, it still looks and plays more or less the same as the previous games.  The game borrows conceptually from Super Mario World in how the map is laid out.  There are several hidden paths and special levels to uncover throughout the game and each world has its own distinguishing features.  They’re also controlled by one of the seven Koopalings once again, with the King of Koopas waiting at Peach’s castle for Mario to arrive and save his princess.  All of the power-ups from New Super Mario Bros. Wii return though in a diminished capacity.  The main new power-up is the flying squirrel suit, which makes too much sense for a Mario game.  With it, Mario can glide and he knifes through the air rather quickly, as opposed to the slow descent of the super cape or tanooki suit.  He gets a one-time hop in flight that does bring him to that slow descent we’re used to.  He also has the ability to cling to walls, though he can’t move along them (which is what the new cat suit will allow in the upcoming Super Mario 3D World).  I was a bit lukewarm on the suit initially, but after extended playing time I’ve actually come to enjoy it quite a bit.  It’s different, and probably Mario’s best flying suit since the cape.  The best thing I can say about New Super Mario Bros. U though is the difficulty.  It’s still exceptionally easy to rack up 99 lives, but the levels in this game will actually force gamers to use those lives.  The star coins are also better hidden, and like previous games extra levels are unlocked after defeating Bowser for the first time.  If the main game isn’t challenging enough, there are extra challenge levels that are designed to bring about controller-smashing frustration.  Lastly, the game also makes use of the Wii U gamepad by allowing it to function as a second screen, meaning you don’t even need your television on to play the game.  I’ve said a lot about a game that basically feels like more of the same, but New Super Mario Bros. U is the best side-scrolling Mario game since Super Mario World, so I suppose it deserves all of these words.

6.  Super Mario 3D Land (2011, Nintendo 3DS)

Many of the stages in 3D Land exist in a three-dimensional environment but force Mario to a 2D-like path.

Many of the stages in 3D Land exist in a three-dimensional environment but force Mario to a 2D-like path.

Over the years, Mario fans have become divided into two camps:  the ones that prefer the 2D side-scrolling games and those that prefer the 3D titles.  In truth, most fans like both but there are preferences.  In general, those that grew up with the 8-bit NES tend to prefer the games that remind them of the old titles, while those who first experienced Mario via the Nintendo 64 tend to favor the 3D games.  For the first time, Nintendo decided to try and please both with a single title:  Super Mario 3D Land.  This was not just Mario’s first 3D portable adventure, but also his first trek on Nintendo’s new 3DS handheld and Mario was expected to demonstrate the advantages of stereoscopic 3D gaming.  I don’t know if Mario was able to sell audiences on that feature, but people in general seemed to love the game and with good reason.  The style of the game is basically an open world concept for each stage, but with each level being a small level reminiscent of the old games.  Some of these levels force Mario into more of a 2D plane that may allow Mario to hop in and out of the foreground and background.  The use of stereoscopic 3D meant a few stages at a high camera angle and some platforms are nearly impossible to negotiate without the 3D effect enabled.  For power-ups, the tanooki suit was brought back but in a diminished capacity as Mario could only slow his descent, not fly (the stone form ability from Super Mario Bros. 3 is only available after beating the game once), which was a shame.  The boomerang bros. suit was the other hyped addition and it’s a good alternative to the traditional fire flower (and a nice homage to the hammer bros. suit from Super Mario Bros. 3).  The layout of the map is as linear as it gets, but completing the game once opens up what amounts to a second game.  The first set of stages are fairly painless for Mario veterans, but the bonus worlds are much tougher and contain a good amount of challenge.  Mostly, the game works as designed, though I could do without the 3D effects.  Mario controls well and the approach allows the developers to pick and choose from the best of Mario’s past and stuff it all into one game.  Hopefully Nintendo is able to build off of this game and it ends up being the first game in another successful Mario franchise, the Wii U is banking on it.

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons

The Legend of Zelda:  Oracle of Seasons (2001)

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (2001)

The Legend of Zelda series tends to be late to the party when it comes to Nintendo’s newest technology.  The only exceptions I can recall would be A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess.  Twilight Princess should come with an asterisk though considering it was in development as a Gamecube game (and even released on that platform too) before being ported to the Wii to make that system’s launch.  Typically gamers have to wait a couple of years for Link to grace their latest console or handheld.  That was especially the case when it came to the Gameboy Color.  Nintendo, partnered with Capcom, focused on making a set of three games that would take place in the world of Zelda and interact with one another to form one grand adventure.  This would take time, and to placate eager gamers to have a Zelda adventure on the go and in color Nintendo re-released Link’s Awakening with some minor color enhancements and a new dungeon (which took full advantage of the new color palette).   Development was delayed on the series with Capcom, and eventually the three titles became two.  Worse still, they didn’t arrive to market until after the Gameboy Color’s successor hit retail; the Gameboy Advance.  Did this stop people from picking up the old tech?  Of course not, this is Zelda after all, Nintendo’s most consistent franchise.  And for those who upgraded to the Gameboy Advance, the system was backwards compatible so as long as gamers could get passed the fact that they were playing a fairly low tech set of games it was a pretty easy thing to convince them to go out and pick up the latest Zelda titles.

The Legend of Zelda:  Oracle of Ages (2001)

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (2001)

There are exceptions though, and for whatever reason I became one of them.  I was a day one purchaser of a Gameboy Advance and I was eager to upgrade my portable gaming.  I had a Gameboy Color and primarily only used it for Pokemon (I had a copy of Shantae and never got into it, and I ended up trading it in at Gamestop which proved to be a mistake).  After over a decade of playing sub-NES quality games on a Gameboy I, and many others, were more than ready for the GBA.  Plus I knew the eventual A Link to the Past Advance was on the way and figured I’d get my Zelda fix then, so I completely overlooked the two GBC games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons.  It took a long while, but finally Nintendo has released both titles on its e-shop and both are playable on the Nintendo 3DS.  A good portion of my summer has been spent on these two titles, and in short, they’re quality Zelda experiences.  You don’t want short though, so feel free to read on for more!

If you’re an owner of a 3DS and are thinking of playing these games I would recommend that you play Link’s Awakening DX first, if you have not done so already.  While the games are not connected in a narrative sense, the three play pretty much identically to one another with the Oracle games feeling like sequels.  I imagine the fact that the groundwork was laid with Link’s Awakening is what allowed Nintendo to feel comfortable about handing the series over to Capcom.  These portable Zelda games all feature diminished visuals when compared to most of the series, with the only exception being the original Legend of Zelda.  Link can have two items equipped at any one time via the A and B buttons, and they can be any two items the player wants making it theoretically possible for Link to go thru the bulk of the game without a sword.  These games also are unique in that they allow Link to jump once a certain item is obtained.  Link could jump in the side-scrolling Adventure of Link, but not in his other top-down adventures.  The portable games also bring back the side-scrolling screens present in the first game often as a basement of sorts throughout the various dungeons.  There are some sequences where Link has to swim and some familiar faces from the mushroom kingdom make appearances.  I actually prefer Link’s Awakening to the Oracle games in large part because of all of the Mario references which just give the game this offbeat feel.  There’s even a sequence where Link needs to take a chain-chomp for a walk.

Both games feature animal companions for Link to make use of.  Here he is just hanging out in a kangaroo pouch.

Both games feature animal companions for Link to make use of. Here he is just hanging out in a kangaroo pouch.

Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons distinguish themselves from the prior games with their special items, the harp of ages of rod of seasons, respectively.  In Oracle of Ages, Link is able to use his harp to move thru time.  Early versions of the harp only allow him to do so at certain patches of soil but later versions allow him to move thru time at will.  Since there are only two versions of Labrynna, where the game takes place, it’s bound to evoke a similar feel to the light and dark worlds from A Link to the Past.  As expected, changing things in the past affect the present, which is sort of the nature of the game.  It’s not real specific though, and sometimes the past or present is different from each other seemingly just for sake of it (sometimes a wall is bomb-able in the past, but not the present, which doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense).  As such, I was actually kind of disappointed with the whole time-traveling aspect of the game and it started to feel like a hassle.  In Oracle of Seasons, Link is able to manipulate the seasons with the rod of seasons.  This has obvious applications such as lakes becoming frozen in winter or dried up in summer.  A weird type of mushroom is only harvestable in the fall, and certain special flowers only bloom in the spring.  Having to cycle thru each season one at a time is a bit of a chore, but overall I felt the application of the seasons worked better than the time-travel in Ages and it also offered a fun visual change as well.  The only thing I didn’t like about it was that sections of the overworld map are arbitrarily broken out and are assigned a default season.  This results in the player changing the season on one screen, and then having it switch to another season by going as few as one screen over.  The designers obviously did this to make it easier on them to block off certain sections of the map until Link obtained a certain item, but it feels lazy.

