Super Mario Replay: Super Mario Galaxy

Yeah, I’m still doing this. It has been some time, and I might not be able to finish for some time thanks to the remaining games providing difficulty, but I am still going. Mario’s first appearance on the Wii hit me like a truck with an incredible combination of nostalgia and wonder that re-solidified it as one of my favorite all time games.

This is the game that really got me into Mario. I don’t mean that I didn’t like Mario games before Galaxy, but I never really thought about them or considered myself a Mario fan. One of my earliest memories is of “helping” my Dad play Super Mario Bros. By the time I was old enough to really play games, even Mario 3 was kind of old hat. Otherwise I was a late adopter and Mario games tended to hit early in a system’s life. I bought Chrono Trigger with my SNES, Mario World was already nearly five years old. My N64 came with Jet Force Gemini. Mario games were always just kind of there. Super Mario Galaxy changed that. I bought a Wii to play Super Mario Galaxy. I was in college with time and just enough money to get a new system. I considered the PS3 and 360, but I was mostly spending my gaming time on the DS (I put 300+ hours into Pokemon Pearl) and playing PS2 games I missed because I was a late adopter. But then I saw videos of Mario Galaxy and it was just something I had to play. It and Smash Bros. Brawl made acquiring a Wii a necessity. I never regretted it.

Super Mario Galaxy feels like a revelation despite being an obvious evolution of what came before. The first three 3D Marios follow the same pattern as the the 2D games. The first established how the games work, the next did something very different and then the third came back and perfected the first game. Super Mario Galaxy is definitely the Super Mario Bros. 3 to Super Mario 64’s Super Mario Bros. It plays in large the same, but features more, smaller levels and more adventurous power ups.

The most striking thing about the same is the feeling of unbridled creativity. You can beat the game with the only truly repeated challenges being the mandatory Bowser fights. One level you are running atop a rolling ball controlled with the Wii remote’s accelerometer. The next is a standard Mario level. Then a level with the new Bee Mario power up. And then Mario gets stuck in a bubble and you have to use wind to blow him through some obstacles. The most amazing thing is that nearly all of these different things work and work perfectly. The only one that doesn’t work is the motion controlled manta ray surfing, which is frustrating both (?) times it shows up. Everything else is just perfection.

The game also nails the presentation. I know its low def and on the underpowered Wii, but Super Mario Galaxy still looks good. It is vibrant and cartoony. Everything just looks right. The music is unassailable; boisterous and jazzy and perfectly fitting. The presentation helps make it so easy to just disappear into this game; to sit in it and lose full days as you collect star after star. That is something that few games can do, especially now that I am an adult. It is comforting. Super Mario Galaxy is damn near perfect.

I would hop right on Super Mario Galaxy 2, but I think I loaned it to my brother, so I’ll have to track that down. I do have Super Mario 3D World, so I might start that up sooner rather than later. It depends on how quickly I can track down Galaxy 2. I still need to track down a working copy of New Super Mario Bros Wii so I can get that one. Lastly, I have Super Mario Sunshine, but I don’t currently have a working Wii or Gamecube. It looks like that is going to be the last game I finish. If I finish this; when I started I intended to end with the release of Super Mario Odyssey, playing that game on my brand new Switch. Which I still don’t have.

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Defending the Wii’s Legacy

Despite being the highest selling console of the last generation, I’ve noticed lately that the Wii has the reputation of being a failure. This is very wrong. While the Wii might not have the best library of games, it does have a particularly unique and varied one. The Wii is a console with more delightful experiments than outright masterpieces. Once the player moves past Nintendo’s first party offerings, separating the wheat from the chaff can be difficult, I know. However, there is a lot of good wheat to be harvested from the Wii’s crop of games. Not all of them are for everybody, but there are a ton of really good games. I really hate to see the system remembered as a novelty console with crap games. I am going to take a stand against this misrepresentation. This is the battle I choose to fight; this is my hill to die on.  No really, I just think it is a cool system with a bad rep.

