Paper Mario Color Splash

Nearly three years ago, my brother’s got me Paper Mario Color Splash for Christmas. While I had been greatly anticipating the game, for some reason the game pretty much immediately fell on the back burner. For some reason, I got the notion to finally give a play a few weeks ago. It turns out that Color Splash, like most of Nintendo’s WiiU output is an excellent game.

Color Splash is built in the same mold as its predecessor, Sticker Star for DS. That surely was a big disappointment for the people who hated Sticker Star, but Color Splash truly refines what that game did and feels like the culmination of this conception of Paper Mario. Like Thousand Year Door took the original Paper Mario and perfected it, Color Splash perfects the enjoyable but flawed Sticker Star. Super Paper Mario was perfect the first time out. (No, I haven’t played the game in nearly a decade, but I am sure my memory of it is perfect.) There are no companions and Mario’s abilities are still represented by a randomly drawn deck. Here they are cards instead of stickers, but the concept is generally the same. Mario can only do what he has the cards to do. The game has also been almost completely lost its RPG elements. There are almost no numbers to be seen, no levels or experience. Mario still does have HP, but that is about it.

Mario can carry up to 100 cards and use as many as four a turn. Cards are plentiful, meaning there is rarely any reason to horde them. Sure, you might want to make judicious decisions when using them, using regular jumps to take out weak enemies like Koopa Troopers and saving the huge jump and five jump cards for bosses, but nothing sticks in the inventory for long. The game is divided into levels and each one has a gimmick of some sort. Some of these play into the real world looking items that are in the paper world, others just have a neat hook.

Where it really shines, especially in comparison to Sticker Star, is in the story and characters. The main complaint with Sticker Star is still there in Color Splash; the game’s characters consists almost entirely of Toads. Bowser is almost completely absent, Peach makes only a slightly larger appearance. It is mostly Mario and Huey, a paint bucket, messing around with Toads and Shyguys. Still, the game manages to use the interchangeable facelessness of the Toads to its advantage this time. There are some with personality, like a feisty yet fearful ship captain, but mostly they are just folk, letting the events of the game happen to them. Still, they are worked in perfectly in every environment. They panic and are resigned. They try to help, but are generally ineffectual. Like they do with the eternal second brother Luigi, this time Nintendo has turned that into wonderful comedy. The highlight of the game is a big train rescue. Lemmy of the Koopalings has hijacked a train and Mario has to defeat him to gain a Paint Star. (More on those in a second.) Mario makes his way through the train, saving Toads from various torments at the hands of enemies. Then he reaches a peaceful train car. There, with the sun setting in the background, Mario and a Shyguy have a philosophical discussion. Then you go on. It is a brief aside that manages to be both humorous and thoughtful at the same time; it is great. The game is filled with moments like that.

About those Paint Stars: the big gimmick of Color Splash is that Bowser and his army are sucking the color out of the Paper World. So Mario gets help from a sentient paint can named Huey and sets about restoring the Paint Stars that protect the worlds paint and filling in the whited out parts of the world. It is the perfect gimmick for Paper Mario. It also works well with the entirely papercrafted world of game.

Like nearly all Mario RPGs, Color Splash goes on a bit too long. It is too easy and there are some tedious levels. But it looks amazing and is a great time for the bulk of its run time. There aren’t too many games left on the WiiU that I haven’t played. A part of me wants to argue for the underrated greatness of the WiiU, but that feels like a completely lost cause at this point. Especially since most of the best WiiU games have migrated to other systems. And I am sure that most of the rest will at some point. Maybe not Wonderful 101, which is an all time classic that needs more love. I don’t have the time or energy for this cause. If this is the game that is my farewell to the WiiU, I am glad I sent it off with a great game. I do still have Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, so I do have that still to look forward to.

Super Mario Bros Replay: New Super Mario Bros U

New Super Mario Bros U, to date the last New Super Mario Bros game, is absolutely the best in this subseries. The first New Super Mario Bros was a delightful return to 2D for Mario after a decade away, New Super Mario Bros Wii (which I don’t currently have access to) improved on that first game and added the fun of simultaneous multiplayer and New Super Mario Bros 2 was mostly just more of the same, but it showed a greater mastery of level design than the previous two. This one brings all of that together for a game that is creative and interesting and masterfully designed all around.

Like NSMB2, this game came out during a glut of Mario games and I don’t think it was properly appreciated. It doesn’t help that it is currently, exclusive to the tragically ignored WiiU. Some people think it is the best Mario game, but many more have likely never gotten to experience it. Hopefully the rumored Switch port becomes reality, because this game deserves to be played by more people.

