5 Favorite Video Game Soundtracks

Music has to be the most universal thing in the world. While people have different tastes in music, I don’t think there is a single person that doesn’t like any music. Music and video games have gone hand in hand since the very beginning and people were aware that video game music could be something great ever since Koji Kondo composed the music for Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda. After recently playing Bastion and falling in love with the soundtrack, I got to thinking which video games actually had my favorite music in them.

A few quick things before getting to the list though. First, I am only considering original soundtracks specifically composed for games. So games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater or Guitar Hero will not be considered since the music remembered from those series were curated, but not made for the game. Secondly, I’ve never been a huge fan of orchestral music in games. I like the grandiose feeling they tend to bring, but orchestral music is something I have to focus on to truly appreciate and there’s too much taking away my focus while I’m playing a game. And lastly, there are some games known for their soundtracks that I just haven’t played yet–games like Jet Set Radio or Katamari Damacy are both series with beloved soundtracks that will not appear on this list. With all that out of the way, let’s drum up the band.

5) Pokémon  (Generations 1 & 2)

I’ll admit, this entry is here largely due to nostalgia. I played so much Pokémon  Red and Pokémon  Gold as a kid that they are permanently ingrained in my DNA. Hearing these soundtracks transport my back to summer breaks playing Pokémon  with friends in a treehouse. But apart from the nostalgia factor, I do think generations one and two of Pokémon   have incredible music. They have those old school 8-bit boops I love and I’ve always been impressed with the range of emotions the tracks encompass while working within the Game Boy’s limitations. The battle themes are hectic and tense, Lavender Town’s theme is notoriously eerie, Goldenrod City’s music is upbeat and cheery, and the short walk down the hall to the champion is foreboding but triumphant. While each of the generations have received remakes for future consoles with more varied instrumentation, I still prefer the originals for their pure simplicity. The music in the Game Boy Pokémon  games is so good, that composer Junichi Masada would go on to direct future games in the series.

4) Undertale

It’s crazy to me that Undertale is nearly a decade old at this point. What’s crazier is that I never actually played the game until this year. I watched playthroughs of the game when it first came out and it looked alright, but it’s definitely a game that should be gone into blind. After watching the game played, I didn’t feel a need to try it out for myself. The music, however, has stuck with me ever since the first time I saw it. Created solely by Toby Fox, the soundtrack is filled with memorable tracks ranging from the goofy battles with Papyrus and the dog knights, atmospheric town themes, and the climactic battle theme Megalovania, which is honestly one of the best pieces of video game music ever. Toby Fox gained instant critical acclaim when Undertale released and a lot of the highest praise was showered upon the soundtrack. It’s no wonder then that Toby Fox has gone on to compose musical tracks for games like Pokémon  Sword & Shield and Super Smash Bros Ultimate.

3) Cuphead

While I never feel like I fully appreciate orchestral music in video games, big band jazz is a different story. With Cuphead being a game that strives to look like a 30’s rubber hose cartoon, they needed a soundtrack that felt as authentic. Composer Kristofer Maddigan got a band of brass horns, woodwind instruments, piano, drums, and upright bass to lay down some killer tracks for the game. From kinetic and fast-paced battle themes and boppy overworld tracks to the King Dice theme with Louis Armstrong styled vocals, it’s all a great listen and truly heightens the feeling that you are controlling an old Fleischer cartoon. Cleverly, tracks for bosses were all recorded with different instrument solos that will change as you die over and over again to the bosses, adding just a little bit of variety to prevent the music from going stale.

2) Mother 3

The Mother series (Earthbound in the west) is synonymous with excellent music. While the soundtrack of Earthbound has its bops, there are too many tracks that are just strange soundscapes for me to put on this list. Especially since its sequel, Mother 3’s soundtrack blows it out of the water for me. Composed by Shogo Sakai, the tracks don’t avoid the strange and otherworldliness that the previous game delved into, but it has more recognizable and catchy melodies. While the Game Boy Advance’s sound chip is similar to the SNES’s, Mother 3’s soundtrack is so much more crisp and clean than its predecessor. I’m always amazed how much the acoustic guitars sound like guitars, how the bongos sound like bongos. It’s one of the most varied and clean soundtracks, not only on the system, but of all time.

1) Persona 5

Persona 5 has my favorite video game soundtrack of all time–there’s no contest. As Joker and his friend dive into people’s subconscious and steal their hearts, they are accompanied but banger after banger. Composer Shoji Meguro masterfully blends jazz, techno, disco, and heavy metal into a soundtrack that is robust, varied, and extremely catchy. Every palace theme gets better and better from “Sweatshop” to “Whims of Fate” to “Arc.” Each location you visit outside of the dungeons have unique themes that worm their way into your head and the battle track “Last Surprise” never gets old after hundreds of battles. The vocal work by Lyn Inaizami is absolutely stellar, heightening any track she appears on. There are tracks that are less memorable than others, sure, but I wouldn’t say there is a bad song in the entire game. And for a game that takes over 100 hours to beat, that is just incredible. 

Elden Ring & Open World

“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

–Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

I’m not the biggest fan of open world games. That’s not meant to be the blanket statement it sounds like. There are games in the genre like Insomniac’s Spider-Man and The Witcher 3 I do enjoy quite a bit, but open word games are hardly my favorite type of game overall. I usually find myself overwhelmed with the size of the world and get burnt out by the length of the games. So when I heard FromSoft’s new game Elden Ring was basically going to be Dark Souls but open world, I was a little concerned. I had faith in the company and director Miyazaki to deliver a great game, but how would they adapt the brutal combat and intricate level design of their Souls games into an open world? In short, they succeeded expertly.

I will state upfront that I have not finished Elden Ring at the time of writing. I’m about 60 hours in, have two Great Runes, and have uncovered about half of the map to my best estimate. But even though I have not beaten the game, I have gathered a good sense of the world that FromSoft wanted to create with the Lands Between. You get a taste of what’s to come from the moment you leave the tutorial cave and see the world spread out before you, the wide open fields,the crumbling ruins, the giant Erdtree shining golden in the distance. It has the trademark rotting splendor of the other Souls game but stretched to a size far bigger than any previous game. But that first glimpse of the Lands Between is like looking at the entrance of a cave. You can see it there, possibly even see a ways in, but you can fathom how deep it goes until you explore further in.

It cannot be understated how large the world of Elden Ring is. The opening areas of Limgrave and the Weeping Peninsula to the south are very large in of themselves. Walking across them takes forever if you are not one for fast traveling, but luckily the game gives you Torrent, a horse/yak hybrid creature, for faster travel. You start out a map that is covered in clouds. Traveling into new areas and finding map fragments will fill areas in with more detail. But even spreading hours in these areas collecting maps doesn’t give you a good sense of the full scale of the world. New to Elden Ring are entrapment chests. If you open certain chests in the game and are enveloped by the smoke that spews from it, you will be transported to another area on the map. At least twice, I have opened my map in the game to see where I was only to discover it’s size had doubled, as if your Tarnished never thought to unfold it completely before. But like an ultra greatsword, size isn’t everything if you do not know how to wield it. So what does Elden Ring do with its massive map? Turns out, a lot.

We’ve all heard the phrase “wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle” referring to game worlds that are massive in scale, but with little to do with them. Oftentimes, games like a Ubisoft open world will just have the same types of missions copy and pasted around the map. ER is a different beast. Sure, you will often see the same types of broken ruins around the map and more than once you will fight repeated bosses, but with a game world this large and an estimated 100+ unique bosses, some reused assets are to be expected. What excites me about the Lands Between is the sheer density in which content is packed. There are things to do and find everywhere. Besides groups of the enemies to fight, there are caves and catacombs to spelunk, castles and ruins to explore, and a load of bosses to fight. Every named ruin in the world has a staircase somewhere in it leading to useful items, chest, or NPC to talk to and every stagecoach you find will have a treasure chest to loot to grab. However, the biggest reward you will often get after clearing out a dungeon is another boss fight and seeing how these are the bread and butter of FromSoft, it’s a fitting reward. 

A lot of these bosses will grind you into ash when you encounter them, so it’s smart to leave them be for a while, whether it be until you level up, get better gear, or just feel like fighting them again. In these times, you will want to remember where they are at. Elden Ring only saves icons for places you discover, not merchants* nor bosses nor stone imps that require a Stone Sword Key to unlock a fog wall. Instead, Elden Ring takes cues from Breath of the Wild and makes the players mark notable places in the world by placing their own markers on the map. It’s a small addition, and one that might irritate other players, but it’s one I love thanks to the sense of agency, discovery, and interactivity. The worst thing an open world game can do for me to lose interest is provide markers and icons for everything on the map. What’s the point and exploring if I know what I will find beforehand? By restricting the information the map shows the player until they discover it and making them mark the map themselves, Elden Ring stays surprising and rewarding to explore well past other games in the genre. 

But a larger world needs something to fill it. With the massive world of the Land Between, there can be a lot of bosses to fight and things to explore, but still have a lot of down time while traveling between them. Here is where FromSoft falls victim to rather standard open world trap: they added crafting. I understand why crafting has been so prevalent in the genre in recent years: a bigger world has more walking to do in it, so why not give the player things to collect constantly while traveling? Crafting is a mechanic that can be done well or poorly depending on the game. Well I wouldn’t say it is handled poorly in Elden Ring, it does come off feeling token and unnecessary. It’s useful to be able to craft things like poison heals and different greases (the game’s version of resins), most of the craftable items are different arrows and things that give you negligible buffs to things like robustness and magic deference. It’s not something I find egregious since you can ignore the materials in a world and not collect them, but it is disappointing when you survive a classic FromSoft item trap–where you grab an item and a bunch of enemies jump to attack you–only to find you fought for your life for a mushroom or something.

I was worried that Elden Ring being open world would lose the FromSoft intricate level design the company has been known for with the Souls game–with shorts opening up to bonfires, pathways leading to previous sections of the maps, and many nooks and crannies hidden in areas. Luckily, this type of level design does return in many castles and dungeons of the game, but like everything else, it’s just on a more expanded scale. Stormveil castle was an absolute delight to explore with its blend of shortcuts, multiple paths to explore, and Anor Londo style progression of walking along roofs and buttresses. It’s always amazing to me when I see a small ledge in a wall and edge along it only to find that FromSoft has put an item or area at the end to explore. Something that would just be part of the building model or without a hitbox to crawl on in any other game is a viable path in a Souls game. Of course, to get to Stormveil, you have to fight through Margit first, and that is no easy feat.

After leaving the tutorial cave, the Guidances of Grace point the player toward Stormveil castle and right into Margit’s lap. Margit watches over the gate entering Stormveil castle and he acts as the game’s first skill check. So the game purposefully leads players into a fight that it knows they are woefully unprepared for, and that is actually a great and very FromSoft bit of design. Basically, the game is showing the player that it is not always best to grit your teeth and run your head in the wall that is the current boss fight you have found. It is not one of the more linear Souls games. This is Elden Ring, a game with a huge open world to explore. So go explore. You will get more gear to use, level up a bit if you manage to keep hold of your Runes, and naturally get better at the game through experience. 

I am so happy to see Elden Ring doing so well both critically and financially. As a huge fan of FromSoft, I’m glad they made a hit and will be able to make games for the next foreseeable future. But beyond that, I’m happy that the game is clicking with so many players. Between Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild, I hope the industry takes notice of how their open worlds are designed–being deeply explorative and letting the player discover things on their own without automatically plastering markers on the map, giving them a ton of things to find and do. Much like how Dark Souls created a seachange for games because it was unique and fresh, I truly hope that Elden Ring does the same for the homogenized open world genre.

*This was updated in a patch while writing and now the map does show the locations of merchants.

God of War (PS2) – Critical Miss #36

Photo by Greyhem. Found at godofwar.fandom.com

Growing up, the video game consoles were always in my older brother’s room, from the Genesis to the Playstation to the Playstation 2. That is, until I got a Playstation 2 for my room. It was a slim model and I remembered playing the hell out of the Pandemic Star Wars Battlefront games, a Godzilla fighting game that was either Save the Earth or Unleashed, and a random Hulk game. I wasn’t into video games enough to know what to look for besides licenses I was already interested in. At some point though, I picked up a Greatest Hits copy of God of War. I remember wanting it because it was $20 and rated mature–a big deal to someone in their mid teens. Released in 2005, it gave Sony a new mascot to flaunt in Kratos, but I personally don’t remember anything from playing the game itself from that time. All I remember is that I never finished which makes it more than qualified for a Critical Miss. 

The start of the story finds Kratos in the typical Greek myth position: fucked over by the Gods. Specifically Ares, whom Kratos sold his life to in order to win a battle and save him from death by the hands of barbarians. After Ares decimates Kratos’s enemies, Kratos is enslaved to him in some way–it’s never clearly defined, mostly being shown through flashback montages, but Kratos seems forced to work as a warrior for Ares. One night, however, Ares tricks Kratos into slaying his wife and children, a cackling oracle curses Kratos by fusing the ashes of his dead loved ones forever upon his skin, and now the only thing on his mind is killing Ares for revenge. 

It is a very standard plot, but it suits this type of action game as it provides just enough reason for Kratos to journey from the Aegean Sea to Athens to Pandora’s Temple and it provides solid context for who Kratos is and what drives him. As a character, Kratos isn’t very likable, an anti-hero at best, since he is angry, shouty, and all too ready to kill innocent people to progress on his quest or even to just get a little bit of health. The player can still have some sympathy for him, however, since genuinely mourns the loss of his family in his own violent way and he is a mere plaything of the Gods above him. 

The visuals help Kratos feel insignificant to the Gods too. The game looks great, but there is an amazing sense of grandiose with some of the areas you visit. While running through Athens, you will often see Ares looming in the bay outside the city. The titan that carries Pandora’s Temple on their back is also enormous and there’s an incredible moment while Kratos is scaling the cliffs outside the temple that you can see the titan crawling below. The music is bombastic too, but is rather forgettable to me, feeling like the standard heroic orchestra brass and boom that accompanies this type of warrior’s journey.  

Photo by Greyhem. Found at godofwar.fandom.com

As a warrior, Kratos is extremely capable. The Blades of Chaos chained to his arms are fast with great range and coverage while the Blade of Artemis is big fuck-off sword that is slow and hits like a minotaur. Throughout the game the Gods also bestow Kratos with magical spells. These range from throwing Zeus’s lightning to summoning an army of spirits from the depths of Hades. All weapons and spells can be upgraded with the use of red orbs that spew from defeated beasts and broken jars so Kratos will get consistently stronger as you play. This is a good thing because the God of War strives to continually challenge the player in combat.

It’s uncommon that you will be fighting just one enemy at a time in God of War–unless the game is introducing a new monster and wants you to learn their patterns before complicating things. Enemies always come in hordes so learning attacks with wide coverage and which beasts need to be targeted first is key to survival. The agents of Ares include undead foot soldiers, minotaurs, gorgons, harpies, and more. There is a decent variety in enemies–even if the game falls back on tougher, recolored ones by the end–and they all fill a niche in combat to harass the player. An interesting mechanic in combat is how killing certain enemies using the quick time prompts will reward you with different orbs mid-fight. For example, gorgons will drop blue orbs to replenish magic and minotaurs will always drop green orbs for health. 

Simply put, the combat in God of War is great. It’s easy to see why games like Dante’s Inferno copy/pasted it wholesale into their games. But the influence of God of War is a double edged Chaos Blade because it–along with Resident Evil 4 from earlier the same year–can be blamed for the infestation of quick time events in mainstream gaming that followed for years after. I’ve always been rather neutral toward QTEs. They work in some games, but don’t work in others, and I think they mostly work in God of War. Early in the game, the timing to hit the QTEs is generous enough that it never feels frustrating and the colored orbs you get from killing enemies with them in battle are a good enough reward to use them. By the end of the game though the timing becomes so strict that I found it just easier to not use them in fights. 

Photo by GabrielPacia. Found at godofwar.fandom.com

Besides fighting, Kratos will also have to solve some light puzzles during his journey. Since Kratos isn’t characterized much besides being strong, these puzzles almost always involve pushing a block or statue somewhere. Sometimes you have to push a statue to block a crack in the wall where harpies continuously spawn, sometimes you have to push a block on a button to hold it down, and even once you have to push a caged soldier into a fire to progress. They are the lightest puzzles imaginable, hardly ever testing your smarts, choosing instead to test how well you can push a block while fighting off enemies at the same time. The game often forces Kratos through sections where he has to balance across beams. These sections are slow, tedious, and very annoying since they just bog down the pace. 

Along with the light puzzles, there is also light exploration to be done in God of War. Secrets are hidden behind cracked walls, portraits, and down hidden paths. They will usually be a chest full of red orbs for upgrading, Gorgon Eyes used to increase Kratos’s health, and Phoenix Feathers that increase his magic bar. These are easy to find if you have a knack for checking things off the obvious path forward. The upgrades are worth finding, but the game doesn’t spread them out enough. All but a few Gorgon Eyes are found before Pandora’s Temple leaving only the Phoenix Feathers to find. I had to look up to make sure I had found them all because the health and magic bars still looked shorter than intended when fully upgraded. 

Lackluster puzzles and pretty standard story aside, I had a blast playing through God of War with its fluid, but tough combat, larger than life visuals, and it’s rewards for thorough exploration. I was a little disappointed by the small number of bosses in the game–three in all–but they were so large and momentous that I didn’t find it necessary to complain. And that’s kinda the feel of God of War on the PS2 anyways: it’s not the longest game with the most ideas in it, but it’s so large and in charge with the stuff it does get right. It’s a truly fun game that I can easily recommend to anyone, mortal or God alike.

Photo by BlackPill. Found at godofwar.fandom.com

BioShock Infinite & Elizabeth

A fact about that I don’t think I’ve ever shared on this blog: I love birds. I think they are very cute, silly, and interesting creatures. One thing that’s helped me through the pandemic is putting bird seed out on my apartment’s window ledge and watching the sparrows, pigeons, and cardinals come and go as I work. So when I first when BioShock Infinite when the HD collection released, I was thrilled to learn I could utilize the power of birds with the Murder of Crows vigor. With a simple press of a button, I could fire a blast from my hand and watch as my unholy crow army pecked my enemies to death. It is by far my favorite vigor in the game and one of my favorite powers in any game I’ve played. But BioShock Infinite is such a fantastic game, that summoning birds to fight with me isn’t even my favorite thing about the game. That honor goes to the character of Elizabeth.

When Booker DeWitt (an absolutely fantastic 1912 name) finds himself in the floating city of Columbia and at odds with its leader, Comstock, he has one mission: find the girl and wipe away the debt. The girl in question is Elizabeth, daughter of Comstock, who is found locked in a giant statue with observation windows and science equipment watching and monitoring everywhere she goes, everything she does. This is because she can open up tears, or rips in the fabric of reality, to other places and times, or possibly completely different parallel universes. The majority of the game is played after breaking Elizabeth out of her prison, trying to escape, being caught up in class war, confronting Comstock, and ultimately discovering secrets about Booker and Elizabeth. 

At first, Elizabeth seems like she is just going to be designated as BioShock Infinite’s damsel in distress, a mere MacGuffin to chase after. Surprisingly though, you rescue her from her tower imprisonment within the first 3rd of the game. While Booker is the main character, the playable character, Elizabeth is the protagonist of the game. They both have the common goal of escaping Columbia alive, but their reasons are different. Booker wants to wipe away his nebulous debt, and Elizabeth wants to escape active captivity and dreams of seeing Paris. But the reason that I find Elizabeth a stronger character than Booker, the reason that my eyes and ears are always on her when important story moments happen, is because she is the heart of the story. Booker is the extension of the player, he is the muscle and does what must be done in order to survive and escape, but Elizabeth is the of the game, the one questioning the morals of what they are doing, and the more interesting character for it.

Elizabeth starts out the story very naive. Being locked in her tower all her life, she has never experienced the outside world for herself, only having read about it in books. She more closely matches the player’s own curiosity and wonder while exploring Columbia throughout the game–taking quiet moments to look around, examine things, and comment on the propaganda plastered over all the walls. She is a well defined character who is caring, intelligent, resourceful, and helpful, and she is characterized in a multitude of ways through her speech and actions. When you enter the slums of Finkton, where the poor working class people live, she wonders what system has led to such wealth disparity and what they can do to help. When she sees Booker gun down Comstock’s men for the first time, she is openly shocked and that uneasiness with killing never really goes away, but is more accepted as necessary to survive. Even when Elizabeth kills Fitzroy in order to save an innocent child, she is appalled with herself, shredding her bloodstained clothes and cutting her hair in mourning. A trope, yes, but effective since it shows her conflict with her actions and is one of the major turning points in her arc.

There is a bitterness in Elizabeth during the middle of the story. Coming out of her tower bright-eyed and hopeful, she is faced with a world full of cruel people–Comstock, her own father, studied her and was seemingly prepping her as a weapon, Fink exploits the poor for cheap labor, Booker himself lies to her to get her to come willingly on an airship saying that he will take her to Paris. She is rightfully angry, jaded, and seeking revenge against the ones who kept her imprisoned. But something happens when she and Booker destroy the siphon and she has the use of the full extent of her reality altering power. She is now able to open ways into other universes without the need of a tear, she can seemingly see all universes at once, she understands that choices that were or will be made are already made, and she understands that Booker will become Comstock at some point in the future. She accepts the weight of her powers, accepts the consequences of her actions. Multiple Elizabeths from across the multiverse come together to drown Booker–the only friend she has ever had that wasn’t a giant bird thing–and the game ends in one final piano note.

It is a dramatic, sorrowful way to end a game that offers some truly fun and bombastic gameplay. On the surface, BioShock Infinite looks to be just another BioShock, but there are subtle differences. The original game leaned more into the horror element and was a much slower game as a result, Booker can only hold two guns at a time and will need to pick up new ones dropped by enemies when out of ammo, and, while they fulfill the same function, there are less vigors than there were plasmids and all the vigors are combat focused. However, the biggest difference in the gameplay again lies with Elizabeth.

BioShock Infinite’s gameplay can basically be divided into two types: exploration and combat. During the quiet moments of exploration, the game moves the story and characterization of Booker and Elizabeth further. They chat about the things they see, what events just happened, and what they need to do to achieve their current goal. They will often come across locked doors or safes and Booker relies on Elizabeth to pick them, her having read up on lock picking during her time in the tower. These will often lead to more money, a fusion for upgrading Booker’s health, or a new piece of gear to equip. It’s worth picking every lock you come across because the game gives you more than enough lock picks and any door necessary for progression needing to be picked will not consume any of your resources. Elizabeth can help find useful things laying around too, often pointing out a lock pick or more ammo and a glowing halo will illuminate them for the player. She also helps decipher code books for Booker, leading to more stashes of goodies, and will occasionally throw money to him that she found laying around. It’s not a lot of money ever, but it’s endearing seeing Elizabeth flip a coin and Booker catching it. Exploring with Elizabeth is always a pleasant time, but it’s in combat where she really shines.

Elizabeth is not an escort that needs to be protected like Ashley in RE4. She can look after herself in a battle so the player can focus on the enemies trying to kill them. Much like the money, Elizabeth will often shout to Booker in a fight and throw him something useful. It’s determined on what is running lower, but Elizabeth can give Booker more health, salts, or ammo when he needs it. It is on some sort of cool down though–seems like she can throw the player two things in a fight before needing time to do it again–so you cannot rely on it too heavily. She will also revive Booker if he falls during battle, getting him back on his feet a safe distance away so he can get back to the fray quickly. Elizabeth is a great ally to have in scrap, especially when you remember she has Omega level reality warping powers.

Littering most combat arenas are tears that Elizabeth can open to bring something into the world to help Booker. Whether it is some cover to hunker down behind while you get your bearings, some much needed medkits or a weapon, a skyhook to get a better vantage, or an automaton in a good position to flank the enemies, a well timed tear can change the flow of battle dramatically. It’s a brilliant way to tie gameplay and story together, and it’s only a shame that there are no fights to be had when Elizabeth has access to the full extent of her power and is going all Dr. Manhattan on time and space.

Although Booker DeWitt is ex-union busting, Pinkerton scum, he’s an enjoyable character to control with his cynical, jaded outlook, his pragmatic and nonsense approach, and his truly awesome name. But he is not the reason I play BioShock Infinite. It is Elizabeth that I find the most interesting and endearing character of the game. She could have just been another damsel in distress, another escort the player has to throw themselves in front of in battle to protect, but she isn’t. She is a fully realized character–a determined, intelligent, and also tragic one. And the fact that she is not just relegated to be part of the story, but also aids the player in the gameplay is a great bit of design that makes the player feel even more attached to her. It worked on me, at least, since Elizabeth is one of my favorite characters in any video game ever.

Top 5 Critical Miss Games of 2021

If you read my Top 5 Games of 2021 list (or if you haven’t, check it out here), you know that I thought 2021 was a pretty unimpressive year for new games. Sadly, this is also true of the games I played for Critical Miss this year. While I enjoyed most of the games I played to some extent, only a few really leapt out at me, shook me awake, blew my mind, and reminded me why I love video games. Most of the games I played for the blog were on the same level of me thinking “Yea, that was pretty good,” so this list was still pretty tough to narrow down.

Let’s get a couple quick honorable mentions out of the way. I decided to disqualify Pokémon Platinum from this list immediately. I had played through about half of it years ago and seeing as Pokémon is probably my favorite video game series, I wanted to take this time to honor other games. Likewise, Pokémon Snap didn’t make the cut, even though it was a very chill and pleasant experience. Lastly, while I loved the charm and central gameplay loop of Ape Escape, it just barely missed the cut. So now, out of all the games I played for Critical Miss this year, these are my favorite five.

5) Metroid Prime

Metroid Prime was the series debut in 3D. Since that wasn’t risky enough, I guess, Retro Studios also made the game a 1st person shooter. It was a huge gamble, but it seemed to have paid off. Prime retains all the lonely atmosphere, exploration for power-ups, and branching maps of the series 2D roots, but lets the players experience it from the eyes of Samus Aran herself. It does some good work to actually heighten the isolated feeling of the game, but it suffers from some archaic controls, tedious switching of visors, and the map getting bottle-necked between areas. When I eventually get around to looking at Prime 2, I will try to look at the Wii port since I hear that version handles like a dream.

4) Super Mario Galaxy

Speaking of the Wii, Super Mario Galaxy has to be one of the best games on the system. That’s not really saying anything too stunning since it’s Mario, but Galaxy was something special. It shook up the formula of previous 3D Mario games with its gravity mechanics and more linear, obstacle course levels, but the charm and movement controls are as great as ever. It’s a fun world to live in for a bit and every level brings new ideas so the game never gets stale. However, Galaxy never reached the same heights of pure joy that 64 or Odyssey got to as I just prefer the bigger, more dense level designs of those games. But Galaxy is in no way a bad game, in fact it’s great and everyone should give it a go at some point.

#3) Quake

Since Quake was the last review I did, I feel kinda talked out on it. But to reiterate why I like it so much: it’s a great fast-paced old school shooter with varied monsters to fight and tons of secrets to find. As much as I like Doom, Quake slightly surpasses in my eyes by feeling more modern. Since it’s a true 3D, and not a sprite based pseudo 3D game, aiming at enemies on higher ground is necessary and the levels have more verticality then Doom and are just brilliantly designed. Despite the disappointing lack of weapon variety and the absurd difficulty spike in the last episode, Quake is still a hell of a good boomer shooter.

2) Portal

What is there to be said about Portal, the game that’s been discussed and memed to death on the internet? Not much more than it is truly great. Not a surprising take by any means, but Portal really is as good as everyone says. With a mind-breaking but still easy to understand central mechanic with the portal gun, the gameplay is tricky, clever, and very fun. The writing is top-notch too. The dry humor and deadpan performance for GLaDOS is some of the best written, performed, and funniest I’ve seen in video games. The game is rather short, but that just means there is no extra fat on it. Everything in the game is well thought out and necessary. It might be one of the tightest and well designed games I’ve ever played. However, one game I played this year barely managed to beat out Portal for the top spot.

1) Psychonauts

Out of all the games I’ve played for Critical Miss this year, Psychonauts is the one I find myself thinking back on the most. There is such a huge amount of creativity displayed in the levels of the game that is not often seen in platformers. From dodging charging bulls down a narrow Latin American street to playing a board game against Napoleon Bonaparte to helping a struggling director put on a play, each level brings new ideas and gameplay styles to them while still fitting well into the core loop of platforming. The writing is brilliant with humorous, charming, and heartfelt characters, wacky plot developments, and levels representing the minds of different characters. The game does struggle a lot with controls, which always feel clunky and unresponsive, but the slight blemishes on the game somehow make it seem more human in my eyes. It feels like it was made by passionate, but limited and flawed human beings. While I do think Portal is the much better designed game, it came off as feeling impersonal to me. Psychonauts, on the other hand, feels very personal, like Tim Schaffer and his team had an idea for a story they felt they had to tell and a game that they thought was generally fun. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another sixteen years for the next sequel. 

MediEvil – Critical Miss #32

Spooky, Scary Skeleton

It’s Halloween. The kids are trick or treating, the jack-o’-lanterns are alight, and the sheet ghosts are looking for souls to steal. I didn’t play a horror game this year for Critical Miss, but I did play a horror-themed game. MediEvil is an action platformer that released on the PS1 in 1998 and Sony decided that over 20 years was long enough of a slumber and resurrected the game in 2019 with a remake. I played this remake for PS4 and it was a great choice to play during the Halloween season. As we all know, skeletons are the spookiest thing imaginable—well, besides a bad port perhaps.

The story in MediEvil is very simple, but charming. Sir Daniel Fortesque is hailed as Gallowmere’s greatest hero after he led his army against and defeated the evil wizard Zarok and his undead hordes. Only thing is, Sir Daniel was the first to perish in that battle with an arrow through his eye. He never even faced Zarok, but has been falsely remembered in history as the hero of the day. So when Zarok returns and green misty magics the land of Gallowmere to shit again, Sir Daniel rises from his grave as a skeleton and has a second chance at being the hero he failed to be. As far as a redemption story goes, it is extremely bare, but it works well because Sir Daniel is such a pitiable character. The first action he takes upon waking from death is to pull cobwebs out of his empty eye socket, he mumbles and is misunderstood constantly while talking to others because he is missing his jaw, and his armor looks at least three sizes too large for him. Everyone you come across in the story like the ghosts of other heroes and gargoyle statues know the fraud Sir Daniel truly is and constantly shit on him about it. All this adds to give the put upon skeleton a true underdog feel and it’s hard not to relate with him.

While the art style is strong, I found myself less impressed with the graphics in MediEvil as I was with other remakes of PS1 games like the N. Sane Trilogy and the Spyro remakes. It is partly due to the MediEvil remake’s graphical style feeling so similar to those other games and I am starting to feel fatigued with it. But there are also the issues with the performance of the game. Character models are covered in jaggies, the frame rate plummets when the screen is busy, and textures pop in constantly. I played this on an original PS4 model so that contributed to these issues being ever present, but the game doesn’t seem to be well optimized at all based on reviews I’ve read saying the game doesn’t run great on the PS4 Pro either. It’s a shame too because underneath all these issues, the core game is still rather solid.

Sir Daniel feels right at home in the lands of Gallowmere which are dipping with the classic gothic horror atmosphere. Crumbling castles, flooded battlefields, medieval villages, asylums, and graveyards all need to be explored to complete the game. Most levels are linear with paths criss-crossing each other or opening up with the help of different colored runes à la Doom, but the goals and gimmicks of the levels vary a lot. One level you just have to make it to the end, another you’ll solve riddles in a hedge maze or just fight waves of enemies, or you will have to collect the souls of fallen soldiers. Although the levels can be so different, the game still feels like a cohesive whole since Gallowmere is perfectly suited to these areas and the gameplay never strays far from the basic mechanics for any new gimmick to feel out of place.

