Will Super Mario Odyssey be hella boring?

October 18, 2017

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I’m pretty excited for Super Mario Odyssey. I’ve watched Nintendo’s trailers, put down my $5 on a pre-order, listened to podcasts, and ruthlessly avoided reading the 10/10 Edge review. I don’t want it to be thoroughly spoiled, though I’m fairly certain I’ll break down and read *every single review* before it comes out.

But I can’t help feeling that it will let me down in a massive way.

For me, the feel of each 3D Mario game improved on the last. I consider Mario 64 to be something of an abomination–having played the NES and SNES Super Mario games, it just didn’t feel Mario to me. The pie-slice health bar, temporary powerups, and open, platformless levels were a massive concession to limited hardware. With each 3D Mario, they seemed to shed some of that concessionary baggage. 3D Land and 3D World were finally in glorious alignment with the classic 2D games–and I loved them to death.

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Now we’re back to Mario 64 design. I should say, straight away, that I was totally ready for an open world Mario. I’m completely on board with that. It’s just that, when I look at Odyssey’s levels, they look… flat. You run and jump, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of actual platforming. Mario 3D World was packed with things to do. Every second you were stomping goombas, jumping into secret warps, turning gigantic, chucking snowballs, and riding wooden rafts down purple poison rivers. The design was really meant to spoil the player, and each level felt like a little bite-sized playground. Odyssey looks like a different sort of playground. One that’s huge, but without attractions. You’re given some sticks and told to make your own fun.

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I do look forward to possessing enemies. Shooting above the world as a bullet bill looks breathtaking in a way only Nintendo can manage. And even more than the giant T-Rex, I look forward to playing as the flappy-winged gliding lizards. They look so bouncy, goofy, and adorable. There’s a sort of richness there, the feeling that Nintendo wanted to stuff as much as they could into the game. That’s what Nintendo does. That’s why they’re the best.

But then I hear how much there is “to do” in the game, and it feels like previewers are playing a checklist. “Even though the first area is really small with not a whole lot going on,” says Kinda Funny Gamescast, “there’s seven moons to find!” Well, I’d be more thrilled if it seemed like the area had a lot going on. This is a huge problem I have with Breath of the Wild and open world games in general. There is a massive amount of “things to do,” but in actuality you’re mostly just walking and climbing and picking plants. Which is boring! It’s boring. I’m sorry, but it’s boring.

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I’m really wanting to be wrong. Really, really. I see all the different costumes, the bright and beautiful worlds, that dumb Championship Sprint minigame, New Donk friggin’ City, and I want this game to be totally awesome. I want to cherish it, to explore it, to delightedly uncover all of those stupid green moons. And then I remember Super Mario Galaxy, a game with a ton of awesome ideas that I never completed because it was just so damned boring.

Instead of excitedly unwrapping Mario Odyssey, I think I’m going to take a more measured approach. I’m gonna state at it for a minute, breath a sign of resignation, and slot it into the Switch. I don’t want to be breathlessly excited because I don’t want to be endlessly disappointed. I want to play Super Mario Odyssey on its own terms.

Hopefully I’ll find what I missed in Princess Peach’s Castle, all those years ago.

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The legend of Battle Garegga

December 20, 2016

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Some games maintain an aura of silent legend without receiving significant critical praise. Battle Garegga, a 1996 scrolling shooter by Raizing/8ing, has retained that legendary reputation for twenty years.

Few outside the hardcore shoot-em-up scene have heard of it: If Gradius is the scrolling shooter bible, then Battle Garegga is its Necronomicon. Devoted fans speak with equal reverence about the game as they do about its mad author, Shinobu Yagawa. Every moment of Battle Garegga feels distinctly planned, as Yagawa’s phantom hands pull players this way and that.

Battle Garegga has style. While the visual design itself is a bit murky, the game’s aesthetic dodges tropes that modern shoot-em-ups fall prey to. Many players have lamented that traditional shoot-em-up “spaceships and warplanes” aesthetic has been replaced by cute anime girls in an appeal to anime pop culture. Not so here.

Battle Garegga veers instead toward a neo-WW2 aesthetic, a world of dehumanization, mass industry, and bleak factory landscapes punctuated by bright explosions. If that were all, Battle Garegga would fall victim to the same bland realism that plagues many modern titles. What’s interesting is that the game also has a strong fantasy component, feeling like an understated steampunk world.

This nod towards the unrealistic is no surprise, considering Raizing/8ing’s previous game, Kingdom Grand Prix, was high fantasy, a rarity for the genre. Many of the boss designs in Battle Garegga are absurdist industrial monstrosities, such as the spherical fortress MadBall, or the arms-akimbo Junkey Monkey. Battle Garegga is gritty and industrial, yes. But thoughtlessly realistic it is not.

This is underscored by the selection of playable characters. Four of them are fighter planes, but the other four (secret) characters return from Kingdom Grand Prix. They are, in order: a warrior, a sorceress, a samurai dragon, and a necromancer. I cannot stress how much their inclusion adds to the game. The latent steampunk trappings would amount to little without the ability to fly through as the samurai dragon Miyamoto or necromancer Bornham. Each character has their own playing style, able to be subtly altered for speed, size, and color by pressing a different button during character selection.