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You have to start with Nintendo’s not inconsiderable contribution to their cause. No one else may have been putting their A-Team on Wii games, but Nintendo had probably their best slate of first party titles since the SNES. Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 are both absolute gems; two of the best games ever made. New Super Mario Bros Wii may not be quite that great, but there is little to match the joy of simultaneous 4-player Mario. The Zelda series had both Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, each a somewhat flawed but still terrific game. While I acknowledge the troubles some people have with the controls, I will defend Skyward Sword to my last breath; that game is amazing. The system had a new Punch Out!! game and two Kirby games. It had Metroid Prime 3, the Prime Trilogy release and Other M (which as bad as it is as far as story goes, still plays fairly well). They put out a whole host of solid Mario sports and party games, a bunch of high quality casual titles like Wii Sports, Big Brain Academy and Endless Ocean. They published a good handful of RPGs like The Last Story and Xenoblade. The point is Nintendo simply killed it with will software on the Wii, even if they were determined to leave a lot of the interesting stuff in Japan.

The games not from Nintendo are much more hit or miss, but there is still a lot of good stuff across a ton of genres. The Wii gave a lot of developers a chance to try new things and bring back some old things. There are ton of great Point and Click Adventure games. Many of them are also available on PC, sure, but the ubiquity of the Wii seemed to be a factor contributing to the genre’s resurgence. Thanks to the wiimote working like a light gun, there are also a ton of rail shooters, like House of the Dead Overkill. Some people tried to bring popular genres like FPSs to the console, with some success in games like The Conduit and Red Steel 2.

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The point of this wasn’t supposed to just be listing Wii games that are largely good. I could do that for a long time; there are tons of them. This is outlining a new mission statement. I want to use this blog to put a spotlight on Wii games. I want to highlight the excellent software that exists for the console. If I am being honest, this is partially motivated by the fact that a lot of these games are really cheap right now, so picking up interesting sounding title to see how good they actually are is not a cost intensive venture. It is easier to explore a system’s library when the bulk of that library can be had for next to nothing. This is an informal project I am going to keep at for some time. At least until I figure out to capture video so I can start my “SNES kid plays Genesis” series. My goal, such as it is, it to write about at least one unheralded Wii game a month for the foreseeable future.

First Impressions of Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade, to my knowledge, is the first game to actually follow up on  Final Fantasy XII’s attempts to breath life into the stagnating RPG genre. It may be too little, too late but nevertheless Xenoblade makes an admirable attempt at moving forward.  I am not necessarily referring to the traits from MMOs that both games adopted, though I think the streamlined battle system is used to great effect; I am talking about a shift in focus from the story to the gameplay.  Not by just adding increasing opaque and complex systems, but changing the way the games are actually played. This is not just what I think, this sentiment is echoed by Xenoblade’s director in an Nintendo Power interview.  The story is the usual anime-inspired pap, but the entirety of the gameplay pushes the genre somewhat closer to its western brethren while not losing any of its eastern charm.


Even if it were a by the numbers, vanilla exercise, Xenoblade Chronicles would be somewhat remarkable.  Sprawling JRPG epics are not so common as they once were.  In the previous two console generations big games like this abounded, but like Bison they are now quite rare. The craving for an epic made it hard to accept the hubbub around Xenoblade’s disappearing reappearing release date.  Was the actually good enough to warrant such attention?  For once, the answer is yes.  Most games get that great reverse sour grapes reputation, that the game we didn’t get was actually really great, but only a few times has this been true.  It was true of Final Fantasy V and of Mother 3.  Fortunately it was also true of Xenoblade Chronicles.


I haven’t actually played it enough to make any lasting judgments.  The first twenty hours are fantastic.  The story isn’t great, but it is more than tolerable.  I’m still not sure how some of the more complex battle mechanics will work, but so far battles are engaging.  Where the game shines, though, is in the scope.  I have played games like Skyrim or Fallout 3, but I still say that Xenoblade has the most impressive landscapes I’ve encountered in a video game.  They are not quite as expansive, though they are far from small, but they a significantly more interesting.  Xenoblade is a serious attempt to create a world, and it succeeds in spades.  The first three open areas: around Colony 9, the Guar Plains and the Satorl Marsh, are all interesting, well populated landscapes.  The grassy hills and cliffs of the plain, occasionally beset by torrential downpours and the moody, foggy marsh are especially entrancing.  I was impressed by the big, empty Sandsea in FFXII years ago, but that has nothing on this.  Even if all other part of the game fall apart before the end, just exploring the world makes Xenoblade worth the price of admission.  Fortunately, so far the rest is pretty good too.

