Super Mario Odyssey & Player Rewards

When I was fourteen, I got my first Nintendo DS. Along with it came a copy of Super Mario 64 DS. I didn’t know at the time that it was a port of an Nintendo 64 game, I didn’t even know what the term “port” meant in that context, nor did I care. Super Mario 64 is such a great game, it didn’t matter that it was clunkier to control with the d-pad, I fell in love with it. It was one of the first moments I can remember of realizing games can be something truly special. And, much like how they revolutionized 3D games with Super Mario 64, Nintendo would completely rewrite the script on 3D platformers again over 20 years later with Super Mario Odyssey.

Mario Odyssey is a phenomenal game. It’s easily my favorite Mario game and probably sits in my top 10 games of all time. Recently, I played through the entire game again and I was constantly reminded of how good it is, how impeccably designed, how fun to play, how satisfying it is. And it is that one aspect that piqued my interest in my last playthrough: satisfaction. A common complaint I’ve seen against Odyssey is that there are too many Moons and players can collect them so often that they lose their value and stop feeling special. I’ve never felt this way and, in fact, feel that this complaint ties directly into the main design of the game. Odyssey constantly awards players’ curiosity and exploration to give them a sense of fun and satisfaction.

There are many ways to reward players: experience points for levels, skill points for unlocks, leader boards for competitive games. Being a 3D collectathon, Super Mario Odyssey rewards players with collectibles. Be it coins, purple tokens, or Power Moons, every level of Odyssey is filled to the brim with things to grab and collect. Besides collectibles, the levels are just full of stuff in general. It has some of the most densely packed level design I’ve ever seen but, thanks to the standard Nintendo polish, the worlds you explore never feel cluttered or sloppy. 

The collectables are the main tool the designers push players to explore the levels thoroughly and challenge themselves to find everything because they are actually worth something in Odyssey. In Super Mario 64, Power Stars were collected to unlock new levels and coins are only collected to restore health and get certain Stars. While the Power Moons in Odyssey only unlock progress, similar to 64’s Stars, coins have much more importance. Along with the purple tokens, which are needed to purchase level specific souvenirs and stickers for Mario’s ship, the Odyssey, coins can be used to purchase new outfits in the shop. This is so highly incentivized that upon death, the player doesn’t lose a life, but a handful of coins. The outfits, souvenirs, and stickers don’t actually have any gameplay effects, but they are still strangely addicting to collect. They add so much charm to the game—especially the outfits which can be mixed and matched to make Mario look utterly ridiculous. 

Even the enemies work as collectibles in a way. Mario can possess certain enemies by throwing his cap onto them and there is a whole bestiary-like list of all of them in the game. When possessing an enemy, the player has access to their special abilities. This replaces the standard power ups of a Mario game, but the creativity and variety enemy possession offers is unparalleled. The first thing in the game I wanted to complete was the enemy list because they were so much fun to control. It is always exciting in the game to stumble upon a new enemy and throw your cap at it for the first time, to see what new moves it’ll have and how it will open up the world around you.

So the designers fill a level with Power Moons, coins, purple trinkets, and enemies to play with and drop the player in the middle of it. The first time in the level, there will be an objective to complete but how you get there and how long it takes is up to the player. It’s tough to go from point A to B when there is a playground of things to do, collectables to be grabbed, and fun to be had in between. The designers know this too and smartly do not discourage players from going off the critical path. In fact, they encourage it. They use collectibles to catch the player’s eye and lead them to different areas. They use landmarks in the distance to keep pushing players forward. Finally, when a player fully understands Mario’s special jumps and movement abilities, they tease players with areas that seem to be out of reach.

Some of the best moments in the game are when you see a ledge that is slightly too high to jump to or an area just out of reach and think to yourself ‘I can get up there.’ So after a series of wall jumps, air dives, and cap bounces, you make it some place you’re seemingly not supposed to access and there is always something there for you. Sometimes it’s a secret Power Moon, but usually it’s just coins. But that’s ok because it feels like a wink from the developer, it feels like an in-joke between you and them and they are congratulating you. There is a staggering amount of depth to the movement options in the game and it feels good to accomplish a tricky jump to an area that seems like it would have been forgotten by the developers only to be rewarded. 