In addition to their gimmick, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are often distinguished by type of gameplay present.  Ages is often described as being the more puzzle-centered game with Seasons being more action-oriented. I found this to mostly be the case, but make no mistake, both are tried and true Zelda experiences.  There are still plenty of enemies to take down in Ages, and there’s also plenty of dungeon puzzles to solve in Seasons.  I expected to enjoy Ages more as I usually like the Zelda puzzles, but I actually ended up preferring Seasons.  The problem I have with Ages is just that a lot of the puzzles felt really drawn out and the constant switching between items (since there are only two action buttons on a GBC, everytime you need to re-assign something you have to go into the menu and do it) could get tiresome.   There are also plenty of “Zelda Puzzles,” which to me mean puzzles with no logical solution that forces the player into trial and error mode.  These types of situations seem to crop in every Zelda title and are often the result of the game just not being consistent.  There was one dungeon where I got stuck for a while because I couldn’t figure out how to get a pot onto a floor switch that needed to be pressed in order to open a door.  I tried all kinds of different things and just couldn’t get it.  Then I just stepped on it with Link and walked off and the door stayed open.  Every other switch in the game necessitates an object being placed on it to keep the door open.  I was so annoyed.   That’s a Zelda puzzle.  There were some of these in Seasons too, but they just felt more prevalent in Ages.

One of the optional bosses from a linked game:  Twinrova.

One of the optional bosses from a linked game: Twinrova.

Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons share many of the same dungeon items.  Both also have a trading game which leads to an improved sword for Link and both feature seeds.  All around the map are soft patches of soil where Link can plant a seed.  After a certain amount of enemies are slain a tree with a nut will sprout and inside the nut will be an item.  Usually this item is a ring, which is the only equip-able accessory for Link in both games.  They usually add some function or improve another such as Link’s throwing distance or damage output.  They’re not all that essential to the experience, and both games seem to have the same rings.  There’s also a password system that allows players to transport items back and forth between games.  This is the only way to get some traditional Zelda items like the mirror shield and master sword.  These items just make the game easier, and to be honest, they’re easy enough as is, so I never did much with them.  I did take advantage of the game-link where beating one game provides a password for the other game which alters the story.  The story in both games is basically crap, but if you want to face the ultimate boss you have to link the games and it does add a little more fun to the experience.

I’ve been a bit nit-picky with these games, but both are enjoyable and worthwhile entries in the Legend of Zelda series.  If you were to play only one, I would recommend Oracle of Seasons as I found it to be the better overall experience.  One thing I liked about Seasons over Ages is how it’s a total nostalgia trip for gamers who played the original Legend of Zelda.  Oracle of Ages is basically just as good though, and if you can, you really should just play both.  These two games, together with Link’s Awakening, are among the best portable games ever created and are still the best portable Zelda games ahead of The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.  Hopefully, the upcoming A Link Between Worlds is able to give them a run for their money as these games have reigned supreme for long enough.

New Super Mario Bros. 2

New Super Mario Bros. 2 (2012)

For awhile it seemed like Nintendo had adopted a one Mario title per console policy.  Back on the original Nintendo when Mario was first making a name for himself we were treated to several wonderful titles that lead into the launch of the Super Nintendo which gave us Super Mario World.  After that though, Mario stopped showing up as frequently in his own adventures.  Sure he’d pop up here and there to play some sports and race some go-karts, but he was held to one lone outing on the Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, and the Gamecube.  And it wasn’t like he was taking his talents to the handhelds, after Super Mario Land 2 he pretty much stopped showing up there as well.  The Gameboy Color and the Gameboy Advance didn’t even have a Super Mario Bros. game of their own, just ports of the old ones.

The Nintendo DS looked to be heading in the same direction when it launched alongside a port of Super Mario 64.  It was around that time that Nintendo had really fallen back in terms of market share, losing considerable ground to Sony in its native Japan and lagging behind both Sony and Microsoft in other parts of the world.  Nintendo needed a boost, so they turned to their old reliable mascot.  They decided to appeal to their older gamers through nostalgia and crafted a game that was as much about entertaining the gamer as it was about being a tribute to the original Super Mario Bros.  That game ended up being New Super Mario Bros. and when it arrived on the scene in 2006 for the DS gamers and critics alike were taken back to the good old days where Mario hopped and bopped his way through a level and found a flag pole at the end.  New Super Mario Bros. quickly became the best-selling title on the DS as the handheld took off.  The Nintendo Wii arrived later that year and really helped boost Nintendo’s popularity.  For that console, three traditional Mario games have been released to date which is quite a change in direction.  The Wii was given the Galaxy series as well as its own entry in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise.  The successor to the Wii, the Wii U, is expected to launch this fall with its own New Super Mario Bros. game and the Nintendo 3DS just received New Super Mario Bros. 2 this past Sunday.

For the Nintendo 3DS, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the second dedicated Mario title following last fall’s Super Mario 3D Land.  3D Land was tasked with bringing Mario into stereoscopic 3D.  It retained a lot of the 2D Mario gameplay mechanics, but instead of Mario only being able to fall off 2 sides of a platform, he can fall off all 4!  Keeping the basic gameplay to something akin to the 2D titles kept gamer’s in their comfort zone while positioning the camera to acknowledge that this was indeed a fully realized world that Mario inhabited allowed for Nintendo to make better use of the 3D effect.  It worked quite well and 3D Land ended up being well-received.  It’s probably already the best game on the 3DS and it hasn’t been challenged all that seriously since its release.

Mario’s new power-up: Pimp Mario.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 has no such gimmicks to sell.  It exists as simply the next game in the franchise.  It doesn’t seem to care about the system’s 3D capabilities and the game actually looks awful with 3D enabled.  And if we needed a reminder that this game represented a piece of the Nintendo cash-cow there’s a new emphasis on coin-collecting this time around with the ultimate goal, or rather the challenge put forth by Nintendo, being to collect one million coins.  In previous titles, the act of coin-collecting was just an impulse and a way to “buy” additional lives for Mario.  It’s no secret that recent games have sort of made a mockery of this.  Even without making every effort to obtain every coin on-screen most gamers have had no trouble racking up hundreds of extra lives for Mario as the games have become progressively easier.

To better emphasize this approach Nintendo has given Mario a new power-up:  the gold flower.  This power-up functions like the regular fire flower power up only now Mario is gold and his fireballs turn enemies and brick blocks into coins.  The fireballs have more density to them as well and pass right through enemies to take out whatever is in their path.  It’s the lone new power-up and it doesn’t show up a whole lot in the regular game unless one seeks it out via the various Toad Houses.  It is featured prominently in the new Coin Rush mode that gives the player a randomized trio of levels to rush through and collect as many coins as possible.  This mode is the one that works in conjunction with Nintendo’s street pass feature and gamers can challenge one another to beat their high score just by walking passed each other with a street pass enabled 3DS in pocket.  The mode is okay, and one million coins is quite a challenge (most will have roughly 40,000 after beating the game, so you have your work cut out for you should you attempt the million mark), but it adds nothing to the gameplay.

