Saturday, November 9, 2013

Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS) Review


Perhaps a better name for Paper Mario: Sticker Star would have been "New Paper Mario". Not only is the game essentially a reboot of the series, but it feels much more like a paperized version of the New Super Mario Bros. series than any Paper Mario experience that came before. Almost immediately, something feels off about Sticker Star. After playing the game for about an hour, I realized what was wrong: this game feels nothing like a Paper Mario game. I didn't know what it was exactly, but it wasn't a Paper Mario game.

Let me start out by saying that the Paper Mario series (the original on N64, The Thousand-Year Door on GameCube, and Super Paper Mario on Wii) are some of my favorite video games of all time and are what I believe to be some of the finest and most creative games that Nintendo has ever crafted. If you're reading this and have never played any of these games, stop thinking about Sticker Star and go play the others. I'll say it right now: Sticker Star is not only far and away the weakest of the series, but it really doesn't even deserve to sit on the same shelf as the previous three games.

Pictured: A colossally better game than Sticker Star

Before I get into everything that is so wrong with Sticker Star though, I want to talk about what I liked about the game, because Sticker Star certainly has its merits. The best thing about Sticker Star is its level design (not to be confused with level aesthetics, which I'll get into later), which is actually quite good. I said SS doesn't feel anything like a Paper Mario game, but it also doesn't feel anything like an RPG (more on that later as well), and part of this is due to its level-based structure. The game features an overworld inspired by Mario's 2D platforming adventures, particularly Super Mario World with its large, interconnected map. Each individual level is set up just like a course in a Mario platformer, with lots of enemies to fight, some minor platforming to be done, and a goal at the end (in this case, a shining Sticker Comet piece). These levels encourage and reward exploration by containing numerous, cleverly hidden pathways and rooms full of rare items. In addition, a lot of the levels feel unique from each other by having some kind of central set-piece or gimmick. While the first world is admittedly pretty bland, the desert features a gigantic Yoshi Sphinx to explore, the forest has Mario literally falling onto the stage of an eccentric game-show hosted by Snifits; there's ancient ruins to explore in the jungle, a snowed-in haunted mansion reminiscent of The Shining, and more. There are definitely levels that feel repetitive (especially in the forest), but most levels do at least one new thing to keep things relatively interesting.

In addition to its focus on exploring and combing every environment for secrets, Sticker Star is also Nintendo's most non-linear, not to mention tutorial-less, game in quite some time. I don't know if I'd really call this a positive since the game's nonlinearity doesn't really make the game any better, but it's worth noting that after getting stuck halfway through the third world, I was able to, by simply exploring around and experimenting, open the way to the fourth and fifth worlds and subsequently complete the entire fifth world before returning to the third one. The lack of tutorials is also refreshing and it's nice to see a Nintendo game in this era where the player is charged with exploring and thinking their way through the world instead of being led by the hand with endless exposition and hints that constantly interrupt the experience. The lack of direction in the game and the sometimes cryptic nature of what to do next will definitely frustrate a lot of players, but I'm the sort of weirdo who enjoys getting stuck and having to retrace my steps and explore every possibility in order to find out what to do.

Sticker Star doesn't hold your hand and is surprisingly non-linear

Sticker Star also lives up to the title of "Paper Mario" perhaps more than any other game in the series. Previous games used the paper setting in clever ways, but Sticker Star goes overboard with the concept. The entire game is literally made out of digital paper. The whole world is designed to look like an elaborate papercraft diorama, with cardboard mountains, folded-up paper houses, paper shrubbery, paper flowers; the water is made out of paper, the lava is made out of paper, the clouds are paper, the hills are cardboard; everything looks like it was glued and taped together by hand. The characters in the game often get folded up, creased, blown away, and flattened. The designers went out of their way to utilize the paper concept in funny and creative ways during combat as well. Certain enemies can halt Mario's movements with a paper clip, foes can be crumpled and unable to move, water attacks make them soggy, and fire attacks burn them to ashes. The paper aesthetic also comes into play when interacting with the outside world, with one highlight being a segment where Mario knocks a cardboard tree over and causes a lengthy and amusing chain reaction that alters the entire level.

The papercraft aesthetic is quite charming

Then there are the "things". Throughout the adventure, Mario can collect massive real-world objects like a fan, a baseball bat, a pair of scissors, a rubber ducky, a battery, an oil drum, an air conditioner, and much, much more. By utilizing a special shop in the game's central town of Decalburg, the player can turn these "things" (that's literally what the game calls them) into stickers that can be used to decimate Mario's enemies during battle as well as solve puzzles out in the world. These realistic objects clash with the colorful fantasy world of Mario in a nice way and their inclusion also adds to the feeling that this game is really just some miniature diorama that some kid is playing with and he accidently dropped a battery into it or uses his fan as a way to create wind in his little paper world. In battle, these items can be used for comical and often brutal results. Scissors do exactly what you think they do to paper creatures, but enemies can also be bombarded with thumb-tacks, cooked in an oven, sucked into a vacuum, and even eaten by a giant goat statue. It's ridiculous and always amusing to watch. These "things" bring to mind the giant real-world objects that Captain Olimar and crew discover in Pikmin 2, and like in that game, these large objects can be stored in an in-game gallery along with amusing descriptions by Toads who interpret a gigantic high heel as a sleeping chamber and a bowling ball as some sort of demolition device, similar to how the Ship and Olimar would interpret our earthy treasures in Pikmin 2.

Slingin' a thing

The 3D effect of the 3DS only enhances the paper universe and really makes it feel like you are looking in on a miniature, hand-crafted world. While the world's strict commitment to this paper aesthetic does give the environments a bit of a basic, bland feel, this is more the fault of the aesthetics of the environments than the paper idea. And since I've now mentioned those aesthetics twice, I suppose it's time to get into what's wrong with Sticker Star.

While the game has some neat ideas, good level design, and is overall fun to play for the most part, Sticker Star's biggest failing is its rejection of all the wild creativity, personality, and soul that the previous Paper Mario games (and Mario RPGs in general) have in droves. Sticker Star follows up the most interesting story ever told in a Mario game in 2007's Super Paper Mario with...no story at all. Really: there's no more going on in Sticker Star than there is in the latest New Super Mario Bros. title. The game opens with yet another generic Mushroom Kingdom star festival, this time one in worship of the wish-granting Sticker Comet. As Princess Peach is hosting the annual Sticker Fest and welcomes the Sticker Comet, Bowser shows up and touches the thing, yes, simply touches it, after which it explodes into our six shiny MacGuffins for this game (as well as a bunch of little pieces that serve as the previously-mentioned goals for each individual level), which neatly land in the game's five main "worlds", the remaining one landing on Bowser's head (they're known as Royal Stickers; basically sticky crowns that grant the bosses of the game extraordinary powers). After this event, Mario meets up with the sticker fairy, Kersti, who is basically this game's Navi, Tippi, Starlow, "insert advice-giving Nintendo fairy sidekick here", and the two set off to recover the shiny doo-dads, defeat Bowser, and save the princess, who of course has been kidnapped for no practical reason. That's really it. The plot doesn't go anywhere else until the end of the game, when, big spoiler, the MacGuffins are secured, the bad guy is stomped, the princess rescued, and everything goes back to happy fun times.