Collecting these Power Moon, coins, and outfits never stops feeling satisfying. It preys on the part of the human brain that likes feeling they’ve accomplished a task, no matter how simple, the part that likes filling out checklists and seeing things tidy and complete. It’s the same part of the brain that the game industry preys upon with loot boxes and limited time character skins. But this satisfying feeling is used for good instead of evil in Super Mario Odyssey because it requires nothing from the player besides skill and patience, no additional money or microtransactions, and I believe that makes it even more satisfying. 

It’s truly amazing how Ninendo can create seminal, groundbreaking games time and time again. But it’s not really surprising when you consider the attention to detail and focus they put into their games. Nintendo’s policy has always been to put fun first and that shines clear in Super Mario Odyssey in how they constantly reward the players’ curiosity. They provide playgrounds just begging to be explored and cover them with things for the player to find so there is no moment lacking satisfaction. This is why I seriously consider Super Mario Odyssey one of the most fun games to simply play.

Paratopic Review

August has been a hell of month for me. Between personal issues, vet appointments for my cat, and the power adapter of my Xbox 360 getting fried, I didn’t have time to complete the game I had intended to review for Critical Miss this month. But I wanted to get a short post up anyway, so I decided to review a short game I recently experienced.

Paratopic is a first-person horror experience. I remember hearing about the game when it came out, but I didn’t know much about it besides it was short and the graphics were apparently creepy. This won’t be an in depth review due to the short length of the game and lack of hard mechanics in general, but I want to discuss some things that really got to me.

You play as three characters in Paratopic: a hiker trying to catch a photo of a rare bird, a smuggler transporting illegal VHS tapes across the border, and an assassin as they perform a hired hit. A lot of the fun in the game comes from trying to unravel each character’s storyline. Since there are no character features on display and the story jumps from moment to moment, it’s up to the player to pick apart the plot. This goes a long way to immerse the player. Since the game lacks a lot of moment-to-moment gameplay, the best way to engage the player is to give them something to think about as they play. The mystery of the plot and who you are playing as is a constant in the back of your head while playing through the game. As you are forced to search around for context clues, you have to study the world. You get so drawn in that you even start to notice when things are slightly off.

The visuals do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the horror, but there are hardly any overtly scary moments in the game. Paratopic excels at getting under your skin and unsettling the player. The game is bathed in the dying light of a perpetual sunset and the art style is reminiscent of early 3D games from the PS1 or Quake era. Everything is orange or brown or deep black darkness. But it’s the subtleties that shine through in the visuals. Characters’ faces will slide around the model of their heads, landscapes are jagged and harsh, and the textures constantly change on the trees as you walk through them, making them seem to pulsate and bubble like one of Lovecraft’s soggoths.

I think my favorite way the game unnerves the player is with the scene cuts. Each time the game moves to the next character or next part of the sorry, there is not a smooth transition or expected jump during a usual story beat. It just cuts in the middle of an action and you are in a new location. You might be walking along a cliff, watching it twist out in front of you, and think you have a long way to walk, but no—cut and you are driving in a car. The transitions are never expected and extremely jarring. They just make you feel uncomfortable through the entire playthrough because you never know when the next cut is coming up. They almost act as jump scares without actually resorting to jump scares in the game and it’s extremely clever.

I’m not going to spoil any of the story or any of the surprises or scares here. Paratopic is so short, about an hour long max, so just play through it if you are interested. The game is an incredibly effective horror experience by how it works to unnerve the player. I don’t get actually scared from a lot of media anymore, but Paratopic did manage to get under my skin a bit. I would compare it to an Ari Aster film like Hereditary. The unrelenting tension and atmosphere has you on edge even while nothing horrifying is happening directly on screen. 

Pokémon & the Nuzlocke Challenge

If I had to choose a video game series as my all time favorite, I would have to choose Pokémon. I started playing the series when I was 8 years old and even though I skipped the 4th and 5 generation, I’ve been back in the series strong since X & Y. I love this series, but I’ll be the first to admit the games are all generally the same. The core gameplay loop of collecting Pokémon to train them and build a strong team is so solid and fun that the sameness doesn’t bother me. It also helps that the games are built to be simple on the surface, but deep and complex for people willing to put in the time to EV train and breed perfect Pokémon. I’ve never gotten into any of that, but I do enjoy a good Nuzlocke run to add a little difficulty and tension to a playthrough.