NSMBU does its best to ape Super Mario World in many ways and it mostly succeeds and at times it surpasses that SNES classic. It brings back the world map stuff that helped make that game so memorable, for starters, with alternate paths opening up based in taking specific exits. Finding those deviously hidden paths is delightful. Otherwise, it is mostly just a Mario game, if a particularly well made one. It is hard to specify how the level designs are great without going into specific examples, and I really don’t have those queued up, but the difficulty curve is masterful. Most players should be able to beat the first couple of worlds without trouble. The next few provide more challenge, especially if the player is insistent on getting the hidden coins in each stage. Then the last couple of worlds are truly challenging, though largely surmountable without too much frustration. It provides a game world that has something to offer players of all skill levels and is set up to teach players to be better at the game.

Possibly its truest triumph is in the presentation. It is the first outing for Mario and company in HD and it shows, in a good way. Stylistically it is the same as the previous “New” games, but it just looks and moves amazingly. Then there are the special levels. Certain levels use a special graphical style that is beyond anything else. The most notable example is the swamp stage with a background patterned off a Van Gogh painting. There are other examples making for a game with varied and interesting looks that perfectly complement the play.

There isn’t anything new in New Super Mario Bros U, but it does almost everything other Mario games do better than it has been done before. If this turns out to be the last game in the “New” line of Mario games, it is a fitting end. It is everything those games are at their peak.

On to, or back to, Super Mario Galaxy!

A Farewell to a Console Gone Too Soon

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild appears to be the WiiU’s last breath. It is far from unexpected, but still sad. The WiiU was a marketing misfire from the start, and Nintendo was unable or willing to make the adjustments that could have turned things around for it. Still, while it is impossible to consider it anything other than a failed console, but it is one that I hold near and dear.

The WiiU only lived at all for a little over 4 years, and for the last year or more of that it was only life support. For about three years though, Nintendo put out a run of games as good as they ever have. The WiiU doesn’t have the biggest library, but it definitely has more than its fair share of absolute gems. It’s got Mario games, with the trio of New Super Mario Bros U, Super Luigi U and Super Mario 3D World. Plus, it has the make it yourself magic of Super Mario Maker. All of them are excellent games, evident of Nintendo at the top of their powers as developers. They made nearly every Zelda game playable on the system (I think it only lacks the Gameboy games) and put out strong entries in most of their long running series.

I don’t want to make this just a list of all of the excellent WiiU games, though there are quite a few, but a more general look at why I love this system. The tablet controller might be the albatross that sunk the system, but being able to play games like Wind Waker HD and Assassin’s Creed 3 while other people in the room watched TV was a Godsend. Then there were asymmetrical multiplayer experiences, like those found in NintendoLand and Affordable Space Adventures. The tablet really added a lot of ways to play games that didn’t exist before, if only more developers were able to take advantage of it. Nintendo Land specifically is an overlooked gem. Mario Kart 8, Smash Bros and Super Mario 3D World may be the obvious multiplayer go to games, but playing Mario Chase and Animal Crossing Sweet Day with my brothers are definitely highlights of my time with the system.

I think I’ve captured my thoughts of the games on this system on this blog over the last few years. The ones I found most memorable, outside of the obvious Mario and Zelda choices, were The Wonderful 101 and Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze. The first is a game unlike any other. It has some shades of other Clover/Platinum game’s like Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta mixed with some Pikmin and just a touch of Star Fox. It is a singular experience and is reason enough to own the console. It was also kind of divisive upon release, but I would call it a masterpiece. Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, on the other hand, is a game like many others. It is a fairly standard 2.5D platformer, albeit one done with uncanny precision. It can be hard, but it is never unfair, it looks and sounds great and it perfectly nails that easy to play hard to master balance. It is one of my favorite platformers of all-time.

Even though the WiiU is officially dead at this point, I am far from done with it. I have a couple dozen more hours of Breath of the Wild ahead of me for starters. Plus, I got Paper Mario Color Splash for Christmas and have barely started on it. The same goes for Twilight Princess HD and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, both of which I bought last year and have barely started. Finally there’s Hyrule Warriors and Pokken Tournament, one of which I plan to buy and the other I’ll borrow from my brother, but both of them will be played.

I said I didn’t want to make this a list, but I’m about out of things to share about this much loved, by me at least, console and I haven’t mentioned games like Bayonetta 2, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker, Tokyo Mirage Sessions, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Star Fox 0, Yoshi’s Woolly World, Pikmin 3, Smash Bros 4, Mario Kart 8 or even breakout hit Splatoon. Other than Affordable Space Adventures I haven’t touched on any of the excellent downloadable games. The WiiU failed, and I can accept that, but it did not fail for lack of quality games. Most consoles would love to have a three year period of output like the WiiU had almost exclusively from Nintendo. The WiiU’s failure is a failure of marketing and a failure by gamers, the system and its games were great.