New Super Mario Bros. U has a more compelling narrative than this

But even if there's no plot, surely Sticker Star has all the funny, quirky, unique characters we've come to expect from the series and every other Mario RPG, right? Well, besides a handful of generic toads with no visual differences besides the odd green, blue, pink or yellow-spotted one among the sea of red-spotted ones, and a handful of generic enemies that we've seen a thousand times before, like goombas, koopas, shy guys, etc., there are really only three characters in this game. There's Kamek the magikoopa of Yoshi's Island fame, who's basically the main villain in this game (more on that in a bit), the aforementioned feisty sticker fairy, Kersti, and a giant wiggler very creatively named Wiggler. I'm not counting Mario, Peach, Bowser, or Bowser Jr. Mario has all the character and personality of a stump (granted, he usually does, but this fact stands out in SS because of the lack of interesting characters around Mario, as well as a lack of any voice clips), Peach has maybe one or two lines of dialogue in the whole game, whereas Bowser, who has traditionally been a standout role in the Mario RPGs, has no lines of dialogue in the whole entire game (side-rant: I know it was made by a different development studio, but how does Nintendo follow up Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, the most recent Mario RPG before Sticker Star, a game that starred Bowser and was generally all about Bowser, and featured a very self-aware, tongue-in-cheek attitude on the Mario series' classic Mario vs. Bowser plot, with a game that witlessly casts Bowser as the main villain, has him kidnap Peach, and gives him zero character and nothing to say at all?), and finally Bowser Jr. is only here to be as annoying and unnecessary as usual and for three easy boss battles.

Kersti adds some much-needed personality throughout the adventure (but not too much) and gets a single touching moment at the end. I call Kamek the main villain because he has the most personality and dialogue out of all the villians, shows up multiple times throughout Mario's journey and actually, you know, does things to try to stop the plumber in his quest. By the end of the game, I found the final encounter with Kamek to be far more meaningful than the one with Bowser, who may as well have been just be a big, spiky piece of plain cardboard. The ocean of generic, completely uninteresting Toads get some lines here and there and some of the generic baddies have some dialogue, but nothing that really stands out. The bosses are either giant versions of standard enemies or returning faces (with one exception) who get little more dialogue than something like "SHINY-SHOOBY!" before attacking. Then there's the game's only actual identifiable "character" besides the main heroes and villains: a giant wiggler named Wiggler who has no defining physical features and looks like every other wiggler out there, but he's really the only named character that factors into the adventure in any meaningful way.

Meet Wiggler, one of the game very few "characters"

Characters aside, one of the best things about previous Paper Marios are all the varied and interesting locales that Mario and friends visit over the course of the adventure. The games are also set up in a chapter-based format where each chapter has its own characters, villains, and sub-story often with some kind of mystery that needs to be solved. Chapters in The Thousand-Year Door include Mario taking part in a fighting tournament high above the clouds, saving a twilit village from a haunted steeple whose bell is turning the villagers into pigs, and even a trip to a futuristic base on the moon. Super Paper Mario sees Mario venturing into the "Bitlands", a world inspired by Nintendo's pixel-fueled past, into a prehistoric land where a war between rock people and flower people is taking place, and even dying and travelling through the Paper Mario universe's version of the Underworld. Not only were the locales different and interesting, but the chapters of previous games were full of intriguing subplots and mysteries to solve. Each chapter usually had its own unique villain and there were also asides between chapters that had the player take control of Princess Peach and Bowser (well, at least in the first two games; in Super Paper Mario, Peach and Bowser joined the main party eventually).

Sticker Star has thrown all of this out the window in favor of the incredibly dull and played-out lineup of grass, desert, forest, snow, and volcano worlds. Not only this, but these worlds are heavily inspired by New Super Mario Bros. aesthetically. Most of the lands have nothing interesting going on visually besides the papercraft aspect I mentioned earlier. The grasslands are as generic as they come in the Mario series, with no enemies besides goombas and koopa troopas, and featuring a backdrop of those spotted cylindrical hills first made famous by Super Mario World. The desert is full of Pokeys and dull-looking yellow pyramids. The forest is full of spotted trees and purple poison. I've seen all of this dozens of times before, and if you've played a handful of Mario platformers, especially recently, then so have you. There's just very little new or interesting going on in these worlds' aesthetic design. Not only did Nintendo release two New Super Mario Bros. games mere months apart in 2012, but they also managed to sneak out Sticker Star, a title heavily inspired by those games aesthetically, that same year. The original Paper Mario featured familiar environment types like a desert and a snowy mountain as well, but these themes were used very well to create interesting and fleshed-out locations that felt original in that game. Even if a theme was familiar in a past Paper Mario game, the environments were still very unique and interesting. Not so in Sticker Star, where the areas are as generic as they come. Sticker Star's central town of Decalburg is also one of the blandest towns in any video game I've ever played, RPG or otherwise, never mind how much it pales in comparison to the bustling Toad Town, Rogueport (especially Rogueport), and Flipside/Flopside, the hub towns from the previous three games in the series.

Dullburg

Each world manages to pass by (or drag on in the forest's 12-staged case) without any of the intrigue, any of the interesting subplots, and very little of the well-written, charming dialogue of past games. Sure you might battle an enemy here or there that has a few funny things to say, or a toad that looks like every other toad might show up to utter a few lines, but when a spark of personality does happen to show up here and there, it feels out of place in Sticker Star's bland world. Luigi, who has traditionally been a highlight of the series, recounting his adventures in the Waffle Kingdom or masquerading as the memorable Mr. L, has been downgraded to a voice-less Easter Egg in Sticker Star; basically just a collectable to be found in each world. This is just another demonstration of how basic and boring Sticker Star's presentation is. It makes no witty asides about Bowser hatching the same scheme for the 70th time, and instead of doing something interesting with his character, it treats Luigi like a nothing.

Sticker Star has a few nice touches, like the way sombrero-wearing shy guys strum their guitars to the melody in the desert, and each world has a few highlights, like the aforementioned game show and snowy haunted mansion levels. Actually, the snow world as a whole gets a special mention for having the haunted mansion and another particularly creative level. Also, the jungle world sticks out mainly because I wasn't expecting it, as it isn't really based on a New Super Mario Bros. cliché (at least its first half isn't, before it turns into the obligatory lava world). The jungle area has some interesting ideas and levels too, like a river raft ride and an ancient temple full of traps. But these glimpses of actually inspired content do little to mute the sour taste left in my mouth by Sticker Star's overall commitment to blandness, to the same and the worn-out, to throwing all the creativity and spirit of past games in the rubbish bin.


Shy Guy mariachi bands rock

Generic locations and characters aside, Sticker Star is also pretty bland gameplay-wise. Let's talk about the central gimmick of the game: stickers. Stickers are everything in this game. Instead of having a set of constant abilities, Mario fills an album with one-time use stickers. Stickers are your attacks, your defense, your health, and your puzzle-solving tools. There's no leveling up and no real character progression at all in Sticker Star. It's all about having the most powerful stickers. SS is basically an RPG built entirely around consumable items. It's fun at first filling up an album of unique stickers, and there's also a collect-em'-all goal because you can store all of the stickers you find in a sticker museum. The shiny stickers even realistically glisten in your album on the bottom screen if you move the 3DS around. It's also fun initially trying out each sticker in battle to see what they do. But by the third world, I'd pretty much seen every kind of attack (besides the "thing stickers", which there are so many of that I probably didn't even use half of them in battle by the end of the game) and the only ones left to find were just stronger versions of each attack.

You see, there's really only two basic methods of attack in Sticker Star: jump and hammer (there are a few others, like throwing fire balls, but mainly jumping and hammering will be your primary attack methods). While the timed button presses that allow Mario to do more damage in battle are still fun to execute properly, battles get pretty monotonous pretty quickly because even if there is a variety of different kinds of jump and hammer stickers, they all use the same basic timed button presses, with few variations. Running out of stickers isn't really a problem, thankfully, because stickers can be found stuck all over the various environments of the game, and can also be bought in a multitude of shops. The only reward for battles is coins (and occasionally a few stickers), so most battles can actually technically be passed right by with little consequence. If you're like me though and fight every battle, and also explore every nook of every environment, you'll have more than enough coins and powerful stickers to mop the floor with every basic enemy in the game. When I was around halfway through the game, I had rows upon rows of overpowered stickers that dealt out damage numbers triple that of the HP of the poor goomba that I was stomping. Previous Paper Mario games and Mario RPGs in general have multiple party members and various special attacks that gave the player plenty of options and kept things fresh. Besides the thing stickers, which act sort of like "summons" in a Final Fantasy game, Sticker Star only has jump, hammer, and a slot machine that gives Mario the option of multiple consecutive attacks.

