Tag Archives: video games

Lego 71374 – Nintendo Entertainment System

There’s something almost cathartic about assembling a Lego set. It can be hot and sticky in my house in the middle of the summer, but if I’m fiddling with a Lego set I almost don’t even notice. Considering how unbearably hot and humid it’s been in the north east this summer, it’s a shame I don’t have more opportunities to mess around with a Lego set. Lego presents its own obstacles in that the sets are often pretty expensive and space-eaters. Even if I want something and can afford it, there’s the very real problem of what to do with it after the fact. As such, I try to just to stick to the Disney stuff, in particular anything modeled after an actual attraction at the park. Since finishing the Disneyland Train Station last year though, things have been quiet on that front, but Lego had something in the works I just couldn’t ignore.

It was earlier this year that Lego announced it had struck a licensing deal with Nintendo. This attracted my attention a bit, but I didn’t necessarily expect anything to come of it that would interest me. What I did expect were some Mario playsets, and Lego eventually showed off just that. It’s also not a straight Lego set with Mario themed mini figures, but a bit of an interactive thing where a brickhead-like Mario makes sounds and plays music depending on what blocks he comes in contact with. It’s different, and my son seems to have an interest in it, but it’s not for me. Then Lego went and unveiled something unexpected: the Nintendo Entertainment System.

A few years ago, the NES Classic proved there’s a lot of nostalgia surrounding the venerable old machine from 1985. Nintendo couldn’t even keep up with demand initially and people were scalping the 60 dollar item for triple the price for a short while. Because of that, I suppose it shouldn’t have shocked me when Lego unveiled this set which is a brick reconstruction of the NES, controller, Super Mario Bros. game pak, and an era appropriate TV to pair it with. And just a few short weeks later the set was launched on August 1st with an MSRP of $229.99. The 2,646 piece set quickly sold out at retail locations and the online stock has since sold out as well. Worry not if you missed out as Lego plans to continue making more and it’s a safe bet this one will be a popular item this Christmas.

Fearing a sell out, I rather insanely stayed up the night of July 31st just to make sure I got an order in at midnight. The set actually went up for sale a few minutes early and I had my order placed before midnight. This actually worked against me as there was supposed to be a free gift related to the Mario set, but I think that didn’t go live until midnight so my set arrived by itself. Not that it mattered that much as I only want the NES. It arrived at my door just a few days later and it was a bit of a long day with work before I could get to it.

The set arrived in a box larger than I expected. There’s an inner box that contains the first 7 bags of the set (which all relate to the NES itself) and two booklets: one for the console and one for the TV. There are only three stickers included which is fantastic as I loathe placing stickers on Lego sets. The only stickers are the labels for the game cartridge and a faux informational label for the rear of the TV. I decided to build the NES first and was able to complete it in one evening of roughly three hours of build time. Some of that was spent with my five-year-old son which probably slowed me down some, but it still felt rather breezy.

The construction of the NES is rather painless. You’re essentially just building a slightly irregular box so it shouldn’t be hard. The mechanism Lego has you construct for the game-loader is a bit intimidating to look at, but it’s actually fairly easy to install. Lego made use of a special spring-loaded piece to get it right and the end result is actually kind of amazing. It works just like the old console: you insert the game, push down, and it stays down. Push down again and the game pops back up for you to remove.

Lego took care to make the outer box look like the real deal. There’s audio and video hookups, a channel changing switch, as well as all of the buttons and cosmetic effects you would expect. There’s the ribbed area of the console’s surface which is an interesting part of the build as well as lots of smooth pieces for the top and sides. All of the logos and words are graphics printed on the piece so they look really sharp. The only thing Lego was unable to hide were the hinges on the front cover, but it’s hardly an eye sore. If anything looks a tad off it’s the front of that cover as it’s done with several pieces so there’s an abundance of seems. It probably could have been done in a cleaner manner, but it’s not as if you’re not supposed to know that this is a Lego creation. Lego also couldn’t perfectly replicate the irregular shape of the NES’s controller inputs, but they did a rather good job with it as-is.

The finished product is smaller than the real thing, but not by that much. I had the original NES, in terms of width, height, and depth as: 10.125″ x 3.5″ x 8″. The Lego version measures out as: 8.125″ x 3″ x 7″. The controller is more 1:1 though the Lego one is a touch thinner. It also isn’t a perfect rectangle as the sides and bottom don’t line up perfectly which is perplexing. I guess they didn’t want to engineer a slightly longer, flat, piece? I don’t know why they couldn’t use existing pieces to get it so that it didn’t have such a gap. It’s minor though, but something that I notice. There are also no working buttons on this thing. They look the part, but don’t function, which I expected but it would have been fun if the A and B buttons on the controller at least were able to be pressed.

The included game pak, or cartridge, is another thing you have to build. It’s a very quick build though as it’s quite thin and Lego didn’t feel a need to put a proper back on it, so it’s just the underside of the flat bricks used to craft it. It looks the part though and is undeniably cute in the hand. It’s also smaller than the real thing, and if you’re curious, no, an actual game won’t fit in the Lego NES. A traditional cartridge is: 4.75″ x 0.75″ x 5.25″. The Lego version is 3.75″ x 0.375″ x 4.125″. The stickers look great too and since they’re applied to a flat, black, piece it gives you some freedom in applying them. The smaller sticker even includes the Nintendo official seal of quality, an important touch.

So if you can’t tell, I’m quite pleased with how the NES and it’s components turned out. Since the old Control Deck, as it were called, came with two controllers I do wish this did as well. Since it’s not a functional gaming console though, I understand why it wasn’t exactly necessary to have two. What a Nintendo does need though is a television, because what good is a video game console without video?

Lego could have probably just done the console, and if it were to include a TV it could have just made a big, brick, box. Lego wasn’t content to do that though and wanted to actually simulate a Nintendo game, in this case Super Mario Bros. That’s how we ended up with this rather ambitious television included in this set. It contains more than half of the bricks in this set and is a longer build than the console. The TV is also modeled after the one that appeared in the original instruction manual for the NES, though I am unsure if it’s to scale or not. Regardless, it looks the part of an old TV and has some interesting functionality.

The TV is separated into various build phases. You first start with the base and the “guts” of the device before moving onto the rear and sides. What’s that is complete, it’s time to take care of the screen. See, Lego wasn’t content to just make an era-specific brick-television set to pair with your NES to form a nice display, rather it chose to make this system “playable.” In order to do that, you need to construct a fairly elaborate rotating mechanism with a picture on it all entirely out of Lego. The final product is essentially like those old racing or flying toys in which a picture rotates on a cylinder to simulate movement while the player has a controller or wand with a car or plane at the end of it to move around avoiding obstacles or just keeping the car on the road.

In order to do this, Lego basically has you build tank treads, and it’s the section of the build that is the most tedious. There’s a sequence of bags starting at 14 where you’re basically just making one small thing, but over over. The treads are a bag all by themselves as you link them together to make two long treads. You then need to build 15 joiners which are simple, but certainly do a number on your thumbs. You then need to build the plates to place over them which need to snap into place. They’re not all entirely the same as some need a couple of colored bricks affixed to the end which will work with the Lego Mario figure (sold separately).

Once you get through all of that (which comprises three bags, or steps), you’re finally ready to construct the image. Using mostly flat tiles, you build the scenery of Super Mario Bros. There’s lots of blue and brown tiles as well as some studs. You could conceivably ad-lib this part if you wanted to and create your own background, but it’s meant to be constructed in a specific way to work with the previously mentioned Mario. Lego is generous with the special pieces like the goomba, turtle shell, etc. as they’re small, flat, pieces that could be easily lost. You have an extra of each. The graphics printed on them look great, though the mushroom and goomba shape are a little off since they use a tiny “pie slice” piece. They’re still easily recognizable and are probably my son’s favorite part of the set. This was also a great part to have him help me with since it’s basically just laying tiles.

Once the scenery is constructed it has to be wrapped around a little “cart” the set has you construct which then gets placed inside the TV. It’s a touch challenging to get the scene to hook to itself as there isn’t a ton of give, but it wasn’t as bad as I though it might be. Inserting the finished diorama into the TV was also exceedingly simple even though there’s a lot going on. The only part I didn’t like was the little cap Lego has you build to put on top of it as it’s not engineered as well as it could be. There’s a little gap in the piece itself because of the bricks chosen and when snapping this into place it can come undone. This piece isn’t crucial, and after a few tries I just let it be even though I’m pretty sure one side wasn’t snapped together as well as it should be. It’s basically just a spacer between the mechanism and the top of the TV. Mario is added before the next step and he’s a cute little tile all on his own screen-printed to resemble Super Mario from the original game. He’s affixed to a transparent rod (the same one that came with the Ghostbusters Fire House for the flying ghosts) with a spherical, bubble-like piece behind Mario to guide him over the obstacles.

