Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse

Before writing about Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse, I tried to go refresh myself on what I wrote about Shin Megami Tensei 4. Turns out, I didn’t write anything. Or if I did, I somehow failed to post it. (I really should check my old laptop to see if I have any unposted stuff still on there). What I remember of that game, which I played more than five years ago, was that it was very ambitious and engrossing but had some balance issues and a chore of an ending. My thoughts are more vague than specific. Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse is something of sequel/expansion to that game, and while it fits inelegantly with the previous game storywise, it irons out some of the gameplay flaws.

As far as the battle system goes, Apocalypse continues to refine and perfect the press turn system that was first used in Nocturne and refined through the Digital Devil Saga games through SMT4, with similar systems also found in plenty of the spin-offs. It is a good system. Hitting a enemies weak point gives the player’s party another turn. Unfortunately, the enemies can do the same. So it is a game all about finding and exploiting weaknesses. It also has the Smirk mechanic from 4, where occasionally critical hits or hitting weaknesses powers up the next hit, guaranteeing a critical hit or giving certain attacks new properties. It makes for a battle system that is prone to big swings in momentum, where good play can almost make it impossible for enemies to git hits in, but a bad matchup for the hero might result in a quick, helpless game over. However, the game allows the player to retry after a loss and is generally pretty friendly in ways that this series almost never is. It is hard to describe just how good this game feels.

One mechanic that never works as well as this series wants it to is demon conversations. To recruit new demons, you have to talk to them in during battles. In order to keep the conversations from being repetitive, the game somewhat randomizes the monsters’ responses. There is no good way for this system to work. If all the same kinds of monsters respond the same way each time, the system is pointless and easily exploitable. If they don’t respond the same way, the whole thing is arbitrary. I know that demon conversations are a favorite of some players; I think they are a great idea that hasn’t worked yet. Luckily, Apocalypse smooths things out by giving the player experience from the conversations, meaning that the attempt no longer wastes opportunity to level up. I don’t recall if this was how it was in SMT4, but I know it wasn’t in Strange Journey.

Also, demon fusion is still great. It might even be too easy and intuitive now, but that isn’t a real complaint. It is always fun.

Where the game kind of falters is in the story. Apocalypse is very ‘anime,’ in a way that is incongruous with SMT4, which as already pretty anime. While the battle party consists of demons, the adventuring party is filled with teens and pre-teens. Including a pre-teen girl that spends half the game calling the protagonist master. It is uncomfortable. It isn’t that they are bad characters necessarily, but at no point did I find them really engaging. I wanted to see more of the world, but I didn’t care at all about the characters or their struggles.

There is also a simplifying of themes. People with a better grasp of Japanese politics that I noted some uncomfortable undertones to the previous game. This game replaces the philosophical tragedy of the previous games with childish nonsense. It comes down to the power of friendship. SMT4 was already a step back for the series along those lines, this game feels like a leap further down the road. It wouldn’t be that big a deal, except for this game’s plot is shoved into the back third of the original SMT4. So the new characters and stuff need to mix with the previous stuff and they really don’t.

The more Shin Megami Tensei games I play, the less special they feel. This is the first time that one of them felt so pedestrian. I liked the game. I played it for nearly fifty hours, I enjoyed the vast majority of my time with the game. But it really didn’t feel special. Maybe that is because it is so similar to SMT4. I don’t know. Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse is a very well made jrpg, but while I appreciate it on a mechanical level, it didn’t really engage me.

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Now Playing April 2019

Beaten

Shin Megami Tensei 4 Apocalypse – I’ve got a blog post coming soon. The game does a lot of things well, despite never once getting me to care about the plot.

Ongoing

Monster Hunter Generations – I played this some with my brother. The formula is just so perfect. It was also fun to take down some classic monsters that aren’t in Monster Hunter World. I will probably never get to the last dozen or so quests I haven’t beaten, but I more than got my money’s worth.

Dragon Quest 11 – I played a little, but didn’t make any progress. It is still a great game that I plan to finish this Summer.