Early Zelda: Breath of the Wild Thoughts

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is amazing.  It more than lives up to the considerable hype.  I love it and am glad to say that the few trepidations I had going in have proved unfounded.  While most people seemed to be won over instantly at the idea of an open world Zelda, I was scared that Breath of the Wild would play like an open world game.  I feared that the tightly designed, often dense worlds of the Legend of Zelda would be replaced by a blandly generated open world. Both of those fears have been assuaged by playing nearly 20 hours of the game over its first  week after release.

While the openness is the first thing that grabs the player upon starting up the game, it obvious pretty soon that Nintendo and Zelda Producer Eiji Aonuma didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The prerelease hype and the reviews have all focused on its ties to the original Legend of Zelda, and that game’s influence is clearly felt, but it doesn’t ignore the series past that. The structure of the game has been rethought, continuing a trend that arguably began with Skyward Sword and was very evident in A Link Between Worlds, but the moment to moment gameplay is just another step along the evolutionary path that the series has been on since the series went 3D with Ocarina of Time.

I understand that many people found Skyward Sword stifling, but it controlled like a dream.  People will argue about the motion controls for sword fighting; I think they are being ridiculous, but setting the motion aspects aside, Skyward Sword was a delight to move around in.  That is something that has been true of the series since it went 3D.  Few 3D games feel as good to move around in as the Zelda games do.  There is a reason that so many games stole Z-targeting from the series.  Compare that to popular open world games like Grand Theft Auto or Bethesda’s output and it is night and day.  The player character in Skyrim glides over the world, never really seeming to interact with it.  Some of that has to do with the fact that Elder Scrolls games are designed to be played from the first person perspective, some of it has to do with the fact that Bethesda games have big, well considered worlds but play like janky pieces of crap.  Breath of the Wild takes the open world, but it still plays like Zelda, a feat that I didn’t think could be achieved, but they did it.  I thought at best we would have an Assassin’s Creed situation, games that play fine,but the player interacts with the world in very limited ways.  

Then there was my fear that wewould get the usual open world, which usually translates to empty world.  The really open Zelda game was Wind Waker, which featured both small dense islands to explore and wide and empty ocean.  That was built into the game: the ocean is big and empty. The best Zelda games have forsaken openness for density. A Link to the Past’s Hyrule is not especially big, but there is a lot to find and do.  People love Majora’s Mask and that game is undeniably tiny.  The clear winner as far as game density goes is Skyward Sword.  There is the big, largely empty sky, but that exists mostly to let the player fly around on the back of a bird, once on the ground there is always something to do or see.  It essentially turned theoverworld areas into open air dungeons.  Their density made for difficult traversal, but unlocking the secrets of each of the three main areas never stopped being enticing. While not as dense as Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild has kept that denseness while expanding Hyrule bigger that it has ever been before. This is an open world where little piece of the map has something to do or see.  Maybe it is just a simple rock moving puzzle to find a little korok spirit, maybe it is a shrine, perhaps a rare or unique specimen of flora or fauna and sometimes, rarely, it is just a beautiful view.

That beautiful view thing might be something people could say for many games, but I have not seen a game that astounds me like this game has with how it looks.  It is not the most technically impressive game in existence, but its art design is unparalleled. I have only explored at best a quarter of Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule and perhaps I’ve only seen the best of it, but if it can maintain this level of things to do and see over the course of what promises to be a nearly 80 hour game, it will certainly go down in history as an all-time great.

Shantae: ½ Genie Hero

Wayforward does good work. They are the go to company for solid, if only rarely spectacular, licensed games as well as updates on classic games. They are the ones behind games like A Boy and his Blob, Contra 4, DuckTales Remastered and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. As good as those games, as well as a couple of handfuls of others across primarily the Wii, DS and 3DS, are Wayforward has always done their best work on their original titles. Those include the Mighty games – Mighty Switch Force, Mighty Milky Way, etc. – and the Shantae games. When Wayforward went to Kickstarter to fund the latest Shantae game, Shantae Half-Genie Hero, it seemed like the surest possible bet. While the game missed its projected release date by more than a year, the finished product turned out to be everything fans hoped it would be.