After that is done, the only thing left was to assemble the front of the TV and the bottom leg supports. This was an enjoyable build that comes together pretty fast. Lego was creative with the television dial by using a gear that just rubs a soft, plastic, green, rod to create a clicking sound when the dial is turned. My kids were quite amused by that and even more amused that this is how a TV was once operated. There are more tiles with graphics printed on them for things like volume control and even a UHF toggle. The last step is to create the TV stand which is rather simple. The finished product rests on top of this with some bricks placed on the bottom of the set used as guides so while it doesn’t snap in place, it fits into a track of sorts so it’s not wobbly.

With the set complete, you’re free to experience what it offers. Turning the crank makes the scenery move and Mario will just slide over it. This means he has only one path and you don’t want to try and force him to go higher than intended or else you risk jamming the mechanism. My son did this as he wanted Mario to stomp more goombas and got it stuck. I had to pop Mario off and some of the other pieces to get it going again. I didn’t have to resort to this, but in hindsight it’s nice Lego includes extra tiles for goombas, turtle shells, etc. in the event one were to pop off and fall into the TV it could just be replaced rather than disassembled to dig out one little tile. It works as advertised though and my kids though it was pretty fun.

If you happen to have one laying around, the Mario figure adds to the fun of the set, though he’s also a bit of an eyesore up there.

Of course, you may be aware that this set contains an additional function. If you purchase the new Super Mario Starter Course set from Lego it comes with a Mario brickhead-like figurine. This figure has some electronics built into it that causes it to change facial expression and also output sound. If you happen to have this guy you can place him on a special tile on top of the television to start him up, then move him to the edge of the screen. When you crank the handle, the colored tiles on the edge of the track alert the Mario figure to what’s happened on the “screen” and he’s supposed to play the proper sound. If Mario stomps an enemy it should make that “pop” sound or if he hits a question mark block that unmistakable sound of a mushroom rising up will play. I went ahead and purchased the set for my son, as it’s more of a toy than a display set. It works as advertised, though I had to update the firmware on the Mario figure via the special app Lego launched specifically for the Mario brand. It’s a neat feature, but not worth $60 for adults who just want to experience the music from the game with this set. The Mario figurine atop the TV doesn’t really complement the aesthetic this set is going for, and the Starter Course is a play set as opposed to a display piece by itself so there’s nothing to gain from owning both aside from getting sound effects into this set. As a result, I cannot recommend it. Though if you want it for your kid, mine seems to love it, so there’s that.

Behold! The Tower of NES! Top to Bottom: Hallmark NES, NES Classic, Lego NES, Original NES.

If you lack the Lego Mario figurine, one substitution for him is the 2020 Hallmark NES ornament which plays sounds from the game. My kids didn’t notice the sounds didn’t sync with the TV and didn’t care as one would turn the handle and the other would hold the Lego NES controller and pretend to play. The console doesn’t physically hook-up to the television, you’re just supposed to place it nearby to complete the look. And this works fine. If the TV didn’t have the image built onto it you could probably fool someone from a distance as Lego really nailed that old school look of a television. And the NES is also quite convincing, especially to people who haven’t looked at a proper console in 30 years.

I am quite tickled by how this set turned out. It was a really fun build, even with the tedious portions of the TV, and was rather frustration-free at that. I love the look and functionality of both the TV and NES. When I first saw this set, and how much it cost, I was a bit grumpy they included the TV as a lone NES would have been much cheaper, I’d wager. However, now that I have it built I’m a little torn on what part is my favorite. The TV is so well crafted and so fun to play with that I can’t imagine the set without it. I’m even curious if Lego will do more with this design. While I have little desire at the moment to build another track, I’d probably have to consider it if Lego released additional games for this thing. Side-scrolling Zelda, or maybe Lego would challenge itself with a vertical scroller? And then there’s the Mario sequels or Duck Hunt with Zapper. I’m not expecting any of that, but it also wouldn’t shock me to see it happen. By itself, this set is a blast for nostalgia junkies like myself. If you can get your hands on it (it’s currently sold out, but it will be back) I wholeheartedly recommend picking it up.


Final Fantasy VII Remake – Demo Impressions

Final-Fantasy-7-Remake-DemoIt’s been a long time since I discussed the possibility of a Final Fantasy VII remake. After mentioning it here and there in other posts, I made a dedicated post on the subject six years ago. And six years ago isn’t even the start of all of this hype, so it’s safe to say this game has been a long time coming. And it’s almost here. In order to drum up excitement (and maybe quell some negative press at release), Square-Enix released a free demo for the remake on the PlayStation Network this week. To access it you simply need a PlayStation 4 and a network connection. You do not need to be a subscriber to Sony’s paid online service. The demo should take about 10 minutes to download and install and contains roughly an hour’s worth of content, so if you’re curious about the game and have yet to check out the demo you might as well go rectify that right now.

The demo contains what I assume will be the start to the main game. If you played the original Final Fantasy VII then it will be quite familiar. You take on the role of Cloud, a mercenary in the employ of Barret Wallace and his organization, Avalanche, which is in the process of storming a mako reactor in the city of Midgar owned and operated by a company named Shinra. As Cloud (who is given that name outright, so no more choosing your own name), you’re expected to take orders, do the job, and collect a paycheck at the end. The goal of the mission is to take down and destroy this reactor, which Barret explains rather passionately is destroying the planet. Basically, if you’re familiar with the original game this is all routine, but if you’re a newcomer you may have some questions, but those will have to wait for retail.

cloud_demo

Cloud is back, and he’s still going with that hairstyle.

It has been an exceptionally long road getting to this point. Final Fantasy VII was released to huge publicity way back in 1997 and is a very popular and beloved title. For many, it was probably their introduction to the franchise as it was only the fourth entry in the series released outside of Japan. And by far, it was the most publicized, though the US version of Final Fantasy VI was no slouch in terms of marketing. It’s hard to say when the thirst for a remake arrived, but it was definitely here after Square unveiled a PlayStation 3 tech demo that contained images of Final Fantasy VII with a new engine. At the time, Square intended this to be just a demo of what a Final Fantasy title could look like on the new hardware, but naturally many fans just wanted to see these resources used to create a new version of a game they loved.

A remake of Final Fantasy VII never arrived during the PlayStation 3’s lifespan, and it was rarely even hinted at. The company line soon came to be “We hear you,” and fans were expected to just keep voicing their desires for a remake in hopes it would one day happen. Well, that day has just about come and it’s going to be met with some degree of dissatisfaction, but overall I think this title will do well for Square-Enix.

support_characters_demo

And all of your friends are back too, like Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie!

First of all, fans have known what to expect leading up to this point. Gone is the old mechanics of the Active Time Battle System and in its place is a more action-oriented gameplay system. Anyone who has played Final Fantasy XV or even Kingdom Hearts III should feel relatively comfortable with this new system, but anyone going straight from Final Fantasy VII to this will likely be left with their head spinning. At the start of the demo, the player just controls Cloud who battles solo. As enemies come into view, Cloud goes from a passive state to a combat position seamlessly. Mashing the square button is really all that needs to happen in order to win the day against these early foes, but there’s a bit more going on under the hood.

As Cloud attacks, his ATB meter fills. Yes, a relic of the past still exists in some form this time out. When that meter fills, Cloud can use Abilities, Spells, and Items at his whim. Pressing the X button brings up a menu which greatly slows down the action onscreen allowing the player to cycle through the options at his or her leisure. In the demo, Cloud has some abilities that should sound familiar, like Braver. These moves do extra damage and consume ATB. For spells, Cloud has access to Fire which isn’t of much use in the demo, save for when Cloud has to fight flying enemies he can’t quite reach with his sword. Under items are a bunch of familiar options like potions and ethers.

cloud_barrett_demo

Oh, and lets not forget the big guy. Barret is the only other playable character in the demo.