Equally important is the soundtrack. I have very little to say about it that won’t be immediately apparent upon listening. It’s energetic, upbeat, intense, varied. And its one of the few videogame sountracks that’s completely listenable outside of the game it’s featured in. Battle Garegga, in my mind, is defined by its music.

I think the jewel in Battle Garegga’s crown, though, is that it’s also a very intuitive game. Yes, Battle Garegga’s systems are complex, with seemingly limitless depths to be exploited. But on a surface level, Battle Garegga asks you to do two things: Shoot enemies and collect point medals. These are very satisfying, very primal videogame objectives.

And there’s a whole lot to shoot. One could almost call that Shinobu Yagawa’s calling card. Other programmers will usher enemies in from one side and then the other in an orderly fashion; from the very first second of gameplay, Battle Garegga gives you plenty of targets and a frenetic sense of disorganization. There are massive explosions, and too many enemies to initially keep track of. Items are constantly filling the screen; players must race to collect what they need. Even without worrying about deeper systems, Battle Garegga feels rich, considered, and sufficiently overwhelming.

Battle Garegga rewards players at every skill level. Certainly it’s a difficult game. The new PS4 port, courtesy of M2, does a lot to mitigate this difficulty through alternate modes and settings. If you’ve never played Battle Garegga, or if you’ve only dabbled in it as I have, I encourage you to try it in MAME, or create a Japanese PS4 account in order to download it. After all, this is the sort of game that could keep you going for twenty years.

Where can Paper Mario go from here?

October 27, 2016

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Reviewers are feeling a mite uncharitable about Paper Mario:Color Splash. The papercraft world is gorgeous, the dialogue is hilarious. But that combat system.

Helpless Mario can’t act on his own, instead playing cards for every action. Cards that need to be scrolled through, one by one. Cards that need to be selected, painted, then flicked upwards to start combat. Really, it’s not a terrible system, just a bit overfluffed. If you look at it from the outside, it’s more or less the same as Paper Mario’s combat has always been, excepting Super Paper Mario on Wii.

A large part of the problem, though, is that players don’t feel rewarded. Color Splash does away with almost all the series’ roleplaying game elements. There are no level ups, no badges, no flower points. Your reward for using cards to defeat enemies is that you get new, different cards. They might not even be more powerful than the cards you used during the battle.

This isn’t a problem with Color Splash so much as it’s a problem with every pure roleplaying game ever made. Barring the occasional eccentric oddball (Chrono Cross, I’m looking at you), the point of battling, the enjoyment of battling, is not the battle itself. It’s the reward. That experience meter that ticks up, granting you extra power so you can, I dunno, be more powerful. See those numbers go up. Get excited.

Paper Mario has found itself in a hard place. The Mario and Luigi series has become Nintendo’s flagship Mario roleplaying game, and Paper Mario has become… what? Looking at Color Splash, it’s clear where the series’ strengths now lie: great worldbuilding and dialogue. Paper Mario gives players a chance to explore the hidden, personal side of all of Mario’s friends and enemies. That’s a pretty powerful thing.

Color Splash is a modern adventure game with an RPG battle system thrown into the mix, a holdover from a different game altogether. I don’t want to overstate the case: battles in Color Splash are really not that bad. But I just want to solve puzzles and talk to Toads, dammit! Because that’s where Color Splash shines.

If it can’t be a roleplaying game, please don’t make it play like one. A pure adventure game where Mario colors the world and has ludicrous conversations with piranha plants is good enough for me. Perhaps he could –gasp!– solve altercations by taking advantage of environmental puzzles. Make it a pure adventure game, and double down on its strengths.

But maybe that would be boring. I’ll admit that I’m not an adventure gamer, plus, Mario has always been an action series. So put that hammer to use, Nintendo, and make an action adventure game. Nix the turn-based battles but bring back the badges; let Mario hammer blocks and stomp Goombas in real time. And for god’s sake, let Peach in on the action.

West-washing the world’s games

October 21, 2016

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“I can’t remember the last time I played a Japanese game,” my friend Mike said to me.

Our tastes are largely different. He plays primarily open-world games, racers, and first person shooters, pillar genres of “western” game design. It’s true that I tend more toward Japanese games, and occasionally games that are garishly and loudly Japanese. So his statement should have been unsurprising. We just have different tastes. But it was when he said it that surprised me.

I asked him what game we’d been playing.

“Mario Kart. Ah, yeah. Yeah. I didn’t really think about it, huh? I meant really Japanese games, you know?”

In Mike’s defense, Mario is difficult to pin down as Japanese. He’s an Italian plumber, after all, and basically the Mickey Mouse of videogames. He’s so famous that he can’t be said to belong to one culture at all–he’s globally recognized, and every tuned-in culture likely has “their” version of Mario, the same as they have “their” Mickey Mouse or McDonalds.

But it’s been weird, seeing this trend from Japan’s complete dominance of console gaming to a sort of coup by western game developers. In large part I suppose that’s due to the Xbox brand: gamers can play a largely western catalogue of games on an American-made console. It’s also due to the lopsided categorization: Assassin’s Creed, Battlefield, Forza; these are all considered “our” games, despite being from three different countries. Meanwhile, Japan is just Japan.

Many gamers seem content to let Japan just be dead. After all, where are all the Japanese role-playing games? We have The Witcher (Poland), Elder Scrolls (US), and Dragon Age (Canada). This despite the massive number of Japanese role-playing games that get released on 3DS and Vita to critical acclaim. Well, those are handhelds, they don’t really count. Small in size, they’re assumed to be small in scope.