The core gameplay of MediEvil is exploration, some light platforming, and combat, and boy I wish the combat was more engaging. It’s not terrible, just some of the most bare bones combat I’ve ever played. Sir Daniel doesn’t swing his sword as much as he just wipes it in front of him like he’s boringly painting a wall. There’s no feedback when hitting an enemy—no grunt from them, no slight pause as the weapon hits flesh and bone, nothing except some enemies get knocked back to a comical degree. I can deal is lackluster combat in a game, good game feel isn’t absolutely everything, but when there is no indication from the game when I get hit, no rumble or crunching sound, and my health mysteriously drains to zero in fight because I couldn’t tell I was being hit, that sends a fire of frustration up my lungs.

You don’t only have to deal with the combat in order to progress through the game, but also to unlock the Hero Chalices in each level. You’ll notice that sometimes after you kill an enemy that their soul will float up and dart away. This goes to help fill a chalice hidden somewhere in the level and, after killing enough foes, can be collected before exiting the level. Usually, the chalice is hidden somewhere near the level exit or along the path you would need take to the end, but sometimes it is at the very beginning. This requires you to backtrack across the entire level before leaving to grab it and, with all the enemies dead, it’s very boring.

The chalices are the best way to upgrade yourself throughout the game. If you beat a level after collecting its chalice, you will be taken to the Hall of Heroes before returning to the map screen. Here in the Hall, you can find the glowing statue of a hero and they will talk to you a little bit before giving you an award for collecting the chalice. The reward is sometimes an extra life bottle or some gold, but it is usually a weapon. These weapons are important to collect for the higher damage output because the ghouls and monsters you fight in levels just continue to get tankier. It’s extremely disappointing that all the weapons feel like all the others in their types—swords all swing the same, hammers and axes slam on the ground, all the range weapons like throwing knives, bows, and crossbows all feel like the same weapon with different firing speeds. As someone who relishes games with many different weapons and combat styles, I was disappointed every time I got a new weapon in MediEvil only to find it’s just a copy of a weapon I had already been using. 

The only real time I felt I was strategizing in the game was with the Life Bottles. Once Sir Daniel’s HP hits zero, he will automatically heal with a Life Bottle, provided you have one to use. These bottles can be filled at Life Fountains or by picking up smaller Life Vials. The rub comes when getting a game over or moving onto a new level because your health and Life Bottles do not refill—so if you limb to a level exit on death’s door with no back up bottles, that’s how you will be starting the next one. I found myself having to plan out when to grab health on the tougher levels in order to most efficiently fill my Life Bottles. This could be tricky though in the later levels since they start getting pretty stingy with healing items available.

Apart from combat, MediEvil also challenges the player with some platforming, but not a whole lot of it. This is smart of the game because controls are dreadful for it. Sir Daniel is surprisingly agile for a dusty old skeleton in a giant suit of armor. He is fairly fast and shockingly light, but he also has some strange momentum behind his movement. This makes sections where you have to jump on small platforms infuriating. Even if you line up the jump right, Dan will often just slide off the ledge due to the momentum you don’t have a good feel for. The collision dictation in general is garbage. Jumps get cut short cause Dan’s feet get caught on an invisible ledge on a small step, he slips off ledges that he is clearly on, and I got trapped more then once in a haystack or a step, leaving Dan floating off the ground in a perpetual animation of falling until I restarted the level. 

To use a pun, MediEvil is a fine game in its bones, but all the issues and annoyances in the game left me feeling pretty low on it. The frame rate dips and terrible collision detection, the lackluster combat and samey weapons, and the frustrating controls when having to platform all led to a pretty irritating time with the game. I often agonize over whether I should play the original versions of the games I review here, but I most often choose the most available version, be that a remake or just a port on modern consoles. I want to review the games most people are able to play and, while I do like collecting and playing old games, a lot of them are too expensive or hard to find for me to get. I found myself thinking about this more often while playing this MediEvil remake. I can’t help but wonder if my time with the game would have been enjoyed more if I played the original. Maybe someday I’ll find a copy and see how it stacks up to this remake, but, for now, all I can say is the remake is fine, but very clunky. It stumbles around and trips over itself like a dead body reanimated to life.

Vampyr & Eating NPCs

2020 was something else, wasn’t it? With the pandemic and so much civil unrest, there were parts of the year that seem like a bad dream to me. March marked one year of working from home and I’m one of the lucky ones to have a job that can be done from home. My main hobbies of reading and video games are also inherently solitary ones, so I don’t mind staying inside a lot. But after a year, even I’m starting to go stir crazy. Not helping is that I’ve been playing Dontnod’s Vampyr over the past few months, a game that reflects the pandemic and people’s suffering because of it in a very surreal way. It’s interesting then that the biggest threat to the characters in the game is not the pandemic they face, but the player themselves.

At first glance, Vampyr looks like just a standard pseudo-open world, action RPG. The meat and bones of the game are based around stamina focused combat and exploring London as Johnathan Reid, a doctor turned vampire, while the city is being eaten alive by the effects of the Great War and the Spanish Flu simultaneously. While the setting is fascinating, combat feels clunky and loose, especially in boss fights when it is thrown into focus, the visuals tend to be muddy and character models particularly suffer, and the story is not especially well written, leaving the body of the game feeling malnourished. But the heart of the game is still strong, pumping blood throughout the rest of it and keeping it alive—that being the NPC’s and their lives being subjected to the player’s decisions.

Nearly every NPC in the game can be interacted with and spoken to—all of them have problems they are dealing with, secrets they are keeping, fears, dreams, desires that help them and the city of London both feel alive. They can be killed by Johnathan too, used to feed his vampiric thirst for blood. Feeding on an NPC gives the player a shot of experience points, making it the fastest way to get some quick levels and improve your skills. The trade off is that the character killed is obviously dead, never to be spoken to again, merchants cannot be traded with, and the district’s overall health will suffer. You can also gain experience by completing quests for characters and beating basic mobs and bosses, but the quests and bosses are finite and the common enemies you could grind against give such a pitiful amount of experience that it’s not worth the time. The combat in the game is not complicated enough that you will be at a huge disadvantage if you are under-leveled, but to get a variety of skills and improve them, eating NPCs is by far the most effective way to level up.

The game smartly encourages the player to interact with the story and get to know every character you wish to kill before committing the crime. Every character has aspects of their personality or past that can be discovered through dialogue trees, information learned from other characters, notes and clues scattered around, even spying on them occasionally by using your powerful vampire hearing to listen to their private conversations. Slowly learning about characters through conversations feels natural and makes them feel fleshed out and able to surprise you. A character you initially distrust or dislike turns out to be a good person tried by difficult times. All the while, a character you liked at first might confess to committing some horrible act or hold some disgusting views. It’s up to you as the player to navigate the gray, foggy streets of London and its residents to decide which character is the best (most deserving, in a way) to be fed on. But Johnathan Reid is a man of two opposing ideals and it is also his desire to keep the city alive and healthy.

Before his fate sank its fangs into Johnathan’s neck, he was a doctor and compelled by the Hippocratic Oath to treat all the sick he met. While this is still the case, he is obviously conflicted by his need to feed on the blood of the living, leading to another mechanic in Vampyr. The same way you must converse with and discover all you can about a NPC, you are also incentivized to treat their illnesses. If a character is sick, then their blood is weaker when feeding on them, meaning the player gets less experience points from killing them. The sicker they are, a bigger chunk of experience is missing. So while a player is going around speaking with NPCs and learning more about them, they will also inquire about their medical needs, craft medicines, and dole them out like a health concerned Santa Claus. It’s important to diligently treat the citizens of London and think carefully about who you feed on because the foundation of any community is its citizens and they all have knock-on effects on the city’s health.

It’s easy to think of London in Vampyr as an old cottage and the NPC citizens are the stones in the walls: the more of them you take out, the weaker the house will become overall—susceptible to the outside elements like weather and predators. The city is divided into districts and the health of each is displayed in a scale ranging from sanitized to hostile. A district’s overall health determines the price that merchants will sell their wares at and the amount of enemies that will appear in the streets, along with their levels—the worst the health in a district is, the more high level enemies you will face. During my playthrough, I had only one district fall into hostile and that was due to a choice made about the fate of Aloysius Dawson.

Dawson lived in the wealthy West End district of London. He is the richest man in the city and the pillar of his community. He is terrified of death and thinks his money makes him the most powerful man in the city. A seperatist at heart, he wants to build a wall around the West End to prevent the plague from reaching into the rich homes and let the poorer neighborhoods fight for themselves instead of helping them. I hated Dawson much like I hate the real-life, mega-rich capitalists he is an analogue for. So when it was time to decide if I would turn him into a vampire or let him die, I chose the latter and convinced him to accept his death. He did so and died that night, donating medical supplies and money to the community resulting in everyone returning to a health state for a while. I took advantage of that bump to the city’s health to go on a spree of sorts, eating the NPCs on my list I didn’t like and raking in the experience. When I was finished, the West End had fallen into the critical range and I then learned that meant all NPCs I spared were killed anyways and the district was overrun by Skals and vampire hunters.

Losing all NPCs in the West End was the only real time the game had an emotional impact on me. I felt like garbage because there were characters in the district I truly liked and didn’t want to die. Like Charlotte, the love interest Lady Ashbury’s adopted daughter. I thought Charlotte’s death would have repercussions with Johnathan’s relationship to Lady Ashbury, but it was never mentioned in any future conversations. I still didn’t want her to die though. She was one of the many folks just trying to survive in the chaos of the pandemic. She wasn’t trying to profit off it or willfully ignore the suffering of others or a danger to other citizens like so many others and even Johnathan himself.

Treating patients to keep the city healthy is a great way to show Johnathan as a doctor through gameplay and allowing players to devour NPCs shows his vampiric side. However, I feel the latter is not pushed enough by the game. It would make Johnathan’s melodrama of being torn between wanting to save lives and his need to end them to survive a lot more poignant and relatable if the game really pushed players to eat folks to survive too. As stated above, the game is not difficult enough where being under leveled from abstaining to feed on NPCs is that big of a detriment. I thought it would be interesting if the game had a mechanic similar to that of Dark Souls 2 where a small chunk of your overall health is knocked off every time you die. It’s negligible at first, but after multiple deaths the player will start feeling their missing health points more and more. With this idea, the only way to get these health points back is to feed on someone, pushing players even harder to feed on the NPCs while also requiring more thought about when and who to devour.

I’m only disappointed because everyone else I’ve talked about Vampyr went with a no kill run to shoot for the good ending of the game when the mechanic of eating NPCs is such a great idea. It’s a problem not just with Vampyr, but pretty much every game with obvious good/bad endings. Players are more likely to shoot for a good ending and can miss out on mechanics and stories a game has to offer when pushed towards one goal. I knew of the multiple endings when booting up Vampyr the first time, but I didn’t care about which one I got. To me, the strength of the game and its most interesting aspect is the choice given to players about which NPCs to feed on. I wanted to interact with this mechanic, to see how it was utilized and how far it could be pushed, to see the benefits and drawbacks, and what differences it brought to my experience compared to others. When the West End fell and everyone there perished, I felt horrible, but it was thematically in tune with the game. You should expect a game named Vampyr to make you feel like a monster.

Super Mario Galaxy: Critical Miss #25

Shoot for the Golden Stars

I’ve always loved Mario games. From the colorful, cheery art styles to the depth of the movement mechanics to the sheer creativity displayed in the games, Mario is the undisputed king of video games. But there are still major gaps in my experiences with his games. I never had a Gamecube growing up so I missed out on Sunshine and The Thousand-Year Door until recently. While I had a Wii as a teenager, I didn’t really play it all that much. This means I also missed out on Super Mario Galaxy, the debut 3D Mario game on the system released in 2007, still widely considered to be one of the best games in the series, until the recent rerelease of the game in the Super Mario 3D Allstars on the Switch. 

The core game of Galaxy appears to be untouched with its port to the Switch, but what has changed are the controls. Since the game was made to be the marquee 3D Mario title of the Wii, Galaxy was designed to be a showcase of the new Wiimote and its features. The pointer was used to collect Star Bits, grab blue stars to pull Mario to them, and sometimes even an air horn looking fan that blows Mario in a bubble. Motion controls were utilized too, of course. Wagging the Wiimote made Mario do a spin attack and specific levels, like the manta ray racing and ball rolling levels, have unique controls that all involve twisting the Wiimote around. The Switch port allows the player to substitute the motion controls for standard button and analogue stick controls, but offers the player two options for how to control the pointer. In handheld mode, you use the Switch’s touch screen to guide the pointer. In menus or simpler levels, this works fine, but in long Pull Star sections, you will find your hand blocking most of the screen, making it impossible to see what’s coming up ahead. In docked mode with detached Joy Cons, you can use the right controller to aim the pointer and this is how I would recommend playing the game. Since the Joy Con uses gyro motion instead of infrared sensors like the Wiimote, you will have to recenter the pointer often, but this is easily done with a quick press of the R button and is never a hassle.

I wanted to mention the differences in controls because that’s the only major difference in the version of the game I played. Besides those, Super Mario Galaxy is the same game at its planetary core. After Bowser steals Peach along with her entire castle and a short tutorial level, Mario finds himself on the Planet Observatory, newcomer Rosalina’s intergalactic vessel. As a hub world, the Planet Observatory is not my favorite. There are nice aspects to it, like how more instruments get added to the theme that plays and the more livelier it feels as you progress through the game, and I appreciate how contained and focused it feels. However, there’s not much to do there—no secrets or extra levels to find and all rewards like extra lives are in plain sight. I think I would have preferred a simple level select or world map instead because the act of climbing all the way up the Observatory for late game levels takes a little too long, and that’s time taken out of playing the wonderful levels.

The incredible amount of creativity and variety on display in Super Mario Galaxy cannot be understated. There are forty-two levels in the game and, besides a few common themes and a few outright reskins near the end, each has mechanics and challenges differing from the rest. Sometimes you will be running under little planets as the camera tries to follow you. Other times you will be in a side scrolling type section with arrows on the walls dictating which direction gravity will pull you. There are launch star pieces to collect, blue switch pads to hit, lasers to avoid, cages to blow up with Bullet Bills, Star Bits to gather to feed to hungry Lumas for power up and additional routes in levels and even additional levels themselves! The whole game feels like you are a kid adrift in Toy Time Galaxy.

Forty-two levels is a massive increase to Mario 64’s fifteen stages and Sunshine’s nine (even Odyssey’s sixteen later), but there is the same amount of Stars to collect in all three games. This is because Galaxy’s levels are much smaller and usually more linear than the other 3D games in the series. Most levels have only three Stars to get with maybe a secret Star or Prankster Comet Star (a remixed challenge of a previous Star) to grab. This leads to the designs on the levels having a more mission based, get-to-point-B objective to them instead of 64 and Sunshine’s sandbox approach to level design. You see the Star’s location and a general route in the initial flyover of the level and then it’s just completing the challenges in the way to grab it. This would get repetitive having to do the same challenges three times, but luckily Galaxy’s levels have a lot of bits and pieces that are swapped in and out for different stars like building different things from the same set of Legos. It’s a little disappointing that players can’t decide or make their own path through levels like you can in other 3D Mario games, but with most of them being composed of small planets, with each having their own unique goal to accomplish, I understand why. The levels you create from hungry Luma’s themselves are just one-off challenges with a single Star to collect.

The whole game feels sadly limiting to the player—almost to the point where it feels more like a 2D game in the series as opposed to a 3D one. Mario has all his acrobatics of Super Mario 64 and that means a long list of moves that can be performed; the long jump, the triple long, slide somersault, and backflip are all tools like your plumber overall to pull out and use at any moment. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t give you much reason to ever use them in creative ways. I didn’t see anywhere I could take a shortcut by making tricky jumps like in 64 or Sunshine or any hard to reach nooks hiding secrets and collectables like the later 3D World and Odyssey offered. I may have missed them since it was my first time playing the game and it didn’t rather bother me that much in the end. With level design this stellar, it is not actually much of a problem that they are more linear because they are still incredibly fun to go through, but it did clash with how I expect a 3D Mario game to feel and that it was a little jarring.

The more I played Galaxy, the more it struck me how much of a transitory game between the older sandbox designed games in the series like 64 and Sunshine and the more linear 3D games of 3D Land and 3D World that took inspiration from Mario’s 2D roots. Oddly enough, this thought came to me most when thinking about the power-ups in the game. There’s a good handful of power-ups on display in Galaxy—more so than any other 3D game of the series at that point. The Fire Flower makes its debut in 3D, the Ice Flower creates ice under Mario’s feet and lets him slide across water, Bee Mario can fly for a short time and climb on certain surfaces, Spring Mario hops everywhere and is terrible, and the spooky Boo Mario can become intangible to phase through walls. All these power-ups are great fun to use, so it’s disappointing that they are as situational as the power-ups in 64 and some F.L.U.D.D. upgrades in Sunshine. Most are on a timer (including the Fire Flower which has always been an upgrade until the player was hit) and are used for specific challenges that must be completed with them. There is no way to take a power-up from the level you find it in and bring it to another for creative and experimental uses like would be possible in 3D World, there didn’t seem to be any chances to even bring them to different parts of the level to find secrets like you can with the Captures in Odyssey—you have to use them only for the specific challenge right in front of you. I get having more limited challenges help curate a more focused game, but it led to a nagging sense of inorganicness in the back of my head.

These are the things that came to my head when sitting down to write this review—the more linear, but still incredibly designed, fun, and creative levels, the disappointing situational requirements of the power-ups that had so much more potential, and the lack of utilization of Mario’s acrobatic movement, his greatest feature. But none of this is a deal break at all. Super Mario Galaxy is still an incredibly fun and rewarding game and very much deserves to be played today. I won’t say that I wasn’t disappointed with it because I was, but only slightly. After years of hearing how it’s possibly the greatest game ever, after countless reviews lauding its praises, and after playing Super Mario Odyssey—easily the best Mario game to me and possibly even one of the best games Nintendo has ever made—Galaxy had no chance other than to disappoint do to my in the clouds expectations and that is not the game’s fault. That’s the poison of hype, folks: it leaves you satisfied with even the greatest of games.

Going Under & Weapon Durability

There are certain divisive mechanics or design choices in video games. These are things like escort missions, fetch quests, and grinding in RPGs—things that people either seem to absolutely despise, or it doesn’t bother them at all. The release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rekindled the fire of discussion around one such mechanic: weapon durability. Suddenly, the internet was aflame with debates of the merits, annoyances, and possible tweaks that could be made for breakable weapons in games. This discussion quickly spread from just Breath of the Wild and engulfed other games like the Witcher and Dark Souls series. I have to imagine the developers at Aggro Crab noticed these arguments burning up the internet and decided to double-down on the weapon durability mechanic because it is at the core of their recent game Going Under.

The game is a roguelite dungeon crawler that humorously mocks into late capitalism and startup culture with its story and characters while the combat is ripped right out of Breath of the Wild. There’s a variety of weapons that fall into a handful of attack patterns with swords and clubs swinging side to side, spears stab in a line, and heavy weapons slice in wide slow arcs or smash in front of the character. There are even ranged weapons with limited ammo, but they can be used for melee after all their shots have been used up and before they break. Every weapon is designed to break in Going Under and the player will have a lot of weapons break over the course of a run. Weapons break fast enough that you learn to never rely or expect any to last, but they last long enough to not be frustrating. Some people will get annoyed with the durability system, that is inevitable, but I think the designers at Aggro Crab did a fantastic job of tying pretty much every other aspect of the game in this mechanic.

The combat in Going Under has a hectic, chaotic energy to it thanks to the weapons breaking. If a weapon breaks in the middle of a fight, you have to decide whether to rush to grab another one, quickly switch to another weapon you’re holding, or finish the fight with your fists. You’ll find yourself constantly surveying the room you’re in for enemy attacks and weapons you could grab in the future all while dodging, attacking, and running around like an Amazon warehouse employee. Every weapon can be thrown too, meaning that if a weapon is close to breaking, you can use it for a bit of ranged damage by hurling it across a room. This is useful when you spot a weapon laying on a table or shelf you want to grab as you can position yourself next to it, chuck your old, busted weapon to create a moment, and then grab the next weapon and continue the battle.

Luckily, the rooms of the dungeons are small and confined. You have plenty of room to kite around enemies and avoid incoming attacks, but you will hardly ever be out of range of grabbing something, anything, that can be used as a weapon if your final one shatters in your hand before the room is cleared. The game has a sort of Dead Raising quality to it since pretty much everything can be used as a weapon. Chairs, pencils, swords, keyboards, even throw pillows can be grabbed and used to smack enemies around. And it is necessary to use everything you can get your hands on since weapons break so often, especially while fighting tankier enemies like the bosses.

As a general rule, I prefer boss fights to be one on one encounters. I like them to be big, imposing, and test my skills at the game. I’m always a little weary when a boss spawn basic mobs in the fight because it feels like a cheap way to complicate the fight instead of focusing on giving the boss tricky mechanics and harder to read attack patterns. This is obviously not a hardset rule, just a preference, since many games manage to design boss fights with basic minions in them too very well, and Going Under is one such game. Every boss in the game will occasionally summon mobs into the fight, but this is due to necessity. Bosses have long health bars and your weapons will break before you manage to chip it down completely. Having basic enemies spawn into the fight helps bring in new weapons to use once you defeat them. Sometimes beating the round of mobs will even summon a drone delivery, dropping off a box that can contain more weapons and even healing items.

As a roguelite, a big part of the appeal of Going Under is building a run as you explore a dungeon. Each floor has a room with a choice between skills you can equip, along with additional skills you can purchase from the shop or find in boxes that drop as you clear a room. These skills are all passive effects that range from changing the speed and damage of attack, acquiring and buffing enemies to fight with you, setting fire or freezing enemies under certain conditions. No skill actually affects the durability of weapons used in battles in the dungeon, which was disappointing at first. Then I realized the run building aspect of the game comes from the moment to moment gameplay and decision making with weapons to use then acquiring skills themselves.

There is something satisfying in the roguelike/lite genre when making a run work when the game seems to be working against you—not giving you useful upgrades or skill, nothing really tying anything together to build synergies between what you are handed. This can be frustrating in games like The Binding of Isaac or Slay the Spire where the best way to victory is creating a build as you play, but Going Under is more akin to Enter the Gungeon, where the passive skills and upgrades you get are secondary to the weapons you find. It goes back to the idea that during combat you will find yourself scanning the room for future weapons you may need. You will most likely acquire a preference for certain weapon types—for me, it was one or two handed weapons that attacked in a sweeping motion—but you can never rely on having those weapons available to use. So sometimes you will have to make do with what you can grab and this is where the run building aspect of Going Under lies for me—making use of weapons you may not like or know well, trying to ensure you keep as many good weapons you do like on hand at any giving time, and just making what you can get work no matter what. It adds a level of improvisation and strategy to the chaotic battles in the dungeons of the failed startups.

When Breath of the Wild released, I remember a lot of discussion about how the game needed a system or some way you could repair damaged weapons you liked so you could choose how long to keep them and when to toss them out. While the weapon durability mechanic in the game bothered me really, I agree with this idea. As a huge open world adventure, I think this would be a great way to add an RPG character building feel to Breath of the Wild and could be used as a way to reward players’ exploration. For a while, I thought Going Under was missing an opportunity to have a similar sort of mechanic in the game, either by a shop or consumable item that could repair your weapons or skills that could affect the durability of them. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was not necessary for Going Under and would possibly undercut the entire design of the game. Everything in the game, from level design to combat, is built around the weapon durability mechanic. Taking that out takes away all of the game’s uniqueness and charm.

Portal & Portal 2: Critical Miss #24

I’m GLaDOS I Played These

Friends of mine are surprised to learn I never played Portal or Portal 2. The classic games developed and published by Valve were released in 2007 and 2011, respectively. While I had a passing interest in games in 2007, playing Super Mario 64 on my DS and Mario Kart on my Wii, I wasn’t at all up to date on any games releasing. And by 2011, I was in college, playing pretty much no games besides a Pokémon run here and there. The Portal series has just passed me by until now. Even after I learned of the series and its reputation, I never had a computer powerful enough to run it. So when I got my used Xbox 360, I downloaded the games and played through them to fill in the interdimensional hole in my gaming knowledge.

The story of Portal focuses on a woman named Chel who is being forced to run through science tests by GLaDOS, a robot controlling the functions of Aperture Science. It’s a simple story—a story of human vs machine, athleticism vs intelligence, silence vs wit. Even though the player controls Chel, GLaDOS steals the entire show. Impeccably acted by Ellen McLain, she provides the dry, straight-faced, and incredibly sharp humor that the game is praised for, but still manages to be threatening as a unfeeling machine. Early in the game, Chel will be giving a Portal Gun, a machine that creates openings on certain walls that can be used to instantly pass through the space between them.

The portals are an incredible mechanic—technically impressive, amazingly fun, and delightfully disorienting. I never really got used to the camera swinging around as gravity took effect on the character leaving a portal, but those moments are so short that you will quickly adjust. Since momentum is kept while entering and leaving portals, a lot of puzzles rely on that to spring yourself across larger gaps or to higher platforms not reachable through normal means. Other puzzles require holding down buttons with weighted cubes, creating a path for an electrical sphere to meet with a conductor to activate a button, and taking out turrets by knocking them over, either by grabbing them from behind or dropping things on them. 

Some puzzles will test your aiming speed and reflexes by giving you just a few seconds after exiting a portal to shoot another one on to be transported to. These were my least favorite in the game. I had gotten so settled into a comfy state of examining the level design and finding ways to access what I needed through portal placement, that the emphasis on speed and reflexes in the later part of the game didn’t feel like I was being tested on what had been taught to me.

The level design in general is rather rigid due to the fact that portals can only be created on certain surfaces. This is not a bad thing, however, since it helps keep puzzles and the rules of the game consistent and focused. In the last part of the game, you escape the steril test chambers and explore the rusted, grimy maintenance halls of the facility. The puzzles are still as straightforward as before, but the change in scenery goes a long way to freshen up the feel of the games. 

Honestly, Portal is pretty much perfect. The only complaint I have is with minor hit detections issues. I played the Xbox 360 Stay Alive version so I’m not sure if this was an issue with the original PC release, but the rounded edges of the portals seem to catch on the character and cubes while going through portals. This would lead to missed jumps as my momentum was halted or dropped items missing their target as a corner clipped the edge of a portal and physics sent it spinning off course. It’s not a major complaint at all and hardly dampened my opinion of the game, but it was something I kept noticing.

The only other thing I sometimes hear criticized about the game is its short length. The game is about 2-3 hours long, I completed my first playthrough in just an evening, but I think the length is to the game’s benefit. There is no wasted space in Portal, every inch of the game world has a purpose and it comes in, shows off the ideas it has, and ends before it becomes stale or boring. It is such a tightly, perfectly designed game that I couldn’t image it being any longer. That was, however, until I played Portal 2, which is a perfect example of the phrase “bigger isn’t always better.”

Portal 2 is pretty much the same game as the original, but with just more stuff added. Bigger environments, more puzzles, more characters and story—it’s a classic follow up philosophy where the sequel has to be bigger and bolder (the Alien/Aliens effect). While the portal gameplay is still as fun as ever, there were so many more elements added to the puzzles. Instead of just portals with the occasional electric ball or cube to worry about, Portal 2’s puzzles will have you redirecting lasers, creating light bridges, and using three different kinds of gels, each with a unique property, to solve puzzles. All these new mechanics are explained and utilized well enough and pretty fun to use, but their inclusion seemed to necessitate larger rooms and environments for the puzzles to take place in, hurting the tightness and ultrafocus of the original game’s design. Gameplay is not the only thing that has been expanded upon either. The story is chattier than ever in Portal 2.

GLaDOS now has to share the spotlight with robot core named Wheatley, played by Stephen Merchant, and the prerecorded messages of Cave Johnson, played by J. K. Simmons. I found Wheatley pretty annoying, but he is not unfunny, and Simmons as Cave Johnson is just a delight because he seems to be tapping into his J. Jonah Jameson character from the Rami Spider-Man films. There are some very funny bits with Johnson ranting about mantis man and exploding lemons, but the humor of the game expands from the specific dry wit of the first game and becomes sillier and more general. I would say that Portal 2 is funnier than the first, but I’m a sucker for the straight-facedness of the first game’s comedy.

The point of max frustration toward Portal 2 for me came at the end. You have a great bit of (literal) raising action as you climb your way out of the ruined, old facility and you are flushed with victory, ready for the faceoff with Wheatley and the climax of the story. But then the pacing grinds to halt as Wheatley makes you perform more tests to keep his high going. It’s a funny bit at first, but it could have worked with just requiring the player to complete a few more tests. Instead you have to go through about a dozen more. I was ready for the game to end, but it insisted on sticking around for another hour or so after its logical end point. And this is ultimately what Portal has over its sequel. Portal knew exactly when to end before it got stale or ran out of ideas, and Portal 2 went on past the point where it had anything new to share.
Portal and Portal 2 are still some of the most beloved and respected puzzle games to this day and that’s because they are both great, but I find the original far superior to its sequel. The best way I can explain my opinions of the games is to imagine them as a boxer. Portal is the boxer at the prime of their career: in fighting trim with absolute zero fat on them. Portal 2 is the same boxer forty years later, after retirement: a little fatter than they were, but still strong and in better shape than most people. Either way, either game can still beat the crap out of the majority of AAA games releasing nowadays.

Capcom & Replayability

I’ve been on a big Capcom kick lately. From finally playing the Resident Evil 3 remake to falling back into the Monster Hunter grind to finishing Devil May Cry 5 just a few nights ago, it’s been a very Capcom filled couple of months. After finishing DMC 5, I was met with a familiar scene, a sort of Capcom special, a long list of costume unlocks, new difficulty modes, and perks for starting up another playthrough of the game. Replayability always comes to mind when I think of a Capcom game. They seem to specialize in shorter games that incentive players to play through them multiple times. This can be seen in all of their major series, but most interesting is how each one offers a different reason to replay a game. So here’s a breakdown of four of Capcom’s most well known series and what they offer for players who just want to keep on playing them.

Megaman / Megaman X

The Megaman series debuted on the NES and was one of Capcom’s first console games successes. This is due, in no small part, to the introduction of the level select screen. In the days of linear platformers like Super Mario Bros and Castlevania, being able to choose the order you completed levels in was a very innovative idea. It’s a small amount of freedom to the player, but it helped the series standout so much from other games on the system. Add to it the fact that defeating a boss grants you their weapon, which other bosses will be weak or resistant to, and you have a system that encourages experimentation from the player. You could go with the recommended order for the easiest time, or you could go your own way and see what you can discover.

When the SNES came out, Capcom reimagined the Megaman series as the Megaman X series. While the bones of the X series are the same skeleton of the classic series, the more serious tone of the game and some new additions breathed fresh air in the games’ lungs. The level select screen was back, but with the addition of armor parts, subtanks, and health upgrades (some of which you need the boss weapon from another level to grab) the player has more reason than ever to experiment with the order they complete levels. In the first X game, beating some bosses even create ripple effects on other levels, making them easier to traverse and beat.

Resident Evil

Capcom helped Sony introduce the original Playstation with a brand new IP: Resident Evil—a foundational game in the survival-horror genre. I’ve been a fan of the series ever since playing Resident Evil 4 a few years ago and that was my first real taste of Capcom’s recipe for replayability. After beating the main story, you will unlock Mercenaries mode, a more arcade-like horde shooter, and the Separate Ways campaign, a shorter play-through as Ada Wong who’s story parallels Leon’s throughout the game. Complete these unlocks characters for Mercenaries mode and outfits and weapons to be used in the main campaign like the suit of armor that makes Ashley invincible to enemies and the Chicago Typewriter, a tommy gun with infinite ammo.