Adding a little extra layer of complexity is the fact that Cloud has two methods of attacks. Think of this as a relic from the Squaresoft classic Bushido Blade as Cloud basically has two stances. He begins in Operator mode which is his default approach. With a tap of the triangle button he can move into Punisher mode. In this state, his sword flurries are more elaborate and deal considerably more damage. He also moves much slower making it harder to evade enemy attacks. Blocking or taking damage will knock Cloud out of this mode, so it’s something that is to be deployed in moderation. At work, is a system of staggering in which repeated blows on an enemy fill a bar below their health. When that fills they become staggered and momentarily incapacitated. You won’t get to play with this too much in the demo as the fodder will like fall first, but it would seem the standard play is to attack an enemy until staggered, then bust out Punisher mode to deal additional damage while they can’t move.

About midway through the demo, Barret will enter the fray. When a second member joins the party in battle, switching between the two is as simple as pressing a button. Barret works in the same manner as Cloud, except he’s a ranged fighter and not nearly as fast or nimble. He can more easily hit flying enemies and instead of a Punisher mode he has a charged attack that gradually fills. He also has access to the spells Thunder and Cure, though you should have plenty of potions to render the latter useless for the demo. You can give the A.I. controlled party member commands during battle, though for the demo I found it mostly unnecessary. When controlling Cloud, Barret did a good job of attacking enemies Cloud could not, but I suspect in larger frays with three characters in the main game it may become more necessary to micro-manage the combatants.

aerith_demo

The demo will give you a look at the mysterious flower girl, but don’t expect it to settle the Aerith/Aeris debate.

Combat in the Final Fantasy VII remake has the potential to add layers of complexity. And in some ways it already feels that way, though much of the confrontations in this demo can be resolved by simply mashing the attack button. It remains to be seen if that’s just simply a matter of this being a demo, or if that will be the general flow of combat for lesser enemies (the equivalent of the original’s random encounters) or if the game will demand more from these enemies as it moves along. Near the end of the demo is a boss encounter in which you will have to do more and pay attention to Cloud’s suggestions. He’ll yell out to Barret how to deal with the enemy, and as the player, you’re expected to do the same. These range from what magic to utilize and where to strike. It’s during this battle that you’ll likely encounter Limit Breaks for the first time. They seem to work as they did in the original, though with Braver being a standard move, Cloud’s first Limit Break is now Cross-Slash. I did not see Barrett’s in my play-through.

When not in battle, the game is pretty much just a nicer version of the original. The camera is always behind Cloud, but can be manually controlled via the right analog stick. The visuals are on par with the best titles Square-Enix has produced so you’re not likely to find many complaints there. Cloud more or less resembles his Advent Children self, but he has been noticeably reworked some and I think he looks a little better now. He’s still a touch goofy looking since he’s an anime design made real, but it’s fine. The voice acting is good as well and since these characters have all spoken before since the original game’s release it’s not as surprising as it might have been fifteen years ago. In short, if this game is a failure the production values will have little to do with that.

sweeper

The sweeper is one of the few enemies in the demo that will let you try out more of your arsenal.

Exploring the environment of this demo is not exactly exciting, but it’s also a tutorial disguised as a mission. I don’t want to make assumptions about the rest of the game based on this section. There are some chests scattered about, but they’re all in plain sight. There are boxes Cloud can smash with his sword to uncover items and even some simple obstacles that need to be cleared. Cloud can basically just run, run faster, and swing his sword. When he needs to jump he’ll do it automatically. It appears the old equipment and materia systems will work largely the same, though the game doesn’t give you an introduction to that aspect in the demo. Oddly, I found you have to use the real-time item list (accessed via the X button whether in or outside of battle) to heal via potions and can’t do it from the pause menu. It would be nice to see an auto-heal feature in the main game.

Ultimately, what is going to make or break this game is the combat system and how that aligns with expectations. There are certainly plenty of fans of the more recently released Final Fantasy XV that will likely welcome a more modern, action-oriented, battle system. There are also those who will yearn for the days of old and the turn-based system. There was a rumor making the rounds over the summer that the game could be made into a turn-based one, but that is not the case. You have options to greatly slow it down, but it will never be truly turn-based. It’s more you can make it similar to a Bioware RPG in which you could basically pause the action, issue commands, then resume. I am not surprised that Square went modern with its combat system, though I have reservations about it. The generic encounters are rather mind-numbing. Again, you could say the same of the original, but relentlessly mashing buttons somehow feels more tedious than the old system. As such, I kind of wish it went even more action and added multiple attack buttons, combos, and a more robust parry system. The thought being if you want this to be an action game, just make it an action game. The boss fight does show how the system can be expanded, but the battle was long and when it was over I don’t know that I felt accomplished. I was kind of just glad to be done with it.

scorpion_demo

The climax of the demo is a battle with the Scorpion Sentinel, also a boss from the original. He’s much harder this time around, but still quite manageable.

The other elephant in the room is also just what can fans expect of this initial installment of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Square-Enix has almost gone silent on the subject since it was announced, but this game is not the entire Final Fantasy VII experience. The assumption, which has mostly been confirmed, is that this game only covers the Midgar portion of the original. It basically ends with the rescue of Red XIII, who is reportedly not even playable in the full version. We do not know how many games this remake will span. We know it’s more than one, and that is all. My guess is that it will be three games, just because publishers seem to like trilogies, but how it ties in with the sequels remains unknown. Fans will want their characters to carry-over, but if this stretches beyond two games it seems unlikely the third would be a PlayStation 4 game. There’s no timetable for the release, and considering how long it took to get this out, I have my reservations about diving into an incomplete experience.

This demo largely accomplishes what it needs to. Fans get a taste for how this very intriguing game will work and play. That’s all a demo really needs to do. It can’t answer whether or not the final release will be worth it, but it provides some indication of what to expect. I do think that game, which I presume is around a 15 hour experience, will be largely good. The questions though about when the next installment will arrive gives me some trepidation, enough so that I will not be a day one buyer. I don’t feel like I need to get to this right away considering the full story won’t be available for years. It makes it easy to back-burner as I still have other titles to finish. I think there will be plenty of fans of the old game to make this a commercial success, so I don’t think there is presently any danger of Square abandoning the project. And from a value standpoint, it can be all but assumed that eventually, when all is said and one, there will be a Kingdom Hearts styled package release of all of the titles at a friendlier price.

Final-Fantasy-7-Remake-Opening-Movie-Trailer

The “full” game arrives April 10 on PlayStation 4.

Those are all things to consider. If you don’t care about the release schedule then by all means play the demo, decide if it’s something you want more of, and go ahead and buy it. I expect there will be critical voices out there on Twitter and such, and they will be loud, but not very impactful in terms of sales. This game will do well because there is so much anticipation for it. And because of that anticipation, Square-Enix was right to take its time and basically build this from the ground up, even if I would have personally been really tickled by a “downgrade” in the form of a sprite-based remake. I expect modern gamers to respond well to the new combat mechanics, though I do wonder if people experiencing this for the first time will be left underwhelmed. They may not understand what made the original so big and exciting to begin with. For them, we’ll only be able to offer up a “I guess you had to be there,” explanation and leave it at that.


Ranking the Nintendo Hardware

nintendointerAs I sit down to write this entry, it is March 1st and we are less than 48 hours away from the launch of the latest piece of Nintendo hardware:  Nintendo Switch. It’s an important release for Nintendo as the last console, the Wii U, was a commercial failure. That being so, the Wii U is a bit of an anomaly as Nintendo has been a respected manufacturer of video game hardware for decades. Nintendo’s journey has been a memorable one, starting with playing cards and low-tech plug and play devices to the Game and Watch series, which set the stage for Nintendo as both a game developer and eventually console juggernaut. As such, Nintendo is synonymous with video games (at one point, the word Nintendo was often used by parents as a catch-all term for gaming system) and it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever leave the industry, but if the Switch is a flop then that could be a real possibility.

Before we take in the new, lets look to the past and try and rank all of the Nintendo hardware to be released to a global audience, starting first with the Nintendo Entertainment System and concluding with the Wii U. Maybe a year from now we’ll have an idea of where the Switch will end up among its peers, hopefully towards the front of the list as opposed to the back, but for now we’ll have to settle for what we have. So let’s get started with the consensus worst piece of hardware ever released by Nintendo…

200px-virtual-boy-set

It’s like ROB the Robot for your face.