I suspect that much of the American gaming public is holding their breath for Final Fantasy 15. SquareEnix have been in and out of gamers’ graces for a while. Can the Japanese prove they’ve still got it? The massive success of Dark Souls and Bloodborne should prove that they have, in fact, got it. Nevermind that both series are wrapped in the bleak cloak of western fantasy; us westerners wouldn’t accept anything less.

If Final Fantasy 15 flops, will American gamers write off Japanese role-playing games entirely? That’d be a very sad thing, with Persona 5 just over the horizon.

Dragon Quest 7: Fragments of an Epic Adventure

October 17, 2016

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Dragon Quest 7’s 3DS remake trades adventure for accents and accessibility

To read reviews of the 3DS remake, you’d think Dragon Quest 7 on Playstation was a plodding bore. It ain’t so. Dragon Quest 7 was and is a succession of beautiful, melancholy fables.

I don’t think I ever fully understood the purpose of Dragon Quest’s town stories before playing it. Each town acts as its own bite-sized JRPG so that you can come home after a busy day at the office and make real progress. And each story is so damned compelling, in large part, because of the Playstation game’s translation.

Many JRPGs are stripped of ‘offensive’ content or altered so that they make sense to a western audience. Dragon Quest 7 instead provides a very literal translation, but one that’s clear and concise. It feels in many ways like a modern translation of a literary or religious text. Since that’s what we’re dealing with here–fables where rain turns men to stone, a town is turned into animals, or a young boy is raised by wolves–the original translation is vital for establishing the tone of the game.

The 3DS remake, in contrast, injects such a heavy dose of colloquialism and accent into the dialogue as to be insufferable. For example, when multiple characters say they need to “put their skates on.” Maybe the translations were this excessive in the other DS remakes; I don’t know. What I do know is that here it feels especially egregious. No dialogue box can go without multiple injections of old-timey slang.

Instead of feeling like holy fables, passed down over generations, these stories are chopped up bedtime stories, stripped of their original meaning. By cutesying themselves up, they lose their pathos.

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But there’s more about this remake that grates. The opening hours of the game have lost a very great deal. Originally, Dragon Quest 7 required 4-6 hours(!) of exposition before letting players fight even one measly slime, time spent exploring the first island and its ancient ruin. The ruin acts as the game’s first dungeon–it has no enemies, but it is large and there are numerous puzzles to solve. Exploration is a meaningful part of the adventure, and it establishes the pace of the game. If that opener sounds boring, well, it’s not. It’s just slow, contemplative even.

The remake’s stripping down of this dungeon, on the other hand, is incredibly lame. There is no opening dungeon within the ruins, and there are no puzzles. Your characters go back and forth, fetching items and having them translated. In all it takes about two tedious hours to get through this opening segment. You get all the worst parts and very little of what’s interesting.

Much is lost. The sense of exploration and anticipation over hours of gametime, that slow burn of an opening as the player works their way deeper and deeper into the torchlit ruins. And then finally, once they’ve solved the trials, assembled tablet shards together on a pedestal and proved their heroism, they’re whisked away.

To where? Somewhere far away, somewhere strange, another land. They’re off their quaint fishing island and walking through a dark forest, when there’s a screech from the trees and–suddenly, finally, after all. this. time.

A SLIME ATTACKS.

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Tokyo Mirage Impressions #FE

June 26, 2016

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This weekend I made a bold decision: passing up on Overwatch in order to pick up Atlus’s new Persona-esque JRPG, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. I’m not a massive Persona fan—I prefer more hardline Shin Megami Tensei entries like Nocturne and Devil Summoner 2—but I figured, given the nature of both Atlus’s games and the Wii U, that I’d better pick it up now or I might not have another chance.

I’m only five hours in, but so far there’s a lot to like and dislike. Based on the first and second dungeons, which admittedly is not a lot to go on, they feel a bit hobbled together. Granted, these are the first and second dungeons. They’re simple as a rule. But the first dungeon felt like a tile-based randomized map, and the second dungeon relies on a very simple, very sluggish puzzle format. I’m hoping they open up like some of the more memorable dungeons in Nocturne, with massive spires, moving blocks, and tricky damage tiles. But so far, these dungeons feel even more rigid and simple than Persona’s. I’ll give it time.

I am really happy with the enemy encounters. Enemies roam the dungeons; there are no random encounters. Swiping your sword will stun enemies, and they fade away if you don’t engage. Battles are very much in the standard “press turn” MegaTen style, but the Session system promises to open things up. When a character attacks an enemy’s weakness, other characters with linked “Session Skills” will jump in and attack. A large part of the strategy is synergizing your skills so that characters can interact based on a number of different enemy weaknesses.

The battles are bright, colorful, and I adore the main battle theme. Shin Megami Tensei as a series has always succeeded on its battle systems, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions differentiates itself in small but important ways. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that Tokyo Mirage Sessions really pushes players to never select the basic “attack” command. You’re always using skills in order to set up sessions, and I’m hoping they build up to truly ludicrous levels of comboing. I’m the type of person who hesitates to use magic in just about any RPG, but it’s immediately obvious that mana hoarders won’t survive long.

