Tag Archives: mario

Hot Wheels Mario Kart Circuit and Other Sets

mk_circuit_boxToy reviews are not uncommon on this blog, but when they take place they’re almost always about an action figure that I bought for myself. This post is the rare toy post that’s not about one of my toys, but about a toy that belongs to my son. That’s because this Christmas Santa brought my boy a whole bunch of Mario Kart branded Hot Wheels. Given that Mario appeals to me and the Mario Kart series of video games is one of the most popular in the world, it felt like a review was a worthy endeavor for this blog.

My son has mostly been in and out of Hot Wheels since he turned 2. My dad, who tried his best to make me a gearhead, has probably been responsible for the majority of the Hot Wheels my kid has received over the years. He drifted away though with his interests going in different directions, but the Mario Kart set seemed to catch his eye when it came time to make out a list for Santa this past year. This surprised me as I had seen this set over the summer and somewhat tried to get my son interested in it, but he paid it no mind. The main track looked interesting, and the Mario Kart racers looked great. He has some interest in Mario as it is, but the games still frustrate him given that he’s only four. I thought maybe it just wasn’t the right time, but things obviously changed. And since the only other item he was insistent upon receiving as a gift this year was a cheap little game called Dragon Snacks, Santa delivered when it came to Mario Kart.

mk_circuitUnder the tree on Christmas morning was the main racetrack, the Mario Kart Circuit. It’s an oval design of two tracks for simultaneous racing. There’s a launcher to start and then motorized boosters before the second of two long curves. Two additional sets were also present, one based on avoiding a large piranha plant and a second where the obstacle is a massive thwomp enemy. Also joining the crew was nearly every single-carded racer including the likes of Peach, Bowser, and everyone’s favorite, Waluigi.

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Blue should always win.

Leading up to Christmas I had read mixed things about this set. Some YouTube videos were watched, and I saw enough to convince me that my kid would probably enjoy it. We were able to convince him to give up his seldom used Paw Patrol toys freeing up considerable space in the house for these new toys. I assembled the sets and while the main track looks intimidating, I found it rather easy to setup. Four D batteries are required to power the boosters and I don’t know when I last had something that required D batteries before this thing. Stickers are needed to dress the set up and they suck as usual, but at least there aren’t a ton of them. The secondary sets are even simpler as they don’t require batteries. The piranha plant was a little tricky to assemble, but it went together fine. That set just uses gravity to work alongside a wind-up function while the thwomp set has an elastic-powered launcher.

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The set includes a goomba. He doesn’t do anything, but hey, it’s a goomba!

The main track, Mario Circuit, shares a name with a track from the actual games, but it doesn’t really resemble anything aside from the fact that it’s a basic oval design. There’s a goomba in one place and Toad’s house is inside the track and that’s mostly it as far as the big attractions go. The track itself consists of four long curve track pieces connected by straight pieces. There’s a starting gate which features a lap counter function via the two flags protruding from it. You can even “lock” the counter so that when one racer completes all of its laps the opposing side locks forcing a crash. Two launchers kick things off and getting the cars to fire off properly requires more finesse than power. My kids find it hard to produce enough force, but if I try to hit it with what I’d consider is hard force the cars go flying off the track. I found it easy to get a feel for it, but the different sized cars present a challenge (more on that later). My kids choose to ignore the launcher and just feed them into the motorized portion and they seem content with that. While the cars are in motion and racing, the spectators can utilize the turtle shell buttons to try and bump their opponent off of the track. It’s surprisingly challenging, but plenty doable, and helps extend a race.

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Extra parking for all of your racers!

When my son found this under the tree, he started playing with it almost immediately. We had a lot of fun, until one of the long curves started to fail. I soon noticed that the groove under the track had begun to split. Soon enough, the piece wouldn’t even stay connected so after only a few minutes of play the two-track circuit was now a one-track circuit. To his credit, my son didn’t seem to let it bother him and I quickly fired off an email to Mattel. I received a response on the 27th, and had a replacement free of charge on the 30th. It was disappointing the track broke so quickly, but at least Mattel rectified the problem in short order.

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Racers can even hide in the turret.

The track contains room to store other racers, which is great because we have a lot. Coming with the set was Mario and Yoshi in standard karts. The thwomp track came with Luigi in a standard kart, and the plant with a second green Yoshi, but this time in the Mach 8 kart. I appreciate the new kart for Yoshi, but why did he have to be green again when there are so many other colors of Yoshi? The single carded vehicles include Peach in a standard kart, Toad in the Sneeker, Bowser in the Bad Wagon, Waluigi in the same Bad Wagon, Wario in standard kart, Koopa Troopa in the Circuit Special, and Blue Yoshi in a standard kart. Also available is a Tanooki Mario and Rosalina. There’s also a four-pack that features a Black Yoshi and there’s supposed to be another track with Donkey Kong. I’m sure there will be more to come as well.

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Toad even gets his own parking spot behind his house.

All of the cars seem to work to some degree on the Mario Circuit track. The characters in standard karts seem to fare the best, with Toad and the Mach 8 vehicle working just a little worse. With standard carts, I had no trouble getting vehicles to hum around the track with little interruption. The heavier racers, like Bowser especially, are a tad trickier to get a successful launch out of. For whatever reason, the inside track in particular was a challenge and sometimes I’d just give up and start them off in the booster area. Koopa Troopa works all right in his elongated vehicle, but he’s practically unusable in the smaller sets as his vehicle gets hung-up on the turnarounds. Even though they don’t all work as well as each other, the vehicles are still worth having because they look great. The only one I’m not as into is Toad and that’s because Mattel didn’t paint his steering column and wheel leaving it flesh-colored, which just looks weird. And since the dimensions on these karts are essentially the same as other Hot Wheels, they should be usable in other sets.

The smaller sets are far less impressive than the main track. Of the two, the piranha plant one works the best. You simply wind-up the plant and watch him slowly spin and dive at the track in an effort to consume a racer. The cars are gravity fed, so you just wait for an opening and let them go. It’s very easy to get a racer past the obstacle, but my son seems to like it. The thwomp track is less enjoyable. You pull back on the golden mushroom and select from three different release points, with really only the first one being usable. When the racer is fired it hits a little flapper which causes the thwomp to fall at random. Sometimes they get by, and sometimes they don’t – it’s all predicated by chance.

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Mattel would have you believe incorporating more pieces is the ultimate goal, but that is not the case.

The appeal of the smaller sets on their own is minimal, but the real draw is that the plant and thwomp can be incorporated into the Mario Circuit track set. Mattel’s instructional images put the thwomp just after the starting launcher and the plant just before the booster piece, while some promotional images (above) feature a different, but still long, layout. When added it certainly gives the track more personality, as my main complaint with it in its base form is that it needs a touch more Mario in terms of its visuals. Unfortunately, that’s really all they add to the track. Incorporating the two of them means adding considerable length to the circuit, and the boosters just don’t provide enough power for a longer track. The standard cart characters can basically only compete a lap or two before they just fall off, while the heavier racers can’t even pull that off. It’s really not even usable in this form, which is a shame since it’s a big piece of the appeal of the set.

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The preferred layout in my house.

The good news is, you can still find other ways to make this track work. Finding the wind-up feature of the plant a bit too annoying to use with the main track, my son and I opted to simply remove it. He likes that small set on its own, so he can play with it in that fashion. We kept the thwomp, but moved it to where the plant was. This meant we had to remove a corresponding piece of track to make it fit, but the end result is we added a fun obstacle with visual flair while keeping the track still usable. It worked well when tested on a hardwood floor, though once I moved the set to my son’s room and placed it on a thin foam mat (which is on a hardwood floor) the performance dipped. That could be a result of the playing surface, or the batteries may be weakening as the cars aren’t firing from the booster with the same velocity and after a few laps some are falling on the long curve immediately after it. I hope this thing isn’t going to suck batteries that fast as it’s barely been a week.

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New to retail in January 2020 is the Light version of the track.

Overall I do mostly like the main Mario Circuit track. The other two I could take or leave. I like that the track attempts to make it a competitive race with a little chaos tossed in, and it has lots of space for other cars to be parked. There are supposed to be more sets released as well. I’ve seen images for a Mario Circuit Light which is the same track, but smaller. It has launchers with warp pipe adornments which I like, but not motorized boosters which I do not like. The listings at Target’s website reference a Chain Chomp Challenge set as well, but I have not seen any images for it. These things seem to sell well, so I assume it’s still coming. I do have concerns with the performance long-term. I had one track piece break and I’ll give Mattel the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s an isolated instance, but I’m concerned it could happen again. And if my batteries are already weakening that could be a problem. If I feel the need to, I’ll return to this review and update it accordingly. For now, I’ll continue playing with my son as I keep an eye out for new racers showing up at retail.

As a final note, these sets appear to be exclusive to Target for the time being, though it looks like Amazon may now be selling them as well. The Light version of the track might not be exclusive to anyone though and a four-pack of vehicles is coming to retail soon. My assumption is this brand will expand to other retailers in time, but it’s just that – an assumption. The small sets will run you around $19.99 while the larger track retails for $79.99. I have seen it on sale numerous times though for $69.99 so you probably don’t need to spend more than that if you wish to take the jump. Individual cars are $4.99.


Do We Really Want a Nintendo 64 Classic?

N64-20th-anniversary-625x352You’ve probably heard by now about the SNES Classic coming later this month. If you’re even remotely interested in owning one, you’re also either happy you have a pre-order, concerned your pre-order could be cancelled at any moment, or absolutely furious that you couldn’t secure a pre-order. The NES Classic released in 2016 was notoriously difficult to obtain before being abruptly cancelled all together after just a few months of shipments. As a result, demand for the SNES Classic is at an absurd level as fans who want one are worried about having to pay the ridiculous scalper rates on eBay or else risk never getting one.

Wal-Mart was the first to release pre-orders for the SNES Classic in late July, only for the company to pull an “oops” and say they didn’t mean to release them when they did. All of those happy gamers who secured one that evening (they went live online at around 11 PM EST) were crushed when the company cancelled all of the orders. Things were quiet until the wee morning hours on August 22nd when Best Buy released pre-orders on their website. Amazon followed, but rather than post them on the placeholder page for the product, the company created a new listing and anyone that had signed up for alerts through Amazon or third party sites weren’t notified. That didn’t stop them from selling out in mere minutes. Later that morning, the other retailers went live and they too sold out in minutes. GameStop opened up pre-orders for instore customers only setting off a mad dash to all of the retail outlets. Many secured their orders, and many more were turned away. Eventually GameStop, as well as its sister site Think Geek, offered up expensive bundles for pre-order. Even though they were loaded with crap no one likely wanted and were thus much more expensive, those too sold out. Lastly, Wal-Mart released a few more pre-orders in the evening hours of the 25th, since then it’s been dry with pre-orders likely done.

