September 26, 2013

Rayman Legends

Raising the bar.

The Wii U is the first console in quite some time that I've had the time and money to stay on top of in terms of software. My "Games to Get" lists for GameCube and Wii are depressingly long, so it's good to know I'm staying on top for at least something.

I picked up Rayman Legends the day it came out. I made a point to be sitting in the parking lot, waiting for the store to open. After enjoying Rayman Origins immensely, as well as the Rayman Legends Challenge App, I knew this was a platformer I was going to love. In just five days, I absolutely devoured this game 100%. Considering I was also working those five days, I'd say it's a pretty impressive feat. And looking back, I am so glad I did.

This game delivers. The level design is practically unsurpassed on any front. The controls are tight, the sound glorious, and the visuals teeming with character. The amount of content blew me away. I was expecting a lot (especially since the game has been delayed for half a year), but it still surprised me.

The stages are so refined. Everything flows along so smoothly, and it just feels right. The stage layouts themselves make every action you take seem so natural. I was impressed at nearly every turn. The few issues I had with Rayman Origins were considered, addressed, and eliminated. Granted, the difficulty factor was toned down quite a bit, but after experiencing the finished product, I think it was for the best.

The stage variety was very much appreciated. Standard left-to-right exploration platforming is broken up by touch-screen, sprinting, chase, and music-based stages among others. Rayman Origin's story-focused gameplay is discarded for a more consecutive stage approach, where the player is free to explore and re-explore any stage (set up as paintings) whenever they want in a gallery setting.

The touch-screen stages put you in control of Murphy, who assists an AI character who is making their way through the stage. As Murphy, you cut ropes, distract enemies, raise/lower platforms, disable traps, etc. The most interesting part of this is that you do it using the GamePad using only your finger/stylus. Obviously, the dual display is perfect for this, as both screens are displaying the same thing.

You can play this game with multiple people, but I prefer 2D platformers by myself first, so I relied on the AI character not to be an idiot. Refreshingly, the AI nearly always did what I wanted them to do. The touch-screen stages were a pleasure to play. With poor implementation, they easily could have tarnished an otherwise well-polished game.

Many stages involved some sort of urgency, such as a fire wall threatening to catch up to you, or a tower collapsing into the ground. Quick reflexes are a must, but the game doesn't punish you for not having them. Just as in Origins, death means your respawn is fairly close to where you died. A handicap heart (for an extra hit) is obtainable in almost every stage during the loading screen. So even though some stages have that one part that seems impossible, it's only a matter of learning when the exact moment was to jump, fall, etc.

As the stages increased in difficulty, I did have a hard time picturing younger players being able to pass them. Although I look back at games we used to play as young kids, and marvel that we were able to do that too, so maybe I'm not giving kids enough credit.

The music-based stages are often pointed at as a moment of brilliance by many reviews. While I think they are indeed something great (and a fantastic way to get someone interested in the game), I feel the overall gameplay experience is something I would praise far more, even if it's less noticeable. The stages are given as a bonus of sorts at the end of each world. Each is linked to a song, some created for the game, some in existence already (e.g. Ram Jam's rendition of Black Betty).

These stages have you running full speed the entire way, making jumps and hitting enemies in exact timing with the music. It really is a cool experience, and I can't praise them enough for implementing the idea well.

The music during the rest of the game is brilliant. Christophe Héral has outdone himself. The variety and intricacies consistently match the gameplay, and as standalone compositions, they are quite strong. I read in an interview that he was told to make sure there was a wide range of styles. I'm sure it was one of the easiest boxes to check off during development.

The controls are responsive and tight, the way a platformer should be. All of Rayman's moves are available from the outset, and the game will give you nonintrusive reminders in case you're not already aware. Aside from running and jumping, you can follow curves up walls (eventually running vertically and upside down), float down slowly, wall kick, and perform a number of attacks. It's not overly complicated, and it gives you exactly what you need. Nothing more, nothing less. This is a great approach, because it allows you to focus on the gameplay as a whole rather than superfluous, obtrusive extras.

