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.

Pokémon Platinum – Critical Miss #23

Turtwig’s All the Way Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the Master Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Mario Odyssey & Player Rewards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pokémon & the Nuzlocke Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Fox 64 – Critical Miss #18

Captains Log. Star date: 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Favorite Game Developers

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

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

#5 – Capcom

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

#4 – Devolver Digital

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

#3 – Platinum Games

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

#2 – FromSoftware

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

#1 – Nintendo

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

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

Super Metroid – Critical Miss #15

Lost in Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.