Tag Archives: gaming

Crisis of the Wii U

images-104It seemed like it happened overnight, the toppling of the Nintendo era of dominance.  I don’t even know when it happened.  The NES obviously dominated the 80’s and the SNES basically dominated everywhere except the US where it was neck and neck with Sega’s Genesis.  Actually, the turning point may have come during that era when a little game called Mortal Kombat was released to home consoles in 1993.  Mortal Kombat, as most are likely aware, was a fantastically bloody affair and something Nintendo didn’t want on its machine.  Sega, on the other hand, was willing to accept the title and all its gore so long as it was blocked by a password (the incredibly easy to administer A, B, A, C, A, B, B).  I know, for me, it was that game that made we want a Genesis, and after I got one, I never bought another SNES game.

It seems like ever since Nintendo has been up and down.  While Sega would vanish from the console business, new competitors Sony and Microsoft were next to challenge the Nintendo empire and have been very successful at doing so.  Nintendo’s next two consoles failed to lead the market, but with the release of the Wii the company came storming back.  Underpowered but also underpriced when compared to its competitors, the Wii was able to gain a large market share with it’s unique motion-based controls.  The party nature of the console helped it surge to a huge lead and the head of the market.  Because of the hardware within, it didn’t take long for the limitations of the console to show itself and it became clear that Nintendo would have to be aggressive in releasing its next console if it wanted to maintain its share of the market.  Enter the Wii U, the similarly named successor boasting a new gamepad.  With a modest price point and familiar interface, it seemed Nintendo was poised to hold onto its Wii consumer base for a while longer.  Not so fast.

No decapitations for you, Nintendo fans.

No decapitations for you, Nintendo fans.

The first stumbling block for the Wii U relied in the marketing.  Which is to say, there wasn’t a whole lot.  The labeling of the console, and perhaps even the look, have lead to consumer confusion as some people weren’t clear on if the Wii U was a new console or just an add-on for the outdated Wii.  When a big portion of a console’s consumer base is described as casual, this is the kind of thing that happens.  The next obstacle is what’s under the hood.  The Wii U is a boost over the Wii but it’s not clear if the machine is more powerful than existing consoles from Microsoft and Sony.  This has lead to a feeling that the Wii U isn’t really a “next generation” machine and the hardcore gaming crowd hasn’t been convinced that this is a must own console.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the Wii U’s lukewarm reception has been the inability of Nintendo to convey how innovative the gamepad is.  The jury is largely still out on if it’s a worthwhile addition to home gaming.  The Wii U launch lineup was actually pretty solid, especially when compared to the lackluster launches of other recent consoles.  The Wii U even had a Mario title at launch, the first Nintendo console to have such since the N64.  The problem with it though is that it treats the gamepad as an afterthought.  If Nintendo wanted to set the world on fire it needed to launch the system alongside a game that truly made good use of the gamepad.  Nintendoland just wasn’t enough.  And even though the Wii wasn’t blessed with an abundance of third party support, at least there were a few out there that seemed excited by the movement based controls.  With the Wii U, a big company like EA already looks to have abandoned it and that, regardless of how you feel about EA and its games, is not a good sign.

Another, perhaps unforeseen, hurdle is the proliferation of casual gaming on tablets and cell phones.  Nintendo was able to tap into this growing audience with the original Wii, but is it possible this group has already moved on to other things?  The gamepad is quite similar to a tablet, or it is at least easy to perceive why someone would have that impression, and these gamers may wonder why they would ever need a Nintendo tablet.  And with no major showings of games on the horizon, the more hardcore gaming community has been given little incentive to get a Wii U beyond some empty promises and HD remakes of old games.

If you’re a regular reader here, then you may know that I have been an early adopter of the Wii U.  Since buying the deluxe version on launch day I’ve added one game to my collection, Scribblenauts Unlimited, a solid title but one that is also available on the 3DS.  I currently have no idea what my next Wii U game will be because nothing has been announced or shown that is even remotely interesting.  And with Nintendo announcing that they will not be holding a press event at E3 this year it makes me nervous that there’s very little to show.  I worry that Nintendo really needed to make a splash with the Wii U, and by failing to do so, have doomed the console already.

It's coming...