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Shantae: ½ Genie Hero breaks no new ground. While its story doesn’t pick up from its predecessor Shantae and The Pirate’s Curse, the gameplay doesn’t stray far. The biggest difference is in our heroes abilities, with Shantae reverting to her dance triggered transformations rather than relying on skills like those of Risky Boots. The same transformations that she used in her first two games. Well, not exactly the same, but similar. Still, while Shantae is a riff on the same kind of game people have been playing for more than 25 years, everything about it is so well done that it just warms the heart.

First of all, the graphics and sound are excellent. It shares a general look with DuckTales Remastered, but it simply looks better. It is not the pixel art of previous games, but it is fluidly animated and is frankly one of the best looking 2D games I’ve ever seen. It still has that usual Shantae look, which includes a lot of cartoonish voluptuousness for better or worse, and Sequin Land has never looked so good. The game also has some great tunes, I don’t know how else to say it, they are just some awesome listening.

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Gone is any sense of this game as a sort of Metroidvania, the game is strictly level based. Each level has two or so distinct areas and while each area has places to explore, the play out completely linearly. The stages are largely really well designed, each with distinct challenges. One takes place in the air during a flying carpet race. Another has Shantae lost in a spooky mansion. While they don’t really break any new ground, they are interesting and fun to play though. The linear nature makes for some awkward bit, when you must go back to stages to look for doodads and power-ups. It is tempting to run back to each stage after completing the next one and getting a new power-up, and the game encourages this by gating the unlocking of the next stage behind completing some tasks for the townsfolks. They are not onerous tasks and the time spent searching for whatever the citizen or Uncle Mimic needs can also be used to scrounge up extra hearts and collectibles. They are fun to explore, up to a point and by the end of the game it reaches the point where it stops being fun and starts being a little tedious.

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Shantae controls as well as usual. Unlike the original GBC game, her hair actually feels like it has sufficient length to make a good weapon. I did have a little bit of a problem with the difficulty curve. The first stage, after the quick opening one, is likely to be the most difficult task in the game save for the final level. You haven’t really had a chance to get any extra hearts or power-ups at that point, so it is all about the player’s skill. After that, when the player gets more and more hearts and finds numerous healing items, the folds like tissue paper. Until the last stage, which is suitably challenging.

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Most of my complaints here are nitpicks, reasons why Shantae: ½ Genie Hero is not the best game ever, merely an extremely good one. My expectations for this series grows with each game I play, and each time the new game exceeds them. I don’t really know is this game is better than the previous one, but at the very least it is as good. Shantae: ½ Genie Hero joins Shovel Knight as one of the best Kickstarter triumphs.

Mighty-ish No 9

I deliberately waited a few months after Mighty No 9 was released before I played it.  I wasn’t so much put off by poor reviews, I’m able to form my own opinions even after hearing others.  It was more that I didn’t want to participate in the dogpile that was going on.  I contributed to Mighty No 9’s Kickstarter, at a low tier, and I consider it money well spent.  It was an invaluable look at how the sausage was made, though the process can be messy.  It was also a valuable look into the seething black heart that makes up a vocal portion of the gaming internet, the overriding ugliness that was fully revealed in a certain well known blow up of hatred and misogyny that started a few years ago.  Mighty No 9 was such a great learning experience that the quality of the game was an afterthought.  In the end, Comcept and Keiji Inafune delivered exactly what they promised – an action game made in the model of Mega Man – though it wasn’t quite as good was it could have been.

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There were clearly a lot of problems right from the get go, problems that were built into the Kickstarter.  Comcept was in trouble the moment they promised to release the game across so many platforms: PS3, PS4, VIta, Xbox 1, Xbox 360, WiiU, 3DS, PC, Mac, and Linux.  Compare that to the highly successful Kickstarter project Shovel Knight, which launched on WiiU, 3DS and PC.  Only three platforms, not ten.  The testing and porting seems to have been an insurmountable task.  Then there was the fact that they started development on Unreal Engine 3 shortly before support for that engine was dropped for UE4.  These are things I never really thought about before this Kickstarter.  
Nearly everything about Mighty No 9 has been the target of intense criticism.  Like the graphics.  They do look bad in stills screenshots.  The models as blocky and the backgrounds are often sparse.  The thing is, it is clearly an aesthetic choice. The game looks exactly like it is intended. It is much like Earthbound, a game lambasted for its simple graphics in its day, going for a simple charm instead of flash or detail. Honestly, it looks pretty good in motion.  The characters designs are strong, even if they didn’t make the translation to 3D models perfectly. And the sparse backgrounds help make the action more clear.

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The game does a lot of things well. The controls are impeccable. Beck is a lot of fun to move around. The music is good, with enough excellent tracks to offset a few lackluster ones. Most of the stages are solid challenges, though there are a few duds and nearly every stage has a spot that seems unfair rather than hard.