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There’s significantly less micromanagement compared to a game like Nocturne, where it seemed like players could stick their grubby paws anywhere and tweak anything. Instead of fusing monsters, Tokyo Mirage Sessions has players forge and equip weapons to learn different skills and spells. At this point, there’s no real sense of choice between weapons. You just get a new one, use it, and learn its skills. I don’t think that’s a positive or negative; probably Persona fans will be fine with it, and main series MegaTen fans will want a little more freedom. And once I fill up my available skill slots, I’ll probably complain that I’m forced to make too many tough choices.

There are some irksome load times, including a short load screen at the end of each battle, which is a big annoyance for me. The game is vibrant and beautiful, with great character models, but I don’t feel like it’s pushing the Wii U that hard. I’m playing on the retail disc, so this may not be a problem if you install the game to your Wii U. But it can be a bit of a downer when an emotional scene is followed by a load screen.

Speaking of emotional scenes, so far there’s been a good amount of animated cutscenes. The tone of the game is very happy and fluffy, which I appreciate. I love the atmosphere of heavier MegaTen games, but for me Persona felt like a mishmash of horror themes with a bubbly anime atmosphere. I love true horror games, so that always felt like a tease to me. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is much more comfortable with being an anime-themed JRPG, and I kind of prefer it that way.

So far I’m having a lot of fun with the game, and I’m hoping it makes the connections that I can feel it building up to. I’m a creative type of person, so I really engage with Tokyo Mirage Session’s story of a group of singers and artists trying to find their own voice in Tokyo’s crowded entertainment industry. And the characters have all the heart you’d expect from a Persona game. They’re really sweet, and very fun.

So let me end on my favorite aspect of the game so far: I love, love, love that the Wii U gamepad acts as a text messaging service. Characters will text you while you’re dungeon-crawling to provide hints, shoot the breeze, or send you chibi emoticon stickers. It’s a brilliant way to connect players with the characters, and it really feels like the next level of social simulation in Atlus RPGs. Text messages make the game world feel more alive; they help party members rise above anime archetypes and make them feel like friends. In videogames especially, that’s a really rare and remarkable feeling.

Also, did I mention that the character designs are incredible? I don’t think I did. They are.

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Trackmania Turbo runs laps around me-too modern racing games

April 2, 2016

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I remember cramming Super Mario Kart in the cartridge slot of my Super Nintendo, so many years after my brother sold his. Hearing the notes of its MIDI theme again was like sucking in air, or discovering a scratched and scraped action figure in the basement. Seeing Koopa Troopa, Toad, and Bowser drive past their pastel mountains, my pupils constricted to dots, and I remembered that this was it. No other game has ever, will ever capture that feeling of channeled chaos—because Super Mario Kart already captured it, perfectly.

Trackmania Turbo, though, comes dangerously close. Recently released to no fanfare whatsoever by developer Nadeo and publisher Ubisoft at a budget $40 price point, Trackmania Turbo is the latest in a long line of cult racers that I have never played. The title screams shovelware, the box art screams shovelware, the unfocused aesthetic screams shovelware.

But Trackmania may be the single most exciting racing game since Super Mario Kart first red-shelled the world 24 years ago. Here’s why:

The feel of the wheel

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Trackmania Turbo knows there’s more to racing than simulation. On a television screen, it’s not enough to be realistic; one must be extra-realistic, surrealistic, impressionistic. No amount of gear-shifting or cockpit detail can compensate for the raw speed and heft of a car hurtling through space. Trackmania feels fast, intense, weighty. These cars scream around turns. They are precise, but oh so arcadey. The exaggerated physics are outrageous and only add to the fun. Trackmania captures the impression of racing. Instead of fiddly gear-shifting engineers, we are invited to become howling children enjoying our very first rollercoaster ride.

Falling into flow

On the first level, your car falls into a nosedive from a helicopter. Your wheels spin at max speed as you hit the half-pipe that begins the track. You whip around barriers into your first U-turn and nudge the brake, which sends your vehicle into an intensely satisfying drift. Should you slam into a barrier (it happens), the brake acts as a totally garbage reverse button. Don’t use it. Hit the restart button instead. In an instant, you’re counting down, 3-2-1, and back in the race. There is no loading to interrupt your retry. Feel the flow.

Simple, difficult pleasures

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Being that accelerate and brake are the only two core buttons, you might think Trackmania Turbo is easy. Ain’t so. Despite its simplicity, this is an incredibly challenging, precise racer. So when you hit that barrier, you already beefed it. You might get the bronze; hypothetically speaking, you might even get silver. But you aren’t getting gold, and you won’t be satisfied with your run. Hit the restart button. It’s the right thing to do; you will feel good about it. Because you’re playing a game that’s easy to learn and hard to master, and you will enjoy the road to mastery.

Tracks and tracks and tracks

There’s a lot to master: Trackmania Turbo shipped with 200 tracks. I assume that many of these are fan favorites from early Trackmania games, because they’re very, very good. The tracks start out shorter in length. Most are one lap only; many are only 30 seconds long. They’ll keep you very busy. There are four different track types: Grand Canyon Drift, Down and Dirty Valley, Rollercoaster Lagoon, and International Stadium.

These tracks are not humdrum ovals. They are massively staged, with landscapes stretching into the distance. These are the type of track where you will ramp over a valley and through the ring of a giant pink donut, or corkscrew up roller coaster rails before flying off and latching onto their magnetized underside. Don’t think Forza. Think Hot Wheels meets F-Zero. More than anything, these tracks remind me of the stage design in Super Monkey Ball—these are tracks you’ll remember. Oh, and there’s a random track generator. And a track builder. And you can play other people’s custom tracks. That’s a lot of tracks. That’s a trackstravaganza.

