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

Heart & Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resident Evil 2 (2019) & Mr. X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Best Games of 2019

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

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

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

#5) Pokemon Sword

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

#4) Astral Chain

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

#3) Resident Evil 2 (Remake)

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

#2) Untitled Goose Game

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

#1) Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

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

Top 5 Critical Miss Games of 2019

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

#5) Spryo 2: Ripto’s Rage

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

#4) Majora’s Mask

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

#3) Doom

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

#2) Resident Evil (Remake)

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

#1) Papers, Please

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

Papers, Please – Critical Miss #11

Working for the Clampdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shovel Knight & Difficulty Curves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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