Category Archives: Video Games

DuckTales: Remastered

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DuckTales: Remastered (2013)

If you read yesterday’s post about DuckTales for the NES, you may have thought, “Wow, I’m surprised he didn’t mention anything about the re-make that came out in 2013.” Well, that’s because I was saving it for its own post! DuckTales: Remastered is a complete remake of the original NES game for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii U. Initially a digital only release, DuckTales: Remastered would receive a tangible release as well, and for a game the started as a budget-friendly digital title, I can think of few others that received as much attention and fanfare as DuckTales: Remastered.

Capcom debuted the game at E3 with a memorable video hyping it up before indulging the audience in a sing-along of the memorable theme song from the show. The release of the game coincided with the 25th anniversary of the NES original, and it was a worthy title to revisit based on the fact that the original is still a ton of fun to play. Naturally, remaking a game many consider to be a classic is a tall task, but with such simple play mechanics, how could Capcom go wrong?

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Transylvania got a lot scarier over the last 25 years.

DuckTales the game is largely unchanged at its core. The player still controls Scrooge who jumps and pogos his way through various levels (now six) in an effort to accumulate more wealth for himself and eventually to recover his lucky dime. What is changed are the production values. Modern game consoles can obviously handle quite a bit more, and this being tied to a Disney property, means a remake needs to meet the expectations and standards of The Walt Disney Company.

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A comparison of the sprites from the NES original and the Remastered version.

For the first time ever, a Disney Afternoon property can now basically look just like it does in game form as it did on television. The game is still a 2D side-scroller, but now the sprites for the characters are lovingly hand-drawn in great detail in bright, expressive colors. Scrooge will mostly sport a happy expression, but when he encounters the Beagle Boys or Magicka DeSpell he’ll scrunch his face up into a frown. The enemies too feature changing facial expressions, and not just the boss characters, but even lowly spiders and the like. The levels really come to life as the difference in climate is really accentuated by the enhanced presentation. All in all, DuckTales: Remastered is a beautiful game to behold and one of my very favorites from a visual point of view.

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Another comparison shot to the original.

The enhanced fidelity of the game’s graphics are not the only aspect of the presentation to be enhanced with better technology. The audio is also greatly expanded upon featuring full-voiced characters with actors from the show as well as remastered music. Alan Young, in what is basically his swan-song as Scrooge, does a great job of voicing the greedy old duck and shows that time hasn’t taken much away from his vocal chords. Russi Taylor is on-hand to reprise her role as the nephews, Huey, Duey, and Louie, while  Terry McGovern returns as Launchpad. The wonderful June Foray was even brought back to voice Magicka DeSpell, making this a reunion of sorts for the cast. This seems all the more special since the new version of the cartoon set to launch this summer will feature an all new cast for these characters.

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I love how cold this cavern looks.

The downside to all of these resources is the need to make liberal use of them. DuckTales for the NES was a quick and fun to play title that would have worked even without the DuckTales license. For Remastered, a lot of cut scenes and cinematics were tacked onto the experience, not just in between levels, but even during them. They can be skipped, but even so they really break up the experience of playing the game and not in a welcomed way. Worse, I feel kind of guilty skipping over any line from Young and the other cast-mates, but it can get old hearing the same lines over and over if you’re forced to retry a stage. The game has also been lengthened quite a bit, not just with these scenes, but with a new level and longer boss encounters. Some of the boss fights are fine in their new form, while others do drag. I particularly hated the very final encounter with Magicka and Glomgold. What was a pretty simple race to the top of a rope in the first game, is now a death-defying escape from an active volcano with questionable hit detection. I had to replay the final, added level (which aside from the ending was quite good) repeatedly because I kept dying on this final part. Once I finally beat it I was too aggravated to enjoy it.

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And you thought only Zelda came in gold carts.

The game also adds additional collectibles that can be unlocked as you play, giving you something to do with all of the money Scrooge accumulates throughout the game. It’s mostly limited to concept art and background stills from the game but it’s still fun to look at, though not really enticing enough to encourage repeated play-throughs. I wish Capcom had gone the extra mile and included an unlockable version of the original game or its much rarer sequel. There was a press kit sent out to select individuals that included an actual copy of the original NES game, painted gold, and with the Remastered artwork on the cart. Acquiring one of those on the after-market will set you back a few grand, though it is a pretty neat collectible (and one that probably really irritated those select few that had a complete library of NES games in 2013).

Ultimately, DuckTales: Remastered is a fine enough love letter to the original game. It looks and sounds great, though it’s not quite as much fun to play as the original (though Scrooge’s pogo is still just as satisfying as it was back then) due to the pacing issues. It’s an odd duck (pun intended) in that regard, as most objective onlookers would take one look at both and immediately decide they’d rather play the remake. If you enjoyed the original, Remastered is still worth your time as it’s pretty cheap to acquire and includes enough fan-service to make you smile. And at the end of the day, it’s still DuckTales and still inherently fun, even if it could have been more.


DuckTales (1989)

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DuckTales (1989)

Licensed games are trash, or at least, that was the lesson the video rental store taught me as a child. Renting a video game on a Friday night was a special occasion in my house. Maybe a friend was sleeping over, or my parents wanted to rent a movie they didn’t really want me watching, so they got a video game to keep me occupied. The only thing that could ruin the evening, or rather the weekend, was renting a bad game so early on I learned what games to avoid. Usually, those games featured a licensed tie-in:  Roadrunner, Roger Rabbit, Dick Tracy, X-Men – all terrible games with attractive box art.

One consistent exception to that rule were the Disney games, especially the ones centered around the Disney Afternoon programming block. Recently released in a bundle for modern consoles (though sadly no portable devices), The Disney Afternoon Collection is a reminder of just how much better these games were than the usual licensed junk. Developed by Capcom, these were real games meant to entertain with their play mechanics. The games didn’t need the license, the license needed the games. And the cream of the crop was DuckTales, released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989.

DuckTales was not the first of the Disney Afternoon cartoons, but it soon became the flagship series for the block. Featuring a great cast, stories adapted from the renowned works of Carl Barks, and the best animation on television by a mile, DuckTales was an easy hit and it’s a cartoon that holds up remarkably well today. It’s adventure themes are easily adaptable for a video game, so in some ways it should come as no surprise that the game matches, even exceeds, the quality of the program.

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In DuckTales, Scrooge’s adventures take him beyond Earth.

DuckTales is a pretty traditional game for its era. The player controls Scrooge, notably decked-out in his comic attire red coat instead of the blue from the show, who can run and jump his way through five stages collecting treasure as he attempts to recapture his lucky dime from the villainous Magica DeSpell and Flintheart Glomgold. Scrooge handles like a standard character from the era, with the notable distinction that he can’t simply stomp on the heads of his foes to defeat them. Instead he must utilize his cane. When standing next to certain objects, he can swing it like a golf club to knock objects into enemies or objects. Mostly though, he needs his cane to function like a pogo stick. Bouncing off the head of an enemy utilizing his cane in such a fashion is Scrooge’s primary method of dealing damage. It also helps to give his jump an extra boost allowing him to clear wide chasms or reach higher platforms.

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I think every side-scroller was required to have an ice stage.

It’s the pogo quality of Scrooge’s cane that lies at the heart of what makes DuckTales so much fun, even today. Also playing a role are the large, open, levels. There may only be five of them, but they’re much larger than your garden-variety Mario or Mega Man stage. Scrooge can roam around them in basically any direction, and all are loaded with secret chests and treasures for Scrooge to find. Amassing a fortune is part of the game, and the amount of cash a player finishes the game with affects the ending cinematic, a rarity for 1989. Scattered through-out the levels are also other characters from the show, including Scrooge’s nephews and Launchpad, who are able to help out in small ways.

The visuals and sound of DuckTales are also areas where the game performs well. Naturally, the game makes liberal use of a digitized sample of the DuckTales theme, though I never found myself tiring of it. The sound effects are pretty standard for Capcom games of the era and are probably more enjoyable today with the aid of nostalgia. The graphics, while good for the time, are probably just a little above average for the NES. Some of the enemy sprites and character models are quite fun and expressive, though the bosses sometimes leave something to be desired.

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Launchpad isn’t totally useless, but he also could be more helpful here.

Games for the NES are sometimes considered quite difficult by today’s standards, but DuckTales is a fairly forgiving title in this regard. While it lacks a password or continue system, the adjustable difficulty makes it pretty easy to taylor the game to one’s skill level without making it embarrassingly easy. Changing the difficulty largely affects how much damage Scrooge receives from enemies, which is a simple and fair way to measure difficulty. The game doesn’t throw anything odd at the player, or introduce a foreign play mechanic at any point (unlike say Battletoads which just throws a racing level at the player out of no where), and anyone who has played a decent amount of 8-bit platformers can probably find a way to finish the game. It’s not a long game, though the desire to find all of the hidden treasures and achieve the best ending help provide incentive to play the game again and again.