Battles are fun at first, but become very monotonous over time

Boss battles are a different story, but not in a good way unfortunately. Basically, every boss in the game is weak against a specific thing sticker and there's no real way to figure out what that sticker is unless you first see the boss and somehow figure it out from their appearance (and also just happen to be lucky enough to have the right sticker in your album), die and retry against the boss so Kersti gives you a hint as to their weakness, or simply randomly experiment. The thing stickers are absolutely necessary for most bosses too, as they have massive amounts of HP and, until their weakness is exploited, take little damage from Mario's basic attacks. Some bosses I beat with dumb luck or by simply having more than enough mega-powered stickers, some had obvious weaknesses, others were trial and error because I didn't have the right sticker or use the right sticker at the right time, forcing me to restart and try again. In the final boss's case, a stupidly drawn-out five-phase affair, each of which require the player to have a specific sticker they couldn't possibly guess unless they waste their time trial-fighting every phase once, I just gave up and used a walkthrough to finally put this game to rest. I hope from reading what I just wrote, it should be clear enough how silly and poor this kind of boss design is. Maybe it was a neat idea to have each boss have a specific weakness and be sort of like a puzzle (kind of like Zelda bosses), but I really have no clue how the sloppy end result of this kind of design made it past the cutting-room floor, nonetheless got the thumbs-up from testers and made it into the final product.

Good luck beating this boss if you don't have that one, specific "thing" sticker in your inventory

Most of the game's overworld "puzzles" are also entirely based around the thing stickers and are also just trial and error. Some are really obvious (like needing a bowling ball to knock down some cardboard pins), but others are really cryptic (like a vague brick structure in the snowy mountains). By "paperizing" the world, Mario can turn everything into a 2D picure Okami-style and tear out certain objects or stick certain ones. This is a cool idea and sometimes it factors into some neat designs. The problem is that there's nothing really puzzling about any of the game's puzzles since every single one of them just amounts to "when in doubt, paperize" and then it's just a matter of trying every "thing sticker" you can think of until you get the right one. There are some clever uses of things, like using an air conditioner to freeze over a fiery volcano, and luckily some puzzles give some leeway and allow the player to use a few different things for the same result, but others are very strict and require a specific item. After trying to melt some snow with a lighter, matches, and a radiator, and getting zero results from each one, it turns out all I needed was a simple fire flower. Then in that same area, I used the radiator to melt a different pile of snow (this one, admittedly, was much bigger). It's all a bit cryptic and silly.

When in doubt, paperize!

While some of the puzzles might be obvious (though certainly not all), where to go in the game is often not, as I touched on before. I mentioned how I got stuck in the third world and then ended up discovering and conquering the game's penultimate world by chance (the fact that I could do so with ease is a testament to how the player doesn't really grow at all over the course of the game, besides finding HP upgrades, and there's no real actual challenge to anything, just artificial challenge in the boss fights). While I personally enjoy getting lost and revisiting old areas to see what I missed, I know many will be very frustrated by this and many more will probably just give up halfway through. It might be obvious where you need to use a certain "thing" to solve some kind of problem in a certain level, and it might even be obvious what thing you need, but that thing is often somewhere across the world is some obscure place that you're never going to find unless you simply wander around and experiment a lot.
 
As a stand-alone game, Sticker Star is a decent adventure. The papercraft design is novel, the level design is good, the adventure has its moments, and it is still relatively fun from the start to finish, if not quite repetitive and monotonous. But Sticker Star isn't really fulfilling in any way, and after it was over, I felt very unsatisfied, almost like I'd just wasted 40 hours playing it. This is because the heart and soul of the Paper Mario series, the vibrant characters, diverse and creative locales, and interesting stories, have been completely stripped away and swapped with a routine, bland, and unspecial experience. But why is this? Why is Sticker Star so dry when the previous three Paper Mario games are a bastion of creativity in the often criticized nostalgia-fueled Nintendo?

Part of the blame lies in the fact that the team that developed Sticker Star was comprised almost entirely of newcomers, and also it seems as if they were unwilling or unable to let their own creativity blossom. Why would they be unable? Well, that's because the other part of the blame lies with, believe it or not, the man himself, Mario's creator, Shigeru Miyamoto.


Pictured: Iwata (right) asks Miyamoto (left) something


You see, thanks to Iwata Asks, all becomes clear and the sad, puzzling truth about why Paper Mario: Sticker Star is so...sigh..."paper thin" comes out. You can read the interview in full here, and I recommend you do, but I'll just quote the most critical parts that apply to this review. Originally, Sticker Star was much closer to the first two Paper Mario games, featuring a cast of partners for Mario and a more story-focused RPG adventure. But after playing the prototype, Miyamoto claimed that it was "just a port of the [GameCube] version" (I don't know what universe Miyamoto is living in where he can say something like that when series like New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart exist, but I digress...). Now, I don't have a problem with the series changing things up; after all, that is exactly what Super Paper Mario did, and I love that game. While I admittedly prefer the first two games and the more traditional RPG structure, Super Paper Mario kept the heart and soul of the series intact, and also added in some awesome new ideas, so overall I really enjoyed it. No, the problem comes in the form of the restrictions that Miyamoto laid down for the team.

Apparently, Miyamoto really took charge on the direction of the game. According to Kensuke Tanabe, one of the game's producers: "Aside from wanting us to change the atmosphere a lot, there were two main things that Miyamoto-san said from the start of the project—'It's fine without a story, so do we really need one?' and 'As much as possible, complete it with only characters from the Super Mario world.' Now, I am well aware of Miyamoto's aversion to too much story in a video game, especially Mario games, but why the restriction on characters? One of the many strengths of the Paper Mario series was its diverse and colorful cast of characters, both old and brand new. And in regards to story, this is supposed to be an RPG, one that follows other story-heavy RPGs. I don't care if it's Mario or not, it is not "fine without a story." But don't let me tell you, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata basically takes the words right out of my mouth when he says, "In some ways that would be the exact opposite direction from recent games in the series."

Paper Mario has always had a talent for bringing together a varied and interesting cast of both old and new characters

Regarding the characters, Tanabe goes on to say: "But being unable to use new characters is pretty strict. Of course, we could not make any new enemy characters, and as for allies among the Super Mario characters, there's really only Toad in various colors!" Um...okay, except in every previous Paper Mario, even when there were toads, many of them appeared wearing unique clothes and had their own unique names and characters. In addition, Mario teamed up with goombas, koopas, yoshis and all manner of creatures from the vast array of the Mario universe. Co-existing with these more familiar faces, there were new races and new characters which only enhanced the richness of the world. Ignoring how asinine the suggestion is, how the team took 'use only familiar characters' to mean 'replace the varied cast of familiar characters from past games with generic, nameless, featureless toads and generic, nameless, featureless goombas, koopas, shy-guys, etc.', I am simply at a loss. The newest installment in the Mario and Luigi series (Paper Mario's sister RPG franchise), Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, is full of new characters and enemies. The upcoming Super Mario 3D World has new characters and enemies. Hell, even New Super Mario Bros. 2, the most redundant, unoriginal Mario game ever made, had a couple of new enemies. But Sticker Star? Nope, can't have anything new. I'll quote Tanabe again: "Of course, we could not make any new enemy characters". Well, why the hell not? Seriously, Mr. Miyamoto, with all my due respect, just why? And especially in a Paper Mario game. Things begin to make a little more sense when you consider that, according to Tanabe, Sticker Star "started with a near complete renewal of the staff" and according to executive managing director Kenji Nakajima, "A few programmers continued on in order to make use of previous assets, but in planning and design, about 90% were participating for the first time". So basically, Sticker Star was made by an almost entirely different team than previous games, and boy does it really show, and not for the better.