Sky Crawlers

I’ve only got a few missions left before finish the story section of Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces (since writing this I’ve finished) and I’m somewhat at a loss for what to say about it. This is partially due to my not really having a reference point to judge it against. I haven’t played too many flight sims. I did enjoy Sky Crawlers, for the most part, but I could believe that other games do the flight thing better than this one. I also don’t have much to say about the story. I haven’t seen the movie this is based on, though I understand that the stories aren’t really connected. (Is the movie still on Netflix? I should watch it.) Its anime nonsense. Enjoyable anime nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. I just can’t take a story seriously when it features pubescent super-pilots called ‘Kildren.” Its just not possible.

I can at least make a note of the controls. I think it would be fair to call me a fan of the Wii’s motion controls. For most games they add to the experience despite the inherent slight loss of precision. So listen to me when I say that the default controls in Sky Crawlers are an unforgivable crime. Their problems are numerous and glaring. First, the game wants the player to put the Wiimote into their left hand and the nunchuck in the right. Yes, it wants you to hold it opposite of every other Wii game ever. Its akin to an NES game telling the player to play with the controller upside down. In Sky Crawlers, the wiimote operates as the throttle. The actual steering is left to the nun chuck. But the nunchuck flat doesn’t work as its supposed to. No part of this control scheme is useable, let alone intuitive. It is simply awful. After the tutorial, I realized the complete failure of the motion control and switched to a wavebird and never looked back.

The only other thing of note are the tactical maneuvers. If you can stay close enough to an enemy long enough you can execute a special maneuver the puts the player right behind them. There are three levels, but I have never found a reason to wait past the first one. Sure, higher levels actually get you behind some of the tougher enemies, but for 90% of the game you could have shot down the enemy 4 or 5 times while you wait for the meter to fill up. I don’t like the system because instead of letting the player pull off amazing moves, like flips and barrel rolls in Star Fox, the player pushes one button and the game does it for them. Still, even with it the dog fights are fun.

Sky Crawlers is a decently enjoyable game. Not worth full price, but its worth digging out of a bargain bin. Its not like there are a lot of flight sim options out there for the Wii. And who knows, you might like this games nonsensical anime stylings.

I Know that Monkey, His Name is Donkey!

A couple of years ago Nintendo had two big fall releases: Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns. I wanted both of them. 2D, and 2.5D, platformers are exactly my thing. Unfortunately, I could only afford one of them. It didn’t take me long to make my choice on which one to purchase. I found the previous Donkey Kong Country games to be serviceable but ultimately frustrating and Donkey Kong 64 was the absolute nadir of collect-a-thons. Kirby, meanwhile, has a bunch of charming and innovative, if a bit easy, games with his name on the cover. I went with Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and I enjoyed it. The lack of Kirby’s usual array of abilities was more than offset utterly charming yarn aesthetic. I was confident that I made the right choice.

For Christmas this year I received Donkey Kong Country Returns. Within two weeks I had beaten it, and realized just how wrong I had been. Epic Yarn is a pretty good game. Donkey Kong Country Returns is an absolute classic. It is not just one of the best games for the Wii, ranking up there with Super Mario Galaxy and Zelda Skyward Sword, but I would say DKCR is among the best games ever. Which is pretty amazing when you consider that I don’t really like the games that this one is trying to evoke nostalgia for.

First, I need to explain why I didn’t like previous Donkey Kong Country games, DKC2 in particular. (Since I played it most recently and it is still fresh in my mind) DKC2 relies heavily on unfair or arbitrary difficulty. It is not that it is hard to beat stages, though it certainly is. I like a challenge. The unfairness is in meta-game roadblocks. DKC2 is a fairly long game, so Rare of course uses a standard save system. But saving is limited to only to Grannie Kong’s School or whatever it is. The problem is that those save spots are not always available. It makes losing your progress, especially after a boss, a very real possibility. That means if you struggle with a boss, it makes it all the more likely that you will have to fight it again. Unless you go back to a previous world and save. But be careful not to shut off the game, since everything takes coins and coins aren’t saved. The very real threat of losing significant chunks of progress hampers the whole game. The difficulty of the actual stages is forgotten. The half-assed save system encourages players to play as conservatively as possible. It is as though Rare thought they were making a quarter-munching arcade game right up until the last minute, when they tossed on their terrible save system.

