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.

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.

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

Banjo-Kazooie – Critical Miss #22

Bear Pace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spelunky 2: Game of the Year – 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bioshock & Plasmids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resident Evil 4 & 3rd Person Controls

The first Resident Evil game I ever played was Resident Evil 4. I first played it to completion little over two years ago and I fell instantly in love with it. The gameplay was intense and powerful, the story was campy and dumb in the best way, and even the briefcase menu screen made inventory management fun. I knew the game’s place in history and how it changed up the formula from previous Resident Evil games at the time, but it wasn’t until I played those earlier games that I understood how different, but oddly similar, the fourth game in the series was to its kin. And all it took was a simple change in the camera.

Resident Evil 4 was the first mainline game in the series to abandon the fixed camera angles in favor of an over-the-shoulder 3rd person camera. And, while every game in the series previous was a mix of action and horror, Resident Evil 4 focused much more on the action side of the gameplay, being mainly a 3rd person shooter and leaving much of the survival horror aspects of the series behind. There are still effective moments of horror in the game like the Regenerator enemies the sewer section with the invisible bug creatures, but the game focuses much more on action and tension created by the relentlessness of the enemies. I think the shift in the camera is the culprit for this gameplay and tonal shift. 

In the early Resident Evil games, each room, hallway, and staircase had a fixed camera, or multiple, to show the area. They could not be moved in any way and were mostly implemented due to hardware limitations. But the designers discovered an interesting side effect from the restrictive camera system: claustrophobia. With the limited view and narrow level design, the early games instill a sense of tightness in the player, a sense of being trapped and not knowing what to expect in upcoming areas. The camera in Resident Evil 4 is used to create a similar feeling, but by different means.

The camera in Resident Evil 4 hangs just behind Leon’s shoulder, following behind him as he explores the decrepit Spanish village. Even though the camera can be moved around, its movement is smartly locked in a certain degree of movement where Leon is facing. This still limits the view on the player, especially with Leon’s model taking up quite a bit of the screen. With this restriction, the game still has a sense of tightness and claustrophobia to it, even with its much more open level design. You never know when a village is shuffling up behind you or even just outside your peripheral vision. Many modern 3rd person shooters like Control offer a free camera, able to look any direction regardless of where the character is facing, but this just wouldn’t have worked for Resident Evil 4

At its core, Resident Evil 4 is still a horror game, even though it focuses more on action. Without the dank, cramped environments of the previous games to provide scares, Resident Evil 4 uses complete relentlessness. When in combat, there are many enemies coming from all sides. The limited camera makes it impossible to keep track of all enemies at once and this allows them to sneak up out of view and grab Leon unexpectedly. The developers know this too and use it to apply stress to the player, having enemies come at you from all angles. Often you will be backing away from an approaching village right into the hands of another. Every combat encounter turns into a balance act of killing the enemies in front of you while also keeping mental tallies on any you know who are coming near and keep your distance from them all. 

Besides hounding Leon from all directions, the enemies have been designed around the new camera in other ways. The villagers are typically slow moving to accommodate the narrow camera and stiff tank controls, but they can jog in quick bursts to gain distance on Leon. They can close distance surprisingly fast if not tended to, but the game gives the player ways to deal with that. Enemies become stunned when they take enough damage, stopping to clutch their legs or head or wherever they’ve been shot. Shoot them in the legs enough and they become staggered, allowing Leon to roundhouse kick them. This is an important technique to learn because it not only does damage and can hit multiple enemies, but it gives you invincibility frames and sends the enemies flying back. An up close blast from a shotgun also knocks enemies a good distance, granting you a little bit of breathing room and precious seconds to assess the situation and make a plan.

The majority of enemies are melee, with a few having ranged weaponry or tossing their axes or sickles at you from afar. You would think that in a 3rd person shooter, most enemies would also be armed with guns. This is indeed the case for most games in the genre, but those types of enemies would not have worked in Resident Evil 4. While the combat can be hectic, with snap decisions needed in the heat of a fight, the camera and controls give the shooting a more slow-paced and methodical feel. With the enemies being slow and having to reach Leon first to damage him, the player has plenty of time to focus the camera where it needs to be, to run to spot where they are safe enough to stop and shoot, to even dash past enemies if they are overwhelmed, low on ammo, or just don’t to waste the bullets to fight.

Resident Evil 4’s combat is some of the best out there, especially for an over-the shoulder camera system. It not only shaped action games at the time, but its influence can still be felt today. Take the 2018 God of War. The camera is as close to Kratos in that game as it is to Leon in Resident Evil 4, but the latter is a methodical shooter while God of War is a fast paced hack and slash. The camera’s closeness to Kratos never felt like it worked as well as it should. The game constantly had to have immersion-breaking indicators and arrows pointing to enemies off screen or throwing range attacks. The game mitigates this a bit by limiting the enemies to face in individual encounters compared to other games in the series, but it doesn’t handle the shift in the camera perspective as well as Resident Evil 4 had over a decade earlier.

It must be frightening to design a new game in a series so radically different than its predecessors. It has to retain what fans loved about the earlier games and the new stuff has to be as good enough for players to enjoy immediately. This must be why Miyamoto spent the few months of Super Mario 64’s development perfecting Mario’s controls. Likewise, I think the Resident Evil 4 developers knew how important the new over-the-shoulder camera was to the game. They clearly designed everything around it and made sure everything worked well within the new camera system. 

It honestly blows my mind when people say they can’t play the game due to the camera or controls. Sure, the controls and camera can feel weird when you first start, but the game is so expertly crafted around them that you quickly get used to them. From the camera subtly creating a tight feeling to how the enemies are designed, the game perfectly utilizes the 3rd person perspective to heighten every minute of Resident Evil 4’s gameplay.

The other major complaint against the game: Ashley—that’s a whole other post there. Stay tuned.