The visual look of the stages are vibrant, colorful, and full of life. Nothing ever seems too busy, but it's never void of enough material either. Each world has its own style (e.g. swamp, desert) and enemies, so even though the stages are similar, there's more than enough to keep your interest. Notably, there are stages that have been "invaded" by enemies from another world. These "mini-stages" require the player to complete them in less than 40 seconds in order to obtain all trophies. I will say that these stages were by far the most difficult out of the entire game. They are built for speed and precision, and you must have both to earn that gold trophy.

Each stage has ten Teensies that must be rescued. Eight are in the wild, and two are in hidden doors that lead to a mini-game of sorts. Finding all ten yields you your bronze, silver, and gold trophy. In addition to Teensies, you must collect a certain number of Lums (usually 600, but changes depending on the type of stage) to obtain all three of those trophies. Finding all six trophies per stage wasn't that hard (especially compared to Origins), but it wasn't boring either. I only had to go back to three or four stages to find that elusive Teensie. That doesn't include stages I wanted to go back to just because they were a lot of fun to play.

There are bosses at the end of each world. But honestly, they weren't that memorable aside from the Luchador fight.

So there's one huge part of this game I haven't talked about yet. And that's the 40 stages included from Rayman Origins. Yes, 40! For people that missed out on Origins the first time around, it's a great way for them to see it in length. The 40 stages chosen are a potpourri of the best. They have been "remastered," which really means the mechanics are altered to match Legends. An example would be the singing Lums being discarded, since they wouldn't fit in this game. I saved playing the Origins stages until I finished the rest of the game, but you unlock them constantly through playing the main game.

You can also unlock a multitude of characters, as well as little monsters that yield Lums every day. Clearing a stage gives you a "scratch card," which you scratch off like a lottery ticket (on the GamePad, naturally) to earn a prize. It could be the aforementioned monsters, Origins stages, or just more Lums. Characters are obtained in rescue stages or by collecting enough Lums.

There is also a mini-game called "Kung Foot." It's basically a 2D soccer field where up to four people aim to kick/punch/attack a soccer ball into their goal. It sounds simple, but quickly became a veritable frenzy of enjoyment. It doesn't really contribute anything to the main game, but I'm glad it was still included.

The Rayman Legends Challenge App, which has provided a daily and weekly challenge months and months before the game's release, is still included as part of the game. Challenges are updated every day/week, and it seems there are still a large number of people participating. Bear in mind these challenges are quite a bit harder than the normal stages. After playing the challenges for weeks on end, I couldn't help but laugh at the ease I was able to clear the main game's stages. The extreme competitive nature of the challenges is also something that sets it apart. You think you did absolutely awesome, and the game informs you that you're on your way to a bronze trophy! Oh.

All in all, the game is wayyyyy easier than Origins. I think it makes the whole thing more enjoyable for the masses, which is a good thing. Any super difficulty I'm looking for is right in the Challenges section.

I cannot recommend this game enough. Regardless of what platform you buy it for, keep in mind the developers have stated the Wii U version is the ideal one to play. If you'll remember way back, the game was supposed to be a Nintendo exclusive. In addition to that, the game was supposed to come out closer to March than September. I wasn't that upset that the exclusivity was discarded, but I was upset that they pushed back a totally finished game by over six months. I know the developers said that the extra time gave them opportunities to fix and refine the game, but it still irritates me.

Bottom line? Get it. Play it. Relish it. It raises the standard that all 2D platformers go by.

September 19, 2013

Hiroshi Yamauchi: 1927 - 2013

Today we lost a legend. Simply put, Hiroshi Yamauchi is basically the reason we have video games today. A man ahead of his time his entire life, he had insights that no one could ever have anticipated. He took the family company, Nintendo, to new and unforeseen heights, cementing them into near permanent success.