Mostly, DuckTales is a really fun action-adventure game for the NES. It’s the type of game I can play today and hope that younger generations are able to see what made the game so much fun in 1989. As I mentioned early in the post, DuckTales was recently re-released as part of a bundle of Disney Afternoon titles so you don’t need to have a working NES on-hand to play it, though that’s currently how I enjoy it. And this is a game still worth playing, even after all these years.


The Final Word on the NES Classic

nes_classic_retro_blast_splashIf you read this blog even semi-regularly, you’ve probably seen me talk about the NES Classic already. When it came out I ranked the 30 games bundled with the device and also speculated on what could be included on a likely SNES Classic. What I didn’t do was actually come out and review the device. I figured I had nothing left to add to the general opinions that already existed across the internet. Which is to say, the NES Classic Edition is a fun little device, but it’s hampered by short controller cables and not every one of those games is really worth owning in 2016. Since then, the NES Classic became the hot holiday item and was also probably the hardest to come by. Nintendo evidently didn’t anticipate how popular it would be, as it couldn’t meet demand though it assured consumers more were on the way. Now we’re in April 2017, and the NES Classic has been discontinued.

If you were one of those individuals who got a NES Classic then you’re probably feeling pretty fortunate right now. It was never in stock to the point where you could walk into a store and take one-off the shelf. I suspect those who didn’t get one during the holiday rush probably expected them to eventually be in stock in reasonable numbers, just like Nintendo devices from years past. And while the fervor died down a bit following Christmas, consumers still needed to be vigilant in order to get one.

If you’re still pondering getting a NES Classic you’re probably down to third-party sellers as your only option. As of April 27th, the Nintendo store in NYC has stopped selling them and most big box retailers have either unloaded all of their stock or will do so this weekend. Online, no one has had stock since early April except Amazon’s Prime Now delivery service which has had flash sales sporadically and appears to be done as of this writing. And people selling Classics on Amazon or eBay know full well that the item is still highly sought after and essentially unavailable at retail and the prices reflect that. If you were lucky enough to encounter a Classic in the wild, you were likely charged 60 bucks to purchase the console which came bundled with one controller, a micro USB cable, wall adapter, and HDMI cable. A few places up-charged, and Gamestop offered mostly bundles full of other stuff no one wanted, but for the most part retailers stayed at the MSRP. During the lead-up to Christmas, prices climbed high enough to more than quadruple the MSRP with some even fetching around $300. After the holidays, the prices came down to the $120-$150 range, which was still a lot considering the MSRP, but perhaps not prohibitive. Now they’re back up to $300 and higher and who knows where they’ll settle at as they become more and more scarce.

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The NES Classic! Available at all of these places! Maybe!

At $60, purchasing the NES Classic wasn’t much of a dilemma. At that price point it could be considered a novelty. Had it actually managed to be well stocked it probably would have been a popular impulse buy. At the prices they’re going for now though, it becomes a much tougher proposition. I was fortunate enough to purchase two NES Classics. When the item was first announced, I got it in my head that it would make a great Christmas gift for my best friend, so I went to great lengths to acquire one eventually scoring one on Prime Now in a city that wasn’t my own. I had to pay extra to have the item shipped by UPS after having it delivered to one of its stores, but it was a small price to pay to secure a cool gift for my buddy. After Christmas, I happened to be at my computer at the right moment when Best Buy’s website put some up for sale and was able to get one for myself. I’ve had the NES Classic for months, so I feel well equipped to tell you what it’s worth.

To properly judge the NES Classic, you have to consider what it does well and what it doesn’t and why you want it. It contains 30 Nintendo games, about half of which are classics. Some of that lesser half is still playable, and some of it are titles you’ll likely play once and then never again. For sixty bucks, you’re getting each game for essentially $2, so it’s hard to get upset about Ice Climber when you also have Super Mario Bros. 3. None of these games are particularly rare, but you’d be hard pressed to find many for less than $2 if you were trying to get actual NES carts. This makes getting a lot of the best Nintendo games pretty convenient and pretty affordable. Of course, this ignores emulation piracy which I know a lot of people engage in. You don’t need me to tell you that you could probably download all of these games at no expense to you with probably minimal risk of actually running afoul of the law. Don’t confuse that statement as an advocation for illegal ROM downloading, it’s just an acknowledgement of reality. In other words, these games are all easy to come by and probably for really cheap. And if you were an early adopter of Nintendo’s 3DS handheld, you even received a bunch of these games for free from Nintendo itself.

What it all comes down to, you only have a few reasons to actually buy an NES Classic:

  1. The emulation is great and probably the best way to play these games. There’s no latency even when played on a modern television. You can play these games in crisp, bright, HD or opt for a filter that mimics a CRT television (my preferred mode). Nothing else I’m aware of does a better job, including Nintendo’s own Virtual Console service. Simply put, while these games are of limited value visually speaking, they’ve also never looked better and likely never will.
  2. The novelty of it all. And really, this is probably the big reason why people want this thing. It’s cute. It’s a tiny Nintendo Entertainment System that fits in your hand. It’s exactly the type of thing people get nostalgic over and want. Even people that know they won’t actually use this thing much still want it because it looks cool.
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If you actually get one, you probably should also get some controller extension cables. They’re practically mandatory.

There’s also a third reason, though it ties into number 2, and that’s this thing has no protection built-in really what-so-ever. It’s a popular item for modders to hack, and its storage capacity is vast enough that some claim it could store the entirety of the N64 library on it. For those who are really into emulation, it’s kind of the ultimate device because it’s an official Nintendo product capable of playing every single NES game in glorious HD with save states to boot. Considering most that are into emulation do so because they just want to play the games cheaply and easily, they’re probably no longer willing to pay hundreds of dollars to get a novelty box for their illegal games. Especially when you consider that if you mess up the ROM dump you can brick your tiny NES and that just doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking considering what they’re worth.

The decision to purchase or not purchase the NES Classic isn’t that complicated: you either really value silly little niche products or you don’t. If you have a ton of money at your disposal, then have at it, but if you just thought it would be fun to play these games again on a novelty device then passing on it at quadruple the retail price should be pretty easy. That said, if prices come down over the coming months then I could foresee a price range that would have made me comfortable that exceeded retail. At $100 to $120, I could probably talk myself into buying this thing all over again (if I for some reason wanted two of them), but I’d probably stop at around $150. If you really want to play a game or games that are included with the NES Classic, it’s just too easy to go elsewhere for a similar experience.

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What’s harder to get than the NES Classic? The extra controllers. If you have some old NES controllers hanging around, these work great, plus you can take advanage of the original’s  longer cord!

This whole post also assumes that the NES Classic has truly been discontinued. It makes little sense for Nintendo to cancel the thing. It costs them very little to produce, it likely has little or no impact on Switch production, and Nintendo probably isn’t selling tons of copies of these games via its Virtual Console platform. It’s possible Nintendo just wanted to make a quick buck, but was afraid of cannibalizing its virtual shop. It’s also possible the NES Classic was a bare-bones test run of a dedicated Virtual Console set-top box. Perhaps Nintendo will just release a new version later this year that is capable of adding software and likely would be harder for modders to crack, as it would seem the ease of doing so with the current NES Classic was a big factor in its cancellation. At least, that’s the only thing that makes sense. A rumored SNES Classic is on the way, so hopefully the scarcity of the NES Classic wasn’t intentional and the SNES Classic arrives in far greater numbers. If I can’t pre-order it I’ll probably lose my mind, or I’ll likely just end up outside a gaming store hours before it opens to get what I want silently cursing Nintendo the whole time.


Switch Thoughts Part II (and more Zelda)

Nintendo-20161123-ZeldaWhen I first posted my reactions to the Nintendo Switch I had only owned the console/portable hybrid for a few hours, many of which were spent asleep. It’s now been more than a week since then and I’ve been able to spend a considerable amount of time with the latest from Nintendo and I wanted to post some additional thoughts.