Co-op romance and bromance

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And those 200 tracks? Every single one is available in the brilliant Double Driver mode. Two drivers team together to control one car, their inputs averaging out to control where the car moves. It is a mode that should not work, yet works flawlessly. Racing games are a very binary genre; strictly speaking, there is only one “right” move. So when you’re both double driving, you’re co-testing your ability to both be totally right at the same time. And once you sink into the groove, you’ll perform incredibly. My single proudest trial time was set in double driver with my girlfriend. We absolutely crushed. We are the best.

Hundred-player online insanity

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At its core, then, Trackmania Turbo is a time trial game. You race against staff ghosts, earn a good time, and then race against your own ghost. This type of gameplay can lead to some pretty lame online: download a ghost, race a ghost, snooze away. This game, though. This game.

Trackmania drops you into online matches with upwards of 100 other players, all racing at the same time. They’re real-time ghosts, displaying their usernames overhead, swerving into walls, careening over barriers, hurtling into the abyss. It’s pure madness. But since this is a time trial game, they don’t actually mess you up. You have 5 minutes to race your best lap, with as many retries as you need. Once you finish a lap, you start again and keep going. This works brilliantly because you can jump into a game at any time, and you never have to sit out. You are always racing, you are always learning, and you are always having a good time.

Couch multiplayer monster mash

Many people who play Trackmania Turbo will be disappointed by the game’s versus multiplayer. They’ll play the splitscreen, realize it’s pretty meh, and not play any of the other modes. Do not be this person. Do. Not. Because the best mode is Hot Seat, where players take turns instead of racing at the same time.

As single cars or double drivers, 1-16(!) players take turns racing to see who can score the best time. So what, right? Here’s the rub: Each player has a limited amount of gas. After each person races, the person in last place keeps running the track until they pass another racer or get eliminated. If that player ranks up they stay in the game, and the new last place player has to run.

There are so many reasons I love this mode. I love that the person who performs poorly gets to run the race repeatedly, encouraging them to gain skill as they race and re-race. I love that there’s a palpable tension as players race to stay alive, rankings shifting and rivalries changing. I love that players can take a break to regroup and appreciate the crashes while they wait for their turn to play. I love how much smack talk this mode encourages—even the announcer talks smack. Sometimes he changes accents. Sometimes he’s actually massively encouraging.

You can feel that this is where the team at Nadeo put their multiplayer resources. Hot Seat mode is glorious, practically cementing Trackmania Turbo as the must-have multiplayer party game this generation. And the best part is, you don’t need more than two controllers to realize the mode’s maximum potential. I could write an essay on why this mode is so good.

What I really mean to say

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Only time will tell if Trackmania Turbo is worthy of all the memories it’s rekindled, and solidify whether this is my favorite racing game since Super Mario Kart. There are contenders for that crown: Crash Team Racing, F-Zero GX, Burnout Revenge, Sonic All-Stars Transformed. Let that list decide whether you can be interested in Trackmania Turbo. But if you love manic single-player time trials or no-holds-barred multiplayer grudge races, Trackmania Turbo is absolutely essential. Don’t be fooled by the bland name, the shovelware cover, or the fairly average review scores. In an era of blandly realistic racing simulators, Trackmania Turbo makes everything else eat dust.

You (really) need to play Eschatos

August 26, 2015

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Maybe you’re thinking: Scrolling shooters, eh. This one doesn’t even look that great… the graphics are pretty Dreamcast, the action looks junky, whatever. And in response I could explain that I had the exact same reaction and, you know, try to explain the details about why I ended up playing Eschatos anyways.

Well, forget all that noise. All of it. Eschatos hits Steam tomorrow, and you should play it, because Eschatos is the fucking greatest.

Reasons why Eschatos is the greatest like wow:

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1. Eschatos is every scrolling shooter rolled into one

Eschatos exists in a universe where scrolling shooter subgenres didn’t break apart and become endlessly specialized; it can’t accurately be called a traditional shooter, manic shooter, or bullet hell. Eschatos is all of these and also sometimes it is Galaga.

2. Eschatos has the best soundtrack of any game not named Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross

Very few games are elevated by their soundtracks, but composer Yousuke Yasui has created an energetic, emotional soundtrack that stands as one of the best in the medium. It really hits you in the feels and it even makes the shooting more shootier.

3. Eschatos is fully 3D and that’s crazy

This seems like a minor point; there are a lot of scrolling shooters with 3D graphics. But Eschatos takes this a step further, with dynamic camera angles that highlight the action. They’re skillfully integrated, making Eschatos feel cinematic without interrupting gameplay. These camera angles will blow your mind and you will enjoy shooting things like never before.

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4. Eschatos never stops

Eschatos doesn’t have discrete levels. Instead it has one continuously flowing stage, a choice which lends the game a sense of narrative design that other shooters lack. Players are always playing instead of sitting through “fade to black” moments. Think of the intro to Half-Life and how much you enjoyed looking around that tram as Gordon Freeman, and then imagine that’s not boring and instead is great. Eschatos is like that. There are no breaks; you are always playing.