The original NSMB was not a very ambitious title.  In fact, it seemed intentionally basic as it tried to harken back to the original SMB.  The levels were straight-forward and Mario’s only plentiful power-ups were the fire flower and star.  There were a couple of new ones, but they appeared sparingly and almost seemed like they were included just for fun.  As a kid, I can remember discussing with other kids how cool it be if Mario could get even bigger by consuming more mushrooms.  Nintendo must have heard those conversations as it introduced the mega mushroom which made Mario the size of the screen and blessed him with destructive powers on par with Godzilla.  To pair with this, Nintendo introduced the mini mushroom which shrunk Mario down to miniscule size and allowed him to walk on water and enter pipes too small for normal Mario.  There was also a turtle shell power-up that appeared in some stages though it was mostly a dud.  It gave Mario some protection in a ducking position and allowed him to slide into enemies.  It certainly wasn’t as imaginative as the super leaf.  The mini mushroom ended up being the best of the three as it opened up new gameplay possibilities the others really didn’t.  Some critics seemed to really love NSMB, and while I definitely had a ton of fun with it, I never once thought of it as being superior to Mario’s best.  I actually thought it might end up being a one and done kind of thing, but it made so much money for Nintendo that proved impossible.

I was hoping the sequels would be more ambitious, but the first sequel really didn’t add much.  NSMBWii added co-op play and a couple of new power-ups like the unwieldy penguin suit and the propeller suit.  It was a big game, and a fun one, but it seems Nintendo is only really interested in imitating the old games and not really pushing things.  Which brings me back to New Super Mario Bros. 2.

The Koopalings, or Koopa Kids, are back and they’ve even brought with them an old toy!

NSMB2 borrows a page from Super Mario 3D Land and resurrects an old favorite, this time the super leaf.  The leaf was present in 3D Land but in that game it bestowed Mario with a tanooki suit.  This time it’s returned to its old function which is to give Mario raccoon ears and a tail and allows him to fly, just as it did in Super Mario Bros. 3.  The mega mushroom and mini mushroom are here as well, but their presence is more like a cameo than anything as they show up quite sparingly.  Gameplay wise, it’s the same old thing as Mario goes from world to world, level to level, combating Bowser and trying to save the princess.  The Koopalings return and Mario will have to topple one at the end of each of the game’s five levels before taking on Bowser at the end of world six.  That’s not a typo.  There are only six worlds this time around when traditionally there’s always been eight.  There are secret worlds but having only six main ones is kind of a letdown.  The secret worlds are the Mushroom, Flower, and Star worlds.  The Mushroom and Flower worlds can be accessed by finding secret exits in one of the levels which lead to warp canons.  Instead of the canons firing Mario (or Luigi, don’t want to forget about him!) to the world it fires him through a special stage.  These stages are brief but remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog as Mario is forced to run full speed.  Mario has to time his jumps perfectly and bounce off of enemies to clear gaps.  Or he can use a super leaf and mostly fly over the whole thing.

These canon levels end up being some of the game’s most challenging, because the rest is a cake-walk.  Super Mario 3D Land was pretty easy and I had over a hundred extra lives when I beat it, but in this one I had over 400.  It’s just not a hard game.  At all.  The boss encounters are particularly pathetic.  There’s a castle and a fortress in each world.  In the fortress, Super Mario World’s Reznor returns as the boss there.  If you forgot, Reznor is actually a group of fire-breathing dinosaurs on a big wheel contraption.  In SMW, Mario would have to bop all four off their place on the wheel while the ground he stood on was destroyed.  Reznor gets a bit more inventive in this one as some fortresses feature dual wheels, but the floor is much slower to deteriorate making the encounters even easier than they were in SMW.  The boss fights with the Koopalings are at least more imaginative than they were in SMW, but again, they’re probably easier too.  None of them are particularly memorable and I certainly never died while taking them on.  The final encounter with Bowser can be counted on to up the difficulty though, right?  Ehh, not really.  It’s two parts, and the first part is just a new take on the original Bowser boss fight and exists merely as a nod to SMB.  The second part is where it’s supposed to get hard, but without spoiling anything, it’s not.  After beating the six words plus two secret ones, the Star World is opened.  I thought maybe the Star World would be like the Special World from SMB and feature the game’s biggest challenges but it really doesn’t.  The levels are shockingly basic though the final castle is noticeably more challenging than any other level.  At the end of that castle gamers will encounter Dry Bowser, a skeletal version of the terrible turtle, but the mechanics of the fight are exactly the same as they were before.

Remember these guys? They’re back too.

It’s been established that the game is exceptionally easy and not particularly long, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any fun.  I’ve had a pretty good time steering Mario along his course to rescue the princess.  One thing the NSMB series may have over the likes of SMB3 is in its controls.  Mario handles like a dream which may be one reason why these games seem so much easier than the old ones.  It’s much easier to stop Mario from sliding off a platform or to time his jumps precisely.  He has the perfect amount of weight and very rarely did I die and found myself blaming the controls.  The star coins scattered through-out the levels present a fun challenge.  They’re often not cleverly hidden but they’re also not always in plain sight.  They’re definitely easier to obtain in this game than some of the past ones.  In other games there’s usually a handful that would kill me over and over as I tried to snag it but there wasn’t a single one in this game that I had trouble with.

At the end of the day, I’m left to ponder the question at what point do I expect something more?  I’ve always had fun playing these games in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise but I don’t get the sense that Nintendo takes them entirely serious.  It’s been six years and three titles, but at no point have any of these games approached the heights of Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World.  And it’s not that I expect them to, as those are two of the greatest games ever made, but it’s just I don’t feel like Nintendo is even trying to top them.  I bought NSMB2 last Sunday and have since invested 12 hours into it and have accomplished everything.  I beat every level and acquired every star coin.  I could just play it over and over until I get a million coins, but I think I’ll hate the game if I play it that much.  There’s supposedly going to be some downloadable content in the future, but I don’t know how I feel about that.  I feel Nintendo already short-changed us on the levels in the game, so paying for more doesn’t sit well with me.  I’ll reserve judgement though for a later date.  Ultimately, anyone who buys this game knows what they’re buying.  This franchise is if anything consistent and it will entertain you, just don’t expect it to do so for very long or to offer much challenge.

The 3DS XL: Nintendo’s Imperfect Update

Nintendo has an odd relationship when it comes to portable gaming devices.  The company has experienced immense success and great failure at the same time.  And even though the company rarely is ahead of the technological curve when it comes to its hardware, it still manages to dominate in sales.  The portable section of Nintendo’s portfolio is one the company can rely on to almost always turn a profit.  The only true failure was the Virtual Boy, a complete and total misfire.  The 3DS had a failed launch, but since a dramatic price cut and better software releases, the handheld has surged.  It may not have been profitable in 2011, but it almost certainly will be in 2012.

Nintendo’s approach to its main handheld units has been fairly consistent.  The original Game Boy was launched in 1989 and was Nintendo’s first true portable console.  The company had already made a name for itself in portable stand-alone games under the Game & Watch label, but the Game Boy operated like a home console and could switch out the software whenever the user wished.  The unit was fairly powerful for the time, though not on par with home console devices.  It had the same button layout as Nintendo’s home console, which made adapting games easy once accounting for the reduced tech.  Many companies tried to usurp the Game Boy as the market leader in portable gaming devices and all took the approach of releasing more powerful, color based systems.  Nintendo’s strategy of sacrificing power for better battery consumption proved correct as the Game Boy lasted for the entire duration of the 90’s while more powerful handhelds like the Game Gear and Lynx faded away (though the Game Gear was moderately successful in its own right, but sales for it amounted to about 1/10 of Game Boy’s).

In 1996 Nintendo introduced a new Game Boy to market, the Game Boy Pocket.  It was the same hardware, just shrunk down to a more portable style that required fewer batteries to operate.  This was the first major revision for the Game Boy, and the second would come in 1998 with the introduction of the long-awaited Game Boy Color.  The Game Boy Color did have the distinction of being slightly more powerful than the old hardware, but not by leaps and bounds.  Some games designed for it would not work on older Game Boys, making it arguably its own distinct handheld and not an actual revision.

The first revision to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Pocket, made the device more portable and more economical.