A Nuzlocke mode is meant to make a playthrough of any Pokémon game more challenging by adding some restrictions to play. There are three main rules to a Nuzlocke challenge:

  1. You can only catch the first Pokémon you meet on a new route or area (cave, forest, etc.). If you fail to catch that Pokémon, you can not catch another one for that area.
  2. If a Pokémon faints, it is considered dead and must be released, never to be used again.
  3. Every Pokémon you catch must be nicknamed.

Due to these restrictions, it is actually possible to get a game over in a Pokémon game if you have a team wipe and have no more backup Pokémon to use in battle. Other rules can be applied to main ones too, like only using Pokémon Centers a limited number of times or not at all. I play my Nuzlocke runs with two additional rules being no healing items in battles and no catching duplicate Pokémon. Adding a little more difficulty to a game series I know like the back of my hand was the main reason I decided to do my first ever Nuzlocke run with LeafGreen. The reason I ended up loving the format, however, was because of how it recontextualized the entire game and made me appreciate the series on a deeper level.

When you first wander out into the Pokémon world, be it Kanto, Johto, Galar, or any other region, there is an excitement to every new route. Playing the game regularly, you can catch as many Pokémon as you’d like, but in a Nuzlocke the first Pokémon to appear will be your new friend and teammate. It’s the same type of excitement one gets from opening booster packs of trading cards. You might get a rare pull like a 4% chance to spawn a Ralts, or just another Rattata. But this randomness also forces players to build usual teams and use Pokémon they may have overlooked in the past. For my most recent Nuzlocke, I played Pokémon Sword and caught a Vanillite early on. I would never have thought to put one on my team before because I always prefer dual-type Pokémon, but my Vanillite, named Minnesota, became a staple of my team. They were with me from the first gym all the way to defeating the champion. 

The rule forcing players to nickname their Pokémon also helps deepen the affection felt towards them. It wasn’t just any Vanillite fighting, it was my Minnesota. The nicknames help differentiate them from other Pokémon and lets the player create little personalities for them too. I had a Mudsdale named Pokey and they were an absolute beast. With high attack and defense, they could dish out pain and take it in turn, especially with their ability Stamina, which raised their defense everytime they took damage. They were the wall that I depended on in so many battles and they couldn’t be stopped. At least until we came across a Durant with Guillotine, a 1 hit KO move with a 30% hit rate. One unlucky role of the dice later and my Pokey was gone.

It can be absolutely heartbreaking to lose a Pokémon in a Nuzlocke challenge. To prevent this, you will have to fight hard and get creative. Even though you have little control over what Pokémon you are able to catch, you do options of what moves they can learn. One of the best things that the later games in the series did was make TMs (items that allow you to teach a Pokémon a certain move instantly) reusable. This allows the player to experiment with the moveset of a Pokémon because they don’t have to worry about wasting the TM on the wrong Pokémon, or, in the case of a Nuzlocke run, one that dies later one.

Experimentation and type coverage with moves is crucial in a Nuzlocke challenge where you may not be able to craft your team to cover all 18 different types effectively. It becomes quickly apparent that doing super effective damage is better than STAB (Same Type Attack Bonus) damage. If you can’t knock an opposing Pokémon down quickly, it just gives it more time to do damage and possibly surprise you with a super effective attack that you may not have seen coming. During my last Nuzlocke, I had a Perrserker named Randy Moss that I taught Thunder to for water and flying coverage. It was a weird choice and one I would never have thought of unless I had to find a way to deal with gaps in my team composition. 

While there is always some strategy involved in Pokémon, when you turn each batte into a life or death struggle, you have to think much harder about your decisions. I went into the championship with only four Pokémon: a Haxorus named Battleaxe, a Golisopod named Wimberdon, a Musharna named Piglett, and my Vanilluxe, Minnesota. All I remembered about the finals from my previous playthrough was the dragon leader had a pain-in-ass steel/dragon type Duraludon and that Leon had a rather scary Charizard. So I had to get creative again. Wimberdon was given Brick Break to contend with the Duraludon and Battleaxe learned Rock Throw to help deal with Leon’s Charizard. I knew that the dragon leader’s Pokémon revolved around changing the weather to benefit his team, so I used Vanilluxe’s ability Snow Warning and the attack Hail to keep the weather tilted out of his favor. This also gave Vanilluxe’s strongest attack, Blizzard, a 100% hit rate instead of 70%.