But RE4 wasn’t where the series focus on replayability started, it’s just the first in the series I played. Additional customs and weapons to use during the main campaign have been offered in every game since the first installment, but the earlier games offered more than that to encourage players to play the games again. Both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 offered two different characters to play as, both with different attributes and scenarios that happen in the story. While the overall games’ structure and story remains the same, it’s a nice little incentive to do another playthrough since things won’t be exactly the same and can offer a different experience. 

Devil May Cry

The Devil May Cry series’ approach to replayability is a lot like Resident Evil’s, but instead of unlocking new costumes and weapons, you unlock higher difficulties to play the game on. This works well because the combat in the DMC games is very intricate, varied, and very open to expression. The player is rated at the end of each chapter based on how well they played, which encourages practitioning and replaying in itself, and players who push themselves to get better at the game will welcome the higher difficulties unlock to test their skill. Starting with DMC 3, Capcom created a difficulty mode named Heaven or Hell where Dante will die in a single hit, but so will every enemy. This is such an interesting take on difficulty because it’s such a high risk/high reward style of gameplay. Later games would introduce a variant on this mode called Hell or Hell for the truly masochistic players, where the player character dies in one hit, but enemies take normal damage. 

Monster Hunter

Lastly we come to the Monster Hunter series, which is probably my favorite series of Capcom’s. The Monster Hunter game shares some DNA with the Devil May Cry series in the sense that the combat is extremely deep and nuanced. On top of that, there are over a dozen weapons in Monster Hunter World and Generations Ultimate (the two newest games in the series and the ones I have the most experience with) and all of them play very differently. A player could spend countless hours learning the differences and intricacies of each weapon type. 

But by far the biggest reason a Monster Hunter game is such a replayable one is because the core gameplay loop is such an iterative one. Any game in the series is about getting a little better after each and every hunt. The core loop is simple: fight giant dragons and dinosaurs to get item drops to make into better gear and weapons so you can fight even bigger monsters. Since there is no leveling system in the game, acquiring new gear is the only way to increase your attack and defense stats. But the only true way to get better at a game in the series, however, is to just learn it. Things like the correct items to bring on a hunt, a monster’s attack patterns, what needs to be broken to get certain item drops, all need to be learned by the player and this is the real reason why the series is so replayable. It rewards the player based on how much they themselves put into it.

These are just the Capcom series I’m familiar with too. I hear they have some fun incentives to replay games in the Onimusha series, but I haven’t completed any of those, and they also make the Street Fighter series which, similar to Monster Hunter, has many characters and extremely deep combat that takes forever to learn and master. Capcom’s focus on shorter, but more replayable titles seems to be a core focus of the company and it’s one I respect and appreciate highly. As I grow older, my time becomes more and more limited, so the longer a game is, the less eager I am to replay it—even games like Breath of the Wild and Persona 5, which I absolutely love, paralyze me when I think of replaying them. But a short campaign like the Resident Evil 2 remake or a game broken in bite size chunks like Monster Hunter are much easier to run through again. There’s a strength in offering a shorter, more concise experience and earning the closure of finishing a game quickly over an arduous journey spanning dozens to hundreds of hours sometimes.

Pokémon Platinum – Critical Miss #23

Turtwig’s All the Way Down

When I decided to play this game and review it for Critical Miss, I had no idea Pokémon’s 25th anniversary was this year, nor did I know that the Pokémon Company was going to announce celebrations for it earlier in the month and Twitter would be swarming over the idea of remaking the fourth generation—those were all happy little accidents. The reason I wanted to play Pokémon Platinum was because I never fully played through any of the fourth generation games. Platinum was released in 2008 (2009 in America) and is the refinement title of Diamond and Pearl released just two years prior. This was just after high school and the beginning of college for me, the period where I probably played the least amount of video games (although I did have a DS and picked up a copy of HeartGold when it was released the next year). I have said before in my Nuzlocke post that Pokémon is probably my favorite game series based simply on how much of it I’ve played and how much I love the core gameplay. So I decided to fill this particular Snorlax size gap in my Pokémon experience and finally finish generation four.

To start with the gameplay: it’s still Pokémon so it’s still solid. The primary loop of catching Pokémon, adding them to your team, and battling with them to help them grow stronger is as fun and satisfying as ever. My team ended up being: Torterra, Crobat, Garchomp, Medichamp, Magnezone, and Houndoom—and I was very happy with this team besides lack of a water Pokémon leading to some frustration in the end game, but more on that later. The sprites in the battles are the best 2D art in the series, very detailed and crystal clear. While the core gameplay loop is as strong as ever, the moment to moment gameplay suffers due to the Slowpoke pace of the game. Everything in Platinum is slow: movement speed, battle animations, text, and even HP draining and the EXP bar filling. I’m used to slow-paced RPGs, but Platinum did start to tire me towards the end. The game feels heavy as a Rhydon, but stays engaging by being one of the toughest Pokémon games I’ve played.

Now, the game is still not extremely hard—I wouldn’t call it the Dark Souls of Pokémon games—but in terms of a Pokémon game, Platinum gave me the meatiest, non-Nozlocke challenge I’ve had with the series in a while. This comes down to two main things and, much like a Doduo’s two heads coming from the same body, they both have to do with the gym leaders. It’s always been true that trainers will have Pokémon a few levels higher than those in the surrounding routes and the gym leaders’ Pokémon will be a level or two higher than the trainers, but this is the largest level gap I can remember in the series. Apparently, the Pokémon of the gym leaders were raised a couple levels from Diamond & Pearl which would account for this. The second reason is because the gym leaders teams are more well balanced than previous, offering better type coverage with their Pokémon and their movesets. I was stuck on Crasher Wake for a while because his ace Pokémon, Floatzel, knew Ice Fang, which one-shot my Torterra, and Crunch, which one-shot the Rotom I was currently using. I had to stop and grind my team a couple levels before finally defeating him. But I didn’t really mind because I was just enjoying a Pokémon game that took a little more thought and effort.

The difficulty really helped me stay engaged with the game even through its Glaceon pacing and, sadly, uninterested story. I never play a Pokémon game for the story—I’m always more invested in the gameplay first and the story can be a fun addition—but I still like to follow it and be engaged. Unfortunately, the plot just becomes a villain team plot standard to Pokémon games, focusing this time on Team Galatic and their leader, Cyrus. They want to remake the world to Cyrus’s desires, but his goals are just too grand, his plan too underdeveloped, and his character and motives too one dimensional for any sort of interesting writing or storytelling. But that’s just the plot, another part of storytelling is setting and, as a region, I think Shinnoh is one of the best designed in the series. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the design of the routes in the Pokémon games: how ledges are used to funnel players into tall grass and into trainer battles, how out of the way areas usually hide useful items, how little nooks and crannies are hidden behind things that need an HM to pass to encourage players to return and explore more. Platinum uses the hardware of the DS to introduce a new aspect to the routes: overlapping layers. With Shinnoh having a mountain range dividing it into two sides, there is a lot of verticality on display. Bridges will pass over canyons and fields of snow, the cycling road covers the entirety of Route 206 underneath it, and the Great Marsh has little hills connected by wood planks to bicycle over to stay out of the muck below. There are caves cutting through the mountains and the peak of Mt. Coronet to reach in the late game.

The verticality is great and adds a new texture not seen before in the series, but I also love the off-the-beaten-path areas on routes. Most routes have areas you cannot reach during the first visit and usually hide powerful TMs or useful items. I always enjoy a reason to revisit an old area to explore for more goodies and must have spent a good few hours combing over each route again before challenging the Elite Four. My only issue with this deeper exploration is tied into the sheer amount of HMs needed to access every area.

HMs, or Hidden Moves, have been the most unpopular part of any Pokémon game since the series introduction because they are needed to explore the world (as in cutting down trees, moving boulders, and surf across water) and, once taught to a Pokémon, the move cannot be unlearned without finding a special NPC. Usually, HMs never really bother me. I like the utility outside of battle and moves like Surf and Fly were good enough to be useful additions to a moveset, but Defog is a thing in Generation Four and it’s absolutely worthless. Its use outside of battle is clearing fog so you can see where you are walking and inside of battle it just lowers your opponents evasion stat, which hardly ever comes into play. 

Shinnoh is the absolute pits when it comes to HMs, not just Defog is a completely useless move, but because there are eight different HMs needed to beat the game. This means if you want to have an HM mule (a Pokémon dedicated to just knowing HMs), you need at least two of them taking up space in your party. This was a real Ferrothorn in my side after climbing to the summit of Mt. Coronet and had to face off with Cyrus in the Distortion World. I had most HMs spread out across my team, but since I was not using a water-type Pokémon, I had to drag along a Biberal who I loaded up with Surf and other HMs. So when I faced Cryus, I was missing my Magneton and his Gyrados was a real wall to be busted through.

The only other issue I have with the fourth generation is a lack of identity with the Pokédex. Since so much of Shinnoh’s new Pokémon are new evolution stages of past generation Pokémon, the roster feels sort of lacking. Platinum increased the regional dex size from Diamond & Pearl, but the region still feels stale for choices of Pokémon to add to your team. This may be a problem unique to me. I always try to use Pokémon I haven’t had on a team before in a new playthrough of any game. Add that to my weird dislike of single type Pokémon and Shinnoh felt very restricted in Pokemon I could choose for my team. Overall, the Pokédex didn’t bother me that much because the challenge in gameplay and unique world more than made up for it; and while I even hesitated to mention it, I thought it important to address because, while a games sense of identity is not really important to me personally, I know it is important to some folks out there.

In all honesty, this was a selfish review. I wanted to play through Platinum simply because it was one of the generations I never finished. I also like to say whether or not I recommend a game after I play it and I definitely would recommend playing Pokémon Platinum. But who could I recommend it to? Pokémon fans most likely have already played it and it is not the first game in the series I would suggest a new player to start with. I would probably place the game in the mid-tier of Pokémon games in my opinion. I still loved my time spent in Shinnoh, but I’m a fan of the series so that is to be expected. I think that is the joy of the Pokémon series though—a series that has spanned 25 years has plenty places for new fans to join in, lots of history and games to explore for people to go back to and discover, and just lots of memories and friendships to be made, both in and outside the games.

Guacamelee & Multipurpose Attacks

I’ve always been interested in gameplay mechanics that are designed to have multiple uses. Like how the hookshot in the Zelda series can be used to access out of reach areas and as a weapon to stun enemies, the social links in Persona 5 furthering the story and character development of your teammates while giving them special abilities in and outside of battle, and bullets in Metro 2033 working both as ammunition and currency. Multiple ways of affecting gameplay add another layer of complexity to a mechanic, make it more versatile and expressive. One of the best examples I can think of this type of multipurpose mechanic is how special attacks are handled in Guacamelee.

Guacamelee is a Metroidvania with combat ripped out of a 2D brawler. You’ll be exploring a large, spaghetti-like map looking for upgrades and abilities to access new areas, all while beating enemies to pulp with punches, kicks, grapples, and throws, each hit crunching like you stepped on a box of breakfast cereal. A handful of the abilities you acquire, like the Rooster Uppercut and the Dashing Derpderp, are just new harder-hitting attacks that can be used to pummel enemies, streaked with an associated color and moving in the character in a certain direction. At first, these attacks just seem like combo extenders. Since some of your attacks knock your enemies flying through the air like dandelion fluff, it is helpful to have a follow up move that can close the distance and dish out some damage. The combo system is underutilized, however, and the lack of an extra reward for a higher combo makes it pretty forgettable, but it is still satisfying to keep an enemy floating in the air with a string of punches and special attacks. As the game progresses, the armies of skeletons will appear not only cloaked in ponchos and sombreros, but colored shields too. 

These shields need to be broken with the attack of the corresponding color before the enemy can be damaged. The art design really shines in this implementation with the colors vibrant enough to instantly recognize which attack is required to bust open the shield, but this mechanic is still probably the weakest part of the game. The shields are fine when they are first introduced, about a third to halfway through the game. Just as the combat is starting to feel a little samey and lose impact, having an enemy per wave will spawn with a shield encourages target selection and helps the player focus. But it’s near the end of the game, cramped into a small room and many enemies, many with different colored shields, that this becomes annoying. It’s fun to throw your enemies around, watching them fly into each other and knock their comrades down, but a lot of satisfaction is lost if most of them have shields that haven’t been cracked and they are taking no damage from the cascade of limbs.

Combat is not the only aspect of Guacamelee’s gameplay, however, because there is also map exploration, and it’s here that the special attacks really show their worth. While running, jumping, and smacking enemies silly across the world map, the player will often find colored stone blocks impeding their progress. As in a Metroid game, special attacks are needed to break through these blocks and proceed. I typically prefer Metroidvania games where organic movement upgrades are needed to access new areas (like Hollow Knight and how the Castlevania series handle map design), but I find I don’t  mind this type of lock-key-key of design as much in Guacamelee. The game finds the middle ground between these two differing map types through its special attacks. Sure, the blocks are used in dungeons mostly to guide the player to certain areas and later to create shortcuts to checkpoints or to be revisited as the proper upgrade is acquired, but they also help inform the platforming challenges, which are probably my favorite part of the game.

There are many side paths in the world of Guacamelee to explore for extra goodies like health and stamina pieces and chests full of gold. Some are hidden through small gaps in walls but most are just side rooms with platforming challenge to conquer and collect your reward. I always go after as many of these as I can, not only because it’s good practice for when the game starts throwing similar challenges in the critical path, but because they are just very fun. Since each of the special attacks move the character slightly in a direction, they can be used to extend the length of a jump and redirect in midair. This gives the player a precise sense of control and opens up the platforming to a lot of tricky jumps. A common example is getting around walls hanging for the ceiling like stalactites, where you will have to fall past the bottom of the wall and Rooster Uppercut your where up and past it to a platform waiting on the other side. During the later part of the game, these types of platforming challenges become part of the main path. Sometimes you’ll have to cross a long room by going from platform to platform over a lake of acid or maybe it’s a vertical auto-scrolling section where you have to climb to the top of a room while being chased down by buzzsaws. So the special attacks gained throughout the game helps aid the player in both combat and exploring the world map, tying the two types of gameplay together and making them a cohesive whole, and the most interesting outcome of this is how it affects the Guacamelee’s difficulty curve.

Usually in Metroidvania titles, the end game is the easiest part because you’ve gained so many upgrades and new moves. Some moves, like the Screw Attack in the Metroid series and Gas Cloud transformation in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are pretty overpowered and completely blow out the difficulty curve. Guacamelee doesn’t have this issue since the special attacks are used more for utility than raw power—this leads to the game actually getting more difficult as more upgrades and special attacks are acquired. It’s so rare to find a Metroidvania game that doesn’t get noticeable easier, apart from maybe a few bosses, by the end of the game and the fact that Guacamelee does get harder (with a very steady difficulty curve and some real meaty challenges at the end to boot) makes it a very refreshing take on the genre, gives it an excellent sense of pacing, and helped to keep me engaged while games like Super Metroid would start to lose my interest.

Guacamelee is a very fun game despite all its little annoyances and a lot of that comes from how the game handles its special attacks. In combat, they are satisfying and expressive and can lead the game to feel as stylish as a side-scrolling Devil May Cry or Bayonetta at times. When exploring the world, they are versatile and help form a lot of tricky platforming challenges that are always thrilling to complete. These special attacks and how they help create a meaty difficulty curve is enough of a unique selling point to get a recommendation from me. It’s oddly similar to another game I’ve been playing lately, but more on that next time.

Top 5 Critical Miss Game of 2020

2020 is officially in the garbage can and good riddance to it. It was a rough year for reasons that should need to be stated. My mental health was a roller coaster ride of gradual raises and sudden drops, but I had had video games for relaxation and escapism. In my ongoing journey to play classic games I missed out on growing up, I played a good handful of games for Critical Miss this year. Before I repress all of 2020 from my memory, I wanted to order my favorite classic games from the series for the year. 

This year’s list was harder to make than last year’s. While I didn’t outright despise anything I played, only a few games I fell in love with and captured my mind, leading me to roll them around in my head for weeks after finishing them. Some truly classic games, like Metal Gear Solid, with its storytelling and cutscenes not seen before on consoles, and Super Metroid, with its incredible atmosphere for a 16-bit game and explorative gameplay, didn’t quite make the list. I wanted to mention them though since they are still very worth playing today. Other honorable mentions would be Starfox 64 for having differing paths to discover and Vanquish for just being a hectically fast-paced and fun game. But, without further ado, here are the top five Critical Miss games of 2020.

#5) Banjo-Kazooie

While it’s true that I had some major issues with the last couple levels of Banjo-Kazooie and they left me frustrated with the game, I cannot deny that the majority of it is still extremely strong. There is a variety and creativity displayed in the game that manages to still stay true to its core design and playstyle, something a lot of other games of the genre from the same era struggle to achieve. With a wonderful sense of charm and fun, the game is a pleasant little romp without feeling saccharine. Even though it’s not my favorite 3D platformer of its time, it is very much worth giving a play today.

#4) Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening

I was not really a fan of the original Devil May Cry when I played it earlier this year. I found it repetitive and clunky to control. Luckily, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening managed to improve on everything from the original. With a larger world, more unique weapons and bosses, and a deliciously campy, over-the-top story shown throughout utterly ridiculous cutscenes, DMC 3 is a blast from start to finish. Controls are still not perfect, but they are much better than the first game and no longer feel like you are running through mud. There are less platforming sections in Dante’s Awakening compared to the first game, but they are still pretty terrible. The game was fun enough to convince me to try out the rest of the series and I’m excited to drive into the fifth game after I paddle through Devil May Cry 4.

#3) Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

I’ve never played a Paper Mario game before Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Now I have a sinking feeling that it might be tough to go back to play other games in the series because this game is so fantastic. I love nearly everything about this game: the art style, the characters, the humor, variety in chapters. The best part by far, however, is the active battle system. Requiring the player to perform button prompts or little minigame-like challenges to power up or even land an attack is a wonderful idea. It gives them something to do in the turn based battles and is plain fun. The only reason this game is not higher on the list is because some sections are not very interested. The wrestling tournament just results in battle after battle, the search for General White is just artificial padding, and the less said about the Bowser sections the better.

#2) Spec Ops: The Line

All good art should in some way elicit an emotion from the audience and that’s exactly what Spec Ops: The Line does. After masquerading as a standard modern military shooter for the first half of the game, the curtain flies off and the player is thrown into the depths of a harrowing story of war crimes, PTSD, and the fine line between being a soldier and an outright killer. It’s a gut punch that is very effective, even when I knew the heel turn of the game prior to booting it up. While the story is unique, engaging, and sometimes hard to stomach, the gameplay is just fine. Not bad at all, it’s completely solid and well designed, but doesn’t do anything new or interesting. It’s necessary for the overall message of the gameplay, granted, but it’s the lackluster gameplay that landed Spec Ops: The Line in the number two spot.

Photo by SilenceInTheLibrary. Found at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

#1) Silent Hill 2

Widely considered to be one of the best horror games ever made, Silent Hill 2 is a mastercraft in atmosphere, video game storytelling, and general spookiness. I was surprised by how genuinely unnerving and frightening the game was, how well it got under my skin. The most interesting thing about the Silent Hill 2 is how all its assumed flaws actually benefit the atmosphere and story, feeling debatably intentional. Things like the pretty awful voice acting, completely bizarre characters and interactions between them, and the stiff movement and clunky combat all lend an air of unworldliness and desperation to the game. It is a game with a singular focus sharp as a razor blade, with the enemies you struggle against and the locations you explore all symbolism a different aspect of James’ personality and faults. It is a perfect game for what it set out to accomplish.

I had a hard time choosing between Spec Ops: The Line and Silent Hill 2 for the number one spot. They battled in my mind for weeks, going back and forth as the one I preferred. In all honesty, if asked on a different day or while in a different mood, Spec Ops could have easily been granted my favorite Critical Miss game of the year. I guess it would be fair to say they are tied. All the games on the list are great and I had a blast playing them all, but if I had to choose two from the list to suggest anyone plays, it would easily be Spec Ops: The Line and Silent Hill 2. They gave me the strongest emotional reaction of any games I’ve played in a long time and really show the uniqueness and strengths of the types of stories only video games as an art form can tell.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at silenthill.fandom.com/wiki/Silent_Hill_2

Banjo-Kazooie – Critical Miss #22

Bear Pace

I’ve been a big consumer of YouTube content since rediscovering my love of video games around 2014. If there is one game I’ve heard more praise for than any other, it would have to be Rareware’s 1998 3D platformer for the Nintendo 64: Banjo-Kazooie. The Completionist, Antdude, videogamedunkey, they all laud the game as one of the best ever, a perfect, or at least near perfect, game. I’ve always liked 3D platformers, but haven’t played many from the N64 era, arguably the golden age of the genre, besides Super Mario 64. So I was excited to check out Banjo-Kazooie once I finally bought a used Xbox 360. 

Upon booting up the game, the player is met with a Saturday morning cartoon’s worth of color and bouncy music. Everything, from the characters to the locations to the collectibles, are bright and cheerful, full of personality and charm. The music masterfully arranged, being catchy and bubbling and adapting to changes in the game like going under water or entering a differently theme area. There is a simple joy of picking up a collectible in 3D platformer and hearing a jingle play and Banjo-Kazooie is the best at this. Everything you pick up, be it eggs, feathers, or Jiggies, everything has a unique little fanfare that plays. Where the presentation fails is with repetitive noises. The stop-and-start gibberish all characters speak in is the usual suspect for complaints, but I didn’t find it too bad. It’s not great, but it’s charming enough to look past. The thing that started to irritate me most was Kazooie’s panting while doing the Talon Trot move. Seeing how this is the quickest way to travel, you will be using it a lot and hearing Kazooie’s “mer-her, mer-her” constantly.

The Talon Trot is the best mode of transportation because Banjo-Kazooie is a slower paced game than other 3D platformers. I was surprised how heavy the characters felt when starting the game. Banjo’s default walking speed feels like he has lead covering his paws, the swimming controls are slow and very slippery, and most utility moves have a delay to activate them. Attacks like the Rat-at-tat Rap and Forward Roll require the characters to jump or run (respectively) first before they can be used and even more situational moves like the Shock Spring Jump require the player to find a special pad in the world and hold down a button before it activates. It creates a game that feels more restrictive than the likes of Super Mario 64, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a different gameplay style. If freeform 3D Mario games are like jazz (as I have said in my Mario Odyssey post), then Banjo-Kazooie is a damn great pop song.

By far the best aspect of the game are the levels. There are nine levels (not including the opening Spiral Mountain and the hub world, Gruntilda’s Lair) and they are all vastly different. While most fall into the usual platforming template of forest level, desert level, water level etc., they are filled with uniquenesses that help them stand out. Gobi’s Desert if filled with pyramids and other tombs to explore, Freezeezy Peak is a Christmas wonderland decorated with lights, presents, and giant snowman as the center focus, and Bubblegloop Swamp is a southern bayou infested with poisonous water and alligators. Even the two levels that are strikingly similar, Clanker’s Cavern and Rusty Bucket Bay, feel completely different. 

Along with varied levels, the collecting Jiggies is also very varied. There are the standard platforming challenges and a few boss fights, but you will also have to complete mini games, compete in races, collect Jingos, and even get flushed down a toilet at one point. Seeing as Banjo and Kazooie are a bipedal bear and a bird chilling in a backpack, all but sewn together like the pigeon-rat from The Simpsons, the game does a great job of exploring all the abilities those creatures would have when collecting Jiggies. However, some require the duo to change forms with the help of the shaman, Mumbo Jumbo, and I was nervous about this. I was expecting them to all have different play styles like the different characters in Spyro 3, an aspect about the game I did not enjoy at all, but the different forms in Banjo-Kazooie are not bad at all. This is mostly due to the fact that their controls are simplified to just being able to run and jump. The forms are really only needed to gain access to areas and collectibles Banjo and Kazooie cannot get themselves. For example, the walrus form in Freezeezy Peak can swim in the freezing water without taking damage and is welcomed into another walrus’s home, something they refuse to do for Banjo because they are afraid of him, being a bear and all. There is a great difficulty curve in Banjo-Kazooie with levels and the challenges becoming bigger and more complicated as the game progresses. However, a difficulty curve is not the same as pacing, and that is what the game struggles with the most, especially near the end.

I went into Banjo-Kazooie with the intention of 100% complete it, but by the end of the game, I had decided not to bother. Early in the game, the levels were great. Large and explorative, but confined enough to not drag on like the last few levels did. Longer levels are not necessarily a bad thing, but levels like Rusty Bucket Bay and Click Clock Wood feel artificially lengthen to the point of feeling bloated. This is mainly due to the harsh punishments for making slight platforming mistakes. Most platformers will either have something to catch a player if they fall during a long platforming challenge, cutting down on the amount they have to redo, or they make the time between failing and restarting short, ensuring players stay determined more so than frustrated. Banjo-Kazooie has a problem with this and the game suffers because of it. If you miss a jump while climbing the very tall central tree in Click Clock Woods, you are falling to the very bottom. 

Rusty Bucket Bay is the worst offender of this seeming oversight. There is a ship in the center of the level with a Jiggy hiding behind its whirling propellers. To shut off the propellers, you must first enter the ship’s bridge to hit a button to slow down the fans in the engine room, then exit the bridge and go to the engine room. There you have to complete some of the toughest platforming in the game including walking across narrow paths, climbing spinning gears, and jumping through spinning fan blades that periodically slow down and speed up. It’s actually really tough, but the real kick in the shin is that it all takes place over a bottomless pit. If you make one mistake and fall into the pit, you restart at the beginning of the level and have to repeat everything again. You don’t restart at the beginning of the engine room section, which would be fair with such a harsh punishment. You restart at the level entrance and have to repeat the steps in the bridge to slow the engine fans down first. You have to do this every single time. It takes about a minute or two to have another chance to retry the section and in a game like this, that is forever

The only other real issues I have with the game are pretty minor. The first is Grunty’s Furnace Fun, the board game Gruntilda makes you play at the end of the game. Simply put: it isn’t fun and definitely not why I play platformers. It’s unique, no doubt, but it’s sluggish and having to answer trivia questions about the game feels little self-indulgent. The second issue is Gruntilda’s Lair, the hub world of the game. I’ve heard a lot of praise for this particular hub world but I don’t understand why at all. I found it to be overly spacious and not very interesting. Rooms and areas all have unique set dressing and atmospheres, you can even collect some Jiggies in it, but I always prefer a more contained space for a hub world. Make it smaller with more interesting things to find. Larger hubs like in Banjo-Kazooie just add a commute between levels, adding on to the other pacing issues I found in the game.

Overall, though, I still enjoyed Banjo-Kazooie, even if the ending did leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a great game filled with varied levels, a charming art style, and fun but kind of clunky gameplay. The pacing issues and overly long final levels means I cannot say it’s a perfect game, even for what it was striving to be, but it’s pretty close to it. To go back to the pop song comparison earlier: the game is still fun and I now understand the mass appeal of it, I am not immune to its charms myself, but it’s not my preferred genre and not the first thing I would think to pop in and jam out to.

Spelunky 2: Game of the Year – 2020

I didn’t play a lot of games released this year. Partly due to a limited budget of money and time, but mostly it was disinterest in most that came out. No AAA game really caught my attention. I found Final Fantasy 7 Remake demo repetitive and tedious so I never picked up the full release and I refuse to support companies like Naughty Dog and Ubisoft, so that crossed out all their new games. Even the indie games I played this year didn’t excite me too much. Carrion was a fun little bite size romp and Hades was so close to being what I want for a roguelight with social mechanics, but sadly fell short. I felt I didn’t play enough games to make another top five list this year, but I wanted to talk about what is undoubtedly my favorite game of 2020: Spelunky 2.

My history with the series is weird. When I first got my PS4, one of the first games I picked up was the original Spelunky because it’s reputation was so strong. However, I found the difficulty completely impenetrable; I could hardly make it out of the caves. The difficulty in Spelunky 2 isn’t any easier (it may even be harder), but the game just feels better to play. There is less stiffness in the controls and you can toggle run to always be on so you don’t have to constantly hold down the trigger. There is one strange control aspect that returns in Spelunky 2 and that is carrying items.

In both games, carrying items is pretty clunky. To bring anything anywhere it has to be carried and only one thing can be carried at a time. This includes weapons, keys, and the pets, who will give you a health point if delivered to the level exit. This can lead to having to manage multiple items at one on levels that require multiple things to carry around, like the floor in the dwellings where you have to bring the key to the chest to unlock the Udjat eye. If you have a weapon on this floor and also want to carry the pet and the key at the same time, get ready for a juggling act of dropping and picking up items.

This clunkiness with carrying items is very obviously by design though. Since delivering pets to the exit is one of the only ways to get health, only being able to carry an item at a time forces the player to assess what is most important to grab and carry, leading to a sort of flow chart to be run down in the moment. This is because different throwable items have different attributes. Rocks only hit for one point of damage and never break while arrows hit for 2 points of damage, but break and become useless after hitting an tougher enemy like a caveman. So you are constantly going over a checklist in your head. Am I carrying an item that can be thrown as a weapon? If no, grab one. If yes, is there a better weapon or item I should be carrying. It’s these little moments of consideration, these moments of assessment that make Spelunky 2 such an engaging game to play aside from the platforming elements. 

Like most every other roguelike, Spelunky 2 is a game of learning from mistakes and internalizing what needs to be done in the future. Every different biome has different enemies and challenges to consider. Enemies attack patterns and health need to be learned. Interactions between level elements have to be assessed when scouting out a safe path forward. And, the most frustrated of all, traps that can kill you with one hit need to be spotted and avoided.

There is at least one thing in every biome that will kill you instantly no matter how much health you have at the time. Spikes, bear traps, lava, moving blocks; all of these can end your run in a second. While it is definitely frustrating to build up a great run only to have it snuffed out in the blink of an eye, the instant death traps are necessary for the balance of the game. The game would become trivial with the right combination of items and having traps to constantly look out for keeps the game engaging. You have to always be looking ahead for upcoming traps to avoid, enemies to dodge, and treasure to grab that your mind will be racing a mile a minute while playing. Once you have the base gameplay down, then you can start hunting for secrets.

There are so many hidden things to find in Spelunky 2 from secret areas and paths to take throughout the game, items to collect, and new explorers to rescue. And, if you wish to discover the secret 7th world after the “final” boss, there is something that needs to be done on nearly every level and secrets that must be revealed and, quite literally, death to be defied. It’s while going after this secret world that the limited item carrying comes into play as the game’s way of balancing itself. At a few points, items will have to be carried between levels, meaning that if you get a powerful weapon, for example the shotgun, on an early level, you will have to eventually give it up. It’s a great tool for the game to balance itself. If you are just going for a main path ending, you don’t have to worry about giving anything up, but if you want to see the secret worlds and bosses, you have to sacrifice things.

Spelunky 2 is a game of checks and balances, of risk versus reward. Everything good you can get in the game comes with some drawbacks. The shotgun has knockback that can send you flying back off ledges or into spikes. Paste can help you stick bombs to enemies, but will also attach them to walls and ceilings if not aimed properly. The jetpack offers the best mobility in the game, but can easily explode, causing massive damage. With most other roguelikes, it can be very easy to become completely overpowered and become nearly impossible to be killed once you know what you are doing. Spelunky 2 is not like this at all. With the constant threat of instant death by traps and very good items having massive drawbacks, you have a game where full attention is required throughout an entire run. Good play is necessary and mistakes are harshly punished.

