Category Archives: Review

Big-N’s Big Year

Since the failure of the Wii U, Nintendo’s future had been in question. Turn to mobile? Sell to Disney? Sell to Apple? Retire Mario?

The question marks and judgement loomed with the 2016 announcement of Nintendo’s new console, the Switch. A console poised to bring the worlds of mobile and set-top gaming together. The dream. But could a company founded on family friendly, under-powered hardware make a dent against the HD twins (PS4 and Xbox One) and a world where seemingly everyone above age 12 carries around a mobile supercomputer?

Questions. Questions. Questions.

In 2017, Nintendo answered.

Switch

The Switch is a literal game changer and its portable/set-top hybrid gimmick is working.

Released world-wide on March 3, 2017, the Switch has sold 7.63 million units as of September 30, 2017, according to Nintendo’s six months financial results briefing for Fiscal Year Ending March 2018. To offer some context, Wii U shipped 3.61 million units in its first 7 months, PS4 sold 7.0 million in its first 5 months; 10 million in 10 months. Microsoft has kept much of the Xbox One’s numbers quiet, but the console sold 3.9 million units in the first 2 months, almost 10 million in 12 months. For the long-game, the PS2 sold 155 million units. The anomalous Wii had lifetime sales of 101.63 million. Xbox 360 sold 84 million units. PS3 sold 80 million.

In the same briefing, Nintendo revealed that over 50% of owners play in both portable and TV modes, 30% play exclusively portable mode, and the remaining 20% play exclusively TV mode.

Compromises notwithstanding, there also seems to be a growing yearning for all games to be brought to the Switch. I’ve unhooked my PS4 and Xbox One. I’ve moved my Switch dock to my nightstand. I’ve gone full handheld. Nintendo has successfully untethered the console gaming experience from the TV, and it’s difficult to go back. The divided worlds of handheld and set-top gaming have coalesced and it’s everything we’d ever dreamed it would be. Without a doubt, this is a future Nintendo has been envisioning since the wildly successful Game Boy.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Launched alongside the Switch in March, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild came out of the gates a scorcher.

To set the stage, the initial teaser for the Wii U (prior to the announcement of the Switch) gave a glimpse of an open-world Hyrule, an art style blending The Wind Waker’s cell-shaded cartoon aesthetic and The Twilight Princess’s realism, and an action-packed cinematic:

But it was still yet to be determined if Nintendo was truly offering the open-world 3D Zelda adventure fans had been dreaming of since the original?

Could Nintendo actually deliver an open-world game on par with the likes of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto and Bethesda’s Skyrim? If so, how would it innovate? How could it innovative? Would Nintendo’s beloved IP be a fit for an experience of that magnitude? Could Nintendo deliver something of that size and scale?

Nintendo’s 2016 E3 trailer would set imaginations ablaze:

Nintendo seemed to be offering up answers to every question.

Lo and behold, they delivered one of the greatest, most innovative gaming experiences of all time. It not only checked every box and crossed off every worry, it set new standards for open-world games.

From the onset, the player is cast out into the world. There is little in the way of tutorials and much in the way of freedom. Players can roam anywhere and climb anything. The world is a sandbox that encourages invention by utilizing elemental chemistry. Damn near anything is possible. There is no standard way to play the game. Gating is thrown away in lieu of trusting the player to the creation of the designers. Both player and designer are treated with equal importance. In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, respect is a two-way street.

That’s not to say that I think the game is perfect. I have my gripes. I feel the music is lacking. Aesthetically, it is not a world I’m keen to revisit. The sword delicacy is maligned. Characters — NPCs and enemies — become repetitive. There is a lack of character present in previous Zelda entries — namely A Link Between Worlds. While this list seems like it would break a game, these faults are surprisingly easy to look past. The game is just that good.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the best selling Switch title to date, now exceeding 4.7 million units. During its launch month, Zelda sold at an unprecedented 100% attach rate for the Swtich. The game maintains a 97 Metacritic score and boasts a 170 hour “completionist” play time on HowLongToBeat.com.

Regardless of your standard of measuring a game, one thing can be said — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a special experience. Nintendo stripped one of their most beloved franchises down to its core and rebuilt it in a way that sets the standard for open-world games going forward.It is a triumph for a myriad of reasons; but most of all, like the Switch, it was reliving on a dream.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Wii U’s abysmal sales are no indication of the quality of games produced for the console. Arguably, it’s home to some of the greatest Nintendo titles ever — Mario Kart 8, New Super Mario Bros. U, Super Mario 3D World, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Splatoon, Super Mario Maker, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD. The Wii U’s hit to miss ratio is sure to be one of the lowest of any console, yet most potential players missed out on surefire classics. Thankfully, Nintendo bolstered the Switch’s launch year line-up with one of the best.