The Switch is both an under-powered console and an over-powered (if there is such a thing) handheld. The point is driven home each time I use my Switch. As a handheld, the battery life when playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild is around the two and a half hours Nintendo cited in the build-up to the Switch’s release. We don’t know if that will hold true for all titles, but I do wonder if that performance will represent the best Switch can do. After all, Zelda is a Wii U title ported to Switch and it’s reasonable to conclude it’s not fully utilizing the power of the console. Perhaps more demanding titles will drain the battery faster, or the opposite could be true if the games are better optimized for the Switch. Needless to say, the battery life isn’t very good and I’ll be curious to see how Super Mario Odyssey runs when it’s released later this year. The portable also runs pretty warm, and I guess that’s to be expected considering the tech underneath. The Switch is very thin, but it’s pretty well ventilated so I’m not worried about over-heating. The button layout is definitely not perfect. It’s so thin that the triggers aren’t particularly satisfying and they’re very close to the front shoulder buttons as well. The right analog stick is in an awkward position, as is the phony d-pad on the left. The small face buttons don’t really bother me at all though, perhaps because I’ve spent many hours with my 3DS, though the small plus and minus buttons can be tricky to find.

As a console, the Switch definitely struggles some with Zelda. I had read about framerate drops and can say they’re very real, and very noticeable. Sometimes the game gets really jittery, and it’s definitely not a good way to showcase the console. The transition from portable to television mode is indeed seamless, so at least that much works. I’ve played the game, and it’s still my only game, with both the joy con shell and a pro controller. I have never had the left joy con completely de-sync, as others have reported, but it still wasn’t seamless. Sometimes Link would keep running after I had stopped pushing a direction on the analog stick, and it did cause me to die at least once. Nintendo’s suggestions for people having the sync issue are pretty much a load of bullshit, wanting you to reduce interference from other wireless devices and so on. Most people probably have a bunch of connected devices at one time, be it game consoles, smart TVs, computers, tablets, etc and just reducing that type of noise is no longer realistic in 2017. The Switch also seems to struggle with its wireless connection to the internet at times, while other devices in my home experience no such issues. It would have been nice if Nintendo had included an ethernet port on the dock for a dedicated wired connection, but I assume they felt that would mess up with the quick turn-around from TV mode to portable mode. They still could have allowed the user to make that call themselves though if a wired connection was their preference.

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Somewhat to my surprise, the joy con shell makes for an adequate, albeit small, controller.

Aside from the input lag I experienced with the joy con shell, I was mostly content with how the “controller” felt in my hands. I was some-what skeptical going in, but if it’s performance was perfect it’s possible I would have had some minor buyer’s remorse about the pro controller I picked up. Since I did experience such lag though, I’m naturally happy with my purchase of the pro controller. It’s still too expensive, but it at least works well. The layout is definitely far better than what’s present with the joy con setup, and it’s more or less an Xbox controller. I do wish the D-pad was more comfortable to use, as I suspect fighting games will feel awkward with it. It still takes some getting used to, being a new console and all, and I found myself having to look down at it to find the plus and minus buttons since they’re grouped in the middle with the capture and home buttons as well. And since the controller is all black, the buttons could be hard to find in low-light settings. I was accidentally snapping pictures instead of bringing up the map screen in Zelda on my first go-around with the pro. Since then I’ve grown used to it, though because of the framerate issues (and also partly because the 2 and a half hour battery life helps to remind me to stop playing and go to bed) playing the Switch in portable mode has been my preferred method. If the performance on television was better I’d likely prefer TV mode with the pro controller.

The Switch is fairly large, though thin, making it a cumbersome handheld for actual on the go play. I still haven’t taken it out for my usual commute, as Gamestop has yet to produce the case I pre-ordered in January (apparently I arbitrarily selected the case that would appear in the lowest numbers, or they all got ear-marked for bundles. Some retailers list it as being in stock next week so I’m hopeful for the same), but it’s clear this will be the hardest portable to lug around, though not impossible. I carry a messenger bag and I’m sure I’ll be able to make room for it. I can already do so with a Vita in a case, and it only becomes challenging if I’m carrying a laptop and a tupperware or pyrex dish with my lunch in it. It gets a little cozy in there, but I find a way. I find myself comparing the Switch to the Vita often as I play either one. There’s no comparison with the 3DS. While the older Nintendo handheld is definitely the most portable of the three devices, it’s also the least impressive with its low-res screen. I have an original launch Vita, and its OLED screen is still the best I’ve seen on any handheld, but the Switch’s compares quite well. And like the Vita, the Switch feels like a high quality device where as most Nintendo handhelds feel more like a toy. If the Switch can attract JRPGs like the Vita has then it will definitely become my go-to portable even with the poor battery life (the Vita at 3 to 3 1/2 hours isn’t much better).

Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been a fun experience thus far. I’m not sure how many hours I’ve been able to sink into it, but it’s been a lot and yet I don’t feel I’m at all close to being done with the game. I’ve probably found around 30 shrines so far, but I’ve only completed one out of the four mythical beast dungeons and uncovered maybe half of the game’s gigantic map. That’s definitely been the one aspect of the game that was not oversold:  it’s massive and it’s time consumingly so.

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The vastness of Zelda’s world is imposing and its best feature. I just wish the Switch could keep up with it and reduce all of the pop-in present.

Otherwise, I find it interesting how Zelda is both held to high standards by gaming critics, but also graded on a  curve at the same time. As the first open-world, or sandbox game, in the series it does a lot of interesting things, but also could do others better. There’s a day-night cycle, which isn’t new for Zelda, that also includes weather effects. Much of the game requires Link to scale mountains and sheer surfaces, but climbing in the rain is pretty much a no go. It makes sense, but as a gameplay device can be really frustrating when you’re in the middle of scaling a large mountain but you have to stop when rain strikes. There’s also a moon cycle, that so far feels random, but it’s possible that it’s not, where a blood moon will rise in the sky and resurrect all of the enemies Link has defeated. It probably exists as a device to keep the game populated with enemies to kill and providing an explanation for why a fort you may have cleared hours ago is suddenly overrun by enemies once again. I’m fine with that part of it, but every time this blood moon rises the game pauses and shows a cinematic. It can be skipped, but the loading time it creates is brutal. I’m not sure why the load time even exists given this isn’t a disc-based game, but maybe it has something to do with the game being a port. I had three “days” in a row while playing last night that ended with a blood moon and it drove me nuts. The cinematic was fine for the first instance, but I don’t know why the game plays it every damn time.

Weapon durability is new to Zelda, well, mostly new as there was a sword in Ocarina of Time that Link could break. Now though that durability applies to every weapon in the game, and they break pretty damn fast. It’s one of those gameplay mechanics that definitely adds something to the game, but I’m left feeling that Nintendo took it too far. There are numerous enemies I just bypass because I don’t want to “waste” my weapons on them, and that’s not really a fun way to play a Zelda game. Otherwise, I very much enjoy the weapon variety as well as the armor variety in the game. Since armor doesn’t deteriorate like weapons (except for shields), the new pieces you find kind of feel like the dungeon rewards from the past games. Some armor simply ups Link’s defense, but most will have some other benefit like heat resistance or stealth.

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While some have claimed to have made it through the game without cooking, it’s still pretty essential and pretty cumbersome in execution.

Cooking is another hyped gameplay element from Breath of the Wild that is present with mixed results. I like it on principle, and Link is able to craft health restoring items as well as status-altering elixirs from fruit, nuts, meat, and monster parts. The interface is poor though, requiring you to fumble through your inventory that’s not organized in any logical fashion and have Link hold the items he intends to cook. You then jump out of the menu to view Link holding everything and you have to drop it into a cooking pot, which can be found all over the place in the game. You will probably screw it up from time to time and Link will just drop everything on the ground, forcing you to pick it all up, go back into the menu, and re-find the ingredients once again. Once you cook something, it will be available in your inventory along with the recipe you used to craft it, but if you consume it that recipe is lost to you. I’m not sure why Nintendo didn’t just include a virtual recipe book along with the Adventure Log. While you’re limited to how many melee weapons, shields, and bows you can carry around, Link has unlimited space for ingredients which is both good and bad. Good because you’re free to pick up all of the spoils, bad because it makes finding what you want that much harder when sifting through your inventory.

A lot of what I just wrote about is what I don’t enjoy about the game, and part of that is a reaction to all of the perfect scores I’m seeing being handed out. And while I don’t view this game as perfect, I can say I am enjoying it quite a bit in spite of those above complaints. One thing I really like is how the elements play a role, specifically with heat and cold. If Link goes to the top of a snow-covered mountain in standard equipment, he will literally freeze to death. You have a variety of ways to get Link through these areas, and that’s something that adds realism to the game without detracting from the fun-factor (unlike the rain). Lightning is also one of your most formidable foes and it’s best to avoid trees and metal when a storm is raging, though you may also find it possible to use it to your advantage too. That’s the aspect of the game I like best, so far. There’s just a lot of things for Link to do, and multiple ways to solve a problem, and the game just lets you figure that out yourself. I saw a video online of a player tossing a chicken at a moblin while the moblin was attacking. It struck the chicken, which summoned a bunch of other chickens to attack just like what happens when Link gets abusive towards the farm animal. Link can also ride on shields, which the game doesn’t explicitly tell you about, and jump on the backs of large animals and ride them around.