This is why I love the game so much. It manages to stay engaging through every different run, perfectly balanced so it is impossible to easily win a run, and it is simply fun. Puzzling out how to get a trapped pet or ghost pot to the end of level without killing or breaking them is fun. Discovering all the secrets and items is fun. The art style itself is just cute, charming, and fun. Many people considered the first Spelunky a perfect game; so much so that there were those wondering how they could improve it for a sequel when it was announced. I cannot speak for the first game due to lack of experience, as stated before, but Spelunky 2 is about as perfectly designed as a game can get in my opinion.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Critical Miss #21

Enter the Master Sword

This Critical Miss is a bit of cheat because I have played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before. As a kid, I had the Gameboy Advance rerelease of the game. From what I can tell, it’s the exact same game as the 1992 Super Nintendo game, but with a little screen crunch and more washed out colors. I wanted to play it again for this post though because I never actually finished it. When I was younger, I never made it past the Ice Temple and the few times I’ve picked it up since, I never made it much further than the beginning of the Dark World. 

The story is the standard Zelda story: evil being is being evil, find three of something to get the Master Sword to defeat them, things go wrong shortly after gaining the blade, explore more dungeons to collect more items to stop the evil once and for all. It is the same story as any other Zelda game but this time the evil being is the wizard Agahnim, who is actually Ganon in disguise, and he is collecting maidens to open up the Golden Land. Once Link has the Master Sword and defeats Agahnim, he is transported to the Dark World, the Golden Land that has been twisted and corrupted by the wizard’s evil desires.

The story is serviceable but I never found it engaging. The backstory of the Triforce and the Golden Land is mostly told by the maidens after saving them from dungeons. The story is simply told in long text dumps that are not particularly well written or interesting. The reason for the simple style of storytelling is most likely due to the limitations of the SNES, but games like Chrono Trigger managed to tell epic and engaging stories with the same limitations. 

Gameplay has always fared better on the SNES and A Link to the Past’s gameplay is still very fun. The core loop is exploration, fighting enemies along the way, and looking for gear, upgrades, and items gives a great sense of adventure. The overworld is fairly large for a SNES game and it is colorful, has varied locations from deserts to lakes to tall mountains, and is absolutely full of secrets to find. Being transported to the Dark World is a cool moment the first time it happens, but visually, it is not as appealing to look at as the Light World. It’s just kind of drab, filled with mostly browns and yellow, sick looking greens and muted purples. Thematically it is fitting, but after the bright and stunning colors of the main overworld, the muted color pallet of the Dark World gets boring after a while.

The exploration aspect of A Link to the Past is the strongest part of the game for me. Secrets like heart pieces, piles of rupees, and items are scattered everywhere across the map. It’s the type of game where you can spend hours exploring the world in between the critical path dungeons, looking under every rock and bush for hidden passages or items. Some of the most satisfying secrets to find are those that require moving between the Light and Dark Worlds because some areas, like ledges, cannot be accessed unless shifting between the two different maps. Link can teleport back into Hyrule by using the magic mirror and doing so will leave a cloud of magic dust that takes you back to the Dark World. Besides the dust created by the magic mirror, Link can only travel from the Hyrule to the Dark World by finding magic portals. It’s an interesting limitation that makes entering the Dark World a puzzle in and of itself and is used consistently to unlock areas of the map and to discover the entrances to dungeons.

Dungeons are a staple of every Zelda game and utilize a blend exploration, combat, and puzzle solving to complete. They need to be explored thoroughly to find the big key, the item needed to finish, and the lair of the boss at the end. Some dungeons require items found in the overworld to navigate, like the Swamp Palace needing the Zora flippers to swim through the changing water levels. This is great because it requires players to explore the overworld thoroughly. Typically, you will have what you need already to explore a dungeon, but if not, it’s just a matter of finding the item needed in the world. 

The items found in dungeons are often needed to defeat the boss at the end, but not always. For example, you need the magic hammer in the Dark Palace to break the Helmasaur King’s armor before you can damage him. Requiring the items found in the dungeons to defeat the boss is a design choice Nintendo would make more in later Zelda games, but in A Link to the Past most items seem to be designed with exploration and puzzle solving in mind rather than combat. This is not a bad thing, but it does make some of the items feel less impactful, like the cape, if they are only really required to gather a heart piece. This does lead to some odd choices when items in dungeons are optional. I found it very strange that Link finds the blue mail, which reduces damage taken, in the Ice Palace, only to find the red mail, which reduces more damage, three dungeons later in Ganon’s Tower. 

This is, of course, if you are doing the dungeons in the order the game suggests. They can be completed out of order, but many require items from previous dungeons to compete or even unlock the area of the map they are in. I went through the dungeons in the order found on the game map because doing them out of order seemed  frustrating to me as someone who does not know the game like the back of my hand.

The dungeons are fun for the most part because they rely so heavily on the best aspects of A Link to the Past: exploration and collecting items. That being said, however, they can get tedious to do. I think 3D gaming worked wonders on the Zelda series’ puzzle design. It added a much needed sense of spatial reasoning to explore dungeons. In the 2D games, so many of the puzzles rely on killing all the enemies in the room, pushing a certain block, or finding a button underneath a pot in order to unlock the door or make a key appear. While every dungeon has its own gimmick, the Swamp Palace’s changing water levels or Turtle Rock’s floating platform to ride, they tend to lack individual personalities to me. They have slightly different atmospheres and looks to them, but the dungeons still often look and feel too similar for my taste. 

But the game is still great, solidly designed and with a sense of adventure unparalleled by most other SNES games. It was so realized that it became the foundation for pretty much every Zelda to come after it. It introduced the collection to Master Sword to more collection outline common in other games in the series. It was the induction to staple items like the bottles, hookshot, heart pieces, and even the Master Sword itself, as well as abilities like the spin attack. It is the game that made the Zelda series what we think of today while managing to maintain its own identity since it is still a 2D game where most games that came after are 3D.

I think it’s time to admit to myself that I’m just not a huge Zelda fan. I am still a fan, but a casual one as opposed to a die-hard one. I’ve played many games in the series and, while I have enjoyed all of them, I’ve never really fallen in love with any. There’s never anything deal breaking in them that makes me shut them off, but there’s not much I can think back on that I absolutely adored. That is except the wall merging mechanic in A Link Between Worlds. I found that to be a truly genius additional that opened up puzzle and level design to a possibility not seen before in the series. And that game owes everything to A Link to the Past. It is basically its child with how much DNA it shares with A Link to the Past by being a reimagining of the game. If I had to choose a favorite Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds would be high up, probably even the top spot. So even if I did not find A Link to the Past the most engaging game to play nowadays, I will also thank it for helping create one of my favorite games in the series.

Bioshock & Plasmids

Bioshock could have easily been just another 1st person shooter, one destined to fade out of memory soon after its release. But nearly 15 years after appearing on store shelves, it’s still a highly regarded and discussed game to this day. It sets itself apart from other shooters of its time, and still those of today, in many ways: the setting and atmosphere of the underwater city of Rapture, its commentary on freewill and the politics of Objectivism, its strong writing and memorable twist. However, I think the major thing that made Bioshock stand out are the Plasmids, how they affect gameplay and the story, and most importantly how it ties the two together.

In the context of gameplay, Plasmids are upgrades. They range from offensive abilities like starting fires, freezing enemies, and summoning swarms of bees, to passive buffs like increased defense, attack, and improved hacking skills. They are found throughout Rapture, encouraging exploration, and bought using ADAM, the material taken from the Little Sisters. ADAM is also used to purchase more slots that additional Plasmids can be equipped too. This system gives the game RPG elements without relying on skill trees or upgrade points that would infest similar games in the 2010s. This allows players to create their own playstyle and RPG-like builds that best emphasizes that style.

As with most 1st person shooters, firing weapons is mapped to the right trigger. However, instead of the left trigger being used to look down sights, it is mapped to using Plasmids in Bioshock as that is the hand the character uses them from. This is very intuitive and oddly immersive as you watch the character mimic the same movements you make. It draws you into the game and helps you step into the shoes of the protagonist. Having the left trigger control Plasmids does mean that typical down-sight aiming controls had to be moved and are instead mapped to pressing in the right trigger. While this is clumsy to use, it’s not a big issue since the tight halls and enclosed spaces of Rapture ensure that precise aiming is not really needed. I found myself perfectly capable of fighting off enemies with just the regular aiming icon and found the iron sights to be more difficult to use in a heated fight. While it at first feels like a weird omission, the game is built around not needing iron sights and is worth the exclusion for the fun of easily using Plasmids with the left hand.

In combat, Plasmids have many uses. There are the typical damage causing skills like Incinerate and Insect Swarm, but there are also ones with more indirect uses like Enrage, which makes enemies attack each other, and Security Bullseye, which causes enemies to trigger security cameras and turrets. Some even have secondary effects. Winter Blast freezes enemies making them easier to kill at the cost of loot, Incinerate can melt ice to open doors or reveal items, and Electro Bolt can electrify water to hit multiple enemies at once. It’s a little disappointing that not all Plasmids have these secondary uses, especially with Winter Blast as there are tons of puddles on the ground or streams of water falling from the ceiling. It seems like a missed opportunity to be able to freeze the puddles to trip enemies or the streams to create a shield.

While there are not many drastically different ways to build a character, there are many options and combinations of Plasmids for the players to choose. Some players may see the value of Plasmids I did not. Maybe they want to equip all the modifiers for the wrench and try a more melee focus build. The Plasmids instill a sense of creativity in the player not offered by many other 1st person shooters. And with health and EVE, the material needed to use Plasmids, needing to be kept track of, there is an additional layer of complexity. You can choose to go for an easy freeze kill if you are low on health and medkits, or you may rely solely on your weapons if EVE is precious and Plasmids not available. A have and have-not system that would be all too familiar to the city of Rapture.

Bioshock critiques Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism by showing the inherent greed, selfishness, and unsustainability present in it and the Plasmids not only represent the downfall of Rapture, but a direct cause of it too. Since Plasmids were such an addictive substance, it was highly sought after in the city. The citizens started taking more and more of it until they mutated in the Splicers you fight throughout the game. Through audio logs, you learn that the founder, Andrew Ryan, refused to regulate the creation and use of Plasmids, instead trusting the free market to sort itself out. He even encourages other businesses to offer a better product if they wish to compete with them. 

These revelations add a lot of context to the things the player sees throughout the game. Obviously Rapture is nearly completely dismantled when you arrive, but figuring out how it got that way is up to you to discover. It makes the Splicers sympathetic but past the point of reasoning with, it makes the leaders standing by their zealot beliefs almost cartoonish when they are faced with the tragic outcomes they’ve created. The whole game paints Ryan and the other notably people of Rapture as highly intelligent, creatively ambitious, and extremely driven, but also incapable to accept the consequences of their choices, responsibility for the seeds they have sowed. 

This is the type of storytelling that games thrive in over other forms of media like books or movies. With the interactivity games offer, there is more engagement that comes from the strong context and connection the player can feel when gameplay and story are woven together. Players feel more involved in the story, even in linear games like Bioshock, when the story informs the gameplay, it feels like you are part of the world of the game, it helps with immersion while playing and satisfaction when they succeed.

The Plasmids help with all this. They are simply fun to use, but also help players feel more freedom in their playstyles in a genre that typically doesn’t offer much differences between playthroughs. They are a great example of story informing gameplay, making the entire game feel more cohesive as a whole, not like gameplay or story was the main focus with the other being an afterthought. They are the main reason why Bioshock is still so much fun today while other 1st person shooters of the era have aged poorly or drifted out of memory completely. It’s a great example of how much a little creative, intuitive gameplay design well tied into a story expands the experience of a game

Top 5 Favorite Game Developers

I often struggle with my love of video games. Not because I think they are a waste of time like many others, they are as valuable as any other hobby or form of media. No, I mainly struggle with my thoughts and feelings with the industry surrounding them. The video game industry is an interesting bubble of a nearly unchecked capitalist market. This leads to infuriating stories of Activision Blizzard reporting record sales then laying off over 800 employees while the CEO got a $30 million bonus, companies like EA and Ubisoft cramming microtransactions and paid gambling mechanics in games, and crunch running rampant across many, many studios like Rockstar, Naughty Dog, Bioware, and more. 

Which is why I wanted to take a look at some video game developers that are not only seemingly more “ethical” than most, but my favorites companies in the video game market. My criteria is simple: who’s made the most games I’ve enjoyed, who has the most best philosophies for video game design, and who deserves to be spotlighted the most based on practices. Please keep in mind, I still haven’t played a lot of touchstone  games, so there will be some major exclusions from this list like Rareware and Insomniac, among many others. With that said, here are my five favorite video game developers at the time of writing.

#5 – Capcom

Out of all the companies on this list, Capcom is the most iffy as a company. With a long history going back to the arcades of the 1980’s, Capcom has released some absolute world class titles. Boasting series like Megaman and its spinoff, Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Street Fighter, and, my favorite, Monster Hunter, Capcom is a well established player in the video game market. Be it offering different campaigns, higher and higher difficulties, or mechanically complex games that take player learning to perfect, every series in Capcom’s roster emphasizes replayability in some way. While the company has shown they understand the harm of microtransactions for series like Monster Hunter, that hasn’t stopped them from crowbarring them into the multiplayer side of the Resident Evil 3 remake. Street Fighter 5 has been especially troubling, with many considering the game to be unfinished at its release only to be built up post launch. They went so far as to put in-game advertisements on loading screens, arenas, and character costumes.

#4 – Devolver Digital

This one is a bit of a cheat because Devolver isn’t a developer, they’re a publisher. They don’t make games, but instead publish them to the public. They are worth mentioning in this list, however, because of their dedication to helping indie developers publish their games. As a publisher, Devolver’s track record is stellar. Perhaps best known for releasing the Hotline Miami series and Enter the Gungeon, they have also published many other indie darlings. Ape Out, Katana Zero, and the Reigns series were also released thanks to Devolver. Many games they pick up have a sort of post-punk, ironic feel to them and Devolver themselves as a company seem to share the same attitude. This is obviously shown with their presentations at E3 every year where they mercilessly mock the entire conference while revealing new games.

#3 – Platinum Games

I’ve mentioned my love for Platinum games on this blog before. I’ve recently been playing Wonderful 101 and, while admitting not liking it at first, it is another fast-paced, hectic fun game from the developer. Wonderful 101 and Astral Chain have done a lot to convince me that Platinum is becoming more interested in unconventional combat mechanics in spectacle fighters. Not that they need to either, because Bayonetta 2 is still the best in the genre. Like Capcom, their games encourage replays, specifically done to the high skill ceiling in the combat mechanics of all their games and their ranking systems. Pair that with a great sense of style in all the games and tongue-in-cheek ridiculous stories, and you have games that are constantly over the top and tons of fun.

#2 – FromSoftware

As far as games made by a company, FromSoftware is probably my favorite developer. Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne are in my top 5 favorite games ever, while Dark Souls 3 and  Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are also amazing games. This is because Hidetaka Miyazaki is easily my favorite video game director. Starting with Demon’s Souls (which I haven’t played sadly), he has focused on high difficulty games to give players a sense of accomplishment from overcoming insurmountable odds. This design focus is also present in the narratives of most of his games with some of the best mechanical theming of narrative. All that along with the twisting, fascinating level design that is some of the best in the industry. While most of FromSoft’s games do tend to feel similar, it’s their slight differences that make them so interesting to play and compare. It’s no wonder that companies, including AAA developers like EA, have been trying to make their own “soulslike” games in the years since the release of Dark Souls hit the industry like a 900 volt shock.

#1 – Nintendo

Of course it’s Nintendo. What can be said about this titan in the video game industry? Their first games console, the NES, practically single-handedly saved the Western video game market from the crash of 83. They developed some of the most well known and beloved franchises like Mario (and spinoffs), Zelda, Pikman, Metroid, the list can go on forever. They have some of the best subistaries working for them with Game Freak making Pokemon, Monolith making Xenoblades, and Retro making the Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country Returns series. As a company, they have been dedicated to finding new, innovative ways for people to enjoy video games. Sometimes, that innovation pays off, like with the Wii and the DS, sometimes it does not, seen with Virtual Boy and Wii U. 

I have nothing but respect for the company and the risks they take. That respect was further cemented when, in 2014, as the Wii U severely undersoldt, Nintendo’s higher-ups took huge salary cuts, including then president and CEO, Satora Iwata, taking a full 50% cut to his pay for months. That’s just something you would never see an CEO of an American game company do. But the thing I respect most about Nintendo is that they work to ensure their games are fun. For them, fun comes before anything else and that’s what all video games should strive for: fun first. Like Reggie Fils-Aime said in a Nintendo Spotlight: “If it’s not fun, why bother?”

Devil May Cry & Devil May Cry 3 – Critical Miss #16

Dude Bro Bayonetta 3

When Devil May Cry launched early in the Playstation 2’s life in 2001, it spear-headed a new genre of game often referred to as character action or spectacle fighter games. This genre would be popular throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s with the God of War series, the reboot of Ninja Gaiden, and Bayonetta. Actually, both the original Devil May Cry and Bayonetta were directed by Hideki Kamiya, now with Platinum Games. Devil May Cry gained major critical acclaim when released, with journalists and fans alike praising it’s combat, sense of style and atmosphere, and the character of Dante. I skipped Devil May Cry 2 because is is widely considered by fans to be the worst game in the series. Luckily, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening improves not only on 2, but the original Devil May Cry, and is my preferred game of the two.

A spectacle fighter lives or dies on it’s combat and the fighting mechanics in the Devil May Cry is really solid. Balancing melee and ranged attacks in a battle is fluid and invigorating. The stylish system, a combo rating  from D to S rank in the original and D to SSS rank in 3, rewards players with more red orbs to buy upgrades and items the better they play. But the combat in the original Devil May Cry gets repetitive quickly. One button is used for melee attacks and one for ranged, with combos changing depending on where you pause in a series of button presses. While it’s fun to cut through a group of enemies and keep the stylish gauge high by pelting baddies with bullets between combos, the simple controls of the original ends up relying too much on button mashing.

Devil May Cry 3 introduces different styles of combat that players can choose and swap at golden statues. There are styles like Swordmaster, which offers more moves to perform with melee weapons, Doppelganger, which lets players summon a mirror double of Dante, and my personal favorite, Trickster, which gives you a dash ability. The simple addition of the different styles makes combat feel so much more open for experimentation and personal. Players can find their own preferred playstyle and cater to it or even switch it up if they get bored. The combo meter is also much easier to read in Dante’s Awakening. All they added was a little line under the style gauge to show when it is filling up or draining, but it makes a world of difference. Now players can see what contributes to getting a good rank (constant damage to enemies, using a variety of attacks, etc.) and work with it to get better ranks.

But better combat isn’t the only reason I prefer Dante’s Awakening to the first Devil May Cry. The truth is I found the first game to be very tedious, with combat, with level design, and with enemies. The moment I realized I had enough of Devil May Cry was the third time I had to fight the armored goo boss. That was my experience with the bosses in the first game. There are about four bosses that you fight two to three times each. Dante’s Awakening has about three times the bosses and, besides Vergil and a short boss rush mission near the end of the game, there are no repeats. Nothing saps my excitement for a game quite like a lack of enemy variety. Neither of the games have the best variety in terms of basic mobs (the enemies you fight on the first level will be in the last level to mow down), but Dante’s Awakening gets the edge over the original by having slightly more variety and not repeating bosses.

Of course, one doesn’t stop playing a game because the bosses aren’t great. I don’t stop playing games for one glaring issue unless I haven’t been fully enjoying the rest of it and there are other reasons I found Devil May Cry tedious. The biggest reason is actually the level design. Throughout the first game, you explore a single castle, backtracking constantly through the same rooms and hallways, only interrupted with platforming sections made extremely frustrating with the fixed camera. The atmosphere on display in the game is rich and imposing, but it lacks variety or new, interesting set pieces to keep the player moving forward to see what’s next and ends up feeling as repetitive as the combat. Traveling through the same rooms is still common in Dante’s Awakening, but it’s improved by having a larger tower to explore, more variety in the rooms in regards to layouts and looks, and by changing the rooms up slightly halfway through the game when parts of the tower are destroyed. 

It’s not surprising that Devil May Cry spawned out of a failed prototype of Resident Evil 4 when you look at the Gothic art direction, fixed camera design, and the characters of Leon Kennedy and Dante. They are very similar, both cocksured and dripping with B-movie bravado, but Dante would only surpass Leon in utter cocky dudebro-ness in Devil May Cry 3. The story of the first game is rather plain, someone is trying to open a get to the demon world, go stop them. And, honestly, the story of the third game is no different, but it gains much more enjoyment by cranking the ridiculousness and self awareness to outrageous degrees. While the first games cut scenes are fairly campy, there aren’t any moments that stick out in my head. Dante’s Awakening is full of memorable story moments like Dante riding a motorcycle up the wall of the tower then using said motorcycle to fight off enemies midair and him saving Lady from falling only to be shot in the head. If Devil May Cry had as ridiculous and enjoyable cutscenes as the third games, I would have kept playing just to see what happens next.

That’s the real difference between the two games. While Dante’s Awakening is filled with interesting ideas and story moments, the original Devil May Cry feels like it only had enough ideas for a game half its length so the developers just doubled everything. Neither games are bad, but the third game is infinitely more fun, interesting, and better aged than its predecessor. If you are interested in the series, or action games in general, I highly suggest giving Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening a try. It’s on the right side of the PS2’s lifespan where games were starting to form designs more familiar with games today. Unfortunately, the original Devil May Cry is on the more archaic side of history.

Into the Breach & Enemy Intentions

Tactic games have been around for about as long as video games have existed. They are a great way to visualize battles between two groups of characters while making it easy for the player to understand. They are also a genre of game that I always want to play more of, but am hesitant to because I am so awful at them. Even as a child playing chess, the concept of trying to predict an opponent’s next move was completely foreign to me. It’s no wonder then that my favorite tactics game is Subset Game’s Into the Breach, who’s major mechanic is showing the player the enemies’ intents during battle. At first, this feature seems to be just a unique selling point for the game, but is actually the most ingenious aspect of the game and the most important crux the game revolves around.

Into the Breach is a teeny tiny tactics game where battles take place on an 8×8 isometric grid littered with buildings, enemies, differing landscapes, and your mechs. Everything is laid out in easy to read squares and the bright pixel art, along with the bold outlines, gives the game an almost cute diorama look. Battles only last for five turns, after which all surviving enemies, giant insects called Veks, retreat back into the Earth where they spawned. This means that unlike Fire Emblem or Advance War style games, victory isn’t based on defeating the enemies. Grid defense is the life blood of a campaign. If it drops to zero, it’s game over. You can have up to eight grid defense points and will lose one each time a building is destroyed. This makes protecting buildings and the citizens inside them the number one priority to consider in a battle.

While the game is turned base, it changes things by having the enemies take two turns and the player acting in between them. During their first turn, the giant insects will swarm to position to attack a building or unit, indicating their plans with an attack trail and red box with what will be hit. It is only during their second turn, however, when the enemies will act out their intentions to attack. This means the player’s turn is dedicated to preventing damage, be it by moving units out of harm’s way, blocking attacks to building, moving enemies so their attacks miss, or just killing enemies. This gives the game its unique edge and reinforces the importance of protecting buildings.

Since missions have differing objectives, like blocking enemies from spawning or destroying mountains, to gain resources, it varies what is most important to do on a turn, but the grid defense meter is the only consistent element throughout a campaign. Mechs automatically heal in between missions, but pilots will die if they are in a mech that’s destroyed. This isn’t as big of a deal as it seems at first. If mech doesn’t have a pilot to control it, it simply gains an AI pilot, with the only drawback being that they do not gain experience and level up to acquire passive benefits. This makes a mech’s health and pilot’s life a resource that needs to be considered in battle. Every move has to be judged on a case by case basis, but it’s almost always best to take some damage to a mech to save a building. 

So without showing the enemies’s intentions, it would be impossible for the players to make the decisions the game is built around. Battles can often feel like a resource management game, taking into account grid defense, mech health, actions available, and the enemy turn order to help decide the best move. Sometimes it’s best to lose a building if there is more grid power available on the island and you can focus on killing some enemies to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed on the next turn. For players like me, who often have difficulty anticipating opponents’ moves in games like XCOM, Fire Emblem, and even chess, Into the Breach is a great tactics game to cut your teeth on. Having a clear indicator from the enemies of where they are attacking and what you have to lose if you don’t act correctly is a great way to give every decision weight. 

Most of the attacks a mech can do in game have a secondary effect of moving an enemy to the next tile. This will disrupt their plan of attack because the Fireflies can’t shoot a building if another enemy is blocking them and a Scorpion can’t hit a unit with its melee attack if they’ve been pushed away. This encourages the player to experiment with attacks and how they can affect both enemies and allies alike. You’ll feel like a genius the first time you move an enemy onto a spawn tile for them to block the next turn and die in the process or use an attack to push an Vek away from a building and an ally just in range to attack. Moving enemies can also be touchy though. Sometimes attacking an enemy moves them into place to strike a building. This can lead to turns where it may be impossible to come out of without losing a mech pilot or a building. I’ve seen people say this is unfair but I disagree.

Into the Breach is a tactics game, not a puzzle game, which means there isn’t always a perfect solution to every turn. While a lot of pain can be taken care of through killing or blocking enemies from spawning, as a battle goes on, you will probably be overwhelmed with more enemies than can be comfortably dealt with. This is where reading the Vek’s intents is most important, to see which attacks are nonconcerns once you move a unit, which attacks can be cancelled by moving or killing enemies, and which ones can be blocked by a mech. Some turns, however, cannot be dealt with without losing a building or pilot’s life, turning them into plans to mitigate the most amount of damage. This gives the player’s choices meaning in the game because a planned loss of grid defense or pilot can be accounted for, while unexpected loss is much more difficult to come back from. 

I have an incredible amount of respect for Into the Breach. It’s not a game I play too often, but it’s one of those games that, when I do pick it up, I get sucked in for hours and it’s all I want to play for a week. The game’s small battles and relative short campaign lengths give it the perfect “just one more round” quality.  It’s an extremely clever and smartly designed game and stands out in a sea of tactics games by the simple addition of displaying enemy intentions. Everything in the game revolves around the mechanic and helps the player feel like the hero that has to weigh their own wellbeing for the good of the world.

Super Metroid – Critical Miss #15

Lost in Space

Getting lost in a video game is quite the balancing act for designers of adventure games. If a game is too linear, it can feel stifling and corridor-like, but if a game is too open, it can feel directionless and obtuse. Some game genres thrive on letting the players get lost and figure things out for themselves, mostly notably sandbox games and Metroidvanias. The term Metroidvania came to be after the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which had a world design and map strikingly similar to the Metroid series, especially the third game, Super Metroid, released in 1994. I enjoy the Metroidvania genre but had never actually played a Metroid game before. So to cut my teeth on the series, I decided to play the SNES classic.

A Metroidvania survives on the strength of its exploration and Super Metroid’s world seems deceptively small at first. When you find a map terminal, it only reveals a small portion of the surrounding area. It’s only after exploring the rooms, poking and bombing around for secret holes in the walls, that you see the true expanse of the map. The levels expand out like a spider web with hallways, vertical shafts, and rooms connecting and weaving together. The world is sectioned off into distinct biomes and interconnect throughout the game. With power-ups and missile increases hiding everywhere, you are incentivized to search every nook and cranny of the map.

Many of the power ups you’ll find often aid with the exploration. The high jump boots and space jump let you reach higher ground then before, the grapple beam lets you grab onto and swing from certain blocks scattered around the planet, and the ice beam lets you freeze enemies, turning them into platforms. Missiles and bombs work as a means to open up certain colored doors for progression. I’ve always preferred how Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Hollow Knight upgrades were changes in movement abilities like double jumps, wall jumps, and dashes. These allow the game world to feel more real, like a place that might actually exist, as opposed to something constructed solely to block passage until the right upgrade is found. Obviously, the upgrades don’t change the fact that the game is constructed and might block the player in order to guide them, but later games like Hollow Knight hide that fact much better than Super Metroid with its more organic exploration.

With constant exploration, you should be finding power ups at a very consistent rate and it does work to give the player a sense of growth throughout the game. Watching your health or max missiles increase helps the player feel better suited for the increasing challenge of the game; it empowers them. The game is great about helping the player figure out what a new power up does immediately after acquiring it. If it’s a movement ability like the grapple beam, it will be found in a room where you must use it to get out, and this lets the player think back on all the other areas it can be used. If it’s a weapon like the plasma beam, there are typically enemies you must get past that are much easier to kill with the new weapon.

It is on these small scales, the rooms with power-up designed to teach the player their uses, where the level design of Super Metroid is genius. With the minor annoyance of progress being locked behind boring colored doors, the world crafted in the beginning of the game is spectacular. The game does a lot to lead the player. Signposting boss entrances with monster heads and important areas with interesting landmarks helps the player remember parts of the map to return to later. The game actually feels rather linear in the beginning, where there is usually only one way to go without hitting a dead end. But Metroidvania games need to be open and the game soon flings wide open when you have acquired the high jump boots, ice beam, and super bombs. Sadly, as the game world becomes more open and explorable, I feel it also starts to collapse under its own weight. There is one moment in the game I can point to when this feeling cemented itself in my head and that’s when you acquire the X-ray scope.

With the X-ray scope, you have the power to shine a light on any surface of the game and reveal its secrets. Destructible blocks, hidden passages, missile upgrades and health tanks, you can now find them easily. This leads to the main area explored after finding the scope, Maridia, being plagued by seemingly dead ends and secret passages that either need to be found with X-ray scope or by blasting every tile with every weapon you have. The later part of the game feels like the developers either came up with the idea for the X-ray scope and felt justified hiding all progression from the player because they have the tool to find it, or that they built the levels with too many hidden passages and added the scope so it wouldn’t feel unfair. Either way, it doesn’t work because the X-ray scope is just too slow to use constantly. The game pauses around you while you use it and you can move with it activated, but the beam is slow and finnicking to direct. I’m sure it was the best they could do with the SNES hardware and controller, but it kills the pace. It’s a shame too because Super Metroid is a very fast paced game when you get into it.

And I did get into the game. Even while all my frustrations were mounting with the game as it went on, I wanted to keep playing. I found it very hard to put down because it was so satisfying and immersive. Part of it was due to my love of 16-bit games, but mostly I kept playing because Super Metroid has some of the best atmosphere on the SNES.

It’s hard to find a 16 bit game that is truly immersive, that makes you feel like you are in the world displayed on the screen, but Super Metroid accomplishes it with atmosphere, through incredible sound design and pixel art. One of the first things I noticed when turning on the game, is the sound effects all sounding muffled. Samus’s footsteps, her blaster, the cries of enemies, they are all slightly dampened, like they are being heard through a helmet. Explosions are crunchy, but soft, as if you were hearing them with Samus’s ears through the metal of her power suit. The world you explore is always interesting to look at. While Super Metroid doesn’t have the best pixel art I’ve seen on the system, the different biomes are lovely rendered with fitting color palettes and interesting backgrounds.The boss sprites are large and intimidating. The whole thing helps the player feel completely isolated in the game.

The atmosphere of Super Metroid is one of loneliness and bleakness. You truly feel that you are in Samus’s shoe, fighting for her life. You feel her anxiety when exploring an unknown area and her triumph when defeating a tough boss. I think that is why Samus, despite being a silent character in a relatively small number of games, is so beloved. People praise her for her bravery and for being “badass,” but she has no real character. Mario has more character than she does. I think that players projected onto her. It’s not that she is brave, you are. She’s not the badass, you are. But this gets confused in the mind because of the level of immersion the game offers the player, where they are not playing as Samus, they are her. The fact that Super Metroid, a 25 year old game from the SNES, can offer that kind of emotional experience is incredible. 