5. Eschatos has the single most serene moment in any videogame, ever

Eschatos’ narrative strengths and Yasui’s compositions work together to create one perfect moment halfway through the game. Haunting music begins as the player’s ship blasts off from Earth’s atmosphere and into the depths of space, the planet Eschatos looming in the distance. It’s a singularly beautiful moment that I look forward to every time I play.

6. Eschatos’ shield mechanic cuts through the bullshit

A lot of scrolling shooters have a gotcha moment that takes you off guard and generally just ruins your day. “That’s not fair!” you scream, as rain falls outside your window and world hunger continues to be real. But Eschatos actively refuses to be unfair. The player’s ship has a shield which can actively cut through the most difficult waves of bullets, giving Eschatos a sense of freedom that other shooters lack. It’s not completely do or die; you can improvise your way out of certain death. Don’t rely on the shield too much, though—it can only help out so much before it needs to recharge.

7. Eschatos is loaded with content

Eschatos doesn’t mess around, because Eschatos is the real deal. There are three game modes, all incredibly fun, with a bunch of difficulty options ranging from “actually easy” to “this was programmed as a cruel joke.” Eschatos also has a system of progressive score-based unlockables that let you tweak the game’s graphical effects to your liking. Oh, and there’s an endless mode in case you never ever want to stop playing Eschatos.

8. Eschatos actually makes you think about what you’re doing instead of holding the shot button like a big dumb baby

In most modern day shooters, you might as well hold down the shot button constantly, because it covers the whole screen and there’s no reason to do otherwise. But Eschatos’ system of weaker wide shots versus more powerful narrow shots (and let’s not forget the shield!) encourages players to switch between shot types to take out enemy waves. There’s a sense of puzzliness to it too, and it’s really satisfying to work out which shot works best in which situations.

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9. Eschatos’ scoring mechanics don’t require a technical manual to understand

If I’ve got to browse online forums to even figure out how a shooter’s scoring system works, then that shooter is doing it wrong. Eschatos’ scoring is simple and fun—you get bonus points and a point multiplier for killing all the enemy waves as fast as possible. Boom, got it. If that’s not enough for you, there’s an Advanced mode that introduces a lot of quirky mechanics and score candy.

10. Eschatos’ boss battles are short, sweet, and to the point

I hate boss battles where you spend half the time not even damaging the boss, because he has to do some stupid garbage attack before you can even try to take him out. The bosses in Eschatos are all incredibly fun without having neverending health bars or snooze-worthy gimmick attacks. And that final boss. Oh man. I think he may be the best final boss.

11. Eschatos’ graphics are actually kinda good, really you guys

I know, I know. Dreamcast visuals, etc. (Or, god forbid, N64 visuals?) But there are really a lot of great explosions and particle effects in this game, the outer space scenery is unbelievably gorgeous, and the alien designs actually look alien. Plus, the graphical style is like a 3D update to what shooting games looked like in the ‘80s. Eschatos appreciates the genre’s history without being all “hey guys am I retro yet?” about it.

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12. Eschatos comes with two other totally amazing games

Okay, so I don’t know if this holds true for the Steam release—but publisher Degica Games have hinted that they’re going to release the award-winning Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins at some point in the future. These Wonderswan Color(!) games are almost as good as Eschatos, and really blew away all my expectations for what a handheld shooting game could be. They don’t feel quaint or compromised at all; they’re really some of the best scrolling shooters you’ll ever play. And, finally:

13. Eschatos really makes you think about life

Like, wow.

Breaking into scrolling shooters

August 19, 2015

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably know that I love, love, love scrolling shooters. A while back I even wrote a massive post about scrolling shooters — I wanted to pick apart the genre in a scholarly way, highlighting notable games and asking questions that would get people thinking about them on a deeper level.

Well, I feel the need to add onto that article. Many of the games I listed in my original article are super rare and super expensive, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to appreciate them theoretically. More than any other genre, scrolling shooters live or die by the fundamental “fun-ness” of play. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite affordable and available shooters. These are shooters I would vouch for no matter what, but they’re also fun and accessible picks that won’t put a hurt on your wallet.

– PC –

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Cho Ren Sha 68K

I’m not much for classics, but Cho Ren Sha is everything you need and nothing you don’t. Every element feels perfectly balanced, as if the creators knew exactly what they wanted before they started programming. Colorful enemies, blazing-fast gunfire, powerful tunes, and a brilliantly simple powerup system (choose: bomb, powerup, or shield!) come together to make for one of the all-time greats. If Cho Ren Sha has a fault, it’s that it only has one background… but hey, it worked for Galaga.

Price: Free

Alltynex Second

Spaceships with gimmicky weapons are a time-honored scrolling shooter tradition, and Alltynex Second brings the heat with *three* separate gimmick weapons in one ship. Normally that would be enough to tank a game under its own excess, but Alltynex Second pulls it off wonderfully. The homing shot takes out small enemies, the power beam tears through bosses, and the laser sword cancels enemy bullets as it hacks away at their mechanized faces. There’s more than a little bit of hack-and-slash DNA in this one, and cutting apart enemies piece by piece never loses its appeal.