The Virtual Boy

In 1995, Nintendo apparently felt there was a market for a table-top console you stick your face in. The “Boy” tacked onto the end of Virtual Boy’s name makes it seem like it’s a part of the portable Game Boy family, but it’s about as portable as a desktop PC, and about as fun to play as Claris Works. The Virtual Boy was a piece of crap from day one. It attempted to give gamers a Tron-like experience (I guess?) with vector graphics that only displayed in red and black. The console could supposedly inflict permanent damage on one’s vision. The controller was trying to be forward thinking with twin directional inputs, but we soon learned that we did not need two d-pads on a controller and the practice was never duplicated in a memorable way. To top it all off, the machine launched with an MSRP of $180 which is just insane for 1995. Even disasters like the Sega CD have a certain curiosity factor, so much so that I’ve bought one as an adult just for shits and giggles. The Virtual Boy possesses no such charm, and it’s the only Nintendo system I have never owned.

Notable Franchise debuts: Mario Tennis

wii_u_console_and_gamepad

At least the white doesn’t show dust.

Wii U

Nintendo’s latest failure, the Wii U, had some promise, but it never delivered on it. Piggy-backing off of the Wii brand’s more recent success, the Wii U was another under-powered Nintendo console with a tablet for a controller. Off TV play is its defining contribution to video games, but with subpar range for the Gamepad it’s still pretty much tethered to your living room. More so than really any Nintendo console (save for the Virtual Boy, which is a huge outlier in every way to the point that I don’t plan on repeating it throughout this post beyond this very sentence), the Wii U failed to deliver the first-party games Nintendo is known for. There were a couple of okay Mario  releases, but no exclusive Zelda or Metroid games (the abomination Freedom Force doesn’t count) or really anything else that was memorable. While it’s true that Zelda:  Breath of the Wild is being released on the Wii U, I would guess more people will experience that game via the Switch. Some of its other more notable releases, like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, are essentially being repackaged for the Switch as well. Basically, unless you refuse to repurchase some of your Wii U library, the only reason to hang onto it is for the Virtual Console games. At least it was backwards compatible with the original Wii, in a convoluted fashion, though that obviously isn’t enough to help it avoid this dubious ranking.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Splatoon

game-boy-fl

The original Game Boy was hardly form-fitting, but it got the job done.

Game Boy

The Game Boy has the distinction of being one of the best selling pieces of video game hardware of all time. That isn’t really a testament to its quality, but more to its incredible longevity. Released in 1989, the Game Boy was essentially on the market without a true successor until 2001. In that time, the Game Boy destroyed all challengers mostly by virtue of the fact that it did nothing well, but had no flaw that was considered fatal. Sure, it’s monochrome display and absence of backlighting irritated anyone who ever played it, it still managed to find and hang onto an audience because it was often priced well, had good battery life, and was released when the Nintendo brand was at its apex. I know many moms who bought their kid a Game Boy because they viewed it as a cheaper alternative to an NES or SNES, and there was always enough quality software to keep the system afloat. Meanwhile, more superior handhelds were released (Game Gear, Lynx, Wonder Swan, Turbo Express), but they either couldn’t match the Game Boy’s price or software and subsequently died, while the Game Boy lived on. Now, the Game Boy was also chock full of shovel ware, often the worst of the worst in licensed games appeared on the Game Boy and many a kid received some awful games from well-meaning aunts and grandparents for birthdays, but at least there was Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon to soften the blow. The Game Boy received a slimmed-down redesign in 1996, the Game Boy Pocket. Other than being slimmer and cheaper to power, it also featured a black and white display instead of that hideous yellow/green and black display of the original. Other than that, it was essentially the same and the Game Boy didn’t receive a true redesign until 1998…

Notable Franchise debuts: Pokemon, Wario Land, Kirby, Gargoyle’s Quest

Game Boy Color

Nintendo lumps in the Game Boy and Game Boy Color into the same bucket in terms of reporting sales figures and so on. The Color was modestly more powerful, and obviously possessed a color display, though it was still pretty much a Game Boy. I list it separately only because Game Boy Color games could only be played on a Game Boy Color and not on one of the earlier models of the Game Boy. And since it possessed color, and could play every game in the Game Boy library, it naturally ranks ahead of the original.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Shantae

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The GBA had a lot of revisions in its relatively short life.

Game Boy Advance

The first real successor to the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance felt long overdue. And like the Game Boy, it received a few redesigns during its lifecycle. Compared to the Game Boy, the GBA did not have nearly as long a shelf-life. Even though Nintendo claimed the Nintendo DS wasn’t meant to be a successor to the Game Boy line, it essentially was and by 2006 the Game Boy brand was basically dead. Still, for as short a life as it had, the GBA was a pretty great portable, but its held back by some odd design choices and a lack of truly exclusive software. For starters, the GBA featured just four action buttons:  A, B, L, and R. Considering we were a decade removed from the SNES creating the new standard of six buttons, this was a curious omission. It seemed even more odd when the GBA quickly established itself as a dumping ground for SNES ports. The other design miss-step was the lack of a backlight. This would be addressed with the Game Boy Advance SP in 2003, a front-lit clamshell redesign that also resembled a Game Boy Pocket, just with a hinge in the middle. While I preferred the horizontal layout of the original GBA, the lack of a light source really sucked the fun out of it. The SP also had a rechargeable battery, which would become standard for future handhelds. In 2005, two additional redesigns were released, the SPII, which featured a backlit screen with improved brightness over the SP, and the Micro, which was tiny and featured a horizontal layout and no backwards compatibility with older Game Boy games.

Other than the hardware shortcomings, the GBA is also lacking in exclusive software designed specifically for the hardware. There were tons of SNES and NES ports, some of which (like Super Mario Advance) were significantly updated, but they didn’t make up for a lack or original software. There was an original Zelda title, The Minish Cap, which was a solid game but not as good as Link’s Awakening. There was also an exclusive Metroid, Metroid Fusion, which was excellent and lead to the release of a remake of the original game, released as Metroid:  Zero Mission. Mario &Luigi was also great, as was Advance Wars. I have a fondness for the GBA, mostly because of all of the great ports, so I don’t consider it a bad system by any means, but when compared with other Nintendo hardware, it does come up a bit short.

Notable Franchise debuts: Advance Wars, Fire Emblem (for US audiences), Phoenix Wright, Mario & Luigi, Wario Ware

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The original, “chunky,” DS. Like the GBA, the DS would receive a few redesigns including the Lite, DSi, and DSi XL.

Nintendo DS

All right, it feels like I’m picking on the portables, but there’s a reason for that. Portables are often homes to ports and the exclusive software is sometimes hard to find. And Nintendo has also often made its portables backwards compatible, so it would be hard to justify ranking older portables ahead of modern ones. Anyways, most of the criticisms I had for the GBA kind of apply to the DS as well. The DS is sort of the last of the old handhelds, as future ones (and even the final iteration of the DS, the DSi, started the evolution) would be online-equipped opening up the handheld to a host of older, downloadable games. The DS set itself apart from the GBA, and its competitor the Sony PSP, by having two screens. The second screen was hardly an innovation. Design-wise, the DS resembled Nintendo’s old Game & Watch handhelds and the second screen soon became a dumping ground for near useless features like map screens and inventory management. Some games tried, and tried hard, to make use of the touch screen functionality, but often to the game’s detriment (see the Zelda games released for it). Really, the only reason why I rank it ahead of the GBA is because it’s backwards compatible with the GBA software (but not original Game Boy software) and had a better design (finally, six buttons!). It too lacked somewhat in defining software, but the uptick in processing power made new games like Super Mario Kart DS way more playable than the GBA predecessor. The system may have launched with a port of Super Mario 64, but it never became the dumping ground for N64 ports some may have been expecting, probably due to the lack of a a true analog input device, something its successor would rectify.

Notable Franchise debuts:  New Super Mario Bros., Sonic Rush, Trauma Center

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The Wii felt new and exciting when it first debuted, but would not be able to maintain its early momentum.

Nintendo Wii

We’re now arriving at the point in our list where it’s getting hard to separate the consoles from each other. We’ve already blown past the only true Nintendo failures (Virtual Boy and Wii U) and we’re now mostly into the realm of nit-picking, though I feel rather strongly about what is the best Nintendo console of all time, I just feel less so about whats fifth best vs what’s fourth best, and so on. The Wii  is easy to dump on in 2016. It featured waggle controls and tons of horrible “party” games and licensed junk. It was cheap to develop for, and it’s consumer success meant there were tons of Wii’s in the wild so producers had incentive to release games for it, and with minimal effort. As much as I, along with many others, came to resent the waggle controls, I can’t deny what playing the Wii was like in 2006. The Wii is the last console that brought me and my friends together to just play games all night and have a blast doing so. At that point, I was out of college and working a full-time job, so getting together with a group of friends just to play video games didn’t happen much, and hasn’t since. And looking back on it, the launch lineup was pretty barren and yet we still had a blast with it. That was largely because of how much fun Wii Sports was, though I did have fun with Madden and Dragon Ball Z as well. And of course, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, even though the Gamecube version released a few months later was actually better (aside from, maybe, the fishing mini game).