Fallout – Critical Miss #14

Set the World on Fire

The Fallout series is a household name in the video game industry and one I have always been interested in, partly due to my fear of nuclear weaponry. However, the only game in the series I ever played to completion was Fallout 4. It was the first game I bought for my PS4 so, while I don’t think highly of it today, it has a special place in my heart. I put about 5-10 hours into New Vegas, but that ran so poorly on my low-end laptop that it triggered my vertigo and made me extremely nauseous. While Fallout is one of the most popular series in gaming, there is a divide in its fanbase of those who like the classic games in the CRPG genre or the more modern FPS games. I’ve never played any CRPGs for an extended amount of time so I decided to play through the first Fallout, released in 1997. My thinking was I could experience the game that started the Fallout series and try out the CRPG genre at the same time. The problem is that I’m not sure CRPGs are for me.

The first hurdle I had to jump over were the controls. Clicking the mouse to where you want your character to go was no issue, but right clicking to toggle actions between movement and interacting tripped me up. Since you have to wait for your character to run to where you guided them, the movement feels extremely slow, and when you add additional directions to open any doors before entering a room, it never stops feeling clunky. A slower pace for a game isn’t an inherently bad thing, but having to constantly change between interact and movement did irritate me at times. Inventory management is also extremely tedious. With no way to quickly scroll through your items, you are forced to click down the page and it is way too slow with how often you will need to look through your gear.

Combat doesn’t fare much better, sadly. This is partly due to the finickiness of the controls and partly due lack of tactical input offered to the player. While the combat is a tactical turn-based system, it is based on limited Action Points that don’t leave much option besides attacking or moving. You also cannot directly control any party members, who act automatically. The game also lacks any sort of interesting character abilities like XCOM or Divinity Original Sin offer, so most fights wind up being characters standing in a group shooting or punching each other. There is a great variety of enemies and weapons to use in combat, but I never wanted to deal with fighting any more than I had to so I never got to experience the variety on a meaningful level. My dislike for combat may be because I built my character as a charisma/intelligence build so they weren’t made for tough fights, but I’ve never had a problem handling combat with similar builds in other RPGs, so I can’t help feeling unengaged by Fallout’s combat system.

There are two major aspects of the game I truly loved, though, and one of them was the character creator. There are seven stats you can freely change at the start of the game: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck. These stats will then determine where points are allocated to your skills (ex. strength will affect melee and unarmed skills, agility affects sneak) and with each level up you can add more points to desired skills. This allows you to focus your character and build them the way you choose. With my playthrough, I focused in high intelligence and charisma so I could talk my way through as many quests as possible, but it’s easy to build other character builds like a big, tough brawler or a sneaky thief. Every other level gained also lets you choose a perk that grants you a passive skill or buff. This style of leveling up is one of my favorites in all of video games. Fallout allows you such fine-tune control of your character that you feel you can truly build any type of character you want.

But the thing I loved most in Fallout is the world. It is a post-apocalypse game where most of humanity was wiped in a total nuclear war and the remaining people are trying to survive, be it through scraping together a living in communities or through violence. You explore the wasteland of a world that never culturally advanced past the American 1950’s and there is something fascinating about seeing all the retrofuturist ruins. Fallout mixes the old, the new, and the dead in a fantastic way and the world building through exploration and character dialogue is expertly done. This was my favorite part of the game: finding a new city and taking the time to explore and talk to everyone. It is very immersive and I found myself getting sucked into the world and hours passed by in real life without notice. It’s such a shame then that the controls and combat in the game prevented me from truly loving the game itself.

These types of games are always hard to review: perfectly good games that I didn’t enjoy very much. I’m objective enough to see through my own experience and look at the game as an unbiased whole, and through that lens Fallout is a great game. It’s no wonder why people in 1997 loved it so much and I have no doubt that it will continue to attract fans in the future. I’m just not one of them. Admittedly, this could be due to my lack of experience with the CRPG genre and that’s what makes Fallout really hard to give a definitive opinion on. Things I didn’t care for in the game might be what fans of the genre love and seek out in games. It’s awesome that video games offer such a wide range of experiences that anyone can find what they like.

I haven’t given up on this style of CRPG. I still really want to check out the Baldur’s Gate series. Maybe with Fallout under my belt, my expectations will be a little more in line with what the game might offer. I haven’t given up on the Fallout series either. I’m still looking into buying a Xbox 360 or PS3 so I can check out Fallout 3 and New Vegas where, hopefully, it won’t make me so sick. Sadly though, my desire to play Fallout 2 has been dampened, even though I hear nothing but amazing things about the game. Who knows though? Maybe someday I will take the time to dive back in the wastelands of the original Fallout series.

Return of the Obra Dinn & Lateral Information

It fascinates how video games convey information to their players. I remember picking up Ocarina of Time 3D for my brand new 3DS in 2014 and having the toughest time with the dungeons. After not really playing video games for 10+ years, my knowledge of how games design puzzles was dusty at best. Like any form of media, video games have certain things they expect the player to know coming in, a sort of jargon almost. Red barrels will explode, if townsfolk keep mentioning a cave to the west then that’s where you should go, solutions to puzzles are most likely located very nearby. Besides mechanics that can be used throughout the game, a lot of information found by a player in a level tends to stay there. But recently, I replayed Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn after finishing his other game, Papers, Please, and how that game tells the player important information through a concept I refer to as lateral information is truly incredible.

Lateral information is similar to lateral communication in an office. The term refers to how workers on the hierarchical level across departments will discuss and work to resolve issues that affect the company as a whole. Lateral information are details or information in a game placed throughout a playthrough to be used in different sections or at different times. It is information gained by the player through thoughtful level design or story. I don’t consider power ups or items to be part of this definition because those are more tied to mechanics than information.

The core gameplay loop of Obra Dinn is based around gathering lateral information. In the game, you play as an insurance agent investigating what happened to the titular ship, which has drifted to harbor with its entire crew and passengers either dead or missing. In your possession is a stop watch that transports you to the exact moment a death has occurred. With this ability to view deaths, you are tasked with two goals: figure out who each person is and how they died. A death memory feels like entering a diorama and it can be overwhelming at times when you first experience the chaos of sounds, still figures, and rooms. There is a lot to take in but it is important to study everything you can in a scene: who is present, items characters may be holding, what jobs they seem to be performing, etc. All this information is important and it is up to the player to notice the details.

Most memories require information discovered during other memories to solve. The game becomes more and more open design-wise as the player discovers new memories, and it is left to them to gather the information and make the deductions needed to solve the fates of the crew. This gives the player plenty of time to investigate memories at their leisure, plenty of time to find the important clues, and plenty of time to think of how everything is tying together. This is lateral information. Using clues in memories to solve other questions in the game, all while treating all information as equally important, is the lateral information that Lucas Pope uses to great effect in Obra Dinn.

As a board concept, lateral information can be used in many different ways. As mentioned before, one use is to incentivize players to investigate everything in a memory. Since there is no way for a player to tell what they’re looking at will prove to be a useful piece of information, they have to comb through every little detail and commit what they can to memory. This does wonders to draw the player into the game world. By focusing on everything, players will naturally learn the structure of the ship and the peoples’ relationships aboard it. Add in the unique, monochromatic art style and you have a game world that is deeply immersive that keeps players grounded in it through constant focus.

Lateral information also helps structure progression through Obra Dinn. As you visit memories and discover the fates of the crew members, you will write down their identities and deaths in a book. Each disappeared person has a portrait for themselves and those portraits will be clear if you have found enough information to determine their identities or cloudy if you have not. This helps guide the player through the game before they have found all the memories because it tells them that either they haven’t found enough information, therefore needing future memories to solve, or they have found enough so they could puzzle out that person’s identity right there. Identities do have levels of difficulty to solve so it is often better to save difficult ones for later, but the picture system tells players that all the necessary information they need for that particular character can be found in previously discovered memories.

The greatest strength from lateral information that Obra Dinn gains is how it leads players to organically revisit and explore past memories once they have all been found. Since the bodies can be found in a nonlinear order, it’s nearly impossible to solve all the fates before the storm comes over the ship, indicating that all the memories have been discovered. This means that the player will have to go through memories they think have important information and reexamine them. In most other games, the solutions to a puzzle would be in the general area of the puzzle or there would be a near linear path to the solution. Obra Dinn is not like this. Since the whole design of the game is based around collecting lateral information from everywhere throughout the game, it’s natural that players would need to re-explore past areas and the game encourages this simply by how it is designed. Since the players have already been exploring the ship at their own pace and learning how to look for and collect important details, they are completely ready when the reigns are let off entirely. Even other puzzle games tend to increase the challenge by changing the mechanics whether it be through adding more rules as the game progresses, adding more variables to levels, or making the movement to complete the puzzles more complicated. Obra Dinn is different to these too because the gameplay and mechanics are the same throughout the entirety of a playthrough. Difficulty is only determined by the details players are expected to find. 

I hope games start to utilize more lateral information in their design. Not just puzzle games, but all types of games. This style of giving the player information helps the world of a game feel more organic and less constructed, it helps players become immersed in the world, and it helps them feel clever after solving a puzzle by recalling information found previously in the game without any indication to do so. Lucas Pope utilized lateral information so well in Return of the Obra Dinn, that I, someone who is usually pretty bad at puzzle games, managed to complete it. Not only that, but it has become one of my favorite games from a design aspect because it just fascinates me how the game feeds the player information.

Metal Gear Solid – Critical Miss #13

Sneaky-Beaky Like

The stealth genre is not one I follow too closely. I’ll pick a stealth game when it looks interesting, I enjoyed Dishonored enough and I thought the stealth mechanics in Sekiro were implemented really well, but I always have a hard time with the inherent slower pace of most stealth games. This explains why I’ve never played a Metal Gear Solid game before. But I recently picked up a PS2 and Metal Gear Solid was the first game I picked up for the system, I wanted to see what it was that has kept people so enthralled with it since 1998, why people love its creator, Hideo Kojima, so much, and if this was the stealth game that would finally help me love the genre.

Booting it up, the game’s visuals aged better than I expected. Sure, everything is noticeably pixelated on a HD television, but the art style and environmental design is really great. Everything is blue and metallic, heightening the sense that it’s a real military base in Alaska. You can see Snake’s breath when he is outside in the cold and the character models themselves are some of the cleanest and best looking I’ve seen on the system. It’s oddly charming watching the characters just nod their heads up and down instead of moving their mouths in cutscenes. 

I wasn’t a big fan off watching minutes long codec conversations, though. A lot of the discussions Snake has with his team members via the codec are just there to dump exposition, and having to watch it all with just two character portraits that hardly animate isn’t very engaging. However, the voice acting is extremely strong. It was one of the most impressive aspects of the game for me. PS1 games weren’t known for great voice acting (just see Resident Evil or Mega Man 8 for that), so to see Metal Gear Solid take it seriously was great. They had to have the best voice acting possible, though, because Hideo Kojima didn’t just want to make a video game, he wanted to tell a story. 

The story of Metal Gear Solid is basically a political/military thriller, but widened to explore themes of a soldier’s place in the world, trust in one’s government, nuclear weapons, and love. Honestly, the whole thing is very silly and over the top with larger than life characters and constant plot twists. It was the main thing that kept me playing in the second half of the game, but I wouldn’t say the writing itself is good. Character dialogue is almost always verbose, repetitive, and bloated. Characters explain unimportant details, like how the key cards open doors you just walk by, and they are always telling Snake how great he is and that he’s such a legendary soldier. I know, by this point, Snake has starred in two games already, but I would rather have his prowess as a soldier be expressed in gameplay, rather than characters saying it constantly.

I was similarly mixed on the gameplay. The controls have that classic PS1 stiffness, pressing against walls while trying to turn a corner is a constant issue I ran into, but once you get used to them, the stealth gameplay is enjoyable. The player is given many tools to sneak around guards: crawling under tables, looking around corners by pressing against a wall, knocking on walls to draw guards to the sound. The best tool they have to use is the Soliton Radar. This is a mini map in the top right of your screen that will show enemy locations and their sight lines. Using the radar well is key to infiltrating the base successfully. There are certain areas where the radar will be jammed and you will start to notice that a lot in the last half of the game. There are hardly any places on disc 2 that use the Soliton Radar. Not only is it disappointing to build up this skill to have it then taken away for most the end of the game, but it also leads to a lot of instances of being shot by something you couldn’t see off screen. 

There are also a couple bad moments of backtracking in the later half of the game, the worst being changing the shape of the PAL card. . You have to climb to the top of Metal Gear Rex to enter the control room, then you have to climb back down to go to the frozen warehouse, then climb back up to control room, then back down and take two long elevator rides to furnace before finally climbing back up Rex. This section is too long for its own good. It is just so boring and tedious. With most the rooms you travel through being devoid of enemies, there’s not much to keep the player engaged. It feels like padding at its most basic definition.

For me, the worst aspect of Metal Gear Solid are the bosses. The stiff controls make Ocelot and Gray Fox’s fight way too clunky, and the slow first person aiming makes the fights with Sniper Wolf and Rex terribly sluggish. Every boss has such a small window of opportunity to hit them that the fights involve a lot of waiting around. They never felt like they were testing my patience as a player, though, they just felt tedious. The worst fight for me was the Hind D which combines not only the slow aiming controls and small windows to do damage, but also has long periods where the helicopter dips below the building, meaning you just have to wait for it to come back to shoot it. The fight with Psycho Mantis is memorable because of all the meta nonsense happening, but my favorite boss in the game was Vulcan Raven in the warehouse. This is mostly because it’s the only boss fight that utilizes the Soliton Radar in a meaningful way as you watch his movements on the screen and place mines or C4 in front of his path.

Metal Gear Solid has the Resident Evil problem to me. While Resident Evil starts off as a scary survival horror game, it slowly becomes more action oriented as the game progresses until you are fighting giant bio weapons with rocket launchers. Metal Gear Solid follows the same pattern but with stealth gameplay instead of survival horror. The beginning is strong as you are just sneaking past guards from room to room, but towards the middle of the game the stealth gameplay gives way to action set pieces and boss fight after boss fight. I started to notice this after the first Sniper Wolf fight as I was lead down a string of frustrating action moments I didn’t feel the game prepared me for. After the fight with Sniper Wolf, you have the torture sequence where you mash the O button to survive. This leads to the communication tower section where you either run from the guards or shoot them down, stealth is not an option. Then the Hind D fight which I already discussed. The only room that requires any stealth skills past this point is the furnace and I found myself missing the sneaking around of the early game.

I can see why the game blew people away in the 90’s. With its great presentation, incredible voice acting, and emphasis on a real story, it stood out on the PS1. It really is the best cinematic experience you can have on that console. I only wish that the gameplay had stayed consistent throughout the entire game. I haven’t given up on the series, however. I still really want to play Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater because I’ve heard it’s really incredible. But first I have to get through Metal Gear Solid 2 and its bonkers story.

Monster Hunter World & Player Knowledge

I’ve come to learn a secret about myself: I tend to enjoy difficult, sometimes even obtuse games. If a game strikes me right, I tend not to have a problem with taking the time to learn it, its mechanics, UI, etc. Learning a game that doesn’t hand out its secrets easily breeds a special kind of familiarity and satisfaction with the player. Dark Souls and The Binding of Issac are two of my favorite games because of their difficult to grasp or even hidden mechanics. Dark Souls is especially polarizing due to its refusal to explain things to its players. But while Dark Souls might be the prince of obtuse game design, Monster Hunter has always been the king.

I had a friend who laughed at me when I said that Monster Hunter World is much more user friendly than previous games, but it’s true. With a more intuitive quest system, hunter notes displaying monsters’ weaknesses and drops, and upgrade trees clearly laid out at the blacksmith, the game is much easier to parse than the 3DS games I’ve played or even the newest game on the Switch. That’s not to say the game has been dumbed down. Simplified, yes, but the game is so deep that there is plenty it still relies on the player to figure out on their own.

Even before a hunt, the player will have to prepare. This includes choosing equipment if you don’t have a preferred set, but also grabbing the correct items like antidotes if you’re hunting a monster that poisons or nulberries in they inflict blight. The player should also stop at the canteen to eat, which grants stat increases. A seasoned hunter will know the best stat to buff for a hunt like getting more defense while fighting a Diablos, who is a heavy physical hitter. You’ll have the best chance of success by preparing before a hunt and that can be difficult for new players who are unfamiliar with useful items or the monster to choose the best gear. Even learning where things are in the hub takes time. The hardest thing for me when starting up Iceborne for the first time was learning where everything is laid out in Seliana as opposed to Astera.

Another thing you can do before a hunt is practice your weapon. Monster Hunter World has a training area where you can try out any of the 14 different weapons and even provides combos to perform on the side of the screen. This is a good thing because while some weapons are easier than others, they all have unique combos and qualities that the game isn’t great about explaining to you. I personally main the Charge Blade because I like its speed and defense in sword and shield mode, its power in axe mode, and just the overall variety the weapon brings. However, this weapon is so complicated, with its charging phials to make axe mode stronger and  finicky controls, that I had to look up a few Youtube videos early in my playthrough to get the most of it. Yes, there are actual 20+ minute long videos on Youtube and essays on forums dedicated on how best to use a weapon. A player can get by without knowing all the little nuances of their preferred weapon, but that’s just another mechanic you need to put the time in to learn before heading out on a hunt.

Once on a hunt, the player’s knowledge of the game is truly tested. They will need to track down the monster with help from the scoutflies and fight the monster to submission. After a while, players learn the areas monsters tend to appear. For example: Rathalos will start in the leafy canopy of the Ancient Forest and Diablos can typically be found in the caves of Wildspire Waste. Players will also learn where useful materials spawn in areas the longer they play. I always like to stay well stocked on Armorskin potions, so every time I find an adamant berry, I make a mental note of its location.

An oversimplified way to describe Monster Hunter World would be to say it’s a boss rush game. The core gameplay loop is fighting giant monsters, be them dragons, dinosaurs, or whatever the hell Pukei-Pukei is. Like Dark Souls, Cuphead, or any other game where bosses are a major component of gameplay, the monsters take a lot of learning to master in fights. There are attack patterns to commit to memory, blights monsters can inflict, tells when they are enraged, exhausted, or close to death. The first time you hunt a monster is the most dangerous. You won’t know any of its attacks or inflictions it might cause. But each time a player hunts a monster, they learn a little more, get a little better, until fighting opposing beasts like Nergigante are second nature. Nothing feels as good as breaking an attack swing to dodge a monster’s attack and watch it miss by millimeters.

There has always been a big focus on breaking the monsters’ parts in the series. Things like wings can be damaged, horns can be broken, and tails cut off. This damage doesn’t just feel satisfying to do, but also affects the rest of the battle. The monster’s abilities and attacks will change depending on what have been damaged on their bodies. A monster with damaged wings will have a harder time flying and spend more time on the ground. Breaking Diablos’s horns is a good way to lessen the damage it can do with charge attacks. Learning what parts of monsters can be broken and how that affects them is important to success in a hunt. Barioth is a mix between a saber-toothed tiger and a dragon. It’s also a real bastard. It took me two or three attempts to finally slay this beast, but I learned to focus on specific parts of its body with each attempt. At last, during my successful hunt, I attacked him in a learned pattern. First, cut off the tail because it neuters many of its attack’s range. Second, take off the spikes off its wings to make sure it stumbles while using certain attacks. Finish it by focusing on attacking its head where it is the weakest.

Monsters in the game will start to seem easier, but it’s not in the same way it feels in a standard RPG where your character can take on tougher foes because they leveled up a few times and their stats increased. You get better at Monster Hunter World as a player. You get better at hunting monsters after studying their attacks, you learn how to prep better or collect the materials you need, you’ve mastered your weapon and know how to get the most out of it. It’s an interesting bit of ludonarrative connection that your hunter character in game gains more and more recognition as the story progresses and as you the player become better at playing the game. It makes the praise the characters layer on you feel less like it’s scripted and more like you fought hard through the trials and earned it.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – Critical Miss #12

Heart & Craft

I’ve been trying to build my Gamecube collection lately, but it’s a tricky endeavor. Nintendo games tend to retain value and add the fact that the Gamecube is one of Nintendo’s lowest consoles, you have a recipe for expensive games. I was grateful when a friend borrowed we their copy of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. It had been on my list for years but the game still goes for at least $50-$70 online, for a game released in 2004. That’s full price nowadays for a game over 15 years olds. But, I must admit, after playing the game, I see why it’s still so expensive and sought-after. 

To get the obvious out of the way, the first thing that needs to be brought up when discussing any Paper Mario game is the art style. Thousand-Year Door, like other Paper Mario games, uses a paper aesthetic for the art. Characters are paper cut outs and turn on their axis when changing directions. Things like hidden stairs and bridges are often revealed by a turning page or unfolding out of a wall. I found myself wishing that the game would go further with the paper aesthetic, but it still adds a lot of charm to the game. 

By far the strongest aspect of the art style is the character designs. A lot of NPCs in the game are classic Mario enemies, but there are a ton of new character designs on display. Be it the wrestling champ Rawk Hawk, the penguin detective Pennington, or the race of Punis, all the character designs are bold and colorful and extremely charming. One character, Ms. Mowz, has become one of my favorite character designs in video games. She a little mouse femme-fatale, burgular who wears a little red mask and silhettos. She’s extremely cute and her design perfectly encapsulates her personality. 

The story of Thousand-Year Door is simple and fun. The overarching plot is Mario searching for the seven crystal stars in hopes it will lead him to Princess Peach, who has been kidnapped by the X-Nauts. In between chapters, Peach Princess interacts with a computer, TEC, who’s fallen in love with her and Browser works to catch up to Mario and claim the crystal stars for himself. The writing throughout is clever and often very funny. My favorite gag in the game is the creature hiding in black chests that curses you, but the curses all turn out to be new abilities for Mario and are very useful.

The main plot of the game usually takes a backseat to whatever adventure Mario is currently on for a crystal star. The game is split into chapters and each one is varied and unique. The first chapter is a standard RPG story as you raid an abandoned castle and fight a dragon. But soon you will be entering a wrestling league, trying to reclaim your body after being turned into a shadow, or solving mysteries on a train like it’s an Agatha Christie novel. Chapters find a good balance of combat, puzzle solving, and witty dialogue, with only a few struggling with that balance like the train section or the pirate’s cove. The game feels like it wasn’t satisfied with telling a standard, epic RPG story, but instead wanted to explore different types of storytelling in an RPG format, and it pulls it off phenomenally.

I had only one minor complaint about the game and that is some sections require too much backtracking. The levels are designed as left to right rooms, like a 2D level in 3D, and when the game asks the player to go back and forth across these areas, like on Keelhaul Key and the trek between Twilight Town and the Creepy Steeple, you soon realize how boring the sections are after you solved all the puzzles during the first go around. The worst sections of this are the train to Poshley Heights, which is literally just a five room hallway, and the search for General White, which has you going through nearly all previously visited areas in search of the old Bob-omb.

A major difference The Thousand-Year Door has from standard RPGs is the leveling system. You don’t gain random stat increases as you level up, you don’t get skill points to spend on perks, you don’t even get new armor for more defense. Instead, each time Mario defeats an enemy, they drop star points, and after collecting 100 star points, Mario levels up. As soon as he levels up, the player has a choice to increase Mario’s health, Flower Points (the game’s magic points), or his Badge Points. Attack increases come by finding new hammers or shoes to improve Mario’s basic attacks or by equipping different badges to Mario.

Throughout the game, you will find many different badges. These badges can be equipped to Mario based on how many Badge Points Mario has available and how many points each badge requires. The badges provide a multitude of benefits ranging from new attacks, stat increases like more health or defense, or passive perks like randomly dodging some attacks or decreasing the cost of special moves. This system is extremely interesting because it encourages creativity from the player and is how the games lets  players make builds or classes in the game. You can build a magic class by equipping all the badges the decrease the FP costs of special attacks, a tank by using the defence badges, a dex type class by using the badges that give you the best chances to avoid damage, or you can just mix and match all the different types of badges to whatever fits your playstyle best. 

Mario isn’t alone on his journey, of course. Throughout the game, Mario will make new finds who will join his party and adventure alongside him. These characters range from familiar Mario enemy types with personalities like Goombella the Goomba and Koops the Koopa Troopa to completely new designs like Vivian, one of the Siren Sisters, and Madame Flurrie the wind spirit. There is even a baby, punk-rock Yoshi that the player gets to name! I named my B. Idol. All the party members are rather one dimensional, but, along with their strong designs, they feel more like cartoon characters and it works well in the game. Mario’s new friends all have unique abilities to help him solve puzzles and find hidden items in the overworld: Madame Flurrie blows away loose pieces of paper, Admiral Bobbery can blow up certain walls, and Koops can spin across gaps in his shell to collect items or hit switches. 

Your party members also aide you in battle and, much like the story, the combat in Thousand-Year Door is simple, but extremely fun.  Mario only has a jump and a hammer attack along with any badge attacks you have equipped, and those attacks can only hit certain enemies. Flying enemies or enemies not in the front row are out of reach of Mario’s hammer but can be easily jumped on. Spikey or flaming enemies will hurt Mario to jump on but are vulnerable to hammer strikes. Your partners attacks work in the same way. Some attacks can only hit ground enemies in the front row, some can jump on any enemy but is dangerous against spiky enemies, and some, like Vivian’s fire, can hit any enemy. 

The combat is pretty easy throughout, but it is one of the most fun battle systems in an RPG. There is a puzzle-like mechanic of knowing which enemies can be struck by which type of attack. While in most RPGs, the player is only required to navigate menus to select an attack and watch it occur, Thousand-Year Door uses an Action Command style meaning the player must do a specific action for an attack to do more damage or be effective at all. These actions could be pressing the A button at the right time, holding the joystick to the left and releasing, the right time, entering a random string of numbers, or rapidly pressing the triggers. This keeps the battles engaging the entire length of the game because they feel like tiny minigames to focus on. Many have stated the the combat in Thousand-Year Door is too easy, and it is very easy with only the final boss being a real challenge, but I found the battle system to be too engaging and simply too much fun for it to bother me.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a truly excellent game and an easy recommendation to anyone. The story and art style is charming and fun for anyone to enjoy it, and the combat is easy enough for an RPG novice to play while still having the Action Commands to engage anyone with more experience in the genre. This game has quickly climbed to the top of my list I wish to be rereleased for the Switch and, based on how fans have been begging Nintendo to return the Paper Mario to the style of Thousand-Year Door and how much critical acclaim this game has rightly gotten, I don’t feel alone in wishing for it.

Resident Evil 2 (2019) & Mr. X

It’s now on record that the Resident Evil 2 remake was one of my favorite games of 2019. Lately, I’ve become enamored with the classic Resident Evil formula and the Resident Evil 2 was a perfect update to it, adding more RE 4 shooting mechanics to the level design of the PS1 style games. But there’s one mechanic in the game that fascinates me more than any other and that’s the character that fans affectionately refer to as “Mr. X” and which I will be referring to as such because it’s shorter to type than the tyrant. 

Mr. X appears in the station at some point during a playthrough and stalks the player in select sections of the game. If he gets line of sight on the player, he will chase after you until you outrun him, which isn’t easy to do since he walks about as fast as the characters run. If he doesn’t know where the player is, he will search throughout the station for them. You can hear his heavy boot steps thumping on the floors and the crash when he throws open doors. Even though you can hear him stomping around, it’s never completely clear when he is, and it’s very startling to open a door only to find him on the other side, ready to deck Leon or Claire in the face. Knowing where you are safe from him is invaluable knowledge. You can take a quick side path around him when he’s spotted down a hall or dip into the S.T.A.R.S. office or a safe room, where he can’t follow you, when being chased down.

He pushes the player to rush. No longer can you slowly inch down a possible dangerous hallway and you have less time to decide whether to shoot a zombie down or wait for the right moment to juke pass them. If he’s not coming up on you at the moment, he could be always be entering the room at any second. The worst areas are the halls with Lickers in them, who are aggroed by the sound of the character running. If Mr. X is running you down through one of those, yous can choose between going slow and being pummelled by Mr X or running and being clawed by a Licker.

Puzzles and inventory management must also be done quickly. Sure, you are safe in the pause menu to arrange your items all you want, but if Mr. X was standing right in front of you with fist raised when you paused, he’ll still be waiting and ready when you unpause. Luckily, he doesn’t show up in a lot of the inventory management puzzles, like the chess piece puzzle, but during the puzzles where he is bearing down on you, he will make you feel every second lost as you stand in place, pausing and unpausing.

Hearing Mr. X thundering through the rooms helps accomplish two things. The first is letting the player know where he is in the station. While it is difficult to pin down where exactly Mr. X is at any point, the sounds he makes gives the player a relative idea of his location. This helps them know when they are in relative safety. If you hear him across the station, you’ll probably safe to go slow for a while, but if the footsteps are nearby, it’s best to be on guard. Being able to always hear Mr X. also works as a constant reminder that he is out there, he is hunting for you. This keeps the tension high while playing in areas of the police station where the players know they’re safe.

This constant tension builds until Mr. X suddenly appears. Whether he bursts through a door you were heading to or you spot him at the other end of a hallway, it is a very distressing occurrence. He usually appears standing between the player and where they were trying to go when they run into him, forcing them to figure out on the fly another path through the station to their destination.

It can’t be understated what an imposing presence Mr. X has in the game, as he hulks toward you, eyes angry and shoulders squared. But I think what makes him the scariest is that he in not a fully known entity. After multiple playthroughs of the Resident Evil 2 remake, I still don’t know what determines Mr. X’s behavior. I never figured out for sure if he actually has to look and find the player when he is off screen, or if he’s always making a beeline to their location. I believe it is the former because there was a time I was standing above the ladder in the library and I watched Mr. X enter through the main hall, stopped and looked around, and exit out through a side door. This moment, character standing in a room with this monster and me holding my breath in real life, stands out to me because it was totally unscripted to my knowledge and actually scared me as I waited to see what Mr. X would do. 

There was another moment, while playing through Claire’s A scenario on hardcore mode, that stands out to me. After progressing to the point where Mr. X is introduced, I did not see him at all until leaving the station for the orphanage. I didn’t even hear him that entire time. I started to wonder if the range you can hear Mr. X in hardcore mode is reduced or if my game was bugged somehow. Was I just getting lucky not to see him? I was filled with uncertainty during that entire section of the playthrough because I wasn’t sure if the game was taking advantage of my incomplete knowledge. This playthrough became more stressful than any other because, as it turns out, not hearing Mr. X and not knowing where he’s located is scarier. 

While Mr. X stalking the player throughout the police station is designed to create fear in the player, it also helps reinforce the knowledge of the game they’ve learned and give the players a sense of growth. When he pops into a hall unexpectedly, Mr. X works as a roadblock. The player then must figure out a way around him, a side path to get them where they were heading, clear as possible of additional threats. After hours of playing the game and exploring the halls of the station, they can easily do this in a single moment. When players first enter the police station, it is confined and narrowed by locked doors and puzzles. The player will slowly open up the station as they progress through the game into a complex web of halls and rooms. The developers were smart to introduce Mr. X into a playthrough when the station is mostly open. By that time, the players will be well familiar with its layout and all the quickest, safest paths throughout. If Mr. X appeared earlier in the game, before the players had a chance to get a mental layout of the station, it would feel unfair.

The real strength of putting Mr. X in the game is that he gives the players moments of satisfaction as they backpedal away from him and use their knowledge gained throughout a playthrough to map out a new route through the police station. The true genius is his dual purpose design that creates a constant sense of fear but also a sense of knowledge in the player and how easy his design accomplishes both these purposes. 

Top 5 Best Games of 2019

2019 was a weird year for video games for me. Most games I played this year felt strangely similar to other games I’ve played in the past. Remakes, sequels, spiritual successors were abundant. However, I did play a lot of great games in 2019. So much so that I didn’t have room for all of them. 

So honorable mentions go to Slay the Spire, Streets of Rogue, and The Outer Worlds, all games I sank too much time in to. There is also one game I want to mention for my biggest miss of the year and that’s Disco Elysium. I feel Disco Elysium would have a good chance to be my game of the year, but I don’t have the means to play it until its PS4 release slated for 2020. 