Exhibit A: Creative new enemy characters in the upcoming Super Mario 3D World

Miyamoto has been talking for ages about how he wants to give other developers more freedom and doesn't want them to always need his help, yet his dictatorial stance on Sticker Star is in exact contradiction to that, and once again with all due respect to Mr. Miyamoto, he clearly does not understand what makes the Paper Mario series so special, creator of the character or not. Why so many restrictions? Iwata says that "Creatively, restraints aren't necessarily a bad thing. A lot of new attractive features come out of that." Sometimes that's true. In Sticker Star's case, that couldn't be farther from the truth. All the restrictions turned what could have been another unique and fantastic addition to the Paper Mario series into a bland and unspecial product. Sticker Star has a unique idea in the sticker-focused gameplay, even if it is flawed in execution, and with some tweaking to this gameplay, the game could have been something great if it had the personality and originality, the spirit, and the heart and soul of older Paper Mario games. A few comical lines of dialogue here and there aren't enough.

So basically, part of the development goal with this game was throwing away everything that made previous Paper Mario games so special and enjoyable: the intriguing stories, the great characters, the creative environments, all the personality and magic; the heart and soul of the series, and homogenizing everything so there was nothing but familiar, stale characters, nothing of a story, and familiar, stale environments. I respect Miyamoto beyond words and without him, I might not have ever fallen in love with video games, heck video games as we know them might not even exist, not to mention the countless ways in which his creations have touched and inspired me, even his more recent ones. I have so much love and gratitude for Mr. Miyamoto, but he got it dead wrong this time. Miyamoto is all about the gameplay, and while tight gameplay and intuitive controls are undeniably important in games like Mario and Zelda, they are far from everything. Atmosphere, narrative, character...there is so much more that makes Miyamoto's creations and the series that they have spawned so special. It's troubling that, at least with Sticker Star, he fails to realize that. It's even more troubling how the Sticker Star team blindly followed his orders. Maybe they had to, or maybe because Miyamoto garners so much respect, they really didn't have a choice, or perhaps they even agreed with his decisions, but whatever the case, I'm sorry to say that, despite all the magic he has birthed and everything that he's contributed to the video game world, sometimes Miyamoto makes bad decisions, just like everybody else, and I wish the designers at Nintendo were more willing to take a stand in cases like this and offer a different course of action.

Ultimately, it's downright depressing what Nintendo has done to Paper Mario. Hopefully, Sticker Star, with its mostly lukewarm reviews and seemingly almost universal negative fan reaction, is merely a failed experiment and the series might find some of its magic in a future installment. But with apparently most of the people that made the old Paper Mario games no longer on the team and with Taro Kudo, Sticker Star's co-director and script writer, saying this (I bolded one part myself for emphasis): "We worked hard so that this game would become the new standard for future Paper Mario games, so please play it to the fullest!", not to mention the incredibly homogenized and standardized feel of most recent Mario games, I'm not getting my hopes up.

Oh yeah, but Sticker Star does have a really nice, jazzy soundtrack, though. Great stuff in the musical department at least.



 






Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Power of Video Games: How Pikmin 2 Helped Me Fight Depression


This is going to be a much more personal one. In my last "The Power of Video Games" post, I talked about how Ecco the Dolphin for Sega Genesis instilled a sense of fascinating terror in me that has followed me into adulthood. This time, I'd like to talk about a much different video game and quite a different experience.

I've been struggling with various anxiety conditions for as long as I can remember and as I've been told, anxiety can often open the door for depression to sneak in. Unfortunately, for the past two years, this sort of situation has been exactly what I've been dealing with. It got pretty bad last year, after my dog and best friend, Max, fell suddenly and rapidly ill over the course of a few weeks and then was diagnosed with severe, terminal cancer and consequently put to sleep all in the time of a single day. After this, coupled with a post-college stagnation in my life and a worsening resurgence of many of my anxious hang-ups, I began to get depressed.

Max

Now, depression isn't "feeling sad". It's not lying in bed for a few days after a break-up or crying all the time. I've heard and read about the symptoms of clinical depression, but really I can only describe my own experience and "sad" isn't the way to put it. Activities and situations that would normally make me happy and bring me joy began to bring me nothing at all. I began to have trouble getting out of bed and mustering the energy to do much of anything at all. I would try to go out with friends, but I would feel isolated in social situations. I don't think most people really noticed because I'm naturally quiet a lot of the time anyway, but there's a big difference between being my normal quiet and introversive self and feeling depressed. I would feel exhausted by social activities and feel like I had nothing to offer or to say at all. Afterwards, I would go home feeling lonely and worthless.

Likewise, activities that would normally bring me enjoyment during my personal time started to fall flat. This includes reading, writing, and of course, video games. I tried playing a lot of games, but I found myself struggling to really find that "sweet spot", that rich sense of immersion I normally get from the medium. There were moments of enjoyment here and there, sure, but it wasn't like before. There was just this sense of emptiness in me that seemed to be swallowing any and all positive vibes.

Late summer of last year, I decided to play three GameCube classics in anticipation of their upcoming sequels the following year. First up was the original Luigi's Mansion, and following that I decided to tackle the Pikmin series. I've owned the original Pikmin since its release, but never finished it. I started anew in the game and after finishing it, I picked up its sequel, Pikmin 2, which I'd never experienced on GameCube and which had conveniently just been re-released with enhanced pointer controls on the Wii.

I was able to get through Luigi's Mansion and Pikmin without much trouble since they are both relatively short experiences, but Pikmin 2 was another story.

I remember starting the game and enjoying what I initially played quite a bit. The improvements and new features compared to the original game caught my attention and this updated interface, lack of the 30-day time limit that made the first Pikmin feel rushed, and gigantic, real-world objects like a Duracell battery and a crushed soda can charmed me so much that I remember scolding myself for never having played the game before.

"Why have I never played this before?"

But then things hit a wall. Pikmin 2 is a much longer experience than the first game and try as hard as I might, I began to struggle to play to play the game for any lengthy period of time. As depression tugged at my ankles more and more and I began to sink deeper and deeper, I found it hard to do much more than sleep. I had to force myself to try to play Pikmin 2, but I began becoming overwhelmed and having to turn the game off after about half an hour of play. Real-time strategy games have never been my expertise, but Pikmin's unique premise and charming world attracted me. I wanted to get into the game, but its strategic nature and high-risk style of challenge began to make me stressed and overwhelmed. I just didn't feel up to managing these hundreds of tiny creatures and conquering the game's many challenges. I knew there was something about the game that I liked, loved even, but I just could not muster the energy.

So to give a broader picture of my life at this point, I was basically just waking up, going to work, coming home, trying to find enjoyment in something, usually failing, and going to sleep. On days off, I would sleep most of the day, wake up, eat something, and then sleep some more. I tried spending time with friends, I trried gaming, I tried doing other thing I enjoy, but everything just "fell flat". That seems to be the best way to describe it because that's how it felt, and how I felt. Just flat, empty. I didn't really have anything to look forward to and I just felt like nothing.

But then something happened.

One night, I was lying in bed around 9 o'clock at night. If you know me at all, you know that this is nowhere near my normal bedtime and is very unnatural. Like many other days, I didn't feel like doing anything and I simply just gave up, crawled into bed, and shut the lights off. But I knew this was wrong. I wasn't really tired. I didn't want to do this. I knew I was doing exactly what I shouldn't be doing. I was angry at myself. I wanted to fight this.