It’s coming…

I have been an early adopter for three recent consoles with the 3DS and Playstation Vita being the others.  The 3DS struggled early before rebounding while the Vita is still a source of concern for Sony.  Even so, I never regretted my 3DS purchase and I have yet to regret my Vita one but I pretty much already am regretting my Wii U purchase.  I know that eventually Nintendo will get some first party software onto the Wii U that will be worthwhile, but how many such games can Nintendo reasonably release?  And will any third party developers step up and release anything of note for the Wii U?  Right now, those developers can still release current-gen ports to the Wii U, but once the more powerful PS4 and next Xbox arrive that may be out of the question.  The console is unique enough that developers basically need to cater to it, but if sales are lagging as bad as they currently are then no developer will be willing to take that risk.  Will the Wii U be the console that takes Nintendo out of the hardware business?  My heart says no, but my brain is at least willing to entertain the notion.


The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time (1998)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

I never set out to make an entry on all of these Zelda titles, it just sort of happened.  It’s basically the end result of me not having any new titles to play on my portable gaming devices so I’ve revisited some classics.  I’ve already made entries on the first two Zelda titles, so naturally I should make one for the third game in the series:  A Link to the Past.  But wait!  This isn’t an entry on A Link to the Past, but the next game in the series (for home consoles):  Ocarina of Time.  That’s because I can’t play A Link to the Past on my 3DS (though I could have dusted off the old Gameboy Advance, I suppose) and never played the 3DS version of the Ocarina of Time:  Master Quest.  I played thru the normal quest on the 3DS version when it was released in 2011, and I have played the Nintendo 64 version (on a Gamecube) of the Master Quest as well, so this was far from a new experience.  And since the original version and the 3DS remake are largely the same, this can be considered an entry on both.

Ocarina of Time is considered by many to be the best in the series.  It’s usually a debate between that and A Link to the Past with the sides mostly split on age lines.  People who were introduced to the Zelda franchise during its formative years will mostly lean towards A Link to the Past, while those introduced to the franchise via Ocarina of Time naturally are slanted towards that.  And even though the two may not look all that similar, the core experience is very much the same between the two.  The player controls Link who must battle thru various dungeons collecting useful tools and items along the way.  There’s lots of wandering, conversing with non-player characters, and general adventure along the way.  The player also isn’t expected to just hack and slash their way to the end as there are lots of puzzles to challenge and frustrate as well.  Regardless of what position you may take on which game is superior, know that both are excellent and enjoyable games that should be experienced by all serious gamers.

The Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time 3D (2011)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (2011)

Ocarina of Time is regarded as a near perfect gaming experience, so if you’re expecting this to be a contrarian take, look elsewhere.  And while it does earn its reputation, it also has its share of flaws.  This game is nearly 15 years old, which blows my mind.  There are many games of that age that are still considered an excellent experience today, but naturally some things age less gracefully than others.  Ocarina of Time is perhaps most notable for being Link’s first foray into the world of 3D.  Transitioning from 2D to 3D is a challenge and it’s one that has stymied other famous franchises of the same era.  While Mario was able to adapt, gaming’s other titan of the 16-bit era, Sonic, still struggles with it to this day.  Both of those characters were transitioning from side-scrollers to the 3D platform genre, while Link had the benefit of moving from that top-down perspective of the first and third Zelda titles which is actually a much easier transition.  Both Mario and Sonic were expected to jump and navigate various platforms in their games, while Link didn’t have that expectation.  Because of that, Nintendo didn’t even see fit to provide a jump button in Ocarina of Time; Link just does it automatically when he needs to.  Instead of the camera being positioned directly above Link, it’s moved behind him but still retains a high angle in many sections of the game.  Where age starts to rear its ugly head is with this camera.