Mario Kart is a household favorite franchise, and Mario Kart 8 is the best of it’s form. Selling 4.42 million units, porting the greatest Mario Kart game to the Switch so early in its lifecycle was a brilliant move. It allowed Wii U owners to share the experience with the uninitiated and show off the Switch’s built in local multiplayer gimmick. Playing Mario Kart is like riding a bike. With the Switch’s ever-present multiplayer, players can crack off the Joy-Cons and immediately share and experience. Maybe even an office tournament:

On Mario Kart 8 Deluxe‘s release day, I brought my Switch to work. It was the perfect venue to test the Switch’s out-of-the-box local multi-player experience. In fact, it was the first time I’d attempted any multi-player on the device in any of its various forms. As far as I know, I’m the only one in the office with a Switch. Gasps filled the room when I removed the Joy-Con from the display. I handed one over to a colleague, showed him around the tiny controller, and away we went.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe wasn’t much more than Mario Kart 8 + the DLC with a new Battle Mode. Whereit falls short is it’s insistence to unlock everything the original game had to offer. It’s certainly a great value to provide new players with everything there is to offer, but nothing is left for anyone to pursue. I’d have loved to re-race for the cups I’d previously unlocked for the Wii U version. It was truly surprising how demotivating it was to play one of my favorite games when everything had been achieved for me.

However, while I still believe retailing for $60 is a bit high for the title, it can’t be understated how great it is to have the highest-fidelity, local multiplayer ready, greatest Mario Kart game with you at all times.

Splatoon 2

In the vain of Wii U ports, Splatoon 2, the sequel to the Wii U’s Splatoon, sold nearly 75% of the original within 2 months (3.61 compared to 4.87 million units).

Splatoon takes the shooter genre and turns it into a kid-friendly paintball frenzy. Splatoon 2 added tot he experience by offering a single-player campaign. But the addictive core of the game is its short, territory-hording Turf Wars. Two teams do their best to ink as much of a stage’s territory in their color while warding off the opposing team. The bouts are short and weigh-in much like a Mario Kart race. It’s always anybody’s game. Players can feel just as important in supporting roles as they can on offense.

Splatoon 2 was the first game to support Nintendo’s Switch Online iOS and Android app. Though, much ire was drawn by the app’s poor online chat service. (Players are forced to route communications through their smartphone as opposed to the Switch.) I have not had an opportunity to use the app, so I will not comment.

In addition to a problematic smartphone app, my main gripes with Splatoon 2 are the inability to back out of lobbies while waiting for players as well as the near impossible task of playing with folks on your friends list. It’s infuriating.

However, the core game is still a delight and shows off the prowess of the Switch’s online multiplayer — at least once a match is underway. Splatoon 2’s stylistically original and serves as an inviting experience for all next to its gritty wartime counterparts.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

In August, Ubisoft delivered the first Mario experience on the Switch. Yes. Ubisoft. Not Nintendo. Ubisoft. Trusted with Nintendo’s icon and core franchise, Ubisoft delivered not only a charming title on par with other Mario entries, but a tight, satisfying, and unique strategy game to boot.

In the vain of XCOM, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle plays like cartoon chess. The player selects a team of three (Mario + two other characters, so long as one is a Rabbid) to battle a slew of Rabbid baddies in a series of turn-based bouts across 4 worlds. As players progress, weapons are upgraded and skills are gained. There are plenty of collectibles to keep completionists active. Difficulty spikes are educational rather than infuriating. And the Mushroom Kingdom is more gorgeous than ever.

VGChartz puts the game at 0.51 million units sold, which doesn’t seem like a huge disappointment, but for a game that I thoroughly enjoyed, I’d like to see it bump up a bit this holiday season. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is an absolute delight.

Nindies

Say nothing of big third-party titles like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Skyrim, or Doom, the growing selection of top-notch indie — or “Nindie” — titles is nothing to scoff at.

One of the biggest concerns of Nintendo is their seeming inability to attract third-parties to their consoles since the SNES. The Switch is no different. It is the “second console”. But, boy has it attracted grade-A titles. The current #Nindie Hits roster looks a little something like this:

  • Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
  • Rocket League
  • Stardew Valley
  • Overcooked
  • Axiom Verge
  • Retro City Rampage DX
  • Cave Story
  • Severed
  • SteamWold Dig 2
  • Golf Story
  • TumbleSeed
  • Thumper
  • and more!

While Nintendo has been quiet on first-party titles for 2018, the plethora of indies (and major third-parties) porting to the console provides Switch owners a stable of great games for months, nay, years to come.

SNES Classic

Boy howdy, get the nostalgia intoxicated ready. On the heels of Nintendo’s wildly… successful(?) NES Classic came the SNES Classic. With a library of 21 classic — arguably essential — games, the SNES Classic was/is the hot item of 2017.

Launching on September 29, 2017, retail lines and online pre-orders were a mess. I’d imagined Nintendo had learned from the missteps of the NES Classic, but seemingly, no. Initially, it may have been easier to stumble across one, but it has again turned into a frenzy for the little throwback.

Whatever the issue, be it awful channel supply or manufacturing woes, the Classic series is another fortune in Nintendo’s pocket — if not monetarily, for the press coverage.

Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario. The pinnacle of Nintendo’s franchises.

A new Mario title is something special. The best video game maker does not squander its resources on Mario. Nintendo uses Mario to define console generations, gameplay innovation, artistic direction, and design standards. Mario is as much an icon as he is a vision.