Having admitted to not really enjoying video games himself, it's astounding the huge decisions he made (without any input from others), and how they impacted not only the game market, but the world. He was a master businessman, and had the innate ability to spot potential and latent success. He was the person who made the decision to move Gunpei Yokoi from factory maintenance to product development. He was the person who decided to hire Shigeru Miyamoto. He is the person who decided to put Satoru Iwata in the President/CEO chair. These people in turn made their own groundbreaking decisions, mentored prodigies of their own, and continued the legacy of ongoing innovation. Yamauchi just knew what would work. He would have a tiny flashes of brilliance that would each end up turning into decades long success. His instincts were spot on most of the time. And this is way before home video games entered the market too. After Nintendo moved decidedly into designing, manufacturing, and licensing toys, it was the start of a new era. Yes, there were some failures through the company's history, but it's no coincidence that Nintendo is where they are today.

Anyone and everyone who knew and worked with Yamauchi respected the hell out of him, and wouldn't even think to question his decisions. His keen intuition and ability to see solutions around corners is unsurpassed. Even upon leaving the position of chairman of Nintendo's board of directors in 2005, he left some small tidbits of advice and insight that the company continues to follow and have success with today.

Many websites and other media sources mark his death as the end of an icon, but I feel they still undervalue his everlasting impact that will continue to influence major trends and decisions in the far, far future. Especially living in North America, it's hard for us to truly realize how big of a figure Yamauchi is in terms of what he did. As big as the Nintendo boom was for us in the mid/late 80's, it was even bigger in Japan. Way bigger. Not to mention it started way earlier.

There are various books and interviews discussing Nintendo's continuing impact on the market, and it's extremely satisfying to see nearly everything come back to this one man. I highly recommend seeking out material pertaining to the company's history and inner workings. But since Nintendo is such a secretive bunch, it's easier said than done.

David Sheff's Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World is a brilliant look inside both Nintendo Co., Ltd. as well as Nintendo of America's early electronic gaming years. Osamu Inoue's Nintendo Magic: Winning the Videogame Wars is a more current look inside the company and key players' philosophies, focusing on the era of the DS and Wii. Yet all interviews and insights come back to Yamauchi and how he somehow could not only anticipate trends, but get a head start and basically create them himself. Both books are pretty much bibles of the video game industry, regardless if you're a Nintendo fan or not. If you're at all interested in the industry's inner workings, it is a veritable crime to leave these books unread. For full Nintendo of Japan history, Florent Gorges' two The History of Nintendo volumes cannot be beat for information on the company from its inception (1889) to the end of the Game &Watch era (1991). Hopefully the next volumes will be written/translated soon. But I'm not holding my breath.

I have an unfathomable amount of respect for Yamauchi. He will be sorely missed. But his spirit, philosophy, and innovation will live on. Because he was Nintendo.

September 2, 2013

Wii U 2013 Thoughts

So 2013 is almost over, and the Wii U isn't moving nearly as much as Nintendo wants it to. Their longstanding (accurate) philosophy is that software sells hardware. So where's the software?

The truth is, there's a decent chunk currently out there, but the media/internet loves to look back at the somewhat bumbled launch of the console. And for the uninformed and/or lazy people, their easiest course of action is to parrot back what they read on some article that popped up at random from over nine months ago. Yes, back in November of last year there was not really any reason for the common person to pick up a Wii U. But it is September of 2013, and quite a few quality pieces of software are available.

Yes, third-party support has been less than admirable for the Big N, but they are the only company that has enough strength in their own IPs to survive in their own if need be. This is partially a curse, because "cautious" developers/publishers will play it super safe and wait for Nintendo to do the hard selling work before they enter the game, declaring that "they strongly supported it the entire time," and challenge anyone to prove otherwise. A simple Google search to any prior interview/press release can shatter their so-called "facts." Other points are made concerning Nintendo's almost casual approach to indie developers. It's thrown around that it's "just not enough, and Sony and Microsoft have been doing it way longer, so Nintendo can't possibly succeed." Well, I would agree to the second point. Sony and Microsoft have been doing it a lot longer. But I don't make the connection to Nintendo not being able to do it just because they haven't done it before. I'm pretty sure that both other companies had to find their feet and gain credibility over time as well. To be supremely accepted without reservation immediately would be a fool's expectation. It takes time. I don't even know why I have to justify it, because it's such an obvious conclusion. If it's going to work, it's still going to take time, regardless of who it is.