Disney Afternoon Collection – I very nearly beat Rescue Rangers 2. I have plans to actually do that soon. I’m kind of in the mood for some NES action, so I might follow that up with beating one or more of the DuckTales games or finally giving Darkwing Duck some serious time. All of these games, aside from TaleSpin, are solid NES action games. I don’t think any of them are Capcom at their best, but all of them are worth playing. The collection has a lot of extras; it is a good game.

Upcoming

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – I really doubt I’m going to have time for much more than that. The new futile project I am switching to is trying to beat all the Shin Megami Tensei games on my backlog. I already finished SMT4A and the second half of Strange Journey is up next. I guess maybe I should add Persona 4 Arena Ultimax to this, because I still have one half of the story mode of that to do as well.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus

In a fitting farewell to the DS family of consoles, Atlus has released Etrian Odyssey Nexus. The handheld consoles most consistent series essentially finishes off the console with a greatest hits version of the series. It isn’t the best game in the series, I still waffle between Etrian Odyssey III or Etrian Odyssey IV, but Nexus is a solid summation of the series.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus is essentially the same as the previous Etrian Odyssey games. It is a first person dungeon crawler where the player has a fully customizable party. The player builds their team out of the offered classes to traverse a couple dozen dungeon floors. The concept, as ever, is simple. The execution is generally elegant.

Nexus’s collection of classes is a lot of fun, even if some of them very watered down. Nexus attempts to take the most memorable classes from each game in the series to give the player options that represent all the options they’ve had before. But all of the classes have gone through some revisions to remove the idiosyncrasies from each title. Most made it through pretty well, but some, like EOV’s Pugilist, are shadow’s of their former self. Still, it is hard to not make a really fun party here.

Something is off with the ratio here, though. The game attempts to give you take you through a tour of the previous 5 (or 7, counting remakes) games, so you need to visit all the areas you’ve seen before. But if it did that with full strata, the game would be a hundred floors long. So instead it makes a lot of the early strata only 3 floors long instead of 5 and confines a few of them to one floor mini-dungeons. The problem with this is that each still has a boss at the end of it. So instead of hitting a boss every five floors, it works out to a boss every other floor for the first half of the game. The Etrian Odyssey series has some excellent bosses (all of which get featured in this game), the bosses force a different focus on the player’s party. It isn’t a case, generally, of there being one correct way to beat a boss, but the options for tackling a boss are more constrained than those for exploring the dungeon.

The player is free to craft whatever party they like to get through the dungeons. Not every strategy will work, but there is a ton of freedom in finding a strategy that works for you. I tend to focus on offence, hitting enemies with overwhelming force and beating them before they can do much damage. But it is genuinely just as effect to build a defense heavy team that prevent enemies from doing much damage or a team focused on status effect or binds to shut enemies down. Bosses, though, significantly cut down on viable strategies. And each boss cuts off different strategy. With a handful of floors between bosses, it is possible to make adjustments, where when you fight a boss every other level it is really hard to find space to make those adjustments.

It makes the game more of a slog than it needs to be. Personally, I’ve always preferred exploring the dungeons to fighting the bosses. The bosses were the roadblocks that kept me from the parts of the game I really liked. The somber solitude of exploring the unknown depths of the dungeon is soothing to me. Bosses, while frequently really interesting, get in the way of that. Fighting bosses as often as Nexus puts them in front of the player really mess up the rhythm.

That is a pretty big complaint, and keeps me from even considering this game among the best in the series, but it doesn’t sink the game completely. There is a lot of great exploratory goodness here and the game isn’t quite hard enough to make the bosses that much of a hurdle. And giving every game in the series representation really does make it feel all encompassing for the series. The only thing missing is the Shiren the Wanderer class from Etrian Mystery Dungeon.

There is only one more 3DS game on the horizon. (The Etrian Odyssey/Persona mash-up Persona Q2) Etrian Odyssey Nexus makes for a fitting farewell for the system. Etrian Odyssey has been one of the most consistent series on the DS family of systems. It is up there with Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton in my mind as the games that really made the system. Both of those series have moved on. There have been a lot of other great games on the DS, but there is no series that has been as consistent, good, present as the Etrian Odyssey series. Etrian Odyssey did not make the most innovative use of the secondary touch screen, but it’s use made the most sense. A lot of games put a map on the bottom screen. Etrian Odyssey let the player draw that map. It seems like a small thing, but it really added to the sense of exploration. It is both simple and essential to the appeal. That really showed off the genius of the DS, more so than games that tried to use the touch screen for controls or random tapping.