With all that out of the way, here are my top five games of 2019.

#5) Pokemon Sword

My number five spot was tricky to decide on. This is a very biased pick because of my love for the Pokemon series, but Pokemon Sword is one of the few games I’ve beaten this year that I still want to play. It’s a standard Pokemon game, but the new Pokemon introduced are some of the strongest in while, Raid Battle are surprisingly addictive, and I’ve lost too many hours to count in the wild area while trying to complete my Dex. I love this game so much, I already want to start another playthrough with a whole different team.

#4) Astral Chain

This year, I played two games that involve themselves with the astral plane: Control and Astral Chain. Out of those two, Astral Chain is a clear favorite for me. Developed by Platinum Games, it has all their hallmarks I love: varied and satisfying combat, perfect dodge mechanics, a variety of enemies, and an over-the-top, ridiculous story. The best part of the game are the Legions, though, and the many ways they can be utilized in and outside of fighting. 

#3) Resident Evil 2 (Remake)

I never played the original Resident Evil 2, so I had no nostalgia for the game when the remake was announced. But I picked it up based on my love for RE 4 and after playing through the RE 1 remake, and this new remake plays like the best aspects of those two games combined. The shooting is satisfying while the over-the-shoulder camera provide a claustrophobic feeling in the tight halls of the police station. The station, where most of the game takes place, is expertly crafted and the survival horror balance is pitch perfect, ensuring the player is always low on supplies but can still scrape by if they play smart.

#2) Untitled Goose Game

2019 was a landmark year for me because Untitled Goose Game released. It was my most hyped game since I saw it a few years back and it was everything I wanted. It’s a funny game with an interesting take on stealth gameplay and a dedicated honk button. The levels are solidly designed and they even open up upon completion, connecting them all for more open playthroughs after the first. The game is effortlessly charming with a pleasant art style.The only drawback to the game is the short length. It helps the humor not overstay its welcome, but it does feel sadly lacking. But then again, it has a dedicated honk button.

#1) Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Like my review of Majora’s Mask, what impresses me most about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is how it feels similar to the Dark Souls series, yet completely different at the same time. The additional of the hookshot is great, adding a huge amount of verticality to levels and enables more stealth options and quick escapes. The exploration is still present even with the more linear level design and the rewards for searching can be truly gratifying. The game strips out all the different weapons, armor, and classes of From’s earlier Souls games, but it still manages to be as challenging as those other games. With a more narrow move set provided to the player, the bosses and enemies were created with laser focus. Honestly,there were times while fighting some bosses where I thought I might not be good enough to beat them. Genochiro, the Guardian Ape, Demon of Hatred, the Corrupted Monk, all beat me now to the point of despair. But no game gave me a better feeling than taking out each and every one of Sekiro’s bosses.

Top 5 Critical Miss Games of 2019

I played a lot of older games this year, games that are considered classics, to see how well they held up for someone with no nostalgia for them. Honestly, this has been my favorite part of writing Atomic Bob-Omb. I wanted to celebrate nearly a year of Critical Miss by ranking my top 5 favorite games I played for the series in 2019

#5) Spryo 2: Ripto’s Rage

I was glad to play Spyro 1 and 2 this year. They were games I always wanted to play as a kid, and I did play a lot of a demo of the first game, but never owned them. While I found the first game to be clunky and frustrating with too precise of jumps with a very stiff arch, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage as a good time. With its wide range of characters and setting, differing mission for orbs, and more relaxed but still challenging at times platfoming, it was my preferred of the first two Spyro games. I’m amazed how much adding a small flutter to Spyro’s jump added to the feel of the platforming. It was a very relaxing game to play, but stayed fun throughout the full adventure.

#4) Majora’s Mask

Majora’s Mask may have become my favorite 3D Zelda game this year. It’s so fascinating how the developers created a game that feels similar but also completely different than other games in the franchise. They cut down on dungeons but made those dungeons trickier and more interesting to explore. They shifted focus of the story from Link’s journey to Termina and its citizens. What truly sets this game apart are the transformation masks that change Link’s moveset and basically give you 4 characters to play as throughout the game. It’s easy to see why Zelda fans hold this game in such high regard nearly 20 years after its release.

#3) Doom

The original Doom is a hell of a fun time. While the sprites and early 3D art style has aged, it has a huge amount of charm today. The game excels at fast-paced, frantic combat and exploration. The core gameplay loop is running at breakneck speeds through the level, killing the hordes of hell, searching for the exit and possible secrets for extra weapons and power ups. For me, the best part of the games is its variety. There are many guns with differing uses and lots of enemies, with different behaviors to learn and optimal ways to kill. Add that with excellent level design and you have a landmark title that still holds up today. 

#2) Resident Evil (Remake)

I learned this year that I love the gameplay loop of the early Resident Evil games of being dropped in a puzzle box building and slowly unraveling your way out. It helps that the Spencer mansion is expertly crafted and the player will have the layout nearly memorized after their first playthrough. The prerendered backgrounds look beautiful and the gameplay is extremely solid. The gun play is lacking, but it’s overshadowed by the game’s other mechanics: learning when to fight enemies or run, mapping out what paths are safe to run through or where you might need to burn bodies, managing your inventory to ensure safety and progress through the next puzzle. While the game isn’t very scary, it keeps the tension high enough to keep players on edge throughout the entire playthrough. It truly amazes me how well the Resident Evil Remake has aged (with the modern controls, of course).

#1) Papers, Please

Papers, Please was the most enthralling game I played for Critical Miss this year. The main mechanic of inspecting papers is unlike any I’ve experienced and the story was very emotional while being very minimalist. The best part of the game is how it uses the player’s beliefs for moral choices. Most games have moral choices baked into the code, as in doing certain things are considered good or bad by the game and can change how events play out. Papers, Please relies on the player to decide what is right or wrong. As long as you make enough money, the game will continue whether you help everyone in need or ignore their pleas. The emotional impact of the game is so ingrained with the player trying to do what they think is the right thing, that it would never work as any other form of media. Papers, Please is my favorite game of the year for this series for being utterly unique, impact full emotional, and truly fascinating from beginning to end. 

Papers, Please – Critical Miss #11

Working for the Clampdown

Solo developed video games have always interested me. They are a good place to see what can be accomplished with unhampered vision and passion. Lately I’ve been working my way through Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope. The game is fascinating and it made me interested to check out Pope’s earlier game Papers, Please. Met with critical acclaim when it was released in 2013, it has since kept up a reputation of a unique and heartfelt game. 

In Papers, Please, you play as a border inspector for the totalitarian government of the fictional country of Arstotzka. The country takes obvious inspiration from the former Soviet Union and its heavy regulation and restriction of immigration. The gameplay focuses on checking the papers of all people trying to enter the country through your border checkpoint, accepting the immigrants with proper papers and denying all those with missing and forged papers. Your character gets paid for every person processed and pay is docked for every mistake you make. The money is important because you have a family at home that depends on you. Rent is immediately taken out every night and you must also pay for food, heat, and medicine if a family member is sick. That is, if you have enough money. 

 Everything in Paper, Please revolves around time and space management. Your desk space is extremely limited and you will soon have too many papers to check to have them all on you desk at once without overlapping. The time in a day you have to work is also limited and is even cut short sometimes by terrorist attacks. If you don’t process enough people in a work day, you’ll go home short on cash. The game throws a load of little things that take up a tiny amount of time which adds up throughout the day. This aspect of the Papers, Please is so smart and subtle it is a great candidate for a future post.

The most interesting thing in the game is the people trying to get into Arstotzka. Many are desperate to enter the country, begging and bribing you to let them in if their papers are forged. Some get mad at you for denying them entry and some are even bitter about returning to the country. There are dozens of sad stories that will pass through the checkpoint during a playthrough. Memorable ones for me were the couple were the wife is missing papers, the woman who wants you to deny a man because he plans to sell her into sex work, and the father who request you to steal a man’s passport so he can track him down for killing his young daughter. 

Even through the game’s minimal dialogue, the character’s fear and sorrow are heart wrenching and it is effective at making the player want to help them. This is not easy to do though. You have two free mistakes in accepting improper people a day, so you have a little wiggle room if you play perfectly, but if you are too careless then you pay and the end of the day screen will remind you that it is your family that suffers. The player is constantly torn between wanting to help the people coming through the checkpoint and keeping their family healthy. 

The game offers multiple playstyles without ever changing the core mechanics at all. During my first playthrough,I found the easiest way to win was to keep my head down and work under the government’s boot heel. The only problem with that is I felt horrible turning away anyone in need of help. During my second playthrough, I tried to help as many people as possible since I improved at the game, but quickly ran into issues making enough money to keep my family warm and full. Many games offer different skill sets for differing playstyles or classes, but Papers, Please stays the same game mechanically. You’ll still be checking papers and all, but it feels completely different trying to slyly subvert the government or just look out for you and your own.

There is a strange sense of meta-immersion in the game. It often feels like office work while looking over the number of papers needed to be checked and that feeling is only heighten while you are sitting at your desk playing on a computer. A complaint I’ve often heard against Papers, Please is that is can end up feeling too much like a job. This is a valid complaint because checking the papers can be tedious and fear of making a mistake is stressful like work can be. I’ve also heard people say that they would not consider Papers, Please a game due to it feeling too much like work and I don’t agree with that. The game still has very video games rules and logic. Booth upgrades can help you point out discrepancies and stamp passports faster, there are no repercussions of skipping a day of meals if you eat the next day, and the fact that you can quickly restart a day if you fail a task and lose are all examples of things that could only happen in a video game. Real life work doesn’t offer a redo button nor do books or movies offer the freedom of choice in Papers, Please.

It’s a game that only works as a video game and I was enthralled from beginning to end. The concept was interesting and the characters’ desperation fit perfectly with the setting and themes. Papers, Please is fascinating as a game because it uses a new and unconventional gameplay style to tell a believable story of human pain. Mechanically it is fresh and challenge, keeper players just on the edge of failure, but offering enough support throughout the game to keep them engaged.

Of course, there are some issues with the game. The art style I really like. It is rough and bleak, fitting perfectly with the former Soviet Union setting, but it does tend to make it difficult to spot certain discrepancies. Height was always an issue for me to catch due to the measuring bars behind the characters not being clear enough. The font on the documents is extremely pixelated, making it hard to read sometimes, and fingerprints are very messy, requiring me to just check for differences whenever they came up. Most discrepancies are noticeable while just looking over documents and comparing them, but it’s the moments when they are not clear at a glance that lead to frustration. 

Other issues I have with the game are very minor. Failure can come in an instant at times if you forget to do a certain task in a day. Example of this would be losing because I denied a diplomat from entering Arstotzka because their papers were incorrect. But while failure can come quick, you can also restart just as quick on the day you failed. The pointer can also feel imprecise at times. It’s more annoying than frustrating when you mean to click on a date on a passport but end up highlighting the entire passport, but because of the imprecision, I never ended up using the final booth upgrade to double click to search for discrepancies. 

But all these issues are forgotten when I think of the line of sad stories that passed through my checkpoint and how it made me feel genuinely terrible not to help those struggling people out. Papers, Please is so truly engaging and unique that I implore anyone who hasn’t played to please check it out. It is a highly emotional experience and a strong, sad story that doesn’t skimp on gameplay. It is an argument for video games to be considered art. It is a video game that only works because of the unique qualities that make games different from movies or books, and that is honestly the highest praise I can give any game.

Shovel Knight & Difficulty Curves

Shovel Knight by Yacht Club has become one of my favorite 2D platformers since its release in 2014. The game is near perfection with great music, 8-bit art style, and level design that focuses on shoveling through dirt blocks and pogo jumping off enemies and obstacles. It is funny to think about how I picked the game up on a whim when it released. I hadn’t played many NES platformers at the time so there was nothing about Shovel Knight that I was nostalgic about. It’s also funny to think about how I couldn’t beat the game the first time without an invincibility cheat enabled. Since that first playthrough, I have beaten Shovel Knight a handful of times and I’ve come to realize that Shovel Knight might have the most perfectly crafted difficulty curve of any game I’ve played.

When talking about difficulty, it is important to first acknowledge that the term is completely subjective. People all have different skill set and levels of experience with games that lend certain games or genres to be more or less difficult. To use myself as an example: puzzles games are typically difficult for me, games like Fez and Grim Fandango I had to put down when I couldn’t wrap my head around certain puzzles, RPGs and action games like Person 5 and Bayonetta 2 always seem to click and I manage to play through no problem, and games like Bloodborne, The Binding of Isaac, and Megaman titles are second nature after playing through those games or similar ones, many times. Shovel Knight was extremely challenging for me during my first playthrough, but has become much easier after multiple playthroughs and playing other, similar titles.

Basically what I’m saying is Shovel Knight’s difficulty is hard to discuss. I can’t say what makes the game difficult for everybody overall. However, there are things in the game that make certain levels in the game more difficult than others. This is what creates a difficulty curve in a game.

Difficulty in a video game can be defined as how the game applies pressure on the player and Shovel Knight does this in two main ways. The first is by making jumps trickier. This is usually done by adding spikes or bottomless pits, which work as an instant death, around platforming challenges. This is most noticeable with the spiked ceilings in the Iron Whale, the many lava pits in the Lost City and the long sections of the Flying Machine over bottomless pits. The second way the game pressures the player is by restricting their time to be still and process their surroundings. This is done a lot in the Clockwork Tower with the conveyor belts and auto scrolling sections, but this method also appears in the Explodatorium in the section with the birds drop bombs on you and with the ice physics in the Stranded Ship.

A difficult curve in a video game is a tricky thing to get right. If things get too hard too quickly, players might not be able to keep up, but if it takes too long to increase the challenge, players may get bored. Shovel Knight’s difficulty curves raises at a perfect rate by starting with a tutorial level that teaches the player all the basic mechanics while lacking most hazards besides enemies until the end. Then the game increases the pressure on player a little more with each passing level. But Yacht Club games also did something very smart with the difficulty curve, that being they didn’t have the difficulty just consistently increase throughout the entire game. 

A standard difficulty curve equates to the difficulty of the game increases with every level the player completes, but Shovel Knight has what I call a wave curve for its challenge. The game is split into three main sections and once you’ve completed all the levels in one section, you move to the next. With this structure, the first level of a new section will be slightly easier than the last level of the previous section. The slight dip in challenge before raising it again does wonders to keep the player engaged because it gives them a moment of slight rest after a difficult level, let’s them feel that they are improving at the game, and makes the difficulty of the game feel more dynamic and less predictable.

Shovel Knight takes a lot of queues from the classic Megaman series. This show mostly in the level design, but also appears in its nonlinear structure when choosing level. Each new section of the game presents few levels that can be completed in any order. Most the time, nonlinear games like this have a tough time constructing a satisfying difficulty curve. Either the difficult is very erratic because there is no structure to what levels can be completed or it’s flat, with every level being on the same difficulty level. Besides sectioning off later levels until after the early levels had been beaten, the developers at Yacht Club utilized a very subtle and smart choice to silently guide the player. When each section is revealed, the clouds on the map screen wipes away from left to right. When this happens, the players eyes will be drawn to the top left of the map and they will scan across the same way the clouds move. This mean the first levels they see will be the easiest in the section: Pridemoor Keep, Explodatorium, and Clockwork Tower in their respective sections. These levels are also the shortest distance for the players to travel when entering the next section.

The last thing to discuss on the topic of Shovel Knight’s difficulty would be the bosses. Honestly, I find all the bosses to be on the same level of difficulty. Later ones add more mechanics to the fight, like Plague Knight changing up the terrain or having to dig through dirt in Mole Knight’s fight, but none of them are very challenging. The only time I died to a boss was when they introduced instant kill elements to their fights. Propeller Knight has bottomless pits, Polar Knight  has spikes, and the Enchantress, the penultimate boss, will destroy the floor beneath you and creates pits to fall into. I am not a fan of any boss with an instant death mechanic, but since Shovel Knight waits until the final few bosses to use them, I don’t find it that intrusive. It is the natural time a player would be expect a meaty challenge.

Shovel Knight excels at keeping the player engaged. The incredible soundtrack fuels them through levels with constantly new mechanics and obstacles that are all still tied to the central mechanic of the little blue knight and their shovel. The player keeps playing to see what the next level will introduce, but there is another guiding force working behind the scenes to engage the player. That is the perfectly crafted difficulty curve that knows the exact rate to introduce new challenge, what levels should be completed before players can access others, and even when to let off on the player to give them a breather. All this combines to a difficulty curve that make Shovel Knight one of the most consistently challenging games of its type, but also one of the most fun and rewarding ones to play through.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – Critical Miss #10

What do you when you’re expected to make a follow up to what is considered to be one of the greatest games ever made? This is the question Nintendo had to answer after Ocarina of Time. The developers must have decided to create something that is familiar and different at the same time because they created The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It’s impressive that Majora’s Mask was built largely on Ocarina of Time’s assets, but feels completely different, not only to Ocarina itself, but to all other Zelda games.

The main mechanic that makes Majora’s Mask click (pun intended) is the 3 day cycle and the clockwork schedules of the citizens of Termina, the game’s world. After 3 in-game days, about an hour in real time, the moon crashes into the clock tower, destroying Termina and erasing all the progress you’ve made. You can restart the cycle by playing the Song of Time and that allows you to keep important items and upgrade while losing consumables like rupees, bombs, and arrows.

This mechanic turns a lot of new players away because it adds constant tension to everything you do. A lot of players don’t like being timed and while it is frustrating to have to restart a dungeon or quest because you ran out of time, this mechanic works extremely well. First you can slow the flow of time by playing the Song of Time backwards. Second the game typically has ways to skip parts of dungeons or longer quests if you don’t finish in one cycle. Examples of this would be getting Kafei’s mask to skip talking to his mother and skipping the pirate’s fortress to get to the Great Bay Temple once you learn the tadpoles’ song.

The third reason the 3 day cycle works well is because it makes the world of Termina feel more alive. Unlike other action games, most NPCs in Majora’s Mask don’t just stand in their determined spot. Many walk around, have conversations with other folks, drink at the bar at night, or don’t open their shops until the next morning. Since this game was made for the N64, these schedules are rather limited and rigid, but even a little bit of movement from the characters goes a long way.

The story of Majora’s Mask is not focus on Link or his quest, like it was in Ocarina of Time, but on the world of Termina itself and the character’s who make it up. Termina is just more interesting than Hyrule in Ocarina. It’s more colorful and varied with a surrealist feeling to much of the imagery that helps foster a sense of unease and fascination. The character’s too are more interesting than they are in Ocarina, all live lives of contained sadness and frustration, lost and fear. I wanted to help the characters with their problems, not only for side-questing to acquire upgrades, but also to see where their story goes and what help, if any, I could provide them. This extends to the main antagonist, Skull Kid. I’ve always been interested in villains who are basically children that are granted unimaginable power and don’t know what to do with it. That’s why I find Porky from the Mother games and Tetsuo from Akira so compelling. Skull Kid being corrupted by the power of Majora’s Mask and crashing the moon into Termina fits the bill. He’s more sympathetic than Ganondorf in Ocarina because he’s just a lonely child that wanted friends.

In the beginning of the game, Skull Kid transforms Link into a Deku scrub, leading to him acquiring his first transformation mask, another new mechanic in Majora’s Mask. Link will acquire three masks in the game that transform him into a race from the Zelda series and grant him new abilities. The aforementioned Deku mask lets him shoot bubbles for an early ranged attack, skip short distances across water, and use launch flowers to shoot into the air and hoover across gaps. The Goron mask makes him hit harder and gives him a very fast rolling ability while the Zora mask grants Link the power to swim and attack underwater. These masks cut down on many dungeon specific items that where throughout the end half of Ocarina of Time because many of the uses for those are now rolled into the transformation masks. For example: the hammer needed to press heavy buttons is done with the extra weight of the Goron and the blue tunic and iron boots needed for the Water Temple are gone in favor of actual swimming as the Zora.

Majora’s Mask contains only four main dungeons, one of the lowest amounts for the series, but, much like Breath of the Wild, gaining entrance to the dungeons is a part of the puzzle. Every dungeon has a small section or side quest that has to be completed to learn a song to enter. Be it stealthily infiltrating a Deku castle or saving Zora eggs from pirates, the dungeons are only half of solving each areas infliction. 

That being said, however, the dungeons in Majora’s Mask might be the strongest in any Zelda game I’ve played. Woodfall is the perfect beginning dungeon with a pitch perfect balance of puzzles, rewards, and progression. Snowhead and the Great Bay Temple are both rather vertical in nature and require the use of the Goron and Zora masks respectively. The game culminates in the Stone Tower Temple which might be one of the most interesting and fun Zelda dungeons. The two central mechanic for Stone Tower is the use of the light arrows and flipping the dungeon upside-down to walk on the ceiling. The dungeons aren’t perfect, of course, and do have their moments of frustration. Falling down Snowhead leads to a long climb back up before getting the fire arrows, backtracking through the Great Bay Temple can be tedious do to clunky swimming controls, and having to flip Stone Tower no less than 3 times get all the fairies takes forever.

There are issues with Majora’s Mask and a lot of them stemmed from playing the game in a post-Breath of the Wild world. While that game felt fluid and smooth, Majora’s Mask feels very clunky at times. Watching a short cutscene every time Link transforms or travels through time becomes grating, even if you can quickly skip them. The main action button being contextual can lead to frustrating moments where you keep rolling into a block you mean to grab or grabbing a block you mean to climb. This also the Zelda game that made me realize how boring combat is in the games. I spent the time with the sword master learning the vertical, horizontal, and jumping slashes only to spam attacks when faced against an enemy. Even the final boss, Majora’s Mask and its multiple forms, was so mindless after acquiring the Fierce Deity’s mask that I had wished I had gotten it. 

Majora’s Mask has a lot of little issues, but a lot of little issues can mount up to big problems. Luckily, the game’s issues ever resulted in more than mild frustrated. The game is engaging. With its emphasis on the world and its people, limiting dungeons and items to focus on side quests and transformations, and its overall surreal and creepy tone, Majora’s Mask isn’t just an extremely interesting Legend of Zelda game, but an extremely interesting game in general.   

Astral Chain & the Legions

I got Astral Chain for my birthday from a couple of friends. It was a great gift because it was something I fully intended to get myself, but they came in and saved me $60. Every since playing Bayonetta 2, I’ve loved Platinum Games and the reviews I saw for the game were glowing so I knew it would be quality. When I picked up the game, going in as blind as I could, I found an over the top, outrageous plot, deep and fluid combat mechanics, and a perfect dodge mechanic (which I’m on the record of being a sucker for), all things that Platinum excels at. From the trailers I saw, I was iffy on the monsters all the characters were throwing around, but they become the most interesting and unique thing about the game.

The central mechanic of Astral Chain are the Legions, armored beasts used for combat and puzzle solving. They are attached to the player character by a chain and are invisible to the general public, as are the Chimeras you battle. You’ll start with just one Legion, but since your character is anime special (this is: special in a way that is never explained and is just meant to be accepted) you’ll acquire more Legions as the game goes on. Each of these Legions have special abilities. Some help in combat, like a shield or powerful range attack, and others are utilized for police work, like tracking scents and lifting heavy objects.

A lot of games with different gameplay styles like Astral Chain’s combat and police work would have them separated, with different mechanics for each playstyle, and those systems would only affect each other tangentially. Platinum Games, however, did something very smart by having the Legions work as the main mechanic for both types of gameplay. It makes the gameplay feel connected, each style feel equally important, and the whole game overall feels very consistent, even when switching between combat and puzzle solving.

The thing about Astral Chain that impresses me the most is how fleshed out and fully realized the Legions are in terms of gameplay mechanics. The developers explored every possible use a giant, invisible creature attached by chain would be in combat and investigation work. This creates a fighting system that is deep and encourages experimentation while also having side quests and police cases that feel varied and fresh.

For example, in combat you can go in by yourself and never summon your Legion at all. However, the fights will be brutal and long (not to mention less fun) so you are encouraged to summon your Legions to help fight. When summoned, the Legions can act independently and attack the nearest enemy, or you can command them to focus down a specific foe. You can perform powerful co-op attacks with your legion after performing a 3-hit combo, after performing a perfect dodge, or have your Legion save you from being knocked to the ground after being hit by a nasty attack. The chain comes into play as you can pull yourself to your Legion with a press of a button, enabling you to cover large amounts of ground quickly. You can even wrap the chain around enemies to stun them for a few free attacks or trip the enemies who perform a charge attack. Along with each of the five Legions special abilities, the combat system is vast and very fun.

The combat can feel overwhelming at times, I feel it’s slightly over-designed, but the coolest thing about Astral Chain is that a lot of the same mechanics that are used in combat are also utilized in the exploration and investigation gameplay. Using your chain to pull yourself across gaps is used both on the Ark and in the Astral Plane, many police cases involve you constraining fleeing criminals by wrapping them up with your chain, and the Legions’ special abilities are all used in some way or another. Examples of this would be riding the Beast Legion to traverse areas faster, using the Shield Legion to pass spewing fires or poison gas, or hitting switches by aiming with the Arrow Legion.

Despite all the abilities and mechanics that are used in both combat and the investigation gameplay, there are still mechanics that are only used in the latter. I’ve mentioned before that the Beast Legion can track scents and this becomes a go to ability to track down both criminals and lost civilians alike. The Sword Legion can remove red shifting, a disease that slowly turns humans into Chimera-like monsters, and the Shield Legion can break open barriers to access chests and new areas. The Legions are also invisible to the general public, so moving them to a suspicious person and using them to eavesdrop is a great, organic mechanic that stems from the rules of the Legions and the context of being a police officer.

The best moment of the game, for me, comes in one of the last few chapters. Before heading out for the final raid against the big bad, you can walk the city streets one last time. If you do so, you can take on a quest from a mother to watch her daughter while she is away. To help keep the girl entertained, your friend tells her that the player character is magical and the little girl tells them to prove it. Following your friend’s lead, you summon your Legion near a stack of boxes to blow them apart, take a neon sign and hurl  down a busy street, and use the Arm Legions ability to hover off the ground. This moment is just brilliant. It uses all the small mechanics you’ve learned throughout the game in a completely new way. When I first picked up Astral Chain and started to learn each new Legion ability and mechanic tied to them, I knew I would be fighting giant and impressively design enemies. It’s a Platinum game; that’s what they do. But I would never have expected to be using those same learned skills to convince a child my character was a magical being. 

That is what’s truly special about the game, the central mechanic of the Legions is varied, yet well realized enough that it can still throw new things at you even at the end of the game and have they fit perfectly. Most games either lose steam halfway through after all the mechanics have been introduced or feel disjointed as they continually introduce new gameplay styles all the way up to the end. Astral Chain stays fast ahead of the curve by exploring a strong central mechanic and how it could be used for both of its gameplay styles. It truly is like two beings working as one.

Spyro 1 & 2 (The Reignited Trilogy) – Critical Miss # 9

I’ve  always had a soft spot for 3D platformers. Mario Odyssey is one of my favorite games ever, I played the Crash Bandicoot games with the N’sane Trilogy, and I played a lot of Gex 2 as a child, even though I never made it far in the game. There was one series I games I played a bunch on PS 1 demo discs, but never got around to playing until now. That series was Spyro the Dragon

Like Crash Bandicoot, the original Spyro trilogy recently got remade for modern platforms. The Reignited Trilogy did for Spyro exactly what the N’sane Trilogy did for Crash: update the visuals and controls of the Spyro games while keeping the levels and mechanics exactly the same. I can’t honestly say whether the levels are exactly the same as the original games since I’ve never played them, but by all accounts based on reviews, they are nearly identical. These are the versions of the games I will be using to review the first two Spyro games.

Both games excel at presentation. The music is ambient but catching and was composed by Stewart Copeland, the criminally underrated drummer of The Police. The visuals got a huge overhaul from the original games and they are gorgeous. Everything is colorful, cartoony, and full of expressive detail. While the games use the same art style throughout both of them, Spyro 2 has more variety with locations which brings along with it more variety in landscapes and enemies, making it the more memorable of the two.

A great thing about the games is that they truly go the full distance in exploring what a dragon can do through mechanics. Spyro has two attacks. He can breath fire at enemies, searing them to a crisp, or he can head butt with his horns and send them flying. Head butting metallic pots and enemies in armor is the only way to deal with them, since fire is deflected by the metal, so the player is constantly switching between attack styles instead of just favoring one.

There are flying levels, which are iconic for the series, where Spyro soars through the air unabated, but in standard platforming levels he is only able to jump and glide with his tiny wings. This was a huge missed opportunity. So many platformers feature characters with double jumps despite the laws of physics, but Spyro lacks one. Even with his wings that could realistically give him another jump in the air, Spyro has a very strict jump arch. This lead to a lot of frustrating moments, especially in the first game. Many jumps require Spyro to be at the very top of his arch to land on a platform but holding charge makes him plummet like a stone. There was some Mario muscle memory I had to unlearn to play Spyro because it’s nearly impossible for me not to hold the run button the entire time while playing a platformer. The player does get a small flutter in Spyro 2 and that lets them make up a few inches at the end of a jump for more precision, but it feels clunky since it requires hitting the triangle button (on PS4) away from the jump. It helps but doesn’t make up for a full blown double jump.

At the bone, the Spyro games are 3D collectathons. Throughout the levels, there are hundreds of gems to pick up with your firefly friend, Sparx, who will fly out to grab gems near you. This is a great mechanic is a 3D platformer because it requires the player to be near the gems, but not super precise, which can be challenging in a 3D space. But the more damage Spyro takes, the shorter the distance Sparx will fly to pick up gems. Sparx also works as a visual indicator of Spyro’s health and is a great example of an integrated UI that I completely forgot to mention in my last post. 

While both games use gems as the moment to moment collectables, both Spyro 1 and 2 have different main collectables that lead to different level design. Spyro 1 had crystalized dragon you need to free from their geological prisons. This is done simply by walking into them. This leads the levels in the first game to be more linear, with a path leading to the end of the level and having most the dragons along the critical path. Levels in the first Spyro game feel akin to the levels in the Crash games. They are linear halls to the goal, but unlike Crash, Spyro’s levels have secret paths that branch out and across the main path.

Spyro 2 has a mission system for the main collectables. To bet a level, you just have to get to the end where a member of the local population will get you a talisman. Once you have all the talismans, you can beat the game. But If you want 100% in Spyro 2, you need to get all the orbs and that is where the changes in the level design spring from. There are two types of orbs to collect, orbs hidden in the levels behind platforming challenges and orbs you have to complete a mission to collect. These missions can vary from collecting a number of items for a character, killing all the enemies in an area, or scoring a set number of goals in hockey within a time limit. This leads the levels to be more open, with many more paths to explore and secrets to find

While both games are very easy to complete, there’s difficulty to be found in each and the difficulty curve is another difference between the games. Each level in Spyro 1 seemed to have one jump or obstacle that was extremely frustrating. Whether is be a jump from across level that needs to be lined up perfectly and drops the player into a bottomless pit to take a life if missed or using the boost paths to run extremely long distances with messing up to make one jump to a new area, there was always something in the first games levels that seem to take much longer than they should. And they come as soon as the first levels.

Spyro 2 has its fair share of difficult missions, but the truly frustrating mission come near the end of the game when the difficulty would be expected to ramp up, and they are more fairly designed. The difficult missions in the game are built around how well the player knows the mechanics of the game and level layouts they take place in. This means to beat them, you don’t don’t have to find a perfect angle to jump, you just need to practice the challenges a few times. I enjoyed both games a good amount, but with its mission based collectathon, challenges designed around the mechanics of the game, and more variety in locations and enemies, Spyro 2 was my preferred game of the two.