These examples are why I enjoy the Nuzlocke format of playing Pokémon so much. I have always loved the series, but I learn more about its complexities with each different Nuzlocke run. First, I learned the type advantages beyond the basic fire beats grass which beats water. Next, I learned the real difference between basic and special attack/defense and which Pokémon should specialize in which. Then there was changing up moveset for type coverage, different strategies for dealing with tricky opponents, and deeper and deeper Scorbunny hole goes

I cannot stress enough how much I love this method of playing Pokémon. The Nuzlocke challenge changes a simple and already immensely fun series into a nail-biting endeavour for veteran players with higher stakes, more to gamble with risky plays, and an emotional investment in the little creatures battling for you, with a razor’s edge between crushing defeat and soaring victories. It is a great way to explore the depths of the Pokémon series. If you are like me and are beyond a casual player of the series but not interested in breeding and training a competitive team, I highly suggest giving a Nuzlocke run a try and see what new it teaches you. Just don’t come crying to me when you lose your favorite Pokémon.

Star Fox 64 – Critical Miss #18

Captains Log. Star date: 1997

In 1997, I was 7 years old. I liked video games, but I hadn’t hit my first wave of love with the medium. That would come in the next couple years with the release of Pokemon Red & Blue and Digimon World. I was only slightly aware a thing called the Nintendo 64 existed at the time. The only person I knew with one was my older brother’s friend and they didn’t like having a kid brother tagging along with them much. This means I missed out on the Nintendo games of the time. I got to try a few like Mario 64, Pokemon Stadium, and GoldenEye 007, but many I didn’t even know existed until much later in life. Like Star Fox 64 released in 1997, a game I never heard about until YouTube game reviewers became a thing. All of them praised the game for being a classic and, when I found a copy of the 3DS version on sale, I wanted to try it for myself.

The story of Star Fox 64 is a Nintendo classic. A bad guy (Andross) is doing bad things and it’s up to the good guys (the Star Fox team) to stop him (shoot him with lasers). Small level introductions to give context for what you are doing at any giving time. The Star Fox team is composed of Fox McCloud, Slippy Toad, Peppy Hare, and Falco Lombardi. You will see these characters throughout the levels as they pop up on Fox’s comms device where they can offer tips and tricks, but most often will just yell for help. It’s these small moments that show the characters’ personalities. Slippy always needs help, Falco is a cocky asshole, and Peppy knew Fox’s dad and not much else.

The presentation is solid and has the polish expected from a Nintendo game. While the 3DS version has better graphics across the board, the level design and structure was built around simple geometry that was possible on the N64 and it still works today. Nothing about the levels felt old school or dated like a lot of other 5th generation games tend feel today. The music takes obvious inspiration from sci-fi epics like Star Wars and the compositions are amazing, with songs being able to feel epic and soaring while still only using electronic instruments. 

There are minor changes between the N64 to the 3DS versions of Star Fox 64. The 3DS version allows players to use motion controls to aim their sights, which I didn’t use, cut scenes can be skipped after viewing once, and there was a score attack mode added to let players play any level to try to get the best score. Overall, the based game itself is the same in both versions with gameplay being untouched. Which is good for someone like me, where gameplay is the most important aspect of video games.

Controlling Fox as you pilot different vehicles across planets, nebulas, and space stations all while blasting enemies with lasers and narrowing maneuvering through gaps and around obstacles is thrilling. Levels are broken up into on-rail or all-range modes. All-range mode means you are free to pilot your Arwing freely with 360 degrees of movement in any direction. This seems pretty standard until you realize most of the game’s levels are on-rail style, with one path that your ship can head down and your main concern is blowing up enemies and avoiding collisions with the environment. Star Fox 64 is almost a straight reimagining of old arcade shoot em ups like Galaxian or Gradius in 3D in these on-rail levels where enemies emerge and attack in set patterns. Even the levels are quick and action packed like the arcade games, usually only lasting a few minutes at most. Another thing it has in common with those old arcade games is replayability.