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Link can sneak up on an unsuspecting horse, mount it, and tame it. Don’t be shy about trying the same on similar animals. You may be surprised to find out what can happen, or not, since I basically just gave it away.

Mostly, I like that Breath of the Wild is trying something new, and it’s a throwback to the original Legend of Zelda. In that game, you’re basically dropped onto the map and given a sword. After that, it’s figure it out on your own. Breath of the Wild is basically the same thing, though the first hour or so of the game is a tutorial of sorts, but it’s done in a way that’s less boring than usual. This game doesn’t hold your hand and it will kill you a lot. Thankfully, it’s generous auto-save feature means death isn’t as big of a deal as it could be. I’ll hopefully eventually do a proper review of the game when I’m done, but I have no idea how long that will take. I’m pretty confident it will at least crack my top five as far as Zelda games go. While it’s refreshing, and I want to see Nintendo do more with this format going forward, I do miss the dungeons and the many shrines in the game aren’t really up to par as replacements. The shrines are mostly just quick little puzzles. They’re usually not hard to figure out, but execution can be tricky. Which is kind of funny, because they feel like a gameplay component that would be right at home on a portable adventure, which Breath of the Wild became when it was ported to Switch.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with my Switch purchase, though it’s also a bit of a luxury item for me as well. I could have just as easily picked up Zelda on the Wii U, where it’s performance is probably a little better than it is on the Switch. The only thing the Switch has going for it over the Wii U where Zelda is concerned is that it is a true portable. Aside from Zelda, the software is quite lackluster and is likely to remain so even through summer. I currently have no idea what my second Switch game will even be. There’s no Virtual Console service at the moment, so I can’t even turn there for additional games. The two games I’m most interested in right now are Super Mario Odyssey and Skyrim, and both of them are set to arrive in Q4 of this year. In other words, I could have very easily held off on buying a Switch until the fall and probably would have been just as happy. It’s also possible that by the holidays Nintendo will have better addressed some of the hardware issues and maybe will even smarten up and make a game like 1-2 Switch a bundled game. I personally have no interest in buying that game, especially at full retail price, but I’d welcome it as a pack-in. By the end of the year, we will also likely have a clearer picture of who’s supporting the Switch and what’s Nintendo doing with the online and Virtual Console. We may also know if the Switch is unofficially replacing the 3DS. Right now, there are still 3DS exclusive games coming our way, but maybe by the holidays we’ll know if Switch versions are coming or if future games will be available for both. That’s all just a long-winded way of saying that while the Switch is nice to have, you shouldn’t be kicking yourself if you didn’t get one at launch and are struggling to find any in stock. Don’t give Gamestop a stupid amount of money for one of their bundles they’re currently selling either, unless you really want everything in the bundle. I would guess the Switch will start becoming readily available during the summer and into the fall, where it could very well become scarce again around the holidays if its performing well. And even come then, it’s possible the only other great game available is Mario. At worst, by then most people will know if the Switch is something they have to have.


A Few Hours with Nintendo Switch

img_1005It’s Friday, March 3rd, the launch day for Nintendo Switch, and I’ve had mine since the clock changed over to mark the day. By now, you’ve probably seen the system, read numerous reviews of it and the software, and maybe even have your very own. There’s a lot of information out there, and I’m not going to try and match the coverage of the Switch by professional gaming outlets who’ve had access to the system all week. The early returns on the system seem to be mostly positive, though not glowing with praise. The early returns on Zelda:  Breath of the Wild however, have been almost universally warm with many perfect scores getting tossed around.

My Switch experience so far can be summed up simply as painless. I pre-ordered the console, a carrying case, and Zelda the day pre-orders went up at the local Gamestop near me. The only hitch thus far has been the carrying case, which is MIA. On the day pre-orders went up, I went to Gamestop and placed my pre-order without the need to wait outside for hours for the store to open. The store is within a mile of my house so I was there and back in about 15 minutes. Last night after work, I went down to get my number for the midnight release. Basically, they just confirmed my pre-order and bagged it up for me so it was ready to go. Those who pre-ordered were also given access to games and accessories. I was the 10th person with a pre-order to go in. The manager told me Nintendo didn’t send everything they expected which is why my case is still missing. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, or if the 9 people who went there before me bought them up. Regardless, I’m not sweating it and he told me if I don’t hear from them by Wednesday to give them a call, as they expect more to arrive. At the time I went in, I also added a Pro Controller to my bundle as early reviews have indicated there may be some syncing issues with the Joycons when not connected to the Switch, and I figured I’d get a Pro Controller eventually anyways (as much as I hate that I just spent 70 bucks plus tax on a controller). At midnight, I hopped in my car and got to the store as number 9 was called to the counter, so I was back home with my Switch by 12:15. Pretty cool.

Unboxing the Switch and holding it for the first time really drives home the fact that this is a console/portable hybrid. The box is easily the smallest box a new console has come in that I’ve purchased, but the largest any portable has as well. The same can be said for the hardware. It’s light, but not cheap feeling, and the whole boot process and day-one update (for both the hardware and Zelda) took maybe 15 minutes tops, and that also includes setting up the dock and attempting to use the Pro Controller as well as syncing the console with my Nintendo Network ID. That’s a far cry from the hours it took to get the Wii U up and running.

The dock for the Switch is kind of interesting. It’s very light and the only part of the console that feels cheap. It has a hinged door on the back that grants access to the various ports on the dock, which is nice as it forces all of the cords through one opening, keeping things tidy. I’m concerned there isn’t enough weight in the bottom of the dock preventing the Switch from sliding out as easy as it could. It also has one of those giant plugs on the AC wall plug, which feels like a blast from the past, in a bad way. In defense of it, I was able to fit it in-between two other plugs on a surge protector so it’s not too cumbersome, it’s just a pet peeve of mine.

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Fuck this thing.

The Zelda packaging is essentially the same as Vita packaging, right down to having little clips inside for an instruction manual that doesn’t exist. The game card is roughly the same size as well, just a touch bigger, and the door on the Switch for game card access is also very reminiscent of the Vita. It has a clipped-in door that should never pop open by accident.

My Switch arrived roughly 50% charged, so I got some gaming in last night before I went to bed before recommencing today. The Pro Controller had no charge, so I was forced to plug that in and leave it initially. I wasn’t certain what the charge level of the two Joycons was at, so I elected to just test drive the Switch as a portable, only testing the dock to see how quickly the image was transferred to the television (answer: fast). Handling the Switch felt like a new experience, more so than any other new console, save for the Wii. The button layout is different enough to not feel as familiar as most controllers, and I found myself feeling not as confident playing Zelda as I probably normally would on a first try. The small face buttons didn’t bother me as I’m so used to playing my Vita and 3DS, but the placement of the pseudo-D-pad on the left side as well as the analog on the right feels weird. In Zelda, the D-pad (D-buttons is probably more appropriate) is used to swap weapons and I was reluctant to do so in combat initially, not knowing what would happen. Hitting one of the buttons brings up Link’s weapons and pauses the action, which I was very happy for. Then you have to use the right analog to select the actual weapon you want. Having that analog so far below the left one is what kind of trips me up. It’s not that different from an Xbox controller or even the Gamecube, but perhaps it’s not quite as natural as either one. I’m not sure why Nintendo didn’t just keep the same layout as the Wii U. Actually, I do know why and it’s so each Joycon can function as a stand-alone controller. I’m pretty confident that I’ll get used to it, but it still feels odd on the first few play-throughs. Another aspect of the Switch’s input that feels a little odd are the shoulder buttons. The triggers are in a fine spot, but the front buttons are so small and thin that they’re a bit awkward. Perhaps this is why Sony didn’t try to squeeze more shoulder buttons/triggers onto the Vita, though again, I think it’s something I’ll get used to.

Since I only have Zelda, I can’t really test out the Joycon controllers. My reaction to them is that they’re probably okay in a pinch as individual controllers, but I wouldn’t want to use them in such a fashion unless it was a very simple game. I think they work with the upcoming Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but that strikes me as a pretty bad way to play that game, which is why I bit the bullet on a Pro for eventual 2-player games. I passed on 1-2 Switch as I just can’t view that as a full-priced game. If the game falls into the discount bin then I may take the plunge. In all likelihood, the next iteration of the Switch hardware will probably include it as a pack-in game.

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The Switch with the Wii U tablet behind it.