The crap is gone from Donkey Kong Country Returns. The game saves after every level. The arbitrary treat to the player’s progress is gone. The only difficulty in the game is entirely based on the level design, which is truly wonderful. Retro Studios has crafted a masterpiece of 2D level design. Each stage, like in the best Mario games, has a certain theme of obstacle. For instance let’s say that a pit, a hole to fall in. It you do you die. First, there will be a single pit, then two. Then a double sized pit. Then a combination of long and short ones. That is the simplest possible example, but the escalation is what the game does so very well. It shows an obstacle, then builds on it and expands it. It teaches the player what to do, then challenges the player.

Donkey Kong Country Return also encourages players to search for secrets and a limited number of challenge collectibles. It does this by first have plenty of checkpoints in stages. Stages aren’t that long, but generally they have one or two checkpoints. When you are only losing a few moments progress it is no big deal. There are also plenty of extra men, and extra men giving bananas around. Dying cost the player practically nothing.

Despite how friendly the game is in some respects, it is still satisfyingly difficult. I probably died more in this game than in any game since the NES. Yet every time I died I knew it was my fault. Each death merely served as encouragement to try again. It is also aided by crisp, clear graphics and pitch perfect controls. The only fly in the ointment are the rocket barrel stages. The idea behind them is sound, but in practice the controls are effectively broken.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is everything people loved about classic platformers without all the crap that used to get in the way. Instead of arbitrary difficulty designed to make the player replay the game and artificially lengthen the playtime, DKCR is all about prefect level design. It is a perfect evolution of games like Mario and Mega Man and Donkey Kong Country. It is a true classic, worthy of being enshrined with all the greats in Nintendo’s library of games and the second one from Retro Studios.

LoZ Skyward Sword Review

This post was supposed to be more of a well-considered review than the unabashed gushing that was my previous Zelda: Skyward Sword post but now that I’ve beaten the game, I realize that all I want to do is gush about it some more. I absolutely loved The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. There are some flaws, there are with every game, but they are tiny, negligible things barely worth mentioning and only worth noting so that they might be cleaned up in the eventual sequel. Skyward Sword is exactly what I love about video games.

Among the game’s many strengths, perhaps the greatest is that it never forgets that it is a video game. Unlike most of the series 3D entries, Skyward Sword is more closely descended from the original Legend of Zelda, rather than from Ocarina of Time. Ocarina and its ilk, as good as all of those games are, try to make Hyrule seem like a real place. OoT’s Hyrule Field is big and empty, impressive for its time and great hub for that adventure, but ultimately barren. Skyward Sword dispenses with the notion that this is a place that could exist outside of the confines of the game. The areas are no longer one large, connected place, but discreet sections. This may seem a blasphemy to longtime Zelda fans, but what it loses in cohesion, it more than makes up for in playability.

Each of the games 3 main overworld areas feels more like a section of Zelda 1’s world that any other game in the series. It isn’t just a path to lead you to the next dungeon, with the odd puzzle and token enemies to deal with. They are intricately designed gauntlets of puzzles and foes that are nearly as meaty as the dungeons themselves. There is a fine attention to detail apparent when you return to each area later in the game, armed with new items and able to discover new shortcuts and areas previously unavailable. While exploring the worlds of previous Zelda’s was fun, they were always empty, even with the number of secrets hidden about. (While something of an exception for Majora’s Mask, that game too was dense.) In Skyward Sword, any time you are on the overworld it is game time. No more running straight through an area, at least not the first time. This makes each section feel as intense and satisfying as the dungeons themselves.

The dungeons, the most important part of any Zelda game, are satisfying as well. After the first few simple dungeons, they really expand into true meaty obstacles. They also have some of the best, most innovative designs in the series. The dungeons feature effective use of the item found there, but aren’t wholly reliant on them. There are a few straight dungeons, but there is also an old abandoned pirate ship and dilapidated factory. The best dungeon is probably the Ancient Cistern. There are only two floors, but one represents heaven and the other hell, with completely different challenges on both floors. And the boss is one of the best in the series. Which makes it an anomaly in this game. If there is a weakness to Skyward Sword, it is in the boss battles. Several are repeated, several are boring, and one is downright laughable. Many of them are still decent from a gameplay perspective, but their look and how easy it is to beat them make sure they are a disappointment.