The Game Boy’s first true successor was the Game Boy Advance which was released in 2001.  While all previous Game Boys had a vertical format, the GBA had a horizontal one similar to the Game Gear.  It had a 32-bit processor but a lack of any 3D capabilities made it more comparable to a Super Nintendo than say a Playstation.  Aside from the enhanced tech capabilities, the only other major addition was the inclusion of two shoulder buttons.  Many fans were disappointed that Nintendo didn’t add two additional face buttons which would have made SNES to GBA ports near perfect.  Like the original Game Boy, the GBA would receive multiple revisions.  The first was the GBA SP, which made the GBA resemble an old Game Boy Pocket but with a hinge in the middle so it could be folded and stored away to protect the screen (and make it more portable).  The major addition to the SP though was the inclusion of a front-light, something gamers had been demanding for over a decade.  No additional buttons were added though, and the new design was less comfortable than the original but the inclusion of the light, rechargeable battery, and screen protection made it superior.  A third revision would follow in 2005, the GBA Micro.  The Micro removed the backwards compatibility of the SP with original Game Boy cartridges, but shrunk the whole thing into a tiny size that resembled a Famicom/NES controller.  The unit was also back-lit and provided a slightly better picture, though at a reduced size.   At the same time, a new GBA SP was released that had a back-lit screen instead of a front-lit, which was much more effective.  This was more of a running change than a true revision, but worth noting.

The Nintendo DS followed the GBA in 2005 and has been no stranger to revisions.  The original was bulky and unattractive, and a new model was released in 2006.  Dubbed the DS Lite, it was a more streamlined take on the console.  The DSi would follow the Lite and add better networking capabilities, an SD card slot, camera, and slightly larger screen.  The final revision to the DS came in the form of the DSi XL, just an over-sized DSi.

Which brings me to the 3DS.  When the 3DS was launched last year most gamers assumed a revision was inevitable.  I was a day one purchaser of the unit, and while I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit, there’s no denying there are some obvious short-comings that could be addressed with a future update.  The system is designed just like a DS, but Nintendo made some odd choices with the unit that do cause minor problems.  For one, the bottom screen is smaller than the top.  This isn’t necessarily an issue in and of itself, but there’s a raised border around the bottom screen that causes lines to form on the top screen when the unit is closed.  Mine hasn’t caused any permanent damage, but it is annoying to have to clean the top screen every time I use it.  The circle pad causes a similar issue on the top piece, but not on the screen thankfully.  And ever since the unit’s reveal, gamers have yearned for a second circle pad, which was addressed by Nintendo with the Circle Pad Pro attachment.  The attachment not only adds the desired second circle pad, but also adds two additional shoulder buttons to the unit putting it on par with home console controllers.  The attachment works, but is bulky as Hell and using the face buttons with it is some-what cumbersome.  The overall power of the unit, particularly the screen resolution, is not very impressive either.  Especially when compared with the more recently released Playstation Vita.

Most expected Nintendo to unveil a new 3DS at E3 this year.  Early reports out of China before the show seemed to confirm this, but come show-time nothing was seen.  In a questionable move, Nintendo chose to reveal the 3DS XL after E3 in an online developer conference.  The 3DS XL is the expected update to the 3DS, but is it the update gamers had been looking forward to?  In short:  No.

The 3DS XL is exactly what the name implies.  It’s an over-sized 3DS.  This isn’t a bad thing on its own.  While a larger 3DS is less portable, the original is pretty cramped and a larger one would work better for those who tend to play their 3DS in longer play sessions as opposed to quick bursts.  And even though it presumably requires more power to function when compared with the current model, the XL will reportedly have slightly better battery life (5-8 hours for 3DS games).

Congrats Nintendo! It only took you a few short months to render this attachment useless!

If the biggest issue gamers had with the 3DS were its size and battery life (a legitimate complaint), the XL would be well received.  And when it hits stores it very well may be.  For me, this update is fairly pointless.  The screen size has been enhanced, but the resolution remains the same.  The resolution on the current 3DS is underwhelming at best.  Games that look good on the unit do so in spite of the unit’s resolution.  A game like Resident Evil: Revelations is fairly impressive from a visual standpoint, but the low-res picture washes out the image and adds a blurry texture to everything.  Especially in the darker environments, I felt like I needed to wipe off the screen constantly even though there was nothing on it.  I played the game with the Circle Pad Pro, which as I mentioned, is a cumbersome add-on.  It does improve the gameplay though, but for some reason Nintendo did not incorporate it into the design of the XL.  The unit is bigger, one would think this would allow Nintendo to add the additional shoulder buttons, or at the very least, a second circle pad!  Nintendo chose not to, which not only seems foolish, but renders the Circle Pad Pro unusable with the XL.  A game like RE: Revelations will most likely play worse on the XL because of the controller configuration, and look worse because the low-res image is being blown-up beyond its intended size.  And perhaps just to add one last bit of insult to injury, the bottom screen is still smaller than the top and the raised border still exists so it’s likely the same screen line problem of the current 3DS will be prevalent here.

Obviously, I can’t pass judgement on a piece of hardware that isn’t even available yet.  It’s entirely possible that the 3DS XL is superior to the current 3DS based on the increased size and superior battery life enough to justify a purchase, or even an upgrade.  I’ll be surprised if that’s my opinion come August when the unit hits stores alongside New Super Mario Bros. 2 as it fails to address the real problems I personally have with the 3DS.  Plus if I were to upgrade it would render my Circle Pad Pro useless which is not something I am eager to do (but would have been willing to do if the new 3DS made it obsolete by incorporating its features into the design).  This just seems like a completely unnecessary update to the current hardware.

What to Make of E3 2012?

If you’re even remotely into video games then you know that every June the Electronic Entertainment Expo (better known as E3) takes place in LA and all of the major players in the video game world unveil to the public what they have in store for the masses.  Often times E3 is the first chance for gamers to get a look at the next big “thing” from the major developers, be that thing a new console or the return of a beloved franchise.  This year’s E3 promised to reveal more about Nintendo’s next machine, the Wii U, and the public figured to get its first look at the latest in long-running franchises like Halo and Super Mario Bros.  As for surprises, well it was entirely possible, though not likely, we’d get some info on the successors to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 and maybe a new 3DS.  Now that E3 2012 is in the books, what did I think of it?  I’m glad you asked!


I’m lumping these two together for reasons that will be obvious once I’m done.  Both console publishers weren’t expected to unveil new hardware at E3 and instead would aim to boost their current market share.  Microsoft, predictably, threw a bunch of Kinect stuff at the attendees since that’s presently making them a boatload of money even if the “hardcore” gaming community couldn’t care less about it.  There was Halo 4 though, which was the game most Xbox fans were interested in.  As the first Halo not developed by Bungie, there is some uncertainty surrounding it but it seems like most were satisfied.  Beyond that it was mostly third party games that were spotlighted and some kind of fancy touch-screen junk.  Ho-hum.

Sony was expected to tout the Vita to PS3 connectivity in hopes of boosting the Vita’s severely lacking sales.  Sony’s presentation ended up looking like a business meeting at times and was a total snooze-fest.  They did talk up the connectivity of the Vita and PS3, but really didn’t get behind the Vita like I thought they would.  Like Microsoft, the emphasis was on third-party releases but Sony did flash some new exclusives such as The Last of Us and the latest from Heavy Rain developer, Quantic Dream; a new title similar to Heavy Rain called Beyond:  Two Souls.  I was surprised at how shitty 2012 looks for the Vita as the best titles coming to the handheld are PS3 ports like Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time and Guacamelee, making me feel less secure in my purchase.

Studio Ghibli is being used to help develop a game? You bet I want in on that!

If you can’t tell, I was pretty unimpressed with the offerings Sony and Microsoft made.  The game that excited me most on their machines was probably Ni No Kuni, the Level 5 and Studio Ghibli collaboration for the PS3 that’s already out in Japan.  I already knew enough about that title though, so it wasn’t like E3 was some big unveiling for it.  Plus it’s a JRPG which doesn’t attract much attention these days.  There was really nothing from Square-Enix, which surprised me, other than their produced revival of Tomb Raider which got a lot of people talking (IGN gave it the title of best game of E3), but I just can’t get excited about a Tomb Raider game.  Microsoft and Sony essentially punted on E3, and with next year’s E3 expected to showcase their new machines, I suppose it’s understandable.


Nintendo had the most to gain with E3 2012 so I expected the Big N to pull out the big guns.  After all, E3 marked the best opportunity for the company to sell the public on its latest console the Wii U, while also pumping up the money-printer known as the 3DS.