If you did not get a pre-order then you’re likely holding out hope for release date, but getting one then will likely require hours camped outside a store hoping there will be enough for everyone in line. Toys R Us elected not to do pre-orders of any kind so they’ll likely have the most supply on September 29th. The other big box retailers are expected to have some as well, but no one is releasing numbers at this time and likely won’t until the 28th, if at all. Wal-Mart recently cancelled several pre-orders made by people attempting to order more than one device, so there’s perhaps a sliver of hope they’ll release a few more pre-orders, or perhaps they’ll just include those items previously spoken for in the launch day release. Amazon will likely do what it did with the NES Classic and reserve the bulk of its units for its Prime Now delivery service. It’s few brick and mortar locations may have some as well. And if you’re in New York City, the Nintendo Store will have probably the most SNES Classics in one place. Like Toys R Us, the Nintendo Store did not do any pre-orders.

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This goofy three-handled controller is possibly the determining factor on if we get a N64 Classic.

And all of this madness is to secure a plug and play gaming device that has 21 games built into it, 20 of which have been available in various forms for 20 years. It’s easy to be dismissive of the device as a gimmick, but if you’re a gamer it’s hard to argue that the SNES Classic isn’t going to be a pretty great way to experience some of the best video games ever made, which makes it all the more frustrating that it’s a limited release. Simply put, this is Nintendo’s fault. They’re making a device that people want and there’s great demand for, but they’re creating this scarcity by intentionally only offering it for a limited time. They’re emboldening scalpers and retailers like GameStop that will jack up the price for their fans, and it’s not as if Nintendo profits off of any of that. Nintendo could likely manufacture twice the amount of SNES Classics it plans to release and still guarantee itself a sell-through. There’s no reason to have even stopped production on the NES Classic! People want it, so why won’t Nintendo make it?

Naturally, as consumers prepare for the launch of the SNES Classic many are wondering what will follow it. Does Nintendo continue along with these mini retro machines? One would assume a mini Nintendo 64 would be next. The technology in the NES Classic is rumored to be powerful enough to handle Gamecube titles, so it’s not a question of if it can be done, it’s will it? And more importantly, as consumers do we want it?

Nintendo could continue making retro machines that aren’t the N64. A retro GameBoy that is both portable but can plug into a television is possible. Perhaps the screen would be too expensive to keep the current price point, though if the screen were the equal of the original GameBoy I can’t imagine it would be that expensive. Nintendo could release a Super GameBoy edition of the SNES Mini to get around that. Still, the most likely is a mini N64, but it too presents challenges. The NES and SNES controller is pretty simple and cheap to produce, but the N64 controller is more complex and likely more expensive to manufacture, especially if one wants to include rumble. And the software is a bit murkier as well. Game development windows were growing wider come the era of the N64 and fewer first party titles were available. After all, there was only one Mario game made for the N64. Rare, at the time a second-party developer for Nintendo, made a lot of the most popular titles for the N64 and the royalties may be a bit complicated concerning sales of the N64 Mini. Still, I suppose we should speculate on what would be included before getting dismissive. The SNES Mini has 21 games, 20 of which were previously released. The N64 Classic would likely have fewer, so for the sake of simplicity let’s speculate on 15.

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  1. Super Mario 64 – obviously. A launch title and the one everyone was talking about in 1996.
  2. The Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time – one of the most beloved games of all time.
  3. The Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask – the NES Classic included both Zelda and Zelda II, so it’s likely the N64 Classic would include its two Zelda titles as well.
  4. Mario Kart 64 – another no-brainer. Many people still consider this the best in the series. They’re crazy, but it’s certainly a beloved classic.
  5. Paper Mario – the unofficial sequel to Super Mario RPG, an underrated classic, by Mario standards.
  6. Mario Party – I don’t think much of this series, but it’s been a big seller for Nintendo and it all started on the N64.
  7. Donkey Kong 64 – a Rare developed titled, but it’s Donkey Kong so they kind of have to include it.
  8. Super Smash Bros. – the one that started it all
  9. Wave Race 64 – a Nintendo developed racing title. It’s fine, but it was pretty popular at the time so it likely gets included.
  10. Kirby 64 – it’s not a great game, like most Kirby titles, but it’s also not a bad one. Nintendo likes to push Kirby (the SNES Classic has two Kirby games!) so it probably gets included.
  11. Pokemon Snap – in case you haven’t heard, these pocket monsters are pretty popular. Snap is a better game than it has any right to be, though few would miss it if Nintendo left it off.
  12. 1080 Snowboarding – it’s a Nintendo produced title so that gives it a leg-up on other titles. It’s a fine snowboarding game, if you like snowboarding games.
  13. Excitebike 64 –  a call-back to an original NES game? Seems like it would be included for that reason alone.
  14. Star Fox 64 – another obvious one to include. Probably the best game in the series (unless Star Fox 2 is a lot better than the leaks make it out to be).
  15. F-Zero X – it’s not a particularly good game, in my opinion, but since F-Zero is included on the SNES Classic I would guess it would be included here.
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It’s worth mentioning, despite how unlikely it is to be included.

Other titles worthy of consideration:

Yoshi’s Story – it’s not a good game, but it stars a prominent Nintendo character.

Dr. Mario 64 – Dr. Mario was included on the NES Classic, that’s pretty much the only reason to include it here though.

Banjo-Kazooie – the Banjo games were really popular on the N64, so they feel like they should be included, but Rare owns the characters and DK 64 is essentially the same game.

Pokemon Puzzle League – it’s Tetris Attack but with Pokemon. It’s an excellent puzzle game, but Nintendo left Tetris Attack off of the SNES Classic so they may do it again here. The Super Famicom Classic will have Tetris Attack, so maybe Japanese gamers would get it. I’d personally take this over Pokemon Snap any day of the week, but it’s just my gut telling me that Snap is more likely.

Blast Corps –  a pretty fun Nintendo/Rare game that probably should be included, but probably won’t be.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day – I probably don’t need to explain why this won’t be included, but it’s the best thing Rare ever did with the 3D platformer genre.

GoldenEye – it’s a beloved game for the N64, and it recently turned 20, but licensing issues will keep it, and it’s spiritual sequel Perfect Dark, off of any N64 Classic (though if an exception were made this is the game Nintendo would make one for).

Pilotwings 64 – certainly worthy of inclusion, but Nintendo didn’t see fit to include the original on the SNES Classic so it doesn’t bode well for the sequel.

Mario Golf/Mario Tennis – these are solid games, and would stand a chance at inclusion if Nintendo felt it needed a sports title to round out the mix.

WWF No Mercy – I just felt it merited discussion since it and the other THQ wrestling games were so popular, but licensing issues would keep it out

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A N64 Classic would be a great excuse to revisit this little gem.

After running through the games, I’m actually slightly more optimistic at the prospect of it. Nintendo published a lot of worthwhile software, more than I remembered, to easily ignore the holes left by third parties on the N64. While it’s crazy to exclude Capcom and Konami after both had such a large presence on the NES and SNES Classic, neither company really did much on the N64 that warrants inclusion. If Nintendo wants to completely ignore the contributions of Rare it probably could, though it would feel a bit dishonest since Rare came up huge for the N64.

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You kind of need to be able to have 4-player play, right?

Still, it begs the question, do I want nintendo to put out a Nintendo 64 Classic Edition? It’s not just about the games, wanting one also means dealing with intentional scarcity likely to follow. It also probably means paying a higher price. The NES Classic was $60, and the SNES Classic is $80, the N64 Classic could command $100. And unlike the other two, the N64 Classic practically requires four controllers to truly replicate the experience and spare controllers for the NES Classic were the only things harder to find than the NES Classic itself! Could Nintendo package it with four controllers to help soften the $100 price point? Maybe, but if those controllers are expensive to produce then it may not be possible. And do we really want to spend $100 or more on a mini N64? An actual one with multiple controllers would run you about the same and those cartridges aren’t super scarce and quite durable. It’s certainly not the nostalgia boner the NES and SNES induce. So really – I don’t know. I look at that list of games, factor in the cost and aggravation, and I really don’t get the same sense of want that the SNES Classic gives me. Part of that is just that the games from the N64 era haven’t aged particularly well, so my desire to revisit them isn’t particularly strong. On the other hand, I know me and I tend to want what’s new and what’s popular where games are concerned so there’s a good chance I’d try to get one. Unlike with the SNES Classic though, I don’t think I’d go above and beyond to secure one. I need the SNES Classic (obviously I don’t, but the level of want I’m experiencing feels like need) and will get one no matter what, but I could probably go without a Nintendo 64 Classic and not feel too bad about it.


Nintendo Switch or Nintendo More of the Same?

636198636477072652-nintendo-switchSwitch. If you took a shot each time someone said that word during Nintendo’s press conference unveiling the latest device in console/mobile gaming you’re probably hung over right now. It’s obviously not just a name for the console/handheld hybrid, but also a marketing strategy. Nintendo is changing with the times, switching it up if you will, and making a commitment to something new and exciting. If that’s the main take-away from the Switch’s coming out party last night, then why did I feel like this was the Wii all over again?

Nintendo first gave the public a glimpse at its newest device back in October. Since then, the company has been virtually silent on the subject until last night’s big unveiling. Most of the pressing questions were answered either during the conference or shortly there-after. We know when the Switch is arriving at retail (March 3rd), we know how much it will cost ($299), and we know what games will be available (Zelda!) and have some idea of what we’ll be playing by the end of 2017 (Mario! Skyrim!). A lot of the other lingering questions from the Switch’s first public display were answered like that the system does indeed boast a touch screen, the joy con controllers do feature shoulder buttons, and Nintendo is going with a pay-t0-play online service in the fall.

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Hey, yo! Get a load of my colors.

The Switch’s initial unveiling had me cautiously excited. I expressed my interest in a true portable home gaming device and I was receptive to a lot of the software teased in that video. Last night’s conference, however, muted that excitement. I should get it out of the way, I still placed a pre-order on the device (actually two, with the first being an online one just in case I couldn’t land a pre-order at a brick and mortar) so obviously I wasn’t dissuaded from purchasing the Switch, but it was with significantly less enthusiasm.