When booting up the game, the player is met with the Lylat System, a small solar system with a handful of planets, a sun, an asteroid belt, and some nebulas. A natural first playthrough will see the player just beating the levels and moving on to the next, but this will lock them out of over half the levels. That’s because each level has a secret path that can be found. Sometimes the missions are stated directly by a member of the Star Fox team, like shooting the train switches in Macbeth. Other times, the secret goal is kept hidden from the player, like getting a high enough score in Sector Y or flying through land rings in the Corneria. These additional objectives are great because they encourage exploration and replayability to find, but they also date the game in an interesting way.

I remember those Wild Western days of 90’s video games. The internet was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, meaning secrets in games were not a simple Google search away. Often, you had to rely on friends who might have found them or gaming magazines like Nintendo Power to give hints of what were hidden in the games you played. You probably did not have as many games to play either, lacking disposable income and needing people to buy them for you. It’s in this era where replayability in games was extremely valuable. Playing the same game, or the same section of a game, for hours was common as you slowly peeled away at it. And Star Fox 64 is very much a game of this era. Especially with a lot of the hidden objectives being rather obtuse, it’s easy to imagine kids of the late 90’s spending hours trying to discover everything the game had to offer, eyes glued to a CRT TV, weird M-shaped N64 controller clutched in their hands.

Exploring levels and finding secrets also helps you find power ups. These are additional ammo for your bombs, upgrades to your lasers, and gold rings, collecting three of which will extend your health bar and every three after that gives you a 1 up. These powers up are vital to succeeding at level, most notable Venom 2, the hard version of the last level. This is an all-range level where you must fight it out with Star Wolf, a rival team of mercenaries hired by Andross. It is easily the hardest level in the game, but if you don’t have the full Star Fox team backing you up or fully upgraded levels and health, it is nearly impossible to win. Star Wolf are very quick to evade or shield when shooting at them, so if you are lacking in fire power, your DPS will not be high enough to get ahead of the damage done to you and your teammates. And once all your teammates are down, all of Star Wolf tail you mercilessly, constantly pelting you with lasers and scattering when you u-turn, only to end up behind you again. This level took way more tries than it should have for me to finish and had me swearing into my 3DS the entire time.

Nothing else in Star Fox 64 frustrated me to the extent of Venom 2, but the Landmaster and Blue Marine levels did annoy me. Together, they only make up 3 stages, but they are both so slow, with the Landmaster being a tank and the Blue Marine being a submarine, and both being similar yet different enough from controlling like the Arwing that I wish they would have been replaced with more fast-paced, exhilarating flight levels. The Blue Marine level, Aquas, feels especially pointless. It is the only level with the Blue Marine, which controls exactly like the Arwing but half as slow, and the level is just dark, dank, and unappealing. I would have preferred this level to at least be another Landmaster level and give that playstyle more room to explore ideas. The differing vehicles are meant to add variety, but they control so similarly to the Arwing and are utilized in so few levels, that they never feel fully realized or interesting.

Star Fox 64 is a fun game and rightfully regarded as a classic of the N64. With tight gameplay and an emphasis on replayability, it’s no wonder it is still remembered fondly today. But I’m not sure I would highly recommend it to a modern player. I just can’t see someone going in blind and dedicating the time to find all the hidden paths. Even if they do go through all the different routes, it is still a very short game. You can see everything it has in only a few hours. But maybe that’s a selling point to some. The least I can say is that it’s an interesting little time capsule of the design mentalities of the 5th generation of games, floating cold in space, ready to be cracked open and explored again.

Dying Light & 1st Person Platforming

I’ve never been much into zombies. While they are not something I purposefully avoid, I don’t find myself drawn by media revolving around them. Before playing Dying Light, the last game I played involving zombies was Death Road to Canada. There is an interesting similarity with how both games handle the zombies hordes; that is, as something that should be avoided wherever possible. In Death Road to Canada, a 2D indie roguelike, there’s not much to do but try and kite around the zombie, keeping as much distance between them and you as possible. Dying Light, a full 3D, 1st person open world game, uses a parkour mechanic to let the player jump, climb, and run high above the zombies’ reach. And it is some of the best use of platforming I’ve seen in a 1st person game.