Before I get to the Wii U, let’s look at the 3DS.  Interestingly, around this time last year the handheld was floundering and Nintendo was already contemplating a price cut which it would eventually implement.  That price reduction, along with some better software, propelled the 3DS to the top of the sales charts.  Nintendo may be losing money on each unit sold right now, but it’s better than having them sit on the store shelves.  It was thought that Nintendo would show off a 3DS Lite, or as media reports before the show appeared to leak, a 3DS XL which would basically combine the existing hardware with the Circle Pad Pro attachment.  These reports proved erroneous, for now anyways, as Nintendo did not have a new 3DS to show off.  This probably has a lot to do with the current model both selling well and at a loss.  Why sink more R&D into it now?  Nintendo will likely wait for sales to slow down before unveiling a new SKU.

Ghost-busting, Luigi style.

As for the games, well the 3DS didn’t show off much new, and instead finally gave the public a glimpse into games it had already announced but had yet to really show off.  These games included both a new entry in the Paper Mario franchise and a sequel to the decade-old Luigi’s Mansion.  Both were on display at E3 this year and both pretty much delivered what I think most gamers were expecting.  Neither one appears to break the mold much, and Paper Mario:  Sticker Star has some weird sticker gimmick that I’m not sure I like, but gameplay-wise both titles appear solid.  Luigi’s Mansion:  Dark Moon is perhaps slightly more interesting just because it’s a franchise Nintendo has yet to exploit.  The first game, released as a Gamecube launch title, was a solid enough title but one that felt like it needed a sequel to fully realize its potential.  It’s surprising a sequel has taken this long and hopefully it’s a more complete game this time out.

I hope you like coins…

The big, new, title for the 3DS announced just before E3 is New Super Mario Bros. 2.  New Super Mario Bros. is one of the DS’s all-time best sellers, while New Super Mario Bros. Wii is one of the all-time best sellers period, so it’s no surprise the game is returning in 2012.  NSMB2 looks to be more of the same.  Nintendo is bringing back the leaf power-up, much as it did with Super Mario 3D Land, though this time it’s function is identical to it’s original powers in Super Mario Bros. 3, complete with P Meter and all.  It’s also incorporating the Wii version’s simultaneous play, as two players can play as Mario and Luigi at the same time, which sounds like more fun than it looks.  This edition also places emphasis on coin collecting (one of the new power-ups, a gold fire flower, lets Mario turn pretty much everything into coins) with the goal being to collect a million over the course of the game.  It’s unclear if that’s some sort of requirement or just a challenge, but it’s not something that has me excited at all.  Coin collecting, and collecting things in general in platformers, is mundane.  I don’t mind a few hidden items, like the star coins, which are usually some-what challenging to get, but just grabbing coins is often an after-thought.  The games are so easy that the player doesn’t really have to go out of their way to get coins and yet will still end up with over 100 lives.  I’ve recently been playing a lot of the Super Nintendo classic Super Mario World and I wish Nintendo would look to that title for inspiration.  The challenge in that game was finding numerous secret exits and extra levels which was far more gratifying than coin collecting.  NSMB2 does at least return the Koopalings, something I wish had been included in Super Mario 3D Land, so that’s a plus.

It also wasn’t enough to have just one new entry in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise as Nintendo also showed off New Super Mario Bros. U, the lead title for the new Wii U console.  It’s basically what you would expect, though Nintendo hopes to high-light the Wii U’s new controller.  By doing so, the Wii U game uses the Wii remotes for general play, but one person can use the new controller to add items to the levels, kind of like a Dungeon Master or something.  The game will have co-op play and will have a different set of levels than the 3DS game plus Yoshi and a new suit; the flying squirrel.

Mario’s new suit: The Flying Squirrel. At least it makes more sense than the raccoon tail.

That little segue brings me to the Wii U and why I really couldn’t care less at this point.  If you weren’t aware, the Wii U’s main selling point is this new controller.  It’s basically like a DS only with one screen and two analog sticks.  The touchscreen on it will be used differently for each game.  In ZombiU, it’s used to display little puzzles like key-code readers for doors and it’s designed to get the player to look away from the screen while hoards of zombies are descending upon the player to enhance the excitement.  In Batman: Arkham City, it just displays Batman’s gadgets and instead of selecting them with a touch of a button you use the touchscreen.  It’s also used to steer his remote bat-a-rang and control his de-encoder device.  A new title called Nintendo Land figures to show off other uses for the controller (the game is basically the Wii U’s version of Wii Sports, though marketed better by using Nintendo characters) but Nintendo hasn’t committed to it as a pack-in title, which would be a huge mistake, in my opinion.

If the uses for the controller do not wet your appetite, then I’m afraid there isn’t much going for the Wii U.  For me, it just doesn’t sound all that interesting.  It’s basically taking the DS experience to the home console.  And it’s being reported a single charge will only get you about 2 and a half hours of gameplay out of the controller which will make owning two a necessity for anyone looking to game for that length of time.  Also hurting it is the fact that some titles, like Arkham City and Mass Effect 3, will have been available for quite some time on other consoles by the time they’re released.  Do the additions to Arkham City make you want to buy it again?  I think for most the answer will be “no.”  And it’s also being reported that the Wii U may not even be as powerful as the 360 and PS3.  All of this tells me that Nintendo needs to get its big franchises onto this thing fast if it expects to move a bunch of units, because I don’t see any system sellers for it right now.

Wreck-It Ralph

I love this concept, hopefully it’s utilized well.

Have you heard about this one?  E3 isn’t known for movie reveals, but there’s also never been a movie like Wreck-It Ralph.  Best described as video game’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Wreck-It Ralph is an animated feature from Disney that’s like a love letter to gaming.  The main character (voiced by John C. Reilly), is the antagonist in a Donkey Kong-like game who is sick of being the bad guy.  The trailer features a visually amusing gag of Ralph sitting in a therapy session with some of gaming’s biggest villains including Bowser and M. Bison.  The CG-animated film is directed by Rich Moore who was the lead director on the first several seasons of Futurama which certainly bodes well for the film.  I love the concept, but honestly found the trailer underwhelming.  The jokes just weren’t very funny, but I’ll refrain from passing judgement until I actually see it.  The film is currently set for a November release.

All in all, I think E3 2012 was one of the least interesting E3’s in recent memory.  Perhaps if Nintendo had yet to unveil the Wii U it would have been more exciting, but we already saw this thing in action a year ago and this year it was all about the launch-window software, which really didn’t impress.  Nintendo also didn’t unveil any pricing, which has me concerned, as I’m sure the company doesn’t want to sell this thing at a loss like it currently is doing for the 3DS.  I’m expecting a bare-bones release, as in one controller and no pack-in games, for around $300.  Any higher and Nintendo is crazy.

And if Nintendo failed to seize the moment, Microsoft and Sony weren’t willing to steal the spotlight.  Neither company really unveiled anything new and preferred to rest on its laurels.  Sure this year’s E3 was the public’s first look at Halo 4 and The Last of Us, but I think we all have a reasonable expectation of what they’ll play like.  There were no new games shown that have me excited, and the most interesting for me was Beyond:  Two Souls but that one is still a long way off.  2012 started off with a bang, but the fall looks to be easier on the wallet, I’ll leave you to decide if that’s a good thing or not.

Playstation Vita (Helpless in the Face of New Technology II)

I didn’t go back and look, but I think I mentioned the Playstation Vita in three posts and in all three I said I wasn’t going to get one at launch.  I had purchased a 3DS at launch last year and it didn’t turn out to be the best purchasing decision of my life.  The software at launch was terrible and the entry price pretty steep.  Roughly six months later Nintendo would slash the price of the unit by a significant margin.  As an early adopter, dubbed a Nintendo Ambassador, I received ten free NES games and ten free GBA games but if given the choice I might have just chosen the cheaper unit.  And the 3DS isn’t a bad system at all.  I’ve enjoyed it now that the software has caught on and even purchased the new add-on.  It seemed unwise to be an early adopter again, especially for a Playstation product.  I’m not sure if any Playstation console has had a good launch lineup and they’re always expensive.

I could have said it until I was blue in the fact, but the simple fact of the matter is, when new technology comes out I can’t help myself.  And when I got a glimpse of what Uncle Sam was sending me as a refund I found it harder and harder to make excuses.  I lasted over a week, so I guess I can be proud of that, but as of March 4th I am an owner of a Playstation Vita.

Vita game cart. Pretty small, as you can see.