Untitled Goose Game & UI

When I first heard  of Untitled Goose Game a few years ago I wanted to play it immediately. I didn’t know anything about the game besides the player takes control of an annoying goose and runs amok in a rural country village. It all sounded so fun and silly and unique that, in the following years, it became my most anticipated game, my most “hype” game. Well the game came out a couple weeks ago and, after playing through it immediately upon release, I can say it is exactly what I wanted.

The main loop of the game is very easy to explain. In fact, it’s so easy that I’ve already explained it. As the titular goose, the player goes around a village and irritates every human being they come across. I wouldn’t say they wreak havoc on the village, more so they wreak nuisances. They make a boy trip in a puddle, take away a man’s stool right as he’s about to sit down, and, in my personal favorite section, force one neighbor to throw the others belongings back over the fence when the goose drags them over. 

It’s all very cute and quaint, but there’s a level of polish to the game that shows how well designed the game is. First: the art style is perfect. Everything is simple and low textured, with deep colors and thin outline that makes it look right out of a children’s book. Second: the sound design is great. I was thrilled every time I picked up a new item and learned it affected my honk, like a glass bottle muffling it or making a harmonica sound when holding one in my beak.Third: the characters are expressive. The humans in Untitled Goose Game, while being simple by lacking fingers and even faces, show a range of emotions from fear to anger to confusion. This is done by all of them using overthetop gestures, but that just feeds into the slapstick tone the game. This also is an example of my favorite thing about the game, it’s integrated UI.

Most user interfaces in video games tend to appear above the game, in a layer between player and game. They appear as button prompts to open doors and climbable ledges, enemies’ health or level appearing above their heads, or informational text floating above a weapon you might choose to pick up. They exist only for the player, not the character in the game, and can add slight fractures to the immersion the game is trying to build. Some games, however, choose to have the UI existing in the world of the game. Notable examples of these are the map and compass in Metro 2033 that the player has to pull out to  check objective locations and in Dead Space where the player’s health is shown through a glowing bar on the back of their suit. These are what I think of as integrated UI because they integrated, explained, and exist in the world of the game.

The UI in Untitled Goose Game is integrated into the world more thematically than physically, but it works extremely well. I mentioned before that the art style of the game resembles a children’s book. Well the UI uses that style to feel a part of the world. Honks appear as lines from the goose’s mouth like in a cartoon, indicated to the player that is a noise that will alert other characters to them and other items with similar indicators act the same way. Items the goose can pick up also has the white lines appear around them when they can be grabbed. It’s a clever way to show what’s intractable in the world while being thematically and stylistically coherent with the game’s world.

Untitled Goose Game is one part stealth game, one part puzzle game, with all the fun of annoying your neighbors in Animal Crossing. The stealth and puzzle genres of games have some overlapping rules used by them. They both work with predictable character AI and set patterns for those characters so the player can anticipate their movements and so the results of actions can be consistent. 

A lot of stealth sections in games will have enemies walking back and forth along one path so the safe areas are clear or they will have a way to show the enemies’ range of sight so the player can work around them. Untitled Goose Game’s world feels so much more alive than that. The villagers in the game have patterns they will go through in a section, but they do might do four or five different things, making their paths and movement ever changing, but still predictable. There is a video game shorthand for when the player has been spotted in enemy territory and that’s the sudden exclamation mark appearing over an enemy’s head.

Untitled Goose Game is not above using the same cliche, but that’s only if the player is caught doing something the people don’t care for, like stealing an item or being where they are not supposed to be. Other times, if a village spots the goose but the player is not doing something that warrants being chased after, the people will simply stand there, staring at the goose, perhaps stroking their chin a bit. This is a really well done system. While the ! or ? appearing above a character’s head when they notice something out of place feels slightly out of place in the world of the game, the pencil style font melds well with the art style and the two different ways characters react to the player clearly shows them when they are in trouble or not.

Last bit of UI in Untitled Goose Game I want to mention is how the game tells the player the characters’ intentions. As a puzzle game, the player needs to know what each villager is intending to do so they may use it to solve the check lists of objectives. The game shows this by having a thought bubble appear over a character’s head with an image of the item they intend to grab. This is one of the biggest things that endeared me to the game. It’s true that the thought bubbles exist only to the player and not the goose in game, but it feels completely in place in the world. Utilizing the strong art style of the game, the characters’ thought bubbles heighten the children’s book aesthetic. They are not integrated into the world physically, but artistically, like the honk and grab lines.

I love Untitled Goose Game. I found it endlessly charming and silly when I first booted it up, and it bloomed into a very clever and well designed game. The first time I noticed its genius was in the simple and integrated UI. But I’m now a little sad that it’s out because I need to find a new game to be my most anticipated game to be released. At the moment, honestly, it’s got to be Team Cherry’s Silksong.

Doom (1993) – Critical Miss #8

I’m not a PC gamer. A gaming PC is something I would like to get at some point, but cost always prohibit it. Because of this, I had never played Doom until recently. Doom is easily one of the most influential games of all time. It may not have created the FPS genre, but it popularized it and help shape it into what we know today. But the game came out for home computers in 1993, tech has advanced so much in the 25 plus years since its release and we can now true 3D games. Can Doom really hold up that well in the current day? The simple answer: yes.

The player takes control of the “Doom Guy” and the goal of the game is to kill a bunch of demons. There is a story that’s told to the player in between episodes, but it’s so hacked-out and insignificant that I don’t remember much of it. The focus of Doom is on combat and level exploration and it does those two things to near perfection.

In Doom, the player has two things protecting them form the hordes of Hell: guns and speed. Doom Guy moves extremely fast from the get-go and this is even without holding the sprint button. While there are walls and corners to dip behind to avoid oncoming enemy projectiles, taking cover is never as efficient as strafing to the side. This avoids the attack while still being able to fire at the enemy. Learning to strafe around enemies at incredibly fast speed is crucial to surviving. Sprinting can definitely feel too fast at times, but it is a necessary skill to learn for later levels, not only to avoid tougher, faster enemies, but to make it across gaps in platformers because Doom Guy can’t jump.

A great FPS is judged on the quality of its guns and Doom does not disappoint. All the guns are impactful and satisfying to use. The sound design for all the weapons is crunchy and loud, the enemies stagger and flinch when hit, and there is a variety of guns to use, each fitting different needs in combat. The shotgun is useful for enemies that chase you down like the Pinkys. The chaingun’s bullets are weak, but it fire so quick that it tends to stun-lock enemies and is good for Cacodemons. The rocket launcher will damage the player if they are too close to the blast, teaching the player to make space before firing, and is the best way to kill the Barons of Hell without burning too much ammo. And, of course, there is the BFG, the Big Fucking Gun. This gun is pretty much a screen nuke with a trigger. It explodes in a huge radius and melts basically any enemy in the range. The weapons add variety to the combat that’s already fast and fun, but when the excellent level design is added on top the combat is when Doom becomes something truly great.

All the levels are mazes, increasing in complexity as the game goes on, with enemies, medpacks, and secrets scattered throughout them. The only real requirement to finish the level is find the literal exit sign and go through the door. Sometimes there are colored key cards to progress, but everything else is done for the sake of fun. The player might need to kill enemies because they are in the way, but most can be ran past. They really fight the enemies because it’s fun. Secrets are well hidden, satisfying to find, and filled with goodies like extra guns, ammo, and power-ups like overcharged health. That’s reason enough to seek them out, but the game can be easily beaten without finding any. That main reason to search for the secrets is because it’s fun.

There’s a special kind of logic to the level designs. Doom couldn’t do true 3D level design which means no room can be on top of another room. This makes the bare, top-down map surprisingly useful and intuitive to use. Looking for holes in the map is the only real way to search for secrets in the levels. There is hardly any unused space in Doom, so if there’s a chunk of the map with nothing in it, there’s a good chance that’s where a secret hides. The 2D-3D visuals the game is built on has obviously aged in the decades since the game was released, but it all works. The art style is extremely strong and consistent and there’s something very charming watching flat 2D sprites spinning to face the player as they move around them.

I played on what I would consider casual mode. With difficulty set on the Hurt Me Plenty, or medium difficulty, I still found it necessary to save at the start of every new level and load that save if I ever died. Death is punishing in Doom. All weapons, ammo, and health gets carried over to new levels, but if the player dies, everything is taken away. Doom Guy respawns at the level entrance with just his pistol and fists. The other weapons can usually be found again in the new levels, but surviving to get to them is not easy. Later in the game, when the difficulty really starts to ramp up, I had to start using save slots more and more.

The difficulty curve is one of few issues I have with the game. The difficult jumps up and down throughout the 4 episodes. Episode 2 gave me more trouble than any other and maps 1 and 2 in episode 4 are noticeably harder than the rest in the episode. Part of this could be me getting better at the game as I played, but there are noticeably leaps in difficulty at odd points throughout a playthrough. While most levels are great and fun to explore, some are very unintuitively designed, especially the levels that rely heavily on teleport pads. Lastly, some of the music is plain bad. One later level theme uses a very high pitched guitar synth and, during a solo, it holds a piercing high note for at least five second. It’s very ear grating. Most music is excellent, especially the theme song, which is a video game classic, but later songs just have odd choices in them that feel out of place.

After playing Doom, it’s clear to see why it’s still so highly regarded. It has its faults, like every game, but it’s finely crafted with excellent level designs, great gameplay, and is simply fun to play. And that’s what I admire most about it. It is my belief that video games should strive to be fun before all else. A game can have a strong story or offer a unique experience, but if it’s not fun to play then I lose a lot of interest to continue playing it. Doom manages to be cutting edge, innovative, and influential while never sacrificing any fun.

*Writer’s note: 

I originally intended to have this review be on both Doom and Doom 2, but I couldn’t finish both in time. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting Doom to be as big and tough as it is. I will have either a small bonus review of Doom 2 by the end of the year, or an update post with my thoughts on it.

Resident Evil (Remake) – Critical Miss #5

The Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube is an interesting case in video games. It’s one of the few game remakes that is widely considered to be just as good, if not better, than the original. The original game came out for the Playstation in 1996 and was a landmark title for the survival horror genre. The remake came out in 2002 and fined tuned the original game to near perfection while adding minor difference to surprise players of the original title. 

The Spencer mansion in which the majority of the game takes place is a giant puzzle box you solve from the inside out. The main gameplay loop of Resident Evil is exploring the mansion to find items or keys that open up new areas to explore. With this design, the mansion slowly blooms open. The game is very good at indirectly leading the player by limiting where they can go. In the opening, you only have a few rooms to explore before you find the sword key and then you have another limited amount of rooms to search until you find the next key or item for a puzzle that’ll unlock new areas. This heightens the sense that you are investigating the mansion and uncovering its terrible secrets as you play.

While some rooms in the mansion tend to blur together, like the multiple bathrooms or balconies, most are very distinct with different designs or set pieces. This is a smart way for the game to help the player remember where they might need to go in the late game when the entire mansion is open and sprawling. Another thing that helps lead the players in the late game is the map itself which always shows what rooms that all the items have been found in. If a room on the map is green, everything has been found. However, if a room is red that means something is still to be found and it’s worth a second look. This leads the player while backtracking throughout the game, which is something you’ll do a lot.

Two complaints I hear about the Resident Evil remake, after they made the original’s tank controls optional, are backtracking and the inventory management. With inventory management, I understand the complaints. Each character has limited item slots, six for Chris and eight for Jill, and that is the max number of items you can carry at a time. So If you find a room with an important item you need to progress but your inventory is full, you need to go back to a safe room with an item box to drop some stuff off before returning to the room to collect the item you need. While this can be very annoying, I personally liked the limited inventory. I’ve always had a soft spot for inventory management mechanics in game and I starting seeing it in Resident Evil as a puzzle in itself.

The backtracking never really bothered me either. The game is designed around by having the mansion interconnected with paths opening up that make traversing it rather easy. The games leaves it up to the player to learn these paths, which can be frustrating in the early game when the mansion isn’t completely etched into the player’s mind, but after a while they will be as familiar with the Spencer mansion as they are with their own home. The backtracking will ensure of this.

There are other areas of the game to explore besides the Spencer mansion. Throughout the game you will search through the courtyard and a guest house on the grounds, run through an aqueduct system with sharks and abandoned mines where the terrifying and tragic Lisa Trevor lives, and discover a secret Umbrella lab deep below the mansion. While none of these areas are bad, they never reach the heights of the mansion. They are much more linear in design and some, like the forested area or mines, tend to feel samey since they lack interesting set piece in rooms. 

Exploring and solving puzzles would be enough for other games, but Resident Evil is a survival horror game, which means there has to be something that threatens the player and forces them to be on edge throughout the game. Resident Evil does this by having the mansion and its surrounding areas be infested by zombies. The zombies themselves are not too scary, but it’s the mechanics around them that keep them threatening. 

There is limited ammo, healing items, and ink ribbons used for saving the game in Resident Evil. This leads to an internal struggle within the player every time they encounter a zombie: is it better to try and run past them, risking losing some health or leaving them in the same spot to have to be dealt with again, or is it better to use some ammo and kill them? There is never a right answer to this question.  Zombies that are killed will come back later in the game as more powerful Crimson Heads if their bodies are not burned, which is another thing to consider since the kerosene used to burn the bodies is limited. This keeps every encounter with an enemy interesting and tensions are kept high by introducing stronger enemies throughout the game, first with the Crimson Heads and then with the lizard-like Hunters.

But while each encounter with a zombie is interesting and it is consisting stressful to go up against a Hunter in the late game, that’s not the same as the game being scary. Tension was high in the early game when I tried to kill every zombie I came across, but after a while I learned to get around them by baiting their lunge animations. I killed any zombies in areas I knew I would be travelling through a lot, burning their bodies immediately after. By the end of the game, I had a surplus of ammo and heals so I started shooting everything I came across in the end game. 

I tend to see games in terms of mechanics which leads to horror games falling short for me. I often start to see games as their moving, mechanical parts instead of their wholes so the feeling of fear doesn’t stick with me that long. Resident Evil suffered from this. I wasn’t looking at it as a spooky survival horror game after a while but as a series of combat, inventory, and puzzle mechanics. But honestly, I loved my time with the game. The mechanics sewn into Resident Evil and the truly excellent level design still makes it a must play to this day.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice & Revisiting Levels

The world of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is noticeably smaller than those seen in previous Fromsoftware’s Souls games. Dark Souls was a tower of levels stacked on top of each with paths and elevators and secret connecting them all. Dark Souls 2 started in Majula and branched out from there, with branches coming off those branches and so on. Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 are a combination of the previous games and are like webs with areas spreading out and folding on top of each other while being interconnected throughout. But while Sekiro’s world is not as large or as interconnected as those other games, it does something genius with its central point, Ashina Castle.

The first part of Sekiro is very linear. You have to make your way from the Dilapidated Temple through Ashina Outskirts and the valley until you reach Ashina Castle. Ashina Castle sits in the middle of the game’s world and works as the trunk of the tree that the rest of the game spreads out. From the castle, you can go to the Sunken Valley from the shrine, Senpou Temple from the dungeons, Ashina Depths from the bottomless pit, or stay and explore the interior of the castle. During my first playthrough, I completely missed the window to enter the castle. So I actually went and explored all the other areas until I hit dead ends before going back and fighting the boss in the castle to progress the story. The young lord tasks you with retrieving a few items from the other areas. But once the items are collected and you try to warp back to Ashina Castle, you’ll discover something surprising: you can’t.

This is because Ashine Castle is under attack. When you go back to Ashina (I used the Abandon Dungeon idol and climbed over the gate), you’ll find it under siege with bamboo ladders reaching to the rooftops and new enemies slaughtering the Ashina soldiers. You find yourself in the middle of a war. The soldiers of the opposing factions will attack other enemies and yourself upon sight. This helps give the ascension up Ashina Castle have a different feel than before. The battles with enemies are more chaotic and dangerous while sleath has a new option of luring different enemies into each other and slipping away in the confusion.

Sekiro does these moments of revisiting previous areas so well. A lot of games don’t change anything in levels you need to revisit, leading you to fight early game enemies with late game equipment, skills, and stats. This can help the player feel the growth the character has undergone throughout the game’s journey, but it also often leads to these sections to feel uninteresting or boring. Like in their other Souls games, Fromsoft never wants the player to feel overpowered in Sekiro.

I loved playing through Sekiro because I was still learning things about the game and the combat mechanics up until and during the final boss. It’s amazing having a game that feels like there is still so much more to master even after you’ve beat it, especially one where a large chunk of the game is revisiting the same areas multiple times. Sekrio keeps its difficulty cranked high when revisiting Ashina Castle by introducing new, tougher enemies or by having enemies that were mini bosses now being basic mobs. The interior ninjas and Ashina generals were early game mini bosses while the Red Guard are some of the toughest enemies in the game with tricky attack patterns and guns that shoot fireworks.

The game stays challenging when revisiting Ashina Castle, but it also manages to feel fresh when exploring. There are new routes through around the castle. First time revisiting it, there are bamboo ladders all over the castle, making for new grapple points and new ways to ascend. During the second revisit, you start from the top of the castle and have to fight your way down. It’s a small thing, but it goes miles to prevent revisits feeling samey. The castle itself will also look different, be it from the ladders scaling the rooftops or from everything being engulfed in flames when you have to make your way down during the games final section.

During the final third of the game, you also have the option of revisiting both Hirata Estate and Ashina Outskirts in new ways and both these areas are also burning, almost seemingly to the ground. Fire works as a wonderful theme in the last moments of the game representing the war and destruction the world is set in. Hirata Estate you revisit through Owl’s memory of that night instead of your own and it’s pretty much the same with tougher enemies and much harder mini boss encounters. Revisiting Ashina Outskirts, however, is what solidified my appreciation for the reuse of previous areas in Sekiro.

When you go back through Ashina Outskirts, you do it in reverse. You start from the castle and make you way over a bridge where you see Ashina’s defenses being slaughter by the Red Guards. After this point, is all Red Guards and fire. I went through Ashina Outskirts so many times on my way to the castle in the beginning of the game that I had a set route through it so I could stealth kill all the enemies in the way. Upon revisiting Ashina Outskirts, I didn’t have that route so I have to think quick about stealth, had to pay closer attention to my surroundings, and I had to fight hard or find an escape route when I fell into a nasty fight. Everything looks different when you go through the outskirts again in the same way that a road might look different if your driving through it in the opposite direction you usually do. At the end of the trek through Ashina Outskirts, after seeing all the fire and destruction suffered to the area, you find yourself up against the cause of all of the damage: the Demon of Hatred

This ferocious, tragic, pain in the ass boss is a strange creature in the world of Sekiro, belonging more in the worlds of Dark Souls and Bloodborne both in design and boss battle. It is huge and beastlike, with one arm composed entirely of flame. His fight relies more on attacking his vitality instead of his posture which runs counter intuitively to the rest of the boss fight in the game. But it is a good fight after you learn its patterns and it all takes place in the battle field before Ashina Castle gates. The world of Sekiro comes full circle as one of the final bosses in the game has the exact same arena as one of the very first bosses.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Critical Miss #4

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out in 1997 and it was a huge departure for the Castlevania series. It was less linear like its predecessors and more explorative, with a huge open map more like a Metroid game. This lead to the series lending the second half of the genre name: Metroidvania. I was excited to play the game for the first time when a rerelease was announced for the PS4. I’ve always been interested in Metroidvania games. I have gotten through half of Super Metroid and enjoyed it before i got distracted with other games. After I completed Hollow Knight though, I was itching to get back into the genre and I thought I’d take a look at one of the major games that helped shape the genre outside and past the Metroid games.

Right off the bat, the presentation of Symphony of the Night is great. The music ranges from hype-inducing in the opening hallway to creepy ambience in the flooded caves and the sprite art for the enemies are all detailed and gorgeous. Even the few examples of using 3D models, like for the save point coffins and the clocktower that rotates as you ascend the stairs to face Dracula, mesh well with the 2D art and add a whole lot of charm to the game. Alucard himself is the only aspect of the presentation I don’t care for. While his sprite is fluid and well animated, the sprite also seems blurry when he’s constantly in motion and having after effects trailing behind him. It is neat to see the wings of Alucard’s bat form change color depending on what cloak he’s wearing, but his sprite came across messy and less detailed than the world around him.

Castlevania Requiem: Symphony Of The Night & Rondo Of Blood_20190519124932

The two best things about the game to me are the enemies and the map. Enemy variety in a game is huge to me and Symphony of the Night does not disappoint. There are so many different types of enemies from wolves and skeletons to invisible fencers and floating books the spit out a mass of conjoined skulls. Enemies all have unique sprites, with only a few pallet swaps, and there are many different attacks the player must learn to avoid. Like the enemy list, Dracula’s castle is similarly huge and varied. There are many interesting locations just filled with secrets to find and relics to collect, some of which will open up means of unlocking even more secrets to explore. I got so absorbed into exploring the castle, wanting  to find everything I could, that I ended up revealing 100% of the map before fighting Richter without much trouble. But after fighting Richter, another castle appears upside-down from a portal in the night and the last half of the game is accessible. Unfortunately, this is where the game lost me.

The combat in Symphony of the Night never really enthralled me. There’s not much to it besides attacking and jumping to dodge enemy attacks while using an occasional subweapon. The combat is very basic and when paired with the knockback Alucard suffers when hit it becomes more frustrating than fun. Alucard will go flying halfway across the screen every time he takes damage and it’s obnoxious. Multiple times I found myself entering a room, getting hit by an enemy standing just inside the entry, and having the knockback send me back out the door I just came through. This was just annoying.

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Starting in the reverse castle, the enemy placement seems more haphazard and less considered. Some halls in the second half of the game are so full enemies that do so much damage and send you flying around with knockback that it is highly incentivized to travel through the rooms in Alucard’s mist form, which is horribly slow. Traversing the reverse castle altogether is tedious. Most the platforms to scale are just slightly beyond your jump height, even with the high jump and double jump, that you need to use the bat transformation to just proceed. The bat form, like the mist form, is just too slow so exploring the reverse castle isn’t exciting. It’s dull.

A lot of the issues with the reverse castle could be made easier with Symphony of the Night’s leveling system and RPG elements, a first for the Castlevania series, but they don’t add much to the game overall. In fact, they’re almost unnoticeable. Throughout the game, you will gain experience points and levels from killing enemies, giving you increased stats and health points. You can also find health upgrades and new weapons or armor hidden throughout the castle. Going through the game, leveling up at a steady pace and equipping the best weapons and armor I found, I didn’t notice a change in my character. All enemies in the first castle died in one or two hit and did less than ten damage to me. When I got to the reverse castle, however, enemies took longer to kill and would do upwards of thirty damage per hit. That, along with the room obstacles like sliding spikes on the floor doing nearly eighty damage, the options once you hit the difficulty spike in the reverse castle is to either die a lot or move through the entirety of the second half of the game in mist form.  

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After a while in the reverse castle, my interest in Symphony of the Night just stopped. The pacing suffers too much from having to move in the bat or mist forms and the combat isn’t nuanced enough to keep me engaged. I was having fun through the first castle but I wasn’t enthralled by the game at any point. So when I hit the difficulty spike in the reverse castle, I didn’t have the motivation to continue.

Earthbound – Critical Miss #2

Smiles & Tears

We had a Sega Genesis in my household growing up which means I missed out on the entirety of the Super Nintendo’s lifespan. When I started getting more into video games years later, there was a game from the Super Nintendo that always came up as one of the best games on the system. That game was Earthbound and it always intrigued me.

The game stars Ness with his three friends, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, as they travel across Eagleland to stop an all powerful evil force named Giygas, who is making the world around them act strange and hostile. Along the way, the friends will help towns solve their problems, make new friends, and unlock their latent psychic abilities. It’s a standard RPG but with the traditional fantasy setting traded for a real world setting and the swords and bows switched for baseball bats and yo-yos for weapons.

The setting is what intrigued about Earthbound from the start. It seemed so quirky and unique. Before this review, I had tried to play it a couple times, but I never managed to beat it before. Now that I have completed the game, I see that there was a reason for that.

The presentation of Earthbound is instantly inviting. Cheery, colorful graphics with simplistic sprites meets the eye and the bouncy, bizarre music meets the ear. The music especially is great. It covers so many genres and moods while maintaining a strange, sci-fi feel. It compliments the otherworldly undertones of the game.

Earthbound has a goofy feel throughout and the enemies exemplify this. A highlight of the game is reaching new areas and seeing the sprites of all the new enemies. They range from crazed hippies and multiple types of robots to googly-eyed ducks and dinosaurs. The sprites of these enemies are always bright and colorful and cartoony. Underneath all the cartoony visuals and silly dialogue, there is an undercurrent of darkness running through Earthbound. Throughout the adventure, Ness and the gang will be attacked by police officers for causing trouble in a town, dismantle a group of cultists, save a town being plagued by zombies, and the final battle with Giygas takes place on what looks like the intestines of some giant creature.

Giygas itself is the payoff to all the darkness and tension building under the game as you play. It is a Lovecraftian nightmare, a being whose power and lust for evil is said to break its own mind at the end of the game when you face it. In true cosmic horror style, Ness and the player cannot comprehend the true form of Giygas or even its attack, which are portrayed only as swirling red shapes and flashes respectively. The battle with Giygas was a highlight for me in the game, but not for the fight itself but for the character and design of Giygas. The mechanics of the battle in the final phase when the player has to keep the party healed and have Paula pray for help I found to be tedious . With each turn of this, you watch a cutscene of the prayer reaching someone you meet along the journey and them offering you their help. While these scenes are charming, they are extremely slow and just bog down the pace of the fight for me.

The pacing of Earthbound is the biggest issue in the game. The walking speed of  the party seems fine at first, but without any consistent means of speeding them up like a run button it starts to grate. The menus are slow and clunky to navigate and the battles drag on because of these menus. These small things add up to make the moment to moment gameplay feel tedious, but there are also bigger issues with pacing that quickly fatigued me towards the end of the game.

The first of these was the grinding. In honesty, it’s not absolutely necessary to grind in Earthbound, but every time you get a new party member, whether Ness is level 10 or 40, that new character starts at level one. So if you don’t want them to be smeared by enemies or want them to be useful in combat, you have to stop and level them up. This kills the pace of the story, but not as much as the structure of the game itself. Earthbound has a overarching story, but it’s more of a loose guiding thread. The structure of the game feels more like a monster of the week cartoon series where the team comes to a new area dealing with some odd problem, they solve the problem, and move on. While this structure works to some extent because the sets are usually quirky and interesting, with only passing mentions of the looming evil of Giygas, I often felt discontinued from the main plot.

Earthbound is never great at guiding the player and nudging them in the right direction. It’s not terrible in the beginning of the game, gets at little more confusing around Twoson and Threed, and gets totally obtuse starting in Fourside. Admitting this could be a mistake in my playstyle, but even when speaking to NPCs and paying attentions of the hints they dropped, I still found myself completely lost at points. The worst examples of this were the few instances where I had to enter certain areas just to leave and trigger an event or when you have to backtrack to past areas to get information on a puzzle or key item to the current section.

All this adds up to Earthbound feeling like a slog. Towards the middle of the game, when the quirkiness was starting to feel less fresh and engaging, I started feeling very fatigued of the game. I didn’t particularly dislike the game, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I hoped I would.

Like most games, Earthbound is a mixture of good and bad. While I truly enjoyed the setting and enemies, it wasn’t enough to combat the slower pace of the game. If you’re a fan of older RPGs and can handle a slow moving one, I say give Earthbound a try if you haven’t already, but it’s definitely not the first Super Nintendo RPG I would ever suggest.

Celeste & Theming

When I finished Celeste, I had over 3000 deaths. The game is difficult but I was hardly ever frustrated. There is a great sense of triumph running throughout Celeste. Whether it is completing a level, grabbing another strawberry, or just making a tricky jump to advance to the next screen, it always feel rewarding overcoming a challenge.

As somebody that lives with depression, there has always been something comforting playing a very hard game. It’s the fact that a game that takes 100% of my focus and attention is the best way for me to get immersed. This mentality is present in the narrative of Celeste as Madeline wants to do the impossible task of climbing a mountain as means of coping with her anxiety. She doesn’t know exactly why she feels compelled to climb the mountain, she only claims she wants to take her mind off things. All throughout, Celeste is a mastercraft of theming through gameplay.

The theme of a story is the human experience that the story is exploring underneath the surface. To use Shakespeare as an example, Romeo & Juliet’s theme is love while Hamlet’s is revenge. Celeste’s theme is aniexty. Video games are interesting as a storytelling median due to their interactivity, which means things like gameplay mechanics can heighten or hinder the themes of the story. Badeline is an interesting example of this mixture this of gameplay and theming.

As a character, Badeline acts as a foil to Madeline. It’s rather on the nose, but she represents Madeline’s anxiety and all the negative emotions that come with it: paranoia, anger, insecurity. Whenever Badeline appears, she actively works to make things difficult for Madeline. She’s the first level-end challenge, trying to chase Madeline down to stop her on her journey. She even causes all of the panic attacks Madeline suffers from in the game, most notably on the trolley with Theo. She wants to stop Madeline climbing the mountain by making Madeline second guess herself and by throwing any hurdle she can in Madeline’s way, an obvious representation of anxiety and the difficulties it can cause in everyday life.

The crowning jewel of the game, both in gameplay and theming, is the final level. While a little overly long, this is where Madeline and Badeline work out their differences and rejoin to work together. In gameplay, this is shown as an additional air dash Madeline can now perform. This is the best reward to the player for overcoming the challenges they have surmounted to that point. The additional dash opens up the level design so much.  

In the last level, Madeline has to climb to the top of the mountain after falling to the bottom. It is the most challenging but also the most fun level in the game. With the additional dash, the puzzles become more complex and clever. They require more precision of action and a better understanding of the game’s mechanics and that’s what make them feel the most rewarding to complete.

The cutscenes in Celeste typically play out as conversations between characters at the beginning or end of the levels. But even with this separation between story progression and gameplay throughout the game, I was completely immersed in the story of Celeste because the themes of the story run throughout the mechanics and levels. Madeline’s struggles were also mine, but her triumphs and revelations were also felt by me.

Crash Bandicoot: N’Sane Trilogy – Critical Miss #1

My experience with the Crash Bandicoot games in the 90’s were all through Playstation demo discs. I specifically remember the Crash 3 demo with one of the tiger riding levels on the Great Wall of China. I recall playing it over and over again. It was fun but I also had a hard time finishing the level. When the N. Sane remastering of the original trilogy was announced, I immediately wanted to play it and finally experience these classic beloved games.

While playing the games, I realized the original Crash games are in a strange place in this day and age. The more linear 3D level design and stiffer movement controls have dated compared to other more explorative, free moving 3D platformers popularized by Mario 64. There haven’t been many platformers with hallway style levels like Crash since the 90’s. The first one that comes to my mind would be Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. This unique style of levels is the main reason I think the Crash Bandicoot games are still worth playing today.

There are other strengths of the Crash trilogy that still make them enjoyable to play. With the N. Sane Trilogy being Remastered in HD, the games look better than ever. The characters are cartoony and expressive and everything is so lush and colorful that the games pop off the screen. There is also a variety of level types from 3D paths to 2D side scroller and the infamous chase levels and multiple vehicle sections. Sometimes, particularly in Crash 3, the variety of level styles make the games feel inconsistent.

Along with this slight inconsistency, there are two other major areas of frustration in the games. The first is the movement, which feels heavy and sluggish. This help to some extent when making precise jumps, but the heaviness of the jumps and some finickiness with the slide can make what should be simple jumps difficult. The second frustration are the hitboxes. They seem to extend further off the character model than you’d expect, leading to a lot of infuriating deaths where Crash turns into a ghost or smoking pair of sneakers slightly before he touches anything.