The Wii may have received a ton of horrible games, but it did also receive two of the greatest Mario games ever released:  the Galaxy series. Some people loved Skyward Sword as well, even though I detested it. The Metroid Prime series was also one of the few improved by the Wii’s input device, and the debut of the Virtual Console was a pretty big deal at the time, even if it perhaps never reached the lofty expectations some of us may have had for it.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Sports, Xenoblade

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The N64 looks rather regal compared to some of its siblings, though that reputation did not translate to the software.

Nintendo 64

Where do you rank the N64? I would guess this is the console most affected by what age you experienced the N64 at. If this was your first console, then you probably have some extremely fond memories of the N64, so much so that it may even be your favorite. I do not, and for me, the N64 is perhaps the piece of Nintendo hardware that has aged the worst. Visually speaking, most N64 games are ugly by today’s standards. Muddy textures, endless fog, and subpar sound output make for a poor sensory experience. That’s obviously not true of every N64 game. Rare’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day seems to amaze me more and more every time I play it because of how good it turned out from a presentation perspective. The N64 was also the console where third parties started to turn on Nintendo. Most were not happy with the cartridge format, from a technological point of view and financially (you had to pay Nintendo for the actual cartridges), when the industry was moving to CD. The N64 also possessed one of the worst, and most fragile, Nintendo controllers ever done. It’s saved by the analog input and Z-trigger, two additions that are here to stay across all gaming consoles, and it was awesome finally having four controller ports on a console as a standard feature.

After ripping on the N64, I do have to say it gave us one of gaming’s biggest cultural moments in Super Mario 64, which is perhaps the last game that truly felt like a must play when it came out. Ocarina of Time was obviously a huge hit, but it’s success has been dampened some by the superior remake for the 3DS. The same can also be said for Majora’s Mask. Super Mario Kart 64 is also remembered quite fondly, even though it too has been eclipsed by better games in that franchise. The wrestling games are also well-regarded and if you’re a big wrestling fan you’ve probably held onto your N64 for that reason.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Paper Mario, Super Smash Bros., Banjo-Kazooie, Animal Crossing (Japan only)

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A launch 3DS. An XL version has since been released, along with the New 3DS which possesses a little more power under the hood.

Nintendo 3DS

The successor to the DS, the 3DS essentially fixed everything that was wrong with the DS while boosting the power of the handheld as well. The defining feature, stereoscopic 3D without the need for glasses, is a stupid gimmick. I never play my 3DS with it turned on and if the 2DS didn’t for some reason ditch the clamshell design I’d recommend everyone just get that and save a few bucks. That aside, the 3DS is buoyed by just enough original content and remakes to make it a viable system. It’s kind of like a Greatest Hits system, and the Virtual Console support means gamers have access to all of the old classics released by Nintendo, with only a few exceptions.

If you want to argue that the 3DS lacks truly exclusive 3DS games, then I won’t fight you too much. Super Mario 3D Land is pretty darn good, but I’m not sure it’s a system seller. A Link Between Worlds is loads of fun, but is it even better than Link’s Awakening? New Super Mario Bros 2 and Paper Mario Sticker Star were missteps by Nintendo, but they did right by Fire Emblem and Pokemon. It can’t be ignored though how awesome the Zelda remakes are for the 3DS. Both the Ocarina of Time remake and Majora’s Mask remake are so much better than the originals released on the N64, that it will be a crime if they only exist on portable hardware. Both should at least be made available for the Switch with TV play, even if the assets need further enhancement to make them suitable for larger displays. It’s worth it! And while I definitely play my Vita more than my 3DS, it doesn’t mean I dislike the system, the Vita just happens to know my weakness (JRPGs). I do wish Nintendo had put a higher quality screen on the 3DS, and it’s battery life is weak, but it’s still better than most of the hardware put out by Nintendo which is pretty remarkable for a portable device.

Notable Franchise debuts: Bravely Default

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While the N64 had a more grown-up appearance, the Gamecube went back to resembling a toy.

Gamecube

The Gamecube can be retroactively looked upon as an end of an era, the era of when Nintendo tried to compete on the same terms as its competitors. The Gamecube was basically every bit the equal of the Playstation 2 and Xbox in terms of power, and third parties didn’t need to concern themselves much in adapting games for all three machines. Still, after the N64 damaged Nintendo’s relationship with said publishers, it was hard to win them all back with the Gamecube. The N64 firmly established the still held belief that people buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games, and not so much third party games. As a result, Nintendo would have to really work hard to win them back.

One developer who came back with arms wide open was Capcom. Capcom, in truth, never left the Nintendo family as they had a presence on the N64 and a big presence on Game Boy. For Gamecube though, they made the Resident Evil Remake an exclusive game, and Resident Evil 4 was exclusive for about ten months. Both games were awesome then, and are awesome now, and were big titles for the Gamecube. Konami also helped out a little by remaking Metal Gear Solid for the Gamecube which also turned out better than the original. None of it was enough, however, to make the Gamecube a retail giant which is why Nintendo changed strategies with the Wii. Still, there’s little issue to take with the Gamecube hardware as the games have aged well and there wasn’t anything holding it back. The controller isn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t a bad one. The Wave Bird would be released later, basically making wireless the new preferred input method for all consoles. And even though the best Japanese franchises didn’t find a home on the Gamecube, there sill was an assortment of quality games. The Gamecube received two Zelda titles, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the latter being better than the Wii game. Super Mario Sunshine may not have sparkled as well as most Mario games, but was still a solid experience. Paper Mario 2 is in the running as one of the greatest sequels ever made, and is really the last good entry in that series. If the system had more JRPGs, I’d probably love it more. Hopefully with the Switch, Gamecube games start becoming a possibility on the Virtual Console because there are some games I’d love to take on the go.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Luigi’s Mansion, Animal Crossing (US), Pikmin, Metroid Prime

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The old NES Control Deck. Nintendo apparently felt it needed to resemble a VCR in order to attract American buyers.

The Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom

My approach to this ranking is pretty simple:  If I had to pick one Nintendo console and had access to all software playable on it, which would I pick? I think some bonus points in the event of a “tie” are merited for impact when the system was released and so on, but for the most part I’m making this an apples to apples comparison through 2016 eyes. And yes, I would pick an NES and its library over a Nintendo 64 or Gamecube, or whatever. It’s not out of deference to the era in which the system operated, it’s just an awesome system with an excellent library of games.

At this point, you do not need me to tell you about the big titles, you should be more than familiar with them. And since the console is a tank and most still work to this day, I don’t think durability would be a concern in a desert island scenario. While the presentation of the games from the 8-bit era are a bit rough around the edges, the simpler technology forced a simple style of gameplay on the consumer and as a result, the games just plain hold up better than some of the games that have followed. Super Mario Bros. 3 is as fun today as it was in 1990, Metroid just as lonely, and Glass Joe’s face just as rubbery. Even the sports games hold up very well, despite modern titles presenting more accurate simulations. In recent years, the console has experienced quite the revival with retro gaming sites and podcasts becoming a thing. The NES Classic was perhaps the hottest item this past Christmas, and people are still begging for Nintendo to flood the market with more. For those who worry about the Switch killing Nintendo should it fail, at least they can rest easy knowing Nintendo just has to look to the past for a quick buck to get back on its feet should that happen.

Notable Franchise debuts: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man – need I go on?

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While Nintendo had a reason making the American version of the NES look different, I never heard of an explanation why the SNES and Super Famicom needed to look different. I wish we had received the Super Famicom design, personally.