Super Mario Odyssey launched on October 27, 2017 — 7+ months into the Switch’s lifecycle. It is a reimagining of the Mario series, with a series of worlds outside of the Mushroom Kingdom in a play-style similar to arguably the most important Super Mario game of all time — Super Mario 64. (If that last sentence gives you pause, just wait until you beat the game.)

Like Zelda, I have my qualms with Super Mario Odyssey. The world design is too disjointed without a cohesive story. The move-set is over-the-top. The inability to distinguish what Cappy (Mario’s new hat-companion) can and can’t possess is frustrating. The music sides cinematic over thematic. The main storyline is… odd, if not gross. Overall, little outside of New Donk City is memorable.

My misgivings aside, numbers speak for themselves. Like Zelda, Super Mario Odyssey boasts a 97 Metacritic score. “Within three days of its release, the game had sold over two million copies worldwide.” (Wikipedia) Nintendo of Europe claimed that Super Mario “Odyssey is both the fastest-selling Mario game and Switch game ever in the region.”

Super Mario Odyssey is without a doubt a change of pace for the franchise. While I do wish the execution was a bit tighter, I am likely in the minority. Through and through, it is a quintessential Mario game. It is undoubtedly fun and innovative; charming and warm. It is the perfect nightcap to Nintendo’s fantastic year.

Game of the Year

From the launches of the Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in March, the announcement of a Nintendo theme park, frenzied and flawed retailing of the SNES Classic in September, to the heralded Super Mario Odyssey in October and stable 3DS sales throughout, 2017 was Nintendo’s year.

Nintendo has established that great gaming experiences should not be limited to TVs. It’s hard to imagine the Switch wasn’t always the company’s vision. The Game Boy sold 118.69 million units. The DS: 154.02 million. The 3DS: 68.98 million and remaining stable. The Wii U, while a flop, put the writing on the wall. Porting gameplay to the GamePad was a now obvious sneak peek at the future we’d all been dreaming of.

The company is projecting nearly double operating profit from the previous fiscal year, forecasting 960 billion yen ($8.6 billion), up from 489 billion ($4.39 billion). While it seems obvious that the 3DS line will eventually spin down, they’ve just released the new 2DS XL line as well as decent stream of games. Meanwhile, the Switch is just getting started on what appears to be a very bright future.

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Super Mario Odyssey — A Review

This review covers the core game, which — arguably — may not be considered the “core” game.


Everyone loves a Mario game. Polish, charm, fun. Mario games are a barometer of execution for each of Nintendo’s console generations. Where they don’t push boundaries of graphical fidelity or online community, they shape design language, innovation, and soul within the confines of a familiar world.

For the Switch, the promise of a high-fidelity, 3D, sandbox Mario game akin to Super Mario 64 has whetted the appetite for many a fan since its reveal in January 2017. It’s big. It’s beautiful. It’s Mario. It’s everywhere.

But is it familiar?

I had the opportunity to preview Super Mario Odyssey at E3 — an excerpt from my E3 experience below:

Odyssey feels like the perfect amalgam of all 3D Mario adventures: The playground of Super Mario 64‘s introductory courtyard, Super Mario Sunshine‘s NPCs, Super Mario Galaxy‘s inventiveness, and Super Mario 3D World‘s fidelity. Above all, there is a “weird” factor that has been generating buzz. The various worlds Mario can travel to feature a variety of art styles: the playable New Donk City feels like a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater / Sims hybrid while the Sand Kingdom felt like a traditional 3D Mario world with a new classic 2D side-scrolling mechanic added to the mix. (Think The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.) The game played as great as you can imagine, but the real allure is looking forward to the variety and trying to figure out just what the hell is going on!

It’s this last (emphasized) phrase that I’m struggling with. At E3, I thought I was playing a sample of the complete game. I was sure there was something in the game that would tie the experience and aesthetic of the kingdoms together. Unfortunately, the worlds feel as disconnected as my preview experience.

Even for a franchise about an (ex-)plumber in a fantasy land inhabited by mushrooms and turtles, the story is bonkers. A captured Princess Peach is being forcibly wed to Bowser. Bowser is on a quest to find wedding hallmarks (a ring, a cake, etc.) while his wedding-planning henchmen, the Broodals, stave off Mario. The player is thrown into this storyline via an opening cinematic: Mario plunges to his doom from Bowser’s airship, his iconic hat shredded to bits in the blades of the airship’s motor. Wake to find Mario in a strange, noir themed world and introduced to his new sidekick Cappy. Then, the player is off on an adventure to stop Bowser.

From the start, something feels off. It’s disorienting not to kick off in Mushroom Kingdom, solely as a frame of reference. As Mario progresses from kingdom to kingdom, it’s not clear how these aesthetically diverse worlds fit into the once familiar Mario universe. While that’s likely the point, they never quite feel like “Mario”.

To progress from world to world, the player is expected to collect a certain number of Power Moons to power Mario’s airship. While there is a clear target of power moons to collect, it’s never clear if the player should collect as many as possible now or if there will be an opportunity to collect later.