Now, I said Sony consoles tend to have expensive and poorly supported system launches and in one way the Vita is no exception.  The Vita is expensive.  There’s no way around it.  I’m a bachelor with a home and a good job.  I have no kids and my living expenses aren’t too cumbersome.  I have disposable income to throw at video games, but even so, it still didn’t entirely sit right to spend $350 on a new handheld system.  What did my $350 get me?  Well, it got me a Wi-Fi enabled Vita ($250), a 16 GB ($60) memory card, and one game ($40).  The price tag of the Vita itself isn’t awful.  It’s the same price the 3DS launched at but the Vita is the far more powerful system which makes it seem reasonable.  However, the 3DS came with a 2 GB SD card and most of the games save directly to the game’s cartridge.  There were also some pre-loaded games, nothing great but it’s something.  The Vita comes with nothing.  There’s a USB chord, an AC adapter, and some documentation.  There are some augmented reality cards that I admittedly haven’t even done anything with, but I’m not expecting much entertainment from them.  There’s no onboard memory though, and that’s the Vita’s biggest hurdle.

The memory cards are a joke.  Sixty dollars for 16 GB of memory?  That’s obscene.  And you need a memory card to play just about every game and there isn’t any onboard memory to download games to.  It looks like most of the games will require between 4,000 KB and 5,000 KB for save files.  This isn’t a scientific observation, merely what I saw on the back of each game case I looked at.  The packaging for the memory card itself says you can expect to hold 4 to 8 complete games on it, so if you’re planning on acquiring most of your games digitally you may want to go even larger.

Even smaller than the the games; the Vita's stupidly expensive memory cards.

Because of the costly memory, I suspect most will just buy game cartridges.  The cartridges are small, thumb-shaped cards.  Most will set you back $40, but there are some for $50 like Uncharted: Golden Abyss.  I picked up Rayman Origins and that cost me $40.  The cases are small but proportionately similar to a Blu Ray case.  In the case of Rayman, there was nothing inside the case except the actual game.  There is a clip for an instruction booklet, so maybe other games come with one, but this one only comes with an electronic booklet.  It’s kind of strange to have a case even this size for one tiny cartridge but whatever.  For Rayman, the load times are pretty minimal and I’m not sure how they compare with the PS3 version.  I would expect this type of medium would have pretty quick load times and would certainly be faster than the PSP’s UMD format.  I don’t know why they lack their own means of storage for game saves and have never seen it addressed.  It seems to me like they should be able to do that, but maybe I’m underestimating just how much space these games take up.

The Vita itself is an impressive piece of tech.  Which makes sense, because if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have bought it.  I’m going to skimp on the features since they’ve been covered elsewhere, but the screen is an OLED screen with touch capabilities.  There’s a second touch “panel” on the back of the system as well.  There’s cameras on the front and back and all of the buttons from the PSP are returned.  The biggest additions are the analog sticks.  The PSP’s nub is no more as the Vita features twin mini sticks that feel very similar to the PS3’s.  They do not double as buttons like the PS3 ones, which is unfortunate as that’s the only setback for the Vita.  Without the additional triggers and buttons the PS3 has, it will make certain ports trickier than others but the addition of a second analog stick is pretty significant.  And the quality of the hardware is exceptional.  The unit is larger than a PSP, but is surprisingly light.  It’s thin and very portable if you carry a messenger bag (or purse, if you’re a woman) but it’s probably not going to fit in most pockets.  And you probably wouldn’t want to try anyways without a screen protector or some kind of case.  I didn’t spring for one but I might have to eventually.

I mentioned earlier I got the Wi-Fi model.  For another $50 there’s a 3G one with service through AT&T that costs a monthly fee.  I have no interest in a monthly fee for my handheld gaming device so deciding which one to get was a no-brainer.  The device is also equipped with Blue Tooth and I assume it can be connected to certain headsets.  It also can communicate with the PS3 and the two can share a PSN account.  I checked out the remote play feature, as I never tried it with my PSP, and found it worked fine.  It basically turns your Vita into your PS3, but not all games can be accessed (for me, no games could be).  I think all of the PSOne Classics are supposed to work with the Vita, but might not yet.  Some games available across both platforms will be able to communicate with each other and some of the early releases include both a Vita version and a PS3 version.  Most of them will require a double purchase though.  It would be nice if buying the PS3 version of MLB The Show got you a discount for the Vita version, but I don’t expect Sony to go that far to please the consumer (edit: after publishing this I looked on both amazon and Gamestop’s websites and saw that if you buy both versions it will cost you $80, which is a $20 saving which is better than having to spend $100).  I’ll probably buy both versions of that one as I’m eager to test out the cross platform features with that particular title.

I spent multiple hours with Rayman Origins and found the Vita pretty comfortable.  Surprisingly, my left thumb is a bit tender which I would not have expected but it isn’t bad.  The buttons are all easy to reach though the shoulder buttons are slightly awkward, but not too bad.  Visually, the Vita (and Rayman Origins) does not disappoint.  The OLED screen is bright and vibrant offering a better picture than most plasma TVs.  It has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

The Vita, side by side with a Circle Pad Pro equipped 3DS. Neither is very portable.

It helps when the game is gorgeous too.  Rayman Origins is a direct port of the critically acclaimed PS3/360/Wii title from last year.  It’s an old school 2D platformer that will test your jumping abilities with lots of timing based challenges.  The gameplay is tried and true, and though I’m only a short way into it, I’m impressed.  Visually though it’s one of the most appealing games I’ve ever played and it doesn’t appear to have suffered one bit in being ported from consoles to the Vita.  It looks like a living cartoon.  Some cel-shaded games, like Super Paper Mario, came close to achieving such a feat but none have managed to pull it off like Rayman Origins.  The art style reminds me of 90’s era cartoons like Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life.  There’s a “zany-ness” to everything and a lot of the movements of the characters are exaggerated.  There’s more screaming than speaking, and the whole thing just seems crazy.  If you haven’t played it, and like platform games, definitely check it out.  It can be found for about $30 new for home consoles and is the type of game developers should be rewarded for making.

So for $350 I got an excellent game and a new handheld with (hopefully) plenty of memory.  I feel okay about it, but the other risk one takes on when buying a new system at launch is long-term support.  The Vita got off to an okay start in Japan, but shortly after launch sales were ground to a halt.  I haven’t seen sales figures for the US launch yet, but most of the stores I’ve been to over the last week or so are not over-flowing with units.  I’ve even seen a few sell-outs, so it would seem that the Vita is off to a good start.  I’ll be curious to see if it can maintain that momentum as the PSP wasn’t a huge success in the US, certainly not compared with Japan.

Whether it survives or not will depend largely on price and software.  The price is already out there and quite an obstacle, but if it’s moving units then maybe I’m placing too much emphasis on it.  That other problem most Sony systems face at launch is not an issue for the Vita.  There are plenty of good, and even great, games available right now.  Some, like Rayman Origins, are ports of console titles and some, like Uncharted, are all new.  For the system to flourish, developers will have to continue to support the Vita with both new titles and ports.  Some games are perfect to see ported to a handheld, especially sports titles.  If that’s all that’s out there though then gamers might get bored.  If given the choice, more often than not gamers will take a home console game over a portable.  A pick-up and play title like Rayman Origins is a rare exception, as I think that’s a game that works great for a portable.  A more in depth experience like Arkham City though is best on a home machine.

So I guess I’m happy with the Vita, for now.  I have so many games to play now, it’s borderline obscene.  It may actually be a week or more before the Vita even accompanies me on the train as I’m currently splitting my time between Tactics Ogre for the PSP and Resident Evil Revelations for the 3DS.  I will get MLB for the Vita though, and at that point I may not be able to resist playing it during my commute, but after that I have no idea what my next Vita game will be.  I guess I’ll have to start paying attention to all of these games.  I have a problem.

Circle Pad Pro: Revelation or Ruination?

Today Nintendo released a new peripheral for its handheld system, the 3DS.  Dubbed the Circle Pad Pro, this attachment adds additional buttons to the 3DS along with an additional circle pad.  To make things slightly more annoying for gamers, it’s only available through Gamestop and will set you back $20.  Me, being the curious person I am (and since I received a gift card to Gamestop for Christmas), I hit the store and picked one up for myself.