I am sure the Etrian Odyssey series will continue. Probably on the Switch, maybe on mobile. I am sure I will keep playing the series for the foreseeable future. But this really feels like the end of era. While Etrian Odyssey Nexus is a middling game in the series, it is a worthy way to wrap up this series and the 3DS.

Now Playing March 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – post coming soon. Great farewell to the series and essentially to the 3DS.

Beyond Good and Evil –

I am not going to beat this game. Not this time through. There is a lot about this game that it still admirable. It is one of the better Zelda-likes of the PS2 era. But the game is just a touch clunkier to play than I remembered. Camera problems abound. The idea of Zelda with an active partner is a great one, but block pushing puzzles do not need the added hassle of waiting for the AI to come help push. I am about halfway through the game and I am simply done with it right now.

Ongoing

Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse –

I am giving this another shot and this time I am making some progress. I was going to compare it to my thoughts on the original Shin Megami Tensei 4, but apparently I never wrote about it. And honestly, other than remembering really liking it, I can’t recall too many details. Apocalypse falls into that void of memory even as I play it. That might not be fair to a game I started nearly two years ago, did all the foundational parts and then put down. I enjoy Apocalypse while I play it, but once I put it down for any length of time I forget what I was doing as soon as I pick it up. Still, this time I am intending to stick with it until I beat the game. Maybe it will have left some kind of real impression by then.

Dragon Quest XI – I didn’t play a lot of Dragon Quest XI last month, but I am still loving all the time I am able to put into it. This is a great game and if it keeps up this level of quality it deserved to be remembered with Dragon Quest V as one of the best in the series.

Upcoming

Disney’s Epic Mickey – If I ever get any time to play video games again, I still intend to finally get around to finishing this game. Maybe it’s not worth it, but I genuinely want to get to the last third or so of this game.

Yakuza 3 – Again, I still want to play this, but I just don’t have any time to actually play video games right now. Maybe I should abandon my plan to replay the whole series to build up to Yakuza 6 and just play Yakuza 6.

Monster Hunter Generations – My brother called me and suggested playing some Monster Hunter. So we are going to play this some. Honestly, there is a lot of this game I never experienced. I kind of only beat this one halfway, so going back to it gives me the chance to really dig into the back half of Monster Hunter Generations.

Chrono Trigger – I’ve been feeling the need to play Chrono Trigger, so I think I might give it another run through, at least to a point to get another ending on my DS game file. Maybe I’ll finally do the added dungeon in that game.

Now Playing February 2019

Beaten

Celeste – Celeste is just about a perfect game. It is one part a meditation on depression, one part maso-core platformer. It does an amazing job of teaching its mechanics in each stage, slowly letting the player learn them in a safe environment before requiring performance in a treacherous setting. It is set up to kill the player a lot, but also to make the punishment for each death minimal. Instead of a death setting you back, it more affects your ‘score’ of deaths in each section. I’m sure someone who spent more time thinking about it than I did can think of a way the story interacts with the mechanics; instead I just found it to be a heartfelt take on dealing with depression. What a great game.

Ongoing

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – I think I am nearing the end of this. It is already the largest Etrian Odyssey game I’ve ever played; I am on something like the 30th dungeon floor. I pretty quickly settled into a solid team; I burn through resources like crazy and am super fragile, but they do some damage. While I apparently have a goldfish memory when it comes to these games, this does appear to be a very heartfelt greatest hits collection of all of the games in the series. I’m at the point where I kind of just want the game to end, but knowing this is the last entry in the series on the greater DS family of consoles, I also kind of never want the game to end.

Dragon Quest XI – slow progress, but some progress. I am still loving this game, I am just not loving the amount of time I have to play it.