On the presentation side of things, Skyward Sword also excels. The graphics are some of the best I have seen, no need for qualifications about that being for a Wii game. Regardless of what it lack in technical power, Zelda looks good. The art design covers any deficiencies it might have. The soft, impressionistic backgrounds are magnificent, popping with life in color as it goes from vague dots to full clarity. I wish all games could look this good. The music is amazing as well, which is no surprise. Every Zelda game since the first has sounded wonderful.

The story and setting are likewise excellent. It is the usual Link must save Zelda stuff, but it is better told than normal. The first hour or two of the game, which are a bit slow, are used to set up an actual relationship between Link and Zelda. It also sets up the people of Skyloft, who are easily the best incidental characters of the series. Each of the townsfolk is well characterized and feels more real than most games, despite Zelda’s lack of voice acting. With just a word or a grunt, Skyward Sword imbues its characters with more life than games with hours of cut scenes, whether it is Peatrice’s bored grunts or the nervous jittery Fledge. The real star is the buffoonish, bombastic Groose. He starts as the school bully, who has a crush on Zelda and is jealous of Link. Over the course of the game, he develops into one of the greatest ally any Link has had. While the town of Skyloft in not especially big, the characters therein fill it with amazing life.

It all comes together into a game, that while not without flaws, is one of the greatest gaming experiences of the year, if not the generation. It shows that Nintendo still is the best at crafting exciting, innovative, lengthy adventures. No one comes close to offering an experience similar to Zelda.

Like We Ever Left Dreamland

Some thoughts on Kirby: Return to Dreamland

As prevalent as Kirby games have been on Nintendo systems since the pink ball first appeared, it is amazing to think that Kirby: Return to Dreamland is his first main series console outing since 2000’s (I think) Kirby 64. Most of his games have been relegated to handhelds and even then were mostly remakes and offshoots. The few home games have been aberrations (Air Ride) or not really Kirby games at all (Epic Yarn, though it is delightful). For his first primetime outing in a decade, Kirby proves that he still has it.

Return to Dreamland is also a return to Kirby’s best game, Super Star on the SNES. Kirby’s trademark power-ups in both games have more than just one or two uses; most of them give Kirby an expansive new move set. It may take some time to learn how to use some of the powers, but for most of them, it is worth it. And the best always has been and always will be fighter, tied with parasol. While sometimes a specific power-up is needed, the game most fun when you simply chose a power you like and wreck the game with that. Another thing Return to Dreamland takes from Super Star, though admittedly it likely also takes it from New Super Mario Bros Wii, is the co-op mode. Four players can play simultaneously. While it is one of the games biggest draws on paper, it is mostly the games greatest failure.

Okay, maybe it’s not quite a failure, but 4 player is not as good as it could and should be. Disappointing is what I’d call it, especially compared to the madcap perfection of NSMBW. There a several problems in playing with more than 2 players. First, the screen is zoomed in too far, crowding the players into a tiny area. There is just not enough room for 4 characters. The second problem is the ability for players to ride on each other’s backs. Not that it is a bad idea, but it is way to easy to accidentally hitch on to one of your buddies, messing up some tricky platforming section. This is compounded by the zoomed in problem. The two together make 4 player a mess.

Kirby: Return to Dreamland falls just short of classics like Kirby Super Star and New Super Mario Bros Wii. It is still very good, and mostly enjoyable, but the aforementioned flaws–and a few others like the shared life pool–make merely a very good game instead of a great one. It does capture that wonderful joy that is inherent to the Kirby series, easy to beat but hard to master and fun for everybody. It just further cements the Wii as the best system for Nintendo games since the SNES.

Punishment Indeed

I want to love Sin & Punishment Star Successor. I liked the first game a lot; it was one of the first games I downloaded from the Wii’s Virtual Console. I loved its mix of traditional shmup gameplay with Star Fox’s 3D on-rails style, with just a dash of action game thrown in for good measure. I do love Sin & Punishment Star Successor, except for when it fails utterly at hitting a good ratio of levels to bosses, something even the worst video games seem to be able to do better than S&P.

