Pokémon Snap: Critical Miss #26

Photo by Kimberly AJ. Found at pokemon.fandom.com

Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Pokémon

I’ve discussed my love for the Pokémon franchise before, both in my Nuzlocke post and my review of Pokémon Platinum. While I’ve been playing the main series since childhood, I’ve hardly spent any time with any spinoff game. Sure, I played a little bit of Pokémon Stadium at friends’ houses as a kid and I dabbled in Pokémon Conquest for a short time, but I’ve never played a Mystery Dungeon game, XD Gale of Darkness, or Pokken. Nintendo is about to give fans a new Pokémon Snap game, something they’ve been clammering for since the original released on the N64 in 1999. I thought now would be a great time to play the game and see what makes it one of the most beloved and well-remembered spinoff games in the Pokémon series. 

Although you can name the character at the beginning of the game, canonically his name is Todd Snap. You play as him after he has an encounter with a rare Pokémon and Prof. Oak asks him to help him with research by taking pictures of wild Pokémon. You travel across Pokémon Island where Pokémon roam wild and carefree. The island reminds me of Monster Island from the sillier of the Shōwa Era of Godzilla movies. Despite the game taking place on a single island, there are many different environments to see from scenic beaches to fiery volcanoes, dank caves to lush jungles. 

Photo by Wagnike2. Found at pokemon.fandom.com

The visuals and music are always colorful, upbeat, and cheery, creating a very peaceful and pleasant experience. The graphics have aged just fine in the over twenty years since Snap’s release with the highlight being the Pokémon models themselves. Pokémon Snap was the first time players got to see Pokémon in 3D and, while the models of the creature suffer from the usual N64 blockiness, they are all charming and well animated in the game. One of the biggest appeals to Snap is just seeing Pokémon in their natural habits, enjoying their days, getting into mischief, and just living their best Pokémon lives. It’s something you just couldn’t portray effectively on the original Gameboy games and it’s an aspect of Pokémon that no other game has really tried since. The closest we’ve seen to a return of watching Pokémon roam free is the Wild Area in Sword and Shield, but the frame rate issue and constant pop-in never made that feel organic. Seeing these creatures frolic through their environments adds to the feeling of Snap being a very peaceful game. And that’s before you even account for the gameplay.

Snap is different from most other Pokémon games because you never battle any Pokémon and the only capturing of them you do is with your camera lens. It’s a very “leave only footprints” mentality—well, besides the tracks Prof. Oak apparently left all over the island for the Zero-One, the tracked vehicle you used to navigate the island. Pokémon Snap is a rail shooter similar to a House of the Dead or a Time Crisis, only with a camera instead of a gun. Pokémon will run around, hide, fly, and perform silly acts and it’s up to you to find the best time to take pictures for Prof. Oak to rate.

Oak’s rating system is a fickle thing. It’s based on the size of the Pokémon, the pose they are making, how centered they are in the frame, and sometimes if they are doing a certain action. The guidelines are simple enough for someone like me, with pretty much no skill or knowledge of visual art, to understand, but it seems a bit inconsistent. When comparing two pictures of the same Pokémon, I swear sometimes the one I honestly thought was better got the lower score. It’s not really a big problem though since the game encourages you to replay levels multiple times so there are always new chances to get better photos of Pokémon. The score in general is mostly used as a way to progress through the game.

Photo by Wagnike2. Found at pokemon.fandom.com

Reaching a certain score on your Pokémon Report will unlock new levels to play and new items to use in those levels. There is an apple for luring Pokémon closer to you or other areas, the pester balls that stun Pokémon with noxious gas, and the Pokéflute whose medley inspires Pokémon to dance and perform actions like Picachu using Thundershock. Getting these new items are always fun because they make you look at already completed levels in new ways. Often, you will see Pokémon hiding amongst the environments, but there will be no way to get a good photo of them. If you lure them close with an apple, it becomes possible. The beach stage has a sleeping Snolax you need to wake up with the Pokéflute for the best photo and the pester balls are great for stopping quick Pokémon long enough to take a picture or draw out Pokémon from their hiding places. While levels can sometimes get dull due to being stuck to one track and the Pokémon acting the same way every time, leading to having to mesmerize the levels and the best times to capture a Pokémon’s good side, there are enough secrets to discover in Pokémon Snap to keep it engaging.

From opening up new levels to performing certain tasks to have Pokémon evolve to just finding hidden Pokémon, there are a lot of secrets to discover in Pokémon Snap. It feels a lot like Star Fox 64 in a way with both games being rail shooters and both having secret requirements to unlock new stuff in them. However, Pokémon Snap is much better at informing the player on how to unlock its secrets with clues in the environments. For example: there’s a carving on the wall of the tunnel level showing a large egg with lightning bolts and musical notes over it. So when you see that egg in the level, you know to lure the nearby Picachu over to it and play the Pokéflute. When Picachu uses Thundershock, the egg will hatch into a glittering Zapdos. 