Super Nintendo/Super Famicom

If consoles can be considered sequels, then the Super Nintendo may be the greatest sequel of all time. Better than Empire, better than Street Figher 2, just the best. Visually speaking, I remember being unimpressed at first glance. A gray, boxy thing with purple accents hardly felt super to me, but then I played it. Super Mario World felt massive. It was bright and colorful and a joy to play. A Link to the Past took everything I loved about the original Zelda title and made it better. A lot better. While many older franchises struggled to move from 2D to 3D during the next console life cycle, virtually every franchise benefitted from the move from 8-bits to 16. Mega Man X, Street Fighter 2, Super Metroid – all games that proved it was only the imagination of game developers that could hold them back. Then Nintendo of America opened the flood gates and we started receiving games like Final Fantasy in greater abundance as new-found confidence allowed for them to finally get released outside of Japan. The SNES is still one of the best consoles for people who love JRPGs, with only Sony’s consoles rivaling it. The few missteps Nintendo had, like forcing Midway to remove blood from Mortal Kombat, were swiftly rectified.

There is no doubt in my mind that the SNES is Nintendo’s greatest achievement in gaming. It’s not as if other machines haven’t come close in the almost 30 years since the console debuted, so Nintendo shouldn’t hang its head in shame that its still trying to top it. The formula is there, Nintendo just needs to put it all together. The SNES is a beautiful example that a console does not need some wacky gimmick or ridiculous horse power to be worthwhile, it just needs to function comfortably, and above all else, have worthwhile software. It seems like each console to follow has alienated a certain subset of gamers and developers where as the SNES appealed to every one. If the Switch can recapture some of that, it will stand a chance.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Yoshi’s Island, Mega Man X, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG


Gaming Controllers: Your conduit to a virtual world

When it comes to video game development, there are a lot of factors to consider when crafting the perfect game. Visuals have always been a top priority as they’re the simplest way to demonstrate quality to the consumer so the necessary hardware is required to craft some pretty graphics. A fast processor is certainly required or else those pretty games will be choppy and slow. Audio is obviously important, as who would ever want to go back to mono? When it comes to actually interacting with a game and that little avatar on the screen, few things are as important as a controller. There are a lot of different factors that go into creating the perfect controller. Before the NES the joystick was the preferred input method, which was replaced by the directional pad or rocker switch, which has now mostly been supplanted by the analog stick or nub. Those early Atari controllers usually only featured one action button, now anything less than eight is unacceptable. As games have advanced through the decades, the controller has been asked to do more. Let’s pay tribute to those who have done it the best.

First, let’s also make some dishonorable mentions, those controllers that failed to impress.

nintendo-64-controller-gray-flatNintendo 64 – How to rank this one? You all know it, that oddly shaped, three-handled device released in 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64. It wasn’t the first controller to feature an analog thumb-stick, but it certainly made it standard, which is about the only good thing I can say about it. It was chunky, the face buttons felt cheap, and the shoulder buttons offered little satisfaction. The Z-trigger was a nice touch, but unless you were playing one of the many 3D platformers featured on the N64, this one was lacking.

images-222Atari Jaguar – Just look at this thing. If you never handled one consider yourself lucky. Ignoring that the system was a terrible waste of money, this controller was a beast of unwieldy proportions. See that key pad? Of course you do because it’s gigantic. That thing had inserts that could be snapped over it depending on the game, but it was mostly a tacky, useless feature that just made the controller obtuse. The cheap feel didn’t help things either.

All right, with those out of the way let’s move onto the top five. For the controller to be considered, it had to be a “stock” controller during a system’s lifespan, meaning it came bundled with a new console. I also tried to give some deference to the controllers that paved the way, otherwise this top five would be really slanted towards the modern additions since developers have naturally had many opportunities to improve upon the designs of yesterday. Before I get to the top five, let’s first pay homage to the godfather of the modern controller:

nes-controller-flatThe NES controller – It’s the one that standardized the modern layout of basically every controller. The d-pad on the left, and action buttons on the right. Maybe the squared edges weren’t the best idea but the re-designed “dog bone” bundled with the later model NES rectified that mistake. It’s been improved upon by leaps and bounds, but few people thought at the time there was anything wrong with it.

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5. The Neo Geo CD Controller – Neo Geo is the console for SNK and their many arcade games. It was a high-end console for arcade enthusiasts as the giant cartridges were essentially identical to the arcade counterpart. As such, it was really expensive. It was also heavily populated by the fighters, and since every arcade cabinet is equipped with a joystick, the Neo Geo was bundled with one as well. When the Neo Geo CD came out though, it came with a more traditional controller. The layout is the standard established by the Super Nintendo with four face buttons arranged in a diamond shape, but the thing that stands out is that analog slider type of input on the left. Quite simply, it’s the finest analog stick or slider I’ve ever encountered, which is incredible since it’s over twenty years old at this point. It has a satisfying click to it and enough resistance for more precise actions. I’m not sure how well it would hold up with modern 3D games, but for 2D games it’s flawless. And best of all, it’s the only analog thumb-stick I’ve ever encountered that’s usable with fighting games. Anyone who tried to play Street Fighter IV on an Xbox 360 can tell you how impossible a task that is.

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4. Sega Genesis Six Button Controller – Not a stock controller initially, the six button version of the Genesis controller was the preferred controller by gaming enthusiasts who had a Genesis. And if you were really into fighting games, it was probably your favorite across all consoles. It maintained the standard Genesis d-pad, which included easy diagonals making it superior to the one offered by the Big N. The three buttons layout though was suboptimal, and the six button controller rectified that shortcoming. The layout made it super easy for games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat to access the strongest punch and kick attacks. By the time the Genesis 3 and the CDX came to be the controller even came with a turbo function (in case you forgot, gamers in the 90’s thought turbo was the greatest)! The only criticism that can be levied on this one is the size. Being quite small, it takes some getting used to in the hands of an adult male.

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3. The Xbox One – It’s more or less the same as the 360, which is probably what most gamers wanted. The ergonomics of the controller are pretty tried and true and this point, though while most controllers are trended more towards the smaller side, Microsoft still likes to keep their controller a little thicker than others. While the original Xbox controller was too much like the Dreamcast in that department (which was a contender for a dishonorable mention), the Xbox One controller has found a nice balance. The only thing holding it back is that damn D-pad. One of the measuring sticks of a controller is how well it handles all genres of games, and the Xbox One’s inability to properly control a quality 2D fighter is a hindrance carried over from its predecessor. If you don’t like 2D fighters though, a genre that has certainly seen its popularity apex long ago, then you’re probably good with this one.

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2. The Super Nintendo – The Super Nintendo is essentially the root of all modern controllers (excepting, of course, the oddball Wii controllers) as it established the preferred layout for virtually every game. A directional input on the left, diamond shaped action buttons on the right, and shoulder buttons for easy trigger finger access. The rounded edge made it comfortable, and the center of the controller was open for less important buttons and functions which is something future controllers took advantage of. The Super Nintendo controller was essentially perfect for its era. While most gamers would agree the the d-pad on the Genesis controller was superior, it wasn’t able to match the feel of the SNES controller, nor was the d-pad advantage enough to make up for the extra buttons. Oddly enough, Nintendo has been the one company to not really carry forward the SNES controller’s design. After it came the N64 and Virtual Boy, which also featured a terrible input device, before the Gamecube sort of brought Nintendo back to the old design. The Wii and Wii U obviously went in completely different directions for their input device, but at least they’ve had secondary controllers that resemble the SNES one. Sometimes it’s better to just stick with what works.

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  1. The Dual Shock 4 – Stick with what works seems to be an unofficial motto for Sony and its Playstation controllers. The original Playstation featured a controller that was essentially a SNES controller with two extra shoulder buttons and handles for added comfort. After the N64 made analog a big deal, it was replaced by the Dual Shock which added a vibrating function and twin analog sticks. The PS2 and PS3 did little to change from the Dual Shock, but the Dual Shock 4 brought about some slight modifications that have helped to make it gaming’s best all-around controller. The D-pad is still placed in a prominent spot despite the fact that it’s utilized less than an analog stick, but the analog input manages to remain in a thumb-friendly zone. The rear triggers are comfortable and responsive, and the diamond layout for the face buttons is preserved. Sure, the touchpad in the center of the controller is a novelty addition, but it’s not one that takes away from the controller’s main functions. It’s the one controller I really can’t complain about as it has a nice weight to it, it’s durable, and never lacking for buttons. Good luck to those who try and top it, but hopefully Sony continues to stick with what works.