Let’s get right to the price. Numbers had been thrown around leading up to the announcement last night with the consensus seeming to be for a $250 price point. On IGN’s pre-show, $199 was even floated as the “sweet spot” by one host which I thought was a pipe-dream. From the start, I had assumed $299 would be the price, but I still hoped for $250. I wasn’t really dismayed by the actual announcement on that front, but the price tags for the accessories is rather shocking. After the conference, Nintendo unveiled the price-point for many of these on its website. If you want a second set of joy con controllers, that will set you back $80! That’s the steepest investment of any standard controller I think I’ve ever seen. If for some reason you only desire a left or right joy con, that’s $50, but I can’t see much reason in doing that unless it’s to replace a broken unit. The two that come bundled with the system include wrist straps that have a plastic piece that thickens the controller itself and appears to make it more ergonomic. That’s not included with the stand-alone controllers so there’s another $20. If you prefer a traditional controller (what Nintendo refers to as its pro controllers) that will cost you $70. For comparison, a Dual Shock 4 costs $60, and Amazon routinely sells them for $50.

Extra docking stations, controller “shells,” and other such peripherals all carry pretty steep asking prices. Thankfully, the console supports standard memory cards since the included flash drive can only hold 32GB (purchasing the new Zelda title digitally will reportedly consume half of that), so I guess that’s one positive. All told though, you’re talking about having an entry price-point for the Switch at more than what it costs to get a PS4 or Xbox One, and those consoles both boast more robust software libraries and more raw processing power as well.

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Arms. Apparently we’re going back to the days of the NES when Nintendo titles were as bland as white bread. Can’t wait for Legs!

Nintendo unveiled two new IPs early in the conference: 1-2-Switch and Arms. Nintendo apparently felt the term “video” in “video games” was too burdensome so 1-2-Switch is a game designed to function without video input being a necessity. You basically waggle the joy con controllers amongst two-players in a Wii Sports sort of environment, just without the TV. They demonstrated two cowboys having a quick duel and I also saw people playing table tennis. The joy con controllers feature advanced rumble feedback and motion controls, and Nintendo is banking on those features being so intuitive that it can drive the fun factor for a game. 1-2-Switch sounds like a decent tech demo kind of game, like the previously referenced Wii Sports, but unlike its predecessor it’s not a pack-in title and is a full $60 MSRP game. I have zero interest in the game at that price point. Arms is essentially the next evolution of Wii Boxing, with more emphasis placed on being able to move the characters around with a more visually pleasing game. Each character has extendable, Inspector Gadget-like arms for punching. The input mechanics actually remind me more of Wii Bowling, with the twisting of the wrist to curve the punch being a central component, only now you’re striking an opponent instead of pins. Again though, this game would have made for an interesting pack-in game, but at full retail price it looks ludicrous. It’s also not available at launch and expected to arrive in April.

Nintendo also spent a considerable portion of the show bringing representatives from third party developers onto the stage to voice their support for the Switch. Unfortunately,  virtually none of them had anything interesting to say or even games to show. Bethesda was one of the few to actually show some gameplay, in this case for Skyrim. I’m excited to have a portable version of Skyrim, but an almost six year old game arriving in the fall isn’t going to move consoles or convince the consumer that third parties are all-in on the Switch. Right now, it very much resembled recent Nintendo launches where third parties are only willing to offer ports of previously released games, or in the case of EA, port an annual title to the Switch. And the sad part is, if these ports don’t sell then third party developers will use that as an excuse to continue the narrative that Nintendo consumers are only interested in Nintendo products, when really it could be that they just don’t want to re-buy games they already own!

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Sir, it’s not polite to stare.

Nintendo, for its part, showed some of its own games to a mostly positive reaction. We now have a title for the new Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey, and we know it’s coming at the end of the year. It’s a true 3D Mario adventure with some levels set in real-world settings. It also features a Minish Cap sort of gimmick where Mario’s hat is apparently sentient. Some of the visuals, like Mario interacting with reality-proportioned humans, were bizarre, but I have faith that Nintendo will deliver a special game with their mascot. Zelda: Breath of the Wild was also confirmed as a launch game and follows in the foot steps of Twilight Princess before it, being a game developed for the old hardware that is now debuting on the new hardware. It looks pretty great, and it’s the only title I reserved with my pre-order of the Switch.

The other games Nintendo unveiled either during the show or after were less impressive. I already mentioned 1-2-Switch and Arms, but Nintendo also unveiled Splatoon 2, which looked exactly like the first game. It’s coming in June. The Mario Kart game we saw in that first teaser back in October was confirmed to just be an enhanced version of Mario Kart 8. I suppose that’s great for those who skipped out on the Wii U, but not so great for those who already have it. Missing was the true knock-out punch from Nintendo, something to really wow gamers with either a new IP or an old classic. Outside of Mario, there isn’t much to look forward to after launch and I fear there will be a pretty long software drought just like there was for the Wii and Wii U.

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This pretty much sums up the third-party support issue quite nicely.

Truth be told, the Nintendo brand and the presence of Zelda are going to be enough for the Switch to have a successful launch, but let’s not forget that the Wii U did all right when it launched too. The holiday season will be a real barometer for what the public thinks of the Switch. The fact that the Wii U ended up fairing so poorly may help sell the Switch since a lot of people will want to play Zelda, and won’t already have a Wii U to play it on (it’s being released on both consoles). I think the mobile aspect of the console won’t be a big factor for most gamers, even if it’s something that I am really interested in. People already have their smart phones and most won’t want to haul the Switch around in a backpack, especially if the battery life comes in at the low end of Nintendo’s prediction of 2 1/2 to 6 hours (a pretty generous range, Nintendo). I think Nintendo will also find its online service to be a hard sell when gamers may already have an Xbox Live or PS Plus membership. As part of the Nintendo package, gamers will get access to free, classic games each month (I’m actually not sure on the plural aspect, it might be something like one NES game and one SNES game), which is smart of them because it leverages one of their strengths. I think they’re making a mistake though by making the free titles only playable for a month, after that it requires a purchase. They should follow their competitors leads and just make the games free for subscribers for as long as their membership is active. It also would have been nice to hear they’re making all of those Virtual Console purchases gamers made on the Wii U and other platforms will be carried over to the Switch. At least in the case of Wii U owners, it would have been a nice “thank you” to those fans who stuck with the company during its darkest period.

Last night’s conference ended up leaving me more concerned than before about the Switch’s prospects. That cautious optimism has mostly been replaced with cynicism and an expectation that the Switch will follow a similar path as the Wii U. The conference, more than anything, re-affirmed for me what Nintendo is which is becoming more of a niche product. I think it’s very possible that the Switch is Nintendo’s last console, or that it’s marking the start of an era where Nintendo only creates portable systems that can also plug into a television set. I hope I’m wrong, but at least I know I’m getting some Zelda and Mario action in the interim, because at the end of the day, that’s still Nintendo’s biggest asset for selling consoles. The Switch will answer whether or not that’s Nintendo’s only asset.


Ranking the Zelda Games – Part 1

link_hyrule_historiaIf Mario is to video games what Budweiser is to beer, then Zelda is like the Alchemist Brewery. If you’re not a beer enthusiast that’s to say that Zelda is like fine wine to Mario’s table offering. And if you’re not a wine person, well I’m just saying that while Nintendo is best known for Mario, it’s Zelda that is their true flagship offering. Ever since The Legend of Zelda debuted in 1986 for the NES, it’s been the franchise that Nintendo is most apt to make sure isn’t over-exposed and benefits from long development cycles to best ensure a quality product is delivered. That’s not a slight against Mario, it’s just he has way more spin-offs and lesser outings than Link tends to (not that he’s immune from the occasional Hyrule Warriors or Crossbow Training).

To celebrate thirty years of Zelda, it seems like a good time to take a look back at the main entries in the series and rank ’em! I did it with Mario, so why not Link? The same criteria applies. I’m only ranking the main entries so Hyrule Warriors is out. I also choose to not acknowledge those horrible and forgettable entries on the CDi console. Portable entries do count, and where a remake exists I’ll acknowledge it, but for the most part, I’m ranking the originals. The era in which the game was released is also factored, though more weight is given to the games that are just plain more entertaining to play. So while some may argue that the original should be considered the best because it laid the foundation for all of the rest, I would argue that’s not enough to guarantee a number one ranking. Many of these games I’ve reviewed before, and where I have I’ll link to my original review so you can pick through what I said and criticize me for contradicting myself in places.

Before I really dive in, I would just like to say that a truly awful Zelda game has not been released in the main series. While some are definitely better than others, even the worst are playable. We’re definitely grading on a curve here. Essentially, what I’m saying is if you don’t like my criticism of your favorite Zelda game just remember I’m not saying it’s actually a bad game. So let’s get this thing going. Between the home consoles and the portables, I count a total of 15 games – 8 on consoles, 7 on portables. That doesn’t count remakes and it doesn’t count the side entries (Four Swords, Tri Force Heroes, etc.) and it obviously doesn’t include the as yet released Breath of the Wild. Now that I’ve established that, let’s see what the number sixteen, and worst Zelda game, happens to be…

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What could be more fun than sailing?

15. Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS 2009) – Not surprisingly, our first entrant is a portable. Perhaps surprising to some, is that it’s not an infamous sequel on the NES. That’s because Spirit Tracks manages to be annoying, and kind of ugly. For Zelda on the DS, Nintendo thought it would be a great idea to force a stylus-based control scheme on the player. I can’t put into words how awful a decision that was. For the portables especially, Nintendo loves adding gimmicks to Zelda games. For whatever reason, Nintendo associates gimmicks with innovation, which I’d argue is a terrible mindset as a game developer. Regardless, the gimmick fails. The DS also isn’t powerful enough to do justice to the Wind Waker inspired visuals. To top it off, there’s also a really boring train mechanic added to the gameplay that’s topped only by Wind Waker’s sailing as most boring form of transportation featured in a Zelda title. I said before that a truly bad Zelda game has never been released on a Nintendo console, but Spirit Tracks is a game I would not recommend to casual gamers. Only Zelda enthusiasts need apply.

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Maybe Nintendo should just get it out of their system and release Link’s Sailboat Training.

14. Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo DS 2007) – Given what I said about Spirit Tracks, it’s probably no surprise that Phantom Hourglass ranks beside it. Truthfully, there’s little separating the two as the control scheme is my major beef with both entries. Spirit Tracks just happens to have the more annoying train junk, while Phantom Hourglass has a slightly less cumbersome version of the sailing featured in Wind Waker. I’d also like to point out how wrong reviewers were when both games came out. Zelda has such a strong reputation that fans and professional reviewers alike seem to overlook things. As a result, if you look back on the review scores both games received you may be surprised at how high they are. I bet if you had most of those reviewers sit down today and replay these games they’d probably agree they were little over enthusiastic at the time their review was first published.

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I chose this image to illustrate how pathetically small Link’s sword is. As a male, he should be embarrassed to be seen in public with that thing.

13. The Adventure of Link (NES 1987) – Ahh here it is, the black sheep of the Zelda family. The Adventure of Link, like the American Super Mario Bros. 2, was Nintendo attempting to radically change their IP with its first sequel. Wanting to approach Zelda in a whole new manner, The Adventure of Link (often referred to simply as Link) was a side-scrolling action RPG that is unlike anything that has followed in the Zelda canon. As such, it’s hard to rank amongst the other games which all follow a pretty standard formula. Link is not the 13th best Zelda game because it’s different though. In fact, my main criticism with the Zelda franchise is that it needs to take more chances (and stupid gimmicks don’t count) or risk becoming stale. Link is simply ranked here because it has a lot of warts. It’s control scheme is subpar as Link’s range of attack is brutally short. It’s also a very difficult game, but with a surprisingly easy final boss, and it’s unforgiving nature is something no other title in the series shares. With some better tuning and balancing, Link could be a stellar title and it’s the type of game I’d like to see Nintendo take another stab at. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a rare direct sequel in the Zelda timeline (not that it’s in-game storyline is remotely satisfying, making the sequel bit more of a novelty than anything).

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Nintendo released a legitimately beautiful game and decided to clutter with the screen with a bunch of garbage.

12. Skyward Sword (Wii 2011) – Here it is, our first controversial entry! While the DS games may have their fans, most probably rank them towards the bottom of the pile in terms of Zelda games. And Zelda II is as close to being universally disliked as a Zelda game gets, but Skyward Sword? IGN gave it a perfect rating when it came out! Luckily, this isn’t IGN.com and it’s my list and I say that Skyward Sword is modern Zelda at its worst. Nintendo has been trying to make Zelda “grow up” and be a more epic style of game seemingly ever since the backlash received by Wind Waker when it first debuted at E3. Nintendo’s solution for Skyward Sword was to make the game slower and overly pretentious with its storyline. I don’t think I’ve encountered a game with a more dull opening few hours than Skyward Sword. For all of the things Nintendo does well, crafting a compelling storyline is just not one of them. Skyward Sword is boring, and the motion controls are terrible. I couldn’t stand them. Criticize me if you wish, but I couldn’t even finish this game and yet I’m still rendering a verdict. I won’t call it a terrible game, but I will say it’s a game that I hated. Since I like to be positive when it comes to my reviews of games and art alike, I will say the visual style is wonderful and I’m impressed with what Nintendo achieved with the aging Wii hardware. Here’s hoping Breath of the Wild is better.

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So have we collectively decided that Toon Link doesn’t look stupid?

11. The Wind Waker (Gamecube 2003) – All right, so we’re following up one controversial entry with another, but hear me out on this one. We’ve already reached the part of our list where the games are getting much closer in quality, and few would even be considered average games by traditional measures. Though in some respects, Wind Waker still trends more towards that “OK” range than that “Wow!” one. It’s a game with a funny legacy. When the Gamecube was first unveiled it was accompanied by a tech demo that featured a Link vs Ganondorf battle that largely resembled the visual style of Ocarina of Time. Most gamers took this as an indication of what the next Zelda title would look like. Then Nintendo unveiled Wind Waker with its cel-shaded toon look, and gamers revolted. By the time it was released in early 2003 opinions had softened some and it seemed like there was an over-correction to the initial backlash and the game was largely praised. It seems to be a common favorite for many, but for me, I consider it mostly a doldrum affair. It looks fine, it runs fantastic, and the controls are more precise than the N64 games that preceded it, I just find it boring. The modern Zelda titles, much like the modern Mario ones, are not known for their challenge, but Wind Waker takes things too far by being the easiest Zelda game in existence. The combat is especially trite as the parry system is just far too powerful. And then there’s the sailing…The sailing is painfully boring, but most people already know that and even the game’s adorers acknowledge that low point. The game is flashy though, and I think that’s a big reason why so many people enjoy it, but I just don’t have much fun when I play it. At least there’s no Navi though!

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Link gets to be a fish in this one, which is certainly different.

10. Oracle of Ages (Gameboy Color 2001) – When the Gameboy Color came out, it was announced that Zelda would be coming to the console by way of Capcom, who had a solid working relationship with Nintendo. Three games were to come that would interact with one another. Three games eventually became two, and the delays were severe enough that by the time Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons made it to retail most gamers ended up playing them not on their Gameboy Color, but on their Gameboy Advance. Oracle of Ages was to be the more puzzle-oriented of the two, and it’s main gimmick was a time-traveling one that was also similar to the light and dark worlds found in A Link to the Past. The visuals and play style were very similar to the Gameboy title Link’s Awakening, which had also been re-released for the Gameboy Color. The look and feel of the game though was more rooted in traditional Zelda, but did carry on the tradition of the handheld games not featuring Ganon as the main antagonist. When the games launched, I expected to enjoy Ages more for its supposed puzzle-oriented approach, but I actually found it kind of lacking. The time puzzles felt rather ordinary, especially considering Ocarina of Time had tread similar ground, and the game started to become a bit of a grind towards the end. An enjoyable game, to be sure, but perhaps not as good as it could have been.

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I think I would have liked this game more if Link was shrunk at the beginning and stayed that way so he could hang out with shoe gnomes.

9. The Minish Cap (Gameboy Advance Japan 2004, NA 2005) – The Minish Cap represents Link’s lone, non port, outing for the Gameboy Advance, a relatively underrated console in the grand scheme of things. It borrows heavily from The Wind Waker in terms of looks, a trend that would continue on the DS, while retaining much of the gameplay style of the Gameboy titles that preceded it. And like most of the handheld games, it features a gameplay gimmick that sometimes works and sometimes does not. In this one, Link’s hat is sentient and has the power to shrink him when he stands on specific platforms. As Minish Link, he can reach places he normally cannot. The game itself is tried and true top-down Zelda, and it’s mostly enjoyable. The gimmick overstays its welcome by the time the end arises, and stand-in villain Vaati is no Ganon, but it’s a fun, unremarkable kind of game. As such, it doesn’t really stand out amongst the Zelda library, for good or bad. If it had chosen to do more with itself it probably would have placed higher as the game looks, and handles, quite well. Re-used boss fights from older games and the same basic setup as others is what harms it more than anything. It also strikes to the core of my main point of criticism with the franchise as Nintendo is content to think whatever new gimmick it has added to the series is the basis for which it should be judged as far as originality is concerned, never mind that the same boss fights are recycled over and over.


Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour

Toadstool_TourWith spring comes golf season and this spring brings a new Mario themed golf game as well.  Titled World Tour, the game is set for release this week on the Nintendo 3DS which got me to thinking about my favorite title in the Mario Golf series:  Toadstool Tour. Released in 2003 for the Nintendo Gamecube, Toadstool Tour was the sequel to the Nintendo 64 game (simply titled Mario Golf) and was the first Mario Golf title to really incorporate the over-the-top components of Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom setting.

Mario has a history of having various hobbies and other jobs. We first knew him as the Princess rescuing Jump Man in Donkey Kong before moving onto his more popular plumber gig for Mario Bros. and the Super Mario Bros. series. Not long after his previously mentioned debut he almost immediately jumped into the world of sports. Nintendo basically decided Mario was its most marketable persona and stuck him into everything. He had cameos in the likes of Tennis and Punch-Out!, but it was the original Golf game that first allowed users to control Mario as he took part in a sport.

Golf games in general have been around basically just as long as video games. Golf is one of the few sports that’s played all around the world so it makes sense that it would be well-represented in game form. Still, it can seem kind of surprising at just how many golf games there are considering it’s often not been a sport real popular with kids (before Tiger Woods, it wasn’t really popular at all). It works though in game form since it doesn’t really require much out of its AI opponents and the slow pace makes it easier to plan. And really, the basic gameplay hasn’t changed a whole lot between NES Golf and Toadstool Tour, though pro-oriented titles like Tiger Woods have made advancements with analog control.

Toadstool Tour is pretty basic on the surface. The user selects an onscreen avatar and a mode for play. Modes include tournament, match play, and Mario specialty modes like coin mode. Each character has its own unique attributes affecting power, control, and spin and also a natural ball trajectory. Mario is the most well-rounded and his ball travels straight while a power hitter like Bowser has a mean hook and less control over where his ball is going. Once on the course, the player has two main modes of play:  auto and manual. Auto is basically a one-button approach where the user lets the CPU take over after lining up a shot and pressing A twice. It’s good for kids but most gamers will find it unsatisfying and opt for manual. On manual, the player hits the A button to start the character’s swing and then a bar at the base of the screen starts to fill. The player has to hit the B button to stop the bar at the desired spot for power, and then stop it again as it comes back for control. Once the ball is in the air, the player can affect the spin of the ball in one of four ways: topspin, backspin, super topspin, and super backspin. For those unfamiliar with golf, topspin basically extends the distance of the shot a few yards by making sure the ball rolls forward once it strikes ground. Backspin does the opposite. The standard versions of both are pretty true to life, while the “super” versions can really exaggerate the movement of the ball. Pre-shot, the user can also affect what part of the ball the character strikes by using the D pad. Once the swing starts the player has to hold the analog stick to match the new strike point allowing the player to put more loft on the shot or hook/slice it in a certain direction.

Toadstool Tour may be nearing its eleventh birthday, but it's still a pretty nice game to look at.

Toadstool Tour may be nearing its eleventh birthday, but it’s still a pretty nice game to look at.