Beyond Good and Evil – This is a fun club entry and a game I haven’t played in close to fifteen years. The first two hours reminded me why I liked it so much. This is a really fun world. The game feels like an evolutionary link between Ocarina of Time and Assassin’s Creed. I might have to do a longer write up when I finish this.

 

Upcoming

Shin Megami Tensei – Either Soul Hackers or 4: Apocalypse. I am in the mood for some Shin Megami Tensei, and I have these two unfinished 3DS games.

Final Fantasy XV – As soon as I finish Dragon Quest XI, I am going to put some serious time into this. Spring break is coming up and I am going to relax a lot.

Epic Mickey – Copy and paste from last month.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

For Christmas, I was given Dragon Quest XI for PS4. Playing it for a couple of hours reminded me of just how much I like Dragon Quest. It also reminded me that I didn’t finish Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King when it was released for the 3DS a couple of years ago. So while I waited for Etrian Odyssey Nexus to be released, I dug out my copy to jam in my 3DS and finish off the playthrough I started back then.

Dragon Quest VIII makes an interesting counterpart to Dragon Quest XI because they are so similar. Even in a series known for sticking to a formula, these two games are nearly identical. They are both visually impressive, back to basics games. Both of them are games if not designed, at least positioned for success in the West for what is largely a Japanese series. With the caveat that I’m only about a third of the way through Dragon Quest 11, they are both two of my favorite games in the series.*

Dragon Quest’s reputation for staidness is a little overblown; it does occasionally tinker with the formula. VI and VII has some narrative innovation, with a job system that didn’t become available until too long into the game and some other strange pacing choices. Immediately following 8 was Dragon Quest 9’s Monster Hunter influenced take on the series, with its multiplayer stuff. Dragon Quest 8 was the only “normal” Dragon Quest game for about a decade on either side of it. Really though, the game is stripped almost bare of mechanics and characters, resting its accomplishments primarily on the purity of its vision.

That works for the game. There is a little bit of character customization, letting the player choose which of a handful of weapons each character can use. However, the party capped at 4 characters in the initial release. The 3DS added two newcomers, one who felt like she could have been on the team originally and one oddball. Still, they both join up very late in the proceedings and are mostly there for late and post-game shenanigans. The limited party with limited options lets the game be very specific with challenges. There aren’t a lot of ways to break the game, to do things out of sequence or blow up the difficulty curve. That is a mark against the game with many people, I know. I do enjoy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which just lets the player go nuts and tear it apart, or Breath of the Wild, which encourages the player to do things their own way. However, I am not one to dock a game for carefully calibrating the experience. There are no shortcuts and few tricks to getting through Dragon Quest VIII, you play at the games pace.

It works because that pace is good. The game starts with a fairly simple quest: King Trode, Princess Medea, and their entire kingdom have been cursed by the evil jester Dhoulmagus. The protagonist is the one lowly guardsman who escaped the curse, and now leads the quest to break the curse. At the start they are joined by Yangus, a burly thief with a heart of gold. Soon they are joined by the fiery Jessica, whose life has also been overturned by Dhoulmagus, and cool playboy Angelo, who has been cast out of his religious order. It is not a story in which characters change a whole lot. The protagonist is silent cipher, with the player having some ability to shape his personality. Yangus has already went straight by the time the game starts, and is always Eight’s, as the protagonist is called, right hand man, with insider knowledge of most of the lowlifes they run into. Angelo is always more than he seems, and most of his secrets are full revealed by the time he joins. Jessica maybe gets the most growth of the party, as she learns her potential after being stifled most of her life. It is a fun group, with different perspectives and reactions to everything the party runs into. But it is also a limited group; you pretty well know how each of them are going to react to anything by the midway point.

The game tailors the challenges around that limited party. Early on it knows that the player has only Yangus’s power and Eight’s all around qualities; that is a time for simple strategies as the player learns the game. Then it adds Jessica the mage, and gives her opportunities to shine. Finally, you get Angelo the healer, so the game can really take the gloves off and come at the player. Your options are always limited, but there are enough things to consider when fighting bosses. It just all works wonderfully. The new additions to the 3DS version add some wrinkles near the end, but that is too late to really change things.