Suikoden II

Suikoden II (1998) Suikoden II (1998)

In the early part of the 1990’s, there were basically two companies known for producing Japanese Role-Playing Games: Squaresoft and Enix. Square, as the legend goes, was rescued by the success of a last ditch effort for relevancy in the form of Final Fantasy for the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. Prior to that, Enix had already staked its claim to RPG supremacy with its hit Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the US). During the 16 bit era, Square would come to surpass Enix as the premier publisher for the genre, as not only were Final Fantasy’s many sequels hits, but so was seemingly everything else Square etched its name on. These two companies were not the only ones exploring the JRPG genre. When someone strikes gold with an idea a legion of copycats arise. Capcom would enlist Square’s help with localizing its own take on the genre with Breath of Fire. Capcom has since dabbled with the genre here and there without ever becoming a true power. One of the other main Japanese game developers was Konami. Back on the NES, Capcom and Konami were arguably the two most popular so it made sense for Konami to toss its hat into the JRPG ring and it did so with the Suikoden series.

Suikoden debuted on the Playstation in 1995, but the series truly arrived with its sequel in 1998 simply titled Suikoden II. Suikoden did not break the mold in terms of what it brought to the genre. Rather than trying to be something entirely different from the established franchises at the time, it opted to be a jack of all trades. Turn-based battles entered into via random map encounters paired with large, map-based tactical confrontations more commonly found in a series like Fire Emblem. Suikoden’s approach to variety is part of what made it a success, but also contributing to that success was its massive stable of characters and high stakes.

Suikoden II reserves its best character models for its boss encounters. Suikoden II reserves its best character models for its boss encounters.

When the Playstation was in vogue, I was an early adopter. I wore out my Playstation which conveniently ceased to function just a month before the launch of the Playstation 2. During my time spent with the Playstation I played a ton of RPGs, but none of the Suikoden games. For years, I’ve often heard from friends and relatives that I should seek out and play Suikoden II, if nothing else, but the game fetches obscenely high prices on resale markets and I was just never willing to pull the trigger (or borrow such an important game from a friend). Finally, Sony and Konami were able to make the game available this past June on the Playstation Network, and I’ve been playing it on my Vita ever since. It is kind of a shame that I did miss out on this one back in 1999 (when the US version was released) because I would have really enjoyed it then. However, that didn’t prevent me from enjoying it now.

Suikoden II is not unlike many games in the genre in terms of pacing and structure. As the player, you control a nameless, voiceless, shell of a character who seems unimportant at the game’s start but soon is arguably the most important person in the world. The main character and his best friend, Jowy, are soldiers in a youth brigade that soon is attacked from outside, and within, and disbanded. War has broken out across the land as the most powerful, ruling family is not just seeking to bring everyone else to knee but seeks total chaos and destruction of the world. The main antagonist, Luca Blight, is a villain so evil he’s boring, but like many games in the genre, he’s only the main villain for so long as another emerges from the shadows and the stakes get higher. Throughout the hero’s adventure he’ll encounter over 100 recruitable allies. Each character has his or her own reasons for joining the resistance against Blight’s tyranny and the player is free to mix and match parties of six almost at will throughout the entirety of the game. Travel takes place on a world map and the player can enter and exit towns and dungeons as they are found. If you’ve played any other JRPG from this era then it should feel pretty familiar.

At times, the player will be tasked with completing more tactical battles. At times, the player will be tasked with completing more tactical battles.

Battles are also pretty straight-forward. Enemies, aside from boss fights, are encountered randomly when on the world map and in dungeons. Battles are turn-based with the heroes and enemies having their order of attack determined by an individual speed score. There’s no active component to the fights as the player simply tells each character what to do and watches the round unfold. If both sides survive, then another round commences. Where Suikoden separates itself is by having battles be, up to, two groups of six. When assembling a party, the player is expected to pay attention to each character’s range:  short, medium, or long. Short range characters have to be placed in the first row and can only attack the opponent’s first row. Medium range characters can attack from either row, but can only attack the opponent’s first row. Long range characters can attack any enemy from the back row. By forcing the player to go with a 2×3 formation, the player is forced to mix-in medium and long range characters which is important because the short range ones usually pack the most punch when it comes to attack power. In addition to standard attacks, characters can also make use of runes, which once equipped to a character or weapon, grant the character magical abilities. Some of these, such as the ability to heal between rounds, are passive while others are actual attacks or defensive spells. Rather than have a collection of mana or magic points, characters simply can only cast a certain amount of spells in between rest stops (such as sleeping at an inn). Early in the game, a character may have access to three level one spells and a single level two spells, but by the end of the game that same character will likely have access to level five spells as well. Characters more proficient with magic can equip more runes with the best able to equip one on each hand plus one on their head and weapon. And not all runes are equipable on all characters. This helps make each character feel unique not just among the other 107, but even from one play-through to the next. Lastly, borrowing a page from Chrono Trigger, certain characters can be paired with other characters for Unite attacks. These are kind of a secret in the game, but they’re also logical in terms of the pairings. Experimentation is encouraged.

Suikoden II's most memorable attribute is undoubtedly its large roster of characters. Suikoden II’s most memorable attribute is undoubtedly its large roster of characters.

Occurring at set points during the games are the tactical battles. As mentioned before, these battles very much imitate Nintendo’s Fire Emblem as characters are moved around on a grid and engage in combat that has a bit more of a random feel to it but is also more strategic. Very rarely is the player able to simply overwhelm the opponent necessitating a more thoughtful approach. Death in this scenario also has the possibility of being permanent making the stakes much higher. Even so, most of these encounters are fairly easy and few actually require the player to completely vanquish the opposition. Ranged attackers can often be leveraged to dish out most of the damage against non-ranged enemies with the short-range attackers being called upon to clean up the mess. As a result, Suikoden II’s approach to these tactical battles feels kind of half-assed but they are still a nice change of pace when they occur.

Graphically, Suikoden II comes up short when compared with most of its peers. The game makes use of sprites as opposed to 3D models with very limited use of CG effects. Some of the larger enemies are attractive, but they also seem to tax the system and slowdown is a frequent problem. The original game is said to be buggy at times as well, though I never encountered any playing on the Vita. The simple visuals have kept the game from aging horribly, as some titles from that era have, but it is kind of disappointing that a late era Playstation title wasn’t given a bit more love from its developers. The soundtrack is quite good though, with the game often reserving its best pieces for its biggest moments. This comes at the expense of the more mundane moments and I did find myself getting sick of the world map theme after 40 hours or so.

Where Suikoden II really separates itself from its peers is with its tone. The story is handled in a very serious manner. As I mentioned earlier, Luca Blight is kind of a silly villain but once he’s out of the way the main confrontation becomes far more interesting. The game does suffer a bit from its rigid approach to story-telling, but that was pretty common for the era with more open-ended plots a recent phenomena. I found myself often disagreeing with the choices the game had my character making but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the storyline for what it was. I also enjoyed watching the hero’s castle, acquired maybe a quarter of the way into the game, improve as the game went along. I also really appreciated the fact that there were not many missable characters or items, as if you want to see the game’s best ending, you need to recruit all 107 characters. I also appreciate that the game made some attempt at giving each character a backstory, and it’s also pretty easy to bring an under-leveled character into the main party and get them up to speed quickly. This is something a game like Chrono Cross should have tried to emulate.

In short, gameplay-wise, Suikoden II is not terribly unique when compared with other games from the Playstation era, but that’s not a bad thing. What’s there works and it’s a fun game to play. Sure, random encounters can get annoying (and they’re really bad during the final dungeon) but anyone who grew up with these games should be able to deal with it. The variety of the characters helps keep the game fresh even on multiple play-throughs. I may have missed out back in 1999 when this game first arrived on US soil, but I’m glad to have experienced it now in 2015. And if you’re in the same boat as me, playing it on the Vita is a nice way to experience the game on the go. If only Suikoden III was playable on Vita then I’d have something to play tomorrow when I’m riding the train to work.


Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8 (2014)

Mario Kart 8 (2014)

Over the years, Nintendo has acquired the reputation of pushing innovation over technical marvel when it comes to video game development. As has been the case with the past two generations of hardware, Nintendo’s machine has lagged behind its competitors in the raw power department in favor of pushing a new method of gameplay. When taking a glance at the comments section of any gaming website, it’s hard to determine which party is more responsible for pushing this image: Nintendo or its fan base. And in 2014, is the reputation earned?