I’m not a completionist. If anything, I’ll blaze through a game as quickly as I can to relate to the zeitgeist. The idea that Super Mario Odyssey rests on the principle of collection is — dare I say — infuriating. Sure, collection is a core tenant of Super Mario 64. However, its hook comes from a limited but achievable set of 120 Power Stars as rewards for solving puzzles and riddles within the game’s 15 stages. However, Super Mario Odyssey falls “short” due to abundance — 999 Power Moons spread across a like 15 stages.

It quickly becomes apparent that collecting is the name of this game. Beyond power moons, there are outfits and airship decor to purchase with two types of coin — gold coins as generic, globally accepted currency; purple coins as world specific currency. Purchasable items match the flavor of coin. Outfits purchasable with gold coins are easier to obtain and can be purchased anywhere in the game, while those only purchasable with purple coins require the player to search each world high and low for every specialty coin. Outfits and decorations provide no value outside of aesthetic, but the idea of collecting them sinks its hooks in nonetheless. As for the airship decor, I was not clear what it was initially. In fact, I hadn’t purchased my first one until New Donk City.

Ah, New Donk City — Mario’s foray into a world populated by actual humans(?) It’s as wild as it sounds, but somehow, it is the most comfortable of the kingdoms the player visits. As mentioned above, the Tony Hawk / Sims vibe makes this concrete jungle surprisingly welcoming. So much so that I found myself trying to complete every little task in the world before moving on — something I hadn’t tried in worlds previous and quickly dropped afterward.

It wasn’t until New Donk City — 8 kingdoms in — that I felt like I understood the game on an objective level. While it’s difficult to put my finger on what felt different, I understood objectively what needed to be done, how to do it, and what to look for. New Donk City feels as welcoming as Super Mario 64‘s courtyard. It provides the opportunity, aesthetic, and space to mess around; to get comfortable. I can’t help but feel New Donk City should have been the first full world in which Mario travels. By wholehearted breaking the art style of Mario games past, it communicates that Mario isn’t in Kansas any more — things are going to get weird. But, it’s a safe space. The platforming opportunities abound go a long way to bridge Mario games of yore into Odyssey and get the player comfortable with the mechanics and core controls. It is the prize of Super Mario Odyssey.

Until New Donk City, I felt like I was tip-toeing throughout the game, afraid to miss something important. Something wasn’t clicking, which is a sour experience for a Mario game. At it’s core, Super Mario Odyssey is awful about communication. It does not communicate what’s necessary, what’s optional, and of the optional, what is what.

After a week away from the game, New Donk City is what I keep coming back to. I only wish New Donk City was larger. It’s a wonderful playground and an iconic area players will remember. My only hope is that Super Mario Odyssey — like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker — is an expansion of what we know of the Mushroom Kingdom, or at least the universe in which it inhabits. I hope this is a taste of what’s to come for the Mario franchise — the characters and worlds introduced — or else what’s the point?


While playing, I strayed away from many reviews and opinions. Afterward, I needed validation that I wasn’t crazy — that Super Mario Odyssey is very, very good, but not great. That something was off. I found solace from Justin McElroy on Polygon’s Quality Control podcast:

It is hard to find — these days — a game where “progression” is not a large aspect of it. At least in the games that I find myself playing a lot. Almost every game has some sort of in-built role-playing system where you’re getting better, you’re getting more powerful, you’re collecting more items, you’re collecting more Pokémon — you’re building a stable of those — you know. There’s a sense of progression.

For me, I weirdly felt myself not incentivized to play more Mario. Like, I enjoy my time with it, but I don’t find myself… hooked. And I think it is because of that — because you can hunt down a bunch of moons in an individual level. But in the end, I don’t feel stronger or that I’ve accomplished more, necessarily.

Super Mario Odyssey is beautiful, charming, and expertly crafted — possibly the most polished and well designed game I’ve ever played. But the desire to jump back in never took hold. Beyond New Donk City, I wasn’t particularly enchanted by any of the other worlds and found myself rushing through the game. That said, mid-way through, I’d begun hearing whispers of something amazing waiting at the end of the game.

Truth be told, the end delivered. All of the charm and soul I had been waiting for came to a head. A smile spread across my face — the same smile I imbued upon booting up this new Mario adventure for the first time. I only wish that smile had maintained throughout my experience with Super Mario Odyssey.

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Hail Mario 2: Electrodrome Boogaloo

In 2014, I wrote Hail Mario, a post about Nintendo’s aggressive strategy to bolster Wii U sales with the release of Mario Kart 8:

Nintendo gambled for positive reviews two weeks before launch, is now chalking up at least $40 in games to every US and Canadian Mario Kart owning household, and prays that their Trojan horse will be the spark to move units. Since release, the game has received stunning accolades, Club Nintendo has been brought down by what can only be assumed as immense traffic for free games, and at least one Wii U newcomer is being tugged at by curiosity.

When people think of video games, a large majority picture a mustachioed plumber in a red hat, but Master Chief and the Minecraft universe are only 3 points down. There are still many plays to be made but a well-timed, well-calculated marketing play this big could be enough to save the game. Mario Kart 8 may give Nintendo the lead they need to send a message to the HD Twins: Nintendo’s race is not over.