Reluctantly, I opened my eyes, dragged myself out of bed, and I decided to try. To try to overcome this. I turned on the TV and booted up Pikmin 2. I just wanted to try to play it, if only for an hour. To try to get some enjoyment out of an activity that has typically brought me so much fulfillment.

I don't know if it was the particular part of the game that I was in, or if my mood was just right, or maybe it had something to do with Pikmin being unlike any other game I'd ever played and thus it ignited something lost within me; it was probably some miraculous combination of all of these things. Whatever the case, that night I finally broke the barrier and got into something. I forgot about being depressed, forgot about anxiety, forgot about everything wrong in my life, and I simply lost myself in the weird and wonderful world of Pikmin. Everything suddenly clicked and the game didn't seem so difficult anymore, playing it didn't seem like an insurmountable task. As I journeyed deeper and deeper into one of the game's multi-leveled cavernous dungeons, I began to feel something again.

For the first time in months, I really felt something. A hole being filled in. Accomplishment. Joy.


Working together

By the time I had finished playing that night, after about a five hour session, it was well into the early hours of the morning. I hadn't looked back once while playing. I just played. For me, at the time, to find myself having been deeply involved with something while feeling no nagging feelings or no fatigue, felt like a miracle.

And honest to God, it was all uphill from there. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't magically cured of all my anxiety and depression. I didn't open my window shouting about Christmas morning and go running through the flower fields smiling and laughing. Oh, I still had issues; oh I still do have issues. But after that night, after Pikmin 2 dragged me up and pulled me in, I began to feel better. No, not to feel better, but to feel more normal. I was enjoying a video game again, and I realized that I had only just scratched the surface of Pikmin 2, a lengthy, atmospheric, and challenging experience. When I finally finished the game towards the end of the year, I felt exhilarated. After conquering the game's terrifying final creature, rescuing my partner, Louie, and salvaging every last piece of treasure in the game, I felt a massive feeling of accomplishment. Not because I'd finished a video game, I've finished many of them, but because I felt like I had dealt a serious blow to depression, that I had spit in its face and fought back, that I had cut through all of its shackles and conquered something (and not only that, but legimately enjoyed something) that depression told me I could not.

After that, I began to enjoy playing games again. And after being able to enjoy myself when I was alone, I began to enjoy spending time with friends again. I began to look forward to things again, become excited about things that I'm passionate about again, and to feel some hope again. And there are no words that can accurately describe how good that felt and how thankful I am for these kinds of feelings that so many take for granted.

I am far from being in the perfect place in my life today, I'm still wrestling with depression and discontent, and I will always be fighting a war with anxiety. But I am far better at this present moment right now than I was one year ago. And although at the end of the day, it's because of my own perseverance and determination that I've been able to fight back against depression, it was Pikmin 2 that helped pull me back, and it's this strange, wondrous video game, this fresh, unique experience that was unlike anything I'd ever played before, that I ultimately want to thank today.

Thanks Miyamoto and Co.







Thursday, September 19, 2013

Rayman Origins (PS3) Review


Rayman Origins is an insane game. A delightful, charming, funny, quirky, unique, bizarre, brilliant, crazy, insane game.

Origins is a celebration of the absurd: a wild and crazy mixture of the funkiest corners of human imagination. I’d never played a Rayman game before this one and have never had much interest in the series. After playing Origins, I kind of regret that. The back-story of Rayman’s world is actually quite interesting to me. A god-like being known as the “Bubble Dreamer” dreams Rayman’s world and all of its inhabitants into existence, and this creature also lives with his creations, who spend their days lounging on top of a giant tree. One day, their loud snoring attracts the ire of their underworld neighbors, the Livid Dead, a group of crotchety zombie grannies. When Rayman, his best friend Globox, and the rest of the gang refuse to quiet down, the Livid Dead unleash war upon the Glade of Dreams and send an army of the Bubble Dreamer’s nightmares to attack.

After freeing himself from a cage, Rayman and his friends set out to free the Electoons, which are the “stuff of dreams” that hold the Glade together, and the Nymphs, guardian fairies who protect each land, from the nightmares. The story serves as a back-drop for a beautiful and imaginative landscape. I was a bit disappointed that most of the game’s worlds fit the incredibly worn-out themes of “forest”, “desert”, “ice”, and “water” (and follow Nintendo's Rule of Mario 3 by having the second world be the desert world), but the level designs themselves, both visual and gameplay-wise, more than make up for this. Also, in addition to the numerous individual levels in the game being expertly-designed, many worlds combine different themes to produce something truly special. The desert world, for example, is both desert and music-themed, and everything Rayman hops and bops on emits some kind of tune or note. Enemies sing and flute snakes fly through the air. The player makes their own music that combines with the background music for a richly sensory experience. The ice world, meanwhile, combines a frozen surface paradise that acts as a refrigerator full of canned goods, frozen fruit, and ice-skating dragon waiters, with a fiery, oven-like underworld that’s home to dragon chefs and fire-breathing sausage creatures.

 
Rayman and friends lounging on the Snoring Tree


The Glade of Dreams is brought to life by incredible art direction and animation. Rayman Origins is honestly one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played, both in terms of the magnificent painted environments, full of numerous details in both the foreground and background, and the cartoonish, animated characters that live in this world. The cartoony inhabitants of the Glade of Dreams combined with the beautifully rendered naturalistic environments create a vibrant and eye-catching universe. At any point in time, the game is honestly akin to viewing a painting in a museum. Technically-speaking, even after leaning as close as I could to the TV screen, I couldn’t find a single jagged edge or flaw with the visuals. They’re technically perfect.

The music and sound design is also wondrous. Between the varied and unique tracks that accompany the game’s world to the hilarious sound effects and auditory touches in the game, such as platforms releasing drum beats when Rayman lands on them to the Lums, the collectible critters of the game, waking up and singing at certain points, the Glade of Dreams is truly alive. The music is at times beautifully environmental and natural-sounding, at others gleefully silly and downright hilarious, at still others potently atmospheric, oftentimes appropriately upbeat, and finally just plain epic.


Origins is a visual marvel


As a platformer, Rayman trims a lot of the unnecessary, outdated components of the genre. Gone are frivolous “lives” and in their place are unlimited tries and frequent checkpoints. This allows the designers to create zany and immensely challenging scenarios where it doesn’t matter if the player fails a million times. The treasure chest chase levels in particular and the game’s final secret level (which is one of my favorite levels in platformer history) require precise, pitch-perfect timing and platforming to be overcome, and are incredibly satisfying to finally conquer after many, many attempts.

Rayman also blends its collecting, another staple of the platformer genre, very intelligently with its game design. Instead of collecting a bunch of coins that only increase a needless life count, Rayman tasks the player with collecting the golden Lums and much of the challenge in the game comes from finding these creatures and trying to maximize their numbers at every turn. The game does a nice job of incentivizing the player to collect these critters as at the end of each level, their Lum totals are tallied up and traded for Electoons which can then be used to unlock new character skins and secret levels. The player has to pay close attention to every detail in a level to collect every last Lum and meet each stage's strict goals for gaining Electoons. Also, hidden in each stage are cages full of trapped Electoons. Time trials also add extra challenge and where I usually don’t bother with them in most games, I found that it was fun to replay the levels in Origins in two different ways: either taking it slow and trying to find every hidden collectible or breezing through them to optimize my time. These time trials also reward the player with Electoons. Each level is well-designed both as a traditional platforming challenge and in regards to hiding its collectibles.