What sinks Mighty No 9 is an astonishing lack of polish. A lack of polish that permeates the entire game. Largely pleasant graphics are undone by some barren backgrounds and garbage effects textures. Cutscenes with dull dialogue and numerous gaffes and typos. Fun levels derailed by rough screens with too many instant death traps or poorly placed enemies. Then there are the loading times, a problem that may be exclusive to the WiiU version, which border on criminal. And I am given to understand that the patch that installed with the game supposedly helped with load times. It is a death by a thousand cuts scenario, where none of these problems are enough to ruin the experience on their own (actually, the level designs ones might be) but together it makes the game feel inordinately ramshackle. While I am far from an expert, I would guess that many of these problems stem from their attempt to launch on so many platforms at once. They were testing for consoles, computers and handhelds (though those last versions have yet to materialize), and too many things fell through the cracks.

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Technical problems aside, there is one big thing that hampers Mighty No 9. For all that the characters look like original flavor Mega Man knock-offs, the game that Inafune and company are trying to recreate here is not Mega Man 2 or even Mega Man 3. This game was made in the mold of Mega Man X4. With its emphasis on dashing, MN9 plays a lot more like a Mega Man X game than a game from the original series. Also, X4 is the game where the story stuff something of a front seat, like it does here to the game’s detriment. I am not opposed, in theory, to MN9’s use of Star Fox like banter mid-level, but the banter needs to be more interesting that what is on display here. If I went in expecting Mega Man X, this wouldn’t really be a problem; but I wanted, and thought this was intended to be, more like the original flavor. That it is what it is is not necessarily a flaw, but it does take a realignment of my expectations.

I am running out of steam here, and don’t really have it in me to go after the asinine elements of gaming culture that coalesced around outright hate over the last few years, with the moronic controversy over a community manager for this project was one of the preludes to all of that contemptible bullshit. I can’t help feel that the fallout from that helped fuel the backlash this game has faced. This post isn’t really about that, but it is hard to ignore that chapter of this game’s development. Someday, I might write out my thoughts on that subject at length, or I would if I thought anybody wanted to read it or thought it might help the people whose lives had been hurt by it.

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In retrospect, the sad fate of Mighty No 9 seems almost inevitable. It was never going to be all the things people wanted it to be. That is how Comcept could deliver exactly what the Kickstarter promised, though admittedly it was not as good a game as people had hoped, and still have people feel ripped off. The Kickstarter promised a game inspired by Mega Man and other old school action games and that is exactly what we got. It turned out to be the Gobots to Mega Man’s Transformers, but it could never be anything else. And aside from just the seeing the sausage get made aspect to it, it also illuminated the startling entitlement that is endemic to the gaming public.

For all of its high profile and long delays, Mighty No 9 feels like the rough draft of a good game, a feeling not dissimilar to the feeling from playing Mega Man 1. A sequel that takes some of the legitimate complaints to heart could have a jump in quality not unlike that between MM1 and MM2.

Ready For Adventure!

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker flew somewhat under the radar among Nintendo’s more high profile releases this fall. With all of the Pokemon, Smash Bros and Amiibos, Captain Toad comes off as something of an afterthought. Still, a lot of care clearly went into the games creation. Much like Super Mario 3D World last year, Captain Toad just bursts with joy, creativity and fun. Captain Toad is like an indie game, with a simple core concept blown up into a full game, which has been given the full Nintendo polish. It may be a small game, but it is nearly perfect in its smallness.

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The Captain Toad stages were highlights even amidst the whole game highlight that was Super Mario 3D World. Playing as Captain Toad in a Mario style game was an interesting challenge. He has none of Mario’s athletic moves, thanks the weight of his backpack the little guy can’t even jump. Instead of hopping and bopping their way through the levels, players had to move carefully and study their surroundings. The player’s abilities are pared down to running and picking plants. Each stage is a little puzzle that the player must solve. With Treasure Tracker, the simple concept of those stages is explored to its fullest extent. The core never breaks down, but it is pushed. The game adds power ups, including 3D World’s Cherry doubler. There are touch screen blocks to move and wind-blown platforms and the majority of Mario’s usual baddies to fight. With Captain Toad’s limited skills, even a simple enemy like the lowly Goomba poses a threat.

Stages start out simple, to beat if not to get all the gems and complete the extra challenge, but before long the game starts to show its teeth. Players must learn how to exploit Toad’s capabilities they will die, repeatedly. The few bosses the game throws in, really only two bosses repeated a few times, are wonderful, tense challenges. While the game looks childish, it soon provides a moderate challenge.