The Circle Pad Pro, the best friend of the 3DS or hungry parasite? You decide.

An additional analog stick, or circle pad, is something many gamers wanted on the 3DS from the start.  While it certainly wasn’t a make or break feature, it’s nice to have.  Ever since Sony released its first version of the Dual Shock controller for the Playstation, the dual analog setup has become commonplace on controllers.  Often one stick controls player movement and the other manipulates the camera.  Other games, like first-person shooters, use one stick for movement and the other to aim.  A genre that was once cumbersome with a controller now has gamers feeling right at home.  And going from that setup to a non dual analog setup can be a bit odd, which is probably why upcoming Playstation Vita sports two analog “nubs.”  As I played through Ocarina of Time 3D I sometimes would find myself feeling for another analog stick out of habit to move the camera, and finding none.

Even though an additional analog input is something I would like to have, my initial reaction to the Circle Pad Pro was muted.  Peripherals often never work out well for consumers.  They’re often expensive, cumbersome, and lacking in support beyond an initial batch of games.  Very few end up being worthwhile.  Then again, no one has really tried to release something like this for a portable.  I’m trying to come up with something similar and the best I can come up with is the Gameboy Printer and Camera.  Neither was worth owning.

It looks like it's trying to swallow the 3DS.

The Circle Pad Pro almost looks like it could be a stand-alone device.  It’s much bigger than the 3DS as it’s meant to house the system like a cradle.  The 3DS fits into it snugly without any locking mechanism that could scratch the system or wind up broken.  The fit is tight enough that there’s really no worry about the system sliding out, but just in case Nintendo did include a wrist strap.  The Circle Pad Pro runs off a single AAA battery (included) which is a good thing because the battery life on the 3DS is bad enough as is. For some reason Nintendo decided to fasten the battery cover in place with a non-removable screw.  It’s good that the screw can’t fall out and get lost, but why was that even necessary?  It’s annoying.  The Circle Pad Pro does add considerable weight to the system, making it weigh just about as much as a first generation PSP.  It’s also quite bulky and definitely detracts from the portability of the system. This isn’t something that fits in most pockets.  And as far as I know, the Circle Pad Pro only comes in matte black, so if you have a blue or a pink 3DS it’s going to be quite the eye sore.

The peripheral may be bulky, but how does it feel?  Pretty nice, actually.  The 3DS is small and the rectangular shape may be efficient but it’s far from comfortable.  Often my hands are pretty tired and cramp after 45 minutes with the system, especially after some Mario Kart.  I’ve spent roughly the same amount of time with my first play session with the Circle Pad Pro and can report little to no discomfort.  The attachment makes the system feel more like a controller and the added weight is actually a welcome thing when it comes to the ergonomics of the device.  The second circle pad feels just like the one on the system, which means it’s a tad loose for my taste but it certainly gets the job done.  In addition to the additional circle pad, the Circle Pad Pro also adds two additional shoulder buttons to the 3DS.  They’re clicky buttons, not triggers, but feel fine.

Rear view, for those who like that sort of thing.

It’s not all gravy though.  The peripheral does cover up the game card slot so the 3DS needs to be removed from the Circle Pad Pro to switch out games.  It also covers up the wireless switch and stylus port, which is kind of annoying.  The added plastic on the right side of the system also makes reaching the face buttons a little awkward.  That will definitely take some getting used to.  Nintendo at least wisely left space for the AC input so you can use the Circle Pad Pro while the 3DS is plugged into a wall outlet.

The Circle Pad Pro could be a flawless addition to the 3DS but it would be terribly useless without software that supports it.  That’s why Nintendo held it back for today which just so happens to be the day Resident Evil: Revelations arrived in stores.  Some of you may have already read about that one and how Capcom released it with an embarrassing typo on the game case’s spin, and if you’re wondering, yes it appears every copy is like that.  Apparently anyone who picks up a copy of the game with the typo can get a free replacement insert but I have no idea why anyone would be bothered to go through the trouble.


I picked up a copy of Revelaitons (sic) alongside the Circle Pad Pro.  I was surprised to see that there’s no mention of the device on the game’s packaging.  I figured there would be a tell-tale graphic of some kind alerting would-be consumers that the software supports the Circle Pad Pro but I guess not.  Worry not gamers, Revelations does indeed support the Circle Pad Pro and firing up the game with the Circle Pad Pro attached will cause the game to ask if you wish to make use of it.  I obviously haven’t played enough of the game to render a verdict on how good or bad it is, but I can report that the Circle Pad Pro works, for the most part.

The left circle pad controls your character, Jill, and the right circle pad pivots the camera and makes her turn, pretty much just like a first-person shooter.  When a baddie appears on the screen, pressing the new ZL button causes Jill to draw her firearm and the ZR button shoots.  The regular old R button (actually, that’s kind of new too as the Circle Pad Pro replaces the R button on the 3DS with a new button) causes Jill to bust out her knife or other equipped secondary weapon.  When running around, the ZR button appears to function as the action button which feels kind of odd but I imagine I’ll get used to it.  The face buttons do not appear to be used much though one uses herbs to restore Jill’s health when prompted.  I actually didn’t try the game without the Circle Pad Pro, but I can’t imagine the control scheme working better.

Ready for action!

Visually, Revelations appears to be a stunner.  It’s comparable to Resident Evil 4 or some of the best looking games on the PSP.  A lot of time was definitely invested in Jill as she looks noticeably better than some of the scenery.  The backgrounds I’ve seen have been a little drab but there was some nice lighting on the first scenario which takes place on a darkened ship.  The game immediately places the player in some close quarters which is an uncomfortable feeling, a good thing for a survival horror game.  There’s a lot to take in on the 3DS’s rather small screen and I did experience some minor eye strain after a little while.  And if you’re curious, most of that was spent with the 3D featured turned off (I mostly hate 3D).

I’m pretty optimistic for Revelations.  It feels like Resident Evil and it’s pretty nice looking.  I do find aiming kind of cumbersome as hitting the ZL button immediately brings you into a first-person perspective.  Jill feels kind of slow but the enemies seem pretty quick.  I’ll have to see if that becomes frustrating or not further into the game.  As for the Circle Pad Pro, it does get the job done but if no one supports it then it will just collect dust.  Metal Gear Solid 3D figures to make use of it, and there’s rumors Kid Icarus might as well.  We’ll just have to wait and see.  If it doesn’t bother you to spend the extra dough to get a little more out of Revelations, then I say go for it.  At least it’s not as expensive as the 32X.

Requiem for the PSP

The Sony Playstation Portable was first released in the US in 2005.

I was shocked when I realized that Sony’s Playstation Portable (PSP) has been on the market for nearly 7 years.  That’s quite a long time for any hardware to remain relevant, but then again portables have always had a longer shelf life than their console cousins.  The original Gameboy was around for a decade or so before Nintendo finally added color to it, and longer still before a true successor was released.  Handhelds do benefit from redesigns though.  The original bulky Gameboy was originally replaced by the Gameboy Pocket just as the PSP received multiple updates, including one radical re-design in the form of the PSP Go.  This post wouldn’t exist though if it wasn’t for the Playstation Vita, which is set to replace the PSP in less than two weeks.

I have always felt like the PSP was viewed as a failure by the gaming community, or at least only a minor hit.  It was crushed in sales when compared with its nearest competitor, the Nintendo DS.  The two systems have always been intertwined, and even though the DS beat the PSP to market it felt like Nintendo’s retaliation towards Sony.  Nintendo has always dominated the portable landscape.  While systems like Sega’s Game Gear and Atari’s Lynx failed to win over consumers Ninendo’s Gameboy steadily found homes in the back pocket of gamers across the world.  The Gameboy was not a technological marvel by any stretch of the imagination.  Even when it was first released it seemed little better than one of those Tiger handheld games.  When I was a kid, the only people who had Gameboys were those who had parents that weren’t willing to spend a bunch of money on a Nintendo Entertainment System or Super Nintendo once that came out.  It really didn’t become a truly viable system for me until Pokemon in 1998 and the Gameboy Color.  That’s when I jumped on board and I’ve owned every Nintendo portable since.

The PSP has not been a failure, but the redesigned UMD-less PSP Go sure as Hell was.