Wonderfully absurd in the best way possible


Rayman doesn’t control quite as tightly as I’d like, but the game still plays very well. I found Rayman’s hovering move, where he can float in the air for a short time by spinning his hair, to be a bit finicky and unreliable at times, as I’d swear I’d press the correct button, but would go falling to my doom. Also, on some of the harder levels (like the aforementioned endless runner-style treasure chest chases), sometimes it can be a bit frustrating if the game requires pin-point precision platforming, but it’s not clear right away what needs to be done or how much pressure needs to be applied to that jump button. This is definitely a trial and error game in many situations.

I’m also not a big fan of the levels where Rayman boards a gigantic mosquito to do battle with waves of enemies in a “shoot em' up”-style side-scrolling shooter. These levels were a nice way to add variety to the gameplay at first, and can be fun at times, but as the game went on, I found them to be a bit too prevalent and I found myself becoming tired of them very quickly. These levels just aren’t as engaging to me as the traditional platforming stages and I usually just tried to “get through them” so I could move on to the next regular level. If I wanted to play a shmup, I’d play one, but Rayman is a platformer and having this different genre forced on me is annoying. In some platformers, these different kinds of levels work, such as the mine-cart levels in Donkey Kong Country and even the swimming levels in Rayman Origins, which actually control well and are beautifully atmospheric, but the shooter levels are just a bit dull and repetitive. Of course, traditional platforming is still far and away the most prevalent kind of gameplay in Origins, so these stages are only a minor annoyance.


The shooter levels aren't my favorite, despite having gigantic chicken bosses


Origins has plenty of levels to enjoy but does suffer from some odd pacing. After completing the first five worlds, four more worlds simultaneously unlock and can be done in any order, but these four worlds are really just expansions of the game’s four main territories that have already been visited. It feels a bit redundant going back to these familiar world themes again and as a result the game has a bit of a “dragged-out” feeling. These “new worlds” contain completely new level designs, but the theming is familiar. Due to this, even though the game technically contains ten full worlds of levels, it still feels like there aren’t enough unique world themes, especially because what’s here is such high quality and I would have liked to see how creative the team could have gotten with even more unique worlds. I guess that’s what Rayman Legends is for though.

Rayman Origins is both delightfully absurd and wonderfully creative in its story, art direction, music, and level designs and it’s an all-around raucously fun platformer. It’s also one of the funniest games I’ve experienced, not because it’s full of overt jokes and dialogue, but due to the game’s oddball characters, lively animations, strange and magnificent music and sound effects, and the charming way in which the inhabitants of the Glade of the Dreams all speak in a gibberish, Pig Latin-like language. The hilarious way all of the characters, friends and enemies alike, carry themselves and just the whole way the game presents itself and how it never takes anything seriously leads to a refreshing and unique sense of humor prevalent throughout the whole experience. Origins’ gameplay isn’t quite as perfect as that of some of the other platformers I’ve played, but it is still very responsive and near-enough perfection that it's not a damning issue in the slightest. Besides, the game highly succeeds in its genre thanks to its creative and funky levels and aesthetics. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the bosses in this game are massive, beastly, and beautifully revolting creations. Origins is a product of pure human imagination and a powerful demonstration of the kind of visual, musical, and interactive euphoric mixture that video games can bring to a player. It’s a celebration of nonsense of the best kind, and an experience that will stay in my heart for a while to come.
 
 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Seven Video Games that Redefine "Video Game"


I played seven video games over the weekend. Most of them weren't fun (at least in the traditional sense). Most of them actually downright depressed me. When it comes to the "video games as art" debate, I've heard that the medium might be onto something when a game makes a player feel depressed.

Well, thanks to a handful of flash games, none of which lasted more than a few minutes, had any more than two basic actions, and featured bare-bones, minimalistic visuals, consider that feat accomplished.

These seven games probably won't change your life, and you might just walk away confused, but I guarantee that you'll at least think: "Well, that was interesting." All of these challenge the notion of what video games are expected to be, and use the medium's most important and unique tool, interactivity, to try to make the player feel something.

And even though some of these games left me scratching my head, all of them made me stop for a moment after I'd finished playing and meditate for a moment on what I'd just experienced.

Every Day the Same Dream


Featuring a bleak art-style and a single droning guitar melody that plays throughout the game's entirely, Every Day the Same Dream follows one man as he wakes up, gets dressed, exchanges pleasantries with his wife, gets in his car, drives to work, gets berated by his boss, and sits in his cubicle. Over and over and over again. It is entirely possible for the game to become an endless loop, but there is a end-point that the player can reach if they are enterprising enough. This game uses repetition and blandness to highlight the importance of stopping and doing something completely different every once in a while. I'm not exactly sure how to interpret the cryptic ending, but it still gave me chills.

The Company of Myself


This game uses its gameplay mechanics as an allegory to tell the story of a hermit. The main character tells us that he used to rely on the company of others, but now he only has the company of himself. He has gotten good at "multitasking" and solving problems on his own, and this is symbolically shown through the game's unique central mechanic of creating multiple "replays" of your character that you can then use to solve puzzles and make it through the game's many obstacles. The game can get a bit tedious and at some points I just wanted to give up, but the pay-off is worth it in the end. The game has a distinctive atmosphere and left me feeling lonely and sad.

I Wish I Were the Moon


Can this be called a video game? How do you define "video game"? Is it any digital work that is interactive? I Wish I Were the Moon consists of a single screen with a few distinct elements: a girl rowing a boat, a boy sitting on the moon, a passing seagull, some stars...by moving the mouse, the player can take photographs of these elements and magically move them to a different place on the screen. For example, the boy can be removed from the moon and replaced with the girl for interesting results. By mixing and matching these elements, five different endings can be viewed. A somewhat cute experience, this "game" that is more like an interactive painting is certainly interesting.

One Chance


"In six days, every single living cell on Planet Earth will be dead.

You have on chance."

These haunting words open One Chance, a game about making decisions and living with them. Scientist John Pilgrim and his team have found a cure for cancer, but in a horrifying twist, this discovery has lead to the release of a deadly pathogen that will kill every living thing on Earth in just six days. You, as John, must make the tough decisions: spend the final days with your wife and daughter, work tirelessly in your lab trying to find a cure, or throw away all responsibility and abscond with a female co-worker. The way things dramatically escalate in the extremely short time frame of this game creates a desperate and chilling atmosphere. What started out as a goofy-looking game that reminded me of South Park art-wise for some reason had me feverishly debating whether to spend my final days in the park with my daughter or drag her to my lab and try to cling to hope for a cure with everything I had. And just like the title says, you really only have one chance. No matter if I tried replaying the game, refreshing the page, or reopening my browser, I could not try again. I'm sure you could find a way to circumvent the rules to try the game again and make different decisions, but that defeats the point. My only issue with this game was that my final outcome was a bit ambiguous. This ambiguity left me wondering if I'd made the right choice or not. But maybe this dissatisfaction was purposeful.

Today I Die


Another game by Daniel Benmergui, the experimental designer who created I Wish I Were the Moon, Today I Die also challenges the definition what a video game is. To put it simply, Today I Die is an interactive poem where you switch certain words of the poem around to change the environment and situation. I think it's a game about helping a girl rise out of despair or deep depression. It can be equal parts baffling and uplifting and it only take a couple of minutes to experience.