These issues should be deal breakers. Especially in a platformer where movement and control are paramount. But while these issues are frustrating, they are surmountable. More importantly though, the Crash trilogy is still worth playing just based on the uniqueness of the games. As mentioned before, there are not many games with the same type of 3D levels as Crash. The games are more linear than 3D Mario games and require more precision than 3D Sonic games. It’s an interesting case study of a style of 3D games from a time with more limited hardware, a style of level that didn’t gain as much favor as more explorative 3D platformers.

If you are interested in the Crash Bandicoot trilogy, the N. Sane collection is great. It looks great, plays well, and is easy to get your hands on. My rankings of the games would be:

  1. Crash 1 as the worst because the level design is sloppier and is by far the most frustrating of the games
  2. Crash 3: Wrapped in the middle because the over reliance of multiple vehicle level styles makes the game feel the most inconsistent
  3. Crash 2: The Wrath of Cortex as the best because it has the best difficulty curve that gets challenging but never too frustrating.

Hollow Knight & Knockback

Hollow Knight is a modern classic in my mind, but I didn’t understand the hype it got when it came out. I watched gameplay of it and it just looked like a standard Metroidvania. It wasn’t until I played Hollow Knight that it clicked. I understood what made the game great: the polish and game feel.

The game is polished to a gem. The hand drawn art is smooth and expressive, making different areas of the labyrinthine cave system convey a wide range of tones and emotions. Small things like the wet patter of the character’s feet in the City of Tears and cutting foreground vines in Greenpath being indicated by clean, white lines make the world feel reactive to the player. The world of Dirtmouth envelopes the character and the player together, surrounds them. The character becomes more than a sprite on the screen, the player becomes a living part of the world, and it’s a part of the world they fight to keep.

The combat in Hollow Knight is a double-edged nail. It is fast and floaty, but each strike feel weighty and precise. On the other hand, each hit the player takes is sudden and stressful. Each time the player is hit, the musics cuts out and the action slows for just a second. The enemy and player freeze mid action and the damaging blow is highlighted by a flash and effect around the enemy’s hit. This forces the player to stop and focus on the hit and the damage taken. The wonderful world of Dirtmouth fading into the background makes the player feel uncomfortable and learn from the mistake that they just made.

The other aspect of the combat’s weightiness is the knockback. Each time the player hits an enemy, both the character and the enemy get pushed back slightly. This knockback adds so much to the combat of Hollow Knight that it’s the smartest thing about the game.

When every strike moves your character back, the combat gains a much deeper sense of strategy. All of a sudden, you need to know how far you’ll get pushed with each attack and you need to internalize a way to make up for that lost ground quickly and effectively. This helps you engage with the movement system during combat more than just jumping over enemies or getting a certain distance away from them. I know when I play Hollow Knight that there is a sweet spot to tap the joystick forward. Too much and I’ll run into the enemy, too little and I’ll miss the next attack. Fighting on a small platform becomes extremely stressful with this knockback mechanic. Any careless attack can send you over the edge into the spikes below.

Internalizing is really the best term to describe the knockback in Hollow Knight. After countless mistakes missing crucial attacks or walking into enemies, you learn how much compensation is needed for each blow you make. This is why I used the Steady Body charm that eliminates the knockback received when striking enemies. At the point of the game when I bought the charm, I had already learned the knockback system in the game. After hours of learning how to make up space lost from the knockback, taking it away felt foreign and difficult to relearn.

In Hollow Knight, it becomes second nature to adjust for the knockback in the middle of a fight and you stop actively thinking about it. But just because you stop thinking of it doesn’t mean the knockback in Hollow Knight is not a genius addition to the game.

Yoshi’s Island – Critical Miss #37

No Yoshi is an Island

Is it just me or is anyone sad that the idea of a “virtual console” seems to be dead and buried? It seems like the halcyon days of the 7th generation digital game markets with the likes of the Playstation Network and the Xbox Live Arcade forgotten relics. Even Nintendo–who jumped started the trend and coined the term with their online marketplace, the Virtual Console–seems to be struggle with giving gamers their past legacy titles now that studios have seen how much money is to be made by carving their titles into serfdoms and releasing them as separate packages. I found myself about this as I used the Nintendo Switch Online to play Yoshi’s Island. 

Upon booting up Yoshi’s Island, the player is greeted with a music box styled song, complete with winding sound, and a short cutscene of a stork carrying a couple babies in bindles. The stork is ambushed by Kamek on his broom. He snatches one of the babies, but the other falls to the ground, landing on the back of a Yoshi, and is revealed to be a baby Mario. The Yoshis of the island decide to help Mario reunite with his brother Luigi and the adventure starts!

The charm of the game hits the player immediately. The graphics are done in a cartoony style, with everything having thick black outlines, bright and vivid colors, and a slight crayon texture on everything–a style that Kirby’s Dream Land 3 would later adopt. All the sprites of the game are very expressive, especially the Yoshis who have a variety of frames of animations for running, jumping, throwing eggs, and everything else they do. The enemies are also lively as Shy Guys jump and dance and the giant ghost boogers hanging from the ceiling look genuinely hurt and sad when Yoshi attacks them. Adding to the whole presentation is one of the best soundtracks on the SNES. Koji Kondo expertly blends island percussion, toy instruments, and some extremely groovy bass lines to make songs that are catchy, atmospheric, triumphant, and upbeat. The completed tracking of the level select screen is one of my all time favorite video game songs and gets stuck in my head at least once a week.

Even though the full title is Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, the game is a completely different beast from Super Mario World. While Super Mario World refined Mario’s move set by giving him a few moves and powers to use in the game, Yoshi’s Island just added a bunch of gameplay features since the new playable character was a cool cartoon dinosaur. While the game is still a platformer like Super Mario World, Yoshi as a character has enough of a different move set for the game to feel completely unique.

For starters, Yoshis are either part chameleon or part frog since they can grab enemies with their long tongues and pull them back into their mouths to be spit out as projectiles or swallowed and turned into eggs. Throwing these eggs to hit distant enemies, collect coins or flowers, and hit question mark clouds to create new platforms is the biggest new gameplay mechanic to Yoshi’s Island. Making sure you are well stocked with eggs is always something to consider when running through levels since some sections may require a minimum number to use to make progress or discover a secret. Yoshi’s Island also adds a flutter jump for platforming. If you hold down the button after jumping, Yoshi does a sort of kicking motion, straining to get higher in a way that can only be described as them doing their best. While this flutter jump offers slightly more height at the end of a jump, it works best as a sort of extender to jump further or better position yourself midair. This is extremely useful because Mario must be a chonky baby since Yoshi drops like stone when falling out of a jump. It’s strange since the start of a jump and the flutter feels very floaty, but once it’s over, all momentum is lost and Yoshi just plummets. It’s something you get used to, but it did lead to falling into pits more often than it should have.

Yoshi’s Island also expands on the idea of power-ups from the Mario series. Yoshi can eat a few different watermelons throughout the game that gives them different breath powers from ice to fire to just spitting out the seeds rapid fire like a gatling gun. Besides these, Yoshi can also transform into a variety of different forms like a car, mole, submarine, or helicopter. I’m not a big fan of these sections since none of these forms control as tightly as just playing as Yoshi, especially the sub and helicopter which feel way too loose. Even baby Mario gets some play time during the adventure. Grabbing a star turns him into super baby Mario, where he is completely invincible and can over spikes and up walls. These sections are fun because they are all about going fast enough to get to the next star before the power up wears off.

The gameplay is solid, typical for a Nintendo developed platforming, and likewise there is also a huge amount of creativity on display in Yoshi’s Island. While all levels have aspects of platforming, there are still different types of levels in the game. Sometimes they’re the basic get to the end, sometimes they’re a winding maze that must be navigating, and sometimes still they’re more puzzle focused, requiring you to find keys to unlock doors. The levels’ themes are about as varied as they can be with the game being set on a sole island. The real creativity is found in the boss fights, which all differ greatly from each other and focus on different aspects of gameplay to defeat. From throwing eggs at a turtle to knock them on their back in order to attack to running around a tiny moon fighting a bird to knocking a flower pot off a ledge to exorcise the ghost inside to playing a game of break out in order to make a boss fall into lava, the bosses are a highlight of the game that consistently challenge the player in new ways. The fact that all bosses are just regular enemies that Kamek enlarged just adds so much charm to the game. Not all levels are great, but they are always interesting to play through to set what new ideas will pop up. That’s why it’s such a shame that I will never see all of them in the game.

Yoshi’s Island is a game built for completionists. Every level has three objectives in them besides just living and making it to the end: collect twenty red coins, grab the five happy flowers, and end the level with thirty star points. At the end of a level, you are scored on how much you collected and you need a score of one hundred on all eight levels in a world to unlock bonus levels. While collecting the red coins and flowers isn’t too bad, it is still tedious and bogs down the pace of the game to scouring the entire level to find them. The real annoyance comes with ending the level with thirty star points. See, these basically work as Yoshi’s life, but really they are a timer. If you get hit in a level, Mario will fly of Yoshi’s back, float around in bubble, and cry until he is caught–and I know a lot of hatred is directed at baby Mario because of the crying and, while it can be annoying, I don’t find it that terrible and see it as a good incentive not to get hit. Anyways, the star points are the amount of time you have to collect Mario before Kamek’s minions come down and spirit him away. This system seems weirdly punishing to the player, especially on levels with bosses, since it requires close to perfect play. I would make a bigger deal of it if great perfect scores in levels were required to progress through the game, but since they are only needed to unlock bonus levels, I find it fine. 

Overall, Yoshi’s Island is still a great game and a worthy sequel to Super Mario World–the objective best 2D Mario game. It is so charming and filled with creativity that I think anyone can pick it up and enjoy it. It’s a perfect example of the easy to learn, hard to master mentality since unlocking the bonus levels takes time and patience to do. But even without them, there are loads of levels to play, enemies to beat, charm to be found, and memories to be made. 

Bastion – Critical Miss #35

“War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”
― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

A Safe Place Amongst the Ruins

When I first got my PS4 in 2014, I had already been devouring gaming content on the internet and was aware of some of the big indie games. Super Meat Boy, Nuclear Throne, Fez–hell, I had already played Cave Story on my 3DS by then–all these games I was super excited to play once I got my shiny new console. Only thing is, I never finished any of them. Call it decision paralysis, but I bought so many games when I first got the console that I spent maybe an hour in each of these games before moving on to something else. Another game I bought right around the same time was Bastion, the indie darling of 2011, and first game made by now legendary developer, Supergiant Games. I liked Bastion enough from what I played of it, but nothing about it really grabbed me and pulled me in. Looking back, I’m not sure why, because Bastion is truly a special game. And, well, every proper blog is supposed to start at the beginning…

A narrator introduces the main character as he wakes up in a bed on a chuck of floor floating in the sky. The character is only ever referred to as the Kid–in a very Blood Meridian way–and the narrator speaks of the Calamity that has broken up and wiped out most of the city you live in, Caelondia. They speak of the Bastion, the place your people have agreed to meet at in times of trouble, and you head out for it. As you do, fragments of ground will suddenly fly up to create a path in front of your feet. The visuals of Bastion are immediately striking. The game uses hand-drawn art–a staple of Supergiant’s games–and it is all extremely detailed, vividly colorful, and absolutely gorgeous. The art helps make everything in the game interesting to look at, but mixed with the isometric camera, I found it hard to tell where the edges of the world was and often fell off due to it. That is a common problem with any isometric game, but the insane lushness of the art only made determining what was a safe piece of land to stand on harder. Luckily, falling off the edge of the world is only penalized with a second of wasted time as you fall back on the level and a small bit of damage being taken. Like the art, the music in the game is also great. An interesting mix of twangy folk, fuzzy and distorted rock, and trippy hip hop beats–my favorite track in the game being “Brusher Patrol.”

The short journey to the Bastion will take the player through a tutorial level where you can get a feel for the combat and the isometric view of the game, all while the narrator comments on the player’s actions and provides small details about the world around you. Once you reach the Bastion, the Kid meets the narrator himself, an old man named Rucks, and is informed that to rebuild and repower the Bastion, the Kid will have to adventure out into the world to collect cores. The game is broken up into rather short levels, all with unique visuals and gimmicks to them. Of course, there are enemies to fight through in order to get to the Core you’ve come to find. Be them wild creatures, members of the Gasfellow race, or soldiers from the enemy Ura people, the Kid must get through them all in order to get what he came for in hopes of saving his community. 

The combat in the game is serviceable–nothing amazing, but it doesn’t do anything wrong either–but the game shines with the variety of weapons and the customizability offered to the player. Weapons are divided into melee and long range weapons, all varied with how they handle, and all with different strengths and weaknesses. You can also learn special techniques that can help in battle. Some of these require certain weapons to perform, while others are agnostic, like the ability to summon a Squirt to fight alongside you or throw grenades. Weapons can be upgraded once a Forge is built in the Bastion and they can be swapped around to choose a loadout at an Arsenal in the Bastion or in a level. 

Building structures in the Bastion is what the Cores are used for in the game. There are six buildings to create and they all aid the player in levels. Passive perks can be equipped at the Distillery, items can be bought at the Lost and Found, the Memorial gives the player objectives to complete in the game for rewards, and the Shrine allows the player to pray to different gods. Doing this will give the player more exp and money in levels, but also adds a difficulty modifier to the game. Enemies may hit harder or move fast, they might leave little bombs behind that explode a second after they die, or the Kid’s movement speed might be reduced if hit. This difficulty system is really interesting due to its tactileness, how it allows the player to change up the game feel as they see fit and benefit from it. The Shrine mechanic tied with the customizability of weapons and loadouts add a ton of replayability to the game.

But, as much as I am a mechanics driven player, gameplay isn’t everything. Supergiant Games has been constantly praised for making games with not only satisfying gameplay, but engaging and emotional storytelling, and it clearly started here with Bastion

Along his travels, the Kid will meet a couple survivors and bring them back to the safety of the Bastion. They are from the Ura people, the same ones the Caelondians were warring with before the Calamity. The young man, Zulf, was an ambassador to Caelondia trying to bring peace between the two nations. The woman is Zia, an Ura woman who was born and raised in Caelondia. The player can learn more about them and the history of the world surrounding them by asking them about items they find while exploring levels or by fighting in Who Knows Where, a gauntlet level where the play fights through hordes of enemies as the Rucks tells the backstory of characters and the world of the game. The differences in nationality or the fact that they were at war with each other, does nothing to prevent Zulf and Zia making fast friends with the Kid and Rucks. All is well in the Bastion for a bit. That is, until the Kid finds a journal from Zia’s father out in the world and Zulf reads the true cause behind the Calamity.

Without wanting to spoil the twists and turns of the plot in the second half of Bastion, all I will say is that the Calamity has similarities to the Manhattan Project. It is a story of trying to rebuild after destruction, attempting to make sense of a world blow to bits, and accepting responsibility for things out of your control. Because the characters in the game had nothing to do with the Calamity, except maybe Rucks, but they are left shouldering the burden of what to do in response to it. Some seek revenge, some seek only the truth, and the ultimate decision of reversing the Calamity in hopes it will not happen again or accepting the world as it now is and trying to move past the atrocity is left up to the Kid, and therefore the player. 

Bastion is a strange game to talk about because there’s not one thing I can point to and say is done better than any other game I’ve played. But I still came out of it extremely positive and I would recommend it to anyone interested in video games. It’s not one thing the game does well, but everything, from gameplay, to world building (both story- and mechanic-wise), to narrative structure, to the tactileness the game offers the player, to the gorgeous art and incredible soundtrack. It’s done with equal attention and given equal importance, it’s all melded into one, and the game feels stronger for it. Bastion is a game that wants to engage the player both on a fun level and on an emotional level, and it succeeds at both. At the end of the day, that is the best thing I can ever hope to say about a game.

Chrono Trigger & Techs

Image by Notmyhandle. Found at strategywiki.org/wiki/Chrono_Trigger

I’ve been on a strange Akira Toriyama kick lately. I’ve been watching a lot of Dragon Ball Super, which is pretty good, and replaying Chrono Trigger, which is incredible. Toriyama created all the designs for the characters and monsters in the game, and I found myself wanting to play it again while I watched DBS. I bought the DS version of the game around 2014-15, soon after I bought my 3DS and was just getting back into video games. I thought the game was amazing, but I haven’t played it since that first playthrough over a decade ago. So I picked up Chrono Trigger once again to see why it’s still so lauded as one of the best games ever made. And, honestly, there are a lot of reasons–the charming characters and surprising well written and realized story for a SNES game, the incredible soundtrack and chunky, satisfying sound effects, and the unique, engaging battle system that forces players to think on their feet. To me, it was this battle system that drew my attention most in my recent playthrough, especially the tech mechanic. The closer I looked at these techs in the game, the more I realized how much of the rest of the game was designed around them.

The techs in Chrono Trigger are the character’s special abilities. These range from strong attacks, buffs and party heals, and magic attacks that can exploit elemental weaknesses. These add a huge amount of variety to a playthrough of Chrono Trigger. Each of the seven characters can learn eight individual techs (for a total of 56), each character combination have three double techs they can perform (for a total of 45), and there a total of fifteen triple techs, ten with Chrono and five that can be performed without Chrono but instead requiring special gems that have to be equipped. This means there are a total of 116 techs in all that can be unlocked and used in the game. It’s always exciting and fun to unlock new techs and try them out. However, more interesting than the vast variety the techs bring to the games, is how these mechanics affect the design of the gameplay, both in and out of battle.

Each tech has a certain attack pattern. Whether it’s a magic spell that can hit one or all enemies, a spinning sword swing that can hit a group of bad guys in a certain proximity to each other, or Frog flying through the air and dropping bombs along a line of monsters, learning what shapes attacks take and utilizing them effectively is the key to winning in battle. Chrono Trigger places emphasis on patience during fights. Since the game uses an active battle system, enemies will wander around when not using an attack. Knowing when best to use techs that hit in a certain pattern of enemies is important to gain the upper hand. This adds a risk/reward element to fights when you consider whether it is better to attack immediately or wait for the enemies to get into a better position where you might be able to hit multiple at once.

Image by Notmyhandle. Found at strategywiki.org/wiki/Chrono_Trigger

Another addition to the risk/reward dynamic of battles in Chrono Trigger is the fact that techs can be combined. When two or three party members fight alongside each other, they can perform a combo tech, where they each perform a certain attack or spell together. This encourages experimentation with your party composition since different characters combine their techs in different ways. Lucca can set Chrono’s sword on fire for a devastating attack, Marle can create an iceberg for Ayla to throw at an enemy for massive damage, or Frog and Robo can use their healing techs together to provide a huge amount of health back to the whole party. Since each character has a different speed stat that dictates how fast their battle meter fills up, you get a similar situation with waiting for enemies to get into a good position. Is it better to wait for two party members to be ready to use a combo tech, or is it better to do damage or heal now? These considerations help the battles in Chrono Trigger feel very strategic, but still fast paced since the enemies won’t stop attacking you while you think of your next move. 

At the end of a battle, the party will receive some experience to gain levels and some Tech Points (TP) to gain new techs. While party members that do not take place in the battle will still gain exp, they will not gain any of the TPs. This is the game’s way of encouraging the player to switch up their party members to gain all the different techs and their combinations. The game is designed around having the player switch up their party in a few interesting ways. First is how the story is told. Each of the party members have unique personalities and ways of speaking, so they will comment on events in the story in different ways. This can add a little variety to a game and keeps it from going stale during repeat playthroughs.

Image by Notmyhandle. Found at strategywiki.org/wiki/Chrono_Trigger

Next is that the game never requires the player to grind, allowing players to switch around their team without having to stop and get the new member up to level. During my last playthrough, I switched party members every time they learned a new tech for someone who was closest to learning their next one. Due to this constant switching, I unlocked every tech and combination in the game with ease. I would face off with bosses using whatever team I was running at the time, and while some were definitely tougher than others, none felt insurmountable. That’s one of the most admirable things I find about Chrono Trigger, bosses require the player to think up better strategies than grind up some more levels when against a tough fight. 

Switching around characters at a consistent pace will also ensure you almost always have a new tech or combo to try out. And you will want to try them out too because they all look and sound so cool. Trying out all the combos will also help you understand what all the characters true potentials are and lead to a deeper appreciation for them. During my first playthrough of Chrono Trigger, I hardly ever used Ayla because I didn’t like that she couldn’t learn magic. During this recent playthrough, however, she was in my party more than anyone since her combo techs can deal some of the highest damage in the game. Likewise, I used Robo more during this playthrough once I learned his Heal Beam tech can be combined with most of the other characters’ healing spells for full party effect. In the end, I excluded Chrono from my party all together and fought Lavos with Frog, Marle, and Ayla as my party.

Chrono Trigger has the best problem an RPG can ever have and that is not knowing who should be in your party because you want to use all the characters. It’s another strength of the game that I didn’t appreciate until I played through ago with the intention of unlocking all the techs. It’s an amazing game that tells a compelling story and has an engaging battle system with the use of the Tech mechanic. I could honestly write many more posts about different aspects of the game and how well done they are, but I wanted to focus on techs because they are so foundation to the game’s design, both in and out of combat. I implore you to pick up Chrono Trigger if you haven’t. And if you have already, I implore you to pick it up again.

Top 5 Games of 2021

2021 was a pretty meh year for games. It makes sense with the pandemic still raging and messing anything up. Even in the face of that, I managed to play more new games this year than I did in 2020. But I say this year is lacking in terms of video games because not much really gripped me as years passed. Most games I played from this year I did enjoy, but nothing really blew me away. I’m a categorizer at heart though, so every year I like to look back and sort out how I feel about the games I played. These are almost guaranteed to change as time goes on, but at this moment, these are my top five favorite games of 2021.

But first, a few honorable mentions. Like I said, I did manage to play a good chunk of games from this year, but there are a few noticeable absences. Firstly, any next gen game. I still haven’t gotten my hands on a PS5, so no game exclusive for it will appear on this list; no Renturnal, no Rachet & Clank, no Deathloop. I also haven’t found the time to play Loop Hero, although it is on my list to check out. Beside those, here are a few games I played this year that didn’t quite make the cut:

  • Psychonauts 2 – Pretty much everything I wanted it to be, having all the creativity and heart of the original, but controlling so much better. This almost made my top five, but didn’t solely on the fact that I’m only about a third of the way through it. Not nearly enough to form a full opinion on it.
  • Unsighted – A clever blend of Metroidvania and top down Zelda-style adventure games with a very interesting central mechanic of using a very limited resource to keep your NPC friends alive. However, this mechanic was not as deep as I hoped it would be and the exploration didn’t really engage me.
  • Bowser’s Fury – Released alongside the port of Super Mario 3D World, this game is a brilliant combination of 3D Mario level design and power-ups from the 2D games. It has all the polish and fun to be expected from a Mario title, but the choice to make one giant level with 100 shines in it makes the game feel spread too thin and with too many empty spaces.

But with those out of the way, let’s get to the list proper!

5) Super Auto Pets

I never got into the auto battler genre, nothing about it really piqued my interest, until Super Auto Pets. At first, it was the cute animals–just emojis ripped from the Android keyboard–but once I started playing, I discovered a deceptively simple game with a wealth of depth and strategy. All the different animal units have different effects from buffing themselves or others, providing more gold to spend in the shop, or copying other units’ abilities. Learning these effects and how they interact with others has all the fun of a deck building game, but runs are significantly shorter, making it a great pick up and play game. I don’t spend hours playing Super Auto Pets at a time, but I have been putting a few runs in here and there daily for the past few months. The reason it is at the bottom of the list is only because it is still in beta, with patches that change up the meta coming out pretty consistently, so who knows where the game will be a few months or years from now.

4) Monster Hunter Rise

As noted before on this very blog, I am a big fan of the Monster Hunter series. So I was excited when Monster Hunter Rise was announced for the Switch. It looked like a great blend of the games from the series I played on the 3DS and the newer World formula. And that is exactly what the game was. Visually, Rise looks like a slightly more polished Generations, but it has the quality of life changes that were introduced in World–weapon upgrade trees, notes on monsters’ weaknesses and drops in game, seamless environments. The combat is as deep as ever, the monsters as big, imposing, and creative as ever, and the weird goofiness of characters is as charming as ever. But with the addition of the wire bugs and Palimutes, the game is more fast-paced and kinetic than any other game in the series. It’s low on the list because I only ended up putting around 30 hours into it overall, about a 3rd of what I put into World and Generations each.

3) Resident Evil Village

What do you get when you mix together RE4 and RE7? Well, you get Resident Evil Village. The game takes the 1st person perspective, characters, and plot from RE7 and adds in the more combat focus, weapon upgrades, European village setting, and more camp tone of RE4. And it works surprisingly well. The pacing is fantastic with combat being fast and frantic, spookier moments being effective, and there being enough quiet moments between them that it doesn’t get repetitive. While I like Village more than RE7, I think the more isolated, focused setting of the Baker’s home worked much better. Village swings from gothic castle to Lovecraftian flooded village to machine zombie factory. It can feel like you are playing several, small games as opposed to one cohesive whole at times. But Village also has Lady Dimitrescu, a shining beacon of goth waifuness that brought the country together at a time where we feel more divided than ever. And I think we can all agree that’s a good thing.

2) Metroid Dread

The fact this game even came out is crazy since it’s been hinted at since the DS era. The fact that Metroid Dread came out and is great is even crazier. I’ve played a good chunk of Metroid games at this point, and Dread is easily my favorite now. A lot of this has to do with the controls because Samus has never felt so good to move around with. Exploration, item hunting, and secret finding is as satisfying as ever, but this game takes the bosses fights to a whole other level. I love a game with good boss fights–ones with clear but tricky attack patterns to learn, ones with unique ways of fighting them without feeling to gimmicky, ones where you know the next hour or two in the game will be just on this boss, learning its ins and outs, until you finally beat it–and Metroid Dread has some great, tough, and sticky boss fights. The game is pretty linear when you take a broad look at it, with the developers cleverly using points of no returns and transporters to guide the player in the right direction, but it’s this mix of exploration and guidance that makes Dread the most accessible game in the Metroid series.

1) The Binding of Isaac: Repentance

I agonized a bit on whether or not I was going to put Repentance on this list since it’s only an expansion of a game. But I decided it not only belonged on the list, but also at the top spot, for a few reasons. Mainly, Repentance more than doubles the content in The Binding of Isaac–two new alternate routes, 14 new characters, and a lot of new items, trinkets, cards, enemies, etc. Repentance could easily have been a standalone game. There is also what this expansion means to Isaac as a game and me as a player. It is the final expansion, the last hurrah of my favorite game, the culmination of years of waiting and excitement, and the last time I will get to honor it in a list like this. Most importantly, though, Repentance is the only game I played this year that I want to keep playing. Once I finished Resident Evil Village and Metroid Dread, I was done, but I am still putting time into Repentance pretty much daily. Some days, it’s all I play and I play it for hours. After the shakiness with Afterbirth+, Repentance have brought The Binding of Isaac to the best place it’s been in years, possibly ever, and it is easily my favorite game of 2021.

Quake – Critical Miss #34

Ok, Boomer Shooter

Id Software blew peoples’ minds like a shotgun under the chin with the release of Doom. While not a true 3D game, and not even the first shooter of the style they released, it was such a huge release and its effects on 1st person shooters can still be seen today. The game holds up extremely well today as I discussed in an early Critical Miss. Id would again help shape the foundations of the FPS genre in 1996 with the release of Quake. While it feels rather similar to Doom, the leap forward in technology in just three years meant that Quake could be bigger, more complicated, and, most importantly, truly 3D.

I usually start off these reviews with a short story description. Unfortunately, I cannot begin to say what the story of Quake is. Not because it’s overly complicated, but because I just didn’t pay attention to it. The story comes as text dumps in between episodes, text dumps that come with painfully slow scrolling. I tried reading the first one when it appeared, but quickly got bored and skipped it to get to the next level. I was never concerned about the lack of story because the lack of context it could provide was easily made up in atmosphere.

The sound design of the game is great. Gunshots are impactful and crunchy as they rip monsters apart. Each unearthly creature has their own growl and cry when hit. The soundtrack is ambient and layers on the atmosphere in droning waves. Composed by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, it fits the game perfectly, but tends to be too atmospheric to be memorable to me. 

I played the new remaster of Quake on my Switch and the visuals cleaned up extremely well. Textures are crisp, enemy models are clear, but the simple polygons and repeating stones in the wall help retain the charm of the original game. All the levels have a heavy atmosphere, whether it be a dark castle dungeon, bright castle great hall, or a dank courtyard of a castle. Quake has a lot of castle levels in it. 

The levels themselves are a blast to play through. They are massive and sprawling, able to have pathways run above and below others creating a sense of verticality not present in Doom. This isn’t staying much nowadays, but seeing how Quake was one of the first truly 3D shooters, the fact that the levels are so well designed is incredible. They are deeply explorative, requiring the player to scour the map for keys to progress. There are secrets hidden behind puzzles and sneaky switches lead to better weapons, power-ups, and caches of ammo and health to find. Most levels have unique set pieces and obstacles in them to give them their own identity, but they tend to blur together since they all use similar brown and tan color palettes and locations–again, mainly castles. Sadly, level themes are not the only thing Quake repeats.

While exploring a level and searching for secrets, there will be hordes of enemies to fight through. And the combat in Quake is honestly great. It’s as fast and frantic as Doom, but with the invention of the z-axis, enemies on higher ground now actually have to be aimed at to hit. It’s a small thing, but it makes the game feel that bit more modern than its predecessors. All the enemies fill different roles in the game, ranging from harassing you up close with melee attacks, attacking from afar with ranged explosives and fireballs, or being completely annoying and borderline unfair like the Vores, who shoot homing, exploring balls. Luckily, you have a range of weapons, from shotguns to nail guns to grenade launchers, that work best against different enemy types. Unfortunately, weapon variety leaves a lot to be desired. First you will get a shotgun, then a double barrel shotgun; a nail gun and then a super nail; grenade launcher then a missile launcher. These similar weapons will use the same ammo type, but use that ammo at double the rate. I think the intention was for the players to use the weaker weapons on weaker enemies to converse ammo, but the stronger weapons kill them faster so you’re not actually saving anything in the long run. It’s not a big deal at all, it is just disappointing that half the weapons in the game are copies of other ones.

Like the combat, the pacing in Quake is absurdly fast. The character glides around more than walks like a hockey player barrelling down the rink, the enemies are relentless once they spot you, and the difficulty curve is near perfect. The game is great at introducing trickier puzzles, harder enemies, and better weapons as the player progresses through levels. Until the fourth episode, that is. I don’t know what happened, but the difficult spike between episode three and four is ridiculous and a little obnoxious. The levels in episode three were getting tough, but nothing insurmountable, but episode four gets stupid hard. Strong enemies being brought out before you have strong enough weapons to comfortably deal with them, more limited ammo and armor, puzzles that feel more obtuse than clever, and more of the goddamned Vores with their hellish homing bombs and Spawns that rush you down, can jump clear across a room in an instant, and explode when killed. Levels in episode three usually took about ten minutes with thorough exploration. Levels in episode four were ending at close to twenty minutes of just fighting tooth and nail to get through–and that’s not even accounting for all the time quick saving and quick loading. These levels are not completely unfun, but I found myself getting more frustrated with them than anything.

In the end though, I still thoroughly enjoyed Quake. The difficult spike at the end goes through the roof and I wish there was more weapon variety overall, but the game is still a great cathartic, fast as hell shooter that has aged incredibly well, especially with a coat of high-res paint over it. The game is also massive. If you buy the new remaster, you get the base games, the expansion packs that came out in the 90’s, the Honey level pack made by the studio that developed the new Wolfenstein games, a horde mode, and Quake 64, the original Nintendo 64 port of the game. I didn’t have time to play any of these except a little bit of Honey for this review because I underestimated how large the base game was, but I may have to go back to give this extra content a spin. I’ve discovered since starting this blog that I am a fan of Boomer Shooters, and Quake is the exemplar of the genre I’ve played so far.