Platforming in 1st person games is nothing new, of course. Doom had “platforming” elements in 1993 by asking players to run across gaps in the floor. Half-Life had the infamous Xen levels, where the player was expected to platform across an alien planet. Mirror’s Edge was a 1st person game built around freerunning and parkour in 2009. Even more modern games like Doom (2016) and Titanfall 2 use double jumps, ledge grabs, and wallrunning to add a sense of platforming to set them apart from other FPSs. But none of these games have the openness and freedom to explore as Dying Light offers.

Set in the fictional city of Harran, the game is split into two large maps: the Slums and Old Town. The Slums are made up of buildings and shacks closely confined together. There is a giant highway overpass above and cutting through the map. Old Town, on the other hand, feels more like a Mediterranean city, filled with narrow streets, taller brick buildings, towers, and chimneys jutting out of slated roofs. Both maps are tightly packed, sometimes even cluttered, and they would have been frustrating to navigate in another 1st person game limited to the ground, but the close proximity of the buildings in Dying Light makes it easy for the player to jump and climb, saying off the zombie infested ground.

The design of the maps focuses on the freerunning. There are routes specifically designed not to break the player’s flow with street lights placed the perfect distance apart to jump to, boards curving around building corners, and ramps to jump from lead you open windows or piles of garbage to staying fall into. This can guide the player along easy paths, but the almost chaotic nature of the maps’ designs also allow free exploration. Every building has a way to climb, be it window grates, awnings, or extruding brick work. Not only does this let the player explore and find their own route through Harran, but if you do mess up and plummet into a group of zombies, it’s just a matter of a quick look around to find a way above them again. The platforming is free-flowing and open for experimentation, which is rare in most AAA games with platforming elements. It’s not as laid out and linear as in the Titanfall 2 nor is it as obvious as in games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Doom (2016) which use colors to indicate what ledges can and cannot be used to climb.

With AAA games being a hodgepodge of differing gameplay elements and genres, it’s usually hard to describe any big budget game with a single genre. Dying Light itself is an open-world, 1st person action/adventure game. But it is as much of a platformer as any of those other descriptions. The climbing and jumping is integral to the game as one of the main loops, not an extra feature for the back of the box. Going back to Doom (2016) again, while jumping and verticality is important in a fight, most real platforming challenges reward the players with collectibles and secrets. Stripping out the platforming would make the game feel much more linear, but the main gameplay loop of fast paced demon killing would be kept completely intact. Dying Light would be a completely different game without the parkour system and would, at best, be just another zombie game, but with really limb melee combat. 

With parkour being a main focus of the game, its platforming controls have to be very tight, something many 1st person games struggle with, and luckily they are in Dying Light. The jump button is mapped to the shoulder button and it takes some getting used to, but once you learn to continue holding the jump button to grab ledges you’re aiming for, the controls click. There is the perfect amount of stickiness to grabbing ledges. The frames to grab climbable objects are strict enough to feel satisfying, but still lenient enough not to be frustrating. It strikes the perfect balance between being loose enough to be forgiving but tricky enough to be interesting. The game also understands the limits of the 1st person perspective. There is hardly any jumping on small platforms, an annoyance of the early FPS, and when there is, crossing them is a matter of keeping up speed and fluid running more so than jumping from platform to platform. 

Dying Light has a great understanding of what it can and cannot do with its platforming and how to make it fun, which makes it a real shame in the later half of the game when you enter Old Town. Out of the two maps, I prefer Old Town to run across. It’s taller buildings and ziplines make it more entertaining to parkour across. But the missions in this part of the game rely less on finding ways across the map and more on linear indoor or sewer levels. There are still platforming to be done in these areas, but they feel much less open, with there only being one, “correct” way for you to climb. It’s still fun to find that way around these levels, but missing the freedom of movement of the open maps makes these moments feel very restrictive.

I originally had an idea for this post that I would compare the platforming in Titanfall 2 and Doom (2016) to see which one was handled better in the 1st person perspective. But then a friend recommended Dying Light, saying it had the best platforming in a 1st person game they’ve played. After playing it myself, I would have to agree. It emphasizes the platforming more so than the other games and that forced it to be as good as possible, with tight controls and freedom of movement. There is a stigma around 1st person platforming and a belief that it just can’t work, which is sad because it could limit future games from offering new, differing experiences. Dying Light shows how fun platforming can be in a 1st person game if it is paid the right amount of attention during design. I hope we see more games like it in the future. More than just Dying Light 2, that is.