Zelda:  Breath of the Wild is so far pretty interesting. I’m way too early into the game to say anything definitive on it, but it’s definitely nice to have a more familiar Zelda experience than Skyward Sword and its forced motion controls. Visually, the game looks a lot like a combination of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. It has that softness to it Skyward Sword had, which is apparently Nintendo’s go-to technique to cover-up for subpar graphical power. It does have a technological component to the visuals, which you may have seen, which I think will help differentiate it from other games in the series. The depiction of which kind of reminds me of Twilight Princess’s Twilight Realm, though without the pervasive darkness.

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Now with the Vita in front of the Switch.

I must say, it’s awesome to finally have voice acting in a Zelda title. Link may not audibly speak, but you are able to respond in text to NPCs so he basically talks, he just doesn’t have a voice actor or say anything you don’t tell him to say. It’s also great to not have a stand-in for Navi as I think that type of character is often everyone’s least favorite part of modern Zelda games. I’m not sure how I feel about the destructible weapons, as weapon durability is often not something that’s fun in other games, but I’m withholding judgement for the time being. I do wish Nintendo didn’t take these half-measures with the hunting and combat. It’s kind of stupid to see Link shoot some fauna and have it evaporate into a puff of smoke, leaving behind an item for Link to consume. Something more visceral would have really helped with the setting and immersion. I know Nintendo doesn’t want to risk alienating younger players with violence, but I think they could have done a better job and it wouldn’t have required gratuitous blood and gore.

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With the Vita.

I look forward to spending more time with Zelda and the Switch. Thus far I’ve really only experienced the console as a portable and plan on getting some TV time in with it this weekend. I’ll make it a point to try both the Joycon controller grip and the Pro Controller. I expect both to work just fine, and if I have anything substantial to add to that I’ll add an update to this entry (especially if I experience sync issues with the Joycon). I’ll also have more to say on Zelda at a later date and how it fits in with the other games in the series. Until I get my carrying case, the Switch will reside in my home as I don’t want to risk getting any scratches on the screen. For now, my Vita need not worry about being replaced as my main portable, but I suspect the quality of Zelda will force my hand eventually. New consoles are always a fun time to be interested in gaming, and the Switch has done a good job of keeping my enthusiasm high. Hopefully, Zelda is good enough to keep myself and other early adopters happy until the next batch of software arrives. I’m confident that the hardware is good enough, the games will determine how successful the Switch is from here on out.


Ranking the Nintendo Hardware

nintendointerAs I sit down to write this entry, it is March 1st and we are less than 48 hours away from the launch of the latest piece of Nintendo hardware:  Nintendo Switch. It’s an important release for Nintendo as the last console, the Wii U, was a commercial failure. That being so, the Wii U is a bit of an anomaly as Nintendo has been a respected manufacturer of video game hardware for decades. Nintendo’s journey has been a memorable one, starting with playing cards and low-tech plug and play devices to the Game and Watch series, which set the stage for Nintendo as both a game developer and eventually console juggernaut. As such, Nintendo is synonymous with video games (at one point, the word Nintendo was often used by parents as a catch-all term for gaming system) and it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever leave the industry, but if the Switch is a flop then that could be a real possibility.

Before we take in the new, lets look to the past and try and rank all of the Nintendo hardware to be released to a global audience, starting first with the Nintendo Entertainment System and concluding with the Wii U. Maybe a year from now we’ll have an idea of where the Switch will end up among its peers, hopefully towards the front of the list as opposed to the back, but for now we’ll have to settle for what we have. So let’s get started with the consensus worst piece of hardware ever released by Nintendo…

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It’s like ROB the Robot for your face.

The Virtual Boy

In 1995, Nintendo apparently felt there was a market for a table-top console you stick your face in. The “Boy” tacked onto the end of Virtual Boy’s name makes it seem like it’s a part of the portable Game Boy family, but it’s about as portable as a desktop PC, and about as fun to play as Claris Works. The Virtual Boy was a piece of crap from day one. It attempted to give gamers a Tron-like experience (I guess?) with vector graphics that only displayed in red and black. The console could supposedly inflict permanent damage on one’s vision. The controller was trying to be forward thinking with twin directional inputs, but we soon learned that we did not need two d-pads on a controller and the practice was never duplicated in a memorable way. To top it all off, the machine launched with an MSRP of $180 which is just insane for 1995. Even disasters like the Sega CD have a certain curiosity factor, so much so that I’ve bought one as an adult just for shits and giggles. The Virtual Boy possesses no such charm, and it’s the only Nintendo system I have never owned.

Notable Franchise debuts: Mario Tennis

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At least the white doesn’t show dust.

Wii U

Nintendo’s latest failure, the Wii U, had some promise, but it never delivered on it. Piggy-backing off of the Wii brand’s more recent success, the Wii U was another under-powered Nintendo console with a tablet for a controller. Off TV play is its defining contribution to video games, but with subpar range for the Gamepad it’s still pretty much tethered to your living room. More so than really any Nintendo console (save for the Virtual Boy, which is a huge outlier in every way to the point that I don’t plan on repeating it throughout this post beyond this very sentence), the Wii U failed to deliver the first-party games Nintendo is known for. There were a couple of okay Mario  releases, but no exclusive Zelda or Metroid games (the abomination Freedom Force doesn’t count) or really anything else that was memorable. While it’s true that Zelda:  Breath of the Wild is being released on the Wii U, I would guess more people will experience that game via the Switch. Some of its other more notable releases, like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, are essentially being repackaged for the Switch as well. Basically, unless you refuse to repurchase some of your Wii U library, the only reason to hang onto it is for the Virtual Console games. At least it was backwards compatible with the original Wii, in a convoluted fashion, though that obviously isn’t enough to help it avoid this dubious ranking.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Splatoon

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The original Game Boy was hardly form-fitting, but it got the job done.

Game Boy

The Game Boy has the distinction of being one of the best selling pieces of video game hardware of all time. That isn’t really a testament to its quality, but more to its incredible longevity. Released in 1989, the Game Boy was essentially on the market without a true successor until 2001. In that time, the Game Boy destroyed all challengers mostly by virtue of the fact that it did nothing well, but had no flaw that was considered fatal. Sure, it’s monochrome display and absence of backlighting irritated anyone who ever played it, it still managed to find and hang onto an audience because it was often priced well, had good battery life, and was released when the Nintendo brand was at its apex. I know many moms who bought their kid a Game Boy because they viewed it as a cheaper alternative to an NES or SNES, and there was always enough quality software to keep the system afloat. Meanwhile, more superior handhelds were released (Game Gear, Lynx, Wonder Swan, Turbo Express), but they either couldn’t match the Game Boy’s price or software and subsequently died, while the Game Boy lived on. Now, the Game Boy was also chock full of shovel ware, often the worst of the worst in licensed games appeared on the Game Boy and many a kid received some awful games from well-meaning aunts and grandparents for birthdays, but at least there was Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon to soften the blow. The Game Boy received a slimmed-down redesign in 1996, the Game Boy Pocket. Other than being slimmer and cheaper to power, it also featured a black and white display instead of that hideous yellow/green and black display of the original. Other than that, it was essentially the same and the Game Boy didn’t receive a true redesign until 1998…

Notable Franchise debuts: Pokemon, Wario Land, Kirby, Gargoyle’s Quest

Game Boy Color

Nintendo lumps in the Game Boy and Game Boy Color into the same bucket in terms of reporting sales figures and so on. The Color was modestly more powerful, and obviously possessed a color display, though it was still pretty much a Game Boy. I list it separately only because Game Boy Color games could only be played on a Game Boy Color and not on one of the earlier models of the Game Boy. And since it possessed color, and could play every game in the Game Boy library, it naturally ranks ahead of the original.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Shantae

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The GBA had a lot of revisions in its relatively short life.

Game Boy Advance

The first real successor to the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance felt long overdue. And like the Game Boy, it received a few redesigns during its lifecycle. Compared to the Game Boy, the GBA did not have nearly as long a shelf-life. Even though Nintendo claimed the Nintendo DS wasn’t meant to be a successor to the Game Boy line, it essentially was and by 2006 the Game Boy brand was basically dead. Still, for as short a life as it had, the GBA was a pretty great portable, but its held back by some odd design choices and a lack of truly exclusive software. For starters, the GBA featured just four action buttons:  A, B, L, and R. Considering we were a decade removed from the SNES creating the new standard of six buttons, this was a curious omission. It seemed even more odd when the GBA quickly established itself as a dumping ground for SNES ports. The other design miss-step was the lack of a backlight. This would be addressed with the Game Boy Advance SP in 2003, a front-lit clamshell redesign that also resembled a Game Boy Pocket, just with a hinge in the middle. While I preferred the horizontal layout of the original GBA, the lack of a light source really sucked the fun out of it. The SP also had a rechargeable battery, which would become standard for future handhelds. In 2005, two additional redesigns were released, the SPII, which featured a backlit screen with improved brightness over the SP, and the Micro, which was tiny and featured a horizontal layout and no backwards compatibility with older Game Boy games.