The End of Us

 
The End of Us is one of the most interesting concepts to me out of all of these games, but it falls a bit short of its full potential. The mission of the game is to evoke feelings of friendship and attachment purely through gameplay. What's more interesting is how it attempts to do this using two comets, as opposed to something more human-like, as the participants. I love the idea of evoking specific emotions purely through game mechanics and it's a concept that is sorely underused in the mainstream gaming scene, which often relies too much on the language of film (cut-scenes and grand set-pieces, etc.) to evoke emotion and tell its stories instead of taking more advantage of what makes video games so unique: their interactivity. Sure enough, flying around with and bumping into my orange buddy as we both travelled through space did evoke some feelings of affinity within me. But the experience was far too brief, lasting the duration of a single short song that accompanied it, for me to get truly attached to my comet friend. The game also ended a bit confusingly instead of having the emotional impact that I think the designers were going for. The description for the game talks about a final, important "choice" near the end, but this choice was never apparent to me. Also, the ending sequence takes control away from the player, which I think also diminishes the impact. Great concept and a fair effort, but unfortunately it wasn't as meaningful as it could have been for me.

Freedom Bridge


The last game I played was perhaps both the most effective and the most minimalistic. Featuring nothing but a black square in a white space interrupted only by a few black squiggly lines, this game tasks the player with guiding this square to the right and nothing else. But the way the "black square" started to trail blood after passing through the "squiggly lines" and the sound of rushing water that got louder and louder as I moved on created a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. Freedom Bridge only took a minute, maybe three at the most, to "play", but it affected me. It left me depressed and confused and capped off a day of playing bizarre and mostly depressing video games.

...

Are they video games? Really, it doesn't matter. One day the label "video game" might morph into something else or maybe "video games" will be separated into sub-categories. Again, it doesn't matter. The point is that these seven experiences left me staggered by the artistic potential of this medium.

If these games, which lasted mere minutes and featured barely any frames of animation and only a few screens, could leave me feeling anything, none the less inspire attachment to soundless, pixelated little characters, or empathy for a moving black square, just imagine what video games, what interactive experiences, could accomplish with big budgets and teams of talented designers and artists pouring their vision into them.

Again, the pure potential of this medium as truly inspiring and unique art unlike anything else we've ever seen is staggering.

There will always be a place for video games that celebrate pure joy like Super Mario Galaxy, for games that revel in more base and primal pleasures like God of War, for games that weave brain-bending puzzles and witty narrative like Portal, games that send us on epic adventures and invite us to explore new worlds, and games that just make us laugh and smile. Games can also of course be both fun and emotionally affecting or meaningful. Fun is not always divorced from meaning. But there is also a place for video games that make us sad, or that make us introspective, or that comment on our lives and our reality in deeply meaningful ways. Games that inspire in us some deeper meaning than just pure mental satisfaction, or just simple fun, and also games that don't feature any kind of combat, violence, or any of the other traditional trappings of the medium.

When interactive experiences can be about anything, it is downright criminal if we limit this medium to only delivering big-budget games that, at their core, are about combat or violence in some way, or are set up as fantasy, wish-fulfillment adventures. These widely-prevalent games are superb fun, but there is room for so much more. Titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home show some of the potential of what an artist can do with an interactive space beyond just combat and fantasy. And with the advent of iPhone games, crowd-funding, and Steam, more and more bold new ideas are being explored. I'm not saying that violent or fantastical games can't be powerful and meaningful. You need only look at many of my old favorites like Silent Hill 2, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, all games that employ violence and fantasy in their deliverance of a deep and meaningful experience, for proof of that. I'm also not saying that all games should be "artsy" and abstract. And even though many of the above games left me feeling depressed (and the combination of them all left me yearning for something happy and colorful by the end of the day), I'm not suggesting that video games should start depressing people more at a much more profound rate. I'm just saying that video games do have the power to depress you, and they also have the power to enrapture you, to enlighten you, and to fill you up with emotions you never even knew you could experience. I'm saying that video games can explore so many more topics than they are now, and deliver an almost limitless range of experiences.

This limitless potential has only been barely breached. I find myself immensely excited and proud to be a supporter of this beautiful medium, which is on the verge of expanding into the world's next great art form.

I only hope that my fellows, those who love video games, can embrace the enormous potential that our favorite pastime has, even if they don't care about games like Gone Home and just want to kill things with a samurai sword.



Special thanks to Extra Credits for recommending these games.

Also check out Anthony Burch's "Fun Isn't Enough".

Also, this Extra Credits episode. Also, all Extra Credits episodes for wonderful insight and intelligent lectures from people who love video games just as much as I do. Maybe even more. And that's saying something.
 
 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Shantae: Risky's Revenge (Nintendo DSiWare) Review


It's been five years since Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, the last proper "Metroidvania" adventure, came out and boy have I missed my Metroidvania. A lot. I miss my big goofy weapons, my ridiculous magic spells, my melodramatic Dracula stories, wickedly cool heroes and heroines like Alucard, Nathan Graves, Soma Cruz, and Shanoa, giant, crazy enemies and bosses, beautiful 2D art, fantastic soundtracks, and most of all, I miss the item/ability-based exploration of labyrinthine environments. With Konami recently embracing an entirely new Castlevania universe and delivering a high fantasy, God of War-esque, 3D action experience much removed from the humble 2D Metroidvania formula with its Lords of Shadow series, and also with Nintendo flat-out ignoring its brilliant Metroid series since Other M came out and underwhelmed most of us with its poorly-written, cutscene-bloated, linear adventure, it doesn't look like my new Metroidvania is anywhere on the horizon.

Luckily, Shantae: Risky's Revenge has come along to fill this gaping hole in my gaming life...well, maybe not fill it completely, but at least gave it an oh-so-tasty treat to savor.

After learning that the original Shantae had been released for the 3DS Virtual Console (I've wanted to play these games for a long time, but the Shantae Game Boy Color cart is ridiculously pricey due its rarity), I purchased and downloaded both Shantae and its DSiWare-exclusive (originally) sequel. After finishing the original, I couldn't wait and I immediately booted up the sequel. I played Risky's Revenge all the way through to the end of the first labyrinth, and spent the next several days relishing every moment of this gem.

Risky's back!

Risky's Revenge essentially improves on every little nitpick I had with the original Shantae while also upgrading the visuals and music and everything else the way a sequel that came out eight years later should. After gaining control of Shantae at the beginning of the game, I was immediately struck by just how much better the game feels to play. Perhaps my biggest gripe with the first game, that Shantae's hair whip, her main method of attack, had too short a range and felt handicapped as a result, has been vastly improved. Shantae's hair now has the range of attack that I feel her long, purple ponytail should and it's amazing how this one little change makes RR so much more fun to play than the original. Not only has the range improved, but Shantae can now upgrade her hair so whipping is faster and more efficient. It now feels smooth and satisfying to attack enemies and those enemies don't take five+ hits to kill anymore, so combat is never tedious or out of Shantae's control. Challenge doesn't come from frequent cheap hits this time but from learning how each monster attacks and responding accordingly.

Hair-whipping feels so much better in RR

RR also ditches the cumbersome additional attack skills that could be bought from a shop in the original and replaces the numerous, frivolous consumable subweapons with three permanent magic attacks that Shantae can buy and upgrade throughout the game. Instead of having a limited number of uses, how many times Shantae can shoot fireballs or how long a protective barrier stays active are now determined by a magic meter. An additional upgrade can be bought that makes this meter slowly auto-refill over time. Magic potions and health potions can also be bought to refill magic and life, respectively. What's more, these potions are much more affordable than in the first game.


Shantae can master several magical skills now

Lives have also been done away with in favor of more frequent save points and less cheap deaths due to spikes and bottomless pits, which no longer kill Shantae instantly. All of these tweaks combine to make a much more enjoyable play experience. I died a lot less in Risky's Revenge, but a lot of my deaths in the original felt cheap and frustrating, so I don't really mind the reduced difficulty, which allows me to focus on what I really enjoy about these kinds of games, namely exploring. Besides, the game never felt too easy, and your health will rapidly deplete due to the swarms of monsters that hit hard in this game, so you will die if you don't stock up on potions and watch your hearts carefully. The difficulty just felt more fair this time around.