The story, building off the simple quest, is Dragon Quest’s traditional vignettes, with each area telling a complete story that is also a piece of the larger story. That is the best thing the series has going for it; very few games work like that and even fewer do it as well as Dragon Quest. One detail I love is that there is a low key mystery through the game about how the protagonist avoided the curse that is never dealt with before the post-game. No other game would leave that detail for post-credits revelations. Also, the game is gorgeous. The visuals are slightly downgraded on 3DS, but they still create a wonderful cartoon world.

So far, everything Dragon Quest VIII does well, Dragon Quest XI does too. It is structured the same way, but bigger. The world is bigger and better looking. The party is more diverse and there are more options for each character. It still feels the same, though. After a decade of detours, Dragon Quest XI is the game the finally follows up on the game that really got me into the series. With it Western success, Dragon Quest XI feels like the game that Dragon Quest VIII always wanted to be. And really, mostly was.

*For the record: V, IV, VIII, (XI pending completion), IX, I, III, VI, VII, II

Now Playing January 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey V – read about it here.

Pillars of Eternity & The White March – As a big fan of Black Isle studios rpgs, I backed the Pillars of Eternity kickstarter way back in 2012. Unfortunately, when the game came out my old laptop was not quite up to the task of running it. So I let the game languish in my steam library for the last couple of years. Over Christmas, I realized that not only did I have a computer capable of running the game, I also had the time to play it. So installed it, bought the expansion and tried it out.

The game delivered everything I hoped it would. I don’t know that it is quite as good as Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale, but it delivered a substantially similar experience. It took me some time to learn the rules, but once I did everything felt right. The most important part of this sort of game is character creation. Pillars of Eternity gives you a lot of options. The hard part is choosing what direction to go. There is almost always a best choice, either with the goal of min/maxing the game or just choosing a class the fits the best with the rest of the team members you want to use. I went with a dwarven ranger with stag animal companion. I also tried out a chanter. On an initial playthrough, the game seems to have done a solid job of balancing the need for physical fighters and various spellcasters. The weakness is that there is no rogue party member without the White March expansion. You can get trapfinding abilities without being a rogue, but rogue do get an advantage there and aren’t pulled in different directions like mages. You can make extra party members to fill in gaps, but they won’t have personalities like the game’s premade companions.

The place where I at first found the game lacking but some came to see as a strength is its array of party members. The first two it hands out are Aloth and Eder, seem a little disappointing. They aren’t really exciting characters initially. I never really warmed to Aloth’s gimmick. But Eder’s gimmick is essentially that he doesn’t have one. He just this laconic fighter who occasionally drops in witty, wry comments. As the game went on, doing his character quest and otherwise, he developed into one of my favorite characters in the game. Mostly because he could have normal reactions to things while also occasionally having something interesting to say. No one is likely to find all the characters interesting, but on the whole they are largely well written and well developed. Aside from Eder, I greatly enjoyed adventuring with the proud Paladin Pallegina, and the dwarven ranger Sagani (having another ranger with my player character also being a ranger kind of limited options, but I liked her). I also used Hiravias quite a bit. The only character I didn’t warm to at all was Cana Rua, and honestly I didn’t truly give him a chance. And the new characters of the White March fit in surprisingly well. Even the robot character. I found Zahua’s backstory surprisingly effective and I really enjoyed Maneha’s general vibe.

I guess I’ve had good luck. Nearly all the kickstarter games I backed delivered. I am glad I backed this one. This game is excellent.

Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure – read about it here.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King – read about it here.

Ongoing

Celeste – I am so close to the end on this. It is such a good game. I have played a lot of hard platformers, but I don’t think I’ve played one that is as devious as this game is and that trains its players how to beat it. You can point to the first stage of Super Mario Bros for a beginners guide for teaching a player how to deal with obstacles in a game and many games follow a similar progression, Celeste uses those tool more effectively than most. It is aided in this by its friendly to lives and respawning. The game all but encourages the player to try things out, because the penalty for death is so small. That small penalty makes it less frustrating when the game is really hard. It reminds me a lot of 1001 Spikes, a game I love.