Price: $8 on Steam

Crimzon Clover: World Ignition

“World Ignition” is more than just a flashy subtitle. When Crimzon Clover exploded onto Steam, scrolling shooter fans went totally bonkers. That’s because Crimzon Clover nails every aspect of bullet hell design—hardcore action, non-stop explosions, over-the-top visuals, and an endless supply of glittering point items. There’s a wealth of content, with four different arcade modes and two novice modes for people (like me) who just aren’t that great at bullet hell games. Crimzon Clover demonstrates yet again that a one-man indie can outperform even the biggest studios. If you want to experience for yourself the intricacy and adrenaline of bullet hell shooters without the costly import prices, Crimzon Clover is unmissable.

Price: $10 on Steam

Also try: Danmaku Unlimited 2, Hydorah, Jamestown, and Kamui

– Xbox 360 –

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Score Rush

Score Rush combines all the best elements of Geometry Wars with the kaleidoscopic gunfire of a bullet hell. Twin-stick controls, 4-player multi, and tons of psychedelic particle effects make this an incredibly fun and accessible shooter. It’s just about the only scrolling shooter that you can have an entire room of friends playing in no time. Such is Score Rush’s simplicity and curb appeal—when I think of no-brainer 360 purchases, Score Rush is at the top of the list.

Price: $1 on Xbox Live Indie; Free on PC

Raiden Fighters Aces

Raiden Fighters Aces offers a rare glimpse into what scrolling shooters looked like just before bullet hells changed the genre completely. There aren’t any intricate patterns of slow-moving bullets here—In Raiden style, the action is blisteringly fast, emphasizing twitch reflexes and wide dodges in order to avoid enemy sniper shots. All three Raiden Fighters games are included on-disc, and between them there’s a massive number of playable ships, each with their own weapons, stats, and bombs. And that soundtrack, holy crap. What it lacks in melody it makes up for in raw intensity.

Price: ~$15

Deathsmiles

I could tell you all about what a great developer Cave is and blah blah blah but instead I’ll say that this game features a giant rotting cow named Mary as an end of level boss, and I think that really says everything right there. Deathsmiles’ Halloween motif leans cutesy rather than gory, but underneath the cheese is a smart shooter that cuts through the typical bullet hell crap. Level select, per-level difficulty select, and simplified bullet patterns mean that you don’t have to be an absolute monster to beat Deathsmiles. Even so, there’s more than enough for players to bite into as they gain skills and start chasing high scores.

Price: ~$10

Also try: Akai Katana, Ikaruga, and Chronoblast

– Playstation 3 –

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Zanac X Zanac

Allow me be a crazy person for a second and tell you that one of the best scrolling shooters on PS3 is actually an enhanced port of an NES game. Zanac is a thing of subtle beauty, by which I mean it’s actually kind of hideous and could easily fool you into thinking it’s total garbage. But oh man, don’t tell that to Zanac. Because Zanac hears. What sets Zanac apart from other scrolling shooters is that it features randomized waves of enemies, sent by the AI that is Zanac. How many shots you’re firing, what powerups you pick up; everything is analyzed by Zanac and every game of Zanac is customized to kill you, specifically. The powerups in this one are just incredible—absolutely top of class. Plus there’s a really sweet challenge mode that could keep you playing, like, forever. Oh, and also a really good Playstation version included called Zanac Neo. Yeah, there’s that, too.

Price: $6 on PSN

Under Defeat HD

Under Defeat boasts the sort of elegant beauty that you’d never expect from a scrolling shooter about World War II helicopter pilots. Every scene is bursting with detail, and the stunning particle effects and dynamic smoke highlight the action across stages of forested gun-emplacements, massive naval fleets, and bombed out military bases. Even though the game takes place in a fictitious alternate timeline, a strong sense of realism makes Under Defeat extremely compelling. The “lean into your shots” control scheme is novel and fun, and the scoring system utilizes the player’s vulcan, cannon, and rocket powerups in a simple and satisfying way. To top it off, this version also includes a widescreen, twin-stick mode with a remixed soundtrack courtesy of the always-great Yousuke Yasui.

Price: $10 on PSN

Gradius V

Gradius V may be the ultimate sidescrolling shooter. I don’t mean that it’s the best, or that it’s my personal favorite. What I mean is that Gradius V seems to carry the entire legacy of the genre on its shoulders as you play—It’s monolithic, majestic, and impossibly slick, with tight level design and spectacular boss battles. It’s also ruthlessly difficult, requiring players to memorize certain routes to make it through. That’s all part of what it means to be a Gradius game. But the system of unlockable continues means everyone can eventually play Gradius V to the end, and really, I’d say this is the best game in the series since the original Gradius codified the genre in 1985. Play them both.

Price: $10 on PSN

Also try: Castle Shikigami 2, Velocity

– Wii (and Wii U) –

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Blast Works

I’m not sure I can call Blast Works a great game; hell, I’m not entirely sure I can even call it a good game. What it is, though, is a uniquely fun game, thanks to an irresistible premise: Blast Works is essentially Katamari Damacy as a scrolling shooter. Every enemy you kill can be latched onto any side of your ship; they contribute their firepower to yours and also act as a giant meat shield. By the end of the stage, you’ll feel like the end of level boss, because your fighter craft will be have a hundred other guns attached to it. All that craziness, plus the game has a robust level and ship editor. Blast Works is fun with friends as well, and… that’s why you bought your Wii, isn’t it? Ah, you were in it for Wii Fit. Nevermind then.