Players have access to a full arsenal of clubs. The game will make a default selection that 90% of the time works best. It’s usually on approach shots where you may opt to go for a different approach such as putting from the fringe as opposed to a chip-shot. The power meter can also be toggled from normal, power, and approach. If using the putter, there are three options for short, medium, and long range. The user is free to select whatever option he or she desires, though the power function has only six uses per round (a perfectly executed shot though, max power plus perfect accuracy, won’t consume a power shot reserve). There are enough options to approach any shot, though if the game has one short-coming it’s with the putting. Putting does not have an accuracy input, it’s simply a two-press function for power. Longer shots are actually fine, but the really short ones can be more troublesome because of how touchy the meter is. For short puts, you basically have to let the meter fill all the way and set your power when it’s coming back. This takes getting used to and novice players will likely miss some short ones as a result which can be really frustrating. Many golf games will have a “gimme” putt feature where a yard or less is automatically sunk by the game. Such a feature would be welcomed here.

The basic gameplay works well, putting excluded, and it actually surprised me with how robust the shot options are. It wouldn’t be a very special game though if it ended there. This is a Mario sports title after all, so a certain amount of “wackiness” is expected and the game mostly delivers in that respect. There are six courses to unlock, not including the par 3 course, and each new one unlocked ups the difficulty factor as well as the amount of Mario-isms. The first course is fairly basic, as are the next couple, but later ones add things such as warp pipes and piranha plant hazards. The final course takes place at Bowser’s castle and features numerous lava hazards, thwomps, and other features common to such a setting. These courses can be pretty difficult, but are definitely more rewarding. Completing courses and certain game modes unlocks additional characters, and competing against individual characters in match play unlocks star versions of those characters. The star characters have improved base stats and are practically mandatory if you want to score under par on the most difficult courses.

It's not often you have to worry about chain-chomps when getting in a round of 18.

It’s not often you have to worry about chain-chomps when getting in a round of 18.

Even though the Mario theme is represented well here, I can’t help but wish there was more. Mario has visited all kinds of different worlds throughout his games and I feel like crazier courses could be designed to accentuate that even more. It is my hope that the new game does just that. Additional courses in general would also be welcomed. Six feels a little light. Eight, or even ten, would be best. There could be ice courses, pipe courses, even a floating airship course. And now that the Mario Galaxy series has come along, some funky gravity-defying course would likely be a fun experiment in course design. More courses would naturally lead to more variety. Most of the courses in Toadstool Tour encourage power over “target golf.” The hardest courses negate that to some degree, but the power golfers definitely seem to have an advantage on most courses. An ice course, for example, would definitely emphasize spin and control over power as the ball’s movements once it hit the ground could be pretty unpredictable.

Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour is currently the best Mario Golf game released and probably the best Mario sports title as well. It strikes a nice balance between the actual game of golf and the more off-beat qualities brought by the Mario gang. It could probably stand to be even more outlandish, and some minor control tweaks could also improve the experience, but as it stands it’s a fun game of golf and offers a different experience from the usual EA Sports type of game. If you’re looking for a home golf game and something to play with friends, Toadstool Tour is a cheap and effective solution.


Ranking the Mario Games – Conclusion

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

images-155There’s certainly very little suspense with these kinds of things.  Anyone familiar with the Super Mario franchise can figure out at this point which two games are going to top my list, whether people disagree or not is another story.  Rather than dive right into these last two games, I think it is important to point out just how many of the games that I’ve talked about could have been number one.  Super Mario 64 seems like an easy one to argue in favor of.  What the original Super Mario Bros. did for the 2D side-scroller, Super Mario 64 did for the 3D platformer.  Only the games to follow in that genre have really done very little to deviate from the Super Mario 64 style of gameplay.  Sure the worlds have gotten bigger, and the graphics have certainly improved, but the core mechanics are still mostly in play.  Super Mario Galaxy 2 could also be argued as top dog.  The inventive gameplay of the Galaxy franchise has a ton of appeal, and Galaxy 2 is bigger and harder than its predecessor.  In a world where Mario games seem to be getting easier and easier, it’s nice to know some of the games are trying to hang onto some semblance of difficulty.  And of course Super Mario Bros. 3 will always have a claim to best Mario title on the planet.  It’s the game that really expanded on the Mario world for the first time giving gamers tons of variety in terms of level design, power-ups, boss fights, and basically every other aspect of the game.  Many of the titles today still borrow heavily from Super Mario Bros. 3, and I feel like I could go on for another two-thousand words on the subject and it still wouldn’t feel like enough.

In short, Mario has had a lot of great adventures over the years.  As overexposed as he tends to get, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of just how important the character has been to gaming.  A lot of people my age claim to have outgrown Mario, but I don’t think that’s possible.  You can’t outgrow fun, just lose touch with it.

2.  Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Nintendo Wii)

For the first time ever, Mario gets to spend an entire game in space.

For the first time ever, Mario gets to spend an entire game in space.

Super Mario Galaxy wasn’t the first title to take Mario into space, but it’s definitely the most memorable.  Galaxy is basically the sequel to Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64 before it as Nintendo decided Mario’s 3D adventures were ready to continue on the Wii.  Many people were curious how the Wii’s motion controls and Mario would meld, as I think many assumed Nintendo would use the game as a way to showcase what the console was capable of.  Instead, the developers for the game mostly downplayed the Wii’s motion controls in favor of a fairly traditional scheme.  Mario was still controlled via analog stick and he could bounce around just as he could in the two previous 3D games.  The only addition for the Wii was a spin attack that could be initiated with a simple flick of the wrist.  The Wii remote could also function as a pointer and could fire star bits.  These star bits could momentarily stun enemies but it mostly was just a tack-on feature.  I assume most forgot the feature even existed while playing.

Where Nintendo sought to distinguish Galaxy from the prior Mario games was to place an emphasis on gravity.  Mario would travel from galaxy to galaxy, planet to planet, and encounter all kinds of unique situations.  Some levels had Mario sticking to tennis court sized planets that were still large enough to apparently have a gravitational pull.  This could lead to some really disorienting experiences with Mario basically upside down or sideways but the game’s camera was so well crafted, and Mario so weighty, that it rarely felt as bad to the player as it looked.  I know initially I was skeptical at just how good a game could be that focused so much on trying to disorient the player but Galaxy proved me way wrong.  Running and jumping from planet to planet, sometimes within a level, was pure joy. The only comparable experience I can even compare it to are those warm, fuzzy feelings I had when playing Super Mario 64 for the first time.  Mario handles so well and the level design is so spectacular that it’s hard to not constantly wonder what’s next while enjoying the present.

I think Donald Duck tried this once.  It didn't go too well for him, from what I recall.

I think Donald Duck tried this once. It didn’t go too well for him, from what I recall.

Since this is a Mario game, there are numerous power-ups available to experiment with.  Of the new ones, the best and most enjoyable is definitely the bee suit which allows Mario to fly for short bursts.  Bee Mario flys just by holding down the A button, but he can ascend for so long before he needs to “recharge.”  It’s all pretty quick, but the ability to fly is curbed just enough to keep the player from flying constantly.  For more intense flight, there’s a special power star that lets Super Mario impersonate Superman.  It only exists in kind of a bonus level, but is fun while it lasts.  Some of the new power-ups are duds, like spring Mario who can do nothing but bounce which gets frustrating, and there’s some sequences where Mario has to balance on a giant ball.  For the first time in a 3D Mario title, the fire flower makes an appearance as does its opposite, the ice flower.  Both are kind of interesting in that they function very much like an invincibility star in that they only bestow Mario with special abilities for a brief period of time.  This does lend itself well to some puzzle situations, but it is a little disappointing to not be able to remain as fire Mario until damage is taken.

Mario gets shot out of canons (pipes) quite frequently in this one.

Mario gets shot out of canons (pipes) quite frequently in this one.

From a technological standpoint, Super Mario Galaxy is a star.  The Wii was never considered a powerhouse by any means, but Galaxy looks great.  The environments are varied, the color pallet is gorgeous, and many of the enemies dwarf Mario, especially Bowser.  The music is high quality as well, composed mostly of orchestral instruments giving it a very “Zelda” feel.  The plot for the game is basically the same as always, though the character of Rosalina is introduced which makes things slightly more interesting.  The game’s storyline may not be enough to get gamers to keep coming back, but the numerous objectives and hidden stars will.  As with Super Mario 64, each level has stars for Mario to collect and after collecting a certain amount challenge stars begin to appear.  This is where the game really turns up the difficulty and gives Mario vets a true challenge.  It’s probably not as hard as its sequel, but it strikes a very nice balance between challenging and frustrating.  That, along with all of the other positives I’ve cited, is why Super Mario Galaxy is the best of the 3D Mario titles to date.

1. Super Mario World (1990, Super Nintendo)

The layout of the world according to Mario.

The layout of the world according to Mario.

The mark of a truly special game is one that is inherently fun.  There are many games where aspects of them fit this description.  Mindlessly rampaging in any of the Grand Theft Auto titles is always a blast, political correctness be damned.  When it comes to multi-player, I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun with a  game than I did with Super Bomberman and three of my buddies.  Both of those games contain moments of pure joy, but neither is able to achieve that and hold it for the entire duration of the full game.  Super Mario World is a game that is non-stop entertainment from start to finish.  Expertly crafted level design, colorful visuals, and tweaks to the Mario formula helped introduce a legion of fans to the Super Nintendo making Super Mario World not just the best Mario game, but the best pack-in game of all time.

Super Mario World was not the leap forward for Mario that Super Mario Bros. 3 was.  It didn’t have to be as that game was nearly perfect itself.  It only needed to improve upon it and give gamers a reason to play Super Mario World other than its inherent “newness.”  Obviously, that’s easier said than done as many developers have tried to improve upon a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 and failed.  When it came time to create Super Mario World, it would seem Nintendo took a back to basics route when comparing it with its predecessor.  Power-ups were de-emphasizd as the game only included two permanent power-ups (aside from the mushroom) for Mario and Luigi:  the venerable fire flower and the shiny new super feather.  The fire flower worked the same as always, but the feather gave Mario a yellow cape and the ability to fly.  Rather than have the cape mimic the raccoon tail, it worked in an entirely different manner.  Mario still had to run to take-off, but once airborne Mario zoomed to the top of the screen before dive-bombing back to the ground below.  This could double as an attack, but if the player so desired Mario could be made to “parachute” his cape for extended flight.  It took some getting used to, but once mastered a player could easily soar Mario over an entire level.

Mario's dino-buddy Yoshi, was the most talked about addition to the Mario universe.

Mario’s dino-buddy Yoshi, was the most talked about addition to the Mario universe.