Other than the hardware shortcomings, the GBA is also lacking in exclusive software designed specifically for the hardware. There were tons of SNES and NES ports, some of which (like Super Mario Advance) were significantly updated, but they didn’t make up for a lack or original software. There was an original Zelda title, The Minish Cap, which was a solid game but not as good as Link’s Awakening. There was also an exclusive Metroid, Metroid Fusion, which was excellent and lead to the release of a remake of the original game, released as Metroid:  Zero Mission. Mario &Luigi was also great, as was Advance Wars. I have a fondness for the GBA, mostly because of all of the great ports, so I don’t consider it a bad system by any means, but when compared with other Nintendo hardware, it does come up a bit short.

Notable Franchise debuts: Advance Wars, Fire Emblem (for US audiences), Phoenix Wright, Mario & Luigi, Wario Ware

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The original, “chunky,” DS. Like the GBA, the DS would receive a few redesigns including the Lite, DSi, and DSi XL.

Nintendo DS

All right, it feels like I’m picking on the portables, but there’s a reason for that. Portables are often homes to ports and the exclusive software is sometimes hard to find. And Nintendo has also often made its portables backwards compatible, so it would be hard to justify ranking older portables ahead of modern ones. Anyways, most of the criticisms I had for the GBA kind of apply to the DS as well. The DS is sort of the last of the old handhelds, as future ones (and even the final iteration of the DS, the DSi, started the evolution) would be online-equipped opening up the handheld to a host of older, downloadable games. The DS set itself apart from the GBA, and its competitor the Sony PSP, by having two screens. The second screen was hardly an innovation. Design-wise, the DS resembled Nintendo’s old Game & Watch handhelds and the second screen soon became a dumping ground for near useless features like map screens and inventory management. Some games tried, and tried hard, to make use of the touch screen functionality, but often to the game’s detriment (see the Zelda games released for it). Really, the only reason why I rank it ahead of the GBA is because it’s backwards compatible with the GBA software (but not original Game Boy software) and had a better design (finally, six buttons!). It too lacked somewhat in defining software, but the uptick in processing power made new games like Super Mario Kart DS way more playable than the GBA predecessor. The system may have launched with a port of Super Mario 64, but it never became the dumping ground for N64 ports some may have been expecting, probably due to the lack of a a true analog input device, something its successor would rectify.

Notable Franchise debuts:  New Super Mario Bros., Sonic Rush, Trauma Center

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The Wii felt new and exciting when it first debuted, but would not be able to maintain its early momentum.

Nintendo Wii

We’re now arriving at the point in our list where it’s getting hard to separate the consoles from each other. We’ve already blown past the only true Nintendo failures (Virtual Boy and Wii U) and we’re now mostly into the realm of nit-picking, though I feel rather strongly about what is the best Nintendo console of all time, I just feel less so about whats fifth best vs what’s fourth best, and so on. The Wii  is easy to dump on in 2016. It featured waggle controls and tons of horrible “party” games and licensed junk. It was cheap to develop for, and it’s consumer success meant there were tons of Wii’s in the wild so producers had incentive to release games for it, and with minimal effort. As much as I, along with many others, came to resent the waggle controls, I can’t deny what playing the Wii was like in 2006. The Wii is the last console that brought me and my friends together to just play games all night and have a blast doing so. At that point, I was out of college and working a full-time job, so getting together with a group of friends just to play video games didn’t happen much, and hasn’t since. And looking back on it, the launch lineup was pretty barren and yet we still had a blast with it. That was largely because of how much fun Wii Sports was, though I did have fun with Madden and Dragon Ball Z as well. And of course, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, even though the Gamecube version released a few months later was actually better (aside from, maybe, the fishing mini game).

The Wii may have received a ton of horrible games, but it did also receive two of the greatest Mario games ever released:  the Galaxy series. Some people loved Skyward Sword as well, even though I detested it. The Metroid Prime series was also one of the few improved by the Wii’s input device, and the debut of the Virtual Console was a pretty big deal at the time, even if it perhaps never reached the lofty expectations some of us may have had for it.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Sports, Xenoblade

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The N64 looks rather regal compared to some of its siblings, though that reputation did not translate to the software.

Nintendo 64

Where do you rank the N64? I would guess this is the console most affected by what age you experienced the N64 at. If this was your first console, then you probably have some extremely fond memories of the N64, so much so that it may even be your favorite. I do not, and for me, the N64 is perhaps the piece of Nintendo hardware that has aged the worst. Visually speaking, most N64 games are ugly by today’s standards. Muddy textures, endless fog, and subpar sound output make for a poor sensory experience. That’s obviously not true of every N64 game. Rare’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day seems to amaze me more and more every time I play it because of how good it turned out from a presentation perspective. The N64 was also the console where third parties started to turn on Nintendo. Most were not happy with the cartridge format, from a technological point of view and financially (you had to pay Nintendo for the actual cartridges), when the industry was moving to CD. The N64 also possessed one of the worst, and most fragile, Nintendo controllers ever done. It’s saved by the analog input and Z-trigger, two additions that are here to stay across all gaming consoles, and it was awesome finally having four controller ports on a console as a standard feature.

After ripping on the N64, I do have to say it gave us one of gaming’s biggest cultural moments in Super Mario 64, which is perhaps the last game that truly felt like a must play when it came out. Ocarina of Time was obviously a huge hit, but it’s success has been dampened some by the superior remake for the 3DS. The same can also be said for Majora’s Mask. Super Mario Kart 64 is also remembered quite fondly, even though it too has been eclipsed by better games in that franchise. The wrestling games are also well-regarded and if you’re a big wrestling fan you’ve probably held onto your N64 for that reason.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Paper Mario, Super Smash Bros., Banjo-Kazooie, Animal Crossing (Japan only)

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A launch 3DS. An XL version has since been released, along with the New 3DS which possesses a little more power under the hood.

Nintendo 3DS

The successor to the DS, the 3DS essentially fixed everything that was wrong with the DS while boosting the power of the handheld as well. The defining feature, stereoscopic 3D without the need for glasses, is a stupid gimmick. I never play my 3DS with it turned on and if the 2DS didn’t for some reason ditch the clamshell design I’d recommend everyone just get that and save a few bucks. That aside, the 3DS is buoyed by just enough original content and remakes to make it a viable system. It’s kind of like a Greatest Hits system, and the Virtual Console support means gamers have access to all of the old classics released by Nintendo, with only a few exceptions.

If you want to argue that the 3DS lacks truly exclusive 3DS games, then I won’t fight you too much. Super Mario 3D Land is pretty darn good, but I’m not sure it’s a system seller. A Link Between Worlds is loads of fun, but is it even better than Link’s Awakening? New Super Mario Bros 2 and Paper Mario Sticker Star were missteps by Nintendo, but they did right by Fire Emblem and Pokemon. It can’t be ignored though how awesome the Zelda remakes are for the 3DS. Both the Ocarina of Time remake and Majora’s Mask remake are so much better than the originals released on the N64, that it will be a crime if they only exist on portable hardware. Both should at least be made available for the Switch with TV play, even if the assets need further enhancement to make them suitable for larger displays. It’s worth it! And while I definitely play my Vita more than my 3DS, it doesn’t mean I dislike the system, the Vita just happens to know my weakness (JRPGs). I do wish Nintendo had put a higher quality screen on the 3DS, and it’s battery life is weak, but it’s still better than most of the hardware put out by Nintendo which is pretty remarkable for a portable device.

Notable Franchise debuts: Bravely Default

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While the N64 had a more grown-up appearance, the Gamecube went back to resembling a toy.

Gamecube

The Gamecube can be retroactively looked upon as an end of an era, the era of when Nintendo tried to compete on the same terms as its competitors. The Gamecube was basically every bit the equal of the Playstation 2 and Xbox in terms of power, and third parties didn’t need to concern themselves much in adapting games for all three machines. Still, after the N64 damaged Nintendo’s relationship with said publishers, it was hard to win them all back with the Gamecube. The N64 firmly established the still held belief that people buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games, and not so much third party games. As a result, Nintendo would have to really work hard to win them back.