The post was picked up on Daring Fireball and is far and away the most popular Zero Counts post. (Thanks, Mr. Gruber!)

Mario Kart 8‘s early review embargo showed confidence in the game and got media outlets openly singing the game’s praises well ahead of release. In addition to building hype, Mario Kart 8 came bundled with a free download for one of four AAA games.

For the Switch, Nintendo has released Mario Kart 8 Deluxe — a slightly enhanced version with a revived and much beloved battle mode and all cups, courses, characters, and DLC unlocked. To add, what I had already considered the best Mario Kart entry to date, can now be taken on the go and played in a myriad of situations — TV or portable; solo, local split screen, or online; out of the box 2-player with Joy-Cons, 8 paired Switches, or 12 player wired LAN. (Mic has a great breakdown.)

Until this point, the Switch has been a Zelda machine; a single player experience. There were a handful of multiplayer games, but nothing close to a must-have or system seller. With Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo has released the true test of the Switch’s promise — console-level gaming with anyone anywhere. How would new Switch players react? Would previous Wii U owners (and likely Mario Kart 8 owners) care? How does portable multiplayer hold up?

On Mario Kart 8 Deluxe‘s release day, I brought my Switch to work. It was the perfect venue to test the Switch’s out-of-the-box local multi-player experience. In fact, it was the first time I’d attempted any multi-player on the device in any of its various forms. As far as I know, I’m the only one in the office with a Switch. Gasps filled the room when I removed the Joy-Con from the display. I handed one over to a colleague, showed him around the tiny controller, and away we went.

While the 6.2-inch display is fantastic for a single player experience, split-screen is a bit uncomfortable, but not impossible. The fun had over bouts of office Mario Kart eclipsed the discomfort, but it was never completely put it out of our minds. Likewise, a few gripes and cramps were had from the ergonomics when using a single Joy-Con as a primary controller. The situation is tight, but for an experience like Mario Kart 8, the pain seemed to be worth the pleasure.

At home, as my wife and I settled into bed, we decided to have a go at one race. I tried to place the Switch on the bed between us — an impossible feat due to the unforgiving kickstand. So, a book was used as the foundation. We peeled away the Joy-Con and we’re off to the races. Together we squinted at the tiny screen. I proved to be too uncomfortable for extended periods of play, but we agreed that it would serve well on flights.

The main annoyance came from the placement of the L and R buttons. For her, they felt too close together. To be fair, fitting such a functional controller in the palm a hand is a feat. In fact, there were multiple instances throughout the day when players were shocked to find that the Joy-Con rumbled too.

Breaking out Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch is all fun and good, but there’s not much for players of the original Mario Kart 8. Mario Kart has always been about the party atmosphere, and this version is the ultimate. And I can see myself jumping into a quick pick up game here and there, but otherwise, I’ve been there done that. There’s nothing to unlock. No new cups, courses, or characters. The portability of the Switch paired with Mario Kart plugs a some gaming holes some may never been the wiser, but nothing more than a quick casual experience romp.

I wish I could speak from the newbie to Mario Kart 8 experience. For that, see Jeremy Parish’s Retronauts review of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It’s a fantastic game, but even for newcomers, what does Mario Kart feel like without triumphing for new cups or characters? Does the high polish of Mario Kart 8 hold its luster without striving for something other than victory? Does the out-of-the-box portable multiplayer feel as novel when you haven’t played MK8 on a TV for the past few years?

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe shows off all the Switch has to offer, but other than pure competition, there’s no hook. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a must-have for party moments and quick pick up game, but not a system seller. At least not at $60.

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Switch On, Switched Off

I have felt an incredible sense of satisfaction in owning a Nintendo Switch. It sounds absolutely insane and gross, but owning the Switch has made me feel better. I feel less stressed and more focused at work. I feel less anxious as a whole. My mood has lightened. My spirits have been lifted. And unlike Gollum’s incessant need to touch and obsess over the Ring of Power, my joy and calm come purely from ownership. In the twisted space of consumerism, something strange is at play.

Federico Viticci, Remaster podcast:

This is the console that I’ve been waiting my entire life for. That’s based on the idea—and really the dream that I’ve been having since I was a kid and I got my first Super Nintendo—that I want to have the same games everywhere on one console that I take with me all the time, and that I can choose whether I want to play as a portable console or on the TV.

It’s been over 25 years since I’ve been playing Nintendo games and we’ve been through a lot of changes in the video game industry. Other companies have tried to do this sort of dual-screen, single console before. When you think about the PS Vita, when you think about the Wii U or the Nintendo DS, a lot of the ideas have been fragmented over the years in the industry. The Switch feels like the unification of 30 years of work from Nintendo. It’s the distillation of decades of work in portable consoles, in home consoles, and now in just one console.

I think the strangeness I’m sensing has a lot to do with what Federico outlines. The Switch is the amalgamation of decades of hardware design, innovation, and childhood fantasies.

Born in 1985, my first memory is of Mega Man 2 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. My babysitter owned one. How I yearned for that console. Christmas of 1989, I opened a Nintendo Game Boy. Not quite an NES, with it’s 2-bit color palette on green green display, but boy did my imagination soar. Surely, the tech would evolve and those 8-bit color experiences could live in my hands. The dream of taking the vast digital worlds I played on a TV with me on the go was sparked.