It's funny to note that pretty much since its inception as a game maker, Nintendo's forecast has been "doomed" by a big-name source every single year. Yet somehow, impossibly, it hasn't happened. The people that keep stating over and over again that this, surely this, is Nintendo's last year, know it probably isn't true, but have stuck to those guns for so long. They're just waiting for the near impossible chance that it might happen, so they can stand up and proclaim how they always knew Nintendo was a failure from the start.


Naturally, anytime I read an article title with one of those people's names in it or how much Nintendo is doomed, I skip it. It's not that hard. You just don't read it. Those people are just trying to stir up the pot and gain publicity. And because some people are willing to become angry over trivial bullshit, it works. Some would argue that it's their job to be critical analysts, but I counter that they base their predictions on extreme short-term, cherry-picked results. Not to mention they never look at Nintendo in terms of a full company, they look at "just Wii U" instead of everything Nintendo has going on (consoles, handhelds, services, software, etc.). That goes against everything Nintendo bases their company policies on.

Nintendo is a long-term thinker, and always has been. In this way, they separate themselves from the American corporate structure mindset. Hell, American corporations are lucky if they're thinking more than two weeks down the road. This angers analysts, because Nintendo isn't "playing by the rules" or, "doing what they should be doing." Such statements are absolutely ridiculous. An analyst's job is to analyze, not dictate what "should happen." Because they can't possibly predict what will happen long-term, they will ostracize anyone that dares to think that way. People that state Nintendo is doomed should check out actual numbers and reports once in a while. Their heads might explode. Another huge difference between them and pretty much everyone else is that they learn from their mistakes. They don't just abandon something once it starts to look like it's not working out, like other big parties in the gaming business.

So anyway, I'm getting off of my soapbox to talk about software. Just on the eShop alone, there are a ton of good titles (both legacy games and original titles). The whole layout and setup of the Wii U eShop compared to the Wii one is like night and day. I found the Wii layout to be clunky, confusing, and unaesthetic as hell. The Wii U one makes actual sense, and is easily navigated. Which means people are more likely to buy things. Nintendo is also has a "quality over quantity" policy. Short-term, it means less things available right off the bat. Long-term, it means better things overall with no filler crap (for the most part).

Retail titles are slowly but surely becoming more and more. And I'm not talking about all that shovelware, which is pretty much a given considering how some developers still see Nintendo consoles as gimmicky toys. I'm talking about real games. The lineup looks great, and is slowly picking up steam. It just took a while to get moving. The biggest opponent Nintendo is fighting against right now is the uninformed public, who is just repeating what the general media told them to think a year ago. I still encounter people that are unaware that the Wii U is a new piece of equipment. It's depressing how people can justify buying any video game items when they're just doing what some uninformed person told them to do, and in the end don't care about it anyway. Why even bother if you're just going to be a clueless sheep?

It just takes so long for the mass of society to catch up with the people who are paying attention. That goes for pretty much any subject, not just video games. More important things like the economy, politics, health and safety, down to pop culture things like movies, books, comics, and video games. It's very frustrating to the informed people about any of aforementioned areas, because they know what's up, but everybody else is so slow to put the pieces together. One of the areas I choose to try to be well informed in is games. Granted, there's so much going on I can't possibly stay on top of it all, so I prioritize the areas I think are worth following. I would prefer to make an informed decision (about any subject, not just this) as opposed to someone I don't know who I'm not sure is even credible tell me what to do.

September 1, 2013

New Super Luigi U

Worth it?

So I just got my copy of New Super Luigi U for Wii U. I opted for the physical version because I am still a collector as well as a player, and having a "real" copy of the game just sits better in my mind. The eShop version has been out for a couple of months, but I didn't feel like I was being left out of the loop. It's not like it's going anywhere.