Sony has been the only real threat to Nintendo’s portable dominance.  Even though it failed to beat out Nintendo’s handheld, it’s actually done fairly well for itself.  Sony has sold approximately 17 million units in North America since 2005, but it’s in Japan where the system really did well as its sold 15 million units there.  It goes without saying, that Japan is much smaller than North America and its rare to see sales figures that are so close when comparing the two territories.  For the sake of comparison, the Nintendo DS has moved nearly 58 million units in North America, and around 33 million in Japan.  It’s those staggerring numbers for the DS that make the PSP seem like a failure.  The PSP has always been the more expensive piece of hardware, debuting at around $100 higher than the cost of the DS in the US, and it has mostly appealed to traditional gamers.  The DS also appealed to gamers, but Nintendo also had great success reaching the non gamers and children as well.  That and the Nintendo brand definitely helped move units.  And for the sake of objectivity, I’ll even go out on a limb and say the DS has the better software as well.  While I actually didn’t get a ton of milage out of either handheld, I did get considerably more out of my DS.

Despite that, I still have great affection for the PSP.  Technologically speaking, it’s the most impressive handheld I’ve ever owned, even more so than the 3DS.  Visually it’s quite the looker, and the weight and feel of the device just give it a aura of high quality.  And I have the original model, now referred to as the PSP-1000.  The subsequent redesigns have slimmed the unit down some and even increased the power of the screen, which to me is borderline shocking as the screen on this thing is beautiful.  Even when I fired it up for the first time in years last week to play Tactics Ogre I was impressed by the clarity of the image.  I never did watch a UMD movie on my PSP, but I imagine they looked just fine.  Sony wisely incorporated analog control for the PSP in the form of the analogy “nub” located under the D-Pad.  If there is one design flaw though, it’s that the nub wasn’t placed in the more prominent position as most games make use of it as the primary means of control.  Nonetheless, it’s textured and grips your thumb as you play and there’s plenty of resistance.  Because of its size and placement, I do consider the circle pad of the 3DS superior but this one gets the job done.

Pretty much the reason why I got a PSP to begin with, Twisted Metal: Head-On, which was basically a remake of the super popular Twisted Metal 2: World Tour.

The medium that the PSP used for games is one not likely to be seen or heard from ever again.  While Nintendo has always stuck with cartridges of some kind for its handhelds, the PSP used an optical disc format that Sony dubbed the Universal Media Disc.  UMD actually worked better than expected.  Yes there are load times, but aside from a handful of early titles, they’re not that bad.  Sony tried to get production companies to put movies out on UMD which mostly failed.  While a UMD disc can hold nearly 2 GB of data, that’s still far short of what a DVD can hold.  This meant most UMD movies came with fewer special features and yet still cost about the same as a DVD version.  Most studios abandoned the UMD format within the first year of the system’s life and never returned.  Utilizing UMD also meant that games lacked a save function and owners were forced to purchase memory sticks for game saves and any other media they wished to put on their PSP.  And since Sony loves going rogue with its devices, it forced gamers to use its own brand of memory sticks called the Memory Stick Pro Duo, instead of allowing gamers to just use any flash card.  Not surprisingly, Sony’s memory sticks were always more expensive than traditional cards which made the entry price of the PSP quite steep.

The UMD format proved adequate for games but never caught on as a film medium.

Short-comings aside, I still love my PSP.  I never acquired much of a gaming library on it, mostly because it just came at a bad time for me.  I really got into portable gaming in the last couple of years, and even though I’ve had a PSP since 2006, I rarely found a reason to play it.  Because the system was so powerful most developers just spent time porting their console games to the device as opposed to making new titles.  There was definitely a lack of truly compelling software to pull me back in.  Square-Enix tried pretty hard though with Crisis Core and the Dissidia franchise.  I have both, but never got into Dissidia’s frantic style.  I did play a lot of MLB The Show on my PSP, and though it wasn’t as good as the PS2 version, it was certainly playable.  I also never took advantage of Sony’s download service that allowed you to download PSOne games and put them on the PSP, though I was tempted to do so with Final Fantasy VII.

The Playstation Vita will arrive on February 15th for those who want the bundle version out there, and a week later for those interested in the stand-alone unit.  Like the PSP, it’s going to cost a lot.  When Sony first unveiled the $250 price point (the same price the PSP debuted at) most were actually pretty happy as that’s the same price the 3DS came out at.  And just like how the PSP far outclassed the DS in terms of raw power, the Vita wipes the floor with the 3DS.  The Vita should be a technological beast and the games we’ll see on it should be comparable in terms of visual quality with what we’re seeing on the PS3 and 360.  The Vita also adds a second analog nub, something gamers were disappointed the 3DS didn’t include, and even has a gimmicky touch pad on the back.  The Vita has also ditched the UMD medium and is opting for flash cards instead.  Prices range from $30 to $50 for games, with most looking like they’ll settle in the middle at $40 a piece.  The memory issue though is the big kick to the crotch that most gamers hate.  Just like how they did with the PSP, Sony has opted to use its own memory card device with the Vita and the prices are outrageous when compared with a standard SD card.  A 4GB card for the Vita will set you back $25.  I have no idea how big a game save figures to be, but 4GB seems awfully tiny considering my PS3 at 60GB is far too small.  A 16GB card will set you back $60 and a 32GB card a whipping $100!  Again, I have no idea what the ideal size will end up being, but if you’re looking to get a Vita with a 16GB card and one game in a couple of weeks that will set you back $350 which is a pretty step entry fee.

The Playstation Vita has obviously adopted the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach in terms of its general design.

And since it’s going to cost so much to be an early adopter, it’s a damn good thing that the launch games actually look pretty awesome.  There’s some first-party favorites like a brand new Uncharted game and the latest Hot Shots Golf game.  The following month Little Big Planet and MLB 12 The Show arrive with a new Resistance game following in May.  On the third party front, ports of Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus arrive alongside new titles like Army Corps of Hell and Ridge Racer.  The Vita is basically the opposite of the 3DS when it launched, as the immediate future looks awesome but I don’t see anything truly compelling on the horizon (not that I expect future software to suck, there’s just nothing comparable to Super Mario 3D Land set for the fall) and I expect a lot of the game’s software to consist of ports.  That’s not the worst thing in the world as ports of sports games are worth owning alongside their console counterparts and some games, like Rayman Origins, almost feel better suited for on the go gaming.  The Vita will also (finally!) incorporate more cross platform features allowing players of The Show to take their franchise from the PS3 to the Vita when leaving the house.  For me, this is something I’ve always wanted out of a portable making it basically a new way to interact with my console.  I also want original content too, and hope the Vita can deliver.

Gameplay shot of Army Corps of Hell on the Vita, a Square-Enix strategy-action hybrid that figures to be interesting, if nothing else.

Because of the cost to be an early adopter though, and the fact that I currently have plenty of gaming to do on my 3DS and PSP, I won’t be getting a Vita this month.  I’ll hold off for now and maybe benefit from a future price drop or something as the Vita has failed to gain much traction so far in Japan and may meet a similar reception in the US.  With the economy the way it is I can’t see the Vita getting off to a great start here.  It will move some units, but probably won’t have a better launch than the 3DS which was pretty slow to start off (again, probably because of cost though the lack of games certainly didn’t help).  When I do eventually get a Vita, I’ll be a little sad to say goodbye to my PSP.  Even though it probably has been a commercial success for Sony, I feel like the PSP has been the most under-appreciated gaming device of the last 7 years, maybe even the most under-appreciated ever!  The device, in its original release, still holds up from a technological standpoint when compared with the 3DS and I think it was a great thing that Sony entered the handheld market and forced Nintendo’s hand.  Sony raised the bar and brought console gaming to a portable device, something even Nintendo and other developers have been more willing to adopt recently.  The soon to be released Resident Evil Revelations for the 3DS is basically a console experience on a handheld, and I find that awesome.  For a long time portable gaming did not interest me because it just seemed like a watered down version of what I could experience in my living room.  I didn’t care to do that and wanted a truly rich experience.  Portable gaming has finally caught up with consoles and it’s no surprise I’m playing more portable games now than I ever have before.  I plan to treat Tactics Ogre like a great encore for my PSP, and I’ll enjoy every minute of it.

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