Risky's Revenge is more than just a few tweaks though; it also feels like a truly enhanced experience, like the sort of leap games saw from their NES iterations to their SNES ones. For starters, RR is a beautiful game with gorgeous 2D art featuring lushly painted backgrounds, crisply animated sprites, and engrossing world design. The fields of Sequin Land are full of vegetation in the foreground and background and dotted with pumpkins and lilacs. The forest is misty and densely packed with flora and the seaside is sun-splashed and colorful. All of the charming characters from the first game return and we also get to meet some new ones. Risky Boots is back to terrorize Shantae again of course (hilariously first appearing riding a giant anchor nonsensically suspended through a building's ceiling) and friends like Sky and Bolo (who seems much more reserved this time) are back. We also get to finally meet the mischievous zombie-girl Rottytops' two brothers, as well as the various quirky Barons, and also my personal favorite side-character, Barracuda Joe. All of these characters are also now accompanied by a large, detailed portrait of themselves whenever they speak.

This guy makes me smile
 
Shantae is also full of anonymous NPCs with funny, off-beat things to say. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the the game was returning to Scuttle Town and hearing what its wacky NPCs had to say. Something that bugs me in a lot of RPGs and adventure games is when I keep talking to the same NPCs at different points in a game to hear what they have to say and they just keep repeating the same dialogue over and over. I appreciated the fact that throughout the game, the residents of Scuttle Town always had something new and funny to say after I completed a major story event, like a dungeon. One little girl simply says "I'm four!" when you talk to her and then there's a guy who comments on how he wanders around on the roof of the town shop all day and also a guard who is always standing in the same place who talks about how he enjoys standing and looking. There are just so many clever little gags if the player takes the time to talk to the NPCs. A fisherman says something about "that dopey kid" tossing an interesting item he caught back into the ocean. If you chat to a nearby kid, he hilariously and illogically blurts out: "I'm a dopey kid!" I just burst out laughing at this. Both the main story and the world at large are littered with funny moments like this.

In addition to the beautiful, artistic visuals in RR, the music has also gotten a boost. I liked the music in the original Shantae and respect the originality and quality of that game's soundtrack, but Jake Kaufman really outdid himself in Risky's Revenge. The soundtrack combines wonderful remixes and excellent new tracks to form a spectacular OST and one of the better ones I've heard in a while. There isn't a bad piece in the entire game and every song is either perfectly atmosphericappropriately catchy, or just upbeat and a joy to listen to.


Hanging out with Rotty

I compared the original Shantae to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, but Risky's Revenge ditches that formula (as neat as I still think it is if done well) and feels much closer in structure to a Metroidvania game. The overworld is one giant map and is set up like one big labyrinth to explore (although not quite as intricate as in Metroid and Castlevania games). The action is all in 2D, but the game plays with the idea of multiple, layered 2D planes that Shantae can travel between. For example, in the forest area, you can see faded objects in the background and enemies walking around. By utilizing certain "jump pads", Shantae can leap into the background and explore a new plane. Shantae travels in this way through the multiple planes of the foreground and background. It's a really interesting idea that brings Donkey Kong Country Returns (which also plays with the idea of traveling between the foreground and background) to mind. This plane-switching mechanic is sadly underutilized in RR, but hopefully the planned 3DS sequel returns to the idea, as it would be a perfect fit for the 3DS's unique 3D depth capabilities.

The world map is a little confusing to take in at first

The landscape of Sequin Land is dotted with hidden caves, secret discoveries, and interesting people to talk to. There are few things more satisfying in adventure games for me than acquiring a cool new ability and then retracing my steps and discovering new places that this new ability allows me to reach. This aspect is a staple of Metroidvania and Zelda games, and part of why I adore them so much. For example, after acquiring the ability to turn into an elephant (like in the first game), I was dying to re-explore the forest to smash open all those mysterious rocks and blockades and see what they were hiding.

Like in the original, Shantae has the ability to use her magic belly-dancing to transform into different creatures and gain new abilities. I was a little disappointed, however, that the actual act of dancing has been greatly downplayed in Risky's Revenge. In the original, dancing required multiple button inputs and had six unique dance animations. This process has been greatly streamlined in RR. Now, Shantae will start dancing if the player merely holds down a single button, and unfortunately her dances are not accompanied by any music or little ditties for each move like in the first game. Shantae automatically cycles through three dance moves and depending on which move the player releases the button on, she will transform into one of the three creatures that are unlocked at different points in the game. I appreciate the fact that transforming is much quicker and easier and it makes exploring and using the multiple forms a much faster and more streamlined process, but the detailed dance system was one of my favorite aspects of the original, so it's definitely missed here.

Shantae discovering a secret cave within another cave!

So with beautiful art, wonderful music, improved gameplay, a well-designed world to explore and puzzle-filled labyrinths to solve, is Risky's Revenge a perfect sequel? Well, unfortunately no. RR is dripping with quality but I have one big issue with the game...it's just too short. I'm not usually one to complain about a game's length, and I favor a short, focused experience in place of a long, bloated one padded out with tedious nonsense. I thought the original Shantae was a great length for what it was; it had no filler and didn't feel too short or too long. But Risky's Revenge is about half the length of the original and more importantly, it feels short. There are only two dungeons as opposed to four like in the first game, and the second dungeon is replaced by the "Battle Tower", which is essentially just an enemy rush that must be completed in a time limit. This sort of thing would be fine for an optional side-mission, but isn't a suitable replacement for a full-fledged dungeon.

The world, though well-designed, also feels a bit small and could have used maybe one or two more regions to explore, in addition to about two more labyrinths to conquer. Risky's Revenge also features what some might call padding in the form of several fairly brief, but mandatory, fetch quests. I never found these errands, such as "find a coffeemaker, coffee beans, and an egg" or "find three baby squids" to be too problematic, as I actually found these items by accident just by naturally exploring the world. These quests always follow the acquiring of a new power and basically task the player with using this new skill to explore previously unreachable areas. I naturally do this kind of thing anyway in a game like RR, so these missions never bothered me, but they feel like they're here to make short game longer.

Boss time!

Risky's Revenge was originally going to be split up into multiple episodic releases, but this idea was scrapped and the game was released as a stand-alone sequel. As part of a series of chapters, RR's length would have been acceptable (although I'm not a fan of episodic games), but as a stand-alone sequel to the original Shantae, it just feels incomplete. What's present is a very high-quality adventure, but it simply left me wanting more, especially with its semi-cliff-hanger ending. RR is a cheap, downloadable title originally only available on the DSiWare service, so this is of course the main reason for its brevity. I also wouldn't say I didn't get my money's worth because the game is a blast and from what I've heard, it's actually lengthy for a DSiWare game. I just wish that WayForward would have been able to make a full-fledged, retail sequel to the original Shantae like the game deserved.

Thankfully, I hopefully won't have to wait long for my next Shantae fix as the third game in the series, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (note: there are spoilers for the ending of Risky's Revenge in this video), which is supposed to be twice as large as Risky's Revenge, is supposed to arrive on the 3DS eShop sometime this year. I'm a bit skeptical though because the year is almost over and there hasn't really been any news on this game outside of its initial reveal in the now extinct Nintendo Power's November issue of last year. I hope the game still shows up this year, but in the mean time, if you haven't played or heard of the Shantae games, run to 3DS eShop now (if you own the system). They can both be downloaded for under $20 (Risky's Revenge is also available on iOS) and if you enjoy Metroidvania-style games, Zelda-style games, or just quality 2D action-adventures, you own it to yourself to play these games. The Shantae series takes one of my favorite adventure game formulas and builds on it with a unique world and cast of characters and style unlike anything else, and gosh dang it, I just love it!

Shantae will return in Shantae and the Pirate's Curse!