The camera is often the make or break portion of any game from the late 90’s.  It still can be problematic in modern games but it seems to happen far less.  For Ocarina of Time, Nintendo opted to not give the player total control of the camera as some games do.  The players has one camera button at his or her disposal which automatically centers the camera behind Link in most cases.  There’s also the Z-Targeting lock-on button that fixes the camera on an enemy and puts Link into a sort of battle mode.  This works fine in open spaces, but some of the dungeons in the game can get cramped and in those areas the player is often left to battle the camera.  There’s one section in the game that has Link in a maze trying to avoid sentries like one Solid Snake.  This moment is brief in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still an utter failure of game design that feels shoe-horned into the experience.  The camera is very limited and almost stuck to Link’s back.  Trying to peer around a corner is cumbersome and, if you’re like me, you’ll probably just say “screw it” and plow ahead.  The automatic jump can also be a problem at times.  I do appreciate that Nintendo did not want to turn Link into Mario and have him bounce all over the place, but not giving the player control over that aspect of the character does create a disconnect of sorts.  I can’t think of any other way to describe it other than it just feels weird.  It also creates the problem of Link jumping to his death on occasion by accident (usually brought on by shoddy camera work).  In many games where jumping is relegated to a button press, simply running off a ledge causes the character to fall and grab onto the ledge.  When approaching a ledge very slowly and carefully in Ocarina of Time, the same is true, but give Link any kind of speed and he takes a leap of faith no matter what lies below.

A nice comparison shot of the two versions.

A nice comparison shot of the two versions.

Another flaw, I suppose, resides with the lock-on system and enemy AI.  When Link is locked onto an enemy all other enemies around him will back off making the game a series of one-on-one contests.  This is obviously something that was implemented deliberately by Nintendo, but it’s still kind of odd.  Though I suppose it’s no less odd than turn-based battles in role-playing games.  A lot of the dungeons are also fairly clever.  They make it obvious to the player where to go, but leave it up to the player to figure out how to get there.  There are moments though where I felt cheated and the only way to progress is to strike an object that 99% of the time has no function.  This forces the player to resort to smacking everything and anything with Link’s sword at times.  There are also a few boss encounters that rely on magic power or a specific disposable item, and if you run out, you’re out of luck and either have to reset or let the enemy kill you.  And then there’s Navi.  Oh, how I despise Navi.  Navi is this little fairy that accompanies Link and is supposed to give him advice when needed.  She’s also a targeting reticule and a means of selecting which enemy to combat.  She’s also incredibly annoying.  I hate her existence.  She’s insulting as her primary function is to state the obvious, as if Nintendo didn’t think we were capable of getting thru this game on our own.  If you try to run off and do side quests, expect to be interrupted by Navi every ten minutes or so to remind you to head to the game’s next dungeon.  And each time she does you get to hear this annoying, high-pitched voice shout “Hey!”  In the 3DS version she’s even worse as she’ll pop in to tell you to take a break if you’ve been playing for long stretches.  She doesn’t seem to recognize when the system goes into sleep mode so you may actually have only been playing for a few minutes before she starts barking.  Nintendo, all too often, pulls crap like this with its games and it drives me nuts that features like Navi can’t be toggled on and off.

Young Link in the 3DS version.

Young Link in the 3DS version.

Those are my main sources of irritation when it comes to Ocarina of Time, the rest of the game is pretty awesome, to put it simply.  Yes, there’s still some age-related items in terms of the game’s presentation and mechanics.  Link certainly doesn’t handle as smoothly as more modern titles.  He can feel a bit stiff, and combat is mostly a hack and slash affair, but it gets the job done and is easily forgiven.  The visuals on the Nintendo 64 version have not aged gracefully, but are not horrid either.  The 3DS is a noticeable improvement here as it ups the visual quality to something akin to an early generation Gamecube title.  It won’t knock your socks off, and Hyrule still seems woefully underpopulated, but it’s far better than the original.  A lot of the enemies Link will encounter are lifted from the older games and it’s fun to see them presented here.  The iron knuckles are most intimating now, and the poes possess a lot of character.  The stalfos, one of the easier enemies in prior games, are far more challenging this time around and more menacing too.

A lot of the fun experienced in a Zelda game comes from the items and power-ups Link acquires over the course of his adventure.  Many make their return in Ocarina of Time and are engaging in this new 3D world.  Link can now toss bombs and even lock onto enemies when doing so.  The hookshot doesn’t just allow him to get over gaps in the area but turns him into an elven Spider-Man of sorts!  The hammer also takes on new meaning as it’s basically a giant cavalry hammer, though I feel like it’s underutilized in Ocarina of Time.  Some of the items are only usable by child Link, and others by adult Link. The boomerang is one such item, but there’s always an item that levels the playing field.  In this case, the hookshot used by adult Link can stun enemies and retrieve certain items just like the boomerang.  The ocarina is, naturally, an important item in the game and it allows Link to play songs.  A majority of these songs function as a quick travel feature and transport Link to another area.  Others are used for puzzles.  The mechanic worked so well that it’s basically been included in some form in all of the games to follow.