The game is still a basic Mario series 2D platformer, although your main character this time around is (not surprisingly) Luigi. The Toads are also selectable, along with Nabbit. Nabbit cannot be harmed by enemies, which makes him a great choice for younger or less skilled players. You can still play with 1-5 players, with anyone joining in whenever they want.

Every single stage has been revamped, but you only have 100 seconds to clear each one. To compensate, the stages have been made much shorter, but also slightly harder. This speedrunning mentality, combined with Luigi's wacky mechanics, make a notably harder challenge overall. In addition, the three Star Coins are also present in each stage. Whereas in New Super Mario Bros. U I could explore and go back if I missed a Star Coin, New Super Luigi U pretty much forces you to complete the level (or die) and try again. There's really not any time to go back. And obviously there are no checkpoints in any stages. I do find it impressive, however, that Nintendo still manages to stick in alternate exits in certain stages.

One of the biggest differences is the physical mechanics. Luigi has his Super Mario Bros. 2 thing going on, where he is very floaty and can jump much higher/farther. Combined with the allowed spin after your jump, he gets some pretty good distance. Also, he has terrible, terrible traction.

The descent is the real drastic change.

Other differences include a new title screen and many objects/enemies/menus/etc. changed to a green color scheme. It is the Year of Luigi, after all. There are also numerous "hidden Luigis" throughout the entire game. It may be an old school sprite stuck to a wall, or part of the scenery itself.

The world map has not changed, which would have been nice, but it's not a deal breaker. Battles with enemies on the world map, however, yield actual useful items as opposed to just Stars. Extra lives are also not hard to come by, since each stage lasts about thirty seconds with an easily reached flagpole.

Most stages have a Mushroom right near the start. However, if you are already big, the box will contain nothing more than a coin. I like this, because giving you excess power-ups for such short stages would be cheap. Yoshi is also absent for most of the game. I think I used him no more than five times.

The fortresses and castles also give you the 100-second time limit, but upon going through the boss door, the game awards you an additional 100 seconds. The initial time is for you to get through the stage, not fight the boss, so I think the extra time is acceptable (even though the boss fights take less than twenty seconds anyway).

I play solo through a whole game like this before I even think of letting someone else join me. I think it's super cheap to let someone grab a Star Coin and fall down a pit because you know they'll respawn in three seconds. Where's the fun in that?

Nintendo also allows the player to play as Nabbit in solo mode. The only justifiable reason I can think of is for younger kids who just don't have the reflexes they need yet. For them, I would say it's a great introduction to learning the mechanics of platformers, except Nabbit still has the oddball floaty/tractionless physics. Pulling in two different directions at once, Nintendo.

After defeating Bowser, the game places a Mario Block at the start of each stage. This changes the physics back to the regular New Super Mario Bros. U. This actually can make the game a lot harder, since the levels were designed for Luigi's mechanics. More often than not, you're really banking on getting that distance/height out of a desperate leap, so taking that away is a challenge. After playing through the entire game and really getting a handle on Luigi's physics, it felt incredibly awkward to go back to regular gravity and distance.

Notably, the digital version requires the owner to also have New Super Mario Bros. U, whereas the physical version does not. But I would say if you're thinking about buying Luigi, you probably already have Mario. It should be noted that apart from the main story, none of the other modes in New Super Mario Bros. U are present in Luigi.

The shortened gameplay and lower price point ($20 digital, $30 physical) really makes New Super Luigi U feel like an expansion rather than an entirely new game. Even Nintendo admits on the main website:

Emphasis on "almost."

I think the price fits. I feel the majority of people picking up the physical copy would either be collectors, or oblivious parents seeing a Mario game half the price of the one next to it. As for the digital, $20 to play over eighty new courses (in a Mario-themed platformer, no less) is definitely a good deal.

Bottom line? If you're satisfied with New Super Mario Bros. U and think that it's enough, it probably is. If you're looking for a little extra challenge and don't mind spending a little bit of cash, then go for it. You won't be disappointed.

Only 30-ish years too late.