Dragon Quest 11 – I got this for Christmas, and through the first fifteen or so hours it is everything I could possibly want out of a new Dragon Quest game. I like my party, half-formed as it is at this point. I love the way Dragon Quest tells its stories through vignettes that are largely self-contained but manage to advance the central story in small ways. Functionally, this game is not much different from Dragon Quest V. The change is almost entirely visual and this game looks astounding. I am sure those who are more technically minded could point out flaws and compromises in this game’s visuals, I see what looks like a near perfect realization of Akira Toriyama’s designs as 3D figures. I could see people complaining about the lack of innovation here, but I have no problem with a game effectively executing a formula so long as it is a good formula, and Dragon Quest’s formula is one of the best.

Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon – I cleared the first few missions on this. For some reason it has a bad habit of closing itself and kicking me back to the home menu. Maybe I am holding the 3DS oddly and hitting the power button. Whatever is happening, it is frustrating. This is fine so far, but it is getting kicked back down the queue as soon as Etrian Odyssey Nexus is released.

 

Upcoming

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – This comes out early next month and will take over my 3DS for the foreseeable future. Honestly, this is feeling as much like a farewell to playing new games on my trusty old handheld as much a farewell to this series that is likely ending with that handheld. Good night, sweet prince, et cetera, et cetera.

Disney’s Epic Mickey – My ongoing quest to finish up some old Wii games that have been sitting around half finished comes to this almost classic. I liked this game just fine a decade ago, but I got distracted before finishing it. Epic Mickey doesn’t want for ambition, I’ll say that at least.

Beyond Good and Evil – an online game club I am a part of is playing this game. I intend to dig out my copy and spend some time with it in the next few weeks. Maybe I’ll beat it, I don’t remember it being that long.

Etrian Odyssey V

The Etrian Odyssey series is one of my favorites of the last ten years. I have spent a lot of time with my 3DS methodically mapping out dungeons while trekking ever deeper in the their dangerous unknown. I was greatly anticipating Etrian Odyssey V last fall. Then I played it for a handful of hours and put it aside. As I picked it back up and played through it recently, I realized my lack of enthusiasm was because this is a lesser entry in the series.

Most Etrian Odyssey games have a moment when it all clicks; when the party fits together and you have a strategy for taking on a dungeon. I put this down just before I hit that point, when I realized that I was going to get the bulk of my damage out of my Pugilist and the synergy between the Fencer and Warlock, while my Botanist was going for pure healing instead of status effects. But even at that point, the game didn’t really click. I pushed through and enjoyed it, but nothing about this game really stood out. The classes are interesting. Pugilist is one of my favorite classes I’ve encountered, but none of the rest really did much for me. It seemed to take a lot of set up to get most of them going and I don’t really like fiddly classes. Pugilist, a hand to hand fighter class that powers up based on HP shenanigans, is really easy to use and has a great risk/reward mechanic. Otherwise, they classes left no impact. The same is true of the different dungeon stratums, which were either nothing new, all but the third stratum, or new but not especially interesting, like the third strata’s graveyard. It is the motions of the series, but nothing to really make it interesting.

Etrian Odyssey V’s big innovation are its races, but while they add quite bit if customization to the characters, it ends up being largely unnecessary and I honestly forgot about it for much of the game. There are Earthian, Celestrian, Therian and Brouni. They roughly translate to traditional fantasy races, humans, elves, and dwarves, with the Therian’s being the only ones who don’t. They are rabbit people. The Celestrians make good mages, Therians deal a lot of damage, Earthian’s are good all around. There is a lot to consider, but the game doesn’t require it at all. At first the races are restricted to specific classes, but eventually you get the ability to reclass. It rarely makes sense to do so, because a race’s stats are generally closely aligned with their initial classes. Its neat, but unnecessary.

For the most part, the game just feels kind of rote. It doesn’t do anything memorable or interesting. EOIV had the world map, with multiple little dungeons instead of one big one. EO3 had story choice and the sailing mini-game. The first game had originality going for it, and the Untold games had the novelty of a set party. This game is just fine. It doesn’t do anything necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t really do anything interesting either. I enjoyed this outing well enough, but it is one of the last entries in the series I would turn to for a fix in the future.