The other major gameplay addition was Yoshi.  Yoshi functioned as a power-up himself, giving Mario not only an extra hit but also giving him a new attack.  Atop Yoshi, Mario could direct his dino servant to devour all kinds of enemies.  As a bonus, certain turtle shells gave Yoshi special abilities such as fireballs or his own ability to fly.  Mario could also use Yoshi to reach higher places or travel over certain terrain.  Green Yoshi was the standard, but different colored Yoshi’s existed in the secret Star Road area that had limited power-up potential, but also an exploitable skill (the blue Yoshi, for example, would sprout wings and fly with any turtle shell in his mouth, while green Yoshi could only do so with a blue shell) that had its own advantages.

The storyline for the game was really no different, other than the fact that Mario is on vacation in Dinosaur Land.  Mario still has to topple Bowser’s seven children before facing him to save the princess.  Where the game stands out is in its scope.  Super Mario World is appropriately titled.  It may not seem huge compared to today’s games, but at the time it seemed massive.  Each world is distinct and varied as well, and they’re full of hidden exits and secret levels.  This made Super Mario World both challenging and highly replayable.  Some staples of future Mario games were introduced in this one, such as the Ghost House or Wiggler enemy.  Furthermore, the game was hard.  It eased the player in with the deceptively tame first world but the difficulty increases as the game moves on.  There are plenty of scrolling levels, levels with small platforms for Mario to negotiate, and levels requiring some puzzle solving to escape.  The boss encounters with the koopalings were also more varied, and the final showdown with Bowser was satisfying as well.  And if the main game was too simple for some, the Special Zone provided its own brand of torture with many having their own personal nightmare level among one of them.

Secrets abound in Super Mario World.

Secrets abound in Super Mario World.

Aside from the bells and whistles, Mario also handled better than ever and the score was another strong addition to the Mario universe.  The main melody is used throughout, though I was also most fond of the subtle bongo notes introduced whenever Yoshi shows up (a trend that has continued over the years).  If the game has short-comings, it’s that there are less mini games when compared with Super Mario Bros. 3.  The lack of more power-ups is also a slight mark against the title when holding it up to the others, but it’s the gameplay that matters most.  Always.  When it comes to Super Mario World, there just isn’t a better Mario game on the planet.  Everything that came before it was refined and improved upon to craft the perfect platformer.  Nintendo wisely chose to not truly follow-up on the title for well over a decade because it couldn’t be topped.  There was nothing left for Mario and Nintendo to prove with this genre.  And over twenty years later, Mario still hasn’t appeared in a better game.


Ranking the Mario Games – Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

This edition of ranking the Mario games is going to be slightly different than the two previous ones.  In trying to summarize each game in my previous posts I tried to keep it to one paragraph, which lead to some really long paragraphs.  One paragraph is fine for the lesser Mario outings, but now as I enter the top 5 one paragraph seems like too few, so this post will capture the titles I ranked from position five to three, with one more post to follow for the top two.  This way I can elaborate more on each individual title and attempt to give each game the time it deserves.  These games are some of the best of the best, and while I feel very strongly about their position in the top five, it’s debatable how each should be ranked amongst each other, but that’s what makes these things so fun.

5. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010, Nintendo Wii)

Yoshi is the major selling point of Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Yoshi is the major selling point of Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 might be the favorite Mario game for some people, or a lot of people, and with good reason.  It falls to position five on my list not for quality but more for redundancy.  Super Mario Galaxy felt like a revelation while Galaxy 2 felt like a continuation of that game.  In a way, it’s Super Mario Galaxy’s Lost Levels.  That’s not to say it was entirely the same, as there are some obvious additions to the formula, just not necessarily worthwhile.

The premise of the Galaxy series of games takes Mario into space aboard a ship that serves as a hub world.  From there, Mario enters various levels that play out over a map similar to Super Mario Bros. 3, or more recently, New Super Mario Bros.  The levels themselves range in size, and the setup is similar to Super Mario 64 in that the game asks the player to re-play each level to collect stars by beating it in a specific manner.  Sometimes replaying the levels opens up larger parts while other times it just tasks Mario with a new objective in the same setting.

As with any new Mario game, new power-ups have been added to differentiate from prior games.  For Super Mario Galaxy 2, we have Cloud Mario, Rock Mario, and the Spin Drill.  Cloud Mario allows Mario to create cloud platforms to utilize to reach higher areas or cover wider gaps.  Rock Mario is basically a wrecking ball that powers through areas and certain pieces of the environment.  The Spin Drill isn’t a suit, but an object Mario can grab and use to drill through an entire level, emerging on the other side.  All three are kind of neat, but none are exceptional when compared with some of Mario’s other abilities.  The ice flower from the first game does not return, nor does the flying star, but Bee Mario is still around as are the other power-ups from Super Mario Galaxy.

Even though the more powerful Wii U console boasts a Mario title of its own, Galaxy 2 remains the best looking Mario game to date.

Even though the more powerful Wii U console boasts a Mario title of its own, Galaxy 2 remains the best looking Mario game to date.

The other major addition, and the one promoted right on the box, is the return of Yoshi.  Yoshi is more advanced than ever in Super Mario Galaxy 2 as he’s more than just a second power-up.  His tongue, controlled using the Wii remote’s pointer, can not only consume enemies from afar, but also trigger switches or be used to swing across gaps.  He can still flutter jump and give Mario a boast to his jumps, but he also has power-ups of his own that bestow special abilities for a limited time.  There are three fruits that do this:  a dash fruit, bulb fruit, and blimp fruit.  The dash one (actually dash pepper, making it a vegetable, I suppose) lets Yoshi dash at a high speed.  While dashing he can run up certain walls and across water.  The bulb fruit makes Yoshi glow and shows up primarily in Ghost Houses to illuminate pathways.  The blimp fruit is like the P Balloon from Super Mario World, only with the helium effects taking place on Yoshi this time allowing him to float through the air while Mario hangs on for dear life.  Of the three, the bulb fruit is the most conventional in that it doesn’t affect how Yoshi handles.  The dash pepper makes Yoshi dash almost uncontrollably and it can be a challenge to negotiate the various obstacles in the way.  That’s likely the whole point of the thing, but I never found it enjoyable.  I also loathed the P Balloon in Super Mario World, mostly thanks to the infamous Tubular special world, so blimp Yoshi does little for me.  Controlling Yoshi without the power-ups is infinitely more enjoyable, but few Yoshi levels don’t include a power-up of some sort.  And as you can probably guess, Yoshi is only usable in certain levels.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 does score points over its predecessor by being the more challenging of the two.  Getting to the final battle with Bowser is a moderate challenge, but the extra levels and special stars can be exceptionally difficult.  It tends to be challenging without being overly frustrating, though the hardest level in the game may drive you to break a controller or two.  Super Mario Galaxy 2, disappointing power-ups aside, is a marvel of game design that basically gave gamers more of what they wanted.  I personally found the original title more enjoyable as it was more new and I found some of the challenges less annoying (though both games contain balance ball levels, the shoe-horned Wii remote feature that most could do without.  And Spring Mario).  Every fan of the 3D Mario games should have this one in their library though, as should anyone who thinks modern Mario titles are too easy.

4. Super Mario 64 (1996, Nintendo 64)

Running through the early stages of Super Mario 64 was a kind of joy I can't begin to describe.

Running through the early stages of Super Mario 64 was a kind of joy I can’t begin to describe.

If you’re someone who grew up with a Gamecube or Playstation 2 as your first console, then you cannot possibly understand what it was like to play Super Mario 64 for the first time in 1996.  It only took a moment for Super Mario 64 to blow you away and convince you that you were playing something special.  It arrived at a really interesting time with Nintendo taking a backseat to Sega and Sony in getting its new hardware to market.  Sega’s Saturn never set the world on fire due to its hefty price tag and lacking software, but Sony’s Playstation was winning gamers over worldwide with new franchises and old, proving once and for all that a CD-ROM based console could work and work well.  Sony had even won Nintendo staples like Final Fantasy, and up till now it seemed like Nintendo was just going to stand and take it.  Then the public got a glimpse of the Nintendo 64.  Sure it was kind of plain looking and still boasted a cartridge medium, but with promises of 3D Mario and Zelda people were convinced it would succeed and the pre-orders came pouring in.

At this point in my life I felt I had “outgrown” Nintendo and the prospects of playing a new Mario game didn’t excite me in the least bit.  My first experience with the console should have been totally unremarkable as it occurred at a Toys “R” Us prior to the system’s launch at a demo kiosk.  It couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes, and was maybe closer to five, but I remember it so well because of how incredible it felt to control Mario in 3D for the first time.  There was nothing like that currently available anywhere, and seeing Mario run around such an immersive world was shear joy.  The game was inherently fun, and I felt like I could have just run around in that first stage for hours.  I remember after playing it I went to the Saturn kiosk and tried the upcoming NiGHTS and frowned at the pixilated visuals.  Sony was demoing its Mario adversary, Crash Bandicoot, who’s commercials ended up being more fun than his games.  I probably tried to convince myself that Crash was superior, and that Mario was too kiddie, but deep down I knew I had just experienced the future.  The game was such an experience that I feel kind of stupid for not ranking it number one, though I know as I write about the games to follow I’ll feel better about my decision.

Bowser was very big, though not exactly frightening.

Bowser was very big, though not exactly frightening.

Years removed and numerous star challenges completed, I can still say that Super Mario 64 is an exceptional game, even if it’s imperfect.  Super Mario 64 was the first true attempt at a 3D platformer and it’s still the core of what all the games in the genre still follow, especially future Mario titles.  For the first time, Mario could jump, double jump, and triple jump his way to Bowser and free the princess.  Familiar foes returned like the goomba and koopa troopa, while new power-ups and locations were unveiled.  Super Mario 64 felt unique not just because of the new interface, but by creating its own world.  Traditional power-ups like the super mushroom and fire flower were absent from the game with Mario now having a life meter for the first time.  Mario could no longer breathe underwater or ride Yoshi or even partner with his brother Luigi.  There was more emphasis on exploration and uncovering hidden challenges and levels. Beating a stage once awarded Mario with a star and opened up additional challenges in the level.  To proceed further in the game Mario needed to collect a set amount of stars to face Bowser for a final time.  And for the first time, Bowser truly towered over Mario.  Looking more like a turtle than ever, it was intimidating encountering Bowser and also fairly challenging as the player needed to position Mario behind him in order to grab his tail.