In 1995—the year the original 32-bit Sony PlayStation was released in North America—I was gifted a Sega Genesis Nomad. The handheld Nomad accepted standard Sega Genesis cartridges, enabling full 16-bit gaming on the go, albeit with a massive 6 AA battery pack that lasted 2-3 hours. While it was a console generation cycle off, we were getting closer.

In 2005, the PlayStation Portable’s (PSP) display and graphic capabilities re-inspired the dream. On it’s heels in 2006 was the promise of remote play from PS3 to PSP, later mandatory of PS4 games to the PlayStation Vita. In 2012, remote play was a core gimmick of the now infamous Wii U. Also in 2012 came Sony’s cross-buy service launched, allowing for a single purchase (of compatible games) to work on Vita and PS3/PS4. In 2015, the PlayStation Now’s cloud-based service would seemingly allow Sony devices, Vita and PS4 included, to access a library of online games from PlayStations 1 through 4. PlayStation Now has discontinued support for all devices save PS4 and Windows PC, including the Vita.

Now, the dual set-top/handheld console is a dream realized with the Nintendo Switch. And the versatility of it’s Joy-Con controllers takes it one step further, opening the console to instant local multiplayer. The Switch is a simple and obvious design that delivers and, for some sick reason, fills a hole in my life I never thought existed.

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‘Metacritic’ Still Matters, But For How Long?

Chris Baker, Glixel:

The hue and cry around that score is the best evidence that Metacritic deeply matters to many people. And not just fans – the bonus payments that game makers receive from their publishing companies is often tied to the Metascore and those same publishers spend a great deal of time and effort trying to predict the number as it could affect everything from retail orders to returns.

But the games business, and games themselves, are changing. In many ways, a snapshot of what the critical consensus is at the time of launch does not reflect the ultimate nature of a game. Is Metacritic still relevant in this new climate?

A great insight to the inner workings of Metacritic. Must read.

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Polygon’s 2016 Games of the Year

I’m proud to say that I played three of the 10 games chosen as Polygon’s 2016 Games of the Year, my reviews of which you can find below:

I also played Uncharted 4, which I thought to have a profoundly moving story and absolutely stunning visuals. My review, which somehow finds room to discuss Mega Man 7 and 2016’s atrocious Warcraft film, can be found here.

Also of note, Pokemon Go took the world by storm, something unprecedented in video games since the Wii. It may have seemed ambitious to deem it Game of the Year in July, but I’ll argue that due to its cultural impact, I wasn’t wrong.

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Inside: A Review via ‘Death by Video Game’

Simon Parkin, Death by Video Game:

Games achieve chronoslip because they replace the real world with a new one that moves to its own laws of physics and time. This reality engages us totally, and we synchronise with its tempo.

Video games, from the simplest card game to the most vividly rendered fantasy world, consume our attention. When we become lost in a book, we enter a state where the fabricated world and its characters seem to real and pressing that we lose all sense of time. Small wonder it’s so easy to lose oneself in a good game, where one becomes not only an eavesdropper or onlooker on a world, but also an active participant in its action and drama. Video games go further than other fiction: they revolve around us and react to our every choice and input. Just as a piano needs a pianist or a violin needs a violinist, video games are lifeless without us. They need a player in a way that a film does not need a view to function.

IMG_0657Simon Parkin’s book, Death by Video Game, categorizes 12 different facets of video games that, for better or worse, make the medium addicting. Reading it, I felt vindicated. I wasn’t alone in my reasons for play, and was enlightened about the reasons others gravitate toward the activity.

As an entertainment medium, video games offer escape, control, and story. As a technology, they push the bounds of simulated physics, animation, textures, and lighting. As a social platform, they foster community via global communication and participation — each of these facets evolving rapidly year over year. In my lifetime, I’ve gone from playing limited, albeit revolutionary, 8-bit single-player side-scrolling jaunts to open world massively multiplayer online role-playing games to photorealistic action-adventure juggernauts.

After finishing the read — a difficult one to put down, mind you — came a steadfast itch to pick up a controller. No Man’s Sky, an exploration game with over 18 quintillion procedurally-generated explorable planets, which is briefly touched on in the book, had just been released. And Inside, Playdead‘s successor to their melancholy indie hit Limbo, was gathering incredibly high marks.

In the debate of open-ended vs short story, I will always choose short story. Therefore, Inside.

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Players are thrust into a dark and wooded area as a boy being hunted by mysterious men in trucks; dogs seek you as their prey. Peak X-Files. Once you have escaped the wood, you happen upon a farm and cornfield. Deceased wildlife pepper the dreary, fog-laden landscape. And what’s that worm-like thing sticking out of that pig?

You are eventually lead into the factory cum rabbit hole. The dark and cryptic mysteries you’ve experienced within the 10 minute introduction pale in comparison to what is “inside.”