Ocarina of Time marked the debut of Epona, Link's trusty stead.

Ocarina of Time marked the debut of Epona, Link’s trusty stead.

As was the case with the previous titles, the game is somewhat light on plot.  It’s fairly straight-forward but there is a story present with the best portion of it devoted to giving the antagonist, Ganondorf, a backstory.  The inclusion of time travel is kind of neat but not really fully utilized as the game basically exists in two parts, the young Link portion and the adult Link portion.  There’s only one dungeon that requires the player to tackle it with both Links and only a few instances of Link doing something in the past to affect something in the future.  Link’s method of time travel is a bit cumbersome, so I suppose it’s a good thing the game doesn’t require the player to constantly travel back and forth, but I do feel like it could have been exploited further.  Boss battles are usually rewarding, but not often challenging.  There’s often a specific way to defeat each boss, and once the player figures it out, it becomes easy.  I’d be hard-pressed to pick out the most challenging boss as few stand out in that regard, though the most interesting boss encounter may belong to Phantom Ganon of the Forest Temple.

Even though the boss fights aren’t all that challenging, the game does present a challenge elsewhere.  The traditional quest is fairly painless, but the Master Quest ups the ante by making enemies much stronger.  This kind of slants the game a little as it becomes much harder early on when Link only has a small amount of hearts.  Once that’s built up it basically normalizes.  The only other changes with the Master Quest involve the dungeons being mirrored which does kind of throw you off but is easy to adapt to.  The gold skultulas are also harder to find but the heart pieces remain in the same locations.  The 3DS version takes the mirroring concept one step further and turns the whole game into a mirror-mode of the original quest.  I actually found that harder to adapt to than the dungeons as Hyrule Field is now flipped over so what was once east is now west.  Link’s handedness even changes from being a southpaw to a righty in the Master Quest.

Link and Sheik enjoying a jam session.

Link and Sheik enjoying a jam session.

Aside from the Master Quest and visual upgrade, the 3DS version does present some other modifications to the original game.  Most notable is the use of the touch screen for items.  Items can be mapped to the face buttons as well as two additional touch “buttons” which prove useful for certain types of items.  This also reduces the clutter on the top screen as Link’s health and magic is kept on the bottom screen.  There some drawbacks to the 3DS version though, such as the cramped space.  Z-Targeting is now L-Targeting and it can get awkward due to the dimensions of the 3DS.  Tight quarters also tend to feel even more claustrophobic on the 3DS screen and the gyro-controls for first-person view and aiming is just a so-so addition to the game.  The ending credits do have an updated song that’s fully orchestrated (something the N64 was incapable of capturing) which was a nice surprise upon completion.  All in all, if you’re looking to play this game for the first time there’s no obviously better version.  I would probably just go with whatever is easier to obtain, or if you know you want to play this primarily in front of your television, the original is more than sufficient.  You could also look up gameplay on a video sharing sight to decide if the visuals are a big enough reason to select one over the other.  And I guess if you love the whole 3D thing, that’s a factor too (I played the game in its entirety with the 3D feature turned off).

Ocarina of Time, no matter how or when you choose to experience it, is an excellent gameplay experience.  It holds up remarkably well, not just when age is considered, but just in how easy it is to come back to.  I’m mostly a one and done kind of gamer, meaning I beat a game once and that’s enough for me.  With Ocarina of Time, I’ve played thru and beaten it multiple times and each time the journey is an enjoyable one.  My only real concern with the game is for people who have never played it.  They may approach it thinking it’s a perfect game, but it’s not.  The game had some flaws when it was released in 1998 and some other flaws have been exposed due to age.  No one should approach any game expecting perfection though as there is no such game, just as there is no perfect movie or perfect book.  Our opinions and tastes are too broad as a people to ever declare any one game perfect.  We can only apply such absolutes in the broadest of strokes and at the highest categorical level:  Food is great.  Oxygen is excellent.  Zelda is fantastic.  Yeah, that sounds about right.


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.


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!

Microsoft/Sony

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

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.