I thought this was going to be the last Etrian Odyssey on the 3DS, but Atlus has announced Etrian Odyssey Nexus, which is likely to be the series swan song, at least in it current incarnation. While the first Etrian Odyssey hit a little further into the DS’s life than I remembered, (it came out in 2007, more than two and half years after the DS) this series was always one that seemed like a backbone of the system. Etrian Odyssey was certainly never a big seller, but when I think of the DS, it comes to mind, along with Phoenix Wright and Trauma Center. While Trauma Center has kind of disappeared and Phoenix Wright comes and goes, Etrian Odyssey has been there all along. A new game every other year or so, no big changes to the formula, just new classes and new dungeons and new adventures. I am glad I get that one more time and I hope it is more inspired than this one was.

Zack and Wiki

I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but before I started this blog, I had a plan to have one hundred posts ready to go before I started. I made a list of everything I wanted to cover, all of the movies, TV shows, comics and games that I wanted to write about. At least, the list of things I wanted to cover in early 2010. I didn’t complete that list, because I realized that if I tried to stick to my hundred articles I would never start posting. So I put the list away and just wrote about what interested me whenever I had the time. Recently, I found my list of proposed articles. It was kind of surprising, seeing what I thought I wanted to write about a decade ago and can’t understand why. (I guess I thought I had something to say about Chuck and According to Jim? I’m not sure what my intended angle was) It also is filled with things I truly wanted to write about and have never gotten around to do so. So I am going to make an effort to cover the remaining items on the list, even the odd ones if I can find something to say about them. (I feel like I’ve written this post before, but I’m not sure I posted it.)

I am starting with one of the games on my list, the only one that really hasn’t stood the the test of time: Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros Treasure. I know why this game was on my list. Even in 2010 this game was already sinking into obscurity. That felt wrong to me; I was annoyed that this charming, solid adventure was being washed away as another piece of Wii shovelware. I fired it up just after Christmas and even a more than a decade later, it remains charming. There are some flaws, but for the most part Zack & Wiki remains an enjoyable way to spend six to eight hours.

Zack & Wiki is essentially a point and click adventure game. Using the wii remote as a pointer, the player moves Zack around the stages and solves puzzles. Zack himself is little more than a blank avatar, but Wiki, his flying metallic monkey friend, has several skills. By shaking the wii-remote Zack shakes Wiki like a bell. This draws attention from big enemies. It also turns most enemies into items that can be used around the map. Frogs turn into bombs, pirate goons turn into blocks that can be moved around, snakes can be turned into a grapper to get hard to reach items. Most of the puzzles are built around that ability. There are some keys and levers and the like, but mostly it comes down to finding enemies, turning them into items and using them where appropriate. The hardest part of the game is that you have to do things in the proper order, frequently without being able to tell what the proper order is before you do things.

That is where the big flaw with this game comes in. This is a game the requires experimentation, but the scoring system punishes experimentation. You can also get stuck, where the only option is to give up and start over, even if you only need to move back one step or two. Or if you are at the end of an hour long stage. It would take a very small change to make for a significantly smoother experience.

Graphically, it seems to take a lot of its inspiration from Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It has that same sort of cel-shaded cartoon look. The games look remarkable similar, which is far from a bad thing, though it is worth noting that this game probably looks slightly worse than Wind Waker and came out nearly a half a decade after that game. The look of the game is a draw, even though it creates some confusion. It looks like a kids cartoon, and the largely charming antics of the Calvin & Hobbes-esque titular duo reinforce that kiddy appeal. But the game is a fairly difficult puzzler. This is not a game that kids will likely have a lot of success.

Still, the cast is undeniably charming. Zack with his oversized pirate hat and generally troublemaking ways. The rest of the crew of the Sea Rabbits, who are more than a little reminiscent of Tetra’s crew from Wind Waker, are largely amusing. Then there are the villains, from the Rose Rock pirates, a group of incompetent goons and their mean anime girl leader Captain Rose. Each area of the game has some obstacles, from a group of furry goblins to the cutest possible baby dragon. The look of the game is simply charming. There is a story, but there isn’t a lot there.