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What really sets this game apart is the wealth of detail is shows. It looks great, like 3D World, but there are so many little touches that really make this game memorable. Like the bed in the train level. If Captain Toad stops on it, he will lay down to take a nap until the player moves again. At one point the two toads, Toadette is a big part of the game, are in a minecart that is rocketing down a hill. Captain Toad covers his eyes while Toadette throws her hands in the air in joy. There is a stage in the later part of the game where you ride a dragon. While Toad sits on its head and cheers, the player controls the dragon taking out hordes and enemies and tons of blocks. There is no threat, no danger or puzzle. It is just a victory romp, pure joy. Near the end the game also tosses up a few stages that are homages to other Mario games. The whole game is just a delight.

One neat trick is the story. It starts on pretty well worn footing, with Toadette being kidnapped and Captain Toad setting out to rescue her. After a dozen or so stages through, they flip the script and it is then Toadette setting out to rescue the Captain. After a section like that, the two are split up and looking for each other, alternating every handful of stages. It doesn’t really matter which one is used, they both play identically. It paints a picture of two mostly competent adventurers who are in slightly over their heads. Another big draw to the story is that there is no real incentive to their quest other than adventure. Yes, they are both trying to rescue the other at times, but they got “kidnapped” by going after stars in the first place. It is less a kidnapping that an unfortunate fall. The big bad bird takes the Toads away because they won’t let go of their prize that was stolen.

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The whole game is adorable like that. In gameplay, it feels like an indie game, like VVVVVV, built around a single concept and just going all the way with that. But there was clearly a level of money put into this game that most indies can’t match. Instead of simplistic, if possibly stylish graphics, Captain Toad looks as good as or better than Nintendo’s biggest offerings. It is also a unique look into the Mushroom Kingdom. Rarely does Nintendo give a glimpse without the plumber around and most of those are about the other plumber. This is a chance to see the world through other eyes, and it helps make Mario look all the better. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker may be a somewhat simple game, but it combines simply perfected play mechanics with loads and loads of sheer charm make it a winner.

Smashing Once Again

I’ve now spent a lot of time with the WiiU version of the new Smash Bros. At its heart it is the same game, but there are some significant differences between the two versions. Both are worthwhile, but the 3DS game is a fun distraction, the WiiU one is Smash Bros the way it is supposed to be played. It looks great, plays great and introduces some great new additions to the series.

The 3DS game’s exclusive Smash Run mode was a fun time waster; it wasn’t the best thing ever, but it grew on me the more I played it and was a decent way to change things up. That is replaced on the WiiU with Smash Tour. Smash Tour is a terrible single player mode; it is absolutely no fun without other players. As a multiplayer game it plays like something between regular Smash Bros and a very limited Mario Party. It makes it much less entertaining than Smash Run. If you have a group around to play Smash, then you likely want to play Smash, the other modes are for when you have to play alone. Smash Tour fails utterly as a single player experience.

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Really, the single player side of Smash Bros WiiU is severely limited. All-Star mode is still All-Star mode. The same goes for Home Run challenge and the Multi-man Smash modes. Those are all familiar and fun. Event mode is also back, and the varied challenges found there are excellent, though somewhat brief. I completed all of them after just a few hours. Nintendo did add coop play to almost all of the single player modes, making them worthwhile when there are exactly two players. The new target mode is now some Angry Birds knock off that I don’t quite get. I don’t enjoy it at all and would rather have the old individualized courses from Melee back. They also screwed up Classic. I’m not sure how to describe it, instead of the simple choices and series of matches from even the 3DS version; it is now just an asinine mess. I kind of hate it. Maybe the real fun is to be had with Master/Crazy Orders, which I’ve barely touched. Still, even more than on the 3DS game I miss the Subspace Emissary. As goofy and unnecessary as that was, I still really loved it. It is now the only reason to keep Brawl around.

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As disappointing as that stuff may be, it is all just a distraction from what really matters: the fighting. It is pitch perfect, looks, sound , controls, everything. There are only really slight tweaks from the previous games, but Smash Bros has played about perfectly since its inception. It has always been deceptively simple. This game’s (I really wish they had come up with a subtitle like Brawl or Melee) supersized roster seems, at least through a few dozen hours of play, to much better balanced that the earlier games. I ranked the fighters based on the 3DS game and even though it is the same roster for this one, if I did that list off the WiiU game it would be significantly different. I loved Jigglypuff the first time around, now I can’t use her at all. But Dark Pit, a character I quickly dismissed before, has fast become a favorite. The classic Smash fighting is h=just as broad and chaotic and addictive as ever.