Star Successor is sublime. It is a perfectly tuned shooter that is ideally to the system it is on. However, there is that major flaw. The game simply has way, way too many bosses.

Bosses are a staple of video games, for good reason. There is nothing quite as cathartic as taking down a towering monstrosity to cap off an arduous stage. S&P ruins this by throwing boss after boss after boss at the player. Even ignoring the mini-bosses that really barely count, most stages in this game have at least 3 full fledged bosses.

It is not that the bosses aren’t fun, many of them are. It is not that they are too hard, though I am having trouble but it is well known that I kind of suck. It is that having so many bosses ruins the flow of the games and demolishes their effect. An amazing boss in a stage is memorable, three in quick succession is numbing. It stops being “Whoa, another boss!” and becomes “Whoa, another boss?” It makes the epic encounters with gigantic foes rote rather than thrilling.

The preponderance of bosses makes me crave more of the actual stages. I know, from years and years of playing video games, that the closer I get to the end of the game — I just finished stage 4 of 7 — the amount of bosses is going to increase. I know an actual boss rush is coming. I just wish that the boss rush wasn’t a continuation of the rest of the game.

Doctor, We have to Operate!

I’m seeing a trend in gaming of fewer and fewer games being released that I actually care about. The does not mean I don’t still play video games, though, because I totally do. Lately I’ve been playing Trauma Team, the latest and perhaps last entry in Atlus’s Trauma Center series. So far, I’ve cleared what feels like about half of the game. I like it. It is very “anime” in a not terribly good way, but it’s largely enjoyable

The Trauma Center games were part of that all too brief time period when the new control options provided by the DS and Wii resulted in a flood of new kinds of games and new takes on old kinds of games. The Trauma Center games were similar in some ways to the mini-game collections that have clogged up the Wii’s library, but filtered through old arcade sensibilities. You play as a doctor and each medical procedure is a simple action using the DS stylus or the Wii remote. The presentation of the small, bite-sized actions is what set Trauma Center apart, with numerous small parts connected in one large operation. It did a great job of approximating the feeling of actually operating. (I assume, since I’m no doctor.)

Despite some mechanical similarities to mini-game fests, Trauma Center played more like an old-school arcade game. The games emphasized playing for score and they were hard, brutally so in the way that quarter hungry from the 80’s were. It really gets that one more try mentality down. You always want to try the next operation or retry the last one for a better score.

Thinking about it now, it greatly resembles Guitar Hero. They both have non-traditional controls, prominent scoring and essential non-violent game play. Sadly, Guitar Hero was a phenomenon and Trauma Center barely a blip. Maybe that just proves that Rock stars are inherently cooler than Doctors are. Of course, even Guitar Hero seems to have run its course now. The all too brief days of non-violent games has already ended, if it ever existed. Now it is back to all violence all the time.

Trauma Team feels like the last gasp of the series. The previous games’ uber-difficulty has been neutered, hidden away in bonus difficulties safe from casual eyes. I can’t fault them for that, the earlier games bordered on sadistic. There are new diagnosis and forensics modes have no pressure and no score, playing like somewhat less charming Phoenix Wright cases. A worthy evolution of the hospital milieu or a betrayal of the arcade-ish roots? I side with the former but there is a certain case for the latter, slim though it is.

The story side has always been where the games shined or faltered. Trauma Team claims to turn the focus away from the sci-fi super viruses of previous games, but I’m not sure it fulfills this even in the time I’ve been playing. The cast includes a superhero doctor, ninja doctor and Vader-masked convict doctor, as well as an annoying robot buddy for the grizzled Dr. House stand-in. It doesn’t border on ridiculous, it choke slams ridiculous off a skyscraper. But I like it and I’m scared I won’t get to play any more games like this for a long time.

The Crystal Bearers

If there were ever a game that was more than the sum of its parts that game is Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers.   This Square-Enix action game–if you are being generous you could call it an action-RPG–is a spin-off of a spin-off of that revered RPG institution Final Fantasy.  Being a double spin-off is not the best pedigree that a game could have, especially when it strays from the original series’ genre.  Released in December 2009, The Crystal Bearers, despite its exceedingly popular parent title, landed with a wet thud on the gaming scene.  The genre, the system, the buzz; it all worked against the game.  Even as staunch supported of the Wii as I am (best console of the generation, no contest), the game fell off my radar for most of the year, but good fortune and the clearance rack worked in my favor.