In a lot of ways, Zack & Wiki is about the perfect Wii game. It is a game that would be easy to move off the system, but since much of the puzzle solving is done with motion controls a lot of the appeal would be left behind. It feels like it should have been the start of long running series, but sales prevented that. I am glad I found the excuse to play it again.

Super Mario Replay: Super Mario World 3D World

Super Mario 3D World is the perfect culmination of all the Mario games that came before it. It shows influences from Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros., and Super Mario 3D Land. The influences of nearly every game in the series can be felt in this celebration of the series.

 

Like in Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario 3D World has 4 playable characters, initially. Mario, Luigi, Toad and Princess Peach all play roughly like they do in the NES classic. While the brothers themselves being playable it isn’t exactly a surprise, I believe this is the first time Peach has been playable since SMB2. It has a world made that is reminiscent of Super Mario World. It has the simultaneous multiplayer of the console New Super Mario Bros games. The touch of nearly all of the earlier games can be felt in this one.

Super Mario 3D World lacks a little of the wonder of Super Mario Galaxy. Its little diorama levels do not feel as alive as Super Mario Galaxy’s planets. That appears to be deliberate choice. Galaxy was constantly trying, usually successfully, to overawe the player. It tried to make each level seem huge while keeping the player’s focus on the usually actually fairly narrow path. Super Mario 3D World lets the player see the seems. It isn’t trying to be anything more than it is; and what it is is immediately comprehensible. That is necessary when trying to play with more than one player. Everyone has to know where they are and where they are going. The game is almost a complete repudiation of the 3D level design of Super Mario 64. That game attempted to create mini-worlds, 3D World’s levels are clearly artificial levels. It works, but it is a trade off.

There is still plenty of wonder in playing the game. That wonder comes from the delight in the almost puzzle like playgrounds that are its levels. It isn’t the exploration of earlier 3D Mario games, but more of just exploration of how. Something the Mario series does better than anyone else is in its variety. The player’s abilities are actually quite limited, but the game is constantly finding something new to do with them. There are a decent number of power ups. The flashy new one is the cat suit, which dresses each of the playable characters as a cat and gives them vaguely cat themed abilities. With the suit, Mario can climb up wall and swipe at enemies. The levels that feature that power up tend to have more verticality, taking advantage of the climbing abilities. Then there is the double cherries which create a duplicate of your character. That mostly serves to create mayhem, but it also allows for some devilish platforming challenges, requiring the players to keep multiples alive. There are also a bunch of classic power ups with more limited general uses and limited unique power ups that exist mostly for the levels they are found in. Added to that are the differences in characters. To get all the collectibles, some stages require using a certain character. Otherwise, it is smart to fit the character to a stage. For most stages, a player will likely want to use Mario or Peach, depending on the player’s skill. Mario, as usual, is the all around character while Peach is slow, but her hovering jumps act as a useful crutch for new players. Luigi is the best jumper of the group and is needed to get to some hard to reach area, while Toad is the fastest and can simply run by some obstacles. The game, infuriatingly but understandingly, tends to put character specific collectibles in stages where that character is not the expected choice. Still, all that is superfluous and only really interesting on a replay.

For as good as the whole game is, and honestly Super Mario 3D World might be my favorite game in the series, the crown jewel are the Captain Toad levels. It makes sense that Captain Toad got his own spin-off based on those levels; they are a delight. While I called the regular stages dioramas, Captain Toad’s stages are the ones that really run with that idea. The stages are even more limited, mostly fitting onto one screen, and so is the character’s abilities. Toad can walk and he can walk slightly faster. That is about the extent of his skills. He can’t even jump. You have to mosey him around the stage snagging stars out from under the noses of oblivious enemies, mostly through stepping on switches and manipulating the stage. I love them.

The biggest flaw with the game is that Nintendo shut down Miiverse. Miiverse has always been a great idea that was never going to work. There is a lot of 3D World Miiverse functionality that doesn’t do anything anymore. One of the collectibles from stages are generally very neat stamps for Miiverse posts that are now useless. Miiverse created a sense of community in the game and you feel its lack. Even without it, Super Mario 3D World is still a damn near perfect game.