Price: ~$5

Sin and Punishment 2

This game is just bonkers. Sin and Punishment 2 is like a rail shooter, lightgun game, and scrolling shooter fused together and jacked up to eleven. There are a bajillion things to shoot at, and the level designs are truly inspired. There’s an overgrown ruin of destroyed Tokyo, a hoverbike chase on a not so abandoned highway, and a flight down a literal water tunnel, where giant morays and enemy ships burst through the walls of water to attack. That’s to say nothing of the bosses, which are massive, frequent, and phenomenal.

Price: ~$15

Wii Virtual Console

There aren’t many great retail shooters for Wii, but it still has one of the best collections of scrolling shooters on any system thanks to the Virtual Console. There are sooo many great and otherwise hard to find games; hell, it was the Wii Virtual Console that got me deeply into shooters in the first place. Take to the skies in your mech and blow apart neo-feudal Japan in MUSHA; headbang hard with the heavy metal soundtrack and awesomely mythological monsters of Lords of Thunder; destroy cute-em-up baddies as a Turbografx-16 videogame system itself in Star Parodier. And while you’re at it, definitely try out Gate of Thunder. It’s my favorite sidescrolling shooter of all time.

Price: $8-9

Also try: Blazing Lazers, Fantasy Zone, R-Type and R-Type III, and Soldier Blade

Those are my personal picks for fun, affordable scrolling shooters. Hopefully you discovered a new favorite or added something to your never-ending list of games to check out. Narrowing down this list was tough; scrolling shooters are a huge genre dating back to gaming’s infancy, and I had to cut a few of my absolute favorites. Maybe I missed a few of your favorites, too.

On that note, I’m gonna turn things around and ask you: What’s your favorite scrolling shooter?

I wanna be the Final Boss

August 10, 2015

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Holy crap. How can something so awesome sit right under my nose for so long? Even as a freeware scrolling shooter with just three (incredibly, unbelievably wonderful) stages, Final Boss stands toe-to-toe with the genre greats that inspired it. Gradius, R-Type, Raiden, and lesser-known classics like Eschatos—move over. Final Boss is here.

The developers would, of course, balk at being compared with those classics. There’s love for the genre in every frame of Final Boss, from battles against the Vic Viper and R-Type Arrowhead, to certain Rayforce-inspired weaponry, to an endgame surprise that exceeded my wildest expectations. Playing Final Boss makes it immediately clear how much the developers love scrolling shooters.

Final Boss also makes clear just how much has gone wrong with the genre. Look, I love scrolling shooters too. I love them to death. I’ve written about them on this blog plenty of times. But when I think about them as they are, right now, they’re a dying genre. They’re so niche, so specialized, that there’s nothing for new players to grasp onto except for the occasional Jamestown, Sine Mora, or Ikaruga. The reasons for this are plenty: Shooters have trended toward magical girls instead of mecha; toward too many bullets; toward a lack of narrative flow and meaningful progression; toward scoring systems that require technical manuals to understand.

Final Boss strips away the genre’s bitter rind to reveal the pulp inside. While playing, I was struck time and time again by just how much the developers have gotten right. Each level flows from scene to scene, pitting players against diverse challenges culminating in a breakneck boss battle. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that Final Boss offers players real choice. Beat the first level and you can choose one of two subweapons to use for the rest of the game: Rear fire or side shot, each of which drastically change the way players approach enemy swarms. And Final Boss offers another subweapon at the end of every level, each choice more impressive than the last, so that subsequent stages bring with them new opportunities, challenges, and a tacit understanding that the player is one step closer to becoming the Final Boss.

And god, these stages. There have been essays about how level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. is the perfect tutorial—Final Boss’s stages are exactly like that. Each blistering act teaches you everything you need to know, right as it happens, and they progress from beat to beat to beat without halting the action for a second. They contain as many ideas as any three levels in another shooter, the third level in particular being absolutely sublime. At one point, the player sees a glimmering tower in the distance and descends through the clouds toward it, where coils a mecha-serpent ready to strike. It’s a marvel, calling to mind the Mode 7 bosses of Konami and Treasure at their best. In any other shooter this technical showpiece would be the end of stage boss. In Final Boss, it’s just another part of the level.

This level of polish and perfection is apparent in every aspect of the game. The graphics are chunky and authentic without pandering to retro cliches. The scoring system is direct and effective, tasking players with destroying enemies in quick succession. There aren’t any slow-moving bullet hell waves to scare off new players, rather, shots are fast and furious volleys that test players’ skill and reflexes. The game is tough but fair, awarding players with extra continues as they play and replay stages. It’s damned good, and totally accessible to new players.

I can’t say enough good things about this game. I’ve spoken with the developers, two humble peeps from Finland who insist that Final Boss still feels to them like some “indie freeware shooter.” I’m going to respectfully disagree. To me, that’s like calling Shovel Knight “just some Megaman wannabe.” There are some rough edges, of course. The game is too short, obviously, and it has Engrish-ey scrolling shooter memes sprinkled awkwardly throughout. The devs have stated that these memes are already removed in their latest build, and were holdovers from when the project was less ambitious. Even in its unfinished state, I consider Final Boss to be in the upper echelon of shooters; there’s very little about its design that doesn’t feel considered, warranted, wonderful.

So play it. Here’s the link to the three-stage demo. Tell me what you think. Tell the developers what you think. I want to see the day when Final Boss is released; I want to see scrolling shooters change, and grow; I want them to have a future.

But, most of all, I want you to experience what it’s like to be Final Boss.