Vanquish – Critical Miss #17

Voom, Voom, Shoot, Shoot

I missed out on the scourge of cover based shooters in the 2010’s. My only real experience with the genre was a little bit of Gears of War with an ex in college, which I found pretty dull, and half of the first Uncharted game that came free with my PS4, which was fine but the combat seemed to rely too much on memorizing enemy spawns. To be honest, none of the games ever looked that interesting to me. That was until I saw Vanquish. Released in 2010, the game was directed by Shinji Mikami and developed by Platinum Games, a combination that seems made to appeal to myself specifically. The thing that truly caught my eye when I first saw it was the gameplay: the speed, movement, and hyperactive nature no cover based shooter has shown before or since.

The reason for this fast paced gameplay is because the main character, Sam, is equipped with a DARPA design power suit that lets him slide around with rocket jets. This allows the player to skid across the combat arena at obscene speeds to change cover and maneuver around enemies. The suit also allows Sam to activate a bullet time mechanic. This happens either by aiming down a gun’s sights while dodging or when critically low on health, which is useful because, like most things in the game, damage racks up fast and death comes quickly if not played carefully. 

The rocket boots and slo mo mechanic leads to one of the two things that Vanquish is built around: speed and movement. Speed is an obvious key aspect to a game with rocket boots as a main mechanic. However, the importance of speed is also emphasized in Vanquish because most enemies stay at the same speed. Very few enemies move particularly quick, prefer to sit behind cover and hardly ever rush you down, and because of this Sam’s speed gives him a direct advantage. The high speed of the rocket slide gives him the ability to change positions faster than the enemies can react and the low speed of the bullet time let’s him hold enemies in place to load bullets in them.

Movement is the other major aspect that the game excels in, but it’s not just Sam’s own movement abilities where this is shown. The best levels in the game are where parts of the level themselves are moving. There’s a level where the enemies are on conveyor belts slowing going down the middle of the room; another where Sam and the marines travelling by a freight transporter on rails and the enemies are attacking from another transport as the rails move them up above and to either side of the player. This allows the enemies to reposition without having to leave cover, making them harder to hit and much more interesting to fight.

I haven’t talked much about the story of Vanquish yet and that’s because there really isn’t much to say. The game starts with Russia invading a US space station and using a giant microwave beam to wreak havoc on San Francisco. Sam is sent into the station along with some marines launching an attack to stop them. Both Sam and the leader of the marines, Burns, have Shinji Mikami’s trademark over the top machismo to them, but it’s played too straight to be as deliciously ridiculous as Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 4. Overall, I was left underwhelmed by the story. I was expecting absurd set pieces and tongue in cheek irony from Mikami and Platinum Games, but only found a bare bones story with little to keep me engaged.

This is why I started to resent the game slightly anytime it slowed to crawl to dumb exposition. The cut scenes were fun enough to watch, but it seemed like every new mission started with Sam walking through an empty room at a glacial pace while talking to his mission control Metal Gear Solid style. I was having fun with the gameplay and these moments makes the game feel extremely stilted. 

The stilted feeling bleeds into gameplay too because the game starts to feel repetitive by the end. With a lack of enemy designs and repeating bosses, the combat moments blur together, giving a feeling of déjà vu as you wonder ‘Haven’t I done this before?’ What would have helped was using more of a variety of weapons, but I didn’t see a use for the more unique weapons like the disc launcher, LFE gun, or laser cannon. This might be because I never bothered to use them enough to upgrade them, but I was having fun enough with just an assault rifle, boosted machine gun, and sniper rifle, occasionally a rocket launcher for a tough enemy. 

This isn’t to say Vanquish is not fun because it definitely is. Boosting around the battlefield with rocket boots, shooting up enemies and slowing time for better shots is a blast. A lackluster story and some pacing issues are not enough to take away from the solid core gameplay loop in the center of the game. The game is short, but it is the perfect length for a game of its type, spending just enough time to explore its unique mechanics and ending before the repetition got too tedious. Vanquish gets a recommendation from me, especially if you can find a cheap copy, which should be hard due to the game not selling well at release and falling into cult favorite stardom. Which is pretty perfect for a game as unique and fun, but also flawed as Vanquish.

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.