The game was so flashy and new that many seemed to ignore the few areas it fell short, while time has made them more apparent.  As was the case with seemingly every 3D title from this era, the camera can be problematic and there will be times where the player is forced into making a leap of faith hoping there’s a platform out of sight.  And while controlling Mario in wide open spaces is a breeze, negotiating platforms and narrow ledges is less so, and there’s a reason why Mario hasn’t been able to punch and kick enemies following this game.  And other than the wing cap, the power-ups were decidedly un-fun, and no Luigi seems like borderline blasphemy.  In short, the Mario titles to follow were clear improvements on the interface enough to overcome nostalgia.  Or rather, I should say one title in the 3D Mario universe is clearly superior, though if someone held a gun to my head I might opt for Galaxy 2 over Super Mario 64, but that’s all right.  Here, nostalgia counts for something which puts Super Mario 64 at a strong number four on my list.

3. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990, Nintendo Entertainment System)

The map layout common to many Mario games originated with Super Mario Bros. 3.

The map layout common to many Mario games originated with Super Mario Bros. 3.

It took me a long time to admit to myself that Super Mario Bros. 3 was no longer my preferred Mario game (and no, it’s not number 3 on my list because that number appears in it’s title), which is a testament to just how great it is.  I still consider it amongst the most highly anticipated video games of my lifetime.  Following the rather odd Super Mario Bros. 2, I think most people were excited about returning to what felt like the more traditional style of Mario games.  And knowing Mario was going to be able to fly was the kicker.  The game came out in 1988 for the Famicom in Japan, so US gamers had to endure nearly two years of screenshots in Nintendo Power (and a cameo in The Wizard) before getting to play the game, but it was worth the wait.

Super Mario Bros. 3 was the true sequel to Super Mario Bros. and the clearly superior one at that.  It was everything the original game was times 100.  It looked better, Mario and Luigi felt better (they could now slide down slopes and carry koppa shells), and the worlds of the game were so much more immersive and fun when compared to the original.  It felt huge having eight worlds with each map seemingly larger than the one before it.  It starts innocently enough with World 1 and its clear path to the castle.  Then World 2 stretches to a second screen, while World 3 has Mario sail across the map.  World 5 is basically two maps with one hidden from view at the start.  The game was always throwing new things at the player, especially when it came to the power-ups.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is remembered for a lot of reasons, but mostly it's for the power-ups.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is remembered for a lot of reasons, but mostly it’s for the power-ups.

Super Mario Bros. 3 can be credited as the game that really took the various power-ups to a new level.  It’s still the game I use as a measuring stick when evaluating all of the new and old abilities Mario acquires in his latest games.  The super leaf was the major and much hyped new ability which gave Mario a raccoon tail and ears and let him fly.  We excused the ridiculousness of the whole thing because, after all, MARIO COULD FUCKING FLY!  It blew my little mind that Mario could soar through the air like Superman.  It might seem like such a small thing younger gamers today, but it really was unheard of at the time.  The first time I laid eyes on Super Mario Bros. 3 it was all I wanted to see, just show me Mario flying so my head could finally wrap itself around the idea.  It didn’t just end there, of course.  World 3 introduced the frog suit which made swimming fun for the first time.  The water levels are kind of that thing we all overlook (except when it comes to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game), but we all kind of secretly hate them.  The frog suit was a needed addition, even if trying to hang onto one through the land-based levels was a chore as Mario could only run in the suit if he was carrying a koopa shell.  The tanooki suit in World 5 was a cuter take on the super leaf, but it did allow Mario to turn into a statue and avoid damage, a deceptively useful tool.  World 5 was also the world that held the one stage (5-3) everyone remembers for the Kuribo’s Boot, a green boot Mario could steal from the goomba’s in the level and pound his way to victory.  The hammer bros. suit was the most sought after though.  Found in World 7, it was a more powerful take on the fire flower and most players would hang onto it until the final showdown with Bowser.

Now Bowser really has to contend with a "Super" Mario.

Now Bowser really has to contend with a “Super” Mario.

Super Mario Bros. 3 also introduced a lot of enemies that became staples of future titles.  The koopa kids made their first appearance as did the boo ghost and variations of the hammer bros. like the boomerang bros. and fire bros.  The airships were introduced for the first time and various mini games dotted the maps along with Toad Houses where power-ups could be found.  Mario and Luigi could also store power-ups for later use that could be activated from the world map.  Fortresses appeared and toppling them were necessary to reach the final fortress in each level.  The magic whistles replaced the secret warp zones and acquiring all three was the quickest way to reach the final stage.  With no game save feature, they were almost necessary for beating the game as the game was almost too big for on session forcing many gamers to leave their NES on all day to save their spot.

For the most part, Super Mario Bros. 3 is just a really fun game that keeps throwing new things at the player the further into the game they go.  It’s scope felt epic back in 1990, and it truly is the ultimate 8-bit Mario title.  Really, the only thing the top two games on my list succeed over it is with level design, but even they owe a lot to Super Mario Bros. 3 which really paved the way for all of the Mario games to follow.  It’s, simply put, among the greatest games ever made.


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.


Ranking the Mario Games – Part 1

images-142Super Mario, the portly plumber with the black moustache, is not just the mascot for Nintendo but the ambassador for all video games.  Gamers are intimately familiar with Mario, his history, forays into pop culture, and of course his games.  He was the nameless Jump Man before he was Mario and though early titles like Mario Bros., which introduced brother Luigi, kept true to the plumber occupation it was Super Mario Bros. that helped launch the Nintendo Entertainment System into video game legendary status.  Since then, Mario, usually alongside Luigi, has appeared in a great many games in either a starring or supporting role.  He’s dabbled in just about every genre save first-person shooter (don’t take that as a suggestion, Nintendo) and has done so successfully, for the most part.  He’s been challenged along the way by other would-be mascots and felled them all.

Mario’s games are typically of a high quality, and while some are better than others, there really are no true lemons.  These next few posts are going to attempt to distinguish the best from the not best, but in truth, all of the games to follow are still a good time, even today.  This list only concerns itself with Mario’s starring platform adventures which began with Super Mario Bros. in 1985 and will continue this fall with Super Mario 3D World.  Excluded are two titles which borrowed the Mario name for marketing purposes, namely Super Mario Land 3:  Wario Land and Super Mario World 2:  Yoshi’s Island.  I think most would agree those two games are actually the first in new franchises for Wario and Yoshi, respectively.  This also excludes those educational Mario titles that popped up on the Super Nintendo, and the few games starring Luigi.  I considered excluding Mario’s 3D adventures and relegating them to a separate ranking but decided against it.  They’re still Mario titles, and whether the game is a side-scroller or in 3D, they actually manage to play very similarly.  Maybe it would just be easier to list the games about to be ranked, so here they are in chronological order of release:  Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2/The Lost Levels, Super Mario Bros. 2/Super Mario USA, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario Land, Super Mario World, Super Mario Land 2, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land, New Super Mario Bros. 2, New Super Mario Bros. U.  That’s 16 Mario titles in total, and if this thing drags on long enough, maybe I’ll do a 17th as a postscript for Super Mario 3D World, though the pile of dust that has collected on my Wii U suggests that won’t be happening.  On to the rankings!

16.  Super Mario Land (1989, Gameboy)

Different, but similar, Super Mario Land was a worthy first attempt at bringing Mario to the smallest of screens.

Different, but similar, Super Mario Land was a worthy first attempt at bringing Mario to the smallest of screens.

Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to immediately pick on the Mario title with the least amount of technological backing, but I’ll reiterate what I said in the intro which is that all of these games are worth playing and remain so.  That said, Super Mario Land is basically a scaled-down version of the original Super Mario Bros. for the then recently released Nintendo Gameboy.  Nintendo should be commended for actually not just porting Super Mario Bros. and actually giving Super Mario Land its own distinguishing characteristics.  Set in Sarasaland, the game puts Mario in an Egyptian inspired setting with tried and true Mario gameplay.  There are some noted differences from the console games, in that Mario’s fireballs shoot at an angle and bounce off walls and hearts are used for extra lives while coins function as a currency.  There are also some scrolling levels where Mario pilots a spaceship or submarine which help break up the routine.  Otherwise, it was a pretty basic platforming-side-scroller.  The Gameboy’s display made it a little tough on the eyes, and Mario felt a little loose as a result.  Gamers who had this title in 1989 mostly seemed to enjoy it, even though they knew they were getting a somewhat lesser experience than what they had on their home consoles, but considering the Gameboy’s main competition was Tiger handheld games, they were pretty content to have Super Mario Land.

15.  Super Mario Bros. 2/The Lost Levels (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1986)

One of the defining characteristics of Super Mario Bros. 2 was the emphasis on making the Luigi experience different from the Mario one.

One of the defining characteristics of Super Mario Bros. 2 was the emphasis on making the Luigi experience different from the Mario one.

By now, anyone with an interest in video games is well aware of the story of the “original” Super Mario Bros. 2.  It was a Japan only release for a couple of reasons.  The main reason was the difficulty which Nintendo of America thought would prove too frustrating for US gamers.  Also, Nintendo of America wasn’t very impressed with the title simply because it was too similar to the original Super Mario Bros.  For that, we should be thankful as NOA was absolutely right with that stance.  Super Mario Bros. 2 would eventually be released as The Lost Levels in the US alongside the other NES Mario titles in the Super Mario All-Stars compilation released on the Super Nintendo.  The game basically plays like a set of add-on levels for the original title.  The original was such a massive success, that Nintendo of Japan felt it had to strike quick with a sequel.  When early attempts at a sequel proved too ambitious (more on that to follow), this game was created in its stead.  It’s basically just a harder version of the original, with the addition of poison mushrooms and Luigi being given his own characteristics (higher jumps but slippery feet) to make him play different from Mario for the first time.  Needless to say, when the game was eventually released in the US, few American gamers felt like they had really been missing out on anything.