Despite its original, and not wholly unwarranted, poor reception The Crystal Bearers is at the very least an interesting game.  It is one of the most inventive and original games not only on the Wii, but also of the entire console generation.

The game’s reception is no surprise when one takes a closer look at who made it: Akitoshi Kawazu.  Kawazu is the man behind the bulk of Squaresoft’s, now Square-Enix’s, most obtuse and reviled games.  While the hate for his games is not entirely unfair, it is somewhat small-minded.  Kawazu’s games, most notably the SaGa series in its myriad forms, ply by their own always complex rules.  Mostly they look and play like regular JRPGs, but the underlying mechanics are usually different enough that playing them as though they are just another Final Fantasy game results in an awkward and unsatisfying experience.  If the player takes the time to properly learn the game’s systems, they can be some of the most satisfying games.  It is not easy to do so, though, because the games are usually obtuse and unintuitive and downright unfriendly.  Moreover, as his games are often experiments, some of those experiments are failures–I’m looking at you Final Fantasy 2.  The best way to describe Kawazu’s oeuvre is that it is an acquired taste.  While The Crystal Bearers is very different from most of Kawazu’s games, it still fits that acquired taste mold.

The Crystal Bearers is two different games jammed together.  There is the story mode, a sequence of partially controlled scenes and events.  The events are not exactly mini-games, but they do usually use unique mechanics specific to that one event.  They are similar in concept to QTEs but with more player control.  Some of them even use the central mechanic of the other game, grabbing and throwing things with the Wii remote. The story takes about 8 hours to play through and as far a JRPG stories go (I know that Crystal Bearers technically isn’t a JRPG, but it is still Final Fantasy) it is pretty solid.  It is not particularly well written or original, but it has its own unique charm.  The Crystal Bearers’ story doesn’t take itself too seriously, moves quickly and keeps the action coming.  Comparing the pacing to an action movie is accurate.  It doesn’t hurt that the game is darn pretty.  And I do not mean that backhanded compliment “pretty for a Wii game.”  On a pure technical level, it is not particularly astonishing, but the artistry and the design of the world are outstanding.  The story part of the game is a thrill ride with plenty of fun, though not too deep, gameplay.

The real meat of the game is the open world parts, which are everywhere that is not a story scene.  The player only has one ability, the aforementioned grabbing and throwing.  Despite the simplicity of this core mechanic, the game has tons of ways to utilize it.  If you throw a skeleton’s head, he will stop attacking to chase after it.  If you throw two long time Final Fantasy enemy Bombs at each other they will explode fantastically.  Enemies are not just focused on the player, but they react to each other.  The King Behemoth chases other monsters around his map.  There are tons and tons of different reactions to get by throwing enemies different places or at other enemies.  Similar to the joy people get from tooling around in a Grand Theft Auto game, The Crystal Bearers gives you an open world with tons of possibilities.  I spent tons of time messing around and ended up with about 30% of the game’s medals.

True to its predecessors, The Crystal Bearers has some baffling choices in game design.  Like the fact that everything non-story is optional.  You do not have to do anything outside of the short storyline.  So all that emergent gameplay in the field areas is easy to miss.  The player is given little incentive to explore the game, outside of sheer curiosity.  I was halfway through the game before I started really messing around with all of the field parts.  The two different games are put together, but they do not mesh very well.  The player will get out of the game what they are willing to look for.  Except for at the very end.  The last boss takes the gameplay of the field segments and uses them for the basis of the battle.  It is suitably epic and enthralling, but if the player has not kept up with the optional parts and increasing the quality of their gear, there and only there will they have a problem.

 

It is odd and unique and definitely not for everybody, but The Crystal Bearers is a flawed gem.  All of the wonderful emergent gameplay that the game is built for is sidelined for a focus on the trite if somewhat entertaining story.  It shows the best that Square can do, but also how they are still stuck on the recreating the success of FFVII.  At the very least, it shows that the experimental and odd Square from the PS1 days is still around; it has just been branded Final Fantasy.