The big revelation is 8-player Smash. Smash Bros has always been chaotic, but doubling the number of fighters just makes things insane. To account for this, Nintendo added a handful of supersized stages. It is amazing how much a fight can change just based on the stage chosen. 8-player in a small arena like Yoshi’s Island is just pure madness, with little to no way to control the battle; there are just too many variables. It is great. But a map like Palutena’s Temple is completely different. That map has more than enough space for eight fighters to find space and terrain suited to every character. It is about choosing your battles and battle ground. It takes a lot longer and is a completely different game, but it is still a lot of fun. No matter the map, the craziness of 8-player Smash is awesome.

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Like the rest of the series, Smash Bros WiiU is crammed to the gills with content. To go along with hundreds of trophies, there is also equipment and alternate specials. The equipment is not big deal, they are much like Brawl’s stickers and just as useless. That is not really true, there are a lot of things you can do with them, but it is fiddle and uninteresting. The alternate specials are a different matter. Each character has three versions of each of their special attacks, most only a slight variation on the normal take on it. I haven’t come close to unlocking all of them, but they can really change how a character works. For example, some attacks add a wind effect that pushes enemies away but doesn’t actually hit them. It is not effective for racking up the damage, but it great for pushing players off the edges. All of the alternate options let’s players customize characters within reason. It doesn’t completely remake them, but it can do enough to completely reshape how to go about using that character effectively. It is great.

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I don’t know that Smash Bros is my game of the year, but it is the game from this year that I am sure to continue playing for the longest. I am a little burnt out now, after putting 40+ hours on the 3DS and nearing that again on the WiiU, but I would guess that I’ll keep returning to Smash for years to come. That is how it has been for every other game in the series. Melee was the first Gamecube game I purchased and the last one I played. It is a similar situation with Brawl and it will be the same with this one. I love Smash Bros and this one is the best one yet.

Pikmin 3

Both of the people who read my blog regularly will likely recall that I’ve had Pikmin 3 on my “to play” list for about a year. I don’t know why I’ve put it off for so long. At first it was due to a deluge of other games; games like Wind Waker HD and The Wonderful 101. Pikmin 3 was continually pushed down the list. One thing that did keep pushing it down the list is that it is best played with the wiimote and nunchuk, which means that I couldn’t play it on just the Gamepad. That made it just that much easier to skip it and go to something that I didn’t need the main TV for. Now, though, I have finally taken the time to play this game. Pikmin 3 is an amazing game; beautiful, original and with a startling attention to detail. I feel like a fool for putting it off so long.

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I never played the first two Pikmin games. They came out during the time I was largely not playing video games. I did have a Gamecube, but other than Resident Evil 4 and Smash Bros Melee I didn’t have a whole lot for the machine. The Pikmin games looked good, but I just never happened to stumble upon them. Plus, my experiences with console based RTSes, even ones that were supposedly well made, have never been good. I did pick up the New Play Control Pikmin 2 for the Wii, but my nephew borrowed it and I haven’t seen it since. So Pikmin 3 was my entry into this series.

Pikmin 3 takes a complex genre, real time strategy, and gives a patently Nintendo take on it. It is simplified in some ways, like resource management and unit types. Games like Warcraft and Command and Conquer had various resources that the player had to harvest and then allocate to expand their army. Pikmin 3 does have some resources, but there is little about them to manage. Instead of an extensive tree of unit types to build an army with, there are only a handful of Pikmin types to use. In typical Nintendo fashion, the elements of Pikmin 3 all work together. The main goal of the game, other than to reunite the three little aliens that are the game’s protagonists, is to find fruit. The protagonists convert it to juice and drink, with their mission to the planet they crash on being to find new sources of juice. While there are frequently other goals, that is the primary one. The only other resources besides fruit are flowers and enemy carcasses, both of which are used to create more Pikmin. The color of Pikmin you get from them are determined by the type of Pikmin you used to send them back to the home base.

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Solving puzzles and fighting enemies in the game is all based on the color of Pikmin. There are red, yellow and black Pikmin and they have a sort of rock/paper/scissors relationship. The red ones are immune to fire and good at fighting while the yellow are immune to electricity and, while not as good of fighters as the red are lighter and can be thrown farther. Choosing the correct Pikmin for the job is two thirds of the game. It simple in theory but difficult in practice. Especially once you get all three characters together and can split them into three distinct groups. Do you want to split your colors between each commander, or give each commander one color to lead. It hits that perfect balance of easy to play, hard to master.