Getting Cloud Connected with MLB and the Vita

MLB 12 The Show (PS3, Vita)

One of my main motivations for acquiring a Playstation Vita was the potential for connectivity between it and the Playstation 3.  It’s been the main focus of Sony’s advertising campaign to get consumers interested in their new handheld and while the launch titles did little to exploit this feature, it didn’t take long for Sony to release a game that did.

Enter MLB 12 The Show.  The game is the latest in Sony’s first-party, and much heralded, baseball title.  Released for both the PS3 and the Vita last week, it makes use of the Vita’s cloud feature in the most logical manner by letting the user take their franchise on the road.  Now when you finish a game on the PS3, you can upload the save file to Sony’s cloud and then download it onto the Vita.  The process is as simple as it sounds and it only takes a moment.  Once it’s been loaded onto the Vita, it’s just like any save file and can be saved down to the Vita’s memory card.  Then you can play it on the Vita while you’re out and about, and once done re-upload it to the cloud to download onto the PS3.  The only limitation is the Vita obviously needs an internet connection to make use of the cloud. I’m not sure if it works over the 3G network for those who opted for that  version of the Vita.

There are some limitations.  For one, there’s only one save available on the cloud per user.  In other words, you can’t upload both a franchise save and a Road to the Show save at the same time.  You can upload either one, but not at the same time.  The other limitation is that in-game saves can’t be uploaded to the cloud, which seems to contradict the ad campaign running on television at the moment.  It’s a little annoying when you’re in your living room but have to finish a game on the Vita before transferring to the PS3, but it’s not the end of the world.

The power of the PS3 in the palms of your hands! Mostly.

It helps that the two versions of The Show are pretty similar.  Visually, the PS3 version is superior.  It’s most noticeable in the textures as everything just has a nice coating to it.  There’s also some minor frame-rate drops on the Vita version during some animations, mostly batter walk-up ones for some reason.  It’s more of a presentation issue than anything.  The Vita is also limited slightly in the control department, though San Diego Studios tried to compensate for this by adding touch controls.  I haven’t used many of them, but also haven’t felt my gameplay experience hindered much by absence of the R2 and L2 buttons.  I do like the touch controls for pitching as riding the train can make precise pitch locations a little challenging.  If you wish, you can simply touch the screen where you want the pitcher to throw the ball, then use the buttons to deliver the pitch.

The game itself is pretty similar to past versions.  There’s some new controller configurations for both hitting and fielding that I personally have no use for.  I stick with meter pitching and zone batting, and it’s plenty hard enough as is.  Hitting is particularly challenging and takes a lot of practice, especially if you’re like me and haven’t played a baseball game in a couple of years.  I’ve only used franchise mode, exhibition, and practice.  I assume Road to the Show is pretty much unchanged.  Franchise mode has actually been simplified to a certain extent when it comes to ballpark upkeep, but roster management has become more complex.  The added complexity makes the game more authentic, but just be careful when using the “Auto” function when it comes to roster moves.  Sometimes it’s tempting to let the CPU auto-fill your Double A or Triple A lineup but sometimes it takes way too many liberties and makes changes to the MLB roster, which can be unwelcome.  I made the mistake of simming Spring Training in one year of my franchise and found my roster turned into a disaster by the AI management.

Uploading to the cloud (or downloading from it) is about as simple as this image makes it look.

I hear online still sucks, but I haven’t tried it myself since I’d just get thrashed.  Online being laggy and unplayable is unfortunately nothing new for this series.  It’s borderline criminal that they haven’t been able to fix it over the years, but I guess it’s on us at this point.  I mentioned in my last post that Sony also chose to knock 20 bucks off the price of the Vita version if bought alongside the PS3 one.  This makes sense since Sony wants people to experience the cross-platform play.  It still means it will set you back 80 bucks for the full MLB experience.

Is the novelty of being able to bring the console experience to the road worth the price?  Depends on how much you like baseball, I suppose.  I really like baseball, though even I have to admit this is probably a one-time thing for me.  It’s a cool thing to have, and the game runs well enough on the Vita to not diminish the experience much, but it’s still 20 bucks just to play your franchise or other single player mode on the go.  Though now that I think about, 20 bucks for a full-fledged portable baseball game isn’t really that bad.  I guess everything depends on your outlook!


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