Photo by Wagnike2. Found at pokemon.fandom.com

I purposely played through as much as Pokémon Snap without looking up any secrets and it was very satisfying discovering things on my own. However, I feel there are some things in the game that an average player would never think to do on their own. Best example of this would be discovering Gyrados. This requires in the valley level knocking a Magicarp up a slope into a Mankey, who will then yeet the fish over a nearby mountain. Later in the level, the Magicarp will fall on land in front of a waterfall and you must quickly knock it into the waterfall where it will evolve into Gryados. It is more obtuse and requires more steps than anything else in the game that it feels sort of out of place—I don’t envy anyone who had to figure this out on their own.

Pokémon Snap is a perfect playground game—a game you and your friends would swap secrets and advice about at school. It’s a breed of game that excelled in the 90’s before the internet was the omnipresent force it is today, where being stuck in a game only lasts as long as it takes to type in the problem into Google. Because of this, I wish I had played Pokémon Snap as a kid more than any other game I’ve reviewed for Critical Miss. The game is still very enjoyable playing today with its serene and chill gameplay and being able to see Pokémon roaming wild in a way we haven’t really seen since. It is a short game, able to be beaten on a first playthrough in a few hours, but that’s becoming less of a fault for me as I grow older and my amount of free time is growing smaller and smaller, like a Lapras swimming into the ocean horizon. 

Photo by Wagnike2. Found at pokemon.fandom.com

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.

Prey (2017) & the GLOO Cannon

Prey is an immersive sim meaning a lot of emphasis is placed on open-ended missions and level design, exploration for resources, and player freedom while surviving in the space station, Talos I. Through skill trees, you can spec in many different character builds that fits your gameplay style. Maybe you want to avoid enemies all together and be a sneaky hacker or have the many turrets and security bots fight for you after you repair them, maybe you want to face the enemies head on by focusing on guns and the leverage skill so you can hurl sofas and water coolers at them. The game caters to however you want to play, but no matter how you choose to build your character, there is always one common denominator: the GLOO Cannon is the most useful tool in your inventory.

The Gelifoam Lattice Organism Obstructor (GLOO) Cannon was not made to be a weapon; it’s a tool. It’s only through the ingenuity of the player character, Morgan Yu, that it has any use in a fight. The Cannon shoots out globs of foam that stick to surfaces, expanding and hardening into about basketball-sized clumps. Apparently these hardened clumps are called “splats,” but they look more like pieces of popcorn to me so that is how I will refer to them. This popcorn doesn’t do any damage to enemies on its own, but it does slow them down and completely immobilize them after enough has formed on them. The helpfulness of this cannot be overstated since all enemies in the game are extremely fast, zipping around rooms unbelievably quickly. If you do not slow these creatures down, they will quickly close in and take a bite out of you. The GLOO cannon is very useful to hold them in one place so you can go on the offensive. Luckily, besides just being slowed down, enemies encased in the GLOO take increased damage, especially from the wrench. You’ll quickly find yourself relying on a quick GLOO Cannon to wrench flowchart while fighting enemies—similar to the Electro Bolt to wrench combo in Bioshock and it’s just as satisfying here as in that game.

Again, though, the GLOO Cannon was never meant to be used as a weapon, it was designed as a tool and with that comes uses for it outside of combat. The first uses you’ll learn is to use the GLOO Cannon to take care of hazards around Talos I. Since the popcorn is nonconductive, it can be used to cover broken electrical panels shooting lightning out into the room. Once covered, you can repair the panel in order to stop the lightning if you specced into that build or simply walk past it and deal with it again when returning to the area. The popcorn is also flame retardant, so spray it on a burst of fire coming from a broken pipe and you can safely pass. These are all interesting little uses, but they are very situational. It aids exploration by reducing hazards, but GLOO Cannon’s real use outside of combat is how it lets the player access new areas.

The GLOO can be formed on any surface besides glass and is strong enough to even support the weight of a human being. This means that the Cannon can be used by the player to create climbable popcorn staircases to access out of reach areas or rooms that would typically need a much longer route to enter. You may discover this by accident, by missing an enemy and hitting a wall, but if not, the developers left a few examples of these stairs hanging off walls around Talos I. This technique reminds me so much of the wall jump from Super Metroid—it’s handled as a bonus use that helps you navigate the game world in not the obvious way, but players don’t actually ever need to use it to succeed and they may not even ever discover it. It all depends on how involved in the game you get—how far down the blackhole you fall.

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