14.  Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985)

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

The original, but not still the best, Super Mario Bros. set the standard for all Mario games to follow.  These types of lists are always a little tricky because one is forced to weigh present value against past value.  My take is always to just judge the games as they are.  Perhaps that gives the modern titles a huge advantage but a good game is a good game, regardless of era or graphical horse power.  Plus, games should be better today than they were 20 years ago as I’d like to think we’re always moving forward.  With that out of the way, it should be said that Super Mario Bros. still holds up today as a fun and challenging game, just one notably simplified.  It’s the classic “go right” game and the player is expected to run and bounce along to each stage’s flag pole in an attempt to rescue the princess.  The clock actually plays a role in this game, as opposed to the more recent games, and later levels force the player to hold the run button throughout.  The game’s challenge is mostly found in negotiating jumps and platforms that become smaller as the game goes along while dodging classic Mario enemies like koopa troopas and Lakitu.  It’s true that it may be hard to impress a young gamer today with the original Super Mario Bros., but it is a textbook take on the genre it launched even if its sequels have improved upon it immensely.

13.  Super Mario Land 2:  6 Golden Coins (Gameboy, 1992)

New bunny ears and a new villain are the defining characteristics of Super Mario Land 2.

New bunny ears and a new villain are the defining characteristics of Super Mario Land 2.

Super Mario Land 2 was a huge improvement over its predecessor.  It borrowed heavily from the the current console games in terms of defining Mario’s look and power-ups and pushed the Gameboy to produce one if its best looking and best playing titles.  This game also introduced Wario, who served as the primary antagonist for Mario for basically the only time before becoming a playable character in his own line of games.  Super Mario Land 2 held onto the first game’s quirks while giving Mario some new power-ups, most notably the bunny ears.  Mario being able to fly had been a big deal since Super Mario Bros. 3 so it’s no surprise he was able to do the same in this game.  Keeping things weird, as they were with a raccoon tail bestowing flying powers in SMB 3, the bunny ears let Mario fly by rapidly pressing the jump button.  Mario didn’t gradually descend, like he did with the cape and tail, so it gave Land 2 a unique feature.  The fireballs had their angled shot replaced with traditional fire power, and the game had a map layout like Super Mario World.  The worlds the map is segregated into can be played in any order, giving this game a less linear feel, and secrets abound which help the replay factor.  Which is a good thing, because the 32 levels will be breezed through by Mario veterans making Super Mario Land 2’s biggest weakness its short duration.  This is a fun game though, and it was the first Gameboy experience that came close to matching the console one where Mario titles are concerned.

12.  New Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo 3DS, 2012)

I did a big write-up on this one around the time it was released, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  Suffice to say, if anything my opinion of the game has lessened since.  It’s a fun experience, but in general it did little to nothing as far as advancing the series goes.  The focus on coin collection was a mistake as it didn’t add to the experience.  The much publicized street pass functionality and downloadable content was basically a dud, and the game’s difficulty was basically non-existant.  This is a by-the-numbers Mario game, and its sister-title New Super Mario Bros. U is the far superior game, and not just because it’s on the more powerful console and in HD.  I did enjoy the return of the super leaf power-up as well as the inclusion of the Koopa Kids and the game does not have a shortage of levels.

11.  New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo DS, 2006)

New Super Mario Bros. was a welcome return to the side-scrolling genre for Mario and Luigi.

New Super Mario Bros. was a welcome return to the side-scrolling genre for Mario and Luigi.

New Super Mario Bros. was a supremely refreshing title when it was first released in 2006.  A new side-scrolling Mario game had not been released since 1992’s Super Mario Land 2, unless you count the Wario and Yoshi games in between.  New Super Mario Bros. was a like a kid’s dream of what the original Super Mario Bros. could have been with mega mushroom power-ups and the mini mushroom, letting Mario shrink to a microscopic size.  Of the two, the mini mushroom was actually the better as controlling a lightning quick Mario was a lot of fun.  Not that it wasn’t fun to control the Godzilla-like Mega Mario, but it got old after a few experiences.  Mario also retained some of his 3D controls like the ability to double and triple jump.  Not very useful, but a lot of fun.  The game is also massive with 80 levels to explore, some of them only unlocked after finding the various star coins hidden in each stage.  Like its sequel, the game’s biggest drawback was its lack of challenge.  Notably trickier than the follow-up, but still lacking compared with the well-balanced Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario 64.  This is a good game though, and as you can probably guess from these rankings, I actually recommend it over New Super Mario Bros. 2 for its tighter gameplay and better level design, though the level design is actually a weakness for the game when compared to other Mario titles.  This one was a nice nostalgia trip in 2006, and even though the New Super Mario Bros. franchise has had a hard time living up to the classics, I still think we’re better off for having it.


The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3

The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)

The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)

It seems to me that video game cartoons are much less popular today than they were when I was young.  Then again, I don’t have any kids so I’m not often watching children’s programming so I could be mistaken.  I’m sure Pokemon is still kicking around some network and Sonic may be running in syndication, but that’s all I can come up with off the top of my head.  When I was young there were several video game adaptations for the small screen.  Just going off the top of my head I can come up with Dragon Lair, Super Mario, Zelda, Captain N (not a strict adaptation of a game, but comprised almost entirely of characters from popular games), Sonic, Battletoads, Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat.  I’m almost positive I’m forgetting some but that’s still a pretty solid sample for comparison.  Maybe it’s because so many popular games these days seem to be of the M and T rated variety that we don’t see many cartoon adaptations.  Or maybe it’s because companies like Nintendo are still shell-shocked from less than stellar cartoons based on their properties.  If that is the case, then we can lay a lot of the blame on The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3.

The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 was, naturally, based on the video game Super Mario Bros. 3.  It was also the sequel of sorts to the more popular Super Maro Bros. Super Show which featured Mario cartoons that took place in a world based off of Super Mario Bros. 2 (the American version).  That show is mostly remembered for the live-action Mario and Luigi and the songs the welcomed viewers and saw them off (Do the Mario!).  The Super Mario Bros. 3 adaptation contained no live actors and no such songs.  The opening is simply a narrator talking over an animated sequence that sets up the series.  There’s no continuity from one episode to the next and each one runs a little over 10 minutes with 26 total episodes.  The retail release is three discs worth of content and I would be surprised if any of the discs is filled to near capacity.  Mario and Luigi had their voice actors recast to Walker Boone and Tony Rosato but the rest of the cast remains intact.  The animation style is also slightly different, most notably Mario is a little trimmer and the Koopa Troopa design from the previous show was scrapped.

The Koopa Kids are probably the best thing going in this show.

The Koopa Kids are probably the best thing going in this show.

The biggest changes from the previous show to this one occurred with the villains and the location.  Location wise, this is a more faithful depiction of the Mushroom Kingdom from the game complete with numerous warp pipes and floating blocks.  For the villains, King Koopa is still the antagonist but now he’s accompanied by his seven Koopa Kids.  The Koopalings resemble their video game counterparts in design but all have different names.  Allegedly, this was due to the series being developed before Nintendo had provided the names.  The characters, for the most part, have pretty stupid and unimaginative names.  Morton Koopa Jr. is now just called Big Mouth, because he has a (you guessed it) big mouth.  There’s a Bully Koopa, Cheatsy, and Wendy is now Kootie Pie.  It’s not very important what their names are but I’ll give credit to the writers for mostly giving each of the seven a distinct personality (with the exception of the twins Hip and Hop, who are basically the same).  The ones that end up standing out include Cheatsy, who’s cunning seems to surpass his father’s as he is often able to manipulate him (usually with flattery).  Cookie is the evil genius of the kids and is definitely the most insane.  And Kootie Pie, being Koopa’s only daughter, is not surprisingly a spoiled brat and her father is a slave to her whims.

Apparently the eyes are fully-functioning on the frog suit.  Does that mean Mario can see out of them?  I must know!

Apparently the eyes are fully-functioning on the frog suit. Does that mean Mario can see out of them? I must know!

The Koopa Kids are perhaps the only bright spot of this program.  Well, that and the power-ups.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is famous for its numerous power-ups and they’re all represented here, for the most part.  For some reason I get a giddy thrill from seeing them used in the show from the common raccoon tail to the absurd frog suit.  Even Koopa gets in on the action in the series finale which is certainly noteworthy.  The rest of the show though is comprised of tired writing and simple plots.  Not much has changed from the previous show and the majority of the episodes follow the same formula of the Mario Bros. having to foil one of Koopa’s attempts at taking over the Mushroom Kingdom.  There’s usually a chase sequence or montage set to a parody of a licensed song which had to be removed from the DVD release.  There is one exception in the episode “Recycled Koopa” which contains a song called “Trash City USA” (2:05 mark in video link).  It sounds suspiciously like the Glenn Danzig song “Spook City USA” and I wonder if it was intended by someone as a parody of that.  Since the song is so obscure it wouldn’t surprise me if it snuck past the legal team (at the time the episode was produced, the song only existed as a B side to the single “Who Killed Marlyn?” which was not exactly a wide release).  There’s also the requisite episode where things get turned around and Mario and Luigi have to be saved by the Princess and Toad.  There’s also a celebrity appearance by Milli Vanilli in one episode, “Kootie Pie Rocks.”  This may be the most hilarious episode in hindsight.

Koopa is backed, armed with an assortment of magic wands this time around.

Koopa is backed, armed with an assortment of magic wands this time around.

This series also establishes the existence of the home world of the Mario brothers as The Real World.  This means several episodes take place on earth and in places like New York and Venice.  There’s even one episode where each koopaling takes over a continent.  This labeling of this world as The Real World bugs the crap out of me.  This show isn’t like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with characters often breaking the fourth wall, instead that’s how the characters view this supposed real world.  What does that make the Mushroom Kingdom then?  The fake world?  I’m surprised the princess would stand for that!

Because of the short run-time, plots are often resolved quickly and haphazardly.  It’s clear the writers had little respect for children as the show is fairly thoughtless.  The animation isn’t anything to get excited over either.  For the most part, it’s fairly typical of its era but there are other shortcuts that bother me.  Most notably, whenever a character morphs into another form there’s no transition animation, it just happens, which is utter laziness.  Unfortunately, the transfers by Shout! Factory for the DVD release are atrocious.  Some episodes are okay while others drop out and look worse than what can be found on the internet.  Supposedly the master tapes for the series no longer exist, so I don’t know what the source was for the DVD, but clearly it sucked and no attempt was made for the episodes that are really bad.  The last two episodes on the set are especially bad and should have never been released in such a state.

I bought this set when I found it on sale and did so only for nostalgic purposes.  I liked the show enough when I was a kid but my memory of it wasn’t strong.  It didn’t last long as it was quickly replaced by a Super Mario World themed cartoon.  Even though the set was relatively cheap, it still wasn’t worth the purchase.  Don’t make the same mistake I did, just let this one pass, as your memories of the show are likely much better than the actual product.


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