Pikmin 3 is also one of the best looking games I’ve ever seen. The tiny aliens you control explore an Earth-like world, finding familiar fruits and your discoveries new names. It is cute. The same goes for all of the “alien artifacts” you find over the course of the game. Seeing these little aliens interpret various trinkets in amusing ways it highly entertaining. It all looks good, simultaneously detailed and clean. It is fun to just run around the areas of the game and just look at what there is to find.

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It is really just another great game on the WiiU, a system with a robust and varied library despite its reputation for not having any games. Nintendo may be failing to sell the system, but they are not failing to support it with excellent software. It seems likely that Pikmin 3 is the last entry we’ll see in this series, which is a shame based on how great this game it.

This is Donkey Kong Country

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It’s no secret that the 2D platformer has had quite the resurgence over the last half decade or so. Between indie games and download titles, 2 and 2.5D platformers are fairly common. As it has been since they basically created the genre with Super Mario Bros, Nintendo is still the master of the form. Their various Mario, Yoshi and Kirby games are generally excellent. 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns continued that trend. It had a few problems, like some terrible boss battles and way too many Rocket Barrel and Mine cart stages, but it was otherwise very good. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, the latest from Retro Studios, stands among the best ever released by Nintendo.

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Tropical Freeze doesn’t reinvent the genre. It stays firmly within the usual mold. It plays almost identically to Returns. The fact that is doesn’t do anything new is not much of a fault. What it lacks in innovation it more than makes up for in polish and general high quality. There is something to be said for the complete mastery of the form that is on display here.

The game is just smooth. DK runs with a kind of loping gait that takes a little bit to get used to, but it then becomes natural. He also has a decent little move pool. DK can bounce off enemies’ heads for a high jump, pound the ground to stun enemies and roll through enemies. He can also pick up and throw certain stunned enemies and barrels. It is a simple set up, but varied enough to be interesting. It doesn’t take long to learn to use these skills, but the game requires the player master them. It starts with some relatively easy warm up levels, but the game soon shows its teeth. Unlike many games, it doesn’t care if the player can beat it. Its challenges are what they are and uncompromising. Few games feel so good to play. DK moves smoothly, but there is a weight to him. He moves like the big gorilla he is. He is surprisingly nimble, but his momentum can be hard to shift. It will likely mean some deaths due to mistimed jumps, but when the timing is right it is sheer acrobatic platforming perfection. The way DK moves is distinctive. It is different from any other platforming protagonist, but it works perfectly.

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While the challenges are uncompromising, the game does provide some help. Aside from a small collection of helpful items to buy from Funky’s shop, DK now has three possible piggyback buddies rather than just Diddy Kong. Diddy is still there, with a jetpack that provides a significant vertical boost to DK’s jumps. Then there is Dixie, who uses her propeller ponytail to give DK what is essentially a double jump. Last is Cranky, who uses his can like a pogo-stick, a la Scrooge McDuck. None of what they add is terribly original, but they all work so well it doesn’t matter. It makes for some hard choices. Do you go for Cranky and his superior ability to deal with enemies and avoid spikes or Dixie or Diddy and their increased mobility? None of the characters are strictly better than the others. Much like Mario’s power ups, the once needed changes based on the situation. Also, taking two hits causes you to lose your buddy; many of the games secrets are dependent on keeping one of them around.

Some of the flaws of the first game return. Specifically, the rocket barrel. Now, though, DK can take two hits rather than one, making what was infuriating tolerable. And maybe it’s just due to them being easier, but the spectacle seems cranked up. There aren’t any simple mine cart or barrel stages. Instead DK is escaping runaway buzz saws in a sawmill or dodging giant eels. While they may not touch the regular stages as far as gameplay is concerned, they are certainly memorable events.

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Really, spectacle is what this game does best. While the gameplay side is just excellent executed, traditional stuff, the art, sound and level themes really set this game apart. One level takes place in what appears to come from the Lion King stage production. The silhouette stages return, including one that has DK jumping across moving platforms above an avalanche. Another level is an underwater escape from a giant octopus. Many of the hazards only appear in one stage. The graphics are pretty much perfect. Colorful, well designed and wonderfully expressive. They are just great. Best of all is the return of Dave Wise on the soundtrack. It is wonderful. Just go listen to some of it.

While it doesn’t do much new, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze does everything well. Innovation and experimentation are often things to be lauded in games. But it is hard to say anything bad about a familiar game executed as well as this one. Retro Studios now has three definite classics on their resume: this, DKCR and Metroid Prime. I hope their next game is something original, though I wouldn’t be disappointed in a third Donkey Kong. They have changed Donkey Kong, in my mind, from the character with the good fortune to star in Nintendo’s first hit to a genuine star. After these last two games he is definitely on the same level as any Nintendo character, save Mario and Link.

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