One developer who came back with arms wide open was Capcom. Capcom, in truth, never left the Nintendo family as they had a presence on the N64 and a big presence on Game Boy. For Gamecube though, they made the Resident Evil Remake an exclusive game, and Resident Evil 4 was exclusive for about ten months. Both games were awesome then, and are awesome now, and were big titles for the Gamecube. Konami also helped out a little by remaking Metal Gear Solid for the Gamecube which also turned out better than the original. None of it was enough, however, to make the Gamecube a retail giant which is why Nintendo changed strategies with the Wii. Still, there’s little issue to take with the Gamecube hardware as the games have aged well and there wasn’t anything holding it back. The controller isn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t a bad one. The Wave Bird would be released later, basically making wireless the new preferred input method for all consoles. And even though the best Japanese franchises didn’t find a home on the Gamecube, there sill was an assortment of quality games. The Gamecube received two Zelda titles, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the latter being better than the Wii game. Super Mario Sunshine may not have sparkled as well as most Mario games, but was still a solid experience. Paper Mario 2 is in the running as one of the greatest sequels ever made, and is really the last good entry in that series. If the system had more JRPGs, I’d probably love it more. Hopefully with the Switch, Gamecube games start becoming a possibility on the Virtual Console because there are some games I’d love to take on the go.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Luigi’s Mansion, Animal Crossing (US), Pikmin, Metroid Prime

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The old NES Control Deck. Nintendo apparently felt it needed to resemble a VCR in order to attract American buyers.

The Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom

My approach to this ranking is pretty simple:  If I had to pick one Nintendo console and had access to all software playable on it, which would I pick? I think some bonus points in the event of a “tie” are merited for impact when the system was released and so on, but for the most part I’m making this an apples to apples comparison through 2016 eyes. And yes, I would pick an NES and its library over a Nintendo 64 or Gamecube, or whatever. It’s not out of deference to the era in which the system operated, it’s just an awesome system with an excellent library of games.

At this point, you do not need me to tell you about the big titles, you should be more than familiar with them. And since the console is a tank and most still work to this day, I don’t think durability would be a concern in a desert island scenario. While the presentation of the games from the 8-bit era are a bit rough around the edges, the simpler technology forced a simple style of gameplay on the consumer and as a result, the games just plain hold up better than some of the games that have followed. Super Mario Bros. 3 is as fun today as it was in 1990, Metroid just as lonely, and Glass Joe’s face just as rubbery. Even the sports games hold up very well, despite modern titles presenting more accurate simulations. In recent years, the console has experienced quite the revival with retro gaming sites and podcasts becoming a thing. The NES Classic was perhaps the hottest item this past Christmas, and people are still begging for Nintendo to flood the market with more. For those who worry about the Switch killing Nintendo should it fail, at least they can rest easy knowing Nintendo just has to look to the past for a quick buck to get back on its feet should that happen.

Notable Franchise debuts: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man – need I go on?

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While Nintendo had a reason making the American version of the NES look different, I never heard of an explanation why the SNES and Super Famicom needed to look different. I wish we had received the Super Famicom design, personally.

Super Nintendo/Super Famicom

If consoles can be considered sequels, then the Super Nintendo may be the greatest sequel of all time. Better than Empire, better than Street Figher 2, just the best. Visually speaking, I remember being unimpressed at first glance. A gray, boxy thing with purple accents hardly felt super to me, but then I played it. Super Mario World felt massive. It was bright and colorful and a joy to play. A Link to the Past took everything I loved about the original Zelda title and made it better. A lot better. While many older franchises struggled to move from 2D to 3D during the next console life cycle, virtually every franchise benefitted from the move from 8-bits to 16. Mega Man X, Street Fighter 2, Super Metroid – all games that proved it was only the imagination of game developers that could hold them back. Then Nintendo of America opened the flood gates and we started receiving games like Final Fantasy in greater abundance as new-found confidence allowed for them to finally get released outside of Japan. The SNES is still one of the best consoles for people who love JRPGs, with only Sony’s consoles rivaling it. The few missteps Nintendo had, like forcing Midway to remove blood from Mortal Kombat, were swiftly rectified.

There is no doubt in my mind that the SNES is Nintendo’s greatest achievement in gaming. It’s not as if other machines haven’t come close in the almost 30 years since the console debuted, so Nintendo shouldn’t hang its head in shame that its still trying to top it. The formula is there, Nintendo just needs to put it all together. The SNES is a beautiful example that a console does not need some wacky gimmick or ridiculous horse power to be worthwhile, it just needs to function comfortably, and above all else, have worthwhile software. It seems like each console to follow has alienated a certain subset of gamers and developers where as the SNES appealed to every one. If the Switch can recapture some of that, it will stand a chance.

Notable Franchise debuts:  Yoshi’s Island, Mega Man X, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG


The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

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The Legend of Heroes:  Trails of Cold Steel

There was a time when the term RPG meant really only one thing, at least for kids and teens in the 90’s:  Final Fantasy. Now the term is probably more synonymous with Bethesda and Bioware games, the “western” style of RPGs, with the eastern take being some-what of an endangered species. The “JRPG” as we know it is mostly relegated to older consoles and portables. Even popular JRPG franchises like Final Fantasy have adopted a more western style of real-time combat. Others settle for takes on the MMORPG, like the Xenoblade series, which is also more of a western creation than an eastern one.

That old style is hard to come by, either because it doesn’t sell well or the perception exists that gamers today don’t want to play a game where combat is largely turn-based and the game unfolds in a mostly linear fashion. There are, of course, some exceptions as Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, a tactical RPG but a genre that still largely adheres to the same constraints as traditional JRPGs, and Atlus’ Persona series still garner a lot of attention. In the case of Persona, it’s been a long time since Persona 4 was released, but Persona 5 is finally set for release in the spring so we’ll get a good idea of how popular the JRPG can still be.

Some developers are keeping the genre alive, and Nihon Falcom is one of them. Falcom has been around almost as long as video games have been and Falcom was one of the first Japanese developers of RPG computer games. Falcom has never had much exposure in the US and if I had to guess, the developers most popular title is the Ys series. If you had a Sega CD then you may know them for Popful Mail, one of the few Sega CD titles worth playing. Falcom’s most popular franchise for a longtime in its native Japan was Dragon Slayer, which was basically on par in terms of popularity as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, for a time. The Legend of Heroes franchise splintered off from Dragon Slayer in the mid 90’s and has become a franchise all its own, and possibly Falcom’s biggest. It has slowly made its way out of Japan, first with the Trails in Sky series on Sony’s Playstation Portable. Trails of Cold Steel is the most current, and Xseed has handled the western distribution for the first two titles which have been released on both the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita.

Trails of Cold Steel was first released in Japan in September 2013. It wouldn’t see a US release until December 2015. Of course, by then the Playstation 4 was out and selling well, but apparently the game has been successful enough for Xseed to continue bringing the series to the US with Trails of Cold Steel II arriving in the summer of 2016. The third game in the series is still in development for the Playstation 4.

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Class VII from left to right:  Emma, Gaius, Fie, Laura, Rean, Alisa, Elliot, Jusis, and Machias.

My exposure to Trails of Cold Steel has been via the Playstation Vita, with some play taking place on the even less popular Playstation TV peripheral. As such, I can’t compare it to the PS3 version, but from what I’ve seen the two look similar, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the console version performs a little better in terms of frame-rate. The game, and its sequel, supports the cross-save functionality so if you wish to buy both versions you can save between the two. Trails of Cold Steel is my first exposure to the Legend of Heroes franchise, but it’s my understanding it contains same narrative homages to the Trails in the Sky games without being a direct sequel.

The game takes place in a fictional setting called Erebonia where opposing factions are quietly trying to seize political control of the region. The main conflict is between the Noble Faction, those who have ruled via birthright, and the commoners who have risen to high-ranks via political means. There’s no active war taking place at the game’s onset, but it becomes clear throughout that tensions are high. Complicating things is that a terrorist organization has shown itself whose motives are unclear at first. They seem to want to stir the pot and challenge the empire, but naturally you have to play the game to learn more.

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Class VII’s instructor, Sarah, who very much enjoys a good beer.

Caught up in all of this is Rean Schwarzer. Rean has just enlisted at Thors Military Academy, a prestigious academic institution that welcomes students from all social classes. Historically, Thors still recognizes a student’s class standing and organizes its dormitories appropriately, but Rean has learned he is to be a part of Class VII, a new experiment by the academy that is forcing nobles and commoners to work cooperatively. Rean’s class contains an eclectic mix of students, both male and female, and naturally conflicts emerge. Part of the game’s narrative is working to resolve these conflicts while advancing the storyline and building relationships. Class VII contains nine students, four boys and five girls, and the games structure unfolds in such a fashion that the player is rarely in control of more than five students at any one time, with Rean being the clear main protagonist.