The notion that Nintendo is advancing gaming through innovation is as much a business strategy as it is a marketing one. When your console can’t do what the competition can, it becomes necessary to sell it on different terms. I do believe the brains behind Nintendo’s games buy into this direction, but it would be naive of me to suggest those sitting in the board room are removed from the process. Nintendo, even after some lackluster years recently, sits on piles of money thanks in large part to a strategy that is rather risk-averse. Unlike most companies who are content to sell hardware at a loss and profit off of software, Nintendo chooses to keep costs down so that it can make money on everything it sells. Nintendo did buck tradition with the Wii U and sold the console at a small loss, but the company also expected to erase such pretty quickly, though reportedly it has yet to.

Things have not gone well for Nintendo when it comes to the Wii U. Nintendo was hugely successful in convincing consumers that the Wii was something new and exciting and soared to new heights behind the console. With the Wii U, Nintendo has failed to do so and the responsibility lies with Nintendo. The company has failed to demonstrate to consumers that the new GamePad is the innovation people have been unknowingly looking for. With Nintendo’s poor leadership creatively, third party developers have been unable to see the worth in developing titles for the GamePad and third party support has been ghostly for the Wii U. Head on over to those comments sections though, and you can expect to find Nintendo fans content to trumpet the company motto of innovation vs shiny visuals and point to the future releases of Super Smash Bros. U and Mario Kart 8.

Well, here we are on June 1st and Mario Kart 8 has arrived in stores across America ready to be gobbled up by hungry gamers seeking validation for their Wii U hardware. In Mario Kart 8, Nintendo has delivered a fun and clever slice of kart racing that rivals the best the series has done. Those captivated by nostalgia may still cite Mario Kart 64 as their favorite, while the popular pick in recent years often falls to the Gamecube’s Double Dash installment, but Mario Kart 8 does nothing to tarnish the legacy of the franchise and should give fans of the series something to chew on.

Expect to find yourself in odd places thanks to the anti-gravity portions.

Expect to find yourself in odd places thanks to the anti-gravity portions.

One aspect of Mario Kart 8 that no one can deny improves upon all of its predecessors resides in the game’s visuals. For the first time ever, Mario Kart is running in high definition and the tracks have never before held as much personality as they do now. The game is very sharp looking even when the action is cruising at a neat 60 frames-per-second and this level of detail is even more apparent when accessing the slow-motion replays. Each tire has individual treads, spectators jump and wave flags, and characters proudly display that red turtle shell high above their head before chucking it at an unsuspecting foe. Not only is Mario Kart 8 the best looking Mario Kart game, it may be the best looking Wii U game thus far. It does push the Wii U with its visuals, though I have yet to encounter any slowdown, but have noticed some pop-in with objects in the distance. When playing with other gamers in your living room via split-screen, the game does drop to 30 fps but with the action confined to a smaller area for each person it’s not very noticeable. The only other critique I can levy at the game’s visuals are with the character faces. They all look fine and how one would expect Bowser or Daisy to look at this point, but their expressions don’t change much at all while driving. There’s no teeth-gritting when entering into a tight turn or other subtle changes, but I admit that’s nit-picking. I also would have liked to see a little more personality in the actual kart designs as most of them are pretty much carbon copies of what has come in a previous game.

Mario Kart 8 may look great but the game lives and dies with its unique brand of kart racing, which has been often imitated but never surpassed by other franchises. Mario Kart 8 should feel familiar to those who have been playing since Mario Kart Wii. The controls are basically the same and drifting remains a timing-based game instead of the left-right-left-right method of Mario Kart games preceding the Wii edition (this change was allegedly made to remove the “snaking” technique from older titles). Most of the items from Mario Kart 7 return, and as usual, there are a couple of new ones. The boomerang flower gives racers a weapon to toss at foes that comes back, just as it does in the Super Mario series. The super horn is the long-awaited answer to the spiny blue shell that is universally despised by all Mario Kart gamers. The blue shell is easily the worst item Nintendo introduced to the series. First used in Mario Kart 64, the blue shell heads straight for the lead racer and is an unavoidable obstacle. I’m not against an item that can help someone lagging in the rear make a move in the final lap, but the blue shell does not do this. All it does is grant a racer from the back of the pack some influence over the outcome, which is unjust and ridiculous. If it took out most of the racers in its path it would make more sense. Anyways, the super horn can deflect any weapon, including the spiny blue shell, but it’s pretty rare to come across one when leading a race.

Mount Wario is my pick for best new track.

Mount Wario is my pick for best new track.

The new courses present in Mario Kart 8 should be met with open arms by most Mario Kart vets. The new emphasis this time around is anti-gravity racing. This allows tracks to have impossible slopes and the game really seems to enjoy bending the course that will make many crane their neck to follow the action. Anti-gravity racing is more than just a visual trick, as when racers are on this portion of a track colliding with one another creates exaggerated bumps that can be used as a speed burst. Certain obstacles on the track can do the same and while anti-gravity portions have been added into some of the old tracks, the new ones designed for Mario Kart 8 make the best use of it. Of the new tracks, I particularly enjoyed Sunshine Airport and Mount Wario, both of which reside in the Star Cup. Sunshine Airport is just a really visually entertaining course with a lot that can distract one from the race while Mount Wario takes on the form of a downhill ski race that starts off in the belly of a massive airplane. It’s a great high-speed run with plenty of challenge and few “cheap” moments. Just about every new course contains some kind of shortcut that can be exploited. Usually they require a mushroom item or star item to pull off so lead cars are often unable to use these to extend their lead leaving those hanging around in the middle the ones best equipped to make use of them.

I love the addition of the Koopa Kids, but could do without the baby characters.

I love the addition of the Koopa Kids, but could do without the baby characters.

As with every Mario Kart game, the love it or hate it rubber-band AI exists. What this means is expect to receive little more than coins and banana peels when leading the race while those cars further back get all of the fun and chaotic items. The Mario Kart games practically discourage getting to the front of the race early on but I’ve yet to meet a person with the discipline to play these games any other way. On the slowest setting, 50cc, expect to dominate the AI if you’re at all familiar with the franchise while the fastest setting, 150cc, should make for some pretty hectic finishes to your races. The game contains quite a few unlock able items and characters. Completing a grand prix event on any difficulty setting unlocks new characters (random order, it would seem) and courses while collecting coins during races unlocks new kart parts. There are some special gold parts that can be unlocked as well through special means but if you want info on all of that stuff it’s readily available on the internet. Even semi-dedicated gamers who picked the game up on Friday will have just about everything unlocked by the time Game of Thrones starts Sunday.

This setup is beyond stupid.

This setup is beyond stupid.

Mario Kart 8 is a fun experience and is likely what Nintendo fans have been waiting for. For its bluster about being an innovative developer of games, Nintendo continues to disappoint with the Wii U and Mario Kart 8 is no stranger. It may be fun, but it’s hardly unique and that’s no more apparent than with its use of the GamePad. The GamePad is practically an after-thought with this game. In some ways its a hindrance, as normally a course map and leaderboard is part of the onscreen HUD but has been relegated to the GamePad’s screen. You can opt to use the GamePad in lieu of a television display, but it’s strangely missing-in-action when it comes to two-player. When playing with one other person locally, the game opts for a vertical split-screen which gets the job done but is hardly ideal. What I don’t understand is why Nintendo did not include an option to have one player’s screen be the GamePad and the other the television. Instead, the GamePad just mirrors the TV, split-screen and all, or can function as a giant horn button (I’m sure that’s exactly what gamers had in mind for the GamePad when it was announced). Sonic All-Star Racing got this right, which is just embarrassing for Nintendo that it couldn’t. Nintendo has also chosen to follow the path set by other publishers of not including an instruction booklet and would rather have a digital one. The digital one is clunky, and I had to just hit buttons until I found the right one that displayed the stats of the karts on the character select screen. Battle Mode has also been redone. Before Battle Mode had its own arenas to select from based off of tracks in the game, now it just uses the actual tracks leading to many moments of just driving around with no one to shoot at. It’s not even worth playing.

This is all to say the Mario Kart 8 is more of the same, like New Super Mario Bros. U and Pikmin 3. If you’re looking for a new Mario Kart title to play on your Wii U, it certainly gets the job done as it has been over six years since the release of the Wii edition. Which means expect the same, fun, frenetic gameplay the series is known for along with the not-so-good things the series is known for such as a clunky online interface and annoying rubber-band logic. I suspect Mario Kart 8 will quickly become the best selling title for the Wii U making the game a success, but the elephant in the room is still that Nintendo has yet to do much of anything worthwhile with its now not-so-new controller. I doubt very much that the next big title, Super Smash Bros. U, will do anything to change that.


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