More than their incredible art style, subtle and gradual storytelling with layers of mysteries, answers, and more questions, and impeccable taste for atmosphere, developer Play Dead’s fantastic switch-a-roo two-thirds into the game sticks with the player. A shock and horror convention is elegantly flipped on it’s head leaving you, the player, scrambling to rework your preconceived notions about the story and characters. It’s challenging, and in hindsight, speaks to the reaction and thought process of being wrong that so many feel today. Can we really be so sure about our truths? Are our beliefs simply sold to us by a manufactured narrative that elicits good as evil, god as grim, heaven as hell? How perceptive can we truly be? Is our mind a slave to the brain? Are we really in control?

It’s difficult to discuss Inside without giving too much away; therefore, I will leave you with an appropriate quote from what turned out to be an appropriately timed and, ultimately, serendipitous read, the aforementioned Death by Video Game:

Moreover, video games flatter us: their worlds exist for our benefits, and usually, revolve around us. A video game requires a player: without input, it is inert. Our world, by contrast, seems indifferent to us. The cogs around us, both natural and human-made, turn regardless of our interest or input. It is sometimes difficult to know whether we matter, whether anyone cares. When a company loses our details or forgets about us for some reason, we talk of being ‘lost in the system.’ This is how loneliness is seeded in the human heart: a sense that the world and all of its people are indifferent, oblivious.

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The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

God, you little devil.

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Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself is a primer for the state of science today. But at the heart of book lies a core belief and explanation for poetic naturalism. Just what is poetic naturalism? Here’s Carroll in an interview with WIRED’s Eric Niiler:

Atheism is a reaction against theism. It is purely a rejection of an idea. It’s not a positive substantive idea about how the world is. Naturalism is a counterpart to theism. Theism says there’s the physical world and god. Naturalism says there’s only the natural world. There are no spirits, no deities, or anything else. Poetic naturalism emphasizes that there are many ways of talking about the natural world. The fact that the underlying laws of physics are deterministic and impersonal does not mean that at the human level we can’t talk about ideas about reasons and goals and purposes and free will. So poetic naturalism is one way of reconciling what we are sure about the world at an intuitive level. A world that has children. Reconciling that with all the wonderful counterintuitive things about modern science.

For a layman, Carroll breaks down today’s fundamentals of science to painstaking detail (outside of the use of equations) and builds them back up to something simpler that speak to the justification for poetic naturalism. He dives into physics, philosophy, quantum mechanics, biology, and many other fields. He tackles many questions that are asked from casual daydreamers and the depths of Sci-Fi alike. And it all comes wrapped in an idea that there lies something between atheism and theism.

Carroll strives to pit Science against Theism on an even playing field, or one that’s as level as possible; Modern science challenging the ever shrinking God of the gaps. But for all of Carroll’s scientific professing, he is careful never to discount just how vast the gaps remain. By sheer virtue of his lessons on Bayesian credences, he never shuts out theism entirely, always leaving the door unlocked and possibly cracked open.

We’ll see that the existence of life provides, at best, a small boost to the probability that theism is true—while related features of the universe provide an extremely large boost for naturalism.

Chapters and sections read like deep troughs with a steep decline. As soon as the reader is introduced to a concept, Carroll has them barreling down a chasm at breakneck speed, only to bring them up for air in the last few paragraphs. I understood hardly a lick of the depths, but that’s okay. The meat lies in the simplified 30-percent of the pages. I took the rest as hard scientific justification, in the event the reader has any doubts as where Carroll comes up with these notions.

After 433 pages, Core Theory and quantum mechanics and multiverses and up quarks and down quarks are still a mystery to me. But what I did learn — what I can say without a shadow of a doubt — is with as much as we’ve discovered of the Universe, we still know very little. Maybe that will always be the case. Maybe there will always exist the God of the gaps with those gaps shrinking exponentially, but never quite stamped out.

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

What does it take to be moved— deeply and profoundly moved? Stories of grandeur can impress ideas of excellence and glory. Stories of adventure can make us yearn for thill and mystery. Stories of family can reflect the importance of closeness and bonding.

Real life events certainly have the power to move. Novels tackled this ages ago. Music has transformed the world around us for eons. Film figured it out approximately 100 years ago. And within the past 20 years, video games have begun tugging at heartstrings, imbuing wonder, and leaving players in awe.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the latest and possibly last chapter of suave treasure-hunting protagonist Nathan Drake’s adventures, is certainly not the first video game to entertain the idea that some titles in the medium are closer to film than they are to chess. There have been countless titles that have made the case that the narrative in today’s video games outshines most summer blockbusters— BioShock (2007), Final Fantasy VII (1997), The Last of Us (2013), and Mass Effect (2007-2012) to name a few. As early as 1995, in an abrupt turn of events, players watched the heroic and noble Mega Man turn against Asimov’s first law during the finale of Mega Man 7, holding his Mega Buster up to a surrendering Dr. Wily, exclaiming, “I am more than a robot!! Die Wily!!” While not the most striking piece of dialog, it was a profound moment for a video game at the time.