The game utilizes a day structure reminiscent of the Persona series. Days unfold at a methodical pace with the player having certain tasks to complete during the day, some forced and some optional, with each day ending when the player decides to end it. Most of these are fetch quests and some are dungeon crawls. Once a month Class VII is dispatched on field studies to different parts of the continent which is when the party is split-up, shrinking the cast of main characters temporarily. Doing so allows the story to play-up inter-class conflicts while allowing the player to experiment with different party combinations in a less intimidating way. It also allows for the story to show the current state of affairs in different parts of the world which pays off later in the game. Also like Persona, Rean can establish bonds with his peers and learn more about them during what the game calls bonding events. It’s not as robust as what is found in Persona 4, or as rewarding, but it is still an effective way of developing characters.

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The battle menu. Linked characters are denoted by the beams of light on the ground and connecting their portraits. The portraits on the left indicate action order. The icons beside the portraits denote special bonuses on that action such as EP charge, healing, and so on.

The gameplay is mostly classic JRPG, but with some twists. Navigating the field is pretty traditional and comparable to Final Fantasy X. There’s no throwback overworld or anything, and most settings contain a hub town with branching areas of hostility. Enemies appear on the screen and will react to your avatar by either attacking or running. Avoiding enemies is pretty simple, but of course avoiding conflict won’t help you in the long run as you need to defeat enemies to earn experience and get stronger. Characters can attack enemies in the field, and landing a blow on an enemy’s flank will stun them allowing you to engage the enemy with an advantage. Rean is the main character, but any character in the party can be utilized to navigate the field and they all have different weapons. Certain characters, like the shotgun wielding Machias, can break parts of the environment or attack enemies from a distance. It gives the player a chance to figure out how they would prefer to navigate the world and approach enemies. I typically stuck with Rean as his wide-arcing sword slash makes it easy to flank enemies for an easy combat advantage. Certain large enemies can’t be stunned on the field, but flanking them can still impart a bonus.

Combat itself is like a hybrid of Final Fantasy X and a  tactical RPG. Characters can be moved and positioned on the battlefield which is mostly useful for taking advantage of area-based attacks and arts (the game’s version of magic). Four characters can partake in battle at any given time, with reserves able to swap in and out of the active party at any given turn. The order of attack is displayed on the screen so you know when the enemy will next attack, but the order can be influenced with delay tactics and other conventions. Characters typically can attack, use an art, use an item, run, or use a craft. Crafts are basically special attacks and abilities that utilize CP, which is accumulated primarily by attacking and taking damage. Throughout the game characters will unlock special crafts which can be triggered with 100 CP, but are more effective when triggered with 200 CP, which is a full CP gauge. These attacks are basically massive, highly damaging, maneuvers that often can help turn the tide of battle as they can be triggered at any point, allowing the player to bypass an enemy turn.

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The females seem to enjoy pointing out Emma’s bust, even though every girl “of age” is pretty well endowed in this game.

Characters can also link with other characters, and the more often a character links with another the higher their link level will rise. The main benefit of linking characters is that when one lands a critical hit the other is able to utilize a follow-up attack. As the game progresses more benefits open up, and increasing the link level between characters also opens up other benefits like one character automatically curing another after damage is taken. These link levels are not confined to just Rean and everyone else, but even between the secondary characters. The bonding events open to Rean will increase the link level faster, so naturally Rean will have a higher level with his comrades than they will with each other.

Outside of combat, characters can be equipped with character specific weapons, armor, and accessories. They also have what is called an ARCUS unit which contains slots that quartz can be equipped to. Quartz are essentially materia from Final Fantasy VII. They’ll contain elemental based arts as well as passive abilities and restorative arts. They’re elemental based, and certain slots can only take certain types of quartz. Throughout the game you will earn Sepith from enemies and treasure chests, and Sepith is used to open up more slots on each character’s ARCUS unit to equip more quartz. Each character can also equip a Master Quartz which earns experience like a character and grows throughout the game. These Master Quartz also have a greater impact on a character’s underlying stats and help influence how a character should be played, if they’re a tank, healer, etc. Naturally, characters are predisposed to certain play styles and deviating from that is probably more trouble than its worth, but it can be done.

Being that I am a big fan of both Final Fantasy X and tactical RPGs in general, I naturally find the combat mechanics of Trails of Cold Steel to be mostly excellent. If I had one major complaint it’s that the Crafts are a bit overpowered and easy to take advantage of. At the same time, I also played through the game on the normal setting and harder ones are available so my criticism is some-what empty. For the most part, the combat is addicting and enjoyable. It’s easy to get used to, but also possesses depth, and that’s all gamers really want out an RPG combat system.

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Lesbian characters are depicted as especially lustful with one of them being a downright creep who hits on young girls.

Technologically speaking, Trails of Cold Steel offers little to get excited by. It’s a PS3 game, that even by PS3 standards, is unimpressive to behold. The main characters all look good, but the settings are small and bland. The game uses an anime style that is mostly pleasing to look at, and there’s even a few instances of actual anime used to enhance the story-telling. Xseed’s localization is pretty good, with lots of veteran anime voice actors onhand to give the game a professional sound. The music is also excellent, though at times can get a little too repetitive. There were some frame-rate dips in combat, and some slowdown as well. It’s mostly cosmetic though and didn’t affect my ability to deal damage or anything.

The game’s approach to story-telling is pretty consistent. Trails of Cold Steel is often serious, but also inserts a lot of humor into the mix. Some of the humor can be fairly juvenile with there being an abundance of gay jokes, or instances of male characters being spooked by something gay. Interestingly, lesbian characters are approached in a completely different manner and are often depicted as sex-hungry perverts. These characters are also accepted by their peers, so in one sense the game is progressive, but in other respects it feels like a sixteen year old heterosexual male wrote portions of the scripts. I didn’t find any of this offensive, but at times I felt like I was older than the game’s target audience. There are also numerous jokes about breasts, especially directed at the Emma character who is depicted with a large bust even by video game standards.

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Meanwhile, the game’s lone fat girl isn’t exactly portrayed in a positive light.

The main plot unfolds very methodically and in a very linear fashion. That more than anything is probably what is most likely to turn off a modern gamer accustomed to Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect. The game’s plot is a slow burn, and finding every available side quest in a given day often requires you to speak with every NPC you come in contact with, some of which won’t give up their quest on the first try. I took my time with the game, and it took over 80 in game hours for me to complete. Part of the reason why the game moves so slowly is because it is the first game in what is projected to be a trilogy so it’s possible future games in the series will unfold at a brisker pace. Of course, I won’t know for sure until I finish the sequel (which I am actively playing).

Completion of the game unlocks a new game plus, a pretty common convention in modern games. During the first play through, it’s impossible to see every bonding event in the game so completists will need at least two play-throughs. Players can also save a cleared game save to carry over into the sequel. For the most part, carrying over a save just gives some bonus items depending on Rean’s level and rank at the game’s conclusion. There’s also an opportunity to establish a more romantic relationship with the game’s female characters that also appears to carry-over. The game definitely steers the player towards one character in particular, and I took the bait figuring I would experience the story the developers most want to tell. I’m not sure if other characters take on a romantic relationship with Rean or if it’s more a friend type of thing, but it’s nice to have some variety in the gameplay experience. Since the characters are all teens, don’t expect any Bioware styled sex scenes or anything, it’s mostly puppy love.

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The Link menu makes it easy to keep track of the combat links earned throughout the game.

Playing Trails of Cold Steel often made me think of Persona 4. As I spent more time with the game I thought of that game less as ToCS has a very different tone than Persona. It definitely borrows a lot from that game in its setup, and most of the stuff it borrows it does not improve upon and kind of half-asses. That, however, is really the only main fault I found with the game. Sometimes the characters did frustrate me, as they tend to be so unfailingly nice and pure, I’d like to see an edge to at least some of them even if the main protagonist is as dull as a butter knife. There’s also a twist at the end of the game that felt rather forced and unnecessary, but I can’t say it really affected my enjoyment of the game. It also closes with some hints at what’s to come in the sequels with a positive spin on the gameplay. I do appreciate the wide scope of the game’s narrative, and it has a very ambitious feel to it. Hopefully Falcom can deliver on that front.

If you like the JRPG genre and have a Vita or PS3 handy, I do recommend Trails of Cold Steel. I do recommend with some trepidation as the series is unfinished, and there’s no promise the third game in the series will be released outside of Japan at this time. Its predecessor series, Trails in the Sky, was never concluded in the US and I’ll be disappointed if the same happens here. Though for now, I’ll enjoy what I have. Trails of Cold Steel isn’t the next big thing by any means, but it’s a game that’s done pretty well and gives hope that the JRPG is not a dying genre.