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The Uncharted franchise’s namesake is in big action during gameplay. Gigantic and tightly choreographed sequences unfold while the player is still in control. To this day, it’s something that feels inconceivable to players who grew up with Super Mario Bros. Over the course of four games within the franchise, developer Naughty Dog doubled-down on the technically awe-inspiring moments with each title; be it scaling train cars that are dangling off the side of a mountain (Uncharted 2) or fist-fighting in a battered and rapidly descending cargo plane (Uncharted 3). Story beats and character development didn’t quite take a backseat, but they were never quite at the forefront of the games. By the third entry, Naughty Dog pushed the predefined story boundaries, but was never able to outshine the action.

After Uncharted 3, Naughty Dog stepped away from the franchise, putting it’s effort into a brand new story. The Last of Us delivered what is arguably the most affecting story from a AAA title yet. A survival story of two individuals, the grizzled Joel, who’s young daughter was killed during confused military frenzy amongst a virus-outbreak, and Ellie, a young girl with the only known immunity to the virus. Over the course of the game, the two strangers argue, protect, bond, and fight together, building a relationship unseen in video games prior.

The lessons learned by Naughty Dog and the development of The Last of Us are clear as day in Uncharted 4. Never has the Uncharted franchise felt so human and connecting. While Uncharted 3 swung for the fences, it never quite delivered. But with every turn of a corner, every new setting, every chapter, Uncharted 4’s story beats like a racing heart. Be it the relationship between Nathan and his brother Sam, Nathan and his wife Elena, Sam and veteran treasure hunter and father-figure Sully, or even the tales of Captain Avery and the lost pirate city Libertalia being explored through the game. Every one of these stories delivers and ultimately delivers a whole greater than its parts.

Nathan’s struggle between leaving a life of adventure and exploration for a life of normalcy and marriage is remarkably easy to connect with. The unknown and freedom of one’s past challenged by stability and relationships is something most struggle with. To add, the power of reigniting a relationship with a plundering brother once thought dead adds a significant amount of weight to Nathan’s difficult decisions and ultimately mistakes. Uncharted 4 offers a surprisingly complicated web of relationships that keep the player hungry to find out what happens next. And unlike most lengthy video games, there is a beautiful simplicity to the story that is easy to come back to weeks after setting the controller down.

But what of a video game’s story if the atmosphere isn’t correct. Surely the benefit of experience a story in the medium of a video game must include visuals and music and mechanics. Suffice to say the visuals are outstanding, possibly the best a console has produced to date.

Buying into the world of Uncharted 4 takes little effort at all. Its outstanding graphical fidelity, animation, and motion-capture performance deliver convincing characters and settings. Nathan Drake is as real as any Hollywood hero. And shocking more convincing as a fully CG character than the real actors strewn about the Warcraft movie.

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Not to digress into a critique of the Warcraft film, but it’s worth mentioning that Uncharted 4‘s visuals and performance are a great example of the power of strong narrative without the presence of flesh-and-bone. To put it succinctly, the game is captivating.

(While we’re on the topic and to give credit where credit is due, the photorealistic Orcs backed by stellar performances. Like Avatar before it, there are moments that are dumbfounding when one realizes what is unfolding onscreen is fake. Just look at Orgrim!)

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It’s not to say that the life given to Nathan Drake by the folks at Naughty Dogs and the performance from Nolan North weren’t incredible in past entries, but there is something truly magically about how Nathan emotes and interacts in Uncharted 4 that makes him believable.

Like the story, the mechanics and fluidity of the game have slowly evolved with each iteration. While the first Uncharted title felt much like a demo of things to come, the level of polish given to the player’s controls during extraordinarily big moments feels just as amazing as it did in Uncharted 2. That said, the overuse of sliding down gravelly paths and using Nate’s new grappling hook felted a bit tired halfway through the game. The repetition of these interactions has a tendency to make story feel slower than it should at time and almost like the player hasn’t progressed much. Slow motion via repetition. There are even moments when Nathan pokes fun at having to slide or grapple again and again.

But if the mechanics are the worst part, and they certainly are not even mildly bad, what of the music? The three previous entries found composer Greg Edmonson at the helm, defining Uncharted‘s iconic and booming theme. Edmonson’s work gave a lift to the sense of adventure and thrill. But like the story, the time Naughty Dog took away from the franchise seemed to open the possibility for new talent and new perspectives. And for a story so strong and rife with conflict, the timbre had to change.

In comes Henry Jackman, composer most recognized by his work on Captain Americas The Winter Soldier and Civil War, X-Men: First Class, and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. The breadth of Jackman’s work shines in Uncharted 4, adding dark and somber themes to an otherwise epic adventure, namely the heartbreaking “A Normal Life” theme that is sprinkled throughout interactions between Nathan and Elena, displayed most effectively during Chapter 17: For Better or Worse. It’s enough to bring you to your knees.

There isn’t enough that can be said about the impact of the Uncharted franchise. It reimagined what it means to interactive with a digital experience. It’s captivating performances and writing gave life to characters typically seen as avatars. The franchise is a masterclass in the possibilities and power of video games. Most of all, it showed the importance of not rest on your laurels and how care and patience can evolve greatness into something truly special. If this really is the end of the Uncharted franchise, I’m sad to see it go. But better to burn out than to fade away. And what better to burn out on a note that genuinely moves technology, narrative, and players.

Thanks for one hell of a ride, Nate and the Naughty Dog team.

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